Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Blessing of Toads by Sharon Lovejoy

I've been wanting to read and review this book since Nan posted about it months ago. I won it in her generous giveaway but it seemed to arrive at a particularly low point in my non-fic reading abilities, and I didn't want to ruin the book by reading it in the wrong mood.

I'm so glad I waited. This is a lovely book, and while it was a good book to read all at once, I think it would also be a good candidate for picking up and reading a little bit at a time. A Blessing of Toads is a collection of Sharon Lovejoy's articles from Country Living Gardener magazine, little bite-sized pieces (none longer than five pages) all smushed together into one book. To be honest, I've never read Country Living Gardener and I've never read anything by Lovejoy, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Whatever my expectations were, they were surpassed.

I learned a lot. I've been in outdoor education for the past eight years, and I grew up in a very nature-conscious family. I've been surrounded by naturalists my entire life, and so Lovejoy didn't have to convince me of the wonders of having nature in the garden -- to me, that's the point. But I learned a lot from her about nature, and also about things I could be doing to attract further critters to the backyard. Even more, she reminded me (I knew, but sometimes it's hard to remember) to just take the time to watch. I know there are amazing things happening in my garden every day, I just need to look for them. So I was envious of her stories -- of her family of crows, of her garter snake, of her phoebe nest -- but I realize I am just starting. I've got a long way to go, and I've also got some time to catch up.

Lovejoy also has the perfect gardening philosophy for me:

I like this laissez-faire gardening attitude. Newman's words of wisdom coupled with Julian Donahue's comment, "A lazy gardener is one of the best friends of wildlife," leads me to believe that I may have found my gardening niche.

She calls hornworms unicornworms. I'm going to start using this, and maybe I won't be so squicked out by them (because I can handle almost anything, but a hornworm is a big, twitchy, squishy thing with a horn, people -- a unicornworm is the trusty steed of the tomato flower sprite, and noble, not terrifying). She also coins the title term, "a blessing of toads" to replace the term "a knot of toads" for a group of the trusty little amphibians. I like the way she thinks.

A few of the other things I learned:
  • syrphid flies (flowerflies) have voraceous larvae called "aphid tigers" that will eat a plant clean of aphids and other garden pests
  • Nashville warblers can eat three tent caterpillars a minute -- now, not saying they do that every minute of every day, but that warbler is really moving

I also liked:

"Crepuscular" is a great word that rolls around in my mouth like a handful of jawbreakers.

She's humble, enthusiastic, and energetic -- her personality bubbles through the pages, sometimes factual, sometimes whimsical, always informative. I am giving this book to my co-worker Joanne to read, because I know she'll love it.

Thanks again, Nan. We have some of Lovejoy's other work at the library and I'll be checking it out. I love finding a new garden writer who both inspires and relaxes me.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Claymore Volume 1 by Norihiro Yagi

There's a graphic novel series at our library that's flying off the shelves. Or doing what passes for "flying off the shelves" for manga in a small conservative town. I thought I'd better check it out.

Claymore Volume 1 is centred around the itinerant warrior Clare, a woman who looks entirely human except for her silver eyes. She is a "silver-eyed witch," a "claymore" -- half-human, half-yoma. The yoma are monsters that can take human forms, preying on humans; up until the claymores were created, humans had no defence. Clare and her claymore sisters are able to fight back, and they are both needed and feared by the humans they protect.

The first volume introduces Clare, the concept of the claymores, the concept of the yoma, and Raki, a human boy whose family is killed by the yoma and to whom Clare seems to take a liking. I say "seems" because Clare is very closed, calm, and unemotional -- but in Raki's case, her actions speak louder than her words or facial expressions.

The art is mostly well-done, and the action, plot and concept is very easy to follow. Norihiro Yagi does a great job of balancing exposition with action with character development, so that by the end of the first volume the reader is emotionally invested. We begin to understand what's at stake, even though we don't know the full picture yet. We do know that it's going to be big. Epic, even. There are 15 volumes in English in this series so far and it's ongoing.

I did really like this manga, and the concept and the characters; and I would follow it, I think -- except that it's so dark. It's unrelentingly serious, a true drama, and therefore not really my kind of thing. I want my serious leavened with a bit of humour here and there, and there was next-to-none to be found in the first volume. I don't think I can go through 15 volumes of blood, pain, heartache and sorrow, even though I know it would be really good. I suspect, although I don't know, that it gets better as it goes along.

