Monday, August 31, 2009

Tsubasa, Volumes 1 and 2

The first manga series that I became seriously addicted to is CLAMP's xxxHOLIC series (which I have learned is simply pronounced "holic"). CLAMP is the collective pen name of four women who have collaborated on many manga projects, including Chobits, Cardcaptor Sakura and this series, Tsubasa. I read and very much enjoyed Cardcaptor Sakura several years ago, and because its characters are also portrayed in this series, I was initially confused. Then I realized that this series is set in an alternate reality - these are the same names and faces as those in Cardcaptor Sakura, but the people are different, have different relationships with each other, and know nothing of their alternate selves.

Tsubasa "crosses over" with xxxHOLIC, and as I love that series, I thought I'd better start this one, because as each successive installment of xxxHOLIC is published, I find myself becoming more confused about what is going on.

Volume 1 opens with Sakura, who is a princess in this dimension, welcoming back her childhood friend Syaoran, who is an archaeologist. She is clearly head over heels for him, but her big brother disapproves of her her feelings for him. Syaoran loves her, too, but he seems to feel she is far our of his league. That night Sakura has a vision that leads her to the archaeological dig, and when she gets there and sees a symbol from her dream, she somehow unleashes a powerful force that leaves her unconscious. The king's adviser tells Syaoran that all of Sakura's memories have disappeared. Syaoran vows to help her, and they are sent to another world to find the space and time witch (Yuko from xxxHOLIC), who might be able to help them.

Syaoran and the unconscious Sakura's arrival is the point at which this manga crosses over with xxxHOLIC - that same scene is in that manga, as well. It is an interesting device to connect the series at certain points in this way, as it depicts the same event as seen from different perspectives, and it makes me want to reread xxxHOLIC, now, too - as if I don't have enough on my reading pile already!

Syaoran is paired up with two other characters from other dimensions: Kurogame, a grumpy warrior who has been exiled by the ruler of his kingdom so that he might learn compassion (which seems unlikely at this point) and Fay D. Flourite, a mage who has fled his home world for his own reasons. Each must pay a price to Yuko for the ability to move among the dimensions, but Syaoran's price is definitely the steepest. Still, he loves Sakura and pays without hesitation. Yuko then gives them Mokona, a cute little critter with the power to transport them from one dimension to another, and off they go to their first world in search of Syaoran's missing memories.

The second volume in this series is about their adventures on the first world, which is similar to Japan but has one main difference: residents of this land possess a kudan, a sort of magical spirit that resides within them. Depending on their strength, this spirit manifests as a more or less powerful creature - a dragon, perhaps, or an elemental water spirit. Syaoran's quest for Sakura's memories is complicated by the appearance of his own kudan, the resulting events sidetracking him from his main purpose.

This is a gripping series that has many intriguing and complex elements that make me very curious to see what will happen next. The characters have just been introduced, but already I am interested to watch as facets of their personalities and pasts are unveiled, as it seems there is more to them than meets the eye.

I find it fascinating the way in which this group of mangaka work together to create their various projects. According to Wikipedia, "each member of Clamp has a role different from their other projects as opposed to retaining set roles. For Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, Mokona draws the main characters whereas Tsubaki Nekoi and Satsuki Igarashi draw the side characters and backgrounds; Nanase Ohkawa is the sole person in charge of the storyline and not even the other members of Clamp know how the plot will unfold."

If you are new to manga and are thinking of discovering what all the fuss is about, this series (read along with xxxHOLIC) would be a good place to start if you enjoy sinking your teeth into something complex and fantastical. If you'd like a simpler, introduction, I'd recommend something more straightforward like Dramacon, Yotsuba, or Miki Falls. These are my first books read for the Japanese Literature Challenge, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this exciting series.

Tsubasa, Volume 1 by CLAMP (Del Rey, 2004)
Tsubasa, Volume 2 by CLAMP (Del Rey, 2004)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bad Girls Don't Die

Alexis isn't thrilled with her life at home - her parents bicker a lot; her mother is working late hours, hoping for the promotion that has continually been denied her, and her sister is obsessed with her collection of creepy dolls. At school things are worse - her best friend moved away several years earlier, and she has managed to get on the bad side of many of the popular girls, who are snide and malicious. She has no real friends, but she does have her passion for photography.

Things go from bad to worse the day she and her little sister Kasey are in the basement, and she finds herself telling Kasey a story that is so vivid, it's like a movie playing in her mind. The story is disturbing, so much so that Alexis changes the ending. From that day, Kasey changes. She becomes secretive and moody - almost as though at times she's a different person altogether. When Megan, Alexis's nemesis at school, approaches her privately, saying she thinks Kasey is possessed and that she might be able to help, Alexis is suspicious and angry. But later, as her life spins out of control, she realizes that Megan might be her only hope.

For some reason I was under the impression when I opened this book that it was going to be a YA vampire story. I was not expecting a creepy, classic ghost story, but I was surprised and delighted to find one. The plot is fairly traditional, but the characters are well drawn and interesting, and the stereotypical cheerleaders vs. the outcasts element took an unexpected and welcome direction. Creepy dolls, ghosts out for vengeance, possession, secrets buried in the past - these are horror elements that give me delicious shivers when I read - particularly the creepy dolls. (My children find my fear of dolls hilarious - I refrain from telling them exactly what their own glassy-eyed spooky dolls might get up to in the middle of the night because I am a grownup. Kind of.) A few elements strained the suspension of my disbelief (such as the fact that they'd been living in that house for years but knew nothing of its history), but the story was such fun that I really did not mind. There are occasional flashes of humor that contrasted nicely against the dark storyline, and also a touch of romance. I very much enjoyed this spooky ghost story and its strong, engaging heroine.

Bad Girls Don't Die by Katie Alender (Disney Hyperion Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Bloggin' 'bout Books: "...although it keeps the spooky going strong, there's also a lot of levity in it. Mostly it's due to pink-haired Alexis, whose sarcasm and self-deprecating humor actually make this horror novel funny."
The Compulsive Reader: "Though the haunted house and possession stories have been done many times before, Alender's fresh slant on the topic will enthrall readers and leave them just a bit creeped out."
Karin's Book Nook: "There are several layers to the mystery and the author generates a completely creepy feeling throughout the entire book."

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes

What fun to step inside the world of the Sandman again, to revisit Dream and his Endless brothers and sisters, to relive that delightful mixture of horror, fantasy, mythology and humor dished up as only Neil Gaiman can. And what a perfect time of year (as in R.I.P. time!) to begin my reread of The Sandman books.

This collection collects the first eight Sandman comics in a single volume:
1. "Sleep of the Just"
2. "Imperfect Hosts"
3. "Dream a Little Dream of Me"
4. "A Hope in Hell"
5. "Passengers"
6. "24 Hours"
7. "Sound and Fury"
8."The Sound of Her Wings."

The first story opens in the early 1900s as magician Roderick Burgess (who reminded me of Aleister Crowley), in an attempt to conjure and capture Death, instead finds that he has captured something else. Not sure exactly who or what is this man who has appeared in his conjuring circle, Burgess strips him and imprisons him in a glass bubble.

Years and years go by as Dream, Death's brother, sits waiting patiently for his release. Meanwhile, during his absence, people all over the world succumb to a strange sleeping sickness. One woman falls asleep as a teenager, gives birth to a baby, and moves into old age - having slept through it all. It is many years later when Dream, now held captive by Burgess's son, finally escapes. He finds himself without his helm and other items of power, weakened and angry, and he begins his search for the things he needs in order to restore his kingdom and his strength, as well as to right the wrongs that have resulted in his extended absence.

