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.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

I have started to worry that I gush too much about books I enjoy. I worry that it's the sort of thing that puts people off, if I absolutely love everything. Or I worry that if I am too glowing in my reviews, people's expectations will be too high -- and following their disappointed reading, they will start to view my enthusiasm with a jaded eye. (To be fair, this might not be a bad idea.)

But. People, I can't help myself. I have another one I really, really liked. I have so much admiration for this book that I want to tell everyone who might be vaguely interested in it that they should absolutely look it up. I have already done this to several people I know. It is probably best in the older JFIC section; my 11-year-old Anne of Green Gables fan cousin will be an ideal audience, but Schlitz's writing style is simple and elegant and appeals very much to me as an adult (uh, such as I am) too.

I knew the major thrust of the plot but I didn't know how that plot would unfold, and Schlitz leads us through it slowly and carefully, revealing things in a natural and very satisfying way. This is the true joy of the story. It wasn't always predictable, and when it was predictable it wasn't boring or irritating. It was more in a "I knew it!" kind of way. There is a sense of oppression, of unease, that starts early in the book, but not too early, and it builds so masterfully that it's hard to tear one's eyes away. It's a great, absolutely great, October read. In fact, keep it in mind for next year: it would probably be an excellent read for anyone doing the RIP challenge. This is a melodrama, with definite nods to the gothic: a grand but fading house, dark and foreboding weather, a lonely orphan heroine caught up in a dangerous plot, and hints of the supernatural as it gallops towards its conclusion.

Now, no major spoilers follow, because this is all on the book jacket (although the summary is in my own words). However, if you're the sort of person who doesn't read book jackets because you don't want to know anything about the story, stop here because this book jacket is just barely this side of the line of spoilery.

The book begins:

On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."


A Drowned Maiden's Hair
is the story of Maud, an 11-year-old orphan. It is the best day of her life because Maud is about to be adopted by Hyacinth Hawthorne, one of the three Hawthorne sisters (the other two are Judith and Victoria). She is about to be taken out of the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans to a beautiful old house in Hawthorne Grove, where she believes she is to become the pampered daughter of the generous, if somewhat eccentric, sisters. And for a while it seems she is right; but all is not as it seems. The sisters are not what they appear to be on the surface, and Maud's role in their life is not as daughter, but assistant and apprentice.

Maud's voice is very powerful throughout the book. She's a brilliant character, so real to me that I cared very much for her and empathized with her entirely. And she is a character who will stay with me strongly, too. She is a brave, intelligent, and very spunky little girl, and the reader can't help but cheer for her throughout the story even if she is a little brat sometimes (and when she is, we probably cheer that too). The other characters are well-written as well, but it's hard to write too much about them without giving a lot away.

A sense of Maud's character:

Maud was also silent -- not because she had nothing to say, but because she had resumed being perfectly good. In fact, she was showing off. Judith had told her that children should not speak at the table unless a grown-up spoke to them. Maud felt that this was as unjust as it was idiotic, but for one night only she was willing to obey.


Highly recommended! I am told that this book hasn't sold well despite critical acclaim, and that makes me sad. It deserves better. Laura Amy Schlitz has written other books, including one involving the Brothers Grimm (yessss!) called The Bearskinner and I intend to pick that one up next.

So much gratitude to Mandy for providing me both with a recommendation to read this book, and a copy of my own! She has just retro reviewed it herself over at edge of seventeen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

FreeVerse: Buried 2 iv (Ondaatje)

It is Wednesday, and Cara's hosting FreeVerse over at Ooh Books! Please go check it out. There's some wonderful and very timely spooky poetry being read and posted!

That said, I am going with something slightly less topical. This might become a bad habit of mine, posting only tried-and-true poets instead of expanding my horizons. That said, I am reading the Griffin Poetry Prize anthology from 2001, and while I found a poem by Fanny Howe that started out marvelously, it fizzed towards the end. Perhaps next week I will have a new-to-me poet.

Instead, one of my favourite verses by an absolute favourite poet and novelist, Michael Ondaatje. I have reviewed Handwriting in its entirety before, but I did not post this. This poem gives me shivers. The whole of Buried 2, but this verse particularly. I would strongly recommend for full effect finding this entire volume, because the emotional weight and beauty of the poems grows cumulatively and with each re-read. There are also threads of theme and language weaving in and out of each poem, subtle and delightful, giving the reader the added pleasure of recognizing where they've seen that line or thought before.


