J’s Take on Dragon Keeper by Carole Wilkinson

Dragon Keeper Cover
At first this seemed like a typical dragon book. A orphan who’s about 10 is caring for some captive dragons. One talks to her telepathically. She escapes with him and this dragon stone. Yawn, ho-hum. It’s even set in ancient China, which is about what you’d expect once you rule out a straight fantasy world setting.

Fortunately it got more interesting than that. The dragon is more like an eccentric grandfather than say an intellectual military dragon like Temeraire or a more beast-like military dragon a la Pern or a fighting pit dragon in Jane Yolen’s awesome series. Wait, I’m sensing a fighting trend here. Well, what I mean to say is the dragon is different from some of the more popular dragons out there today (and yesterday). He can even appear to change form, which you don’t see very often.

Ping, the orphan, is okay as a character. She’s a girl, so that’s nice. She’s not dumb, but.. she’s really dumb about this one thing, and that’s the dragon stone. You all know what it is, right? As should anyone who’s ever encountered a dragon in a book before. And since there are dragons in several Harry Potter books, well, then who hasn’t? Yet she’s smart enough to figure out how to barter, though she’s never had money before or been to a market before.

There are some twists and turns and I can’t say I really knew where the story was going at any given moment. So all in all it was a fun read.

At the end is a glossary and a pronunciation guide. Glossaries I don’t mind missing, because I’d rather figure words out from context while reading. However, I would’ve liked the pronunciation guide at the front of the book. I was saying some of the names wrong in my head, and now they’ll always be wrong, because I won’t retain what I learned by reading the guide afterward. I got no practice at think-saying them right.

This book was also a nice change to the previous books, because while it was written by an Australian author, it wasn’t set in Australia. I suppose reading 12 books set in Australia or New Zealand shouldn’t really seem boring. Logically it shouldn’t. I read books set in America all the time. It wouldn’t be too surprising if I had a streak of books set in the UK going on. A lot of Triple Take books are set there. I’d read several manga set in Japan back-to-back without batting an eye. And it’s not like Triple Take books are all I read, so it wouldn’t be 12 books in a row, but.. still it does seem like it’d be monotonous. Too much novelty because I haven’t read many books set in Australia or New Zealand like.. at all, ever?

So, yea, ancient China, I can dig it. It’s a fantasy China, of course, what with the dragons and all.

Likeable characters, unpredictable story, fairly entertaining read, and as a bonus.. dragons!

Oh, and there’s also a rat. If you like that sort of thing. Rats, I mean.

Even though I probably won’t be putting it in my top ten list for books read in 2012, I’d still recommend this book without hesitation.

Ah… but this makes me sad. It would’ve been so good as a stand-alone novel. But we can’t have that these days, can we? Sadly, it’s a series. I see four books listed on her website. I’m not sure if I want to read them or not. The book was nice as it was. Then again, it could be interesting to watch Ping grow up.

Maybe I’ll see if my fellow Triple Takers are interested in reading them or not before I decide.


Little House: Laura’s Early Years (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

With the exception of Farmer Boy, the original Little House books all have Laura Ingalls as the main character. Though the books themselves follow her as a child all the way to the first years of her marriage, there’s a time jump* between the third Laura book, On the Banks of Plum Creek and the fourth, By the Shores of Silver Lake. The existence of this gap means it makes sense to me to break the series there and have a look at the first three books together.

The Plot
In Little House in the Big Woods we’re introduced to the Ingalls family – Ma, Pa and their daughters Mary, Laura and Carrie. They live in a tiny cabin in the midst of a forest that’s pretty much on the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. The family isn’t wealthy, but they’re able to live well enough off the land – both theirs and the unclaimed areas of the forest. But soon enough, Pa is beginning to feel the forest is oversettled, and the whole family moves to Indian Territory in Little House on the Prairie. Pa believes the Native American tribes will soon be forced to give up this land (as do quite a number of others) and he and the family set up a farm just inside the disputed border. When he hears a rumor that soldiers will be coming to displace the settlers, he angrily packs the family up and they depart for Minnesota, where they settle during On the Banks of Plum Creek. Relatively close to a town for the first time, Laura and Mary are finally able to attend school, while Pa once again takes a stab at building a farm.

