Friday, December 31, 2010

first lines meme 2010

Once again, I thought I'd pull together the first sentence of every month on this blog. I do like going back and looking at old entries; it's narcissistic, sure, but it's also interesting to see what I was thinking -- and what I was writing. I tend to feel like I was better at blogging in the past, and sometimes looking back reminds me that I'm not a worse writer now, I'm just lazier. Which is true. Particularly towards the end of the year, they got much shorter, less detailed, and I think, less useful even to me when I'm trying to figure out whether I recommend a book I've read to someone or not (it's true -- I use my own blog for those purposes sometimes.)

Has anyone else out there ever laughed so hard they cried at a passage in a book that, upon inspection, others do not find so funny?

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 have to say, as much as I enjoy the series, I am sort of running out of things to say about Ranma 1/2.

Some books are good.

Impulse buys.

It's probably too rarely that I review children's picture books here (um, I think I have done it once before).

There's something a little daunting about writing a review of this series so late in the game.

This is the first of a series, the Chronicles of the Necromancer.

And now for something completely different.

If you were not already aware (and very few were) we've been away for a week.

I. Heart. This. Book.

There has been a delay; I don't deny it.

I look at this and wonder if somewhere around the end of March I'd stopped paying attention to the first lines of my blog entries again -- it seems I must have. There appears to be a noticeable cutoff! Also, this exercise has confirmed for me that I am possibly a bit too fond of the parentheses, a suspicion I have had for a little while. Perhaps a parenthetical diet is necessary. Perhaps that will be my New Year's Resolution: Stop and Think Before Adding that Parenthetical Clause.

So here we go -- onward through year three. Happy New Year, everyone! May your 2011 be your best year yet.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
by Anne Fadiman
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998
157 pages

A sonnet might look dinky, but it was somehow big enough to accommodate love, war, death, and O. J. Simpson. You could fit the whole world in there if you shoved hard enough.

The above quote could just as easily describe this wonderful book of essays as sonnets. It is a small book, but so large in bookish scope and quotable bits and things to think about that I am afraid this review may be fairly long. It's a book that makes me excited about reading. I don't need much encouragement, it's true, but maybe I have lately; maybe this book has hit me at just the right time.

Ex Libris is a smallish collection of essays on books, reading, literature, and literary lives by editor and writer Anne Fadiman. The essays are short -- five or six pages each -- and they fly by too quickly. I actually felt quite saddened that there were no more at the end, and that's always a good feeling when it comes to books.

I think what I like most is that I don't always agree with Fadiman; I felt more like I was having a discussion with her as I read -- well, she was persuading and orating, and I was interjecting and commenting. I think she's fascinating, I learned many things, I love her outlook on reading and most things literary, but. This is a woman, who in the same essay, can write the absolutely marvelous sentence:

I can think of few better ways to introduce a child to books than to let her stack them, upend them, rearrange them, and get her fingerprints all over them.

And then she will go on to write in the same essay,

Our father's library spanned the globe and three millenia, although it was particularly strong in English poetry and fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The only junk, relatively speaking, was science fiction;

Which makes me want to bash the book against the wall. It's not just that it's a horribly snobby thing to write (because I have come, at this point, to the conclusion that Fadiman comes by her literary snobbery honestly, and some people are like that, and fine) but it makes me sad for her. If an entire genre like science fiction (and what must she think of fantasy? or god forbid, romance?) can be dismissed so easily, how much she is missing. The remarkable, brain-tingling writing of Samuel Delany, for example, is better than most literary fiction I have read. Ursula K. Le Guin, with things to say about gender and belonging and truth and loyalty in the most creative ways. Entire challenging, interesting, shining works of art dismissed as junk because they happen to be written in genre. I know I can be a bit sensitive to this, but that sort of thing always feels like a punch in the gut, a complete dismissal of something that I both enjoy for fun and intellectually.

