Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake


On a winter's day when you don't have to go to school, snow is a beautiful thing: white and other-worldly, it falls gently to the ground in unique, fragile flakes, covering the earth in a softening layer that can make even the ugliest landscapes breathtaking. In the Arctic, though, the beauty of snow is underpinned by deadly danger -- in the same way that a beautiful bunch of flowers becomes something more terrible and more devestating when you see it propped against a lamp post at the side of a busy road, with a note pinned to it.

As I start this review, I'm sitting here at my dining room table, wrapped up in a blanket and shivering. There's a good three to five inches of snow on the ground outside, and some pretty stunning icicles hanging off the trellis. This book has made me cold; this is a cold-weather book, a book to be read in the wintertime when there is snow and ice everywhere and the chill menace of Frost can be felt in the air.

I should mention I live in Southern Ontario. We don't get Arctic temperatures down here. The sun still comes up every day and stays that way for at least seven or eight hours. But reading The Secret Ministry of Frost in winter, even here, just adds to the experience.

Light's father was an Arctic researcher, and he's disappeared. The book opens with his funeral at his estate in Ireland; his body has not been found, but it has been six months and he has been declared dead. Light is an orphan now, her mother having died years before, and the only person left to care for her is Butler, her father's friend and trusted servant. But things rapidly get complicated, and perhaps Light's father is not dead after all -- so Light and Butler set off on an infinitely desperate and dangerous journey to save him, and perhaps the world.

Let me just say, this book is hella difficult to summarize. It's complex and wonderful. It defies classification, which I'll talk about more in a moment. The whole thing has deep roots in Inuit mythology, which I will admit to knowing next to nothing about. I'd heard of Setna and that's about it, I'm afraid. I've got a much better grasp on it now. Lake's use of mythology and Inuktitut is central to the feel of this book, and it's a good introduction, I think, to a culture that is very different from mine. There are themes of grief, loss, death, revenge, morality, hope, life, and loyalty running strongly through the storyline, too. It's not as dark as it might sound -- but this book isn't light, either.

It is a great story. On these meaty concerns, Lake has hung some wonderful characters, among whom Light stands out. Light is a powerful, imperfect, and genuine girl. I like that she's tough and smart and a little sassy, but she screams when I would scream, and she makes mistakes that cost her, and she accepts the consequences of her decisions, and she just keeps going because she needs to even when she doesn't think she can. She's skeptical when she should be, but she moves through that realistically too -- when there's evidence to support what she thinks impossible, she doesn't waste precious time going "I see it, but I don't believe it!" She just rolls with it, not without comment but without obstinate self-inflicted ignorance. She was by far my favourite character, and I think she's a character who is going to stick with me.

Now, about classification. I checked: my library has this in the YA section. Simon and Schuster give it an 11+ rating. I could see putting it in the JFICs for sure -- the writing style warrants that, with short, snappy chapters and mostly very easy reading. But I think I know why the library's stuck it in YA: it's violent and scary. There is blood, guts, gore, and characters we grow to love dying in very unpleasant ways, which my library at least tends to avoid putting in the JFIC unless it's an Issues book based on contemporary or historical realities, or a "classic." I don't necessarily agree with this, mind you. But I do think that as a librarian I will be a little careful about which readers I recommend this to, because I know as a kid this book would have given me nightmares. The thing, of course, about classifying this as YA is that more people will read it and that's a good thing. Adults tend not to read in the JFIC (unless they're like me and several other librarians I know, or reading books with their kids) but many of them do occasionally browse the YA, and this is a book that adults will enjoy too.

Overall, this is an amazingly original book, with a fascinating premise, lots of tension, and great action. I love that it's based on a mythology and culture that tends not to show up in literature often, particularly in the fantasy genre, and I would recommend it just for that. Luckily, it's also just an awesome story.

I must thank Mandy for this one. She not only wrote the great review that got me interested, but she then proceeded to give me the book to make sure I did read it! It's taken me a while to get to it (I'm getting to all my Christmas reading now, is how bad the backlog is) but it was absolutely worth the wait.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

*book clubbing* Lament by Maggie Stiefvater

We're baaaaaack! And this time Mandy and I have reviewed and discussed Maggie Stiefvater's Lament. I am a little behind on the Stiefvater curve -- I know a lot of people have read both this and Shiver. But better late than never. Head on over to edge of seventeen to check out Mandy's review! I'm always amazed and excited about how we can read the same book and yet get such different things out of it.

