Wednesday, December 26, 2012

this here blog is four

Just thought I should note that before I once again bury myself in totally failing at keeping up with the holidays. For all of you who think having a newly-minted toddler around for Christmas is awesome and fun, you are right. It is also an insane amount of work and it will once again necessitate entirely new ways of doing things FOREVER.

I am sort of reading, but not really, to be honest. I think I am making it five or six pages at a time through my current non-fiction, and I am e-stuck on both the e-books I'm reading, even though I think I am e-njoying both.

I'll do some yearly wrap-up posts at some point, I swear, including my favourite First Lines and Statistics posts. Look for them in February, at the rate I'm going.

Hope you are all having a wonderful holiday, and thanks for sticking around!

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
by Barbara Robinson, narrated by Elaine Stritch
HarperChildren's Audio, 2006 (novel originally published 1971)
2 discs

This is a clear case, for me, of the narrator of an audiobook making a story. From the minute Elaine Stritch's delightful voice began this tale, I was hooked. I think I would have enjoyed this mildly if I'd read it myself, but having it read to me in a dry, wise, and perfectly-timed way elevated the experience.

The story is short: there is a family in town, the Herdmans, made up of six delinquent children and their absentee mother. We meet them through the eyes of our unnamed narrator after they have burned down a neighbour's toolshed and absconded with the donuts delivered for the firemen. These kids are notorious and nasty, bullies at school and general troublemakers everywhere else. So no one expects to see them at church (reasonably; they're only there because the narrator's little brother boasted there were refreshments) -- and no one expects them to be interested in the church's Christmas pageant. The pageant has been the same year, after year, after year... but with Herdmans in the starring roles, this year's pageant is going to be something else entirely.

I am not sure there is a whole lot of meat here for discussion with my parent-child book club. A number of the kids are in Christmas pageants of their own, so that will be fun to compare; and I'm going to be interested to hear what they have to say about the Herdmans. From an adult perspective, it's clear the Herdman kids have some serious behavioural issues, possibly stemming from poverty and neglect at home, and it's just as clear that they're not getting the kind of help they need from the adults in their lives. I'll want to hear what the kids have to say about that. The message of redemption will also be interesting to talk about even though the book ends before we find out of the Herdmans are really changed by their experience. And we can talk about how changing things unexpectedly can lead us to see things clearly, how it can lead us to understand things we've never understood before.

All this said, it's a funny book, and it's supposed to be funny. I want to look a little bit behind the funny, but I also want to leave the book intact for these kids to enjoy. It's a sweet story, religious (it's about a church Christmas pageant, after all) but not pushy, and extremely short. It ended so quickly and with so many unanswered questions on this adult reader's part. The build up to the pageant was pretty big, and the pageant itself felt a little bit anticlimactic. But I still thoroughly enjoyed myself, in large part thanks to Elaine Stritch. I can totally see myself borrowing this little gem of an audiobook every year around this time to get myself into the spirit of the season. If you've read the book or seen the TV movie but never listened to the audio, I highly recommend finding yourself a copy and having a listen. It won't take you long, and it's worth it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

The Anthologist
by Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 2009
243 pages

I woke up thinking a very pleasant thought. There is lots left in the world to read.

I think I should by rights hate this book, since it's the narrator talking directly at me in stream of consciousness, and that's an unusual and very difficult conceit to pull off... but the further I get into it the more I like it, and suddenly I find myself grinning and nodding along like an idiot. It's a courageous choice, and having worked, it brings the reader so close to the narrator that one can't help but love him and feel for him, even if we are well-acquainted with his foibles and flaws, both the ones he points out to us and the ones he inadvertently reveals.

Paul Chowder is, above all, easily distracted. Teaching us about proper poetry meter and having just blasted iambic pentameter to pieces, we end up in a totally different (and totally recognizable) place:

See those four numbers? Those are the four beats. Four stresses, as we say in the meter business. Tetrameter. Four. "Tetra" is four. Like Tetris, that computer game where the squares come down relentlessly  and overwhelm your mind with their crude geometry and make you peck at the arrow keys like some mindless experimental chicken and hurry and panic and finally you turn your computer off. And you sit there thinking, Why have I just spent an hour watching squares drop down a computer screen?

Heh. And also, sigh.

Another note that keeps cropping up is birds. Paul is not (or claims not to be) a big fan, which is one place where he and I differ. Frankly, we differ on a lot of things, although not on our computer game-playing habits.

You hear that bird? Chirtle chirtle chirtle chirtle. With birds it's different. Birds are very different than we are. They don't know what an upbeat is. They go, Chirtle chirtle chirtle chirtle. And then the next time they might just go, Chirtle -- chirtle chirtle. It's like some kind of wigged-out aimless Gregorian chant. And then sometimes: Chirtle chirtle. And then: Chirtle chirtle chirt? Questioning. You don't know where you are with that.

This is an interesting book in that I kind of want to quote all of it for you. It is extremely meandering, so there's not a lot of forward momentum, other than the fact that I am enjoying Paul's thoughts so much I want more, more, more. And sometimes I go backwards and read bits over again. It's not a very efficient way to read, all this stopping and quoting. This is not a very efficient sort of book, though.

There is a kind of tenderness here, an exposure that is both sweet and sad. Paul is a lovely man, a poet suffering from an absolutely debilitating case of writer's block over a summer during which his partner of eight years has left him and he has to write an introduction to his anthology of collected rhyming poems. At the beginning he seems like he's a run-of-the-mill procrastinator, but the further we get into the summer and into Paul's story we understand that he's not just procrastinating. He's having a true crisis. It's not the sort of crisis he respects -- most of his favourite poets were true sufferers, and he doesn't count himself among them either as a good poet or a true sufferer. But he is suffering, and the reader sees that, and even as the reader shakes their head at his folly they also understand, completely, that he just can't write.

And then we get further in and little pieces of mystery begin to unfold; why did Roz leave? Does she still love him? Why can't Paul teach? Why rhyme? What's wrong with iambic pentameter? What on earth has happened to shake Paul's confidence so badly?

And when the answers are revealed -- not with drama, but in tiny ways that could easily slip by without the reader's notice, except that the reader has been paying close attention because Paul really does know how to use language -- they are perfect and understated and understandable and sometimes not singular, but a confluence of factors leading to the present circumstance.

This is an intimate book, a splendid book that goes on just long enough and drifts to a close in a beautiful way. There is subtlety, a careful scrutiny of the small, and an acknowledgement of the absurd and the universal. I know much more about poetry than I did when I started it, too, but that's totally beside the point. It is a gift to spend a week in Paul Chowder's gentle, distracted, intelligent, funny head and I will be coming back to this book again. This is one of those books that makes it hard for me to decide whether or not to search out more by the author; what if his other books aren't anything like this one? I can't imagine that there's anything else out there quite like this one. But then, if this book is anything to go by, Baker knows how to write. I'm looking forward to reading more.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist
by Paulo Coelho, translated by Alan R.Clarke
read by Jeremy Irons
HarperAudio, 2000
4 discs (unabridged)

I am not sure I'm going to endear myself to people when I discuss this book. There are a lot of people who are very fond of it. I am not sure I am a fan. This book is pushy.

We read this for my adventurous genre book club. It was picked by the staff member who was covering my leave -- the second book she picked that I probably would not have (the first was horror by Stephen King, which despite my admiration for the man I just could. not. do.) And I'm really glad she was doing the picking, because I am not sure I ever would have gotten around to reading this if she hadn't, and it was a good choice, I think. Incidentally, the Stephen King was a great pick, too -- the group really enjoyed it, and we had an awesome discussion despite my wimpiness. I expect my group will have fun with this one too, but for different reasons.

On the surface, this is the story of Santiago (who is only given a name once, and thereafter referred to as "the boy"), a shepherd in Andalusia who has a recurring dream about treasure near the Pyramids. He drops everything and heads off to search for it, discovering that this search for treasure is his Personal Legend, meeting some interesting characters along the way, and learning rather a lot about life, the universe, and everything in the process.

And on the surface, I should love this. I love fantasies, I love fairytales, I'm a fan of a good quest story. But overall the effect is pretty meh. It's not the fault of the audiobook; good old Jeremy Irons does his best. It's not the fault of the simplicity of the tale, which I rather liked. It's not even the fault of the religious overtones (er, "overtones" is maybe an understatement). It's the fault of the author, who wouldn't get subtlety if it jumped up and bit him (subtly or otherwise). It's the fault of the Personal Legend and the fact that we are beaten about the head with the Message that if we are working towards our Personal Legend, all the universe will conspire to help us. And fine, agree with the Message or not, but please cease beating me with it. I get it.

