Mar. 5th, 2015

rockinlibrarian: (librarians)
Well, after a day and a half or two do you have any idea how long it took me to finally finish typing this up?!?!-- well, I STARTED typing after a day or two of severe stomach issues, when I finally felt comfortable enough to sit at my computer long enough to type,* which is about time, because my brain was all like "I need to type up these reviews! I can't start the next book until I type these up!" Which is kind of amazing when you know how much trouble I've had SITTING DOWN TO RELAX WITH A BOOK over the past 5 years. I think the key factor in this is Diana Wynne Jones. Because if anybody can capture my attention, she can. And it so happens to be #DWJMarch again over with Kristen M, so I said, "Okay, going to finally read Islands of Chaldea, then," which turns out to be an Official Read-along book, and then I ILL'd another of the official read-alouds, The Spellcoats, which I actually turned out to have won my own copy of yesterday. But meanwhile the ILL copy is here, and I've been sick, and reading is such a nice thing to do when you can't sit up. But I didn't want to confuse myself with having too many different DWJ stories floating in my head at once before I wrote out a response!

So first I'll discuss Islands of Chaldea so that all you folks only interested in #dwjmarch can cut out on me right after, but then there's a couple other stories (both paper and film) I've wanted to respond to on here, too, so I'll get to those after.

The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones

This is the book she was working on when she died, leaving it unfinished; and, according to her sister's afterword, everyone sat around like "BUT WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? HOW WILL WE EVER KNOW WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?" until they finally decided they'd have to write the end themselves. So the task went to her sister Ursula, who did a decent job, and you can't pinpoint exactly where she picked the story up. But to be honest? There IS a subtle difference between the first part of the book and the last. The characters and settings and details are just so much more VIVID earlier on. No offense to Ursula Jones, because the last part of the book was perfectly fine, even good, but who CAN compare to her sister Diana when it comes to making a story spring vividly to life?

It's a pretty basic fantasy-adventure, made special thanks to DWJ's way with details. Our herione, Aileen, is a Wise Woman in training who thinks she failed her initiation, but before she can worry too much about that, she's swept up on a quest to rescue a kidnapped prince from beyond a magical barrier, which can only be breached with the help of a few special folks from each island of Chaldea. But the characters jump out at you with only a few words of introduction, and their adventures are never straightforward.

The titular islands are basically your typical quasi-medieval British Isles, except perhaps more so: Skarr, the heroine's home island, is clearly this world's Scotland, and the next stop on this island-hopping adventure, Bernica, clearly stands in for Ireland. But I'm not sure about the final two islands, not knowing enough about Wales I suppose to tell if: a) the third island, Gallis, is meant to represent Wales, while the final, magically-barriered island Logra is England; or if b) Gallis is meant to represent Wales AND England while Logra is, say France (because sometimes it seems like Chaldea refers only to the first three islands and Logra is something separate, besides the fact that there's literally a magical barrier separating it from the others); or if c) Gallis is where Ursula picked up the story and she decided to veer away from the overt British Isles parallels entirely.

Actually, I'm pretty sure Ursula DOES pick up the story somewhere in Gallis. That's about when the details and new characters stop feeling QUITE as vivid as they did on the first two islands. Also I somehow feel like Diana would have thrown a lot more complications at her characters before the end!

But I didn't actually notice the break while reading, I just kept enjoying it to the end. The ending DID feel a little rushed and haphazard, but that's a pretty common fault I find with DWJ's books (as much as I can find faults!) so it's only fitting.** But I'm overcome with wondering where the story would really have gone, had Diana finished it. As I said, I'm SURE there would have been more complications. And who can imagine how SHE intended the characters to breach the barrier. Or what secret conspiracies were really in place. Or what if this is yet another of her stories that involve parallel universes and Gallis DOES parallel Wales and in fact they were going to meet Howl and Sophie in Gallis because only their magic/world-hopping knowledge could take down the barrier?!?!?! But WE CAN'T KNOW, SO WE'RE JUST GOING TO HAVE TO LIVE WITH IT.

And that's really all I have to say about that one. I recommend it for any light-hearted high fantasy lover, and certainly any DWJ fan. It's not her most memorable work, but definitely is a pleasant, fun read. As long as you don't get too hung up grieving over how you'll never know what was REALLY supposed to happen.

