Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Too Many Pinkie Pies

Now this was a delightful episode. "Too Many Pinkie Pies" was funny, well-paced, and quite sweet. Pinkie Pie is a ball of energy who loves having fun with her friends. When she has to choose between hanging out with Rainbow Dash and raising a barn with the Apple family, Pinkie remembers a legend about a mirror pond in the Everfree Forest that will allow you to duplicate yourself, and she takes advantage of it. However, the amount of Pinkie Pies quickly explodes out of control, and faced with a Pinkie plague, the town has to do something. Twilight discovers a spell to set things right, but first they need to determine which Pinkie Pie is the real Pinkie Pie - if they can.

This episode reminds me a lot of "Party of One." Pinkie can definitely be obnoxious, but she has good intentions and really cares about her friends. And Pinkie-centric episodes are nice when we get to see her as more than just a source of jokes. My heart went out to her when Pinkie started to see just how far in over her head she'd gotten and realized that she might get sent away from her friends as a consequence of her actions. The other ponies all got some screen time, and I liked the callback joke with the orange frog. The throwaway reference to the older MLP series was a nice touch too. I don't have much to say about the specifics; if I were to pick out the good moments I would have to talk about most of the episode. Overall this is a very solid episode and promises good things for season three.

Friday, November 30, 2012

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic - The Crystal Empire Parts 1 & 2

First, the musical numbers. I'm sorry to say that I found them mostly uninspired. "The Ballad of the Crystal Empire" was nice enough, being both pleasing to listen to and serving as a montage of preparations for the fair, but "The Failure Song" and "The Success Song" did nothing for me and felt shoe-horned in to meet a quota of musical numbers. Less is more, folks, and always remember that musical numbers really should only happen when the character's emotions reach a point where just talking won't cut it. I was not buying that as the case for Twilight here. Maybe for "The Failure Song" but definitely not "The Success Song." And, perhaps more crucially, if you removed these two songs, nothing would be lost, which is a good way of identifying extraneous musical numbers. Take "The Failure Song." We've already seen Twilight over-prepare for the test before leaving for Canterlot, and the first two seasons also show her scholarly abilities and growth as a person (well, pony). And her lament about not being prepared for the task which Celestia set her is also covered before the song even starts, when Twilight voices just such concerns to her mentor. I also think that the tone of song doesn't fit with the relatively darker tone of the rest of the two-parter. It feels too Disney coming off the heels of a fairly tense book scene (if you'll pardon the theatre lingo). There's some legitimately discomfiting stuff in these episodes, and there's some mood whiplash here.

But as far as the actual story goes, I have no complaint. Twilight is summoned by Princess Celestia to save the Crystal Empire by stopping Kind Sombra from stealing back control of the empire with his black crystals. I'm kind of hazy on the details, having only watched this once, but the best parts of the episode don't deal with minutia, they focus on Twilight's character arc. Enjoyable parts include the very first scene with her packing for a test in Canterlot and having a mini-version of her "Lesson Zero" freakout. She may have learned her lesson then, but that doesn't mean that Twilight's studies aren't the most important thing to her after friends and family. Besides this scene being funny, it also hearkens back to previous character moments as well as setting up how important it is to Twilight to pass this episode's test. I liked seeing Princess Luna again, and there were some cryptic exchanges between the two princesses of which I was unsure whether they were just for setting up the atmosphere of the episode or if they were hinting at a possible plot arc for this season, in the same way that the Grand Galloping Gala was a plot arc for the first season. We'll skip the first song, as I've already talked about it. When Twilight and friends arrive in the north and meet Shining Armor, that was actually fairly, well, not scary, but definitely eerier than I'd been expecting. Something I did expect which didn't come to pass was that the black crystal chunks on Shining Armor's horn would factor more into the plot than to block his magic, but I guess having him get possessed would be too much like what happened to his bride last season. The Crystal Empire itself was really freaking eerie, sort of deserted and dystopian. And the overhanging sense of oncoming doom kept the tension in the episode high. I was glad that the story followed through on Twilight having to find the Crystal Heart alone; again, that keeps the stakes high and the focus on the character who is undergoing a development arc. And Spike coming along made sense; he's her number one assistant, a nice foil for her, and the way they helped each other helped Twilight learn something about herself and helping others. This time was different from the usual sort of friendship lesson. Instead of learning to work as a team to overcome an obstacle, it was, as Princess Celestia said, about self-sacrifice, about acting on your own, but still for the good of others. And even though it hurt for Twilight to go against the conditions of the test, she made the call without much dithering, because she knew it was the right thing.

Twilight Sparkle is the protagonist of this story, but Friendship is Magic is overall an ensemble show, and the narrative for these episodes does a nice balance of keeping her at the center of things while not giving the other ponies short shrift. Rarity acts completely in character, being a supportive friend even while she is understandably distracted by all of the shiny things. Applejack is the loyal lancer to Twilight, holding down the fort and keeping things on track. Rainbow Dash is headstrong, unthinking, and a source of comic relief, especially when paired with inoffensive and timid Fluttershy. And Pinkie is just Pinkie. These five all get moments to themselves, such as when they're searching for information and running the fair, which helps balance the episode. And Spike is allowed his fair share of screen time as well, and his relationship with Twilight is, as always, adorable.

Overall I was very pleased with these two episodes as the opener for season three. Unlike some highly anticipated pieces of media, the build-up did not let down all of the fanbase's hopes and dreams. On a completely unrelated note, I think I might start crossposting my Golden Sun: Dark Dawn reviews/gameblogs here from my old blog. Keep an eye out for that, as well as for more MLP and other reviews.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Half-baked metaphors

Today I made dinner. It was a rather last-minute thing. I received the recipe by e-mail and was told to get to it. Okay. Go downstairs, raise my eyebrows at the printout. Eight ingredients? Minced garlic? Dry sherry? Well, aren't we fancy tonight? So okay, in the kitchen I start pulling out the ingredients. Ground beef, yeah. We're missing egg noodles, so we're going with rotini and penne instead, combining two partial boxes. The sherry's there, and so's the Worcestershire sauce, but we only have one can of tomato soup, so I'll have to sub in some diced tomatoes in too large a can size. There's sliced cheddar in the fridge, but no Parmesan, so let's go with mozzarella instead. I hate dishes like this anyway (I've got a lovely rant about Italian food I'll do if anyone ever gives me an opening in conversation), so what do I care if we've got the wrong cheese?

Well, I get started. Boil some water for noodles and just guesstimate the right amount, pour 'em in to cook. Start browning the meat, and chop some garlic while that's happening. Life pro tip, gotta peel garlic a bit before you get to the good stuff, and also, there are several cloves for each bulb. So don't just throw a whole thing under the chopper. Where was I going with this? Ah, yes. I don't remember about draining the meat until after I'd added the tomato sauce (because you'd think they would put something that important in the instructions), the noodles don't seem to be softening at all, the whole mess is too big for the pan, and by the time I get this hot mess (both literally and figuratively) in the oven, I am wiped out and prickling with annoyance.

