Monday, March 25, 2013

Sword of the Rightful King

by Jane Yolen

Grade: 2 stars
Story summary: Gawain and his brothers leave their home in the Orkneys and their witch mother to go to King Arthur's court. Meanwhile at King Arthur's court, Merlinnus comes up with an plan to solidify Arthur's standing as king of Britain, and a mysterious boy shows up to be apprenticed to Merlinnus.

Thoughts: There was great potential here, I thought. The story of the Orkney princes (Gawaine and his brothers Agravaine, Gaheris, Gareth, and sometimes even Mordred), their cruel, clever mother, and strange, isolated upbringing could make a fascinating story, if told in the right way. And King Arthur is almost always a fairly complex figure, generally struggling with insecurities and betrayal and all those things kings have to deal with. The problem is--frankly, I just don't think this was very well written. There was Gawaine and his brothers, interrupting the Arthur/Merlinnus/Gawen storyline, for no apparent reason that I could see. Did the two storylines ever really mesh? I mean, Gawaine & brothers arrived Cadbury (this book's version of Camelot), and spoke to Arthur and all that. But they could have been skipped entirely without any change to Arthur's story, as far as I can tell. It gave a general lack of coherence to the book. Many of the characters could have fleshed out a lot more as well, and I thought the dialogue could have been much more interesting.

Perhaps it's mostly that all the best ideas in this book have been done much better elsewhere. The Winter Prince and The Once and Future King properly get into the twisted familial relationships usually present in the King Arthur legends (although I think they were both  a bit too dark for this kind of book). Robin McKinley did a similar sort of story line to Gawen's in Outlaws of Sherwood (again a retelling of a legend), except much more exciting and well put-together. And finally, while reading, I was frequently comparing King Arthur's scenes with similar ideas in The King of Attolia. Now that is how you write a king winning over his people.

In the end, I would still suggest this for people who, like me, will read anything they can get their hands on that features Sir Gawain in an at least semi-positive light*. Or maybe for younger teens, who might be able to glean some of the themes only passed by here, and won't notice the missing depth.

*Sir Gawain has always been my favourite of Arthur's knights, for his growth in character after his first miserable adventure (chopping of that women's head) and the Green Knight adventure, for his brothers and mother and their weird dynamic, and for the fact that he wasn't Sir Lancelot.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Reflections on the Magic of Writing

by Diana Wynne Jones

Grade: 5 stars

Thoughts: This is a collection of essays, transcripts of talks, and interviews by and about the fabulous, amazing children's author Diana Wynne Jones. She was one of the few people that I could always count on to write a book that I would greatly enjoy, and her books were unique and funny and full of awesome characters. When she passed away recently, I was sad and mopey for an entire week. She and this book deserve a much more brilliant review, but I can at least point you towards Neil Gaiman's introduction at the beginning of this book. (I mean, Neil Gaiman writing about Diana Wynne Jones. You practically can't get cooler than that.)

DWJ had a fascinating life. She went to lectures by both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in university. ("Lewis booming to crowded halls and Tolkien mumbling to me and three others." (pg. 290)) She once lived in the house that the kids from Arthur Ransome's book lived in, and Arthur Ransome himself lived in a houseboat nearby. (He would complain about all the noise DWJ and the other children would make. (pg. 135)) Beatrix Potter also lived near this house, and once slapped Diana's sister and her friend for playing on BP's front gate. (pg. 135) It's so strange to think of all these writers as real, actual people (with faults and everything!). Her parents were neglectful and her life was full of strange people and events. But perhaps the most insightful essays were the two by her sons at the very end of the book. After all the descriptions of the nastiness of her parents and the strangeness of her life, her sons' perspectives gave a sudden twist on all of that, and gave a whole new view on who DWJ was. It was the perfect end to this collection.

