Monday, December 26, 2011

the year that went pear-shaped

Because I also went pear-shaped. And then rather suddenly stopped being pear-shaped, well before I'd intended to. But a year it has been, making this the third year I have been blogging. It really doesn't seem like that long, but it seems like I've had this blog forever.

This was a weird reading year. A weird pregnancy can do that to one. Probably a regular one, too, but I wouldn't know... At any rate, I spent a lot of energy just trying to make it through the days and did not so much reading for significant periods of time from March - May. In June I got my second wind, but one book ate all of July, and then suddenly fishy and I were three.

Interestingly, being three has meant I do a fair bit more reading. Since at first we were spending a lot of time in the hospital just sitting, that makes sense. Now that smallfry is home, I certainly do spend less time reading, but not as much less as I'd expected at first. The big kicker is lack of energy, which is as bad now as it was in the first months of pregnancy, and my brain feels smooshier than I'd like to admit. But reading keeps me somewhat sane and in touch with things other than diapers and weight gains. Reviewing even more so. A lovely development these past few months sees fishy blogging his reading too, which has encouraged me to be a better blogger; there's a nice synergy happening.

(Incidentally, I am also really pleased to report that smallfry doesn't seem to be suffering much from her early entrance. She's growing normally, has no serious complications, and though she's about the size and developmental age of a two-month-old instead of a four-month-old, that kind of difference tends to be less and less noticeable as she gets older.)

So! Let's look at the numbers. Unsurprisingly, I haven't matched even last year's somewhat diminished output (input?) but what I've read I've generally enjoyed.

Books read in the past year: 47
Fiction read: 35
Nonfiction read: 12
Adult books read: 35
Young adult books read: 4
Middle-grade books read: 8
Canadian books read: 6
Graphic novels read: 3
Audiobooks listened to: 3
Series started: 9
Series completed: 1

And, because I've got Jean-Luc PiKobo now:
Ebooks read: 8

And, as I said I would last year, I did keep track of the nationality of the authors of the books I read, aside from the Canadian ones:
American books read: 27
British books read: 13
Japanese books read: 1

Next year I'd like to keep track of the decade the book was originally written in. Because I like numbers, you know, and it's interesting to keep track of this stuff. I used to say that I don't really read new releases, but it looks (from the brief overview I've done) that I read more newer books than I think I do. Keeping track of the nationality of the authors I read was interesting, too, because I didn't realize I was quite that American-heavy. Not that I plan to change my reading habits; life is too short for me to worry about that sort of thing, to be honest. But it's interesting to know what the shape of my reading is like, so that I'm aware of my biases when I'm helping other people find things to read.

As with last year, some of my favourite reads of the year, in the order that I read them:

  • Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson - Hands down my favourite book club read of the year (for my parent-child book club) and possibly one of the best books I've ever read. Sweet, gentle, quiet and slow and introspective without being boring. Read this touching little book even if you have no children to read it with.
  • Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson - I wouldn't recommend this for everyone because it's a bit dry and the topic is a little obscure, but I quite liked it. It was a very cool survey of collections of the written word in the precursors to Western culture from Ashurbanipal to the beginning of the Middle Ages. Not a long book, but great to read about the very beginnings of my chosen field.
  • The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins - I've been meaning to read this for a while, and finally did. And am I ever glad I did! Despite the fact that Collins was a contemporary of Dickens, I found Collins much easier to swallow, and reading what is often considered to be the original detective novel was both instructive and a lot of fun.
  • The City and the City by China Miéville - As my first experience with Miéville, this couldn't have gone better. Combining my love of mystery and fantasy so elegantly, this book still worms its way into my head every once in a while so long after reading it.
  • Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf - A book that I read partially for work and partially for interest that I absolutely wish everyone could read; alas, I don't think it will happen. It's not an easy read, though inspiring in its challenges. Wonderfully written book about the way reading changes the brain and the way it changes our culture.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis - Yet another book that I think may be a favourite read of all time (I've done really well this year!) It was a remarkable, smart book, with an interesting plot and really wonderful characters. Also very funny. A great case of the right book at the right time.
  • The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker - A completely understated yet wonderful book written for the middle-grade reader. I'll be using this one with my parent-child book club if I can get funding to purchase enough copies. It's sweet, fascinating and a great adventure story, perfect for kids of all ages with good imaginations.
  • Witches Abroad by Sir Terry Pratchett (review pending) - Of course there has to be a Discworld book on this list! This book pulled me out of my latest slump in grand style. I love Granny Weatherwax, and this book is pretty well focused on her relationships with her fellow witches. Funny, clever, and meatier than appears at first glance. Had some excellent laugh-out-loud moments.

Overall, this was a pretty good year, I have to say. I've tried to trim the above list and there are still eight books on there. So, though my numbers were down, more of what I read was quality, I think.

Just for fun, let's have a look at the TBR to see what I have pending immediately. Of the nine books I reported being on tap last year, I actually managed to read five of them, and one I started but it turned out to be a DNF; this is pretty good, considering that I'll often have plans to read a book next and then find myself glaring at it for sitting there and mocking me for not being in the mood to read it when its turn is up. This year's list for what is coming up soon (followed by their TBR list number):

  • Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn (938)
  • Wimbledon Green by Seth (not on list)
  • A Room With a View by E. M. Forster (767)
  • The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters (918)
  • At Large and at Small by Anne Fadiman (not on list)
  • The ABCs of Literacy by Cynthia Dollins (662)
  • The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (959)
  • Reaper Man by Sir Terry Pratchett (891)

Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. I enjoy posting, and it helps me to keep reading and keep writing, which I think especially right now helps to keep my brain a little sharper than it would be otherwise. The fact that I have readers is a nice bonus, and those of you who comment are such lovely people! (I'm sure the rest of you are nice, too. You don't need to comment, but I'm glad you read. I'm a champion blog lurker myself.)

I hope you're all enjoying your holidays if you have them, and looking ahead to a fantastic new year filled with good books.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

first lines meme 2011

Wow, I can't believe I'm putting together this post already. But Melanie has already posted hers over at The Indextrious Reader, which makes me realize that yes, there are no more months in 2011... we are rapidly closing in on the end of the year.

And what a year. It's been significantly less reading for me, but I've still managed to post at least one review a month, so that's a good thing. And I've read some brilliant stuff this year. But that will be saved for my yearly "taking stock" post... this is just a fun exercise to have a look at where I was this year, month by month.

At one point I described this book to fishy as "Like Monty Python, but less subtle."

I like history, and I like libraries.

And now back to our regular programming.

Hello blog.

We went on vacation.

Mmm, good book hangover.

"How miraculous it is that the brain can go beyond itself, enlarging both its functions and our intellectual capacities in the process."

I find this book a little hard to review.

Well. So, this is an entry I didn't really expect to write for some time, which will tell you what the past two weeks of my life has been like.

This slim little volume is comprised of two stories: "Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy" and "The Bohemian Astrobleme" both of which feature a character named Lady Beatrice.

So, I can't say that it was Connie Willis who introduced me to the idea of reading Sayers; that was Nymeth, quite a long time ago.

I came across this title first in the Guardian, which was reporting that it had won the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance in 2009.

And that's it! I like this meme because it always gives me a chance to go over my reading year and reflect a little before I try to get detailed for my yearly celebration-of-the-year-past-blogiversary post. Actually, this year it's quite effective; you can see where I was struggling a bit March - August, and then the first entry of September explains quite effectively why. This year definitely feels a little pear-shaped, but as opposed to last year, I think the last four months of blogging have been a little more energized, compared to the way I fizzled out in the last half of last year. I'm certainly reading more, and I also have fishy to bounce ideas and entries off -- it's funny, now that he's reviewing more, I seem to feel I have to up my game a bit.

Head on over to Melanie's blog at The Indextrious Reader to see more first lines!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Talking About Detective Fiction by P. D. James

Talking About Detective Fiction
by P. D. James
Knopf, 2009
198 pages

When I was growing up, my mother had a shelf full of P.D. James. I used to take the books down and look at them, fascinated by the highly stylized and candy-coloured blood drops on the covers. I particularly liked Shroud for a Nightingale and Cover Her Face, if I recall correctly. Later on I read Cover Her Face, and enjoyed it quite a lot, though I haven't picked up anything else by her since. I can't say why.

