Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ranma 1/2 Volumes 20 and 21 by Rumiko Takahashi

Let's end the year off right, folks. That's right, it's my last two Ranma volumes of the year... I am now over halfway through the series, and still enjoying it thoroughly. Luckily for me, too, I don't think I'm going to have to ILLO any more, because my local library (not the one I work at) has the rest of the volumes to the end of the series! And now, onto the serious business of reviewing Ranma 1/2.

Maybe it's just me, but I think there might have actually been a little emotional depth to these two volumes of Ranma 1/2. Ranma continues to develop as a character -- mostly reinforcing things we already knew, but to be honest I didn't realize his ego was quite as big as it is, or quite as fragile. Akane has a couple of awesome moments too, although I'm not sure I see her character developing quite as much.

Takahashi really starts playing with gender and stereotypes in these two volumes. Like, in a much more in-depth way than has happened before, I think. Or perhaps I'm just in a more serious frame of mind today. In Volume 20, for example, we meet... Ranma's mother. Yes. Ranma has a mother. And she shows up. And it turns out that Ranma would like very much to meet her (it's quite sweet, actually) but because of a pact Genma made with her, that's pretty much impossible at this point. I won't say much more, other than that Takahashi takes shots at "manliness" and the ridiculous extremes people will go to. Which is very fun in this context.

Volume 21 further muddies the waters with a storyline in which Ryoga gets himself a veeery dangerous fishing rod -- one that will make someone fall in love with him. Of course, he's planning to use it on Akane, but of course, things don't go as planned. Deeelightful. And it involves Ryoga and I still enjoyed it, so there you go. I think overall this story is maturing a bit; not that it's not as completely ridiculous as it was in the beginning, but I think that Takahashi has settled into a nice rhythm with this story. In addition, as a reader, I've settled into the rhythm too.

Not much else to report -- we meet most everyone in these two volumes again: Kuno, Shampoo, Mousse, Cologne, Happosai, Pantyhose Taro, Gosunkugi, in addition to the regular family members... that might be it. Plus there are octopi jokes, and lots of fun especially with the Pantyhose Taro episode. So overall, two fun volumes, and I've ordered the next two from the local library (as opposed to mine, because we don't have them.) These are so perfect for reading on a day when I am distracted and busy, and want to read but don't want a giant in-depth thing. So, yay Ranma!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

first lines meme

I don't do memes a lot, but I really like this one from Melanie at The Indextrious Reader and the more I see it popping up around the interblogs, the more keen I am to see what my first lines of each month have to say.

January
Oh, bliss.

February
As I mentioned earlier, I've decided I need to read more poetry.

March
I wanted to write about this book because, in my humble opinion, it is an outstanding gardening book. [Patrick Lima's The Organic Home Garden]

April
Oy. I did not mean to get sidetracked.

May
I'm cheating a little here.

June
Guys, I've done it again.

July
Ah, Discworld.

August
Before I started Eat, Pray, Love I was a little worried it might be too God-y for me.

September
I've had a little trouble today deciding what to pick my teaser from.

October
Curse of the Tahiera is the story of Rom, a young man who has borne the brunt of everyone's prejudices since he was a baby because of the way he looks: he is an obvious Tzanatzi.

November
"It takes more than a bit of magic and someone being blown to smoke in front of him to put a wizard off his food." [from Sourcery by Terry Pratchett]

December
Do you know what, it's Teaser Tuesday!

I see that both Discworld and Teaser Tuesday are representing, which is hardly a surprise. And then there are the spring months, where I was going through a wee reading slump. And then some reviews -- gardening books and my first ever author-provided read, which was both a good read and an important lesson in what stresses me out, blogging-wise.

Thanks for the idea Melanie, that was fun!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

the year of blogging successfully

I started this blog exactly one year ago today as a Christmas present to myself. And so today, I quietly roll into my second year of book blogging. I started this a year ago on the assumption that I might read more if I recorded it somehow, and I was inspired to share the books I read with the blogosphere by (especially) Nymeth and Darla.

More often than not, I've accomplished my book a week goal, with its accompanying review -- but more than that, I've found myself floating out here in the blogosphere, surrounded by a world of book bloggers I never knew existed. I now have a veritable mountain on the TBR list (and I know what TBR means!) and it's all thanks to the book bloggers out there who share their love of reading with the world. Things like Book Blogger Appreciation Week and, most recently, the Virtual Advent Tour have seen the number of blogs regularly reporting to my reader go up from around 30 (which I thought was a lot) to almost 200. Which really is a lot for someone like me.

So, because I'm curious, let's look at some of the numbers.

Books read in the past year: 95
Fiction read: 80
Nonfiction read: 15
Adult books read: 61
Young adult books read: 21
Children's books read: 13
Canadian books read: 22
Graphic novels/manga read: 33

Favourite reads of the past year in no particular order:
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore - Hands down my favourite of the year. I know not everyone will love this one as much as I did, but I was blown away.
  • The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys - This was a stunning and unusual winter read and I will likely pick it up again soon, my own copy this time.
  • The Wee Free Men by Sir Terry Pratchett - This book started me on the journey to read everything Pratchett has written, which excellent results so far. This one is still my favourite of his though.
  • Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O'Malley - The lone graphic novel representing on this list, I absolutely fell in love with this book and would like everyone in the world to read it.
  • Airborn by Kenneth Oppel - Such a great adventure, very well written, and now a permanent fixture on my shelf.
  • The Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon, and particularly The Crow - I loved this series, even if the ending wasn't exactly the emotional punch I'd hoped; The Crow is one of the most moving and grueling fantasy books I've ever read.
  • An Ecology of Enchantment by Des Kennedy - Brilliantly funny and insightful ruminations on a year in a west-coast Canadian garden; you don't have to be a gardener to enjoy Kennedy's beautiful writing.
  • Island of the Blessed by Harry Thurston - This book took me nearly a month to read, but it was well worth it; Thurston's prose is very accessible and the tales and facts he exposes in this book on an Egyptian oasis are all engaging and fascinating.

Upcoming books to be read (as my mood allows):
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett
  • The Broken Thread by Linda Smith
  • Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson
  • The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake
  • Popular Music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi

An interesting thing I noted when compiling these stats: most of my nonfiction reads are Canadian. I didn't plan it that way, but apparently I prefer to read Canadian nonfiction; it's not necessarily about Canada, but it's mostly written by Canadians. Also, I note that Canadian authors are disproportionately represented on my favourites list, and that's a curious thing too.

It's been an education, and it's been a lot of fun. Thank you to the other bloggers out there, for inspiring me and for keeping me up to date on what's out there to read. And a huge thank you to everyone who follows me, in a reader, by Google, or by clicking over here every once in a while. Thank you for your comments, and thank you for your support! I'll be honest: I'd do it with or without anyone reading, but having people who read and enjoy what I write, and who share their own thoughts and experiences here, is fantastic and adds a wonderful dimension to what I do here. So thank you all.

Looking ahead -- I can't say that my goal has changed much. I plan to read, preferably a book a week, and write a review of everything I read (as long as I finish it). I'll continue with FreeVerse and probably an occasional Tuesday teaser. I'm amazed at how diverse my reading has become with the blog incentive; I intend to continue to broaden my horizons, but I'm also going to stick to reading things I want to read, things I buy for myself or get as gifts or take out of the library. I'm not joining challenges (because for me, that way lies madness) and I'm not going to be accepting ARCs from publishers (because that way also lies madness). Low pressure reading and reviewing, that's what it's about for me.

