Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Dr. Dan's Elixir
Potent Magic for Young Minds
    by Dan Shade
August 2006

Among the Dolls by William Sleator
Starscape (Tor), Copyright © 2005
$5.99, 84 pages
Age Group: 10 up

Writing these reviews is just too much fun. I am finding young adult science fiction to be a place where writers feel safe to try out new ideas, possibility because young minds are more open to new things. Although one might classify this short novel as a Twilight Zone story, I feel it was much more than that. Of course it wasn't a hard read; 84 pages can be read in less than an hour. It was the uniqueness and the richness of this story that kept me turning pages.

Ten-year-old Vicky is crushed when she receives a dusty, old doll house for her birthday instead of the shiny, new 10-speed bike she'd been hinting about so much. She rushes to her bedroom in tears. However the dollhouse soon begins to draw her interest and she soon begins to play with it a great deal. Vicky then begins making the dollhouse people behave like the real people in her life. She is unaware that dollhouse people become the people you make them. If you always play with the father as a mean person, the doll really develops that personality trait.

So, when Vicky finds herself in the dollhouse, she is surprised that all the dolls are so mean. She thinks of every way possible to get out, promising them anything they could possibly want from her as a human. They don't buy it for a second. They want to hurt her and put her through the same kind of pain they've been through. Perhaps they want to hurt her even more; there are intimations that this is so. Only the baby she bought herself and put in the house is helpful to her.

Vicky's battle to get back to her real world is a hard and clever one. The book carries strong messages about judging people and making lasting relationships. I recommend it to people of any age

Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin
Harcourt Books, Copyright © 2006
$7.95, 300 pages
Age Group: 15 up

Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of dozens and dozens of books, most of which I love and have on my home bookshelves. This novel is not one of them. In spite of nicely fleshed out characters, the story takes too long to unfold. The first quarter of the book reminded me of several books in the Old Testament that give the genealogy of families by telling who begat whom and so forth. On the other hand, these pages did give a good overview of the variety of gifts that existed, but I suppose that could have been done in one chapter.

The idea of being born with some kind of magical gift is intriguing. However it is never fully explained why only the people in the Uplands have the gifts. People in the Lowlands have not the gifts and consider those in the Uplands to be witches. Gifts can range from the ability to kill with a word, call animals for the hunt with the mind, cure with a touch, cause quick death after sickness with a whisper, etc. Gifts run truer if families marry within the family. I couldn't help but ask myself if that wouldn't bring about a generation of idiots.

In the end, Orrec and his girlfriend Gry learn some important things about gifts. We all have gifts. Orrec has no "gift" for unmaking (death) but keeps himself hidden and blindfolded for fear of hurting someone. He's been told he has a wild, uncontrolable ability to kill with a glance. During his years of confinement, Orrec finds he has a gift for storytelling (no pun intended). Gry's gift works both ways. She can call out animals for the hunt, an activity she spurns, or she can use her gift to communicate with animals to train them (horses, cattle, dogs, etc.). Again, the message here is that we all have gifts. The magic gift is no more important than a gift for song.

In all fairness to Ursula K. Le Guin, here are the awards won by this work: An Amazon.com Top 10 Editor's Pick for Teens, A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, Winner of the PEN Center Award for Fiction, A Parent's Choice Silver Honor Winner and A Booklist Editor's Choice. An impressive list indeed.

Singing The Dogstar Blues by Alison Goodman
Firebird Science Fiction, Copyright © 1998
$6.99, 272 pages
Age Group: 14 up

I don't know how long it has been, but I don't recall ever having so much fun reading a novel. Singing The Dogstar Blues is a seamless mixture of high adventure, humor, mystery and science fiction. Goodman does this with a deft hand and still gives us enough science upon which to base the story. As in all good science fiction, that meat of the story is found in the relationships between the characters. Joss must pair telepathically with an alien in order to save his life and stay in the time-travel program. And in addition to how well Goodman handles the entire book, even the futuristic swearing is believable; but building realistic relationships is Goodman's strong suit.

