Tuesday, August 31, 2010

*re-read* Sorcery & Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

As stated, I've been pottering my way through some of Wrede's books because I really, really need them right now. I've been forced to read some things outside of my usual list due to training, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It's good because it's for a reader's advisory workshop and so widening my reading circle will be very helpful. It's bad because I hate being forced to read anything for any purposes (I now have a little over a week in which to read To The Lighthouse, for example, sigh, and I've been strangely slow about finding myself a copy...) and it tends to make me very irritable. So I have promised myself that for each book I read that I must, I can slip another one in there that I want. Books like Wrede's Regency England fantasies are such a perfect balm.

I read and reviewed Sorcery and Cecelia not that long ago, so I'm not going to go into a summary of it this time. But it was just as delightful the second time through, which justifies the purchase. And also, in my mind, justifies the purchase of the next two books in this series sight unseen. Ahem.

This is partially a book about effective communication. Cecy and Kate communicate very effectively with each other. They explain what is happening, they bounce ideas off each other, they lay out their theories and have a strong back and forth conversation. Something I noticed a lot more this time was how little the men, specifically James and Thomas, communicate to Kate and Cecy. And that many of the problems the girls cause (because they are both troublemakers) stem from this lack of communication. They are basically fumbling about, completely in the dark, using snippets of second-hand information and scraps thrown to them by the men, to try and figure out what the heck is happening -- this, though their stake in the game is entirely as large as either James' or Thomas'.

At first it irked me how little the men seemed to think of Cecy and Kate (as it clearly irked the girls, too) but then I realized that this is the more realistic scenario, for that time period; men and women didn't talk except in highly structured, socially-acceptable ways. The men wouldn't have thought that either Cecy or Kate could grasp the severity of the situation, or come up with any useful way to help, since they're just women, after all. Thomas even calls Kate "my dear half-wit" for a significant portion of the novel, though he cuts that out (thankfully, because that also irritated me as much as it irritated Kate) once it becomes quite clear that she's not vapid at all. Once he actually starts talking to her, rather than just deciding things for her. I thought, incidentally, that it was hilarious that she completely wrecked a plan of his simply because he hadn't bothered to tell her anything about it, though she played a significant part in it.

It is all quite infuriating as a reader, to want to sit down and shake the characters until they just talk to each other. It helps that it's infuriating for the girls, too, and it helps even more that it becomes very clear that it's a losing game when people don't talk to each other. Wrede uses the time period and societal conventions very effectively to showcase this point.

So, yes. I have ordered both the next books. I'm looking forward to reading them when they come in; it should be a riot.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede

So, I have been having trouble finding things I want to read. It's been pretty serious; it has been to the point where I feel irritated with books just for sitting there on the desk, accusing me. This happens sometimes with various aspects of my life, but only very rarely with books. So I went back to my old standby: fantasy written by authors I know I like. I settled on Mairelon the Magician because I couldn't believe I hadn't read it yet; I love Wrede's writing, and her stories which are generally gentle on the brain, and her feisty, witty, and intelligent female leads.

Of course, when I picked it up, it turns out... I have read it. I had just forgotten what the title of that particular story I loved was. Also, I am pretty sure I have read the sequel, Magician's Ward, and recall enjoying it if not being quite as enamoured of it as I was the first book.

So anyway, I read Mairelon again, and I think I have enjoyed it even more the second time, because I know what to watch for. And I read it much more as a fantasy with hints of Pygmalion than I had before, too, though not sure why that slipped me by last time as it's really quite blindingly obvious, down to Mairelon teaching the guttersnipe Kim to speak properly so as to be presentable in society. That said, Mairelon is not half the ass Higgins is; this reads like an entertaining rags-to-riches fairytale rather than a prickly lampooning of classism and sexism. And while I appreciate Shaw's brilliance and have always liked Pygmalion (particularly with its unromanticized ending) it's not exactly an easy, fun read. Mairelon is. Where Pygmalion is funny and wince-inducing and occasionally horrifying, Mairelon is funny and sweet.

The premise is that Kim is a street kid in an alternate London, where magic is known and practiced, sometime around the early 1800s. She's managed to disguise herself as a boy so far, though her luck on that is going to run out shortly. So that's why she takes a job snooping for a man she doesn't trust; he's promised her five pounds and that money might just be enough to get her off the street. Unfortunately, the snooping takes place in a wagon that happens to be owned by a real magician, and Kim springs a trap. But rather than turning her over to the authorities, the magician thinks Kim might be somewhat useful to him and offers her a job as his apprentice. She takes it, because it gets her out of London -- and Kim's curious as to what the mysterious Mairelon is truly up to.

