Fantasy

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Date of Publication: 1962, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Number of Pages: 211

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”

A tesseract (in case the reader doesn’t know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L’Engle’s unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.

Review: Having only very vague memories of reading this as a child, I was pleasantly surprised this second time around. I immediately fell in love with the Murry family, especially oddball Meg, who seemed to be a mirror image of myself as an awkward adolescent. This story is completely enchanting, from the very beginning, and L’Engle’s writing totally drew me into her world. I found myself tearing up at certain, heartbreaking moments in the story (I don’t want to give anything away). Also, I found that reading it as an adult allowed me to grasp the writer’s philosophical theme. Normally, I steer clear of books with heavy Christian overtones (my one exception being The Lord of the Rings), but L’Engle masterfully weaves together science and spirituality. This is not, by strict definition, a “Christian” book. Jesus is mentioned only once as being one of many people from Earth who have battled evil throughout human history. And it somehow delightful that the most pious characters in the story are the aliens of the planet Ixchel. The three Mrs. Ws (Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which) act as guardian angels (and are referred to as such by Calvin), and various mythological names and beings make appearances throughout the story, a further demonstration of the un-religious (as in specific, organized religions) spiritual theme of the book.

A Wrinkle in Time is a book that teaches. It teaches the importance of love, as both a simple emotion and as a weapon against great evil. It teaches the importance of trust, as the children’s trust, in each other and in those around them, is repeatedly tested and shaken. And it teaches that the simple pleasures of family, friends, good food, and good health are all that are needed to live a good life.

I recommend this book both to children and adults, as it has lessons and delights for people of all ages.

Rating: 10/10

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Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Date of Publication: 1927 (my edition: 2000, Tuttle Classics)

Number of Pages: 141

Description: A mental patient tells his doctors about an adventure he had with the Kappas, known to most Japanese people as mythological creatures who drag children into rivers to drown them. The madman, known as Patient No. 23, tells a remarkable story, of Kappas and Kappaland, Kappa government, Kappa philosophy, Kappa friendships, Kappa culture, and the Kappa’s link to our own human world.

Review: This is an enchanting story, mostly because it doesn’t try to be. The narrator tells the story of his life with the Kappas very matter-of-factly, which is what allows readers to suspend their natural disbelief and accept the reality of Kappaland and its inhabitants. Kappas are as different from each other as humans. Some are shy, some are arrogant, some are friendly, and all are unique. The lone human is accepted into their world readily, and they are all eager to teach him about their world. He is given lessons on Kappa philosophy, Kappa culture and literature, and Kappa relationships. He befriends several of the creatures, experiences loss, and ultimately becomes disillusioned with what at first seemed like a utopia under the ground.

Most people are familiar with Akutagawa’s other works, such as Rashomon, but Kappa is a wonderful place to start if you are unfamiliar with Japanese literature. I enjoyed every page of this book, and recommend it to anyone who loves fairy tales and modern adventure stories. Although the narrator is presented as a madman, it’s really left up to the reader to decide if his experience was a dream, or if it really happened. And if it did, could it happen to you?

Rating: 10/10

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Date of Publication: 1926 (my edition: 2001, Cold Springs Press)

Number of Pages: 239

Synopsis (from back cover): Lud-in-the-Mist, the capital city of the small country Dorimare, is a port at the confluence of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl. The Dapple has its origin beyond the Debatable Hills to the west of Lud-in-the-Mist, in Fairyland. In the days of Duke Aubrey, some centuries earlier, fairy things had been looked upon with reverence, and fairy fruit was brought down the Dapple and enjoyed by the people of Dorimare. But after Duke Aubrey had been expelled from Dorimare by the burghers, the eating of fairy fruit came to be regarded as a crime, and anything related to Fairyland was unspeakable. Now, when his son Ranulph is believed to have eaten fairy fruit, Nathaniel Chanticleer, the mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, finds himself looking into old mysteries in order to save his son and the people of his city.

Review: This is a very delightful story, and one that meets every reader’s expectations of what should happen. In terms of good versus evil, right versus wrong, innocent versus guilty, every expectation is met. One may think that this sort of predictability would make the story dull and stale, but in fact, it elevates the story to a higher plane.

One of the most important themes in Lud-in-the-Mist is the unreality of our reality. Life is a story that we have control over. If we have control, why shouldn’t the innocent be vindicated and the guilty punished? Mirrlees points out, rather uncomfortably, that we has humans choose to believe in what we believe in, but nothing is at all certain. Is Fairyland a myth, or is our all-important belief in Law and Order actually a myth? Our hold on reality is tenuous at best, and in order to regain control, sometimes we must choose to believe in things once cast aside, which is exactly what Nathaniel Chanticleer does.

One of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, wrote the foreword to Lud-in-the-Mist writes that this book “is, most of all, a book about reconciliation – the balancing and twining of the mundane and the miraculous.” Mirrlees achieves this balancing act superbly, and she deserves a much higher place among the ranks of modern fantasy writers. I recommend this book to any fan of fantasy, or to anyone looking for a great story that helps to disrupt the monotony of daily life.

One warning: the Cold Springs Press edition, which is the most common, is fraught with typos. Please be patient when reading.

Rating: 8/10

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Date of Publication: 2005, HarperTorch

Number of Pages: 384

Synopsis (from back cover): Fat Charlie Nancy’s normal life ended the moment his father dropped dead on a Florida karaoke stage. Charlie didn’t know his dad was a god. And he never knew he had a brother.

