Monday, August 25, 2003

The Tale of Despereaux - and How to Tell More Than One Tale at a Time

Full disclosure: The odds were stacked against Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux (2003), before I ever cracked it open. How could I give an honest review when I'd seen the movie version first? That wasn't even the biggest problem. The basic story is about a mouse seeking adventure even as his family warns him against it - the same concept behind my Otter and Arthur books.

Then again, this was the winner of the 2004 Newbery medal. In fact, she's one of the few two-time winners, just nabbing the award again in 2014 for Flora and Ulysses. I'd also read her Mercy Watson series with my son and we loved them.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Despereaux is a mouse who neither looks nor behaves like he's "supposed" to. He's unnaturally small, has unnaturally large ears, and has an unnaturally over-sized curiosity. Against the basic mouse code, he interacts with a human - the Princess Pea - and gets banished to the castle dungeon, betrayed by his own family "ratting" him out.

A rat, Roscuro, figures prominently in the story as well. However, one hopes the rat might take a similar path as Despereaux and want to rise above his kind. He doesn't. Similarly, Miggery Sow, a not-so-bright orphan girl who dreams of being the princess, proves to be of less redeemable character.

The book divided into full sections devoted to each of the above characters. This proves its biggest flaw as we care about Despereaux's fate much more than Roscuro or Miggery Sow. While the stories all weave together in the end, the explorations into the latter two characters feels like a distraction initially. I'll have to watch the movie again, but I don't remember this being a distraction for me there.

In my own writing, my Otter and Arthur series focuses in on a mouse whose quest for adventure leads him to befriend King Arthur. However, the story remains focused at all times on Otter, as it is completely told from his perspective.

On the flip side, however, my latest novel, Abigail's Atlantis, weaves two stories together. The challenge is to get the reader to care about two main characters in two different stories. What have I learned about doing so after reading Despereaux? People have to care about the characters. A character who is drawn too unsympathetically can lose an audience. In Despereaux, the reader is curious about what will happen to these characters, but their stories are slightly underminded with a certain sense of "these characters deserve whatever's coming to them." With Abigail's Atlantis, it is important that readers root for both of my main characters. As such, I will strive to craft a story where people care about my characters.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

James Baldwin Go Tell It on the Mountain published 50 years ago today

First posted 1/4/2021.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

James Baldwin

First Publication: May 18, 1953

Category: semi-autobiographical novel

Sales: ?

Accolades (click on badges to see full lists):

About the Book:

“In one of the greatest American classics,” AZ James Baldwin unfurls a story “with lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate.” AZ James “Baldwin said of his first novel, ‘Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.’” AZ

The semi-autobiographical story focuses on teenager John Grimes in Harlem in the 1930s and the “discovery of the terms of his identity. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.” AZ

The novel reveals back stories of John’s parents, including his “violent, religious fanatic stepfather” WK and the “role of the Pentecostal Church in the lives of African-Americans as a negative source of repression and moral hypocrisy and also as a positive source of inspiration and community.” WK

“The rhythm and language of the story draw heavily on the language of the Bible…Many of the passages use the patterns of repetition identified by scholars such as Robert Alter and others as being characteristic of Biblical poetry.” WK

Resources and Related Links:

In July 2018, I became the organizer of the Classic Novels Book Club. Check out the Book Club tab here or Meetup for more information. This is our February 2021 book.

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

BBC’s “The Big Read”: Top 100

Posted April 2003; updated 2/16/2019.

image from

In April 2003 the BBC asked for nominations for the nation’s best-loved novels. The results of “The Big Read” were originally posted here, but are also listed here.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings (trilogy: 1954-1955)
  2. Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  3. Philip Pullman His Dark Materials (trilogy: 1995-2000)
  4. Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
  5. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
  6. Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  7. A.A. Milne Winnie-the-Pooh (1926)
  8. George Orwell 1984 (1949)
  9. C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1970)
  10. Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre (1847)

  11. Joseph Heller Catch-22 (1961)
  12. Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights (1847)
  13. Sebastian Faulk Birdsong (1993)
  14. Daphne Du Maurier Rebecca (1938)
  15. J.D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  16. William Grahame The Wind in the Willows (1908)
  17. Charles Dickens Great Expectations (1861)
  18. Louisa May Alcott Little Women (1869)
  19. Louis DeBernieres Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994)
  20. Leo Tolstoy War and Peace (1869)

  21. Margaret Mitchell Gone with the Wind (1936)
  22. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (aka Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) (1999)
  23. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
  24. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
  25. J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit (1937)
  26. Thomas Hardy Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891)
  27. George Eliot Middlemarch, a Study of Provincial Life (1872)
  28. John Irving A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
  29. John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  30. Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

