Saturday, May 29, 2010

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

I love these days off I have. I can finish a book in a day, when I get going. Nothing much else gets done, mind you, but I always feel quite satisfied to have finished a book, and a little lost once it is done. Today, in addition to getting the most fantastic haircut ever, I have finished my first book by Shannon Hale. It has been a good day. I could maybe deal with a thousand days like this one, but I might get bored. I would be decidedly less happy with a thousand days locked up in a dark tower with only one other person I don't really know and nothing but my own writing to read.

Hale is one of those authors I keep hearing about and wondering why I've never read; she seems to be right up my alley. So I grabbed this off the shelf. It seemed like the right time. I'm trying to do less "I should read this" and more "I feel like reading this today" and that seems to be working very well for me. As did Book of a Thousand Days.

Inspired by the Grimm fairytale "Maid Maleen," this story is told in the form of a journal. Dashti is a lady's maid, and her lady is Saren, a slip of a sixteen-year-old girl who is being bricked up into a tower for defying her father's order to marry Lord Khasar, a man she desperately fears. They are to stay in the tower for seven years, a thousand days, or until Saren repents and agrees to be married. Dashti agrees to be bricked up with Saren, having sworn an oath to stay with her; and Dashti, being able to read and write, keeps a record -- a book of a thousand days.

That summary is just the starting point, and does not encompass the incredible detail of the backstory and world that Hale has provided Dashti with. What's even better is the way this backstory and world and the current plot is revealed to us: the journal format is used perfectly. Sometimes we see events, sometimes we see Dashti's innermost thoughts and feelings, sometimes we get Dashti's history, sometimes we get conversations reported faithfully. Dashti even sketches, and her art is very simple but exactly the sort of thing one might find in a young woman's journal, and I think it really adds to the story.

Something else the summary doesn't get across, and something I wasn't prepared for, was Lady Saren. Who was not what I expected at all. What's interesting, though, is that she rang true, if slightly melodramatic, and after adjusting my expectations I thought the dynamic between Dashti and Saren was very well done. Dashti's optimism and fearlessness were refreshing, particularly in the face of the obstacles; her faithfulness and kindness were also lovely. Dashti bends, but she doesn't break. Additionally, the contrast between Dashti and Saren makes for very interesting characterization for the two of them.

The magic and the religious aspects were also really interesting. There was a kind of magic, but it wasn't flashy or overstated, and in fact seemed quite organic. Dashti swears by her gods, and she doesn't waver from that, either. But whether or not they hear her is something for the reader to interpret. There are never overt signs, which I think is a nice touch. Another nice touch: the culture and society of Book of a Thousand Days is based on an Eastern model, rather than a Western one. Hale lists ancient Mongolia as her big influence here, and I like that a lot. I like that she's willing to take us fantasy readers outside of our regular comfort zone and stretch a little. I like that she's willing to step out of the pack of fantasy writers to try something different, and I hope that soon becomes enough of the norm that I don't feel I have to comment on it. Until then, this book stands out as a great example.

Something else that I think is interesting is that there are a lot of wince-worthy moments; this book is occasionally like watching a train wreck, in that one can see the bad things coming, but one can't help but watch. The romantic portion of this story is a bit like that. I don't usually enjoy that sort of thing. It stresses me out. But Dashti was such an engaging narrator that I couldn't help but like this tale.

I'll be recommending this one. Oddly enough, I don't see myself immediately rushing out to buy everything Hale has written. I liked this book, but I wouldn't say I loved it. It was readable, intelligent, an interesting fantasy and a good tale with engaging characters. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for more Hale, but I've got a little ways to go before I'm convinced that Hale is an author I absolutely must read. That said, I'm keen to try out Princess Academy and/or the Books of Bayern at some point sooner rather than later.

I have one of my co-workers, largely, to thank for bringing this book to my attention. The co-worker in question is rapidly becoming as bad for my TBR as the entire blogosphere combined. She talked Book of a Thousand Days up to all of us children's programmers at one of our sharing meetings. Since then, we've been taking turns with the "Hey! Have you read this yet?! Ooooh, or what about this?" It's getting rather drastic.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys

I have been meaning to read something else by Helen Humphreys for a long time, since I first read The Frozen Thames, which remains a book that I love and will read again. Happily, the book club I am now leading (I have never even been to a book club meeting, and I am leading one now, so we'll see how that goes) was reading The Lost Garden this month and so I had to read it too. I'm glad I did, although it is one of those cases where I wonder if I would have liked this book better if I'd picked it up of my own accord. It's also one of those cases where I'm not sure I would have picked it up of my own accord at all, even though Geranium Cat's review certainly put it on my list, but I'm glad I did pick it up even if the timing wasn't optimal.

Gwen Davis is an horticulturalist working for the Royal Horticultural Society in London during the Blitz. She volunteers to take her skills out to Mosel, an estate far removed from London, where she will be heading a group of the Women's Land Army, growing vegetables for the war effort. She does this so she won't have to watch her beloved city be destroyed around her, but she is not terribly well-suited to the position, at least at first. This story is an extended set of musings on love and its forms, its pains, and its beauty. It's also about Gwen's journey into becoming whole; she seemed so fragmented and hollow at the start of the book, and she is changed by the end.

