Friday, December 31, 2010

first lines meme 2010

Once again, I thought I'd pull together the first sentence of every month on this blog. I do like going back and looking at old entries; it's narcissistic, sure, but it's also interesting to see what I was thinking -- and what I was writing. I tend to feel like I was better at blogging in the past, and sometimes looking back reminds me that I'm not a worse writer now, I'm just lazier. Which is true. Particularly towards the end of the year, they got much shorter, less detailed, and I think, less useful even to me when I'm trying to figure out whether I recommend a book I've read to someone or not (it's true -- I use my own blog for those purposes sometimes.)

Has anyone else out there ever laughed so hard they cried at a passage in a book that, upon inspection, others do not find so funny?

Six more weeks of winter, and so today I am breaking out the winter haiku plus one that reminds me to look forward to summer.

I have to say, as much as I enjoy the series, I am sort of running out of things to say about Ranma 1/2.

Some books are good.

Impulse buys.

It's probably too rarely that I review children's picture books here (um, I think I have done it once before).

There's something a little daunting about writing a review of this series so late in the game.

This is the first of a series, the Chronicles of the Necromancer.

And now for something completely different.

If you were not already aware (and very few were) we've been away for a week.

I. Heart. This. Book.

There has been a delay; I don't deny it.

I look at this and wonder if somewhere around the end of March I'd stopped paying attention to the first lines of my blog entries again -- it seems I must have. There appears to be a noticeable cutoff! Also, this exercise has confirmed for me that I am possibly a bit too fond of the parentheses, a suspicion I have had for a little while. Perhaps a parenthetical diet is necessary. Perhaps that will be my New Year's Resolution: Stop and Think Before Adding that Parenthetical Clause.

So here we go -- onward through year three. Happy New Year, everyone! May your 2011 be your best year yet.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
by Anne Fadiman
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998
157 pages

A sonnet might look dinky, but it was somehow big enough to accommodate love, war, death, and O. J. Simpson. You could fit the whole world in there if you shoved hard enough.

The above quote could just as easily describe this wonderful book of essays as sonnets. It is a small book, but so large in bookish scope and quotable bits and things to think about that I am afraid this review may be fairly long. It's a book that makes me excited about reading. I don't need much encouragement, it's true, but maybe I have lately; maybe this book has hit me at just the right time.

Ex Libris is a smallish collection of essays on books, reading, literature, and literary lives by editor and writer Anne Fadiman. The essays are short -- five or six pages each -- and they fly by too quickly. I actually felt quite saddened that there were no more at the end, and that's always a good feeling when it comes to books.

I think what I like most is that I don't always agree with Fadiman; I felt more like I was having a discussion with her as I read -- well, she was persuading and orating, and I was interjecting and commenting. I think she's fascinating, I learned many things, I love her outlook on reading and most things literary, but. This is a woman, who in the same essay, can write the absolutely marvelous sentence:

I can think of few better ways to introduce a child to books than to let her stack them, upend them, rearrange them, and get her fingerprints all over them.

And then she will go on to write in the same essay,

Our father's library spanned the globe and three millenia, although it was particularly strong in English poetry and fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The only junk, relatively speaking, was science fiction;

Which makes me want to bash the book against the wall. It's not just that it's a horribly snobby thing to write (because I have come, at this point, to the conclusion that Fadiman comes by her literary snobbery honestly, and some people are like that, and fine) but it makes me sad for her. If an entire genre like science fiction (and what must she think of fantasy? or god forbid, romance?) can be dismissed so easily, how much she is missing. The remarkable, brain-tingling writing of Samuel Delany, for example, is better than most literary fiction I have read. Ursula K. Le Guin, with things to say about gender and belonging and truth and loyalty in the most creative ways. Entire challenging, interesting, shining works of art dismissed as junk because they happen to be written in genre. I know I can be a bit sensitive to this, but that sort of thing always feels like a punch in the gut, a complete dismissal of something that I both enjoy for fun and intellectually.

It is a testament to how much I enjoy these essays that I didn't throw the book, and in fact just shook my head in bemusement and kept reading. Because, like there is more to science fiction than space ships and aliens, there is far more to these essays than one throwaway comment, telling though it is. And it doesn't hurt, once in a while, to think about what it is I love about reading, and why I like reading what I do, and what books mean to me. And think, in detail, about how I might defend that position to someone like Fadiman -- or whether or not it needs to be defended at all.

Other essays are about books as objects, about used bookstores, about compulsive proofreading, about personalized inscriptions, about marrying personal libraries when the owners marry, and one of my favourites: an essay about the his/her dilemma. It deals with Fadiman's personal wrestling with gendered language, about the difficulty of sometimes placing equality over beauty in a sentence, and why it is necessary. From that came the following passage:

Long ago, my father wrote something similar: "The best essays [do not] develop original themes. The develop original men, their composers." Since my father, unlike E. B. White, is still around to testify, I called him up last night and said, "Be honest. What was really in your mind when you wrote those sentences?" He replied, "Males. I was thinking about males. I viewed the world of literature -- indeed, the entire world of artistic creation -- as a world of males, and so did most writers. Any writer of fifty years ago who denies that is lying. Any male writer, I mean."

I believe that although my father and E. B. White were not misogynists, they didn't really see women, and their language reflected and reinforced that blind spot.

This is particularly interesting to me given that Fadiman's father and E. B. White were both married to very accomplished women of letters, and both relied on them for artistic assistance and delighted in sharing the world of literature with them. Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff.

Fadiman is not a common reader, nor is she a common writer. She is erudite, clever, interesting, funny, and replete with new and unusual words (I am going to follow her example and list words in this book that I have never encountered before -- it is going to be a long one). It occurs to me that someone less talented may have come off as patronizing or full-of-herself, but Fadiman's essays come off instead as full of joie de vivre and completely, head-over-heels in love with language and the written word. She isn't using her fancy words to impress. She is using them because they exactly embody what she wants to say, and she just happens to have them handy for use. Her vocabulary becomes a gift to the reader.

This book is delightful, and I need to find my own copy. I'll also be keeping an eye out for her newer collection of essays, At Large and at Small. I recommend Ex Libris highly to anyone who loves reading, language, and most especially books.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

another year of blogging successfully, though slightly less so

Has it really been two years? Really?

I suppose so. This year has been marked, or perhaps I should say marred, by a significant drop in reading volume. From often two books a week or more, I am sometimes struggling to get even one book a week read. I'm just not reading as much, and I'm not exactly sure why. I did notice a slight increase in book reading when my online reading decreased, so that's an encouraging sign. I don't think my lack of book reading is permanent. I think it's just a slump, of the sort that everyone goes through every once in a while, and I think I'll pull out of it eventually with careful handling and management. And probably with some Discworld, which seems to be a magic cure for me!

On the bright side, a new experience that I had was listening to -- and enjoying -- audiobooks. Always kind of iffy in the past, I seem to have really taken to them this time around, and I'm starting to get a list of things I want to listen to as much as read. So that's very cool.

As with last year, I'm curious about my numbers, so here we go:
Books read in the past year: 77
Fiction read: 66
Nonfiction read: 11
Adult books read: 38
Young adult books read: 29
Children's books read: 10
Canadian books read: 11
Graphic novels read: 24

And some new categories:
Audiobooks listened to: 4
Series started: 18
Series completed: 2

Hm. The series thing is not really looking sustainable. Though I did count series that I don't intend to finish, having read the first book. Let's just say that the number of those is pretty small, compared to the overall number of series I started this year.

Next year I plan to keep track of the nationality of all the authors I read, not just the Canadian ones, though that probably won't show up on the blog as a tag. It's more out of curiosity.

Also, you'll notice that I haven't mentioned the challenge I started. That is because, in a fit of self-defeating defeatism, I didn't even read one poetry book. Sigh. I did read some poetry, just not an entire volume. Lesson learned? We shall see.

A quick round up of some favourites, in no particular order:

  • Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus Volume 1 by CLAMP - I loved this read. The entire experience of it, thinking about it, sharing my love of it on the blog. This is a wonderful, wonderful book and I'm really looking forward to the next three volumes.
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation by Tom Siddell - Have not been so wrapped up in a story since Harry Potter, and never in a graphic novel. Enough said.
  • Pyramids by Terry Pratchett - The Discworld books I've read this year generally stand out as being some of my favourite reads, so I thought I'd pick just one. Pyramids, for some reason, keeps cropping up in my head every once in a while when I'm thinking of something completely unrelated. Possibly one of the best books I have ever read, certainly one of the best fantasies.
  • Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah - So, since I wrote that post, it has consistently been the most popular post on my site. I am thinking a number of kids in the States have this as required reading, judging from the search strings. Thought-provoking, and generally enjoyable humourous read, that may in fact have helped change my worldview a bit.
  • Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer - The only book I have read through completely twice this year, and has become one of my comfort read staples. Epistolary Jane-Austen-like romance + magic = happy me.
  • The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake - Except for the ending, which still doesn't sit quite well with me, this is a biting, exhilarating, scary, moving read set in a locale that doesn't get nearly enough fiction. Main character may actually be my favourite of the year.

