31 May, 2009

The Afterdark Princess, or: The BSC wishes they were this awesome

OK, so I realise I was kind of ranty last post! Not that I don't stand by my rants, but I realise it probably isn't the easiest thing in the world to actually read. No worries, though, to divert my attention from the research proposal I'm supposed to be working on, here is a short and sweet book rec.

Incidentally, I don't like this cover nearly as much as the one I had as a kid. A dude on a staircase isn't nearly as cool as a picture of a bunch of people in a forest being mysterious and badass.

Title: The Afterdark Princess (1990)

Author: Annie Dalton

You've read this before, haven't you? Only probably a hundred times! My primary (elementary) school had a copy which I read over and over again. Needless to say I was pretty stoked when I recently rediscovered it at a used book stall.

What's it all about, anyway?
Joe Quail isn't a very happy kid. His mum worries about him too much, he has nightmares every night, he's useless at everything and he's getting bullied at school. He hates everything and everyone - especially his neighbours, Kit and Maisy. When his mother leaves him with Kit and Maisy under the charge of the world's most perfect baby-sitter, Alice Fazackerly, he knows he's going to hate her too.

But Alice isn't just a baby-sitter. She's also the last princess of the Kingdom of Afterdark, and her kingdom is currently under attack from Cosmo, the Emperor of Nightfall. Joe doesn't want anything to do with sorcery and danger, but when Alice and Kit are kidnapped he reluctantly realises that he's the only one who can do anything about it.

Joe battles trolls and dragons, defeats a monster in a dungeon, and finally climbs up the long, high Shining Stair to face Cosmo, and he comes to realise that in Afterdark nothing is as it seems - not Alice, not Joe, and not even the Emperor of Nightfall...

So what's so great about it then, huh?

It's a kids' fantasy story about a magical world where you can become the person you've always wanted to be. And it also throws in a few important lessons, about how it's important to get to know people before you decide whether you like them or not. What's not to like?

More about this series: Actually, I didn't even know it was a series until I bought this newer edition - the one held at my primary school didn't mention the fact, and I never thought to look before! I haven't read any of the sequels yet, but they are The Dream Snatcher (1998), The Midnight Museum (2001) and The Rules of Magic (2004). Needless to say I'm going to take them out from my local library as soon as my holidays start!

25 May, 2009

Book 13 - Bloodhound

Not-even-slightly-related link of the day: Questionable Content. A webcomic about music, love, and tiny, cute, sociopathic robots. About as addictive as a soap opera and occasionally as dramatic as one, but usually pretty funny and always entertaining.

And now, to business. I only have one assignment left to write, and miraculously I actually had time over the weekend to read something that wasn't an article on online bibliographical exhibitions (don't ask). Ergo, today I can actually write up a post! Huzzah! PS: I know, I totally abuse the word "actually". Just think of it a charming personality quirk.

Title: Bloodhound (2009)

Author: Tamora Pierce

Why this book?
So when I was about thirteen all my friends started reading Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet. It didn't sound that great to me - a girl disguising herself as a boy to be trained as a knight sounded kind of clich├ęd, and I just wasn't interested. But then I discovered First Test, about the first girl to train as a knight as a girl, which sounded much better. I read it, and was instantly hooked, to the point that I immediately read all the rest of her books set in the realm of Tortall - and then everything else she'd written that I could get my hands on, including the recent White Tiger miniseries she co-authored for Marvel (which is excellent, by the way, and I highly recommend it to you even if comics aren't your thing). In 2006 she published Terrier, the first in a series set 500 years before Song of the Lioness. Bloodhound is the second in the series.

What's it all about anyway?
In Terrier, Beka Cooper was a trainee member of the Provost's Guard (kind of like the police) With her ability to hear the dead speaking and an unquenchable thirst for justice, she helped to bring down the child-murdering 'Shadow Snake'. Now she's a proper Guardswoman - one who is unable to hold down a partner. She's not the only member of the Watch to have that problem, though; Achoo, a scent hound (think sniffer dog) is having the same problem - worse, in fact, since Achoo is being abused by her handler. Beka takes over, and together her and Achoo make a formidable pair.

Meanwhile, there's a big problem facing Tortall; someone is circulating fake silver coins, and in very large numbers. Coupled with a bad harvest, this sends food prices rocketing, and a riot breaks out when the price of bread doubles. The money forging is traced to the city of Port Caynn, and that's where Beka is sent to investigate - along with Achoo, of course, and Guardswoman Goodwin, one of Beka's mentors. Beka enjoys herself immensely in Port Caynn, especially when handsome young gambler Dale starts to flirt with her.