But that's just me. It's a very well-done manga, with a deep plot and fascinating, sympathetic characters and I'd encourage people to check it out. Even beginners to manga will find this one relatively easy to get into.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: A Blessing of Toads, again

Still reading A Blessing of Toads. When did I get to be such a slow reader? I used to polish off several books a week. I guess there's adult summer things distracting me now, like working and maintaining a house and planning showers and hiking and... gardening. So much weeding. So little time. Luckily, Sharon Lovejoy just makes me enjoy gardening more, so that works.

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.

From A Blessing of Toads by Sharon Lovejoy, p246:

"When the sunflowers, with their nectar-rich central disk, began to flaunt their winsome faces, the cast of characters that performed on our porch changed dramatically. Monarchs, eastern checkerspots, orange crescents, swallowtails, painted ladys (who deposited single, pale green eggs on many of the leaves), and little wood satyr butterflies drifted lazily between the porch railings, then settled atop the broad faces and probed the disk flowers for their cargo of nectar."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Scott Pilgrim Volume 3 by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Scott Pilgrim strikes again.

Mostly ineffectually.

This is why we love him.

I finally got tired of waiting for the book order to go through, and picked up Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness (Vol. 3) via interlibrary loan a few weeks ago. It took me a bit to get back into things, since it's been ages since I read volumes 1 and 2. But it didn't take that long, and then I went back and re-read the bits I'd read while being slightly confused. Then I continued re-reading because it is awesome.

For those new to my book crush on the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, the basic idea of the series is this: Scott is on his way to defeating ninja delivery girl Ramona Flowers' seven evil ex-boyfriends in street-fighter-esque combat, in a quest to be able to call her his girlfriend. It's set in an alternate Toronto (Ontario) and there are awesome references to all sorts of things I recognize. Where a Toronto Public Library branch was the scene of a battle in the second volume, both Honest Ed's (an iconic deep-discount department store) and Lee's Palace (a popular club and bar with great live shows) show up in volume 3. For those of you wondering (as Darla was) yes, Honest Ed's is a real place. I have never been in. It is impressively daunting enough from outside.

The storyline in volume 3, as might be guessed from the title, is a little more serious. There are some fairly painful moments, and tender moments, between different characters. The pacing was definitely slower and more introspective. I didn't mind it; I didn't think it was quite as good as the first two volumes, but it still kept my attention and my heart. My husband, who also reads these, found it dragged a bit too much for him -- spent too much time moping and not enough time moving the plot along -- and I can certainly see his point. I think some of O'Malley's characters also see his point. They're pretty aware of their graphic novel format, which I thought was cute (says Envy at one point: "Right. It's almost 3:30, and we've been here for a quarter of this book. Let's call it a night.")

But there is more depth to most of the characters now, and there's a bit more intrigue surrounding Ramona. Who is she really? What is she up to? Because she's up to something and one suspects it might be problematic for all concerned in future volumes. Which I've ordered from the library! No more waiting around for me. Up next: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

"Above literature?" said the Queen. "Who is above literature? You might as well say one was above humanity."

This little book has a wonderful premise: one day, as the Queen is out rounding up her dogs, she stumbles upon the City of Westminster traveling library in her own backyard. To be polite, she takes out a book. The next week, when the library returns, she takes out another, again for politeness -- and one thing leads to another and Her Majesty becomes a voracious reader. Unfortunately, not everyone surrounding the Queen thinks this is a good thing... reading can lead to all sorts of trouble, you know.

The best words to describe this little gem are delightful, charming, very funny, and thoughtful. It is, of course, a celebration of reading and literature (and libraries!); it's also a meditation on aging, on loneliness, and on public faces versus private lives. It's tremendously uplifting and, as above, it's very subversively funny in a perfect dry way. I don't want to say too much more; there is a plot and it's best not to give too much away. Unlike my last read, don't be expecting heart-pounding action. This was a perfectly civilized read for a quiet rainy day.

All-in-all, the book is a little silly, with a hint of serious -- and sometimes quite cutting:

"The prime minister did not wholly believe in the past or in any lessons that might be drawn from it."

Zing! Just so you know, the prime minister is never named. One is given the impression that individual names don't so much matter in this case.

While Bennett's portrayal of those surrounding the Queen is often quite pointed, the way Her Majesty is portrayed is intensely sympathetic while still being firmly tongue-in-cheek. She comes across as both naive and incredibly wise, wiser as the book goes on. I liked this very much, as a note from Her Majesty's [fictional] notebook, because I thought it was very poignant:

"I was giving the CH once, I think it was to Anthony Powell, and we were discussing bad behaviour. Notably well behaved himself and even conventional, he remarked that being a writer didn't excuse one from being a human being. Whereas (one didn't say this) being Queen does. I have to seem like a human being all the time, but I seldom have to be one. I have people to do that for me."