My Thoughts
These first three Laura books cover the period when she was about age 4 until 9 or 10, and follow the Ingalls family as they live at three different locations. We begin in Wisconsin, where the family is living in a small cabin in a forested area near the town of Pepin. The cabin is tiny, and life surely wasn’t quite as rosy as the picture Wilder paints, but even if the depiction of her childhood is romanticized, it’s still engrossing in a way that’s hard to explain.

We’re introduced here to the family: Pa, Ma, older sister Mary, Laura, and baby Carrie. Pa is a bit of a jack of all trades – he farms just enough to provide food for the winter, but obviously much prefers the variety of hunting and trapping with occasional other projects to the steady monotony of farming. Ma supervises the children and the food as well as performing numerous other important tasks around the homestead. Mary and Laura assist Ma with her work and Pa as needed; as with the Wilders in Farmer Boy, gender roles are enforced to a point, but if work needs to be done, then whoever can do it will be required to help out.

Compared to the industrious Wilders in Farmer Boy, the Ingalls family is positively idle. Which is not to say they aren’t constantly working, but without a large farm to take care of, the daily tasks of taking care of the stock and the garden are much less labor intensive. Pa spends a great deal of time tramping through the woods — hunting and trapping and fishing to be sure, but also enjoying himself while doing it. Ma certainly knits and sews, but it’s not clear that she has the materials for the sort of spinning and weaving that Mrs. Wilder was able to do. Interestingly, Ma, a former schoolteacher, does not really seem to press academic lessons very hard on Mary or Laura; both girls seem to have lots of free time in which to play.

But it’s not so much the plot or even the characters which make these books so fascinating. As I mentioned in my comments on Farmer Boy, it’s the details that drive my interest. Wilder was aware she was writing about a way of living already foreign to most of her readers, who had grown up with automobiles and the A&P. She took the time to describe the process of how things worked — from the perspective of a child — and include interesting details that just captured the imagination. If someone confronted me with a roasted pig tail I would probably recoil, but reading about Laura and Mary’s delight in the treat makes me want one: it sounds absolutely delicious.

The drawback to the weight given to process detail, and the fairly episodic nature of these early books means that the characters themselves are not deeply drawn. Ma is quiet and efficient, Mary is good and ladylike, Pa is mischievous and a good provider, Carrie is a baby, and Laura is restless and naughty. Part of this is, I think, because the Ingalls children themselves are so young in these books, it would be difficult to draw a more nuanced portrait of Ma and Pa while still retaining Laura’s perspective. And part of this is because they are meant to be idealized versions of the Ingalls family. Living in a tiny shack in the woods of Wisconsin cannot have been an easy life, no matter how rosy a picture Wilder tries to paint, but to start with real hardships are pretty much glossed over: everyone is well-fed, warm, and comfortable, even if they don’t have lots of possessions.

By the time we reach Plum Creek, the girls are starting to grow older and are more aware of their own lack of wealth relative to others around them. Nellie Olson appears on the scene for the first time, providing a sharp contrast to the Ingalls household with her heaps of toys and dresses, furniture and books. Something I didn’t pick up on reading as a child, but which comes through clearly now, is Charles Ingalls’s restless and somewhat irresponsible nature. His move to Kansas may have been well-considered, but to leave in what amounted to a fit of pique was truly shocking, and his decision for the family to settle near Plum Creek was poorly researched to say the least. Surely the fact that the man he bought the land from was so eager to get out of Dodge should have given him a clue? (Hint: When the oldtimers are talking about “grasshopper weather”, ask them what they mean!) And then he falls victim to easy credit, building a house without any actual money to pay for it. I’m left with the feeling that if he were alive today, his mortgage would be underwater and he’d be up to his eyeballs in credit card debt in spite of his ideals of self-reliance.

And I can’t much speak for Caroline Ingalls either. Though she is obviously part of the decision which brings the family to Plum Creek, because of the proximity to a school for the girls, she seems in no hurry to actually send them — she keeps them home most of the first year they live there, for no good reason. As a child, I never noticed it, but it does seem odd to me that the very clever daughter of this ex-schoolteacher heads to school around age eight just barely knowing her alphabet. Especially when Mary can apparently read? I am not sure what was going on there.

