Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Peculiar Review

Geoff bought me The Peculiar for Christmas this year but I sort of forgot about it until I was looking for something to read, spotted the title on my kindle and read the book description, which immediately grabbed me. The novel more than met my expectations based on the synopsis. I was already sucked into the novel when Geoff told me that a teenager wrote it. I'm glad I didn't know that beforehand or I might have not read it after Eragon, which was one of the worst, most derivative books that I've ever read. Fortunately, Stefan Bachmann is actually talented. The novel is a bit steampunk, a genre that I can like when it's well done. I find though that all too often steampunk novels create a world where way too much is left unexplained. I wrote about this when I reviewed Railsea a few months ago. I felt the same way about The Court of the Air, which I thought I would love. But then again, my friend Natania often writes steampunk and I find her writing very clear and fun. The Peculiar was just as well written and interesting.

Bachmann sets the world up well. The Peculiar takes place in an alternate Victorian England, where years before a door from the fairy world opened up in Bath, leading to years of fighting between humans and fairies. By the time the story takes place, fairies have become a part of life. The streets are lit by little fairies in glass lanterns, while goblins run rickshaws around the streets. Airships and elevated trains are common sights in London and there are Sidhe (high fairies) as members of parliament. In the slums of Bath, young Bartholomew Kettle and his sister Hettie live with their mother. The children are changelings, or peculiars, but rather than the traditional definition of a changeling, Bartholomew and Hettie are the product of a fairy father and a human mother. Peculiar children are greatly despised by both groups and so the children are forced to spend their time indoors so as not to be noticed and killed like many of their kind.

However, changeling children are being murdered. When the book opens, nine had been killed for mysterious purposes. When Hettie is kidnapped by a beautiful woman in a plum colored dress, Bartholomew sets out on a desperate mission to find her.

Meanwhile in London, Arthur Jelliby is an unmotivated but still somewhat important member of Parliament's privy council who gets involved with the missing children through working with Lord Lickerish, a Sidhe member of the government. Arthur is the kind of man who likes to sleep late and not be bothered with much of anything serious. However, he gets swept into discovering what Lickerish is up to, which throws him in the path of Bartholomew. Unlike most, he treats the boy as a person, not a despised changeling and slowly earns his trust as they try to find Hettie and investigate the murders of children. Clearly the two are connected and everything comes to a head in a great airship in London.

Stefan Bachmann may have begun this book when he was only 16 but it's a seriously impressive and enjoyable novel. Bachmann does a great job of world building without alienating readers. The idea of fairies (spelled faeries throughout the book) inhabiting and interacting in our world isn't a new one but he does a great job with establishing a creepy atmosphere and winning characters to create a unique novel. I was reminded a bit of Neil Gaiman, which was interesting because a review on amazon compares this book to The Graveyard Book in tone.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, but fortunately Bachmann is hard at work (while attending Zurich Conservatory in Switzerland) on the sequel, currently titled The Whatnot, which will be released in the fall. As a composer, Bachmann also wrote music to go along with the book called Peculiar Pieces. Part of the novel's score can be heard on his website (see below for the link). He's fascinating, self-deprecating and clearly an inventive writer and hard worker. I can't write enough about how much I liked The Peculiar and how excited I am for the sequel!

NY Times Review

Another good review

Author's website and blog

By it at amazon and Barnes and Noble

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Last Testament of Mary Review

I'm not really much for religious books but my co-worker recommended this to me and it was pretty short so I went for it. Also I'm preparing to teach Christianity in April, so I figured I should check it out. My colleague raved about this little book but to be honest it wasn't my favorite. The premise is that Mary is reflecting on her life, but there wasn't a whole lot of detail. She never mentions Jesus by name. She seems fearful and her personality was vague. She definitely does not believe that Jesus was the son of God. He barely was a presence in the story anyway. Mary lives in Ephesus (Turkey) and is visited by two unnamed men who are clearly working on writing the Bible. They want details from her about Jesus' life and death but Mary is uncomfortable about discussing it. Blah blah blah. It was well written but not ever interesting. Moving along to something a lot better!

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble

Comic aka how I spent winter break

True to most holidays, I got a whole bunch of graphic novels for Christmas and spent the last couple weeks getting through them. Here are my mini-reviews:

Fairest Vol. 1: Wide Awake
I've reviewed the Fables series before. It's one of my absolute favorites. Fairest is the newest spin off of the original Fables series. This first volume focused Sleeping Beauty, finally woken up by Ali Baba after the events in the previous Fables novels. It follows their misadventures with the Snow Queen, one of the main adversaries in Fables. At the end there's a short issue that introduced a new twist to Beauty and the Beast's story line. It was great.