From Handwriting by Michael Ondaatje, published by McClelland & Stewart in 1998:


Buried 2

iv


What we lost.

The interior love poem
the deeper levels of the self
landscapes of daily life

dates when the abandonment
of certain principles occurred.

The rule of courtesy - how to enter
a temple or forest, how to touch
a master's feet before lesson or performance.

The art of the drum. The art of eye-painting.
How to cut an arrow. Gestures between lovers.
The pattern of her teeth marks on his skin
drawn by a monk from memory.

The limits of betrayal. The five ways
a lover could mock an ex-lover.

Nine finger and eye gestures
to signal key emotions.

The small boats of solitude.

Lyrics that rose
from love
back into the air

naked with guile
and praise.

Our works and days.

We knew how monsoons
(south-west, north-east)
would govern behaviour

and when to discover
the knowledge of the dead

hidden in clouds,
in rivers, in unbroken rock.

All this we burned or traded for power and wealth
from the eight compass points of vengeance

from the two levels of envy

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: One Corpse Too Many

I was kind of desperately hoping to be started this book by today. I will be starting it today, I'm just not quite there yet. I've been reading Second Sight by Amanda Quick, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the first half I found one of us -- the book or I -- lost momentum around the midway point. I suspect, actually, that I am now firmly ensconced in a reading slump, which means finding something I want to read and something that will engage me may be a challenge. It's been some time coming -- little hints of it here and there, a lack of enthusiasm for anything on the TBR pile, a lack of enthusiasm for anything I pick up randomly even if I was enthused about it before I signed it out of the library.

That's why I'm going with Ellis Peters, because I have had Brother Cadfael on the brain for weeks now, and I'm curious enough about him to figure I'll probably read this book relatively quickly. If not, I will end up trying some non-fiction. And if that doesn't work, I might go for something very short. The problem with picking things to read in this state of mind is that I don't want to pick anything I have been very excited about before the slump started, because I run the risk of being frustrated or irritated by it when normally I would love it.

This comes on the verge of NaNoWriMo, too, which may mean that my book/week count may be astonishingly low next month. Just warning.

From One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters, p48 ("he" is Brother Cadfael):

"Your lordship will have had orders about us," he said briskly. "We are here to take charge of the dead, and I require clean and adequate space where they may be decently laid until we take them away for burial."

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.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Singing by Alison Croggon

It's done. And I am pleased to report that the ending of this series was satisfying enough that the series remains one of my favourite reads of the year, possibly of several years. Some of my readers may have noticed, when I take to a book, I take to it hard. I am buying this series. In hardback. And I am going to cherish it, and re-read it, and lend it out to friends. Then I'm going to re-read it again. And again. And I am going to love it more each time, I suspect.

If you want a very brief summary of what the series is about, check out the review for the first book. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, what can I say in general about The Singing in particular? Well, first of all, it wasn't as intense as The Crow. Of all the books in the series, that one remains elevated above the other three as an indisputable, shining, relentless work of art. But as an ending, The Singing was creative and engaging, sometimes surprising and thoroughly satisfying.

Permit me one small gripe, however, if you will: I think many of the emotional character arcs were finished slightly too quickly. Not glaringly so, but I could have used a little more time to resolve some relationships and get a feel for the changes and personal epiphanies each character experienced. I have no trouble with the results of those changes; I found them believable, but we see them complete, not getting worked out. Everything felt just slightly too brief to do the characters I've grown to love justice.

I have absolutely no illusions about how difficult writing this sort of thing can be, after the climax of the action, and perhaps there was no way to end the book as gracefully. But I almost felt as if the characters distanced themselves from me as the book ended, so there was no painful wrench as I closed the book. I wanted that sweet pain and I missed it. But endings are very hard, and really, this one ended in style. Exciting, chilling, and beautiful. Enough loose ends to make me happy.

As a quick aside, a caveat: if you're like me, and like your endings mostly open-ended, don't read the Appendix. I knew I shouldn't have read it. I'm now going to do my best to forget it, because I want the characters to live their lives in my imagination. It's Croggon's prerogative to end it that way, but I should know better by now than to read Appendices.

