Thursday, 27 September 2012

Debutantes - Cora Harrison

One nice thing about being in a group of friends that all want to get into publishing is that we all tend to end up with extra books. In this case, a good friend had gotten a proof copy of Debutantes and thought it sounded like the kind of thing I'd like and so gave it to me. These are the best kind of friends to have. 

Debutantes tells the story of four titled but poor sisters growing up in an old house in the country in the early twenties. The oldest, Violet, is turning eighteen and wants nothing more than to go to London and be presented to court. Unfortunately, bad investment ideas ten or so years prior have left the family without much and they do not have the money to send Violet to London. And so, the girls begin plotting on how they can get their sister to the capital.

The novel does feel a bit cliche by having each of the four daughters extremely interested in something that was up and coming in the twenties. Violet is just the quintessential debutante. Poppy is obsessed with jazz. Daisy likes to direct and make films and Rose, the youngest, wants to be a writer. Although it's a bit much to swallow, it does add to the atmosphere and Daisy, especially, is fun to follow. Which is helpful as she's the narrator.

That is the thing I love the most about Debutantes: it doesn't follow the pattern you'd expect. Instead of a book following Violet and her triumphs and travails as she tries to get her time in London, you get a novel about Daisy, the plainest of the girls and how she tries to help her sister while also trying to make films and learn more about the mysterious family member who's trunk was discovered in the attic. By making the narrator not the obvious focus of the story, it keeps the reader on their toes. I had no idea how the book was going to end. Was Violet going to go to London? Yeah, most likely. Would she end up marrying that boy that was clearly in love with her? Not really a doubt. But what was going on with Daisy?

Does Debutantes follow all the rules of YA fiction? Pretty much. But it does so by inverting expectations and exploring side plots that could have easily been forgotten. The ultimate climax has nothing to do with Violet and everything to do with an important discovery made by Daisy. I was very impressed by the new and interesting directions taken by Harrison. This book is the first in a new series and I can honestly say that I have no idea what's going to happen in the next book but I'm very excited to find out. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Review Reaction - The Long Earth

This is a reaction to Colin's review of The Long Earth. He will be posting his reaction to my review soon.

I'm kind of glad that Colin and I had slightly differing opinions about this novel because otherwise this would be a very hard reaction to write. Well, no, I think overall we had pretty much the same opinion; it's just the little things. 

The problem with The Long Earth is definitely the dissonance between the long reaching and pretty epic possibilities allowed by the idea of the novel and the seemingly narrow main plot that goes along with it. I think we both pretty much agreed that the main plot dragged a bit. I thought Joshua and Lobsang were likable, if a bit boring at times but Colin pretty much didn't like them. I can see that, though. The characters are hard to relate to and I think I was only won over by a few dialogue exchanges that made me chuckle. If that hadn't of happened, I would be as stone faced as the rest of them.

I think the biggest difference Colin and I had about Long Earth is the inclusion of small chapters about other people. Colin felt that they were never "fully developed" and he would like to see them as "an actual addition to the main story." I see where he's coming from but I disagree. Because, in a way, they do add to the main story. Characters that have their own chapters are mentioned in passing in other chapters and add to the world creation of the novel. Beyond that, they allow the authors to explore aspects of the Long Earth that Joshua and Lobsang, by their natures, would never have encountered. I thought these bits were some of the best parts of the novel but also, that's probably the sci fi geek in me coming out. 

Colin doesn't think he'll read the sequels but I think I probably will. I think we both kind of felt lukewarm on this novel and that's understandable. It was a good book with a ton of flaws. I think what I'm discovering doing this duel review thing is less about the books and more that Colin and I have remarkably similar taste. :)

Thursday, 20 September 2012

[Duel Review] The Long Earth - Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth is the much anticipated new novel from Terry Pratchett in partnership with science fiction writer Stephen Baxter. I had heard good things about this book and when Colin suggested it for this month's duel review, I was completely happy to read it. The only Pratchett book I'd read was another collaboration, Good Omens with Neil Gaiman but I'd quite enjoyed that. I'd never read a Baxter. However, I love science fiction and the premise sounded interesting so I bounded down to Waterstones and picked it up.

