What I Have Been Reading, February 2011

This post should perhaps be subtitled “The Children’s Literature Edition” because since Christmas I have been reading almost exclusively in preparation for a course on fairytales that I am teaching this semester.  If this sort of thing does not appeal to you, it may be best simply to skip the whole post and wait for something more your age.

Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn – This book has trouble deciding whether it wants to be a fairytale or a fantasy novel.  It has many elements of a good fairytale, and it sometimes approaches the sensibility of a good fairytale, but it is never quite able to attain to this level, always slipping back into mere fantasy.  I quite enjoyed the book as a whole, but it could have been and almost was something very much better.

Peter S. Beagle’s Giant Bones – These stories are not fairytales and make no claim to be.  They have too much detail, too much reality, and too little of the sense of nowhere and neverwhere that is necessary to fairytales.  One of the stories, “Choushi-wai’s Story”, is structured very much as a fairytale, and it may even have become a fairytale had it been written by another hand, but it too has a sense of time and place that prevents is from attaining to a fairytale properly.  This is not a failing of the book, of course, because it never sets out to be anything but anything but a collection of fantasy stories, but I was hoping for more when it was recommended to me.

Joan Aiken’s The Complete Armitage Stories – I have been told by many people on many occasions that I should read the work of Joan Aiken, and this was my first of her books.  Unfortunately, it does not live up to expectations.  The stories are simply too ridiculous.  I like fantastical stories, true, and these stories are certainly that, but they lack the gravity that I find so essential to fairytales and other tales of this type.  It is not that I object to a little silliness or humour, but the effect of a good fairytale, on the whole, must be of a certain seriousness and propriety, and the Armitage stories are silliness, pure and simple.  They amuse, but there is nothing really true in them.  I could not even finish the book.

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase –  Despite my disappointment with the Armitage stories, I decided to give Aiken a second chance and to read her most famous work, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and I was much better pleased.  I did find it a bit odd that the wolves, which give the book its title, and which play such a large role in the first chapters of the story, and which are distinguished by being the only obviously fantastical element of the novel, disappear completely after the first half of the book, never to return.  It is as if Aiken grew bored of them or could not figure how to work them into her conclusion and so left this seemingly central motif entirely unresolved.  Even so, the pace is good, and the story is quite charming, telling a tale of unfortunate children that is very much preferable to some other more recent attempts that I could mention.

E. Nesbitt’s The Magic World –  Nesbitt’s stories often approach and occasionally even attain the sensibility of a true fairytale.  They are generally too moralistic, I confess, and they are so very properly British that they will sometimes be unintentionally amusing to the modern reader, but I like many of them anyway.  There are many of them that I will share with my children.

Steve Augarde’s The Touchstone Trilogy –  These novels have much to recommend them.  The plot is interesting, and the characters are engaging.  The second of them, Celandine, does fall into an English public school novel for a time, which can happen in any British novel of any genre at any time apparently, since the British seem to delight in nothing more than to share the horror of their school days, but the story is otherwise very enjoyable.  Augarde manages to avoid the standard representation of fairies as delicate and dainty flower spirits, choosing instead to portray the little people as exactly that, as smaller people, and I count this as a strong point in his favour.  The book as a whole is pleasing, even to someone like me, who is twenty years older than the intended audience.

Paul Glennon’s Bookweird –  The concept of this novel, where a boy begins stumbling into the stories of his books by eating their pages, is interesting in its way, but I would not call its application a success.  The various stories that the boy enters are represented too briefly to make them very compelling, and they are written in the styles appropriate to their genres, so the prose often takes on the faults of the sources it is emulating.  I do not much enjoy reading genre animal fantasies or genre horse novels or genre murder mysteries, so being dropped into these kinds of stories one after the other, however briefly, does not make great reading for me, and the book has little else to it.  There is, of course, a sequel, and it is, of course, called Bookweirder, but I doubt very much that I will read it.

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