The language in which this story is told is often beautiful, so much so that it is sometimes distanced from real life. The dialogue in particular does not ring true, but it's not supposed to. As a narrator, Gwen puts a veneer on her memories for us, I think. The story it tells is somewhat indulgent, somewhat predictable. It may have been meant to be predictable -- I kind of feel like it was set up in such a way that I was supposed to know what happened pretty much from the beginning. I wonder, too, if I had read Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, which figures prominently (Gwen is a big fan of Woolf) if I would understand more about the story than I do. I do have enough of an understanding of gardens that the flower and gardening references integral to the text worked very well for me. Interestingly, I didn't enjoy that aspect of this book as much as I expected to, given how much I love reading nonfiction about gardening. I haven't quite decided why that is yet. The writing in general is occasionally a little off-putting, almost too self-consciously poetic. Overall, though, I think it works.

If we get down to the fine grain, I don't think I can say I liked this book, although it certainly made an impression on me. I wasn't terribly fond of Gwen, particularly at the beginning, and that was certainly deliberate. She changes over the course of the novel to the point where I am glad I met her, glad I got to know her. She's still not entirely a comfortable character, but she's less prickly than she was in the beginning. She has a lot of baggage, does Gwen, and she doesn't carry it lightly.

I don't think it's a spoiler (but stop reading here if you don't want any hints)...

... to say that this is a terribly sad story. It's about the war, and there's not a lot of emotional good that comes out of a war. Though this is a story about love, it's not romantic, and the way the war is portrayed is not romantic in the least. And here, of course, is my big problem with this book: I don't like sad stories. I really don't. And I do avoid them pretty scrupulously. They make me unhappy and not in a cathartic way. I am a wimp about this, I know. (I have to read The Time-Traveler's Wife next, guys -- this is going to be a disaster. I don't think I can take two in a row.) A review blurb I found from NOW Magazine gets it right: "Emotional ache, fear, loneliness, Helen Humphreys evokes these sensations with unsettling clarity." Consider me unsettled. I do it to myself enough without reading books that do it to me.

And this, in the end, is why I didn't like this book so much; I think I could have appreciated the language and setting and the characters and the structure of the story, but I knew it wasn't going to end happily and I was right. It would have felt extremely incongruous for it to have ended happily; the entire book is tinged with a painful melancholy. But it was worth reading, and I do recommend it for people who aren't as wimpy as me about sad stories. Humphreys' writing does take some getting used to, but I have decided I like it, and am quite keen to try Coventry next time I feel like I need to make myself sad. Because that's also a war story, and chances are it's not going to end happily either.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Addendum to Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Nymeth made a comment that got me going and thinking seriously and now that I'm done with it, I'm not sure I want all that work to stay hidden in the comments. So here we go:

Nymeth's comment:

On the one hand, this book really appeals to me. On the other hand, I'm a bit put off by a heated debate that followed its publication. I'm not sure if you heard of it, but many readers were upset that Wrede completely suppressed Native Americans from the world she created, especially as this decision was apparently accompanied by some comments about how she wanted to create an alternative American where magical beasts lived alongside with people, but other than adding the magic, she didn't want to make any changes that would have much of a cultural impact. People were of course very upset with the implication that the non-existence of Native Americans would be just a small detail without much of an impact at all. As you're someone whose opinion on these things I really value, I thought I'd ask you how you felt about this aspect of the story.

My response:

I didn't know about the controversy (I missed it completely, and am somewhat chagrined that I did) but I'm not in the least surprised that there was one, because I did notice the lack of Native Americans and I did wonder what happened to them and why they weren't involved, even mentioned. I thought it strange. I thought about writing about it in the review, but then I couldn't think of exactly what to say. So now that you've prodded me into it (and thank you for that), here are my thoughts for now:

Let me say first that I'm pretty sure it would be irresponsible of me to speculate on Wrede's motives, not having read any of the printed material surrounding this, nor heard Wrede herself say anything. But aside from my own personal suspicions about what she was thinking, something does occur to me: I can see, without too much difficulty, that adding that dimension to the story would have complicated it into something much bigger and different from the tale Wrede obviously wished to tell. Any inclusion of anything regarding Native Americans would have made a point in one way or another. It would have added an extra layer of complexity and this was already a story more complex than any other Wrede I've read.

I don't know much about the frontier at all, but my understanding is that the Natives didn't populate North America nearly as densely as we do now. There would have been large swathes of unpopulated land. I suspect, though I am not certain, that it would have been possible for people to live their entire lives as settlers in a large, well-established frontier town without ever encountering a Native, or even really thinking about them. If Wrede decided not to add that aspect to her story, I don't think that's so far-fetched. And her alleged comment could be interpreted in that light, too.