Beka's investigations are putting her in some serious danger - not just from Port Caynn's criminals, but from its Provost's Guards as well. Beka knows she's in trouble when she's being hunted by both the menacing Pearl Skinner and her own fellow Guardsmen - but she's not going to let a little thing like that stand in her way of discovering the truth...

The Good and the Bad
As usual, Pierce has written a fantastic adventure story - and as usual I couldn't put it down. One of the things I love about this series in particular is that because it's set in Tortall's 'past', Pierce is able to slip in hints of how society changes between Beka's time and the events of the Song of the Lioness. In Terrier, it's mentioned that the slave trade is losing popularity. This time, we see the beginnings of the religious movement which is the start of the end of Lady Knights.

In Pierce's previous Tortall series, each of the female heroes were pitted against various evils, but each book built up to the final showdown against a powerful male villain - Alanna had Duke Roger, Daine had Emperor Ozanne, and Kel had... that sorceror whose name I've forgotten. Each of these villains has power from their magical abilities and from their societal status. In Bloodhound, as in Terrier, we're given different types of villains - women, who have no social status, who've gained what power they've had entirely from their own actions. They make the perfect antagonists to Beka, who like them has no social status, and who also has got where she is almost entirely by her own actions.

Like Terrier, Bloodhound is written in 'diary' format - and I just don't think that Pierce manages it entirely convincingly. For instance, writing in her usual third-person limited narrative, it would be fine to have the narrative explain the the Black God's priests wore veils to cover their faces, but it feels unnatural for a character to be explaining something like that in their own diary. It's a well-known fact as far as Beka is concerned - why would she feel the need to explain it in a diary which presumably only she is ever going to see?

I also felt that the writing around Okha, a trans* character, was weak. Shortly after meeting Beka, Okha tells her her whole life story, and it felt very much like Pierce was telling Okha's life story - would someone who has been hurt as much as Okha have really be so quick to trust a stranger? It did feel more than a little shoehorned. At the same time, it meant that Okha was explicitly trans* - and a protagonist, too. That doesn't exactly happen very often in popular YA fantasy.

So should I read it or what?
I have pretty high expectations of Tamora Pierce and I wish she would return to her old narrative style - it suits her writing so much better! But I still enjoyed Bloodhound and I'm still going to go ahead and recommend it. I'm already looking forward to the next Beka Cooper book, Elkhound.

And for extra credit: Tamora Pierce's webpage

17 May, 2009

Books 11 and 12 - Gorky Park and Polar Star, or: Russophiles love Soviet detectives

Vaguely related link of the day: Should libraries have e-books? I'm not sure they should.

And now, to business. Sorry for the slightly extended time between posts - I have MILLIONS of assignments to write at the moment (and by MILLIONS I mean... three). BUT I decided to blog two-books-in-one-post to make up for the delay, and also to make up for the fact I might not have time to read anything next week. Woe.

Title: Gorky Park (1981)
Polar Star (1989)

Author: Martin Cruz Smith

Why this book?
One of my co-workers is a total russophile. I asked her if she'd read Child 44, and she was so incredibly excited to find out that I'd read it that she immediately leapt at the chance to recommend to me every book written about Russia or by Russians, ever. Which is actually pretty cool, because she has an awesome taste in books.

What's it all about anyway?
Arkady Renko is a Soviet detective who is assigned the case of a triple murder when three dead, faceless bodies are found in the titular Gorky Park. At first, Renko assumes that this has been a political killing, and that the case will soon be taken off his hands - but this never comes to pass. Drawn into investigating further despite himself, Renko finds out that things are more complicated than he had first imagined - involved are American businessmen and spies, Russian loyalists and traitors, and corruption, everywhere, even in his own police force. Yet Renko is unable to let things go, even as his own life is torn apart, and is determined to follow the truth, wherever, and to whomever, it leads him.

Polar Star begins sometime after the events of Gorky Park, with Renko hiding from his past, as best he can, on board a fishing factory ship. Renko is more than happy to keep his history and his thoughts to himself, but when a young crew member turns up dead he suddenly finds himself once more investigating a murder. This time, Renko finds himself in a different quandary; while he has nothing left to lose, his crewmates have plenty, and if he refuses to label the death as an accident or a suicide they're not going to be happy. But once again Renko's doggedness and curiosity make him refuse to let things go, which is how he finds himself trapped amongst the snow and ice with a man he convicted of murder in his former life - a man who is now intent on revenge...

