Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gone away

Books just aren't grabbing me the same way anymore. I end up regretting half the ones I read now. The other half I don't have much to say about. (In the last two months I've read Silksinger, Forest Born, Ice, Liar, Fire, The Maze Runner, Nation, Good Girls, Warbreaker, The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen, Donut Days, Secrets of Truth and Beauty, and Philippa Fisher's Fairy Godsister, and reread Blackbringer (which I still thought was good)). I guess this is a drawn-out way to say not to expect much more here, not that you do.

I spent some time in Bangladesh recently and it's safe to say my perspective has shifted. There's so many real and eternal things to invest in that losing myself in a fantasy doesn't appeal much anymore. I think the right kind of book can shed light on this world (I recognized many of my emotions in the main character of Forest Born, for example) but others, the kind that focus on shock and horror and other evils, have lost their attraction.

I may post here again if I find a book particularly worth mentioning, or I might turn it into a more general blog. Not sure yet.

Here's a quick run-down of the books mentioned:

Silksinger. I loved Whisper's power and the adventure was exciting but it kept getting darker and by the end I felt like I had been drinking poison.

Forest Born. I didn't exactly love it but I want to read it again: it's a quiet kind of book that I think will grow on me some more.

Ice. This is the last one I read. I was extremely impressed by the pacing: Durst drops new revelations at exactly the right times near the beginning, and it only speeds up from there. It also has a pretty good mix of fairy tale atmosphere and modern sensibility (the main character is the daughter of an Arctic researcher).

Liar. The craft this book must have taken is impressive but in the end, it feels like you know less than you did when you started. I knew enough to expect it going in, but maybe I'm cynical.

Fire. Don't know if I'll read another book by her. A third with a main character like the ones in her first two would be too much for me. This one also seems darker than the first.

The Maze Runner. Very like The Hunger Games in terms of excitement but I thought it took too long for the eventual payoff ("End of book one" and very few answers) and was darker than justified. "Dark, edgy and realistic" must be in these days.

Nation. Oooh... I liked this one quite a lot, except for the ending. Pratchett's humor works places other than the Discworld, but in this one it acts as leavening instead of being the main course.

Good Girls. Yuck.

Warbreaker. Some interesting ideas and exciting action sequences, but the characters didn't stand out a lot.

The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen. I don't remember Changeling very well but I think this was a little more of the same: Neef and co. managing geniuses. (She makes friends at the changeling school, including Tiffany (later known as Woolworth).)

Donut Days. I'm not sure I read the whole thing but if I did, I barely remember it. Controversy erupts over a prophecy and the main character's mother preaching. I liked the bikers a bit.

Secrets of Truth and Beauty. I blogged about this already.

Philippa Fisher's Fairy Godsister. Impulse read! I saw this at the bookstore, picked it up at the library, and enjoyed it a bit, but it's a very light read. Take it with a big grain of salt.

Blackbringer. I already blogged this one, too.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Dubious Hills questions

I was rereading The Dubious Hills (again) last night and wondered about some things I hadn't noticed before. I still think it's a really good book with a bittersweet (but open) ending.

These questions of mine are bound to be at least a little spoilery.

1. Why does Mally seem to give Arry particularly useless answers when everyone else seems to know what she says about everyone else? Does Mally think (know) it's better for Arry's character for her to search on her own, even though she never finds the answers, or is she just teasing her? Or are the questions Arry asks truly outside of Mally's province?

2. I noticed, perhaps for the first time, Halver's line about the intelligence being unable to make a choice. Every other time I've read the book I thought that Arry had good reasons for wanting to stay the way she was, but now I wonder how much truth was in what Halver said. Even the choice Arry makes at the end doesn't seem directly related to the choice Halver wanted her to make. On the other hand, it seems Halver made the choice he wants everyone else to make, so what he said can't be entirely true. What do the spells really do?

3. Presumably some explanation will be in the sequel (coming out sometime), but why did Arry's parents leave her? I really noticed this time, despite the way she sees herself (or at least the calm, in-control impression she gives from her narrative voice), she really seems to be only barely managing to take care of her little brother and sister.

4. Why is the doubt worse in the morning?

Sunday, September 06, 2009


Eyes Like Stars, by Lisa Mantchev. This is just about like R. J. Anderson says; Bertie has to come up with a reason she should be allowed to stay at the theater that's become her home (literally). There is some crude humor but not much that's truly objectionable (the hot tub scene probably crosses the line) and the book is funny despite it. I'll accept a lot if it's funny. Despite the first chapter (which I read online and said "meh" to) the book takes off quickly. One aspect to note is the dreamlike feel: one can accept the oddities of players but the motivations and actions of certain characters (particularly the Theater Manager) make less sense by the end of the book than they did at the beginning. Maybe this will be rectified in acts two and three.

Secrets of Truth and Beauty, by Megan Frazer. This is more a coming of age story than anything. Dara is pulled out of school by her parents over a misinterpreted English project (although who misinterpreted it is in question) and feels pushed to the breaking point. She decides to meet up with the sister she's never met. Goats ensue. (I am not kidding.) Also the usual working through difficult relationship issues with other people stuff. Dara has a lot of things going for her (boldness, persistence, long-ago dance lessons, a great singing voice) but really doesn't know how to deal with her parents or her sister. The book does have an emphasis on homosexuality (in other characters) which, although I liked the characters for other reasons, might be offensive.

Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Super intense, maybe supernatural, maybe not. It's indisputable that Lia has an eating problem. This is a gripping read but not light reading.

The Princess and the Bear, by Mette Ivie Harrison. I liked this better than The Princess and the Hound (I think there was more character stupidity in that one), probably because of the romantic aspect, but the prose still felt clumsy at times. You don't really have to have read the other to enjoy this although a basic idea of what happened might be useful.

Do Hard Things, by Alex and Brett Harris. I just started reading this but so far I agree with it to a remarkable degree. The basic idea is that teens fulfill expectations. Since we don't expect much of them in our culture, most waste incredible potential in their teen years which could be used to set a direction for the rest of their lives. I've thought for a long time that people should grow up (I would say sooner, but I think there are some who never grow up), myself included. The rest of the book is apparently (not having read it yet) a roadmap to doing hard things.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Prospero Lost

By L. Jagi Lamplighter.

So Miranda Prospero, daughter of Prospero, Dread Magician (you know the one), is sitting in her study, minding her own business, when she receives a message from her father saying that her whole family is in great danger and that she should warn her brothers (and sister). Well, actually, she's not really minding her own business since she finds the message in one of her father's journals.

I think this is a very well written book, not only because of the descriptions and characters and pacing, but because of how it works on multiple levels. Superficially, it's a combination adventure-mystery with Miranda working to find her siblings and figure out what's going on. At a deeper level, it would be very hard to miss the theme of slavery and freedom. Not only is her father responsible for keeping an entire race in slavery, Miranda herself is extraordinarily obedient to his wishes, though whether supernaturally so is up for debate. (Barely. Several characters suggest the latter, and she does at least one thing which is extremely hard to accept otherwise.) While most of the characters are not exactly well-rounded, this seems to be more a family flaw than anything else: it is readily apparent to this reader, though perhaps not to Miranda, that her family's troubles have been building for several hundred years.

To put it plainly, they are deeply twisted. Mephisto is mad (maybe), Theo is sad and the rest are like selfish children. Despite Miranda's age, neither she nor the rest seem to have grown up much. She herself doesn't recognize empathy when it hits her (several times: "How strange! I had never before made the error of mistaking another person for myself" -- or words to that effect). Not that she's wicked, but naive and devoted to her family, and callous towards people she doesn't know, at least initially.

I wish I could say I loved it but since this is only the first part of three, I'm afraid of how the trilogy will end. This book certainly didn't end how I hoped it would, although the ending it does have seems strangely inevitable in retrospect. In addition, Miranda's world (or at least her own beliefs) seem to be Gnostic in nature, which I found quite disturbing when touted as truth -- at least the truth of her world.

I really did enjoy this story but it does end on a suspended note and has some disturbing elements. That said, I still think it has quite a bit of merit and I recommend it pending the release of the second and third volumes. And Mab is a great character.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Doomsday Book

By Connie Willis.

I should probably say up front that I liked Eifelheim better. More about that in a bit.

This book is about a determined young student who manages to convince... someone... that she should be allowed to travel to the 14th century. Of course, you know from the beginning that it can only go downhill from there...

What I liked: As a disaster story, it's not much good if you don't care about the characters. The problem is that I didn't care much about the modern characters, only the medieval ones (and Kivrin and maybe Mr. Dunworthy). Despite all the things I didn't like, it's quite readable. You get history as part of the deal.

What I didn't like: It's a disaster story, and it's depressing. The end isn't any kind of triumph, just survival. Too many characters are introduced too quickly which makes it a little hard to keep track of who's who and who's important. The Middle English dialogue is just short of impenetrable but fortunately you get to read it in translation after a little while. The theology is heretical or worse (Dunworthy thinks that God wouldn't have sent his son if he had known what would happen, and that he didn't stop it because he couldn't). On the trivial side, the phones seem very dated next to a future that has time travel and (kind of) advanced medicine.

It's inevitable that Eifelheim is compared to this book. They both involve parallel stories between the present (or future) and the Middle Ages. There is also a priest in both who turns out to be a good guy (the one in Doomsday Book isn't nearly as intellectual but he has a servant's heart). Eifelheim, though, seems to go somewhere with the story, while the characters in Doomsday Book end up almost where they started, perhaps slightly wiser, but really just alive. (Except for the ones who die.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009


By Aprilynne Pike.

The first time I picked this book up, I put it down again because of the uninspiring description, which ended: "... everything you thought you knew about faeries will be changed forever." I figured if the book was really special, they would have been able to highlight something more intriguing than that vague promise.

The second time, I decided to give it a chance and started reading. I enjoyed seeing the little mysteries surrounding Laurel and was particularly amused by her brand of denial. I also liked how she develops friendships, with her friends helping to draw her out of seclusion.

You should be able to guess what I didn't like. (Ask if you want to know.) It also seemed to force the plot slightly, answering some questions in an entirely unsatisfactory manner. I also didn't like the name dropping scene near the middle: it wasn't nearly as convincing as the process of discovery Laurel goes through before and after that point.

