The Battle for Skandia

In book four of the Ranger’s Apprentice series.  Will and Evalyn have escaped thanks to Erak’s help, but have gone from the frying pan into the fire.  The Tamujai are moving into the area.  This is Jon Flanagan’s interpretation of the Huns.  I don’t know that the Huns every tried to invade a Scandinavian country, but it’s an interesting story Mr. Flanagan tells with the Tamujai  trying to invade Skandia to take over their ships. At the same time, I wonder if this move signals a leave from the fantasy world to historical fiction.

I had a love hate relationship with this book. While I was enjoying the world of Skandia, it became clear that the world of “Ranger’s Apprentice” is a Europe-esque world.skandia Celtica, Gallica, Teutland, and Skandia are reiterations of Wales, France, Germany, and Scandinavia, respectively. While this doesn’t bother me in theory, in practice it means that this world isn’t so different from our own and the element of “fantasy” seems to loose its power. If I’m going to read historical fiction, I want to read historical fiction, not just a fantastical version of it.  I’m just curious enough to see where Mr. Flanagan is going with book five.

The fact that some of these countries and people are based on actual peoples and cultures, it became uncomfortable. It seems to play into some stereotypes which flatten the characters and plays off our own conceptions of the cultures and societies associated with these “fantasy” countries in the series. The end of the book recovered some of the esthetic that first drew me to the book, but a lot of the characters are starting to feel flat to me. I’m looking forward to seeing how Mr. Flanagan can reinvigorate them.

The Icebound Land

The third installment of Jon Flanagan’s The Ranger’s Apprentice series, The Icebound Land continues the story of Evelyn and Will’s journey to Skandia. Along the way, they are forced to hunker down on an island outpost with their Skandian captors.  While they are treated fairly well, they know that they face life as a slave unless someone comes to rescue them.  Of course, this being a coming-of-age story, there is someone who is coming to rescue them.  Halt and Horace are fighting their way through Gallica.  Apparently this country is overrun with war lords and this becomes their obstacle to reaching Skandia sooner.

This is definitely a middle book. It starts exactly where the last one left off and there’s absolutely no resolution to anything. It reminds me a lot of Saga of Fire and Ice.  The story feels like it’s splintering into several different related, but separate plot points.  iceboundI’m starting to think the author writes the books in pairs, keeping the overall storyline in mind for the series. The story is engrossing, but there’s definitely a sense that there’s no rush to develop anything or bring anything to a close. That was a let down. I don’t like feeling like what I’m reading doesn’t have a purpose towards drawing the characters into fetcher conflict, development, or the conclusion of the story. The one bright side of this book was the fact that Evelyn takes charge while Will is in his drug stupor. She shows that women are courageous, resourceful, brave, and ingenious without acting like men. She keeps her own identity without sacrificing who she is for any of the male characters. It’s a good lesson for the obvious young male audience for this series.

Nada

One of my reading goals for this year is to read one book written in Spanish by an Iberian-American author, for every book I read in English.  I’ve been pretty bad at keeping up with reading in Spanish and I figure why not start something new?  So where to start?  I decided to start with a list of award winners from several of Spain’s publishing firms.  I figure why not start with the best?  Well due to the limitations of my library system, the newest winners aren’t available, yet they had the winner from the 1943 Nadal Prize, Nada by Carmen Laforet.  Go figure.

NadaThose of you familiar with the plays of Tennessee Williams know that the families that are displayed in his works are CRAZY!  They are close-knit, have love-hate relationships with one another, are abusive, and cling to the idea they are better bred than they really are.  Well Laforet seems to be the Spanish equivalent.  The protagonist, Andrea, is an orphan and has been living in/being schooled at a convent in central Spain.  She wins a scholarship to the university in Barcelona, along with a stipend, and decides to move to the city and stay with her mother’s family.  She remembers the family having some wealth.  Yet when she arrives, she finds things sunk into poverty and all out Cops-material chaos.