One more thing I can talk about without spoilers is the difference between Maerad and Hem, our two main characters. One of the reasons I liked The Crow so much was that I think the world of Hem. He reads like a little brother I'd love to hug (and the kid needs a few hugs). I found Hem easier to engage with than Maerad, I think largely because of something Maerad does in book two, The Riddle (beware spoilers behind that link), and also because she spends a lot of time in The Riddle being a very moody teenager. And while I can sympathize with a moody teenager, I did find Maerad a little harder to empathize with. Further, by the time we get to The Singing, she is increasingly powerful and increasingly almost inhuman, and so I think the distance I feel from her is very appropriate. She is a wonderful character, and I am very fond of her; but it was Hem I could relate to the most.

This is the strength of Alison Croggon's characterizations: each of her characters, particularly those who are mains but also fleeting characters, are crystal-clear and different. They provoke different reactions from the reader, despite some of them being archetypes, despite some of them being on the page for less than a chapter. They inspire tenderness or anger, fear or interest. I'm extremely impressed with how vivid they are.

I'm a little afraid to start reading anything tonight. I'm afraid I'll be disillusioned or unfairly frustrated with whatever I read next. I've got a great series afterglow.

Again, thank you so much to Darla for introducing me to Alison Croggon and The Books of Pellinor. It's been a wonderful gift.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

FreeVerse: Ode to some yellow flowers (Neruda)

Cara over at Ooh... Books! has come up with an idea I absolutely love and am very excited about. I have been thinking about poetry a lot lately. I've been thinking about Tennyson, to be exact, but I haven't got any Tennyson here today so for my first installment of FreeVerse, I'm going to fall back on an old favourite of mine: Pablo Neruda. He is as wonderful in English as he is in Spanish... but I digress. I have written about Neruda and poetry in translation before.

I don't know much about reading poetry other than for the sheer joy I get when reading perfect language. So I'm not going to analyze; every Wednesday, I'm just going to pick a poem I love, or a poet I love, and post.

This is Cara's explanation of the "non-meme":

FreeVerse, hosted here [Ooh... Books!] every Wednesday, is supposed to be just that—free. The name, in true poetic style, is supposed to have layers of meaning.

  1. 1. Of course, free verse is a style of poetry, but all styles and forms will be celebrated.
  2. 2. Verse can can be read for free on the web.
  3. 3. Anyone is free to participate . . . or not.
  4. 4. Posts entered into Mr. Linky can be vlog poetry readings, written poetry (by well-known poets or by YOU), reviews of poetry collections, analyses of poems. In short, posts can be anything to celebrate poetry and broaden our readers' exposure to all forms of verse. (Oh, they don't even have to be from that Wednesday. You can post permalinks for any poetry-related posts you want more people to read.)
  5. 5. FreeVerse is also a nod to my love of sci-fi and fantasy. It brings to my mind the ideas expressed by the words universe, omniverse, multiverse, and the like. FreeVerse is all of those things for poetry.


This week, from my edition of Neruda's Odes to Common Things (translated by Ken Krabbenhoft, published by Bulfinch Press in 1994, ISBN 0-8212-2080-2):


Ode to some yellow flowers


Rolling its blues against another blue,
the sea, and against the sky
some yellow flowers.

October is on its way.

And although
the sea may well be important, with its unfolding
myths, its purpose and its risings,
when the gold of a single
yellow plant
explodes
in the sand
your eyes
are bound
to the soil.
They flee the wide sea and its heavings.

We are dust and to dust return.
In the end we're
neither air, nor fire, nor water,
just
dirt,
neither more nor less, just dirt,
and maybe
some yellow flowers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: A Drowned Maiden's Hair

It's funny, this book seems to be a quick read; the language is seamless and the story and characters are very engaging. But I am not making a lot of headway -- I had expected to be finished it by now. I think it's more to do with a lack of reading time than the story itself. That said, I'm also savouring this story a bit, letting it roll around in my head.

A Drowned Maiden's Hair was recommended to me by Mandy over at edge of seventeen, and she was dead on -- this is a book that deserves a lot more attention than it has gotten. I had never heard of it or of Laura Amy Schlitz before she passed it to me, and I am sorry I'd missed it before. Atmospheric, suspenseful, and often amusing, with a unique and wonderful main character. It is billed as a melodrama, and it has a distinctly gothic feel, and I'm thinking I will recommend it to my younger cousin who is a fan of Anne of Green Gables once I am done with it. Schlitz's writing style is smooth and a pleasure to read.

From A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz, p234:
Maud could have wept with frustration. Outside the window, the trees were bending, and angry raindrops spattered the dust, leaving it pockmarked.