I read the first few Sandman collections years ago, and I remember enjoying but not being head over heels with this first volume. It certainly sets the scene, and it is an interesting beginning, but it was the subsequent books that firmly cemented me as a Sandman fan. Still, this one has a lot to recommend it, particularly for those who enjoy some no-holds-barred horror from time to time. "24 Hours" certainly fits that bill, and of all the stories it was the one that I remembered most vividly in the more than ten years since I last read it. The violence of that story in particular makes this series (in my opinion) unsuitable for younger readers, despite the graphic novel format. My library shelves this with the adult collection, and for good reason. I'd recommend this to older teens and up.

My favorite story in the collection is "The Sound of Her Wings," which gives us some insight into Dream's character, particularly as he is finds himself depressed and directionless in the wake of his years of captivity. He's moping by the edge of a fountain when his sister shows up, a cute, upbeat goth girl who is the personification of death. I found myself grinning through the entire tale, as she quotes lines from Mary Poppins one minute, then loses her temper and scolds her brother the next, shouting, "You are utterly the stupidest, most self-centered, appallingest excuse for an anthropomorphic personification on this or any other plane!"

One reason I read very few comic books for many years was the lack of character development in so many of them. But not in this series. This particular story is where these characters first jumped into my heart. The characters attain a depth and complexity that make me truly care about them. I was surprised by the extent of Dream's compassion, particularly in the aftermath of his captivity, as he deals with some vicious and selfish people, many of whom are barely deserving of such forbearance on his part. I'm very much looking forward to the second volume in my reread of this compelling series, because as I remember, it was one of my favorites.

Books in The Sandman series:
1. Preludes & Nocturnes (collects The Sandman #1-8)
2. The Doll's House (collects The Sandman #9-16)
3. Dream Country (collects The Sandman #17-20)
4. Season of Mists (collects The Sandman #21-28)
5. A Game of You (collects The Sandman #32-37)
6. Fables and Reflections (collects The Sandman #29- 1, #38-40, #50, Sandman Special #1 and Vertigo Preview #1)
7. Brief Lives (collects The Sandman #41-49)
8. World's End (collects The Sandman #51- 56)
9. The Kindly Ones (collects The Sandman #57-69)
10. The Wake (collects The Sandman #70-75)

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes (#1 in The Sandman graphic novel series) by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III (DC Comics, 1995, 1991)

Also reviewed at:
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "...this is not a comic to read right before bed – its horror roots show up quite prominently in the artwork, which does not shy away from the disturbing or gruesome, which this series has in spades."
Rhinoa's Ramblings: "I enjoyed the mythological references and how Morpheus gains his freedom from Hell...very powerful stuff."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "What I had forgotten about this first book is how dark it was and how disturbing it was. That kind of stuff doesn’t bother me, but if you read this series and it does bother you, don’t let it stop you from continuing on with it. They’re not all this disturbing."
Valentina's Room: "About the first I wasn't too impressed . The stories made up for it, though. Then with "The Doll's House" it really takes off."

Friday, August 28, 2009

As Shadows Fade

This book is, sadly, the final installment in the Regency-era Gardella Vampire Chronicles. As it is the fifth in the series, it is difficult to discuss the book without giving away some salient details that might spoil earlier books. So if you are interested in this series, I'd advise you to skip this review and take a look at The Rest Falls Away instead.

This book opens with Victoria navigating her "normal" life as a wealthy widow in London society. Increasingly she feels ill at ease there, where just a few years ago it was all she lived and breathed. Now she feels more at ease with a stake in her hand, chasing vampires through dark alleys in the worst parts of town.

When a new and increasingly dire danger presents itself, Victoria is ready to spring to action, organizing the other Venators with self-confidence and skill. The demons that are on the brink of invading the world in immeasurable numbers are not just a threat to humans; they are bent on destroying vampires as well. It seems that a temporary truce with the perfidious vampire queen, Lilith, is needed in order to procure the items necessary to seal the demon portal. But it is perfectly clear that the vampire cannot be trusted.

Victoria has come a long way since she first agreed to take up the responsibilities of leading the Venators, and her path has been long and arduous. This book sees her making her most difficult decisions yet, including a choice between the two men who have fought by her side for such a long time. As always, I enjoyed the creepy atmosphere and flashes of humor, as well as the taut pacing and character-driven action. Mysteries from earlier books are finally revealed in this one, including the true nature of the Venators' advisor, Wayren, which certainly came as a surprise to this reader. I have read that there may be future books written in the Gardella Chronicles world that feature other characters, but Colleen Gleason's next books, according to her website, are in a new and unrelated series that will be published in 2010. I am looking forward to reading them!

Books in the Gardella Vampire Chronicles:
1. The Rest Falls Away
2. Rises the Night
3. The Bleeding Dusk
4. When Twilight Burns
5. As Shadows Fade

As Shadows Fade (#5 in the Gardella Vampire Chronicles) by Colleen Gleason (Signet Eclipse, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Bookfoolery and Babble: "Reading the book was every bit as fun as the rest of the series but this time Victoria chooses her man for good, we find out what the deal is with Wayren and her bag of tricks, and . . . well, I can't say much more without giving anything away..."
Literary Escapism: "The story is fabulous; Gleason leaves the reader wanting more without leaving them hanging; and all of the characters have fabulous personalities that fit so well into the story."
A Reader's Journal: "Although I've been waiting with white knuckles for this book, it seems like the whole trip went just way too fast."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "I’m quite upset that the series is over and there are no more adventures with this amazing crew, but it ended in such a way that I’m satisfied as well."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

R.I.P. IV is here!

I'm so excited that it's the time of year for one of my very favorite reading challenges - Carl's Readers Imbibing Peril (a.k.a. R.I.P) IV! I am planning on completing Peril the First - but honestly, as this challenge covers so many of my favorite genres, I can easily see myself going overboard, as usual. Peril the First is to read four books in the following genres:

Dark Fantasy.

But for those of you reading beyond your comfort zone, there are other Perils in which you can read two or even just one book. And Carl's easygoing rule of thumb for what books fit the challenge are simply whatever we feel fits the challenge. Oh, and two simple rules:

1. Have fun reading.
2. Share that fun with others.

This year I am also looking forward to participating in the Short Story Peril, as well.

Here is a pool of some of the books I'll be choosing from:

As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason
Bad Girls Don't Die by Katie Alender
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Scarlet Moon by Debbie Viguie
Sandman books by Neil Gaiman (I've been planning a reread - and continue-on - for ages, and this sure seems like the perfect opportunity to jump in with that)
Once Dead, Twice Shy by Kim Harrison
Awakening by Kelley Armstrong

Here are a few more I've added (after I posted this):
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Ghost in the Machine by Patrick Carman (just got my review copy - woohoo!)
Nightlife by Rob Thurman

Last year I read Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree to my daughters, which was a creepy and evocative read, absolutely perfect for October. This year, I think they're old enough for one of my favorite ghost stories from when I was a child, The Ghost in the Swing. I'm very excited to read it to them!

As far as short stories go, I think I'll just see what sparks my fancy. I have a ratty old Lovecraft paperback that's been on my book pile for ages, so that might be a start. Plus some anthologies and collections that it would be fun to dip into.

If you are at all thinking about joining this challenge, I encourage you to give it a try - you won't regret it. Stop by Carl's blog for more information. There is also a review site - and some reviews are posted there already. Check them out for reading ideas and inspiration. I can't wait to get started!