So now it's time to discuss a completely different, but excellent, middle grade book:

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander

Remember how I said, in my Youth Media Awards*** roundup, that I COULD probably read the Newbery winners I hadn't read (I mean, THIS year's, not ALL of them) in no time flat? That was totally true, because I read The Crossover at work, in bits and pieces, picking it up here and there and only putting it down when I realized I had other things I was SUPPOSED to be working on. Because it was easy to get sucked into, and that might be what's so brilliant about it.

And I feel like talking about this book BECAUSE the brilliance may appear deceptive, at first glance. You have a narrator with a very strong voice, and that voice is a 13-year-old boy who likes to rap and is obsessed with basketball (granted, he's very GOOD at basketball, too). It doesn't SOUND like a stodgy and-incidentally-white academic's definition of "distinguished." But to be prejudiced by that is like believing an easy reader must be equally easy to WRITE (SPOILERS: IT ISN'T). First, it HAS a strong voice-- a strong, consistent voice. You believe this is Josh's story, that this is how Josh tells his story, that he thinks in poetry and basketball terminology. And yes, it's written in verse, which just highlights how carefully each bit of character development and each bit of foreshadowing is woven in-- a lot is said in just a few perfect words. And it grabs you emotionally before you even realize it, and you're aching with Josh as he and his twin brother are growing apart and their dad's health is taking a downturn, and you forget that, at the beginning, this SEEMED to be just a book about a kid who loves basketball.

I have absolutely no interest in basketball, but this book still grabbed me. But what really tickles me is the thought that a sports-lover who's a reluctant reader WILL want to pick up this book, and WILL get sucked in, and before they know it they'll have EXPERIENCED LITERATURE. HAH! And I'm really glad to see that trick recognized with an award for distinguished writing, because that's an important and underappreciated trick-- to be able to write so reluctant readers can get lost in the story. AND heavily-experienced readers can appreciate it just as much? That's a super-distinguished book, thanks. Big kudos, Mr. Alexander!

Moving on to Television, let's talk Agent Carter:

Announcing my favorite TV of 2015 already! Like I did with Fargo last year, I've saved this announcement until it's all over so you can (if you've missed it) go marathon the whole thing! Or I saved it until the end because I didn't realize exactly how badly I wanted to gush about it until it was over. Honestly, I prefer the miniseries format of storytelling-- or the BBC short-season (series) format for returning series, you know, like Sherlock. You can get the intensity, the solid arc-building, and the general quality of a movie with MORE TIME TO GET INTO IT ALL. And then you've got a complete whole there that you CAN marathon, as opposed to the average TV show which goes on and on indefinitely unless it gets cancelled, so you either are left unsatisfied because it ended with too many loose ends hanging OR it goes on and on and on and STILL doesn't feel like a complete whole. I like getting a story I can take as a whole-- but if I get another season about the same characters with a NEW story arc, I certainly won't complain.

So, while Agents of SHIELD was on winter hiatus, Marvel/ABC decided to fill the gap with an 8-episode miniseries about the woman primarily known as Captain America's Girlfriend but more PROPERLY known as one of the founders of SHIELD, Peggy Carter. Now, I love
Agents of SHIELD, and I was on edge at the end of the midseason finale, unwilling to wait two months to find out how things turned out, but now that it's back I'm kind of worried, because it just cannot live up to the complete awesomeness that was Agent Carter.****

This was a show that even LOOKED gorgeous. The colors, the lighting, the cinematography, the 1940s costumes and props and sets, all added up to something that felt slightly noir and yet very true to its comic book roots. It felt like a movie, which is something else you can do with a miniseries I guess, though "it felt like a movie" was my exact reaction to the first episode of The X-Files I ever saw years ago, too, so it's about something more than brevity. Anyway, you need substance to make style worth anything, and luckily Agent Carter had that, too.

