Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Gates, A Novel

Title: The Gates, a Novel
Author: John Connolly
Themes: evil, loyalty, kindness, adventure, trust
Rating: ****

Plot: Young Samuel Johnson and his dachshund, Boswell, are trying to show initiative by trick-or-treating a full three days before Halloween, which is how they come to witness strange goings-on at 666 Crowley Road. The Abernathys don't mean any harm by their flirtation with the underworld, but when they unknowingly call forth Satan himself, they create a gap in the universe, a gap through which a pair of enormous gates is visible. The gates to Hell. And there are some pretty terrifying beings just itching to get out...

Can one small boy defeat evil? Can he harness the power of science, faith, and love to save the world as we know it?

Bursting with imagination and impossible to put down, The Gates is about the pull between good and evil, physics and fantasy. It is about a quirky and eccentric boy, who is impossible not to love, and the unlikely cast of characters who give him the strength to stand up to a demonic power.

In this wonderfully strange and brilliant novel, John Connolly manages to re-create the magical and scary world of childhood that we've all left behind but so love to visit. And for those of you who thought you knew everything about particle physics and the universe, think again. This novel makes anything seem possible.

My Thoughts: The Gates is rather whimsical and lighthearted considering its about the gates of Hell opening on earth (I think most of us would find that a little dreary). I knew I would have to read this book, since I have read Connolly's The Book of Lost Things and immensely enjoyed it. What I didn't expect from The Gates is the childlike and whimsical narrative style (akin to The Willoughbys and Tigerheart) that reads like a clever Victorian narrator who is both part of the story and withdrawn from it.

Samuel is a likable protagonist, and I found his plight of being a child in trying times (who would believe an adult that demons are coming en mass, much less an eccentric child?) to be well described and relatable. Boswell, I think, ended up being my favorite character. Yes, he's a dachshund, but I think he was an essential part of the storyline and kept Samuel safe through the onslaught of demons from Hell. I did find his two friends to be rather one-dimensional, but perhaps this is because they only showed up at the very end of the book and had no opportunity to be fleshed out. Samuel's mother was also rather flat, she was simply a stereotypical newly-single mom who has been left with a child by her cheating husband.

The cast of secondary characters is impressive, however. The book has a large cast of demons, church members, police officers, neighbors, children, and duck club members who all have a moment or two of action in the narrative. The chapters are short, and when all Hell breaks loose we catch glimpses of the chaos around Biddlecombe. We observe demons getting smashed at a local bar, duck hunters turned to stone by a medusa, the local vicar being attacked by the gargoyles and carvings on his church in addition to the evil corpses surrounding it in unconsecrated ground. There is also the hierarchy of demons, one of which is a rather low ranking Nurd who befriends Samuel and fears the coming of The Great Malevolence even more than the humans do.

One final aspect of The Gates that I wish to comment on is the science. You see, the gates of Hell don't just conjure themselves up-it is in fact a type of black/wormhole that opens up because of an experiment being conducted in Europe. The opening of the novel is itself a simplified explanation of how such phenomena as black holes operate, and different theories of a multiverse and traveling through wormholes are also emphasized. Keep in mind that there are footnotes littered throughout the novel, and they are best read at the appropriate marked time-not before or after you have finished the whole page.

Recommendation: I found The Gates to be both whimsical and titillating, there is science, religion, action, adventure, and friendship. Many aspects of the book seem to appeal to children, but this is a book for adults. I would highly recommend this latest book from Connolly, so give it a look and read it.

Random Excerpt: "He looked around, and saw one of his socks lying at the end of his bed. As an experiment he leaned down to pick up the sock, then dangled it over the edge of the mattress before dropping it on the floor.

A long pink thing that might have been a tongue, or an arm, or even a leg, grabbed the sock and pulled it under the bed. Samuel heard chewing, and then the sock was spat out and a voice said, 'Ewwwww!'" (page 82, Hardcover)

Similar Reads: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, (similar narrative style:) Tigerheart by Peter David, The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

Connolly, John. The Gates, a Novel. New York: Atria Books, 2009.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Booking Through Thursday-Heavy

What’s the largest, thickest, heaviest book you ever read? Was it because you had to? For pleasure? For school?

I can think of a few books that impressed upon me their weight (and perhaps merit?)! The first heavyweight book I can remember reading is Gone with the Wind, back in elementary school. Then more recently I have faced some academic tomes that put even that massive book to shame....unfortunately none were so memorable that I can recall their titles now.

