Thursday, October 31, 2013

Eldritch Manor by Kim Thompson

Eldritch Manor
by Kim Thompson
Dundurn, 2012
176 pages

Days after finishing this, I am still trying to pin down exactly what it was that irked me so much about this book. I am trying, too, to separate out what was just irritation because I had higher expectations than was fair, and what legitimately did not agree with me.

It's not that I'm about to tear this book apart. I just can't do that, and I don't get any joy out of that sort of thing. Especially when this is a first novel, and the author is Canadian, and I wanted to like the book. Furthermore, Eldritch Manor has some really excellent things going for it, so let's talk about those first. There is a reason that this was chosen to be on the Forest of Reading nominees list for 2014, after all.

The concept? Is awesome. It was the reason my expectations were so high. How can one not be taken with the idea of a book where the main character is hired on as a housekeeper in a house where the inhabitants are retired mythical and fantastical creatures? And of course things will start to go wrong, and of course Willa, our heroine, will be called on to save the world, with a little help from her new elderly, crotchety, mythological friends. I love the idea of this book so much. I thought the cast of characters was creative, I thought the way the world worked made sense, I thought that the ideas and the setting worked. The world-building, albeit brief, was totally satisfying.

And yet... and yet. Something went wrong for me with this book, and if I had to pinpoint it I would say that I don't think the execution was up to the premise - for me as an adult. This is an important point, and I will get to why in a moment.

I think things went flat in a couple of places: the style of the writing didn't work for me, and that can be a very subjective thing, so this sometimes happens. But I also found that there were things packed in to the book that felt unnecessary, which meant that things that should have had more time (especially Willa's relationship with the sphinx Horace) missed out because we were spending time on other things that didn't need attention. Or else those things should have grabbed more attention. There was a family situation that could have meant quite a lot to Willa's character-building, and some of the other characters as well. It wasn't a surprise when it popped up right near the end of the book (I mean, in the last chapter) because there had been some foreshadowing. But it was extraneous to the story, or could have been if an editor had done something about it. It was dealt with so quickly and so ineffectively that it was a non sequitur.

Overall I felt that character development was fairly perfunctory and typecast. There just wasn't a lot there, and characters mean pretty much everything to me in a story. Action and dialogue was even a bit typecast, and that can bug me, especially where expressions are used that frequently appear in pop culture, but when actually read they make no sense.

All of this said, aside from the problem with the ending, which I don't think will be ignored by children either, I suspect the things that bugged me actually won't bother kids as much. The writing is simple - that isn't a dealbreaker for kids. The characters are quickly-drawn, but at least they are interesting - again, not going to bother kids. I ate up The Babysitters' Club books and Nancy Drew as a kid and I'd say this is at least as good as anything in either of those series, and way more imaginative. It's leaps and bounds ahead of the perennially popular Fairy books by Daisy Meadows that we can't keep on the shelves at the library.

And while I might occasionally roll my eyes at those Fairy books, I think there is a place for books that appeal more to kids than adults. Something about those simple storylines, the simple writing, and the action-filled plots with characters that are clear and easy to grasp, really appeal to kids even as they drive adults to distraction. Those are often the books that kids start to read all by themselves once they can read chapter books, and the process of reading them helps develop literacy and fluency. They are easy to read, and they are fun, and they are satisfying, and so kids want to read more. The process of decoding written language is already challenging enough for many kids without having to keep track of layers and complexity that the kind of children's books I love contain.

Sometimes the same kids who eat those up also love the more complex, more "literary" books written for kids, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they only want to read Nancy Drew. And you know what? That's okay. Maybe someday they will move on to things that are a little more complex, writing- and structure-wise. And if they don't, that's okay too. Lots of adults love James Patterson, or Julia Quinn, or Danielle Steel, and some of them won't read anything else either. At least reading is an enjoyable part of their life, and every book has value in one way or another.

So, in the end: not a book for me. But I do hope it finds its audience, and I think being nominated for the Silver Birch category of the Forest of Reading will help it do that, because its audience is kids, and should be. I wish the book and Kim Thompson all the best, and I hope she finds an editor who can help her tighten things up a bit -- there is potential here for some great children's books down the line.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle
by Eva Ibbotson
Pan Macmillan, 2005
3 discs, unabridged

A perfectly spooky tale for a spooky time of year, and entertaining for the whole family. It's a simple tale, this one, on the surface. Madlyn and Rollo's parents are off in New York, because their father has taken a badly-needed commission. They are packed off to spend the summer with their Great-Uncle George and Great-Aunt Emily at an old castle in the north named Clawstone. Once there, it is apparent that things are not going well; the neighbouring castle, Trembello Towers, is drawing all the local visitors, and there is no money for the upkeep of the castle, the grounds, or most importantly, the herd of unique, wild white cattle who inhabit the grounds. Madlyn and Ned, one of the local children, come up with an idea to draw visitors back to Clawstone with the help of some rather unusual entertainers.