It is a testament to how much I enjoy these essays that I didn't throw the book, and in fact just shook my head in bemusement and kept reading. Because, like there is more to science fiction than space ships and aliens, there is far more to these essays than one throwaway comment, telling though it is. And it doesn't hurt, once in a while, to think about what it is I love about reading, and why I like reading what I do, and what books mean to me. And think, in detail, about how I might defend that position to someone like Fadiman -- or whether or not it needs to be defended at all.

Other essays are about books as objects, about used bookstores, about compulsive proofreading, about personalized inscriptions, about marrying personal libraries when the owners marry, and one of my favourites: an essay about the his/her dilemma. It deals with Fadiman's personal wrestling with gendered language, about the difficulty of sometimes placing equality over beauty in a sentence, and why it is necessary. From that came the following passage:

Long ago, my father wrote something similar: "The best essays [do not] develop original themes. The develop original men, their composers." Since my father, unlike E. B. White, is still around to testify, I called him up last night and said, "Be honest. What was really in your mind when you wrote those sentences?" He replied, "Males. I was thinking about males. I viewed the world of literature -- indeed, the entire world of artistic creation -- as a world of males, and so did most writers. Any writer of fifty years ago who denies that is lying. Any male writer, I mean."

I believe that although my father and E. B. White were not misogynists, they didn't really see women, and their language reflected and reinforced that blind spot.

This is particularly interesting to me given that Fadiman's father and E. B. White were both married to very accomplished women of letters, and both relied on them for artistic assistance and delighted in sharing the world of literature with them. Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff.

Fadiman is not a common reader, nor is she a common writer. She is erudite, clever, interesting, funny, and replete with new and unusual words (I am going to follow her example and list words in this book that I have never encountered before -- it is going to be a long one). It occurs to me that someone less talented may have come off as patronizing or full-of-herself, but Fadiman's essays come off instead as full of joie de vivre and completely, head-over-heels in love with language and the written word. She isn't using her fancy words to impress. She is using them because they exactly embody what she wants to say, and she just happens to have them handy for use. Her vocabulary becomes a gift to the reader.

This book is delightful, and I need to find my own copy. I'll also be keeping an eye out for her newer collection of essays, At Large and at Small. I recommend Ex Libris highly to anyone who loves reading, language, and most especially books.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

another year of blogging successfully, though slightly less so

Has it really been two years? Really?

I suppose so. This year has been marked, or perhaps I should say marred, by a significant drop in reading volume. From often two books a week or more, I am sometimes struggling to get even one book a week read. I'm just not reading as much, and I'm not exactly sure why. I did notice a slight increase in book reading when my online reading decreased, so that's an encouraging sign. I don't think my lack of book reading is permanent. I think it's just a slump, of the sort that everyone goes through every once in a while, and I think I'll pull out of it eventually with careful handling and management. And probably with some Discworld, which seems to be a magic cure for me!

On the bright side, a new experience that I had was listening to -- and enjoying -- audiobooks. Always kind of iffy in the past, I seem to have really taken to them this time around, and I'm starting to get a list of things I want to listen to as much as read. So that's very cool.

As with last year, I'm curious about my numbers, so here we go:
Books read in the past year: 77
Fiction read: 66
Nonfiction read: 11
Adult books read: 38
Young adult books read: 29
Children's books read: 10
Canadian books read: 11
Graphic novels read: 24

And some new categories:
Audiobooks listened to: 4
Series started: 18
Series completed: 2

Hm. The series thing is not really looking sustainable. Though I did count series that I don't intend to finish, having read the first book. Let's just say that the number of those is pretty small, compared to the overall number of series I started this year.

Next year I plan to keep track of the nationality of all the authors I read, not just the Canadian ones, though that probably won't show up on the blog as a tag. It's more out of curiosity.

Also, you'll notice that I haven't mentioned the challenge I started. That is because, in a fit of self-defeating defeatism, I didn't even read one poetry book. Sigh. I did read some poetry, just not an entire volume. Lesson learned? We shall see.