You know what, though? It turned out swell. Everyone raved about my casserole. Even I didn't think it was terrible. It occurred to me later that this whole experience is an imperfect metaphor for writing. For your rough draft you've got your recipe, your outline of what you expect the story to be about. Your ingredients are all the characters, settings, plot devices, and the like, which you may have to swap out or change at a moment's notice for the betterment of the story. You slop the whole thing together, wincing at every mistake or every clunky paragraph, but the important thing is getting it in the over, finalizing that draft. And I guess you could compare the oven to editing, but that's a bit more of a stretch. Still, it can take something as simple and unexpected as a come-from-behind success at making dinner to drive home the point that fussing over perfection every step of the way while writing is counter-productive. So I'm not going to get in my own way. When I get back to cooking up this short story in a bit, I'm going to press forward, write what excites me, and shove that tasty first draft in the oven.

... Now I've made myself hungry again.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


When I first heard the concept behind Moshidora, it cracked me up. A high school girl manages her high school's baseball team using Peter Drucker's business book Management. How were they going to pull that off? I expected a comedy about a failing team that pulls wacky stunts as they vainly try to apply corporate management techniques into their training. I was not expecting a heartfelt slice-of-life show that balanced comedy and drama in a sincerely told and uplifting story. For whatever reason, baseball media seems to be especially good at this sort of underdog tale.

Kawashima Minami volunteers to manage her high school's baseball team when her best friend, and the team's current manager, Miyata Yuki is hospitalized. Minami hates baseball and knows nothing about management, but being a gung-ho young woman she visits the bookstore and finds a volume with which to educate herself about the latter. The team is full of unmotivated and discouraged young men, but Minami applies herself, and with the help of Yuki and team member Nikai, she employs Drucker's techniques to energize and focus the team, setting their sights on the Nationals.

Now, I'm not such an anime connoisseur that I can comment knowledgeably on production aspects such as animation, sound, voice acting, and the like. I will say that you're not missing anything if you skip the first two minutes of each episode, which is the introduction and opening theme, the latter of which is pretty terrible. The ending theme isn't bad, but it's nothing special. The animation is good enough that if you're just a casual viewer, like I am, you'll have no cause for complaint. Occasionally the series makes use of super-deformed art for comedic effect. The story is well-told and well-paced. We get some early episodes setting up how Minami transforms the team using management best practices, and then the series tones down on introducing new terms and concepts and goes into showing how the efforts of Minami and the others are working out for the team. There are some predictably dramatic moments, but they're handled very well. Nothing overblown; the characters act how you'd expect high school kids to act under pressure or grief. Overall, this is a funny, sweet stories that tells an uplifting story in just the right amount of time.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Musings of a real nerd girl

Over the past few days quite a few posts about "fake geek girls" have popped up on my radar. If you're not familiar with the concept, a fake geek girl is a girl who pretends to be into nerdy things just to appear attractive to nerd boys. A poser, basically. Now, if you're worried about whether you or someone you know may not, in fact, be a real nerd girl, worry no more: simply take this test and find out! And real nerds no longer need to worry about their status being doubted. Now you can just get fandom certified and have your geek cred ready to produce at any challenge.

I love the internet.

But like I said before, quite a few posts on this subject have showed up recently, and I think I know why. This article discusses the latest bout of disgusting misogyny from the comics industry, a rant by comics artist Tony Harris about how cosplay girls aren't real comics fans and are just doing it for the attention. Harris' lovely piece of badly written vitriol is just the latest example of how the battle for nerdy equality is far from won. But there's hope. Both men and women are speaking out against the prevailing culture of objectification. Happily enough, I've never really had any of this sexism directed at me personally, or I haven't noticed it if it was. (I can be rather oblivious.) But I've seen plenty of the sweeping generalizations demeaning women who are into nerdy things, and it certainly gets me fired up. In the end, we just need to stay strong, pull together, and continue to resist this treatment instead of passively accepting it. I'm lucky to know plenty of nerdy lads who hold women in equal regard, and I'm thankful for these friends every time I hear of things like this.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


I play NaNoWriMo on hardmode. One of the biggest things they stress is to let yourself go crazy and not worry about little things like spelling errors and clunky sentences. Well, that was good for me in the early years, when getting three thousand words in one month was an accomplishment and I thought that description was something that happened to other people, but these days I'm no longer a casual, to continue with the gamer theme. I play NaNoWriMo on hardmode, and that means I correct spelling errors as soon as I see the little red squiggly line, and I'll rewrite sentences if I can think of a better way to phrase something at that moment. I don't compulsively edit my work on a large scale, and I have a healthy enough sense of what can wait and what can't, but these days I take some pride in my writing, enough that I don't care to be sloppy just for the sake of sloppiness. I also research without guilt. If I want to know the correct form of address for the eldest son of a duke, I will browse the internet until I find out, never mind how long it takes, even if I happen to be in the middle of a word war.

But of course I wouldn't humble-brag about my hardmode tendencies if it were just for those little foibles. Oh, no, when I say hardmode, I do mean it. Four days ago I took 8000+ words, scrapped them, and began again from scratch, simply because my story at the time wasn't holding my interest. And that, I firmly feel, is a much worse problem than any sort of writer's block. If you're blocked and angry because of it, then you have emotion towards your story. You want to finish it, and whatever's keeping you from doing so angers you because of the depth of your connection with the narrative. But a lack of interest... That's killer. If the author isn't interested, how could a reader ever be? I had a writer's block, I guess, but the real problem was the lack of any motivation to work through it. I wasn't cudgeling my brain to figure out what happened next because I didn't care about what happened next. The perils of writing with an outline.

So now, after four days of writing I'm back to pretty much where I was after ten. I switched to the new idea midway through a day and thus only wrote one thousand then, but these past three days have seen 2.5k apiece. I will need to see about 2.5k a day every day from now on, but I'm not worried. I like my new story much better. I get to use a character concept I've been itching to take for a spin for a while now, the setting is much smaller in scale, and I'm running two different plots concurrently, romance and adventure, which satisfies my main tastes. And with that, I return to my novel, getting closer to victory one word at a time.

