Saturday, January 31, 2009

Jellaby by Kean Soo; or, How I nearly hyperventilated at the OLA Superconference

Okay. I actually have several entries written down around here, but none of them in posting shape. What I do have is a very excited fangirl story.

I don't get to meet famous, or famous-to-me, people very often. When I do I am usually breathless with excitement and the ensuing stupidity, so I don't really go out of my way to meet famous-to-me people. But this weekend I did, and I was breathless but managed to at least say something somewhat intelligent. I hope. I can't actually remember what I said.

The person I met was Kean Soo, author of one of my favourite graphic novels, Jellaby. He was doing a signing at one of the expo booths at the Ontario Library Association's Superconference. I got a free copy of Jellaby, and not only was it signed, I now have an original drawing of Jellaby underneath my name. I have been so excited for the past day and a half, I cannot explain.

I think I mumbled something about being a fan of Jellaby since its online days, before Jellaby was published. Kean Soo asked me where I had found out about the Secret Friend Society since it hadn't been that popular. I said I thought maybe Flight, or Copper. I couldn't remember. I mumbled. But I smiled a lot, and he smiled at me.

There is a new Jellaby book coming out very soon. I will purchase it. I encourage all to do the same. Jellaby is a wonderful, sweet, beautiful, charming, slightly melancholy piece about childhood and friendship, children and parents, and a big purple creature. It is special. Read it, read it, read it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs

I'm cheating here a bit, because I'm not going to go in depth with this review (which makes it shorter and easier to write). The reason being, fishy and I are going to discuss it for our extremely informal book club, and he reads this blog so I don't want to give him any discussion point spoilers.

The Curse of the Blue Figurine is the first of several books by John Bellairs featuring Johnny Dixon and Professor Childermass. It's grand old 1950s American gothic for boys, and it's fabulous. Atmospheric, chilling, and engaging, right up to the very end. I read it in an evening before bed. I kind of wonder how I hadn't really discovered John Bellairs as a kid, except that Bellairs must have struck me as being "for boys" and lord knows I didn't want to read anything for boys. Apparently. One would think that my love for the supernatural would have led me straight to Bellairs.

Anyway, I might post more later about it, but I might not.

(...It's my blog and I'll post if I want to?)

Suffice to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and am looking forward to the next Johnny Dixon mystery.

As for everything else I'm reading, I'm partway through Elizabeth Berg's Range of Motion again, and partway through that Margaret Wise Brown biography, and I'm trying to read more poetry so I've got Neruda's Odes to Common Things beside the bed. There's lots of others waiting in the wings, too. As always.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

My beginnings with the works of Terry Pratchett go farther back than they really should have. The first time I picked up a Pratchett book, I didn't have nearly enough of an understanding of fantasy, fable and fairytale to "get" it. Also, I was a little too serious to realize that Pratchett wrote loving satire, as opposed to poking disdainful fun at a genre I loved and felt didn't get nearly enough respect. I can't remember which book it was, but I don't think I even got halfway through it. I do remember thinking it was silly. Yes, back then I was a bit of a prat.

I don't mean to say that someone has to know fantasy to "get" Pratchett. I don't think that's true. I do think, however, that having a long, varied and rather detailed understanding of the conventions of the genre make Pratchett that much more enjoyable.

Other than The Wee Free Men, I have only read Mort, and part of this is because I want to start at the beginning. I want to read the Discworld novels in the order Pratchett wrote them, because I want to see them grow and change with the years. So I've ordered The Color of Magic from the library (it will have to come in by ILLO, because neither of the two systems I have access to have a copy themselves). I understand that not all of them will be The Wee Free Men, but I'm going to read them all anyways. I picked up The Wee Free Men because it's the book that introduces Tiffany Aching, and I've heard nothing but good things about her. So I figured while I was waiting for Color I could cheat a little.

As for The Wee Free Men itself: I adore this book. I am going to buy it the minute I have spare change, and I am going to read it again and again. I don't exactly know where to start. The turn of phrase, the descriptions, the characters, the imagination, the skill, the humanity with which this book is written -- all of it, really, is perfect. The plot is exciting and entertaining. The characters. The human characters are very human. The inhuman characters are very inhuman, but not in an off-putting way. Sometimes fantasy authors fall into the trap of making inhuman characters too human; or, if not, completely inaccessible and unsympathetic. Not so here.