But at night now, with smallfry being Very Awake because she prefers sleeping in to going to bed early (she is a child after her parents' own hearts) fishy and I have started reading to each other. And as we're both interested in reading and writing, and both fans of mysteries, P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction seemed like a great place to go. fishy had already read it once, but he was doing some thinking about detective stories and wanted to read it again anyways.

Really, one couldn't ask for a better, more well-informed and well-read overview of the genre. James has the additional advantage of a long life lived; for example, she was reading the Golden Age detective novels as they came out, long before she thought to write a mystery of her own. This book isn't what I would call a guide, exactly, though she certainly has recommendations and in-depth discussions about some of the key works and players in detective fiction over the years. It goes approximately chronologically from Wilkie Collins to the Golden Age to modern detective fiction, does a bit of a side-trip through the American hardboiled sub-genre and spends a good chunk of time talking about the four grand ladies of the Golden Age (Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, and Christie), offering personal notes and observations on the genre as well as the observations of other critics and writers, and observations on literature and writing in general.

What makes this book great as opposed to just good and interesting is James' writing. She has a wonderful, distinct style, somewhat chatty but always impeccable, and she also has a very dry sense of humour that sneaks its way into the writing. As we were reading to each other, every once in a while one of us would laugh out loud. It's not always an easy book to read aloud; some of her sentence structures are a little convoluted, such that you'd start reading a sentence and it would turn out to be something completely different and by the end you'd have lost where you were supposed to put the emphasis... but generally the writing is clear and smart. It gives me high hopes for Death Comes to Pemberley, which I am quite looking forward to reading at some point in the future -- my favourite Austen characters couldn't be in better hands.

It doesn't hurt to have one of the grand masters of the genre take you for a bit of a tour of the last hundred and fifty years; P.D. James knows her stuff, has read a lot of books, and is cheerfully opinionated about the topic. As a librarian, I know that mystery is one of the most enduring and popular genres on the shelves, and James gives a pretty good argument as to why this is and should be the case. All in all, I'd recommend this little volume to anyone interested in detective or crime fiction, or anyone interested in literature in general even if you're not (or don't think you are) a fan of detective novels. Particularly recommended for people who work with the reading public and can't figure out why mysteries are so popular; this book will give you a direct line to why.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fer-de-lance by Rex Stout

by Rex Stout
Bantam, 2008 (originally published in 1934)
285 pages

This was, like White Rapids, another suggestion from fishy as a book we could both read and then discuss. We've both been enjoying crime fiction, and I've particularly been enjoying classic crime fiction (see: Sayers, Conan Doyle) and so he encouraged me to try this out. Rex Stout was America's answer to the Golden Age Brits, writing a detective novel set on this side of the pond with a unique creature at its heart. It's not quite of the Chandler/Hammett hardboiled persuasion, nor is it cozy like a Christie. It's somewhere in between.

One of Nero Wolfe's contract footmen comes by with a friend of his wife's. Maria's brother Carlos has gone missing, and she's worried something has happened to him, but the police are useless. Before long, it becomes clear that Carlos was a piece in a much bigger, more sinister, and more incredible puzzle. Archie Goodwin, our narrator and Nero Wolfe's right-hand (and both legs) man, sets off to bring the clues and his impressions to Wolfe, and Wolfe exercises his formidable intellect while remaining relatively stationary in his New York brownstone.

This book wasn't what I was expecting, either the plot or the characters. I was thinking it would be something closer to the lines of a cozy, Golden Age British novel, with a detective who does what he does out of joy or out of a sense of what is right. Wolfe, however, is far more mercenary than I ever expected. I'm much more used to the altrusitic detective, who does what he does because he can't let the bad guys win. I was thinking that Wolfe is probably the most self-interested detective I've encountered, but it occurs to me that Holmes is pretty self-interested too, just in different ways. Wolfe does what he does for money (maybe a bit for fun, but mostly for money) and Holmes does what he does because it's a compulsion to solve puzzles. Holmes only takes the interesting cases, and Wolfe, it appears, would only bother taking the cases where there was a chunk of cash in it for him. This, among other things, makes it difficult to like Wolfe, but he certainly is interesting.

Archie, on the other hand, is a little more familiar -- he works for Wolfe out of a passion for the work, I think, and out of a need to do right. He is our narrator, our Watson to Wolfe's Holmes, but he's also more than that. And I was quite enamoured with him. He's a little rough around the edges, and his descriptions and manner of speaking are more in line with something I would expect of Philip Marlowe. But he's got a big, surprisingly gentle heart, and his relationship with Wolfe is fascinating and rocky but with a deep affection at its core, and he's smart -- though, like Watson, his intelligence is deeply overshadowed by Wolfe's genius and he knows it. Also, unlike Watson, Archie isn't afraid to criticize the object of his admiration; far from it. I haven't met a character like Archie Goodwin before, and I really, really liked him.

It's in Archie's characterization, his narration, that Stout's genius comes through. The writing is clever and full of vibrant life and great descriptions (thank you, Rex Stout, for reintroducing the word "corpulent" to my regular lexicon), but the author himself has disappeared; it's all Archie. There is a surfeit of telling here -- we are shown everything, from Wolfe's fascinating eccentricities to Archie's kindness and intelligence. The plot is a rather typical Golden Age-type plot, with a bizarre and incredible murder and melodramatic motive (and unfortunately, racist overtones that might have fit with the target readers at the time but jar with me now), but the narration elevates this book above many of its contemporaries, and it's easy for me to see why Stout's work is still in print.

Due almost entirely to Archie, I could see reading the next in the series, despite the fact that Fer-de-Lance was a little bit out of my usual comfort zones. Unfortunately, fishy has informed me that brilliant writing that I so admired in this first book begins to fade as Stout finds his groove and his audience a few books in, and so perhaps I will avoid reading too much further, to preserve my contentment.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People
by Farahad Zama
Amy Einhorn Books, 2009
293 pages

I came across this title first in the Guardian, which was reporting that it had won the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance in 2009. I like comedy romance. Plus it was set in India, plus it was written by a man. Both are rather unusual characteristics for romance, or at least the romances I usually read, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I am not sure I'd read it again, but I'd recommend it to someone who wanted a light romance that was a little different.

Mr. Ali is a retired gentleman who has decided, because his wife needs him to be doing something other than hanging around the house making her life difficult, to open a marriage bureau. Chapter by chapter we meet the characters who need his help finding a suitable match, as well as his wife, his son, and some of his friends. As he becomes busier, he needs some help around the office, and Mrs. Ali finds him an assistant in the young, talented Aruna. Aruna has her own troubles and own story.

I think the major problem was that, once again thanks to stupid blurbs, I was expecting something that this book simply is not. One of the blurbs on the back of the book suggests that "If Jane Austen had been lucky enough to set foot in modern-day India, she would have written The Marriage Bureau for Rich People." Which... no. Just no. It's an incredibly different piece from anything Austen wrote, different in style, different in feel, different in plot, different in character. It bears almost no resemblance to Austen aside from the fact that there is a romance between two young people and it's complicated by social mores. And maybe the fact that we don't get to the romance until much further along in the book.

My first impression was that The Marriage Bureau for Rich People reads like a book about India written for people who aren't from India, which I suspect is not far off the mark. It can be a little explainy: of customs, of behaviours, of attitudes, of religions, of foods, of daily life in the city of Vizag. Since I'm not from India, nor at all familiar with really any of it except the North-Americanized version of delicious Indian food and a very little bit of surface knowledge about some of the other aspects, I actually quite enjoyed this primer. I just wasn't expecting a primer, so it took me some time to get into it. And sometimes the book was a bit heavy on the telling versus the showing in general, as though the descriptions of Indian life spilled over into the descriptions of character and plot.

