The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

Read: 25 October, 2016

This is the story of the Grace children. After their parent’s separation, they move into their great aunt Lucinda’s old home – a house that has stood empty for years, ever since Lucinda went to live in a mental health facility. Almost immediately, strange things begin to occur…

The kid and I read the box set edition of this story, which combines all five books. Reading them all together like this, it’s hard to imagine how the series would even work as separate books. The first book stands alone all right, but the rest only really have a shared macro arc. They start, plot happens, and they end suddenly, without proper arcs of their own. Even the first book only works as a stand alone because it’s focus is on the initial discovery of the mythical creatures. My most generous guess is that the publishers didn’t want the whole story to look too daunting for emergent readers, but my cynical guess is that it was an attempt to cash in on the series format that’s been so popular with children’s books since Harry Potter.

Taken as a whole, the story lacks a certain focus. There’s an excellent build in the first book, but then it starts to break apart. Things happen, but the atmospheric building is lost. Occasional references are made to the Big Bad, Mulgarath, but he doesn’t really feel like a threatening presence until the final book. It would have been better if his influence were felt more palpably throughout. As it was, the big boss showdown didn’t seem all that much more threatening than the smaller boss showdowns we’d been getting throughout the story. I wanted to give my kid a good scare, but Mulgarath just didn’t cut it.

The strength of the series is in the characters. Every character, human and non, has a unique voice that made reading this aloud both easy and fun. I knew, even before I got to the dialogue tags, whether it was Jared speaking or his brother or a goblin. I also liked the way that each child character was special in their own way – Simon is the animal lover and Mallory is the fighter (and isn’t it wonderful for the girl to be the fighter?). Even Jared, who is your standard Gryffindor reader-insert hero character, begins to emerge as the artist as the story wears on.

The series starts very strong, but loses focus. That’s not to say that books 2-5 are bad, but rather that they just kinda happen, and I think the kid and I were both getting a bit bored with the series toward the end. The awe of discovery of the first book was gone, and there wasn’t enough else there to sustain our interest.

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    The Magicians #2: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

    Read: 25 October, 2016

    Ever in search of his next adventure, Quentin sails out to Fillory’s far reaches to collect back taxes – a simple enough task that lands him back on earth with no way to return.

    In the last book, the narrative followed Quentin fairly closely. Here, however, our time is split between the present, where Quentin & co quest to save magic in the multiverse, and filling in Julia’s doings between Quentin leaving for Brakebills and their reunion.

    The back-and-forthing is an annoying narrative style and I hate it. I’m not sure what Grossman might have done differently, given the important information that Julia’s storyline gives us, but it’s irritating to start getting into the groove of one storyline only to be ripped out of it at every chapter end. I was enjoying both, but the transition pain was just too frequent.

    Julia’s story is an interesting one. It’s much more rushed than Quentin’s in the first book, but it resonated for me in a lot of ways. It certainly wasn’t an easy read, though, as it’s clearly modelled on addiction (and includes symptomatic behaviours and great heapings of depression). Unfortunately, it goes even further and includes rape. (SPOILERS: Why was the rape necessary? In similar positions, rape was never on the table for Quentin, so why did Julia’s ‘price to be paid’ have to be this? Grossman could have done anything to Julia to bring her to her lowest, and he chose the easy route of having her raped. I’m quickly losing patience for rape being the default bad thing that can happen to a female character, especially when male characters in identical situations are almost never raped.)

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      The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

      Read: 23 October, 2016

      The Rabbi’s Cat is a slow, meandering snapshot of life in an Algerian rabbi’s household, as narrated by his pet cat. The cat begins to speak, and so the rabbi must prepare him for his bar mitzvah. The family gets a visit from cousin Malka and his pet lion. The rabbi must pass a dictation test to determine his rabbinical placement. The rabbi’s daughter marries, and the whole household goes to Paris to meet her new in-laws. Things happen, the characters talk and feel and live, and issues are resolved after a fashion, enough to make way for the next. I wouldn’t be surprised if each chapter had originally been published serially.

      I picked this book out at the library, knowing absolutely nothing about it, because the cover looked interesting. Unlike the last time I did this, this time was actually a very pleasant surprise.

      The artwork is beautiful. It has a lot of character, and it shifts with mood to enhance the storytelling. As I’ve been trying to read some more superhero comics, which tend to favour a more “realistic” style (albeit with idealised bodies), this kind of expressive artwork has been missing.