Friday, April 27, 2012

2001: A Space Odyssey

So apparently I forgot to review 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. No idea how that happened; I thought it was an amazing book. Nothing else I've ever read managed to convey the sheer sense of awe and longing that fills me when I contemplate the vast potentiality of the universe, nor the sense of impotent horror when confronted with the unforgiving void of space. The story starts on our own planet, but in a time so distant in the past that a human finding herself there would effectively feel an alien. We meet the ancestors of present humans and see an alien presence interact with them and give the primitive beings a push towards evolving. And then, millions of years later we're in modern times, excited and curious to learn more about some strange happenings on the moon, where there's now a colony. A strange monolith has been discovered, and an expedition is launched. That's where HAL 9000 comes in. Having only known about 2001 through pop cultural osmosis before this point, I had thought the entire book would be about the strangely doomed space expedition, but that's just one facet of the story. And I actually enjoyed the description of life aboard the Discovery One and the part about Jupiter more than the stuff with Hal, although I enjoyed the entire book. I used to be incredibly fascinated by space exploration when I was younger, and I still am. Thinking about it, Jupiter was the highlight of the book for me. But the book continues from there, with events with Hal coming to a head, and then onward to the final destination of Japetus and what's discovered there. Although I think any sort of definite ending would have been a slight let-down (human imagination is limited, and whatever an author speculates, however creative, can't quite compare to the sense of mystery and hidden wonders), what Clarke came up with grips the imagination as well as could be possible, giving an achingly vast sense of scale and emptiness of the universe, of strange wonders that we'll never experience but which could, possibly even must be out there.

I still need to watch the Kubrick flick, but if it's even half as good as the novel, it will be well worth it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Tomorrow Code

Brian Falkner's The Tomorrow Code is chilling YA sci-fi. The first time I read this book I remember staying up late to finish it because if I tried to sleep without reading the end, I knew I would be plagued with nightmares. This is a book with an agenda; the message of ecology and human meddling isn't hidden. However, the story is told well enough that this is actually very effective instead of being preachy.

Tane and Rebecca are two New Zealand teenagers who are both intellectually gifted. When Tane comes up with a hypothetical way to listen for messages sent from the future, Rebecca realizes it, and the two are shocked to find that such messages do exist - and their contents are chilling. Now the two of them, with Tane's brother, must figure out how to prevent the disaster to which the messages cryptically allude. Throw in some well-written YA relationship drama along with the science, and add a dash of post-apocalyptic horror, and you've got this book.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Wavering of Haruhi Suzumiya

As always, the writing and translation of these books blow me away. The Wavering of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa is the sixth book in the Haruhi series and another volume of short stories. First up is "Live Alive," which relates the events of the cultural festival for which the SOS Brigade filmed their movie. Kyon wanders the school looking for things to do and witnesses a most unique concert. We come to see just how much Haruhi has grown as a person since the beginning of the school year. This was always one of my favorite episodes in the anime, and it owes that to being based on a very solid, sweet story.

"The Adventures of Asahina Mikuru Episode 00" is next, and it is the story of the cultural festival movie, as narrated by Kyon. His narration is the only thing that makes this amusing, since, after all, the movie itself is supposed to suck. This one's a fun enough read, but I'd be highly surprised if it made anyone's short list of favorites. There's just not all that much to it. Although there is a conversation of veiled significance between Nagato and Koizumi which provides a little bit of interest.

"Love at First Sight" is a Nagato-centric tale. A former classmate of Kyon's has fallen in love with the alien bookworm at first sight and begs for Kyon to deliver a message. Said message leads to some cute comedy when Haruhi, of course, misunderstands, but soon the matter is put right and the brigade heads off to watch the admirer play a football game in hopes of impressing his beloved. The story is full of speculation about the nature of love and Nagato, and it overall is a good piece for characterization.

"Where Did The Cat Go?" beats out "The Adventures of Asahina Mikuru" and tops my list of absolute least favorite Haruhi stories. This one is boring and lacks any of the promised sense of mystery. I suppose it would be better to read it as another characterization piece, because that's where any of the redeeming value is. Plus, it does have Tsuruya, so that's something.

"The Melancholy of Mikuru Asahina" is the finale tale, and this one perhaps beats "Live Alive" as my favorite story in this volume. It's all about Kyon and Mikuru, with the other three brigade members only having incidental parts. Mikuru is usually only seen by Kyon, and thus the reader through his narration, as a cute moe mascot, but this time we get to see some sides of her which are usually hidden. There's a foreboding feel to the story which even the wacky final section doesn't quite mitigate.

The seventh volume doesn't come out until June, but it picks up where the last short story left off in theme. Overall, Wavering is a fun installment in the series and contains valuable information and characterization for any fan, not to be missed.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Little Women

I'm such a canon purist. I'm listening to the soundtrack for the musical adaptation of Little Women, and while the music is fun and spirited (and Sutton Foster is just, well, astonishing), what I have gleaned from the songs and the Wikipedia article shows me that the musical plays fast and loose with the particulars of the story. I guess that the musical is a bit too overstated for the quiet, humble tale that is the book. Well, I've not read the libretto, so perhaps not, but I'm left with reservations.

I don't know to which I was first exposed, the 1994 movie (which I recently bought online in a DVD sale and am eagerly awaiting since it is among the many, many titles lacking from Netflix's streaming library) or the Great Illustrated Classics version. I always liked the story, although I lamented that spoiled Amy shared my name rather than spirited Jo (because what girl wouldn't want to be like Jo?). A year or so ago I read the first volume of Little Women and was indignant to find that the library book I'd received didn't have the second part as well. At that point I didn't know that it was two books in the main story (yeah, I know there are two sequels as well). And the really good bits, the payoff only comes in part two.

The first book has the characters as girls, but now they're all young women and more complex. For one thing, I was extremely relieved and gratified by the character development Amy saw. For another, during the first part, you could see Laurie falling heavily for Jo, and, like Laurie, I, and probably plenty of other readers, thought he and Jo totally went together (I recall reading that Alcott totally ticked off the shippers in her own time by not having Jo and Laurie end up together). So when she turned him down, I knew what was coming, and I wasn't sure I'd buy it. No worries. The professor was introduced and developed in a charming fashion, and it became easy to see how well he and Jo complemented each other. And what I really enjoyed was in the home stretch of events leading up to the proposal (actually both sets of proposals in part two), how the romance was not overblown and dramatic, but simple and true, Jo with her awkwardness in the rain, Laurie's rowboat metaphor, things like that make the story all the more endearing. And if occasionally the moralizing seems a little trite to our modern sympathies, well, the sincerity of the work redeems it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Now this is good YA fantasy. Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns is an exciting and rewarding read. Start with a heroine, a shy, overweight princess who's also a chosen one and who is being married to a king she's never met. Throw in a surprising knowledge of tactics and the suggestion of hidden depths. Then add palace intrigue, prophecies, and magic, all in a setting based more on Spain than England, unlike a lot of fantasy novels. Basically, there's a lot going on here, and it's all well done. Elisa is a heroine you quickly come to root for. She grows, she learns about herself, and her weight doesn't end up defining her, while there's no magical beautification either. I started reading this with a bit of skepticism that it might be just another YA fantasy novel, but I quickly came to the point where I couldn't put it down. For everyone who wants a book that's not afraid to be different, check this out. Oh, and, yes, there is romance, but that's just another aspect that Carson handles deftly and realistically.

