Sunday, July 25, 2010

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
by Alexander McCall Smith
Anchor Books, 2002
235 pages

It all started with a BBC radio drama. Specifically, a BBC radio dramatization of this novel. I picked it up to listen to in the car on my way to and from work, and less than halfway through realized that while I was enjoying it, I wasn't enjoying it as much as I remembered enjoying the book. This is always the trouble with me and radio dramatizations or audiobooks -- unless it's a really really good audiobook, I find myself wishing I was reading it instead. I don't think this is normally a function of the quality of the audiobook so much as it is a function of my brain. So I did stop listening to the dramatization and put the book on hold instead.

Happily, the book itself lived up to my memories, and I enjoyed it just as much the second time through. I may even get around to picking up Tears of the Giraffe this time, although I'm not holding my breath for it. This isn't a book that demands a sequel, though it does promise that any books following it in the series are likely to be charming, fascinating, and very pleasant to read.

Precious Ramotswe is the only lady detective in Botswana. She opened her agency with the money she got by selling her father's large herd of quality cattle, and she takes on cases large and small. Small like the case of a daughter's activities making a father nervous (she might be seeing boys) and large like the case of a missing boy, taken for witchcraft. Mma Ramotswe has a secretary, Mma Makutsi, and a dear friend, Mr. J. L. B. Matakoni, and she is very clever and supremely practical. Lest you think this might be a run-of-the-mill detective novel, however, there are chapters interspersed in which we learn more about Botswana; one of my favourite chapters is the one telling the life story of Obed Ramotswe, Mma Ramotswe's Daddy. Though there is one case that does not get solved until the end of the book, and indeed is not mentioned for stretches of the novel, it's not really about an overarching mystery; this book is about little things, little bits and pieces of Mma Ramotswe's life and history and love of Africa.

I like the feel of this book. It strikes me as a celebration of life and a full acknowledgment of its challenges. The characters are complex and not; the setting is both exotic (to me) and universal. I find it hard to believe that the characters McCall Smith has created aren't actually real. I can clearly picture Mma Ramotswe sitting on her veranda with a cup of bush tea, musing over the vagaries of life and Africa and her most recent case. The book is full of gentle wisdom, sometimes gained in harsh ways, and it is so generous of spirit that I think it would be hard not to open up to it.

Recommended for those looking for a mystery with a slower, more contemplative pace. I love learning about other countries through fiction and I love how real McCall Smith's Botswana feels. Overall, a read that makes me feel a little happy and a little sweet melancholy.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Once Bitten, Twice Shy by Jennifer Rardin

Once Bitten, Twice Shy
Jennifer Rardin
Orbit, 2007
290 pages

This book took me by surprise. I mean, Darla had sold me on the series quite a while ago; I expected to enjoy it. I didn't expect to get sucked in quite as handily as I was. I literally did not want to put this book down, and I haven't experienced that with a book for a while. What kind of astonishes me is that I wasn't even sure how I felt about Rardin's writing. What she really has a knack for, though, is plot and character.

So, Jasmine Parks is a CIA agent -- a super-secret assassin, so secret that maybe five or six people on the planet know what she does and who she is. She arranges for "accidents" to befall the big baddies of the recognizeable but definitely alternate-universe world, from rogue vampires to the political opponents of the US (more on this in a moment) to the leaders of international pedophile rings. And when it's not possible to arrange an accident, she just shoots them. But Jaz is also working through an extremely traumatic incident in her past, one she can only remember pieces of and one that still, almost a year later, causes blackouts, panic attacks, and engenders a definite self-destructive streak. For various reasons she ends up partnered with Vayl, a vampire who is also the CIA's top hitman. She and Vayl are charged at the beginning of the book with taking out a skeevy plastic surgeon with connections to a terrorist group devoted to a goddess of death and destruction. Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan, and the plastic surgeon's plot is a lot more deadly and destructive than anyone realized; not only that, but it appears that one of the five or six people who know about Vayl and Jaz is betraying them and trying put them out of commission permanently.