There's another comparison on the back of the jacket, this one to Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and this is much more apt. There is an episodic feel to the book: Mr. Ali, our matchmaker, meets prospective clients in each chapter and so we meet them too, and he solves a problem or finds a match or just generally interacts with them. Many of them pop up again later, but some don't. Then, in addition to these little vignettes, there are two overarching plots that get their starts early in the book but don't come to fruition until the end. Well, and one of the plots doesn't really resolve, exactly, though one thinks there might be a resolution on the horizon. I would definitely recommend this book to people who have liked Mma Ramotswe and the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Overall, a sweet story with interesting flavours, a pleasant pace, and a satisfying ending. Light but not necessarily fluffy, this is a charming book to while away an afternoon or three for someone looking for a romance that's a little different from the usual fare and not the central aspect of the book, or for those of you who really like descriptions of food, or someone looking for a window into daily life in Visakhapatnam, India. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever by Julia Quinn

The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever
by Julia Quinn
HarperCollins, 2007
237 pages

This light and fluffy Regency Romance is one of Quinn's Bevelstokes series. I read What Happens in London some time ago, and absolutely enjoyed it. I thought The Secret Diaries was good, but not nearly as good as the former. I am realizing this about Quinn's writing: most of the time it's good, sometimes it's stellar, occasionally it's mediocre. I would put this in the good camp, which is always a little disappointing because I know what it could be.

Miss Miranda Cheever is the childhood BFF of Olivia Bevelstoke. Olivia is everything Miranda is not: beautiful, vivacious, and likely to marry very well. However, this doesn't get in the way of their relationship; Olivia relies on Miranda to keep her entertained and down-to-earth, because in addition to being gorgeous, Olivia's quite a bit more intelligent than most people expect. Miranda relies on Olivia for companionship; by extension, Miranda relies on the entire Bevelstoke family, because she is the only child of a very distracted father. She's practically part of the family. Which is why no one is particularly worried about her relationship with Olivia's elder brother Nigel being inappropriate. They're practically siblings, right? Well... not quite...

I really liked Miranda especially. She's got all the hallmarks of a good Quinn heroine; feisty, smart, funny, and pretty but not too pretty. She's also the closest to a modern woman in Regency clothing that I've seen Quinn write, at least in some ways. She's quite a feminist; there's a scene in a men's bookshop that would be funnier if it wasn't so believable. She's also a pragmatic woman, and a realist, with few illusions about the way her life will be. The thought of what will probably happen makes her quite wistful, though. I do like that this is a fell-in-love-as-a-child romance, where Miranda holds a torch for the hero from the moment she meets him, and it actually ends up happily for her. It's a sweet story, and the fantasy of every ten-year-old child who has a crush on someone.

Nigel (or Turner, as he prefers to be called), on the other hand, I found difficult to get a handle on. As did Miranda, so that makes sense. He's mercurial, and in contrast to Miranda's forward-thinking ways, Nigel's probably the most traditional male I've seen from Quinn. It's an interesting contrast, and it does make me examine my love of Regency romances a little. If most men were like Nigel, but more so, I find that ... an unpleasant set of characteristics. Paternalistic, protective, and uncommunicative. Not sexy. Nigel did have some redeeming qualities, mind you -- he is a hero, after all.

Once again, we have our conflict, which I think maybe went on a bit too long (this is why Secret Diaries is not as good as What Happens in London) because it really started to feel manufactured at the end. Then the rather dramatic climax, which... well, actually, was pretty believable as something that might have happened at that point in history, so points for that. It fits a bit better with the story and the time period than some of Quinn's climaxes do, and while dramatic isn't ridiculous.

Overall, a good bit of fun, even though I probably won't feel the need to read this one again. It does, however, make me want to read What Happens in London again. I do believe it's also available for e-lending. Off to the virtual library I go...

Monday, November 21, 2011

White Rapids by Pascal Blanchet

White Rapids
by Pascal Blanchet (translated by Helge Dascher)
Drawn & Quarterly, 2007
156 pages

This was a somewhat random read for me. fishy has been bringing home various graphic novels from the library, and I knew nothing of this book before it appeared on the bedside table. Apparently, however, Pascal Blanchet is a rather famous graphic novelist in Quebec; this is, I believe, the first of his work to be translated into English. Because fishy and I read it so close together, and are reviewing it at nearly the same time, we're going to respond to the others' review, too -- fishy has his own blog over at Nominally Robotic, if you're curious to see what he thought (beyond what he's said below). We also tried not to contaminate the other's impressions prior to writing our own reviews, though we were only marginally successful. Since we're both home and spending a lot of time and brain energy looking after smallfry, one of the adult, intelligent conversations we tend to have is about whatever we're reading at the time.

I quite liked this book, overall. It's a very quick and easy read, and doesn't have much of a plot, exactly. It is more of a window on the real town of Rapide-Blanc, a town that was built by the Shawinigan Water and Power Company in the 1930s to house the workers needed to run an extremely remote hydroelectric dam, and their families. In the 1970s, when the dam was taken over by the Quebec public hydro utility and the dam automated, the town was shut down and the families forced to leave. White Rapids reflects on the construction of the town, life in it over the fifty years it was in existence, and the end.

What sticks out for me is the atmosphere of the book, and the depiction of the setting. The graphic work is very polished, deliberate, and absolutely gorgeous. It feels perfect for the era it is describing, right down to the faux-wood-panelled endpapers. The colouration is perfect, shades of orange plus white and black. The drawings of the buildings, particularly the dam, are absolutely stunning. I would describe a lot of the architectural drawings as elegant and very evocative. Blanchet is by far at his strongest when drawing the bold, static lines of man-made structures. His work with people is slightly less successful, but I think perhaps that's only because the setting is so very successful.

And unfortunately, I have to mention the font work. Which I hated. Every page has a different font, and I honestly can't imagine why. In some cases, the text is integrated right into the images, and while sometimes that made sense and worked well, at other times it didn't. Some of the fonts were nigh on impossible to read without squinting. I am sure there were reasons for the choice to do the fonts that way, but it was the only thing that really detracted from the enjoyment of the story for me.

White Rapids was charming and interesting, and I love the idea of it -- a peek into a time and place that no longer exists, without being overbearingly melancholy. Plus, I learned about a rather obscure piece of Canadian history, which is always a bonus. Font fiasco aside, this is a book well worth finding.


And now... husband-and-wife discussion time! fishy and I had a bit of a conversation via email regarding our reviews (his can be found here):

kiirstin: I like your thought of just having the book be about the views, as opposed to trying to stick in a plot and characters. I think maybe the views could have told the story, although to be fair I'm not sure the views alone would have done it -- the people are necessary to breathe narrative life into the tale. None of those buildings or structures existed in a vaccuum. The town was built to house the workers; you can't really have a book about the town of White Rapids without the workers.

fishy: Well, certainly you can have a book about the buildings of White Rapids, though. They have their own sort of narrative of place and style. The most human point in the whole piece for me was the moment with the empty bedroom which you can tell had been a child's room. It had atmosphere and history and narrative all in a single image.

There is no question if you took out the characters then you wouldn't know much about their lives and histories and personal stories, but... did you get any of that here? If you had just shown views of the hunting lodge and the porches and so on, then I think the reader would have substituted a more interesting reality than his explicit one. To be fair, there were a number of places where his depictions of humans was nice - the cocktail party would have been hard to do any other way, I think. Though there, as most places, the text could have gone.

kiirstin: I did love that image of the empty room; it was, for me, more memorable than pretty much any other image in the book. You're right, it had a perfect quality and told a whole story in just that panel.

The thing about taking the people away is that I'm not sure I would have bought the town as "lived-in" at that point. The empty room would have meant nothing if we didn't have a sense that there were humans behind it, that there had been someone who lived and loved in that room. I'm not sure that the previous scenery work had established enough to sell the sweet melancholy that the image otherwise provided.

The text is a different thing. Font aside, the text itself often didn't add much that couldn't have been done, and done more elegantly, with the images. I do wonder if something was lost in translation.


Drawn and Quarterly has published a book called The Native Trees of Canada which is just page after page of lovely painting of a single leaf. So perhaps plot is not necessary.

fishy: I don't think you need to discard the plot along with the humans. Chris Ware has frequently dedicated sections of story to just depicting place over time, or views of place in a narrative way, Seth has combined narration with objects to tell stories, I am sure many others have too. I think it would be hard in non-graphic fiction to tell a story with no human or anthropomorphized characters, but in graphic fiction you can tell fairly complex stories with images that don't contain the human form.

kiirstin: I can buy that, though not for this particular piece. I think that's why it felt imperfect: the place component was beautiful, but lacked (generally, not always) soul, and the people component was not quite up to the challenge of providing that soul.