Friday, March 30, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird - 10/35

How do you find the words to do justice to a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird? Harper Lee's masterpiece is one of the first classics I was exposed to. My mom had borrowed the book on tape from the library and was listening to it in the car. I was in maybe the fourth grade or so, not that much older than Scout. I guess my sister would have been in kindergarten. Anyway, we would be in the car sometimes when Mom listened to the book, which was read by a female narrator with a soothing, mellow voice, and before long we began to get invested in the story. I remember scolding my mom for listening to it when we weren't in the car and bugging her for updates about what we'd missed. It's not so surprising. The story's told from Scout's point of view, and she is not quite six years old when the novel begins. Even though it's the recollection of an older Scout, the events are still related in a simple, understandable style. As a kid, I could follow the events of life in Maycomb County: Scout, Jem, and Dill making up games and trying to get Boo Radley to come out of the house, the puzzling rituals of school, having to deal with adults who have forgotten what it's like to be a kid. I know that I obviously didn't get everything the first time I heard the story, but when we got to reading it in eighth grade English, I was over the moon because I loved this book. There's something about how it's written. Scout tells us the pace of life in Maycomb is slow, and so is the pacing of the book, but it's artful, done for effect, and thus accentuates the sense of setting instead of detracting from the book at all. The characters are wonderful. Atticus Finch is perhaps the most lauded figure in modern fiction; he's a quiet paragon of morality, but he's still a real person, not a cardboard saint. Scout is an engaging narrator and a cute kid. I never really liked Jem much, but mainly because of how realistic a portrayal of a boy that age he is. The whole town of Maycomb is populated by real characters. Miss Maudie, Mrs. Dubose, Misses Tutti and Frutti Barber, Mr. Underwood, Aunt Alexandra, Miss Stephanie Crawford, Boo Radley, and the list could go on. They all bring life to the lovingly detailed town. This is a book that's definitely character-driven over plot driven. The pivotal courtroom scenes don't actually take up all that much of the book, though the trial's impact on the story is pervasive. Because of the gifted, human storytelling, this is a book that I have continued to come back to and read again and again. And I always pull something different from it.

Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea

Although it falls oh-so-terribly far outside my usual choice of reading, I found myself in stitches while reading Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. Chelsea Handler presents us with a hilarious collection of short essays about a variety of topics, including her first babysitting job, taking her father on vacation, a disturbing massage experience, and a birthday party for someone no one attending actually liked. Some essays feature comedic comeuppances, others give Chelsea the last laugh. They're all quite short, extended anecdotes, really, and the book is a fast read. Nonetheless I couldn't put it down and plan to check out more of Ms. Handler's writing when I'm looking for something light and entertaining.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet - 11/35

A Swiftly Tilting Planet is another L'Engle book, but this time Charles Wallace is the main character, not Meg. It's Thanksgiving, and the Murry family is gathered for the dinner. Calvin, now Meg's husband, is at a conference in England, but his mother, a harsh, crude woman, has joined them. When news comes for Mr. Murry that a mad South American dictator is threatening nuclear war, the joyful celebration is overshadowed by fear. Calvin's mother has something to say on the matter, however, speaking an ancient rune and charging Charles Wallace with doing something about the situation. And because he's a Murry, the family to whom weird things happen which must be taken in stride, he does indeed do something. He partners up with a unicorn and travels through time in order to change an ancient feud, using the rune and his ability to go Within.

Although I miss Meg in this book, she's still around, staying connected with Charles Wallace through a special kind of telepathy. And I really enjoyed the theme of the past repeating itself and being changed; that's a favorite of mine. Also enjoyed were the different stories unfolding in each of the different eras, and some of the side trips Charles Wallace and Gaudior embarked on.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mr. Popper's Penguins - 9/35

There's not really much to say about Mr. Popper's Penguins. I know they recently made a movie adaptation, but from the little I saw of it on television, one's better to steer clear of it and just read the charming novel upon which the film was based. The premise is this: Mr. Popper, a house painter, has a great love of learning about the world, especially Antarctica. He reads all about it and follows Admiral Drake's Antarctic expedition's progress over the radio. And then a funny thing happens. The Admiral responds to one of Mr. Popper's fan letters and sends him a present, a penguin of his own. The Popper household is turned upside down adjusting to the new family member, and soon the penguin is joined by others. What follows are a series of wacky but sweet adventures as the Popper family takes their performing penguins on tour. This is definitely a book for young readers, but if you want a whimsical diversion, it's worth checking out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - 8/35

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was mildly disappointing. I was expecting this classic sci-fi novel to be... more. The idea of live animals as a status symbol in a dying world was interesting, and I was intrigued by the idea of artificial intelligence so real that it's indistinguishable from humans. But the execution of the story felt sloppy. Maybe that was intentional, a style thing. I'm finding it hard to articulate how or why it made me feel this way. There was a lot of rushing around, a lot of suspense that got dropped. Some concepts, like Mercerism, were mentioned but not really explained. It's just some new religious thing. The androids and the Mission Street Hall of Justice, that whole bit was just plain confusing. It was an interesting enough read, and I'll check out Blade Runner eventually too, but this novel won't become a favorite.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tam Lin

If you know the story of Tam Lin, then you may be puzzled when you first dive into Pamela Dean's daunting volume of the same name. The life of college student Janet Carter during the 1970s seems a far cry from any sort of fairy tale (though the source material is actually a Scottish ballad, anyway). Dean takes her time bringing the main plot to bear, instead establishing and developing her characters, their relationships, and the setting of Blackstock College. She also gives free rein to an obvious love of literature and language; if anything threatens to shatter suspension of disbelief it's how amazingly well-read in the most arcane of literature these kids are. Still, Janet is the daughter of an English professor and the rest of her crew all have equally valid reasons for being walking literary anthologies. And if you love such subjects, it's a joy to read about new and familiar pieces and see how they fit into the story. Even though the book is based off the ballad "Tam Lin," that's hardly the only story that finds itself woven into the novel. Shakespeare, Stoppard, Fry, and Keats are all names tossed around casually while maintaining high significance to the plot.