The writing is funny and exciting and twisty and basically everything you could ask for in a historical espionage adventure with occasional sci-fi elements. And the character development is so smooth and well-rounded: EVERYONE is deeper than they first appear, everyone has both strengths and faults, even the most awful people sometimes inspire sympathy and the best people sometimes make you angry. Peggy herself is a fabulous heroine-- brilliant, funny, tough, yet sensitive, able to stand with (and exceed) the Men yet feminine, both a product of and ahead of her time, having epiphanies and making mistakes, thoughtful and sometimes rash. In other words, a fully-realized character rather than a Type, heroic and human at once. And her actress, Hayley Atwell, is absolutely brilliant at conveying ALL of it. I hope they recognize her come Emmy-time and don't overlook her out of anti-comic-book snobbery-- but the miniseries category pool is relatively small, she might have a chance.

And then when you TAKE a bunch of fully-realized characters, played well, and throw them together, you get brilliant chemistry, too. The chemistry is electric, complex, and refreshingly almost entirely not romantic (and the very small hints of romance are ENTIRELY complicated by the plot to the point that the farthest it ever gets is a turned-down asking-out-for-drinks at the very end-- but to be honest, I still ship it). See, Peggy's last boyfriend's airplane just went down in the ocean not too long ago, so she's not INTERESTED in romance at this point in time-- so it doesn't have to get in the way of the story! And for future reference-- you know I just possibly confusingly said "I still ship it" in the last parenthesis?-- yes, I totally ship Peggy with Agent Sousa, her cute sweet smart noble amputee-vet coworker with a crush on her, but SHOULD they ever get together, the romance shouldn't dominate then, either-- it shouldn't be one of those things where the couple is constantly BANTERING and having PASSION. Sousa's more of a steady rock type. Peggy gets to BANTER with everyone ELSE. Like her partner in crime/or anti-crime/or whatever, Jarvis, Howard Stark's loyal butler, who is happily married-- their totally-platonic chemistry is an absolute delight. I know, when characters have delightful chemistry, people want to ship them, and Jarvis is awesome and adorable and I go back and forth on whether I have more of a crush on him or Sousa*****, but in this case I cannot see anything other than a beautiful bantery friendship and it's so REFRESHING that way! And then you get Peggy and HOWARD, who is in fact a deplorable womanizer, but she won't stand for that and he respects her too much to resent her not standing for that, so you even have this wonderful bantery yet-totally-platonic friendship with a guy who tends to be anything BUT platonic. With all this platonic female-male interaction it's almost no wonder that a lot of people DO ship Peggy with her best girl friend, Angie, to which I say, hah, go nuts you crazy kids, but to me that's just yet another refreshingly platonic relationship. Angie serves as Peggy's link to "normal" life. She's a grounding character.

Anyway, people are all freaking out that the ratings weren't good enough to be renewed, but I don't really understand this. First, I don't really get how it could possibly have worse ratings than Agents of SHIELD, because I don't understand why everyone who watched that wouldn't also watch this, BUT Agent Carter is the sort of show that could attract people who not only gave up on AoS, but also people who normally don't have any interest in comic-book properties, because there's something just more mainstream about historical spy hijinks as opposed to superhero stories. Don't ask me why that is, but it is. As is, my mom watched and loved Agent Carter and the rest of the Marvel Universe loses her. Apparently the actual numbers don't support my theory, but I think I SHOULD be right. Never mind, my next theory IS evidence-based: Marvel and ABC are BOTH Disney companies, so it's all internal maneuvering, not some plucky outside talent begging the network to give them another chance. If they want to make more, they'll BROADCAST more. Agents of SHIELD keeps getting renewed even when ratings say it shouldn't. Thirdly, it's a SELF-CONTAINED MINISERIES. It's not like a show that can get CANCELLED or RENEWED. They can just make ANOTHER miniseries at any other time and show it again, whether during next year's AoS break or a few years down the line, like a BBC show. And sure, great ratings would make the network more LIKELY to buy another miniseries, but so will a devoted fan base, a lot of after-the-fact streaming or DVD buying, or future Marvel movie tie-in opportunities. Which I think this show is very likely to get if it doesn't have it already. There are so many individual opportunities for self-contained stories about the early days of SHIELD, and I will be thrilled to see Agent Carter tackle them at whatever schedule of recurring mini-series it's able to pull off. AND IT WILL.

