28 April, 2009

Book 9 - Rapunzel's Revenge, or: Punzie, your Mum's a total bi- witch.

Not particularly related link of the day: The Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Carnival. Read, enjoy, join in!

And now, to business: I know I said I was trying to keep this place manga- and comics-free, but this book is a graphic novel, which is technically different. Possibly. Anyway, I don't really care, because it was too awesome to not blog about.

Title: Rapunzel's Revenge (2008)

Authors: Shannon and Dean Hale

Illustrator: Nathan Hale

Why this book? I was looking for Wonder Women comics in my local bookstore and found this instead.

What's it all about anyway? Rapunzel lives in a grand villa with her mother, and her mother's servants. Surrounding her mother's villa is a wall so high it's impossible for Rapunzel to climb - which is just as well, as she has an adventurous spirit her mother clearly doesn't approve of. Rapunzel knows there's some kind of mystery surrounding her, and is sure that if she could just see over the wall she'd know what it was. But when she finally manages make her way to the other side of the wall, she realises her whole world is based on a lie - and her so-called mother's punishment is severe. Rapunzel gets hidden away in the middle of a magical forest, unable to escape from the high-up, empty tree trunk she is trapped in.

...Until the magic of the forest causes her hair to grow alarmingly long. Rapunzel begins to braid it, to use it to keep herself entertained - it can be a jump-rope, a swing, a lasso - and eventually, it's long enough for her to use it to escape. She makes her way to the nearest village, and instantly finds herself in a spot of trouble when she helps a cross-dressing barmaid out during a fight. The barmaid turns out to be a boy named Jack, who's hiding a secret or two as well as his real gender - like why, exactly he's travelling across the land with a goose named Goldy, and why he has - of all things! - a lucky bean.

With Jack as her guide, Rapunzel starts to make her way back towards her false mother's villa, and discovers that her name - Mother Gothel - is known and hated far and wide. Mother Gothel has become the number one cause of deforestation, tearing up the land in order to increase the size of her own empire. Rapunzel becomes intent on revenge, not just for her own sake, but for the sake of every other family that Mother Gothel has destroyed.

The Good and the Bad
This isn't just a retelling of a fairytale; this is the retelling of a fairytale as a Western! So there's tavern brawls, sheriffs, posses, quick-drawing, desert hermits, travelling thespians and unironic use of the "tarnation". I mean, I'm not exactly a huge Western fan, but what isn't there to love about turning possibly the most passive fairytale heroine of all time into a wandering, cowgirl adventurer? (Now, if only the same could be done to Cinderella, preferably without Drew Barrymore's involvement).

Rapunzel herself is wonderful: naive, but quick-witted and clever. Jack is a perfect sidekick; loyal, charming, knowledgeable where Rapunzel is not, not quite as good at scheming as she is - in fact, he's better described as a partner than a sidekick, because although Rapunzel is undoubtedly the leader of the two they have a lovely, equitable relationship. Jack is no all-conquering Prince Charming, but the Hales didn't go the other way and turn him into a damsel in distress, either. And yes, in case you need it spelled out for you, he is the Jack of beanstalk fame, out looking for gold to rebuild his house after he ran into some, er, trouble with a few giants.

The art is lovely. It's not overly stylised and it's not too cartoonish. There's still the right amount of the fantastical in it to remind you that yes, this is still a fairytale, without it becoming whimsical. I hate it when artists essentially just draw the same character over and over, with slightly different hairstyles and clothes so you can tell them apart; but Hale doesn't do that - each individual character actually has their very own facial features, which is, you know, how people actually look.

On the downside? Once or twice you're hit by an authorial message so blatantly that you might as well have had a brick thrown at your head. Particularly obvious is Rapunzel saying, after she's averted a would-be murderer:

"I was noticing how without guns in their hands most people around here turned pale."

It doesn't seem so bad out of context, but in context this line sticks out like a sore thumb - particularly since this is a Western. People are going to have guns. Yes, I'm pleased that neither Rapunzel nor Jack carry one, but I can tell when someone is not-very-subtly trying to tell me that Guns Are Bad and it really irritates the hell out of me.

So should I read it or what?
I loved it, and it's readable enough that even if you're not usually into graphic novels you'd probably enjoy it. Here's hoping the Hales team up to make another one!

Incidentally, Shannon Hale is a fairly-well established writer of young adult fantasy - check out her site here.