And, yes, there is a plot, even if it takes its time becoming evident. The ending is quite satisfying, and it's worth the four hundred pages it takes to get to that point. Janet reminds me a fair bit of Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, that same flawed yet likeable, somewhat stubborn personality. Same slightly unbelievable smarts, too. Books like these always spur me to read more classics and tough stuff, just to prove my book nerd cred. Anyway, this one's highly recommended. It can be a bit daunting and confusing, but if you just give the book the benefit of the doubt, you'll be glad you did.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Super Mario

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan. We're getting all non-fiction up in here with a history of Nintendo. Now, if there's a type of non-fiction of which I'm particularly enamoured, it's corporate and industry histories. And video games and nerd culture are very much of interested to me. So this was an obvious fit. Super Mario is a history of Nintendo with a heavy focus on the Mario franchise. It's pretty well researched. The writing style was a lot more casual than I'm used to in this sort of book; my benchmark for this type of book is the studiously end-noted The Emperors of Chocolate. Still, it's readable, mostly a fast read (the final chapter bogged down a good bit), and very entertaining. Well worth pairing this with the recently reviewed Ready Player One.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thirteenth Child

I've greatly enjoyed Patricia Wrede's other forays into historical fantasy, so when I saw that she'd written such a book in the setting of the American West, I was all over it. The frontier setting is a favorite of mine when I can find books that handle daily life out west rather than cowboys and gunfighters. And Thirteenth Child has that in spades. It's the tale of Eff Rothmer, the thirteenth child in a family of magicians. Everyone knows that a thirteenth child is terrible bad luck, and so Eff and her family are relieved when Eff's father gets a position teaching magic at a university out west, just east of the Great Barrier, a magical barrier that keeps dangerous magical wildlife out of civilized settlements. As Eff grows up, she learns more about magic, the skills that make her special, and her place in the world around her.

This book interests me in how much time it covers. We meet Eff when she's five and her family moves out west, and the book details the years until she's eighteen. It's got a rambling pace and is very slice of life. Eff's a good narrator and an interesting character, and the supporting cast is likewise. This alternate America fascinated me, with its differently derived names and altered flow of historical events. The integration of magic is done well; it's treated realistically, as a skill anyone might learn and which is used practically for little things like housekeeping. Overall, I highly recommend this for anyone with an interest in either fantasy or historical fiction. You'll find yourself pleased on both accounts.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Wind in the Door

A Wind in the Door is even weirder than A Wrinkle in Time. I mean, we can dig space travel and other planets, sure, that's sci-fi, even if how it's framed is rather unconventional. But A Wind in the Door is an even more fantastic Fantastic Voyage. Young Charles Wallace, beloved younger brother of Meg Murry, is sick, a strange disease afflicting him on a cellular level. But that doesn't concern him as much as the dragons he saw in the vegetable garden. When he, Meg, and their friend Calvin go to investigate, they find that the dragons are actually a cherubim, and with his help and the help of a Teacher, they must travel inside Charles Wallace's mitochondria and use a form of telepathy to defeat the Echthroi, the force of nothingness who want to wipe out all goodness and existence in the universe.


For all that, it's an enjoyable follow-up to A Wrinkle in Time, returning to the same beloved characters, especially stubborn and dramatic Meg. There are some weird concepts, but the writing eases you into them, and you never feel like L'Engle is condescending to you. The book makes sense, but it's really something you experience, just letting yourself be wrapped along in the joy of the triumph of good and love.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Forest Born

Forest Born is a satisfactory wrap-up to the Books of Bayern. Once again we have a protagonist related to those who have come before, although, unlike Razo and Enna, Rin didn't make an appearance in any of the previous books. As her own character, I don't quite like her as much as the other three, but I really enjoy seeing her perspective, almost an outsider's perspective, on Isi, Enna, Dasha, and the others. Plus, Rin's inner conflict makes a lot more sense once you get to the last third or so of the book. I like that this book wraps up both the Tiran conflicts and comes full circle to plot threads from the first book. Also, showing that no gift is black and white, only evil or only good, is a nice, balanced touch. And Rin doesn't get a love interest, which I like, because we already have three couples, and, anyway, some folks aren't ready for love, whether because of their age or because they've got personal issues to sort out. Once again we see Shannon Hale at her most descriptive and evocative, and there's plenty of danger and action. I stayed hooked because at a couple points I had no idea how Rin and the others could possibly get out of their predicament. Anyway, this was a satisfying read and good closure for the series.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

River Secrets - 7/35

River Secrets is the third book of Bayern, following Shannon Hale's Enna Burning and The Goose Girl. This one is interesting because its protagonist, Razo, differs from the leads in the other two books both by being a boy and by not having elemental powers. Indeed, it's his insecurity about how ordinary he is that forms a backbone for his development in the story.

The plot is basically this: after the war with Tira, Bayern has to send an ambassador to the southern kingdom, and with the ambassador are some troops, including Razo, Finn, and, as the ambassador's lady in waiting, Enna. Bayern wants peace, but Tira's assembly may yet vote for war, so currying favor with the public is important. But that won't be easy when someone with fire speaking is burning Tirans and trying to frame Bayern. Meanwhile, Razo meets the charming Lady Dasha, who seems to be hiding something. Nothing's as it seems in this city of rivers and secrets, including Razo, who learns a lot about who he is and the man he is becoming.

This is a fun book. Isi is a doormat for most of her book and continues to be calm and reserved. Enna embodies her element; she's always animated but can be a little prickly too. Razo is just an all-around fun guy. It's not hard to see why he's able to make friends with both kitchen staff and royalty. I have to say, I really enjoy the friendship between him and Enna. No romance, just care for each other. They balance each other well. Dasha's pretty cool too, but I think her better development comes later. One thing I especially like about these books is how even when the main character changes the others are still there, still important, still have their own agendas and motivations. And this doesn't change in the fourth book, either, the review of which will be coming before long.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ready Player One - 6/35

Ready Player One is referred to as sci-fi, which isn't surprising as it takes place in the future and inside a video game. But there's at least as much reason to consider it a fantasy novel, in more than one way. The novel is a pretty standard quest in its structure. In the future, the OASIS virtual reality MMO is so popular that it's supplanted the real world for much of humanity, including uber 80s geek Wade Watts. Wade's obsession with a decade long before his own stems from a contest put forth by OASIS' creator James Halliday. Halliday, who grew up in the 1980s, made his will into a contest. Whoever could find the hidden Easter egg embedded deep within OASIS would get his fortune. And the clues are all related to 1980s pop culture. (Maybe it's bitterness due to having been born only two years before that decade ended, but the 1980s fanboying didn't quite strike a chord with me. But it is important to the book that the focus be on the 80s, and it's quite cleverly done.) Anyway, to get to the Easter egg, egg hunters (known as gunters) must find three keys and solve puzzles behind three gates. It's so very RPG. Obviously Wade finds one of the keys, and before he knows it he's in the spotlight and in the race for the egg. Along the way he gains allies and finds romance, all the while opposing the dastardly IOI corporation.

