Monday, December 31, 2012

Top Ten (Or So): Books Read in 2012

A lot of my rankings is related to how well I remember the books in question. Several books I remember really enjoying, but I hardly remember the actual content of the books themselves. I think this is indicative of overall less enjoyment on my part, and thus they rank lower.
But really--it kind of feels like I'm almost randomly putting this together. As soon as I decide upon the books and order, I remember another book that's just as fabulous. I switch it all around...and then back again...and I'm so HOPELESS at making up my mind.

So, without further ado, I give you in sort-of approximate ascending order some of my favourite books read in 2012:

--Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy. Great fun, awesome illustrations, and multiple princes to choose from.

--Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. I love language, and always have. This book is not only filled with an amazing amount of fascinating information about the English language and language in general, but also Byrson's sense of humour.

--A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge. One of the most original Middle Grade authors I know. The worldbuilding is rather incredible, but the characters and plot are not far behind.

--Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake. Reminiscent of Buffy and Supernatural; contains two romances I actually kind of liked, tons of humour, a gorgeous cover, and dried-blood coloured text.


--Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card. Psychological insights, genius children, more Ender Wiggin, and a tiny little strategist from Rotterdam.

--The Winter Prince by Elizabeth E. Wein. Dark, but really, really good. An introspective look into a very complex character. Also sort of a re-telling of King Arthur, which is pretty cool.

--Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Great art, gripping story, two central characters I'm going to remember for a long time. Decidedly my favourite manga I've ever read, and more interesting than most of the books I've read as well.

--A Posse of Princesses by Sherwood Smith. Lovely and fun and full of unique characters. This is sort of the ultimate comfort read in some ways. But it's not only fluffy and fun; there's some actual growth in maturity for these characters.


Runners Up (In No Order Whatsoever and Possibly Missing Some Good Ones Because I'm Really, Really Bad at Making Up My Mind)
--Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This is a staple of SciFi for a reason.
--Code Name Verity. One of the best fictional female friendships ever.
--The Dragon's Tooth. Ancient society of explorers!
--Kat, Incorrigible. Family, magic, and shenanigans in the 19th century!
--I Hunt Killers. Serial killers!
--Flatland. Dimensions!
--The Pirates! In an Adventure With Whaling. Sooooo funny.
--How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Just look at the title. It explains everything.
--Loss. Anthropomorphic personifications of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top Ten (Or So): Covers of Books Read in 2012

Covers can have a stronger impact on me than I'd like sometimes. It is such a huge effort not to re-buy  several times books I already own, simply because the covers are SO. PRETTY. But I usually manage to resist. And those with bad covers can put me off for years, even though I know the book will probably be amazing.
Thus, here goes the list. In approximate descending order (because I'd never be able to decide an exact order):

Anna Dressed in Blood. This one is my favourite. I love it, love it, love it. Grey and red are two of my favourite colours, and her hair's so pretty, and and...sigh. I dunno. I just love it.


Girl of Nightmares is also pretty high on my list. I liked Anna Dressed in Blood better though, as this one is less grey and the red is a bit too orangey.


Splendors and Glooms. Aaah, just look at that. So creepy and atmospheric. I love the giant hand appearing from underneath that beautifully red curtain. And then there's the back cover... But I won't spoil it for you.



The Humming Room is illustrated by my favourite cover illustrator and written by one of my favourite authors. What an awesome combination. I ended up not liking the book quite as much as Ellen Potter's other books (The Kneebone Boy and Pish Posh were really awesome), but Jason Chan's artwork was as lovely as always.



And speaking of atmospheric, look at The Drowned Vault. It's better when you can see the big version, but even in the small version some of the beautiful colour scheme and suitable strangeness shows up.


The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. I love covers where the characters are illustrated (as opposed to using a photo shoot, or a simple design), and this one just makes the book look so FUN (which it is, by the way).


Code Name Verity. Simple but arresting. Also black (which is probably my favourite colour for book covers, despite the grey and red of Anna Dressed in Blood) and very suitable for the tone and themes of the book itself.


I'm not sure if I find the cover for Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children attractive exactly, but it's certainly mesmerizing and unique. I always noticed it in every bookstore I walked into.


I just think the cover of Loss is pretty. Hunger and Rage are awesome too (Rage is my favourite, being red), but I read them last year so they can't go on this list.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Tempest

by Julie Cross

Grade: 3 1/2 stars
Story summary: Jackson can travel through time! 'Nough said.
Ok, I suppose that isn't enough said. Jackson can travel very short distances into the past, until one day he gets stuck in 2007 and can't get back to his normal time of 2009. Which is unfortunate because his girlfriend was just shot by mysterious men, and he wants to get back and make sure she doesn't die and all that.

Thoughts: Basically all the stars come from the time travel. I love time travel. A lot. The time travel in this book is different than any I've seen before as well, so that was exciting. It was lacking in some details, but that I'm presuming will come with the sequel, which is out in 2013. The first half of the book was especially exciting in this area; you have no real clue what's going on, and all sorts of strange things are happening

The Romance, on the other hand, was nothing spectacular. Or at least, for my tastes. Though I was thankful at least that it wasn't about Jackson falling in love with a girl; Holly was his girlfriend from the beginning and stayed that way. Also, it seemed like it was an actual serious love, serious enough for him to [spoilers, visit rot13.com to decode] nfx ure gb zneel uvz, naq gb znxr gung ubeevoyr fnpevsvpr ng gur raq.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Splendors and Glooms

by Laura Amy Schlitz

Grade: 3 1/2 stars
Story summary: Strange puppets, creepy puppet masters, old witches dying slowly, lost children, a fair amount of thievery, etc. etc.

Thoughts: Schlitz is good at a mix of creepy, sad, adventurous, and heartfelt. A Drowned Maiden's Hair was similarly excellent in this regard.

The characters were unique while still being familiar. Parsefall was a typical poor, thieving scamp in some ways. A bit of an Artful Dodger type, except more serious. Lizzie Rose was a "good girl", but with the few interesting things she convinced herself were acceptable. Grisini was quite Fagin-ish in many ways, but had interesting complexity in his history with Cassandra and the fact that he's in the puppet business because it's actually his passion. Clara and Cassandra were my definite favourites. They both had rather tragic pasts which psychologically screwed them up royally.

If I had a criticism, I would say that although the multiple view points decidedly create more complexity for each character, they also distract slightly. I didn't feel like the book was quite as cohesive as it might have been.

P.S. Just look at that awesome cover.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True

by Gerald Morris

Grade: 2 1/2 stars
Story: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You know the story. And if you don't, you should, and it's not my job to enlighten you.

Thoughts: Good. Funny. For kids. I'm rather too old to properly judge this (despite the fact that Sir Gawain is my all time favourite knight ever), as it is for a much younger audience than me. So...yeah. That's all for today.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

by Orson Scott Card

Grade: 4 stars

Thoughts: Even better than Characters & Viewpoint. While Characters & Viewpoints made me feel like less of a writer--like getting my ideas and characters in words might be more of a challenge than I was up to, this seemed like something I could do. Perhaps it's because I "belong" in SFF. In fact, there's a description on page 33, that sounds much more like my style of writing than many other descriptions I've read. I'm not going to quote it because it's longish, but the basic idea is that for Orson Scott Card (and me!) the initial story thoughts begin years before hand, slowly mature and change, as little bits and pieces are added or completely re-imagined, and by the time it's done, it bears almost no resemblance to the original. Makes me feel a bit better, because I was starting to feel a bit worried about the fact that my stories keep changing so drastically.

