November 04, 2010


The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir. By Ken Harmon. Dutton. $19.95.

Jane and the Damned. By Janet Mullany. Avon. $13.99.

Dancing with Mr. Darcy: Stories Inspired by Jane Austen and Chawton House. Compiled by Sarah Waters. Harper. $13.99.

Magic Tree House #44: A Ghost Tale for Christmas Time. By Mary Pope Osborne. Random House. $12.99.

Magic Tree House Research Guide: Rags and Riches—Kids in the Time of Charles Dickens. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. Random House. $4.99.

Harry Potter Movie Poster Books: Heroes; Villains. Scholastic. $5.99 each.

Harry Potter Collector’s Sticker Book. Scholastic. $6.99.

Little House on the Prairie: 75th Anniversary Edition. By Laura Ingalls Wilder. Illustrated by Garth Williams. Harper. $16.99.

     Revamps, reconsiderations, rethinkings, retellings – there are a lot of them going around. They come in all sizes, shapes and forms. And some of them are simply marvelous. The Fat Man is one of the cleverest seasonal books in years. Advertising copywriter Ken Harmon’s first novel is a simply delicious parody of all things Christmas, from Santa and his elves to It’s a Wonderful Life to The Nutcracker to How the Grinch Stole Christmas to King Kong – which, yeah, fits. Written in traditional, old-fashioned noir language reminiscent of the narrative and dialogue of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, both of whom Harmon acknowledges as sources, The Fat Man is an intricately plotted story about Gumdrop Coal (elf creator of the concept of giving coal to kids on the Naughty List), the manipulative Charles “Candy” Cane (think Citizen Kane and you’d be about right), flying reindeer who are bad-boy-super-studs who will “steal your girlfriend for a few dizzy weekends in the fast lane” and to add a notch to their antlers, and little touches such as the Forest of Mistletoe. That deadly woodland is based on the fact that mistletoe grows vampirically, sucking life from the trees around which it twines – and, in this book, from elves as well: “Many a short-round has gone into the Forest of Mistletoe on a dare, but none has ever come back. …There were crazy tales that some didn’t die but survive as a kind of mutant vampire elf.” Be prepared to get your head around lots of equally outrageous concepts as this rollercoaster of a ridiculous thrill ride zips up and down hills and around curves (yeah, there are dames with curves here, too). Harmon is so good at most of this masterly parody that the one recurring false note is especially jarring: he pulls Santa and Christ together too many times, and the combo gets stale really fast. Passing mentions are all right, but eventually, Harmon overdoes it: “[A]s kids get older…they start connecting that toy that made them feel special to the Child in the manger – the gift that lets us know that we are all special. Like clutching that teddy bear, the Child gives us peace, a presence, a feeling to cling to in the dark. His gift is wonderful, made just for you and your happiness. …Take the bridge from Santa to the Child away and the road to believing in anything good is a dead end.” Uhh….no. And a double “no” for a later, intended-to-be-climactic scene in which the Child actually appears and explains that it is wrong to seek justice in the world, because Christ’s love is all you need. This is so jarringly inappropriate, so out of keeping with the “noir” approach, that it is almost irredeemably bad. But thank goodness the book recovers some, if not all, of its momentum afterwards, and comes to a satisfying (if not really noir-ish) conclusion. So, a message to the author: leave the preaching to the preachers, and stay focused on inventive plotting and well-realized characters, and maybe you can come up with something even better for your second novel. This one’s quite a debut, though. Oh, and it’s definitely not for kids.

     Is Jane and the Damned for Jane Austen fans? Hmm. Well, you probably won’t want to read it unless you know Austen and her novels. But if you do read it, you may find it rather sacrilegious. Or something. Certainly the notion of Austen being turned into a vampire, then having to decide whether to retain her immortality even at the price of her writing ability, makes for an intriguing, strange, darkly funny and altogether peculiar foray into…well, whatever Jane and the Damned forays into. Janet Mullany tosses together everything from the notion of the waters of Bath as a cure for vampirism (sort of a “blood Bath,” get it?) to an invasion of England by the French – in which Jane and her damned compatriots turn out to be just patriots and are the sole hope for Britain’s salvation. From the French, that is. Oh, it is all so convoluted and self-referential and, in its own way, a tribute to Austen, that when Jane the vampire says something as simple as “thank you for your hospitality, sir,” to a fellow bloodsucker, there is resonance far beyond the language. Poor Jane. “‘I killed a man tonight,’” she says at one point. “‘I beg your pardon, I burden you with my concerns.’” Isn’t that just what a character in an Austen novel would say if she happened to be a vampire? Jane’s trials and tribulations at French hands, reminiscent not of Austen’s own writing but of Dickens’ in A Tale of Two Cities, lead eventually to an inevitable conclusion in which Jane chooses humanity and authorship over eternity without creativity. Nothing here is the slightest bit believable, or is intended to be, but goodness, what an interestingly far-fetched tribute – yes, it reads like a tribute – to the author of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. And what an interesting “explanation” of Austen’s lost decade, in which she was unable to do any writing at all after her parents gave up the Hampshire rectory where Jane had grown up.