What I want out of a book like this is a good story, even if it is bare-bones-simple as this one, and it doesn't have to be realistic. So I got that, and for that reason I managed to listen to the audiobook the whole way through without chucking it out the car window. The characters, even if they are just sketched in, are likable and/or interesting enough. They're a bit fairy-tale, in that they're mostly ciphers with a specific purpose in the story, but that has never stopped me. My imagination is well up to the task of filling in, in this particular kind of situation, and I actually quite liked Santiago, or who I imagined Santiago to be.

I am not against allegorical fiction. If there is a message, I am okay with that, if it is done properly. Properly means it doesn't take centre stage so often as to throw me out of the story and contemplation of what other things I might find inside. Properly means that the message is incorporated into the story in such a way that it feels comfortable and natural, an outgrowth of the story as opposed to ... whatever we got here. Here, the Message was brought up so often that it felt like neon signs were flashing: "Get it? Get it? There is a design! You only have to live your best life, follow your dreams, and good things will happen! See? See? Even if it's not easy, follow your dreams and good things will happen! YES? Get it? PERSONAL LEGEND! MAKTUB! ALSO LOVE! Do you see it?"

Which... yeesh. I don't like my fiction yelling at me. I don't find it inspiring at all.

I'm glad I listened to the audiobook, although maybe in the end that was a mistake too, because I do find that anything that recurs noticeably in a written text is magnified in an audiobook. But it was an easy listen, where I might have gotten frustrated with the read. Maybe I am too jaded at this time in my life, but I did a lot of eye-rolling and muttering, and while I was never fully irritated I did start to get there at points. Maybe that's a comment on me, and maybe I should be sad about that. On the other hand, I've read books with the same themes and the same message that didn't inspire the words "Oh, come on, really with this again?" repeatedly.

I wanted to like this book. There are things about it that are quite endearing, and I can see why it's managed to remain so popular. But it wasn't the right book for me.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Spud by John van de Ruit

Spud
by John van de Ruit
Razorbill, 2007
331 pages

It's late and I probably shouldn't be writing this right now, but I doubt I'll sleep until I get some of this out of my system. This book has done its level best to destroy me, and I'm fighting back. Talk about reading outside one's comfort zone.

It's hard to talk about this. Did I love this book? Certainly parts of it. Did I hate this book? I'm not sure, but there were parts I think I can fairly say I hated. And whether I love it or hate it, this book has caused me no end of trouble since I picked it off the shelf, a lot of that my own damn fault.

To begin with, I did a thing that no librarian should do: I recommended this book to my brand-spanking-new after school club without having read it myself first. Now, to be fair, it is highly recommended by many whose opinions I respect, and its "target age" is between 12-18, which puts it right about in the ballpark for a book club of 12-13 year-olds. What I should have recognized, and did pretty much from the outset once I had started reading it is that my particular group of 12-13 year-olds isn't ready for Spud. I am a proponent of reading fearlessly, I am not a fan of censorship, I think there is space for controversy in every librarian's job. I also think that reading the right book at the wrong time can be a disaster for the reader and the book. (See: my long-held hatred of Bridge to Terabithia.) My librarian-spidey-senses are telling me that for at least five of the nine kids in the group, this is really not the right time.

So now, of course, I have to go back to them with a mea culpa. I plan on being totally honest with them: I recommended this book based on the information I had, but I hadn't actually read it, and now that I have I'm not comfortable with the choice. They're welcome to read it on their own, but I've got a couple other options for our book club that will scratch the same itch. (Schooled by Gordon Korman will be arriving just in the nick of time, I hope.)

And that's just the first bit of trouble that Spud has caused me.

Summary time!

John Milton is a very bright thirteen-year-old prepubescent boy heading off to a very prestigious all-boys boarding school in South Africa in 1990. While he is there for his first year, Nelson Mandela will be released, apartheid will start to unravel, he will fall in love with two different girls (not counting Julia Roberts), and encounter sex, great literature, death, cricket, theatre, vicious enemies, and good friends. And we have access to it all, because John "Spud" Milton is a crack diarist.

And when I say all, I mean all. Spud lets us in to his very deepest thoughts and desires, as well as chronicling everything he sees around him, leaving nothing out. It's crass, tender, brilliant, occasionally sad, often completely horrifying, and wickedly, wickedly funny. It's easy to read, even when Spud is going places I fear to tread, and he makes such an engaging, sympathetic narrator that right from the first entries the reader is rooting for him.

It's an interesting book to read right now with the bullying issue so prevalent in the media. As with Spud's friend Gecko, I cannot imagine a worse Hell than an all-boys boarding school; Spud is far more resilient than I could imagine being, far more brave (despite seeing himself a coward), and far more humane than I could imagine being under the conditions he describes. This isn't the happy boarding school world of Hogwarts. This is a viciously mean-minded place, where your friends are just as likely to turn on you as your enemies and going for help is considered a punishable betrayal. There's chronic physical and sexual assault, verbal taunts, daily humiliations... it's foul. And reading about it leaves one vaguely horrified because one knows that it's not really made up. This stuff happened. Happens. What is amazing is that anyone can come out of a situation like that and not end up a sociopath. It does become abundantly clear why kids in bad situations like this don't stand up for the bullied, though, or go to adults for help. They simply can't.

It's not all terror and misery, and Spud manages to walk just this side of the line of being the smallest and most pathetic, easiest to pick on. He's got characteristics that give him some street cred, despite his size and beautiful soprano voice. He's likable, he's clever, he's brave enough. He's a good cricketer and he's got some sort of attraction for the female sex, which while being more trouble than it's worth is also his ticket to being accepted by his peers. And it's refreshing to read a book directed at kids between 12-18 that deals so frankly and honestly with the physical as well as the mental aspects of budding sexuality. Spud doesn't think about sex all the time, but it's not that far from his thoughts ever, which feels about right for both males and females of his age.

Happily for the reader, Spud is really, really funny. Not always on purpose, but he's generally pretty good at seeing the amusing side of things, too, so the reader is laughing with him rather than at him, as he incredulously reports the madness of events around him. His family is utterly dysfunctional; his father is a drunken, paranoid wannabe who is somehow fairly harmless in spite of himself. (Talking point for book club discussion: his father is pretty racist, and I use the word "harmless" -- but even if his father is totally ineffectual and a laughing-stock, is he truly "harmless" in his bigotry?) His grandmother, "affectionately" called Wombat, is convinced everyone is stealing from her -- things like her yoghurt. As Spud says, he's pretty capable of taking what school throws at him because he's used to the complete insanity of the world. And Spud is also compassionate and considerate, trying to do the right thing while maintaining his own grip on sanity, which he (not unreasonably) tends to think he's losing at various points.

John van de Ruit, as one might guess, has inhabited Spud so thoroughly that he disappears into the text. There doesn't seem to be an author, just a kid writing in his diary. Which is mostly good, but can also be a bit difficult in that Spud sometimes can't or won't go places an author could; the depth and seriousness sometimes gets undercut or ignored. Sometimes it feels like it gets undercut for laughs, but one could read that as Spud trying to use humour to cope.

The ending, which I absolutely will not spoil for you, felt very sour compared to the rest of the story because the crisis event happens so close to the end of term that Spud doesn't really get a chance to work through it to this reader's satisfaction. Sitting back a bit, I realize that it would be unfair to ask Spud to be more thorough in his analysis and recovery, because he's a 14-year-old kid writing in a dairy. So it's authentic, perhaps, but it's abrupt. I felt like I was left hanging. And not in a way that leaves me clamouring for a sequel; it's not that kind of hanging. I'd say more but I'll start to give things away. However, I'm writing this review at midnight even though smallfry is asleep and I should be too, because I needed some time to deal with what happened.

Do I think you should read this book? Yes. Read this book and then come back here and talk to me about it. This is a great, refreshing, darkly funny, extremely-well-written book. As you can probably tell from the length of this entry, I want to talk about this book. I think there's incredible amounts of fodder for discussion here, and perhaps someday I will take a crack at it with a book club, when the time is right.

UPDATE: Since writing this, I've had my book club meeting, and explained my discomfort to the kids; they promptly asked why, so I explained that too. Then instead of telling them we weren't doing the book, I said I wasn't going to tell them they had to read it, but they could choose to read it or Schooled. Of the seven at the meeting, two took Spud home, and five took Schooled. Kids are the best judges of their own comfort levels. I'm looking forward to our discussion!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

Green Grass, Running Water
by Thomas King
HarperCollins, 1993
431 pages

So.
In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water.

Coyote was there, but Coyote was asleep. That Coyote was asleep and that Coyote was dreaming. When that Coyote dreams, anything can happen.
I can tell you that.

