25 February, 2010

Book 48 - "Things were very strange 'Back East' and even stranger 'Down South.'"

Title: Roadstrips: A Graphic Journey Across America (2005)

Author: Pete Friedrich (ed.)

Why this book:
My brother-in-America sent it to me for Christmas.

What's it about?
Edited by Pete Friedrich, Roadstrips is a collection of comics - um, I guess basically the graphic equivalent of short stories - looking at different parts of America. It includes contributions by over twenty different 'alternative' cartoonists. The stories are divided by region - "Pacific Northwest", "The South", "East Coast" and so on, but are incredibly diverse in terms of art and story (and I'm not going to list them all here!)

The Good and the Bad
Like any anthology, there were some narrations that really appealed to me and some that didn't, and there were one or two that must have just gone straight over my head because I didn't get them at all. But none of them were bad - it was simply a matter of taste.

What is interesting is that this book was published in America's Bush Mach II years, and the feelings that are in a lot of the stories - helplessness, and hopelessness - already feel like they're part of a bygone era. However, just because the stories already feel a little 'of the past' doesn't mean they're not still moving - several of the stories dealing with the aftermath of September 11 had me in tears. Other works dealt with the huge cross-section of people in the States, family and belonging, and that whole 'What it means to be American' thing, but in a way that even a non-American could appreciate without rolling her eyes.

I loved being introduced to so many talented artists - the only one I knew before reading was the fabulous Keith Knight whose take on the 1992 Football World Cup is pretty hilarious - and taking in so many different points of view. The stand-out for me was probably Pat Redding Scanlon's heartland Q&A, simply because it made me laugh the hardest - one of her 'interviewees' answered the question, "Where is the Midwest?" with

"I consider Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, India, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Nebraska, Wiskonsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Liverpool, England, to be Midwestern states. I scoff at the notion that Missouri is a Midwestern state because they want to be shown things, which makes them weird."

The other respondents are equally chuckle-worthy, but it was the inclusion of Liverpool that really did it for me.

So should I read it or what?
Yes, yes, yes. This is a beautiful book, and I recommend it to everyone.

Link of the day: Willow's blog post on the latest book-to-film, The Lightning Thief, and Recognition Rejection.

21 February, 2010

Book 47 - "All the stories we step into become part of our own story. Our pilgrimage."

Title: Gatty's Tale (2006)

Author: Kevin Crossley-Holland

Why this book?
My mother recommended it to me.

So what's it all about?
Gatty's a field-girl, working the lands of Sir John de Caldicot - until he and his wife notice her singing. The Lady's sister is going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and she wants Gatty as her second chambermaid, believing that the girl's voice will keep them safe on what is often a perilous journey.

The pilgrims are a mixed bunch - as well as Gatty there is her new mistress, Lady Gwynneth, a priest, a cook, a merchant, and others. They come from all walks of life, but Lady Gwynneth is determined that each and every member of the pilgrimage will contribute his or her best to the journey, and that if they pull together nothing will be able to go wrong.

Things go wrong, of course. Gatty gets lost in London on her very first day there. As the pilgrims start their journey they find themselves tricked and cheated; short of food; ill; in love; stuck at sea; and left behind in unknown territory. Yet they do, slowly, pull together, and Gatty becomes determined that one way or another, she and Lady Gwynneth will make it to the Holy Land.

The Good and the Bad
Gatty's Tale is, in fact, the fourth book in a series - or rather, a sequel to a trilogy. Crossley-Holland's Arthur trilogy follows a young lord, Arthur de Caldicot, who is given a seeing-stone through which he can see into a parallel world, where a boy who looks very much like him becomes Arthur of Round Table fame. I hadn't read the trilogy, but found that Gatty's Tale stood just fine on its own.

I started off not enjoying this book overly much, mostly because it took me until I was about halfway through the book to stop finding Gatty annoying long enough to actually start liking her. Her naivety was perhaps expected from a girl who had never been out of her own village before, but I still found it a little hard to believe that Gatty was so naive that she never realised that most of the men who approached her had intentions beyond those of just being friendly. Or perhaps it was realistic, for someone of her age and situation - but it was still incredibly frustrating to read about. However, once Gatty had finally learned about the harsh realities of the world, she somehow became more likeable - which sounds just awful, when I put it like that. I suppose it was more that she was forced to grow up, and her rather limited world-view was expanded into one that I could be sympathetic towards. She's also an incredibly strong character, right from the word 'go' - while she might have been a slow learner in that one respect, she was also adaptable, friendly, and had a stroppiness which was at times both charming and repelling.