So onward we go, reading all the way! Thanks again everyone, and I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

FreeVerse: Welcome Christmas (Dr. Seuss)

So, for what will be my final FreeVerse post of the year, I bring you some Dr. Seuss lyrics from my favourite holiday movie: the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Dr. Seuss, like Ogden Nash, was never one to let the non-existence of a word stand in his way. The version I post here comes from this website.

FreeVerse is brought to all of us by Cara at Ooh... Books! Head on over there for more poetry!

Welcome Christmas, Christmas Day! May all my readers have a wonderful holiday full of peace and joy, no matter what holiday you celebrate. I'll be back on the 26th.


Welcome Christmas (Reprise)

Lyrics by Dr. Seuss, 1957

Fa who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Christmas, Come this way!

Fa who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Christmas, Christmas Day.

Welcome, Welcome
Fa who rah-moose
Welcome, Welcome
Dah who dah-moose
Christmas Day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to clasp

Fa who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Christmas,
bring your cheer
Fa who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome all Whos
Far and near

Welcome Christmas
Fa who rah-moose
Welcome Christmas
Dah who dah-moose
Christmas day will always be
Just so long as we have we

Fa who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Christmas
bring your light

Welcome Christmas
Fa who rah-moose
Welcome Christmas
Dah who dah-moose
Welcome Christmas while we stand
Heart to heart and hand in hand

Fa who for-aze
Dah who dor-aze
Welcome, Welcome
Christmas
Christmas
Day

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Write Away by Elizabeth George

I have never liked it when a blurb says "This book will change your life!" because a) do you know me? and b) no it won't. I mean, there are some books that do have an emotional or intellectual impact on a person, I am not saying that they can't, but the book, in and of itself, isn't going to change anything. It is going to sit there and be a book. Take the agency away from the book and put it where it belongs.

All of this said... it is possible that I am going to change my life a little in response to Elizabeth George's Write Away. I had a pretty major mental shift while I was reading this book, puzzling over what George writes and thinking about how it applies to the way I think and feel about writing. It got me excited about writing fiction, but it also really hit home for me that what I have been doing thus far, as far as writing, is barely even a hobby. A hobby implies that there is some sort of structure, some sort of goal. My writing to this point has been entirely, completely for fun and escape.

And let me say too, I have no qualms about that. It's a perfectly good reason to write, and I will continue to do that. Where the problem lies is this: I have always nursed the secret desire to actually write a novel. (Note: I say secret. Not so secret anymore, I guess; even writing that sentence was a little squirm-inducing.) Publishable or not, I have wanted to write a novel. I've written for NaNoWriMo, and I've even finished a few things (that's a big step in and of itself.) But what I have been considering as my writing up to this point is really never, ever going to come close to reaching something that is recognizable as a novel. Part of what this book has done for me is set it out in plain English: if I really want to write in any serious way, I've got to get serious about writing.

George says that there are three components of writing that are unteachable: art, passion, and discipline. (We'll discuss discipline in a moment, shall we?) And then there is the foundation skills, the craft of writing, which George argues is entirely teachable. She puts it this way: someone had to teach J.S. Bach how to read and write music. He wouldn't have become the composer he was if he didn't have the foundation of craft to build upon. So why should writing be treated any differently? The thing is, I believe I can put words together in a compelling way, when I'm on my game. I love doing it. I love getting the idea, I love meeting new characters in my head and letting them play in the sandbox that is my writing. I think, if I get serious, I can even pull out the discipline (which, incidentally, I do think is teachable -- I think I can train myself to glue myself to my seat and do what is necessary to actually produce; NaNoWriMo has taught me that). But I am missing, in many ways, the craft. I have never paid enough attention to craft as being important. So when I did decide that I should think seriously about writing, I floundered. Flailed, even. I drowned in bad habits and a complete lack of understanding of what writing, professionally, actually is. I have read about writing before -- how to write, what writing is, writing prompts, autobiographies of writers. But nothing has fired me up the way this book has.

But enough about me. Following are some of the most important things I liked about Write Away.

George is both adamant that writing craft can be taught, and emphatic that not everyone learns, teaches, or writes the same way. She provides examples of her process, and that of others to contrast it -- and there's no saying which one is "best" -- just what is best for her. She of course spends more time on her theories and processes, but one never gets the impression that she does that because she thinks its best, but because it's what she knows best.

At the beginning of every chapter she includes a paragraph from her various "Journals of a Novel." She does one for each novel she writes, and these paragraphs made a big impression on me. It's really fascinating to get just a tiny bit of insight into some of her insecurities and thoughts, as well as some of the things she says to cheer herself up and keep herself going.

In the first part of the book, she talks a lot about writing well -- an overview, essentially, of what makes a good novel. In the process she exposes some things about reading that I think are fundamental, but good to note. On character, for example, which is the very first thing she talks about, making it explicit that she believes developing good characters is the key to writing a good novel:

What we take away from our reading of a good novel mainly is the memory of character. This is because events -- both in real life and in fiction -- take on greater meaning once we know the people who are involved in them.

On choosing and creating setting:

One piece of advice that neophyte writers are always given is "write about your own backyard." Loosely translated this means to write about an environment with which you are familiar. Broadly translated it means write what you know.

To this I say balderdash.

YES! I've always wanted to write fantasy, which is bloody hard to consider my own physical backyard -- least the kind of fantasy I want to write. And I had teachers in public and high school who actively discouraged that sort of thing in creative writing using the "write what you know" maxim which is, to this day, a freaking monkey on my back. I should say I don't think they were being deliberately anti-fantasy, since they encouraged my fantasy and sci-fi reading inclinations. But taking "write what you know" literally (meaning: people like me, in places where I live, doing things I understand from personal experience) is an insidious little doubt-inducing habit and I hate it. In the above context, George goes on to say in this section that it's best to write about a place that excites you, whether that's a physically real place or a place in your head. She has a very high opinion of Herbert's world-building in Dune, for example.

On process, which was one of the paragraphs that induced some mental shifting:

Every writer has to develop her own process: what works for her time and time again. Having no process is like having no craft. It leaves you dangling out there over the abyss, a potential victim of writers' block. Having no process puts you at enormous risk because writing becomes a threat instead of a joy, something that you are terrified to begin each day because you are at the mercy of a Muse that you do not understand how to beckon.

Overall, if you like to write, or want to write, or think you might want to write someday, I recommend this book. I recommend it for readers, too, who want to know what goes into writing fiction. She really humanizes authors. Some of the things she talks about are quite basic, but in my case, I needed that. I have no illusions: this book will not change my life. But I might just attempt some changes for myself because of it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Frost)

Thanks to Cara at Ooh... Books! for another week of poetry celebration! Stop by her blog to see what poetry others have got for us this week. I've picked a poem this week that many, many people already know, but it's definitely worth celebrating and highlighting. Aaaand... as I am linking this entry, I see that Cara and I are on the same wavelength. Different entries, same poem, that's okay, right?

This is one of my favourite snowy poems, and my favourite Robert Frost poem, which is saying a fair bit. It's another one my mother has memorized and would often quote to us, and we had the Susan Jeffers' illustrated book. I think her illustrations are part and parcel of how I feel about this poem -- she has captured the muted feeling of a snowy woods in the evening absolutely perfectly.


Do try to find this book if you haven't seen it. It's absolutely worth it, and a marvellous example of illustrated poetry. The poem itself is so beautiful it never fails to make my throat tight.


Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Let It Snow by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle; and a YA question

I am struggling with a question here, and I'd love to hear others' opinions: what makes a good young adult novel? Is it that YAs can connect with it? Is it that they enjoy it? Is it that it's a good book that everyone can enjoy, but that speaks to YAs in particular? Is it something else? Lately I've been reading a fair bit of what is classified as YA FIC at our library. Graceling I adored and will read again and again. Ice I thought missed me as its ideal audience, because rather than sympathizing with the YA main character, I felt like a worried adult when I was reading about her. And the book I'm reviewing here, Let It Snow, was definitely YA but I thoroughly enjoyed it even though it did some weird things to my adult equilibrium. Hence the question: what makes it YA, and what makes it good?