I am not sure how to talk about this book. Aarti has done a much more concise job than I will; please do go read her musings on it. She makes a more enthusiastic case than I do, though I don't think I liked this book less.

There is a lot that can be said about this book. I loved it, I really did. I've owned it for years, have started trying to read it a couple of times and always enjoyed the first little bit, but for some reason it kept getting shunted. Not this time, and I read it quickly and avidly. I loved pretty much everything about it. The language, the imagery, the rhythms that read easily and lend themselves to a reading that almost has the power of an aural experience. I loved the setting. I even started to love the characters, flawed and wonderful as they were.

Let's see about some sort of summary... well, there's Lionel, and if the novel has a hero, it's probably Lionel. Lionel is a somewhat aimless, meandering character, a television salesperson just about to turn forty. He has almost negative initiative and what little inertia he started out with has long since petered out. But he's not happy. He lives in Blossom, Alberta, not far from the reservation he grew up on, but he rarely goes to visit. His sister Latisha is doing well for herself running the Dead Dog Cafe, a restaurant catering to gullible tourists. His uncle Eli lives alone in a tiny cabin in the shadow of an enormous dam -- a dam he's managed to keep from running for over ten years in an enormous, drawn-out legal battle with the company that built it. Eli is friends, or perhaps frenemies, with the owner of the dam, Clifford Sifton, who comes by every morning for coffee and a request that Eli get the hell out of his way. Lionel's cousin Charlie, formerly a television salesman at the same place where Lionel finds himself stuck, is now a bigshot lawyer... working for the company the owns the dam. And finally Lionel's sometime girlfriend Alberta, a college professor (who is also seeing Charlie) is on her way home for Lionel's birthday, wishing she could trade in both her men for a baby. All of these pieces, and several others, are about to collide at the annual Sun Dance.

This doesn't even touch on the four Indians and Coyote, whose sections were by far my favourites. Overall, the effect is less chaotic than it likely could be because somehow King manages to keep it together; but it's beautifully messy, rambunctious, uncomfortable, joyful, and absolutely hilarious.

It's a wonderful reading experience, this one, and different. Because of the rhythm, the fact that it reads very much like an oral story in many places, it's not your usual novel. There aren't so much chapters as little sections, and it jumps all over the place. It circles back on itself multiple times; a reader paying attention will catch nods back to other parts of the story, and back to other bits of Canlit, even. I love books that do this, because every time one comes across one of these little winks to the reader, I always feel like I've been given a little gift.

What struck me while reading this book is the casual, endemic, embedded racism that becomes exposed by King's lovely bright light. We have the government's role, which is almost a laughing-stock in the book; this is the insidious, systemic racism that goes largely unnoticed by those of us outside the system. It's the reason the dam was built where it was, not in any of the three recommended locations. It's the reason, ultimately, that Lionel is stuck where he is. It's the reason that Alberta's family's fancy-dance costumes are confiscated at the border when they're going to visit relatives in the States.

We have society and the media's role, exemplified in this book by Western movies and books: Indians as the bad guys, cowboys as the good guys. It's not as simplified in Green Grass, Running Water as it sounds here, but it is, in some ways, that simple.

And then there's Bill Bursum, Lionel's boss, owner of the television store. His is the casual, off-handed racism that grows out of the above two types, and it's also the most cringe-worthy. He treats Lionel terribly, though not outwardly -- well, and his other employee, too, and she's female, so one thinks maybe Bill Bursum is just generally a pretty casually racist, sexist guy. But he's also the kind of guy we all know and most of us probably wouldn't give a second thought, until we look a little bit closer. He's not a bad guy, he's just... incredibly small-minded. He's that guy who makes politically incorrect jokes and comments and expects everyone to laugh; we might wince, but we probably don't challenge him on it.

If I keep going, this review is going to be a mile long, but it's also important to note: this isn't an issues book, it's a book where the issues are present but incidental to the telling the story. I haven't even touched on the fact that this book put me in mind of Carl Hiaasen, in a good way, thanks to the humour and the way the space is so integral to the tale. And the way some characters, at least, end up where the reader feels they should. I haven't delved as much into the wonderful imagery and imagination. I haven't talked about how the setting is perfect and awe-inspiring. I haven't touched nearly as much on the women in this book as I'd like to, either. And the funny. I haven't made this book sound nearly as funny as it is. But perhaps that's for the best, because you really, really have to read this book to understand. Highly recommended reading. Fall right in and float, and trust King to take you on a stunning, convoluted, thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley

The Shadowy Horses
by Susanna Kearsley
Allison and Busby, 2009 (originally published in 1997)
407 pages

Huh, 407 pages went by really, really fast. Which is a good sign! For some reason, this book had crossed my awareness three or four times in the past two weeks, and then suddenly one of our library patrons brought it back last week. It was headed back to one of our other branches with no holds, and it seemed like fate. So I picked it up, figuring it might be a good semi-spooky read for Hallowe'en. And it was just perfectly eerie enough without freaking me out, and a solid read for other reasons as well. Solid enough that I've gone ahead and purchased a copy for my Kobo (unfortunately, not with this cover; the ebook cover is just baffling), and if I see a paper version floating around I'll pick that up too.

Verity Grey is an archaeologist. A friend and ex-flame has recommended her for a dig that he's also working on, a nice cushy job in Scotland near the town of Eyemouth on the North Sea. Feeling restless and wanting something different, and intrigued by the hints Adrian has dropped, Verity leaves her comfortable life in London to meet Peter Quinnell, the charismatic, wealthy, and possibly mad director of the planned dig. But it doesn't take long for Verity to start believing in Quinnell, and other seemingly impossible things -- the ghostly Sentinel that a local boy has befriended, and the fact that perhaps Quinnell and the psychic child have stumbled upon the final resting place of the legendary, long lost Ninth Legion, Legio IX Hispana.

First, the bad, and there is some: I don't think this is a stellar book. The writing was occasionally a little clunky, a little info-dumpy. The foreshadowing occasionally foreshadows nothing, or nothing serious. The hints of gothic suspense are just that: hints, that often flutter away into nothing, which left even my faint heart a little unsatisfied. Other foreshadowing is a bit roll-one's-eyes obvious. As a piece with these writing-related beefs, there can be a bit much telling (ie. Verity is referred to as "difficult" a couple of times) and not enough showing (she never appeared particularly difficult to me). All of this is pretty minor, comparatively, but I mention it because I was occasionally pulled out of the story, even if just momentarily.

Also, I wanted more of the horses. They never really gelled with the rest of the story for me. But they could have been so cool. The first appearance of the horses was the goosebumpiest moment of the book for me.

The middling: though there are some deeper threads here, they're never really investigated in any serious depth, so don't pick this up if you want a read that delves into family relationships, for example, in any significant way. There seems to be an attempt at exploring themes of family ties and tragedies, but it all seemed to me to be backdrop, not very meaty at all. That was just fine by me in this read, because I wasn't expecting, or wanting necessarily, a bigger emotional resonance. I just wanted some vaguely gothic fun, some ghosts, some history, and some characters I could connect with.

Which brings me to the good: writing flaws aside, this book is compulsively readable. I stayed up about four hours past my bedtime working away on it, and when I wasn't reading it I wanted to be. The plot is thick, the fun is there, and the characters are worth it. Verity herself is believable and very likable, intelligent and sensible, willing to believe the best of everyone but not blind. She's confident, absolutely not a pushover. The other characters are varied, and though we see them only through Verity's first person narration, they take on lives of their own. But it's really Verity who makes this book. I would read several more books with her as the narrator, if I could, just to spend more time with her.

And the history! This is where this book excels, although it occasionally does get bogged down in Kearsley's clear enthusiasm for the science of archaeology. Not that I minded much, given my own predilections where science is concerned, and the portrayal of science in media. This is where things can get a bit info-dumpy, but though it took me slightly out of the story, it was Verity's own enthusiasm that propelled the facts into conversation. I know that archaeology isn't glamourous and thrilling, but I've always been interested in it and despite its distinct lack of glamour I've always kind of thought I'd enjoy being an archaeologist of some description. There but for the siren song of environmental biology and librarianship I might have gone. So it's possible I enjoyed this book even more than others not so interested in archaeology might have, but I don't think it would be a show-stopper for them; there's enough here in the characters and plot to keep one engaged. Just skip the parts about the differences between Roman marching camps and forts.

