Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds - Karen Lord

Before I begin this review, I want to post what the back of the book synopsis had to say.

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race -- and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team -- one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive -- just may find in each other their own destines … and a force that transcends all.

Doesn't that book sound awesome? Just like a good, ole' fashioned science fiction wonder. However, I feel whoever wrote that synopsis must also try their hand at selling cars because, while I can see (mostly) what each sentence is referring to, I would not call that a true representation of the book.

Worlds starts with the completely unpronounceable Dllenakh, who I will now refer to as D, a Sadiri (read Vulcan) on meditation vacation when he finds out that his planet was wiped out and only people who were off planet survived. Fast forward to a few months later and we're in first person for the rest of the book, the narrative force of Grace Delarua pulling us forward as D and some other men of his come to live on her colony. She ends up working with D and go on a scientific mission together (with others, of course) to find more people for them to repopulate with. They fall in love along the way.

I honestly don't even know where to start with this. I feel like it's not even a narrative so much as a group of short stories that have been laced together with a thin veil of a purpose. They don't even discover anything midway that could grow into a real driving reveal or that ancient mystery the synopsis promised me. Granted, I really enjoyed the ideas behind some of the short stories (the one where Grace kept losing days, her trip to see her sister) that I would have loved to be explored more but due to the nature of the narrative, they got wrapped up quickly and moved on from.

To be honest, for the first fifty or so pages, I had no idea Delarua was a woman. Since it's in first person, there aren't really any gender-specific terms involved and it's not until a Sadiri announces she's female that I even realized that. I think this speaks a little bit to what this book clearly kind of is: Abram's Star Trek fiction. Does that make it bad? Not necessarily. It did make it a bit hard to distinguish characteristics, however, since it kind of assumes you will follow along yourself. I felt like I never had a very clear idea of who D was. Grace talked a bit too much and D a bit too little.

The other thing that bugged me a bit was that Lord would cop out a bit with things she clearly didn't want to write. She'd just have Delarua wink and say "but you can read about what happened yourself" or something like that and ignore something that might have been important. I've used that cop out before so I recognize it when I see it. It's always disappointing.

This story is definitely more of a romance than a science fiction story. It focuses more on characters than plot but not in a good way. Lord had a lot of great ideas that she touched on and then lost focus with, from the possibility of domestic abuse through telepathy (interesting idea! explore it!) to a really fun and original creation myth that is just kind of tagged on at the end and moved on from. I want a story in this universe that really explores some of the interesting ideas and plays around with them, giving us the speculative side of this fiction.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is indeed a very interesting world, just unfortunately filled with boring people on boring trips.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is out now from Random House.

Monday, 25 February 2013

I Feel Bad About My Neck & I Remember Nothing - Nora Ephron

I absolutely adore Nora Ephron. She was witty, smart, funny and a successful writer in Hollywood who made some of my favorite movies. When I found her two books of short essays at my library, I grabbed them right up. I'd always wanted to read them and they were fairly short so I'm going to review them together as they are really the same book in two parts.

Ephron uses her two books to explore different topics and events in her life in short essay format. Written towards the end of her life, I will admit that a lot of the essays that focused on being older weren't really relatable for me. I've given the books to my mother to read and get her view on but she hasn't read them yet so no word on that.

The other essays, though, on such things as the tragedy that is owning a purse and the state of transcendence that you're in for the next few hours after reading a really good book are completely spot on. Her love of New York, her amusement in older people, her love affairs gone wrong are all the stuff good fiction is made of and in this case, a very interesting life.

I really enjoyed the short collection, even if a few essays weren't quite my life story. She is a great writer, really personable and lovely and the words just jump right off. Reading these essays is like chatting to a friend over lunch. 

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Virgin Suicides - Jeffery Eugenides

I'd previously read The Marriage Plot by Eugenides last year and was curious to read more by him. I'd heard a lot about The Virgin Suicides and decided to give it a try. It sounded intriguing and I was up for some drama.

The Virgin Suicides is told from a strange collective first person narrator, an aging group of boys that are remembering the Lisbon sisters that used to live in their old neighborhood. The five sisters, each interesting in her own way but remembered as a collective by the boys, all killed themselves one summer when they were in high school. No one ever really figured out why.

The standout character from The Virgin Suicides is obviously Lux, the one sister that becomes more of an individual in the eyes of the boys, separate from her sisters. She embodies what the boys think about the girls and is a shining example of an early manic pixie dream girl. She is the one that acts as a link between the boys that admire her and her sisters who seem to shun outsider attention. 