The premise of The Long Earth is that our Earth is just one in a chain of connected worlds, going off to the east and the west as far as the eye can see. This is discovered when the plans for a "stepper", a (potato-powered) machine that allows the user to "step" between the worlds, either to the east or to the west, are put up online and the world's children decide to build them. After a mass panic, the world slowly adjusts to this new addition to the known universe.

The actual plot of the book takes place about 15 years post-'Step Day', as it's called. Joshua Valiente, a 'natural stepper' or someone who doesn't need the stepper device to step and slightly famous (against his will), is recruited to go on a mission with Lobsang, a sentient computer program or possibly the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, to try and discover the end of the Long Earth. As they step farther and farther away from the original Earth, known as Datum Earth, they discover many new and different ways of life, as well as something that just might be headed their way.

I think the thing I liked most about this book wasn't the actual plot but the world building. Although Joshua and Lobsang were likable (with some great dialogue), the actual plot felt a bit thin and just a vehicle to write about this amazing new universe the authors had created. In a way, though, I'm fine with that because the Long Earth posits a lot of very interesting new theories and questions that could be properly explored in other books (I do believe this is meant to begin a series) or just contemplated in general.

There are a lot of one off chapters that tell the story of some minor character and how they have interacted with the Long Earth. Using these short anecdotes, ideas are explored and brought to attention without having to preach. For example, one man decides to step five or so earths to the west and pan for the gold found in the original Gold Rush. However, when he gets there and begins, he's stumbled upon by two other people who laugh at him for not realizing that, since this is something available to everyone now, money will soon have no value. 

There's a general feeling of manifest destiny that infects the entire novel and seeing that aspect of America's history in a new context is very interesting. There is an added sense of time displacement from the fact that metal cannot be brought over by stepping, so everything in the new world is truly rustic. While technology has kept up the pace and beyond on Datum Earth, all the other worlds are easily back in the 1800s, at least. 

As the book unfolds, more and more problems are mentioned, if not touched on. How does a country collect taxes if its citizens can just step to another world to avoid them? Does a country remain itself in each of the new worlds? Since people can step to a new world, position themselves and step back, crime and assassinations are a lot easier to perform and police have to step up their game, making underground holding cells and witness protection. Things like this, to me, are what science fiction is all about and there was tons to be explored. I hope this universe and its new moral and societal implications will be explored in future books.

I really enjoyed the world of Long Earth and hope to read more in the future. I do hope the plot picks up a bit to match with the wonderful universe the two authors have created but I have faith that all will be explored in time.

This is my review of The Long Earth. You can find Colin's review here.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Daytripper - Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba

To be honest, I don't think I would have picked up Daytripper if it wasn't the book for my comics reading group this month. By the time this review is posted, I will have gone and discussed it but since I'm also moving that day, I'm writing it early and hoping I don't feel the need to chance anything afterwards.

Daytripper tells the story of Bras de Oliva Domingos, the son of a famous author and aspiring author himself. He works at the paper writing the obituaries section and waiting for his life to begin. But, as the book points out with its varied chapters and jumps, where exactly does life start?

Each chapter is a small sequence of events in a year of Bras's life. In the first chapter, he's thirty two. In the second, he's twenty one. The book skips around like this throughout, exploring Bras's life story and those around him while showing how each interaction and decision he makes could potentially change his life in drastic ways. 

One thing that I really loved about it is how down to earth it feels and how you really get to know the characters. Even though characters appear and disappear as their relation to Bras's life changes, it's interesting to watch their growth just as much as the lead's. The brothers (did I mention this was written by amazing twin brothers?) are able to fully sketch out complex and individual characters even if they only appear for a chapter or so. I absolutely adored Bras's best friend Jorge, someone who constantly disappeared and reappeared as the time went on. 

There are instances of magical realism in the text but there is no real sense of any magic beyond the magic of everyday life and human connection. Although I am not a very big magical realism fan (mainly because it usually shows up in texts I wouldn't have liked anyway), I think that it really added to the story and to the setting, giving it a Brazilian flavor that really distinguishes the tone. 

I will admit that there is one chapter that I didn't like and felt very out of place to me and that was chapter seven, or 38, I guess. This is a chapter on friendship, something I'm very much in favor of, but I think it goes a bit too far. Although all the chapters have their instances of crossing a line, most of them feel in place with the story and such things that would happen in life, if a bit drastic. This chapter, however, becomes overly theatrical, in my opinion. 