This is very much a children's book, in that the villains are villainous and unpleasant, the good characters are good beyond reproach, and there isn't too much in between. The characterization is enough, but not deep. But the writing is solid and the plot is, while occasionally completely ridiculous in a fun way, well-executed. And there are deeper issues here that would make for great discussion with kids. They are never belaboured, but it is not as if Ibbotson was ignoring them; they are an integral part of the plot, but this is a short book, and so if the plight of refugees in the UK is never investigated deeply it's not because the seriousness of the problem isn't recognized. It's just not the point of the story. There are other stories that deal with that.

Where things do get a bit sketchy is with a few minor plot threads towards the end that do odd things. Why did the banshees bother to come to Black Scar Island with Great-Uncle George if nothing was going to be said about them on that visit? What was the point of their presence? Did I miss it because I was listening to an audiobook? Was it just intended to be amusing at that moment? (I don't think this counts as a spoiler, at least not a major one, unless I really did miss something important.) It was just such a strange oversight, in a book that otherwise seemed to tie up the ends rather neatly if not always in the way one expected. I was confused enough about it that I actually paused the disc once I realized nothing more was going to be said about them. Thrown out of the story. I am of the Chekhov school - if you are going to have a banshee or three in the back of the car, those banshees had better be used in the plot. Otherwise they just confuse me.

The audio is excellent. It's David Tennant doing the reading, so how can it not be? He's got a wonderful reading voice, and he does the character's voices well, and one never feels like one is being spoken down to, which is always a turnoff for me with kids' audiobooks. I'd love to do this book with one of my child-parent book clubs, because of the fact that I think there is meat to discuss but also just a wonderful, entertaining, spooky but not too spooky story that would appeal to all ages. Much thanks to Darla for bringing it to my attention, lo those many years ago.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War
by John Scalzi
Tor Books, 2005
362 pages

Ever since reading On Basilisk Station I have been extremely, extremely wary of anything that hints at military science fiction. That was a good book, and I got attached to the characters, and then it caused me sleepless nights for days after I finished the thing. Not exaggerating. But Old Man's War has been on my list for ages (since Nymeth's review, to be exact) and I thoroughly enjoy John Scalzi's nonfic writing. So, looking for something different for my genre book club, this made the cut, and I went ahead and read it. Not without trepidation, which was somewhat justified, but I'm very glad I was brave and didn't cheat by just reading a summary on Wikipedia.

Without giving too much away: John Perry is 75, and he is about to join the army. The Colonial Defense Force, to be exact. Humans are a spacefaring race, but we're not the only ones, and competition for habitable planets is fierce. Earth is a quarantined backwater, and the only way off for most of those humans is the way Perry has decided to go: volunteering for the military force that keeps human colonies safe, scouts out, and (as necessary) takes by force new habitable planets for colonization. But the CDF only takes recruits of a certain age, and John Perry has made it there. And he is smart enough to know that the universe is a strange place - but nothing could prepare him for how strange, wonderful, and terrible it really is.

And it is easy to give things away, so I'll stop with a summary there. There are numerous little and some large surprises along the way, for Perry and therefore by extension for us. Some of them are funny, some of them are dark, some of them are just plain cool. I do not wish to spoil them for you.

What is interesting to me is how smart this book is. Which is not to say that science fiction, or military science fiction, or space opera (which this is, I think, though I have a surface understanding of the term) cannot be smart, and knowing what I do of John Scalzi I should have been prepared for just how smart this book is. But a large part of me had written this off as a fun book, a book with spaceships and larger-than-life heroes and battles and really nifty technology, written well and probably often quite amusing because, well, Scalzi. And I also assumed that there'd be some major space battle and most of the characters I'd grown to like would die, because I respected John Scalzi's intelligence and integrity enough to figure he wouldn't write a book about a space army without characters dying. He wouldn't play with the reality of what war is that way.

I am realizing this doesn't reflect well on me -- because yes, I'd apparently bought into the stereotypes I carry secretly about mass-market military science fiction, and I expected that sort of thing. I got a lot more and that is why I should read out of my comfort zone more often. Or one reason, anyway.

