My Books of 2018: “Frontier Wolf” by Rosemary Sutcliff


“If we break faith with thee, may the green earth gape and swallow us, may the grey seas break in and overwhelm us, may the sky of stars fall and crush us out of life for ever.”

“Frontier Wolf” by Rosemary Sutcliff

This historical adventure novel is pure Sutcliff: a young Roman commander making up for a disaster early in his career, a lonely British frontier fort, and a first half of thoughtful character drama followed by a second half of a long, thrilling chase through wet Scottish hills and valleys. These elements make Frontier Wolf feel like a companion piece to The Eagle of the Ninth, and fortunately the core narrative is different enough to make the similarities complementary rather than repetitive.

Alexios and his band of “half-wild” auxiliaries called the Frontier Wolves are an engaging group, with Romans, Greeks, Germans, Celts,pagans, Christians, veterans, and green recruits all mixing, clashing, and bonding in the tense atmosphere and rain-soaked landscape. There’s a coming-of-age strand to the plot, as young Alexios tries to overcome his past of privilege and failure to be a worthy leader of the rowdiest, roughest bunch of soldiers in the empire. There’s also a political strand, as the conflicts between Rome and the various Celtic tribes prove rather tricky to navigate, especially when the Roman fort itself is split by various ethnic, cultural, and philosophical divisions. The disaster that kicks the climax into gear is scarily realistic in how an impossible-to-predict event ignites very predictable tensions, and creates a scenario where even doing what you know is right won’t avoid deadly conflict. There’s also a lesson in changing one’s view of victory and defeat, as sometimes it’s simply more important to save the lives of the soldiers under one’s command rather than to maintain a certain flag over a particular spot of dirt.

A great illustration of the supporting character Hilarion, with one of the kittens adopted by the soldiers at the fort. Art by Leyna. 2012. https://archiveofourown.org/works/471830

Frontier Wolf was my “comfort” read for 2018, in the sense that I always come to a Sutcliff historical novel with a sense of delighted familiarity, even on a first reading, knowing that I will be able to immerse myself in a satisfying,richly-written tale. I will definitely revisit this one.

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My Books of 2018: Carpenter on Tolkien

Humphrey Carpenter met with J.R.R. Tolkien once before the Professor’s death. He made an appointment, showed up promptly, and was ushered into the man’s cluttered study, which was in a converted garage separate from the main house. It is some time before he is able to state his business, as Tolkien seemed to treat a new pair of attentive ears much the same as he would a blank page: as an opportunity to talk at length about things that interested him.

“He says that he has to clear up an apparent contradiction in a passage of The Lord of the Rings that has been pointed out in a letter by a reader… He explains it all in great detail, talking about his book not as a work of fiction but as a chronicle of actual events; he seems to see himself not as an author who has made a slight error that must now be corrected or explained away, but as a historian who must cast light on an obscurity in a historical document.

Disconcertingly, he seems to think that I know the book as well as he does. I have read it many times, but…” (Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography, 4-5)

…but The Lord of the Rings and its multifaceted legendarium is vast enough for even the most ardent explorer to get lost in from time to time. Such was my thought when I read that passage in Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, the only such biography authorized by Tolkien’s family. I’ve lived with Tolkien’s works for so long, and read through many other books about his world produced by other authors, that I think I know it all fairly well. But I fear if I too were face-to-face with the Professor himself, listening to him ramble delightfully to the air around me about all sorts of minute details of the world of Arda, I too would soon be lost. Happy and fascinated, but at least a bit lost!

But part of what makes Carpenter’s biography so excellent, is that it at least never loses sight of the real, human man behind the legends. Here was an excellent man, a good man, but not a perfect one. He could be overly stubborn and picky, and seems to have gotten moreso as he aged. His marriage was imperfect, though loving. His friendship with C.S. Lewis became strained in later years, and it seems to have mostly been Tolkien’s own fault (though his grief at Lewis’ death is a very moving thing to read about). But he was generous, often very patient, and devoted to his friends. While he treated Faerie seriously, he had quite a roguish streak in him as well—in college he acted a crossdressing role in a comic play that apparently got rave reviews as the most hilarious performance of the evening!

Many other studies have been published about Tolkien’s life, which I hope to delve into before too long. The Authorized Biography, however, remains an essential and warm-hearted starting point. Each page of Carpenter’s book gave me a better understanding of the man whose writings have shaped so much of my own life. He is less a pristine statue in my mind, and more a real human whom I cannot wait to meet in heaven.