It was Nymeth's review of this book that caught my eye, and I'm glad it did because I'm not sure I would have picked it up otherwise. So, thank you Nymeth! I'll be passing this one on.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: A Blessing of Toads

This week I'm back to garden-related non-fiction, finally in the mood to read Sharon Lovejoy's A Blessing of Toads, which Nan very kindly sent to me some time ago. It's very pleasant and full of good ideas, often funny and another one of those gardening books that relaxes me as a gardener, as opposed to making me worry about how much I suck.

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.

From A Blessing of Toads by Sharon Lovejoy, p209:

"These pudgy omnivores, who are often referred to as Mother Nature's cleaning crew, are voracious feeders who eat not only household garbage, fallen fruits, and a legion of diverse garden pests, but also roadkill and any carrion they find. Depending on the bounty of the season, their nightly foraging may include crawfish, grasshoppers, potato bugs, hornworms, gypsy moths, grubs, armyworms, Japanese beetles, wasps, and an assortment of small vertebrates such as mice, voles, shrews, gophers (hurrah!), and young rats."

And for even more fun, see if you can guess which [North American] creature Lovejoy is talking about! I'll make sure to post the answer in the comments Thursday.

UPDATE: If you want to know the name of the creature described in this passage, have a peek at the comments. :)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

Currently, if I was asked to pick my favourite adventure story, I would jump up and down and wave Airborn around like a fool. This book is amazing, everywhere from the fast-paced, fascinating, and layered plot to the deep, sympathetic characters to the imaginative setting. This book is well-crafted and very well-written.

I've been meaning to read anything by Kenneth Oppel for a while. His book Silverwing struck me as a very creative idea with a ton of potential, but I hadn't quite gotten around to it -- many, many years after it's been published -- and then Airborn caught my eye. I've always loved the idea of airships -- what would have happened if the Hindenburg disaster had never happened? What if there was some lighter-than-air element that was available in large amounts, and inert? (Even better if it smells like mangoes!) Oppel appears to have been curious about the same questions. I think he's fascinated by anything flying.

Matt Cruse, our first person narrator, is fourteen years old when the story opens, and he participates in a daring mid-air rescue of a balloon pilot stranded over the Pacificus. A year later, the balloonist's granddaughter comes aboard the Aurora, the airship on which Matt is the cabin boy, to prove that her grandfather was not, as many have suggested to her, insane -- that there is an undiscovered species of aerial animals that congregates over an island in the Pacificus. And then there is a pirate attack, and the adventure begins...

The thing that makes this book so easy to read is Matt. He's a great narrator, fairly self-aware but also subject to very human flaws. He's interested in all the things I'm interested in as a reader, and he's not afraid to admit when he's been wrong although he may not be happy about it. He's a very hard worker, abides by the rules, and he loves what he does. He idolizes the Aurora's Captain Walken, has a chummy relationship with his cabinmate Baz, and absolutely adores, without reservation, the Aurora herself. Through his eyes, the airship takes on a character of her own and we come to love her too. Maybe not quite as much as Matt, but I'm pretty sure that's not possible.

And then there's Kate de Vries. From her spectacular entrance, Matt is alternately fascinated, attracted, and infuriated by Kate. She's a girl his own age with money to spare, and she's on a mission. She's not hampered by her ineffectual and highly irritating chaperone, she's spirited, and she's very, very smart. She's single-minded, occasionally to the point of being a danger to those around her, but she's never deliberately malicious, just enthusiastic and thoughtless. She loves books and words and ideas, but most of all she wants to be a scientist and isn't prepared to abide by society's rules when they stand in her way. Which they do, because the book is set in a time period somewhat before the 1920s, perhaps closer to the late 1800s. A reader more versed in history will probably figure that out a lot easier than I, but it's never stated and I don't think it needed to be.

I think this quote goes straight to the heart of Kate's character, and illustrates why I love her so much:

"We just start," she said. "Bones could be anywhere, if the creatures just fell from the sky. Of course, they might have been picked up by other animals. Unlikely, though -- there are probably no substantial mammals on the island." A little furrow of concentration appeared over each eyebrow. "But all animals feed on carrion. So, around trees with bird nests, or the lairs of skinks and lizards." She paused. "That's fun to say. Skinks and lizards."


Actually, Oppel knows how to use dialogue to expose character and does it well. I really enjoyed his dialogue. Take this interaction between the captain and his first mate:

"Well then," said the captain, "I believe this may be a good time to organize a party to explore the island."