This is gothic lit lite, so fans of the deeply creepy or very suspenseful may not want to bother with this. But a little light romance, a smattering of history, and a faintly ghostly story rooted well in sense of place (I really did feel like I was hanging out in Eyemouth and I read this all with a thick Scottish brogue in my head) was exactly what I wanted right now, and I'm looking forward to subsequent re-reads. Recommended, as long as you're aware that it's not a deep, disturbing, or heart-wrenching sort of read. I'm not quite convinced that Kearsley should be on my must-read list, but I'll certainly read more by her when the opportunity presents itself.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express
by Agatha Christie
Berkley, 2000 (originally published in 1933)
245 pages

Hooray, another conquest in our quest to read a bunch of Golden Age mystery novels! I am not doing so well with this quest; fishy is doing much better, but here, finally, is another one (the first, and only other, one I have read was Strong Poison, though I think The Big Sleep almost counts too; it's the right era, and a backlash against the original, tidy British cozies). Agatha Christie is such a giant of the mystery world, and still so very popular. I feel that reading at least one book by her is part of my ongoing quest to be a better librarian. And so we picked, with some help, the famous Murder on the Orient Express. Trains! Blizzards! Murder most foul!

Murder most incredibly complicated, more like. Let's see. The incomparable Hercule Poirot is on his way back to London after an unspecified but clearly successful investigation for the French army in Syria. He had intended to take the train to Stamboul and be a tourist for a couple days before continuing on, but an urgent telegram from London reaches him in Stamboul when they arrive, and he manages to squeeze passage on the remarkably full sleeping car, the Stamboul-Calais coach, thanks to his dear friendship with M. Bouc, the director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. And on the second night out, in the midst of a blizzard as the train is stopped by snow on the tracks, the inevitable happens: the man in the cabin next to M. Poirot is brutally murdered, stabbed twelve times, sometime between midnight and two in the morning.

It is inevitable because it is a mystery novel, of course, and Poirot knows it. In discussion with his friend M. Bouc:

"Ah!" he sighed. "If I had but the pen of a Balzac! I would depict this scene." He waved a hand.

"It is an idea, that," said Poirot.

"Ah, you agree? It has not been done, I think? And yet -- it lends itself to romance, my friend. All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never perhaps to see each other again."

"And yet," said Poirot, "suppose an accident --"

"Ah, no, my friend --"

"From your point of view it would be regrettable, I agree. But nevertheless let us just for one moment suppose it. Then, perhaps, all these here are linked together -- by death."

This is even before one of the characters petitions Poirot for help, in fear of his life. It made me laugh. I could almost hear the "dunh dunh duuuunh" after it. One cannot help but suspect that the little Belgian has good reason for his morbid speculation, though, if he keeps stumbling upon corpses all over the place. He can't even get away from murder when he's on a completely closed coach in the middle of a blizzard in the hinterlands of Europe.

We have here an archetypal cozy murder mystery: the victim no one much misses, the completely fantastic and impossibly complicated crime, and the completely closed circle of suspects, nearly all of whom seem to have secrets and be hiding some dastardly motive, the incomparable detective who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. The thing is, though I think Christie tries at least a bit, none of the characters are very likable. None of them, save the victim, are terribly dislikable either. They're just there, pieces of a puzzle for Hercule Poirot to manipulate and fiddle with until they slot into their proper places. And herein lies my biggest problem with this novel.

Now, don't get me wrong. I quite enjoyed it. It's a great puzzle. I was always on the verge of feeling I might have it, only to have Poirot poke a hole in my theory (as he does with the theories of his Watsons, M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine.) There were a few things I cottoned on to, and I think if I'd been more interested in reading the thing as a logic puzzle, as I am sure many Christie readers were/are wont to do, I could have taken notes and figured things out. I think this is Christie's attraction. It's quite fiendishly ingenious, and the solution is very neat and completely preposterous. Twisted, yet it emerges in such a way as to make perfect sense. So, very fun.

Fun, but not emotionally engaging, really. Poirot just doesn't have the attraction for me of, say, Sherlock Holmes or Brother Cadfael. The Holmes comparison is apt, because both are geniuses, and kind of unknowable in their genius. It's also unfair, because I've read so much Holmes and this is the first Poirot novel I've read.

The other problem I had was I was particularly excited to have a go at Murder on the Orient Express for reasons of setting. I have a rather romantic fascination with train travel, particularly back when train travel was the luxurious way to get around. I had a hard time, here, feeling the setting. There wasn't enough description, and I am not as familiar with the sleeper coaches of international trains as I perhaps wish I was. Even the snow and cold felt perfunctory, despite playing a critical role in the story. That said, I could see reading this book in the dead of winter with the snow flying thick in the air, and feeling a little more attached to where the action is taking place. I know there are movie depictions of this story; I'm pretty tempted, in this case, to have a watch, because I think this story is well-suited to that medium.

Emotional attachment to character isn't always a prerequisite for me to enjoy a book, and this is evidence. I enjoyed myself, but I am left feeling a little bit... unsatisfied. I do understand what people see in her work. I could definitely see reading more Agatha Christie myself. Next time, I'll be a little more prepared for the cardboard characters, and I will enjoy the story for what it is: a puzzle set out very skillfully in novel form.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus Volume 2 by CLAMP

Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus Volume 2
by CLAMP
Dark Horse, 2011
576 pages

It feels a little odd to review this as my first real review since my hiatus, because I'm not sure how much I have to say. Most of what I wanted to say about Cardcaptor Sakura I said in my review of the first book in this omnibus release. That all still stands, and if you haven't read it, probably best to go there first if you're interested in this series.

This volume wraps up the first main storyline, though there are plenty of loose ends, particularly in the relationships, to tie up at some point down the road. And the relationships do get more tangled, with misunderstandings, breakups, secrets, and surprises.

There is the typical silliness, but also some poignant moments, too. There are also a few storylines that barely make sense. There is one story in particular that just seems crazy to me, involving Sakura's great-grandfather... who never tells her he's her great-grandfather... why would you do that? Why would he deny himself the pleasure of knowing his great-grandkids better? It can't be her father's doing, since he's not insane. Also that story was way rushed, and one gets the feeling we never, ever come back to it, either. Very odd in a manga series that generally deals with relationships and complexity fairly well. Highly unsatisfying, and a low point in a volume that is mostly quite good.

It's an interesting experience reading the books, too, when I'm so familiar with the anime. There was another storyline that again seemed fairly rushed, this one involving a play Sakura's class is putting on for the school talent show, that was drawn out into a full episode in the anime series. It was a really well-done episode, and I'm afraid the manga counterpart rather suffers by comparison. Not as nuanced. This is actually true of the ending of this particular main storyline arc, too. While the ending of the manga made more sense to me, was definitely more clear, it was also WAY faster. Things happen without any pause for reflection, and then it's done. I wonder whether it would feel so anticlimactic if I had never seen the anime, where the events are drawn out over several episodes. Sure, I'm sure the producers were milking the manga to draw out what had clearly become a very successful series, but it actually worked; things felt more tense, like there was more at stake.

But perhaps I wouldn't have noticed that if I hadn't seen the anime at all. Hard to know.

The third volume is well out, and I've asked for it for Christmas. And now it's down in writing, so...

I continue to recommend this series, but definitely read them in order. I'm looking forward to seeing the next volume, as I'm sure there are several things that confused the hell out of me in the anime that will make quite a bit more sense in the manga. Or here's hoping, anyway.

Monday, October 15, 2012

perhaps an annotated list will do?

I have come to the reluctant conclusion that I am never going to catch up on my book reviews. So let's at least have a list, and maybe a few words, about the books I've read since... gulp... July? Really? Sigh. I have been reading, at least, sometimes re-reading, sometimes picking up things and dropping them, sometimes skimming through something so fast I'm not even going to bother putting it down here.

(On a personal note: since I've been away, smallfry has hit one year old and is now over six times her birth weight and everything is great. She loves reading, particularly anything with a rhythm. She also ate her first library book this week, full on chewing and swallowing the spine of a not-that-good counting book. I was so proud and also dismayed. At any rate, I'm also back to work, which I'd blame for the lack of blogging, except I've only been back a month. If anything, being back at work is getting me back to wanting to blog again.)

So, starting with the books I read shortly after Lakeland and moving forward to the one I've most recently finished:

Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon
Fun, Asian-inspired YA fantasy that I've been meaning to read for ages. Lightly romantic, very creative in most ways, and pulling on traditions I'm not as familiar with. Enjoyed, though they weren't as memorable as I might have hoped; good for a light, entertaining read but probably not a re-read.