  31. Jacqueline Wilson The Story of Tracy Beaker (1991)
  32. Gabriel García Márquez One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  33. Ken Follet The Pillars of the Earth (1989)
  34. Charles Dickens David Copperfield (1850)
  35. Roald Dahl Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)
  36. Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island (1883)
  37. Nevil Shute A Town Like Alice (1950)
  38. Jane Austen Persuasion (1818)
  39. Frank Herbert Dune (1965)
  40. Jane Austen Emma (1816)

  41. L.M. Montgomery Anne of Green Gables (1908)
  42. Richard Adams Watership Down (1972)
  43. F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby (1925)
  44. Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)
  45. Evelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited (1945)
  46. George Orwell Animal Farm (1954)
  47. Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol (1843)
  48. Thomas Hardy Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
  49. Michelle Magorian Goodnight Mister Tom (1981)
  50. Rosamunde Pitcher The Shell Seekers (1987)

  51. Frances Hodgson Burnett The Secret Garden (1987)
  52. John Steinbeck Of Mice and Men (1937)
  53. Stephen King The Stand (1978)
  54. Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina (1877)
  55. Vikram Seth A Suitable Boy (1993)
  56. Roald Dahl The BFG (1982)
  57. Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons (1930)
  58. Anna Sewell Black Beauty (1877)
  59. Eoin Colfer Artemis Fowl (series: 2001-2012)
  60. Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment (1866)

  61. Malorie Blackman Naughts and Crosses (2001)
  62. Arthur Golden Memoirs of a Geisha (1997)
  63. Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  64. Colleen McCullough The Thorn Birds (1977)
  65. Terry Pratchett Mort (1987)
  66. Enid Blyton The Magic Faraway Tree (1943)
  67. John Fowles The Magus (1965)
  68. Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman Good Omens (1990)
  69. Terry Pratchett Guards! Guards! (1989)
  70. William Golding Lord of the Flies (1954)

  71. Patrick Süskind Perfume (1985)
  72. Robert Tressell The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914)
  73. Terry Pratchett Night Watch (2002)
  74. Roald Dahl Matilda (1988)
  75. Helen Fielding Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996)
  76. Donna Tartt The Secret History (1992)
  77. Wilkie Collins The Woman in White (1860)
  78. James Joyce Ulysses (1922)
  79. Charles Dickens Bleak House (1853)
  80. Jacqueline Wilson Double Act (1995)

  81. Roald Dahl The Twits (1980)
  82. Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle (1948)
  83. Louis Sachar Holes (1999)
  84. Mervyn Peake Gormenghast (series: 1946-1956)
  85. Arundhati Roy The God of Small Things (1997)
  86. Jacqueline Wilson Vicky Angel (200)
  87. Aldous Huxley Brave New World (1932)
  88. Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
  89. Raymond E. Feist Magician (1982)
  90. Jack Kerouac On the Road (1957)

  91. Mario Puzo The Godfather (1969)
  92. Jean M. Auel The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980)
  93. Terry Pratchett The Colour of Magic (1983)
  94. Paulo Coelho O Alquimista (The Alchemist) (1987)
  95. Anya Seton Katherine (1954)
  96. Jeffrey Archer Kane and Abel (1979)
  97. Gabriel García Márquez Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
  98. Jacqueline Wilson Girls in Love (1997)
  99. Meg Cabot The Princess Diaries (2000)
  100. Salman Rushdie Midnight’s Children (1981)

Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Jack London's The Call of the Wild published 100 years ago

First posted 7/5/2020.

The Call of the Wild

Jack London

First Publication: 1903

Category: adventure novel

Sales: ?

Accolades (click on badges to see full lists):

About the Book:

“Jack London’s novels and ruggedly individual life seemed to embody American hopes, frustrations, and romantic longings in the turbulent first years of the twentieth century, years infused with the wonder and excitement of great technological and historic change. The author’s restless spirit, taste for a life of excitement, and probing mind led him on a series of hard-edged adventures.” AZ

His “experiences during the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon were the inspiration for The Call of the Wild. He saw the way dogsled teams behaved and how their owners treated (and mistreated) them.” LC

The Call of the Wild is “a gripping tale” AZ of Buck, a pampered house dog who has known comfort all of his life.” BN He is “kidnapped from his California home and sold to prospectors embarked for the Yukon Gold Rush.” BN He “finds himself thrust into a brutal world of cruel human masters, savage fellow sled-dogs, and an unforgiving wilderness full of hardship and misery.” BN “From then on, survival of the fittest becomes Buck’s mantra as he learns to confront and survive the harsh realities of his new life as a sled dog.” LC

“Buck earns the love of a man as rugged as he is, and he reacquaints himself with his true animal nature, a noble heritage passed down through tens of thousands of years of his kind's survival.” BN Buck “ultimately faces a choice between living in man’s world and returning to nature.” AZ

“Adventure and dog-story enthusiasts as well as students and devotees of American literature will find this classic work a thrilling, memorable reading experience.” AZ

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