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.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mort by Terry Pratchett

Back on the Discworld, and this time we're hanging out with one of my favourite characters: DEATH. DEATH, who seems so unambiguous and straightforward at first, implacable, ancient, inhuman, amoral, and strangely wise. DEATH, who turns out to care about kittens, who apparently likes to gamble, and who starts thinking about taking a vacation.

This isn't a book about DEATH. This is a book about Mort, who we meet at the beginning, before he becomes DEATH's apprentice. And unfortunately for DEATH's well-laid plans, we can see this being trouble pretty much from the beginning -- because when you put an adolescent male with many raging hormones, even one as intelligent as Mort, in a position that requires him to be non-judgemental and wise, you are going to have problems. When you put Mort on DEATH's horse Binky and give him a scythe, he is going to destroy the world. This is a book about Mort racing against reality, in an effort to not destroy the world and to get the girl.

As with Pratchett's other books I've read, there are deeper thoughts here. There are musings on the nature of death and the afterlife and adolescent boys; on reality, fate, love, and justice. There are no answers, just ideas and a lot of poking fun. I really enjoyed this installment in the Discworld books, which is one of two that I had read before reading The Wee Free Men and deciding that I was a Pratchett fan for life. Which I think is how I am trying to say that this book is good, but it wasn't a deal-maker for me. It was good enough to convince me that I might like more Pratchett if I tried it, but not good enough to convince me that I needed to read everything he had written.

That said, it's still full of gems of description and characterization. This is Mort:

It was also acutely embarrassing to Mort's family that the youngest son was not at all serious and had about the same talent for horticulture that you would find in a dead starfish. It wasn't that he was unhelpful, but he had the kind of vague, cheerful helpfulness that serious men soon learn to dread. There was something infectious, possibly even fatal, about it. He was tall, red-haired and freckled, with the sort of body that seems only marginally under its owner's control; it appeared to have been built out of knees.

And this is the wizard Cutwell:

Instead of the grey-bearded mystic Mort had expected, he saw a round, rather plump face, pink and white like a pork pie, which it somewhat resembled in other respects. For example, like most pork pies, it didn't have a beard and, like most pork pies, it looked basically good natured.


His characters are unique, and yet completely knowable at the same time. I really enjoy Mort's interactions with Ysabell, DEATH's daughter (see, not so straightforward) and there are some really lovely scenes that combine humour with a gentle melancholy. Overall, a fun, pleasant read; not the best Discworld novel I've read so far, but that's like saying key lime pie isn't the best pie in the world. It's still pretty darn fabulous.

Incidentally, I happen to know that Darla over at books & other thoughts is re-reading the Discworld series, and has reviewed Mort as well. Check it out! and then... onward to Sourcery! After my hold comes in.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: The Singing

It's Tuesday. Happy Tuesday everyone! The sun seems to be shining, at least a little bit this morning. I have a head cold, and I wish I could lie in bed all day and read... but alas, work calls. I am hoping that it will be a quiet afternoon on the desk. This season it's becoming a little iffy as to how sick I should be before I stay home. I don't think I'm there yet.

Today's teaser comes from the last installment of Alison Croggon's Books of Pellinor, The Singing. I am very concerned that characters I really care about are going to end up dead or worse, but at the 10th page I'm already getting swept up in the story. So here we go.

From The Singing by Alison Croggon, p126:

"Hekibel said you'd say something like that," said Hem.

Saliman studied Hem, his lips twitching at the disappointment on the boy's face.

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, October 12, 2009

Emily Carr by Lewis DeSoto

I seem to need these breaks into non-fiction every once in a while. Sometimes while reading, I'll feel overloaded, bloated with fictional images, ideas and characters. Then its time for non-fiction. It clarifies things; it resets my mind. And then I'm capable of picking up fiction again.

For this purpose, Lewis DeSoto's Emily Carr worked admirably well. I have mixed feelings about this book, but overall it did exactly what I wanted it to do: I learned things, I enjoyed the topic, and I ended up with new avenues to explore sometime in the future.

For those who don't know of her, Emily Carr was an artist and a writer, working on the west coast of Canada (based mostly in Victoria, British Columbia) in the early 1900s. She was inspired by the western rainforests and also by Native art, particularly the totem poles of the west coast First Nations. This slim little volume I have is one in the (very attractive) Extrordinary Canadians series, published by Penguin and edited by John Ralston Saul -- she's in good company with the likes of Norman Bethune, Lester B. Pearson, Nellie McClung, and Tommy Douglas also being profiled in the series.