My review:

I got totally wrapped up in this book. When I put it down, I was thinking about it. I possibly dreamed about it. I like that in a book, and I've not had it in a little while. There are books that make me gulp them down whole, which is also a good experience to have every now and then; Lament wasn't like that, and now that I'm done I don't feel like I've been gorging myself on slightly too-sweet milk chocolate. This one could be put down -- but not for too long -- and I could, nay, had to slow down to savour the writing, because that's something Stiefvater does extremely well. There's a good balance of suspense and humour and angst.

Lament is the story of Deirdre Monaghan, extreme introvert and harpist extrordinaire, who right around the time of her sixteenth birthday discovers she has a few rather unusual talents. And it turns out faeries are real, but they're not the pleasant, cutesy faeries with gossamer wings and magic wands we might hope. These faeries are immortal, powerful, indifferent (at best) to human suffering, and largely extremely unpleasant. Dee's attracting the wrong attention and things are going to get worse before they get better, if they ever do get better.

First of all, let me say, hooray for inhuman non-humans! Some of the fae might look human, enough to pass, but they're sure as hell not. And they are not nice creatures, either, although some of them are just amoral, as opposed to creepy and awful. Creepy and awful is something that most authors can do, but a decisively, strangely, inhumanly amoral non-human is another thing entirely and Stiefvater pulls it off. I liked Dierdre, too, as a sixteen-year-old girl. She felt right to me, for someone in her situation; I think she dealt with most things like I would expect her to.

There were, though, some inconsistencies that bothered me. Decisions that were made by Dee without me fully understanding how or why those decisions were made, even when I got the feeling that there must be a reason other than plot advancement... There was one thing in particular that bothered me a lot, something I can't talk about because it's a major spoiler, where emotional depth seemed to be sacrificed for plot or pacing. It still doesn't sit well with me. There were a few cases like this where things happened that I think probably should have been acknowledged more by the characters; on the other hand, though, it might have slowed down the book considerably. I don't know if slowing things down a bit would have been a bad thing. Some of Dee's familial relationships, in particular, seemed to be less developed than I might have wanted; but then, her family really is largely background in this story, as opposed to major players. As I read more YA, this does seem to be a bit of a theme across books I've read.

Overall, this is a relatively light book -- having put a few days between reading it and now, I'm not really thinking about it so much, unlike some books which stick with me weeks and months and even years later. I have no hesitation recommending this book to fans of fantasy and YA. This is a romance, and that part of the story gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me even though it's a triangle again. Although, what is with the YA love triangles involving really nice best friends who suddenly get up the balls to say something once the protag has decided she loves someone else?! I just really don't like them, usually, and even here it made me glower a bit, although the third wheel really never gets rolling.

Ballad is the sequel to Lament, which is kind of crying out for a sequel, if just to see whether Dee's horrible aunt Delia gets hers. I am not chomping at the bit to read Ballad, though -- I'm happy with where I left the characters and the story. I'm more inclined to try Shiver, if I can catch it as it zips off the library shelves. Stiefvater's writing really has potential, and as Shiver is a later book of hers I'm wondering if some of the structural things that bugged me in Lament have been cleared up in Shiver.

***

Mandy and I enjoyed our Chatzy experience so much last time that we've gone back for more. Following is our discussion, which encompasses fairies, prologues, bad boys who are not bad, problematic relatives and the world of Lament. Enjoy!


Mandy: Have you read any other teen books about fairies? Do you like fairies in fiction? I've only read Wicked Lovely. I can't say I'm a fairy person.

kiirstin: I'm... hmm. That's a really good question. I have, actually. O. R. Melling's books -- The Hunter's Moon being my favourite -- actually stack up quite favourably against Lament. Plus there's CanCon.

Mandy: Oh yeah. I haven't read any Melling. It's good stuff?

kiirstin: Quite. Some better than others, but largely really good. Um, the Spiderwick books too, on a junior fic level, are pretty awesome about fairies. I haven't read Wicked Lovely though. Is it comparable?

Mandy: Yeah, I think I've only read the first Spiderwick book. But it WAS good. Apparently based loosely on a true story. Or at least, Holly knew a family who claimed to see Fairies. Wicked Lovely is pretty comparable.

kiirstin: I did not know there was a kernel of truth in the Spiderwick Chronicles. I love that. I've read other fairy/Sidhe stuff too. Some of Mercedes Lackey's urban fantasies. Oh, and Charles de Lint has to count. Apparently I have read a fair bit!

Mandy: Way more than me! :) You are the fairy expert between us.

kiirstin: What was it about the fairy aspects that turned you off, do you think?

