The More Popular the Book

20160628ma_2092The more popular the book…

The less likely I am to read it. Or at least want to read it.

Like Harry Potter. I’m just not crazy about these books. Oh, I’ve read the first three in the series. And, to be honest, I didn’t hate them. But I didn’t LOVE them either. So, I stopped after number three.

Why?

Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I think it might have to do with the fact that these books are just so popular. There is just too much hype.

I’ve never liked hype. Cabbage Patch Kids, anyone? These were the be-all, end-all to dolls when I was a kid. But I did not have one. I did not even want one. Basically, I didn’t see what the fuss was about.

They were just too popular.

I wonder that if I had come across Jane Austen’s books in the late 1990s, would I have read them? Luckily for me, I read and loved Pride and Prejudice well before the big 1995 mini-series that rocketed the book to superstar-status. (Oh, I realize that P&P was well-loved long before then; but after 1995, it gained a following of people that never even read the book… People that loved Darcy in his wet clothing in that infamous pond scene. I hated that scene, by the way, purist that I am.)

Here’s one thing that I’ve noticed. IF I already like the book (or the author’s writing style), then I don’t care how popular it is.

Take for example The Hunger Games. I read the first two books in the series blissfully unaware of how trendy they would become. By the time the final book came out, I was already hooked and so I read it anyway. (Not to say I don’t think Mockingjay is a perfect book. I believe it has its flaws, but I think Suzanne Collins is an amazing writer. She really is. I absolutely love her Gregor the Overlander series. But even in that one, she seems to fall apart a bit on her final book.)

I wish people would just stop the hype. Stop insisting that I should love Harry Potter. Or that I have to read this book or that book.

A lot of times I disagree with the quality of what’s in vogue. For me personally, I don’t need the validation of millions of readers to know what makes a good book. “Everybody’s reading it” is not necessarily a recommendation in my view.

But am I missing out of some good stories?

Perhaps. That’s why I will sometimes pick up a book I am resisting… just to give it a shot. Just in case I’m missing a gem of a story. But, I’ll tell you this. That book has a very steep mountain to climb. Because it’s got to overcome my bias against the popularity that surrounds it.

Basically, this book has surpass my expectations.

Problem is, most popular books rarely ever do.

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What Shall I Call Thee?

20170824ma_4747
Growing up, one of my best friends would often refer to our favourite authors by their first names. (In fact, she still does it today.) And, by extension, any book by said author. So an L.M. Montgomery book would become a “Lucy Maud” … As in “Have you read this Lucy Maud?” (Later she’d shortened it to simply “Lucy”.)

And I’ve noticed that this with other people as well, typically regarding women writers. Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder are “Louisa” and “Laura”. Jane Austen fans even have their own special designation as “Janeites”.

But why do we call authors by their first name? Is it because it makes these authors feel more like our friends? Well, that’s my guess.

But, I’m different. For me, it’s important to use the author’s name under which they published. So “Lucy Maud Montgomery” is written or spoken of as “L.M. Montgomery”. And thereafter, in the same conversation or article, just as “Montgomery”.  (Which becomes a slight problem if we’re talking about the Brontes!)

I think this may stem from this realization… Authors are people that have private lives. For example, “Lucy Maud” was never really called “Lucy” (her grandmother’s name) in her lifetime. Her family and friends called her “Maud”. And for most of her published life, she was “Mrs. Macdonald”. And yet, she published under the name “L.M. Montgomery”.

For me, that knowledge is enough. “L.M. Montgomery” she would be.

So, while C.S. Lewis was “Jack” to his friends, he was “C.S. Lewis” to me because that’s how I knew him.

And then there’s Jane Austen. I’m definitely a fan, but for some reason, I cannot (and will not) call myself a “Janeite”. I will not call her “Jane”.

I think, for me, it’s a respect thing. Respecting the work of the author. Respecting the boundaries between an author and the reader. Although, when my friend does the opposite? I find it endearing. It’s like Jane Austen really is her friend!

So, what’s that say about me? Hmm…

P.S. I don’t think there’s really a right or wrong side to this. But it interests me to find out where other people stand. What do you tend to do?

P.S. 2 – If you’re curious to know… The photo above is of a statue of “Lucy Maud” at the L.M. Montgomery Museum in Leaskdale, Ontario.