Gone with the Wind, I remember, was a treat back in fifth grade when I first read it-definitely for pleasure. It was one of the first "grown up" books I read, and it seemed all the more impressive at the time because of its length-and the massive 28 ER points I got for it in school. Of course, after reading I had to watch the movie...and attempted to read the sequel without success. I cried when a certain someone died in childbirth. In fact, every time I have reread that book I cry at that same point.

I don't much care for the book, now, but I was sure impressed with myself then for reading such a heavy book!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Weekly Geeks 2011-3

So here is what you task is for this week (You may do one or all or just some of the following):

  • What are your feelings about literary prizes regarding WHO gets selected? Do you think literary judges tend to be biased more toward men? If yes, why do you think that is?
  • Tell us about some of your favorite books written by women.
  • Do you tend to read more books authored by men or by women?
This week offers a tough prompt! Being female, and a self-proclaimed feminist, you'd think I would have very clear ideas on the topic of gender in writing. all multi-faceted topics it's hard to have a "hard and fast" simple opinion. Unfortunately. Unless you like long complicated discussions and reading my ramblings, then it is very fortunate indeed.

First of all let me say that I know absolutely no statistics or anything really about the state of gender in the publishing world, everything I say is my opinion which is based on my limited understanding.

Regarding the first prompt, which seems so sweet but really can be divisive, I hate prizes that delineate WHO can even be considered. I recently took a course on children's literature (aged 0-4) and was disgusted with the long list of awards that only applied to Latino illustrators, black authors, Asian authors, female illustrators, etc. First off, if I won an award for being "the best" "female white redheaded author of 2011" I admit I would be horrified and embarrassed. What? I can't just be a good author, I'm only good within those delimitations? Secondly, I think it's racist or sexist. We are all human, all authors should be judged together in my opinion. There will always be bias-humans are imperfect, and to try to eliminate bias is to eliminate the impossible, and what makes us human in the first place. So some judges may prefer male authors, or white authors, or what have you-but setting up alternate race or gender specific awards doesn't lessen that bias-it emphasizes it. If I were to set up a white male award, that would be racist/sexist, why aren't the others?

OK, rant over.

I have noticed that I personally tend to read more books by men than by women, just slightly, but I think that is due to my genre and topic preferences more than anything. In fantasy/sci-fi I read mostly female authors, in YA books I read mostly female authors, but most of my history and library science monographs are authored by males, and most "general literature" I read is also written by males. Additionally, most "classic" literature is (of course) dominated by male authors. I think that it is important to read both male and female authors, but that it is even more important to read books you like. I'm not going to read a crappy book just because it's written by a women, nor will I ignore a great book just because it is written by a man (unless it's Shakespeare or Dickens, I really can't stand either of them). That's just silly.

With that said, some of my favorite books by authors who happen to be women include:

The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Cybele's Secret by Juliet Marillier
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Masks by Fumiko Enchi

I would highly recommend them all, as well as reading the other Weekly Geeks posts-I am excited to see how everyone responded to such a great prompt!

Friday, January 21, 2011

White as Snow

Title: White as Snow
Author: Tanith Lee
Themes: fairy tales, Snow White, insanity, rape, power, paganism, Christianity, Greek mythology, abandonment, love, forgiveness
Rating: ****

Plot: Once upon a time there was a mirror...

So begins this dark, unusual retelling of the story of Snow White by the writer reviewers have called "the Angela Carter of the fantasy field"-a whole novel based on a beloved story, turning it into a dark and sensual drama full of myth and magic.

Arpazia is the aging queen who paces the halls of a warlord's palace. Cold as winter, she has only one passion-for the mysterious hunter who courts the outlawed gods of the woodland. Coira is the princess raised in the shadow of her mother's hatred. Avoided by both her parents and half forgotten by her father's court, she grows into womanhood alone...until the mirror speaks and blood is spilled and the forest claims her.

The tragic myth of the goddess Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, stolen by the king of the underworld, is woven together with the tale of Snow White to create a powerful story of mothers and daughters and the blood that binds them together, for good or ill. Black Queen. White maid. Royal huntsman. Seven little folk who live in the forest. Come inside, sit by the fire, and listen to this fairy tale as you've never heard it told before.