22 April, 2009

Book 8 - Bomb, Book and Compass, or: Scientists get all the chicks

Completely unrelated link of the day: Orisinal: Morning Sunshine is where I spend my tea breaks at work. It has a few dozen beautifully designed games, most of which are horribly addictive. My all-time favourite has to be Winterbells, where you, as an adorably cute bunny rabbit, have to jump and hit as many falling bells as possible. But I also love Floats, and Bugs, and Cats, and OK I just love everything.

The People have spoken:
Colonel Mustard is the favourite murder suspect of The People, no doubt because of his colonial attitudes and suspicious moustache, and the fact that mustard is probably the worst condiment ever invented (besides barbeque sauce, ugh.) Please answer this week's poll, which asks a question for the ages: which branch of science is the sexiest?

Obviously the most suspicious thing about him
is that he has a yellow cone instead of a body.

And now, to business: I seldom read nonfiction, which probably makes me a terrible person, but in my defence my history textbooks in high school were about as dry and boring as the surface of the moon, and they more or less scarred me for life. However, every now and then my interest in something will be piqued by a movie I watch, or a fictional story I read, and then I'm forced to turn to my old foe, Nonfiction, for answers (I like to imagine Nonfiction as an olde-time villain, twirling his moustache, hiding behind his cape, and tying young, virginal women to railway tracks).

Title: Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China (2008)
US Title: The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom (2008)

Author: Simon Winchester

Why this book? What with the Olympics being held there last year and everything, it suddenly became trendy to actually have some sort of interest in China. Although, in my case, it was actually a review of this book in my local paper that made me interested to find out more about the life and times of Joseph Needham. I bought it and started reading it last year, but I never really had a chance to get stuck into it until this year.

What's it all about, anyway?
Joseph Needham (full name: Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, awesome) was a radical scientist working at Cambridge in the 1920's. Radical in the sense of his political and social views, which were definitely a little left of the spectrum, and by a little I mean a lot, although his ideals and sentiments were not entirely unusual for an academic of his day. He studied embryology and morphogenesis, and was married to a fellow biochemist Dorothy Moyle, who was lucky enough to also be offered research opportunities at Cambridge at a time when few women were.

Joseph and Dorothy had an open relationship, and in the 1930's Needham began an affair with a visiting Chinese scientist, Lu Gwei-djen, who began to teach to write and speak Classical Chinese, and who gave him the name Li Yuese. Thanks to Lu, Needham's interest in, and passion about, China began to grow, and when, in 1944, the Royal Society offered him a chance to actually travel to China, he took it.

Officially, Needham's role was a kind of goodwill ambassador to Chinese Universities - parts of China were being occupied by Japan at this time, and as a way of demoralising the Chinese people the Japanese were closing and ransacking her universities - in at least one case, university buildings were turned into brothels. Needham traveled the country - in itself a difficult feat, what with the war going on and all - visiting Chinese academics, showing that the international community had not forgotten about them (yet). He realised that many of the scientific discoveries that the West had claimed as its own had in fact first been discovered in China - a realisation that eventually lead to him writing his opus, Science and Civilisation in China.

The Good and the Bad:
OK, I realise this doesn't sound like the most scintillating read, but Winchester has an light, racy style of writing, always finding little bits of information, picking up on the oddities of Needham's life in Cambridge and China, and going off into tangents about the other famous figures that Needham meets, most of whom are just as eccentric as he was - people like Rewi Alley and Wang Ling - scientists, archaeologists, politicians. A lot of the information comes directly from Needham's diary, too, so it doesn't feel like Winchester is interpreting Needham's life, just describing it.

Winchester clearly admires Needham, but it's probably also fair to say he neither condones nor condemns his views and behaviour. That's one of the best things about this book, because while Needham's views disn't bother me especially (although his support of Communism did bother a lot of people) his behaviour frequently did. Needham was an unabashed womaniser, and although he and his wife did supposedly have an open relationship there is no mention of Dorothy having any extra-marital affairs. In fact, both Moyle and Lu completely fascinated me, yet the information about them compared to many of the other figures in Bomb, Book and Compass seemed rather sparse. It's a great pity - these were two women that not only influenced Needham's life and passions but who both defied the odds themselves, if in a much quieter way. I would have liked to get to know them a little better.

Womanising aside, by the time I had finished this book I was half in love with China myself, and very much ashamed that I know so little about a country that is so vast and which holds so much history and so much culture (and so much science, of course.) I guess this book made me realise that, while China can be a controversial subject, there's so much more to her than political manoevering - that beyond the politics, there's a China who's really worth discovering.

