You can't teach surprise

I'm happy to report that the winner of the contest for The Tale of Despereaux is . . . Tyler! Congratulations! 

That Tyler won is not too surprising. He had a 50-50 chance, after all. What's even more surprising is that I just realized that the guy who plays Darken Rahl on
Legend of the Seeker is the same guy that played Haldir the elf in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. It took me three months to figure that out. Duh.


Darken Rahl
I really liked Haldir. He was a good guy and I felt bad when he died. Rahl, however, is a bad guy and I suppose I should feel good when he dies.


What dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?

I've mentioned that I have tried in the past to read aloud to my kids. This was way easier when they were little. As they grew older, though, it became harder partly because they got busier and partly because, cool as it is, how many times can you sit through Madeline? I tried more "mature" books, like Rifles for Watie and The Hobbit, but usually after a few chapters something would happen to interrupt us, and somehow we'd never get back to it. Every 10 months or so, I'd give it another try with another book. At one point, I started reading Ivanhoe to Shannon and Ian. I think we got up to chapter six before Shannon pretended she had to go on vacation.

There were a few successes, however. One of them was a hit with both the kids and me. I am speaking, of course, of The Tale of Despereaux.

As I read it to my kids, I kept thinking what a clever book it was, and how I wish I'd had it to read when I was a child. It's one of those perfect combinations of adventure, wit, suspense, and life lessons that make reading one of my favorite things to do. Of course it won a well-deserved Newbery medal. And of course they've made a movie out of it. But from what I've seen of the previews, it's probably going to be one of those cases where the film doesn't measure up. But we shall see.

To share the joy, I've decided to give away a gently read copy of the book.  If you'd like a chance at getting it, leave a comment (or send an e-mail) about a book you read in your youth that helped shape your character in some way or influenced your world view.  Then I'll randomly select a winner.  Have fun!


And in his hat, we found this soggy note

One of my favorite books when I was young was The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, by Dr Seuss. I think it's a brilliant story still, but back in those days, I thought it was one of the most adventurous and funny stories I'd ever read. Nowadays, whenever I happen to wear a hat (which isn't often), and I take it off, I always think of how Bartholomew felt at the top of the tower, facing death, when he took off that last hat and felt the wind in his hair. That's some powerful literature!

As a child, I lived in an age when a man wearing a hat - and I don't mean those cheapo baseball caps and I don't mean those silly "beanies" some guys wear all the time and never take off, not even in restaurants, and what's this world coming to anyhow, etc - was changing from the norm to the unusual. My father didn't wear a hat, not that I remember, anyhow, but my grandfather still did on occasion. In fact, he had a collection of hats, and some of them hung in his garage. He had some old fedoras and a couple of straw hats out there that he sometimes wore when he was doing yard work. I had a bit of a fascination with hats at that time. I had just seen the movie Savage Sam and I really wanted a hat like Arliss wore. It so happened that one of my grandfather's old hats looked a lot like Arliss's hat. So one day I got up the courage to ask my grandpa if I could have that hat, and he said yes. I had it for a lot of years, and then it kind of disappeared. I don't know what happened to it. It was sort of beat up, so maybe my mom got rid of it.

My grandpa gave me another hat later on, another fedora, this one in somewhat better shape. And I've hung on to this one. So that's the hat I'm using for the contest drawing.

I wrote the names of all the people who entered the drawing on slips of paper, which I crumpled up into tiny balls and put in my grandfather's hat. I wanted to find someone completely unbiased and with no stake in the proceedings to do the drawing, so I asked Sylvester. He declined, however, for reasons of health. So then I asked Ian. He also declined at first, then changed his mind and accepted, for reasons of health. The proceedings were viewed by two independent observers (Piper and Skipper) who verified that everything went down the way it was supposed to. I tell you this so you will know that I had nothing to do with the outcome.

And the winner is Megan! Congratulations, and thanks, everyone, for participating.