And a look at what is coming up on my to read list. Oh, that's another thing I did this year: I digitized my TBR, rather than keeping it in the back of multiple notebooks. I currently have well over 900 books on that list. It is not getting any smaller. I'll put the number that the book is on my list beside it just for kicks. You will notice that there are some (er, most) that aren't on the list yet.

Waiting for me to read at this moment:

  • The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (368)
  • The Magician's Guild by Trudi Canavan (6)
  • The Thief by Megan Whelan Turner (437)
  • Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (118)
  • The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer (not on list)
  • Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (not on list)
  • Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen (not on list)
  • The Education of Hailey Kendrick by Eileen Cook (not on list)
  • The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters (871)

Small wonder my TBR list is so long -- I never seem to get to things that are on it!

A heartfelt thanks to my faithful readers, who have put up with my general slack-assery for the past six months, and still read what I have to say. The blog started out as something I write for me, and it still is -- but it's a lot more fun with you around. I hope you are all having a wonderful, well-fed, joyful holiday season!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Moving Pictures
by Sir Terry Pratchett
Harper, 2008 (originally published by Victor Gollancz, 1990)
337 pages

It rose up in his memory like the suddenly-discovered bit of suspicious tentacle just when you thought it was safe to eat the paella.

At this stage, I shouldn't be amazed at how a Discworld book can envelop me, even when I'm at my busiest or in my worst moods. Right now, it seems to me that they're nearly unique in that way; there is nothing else out there, in my experience so far, that can do for me what Discworld does. It's not a must-read-to-end-right-now book, in the same panicked or imperious way of some of my favourites, which is lots of fun but hard on the emotions and energy and very hard on the notion of picking a book up for fifteen minutes on my lunch break. It's not a slog, rewarding or otherwise -- these are not books that glare at me from the bookshelf or bedside table because I'm only three chapters in and not terribly enthused about picking them up. These are not even books I have to be in the right mood for. These are patient books, friendly books, supremely enjoyable books with no expectations or manipulations. I can pick a Discworld book up and know I'm going to like it, I'm going to have fun, I'm going to be moved, and I can read it at a comfortable pace whenever I feel like reading anything.

The plot of Moving Pictures is driven by a wild idea: the idea of running pictures, all the same except with infinitesimally small changes between them, very quickly past a light source and projecting them on to a screen. This may sound familiar. It is not an idea that's new to Discworld, either, but it hasn't been around for a very long time, and with good reason, which the reader will understand nearly immediately but the characters will take much longer to figure out. You see, the problem with this idea is that it creates a reality leak, and there's really not enough reality to go around. And a hole that lets something like reality leak out of the Discworld is bound to let something else, something very unpleasant, leak in. But no one is paying attention, because Holy Wood madness and magic is taking over the Disc.

This book is extremely enjoyable, the pacing is quite good, the book is very clever and the characters are thoroughly excellent, vintage Pratchett. There are laugh-out-loud moments and moments to think about. I am getting to the point with this series that I recognize characters now, and am familiar with the world and the people; I could probably start reading out of order, if I wanted, but I'm happy to keep going in order too. Every time I read another Discworld book I am deeper in awe of what Terry Pratchett has created. It's astounding.

For this book specifically, I don't think it is my favourite; there were a few parts at the end especially that seemed a little... loose? forced? I'm not exactly sure. The climax didn't work particularly well for me, but as I've said before and will say again (I'm sure) a Discworld book that didn't work particularly well for me is kind of like suggesting that lemon meringue pie doesn't work particularly well for me: it works better than pretty much any other food except for other pies. And I appreciated the climax intellectually; I just wonder if it was too much of a good thing, perhaps; too much happening all at once in a small space.

At any rate, I will read it again someday, and almost certainly enjoy it as much if not more. Next up will be Reaper Man, which I have a suspicion I may be getting for Christmas. Woot!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The End of the Beginning by Avi (and some book club prattle)

I may have a spate of book club reads coming up here, but I make no promises. Many of my book club reads over the past two months have been getting cursory glances, a scan-through, a detailed reading of first, middle and end chapters at best. At worst (oh, the shame) I've been reading Wikipedia summaries. If any members of my three library book clubs read this blog, I'm sorry: now you know the truth. It's not that I don't want to read the books we've chosen, it's that my reading attention span has been so limited lately that I've had to go for the books I'm in sweet love with, not the books that I think are probably quite interesting and good.

But a change is in the wind, I feel it, with The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade coming up for my 9 - 12s, and Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat for my parent-child group, and I'm even really quite keen to get started on Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen for my adult genre book club.

The End of the Beginning
by Avi
Harcourt, 2004
143 pages

And then, as a prelude to spring, I jumped ahead and read The End of the Beginning by Avi, which is my parent-child group's March read. This may prove to have been folly, as I'm not likely to remember everything I need to for an in-depth discussion with razor-sharp children, but there we go -- it's read and out of the way. And it was a charming little detour.

Avon Snail reads a book a day, and becomes quite depressed because he is sure he will never have adventures like the ones he reads about. A gentle prod from a passing newt encourages Avon to begin his adventure as soon as possible, and as Avon is leaving, he encounters a chatty ant named Edward. The two become fast friends and set out together. This little book is an exercise in realizing that everything can be an adventure if one has the right mindset, that endings are just beginnings, and heroes and heroics come in many different shapes and sizes. It's also full of plays on words, simple but profound little philosophical nuggets, and silly advice that shouldn't work but somehow does.

I'm really looking forward to discussing this one with the kids. I rather wish I had one to read it to (or to read it to me, as I know some of the kids in the group do with their parents). I am sure that they're going to get different things out of it than I have, and that they're going to have strong opinions on Avon and Edward and the experiences the two have. This is a book that is best discussed. As a read-aloud, I think it would be superior, and delightful. The illustrations throughout are whimsical and lovely, accompanying the whimsy in the text perfectly.

As a read-to-my-adult-self, it is charming. It occasionally slips past charming into too twee, but one might expect that from a book subtitled "Being the Adventures of a Small Snail (and an Even Smaller Ant)" and I was in the mood for twee. It is not long, and any longer would be too long. A larger flaw, from my perspective, is that neither of the characters seem to grow or change fundamentally from their experience, which is a bit of a surprise in a book that is a gentle parody of the heroic journey. That said, I think it must be purposeful -- Edward never gets his comeuppance, really, and Avon doesn't seem to learn anything -- so that the reader can notice this and think about it and discuss the dissonance. Because I certainly expected Edward (who is a great little character, flawed and bossy and daft) to get a comeuppance at some point, and I expected Avon to learn a little something. But they're both as bright as a sack of doorknobs, and that doesn't change. Edward even has a bit of a selfishly mean streak, to match Avon's selflessly kind streak, but nothing ever comes of it in the story, which is where I think discussion comes in.

So, yes. Overall, as a read for an adult -- perhaps not my first choice. But as something to read and discuss with kids who are reading about others' adventures, and thinking about the meaning of life and friendship and starting to figure things out, I think this is a great little story in the grand tradition of animal fables. The language is something that early readers will be able to understand and the chapters are short. The humour will definitely appeal to kids' sense of the absurd (a worm who can't figure out which end is head and which is tail, or a cricket who sings to himself about cheese), and some of the jokes that will be above their heads will be easily explained by a parent. I am looking forward to hearing about what the group has to say.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Crocodile on the Sandbank
by Elizabeth Peters, read by Susan O'Malley
Blackstone Audio, 2005
8 discs (unabridged)

A departure! This is an audiobook, but it's not by Bill Bryson. I enjoyed it anyway, and thoroughly. So thoroughly, in fact, that I had to sit in my car after arriving at work (early, I had to run some errands beforehand that took less time than anticipated) and finish listening to the final disc. It was about 25 minutes of sitting in a rapidly cooling car in the snow, but don't think I noticed the cold. I just had to know how it all turned out.