Lastly, I have to say that I have no idea why the Powers The Be decided that the good people of America needed a different title to the good people of everywhere else, especially since, in my opinion, Bomb, Book and Compass has a much nice ring to it than The Man Who Loved China, which sounds a little like a James Bond ripoff. Perhaps they were worried that the word 'bomb' had connotations of terrorism? Or maybe they worried that if people bought something with the word 'book' in the title they might realise they'd actually been tricked into reading one? Or perhaps it was a push from the Anti-Compass Lobby? We may never know.

So should I read it or what? This is definitely one of the best biographies I've ever read; possibly the best. Bomb, Book and Compass is not the book to read if you're looking for light entertainment - but if you're looking for entertainment with substance you should give it a chance.

17 April, 2009

The Friday Babble: Tomboys I have loved

I don't know about you, but usually by then end of the working week I'm fairly exhausted. Fridays at work tend to be especially crazy - I work in a college library, and at the end of the week we're full of students rushing to get their assignments done, none of whom I have any sympathy for (not even when I've spent most of the previous evening doing exactly the same thing, heh.) The other librarians start to get this slightly manic look in their eyes, and despite the fact we're all frantically trying to get through as much work as possible before the weekend nothing actually seems to get done.

I tend to do one of two things when I'm tired. The first is to become irrationally angry over trivial matters ("What do you mean you borrowed those socks? They're my socks! You could at least have asked first!") and the second is to fixate on any random subject and ramble about it at length. The first is obviously not conducive to blogging, but the second kind of is. And so I give you: The Friday Babble, wherein I rant about some book- or story-related topic while trying desperately not to fall asleep over my keyboard. Don't worry, this will be more of an irregular feature than a regular one.

The inaugural Friday Babble is on a subject I've been thinking about for a little while: tomboys. In a lot of books I remember reading as a kid, tomboys were seen as being superior to girly-girls - I guess authors were still trying to teach girls that it was OK not to be into dolls and tea-parties and princesses and cooking and the colour pink. Unfortunately, all this has meant is that a lot of women my age seem to think there is something inherently weak or stupid about liking traditionally feminine things, which to my mind is completely wrong. What girls really need to learn is that they have the right to do what they want to do, regardless of gender stereotyping, and that they deserve to be respected whatever choices they make.

But I digress! My point is that, from an early age and well into my teens, most of my literary heroines were tomboys, and I learned some pretty important lessons from them - not only about gender, but about life as a whole. And so I've made a list of all the tomboys who taught me something worth learning.

Haruka Tenoh / Sailor Uranus
from Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi
I decided when I started this blog that for the most part I wouldn't cover any comics or manga, but surely no mention of influential tomboys could be complete without mentioning Haruka Tenoh, the cross-dressing fighter for love and justice in Sailor Moon, one of the best known manga and anime. Haruka and her girlfriend Michiru in many ways represent the perfect female couple - Michiru being the "feminine" side, and Haruka embodying the "masculine". As her alter ego, Sailor Uranus, Haruka kicked some serious ass, and was prepared to make any sacrifice necessary to save the world, even if it meant betraying her own friends, and her own beliefs. Famously, when Sailor Moon was first taken to America, the Powers That Be decided that Haruka and Michiru should be cousins, not lovers. Hilariously, many of the scenes of the two flirting were left in - perhaps the Powers That Be decided that while lesbianism was not allowed, incest was just fine. Haruka's creator, Naoko Takeuchi, has called her, "the female best friend and the fairy tale prince in one." Haruka taught me that there's some things (like saving the world) which are worth making any sacrifice for.

George Kirrin
from The Famous Five by Enid Blyton
George dresses as a boy, calls herself by a boy's name, does everything she can to be 'as good as a boy' and is generally recognised by the people she meets as a boy, not a girl, which is exactly what George wants. And who could blame her, really - her cousin Anne, who is perfectly happy being a girl, is also scared of pretty much everything and would rather be doing domestic chores than off having adventures. Still, as a young reader I always preferred Anne to George - Anne may be rather submissive and easily frightened, but she's also sweet-tempered, kind and good-natured, and when needs be she can be just as brave as either of her brothers and her cousin. George, on the other hand, can be moody, sulky and self-centred - and when she comes across another tomboy, which she does with surprising frequency, she generally treats them as a rival, not a sister-in-arms (brother-in-arms?).