The first bunch of the book was actually more defining what science fiction and fantasy, or "speculative fiction", actually is. This would be a fantastic resource to be able to argue against those people who snobbily look down on speculative fiction as somehow lower than literary fiction. It also included TONS of references to excellent SFF authors, most of whom sound awesome. It'll take years and years before I'll get as far into that list as I'd like to be.

Then it went on into more actual writing suggestions and tips (with specific emphasis on world creation), which was also really interesting, but I'm not going to go into much detail about it. Read it yourself if you want to know more.

The last bit (which he admitted in the preface might be outdated by the time you read it) is more about getting published: various magazines to try out, tips about handling agents and finances, all sorts of stuff. I actually found this part really fascinating, even if it is outdated. There were all sorts of things about getting published I had no clue about.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Characters & Viewpoint

by Orson Scott Card

Grade: 3 1/2 stars

Thoughts: Really good book about writing and characters, by the author who wrote Ender's Game and a million other SciFi/Fantasy books. From the good and bad parts of stereotypes to the importance of characters suffering to writing in 1st person vs. writing in 3rd person, he looks up close at the actual craft of writing.

This is one I'd like to buy and use as a reference. I don't write all that often, but I love thinking about characters and why exactly I find them fascinating/boring/whatever adjective suits them.



P.S. WARNING: RANT FOLLOWS WHICH DOESN'T HAVE THAT MUCH TO DO WITH ANYTHING IMPORTANT. YOU MAY SKIP THIS PART. I  DON'T MIND.
A while back, Orson Scott Card made some sort of remarks that many people took as homophobic. I don't actually remember what those remarks were, so I'm not going to comment on that. However what I would like to comment on is the fact that so many people on the internet are now saying, "I really want to read this book, but OSC's a total jerk, and I never want to read his books again". This really annoys me. Are they going to stop reading all books that have authors they disagree with? Part of the POINT of reading is to become familiar with someone else's mind, sometimes because they have good things to say, and sometimes because they have bad things to say, and you need to be able to recognize the bad when you see it. Why do you think "Mein Kampf" is still widely read and available when it's author was one of the worst people in history?

Maybe it annoys me so much because I, as an orthodox Catholic, end up reading TONS of books whose authors I disagree with. All the time. Always. Sometimes it shows up in their books, sometimes not. Sometimes I really strongly disagree with them, sometimes only a bit. But it doesn't stop me from reading them, unless it figures so strongly that it makes the actual reading of their books unpleasant. OSC's views don't show up in his books at all, as far as I know--and people STILL go on and on about this.

Anyhow. This rant is sidestepping the point somewhat (which is why it's in the P.S. and has that huge warning at the top), but I have read some reviews of this book that have mentioned this point, and it annoyed me so much that I had to write about it somewhere. A book like this doesn't talk about an author's views on anything like that ANYWAY; it's purely about the art of writing. WHAT you write about, or what your ideas on life are, isn't discussed.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Forming Intentional Disciples

by Sherry A. Weddell

Grade: 4 1/2 stars

Thoughts: Fascinating book about the state of the Catholic Church today, and how one as a Catholic should evangelize. There are ton of statistics (Yay, reading about statistics! Bleh, actually doing statists!) in the first chapter or two, followed by discussion about charisms, different states of discipleship, and how to engage with the many people inside the Church who are lonely and distrustful of Her.

What I found interesting is that I definitely had a negative emotional reaction to some of the things she was saying. NOT because they were wrong or bad, but rather the reverse. I was evidence of the fact that Catholics are not used to speaking very openly about their faith in that manner.

Otherwise...well, like most books that actually have depth or try to argue a specific position, I feel somewhat inadequate trying to explain my thoughts on the internet. So I'm going to leave it at this, and if I ever meet someone in person who has read this book, I will gladly become involved in a highly absorbing discussion/debate/argument/whatever.

EDIT: Ok, upon request, here are a couple random thoughts.

--The percentage of people who label themselves as atheist or agnostic but BELIEVE IN GOD is astounding. So is the percentage of people who label themselves as Catholic but DON'T believe in God. Just as an example, according to Weddell, 55% of people who label themselves agnostic believe in God (14% in a personal God) and 29% don't believe in God. So only 16% actually follow the technical meaning of "agnostic" and say they don't know whether there is a God or not. That's so weird... But it does actually make some sense to me. People nowadays seem to use labels less for the actual technical meaning of the label, and more for some of the connotations that go along with it. Thus, people call themselves agnostic if they are not part of any organized religion but still believe in God; or they don't believe in God, but also don't care what anybody believes (as opposed to many atheists who do).

--Here's an observation by a professor Weddell quoted that I actually found weirdly accurate:
"Contemporary culture does not provide the average iGen with a profound grasp of what is right and wrong apart from the conviction that assaulting the self is clearly wrong... Because of trends like the self-esteem movement and the impact of relativism, he concludes that iGens are pre-moral. Mann suggests that they do not feel guilt as much as they feel shame for not achieving what they are designed to accomplish." [pg. 176]
That last sentence, unfortunately, really does apply to me.

--Weddell mentions several things which somehow, to Catholics, just seem too Protestant. Such as actually mentioning Jesus's name:
"I have been part of many conversations about the Catholic discomfort at using the naked name of Jesus. We talk endlessly about the Church but so seldom about Christ as a person with whom we are in a relationship. Few things trigger the fear of being 'Protestant' more quickly than naming the Name. A witty friend summed up this dynamic in a memorable way: Jesus is 'He who must not be named.'" [pg. 141-2]
And again, I find this weirdly accurate. Certain things just smack of Protestantism somehow, even if they are actually really good things we should be doing/thinking ourselves.

--She also talks a lot about discerning charisms. Which I don't really have any idea what I think of, because I've...well, never thought about it. It's a really interesting topic, though, I just don't seem to hear/read anyone talk about it much.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Drowned Vault

by N. D. Wilson

Grade: 3 stars
Story summary: Sequel to The Dragon's Tooth. Cyrus and Antigone Smith now have a whole lot of powerful immortal people really mad at them. So that's good. And now they have to run away from their previous haven of safety to find the guy who almost killed them last time. And everybody's chasing them, and they still have to keep up their training, and there's a girl with lots of creepy spiders who's supposed to be helping them.

Thoughts: Wilson's visual imagination can be absolutely stunning. The gorgeous cover art is perfectly suitable, what with the pretty colours and the strange happenings (man with tons of hair chained over a sword, all underwater?) But for me at least, this book went the way of his 100 Cupboards series. The first book wowed me with it's imagery and imagination, but not enough happened with the characters. They were very interesting characters with lots of potential, mind you. They just didn't live up to that potential in the second books of both series. Really cool people like Nolan and Di were just sort of there throughout the whole adventure. They didn't even have much to do with the plot, let alone the character development.

