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“If the Deathly Hallows really existed, and Dumbledore knew about them, knew that the person who possessed all of them would be master of Death – Harry, why wouldn’t he have told you? Why?”

He had his answer ready.

“But you said it Hermione! You’ve got to find out about them for yourself! It’s a Quest!”

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I am not a fan of the Harry Potter series. Perhaps that will colour everything I say in a negative light, but despite my opinions on the books I am looking forward to the concluding film. Harry Potter is indisputably a modern-day phenomenon. Any adaptation presents the collaborator with an extraordinary opportunity to tap into a massive audience and perhaps put their own unique spin on then material.

The story opens with the shocking killing of a Hogwarts staff member taken prisoner by the evil Voldemort. His followers, who call themselves Death Eaters, are cowed into submission by the demonstration. The Malfoy family in particular are coming to regret their support of the tyrant, with Lucius left broken by his master’s callousness. Voldemort has discovered that his wand cannot harm Harry Potter and takes Lucius’s to make another attempt to kill the Boy Who Lived.

An opportunity presents itself soon, during an assault on the Order of the Phoenix, whose members including Harry are among the few opponents left standing against the dark wizard. The attack leads to the death of an ally of Harry’s, convincing him that he has to undertake his quest to defeat Voldemort alone. That mission was given to the boy wizard by Dumbledore and in the wake of his death disturbing revelation have begun to shake Harry’s faith in his mentor. Why would this quest to destroy the source of Voldemort’s power, the hidden Horcruxes, be given to a teenage boy? Has he been manipulated into becoming a weapon by the kindly old man he loved so much?

There is a great deal of confusing to-ing and fro-ing in this novel. Harry’s quest serves as much to delay his final confrontation with the now revealed Voldemort as anything, with Rowling‘s introduction of the Deathly Hallows, yet another series of hidden magical items, a further digression. There is also an awful lot of exposition in this book, chiefly concerned with the deceased Dumbledore, who despite being dead persists in reappearing as a ghostly presence throughout the book.

The other point of concern, and this has been a constant for the series, is that Rowling description of Potter’s importance sometimes smacks of Marty Stu-dom. This passage in particular is galling:

Kingsley, I thought you were looking after the Muggle Priminister?” he called across the room.

“He can get along without me for one night,” said Kingsley, “You’re more important.”

It is even more distressing when the narrative’s dogged focus on Harry, who goes into hiding from Voldemort’s forces, means that several dramatic events occur off-camera due to the boy wizard camping out in forests for the best part of a year. For example Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom‘s secret Hogwarts revot sounds like a fantasy-version of Lindsay Anderson’s seminal film If…. but is only referred to in passing.

Still, despite myself I continued turning the pages, eager to learn how the story ends. Yes I find Rowling’s books frustrating to read, but they remain compelling.

“You mean the Greek gods are here? Like…in America?”

“Well, certainly. The gods move with the heart of the West.”

“The what?”

“Come now, Percy. What you call ‘Western Civilization.’ Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No, it’s a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years.”

I grew up on Robert Graves‘ translations of Greek mythology. Heracles was a pre-modern superhero, Theseus a tragic hero whose cleverness and bravery could only get him so far, Odysseus proof that intelligence could give a hero the edge when faced with a physically stronger opponent. I enjoyed the morals these stories seemed to contain, alongside fantastical descriptions of minotaurs, gorgons and cyclopses.

Of course later, when I returned to these texts, or read different translations, I realized something – those ancient Greeks were jerks!

Unfortunately Percy Jackson has yet to learn this lesson. An ordinary boy growing up in New York with an unusual habit of getting expelled from schools – he swears that it is never his fault – as well as suffering from dyslexia and ADHD, life has dealt him a pretty poor hand. When he discovers he is also the illegitimate son of the god Poseidon and targeted for assasination by both Hades and Zeus, as part of a growing Olympian civil war, well, it is just not fair really.

Being the son of a god has some advantages though. He gets to escape to the safety of Camp Half-Blood for one, where the marauding furies and minotaurs on his trail are held at bay. What’s more he discovers he has several abilities related to the control of water, which could even help him survive a frontal attack by a monster.

He’ll need every trick to stay alive when he and two friends leave the camp on a quest to discover who has stolen the thunder bolt of Zeus and framed him for it to boot. So it is time for a road trip to the Land of the Dead – Los Angeles.