Beyond that, however, I loved every other instance of this book. The art is lovely and very fitting with the text. The story is definitely engaging and touching. I definitely teared up at bits. But then again, I tear up at Youtube videos so I suppose that's not that telling. Would I recommend this book? 100%. It is engaging, thought provoking, inspirational and true. If you pick up one graphic novel this year, it should be this one.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Pleasures of Men - Kate Williams

I was very excited to read this book. I had never heard of it before when I was wandering around Waterstones with friends after turning in our Masters dissertations. Intrigued by the cover, I picked it up off the table and read the back cover, actually going "oh! OH!" as I read because it sounded so far up my alley that I probably should have already read it. The minute I finished The Historian, I knew I'd be starting this book. 

Instead of giving my typical ramble about the plot, I think I'll just copy the back cover blurb as it was so obviously interesting to me that day in the book store:

Spitalfieds, 1840. Catherine is an orphan, living in her uncle's rambling house in London's East End. Out on the streets, a murderer dubbed The Man of Crows is killing young women. As the city panics, Catherine grows obsessed by the dead girls, thinking they hold the key to uncovering the killer -- but in fact, she's already far closer than she realizes…

Doesn't that sound amazing?! I mean, it has so many things to play with: gothic setting, Victorian London, Jack the Ripper-esque serial killer, Victorian London women's society, head games with orphan girls. How could this book go wrong?

I really don't know how to describe this book. There are so many pros but quite a few cons, as well. The thing that really stuck out to me and that kept me from fully enjoying this novel was the writing style. It was incredibly confused. Thoughts would jump from paragraph to paragraph and return to things from the page before with no warning. Flashbacks appeared from nowhere and different narrators would show up for a few pages before you realized that all of it (probably) came from the imagination of Catherine. I kept waiting for this to be some sort of physical representation of perhaps some mental condition (ala schizophrenia) that Catherine may have but no, that was just the style. All in all, it made the actual details of the plot very hard to follow. At times, I honestly had no idea what was going on. I always had the general idea but sometimes it would be a momentary "wait, I thought she had run outside? Why is she in a parlor? Who's this person?"

I have to say, though, despite all the confusing ridiculousness of the writing style, the mood of the novel was expertly sketched. Perhaps because of all the confusing plot details and the haphazard writing style, there was a constant sense of the topsy-turvy dangerous world that Catherine inhabited. Nothing was as it seemed and everything was dark and seedy, everyone with a hidden agenda. Everything felt sinister in the best way possible. This was indeed a places where a man could walk hidden in the shadows, pulling women off the streets. One chapter in particular, set at a magic show, is particularly well done, encapsulating everything the novel wants to be in one well done scene.

Perhaps what I liked the most about this novel, however, was what the title implies. I'm the kind of person that tends to forget the title of the book she's reading while she's immersed. Logically, I know there's a connection behind the title and the work but I get distracted. Looking back after finishing the novel, however, really added a sense of depth to the work. Beyond the framework of the serial killer and Catherine's various problems, this is very much a novel about a young woman trying to find her place in a world where everything she does is dictated by men. Especially as the final act comes to a close in the ending chapters, the amount to which she has been a plaything in some big game of men becomes fully apparent. This becomes even more worrying when tied with something the author mentions in the historical notes in the back of who she based the 'Man of Crows' on. All of Catherine's problems are caused by whims of other people. As the novel winds down, the true horror are revealed and they are much more commonplace than a serial killer.

Overall, this novel plays with common ideas of gothic literature but is a bit uneven at times. I would have enjoyed it more if it were easier to follow but at the same time, the jumbledness of it added to its sense of danger. This isn't a book you can just breeze through because it takes a keen attention span to make sure you're not missing anything. However, if you manage to make it through, you will definitely feel like you came out the other side for the better.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

You know those memories that really aren't that important but they stay with you anyway? I had one of those regarding The Historian. I remember when it came out my freshman year of university because a friend of mine, Stephanie Wang, had gotten it from the store. I read the back and decided it sounded really interesting and was planning on borrowing it when she was done. Sadly, though, she told me it wasn't very good so I never ended up grabbing it off of her. Fast forward to two weeks or so ago and I saw the book in the library. I read the back again and still thought it sounded quite good. And then I realized the only reason I had for not reading it was that a girl I knew six years ago didn't like it. And that seemed silly so I picked it up.

