Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

And Again with the Fantasy Novels In My Mailbox

In My Mailbox is a book blog meme that was started by The Story Siren and has now spread so that more than two hundred bloggers regularly participate. The point of the meme is to showcase books that bloggers have purchased/received (not necessarily in the mail literally), before they actually read and review them. Basically, IMM is a forum for book bloggers to geek out about getting their hands on new books – because we all have to admit that we get really excited about new books.

This week, I’m geeking out about one gorgeous book in particular:

Four Tales by Philip Pullman: Four Tales is a special hardcover volume that brings together Clockwork (or All Wound Up), The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, I Was a Rat! (or the title that I prefer, The Scarlett Slippers?), and The Scarecrow and his Servant, four of Pullman’s short fantasy novels with fairytale elements. I fell in love with this particular edition when I saw the gorgeous cover, and I had to order it from the UK because it’s not even available from any American book sellers. Now that I’ve started acquiring rare editions, I feel like a real book collector…

I am planning to post my review of Clockwork this coming week, which I read in celebration of National Children’s Book Week, so come back to the blog to check that out in the next couple of days. In the meantime, let me give you a brief synopsis of the other three novellas in the collection:

The Firework-Maker’s Daughter: This sounds like a feminist fairytale, which of course pleases me immensely. The heroine Lila is the daughter of Lalchand, the firework-maker, who built a cradle for her in the corner of his workshop. As a baby, she could see the sparks and listen to snap, crackle and pop of the gunpowder – so is it really a surprise that she grows up wanting to become a master firework-maker herself? Apparently it is to her father, who tells her that firework-making is no job for a girl. He’s concerned that it will already be difficult enough to find her a husband, since her beauty is marred by burned fingers and singed eyebrows. But the idea of a husband doesn’t thrill Lila, especially because it will spoil her ambitions, and so she runs away to Mount Merapi, where every firework-maker must go to claim some of the royal sulphur from Razvani the Fire-Fiend. Both Lila and her friend Chulak, who sets off in pursuit of her, have many adventures on the road to Merapi and Lila must confront many dangerous in order to continue pursuing her dream – sounds like the perfect feminist heroine to me. Pullman will bet big bonus points for being both feminist and multi-cultural, as long as the story itself is a good one…

The Scarlet Slippers (or I Was a Rat!): I’m not crazy about the title (I Was a Rat!) and wasn’t initially drawn to the concept of a boy that used to be a rat (kind of like how Pinocchio used to be a puppet?). But I grew more interested in this novella after reading the Amazon reviewer’s description that it is an “often darkly comic Dickensian tale” that questions what it means to be a human being and “playfully satirizes the power of the press and society at large.” When the former rat is adopted by Bob the cobbler and Joan the washerwoman, who are desperate for a child of their own, the newly-formed family is hounded by everyone from the Royal Philosopher to the P.T. Barnum-inspired freak-peddler Oliver Tapscrew to a reporter from the local rag The Daily Scourge. The poor boy becomes the center of attention and the cause of mass hysteria, providing an opportunity for Pullman to satirize the media and the public within the familiar fairytale narrative. This sounds like a really interesting story – perhaps something along the lines of Lois Lowry’s novella The Willoughbys??

The Scarecrow and his Servant: Reviewers praise Pullman for his clever employment of fairytale conventions in this novella as well, in an over-the-top satire that “provide[s] plenty of opportunities for moralizing on the evils of society” as Old Mr. Pandolfo’s scarecrow tries to fulfill his extraordinary destiny by directing the deeds and adventures of the young orphan Jack. After meeting the self-important scarecrow, who believes himself quite important despite the fact that he is stuck out in the middle of the field, Jack “sets off to find excitement and glory” – and I’m interested to see exactly what that will entail.

Also in my mailbox this week:

The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin: While I found Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea interesting, it was The Tombs of Atuan, the second in her Earthsea series, that convinced me to keep on reading the novels. Atuan was written in a different style and was less focused on the wizard Ged as the young priestess Tenar, but with this third novel of the series, we’re back to following Ged as he travels the world, although many decades later. Despite being an old and weary wizard, Ged embarks once more on a journey across his world when the wizards begin to lose their ability to perform magic. Accompanied by the young Prince Arren, Ged tries to discover what is robbing the wizards of their magic, a devastating loss for their entire society. If this novel is anything like Wizard of Earthsea, I will enjoy it – but if Le Guin continues in the more personal narrative vein of The Tombs of Atuan, I will really be glad that I’ve kept going with the series.

Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin: Although The Farthest Shore sounds pretty interesting to me, I must admit that I’m more looking forward to reading Tehanu, which returns again (also many years later) to the character Tenar from The Tombs of Atuan. Tenar, the young and isolated priestess whom Ged once rescued, is now a widow and once again facing unbearable loneliness – until she takes in both a severely weakened Ged and rescues a badly burned girl from her abusive parents. As Ged learns to live with the great loss that he suffered at the end of The Farthest Shore, Tenar must support both his slow recovery and nurture the child who is revealed to be an important power in the new age dawning on Earthsea. The Amazon reviewer promises that Tehanu returns to feminist themes and deals with very personal, emotional subjects such as again, loss and grief – which makes me extremely eager to read this novel because these things are what I enjoyed the most about The Tombs of Atuan.

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