And now... to the review! *gallops off into the snow*

Let It Snow is actually three short holiday romances: "The Jubilee Express" by Maureen Johnson, "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle" by John Green, and "The Patron Saint of Pigs" by Lauren Myracle. Each are connected by setting and characters, though none of the sets of main characters meet each other more than incidentally until the end of Myracle's story. I love this sort of thing, the little nods to each others' stories throughout. Myracle has the job of tying all these threads together, and I think she does a fabulous job.

If I had to pick a favourite story, I would fuss about it and drag my feet. Then I would probably say Maureen Johnson's was extra-special because I think I clicked with the humour best in that story. And by clicked, I mean laughing out loud, causing fishy to come into the living room (from upstairs, no less) to figure out what the heck was going on. The other two stories did inspire multiple gleeful giggles, though. All three were delightful meditations on broken hearts, new love, old love, friendship, and the meaning of cheerleaders. I mean Christmas. No, wait, I do mean cheerleaders.

Now, as I said above, my adult equilibrium was a bit shaken by this book, and I have come to the conclusion that this means the book was good. After reading Let It Snow, I spent much of the evening and night in a somewhat uncomfortable and occasionally mortifying memory spasm, remembering things that I did in high school and shortly thereafter while still young enough to be considered a young adult myself. I've got some happy memories and I managed to squeeze a few of those in there, but oftentimes I managed to only get the special teenage moments that one looks back at and wonders how one actually survived it all with dignity and heart intact. But what all of this means, to me, that the stories clicked. They connected to some adolescent memory centre and activated it so that not only did I sympathize with the teens in the stories, I empathized with them too. So I wonder what it does for the young adults who read this book?

Overall, a very highly recommended holiday read. It might have been a wee bit uncomfortable remembering those years so vividly for me, but it was totally worth it for the sweet sweet holiday kisses, and the at points absolutely ridiculous, riotous, hilarious ride. I intend to be reading more from all these authors in the new year. Also, though I know this was a popular read last holiday season, I need to thank Nymeth especially because it was her review that first inspired me to pick this one up.

And seriously, comments please: what makes a YA novel YA, and what makes it good?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

FreeVerse: There Were No Signs (Layton)

Was at our annual luncheon for all the library staff today. There were lots of lovely little moments, lots of great conversation, lots of laughing. It's a group of very intelligent people, so the conversation is often quite lively. We're all very passionate about public libraries and their place in the community, which means there is at least one thing we all have in common.

The high point for me, though, was when the past chairman of the library board read poetry at the end of his speech. You could almost hear the intense appreciation from the audience as he read, the collected intake of breath when he finished. His speech, with which he ended this poem, was a brief one about the exciting plans for new branches, and renovating old libraries so they better serve their purpose now. But to end it with a poem by a well-loved Canadian poet was a stroke of genius on his part. He read it simply and very well, and it was to me a brilliant example of how poetry can enter the everyday and make it extraordinary.

Now, because there is a definite "DO NOT REPRODUCE THIS" statement on the pdf form on which Irving Layton's poem There Were No Signs appears, I shall not reproduce it. I shall instead link to it, and hope you all enjoy.

There Were No Signs by Irving Layton

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, and I really shouldn't have, that FreeVerse is a non-meme run every Wednesday by Cara over at Ooh... Books! Thanks for the opportunity to celebrate poetry, Cara!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I have read a lot of really good books this year, I think in part because I've been getting some excellent recommendations from the blogosphere. All those blogs I follow have lead to a veritable mountain of books I'd like to read, and I'm rarely disappointed when I finally get to them. Which means that I am starting to get a little concerned, because I've read at least three books this year that are instant favourites -- The Wee Free Men, Airborn, and The Crow -- and that seems like maybe a lot. Except that now I have one that might top them all, for I have finished Graceling.

If I hadn't finished NaNoWriMo this year, I would have blamed this book. And it would have been worth it. Yes, I could have held off for a few more days to open it, but I didn't. Yes, I could have had the self-control to set it down, but I didn't. And that's okay.

This book was one of those that I was rather afraid to read, given how many people have loved it and how many brilliant reviews, from bloggers and industry journals alike, it has received. It couldn't possibly be as good as I hoped it would be. My expectations were too high, and I was destined to be disappointed. Now I've read it, and I wasn't disappointed: I loved this book so much I wanted to crawl inside it and stay there forever. This one is an instant comfort read for me, one that will sit happily on my shelf next to Range of Motion, The Blue Sword, Sunshine, The Changeling Sea, and Riddle-Master. I'll read it again soon. I may start today.

Katsa is a Graceling, born with an unnatural proclivity towards a particular skill. Her skill is killing; she is unbeatable in combat, and since she was ten years old, her uncle the king has used her as a weapon. She is his thug, forced to travel around his kingdom and torture, maim or kill at his whim. But she has started to chafe at these duties. Then one night on a daring mission, things don't go quite as planned when she meets another Graced fighter in the garden of a mercenary king and sets in motion events that will change her life forever.

I don't quite know what else to say about this book, but I will try to keep away from random adoring gibberish. It challenged my assumptions about what fantasy quest and/or coming-of-age plotlines look like, because a number of times it didn't go in the direction I expected it to, in the best ways. It has an absolutely stunning main character, who strides through the pages naturally and confidently, and when Katsa grows as a character it is so organic as to be unnoticeable except when you think back to the beginning of the story and recognize the changes. It has a male lead who is kind, competent, and strong without being overbearing and overprotective, who never once crosses those lines, even when those he is fighting for are not as capable as Katsa. It has a well-built world, a cast of characters that have hidden depths, and a truly gripping plot.

If you're reading this review and thinking it's too good to be true, I don't blame you because that is exactly what I thought too. If it takes you months to get to this book because you're afraid that it won't measure up to your expectations, I hear you. If you are one of those people who doesn't want to read it because everyone else seems to be doing so and you're thinking it's a fad, I can assure you that this is one book that deserves all the attention it has been getting.

I have lots of bloggers to thank for this one, because a lot of people have read and loved this book and kept pushing me closer and closer to the reading point. And I also have to thank Mandy's Spinner of Death-to-Impulse-Control because that's where I got my copy from despite my well-laid impulse-book-purchase-control plans.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Virtual Advent: Cookiestravaganza 2009

This is the first time I've participated in the Virtual Advent Blog Tour. In fact... this is the first time I've participated in a blog tour, period. But I really loved the idea, and I love the season, and I am really grateful to Marg and Kelly for hosting!

For me, the holiday season is about two things: food and family. Not necessarily in that order. It's also about snow and giving and carols and memories and traditions, but when I'm thinking Christmas, I'm thinking food and family and the various combinations thereof.

This year, I tried combining those things in a new way. My husband (aka "fishy" here on the blog) and I have owned our house for three, almost four years. For much of that time, being first-time homeowners, we've been grievously under-furnished; but we're getting there, and this year I got the... um, shall we say ambitious? idea to host a cookie bake with my mother's family, as many of them as could join.

When the day arrived, we had representatives of all the six familial contingents (my mother has four siblings, and then there's my grandmother) except the Gatineau group, who were sorely missed but it's understandable that two days' driving for a day of cookie baking is somewhat excessive. They'll be down for Christmas and will possibly be allowed to eat some of the day's spoils.

If there are any left. Just saying.