Incidentally and a minor thing: I liked The General. Maybe because it was a cliched trope and I'm nothing if not forgiving of those, but I thought the fish added just the right touch where the human "characters" failed.

fishy: I could definitely enjoy a good story of man's struggle to catch the big one, right from Moby Dick on down. It was the ham-fisted symbolism of the fish that took me out of the story.

kiirstin: All right, I can concede that it was a bit heavy-handed. I still liked him. He probably wasn't necessary, and as you say in some cases may have detracted from the true story, but to me he added the soul that I felt was lacking elsewhere.


I wonder if we were trying to infuse this story with a gravitas Blanchet was never going for? I mean, the suspense at the beginning set a tone, but I wonder if the whole thing was meant to be more light-hearted than we took from it. Which may be a failing in the writing, but might also just be us.

fishy: It is possible, he did have a bunch of cartoony moments, right down to a couple of explicit Chuck Jones references. There is something very nice about a light comic romp with a nice sombre moment in the third act, and in some ways this does achieve that.

kiirstin: I think it might have achieved it better without the manufactured suspense at the beginning, but otherwise I think it succeeded in just that sort of lighthearted/bittersweet dichotomy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

 Hark! A Vagrant
by Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly, 2011
166 pages

Whee! Kate Beaton! I preordered this when I knew it was coming out, and I loved pretty much every bit of it.

If you're not familiar with cartoonist Kate Beaton, get thee over to her website posthaste and remedy that. Her comics poke fun at literature (both the literature itself and the people who write it), history, and occasionally contemporary things. I can almost always get a laugh out of a Kate Beaton strip. In fact, I think some of her work -- enough of it to note -- is absolutely brilliant. Which is excellent, although it does mean that if she posts a rather mediocre strip it's even more devastating. Generally, the work in the book is the best, although there are one or two middling bits. I wouldn't worry about these, I only sigh because I know she can be so good.

The nice thing about the book, too, is that it compiles related strips in one place. So all of the French Revolution stuff is in one place, and all of the superhero bits, and all of the Teen Detectives bits, and (some of my favourites) the Goreys, where Beaton has taken a whole bunch of book covers drawn by Edward Gorey and then riffed on them -- judging books by their cover, to excellent effect. Often at the beginning of a set, there will be some commentary included, and what makes me happy about this is that it's not exactly that Beaton is explaining her jokes, so much as adding to them -- so what could be unfunny or too much information actually adds to the overall experience. Sometimes the strips are even better having read the commentary. Beaton is one funny lady.

Okay, so not a deep read by any means. But smarter than your average comic strip, and in some cases I even learned things. Those of you who like books, or history, or both, and have a sense of humour about things like the guillotine, should definitely check this collection out.

I leave you with this.

Seriously, go look at the website. Buy her stuff. Buy her book. Please make sure she keeps publishing stuff because a world without Kate Beaton's comics is a sad, sad world.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Penguin Classics, 2001 (originally published in 1902)
240 pages

No one can sate my appetite for mystery quite the way Sherlock Holmes can. As stated before, I love the character despite, or maybe because of, all of his flaws. I like Conan Doyle's writing, the the action and the unsolvable mysteries and the atmosphere of time and place. Actually, I think it sometimes gets lost in the shine of the Great Man, but Conan Doyle was really an excellent writer. He could sketch a character in just a few words (partially with the help of the idiotic pseudoscience of physiognomy; if one takes those tenets as truth in his stories, it's very easy to get a feel for a character just from their physical description), he could establish a mood for a piece very quickly, he could surprise with a very clever solution to a seemingly simple crime. The writing can somehow disappear, even though the narrator is talking directly to the reader. It makes me think I should be reading some of the other things he's written at some point, to see if I'm still as enamoured of his talents when Holmes isn't present.

About this novel itself: I have read this before, but it seemed an appropriate read for this time of year, and is my non-participatory nod to Carl's fantastic R.I.P. Challenge, which I believe finished a over week ago. I chose to read it instead of the short stories simply because of the fact that I happened to be browsing the library's e-shelves, and there The Hound was. I would argue it's Holmes' most famous case, at least somewhat familiar to everyone, even those who haven't read any Holmes and never will. And I, of course, couldn't remember what happened at all, other than that there was some sort of dire curse on the Baskerville family that involved a giant hound. It occurs to me as I write this that I think my family listened to it in the car on a road trip at some point, and perhaps I never read it myself.

For those who aren't familiar with the actual plot: Holmes is engaged by a country doctor named Dr. Mortimer to look into the circumstances surrounding the death of a baronet by the name of Sir Charles Baskerville. Dr. Mortimer was a personal friend of Sir Charles', and after his untimely demise, the last surviving heir to the Baskervilles' vast lands and wealth is coming home to claim his birthright -- and Dr. Mortimer is extremely concerned for his welfare. For the death of Sir Charles' was not at all natural, and the circumstances surrounding it were terribly sinister and perhaps even supernatural. Holmes, of course, scoffs at the idea of the supernatural, but the case is bizarre and unusual and certainly engages his interest; however, embroiled in important cases in London, he sends Dr. Watson to keep an eye on things in his stead.

Thus we end up with a Sherlock Holmes novel in which Sherlock is barely present for much of it. I'd forgotten that, specifically, and I loved spending time with Watson. Those who portray Watson as a bumbling idiot, well-meaning but dense, would do well to spend some time with this novel. Watson is hardly dense. He's a mere human, which would make anyone look somewhat dense next to Holmes. But Watson does some fine detecting in this story on his own, requiring only that Holmes confirm his suspicions.

I love the melodramatic setting, the foreboding, the use of the countryside to prey on the mood and courage of the characters. Everything here is bigger and more sinister, from the original curse, to the moor, to the solution of the mystery. It's ridiculous; I've read that some Holmes scholars view The Hound of the Baskervilles as being ridiculous and overly dramatic, a sign of how bored Conan Doyle was getting with the character that was taking over his writing life -- that the mystery in The Hound is bordering on ludicrous, along with Holmes' actions. I don't think I agree, however -- plenty of the early Holmes stories are as far-fetched as this one. And for me, only "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" can match this one for sinister good times.

Normally I strongly dislike the "supernatural" mystery that is wrapped up and explained away by logic and science, but Holmes (or should I say Conan Doyle?) can do no wrong. If you're a Holmes fan and have somehow managed to avoid this novel thus far, do pick it up. It's fun. If you're not a Holmes fan yet, you could do far worse than pick up this as an entree into the canon.

(Also, don't you love that cover? The cover I had on the e-book was just a giant Penguin, but this is an edition I'd love to have. It's one of the few that don't attempt to portray the hound, which is better left to the imagination; yet it still has a wonderful reference to the contents.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers

Strong Poison
by Dorothy Sayers
Harper & Row, 1930
252 pages

So, I can't say that it was Connie Willis who introduced me to the idea of reading Sayers; that was Nymeth, quite a long time ago. (She also introduced me to Connie Willis, incidentally, which I suppose means she's doubly responsible for me reading this right now.) For someone who considered herself to be quite up on the mystery genre, I'm ashamed to say I hadn't even heard of Sayers or Lord Peter Wimsey before that. It feels like a rather large omission. But thankfully, Nymeth and Connie Willis conspired to introduce me to another favourite mystery author, and here I am.

Harriet Vane is a young woman accused of murdering her ex-lover by arsenic. It doesn't help that she is a detective novelist, and her latest manuscript describes in detail a murder by arsenic; or that in the course of her research, she purchased it several times using pseudonyms shortly before the young man died. The police and prosecution believe the case is airtight; Lord Peter Wimsey doesn't believe a word of it. Luckily, neither do some on the jury, and Lord Peter has one month to investigate the case and prove Miss Vane's innocence.

I loved Strong Poison. I really, really enjoyed it. I loved the setting, I especially loved the characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed the mystery. The writing is charming and intricate, rife with slight details and hints that are easily dismissed unless one is paying attention. But even better than the mystery? The humour. This book was a good sight funnier than I expected, and not always in obvious ways. Once again, I've discovered an author with a dry, straight-faced delivery that cracks me right up. I wish I could provide you with an example of something that made me laugh out loud, but unfortunately the library only had one copy of Strong Poison, and it's got a steady rotation of holds on it. And no, I didn't have the foresight to write down my favourite parts.