      I also found that the style reminded me a lot of the French comic books that I used to read as a child. I felt very vindicated when I found out that the artist does, in fact, belong to the French graphic novel tradition!

      The story itself is delightful. Most of the characters are fairly archetypal, but we spend a lot of time getting into the rabbi’s head. He’s a complicated person who is seen wrestling with his faith. In the beginning, it’s more intellectual, as he tries to teach the cat in preparation for his bar mitzvah and they argue theology. Later, when his daughter marries and he feels abandoned, it brings his grief over his deceased wife back to the forefront. It’s very touching, often funny, and so very human.

      The novel had a somewhat mythic feel to it, particularly where the animals were involved. It read a bit like a parable, making its Jewishness all the more palpable.

      I really enjoyed this one. It was cute, and heartwarming, and entertaining. The cat was amusing, and the storytelling was very well adapted to its medium.

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        Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

        Read: 16 October, 2016

        Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, as you might imagine, a bit gimmicky. It’s the kind of book that looks great on the shelf and will never fail to elicit some titters. It’s a book that makes a great novelty gift, but that I can’t see too many people buying for themselves.

        Because it really is a gimmick. Grahame-Smith adds fairly little to Austen’s original work. What does get added is a bit clunky. The writing doesn’t match Austen’s style very well, zombies notwithstanding.

        The strength of Grahame-Smith’s version is in the world building – how a different era might respond to a zombie crisis, how such a hierarchical society might encoroporate zombie fighting training as another measure of class (the wealthiest are trained in Japan, while the lower echelons of wealth train in China). Unfortunately, Grahame-Smith is so bound by Austen’s writing that he doesn’t really go far enough with it.

        I enjoyed the story, but mostly as an opportunity to revisit one of my favourite Austen novels. What Grahame-Smith adds is a little weak, but still fun. There’s a joy in seeing Lizzie Bennett slaughtering zombies!

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          I Was The Cat by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Benjamin Dewey)

          Read: 15 October, 2016

          I picked this up off the library shelf because I had some time to spare and it was a graphic novel (and therefore a fast read), and it had cats. SOLD!

          Unfortunately, it left a lot to be desired. The story is about a blogger named Allison Breaking (so named so that she could pun her name – if it even counts as a pun – by calling her website ‘Breaking News’, uuuuugh), who is hired by a wealthy and mysterious person named Burma to ghostwrite his memoirs.Except that her new employer turns out to be a cat! Dun dun DUUUUN!

          There are mostly two stories being told. In the first, we have Burma’s story of his previous lives. In the second, we have the present day story of Allison coming to terms with meeting a talking cat, and her discovery of his current plot for world domination.

          First, the positives: The artwork is very good. It isn’t particularly stylized, but it’s solid and clear. I also enjoyed all the little easter eggs hidden throughout the images, like the Pulp Fiction assassins, or the random Neil deGrasse Tyson.

          The problem is that the narrative felt very disjointed. The conceit of the nine lives could have been interesting, but ended up just being Burma listing off famous people he’s met. It doesn’t make much sense, either, except in a ‘how history tends to get taught in primary school’ sort of way. There’s no reason for Burma’s first life to be in ancient Egypt, but then not again until the Elizabethan era. After that, as we get into history that the readership knows more about, his lives seem to come fairly regularly. Why the gap, except to make some joke about the ancient Egyptians worshipping cats?

          The world domination plot was rather disappointing, largely because it wasn’t adequately set up. The insider trying to warn off Allison doesn’t seem to care much whether she’s warned or not, and doesn’t really seem to be trying to accomplish anything in particular by revealing the plot to her in any case. And once he does manage to warn her, what does he say? He tells her not to worry about it. So that was plot time well spent…

          And that really sums up the whole book for me: There are lots of ideas, mostly a mish-mash of pop culture references, all thrown in together, but none of them serve of purpose or lead to anything.

          And did Burma’s evil plan remind anyone of the Leviathan plot from Supernatural?

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            A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

            Read: 9 October, 2017

            Recently retired, George is just starting to settle into his life’s new mode when he discovers an odd lesion on his hip. Though his doctor quickly dismisses it as ecsema, George is pretty sure that it must be cancer. And thus begins his spiral into depression as his family tries to cope while being utterly incapable of communicating with one another.