It's true that the exclusion was noticeable. Taken in another way, her comment could smack of entitlement: that whole "wild uninhabited west ripe for settlement" attitude when in fact the west was perfectly well inhabited and settled before Europeans got here, densely or not. When basing an alternate history so closely on ours, I do think it a strange choice to include notable historical (white, male) characters and yet also exclude an entire group of people. Particularly since the group excluded has a long history of discrimination against them -- it's hard not to view it as yet another discriminatory act, even if it is in a world that is recognizably not one we inhabit.

This is the first of a trilogy and it's possible that in Eff's travels she will encounter that alternate universe version of Natives. It's also possible she won't ever meet or hear of a Native American equivalent, that it won't ever be addressed. Wrede might decide that it's not part of what she's working with in her story. I think it is her authorial prerogative.

I loved the book, and I noticed the exclusion and yet decided to go with the story anyways and enjoy it. I don't regret that decision. I still love the book. I do hope that the exclusion and the comment wasn't out of either overt or subliminal racism, but more a conscious decision, based on reasonable information, not to complicate the story and turn it into something different from the story she wished to tell. But, either way, I think the fact that the exclusion was noticeable, and that there was pushback about it, is a good thing.

Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

How does Patricia C. Wrede do it? After not reading anything by her for years, I've read two books by her (or one half-by her, I guess) recently and decided upon completion to immediately purchase them both. With this book the compulsion was even stronger than with Sorcery and Cecelia. This book is just brilliant. It is compulsively readable, understated, and deeply interesting. There is humour, there is pain; there is beauty, there is ugliness. Although I think, in keeping with how I feel it's understated, we are left to imagine the pain and the ugliness, and this is not by any means a dark book. I first learned of this book back in April 2009 from Abby (the) Librarian, who wasn't as effusive in her praise as I am about to be, but enjoyed it enough to pique my interest.

I often view Wrede as a light read, which is not entirely true. Yes, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles are pretty light, a whimsical and entertaining retelling and re-imagining of fairytale and fantasy conventions. Thirteenth Child, on the other hand, is an entertaining pioneer story, a western with a healthy dose of magic. The world that Wrede creates is fascinating, tied to our own by familiar names (only Pythagoras and Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were also extremely powerful magicians) and concepts -- the push of settlement to the west, the pushing back of the wild frontier. And though she doesn't delve deeply into issues like destruction of wildlife and habitats, and human hubris and blinkered thinking, it's touched upon, brushed upon in such a way that it's there to be thought about if the reader so chooses. She also deals outright with bullies and human potential, in a much more obvious but only rarely heavy-handed way.

Eff is a thirteenth child. In Avrupan culture, the culture in which she grows up, the thirteenth child is terribly unlucky at best and outright evil at worst; there are hints that these children would be killed at birth, at least in the past. Luckily for Eff, her parents will have no stock with that, nor will her twin brother Lan, a lucky and powerful seventh son of a seventh son. But Eff does have to deal with the taunts and worse of her extended family and the other children until her father accepts a position out west teaching magic at one of the new colleges, and the Rothmer family (those young enough to still be living at home) picks up and moves to Mill City. Here no one knows Eff is a thirteenth, although Eff herself can't forget it. The story chronicles Eff's life from the time she's old enough to remember anything at roughly three or four to eighteen as she starts to come in to her own. It's told in first person, in Eff's wonderfully distinctive, practical and variously wry or earnest voice. It's a marvelous tale and I love it.

We see through Eff's eyes, and she's a perceptive little thing. Through her we get a feel for many of the other characters around: her twin Lan, who she adores and who adores her, but neither are without their flaws; Papa and Mama, the centre of the enormous Rothmer family; Eff's siblings, some of whom we get to know better than others; Eff's aunts and uncles, the awful lot of them (though, again there are shades of awful and some are not as they seem at first); the professors at the college, Eff's teachers, and their fellow students. William, Lan and Eff's best friend, who grows and changes as Eff and Lan do, and is one of the better fleshed-out characters. It's a big cast, but the important players are real and wonderful. There are no straight-up villains, either, except for perhaps Eff's Uncle Earn, who plays a relatively small role except in Eff's head. The struggles come more from Eff's own complex about being thirteenth (brought on by Earn) and from nature.

Which gets me into an aspect of the book I really liked. I've always wished that someone could turn back time and tell the settlers that killing everything is perhaps not the most intelligent way to go about things; watching this story unfold was interesting, because those thoughts are addressed mostly obliquely, but I think they're there. Towards the end with the introduction of the naturalist and travelling magician Wash this issue gets a bit more attention. There's no denying that the frontier, the world outside the Great Barrier, is a very dangerous place; it makes me wince, in Wrede's history as in ours, that the solution to the problem is killing the creatures, eradicating them entirely so that they won't be a problem. The dangers are given mythic status by the settlers and those back home, largely due to ignorance. Even right on the frontier the wild animals, both magical and not, are feared absolutely and those who willingly go outside the Barrier are viewed with awe. The disaster at the climax of the story is environmental in nature, and was handled in a way that makes the reader think about who is to blame for it, and what lessons might be learned in this alternate history from it. It's never shoved down our throats, though.

