Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sorcery & Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Any book that contains the following quote in the first paragraph is going to get my attention, and most likely, affection:

I wish Aunt Elizabeth were not so set against my having a Season this year. She is still annoyed about the incident with the goat, and says that to let the pair of us loose on London would ruin us both for good, and spoil Georgy's chances into the bargain.

Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot is just so ... charming, is the best word I find to describe it, but that's not enough. It's charming, it's intelligent, it's funny, it's mysterious, it's clever, it's just so damned delightful I can't quite wrap my head around my enormous, immediate, and unconditional love for this book. I loved this book so much the first time through that I've started it a second time, really-truly, which is the first time that's happened since the advent of this blog. I used to do it a lot more when I wasn't trying to expand my reading horizons as much as I am now. But I just can't get enough of this one.

First thing to note: I am a Patricia C. Wrede fan, and have been since grade seven when I absently picked up a little book called Dealing with Dragons from my homeroom teacher's classroom library. I love her sense of humour. I have not read nearly enough that she has written; The Thirteenth Child is on my list, but I haven't gotten to that yet. I've read the entire Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and a little book called The Raven Ring which I read the first time through and didn't quite like because it was, in many ways, way over my head. I've read it a couple of times since and enjoyed it much more with each reading.

I had never even heard of Caroline Stevermer, but you can be sure I'll be keeping an eye out for her other stuff, too.

This is a) a fantasy novel; b) an epistolary novel, and c) a Regency romance in the style of Jane Austen. That is to say, it was a pretty much guaranteed hit for me, although having had experiences where I should love a book and really didn't, I went into this one with some trepidation. Cecelia (Cecy) and Katherine (Kate) are cousins, living comfortably on an estate in Essex. Kate has been taken to London by their Aunt Charlotte to be presented for her first Season with her younger (and prettier) sister Georgina. Cecy has been kept back at home, ostensibly because of the goat, and is to have her coming out Season the year following. Things start to go a little wonky when a witch attempts to murder Kate and Cecy meets a lovely young woman who seems to attract more than her fair share of suitors. Luckily for these two wonderful young women, they have their wits about them and a speedy post to deliver their detailed and often highly amusing letters to each other.

I think Wrede and Stevermer must have had a riot writing this book. It was great fun to read, and it's the kind of great fun that only happens when the authors themselves have thoroughly enjoyed producing the work. I have only two little quibbles, and both come in towards the end; one is a major spoiler, although you'll likely see it coming somewhere just after the midway mark. It has to do with the villains, and villainous motives, and which villain has which motives, and which villain turns out to be more effective. I think it was a little cliched and that was a bit disappointing. The other was that there is a bit of a deus ex machina that appears close to the end. It's a well-integrated one, but I don't think that lets it entirely off the hook. That said, who cares. There are too many other things to like.

Both Cecy and Kate are lovely characters, similar in the ways that relatives with common experience who are also dear friends may be, but different enough that they each have a distinctive voice and distinctive mode of action and thought. They are supportive of each other, and often encourage each other. They will also discourage actions they consider problematic (but they don't always listen to the other's advice.) They work things out together, and I love that. The secondary characters are each fleshed out quite well, as well, through conversations the two report having, through their observations, and through their occasional funny and Austen-esque gossip. The secondary characters are varied and interesting, though not always fully fleshed out, as one might expect in a novel told in letters.

I am on the lookout for a copy of this book now, and consider it a must-have for my collection. It's been on my radar for a while now, but it was Cecelia's (no relation) blog that finally pushed me over the edge. If you're looking for something light and utterly charming, you cannot go wrong with this book.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ranma 1/2 Volumes 31, 32, and 33 by Rumiko Takahashi

This is my second-to-last Ranma 1/2 post. I am saddened by this. As terrified as I was at the prospect of reading a manga series 36 volumes long, I have come to feel that it isn't long enough. What am I going to do without Ranma and Akane in my reading life? Actually, what I might do is now embark on a journey through the Ranma 1/2 anime series, that's what, and start in on another long manga series with new characters. There are so many out there that excite me. Xxxholic, Tsubasa, Cardcaptor Sakura, Fruits Basket, Inuyasha, Rin-ne... these are just a very few of the series that keep catching my eye.

But for now, we're still on Ranma 1/2 and I am starting to feel that my concerns about this entire series wrapping up in one volume are justified. Four volumes from the end and we're still not anywhere close to solving Ranma's dilemma. We are, however, somewhat closer to an understanding between Ranma and Akane, and towards some of the other suitors being taken care of. Maybe.