Overall? I ended up enjoying this quite a bit more than I expected when I first saw it, but will still be hesitant about picking up the sequels. (Four books are planned for the series.)

And now a plug for the 2009 Debutantes: As you may have noticed, quite a few of the books I've read this year have been gleaned from this LiveJournal community for debut young adult and middle grade authors. Not only is it a great way to find new authors (there's also a 2010 community), these books often lack many of the elements I find unpalatable in "adult" books. The downside is that, being debuts, you generally have to wait a year to read another book by any of them. Take a look at their books.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Dull Boy

By Sarah Cross.

Avery is a super-powered teen struggling to fit in and avoid the dissection table.

What I liked: The plot is not really the strong point here. The strong points are the characters and humor. This book is hilarious. The interaction between Avery, Darla and Catherine is golden and the other characters are pretty good too.

What I didn't like: I was laughing too hard to care much at the time, but all the parents in this book look stupid or abusive or both. There's definitely a sense of isolation forced on the characters: parents are not sympathetic; Avery has non-super "friends" but they never even make an appearance; almost everyone either has no siblings or is distant from them. It helps to force the characters together as a group but, as with the parents, it doesn't really seem likely that no one "outside" would ever catch on. (There are, admittedly, suggestions that the story could go this way if there's ever a sequel.)

There is also a lot of lying on the part of the protagonists and some strong language.

I'd definitely recommend this for the humor but take the morals with a grain of salt.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Reading between the lines

Ambiguity. Some books have it, others don't. There are places where something is omitted but you can easily fill in what happened, and there are others where you can't be as sure. Some examples (these may contain mild spoilers):

"The Lady or the Tiger?" If you haven't read this, go do it now. It ends with a classic cliffhanger. This is the type where you have to decide what happened yourself.

Alphabet of Thorn (Patricia McKillip). Nepenthe*'s real name is important to the plot, but the book never spells out what her name actually is. For that reason this is the first and last McKillip book my sister read; she couldn't stand not having every detail revealed. Almost every book has some loose threads, but not usually something that says so clearly, "I will never tell you."

Laurie King's Mary Russell books**. Aside from plot points, there's a stylistic technique here where one character has a long paragraph of dialogue and you have to fill in other characters' responses from what the single character says. This is usually fine and cuts down on tedium when you know what the responses are, but sometimes it leaves you wondering.

So: what are your favorite examples? When does the art of omission drive you crazy, and when does it make a book (nearly) perfect?

* Nepenthe is related somehow to opium, I believe.

** These are strangely addictive: I'm in the middle of my fifth one and I couldn't tell you why I keep reading them, except that for some reason I really want to find out what happens.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Childbook Reading, part 3

If you happen to know or suspect what any of the unnamed books in this post are or who they're by, I would love to know.

The Hardy Boys. I read far too many of these, along with some Nancy Drew and Tom Swift, before realizing a deadly secret: they're all the same.

Pineapple Place. I remember little about this other than the name. When I checked recently, only the sequel was still in the library system.

Those Morgana books. I don't remember the title or author, but some children stumble upon a house full of mirrors. When a spell involving moonlight is worked, the mirrors became portals to another world, with the nice touch that on the other side you would appear however your reflection did here. Magic, originally contained in gemstones (if I recall), had been divided up into staffs of different ranks. There was a nasty game of questions in a dark basement. Someone is killed by shattering a mirror as he was passing through it. And one of the girls becomes Morgana's apprentice.

These books were really quite dark. I suspect I stopped reading them more or less intentionally, which is probably why I can't find them again now. Do I really want to? (This was probably somewhere between 3rd and 5th grade.)

Goosebumps. I also consider this wasted time now, although I suppose I know I don't like horror. I had a friend in second grade who had practically all of them and lent them to me.

Asimov, Norby and sequels. Who can forget this cute barrel shaped robot, hyperspace, ancient aliens named after Renaissance painters, and alternate universes? Probably my first sci fi.

Another unnamed book about a girl who was turned to stone either at the beginning or end. I think she was accepting of it which made it merely melancholy instead of terrible. There may have been a smog monster involved but I suspect I got it confused with another book.

Another unnamed book about some kids who fight aliens who have no creativity. There's a magic remote and Baba Yaga, too! I think the title was an acronym but I'm not sure exactly what it was. Something about geeks or nerds saving earth? The aliens may have been shaped like trash cans but that doesn't seem quite right.

The Falcon and the Serpent, by Cheryl A. Smith. Someone is stealing the souls of a kingdom's children: they go to sleep and never wake up. I particularly remember the trap set for the protagonist: he must choose to die for what he believes or, avoiding death, spurn his beliefs. From what I recall, this book had enough threads in the background that there could easily have been more set in this world, but Google finds nothing.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Hunger Games

By Suzanne Collins.

Probably anyone reading this has already heard of this book, but just in case: Katniss is a girl (17) struggling to feed her family in a world dominated by televised atrocities. This is reality TV turned into a weapon: Every year, 12 of the 13 Districts outlying the Capitol of Panem (the remains of North America, we are told) are forced to send two of its children to compete in a fight to the death. As you may have guessed, Katniss is one of those sent.