And imagine my delight when I discovered that this is the first of a projected trilogy, all to be narrated by Eff. I'm really, really looking forward to the next one. Highly, highly recommended. I hope this series finds a wide audience.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hearts at Stake by Alyxandra Harvey

For my final trick of reviewing vacation reads, I have for you Hearts at Stake by Alyxandra Harvey. As Harvey's a Canadian author, I was quite keen to try. I'll admit: I'm still not quite tired of the sexy vampire trope. I know it's been done and I know the vampire/horror purists out there are pretty appalled by it, but I enjoy it when done well.

Hearts at Stake has an interesting take on vampires, too. Vampires aren't out to the general population, but there are humans who know who and what they are. Most have to be made, but in some families vampirism is hereditary, and the Drake family is one of those. Solange Drake is days away from sixteen years old, the time at which she will turn from human to vampire. It's a difficult transition, and Solange is the first female vampire to be born, not made, in 900 years. This is complicated by a prophesy that a born female vampire will become queen -- and there already is a queen, Lady Natasha, who is very jealous of her power. So Solange has suitors, those unhappy with Natasha's rule and those attracted by her powerful vampire pheromones, as well as assassins from various quarters on her tail. She has seven older brothers, fiercely protective and well-trained to do it. And luckily for Solange, she also has Lucy, her human best friend, to keep her sane. This story is told in alternating viewpoints, switching chapter by chapter between Solange and Lucy, as they each work their way towards Solange's dangerous transition.

I feel like kind of a heel for saving this review for last, because while I can say I enjoyed the read, overall it didn't really work for me. It's one of those books that starts to work less for me the longer I think about it, too. There were a couple of reasons. First, and very minor, the book starts with a prologue that might as well be the first chapter. Why it isn't called the first chapter, I don't know. That kind of thing bothers me straight off the top; it seems pretentious, somehow, or disingenuous. That's quite minor, and I was prepared to ignore it.

More major is the fact that while I liked Lucy very much, I couldn't really get into Solange. She seemed bland, somehow, or hollow; not a terribly engaging character to me. I could understand Lucy's friendship with her, I could see that Solange might be an interesting and entertaining friend to have; I just felt we didn't see that much of Solange's personality other than modesty, frustration with her situation, and a weary determination to get everything over with. I think I could have liked Solange, but I didn't feel we knew her well enough even though we spent half the book in her head. This leads to the unfortunate situation of about half the book being far more engaging to me than the other, in alternating chapters.

My biggest complaint, though, is the battle scenes and what I think is a pretty clear inconsistency of character with Lucy. There is lots of action, and especially towards the end vampires die. A lot. Lucy, all through the book, has been pushing the "vampires are people too" angle, and though she is belligerent and violent (in a fun way -- that may seem counter-intuitive, but I enjoyed her personality) she's also a bit of a softy when it comes to killing things. Particularly animals, but I didn't see any indication that it didn't extend to humans. Except it really doesn't extend to vampires, despite her earlier stated attitude towards them. The vampire battles are described in a nonchalant way; Lucy doesn't seem too traumatized by any of it.

I don't think I'm explaining myself too well; what I am annoyed about is the too-common trap that fantasy and adventure novels seem to fall into, where fighting and battle is a way to generate excitement, and isn't portrayed in an even remotely realistic (or in this case, even emotionally compelling) way. The characters who previously seem compassionate and caring don't react in any sort of internally consistent way to what is described as carnage. Hearts at Stake isn't unique in this mistake, it just bothers me every time.

Anyway. Though these were some pretty major hurdles for me, they seemed to come after I'd closed the book for the last time. I did enjoy the read, largely on the strength of Lucy. I really enjoyed her interactions with Nicholas, Solange's brother, and I liked her gutsy take on things. Further, I did find the plot engaging -- I wanted to know what happened to Solange and her family, how it all worked out. What's interesting about this is that I usually think of character as a major driver for me to be invested in a plot, but in this case I don't think that's what happened. I found the plot twists and turns interesting enough on their own.

This one didn't work terribly well for me, but as far as I can tell a lot of other people have liked it very much; Kristi and the GreenBeanTeenQueen feel differently than I did, for example. It's very light, an easy read, and if you're looking for something fast, vampiric, and romantic, this would be a fine choice. It's entirely possible that young adults will respond to this better than I have, too, and be more able to sympathize with Solange especially, where I wasn't able to.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Offer from a Gentleman by Julia Quinn

I think I have decided that Julia Quinn is a good go-to for vacation reading for me. Or romance reading in general. I can even, at this point, justify buying books un-seen because after three Quinn novels being a hit with me I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy it. Notwithstanding the end of The Duke and I, I enjoy her storytelling capacity, her sense of humour, her characters, and her take on Regency romance. She can even wring a little sympathetic tear from me, apparently, although I'll admit I was already feeling a little susceptible emotionally when I picked up An Offer from a Gentleman. And no, this is not a sad or even melodramatic book (mostly), it just hits all the right emotional keys for me in the right places.