While Rick Riordan is said to have completed the manuscript in 1994, but it was not actually published until 2005. It  therefore does seem likely that segments of the book were rewritten to suit the Pottermania fad. Camp Half-Blood is a Hogwarts filled with the abandoned off-spring of gods and yes Percy is yet another child of destiny.

Where I found the story sticking in my craw a bit was the translation of Greek myth to American culture. I accept that this is the conceit of the book – as the quote featured above states, America is now the ‘seat’, of Western civilization – but it leads to some uncomfortable moments. For example Medusa is described disguised as a Middle Eastern woman. Hades is said to resemble “the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers.”

Really Riordan? You went there huh? What’s more, much like the tarnished Greek heroes of my youth, Percy is actually quite a bloodthirsty little punk. I get that his life is at stake, but after the second, or third decapitation I started checking the book for a parental advisory sticker. Through in spouse abuse – his mother has endured a horrible relationship for years, in order to keep Percy hidden – and this becomes an uncomfortable, sickly feeling cynical package.

This is one fantasy series I will not be continuing with.

Perhaps, in spite of having no illusions about Gwendolen, Mrs. Sharp was really hoping to become Gwendolen’s manager when Gwendolen grew up. Cat suspected she was, anyway. And he was sorry for Mrs. Sharp. He was sure that Gwendolen would cast her off like an old coat when she became famous – like Mrs. Sharp, Cat had no doubt that Gwendolen would be famous.

The name ‘Harry Potter’, haunts Diana Wynne Jones’ novels. Whenever the charge that J.K. Rowling plagiarised ideas for her books from a number of different sources, Jones’ name is often mentioned, particularly in reference to The Chronicles of Chrestomanci series. It must be tiresome, as Jones is a fantastic writer and deserves much more than to be thought of as a footnote in Pottermania.

Charmed Life introduces us to a fantastical world somewhat similar to our own, where magic is a mainstream concern. The British government has appointed an enchanter, known as the Chrestomanci, to regulate and monitor the illegal use of magic.

Such matters are of little concern to the boy known as Cat. He lost his parents in a horrific drowning accident and only survived due to holding on to his sister Gwendolen while they were in the water. After all, she is a witch and so did not sink. Ever since, Cat has hung on to his sister ignoring her insults and condescension, while he tries to cover for her rudeness to other people. When the children receive word that the mighty Chrestomanci requests that they live with his family – after having discovered that their father was secretly in correspondence with him – Gwendolen is delighted, convinced that this is the next step in her path to becoming a powerful witch.

Cat tags along, grateful to be allowed to accompany his talented sibling.

However, Gwendolen discovers that life with the Chrestomanci’s family is not what she imagined. His wife is a homely, pleasant woman, not at all like the enchantress she imagined. His children are pudgy and naturally possess magical talents, but have no interest in the business of their father. Gwendolen is infuriated and begins plaguing the household with spells. The Chrestomanci pays no attention, which only increases on her wounded vanity. Cat is frozen by indecision, unable to prevent his sister from her campaign of terror; and intimidated by the aloof manner of his new guardian.

Then one morning Gwendolen performs a spell that threatens the balance of this world and several alternate Earths. Can the Chrestomanci himself undo the damage wrought by a single, powerful girl?

Wynne Jones not merely content to create a world where science has taken a back-seat to magic, then throws alternate worlds into the mix. For a children’s novel there are also quite serious themes, including child abuse and some sequences that might be considered quite scary, such as a conjured parade of undead bodies marching through a bedroom.

However, Charmed Life is also wonderfully placed and pleasant to read. It is revealed at one point that far from being terrorised by Gwendolen’s spells, many of the household are curious as to what she will dream up next. Whimsy and dark fantasy are combined to winning effect.

This book is a gorgeous introduction to a bright new world. I invite you to investigate further.

Lately I have had a foretaste of what it means to be a parent. If you want to know what it feels like to parent a child, you should get a dog. If you’re curious about the experience of living with an adolescent, who uses your home as a place to occasionally doss and eat the entirety of your food – get a cat.

We have been housesitting in a very beautiful part of the world, just along the New South Wales coast for the last week. As mentioned previously, said house-sit involves caring for two cats, one of whom has been ill for the past few days, so we were asked to keep her indoors.

Now cats who are used to roaming free outside don’t like being kept indoors and they have no problem letting you know how annoyed they are with you. The plaintive cries and yowling of the cat sitting by the front door in my mind became anthropomorphized as ‘let meeee ouuuuuttt!’ Not only does the cat insist on complaining about this unfair (“soooo unfair!!!) detention within the house, it makes concerted attempts at escape; hisses at me when in a bad mood (read always); and decides it is important to wake me up at 4am to discuss the toilet arrangements.