The Story of Saiunkoku by Sai Yukino
Okay, this is not one book, but seven volumes of manga. And if you are a manga fan and haven't read this series, what on earth are you waiting for? Really, really wonderful, smart, funny, sweetly romantic, and beautifully well-drawn. Sometimes a bit predictable, but in a really good way, and sometimes unpredictable in a really good way too. Volume eight is out this month. I am purchasing it. I am actually purchasing the whole series, and I don't buy a lot of manga because it's so damn expensive to buy whole long-running series. It's that good. Have already re-read a couple of times and it hasn't lost its luster yet.

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle by CLAMP
Unfortunately for this series it came after The Story of Saiunkoku. Still really enjoyable, but I haven't even finished it (I read from the beginning to volume 18) and I'm not in a big rush to get there. It's very involved, the art is great if occasionally a bit frenetic and stylized as to be expected from this group, the dynamics between the mains fantastic. I am a big Fai D. Flowright fangirl and would read several volumes of just him.

Sorcery and Cecelia and The Grand Tour by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Yes yes, I read Sorcery and Cecelia yet again. Still very fond. Finally made it through The Grand Tour and enjoyed that too, though it's really not anywhere near as good as the first one; I don't quite know why, because I can't pull out any major deficiencies. Will eventually make it to The Mislaid Magician and am hoping that it lands somewhere between the two as far as enjoyment.

Bird by Rita Murphy
I am really sorry I'm not going to write a full review of this, but I've got to get the slate cleaned. Really understated, a little deliciously creepy (but not too creepy for my faint heart) and just a fantastic all around read. Highly recommended for those looking for something short but well-written, should appeal to anyone from about grade three or four up. Consider it for a Hallowe'en read, even. It won't take you long.

Reaper Man by Sir Terry Pratchett
Okay, I am even more sad that I'm not going to write a full review of this, and so maybe that one I will get to, because it will be the first in my quest to read all the Discworld books that doesn't get the full review treatment. A surprisingly sweet, heartwarming story about everyone's favourite skeleton in a black robe. Also very funny. Also, Death of Rats. Enough said. For now.

Ill Wind by Rachel Caine (Book 1 of the Weather Wardens series)
Fast, highly entertaining and sexy read. I like Caine's world here, I like the comfortable paranormal plot, I love Joanne as the main character, and I liked the break-neck pace. I could see picking up the next book in the series, though I've got to be careful as this one kept me up well past my bedtime, when sleep is a very precious commodity around here. Felt a bit like eating a fast-food hamburger: not terribly good for you, but I couldn't regret it all the same.

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn
Reminded me why I like Sharon Shinn so much. Smart female protagonist who feels real, and makes stupid choices that make the adult me wince but would have made a lot of sense to the pre-teen me. Extremely realistic relationships and choices, and a plot that feels sensible while still being pure fantasy and has a lot to say about the way our world is. Writing very serviceable. Had a scene that was deliberately really troubling and it upset me a lot, but it was supposed to. May not be able to re-read because of that though.

Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn
After the above book, had to have more Shinn. This is also excellent: a very solid high adventure fantasy set in a very solid world. Again, characters feel really real, relationships make total sense, choices are not always correct but come from a reasonable place. This is the first in a series and I could totally see reading the rest of it, though I spoiled a bunch of it for myself by accident so that kind of sucks. Might try reading her newest book instead.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
It troubles me that I've never reviewed this here either, but I love this book. Have for a long time. Gets better on each re-read and I have finally buckled and bought myself a copy out of fear because the two library systems I have access to have one really crappy old copy between them. Also find that the Studio Ghibli movie, which is only vaguely related to the book, actually makes me enjoy the book more (I love the movie too, but for very different reasons.) This is a smart, funny, clever fantasy that I have read since my middle school days and will happily read again and again as a comfort book.

***

And there! Maybe this will allow me to start up again in a rather more regular fashion? I have started reading for my book clubs again (though for the adult club this month we're reading Stephen King, and I have already chickened out) and I'm also reading for myself somewhat more. It goes up and down, and I have to keep it light and I have to keep the pressure off myself, but I'd like to start blogging more regularly again.

Next step: take a look at my Google Reader. For the first time in months. Consider it marked as read...

Friday, July 27, 2012

Lakeland by Allan Casey

Lakeland
by Allan Casey
Greystone Books, 2009
352 pages

If it is a wizard you seek, find one who has seen enough for his hair to go grey.

I placed the e-copy of this on hold quite a while ago in the hopes of reading it at some point. It's the One Book One Community book for my region this year, and I'd been thinking of reading it anyway after hearing Allan Casey interviewed. It's kind of a brave choice for OBOC, though it's not out of line from some of their earlier choices (ie. The 100-Mile Diet). To get a whole community to read a non-fiction book isn't easy, but this is an excellent choice. Perhaps I'm only saying that because it's right up my regular reading alley anyway, though.

Casey has structured this book as a sort of travelogue; he undertook to visit important Canadian lakes (excluding the Canadian lakes we always think of, that is, Erie, Ontario, Huron and Superior, which aren't exclusively Canadian anyway) and write one chapter per lake. He looks at the environmental context and also the cultural importance of the lakes, in some cases their economics, in others their biology, and often both. Each chapter introduces us to at least one person with life-long ties to the lake in question, and sometimes to others with more fleeting ties.

It's not always a comfortable or comforting book to read, in that Casey is a clear-eyed and practical recorder of events, people, places, and problems. He's not unrealistically optimistic. He's also not gloomy, either, which can be the other (and more common) problem with books of this sort. This book is also not a call-to-action, which are the sorts of environmental reads I hate most, because they tend to get me all fired up and then, almost immediately, I feel desperate and guilty, impotent and ashamed. Lakeland more of a call to awareness, and a very effective one at that. What this means is that I often think about the book, and the lakes, and our relationship to them, in ways that I haven't done before, without becoming mired in that perennial environmental problem of apathy born of a feeling of hopelessness.

I can only speak for myself, but the kinds of problems Casey identifies suggest that the fact that I am not the only Canadian out there to take our lakes for granted. It's a problem of abundance. We have so many, we are so used to them. They are a part of our psyche, our cultural unconscious. So we don't recognize how incredibly lucky we are to have them. I can't imagine living in a country without easy easy access to lakes. This week I'm spending by one of the Muskoka lakes (I am one of the fortunate to have access to these from the comfort of a building without a million dollars burning a hole in my bank account) and I read this book sitting on the shore of Georgian Bay, which is my lake, the lake that I judge all other lakes by. 

I think Lakeland is saved from becoming too gloomy or strident by Casey's excellent writing skills, and his excellent sense of proportion. The book is not unrelentingly about the problems. It's often funny, often beautiful, and his turn of phrase is almost poetic at points. His love for the country he calls Lakeland is transparently visible, his desire to bring all of us along with him is infectious. He looks at the problems and then finds the good, the little toeholds where things might take off for the better. It's a friendly book, and much of what he writes is familiar to a long-time lake-lover like myself.

I think this is one of those books that every Canadian should read -- new Canadians, to orient them to a vital part of the psychology of their new home, and Canadians from families that have been here for generations, to remind us of just how lucky we are to have our lakes. It's a worthwhile read for others, too; I'd wager a guess that not a few Americans understand how wonderful a Canadian lake is, or have a special American lake of their own. As a primer for anyone interested in Canada or travelling to visit us, one could do far worse. It's a uniquely Canadian book, but I think its appeal is wider.

Longtime readers know I don't normally highlight causes here, but the Canadian government has decided we don't need to bother with lake research in this country any more, which is completely baffling. They are shutting down the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area to "save money" (it will cost several billion dollars to shut them down properly) and we will lose a vital part of our scientific, and dare I say, cultural heritage. Be aware.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern

The Night Circus
by Erin Morganstern
Doubleday Canada, 2010
385 pages

What a lovely, lovely book. I have this thing against fantasy gone mainstream bestseller. I'm always delighted to see it happen, because I'm always happy to see people reading fantasy. But I've also always found that, to my dismay, the fantasy book that makes it big rarely makes me a happy reader. The few I've read just don't grab me; perhaps I expect too much of them. They seem bland, formulaic, and only occasionally very well written.

The Night Circus bucked the trend. It's definitely a fantasy, and it was reviewed glowingly in The Globe and Mail, and I was seeing it all over the place for a while. So I was leery. But the things Robert J. Wiersma said in his review were perfectly targeted to exactly me as a reader, so I had to give it a try.

The whole experience of reading this book is rather dreamlike. I think it's because it's written in the present tense, which threw me for a few minutes (I feel like normally I would be obliged to hate this) and then ceased to matter. But that choice means that, particularly as the circus comes into being, it does read like a dream. A wonderful dream, a complicated dream, a sometimes scary dream, but the sort of complicated, beautiful dream everyone hopes to have when they lay down for the night. It's also a puzzle, with the pieces falling into place slowly and carefully. Things that are hinted at near the beginning start to take on greater and greater importance; my favourite example is the way reading, books, and most especially stories all gain importance as the tale moves along.