The book is funny, and touching. There is a part where I got a little teary, but I won't say which one, other than that it involved dogs, which I guess are a bit of a soft spot for me, anyway. This is somewhat remarkable, because I rarely get teary while reading and I certainly didn't expect it from this book. It kind of snuck up on me. It's possible I haven't had enough tea this morning, but I'm pretty sure that it would have happened anyways.

The description is just enough to offer a vivid, complete idea of the world in which Tiffany lives, the one she goes to, as well as Tiffany herself, and those around her. I have fully formed pictures in my head, which also doesn't happen often. None of it is wasted words, either. This is one of my favourite descriptions of a main character, ever (from page 14):
This is Tiffany, walking back home. Start with the boots. They are big and heavy boots, much repaired by her father and they'd belonged to various sisters before her; she wore several pairs of socks to keep them on. They are big. Tiffany sometimes feels she is nothing more than a way of moving boots around.

I loved her immediately. Actually, I loved as soon as the frying pan came out. But additionally, I can practically feel those boots on my own feet. Tiffany is seriously one of the best heroines I have ever encountered, a balm for someone who finds herself a little more annoyed with each book that has a heroine too stupid to live.

I don't know what else to say, really, other than to gush. In a way I'm sorry I took so long to discover Pratchett's genius. On the other hand, I think that I'm appreciating it far more now than I ever would have, and I'm planning to take my time and thoroughly enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley

I was in the middle of some Serious Reading, a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, when one of my library patrons passed a book called The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives over the counter. How could I resist? Mystery, female protagonists, fantasy and fairytales. It's all my kryptonites rolled into one book. Deadly.

The sisters of the series title are Sabrina and Daphne Grimm, descendants of the Grimm brothers we all know and love (or at least, I know of them, and love the English translations of the stories they collected). After their parents disappear, they become orphans, and the book starts as they are off to live with the grandmother they thought was dead, Relda Grimm. And one of my favourite fiction themes is central to this book: fairy-tales aren't just stories made up to scare kids into piety and obedience -- they are real. The characters are real and the stories really happened, and the Grimm sisters find themselves embroiled in a mystery involving a marauding giant, a magic mirror, vicious pixies, and a Prince Charming who may or may not be charming at all.

As the first of a series, I did get the impression that some of the characters need a little developing. Charming, for example, seems wildly uneven throughout the book. Mr. Canis, too, is a little thin at first (sorry to those of you who have read these books -- the pun was irresistible) although he is supposed to be a mysterious figure; I believe the fifth book in the series is all about him. I think I understand the reasoning behind the fluctuations in character in both cases, but particularly Charming strikes me as more deeply inconsistent than necessary.

Each of the three Grimms is quite well-realized from the start. I adore Daphne. Sabrina is difficult, and difficult to like at first, which makes reading a bit of a challenge because she is main character and our third-person narrator. But one also has a lot of sympathy for her, and understands that she's been through an incredible ordeal over the year and a half before the book begins (which, thankfully, Buckley never belabours). I kept reading partially in hopes that she would come around, and she does, although not until too late. "Until too late" is a theme for Sabrina, actually. I suspect my main nitpick -- that the foreshadowing is often more like a forebludgeoning -- is made a little more annoying based on the fact that Sabrina seems to make obviously bad decisions. I understand that this is a writing device, but I still found it a bit tiresome. The right decisions are obvious to the reader because the clues are there quite plainly for us to see, and we wonder what the hell Sabrina is thinking when she makes bad decisions. It doesn't make her likeable, it makes her frustrating. I can, however, see that some people (especially children?) may appreciate the appeal of covering their eyes and going "Oh noes! What happens next?!" Or perhaps as an adult, I don't realize that the clues are not as obvious as they seem to me? Most kids I know are at least as fast on the uptake as I am, though.

Despite the forebludgeoning, there's a bit of a twist partway through that works very well. I'm not sure how much to say about this -- I don't want to give anything away. A discerning reader will, of course, understand that things are never as simple as they seem. The last third of the book was a very fast read for me, as I did want to know what happened (I was pretty sure that no one got squashed by a giant, but you never do know). And then there's the overarching mystery still to be solved: Who kidnapped Henry and Victoria Grimm? Where are they? And who, or what, is the Scarlet Hand?

