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.