There were two themes that really struck me and stayed with me, and that were investigated in more depth than I would have expected. The first was aging, and what it means to grow old, and that theme really shouldn't surprise anyone, given the summary of the book I gave above. The second was marriage and love, and what marriage is, and what it means over a lifetime, and that is not the sort of thing I expected in a military SF book at all.

Aging, both mentally and physically, plays the largest role at the beginning of the book, but does come back again in interesting ways later on. Perry is 75, and despite the fact that we're a lot further in the future and some medical advances are to be expected, no one on Earth has come up with a way to reverse the aging process, and 75 in that future looks pretty darn similar to 75 in this present. Except that the CDF has apparently found a way to get a 75-year-old human into some sort of fighting shape. What this means, and what this means to Perry as an individual, and some of his newfound friends, is investigated pretty intimately, since the book is from Perry's perspective in first person. It's handled with sensitivity and insight and I was impressed.

I was even more impressed, and somewhat flabbergasted, to find marriage holding a central role in the book. Perry's wife Kathy had also volunteered to sign up, but died of a massive stroke before her 75th birthday. He misses her, thinks of her often and often first, and while I wouldn't say that the Perrys' marriage plays a central role in the book's plot, exactly, it is such a central part of John Perry's character that it therefore looms large over the whole book. It's a rumination on the effect on a person of sharing the better part of a life with someone else one loves dearly. It adds a very human dimension to Perry, who could possibly be a larger-than-life character, except that he is so grounded in this very fundamental relationship that has very much defined who he was and is. And it adds a very warm, gentle dimension to a book that is, at its core, about someone learning to be a good, efficient, and effective soldier.

Unexpected, and delightful. The writing is also just excellent, the world imaginative, and other themes and conundrums interesting and worthwhile. Characterization is solid at worst and really, really good at best. I've recommended this book to several people since reading it. One of my book club members has already come back for the second book in the series, The Ghost Brigades. I may even read that one myself, though I'm pretty satisfied with where I left John Perry and company. I wasn't sure it was possible for me to have a higher opinion of John Scalzi than I already did, but reading Old Man's War managed to surprise me there, too.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth
by Norton Juster
Harper Children's Audio, 2008 (originally published in 1961)
4 discs, unabridged

When I saw this audiobook was narrated by David Hyde Pierce, I had reservations. I wasn't sure how I felt about Niles Crane reading to me for the entire length of a book I'd been looking forward to for ages. I shouldn't have worried. This was one of the most enjoyable audiobooks I've run across ever, and Pierce can take a fair chunk of the credit for that. He is a wonderful reader.

The narration makes it, but the book itself is just fantastic too. It is silly but substantive, clever without being obnoxious about it, incredibly imaginative, strangely relevant, and often wise. Also, puns. Many, many puns. The wordplay is everywhere.

Milo is bored. He is a boy for whom life holds no joy: he is not interested in anything, he is always in a hurry, and he is never satisfied. So when a mysterious purple tollbooth shows up in his bedroom one day, the only reason he attempts to use it at all is because there is simply nothing better to do. But the tollbooth is no ordinary toy, and Milo is transported to a world where things start to interest him in spite of himself. This is the Kingdom of Wisdom. He is caught in the Doldrums, visits Dictionopolis and meets King Azaz the Unabridged, makes his way through the Forest of Sight and the Valley of Sound, encounters the Mathemagician in Digitopolis, and finally takes on the Mountains of Ignorance. For all is not well in the Kingdom of Wisdom: a horrible mistake was made, and the princesses Rhyme and Reason have been banished, and everyone is counting on Milo to bring them back.

Most criticisms I have seen of the book lie in the fact that it is too clever for its own good; the words are too long, the concepts too difficult, for children to understand. These criticisms started when Juster released the book back in 1961 and they continue today. I think this is incredibly unfair. Not to the book, because it is indeed full of delightful words and challenging concepts, but to the children whose parents (or teachers, or librarians) decide not to attempt it because they think it will be too hard. This is a book that has many charms, and if a child doesn't get all the jokes, they'll still enjoy the adventure story. And frankly, most children I know love a good joke. (And lots of bad ones, too, and lots of things that aren't really jokes at all...) And many of them have no trouble taking things literally, as Juster often does with his idioms (how do you get to the Island of Conclusions? You jump there, of course.) So what if they don't pick up on everything the first time through. Let them read it again. This book has staying power. My suspicion is that they will want to read it again. And they will get more out of it the second time through. And yet more the third time.