All this shows, really, is that George has fought hard to be accepted by her male cousins as an equal, and when other tomboys are accepted by them without any struggle she worries that she's still not really good enough - especially when she still gets told by the ever-oppressive Julian that she can't do things, because she's really a girl, however much she wants to be a boy. George taught me that men won't accept women like Anne as equals because they aren't masculine enough, and will scorn women like George because they're too masculine, and that readers will always accuse girls who aren't wedded to their domestic duties of being lesbians.

Hilary Clinton knows what I'm talking about.

Tom Gay
from The Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
If your real name was Lucinda Muriel, you'd probably call yourself Tom, too. Tom is brought up by her elderly father, who decides that she should grow up to be a 'gentleman' - unlike other girls, who, he believes, are rather soft and silly, given to caring too much about their looks and too little about honourable behaviour. It's rather a shock for Tom when she's sent to a girls' boarding school and discovers that, actually, most girls hold the same ideals that she does. She never loses her preference for carpentry over sewing, her boyishly short haircut, and her gentlemanly mannerisms, but in an all-female environment she still manages to be one of the most popular students in school. Tom taught me that you shouldn't have to change yourself to be accepted by your peers - and that you shouldn't believe everything your parents tell you.

Eowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan
from The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein

Eowyn grows up in her uncle's court in Rohan, a country whose warriors are held in high esteem. Eowyn is a talented fighter herself and feels trapped by court life and her duties there - what she really wants is to be accepted as a woman warrior. Eventually, Eowyn comes to understand that a life of slaying is not a fulfilling one, and decides to become a healer instead - but not until she has ridden away to war as a man and killed the Witch-King of Angmar. Eowyn taught me that any dream needs to be tempered with pragmatism.

Some people don't think that Eowyn is made from 100% Pure Awesome, but those people are wrong.

Nancy Blackett
from Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
Nancy is mischief personified; a live wire of a girl who, along with her sister Peggy, spends her summer holidays sailing the Amazon and pretending to be a pirate (during the winter they're usually Arctic explorers instead). No challenge is too great for Nancy, whether its helping her bird-loving friends escape the clutches of an egg-collector, or evading her own Great Aunt who wants Nancy to wear pretty dresses and practice the piano. Her oversized imagination frequently lands her and her friends in trouble; ordinarily sensible people like the local doctor and postman find themselves so charmed by her that quite against their will they become involved in her intricate schemes. Nancy is a leader, a tactician, and an amazingly generous and kind-hearted person. Nancy taught me that a little imagination and a strong will can get you by, no matter how terrible the circumstances (and even when Great Aunts are involved.)

Alanna of Trebond
from The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce
When we first meet Alanna, she's refusing to go to the convent and become a Lady, instead deciding to dress as a boy and start training to become a knight. For eight years most of her friends never even suspect that she's of the female persuasion, yet Alanna finds that being a boy is not enough for her. She wants to be able to do all the things that men can do - but she also wants to be able to do the things that women do. She upsets a lot of people by essentially being uncategorisable, but Alanna's really only being herself - she may be the greatest fencer in the kingdom, but to her mind that's no reason why she shouldn't be able to weave cloth or look after babies. Alanna taught me that girls really can do anything.

So, what's your opinion on the tomboy archetype? How do you feel about the tomboys I've mentioned here - and have I left out any of your favourites?

13 April, 2009

Book 7 - Evil under the Sun, or: Mrs Peacock had nothing to do with this one

Kind of vaguely related link of the day: Bow Street Runner. Prostitutes! Hangings! Illicit gin stilleries! This game has it all. You play as a 'runner', a kind of early policeman, in 18th Century London, tracking down murderers and other villains. The game is pretty intense - in one episode you get to perform a rough autopsy - but that's what I like about it! It's pretty historically accurate, and has awesome graphics, and I can't beat the last goddamn level.

The People Have Spoken: The results of my last poll are in, and it turns out that pretty much everyone wants to see more Muppets-inspired politi-thrillers. I can only approve: the Muppets' version of any thriller would be safe from weirdoes. And they'd be professional about it, too!

This weeks' poll honours both today's book choice, a classic whodunnit, and one of my favourite board games ever. In case you're wondering, it was in the library with a lead pipe. Just in case that influences your suspicions.

