Oct 26, 2014

Clariel, by Garth Nix

Garth Nix's "Sabriel" is one of my all-time favorite books, and the trilogy it starts is, in my opinion, firmly in the pantheon of YA literature. "Clariel" is a long-awaited prequel, taking place several hundred years before the events of "Sabriel" and giving an origin story to a lesser villain in that series. I was a little disappointed by "Clariel;" it seemed a bit boring and one-dimensional. Clariel is a teenaged girl who wants only to be left alone to live in her beloved Great Forest, but her mother is the most skilled goldsmith in the Old Kingdom and the family moves to Belisaere, its capital, so she can play a more active role in the Guild. There, Clariel finds that the King has all but abdicated and Kilp, head of the Goldsmith's Guild and Governor of the city (and all around slimy guy) has taken control with the help of a Free Magic being. Clariel's all-consuming desire to get back to the Great Forest is in a tug of war against her sense of loyalty to her parents and worry that the kingdom is in grave danger. The former consistently wins out over the latter, making Clariel a rather uncomplicated figure, but then again maybe that's the point - villains are selfish creatures, and though they may sometimes rise above their base desires to do something truly good, their selfishness wins out in the end.

I would have liked to see more of the world-building that made "Sabriel" and "Lirael" so wonderful. It would have been interesting to learn more about the culture and history of berserks, since a major character in the original series also carries that genetic trait. All in all, I'm excited that Nix has returned to the Old Kingdom, and look forward to his next book (which continues the original series), but didn't like "Clariel" as much as I wanted to.

Oct 19, 2014

Tibetan Peach Pie, by Tom Robbins

So I've never read any of Robbins' novels, but having read his memoir, I now very much want to. Robbins has a way with words that is utterly unique and enjoyable; much of the book is laugh out loud funny, and Robbins' observations are keen. The book progresses more or less chronologically, from Robbins' Appalachian boyhood to his time as a meteorologist with the Air force to the beginnings of a beatnik lifestyle in Richmond, Virginia to his eventually settling in La Conner, Washington, peppered all the way with his various wives and girlfriends. I'm not usually one for memoir or biography, but this was such a pleasure to read. He is clearly a singular soul, and I look forward to discovering a similar originality in his fiction.

The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips and Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville

The reason for this rare doubleheader of a review is that I was unable to get past 50 pages in either of these books. "The Egyptologist," while having an interesting plot, is written as a series of letters and journal entries, and it was just incredibly boring. It's hard to pull off that kind of unconventional style, and I'm afraid it simply couldn't hold my interest. "Un Lun Dun," written by a master of modern genre-bending fantasy and sci fi, is meant for a young adult audience but comes off as rushed and stilted. Children and young adult readers are more sophisticated than many give them credit for, and I feel that Mieville's book is too simplistic for anyone over the age of 8. It's unfortunate, since otherwise he's such an intriguing writer.

Oct 9, 2014

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

David Mitchell doesn't write characters so much as inhabit them, and it's extraordinary. "The Bone Clocks," his latest novel, spans from the mid-1980s to 2045 and follows (basically) the life of Holly Sykes. The first and last section are written from her perspective, while the other sections are from the perspectives of those who enter into her life at certain times. Hugo Lamb and Crispin Hershey are particularly amazing, two British men who are too smart for their own good and whose minds are stunning and hilarious. I am a self-professed Anglophile, and Mitchell's British-ness is positively delectable. He's an amazing writer, incredibly smart and deft at weaving a persona out of thin air. And there's a strong element of the surreal involved - vampire-like immortals, souls that are resurrected forty-nine days after the body they inhabit dies, and a cold war between the two - and I just love that such a commercially successful and respected author can write such things without getting saddled with the sci fi stigma (which even I, a huge sci fi fan, readily admits is quite real). I got to meet Mitchell, at an event in San Francisco, and he was utterly charming (though sick with a cold) and came off as incredibly intelligent while also being a huge amount of fun. It's always a relief when one meets a respected author and they're also a lovely person. I cannot say enough good things about David Mitchell; read his books!