Joss Aronson, the protagonist, is a no-frills high school student. Makeup takes too long and she feels more comfortable in jeans and a college sweatshirt. She is a comp child -- an egg fertilized from one or a number of sperm donors. In order to bond with her alien partner, Joss must find out who is her father. She needs her genealogical heritage. Joss turns to her mother, a high-power news journalist whom Joss has seen little of during her life. Together Joss and Mavkel (the alien) embark on a dangerous and illegal quest to find Joss' father. There are many side plots to this main one. They are not a distraction but support the story.

Singing the Dogstar Blues is a great adventure and a boatload of fun. It's a real knock out for a first novel and I'm looking forward to Goodman's next. Dogstar contains mad scientists, wicked witches, betrayal, strong friendships, high personal integrity and high altitude adventure. I not only recommend this book but also tell you to run out and get it now. This is good summer reading for any age. Good winter reading by the fireplace -- great reading, period.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Simon & Schuster, Copyright © 2005
$7.99, 448 pages
Age Group: 12 up

Tally Youngblood is ugly, but so is everyone else under the age of sixteen. At age sixteen a person has a special surgical procedure that makes their body (and mind?) conform to a stereotypical idea of pretty. Thus, the Pretties. My impression from reading the book that these children are not truly ugly. They look like you and me -- normal, so to speak.

Tally is in school. Learning seems to be the primary task for Uglies whereas having fun and partying is for Pretties. Tally is a pro at sneaking out at night to cross the river and spy on the Pretty life style. She travels via her "Back to the Future" hoverboard upon which she is fairly skilled. Tally has some pretty (no pun intended) exciting adventures among the Pretties before she meets Shay.

Shay is another female Ugly and they become instant friends. Super friends with most things in common accept this one issue. Shay does not want to be a pretty. She thinks it is a government plan to control the population. Shay plans to run, on her sixteenth birthday, to a rumored safe haven called the Smoke. The Smoke is the home to people who want to live free of government control. Shay tries to talk Tally into running with her, but Tally wants to be a pretty. Shay gives Tally directions to the Smoke in case she changes her mind.

Tally's mind is changed for her. The Specials, who have been trying to find the Smoke for years, blackmail Tally. She must lead the Specials to the Smoke or never get the operation to make her pretty. Tally is bugged with video and audio microchips and sent on her way. The closer she gets the worse she feels. Does she want to be unique or pretty all her life? Does she want to give up her friendship with Shay?

This is an interesting dystopia easily open to a prequel. There is so much we don't know about the conditions that left American society as ugly (pun intended) as we find in this book. What cataclysmic event shaped this society? Where are the parents of the Uglies? Uglies live in dorms until they become a pretty. No Ugly in the book seems to have a remembrance of a family. No one talks about their family and how much they miss them. All they know is life at school and becoming a Pretty. Is this the work of a government gone wild? Is it the result of an effort to perfect mankind? Perhaps we'll learn more in the sequels.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
Regan Books/Harper Collins, Copyright © 1995
$16.00, 406 pages
Age Group: 15 up

I'm one of the few. Not the brave but the few who doesn't like Wicked. How could this be so, you ask, when a successful Broadway musical has been based upon a book for which millions of copies have sold? The book is so well loved that 1,159 people have taken the time to write, sometimes ponderous, reviews of the book at Amazon.com. I scanned these and could only find a handful of negative reviews. All I can offer in defense is a bumper sticker I saw while driving across Wyoming. It said, "Eat prairie dog, one millions coyotes can't be wrong." Therefore, if millions of readers say the book is good, then it must be. Patooie!

I found this book to be an implausible prequel to the Wizard of Oz. From an improbable childhood to her college days, I found the development of Elphaba to be ridiculous. And how the good which Glinda could be made into a typical airhead is sacrilegious. Elphaba's history is just one poorly contrived series of events. If you can accept that she is a political activist who wants to save the world from the tyrant Oz, then one has no choice but to accept Elphaba. One almost feels sorry for her as her efforts as an activist are misinterpreted and she gains the misnomer, the Wicked Witch of the West.