If I had one small complaint, it was that while some characters leap off the pages with their quirks and desires, others remain thin or distant, even those who aren't supposed to; I loved Poppet and Widget, for example, and Bailey worked well for me, but Marco, though he was one of the leads, remained a bit of a cipher though I can't quite say why. I think I enjoyed the sections written from Cecelia's perspective better, which might have caused distance between Marco and I. Otherwise, I thought the writing was excellent, as evinced by the fact that I couldn't dump the book despite my initial reaction to its tense. The story is interesting, creative, and enchanting.

I would dare one to read this and not want to find the Night Circus, just once, and step inside its black and white gates to stare at the clock, get some popcorn and cider, and lose oneself in the dream.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Glamour in Glass
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor, 2012
336 pages

I have got to get this review finished and posted. Seriously. I read this book almost a month ago, and have since been on a bit of a tear (besides this book, I have four others waiting for review too. Well, and I'm counting seven volumes of manga as one book, so...)

I'm continuing to read, sort of wandering where my moods take me. I felt like a re-read of Shades of Milk and Honey, wanting the blend of Regency manners and magic and unable to find my copy of Sorcery and Cecelia (never fear, it has since been located.) The Kowal is a little more authentic anyway, so it was a good choice. I loved it the first time around, so went ahead and got myself a copy for the Kobo, and saw at the same time that Glamour in Glass, the sequel that Cecelia first indicated to me was coming, had indeed arrived. So, yes, I bought that too. Nothing can quite match an e-reader for instant gratification when it comes to book purchasing. Still not sure I actually feel like I own the books, though. I mean, I know they're there for me to read right now when I want them, but Jean-Luc PiKobo crashed the other day, just in case I needed a reminder that ebooks aren't permanent. The crash was minor but the warning was well-taken.

Shades of Milk and Honey was at least as good the second time around; I'm not going to re-review it, as I barely have the time to review first reads. And from here on in there will be some pretty major spoilers for Shades, so... if you haven't read it and intend to, do that first.

I really enjoyed being back in the alternate history that Kowal created for Shades. She's moved out of England for this one, giving the reader a look at what life was like elsewhere -- in particular, Belgium just before Napoleon's return. Jane and Vincent are kind of on a honeymoon, kind of on a visit to one of Vincent's colleagues and friends on the Continent, M. Chartrain, and kind of working on commissions for glamours. Only not everything is quite as it appears; Napoleon may be down but he's not out, Vincent's acting strangely, and things go awry for Jane quickly.

I particularly loved two things about this book: first, I love that Kowal keeps Jane consistent. She's a product of her time, and has some conventions and ideas that feel foreign to me as a woman in 2012. Which is exactly as it should be. She's not an exceptional woman, exactly, except where she earns it; she is fierce and intelligent and therefore able to break the mold of what is expected of her as a Regency female when it's necessary, but when she does that she's bitterly uncomfortable. In this way, this book feels more realistic than many non-fantasy books I've read set in the Regency period. I'd love to talk more about this, but to be honest, I'm pretty sure I'm not up to the task.

Second, I love that Kowal can introduce tension in a romantic relationship without having one or both parties be completely stupid. This is a problem I have with many romance novels: the conflict between the hero and heroine often feels contrived, and the resulting romantic moments are exasperating rather than sweet because of that. Here it absolutely does not feel contrived; the conflict is low-key and incredibly realistic, the resulting romance satisfying, and one doesn't end up feeling like Jane and Vincent made a mistake in marrying each other. When the conflict escalates, it's for reasons that make sense for who both Jane and Vincent are.

I can't talk much more about things I thought about while reading without some major, major spoilers. Suffice to say that I think Kowal dealt well with a particular topic that can be fraught, she didn't make light of it, nor was it melodramatic. It was an integral part of the story without being heavy-handed, and Jane's emotional, private battle with herself was well-handled. I was pretty impressed.

Glad I read them, glad I bought them. I can see a re-read in the future, as I enjoyed them so much. Smart, entertaining, occasionally moving, gently romantic, always interesting... lots of good reasons to read these books.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star
by Maureen Johnson
G.P. Putnam, 2011 
270 pages

Oh my lord, I thought I was never going to read anything again. It has been exactly two months since I finished a book. I've started a few, but can't seem to keep the focus or the interest up long enough to finish anything. The idea of writing a review right now is daunting, I won't lie. (Full disclosure: I am not getting much more than than three hours sleep in a row at night -- three hours if we're lucky.)

And now we come to The Name of the Star, which is an interesting case. I had started this before, quite some time ago. It didn't grab me then, for reasons I can't quite figure out. Because this time around it grabbed me good, and I finished it in two days.

I am a Maureen Johnson fan. I follow her on Twitter, which has been one of my better social media moves ever; she's informative, and endlessly entertaining. I believe I reported that I even purchased Suite Scarlett stone-cold solely based on her social media presence, completely on impulse, and did not regret it one bit. I've been eager for The Name of the Star since she announced it was coming; I wanted to see her take on the supernatural. And who is not a little intruiged by Jack the Ripper?

In brief summary: Rory is from very small-town Louisiana, travelling with her lawyer-professor parents for a year's sabbatical in England. While her parents are off to Bristol, she has been accepted to Wrexford, a residential school in the heart of London. In the heart of Jack the Ripper's territory, to be precise, which turns out to be a bit of a problem when a copycat killer appears the day before Rory arrives. What's worse is that Rory sees the killer -- and discovers that no one else can. 

And I like it. That maybe goes without saying. The thing is, if you like Maureen Johnson's other stuff, you will like this, even if you're not a fantasy fan. Because what makes this book great is not the interesting world-building things she's done (which is all seamlessly integrated, and works quite well) but the things that she does best: characterization and just damn fine writing.

Maureen Johnson makes writing look easy. (It's not, I know -- this Nanowrimo pep talk being one of my favourite bits of writing about writing). The story, from plot to characters to incidental detail, appears effortless, making for an easy read without being a brain-dead one. I don't think I picked out a clumsy exposition or clunky sentence in the lot. I like her style, too; I'm not sure I can point out why, exactly, because that would require more brain power than I have currently. Suffice to say that her turn of phrase is concise and clear, often funny, perfectly descriptive without being purple, and never cliched.

And her characters. In Rory, our main character, we have a sympathetic protagonist, an outsider who is friendly with most but not popular, who is smart but not a genius, who is not preternaturally brave or capable. In other words, she's very ordinary, but with enough flavour that she's not a blank slate. I like her development and her responses to the things -- sometimes very strange, frightening things -- that happen to her; it feels organic and realistic. She doesn't roll with the punches, because that would be unfaithful to the character even if it might have furthered the plot; she is traumatized and Johnson handles that beautifully. I also love Rory's wry, observant inner monologue. The other characters that crop up are necessarily not as well-developed as Rory, since [the lion's share of] the book is from her limited perspective, but they're distinct and interesting and feel like real people.

As I noted for Suite Scarlett, too, Johnson manages to comment quietly on some social and cultural things without being preachy -- here, her target being both the CCTV surveillance culture in London and 24-hour sensational mass media. She never investigates either thing explicitly or deeply, but it's an integrated part of the story, leaving the reader to ponder these things without feeling like she's been delivered a blatant public service message.

The start is slow; we spend a lot of time getting to know Rory and her friends, which works really well -- it makes the increasing threats to Rory and her world that much more alarming. It allows us to get settled into place, with just hints of the tension that absolutely explodes somewhere around the last third of the book. While the trademark MJ humour is still present, it takes a back seat to the suspense as the tension ramps up, never entirely disappearing but the seriousness of the situation is never undercut. I won't lie: this book kept me, a sleep deprived human being, up past my (admittedly fluid) bedtime even after I'd stopped reading for the night, worrying about what was coming next. Perhaps not the smartest choice of reading material for me to make. No regrets, though -- this book was definitely a good ride and a great read.

... Aaand, now to bed, I think, since apparently writing about the book is going to keep me up too. No promises as to when the next review will come up, and I'm really barely online these days to even comment on other blogs. I miss you all, and plan to be back when I can.

Monday, March 19, 2012

we'll return after these messages

Everything's fine, we're just dealing with an outbreak of teeth leading to a dearth of sleep. I'm slowly reading the truly excellent, though odd and somewhat hard work, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and I'll report on that as soon as it's finished. After that will either be Margery Allingham's The Crime at Black Dudley or Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns, depending on which one has to go back to the library first.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder
Picador, 2009 (originally published 2003)
180 pages

Who would have thought that I would have become so enchanted by a book about math and baseball?

