Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quick Book Reviews: September 2011

Map of Time

by Felix Palma

This is a delightful book of three intertwined stories about the effects of time travel in Victorian London. An alternate history (of sorts) about the ways in which time travel, or more specifically the idea of time travel, can impact the lives of people longing for something more. It is at its heart really a sweet romance, but the novel is also bitingly funny and sometimes too cheeky by half. H.G. Wells plays a prominent role, as does Jack the Ripper, though the novel is not particularly similar in its plot to the film "Time After Time" despite these cursory similarities. The first 1/3 of the novel plays out more like a traditional Victorian drama with a few witty differences and a unique twist, while the second section is a charming story of star-crossed lovers communing across the centuries. It is really only in the final third where things get far more fantastical. Interestingly, the blurb on the jacket flap might lead readers to think that they were picking up one long story where H.G. Wells was some sort of time traveling detective which this book certainly is not. In fact it plays with genre expectations quite nicely. Some reviews I have read have complained that the use of an omnicient narrator speaking directly to the reader from time to time was distracting, but I found it quite the contrary. This book is simply a delight. It has mystery and romance and science fiction and adventure all rolled into one, and not at all in the way you imagine it would. I actually hate to tell you more about it because I think the surprise of it was more enjoyable for knowing so little of its plot. Likely one of most enjoyable books I've read lately. Plus the cover! B+

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

by Catherynne Valenete

I have enjoyed Catherynne Valente's books for years, particularly both of the Orphan's Tales novels. "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland" is her first work for younger readers, though finding the right audience for the book will be a challenge for me. It is a work of Gilded Age/ Victorian style fantasy set during World War II by a 21st century author who was nominated for a Hugo award in 2009 for a book about people who travel to a fantastical kingdom when they have sex with people who have magical tattoos. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely adore Valente's writing style, it is lyrical and evocative and absolutely beautiful and the writing in this book is quite lovely and at times charmingly odd, but you have to find a young reader who appreciates that sort of thing. The story follows young September as she is whisked away from her home by the Green Wind and goes on a fabulous journey through Fairyland, discovering herself as an individual while at the same time meeting many enchanting people along the way. Having recently listened to Neverwhere (I hadn't read it in over 10 years) I was immediately struck by the similarities with this book, not in its setting or plot particularly but its... Gaiman-ishness. Maybe that Gaiman blurb on the cover had something to do with that. But, and this is quite significant, unlike Gaiman who writes equally well for all age groups, Valente has written a very good book ABOUT a child who goes on an adventure, but not, I don't think, FOR children or even most teens. The books to which it bares its closest similarity are "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland" which, if you go back and read again, aren't all that engaging for modern children as much of the great fantasy published in the last decade. If you disagree with me go back and read the Oz books again with a modern 7th grader in mind. I think the biggest problem I had with the book was not the descriptive writing (as I said it was elegant and very unique) or the plot (somewhat standard fantasy fare with a bit of a twist) but rather the characters. The descriptions of the characters and creatures were certainly detailed. I liked the "herd" of bicycles roaming wild and A-L the Wverary was very charming as well. But I lacked a sense of emotional attachment to the characters. The character I was supposed to care the most about, September herself, seemed a bit flat. With a children's book, specifically a modern children's fantasy, characters are everything. Children need characters, as fantastic as they seem, to care about in a narrative, in particular a protagonist that is more realized than September is here. In this regard I think the sometimes grandeloquent language was a detriment. September simply didn't talk or act like any 12 year old I know, even the most precocious ones. In her heart Cat Valente is a poet, I think, and there are lines in this book that read like the best poetry. But, and maybe this is because I read so many children's books and have a far more critical eye, a book needs more than lovely ideas. B-

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Jumping on the Bandwagon: Hey, its THAT guy!

You might say I'm a fangirl. You might say. I think there are degrees of fandom, and I certainly do fall into the range of borderline obsession that in my mind defines a true "fan." But, in some ways I will never meet the qualifications that set a person a part as a "diehard fan" or "superfan" or "expert." On the internet especially, there exists a whole culture of these uberfans who can name specific episodes of Star Trek or can speak Elvish or recite lines from books etc... And I will never be one. For some people this wouldn't matter, for some these crazed fanboys/girls are objects of scorn; but for me, to never be one is sort of disappointing. It is disappointing because to be able to recite lines from memory or name specific pages of a book or speak Elvish seems to be an indication that a person TRULY likes something and I can't.