The outstanding characteristic of this book is tension. Good or bad, this is an intense story, at least until suspension of disbelief fails. (In particular, I'm dubious about the speed with which a certain poison acts.)

What I liked: I must admit, tension made the book an incredible pageturner, even after I skipped to the end and started reading backwards. I also liked the suggestion of hidden mysteries, Cinna and the anonymous redhead in particular. It took me a while to realize what went along with the numerous Roman names in the story. (I wonder how significant the names are: there are several characters I would have placed on the "bad" side who don't have Roman names, and one who has a plant name. What might the redhead's name reveal?)

What I didn't like: The ending seemed contrived. Also, I didn't like Katniss very much: she thinks she understands the Games since she's seen them all her life, but she is naive about people. The real problem might be that her tough act seems too real. The Games themselves are a little too evil. Is there really no one who would refuse to participate, even if it means dying? (A comparison to the Roman colosseum is inevitable. Actually, reading that article shows even more parallels than I thought.)

In the end? Often horrifying, but certainly not dull.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Half Magic

By Edward Eager.

I'd better write something about this right now, or I'll never get to it.

First off: I wish I hadn't read the back cover before starting this. You find out what's going on so quickly anyway that I think it would have been more fun to guess it.

This is quite a fun story overall: four siblings find something magic, and growth results. I laughed at quite a few things that I'm sure I would have missed when I was younger. (I don't remember reading this at all before so I probably didn't. But then again, I remember reading Nesbit even though I can no longer recall anything that happened.) The prose isn't flowery but it gets the job done quite well enough.

The one really jarring note was when the children felt it would be somehow wrong to do magic on Sunday, and proceeded to play the rest of the day. No mention was made of church, or the Lord's day, or even a day of rest. Did they intuit some moral subconsciously? I'm having a hard time thinking of other reasons it could have been wrong.

Overall, this was quite a clever, if light, read.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Childhood Reading, part 2

Stephen Lawhead, The Warlords of Nin. This book was a big influence on me: it put me off mass-market paperbacks forever. Here's why:

That's right, the cover came off, probably the second time I read it. (Note that it may have been read before I had it; it may have come from a garage sale.) Other than that? Bad guys with magic (or fate on their side?), good guys without it (except for the magic sword), necromancy, and a hidden monotheism. (Hidden in that most people in the book are unaware of it, although it is a big part of Quentin's story.) Also the smith they ask to make the sword (in the second or third book, I think) doesn't want to touch the ore they use because it has the power to heal. Comfortable with his deformity? At least he has a hunchback instead of a lame leg... I think.

Taylor Caldwell, Dear and Glorious Physician. I must have found this in my grandmother's basement and read it in ninth grade, because I remember giving a book report about it where the teacher had to tell me that no, actually, Taylor Caldwell is a woman. I'm pretty sure I loved it at the time (it gave me the word "pusillanimous", after all) but I'm more skeptical now. It had mysticism and hypnotism (I'm starting to see a pattern here) and the master and his maidservant waiting until their respective spouses had died (of old age or fever or something) to marry? Seriously? Not that I think it was wrong to wait; I agree 100% with that. What I think might be wrong is that they had each other lined up already. It also had martial arts and a smart, skeptical main character: Luke the physician, if you didn't know. As a boy and a young man. Also a romance that doesn't go anywhere (I'm not sure how to describe it without saying what happened) although I don't think I cared much at the age when I read it.

The Bible. I'm a little hesitant to include this here, but why not? In tenth grade or so, I went to an Acquire the Fire conference where we were encouraged to complete a year-long Bible reading plan. I did read it (at least, I checked off all the boxes... in pencil in case I wanted to do it again) but I didn't remember much of it afterwards. I don't think it was worthwhile. Forcing yourself to get up at 6:00 to spend 10 minutes reading a couple chapters you won't remember by the end of the day is not a good way to study the Bible. I think now you really need to have a hunger to glean meaning from it, but at the time I'm pretty sure I was just doing it because I was told I should. Reading it now in a much more ad hoc fashion, I find all sorts of things that I don't remember one bit from that read-through.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Childhood Reading part 1

Most of these are books that I read as a child and haven't read again since. With some of them I am in the odd position of knowing more about them from what other people have said than from what I remember of reading them. (Exceptions to the rereading: I recently reread Laurence Yep's Dragon series and I've reread a few of Dianna Wynne Jones' books more recently.) These will generally be in no particular order, just as I think of them, and until I get bored.

C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia. I actually read these several times but don't remember a lot of the things that people talk about. Instead, I remember: the stars, Turkish delight, Tashlan, the lion attack, those who disappear into Aslan's shadow, the blind dwarves, the ruined world the Witch comes from, green and gold rings, Puddleglum and giants; were there monopods, too? A pool that gives death (more about this in the next one). Eustace the dragon.