A quick round up of some favourites, in no particular order:

  • Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus Volume 1 by CLAMP - I loved this read. The entire experience of it, thinking about it, sharing my love of it on the blog. This is a wonderful, wonderful book and I'm really looking forward to the next three volumes.
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation by Tom Siddell - Have not been so wrapped up in a story since Harry Potter, and never in a graphic novel. Enough said.
  • Pyramids by Terry Pratchett - The Discworld books I've read this year generally stand out as being some of my favourite reads, so I thought I'd pick just one. Pyramids, for some reason, keeps cropping up in my head every once in a while when I'm thinking of something completely unrelated. Possibly one of the best books I have ever read, certainly one of the best fantasies.
  • Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah - So, since I wrote that post, it has consistently been the most popular post on my site. I am thinking a number of kids in the States have this as required reading, judging from the search strings. Thought-provoking, and generally enjoyable humourous read, that may in fact have helped change my worldview a bit.
  • Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer - The only book I have read through completely twice this year, and has become one of my comfort read staples. Epistolary Jane-Austen-like romance + magic = happy me.
  • The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake - Except for the ending, which still doesn't sit quite well with me, this is a biting, exhilarating, scary, moving read set in a locale that doesn't get nearly enough fiction. Main character may actually be my favourite of the year.

And a look at what is coming up on my to read list. Oh, that's another thing I did this year: I digitized my TBR, rather than keeping it in the back of multiple notebooks. I currently have well over 900 books on that list. It is not getting any smaller. I'll put the number that the book is on my list beside it just for kicks. You will notice that there are some (er, most) that aren't on the list yet.

Waiting for me to read at this moment:

  • The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (368)
  • The Magician's Guild by Trudi Canavan (6)
  • The Thief by Megan Whelan Turner (437)
  • Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (118)
  • The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer (not on list)
  • Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (not on list)
  • Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen (not on list)
  • The Education of Hailey Kendrick by Eileen Cook (not on list)
  • The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters (871)

Small wonder my TBR list is so long -- I never seem to get to things that are on it!

A heartfelt thanks to my faithful readers, who have put up with my general slack-assery for the past six months, and still read what I have to say. The blog started out as something I write for me, and it still is -- but it's a lot more fun with you around. I hope you are all having a wonderful, well-fed, joyful holiday season!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Moving Pictures
by Sir Terry Pratchett
Harper, 2008 (originally published by Victor Gollancz, 1990)
337 pages

It rose up in his memory like the suddenly-discovered bit of suspicious tentacle just when you thought it was safe to eat the paella.

At this stage, I shouldn't be amazed at how a Discworld book can envelop me, even when I'm at my busiest or in my worst moods. Right now, it seems to me that they're nearly unique in that way; there is nothing else out there, in my experience so far, that can do for me what Discworld does. It's not a must-read-to-end-right-now book, in the same panicked or imperious way of some of my favourites, which is lots of fun but hard on the emotions and energy and very hard on the notion of picking a book up for fifteen minutes on my lunch break. It's not a slog, rewarding or otherwise -- these are not books that glare at me from the bookshelf or bedside table because I'm only three chapters in and not terribly enthused about picking them up. These are not even books I have to be in the right mood for. These are patient books, friendly books, supremely enjoyable books with no expectations or manipulations. I can pick a Discworld book up and know I'm going to like it, I'm going to have fun, I'm going to be moved, and I can read it at a comfortable pace whenever I feel like reading anything.

The plot of Moving Pictures is driven by a wild idea: the idea of running pictures, all the same except with infinitesimally small changes between them, very quickly past a light source and projecting them on to a screen. This may sound familiar. It is not an idea that's new to Discworld, either, but it hasn't been around for a very long time, and with good reason, which the reader will understand nearly immediately but the characters will take much longer to figure out. You see, the problem with this idea is that it creates a reality leak, and there's really not enough reality to go around. And a hole that lets something like reality leak out of the Discworld is bound to let something else, something very unpleasant, leak in. But no one is paying attention, because Holy Wood madness and magic is taking over the Disc.