I own three Doctor Who t-shirts and a homemade paper tardis. I only JUST read the Song of Ice and Fire literally within the past 3 months, but started to post on message boards and fan sites almost immediately (even though, if we are being honest, I will always love the writing style of a Neil Gaiman or Patrick Rothfuss more than I ever will like GRRM). I own signed first editions of both Name of the Wind and Wise Man's Fear. I've been to Comic Con 4 times. I've been to midnight screenings of Lord of the Rings and midnight book releases of Harry Potter. But sometimes I feel inadequate when it comes to the level of my fandom. Not because I love these things any less than any other geek, certainly. I remember vividly reading Name of the Wind for the first time and getting completely captivated by the story, falling in love with Kvothe and the world Patrick Rothfuss created. There was something about it that struck me as so beautiful and sad, and the writing was so lyrical and lovely. But if you asked me the names of all of Kvothes friends I couldn't tell you. As much as I love Harry Potter, I can't off the top of my head tell you the name of that centaur guy or when he taught at Hogwarts (after Trelawney was sacked? Was he in Half Blood Prince too?). The episode "Blink" of Doctor Who was phenomenal. I always tell people who want to start watching the show to see it first to get an idea of what the show will be like. But aside from its setting (70s?) and the Weeping Angels there isn't a whole lot I remember about it specifically. Just that it was good. Does that mean that I like it any less? Or that I'm not a fan? Or does it just mean that I have a really terrible memory?

When it comes to competitive fandom, the competition is not, as I had thought, in how much one likes something, but more in how much one remembers. I can't remember what I had for lunch 2 days ago or where I was when I found out my grandfather had passed away or what kind of chicken was served at my wedding. Nor can I remember off hand what books I read last year, which is why I keep track of them on Shelfari. Hell, if pressed I couldn't even tell you all the books I've read/ listened to so far THIS year without looking it up. In case you are wondering, they are:

Caught Stealing, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, Wise Man's Fear, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, The Hunter (graphic novel version), Copper, Game of Thrones, Storm of Swords, Clash of Kings, Feast for Crows, Dance With Dragons, Deathless, Zita the Spacegirl, The Emerald Atlas, Moon Over Manifest, Among Others, Bossypants, Gil's All Fright Diner, The King of Elfland's Daughter, 11 Birthdays, Nine Princes in Amber and Neverwhere (on audio). I'm currently reading Map of Time which is far and away the most enjoyable thing I've read all year (review to follow).

So maybe the problem is I read too much. But then, I can't really remember the details of a lot of movies, with the exception of those I've seen over three times, and there are shows I've watched full seasons of without knowing the names of half the characters. The truth is, I think even if I read just one book a year I wouldn't remember it with the level of detail other people seem to. I don't remember what artists sing what songs, I don't remember the names of people in bands, I do inexplicably remember the names of actors, I don't remember significant plot details in books I read 6 months ago, and I can't tell you the names of all my high school teachers, except for the few that really made an impact on me. I remember vividly when I asked Michael Chabon whether he was going to write a treatment for Spider-Man 2 (after he had for the first Spider-Man) at a book signing in Berkeley and he and half the audience laughed at me. But I don't remember what it was like to drive a car for the first time. I'm weird like that.

Is the point of all this that I need to pay attention more to what I'm reading or hearing or watching? I don't even know. I am completely engrossed when I'm immersed in something, but then it all seems to go away. I did well on tests in high school and college, but have trouble recalling what I learned after I took the test. I have Moonwalking with Einstein on hold and it remains to be seen whether it will solve all of my problems or just be another book I forget. But maybe the real point is that fandom shouldn't be measured in degrees at all. I should be able to say that I love a particular movie or book or comic or tv show without having to prove that I REALLY do by spouting chapter and verse or naming all the obscure secondary characters that live and work in Jabba's Palace. Because the bottom line is, being a fan is about devotion, love, and commitment, and let me tell you something, I'm committed and devoted to my husband, but I couldn't tell you his driver's license number by heart.