            The writing style is casual, almost breathless, as each member of George’s family gives us direct access to their thoughts as they think them. It means that the narrative is always subjective, and sometimes even a little muddled as characters get drunk or high on valium or focus on details to the exclusion of the big picture. But having access to the perspective of all four members of the family balances out the narrative.

            That said, Haddon has never met a metaphor he didn’t like. This was particularly noticeable at the beginning, before I had acclimated to the style. And, frankly, it bordered a little on the absurd at times.

            The characters were strong, and it was interesting to see so much of them from both the inside and multiple versions of the outside. While the difference between the first and third person prespectives is a comedy gold mine, Haddon doesn’t take advantage. Characters remain fairly consistent regardless of observer, except where George’s mental illness is concerned (and then only because his inner thoughts are new, and therefore unfamiliar).

            George’s illness hit a little close to home, making the first part of the book rather difficult to read. I’ve been ill quit a bit in the last 1-2 years, which has exacerbated my usual depression/anxiety combo. Having George’s thinking so neatly mirror my own put me into a sort of feedback loop that really wasn’t healthy. But while that was bad for me, it’s an endorsement of Haddon that he got it so right.

            The “almost every problem would be solved if the characters would just talk to each other” trope is one that I usually find incredibly frustrating, but it didn’t bother me too much here. Perhaps because the characters understood the problem and were clearly trying to reach out to each other. But it did make the characters themselves unpleasant. They are all utterly self-centred and incapable of thinking of others. This is just annoying when they whine about being unable to relate to each other, but it’s sad when we see how it plays out in their treatment of Jacob – Katie’s toddler. It’s clear that his emotional needs are not being met, just as it’s obvious that Katie’s and Jamie’s weren’t met when they were children. So while the book largely ends on a high note, it’s also clear that nothing has truly been fixed, and that all the same issues will still be present in the next generation.

            I’m honestly not too sure how I feel about the book. I’m always inclined to like what I read, and this book certainly had a lot to recommend it (the capturing of middle class britishisms, alone, gives the book a certain value), but I just didn’t enjoy reading it all that much. And maybe that has more to do with me than the book, and maybe I’m being unfair, but I just can’t recomend it. A book like this needs a lot more humour to give it some balance. Without it, it felt like we, like George, we’re just wallowing.

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              Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Emma Ríos

              Read: 5 October, 2016

              Bunny and Butterfly are talking about Death’s Daughter, Ginny – a reaper of vengeance. They say that when someone calls out to her by singing her son, she will appear to avenge them.

              Pretty Deadly plunges straight into the story, which makes it rather confusing. Characters are thrown at the reader in quick succession – characters with traits or dialogue that make it seem like they might be interesting, like there might be something going on that I’d like to know about, but then the story just keeps moving on and the mystery is never acknowledged.

              The illustrations have a similar issue. While absolutely gorgeous, they are often a little too stylised, making the action difficult to follow. I sometimes couldn’t tell what was happening in a panel until I’d read a few more and could piece together what happened by its result.

              The use of animals and animal-human hybrids gave the story a mythic feel, which I quite enjoyed.

              Unfortunately, though the visuals and ideas were great, the execution just didn’t do it for me. There’s too much “mystery box-ing,” which leaves me feeling frustrated rather than intrigued.

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                The Saxon Stories #6: Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

                Read: 2 October, 2016

                My stash of audiobooks was running dangerously low, forcing me to grab something straight from my library branch’s shelf. Since my local branch is fairly small, their collection – a mere handful of shelves – is similarly sized, so finding something that looked both interesting and that I hadn’t already read can be a little challenging.

                But they did have Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell. I’ve heard good things about Cornwell – that he writes solid historical military fiction – but never quite good enough for me to actually dive into the rather lengthy time investment of one of his books. But there he was, in a pinch, so I gave him a go.

                I was rewarded with a very solid novel. Uhtred’s desperate fight to save a kingdom from its inexperienced king is both compelling and entertaining. The characters all feel real, and a number of episodes are quite funny (particularly those involving the priest who had secretly married Edward).