But none of these were things I noticed when I read them long ago, and even seeing them now and knowing more about the real Ingalls family and how they differ from the book version doesn’t take away from the charm of these books. It’s easy to see why they’ve inspired such a fandom as they have.

*Recently, the author Cynthia Rylant has attempted to bridge the gap by writing a midquel, Old Town in the Green Groves to cover this missing period, a book I’ve not yet decided upon reading.

In Short
The first three Laura-focused books in the Little House series covers a span of five or six years in Laura’s life, during which her family moved several times to radically different locales. Wilder describes their lives in each location, dwelling on interesting incidents and pulling these anecdotes together into an idealized portrait of her early life. Though reading them as an adult allows one to pick up on undercurrents that a child probably wouldn’t notice, nothing detracts from their charm and interest. These are books I will and have read again and again.


Little House: Farmer Boy (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

The Plot
The Wilder family are prosperous farmers living in upstate New York in the middle of the 19th century. Almanzo, the youngest of the four Wilder siblings, is eager to be considered responsible enough to handle training the horses he adores. In the meantime though, there are plenty of things for a boy growing up on a working farm to learn and do. Even if that sometimes includes actually going to school.

My Thoughts
Farmer Boy opens in the winter, with the four Wilder children in the midst of the winter school term. The four are quite close in age, the eldest, Royal, being 13ish and the youngest, Almanzo, only a few weeks shy of nine. But in spite of the fact that he’s only a little bit younger than his next oldest sibling, Almanzo very much occupies the position of family baby, being indulged by his parents and bossed by the older children.

We follow Almanzo, and to a lesser extent all of the Wilders, over the course of slightly more than a year. The book strives to present in detail the various tasks (and pleasures) of a child growing up on a successful farm in New York state. To this end, though the narrative covers most of two winters, we really only see each task once, even though surely things such as timber hauling were a yearly chore. Perhaps one is meant to conclude that the first winter, Almanzo wasn’t involved due to his age (and the fact that Royal was at home to provide more competent help.)

Since Almanzo is a boy (and because the rest of the books focus so much on the tasks of women, being about Laura), Farmer Boy keeps its focus on the male sphere of farm work, with only brief glimpses now and then into the tasks which occupy the time and energy of Almanzo’s mother (and sisters). The women aren’t ignored or unacknowledged so much as their occupations just aren’t part of the list of skills that Almanzo is expected to acquire. It’s made abundantly clear that the talents of both Mr and Mrs. Wilder are essential to the smooth running of the farm and the family.

The book ends with Almanzo tacitly deciding he wants to be a farmer when he grows up, rather than a tradesman. He wins his parents’ approval as well as the chance to help train a young horse, something he’s been clamoring to do for years.

When I was younger, I was always annoyed when I came to Farmer Boy in the series. I had the box set in which Farmer Boy (in spite of being published second) was number 3. So I’d have been reading right along about Laura and her family and then, after being left at a surprising near cliffhanger at the end of book 2, I’d have to suddenly shift gears to New York and Almanzo’s well-to-do family. It really interrupted the flow of the narrative.

I still think it does, but I’ve solved the problem by reading it before the Laura books — since chronologically it would be ahead of them all, given Almanzo’s age. It’s not entirely clear if that’s still the case within the timeline of the books; the Wilders, even more than the Ingalls, have been tinkered with for the purposes of the books. Almanzo’s oldest sister is omitted entirely, perhaps due to her misfortune in also being named Laura, and the other extant siblings (his youngest brother wouldn’t have been born yet during the time period covered by Farmer Boy) have had their ages compressed quite a bit to make them closer together.

But how well the characters match up to their real life counterparts is irrelevant, since this is historical fiction, not a history. And it really is fabulous historical fiction. Now, more than 80 years after the story was originally written, we’re even further removed from the time period Laura Ingalls Wilder was trying to capture. But the level of detail she provides about the small things — the way the yoke attached to the oxen, or the way they loaded logs onto the sleds — makes it possible to imagine the scene even without much knowledge of 19th century farming.