I didn't know very much at all about Emily Carr before I picked up this book. Which is not to say I knew nothing; I've seen her paintings exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery, and I've always kind of liked them, although now that I know more about her I suspect I will appreciate them even more. She is definitely the sort of artist whose art stands on its own, but knowing something of her story makes it even more impressive.

As an entry into her life and ideas, this book is very useful. It was a very easy read, despite the fact that I had trouble with DeSoto's writing style. I liked this passage in a way (I think the ideas, perhaps?) but it also draws out some of the stylistic problems I had:

Carr brings the painting out from the forest, and what we see, what we perceive, is not a picture, but a sensation. The painting is pure sensation, which we in turn experience. Emily Carr, the painter, immersed herself totally in her own experience and created something that is partly the forest, partly herself, but mostly something else entirely.

Repetitive, no? That was quite common and it started to feel almost... patronizing, both to me as the reader and to Carr as the subject. I'm sure this was unintentional, because I certainly got the impression that DeSoto greatly admires Carr and was excited about the opportunity to bring her to a new generation of Canadians. But sometimes his writing seems either overwrought or judgemental. Futher, occasionally he swings into confusing conjecture at points, and that was where I found the book to be most irritating.

This is sometimes a problem with biography, and it may be something that I am sensitive to and so not everyone will find it as glaring. In an autobiography, even if the truth is obscured, glossed over, or stretched, the subject makes that decision. They may pass judgement on themselves and that's okay; they're well within their rights. I start to get uncomfortable when a biographer feels either gushy or judgmental about their subject -- I want a greater distance between biographer and subject.

The biographer has a very challenging job: they have to be factual and true to their subject's life without being boring. Where source material is lacking, they may try to extrapolate what was happening in the subjects head/life and why they did the things they did, who influenced them, that sort of thing. In some cases, biographers may even be tempted to superimpose self over the subject. This was where Emily Carr lost me; there was sometimes more DeSoto than Carr. Even if not always explicit (and sometimes it was) it felt heavily filtered at times. Some might enjoy this as a way to make Carr more accessible to the reader, but I did not.

Despite my problems with the style, I will still recommend this book because I think it fulfills its purpose as an introduction to Emily Carr. I suspect it will be highly useful to high school students in particular having to do a report on a Canadian artist, Canadian woman, or influential Canadian figure. I also recommend it for those who know nothing about Carr and would be interested in learning more. As a precursor to viewing a Carr exhibit, for example, this book would be excellent. It provides a satisfactory overview into facets of her life and it has made me interested in reading further, particularly in reading her own words.

I was going to post one of Carr's paintings, but instead let me point you to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria's ARTBase Carr gallery. Four pages of Carr's paintings, sketches and even sculpture. I am particularly fond of Blue Sky.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ranma 1/2 Volumes 16 and 17 by Rumiko Takahashi

The light reading didn't stop at the historical romance. No, once I was in the mood for historical romance, I was also then in the mood for slapstick Japanese romantic comedy. What to do? What to do? But then I remembered: I had brought two volumes of Ranma 1/2 with me! What a coincidence.

I had thought I might be running out of things to say about Ranma 1/2, which would be challenging given that there is still over half the series to go yet. However, never fear! It turns out I do have some things to say, something about Volume 16 in particular, or in relation to it. (Aside from the plot summary, which is thus: Jusenkyo Spring-of-Drowned-Yeti-Riding-an-Ox-Carrying-an-Eel-and-a-Crane, plus pantyhose!)

At first I was just downright discouraged with the amount of Akane: Damsel-in-Distress becoming common. And then I thought about it a little harder and discussed with fishy, and realized that despite a few inaccurate teasers at the very beginning of the series, Akane has always been tremendously inept at pretty much everything. That's just who she is. She is clumsy, temperamental, obstinate, often in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ferocious when crossed; and she also has both a brave and a sweet streak. So it's not that hard for her to often get herself into ridiculous situations where she finds herself in trouble. But she rarely stays passively in trouble, even if Ranma's racing to the rescue. She doesn't lie around bemoaning her kidnapped state. She chats with her captor, yells at him, and tries to get free (it's not her fault she's surrounded by water, and can't swim). When she does get free, she comes to Ranma's rescue a number of times. And manages to remain clueless about others' true intentions (ie., Ryoga's pathetic adoration and Shampoo's truly creepy murderous plans for her). Which keeps the plot going, right?