I'm a demon for details

I don't know when demons started getting angsty and conflicted, in some cases even soft-hearted and sympathetic, but a good (good meaning "really evil", not good meaning "good") strong demon who delights in destruction and tearing people to pieces is, to me, what demons are really all about.

Peter V Brett's debut novel, The Warded Man, features that kind of demon. These are horrible creatures who come from the Core of the earth, rising up in a misty form at dusk and solidifying to terrorize anyone outside of a warded, or protected, area by shredding them, burning them, chewing on them, and being generally malicious until the poor victims die in agony.

Wards are magic symbols, their origin lost in antiquity, that are drawn on buildings, streets, walls, etc, to keep the demons away. Most people huddle behind these wards in fear, but there are a few who, rather than cowering, confront the demons and use ancient wards to destroy them.

The book follows the careers of three characters - Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer - who eventually come together at a crucial point to test their skills against demon attacks. These three live in a sort of medievalish society, one that engages in the business of farming and trade and trying to survive demon attacks. Peopling the world is a big issue, since the population is literally being eaten away. There is an overlaying of religious conviction (the demons are thought by the religious leaders to be God's curse upon humanity for their sinful ways, including the Pride they fell into during a long-past period of scientific advancement), but most people don't seem to take spiritual beliefs very seriously. In fact, with few exceptions, the people inhabiting this world are as hypocritical and cruel and corrupt and venal as any I've read about. It does remind me of something. What is it, now? . . . Oh, yeah, the six o'clock news. But in real life, I don't hang around with those kinds of people. And I prefer not to hang around with them in the books I read. After about the 247th* sexually suggestive comment directed at her, the character Leesha wonders if that's all anyone thinks about. In this book, apparently so.

Peter Brett is a pretty good writer, better than some I've read in recent years. He starts out with a captivating introduction to his main characters in Part 1. Part 2 is a little more uneven, like sometimes he really envisions the place or the people he's describing, but sometimes he does what I call skim writing. It's like skimming when you read, where you get the basics of what the author's trying to say, but you don't spend the time to really understand the depth of the message and all the nuances. Well, in this case, he writes the basics, but there isn't the depth that there is in other parts of the book, like he's in a hurry to get to the next well-envisioned part.

Another thing that pulled me out of the story is that sometimes characters do an about face in personality, making me think either the author hadn't fully planned things out beforehand, or didn't give enough prior information to make the change less jarring.

There are times when his dialogue doesn't ring quite true, particularly with the younger characters. Leesha as a 13-year-old talks like someone quite a bit older, and 3-year-old Rojer sounds like a 13-year-old.* And sometimes the characters sound like they're right out of an old knights of the Round Table movie or a RPG. But that's less of a problem. At least nobody says "Milord".

And then there's my old complaint about why an author feels he or she has to put a character through such horrific experiences. Brett mentioned in a Q&A that his characters are tested to bring out their true qualities. In the case of Leesha, whose life as a healer seems relatively happy (after getting away from her horrid mother and possessive/braggart fiancé), before she can truly realize her full potential she has to have that life shattered. But I don't understand why that life change has to include a gang rape. If part of her growth process is to lose everything (except her skills as a healer, but including her virginity), why, only a few pages earlier, is she willing to prostitute herself to get passage back to her home town? Talk about a jarring character about-face. (Not that I'm comparing prostitution and rape; I'm just questioning what it was required for her to lose. And why.)

I guess the determining factor is if Brett made me care about his three main characters. And in spite of the occasional "Wha--?!" moment, in the end I did care what happened to them. So in that sense, the book is a success for me. But perhaps only in that sense.

Writing style aside, the story of The Warded Man is an adventurous one. Brett has plotted his story well. The action sequences are compelling and make for exciting reading. They're what really kept me involved in the book. I found myself wondering about where the demons come from and why they do what they do. And when I finished, I had a dozen other questions. Will Arlen visit the Core? Will other demons find a way to fight back? Will Rojer learn to fight? Will Arlen and Leesha find love? Will the Krasians get a clue? Stay tuned for sequels, because this book is the first in a series!

*Not really - I'm exaggerating for effect.