Volume 31 sees a couple of really strong if completely pointless stories. Aside from the few one-offs, there's an extended storyline where both Ryoga (I know! a Ryoga story I liked!) and Ranma end up with five-year-old bodies due to eating some mushrooms; then one about a rampaging, deluded demon at a temple, and my personal favourite, an octopus-heavy storyline involving a masked avenger out to get Ukyo. I love the way Takahashi treats octopi. There wasn't quite enough octopi for me in this octopus-heavy storyline, in fact.

Volume 32 I enjoyed for the principal story; I don't know what it is about his character that I like so much, but I really really do. Although this one is a little heavier on Hinako, Ranma and Akane's teacher, than I would usually enjoy, the added fun provided by the principal seems to outweigh that.

There's also an extended story involving Ranma's mother, and this story I didn't enjoy quite as much. Partially because the translation idiotically refers to breasts as "tatas" the entire time, which is so stupid it makes my eyes cross, and an annoyingly poor choice by the translators; but also because though I usually enjoy the interaction between characters surrounding Ranma's mother, in this particular storyline everything felt like the characters were going through the motions. It's all been done. Also, Ranma's mother has a schtick and she doesn't vary from it, and by now it feels a little old.

Volume 33 seems, in a number of ways, to bring us a little closer to closure on some fronts. I think this volume was my favourite of the three here; the first storyline, involving a mirror image Ranma-girl, is really quite funny and yet also introduces our characters to real peril. Once again, when she's in trouble, Akane turns out to be rather effective, although still unable to completely rescue herself. In this case, Ranma's pretty ineffective and also unable to rescue her, although he does make an attempt. Overall, lots of fun to be had here. Unfortunately, the second lengthy storyline, involving a tribe of female ninjas, turns out to be pretty flat, stupid, confusing and not even really that funny. But perhaps we have a suitable suitor for Ukyo out of it, so we'll see. The final storyline is sweet, and makes the volume for me; and it becomes even more clear that Ranma is actually in the weakest position when it comes to his and Akane's relationship. Akane holds the power, and Ranma's pretty helpless. And it's at this point where I really start to hope that Akane doesn't remain as clueless as she often seems to be...

The last three volumes of Ranma 1/2 next... I am excited! And sad.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

I did that thing again where I sent the book off to someone else to read before I was able to write the review. In fact, I finished the last four pages as everyone else was setting up for a meeting, ran the book inside to the co-op student, and ran back outside to the meeting. Unfortunately I think those last four pages didn't sink in as well as they could have and I can't remember for the life of me how this book ended.

Which is okay, actually, because it was far more the journey than the ending with this one. When the book gets returned I'll read the last chapter again, and that's fine.

Amal is a sixteen-year-old Australian-Palestinian Muslim. She attends a prestigious (and snooty) private prep school, gets good grades, has good friends, has a few enemies, and is deep in the throes of a crush on her chemistry bench partner Adam. And now she's decided to wear the hijab full-time.

And that's basically it, for a plot summary. What you will miss from that is just how engaging and smart and funny a narrator Amal is. This book is told in first person, and present tense -- which I almost didn't even notice. Once I did notice it was all present tense, I thought, "really?" and flipped back a couple of chapters, and sure enough, the entire thing is. It works perfectly -- it's like Amal and I are sitting and having a cup of tea and chatting and she's telling me this story. And I love Amal. She's a pitch-perfect teen: occasionally very immature, occasionally very mature, most of the time a regular teenager dealing with things in a teenager way. She has a wicked sense of humour and is sharply observant, but not preternaturally so. She's usually on top of a quick comeback if someone says something completely idiotic, although every once in a while she's struck speechless and ashamed, and that makes sense too, even if the reader desperately wants her to say something snappy and make the other person look like the idiot they are. She's an interesting mix of superficial and dramatic, and deeply convicted. Her voice made this story for me.

I picked the following short passage to quote because it was something I recognized. I'm not a teen anymore by any stretch, but I still do this to myself every once in a while:

I get so caught up in my daydream that my eyes start to go fuzzy and my skin all prickly. It's only when I feel my throat choking up that I snap back to reality.

There were a lot of quotable bits in this book. I meant to get more -- but then I gave the book to someone else.