"There may be inhabitants, captain," said Mr. Rideau.

"Precisely what I am hoping," said the captain.

"They may be a savage lot, sir, with no love of visitors."

"We shall have to be exceptionally charming, then," said the captain.

Captain Walken is a great leader. He's calm and professional and unfailingly positive even in the face of disaster; Mr. Rideau, on the other hand, is a rigid, by-the-book officer and prone to narrow-mindedness.

Since this post is starting to get dangerously long, two more quick points on why I think this book works so well. First, the aerial animals that Kate is chasing? They stay wild. They're a large predator, and like any large predator they are both beautiful and unpredictable. Oppel never offers to make them anything but a wild animal -- they're not preternaturally intelligent, or friendly towards humans just because -- and I appreciate that. Because this book is not that kind of book and was never set up to be.

Second, the villains. They're villainous, and dangerous, and generally very despicable. But they're not inhumanly evil. Not all of them are as fleshed out as the pirate leader, Szpirglas, but Oppel does a good job with a very little bit of space in the book of showing the humanity of his villains which makes their villainy both sad and even more frightening.

Overall: Airborn is a great adventure tale for any age, thrilling and touching, funny and occasionally sad. The characters are all genuinely wonderful and the setting is brilliant. Highly, highly recommended. I'm asking for it for my birthday because I'm going to read this one again and again.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction; ill. by David Aja

As mentioned previously, I've been attempting to broaden my horizons. I've always liked the idea of superhero comics, but I've never read many myself. And those that I have, I've never started in a good place where I can actually understand the story. Superhero comics are full of in-jokes and wink-wink-nudge-nudge to longtime fans, and therefore can be either intimidating or irritating, or in the worst case, both. The series can be long and there's an assumption of knowledge of backstory. And there is almost always a hell of a lot of backstory. Some of it is canon. Some of it is not. There are many people who can keep it all straight in their heads -- I am not one of them.

I ordered The Last Iron Fist Story from the library based on a review at Tor (this time, not Jo Walton!). I thought -- okay. Honouring backstory, but reinventing -- maybe I can get behind this. I will be the first to admit, before we go further, I really don't know anything about comic conventions in general or the Iron Fist in particular. This is a twenty-something trying to get into comics for the first time. So if I state the obvious or make mistakes, bear with me.

At first I doubted myself. There were characters that were clearly old favourites introduced with nothing but pictures. But I forged on. And those people were gradually introduced to me, without painful or clumsy exposition passages. The storytelling is actually fairly subtle, which I didn't expect -- the action, on the other hand, is not. The reader is steeped in this dark, gritty world from beginning to end. And at the end of the volume (collecting #1-6 of The Immortal Iron Fist, apparently) I found myself invested in what happens to Danny Rand aka Iron Fist as he heads off to what promises to be an action-packed interdimensional kung-fu tournament.

Danny Rand is the latest in a long line of heroes to hold the title of Iron Fist (this is complicated -- read the Tor article for a better explanation than I can give), and he's also an extremely wealthy and very bored CEO of a powerful holdings company (and it builds fast trains!) called Rand Corp. As we come in, he's investigating what appears to be a shady corporation looking to buy some of Rand's technology. Things balloon quite quickly from there. It's not always obvious what the hell is going on, but it actually tends to fit together quite neatly if the reader is a little patient. Re-readings are rewarded. There are subplots involving Danny's status as an unregistered superhero; an ex(?)-lover and some of Danny's superhero friends; and the man who runs Rand Corp. for Danny; any of those subplots could (and likely will) be developed into main plots in further installments.

Overall, I enjoyed my foray into superhero comics. I think I'll try to continue to follow this series, at least, as it continues in a volume called The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven. I don't know, to be honest, that I'll go out of my way to pick up any other comic books, but at least now I have a better idea of what people see in them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

shameless blog adoration: Books & other thoughts

Since I've been a somewhat delinquent poster lately, but have made up for that by following something like a bajillion blogs in the meantime, I though I'd do another shameless blog adoration post. I've got a whole list of blogs I love to read, and so every once in a while I'll try to highlight one. Darla D's Books & other thoughts is a blog I've been following since I discovered RSS feeds.

I'd like to point anyone who hasn't read Books & other thoughts in that direction. There are a lot of things I like about it, but here are a couple: I love Darla's taste in books, I love that she reviews such a wide range of material (from audiobooks to children's books to adult fiction to manga and beyond) and I love that she puts a lot of thought into her reviews. They're well-written and interesting, insightful, never stuffy, and positive without being fawning.