"Is that so? I'd always thought that human beings invented numbers."
"No, not at all. If that were the case, they wouldn't be so difficult to understand and there'd be no need for mathematicians. No one actually witnessed the first numbers come into being -- when we first became aware of them, they'd already been around for a long time."

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a quiet, gentle story which somehow manages to encompass a great deal without very much happening. It is told in a humble, somewhat detached way by our unnamed narrator, a young, veteran housekeeper who is hired to take care of the Professor. A brilliant mathematician, he lives alone in a small shack on the estate of his well-off, widowed sister-in-law. In 1975 he was in a terrible accident that left his brain unable to make new memories; after 1975, his memory lasts only eighty minutes. There have been many other housekeepers before our narrator, but somehow our narrator and the Professor click. What could have been a difficult assignment turns into a wonderful, if unusual, friendship.

This can't have been an easy book to write, but what a gift it is to the rest of us to be able to read it. I think the narrator could have been telling us about toe jam and I would have read it and happily. Instead, she's telling us about math, memory, friendship, and baseball, reminiscing and thoughtful. The language is evocative and beautiful; there are no moments where I was brought out of the text by a clumsily translated line, though every once in a while I was caught by the poetry of it.

If you added 1 to e elevated to the power of π times i, you got 0: eπi + 1 = 0. 
I looked at the Professor's note again. A number that cycled on forever and another vague figure that never revealed its true nature now traced a short and elegant trajectory to a single point. Though there was no circle in evidence, π had descended from somewhere to join hands with e. There they rested slumped against each other, and it only remained for a human being to add 1, and the world suddenly changed. Everything resolved into nothing, zero.

It was the narrator herself that held me firmly to the story. She is quiet, unassuming, and always distanced, but reading between the lines one gets a picture of her: patient, hard-working, very bright, stubborn and strong, and incredibly kind. She hasn't had an easy life, though we don't get too many details as the story isn't supposed to be about her. She tells it mostly chronologically, though every once in a while there is a small jump forward or backward; it's never hard to figure out where we are in the narrative. Her sense of wonder at the world the Professor opens up to her is palpable if understated. When we are introduced to her son, nicknamed Root, we recognize her deep love for him, as well as her desire for him to have everything she can offer, and more.

The book is evocative, whether of its characters, mathematics, baseball, or the setting. A heat wave, a storm, a garden, an evening ball game, a busy street -- after reading these words about them, the real world is set at a different, more quiet, contemplative angle.

What is most interesting to me is that this is an easy book to read. It manages to be a lovely story on the surface, while having difficult themes, being beautifully written, and about topics I would normally avoid, without being a painful or dense read. I'm still not a baseball fan, but I can appreciate a different side of the game now; I will never be deeply enamoured of mathematics, but I can certainly understand how one might become so.

Reading this book was a treat, and I'd encourage everyone to pick it up, even if it doesn't seem like it might be your thing. It's not full of action, excitement, or romance, but if you're looking for something a little quieter, a little more meditative, something that reads smoothly and rewards attention even if it doesn't require it, you cannot go wrong here.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Leper of Saint Giles by Ellis Peters

The Leper of Saint Giles
by Ellis Peters
MacMillan, 1981
223 pages

After a Cadfael outing I found rather lacklustre in Saint Peter's Fair, I'm pleased to report that I was back on happy footing with The Leper of Saint Giles. I read this book extremely quickly -- starting it one night and reading it halfway through, then finishing the next day -- which is certainly one way to read with a baby in the house. The other way seems to take weeks. I am not finding much room in between.

This is the fifth book in the Chronicles, and once again we have a romantic relationship at the heart of the story -- this one a forbidden, between a bride-to-be utterly beaten down by her draconian guardians and the squire of the groomsman. There is murder done, of course, but the pace in this book is very measured and we spend more time pottering around the countryside and learning about herbs and leprosy in the first bit of the book than investigating any crimes. This is fine by me; it's all very interesting, and I like spending time with Cadfael no matter how he's spending it. A little under halfway through, there is a murder -- don't read the blurbs on this book if you don't want to know who gets it in advance -- and then Cadfael, at his own pace, investigates and sees justice done.

I liked this novel not necessarily just for the investigation (which is great, if a little predictable again; at least Cadfael does a far better job of being an active sleuth and observer than in his last outing) but also for the other aspects -- the gentle ruminations on religion and human nature, the vivid supporting characters, and the wonderful setting. Once again, Peters has -- historically accurate or not, though the little reading I've done on this suggests to me that it's more accurate than not -- made life in the Middle Ages accessible and real to the reader, not just a listing of dates and grand names. It's the pacing that I like so much; it's not all deadly danger or dashing battles or unrest. These things are happening or have happened, but as is true today, life continues with its comforts and challenges; people get on. Of course, this being a mystery, sometimes people get offed, too. But it's not necessarily for some grand reason; it's more likely to be something incredibly petty than something on which rides the fate of nations.

In The Leper of Saint Giles, unsurprisingly we learn about those unfortunates who have contracted leprosy or various diseases that look quite like it, and who are legislated away from all contact with healthy people. We learn about how they were treated, some of how they were viewed, and the way they lived. Or at least the way they lived in leper hospices, tended in this case by monks from the nearby abbey. Cadfael, once again, shows himself to be both practical and compassionate towards the unfortunate around him.

I enjoyed the secondary characters this time around as much as ever: unflappable Abbot Radulfus, odious Prior Robert (who isn't given too much leeway to be too odious here), gentle Brother Mark who has taken over care of the leper hospital, having graduated from his position as Brother Cadfael's assistant, and we missed a few -- Hugh is only mentioned in passing, to my chagrin, but I'm sure he'll be back. We're also introduced to Avice of Thornbury, a new sister at a nearby cloister, of whom I'm sure we'll be seeing more. I do so like this gradual ebb and flow of characters around Cadfael at the centre. It feels organic, and very real. Some characters appear and disappear in one book; others hang around and stay connected.

Another win for Brother Cadfael. I need to remember that when I'm having trouble sticking with anything, there are a few authors I can go to for a good read, and Ellis Peters is definitely one of them. I also need to remember that it's okay to go to them, that I don't have to stick with a book I feel I should read at this point, over a book that I know I will be able to enjoy all the way through.

Earlier books in the Brother Cadfael Chronicles:
1. A Morbid Taste for Bones
2. One Corpse Too Many
3. Monk's-Hood
4. Saint Peter's Fair

Monday, February 20, 2012

Garden Making magazine

Okay. So this blog is called "a book a week." Let's just say for the sake of argument that books are anything with printed material, otherwise I'm not going to be able to keep up my most excellent streak of posting once a week. I've had a lot of trouble staying with anything longer than a magazine article over the past couple of weeks. I do have a couple of books I'm working on, which may or may not get finished for review: Lauren Chattman's Bread Making, the second Cardcaptor Sakura omnibus volume, Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps to Compassion, E. M. Forster's A Room With a View. All of these have various things to recommend them, but I'm having a hard time finding the energy when I have the time to read much. Even a graphic novel, you'll notice.

But this is all okay, because I have Garden Making. This is a Canadian magazine, and it's an excellent magazine. It's got all the lovely garden and flower photos, but additionally it has interesting, meaty articles. There are garden profiles, plant profiles, design articles, gardening columns, how-tos, book reviews, tool profiles, and so on. For my money this is the best home and garden magazine on the market, and I flip through plenty of them.

My favourite thing? The articles are long, sometimes several pages, so there's depth and space for thought and interest. I like that it's not a list of things I need to buy to have for my garden or to complete my life, nor is it a series of chirpy tips that bear little resemblance to my gardening experience or that I've already heard/seen many many other places, nor reams of lists of things without context or sufficient information to make them relevant. The writing is excellent by and large, and the photography plentiful and pretty. And the layout! It's not confusing or distracting -- it's clear, perhaps a little staid, but it bears more resemblance to something like The Atlantic than other home and garden magazines I've seen and I like that. It's a magazine I can take seriously and read comfortably, without sacrificing attractiveness.

I don't have many subscriptions. Well, at this point I only have Garden Making. I used to have others, but this quarterly publication is the one I most look forward to and the one I can't let lapse. It's not an old magazine, it's only been around for a couple of years and I believe I've been subscribing since it's fourth issue. But I definitely hope it will stay around longer, so I can read more of Patrick Lima's plant profiles (the spring edition has a big article on peonies by him: I vacuumed it up and went back for a second reading), and Judith Adams' design suggestions, and Lorraine Flanagan's interviews.