Her grandmother is in all out denial that she’s wealthy and hey-stella-oall her children are successful.  Her uncle, Roman, was a successful musician but who’s happy to play with everyone’s minds and basically give Lokhi a run for his money.  The next uncle, Juan, is abusive to his wife and seems to only know how to shout and swear whenever he’s spoken to.  Juan’s wife, Gloria, tries to hold every one together, mostly for her own purposes, but with good intentions.  Then there’s the creepy, spinster aunt, Angustias, who plays the martyr even while she’s taking out her frustrations out on Andrea.  In fact, Angustias decides the only to escape is to join a convent.  Sounds like a good plan to me.

Ultimately Andrea has to come to terms that her dreams of living in somewhat wealth and a cosmopolitan setting are not going to come true.  And she’s starting to learn that her poverty excludes her from the friends she can make.  It’s hard to watch but she’s a fighter and it doesn’t get to saccharine.  She does make a friend with Ena, somewhat wealthy, but who doesn’t care about wealth.  Ena is Andrea’s lifeline.  Her family is normal, as normal as families can be, and Andrea finally establishes a place where she feels she can grow and be nurtured.

There’s more that connects Andrea and Ena, but that would be revealing major plot points.   What I will say is that, just like with Williams’ works, while it’s crazy and your mind is screaming to get away from the chaos, Laforet makes you feel for Andrea and even for some of the secondary characters.  Somehow it’s a world we don’t want to leave even while we know we can’t stay.  And maybe that’s where the brilliance is, because isn’t that what Williams’ and Laforet’s characters are trying to do?  Maintain their families and yet find a place that is healthy for them.  And really, when it comes down to it, depending on the level of crazies in your family, don’t we all struggle with that as we transition to adults? We want to be our own person and yet we still love and care for those at home.  Who knew becoming an adult was going to be such an ordeal!

Jasper Jones

Interestingly, Jasper Jones is the first book by an Australian author that I have read.  The funny part is, I had no idea Craig Silvey was from Australia.  As I cracked the book open, I noticed that some of the words  were odd.  And the dialect of the characters didn’t look phonetically like anything from the U.S.  So finding out he was Australian made a lot of sense.  Once I established the language bit, I appreciated the story and the setting.  The only exception was his description of the cricket games.  I have no idea what a tackler, bowler, wicket, and crease all have to do with cricket.  But I guess that’s what many countries think about American football.

Back to the book, Silvey drafts a story that is universal; it’s set in Australia but relatable to all of us.  Jasper Jones is the outcast of the small, rural town.  It’s not by choice but by situation.  His mother died when he was an infant and his father is a drunk.  Being beaten at home and having to scrounge his food makes him a pariah of the community.  When he finds himself in trouble, he turns to Charles (Charlie to his friends), who is the egghead of the high school.  Charlie has his own drama with a reserved father and an aggressive mother who wishes she were living somewhere else.

Together, the two of them attempt to figure the trouble they encounter and, while making teenage mistakes along the way, they learn that they need each other and the help of others who are involved in the ordeal.  Really it boils down to the idea that no man is an island.  And while Jasper’s and Charlie’s destinies aren’t on the same path, they learn a lot about life and friendship over their intense summer.

Silvey does aJasper Jonesn incredible job developing his characters and brilliantly painting the small town life.  He has a way of drawing me in and showing me rather than telling me what life is like.  I feel more like I’m watching a movie rather than reading.  My one critique is that I wish he would have been more clear on his ending and wrapped up some of the other plot points.  He touches on the racism towards Vietnamese Australians during the Vietnam, but doesn’t really flesh it out.  Granted, it is a sub plot, but I like depth rather than breadth when it comes to plot.  And I feel like there’s more to the story than we are shown, but maybe that’s what will get me to reread the book some day.

All in all is a great, universal story about love, loss, and growing up that extends to all of us from the Land Down Under.