My Thoughts: Honestly I'm not really sure what to say about this novel. It has several components that I am bound to adore-first of all it's written by Tanith Lee, also it's a fairy tale retelling, in addition to all that it also incorporates Greek mythology. It has intriguing, if not necessarily likable, characters (in fact, not a single character is truly likable). It has a bit of magic, a bit herblore, a bit of just plain insanity. It's entertaining-not romantic, not sweet, and certainly not mere fairy-tale fodder.

The majority of this book is actually centered around Arpazia, a stolen princess who is raped and then shunned by her warlord husband. The isolated girl grows into an obsessively cold and distant women who at times hates the daughter she sees only a few times over her entire life. Most of the time, she simply forgets she has one at all. Madness is essential to this character, a sort of cold hazy madness of a self-absorbed and abused woman. A later abortion confuses the evil mother even more, convincing her she has killed her child and now has none.

When Coira does become the center of the novel she is a teenager much like her mother, cold and distant. Neither woman has ever connected to anyone else on a human level, and to both other people don't truly exist. Coira is taken away by a man with seven dwarfs, who mutiny and set her up as a "master" they can control. They venture underground, to a mining city called the Underworld which is ruled by a mad prince who fancies himself Hades. It is here that Coira's life begins, where she falls in love, dies, marries, and is saved and taken back above ground. Of course, it is fairly easy to see the connection to Persephone here, and Lee makes that parallel very obvious by renaming Coira when she becomes princess of the underworld-Perspheh.

One again, Tanith Lee has fashioned amazing settings and borderline insane personalities that move the storyline along.

Recommendation: A very dark, and soemtimes lurid, retelling of Snow White that fully explains the evil (step)mother and her confused role in her daughter's death and rebirth. If you love dark fantasies or fairy tale re-tellings then this is a great read, I recommend it.

Similar Reads: Red as Blood, or, Tales from the Sisters Grimmer by Tanith Lee, Deerskin by Robin McKinley, Fitcher's Brides by Gregory Frost, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Lee, Tanith. White as Snow. New York: TOR, 2000.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Weekly Geeks 2011-2

Winners of awards and book titles on lists have always fascinated me. Not because I think the books that make it onto those honors and lists are any better than those that haven't, but because they are a way to find new books, popular books, books that people are talking about-and a chance to enter into that conversation through reading. I have to admit, there are many awards and lists I don't know about, and the Michael L. Printz Award (from the Young Adult Library Services Association, I think it began in 2000) is one I had never heard of until this week's Weekly Geeks prompt! And what a wonderful discovery it is.

Sadly, I have read very few of the books honored with this award, but several have been on my wishlist for ages.

Some of the Printz award winners/honorees that I yearn for:
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman

Now some Printz award winners/honorees that I have read:
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, which I read very recently, was an Honor book in 2003.
how i live now by Meg Rosoff was the award winner in 2005, which I enjoyed immensely back in 2005 or 2006 when I read it. It was dystopian YA with just enough eating disorders and family drama to keep impending disaster surreal and mundane-wonderful book.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Unicorn Series

The Series: The Unicorn Series
Titles: Black Unicorn
Gold Unicorn
Red Unicorn
Author: Tanith Lee
Themes: duty, friendship, family, adventure, love, respect, confidence
Rating: ***

The Black Unicorn Plot: It was big and beautiful and so black that it was like a hole in space, and it was completely impossible. Everybody knew there were no unicorns. Unicorns didn't belong in this world except in legends. But there it stood, radiating magical power, in the shattered wreck of the party.
Nobody knew where it had come from, or what it wanted. Not even Jaive, the sorceress, could fathom the mystery of the fabled beast. But Tanquil, Jaive's completely unmagical daughter, understood it at once. She knew why the unicorn was there.
It had come for her.
It needed her.
Yet she was the girl with no talent for magic. She could only fiddle with broken bits of machinery and make them work again.
What could she do for a unicorn?

The Gold Unicorn Plot: Journeying across different lands, the young mender Tanaquil and her familiar, a quarrelsome talking peeve, learn of the empress Veriam, who wishes to conquer from one sea to the next. Tanaquil is shocked to learn that the woman called 'Conqueror' and 'Child-Eater' is in fact her half sister, Lizra.
Remembering the powerful effect the black unicorn had on her people, Lizra has constructed a tremendous mechanical unicorn of gold as a symbol of her conquest.
The only problem is that it doesn't work - and Lizra commands Tanaquil to make the steam-powered unicorn move. Now Tanaquil must choose between assisting in brutal conquest or risking the ire of her powerful sister.