John White, The Archives of Anthropos. These owe an awful lot to Narnia and the Bible, although I only read the first five. I remember picking them out starting with The Sword Bearer at the Christian bookstore. Is it sad that I only just realized John the Sword Bearer might be intended to parallel John the Baptist? He starts in Canada (with pea soup fog) but escapes through the basement of a bookstore to find himself in another land. I read a review in the last several years that said the writing was bland but I have a lot of great memories: Wisdom's house, flat on the outside and huge on the inside; the wine of free pardon; Gaal trees; a valley of dry bones that come to life (also with a pool that gives death! Why did I only just realize this parallel with Narnia?); an unlikely dragon named Pontificator (Ponty for short); the Lord of snow and ice ("Tell them that I am"); and the bad guys: Lord Lunacy; a nasty sorcerer whose name I can't recall though he's trapped in his own portrait for thousands of years; an evil witch; and Nicholas Slapfoot, who chases John from Canada to Anthropos, and keeps on chasing him. Also fun? One of the books is basically the journey of the three wise men, at least one or two of whom are somewhat skeptical. Has anyone else heard of these?

Thomas Locke, the Spectrum Chronicles. I only read the first four and I can barely remember the first one, which I lost shortly after reading it, although I do recall that it was about a different character and set (mostly) in a different world than the others. Books 2 through 4 are about Consuela, the scared girl under the table in the first book (which is almost the entirety of what I remember from that book) and Wander. Thinking back, these are a combination of true love and adventure in space. Consuela is somehow translated from Earth to a foreign world, where she meets Wander and turns out to have a great Talent like his: a psychic ability needed to safely guide starships between the stars. It is so rare, however, that the nameless diplomat (they give up their names when they take office) who takes him away for the Hegemony's use dismisses her as worthless. Unlikely? Sure. But nostalgia is a powerful thing.

Sigmund Brouwer, Magnus. For some reason I read the first part of this as a separate book which had some sections that were in the complete book cut out. I was very surprised to find different details when I read the whole thing. This is the story of (whistles, goes to look up the name) Thomas, a young man who inherits a magnificent treasure: a chest of books (in the twelfth century?). He goes on to take over an impregnable fortress, and that's only the beginning. I will say that he gets yanked around a lot and there is a subplot reminiscent of Poison Study. There's also hypnotism (which I hate) and some guy who's killed by dumping honey in his ear, followed by maggot eggs. Was this detail included just for the yuck effect? (It is part of a story related to the main character by someone else.) I do have some nostalgia but I freely admit that parts of this book are disturbing. And I looked carefully at my bed for a while after reading about assassination by snake under the covers.

Kathy Tyers, Firebird and the rest of the trilogy. Pre-Messianic space opera? Firebird is a talented musician and composer, but as a spare child grows up knowing she is destined to die young, preferably in service to her planet. She really, truly tries very hard to do so: first by ramming her fighter into a planet, then by taking poison, then by provoking her captors to kill her... fortunately for the reader, she is prevented by a top-notch intelligence officer serving the other side. Also fortunately, he is extremely moral. Unfortunately, he is also extremely psychic. I also have a soft spot in my heart for these books, despite the number of gruesome ways there are to die: poison, of course; disintegration rifles (they handcuff the hands behind a steel pole to retain proof of decease); sonic weapons that implode the brain cavity; poison gas; being psychicly commanded to kill yourself (of course the good guys never do this); being smashed into a crater by telekinesis; photo weapons (possibly nuclear or hydrogen bombs, I was never quite sure); at the end of that list, rifle slugs with timed explosives sound almost tame. Would I read it again? I want to...

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Great Divorce: A Dream

By C. S. Lewis.

I should change my blog name to "Reads Too Fast"; (little) brother's recent comment on Spell Hunter was "Is she in love with him or something?" "Why do you think that?" "Every time they talk about humans it stings her a little." I need to learn some patience in reading and in a way, that's why I started this blog. I would probably enjoy good books more if I did that. It's hard, though, because for a lot of books I'm not sure if they're good until I finish them. Once in a while, though, there's a book that you know is going to be good after the first page, so you can settle in and enjoy the ride.

Despite that digression, I'm not about to say that about The Great Divorce. In the spirit of omitting needless words, I'm tempted to say that it's unorthodox and leave it at that. This book is a sort of essay presented as a dream of a journey to Hell and to Heaven; the real focus for me was what makes people lost, the things they hold onto that drag them down, which fits in with Lewis's introduction and thesis: the things of Heaven are completely incompatible with those of Hell. You can't hold onto just a little sin, or a tiny selfishness, or even a natural love, and know divine love: they must be surrendered and put to death absolutely.

As a story, this (quite short) book perhaps lacks something; but as a stimulus to thought I'd say it succeeds quite well.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The White Darkness

By Geraldine McCaughrean.

For some reason this book reminds me of Flannery O'Connor: there's a crooked Bible salesman who takes advantage of naivety, a girl doing home study for her doctorate in micropettiness, and some crutches. Oh yes, and a surprise vacation to Antarctica. Can't imagine how I forgot that little detail.

None of the details above are actually true but there is a resemblance.

Symone Wates is obsessed with Titus Oates and his doomed 1911 Antarctic expedition. Now that he's dead, he doesn't have any pressing commitments in his schedule, so he's free to follow her around -- or so she imagines, anyway. She has a very active imagination. So when her uncle (really a family ... acquaintance) takes her on a weekend holiday to Paris and then announces a spontaneous trip to Antarctica, she imagines nothing is wrong. The trip that follows contains increasingly disturbing revelations.

What I liked: The first thing that really struck me was the early scene in the diner where Sym discloses a certain fact about herself. The book also covers a lot of information about the Antarctic without infodumping (much). Sym's voice is very well done and highly readable. The tension is pretty high throughout the book without becoming unbearable. (Since she's the narrator, we can assume she survives unless the author pulls a Lovely Bones-style* trick, right?)

What I didn't like: Sym's naivety is incredible. When people in the Antarctic base camp get sick and she doesn't, she dismisses it as adjustment problems. When the plane that would have brought them home explodes, she dismisses it as a fuel leak or insulation problem. This is a survival novel but although she has to survive the Antarctic, the real challenge is surviving her uncle. The problem is that she doesn't realize that for a long time. Also, she is the only character who is really likable (Titus Oates is too, but mostly he's her).

This has a great narrator in Sym, incredibly creepy family dynamics, and a high-tension trek through the Antarctic (to say wasteland is a redundancy, although it is beautiful, like many deadly things) with a madman. I doubt I would read it again but I might read another book about Sym if any were published.

* Disclaimer: I haven't actually read Lovely Bones but am pretty sure it has a dead narrator.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter

Also known as Knife in the U.K., which I prefer. By R. J. Anderson.

Disclaimer: I've been following the author's blog since around the end of 2006 and eagerly awaiting this book since at least last year; I was actually hesitant to read it, lest I be disappointed. I am also hesitant to write this post, lest the author be disappointed. (Hi there.)


My actual reaction is more complicated. This book is actually haunting me (where haunting is a sophisticated literary term that means I woke up thinking about it). When I finished it yesterday I was somewhat nonplussed, thinking "Okay, that's nice enough, but I don't love it", but the romance grew on me over the next several hours.

Today I realized what really creeps me out about it. It's a zombie book! (to put it facetiously*)

The story: Knife is a precocious young faery whose colony has been Sundered from its magic and the outside world since long before her birth. Only the (secretive, Machiavellian) Queen retains the ability to control magic, although all faeries had it once. As the Queen's Hunter, Knife decides to take matters into her own hands, find out why the magic has been lost, and try to fix it...

What I liked: The characters are almost all very well done. (Paul's father doesn't seem to get much attention, though.) The little touches that come from this being a faery story: Knife hides in a basket filled with crumpled paper, but doesn't know what it is. The chuckle I got from her pride in being a whole fly's length taller than everyone else. The deft reminders of, for example, the importance of names: they are only briefly mentioned, but in such a way as to make the reader remember. The tight prose. The descriptions are striking: this is a well-detailed world. The sweet, innocent romance. The references to a gardener (possibly this one?).

What I didn't like: This is very much Knife's story, which is fine, but her world doesn't seem very large; it's almost as if it ends beyond the house and grounds where she lives (with one exception). No one outside that radius seems to play an important part. Even inside, the unnamed faeries in the colony (there seem to be 50 or more) seem to be a sort of shadowy, amorphous cloud, playing as extras in crowd scenes. There are no chance encounters with someone unnamed that turn out to be important later, as far as I recall. (My recollection may be poor; I'll admit to misreading Bryony's name as Byrony until I tried to look it up and couldn't find it.) What really bothers me, however, is the way magic is used to change minds and wills, just as in Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely. It seems to me that a general rule of fairy tales is that the characters should have to make choices that lead to their downfalls; stories where free will is taken away by magic tend to bother me a lot. Physical coercion is one thing, but being able to change someone else's essence is another.

In the end? There's much to like about this book; the ending is quite good, open without being unresolved. There are some hints of Christian themes but not as much as I had hoped. I do hope to read more from the author. But I remain disturbed by the magic, as explained above. (I could also just be in a bad mood since the mirror scene with Magpie in Blackbringer was similarly awful but didn't have such a lasting effect on my impression of the book.)

* I am thinking of these zombies. Maybe it doesn't really fit?

The Everlasting Man

By G. K. Chesterton.

This is my second time trying to read this book. This time I actually finished, although I am sure that in rereading it (eventually) I would glean more.

The sum of Chesterton's argument is encapsulated in the several page "SUMMARY OF THIS BOOK" which appears at the end; it might not be a bad idea to read this first. He contends that man and the Church are both things unique, strikingly so when considered on a level with other things purportedly of their kind. If man is an animal, he is the only animal capable of claiming so; if the Church is a mythology or philosophy, it is the only one which unites the intellect and the spirit of romance, not to mention unabashed hope for things to come. (Chesterton makes a point of distinguishing between pessimism and optimism, which are to him types of fatalism, and hope, which allows for free will.) It is the only with a Gospel, good news that must be spread. It is, as he says, the Church Militant, of which Islam is a later and paler imitator.

Many of his arguments are surprisingly simple, but that does not mean you do not have to read carefully: they may be gone before you realize he is making them. One of the striking ones in my memory is that the doctrine that God is Love and the doctrine of the trinity are nearly the same thing; Chesterton says:

For if there be a being without beginning, existing before all things, was He loving when there was nothing to be loved? If through that unthinkable eternity He is lonely, what is the meaning of saying He is love? The only justification of such a mystery is the mystical conception that in His own nature there was something analogous to self-expression; something of what begets and beholds what it has begotten.

Certainly this book is a weighty slog; it is probably unreasonable on my part to expect light reading on weighty matters. But there are also thought-provoking nuggets together with some humour (for instance in the obversation that no mortal power can prevent the poet from contemplating the skylark in spring). Is this book worth reading? Probably, but only if you take it seriously.

An addendum: I read the Ignatius Press reprint, but this book and many others by Chesterton are in the public domain and available online.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Timothy and the Dragon's Gate

By Adrienne Kress.

When world-weary eleven-something Timothy Freshwater finds himself in possession of an ancient Chinese dragon, he also finds himself on the run from dangerous black cabs, a ninja with something to prove to her parents, et al. Watch in excitement as Timothy learns the true power of sarcasmfriendship, or whatever.

What I liked: This book was extremely readable and, in my opinion, had more consistent plot and humor than the first in the series while retaining (slightly subdued) randomness. Also, it isn't really necessary to have read the first (Alex and the Ironic Gentleman) to enjoy this one.

What I disliked: The prose remains extremely conversational and a bit choppy in the way the narrator jumps from topic to topic. Also, Timothy is maybe too hateful through most of the book.

Definitely light, entertaining reading. One of my brothers is reading it now.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Princess of the Midnight Ball

By Jessica Day George.

This is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses: their dancing slippers are in shreds every morning despite being replaced every day, and eventually the king decides to offer a reward to whoever can discover the cause. Wikipedia has more.

What I liked: I'm not sure. I think this novel hit the sweet spot with its mixture of charm and humor, although it may have fallen short on suspense. Despite being familiar with the general plot (I've read Robin McKinley's short story from The Door in the Hedge, Wildwood Dancing, and most recently The Phoenix Dance), this book didn't disappoint. I also liked the atmosphere and (pseudo-) historical detail: the book takes place in an almost-Europe, complete with a Roman church.

What I didn't like: Despite the "distinguishing" characteristics, only about half the princesses stood out as individuals. (The author stated in an interview that she came up with one distinguishing characteristic for each in order to set them apart. Hyacinth, for example, is religious.) Also, although the church wasn't portrayed in an entirely negative light, I had to wonder: the characters openly believe in God, but he seems to have no bearing on the mess of curses and spells they find themselves in. Galen relies on his own wits and the advice of his friends, and the princesses themselves are disappointingly passive (although witty), perhaps due to the spell.

Overall? I recommend this as a strong retelling, fleshed out with a lot of detail and the charm that made me like (I want to say love, but I haven't reread it yet) Dragon Slippers.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

By Carrie Ryan.

I've been trying to avoid reviewing books that I don't like, but I dislike this one in such specific ways that I think it might be worth it.

The premise: Mary is in a village surrounded by a fence surrounded by zombies, many years after the so-called Return. Mary does not want to be there but she doesn't realize it yet.

What I liked: Clever naming (Mary and Gabrielle; also Mary's dog Argos). Strong descriptions. The characters also stand out as individuals but I only really liked Gabrielle. At least a mention of both sides of some issues but see below.

What I disliked: Zombies, lack of humor, and, crucially, the main character, Mary. She angsts about marriage and death and who she should marry and whether zombies feel anything and who she loves. Notice anything repetitive about that list? The official position of the village leadership is that marriage is about commitment, not love; Mary says it should be about love and then worries about who she actually loves. (In the end, the answer seems to be "herself.") I don't have a lot of sympathy for her position in that regard, believing that if she started with commitment she would grow into love. Oh, well; at least the other side is mentioned.

As mentioned, there is precious little humor in this book (or I missed it) and there are also zombies. I found them creepy but I don't really enjoy being creeped out so I don't think that's a good thing.

Bottom line? You will probably like this book if you like zombies or possibly post-apocalyptic fiction. I probably won't bother with a sequel, if there is one (the ending is wide open), though.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Bones of Faerie

By Janni Lee Simner.

Quick summary: When Liza's sister dies and her mother disappears, she sets out on a quest to find her in a world devastated 20 years ago by a war with Faerie.

What I liked: This book has noticeably tight prose. (It might not be a good thing that it stood out so strongly to me, but surely tight prose is good?) The idea is original (at least it's not nuclear winter, again) and the characterization of the main three characters is pretty good.

What I disliked: The world seems very shallow, as though Liza's town and the towns around it are all that's left. Surely at least one metropolis and some infrastructure (power, water, communications) must have survived? Also, the book seems short and really only deals with Liza's problems. Some of the world details aren't very convincing (they feel out of place or inconsistent with the rest of the world, e.g., the episode with the Mississippi) and a couple characters seem to act strangely for the sake of plot. (Their actions may be in line with their characters but I don't feel like I saw enough of their characters to feel that way.)

Overall: Short, enjoyable read, but it could be better.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The False House

By James Stoddard.

A lot like the first book (which I didn't review because I wasn't sure what to say about it) but better, I think. Both of these books concern a house called Evenmere, which somehow contains all of Creation: the Lamp-lighter keeps the lamps of the universe lit, the immortal Windkeep keeps time going, and the Master of the House defends it from the Society of Anarchists and others who would destroy it or its people.

Also, the Last Dinosaur (in pre-scientific times, he was called "Dragon") lives in exile in the Attic, truthful but vicious.

In both books, you know who's good and bad without much ambiguity. The first is fun to read as a pretty clean (though violent) adventure story, but the voice seems somehow detached from the internal lives of the characters. They have challenges, issues trusting each other, but the suspense never seems that high. The anarchists are mostly cookie-cutter soldiers and, despite claiming to want a better universe, are willing to murder millions of people to get there. On the good (plus dinosaur) side, the characters are more individual, with distinct speech patterns, but they all seem extremely competent.

The second book adds some elements of romance, but it is mostly perfunctory, along the lines of "He spent several weeks visiting her, and then asked her to marry him." And then he leaves her at home to worry. The sensibility is definitely that of an older time, although these books were published in 1998 and 2000.

What else can I say? Apparently these books are full of allusions to older fantasy; there's a web site with a catalog of references. Chant often quotes poetry, and the second book quotes Wuthering Heights numerous times, at the same time condemning it, "a book of unrequited love and dark despair." (At least, I assume it does from context.) And there are Christian themes: the House is said to have been built by God, there are numerous depictions of angels and at least one Biblical scene (in the second book), the characters discuss faith and hope, and so on; but there is still a lot of killing of anarchists.

In the end? Quite enjoyable. I have to join others in wondering why these aren't better known and why no more books by Stoddard have been released.

Also, remember that guy John C. Wright? He's said repeatedly in interviews that he takes ideas from other people, a comment I took as humorous. But The False House does contain a girl who can create secret passages at will...

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Order of Odd-Fish

By James Kennedy.

A wonderfully absurd, funny book, albeit with hints of darkness. I want to tell you more about it — there are many great moments — but most of them are spoilers.

Part of the greatness is the setting, reminiscent of the Half-Continent in depth but more modern in atmosphere: a huge, decaying city on a tropical island with giant cockroach butlers and centipede newspapermen, who perhaps serve the human population, or are perhaps admired by them. Colorful and solemn festivals alternate as Jo Larouche, shot down along with her aunt, an elderly Russian colonel and a three foot cockroach off the coast of California, discovers why her past has brought her to this place and struggles to avert the future others want to use her for... (Yes, the previous sentence has terrible structure.)

There are, however, grotesque moments and hints of the unsavory. The opening chapters contain some innuendo (although to what, exactly, is not entirely clear, which I guess is what "innuendo" means anyway) and I dimly recall wondering about some other lines.

Overall, however, I found this to be a quite enjoyable book. One wonders whether there will be a sequel.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


By Catherine Fisher.

I've had this book sitting around since June at least, and I only just read it. It's a weird hybrid of a spy thriller, adventure story, political intrigue, etc.: Finn lives inside Incarceron, an entire world built to be a perfect prison and lift its prisoners to moral perfection and happiness. The Warden of Incarceron lives outside in an enforced Era of technological poverty, while his daughter Claudia searches for the location of Incarceron and tries to plumb his other secrets.

What I liked:
  • Strong adventure
  • Cool gadgets
  • Characters aren't stupid
  • Possibly Christian themes: Incarceron failed as a utopia because men cannot escape the evil within themselves; forgiveness; loyalty.
What I disliked:
  • This story starts off looking like (soft) science fiction but at a certain point became completely incredible to me as anything other than a fantasy.
  • By the end almost nothing was resolved.
What I wasn't sure about:

I guessed almost every plot twist far ahead of time, if things so apparent can even be called twists. On the one hand, it makes me feel smart; on the other hand, maybe they were supposed to be so apparent. Or maybe I've read too many books of this sort.

In the end: A pretty good adventure story (complete with sailing ship sequence), but you'll probably want to have the second one (Sapphique) on hand when you finish. (You might want to keep in mind that these books are imports, not actually published in the U.S., but you can get them through Amazon.)

The City in the Lake

By Rachel Neumeier.

A girl trained as a mage heads off to the City at the center of her Kingdom after various calamities strike her village (i.e., babies are all born dead).

This book is written in a style similar to Patricia McKillip's, although it lacks some of the vivid and startling language McKillip uses, at least in her later books. This may intentionally reflect the gravity of most of the characters but likely it's just the author of a first novel developing her craft.

Most of the characters have an overabundance of self-control; although they seem more solid than cardboard, most are in no danger of being overwhelmed by emotion, either.

The atmosphere is very much that of a fairy tale: Timou lives in a Kingdom with a Forest and a City, courtiers are shocked at the suggestion that they might pluck out the jeweled eyeballs of any lizard they found by the pool where the Prince disappeared, and Timou's quest is a matter of perception and careful choices rather than the application of force.

In the end, I think this book shows quite a bit of promise, and anyone who enjoys McKillip will probably want to check it out. Also, the book stands alone in a way that makes me guess there won't be a sequel.