The Inconvenient Adventures of Uncle Chestnut

G.K. Chesterton was an incredibly influential, prolific English writer. He wrote many books and short stories, thousands of essays, poetry, and even plays. He was a newspaper columnist for several London newspapers and even wrote entries for the Encyclopedia Britannica. His Father Brown mystery stories are still very popular.

In this book, Paul Nowak has gathered biographical details and anecdotes about Chesterton into short stories about "Uncle Chestnut" as a means of introducing Chesterton to young readers. This slim paperback volume includes four of these stories, and is intended to be the first in a series of tales about eccentric Uncle Chestnut, as told by his nephew.

I read this book out loud to my daughters, ages 8 and 10. The book opens with a rather rambling introduction to the narrator's uncle, which told rather than showed much of the information presented and led to my younger daughter's asking, after several pages, "Is something exciting going to happen soon?" Despite the slow beginning, they enjoyed the book, although they wished for more illustrations. Their favorite story was "The Easy Job," in which the two children learn a lesson they won't soon forget.

I found the setting to be a bit confusing. At first it seemed set in Chesterton's time, with the trains and the hat he wore, but then there were modern references - to Indiana Jones and American Idol, for example - that seemed at odds to the late 19th-century, early 20th-century tone of the beginning of the book. One chapter, however, sparked an interesting discussion with my children. Uncle Chestnut scoffs at the notion of "believing in oneself" as a means to achieve success, pointing out the foolish hopefuls who perform on American Idol and make idiots out of themselves because, while they indeed have belief in themselves, they are utterly lacking in talent. Instead, he says, it is important to believe in something more important than oneself in order to truly make a difference. It's always a good thing when a book engenders discussion about things that matter.

This book is clearly a labor of love on the part of the author, Paul Nowak. Here is an interview with the him at Starting Fresh, and another at One Person's Journey through a World of Books.

The Inconvenient Adventures of Uncle Chestnut: Based on the Life and Works of G.K. Chesterton by Paul Nowak (Paul Nowak, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
In the Shadow of Mount TBR: "’s very much a needed book and voice of wisdom and reason that could tip the balance a little more toward sanity than it’s been leaning lately."
A Reader's Journal: "This is a book that I will reread many times. One time uplifted my spirits and taught me much, but I will needed to be reminded frequently."
Starting Fresh: "While the book wasn't to my taste, I expect that it will appeal to many children and parents."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

San Francisco, here we come!

We leave for our last trip of the summer today, off to San Francisco to visit family. The girls are excited, and so am I - it's a wonderful city. Plus I'm looking forward to spending some time with their aunt and uncle-to-be. I'll check in if I can get a connection where we are - I'll be taking my laptop with me. If not, I'll see you all when we get back next week.

The lovely image above was taken by Tyler Westcott. For more of his beautiful photographs, check out his website.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

WorldCon - still more panels

Will she ever shut up, you ask? Soon, soon. I just wanted to write about a few more panels before I leave for San Francisco in a couple days. I'm afraid I'll forget everything if I wait till I get back. Here are a few more of the panels I really enjoyed:

Panel: Once Upon a Time There Was a Gender Variant Metaphor (with Wendy Gay Pearson, Violette Malan, and Rob Latham)

"For a long time, science fiction and fantasy was a safe space for coded discussion of homosexuality. now the closet doors are open, how can SF respond?"

Well, no one on the panel or in the audience could agree with the panel description - there was a lot of discussion about "coded" images of gays and lesbians in sf and fantasy - and really, if it has to be coded, how can that equate with a "safe place"? It was a bit baffling, but it made for some interesting comments. One of the panelists brought up her realization that Agatha Christie had some "coded" lesbians in her books, and how it was such a revelation for her, and also people talked about how if it's too coded, and only people "in the know" get it, then what is the point? And, of course, no one agreed that the closet doors are actually open to any great extent. One book a panelist mentioned that has interesting and open-minded portrayals of sexuality in science fiction is Ethan of Athos by Lois McMater Bujold, one of my favorite authors.

Things I plan to look for at some point that I wrote down in my notes include the November issue of Science Fiction Studies (I believe it's the forthcoming issue, but I haven't had a chance to look into it yet), which will focus on the issue of sexuality in science fiction; a controversial story from the 1950s by Charles Beaumont called "The Crooked Man;" and a book called Biological Exuberance by Bruce Bagemihl.

Neil Gaiman: Reading
I was pleased to get to the appointed room in time to grab a seat - we got there quite early, in fact, as I was surprised they'd located the reading in a relatively small space. It was standing room only by the time the reading started. He read two stories, one from a forthcoming anthology that is a tribute to Jack Vance's Dying Earth series (of which I think I've only read one book a very long time ago, but Gaiman's story made me interested in taking a closer look at it). I loved the story; it was full of that dreamy sense of wonder combined with humor and a touch of cynicism that make me enjoy his fiction so much.

He also read something he'd recently completed for a book of love letters that is scheduled to be released on Valentine's Day next year. I knew we were in for a treat when I heard that. Because it only stands to reason that if you ask Neil Gaiman to write a love letter for an anthology, it's going to be a surprising one! And it was. He is such a good reader that there was total silence in the room, and when he got to certain rather disturbing parts of his delightful love letter, the entire room shuddered as one. One thing that I found absolutely unbelievable was how many people insisted on taking flash photographs of him as he read - as though he were an animatronic exhibit in a Disney theme park (can you see it? The Hall of Writers? And Neil Gaiman there, dressed in black, ready to recite a creepy or fantastical tale. Next to - I don't know, Hemingway, the Bronte sisters, Dickens and Basho?). Finally he had to stop and beg for mercy. How on earth is someone to read when they have a big blue floating spot in front of their eyes? Sheesh. I'll definitely be on the lookout for that book of love letters come February.

Panel: White is Good, Curves are Great, but Seldom a Purple Face to Be Seen (I did not write down the names of the panelists for this one, unfortunately, because occasionally they differed from the ones in the program. I was too far in the back of the room to read their name tents. As listed in the program they are Aliette de Bodard, Rani Graff, Patricia McCracken and Doselle Young).

"Despite the ubiquity of aliens in a range of pretty colours, SF and fantasy art still seems to be rather averse to the presentation of humans in their full spectrum. How much of this is the market? How much is it thoughtlessness? How much is it a fear of 'exoticizing' and exploitation? How much is just old fashioned discrimination?"

There was a lot of discussion about Justine Larbalestier's cover on her latest novel, Liar, which you can read about on her blog. And one of the panelists mentioned reading a book by Octavia Butler when she was a teen and suddenly realizing that the protagonist was being described as having dark skin and nappy hair - but the image on the cover was of a white blond woman. I knew exactly what she was talking about, because I had that same experience with the very same book, and I remember feeling betrayed by the publisher. At the time I assumed the artist hadn't bothered to read the book, but later of course I learned that it is all about the money, of course. Although one of the panelists said that there haven't actually been any statistical studies conducted that examine at how covers depicting people of different races sell compared to each other, so it's all an unsubstantiated supposition. One panelist said that the general opinion seems to be that if there is a black person on the cover of a book, readers expect it to be about a struggle for racial equality, regardless of what the book is actually about. I think that's silly, and sad, too. I'm glad they changed the cover of Liar, and I sure hope that book sells well. I loved Larbalestier's Magic or Madness trilogy, so I may have to purchase a copy of Liar just to support the cause. :-)

Panel: Fairy Tales in the Comics (with Kevin Maroney, Bill Willingham, and Paul Cornell)

"How creators at big companies and small have adapted classic fairy tales into new graphic visions - DC's Queen of Fables in the Superhero books, to Fables itself at Vertigo, to Castle Waiting, Promethea, The Sandman, Starchild and Bone."