What blew me away most was that I was really into this story, despite having several intellectual qualms about the thing. Let's see if I can explain in some sort of clear way. First of all, right off the top Jaz makes a throwaway mention of taking out a Castro advisor in Cuba. This gets my back up for several reasons, not the least of which is that I don't think the CIA has a very good track record when meddling in the politics of other countries -- I once wrote an essay on CIA and other American involvement in Chile, for example, and its absolutely disastrous consequences. So having Jaz, a CIA assassin, take out a senior political advisor of another country doesn't put her in my books as one of the good guys. While in a different book this might have been used to show ambiguity of sorts about Jaz or her employers, I didn't get the feeling that was the intention here -- it was nothing so subtle or carefully examined. This isn't a book about ambiguities in international political relations, nor is it trying to be. Jaz and her CIA bosses are the Good Guys. The guys she goes after are the Bad Guys. I thought that particular moment was ill-advised and way out of place, given the story Rardin is telling. If you're going to go there, you have to Go There and not take it for granted that your reader is going to agree automatically on who the Good Guys and who the Bad Guys are, especially in a contemporary political situation. The reason an incongruity sticks out so much is that we're trying to establish the Good Guys here, and I end up completely unconvinced, at least at the very beginning.

Another incongruity, and not one limited to this book by any means: I always find it hard to buy death cults. Period. Actually, what I really want to see is a recognizeable, relatable character who is a member of a fantasy novel death cult (and if anyone has any suggested titles, I'm way open here.) Rardin suggests that members of the Sons of Paradise, the death cult supported by the skeevy plastic surgeon, probably pass for "upstanding citizens by day." And yet they worship a soul-eating, plague-carrying monstrosity by night, apparently. Why? What could they possibly get out of that? What sort of promises would their religion make to them that would outweigh the extremely high odds of getting your soul eaten? I know I'm a relatively well-adjusted, comparatively sane, fairly happy human being, but I have never understood the kick masses of faceless extras in fantasy novels get out of worshiping something that would annihilate them without a thought. Usually in some messy, painful, eternal torment kind of way. Some societies in some fantasy novels (I'm having vague rememberances of Eddings here; it's been a long time) are built around a few perverts and psychopaths holding all the power, and the masses of faceless extras are terror-stricken and don't know that there are any other alternatives to worshiping the evil god(dess); or perhaps the evil god(dess) forces compliance through shows of power and magical compulsion. That I can understand. But knowing all the options and willingly choosing the one where the most likely end is not good, as the Sons of Paradise seemed to do? I don't buy it. It does, however, make for an extremely easy target/obstacle for the Good Guys, so that's why it gets used, I know.

I'm getting away from the book. What I have to say is that, despite the fact that I noticed these things, for some reason they didn't detract from my enjoyment at all. Either of them separately in another book might have cast a pall over the whole thing; in this case, they were footnotes that I decided I wanted to address in my review while I gobbled up the rest. I think there may be a couple reasons I can point to for this: the characters, and the plot.

Plot first -- this is a well-plotted novel. We move from one crisis to another, some seemingly unconnected but all pointing towards the Big One and, secondarily, to the Big Reveal of what exactly it was that happened to Jaz those months previous. Unsurprisingly these two are somewhat connected, but it wasn't in a contrived way. This novel is hard to put down because one is barrelling towards a conclusion and the ride is so exciting and interesting. The payoff is great; the Big One is big and the Big Reveal is wince-worthy and worth waiting for, too.

And because of the characters, we actually care about how the plot turns out. Jaz is just awesome. She is flawed, deeply flawed. She thinks she's insane, and sometimes the reader thinks she might be, too, but we don't blame her. She's engaging and smart, strong and very quick on her (mental and physical) feet. She is wiser than her age would suggest, but she's been through a lot. And she's funny, and self-deprecating, and fiercely loyal. She has a good relationship with her little sister, and tolerates her father, who is a jerk but also has his good points. Jaz is a multi-faceted character and one who is an absolute treat to spend time with, and I think for me was the main driver for me still really enjoying this story despite its flaws. I will happily seek out the rest of this series just to see how she's doing.