I really did enjoy this book, thoroughly, and I've actually ordered A Matter of Magic in for purchase at my favourite local bookstore -- that's the recently released omnibus edition that includes Mairelon the Magician and its sequel, Magician's Ward. It's a good re-read, and has firmly established itself in my list of comfort books. There's something about the Regency time period, magic, Wrede's sense of humour, and romance, that I just cannot get enough of. There's enough action to keep the plot clipping along smoothly, the villains are creepy enough (Laverham, Kim's nemesis, is downright chilling) and the world believable enough to create an excellent whole. This isn't serious, hard, thought-provoking reading. There's no deeper message, no social commentary other than the obvious bits on the surface. It's an absolute riot, though, and exactly my kind of thing.

And I couldn't get enough of it, so I read Sorcery and Cecelia all over again. That re-read review will be coming up.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

One of our regular patrons at the library blew in the other day with this book in her hand, declaring that we must read it, all of us, and preferably immediately. It would only take us an afternoon, she said. We would love it. We would not want to put it down. Uncharacteristically, I took her up on it. I tend to have a set list of things that I'm reading or about to read, and I very rarely step out of line. It did help that this was on the list, and has been on my radar for some time. It just wasn't really technically next. But nothing had been exciting to me lately, so when she pressed the book into my hands, it seemed like fate and I took it home that night.

It took me considerably longer than an afternoon, but I don't blame the book. Life and things like work and sleep and food (and okay, trying to get to the end of freaking Super Paper Mario) get in the way of reading, especially right now. But while I didn't finish it in an afternoon, I understand her enthusiasm for this book. It's a genuinely lovely read, one that let me get a little choked up and smile. And when I did close it for the final time, I felt completely satisfied, as after a really excellent meal where I probably ate a bit too much and a bit too rich, but it was worth it.

Lillian is a chef with her own restaurant, and on Monday nights she teaches cooking classes to a lucky few who come to her School of Essential Ingredients. We progress chronologically through a single session, each chapter following one participant. Each person in the class has their secret pains and joys and challenges, and we learn about these in between delicious descriptions of the foods they're learning to prepare. And by the end of each class, each person has begun their process of healing, or growing, or rediscovering themselves with a little help from really excellent food.

This is a book for foodies. If some of my big coffee table cookbooks are food porn, this book is definitely food erotica. Bauermeister spares no ingredient a loving and leisurely description. Right up front it is clear that food holds a vital place in this story. Scents, textures, and tastes don't just make for a good meal -- they evoke emotions, memories, and ideas in the people experiencing them. While I'm convinced that food, both the eating and the cooking, is therapeutic, that's taken to mystical extent in this novel. In Lillian's kitchen, and finally in the kitchens of her students, food is magic.

It is a story about food, certainly. It's also a story about the parts of ourselves we keep buried, and how underneath exteriors every single person has a complicated story. Some challenges faced by the characters are mundane, some are metaphysical, some are mental, some are medical. It ranges from Antonia, who is trying to design an appropriate kitchen for a client and is stumped, to Tom, who is working through the premature death of his wife. I really like stories like this. There's not so much an overarching plot as an interconnecting series of little plots about where each life starts to intersect.

The writing is usually quite good. While it would take some hella precocious child to actually think this way, I loved the language and image:

In Lillian's mind, her mother was a museum for words; Lillian was an annex, necessary when space became limited in the original building.

It occasionally overreaches, slipping from a magical or dream-like quality into purple prose. I suspect everyone's line is slightly different, and actually, I think my line between the two varies depending on my mood. I suspect that I was feeling pretty tolerant throughout this reading, and could occasionally see things that might have bothered me if I was feeling in a more concise mood. When Bauermeister's language works, it works very well. When it doesn't, it feels obviously contrived and excessively poetic. Some of the structure works and doesn't in the same way. Portions of the epilogue, while I was glad to have it overall, are a case in point. We slipped across the line of "believably happy" to "a little too good to be true."

If you're looking for something with excitement or thrills, this is definitely not it. But as a quiet, contemplative, and really sweet interweaving story, this is a great read. I've decided I need to read some more magic realism foodie books -- I've always wanted to read Chocolat, so keep an eye out for that one coming up, maybe.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

How to Train Your Dragon
by Cressida Cowell, read by David Tennant
Hodder Children's Books, 2004
4 cds

This is a first for this blog: an audiobook review! Yes, I have finished one! It was a combination of the engaging story and the mellifluous tones of David Tennant, who could read the phone book and have an avid listener in me. Actually, I should probably give Tennant the lion's (dragon's?) share of the credit here. I have never enjoyed an audiobook so thoroughly, at least in recent memory. I do remember listening to Letters from Wingfield Farm by Dan Needles and The Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle avidly as a child. The Elephant's Child by Kipling, narrated by Jack Nicholson with music by Bobby McFerrin, remains my firm standard for the best audiobook and possibly one of the best things ever. But lately? I have taken out many audiobooks from the library, and finished none of them.