                It would have been easy for the character names to become a problem – there are so many important characters, many of whom barely appear in person, and every second character’s name seems to start with Aethel-. Surprisingly, I didn’t find this to be much of a problem. I was reading the book casually, listening to it as I fall asleep in the evenings, but still the narrative managed to differentiate between all the important characters enough for me to follow along without too much trouble. It was certainly quite a bit easier than reading Game of Thrones, which I had to do with the relevant Wiki pages open and before me.

                One of the reasons I had hesitated so long before trying to read Cornwell is that I hate battle/fight scenes in books. I find them utterly boring, and usually skim them to get back to the interesting stuff. Here, however, the action scenes actually work! They don’t feel rushed, and there’s enough character in how each player acts that the scenes feel like they actually add something to the broader narrative (beyond simply their resolution).

                This is the sixth book in a series, but I had no trouble picking up what was going on. Uhtred does mention past events, but without the context of the previous books, it just read as character history. The story works perfectly on its own.

                In conclusion, I found this to be a very solid book. It’s an interesting story told with good writing. I look forward to picking up more books by the author.

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                  Experimental Film by Gemma Files

                  Read: 26 September, 2016

                  I picked up A Book of Tongues on a whim a few years ago, but I had trouble with the writing style and never really got into it. At that point, I had largely written off Files until a friend gave Experimental Film a good review. Even better? He mentioned that she’s Canadian! Well, it seemed rather clear that I would have to give her another shot.

                  Experimental Film is about Lois Cairns, a former film history teacher and current nothing. Out of work, and with her only experience in a field she isn’t qualified to work in, she finds herself stuck caring for her autistic son, and desperate to create an identity for herself.

                  The novel is a ghost story, but it’s also about the frustration of needing to mean something – particularly as a stay-at-home parent and the parent of a child who needs more than the average amount of attention.

                  It follows the standard psychological thriller of never being quite clear whether the supernatural enemy is really real, or whether the protagonist is simply losing her mind. I liked that, in this story, the protagonist is at the very centre of everything. There are characters who believe in the supernatural enemy and there are characters who don’t, but they all circle around the protagonist – they are all convinced, or not, by her (as opposed to the version of the story where the protagonist goes to the small town where everyone believes in the enemy but only she actually sees it, for example – such a town does exist in Experimental Film, but only historically).

                  Where Files adds to that standard horror trope is in having an enemy of a perfectly mundane sort – an obsessive and unpredictable stalker who is seemingly unstoppable. And while I wasn’t terribly impressed by Mrs Whitcomb/Lady Midday, Lois’s human enemy had my stomach in knots.

                  Which is as good a segue way as any to my thoughts on Lady Midday. In short, meh. There was some very creepy imagery, and I certainly felt primed to be scared several times throughout the novel, but there was never any “but whose hand was I holding?” moment. When I read The Woman In Black, I was forced to plough through a large portion of the book in a single sitting because I was too afraid to get out of bed, but Experimental Film never brought me anywhere close to that point. And at the end, when Lady Midday is finally confronted, she just didn’t live up to the hype. Files made the mistake of showing us the shark, and Lady Midday lost her creepiness.

                  I did really enjoy Experimental Film, even if it didn’t quite work for me as horror. The discussions of film were fantastic, and Lois’s descriptions of the Canadian film scene, in particular, were especially interesting. I have a friend who is a film-maker here, who participates in the festivals and such, and so I’ve gotten to see glimpses of that world through her. Getting to live it – albeit vicariously – here was a real treat.

                  I liked the writing style a lot better than A Book of Tongues. Lois is something of a meandering narrator, but it fit her character. In this case, the narrative style actually added something to the character development. It helped that her asides were often very interesting. This was one of those books that I fell into and read very quickly without needing to get myself another cuppa every few minutes.

                  The characterisations were, on the whole, excellently done. Most of the characters felt real – in that it was very easy to see myself in Lois (as a woman who was tricked into being a stay-at-home parent by economics and who is currently trying to re-enter the workforce and finding my self-confidence to be a little lacking), I’ve known Wrobs and Safies and Lees and Simons. They all felt like real people. Mostly. Doctors and cops felt a little removed, a little absurd. Dr. Harrison, in particular, didn’t act like any doctor I’ve ever met – he behaved so unprofessionally. But these are very minor characters that are only encountered briefly, and they are almost lost in the sea of excellent, rounded people.

