Monday, October 23, 2006

Spindle's End

By Robin McKinley.

The McKinley version of Sleeping Beauty, of course. Humorous and entertaining throughout ("And for ecstatic visions, there was always the illegal eating of fish.") Also quite sweet, but don't prick yourself on the ending: parts of it are quite sad. Also, the first chapter, though still written in humorous style, is a lengthy exposition of the country and how magic works, and various other sections tend to get rather vague on some points. (Six or seven years of developing friendship are somehow condensed into a few pages?)

Also, how obvious a name is Pernicia? I mean, you know who the evil fairy is from the beginning when she shows up to lay the curse, but still...

Worth reading especially if you like sweet fairy tales with (fairly) happy endings, and haven't seen anything but the Disney version, where the princess (and Snow White, too) is completely helpless to do anything. This book is probably set in the same world as Damar, since there is a brief reference to a country of that name (and another to modern Earth), but since I haven't read the Damar books I don't know if this casts any more light on them. Probably not.

Update: Here is a pertinent Bible verse for (the second half of) this story: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) It rather touchingly lives up to this idea.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


By John Hersey.

This should be required reading in US History. In fact, I'm considering e-mailing my AP US History teacher from high school, whom I haven't contacted in three or four years, and telling her so (or at least suggesting it.)

This short book, originally a (long) article in The New Yorker, details the experiences of 6 Hiroshimans who were lucky enough to survive the atomic bomb. It really speaks for itself.

See this paper for more information on the article's publication and the public reaction to it.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls

By Jane Lindskold (author of the perhaps better known Firekeeper series.)

This is a pretty good book. Although the era depicted is dark and amorphous, the characters are bright and feel very real even when they aren't described very much--what you do hear about them is enough to suggest real people. There are a lot of ethical/moral choices made, making this book a good one to think about, but you don't have to think about it to understand the story. (Well... see below for a possible exception.)

The (strikingly beautiful, we are told) narrator is Sarah, a possibly thirty year old autistic who, despite her speech inhibition, is considered functional enough to be released from the Home onto the streets. She can only speak to others using significant quotations memorized from Shakespeare, the Bible, etc., but (probably initially because of her beauty, despite what we'd like to think of higher motives) manages to attract the attention and protection of the Wolf Pack, a gang modeled after the Jungle Book and lead by the ruthless and kind Head Wolf. The real trouble starts when the Home issues a readmit order for her and tries everything to get her back...

Sarah is an interesting character. Older for sure than Firekeeper, in some ways she seems quite mature and in others she is like a child. She seems to accept rape as an inevitable fact of life for her, starting from when she was 12 years old, but it is only that; she doesn't seem particularly obsessed or scarred by it. The fantasy hook is this: Sarah can hear inanimate objects speaking. She brings her rubber dragon everywhere and feeds them whenever she eats. (They are a two-headed dragon named Betwixt and Between.)

The setting is a dark, unnamed metropolis, too big to be effectively policed. (Do all the things that go on in this book go on in large cities?) The Wolf Pack consists largely of children (and some older) prostitutes, but what can anyone who cares do for them? Everyone on the streets is poor. Instead of putting up wanted or missing posters, the hunt for Sarah is turned into a candy contest of "Cream on the outside, mint on the inside--spot our girl!"

My problems with the book were the following:

One, we are told and shown over and over that Sarah can only speak through quotations. Trying to come up with her own words makes her choke. How, then, does she narrate the book? I had more trouble with suspension-of-disbelief over this issue during the first chapters than later on; there is a possible explanation fairly late in the book, but it might just be that we, the readers, are looking in on Sarah's mind.

Two, the mind-over-matter trope, also known as "All I have to do to kill you is convince your brain that you're dead!" (The Matrix, anyone?) In many cases (including this one) accompanied by other physical symptoms apparently produced by the brain, such as bleeding or bruises.

Three, the afore mentioned explanation late in the book of how Sarah could talk freely. It was trying to be scientific, I think (this book is sort of on the borderline between sci fi and fantasy), but it implied that she could imagine or dream of talking, but was unable to actually carry out the physical action.

And finally, the destruction of the Bad Guys data and computers via a computer virus. Why wouldn't they have backups? Plot convenience, I guess. (Or she intentionally left open room for a sequel, although it's not looking too likely for a book first published 12 years ago.)

All in all, a lovely read. Recommended (but it does contain some sexual references; young readers are cautioned.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

There Are Doors

By Gene Wolfe.

Bizarre would be one word to describe this book. "Dream-like" seems to be one that's popular in the Amazon reviews.

This is the story of a pretty mediocre guy going after the girl of his dreams. He (whatever his name actually is; about two thirds of the way through, I suddenly realized that it had not been disclosed) is a rather good furniture salesman, but appears to have no private life at all. When he gets a girlfriend who dumps him after a few days, he becomes obsessed with finding her, and finds himself wandering through the "doors" mentioned in the incomprehensible note she left behind.

The problem is, the doors can be any door, and so he finds himself in another world without even realizing that he's there until he's placed in a mental institution for, uh, alcoholism. Which, from everything that's said, seems to be a non-issue for him. The world is different from the Earth we know in ways that are so obvious and well-known that nobody there bothers to clue him in; the differences are one of those shared cultural assumptions that no one talks about.

A fairly interesting book, I guess. It was certainly quite readable after I started it: there are lots of questions raised and, like some other books I can't be bothered to name at the moment, Wolfe manages to convince you that all the answers are there too, if only you think about it enough. Some are outright handed to you, but others are less obvious.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

An Obsession with Butterflies

By Sharman Apt Russell, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History.

This book started off well, with a bunch of attention-grabbing facts (who collected 2.5 million butterflies in his lifetime? find out!), but seemed to thin out factwise towards the end. As usual, Russell has a lovely, strong voice in her writing:

I can't believe they trust me, alone.

I sit at the table, waiting for David Carter.

Then I stand up, and sneak to the nearest drawer. [...]

I tiptoe down the wooden canyon, open two more drawers, three more, five more, an Owl, a Zebra Longwing, a Red Admiral. I leave them all open. The butterflies begin to stir, pushing their wings against the case, moving up, bright ghosts, through the glass into the air. (pp.152-153)

You will probably enjoy it quite a bit if you're an insect lover, and it has a fairly extensive bibliography at the end of (perhaps) more scholarly sources. However, I didn't think it was quite as well written as Hunger was.

The Wood Wife

By Terri Windling.

Sort of reminds me of Charles de Lint's stories, but it seems like Windling mixes in more of her own ideas, such as the idea of fairies having "artists" who use human lives as their clay.

The Wood Wife is set mostly in the Sonoran Desert in the Southwestern United States. Maggie Black inherits the estate of a deceased writer with whom she corresponded, but never met, and moves there in hopes of finding unpublished writing and putting together a biography of his life. She slowly falls in love with the desert and the creatures that live there, blah, blah, blah.

I suppose this is one of those pretty good books that I didn't really love because they weren't quite my cup of tea, but I still thought it was better than okay. It might be worth checking out.