No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

2012/08: Foiled -- Jane Yolen / Mike Cavallaro

A graphic novel (aimed at YA audiences) by Jane Yolen, Foiled's protagonist is a teenaged fencer, Aliera Carstairs, who's brilliant on the piste but doesn't fit in with any of the cliques at school. Her only close relationships are with her mother (who's bought her a new foil at a yard sale, with a tacky fake gem hot-glued to it), and with her wheelchair-bound cousin and fellow gamer, Caroline -- until the gorgeous new boy at school, Avery, becomes her lab partner ...

This is not a paranormal romance.

True, Aliera has a bit of a crush on Avery: his sense of humour's dark and witty, like hers. But she's too focussed on fencing -- on guarding her heart -- to pay much attention to Avery's weird turns of phrase or his dislike of enclosed spaces.

Then Aliera dons her fencing mask whilst passing through Grand Central Station -- and the world is transformed. (So is Avery.) Aliera quickly learns about her mask and her foil and her fate; all will be revealed in a second volume, which I'll look out for.

This is not just a story with illustrations: words and art work together (within the framework of a fencing match, from Engagement to Disengagement) to make something that's more than the sum of its parts. I don't read a lot of graphic novels, so the twist in Foiled surprised and pleased me: maybe it's a clichéd technique, but it's effective.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

2012/07: Siren -- Tricia Rayburn

Some people might be afraid of one thing, but I’m afraid of everything. It’s not normal. I’m not normal. So this – hearing my dead sister talk to me from somewhere above – is probably par for the course. (location 1791)

Vanessa is a shy teenager. Her sister Justine was the extrovert -- but Justine's dead, her body washed up on the shore near the small Maine town where the family spend their summers, and Justine's boyfriend Caleb is missing. Vanessa and Caleb's brother Simon pool their resources to find out what happened to Justine, and whether Caleb's sudden disappearance (not to mention the fact he didn't tell Simon about quitting his job) is connected.

Vanessa finds a friend in Paige, who waitresses at a local cafe. Paige's ghastly sister Zara is less amiable: but she may hold the secret of Justine's death. And she claims to know the 'truth' about Vanessa and Justine's mother ...

Meanwhile, Simon is investigating freak weather up and down the Maine coast: unusual storm patterns and peculiar wave systems that have been occurring for the last forty years. Can the 'hyperactive ocean' be significant?

You bet.

Siren is the first in a YA paranormal romance series. It's entertainingly written, though Vanessa is almost too timid to make a good heroine. Luckily, danger and weirdness bring out her hidden backbone -- and give her other things to hide.

Bought this because it was a Kindle Daily Deal: I enjoyed reading it, and would probably pick up the sequels if I spotted them in the library or on sale cheaply, but I suspect there's more romance and less paranormal in subsequent volumes.

Monday, March 19, 2012

2012/06: The Magician King -- Lev Grossman

"...I understand the appeal this sort of thing has for you, quests and King Arthur and all that. But that’s you. No offense, but it always seemed a bit like boy stuff to me. Sweaty and strenuous and just not very elegant, if you see what I mean. I didn’t need to be called to feel special, I felt special enough already. I’m clever, rich, and good-looking. I was perfectly happy where I was, deliquescing, atom by atom, amid a riot of luxury."
"Nicely put," Quentin said. Eliot must have mounted this set piece before.

The perils of the Kindle: when you read a book by an author you've never encountered before, and finish it craving more (NOW PLS), you can buy their other work instantly, no matter where you are or what time it is. I'm not quite why, having purchased The Magician King minutes after finishing The Magicians, it took me a month to actually read it. Desire to immerse myself and read from (virtual) cover to (virtual) cover? Fear of disappointment?

If the latter, I was wrong. It's possible that I like The Magician King even more than I liked The Magicians, not least because it picks up on the backstory of one of the other characters, Julia, who's considerably more likeable than Quentin.