Recommended for gardeners or people who wish they had a garden. Its relevance is Canada-wide, and certainly extends to the northern States as well. It's by far the most useful and most pleasurable gardening reading I do these days. It's so refreshing to see such a gorgeous, fat print magazine in these days of internet and e-readers; I hope they can continue to be profitable so I can enjoy it for years to come.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
by Catherynne M. Valente
Feiwel and Friends, 2011
256 pages

After reading On Basilisk Station I was kind of desperate for something that would feel more me, but I wasn't feeling like a re-read. I've had my eye on Valente's stuff for years and years now, particularly as one of the comments one tends to hear is that she writes beautifully and I am a big fan of beautiful writing that isn't self-consciously so. She's a poet, too, and in my experience I tend to really like novels by people who are also poets. This book in particular seemed like just the right sort of thing, so I ... I bought it. On impulse. I don't usually do that. But I'm very glad I did.

This book takes all the surreality and other trappings of fairytales and folktales and inserts it confidently into a fantasy tale, such that we have here something that feels, looks and smells like a fairytale, but is far, far deeper. The characters, despite appearing as though they could be the two dimensional folk we know from fairytales, develop into richer, rounded characters sometimes with only a few words. The economy of Valente's language is admirable, and what she can do with a few words is wonderful. The imagery is full and stunning and whimsical, but never without its hint of darkness -- which just makes everything shine more brightly. The story itself is inventive, new clothes hung on old frameworks and both are transformed.

September is a twelve-year-old girl who lives in Omaha with her mother. Her father has gone off to war in Europe, and her mother works long hours at a factory building airplane engines. She loves both her parents and they love her, but September feels frustrated and bored; and one evening, while she's washing dishes before her mother gets home, the Green Wind comes by flying on the Leopard of Little Breezes to ask her if she wants to go to Fairyland. It's an offer September doesn't even think of refusing. But when she gets there, it's quite clear that not all is well. A witch has had her Spoon stolen and her brothers killed. Flying is tightly regulated, and fairies and wyverns have their wings chained. And Good Queen Mallow has disappeared, replaced by The Marquess, a girl who at least has a wonderful hat.

Aside from the writing and the imagination behind the story, both of which are impressive, the tone reminded me (in a good way) of The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker. There's something restrained about it, a recognition of sadness and pain without letting those things overwhelm the story or the reader. Melancholy is present but so is wonder and joy and amazement, and they are in balance, connected and inseparable. I think this is maybe an important thing in a book written for older kids, and I think it's hard to get right.

Valente also gets the sheer volume of childhood emotions right. One of my favourite sections in The Girl Who... is when September, having had to make a number of very difficult decisions and having had a number of really difficult things happen to her, has to catch and eat a fish. And when she meets a rescuer, it's her pained confession of the fact that rung absolutely true with me. Because for me, too, that would have been the worst of the things that had happened, though to an adult it might have seemed the littlest thing. And the response of the rescuer is perfect too.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone with a bent for whimsy and wonder. It's definitely appropriate for older children; I am considering it seriously for my parent-child book club, though it would be a summer book because it's a bit long. It's also wonderful for older readers who will get quite a lot out of the story. One last little thing, that isn't that little: I have rarely met a book with such a perfect ending. I'm not doing this book justice. I can only say I'll be reading it again, and often.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

On Basilisk Station
by David Weber
Baen Books, 1993
346 pages

First of all, free eBook. Is awesome. Also legal. Thank you, Baen Books and David Weber for giving me the chance to test out the Honorverse for myself.

Sadly, the gambit didn't work out this time, as I'm not going to be purchasing, or reading, any of the other Honor Harrington books. It's not you, Commander Harrington and David Weber. It's me.

I want to be clear, because hopefully I can at least raise the profile of the book in return for its free-ness: this is a good book. This is a really good book. It's well-written, detailed, interesting, engaging, creative, adrenaline-boosting, entertaining, and even thought-provoking. And if you are in to military science fiction, this is a great, great place to go, as Weber's legion fans can attest. (Actually, if you're in to military science fiction, I imagine you've already been here. I'm late to the party on this one). In Commander Honor Harrington, David Weber has created a really attractive main character; she's intelligent, competent, and generally kicks ass. And (I mention this because it's not always the case in military SF) she's a woman in a powerful position and almost no mention is made of it; more mention is made of her youth than of her gender. Her gender does not signify, nor do the genders of any of the other characters in the book. They are simply people doing their jobs. I love this.

There are several moments in this book where the reader wants to sit up and whoop as Harrington makes yet another connection or faces down yet another bully with a will of steel. She even comes across as being almost too good sometimes, but she's not perfect, exactly. I will admit there were a few times when I thought maybe she was too good to be true. But I liked her too much to care.

I can't really talk about this book and my reaction to it without some major spoilers. So if you like military fiction, or science fiction, this is for you. The detail encapsulated in the books, the work that has gone in to creating the universe his characters inhabit, is stunning. I wish I could follow Honor through her next thirteen-plus adventures, but I can't. If you have already read this book, or know you won't, and wish to know why I'm not going to go further, read on. If you've got this book on your TBR, stop now.


/spoilers ahoy! seriously guys, do not read past here if you want to read the book.



Guys, the ending. The ending is brutal. The ending is just. so. brutal. I'm talking as someone emotionally invested, but also as someone who has a upper limit for violence and death and this book sailed clear through that at hyper speed. Worse, I knew what was coming. Well, I didn't know exactly what was coming, but about halfway through, I knew that things were going to go sour, and I figured it would happen quickly, and I figured that it would be bloody, and I figured that I wasn't really going to like it. It made reading on both pleasurable, because I liked where I was, and painful because I knew it was going to end badly. And boy was I right.

The ending is a bloodbath. And what makes me feel somewhat worse about hating it, is that it should have been. If Weber had wimped out and let all the mains get away scott free, I would have been disappointed in him, and the book wouldn't have been good. It would have been an exercise in fantasy, of the worst sort, the sort I find trite and the reason some people don't take SF/F seriously. War is hell. And it should be shown that way, guts and glory. Weber knows this, so we get plenty of both.

If I had one technical problem with this book, this would be it: I realize she's Navy, but my impression is that Honor Harrington hasn't seen a lot of live action. Nor have the other characters. So I'd like to have seen a bit more about the psychological toll the death and grief would have taken, because while it was mentioned, it was... kind of glossed over. Frankly, I was a little uncomfortable with how comfortable Harrington is with the way she is lionized, though she did deserve it; I would have been a lot more traumatized than she appeared to be.

Actually, I was, and herein lies the problem. As much as I would love to spend more time with Honor Harrington, this book made me feel ill at the end. The characters -- the aliens, too -- who died, some just terribly, and the ones left behind -- there were scenes I couldn't get out of my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I felt like I needed to dip my brain in bleach. And I don't think Weber was gratuitous with the violence and the death, it's just that my threshold is low. There was implied torture -- implied makes it worse for me. There was a slaughter of drugged-up religious fanatic aliens (we understand why the slaughter has to take place, but still.) There was people being blown to pieces by shrapnel in the vacuum of space. People I liked, people who were narrating the action, people who were good people and who died doing heroic things or not. The people who survived, you read the roll call at the end and you feel like you've been given a gift because that character made it. Even Honor Harrington's seemingly unbeatable genius can't save the day entirely. It all fits, it's all exactly the way it should be, and I can't handle it.

So why did I start reading this book? Well, I'll be honest. I thought it would be a light, guilty pleasure, something more along the lines of Anne McCaffrey's space operas. I didn't realize until things started sinking in just how bad it might get, and once I realized it I was too invested to stop.

I was feeling a bit miserable about my inability to face the music, as it were; my constitutional aversion to watching bad things happen to good people in fiction. And I was thinking about how sometimes people equate tragedy with good literature, and the rest of it is fluff, meaning I'm somehow not a serious reader. (This goes back to the Greeks; drama was the Thing, and comedy was a lower art form, though I actually think good comedy is harder to write.) The thing is, I feel like I deal with enough in real life, and I'm well aware I have it relatively easy, and I know there's terrible things out there, and I don't want to put myself through fictional misery too. For some people it can be cathartic, but for me, it keeps me up at night for days and causes me to feel anxious and miserable and sad. I just get far, far too attached, far too emotionally invested even though I know it's fiction. I find plenty of excellent, brilliant, beautiful literature that doesn't make me feel like hell and I still manage to be pretty well-informed and well-read.

Then I read Darla's blog entry and felt better, because apparently I am not alone in being adversely affected by books. What Darla is talking about there is a little different; I didn't feel terribly manipulated here, just in shock. But much of it is applicable, I just think my threshold is even lower than Darla's...