My absolute favourite part? When the Dowager Duchess, Lord Peter's mother, holds forth on censorship. It's a little jab at those who would censor books couched neatly in dinnertime conversation, a remark made by a character who has a tendency to be a little verbose and wandering. It's perfect. It delighted me utterly.

Which brings me to the characters, which I think are this book's strongest point. Lord Peter, of course, is marvellous. He's not a perfect character by any stretch. In fact, Arachne Jericho did a splendid series on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in fiction over on, and Lord Peter starred in one of her excellent articles. This particular aspect of his character doesn't make much of a show in Strong Poison, but it's enough to know that it's there. He can also have the appearance of shallowness, and a definite sense of entitlement that I suspect could be slightly irritating if he wasn't so damn charming.

Aside from Lord Peter, the supporting cast is excellent. I think one of the advantages of coming at a series from the middle (something I almost never do, and only did this time because Nymeth did it... lemming I am, yes) is that the long-running secondary characters are established and comfortable in their own skin. At least, if the author is good -- otherwise there is sometimes an assumption that the reader already knows the characters, and so sketches are found in place of true characterization. And Sayers is good. She takes the things she knows about her secondary characters at this stage in the series and uses this knowledge to create full portraits even if we only see the character once.

There was something about Lord Peter's family and the other secondary characters that reminded me strongly of Deanna Raybourn's March family in her Lady Julia Gray mysteries. The debt is of course the other way around, if indeed it is there at all. Suffice to say, I like me a well-fleshed-out, maybe quirky, maybe just distinct cast of secondary characters.

I am absolutely delighted to find a new-to-me mystery author I like so much, and I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I may go back and read them from the beginning, now that I've had a taste; I'd like to see Lord Peter's character arc through the series. Fans of mystery who have somehow, like me, missed out on Sayers shouldn't hesitate to pick this book up.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker

The Hotel Under the Sand
by Kage Baker
Tachyon Publications, 2009
117 pages

It was actually kind of accidental that I read this so soon after reading my first Kage Baker story ever. I saw this before Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy arrived at my house, and placed a hold on it simply because the summary was so compelling to me. And then it came up just after I finished Scarlet Spy.

This, unlike the previous story, is a children's book. And it is a wonderful, wonderful children's book. I am already planning to read it with my parent-child book club when I go back to work, and even more ridiculously I am planning to read it to smallfry when she is old enough to comprehend it. (Perhaps six? seven? years from now.)

The story begins with Emma, blown to the Dunes by a storm. And this is as much as we find out about Emma's past; we know that she has lost everything, though what "everything" is remains unspoken. I think this is a good choice, because unspoken the loss is more terrible, at least given the amount of space Baker had for creating a backstory for Emma. Despite her disaster, Emma is brave, resourceful, and not about to be beaten or cowed, not even when, upon her first night at the Dunes, she encounters a ghost.

This story is an exercise in simplicity that isn't the least bit simplistic. It has a straightforward plot and straightforward characters, without a lot of flowery embellishment; there is not a single unnecessary word in this story, I don't think. This style was evident in Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy, too, and it works wonderfully well for a children's story. But despite the simplicity of the writing and the plot, there are deep themes here: loss, loyalty, time, friendship, and family among them.

Emma is working through a terrible loss, and while it's not mentioned often it squats just off-stage to rear its head every once in a while. Each of the other characters, as they are introduced, have lost as well, some more than others. There is an interesting pragmatism about loss in this book, too; there is not a lot of dwelling on anguish or loneliness, but an acceptance of the pain for what it is. This means that though the mood of the story could have been melancholic or nostalgic, it is instead hopeful and forward-looking.

There's enough mystery and excitement to keep most readers riveted, I should think, and conflict as well as triumph for the characters. Not to mention that those with active imaginations are going to absolutely adore the idea of an entire hotel, an entire world almost, buried under a sand dune just waiting for the right person to come along to discover it. A thoroughly enchanting story and I'm so glad it caught my attention. Recommended for all ages, and this book has cemented Baker in my pantheon of authors I will be happy to read whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog, or How we found the bishop's bird stump at last
by Connie Willis
Random House, 1998
448 pages

There's a lot I want to say about this book, but unfortunately the exhaustion of the past couple months is beginning to take a toll. I suspect reviews from now on may be a little [more] rambling, and I'm likely to forget important points, or harp on unimportant ones. This will clear up at some indeterminate point in the future.

It also doesn't help the rambling that I adored this book, and find it hard to be at all objective. One of my favourite reads of the year, certainly, and possibly ever. I would like to have this book's kittens. This sort of thing often leads to a rather poor review from me at the best of times, as I try to rein in my "aaljkbkjabhlksdfa LOOOOOVE BOOK" incoherent gabbling and try to elucidate what actually made me enjoy the book that much.

I have wanted to read it for a long time, and it's always such a pleasant feeling to realize that a book one has anticipated for literally years actually lives up to its reputation. This is a clever, sweet, intelligent, funny, vivid romp through the idea of time travel, the meaning of history, the love of literature, and Victorian high society.

Plus, cats. And dogs. And physics.
It [the cat] had been put into a box in Shrödinger's thought experiment, along with a doomsday device: a bottle of cyanide gas, a hammer hooked to a Geiger counter, and a chunk of uranium. If the uranium emitted an electron, it would trigger the hammer which would break the bottle. That would release the gas that would kill the cat that lived in the box that Schrödinger built.

Actually, this was one thing, perhaps minor but indicative of the quality and care taken in the details and characters of the story, not to mention the overall writing: there are animal characters, who do not speak, who are given fair treatment in the story. They don't get lost; Willis doesn't introduce them as a gimmick and then get tired of them (see, for example, Hedwig).

This could be partially because Ned Henry, our first-person narrator and protagonist, loves animals. It is an excellent case of showing and not telling, frankly: Ned never comes out and says "I happen to really like dogs." One just picked that up pretty quickly from the way Ned treats and enjoys Cyril, our canine companion.

So, before I go too much further: Ned Henry is an historian. Historians, in Willis' near future, are not dusty (or even animated) academics; they're time travellers, sent via "the net" back in time to observe history first-hand. However, the fact-finding, observational aspects of the historians of Oxford's jobs have been tossed by the wayside in favour of an all-consuming rebuild of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in the Blitz in the 1940s. A certain Lady Schrapnell has commissioned the entirety the time travel department to ensure that every single detail of the reconstruction is exactly as it was the hour of the bombing; if the historians help her out, she will donate a considerable sum to the university, which will allow them to continue and expand their research. Ned's duty in this is to find out if the bishop's bird stump was in the cathedral during the bombing, and track it down in the present day. Easier said than done, as the bird stump appears to have disappeared improbably at some point during the bombing.

So... this is how the book starts out. This isn't really what the book is about, although it is certainly about the search for the bishop's bird stump. The truth is, what the book is about, and what happens, is far too complex to summarize in a review like this. So, I'm not going to try further; you'll just have to read the book yourself.

I had, for fun and because I knew I was going to read this book eventually, read Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat; I think it added to the experience of reading this one, but certainly wasn't necessary. Ned's excitement at being in the era when that book was written is infectious and instantly recognizeable to anyone who loves a particular book. There is something wonderful about exploring a place where a favourite book is set. Ned just happens to get to both the place and the time. Other literary references, particularly to classic mystery novels, are peppered throughout the book; Dorothy Sayers in particular gets plenty of time. This was the last straw for me -- I've now finally read Sayers too, thanks to To Say Nothing of the Dog reminding me that I really have wanted to for a while. The way the literature plays in to the plot is along the same lines as the animals above; it's not mentioned and then dropped, but has weight throughout.

Willis' writing is sharp, funny, and artful without being self-conscious or twee. One gets the impression that she really quite enjoyed writing this book, that she had fun with the ideas and characters and the tangled threads she created. It makes for an effortless, entertaining read that still has heft, which is a rare and precious thing.