Quentin, who has been one of the kings of Fillory (along with Elliot, Julia and Janet) for two years, still hasn't really figured out this happiness thing. Nor has he figured out Fillory, where magic is part of the ecosystem, there are no shortages, and the world might not even be round. Also, Elliot is far better at being a king than Quentin.

Then a magical beast, the Seeing Hare, appears; there's a death; and Elliot and Quentin -- with a loyal and devoted crew -- set out on a voyage to the 'wild magical tropics' of Fillory, in search of a key that will wind up the world. Or possibly the key has some other purpose. Nobody seems entirely sure.

Along the way Quentin has plenty of time to contemplate the nature of fairytales ("If they’d talked about it and figured things out it could have been a happy ending"), the role of the hero ("a matter of knowing your cues", "the hero gets the reward!", "the hero pays the price") and the lack of a soundtrack when he's performing awesome feats of magic.

Meanwhile, Julia's half of the narrative covers the events between failing the Brakebills entrance exam and appearing outside Quentin's window to invite him to be a king. What I love about Julia is that she's smart and proactive: she reacts quite differently to failure, depression and misfortune than does Quentin. For example, she figures out that there's a gap in her life, a glitch in her memory, by reading through a paper that her tutor's returned to her. "...she wanted to know who the lazy fucker was who wrote her paper on intentional communities for her and used Wikipedia as a source. Granted that the answer, 'the nefarious agents of a secret school for wizards in upstate New York,' was not a league-leadingly plausible answer to her question."

And Julia is driven. She loves magic, she's determined to do it, and she'll stop at nothing. Via the internet, she becomes part of an online community of magic-users, and encounters a group who want to invoke a deity they call 'Our Lady Underground'. (Grossman's excerpts from the group's message board are hilariously on the nail: "Asmodeus: I believe in Our Lady Underground and I believe that she will help us not because it is in her interest to do so or because she wants to eat your fucking foot or whatever but because she is KIND. pouncy u twat Asmodeus: this is not a transaction bitches this is about mercy. this is about forgiveness. this is about divine grace.")

The Magician King isn't simply a jazzed-up, grown-up Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It's an examination of friendship and loyalty and love; an inquisition into the logic and morality of fairytales; a cautionary tale about the uses and abuses of power; and, yes, an adventuresome quest that takes our heroes out of their comfort zones -- with Julia's parallel quest that takes both character and reader out of anything remotely comfortable, and yet offers some resolution.

There are fascinating glimpses of magic at work on Earth (Google Street View as a tool for creating long-distance magical portals; the Thames dragon as co-author of post-Syd Pink Floyd material), and the ending makes me crave the third, unwritten novel in the sequence. NOW PLS.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

2012/05: The Eclipse of the Century -- Jan Mark

He would stay. He had to tay. If he went away now he would be denying everything that had happened, everything that he had chosen to believe in, everything that had chosen him to believe it. (p. 140)

I'm 12 years too late to experience this novel as Jan Mark intended: an exploration of the millennium and the mythology surrounding it. But though the millennium itself has passed with a bang and a whimper, The Eclipse of the Century is still a fascinating and fantastical read. (On a par, for me, with Useful Idiots, my favourite so far of the late Jan Mark's novels.)

Keith, a university student, almost dies in a car accident: his near-death experience includes a vision of a city he's never seen before, and a woman telling him to join her in Qantoum "under a black sun at the end of a thousand years". Recovering, Keith seeks out information on Qantoum -- most of what he finds comes from 19th-century travel books -- and eventually sets out on a journey into the hidden heart of Asia. It's almost as though he's travelling back into the past: plane to Tashkent, train to Qantoum Junction (in the imaginary Central Asian Republic of Iskanderistan) and then a twenty-mile walk along a disused railway line.