But while I never ended up reading the third book in the 100 Cupboards series, I will still definitely read the third book in this series (assuming there is going to be one). For one thing, I really like the ideas in these books, like the Order of Brendan. I want to see where he goes with that. I'm also still hoping it's just a middle book thing, and the characters will still develop further. Because they really are cool. (Especially, in this book, Arachne. Her imagery was so creepy and fascinating.)


Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling

by Gideon Defoe

Grade: 4 1/2 stars
Story summary: Sometime after their adventure with scientists, the pirates are in need of a new ship. So they rashly buy one from Cutlass Liz and get into terrible debt as a result. Chaos and escapades ensue as they try out gambling at Las Vegas, performing shanties and monologues, and finally, whaling. (Also called, "The Pirates! In an Adventure With Ahab".)
See also the next book in the series, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists.

Thoughts: Awesome, tiny, utterly hilarious.

Evidence:
--It has a recommendation from Eric Idle (one of the Pythons) on the front. (Actually, it's a recommendation for the first book, not this book. But this one is pretty much as good.)

--It was written by  guy to impress a girl. What better reason to write  book? Apparently it didn't work. Silly girl.

--He includes lots of random footnotes. Awesome footnotes put any book high on my list.

--It is full of hilarious quotable passages. I had one picked out for evidence, but then I lost the paper that I wrote the page number on, and I'm too lazy to look through the book to find a good quote.

To sum up: very light and funny. Aptly named. If a book with an exclamation point and the word "adventure" in the title appeals to you, you'll probably like the book a lot. This book also includes pages listing non-existent sequel titles at the end (e.g. "The Pirates! In an Adventure With Public Sanitation" and "The Pirates! In an Adventure With Boggle"), and fake chapter titles making the book sound very exciting and adventure-y, even if it isn't (e.g. "Skull Hunt on Pygmy Island!" and "I Knifed My Way to a Diamond Pit!"--nothing whatsoever to do with the actual plot line).

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wonderstruck

by Brian Selznick

Grade: 3 stars
Story summary: After Ben is struck by lightning and goes deaf in his good ear as well, the subsequent trip to the hospital gives him a chance to run away and look for his father. Meanwhile in the past, a girl also runs away to find a parent.

Thoughts: Written in the same unique style as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, with half the story being told through pictures. In this case, however, the pictures tell a separate story than the text--but related plot-wise and thematically

And just like Hugo Cabret, this book has a lovely soft--and slightly sad--storyline (how's that for alliteration?) and the pictures tie in perfectly.

Another thing both Selznick books have going for them (besides the gorgeous pictures and prose) is unusual areas of research. In this case, the resource list at the back included books on lightning, deafness, and museums. I was especially interested in the stuff about Deaf culture (apparently, "deaf" refers to the condition and "Deaf" refers to the culture, which I didn't know).

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Death Note: Another Note

by Nisioisin

Grade: 2 1/2 stars
Story summary: An FBI agent on suspension, Naomi Misora, is called upon by the great detective "L" to help solve an unusual series of murders. A prequel of sorts to the manga series Death Note.

Thoughts: The worst thing about this book was the stupid names. Perhaps Nisiosin is not familiar with American culture? Because the majority of the people had names like "Beyond Birthday" and "Quarter Queen" and one of the worst: "Backyard Bottomslash". This was supposed to be a mostly serious story, but every time someone's name was mentioned, it completely took me out of the story.

Otherwise it was quite good, I suppose. It was interesting to get more insight into L's past and character. The mystery was not bad--I didn't actually guess the answer. Most reviews I've read seem to have praised it fairly highly, so it's hard to tell whether my lack of great interest is purely a result of the terrible distraction caused by the names.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Death Note

written by Tsugumi Ohba
illustrated by Takeshi Obata

Grade: 5 stars

For reasons that are still rather vague and unformed in my mind, I do not count graphic novels/manga/comic books when numbering the books I read each year. But it occurred to me for the first time the other day that this wouldn't necessarily stop me from reviewing them. So here goes.

Death Note is one of the coolest series I've read in a long time, and I'm including non-graphic series as well. It contains many of my favourite tropes: young, evil geniuses; Machiavellian characters; long battles of wits. What more could I ask for?

It's basically about a long series of mind games between Light Yagami, a boy who obtains the power to kill people by writing their names in a notebook (the Death Note of the title), and a young genius detective called simply "L". Light slowly gets more corrupted by the power of the Death Note, and L slowly closes in on him. And just when you think you might understand someone's plan, it turns out there was a whole other level going on above that the whole time. Awesome stuff.

Special praise also goes to the artist, Takeshi Obata. He's what got me into manga in the first place, with Hikaru no Go. His style is not as frantically busy as some manga tend to be, and a series as dark as this needs some realism in its art.

My main criticism is a lack of interesting girls. Any girls that did appear tended to be rather stupid, and have no purposes other than being in love with Light, and thus getting rather horribly used by him. The lack of good female characters did mean that there was no hackneyed Romance, which was nice. But I would also very much like some girls to add to my Evil Child Geniuses list someday.

It also gets into slightly weird philosophy by the end of it. Mostly this wasn't the focus of the story, though, so I was able to ignore it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Epic

by Conor Kostick

Grade: 3 stars
Story summary: Erik lives on a world where disputes/economy/practically everything is decided through a huge multiplayer game called "Epic". In frustration after his mother's "death" (character death), he decides to challenge the authorities through a new female character with all her points wasted on beauty. Then follows shenanigans and adventure.

Thoughts: Speaking as someone who enjoys computer games quite a lot, this was quite a lot of fun. Battles and armour and dragons and treasure and strange NPC's.

But also, speaking as someone who enjoys computer games quite a lot, I wish he'd gone into more detail. The idea of a character with max beauty points and almost nothing else was quite fascinating. But then it seemed he just got a few perks, like that special ring, and that was all there was to it. I wanted...training montages! And long descriptions on the inner workings of the game! And comparisons of each character's strengths and weaknesses! And training montages! (I love training montages. I don't care that they're probably overdone. I think every movie should have one. It was my favourite part of X-Men: First Class. It's one of the main reasons why I love Poison Study so much--there isn't exactly a montage, but there's lots of training. And it's awesome.)

In general, there was just not enough. The group of kids went from ordinary players to super-players without much explanation. There were fascinating hints of artificial intelligence, but it never got into it properly.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Mark of Athena

by Rick Riordan

Grade: 3 stars
Story summary: All the demigods from the past two books meet up in one big quest. Tensions between Romans and Greeks mount. Gaea's menace grows. Teenagers have a tricky time trying to sort out all their relationships. Plots thicken.
Sequel to The Lost Hero and The Son of Neptune, all three of which are part of a sequel series to the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series.

Thoughts: Though the viewpoints in this book changed around quite a lot, Annabeth was a lot more prominent than usual, as might be deduced from the title. And Annabeth isn't nearly as hilarious as Percy, and doesn't have some of the cool powers that the other main demigods have.