This book is extremely enjoyable, the pacing is quite good, the book is very clever and the characters are thoroughly excellent, vintage Pratchett. There are laugh-out-loud moments and moments to think about. I am getting to the point with this series that I recognize characters now, and am familiar with the world and the people; I could probably start reading out of order, if I wanted, but I'm happy to keep going in order too. Every time I read another Discworld book I am deeper in awe of what Terry Pratchett has created. It's astounding.

For this book specifically, I don't think it is my favourite; there were a few parts at the end especially that seemed a little... loose? forced? I'm not exactly sure. The climax didn't work particularly well for me, but as I've said before and will say again (I'm sure) a Discworld book that didn't work particularly well for me is kind of like suggesting that lemon meringue pie doesn't work particularly well for me: it works better than pretty much any other food except for other pies. And I appreciated the climax intellectually; I just wonder if it was too much of a good thing, perhaps; too much happening all at once in a small space.

At any rate, I will read it again someday, and almost certainly enjoy it as much if not more. Next up will be Reaper Man, which I have a suspicion I may be getting for Christmas. Woot!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The End of the Beginning by Avi (and some book club prattle)

I may have a spate of book club reads coming up here, but I make no promises. Many of my book club reads over the past two months have been getting cursory glances, a scan-through, a detailed reading of first, middle and end chapters at best. At worst (oh, the shame) I've been reading Wikipedia summaries. If any members of my three library book clubs read this blog, I'm sorry: now you know the truth. It's not that I don't want to read the books we've chosen, it's that my reading attention span has been so limited lately that I've had to go for the books I'm in sweet love with, not the books that I think are probably quite interesting and good.

But a change is in the wind, I feel it, with The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade coming up for my 9 - 12s, and Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat for my parent-child group, and I'm even really quite keen to get started on Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen for my adult genre book club.

The End of the Beginning
by Avi
Harcourt, 2004
143 pages

And then, as a prelude to spring, I jumped ahead and read The End of the Beginning by Avi, which is my parent-child group's March read. This may prove to have been folly, as I'm not likely to remember everything I need to for an in-depth discussion with razor-sharp children, but there we go -- it's read and out of the way. And it was a charming little detour.

Avon Snail reads a book a day, and becomes quite depressed because he is sure he will never have adventures like the ones he reads about. A gentle prod from a passing newt encourages Avon to begin his adventure as soon as possible, and as Avon is leaving, he encounters a chatty ant named Edward. The two become fast friends and set out together. This little book is an exercise in realizing that everything can be an adventure if one has the right mindset, that endings are just beginnings, and heroes and heroics come in many different shapes and sizes. It's also full of plays on words, simple but profound little philosophical nuggets, and silly advice that shouldn't work but somehow does.

I'm really looking forward to discussing this one with the kids. I rather wish I had one to read it to (or to read it to me, as I know some of the kids in the group do with their parents). I am sure that they're going to get different things out of it than I have, and that they're going to have strong opinions on Avon and Edward and the experiences the two have. This is a book that is best discussed. As a read-aloud, I think it would be superior, and delightful. The illustrations throughout are whimsical and lovely, accompanying the whimsy in the text perfectly.

As a read-to-my-adult-self, it is charming. It occasionally slips past charming into too twee, but one might expect that from a book subtitled "Being the Adventures of a Small Snail (and an Even Smaller Ant)" and I was in the mood for twee. It is not long, and any longer would be too long. A larger flaw, from my perspective, is that neither of the characters seem to grow or change fundamentally from their experience, which is a bit of a surprise in a book that is a gentle parody of the heroic journey. That said, I think it must be purposeful -- Edward never gets his comeuppance, really, and Avon doesn't seem to learn anything -- so that the reader can notice this and think about it and discuss the dissonance. Because I certainly expected Edward (who is a great little character, flawed and bossy and daft) to get a comeuppance at some point, and I expected Avon to learn a little something. But they're both as bright as a sack of doorknobs, and that doesn't change. Edward even has a bit of a selfishly mean streak, to match Avon's selflessly kind streak, but nothing ever comes of it in the story, which is where I think discussion comes in.