The spoils of the day included:
  • checkerboard cookies from Grandma
  • chocolate bark with dried fruit and candycanes from Mom (with Valery and Emily)
  • mocha thumbprints and pink peppermint cookies from Aunt Kathy (with Ana)
  • Russian tea cookies and shortbread coconut thumbprints from Aunt Sherry (with Emily)
  • deadly rich chocolate orange shortbread bars from yours truly
Aunt Sherry and I also attempted experimental cardamom merangues, which I really enjoyed despite the egg whites' insistence that they would not form stiff peaks thankyouverymuch. They might have been a wee bit funny looking, but they were delicious. Part of the experience for me was learning; I enjoy baking, and am not bad at parts of it. But my mother's family are creative, inventive, and very good with food, so I like to take any opportunity to soak up the cooking goodness.

Other random details:
  • Valery declared our original Nintendo Entertainment System to be "beast" which I believe is a good thing, and therefore I agree with him. He rocked those 20+ year-old games.
  • Our youngest baker was almost 8, and our oldest baker was almost 80.
  • I have gained the most excellent pair of socks EVER from this endeavour, provided by my knittingest aunt, Kathy:

(sooooocks!)

All in all, a successful food-and-family holiday combination. Ana announced at dinner (fishy's major contribution to the day aside from the cleaning marathon the day before: a double-batch of delicious chili) that we should do it again next year. I am inclined to agree. At the risk of getting a little sentimental and sappy, I feel so fortunate to have this family with whom to share my holiday food love. They're a big part of the reason why this season is so very precious to me.

To keep this somewhat book-related (this is a book blog, after all) I got my recipe from The Complete Christmas Book by the editors of Canadian Living Magazine. This is an excellent, practical and lovely book full of fun crafts, great decorating tips, and most of all very, very delicious-looking recipes. Mmm, food!

Head over to the Virtual Advent blog to find some other wonderful holiday-themed posts! And I am in wonderful company. Today's participants, other than me, are:
The Zen Leaf
Just One More Thing...
BookNAround

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ice by Sarah Beth Durst (*with Mandy from edge of seventeen!*)

Remember that bookseller/librarian secret-taking-over-the-world thing I've mentioned a couple times? Voila! I give you my first buddy read/review, in which Mandy from edge of seventeen and I foray into the high Arctic and cavort with polar bears in Sarah Beth Durst's Ice.

My review:

I started Ice by Sarah Beth Durst with really high hopes. On the surface, it looked perfect for me: a re-telling of my favourite fairytale (East of the Sun and West of the Moon), set in the high Arctic, with a strong female protagonist who has grown up at an Arctic research station. Biological science and fairytales = two of my favourite things, so how can I possibly go wrong?

Cassandra Dasent is the daughter of an Arctic researcher, who has grown up at his research station. Her passions are polar bears and the Arctic ice, and she intends to become a researcher herself. Her mother is dead. When Cassie was little, her grandmother often told her a story: her mother was the daughter of the North Wind, who was promised to be the bride of the Polar Bear King. But Cassie's mother fell in love with a human man instead, and made a bargain with the King -- if he would protect her and her family from the North Wind's anger, her daughter would be his bride in her stead. But the North Wind did find Cassie's mother and in his fury carried her to a castle east of the sun and west of the moon, where she was imprisoned by trolls. This is just a story, Cassie knows. Yet on her eighteenth birthday, she tracks the most marvellous and unusual bear she has ever seen. When he finds out, her father goes to extremes and banishes her from the station, to go live in Fairbanks with her grandmother. Cassie's not about to go -- and she is about to test the limits of her understood reality.

The setting and description was really well done; there is a love of wild places that really shines through in this book, and a deep respect for the creatures that inhabit these places where humans can barely go. I liked that the wilderness felt so vast, so unknowable, so full of beauty but implacable, too. Cassie's love for the Arctic, for the ice, and for the bears really came through, but it's not just from her that this respect and awe of the northern wilderness is apparent -- it's embedded in the fabric of the writing.

In a fairytale, the characters are essentially placeholders. The Grimms never gave much characterization to the princesses or kings or third sons that filled their stories; they were all essentially the same, and their characteristics are determined by their station in life: step-sisters are greedy and jealous; tailors are clever and often amoral; princesses are good but often demanding and remote unless they're the focus of the story, in which case they usually have to lose everything before they can have a happily ever after. It is hard to feel particularly connected or sympathetic to these character outlines.

What I'm getting at is I had a hard time connecting to either Cassie or Bear. Cassie was funny and feisty; she had a great sarcastic sense of humour, which I thoroughly enjoyed; and she was stubborn and impulsive. Bear was kind, and gentle, and noble, and several centuries worth of patient -- but Bear especially I had a hard time getting a handle on because he seemed so remote. Both of them I felt rather removed from through most of the book, and I'm not sure why. I think it may be because though I liked Cassie a lot, there were great swathes of the book where I was really irritated with her. Her impulsiveness was just disastrous a lot of the time, and sometimes I felt it was at odds with her intelligence. The thing was, intellectually I can understand where her decisions and actions and feelings were coming from, but I didn't really *understand* them in a way that would connect me to her because I got so frustrated with her. To be honest, this may be because I am well beyond eighteen now, and those who are closer to that stage of life might have a much easier time connecting with Cassie than I did.

The other thing that really bothered me about this book is a huge, huge, book-ruining spoiler, so I'm not quite sure how to deal with this. Let me just say, I have encountered this problem before in romance novels and in a couple of cases it actually made me quit the book immediately, so the fact that I actually picked up Ice again after my WTFBBQ??! moment is a sign: Ice was good enough that I wanted to give it another chance. Also, this Incident wasn't as bad as some Incidents of the same type I've read. It's mostly about communication, and the way people talk to each other in relationships, and the fact that there are some things, big life-altering things, that need to be arrived at together, not by one partner making a decision on an assumption, no matter how well-meaning they are. And the way both Cassie and Bear handled it, before and after, was just so infuriating to me. You are in a loving relationship, you TALK to eachother, okay? Even when it's scary and hard.

If you know of which Incident I speak and wish to discuss further, or you don't know and absolutely must find out before reading the book, my email is my username at gmail.

Anyway. That review is long enough! I did enjoy Ice, and I would recommend it with caveats. It's a fun read, and in parts a really lovely read. I do think it's a read that lends itself to discussion, too, because of the Incident, which maybe is not such a bad thing.

****

And now, Mandy answers my questions:

Do you like Cassie as a character? Do you like her with Bear?
[Note from K: I have to admit, I stole this question from Mandy because I wanted to hear her opinion on it too.]

I liked Bear better than Cassie, although I'll get into this later, Cassie surprised me at times. Bear, I agree, would have been a stronger character if we saw him as a human more often. Like if he were more like a were-bear (I just wanted to write that). Because no matter how much you love someone for their mind and heart, the fact that they are in an animal suit more often than their human suit would be a problem. This is more of the fairy tale aspect of the story talking of course; when I watch Disney's Beauty and the Beast I prefer him as the beast--at the end he is less cool as a human (and also blonde? why?). I wanted to know more about his human-ness.

Cassie surprised me when, at the beginning, Bear tells her that if he answers all her questions she must agree to stay with him. She begins to ask all the questions she can think of and I was like "Woman shut up! You are trapping yourself!". Then when Bear says "ha, now you must stay" Cassie says "Well, actually I never agreed to the proposal". I was proud of her at that moment. Her character is the fiery brave kind and sometimes I thought I wasn't getting enough of her inner life. Sometimes Cassie was too much the fairy tale hero.

Ultimately I would have loved more of their life together at the castle before they split up, before Bear has to leave her.


Cassie had a "family" back at the research station; what do you think of her relationship with them, while she's there and after she's left?