I really loved this panel! I have enjoyed the first in Willingham's Legends series, and I was interested to hear him say that the reason he started the series was simply that he loved all those fairy tale characters and had been wondering about them since he was a child. What happened to them after the stories ended? Now we know! I also found it fascinating that he originally wanted Peter Pan to be the big villain in the stories, but then he found out about the rights issues, and the children's hospital in London that gets the proceeds from the Peter Pan books - and he decided he did not want to be the person responsible for taking money away from those kids. And the villain he ended up with worked out much better in the end.

Paul Cornell said something that resonated with me. He was talking about letters from readers, some of whom become angry when the plot takes a direction they don't like, or if he kills off a character they love. He said he wants to tell them, "Fantasy is not your pet. It is meant to hurt." Wow. I turned that one around and around in my mind. Another panelist (sorry, forget which one) said that it is a good idea for a writer, as she/he sets up the story, to ask the question, "Who is it going to hurt?" And it had better be the reader, to a certain point.

Things that were added to my tbr list as a result of this panel included the latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tales of the Arabian Nights by Kevin Maroney, and Captain Britain by Paul Cornell.

Panel: Writing for Teens (with Anne Harris, Ben Jeapes and Fiona Patton)

"How is writing for YA/Teens different? Do you just leave out the sex and long exposition, or is there more to it?"

This panel took place in an odd room where the tables were arranged banquet style, so we all ended up kind of sitting on either side of the long part, while the panelists sat beside each other at the short part. Eoin Colfer was supposed to be on this panel, too, but I'm not sure he ever even made it to the con, because he wasn't at the reading I went to, either.

Because of the small group that was there, after some introductory words from the panelists, it was more like sitting around a table and talking together than an actual panel, and I enjoyed the intimate feel. I have read and enjoyed Anne Harris's books for adults, but she has just written a YA novel under the name Pearl North, which I knew I had to read as soon as she described it. It is called Libyrinth, and it's set in an enormous labyrinthine library so vast that people easily get lost in it, and it's about a girl who can hear the voices of books. That was enough for me! It's on my list. Plus it has a cool cover.

Fiona Patton has been on my list of writers to read for ages, and I was interested to hear that her 11-year-old niece is a big fan of her books. I thought it might be fun to read one to my girls, and after the panel I asked her which one would be a good one to start with. She suggested The Silver Lake, so that is now on our list. My library shelves it in the adult section, so I may read it first to see if it's too old for them, since my younger daughter is only eight, and I'd hate to put her off a good book by reading it before she's ready for it. It can be a balancing act to find books that appeal to both of them for read-alouds when they are two years apart. At any rate, Fiona Patton seems to be an author who writes for adults, but whose books appeal to teens as well.

Ben Jeapes surprised me by saying that his book, which is published by scholastic, had been written for adults and features an adult main character, but it is marketed to teens. When his agent sold it, Jeapes was startled to discover that he'd written a YA novel without knowing it! He hadn't read much YA fiction before then, but he does now, he says.

Panel: Rainbow Futures (I wasn't able to see all the panelists' names from where I sat, but the program lists them as Catherynne Valente, Cecilia Tan, Graham Slight, Jason Bourget, Lila Garrott-Wejksnora - but I think there were only four people there. Maybe Devinoni remembers better?)

"How does media SF deal with gay and lesbian characters? Is the real world moving too fast for the genre? Can SF show us a future where sexual orientation isn't a big deal?

This was another fascinating discussion. Some things added to my list of things to look for include The Love We Share without Knowing and One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak; Samuel Delaney's early books, particularly Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand; and The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei Panshin and Cory Panshin (and I think I actually own that last one but have yet to read it, sigh).

I have been wanting to read Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest ever since Nymeth reviewed it, and I thought her take on things was fascinating. One of the panelists was very irritated by Mercedes Lackey's apparent habit of making the villain a gay bdsm devotee (something I confess I had not noticed) - as well as for killing off one of the gay lovers in one of her series, which is apparently an often-used device to "punish" characters for being homosexual. And that is why many fans were so outraged about Tara's death in the Buffy shows. I can see the point, and I remember being heartbroken by both deaths, but I don't believe that was the intent in either case. Still, it raises questions. Does it mean that if there is a homosexual relationship in a book or movie, no one involved in it should die for any reason? That doesn't work, either - just as it doesn't work for other kinds of relationships. The story needs to go where it needs to go. But yeah, don't kill them off to "punish" them. That's just dumb.

That is the last of the panels. I'll shut up now. Thanks for listening, any of you who made it all the way through!

Monday, August 17, 2009

More Montreal and WorldCon - The Food Post

Time for a break from substantive book discussion, and onto the other topic besides books that I can blab on about for hours: FOOD!

I have to say, I have never eaten so well at a WorldCon before. Montreal has a lot to offer, and if I'd had time to roam far from the convention center, I'm sure I'd have found lots of other great places. I would like to thank the author(s) of The Anticipation Restaurant Guide. Kudos to them for a comprehensive, thoughtful, and - best of all - unapologetically opinionated restaurant guide. You never steered us wrong! (I knew I was going to like the guide when I read a review of one of the places: "Boring, with pallid croissants, limp sandwiches and appalling choice of tea. Some places aren't worth going to twice. Save yourself the trouble and don't go once." (That was for the Bistro Cafe Van, which we decided to skip.)

Here are the places we enjoyed (in case anyone else is going to Montreal, particularly the convention center, as most of these places are nearby):

: This was the first place we ate, as we were famished and had just arrived, checked in at the hotel, and picked up our badges for the convention. Noobox is downstairs in the Palais de Congres, so we nipped down for a quick bite and to look over our programs. This place is great for a quick, no-frills meal. They have a selection of noodles/rice, sauce, vegetables, meat/tofu, and you get a sushi-style list and check off the ones you want. You hand it to the cashier, and someone whips up your creation for you. We did have to laugh about the woman behind the counter, who was like an Asian version of Seinfeld's soup Nazi - she gave the poor bewildered guy ahead of us in line such a hard time. I kept expecting her to snap at him, "No noodles for you!" We were very sure to have our forms filled out in the approved manner. It didn't knock my socks off, but it was good, and I was hungry, so I was happy. Below is a photo I took of the Noobox store front. Not because it was my favorite restaurant, but because it's such fun to say, "Noobox." Go ahead, say it. You know you want to. See? Told you so.

Beijing (Chinese): This wonderful little restaurant sits right at the edge of Chinatown, less than two blocks from the convention center. The restaurant guide recommends it, as did some of the local convention goers. We enjoyed our first meal there so much that we went back there for dinner on our last evening. I loved the salt & spicy shrimp and the tofu with black bean sauce. Yum! We did wish the lights could have been dimmed a bit - it is super bright inside. But the service was quick and no nonsense. Apparently they have long waits on the weekends, so it's best to get there as early as possible. We got seated right away, but it was before 6 pm.