Oct 3, 2014

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Another book club pick, this is one hell of a historical novel. Set in a London very similar to Dickens', "Fingersmith" follows the twists and turns of a very bad con. Susan Trinder has been raised in a house devoted to two illegal tasks: baby farming and the distribution of stolen goods. She's a rarity, brought up among Mrs. Sucksby's other orphans as her own daughter, though always reminded, proudly, of her murderess mother. When Gentleman comes to her with a job offer that will leave her with three thousand pounds, it's simply too good to pass up. The plan: pretend to be a maid to a lady out in the country, a young woman who, once married, will inherit a vast sum. After Susan convinces this lady, Maud, to marry Gentleman (known to Maud as Richard Rivers), they will trick her and stick her in a madhouse so that Gentleman receives the money in her stead. It's a nasty plan, and as Susan gets to know Maud, her apprehension grows. It starts out fairly formulaic, but the end of the first part and beginning of the second turn everything about on its head. This is no Dickens novel, this is a taut mystery as much about the pull of nature vs. nurture as it is about an illicit current that runs beneath even the most everyday occurrences. It's a long book, 600 pages, and thick with a language that takes a bit getting used to, but well worth the read. Halfway through, I kept saying to myself, "how on earth did she think of this stuff?!" Kudos to Waters for taking a stale story and making it brand new. I can't wait to discuss it with the other book club members.

Sep 27, 2014

The Young Elites, by Marie Lu

Marie Lu is already well-known for her "Legend" trilogy, which I now very much want to read after devouring "The Young Elites." The island nation of Kenettra is in social and political upheaval. About a decade ago, the blood plague swept through the nation, killing all the adults it infected and most of the children. Those children that did survive were left with disfiguring or identifying marks of some kind: oddly colored hair, splotches of color across their faces, strange markings on an arm. Adelina has silver hair and a scar where her left eye used to be. She is a malfetto, one of the marked. There are rumors that some malfettos also developed unnatural powers, and that these dangerous youths are banding together to end the mistreatment of malfettos, who are believed to be abominations; they are called the Young Elites. Adelina's father practices cruelty in many forms upon her in the hopes that she will reveal a power that would make her worth something, whereas as a simple malfetto, he fears she will never be taken as a wife. Adelina shows no inkling of power, until the night she runs away from home after overhearing her father sell her as a mistress to a wealthy merchant - when he discovers her and threatens to kill her, Adelina suddenly calls upon a dark power within her that raises shadowy demons with huge claws and teeth dripping blood. She is, after all her father's cruelty, an Elite.

This is a dark, bleak book, suitable probably only for kids 14 and up, or younger only if they're very hearty. Adelina suffered years of abuse, both physical and mental, at the hands of her father, and the resultant darkness in her soul is very black indeed. Lu doesn't shy away from Adelina's dark thoughts of power and ambition and revenge, making this a tough read for gentle souls. I loved it, though, and have a great respect for authors who don't shy away from writing about dark or complicated issues for teens. Adelina is a complex heroine, perhaps even an anti-heroine, and I can't wait to see where Lu takes her in future books.

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

Perhaps a book about cholera outbreaks isn't the best idea for a self-proclaimed germophobe...but then again, it's a really interesting book! "The Ghost Map" is about an outbreak of cholera in a London neighborhood in 1854, a tragic event that led to a doctor named John Snow (no relation to the Starks [apologies for that ridiculous GoT joke]) figuring out that cholera was waterborne and not, as contemporary theory dictated, caused by "bad air." It was a momentous work of investigative science, the echoes of which are still quite strongly felt today in such areas as public health, urban planning, scientific method, epidemiology, and even social mapping programs such as Yelp. Johnson is an engaging writer, skillfully explaining the more complex scientific concepts as well as telling the story of the outbreak like a modern day murder mystery. He goes a bit off the rails toward the end, descending into fearmongering about the chances of a nuclear detonation in a major urban center; luckily, this unnecessary and marginally related section is rather small, and only detracts a little bit from the work's overall strength. I just wish I hadn't read it while eating...