And now, to business: I actually meant to write this up yesterday, but I accidentally spent most of the day eating chocolate-marshmallow easter eggs and watching the extras on my Return of the King: Extended Edition DVD. I now have no more chocolate-marshmallow easter eggs and an unreasonably large crush on Elijah Wood.

I couldn't find any pictures of my copy of this book, and am currently sans scanner, so please to enjoy this picture of David Suchet as Hercule Poirot instead (thanks, Wikipedia!)

Poirot: owner of the sexiest moustache ever?

Title: Evil Under the Sun (1941)

Author: Agatha Christie

Why this book?
I've always loved mystery/detective stories, and Agatha Christie still reins supreme as Queen of the Whodunnit, so when I came across this book going cheap at my favourite second-hand store I just had to buy it and read it immediately.

What's it all about, anyway?
Poirot is an internationally renowned detective who, we learn as the story opens, is treating himself to a holiday in a secluded resort near Devon. Amongst the other guests is Arlena Marshall, a former actress who is known for her beautiful looks and flirtatious manner with men - even married men. Poirot senses that the scene is already set for tragedy, and his instincts prove right when Arlena is found, strangled to death, on an isolated beach. Poirot takes on the case, sure that everything is not as it appears - not even Arlena herself

The suspects include:
  • Captain Kenneth Marshall, Arlena's husband, who claims to have seen nothing untoward in his wife's conduct but who has obviously noticed it on more than one occasion.
  • Linda Marshall, Arlena's step-daughter, who hated her step-mother with a passion, and who acts increasingly confused and suspiciously after her death.
  • Patrick Redfern, who was carrying on an affair with Arlena, right under the noses of the other hotel guests - including his own wife.
  • Christine Redfern, a mousy woman who is very hurt by her husband's infedelity and lies
  • Rosamund Darnley, a childhood friend of Captain Marshall who obviously still cares for him very deeply
  • Reverend Steven Lane, a priest of the fire-and-brimstone variety who claims to sense great evil from Arlena
Then there's the Gardeners, an American couple with a very odd dynamic to their relationship, and Mr Horace Blatt, a nouveau riche yachtsman with his own secrets to hide - such as why, exactly, he spends so much time out sailing by himself.

Naturally, no one is prepared to tell Poirot the whole truth, scared that their own discretions will impliment them in the murder; but Poirot is nothing if not persevering, and he slowly but surely sorts through the lies to find the truth - but will he be in time to stop another innocent dying...?

The good and the bad
OK, I'll admit it: this is the first Agatha Christie I've ever read. Why, I don't know - I suppose after a childhood of reading Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys mysteries I expected her books to be horribly formulaic. In my opinion, there's a place in this world for books in which you can guess the ending before you are halfway through, but that place is not for whodunnits. And that's not a place where Agatha Christie lives, either. Every time I started to suspect I really knew who the murderer was, a new piece of evidence would drag my suspicions in a whole new direction.

Christie walks that fine line between "wow, this is an intricate plot" and "wow, this plot is so intricate it's not at all believable" without once putting a foot wrong. Her characters are deceptive, but humanly so - some seem good but are bad, some seem bad but are good, some are exactly as they appear but have their own, understandable reasons for being the way they are. Poirot's incredibly ability to solve this case - any case, in fact - could have rendered him almost too perfect, but for all his dedication to pursuing truth and rationality, he is capable of succumbing to emtions; and this, coupled with his sometimes eccentric behaviour, make him thoroughly likeable as well as completely believable.

So should I read it or what?
For the love of God, yes! Better yet, get yourself a copy of the very first Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which is available from Project Gutenberg here.

07 April, 2009

Conrad's Fate, or: The foolish man builds his house upon a crack in reality

You may notice I've done a little redecorating! The black background was giving me flashbacks to my late teens when I thought dying my hair black and getting umpteen piercings was daring and subversive. OK, so I still have the piercings, but I have come to accept my completely average brown hair actually rather suits me. Where was I? Oh, right! Slightly new colour scheme, which will hopefully make this blog a little easier to read. Expect me to fiddle with it several more time before I'm finally happy with it. I'm trying not to give in to my inner 6-year-old Disney Princess and change the whole thing to varying shades of pink, but I'm not making any promises.