Highly recommended, in case that wasn't obvious already.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy by Kage Baker

Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy
by Kage Baker
Subterranean Press, 2011
168 pages

This slim little volume is comprised of two stories: "Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy" and "The Bohemian Astrobleme" both of which feature a character named Lady Beatrice. I got it for the first tale, which I had originally heard of as The Women of Nell Gwynne's, a novella that won a Hugo in 2010. Frankly, I think the original title is more fetching; luckily, my most excellent local indie bookstore was able to track down this volume, as the original novella was out of print. Very pleased, because I'd desperately wanted to read this story since I'd first heard about it.

I think it was worth the wait; it was certainly diverting and well-written. It was a little more grim than I expected, but also funnier than I expected. Baker doesn't pull her punches, and though there's not a lot of graphic gore, there's a darkness to these stories that upon reflection makes a lot of sense -- the first story is an astute, if sideways, glimpse at a Victorian woman's life options. It's not a pretty picture. The second story is somewhat lighter, but the darkness blows in full force at the end. The humour is dark, too, in both of them, although it's also quite charming and often very dry in the way I particularly like. And both stories are exceedingly well-constructed.

"Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy" (aka "The Women of Nell Gwynne's") is almost a simple character study; at least, it starts out that way. Lady Beatrice -- not a lady, nor a Beatrice, but we never find out what name she used to go by -- was a soldier's daughter. After a pretty horrific, harrowing experience abroad, she ends up on the streets. She is brave, shrewd, and highly intelligent, though, and this gets her noticed by Mrs. Corvey, the proprietress of Nell Gwynne's, an exclusive brothel that serves customers by invitation only. It also happens to be connected to the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, a very secret group of highly intelligent men who are far, far ahead of their time. The women of Nell Gwynne's serve to gather secrets and occasionally blackmail the powerful into doing exactly what the Society wants them to do. In return, they have a relative measure of freedom, the opportunity to use their ample brains, and have use of some of the Society's fantastic inventions, not to mention a very comfortable living and an easy, early retirement.

"The Bohemian Astrobleme" is a story about what happens when the Society wants something. Lady Beatrice is involved, as is Ludbridge, a character we meet in the first story. It's an entertaining little piece, interesting and somewhat chilling, too. Because we like both Lady Beatrice and Ludbridge, and in this story they are pretty ruthless. There's a very good reason that this story was second in the pairing; characterization is very thin (it can be, because it is second) but the reader is left feeling a little alarmed by how easily we were charmed by both Lady Beatrice and Ludbridge, and how we still like and admire them.

There are a couple things that I liked about the first story especially: a) life as a Victorian woman isn't glamourized, nor is prostitution, which can be a trap historical fiction and fantasy of a certain kind falls into; and b) though there are steampunk elements, it also avoids the above glamour trap, which steampunk can certainly fall into. I felt like these stories both treated their time period respectfully -- affectionately, perhaps, and we weren't delving deeply into issues, but with a clear head.

Overall recommended, if you can get your hands on these stories. Definitely not for children or the prudish. I keep thinking of dark chocolate as a metaphor -- delicious, a little exotic, and slightly bitter in a way that makes the whole experience that much better. The writing is quietly excellent, and the story is original and diverting. I'll be reading more by Baker in the future.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Across the Great Barrier by Patricia C. Wrede

Across the Great Barrier
by Patricia C. Wrede
Scholastic, 2011
352 pages

I have to report that I did re-read Thirteenth Child in preparation for this one. I don't think I would have had to; there was recap enough to make it fine to read Across the Great Barrier without reading Thirteenth Child first, but it was a pleasant way to spend a couple of days. And I think Across the Great Barrier is a much better book for having known Eff, Lan, Wash, and some of the other characters ahead of time. I'm not sure that Across the Great Barrier is as good as Thirteenth Child, either, although I am wondering why I think that. I think it does feel slightly less focused in its plot, though that's not necessarily a terrible thing, just different. It may also be that Thirteenth introduces such a novel new world, a world I was so enchanted with and excited to discover, that it has a slight shine over its sequel. The absolute strength of these two books is the world, particularly both the systems of magic and the natural history.

In this installment of Eff's story, she is trying very hard to find her place in the world. She knows what she doesn't want to do: go out East for more schooling, like her brother Lan. But she doesn't quite know what to do with herself beyond that. Frankly, I think most people who have been 18 and faced with Big Life Choices (that one feels, at the time, are going to either make or break the rest of one's life) can understand Eff's frustration and discontent -- there are options, she just doesn't want any of them, but she recognizes she has to make a choice at some point and soon. However -- an option does present itself that gets her excited, and that is to assist the new natural sciences professor at the college with a survey of the plants and animals in the dangerous lands west of the Great Barrier. While on the survey, Eff, Wash and Professor Torgeson (another excellent, strong, interesting female character from Wrede) discover many things, some unique, some tied in to the grubs that created the crisis in Thirteenth Child, and some more sinister that point to trouble ahead in what I hope will be a third book in this series.

Eff remains an excellent character, an honest mix of competence and anxiety, still working through some of the pain and nervousness associated with being a thirteenth child while recognizing logically that it doesn't matter. She still has a deep and important relationship with her twin Lan, and a warm and loving relationship, though complex, with the rest of her family too. We see much less of their friend William in this book, which I understand but feel is a lack -- he was one of my favourite characters from the last book, and I think there are some avenues to be investigated there, including his very rocky relationship with his father.

That said, I've never expected deep, serious, cathartic investigation of Emotional Issues from Wrede; not that she glosses over things, but they're not the focus of her tales, so much as the world and the plot. She writes a good character, but they're not terribly introspective. I think Eff might actually be the most introspective Wrede character I've ever encountered.

A worthy followup to Thirteenth Child, with more fantastic world-building and characters I enjoy spending time with. I would recommend reading the other first, as I think this book builds on that one. This series is fun and interesting, and though I did buy an electronic copy I'll be buying the paperback when it comes out -- just for a little more permanence.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigibles of Ashton Place 1)
by Maryrose Wood
Harper Collins, 2010
162 pages

How much fun was this book? A lot. A lot of fun, which was exactly what I wanted right now. It is light, short, and cute. And as advertised, the plot is sufficiently mysterious to keep one hooked (very important currently; for reasons one might expect, my focus is rather shot, and I am grateful for the distraction when I can find something that holds my attention).

Penelope Lumley is a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, sent off on her own to Ashton Place to respond to the advertisement for a governess. Upon getting there, she finds the inhabitants peculiarily reluctant to discuss the three children she is to be in charge of, and things just get stranger from there. Luckily, Penelope has the gumption, cool head, and keen intelligence of a Swanburne girl, as well as the requisite love of animals and small children, and is not fazed by much. When she finally meets her charges, things are not at all what she expected, but she takes on the challenge -- a challenge that will include teaching three children how to appreciate fine literature, how to do math, and how to control themselves when a squirrel-chasing opportunity presents itself.

One will need to suspend disbelief pretty handily, but the story is so charming and fun and well-written that the suspension is not a challenge except in certain places where one thinks, Really? I just... really? Very occasionally -- especially towards the end -- I ran up against something or other that stretched even the very generous leash I'd given the internal logic of the book. I think my main problem with the one scene I couldn't get behind, no matter how I tried (and I tried; I liked the book enough to work at maintaining credulity) was that the villain(s) up to that point hadn't really presented themselves as being as villainous as their actions appeared. That's as specific as I can get without major spoilers.

The writing, especially, is what charmed me. Penelope is a great character, but the way the book is written, in a very cheerful, firmly tongue-in-cheek, and faintly sensational/melodramatic manner, is pitch-perfect. The narrator occasionally breaks the fourth wall with a clear understanding that kids reading the book nowadays are living in a very different historical moment. It allows for foreshadowing that is strong without seeming heavy-handed. The humour is dry and straight-faced, and I loved it to the point of gleeful out-loud giggles. This, along with the mystery (of which we are really just starting to get hints) kept me thoroughly entertained. Also, the multitude of references to classic literature? Probably over the target audience's head, but may inspire middle-graders to look up Longfellow and Shakespeare. (It may inspire me, too.)