I quite enjoyed this story for a quick romp into the fantastic, and I'll definitely be picking up the next in the series, The Unusual Suspects. Puck, the obvious foil for Sabrina, is almost certain to take a larger role in the next book (actually, I'm hoping we'll see quite a bit more of him, because along with Daphne, I liked him best). I suspect this particular series would be a great recommendation to those who are suffering from Life After Potter.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys

The first thing to recognize about this book is that it is really more poetry than prose. Not in a technical sense; but in feeling, The Frozen Thames is wonderfully, hauntingly poetic. It is structured as a set of written snapshots, one per year that the Thames river froze over in the heart of London (England, not Ontario). They are presented in chronological order. Some of them are very short, under 250 words. The only constant between them is the river, the ice, the cold. Some are descriptive, without a protagonist. Most have unnamed protagonists, some from the first person, some from the third. They are people from all walks of life, from peasants to nobles, children, adults, the elderly.

This book is wonderful, and I am in awe of it, and tremendously glad I read it. My copy was the library's, but I am considering purchasing it for myself, because it feels like something I should own.

While I was in the midst of reading the book, I took a walk along our local iconic river with a friend. The river had frozen when the levels were quite high, and as the water levels dropped the ice was draped over surfaces now a fair height above river level, including the paths alongside. The two of us walked mostly on this ice. Sometimes it was that brown milky colour of natural ice, sometimes snowcovered, sometimes perfectly clear and we could see underneath to gravel and leaves that were still green and frozen in motion. On the way back to the parking lot, we walked on a pathway that was still under waterlevel, between two ponds. We could hear the ice shifting and cracking beside us and beneath us as we passed.

I thought about The Frozen Thames the entire time we walked along the river and I think it lent me some of its mysterious, melancholy and awe-inspiring feeling. The connection turned a simple walk into an experience.

I like this book because it can do that for me. I also like it because Humphreys doesn't just focus on the very human aspects of a river freezing once per generation -- the fear, the wonder, the pain, the despair. She also invokes the reader's wonder at the event, at nature being so unpredictable, powerful, merciless, beautiful. She invokes a sense of the implacable march of time, the arc of history having absolutely nothing to do with a frozen river and yet the river is a lens through which we can understand different moments in time. It's hypnotic.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Alice, I Think by Susan Juby

My first impression of this book was that it is not as uproariously funny as I had expected. But it is fast and easy to read. Alice is awesome, but some of the other characters, good and bad, (well, and Alice too) are completely unbelievable. They are painted in that black and white way of a young, budding worldview; which I suppose is the difficulty of writing a book from the singular perspective of a young, budding worldview.

The ending, for an ending, is awesome. I have trouble with endings usually, and this one I didn't. It worked really well. It was optimistic but not perfect. I love that. Alice is endearing and infuriating, but maybe I am saying that from the perspective of someone who is well beyond my teen years and looking at it as someone who would be one of her "helping professionals."

There are a couple of of truly mortifying sequences in Alice, I Think. And I don't handle mortifying well at all. The first sequence, in which she goes to the first day of first grade dressed up like a hobbit, almost made me put the book down. The problem, for me, with mortifying sequences is that it is my natural instinct to look away. Hard to read if I'm not looking at the book.

The other problem I had with this book was the comparison between Alice MacLeod and Bridget Jones, made by the Vancouver Sun in one of the blurbs printed on the back of the library copy. I couldn't help but keep picturing Renee Zellweger throughout. The truth is, I found Bridget Jones (or Zellweger as Bridget Jones) obnoxious and stupid, and irritating rather than endearing. Alice I found more endearing than irritating; although at points the only noticeable difference between the two characters was in ages. What is funny and honest for a teen is royally obnoxious and immature for an adult. What I am trying to say here is largely that I have absolutely no desire to compare the two, and wish the comparison had never occurred to me. This is not Juby's fault; authors have very little control over what gets written on their book jackets.

I did really enjoy the book. It was light and amusing, and comparatively well-written. I don't know how much patience I would have with reading a lot of chick-lit, especially chick-lit aimed at a teen audience, but I'm not going to avoid it either.

Also, I learned that I am super grateful my parents aren't burnt-out hippies, and that I am glad that I am a relatively well-adjusted human being, and was apparently a relatively well-adjusted human being as a teenager too.