There are many unanswered questions in this world. Why is it still unacceptable for science fiction to be someone's genre of choice? How is it that the Twilight movie was actually superior to the book? Where was that stooped and mealy-colored old man I used to call Poppa when the merry-go-round broke down? And how does Diana Wynne Jones, one of the best writers of children's fantasy - of any fantasy - alive today, continue to fly under most people's radars when she's been writing her amazing books for four decades?

This rec is dedicated to Jen, who apparently prefers wizards to cannibals.

Conrad's Fate (2005)

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

You've read this before, haven't you? Guilty as charged! This was the first book I read in Jones' Chrestomanci series, and remains my favourite, although The Pinhoe Egg has to be a close second. I still remember how disappointed I was when I discovered that Conrad didn't really feature in any other books, although I live in hope that he'll make a reappearance someday!

What's it all about, anyway? Conrad lives with his mother, a distant parent and unsuccessful feminist writer, and his uncle, an amateur magician, above the family's bookshop. Conrad's elder sister used to single-handedly hold the family together, but after she left for university her responsibilities all fell to the much younger Conrad. Conrad means to follow his sister's footsteps and get out of Dodge, but his uncle has quite different ideas.

Someone up at Stallery Mansion is pulling the possibilities - making small changes which result in quite unexpected happenings. Sometimes the postboxes change colour; sometimes Conrad's favourite series of books has a completely new set of stories. Conrad's uncle explains that Conrad has terribly bad kharma because of something he did - or perhaps didn't do - in a past life. But he can avoid his own bad fate if he finds and kills whoever is pulling the possibilities.

Conrad isn't exactly enamoured with the idea of having to murder someone, but despite his best efforts he finds himself chosen as a new boot boy at Stallery Mansion, along with the superior and mysterious Christopher Smith. Conrad quickly realises he's not the only one with a hidden agenda, as Christopher reveals he's really there to find his friend Millie, who is lost somewhere inside the mansion.

Conrad and Christopher realise that Millie's disappearance is somehow related to the possibility pulling, and become allies in their search for answers and in their efforts to avoid Mr Amos, their boss. They discover that from within the mansion it's possible to make your way to a number of other worlds, each full of the ruins of other buildings. As Conrad gets closer to discovering just who is behind all this chaos, he reunites with his sister, Anthea; comes face-to-face with several ill-intentioned witches and a lively troop of actors; and discovers the truth behind the Stallery's noble family - and his own.

So what's so great about it then, huh? What I like about this book is essentially what I love about all of Jones' books - the way she crafts her stories, seemingly effortlessly, so that even apparently minor details are revealed to have significance in the book's conclusion, and so that every thread of the story is neatly tied into place before it is finished. She often gives us what I think of as a Grand Finale, with all the major and minor characters gathered in one place so that all their various secrets can finally come out, and the reader can finally make sense of all the hints they've been given. Jones is also Queen of Happy Endings - in her stories, everything always turns out OK, but without it feeling forced or false. Her books are simple enough that children can read them and enjoy them, but not so simple that adults can't love them too.

More about this series: The Chrestomanci series follows Christopher Chant, a nine-lifed enchanter, and his apprentice, Cat. The books in this series take place in various times in Christopher's life (and in a number of different worlds!) so that the chronological order of the books isn't necessarily the best order to read them in. The best place to start is with Charmed Life, in which the apparently talentless orphan Cat and his older sister Gwendolen are taken in by the people of Chrestomanci Castle, where (of course!) nothing is as it seems. Having said that, I read the books in neither chronological nor reading order and I thoroughly enjoyed them all anyway!

And if Chrestomanci doesn't sound like your thing, you might try the Castle series (the first of which is the much-loved Howl's Moving Castle) which puts a new spin on well-known situations from fairytales; or the Dalemark Quartet, which follows the journey of four different children as they overcome great odds to defeat the evil forces at work in the land of Dalemark.

04 April, 2009

Book 6 - Child 44, or: In Soviet Russia, sociopath eat you!

Completely unrelated link of the day: Hark, a vagrant! Kate Beaton draws hilarious cartoons - mostly about famous political figures, but occasionally about her family and friends, and fat ponies. If you said to me, "Helen, you can only read one cartoonist's strips about Napoleon eating cookies to get over Josephine for the rest of your life, or I will hunt you down and kill you," I would not believe you for a second, but I would keep reading Kate Beaton's comics.

The People Have Spoken: The results of my last poll are in, and Lewis Carroll has been voted as the most seriously messed up writers of children's stories. I don't know whether he was a paedophile, a lover of decapitation, or just fucked in the head, but I still wouldn't turn down whichever drugs he was on.