Arriving, he encounters the Officer of the Day, one Lieutenant Kijé. (Keith isn't familiar with Russian literature, and doesn't realise he's encountered a deserter who's hoping to erase himself from the Red Army's lists). Kijé introduces him to the movers and shakers of Qantoum: former UN soldier Lieutenant Fitzgibbon, Ernestine Fahrenheit who runs the Museum, Lady Maisie Hooke who never quite got around to leaving, and thirteen-year-old Zayu, who appoints herself his guide and mentor.

Qantoum is where the Sturyat, a peculiar tribe of nomads, have been waiting these five hundred years. They can't leave until their soul-stones -- confiscated by a local Khan in the sixteenth century, and more recently taken for study by archaeologists -- have been returned. They're fascinated by Keith's account of his dream: they believe that he is the first of many who will 'come from east and west', heralding the return of the Sturyat to where they came from. (Wherever that might be.) This will, apparently, coincide with a 'black sun'; an eclipse only visible from Qantoum. Or possibly when they speak of 'a wonder in the heavens' they mean something else?

Everything is strange. There is no electricity, and no mobile phone reception -- Qantoum 'exhibits no signs of life whatsoever in the electronic sense' (p. 183). The area has no mineral or oil wealth, no natural resouces, nothing to commend it. The desert that surrounds the town claims lives: the sand kills them, claims Zayu. There is a dog wandering the town, with a friend who has distinctly lupine features. And there are three westerners, including a photographer and an astronomer, who are far more curious than Keith.

A complex, tragic and subtle novel: though written for a young adult market, there's nothing childish about it. PTSD, murder, colonialism, and dementia plague the characters, who nevertheless maintain a compassionate decency in the face of an uncertain future. It's also, in places, extremely funny; and it has the air of a travelogue, as though these are places that the author has visited (the crumbling industrial zone, the narrow maze of the Old Town, the cathedral and the market).

I found the ending abrupt and shocking: I'd been lulled into the hope of a miracle, an epiphany, a transformation. I like The Eclipse of the Century all the more for managing to surprise me.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

2012/04: The Brief History of the Dead -- Kevin Brockmeier

Occasionally one of the dead, someone who had just completed the crossing, would mistake the city for heaven. It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end? No, the city was not heaven, and it was not hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself–a sort of outer room–and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory. (p.7)
There's a city -- the City -- where the dead go after their deaths; a city of subways and newspapers, parks and bars, vagrants and wealthy retirees. Lately, the population has increased at an alarming rate, but the City expands to accommodate the newcomers. The L. Sims News and Speculation Sheet (prop. Luka Sims) runs features about the virus that has killed so many -- a virus that may have been deliberately created and released as an act of war.

Meanwhile, in Antarctica, Laura Byrd ekes out a solitary existence in a remote base. She's the wildlife expert on a Coca-Cola-funded expedition to seek out the freshest, purest water on earth. (Sheer coincidence that this happens just as the threat of biological warfare hits critical.) Her two colleagues have set off on the sled to make contact with the larger base on the western rim of the Ross Sea, leaving Laura to drift through her memories and watch the wildlife.

There is no wildlife.

Brockmeier explores notions of death (and life) from the viewpoints of several people in the City: Luka Sims the newspaper editor; Coleman Kinzler, religious zealot, who's searching the City for traces of the Wandering Jew; Michael Puckett, Laura's Antarctic colleague, who's trying to calculate just how many people (a thousand? ten thousand? more?) he's met in his life; Marion Byrd, Laura's mother ... It's partly a mystery: why are we here? What's the dull drumming, like a heartbeat, that underpins city life? How did the virus spread so quickly? Why does everyone I meet know someone that I know? What happens next?

A beautiful book, and a fascinating exercise in philosophy: as bleak as the Antarctic landscape, as complex and vibrant as City life.

Monday, March 05, 2012

2012/03: Blue Diary -- Alice Hoffman

He has wished on stars and on his child's life, but nothing takes the past away: he knows that now. The past stays with a man, sticking to his heels like glue, invisible and heartbreaking and unavoidable, threaded to the future, just as surely as day is sewn to night. (p. 73)
The Blue Diary tells the story of Ethan Ford and his wife Jorie. It's thirteen years since Ethan drifted into town for a night and simply stayed. He fell in love with Jorie, and married her, and became an integral element -- father, husband, fireman, baseball coach, carpenter -- of the small Massachussetts town in which they live.