In a way, the book seemed like a long, detailed plot device to get Gatty to a point where she could marry Arthur. She couldn't, obviously, as a peasant girl, but thanks to Lady Gwynneth leaving her title and lands to her (for no reason that made any real sense to me - surely there must have been someone she liked and trusted who she'd known a little longer than Gatty?). But to say that would be to downplay the vivid picture that Crossley-Holland draws of the almost impossible journey of pilgrims to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages, of the reactions of a large cross-section of people to foreign lands and customs who have never had to deal with such things before.

So should I read it or what?
Although I was dubious at first, I definitely enjoyed Gatty's Tale overall. It was nice to read a book set in this period and place which focused on pilgrims, rather than crusades. The books was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2008, so you don't just have to take my word for it: it's a story worth reading.

09 February, 2010

Book 46 - "'We'll give it tea-leaves next time. Carpets like tea-leaves.'"

Title: The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904)

Author: E. Nesbit

Why this book:
Nesbits's book, The Railway Children, was one of the mainstays of my childhood, but I'd never read any of her fantasy works before, so I thought I'd give it a go.

So what's it all about?
It's the school holidays, and one family of children are impatient for Guy Fawkes' night. They decide to light one or two fireworks in the girls' bedroom, accidentally setting the rug on fire when they do so. Their mother buys a new rug, a second-hand one which arrives containing an unusual, glowing egg. The egg hatches into a phoenix, which in turn tells them that the carpet it arrived in is, in fact, a magical carpet that will take them anywhere they want to go.

The children are no strangers to bizarre magical happenings, having previously encountered a wish-granting Psammead in the book *Five Children and It*, and are excited to be able to go off adventuring again. They quickly find, however, that the carpet has limitations, when it strands them in a tower in the middle of nowhere. And the phoenix, although an intelligent creature, has its own problems - it's egotistical, and has a habit of accidentally setting things on fire.

However, these problems are minor compared to the trouble the children face when their baby brother, nicnamed Lamb, crawls onto the carpet and flies away. It's hard enough hiding a phoenix and a rapidly deteriorating magical rug from their parents, without trying to explain why the baby has disappeared...

The Good and the Bad
This was, to me, a book which has badly dated. The actual adventures of the children, and even the children themselves, are fine - they're squabbly, at time bratty, but essentially goodhearted - but certain views of the writer (reflecting, I gues, societal views of the time) definitely overshadowed a lot of the fun of the book. Most notably, the racism inherent in the children's trips - one trip of theirs is to a tropical islnd, where the people are simply described as savages. Not only, in fact, are they savages who are given no traits beyond the (dark) colour of their skin, but when they meet the children's Cook, they immediately bow down and worship her as their queen, which made my teeth itch.

There's also the token bit of sexism, although no more than in most early twentieth century chilren's books. The two sisters, Anthea and Jane, are between them the kindest of the children, the only ones capable of sewing, the most easily frightened, and in need of male protection. They do, however, fully participate in all of the adventures, and since these traits are split between the two of them they aren't nearly as bad as, say, Anne from the Famous Five (who I love, but really, talk about overkill with the "feminine" qualities.)

So should I read it or what?
Once again I'm going to say read something of the author's, but not this book. The Railway Children, as I said, was an important part of my childhood, but as I haven't read it recently I can't really comment on whether the -isms are as bad there as they are here (although I suspect not). Most of Nesbit's works can be found here, at Project Gutenberg, and I do recommend checking them out.

Link of the day:

06 February, 2010

Book 45 - "I don't know how you stay in business, Warshawski. You seem to reason with your endocrines instead of your synapses."

An update, just three days since the last! I know, I'm as surprised as you are.

Title: Tunnel Vision (1994)

Author: Sara Paretsky

Why this book?
I've read a few of Paretsky's books and enjoyed them, on the whole. This one I picked up in a second hand bookshop when I was hunting for Agatha Christies.

So what's it all about? V. I. Warshawski is a P.I. with more than a few problems. Looming largest is the fact that the building she works in is falling apart, and she can't afford to move. One of her clients has suggested - well, OK, decided - that she's going to be in charge of the rehabilitation of his delinquent college son. There's a family of homeless kids living in her basement who are too scared to seek the help of the state. Oh, yeah, and the dead body of a former law school buddy's wife has just turned up in her office.