My Books of 2018: Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart, Firefight, and Calamity (The Reckoners Trilogy) by Brandon Sanderson

If you’ve read Mistborn and its series, you know that Brandon Sanderson is one of the most reliable fantasy authors working today for intricately-plotted entertainment. I’ve now read six novels and a novella by this man, and every single one has been thrilling and satisfying. The characters are sharply drawn and likable, with enough wrinkles and surprises to make them believable. The action is quick and dramatic, but seasoned with enough reality and common sense to keep the worldbuilding from falling apart. And the plot is pure Sanderson: carefully-planned twists and setbacks, plans going against plans, failures leading to changes in heart as well as actions, and innovative solutions to problems. These books are lean, quick reads, but worth every minute. While The Reckoners doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first Mistborn trilogy, it’s still an extremely fun and clever mix of the superhero and post-apocalypse genres.

My Books of 2018: Ursula K. Le Guin

According to Goodreads, I finished 120 books this year. Sadly I didn’t review very much on The Warden’s Walk, but a few of them have reviews on my Goodreads profile. The actual total is a little higher because a few books I wasn’t able to log, but still, that is quite a bit more than I had expected at the beginning of the year! There is, however, a sneaky little secret to it. I currently work as a teacher’s aide in a preschool, and therefore read several children’s books in a workday. Some of them are quite good, too! However, I’m also proud that I read a fair amount of “adult” books. I thought I’d take you all through a few of my most notable reads, in a series of posts.

Firstly, two books by the master Ursula K. Le Guin. I read A Wizard of Earthsea at the end of 2017, my second time ever (the first was easily over fifteen years ago), and loved it deeply. Here are my condensed thoughts on the two novels that continued the story of the Archmage Sparrowhawk.

The Tombs of Atuan

This is a fascinating, unusual book, and an oddly perfect follow-up to A Wizard of Earthsea. Leaving behind the long naval journeys, world-saving quests, and awesome dragons of Sparrowhawk’s story, the second novel tells of a young pagan priestess and her struggle for freedom and spiritual light. Much time is spent on her early life and upbringing, and how she sees the dark world in which she feels trapped. We only get hints of adventure and a supporting hero in the latter half of the book. Many readers might be disappointed by this, if they had hoped for a story that focused again on the mighty Sparrowhawk doing flashy magic and defeating dangerous creatures. But Le Guin never panders; she tells the story she found within her to tell. And it’s a good one, folks, Thoughtful, heartwarming at the end, and very atmospheric. I may love A Wizard of Earthsea more, but I am very glad to have visited The Tombs of Atuan.

The Farthest Shore

Photo from GoodreadsOne of the better “magic is leaving the world” stories, the third book involving the Archmage Sparrowhawk is a return to the format of the first: a long island-hopping quest to discover and defeat the source of a new darkness threatening the world, with dragons and plenty of soul-searching along the way. And again, I love it. The world of the Archipelago is developed even further than before, in ways I found both surprising and satisfying. This time Sparrowhawk is fully mature in his power and responsibilities, and wise from his previous experiences. He is accompanied by a young prince who reminds him a bit of his own youth, and their relationship, and what they learn from each other, makes, I think, the heart of this moving story.

Classic Remarks: A Classic Book that Translates Well to Film

Recommend a classic book that you think translated particularly well to screen (even if the adaptation was not entirely faithful).

Happily there are many films that count as successful adaptations of their source books. Some changed a lot in order to make a unique and successful film, such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Princess Bride, and most adaptations of The Three Musketeers. Others managed to be remarkably faithful to the book’s plot, tone, and themes. One classic in particular has always seemed to be particularly suited to adaptations.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson may be one of the most easily-adapted of classic books. It has over fifty adaptations for film and television, and most of the ones I’ve seen have been pretty faithful. The book’s plot is clear, efficient, and colorful. It doesn’t need elaboration, condensation, or drastic changes. It contains no extraneous subplots, which would either distract in a film or be first for the cutting floor. The action itself develops the characters and plot so well that an adaptation needs only to follow Stevenson’s layout to get an exciting feature length movie that doesn’t leave much out. Even the looser adaptations, such as the anarchic Muppet Treasure Island, still feature scenes and dialogue lifted directly from Stevenson. Why mess with what works?