Angel & Faith Volume 2: Daddy Issues (Angel (IDW Paperback))

I've also been reading Buffy season 9 (after reading season 8) and its spin off, Angel and Faith, which focused on Angel and Faith's adventures in London after the events of season 8. I always liked their friendship on Angel so it's nice to see that in more detail. In this novel, Daddy Issues,  Drusilla shows up in these issues, which was pretty awesome. And Faith's father was introduced, rounding out her background a bit better. Angel is still on his quest to bring back Giles, leading to him meeting Rupert's youthful great-aunts. The issues moved the plot along nicely and made me excited to read the second issue of Buffy's story line.

The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 1: Science Bad

Geoff likes to pick me out random comics that I never would have heard of, like The Manhattan Projects. My maternal grandfather was actually one of the engineers hired to work on the Manhattan Project during WWII. He knew he was working on some sort of weapon but didn't know the details. Anyway, we had just gone to the NY Historical Society's exhibit on WWII in NYC. This was a really cool story. It's an alternate history of WWII and the Manhattan Project. Here, it's called the Manhattan Projects. Building weapons is only one part of it. The scientists are also involved in communicating with aliens, space travel, artificial intelligence and lots of other weird things. Weird like a dead FDR's brain being transferred into a computer. The story is definitely strange but a really cool alternate history. I loved it and will definitely read the next volume.

Star Wars: Legacy Volume 1--Broken: Broken v. 1

I also previously reviewed Star Wars Legacy, a series of 11 graphic novels about one of Luke Skywalker's descendants named Cade Skywalker. I still find the timeline suspect (see my previous entry) but that's ok. I picked up the series at the fourth book, Alliance. It's a pretty good series. Cade is the last remaining Skywalker but he's hardly the Jedi his ancestor was. He is one of the last survivors of a Sith attack of the Jedis on Ossus. He ended up being evacuated from an escaping ship and drifted in space until he was picked up by a group of pirates. Since he was a young teenager during this time, he grew up denying his Jedi powers. However, clearly the force isn't done with him yet. He gets pulled into the brewing war between the Sith who controls the empire and the remnants of both the Jedi and the Galactic Alliance as well as the deposed emperor, Roan Fel (a descendant of Jagged Fel, who married Jaina Solo [Han and Leia's daughter] during Luke's lifetime.) Ok I could go on and on about this series, but I'll make it brief. Cade keeps trying to reject his legacy but is continuously pulled back into the fighting until things get so bad (the poor little Mon Calamari are basically exterminated) that he ends up trying to take out the Sith on his own to get rid of the evil emperor and restore peace to the galaxy (although if you've followed any Star Wars books you know that never ever happens). Anyway, the battle scenes are sometimes confusing to follow in comic form but the characters were interesting and it's always fun to drop in on the Star Wars universe and see what's happening. Just a word of warning - if you read this series, book 6 is actually Vector volume 2 and you should also read Vector volume 1 before 2. Vector is a cool cross over series where one character goes between four different Star Wars story lines, including Darth Vader not long after his transformation, a young Luke and Leia before Return of the Jedi and finally Cade. It's definitely worth reading.

I still have a few other comics to go from Geoff and my Christmas gifts but now I'm back to regular books for a bit. Stay tuned for more.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Beta Reading - Rock Revival

For the last week or so, I've been reading the first draft of my friend Natania Barron's recent novel, Rock Revival. I've written about Natania before but as a refresher, she's my friend from college who has gone on to actually publish her writing, unlike many people from our fiction classes in college (like me!). She has mostly written speculative fiction, publishing short stories but in the last year, her first novel, Pilgrim of the Sky. I've read several of Natania's books before, although this one was very different from her usual works. 

I'm not going to review Natania's book here because this was just a first draft. However, it was a great first draft. I've emailed her personally with my thoughts but this novel has a lot of potential. It's not fantasy or spec fiction like her other books. This is the story of Kate Styx, keyboardist and songwriter for a band called The Revivals. Without going into too much detail, Rock Revival is the story of a band at crossroads. Every member has their own demons (not actual demons... I said this wasn't fantasy) and their own way of dealing with said demons. I told Natania that I found Kate damaged but not broken and certainly not someone so self-pitying that I couldn't empathize with her. She's been through a lot but I liked her. I've never really been a huge music fan. I listen to a lot of music. And I like it. But I don't live for it or through it like some people do. The last time I read a music based book, it didn't go too well. 

Anyway, I really liked reading Rock Revival and I really really hope that someday it will be on bookshelves or available as an e-book for everyone to enjoy. 

Not sure what I'm reading next. I've gotten sucked into Star Wars: Legacy comics, so I might focus on those for a bit. I've done a bunch of comic reading since the holidays but haven't gotten around to reviewing any of those. I may at some point but right now, I'll finish Legacy and see what I'm in the mood to read next!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Child's Child Review

Entertainment Weekly raved about this book, putting it in a recent "Must List", as well as giving it a stellar review. It sounded like the type of gothic novel that I like so I got into it pretty quickly. I've gotten in the habit of getting a sample of books and if I like it by the end of the sample, I'll go ahead and buy it, which is what I did here.