I believe the next Alice book is Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last which I may or may not pick up. I don't feel a burning desire to read it, really, but I'd probably enjoy it if I did.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

a good dilemma

I am not quite sure what to do. I have been reading, consistently, more than a book a week. I've finished a couple of books now this week, both with their own reviews written. I've started a third, and I have two more in the wings. I kind of like the idea of being able to stay a book ahead, and so I think I will; but for now, since my pace has been good, I think I'll post every time I've finished a review. Even if it goes over my weekly goal. Maybe that will help balance things out when I slack off later on down the line.

I'm glad we had this talk, blog. It helped me arrange things in my head.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks

In some ways I don't feel fit to review this book. I could never do it justice, which I suppose says something in itself. It is enormous, in some ways as large as the entire history of chemistry itself. It is also a portrait of one man's very difficult, lonely, eccentric and also wonderful childhood, and in places is almost frighteningly intimate. It's a bit of a paradox, because in some ways it seems so huge, and in others it seems so inadequately small, and the reader gradually becomes aware of just what could have been written, and how large that is. I think that's a fitting feeling for a memoir to have.

It's not that the book aspires to be grand, or that it is pretentious in any way. It's tremendously humble. It's also somewhat painfully incomplete without its Afterword, and I think the Acknowledgements finish the book better than the last chapter did. The "ending" is as abrupt as a surprise brick wall.

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood is a thick, chewy book that despite its thickness and its chewiness is an infinitely easy read. The writing is eminently accessible. It offers only glimpses into what must have been a truly remarkable family, and reads like a tribute to many of the Sacks and the Landaus as much as a memoir. The book itself is somewhat fragmentary, sewn together with a long and meandering thread of the history of chemistry and sometimes, but mostly not, seems like more of a history of chemistry itself than an autobiographical piece by a neurologist. But it was a history of chemistry that was accessible enough that I began to remember how fascinating I used to find chemistry myself, before school killed it for me. It makes me sad that the home chemistry lab is basically a relic of the past. I think it's probably wrong that I secretly think the kid who recently blew off his fingers trying to make a rocket in his garage is awesome. Most parents wouldn't let their kids anywhere near anything that might possibly be a little bit dangerous -- Sacks, on the other hand, had uranium compounds in his lab as a boy of twelve.

There are parts of this book that are heartbreaking. Sacks touches on -- though never dwells on -- the abuse he suffered at a residential school during WWII, and the abuse and bullying that apparently literally drove his older brother mad. Though understated, the reader gets the deep sense of how dreadfully lonely Sacks must have been at points in his childhood, battered by circumstances beyond his control. But for Sacks, as a boy, there were also supportive, caring, highly intelligent adults and siblings. And there was chemistry. There was the history of chemistry and the giants of discovery (an entire chapter is devoted to Humphrey Davy, for example, who I had only vaguely heard of before), and there are also the actual elements and experiments and apparatuses themselves, each described in enthusiastic, awe-filled detail. The book reads like a love letter to chemistry.

The fact that I did enjoy it as much as I did is a testament to Oliver Sacks as a talented and very human writer. I haven't decided which of Oaxaca Journals, The Island of the Colorblind, An Anthropologist on Mars, or Musicophilia I should read next. Or any of his others. Probably the first I get my hands on.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2009: looking good, looking good

Oh, bliss. I have spent the first day of the new year reading. And reading and reading, like I haven't in quite a while. One of the pleasures of working in a library is that I get to read for fun and still feel like I'm doing something productive. I was worried, at first, that reading would be "work," and there's nothing that kills fun for me like perceiving something as "work." Even labelling something "productive" can be a kiss of death, if I'm not careful. But today I discovered that reading is still fun. It's more fun. It's better than ever before.

I finished Uncle Tungsten (Oliver Sacks) which I'll review for my weekly tomorrow. I've started Alice, I Think (Susan Juby) which is a nice, light change. I've got both The Frozen Thames (Helen Humphreys) and Reinventing the Sacred (Stuart Kauffman) in the wings. These are pleasure reading. I've also got work reading to do, but I decided to give myself the day off. I have a tendency to burn out on work I love, so I'm going to be proactive and take steps against that starting early.

I think part of what is happening here, and maybe I shouldn't feel so surprised, is that I am replacing one of my forms of entertainment with another. My computer's graphics card, which I worked so hard to replace (up to and including replacing the motherboard) has stopped working. This is a mere slight annoyance normally, but it makes playing my favourite games completely impossible. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. So I've resolved not to replace the card, or the computer, for now... which will leave lots more time for reading. We'll try this out for a while, and see how it goes.