I say this because I was actually scared off reading this with my parent-child book club for a couple of years because of the suggestion it might be too hard for kids to enjoy. What a shame, because there are kids who have moved on from the group and won't be reading this with me now, and I regret that. Checking in with the kids who still come to book club, all of them adore it so far. None of the parents in the group were more than passingly familiar with the book either, and certainly hadn't read it. Those I have talked to are loving it, too. I should know better than to fear the appropriateness of a book because it is "difficult." I should trust my instincts, but I should also trust the kids themselves.

My criticism doesn't lie with the supposed difficulty of the book. My criticism lies in the fact that there is a Message, and very occasionally the plot serves the Message rather than the Message coming out of the plot organically. There were moments when it was clear that Learning is Good and Fun and You Should Do It Even If You're Not Sure Why You're Doing It Right Now, and Also Pay Attention Kid. It was just that I was enjoying David Hyde Pierce's reading so much and the inventiveness of the plot and world so much that I didn't much care about being Messaged At. The other important point here is that the book isn't trying to be coy; it knows it has a Message. It's pretty clear on that. The major win is that it also tries hard to be an enjoyable story, and succeeds 99.5% of the time. 

This is a book I will buy so that I have it lying around. I will reread it myself (and I suspect reading will be a different, but still very enjoyable, experience, not least because I missed out on Jules Feiffer's illustrations) and I look forward to reading it with others, too, and reveling in the sheer silly joy of the English language.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

by Rachel Hartman
Doubleday Canada, 2012
499 pages

The positive review is a challenging thing; it is hard not to gush praise all over the page and undermine one's own recommendations by sounding too enthusiastic to be entirely trustworthy. Thus, I've given myself a couple of days of distance from the book and its ending and I'm hoping that will help me at least be balanced.

According to my notes, I first became convinced I needed to read this through Aarti's musings, as is often the case. It would likely have appealed to me anyhow, though, given the subject and trappings: a secondary world fantasy novel with a heavy emphasis on music and politics. Plus dragons. Throw interesting dragons into a story and I am usually pretty well caught.

And boy, are these dragons interesting. So. Seraphina is the assistant music mistress to the court composer in the country of Goredd, a very medieval place that borders, among other places, the northern Dragon Lands. For forty years, Goredd and the dragons have been at a hard-won peace, and the celebration of the fortieth year of the Treaty is upon them; Seraphina is up to her neck in trying to get various things organized for the celebrations and the visit of the Ardmagar, the dragon leader. Unfortunately, she's also up to her neck in trying to tread very fine lines: Seraphina is not what she seems to the greater world, and in a world where dragons and humans live side-by-side only uneasily if at all, she has to find a way to keep those she loves safe, and serve her queen and country without betraying herself.

That sort of covers it, though there is a lot more to this story than that summary covers. We've also got a murder mystery on our hands: days before the story starts, the queen's only son was discovered, headless, lying in a field after he got separated from his party during a hunting trip. We also have a bit of a romance - and even a love triangle, though this is far different from the sort I am used to seeing in young adult novels and was a refreshing change. The romance is only one thread in the story, though, and is so well woven into the story that anyone romance-shy shouldn't worry too much about it.

But for me, the component of the story that stuck out and made me sit up and pay attention was the investigation of racism and its consequences, both for individuals and for society. In fact, at the beginning, the book felt like the wrong one for me. Aside from the fact that I couldn't stop thinking about it (sometimes a bad thing, when you're thinking about it at two in the morning and need to get up in four hours) I was almost - almost - turned off by the violent, ugly racism exhibited by certain characters and groups, and the fact that Goreddi society is extremely religious. I find both things uncomfortable to read, and I was looking for an escape read, not one that was going to be making me squirm. But this is a case where fantasy sheds light on "real world" problems - it's hard to believe, for example, that anyone in this world was ever as virulently, blatantly, unashamedly racist as some of the characters in Seraphina. But they were. And they are. And when that racism hits close to the home of a character one has grown to love... well, fantasy once again provides an excellent lens through which to view everyday problems.

And the characters are where the strength of this book lies, I think. Seraphina herself is just marvellous. A good, strong, and flawed character, the story is narrated from her first-person point of view. It is not always a comfortable place to inhabit; Seraphina is not fond of herself. She is a bundle of contradictions. But she does her best to view things honestly, she has a [sometimes dark] sense of humour, and while she occasionally does cringe-worthy things, her motivations and reasons are never in doubt and they feel like the right thing to the reader at the time, too. She feels entirely real, and I became deeply, deeply attached to her without losing sight of the wider story.

Other characters - Orma, her tutor; the Princess Glisselda; Prince Lucian Kiggs, Glisselda's fiancee and Captain of the Guard; Lars, the mysterious bagpiper and machinist; Viridius, the court composer and Seraphina's master - are vivid and complex, even when viewed from a first-person narrator's point of view. Nice to know that can be done in a realistic way.