Anyway, The Child's Child is the story of Grace and Andrew, siblings in 2011 London, who inherit a sprawling house from their deceased grandmother. Being close, they decide to move into the house together, but divide up the space. This works for a bit, until Andrew falls in love with a young writer named James, who ends up taking residence with them. Grace and James dislike one another. Grace is working on her PhD, the thesis of which focuses on the treatment of young, unmarried mothers throughout the literature of 17 and 1800's. James is a passionate defender of gay rights and maintains that gay men throughout history and literature have had a much tougher time than single mothers, which Grace obviously does not agree with. One night James and Andrew witness the murder of one of their gay friends outside a club. The upcoming trial throws their lives in a tailspin. James is terrified about serving as a witness, which leads to a complicated encounter with Grace that further disrupts the lives of the trio.

Before all of this happens, Grace is given an unpublished manuscript called The Child's Child, written in the 1950's by a famous author whose wife made him promise never to release this novel to the public due to its sensitive plot. The story was apparently inspired by real life events that happened to a distant relative of James'. The manuscript contains a plot that parallels the events in Grace's world. As her relationship with her brother begins to fall apart, she loses herself within the novel.

I knew this book was a story within a story, but I thought the two plots would be more connected. Grace's storyline acts as a framing device to the real novel, The Child's Child. Starting in the 1920's, the story focuses on John, a teacher in London who also happens to be gay. Like many men during this time period, he is secretive and ashamed about his lifestyle. He is in a relationship with a man named Bertie, who doesn't have the same qualms that John does about their encounters. However, John is determined to be "a better man", one who doesn't engage in what was considered so vulgar and distasteful back then. He gets a job in a countryside school and prepares to move there to live a celibate life. However, he knows that women will pursue him or that he will face uncomfortable questions from townspeople, wondering why he was not settled down.

The second plot within this story is about Maud, John's 15 year old sister who finds herself pregnant after two encounters with her friend's older brother (if only it was so easy!). Her strict Methodist parents do not know what to do with her, but John sees an opportunity to help both of them. He convinces Maud to pose as his wife. Then she will be protected from the shame of being an unwed mother and he will avoid all those awkward questions. The siblings rent a cottage together near his school and everyone buys their story. John is still determined to focus on celibacy, while Maud is intent on mothering her child. However, Bertie soon reenters their lives, stirring up all kinds of trouble. Despite John's passionate love for him, it becomes clear that Bertie is not a good guy and he begins using John for financial support, which eventually leads to tragedy.

Eventually, Maud's storyline takes over. John was a good guy, but too blinded by his ill-fated romance to pay much attention to his sister or to notice that Bertie was using him for a while. When Maud becomes the protagonist, it becomes clear how unlikable she is. Sheltered for her entire life, even after becoming a mother, she has closed herself off from the world and spends all her time stewing over imaginary slights and problems of her own invention. She rather deserves her fate in the end, after which the novel returns to 2011 with the brief remainder of Grace's tale.

In the end, I found the story within a story more interesting that the original plot. I think a lot of this had to do with the fact that the framing story was too short and underdeveloped. The first eight or so chapters set up Grace's circumstances before shifting back in time, but then the last two chapters of the book, which went back to Grace, felt rushed. Also, I get that Grace was an academic, but I found her use of language stiff for a 28 year old. She seemed more like a spinstery 40-something from an earlier time period. I just didn't really connect with her. Actually I didn't really connect with any of the characters, but at least in the internal story, the language was simpler and the plot more fleshed out.

I would have liked a stronger connection between the two stories. If James' great-uncle or whatever was the inspiration for the plot of The Child's Child (the internal story), there should have been more build up between the stories. I expected there to be alternating chapters - one of Grace and one of Maud or John. I did get tied up in John and Maud's storyline enough that I forgot about Grace since the table of contents made it clear that most of the novel takes place within the unpublished manuscript. And if Grace and her tale are supposed to be meaningful, it should have been used more.

I guess the point is that the themes of love and violence were present both in Grace and John/Maud's storylines. Given the change in time periods, certain elements of Grace's story played out differently than John and Maud's, so I suppose the message is that "it gets better", as Dan Savage would say.

Finally, the word of the book was "opprobrium", which means harsh criticism or censure. This word shows up over and over in the novel so learn its meaning if you didn't know it already!

Anyway, solid book, interesting story, but not entirely what I was expecting. In the end, I liked it, even if the characters were intrinsically unlikable!