I have been wanting to read Elizabeth Peters for quite a while now. These books were another set of mysteries that kept turning up on my mother's piles, much like the Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael mysteries. My mother has good taste. But I am not reading as much as I would like, lately, and I happen to be spending more time than I would like in a car. Seeing a way I could mitigate these problems in one swift move, I dug out the information on how to download audiobooks through the library I work at, and lo and behold what should turn up but Crocodile on the Sandbank. Experiment: success! Also, now I can tell people how to download and use our digital audiobooks from experience, rather than following vague directions. Bonus.

Amelia Peabody is a Victorian lady of independent means after her father passes away. He was a scholar, with a particular emphasis on ancient history, and Amelia has spent her life caring for him (as the only girl child, and no other woman in the house), during which time she has also become very interested in antiquities. She knows several languages, living and dead, and has more than enough money to live the rest of her life on her own quite comfortably, travelling to see the places she and her father have studied about. On her first trip, to Rome, she encounters a young woman nearly dying of exposure near one of the ancient ruins. In her no-nonsense fashion, Amelia saves the girl Evelyn and collects her as a companion for her travels. As they reach Egypt, and through a series of events become attached to a very small archaeological dig, it becomes clear that one of their little group is being targeted by persons -- or perhaps vengeful spirits -- unknown. Amelia must now bend all her considerable powers of intellect to discovering the culprits before someone gets seriously hurt, or worse.

I had some difficulty getting into this one, at the start. As I've stated before, I'm not wild about fiction in audiobook format; too often the narrator doesn't work for me, whereas in nonfiction I can usually put up with a fair bit (my present nonfiction listen excepted; for some reason, the narrator has such an odd inflection and word pacing that I can't help but think of Futurama's Zapp Brannigan, and I have had to stop listening to it). In this case, though, I didn't mind the narrator, though sometimes her male voices were a bit grating.

As to the story itself, it starts off a bit slowly, but tension keeps ratcheting up until one cannot possibly stop listening until one finishes the story. Amelia is a delightful character, absolutely flawed but believably and endearingly so. She is headstrong to the point of ridiculousness, but it was somehow charming; and she is still a somewhat believable Victorian lady -- given her background, a little bit of eccentricity is to be expected. The other characters are charming and well-fleshed-out.

The mystery is a little predictable; the foreshadowing is a bit on the blunt side, occasionally, and I figured I knew the culprit somewhere near the halfway point, and even the motive, though it took Amelia until the very end of the book to figure it out herself. Usually this can be a deal-killer for me in a mystery, but I was enjoying everything else so much that I didn't feel the need to stop. An occasional eye roll may have occurred. For my part, I wanted to know how, because that wasn't at all clear to me or Amelia, which I think is what lead her to her frustrating inability to solve the case until so late in the game. Me, I was following Holmes -- once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Speaking of impossible and improbable -- well, there are a few times where the plotline and character motivations leap from somewhat incredible to beyond the pale. I was prepared to forgive these leaps for the most part. They were, in large part, some of the fun. This is not a realistic book, and shouldn't be read that way.

I quite enjoyed this one, enough that I am now listening to the second book in the series and enjoying it too. The humour, the adventure, the romance, and the exotic location (Egypt is wonderfully and lovingly described) all combined to make this an excellent listen for me. I could see finding and owning a copy of this one in paper. I certainly will want to read it, or at least listen to it, again.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

There has been a delay; I don't deny it. Illness and family things and so forth, and I have not felt much like reading lately. And that is not because of the book. I have only finished one since my last post (well, and before, really) and I'm about to review it, if one can call an extended fangirl squee a review. All others I have picked up were pretty much skimmed through and dropped.

His Majesty's Dragon
by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 2006
342 pages

Anyhow. I am rambling, because what can I say that doesn't sound delirious about Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon? I love this book. I read it, and then flipped back and read parts of it, and I then did that thing I know I shouldn't do and read the first chapter of the next book in the series and now I desperately need to know what happens next.

For a brief summary, take history. Take Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Take one very talented, principled, and dutiful captain in Nelson's Navy. Then add dragons. Actually, add one specific dragon egg, captured by that dutiful captain (let's call him Laurence) from a French man-of-war, that happens to hatch on his ship. The resulting dragon picks Laurence to be his aviator, and you have one very alarmed and disgruntled captain, a very charming and erudite dragon, and a series of extremely entertaining and somehow entirely believable adventures as they learn together how to become part of Britain's aerial defence against the dragon corps of Napoleon's army.

I love this book so much I want to eat it.

This is a book that has been carefully, skillfully crafted such that the writing fades into the background (not an easy feat), the plot sweeps you along, and the characters -- even, perhaps especially, the non-human ones -- worm their way into your heart and consciousness. The partnership of Laurence and the dragon Temeraire is so incredibly genuine and warm and wonderful, so honest and touching, that it absolutely shines in my experience of fictional friendships. Separately, they are fantastic characters and I think I love them both, but together they are unstoppable.

The world is ours but a bit sideways, and the careful work Novik has done to create it is never in-your-face evident, but always a completely reasonable and believable framework from which the story hangs. I think one of the things I can't quite understand, but absolutely appreciate, is how believable everything is. I think it may be partially how everything is so understated, related to the reader as common-place, and also that we experience most of the fantasy elements through an outsider's eyes. Laurence has always been aware of dragons and the Aerial Corps, but that has not been his world up to the beginning of the book. As it begins to become his world, we are slowly accustomed to the changes as he begins to grow accustomed to them, too.

It is a great adventure, and a stirring one. There is little to no romance, for those who find that tiresome, and for those of us who usually prefer to have at least a hint of it somewhere, I can solemnly swear that I did not miss it in the slightest. There are things to be said about the nature of duty and loyalty and friendship, about civility and honesty, kindness, and the sorrows and horrors of war. None of it is said in a preachy or intrusive way. It is integral to the characters and plot. All of this -- the world, the relationships, the philosophy, could be clumsy or over-the-top in the hands of the wrong writer. But this one gets it right.

What saddens me is that while I have seen this book crop up various places over the past two years, if our library statistics are anything to go by, not nearly enough people are reading this series. If you are a history buff looking for fiction out of the norm, try this. If you are a fantasy fan but aren't sure you're a fan of historical fiction, try this. If you're a fantasy fan who has read everything and want something new, try this. If you want a great, well-crafted, entertaining, heartening story, read this book. I might even try it on my father, who doesn't really go for fantasy -- but I think there are elements in here that he, as a reader of James Clavell and Wilbur Smith will like. You will be hearing about more Novik from me shortly, and if Throne of Jade is any bit as good as its predecessor, you can bet that Novik will be the next on my list of authors to autobuy. If I can stand Laurence and Temeraire being thrust into more danger for foolish political reasons, that is...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus Volume 1 by CLAMP

Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus Volume 1
by CLAMP
Dark Horse, 2010
576 pages


Dark Horse Comics has my undying love. Just like Cardcaptor Sakura the anime, and now Cardcaptor Sakura the manga, a classic of the shojo "magical girl" genre, and one that anyone seeking to round out their manga experience should probably read.

Some background:

I have been keeping my eye out for this one for a while. Not an omnibus volume, per se, but the entire Cardcaptor Sakura manga from the beginning. When I somehow stumbled upon the fact that Dark Horse was going to do an omnibus edition, I just about fangirl squee'd myself hoarse. And then I was informed that Volume 1 had been preordered for me for my birthday, and you can well imagine the heights of excitement I reached.

I can't recall when my love affair with this story started, or how it came to be exactly. I had been watching Inuyasha (the neverending story, but awesome) for some time, and we watched the entire series of Last Exile (interesting premise, never reached its potential). But then somehow this one came into the mix, and it took one episode only for me to be hooked. This is my favourite television show ever. It beats out Mythbusters, and that is saying something, considering that my desktop background is currently a walrus photoshopped to look like Jamie Hyneman. That's probably too much information. ANYWAYS.

So yes, I was predisposed to like this as a read. I wasn't even really worried that it might not follow the anime (and really, it would be that the anime didn't follow the manga, which came first.) I was prepared for some pretty significant departures, even. There aren't many, and the details that are different are pretty insignificant, at least in this first volume of two. The most noticeable differences are that there are a few battles present in the anime that are only mentioned in passing in the manga, and the relationships are much more clearly spelled out earlier in the manga, I think.

And oh, the relationships... but wait, I should probably summarize for those of you who have no idea what the hell I'm talking about.