So, what initially drove me crazy turns out to be something I actually find rather amusing now. Figures. That actually keeps happening with this series, except where Ryoga is concerned. He is still driving me crazy in a not-good way.

Volume 17, for the record: a disasterous 10-year aged okonomiyaki sauce leads Ukyo to move in with the Tendos, which leads to Ranma and Akane pretending to be married, which leads to Ranma trying to break it off with Ukyo, which leads to Ukyo frying him on a griddle like an okonomiyaki. Um, actually, somehow that sounds like a logical progression. It's not, believe me. And then later there's a felonious octopus trap. So, that was all pretty awesome.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

First Comes Marriage by Mary Balogh

Ah yes. The historical romance, to balance out the heavy reading I have been doing lately. I'm not sure if it's just contrast, but I must say that I found First Comes Marriage to be particularly light. (On a completely shallow note, though I'm not wild about this cover, it's infinitely preferable to a half naked viscount. Just sayin'.)

This book has a marriage of convenience plot -- the viscount, Elliot, needs a wife, and also someone to present his three newly discovered female charges to the ton. The young widow Vanessa, one of those newly discovered female charges, steps in to prevent the viscount from marrying her elder sister and marries him instead. Prior to the marriage, both parties are pretty sure they dislike each other strongly, but they're about to find out differently.

That's really simplifying it. There are subplots involving an ex-mistress, a [supposedly] debauched cousin, long-lost relatives, and more, but the focus is on the protagonists and their increasingly fascinating relationship with each other.

The main problem seems to be that they get off on the wrong foot. Vanessa is very outspoken. Because she has grown up in a tiny, out-of-the-way village, she has none of London society's niceties standing in her way of saying what she thinks. What she has to say to Elliot doesn't sit well with him at all, because she thinks him a cold, humourless, and arrogant snot. Which, in her defence, he is. Of course, there are always complicating factors, and Elliot is only cold, humourless and arrogant because he is wounded and deeply duty-bound. I know this kind of hero appeals to a lot of women, but I found Elliot to be seriously annoying until much closer to the end. Not Balogh's fault; the writing is good, the characterization fine, but Elliot's just not my type.

In the end, as befits a book about marriage, this book is almost entirely about communication. Things go well when people communicate well with each other; things go poorly when they don't. Vanessa is a great champion of honest communication between partners; ironically, though she does speak a lot she often has trouble laying out exactly what she wants to say. The juxtaposition is really cute. However, it does mean that Elliot often misunderstands her, and he's not particularly interested in talking with anyone at all, so misunderstandings go on for a long time with him. But this changes. And by the end of the book, even I had a little more fondness for Elliot, who wasn't so much of a snot after all.

Mary Balogh is a new romance author for me (and I just discovered she's Canadian! well, British first, but now she lives in Saskatchewan [UPDATE! Melanie informs me that Balogh is not British, but Welsh -- my bad]). Readers of Julia Quinn will very likely enjoy Balogh, although I found the writing to be a little more candy floss than Quinn's, and the setting and secondary characters slightly less realized. She's highly spoken of in many reviews, and her books are fairly popular at our library. I certainly enjoyed this book even if I wasn't wild about it, as it was just the sort of thing I needed. I don't think I'll be searching out her other books, but if one fell into my lap when I happened to be in a romance novel mood, I'd pick it up.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Emily Carr

I did something I rarely do these days, what with a TBR basket and pages and pages of TBR list: I picked something off the library shelves at random and brought it home. Although even that is not entirely random -- I had seen Emily Carr by Lewis DeSoto (one of Penguin's Extrordinary Canadians biography series) a couple of times, and thought I might like to give it a shot. So far I'm learning a lot, but to be honest I like the snippets of Carr's writing far better than I like DeSoto's style. I think, though, part of this might be that I like autobiography better than biography. I'll discuss further in the review, I think.

From Emily Carr by Lewis DeSoto, p109:

Although Emily came to be identified in popular imagination with Native peoples, Sophie was really her only true, personal contact with a Native person. After Emily left Vancouver and moved back to Victoria, the two women maintained a correspondence, augmented by Emily's visits to the mainland.

