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.