I'm still not sure how I feel about the narration, if you haven't noticed by the fact that I keep mentioning it. It feels really creepy to me, seeing how the girls are more of an idea to the boys than actual human beings. Also, due to the collective pronouns used, you're never sure who is actually talking, which adds to the creepy vibe.

I really enjoyed the plot, even with its strange self-destination type referencing. I honestly wanted to know how and why the girls killed themselves, since you're expecting it, it being the title of the novel and all. The lack of resolution only adds to the mystery, especially since you realize that of course the boys are never going to understand. They never truly understood the girls anyway. They were as close as outsiders ever got but they never understood and that is the true tragedy. Very interesting, very intriguing novel.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death - James Runcie

Who doesn't love a good mystery series? I heard that Sidney Chambers harked back slightly to Agatha Christie and I adore her so it seemed like a good idea to check this out.

Canon Sidney Chambers is a young priest in Cambridge during the fifties. He enjoys his quite life and likes being able to help people. However, he always seems to find himself dragged into strange mysteries and pretty soon he's more detective than priest.

One thing that was very interesting about this book that instead of one large mystery, this book actually contains six short ones. At first I didn't think that I liked this as it gave less time for the plot to develop but actually it turned out to be a very interesting narrative device. Having the short mysteries allows the characters to develop over a course of time, introducing and killing off different characters and making you care about people that seemed to only be a background idea in other stories.

Sidney is a very likable protagonist, very sympathetic and good-natured, always kind of wishing he wasn't involved but finding himself in the middle of things anyway. He's given a dog at one point and watching him slowly grow to love that dog is heartwarming. There's even a bit of a love triangle going on which is very fun, especially since poor mild-mannered Sidney is in the middle of it.

One thing that is very heartening about this series is that it's easy to see it going on for a long time. The short stories are just long enough to tell a good story while also allowing for a bit of character development. Since it's also set in England in the fifties, it allows for some fun reconstruction of history. Also, it takes a toll when you remember that the automatic punishment for murder back then was execution. The characters acknowledge this and it definitely adds to the atmosphere of the novel.

I really enjoyed Sidney Chambers and am excited to know that another book will be out in the coming year. I'll definitely be picking it up and you should, too!

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Last Dragonslayer - Jasper Fforde

This month's duel review was chosen by Colin and I'm awful because this was supposed to be the book for December and we're two months late and it's my fault I'M SORRY COLIN. 

Okay, now that that's out of the way.

The Last Dragonslayer is a young adult book by Jasper Fforde which I had not heard of until Colin suggested it and that is a travesty because it is a lovely book. Set in a world that is at once both recognizable and foreign, we follow the adventures of young Jennifer Strange, an (almost!) sixteen year old who is running a magic-for-hire company. See, in this world, magic used to be huge but as the world has become more and more modern, it has lost some of its former glory. Once proud and famous magicians are now doing mundane tasks to earn their keep and Jennifer handles the phones.

One day, however, almost all of the clairvoyants have a vision of the last known dragon dying. Due to law, whoever first claims land that used to belong to a dragon after it dies gets to keep it so this news is momentous. Jennifer thinks this doesn't affect her but she is very, very wrong.

I loved this book. I read it in one sitting, I was so into it. I loved Jennifer Strange's character and I was really excited to see where the plot was going to go. However, what I was really interested in was the world building. I've come to realize that the main thing I love about Fforde are the worlds he creates for his novels. I was blown away by Shades of Grey and this book was no exception. I loved reading about this place that had modern conveniences but also a history of magic. The folklore, the laws, the characters are all completely original and fascinating. I would happily read any other book set in that universe.

The Last Dragonslayer was very interesting and I really liked how it ended up with the dragon. I thought that it was a brave choice that Fforde made and very important for a children's book. The fate of the Quarkbeast, in particular, was definitely a risk but I think it was well done. 

I have already reserved the sequel at the library so I think you can tell what I think about it. I loved it and I will definitely be reading more. If you enjoy YA, fantasy or just some fun storytelling, check it out.

This is a duel review done in tandem with my friend Colin. You can find his review here.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones - Jack Wolf

I'm just going to start out by saying that I have no idea how to describe this book. I shall endeavor to do my best but no promises.

The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones takes place in the mid-eighteenth century and centers around the life of Tristan Hart, the child of a wealthy family. His mother died when he was young and his father has always been in mourning since. He has his older sister and a neighbor boy, Nathanial Ravenscroft, for friends.