The Red Unicorn Plot: The young wanderer Tanaquil can mend anything that is broken - except her own heart. With the engagement of her beloved Honj to her sister, Empress Lizra, she returns home to her sorcerous mother - and her mother's new lover, the magician Worabex.
Caught up in their combined magic, Tanaquil and her mischievous familiar - a literal pet peeve - find themselves in a parallel world where she meets Tanakil, a mirror-image princess with murder on her mind.
With Red Unicorn, award-winning author Tanith Lee returns once again to her epic fantasy of magic, of alternate worlds both perfect and flawed, and of the enchanting unicorns that travel between them.

My Thoughts (on the whole series): What I like best about Tanith Lee is her casual world building. She has a strong story, or at least an entertaining one, and the world unfolds around it, enveloping you. It isn't a consciously constructed set with plot and characters plopped on stage; an afterthought. It is a real and breathing environment with its own logic, that unfolds just as New York or San Francisco or anywhere real would as a story progresses. Like every other book or story I've read from Lee, the Unicorn trilogy excels in world-building.

I found The Black Unicorn to be a great adventure, and a story of growing up. In the first novel Tanquil discovers mysteries, adventure, her sister and father, as well as another perfect world from which she must return. She must work hard and use what limited skills she possesses in order to set things right in her world. It is a classic-feeling adventure tale.

The Gold Unicorn was another story about making hard decisions and being forced into situations where you wouldn't want to be. Tanquil is both horrified and tranquil while her sister wages a horrible war using a gold-plated mechanic beast to slaughter people. Her sister wishes to rule every people on the globe in order to create perfection on earth, to erase hate and violence-and so attempts to violently subdue them until the unicorn pulls them all into another world. And it isn't the perfect world from the first book.

But Red Unicorn seemed rather tacked on, like she wasn't satisfied with how the love-triangle ended in the second novel. The book focuses on a third unicorn, and also a third world-this one is a parallel world with a parallel Tanquil. When she returns from this visit, she is able to make hard decisions about her life, her mother, and the man her sister is marrying.

Recommendation: I would recommend the first two novels of the trilogy highly, and the third only if the ending of the second really unnerved you.

Similar Reads: The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee, Pegasus by Robin McKinley, Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen

Lee, Tanith. The Black Unicorn. New York: TOR, 1991.
Lee, Tanith. The Gold Unicorn. New York: TOR, 1994.
Lee, Tanith. The Red Unicorn. New York: TOR, 1997.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sister Light, Sister Dark

Title: Sister Light, Sister Dark
Author: Jane Yolen
Themes: destiny, hunting, escape, responsibility, friendship, duty, myth, prophecy
Rating: ****

Plot: Jenna was a warrior.

Raised on a mountainside, she learned the arts of the warrior, and from the mountain woman the magic of the ancient lore. But the greatest magic of all was her ability to call forth her dark sister from the depths of the mirror of the land of light and shadow.

Skada was the dark one, able to exist only when the moonlight cast a shadow or lamplight flickered in a darkened room.

This is the story of Jenna and Skada. Sister Light and Sister Dark...

My Thoughts: Sister Light, Sister Dark has a fairly interesting, if perhaps hurried and and flat story. I don't mean flat as in lifeless, just that it was bare-boned and the writing could have been "filled in" a bit and extended. However, Yolen has written an ingenious book. Yes, ingenious. The format is so very clever that the story could have been a direct copy of any other generic fantasy book and I would have still immensely enjoyed it. You see, Yolen doesn't just hand us the story of Sister Light. Instead, she gives us a story, and then she gives us anthropologists (fictional of course…since the whole civilization she discusses is of her own creation), historians, passed down and perhaps altered ballads, myths, and archaeological artifacts. The book is broken into segments. There is the story proper, of Skada and Joenanna, then there are segments with just lyrics, old wives tales, tall tales, legends, etc. that all reflect or look back on Joenanna's story or lifetime. My favorite parts, perhaps because of my background in history, are the "essays." In these segments a scholar discusses the material finds from the period of Sister Light, Sister Dark-which is some mostly recordless distant past-and the divisions amongst scholars about their interpretations. For instance, do common rhymes about Alta reflect any historical truths? Was there really a warrior-queen-saint type called Anna? Do "Blanket Companions" refer to female warriors or homosexual encounters within ancient armies? Were the female communities discussed truly warrior/feminist towns connected through a goddess worshiping tradition, or something else entirely-since there is so little evidence any way. I found this to be terribly clever, fun to read, and (yes I am repeating myself) ingenious. These essays also give a bit of background-whether they are correct interpretations of the (fictional) historical record or not-to the main story of Skada and Joenanna. Brilliant.

