Classic Review: Merlin Dreams

I’ve been thinking vaguely of rereading this one soon, and rereading my review has convinced me of it!  A fun note I’m not sure I knew when I wrote this–the author Peter Dickinson was married to Robin McKinley, a long-time favorite author of mine.  I love connections like that!


There’s an old legend that Merlin never died–that he’s imprisoned beneath a stone somewhere on the moor, sleeping through the centuries.  And while he sleeps, what might he dream?

This is the frame-story for Peter Dickinson’s wonderful book, Merlin Dreams.  He tells eight stories, eight dreams of Merlin beneath his stone.  Between each story Merlin half-wakes, remembers his life or senses what goes on above him, then drifts back into sleep…and has another dream.

I’m fascinated by the frame story, and the short stories are excellent too.  Several have a vaguely Arthurian flare, although I don’t think any retell an actual legend.  But there are dashing (and not so dashing) knights, brave damsels and many unexpected heroes.  There’s a king, fallen from honor and strength who needs a little girl to show him the way back.  Another little girl befriends a unicorn in the woods, only to be threatened by men who want to exploit the opportunity to hunt a unicorn.  Two stories feature tricksters who put on shows for country folk they hold in contempt, only to be undone by their own tricks.  There’s a young prince who fights a dragon, and another, particularly ugly young man, who fights a sorceress.  And woven throughout, Merlin remembers his own life, and strange fragments of other scenes and stories. Continue reading “Classic Review: Merlin Dreams”

Classic Review: Smile!

On Friday I posted about authors I feel like I’ve met–but there is one other author that’s true about too, in a very different way.  Geraldine McCaughrean wrote one of my all-time favorites, The White Darkness, as well as the rare excellent sequel to a class novel, Peter Pan in Scarlet.  She also wrote Smile! a book I reviewed long ago…but I didn’t share the story of how I ended up reading it.

I wrote a letter to McCaughrean telling her about how much I loved The White Darkness, and she wrote a wonderful letter back.  It turns out that’s one of her favorites of her books and she loves when people write her about it.  I mentioned my review of the book and she checked it out, finding also my rather rhapsodic comments on Richard Morant as the voice of Titus.  So along with a letter, McCaughrean sent me a cassette tape of the audiobook of Smile! which was also read by Morant.

McCaughrean has ever since been on my list of coolest authors ever!  I still haven’t met her, but I’d love to, and I almost feel like I have, in a way.

Smile! turned out to be delightful too…as I reviewed some time ago.


How often do you really think about a photograph?  You’ll look at photos in a whole new way if you read Smile! by Geraldine McCaughrean–or, as I did, listen to the audiobook.

Smile! is about Flash, a photographer whose small plane crashes in a remote area.  He manages to save only one camera–a simple Polaroid, with ten shots.  Flash is taken in by a primitive village, which has rarely had contact with the outside world.  As he speaks to the villagers, he realizes that none of them have ever seen a photograph.  Accepted by the villagers as “the magician who fell from the sky,” Flash must decide what to spend his ten photographs on–what sights will he preserve for the villagers? Continue reading “Classic Review: Smile!”

Classic Review: Banner in the Sky

Somehow or other, rock-climbing has come up in a few different conversations recently.  I respect people who want to try that, but I’m not one of them.  But when I do find myself with any urge to climb a mountain, I have a favorite go-to book I pick up instead.


I want to begin this review by saying that I have never been mountain-climbing.  Nor do I ever plan to go.  The truth is, I don’t even like steep hills (which, believe me, can be a problem if you live in San Francisco).  I can walk very happily for miles on flat ground, but give me a hill and it’s all over.  But this is why I love books.  I love that they let me live lives I would never actually live, whether that involves casting magical spells, visiting a distant planet, or climbing a mountain.

That last brings me to Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman.  You’ll notice I have a picture of Third Man on the Mountain.  Walt Disney changed the title for his movie version, and then they reprinted the book with the new title.  I like Banner in the Sky better–for one thing, I’m not sure what Disney’s title is even supposed to mean!

With either title, the book is about Rudi Matt, and about the Citadel.  Rudi is a teenager living in a small village in the Alps in the 1800s, and he dreams of climbing the Citadel.  It’s the one unconquered peak, the one no man has ever reached the top of.  No one has tried for years, since the failed expedition that killed Rudi’s father.  Rudi’s mother has forbidden him to become a mountain climber (and I do understand her viewpoint!) but when an Englishman comes determined to lead an expedition up the unclimbable mountain, Rudi is determined to go.

The book is as much about Rudi’s growth as it is about the mountain.  He learns that there’s more to climbing a mountain than just scrambling over rocks, learns about things like trusting others and never leaving a comrade.  He learns to follow his father’s footsteps in more ways than one.  My best guess on Disney’s title is that Rudi becomes a man on the mountain, rather than a boy–but I can’t quite figure out how Disney calculates him as the third one.

This makes it all sound like it’s deep and reflective, and occasionally it is–but there’s also plenty of scrambling over rocks, and getting caught on ledges, and even an avalanche or two.  It’s an exciting story as well as a meaningful one.

It reminds me a little bit of stories about Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.  Not because of the snow similarity, but because they’re both about men trying to achieve a feat that has been considered unachievable.  They’re about pursuing the impossible dream.  And while I personally don’t have any desire to climb a mountain or ski to the South Pole, when the story is told right, I can get very enthused about someone else’s dream.

Why does someone climb a mountain?  “Because it’s there” is always a good answer.  Because it’s there to be conquered.  For Rudi, it’s because he wants to take his climbing staff and his father’s red sweater, and plant them as a flag at the top of the Citadel–a banner in the sky.