Besides being modeled after a basic fantasy quest, the book is also nerd wish fulfillment fantasy. It's what every teen/twenty-something male nerd wants: adventure, validation for devoting his life to meaningless trivia and skills, the love of a woman, money, power, etc. But while I recognize this, I also commend Ernest Cline for writing in Wade a truly likeable protagonist and a very well-rounded supporting cast. Plus, the OASIS is freaking cool. And this book has the most realistic portrayal of the whole "save the world in an online game" setup I've ever seen. It's hard to have tension and suspense when it's avatars at stake, not human lives, but since OASIS is such an integral part of the world and having your avatar killed loses you everything, including levels and items, and since the conflict is brought into the real world as well, the dramatic stakes are satisfactorily high.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time - 5/35

A Wrinkle in Time is weird. For starters, how do you even classify it? Coming of age novel? Yeah, there's a good bit of that. Meg Murry is one flawed character, and I love her for it, always have since I first read the book back in grade school, and her character development is great. Quite realistic, since she'll learn something and then forget it or be too impatient to put that lesson into practice and end up having to overcome that fault yet again. Who among us hasn't experienced that? This girl is incredibly flawed. She's awkward, a bit of a delinquent, a bit of a drama queen, but she's utterly endearing at the same time. Determined and pessimistic in equal measures, impatient, loyal, smart, dense, just a really human mix of traits. So really, a good bit of the book is about her growing as a person. But this is not a coming of age novel. So maybe it's science fiction. Tesseracts, dimensions, traveling through space to alien planets. All hallmarks of sci-fi. But, well, maybe I haven't been reading the right science fiction, because literary allusions and Christian imagery don't seem very scientific. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which may technically be aliens, but they're never presented in that light, seeming to be more beings of magic and faith than anything. Really, the religious themes running through L'Engle's books makes a good case for Christian fiction. But again, to pigeonhole the book into that genre is to ignore all of the other wonderful elements.

This is a book that breaks the mold. It combines genres in a joyous journey across time and space on a quest for something as simple as one girl's father and something as heavy as the fight of good against evil. It's a children's book that does not talk down to children, explaining the more complex concepts in the narrative but not spoonfeeding them to the reader. And plenty of the literary allusions and name-drops I didn't even get until I was an adult. (To me, Ariel was always a mermaid; what middleschooler knows The Tempest?)

A Wrinkle in Time
is always a joy to read, a return to a warm world of knowledge and family and the triumph of good over evil, even if the world seems cold and petty at times, even if it's hard to fight the good fight.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Night Circus - 4/35

This one, surprisingly enough, did not win any awards, despite all the talk about it. I went into reading Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus with a little bit of hesitation. You see, I'm a literary hipster; if something's too mainstream, I'll avoid it on principle. Oh, I know it sounds bad, but come on. Think of it from my p0int of view. I read more than anyone I know. If a person who reads three books a year comes and raves about the latest fad novel, I think I'm allowed to take their opinion with a grain of salt when they say it's the best thing they've ever read. Your literary tastes are limited to Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games; excuse me if I don't weigh your views on the same level as my own.

Anyway, I ordered The Night Circus from the library on a whim, figured I'd give it a stab. Interestingly enough, it begins with a section in second-person present tense. That's just a teaser, though. The book drops into third-person soon enough, though it retains the present tense. I don't really like that choice in most cases, but this book was good enough that I was able to overlook it for the most part.

Where the novel succeeds is atmosphere. A spooky, mysterious circus, magic and a mysterious contest, nineteenth century Europe. The descriptions are tantalizing. The whole thing appealed to my sense of the theatrical. The plot is actually quite basic, centering around the aforementioned magic contest. Watching the characters and the circus grow and unfold alongside each other, the experience of the novel, is the real prize here. I quite liked Celia. She was... Well, the word that comes to mind is "cool." Celia was cool. Always in control, knowing what the score was, did not, and this was what really did it for me, did not allow romance to turn her into a vapid second-fiddle heroine. Not for the most part, at any rate, and less than Marco. Which is not to say that I disliked Marco. He was fine. There just wasn't as much of interest in him to me personally. The one thing I thought was lacking was the ending. There was rather a build up to a big defining moment for the resolution of the contest and the end of the Night Circus, but I thought that the resolution was a bit too pat. Not enough to earn my dislike, though. Overall, I wholeheartedly endorse this book for anyone with a love of magic, mystery, and historical fiction.

Update 2/28: This book did win an Alex award, so there's that.

Enna Burning - 3/35

So if the conflict in The Goose Girl comes about mainly due to outside actions and Ani's own passivity, the second book in the series, Enna Burning, is all about the proactive choices of Enna, Ani's companion from the first book. War is coming to Bayern, and as the best friend of the queen, Enna finds herself in the thick of events. She has plenty to worry about on a personal level as well: her friend Finn is in love with her, Ani (now known as Isi) is having trouble controlling her gift of speaking to the wind, and Enna's own brother has discovered the talent of controlling fire. However, it soon becomes clear that the fire controls him, and when Enna learns the skill as well, she finds out just how difficult it can be. But fire magic is a useful tool in wartime, and Enna struggles with her desires to help Bayern win the war, to stay loyal to her friends, and to give into the urge to burn.

What I like about this second book is that it ups the stakes of the first and shows that actions have consequences and that while fairy tale endings are nice, life doesn't just freeze at the happily ever after. Isi's wind powers helped her reclaim her title in The Goose Girl, but now they have their drawbacks. Enna weighs the pros and cons of learning fire even after seeing how it destroyed her brother, and while she is able to help Bayern greatly, it also brings her tremendous personal suffering. And Enna makes some bad decision, ones that we as readers can see are pretty darn stupid, but the narrative also gives us sympathy for Enna because we see how she's struggling to do what she knows is right in the face of her urges to burn, and also how her view of what is right is being slowly warped even as she struggles.

As usual, Shannon Hale's language is lush and descriptive, painting vivid pictures in your head. The characters are realistic and sympathetic, and there is plenty of action and excitement along with more commonplace moments that provide a breather and characterization. One improvement from The Goose Girl is that Enna Burning kicks off right into the action. While that obviously shows Hale's improvement as a writer, it also speaks for the character of Enna, who is definitely not one to sit around waiting for things to happen. And for the sake of comparison, here is the review I wrote the first time I read this book.

Turns out this one won awards as well. Chalk up one more read for the challenge! And lest you think I'm falling behind, I have a huge backlog of books I've read but have not reviewed. So yeah.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Thief Lord - 2/35

Another book I've reviewed before, but I enjoyed rereading Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord. I like its depiction of Venice (an Italian city I've not seen but wish to visit). The child characters are all interesting. Bo's childish behavior (he's five) is realistic for a kid that age, and it also allows him to be a very useful plot advice from time to time. Prosper is a straight man character, pretty serious for a twelve-year-old, trying not to give in to thieving and always doing his best to be a mature and moral example for his little brother. I also liked Hornet, who didn't suffer much from being the token girl. Scipio was kind of annoying, but then he's supposed to be a pompous, if good-hearted, kid who thinks he knows more than he does and fancies himself practically an adult. The adult characters are just the sort you want for a story with young protagonists who operate outside the mainstream. Victor and Ida are unconventional but not irresponsible, and you end up rooting for them as well as for the kids.