                  The discussion of autism in the book was a little difficult for me. A large part of Lois’s character arc is in her coming to love (and be loved by) her autistic son, Clark. That acceptance of who he is is hard won, which means seeing a number of scenes in which she is demanding that he make eye contact, complaining about him, and even saying rather horrendous things about him while he’s right there on the assumption that he just won’t understand. This is an accurate representation of how many parents treat their autistic children, but it’s a painful one to watch. I can’t exactly fault a horror book for giving me the heebies, but this way of treating autistic children is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to tell if Files is refuting or simply parroting it. And, at some point, even unflattering portrayals are only adding to the noise. So even though Lois has her epiphany at the end, I still found the scenes discussing Clark to be very uncomfortable.

                  Experimental Film is a fun little horror, with an emphasis on the mystery rather than on the scares. It’s a psychological horror, too, with plenty to doubt about our narrator’s reliability. It’s a fast read, and it’s an interesting one. That it deals so authentically with Ontario and the Canadian film scene is an added bonus.

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                    Graceling Realm #2: Fire by Kristin Cashore

                    Read: 22 September, 2016

                    In this sequel (or, rather prequel) to Graceling, we journey across the mountains to an isolated country where graces don’t exist. Instead, the Dells have monsters – variant forms of ordinary animals, but brightly coloured and capable of influencing the minds of those around them. Fire is the last of the human monsters, and it seems that everyone wants a piece of her powers.

                    WARNING: This review contains a lot of spoilers.

                    As I mentioned above, Fire is actually a prequel. The book begins with the birth of Leck -the Big Bad of Graceling – and his journey into the Dells. He disappears from the story, which then becomes more about Fire, her personal relationships, and her role in the bigger politics of the country. But the child Leck still hands around, skirting the edges, and seems to be pulling strings of one sort or another.

                    Which leads me to my first complaint. For a while, I thought Leck was to be the Big Bad here, as well. As in Graceling, we don’t really meet the political enemies for a very long time. Rather, the story focuses on Fire working through her own life choices. So I was led to believe that Leck was somehow behind the rebel lords’ uprising, or was making them far more dangerous by getting them to work together. Instead of an ominous puppetmaster threatening from the shadows, Leck was a red herring.

                    A red herring with very odd motives. Even though we first see his handiwork when he sends brainwashed archers to kill Fire, he only kidnaps her when he has a chance, with a story that he wants them to be partners. He seems to want to take over King’s City, but his actual role in the civil war is unclear.

                    Maybe I just missed it because I wasn’t paying enough attention, but Leck’s presence in the story seemed superfluous – there only to tie Fire to Graceling.

                    The novel also suffers from what I can only call a Love Octagon. Absolutely everybody is sleeping with absolutely everybody else, and much of the third act is devoted to uncovering everyone’s secret parentages so that everyone can have a supportive family as a reward for making it through the plot.

                    The idea of not letting one’s parentage define us (as both Fire and Brigan work to forge identities for themselves separate from their fathers, and Archer’s own relationship with the father who raised him) is a good one, but it was all watered down at the end when all the characters get to be reunited with their unknown relatives, and Brigan gets to find out that he never was his father’s son in the first place!

                    Aspects of the book do play out melodramatic, and the premise itself is rather silly. But the books are clearly intended for a younger audience – preteen or early teen girls – and for that audience, both Graceling and Fire are absolutely fantastic. When I think back to who I was at 12-13 and what books I loved, I can easily see how I would have adored Cashore’s works. Even better, these books are good for girls of that age, because they redefine what it means to be a woman, and they give girls options. Katsa didn’t want to marry or have children, Fire wants children but can’t have them. Their relationships are ones of mutual respect and caring, in which the women have boundaries and have them adhered to.

                    That idea of priming girls to expect appropriate treatment from men is woven throughout the series. Fire, as a monster, is irresistible to men – they find her so beautiful that she is sexually assaulted several times in the story as they “lose control” upon seeing her. When King Nash does this, when he tries to defend his actions by explaining that he just can’t control himself when he looks at her, Cashore puts the perfect response in the mouth of his brother: “Well don’t look at her, then!” Never is their behaviour Fire’s fault, and she has the right to expect the men around her to behave. She has the right not to be jealously kept by someone, even if she does love him.

                    Fire has a lot of flaws, and I wish that Leck were better integrated into the story, but it’s a good and healthy book for young girls to read, and I think it would be very well liked within that age bracket.

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