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 BicĂ©). (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.