Even though I need a good reason to climb a steep hill and can’t imagine climbing a mountain, Banner in the Sky makes me believe in Rudi’s dream, makes me see it as vital and important for him, and makes me want to see him succeed.

Classic Review: The Mischief of the Mistletoe

Happy holidays!  My reading celebration of the day involves re-reading one of my very favorite Christmas-set novels, The Mischief of the Mistletoe.  Still delightful on a third read, still one of my favorite romantic couples!


 The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig is set in Regency England, what I can only think of as Jane Austen’s England.  Jane herself is in the book as a supporting character, as the sympathetic friend of our heroine, Arabella.  Arabella is the lead character of the book, but has clearly been a supporting character all her life.  A shy, unassuming wallflower, she’s the one at the party whose name no one can remember.  I have a soft spot for characters who think they’re unimportant.  I love watching them discover their inner depths and come into their own, and I loved watching Arabella find new strength and confidence.  Here we have the extra bonus of watching the other lead, Turnip, also discover Arabella’s value.

Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh…where to begin?  The name, I suppose.  I can’t tell you how much I love it that the hero has a vegetable for a nickname.  And not even a tough vegetable (I don’t know what vegetable would be tough–asparagus spears, maybe?–but I’m pretty sure turnips are not the heavyweight champions of the vegetable world).  It fits him–and he’s a wonderful character!  Endlessly well-meaning, charming and gallant, not a brilliant intellect, capable of throwing a punch when the situation calls for it, but not really all that good at derring-do and dashing exploits, frequently bumbling, very thoughtful, given to outlandish waistcoats.  Somehow, it works so well and is so much fun.  I love dashing heroes, but this time I really enjoyed a hero who stumbles more than he dashes–but rushes forward anyway, well-intentioned and grinning. Continue reading “Classic Review: The Mischief of the Mistletoe”

Book Reviews: Wolfskin and Foxmask

I first read Wolfskin by Juliet Marillier in 2009–and even though it was excellent, it took me five years to finally get to the sequel.  Partially that’s because, in the intervening time, I also read Marillier’s six-book Sevenwaters series, and her Bridei Chronicles trilogy.  It wasn’t until I reread Wolfskin that I also realized another possible reason.  Marillier writes amazing, powerful, emotionally-intense books…and they’re kind of exhausting!  I highly recommend everything she writes, but I also highly recommend blocking off substantial time for reading–and you probably want to bring tissues.

On the other hand, after reading 13 of Marillier’s books, I can promise you that (so far) she always delivers a happy ending!  Even though, very often, it seems impossible…

Since I often review YA, I think I better note that, despite having young characters, these books are definitely for older readers, due to both specific content and “adult themes,” as they say.

Wolfskin begins in Norway around 1000 AD, or maybe earlier (I can’t find the time nailed down anywhere!)  Eyvind dreams of growing up to be a Wolfskin, powerful Viking warriors who care for nothing but the call of Thor leading them into battle.  Eyvind befriends Somerled, a solemn, scholarly boy who dreams of becoming king, and they make a vow of loyalty as blood brothers.  As adults, Eyvind becomes the warrior he wished to be–and his vow draws him with Somerled on an expedition to the Light Isles.  Here Eyvind (and the reader) meet Nessa, princess of the Folk and priestess of ancient mysteries.  Her people are threatened by these new arrivals, and Eyvind finds himself torn between loyalty and conscience.

Marillier brings us into a fascinating and very grim world of the Vikings, where honor and loyalty are powerful forces, and vowing allegiance to the death is not in the slightest bit metaphorical.  Continue reading “Book Reviews: Wolfskin and Foxmask”

Book Review: The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare

After falling madly in love with the reincarnation premise of My Name Is Memory, I of course had to try The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare by M.G. Buehrlen.  And now that I have, I feel…deeply mixed.  I enjoyed the read!  But not without reservations.

Seventeen-year-old Alex Wayfare is living her 57th life.  She doesn’t know that–all she knew is that she sometimes has disturbing, vivid visions of past times–until she meets Porter, a friend from her previous lifetime who can explain the truth.  Alex is a Transcender, with the ability to Descend into her own past lifetimes by passing through Limbo.  Porter serves as Alex’s mentor and her guardian, protecting her from an enemy made in her previous lifetime.  But Porter won’t tell Alex everything and mysteries abound…and there’s this boy.  Alex meets Blue (not his real name) first in Chicago in 1927–but then she bumps into him again in 1961–and in 1876…

So to begin with: very cool concept here!  For science fiction, this was light on explanations, but I was willing to take it largely as though it was fantasy and not ask too many questions, and that seemed fine.  The idea of all these lifetimes in different centuries is so intriguing, and the shadowy forces stalking Alex are suitably sinister.  Continue reading “Book Review: The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare”

Book Review: Wild Rover No More

I have been reading the Bloody Jack series for at least ten years, and with its release last month, I have finally read the last book in the adventure: Wild Rover No More by L. A. Meyer, “the last recorded account of the life and times of Jacky Faber.” And we can be sure it really is the end–sadly, L. A. Meyer died this past summer, though I’m glad for him (and us!) that he was able to finish his series.

This final book was, as the series has always been, a lot of fun to read, with humor and hijinks galore.  It was also plagued by some of the same issues that I’ve seen in the last few books of the series.  So–I think I’ll talk a bit about the book, a bit about how it stands as the final conclusion, and then some thoughts on the series on a whole.

This book opens a few months after the conclusion of Boston Jacky, and the lingering crises of that book are tidied neatly away within just a few chapters.  New crises arise when Jacky is framed for espionage and must once again go on the run, fleeing Boston first for a job as a governess, and then to join the circus.  But the law is catching up to her, and soon her belief that she was always meant for hanging will be sorely tested. Continue reading “Book Review: Wild Rover No More”