The plot itself is pretty simple, and for all the book has a very magical feel to it, except for one element late in the book, everything is actually very mundane. Kids running away from relatives because they're unhappy, orphans who steal to survive, a private investigator who works to pay the bills, an an eccentric photographer. But the way they're combined gives one suspenseful, hushed feeling to the whole story.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Fifties: A Women's Oral History

This book by Brett Harvey is enlightening, informative, and alternately entertaining and horrifying. Told heavily through the author's interviews with women who were coming of age in the 1950s, you get a broad picture of what life was like for the fair sex at that time. Talk about repression! I'm on the conservative side, but the way women at that time were forced to regard their sexualities and their personalities is sickening. Granted, I knew life during the 50s wasn't really like a rerun of Leave It To Beaver, but the misogyny that pervaded the culture, that was taken for granted by men and unthinkingly swallowed by women... It's definitely inspiring of righteous indignation - right up until you picture yourself living in a time like that, and then it's just scary. The way brilliant women were forced to turn their back on higher education, how society brainwashed them into thinking that they could only fulfill their purpose as women if they sacrificed their lives to the household and their husband's career, how anyone who was different was made to feel that they were wrong or less of a women...

This book is stylistically very easy to read, scholarly authoritative but simply written. A large amount of it is told through the words of the interview subjects. For a unique view on a fascinating decade, check out The Fifties: A Women's Oral History.

Lords and Ladies

It's Terry Pratchett. Go read this now.

Okay, a bit more substance. Lords and Ladies is a Discworld novel, and a Witches novel to be more specific. Featuring Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick, this book takes place directly following Witches Abroad (which in turn follows Wyrd Sisters). King Verence of Lancre has arranged to marry Magrat, which she wants, but it's hard for her to reconcile her romantic, free-spirited nature with Verence's new kingliness. Meanwhile, Granny Weatherwax is busy dealing with a foe from her past. The wards keeping the Fair Folk away from Discworld have been weakening, and Midsummer approaches.

So the Witches books tend to draw on literature and drama and folklore. Wyrd Sisters is based on the Scottish play, and Witches Abroad riffs on Cinderella and fairy tales in general. In Lords and Ladies, it's fairy lore (and A Midsummer Night's Dream?) and Tam Lin. (Maskerade, which I believe comes next, is The Phantom of the Opera.) So you've got the usual stuff about fairy circles and iron, but Pratchett, unlike some modern fantasy authors, doesn't romanticize fairies. He, through Granny Weatherwax, scoffs at that and plays up the alien cruelty of the fair folk that used to be prevalent in folk tales.

So there's some background. Anyway, as for the story itself, it's good. Granny Weatherwax is always an interesting character. She doesn't subscribe to the same pedestrian ways of thinking as most people. Her headology means she's always looking deeper and at the same time what she does is simple and obvious. Even though Granny is good, she struggles with wanting power and knowledge, and watching her try to always stay on top of things and do things her own way is fascinating. This is a strong female character. And Magrat's part of the story is fun, too, in its own way, for while we respect Granny, it's a bit difficult for the average person to identify with her. Magrat is more our speed, with her romantic dreams and headstrong, inexperienced behavior. She also gets some pretty awesome moments.

For being a non-City Watch book and an earlier Discworld novel, this is a very fun, solid read. I recommend it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove

It's an absurd premise. A psychiatrist switches her patients from anti-depressants to placebos. A blues musician unwittingly summons up a sea monster. Murder, marijuana, sex, and sword-swinging action all combine in characters on the far side of normal. To describe the plot turns in any more detail would deprive readers of the joy of being pleasantly surprised. Instead I'll just say that Christopher Moore has a genius for flawed, weirdly, strangely flawed characters who, despite their odd behavior and failings, are genuinely endearing, like pothead constable Theophilius Crowe, insane former actress Molly Michon, and a whole supporting cast of loveable wackos. I've read some of Moore's works in the past and have always enjoyed them, and this was no exception. If you like humor, you'll like this one.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Not Eoin Colfer's first foray into noir, but Plugged is decidedly more adult than his Half-Moon Investigations and its grade-school protagonist. Our protagonist is a former soldier and current bouncer Daniel McEvoy, who's just trying to get along in life without remembering any more of his past than he has to. When a dame he fancies gets bumped off and a friend goes missing without a trace, McEvoy is roused to action to find justice, even if it takes unconventional methods. Through several convoluted plotlines, McEvoy encounters unforeseen allies and enemies and eventually unravels all of the conspiracies that have been working around him. Overall a fun read, especially if you like Colfer's other works. Daniel McEvoy is likeable enough, for all his rough and gritty past and personality. The humor in the book is great, especially when it comes to some of the minor characters like the upstairs neighbor. Everything really ties together too. Right near the end I was worrying about an unresolved plotline when it seemed like the book was ending, and all of the sudden it pulled together perfectly. As long as you don't mind strong language for the sake of characterization, this is a good read.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Abarat: Absolute Midnight

Too big. That's my main thought and main complaint with the third book in Clive Barker's Abarat series. Now, this is the third book is a series, and it's a good series, so if you don't want spoilers, stop reading now because in the next paragraph I'll get specific. For all three books, mind, so skip to the final paragraph for spoiler-free thoughts on Absolute Midnight if you've not yet read it.

Right from the first I was confused and overwhelmed. Suddenly Candy's reunited with everyone. I seriously thought I'd missed a book in between this and the last one. Events began to get big and tumultuous, but I was glad when Candy and Malingo went to exorcise the princess, because that felt like the sort of strange buddy-buddy adventure they'd been having since book one, and I just really enjoy the dynamic between the two. The internal strife Candy has over losing Princess Boa is interesting, a unique problem that, to my mind, didn't get the page time it deserved. But I guess there wasn't enough room. Onward to bigger and better things! Christopher Carrion gets a bit woobified (see TV Tropes), but there's been groundwork for that since book one, so I could buy it. He's kind of like Prince Zuko in a way. Mater Motley makes for a pretty great villain anyway, and the fact that she consorts with demons from beyond time and space is pretty darn sweet, although I have to wonder how they're going to wrap things up. Didn't quite care for Gazza. He joins the group really abruptly, switches allegiances after one good look at Candy, and doesn't seem to have any personality beyond standard-issue shounen hero and his devotion to Candy. Yeah, I'll take Malingo any day, because at least his devotion comes from believable backstory, and he's known Candy for more than, like, two days. I don't oppose romance in books as a rule, we all know that, but this just wasn't built up.