Then, one glorious June day, everything changes. Ethan is arrested, under suspicion of a horrific crime that took place before any of his friends and family knew him. What happens after that is told from multiple points of view: Jorie; their son Collie; Collie's best friend Kat (the only first-person narrator in the novel, because she is the impetus behind the story); Jorie's old friend Charlotte, who has cancer; Kat's sister Anne; Ethan's friends Mark and Barney ...

There's a fairytale ambience to Hoffman's prose that adds dimension to this story: Kat's three good deeds by which she hopes to redeem herself; her assertion that Ethan 'could walk past a mirror without casting a reflection' (p.17); the red-winged blackbirds that flock around the house after Kat's sister's birth, after Rachel Morris' death; the empty beauty of Rosarie, like a trap; the way that Jorie, drowning in unresolving emotion, has to reexamine and reassess everything she knows and feels.

The thing is, Ethan (who wasn't Ethan) did commit a crime. He admits it. But is he the same man, after thirteen years of waking up every morning feeling blessed? Can people change? Can you escape your own past? (Can you escape other people's pasts?) Ethan's crisis doesn't only affect Jorie and Collie: all over town, people take their lives and their hopes into their own hands. It's not too late to change. It's not too late to make a move, to bridge a gap, to heal a wound.

There are a couple of plot elements I'm not wholly convinced by: Ethan's flirtation in the jail, the way that nobody comes to check when Rosarie misses an appointment. But Jorie's emotional journey, Kat's pain, Collie's rage -- all those ring honest and true. A beautiful and wrenching novel.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

2012/02: 11,000 Years Lost -- Peni R. Griffin

I know more than all the archaeologists in the world, she thought. I know what mammoth hunters eat when they're not hunting mammoths, and what they do when they're sick, and what stories they tell when it rains. To them, life was about finding food and having babies. Everything else -- stories, singing, science, games -- fit inside those two things, or didn't exist. (p.173)

The protagonist of 11,000 Years Lost is Esther, an archaeology-mad eleven-year-old Texan girl. She's fascinated by the local dig, where Dr. Durham and her team are excavating the remains of a campsite used by the Clovis people some eleven thousand years ago. Esther even makes a find of her own: a Clovis spearpoint. Possibly influenced by her excitement, Esther begins to hear voices, to see things. Then there's a heat-haze shimmer in the air, and she follows the sound of girls' voices into ... the distant past.

As time-travel novels go, this is at once simplistic and intriguing. Esther is accepted into the nomadic group she encounters, though she struggles with language and culture. She's seen by some as a source of luck -- wizikat -- and by others as a threat. Her prophecies concerning the eventual extinction of mammoths, and her anecdotes about life 'in the stars' (her best explanation for where she came from), are indulged but don't affect the lives of those around her. She's certainly not in a position to teach these people much, either, though she does come up with a novel approach to conflict resolution. And the difference she does make is a tiny tragedy, something objectively insignificant that hits Esther hard.

There was no word for 'home' in this language. (p.217)

The past, it turns out, is not a comfortable place. Esther adjusts surprisingly quickly to the lack of sanitation, the unpredictability of food supplies, and the roles and expectations of girls in Clovis society. She's less flexible about death and mourning rituals (Griffiths doesn't pull her punches here) and there's a real sense of shock when Esther sees her first mammoth and realises just how different and dangerous is the world into which she's wandered.

"Accuracy is good but the story comes first," says the author in her afternote. There is a lot of research underpinning this novel -- everything from hypothetical funerary customs to the diet of the mammoth -- but it doesn't overwhelm the story. Griffiths' focus is on the humanity of the Clovis group: their characterisation is relatively simple, but each individual has traits and tics, actions and reactions.