November 21, 2013


Fortunately, the Milk. By Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Skottie Young. Harper. $14.99.

The Spindlers. By Lauren Oliver. Harper. $8.99.

     Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk is one of those books filled with “a ZOOM, a TWORP, and a THANG,” featuring time travel in which a huge spiny-backed creature calculates that if two objects from different times ever come in contact, either the universe will cease to exist or “three remarkable dwarfs will dance through the streets with flowerpots on their heads.” It is one of those books in which walking the plank is about to occur into a swarm of sharks and piranhas until someone points out that piranhas are fresh-water fish. It is one of those books in which wumpires normally eat “vigglyvorms, with orange juice on them,” for breakfast, but will make do with the occasional professor and/or time traveler if necessary, at least until they (the wumpires, not the time travelers) dissolve “into a cloud of oily black smoke.” It is one of those books featuring globby people who think plastic flamingoes “are the highest and finest art form that Earth has achieved.” It is a book featuring aliens, one of which is “so green and small and so globby and crusted that he might have been an enormous snot-bubble blown by an elephant with a terrible head-cold.”  It is one of those books in which Space Dinosaurs sing songs such as “Don’t Go Down to the Tar Pits, Dear, Because I’m Getting Stuck on You.” It is, in short, one of those super-creative bursts of utter nonsense of which only the very best authors, such as Neil Gaiman, are capable, and it is about as far from works such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book as it is possible to get without falling off the edge of the world, or out of time, or something. Throw in some marvelously goofy illustrations by Skottie Young, and the result is one of those books in which every page is filled with hilarity until the whole thing overflows, if not with milk, then with utter absurdity and timeless (or time-traveling) delight.

     The Spindlers has its moments, too, although not quite as many of them. Lauren Oliver’s novel, originally published last year and now available in paperback, is a modern remaking of an old plot about changelings. One morning, Liza notices that things are not quite right with her younger brother, Patrick, and even though their preoccupied parents do not notice anything, Liza decides that the real Patrick has been taken by spindlers – spiderlike creatures from the world below. The spindlers gain power from the souls of kids they steal – and the changelings they leave behind produce more spindlers. Unsurprisingly, Liza decides to go to the spindlers’ world and retrieve Patrick’s soul, soon meeting a talking rat named Mirabella who says she can take Liza to the spindler queen. In the usual way of quests like this, it turns out that Mirabella may not be quite as helpful as she seems – she may be hiding something. The journey of the two companions leads them to encounter the usual sorts of creatures found in fantasies for preteens, including some amusing ones, some lovely ones and some scary ones. Not unexpectedly, it turns out that what is at stake is more than Patrick’s soul – and Liza and Mirabella must face their own tests of courage in order to save Patrick, themselves and all the creatures Below. There is considerable imagination in this nicely written fantasy, but there is also a great deal that is wholly conventional, from the feckless and oblivious parents to the sorts of creatures encountered on the quest – even though some specific creatures, such as dream-carrying nocturni and cannibalistic shape-shifting scawgs, are quite original. The female characters are strong and self-reliant, although no more so than female protagonists of other modern preteen fantasies. The result is that this (+++) book does not have a strong feeling of originality even though the specific events in it, and some of the specific characters, do. The Spindlers is a touch too much of a genre adventure to be wholly engaging, although Oliver’s writing does put it a cut above many lesser fantasy rescue novels for young readers.

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