The Good and the Bad
That classic, noir-ish detective feeling just worked so well for a Soviet detective story. Renko is jaded, tired of working in a country where there the truth is whatever his superiors tell him it is. Renko's wife is perfect as a woman who is more interested in her husband's career trajectory than in his own feelings, and Irina contrasts strongly with her as the femme fatale who is as much victim as she is a threat.

Probably the most interesting character arc across the two novels is that of Pribluda. When we first meet him he is everything that Renko hates: a political tool, and man who sees no problem with shooting prisoners and then claiming they were trying to escape. His loathing for Renko goes even further - when Renko is captured by Soviet authorities and tortured for being a dissident, Pribluda hopes that he will be the one who gets to finally kill him. And yet Renko's steadfastness and dedication to the truth, the very things that make Pribluda despise him, also make him the only person Pribluda can turn to when he himself is forced to see the corruption in the system he loves. Instead of killing Renko, he ends up helping him to survive. By the events of Polar Star, the two are actually good friends.

Something I really enjoyed was Renko's contact with America. To so many of his people, to the young, especially, America is almost a mythical place, a country without corruption, where people can think and say whatever they like. To Irina, almost any price is worth paying to get there; but Renko's trip to America sees him dealing solely with men who are just as corrupt as those he has left behind. In the end, Renko realises, he is too Russian to ever be truly happy in America, and he knows however much trouble he'll be in for his actions he'll have to return home.

In Gorky Park, there is no sign that Soviet Russia is anything other than the strong, proud, Communist nation is projects itself to be; but by the time Renko is at work on the Polar Star there are cracks showing around the edges. The books don't hold any of the chilling atmosphere found in Child 44 - Renko's jaded view of the world simply doesn't allow for that - but Cruz Smith portrays what were current events for him so accurately, and with surprisingly little bias, that this could just as easily be a contemporary, historical novel.

So should I read it or what?
My vote is yes, and yes. I actually enjoyed Polar Star more than Gorky Park, but I don't think there's any point reading the second novel without having read the first. There are actually four further books in the series, and you can bet I'm going to read them as soon as I can lay my hands on them (and when I've finished my MILLIONS of assignments).

10 May, 2009

On fiction...

One of the books I'm reading at the moment is To the Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury. This isn't a write-up of the book because I'm only a third of the way through reading it, and desperately trying to finish it because my friend leant it to me almost a month ago! Sadly I am also up to the eyeballs in assignments at the moment so that probably won't happen this weekend. You have no idea how desperately I am hanging out for my semester holiday in June.

Anyway, one of the characters in To the Hermitage is a writer (based, I think, on Bradbury himself) and has a lovely little spiel about why fiction is so much better than facts, which I thought I'd share, not least since it more or less reflects my own ideas on the subject!

"... fiction is infinitely preferable to real life, which is a pretty feeble fiction anyway. As long as you avoid the books of Kafka or Beckett, the everlasting plot of fiction has fewer futile experiences, dull passages, worthless days, useless contingencies than the careless plot of reality written in Destiny's above. Fiction's people are fuller, deeper, cleverer, more moving than those in real life. Its actions are more intricate, illuminating, moving, profound. There are many more dramas, climaxes, romantic fulfilments, twists, turns, gratified resolutions. Unlike reality or for that matter history, all of this you can experience without leaving the house or even getting out of bed."

06 May, 2009

Book 10 - Austenland, or: That Colin Firth is a bit of alright, what-what? Rather!

ETA: I apologise profusely for the abuse of italics in this post. I wish I could say it won't happen again.

Vaguely related link of the day:
On the off-chance you don't read Steph's blog, I found a recent post of hers particularly interesting. Ever wondered how authors decide how their stories end? Read Authors: Your Endings? to find out.

And now, to business. Have you notice it's been getting all sexy to be into Jane Austen lately? I mean, obviously it's always been sexy to be into Jane Austen, but we seem to be going through a "hey guys who is this austen lady can we make any more moneys off her" phase. In terms of film we've had Bride and Prejudice (cheesy but delicious), the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice (not too bad), the Austen fictional biography Becoming Jane (freakin' awful) and last year's British comedy mini-series Lost in Austen (hilariously awesome). And as well as those dreadful Austen "sequels" people are continuously churning out (seriously, not a single one of them is worth reading) we've got modern, playful books like Mandy Hubbard's Prada and Prejudice.