Lewis Carrol: Probably high on crack.

And now, to business: Hello, citizens. Today I'd like to talk to you about a serious problem facing our community. A lot of people still refuse even to mention it, preferring to turn a blind eye to what has been rightfully be described as a serious social disease. And it can effect anyone. Your friends and loved ones, your parents, your spouse, even your children could be hiding this shameful secret. It is your job - no, your duty - to find out which of your loved one have caught this - this illness - and now enjoy partaking in a meal of human flesh.

That's right, Hannibal. I'm talking about cannibalism.

Actually, I'd rather not talk about cannibalism, but unfortunately I read Child 44 and so now I'm going to have to.

Title: Child 44 (2008)

Author: Tom Rob Smith

Why this book?
My paternal unit (also known by his codename, "Dad") recommended it to me, and since we most have the same taste in fiction I gave it a go. By the "same taste in fiction" I mean that we both think gratuitous explosions = good, Steve Martin = bad, and swarms of the dead feeding upon the living = excellent.

What's it all about, anyway?
Our story begins in the Ukraine, in 1933. In the village of Chervoy, in the middle of winter, the people are slowly but surely starving to death. They've already eaten their boots, their clothes, and chewed their wooden furniture in their desperation, so it is nothing short of a miracle when a young boy, Pavel, spots a cat in the forest. He and his younger brother go into the forest to catch it, little realising that while they're hunting the cat there is someone hunting them...

Flash forward twenty years to Moscow, where crime no longer exists. Of course it doesn't exist, because crime is a symptom of a capitalist system and Soviet Russia has succeded in severing itself from all capitalism. The few - very few, of course! - crimes that are committed, must be committed by madmen, or foreigners, or gays - people who haven't accepted proper communist ideology.

And this is what Officer Leo Demidov believes, until he learns of the death of a young boy. As a war hero and a Party Member, Leo does his job and tells the boy's family that it couldn't possibly be murder; it must have been an accident. But the family refuses to believe him, and for the first time Leo starts to wonder if there really could be a real murderer somewhere in Russia.

Leo is framed by a jealous colleague and sent out to the middle of nowhere with his wife, Raisa - exiled. In the industrial town of Voualsk, not far from the Ural Mountains, Leo discovers more deaths of children, and starts to become convinced that there is a serial murderer at work. Even thinking such a thing is treasonous, and soon Leo and Raisa are on the run, trying to escape the police but still determined to track down the child killer.

Finally, both helped and hindered by many people along their journey, Leo realises he must face up to his own mysterious past in order to face down the murderer.

The good and the bad
Did I mention the cannibalism. OK, so actually it is a fairly minor part of the story and entirely realistic in its place in the story - desperate people do do desperate things - but still, that was the one thing about the book that really stuck with me. People gnawing on human flesh is right up their with people having their eyes removed for "things I never want to read about."

Child 44 is comes across as both thriller and political thriller. There are essentially two villains; one, the sociopathic serial killer who removes children's stomachs after murdering them, and the other the police officer Vasili, who is so twisted with hatred and jealousy for Leo that he is prepared to go to extreme lengths to bring him down. Smith effortlessly draws us in to the atmosphere of Stalin's Soviet Union; the desperation among those who are starving, the fear and suspicion that no one in Moscow can escape from.

The relationship between Leo and Raisa is a strong point in the story. Until they are exiled, the two have essentially been living a lie; while Leo has always loved his intelligent, beautiful wife, she has only pretended to love him not only for their entire marriage but during their courtship as well. Raisa hates the Party, hates Leo for being such a loyal Party member, hates Leo for being a war hero when that same war gave her scars that run very deep. But with their Moscow life stripped away from them, and with no one to rely on but each other, they slowly and surely build a relationship that is built on trust, truth and love.

I actually found the serial murderer plot one of the weaker points of the novel - maybe I'm just incapable of being surprised any more, but I had figured out what was going on long before the narrative really allowed for it. I was also left with too many loose ends for my comfort, although apparently this was only the first in a trilogy, so perhaps they will be tied up later.

So should I read it or what?
I'd definitely recommend this book for its wonderful portrayal of the heavy political atmosphere of the 50's, and its character development; both Leo and Raisa are drawn well, and I love Smith for giving us a detective's wife who is never a damsel in distress. Ocassional weak plotting aside, this is an excellent book - even with the cannabilism.