Like I said, the whole book felt too epic, too sweeping, too big. We're rushed from event to event, following over half a dozen characters, juggling a crapton of plotlines. The book is, like, six hundred pages long, but that somehow seems too short. Holy peas. For me, the allure of the first two books was that it's one girl on her own in a strange, magical world, having to make her way and figure things out and rely on her wits. She's got a bit of a specialness to her, but she still has to work for things. The best part of the series is Candy. She's awesome, and I regret that the scale of the books has increased to a point where she has to be super special to keep things moving along. Then again, as we may also know, I don't really like epic high fantasy except in very special cases, so it's YMMV.

Spoiler-free conclusion: If you liked the first two books, Absolute Midnight is worth reading. The art is still great, and there are a lot of fun and exciting moments. For all its pitfalls, the book is still good, and I'm excited for the next one.

Friday, January 13, 2012


Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is a strange but engaging book. Set in the swamps of Florida, it's narrated by Ava Bigtree, a thirteen-year-old girl who aspires to be an alligator wrestler like her mother. When her mother dies and the family's alligator park Swamplandia! loses its star performer, Ava's strange but idyllic life starts to fracture. Her sister starts talking to ghosts, her father comes up with schemes to keep the park running, and her brother runs away to the mainland. And Ava herself must go on a journey deep into the swamps with a mysterious companion.

The strange is described as commonplace, and the commonplace treated as strange. It's this reversal that gives Swamplandia! a lot of its mystical atmosphere. This keeps you guessing as to whether this book includes supernatural elements or not. Is this a kind of magical realism with ghosts and the underworld? Are those things just childish daydreams? The style keeps you interested as mysteries are slowly presented, followed, and (mostly) wrapped up.

I'm having a hard time giving my thoughts on this one, and I think that's because what I expected and what I got were two different things. It's no fault of the author's; at most it's the fault of whoever wrote the back cover copy combined with me reading into it what I wanted. This is mostly a realistic fiction novel with the occasional touch of, like, magical realism, whereas I was expecting more of the latter, perhaps verging into the fantastic. Overall, this is a very good book, and it's not even in a genre I usually enjoy. Everything was written with a deft, assured hand, and even parts that might have turned me off were handled well. Good book.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s

Non-fiction, but very much a story all the same. Ethan Mordden's history of Broadway musicals by decade continues in Open a New Window, and this is one volume I've read a couple times because it contains chapters about some of my favorite older shows. The more familiar you are with Broadway history, the more you'll get from this book, but if you're willing to take things as they come this series makes a decent introduction to the shows and the people who made them.

Among other productions, Mordden discusses that musical comedy gem She Loves Me, a personal favorite of mine, and this book is where I first learned of it. There's sections on 1776, Hello, Dolly!, Cabaret, and Fiddler on the Roof, as well as dozens upon dozens of less-known shows. Though not purposely obfuscating, Mordden doesn't hesitate to throw around show business names and jargon. Indeed, it's his familiar and even gossipy style that keeps the book from being a dry textbook history. His anecdotes and opinions ring with authority and keep you interested. The series runs the decades from the 1920s to the 1970s, and he has written many, many other books on Broadway, opera, Hollywood, and related subjects.

On the Beach

On the Beach by Nevil Shute isn't an easy book to read. Oh, stylistically it's fine. A simple, flowing writing style that paints word pictures and subtly evokes emotions, not bashing you over the head. Understated is probably a good word. No, the difficulty in this book comes from the subject matter. Spoiler alert: everyone dies. Well, what do you expect from a book about the repercussions of a nuclear war that covered the world in deadly fallout?

Set in Melbourne, Australia, the book deals with the lives of a handful of people who must come to terms with the inevitable end. So far south, they are among the very last in the world to suffer from the radiation sickness that has killed the rest of humanity. Three of our protagonists are naval officers working on a submarine, the last one in commission, and the sub's missions into irradiated zones lend the book some tense excitement, that quiet terror of entering a dead land. Little eerie mysteries must be resolved, hopes dangled in front of the dying world only to be yanked away, because there's no happy ending, just meeting your end with a quiet dignity. It's hard to read this when the book makes no bones about how things are going to end up. But you read on because of how skillfully the concept is handled and because of how well-drawn the characters are. Though On the Beach is apparently Shute's best-known work, I discovered him through A Town Like Alice and was charmed by his writing. It's his character work, really, that impresses. There's a pervasive sense of dignity in both of those works.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Goose Girl - 1/35

I've already reviewed The Goose Girl on here, so I'm going to give over the discussion to what drew me in and kept me going in this reread.

First of all, it took me days to get through part one. The first eighty-two pages are not bad. They're just quite slow and the rest of the book is so much better. It's good, it sets up the story and builds the world. Part one introduces the old stories of the types of speaking and shows Ani learning bird language. We get to enjoy Hale's wonderful prose, lushly painting this world for us. The forest scenes in particular are beautiful. We also get to know Ani before she undergoes all her character development. But the beginning just isn't exciting, not until the very end.

The most satisfying thing about this book is watching Ani grow to be able to earn her happy ending. She starts out as a rather boring, spineless doormat. Not a character who you hate, but she's also not someone you root for right from the get-go. You're lukewarm towards her for a while, her situation, not her character, keeping you interested. But that's the point, because that's who she is until she finds herself having to take charge of her life. Ani starts out really awkward, and we get to read the natural evolution of her character as she has to fend for herself, learn the dignity of work, becomes able to trust others again, and falls in love. And what I love about the end is that she is not inspired to take action for herself, for her own personal happily ever after, but because she knows that, whatever the personal risk, she has to prevent war from breaking out.

The culture of Bayern is well-developed. This isn't a bland fairy tale kingdom. We see traditions and festivals and get a feel for internal politics when it comes to the relations between the city and the Forest folk. The characters besides Ani are fleshed out as well. Selia's behavior and motives are natural, if not in the least sympathetic. Ungolad is mysterious but not one-dimensional. All of the workers ring true as people, and the scenes with them are a lot of fun. And Geric has a distinct personality that shows through, even for as little relative page time as he has.

Happily enough I picked up Enna Burning, the next book in the series, when I was out the other day. So, award-winning or not, I'll be reading it again soon enough. Finished On the Beach today too, so I'll review it soon, though it doesn't seem to have won any awards. I want to get a headstart on the challenge, you see. Oh well! Next up is Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s, an old favorite of mine.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Award-Winning-Books Reading Challenge

Read 35 award-winning books in 2012?

Looks like first up is The Goose Girl, which, luckily for me, has won several awards. I'll start pulling together a list of other award-winners to tackle throughout the year. But yeah, thirty-five books in a year? Cake, bro. Platinum level participation is go.

Before starting The Goose Girl, I read The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore, which was a funny and engaging Christmas book. It had zombies and angels and warrior babes, and it reminded me to seek out more of his books. Apparently this story used characters from some of Moore's other books, so I might as well start with those.