Okay, so. This is all told in flashback in the manga, but the basic premise is this: Sakura Kinamoto is an ordinary third-grader when she accidentally opens a strange book in the basement of her house (and what a basement! it's a FREAKING LIBRARY). Out of this book fly dozens of strange cards, leaving Sakura with nothing but an empty case -- and a strange, adorable flying teddybear named Cerberus (hereafter known as Kero, the nickname Sakura gives to him, which he protests strongly). Kero informs Sakura that a) he's the guardian of the cards, and b) she must have strong magic to be able to open the book, and d) if the cards he guards escape, a disaster of unmentionable proportions will befall the world. So... oops. Now Sakura is going to have to get them all back, with the help of a very pink magic staff and the attention-loving Kero-chan at her side. The trouble is, the cards have minds of their own, and many of them aren't so keen to be returned to card-shape and be stuck in a book, so there are plenty of episodic adventures to go around as Sakura attempts to capture them all. By the end of the first volume, we're nearing her summer before fifth grade and she hasn't captured all that many cards yet, but it appears there may be some competition coming. (Also: volume ends on a brutal cliffhanger. Be warned. I am not getting Volume 2 until Christmas *wails*)

BUT. The cards aren't really what this story is about. This is the plot driver, but what we're really looking at here are the relationships, at love in all its forms from friendship to family to crushes and hero-worship to the romantic ideal of true love. There are not just love triangles here. There is a love geometry of astounding complexity. There are opposite-sex crushes, same-sex crushes, teacher-student relationships (there are at least three, one of which seems very iffy but somehow also not? I guess I was suspending disbelief pretty hard there, because if I wasn't I might have been pretty upset and as it was I winced a lot), loyal friendships, wonderful family relationships, love lost through death or marriage to another, and of course the glimmerings of true love.

As an example, we have Sakura's crush, which is probably the most straight-forward relationship in the book. All of us who have been in middle school remember the absolute heart-pounding, terrifying and yet somehow wonderful, all-consuming crush, and the desperate fear as well as the desperate hope that the object of our obsession might find out. Sakura handles hers with a lot more balls than I ever did and is veeeery adorably transparent. But then we also have a quieter, more mature crush on Sakura from her best friend Tomoyo. Sakura here is completely oblivious, but it's pretty clear to the reader how that relationship works. It's also pretty clear that Tomoyo has no illusions about Sakura's sexuality, and that she's okay with Sakura crushing on someone else. That relationship is one of those "pure, courtly love" kinds, never to be consummated and barely to be spoken of. Lest you worry that this might be the only form of same-sex relationship in the book, rest assured it's not, and that the other same-sex storyline is really, really sweet and entirely romantic. But to tell you more would be spoiling things, so I leave it for you to discover.

(most of the book is black and white, but there are some really lovely colour panels throughout)

Anyway. It's complicated, and affirming of love in all its forms. Another of my favourite relationships is between Sakura and her older brother Toya. They're at each other's throats constantly, with Toya pushing all sorts of buttons and driving Sakura nuts, and Sakura giving back as much as she can given her age and size. But when it comes down to it, they adore each other. Toya has some awesome (and hilarious) protective big brother moments, and there's a very touching story in which the tables are turned and it's up to Sakura to save him.

There's something about this story that makes me so happy to be loved by the people who love me. It's not that there's a single terrible relationship in Cardcaptor Sakura (except maybe the aforementioned teacher-student one, which you will notice when you get to it, and it's more that it seems like a terrible idea) -- it's not a "there but for the grace of god go I" kind of feeling, it's more a warm and fuzzy appreciation of the fact that I've got good people around me, and that I'm lucky to do so. It's an interesting and pleasant side-effect even if I'm not sure exactly where it comes from.

The story is light-hearted, mostly, and humourous, mostly, with depth at the right parts. It's a little silly and a little over-the-top (nothing like Ranma 1/2, not that I think it's even possible for any other work to touch that) but there are touching moments that are a pleasant counter-balance, and a reminder of what is at stake. Though one might suspect at first glance this story would be too saccharine, there's way more to it than that, and it's absolutely worth a second look.

Highly, highly recommended. Some of the humour is very manga-conventional, especially around Kero, and the art is intricate and often beautiful in a very manga way, which occasionally makes it a little hard to follow. On the other hand, the characters are easily distinguishable if highly stylized (I think Toya has to be around, like, 11 feet tall, or Sakura is perhaps only 2 feet tall?) and the facial expressions are perfection itself. No cookie-cutter, hard-to-read characters here. I would actually recommend watching the anime first if you can get your hands on it, and then reading this after; it adds dimension and a lot more depth to the anime, and makes the action very easy to understand. I'm about to start watching the entire thing again.

Just a quick practical caveat that I feel I should mention, lest anyone feels the need to jump out and buy this immediately: if you are international to the US, don't be ordering these volumes through the company linked at Dark Horse. The shipping fees are astronomical and not stated up front. The Book Depository or your favourite local store are probably much, much more economical options.

Also: my desktop image has changed over the course of writing. Just saying.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog)
by Jerome K. Jerome
Collins Classics, 1970 (originally published in 1889)
222 pages

It has taken me quite a while now to finish this book, wanting to read it before I delve back in to Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog. I have enjoyed it, but found it slow. I think it is maybe one of those books that get better with sitting. I like it more now that I've had time to think on it. I'm not going to offer much of a summary, because there's not much to summarize, other than perhaps point to the title, and mention that the boat is on the Thames, and the time is Victorian. That's about it, really.

There are a lot of references to places and history I know nothing about, and most of the time it makes me wish to know more, and very occasionally I had trouble discerning between what's exaggerated for fun and what might actually be historically accurate. Also, while I do find Jerome's sense of humour to be funny, I did find a lot the humourous parts to be a little samey. On the other hand, there are some flashes of brilliance both when he's being funny and when he's being serious that have made me very glad to read this book. For example, upon stepping out into the night:

They awe us, these strange stars, so cold, so clear. We are as children whose small feet have strayed into some dim-lit temple of the god they have been taught to worship but know not; and, standing where the echoing dome spans the long vista of the shadowy light, glance up, half hoping, half afraid to see some awful vision hovering there.

Just for that passage alone I am glad to have read this book.

In the same way that much of the description and humour is overstated, much of the action is understated. One gets the impression that J. and his friends George and Harris (to say nothing of fox terrier Montemorency) are on their way down the Thames, and that things are happening, but one is never quite sure until very occasionally something of note happens. And once I realized that it was going to continue in that vein, with more asides about stories J. has heard and flights of fancy about history and a few memories, the happier I was to just settle in. It has a bit of a feel of a long dinner-table conversation, over which plenty of delicious food is consumed and the wine glasses keep getting refilled. Some things get mentioned that I wish were filled out a bit more, and other stories take strange but almost always amusing and interesting tangential turns. I got a tantalizing taste of the Victorian, in a way that makes me feel steeped in that moment. This is a relaxed read with almost no plot, and when approached that way is very satisfying.

One thing of note, that made me realize just how human this book is and that not much fundamental has changed: How many of us have, when confronted with a series of symptoms, looked up those symptoms on Wikipedia or some other internet site? And then read on, convinced that one has contracted something absolutely horrifying and likely exceedingly contagious? I've heard it mentioned that this is a particular problem of the internet: it feeds hypochondriacs. Not so. There is an extended moment (they usually are) near the beginning of Three Men in a Boat in which the narrator, upon looking up a condition in a medical tome in a library, becomes convinced that he has everything in the book, save housemaid's knee. It was a passage I recognized myself in, even if my tools are different.

Overall, it's an excellent armchair travel book, both in time and in geography even if you're not familiar with the locations Jerome talks about, although it wouldn't hurt to be prepared that you might feel a bit lost every once in a while. It's charming (and the illustrations by Elizabeth Odling in my edition add to that charm), it's very readable, and it makes me wish quite strongly for a river trip. We don't have a navigable Thames here in Canada, but I've heard good things about the Rideau...

A thanks to Nymeth, who originally brought this book to my attention well before I was told to read the Connie Willis. If you want to read it and can't find yourself a paper copy, which proved rather challenging for me, the Gutenberg Project has a copy online for free.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare: The World as Stage
written and read by Bill Bryson
HarperAudio, 2008
5 discs (unabridged)

So, you may have noticed a theme with these audiobooks. I appear to be hooked on Bill Bryson. It's possible the next audiobook I'm going to look into will be written and read by him, too. No promises, but sometimes when I find a good thing I like to stick to it.

This was one of those serendipitous finds; someone brought it back to the library and I just happened to be on the desk. I had no idea Bryson had written a biography of Shakespeare. But how could it go wrong, I thought, and signed it out myself.

What I got was a very concise, rather informative, and mostly quite entertaining biography of Shakespeare. In short, just what I was hoping for. It kept me interested for a good week of commuting, which is about as much as any audiobook can hope to do. And this time, unlike the first Bryson audiobook I listened to, I knew what to expect with his delivery, so it took me no time at all to get into the flow of things.