So, imagine Cinderella in Regency England. Imagine she's not even the legitimate child of the wealthy father, but an unacknowledged bastard. Imagine that wealthy father feels some sort of duty to his offspring nonetheless, but his untimely death complicates things significantly when he had previously married what turns out to be the stepmother from hell. Imagine the fairy godmother is a well-meaning housekeeper, and the ball is a masquerade held by the eminent Bridgerton family; and imagine the prince enchanted by the lovely stranger isn't a prince at all, but Mr. Benedict Bridgerton, the most eligible of all Bridgertons...

And that's just the beginning. Cinderella's name is actually Sophie Beckett, and she is the illegitimate child of the Earl of Penwood. And Sophie is a great main character. She's in the unenviable position of having been raised as a young gentlelady, educated with her stepsisters on the Earl's insistence, and given the various privileges involved in being gently born -- but when her father dies suddenly, any protection she had from him vanishes and she becomes a lady's maid to Araminta, the widowed countess, and her two daughters Rosamund and Posy. Araminta and Rosamund are genuinely awful; unlike some of Quinn's other villains, I could find nothing to recommend them or make them the least bit sympathetic. Unfortunately, I also have no doubt that their ilk were abundant. Still are, sadly, I'm sure. A much more sympathetic character is Posy, the younger stepsister, who doesn't really want to be horrible to Sophie but is too afraid to stand up to her mother and sister.

One thing I really loved about Sophie is that she's not only intelligent and touchingly tough, she's also very self-aware. She's got principles and she sticks to them to her breaking point. This is not to say she doesn't slip up, but she doesn't make the same mistake twice. She firmly, truly believes in herself, and I really liked that. When thing go wrong (as they always do -- no spoiler there) she's prepared to strike off and make a new life for herself on her own, and the reader believes she can and will do it, too.

Now, I did qualify "not melodramatic" above, and with good reason. This book has, in no particular order, illegitimate children, daring rescues, jails, last-minute declarations of love, fist fights, cat fights, and fevers born of driving a phaeton in the pouring rain. Strangely, none of this seems particularly melodramatic in context, although I look at that list and wonder how the heck it's not. The only point I found slightly more over-the-top than I usually enjoy was near the very end; the scene was hyperbolic, and though cathartic I just couldn't quite believe it. Small quibble.

Again, here, the big enemy is largely Society and its rules, particularly for illegitimate children, and especially for illegitimate children who happened to be women with no one to stand by them. Sophie's story has a fairytale ending, but it's a little sobering to think about how many girls like her did not.

At any rate, this book was again well-crafted, humourous, light but still intelligent fun. The dialogue is snappy, the characters are very well-developed, and the plot is ridiculous in some places but largely believable. I knew that, as with all romances of this ilk, things were going to be all right in the end. But I still felt true pangs of sympathy for Sophie and her situation. Recommended for romance readers who like their Regency with a healthy dose of modern sensibilities, and for those who enjoy a fairytale retelling without magic but aren't so sure they enjoy romance. Be aware that it's a little silly, but this one may work for you.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The End: Ranma 1/2 Volumes 34, 35, and 36 by Rumiko Takahashi

Oh, Ranma. Parting is such sweet sorrow. You have been part of my life now for over a year, and now I am finished with this series. I think I was ready to be done, but it's still a weird thing to think that there will be no new Ranma, ever again. I got used to having that reading option; whenever I didn't want to dive into a novel, I could dip into Ranma 1/2 and be thoroughly and completely entertained.

That said, I think that I have been missing emotional depth; the Ranma stories I liked best were, in the end, the ones were there was something at stake, where there was some little bit of depth to balance out the rampant craziness. I did learn to let go and enjoy the ride, rather than looking for plot movement; this is a good, good thing because I would have been fairly frustrated if I hadn't. So while I loved this whole experience, whatever manga I pick up next is going to have to have a little more emotional investment.

Let's talk about the individual volumes, then. Volume 34 sees some significant movement, aside from several throwaway stories. The first is an Akane swimming story, and the second is Ryoga's last laugh. (Hooray!) It was actually kind of cute, although mind-numbingly stupid. Then there's an extended storyline in which things are finally resolved surrounding Ranma's mother, which felt like a huge anticlimax, I must say. Although not surprising. Then there's a ridiculous but sweet storyline involving a gift from Ranma's mother to Akane, and finally an Ukyo denouement which I really couldn't get behind. I really haven't enjoyed the last two Ukyo stories, because Konatsu is involved, and I don't find anything surrounding that relationship or character engaging at all. I can't even find the energy to be irritated by Konatsu like I can by Ryoga or Shampoo; that said, this is one character out of 36 volumes that I couldn't care less about, so that's a pretty good record.

And then... I did get my wish! Multi-volume ending storyline! With things at stake! And ... some sort of conclusion! Volumes 35 and 36 see the Jusenkyo storyline crop back up, finally. Someone has attacked the Jusenkyo guide, and they're also attacking his small daughter when Ranma rescues her. They're strange creatures with wings, strong and vicious. But when it starts to rain, they turn into regular young men, just as Ranma turns into a girl -- and he gives them a taste of their own medicine before they vanish. It turns out they're after the girl because she has the map to the source of the Jusenkyo springs, and they want it. They have a hot spring at the top of Ho'o mountain, fed from the same source, but it has dried up -- and to get it going again, they will stop at nothing, including drying up Jusenkyo. Of course, if Jusenkyo dries up, that means Ranma can never turn back into a guy full-time, so the stakes are high. And the stakes just keep getting higher as the story moves along.