Pet Peeves: We are Not Amused

20170928ma_4871.jpgThis post is about a pet peeve of mine. It often comes up in fantasy novels or historical fiction. These are the stories where we are most likely to have a King or Queen.

So, what’s the pet peeve?

It’s when a king or queen is addressed incorrectly.

Never call a Queen “Highness” or even “Your Highness”. That’s what you call a Princess. Please don’t call her “milady” or “My Lady” (I’m pretty sure that’s only a Lady, as in the wife of a Knight).

The proper way to speak to a King (or Queen) is to say: “Your Majesty”. And “Sire” is okay. (If it’s a Queen, you may call her “Madam”, I believe.)

Don’t call a King “Your Grace” (I think that’s a duke) or “Your Excellency” (a bishop?).

I’m definitely not an expert in this, but I know enough to know this much. And it drives me crazy when some fictional kingdom breaks these rules of etiquette. Not because the author is doing in intentionally (I’d be okay with that if there was a good reason, like the ignorance of one of the characters).

No, mostly it’s because these authors just don’t know.

I can’t tell you how many times this pet peeve of mine creeps into books I read. Sometimes it’s enough to make me want to quit reading the book. (Although, if the story and characters are good enough, I’ll grit my teeth and finish it.)

Authors! All I have to say is this: If you have royalty in your story, please address them properly.

We are not amused.

P.S. The photo I’ve included was taken at the Prop Warehouse at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. I was trying to think of a photo to go with this post and I remembered this throne. I thought, What’s more royal than a throne? And especially a throne like this one?!

 

Fascination with Scary

20140212_billw_0148At this time of year, you’re bound to see a lot of blog posts and articles with such titles as: “What’s the Scariest Read of All Time?” or “Top 10 Horror Movies of the Last Decade” or “Halloween Book Countdown”.

And this isn’t just for the days leading up to October 31st. All year long, even the happiest place on earth (i.e. Disney) celebrates their Haunted Mansion… since 1969. (Disney even makes “scary” seem cute. Like one of Walt Disney’s first animated shorts that featured dancing skeletons.)

It just shows that we have a fascination for “all things scary.”

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of “scary”. And certainly not anything labelled under the horror genre.

I don’t mind the odd scary and/or heart-pounding scene, but I wouldn’t exactly categorize that with “horror”. I like a well-written gothic novel, whether it’s parodied like in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, or done supremely well in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

So, why do we have this fascination with all things scary?

And this fascination can manifest itself in three ways:

  1. It works as an outlet to ignore something that makes us uncomfortable.
  2. It becomes an obsession (sometimes to the point of excluding all other things).
  3. It can also act as a jumping off point to think things through.

Of these three points, the final one is the probably the healthiest. For me… while I don’t actively seek out horror books or movies, I do not completely banish scary topics/things outright. Because I know scary things exist. It reminds me of this G.K. Chesterton quote: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Yes, “dragons” do exist in real life. (Maybe not of the Smaug variety, but they do exist.) To explore such “dragons” in books, movies, and other pop culture is, I think, actually a healthy thing.

To become completely obsessed is not so healthy. (As in ALL you ever read/watch/think is horror, blood, murder, anger… yikes.)

But it is a healthy thing to bring things that frighten us out in the open. Popular culture (including books and movies) allows us to get a handle on our own fears, especially about our own mortality… To handle the scariness of Death.

How we treat our “dragons” (including the dragon called Death) is going to affect how we treat Life. This gives an outlet for us to explore “all things scary” in a safe way.

 

 

 

Illustrations that Make the Book – Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

It’s not only old books that have great illustrations. I’ve come up with a list of contemporary books (with authors who are still living and writing!) that have illustrations that make the reading experience just that much more enjoyable.


How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup_Horrendous_Haddock_the_ThirdThis series has wonderful illustrations that are done by the author herself. And when you read a Cressida Cowell book, you start expecting Cressida Cowell illustrations. (Her newest series have very similar illustrations.)

I have never seen illustrations quite like these before and yet they fit the stories beautifully. They’re as whimsical and delightful as her writing.

How could you not fall in love a Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third who looks like this? He’s so puny, like he doesn’t really belong in those Viking threads. And yet, that’s what makes him so appealing!