I also really like that when she reviews a series, she lists the books in the series and points to her reviews of other books in the series. I've started using her blog to help me when I'm looking for whatever comes next, because it's simple to find. Her blog should come with a warning, though -- I've picked up so many new series from her reviews that I am never going to get through my TBR pile!

As a fellow librarian, I really appreciate her eye for organization. She's tagged everything effectively with categories that make sense and are useful, organized her reviews by author, linked to many other great blogs and interesting (and helpful) websites, and all in an intuitive way.

Finally, I love how generous she is to her fellow book bloggers. She lists other reviews and even provides excerpts of other bloggers' reviews, which is great for highlighting a range of opinions and thoughts on those books. I always look forward to reading whatever she has to write about.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Airborn

Hooray, I'm back in action! I'm reading Kenneth Oppel's Airborn and loving it. It's a beautifully written book, and a cracking adventure. I'm not even 100 pages in and I know I'll be buying this one, and probably the entire series. We have it catalogued under JFIC for older kids, but I think anyone would enjoy this book. It's narrated in the first person by one Matt Cruse, cabin boy on the luxury airship Aurora. He's a really charming narrator, pitch-perfect for his age but not annoying at all, and interested in all the things I'm interested in about his world. And his world is so cool.

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.

From Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, p75:

"I stared at that last page for a while, the final words, the nothingness after it, and it got me feeling strange, so I had to close the book. I felt a keen disappointment."

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Handwriting by Michael Ondaatje

Today I have my favourite book of poetry for you. Reading is progressing slightly better than it has been, and my hope is to have a flurry of reviews this week -- all of the shorter things I have been half-reading -- but today I want to tell the world about Michael Ondaatje's Handwriting.

I bought this book, about ten years ago, on a whim during my first Ondaatje kick. I'd just read The English Patient and loved it, and In the Skin of a Lion and really liked it. The poems in this slim little volume surpass both and this is one of my favourite works in the English language.

Ondaatje's novels always hover just on the edge of poetry. I know that some find his work difficult because he's not so much about plot or even characters always (although he does have a knack for creating a memorable character, and his plots are fascinating and unconventional); he is about the language and the imagery and the impressions that a paragraph can leave on a reader. In a lesser wordsmith I might find this highly irritating, but with Ondaatje I'm perfectly happy to float along. Also, I know at this point what I'm getting into when I pick up his novels.

Handwriting is a set of poems that are so rich. I react to these poems viscerally -- I can smell, taste, see -- they are dark and smoky, sorrowful, sensual, full of history and pain and love and beauty. There's humour, bright and unexpected, and threads between poems where Ondaatje finds a theme and connects them across the volume; sometimes it's a phrase that finds its way into a new poem and a new interpretation, sometimes it's an expansion of a concept. They are about Sri Lanka, Ondaatje's country of birth; it hosts many of the poems, and the rest are about being absent from it. Many of them pay homage to Sri Lanka's long history and depth of culture, and others are laments for its conflicts and pain.

These poems connect the reader to history and culture and human experience in a way that news reports and history books can't. I read these poems and hope that, for all of our sakes, Sri Lanka can find peace. Given the conflict there recently, these poems resonate even further with me now, despite the fact that they were written over ten years ago. If you have an opportunity to find this little book, please do, even if you don't normally read poetry. Now is a perfect time to read it.

From Handwriting:

The First Rule
of Sinhalese

Never build three doors
in a straight line

A devil might rush
through them
deep into your house,
into your life

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: somewhat less than epic fail

Guys, I've done it again. I've lost my will to read. There's a lot going on around here, admittedly -- May was such a stupidly crazy busy month, and I've been spending more time outside than inside. Which, to me, is a good thing. But it does mean that I've not spent as much time reading as I would like. And I'm having a hard time getting into longer books.

I've really been enjoying Northanger Abbey but I have to admit, it's not going fast. And I want something that grips me enough that I try to read at least a couple chapters every day, not something that can sit in the back seat of the car for four days without me feeling the need to go get it. I don't want anyone to think I'm not enjoying Northanger Abbey, because I am -- but it's not gripping reading, at least not to me in my current mood.

For that purpose, I've picked up Airborn by Kenneth Oppel in the hopes that it will grip me. I've also got some Scott Pilgrim and Ranma on the pile, and a new manga (Claymore) that I'm curious to start. I'm partway through a new comic, in my attempt to broaden my horizons and delve into true superhero comics.

So... no Teaser Tuesday this week. I'm not really reading anything thoroughly enough that it deserves a teaser. Hopefully the situation will be rectified by next Tuesday... or next Saturday, because otherwise I miss my first "book a week" deadline ever.