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-

No comments: