If they have NAMES and characters, then you will be sorry to lose them, otherwise not. See also COMPANIONS.”

~Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Shortly after happening upon The Tough Guide to Fantasyland in the Dewey stacks of my local library, I saw it referenced somewhere, as you see a thing everywhere once you’ve become aware of its existence. It was mentioned as being brilliant but hard to find. I found it, I swear, shelved in the travel section. Or maybe just near the travel section, which isn’t far from poetry in the Magnolia stacks. Were I a librarian I would misshelve it to have my little joke, but I suppose that would be breaking the librarian code of honor.  I do not mean to slander the Magnolia librarians. I’m sure they shelved it correctly. Once a book goes to the non-fiction stacks it is simply not likely to be seen again. The Guide is structured as a mock encyclopedia of all the elements found in your average fantasy adventure novel, pitched as if to a noob embarking on a Tour. Jones, herself an author of numerous fantasies for kids including the wonderful Howl’s Moving Castle, knows whereof she writes. Entries are alphabetical for easy reference, e.g.: Read the rest of this entry »

Roundabout book review

December 22, 2009

While climbing near Las Vegas, the other B and I happened upon a lovely used bookstore. Of course, since it was Vegas the bookstore was in a strip mall next to Dottie’s Spirits and Gaming. But, whatever. I was impressed to find an independent bookstore in the land of Humvees and Beamers.

I walked into the bookstore with the hope that the dusty shelves would hold our October read (see RevDrLiz’s post here). Although it was not to be, the kind (yet rusty) book peddler was happy to assist me in my search.

It went a little something like this:

“Do you guys happen to have The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers Homes in New England?”

“Arsonist’s Guide? Hmm…” He looked around, scratched his balding head. Then, his eyes lit. “You know, I think we have that. Yep, it’s in home repairs.”

I was touched by his seemingly authentic desire to help, and vaguely intrigued by the assumption that a guide to arson would be in the home repairs section.

“Um…Actually, it’s a novel.”

“Oh.” I sensed chagrin. Obviously, a novel about arson was far less exciting than the prospect of a diminutive arsonist getting her start in his shop. “Well all right then, let’s take a look, shall we?”

While the other B baked in the car, the owner and I waded through piles of Mary Higgins Clark, looked beneath filthy paperbacks (the smutty cover wasn’t the filthy part) and ran our fingers over the ‘new’ fiction section that showcased novels printed when I was prenatal.

It was like a treasure hunt. The Arsonist’s Guide, although only a few years old, could have been in his shop, and the possibility filled him with energy and me with amusement. Sadly, even our combined forces couldn’t find the book in question.

Rather than leave empty-handed, I picked up a different book: A Confederacy of Dunces. I bought it, got a wink and an eye twinkle from the peddler, and left happy. Read the rest of this entry »

Gorham sexy

December 19, 2009

Continuing my explorations into the digital holdings of the Seattle Public Library, I borrowed The Edge of Impropriety, by Pam Rosenthal, and gulped it down over the course of one late night (a terrible, terrible habit). The Adobe pdf version of the print copy sadly has no cover art (how is this possible? It’s digital! It could sparkle and dance if the publisher put the slightest effort in) and does not re-paginate itself to fit my screen, but it does have a functional table of contents, unlike some of the other pdf ebooks I have sampled, and clean, distinct text. Unlike your average pdf file, ebook pdf’s restrict any copying, making quoting from the digital text as tedious as print. Le sigh.

The Edge of Impropriety is a romance without a typically lurid romance cover, going instead for the zoomed-in nineteenth century portraiture with cut-off head look. The marketing department may have targeted more of a mass-market fiction than romance audience; readers who like light romantic fiction but don’t shop the romance aisles. The design reminds me of Lauren Willig’s The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, which I usually see shelved in “Fiction”. The prose of Edge flows smoothly and elegantly, developing the characters without recourse to fits of descriptive detail, backstory dumpage, or excessive reliance on stereotyped romance tropes. And the sexxoring, when they get down to it (chapter 7), is HOT. Hawt even. Which I do not find to be typical. Did I hold the story to higher standards because the aforementioned elements were good? Perhaps, for the plot bored me, though in summary, it does not appear more boring than the average historical romance. Read the rest of this entry »

The Thief (1996) 304pp

“I can steal anything”, says Gen, the eponymous thief of Megan Whalen Turner’s excellent children’s adventure. He captured my imagination, against my inclination.  The title threatened an adorably disreputable ne’er-do-well character from the fantasy stockroom. Tricksters (see Joseph Campbell) make entertaining protagonists, but I’m wary of the stereotype. They are often too cute, lacking the dangerous unpredictability that a Raven, a Loki or a Monkey brings to myth (and thief heroes are rarely found in modern settings, where B&E appears less adorable). Turner’s thief avoids this problem through clever plotting, although I will complain that, like many literary thieves, he is almost magically talented in his thief skills. The world of The Thief is not heavily fantastical and has no magic or magical beasts. Turner elaborated on archaic Greek culture, inventing nations and pantheons of gods, and adding apocryphal technology, to produce a story something like myth, if myths were narrated in the personable voice of a boy hero.

The Queen of Attolia (2000) 368pp

The choice of first person point of view is the cleverest tactical decision of the author, and I will let you learn why for yourself- the plot of The Thief is highly vulnerable to spoilage. I read the series inside out and backwards, starting somewhere in the middle of The Queen of Attolia, then picking through The King of Attolia before starting over properly with The Thief, and so I knew of several important plot twists before the plot revealed them. Having deprived myself of the surprise and suspense, I still enjoyed novels so much I read them twice, but I was rather sorry to have missed out on the orderly progression of revelations. I recommend that innocent readers do not do as I did. Inside-out may allow you to appreciate Turner’s craft and style, but you can admire her clever construction on your second reading. Let Gen narrate The Thief at his own pace. Don’t even peek at the cover blurbs on the sequels!

The King of Attolia (2006) 432pp

As The Thief opens, Gen has been sitting in the king’s prison long enough to have lost track of the days and grown thin, weak and filthy. His bragging led to his conviction and imprisonment for stealing the king’s seal, and now leads the king’s scholar and advisor, the magus, to extract him. The magus needs a thief. A disposable thief. He wants to steal a legendary relic, once used to confer the sovereignty of the kings of the neighboring kingdom of Eddis. The magus would like to confer sovereignty of Eddis on his own king of Sounis. The relic may be hidden in yet another rival kingdom, Attolia. Adventure and intrigue ensue.

Embrace the opening exposition. If you are lazy like me you may have no patience for exposition without encouragement. I have a bad habit of skipping past opening chapters until I love the characters and story enough to catch them on the second pass. The exposition may be lyrical, it’s detail development essential, but coming at the very opening of a book, it has the problem of not having yet earned my interest. Genre novels tend to solve the problem of reader impatience by jumping straight into action, which does grab the attention, but may cost it later. Or maybe the problem is not a problem. I generally enjoy the story even after robbing myself of the proper framing. If the novel is wily and complicated, I am forced to go back and address the opening the author staged for me, and if it isn’t wily, then maybe it doesn’t need the exposition anyway.

Instead of Three Wishes: stories (2006) 160pp

Before I digress further and wander into spoiler territory, I want to comment on format. I borrowed the Thief series and Turner’s short story collection, Instead of Three Wishes, from the digital holdings of the Seattle Public Library. Downloading the files as I lounged on my couch, long after hours for the local library branch, had decided instant gratification appeal, but yoked me to my laptop until I finished. The Adobe ePub format has functional pagination and clickable table of contents, is searchable and bookmarkable, and looks good- but I admit, it is not as satisfying as holding the paper copy in my hand. Even the crappy paperbacks I bought (because the library copies totally sold me) with their cheap acid paper and smudged ink and bindings that are already ungluing. Rather sorry print quality for a Newberry Honor book, I think, although the cover art is very nice (but what is the appeal of the cut-off head look that is so very popular now?).

Spoiler-full discussion begins below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Religion + Carnies

September 30, 2009

While perusing the books at my local library, I came across Holy Fools by Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat.

Although I haven’t read Chocolat (yet), I figured that anything written by the same author would at least be interesting…And I was right!

Set in 17th-century France, Holy Fools follows Juliette, a carnie girl-cum-acrobat turned nun. (No joke.)

After living the wild life with various traveling circus groups, Juliette, pregnant and single, turns to a nunnery to raise her little girl. When the Abbess dies, a strict new Abbess and her mysterious Confessor take charge of the lax nuns.

Chaos ensues!

There is plenty of mayhem – including illicit sex, kidnapping, suicide, and ghostly figures.

I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll stop there.

Let me know if you read it! I’d love to hear what you guys think.

-B