My favorite adaptations are the 1934 and 1950 versions, starring Wallace Beery and Robert Newton as Long John Silver, respectively. These actors exude so much slimy charisma and chew their lines with such mischievous relish that it’s a delight to watch them. And each also brings out the desperate menace and corrupted dignity of Stevenson’s iconic character.Honorable mentions go to many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially Romeo and Juliet, which has been faithfully adapted in many surprising ways, and Richard Lester’s two-film adaptation of The Three Musketeers, which is shockingly and successfully faithful to a book whose many adaptations rarely resemble its actual plot.

Classic Remarks: Favorite Musketeer

Which of Dumas’ Musketeers is your favorite, and why?

For the musketeers of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling stories, we have D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. They are the most interesting and effective when all together, which makes it a bit difficult to single one out as a favorite. Additionally, it is worth considering their various portrayals in adaptations, since the characters of The Three Musketeers are probably better known in adaptation than in their original novel.

Speaking generally, I can say my favorite musketeer is Porthos. He’s the loud, boisterous, fun fellow, always ready to make others laugh, even when being threatened with a duel. Always loyal to his friends, though I suppose that rather characterizes all the Four. He’s fun in the book, but I also admit to my choice being influenced by the 1993 Disney film, where he was played with cheerful wit by Oliver Platt. Behold:

Frank Finlay also played Porthos quite well, if drier, in the excellent 1973 film. Witness his unique solution to uncorking a wine bottle while the musketeers seek a peaceful breakfast and private conversation in the middle of a siege:

Portho’s charisma and enthusiasm for life makes him a natural favorite for many fans, and I suppose I’m not immune to that charm either.

Classic Remarks: A Much-Read Childhood Classic

Which children’s classic couldn’t you read enough of when you were growing up?

Several books could probably be mentioned here, especially given a loose definition of “classic,” but the ones that stand out to me are the Picture Classics graphic novels Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, adaptations of Mark Twain’s famous novels.

As I flip through them now, I’m impressed by how detailed and faithful they are. Twain’s novels deserve to be read unabridged, but their size and age can sometimes be intimidating to younger readers. The Picture Classics adaptations zip from adventure to adventure and an avid young reader can easily finish both in a day—perhaps more than once each!

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Much of the flavor of Twain’s prose is also kept. Characters speak with Twain’s dialects, and the bits of narration in Tom Sawyer reflect Twain’s third-person prose, while Huck Finn preserves the boy’s distinct first-person narration.

In some graphic novels the art doesn’t always make clear what is going on, but in both of these the art is easily readable. It also complements the text well and does a good job of evoking stories’ settings.

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These adaptations were my first introductions to Mark Twain’s famous heroes, and I’m glad of that. While nothing quite compares to reading the full novels, Picture Classics did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the stories. Even though the focus is on action and adventure, Twain’s deeper commentaries still linger in every frame. Characters drive the action on every page, rather than merely reacting. These books thrilled me as a young boy, letting me imagine I was a fellow-adventurer with Tom, Huck, and Jim on deserted islands, creepy caves, cool woods, and the long, storied Mississippi River.

Classic Remarks: My Favorite Jane Austen Adaptation

Which Jane Austen adaptation is your favorite and why?

I am again at a disadvantage. My familiarity with Regency-era literature is so poor that my only Austen novel is Emma. I do have a general understanding of Pride and Prejudice, however, and it happens that the only Austen adaptation I have fully seen is one of that novel. And I must admit I like it a lot.

It’s a very…streamlined production. Lower-budget than most, and far from anything Hollywood would produce. Certainly it fails to capture the breadth and texture of Austen’s work. Nevertheless it wears a charming directness that manages to get to the heart of Pride and Prejudice. Using a clever modern-day framing device, it makes the tale of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy immediately relevant to young people of our day. With a nicely balanced mixture of gentle humor and disarming sincerity, it manages to entertain while still driving home the story’s moral. Additionally, its severely abridged nature and short length directs the interested viewer to the source book.

Which adaptation is this?

I speak, of course, of the Wishbone adaptation.

wishbone

This was one of the best children’s shows produced by PBS in the 1990s. In it Wishbone, an adventure-loving Jack Russell Terrier, accompanies his boy, Joe, through adventures in middle school and literature. Whenever Joe faces a particular situation in his life, Wishbone will find a similar situation in a work of classic literature and relate the story to the audience. The audience gets to see Wishbone’s own imagination of the classic story interspersed with Joe’s modern-day story playing out in parallel. The result was a children’s show that was highly literate, thoughtful, and empathetic to older kids, and just happened to star a cute and energetic dog.