Who killed Deirdre? Her husband, Fabian, who likes to keep up appearances when guests are visiting, but beats his wife and abuses his kids behind closed doors? Or her daughter Emily, whose own wants and needs have been suppressed for years, and who can't remember exactly what happened that night? Or is this something else, something even more sinister - something to do with the construction company that V.I. has been trying to investigate, even though everyone who knows anything has been telling her the case is too hot, that she better just give it up?

V.I. doesn't give up that easily - but then, neither does Deirdre's killer. V.I. is walking head-first into trouble, and if she doesn't back-off someone's going to get hurt - and this time, V.I. might not escape with her life...

The Good and the Bad First of all, ugh. I don't know what it was about this book, but I just couldn't get into it. I usually love Paretsky's books - I've been reading them since I discovered her short stories at high school, but this one just didn't click for me. I usually like V.I., but she was just too hard in this story - something which does have consequences for her, but it just sort of made it difficult to like her. And the plot I just found to be too confusing - V.I. is investigating several things for several clients at once, and I could never straighten out who was who in the huge cast of characters. A thumbs down, then, albeit a reluctant one.

So should I read it or what? Obviously this is not a book that I am enamoured with, but I hate to think that this review would put anyone off Peretsky's books, because usually I really enjoy them. Instead, I'll say - don't read this, but do read other books in the V.I. Warshawski series - I particularly enjoyed Fire Sale (2005) in which she goes back to coach her old high school basketball team and gets involved with local corruption and teenage romance.

Link of the day: How about some fanfiction? In this highly enjoyable Futurama fic, the Planet Express crew are attacked by space ninjas - Just Desserts.

03 February, 2010

Book 44 - "I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning till night and uses language that would make a fishwoman blush!"

It's been a while since I read any Agatha Christie! It's also been almost a year since I first read this book. Sometimes I'm a little slow to blog things, I guess!

Title: Murder on the Links (1923)

Author: Agatha Christie

Why this book:
Agatha Christie! Poirot! Hurrah!

So what's it all about?
When his good friend, Captain Hastings, returns from a trip, Poirot receives a letter bidding him to come at once, for the writer - Paul Renaud - fears his life may be in danger. When Poirot and Hastings arrive, they find they are too late; he has already been murdered, stabbed in the back and half-buried on the golf green.

Poirot is determined to find the culprit, and is highly amused at the arrival of another detective who is fails to take note of the clues which are, to Poirot, extremely important - while the other detective sees a flowerbed with no footprints in it, Poirot sees a flowerbed where there should be footprints. Hastings, however, can't help but doubt his old friend. Poirot seems to be doing nothing but asking irrelevent questions, and making increasingly bizarre statements - how does the length of a man's coat have anything to do with his death?

Paul Renaud's son is arrested for his murder, and he will surely be found guilty if Poirot can't find a way to convince the police that he didn't do it. But then, who did? Renaud's wife, who is clearly lying about just what happened that night? His blackmailer, who may or may not have been his mistress? The two mysterious South American men Mme Renaud claims to have seen? Or the English performer who was in love with his son - the very same girl that Hastings can't help becoming increasingly fascinated by...?

The Good and the Bad
I read this book through twice, and hated it the first time; the second time I loved it. The problem I had with it the first time through is simply that the end seemed to drag on a little too long. Agatha Christie is queen of the twist ending, by the ending here was so twisted that reading was both exhausting and confusing. The narrative also irritated me on my first read - it is told, in the first person, by Captain Hastings, and I quickly grew frustrated by him forever jumping to the wrong conclusion and his apparent lack of confidence in Poirot.

On my second read, however, I found the books a lot easier to enjoy. As I wasn't racing through it to find out what was going to happen next, it was a lot easier to enjoy Christie's style, her observations of human behaviour and her well-crafted plot - because, despite the overly-long conclusion, the story as a whole is well-crafted. I also found myself warming more to Hastings. He may be a bumbling idiot, but his heart is in the right place - besides, Poirot's love of his friend gives the detective a human side he might not otherwise have.

It also took me two reads to figure out what the "links" was. I was so sure it was going to be some kind of train, and was exceedingly confused when (despite at least one very important train ride in the story) Renaud was murdered in the middle of a field. As I now know, a links is in fact a type of golf course, and the fact that his murder took place there is yet another important clue.

So should I read it or what?
This is, I think, one of the better books in the Poirot series. Christie has yet to become fed up with her own creation, Captain Hastings meets someone who is to become very important to him in the future, and the mystery is set not in England but in France, giving it rather a different flavour. Highly recommended, but then I almost always say that about Christie's works, don't I?