Mandy: Well Fairies in fiction don't turn me off. I just don't look out for fairies. Although I do have that assumption that fairies are going to have sparkles on them.

kiirstin: I think there is a difference between "fairy" and "faerie"

Mandy: Oh, tell me about the difference in spelling.

kiirstin: Okay. Let's see. I think the difference is maybe in my head, but I have perceived that "fairy" is usually used to mean sprites in tutus with wings and wands. And faerie, or fae, tends to be a little more on the human-sized immortal side -- what I would actually tend to call "elves" -- I am really not up on the actual mythology. Although the Wikipedia article uses the "fairy" spelling.

Mandy: Maybe it's like Vampyre? :)

kiirstin: Ha! Yes, almost certainly.

Mandy: I thought Dee's mom was kind of a jerk. And cardboard-y. She really wanted to stunt her daughter into the perfect model of daughter-dom. Kind of freaky.

kiirstin: Yes, actually, I disliked her a lot. I thought there could have been a lot more development around Dee's family situation. I think I could have found her mother an interesting character, but there wasn't enough there.

Mandy: Totally. Even with her aunt and her aunt's fate.

kiirstin: Oh my god. That whole thing, yes. I have to admit, her aunt was pretty fascinating, but how much did I want to punch her. I did like that she went from just being an overbearing, sour, terrible relative to much more sinister.

Mandy: And I like how Dee's grandmother like, knew that her aunt had something wrong with her.

One of the scariest scenes in Lament was when Dee is in bed and kind of wakes up to realize that there's a very present dark shape in the corner of her room. So scary! I thought this scene was well done.

kiirstin: Ugh, yes! I agree. And the sort of thing that keeps people up at night. Just saying. Overall, I was pretty impressed with the scenery and descriptions. Even something as simple as the reception tent, I could identify that space. It grounded the story very well.

Can we talk about the beginning a bit? What worked well, what didn't?

Mandy: Yeah of course! Like the prologue, which was stellar?

kiirstin: One of the best opening scenes of a book I've read, I think.

Mandy: Absolutely. Chilling and kind of perfect.

kiirstin: It opened itself up to so many questions. Who is the boy? What are the nails for? What's the deal with the bird? I couldn't help myself -- I had to keep reading.

Mandy: The ambiguity was perfect. I wanted to dive into the book right away. And I love that, after having read the book, I went back to re-read the prologue and it was even cooler. All of the images made sense in a whole new way.

kiirstin: I should try that, actually. I do think, too, it prepared me a little for feeling somewhat baffled for the first little bit of the book. Which I was.

Mandy: I love reading the beginning of books right after finishing them. I can't explain why it's such a neat experience.

kiirstin: That's pretty cool. I am absolutely going to start trying that. Was it a conscious thing that she did, do you think?

Mandy: I don't know. There's a lot of images at the beginning that are beautifully written without giving anything away. I think this was masterfully done. What was the strongest aspect of the beginning for you? After the prologue?

kiirstin: That's a hard question, because I actually got a bit frustrated with the beginning post-prologue. I think the description of place was very solid. And I did like Dee pretty much off the bat. What about you?

Mandy: I didn't love Dee. And I was like "Why is this guy being so perfect with her? So sensitive and interested in her?"

kiirstin: "And why is she okay with that?"... was my big question.

Mandy: Yeah. Luke kept telling her about herself. I mean, when is this a turn-on?

kiirstin: That's such a good point. It's actually just stalker creepy. And yet, you liked Luke, no?

Mandy: Well, he was okay. He was no Patch from Hush Hush in terms of bad boys with a heart of gold. I would liked to have seen a bit of his worse side, considering his background. There's a great scene halfway into the book where the reader starts to immediatey wonder what Luke really wants with Dee. And I felt that that could have been worked in a little better.

kiirstin: Yeah. I was never really convinced that Dee was ever in any danger from Luke, even though I think I was supposed to be.

Mandy: Yes, that's it exactly. He was too nice. And how could he be?

kiirstin: It's this whole problem of having "teenage" characters who are incredibly old, and yet don't seem to carry the weight of their history at all.

Mandy: Exactly.

kiirstin: He acts quite mature, but undamaged. One would expect someone with his life experience to be permanently scarred by it. If he really was a nice, decent guy, I would think that his experiences would have made him crazy.

Mandy: Like Spike, season 7.

kiirstin: Yes! Yes. Ah, Spike.

Mandy: Incapable of a relationship, really. Or at least really messed up about them. Not the perfect guy that any girl would swoon over.

kiirstin: Yeah. A pretty scary creature, all-in-all. Who probably needs at least 500 years of talk therapy to work his way through his problems.