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, October 5, 2009

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

I'll post this review on the eve of Leviathan's official release, in hopes of generating a bit more buzz, if that's even possible. I will admit, I was pretty psyched about reading this book, and so I did sneak a peek at the first chapter before I went off on vacation, and I liked what I saw immediately. I knew I would, thanks to Abby's excellent review. I'd not heard about this book before it, and decided I must have a copy of my own after it.

First though, let me say that this book is gorgeous. Of course the contents are important, and I'll get to that in a minute -- but this book is just beautiful. The font is nice, the paper is thick, the illustrations by Keith Thompson are absolutely perfect, the insides of the covers are just stunning. A lot of thought has gone into the presentation of this story, I think, and I like that a lot. It makes the price of a hardback more than worth it. So, kudos to the Simon Pulse imprint for that.

In case you've missed it (there's been a fair bit of blogger buzz about this book) the plot rolls something like this. It is the eve of the First World War. Alek is a Hapsburg prince, possible heir to the throne of Austro-Hungaria, rousted out of his bed in the middle of the night by two of his tutors and taken on a journey that quickly becomes mortally dangerous. Deryn is a fifteen-year old girl, desperate to fly, desperate enough to disguise herself as a boy and join the British Air Force. By luck, both good and bad, these two with deep secrets end up together on the British airship Leviathan. And, at the end of the book, their journey has really just begun.

I feel it's my duty to warn you now. There are a lot of unresolved questions at the end of this book, not the least of which is whether everyone is going to survive. I cringe at the thought of how long I have to wait for the next one (October 2010 - one. whole. year. *wails*)

Everyone includes the ship, because Leviathan is a Darwinist creation, a fabricated animal. In Westerfeld's alternate history, Darwin not only discovered evolution, but he discovered DNA and how to manipulate it. Using his techniques, scientists (Deryn charmingly calls them "boffins" and they all wear bowlers, which is awesome) are able to create chimeric creatures that replace most of what machinery would do in our familiar history. Leviathan, for example, is nominally a whale-type creature, but she flies in the air using hydrogen she excretes and captures in a series of hydrogen bladders. The Darwinists have created these animals in very intricate ways, and a big airship like Leviathan is actually an entire functioning ecosystem.

Lest you think our industrial age is forgotten, however, there are also Clankers: some countries have become extremely technically advanced, shunning Darwinist creations as "ungodly" and creating great engines and machines, tank-like walkers and airplanes running on fossil fuels, to match the Darwinist creations. And the Darwinists and the Clankers are both morally and technologically opposed -- and thus, there is war. While Westerfeld has the same trigger for the war as happened in our timeline, many of the surface reasons for the war are different.

The world Westerfeld has created is both really cool and not one I would want to live in. I don't like the idea of the Clankers, the filthy, destructive, fossil-fuel guzzling machines they create -- but I also have a lot of trouble with the idea of living creatures as war machines and tools. I've always thought that the stories of bats and pigeons and dogs and dolphins trained to be weapons of war are sickening. War is a human endeavour, and animals should have no part in it, whether they've been created for that purpose or not. When the ship Leviathan is strafed with machine gun fire, she feels pain; as a "whale," I'm pretty sure she's intelligent enough to feel fear when attacked, and yet she's driven right into battle. And I really don't like that thought at all.

So it's a very interesting read from that perspective, and will likely stand up as a book that both adults and kids can read and have deep discussions about. But that's not all. The characters that move in this world Westerfeld has created are compelling. Both Alek and Daryn are intelligent, brave, and flawed human beings, desperate to keep their secrets and do what they feel is right. Alek in particular made me shake my head at points, but the things he did were still internally consistent with who he was.

Deryn was a little crazy but I especially liked her. She's funny, too; her ways of speech are filthy (without actual swearing) and her observations of others are often dead on. And while I'm not often a fan of the "I'm really just pretending to be a boy!" character, I completely understand and sympathize with Deryn's reasons. There is no way she would be allowed to be where she is, doing what she does, if she'd applied for the Air Force as a girl, so deception -- and the associated dishonesties even with those she grows fond of -- is absolutely necessary.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I'd recommend it to anyone with a taste for fast-paced adventure. People who have read and liked Airborn by Kenneth Oppel especially will probably also like this book, although it does have a completely different flavour. I haven't read anything else by Westerfeld, but I'd be interested to hear from someone who has read this and his Uglies books, to see what they think. And I'll definitely be picking up Uglies some day soon.