Recommendation: I highly recommend this short novel to any lover of fantasy, young adult reads, adventure, or even historical monographs because it is just so clever and unusual in format. I will most definitely continue reading the second and third installments.

Similar Reads: Deerskin by Robin McKinley, Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper

Yolen, Jane. Sister Light, Sister Dark. New York: TOR, 1988.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Title: Leviathan
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Themes: loyalty, responsibility, politics, friendship, sacrifice, science, escape, survival, girl-disguised-as-boy

Plot: Choose your weapon: Beastie or Clanker.

Alek is a prince without a throne. On the run from his own people, he has only a fighting machine and a small band of men.

Deryn is a girl disguised as a guy in the British Air Service. She must fight for her cause-and protect her secret-at all costs.

Alek and Deryn are thrown together aboard the mighty airship Leviathan. Though fighting side by side, their worlds are far apart. British fabricated beasts versus German steam-powered war machines. They are enemies with everything to lose, yet somehow destined to be together.

My Thoughts: One thing that always gets me is misleading back-cover-blurbs, and Leviathan suffers from one. I understand that it is supposed to hook potential readers, but I always end up disappointed and a little angry when I find the book is pointedly different from what is advertised. Especially when it's a good and exciting book on its own. I suppose there are two main complaints about the cover-blurb that I want to address. First, it's brief description of Deryn, she is described as having to fight for her cause and protect her secret at all costs. One would then think she faces some sort of challenge in the book that threatens her secret...or something? But no, in fact, Deryn has a surprisingly easy time of it, and really seems to have no cause except wanting to defy her mother and fly about aimlessly. The other thing that drove me nuts is the final part of the blurb-that Alek and Deryn are fighting together on the airship Leviathan. Judging from this description, the bulk of the book takes place on the ship with both Alek and Deryn. Actually...the two storylines only meet up in the last quarter of the novel, and they are only "fighting together" and "on the ship" for the last chapter (at most) of the book. Um, wth?

But don't let this fool you, I actually enjoyed the book, that's why the cover-blurb annoys me so-they could have written an accurate one that would still have hooked readers!

Anyways. Leviathan is full of adventure, twists, and fantastic world-building that is both creative and optimistic. The Darwinists have fabricated animal/machines through DNA manipulation as started by Darwin (surprisingly) in this alternative history. These beasties include flying whales, jellyfish planes, bomb-releasing bats, and hydrogen sniffing canines. These fabricated creatures have solved the problem of industrialization, although "Monkey Luddites" among the Darwinst countries (including Britain) still fear this awe-inspiring (and quite advanced for 1914) technology. Clankers, on the other hand, rely on sophisticated steam powered machines that typify steampunk. Alek, from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, is of the Clanker class and can pilot walking machines that are quite similar to rudimentary transformers or anime creations. While it takes a bit of effort, one can eventually accept these technologies in their alternative context. Although, I found myself scoffing at it every now and then.

Alek is a very likable and sympathetic hero, who has faults and makes mistakes which seem to reinforce his "goodness" and strength of character. I will probably read the next installment just to see what becomes of this displaced prince and his small entourage.

Deryn I found to be insufferable, though perhaps this was intentional. The cliched "tough and brilliant girl dresses as boy to prove self-worth etc etc" was a bad start, and I didn't really recover from that as the book progressed. As I mentioned before, I felt Deryn mostly played around and got what she wanted with minimal effort throughout the entire book (Alek's life was a bit more challenging, I must say). She is also abrasive, excessively foul-mouthed, much too forward, and fool-hardy, but for some reason the people around her seem to like her. I didn't get it personally, but I can see how this type of character can be useful for furthering the plot...although if some sort of romantic angle unfolds in the next book I don't think I'll be able to swallow it. I just didn't find her character to be cohesive or believable.

Recommendation: If you are looking for adventure, world building, steampunk, or alternative WWI history then this is an excellent young adult novel for you. The illustrations are gorgeous as well, making for a fun read.

Similar Reads: Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Peirce, The Supernaturalist by Eoin Colfer, Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith*, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest*, Soulless by Gail Carriger*

Westerfeld, Scott. Leviathan. New York: Simon Pulse, 2009.

*I haven't read them, but they seem similar as far as setting, themes, storylines, etc.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Of Bees and Mist

Title: Of Bees and Mist
Author: Erick Setiawan
Themes: magic, marriage, love, fidelity, loyalty, family, independence
Rating: ****

Plot: Raised in a sepulchral house where ghosts dwell in mirrors, Meridia grows up lonely and miserable. But at age sixteen, she has a chance at happiness when she falls in love with Daniel-a caring and naive young man. Soon they marry, and Meridia can finally escape to live with her husband's family, unaware that they harbor dark secrets of their own. There is a grave hidden in the garden, there are two sisters groomed from birth to despise each other, and there is Eva-the formidable matriarch and the wickedest mother-in-law imaginable-whose grievances swarm the air in an army of bees. As Meridia struggles to keep her life and marriage together, she discovers long-buried secrets about her own past as well as shocking truths about her new family that inexorably push her love, courage, and sanity to the brink.

Of Bees and Mist is an engrossing fable that chronicles three generations of women under one family tree over a period of thirty years-their galvanic love and passion, their shifting alliances, their superstitions and complex domestic politics-and places them in a mythical town where spirits and spells, witchcraft and demons, and prophets and clairvoyance are an everyday reality. Erick Setiawan's astonishing debut is a richly atmospheric and tumultuous ride of hope and heartbreak that is altogether touching, truthful, and entirely memorable.

My Thoughts: First comments have to go to yet another cover-flap summary that I find slightly misleading. Hailed as an "engrossing fable that chronicles three generations of women under one family tree..." is rather silly since this book has one main character. Yes her mother is also a character, her son is also a character (later on anyway, sorry if that spoils anything!)...who is this third family member of the female persuasion? Do they mean her mother-in-law (the one with the bees that is)? I guess I will never know. But don't expect a sweeping family saga, this focuses in on the life of Meridia, and all others are secondary characters who form a part of her story.

With that mini-rant aside, I have to now ramble about the setting of Of Bees and Mist, which must be fantasy-oriented and yet I have a hard time placing it in an alternate universe. It is altogether too close to our real world, yet so completely different. When I began reading this I pictured late 20th century or maybe early 21st century (no later than the 1930s!) Europe or United States (I guess I can toss in Canada as a contender?). The clothing and housing styles seemed to fit this, as well as the names and working/schooling/living conditions. cars or any sort of transportation except walking. But printing presses and books and large houses and dinner parties and dates at the beach and manicurists and cafes and lipsticks. There are super-naturalists and psychics and midwives and ghosts and changing stairways and colored mists and malicious bees, in this modern setting, and it's so normal-even for the reader. I love this immersive and convincing other-reality, yet part of me HATED it because it was oh-so-familiar yet I could never fit it into a historical or physical location. Not even close. I admit the characters did not move me much, but the setting made this novel. It was a character itself; one that I tried to puzzle out until the very close.

Meridia's childhood could have provided enough stimuli for a series of novels, yet only takes the first few chapters of Of Bees and Mist. Her courtship and marriage take a few more, then her slow realization of her mother-in-law's "true side" takes only one or two. Yet the book is so much longer, Meridia spends the rest of Eva's long life trying to escape her, with varying degrees of success. There is family drama to rival a soap opera, there is magic there is death and there is infidelity. And Meridia loses nearly everything before she escapes her mother's footsteps and Eva's manipulations. It's a dramatic and eventful story of marriage and responsibilities. It has elements of folk lore and fairy, it has nostalgia and hope, but mostly-it has an off-setting world which captivates the reader and propels him or her to the conclusion of the novel whether he or she cares a bit about Meridia or not.

Random Passage: "With nothing to lose, Meridia grew more daring in the next five days. Increasingly, she defended Permony against Eva, fabricating excuses, drawing Elias into the fray, and, when nothing else was to be done, snatching the girl outright from her mother's talons (p. 139)."

Recommendation: I had a hard time "getting into" Of Bees and Mist. For the first 12 pages. Then I read the other 300 plus pages in one sitting. My relationship with this book is ambivalent. I want to love it, I voraciously ate it up, but it left a funny taste. I would recommend this book, however, not to just anyone. Not just anyone could appreciate it's uniqueness and pacing. But, if you are at all interested or intrigued after reading the publisher's summary and my rambling thoughts on Of Bees and Mist than it might just be the book for you.

Similar Reads: Fitcher's Brides by Gregory Frost, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Setiawan, Erick. Of Bees and Mist. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book Review in Brief: Electric Forest

Title: Electric Forest
Author: Tanith Lee
Themes: espionage, science, blackmail, deformity, consciousness transfer, betrayal, beauty, wealth
Rating: **

Plot: The world called Indigo turned upside down for Magdala Cled one unexpected morning. From being that world's only genetic misfit, the shunned outcast of an otherwise ideal society, she became the focus of attention for mighty forces.
Once they had installed her in the midst of the Electric Forest, with its weird trees and its super-luxurious private home, Magdala awoke to the potentials which were opening up all about her. And to realize also the peril that now seemed poised above Indigo ... which only she, the hated one, could possibly circumvent.

My Thoughts: The ending is now somewhat of a cliched device, but Tanith Lee uses it well in Electric Forest. The book is short and easily propels itself along, keeping the reader in suspense and eager to continue-so in that respect, the ending was sort of a let down. The fate of ugly Magda amongst a society of genetically engineered beautiful people is interesting enough, but then her opportunity for beauty and riches elevates her story into a more exciting and dangerous place. The duplicitous people and unexpected twists make this an enjoyable adventure set on a futuristic planet.

Recommendation: Electric Forest was a short (150 pages) and exciting exercise in world-building and desperation (in it's characters, not the reader!). I would think this would be a fun and quick read for any sci-fi fan.

Similar Reads: The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee, Drinking Sapphire Wine by Tanith Lee

Lee, Tanith. Electric Forest. : DAW, 1979.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ice Land

Title: Ice Land
Author: Betsy Tobin
Themes: family, love, fate, honor
Rating: ***

Plot: Iceland, AD 1000.

Warned by the fates of an impending disaster, Freya embarks on a dangerous journey deep into the mountains to find a magnificent gold necklace said to have the power to alter the course of history. Meanwhile, the country is on the brink of war as the new world order of Christianity threatens the old ways of Iceland's people, and tangled amid it all are two-star crossed lovers whose destiny draws them together-even as their families are determined to tear them apart.

Infused with the rich history and mythology of Iceland, Betsy Tobin's sweeping novel is an epic adventure of forbidden love, lust, jealousy, faith, and magical wonder set under the shadow of a smoldering volcano.

My Thoughts: I picked up Ice Land recently from a bargain bin and judged it entirely on the cover: a fun and lighthearted read, I thought, and since they were playing a bit with Scandinavian myth-all the better! I admit, the cover and description didn't scream fine literature. However, once I started the book I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was both a fun and well-written book. The only issue I took with Tobin's novel were the segues. I found the geological transitions that divided up the book to be off-putting and tedious. Although I appreciate that Tobin tried to make them sound majestic and supernatural, I found that I have taken geology classes recently and didn't care for tectonic plate discussions in the novel.

With those tiny criticisms aside, I just want to say that I enjoyed Ice Land immensely. Myth and "reality" are wed seamlessly and apparently effortlessly. Tobin has mastered world-building. While I started off the book rather disliking Freya, one of the main characters, I found I respected and appreciated her by the novel's end. Each individual within the book, even minor characters, had well defined personalities and clear voices. The environment, turbulent medieval Iceland preceding a huge volcanic eruption, was simply real, beautiful, and dangerous all at once.

Ice Land has a few story-lines and motivations driving the plot along, but I found myself most interested in the story of Freya and her (mis-)adventures both among men and gods. I found that Freya was a well-written character, despite the fact that she isn't always right or likable.

What I most appreciated about Tobin's writing, especially when writing historical female characters, is that they are not blatantly modern women plopped into medieval Iceland. While I am no expert in Icelandic culture and gender roles of the year 1000 AD, I do know that I cannot stand reading historical fiction where female characters extol the virtues of modern feminism. I understand that desires for equality most likely existed, at least among sections of pre-modern communities, but hearing a 12th century maidservant preach Dworkin-esque principles is not only jarring, it is also blatantly historically inaccurate and highly unlikely. Rant aside, I really enjoyed this book.

Recommendation: I would recommend this book to anyone interested in historical fiction, myth, or love stories-although I think it would also appeal to those looking for action/adventure type stories as well.

Similar Reads: The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, by Juliet Marillier, Wolfskin by Juliet Marillier, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, Deerskin by Robin McKinley

Tobin, Betsy. Ice Land. New York: Plume, 2008.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


Title: Tigerheart
Author: Peter David
Themes: responsibility, friendship, family, growing up, courage, magic, belief
Rating: ***

Plot: For all readers who have ever lent an enthusiastic ear to a wonderfully well told tale, or tumbled gladly into pages that oculd transport them anywhere, now comes novelist Peter David's enchanting new work of fantasy. action-packed and suspenseful, heart-tugging and wise, it weaves a spell both hauntingly familiar and utterly irresistible for those who have ever surrendered themselves to flights of fancy and have whispered in their hearts "I believe."

