Tiger’s Voyage by Colleen Houck

Posted on February 11th, 2014
Tiger’s Voyage by Colleen HouckTiger's Voyage by Colleen Houck
Series: The Tiger Saga #3
Published by Random House in 2011
Pages: 560
Location: India
Mode of travel: Boat, Jeep, Magical Animal, Scuba, Trek
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With the head-to-head battle against the villainous Lokesh behind her, Kelsey confronts a new heartbreak: in the wake of his traumatic experience, her beloved Ren no longer remembers who she is. As the trio continues their quest by challenging five cunning and duplicitous dragons, Ren and Kishan once more vie for her affections--leaving Kelsey more confused than ever.

Verdict: let the synopsis stand as a warning.

In theory, Tiger’s Voyage has a huge amount of potential as an adventure story. It’s an epic-sized book which includes a trek across the Indian jungle, a yacht trip half-way around India, and scuba diving around the magical world of some Chinese dragons on a quest for the goddess Durga’s black pearl necklace which is needed to break a curse.

In reality, as the synopsis indicates, all these fantastic possibilities take a back seat to Kelsey, Ren and Kishan’s love life. It goes on and on and on, sometimes descending into misogyny. Clearly a lot of people are getting a huge kick out of reading about it. Not me, but a lot of people.

I really only have a few more observations to make about this book.

  • This is the third book in the series and I haven’t read the other two. I don’t expect the author to hold my hand over this – I was quite prepared to pick things up as we went along. If Kelsey, the first-person narrator, spent even a fifth as much time thinking about the curse, quest and adventure as she does about her love life, I probably would have done. As it is, I still have very little idea what it’s all about, though I know exactly what went on between her and Kishan in Shangri La (book 2) and between her and Ren in Oregon (book 1).
  • As a story about a love triangle and in the spirit of ‘show don’t tell’ it would help if we didn’t just have Kelsey’s friends’ constant word for the fact that she’s fantastic and the center of the universe. After finishing the book, I tried making a list I called Kelsey’s Impressive Skills and Achievements. I’m not going to post them here because they would be spoilers but there are really only three or four of them anyway. They take up a fraction of the book. I thought she was a bit of a wimp.
  • As a story about a love triangle it’s a problem that Ren’s behavior is completely unacceptable yet a) Kelsey doesn’t see it, b) nobody else tries to tell him he’s wrong and c) we aren’t given any reason for it, e.g. PTSD from his ordeal in book 2 running deeper than anyone thinks.
  • The plot of the adventure proper, the part with the dragons, didn’t have the complexity I would expect of a YA book. Most of the mythology is quite loosely made up which would be fine if it added up to something but it doesn’t. Maybe it would benefit from more in depth research to suggest plot twists and complexity.
  • Anybody who gets inspired by this series to go and visit India is in for a bit of a surprise. Kelsey only really emerges from her love haze when there’s something opulent to notice. The huge, over-crowded, noisy, complex and only very locally opulent maelstrom of modern India completely passes her by.

Map of southern IndiaAll the same, you should go. And just to encourage you further, here’s a map of southern India with the route taken by the tigers.

In chapters 2-4, Kelsey, Ren and Kishan drive to the Yawal Wildlife Reservation and hike into it over two days to visit Phet. The village they live near must be somewhere between Mumbai and Jalgaon. I love this blog post by Sundeep Krishna that gives a great idea of the Yawal woodland and the drive to get there, even if it is very 4WD orientated.

The team’s location in Goa, one of India’s smaller states, is unspecified. I’m also not sure which temple of Durga the Tiger Team visited in Mangalore but it may be Kateel. If you know better, please drop me a line in the comments thread.

This is a really beautiful page about the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram, where Kelsey met Lady Silkworm and obtained a map through the dragons’ world.

And here’s one they unaccountably missed but which we visited many years ago, in February 2000. The temple of Devi Kanya Kumari at the very tip of India, where the three seas meet. There are some interesting resonances between the Durga stories in the book and the one related to this temple.

[Group 0]-P0000793_P0000795-3 images

The Snow Merchant by Sam Gayton

Posted on February 3rd, 2014
The Snow Merchant by Sam GaytonThe Snow Merchant by Sam Gayton
Published by Andersen in 2011
Genres: Children
Pages: 288
Location: Magic World
Mode of travel: Balloon, Boat, Magical Animal
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Lettie Peppercorn lives in a house on stilts near the wind-swept coast of Albion, with no one to talk to but Periwinkle the pigeon. Her days are filled with floor-sweeping, bed-making and soup-stirring. Her nights are filled with dreams of her mother, who vanished long ago. Nothing incredible has ever happened to Lettie, until one winter's night - the night the Snow Merchant comes.

