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Book reviews - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Book reviews
Catching up on some book reviews.

One of the perks of my job is getting a lot of books, some before publication. Every now and then, I'm known to go into the back room, close my eyes, and grab a book from the shelf just to see what it is. This frequently misfires, but some are pretty good. I'll restrict myself to doing pre-pub reviews in my professional capacity, but here are some post-pubs.

The Truth Cookie
by Fiona Dunbar
ISBN: 0439740223
The basic plot of The Truth Cookie is that Lulu Baker is out to prove to her father that his fiancee, Varaminta Bone, is a loathsome toad who's only after their money. She discovers a cookbook with magical recipes, including one for "Truth Cookies." The cookies will cause anyone eating them to tell the complete truth. Naturally, Lulu decides she has to make them and feed them to Varaminta.

I suspect this book is meant for a younger audience than I usually deal with, despite the fact that it was sent to a YA librarian, but even with that taken into account, I can't really get behind it. Varaminta is so self-evidently gruesome--she makes the would-be fiancees in both versions of The Parent Trap look subtle--that it's difficult to imagine being particularly sympathetic to the father, despite the fact that Lulu never once thinks, "Dad, are you out of your mind?" The plot has very little tension, and the stakes are just incredibly low. The writing is all right, but nothing to write home about.

If you're looking for a magical fantasy set in England, wait a couple of months for The Fetch.

The Lightning Thief (Book 1, Percy Jackson and the Olympians)
by Rick Riordan
ISBN: 0786838655

A much better fantasy than The Truth Cookie, Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief takes some of the world's oldest fantasy elements and works them into modernity. Percy Jackson is a put-upon kid who goes to a school for troubled children. His mother and stepfather are not particularly happy together, and he loathes his stepfather. The truth is, his real father is none other than Poseidon, god of the sea... who had made a promise not to sire any more half-bloods, but just couldn't resist Percy's beautiful mother.

Yes, the Olympian gods are alive and kicking, and their demigod children are as prolific as ever--there's even a summer camp for them on Long Island, with each god or goddess having his or her own cabin. (Ares' cabin is pretty full; Artemis's, obviously, is just for show... though Athena, surprisingly, has produced children... more later). Riordan's interesting thesis is that the Olympian gods reside wherever the center of western culture is--in Greece, Rome, England, now the U.S. (I can hear all of Europe clenching its teeth right now, but play along)--as supported by the neoclassical building that tends to go on, and statues of the Greek gods that spontaneously appear. Olympus, at the moment, is hundreds of stories above New York, and you can enter Hades through L.A. (and no, shockingly, Riordan isn't an east-coaster!)

So, thumbs up to the world. I'm predisposed to like it; I've always liked the Greek myths. The idea of the virgin Athena producing a child might have been easier to swallow if she'd done it by Parthenogenesis, but I'll just roll my eyes and accept that Athena has decided after a few thousand years to join the family party, and Annabeth, her daughter, is a cool sidekick for Percy. If Percy's going to travel with another demigod, hey--as an Athena fan, I can't complain too hard that this one represents Athena.

The plot... meh. Zeus's lightning bolt is stolen, Poseidon is framed, Percy has to find it, and encounters all sorts of creatures along the way. It's standard, and not especially well executed. But then, that describes 99.9% of fantasy; nothing to get in a twist over. It's engaging enough to keep the pages turning, and it's mostly an excuse to introduce the world. I'll definitely be reading book 2, The Sea of Monsters.

Measle and the Mallockee
by Ian Ogilvy
ISBN: 0060586915

Hmm, I guess I could have done this right away when I read it; it was the paperback that wosn't due out yet.

This one definitely is meant for younger kids than I deal with, and making the adjustment didn't come easily, as the publisher very stupidly put a review on the back of it comparing it to Harry Potter--stupid on so very many levels. It brought up expectations, for one thing, that the book doesn't meet, and for another thing, the family resemblance is a bit too strong to not see when it's deliberately highlighted. In other words, if there's a minor character named Florian Fortescue Dorian Fescue, don't, for heaven's sake remind me that I'm looking at someone trying to cash in on the Potter machine.

So please excuse the quick, Potter-esque summary: A squib must rescue his magical parents from a dark wizard.

Oh, yes, there are some differences in the rules of the world, but I've been a fanfic writer long enough to recognize clumsily rubbed out serial numbers. Hell, Dolores Umbridge even makes an appearance as a giggly evil witch who's part of the conspiracy imprisoning Measle's parents, though of course she has a different name.

So, it took me a while to get past that. I can accept the things that are obviously meant for younger kids (jelly beans that make you invisible and so on), but the Potter comparison was too blatant.

The sad part is, the original stuff in Measle is pretty good--when Measle is being Measle-y--sitting down and thinking things out, and working out problems without the advantage of magic--he's really a fun sort of character. He's very intelligent and enjoys using his brain. The magical people are absolutely convinced he's hiding secret magical powers because he thwarts them so often. He's a good big brother, and his relationship with his baby sister (the Mallockee--a creature without limits on her spell-casting power--of the title) is delightful. The twisty old castle is neat, and Measle's none-too-bright "wrathmonk" guardian is terrific. (He had another wrathmonk around him--think Dementors, but less spooky, and carrying a raincloud--earlier in the series, but that one was apparently more effective; the new one is just a failed burgler.) It was an entertaining enough way to pass a couple of hours, but the foolish raising of expectations made it a lot less pleasurable than it might have been.


3 comments or Leave a comment
lacontessamala From: lacontessamala Date: May 29th, 2006 08:08 am (UTC) (Link)
If you have access to a copy, I highly recommend "Apathy and Other Small Victories". It's not a children's novel, but I just have to spread the word about it. Plot is a bit aimless, but oh my goodness, the author's writing style is so funny I was in tears several times.

I don't know that I could describe it better than this review: "If Camus and Bukowski had written A Confederacy of Dunces and combined it with the screenplay for Office Space, it would have been this book. A triumphantly, weirdly hilarious comedy."

There's a part in there where the main character thinks to himself, "Man, if stealing salt shakers was wrong, I didn't want to be right."

P.S. I'm going to have to read The Lightning Thief. That just sounds awesome.
From: fizzko Date: May 30th, 2006 07:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
The Lightning Thief sounds pretty interesting, if only for its world. It sort of reminds me a little bit of Megan Whalen Turner's series--The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia--though Turner's is much more...original. If you haven't read it yet, you definitely should. It's the only series that beats out Harry Potter on my list of favorites.
From: fizzko Date: May 30th, 2006 07:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Forgot to include a link, sorry. Here's an article about the series I mentioned. :)
3 comments or Leave a comment