But my favourite thing about this book wasn't the biographical details of a strange and interesting life, but her ideas on writing for children vs. writing for adults, and her thoughts on fantasy. "Two Kinds of Writing" (pg. 33), about children's vs. adults books, was one of my favourites. "[S]everal grown men confessed to me that, although they were quite shameless when it came to hunting through the juvenile sections of libraries and bookshops, they still felt incredibly sheepish on a train reading something that was labeled Tenn Fiction. Why? I wondered. The assumption underlying their sheepishness seemed to be that teenage fiction counts as just close enough to adult fiction to be seen as regressive, whereas if they are seen reading a children's book, that counts as research. In neither case are they assumed to be enjoying the book for its own sake." (pg. 33) She talks a lot in this essay about how in writing for adults, you often end up having to explain more, not less, which I've always thought, but I doubt many people would believe me. To quote DWJ again, "Here we have books for children, which a host of adults dismiss as puerile, overeasy, and are no such thing; and there we have books for adults, who might be supposed to need something more advanced and difficult, which we have to write as if the readers were simpleminded." (pg. 35) I could talk forever on this topic and elucidate a lot more, but this is already the longest review I've ever written, so I should go on to the next part of this topic.
I also especially loved "A Talk About Rules" (pg. 99), which talked about all the pre-conceptions about fantasy, and what people considered (wrongly) the absolute necessities of the genre. She talks about a man who could manage to read  The Fellowship of the Ring because he pretended it was all an allegory, but then once he came to the Ents, he completely gave up, because walking trees could only possibly be for children. (Man, it bugs me when The Lord of the Rings is listed as a children's book. IT'S NOT. Yes, children can read it (I did), but it is NOT A CHILDREN'S BOOK.) She talks about how people often insist fantasy (and children's books in general) must "teach" something (about divorce, bullying, etc. etc.), or  that any fantastic lands children travel to should be shown to be in their heads. Oh, there is so much here--I really can't get into it properly.

Couple other random notes:

  • It was nice that although DWJ was not Christian, she could still enjoy C.S. Lewis a lot. I find it quite a annoying how many people nowadays seem to a) misunderstand a lot of the points Lewis was trying to make, and b) think he's not worth reading because he often writes Christian allegory (while often simultaneously lauding Philip Pullman for writing what's basically the atheistic equivalent).
  • "Less than five years ago it was a truth generally acknowledged that anyone who could follow the plot of Doctor Who could follow anything. Maybe that was going a bit far the other way, but.. anyway, most adults professed to like their books simpler than children did." (pg. 112) YAY, Doctor Who!!! Nice to see its genius recognized. And see, I KNEW children's books (or in this case, TV) could often be far more complex and subtle than many things written for adults!
  • "Most recently, I have had a whole crop of letters from guilt-ridden students. These are mostly in their first year university and not altogether happy in it, and they are afraid that there is something wrong with them because they're still rereading and enjoying my books at the advanced age of eighteen or nineteen." (pg. 177) Hah! Silly people. This whole book makes me feel very vindicated for being a university student who still revels in the joys of children's books. (Also see pg. 179 for more on university students' somewhat erroneous view on children's books.)
  • The Tolkien essay, "The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings", was rather magnificent. As much as I adore Peter Jackson's movies (and always will), I think this essay would have been good for him.
  • "The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey" (pg. 79) was another one of my favourites. Fire and Hemlock is one of my favourites of all her marvellous books, and it was amazing how much structure and shape and thought went into this book. As Neil Gaiman said in his introduction, "It [is] easy [...] to forget what an astonishing intellect Diana Wynne Jones had, or how deeply and how well she understood her craft." (pg. xi) Man, though, she made writing seem like a lot of work in this essay.

NB: All the quotes and references are taken from the hardcover edition, from Greenwillow Books.


by Rachel Hartman

Grade: 4 stars
Story summary: Dragons, music, and politics. How much better can you get? Murder mystery, family, betrayal, and small amounts of romance you say? Well, go no further!

Thoughts: I liked pretty much everything about this one. It deserves the adulation its been getting.

--Seraphina is a great heroine. For one thing, she is a prickly main character that is actually prickly. Sometimes it seems to me that main female characters can be described as prickly or feisty or something, but are actually rather boring. Seraphina was faulty and grumpy and clever.
--The dragons are the coolest. I mean, dragons are cool on their own, but when you add shapeshifting, a highly unusual form of hording (they're basically the ultimate Ravenclaws), a propensity for higher mathematics, a Spock-like view of emotions, and a precarious relationship with just get pure awesomeness.
--I didn't even mind the romance! It wasn't too cliched, and had a bit of backbone to it (not the instant love (which the heroine somehow doesn't realize is love for ages) with sexy, teasing boy that happens waaaay to often in YA books).
--Ok, the religious stuff was a bit weird. It had a remarkable similarity to Catholicism in many ways...but wasn't. It was some slightly strange made up religion that had saints and monks and cathedrals. Most people wouldn't care too much, but for me as a Catholic, it was a bit weird.
--Rachel Hartman is Canadian! Go Canada!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Shadow of the Giant