We have a truly annoying arch-villain, but one I never really got behind as anything other than annoying; it would have been easier if he was creepy or even felt particularly dangerous to me, I think. The villain who I did find creepy and dangerous didn't get that much face time as the story got rolling. And then several things happen that feel like a repeat of something that happened in an earlier volume, except more -- the elements are all there, just bigger and more dangerous. So... that was a little bit disappointing. That's not to say that the story wasn't good, or entertaining, or a fitting end. It would be hard for one closing story to live up to all my expectations for it. I think, overall, it ended quite well. I even liked Ryoga. A lot, actually. Then there's a final little ending chapter that's really quite perfect; the way it fits in with the entire series is excellent, and I think that ties it up in exactly the right way.

I recommend this series, if you can get the whole thing handy. One of the problems with these longer series is storage space, and cost, but it's worth it, I think. I'm planning to eventually own this whole series myself, I enjoyed it that much. And as I was going over my previous entries about Ranma 1/2, I got the hankering to read it again. As stated way back, don't pick up this series unless you're prepared to not take any of it seriously. It's terribly silly. Though there is an overarching plot, don't ever expect a lot of movement on it. Enjoy things at face value, and keep an eye out for surprisingly subtle little jokes in the art every once in a while. This series is a good intro to manga, with its easy-to-follow art and its reasonable Japanese-to-English translation.

Up next in manga series reading: inspired by Darla, I've decided on a combination of Tsubasa and xxxHolic by the mangaka group CLAMP, two series that crossover every once in a while. I actually own the first 9 volumes of xxxHolic and I intend to keep purchasing that series, because I love it. Tsubasa my library has in full (or, as full as it is, because I don't believe either series is finished yet) and so this should be a good series with engaging stories, beautiful art, action, humour, and the emotional depth I'm looking for.

Also, I'm still trying to figure out how to actually view the entire Ranma anime legally, without having to purchase it at exorbitant prices myself. This is sadly not as easy as I wish it was, what with our local anime videostore/rental place closing a couple years ago. But when I do get around to it, I'll let you know what I think!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mister Monday by Garth Nix

My first experience with Garth Nix was reading Sabriel, which I picked up on a whim. It was a fabulous book, set in a world I found incredibly compelling, with an unusual storyline and a unique heroine. So I knew that Nix's imagination clicked with me. Because Lord Sunday has just been released, the seventh and final volume in The Keys to the Kingdom series, I've been seeing a lot of Nix's name around, and I've been meaning to read something else by him. So planning vacation reading, I pulled Mister Monday off the shelf and added it to the pile.

Nix's imagination doesn't disappoint this time around, either. This series is aimed at a younger audience than his Abhorsen books, but I always like it when an author doesn't make too many concessions to that. It feels younger, but it doesn't read any less well; I didn't feel it was talking down to anyone. Arthur Penhaligon is in seventh grade, starting at a new school, and severely asthmatic. On his first day, he discovers that he's supposed to participate in a cross-country run, and he hasn't been granted an exemption because he didn't know about it ahead of time. So he runs anyways, and of course has a dangerous attack -- and while he's flat on his back, waiting for help, two strange men appear out of nowhere and give him a piece of pointy metal. The Key seems to cure his asthma, but it brings a lot of other problems with it, such as being able to see and hear things that no one else can -- not to mention what appears to be a nasty plague, strange dog-like creatures, and a man with bloody wings and a fiery sword who is feeling none too friendly towards Arthur.

There is action and adventure, and Arthur is a great hero -- plagued with self-doubt, big fears, and working against Time itself to try and figure out what's going on with very incomplete information. At least at first he's on his own because the only people who believe him are incapacitated by the plague, and he's not sure who to trust; but he does have good instincts and a desire to do what needs to get done, no matter the cost to himself. He doesn't, as too many fantasy heroes based in our reality seem to do, spend a lot of time disbelieving what is right in front of him, and I appreciate that; he does have just enough doubts to make his reaction believable.

And the world! Imaginative and well-described. With the help of the Key, Arthur makes his way into the House, the place where everything that happens in our world (we are one of the Secondary Realms) gets recorded and archived. And this is a strange, fascinating place indeed. We see it as Arthur does, without truly understanding what the heck is going on until he gets explanations from the people who inhabit the House. There are threads of myth, fairytale, and religion woven throughout the book, and it's fun to see these crop up. The other characters are fascinating, too. The ones from Arthur's own world are somewhat background, at least for now, although there are seven books so I suspect we'll get to know some of them better. The ones from the Lower House, where the bulk of the book takes place, are really interesting and often bizarre. Most are inhuman and strange, despite their appearances, and others are very human. I was particularly interested by the Will, who is Arthur's guide through the House, who is clearly working towards its own ends and not particularly interested in happens to Arthur besides. It's not often we find a knowledgeable guide-character in kids' fantasy who is not completely benevolent and has only the best interests of the hero at heart.

