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Archive for October, 2017

Goosebumps

This series has been around for decades now, in and out of publication, on the tv screen, and even in a movie or two.  The books are great fun for kids, if a little slow and predictable for adults.  They’re sort of hit and miss in the entertainment department, though.  Some of them are genuinely horrific, some are real thrillers, some are adventurous fun, and some are really boring.  The sequels in particular tend to be rehashes with nothing new to add.  But even some of the original stories are dull.  The twist endings, like the Twilight Zone tv series, are where these books shine, but even those are sometimes unimaginative and can become boring.  Read too many in a row, and you’ll easily predict what’s coming next.  Character development is largely missing, as well.  The protagonists and their friends and siblings tend to rise from the same stock.  They’re mostly there just to propel the plot forward, which works well enough as long as you’re not expecting more.  The writing itself isn’t unique, original, or stylistic, and sometimes you can really see where the author, RL Stine, was phoning it in.  Go into one or two of these books with the expectation of basic fun and a few groans and chuckles, and you won’t be disappointed.  But if you think there’s much more than that, you’ll be bored in no time.

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Tolkien

Listing all the titles that come under JRR Tolkien would be nearly impossible.  A lot of the books published under his name are just collections of writings that he never finished polishing.  But if you’re interesting in seeing the authorial process or just want to know more of the history of Middle Earth, I still recommend them.  Tolkien almost single-handedly collected the bits of folklore and myth that had been floating around the British Isles and northwestern Europe for centuries and melded them into an amazingly complex and fascinating history.  If you need constant action or can’t stand historical sideboards, these aren’t the books for you.  There are other issues, as well, such as the lack of good, or even prominent, female characters.  But every detail was planned in advance in a way that makes it all feel so real.  Stories that take place before the main plots of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings connect to them in an easy manner.  Reading them will add to your appreciation of the main books without feeling like a burden.  The Hobbit feels more like a kids book, and thus, there are a few inconsistencies between it and LOTR.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not for kids and is much more serious and packed full of details about the history of both the characters and their homeland.  They feel like two different animals but are both worth the read, no matter what else you delve into.  The Silmarillion is more history, probably more than most people would care to pick up.  It also has a more Biblical feel to it, both in the style of prose and the tone of the stories.  If you want to know more about the history of Middle Earth without getting into the drier bits, pick up one of the books put out by Tolkien’s son after he polished some of the smaller stories.  I recommend the Children of Hurin, and Beren and Luthien.  Unfinished Tales will tell you more about these stories and others but is more removed from the tone of the main books.  A Tolkien Miscellany includes stories that are completely unrelated to Middle Earth entirely, but they give you a good sense of Tolkien’s style.  The Book of Lost Tales collections, part of the long-winded history collection, will go into even more detail about where his ideas came from and how they evolved, but most casual readers will be flummoxed by the constant jumping around between different versions of different stories.  If you want to see how he would have eventually connected his own fantasy stories to real-life history, though, those are an excellent place to start.  Tolkien is not for everyone, with the possible exception of the Hobbit, but he did establish most of the modern fantasy tropes that we’re so familiar with now.  And he was a brilliant historian, mythologist, and linguist, all of which shows in his writing.

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Harry Potter

Not much to say here.  If you haven’t read them yet, you probably won’t.  Excellently written, expertly planned, thrillingly executed, I can’t praise them enough.  My main complaints would be about certain characters getting killed, but that’s more of a personal issue.  Some might say that the writing isn’t literary enough or unique enough.  I would argue that that doesn’t mean it’s no good.  JK Rowling is an amazing storyteller, and that’s the most important quality in a book.  The series follows a boy who learns that he’s a wizard and must enter the wizarding world and discover his heritage and skills.  There are lots of stolen bits of mythology and magical history everywhere you look, but that only enhances the plot and makes it all feel more real.  The characters are sympathetic and well presented, no matter their age, race, or gender.  Paying attention to details pays off for the reader, and there always seems to be something new to add to your mental encyclopedia of the world.  Each book gets progressively darker and more grown-up, much like the main characters, maturing and getting older along with the reader.  By the end, we’re dealing with death and war and doing what’s right, heavy themes for a series that starts out with magical pranks and a glorious new world.  Lessons are learned in a realistic, not too obvious manner, and in the end, it’s more about friendship than magic.  If you think you’re too old for these books, think again.  I read them in my twenties, and they’re still among the best things ever written in my opinion.  There are extra books that delve deeper into the universe’s details, but they aren’t substantial enough to interest a casual reader.  If you fall in love with the story’s background and history, though, you can read more about magical creatures, fairy tales, and wizarding sports in these short extra books.