He claims to be an alchemist - the greatest that ever lived - and in a mahogany suitcase, he carries his newest invention. It is an invention that will change Lettie's life - and the world - forever. It is an invention called snow.

The Snow Merchant is a fantasy filled with family secrets, magical transformations and wild adventure. Join Lettie on her journey to uncover the true meaning of snow, family and friendship.

Verdict: I liked it but I’m waiting to see what my kid thinks.

Why would I give a verdict like that on a book? Well, the thing is that the book is aimed squarely at the ‘older child’ bracket, 9-12 years.

Normally, if an adult reads a book like that and enjoys it, it’s a good thing. This one is filled with little twists and surprises and nicely written. But I know my daughter. The Snow Merchant has a few edges that could disturb her and cause her to reject it. It all depends on her level of maturity and sensitivities at the time.

But first, the travel!!

This book says some beautiful things about travel, right after my own heart. It’s the story of a quest and a transition, from a sedentary to a wandering lifestyle. I think that’s why I fell in love with it. Let me try to do a round-up of some of the passages which most struck me:

 At the beginning, when Lettie is unable to leave her house… I so understand how she feels – ‘She loved the Wind, she envied it: it travelled the world; it went wherever it wanted, while she was stuck inside, held prisoner by her job and Ma’s last message.‘ ==== ‘She fell quiet and gazed out of the window, to the town huddled against the Wind. A place of brine and blubber and beer. A place she had promised Da never to go. There was mystery in that town. There were ships setting off for faraway places and others coming back with wonder and miracles… but Lettie wasn’t allowed near them.
 And then there’s Noah, they boy who’s a traveller from his roots to the tips of his branches (which he has) – ‘That’s what the sea is: freedom. A million invisible roads to everywhere. Before I get planted in the ground and turn into a tree like my grandmother, I want to see the world. And the sea is the only place I know where you can’t put down roots.‘ ==== OH BOY! CAN I RELATE TO THAT ====’The only thing lonelier than travelling,’ said Noah, ‘is standing still”

By the way, The Snow Merchant also has some amazing means of transport and the illustrator, Tomislav Tomic, really let himself go depicting them.

And here’s the list of things my daughter might have found quite disturbing, at least until recently:

  • Lettie Peppercorn isn’t who she thought she was or what she thought she was to an extent that even shocked me. Her relationship with her parents isn’t what she thought. It’s a bit like finding out you’re adopted, only more so.
  • She suffers from a condition that’s potentially fatal is going to require a radically unusual lifestyle for the rest of her life. Let’s just say Lettie will never lie on a sunny beach. OK, it’s painted in fantasy terms but it’s still obvious.
  • She’s a very lonely child at the beginning and although she has a friend, a father, a mother by the end, after a fashion, it’s not clear they’re hers to ‘have and to hold’ in any way a child would consider satisfactory.

Then there’s the interesting question of the role of the mother…

Teresa has a very strong, almost dominating role. She really has a life, and she’s extremely brave, talented, capable, etc, etc… That’s nice for mothers (me). It makes a change from being a mere support structure or killed off in the early stages.

But I wonder if what children look to in stories isn’t precisely the very unrealistic level of autonomy and agency for themselves. It’s not that Lettie is helpless, by any means, but…. I mean, Teresa even chooses Lettie’s friend for her… come on!… says the woman who’s over-analysing a book to see if it would be a good match for her daughter….

Then again, you could say Teresa is just playing the role of supreme mentor and guardian, a role usually reserved for wizardly men with long white beards. Maybe I’m off my rocker wondering whether we mothers should be settling for the subservient support role? Maybe that’s not what our daughters want either? I will find out in due course.

So there you go. There’s a sense in which, while being a whimsical fantasy book, The Snow Merchant is at the cutting edge of some of the harsher issues facing children today. And it may be important in helping them process those issues… but only if they’re ready.

Alternatively, there will be some who will barely notice the issues are there.

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Posted on February 1st, 2014
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman RushdieLuka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie
Published by Jonathan Cape in 2010
Genres: Children
Pages: 215
Location: Magic World
Mode of travel: Boat, Flying Carpet
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On a beautiful starry night in the city of Kahani in the land of Alifbay a terrible thing happened: twelve-year-old Luka's storyteller father, Rashid, fell suddenly and inexplicably into a sleep so deep that nothing and no one could rouse him. To save him from slipping away entirely, Luka must embark on a journey through the Magic World, encountering a slew of phantasmagorical obstacles along the way, to steal the Fire of Life, a seemingly impossible and exceedingly dangerous task.