So yeah, I’m feeling just as frazzled as a concerned parent. My nerves are frayed and I am one more cat incident away from a panic attack.

The Unwritten is initially a comic about the creative process involved in writing a book. It is also about fathers and sons, the inescapable shadow that a more successful father leaves behind. Tom Taylor’s father not only wrote an incredibly successful fantasy series of books about a boy wizard – he named the main character after his son. Tom Taylor has never managed to make a career for himself outside of his father’s creations. What’s more some fanatical fans of the novels have a near religious obsession with the character ‘Tommy Taylor’, and to them he is more real than the boy who inspired him.

Tom makes a small income from making appearances at fan conventions dedicated to his father’s books, where he continually is asked about the mysterious disappearance of Wilson Taylor, or the rumours that he vanished without having settled his estate. Tom has had no access to the revenue generated by the Tommy Taylor media empire.

At one another of these interminable conventions, things take a turn for the worst. Firstly a lunatic who styles himself after Tommy Taylor’s arch nemesis, the vampire Count Ambrosio appears. Then a reporter announces that a Eastern European couple have claimed that Tom is actually their son and that Wilson adopted him as a child. This revelation leads to the cultish Tommy Taylor fans turning on their ‘false messiah’, and Tom is forced to go into hiding.

Then Tom discovers that this turn of events are connected to Wilson’s disappearance. Hints that his father was involved in a quasi-masonic conspiracy begin to emerge, one that stretches down through the years and has dictated the careers of many writers. The question of Tom’s own parentage continues to raise his head. Maybe he isn’t the son of Wilson Taylor, or the Eastern European couple – what if the fans are right and he is actually Tommy Taylor. If a fictional character can become real, what else has crossed over into this world from the world of books.

When I bought this book from the excellent Kings Comics in Sydney, the teller’s eyes lit up. He assured me that while the initial issues, what with all the comparisons to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (as well as some overt digs at the obsessive fandom attached to the boy wizard) might seem predictable – and in many senses this is yet another typical Vertigo comic, which specializes in post-modern, literary graphic novels – by the last issue in the collection it makes a quantum leap in quality. Without giving anything away, let me just say the digression into the lives of Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens is wonderfully constructed.

I also found the book reminiscent of Jonathan Carroll’s Land of Laughs, a favourite of mine from way back. The estranged relationship between Tom and his father underpins the central theme of what writers owe to their creations once they are let loose into the world.

Carey and Gross have fashioned an instant classic. A must-read.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

Annie wasn’t a hero. She was ten years old and had long blonde hair and blue eyes, and her father said she’d make an excellent damsel one day. He had her practicing her screams every morning for an hour and said they were the best he had ever heard. But now her father was missing and there were no heroes available, and her mother wouldn’t stop crying.

For my final review of Children’s Literature Week I have chosen S.E. Connolly’s debut, Damsel published by Mercier Press. It is a short and sweet fantasy tale about a girl setting out to rescue her father from an evil wizard. If ever you found yourself reading Harry Potter and wondering why Hermione Granger wasn’t the main character instead the bumbling eponymous wizard messiah, I reckon this is a neat corrective. More than that though, it’s an excellent first novel from a young Irish writer, whom I hope to see more from some day.

Angelina Cerestina Tiffenemina Brave (aka Annie) is a young damsel-in-training who’s famous father was once a mighty hero. Having promised his wife that his adventuring days were behind him, he focused on raising a family and writing his guide to becoming a hero, so that other young men could learn from his experiences. Then one day he heard the wizard Greenlott was loose on a rampage and set off to defeat the evil mage. When he did not return, a messenger arrives at the Brave household with the news that Tristan Brave had been captured.

As Greenlott has already defeated most of the heroes in the land, Annie takes it upon herself to vanquish him. She sets off accompanied only by her ‘fiery’ pony Chestnut and her dog, Squire, as well as an incomplete copy of her father’s guide to being a hero. Following the advice in the book she manages to evade threats including under-bridge trolls, giant spiders and dragons. She also learns the dangers of kissing a frog. Along her travels she befriends Roger, who claims to be a prince and while he does carry a sword, is not altogether reliable. Can a girl be a hero? Or has Annie nothing better to look forward to than screaming for rescue and looking pretty?