It's funny, I never felt a bond between Cassie and her dad. He wasn't fully formed in my mind (even less so, her mother). I didn't get the feeling that Cassie had a home at the station. Before she leaves with Bear I saw Cassie as more of a loner and her dad as one of those busy-with-work types. When she returns, thinking to recapture her "home" life, I didn't feel that Cassie was really missed. Her family members were kind of forgettable to me. Except for her grandmother. I could have used a few more scenes with her.

Overall, I had the strong sense that Cassie wasn't giving up too much to be with Bear. And that Bear was her true "home".



How did you feel about Father Forest, and what did you think of his role in the story?

The Father Forest events, apart from the end sequence, was the most fairy-tale-like aspect of Ice. His character is nurturing and wise, but also smothering. He represents that aspect of ourselves that wants to avoid plunging into icy oceans and confronting trolls. It wants us to put self-protection ahead of other, more dangerous considerations. So it was an interesting and necessary, very fairy-tale-like, addition to the story. He was the walking question "why put yourself in danger when you don't have to?" The hardest thing for a hero to defeat is self-doubt. Heros always have to re-connect with their concern for others--to remember exactly why they want to risk themselves to save others. In Cassie's case, she loves Bear and it dissolves any doubt. She is able to properly resist Father Forest in a gripping action scene.

****

Thank you so much Mandy! This is my first "buddy review" and it's been a great experience and a lot of fun. Having the chance to talk this book over with you has given me some new perspectives on it. For one thing, I hadn't really thought of Father Forest in a symbolic way, and now he makes a lot more sense to me, and Cassie's actions in that section, too; in fact, I'd sort of been rooting (ha ha!) for Father Forest because I honestly agreed with him the entire time, even if his methods were a bit... extreme. But I agree, the path she takes makes a lot of sense in her fairytale hero role. Conclusion: I would suck as a fairytale hero.

Head over to edge of seventeen to check out Mandy's review and the other half of our conversation! Tune in sometime in the hopefully near future for our foray into getting me to appreciate the wonderful/terrible world of YA dystopian fiction.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

FreeVerse: When you drive the Queensborough roads at midnight (Ondaatje)

More Michael Ondaatje. I hope no one is getting bored yet. I just discovered this one in his collection The Cinnamon Peeler, which I am growing to love.

From The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje, published in 1989 by McLelland and Stewart:


When you drive the
Queensborough roads at midnight


do not look at a star
or full moon. Look out for frogs.
And not the venerable ones who recline
on gravel parallel to the highway
but the foolhardy, bored by a country night
dazzled by the adventure of passing beams.

We know their type of course, local heroes
who take off their bandanas and leap naked,
night green, seduced
by the whispers of michelin.

To them we are distinct death.
I am fond of these foolish things
more than the moon.
They welcome me after absence.
One of them is my youth
still jumping into rivers
take care and beware of him.

Knowing you love this landscape
there are few rules.
Do not gaze at moons.
Nuzzle the heat in granite.
Swim toward pictographs.
Touch only reflections.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Let It Snow

Do you know what, it's Teaser Tuesday! And it's no longer November, so I'm actually reading something for fun to tease. It's even seasonal! Let It Snow is a collection of three interconnected novellas, all set on Christmas Eve and centred around a crashed train and a Waffle House: one by Maureen Johnson, one by John Green, and one by Lauren Myracle. And so far it is fabulous: sweet, funny, warm, and romantic. And did I mention funny? I'm sitting here on the couch giggling like a lunatic. But you may judge for yourself. I am including more than two sentences. More than three sentences, in fact. I am including a bunch, because they are very short.

From "The Jubilee Express" (Maureen Johnson) in Let It Snow, p22:

She was a sharp one, this Amber. What would she notice next? The train? The moon? The hilarious vagaries of human existence? Her own head?

I didn't say any of that, because death by cheerleader is not really the way I want to go.


Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Should Be Reading. It works as follows:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Be careful not to include spoilers!
  • Include the title and author.

Monday, November 30, 2009

NaNoWriMo 2009: Complete!

I did it! I have to be totally honest, folks, I had no illusions at all. November has been a pretty busy month and I knew it would be going in. And this story has been more challenging to write, too, which wasn't the intention, but I'm glad I went with it. I'm glad I stuck with it, and I have fishy to thank for that -- when I said, quite seriously that I was thinking about quitting, he came up big with the "quitting is not an option!" bit. And I also have to thank my brother for giving me encouragement and helping me see that the story, as is, is not as terrible as I thought it was. In fact, it might even be salvageable. I didn't even have to pay him to say it.

Much thanks must also go to those who stuck it out with me via email and Twitter, especially @kashicat and @Melwyk who cheered me on and encouraged me, and Mandy who was really patient with my slacking on our secret project, all of which made me feel like I was absolutely not alone throughout the month. It meant a lot :)

And now: a glass of delicious wine, and ... yes, more writing. 50 000 is finished, but the story itself is definitely not. I've got some momentum, so why quit now?

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

There were a couple catalysts for me reading this book. Nymeth reviewed another Mahy supernatural, The Haunting, not long ago (one I haven't read yet, but is on the list now) and someone else tweeted that they had to stop reading The Changeover because it was creeping them out too much. Normally, I wouldn't consider "it's creeping me out!" to be a recommendation -- I would quietly go find something with puppies and rainbows to read -- but this book was one of my favourites when I was much younger, and I've been itching to pick it up again. I wanted to see if a) it was as good as I remembered, and b) if it really was that creepy to me. It's been -- oh gosh, fifteen years? since I last read this book. Tastes change. But Nymeth's favourable feeling on The Haunting convinced me that Mahy's writing may be worth a second look.

One person's creepiness, by the way, is another person's perfectly enjoyable suspense. I am not a person who can handle certain types of creepiness, but I think The Changeover suits me perfectly. I can certainly see where it might be considered creepy though.

Laura Chant is a fourteen year old girl, growing up in the suburbs of what I believe must be Wellington, New Zealand. She lives with her mother Kate and her three-year-old brother Jacko, and they're a relatively happy little family, though not problem-free. Laura's father left them for another woman just after Jacko was born, and there's not a lot of money to go around. But overall things are good. Except that when the story opens, Laura gets a warning (wonderfully and atmospherically described), and shortly after that, Jacko falls severely ill. Laura knows what's wrong with him but not how to fix it, so she seeks out help from an older boy at school, who happens to be a witch.

Okay, much more than that and I start to spoil things. It's a very complex little story despite it's relatively short length and seemingly straightforward plot. It's largely about growing up, letting go, love, and sex. To be honest, I was a little startled at how complex this story was; there was a lot about it that I didn't remember. And it's not just the plot or the characters that are complex -- the language has a lot of depth, too. There's a strange linguistic rhythm to this story, and Mahy consistenly uses very odd but very apt turns of phrase to describe things. I think it's brilliant, myself, but again this might be a rather individual thing. Take this, for example:

"We won't be living in this place all our lives," Sally had once said scornfully, but Laura liked the Gardendale subdivision for she had just spent a wonderfully happy year there and was trying to lead the sort of life that would encourage a replay with interesting variations.

I would never have thought of writing something that way, but I know exactly what Mahy is getting at. Underneath, the bare bones of this story is about Laura learning how to let go of the replay and embrace the interesting variations. And the variations get very interesting indeed. That witch, for example, is Sorenson "Sorry" Carlisle and he's a ... well. I'm having a hard time describing him. I think as a tween and young teen I found him tremendously attractive as the wounded romantic lead. Now that I'm older, there are parts of what he does that struck me as almost crossing the creepy line, especially at the beginning, when he manages to be menacing, confusing, seemingly heartless, and very horny. Luckily, Laura is no doormat, and she can absolutely handle herself, and Sorry, when necessary. Also luckily, Sorry's not cast in stone, and as Laura gets to know him better, so do we. And he changes, too, like Laura changes throughout, developing a maturity and a better understanding of himself and others that makes him quite endearing.