One may wonder what the heck Bryson has to add to the piles and piles of Shakespeare biographies out there, and the answer is: not substantially much, which is kind of the point. This is a bare-bones biography, with Bryson mostly looking for the established facts from primary evidence, and fastidiously avoiding speculation, myth, legend, and heresy, of which we are informed there is a surplus. Actually, we're informed of this multiple times; the one irritation I had with this book is that there is a substantial amount of repetition of certain themes and phrases. How many surviving signatures are there? Six you say? I'm sorry, I thought there were six. Oh yes, only six signatures in Shakespeare's own hand survive. Three signatures might not even be in Shakespeare's own hand, which would be rather a blow, as that would be half of the six surviving signatures.

You perhaps get the idea. It's possible I'm exaggerating for effect.

That said, I suspect the repetition wouldn't be so obvious in a printed version, and may seem thematic or like tying up loose ends instead. I have a pretty decent auditory memory, so it's possible that I'm a little sensitive. I am much less likely to notice repetition in print.

We are taken chronologically through the little we know about Shakespeare's life, with copious asides about life, language, literature and culture in Elizabethan England at various important moments. Each of these asides attaches itself to some critical point about Shakespeare, his family, his contemporaries, the atmosphere he would have been working in, and so forth; there really isn't anything superfluous in here. The pace of the book isn't breakneck, but it's definitely snappy, which helps in keeping my attention, though it will be interesting to see how much of what I learned (which was quite a lot) gets retained. After a while, I got pretty good at keeping track of dates in my head. And remembering what went before -- because while there is excessive repetition of some facts, others are of the blink-and-it's-gone type.

Bryson also spends some time telling us about Shakespearean scholars, mostly in relation to either their expert opinions on some facet of Shakespearean knowledge, or to skewer their more fanciful suppositions and speculations. Occasionally he delves a little deeper into their eccentricities, of which Shakespearean scholars seem to have many; he clearly finds the people who have devoted their lives to Shakespearean scholarship to be fascinating, and fairly so.

I think my absolute favourite chapter was the final one, in which Bryson systematically and thoroughly debunks any suggestion that Shakespeare may not have in fact written his plays himself. It's a perfect structure; he has just spent the entire book laying out the various facts of Shakespeare's life, so it seems ludicrous to the reader in the first place that anyone would doubt the authorship of the plays, poems and sonnets. But Bryson gives each major theory careful (and really funny) consideration, and this section provided some of my favourite passages of the entire book. Because it's so simple, and because it's so concise, I must say Bryson has me completely convinced that Shakespeare was the only one who could have authored the work his name is on, and it would take something pretty earth-shattering to move me from that position.

All in all, a very worthwhile and interesting book, and I'm very glad I decided to pick it up. The next Bryson audiobook that passes by me will almost certainly be snapped up for my listening pleasure.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation by Tom Siddell

I. Heart. This. Book.

It has been since the last Harry Potter, folks. It has been that long since I was so wrapped up in a story. I loved this, and then I went online and proceeded to read the rest of the story, and loved that too. And now I am stuck because Siddell publishes updates every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and I desperately need to know more. It's like waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows except that it's released one page at a time. I knew, when I finished the book, that I should have controlled myself and just waited for the next published copy so I could read it all at once. But self-discipline is not one of my strong suits.

I'm not sure how to summarize it, either, especially since the story is ongoing, but I guess I can stick to the first published on-paper volume. Antimony Carver is sent to Gunnerkrigg Court, nominally an English-style boarding school, after her mother's death. Antimony had been living with her mother in the hospital, and it was her mother's wish that she would attend Gunnerkrigg Court. Antimony's father is completely absent, in a way that makes the reader angrier the more we know. We meet Antimony when she's first breaking school rules, less than two weeks into her stay, by helping a shadow creature escape the school. We meet her friend Kat as Antimony meets her, and start to untangle various mysteries about the school that all seem to be leading to one overarching mystery beginning in the Court, or perhaps beginning in Gillitie Wood, which is forbidden territory across the bridge from the school.

I can't be much clearer without getting into spoilers and/or taking up several hundred more words. This is an extremely complex story, with themes of love, betrayal, friendship, grief, humanity, technology, and magic all tangled up in it. Suffice to say, seeing it through Annie's eyes is helpful, as she's clever, witty, dry and trying her best to stay neutral while being extremely loyal to the few friends she has. Annie's a bit of an outsider, on account of her coming to the school a bit late, and especially on account of the fact that she has the ability to see spirits and interact with them and doesn't seem to care to hide it. It means that we see quite a lot of the picture, while still being mostly limited to Annie's perspective. And did I mention the wit? Annie's generally really funny, and there's a really wonderful mix of very moving moments, frightening moments, and very funny moments throughout the story. I laughed out loud a couple of times. I also got a little teary at points, too.

The supporting cast is just fantastic. They're also complex; I'm 31 chapters in and still completely confused about most of their motivations, but not in a bad way. I'm also thrilled to report that we're not that close to solving the big mystery yet, nor even really knowing fully what shape it takes (or even if it's one big mystery, or two or three loosely connected mysteries), so there's likely to be more of Annie and Kat to keep me enthralled in the future. I certainly don't want to let these characters or this story go any time soon. Each chapter can usually stand alone as its own story, but we're building towards something. My concern is that it will be pretty anticlimactic when we get there.

Anyone with an open mind about graphic novels and fantasy will find something to love here. The art is just lovely, the story blows my mind. If you can't find a paper copy, be prepared to spend a couple days in a row sneaking a peek at the website every time you have a free minute at a computer. And be prepared that your mind will wander its way into the story when you're not reading it, too. Many thanks go to darla for the heads-up on this one. I wouldn't have even known it existed otherwise, and her enthusiastic review encouraged me to recommend it for purchase at our library sight unseen.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Dial Press, 2008
274 pages

Though you've likely already heard this from many other people by this point, I must add my voice to the chorus: this is a really lovely book. It is funny, sweet, moving, and sometimes deeply sad. I think one of the things I appreciated most about it, though, was how the humour and healing were injected after the darkest moments; the dark parts were not glossed over, but they were moved past once they'd had their time. Some of the story seems a little improbable; I don't know how closely it follows what really happened on Guernsey and the other Channel Islands during the war, but I imagine many of the facts about life in an occupied territory were quite closely observed. I also imagine that some of the people during the Occupation handled themselves with the grace and aplomb of the Literary Society.

Juliet is the author of a successful series of humour columns, published throughout the war (World War II) under a pen name. She's working her way through a book tour now that the war is over, and stressing over what to write next. Simply put, this is the story, told in letters, telegrams, and a few journal entries, of how Juliet finds her next book topic. Underneath, it's a story of survival and grace under terrible conditions, of love of reading and literature, of how reaching out to strangers can have unexpected and wonderful consequences. It's also a story of a community grieving and trying to heal itself after deep hurts have been inflicted upon it.

The writing is skillful. I have come to the conclusion that I am extremely predisposed to like epistolary novels, but it's not always easy to give a full sense of character through letters only, or a full sense of plot without it coming off as contrived. Books that do it, and do it well, make me so happy. This one -- it's like unwrapping a gift. I prefer the slower storyline and reveal in an epistolary novel versus a regular novel, because in the regular novel I'm far more likely to become impatient with a slower pace. With letters, I'm happy to follow wherever the writer wishes to take me.

It's not so hard with these characters, as charming and full as they are. I dearly liked Juliet, and I missed many of the Society's letters when (small spoiler!) Juliet makes it to Guernsey. I was impressed with how large and diverse the cast of characters was, and how I was able to keep track of who was who and probably would have been able to even without names attached. They had distinctive voices and styles.

My only complaint is that there is one point, near the very end, when we switch from letters to a secondary character's journal, and I would much have preferred to see the events from the point of view of the participants themselves. So I was quite disappointed, but I think I understand how difficult it might have been to contrive for Juliet, for example, to have written about the events in a letter.

Overall, a really gentle and lively book, well worth its accolades. Very glad to have read it. Recommended to fans of war stories who are not really fans of gore; also for those who like epistolary novels, humour, and a slightly slower pace to their story.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Bantam Classic edition, 1986
924 pages

How does one review Sherlock Holmes? I mean, these are classic stories. And reading them, one recognizes why they are. Holmes is a compelling character, and the crimes he solves are improbable and often quirky; the stories themselves are generally short and satisfying. The relationship between Holmes and Watson is charming, sort of.