Tristan is a weak child and suffers from bouts of violence. However, he is also very clever and when he's old enough, gets to go into London to study anatomy. He's been interested in anatomy since he was a child, performing dissections on wildlife. You see, Tristan's also a psychopath. 

Tristan spends his life trying to deal with the strange emotions he's always feeling, his bouts of psychological breakdown and his intense desire to study and enhance science.  He also has to deal with his family, the girl he falls in love with and his desire to cause pain.

This book is odd. There's just no way around it. It's very, very weird. It's also written in a strange style, full of strange capitalization choices and old fashioned words. Although that seemed like it was going to get really annoying after the first few pages, it was actually surprisingly well done, adding to the feel of the novel and never really getting on my nerves. 

Although it was hard to relate to the characters, the plot itself was very interesting. I found myself always wanting to know what happened next. I wouldn't say that I couldn't put it down because I definitely could but I was extremely curious about events and how much of Tristan's words were a psychological break and how much were true.

I wouldn't say that I really liked this book but I definitely found it interesting. I'm glad I read it but I don't know if I would read something like it again. It has it's moments, the end in particular is very good, and I enjoyed the unreliable narrator. If strange books about psychopaths in the 1700s sounds interesting to you, then you'd probably like it. It does have some intense descriptions of medical practices but all in all, it's a pretty good book. 

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Forgotten Queen - D.L. Bogdan

I was intrigued by The Forgotten Queen after reading Blood Sisters. I really enjoy some historical fiction and when reading the description, I realized that I didn't know much about Margaret Tudor. As someone who was so connected to one of the biggest figures in English History, I was curious how I had missed her. And so, I picked up this book.

Margaret Tudor was born to be married. She realizes this but doesn't expect her task to come to her so early in life. As a young teenager, she is sent north to Scotland to fulfill her destiny and become queen of the Scots in hopes of peace between England and Scotland. Margaret, however, just wants to feel loved and wanted, something that she fears she's been lacking all her life.

Margaret's search for love is the main theme of the book. As she goes on in her life and different things happen to her, she is constantly searching for someone to cling to while remaining a strong queen herself. She is aware that she has to be someone the country can rely on but she just wants someone that loves her as Margaret, not the Queen. 

I was drawn into this book quite quickly. Margaret is a very sympathetic figure in a tough situation. It's easy to root for her. However, as time goes on and she grows older and harder, she does drift from the reader a bit. Bogdan does a valiant job trying to make the best out of history but some parts are just hard to figure. On the whole, however, the reader just wants Margaret to be happy, something that seems very out of reach for the poor queen.

It can be dry at times, unfortunately a danger for most historical fictions, but for the most part, The Forgotten Queen is an interesting tale of an important figure that tends to get looked over by the history books. She's definitely worthy of her own tale and if you enjoy historical fiction and strong heroines, you should check this out.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

What Matters in Jane Austen? - John Mullan

John Mullan is an amazing man. He's the head of the English Department at UCL (which I studied at) and personally got me reassigned with a tutor when my tutor was ignoring me. I'm a very big fan of his. Thus, when I saw that he'd written a book on Jane Austen that looked super interesting, I couldn't help but pick it up.

What Matters in Jane Austen is super fun in that it explores little aspects of Austen's books and expands that question so as to make points and observations about the world Austen inhabited and the hidden genius in a lot of her work. Instead of doing something like the main themes in Mansfield Park, he instead asks why does it matter how much someone gets a year? What's up with the weather? Why do bad things always seem to happen at the seaside?

By asking these seemingly simple questions, Mullan has a jumping off point into exploring both England in the regency period and Austen's own life. He uses her letters as another source, showing where things her works mirror her real life. Some of my favorite chapters explore omissions rather than express points: which characters never speak? what happens when the main character isn't in the scene?

What Matters in Jane Austen is the kind of academic writing that I absolutely love. It is just instantly digestible, to the point where I say I'll just read one chapter and then find myself a hundred pages in. It's interesting, it's fun and it's different from what's already out there. Mullan's style is completely engaging, as he finds humor in everything and manages to poke fun while also clearly respecting Austen. 

This is definitely a book for fans of Austen but I think it's also a book for people who want to know what all the fuss is about. It shows things that are normally hidden and sheds light on things that seem (but definitely are not) obvious. It does require pretty extensive knowledge of Austen's books, at least the complete six, as Mullan just laces paragraphs with references assuming you're following. However, all in all, it makes for an immersive experience that is definitely a great read. Super recommended.