The dynamics between the characters struck me as being very real, especially the family dynamics between Laura and Kate and Jacko. Further, the confusion and excitement of first love and first lust is really well-played between Laura and Sorry. Laura is a really fabulous character. She's not perfect, but she's smart and practical and very honest with herself, and she's also unique; her voice is clear and I remember feeling, when I was a kid, that I absolutely knew her. I remember wanting to be confident and strong like she was.

I have to say, too, this book has aged really well. I mean, there are a few mentions of Space Invaders down at the local arcade (which filled me with a pleasant nostalgia, rather than causing me to roll my eyes like some dated references might), but other than that this could be set anytime.

I'm really glad I read this again. There are a lot of other little things I loved about it, but I've gone on enough already. I am now in a position of having to find a copy I can purchase myself, because as far as I can tell, this book is out of print, possibly because it sadly suffers from some of the absolute worst covers I have ever seen (the one I've got is the best, and the front's pretty good -- at least Laura looks like I imagined her -- but the back is just... wrong). Seriously, if anyone knows where I can buy a copy, terrible cover or not, let me know. I have access to brown craft paper and crayons for covering purposes.

I'd recommend The Changeover to absolutely anyone, but especially to young women who found themselves loving sparklepires. Sorry's not exactly chivalrous at first, but he's got that bad-boy vibe and Laura could take out a wishy-washy limp sock from Forks anyday. Just be warned: The Changeover requires someone who wants to read excellent, if somewhat dense, writing and characterization. If anyone else has read this, I'd love to hear what you think.

I believe I shall let Jacko have the last word on re-reading:

He always wanted to take a book he already had at home because he thought it would be the same book he liked but made different in some wonderful way.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ranma 1/2 Volumes 18 and 19 by Rumiko Takahashi

Took a break from thinking about novels today to read some light, funny comics relating to pandas, martial arts, and cheerleading. Yes, that's right: more Ranma 1/2!

So, I noticed something of import. Or, I think it's of import, anyway. I'm not sure how long this has been going on, but it appears that our characters are aware of their position in the manga. I mean, literally. They keep looking at other characters' dream sequences or memories in the panels above or beside them, and commenting. It's rarely the mains (although Ranma does have a great "whose comic is this anyways?!" moment) but the secondary characters seem to notice what's happening in other panels even if it isn't explicitly commented on by the person having the dream, and then riff on it. I really, really enjoy that.

Now, as for what's been happening in the Tendo Dojo and surrounds since we last checked: Volume 18 involves an extended Ryoga vs. Ranma sequence, where Ryoga harnesses the power of depression and ennui to defeat Ranma. And then there is the return of the Ghost Cat, which means Shampoo gets a kiss, and Ranma encounters a terrifying weapon: catnip. Then there's a little throwaway and a Kuno and Kodachi battle over Ranma that involves lots of photos of breasts. Strangely, I found neither the Ryoga storyline nor the Shampoo storyline to be as irritating as I normally do. Therefore, I think this volume is quite good.

Not as good as volume 19, though. Here we get back into the excellent amusing dialogue, particularly in the first story, where Genma (Ranma's dad) realizes that he is no longer strong enough to defeat his own son. This is a quality sequence. I particularly liked the writing in this one:

Kasumi: Mr. Saotome must be in shock.

Nabiki: Yeah. He doesn't realize he's lost the power of internal dialogue...


Also, this volume includes one of my favourite Saotome School of Anything-Goes Martial Arts special stances: the Stance of Submission, "Carp on a Cutting Board." Picture lying stretched out on your side on the ground, making a fish face. Yes, that's it. These special stances never seem to get used more than once, but they're worth it for the short time they appear.

There's another oh-no-Akane-cooks story, which had some prime giggle-out-loud moments, and then an extended Martial Arts Cheerleading storyline, which doesn't finish with this volume. It's cliffhanger time! Right after a shocking reveal! Which wasn't shocking at all, I saw it coming a mile away! But it was more fun to pretend it was shocking.

Skipping off to ILLO the next two.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

FreeVerse: Ogden Nash

Inspired by Cara's funny limericks of last week, I went out out this week to deliberately find one of my favourite poets: the marvellous Ogden Nash. He makes up words with impunity to rhyme with what he wishes, and occasionally even manages to inject a little bit of education. I have always enjoyed his animal-based poetry specifically, and the first poem I could recite was a Nash (helped a lot that it was short):


The Panther
The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn't been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
Don't anther.


I am pretty sure that I drove my parents nuts with that one, the last two lines of which would set me off into shrieks of high-pitched little girl laughter.

A few more Ogden Nash gems collected from two websites:


The Lama

The one-l lama,
He's a priest.
The two-l llama,
He's a beast.
And I will bet a silk pajama
There isn't any
Three-l lllama.


The Ant

The ant has made himself illustrious
Through constant industry industrious.
So what?
Would you be calm and placid
If you were full of formic acid?


The Dog

The truth I do not stretch or shove
When I say the dog is full of love.
I've also found, by actual test,
A wet dog is the lovingest.


The Cow

The cow is of the bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other milk.


FreeVerse is hosted every Wednesday by Cara of Ooh... Books! Head on over there for other poems or to add yourself to a celebration of poetry in all its forms.

Monday, November 16, 2009

One Lovely Blog

I have discovered that I seem to be able to write like a crazy woman, or read like a crazy woman, but doing both is just too much crazy even for me. This month is definitely going to be a bit thin on the book count.

Instead, because I love to share the blogs that I thoroughly enjoy, and this blog award gives me a chance to do just that, I'm very pleased that both Cara at Ooh... Books! and Tara at 25 Hour Books have passed the One Lovely Blog award on to me. Thank you both so much!

I am going to keep it to 10 Canadian blogs in the interests of some sort of patriotic solidarity. This is not because I don't love you international bloggers, but... to be honest, I have to find some way to keep the list manageable (since I seem to have to write something about everything - it's NaNoWriMo, it's getting into my blood and it's terribly hard on my desire to be concise), so today my method is patriotism. This isn't an exhaustive list of Canadian bloggers (as if), it's just the ones I visit regularly. I feel like I might be disclaiming too much here, I just get really anxious when I feel like I might have left someone out and I know I have.

Let's get alphabetical:

Bird Canada is not a book blog, but Pat writes eloquently with fascinating information on Canadian birds, and is also the author of a number of books on Canadian wildlife, including Canadian Feathers: A Loon-atics Guide to Anting, Mimicry and Dump-Nesting which I have yet to read, but fully intend to.

Bookishgal is @kashicat 's book-related blog, where she reviews but also comments on many things book-related. I also thoroughly enjoy Phyl's Confessions of a Cultural Idiot blog, where she talks about Canadian culture, some of it not so very far from me.

books i done read is @raychraych 's blog - and absolutely hilarious. Reliably great taste, disseminated in caterpillars.

edge of seventeen is a blog by Mandy. Mandy reads a *lot* and to my delight, edge of seventeen has taken off like a house on fire since her relatively recent entrance on the book blogging scene. She and I have a secret plan to use our combined bookseller and librarian powers to take over the world. Stay tuned.

Geranium Cat's Bookshelf
, discovered through @CanadianAuthors tweets of reviews. I seem to pick up a lot of recommendations from this blog; in quietly Canadian style, Geranium Cat has slipped into my must-read category.