Now brother Spider’s on his doorstep – about to make Fat Charlie’s life more interesting…and a lot more dangerous.

Review: Anansi, one of the gods featured in Gaiman’s American Gods, is a spider god who owns all the world’s stories. This is probably the most important thing to understand about him. His son, Fat Charlie, though, is a man who doesn’t even live his own story. When Anansi dies and Charlie meets his brother, he is forced to face the two parts of himself: the part that is Fat Charlie and the part that is Spider, who lives a life Fat Charlie could only dream of.

This story is many things all at once. In a way, it’s a coming of age story (even though Fat Charlie is an adult). It’s also a story about families, love, and the nature of life and death. It’s a thriller, with its own maniacal killer, and it’s a story about the history of the world and how we came to understand it, mainly through Anansi’s stories. It’s fast-paced, moving, hilarious, and scary. I would recommend this book not only to fans of modern fantasy, but also to anyone who simply wants to read a great story.

Rating: 10/10

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Date of Publication: 2001, HarperCollins

Number of Pages: 588

Synopsis (from back cover): Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming – a battle for the very soul of America…and they are in its direct path.

Review: Neil Gaiman, originally from England, explores an issue that every American, whether they realize it or not, has struggled with. Who are the gods of America? Where do they come from? America is a country founded by people from all over the world, depriving us of a central mythology or religion. Even the people who crossed the land bridge over the Bering Straight brought their gods with them…they weren’t here already. This is the problem that face the unique characters in Gaiman’s story. They are gods…but what happens to gods when people stop believing in them? People brought them here, and then abandoned them. The gods in the story areĀ  a wandering people, misunderstood, forgotten, and fighting for survival.

Shadow unwittingly gets put in the middle of the fight between the old beliefs and the new. As a main character, Shadow is mysteriously incomplete. Although much of the story is told from his point of view, he seems to simply react to things and doesn’t ponder them. In any other book, this would be a drawback, but in this one, Shadow fits perfectly. He is a man without a past; after the death of his wife, he lets go of his past and unflinchingly accepts his new fate.

As an American reading this book, I really identified with the idea that this country is a difficult place for gods. My ancestors came from all over Europe; there is no one defining culture or belief system. But the book provides a warning, that as a society, in place of the old gods, we have set up new ones: technology, mass media, fashion. To what or whom will we sell our souls?

Rating: 10/10

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Date of Publication: 1999, Harper Perennial

Number of Pages: 250

Synopsis (from back cover): Young Tristan Thorn will do anything to win the cold heart of beautiful Victoria – even fetch her the star they watch fall from the night sky. But to do so, he must enter the unexplored lands on the other side of the ancient wall that gives their tiny village its name. Beyond that old stone wall, Tristan learns, lies Faerie – where nothing, not even a fallen star, is what he imagined.

Review: Stardust is a superb story, hearkening back to both ancient fairy tales and to Tolkien’s beloved works. It pulls you in to its magical world and makes you believe in it without question. At the same time, there is a sense of modernism to the story that adds a complex element to the story. Many of the characters, even the magical ones, are recognizable as the heroes and heroines of modern stories, as well as the fairy tales we all heard as children. The love that drives Tristan Thorn to journey through Faerie, looking for his beloved’s star, is at once timeless and innocent. He remains an innocent throughout the story, just like the young adventurers in the old stories.

Everyone pursuing the star does so for a different, but elemental reason. Tristan seeks the star for love. Septimus and Primus, heirs to the throne of Stormhold, pursue the star for power. And the old witch searches for the star to regain her youth. All of these things – love, power, and youth (health) – are sought everyday by all people in their different ways, meaning that the reader is able to connect with this story on many levels.

In terms of simple storytelling, Gaiman once again delivers. The language is flawless, and it is here that I could sense the influence of Tolkien, which is more than appropriate for the story. The characters are engaging, funny, terrifying, and real. The setting comes alive on every page. This book made it into my dreams as I read, and for me, that alone is proof of its magnificence. I would recommend this book to all fans of fantasy and adventure.

Rating: 10/10

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by Dave McKean

Date of Publication: 2002, Harper Perennial

Number of Pages: 162

Synopsis (from back cover): In Coraline’s family’s new flat there’s a locked door. On the other side is a brick wall – until Coraline unlocks the door…and finds a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.

Only different.

The food is better there. Books have pictures that writhe about and crawl and shimmer. And there’s another mother and father there who want Coraline to be their little girl. They want to change her and keep her with them…Forever.

Review: Many people will be reading this book as we anticipate the upcoming motion picture. As a fan of Neil Gaiman, I wanted to read this book before the movie came out to really experience the story the way Gaiman intended it. It is a thoroughly frightening and engaging tale, and I read it in one sitting. Coraline is a lonely, bored girl, spending a dreary summer exploring her family’s new house. She has quirky neighbors, but it seems as if even they aren’t enough to satisfy her curiosity. When she finds the passage behind the door, everything begins innocently enough. It takes some time for Coraline to understand the grave danger she’s in, and it takes all her bravery to save herself and others from a terrible fate.

Although Coraline is a relatively short book, it is still able to imprint itself onto a reader’s imagination. I found myself thinking about the story well into the night and it even entered me dreams…very creepily. This books needs to be read during the daylight hours (although not even daylight is that safe) with someone else in the house. But for all its very frightening qualities, Coraline is a very imaginative, well-written story. Its concepts have never been presented before, and yet it seems eerily familiar. All fans of fantasy and fairy tales will love this story.

Rating: 10/10