Mandy: "talk therapy" -- too funny

kiirstin: I did enjoy Lament -- I'm glad I read it. I really think Maggie Stiefvater's writing has a lot of potential, and I'm looking forward to trying Shiver. It wasn't quite what I was expecting, but I think I had pretty high expectations. Overall, though, the world-building and setting seems to be something we both appreciated.

Mandy: I also liked the "explanation" for how faeries use their powers, based on consuming and manipulating energy. Very smart and unique.

kiirstin: And the way it wasn't Faerie that granted Dee her powers, but rather that her powers made her a target. Like Faerie was a side-effect.

Mandy: Very cool.

***

And there we are! Thanks Mandy, for the great discussion!

Both Mandy and I are pretty backlogged for books now, but our next book to read together is one we're both really excited about, and something quite different from what we've reviewed so far. In an interesting coincidence, I notice that Katie over at read what you know has just reviewed Lament too, and has yet another perspective on Lament than Mandy and I did.

look what I did!

I'm participating in Aarti's wonderful series, With Reverent Hands. Go see! If you've never been to B O O K L U S T before, you're in for a treat. It's one of my very favourite book blogs. Go for my Patricia McKillip lurve and stay for Aarti's insights and excellent reading choices.

By the way, if you've been reading my blog for a while, you will know about that book already. But I say some new stuff about it!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

no book this week

Confession time: I have not finished a book this week. Well, I have finished one volume of Ranma 1/2, which does count, but I'm not posting about it until I have finished the second volume, which I may or may not do tonight. It's been a busy week. I'm currently reading The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake (thank you Mandy!) which is really quite awesome; it's not the book's fault my pace has been slow. No, I blame that on general tiredness and distraction. And maybe I will also blame it a little bit on the fact that we've been watching a lot of Mythbusters and I have been playing a fair bit of Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Both of which are generally awesome too, but hard to do while reading.

I'll get back at things next week, I think, although we're now in the run-up to March Break at both my part-time jobs so we'll see how busy I really get.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Monk's-Hood by Ellis Peters

On this particular morning at the beginning of December, in the year 1138, Brother Cadfael came to chapter in tranquillity of mind, prepared to be tolerant even towards the dull, pedestrian reading of Brother Francis, and long-winded legal haverings of Brother Benedict the sacristan. Men were variable, fallible, and to be humoured.


So begins Monk's-Hood. And we all know that tranquillity is not exactly what Brother Cadfael is going to come away with this time...

There are few authors who have the gift of writing characters that I am so comfortable with that I feel as though I know them personally. I feel like I could pick [my vision of] Brother Cadfael out of a crowd and approach him like an old friend, head back to his workshop and have a cup of mulled wine and a good long chat, after which I would certainly feel better about the state of humankind and the world. Of course, this might be a challenge because I am female and he is certainly not supposed to be consorting with me in any way shape or form... but a girl can have dreams. There are lots of characters out there that I like, but Cadfael is familiar.

Monk's-Hood is the third of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, and it's easily as strong as the two that came before. A man who is granting his property to the abbey in return for retirement in one of the abbey's cottages ends up dead -- poisoned with one of Cadfael's own apothecary concoctions. Naturally, Cadfael is determined to discover the murderer, and save an innocent boy from being wrongly accused. There are twists and turns and complications, and Cadfael gets himself into more personal trouble that he has yet.

It was a surprisingly fast read -- I spent most of yesterday on it, and I found myself getting up and making tea with the book still in my hand and trying to watch the boiling water out of the corner of my eye while reading with the rest of my attention. Um. Safety first?

One thing I've discovered I really like about Ellis Peters' writing is that she knows how to foreshadow. With her, it's an art. I take exception to extremely heavy foreshadowing ("forebludgeoning") and so it's a bit incredible to me that I don't mind it when she does things that make me say "aha! one of these two is the murderer, and that will be the murder weapon" and then I turn out to be right. In fact, I actually get a bit of a kick out of being right. I think it's partially that sometimes her foreshadowing leads one in the wrong direction -- which turns out to be the right direction, just not in the way that I anticipated. The tangled web is so carefully placed that everything fits perfectly, but the shape of it is only revealed very close to the end.