This volume I have encompasses the earliest Holmes stories from A Study in Scarlet to The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, which ends with the somewhat unmemorable "The Adventure of the Second Stain". I have been reading it for probably two years now, picking it up now and then when I need something diverting, and I was finding that I was having a hard time getting in to anything else with the gorgeous reef fish distracting me.

(Seriously, I did spend copious amounts of time just lying on our deck looking down into the water to watch the fish. It was tremendously relaxing.)

Let me state upfront, I am an unabashed Sherlock Holmes fan. He is an ornery bastard, cocky and arrogant, and sexist, classist, and racist in the ways a highly-educated Victorian bachelor gentleman could be. He insults Watson frequently and Watson, in awe as he is, just rolls over. So why do I love the man? I can't explain it. I think it's largely because he is so sure of himself, and both intelligence and a strong sense of justice are sexy. But even more, I think it is that I have such a crystal clear sense of his character, and did from A Study in Scarlet on. As a character he is complete and fully-formed and fascinating. And my final thought is that it's almost as if Watson infects me as a reader; I don't care that some of Holmes' deductions are based on the extremely ridiculous pseudo-science of physiognomy. I don't care that his opinion of women is generally obnoxious. I just want more. I love that he solves the crimes so easily, generally, and that he only wants the mysteries that have a little quirk or oddness to them, and that he has a slightly insecure need for applause.

Some of the stories are weaker than others, of course. Among my favourites are the classic funny "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" and the frankly frightening "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" -- combined with my absolute favourite, "Silver Blaze", I would say that these three consist of the must-reads of the canon. I'm also partial to "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" and "Five Orange Pips" is certainly creepy in its own right.

Before getting through this collection, I'd never read "The Final Problem" in which Holmes was to have met his match in Moriarty, and his demise. I'd thus never realized that Moriarty was only ever present in one story, and I kept waiting to meet him; I'd always built him up to be a much more consistent character across the canon. So it was a bit of a surprise to me that he only appears in one short story -- and not a very good one, at that, to be honest. It smacks of the worst sort of deus ex machina -- "Hey Watson, all these crimes I've investigated over the years, it was this dude running the show! Who I never mentioned before! And I've never mentioned that I think there might be some sort of ringleader! I've never even alluded to it!" And once they're over the Falls, Moriarty is done, though he certainly does cast his shadow over a few of the following short stories.

This surprises me a little, in that I'd heard that the stories following "The Final Problem" were mostly ridiculous and slapdash because Conan Doyle didn't really want to keep writing Holmes, but I actually found "The Final Problem" to be the worst of the group, where the one immediately following, "The Adventure of the Empty House" is actually pretty decent for a feat of narrative gymnastics in which you bring a character back from the dead. I don't dislike "The Final Problem" because Holmes "dies," but because of the way it's done. It's very much Doyle being done with his character and getting rid of him as conveniently as possible, and it comes across as lazy. I don't know if I would have found it to be as thin and see-through if I hadn't known there were more stories coming; but I can certainly believe I would have been shocked and appalled as a reader, because the "final" story really doesn't do the character justice. It's no wonder to me that Conan Doyle was forced to bring him back, and I must admit I think it serves him a little bit right for being so sloppy in the writing of "The Final Problem".

I have The Hound of the Baskervilles sitting on my desk at work, and I'm rather itching to get back to Mary Russell in Laurie R. King's wonderful series (though I do not like her treatment of Watson). The above short stories, save "The Final Problem", are the ones I recommend to first-time Holmes readers, as giving a sense of both the character and the author at his best. And I recommend everyone reading some Holmes at some point, because his influence appears everywhere in our culture. I wouldn't recommend reading this collection straight through, as it is MASSIVE and towards the end, especially, some of the stories start to run together. But as a pick-up-put-down diversion, I'm not sure Sherlock Holmes can be beat.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline
by Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins, 2002
162 pages

So, I picked this as our parent-kid book club read for October, thinking "It's a little scary and quite atmospheric for Hallowe'en!" Apparently I had no idea how right I was, as I had a number of parents say "We had to stop reading this! It was too scary!" and a couple who said, "We decided not to read this to our kids; we didn't want to deal with the nightmares."

And of course, the kids who did end up reading it loved it. But what can you do? I am not a book slave-driver. I am not going to make kids read books that frighten them. I am not going to make parents deal with nightmares; every parent knows their kid best. That is not really the reading experience I want to provide kids with. So, instead of focusing mostly on the book, we're going to focus on what scary is, and whether we like to be scared, and why some people like scary books and some don't.

I usually fall into the "don't" category myself, but I really liked Coraline. It definitely had its creepy moments, but as I was reading it in bright sunshine on a deck overlooking the Caribbean, I was able to deal with them reasonably well. And it is a kids' book, so it's not like the creepyness is overboard. And it's Neil Gaiman, so it's handled with panache.

Coraline (not Caroline, thank you very much) is bored. They've just moved into a new flat, and her parents are too busy to take much mind of her. School doesn't start for a week, and it's raining outside -- so it's time to explore. When Coraline opens a door that leads to a world that is the exact mirror image of her flat, she finds it's populated with mirror images of her parents, her neighbours, and the exact same black cat. Only things are not all they seem, and despite her other mother's promises to make Coraline perfectly happy, something just doesn't feel right. Perhaps it's the fact that the black cat talks in the other mother's world, or that everyone has buttons for eyes... or perhaps it's that when Coraline returns to her own world, she finds that her real parents seem to have disappeared...

I really enjoyed this story. The little girl off to rescue her parents, frightened but brave, reminded me a lot of the Miyazaki movie Spirited Away which is one of my favourite movies of all time. The setting is tremendously atmospheric, and the magic seems to have rules but they're not explained to us, nor to Coraline; she just feels things out and uses her ample wits to make her way through the world. Which is what life is like, I find, as much for an adult as it is for kids. I liked Coraline very much, and she felt genuine: kids that age do get bored, and the world seems grey and drab, and the adults seem too busy to care about the big problems, such as finding something to do.

This is definitely a recommended read, and I'd recommend it to anyone over the age of six. Of course, some of those people are going to find it too scary, and some of their parents will be rather vocal about how it's not appropriate for that age (sigh) but it really is; it provides lots to talk about, and if you have a reader who likes something a little spooky, then this is an excellent, beautifully written choice. Also: cats.

The cat yawned slowly, carefully, revealing a mouth and tongue of astounding pinkness. "Cats don't have names," it said.

"No?" said Coraline.

"No," said the cat. "Now, you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Still Life by Louise Penny

(enjoying Panama's rainy season)

If you were not already aware (and very few were) we've been away for a week. In Panama. It was a bird-watching thing, and a canal thing, and a beach thing, and a reading thing, and a no-computer thing, and a general "get the hell out of here for a bit" thing. We've been planning it for months, and then suddenly it happened, and it was really lovely. And one of the things that happened is that, in a small way, I started reading again. Not as much as I'd hoped for (I packed my allowed 8 lbs of books and only got through about 4 lbs of them), but enough that I'm going to have reviews for a couple of weeks, anyways.

Still Life
by Louise Penny
Headline, 2005
312 pages

The first book I read, started on the plane there, was Still Life by Louise Penny. This was a pick for my library-based genre book club, and of course fit the ticket as a mystery. Also, it's an award-winner, and it's Canadian. Plus, it helps greatly that I've been meaning to read this book for quite a while, and I'm very pleased to say that it doesn't disappoint.

The book, as many mysteries do, begins with a murder. It's a shocking murder because the victim was someone everyone loved, and even upon inspection appears to have been one of those genuinely good and decent people. There are red herrings, everyone's a suspect, and some are more suspicious than others. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surite du Quebec is called in with his team to investigate, and so begins Louise Penny's most excellent Three Pines Mystery series. This is a series that has been garnering a lot of attention in certain circles, and so I was really quite keen to introduce it to my adventuresome group of genre readers.

The characters, both the residents of the village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and the police officers called in to investigate the murder, are generally fascinating. Some are much more likeable than others. The cast is large and varied, a great ensemble. Some of them were immensely, immediately likeable -- I particularly liked Gamache, and his deputy, and Myrna the bookshop owner. Some of them were exceedingly difficult; here I'm thinking of Agent Nichol, a detective trainee who refuses to be trained. Actually, I had a fair bit of trouble with her character in that she was almost -- almost -- unbelievably dense for someone who is supposed to be good enough to be included on Gamache's team. I don't know if she shows up further down the line, though I can't imagine that things are left with her the way they were. Her insistence on ignoring guidance and refusing to take responsibility, and her complete self-absorption, not to mention her complete inability to read people, seems almost pathological. I wondered if maybe it was, or if she was set up as a foil to the murderer, or both; at any rate, I felt it was maybe a bit overdone, in that while she seemed to have shades of grey at first she kept creeping further and further into something that was almost farcical.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, often within the same paragraph. This can be a bit confusing, and occassionally I had to stop and wonder whose head I was in this time, and it's not always done particularly gracefully. Also, some of the philisophical discussions between characters, particularly towards the beginning of the book seems a bit long-winded and clumsy. That may partially have been me trying to get into the style of the book. Some of the later ones I thought were quite well done.