So, yes. Overall, as a read for an adult -- perhaps not my first choice. But as something to read and discuss with kids who are reading about others' adventures, and thinking about the meaning of life and friendship and starting to figure things out, I think this is a great little story in the grand tradition of animal fables. The language is something that early readers will be able to understand and the chapters are short. The humour will definitely appeal to kids' sense of the absurd (a worm who can't figure out which end is head and which is tail, or a cricket who sings to himself about cheese), and some of the jokes that will be above their heads will be easily explained by a parent. I am looking forward to hearing about what the group has to say.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Crocodile on the Sandbank
by Elizabeth Peters, read by Susan O'Malley
Blackstone Audio, 2005
8 discs (unabridged)

A departure! This is an audiobook, but it's not by Bill Bryson. I enjoyed it anyway, and thoroughly. So thoroughly, in fact, that I had to sit in my car after arriving at work (early, I had to run some errands beforehand that took less time than anticipated) and finish listening to the final disc. It was about 25 minutes of sitting in a rapidly cooling car in the snow, but don't think I noticed the cold. I just had to know how it all turned out.

I have been wanting to read Elizabeth Peters for quite a while now. These books were another set of mysteries that kept turning up on my mother's piles, much like the Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael mysteries. My mother has good taste. But I am not reading as much as I would like, lately, and I happen to be spending more time than I would like in a car. Seeing a way I could mitigate these problems in one swift move, I dug out the information on how to download audiobooks through the library I work at, and lo and behold what should turn up but Crocodile on the Sandbank. Experiment: success! Also, now I can tell people how to download and use our digital audiobooks from experience, rather than following vague directions. Bonus.

Amelia Peabody is a Victorian lady of independent means after her father passes away. He was a scholar, with a particular emphasis on ancient history, and Amelia has spent her life caring for him (as the only girl child, and no other woman in the house), during which time she has also become very interested in antiquities. She knows several languages, living and dead, and has more than enough money to live the rest of her life on her own quite comfortably, travelling to see the places she and her father have studied about. On her first trip, to Rome, she encounters a young woman nearly dying of exposure near one of the ancient ruins. In her no-nonsense fashion, Amelia saves the girl Evelyn and collects her as a companion for her travels. As they reach Egypt, and through a series of events become attached to a very small archaeological dig, it becomes clear that one of their little group is being targeted by persons -- or perhaps vengeful spirits -- unknown. Amelia must now bend all her considerable powers of intellect to discovering the culprits before someone gets seriously hurt, or worse.

I had some difficulty getting into this one, at the start. As I've stated before, I'm not wild about fiction in audiobook format; too often the narrator doesn't work for me, whereas in nonfiction I can usually put up with a fair bit (my present nonfiction listen excepted; for some reason, the narrator has such an odd inflection and word pacing that I can't help but think of Futurama's Zapp Brannigan, and I have had to stop listening to it). In this case, though, I didn't mind the narrator, though sometimes her male voices were a bit grating.

As to the story itself, it starts off a bit slowly, but tension keeps ratcheting up until one cannot possibly stop listening until one finishes the story. Amelia is a delightful character, absolutely flawed but believably and endearingly so. She is headstrong to the point of ridiculousness, but it was somehow charming; and she is still a somewhat believable Victorian lady -- given her background, a little bit of eccentricity is to be expected. The other characters are charming and well-fleshed-out.

The mystery is a little predictable; the foreshadowing is a bit on the blunt side, occasionally, and I figured I knew the culprit somewhere near the halfway point, and even the motive, though it took Amelia until the very end of the book to figure it out herself. Usually this can be a deal-killer for me in a mystery, but I was enjoying everything else so much that I didn't feel the need to stop. An occasional eye roll may have occurred. For my part, I wanted to know how, because that wasn't at all clear to me or Amelia, which I think is what lead her to her frustrating inability to solve the case until so late in the game. Me, I was following Holmes -- once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Speaking of impossible and improbable -- well, there are a few times where the plotline and character motivations leap from somewhat incredible to beyond the pale. I was prepared to forgive these leaps for the most part. They were, in large part, some of the fun. This is not a realistic book, and shouldn't be read that way.