Another thing I'm discovering as I move (slowly) along in this series is how deeply I feel for the characters. Some, like Prior Robert and his clerk Brother Jerome, inspire such deep irritation and aversion; others, like Abbot Heribert, inspire what I almost might term gentle love. When a character we were introduced to in One Corpse Too Many finally makes an appearance in Monk's-Hood, I physically experienced a huge sigh of grateful relief. I do get emotionally involved in a lot of books I read, don't get me wrong. I get very wrapped up in my reading and can be quite unbecomingly enthusiastic about a book when I'm in the moment. But I truly don't react this viscerally to characters often, and I wonder if it's partially because of the series aspect -- the further I read, the better I know these characters -- but I know it also has to be Peters' skill.

I really recommend these books to pretty much anyone. Reading them leaves me feeling very content. St. Peter's Fair is next and I'm looking forward to it.

Earlier books in the Brother Cadfael chronicles:

1. A Morbid Taste for Bones
2. One Corpse Too Many

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

FreeVerse: Snow Geese (Oliver)

Reason number 1001 why I like taking yoga classes: my instructor reads good poetry, unironically, to us. Today when she read this, I got goosebumps. Also, it was cold in the room... but seriously, the imagery is lovely and the sentiment is something I am working hard to take to heart.

Also, and I don't know whether this is an embarrassing thing to admit or not, but I believe Mary Oliver is new to me. I get the impression that a lot of people know who she is and have discovered her before. She's new to me but this won't be the last poem you see by her here, I suspect.

Today's poem I have snagged from Famous Poets and Poems. Thanks to Cara at Ooh... Books! for hosting FreeVerse!

Snow Geese
by Mary Oliver

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
to ask
of anything, or anyone,
yet it is ours,
and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.
One fall day I heard
above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound
I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was
a flock of snow geese, winging it
faster than the ones we usually see,
and, being the color of snow, catching the sun
so they were, in part at least, golden. I
held my breath
as we do
sometimes
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match,
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
but delightfully,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.
The geese
flew on,
I have never seen them again.
Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won't.
It doesn't matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ranma 1/2 Volumes 24 and 25 by Rumiko Takahashi

I generally really hate love triangles. I don't like being put through the emotional wringer like that and one person, inevitably, is always hurt. So the fact that I continue to love Ranma 1/2 the way I do somewhat surprises me. We're not just talking triangles, here -- the entanglement is so complete that I've lost track of how many points the geometric shape has. I believe it may also have to be three-dimensional at this point.

Within these next two volumes of Ranma 1/2, we see the two extremes that this series contains (such as they are): Volume 24 contains a relatively gentle story, with emotional growth and connections, as well as the trademark general silliness. Ranma starts to realize exactly what's at stake when Akane goes into the mountains on her own to fight a giant platypus. Akane's generally very sweet and kind nature gets her into trouble here, rather than her temper which is the usual trigger for conflict. And the teamwork at the end of the story, which coincides with the end of the volume, is extremely enjoyable to read.

Then it's like Takahashi needed to take a breather after two fairly deep storylines. Volume 25 is a collection of short, completely stupid stories that are absolutely hilarious. They're all completely silly, except that Shampoo, of all people, gets some character development and I actually enjoyed it. There's a family related story in which Kasumi (Akane's eldest sister) has a moment to shine, Nabiki is up to her old tricks, and school life and home life begin to cross in an extremely disturbing way. And then there's a cursed bathing suit, and an ending that just barely makes sense. Um, actually, it didn't, but there you go. Oh, and a cursed cave, too! And finally, we get some more of the ridiculous principal who showed up way back in Volume 10 and made me love Ranma 1/2 again with his attack lobsters. This time he has a mad scheme to make Ranma look bad by announcing his test scores in public. Needless to say, it doesn't really turn out well for anyone in the end.

I've had to ILL the next two volumes again. Extremely grateful that my library will ILL graphic novels, because the local library does not. And this would have been an expensive series to read all the way through if I hadn't that option. Yay libraries!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

FreeVerse: three haiku by Basho in translation

Six more weeks of winter, and so today I am breaking out the winter haiku plus one that reminds me to look forward to summer. I picked up The Essential Basho, a collection of the writings of Matsuo Basho (1644 -1694) and there is some absolutely wonderful, wonderful stuff in here. I'm just getting started, but I leave you with three. Translation is by Sam Hamill, the book was published in 1999 by Shambhala. Sam Hamill also has a book of Issa's poetry that might be easier for me to find than The Autumn Wind.

Thanks to Cara for hosting FreeVerse over at Ooh... Books!

***

Normally spiteful --
but not even the crows
this snowy morning

***

All the stones are dead,
the waters withered and gone --
winter and nothing

***

Even these long days
are not nearly long enough
for the skylarks' song