I'd recommend this book just for Amal, and already have in some cases. But this book is a good read for more than that. Being someone who has no acquaintances who wear the hijab, my exposure to this particular religious garb is extremely limited. Actually, if we're honest, my exposure to anyone who is not Christian or agnostic or atheist is very limited, and the only people I know personally who dress or do things differently due to their religion are the Mennonites who frequent the library, and some of the Mennonite kids I went to school with. So just on that basis, this book was an eye-opening read for me, because I know so very little about Islam. It had never really occurred to me in any meaningful way that someone might wear the hijab because they wanted to; I always thought it was something that was expected of, perhaps forced on women by culture or tradition. Was I ever wrong. In some cases, of course, that is what happens -- but Abdel-Fattah attacks and shreds that particular notion in Amal's case. And I completely relished the whole experience of learning something new with this book, and (I hope) gaining a better understanding of an expression of faith that I had no familiarity with before.

And here: I was about to write "gaining a better understanding of a group" but thought better of it given that a lot of this book is devoted to making it clear that "groups" don't really exist in a way that can be generalized about. Even within communities identified by culture or tradition or religion or geography there can be major differences. And I know this, but it's easy to be lazy and generalize and I'm going to be even more on the lookout for that bad habit within myself now.

As one might expect, this book does occasionally drift into "issues" territory -- every once in a while there is a clear "that's not what Islam is about" moment or, in the case of one of Amal's friends, a lot of "thin is not equal to beauty." In these cases, sometimes the book edges from being fun and educational to being a bit preachy. But overall, this book avoids that territory quite well. And one thing that wasn't an issue, something I really, really appreciated, was Amal's relationship with her parents. Her parents are present, supportive, kind, intelligent, and they love Amal to bits. And she returns that. She has her typical teenage issues with her parents -- but it's really nice to see a teenager with a healthy, loving relationship with her family represented in a YA book.

I want to recommend this book to every teen girl I know. Some might be uncomfortable with the idea of the religious theme, but don't be: the execution is deft and I never felt like the book was trying to convert me. In fact, anyone of any religious feeling at all will almost certainly identify with Amal's struggles no matter what your denomination, and anyone with no religious feeling will not feel crowded. And if you're not a teen girl, read this anyway. You might find some of the drama a little over-the-top, but you might recognize your teen self in it; and you'll almost certainly end up looking at the world a little differently than you did when you started. It's not a perfect book, but it's a good one, and well worth the fun read.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Popular Music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi; translated by Laurie Thompson

If someone whose taste is impeccable hadn't given me this book for Christmas, I'm sure I would never have picked it up. If by some strange chance I had, I probably wouldn't have finished it. I may not have made it past the first three chapters or so. And that would have been an absolute shame.

The thing is, Popular Music from Vittula is pretty far away from my usual read. And for the first half or more of the book I was extremely ambivalent. My notes are full of things like "parts of this are excruciating, but I think I'm glad I'm reading it." A little later is a note that says "There is something about this book that's worming its way under my skin." Like maggots. Which appear multiple times in this book.

Ahem. So, yes. This is a novel about growing up in Pajala, a very northerly town in Sweden, right on the Finnish border. Matti is our narrator and protagonist, and we follow him from the time he is five to his teenage years. Though formatted as a short novel with chapters, it's really a series of short stories, loosely interconnected, and populated with fascinating and often unsavoury characters. It's full of contradictions; full of beauty and horror, violence and joy. Some parts are recognizeable to anyone who has lived in a small town anywhere in the world, others are completely, magically foreign.

The writing is vibrant, and often vulgar, though never crude. By which I mean that I believe the vulgarity is always carefully placed and carefully thought out. I think I got used to this by the latter half of the book, although I'll admit it did take me some time. The rawness of the language and the emotions and the images was what I found so difficult at the beginning. And though this book is quite funny, and I believe it's quite funny all the way through, it also took me until halfway through to settle in to Niemi's sense of humour. But by the end, I found this whole paragraph, part of a section in which Matti is being initiated by his father into manhood, made me giggle:

The most dangerous thing of all, and something he wanted to warn me about above all else, the one thing that had consigned whole regiments of unfortunate young people to the twilight world of insanity, was reading books. This objectionable practice had increased among the younger generation, and Dad was more pleased than he could say that I had not yet displayed any such tendencies. Lunatic asylums were overflowing with folk who'd been reading too much. Once upon a time, they'd been just like you and me, physically strong, straightforward, cheerful and well balanced. Then they'd started reading. Most often by chance. A bout of flu perhaps, with a few days in bed. An attractive book cover that had aroused some curiosity. And suddenly the bad habit had taken hold. The first book had lead to another. Then another, and another, all links in a chain that lead straight down into the eternal night of mental illness. It was impossible to stop. It was worse than drugs.