The Historian tells the story of several generations of a family of historians as they track down vampires. Did I mention that vampires are in it? Because if you read the back of the novel, you have no idea. In fact, it takes about a hundred pages before you realize this is a book about vampires. I kind of loved that. I like when a book can be about something like vampires but not play that aspect up.

The primary narrator is an unnamed woman who writes in the introduction that she is writing about her own past. Really, the book takes place in about four different timelines. There is the initial modern day timeline which is only addressed in the introduction and epilogue. There is the mid 70s timeline, which for most of the book is the "modern day" timeline, following the woman as a young girl, learning about her father's past. There is the 1952 timeline, told in letters from the girl's father, explaining how their family got tied up into the whole mess and chronicling his search for his good friend and dissertation supervisor that may have been abducted by Dracula. And finally, there is the 1930 timeline, also told in letters and writings, following Professor Rossi (said dissertation supervisor) as a young man, investigating a bit too deep into the Dracula mythos.

I found this book absolutely thrilling. I don't know if it's the academic in me but the idea of racing through libraries and archives for the next clues and running against language barriers and lost monastery sites to be a refreshing and exciting plot device. There were times when I honestly could not put the book down as every time I decided to 'finish after one more chapter,' said chapter would end on a cliffhanger and I would have to read on. I read 350 pages in one sitting due to this 'problem.'

Another thing that is absolutely enchanting about this novel is the format its written in. By constantly switching narrators and mode of narration, it keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. I'm a big fan of epistolary novels and this book, although not completely one and with letters so long as to feel not very letter-y, uses them perfectly. Just the right amount of information is told in each letter. I particularly like that a lot of the romance is left out of one storyline and it simply reminds you that this is a letter written from a man to his daughter so of course he's going to leave out bits like that. It adds a human touch to what could be a very dry novel.

One more really well executed aspect of the book is the way it explores and plays with history. One of the characters remarks in the book that "for all my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history's terrible moments were real." This is one of the main themes of the book. While our heroine is referring to Vlad Tepes in that moment, what resonated more with me was the descriptions of Paul's (the father's) travels during the Cold War. The Cold War is something that I always vaguely know happened and can tell people about but it never really resonates. However, reading about how, as an American, Paul keeps having to get snuck around, getting sneaky visas and Communist escorts as he tries to visit Communist era Hungary and Bulgaria. It really made me think about how hard travel was back in the day, of the realities of what some people had to go through and how lucky we are that (with the exception of Cuba for us Americans, I suppose) the world has become a much freer place.

This isn't to say that there are no flaws in the book. There are a tremendous amount of characters, in all three major timelines, and it can become hard to keep track of who is who. I only got mixed up once that I can remember, having to flip back to remember why we were worried about the appearance of this guy, and all the characters do have very pronounced personalities. Its just all of the names, really, that can become mixed. The other thing that bugged me, and this is just personal, is that one figure that reoccurs a lot is never given a name and just referred to as 'the evil librarian.' Now, I get it the first time and I understand that they never really learned his name. It just takes away from the dramatic tension a bit when it's announced that standing at the end of the hall is 'the evil librarian.' It's hard to mask the giggle.

Now, when I went to look up the book on Goodreads after I finished, I was disheartened to see quite a few bad reviews. It seems that a lot of people thought the ending was a let down. Now, I didn't think that at all but I think I can see why people took it that way. This is not a book that's about action and, as such, doesn't have many action scenes. Most of it is about the thrill of the chase, finding one clue that leads to the next that leads to the next. There are no big fights and the vampires are more of a lurking menace in the background than an active player in the game. I think a lot of people wanted some sort of big showdown at the end and I can tell you that you don't get that. However, I really don't think a big showdown would have been keeping in tone with the book. When I read it, I thought the end was a fitting ending to this epic narrative. Did I still have a few questions? Well, yes but who doesn't when they finish such an engrossing read? I was perfectly satisfied when I put the book down, though. 

This book is well written and well researched. The plotting is spot on, keeping hold of you from page to page until you can't put the book down anymore. I really enjoyed it but I also know that I have a very academic mindset that also felt very at ease in the novel. If you don't think you could handle four page long segments on Ottoman conquests in the late fifteenth century, you may get a bit bored. If you love history and love mysteries, though, I think this may be the book for you.