     Dancing with Mr. Darcy is an Austen tribute of another sort. Chawton House is the estate, belonging to Jane’s brother, where Jane found a permanent home and recovered her writing ability. This short-story anthology celebrates both the author and the house where all her novels were written or published. The 20 tales are all over the place, not only in style and subject matter but also in how they relate to Jane Austen and her works. Kelly Brendel’s Somewhere requires knowledge of Mansfield Park for its full effect, for example. Victoria Owens’ Jane Austen over the Styx would benefit from the reader knowing everything Austen wrote – it involves Austen journeying to Hades to be judged by female characters from her own books – but manages to transcend the specificity of Austen’s creations to become an analysis of the author’s style and reputation, in the guise of an otherworldly adventure. Then there are Kirsty Mitchell’s Jayne, with its appealing stylistic irreverence, and Lane Ashfeldt’s Snowmelt, which is as much about reading and the quiet it brings as it is about Austen’s works. Some of these stories are about Austen, some are about her characters, some are done in her style or as commentaries upon it. The one thing they all have in common is an affinity for Austen’s way of thinking – not on the superficial and long-superseded level of Regency manners and Regency costumes, but in terms of the underlying thought patterns about love, family, ambition and the uncertainty of making one’s way in the world. Taken together, the tales in Dancing with Mr. Darcy show both why and how Jane Austen’s work continues to resonate in a far faster-paced, far more intense world than hers.

     The importance of writing and the relevance of 19th-century literature for today’s readers also lie at the heart of the latest Magic Tree House book and its accompanying Research Guide. The 44th entry in Mary Pope Osborne’s long-running series, A Ghost Tale for Christmas Time, has the usual creaky plot machinery, with Jack and Annie sent back in time by the magician Merlin to help someone important. The someone this time is Charles Dickens, who is a great success when Jack and Annie meet him but who, it turns out, needs their help to overcome the horrors of his past and continue doing what he does so well. Being a famous writer “should make you feel better” about the past, Annie tells Dickens, but he replies, “‘How can that make me feel better? …What is writing? Just ink on a page. It’s not food for the hungry. It’s not medicine for the sick. Lately I’ve been thinking I should give up my writing altogether.’” Annie and Jack help Dickens overcome his concerns and inspire him to write A Christmas Carol, so they have their usual formulaic success. And kids who want more details – some of them quite harrowing – of what it was like to be a child in Dickens’ time can turn to Rags and Riches, which is No. 22 in the Research Guide series even though this series is no longer given official numbers. Well done within their established formulas, these books gets (+++) ratings – and can make attractive seasonal gifts for kids in the target age range of 7-12.

     Today’s top British author, as far as kids and many adults are concerned, is not Dickens but J.K. Rowling, and the release this holiday season of the first of two movies based on her final Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is not surprisingly leading to the release of a variety of (+++) movie tie-in books. Both the Heroes and Villains books contain pictures of Severus Snape, which is exactly right in light of Rowling’s plotting. Otherwise, the books show movie scenes featuring mostly the expected characters: heroes Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Ginny, Albus Dumbledore, and others; villains Lord Voldemort, Bellatrix Lestrange, Peter Pettigrew, Barry Crouch Jr., Lucius and Draco Malfoy, and others. Then there is the sticker book, which shows movie scenes and provides a variety of self-adhesive stickers to be used on specific pages – Hagrid, Buckbeak and other creatures for a scene outside Hagrid’s hut, for example. There is nothing profound, or intended to be profound, about any of these books; they are simply pleasant souvenirs of Rowling’s books and the films made from them.

     The 75th anniversary edition of Little House on the Prairie is a souvenir of sorts, too, and gets a (++++) rating even though some purists will not be happy with the color versions of Garth Williams’ excellent black-and-white illustrations. This book is the third and most popular in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, and the celebratory new edition not only includes color but also features a number of letters and other communications from Wilder (1867-1957). One of them is a telegram in which she heartily expresses her approval of Williams’ work, which was done in 1953 and replaced the original (1935) illustrations by Helen Sewell. Intended for the same preteen audience as the Harry Potter books, Little House on the Prairie is about as different from them as can be. It is close to truth rather than pure fantasy, being based on Wilder’s real life and adventures when she was growing up. And while there is certainly drama and danger in Wilder’s book – mostly involving conflicts between the U.S. government and the Osage Indians – most of the book is simply about what it was like to live in the West when the land was still being settled by pioneer families moving there from elsewhere. It is a book about growing up, about exploring the hills and nooks and crannies of a vast land, about self-discovery and discovering the wonders of nature all around. Little House on the Prairie is certainly old-fashioned; Wilder actually said she wrote the Little House books to show modern children how much the United States had changed during her lifetime. Change is certainly a key element of the books – and likewise of Rowling’s, Mary Pope Osborne’s and many others. New editions, new plots, new angles and new presentations abound , but if there is one unchanging element to all these books and all these editions, it is the consistent value of reading, and learning through reading, in an ever-changing world.

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