But the middle books in Riordan's series are never quite as good as the beginning and ending books. Though I look back on the first Greek series with immense fondness, I actually kind of skimmed through a couple of the middle books. So considering that I read this quickly and completely, this series is looking good so far.

Best thing of all: the next book in the series, announced in the back of this book, is called "The House of Hades"! Maybe we'll finally get some more Nico di Angelo.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Ender's Shadow

by Orson Scott Card

Grade: 4 stars (maybe 4 1/2?)
Story summary: Basically Ender's Game from Bean's point of view. The book starts with Bean's background, goes on to his life in Battle School, and ends with the same climax as Ender's Game. If you haven't read Ender's Game, you should. And I don't want to spoil both books by describing it in too much detail. Suffice it to say that Ender was on my list of Top Ten (Or So): Evil Child Geniuses (despite being not exactly evil), and that Bean has certain significant similarities to Ender.
Also see the sequels: Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant.

Thoughts: Stories about super-intelligent prodigies--I love 'em. Also stories about people who get people, and know how to use this knowledge/intuition. Also stories with battles (albeit non-killing ones). Also stories about a group of random people who become close through adventures/trials/something really difficult.

Buuuuut...I still like Ender better and I still like Ender's Game better. The comparison is inevitable--I suppose that's to be expected. When first reading Ender's Game, everything is new and exciting and surprising. Ender's Shadow is not quite so surprising. In fact, Bean figures out basically everything so far ahead of time that plot events wouldn't be too surprising even if you had read Ender's Game.

Although this book had one attribute that not only was not found in Ender's Game, but is not found in many other books either: a Catholic nun who is good and orthodox, but also definitely not perfect. So yay! for rarely seen not-too-clichéd Catholics in literature!

So now all I have to decide is whether to read the Ender sequels or the Bean sequels or no sequels at all. I believe in the Ender sequels he goes off on his own hundreds of years in the future (due to the time weirdness of space travel), while the Bean/Shadow books take place on Earth, are more about politics, and feature many of the other children from Battle School. That sounds more promising to me, even though I like Ender better than Bean. But then I've heard from some sources that Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow are the only ones that are any good at all. EDIT: As you can see by the links after the story summary, I decided to read the Shadow series. And I think it was definitely worth it. The geo-political maneuverings were pretty cool, and I loved Peter Wiggin's development.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I Hunt Killers

by Barry Lyga

Grade: 3 1/2 stars
Story summary: Jasper ("Jazz") is the son of a notorious serial killer. So yeah. He's messed up a bit. And then a body is found in his small town (which has already seen one serial killer), and he's sure it's not simply an ordinary death.
Thoughts: This is what I was looking for with Ripper. A kid who's actually affected by his serial killer father, and obviously has an unusual and clever insight into what makes a murderer tick. And also an introspective mind with which he actually thinks about stuff.

Lots of angst, lots of blood, and a somewhat open-ended ending, leaving the awesome possibility for more angst! and more blood!

Edit: Now here is part of that possibility realized, with the sequel Game.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Insignia

by S. J. Kincaid

Grade: 3 1/2 stars
Story: A bunch of kids get computers stuck in their brains in order to fight the enemy's kids with computers stuck in their brains (it's WW III, actually). It's a little like a mix between Brain Jack and a much lighter version of Ender's Game (which is one of my favourite books, as you might be able to tell from the extremely succinct review).

Thoughts: There are computers in their brains. Simultaneously totally creepy and totally awesome. I love computers. I love brains. I love clever kids fighting battles of wits with other clever kids. So this was decidedly right up my alley.

The characters were fun. They went in slightly different directions than I expected. i.e. When I first met the possibly-Aspergers Wyatt, I immediately thought, "Why couldn't she be his girlfriend instead of that silly, beautiful whatever-her-name-is. Wyatt's actually cool." Then it turned out Wyatt was way more important than whatever-her-name-is. (I really do forget her name...she was boring, ok?) Maybe or maybe not his girlfriend, but that's a spoiler, isn't it?

Small, unimportant nitpick: There is a little bit of suspension of belief necessary. Actually, it did answer a surprising number of questions. I'd think, "Haha! But what about this!" and then a chapter later, it would explain it, at least to a certain extent. But still, a couple things bugged me. Like, they're supposed to be fighting as far away as Jupiter sometimes, right? But doesn't it take 11 minutes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth? So they'd get the "your ship's about to be blown up" signal 11 minutes after it was already disintegrated. And then it would take another 11 minutes for them to send their "maneuver away from imminent source of explosion" signal--22 minutes too late. It would be impossible to have this kind of high intensity battle. (NOTE: I feel like I'm missing something really obvious here. But this is simply one example. There are numerous small instances of disbelief, so my point still stands.)

I will wait impatiently for any further sequels (and there's gotta be some--he didn't even get to the highest security level yet!) for more computery-brain goodness.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Girl of Nightmares

by Kendare Blake

Grade: 3 stars
Story: Cas's crazy, ghostly, murderess girl-friend has had spoilery things happen to her from the previous book, Anna Dressed in Blood. Now Cas and his Scooby gang have to rescue her--a process involving many ghost fights, a deathly test in Suicide Forest, a feisty British chick, and lots of creepy nightmares.

Thoughts: Like the first book, very entertaining in a Buffy and Supernatural sort of way. Also like the first book, it sports a pretty, pretty cover and dried blood coloured text!!! that immediately lifts this book into a "Good" grade. And finally, again like the first book, I didn't mind the central Romance. Wow. Mostly because it was not between the main side-kick girl and the hero, but also because it was, in the words of author Holly Black:

"[T]he old boy-meets-girl story, if the boy is a wry, self-destructive ghost hunter bent on avenging his father and the girl is a homicidal ghost trapped in a house full of everyone she's ever murdered."

Most of the rest of my thoughts are very spoiler-y. I'm going to talk about them for the rest of the review, so do try not to look if you haven't read it yet.

SPOILERS

I knew it could never work out with Anna, but I just wish Cas hadn't met Jestine right before he made his heroic sacrifice and let go of Anna. I suppose it's not definite that she becomes the new love interest, but it seemed so. And she annoyed me. She was too cocky. Not that I have anything against cocky heroines, it's just... Anna was so awesome and Jestine was too ordinary in character. It seems like I've seen dozens of her before.

Thomas and Carmel's relationship was a little better, but I wish it had gone into it a bit more. There was this abrupt "Oh no, they're breaking up!" twist, but then a short while later it was all better again, and it was never fully explained.

So all in all, it was slightly less enjoyable for me than the first, but still a satisfying sequel. I will read any further books Kendare Blake writes.

A Face Like Glass

by Frances Hardinge

Grade: 5 stars
Story: I have made a decision not to write a story summary for this. It's not that I would spoil too much, or anything. It's just that I like to go into Hardinge's books with no clue what's going to happen. Plus a summary of the first bit of the story isn't really going to give you any clue about what the rest of it is like. But here's a couple exclamation points, just to start you off (it's really only the beginning, though): Cheese-making! Revolution! Exodus! Court intrigue! Weird, creepy, kind-of-scientists!