I got Luka and the Fire of Life through one of those serendipitous accidents of L-Space. I really wanted to read Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence which is for adults. I kind of wanted to read Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories which is the prequel to this book. The library gave me this instead. Obviously, I nearly fell over with excitement when I saw the flying carpet.

Luka and the Fire of Life3   Luka and the Fire of Life2
Flying carpets from other edition covers.

I nearly fell over some more when I started reading. I loved everything about this book  – from the characters to the style to the storyline! All I wanted to know was where it had been all my life and why it wasn’t longer. I was on the verge of buying a copy for everyone I knew, certain they would love it as much as I did.

Then something happened and I got a bit bored. I eventually understood the problem. What I had loved was the dual presence of storyteller Rashid Khalifa the Shah of Blah, inventor of the Magic World, and his deviously sarcastic twin and nemesis, Nobodaddy. I must admit, there is no doubt in my mind that the pair of them might just as well be known by their other alias of Mr. S. Rushdie and I was loving spending time with him in this form. I never read any of his books before and I hadn’t expected him to be quite so… witty, sarcastic and fun to travel with, even in the shape of an evil nemesis! Whether we were trying to get lunch in the unpleasantly oversensitive and politically correct Respectorate or flying a carpet over the meandering tributaries of the River of Time, it was he who made the journey rock.

Then Nobodaddy disappears, nominally to gather his nefarious forces to a pinnacle of badness, really, perhaps, to let the title hero of the book have a go at doing things by himself. Rashid Khalifa had been a spent force for a while and somehow, without those two, the light just seemed to go out of the Magic World for me, pages and pages before it started officially disintegrating.

So it goes…

Verdict: I still liked the book very, very much and look forward to reading the two which were actually on my list.

The Green Ray, #23 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on January 27th, 2014

#5 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

The Green Ray, #23 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysThe Green Ray by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #23
Published by Hetzel in 1882
Pages: 128
Location: Scotland
Mode of travel: Boat
Read it on Gutenberg
Rarely, and only under the right conditions, a flash of green light can be seen over the setting sun. It is said to bring special powers of discernment to its lucky observers. Helena Campbell is determined to be one of them, especially since the quest might distract her uncles from marrying her off to the pedant, Aristobulus Ursiclos. The search for a suitable observation point takes her to the western coast of Scotland, then out into the Hebrides.

Verdict: boring.

I’m forced to say that if The Green Ray is mostly harmless, it’s also terribly boring. It’s a shame, and I think it’s largely caused by Verne giving himself a female protagonist at a time when the possibilities for female protagonists were limited.

The_Green_Ray' - Helena at croquetHelena Campbell: In many ways, Helena Campbell strangely resembles Professor Liedenbrock of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Like him, she has a domineering personality and when some text inspires her to leave home on a voyage of discovery, her nearest and dearest say ‘How far?’ Like Liedenbrock, she is tenacious, willing to risk her own life and those of other people in the pursuit of her interest. Like Liedenbrock, she fails at the end, thwarted by the rise of molten… well, in his case it was lava, in her case it’s passionate love for – I hardly consider this a spoiler – the man she intends to marry, who is not Aristobolus Ursiclos!

The_Green_Ray-Oliver to the rescueThe thing is that while the professor’s journey is monumental, that of the young lady from Scotland can only be a miniature, a little tourist outing to the Hebrides where the main object of suspense is the British weather. Same personality, different social conditions. It’s the social conditions, especially as they relate to gender, that make Helena Campbell come across as spoilt, bossy, obsessive and irresponsible whereas Liedenbrock… well, he has his faults, but look at his achievements! It’s the social conditions that inspired Verne to have his heroine lean on her suitor for everything from expedition planning to getting her life saved in a daring rescue, and have her triumph at the end consist of getting married.

Green Ray Fingal's CaveFingal and Ossian: Needless to say, the Hebrides are beautiful and the descriptions are so accurate, you could find your way around Iona and Staffa on the basis of them. And I suppose Jules’ Voyage Extraordinaires achieved their purpose since I learned some things about Scotland that I never knew.