Next I had to read something that has nothing to do with war, violence, or murder. That's right: historical romance. I've been laying it on rather heavy lately, with the war and the crime fiction. Needed something happy, something pink: stay tuned for a review of Mary Balogh's First Comes Marriage.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Curse of the Tahiera by Wendy Gillissen

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. It doesn't matter that he is half-Tzanatzi, that his mother was a Southerner; he looks Tzanatzi and that is enough to make him a feared and hated outsider no matter where he goes or what he does. When he is forced to leave his village to make enough money to feed himself through winter by going north to trade, he runs into Yldich, an Einache traveler who is much more than he seems. Despite Rom's misgivings, Yldich joins his travels and thus a conclusion to events 500 years in the making is set in motion. This is also very much the tale of Rom's path to healing, an internal journey that, for me, was as fascinating as the external events. Like Elena, I was concerned at the beginning that the book was going to be a sort of heavy spiritual morality tale (I was probably led this direction by the blurbs; I think we all know now how I feel about blurbs) but as I continued to read, the story more than carried its own weight.

So, let me get my problems out of the way first, as they're mostly mechanical, before I get into what I liked. First of all, I had a lot of problems with the formatting of the dialogue. A lot of the time it's very difficult to figure out who is talking based on the structure, and I realized as I was reading how reliant we sometimes are on structural cues to identify things like who said what and who thought what and who that sentence is describing. The main reason this was an issue for me was because it pulled me out of the story, created what I felt was probably an artificial distance, because I was constantly having to go back and figure out who said what. And dialogue is an important part of this story; there's a lot of it, so it was a lot of detective work and that was pretty frustrating at times.

The second problem I had is something that isn't going to be a problem for everyone. Towards the end of the novel, as the plot starts to pick up pace, the perspective changes start to come fast and furious which makes things feel a little choppy. Again, it was taking me out of the story trying to figure out who was what, where. Changes in perspective are something I notice a lot in books, and I tend to be a reader who prefers just one or possibly two perspectives.

And both good and bad, this book is slow, and long. I enjoyed the slow pace, the way the story unfolds gradually; nothing felt forced or rushed. But it is a long book to have that slow pace, and when the pace does pick up, it keeps up for a long time, which left me feeling a bit breathless and rushed, particularly after the slow pace before it.

However, those little complaints weren't enough to distract me from the things I did enjoy. This is a very well-crafted plot, carefully thought out and carefully woven together. Gillissen has done an excellent job of taking different threads and pulling them together into what eventually becomes a very complex tale, and though much of what happens at the end is set up ahead of time, there were still a few surprises left at the end for a satisfying conclusion. I liked the characters. I particularly liked Rom, despite the fact that occasionally I wanted to shake him; I am pretty sure I was supposed to want to shake him.

But what I enjoyed most was something that started to become very clear midway through the novel. There is no good or evil in this story, although there are people we cheer for and those we are assuredly not cheering for. It's set up in such a way that the "villains" are not categorically villified except by those whose prejudices are clear, so that even the great "evil" sorcerer in the story inspires both pity and understanding. There is a distinct ambiguity, often quite subtle (and sometimes not) about who is right and who is wrong, leaving the reader with a sense that no one, except perhaps Yldich, is ever entirely one or the other.

Yldich is always right. But I liked that; it made sense for his character. Even when he felt uncomfortable with himself, he was always right in the end, and while sometimes that seems like an impossible feat for a character, Gillissen wrote Yldich so well that it was never overbearing or ridiculous. It was just the way it should be. Also, it's through Yldich that one of the greatest characteristics of Gillissen's writing shines: her gentle sense of humour. This is not a funny novel, but there were often points that made me smile.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. It is probably not for everyone; the slow pace, the philosophical bent, may put some off. But I liked it, and I'm grateful I had a chance to read it. I am nearly positive I would have overlooked it if Gillissen hadn't approached me.

That said, and this has nothing to do with the book but everything to do with me, I have learned something new. I shouldn't accept books from authors for review. I get unsettled about challenges and giveaways, because I feel I have to do something reading and blog related. I have discovered that accepting an author's novel from the author herself stresses me out ten times worse. Because I have agreed to take something that they have worked hard on, a piece of them, really, and read it and review it and though Gillissen was very gracious and didn't give me a deadline, I felt badly every time I looked at her novel in the TBR basket and didn't review it. Too much self-imposed pressure, and I think that once I have let that go I'll take the chance to read this book again.

Thank you Wendy, for giving me this opportunity, and for introducing me to a new world and especially new characters who will stay with me for a while.