I find Farmer Boy interesting for a number of other reasons as well. Geographically, it takes place in a part of New York I’m not super familiar with. Malone, the town nearest the Wilder farm, is very far upstate, mere miles from Quebec. It’s not stated in the text, but the presence of ‘French’ people nearby is probably the result of the non-border we shared with Canada at the time. (It wasn’t until after 1906 that anyone even bothered to start keeping track of Canadians entering the US.) Their portrayal plays to a popular stereotype of French-Canadians at the time (see: the works of L.M. Montgomery) the origins of which I don’t really know, but which interests me as someone with a significant amount of Québécois ancestry.

But even more than interesting historical sidetracks, what’s most compelling about Farmer Boy is the FOOD. It’s dangerous to read this book while hungry; the loving descriptions of the heaps of food eaten by the Wilder family make it extremely difficult to resist getting something to eat. Popcorn, cider, ice cream, ham, pancakes, potatoes, goose, gravy, sausage, maple syrup, bread, lemonade, egg nog, pies of all types: mealtime is the most frequent scene and it always leaves me desperately wanting to pig out.

In Short
Farmer Boy is unique among the Little House series: it’s the only book with a male main character. This holds true even taking into account the large extended series — the prequels and sequels authored by others. As such, though Almanzo and some of his relatives appear again in the later books, this one about his childhood is really very much stand alone. But it’s fascinating anyway — especially as the Wilders lived not too far from where some of my own ancestors were during that time period — and highlights very well the big difference between Almanzo’s early life and Laura’s.


Nancy Drew: Vampire Slayer + Bonus Hardy Boys (Stefan Petrucha et al.)

Nancy Drew Vampire Slayer Part 1 CoverThe Plot
When Nancy, Bess and George meet the pale and creepy Gregor Coffson one night in the graveyard, they might be excused for wondering if he might be a vampire. Especially when, as time goes on, the evidence continues to mount in favor of that conclusion. But Nancy Drew is not so superstitious as that, and she’s determined to figure out what’s the real secret that Gregor is hiding. In the meantime, Bess, George and Nancy’s increasingly jealous boyfriend Ned attempt to protect Nancy from the dangerous vampire threat.

My Thoughts
Several years ago, when the first Nancy Drew graphic novel arrived, I was quite excited. While the literary value of Nancy Drew has been debated, the books have always been brisk and entertaining no matter what their incarnation. (Though I’ll be upfront: if forced to choose, my preference is for the original originals, the long form versions of 1-34.) Unfortunately, the quality of the first graphic novel was poor and, disappointed, I avoided them after that. But when we discovered there was an apparent relaunch of the graphic novels with the intriguing title of Nancy Drew: Vampire Slayer it was impossible to pass up.

It seemed we were the only ones who felt that way, however, as the volumes proved extremely difficult to acquire through ILL — only one or two libraries in the state would even admit to having a copy, and in the end we weren’t able to borrow volume 2 at all. So I ended up buying them, and in the process discovered that while Vampire Slayer 1+2 provided a “complete” story there was an even more complete story comprised of five total graphic novels: the aforementioned Vampire Slayer 1-2, Hardy Boys relaunch volumes 1-2, and Nancy Drew volume 3, which was a Hardy Boys crossover and promised to tie up all of the plotlines. Immediately, my completist compulsion kicked in and I ended up with all 5 of the volumes.

First impressions were not great: the volumes themselves are disappointingly slender, with most of the money apparently gone to glossy full-color pages when it would be better spent on a longer script with black and white line drawings (because let’s face it, the crowd they’re trying to attract is fans of manga, not American comics). Nancy Drew 1 and 2 were written and illustrated by the same team responsible for the initial line of Nancy Drew graphic novels, a fact which immediately put me on alert.

Nancy Drew: Vampire Slayer opens with Nancy and her friends Bess and George on their way to a movie, all three of them in costume for the ticket discount they’ll get. George, always described as a tomboy, is nicely androgynous and ungirlified (she’s even dressed up as a teen wolf to start with) in contrast with her cousin Bess, who’s always been the girly girl of the bunch. Unfortunately, Bess’s other defining trait — her weight (by no means fat, she’s definitely not supposed to be really slender) — is not conveyed in the drawings well at all, as she appeared to me about the same size as Nancy. But then, the Sho Murase’s art overall was fairly uneven; the characters’ body shapes and faces often elongated or altered depending on the panel.

Our trio soon finds themselves being chased by a vampire, or at least a boy with fangs which are never adequately explained. But then, in a shocking twist, it turns out he’s not actually chasing them but fleeing from Nancy’s dog who we never see or hear of again. The boy’s socially-awkward and odd behavior cause Nancy’s mystery-sense to tingle, and by the time the three of them have finished watching the movie, she’s worked herself up to fever pitch.

Her fever is not relieved when the ‘vampire’ approaches the girls after the movie and introduces himself as Gregor Coffson. His secretive behavior only drives Nancy wild with curiosity and she’s soon devoting all of her time to cultivating him in the hopes he’ll spill the beans. Bess and George and Nancy’s boyfriend Ned, left pretty much completely out of the loop, are thus left to their own devices as they spin ever more ridiculous theories as to what Gregor’s secret might be.

The editing in these two volumes is truly horrid, as evidenced by the fact that no one managed to catch the fact that “Garina” is identified by name several pages before her identity was supposed to be revealed. But even a good editor couldn’t rescue a plot this lame. It reads like something I wrote in the seventh grade.

In contrast to Nancy’s inane outings, where we take two entire volumes to meander through Gregor’s amazing secrets, the two associated Hardy Boys volumes (Crawling with Zombies and Break-up!) are not completely awful. Written by Gerry Conway (famous as the killer of Gwen Stacy) and drawn by Paulo Henrique, the main weaknesses here seem to result from a lack of pages: more space would have given more time to develop character motivations which must necessarily remain very shallow. I again think the series would benefit from a more manga-esque treatment, meaning a longer B&W book instead of a short color one.

Each of the Hardy Boys volumes contains a complete adventure tied together with several underlying plot threads — the shady person or persons behind both schemes, and the growing frustration with one another that’s causing the unravelling of Joe and Frank Hardy’s relationship. Though the plots are simple, I found them better executed, and the artwork was far more consistent (and thus less distracting). Henrique’s artwork appeared to me heavily influenced by a combination of shonen manga and video games. There were several panels I felt might have come straight out of Dragonball Z or Double Dragon. My only complaint was a very weird continuity error introduced by the artwork in the volume Break-Up: Joe and Frank are knocked out and captured wearing one outfit and then when they next appear, they’re wearing something completely different. Are we supposed to believe that the kidnapper took the time to remove their clothing and redress them like a pair of Ken-dolls? If we are, that opens up a whole new can of creepy worms that’s not actually addressed anywhere by the script.

Naturally, the Hardy Boys soon discover that the only clue as to the criminal mastermind behind the rash of Bayport happenings is a phone number in River Heights. Coincidentally the home of Nancy Drew. So the boys head off to meet up with her in Nancy Drew Together With the Hardy Boys. This volume is pegged as Nancy Drew: The New Case Files #3, though I have to wonder if it’s also serving in that capacity for the Hardy Boys series. It’s not clear. The script for this volume was penned not by the Nancy Drew regulars, but by Gerry Conway, which gives it a tone far more in keeping with the Hardy Boys books than the Nancy Drews. Unfortunately, Conway is saddled with the ludicrous plot introduced in the two Vampire Slayer volumes, so after some random happenings in River Heights, everyone heads off to Romania — because, of course, Ned has fled the country in the wake of his supposed ‘breakup’ with Nancy and is now in need of rescue.

In the end, my biggest disappointment with the “New Case Files” series was perhaps the discovery that it wasn’t really new at all: even though the books are starting again at #1, they’re actually a direct continuation of the initial graphic novel lines and frequently reference previously established graphic novel canon. It’s not clear to me why the decision was made to return to #1; perhaps there was just a hope that more people will buy something labelled #1 as opposed to #21. Because this is the case, the “New Case Files” have all the same weaknesses and flaws that were inherent in the graphic novels before – no efforts have been made to improve the product – so they’re just as lousy.

It’s unfortunate, because there was a real opportunity here to reboot Nancy into the 21st century. Giving George and Bess some real skills to make them helpful to Nancy was also wise. But like the “Nancy Drew Case Files” series from the 80s, there were some missteps. For instance, in Nancy Drew Together With the Hardy Boys, Nancy loses her temper with the sniping Frank and Joe and tries to remind them how good they are together as a pair. But really, she is angsting about her breakup with Ned, and concludes by equating “Nancy and Ned” with “Frank and Joe”. Which is just patently ridiculous. Ned is and always has been a sidekick – not even the most important one – and nothing more. Mysteries come first with her, not him.

In Short
The Nancy Drew graphic novel series continues to disappoint with the latest installments, which have been labelled as “New Case Files” and marketed as #1 and #2 of a series. But actually they’re just a direct continuation of the previous graphic novel line, which favors gloss and show over actually taking the time and effort to tell a coherent and reasonable story. Take a pass and reread The Secret of the Old Clock which is infinitely better in either incarnation.


Nancy Drew: The New Case Files, Vols. 1-2

By Stefan Petrucha, Sarah Kinney, and Sho Murase | Published by Papercutz

Nancy Drew Vampire Slayer Part 1 CoverYou might wonder why I read a couple of Nancy Drew graphic novels, but when I tell you that these volumes comprise parts one and two of an arc called “Vampire Slayer,” perhaps you will understand. It was the unlikely union of Nancy Drew and Buffy—and yes, said show is specifically referenced in the endnotes—that compelled me and my compatriots at Triple Take to make this our pick for this month. I admit I didn’t expect to like this very much, but the story turned out to be even more blah than I was anticipating.

Here’s the premise: Nancy and friends Bess and George are on their way to see the hot new movie, Dielight. If they arrive in costume, they get a discount, so when they are chased by a pointy-toothed guy in the cemetery (is it supposed to be a fun twist when it’s revealed that he’s actually running from Nancy’s dog?) they assume he’s headed there, as well. He doesn’t show up for the film, but Nancy spots a mysterious-looking cloaked figure lurking alone in the back of the theatre.

Afterwards, tooth dude pops up again and introduces himself as Gregor Coffson. He is super intrigued by the fact that Nancy is a detective and asks her out, prompting this oh-so-hilarious exchange:

Nancy: Thanks… I’m flattered, but I already have a Ned… I mean… boyfriend.

Gregor: So?

Ned: Hi. I’m boyfriend. I mean Ned.

Gregor: Oh.

Oh boy am I ever rolling on the floor now. *eyeroll*

Anyway, things don’t improve very much from here. Gregor indicates that he has a secret, but he won’t divulge it until he is sure that he can trust Nancy. And because Nancy is a big nosypants, she ends up hanging out with him all the time, oblivious to Ned’s growing jealousy. At first I was pleased that Ned was confident that Nancy would not cheat on him, but that doesn’t last long and he soon begins throwing jealous hissy fits. Gregor’s secret turns out to be totally lame—someone’s stalking him because they think he’s a vampire—and so does the resolution of the story.

Ultimately, the adjective that most comes to mind when describing this story is “lazy.” In addition to the fact that Gregor’s secret is a letdown and Ned’s reaction predictable, there are other signs of shoddy craftsmanship. Gregor claims not to have a cell phone, but then how is he receiving threatening text messages from his stalker? The big reveal (spoilers, if you care) that the stalker is actually Gregor’s long-lost sister Garina is torpedoed when Nancy refers to the girl as Garina several pages before the existence of Gregor’s twin even comes up. And I’d swear that one scene of Gregor and Nancy sitting at a table was simply copied and pasted from one place to another, with only a slight adjustment of Gregor’s arm and the application of some green tint to Nancy’s shirt to differentiate them.

Probably they thought that only kids would read this and no one would notice, but kids deserve effort and originality, too. About the best thing I can say about this is that Nancy’s friend, George, is appealingly androgynous. She should get her own series.