The characters talk a great deal about James MacPherson’s Poems of Ossian, once so popular the whole of the western world was reading them. It’s the overwhelming attraction of its mythological associations with Fingal’s Cave on Staffa that causes Helena Campbell to risk her life. In Ossian, MacPherson claimed to have collected and arranged elements of old Scottish folklore. His detractors maintained he made the whole thing up except for the bits he stole from Ireland. These days he’s almost forgotten, but in the 19th century, he looked set to be the Homer of the North.

Green Ray Ossian receiving french heroesI had a glance at Ossian and was puzzled to understand what the Victorians and their foreign contemporaries saw in it, but it certainly inspired them to make some of their most fantastical art. This one is by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson and shows Ossian, for reasons best known to the patron, Napoleon, greeting some French heroes in Valhalla!

The Snow Queen and her spawn

Posted on January 12th, 2014
The Snow Queen and her spawnThe Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
Published by Reitzel in 1845
Pages: 40
Location: Europe, Scandinavia
Mode of travel: Boat, Reindeer, Sledge, Walking
Read it on Wikisource
*** Suitable for children and adults of any age ***

Gerda's friend Kay is missing presumed dead, but she can't rest without him. Half accidentally, half on purpose she sets off into the wide world to look for him. As she escapes the home of an enchantress, breaks into a palace and gets kidnapped by robbers, her own powers grow, until finally, she reaches the castle of the Snow Queen where her friend is held captive. Has she got what it takes to rescue him?

Verdict: one of the best fairy tales ever – and free!

More about The Snow Queen in a minute, but first this. I was inspired to reread The Snow Queen because Disney just released Frozen, very, very, very loosely based …  Even my adult friends told me Frozen was good and I should see it. My verdict on that one: I’m still friends with them, but I’m not sure I would pass the recommendation on.

FrozenA princess lives a cloistered life then becomes a fugitive because she can’t control her magic wintery powers. Only the true love of her sister can save her and their kingdom… What Disney should have done here is invested less effort in writing a new plot that isn’t as good as the original, and, given that they give the story a musical treatment, more effort in composing decent music.The animation is really very beautiful, the soundtrack sucks and the story is meh… I would probably watch this again, with the sound turned off and some classical music on in the background. On the other hand it’s not nearly as comical in a stupid way as the US and UK DVD covers respectively (why are they different?) make it look. So yeah, it’s that good – and that bad! I give it three stars… no two… okay two and a half. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)

Gerda’s Journey

A lot of illustrations focus on the cold beauty of the Snow Queen but what really interests me is Gerda’s journey. And Kay’s of course. They actually start very similarly. Kay fastens his sledge to a stranger’s sleigh for fun and finds himself carried off by the Snow Queen. Gerda steps into a boat to ask the river for news of Kay and is carried off likewise, to the house of an enchantress. The Snow Queen kisses Kay to make him forget his previous life, the enchantress gives Gerda magic cherries for the same reason. He is trapped in eternal winter, she in eternal summer. Kay has an impossible occupation, a logic puzzle that can’t be solved by logic, Gerda has nothing to do but listen to flowers tell their silly self-centred stories all day long. It’s an allegory of course – Kay is trapped in an emotionless world of rationality, Gerda in a world of triviality and shallow pleasures. But Gerda escapes..

white_witch_and_edmund_by_autocon_femme-d32e2luThe caption says ‘Confusing Edmund Pevensie since 2005′, but it should be 1950, the publication date of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or even 1845 considering the obvious connection between this scene and the kidnapping of Kay in The Snow Queen. The White Witch gives Edmund turkish delight instead of a kiss. I would fall for that, any day. (book from Amazon USA, book from Amazon UK, film from Amazon USA, film from Amazon UK)

Actually, Gerda doesn’t escape the enchantress entirely under her own steam. The old woman gets careless and leaves one rose lying around to remind Gerda of the summer days she spent with her friend. But unlike Kay, Gerda still has the capacity to be touched by that memory and act on it. Her tears call back the roses of the garden long buried underground and they bring her news from the Land of the Dead: Kay is not there. She’s going to have to make a descent into another kind of Underworld. It’s quite mysterious. Sometimes I think I get it and other times, I’m sure I don’t. Maybe I’ll add more to this page later, as it comes to me.

 Ronia the Robber's DaughterI love the primeval nature of the forest and the robbers. I’m sure Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia, the robber’s daughter living in her half ruined castle and roaming the magical forest must have something to do with the robber girl in The Snow Queen, even is Ronia is a bit less wild and her story also has a Romeo and Juliet kind of theme. I never read this book as a child, but it was my daughter’s No1 favourite. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)