Overall, a rather original idea, well-executed. Recommended for kids and adults who want something a little light and silly, but who are happy to get invested in a character or two -- however, very literal-minded children may not enjoy so much, because there are definite suspensions of disbelief that have to be maintained to make the book enjoyable. I'd recommend especially to those who have enjoyed A Series of Unfortunate Events, for example; I actually quite prefer this book to those, but there are parallels to be drawn. This is clearly the first in a series; as above, the reader only realizes at the end that there's a much deeper, more sinister game afoot than either the reader or Penelope has realized. The second book is The Hidden Gallery, which takes Penelope and the Incorrigibles to London.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip

The Bards of Bone Plain
by Patricia A. McKillip
Ace, 2010
329 pages

So, here is the review of the book I read in its entirety on bedrest. I have owned this book since it came out last year, McKillip being one of two authors on my autobuy list. Ondaatje is the other; I suspect it will take me as long to get to The Cat's Table, though it's sitting here beside me right now. As with all authors I love, I often resist reading the newest thing. It's an odd psychological block. What if it's not as good as the other stuff she's written? What if she doesn't publish anything ever again and this is the last new McKillip I will ever get to read? (Ignore the fact that there's still some McKillip backlist I have yet to get to.) Generally neither of these are particularly good reasons for not reading a book. It should go without saying that this review is unlikely to be particularly objective...

I'm happy to report that this was an excellent choice for reading, and it was also excellent good fortune that I had it in my purse when I was whisked off to the hospital, otherwise I would have been bored to tears before fishy was able to come home and pick reading material up for me (which, to his credit, he did; the latest Garden Making magazine, another gardening magazine, the Kobo and Wilkie Collins all came along after I was safely ensconced in bed).

It was also exactly what I have come to expect from McKillip: a gentle, beautiful story of wild, unpredictable and beautiful magic, and the people that magic touches, tinged with a sweet melancholy. I think, overall, this is a better book than The Bell at Sealey Head, her last release, which I quite enjoyed but seemed a little... forgettable? Good excuse to read it again, I guess. But The Bards of Bone Plain is a solid story, interestingly and carefully told.

The plot is twofold: the first plot involves three characters revolving around each other. Zoe and Phelan are senior students at the bardic school; Beatrice is the youngest daughter of the king, and an aspiring archaeologist working with Phelan's mercurial father Jonah. There isn't a lot more to this plot than watching Phelan unravel the mystery of his father, really, and the answer comes to us much faster than it comes to Phelan; if there is a flaw with this book that I can point to easily, it would be that. I knew what Phelan didn't in the first few chapters, and I'm not sure whether or not it took away an element of ... curiosity, maybe, that might have made for more engaged reading. That said, as with my favourite McKillips, it's not the end itself that makes this story worth reading; it's the journey.

The second plot revolves around another bard, the legendary (in Phelan's day) Nairn. We see his story through snippets of historical documents, ballads and poems, and then we read the true story, what really happened, in chapters that alternate with the first plot's chapters. It's an interesting, if not original, exercise in recognizing that real human beings lie behind legends. And then, of course, the two plots cross in a surprisingly tense confrontation at the end -- surprisingly, I think, because there's not really a true villain, and the stakes are only really high for a few of the characters, not for the fate of many or the world. And yet I was invested in what happened.

What can I say? I loved this book in the same way I've loved everything else I've read by McKillip over the years (Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Song for the Basilisk notwithstanding; I liked them both well enough, but didn't get sucked into their world in the same way. I'll be trying Song again, though, because I think that was more a mood thing than a book thing.) It had some familiar elements; I hesitate to say it, because the characters were interesting as individuals, but some of them might be viewed as extremely similar other characters she's written... but I like that in her work, for some reason, where it might really irritate me in another author's. And the world was a new one for her: elements of historical medieval-type fantasy, with elements of technology slipped in. The princess drives a car, a relatively new technology to her world, and there are steam-powered trams, and gaslights. This book is also about change, and history, and the progression of society over years. It's a little light on the examination of that, but it's a theme slipped in nonetheless.

And the writing. The writing, of course, is the key to my love of McKillips' work. It is beautiful, lyrical, leaving enough unexplained to give the whole story a hint of mystery and wonder, but detailed enough to paint the whole scene vividly in my mind. As a slight aside, I should mention that I think the marriage of McKillip's novels with Kinuko Craft's cover images is sheer brilliance; they compliment each other perfectly, and both the writing and the cover images give me the same gleeful, floaty, fairy-tale feeling.

I of course recommend this book to fans of McKillip; I'm not sure it's the best place to start with her writing if you haven't read anything by her before (I'd suggest Riddle-Master or The Changeling Sea for that) but it's a lovely gentle fantasy tale about a father and a son, and magic and the past, worth reading and worth reading again.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Native Star by M. K. Hobson, and a new addition

**I started this review the day I went into hospital with smallfry complications, but before there was any inkling of what was about to happen. Kobo couldn't have come at a better time. I have since grown extremely attached to it, as it functions as two books in one: one that I am reading, and one that fishy is reading. We can switch off -- one interacts with smallfry, the other reads.**

So, yes. I have crossed the line: I now own an e-reader. It was a birthday present from fishy, and a perfect one; I have been curious and attracted for a while now, perhaps not enough to buy one myself but more than enough to make it an excellent gift. It is a Kobo Touch, black and smooth and not at all shiny. It makes me feel like Jean-Luc Picard, sitting at my desk, drinking my tea, and reading documents on a little black pad.

Of course, upon receiving it, the first thing I had to do (after setting it up) was see if it really is as easy as I keep telling patrons it is to download library books. I am happy to report that with a minimal amount of effort and know-how, it is. Now, I realize my definition of "minimal" and the actual experience of "minimal" for many of our patrons may be worlds apart. However, it was so simple to do that walking people through it on the phone, as I have been doing, is not the challenging proposition it might have been. (For the record: iPads are easiest to help people setup for library e-book capacity, and thus far Sony Reader takes the cake for being the more challenging of the popular brands, if we discount Kindle which is impossible. Kobo is somewhere in the middle -- pretty easy, but not without its small, usually fixable quirks and problems.)

So what did I download? Here is the challenge: I have three books on hold now, three things I have wanted to read -- but a lot (read: the vast, vast majority) of the stuff I'm interested in and most of the stuff I'm not interested in was already checked out. I think our download system may be a victim of its own popularity. So I kept browsing until I saw something that tweaked a memory... The Native Star was nominated for a Nebula some time ago, I believe, and something lead me to believe it was an alternate history fantasy with a strong romance component. Just the sort of thing I might quite enjoy as an e-read.

The experience of reading on the e-reader itself is going to take some getting used to; I still have the same problems I mentioned before, though certainly not as pronounced and very easy to overcome on a dedicated e-reader versus my laptop. I miss the ability to flip back and forth through the book quickly and easily, is the big thing, and the dimensionality of a paper book. And the attractiveness of it. Kobo has its own kind of attraction, but it is not the same sort of attraction that a beautiful hardcover or trade paperback might have. Overall, though, so far I am growing rapidly quite fond of the thing; I may even resort to giving it a name. The idea of having multiple books at my fingertips for travelling and sitting in waiting rooms (a favourite occupation lately) without giving myself back problems from carrying the weight is really extremely attractive.

Technology aside, let us move on to the meat of the thing.

The Native Star
by M. K. Hobson
Dial, 2010
326 pages

I'd blame the fact that I was up too late reading this, couldn't sleep after stopping for the night for thinking about it, and woke up at an ungodly hour to finish the damn thing on the fact that I was reading it on my new toy, but... I think anyone who knows my reading habits would sniff out the lie immediately. It has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with my own inability to let an exciting plot be.

And this is a very exciting plot. It's a travel story, an adventure story, a quest really: Emily Edwards, small-town frontier witch in California, comes into possession of a strange magical stone after a series of questionable choices. Very shortly she becomes the target of some of the most powerful men in magic, all of whom want the stone for their own aims and don't seem to care to much about what happens to Emily in the process. One disgraced warlock, the improbably-named Dreadnought Stanton, makes it his mission to get Emily to New York to the one person who may be able to help her. But the journey is perilous -- pursued by government agents, bounty hunters, and mysterious factions that Emily has never heard of, Emily and Dreadnought are in for a very dangerous, very challenging cross-country trip.