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Chronicles of Prydain/Foundling

This series of books by Lloyd Alexander (five in the original group, plus a collection of short stories as prequels) are definitely children’s fare.  I went into them wanting to like them because I was a fan of the Disney movie Black Cauldron and had been told that the books were way better.  I could not disagree more.  Usually books are better than movies, and usually Disney Disney-fies everything they touch.  This is an exception.  The movie is creepy, and its story is clear and fantastical.  The books wander too much, have long stretches of uninteresting fairy tale dressing, and a lot of it was obviously cribbed from Tolkien.  Part of my complaint may simply be that I was expecting more focus on the entire group of characters introduced in the movie and the first book, but they turned out to be little more than window dressing.  Also, I was expecting tales of a magical fantasy land and instead got an allegory about how humans are better off without magic.  Taran is the least interesting character in the series, but he’s the protagonist and main focus.  Eilonwy is unique for a female character in a medieval fantasy, but she becomes little more than a plot point, there to be kidnapped and rescued.  Even when she has moments to shine, they are overshadowed by her getting treated like a piece of baggage and having to manipulate the men around her in order to do what she wants.  We learn next to nothing about Fflewddur and less than that about Gurgi.  The fourth book is a plodding tale of Taran’s wanderings about the country, learning lessons that he could have learned by paying attention and not being insanely stubborn.  The third book takes place in Eilonwy’s home country, but she’s gone for most of it because of the aforementioned kidnapping.  There were interesting parts in the first couple of books, but the elimination of the Horned King was deeply disappointing and anticlimactic.  As for the bits of LOTR that I saw everywhere, they were sprinkled throughout the books, mostly in ambient atmosphere form at first.  But it all became really obvious at the end.  Magic ships waiting in a western harbor to take the revered warriors (who arrived in Prydain centuries ago) back to their eternal, magical island that no one else can go to.  A massive battle at the human’s final stronghold against overwhelming, inhuman foes.  An army sent to distract the enemy long enough for a smaller group to sneak into the bad guy’s lands.  A long journey to the land of death that involves crossing mountains and black, infertile terrain.  A Gollum-like character who does nothing but whine about being ill-used and hint at the possibility that he might betray them at some point.  A complete lack of prominent female characters outside of one or two, and they fade into the background when it’s convenient.  Magic leaving the land of men because it’s better to do things the hard way, and the time of magic has come to an end.  The big bad guy being mostly rather incorporeal and unimportant to the plot.  Most of the heroes leaving for the eternal lands on the magic ships at the very end, including the Gandalf stand-in.  Even Taran is given this option but in a rare twist chooses not to go.  Even though he’s been mooning over Eilonwy for most of the story, and she’s required to leave Prydain because of her magical heritage, he decides that it’s important to stay behind and plant turnips.  Then, he gets a ridiculous reveal about his decision being foretold, and now he’s the High King.  She gives up her magic to stay with him, and everybody else leaves so that Prydain can become Wales or something to that effect.  I loved the bits of genuine Welsh mythology that were woven into the story, but the plot itself was heavily derivative and generally disappointing.  It all felt like an extended fairy tale with allegories and lessons to be learned but without any of the gravity of LOTR.  If you’re a kid, you’re going to enjoy this a lot more than if you’re an adult.  The Foundling book has a number of short stories that take place earlier in the world’s chronology.  They are even more like children’s fairy tales and add little to the universe itself.  A couple of them are just extended versions of flashbacks and background stories that were in the main books.  Cute but nothing special.  The whole thing is like an interesting footnote in literary history but not nearly as good as some of its fans claim.

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Old Mary-Kate and Ashely Olson movies are still good fare for kids, but a few of them are actually worth watching if you’re an adult too.  This is one of the more entertaining ones.  The acting is typical kids stuff, except for the girls’ parents and Cloris Leachman as the evil witch, all three of them excellent.  The fun little story involves Halloween silliness and rescuing the witch’s good twin sister from an enchanted mirror.  There are goofy gags and a really basic plot, but it’s all good holiday fun.  If you’re impatient with simple stories and silly characters, this might not be for you, but it can easily grow on you if you look past the minor plotholes.

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Witch’s Night Out

This old and not well known cartoon is a hidden gem.  It’s cute and fun, with plenty of entertainment value for both kids and adults.  The animation is simplistic, but the watercolor-style backgrounds are amazing.  The voice acting is excellent, led by the awesome Gilda Radner.  The story is simple, but there’s plenty of obvious subtext to give you a chuckle.  Parts of it feel like a metaphorical parable, but it’s not too heavy-handed, and the lesson in the end is just to have fun and enjoy Halloween.  The theme song is toe-tapping and catchy, as well.  It’s a shame this one isn’t more popular and well known.

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Based on a children’s book, these cartoons are funnier and more entertaining than you might guess.  The animation is a little off-putting at first, being rather stiff and plastic-looking.  But once you get used to that, it’s quite amusing.  The writing and dialogue are snappy and humorous, and the characters are funny and unique.  It’s a cute, if not entirely original, Halloween tale about a girl meeting a real witch and her monster friends.  The sequel has the girl’s cousin exacting revenge for the scare he got the previous year, but it’s just as much fun.  There are enough clever jokes to keep you laughing, and the voice acting is good enough to keep you from rolling your eyes.  You’ll be humming the theme music long after it’s over, and it’s not so frightening that it might scare the youngest viewers too badly.  It’s all great Halloween fun and could be considered a modern classic.

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