Nose in a Book - again, an @CanadianAuthors discovery. My ears (eyes?) tend to perk up when I notice that someone is reviewing a book I've loved, and Lahni reviewed both Airborn and Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel and I had to check it out.

Once Upon a Bookshelf - Another tweeting blogger, this is @moonsoar 's blog. I really like Court's reviews and her musings on other bookish and bloggish (and not) things as well. Very happy to see a post by her in the reader.

The Indextrious Reader - @Melwyk also seems to enjoy my hockey-related tweets, which kind of blows my mind :P Not to mention she's an Ontarian librarian, an excellent sort of people. She keeps expanding my reading horizons, in very best librarian form.

The Written World is Kailana's blog, one of the very first blogs I started following. She's an active commenter, tweeter (@bookishnerd) and general cheerleader for the book bloggers of the world, plus very hard on my TBR list.

wiresandwires - I know I've mentioned @gmacqueen 's cultural review blog here before, but I have to do it again. He's Canadian, plus I've known him IRL since before either of us knew the word "cultural." Really eloquent and thoughtful posts about books, movies, and occasionally other stuff.

As always with this sort of thing, if I've listed you and you would like to proclaim yourself One Lovely Blog, please do! If you would rather not, that's okay too. I thank you all for being such awesome bloggers, keeping me in reading material both on my feed reader and on my TBR list.

Perhaps back to normal with reading material soon? I make no promises. The novelling is squeezing my word-related brain cells out my ears. Will try!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

FreeVerse: Charge of the Light Brigade (Tennyson)

Today's FreeVerse falls on Remembrance Day here in Canada. I thought of posting In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, given that he grew up not so far from me, but then "Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do & die" floated through my head. I want to post Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, because very few poems for me bring home that feeling of terror, waste and incredible, brutal, individual bravery as this one -- and his charge at the end, not to forget but to honour, is perfect for today. Perhaps strangely, or perhaps not, this was one of the poems that my mother used to read to us when we were kids. I think she has it memorized. It was my introduction to Tennyson, and remains my favourite poem of his.

FreeVerse is hosted by Cara over at Ooh... Books! so head over their to find out more, or to join!

This poem, complete with punctuation, was found on the website of the University of Virginia, where they have digitized an original hand-written manuscript.


Charge of the Light Brigade

Half a league half a league
Half a league onward
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
'Forward the Light Brigade
Charge for the guns' he said
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

'Forward the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot & shell,
Boldly they rode & well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turned in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder'd;
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter'd & sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot & shell,
While horse & hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Ice

After taking almost a week off reading, I'm back, and hoping to balance the novel writing with the novel reading. I have here a copy of Sarah Beth Durst's Ice, which is terribly exciting for me. My favourite fairytale of all time, thanks largely to Mercer Meyer, is East of the Sun, West of the Moon. This book is set in present-day Alaska, and I'm really interested to see how the elements of the fairytale are incorporated into the story. For one thing, it doesn't sound like the North Wind is quite as benevolent as he might be.

Now, today's teaser isn't going to be entirely random. For me, mood is an incredibly important thing for reading. If I'm not in the mood, it can really put me off a book. On the other hand, if it's a really good book, it can put me in the right mood for reading it. Today I'm teasing the lines that put me in the mood to read Ice. Because so far, this book is awesome.

From Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, p7:

What breed of idiot went out on the ice without a face mask? You'd never catch her making that kind of newbie mistake. No, she thought, I specialize in the more spectacular mistakes, such as misplacing a full-grown polar bear.

Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Should Be Reading. It works as follows:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Be careful not to include spoilers!
  • Include the title and author.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson

I went out to lunch and ended up home with a brutal stomachache. Like, writhing around on the bed, sweating and whimpering. Constant low level pain I can deal with but the big stuff turns me into a lame wuss.

So, what did I do to distract myself from the pain? I read, of course. I read a lot. I read an entire book. It wasn't hard to do, because Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians is an excellent book to distract from pain without being something I had to concentrate hard on. Really, thanking the powers that be that I'd thought to bring home this book this weekend. It was perfect.

One of my librarian colleagues recommended this book to us during a children's programmer's meeting. She has good taste, and it definitely seemed like something I would find fun. A world controlled by evil Librarians? The library as the centre of evildoing in their nefarious plot to make the world a sane, organized and boring place? Yes! This is my kind of dystopia. Just let me practice my evil laugh.

Alcatraz Smedry is thirteen years old when he receives his inheritance from his absent parents: a bag of sand. That same day, he sets his foster parents' kitchen on fire. The next day, that bag of sand is stolen, an insane man shows up claiming to be his grandfather, and someone tries to shoot him in the burned kitchen. It turns out that sand was pretty important in the fight against the evil Librarians -- and Alcatraz must infiltrate the library with a band of very random characters (one is always late, one totes uzis in a duffle bag, another speaks gibberish when necessary and sometimes when not, and a third is a very unconventional sort of knight) to get the sand back.

I did really enjoy this book. It's quite diverting. It's a very fast read, too. The style of narration, however, may put some people off. Alcatraz tells us this story, and he talks directly to the reader, spending a lot of time trying to convince the reader that he's not a very good person at all, and also that this is a true story -- the true story, in fact, and the only one worth reading. He also breaks in a lot with wry comments on being an author, narrative structure, and explicit exposition. Given my aversion to forebludgeoning, I should have hated this book. And to be honest, I can't quite explain why I didn't. I usually find self-conscious narrators, especially self-effacing ones, irritating and very contrived (see: how much I hated Snicket's The Bad Beginning, although there were lots of other reasons for that too). I really liked Alcatraz, and though the chatty and "I'm not good, believe me, and you know that things are just going to go bad" narration occasionally made me roll my eyes, and seemed a bit too much, it never turned me off. Part of this may have been that I was desperate for something to concentrate on, but I think it is in large part due to some trick Sanderson (or should I say Smedry?) has up his authorly sleeve. I wasn't in much of a mood to analyse further.

Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed, as befits a book about librarians and libraries, were the sly little references to other books. Some of these references will go over the target audience's head (not too many 10-13 year old boys have read To Kill A Mockingbird, I suspect, but maybe I am wrong) but some of them will not be lost. There is one totally awesome Harry Potter smackdown at the end that made me laugh out loud, particularly because there were some unavoidable parallels to be made between the two heroes. If you didn't like Harry, though, you might still be up for Alcatraz. He manages to be sarcastic, full of himself, and yet strangely endearing all at once.

The third book in this series has just recently come out, and I'll be pushing this series a little harder at the desk (despite what Alcatraz suggests I might do instead, as a librarian -- take that, Smedry!) Particularly for boys in the above age group, but I'll recommend it for the right kinds of adults, too, and you likely know who you are. Sanderson is clearly multi-talented, being the chosen author to finish off Robert Jordan's mammoth Wheel of Time series, and also the author of the fantasy Mistborn series, which is also on my list to try. You can be sure I'm going to move that one up the queue a bit.

Now if you'll excuse me, I should go and make some plans for world domination.

EDIT: Another dastardly librarian reviewed this book on her blog the very same day I did! Coincidence? I think not.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

FreeVerse: Happiness (Milne)

I'm going to be away from computers and internet all day on Wednesday, is my suspicion, so I am testing Blogger's scheduled publishing capabilities. I do hope this won't sprain them -- it's simply a day in advance. In case you have forgotten, Wednesday is FreeVerse day over at Ooh... Books! and I have been thoroughly enjoying participating. I'm not about to let something paltry like having no internet stop me. We'll talk about novels, and writing one in November, and whether or not something like that might stop me, when we come to that bridge.