New York Times Review

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Son Review

I've read The Giver a number of times over the years. I can't remember when I first picked it up or what drew me to it but I don't think it was assigned in school like it often is now. I did read a lot of Lois Lowry books as a kid but I feel like I didn't read The Giver until I was older. It's a strange, unsettling little book. Before The Hunger Games, before Insurgent, before any of the intense dystopian YA novels out today, The Giver was published. Unlike those other novels, it doesn't concern itself with a major, often violent, uprising. The novel is way more subtle. The writing is simple, deceptively so. The reader catches glimpses of the controlling society, but nothing in the world is fully explained. Jonas, the main character, is a 12 year old boy who is assigned to act as the Receiver of Memory, one who holds the memories of the past world, before the society converted to "Sameness". Jonas' world is irrevocably changed by receiving the Giver's memories. He plans to escape from the community and is helped by the Giver, but bring with him a young child named Gabriel, who had been staying with his family for some time. Gabriel was considered to be a child who failed to thrive and was going to be "released", aka killed by lethal injection because he was too difficult to manage. Jonas escapes with Gabriel and the book ends abruptly, although the end hints that they arrive at a safe place.

I learned through my students a few years ago that Lowry had later written two sequels to The Giver: Gathering Blue and Messenger. These books are only loosely tied to The Giver; they clearly take place in the same world but in different communities. Jonas appears in both as a secondary character called Leader, as does Gabriel, known as Gabe, who is just a young boy. I enjoyed both stories, but they didn't have the same power as The Giver had to me, probably because I only read each one once and not over and over like the original book. I have very vivid memories of moments from The Giver that are indelibly carved into my brain, like scenes from other books that I've read multiple times, like A Wrinkle in Time.

Anyway, I borrowed the newest and last book in the quartet, Son, from my school's library. The start of Son was interestingly set in the same community that Jonas fled, during the same period of time. Claire is 14 years old, two or three years older than Jonas. At her 12 year old ceremony, she was selected as a Birthmother. Girls who are birthmothers are artificially inseminated (fascinating for someone going through advanced reproductive stuff like I am) and birth three Products. These Newchildren are then brought to the Nurturing Center for a year (where Jonas' father worked) before they are given to their family units. However, something goes wrong when Claire delivers. This is never made clear; it appears that the baby is fine, but something went wrong with her. Rather unceremoniously she is assigned to work in the hatchery, helping to raise fish for the community. She is bored by this job and confused about her feelings for the Product that she birthed. Unlike others in the Community, she does not take pills to suppress her feelings and hormones. It seems that in the rush to remove her from her role as a Birthmother, she was not given pills to take. Claire becomes consumed by thoughts of her child. She learns that she had a son and what number the child was assigned (50 children are born each year). She manages to volunteer at the Nurturing Center and bonds with her son, whose name she does not even know.

Over the year, she gets to know the nurturer who is Jonas' father and even learns a bit about Jonas as he is assigned to the Giver, although he only appears in the periphery of her world at this point. However, Jonas' escape from the community with Gabriel propels her to action. She flees onto a ship with some traders from Elsewhere, but a storm leads to her being tossed into the ocean and found by a tiny little community that appears to be stuck in the Middle Ages (no electricity, handfasting ceremonies, etc.). The village's world is harsh. The men fish, but besides that, sailing away by boat is too dangerous and there is an impossible cliff blocking their way out of the village. Claire is taken in by the local healer/midwife and begins to experience life outside of the Community, learning colors, animals, even love. She does not remember her past life due to the trauma of being shipwrecked (or washed overboard; I don't remember if there was mention of what happened to the ship).

Claire eventually remembers her past and her son and begins to train to climb the cliff under the guidance of a young name named Einar. Her training takes years, but eventually she is strong enough to climb out, difficult as the journey is. However, she isn't quite strong enough to face what she finds at the time.

The story shifts then to 15 year old Gabriel, who is building a boat to leave his own village. Jonas is no longer the Leader, but he is married to Kira from Gathering Blue and is the father to two young children, one of who is named Matthew, presumably after Matty from Messenger. Gabe notices an old woman watching him often. He longs to find his own mother, which is the impetus behind his planned journey.

Eventually Jonas, Gabe and Claire's story lines intersect as Gabe has to fight the evil of the Trademaster  from Messenger to get everything that he had hoped for in his life.

Like the other books, Son ends abruptly, but quite hopefully for all characters. I don't know if I would read this whole series as many times as I did The Giver, but I found the end fitting. There isn't a lot of world-building. There are so many questions I have about the world as a whole, but those answers will never be forthcoming and it's more important to focus on the themes of each book - in this one, love and sacrifice are the key themes. The Giver quartet is definitely different from the action packed dystopian YA novels so prevalent to the market today but, though quieter, this series makes more of an emotional impact in a lot of ways than those other books. I think I'm going to use both The Giver and The Hunger Games for an elective on dystopian literature this winter. Should be fun!

NY Times Review

Geek Mom Review

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble