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Sponsored by [personal profile] pameladean and [profile] slrose.

A boy named David reads an ad in a newspaper, asking for boys between the ages of eight and eleven to build a spaceship, from materials they happen to have around and without adult help, for an exciting mission to outer space. David and his friend Chuck oblige, and are selected for the mission by the peculiar neighbor Mr. Bass, who explains that he is a mushroom person who grew from a spore and that he senses that his people, on the unknown child-sized planet Basilicum X, are in need of help. He helps them space-proof their ship and suggests that they bring an animal mascot, and off they go.

The mushroom people are indeed in need of help, but luckily (or was it only luck?) one of the items Chuck and David brought with them is exactly what they need. Unlike many children’s fantasies of this time period, the conclusion does not involve a mind-wipe, the suggestion that it was all a dream, or anything of that nature.

This is a children’s classic from 1954. This is my first time reading it, which is too bad. I enjoyed it as an adult, but I would have loved it at age eight or so. It precisely captures a particular type of child’s adventure, when you and your best friend equip a cardboard box with provisions for a journey, and take off for outer space. (Or Fairyland, or Narnia.) The details of the mushroom planet are very much like something a child might imagine, as is the solution to the mushroom people’s problem – a child’s idea given an adult’s scientific gloss.

Amusingly, all the adults are happy to support David and Chuck’s expedition, because (the reader understands) they assume the boys will just be camping out overnight. David doesn’t realize this, and is both pleased and baffled that his mother doesn’t object to his journey into space.

The language is very old-fashioned (“Gee whillikers!”), and so is the whole idea of scattering tons of accurate scientific details amidst the fantasy, clearly with a didactic intent. (In the sense of teaching, not of preaching.) I enjoyed learning new things from books when I was a kid, and I enjoyed reading this book, but I’m surprised that it’s still in print. The whole idea of scattering bits of useful or interesting knowledge into children's books is something that seems to have gone way, way out of fashion.

When I opened my copy, purchased at a used bookshop, I found that one of my SAT students had written her name on the inside cover! It was a coincidence (or was it?) that fit right in with the off-kilter, quirky spirit of the book.

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet
Sponsored by [personal profile] kore.

The middle book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s loosely connected trilogy “Annals of the Western Shores,” but the last one I read. I liked it the best. It’s better-paced than Powers and has much more vivid characters, and is deeper and way less glum than Gifts. The writing is clear, beautiful, and vivid.

Seventeen-year-old Memer lives in a city once known for its libraries, which has been conquered by people who ban writing for plausible religious reasons. (The word is the breath of God, and it’s blasphemous to trap it on paper.) The invaders destroyed as many books as they could find, but Memer’s house has a secret library. We learn early on that the library has more than cultural significance, but the magical nature of the books – and of Memer – unfolds slowly over the course of the story. Unsurprisingly, given that this is a Le Guin novel, it’s a complicated and many-faceted thing.

In other hands, this story could have easily become a simple and implausible “Books are banned and the government controls writing” dystopia. It’s not, of course. There’s way more going on than books being banned, and the government has motives that go far beyond controlling writing. The interactions of the conquerors and the conquered feel real, and make sense in the context of their convincingly detailed cultures.

Like the other books in the series, this deals with serious political and moral themes, but it does a better job than the other two of also telling a moving human story. Ultimately, it’s not only about the fate of the city or even about Memer growing to accept and claim her own power, but about her relationships with a trio of parent-figures: the Waylord (the keeper of the library and her surrogate father) and two strangers who come to town, a poet and his lion-taming wife. (Orrec and Gry from Gifts, many years later.) Memer both grows up and reclaims relationships she missed out on as a child. I don’t recall ever seeing that particular dynamic play out before in a YA novel, but it’s very moving.

Voices (Annals of the Western Shore)
Sponsored by [personal profile] lnhammer.

I’ve re-read this at least once before, but not for years. I was always more of an Emily girl. So I had totally forgotten that the first three chapters are titled, “Mrs. Rachel Lynde Is Surprised,” “Marilla Cuthbert Is Surprised,” and “Matthew Cuthbert Is Surprised.” (Later, there is a chapter called “Mrs. Rachel Lynde Is Properly Horrified.”) I had also forgotten how funny it is – not only in incident, like the “getting Diana drunk” chapter or the “jumping on Aunt Josephine” bit, but in the prose itself. Montgomery has a great, wry sense of humor which especially shines in her descriptions of personalities and of village life, and the contrast of Anne’s romantic imagination with the relentlessly down-to-earth people around her is never not funny.

I had not, however, forgotten the classic meet cute in which Anne’s beau-to-be, Gilbert Blythe, calls her hair “carrots” and she breaks a slate over his head. Still a classic scene! But I did forget the equally classic scene in which Anne is punished by being made to – horrors! – sit next to Gilbert in class. He slips her a candy heart. She heartlessly crushes it underfoot.

For those of you who don’t know the story, it was written in 1908, and is set on the lavishly described, rural Prince Edward Island. Aging siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decide to adopt a ten-year-old boy so they can have someone to help Matthew with the chores. (I was horrified while reading this at how nobody seems to find the slightest thing wrong with that. But then again, the way we treat non-adopted orphans in contemporary America isn’t much better. Or, in many cases, better at all.) But a miscommunication means that they get sent red-headed Anne Shirley instead, a chatterbox who lives largely in an imagination shaped by romantic novels. With some reluctance, they decide to keep her. She proceeds to make Avonlea a far, far more interesting place. Hijinks galore!

Anne was my introduction to L. M. Montgomery, and I read all the books, though I didn’t care for the last couple. (Bored by the later generation, except for Walter, who I adored. Uh-oh.) I also liked Ilse much, much better than Diana, whom I thought a bit dull. Honestly, don’t you think Anne deserved a friend with a bit more spark to her? I also lost interest in Gilbert once their relationship went from sizzling love-hate to dull love. Emily had so many more shipping possibilities than Anne, and I think I sensed that in my little proto-fangirl’s heart. (For the record: Emily/Ilse.)

Still, there’s a bit in which Marilla finds Anne sobbing hysterically for no apparent reason. It turns out that Anne had been imagining Diana’s future wedding (remember, everyone is still ten at this point), and herself as the bridesmaid, “with a breaking heart hid beneath my smiling face. And then bidding Diana good-bye-e-e.” Here Anne again bursts into tears.

The scene made me laugh, and yet… I remember, when I was about eight, suddenly bursting into hysterical sobs in the middle of a playdate. Why? Because at the end of the playdate, Angela would have to go back home and leave me! (Until the next playdate.)

Anne of Green Gables is very, very funny, and the characters are vividly sketched. But maybe one reason it’s so enduring is that Montgomery remembered the intensity of friendship between girls of a certain age.

Anne of Green Gables
To quote [personal profile] smillaraaq: "Some wildernessy survival, absolute BUCKETS of Noble Warrior Guys bonding and being Reluctant Honor-bound Noble Frenemies, outnumbered ragtag bands involved in desperate pursuits and hopeless last stands...all that good stuff."

A historical novel set in Britain, as the Roman Empire is beginning to fall apart. Young commander Alexios gives the order to abandon his fort and pull out all his troops when it's attacked; when it turns out to be the wrong decision, he's disgraced and sent off to command the Frontier Wolves, in the icy middle of nowhere, where Roman soldiers rub shoulders with British tribespeople... some of whom become Frontier Wolves themselves.

Alexios feels (and is) completely out of place, but slowly learns the ways of the Wolves, with help from Hilarion, his wry second-in-command, and Cunorix, the son of a British chieftain. Yes, these can certainly be read as slashy, as can his more fraught relationship with Connla, the chieftain's wild second son. Alexios earns his wolfskin cloak and his command, witnesses and partakes in training and rituals, and comes to fit in... only to be once again faced with the same terrible choice that led him to the Wolves in the first place.

This is in the same continuity as Eagle of the Ninth: Alexios has the dolphin ring. These books build on each other, though they can be read in any order, displaying the whole brutal tapestry of history, as colonizers and conquerors march in and take over, only to be conquered and colonized in their own turn. The books are intimate, but the series gives you the wider picture.

Like Sutcliff's other books, it's very well-written and well-characterized, slowly paced (up to a point) but incredibly atmospheric. This one, with its emphasis on learning a new culture, reminded me a bit in theme, pace, and tone of Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, though it has no magic. However, while it does have a basically happy ending, it gets darker along the way than the other Sutcliff novels I've read. I liked it a lot, in part because of the darkness, which concerns heroic last stands and tragic matters of honor rather than random grimdarkess.

Finally, standard Sutcliff warning for those sensitive to animal harm: animals are neither inherently doomed nor inherently safe. There is non-gruesome hunting and war-related animal death.

Only $4.90 on Kindle! Frontier Wolf

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