The world, too, is clearly described and delineated, and rich in detail and substance. The religion that so turned me off at first is actually pretty interesting, with Goreddis and others worshipping a pantheon of Saints, some contradictory and all with their own place and purview. It permeates the entire book, but it is complex enough to bear that weight, which is not generally my experience with fantasy religions. The politics are tangled and high-stakes. Seraphina's father is a lawyer. She is well-versed in the laws of her land governing dragons and dragon-human interactions. Even more, these things are interesting when she tells us about them.

This is not to say that there aren't issues with the book. There are a few. Seraphina occasionally gets away with things that seem a little brazen for an assistant music mistress. I wanted more music; I didn't think she spent enough time at her actual job, and far too much time poking her nose in things where it really had no place (and not getting called on it often enough, either.) But overall, these issues are mild and don't distract from the quality of the tale.

Oh so recommended. If you like fantasy, you should read this book - even if you're sick of romances in your fantasy, even if you're wary of it usually being designated young adult, don't let those things scare you away. This story transcends its targeted age group, and its take on certain genre cliches is fresh and often fascinating. A really, really enjoyable read, and I'll be curious to see where Hartman goes next. This debut deserved the accolades.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Days of Sand by Hélène Dorion

Days of Sand
by Hélène Dorion (trans. Jonathan Kaplansky)
Cormorant Books, 2007 (original French published in 2002)
111 pages

This is a book I've been holding on to for a long time. I've wanted to read Days of Sand since I read a review when the English translation was first published. Some years later I received it as a Christmas gift, since it didn't seem to exist in any of the many libraries I have access to; it was apparently a difficult book to find. Some time after I started trying to read it. Now, years later, I have finally finished it.

I don't remember exactly what it was about the review that triggered my interest, but it seemed like the perfect sort of read for me right now, where books with a strong narrative or long chapters or a page count over about 150 seem to be eluding my grasp. I love books where the focus is on language, where it is the intrinsic beauty or the rhythm or the feel of the words themselves that hold the reader, not necessarily the plot or the characters (see my longtime adoration of Michael Ondaatje's work, for example, though I'd not say he can't do plot or characters; he just doesn't have to, in my opinion.)

On the surface, Days of Sand is exactly the sort of thing I like. Very short sections, three pages at the most, each focusing a lens on a single idea or memory. Very little narrative, though the cover says it's a novel. In fact, I'd say it's largely prose-poetry, each piece a contained bit of carefully put-together language, designed to evoke some reaction in the reader -- recognition, sympathy, understanding, alienation, memory. But also very much to my taste, the emotion evoked is not manipulated out of the reader. The text trusts the reader to make a connection; it doesn't force it.

And I hate that this book wasn't quite right for me after all. I desperately wanted to like it, and I really did try. It's Canadian, it won the Prix Anne-Hébert in 2004 (clearly someone liked it, or several someones) and I remember the review being full of praise. It feels deeply personal, though it is a work of fiction. It's from a tiny Canadian publisher. It's an odd little book that I expect deserves a wider audience. Except... except.

I don't know if it's the translation, or that the rhythm of the author's original prose works better in French (I suspect both) or if it's just that Dorion's writing just really didn't work for me. I felt I was working against the prose in many places, fighting with it to wring out meaning and connection. I got there at some points. At other points I was just bored by what felt clumsy, pedestrian repetition without any point, and -- get this, coming from me -- an overabundance of commas where other forms of punctuation or none at all would have better served the text.

It wasn't all disappointing. There were moments of brilliance. There is an entire section where the narrator talks about being at the beach as a child -- the section that the title comes from, verbatim, though it has significance throughout the book -- that absolutely shines. There are other delightful little moments, beautiful bits of writing that felt like truth and also like art. The meditations on memory and words and existence are incisive, if not always original, and I think I can safely say that the moments where I did connect to the text were worth the many moments where I did not.

It is possible, too, that I should have read this differently. I maybe should have read it all in one go, or as much as possible, rather than a section here and there, sometimes with days in between. It might be that I need time and exposure to get the feel of the text, and that by reading it in small pieces I never really got to experience the full effect. I do suspect there is something in this, as the few times where I read more than two or three sections at once, I felt much more positive about the whole experience.

I am glad I own this book, because I think perhaps it deserves a second chance at some point down the line. But it is hard to say if I would recommend it, or who I would recommend it to. I'd love to read it in its original French and compare the experience; I'll get back to you on that once I've learned enough French. Until then, I'm saddened that I didn't like this better than I did.