by Orson Scott Card

Grade: 4 stars
Story summary: The emperor of China, the goddess of India, the religious leader of all the Muslims, and the president of Earth are all fighting or marrying each other, usually trying to accomplish both at once. So as you can imagine, the world isn't in a particularly good state.
Sequel to Ender's Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, and Shadow Puppets.

Thoughts: I don't whether it's just that Peter actually used his intelligence here, and Petra helped with world affairs and not just her babies*, or whether it was actually better, but I liked this one quite a bit more than the previous one. All the geo-political kerfuffles were quite fun to read about.

I do wish Virlomi had been slightly more intelligent towards the end (though her skill at obtaining the adoration of the masses was quite cool), and Bean was a little more involved in what was going on. But Peter's coolness** more than made up for that, and Alai's story arc was quite intriguing as well, and Petra (as mentioned above) was far more interesting than in the last book (her interactions with Peter especially--they could be quite amusing).

There's another book in this series now, called Shadows in Flight, but I'm not totally sure if I want to read it. My favourite thing about the previous book was not Bean (though he was pretty awesome in Ender's Shadow), and I'd be really sad to leave behind all the doings on Earth. Plus the arrangement of his kids in that book sounds suspiciously like Peter, Ender, and Valentine.

*As in the previous book, I have nothing against babies--I LOVE babies--but they somehow seem not quite as interesting here.
**See: scene with Petra the first (starting on pg. 31 of the hardcover), scene with parents (starting pg. 193), scene with Mazer Rackham (starting pg. 259), scene with Petra the second (starting pg. 345), scene with Ender (starting pg. 360 (or a little sooner)). Also most of the other scenes, but I'm not going through the whole book to list all the Peter parts.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Shatter Me

by Tahereh Mafi

Grade: Unfinished
Read: The first bunch, and then scatterings throughout the rest. (I know, I know. Terribly unspecific. I have this section so I can remember exactly where I stopped reading, to either pick it up again if I decide to in the future, or reminisce about which page was the one that broke the camel's back, so to speak. But this time I couldn't remember the exact page, so unspecific it's going to have to be.)

Thoughts: I only read this because a review talked about an awesome anit-hero, and I will read a whole book or series purely for the sake of an awesome anti-hero, villain, sidekick, or secondary character. So I wasn't expecting too much. But there are some things which are simply too much for me:

1. There were three men (three!) who were described as well-muscled, with amazing eyes. Light emerald, deep blue pools...

2. It was extremely stylized, especially at the beginning. Not only was there this weird thing where words and sentences were crossed out every once in a while ("No more daydreams."), but the metaphors were just overwhelming. "His eyes scan the silhouette of my structure and the slow motion makes my heart race. I catch the rose petals as they fall from my cheeks, as they float around the frame of my body, as they cover me in something that feels like the absence of courage." It reminded me of The Book Thief in a way. Most people seemed to love The Book Thief, partly because of the stylized writing. But it really didn't do anything for me.

3. The aforementioned awesome anti-hero? Not half as awesome as I was hoping. True, he was a evil young psycho, which I tend to have a certain fondness for. But he was also one of the well-muscled guys with amazing, light emerald eyes. And he was always doing things like taking the heroine's breath away, because he was so beautiful and sexy and all that. And he was 19. I'm more than fine with young evil geniuses, but there has to be some sort of explanation, justification, something. People don't just become 19-year-old leaders of men. And Warner seemed like he should be at least 25 or so.

Skyship Academy: Crimson Rising

by Nick James

Grade: 3 stars
Story summary: Similar to the first book, Skyship Academy: The Pearl Wars, except more aliens and another villain.

Thoughts: I'm going to be extremely boring again and just say look at the review for the first book. My thoughts, few as they are, are pretty much the same. Perhaps I liked this one slightly less (I mostly wanted more Cassius and Fisher interaction), but it is a middle book and still lots of fun and I'm definitely going to read the next one when it comes out.