I have had a certain poem in my head for years. It pops up every once in a while to sing-song in my ear, and I knew I would have to post it sooner or later. Sooner, most likely. I had a copy of A. A. Milne's When We Were Very Young when I was very young indeed, and even before I could read something about Ernest H. Shepard's simple black-and-white ink illustrations drew me in. I think I can trace my secret love of cloche hats to Shepard's very fashionable mothers.

There are many, many wonderful poems in this book, some of which I have memorized and some of which I had apparently forgotten. But today, I give you the poem that will not leave me alone, particularly when I am walking anywhere at speed and especially if it happens to be raining.


From When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne, published in Canada by McClelland and Stewart, originally in 1925 -- I have a 1999 reprint here:


Happiness

John had
Great Big
Waterproof
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Hat;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Mackintosh--
And that
(Said John)
Is
That.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett


It takes more than a bit of magic and someone being blown to smoke in front of him to put a wizard off his food.


As suggested on Nymeth's blog last week, Discworld books are notoriously hard to summarize. My last attempt was not particularly useful (fishy's question was "yes, but what is the book about?" when I asked him to read over the review, as I was feeling that I was missing something) but I hope that I might have better luck with Sourcery. That's because this book does have a fairly straightforward plot, relatively speaking. Relative to some other Discworld novels, anyways.

An eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son -- a wizard squared -- is bound to be a sourceror. And that is what Coin son of Ipslore is. It does not bode well for the wizards of the Discworld, or anyone else for that matter, that Ipslore really hated his brother wizards for exiling him. Because sourcery is the most powerful magic on the Discworld, a wizard's eighth son with a grudge is probably going to be a very bad thing. And it is! But enter Rincewind (reluctantly) and the lovesick Luggage and a very clever Librarian, and the world just might be saved.

How's that? It goes without saying that there's a lot more happening than all that, but I think that sets up the events in Sourcery pretty nicely.

I didn't love this book. I didn't hate it, and I certainly read through it quickly enough. It just felt a little more scattered and flat than I've come to expect of the Discworld (ha ha, flat, get it? sigh). It meandered at points, and I occasionally found myself skipping paragraphs to get back to the action. And while I enjoyed many of the characters, there were a few who seemed either predictable or forgettable. Not to mention Coin. None of his fault, he was squarely in Very Creepy Child territory. Considering that the night before I started Sourcery I had nightmares involving Very Creepy Children and then met Coin the following day, the effect was heightened. But even then, Coin felt very hollow. I think he was supposed to be hollow, and we weren't supposed to feel emotionally close to him, which is good, because he was a Very Creepy Child. It did make some of the ending a little hard to buy.

But what did I love? The Librarian. The books. I don't want to give too much away, but the Librarian was almost my favourite character, intelligent, quick thinking, and surprisingly sympathetic for an orangutan. I don't know any orangutans, but that's one I'd like to know. The books themselves inspire a surprising amount of sympathy -- but then, they are magic books.

Also, I love Rincewind. I don't know if I'm in the minority on this; when people talk about Discworld characters they love, Rincewind doesn't seem to be on the lists. But I'm extremely fond of him, and fonder each time I meet him. He's just so... cowardly. And defeated. But he's a wizard, and damn what anyone else has to say about it, and I do admire that. I enjoy his knack for staying alive despite the odds, his uneasy relationship with DEATH, his dedication to his hat, and his absolute desperate need to be home. I like his tendency to shriek at the slightest thing because I can hear it in my head, and is part of what makes him such a vivid character to me. I even like his weak and ultimately failed attempts at pompousity. I feel so warmly towards his character, and I don't get any more Rincewind for several books.

But I will be strong -- because the next book is Wyrd Sisters! Hello Granny Weatherwax, nice to see you again.

And I will leave you with this thought:

"I meant," said Isplore, bitterly, "What is there in this world that makes living worth while?"

Death thought about it.

CATS, he said eventually. CATS ARE NICE.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters

Happy Halloween everyone! I don't have a specific Halloween book (I am allergic to horror) but the next review in the queue is a mystery novel. With bodies! That is the closest we will get, I fear. But it was an excellent mystery, so without further ado...

Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries have now firmly taken a place on my pantheon of books I know I can turn to when I can't seem to read anything else. I knew I liked them when I read A Morbid Taste for Bones, but One Corpse Too Many has sealed it. These are not heavy books, in that the plot is fast-paced, there are occasionally suspensions of disbelief that must take place (nothing too irritating or obvious), and there is gentle humour and a smattering of romance. I also have confidence that Brother Cadfael will solve his chosen mystery by the end of the book. But they are not featherweight, either. There are moral ambiguities, murky motives, death and justice, and no characters that are either entirely good or entirely evil.

If we go down to the bare bones of the plot, here is what we come up with: the castle at Shrewsbury, sworn to the cause of the absent Empress Maud, is taken by the forces of King Stephen, her cousin and usurper of the throne of England. The captured forces are summarily put to death, and Brother Cadfael is put in charge of giving rites to and laying to rest the 94 unfortunates. However, he discovers a 95th amongst them, a young man who was clearly not among the castle's defenders, and yet has somehow been dumped unceremoniously in with them. He is given leave by King Stephen to discover who the man was, and who killed him and used the mass execution as a cover.

Do not let this plot summary fool you. I've given you a whopping three more sentences than the back of the book gave me, and I am nowhere near to covering the basics. Things are extremely convoluted, as they might be expected to be from the point of view of a man who will not take expected sides, except with the murdered boy, and who has a terrible habit of getting himself involved in everything. And the inventiveness of the plot just blows me away. I saw some things coming but I had the murderer wrong for the first 4/5 of the book (to be fair, Peters is a master of the red herring), and once I realized I was wrong, I was like, "well, then, who the heck?" Threads of plot and character are drawn together seemingly out of nowhere to make a complete and very satisfactory whole. Everything unfolds with perfect grace and timing. And suspense!

Once again, I am completely at home with Cadfael as our main character. I enjoy spending time with him, I find his sense of humour amusing, and I am quite confident that he will manage things in his own time and own way. He is damnably, but not impossibly, clever. That said, this book was even more suspenseful than the last, particularly as Cadfael occasionally does have the initiative stripped out from underneath him at a couple of key points. It makes the reader start to fear that maybe things have gotten out of hand this time. Brother Cadfael, no matter what the reader is doing or feeling (I ate three packages of Rockets candy without realizing it, eyes glued to the page, for example) never panics. So this becomes a very cozy read despite it's fast pace and excitement.

Finally, one last thing to comment on before I cut this review off: I think one of the things I like best about this series is the setting. The year is 1138, so long ago I can barely comprehend it, and yet I know that there were humans fighting wars and making love and art and farming and hunting and reading and writing and learning and praying. All of these things make sense to me logically, but it's a little mind-boggling to comprehend.

To be fair, I don't know how true-to-what-we-know-of-history Peters is. My grasp of medieval life in England is pretty shaky to say the least ("bring out your dead!") so I don't know how much fact is really in these books. But I don't care, because what I do know is that it feels real. She has enough detail to make it clear she's not talking about 20th century Shrewsbury, enough that I can vividly inhabit the setting, but not so much that I feel like she's tossing a textbook on medieval Benedictine life at me. The villagers and farmers are not constantly beaten down, frightened, or unduly ignorant, as I tend to think of peasants in medieval times; they just are. These are ordinary people, living everyday lives, thinking ordinary (or sometimes not so ordinary) things and doing everyday tasks. And I like that because it humanizes history for me. So if it's not exactly accurate, or even if it is, that's okay -- because it makes me think about humanity and continuity and culture in a way I've not been able to before.

And that's probably enough of that. I really enjoyed this book, I'm extremely glad I read it even though it wasn't technically next on the list (or even close to it) and I'm looking forward to reading Monk's-Hood when the time comes.