Le Notre Dame (breakfast, quick lunches) - I love a nice big breakfast when I'm at a conference, because then I can easily go till mid afternoon without any distracting hunger pangs. So I poured through the restaurant guide looking for a likely candidate. We wanted to walk around Vieux-Montreal, so I looked for a breakfast spot there and decided this one was a likely candidate. The guide said: "Though this looks like a total dump, appearances can be deceiving. This is a nice Greek restaurant with a good range of poutine and burgers, etc., cheap and surprisingly cheerful." We sat in the window and had a lovely breakfast brought to us by a very friendly and motherly Greek-Canadian woman. The coffee is excellent. I loved the Greek omelet, and Devinoni said the sausage was really good. We went there every morning but one, when we needed to get to the conference early and just grabbed some muffins, and it was good every time - plus it was very economical!

Il Focolaio (Italian) - I could have sworn we got this one from the restaurant guide, too, but I can't find it in there. It might have been in a booklet we got at the hotel. At any rate, I remember being a bit tired from the "short walk" it was supposed to be, but the pizza was pretty good - great crust, but a little too cheesy for my taste - cooked in a wood-burning oven. We sat inside, since it was drizzling a bit, but we were right at the large open window (the walls basically retract so it's like you're on a terrace), so that was nice. Square-Phillips is a bustling place, great for people watching.

Bieres et Compagnie (Belgian) - The guidebook says, "This is a Belgian restaurant specializing in mussels and beer." Devinoni and I did not need to read further - what's not to like? The photo at the top of this post is of our dinner, which was excellent. Great beer, delicious mussels, good service, nice atmosphere. We took the metro there, and it was fun to see a different part of town and do a little off-site exploring. This was definitely a culinary highlight of my long con weekend.

Pub St. Paul - This was a wonderful experience - not just because it's a fun place to eat, with a beautiful view of the water, but because I got to eat there with the first blogging friend I've ever actually met in person! Cat from Beyond Books emailed me when I posted about coming to Montreal, and we made arrangements to meet (with a bit of help from my husband, who helped with some emails from home since I did not have any connectivity there, just my pathetic cell phone, which wouldn't even allow me to access my voicemail in Canada!). Cat traveled downtown to meet us, and we took a wonderful walk through Vieux-Montreal to a pub she likes to go to. I was too caught up in our conversation to think about taking photos while we were there, but I got this one from the pub's website. We sat by the window, which offered an excellent view of the water but allowed a bit too much wind to come in and play with our napkins and menus, so we finally had to close the window. Cat and I both ordered the shrimp, which were delicious and have inspired me to try my hand at replicating the way they were made (butterflied and broiled, I think, with maybe garlic and herbs). I had a great afternoon talking with Cat, and it was funny how it felt as if I'd already known her for a very long time. Which I suppose, in a way, I have! The time flew by, and it felt sadly as though we'd only had a chance to skim the surface of all the things we would have liked to talk about. I wish she lived closer, because I know we'd have a great time swapping books and playing geeky board games. Thanks for a wonderful afternoon, Cat!

Basha (Lebanese) - This one was probably the biggest disappointment of all the places we ate. It wasn't bad, really - and in all fairness we got there right before closing. So the food was a bit cold and had clearly been sitting there for a while. The falafel had an odd bitter aftertaste, and the pita bread was kind of stale and cold, which didn't make me enjoy my hummus very much. The guidebook did not really have an opinion of this one, but we were in a hurry to eat something, and Noobox was closed already or we probably would have gone there again.

So that's the food wrap-up! I think I've made myself hungry writing this...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Scott Pilgrim, Volumes 4 and 5

The fourth volume of the offbeat, humorous Scott Pilgrim series opens with a short, full-color introduction that made me wish that all the books could be in color. It is summertime, and Scott is at the beach with his friends to celebrate Julie's birthday.

Back in the city, there are many interesting changes in store for Scott: he gets a job, realizes he's really and truly in love with Ramona, is chased by a mysterious ninja with a samurai sword, gets in touch with an old high school friend, records an album with his band, moves out of his apartment and into a new living situation, and finally understands why Ramona always refers to her past lovers as her "evil exes" - not her "evil ex-boyfriends." Pandemonium, spiritual growth, and action-packed fight scenes ensue.

The latest and 5th volume in the series, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, opens on Scott's 24th birthday. The evil exes that Scott must fight in this volume show up at Julie's Day of the Dead party (one in an apparently long line of parties she's been throwing at her new studio apartment). The exes are twins Kyle and Ken Katayanagi - but when Scott tries to fight them, they attack him with a robot they've made.

Some issues crop up that threaten Scott and Ramona's relationship - his prior relationship with 17-year-old Knives, for one thing - and the book ends on an unfinished note that will leave the reader impatient to get to volume 6. Unfortunately that one hasn't been published yet, so it's going to be at tough wait. It will, however, be the final installment of the series, and I am confident it will end with a satisfying conclusion.

This is such a fun and quirky series. I like that the characters develop from one volume to the next, and that each book never fails to surprise me. I never know where things are going, and I love that. It tickles me the way the series is firmly based in modern-day Toronto, complete with pop culture and geographical landmarks - but there is also this offbeat fantasy element to it, with Ramona taking shortcuts through Scott's head, and the way she goes into his Legend of Zelda-inspired dream talk to him (and poke fun of his juvenile dreams). The video-game imagery is also appealing - as in the image below when Scott is dying of thirst but has no money at all for something to drink.

I do find the characters to be difficult to differentiate at times, particularly as their hairstyles and clothing tend to change quite a bit from book to book. Luckily, there's a handy diagram on the inside cover that lists characters with their pictures and relevant characteristics, and I found it very useful. I think this series would appeal to many different kinds of readers - those who like manga stories about friends, relationships, pop culture, romance and music; those who like offbeat, quirky tales; and those who appreciate a dash of the fantastical - not to mention a bit of twisted, intelligent humor.

The Scott Pilgrim movie is scheduled to be released in 2010, and I am very much looking forward to seeing this engaging story depicted on the big screen.

Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together (#4 in the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series) by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press, 2007)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe (#5 in the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series) by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press, 2009)
Also reviewed at:
Girl Detective: "I also think it’s the best-done to date–the plot is tight, as is the art. Nothing feels rushed or sloppy."
Stacked: "I think part of what is so great about the story is that, despite the alterna-reality the characters live in, there is always something relatable in each of them for the reader."

Friday, August 14, 2009

WorldCon - More panels - and the very cool Palais de Congres

First of all, let me just say that Montreal's Palais de Congres is a beautiful, interesting and quirky building. I found myself taking lots of photos of it during the convention because it is just so visually stimulating. What particularly caught my attention was the wall of colored panes of glass. It looked different during different times of the day, depending on the time of day, the weather and the angle of the sun. I will decorate this post with the photos I took of the convention center. The sculpture below was in one of high-ceilinged areas, and Devinoni and I thought it was a great representation of "the Crystalline Entity" - although that is probably not what the artist had in mind. :-)

So here are some of the other panels I attended, and what I can remember about them. I hadn't actually planned on writing that much about them, or I would have taken care to take better notes! But from the comments I received in my first WorldCon post, it sounds like you are interested. So here goes...

Let the Guy Scream: Women in Current Media SF/F (which featured Heather Urbanski, Odellia Firebird, and Trisha Wooldridge) had the following description: It's more than 75 years since Fay Wray screamed her way through "King Kong." Today's media SF features tough women who may rescue the guy without sacrificing their own sensibilities. Who are the current heroines and role models? Is there more to be done?"

Well, it was basically decided immediately that yes, there is more work to be done, particularly in media SF. Some of the names of fiction character that came up were Honor Harrington (although I personally did not continue beyond the first book of that series, it seems to be very popular among male readers in particular); Cordelia Naismith (Miles Vorkosigan's mother in Bujold's Vorkosigan series) as well as his wife, Ekaterina - both of whom I adore; the women in The Mists of Avalon were mentioned (I think by an audience member); of course Ripley from Alien/s (and someone said that the part had been originally written for a man, which really boggled my mind - it is so hard to imagine anyone but Sigourney Weaver in that role); if I'd taken better notes I'd have more names for you - sorry!
\They talked about one of my pet peeves - particularly in shows and movies for kids: the single female character, like a crumb thrown to the girls, who appears in a cast of male characters with a wide range of skills and abilities. The girl basically bets to be "the girl" and this, that, or the other (the brains, the warrior, the telepath, etc.). What makes me annoyed is that it give the idea of limitations to girls - the boys get this wide range of characters to think about and choose from. The girls get "the girl" or have to pick one of the guys. Rarely do the boys choose to be the girl when games are played.

Someone - I think on the panel - mentioned that when it came to playing Star Wars, she and her sister always fought about who got to be Han and who got to be Luke - they never fought about who got to be Leia. Which says something, I think. I recently took the girls to see G-Force, and yes, there was the one token girl guinea pig (who was great, don't get me wrong), and there was the pretty human assistant to the doctor who really didn't do much to rise to even sidekick status - but everyone else was male, from the scientist who "engineered" the animal team, to the government agents to the villains. My kids didn't even notice, which, I think, also says something. There are so many set up that way - Toy Story, Bolt, even Wall-E. The Incredibles, now, not so much - I love that movie! There are of course exceptions, but generally, I think it's that way most of the time.

Of the few notes I took, I did write "Jennifer Fallon - Australian writer" as someone who writes strong heroines. Does anyone read her books? Any recommendations on particular ones? I think the consensus was that yes, there are some great characters out there, both in media and fiction, but there needs to be a broader range of them, not just a token one here or there. What about you? Do you have any favorite strong women role models? I think most of the books I read, particularly the series I've been addicted to lately, have some excellent strong heroines, like Cassandra Palmer and Mercy Thomson, to just name two.

Editors Panel (with Ellen Datlow, Lou Anders, Rani Graff, Stanley Scmidt and Sheila Williams): A broad spectrum of editors discuss the craft of editing; anthologies; and how they select stories.

This one didn't hold any big revelations for me, but it was interesting. I learned about a site called where science meets fiction, which explores the inventions and ideas first posited in science fiction that are now extant today (at least that's what I understand - I have yet to fully explore the site, but it looks fascinating). I also learned about The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy (edited by Datlow), an original anthology that is up for this year's World Fantasy Award. I'm hoping to read that one soon.

Interview: Ellen Datlow, Delia Sherman: Editing and Writing: A writer and editor talk about their relationship; how short stories are edited; how an editor dialogs with the writer to improve a story.

As a writer, I find this sort of thing fascinating, and the discussion between Datlow and Sherman was illuminating. Datlow is one of those editors who is not a writer, and because of that she doesn't really offer much practical advice when she gets a story that almost - but doesn't quite - work for her. She may simply say that the ending is weak, or it drags right here, or the characters are a bit flat - but she doesn't really give advice on how to fix it. That is up to the writer (which, when you think of it, isn't an unreasonable expectation!). One thing she said that gave me a bit to think about was: "When the ending isn't quite right, it's usually not the ending itself, but something about three-quarters of the way through the story that isn't working." Interesting!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

WorldCon - the webcomics panel

Here are some of the webcomics mentioned in the webcomics panel I attended. It took me much longer to put this together because I kept getting distracted by all these enticing comics. Who knew there were so many out there? I have been meaning to check them out, but all these library books keep taking my attention. So here we are - one more ball to juggle has just been thrown into my life, sigh. And now I'm tossing it to you!

The Webcomics You Should Be Reading (with Howard Tayler, Joe Pearce, Tom Galloway and Claude Lalumiere): I got there a little late, and missed the early ones. Here is a partial list of the comics that were discussed. If anyone else was there and remembers others, please let me know and I'll add them. And, if you have any others you think are worthy of mention, please let me know and I'll add them, too!

The Daily Cartoonist - not a webcomic, but recommended as a good resource
Darths and Droids - from Wookieepedia: "a screen capture webcomic based on the Star Wars films...The basic premise of the comic is that the Star Wars films depict the action of a role-playing game and this strip shows the dialogue between the players and the Game Master. The Star Wars universe is presented as an original creation of the GM, and the players are completely unfamiliar with its unique elements, such as Jedi. "
Dresden Codak - Described by its author as a "celebration of science, death and human folly,", each comic generally focuses on a concept or theory from modern and postmodern philosophy, psychology, or science (particularly quantum physics). " (Wikipedia)
Galaxion - "The story follows the crew of an interstellar ship, the Galaxion, as they test a new experimental hyperdrive engine." (Wikipedia)
Girl Genius - this one won a Hugo, so be sure to check it out! Its tagline is "Adventure, Romance, MAD SCIENCE!" Wikipedia: "It features a female lead character in an alternate-history Victorian-style "steampunk" setting, although elements veer from what is usually thought of as steampunk. Kaja Foglio, one of the co-creators, describes it as 'gaslamp fantasy' instead to suggest its more fantastic style."
Gunnerkrigg Court - "The comic tells the story of Antimony Carver, a young girl who has just started attending a strange and mysterious school called Gunnerkrigg Court, and the events that unfold around her as she becomes embroiled in political intrigues between Gunnerkrigg Court and the inhabitants of the Gillitie Wood, a forest outside the school." (Wikipedia)
Irregular Webcomic - "illustrated photographically, primarily with Lego figures, although a few of the story arcs use role playing game miniatures." (Wikipedia)
The Order of the Stick - "a comedic webcomic that satirizes tabletop roleplaying games and medieval fantasy through the ongoing tale of the eponymous fellowship of heroes." (Wikipedia)
Ozy and Millie - "Two young foxes endure the trials and tribulations of childhood."
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - "Like most one-off comics, there are few recurring characters. The humor often comes from leading the reader to think they understand the situation when they look at the picture, but then throwing them off with a punchline-esque caption underneath."
Schlock Mercenary - the online comic space opera that "It follows the tribulations of a star-travelling mercenary company in a satiric, mildly dystopian 31st-century space opera setting." (Wikipedia)
Sinfest - Wikipedia says, "The subject matter of Sinfest is often human nature[5], with particular attention paid to sexuality, gender roles, and religion. Less frequently, the strip will parody popular culture or indulge in political commentary. "
A Softer World - comics that are made with photographs, Wikipedia says "The tone of the comic tends to be slightly absurdist and dark, with the punchlines often being simultaneously humorous and disturbing, occasionally with disturbingly overt sexual content."
User Friendly - "a daily webcomic about the staff of a small, fictional Internet service provider, Columbia Internet. The strip's humor tends to be centered around technology jokes and geek humour."
The Whiteboard - Wikipedia says, "The strip was originally based on personal anecdotes collected while running a paintball shop, but it has evolved into a comic with many unique characters and storylines receiving over 400,000 unique visitors a month."

Hope this list helps you find some fun new things to read. The above comic is from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and it made me smile.

I will add additional webcomics that any of you recommend to the bottom of this post. Please let me know if I've missed any of your favorites!

Earthsong - a science fiction webcomic with a manga influence (thanks, Cat!)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

WorldCon 2009 - What a blast!