Actually, I really enjoyed that whole chapter. I also loved the wedding chapter, where Matti is witness to a whole lot of territorial, manly pissing contests, including arm wrestling and a sauna. Then there's the chapter about Matti's grandfather's birthday, the final chapter in the book, which is the crowning glory, I think. The humour and the tenderness lightened the cruelty and darkness enough that reading this wasn't unbearably painful.

The thing is, this book is often graphic but also fascinating; it has a kind of melancholy but also a warm fondness. It's not quite a longing for the way things were, because there's no doubt that it wasn't always the good old days. But there is an understanding that it was what it was, and it will never be like that again, and I sometimes feel that way about my own childhood. And I think, in the end, that and the absolute stark beauty of the language were what kept me reading. This book crept up on me, but now that I am done I'm very glad I read it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Emma Volume 1 by Kaoru Mori

Next in my quest to read a whole whack of books in a short period of time is Kaoru Mori's manga series Emma. I have held off from reading another graphic novel series while I'm working my way through Ranma 1/2 because I don't want to get too entangled. It would be very easy to read nothing but manga, I freely admit. But I have justified this one by saying to myself that I am helping to promote my library's graphic novel collection, and also this series is only seven volumes long. I have access to the first volume at the library I work at, and the first six at my local system here, but the last one I will clearly have to try to order in. Luckily the system I work at will do that for me.

Emma has been making the rounds here in the blogosphere. I've seen it a number of places, including things mean a lot, The Written World, and In Spring it is the Dawn. Each one only made me want to read this series more. Now that I've finally got to it, I understand the appeal. To be honest, I did find myself just the tiniest bit ... let down? That's not quite right. A little slower than expected, I think, but I have to remind myself that this is the first volume of a series, and here we're just starting to meet the characters and grasp the shape of the challenges facing them.

And so far, I really do enjoy it. The art is just stunning. The portrayal of London is a bit tidier than I'm used to, but it's full of lovely detail and other than the tidiness, authentic. There's something really fascinating about looking at Victorian London and its culture through the eyes of a Japanese mangaka; it could so easily be false or fetishized, but it feels right. The story is sweet, filled with the embarrassments and thrills of early first love; although, I think, here I can put my finger on what bothered me. I didn't buy much more than a careful mutual attraction based on love-at-first-sight; I want more of Emma and William getting to know each other. Like I say, though, this is the first volume of seven, so I imagine I'll get more of that. With this story, I get the feeling it's going to be more the journey than the destination, and the journey is going to be slow and beautiful.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett

There's something wonderful about sitting down with a book, not particularly convinced one wants to read it, not even particularly enjoying the first few pages, and then looking up some indeterminate time later and realizing that you're almost halfway through. Not only have you ingested large portions of the book, but you really enjoyed yourself doing it.

Mac Barnett's The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity was recommended to me by a former co-worker, whom I am very sad about being former because she had the greatest book recommendations. I am concerned that I'm not going to be able to find kid's books about nefarious librarians without her assistance, being as she was also the one who turned me on to Brandon Sanderson's Alcatraz, too.

Every Librarian is a highly trained agent. An expert in intelligence, counterintelligence, Boolean searching, and hand-to-hand combat.

Nefarious librarians and wanton library destruction (not the sprinklers!!) are about where the similarities to Alcatraz end, however. Steven Brixton (aka Steve) is a twelve-year-old wannabe detective. He lives by the Bailey Brothers' Detective Handbook, he has read the entire 58-book Bailey Brothers detective series multiple times, and he's even got his own detective ID card. This all turns out to be somewhat useful to him when he unwittingly becomes wrapped up in a dangerous scheme involving a librarian formerly known as la Gata de la Muerte (this is never translated in the text, but I got it and I laughed out loud), a mysterious Mr. E (say that one out loud) and a book about early American needlepoint.