One of the things that stood out for me from the beginning was how strangely unlikeable I found some of the characters, even the protagonists. Both Emily and Dreadnought (okay, that's it, I'm calling him Stanton from now on -- you will be glad to know that his name doesn't go without comment in the book, either) are prickly, unpleasant, and mulish to begin with; Stanton is insufferable, and Emily makes some really questionable decisions straight off the bat, and then continues to be stubborn and off-putting for chapters after. This is a brave choice, to have your protagonists be difficult right at the beginning of the book. But it works here, because gradually I found myself coming to enjoy and then really like both of them. Other characters have their own quirks; while many of them only show up briefly, they are all well-described. The villain, mind you, is thoroughly despicable and irredeemable, possibly to the extreme; I found nothing to recommend him, and he was a bit of a mouthpiece for a point Hobson wanted to make. I often like my villains with a bit of ambiguity, but it didn't take away from the story here -- the complexity of the other characters made up for it.

I didn't find the writing to be spectacular; the phrase "workmanlike" occurs to me. It's not inspired, but it's also not boring or lacklustre. It's just there, and it serves its masters Plot and Character well enough. The only thing that occasionally bothered me was that Hobson can be a little unsubtle in her Messages. You know, the ones where we're looking at "racism is bad" or "rabid patriotism is bad" or "greed is bad" -- that sort of thing. There are parallels drawn with oil, natural gas, and other non-renewable resources that are pretty blatant. It got a little heavy-handed at times, but again, frankly, the plotting can carry it; or at least it can for me, because I generally agree with Hobson's views on these issues.

The world-building, on the other hand, is excellent, and worthy of notice. I would love to find more alternate history fantasy set in the Wild West if it's done as well as Hobson has done here (Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child comes to mind, though they're completely different worlds; I have enjoyed the setting of both.) There are vague steampunky elements, but they're not terribly prevalent; really, I can only point to one section with a flying machine that I would think of as straight steampunk at all. The system of magic is interesting, if slightly predictable (can anyone recommend a good fantasy where blood magic is not automatically evil? I've seen a few where necromancy gets a fair shake, but nothing with blood) and well-integrated into society as a whole. There are even anti-magic factions, a religion that struck me as particularly recognizeable and realistic. These little details were nice touches as well as plot drivers.

Overall, I think Hobson's attention to detail is what makes the book as good as it is, giving it a ring of gritty veracity. Her realistic characters and settings mean it's a much simpler task for the reader to suspend disbelief and enter the book wholesale. I would recommend this to fans of fantasy and alternate histories; I would also recommend to fans of romance, though be aware that the romance isn't a central point of the story, more of a pleasing sidenote, despite the book jacket copy. It would be a good jumping-off place for fans of paranormal romance to slide into an adventure-based fantasy, for example. There will be a sequel, I believe it's possibly already published, but the book stands on its own -- it's just the epilogue that sets up the next tale.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

unexpected August arrival

Well. So, this is an entry I didn't really expect to write for some time, which will tell you what the past two weeks of my life has been like. You may have noticed that my productivity on this blog has dropped somewhat in the past year. Apparently pregnancy will do this to one, particularly a pregnancy as odd in some ways as mine has been; the first trimester was weird, the second trimester was great, and the third trimester started off perfectly fine and went rapidly wonky.

The productivity around here has dropped to zero in the past three weeks; something about having a baby multiple weeks earlier than one expects to have a baby will make reading anything more than a heart rate monitor really, really challenging. Luckily (for a whole suite of reasons) I had five days of bedrest before said baby made her appearance, which meant I finished two books and started a third and fourth. I even have most of a review typed up for the first of the two. We'll see if I ever get to the second review, or the rest of the third or fourth book. Right now I don't think I have the follow-through required for Wilkie Collins. So expect a review or two on the way, but until I have my brain on straight again there might be more silence from this corner. With reviews of awesome board books to follow. Blogging is a normal, adult-focused activity for me, and I could use some normality right now.

I think, for blog purposes, I will call her smallfry, with her father being fishy. She is indeed tremendously small, though growing more every day. And despite everything, she is feisty, active, and charming; she has outstripped expectations as far as growth and health. Doctors and nurses tell us how cute she is, and how impressive, both of which are very nice to hear. We can see for ourselves how well she is doing; she is growing, and she is perfect. Perhaps I am a bit biased, though.

The whole experience, aside from being hella stressful, has been surreal and full of wonderful and terrifying moments. The C-section was a surreal one, with my mind-shatteringly amazing husband giving me topics and me attempting to rhyme off which Dewey Decimal Number the topic might fit in to (I could remember that Sailing was under Sports, but I couldn't remember what number Sports might be, for some reason...) and the moment afterwards when I got to see my tiny baby for the first time (she looked like a miniature Walter Matthau.) I suspect surreality and wonder and terror are what are in store for us over the next months too, and probably beyond.

Alas, I am afraid she will have to remain cute in your imaginations, dear readers; I am going to continue with my policy of not posting photos of recognizeable faces online. But in the traditions of this blog, a photo of her feet seems appropriate.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Bafut Beagles by Gerald Durrell

The Bafut Beagles
by Gerald Durrell
Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954
232 pages

I find this book a little hard to review. It is third in my quest to read all of Gerald Durrell's autobiographical animal stories, and I am glad I read it; it had moments in it I would have been sorry to miss. The man writes beautifully. He has a great turn of phrase, a beautiful knack for description, and a dry, self-skewering sense of humour. These early books of his, at least, are a rich tapestry of love of place, love of animals, and deep curiousity about the world around him.

The Bafut Beagles, though, is a product of its historical moment; published in the early 1950s, the edition I have from the library is a first printing. He spends a lot more time here documenting the people around him than in the previous two, and not always to his credit in a contemporary light. As stated before, I do think that Durrell was likely extremely progressive given his station (a well-enough-off white British male) and I do think he had a healthy dose of respect and affection for the people he met and worked with in the British Cameroons; one realizes this as one reads, and it is quite clear. One also gets vaguely uncomfortable as one identifies a very faint paternalistic colonialism and a definite streak of sexism that rears its head every once in a while. I found it particularly jarring in The Bafut Beagles, thanks largely, I think, to one rather ugly incident that Durrell relates and plays a bit for laughs (though he is laughing at himself, mostly, and his own romantic colonialism, I think). I think also it's because he did spend less time talking about the animals, which is what I read for anyways. That said, as before, I was reading it knowing that it is a snapshot of a fascinating profession in a particular time, and so I was able to enjoy the best parts of the book, and move past the parts that occasionally made me cringe.

It does make me wonder if, when I was reading some of these books for the first time (this was not one of them; of the three I've read so far, only Three Singles to Adventure was a reread) some of the historical tenor of them was present but I missed it, or whether it was removed for political correctness in later editions (I am not sure how I feel about this), or whether his underlying, and (I suspect strongly) unconscious, attitudes changed as the times did -- most of the others of his that I've read were from the late 60s and 70s.

Anyway! As always, my favourite parts of this book were to do with the animals, and particularly the parts in which he is describing a behaviour or a proclivity that a particular animal has, rather than a capture. The simple pen-and-ink illustrations that accompany the text are actually quite helpful in showing the physical characteristics of the animals Durrell describes. He is clearly fascinated -- enamoured, really -- by animals in all of their forms, from the tiniest insects to the largest predators, and it shows. I think part of the reason I didn't like this book quite as well as the first two is that there was less of the animals than there had been previously. He is at his strongest, writing-wise, when he is talking about them, too.

I won't recommend this book, even in Durrell's canon, but I'm not sad to have read it, if that makes any sense. I think it could have been skipped comfortably and I wouldn't have missed too terribly much. It's an interesting read both for the intended subject matter and as an historical exercise, but reader beware, that's all. Aside from my squirming, politically correct caveats, I just don't think it's as strong a book as the previous two in the chronology.

The next book in the chronology is The New Noah, a book I can find very little about. I'm not even sure if I can find it, period, but I'll do what I can and I'm interested to see where -- and when -- Durrell takes me this time.

Other Durrell books reviewed here so far:
1. The Overloaded Ark
2. Three Singles to Adventure