Paul Dear is a good and clever boy, doted on by a father who fills his son's head with tall tales, thrilling legends, and talk of fairy-folk, and by a mother who indulges these fantastic stories and tempers them with common sense. But Paul is special in ways that even his adoring parents could never have imagined. For by day, in London's Kensington Gardens, he walks and talks with pixies and sprites and other magical creatures that dwell among the living-but are unseen by most. And at night in his room, a boy much like himself, yet not, beckons to Paul from the mirror to come adventuring. It's a happy life for Paul, made all the more so by the birth of his baby sister.

But everything changes when tragedy strikes, and Paul concludes that there's only one course of action he can take to dispel the darkness and make things right again. And like countless heroes before him, he knows he must risk everything to save the day.

Thus begins a quest that will lead Paul down the city's bustling streets, to a curio shop where a magical ally awaits him and launches him into the starry skies, bound for a realm where anything is possible. Far from home, he will run with fierce Indian warriors, cross swords with fearsome pirates, befriend a magnificent white tiger, and soar beside an extraordinary, ageless boy who reigns in a boundless world of imagination.

Brimming with the sly humor and breathless excitement of a traditional Victorian bedtime story, deftly embroidered with its own unique wisdom and wonder, Tigerheart is a hymn to childhood's happiness and heartbreak, a meditation on the love, courage, sacrifice, and faith that shape us and define our lives, and a splendidly rendered modern fable-for readers of any age-that brilliantly proves itself a worthy brother to the timeless classic that serves as its inspiration.

My Thoughts: Tigerheart was infinitely more impressive than I suspected it would be, but also somewhat disappointing. As implied by the rather long plot synopsis on the flaps, a family tragedy forces young Paul Dear to become a hero and fly far far away to find a boy who never ages in order to right his family that now seems so terribly wrong. Paul speaks in a clear and innocent voice, his courage and morality shine through even as he is medicated by psychologists and punished by his mother.

Part of Tigerheart's appeal, as well as its mystery, is its effective timelessness. Yes, psychologists (doctors with pills for visions) exist. I believe cars are mentioned. Yet the London Paul lives in is timeless, it evokes Victoriana and times long gone. One pictures Paul in sweaters and knee socks, and his mother in long bustling gowns with her hair up in a chignon. Paul Dear cannot be placed in any sort of linear time, but he is definitely in London. Much like the Anyplace, Paul Dear lives in a sort of timelessness where one grows old and dies.

The clever asides and amusing narrative style seems as though it will grow tiresome, yet never does. They give the book an air of storytelling, and seems to imagine itself being read aloud-despite its length and lack of illustrations. While I had feared this witting interruptions would ruin the story, they are well placed and rather add to the mystery and adventure instead of detracting and becoming rather passe.

While I do not wish to giveaway any of the plotline, I do believe that Tigerheart contains all of the elements of a classic children's story while maintaining a rather modern voice. It has family, responsibility, adventure, betrayal, and hard work at its backbone-while magic and the Anyplace provides enough spice to make it fantastical. I have emphasized the book's strengths: it's timelessness, it's narrative style, and its emphasis on adventure and personal growth. However, I was also disappointed with Tigerheart because I felt it could do so much more. It was such an enjoyable read that I felt it could have been improved by more. It is indeed the story of Paul Dear, not of The Boy, but it could have been expanded into a longer narrative and still maintained its grip on readers. I suppose it's a testament to the greatness of a novel, when one's only complaint is that there was not more of it!

Random Passage: "And so Captain Slash kept talking to them. She cajoled and complained and convinced; and whether it took longer or shorter than it did to convince Fiddlefix to cooperate, again we cannot tell. Know, though, that Captain Slash had something of a silver tongue, coated by Satan himself, and thus could eventually talk almost anyone into doing almost anything (pp. 171-172)."

Recommendation: I would highly recommend this novel to any lover of children's literature, as well as any Peter Pan fan. I do think the asides may be off-putting for many an adult reader, as well as the less dedicated young reader, but just as many will embrace the narrative style.

Similar Reads: Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

David, Peter. Tigerheart. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.