Thoughts: Hardinge is one of the most original Middle Grade writers I've read, and one of the only authors I'll buy on sight, without reading a single review, description--anything. Her world building is utterly unique, not only from all the other authors, but from the rest of her own books as well. In this book, there are the Cartographers, the Facesmiths, the Cheeses and Wines and Perfumes... all of which you'd have no idea about unless you read this book.

The characters, plot, etc. are all great too, though it's the world-building which stands out the most here (unlike her some of her other books, Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery, where the characters of Mosca Mye and Eponymous Clent dominate my memory). The plot is full of twists and lies and secrets. The short quote on the back of the books sums it up nicely:

"Child, thief, madman, spy – which speaks the truth and which one lies?"

P.S. I highly suspect I would cave even faster than most people to the lure of the Cartographers. Even though I had the safety-net of reading about them in a book and not being physically present, they almost got me. I half wished Neverfell would drop all her plans and become a Cartographer, just so I could find out more about them and hear them talk.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ripper

by Stefan Petrucha

Grade: Unfinished
Read: To Chapter 18, page 90.

Thoughts: One of those books that just seem a little too young for me. This one wasn't so bad, and I still might finish it someday. But for the time being, it was due at the library. And it wasn't going into as much depth as I'd like. Maybe I'm just spoiled by my favourite child genius books. I thought the main boy (I can't remember his name...) would be just that much more clever, and that much more agonized by his past. I also expected a little more depth of character for some of the side characters (though Hawking was pretty awesome), but maybe that was coming and I just didn't read far enough? It didn't seem like it, but as I mentioned above, I still might give it another go someday.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Born to Run

by Christopher McDougall

Grade: 2 stars

Thoughts: Interesting, but not quite my style. The writing sounded quite journalistic, and kept on veering off to tell the back-stories of random weird people. And the actual fascinating stuff--about human physicality, running heel first vs. ball of the foot first, barefoot running, etc.--wasn't dealt with in as much detail or with enough back up and references as I'd like. I suppose that's what the Internet's for...

Also, I'm not exactly a ultra-runner or anything. So this wasn't my area of interest. I do run, but for such a tiny distance that it basically doesn't count.

Buuuut, I guess I'm glad I read it. I would like to run more, and this gave some inspiration. Plus the small sections about training (pg. 111 and 199) gave a few tips which I've already started to try, and they've already helped me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Team Human

by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

Grade: 3 stars (maybe 2 1/2?)
Story: Mel's best friend Cathy has fallen in love with a vampire. Big time. As in majorly Romantic Romeo/Juliet type love. And now it's up to Mel to stop what is obviously a very, very bad idea.

Thoughts: Lots of fun. I always like books that play on cliches in some way, and fortunately, Twilight has spawned enough of them to last for some time yet.

I do think they could have done a little more with Kit, though. I mean, he was raised by vampires, for Pete's sake! That ought to do a little more to you than make you ignorant of the fact that guys often say "I'll call you" as a way to break up with you. The reasoning behind his name was a cool way of showing the relationship between vampires and humans, but again--wouldn't that do something to one's psyche to be thought of in that respect? And to have your name actually be [spoiler]?

It was funny and light. I suppose I was expecting a bit more since Sarah Rees Brennan usually writes books full of danger and darkness. But ah well. Still fun.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Renegade Magic

by Stephanie Burgis

Grade: 3 1/2 stars
Story: Sequel to Kat, Incorrigible. Kat has more schemes to sort out her family's difficulties. More people try to stop her. She discovers more things bout magic. But this time around, there's more brother Charles and more Roman baths.


Thoughts: The new insight into magic was interesting, as well as the new insight into their family dynamics with the inclusion of Charles.

Other than that, I don't really have any comments. Read the review of the first book, if you want my thoughts. Also, Kat is awesome.That's it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Top Ten (Or So): Evil Child Geniuses

They're massively more smart than anyone else. They're completely unconcerned about how their actions effect other people. They're also rather on the small side.

In not exactly any order:

--Cadel Piggot, from Evil Genius and its sequels by Catherine Jinks. My very favourite evil child genius in the history of evil child geniuses. Evil Genius is much more fascinating than might be guessed by the very shiny cover and simplistic title. (Though I actually quite like both of those.) It's full of plots and terror and computer hacking. And Cadel himself is as clever and ingenious and desperate as you'd want him to be. (Note: One of the characters in the second book is honoured with a position on my list of Top Ten (Or So): Fictional Canadians.)

--Ender Wiggin, from Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (only this book, as I haven't read any of the others in this series). This book is ackowledged by everyone to be awesome. And there's a movie being made of it, so you'd better read it soon before it gets destroyed in your mind forever... Anyhow, Ender is a brilliant strategist, surrounded by a bunch of other young geniuses who are only slightly less brilliant. Great fun. (Note: Like some others on this list, he doesn't exactly fit the "Evil Child Genius" category, but this time on the "Evil" side of things. Mostly, he tries to be good and not murder people. But I liked him and his book so much that I didn't want to exclude him. Plus, he definitely does have a darker side.)

--Artemis Fowl, from Eoin Colfer's series of the same name. Evil child genius--with fairies! Not my favourite bookss ever--there's a bit too much bathroom humour, and the last couple books are rather boring and weird. But they're still great fun: there are centaurs, fairy police, parallel worlds and time-travel. Artemis himself is suave and Irish and slowly being redeemed.

--Oliver Watson, from I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb. He seems slightly improbable, even when in the company of the rest of these illustrious child geniuses. He's one of the richest people in the world, and he controls practically everything. And this is supposed to be the real world, unlike in the Artemis Fowl books. Also, he just doesn't provide the same level of pathos as people like Cadel and Nathaniel and Ender. Still, he's an evil child genius none the less, so I love him. Plus his sort-of love interest Tatiana is fantastic.

--Light Yagami, from the manga series Death Note. He's not exactly a child, but he does start out in highschool. And he's amazing, so I didn't want to not include him. The battle of wits between him and the detective L (also a young genius, but not included because he's really not evil enough) is morally ambiguous and completely engrossing, with twist upon twist as they constantly out-guess each other.


--Gwendolyn, from Kirsten Miller's How to Lead a Life of Crime. I don't want to give too much away about Gwendolyn, because Spoilers! But man, does she have a darker side. I don't know if she quite gets into the genius category, but she's obviously brilliant or she would be the Dux of Mandel Academy. Also, like Light, she's a teenager, so not exactly a child. But close enough. And she's one of the few people on this list who is truly evil, so I had to include her.

--Harry Potter, from a HP fanfic called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I never really like Harry himself--not in the original books, and not in fan fiction--even when he's an 11-year-old Ravenclaw genius with an mysterious dark side, living in an alternate universe. In this case, the dislike is somewhat because he clearly partly functions as a tool to get across the author's ideas. But I'm adding him because when he isn't spouting off rationalist maxims, he's often having amazing Ender-like battle games with a cool and Machiavellian Draco Malfoy, and a surprisingly-adept-at-battle Hermione Granger.