I also really enjoyed that the interactions between our world and the fantasy world had ramifications for more than just Arthur; and I liked the way those ramifications were portrayed. The book is set at some indeterminate point in the future when there has been a world-wide outbreak of deadly influenza, leading to some terribly draconian quarantine laws and also some emotional and physical scarring of our hero. So when the consequences of the Mister Monday's actions are manifest as some sort of mysterious and rapidly-spreading illness, the governmental quarantine apparatus springs into high gear and we get just a glimpse of how frightening government-gone-overboard can be. I thought that was a really nice touch. Not overdone, just there and something our hero is aware of and therefore so is the reader.

Overall, definitely recommended. Fans of Harry Potter and similar will enjoy this one, and I certainly intend to read the next in the series soon.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Love and Sweet Food by Austin Clarke

Are you prepared, internet? I have gone on a reading spree. This past week we went birdwatching. When we go birdwatching, we go serious and it is birds, birds, birds, from about 7:30am to whenever we fall asleep. Except when it rains. And also when we burn out, about two or three days in. And boy, did it rain on the third day in of our trip; thunder and lightning and general miserableness not at all conducive to hiking and seeing birds. And then I was sick, and we kind of slacked off for the last two days of the trip. So, serious birdwatching two days, no birdwatching one day, and semi-serious birdwatching the rest of the time. The other thing I am serious about when I am on vacation is reading. That rainy day? I read three books. In a row. And I could have kept going except it was midnight and I was thinking I might get up for a 7:30 start the next morning. (No, it did not happen.)

So, about this book, which wasn't even one of the three I read on that rainy day, but squeezed itself in anyways. The first thing I want to say is, if Austin Clarke had his own food show, I would probably get cable just to watch it. I've heard him speak a couple of times, the first being at the Eden Mills Writer's Festival when I was still an impressionable high school student. I bought his book The Question that afternoon, but I still haven't read it, embarrassingly; I just liked having it.

I recently heard him on the radio, reading from his novel More, and was reminded again of how much I enjoyed hearing him read his own work. I also recognized what has been holding me back from reading The Question: I am somewhat intimidated by his writing, by his stature as a writer, by the language he uses, and by the subjects he tackles. But then I was poking around in the food section of the library stacks at my local library and I swear that Love and Sweet Food literally leaped out at me. I love food, and I enjoy memoirs, so I thought, okay, here's an accessible way for me to get into reading Austin Clarke. I should mention, before I go much further, that this is a re-release of the book Pigtails 'n Breadfruit, originally published in 1999. It apparently didn't get very much attention, and that's unfortunate -- I hope that Love and Sweet Food, released in 2004, has been doing better, because it's a book that deserves to be read.

I really enjoyed this book, and in large part I enjoyed it because of the language. I can practically hear Clarke's voice reverberating off the pages as I read. This book is written in dialect. There are an awful lot of quotation marks in the introduction to draw our attention to the distinctly Barbadian words. If this kind of thing makes you nuts, this is probably not the book for you. It's very well done, but a lot of people would rather not wade through dialect to get at meaning, so be aware. A couple of samples from the introduction (also picked because I like his sense of humour):

My mother never had any great respect for my smallness or youth as a determiner of the amount or bigness of the tasks she gave me to do.

At this time we lived in a village named St. Matthias. We called it Sin-Matthias. It was bounded on one side by the Marine Hotel, where "tourisses," mainly from England, danced in an open-air ballroom on Old Year's Night to a big band orchestra of Barbadian "musicianeers," and at the last stroke of midnight looking up at their merriment and foreigness we did not envy them their privilege. We merely pitied their dancing.
The dialect grows stronger in the following chapters. It's a nice touch, leading to a feeling of complete immersion.

Most o' the other islands have hinterlands and jungles and bush. And in these islands they used to have a lot o' slave rebellions. Barbadians didn't have tummuch o' these uprisings, because we didn't -- and don't -- have no place for rebels to hide, save in the sea, and the sea is not a hinterland. The only thing in the way of black uprisings and nationalist rebellions that happen in Barbados was one riot, called The Riot. That was in 1938, not even during slavery. And it wasn't nothing to brag about nor write in history books. Five people get kill. Five! But hundreds get lock-up. Three get drowned in the sea, when it was rough. One or two fellers get deported to Jamaica, where they founded a whole new tribe o' rioters, called the Maroons!

So, as Barbadians, we're always a lil embarrass through lack o' forests and jungles and rebellions. Other Wessindians, like the Jamaicans and Guyanese, does sneer at we and say, "All-you don't have no hinterlands. All-you don't have no history. Nor no slave revolts. What the arse all-you have?"