Of the other characters, Vayl of course is the most fleshed out; he is Jaz's vampire boss, a long-time CIA agent. He's also growing into a love interest. He's got his own backstory (it's a little stereotypical wounded hero, but not over the top) and what I liked about him the most was that he gave Jaz space. He wasn't all typical romance-hero-Alpha male; he trusted Jaz to do her job, which is necessarily exceedingly dangerous. He freaks out when she gets herself into a series of really bad situations, but not to the point of losing control of himself or sight of the mission. He never demands that she quit or do something less dangerous -- in fact, he's more likely to tell her to smarten up and do her job. They're a team, and a really good one. The only time he gets angry with her is when she does something to compromise their mission, and another time when she lies to him, both of which seem like perfectly reasonable responses. And what I like about them as characters who lean towards romantic partners is that they don't feel completely ill-matched. They are friends, and colleagues; they're comfortable with each other and respectful of each other. I like the hint of romance; I also like that it's not nearly resolved by the end of the book. They don't even kiss. Which makes the payoff, when/if that does happen, that much better down the road. There's more to come and I look forward to seeing how their relationship develops.

So there we go; an exceedingly long review on a book I view as a bit of an escape read. I am so glad I read this book; it really helped me get my reading mojo back, and it was good fun, and also allowed me a chance to think about faulty narrative devices in a way that for whatever reason didn't detract from the story for me. I recommend this for anyone who enjoys a fast summer read with a kick-ass heroine and lots of exciting action.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, edited by Julia Eccleshare

1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up
ed. Julia Eccleshare
Universe, 2009
960 pages

How would one pare the world of children's literature, since its inception, down to only 1001 books every child should read? Certainly 1001 is a lot. This book is a doorstop, at its slightly-less-than-a-book-per-page format. But there is so much that is wonderful out there; how did the editor stop once she had reached her 1001 target? This is a very challenging, not to mention controversial, undertaking, to weed out and highlight the best and brightest in children's literature. I'm glad someone's done it because this book has been very useful to me and I see that continuing.

As the title suggests, this book provides reviews and synopses of 1001 recommended, quality children's books. It's arranged by age group, which is handy for those of us looking for recommended reading for kids of certain ages, and also for those of us looking for inspiration for kids' book clubs. Each age category (0+, 5+, 8+, and 12+) is arranged such that the earliest books are first, and the later books go right up to 2008. There are several different reviewers, and each review talks about the book in question as far as plot, why it's good, and where its place in the world is. Some of these reviews are better than others, but most do well within the word count they are given.

Two things in particular really struck me as really valuable about this book: first, it's very international; and second, there are a lot of older and relatively obscure books represented here. Both of these things are nice, because while I feel I have a pretty decent grounding in children's literature, I certainly don't know a lot of the international titles and there are a lot of obscure, older, but definitely foundational books represented here. I have been able to use it to remind myself of some of the "classics" both old and new that I'd like to look at with my book club groups.

There are a couple of things that bother me about this book, too. As is inevitable with lists of this sort, things get included and others get left out. I think it's a good exercise in itself to think about why certain things show up and others don't. For one example that cast the entire selection process into doubt for me: Twilight. Really? Everyone should read that? Really? I mean, I know the book is a phenomenon, and that it has changed the face of YA literature, but it's just not that good. Its "readable" quotient is high, if one isn't put off by the writing or the characters, but if "readable" was the criteria, I would have expected to see more Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen and Maureen Johnson and Norah McClintock and John Green, just to name a few for that age group, none of whom were included. And there are a lot of series that get double-listing -- the Harry Potter books, say -- where probably listing the first one would have been enough, with a "this whole series is excellent/gets better/etc." statement, rather than taking up valuable space on the list.