Except this one. I know there has been a movie, and I know kids have enjoyed reading this book, but it has largely flown under my radar. But it crossed the desk the other day and I thought, you know what, I'm going to try it. This summer has involved a lot more driving than usual, and while I love me some CBC Radio One, they're pretty bad about re-broadcasting in the summer. So it's nice to have something on hand for emergencies. And pretty much from the opening moments I knew that I was going to enjoy this story.

Hiccup is a Viking. He's the son of the Chief of the Hairy Hooligans. The problem is, Hiccup is not much of a Viking at all. He prefers peace and quiet for thinking to violence and mayhem; he's far more brain than brawn. Therefore, he's also the constant target for bullying by his brawnier cousin Snotlout (who would very much like to depose Hiccup) and his followers. This only gets much worse after the boys claim their dragons, and Hiccup ends up with a... rather unique dragon, shall we say? I don't want to spoil anything, as the initial dragon catching is half the fun. The second half of the fun comes when an enormous Sea Dragonus Maximus washes up in a cove, and it's possible that Hiccup and his dragon may be the only hope the tribe has of survival.

The story is silly and charming, walking a fine line between being a bit too twee and really funny. In fact, if I was reading this story, I could see the puns being almost too irritating; but as a read-aloud, particularly by the supremely talented Tennant, it's awesome. I laughed out loud at several points. Tennant has found the perfect voice for the various characters, with the exception of Hiccup's dragon who I did find to be almost unlistenable (but I suspect that might be at least partially on purpose.)

The characters are entertaining and very endearing and/or evil, depending on what they're supposed to be. At least, that is for those characters who are fleshed out enough to have personalities. This being the first in a series, I think there are lots of opportunities for further character development in both the mains and the secondaries.

The humour appeals largely to my kid-brain, with snot, for example, being copiously mentioned, and a seven-foot Viking trying to appear heroic in his sister's dress. Highly recommended for children between -- oh, the ages of six or seven, and ten or twelve or so, and their parents; I suspect teens will find this too juvenile for their tastes unless being forced to listen to it because of a younger sibling, at which point they will secretly enjoy themselves.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour
by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Oni Press, 2010
245 pages

I made the mistake of starting to read this one in bed before work one morning. Forty-five minutes later, I had a grand total of ten minutes to get up, eat breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, and get out the door in order to be at work on time. And I still hadn't finished the book.

I find it hard to know what to say about this last book of the Scott Pilgrim series. I don't want to spoil anyone, of course, and further, it's hard to wrap up a series I've enjoyed so much. So, before I get into a slightly deeper discussion, let me just say I think this book was a good end to the series. It wasn't a horrid disappointment, nor did it blow me away; it just fit. I don't think it had the shiny-new, silly and charming wit of the first two books; I didn't think it was as clever. But it went in the direction it had been set up to go for the past three books, fully committed and very entertaining.

fishy summed up this volume as "everyone realizing they're dicks." Which... um, yep, that does it. One of the reviews I've seen put it this way: "Scott realizes he's not as harmless as he thinks he is." I like that a lot, because I think that comment gets at the heart of Scott Pilgrim's character. He doesn't have a very high opinion of himself and therefore can't conceive that he might matter enough to hurt someone else. Scott is often very immature, to the point where sometimes, despite his charm, he is unlikeable. But by the end of Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour he starts to realize that, and one actually has some hope for him. Part of what I love about this series is the fallibility of all of the characters. None of them are perfect and most of them have both good and bad characteristics. Except maybe Gideon and most of the evil exes.

There were parts of this volume that were confusing, never fully explained, and not in a good way. I think I figured most of it out, but some stuff was left unsaid that confused me, as opposed to entertained me. And in some cases, the explanations I came up with from the text were pretty lame, as opposed to what I was hoping for -- so it's possible that I just decided that those parts were more mysterious than they actually were, if that makes sense. I did like that the ending gave us closure on a couple of stories that O'Malley had started for other characters. I liked that things were still somewhat ambiguous for everyone else.

I probably can't talk too much more without getting into spoilers. I enjoyed this book; it wasn't everything I'd hoped it would be, but it was good and I'm satisfied with it as an ending. I'm looking forward to the movie, actually -- which is a rare thing for me. I don't look forward to movies as a rule and I really don't look forward to movies based off of books. I'm still very skeptical about Michael Cera being Scott, but I think I can get over that.