SO I think it's about time I posted this, considering I've finally managed to type it. Seek these recommendations out! Enjoy them! Tell me about them in the comments! (Have I mentioned lately that I really like comments? I do. They let me know you're listening. Don't be shy!)

-----
A Large Mass of Footnotes:

*A story of fun times with stomach viruses! I wake up Sunday morning with a sharp pain in my abdomen, and moments later the boy bursts in to announce that his sister has thrown up FIVE TIMES all over his room-- including a rather impressive projectile-spraying of four feet of doorjamb. By the time I get that cleaned up, I'm feeling sick, too, but is it merely sympathetic or am I likewise contaminated? Clearly, it is the latter. Anyway, I finally feel like sitting upright long enough to start typing this monday evening, a time I normally should be at work, but that's not happening. Tuesday on the other hand, I and everyone else feels okay enough for work/school/whatever, which means I don't have all that much time for typing. Wednesday morning at 3 AM the boy joins the throwing up party. But that morning his sister is acting funny, too: "My HEART HURTS, Mommy, it's beating too fast, and my legs don't work," and she's drowsy and falling asleep where she sits. Aware that she did NOT take in enough fluids during her illness, I suspect dehydration and call the doctor, who-- well, the triage nurse-- suspects the same and says YOU MUST GO TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM IMMEDIATELY, so I bundle up two sicky kids, including one who is still clutching the throw-up-bucket to his chest, and off we go. But by the time we get there, the girl has perked up, and her brother looks like death, so I take them up to the check in desk and point to the one that's bouncing around and say "Believe it or not, we're here for that one," and she explains to the emergency room doctor that she DID feel sick this morning but now just her knee hurts, while meanwhile her brother is nearly passed out on my lap. The doctor grins and says it probably WAS a little bit of dehydration but not enough to worry about now, so let's get the BOY home and everyone get plenty of fluids. She also writes a prescription for an anti-nausea med, technically in Maddie's name because she's the patient, but she (the doctor) says, "it's actually for HIM-- or anyone else in the family who comes down with it." By the time we're done it's too late for Maddie to go to school, so they're both home the rest of the day, and Sam goes to bed early with a mild fever. I figure he won't go to school today, too. But then school gets cancelled anyway. So here we are.

**SPOILERS: My only real disappointment with the ending is that Aileen's reunion with her father seemed completely glossed over. You'd think it would have a LITTLE more affect on, if not the plot, at least the character development, but besides the initial embarrassed recognition, he could have been any other rescued kidnappee.

***Random thing I just noticed today: YMA is my name backwards. ALL THE MORE REASON TO LOVE THEM.

****Having seen the new AoS since I started typing this, I'm pleased to report that I can enjoy it just fine after all, thanks. Agent Carter is in another league entirely, sure, but that doesn't make AoS NOT fun as its own thing. And I love Fitz so much, so there.

*****It's funny, one of accusations lobbied against "Fake Geek Girls" is they only know Marvel characters from the movies and they only LOVE the movies because they have crushes on the guys in them, but for all the Tumblrs devoted to Tony Stark and Thor and Loki and Captain America, Agent Carter is probably the FIRST Marvel show where I'VE crushed on anybody (except maybe a little bit on Cap because he's so noble-- Peggy and I share taste; and possibly James McAvoy as young Charles Xavier, if you count all Marvel CHARACTERS even if it's not technically Marvel MOVIES, and that's basically just because James McAvoy is a beautiful, beautiful man anyway), and it's given me TWO somebodies to crush on. Heh. BUT, yes, I do admit that I am a huge fan of Marvel movies, but I don't know squat about the comics. But this is only because I don't really like long-form panel-based reading, not because I'm not truly interested! I've actually always fallen on the Marvel end of the Marvel-vs-DC argument, mostly because I DID follow the Spider-man comic in the NEWSPAPER, oh, and I watched the Spider-man cartoon too that Stan Lee always introduced in voiceover, which absolutely fascinated me (who WAS this Stan Lee guy? Wait, he INVENTED Spider-man? And he's talking on the CARTOON? COOL!), so Spider-man was always my favorite superhero, and I watched other Marvel cartoons too. Then again, I also watched Batman, but still, I liked the Marvel characters more. I always found them more nuanced and interesting.

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