The other quibble I have is a little more practical. None of the listings include a page count. This is exceedingly irritating, particularly in the "8+" section where both picture books and early chapter books are included, and where books for that wide range of reader ability are included, too. Actually, as nice as a page count would be, even a "this is a picture book" would probably have been enough. As it is, it's really not always clear from the review. When using this book as a tool for reader's advisory or book club book selection, that kind of information is extremely important. Further, instead of a page count, we get "themes" which can be useful, I suppose, but are subjective and often more useful to the person thinking them up than the person reading about them. Though I guess that if I were looking for a book on a specific theme, those tags might be handy as a starting point. I just tend to resist classifying things too tightly (she says, and then eyes her blog sidebar and sighs.) At any rate, you'll notice that from now on, I'm including page counts on my reviews. And publisher and author info. I'd be rather a hypocrite if I didn't start.

Overall, I think this book is worth a look if you have any interest at all in children's literature. It has some very interesting stuff in it, some of which I'm sure is exceedingly challenging to find (the older translations, for example? unless they're widely-accepted classics, good luck.) It's not a perfect list, but it's a good one.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bone Volumes 1, 2 and 3 by Jeff Smith

There's something a little daunting about writing a review of this series so late in the game. A lot of bloggers I follow faithfully have already read this one and written about it eloquently, and I am not sure that I have anything to add to the conversation, to what has already been said.

My own personal reaction? I have loved all three books so far. Not with a "OMG EVERYONE READ THIS NOW!" kind of fervour; it was more a thorough enjoyment, a complete immersion in the story. And I think that happened for two reasons: I have complete trust in where Jeff Smith is taking me with this story, and I feel at home with the plot and ideas and characters. A long time fantasy reader, I recognize the conventions, but the story isn't bound by them. It's a humourous and loving treatment of them.

Overall plot: the three Bone cousins, Fone, Smiley and Phoney are on the run after being booted out of Boneville for some unspecified (at the beginning) transgression on Phoney's part. We do know the exile is almost certainly well-deserved. After a cloud of locusts overtakes them in the desert, the boys are separated and Fone (our hero) finds his way into a strange valley after a run-in or two with some rather odd creatures. Once there, he finds his way to Thorn, a young woman who lives in the valley with her Gran'ma Ben, and here really the adventure is just beginning.

To discuss each separately for a moment: Out from Boneville is our introductory volume, in which we meet most of our major characters, good and bad. Something that can always be challenging in a series is making sure that everyone's invested up front, that the characters are clear and the plot is engaging, but there are no infodumps. There's no problem with that here. One thing leads naturally to another (er, being lost in a desert leads to locusts, I guess?) and by the end of the volume we know where we all stand, with the standard mysteries in place (who is Gran'ma Ben? What's the deal with the dragon? Who is the creeeeeepy hooded dude, and what does he want with Phoney? Will the stupid, stupid rat creature ever get a quiche?)

The Great Cow Race is awesome. We start to get a good handle on the characters, there are some cracking funny moments, and we start to get into some emotional depth. It was in this book that I decided that Gran'ma Ben is my favourite character, supplanting the dragon.

Eyes of the Storm takes a much darker turn. Though it was hinted at before, it's eminently clear that there's a much deeper problem here, and there are still a lot of unanswered questions. In fact, I think, despite some of the answered questions there are more unanswered at the end of this volume than at the beginning, including the pressing one of what the heck Phoney is up to and why he's a target. I have an even softer spot for Lucius the bartender by the end of this volume, too.

Overall, I really enjoy the central characters, especially Fone Bone (and as above, Lucius, Gran'ma Ben and the dragon). Fone is a perfect character for us to see this world and this story through. The art is fabulous, expressive, evocative, and so easy to follow. It's a true graphic novel in that the story is inseparable from the art; neither the text nor the art could stand on its own. I can see exactly why this series appeals to people of all ages. Though it's checked out of the library most often by kids, it's made the rounds through the blogosphere because of adult bloggers; and I recommend to everyone who enjoys a good fantasy quest story. Even if, or perhaps especially if, you have never read a graphic novel before. The next three will be up soon!