Well, I'm back from my amazing weekend in Montreal, and it was so, so much fun. It was my first WorldCon in four years, and it was so good to be back. I brought a friend with me, Devinoni of Bracing for the Zombie Apocalypse (which, sadly, he has been neglecting these many months), and we had a fabulous time. This is the view from the hotel room. I loved Montreal! Everyone was so nice, even though my French is pathetic and seems to sputter into nothingness somewhere along the line between my brain and my mouth. The city has so much character, both in the old section as well as the more modern parts. There are interesting artistic touches all over the place, statues, artwork on the sides of buildings, evocative fountains; there was even a peaceful little park that was made around the ruins of an old church.

Here's an interesting artistic embellishment that was on the side of a strange building that, from what I could tell, was a restaurant with a haunted house theme. I walked past it every day on my way to the convention center, and it tickled me every time. The restaurant looked as though it was closed down, but maybe they were going for that look of abandonment, thinking it would add to the atmosphere? Who knows!

Here is a very cool robot sculpture that was on display at the convention. The con itself was wonderful. It was a bit smaller than some of the others I've been to - I heard that the attendance was around 3400. The art show was small, and the dealer's room was tiny, more the size of one at a regional con, apparently because of the difficulty vendors from other countries had getting permits to sell in Canada (according to dealers I spoke with). But there were so many fascinating panels, readings, book signings, and other activities that it was difficult deciding which ones to attend. There were many times I was wishing for Hermione's time turner so I could go to all the ones I wanted that were being held at the same time. Just a few of the many interesting panel discussions I attended were:

The Webcomics You Should Be Reading (with Howard Tayler, Joe Pearce, Tom Galloway and Claude Lalumiere); Let the Guy Scream: Women in Current Media SF/F (with Heather Urbanski, Odellia Firebird, and Trisha Wooldridge); an editors panel in which editing anthologies and magazines and selecting stories was discussed (with Ellen Datlow, Lou Anders, Stanley Schmidt, Sheila Williams and Rani Graff); Once Upon a Time There Was a Gender Variant Metaphor, which discussed homosexuality in F and SF, coded and otherwise (with Lila Garrot-Wejksnora, Wendy Gay Pearson, and Violette Malan); Fairytales in the Comics (with Bill Willingham, Kevin Maroney and Paul Cornell); and Writing for Teens (with Fiona Patton, Ben Jeapes and Anne Harris - Eoin Colfer was supposed to be there, but I never did see him - he was supposed to give a reading, but he wasn't there either, and there was some speculation about whether he ever did get to the con at all).

The discussions were so fascinating and inspiring that I felt my brain slowly start to swell up with information and ideas - and what better way to let things settle than take a break and have something to eat. And when it comes to good food, Montreal has a lot to offer.

There is a lot more to talk about, but it will have to wait for the next post. If anyone would like to know more about those panel discussions, let me know. I took a few notes, and at least for the webcomics one I plan to hunt down links for the ones that were discussed and recommended, and I'd be happy to share them if anyone is interested.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Off to Montreal for the 67th World Science Fiction Convention!

Woohoo! I haven't been since I started making my way through library school at a one-course-per-semester snail's pace. But now that I've graduated and have my life back (and don't have hefty tuition bills to pay), I'm off to my first WorldCon in four years. Hooray!

For those of you who don't know, WorldCon is the annual convention of the World Science Fiction Society, and it's held in a different location every year. This year it's in Montreal, and it is one of my absolute favorite events. First of all, it's where the Hugos are awarded, and attending members of the convention vote for their favorites. There are amazing panels with all kinds of people in attendance, from writers (Neil Gaiman is the guest of honor this year), editors and agents, film makers, scientists, mangaka, artists, and more. The masquerade is always something to see - people have constructed spectacular costumes, and every year they seem to get better. There's gaming, films, art exhibits, parties, book signings, author meet-and-greets, readings, sightseeing and (the kiss of death to my bank account) the dealer's room.

Best of all are the people who attend. They are so funny, intelligent, and accepting - even though it's often crowded, and everyone's been on their feet all day, and everyone's tired - people are unfailingly kind and very rarely rude or grumpy. I am excited to see old friends and make some new ones, and to spend a long weekend immersed in science fiction and fantasy fun.

I have not been to Montreal since I was a child, and I am so excited because I love visiting Canada!I had a blast at the Toronto WorldCon, so I was delighted when Montreal won the bid for this year. I am looking forward to some great food and sightseeing, along with all the SF goodness. Maybe I'll see some of you there?
The above image is by Michele Laframboise, and it depicts a steampunk vision of Montreal. It graced the cover of Anticipation (this year's WorldCon)'s third progress report.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dark Time

It is the year 1692. Susannah Layhem, wife, expectant mother, and healer, has been accused of being a witch. After a trial that is a farce, Susannah is burned at the stake. In the midst of her agony, she is swept away and offered a deal. Rabishu, a demon, offers her life as well as vengeance on the woman who falsely accused her. In return, she must agree to do his bidding in the world, kill whomever he directs her to. She accepts without hesitation and, after she kills her accuser, Susanna becomes a demon's minion, killing whomever he directs her to. They are all innocents, her victims - people whose existence somehow threatens Rabishu's diabolical plans.

After several hundred years of this killing, Susannah becomes disenchanted with her immortal life. Even though she has "gifts" from the demon, such as fast healing and super speed, she feels she is rotting from within. Finally, when she cannot bring herself to kill an infant, she decides she's had enough. She discovers there is a way out of her contract with the demon, but it is not an easy one. And should she fail at the nearly impossible task that will give her a chance at redemption, the result will be eternal torture.

Fast forward to modern times, when Susannah, now a mortal, has reinvented herself as Maliha. She has made a few friends and has two missions: one that will cause the downfall of the demons if she succeeds, and one in which she saves enough people to balance the scales of her actions when she was the demon's minion. The narrative is told with various flashbacks that detail some of the events that occurred between the time she became mortal and the present day. The flashbacks were a bit confusing to me, and I felt disappointed that so many things were skipped over that I would have liked to know more about. There was a lot going on in the novel, and at times I wished that the narrative were a bit more focused - and there were so very many secondary characters that I never felt I got to know any of them very well. The main plot of the novel is Maliha trying to track down someone who murdered two men, and the more she discovers about the killer, the more she realizes something truly horrific is being planned, and she is the only one who stands a chance of stopping it.

It was surprising to me that a book with a supernatural premise should involve a plot that has very little to do with the supernatural. Other than the fact of Maliha's longevity and the demon involvement, the nefarious plot is technological and mundane - but no less evil because of that - and the book involves lots of high-tech gadgetry, expensive cars, helicopters, cool James-Bond-like escape pods, hidden cameras, etc. The setup takes a while, which is to be expected in the first book of a series, after all, but the narrative picks up after that, and the pace is relentless through to the end, which stops with a character-related cliffhanger that will doubtless leave readers itching for the next book. I enjoyed the writing, particularly the images that came to mind as Maliha told her story, such as in this description of an art museum she visits:
Children brought "for the culture" swarmed in a second layer below the adults' heads, like lizards scampering through the understory of a rain forest.
Maliha is a strong character, and she is very determined to do whatever it takes to assure her own redemption. I did, however, find myself wondering a bit at her desire for redemption. It seemed motivated by the fact that she did not want to kill babies, and she did not want to be tortured throughout eternity (and, after all, who cold blame her?). Yet aside from a comment or two about all the death and destruction she had caused, I never saw all that much remorse. She seems far more concerned that she even things up before she runs out of time. When, toward the end of the book, she is about to confront the bad guy, who is in the midst of unveiling his evil scheme, she finds herself confronted by two guards:
The morality of killing guards who were not necessarily evil in themselves was something that bothered her. They were just standing there, paid employees, possibly supporting families. She had no proof that as individuals they were thugs or killers, and she went out of her way to spare lives in the absence of that proof. But tonight there was no opportunity to be a kinder, gentler Maliha; she couldn't have those guards alive and blocking her escape route if they regained consciousness.
So she kills them. Note that it is not the fact that letting them live might prevent her from foiling the bad guy's plans (and thus put millions of innocent lives at stake). No, it's her own escape that she is worried about. She is depicted as amazingly resourceful, so it wouldn't be too far a stretch to think that she might be able to, say, tie and gag them? At any rate, because of this heartlessness, I never felt as emotionally involved as I might have - although I did find her situation fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the use of Sumerian mythology as a basis for the gods and demons of Maliha's world.