The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom

HeroGuide2This series by Christopher Healy is another series that contains wonderful illustrations by the author. Yes, I love fairy tales and fractured fairy tales. Actually, come to think of it, fairy tales in general almost cry out for pictures. Here, Healy’s illustrations beautifully add that extra je-ne-sais-quoi to the books.

I really like how, in this one illustration, we get to see each of the four Princes Charming. And each Prince’s character is perfectly captured… Prince Liam out in front with Prince Duncan focused on some peripheral detail that doesn’t matter; Prince Gustav ready for the giant behind them with poor Prince Frederic ready to surrender.


The Series of Unfortunate Events

e086af00825e794488bbcd535c22e53d.jpgI love the illustrations to this series by Lemony Snicket. I feel that they (the illustrations by Brett Helquist) are really a big bonus when you read the books. They manage to maintain the flavour of the books.

Just as Lemony Snicket loves to give asides in the books, Helquist adds his own little illustrated asides…

Like the sword, pointing straight down at the children in the illustration to the right. Or, even better, the “Beware of Leeches” sign (The leeches will play quite an important part in this unfortunate story.)


Okay, so that’s my list of contemporary reads that I feel go hand-in-glove with their illustrations.

Got any to add to this list?

Illustrations that Make the Book – Part 1

Not every book needs illustrations. Let me make that clear.

And yet, there are those books in which the illustrations seem to go hand-in-hand with the written page… So much so that we come to find it hard to think of the book without these illustrations.

When I was coming up with this blog post idea, I noticed that most of the books on my list are OLDER books. Back in the day, it seems like a lot of books came with illustrations. However, there are a few contemporary books that made my list. (You’ll find those books in Part 2.)

The list of books below are all books written by authors no longer living…


The Chronicles of Narnia

44d68d9efe02b0989776792662a92c6aWritten by C.S. Lewis and illustrated by Pauline Baynes. Her pen and ink drawings are still used in the editions published today. Why? Because they are beautiful and amazing and capture the magic that is Narnia. I can’t tell you how much I love these drawings.

Like this iconic moment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe… Lucy has just entered Narnia for the first time and is walking with Mr. Tumnus and his umbrella. Such a wonderful scene! (And, on a side note, it’s the image that Lewis himself saw in his mind’s eye that inspired him to write the book in the first place!)


Winnie the Pooh

92ffd90047cc7581e73a3707645700bc.jpgThere aren’t illustrations that have become as iconic as A.A. Milne’s masterpiece: Winnie the Pooh. Even the great Walt Disney couldn’t overshadow E.H. Shepard’s illustrations, they are that good! (While I don’t mind the Disney version of the Pooh characters, I’d pick Shepard’s illustrations over Disney’s in a heartbeat!)

I think Shepherd was able to capture the childlike wonder of the Hundred Acre Wood and its inhabitants. Pooh and Piglet are charming in the illustration to the left, as is Christopher Robin.

And it makes me want to find a bridge to play a game of Pooh Sticks…


The Little House books

2014_0708_webimages_53_littlehouseLaura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books show that sometimes books have to wait a bit to find their perfect match in illustrations. While the first edition had other illustrations (by Helen Sewell), the later editions (starting from 1953) were given the Garth Williams touch. These simple pencil, charcoal, and ink drawings have since become inseparable from Wilder’s work. Probably what helps make them so amazing is that, before he sat down and drew, Garth Williams traveled to the real-life locations to get a feel for the prairie scenery world of Laura Ingalls.

I love how Mary and Laura are gazing in awe as Pa plays his fiddle. Pa’s fiddle is such an integral part to the books 🙂


The Betsy-Tacy books

Meeting Miss SparrowThis series by Maud Hart Lovelace, in many ways, can be split into two series. The “younger” books and the “older” books. And interestingly enough, the illustrations follow this divide.

The first four books, beginning with Betsy-Tacy until Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown, have illustrations by Lois Lenski. Beautiful, whimsical, and perfect for capturing the magic of childhood!

Betsy at her writing deskHowever, once Betsy and her friends enter Deep Valley High, Vera Neville takes over the illustrations. And guess what? Hers are perfect, too! I’m not sure if Lenski could have done the high school books. And I’m not sure is Neville could have handled the younger girls. Whoever made the ultimate decision about this, bravo!

Two illustrations are necessary for this series. The first shows young Betsy in the library (I couldn’t resist!). And the second is an older Betsy sitting at her “writing desk” (her uncle’s trunk).


Swallows and Amazons

00048975-300x403These books are written by Arthur Ransome. And he illustrated them too “with the help of Miss Nancy Blackett” (one of the characters in the books!) These drawing are unique to the books. They’re fun and have that child-like abandon of the untrained child-artist… Alluring in their own way.

The illustration I chose for this book is entitled “Despatches”. It’s the answer from the four young Walkers have been waiting for… their father’s permission that they may indeed go camp out on Wild Cat Island. Let the adventures begin!


So, these are just five of my favourite illustrated books. I’m sure there are other books that fall into the same category… Books, that when I think of them, these illustrations come to mind.

Got any that you’d like to add?

Old Enough to Read Fairy Tales

20170623ma_1916When I go to the library, I am immediately drawn to the children’s section. Why? Because I love books written for kids.

Not so much picture books. Not those early chapter books. No, give me books written for the Middle Grade reader. What used to be called Children’s Literature. (And by extension, I’ll also include many Young Adult books in this category.)

But the thing is, I’m not a kid anymore. In fact, I haven’t been a kid for quite awhile.

When I was a teen, I quickly grew out of these books. There was a time (probably when I was in high school, but maybe even earlier??) when I didn’t want to read such books anymore. Or if I did want to re-read the occasional book from my childhood (Anne of Green Gables?), I certainly wouldn’t admit it in public. Yep! I was “too old” for kids’ books.

And this reminds me of the dedication C.S. Lewis included in his book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

“My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say but I shall still be
your affectionate Godfather,
C. S. Lewis”

Now I’ve reached the age when I am “old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

Recently, I was trying to figure out exactly when this happened. I’m thinking it started to come about while I was in university. Of course, I took all the literature courses I could get my hands on. I studied plenty of Shakespeare and Dickens, Austen and Edgeworth, Trollope and Harding, just to name a few.

And then, in my fourth year, I signed up for a course on Children’s Literature. This course included some of my childhood favourites, but it also introduced me to children’s books I had never read before. I read books by authors I didn’t even know existed!

And reading these kids’ books for the first time, I found that I actually enjoyed them. I mean, I really enjoyed reading these stories! These stories meant for kids.

But that’s was the just the start of a realization that a good children’s book has special magic in it. A special ingredient. Basically, it needs to be enjoyable on different levels. The book has to be of interest to the child, naturally. But it also will contain truth and humour and characterizations that will pique the interest of the adult.

That’s the secret ingredient.

Slowly, but surely, I began to re-read more of my old favourites, realizing that many of these books were as good as when I first read them as a kid. (Although, I will admit that other books didn’t stand this test of time. Or they didn’t contain that extra, secret ingredient.)

About ten years after taking that university course, it hit me that I actually preferred children’s books to reading most adult books. Maybe it is the fairy-tale element found in many children’s books. Not that the stories have to be fairy tales. Children’s books are so hopeful. Yes, the characters in these stories have struggles, but the point of the story is to overcome those struggles and take us to the happy ending. (I do like a happy ending. While I don’t need an ending to be saccharine, I also don’t want to read a book that ends in a depressingly sad way.)

I still have my old childhood favourites, but I also have my favourite “new” authors. Whether they are long-dead authors I’ve discovered only recently, or authors living and writing for today’s market.

It makes me sad to hear people dismiss children’s books because they’re written “for kids”. Young people especially do this, but so do many adults.

I comfort myself with this thought: One day, hopefully, these people will come upon their own realization that they are now “old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

Bookish Problem #4

20170925ma_4835Another bookish problem:
Getting home from the library with a stack of books. But which book to read first?!

This happened recently, the books being…
1) The Wizards of Once (by Cressida Cowell)
2) Nanny X (by Madelyn Rosenberg)
3) The Reluctant Midwife (Patricia Harman)

Now, I love the How to Train Your Dragon series, so The Wizards of Once definitely made it to the top of my list. However, for some reason, I didn’t choose this book to start with. Perhaps out of fear that maybe it isn’t as good as the stories of Hiccup Haddock Horrendous III. Or perhaps in anticipation, delaying the enjoyment just a little bit.

I also enjoyed the Call the Midwife series (by Jennifer Worth), so The Reluctant Midwife sounded intriguing to me.

Ultimately, I chose Nanny X... partly because of its size. (It’s considerably a shorter book compared to the other two. Most definitely a quick read.) But partly, I think, because of the “Mary Poppins for the 21st Century” reference. I love Mary Poppins!

What’s nice about this bookish problem is that, in time, I will get to read them all. 🙂

P.S. By the way, if you think I only took out three books during this library visit, you’d be wrong. The three I listed above are really just my three top choices. Who knows? I might even be surprised and find one of the other books to be even better. (Although, I do have high hopes that The Wizards of Once won’t disappoint me.)

UPDATE: Okay, so Nanny X and The Reluctant Midwife were just okay, but not great. But I was not disappointed in The Wizards of Once! Loved this book, and will give it its own full review soon. 🙂

3 Bookish Problems

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  1. When you finish the last book in a series… And realize there are no more books left! It’s quite depressing. Actually, it can feel as if somebody close to you has died.
  2. When you’re waiting to read a sequel… And it takes forever. It can be up to a year, or even longer. Finally, you get the book in your hand… but, wait a minute! Um. I don’t remember the events of the previous book. :/
  3. Reading at bedtime. Eyelids droop. Words begin to blur. I keep on reading. Finally I close the book and turn out the light. Only to realize the next day, that I wasn’t getting ANYTHING out of the story but word recognition!

(Of course, these are really just first world problems when you think about it.)

Only Orphans Allowed

20170824ma_4716Have you ever wondered why so many kids’ books feature orphans?

Anne Shirley, Mary Lennox, Oliver Twist, Frodo Baggins, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Dorothy Gale, Huckleberry Finn, Pollyanna, Pippi Longstocking, Paddington Bear, the Baudelaire orphans, Harry Potter… and the list goes on.

Or, if the characters aren’t exactly orphans, the parents are somehow (conveniently) off-screen. Like how the Pevensie children are sent out of London before they find their way into Narnia. Or the Bastable children seeking treasure on Lewisham Road in order to help their father who is busy with his business woes. Or how Artemis Fowl’s mother is ill and depressed, while his father is MIA in Russia.

For the author, the first order of business… Get rid of the parents. I used to think this was an unfair trick of so many books. Why did authors do it? Did they really have to make the world so void of parents?

Then one day, I stumbled upon the answer. I read a book where the author must have wondered the same thing. This author had put a “Helpful Dad” type of character into the story. You know the type. The Ward Cleaver. The Pa Ingalls. The kind of dad every kid should have in their lives.

Here’s a brief outline of the story. Kid moves to New Neighbourhood with Loving and Devoted Parents. You know Parents are loving and devoted because of how they interact with Kid. Then Kid somehow notices something fishy going on in a nearby graveyard. He confides in Dad. Great Father/Son interaction. (That’s how it’s supposed to be in real life. Yay for Dad!) Now, Dad understands the call to adventure. He walks with Kid to graveyard. “I’ll watch from over here just in case you need help,” says Dad, ever the understanding type. Kid feels so secure and happy that Dad is so understanding. Kid walks into graveyard alone, while Dad stands by. Then, WHAM! Somehow Kid is sucked into another world… leaving Dad behind.

Okay, so first of all, even this author also realized that he needed to get rid of Helpful Dad at this point in the story.

I don’t know what you thought when you were reading my little outline, but I can tell you my thought process when I was reading the book. As the dad was walking with the kid to the graveyard, I wanted to scream out, “Stop! This is isn’t right. If Helpful Dad is along on the adventure, how can Kid do anything???” Then as Helpful Dad stepped back and let Kid go into the graveyard alone, I wanted to scream, “Wait a minute, Dad. What kind of father are you?! How can you let your kid go in there alone!”

There was no helping it. I was fed up with the story. And actually, to be honest, I never did finish the book.

But this glimpse gave me my answer for why so many books feature orphans. It’s because we really don’t want irresponsible parents. But we also don’t want parents to get in the way of the protagonist’s journey. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a good grownup in the story. They can be available for advice, but we don’t want a smothering helicopter.

In real life, we want and need loving parents. In fiction, sometimes it’s best to kill those parents off.

Or at least send them on a long trip.