In the interest of full disclosure, the author’s sister is a friend of mine. She was pleasantly surprised when I reported back to her how much I enjoyed reading Damsel, assuming that I was just being kind. If anything, I found it to be a fun and inventive tale that pokes fun at the standards of romantic fantasy. Annie does not mind being a damsel as such, but she would prefer to have a choice as to whether she could be a hero. Throughout the book she is frustrated with how the folk they encounter assume Roger is the real hero, despite his occasional cowardice and bookish manner. The author cannily does not allow the dynamic between them to be too one-sided. Sometimes Roger helps Annie escape from danger, but when you need someone to risk life and giant spider-goo, she’s your girl.

I will happily continue to sing this book’s praises and have already foisted copy onto my in-laws. It is a sweet and rewarding tale, with a neat wry tone and some beautiful illustrations from Axel Rator.

This being the last entry in Children’s Literature Week, I would just like to say I’ve had a great time reviewing these books and I hope you enjoyed reading ‘em. Just because a writer writes for children, it doesn’t mean the books should be silly and unimportant. Often the most important things we learn during our lives we first discover as children. The books we read should be equally as enriching and inspiring. Cheers folks.

Arthur was also counting on the promised intervention by ‘Will’, who he supposed was the same person or entity as ‘The Will’, that Mister Monday and Sneezer had talked about, who he presumed was also the giver of the Atlas. He figured that if he could get close to the House, it would do something to help him get inside.

So I see from this book’s Author’s Note, that Garth Nix was born in Melbourne. I am of the opinion that many fine things can be found there and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. The first in a series of novels called The Keys to the Kingdom, this is the second fantasy franchise by the gifted Nix. A few years ago I began to see copies of his Old Kingdom trilogy – Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen – everywhere in bookstores. Sadly I never tried them out (I was wary due to a glut of Harry Potter imitations at the time), but after I have finished this run, I reckon Mr Nix is going to become a fixture of my bookshelf.

The book opens with an Inspector going about his duties inspecting the security of a very special item. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, the item in question is a paragraph from a very special Will. It is secured locked inside a crystal cage. Surrounded by a number of metal sentinels. On a dead star. The Inspector himself, is no ordinary bureaucrat, but a winged servant of a higher power who is partial to snuff. Shortly after his arrival the living aspect of the Will of creation manages to effect a jailbreak and escape to Earth, with Mister Monday’s determined lieutenants Dawn, Noon and Dusk hot on its trail.

Meanwhile during Arthur Penhaligon’s first day at a new school, he collapses due to an asthma attack. After he is revived by a girl named Leaf, he witnesses the arrival of the strange Mister Monday, who is tricked by the Will into giving the boy a mystical minute hand and a mysterious atlas. Arthur is expected to die soon, so it is hoped that his frail condition will allow the artifacts to revert back to Mister Monday shortly thereafter, neatly allowing the trustee of these objects to avoid any punishment for allowing the Will to escape. The minute hand is in fact a magic key that can effect the will of its user. The atlas can only be read by a bearer of the key and explains the nature of the House, a structure that represents each level of reality. The world Arthur knows is only the second plane of this structure, there are many others above and below, sitting atop the vast chthonic Nothing that spawns the mysterious creatures Mister Monday uses to control his realm.

Arthur is surprised to find his asthmatic condition is relieved whenever he holds the key in his hand. Unfortunately Leaf’s family and a number of other children at school fall victim to a mysterious plague. Learning that the disease is being spread by agents of Mister Monday as they hunt for him, Arthur travels to the weird House that has appeared in his neighbourhood that only he can see. Inside he discovers a world of magic far bigger than the walls that contain it, filled with fallen angels, a talking frog, dog-faced men, dinosaurs and deadly Bibliophages. A world where words have power and little children enslaved by the legendary Piper have toiled for thousands of years. Determined to save the lives of his friends and defeat the corrupt Mister Monday, Arthur strives to find the secret of the Will.

This is an entertaining first chapter in a series of novels for children. Nix drops references to ancient myths, religion and modern day paranoia about disease in order to give shape to his world. Arthur Penhaligon is an orphan whose biological parents died in a flu epidemic. At one point he travels in time to the period of the Bubonic plague. Death is a constant in his life and is used within the book to fuel the mythic fantasy Nix has constructed.

While a Christian God is never explicitly named, the hierarchies of angels, from Seraphim down to Cherubs, resemble the mysterious figures Arthur meets. Nix also draws on Roman myth, as Monday and his servants resemble the quotidian minor gods of days and hours.

I cannot wait to read Grim Tuesday.

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