Wishbone DarcyThe episode entitled “Furst Impressions” is no exception! It’s truly the only Austen adaptation I’ve seen all the way through, so I can’t argue that it’s among the best. But this isn’t completely a joke answer. While the half-hour show only has about fifteen minutes to spare for the Austen sections, it boils the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship down to its essentials, and then takes those essentials quite seriously. Despite the ever-present humor of seeing Mr. Darcy being played by a Jack Russell Terrier, Austen’s story itself is never made fun of nor spoofed.

wishbone-dog-ep-1-furst-impressions-youtube-2012-05-15-22-14-23We see Elizabeth and Darcy both make snap judgments about each other and allow themselves to believe false rumors. In time, through humility and honesty, they sort out their prejudices and discover their mutual love, and end up happy and healthy. Parallel to this we get a story of Joe and his friends, Samantha and David, who are agonizing over a school dance. False rumors set Sam and David against each other, and it looks like the chance of a fun, drama-free dance is gone. Feelings are hurt, tempers flare, and Joe finds his two best friends are unable to be near each other without shouting and accusing the other of lying. Finally, honesty and humility bring about forgiveness and understanding, and their friendships are restored. And just as in Austen’s book, the source of the rumors can be traced to an envious socialite who ends up lonely.

Far from the most nuanced or complete adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the Wishbone episode “Furst Impressions” nonetheless entertains with a direct, honest paraphrasing of the book’s most essential relationship. By showing Austen’s story side-by-side with a situation any modern kid can relate to (and adults too), it gives its audience a wise message of forgiveness and honesty, while quite possibly arousing interest in the source novel.

And it also stars a cute, energetic Jack Russell Terrier!

What’s your favorite Jane Austen adaptation? And did you ever watch Wishbone or read the Wishbone book series?

Next up on Classic Remarks: What children’s classic couldn’t you get enough of as a child?

Book Review: “The Legend of Tarik” by Walter Dean Myers

182269The Legend of Tarik
by Walter Dean Myers
Series: No.
Pages: 180
Published: 1981
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A young African captured into slavery in medieval Spain seeks vengeance for the murders of his father and brother, becoming a legendary hero in the process.
Reason for Begining: I’d never read a story following a heroic African in medieval Spain before, and it sounded quite interesting, especially since I know a thing or two about medieval Spain.
Reason for Finishing: A quick, reasonably entertaining read.
Story Re-readability: It’s easy enough to reread considering its length and quick pace, but it doesn’t hold enough interest for me personally.
Author Re-readability: I’d certainly be willing to read Myers again, although his story felt a bit rushed and didn’t have quite as much texture or unique interest as I would have liked.
Recommendation: It’s worth a read for dedicated bibliophiles, and may be quite appreciated by younger readers who are less picky than me about having fully fleshed-out stories with unique elements. Also recommended if you are starved for fantasy quests featuring non-European heroes.

Key Thoughts Continue reading “Book Review: “The Legend of Tarik” by Walter Dean Myers”

Classic Remarks: What to read after “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”

What Tolkien book would you recommend to a reader after they’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings?

3306190There are a few possibilities for this one, depending on your tastes. But my first answer would be The Silmarillion. This is the book with all the tales of how Middle-Earth came to be. It has the history of the Elves, Men, Dwarves, and a bit of hobbit history too, although for such unadventurous folk their origins are rather mysterious. It is a magnificent tapestry of hundreds of stories that all form a cohesive, meaningful whole. Anyone who reads the tales of Bilbo and Frodo and wants to know more about Middle-Earth should turn first to The Silmarillion.

597790But perhaps you’re intimidated by the size and density of The Silmarillion? You’ve heard it described as “the Old Testament with Elves” and worry that it will be too dry or complicated to jump right into. Even in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s language has a dense, old flavor to it that can be hard to swallow for readers unfamiliar with that style, and the promise of more stories told in a still denser, older style can intimidate even those who want to experience the stories themselves. In that case, I would recommend The Children of Húrin. This book tells one of The Silmarillion’s stories in an expanded form closer to a short novel. The language is still high and beautiful, but it’s a quicker, more self-sufficient read, and will give you a good taste of what to expect in The Silmarillion. I do warn you, it’s a dark, tragic tale, but as epic and moving as they come. If you like it, you can rest assured that you will find more of that quality in The Silmarillion, but also many stories that are happier and more hopeful.

Happy reading!

Next up: Is the Phantom of the Opera abusive or romantic? (You can discuss the musical or the book version, or the differences between the two.)