It worked for me here. So the writing was awesome, and ensnared me completely. The subjects Clarke tackles around the food and the recipes include his childhood growing up in Barbados, politics, slavery, and the remarkable women of Barbados. I don't know that I would call it a memoir, exactly, despite what the cover says; it's more a series of vignettes, some to do with Clarke and some not, surrounding food. In fact, if it's anything coherent other than a food book, it's an affectionate tribute to his mother, who sounds like she was an absolutely formidable woman.

Clarke also shows, clearly and definitively, that the way to understand a culture's heart is through its collective stomach, and the food traditions in a culture can have a lot to say about the people who eat it. Each chapter starts with a story, an anecdote that is connected in some way to the dish Clarke will then introduce in the second half of the chapter, and tell us how to cook as though he were right there in the kitchen with us. Sometimes the anecdote works its way back into the recipe, other times not.

It's a fabulous way to be introduced to a culture I know very little about.

It's also because of Clarke's enthusiasm and excellent writing that I am now actually quite curious to try cooking with ox or pig's tails. Many of the recipes call for various ingredients ("ingreasements") that I would have a heck of a time trying to find here, and previous to reading this book I would definitely have been okay with that. But I want to try Smoked Ham Hocks with Lima Beans, Pig Tails and Rice. Or his version of Split Pea Soup. Or, especially, the Barbadian-style pork chops. I'll have to make do with what ingreasements I can get here, but I'm going to try anyways.

Highly recommended if you're interested in West Indian culture and/or food in general, or if you don't know anything about either but are curious. I suggest reading it with a rum and cola (Barbadian rum, of course) and sitting out in the hot sun, to add authenticity to the reading experience.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson

Impulse buys. I do not do them anymore with books. That is what the library is for. Right? Right?


Latest in a long line of books that aren't on the "purchase" list but mysteriously make their way to the checkout is Maureen Johnson's Suite Scarlett. I follow @maureenjohnson on Twitter, and I blame her continually amusing and enlightening tweets in part for this purchase. I like the way her mind works. I've read a couple of shorter things by her before, but this was my first foray into one of her full novels. It was an excellent choice.

Scarlett Martin is a young New Yorker, living in historic Hopewell Hotel with her parents and siblings Marlene, Lola and Spencer. The Martins own the hotel, and on their fifteenth birthday each Martin child gets a key to one of the suites for their very own -- that is, their own to take care of and clean. On her fifteenth birthday, Scarlett gets the Empire Suite, the crown jewel of the hotel. And while living in a hotel in New York might sound like a lot of fun, it's not necessarily the easiest of existences. Scarlett's friends are off all over the world for the summer -- and she's stuck with staying home and helping out at the hotel, for free. And on top of that, Spencer has one last crack at making it in his dream job as an actor before he has to give it up -- and Scarlett's going to do her best to help him (not just because one of the other actors in the cast is really hot, either). Then there's the appearance of a new guest to be staying in Scarlett's Empire Suite for the entire summer. This new guest has plans that are about to make Scarlett's summer a whole lot more interesting.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I really liked Scarlett, especially -- she's picking her way through the drama (literally as well as figuratively) and dealing with a crush, family financial woes, an extremely difficult little sister, and a supremely intense and demanding client. She deals with all of this in a very straightforward manner -- as she says at one point (I'm paraphrasing here), problems only go away if you face them and deal with them, and she abides by that. I am in awe of her ability to deal, being more of a squirm away and avoid confrontation and pain at all costs kind of person...

Her ability to deal, of course, does not prevent her from being hurt or mortified; it doesn't tell her how to deal with things. She doesn't always make the right decisions, and she will occasionally get into trouble. Her instincts are good, though -- she can see trouble coming. She just doesn't usually bother to try to get out of the way.

And that's Scarlett. I was trying to decide whether I thought this was a plot-driven or character-driven novel, and I've come out firmly on the character side, except that the plot is both zany and (surprisingly) believable. The other characters are well-done; none are set in stone, none are particularly boring, none are too over-the-top. Many come very close to too over-the-top. I think this is one of the things that astonishes me most as I reflect on this book: Johnson always manages to stay just this side of too wild to be true, which keeps the book grounded yet supremely entertaining. I don't know how she manages to keep that balance. That, and while being humourous and light-hearted, Johnson manages to deal with some of the pain and the confusion of being a fifteen-year-old, as well as some deeper issues like dealing with a sibling who has had a life-threatening illness, and the cost of medical care in the States. None of this is presented in a terribly noticeable way; this is the story of one girl's extremely eventful summer, and the rest of this runs quietly in the background, integrated completely and realistically.

One last thing to mention is how much I loved the family dynamic in Suite Scarlett. This is another YA novel in which the parents, though not playing a huge role, are supportive, invested, and interested in their kids. The siblings have their squabbles, and some get along better than others, but they're also family, and they clearly love one another. Even, perhaps, Marlene. This is the kind of family I recognize from my own life.

Overall, I recommend this book to fans of YA. It's funny, it's light, it's thoroughly enjoyable, and it's saved from being total camp by characters I could get invested in, and a deeper vein running through the whole thing. A perfect summer read as we're coming up to that season. I'll be reading more Maureen Johnson, and probably soon.