I quite enjoyed this one, enough that I am now listening to the second book in the series and enjoying it too. The humour, the adventure, the romance, and the exotic location (Egypt is wonderfully and lovingly described) all combined to make this an excellent listen for me. I could see finding and owning a copy of this one in paper. I certainly will want to read it, or at least listen to it, again.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

There has been a delay; I don't deny it. Illness and family things and so forth, and I have not felt much like reading lately. And that is not because of the book. I have only finished one since my last post (well, and before, really) and I'm about to review it, if one can call an extended fangirl squee a review. All others I have picked up were pretty much skimmed through and dropped.

His Majesty's Dragon
by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 2006
342 pages

Anyhow. I am rambling, because what can I say that doesn't sound delirious about Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon? I love this book. I read it, and then flipped back and read parts of it, and I then did that thing I know I shouldn't do and read the first chapter of the next book in the series and now I desperately need to know what happens next.

For a brief summary, take history. Take Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Take one very talented, principled, and dutiful captain in Nelson's Navy. Then add dragons. Actually, add one specific dragon egg, captured by that dutiful captain (let's call him Laurence) from a French man-of-war, that happens to hatch on his ship. The resulting dragon picks Laurence to be his aviator, and you have one very alarmed and disgruntled captain, a very charming and erudite dragon, and a series of extremely entertaining and somehow entirely believable adventures as they learn together how to become part of Britain's aerial defence against the dragon corps of Napoleon's army.

I love this book so much I want to eat it.

This is a book that has been carefully, skillfully crafted such that the writing fades into the background (not an easy feat), the plot sweeps you along, and the characters -- even, perhaps especially, the non-human ones -- worm their way into your heart and consciousness. The partnership of Laurence and the dragon Temeraire is so incredibly genuine and warm and wonderful, so honest and touching, that it absolutely shines in my experience of fictional friendships. Separately, they are fantastic characters and I think I love them both, but together they are unstoppable.

The world is ours but a bit sideways, and the careful work Novik has done to create it is never in-your-face evident, but always a completely reasonable and believable framework from which the story hangs. I think one of the things I can't quite understand, but absolutely appreciate, is how believable everything is. I think it may be partially how everything is so understated, related to the reader as common-place, and also that we experience most of the fantasy elements through an outsider's eyes. Laurence has always been aware of dragons and the Aerial Corps, but that has not been his world up to the beginning of the book. As it begins to become his world, we are slowly accustomed to the changes as he begins to grow accustomed to them, too.

It is a great adventure, and a stirring one. There is little to no romance, for those who find that tiresome, and for those of us who usually prefer to have at least a hint of it somewhere, I can solemnly swear that I did not miss it in the slightest. There are things to be said about the nature of duty and loyalty and friendship, about civility and honesty, kindness, and the sorrows and horrors of war. None of it is said in a preachy or intrusive way. It is integral to the characters and plot. All of this -- the world, the relationships, the philosophy, could be clumsy or over-the-top in the hands of the wrong writer. But this one gets it right.

What saddens me is that while I have seen this book crop up various places over the past two years, if our library statistics are anything to go by, not nearly enough people are reading this series. If you are a history buff looking for fiction out of the norm, try this. If you are a fantasy fan but aren't sure you're a fan of historical fiction, try this. If you're a fantasy fan who has read everything and want something new, try this. If you want a great, well-crafted, entertaining, heartening story, read this book. I might even try it on my father, who doesn't really go for fantasy -- but I think there are elements in here that he, as a reader of James Clavell and Wilbur Smith will like. You will be hearing about more Novik from me shortly, and if Throne of Jade is any bit as good as its predecessor, you can bet that Novik will be the next on my list of authors to autobuy. If I can stand Laurence and Temeraire being thrust into more danger for foolish political reasons, that is...