We're spoofing boys' detective fiction here, my friends, and it's really fun. This will be mightily appreciated by adults who grew up with the Hardy Boys, and there's plenty in here aside from that direct spoof that an adult reading this book aloud to kids will thoroughly enjoy. Kids who are fans of detective fiction will get a kick out of this one too. There's not a page goes by without something funny or some clever allusion, but the book doesn't read like an exercise in Mac Barnett being excessively witty. It always stays just this side of the line of too clever for its own good -- though I'll admit I felt it was on the wrong side for the first few pages.

Steve himself is a very engaging character. I wondered a little at the end if Steve had really learned anything or grown at all through his adventure, but I came to the conclusion that he really does; and that, in my estimation, puts him leagues ahead of Frank and Joe Hardy as a character. And I'll admit to still loving Frank and Joe so that's saying a fair bit. Steve even reads as a genuine if mostly extremely clever kid, and there were things he did and said that rang true, even if some of the situations he finds himself in are too incredible to be believed. I cheered for him the whole way through.

Overall, recommended, especially as a read-aloud to kids around the ages of 8-12. I don't know if there's going to be another Brixton Brothers mystery; my suspicion is that packaging this book as No. 1 is part of the spoof. If there is, though, I'll read it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Some books are good. Some books are special. Some books, like Bridge of Birds, end with the reader feeling like they have been given a precious gift.

My history with Bridge of Birds goes back a long, long way. Something like ten years, really, to when I was first playing around on this really cool bookstore site called Amazon. This book caught my attention somehow, and I thought it looked fascinating, but I never quite got around to ordering it. It was the first book on my wishlist, though. Years have gone by, and Bridge of Birds has remained on my reading periphery, patiently waiting for me to finally come across a copy and open it. And then about two weeks ago I was feeling like something different, something new. And this book took that moment to strike. "What about me?" it asked, politely. I plugged the title into the library OPAC, and there it was. There's only one copy in the whole system, but I brought it home with me, then sat and stared at it for a couple of days. I've always avoided reviews of this book, and I very deliberately did not read the jacket summary -- I didn't want to spoil anything for myself. All I knew about it was that there was a character named Number Ten Ox and a bridge involved. One might think with all this buildup, the years of anticipation, that I might have found this book to be a disappointment. I am so happy to report that it was not.

It was different, though. I had no expectations other than that it was set in Ancient China, and that it was a fantasy. And, thanks to Aarti, I suspected that Number Ten Ox might be a really wonderful character. I didn't know anything about any of the other characters or the structure of the story. I'm not used to reading like that; I usually have a pretty good grasp of what's about to happen and who the main characters are. Going into this pretty much blind was interesting, and because the rhythm of the writing was unusual and the setting was so unfamiliar on the surface, and I kept getting distracted by wondering how familiar with Chinese history Hughart is, because I'm certainly not, so sifting pure imagination from actual Chinese mythology isn't something I'm able to do.

After a while this all ceased to matter as I got tangled in a beautiful, precise web. I don't know how much I want to say as a summary; perhaps it will suffice to say that there is indeed a wonderful character named Number Ten Ox, an even better one (sorry Aarti!) named Li Kao who has a slight flaw in his character, fairytales and labyrinths, children in danger and ghost stories. It is a mystery, and it is a fantasy, and it's an adventure and a caper, too. For the most part it's written wonderfully, with a small bit of clumsiness here or there -- I make note of it only because it does stick out when the usually subtle foreshadowing slips, since that's such a rare case. Most of the time the writing is clever, light and often funny, and feels even more clever in retrospect.

I need to read it over again, because it is so precise. It's a little circular, coming back on itself in both action and even phrasing, such that the reader will occasionally think, I've been here before. And they will probably be right. Having been to the end and seen the knots undone now, I want to read it over to understand better, to see what I missed, and to enjoy again the careful prose and detail, and gentle humour. It's a children's story for adults, and it reflects on the power of stories, and the truths hidden in fictions and games, which is a favourite theme of mine.

I get the feeling this isn't much of a review, and I'm not quite sure how to fix it. I just think that this is a book that one should experience on one's own. Aarti has a great review as well as a very persuasive perspective on why you should read this book. Give yourself some time to sink into it, because if you are like me it will take a little while (or it might not; might just have been me freaking myself out over finally reading it after all this time) and let the story take you where it will. And be prepared that somewhere toward the ending of the book, it will reach up and grab you and not let you go until the last page is done and you'll discover not only have you stopped breathing properly, but your eyes might just be the tiniest bit damp.