The first book ends with many questions unanswered, and it is clear that Maliha's quest has only just begun. One question I had was why the the demon she was formerly enslaved to hasn't just had her killed by one of his other slaves. It is clear that he is planning to, but why has he hesitated? Perhaps it will become clear in the sequel. Another question I had was why, as immensely wealthy as Maliha is, doesn't she spend some of that money saving lives? Help to relieve hundreds or even thousands afflicted by disease or famine, for example - instead of physically saving individuals a few at a time? At any rate, this is an intriguing beginning to an action-packed series that will definitely appeal to those who enjoy thrillers, supernatural or otherwise.

If you'd like a preview of the book, click here - you can browse inside, all the way up to the ninth chapter.

Books in the Mortal Path series:
1. Dark Time
2. Sacrifice
(forthcoming - 2010)

Dark Time (#1 in the Mortal Path series) by Dakota Banks (Eos, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Cheryl's Book Nook: "Dark Time is an explosive combination of James Cameron's Dark Angel and Xena, the Warrior Princess. It has all the great elements of being very dark, with a kick-ass heroine!"
Errant Dreams Reviews: "I was disappointed in the cluttered feel, the weighted-down pace, and the confusion of genre."
Poplin's Lair: "Overall, Dark Time has an amazing beginning, an okay middle, and a fantastic cliffhanger ending. It's not the best urban fantasy book out there, but Maliha is an interesting character and I do wonder what happens next, in the coming book." "The world building and back story of the demons is fresh and original with a nice scifi twist mixed with the metaphysical."

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Wrinkle in Time

One of my favorite things about being a parent is reading books I loved as a child to my own children - and having them love the books just as much as I still do. My third-grade teacher read us A Wrinkle in Time, and I remember looking forward to that after-lunch reading time all morning long.

The book is about a girl named Meg who's going through a difficult time. She is struggling at school, not because she isn't smart - she's highly intelligent, just not in a conventional way. She's constantly butting heads with teachers, and she finds herself in a dark, stubborn, angry place much of the time. It doesn't help that her older brothers are popular and seem to sail effortlessly through the social quagmires that baffle her. And beneath all her anger and dissatisfaction is the fact that her father has been away for several years, on a mysterious business trip. At first they'd received letters, but for months now there's only been silence. When she overhears malicious gossip - people are saying he left her mother for another woman - it makes Meg furious. And then there are the people who say mean things about her baby brother, Charles Wallace. Just because he didn't talk till he was almost four does not mean that he "isn't all there," as she'd overheard someone say.

At home, where her mother and Charles Wallace understand her, faults and all, Meg is happier. The book opens, however, on a dark and stormy night - so dark and stormy that Meg fears it is a hurricane. She goes downstairs and finds Charles Wallace waiting for her with a cup of hot cocoa - he always seems to know what she's going to do, what she's thinking, what she needs. He also has a cup of cocoa ready for their mother, who arrives several minutes later, and of them all, he is the least surprised by the sudden appearance of a very strange, uninvited guest: an old woman who appears at the door in the middle of the storm. He introduces her simply as Mrs Whatsit, and she makes herself at home. Before she leaves, though, Mrs Whatsit says something that astonishes Meg's mother but baffles Meg - something about a tesseract.

When Meg follows Charles Wallace to meet Mrs Whatsit the following day - as well as two even more unusual old women, Mrs Who and Mrs Which - Meg embarks on the adventure of her life. Accompanied by Calvin, a boy from school who is quite different from the popular, arrogant boy she'd imagined him to be, and little Charles Wallace, Meg is whisked across space and time in a perilous search for her father.

It is difficult to imagine how close the manuscript for this book came to never seeing publication. Editor after editor rejected it - not because it wasn't good, but because it was so different. In A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L'Engle writes about the struggle she had in finding a publisher for the book, how in one early rejection, the editor "turned it down with one hand while saying that he loved it, but didn't quite dare do it, as it isn't really classifiable." Other rejections simply came as form letters, so quickly that it seemed impossible that the manuscript could have had a fair reading. And then, once the book was finally published, it did of course receive acclaim - winning the Newbery Medal in 1963 - but it also went on to be, according to the ALA, the 22nd most frequently challenged book between 1990 and 2000.

I am always flummoxed by the fact that certain people view books with such suspicion - particularly books that are clearly advocating the need for compassion, to fight against evil and darkness, to uphold the light. L'Engle writes in A Circle of Quiet that many adults simply thought A Wrinkle in Time is too scary for children:
Children still haven't closed themselves off with fear of the unknown, fear of revolution, or the scramble for security. They are still familiar with the vocabulary of myth. It was adults who thought that children would be afraid of the Dark Thing in Wrinkle, not children, who understand the need to see thingness, non-ness, and to fight it.
Other objections to the book (according to Banned Books Project) include the fact that Jesus is listed among "the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders," and simply because it "challenges religious beliefs." Again, this is a problem why? Silly me, but I've always thought that religious beliefs were meant to be challenged, evaluated, discussed, examined - blind belief in something without reflection is, I believe, a very dangerous thing. But clearly there are many people who would disagree with me.

At any rate, this book meant so much to me when I was a kid. First of all, it was a science fiction book with a female protagonist, which I had never read before, and because of that it opened up all kinds of possibilities in my mind. It also featured a heroine who had many faults but was still likable, even admirable, who was not beautiful or popular, but who was smart - too smart to fit in well at school. That gave me some insight that I sorely needed at that time. And above all, it was a rip-roaring adventure novel, full of that sense of wonder I still cherish in the books I love, that featured people who felt incredibly real to me. This was the book that set my feet firmly in the direction of science fiction and fantasy, that fed my need to explore things beyond realm of the real and rational, while still dealing with the fundamental truths that are important to me. It was a privilege to share this one with my own children, to see that sense of wonder in their own eyes, and it gave us some great fodder for some very interesting discussions. You might even say that it challenged their beliefs.

A Wrinkle in Time (#1 in the Time Quartet) by Madeleine L'Engle (Dell Yearling, 1962)

Also reviewed at:
Dolce Bellezza: "Who writes like that anymore? Is there such substance in children's books today? In my opinion, not nearly to the extent that Madeleine writes."
Maw Books Blog: "Oh sure, I saw the Christian parallels, appreciated how it didn’t talk down to children, and can see why science fiction and fantasy fans love it. But I’m just not loving it."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "It’s magical, and L’Engle has such a passion in her writing. She has a passion for literature, for words, for other worlds, for the imagination, and for the power of children."
Things Mean a Lot: "A Wrinkle in Time is an intelligent book, the kind of book that does not talk down to children....Madeleine L’Engle is clearly not afraid to expose children to complex ideas."