--Nathaniel, from the Bartimeus trilogy. He's actually one of my favourites from this list--tied with Cadel, I think. He's so close to not becoming evil that I find his books extremely tense. And his enmity/sort-of-friendship with Bartimeus will probably be on my future Top Ten (Or So): Bromances--even though they basically hate each other for most of the time. However, I'm not totally sure he's quite at the genius level. In all other ways he's suitable: he's much smarter and a more talented magician than most people, he's very young (though he gets older over the trilogy), and he's inclined towards the Dark Side. 


And that's it. Only seven. Very sad. But it seems like few people write about evil child geniuses, for some reason. Also notice, only one girl! Is that because there aren't any others or because I've forgotten about them? Either option is not good. If I ever suddenly discovered in myself a splendid gift for writing, I would decidedly write a book about a female evil child genius.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

French Kids Eat Everything

by Karen Le Billon

Grade: 3 1/2 stars

Thoughts: A mother of two young girls takes her family to France for a year. There they discover that the normal North American style of eating (complete with pickiness, whining, hurried and emotional eating, etc.) is completely looked down on. As a result of this and the way the French act with regards to food, almost none of the children are picky at all. They eat everything, and enjoy it too!

I have always been an extremely picky eater from a young age, so it was fascinating to read about these methods to encourage healthy and all-encompassing eating. Although I'm not sure how much would have changed with me if I had been raised in that fashion, as many of those techniques we did implement in our family to a certain extent. But then, I'm inclined to think I'm the exception to a lot more things than I actually am. In other words, I'm biased.

All in all, it strikes me as a very Catholic approach to food. To explain the reasonings behind this would take quite a bit more time and energy than I'm willing to spend at the moment, though. So you'll just have to make do with this quote from one of the French people in the book:
"Actually, it's really about religion," offered Sylvie. "Catholic countries have always been more interested in food. French gastronomie is like a secular communion, like a sacrament or a ceremony." (pg. 71)

And the main downside? I'm afraid I'll never look at those pictures of cute kids throwing their food about the same way again.

To sum up: I don't agree with absolutely everything the French do. I really do like a few certain aspects of North American food culture. Sometimes casualness is simply more joyful. But generally, I think so many things would go better if everyone here read this book.

Monday, August 13, 2012

I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President

by Josh Lieb

Grade: 2 1/2 stars
Story: The title says it all. Evil child genius turns his genius brain onto the problem of becoming class president. It is, of course, harder than he thought.

Thoughts: I am a huge fan of evil child geniuses. Cadel Piggot (from Catherine Jinks's Evil Genius series), Artemis Fowl (from the series of the same name), Ender Wiggin (from Ender's game), this certain Harry Potter fanfic where he's a super-genius Ravenclaw (with an evil dark side), etc. Thus, while I didn't like this book quite as much as the ones mentioned above, I still found it worth reading.

It did somehow seem slightly more implausible than evil child genius books usually do. Also intended for a younger audience than I enjoy (though I frequently really like Middle Grade and children's fiction even more than adult and YA fiction).

On the pro side, Tatiana (who is sort of the love interest) was awesome. In fact, if there are any sequels in the future, I will read them all solely for her.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ultraviolet

by R. J. Anderson

Grade: 3 stars
Story: Alison wakes up in a lunatic asylum, remembering nothing of the last few weeks. Everyone is treating her as if she'd done something horrible. What is going on??

Thoughts: The coolest part of this book was the synesthesia stuff. I've been fascinated by synesthesia ever since I first heard of it. It's just so cool. And Alison's synesthesia is ramped up to a fantasy level. Plus she's a tetrachromat--someone who can distinguish colours to an extreme degree (in this case, even to ultraviolet)--which is almost as cool.

In general, I quite liked the characters. The setting of the mental asylum was unique, and the people staying there were well handled--they seemed like actual people (albeit with some very strange issues), and not just weird mental creatures.

Stylistically, the book was very pretty, especially the chapter and section titles. Because of the prevalence of synesthesia, the colour descriptions were gorgeous.

But somehow, despite all these good points, I wish there was something more to it. The secondary characters were good, but still not explored enough. I never felt particularly connected to the romance (although I fully admit it's probably my fault in this case).The change to a much more SciFi feel in the last third felt a little abrupt, though it was interesting, and I did enjoy it. In other words, I just didn't really feel a connection to anyone or anything. The book was worth reading, but if there was a sequel, I don't think I'd bother reading it.

P.S. Anderson is both Canadian and Christian, two similarities to myself that I don't see half as often as I'd like. So, go Canada! And, yay God!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fear

by Michael Grant

Grade: 3 1/2 stars
Story: More death. More darkness. More fear. More mysterious happenings. Rather like a mix between The Lord of the Flies, LOST, and The Hunger Games. Basically, see the rest of this series: Gone, Hunger, Lies, Plague, and Light.

Thoughts: This review contains slight spoilers for the rest of the books.

--Astrid's loss of faith still bugs me, because it's treated as if it's so reasonable, when really it is so emotional.

--Edilio is now the only practicing Catholic left. Turns out he's gay, which is cool, but he might also be acting on his inclination, which is not as cool. If he's a practicing Catholic.

--Sanjit is still cool, but he wasn't in this book much.

--I'm liking Caine more and more. I dearly hope he's on the side of Good by the end.

--Diana. Wow. Fascinating to see where her development will go... I really like her--she's just below Sanjit and Edilio on the list of my favourite characters now, and tied with Caine--and her current situation is, obviously, extremely worrying.

--Penny. Is. Terrifying. What happened to Cigar...whew. Drake isn't quite as terrifying as he used to be now, due to the fact that he's outclassed by Penny. The giaphage...well, it's obviously scary, but the new developments it's gone through... well, we'll see where it goes, I guess.

Light, Light, Light!!! Whyyyyyyyy must it be so long til you are released?

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

by William Deresiewicz

Grade: 4 stars

Thoughts: An ex-Yale professor of English talks in a clear and amusing style about the influence Jane Austen had on his life, from when he was a young jerk of complete self-confidence, to someone who actually understood people well enough to get married.

My favourite chapters were the first and the second-to-last. The first was about Emma, which is my favourite Austen, I think (well...maybe P&P...). It was the chapter in which he initially realizes that Austen is, in fact, absolutely fabulous--not just for women, not soap-opera-y in the least, and full of fascinating and unusual insights into human character.

The penultimate chapter was about Sense and Sensibility, but more importantly, it was about love. As in actual love, not the kind of Romance that practically everyone in the whole word mistakes for love right now. Deresiewicz seems to be one of the few secular authors I've read who really understands the relationship between feelings, intellect, and will, with regards to marriage. And it is all Austen's fault that he does.

This is labelled "To Own" not because I loved it enormously (although it was very good) but because I would like to recommend it and refer to it in the future. Especially that penultimate chapter.

P.S. This is non-fiction, so it seems strange to talk about one's favourite character, but still--his professor was awesome. To be someone like him is, and almost always has been, my dream life.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Kat, Incorrigible

by Stephanie Burgis

Grade: 3 1/2 stars
Story: Kat's oldest sister is going to marry a horrid man in order to save the family from destitution. Kat's other older sister has found their mother's old magic books, and is plotting another way to save the family from destitution. Kat's own plan to save the family--to dress as a boy and run away--only got as far as the garden gate. And now Kat is stuck with a boyish haircut, a cruel stepmother, and lots of plans, schemes and adventures to carry out.

Thoughts: Lots of fun--the kind of Middle Grade book I love instantly. There was a feisty, awesome heroine who spent most of her time outwitting people more than twice her age. There was magic, adventures, and mysterious highwaymen. There was family: Kat has two sisters, a brother, a father, and a stepmother, all of whom have their own issues and complexities. Finally, there was the fact that the title included the word "incorrigible". What an awesome word, eh?

If I were to have any criticisms at all, it would be that Kat was a little too insistent that she was not a girly-girl. I have an issue sometimes with the writing of "strong" female characters. Authors will often write something basically like, "She did not faint or scream, because unlike all the other women in the whole world, she is a Strong Female Character." They try to show that women are strong by...having all the women be weak in contrast to the Strong Female Character. It gets on my nerves. However, Kat wasn't too bad in this regard, and she really was unusual compared to other girls, so I didn't mind too much.

Criticism Two: I want more! More of Kat and all her further numerous adventures, more of her family, and more exploration of the magic system of this world. Fortunately, there are two sequels! Yay!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Code Name Verity

by Elizabeth Wein

Grade: 4 1/2 stars
Story: She is caught in a Nazi prison, and like the coward she is, she gives in and tells them everything. As in, everything. She writes down her story from the point of view of her best friend Maddie, one of the very few female pilots in WWII. And I'm not going to write any more story description, because I don't want to give anything away.
(Note: Sorry for the lack of a Name in the above story description. There is a good reason for it.)

Thoughts: The only--let me repeat, only--thing wrong with my reading experience for this book was my too high expectations. Every review and comment I read said it was utterly fantabulous. With books like that, I expect to enjoy them as much as The King of Attolia. And I never do. So I always leave just the tiniest bit disappointed. And thus it was with this book. But I'm trying to ignore that, because it's a rather silly emotional issue. So, other than that:
It was soooo awesome! Espionage! Friendship! Airplanes! Torture! Indomitable Scots!

Primary Source of Awesomeness: Elizabeth Wein's biggest strength--I personally believe--even over her  plotting and prose, is the complete depth of all of her characters. I mean, she gave the evil Nazi interrogator depth, for Pete's sake! The only other book I've read by her, The Winter Prince, has as the protagonist one of the most complex characters I've met. I am now firmly resolved to read every single book she's written. They can be slightly hard to get through at the beginning, from my two-book experience, but always worth it in the end.

Secondary Source of Awesomeness: This is one of the very, very few female bromances around. Just in case anyone doesn't know, a bromance is basically a friendship so deep that it is very much like a romance in some ways. Except that there isn't any, you know, Romantic elements. So think...Holmes and Watson, I suppose (especially in the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock series). Or if you're a Chesterton fan, Turnball and McIan from The Ball and the Cross (awesome, though strange, book; one of my favourites.) Troy and Abed from Community is a great example too. As might be deduced from the name bromance, you seem to find this much more in fictional men than in fictional women. For most of the fictional women I know, if they have a female friend at all, that friend is delineated to the sidelines. Often as a funny sidekick who only says a few lines. (The most recent example I can think of is the very funny, but not very important, best friend of Natalie Portman from Thor). I am constantly on the lookout for female equivalents, because I know FROM EXPERIENCE that this kind of friendship is NOT specifically male.

"It's like being in love, discovering your best friend."

P.S. I was thinking about talking about the morality of one of the main plot twists. But I think I won't. Because a) it is one of the main plot twists; and I'm worried you wouldn't be able to help yourself and you'll read what I write despite the big SPOILER warning, and b) I don't feel like writing about it. But if you are reading this after you've read the book, know that I disagree with Jamie's assessment. I think. I dunno. It's hard to tell. I don't want to think about it too hard due to...reasons.

P.P.S. I think there'll be a Top Ten (Or So) Bromances list coming soon. I've been wanting to do one for ages, but it needed the right book to set it off.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

by Edwin A. Abbott

Grade: 4 stars
Story: A square living in a two-dimensional universe explains the working of his universe, and then tells the story of how he explored, in reality and in visions, the universes of no dimensions, one dimension, and three dimensions.

Thoughts: I should have read this at the same time as A Wrinkle in Time. The talk about multiple dimensions in WiT totally fascinated me, and I think this book would have followed up on that perfectly. At this present time, however, it doesn't go into quite as much depth as I'd like. They didn't even go to the Fourth Dimension! Although I suppose it's left up to the reader to do that, as a sort of exercise. And there are other resources if you want to go farther in dimensional thought (like this awesome video).

But I shouldn't be too upset about this "lack of depth". It was written in 1884, after all. Before Einstein and quantum physics--before practically everything related to this.

The second main element of this book is Victorian satire. The Square who is the "author" of Flatland has definitive views on his society. Many of them rather ridiculous. Personally, I found this part (most of Part I) not as interesting, but I fully acknowledge that many people like Victorian satire more than imagining different dimensions. So I don't blame anyone if they find the first half far more interesting than the second half.

One main reason for me buying books (besides the ease of re-reading and the gazing at the beauty of them sitting on their shelves) is the hope that someday someone will come to me and say, "I want to learn about [-----]. Give me books!" This is labelled "To Own" for mostly that reason.

EDIT: The above paragraph no longer makes sense! I hate when that happens. I changed my grading system, so it's no longer graded "To Own". But it might be given slightly more stars than it could have been based on the reason stated in the above paragraph. So I'm going to let it stand.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Another Faust

by Daniel & Dina Nayeri

Grade: 3 1/2 stars
Story: Five teenagers sell their souls to the devil in exchange for wealth, beauty, fame, knowledge, or power. Then they descend upon New York high society and the elite school of Marlowe and wreak havoc.

Thoughts: This reminded me slightly of Jonathan Stroud's Bartimeus Trilogy, with characters who you kind of like for some reason slowly descending into darkness. And you can see the choices they make, and how close they might be to going a different way. Now, personally, I love this sort of stuff. It is often so much more intriguing than the books in which the protagonist finds it natural to be good, or than the books where the protagonist is bad, but it presents this as a good thing for some reason (or at least an attractive thing). And I find that most books actually do fall into one of these categories. For this reason, the Bartimeus Trilogy is one of my favourite sets of books ever, and Nathaniel one of my favourite fictional characters.

Unfortunately, I can't go into this train of thought much more, due to spoilers. How this book and the Stroud books end have definite impact on my views of the books as a whole. So see the bottom of this post for  further--but very spoiler-y--discussion on this.

In general, I think this was not quite as tightly written as Bartimeus, and the magic wasn't quite as fascinating, and it wasn't half as funny. But I don't want to give too bad an impression on it, as it was definitely still worth reading, for me at least. It was completely absorbing and quite tense, with unique and non-American characters, and some interesting side bits exploring people throughout history who'd made the same choices these kids had.

NOW SOME HUGE MASSIVE SPOILERS. Don't read this if you EVER want to read this book OR Bartimeus.

...

So my favourite character in this book was Valentin. He was one of the only ones who was not obviously going to stay bad (like Victoria) or obviously going to stay good (like Christian or Bicé). (Bella was also like that, but I didn't find her quite as interesting for some reason.) But I think the fact that he did not repent, unlike Nathaniel, somewhat lessened  my enjoyment. Also, the way Stroud wrote Nathaniel's repentance was so brilliant. I cried. And I don't cry very often. And I think even if Valentin did repent in this book, it might not have been satisfying. Goodness can be hard to write, and very few fantasy writers get both Good and Evil to be properly represented. I think Lewis and Tolkien are the obvious examples of those who can, but I think Stroud could be properly added to their number, albeit as a lesser member than the Greats of Lewis & Tolkien. However, the Nayeris didn't quite get it right. Not that it was bad, I just wanted it to be a bit more glorious.

However, they did leave Valentin's ultimate fate in question. So I can always imagine that someday he has a repentance as wonderful as Nathaniel's.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Ladies of Grace Adieu

by Susanna Clarke

Grade: 4 stars

Thoughts: Firstly, a command: read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It's brilliant.
Now I can continue.

Susanna Clarke is by far the most effective author I know at writing in a late 18th/early 19th century style. She really is Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, plus magic. This is the sort of thing that ends up being claimed in many book blurbs, but generally there is more than one factor which gives away the 21st century style. But Clarke is different: not only is her spelling and method of speech pitch perfect, but even the way ideas are presented is authentic to that style. One of the big issues with historical fiction (I find) is an anachronistic style of thought. So even if the authors manage to get the method of speech right (which they often don't), they so frequently incorporate ideas which were simply not thought of (or at least not discussed to that extent) in the era being written about. Often this is our current brand of 20th century feminism.
But let's get to the book itself.

"The Ladies of Grace Adieu"--The only one of these stories to contain characters from JS&MN. It was great to see Strange again, though I wish I remembered this part of the book this story is referring too.

"On Lickerish Hill"--A retelling of sorts of Rumpelstiltskin. I have not too much to say about this one. The dialect it was written in was interesting, though distracting.

"Mrs. Mabb"--This one has a few scenes which show off Clarke's clever and creepy way of writing insanity. Except in this case (as opposed the madness of Strange in JS&MN), the protagonist is not actually mad at all, but interacting with fairies. However, Venetia is to all appearances insane, so the descriptions of her forgetfulness and butterfly killings and endless dancing are still wonderfully eerie.

"The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse"--There is a note at the beginning of this one stating that it takes place in the world Neil Gaiman created for Stardust. Which means that it's basically glorified fan-fiction. Personally, I love fan-fiction (although ONLY when it's really well done) and I'd love it if more published authors wrote stories like this.

"Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower"--I think this was my favourite. Simonelli was an interesting character, and I'd really like to know what happened to him after the events of this story. The introduction mentions his "extraordinary career", so I can hope that he went on to do many strange and adventurous things.

"Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby"--This was fascinating for the fact that this is the first time I can think of where a fairy is one of the "good guys". How did such a friendship between a fairy and a mortal possibly come about? Mostly how could Dr. Montefiore stand to be around Tom so much? This, like several of the other stories in this book, feels like there are fascinating back-stories and future events surrounding it. Susanna Clarke really needs to write more.

"Antickes and Frets"--A fairly short story about Mary Queen of Scots and her jealousy of Elizabeth. Slightly creepy and slightly sad, as much of Clarke's writing tends to be.

"John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner"--Amusing, and the illustration is gorgeous.

In general, this was worth buying, and is a good companion to JS&MR. It was interesting to see more female characters (as JS&MR was somewhat lacking in them), and the illustrations were beautiful. I can't wait till Clarke writes more--although considering it took her ten years to write JS&MR, I shouldn't get my hopes up.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Gender Matters

by Dr. Leonard Sax

Grade: 3 stars

Thoughts: For the most part, this was excellent and informative. Many of the biological differences between boys and girls which result in behavioural differences have been observed by me many times. It's especially noticeable in a large family like mine, where all the boys and all the girls have some key similarities, despite the fact that some of the girls are more tomboy-ish and some of the boys are less stereotypically boyish. And because we were homeschooled, we had none of the peer pressure to be more feminine or masculine. I, for instance, had no qualms about going into computer science in university. I don't think I thought that it was a particularly male thing to do. It's just what I wanted to do.
Which is similar to an interesting point he made. Apparently in most school bands, the flute players tend to be girls and the trumpet players tend to be boys. Similarly with the lack of girls in physics, math, and computer science. But this lessens dramatically in non co-ed schools.

However, there were a couple oddities about this book, especially some instances where he stopped talking about the scientific evidence for gender differences, and instead talked about how to deal with people who don't follow the normal pattern. I'm specifically thinking about his bit on anomalous males here. He basically said you had to get rid of all their anomalous qualities, and force them to participate in organized sports. Which seems quite a stupid generalization to me, although it might be appropriate in a few cases. For some reason he didn't have the same issues with anomalous females, although he didn't really explain why.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Sorcerer's House

by Gene Wolfe

Grade: 2 1/2 stars
Story: Baxter Dunn just got out of prison, and he's destitute. But it just so happens that someone left him a very big, very strange house. And then he meets lots of ladies who help him, and finds a mysterious device which finds fish and money for him. And it gets weirder and weirder until the end.

Thoughts: This was a very strange book, and in the end, I'm not sure that I quite liked it. I kept waiting for some of the random threads to show up again. They mostly did all came together in the end, I suppose, but I still wish it had delved more into the characters and magic system. (For a somewhat spoilery example: Emlyn, Ieuan, and the triannulus--they never really showed up again after the first half of the book. I mean, the first two were important because of the fact that they were identical twins, but that's really it. And the last one never really showed up again at all, and had no real purpose in the story.)

However it really was a clever book, despite all that. I generally like a bit of strangeness in my books (The Man Who Was Thursday is one of my favourites ever, for example), and this really was close to being awesome. So close that I am definitely going to check out a lot of Wolfe's other books. Apparently one of his common attributes is unreliable narrators, which is a trope I love. (He wrote a series about a Roman soldier who has no short-term memory. It reminds me of the movie Memento, which was awesome.)


Friday, June 15, 2012

A Greyhound of a Girl

by Roddy Doyle

Grade: 2 1/2 stars
Story: Mary lives in Dublin and her grandmother is slowly dying in the hospital. Then she meets the ghost of her dead great-grandmother, and all of them (with Mary's mother as well) take a journey together into the past (metaphorically speaking).

Thoughts: This is a very real sort of book (excluding, of course, the ghost...). Mary talks, thinks, and feels like girl of that age (12, maybe? I forget--also, assuming that the Irish part is correct--I've never been to Ireland so I don't know). The plot events--though not very...plotful...exactly--seem to be to be very much would happen if four generations of women all got together for the first time in those circumstances.

I'm not sure what else to say about this one exactly. Partly because it's not really my type of book, and so I don't feel qualified to critique it. Partly because I think it is really well written, but it's also very short, so nothing jumps out at me bad or good.