Is it indeed Scott Pilgrim's finest hour? I'm not sure about that, but it's a good end to a great series.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Eric by Terry Pratchett

by Sir Terry Pratchett
Millennium, 2000
155 pages

There's not a lot to say, since this is both barely an entire novel and also one I enjoyed thoroughly. This is a short little book, but it contains one very important detail: Rincewind is back! He goes from the frying pan of the Dungeon Dimensions to the fire of Hell, with some random side-trips in between, thanks to a young demonologist named Eric. This is very much a "be careful what you wish for" story, with a bit of time travelling and the Luggage.

This story is also a little slyly poking fun at the trend towards making certain public institutions conform to the economic business model; it's pointing out that efficiency isn't everything, for example. Of course, in this case the public institution is Hell, which makes the whole story suitably absurd.

At any rate, it's a Rincewind book, and I love Rincewind, and I'm happy to see him back on the Disc. He's his same loveable, cowardly, speedy and incredibly lucky/unlucky self. It's always a pleasure to hang out with him. He's such a unique character and so... I don't know, "consistent" isn't effusive enough for what I'm trying to say, but I have never once seen him step out of character. His character is note-perfect, all the time. This doesn't mean that he's predictable, but that he's entirely believable and real to me.

I know this is short; but what else to say? The other characters are just as bright, if less familiar and fleshed out; the story was engaging and entertaining. A perfect cottage afternoon read, which is what it was for me. Not sure whether it would make a good introduction to Discworld, as I don't think it has the same full detail as some of the other Discworld books; it also presupposes a certain familiarity with Rincewind, I think. That said, read by the sort of person who doesn't always need to know exactly what's going on, I think this would be a fine intro. And it's definitely recommended for fans of Rincewind.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin

The Summoner
by Gail Z. Martin
Solaris, 2007
637 pages

This is the first of a series, the Chronicles of the Necromancer. I first heard about it on, and I was intrigued by the premise, or what little I knew of it: the dead walk among the living, and the main character is a necromancer. Usually the necromancers are the bad guys, but that wasn't the case here and I was curious to see how that worked.

Tris, aka Prince Martris Drayke, is the younger son of the king of Margolan. He's a quiet young man, more interested in studying and hanging out with his friends than he is in ruling the kingdom; luckily he's got an older brother, so that won't be a problem. What might be a problem, though, is that his older brother is a blood-and-power-hungry kind of guy, and when Jared kills their family in a bid for the throne Tris manages to escape and run for it with the help of a few friends. While there are precious few living people he can trust, he's beginning to realize that he has power with the dead -- a lot of power. And the dead are more than willing to work with him to destroy the evil that threatens the entire world.

So there you have a pretty standard fantasy quest story, encompassing questions of love and vengeance, loyalty and power, good and evil. We have a protagonist on the run from something, and turning back towards that same something now that he has grown enough to face it; he is crazy-powerful and chosen by the goddess. The bottom line is, if you like this sort of epic quest fantasy, you'll enjoy this one too. It's not a book to challenge anyone's assumptions; it's a book that a quest fantasy fan will feel at home with. The trappings are really cool -- the world specifically. The system of magic, and the ways that the dead and the undead play into it, are really well done, and I quite enjoyed the way Tris straddles both worlds, not entirely comfortable in either. There were definite flashes of brilliance in the world building.

Tris himself is a very relatable character, which can be quite hard to do with chosen-by-the-goddess and mad-powerful characters. He stays human; he's not preternaturally gifted with everything. He's got flaws and failings, and he is believably afraid and angry and sad, but still very likeable. I like that though there's a definite feeling of "hand of the goddess" -- fate, protection of the divine, that sort of thing -- in this case it hasn't convinced me that everything will be okay.

But -- and this is a big "but" -- I thought that this was a somewhat mediocre read. The foreshadowing is a bit blunt for my tastes, and the exposition is often noticeably awkward and clumsy. Some of the characters aside from Tris are relatively interchangeable, and the plot, while the trappings are good, has been done before. Many times. Finally, I never really got into the flow of the story before there was another passage of obvious exposition to take me right out of the book, and that kind of thing always bugs me.

The whole thing shows promise, but. Overall I felt this was a rather predictable quest fantasy with an engaging main character but somewhat wooden writing. There's potential here, but I'm not really chomping at the bit to read the next one. If I happened across it I would probably pick it up, but it's not a waiting on tenterhooks/go search it out kind of read for me.