The mystery itself is really quite excellent. I had suspicions about most of the characters and it turned out that I was never actually on to the real killer; the red herrings are generally subtle though not always, and the clues do lead in the right direction if one picks up on them. It did not come completely out of left field. There's even a really masterful piece of misdirection midway through, but with that much of the book remaining one sort of figured it couldn't be over yet. I like that there is a definite showing of procedure; Gamache does some of the footwork, but he also does a lot of delegation. Some of the results of this we see, and some we don't. But we know that it's not just Gamache working on the murder case -- it's a whole team, which seems like it would be very true-to-life.

There's a fair bit going on in this book, mystery aside. There's marital strife, though a really beautiful relationship there, too. There's small-town community and the difficulties of it (though this book is generally much more positive on small towns than most Canadian fiction I've read). There's gay-bashing, there's art and discussions about what it is and is not, there's change and things not changing, maturity and immaturity. Being also that Three Pines is an Anglo village in Quebec, the book touches on the topic of Anglophone-Francophone relations, and I would be completely unsurprised if this series touches on that a fair bit more in the books ahead. The book is packed, and I'm looking forward to unpacking it tonight with the book club.

It's not exactly a standard cozy mystery, in that Jane Neal has a true personality and we actually do care that she was killed; and things are changed, forever, in Three Pines because of the murder. Those closest to Jane are going to be forever scarred, and some of them even damaged beyond repair. So it will be very interesting to see how this progresses in the next book of the series, A Fatal Grace.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Grazing by Julie Van Rosendaal

Grazing
by Julie Van Rosendaal
Whitecap Books, 2005
213 pages

I like snacking. There are no two ways around this; finger foods, salty snacks, candy, pickles, grapes, cut veggies -- I love them all. Well, and to be fair, I especially love salty snacks. Chips, tortillas with guacamole, pretzel bites with flavouring: I would try to survive on these alone and indeed have had dreams to this effect. So when the cookbook titled Grazing crossed the desk at work, it was an automatic take-home for me. If I'm going to subsist entirely on snackfood, I should probably make an attempt at healthy snackfood.

Cookbooks like this are excellent for the recipes but also for the ideas. The "oh yeah, I could use that leftover pita that is going to moulder on the counter to make delicious and longer-lasting pita chips!" moments abound in this one. The recipes go from the really easy -- pita chips would rank as one of the easiest -- to much more involved, like Vietnamese rice paper rolls, for when you want to impress your friends with your snack-making prowess.

I recently attempted homemade crackers, a flax seed wafer cracker that ended up looking like something I might buy at a high-end grocery store in a fancy box, and tasted lovely although probably would have been even better if I'd added a touch of salt to the top for seasoning. They're a little nutty, a little sweet, and definitely delicious. The same recipe can be adapted for sesame-parmesan wafters, which will probably be my next outing in an apparent attempt to make them less healthy. Seriously, though, it was extremely easy and despite my habitual anxiousness when trying a new recipe, I think they turned out really well. I can see making these regularly so that I have something to munch on hand at all times.

Add all the good things a good cookbook should have, including nice photos, easy-to-follow directions, good descriptions of what you're making, lots of alternative ingredient options, conversion tables and a complete index (both by recipe title and ingredient) and we have a cookbook that I will be purchasing shortly. Recommended for habitual snackers with a vested interest in avoiding arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure, and all those other good things that come with a steady diet of store-bought potato chips.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Magician's Ward by Patricia C. Wrede

Magician's Ward
by Patricia C. Wrede
Tor, 1997
288 pages

The sequel to Mairelon the Magician sees Kim and Mairelon a year after the events of the first book have closed. I was right; I have read this before. And actually, I think I enjoyed it as much as Mairelon the second time through, so that's good; I remember not enjoying it as much the first time through. There certainly isn't as much adventure, and like Kim I kind of missed the freedom she and Mairelon and Hunch shared while they were out in their wagon. But, since I am in a Regency mood, I quite enjoyed the manners and social protocol stuff, and the restrictions Kim faces are an interesting contrast to the "freedom" she had in the first book. I'm trying to remember if I first read this before I read Pride and Prejudice (I know, I know, it's stereotypical but it was my first Austen and it remains my favourite) and I think perhaps I did, which meant that I wasn't as familiar with or enamoured with that period as I am now. It certainly came before any Julia Quinn, which this also reminded me of.

So, the book starts quickly. Kim has been made Mairelon's ward, and she's been learning magic as well as various other niceties of society. They've arrived in London for the Season. Unfortunately, Mairelon's aunt is also in London for the Season, and she's quite set on making sure that Kim doesn't disgrace the Merrill family, and the best way to do that is to get her married off quickly and quietly, if that's even possible with someone of her background and station. Mairelon's been busy since they've been back in London, leaving Kim to her own (or, more accurately, his Aunt's) devices, and all the attendant societal restrictions. So she's rather miserable. And then, right off the top, someone breaks into the house, into the library. Kim foils the plan, and though the burglar gets away, he leaves behind some tantalizing clues. Things continue to get curiouser and curiouser, and then much more serious when a potentially devastating trap is sprung. Kim and Mairelon will need all their ingenuity and various skills to come through this adventure unscathed.

While I don't think this is quite as good as Sorcery and Cecelia, I do think it's as good as Mairelon the Magician, just in different ways. There's not as much out-and-out action; it's a little more subtle. This is not to say that this book doesn't have some exciting action -- my favourite scene in the book involves Kim dressing up as a lady and blowing into a moneylender's office with all the brashness and physicality of her street days. There are chases, rescues, and magical attacks. There are also some quietly funny moments, and some sweet and tender moments, too.

One of the weaknesses of the book, though not enough to turn me off it, is that there are some threads and characters that are introduced and then seem to vanish almost as quickly. I can think of three off the top of my head, including the possible menace of Jack Stower, one of Kim's street nemeses. He's reintroduced, and then that never really goes anywhere. It's almost as if he's there just to give Kim something to fret about.

Thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable rags-to-riches type story; can stand alone but is far better having read Mairelon the Magician first. I don't think there are any plans to bring back Kim and Mairelon, which makes me kind of sad. I really love Kim as a character; she's very human, and refreshing, smart and wry. It was wonderful fun to spend time with her again, and I'm sure I'll revisit.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

sad sack apology post

Okay, all. I know that there are always bloggers apologising for not being around, not posting, etc. but here comes another one. I'm really behind on my blog-reading and commenting, I'm extremely behind on my book reading, and I'm just not excited about the internet right now. I haven't even checked into Twitter in weeks (Bowker keeps following me, though, for some reason). And now that I know this blog template blows up in the latest version of Firefox (sorry everyone who keeps up-to-date with your Mozilla browser), I can't even seem to screw up the interest to fix it. This is a phase, it will pass; I'm going to be doing some Google Reader pruning and I'm going to keep reading. But the truth of it is that I'm a little overwhelmed and feeling a little like I've been slowly slipping away from the (admittedly tiny) little group of blogging bookish friends I've cultivated here. I miss you guys.

The thing is, I will keep posting here, as I read. I even have a review planned for next week already. But after that, I'm out of material, unless I can get my stuff together to read anything at all. I might post a review of a picture book or two, some ideas I've been saving for a while. The big problem is that I'm not excited by reading, and rather than make it become a chore attached to having to blog about it at least once a week, I'm letting myself float a bit. Once that passes, I'll get excited about writing here again, and I'll fix the flawed template, and I'll tweet. These past two months have been intense, as one might guess from the frequency of posting, and the past two weeks especially so. We've got a bit of a break coming up (I've got some post ideas attached to that, too) so hopefully that will clear out the apathy and I'll be ready to storm the blogosphere again. Until then -- it's not you, guys. It's me.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
written and read by Bill Bryson
Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio, 1998
5 discs (abridged)

Soooo. This was not at all what I expected. This is another one of those "It's on the list! You must read it!" books, and knowing I was short on time, and knowing it was one of the few on the list that my library has in audiobook, I decided to go that route. Which was, I think, an excellent decision. I am kind of on an audiobook roll here, my friends. This makes two audiobooks that I have listened to the whole way through in less than a month.