Can you guys hear something coming? It sounds like... a bandwagon! I better jump on!

Title: Austenland (2007)

Author: Shannon Hale

Why this book?
After Rapunzel's Revenge I was interested in reading some more of Hale's books, and this one stood out as being quite different from her other books - plus, I do love me some Jane Austen.

What's it all about anyway?
Every time another relationship ends for American Jane Hayes, she once again finds herself daydreaming about her one, perfect man - Mr Darcy, as portrayed by Colin Firth. She can't help comparing each of her boyfriends to him and finding them wanting, yet she's equally determined every time she falls in love that this one will turn out to be her perfect man. She's embarrassed by her obsession with Mr Darcy, and yet she's unable to kick the habit of daydreaming about him.

And then her great-aunt dies and leaves her a very odd bequest: a visit to Pembrook Park, an English country manor where women can live their fantasies with actors who take on the roles of Austenesque characters - the cads, the gentleman, the busybody housewives, the rank-obsessed snobs. At first, Jane is reluctant to go, but she realises that maybe this is the key to her kicking her Darcy habit once and for all.

Jane finds life at Pembrook Park farcical - why would she want to fall in love, even pretend in love, with dashing gentlemen who are really just actors? Yet slowly she finds herself drawn into the pretence, and as she finds herself caught between two men she begins to wonder - how fake is life in Austenland, really? Worse, she begins to realise that in all her dreams of Mr Darcy, she might have somehow ignored the real significance of Jane Austen's books...

The Good and the Bad I actually almost put down this book as soon as I had started it, and it was over the silliest thing. Let's play a guessing game - see if you can guess what it was in this excerpt that infuriated me:

"The pesky movie version was the culprit. Sure, Jane had first read Pride and Prejudice when she was sixteen, read it a dozen times since, and read the other Austen novels at least twice, except Northanger Abbey (of course)."

Of course. Of course. What the actual hell, Jane? What do you mean, of course? If you had said, "except Mansfield Park (of course)" it would have been fine. Mansfield Park is possibly the most tepid love story ever written by anyone, featuring Fanny Price, who is the literary equivalent of a used tissue and about as useful as one (although less interesting). Every time I read it I secretly pray that the book will have somehow changed since I last read it and she'll end up with Henry Crawford, not the dull and pious Edmond who I yearn to knee in the balls. But Northanger Abbey? Sure, it's the least subtle and the least polished of Austen's works, but it's by far the most fun, and Catherine is a bright, playful character whose faults make her supremely endearing. Jane, you did not just of course me about Northanger Abbey. It is second only to Persuasion on the list entitled "Austen's novels, ranked from best to worst." There, I told you it was silly.

Anyway, I pressed on, and Jane and I ended up getting on quite well. Her reluctance to become another of the slightly crazed female guests at Pembrook, yet her interest in seeing if living her fantasy is quite what she'd imagined, somehow makes her wonderfully real. She has this intense desire for a beautiful romance which makes her obsess over the way each and every one of her past relationship have ended, which could have been irritating (I really don't like reading about romance-obsessed characters!) but instead comes across as almost comical, in a good way.

The other female characters are equally well-drawn. There's Mrs Wattlesbrook, the woman who oversees Pembrook, who insists on 'proper' behaviour at all times, has no sense of humour, and who is quite the snob - and yet who quite freely discusses her clients' personal business with whomever she feels like. Eliza Charming is quite hilarious, a 50-something American woman who is fixated on landing one of the actors and continually makes the worst faux pas, and is particularly awful about speaking English-English - "How do you do Miss Erstwhile, what-what? Spit spot I hope, rather."

The biggest let-down is really the book's conclusion. From the beginning it's obvious which of her two suitors Jane is going to end up with (at least, it is if you know your Austen!) and even a couple of good twists thrown in couldn't persuade me otherwise. And that would have been fine, except - well, Jane spends so much time dithering over which guy she likes, and whether she really likes either of them, and whether she maybe ought to just be by herself for a while, that at the end I wasn't really convinced that she should have ended up with anyone. It was plain that the guy in question really liked her, but it kind of felt like Jane was saying, "Well, he likes me, and he's a nice guy, so... hey! I suppose I might as well take him." I didn't get the feeling that this relationship was going to be any different from all her past disasters, and that made it a little unsatisfying.

So should I read it or what?
I wasn't blown away, but it was a good light read - if you're an Austen fan, and you're looking for something fun and not too mentally taxing, it's probably worth a go. Otherwise? Don't bother.