There was no logical conclusion for me. If the book were food, I was just as ravished in the end as I had been at the beginning. Rather, I suspect Elphaba's sitting somewhere in an asylum for the criminally insane. The other characters are no more than cardboard stand-ups who later become the Wizard of OZ, Glinda the Good Witch, etc. I also question the appropriateness of Wicked as it contains four-letter expletives and explicit sexual content.

To me the plot is like a giant ball of taffy that has been stretched to its limits. I was required to suspend my disbelief too many times to accept what I was reading. Consider Peter and the Starcatchers, which perfectly sets up all the main characters, even the Crocodile, for the play that we all love so much. Wicked fails to do that. Besides, Elphaba is much too tall to be a Munchkinlander. Furthermore, I cannot accept the development of unlikely characters to become the players in Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz. I have no taste for prairie dog and will feast elsewhere. I may never read another Gregory Maguire book.

The Wizard, the Witch and Two Girls From Jersey by Lisa Papademetriou
Razorbill/Penguin Group, Copyright © 2006
$8.99, 288 pages
Age Group: 12 up

In the tradition of National Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, William Goldman's The Princess Bride and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure comes a fantasy novel that equals them all. The Wizard, the Witch & Two Girls from Jersey (Two Girls) has all the elements of a good fantasy novel and all the fun of a roller-coaster-ride.

Our main players, Veronica and Heather, are two very different girls. Veronica comes from a very close family. She studies hard, keeps to herself and wears jeans and t-shirts. Heather comes from a family which hardly notices her. She is all about makeup and clothes - looking right is everything to Heather. These two very different girls find themselves magically transported into a fantasy novel through the malfunction of a bookstore price scanner.

Two Girls takes place in a novel entitled Queen of Twilight (the book seems so real I even looked for it at Amazon.com). Our girls are in the same English class and both have put off the book assignment to the last minute. The only difference is that Veronica has read this book eight times and Heather has never read it at all. In fact, Veronica is a girl after my own heart. She reads all the time. Heather never reads. Veronica can't find her copy and the two girls find themselves in the same bookstore struggling over the last copy of Queen of Twilight. While they struggle for the book, the barcode scanner flares and our two girls from Jersey find themselves strangers in a strange land. What was carpet is now moss and there is a strange cast to the light. It appears to be Twilight everywhere.

Thus begins Veronica and Heather's journey within the novel. It takes Heather much longer to accept that they are indeed in another world, but eventually the two girls begin to work as a team. Nevertheless, the very first thing Heather does is accidentally cause the death of the true princess Arabelle. Later Heather is assumed to be Princess Arabelle, or the One, by the Wizard Strathorn. As Heather matures she begins to stop denying she is Princess Arabelle and takes on her destiny with Veronica's steady hand nearby. Together, with the help of a Kiblar Elf (you know, the elves famous for their cookies), they fight side-by-side through to the end of the book. Indeed, the three become dear friends by that time.

I know I said that I'd never had as much fun as reading Singing the Dogstar Blues but I was wrong. Two Girls is more than just a parody of epic fantasies; it is itself a decent fantasy novel. I chuckled all the way through as the author poked fun at The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (to name a few). I was also glued to the story because it had believable characters and a gripping plot. Papademetriou has shown us that parody can make a serious statement about topics such as growing up and embracing adult responsibility.

The author must be given extra credit for creating a new breed of enemy - the Ookie. Ookies are repulsive, little, green men who seem to look like Golum. Then there are the Kiblar elves, never before seen in a fantasy novel. And there is the chapter where Redwood meets Macbeth. Not only do the trees take part in the final battle, but so do the shrubs, moss, squirrels, moles, etc. Every living thing makes an attack on the Queen's stronghold. I suppose the moles have the best success, as they are able to cause castle walls to tumble down.

Probably the least memorable character is the squirrel Chattergee. He does indeed chatter a great deal about his heroic traits and in the face of battle runs and hides. He is a constant nuisance and is meant to be the traditional sidekick. Be that as it may, it is Chattergee who calls all the forest to fight in the battle against the Queen of Twilight.

There is so much more to this novel and I'm already afraid I given away too much of the story. I would place this novel very high on my favorites list. It ends with an excellent twist of fate. Not everyone rides off into the sunset and not everyone goes home. I recommend this book without reservation to anyone 12 and up.

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