Now, no, this wasn't what was advertised to me when I first came across this title. I've been lead to believe that Bryson is hilarious, laugh-out-loud funny, that this was a sort of slapstick comedy of errors. I also thought this was the unabridged version, and suffered the same sort of unpleasant shock as Nan when Bryson calmly announced the name of the abridger at the end of the final disc. Well damn, I thought, no wonder I was sorry it was over so soon. At 5 discs, this audiobook is very much on the light side for adult-length audiobooks. And I really was sorry it was finished, experiencing an almost physical pang when I slipped that last disc out of the player.

So no, it's not LOL hi-larious, though there are points where I admit to a surprised guffaw. I did smile an awful lot, for someone on an hour long commute desperate to get home. Bryson's sense of humour is not slapstick or obvious. It is dry, subtle, gratifyingly humble, and self-deprecating to the extreme. I think I only had trouble getting used to it because I was expecting something much different. Also, Bryson spends much of the time being quite earnest and serious, though never entirely humourless, about his topics: the trail itself, hiking in general, bears, the devastation wreaked in the name of the US Forest Service and the US Parks Service, the lack of pedestrians and pedestrian-friendly spaces in the US, and you get the idea. These musings on the State of the Union as Bryson saw it (the book was first published in 1999) and in particular on the Environmental State of the Union are interspersed generously between the narrative from the Bryson's move back to the US after decades in the UK through the end of his summer of dedicated AT hiking. And all of it, bar perhaps a few paragraphs where the statistics and facts get a bit mind-numbing, is absolutely fascinating.

One of my pet peeves in books about nature (as discussed before) can be an authors' tendency to slip in a horribly depressing fact ("this beautiful bird, a warbler of some sort AND WARBLERS ARE VANISHING FROM THE FACE OF THE EARTH DUE TO HUMANS, YOU BASTARDS is eating spruce budworm and calling to its mate") right in the middle of describing some experience or another. The first time Bryson switched into fact-relating mode, out of the narrative, I thought, Oh jeez. Not again. I got over it, though, largely because Bryson actually delves into the facts, fleshes them out, and creates a chapter of it; I don't feel ambushed, just enlightened. As I've said before, I have no problem with relating these facts -- it's just I don't like the way its normally done. I think Bryson's got the right idea: be clear about your intention, give me enough information to make an informed judgement, and for heaven's sake don't interrupt a narrative to scold me for a sentence before going back your merry way.

His narration on this audiobook also took me a bit of getting used to; he has a very odd accent and his delivery seems at first almost unbearably flat. Stick it out, because there's something about his reading that is deeply approachable and very genuine, when it's not downright hypnotic. I can hear his voice in my head this minute. I suspect, though I can't know yet, that this audiobook has changed something about the way I experience hiking fundamentally. It's also made me think seriously about trying some backwoods hiking myself because I actually think I probably could do it. I've camped before, I've done canoe trips (without portages) before, I've done a bit of hiking though never more than day-trips. Bryson doesn't make backwoods hiking sound appealing, exactly, so much as magnetic. He gets to the heart of the difficulties, the long stretches of monotony, the real and imagined dangers, and the flashes of absolute brilliance that make backwoods trekking so captivating to a certain crowd.

I really, really loved this audiobook, and I'm very grateful that having it assigned for reading meant I actually listened to it. I'm keen to read the unabridged version at some point, but I think I'll probably find myself looking for more of Bryson's audiobooks, abridged or not, in the meantime.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Blackfly Season by Giles Blunt

Blackfly Season
by Giles Blunt
Random House, 2005
326 pages

And now for something completely different. Also, I'm back to keeping track of my editions and page numbers, after a completely inexplicable lapse.

I'm not going to be reviewing all the books I'm reading for the upcoming training retreat, because to be frank, I am not reading them all terribly thoroughly. I am skipping through a bunch of them very quickly in an effort to get through the list in time. I figure it's better to have a taste of more of them than an in-depth knowledge of only a few of them. Well, and if I'm being honest, almost none of the books on the list were books I would ever consider picking up on my own; and while it is a good thing to read outside of my comfort zone every once in a while, there are good reasons that some of those would never have made it onto my list. I'm a pretty good judge of what puts me off a book. And as far as I can tell, I will never be a chick lit fan, for example, and a half-reading of Marion Keyes' Anybody Out There? has not convinced me otherwise. I can see why people like it, but I just don't.

I thought I would review this one for sure because I read the first half very closely, and only stopped reading it as though I would a normal book when ... well, I'll get to that in the review. Blunt is also an author I've been quite interested in, and would eventually have picked up on my own. I'll read more of him, too, if this book is any indication.

The mystery starts with a red-haired woman no one has seen before wandering out of the woods and into a bar in the small city of Algonquin Bay, confused and suffering from amnesia. When she's taken to hospital and examined, it turns out she can't remember anything because she's been shot in the head; the bullet is lodged in her brain. John Cardinal and Lisa Delorme take on the case. And then the body count starts with the discovery of a horribly, possibly ritually mutilated body and the suspicion that perhaps the two cases are connected. Heroin, biker gangs, maggots and strange shamans are all tangled up together in a case where nothing is quite as it seems.

The mystery itself is pretty interesting, but what got me hooked to start was the characters. We don't meet any of the mains other than the amnesiac redhead in the first scene; in fact, it takes place in the eyes of a character we never see again. The first scene is absolutely brilliant, I think, and remains my favourite part of the whole book. The writing is very good throughout; it is intense, occasionally funny, perfectly concise without being choppy or losing any description. Most of the characters are sympathetic and interesting, with enough depth to be believable. The first half of the story was so engaging that I literally did not hear someone calling my name at one point while I was reading.

The other thing I really liked was the humanity of the mystery, the decency of the characters involved. Some of the things that happen are pretty horrific (I'll get to this in a second; first spoiler warning) but the sheer likability and humility of John Cardinal and Lisa Delorme, combined with their careful, methodical and believable unraveling of clues, makes the other bearable. The way Cardinal deals with a situation with his wife Catherine throughout was so tender and honest that I couldn't help but become invested not only in him solving the mystery, but in him as a person.

The book began to lose me in a couple of ways, though. First of all, one of the perspectives we get is of Kevin, a small-time heroin dealer and aspiring poet who is, as we discover slowly, in the thick of things. I think he was supposed to be a sympathetic character, and I guess he was, because watching his storyline was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, pretty much from the moment we meet him. The reader knows that things are going to go south pretty quickly, but Kevin is both obtuse and willfully blind, and while that's realistic it was also really frustrating and somewhat stressful to read.

And then we also get some chapters from the perspective of the murderer, which always bugs me for two reasons: 1) I've never liked spending time in deranged, murderous minds, and 2) it spoils the mystery. We now know who is responsible, rather than having a couple of pretty good guesses. I know some people like this sort of thing, that the mystery and interest comes from seeing if the detectives can figure it out, and if they can figure it out in time; but me, it stresses me out.

I don't read to be stressed out. I guess this means I'm not a big fan of suspense/thriller novels.

/spoiler alert

And finally, I can't discuss why I lost interest without discussing this -- one of the things I was enjoying at the beginning was that the crimes and criminals were ostensibly pretty run-of-the-mill; drug running and rival gangs. Ugly stuff, no doubt, but believable and all the more fascinating to me because of their ordinariness and frightening in their banality. Cardinal and Delorme plod their way through the correct procedures, gathering evidence and consulting experts.

But then it all goes a little bit sideways. It starts out slowly, so one realizes that there might (or might not) be an element of the supernatural in this. This question is never resolved entirely, for which I am glad. But it elevates the ordinariness of the criminal activity to extraordinary evil, the run-of-the-mill storyline to something so weird and horrifying that it was, for me, overload. It was just too much. It was almost a little cliched -- "Look at how AWFUL this guy is! Look at how EVIL!" There are scenes that are there expressly to make us understand just how twisted the murderer is, and also possibly how supernaturally powerful he is.

/end spoilers

That's where I lost interest. The stakes were suddenly unbelievably high, for the story I had started reading, and so I started skipping and flipping through to read the parts about Cardinal and Delorme, and to leave the other perspectives out. Because I did want to know what happened to Cardinal especially, and I did, of course, want to know if they got the bastard.

So, I would recommend this one to people who really like suspense novels, those who enjoy crime novels from multiple perspectives, for fans of police procedurals (that part was extremely well done) and for whom character matters. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, in the end, but I wouldn't hesitate to pick up another Cardinal and Delorme mystery if it were to come my way.