Lady of Ch’iao Kuo by Laurence Yep

Read: 12 December, 2008

This book is part of Scholastic’s Royal Diaries series. I picked this book up at a second-hand sale my University was hosting. Having never heard of the author or the series, I was sold entirely by the cover art (which is absolutely beautiful and quite possibly the best part of the book – maybe I can just frame it?).

Overall, I found it to be an interesting read. The concepts of being forced to grow up and being responsible for many people despite having no experience kept me turning the pages. Unfortunately, they weren’t really fleshed out. I also noticed a few continuity errors – for example, Redbird’s father decides that she will act as the translator when they talk to the Chinese, but then he goes to the Chinese without taking her along. This seems to happen for no reason other than to be able to kill off the father without having to hurt Redbird (or have her experience battle before the climax).

There were also some descriptions that may have been anachronistic, such as referring to the army as a “machine.” I’m sure they had machines of some sort or another back then, but would she have seen them? More importantly, would she have had enough exposure to machines to think of such a description? It’s a small detail, one that I might easily have passed over without noticing. It’s just that the book is so full with these little things that it bogs the story down.

Finally, I just felt that the author wasn’t very good at writing in the diary style. We’re never told why she starts writing the diary (something that modern little girls living in an age where paper and ink are both cheap and plentiful might not need a reason for). And then there’s the way she describes things… The narrative just feels very objective and detail-oriented, while perhaps missing some of the details that would have been important to her. It didn’t feel like a diary, but rather a third person narrative crammed into a first person diary format.

All that being said, I still finished it and I did still enjoy reading it. I just feel disappointed because the story deserved a much better treatment than it received.

Buy Lady of Ch’iao Kuo: Warrior of the South, Southern China A.D. 531 (The Royal Diaries) from Amazon to support this blog!

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Read: 2 October, 2008

Amazing. Just, amazing. It hurt to read Atonement because I didn’t want anything to change or for the characters to be hurt. But at the same time, I had to read on and find out how it would end. I had a couple late nights because I just couldn’t put the book down.

The major strength is the characterisation. Even background characters were given enough detail and depth that they feel like living people. By the end of the first chapter, I felt that I knew these people, that they were my neighbours or possibly even friends.

The other major strength was in the realism of the plot. Everything that happens is set up so that the reader knows that there is no possible way that a consequence can be avoided. Yet at the same time, I found myself hoping so much that something wouldn’t happen that I would almost convince myself that it couldn’t, making it not only surprising but also heartbreaking when the inevitable caught up to the characters.

If pressed to find a flaw, I would say that the exposition of the second, third, and fourth parts could have used some work. McEwan seems to want to plunge his readers into a story without a map or compass, making the first couple pages of each part a confusing and difficult read as I tried to figure out who the characters are, where they are, what’s going on, etc. This is acceptable at the very start of a novel, but going through it four times was three times too many. It isn’t terribly difficult to answer the whos, whats, and wheres in an interesting way and it would certainly help to ease the transition into each portion. As it stood, the start of Part Two had me put the book down until I had the courage to go through all the work of figuring out where the story was. By Part Three, I was more accustomed to McEwan’s trick, so I stuck it through. By Part Four, it was still unpleasant, but I was so close to the end and I just had to find out what happened to everyone.

It’s a fairly quick read, but not a superficial one. Be prepared to devote all your attention to Atonement until the final page is reached. I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of their interests (though if you love psychology, writing, or history, especially World War II, that would be a bonus).

Buy Atonement from Amazon to support this blog!

The Foretelling by Alice Hoffman

Read: 25 September, 2008

I bought this book on a whim. I had never heard of it or of the author, but Chapters was selling it for pennies, so I figured it was worth the risk.

I’m glad I took the chance. It’s a great book. It breaks several of the cardinal rules of writing (telling instead of showing, for an obvious example), but it does it well. The story is interesting and fast-paced, making it a quick read. It would have had to have been hundreds of pages long had Hoffman tried to cover the same amount of ground by “showing,” and I do believe that she made the right choice.

This is obviously a Young Adult novel, but it deals with several mature themes such as sex (both consensual and non-) and war. However, Hoffman treats these subjects as “facts,” without dwelling on them graphically as some authors do. These are just part of Rain’s world. This is not to mention the tough concepts of love, responsibility, compassion, being one’s self, feminism/patriarchy, etc. that are brought up. They are handled in a way that would be acceptable for a young teen or tween to read, while also serving the purpose of opening discourse on such subjects.

This isn’t to say that the book was perfect. There are times when I would have liked certain areas to be explored more deeply. The ending, for example, tells of several important and life-altering events taking place without, I felt, giving them due consideration. The book works, but I feel that it might have been improved a little by slowing down the narrative pace at certain moments and describing certain events in more detail. I also would have liked a context: as the novel is written in the first person, it would have been nice to know who Rain is telling her story to.

Still, these are very minor complaints to a book that, overall, was a very enjoyable rainy-afternoon read with an uplifting message.

Buy The Foretelling from Amazon to support this blog!

Hygiène de l’Assassin [Hygiene and the Assassin] by Amélie Nothomb

Read: 24 September, 2008

This is my second Nothomb book. My mother joined a French reading club a while back that read this and Stupeur et Tremblements. Once done, she sent me these two books to read. I read the first right away and then waited an eternity before getting to Hygiène.

It’s a great book. I love Nothomb’s writing style. She uses almost no narrative, the vast majority of the story revealed through dialogue. It reads almost like a play, except that the speakers are not named. Yet, because her characters stand out so strongly and so uniquely, I was never confused as to who was speaking. It’s amazing, also, that so much drama comes through in a story with next to no action. It’s like reading a battle narrative, on the edge of my seat, watching a sparring match in which one seems to be the winner, then the underdog turns the tables, then the initial winner gains an advantage, etc.

It’s a strange book. The first half introduce us to Prétextat Tach, a dying author being interviewed by a series of journalists. The second half is entirely different as one journalist is able to work her way beyond all Tach’s masks and reaches the dark past and insanity he hides. It’s sad, hilarious, and completely ridiculous all at once.

I don’t know if there are any English translations of this book. If there are, I highly recommend giving it a read.

I am at a complete loss as to how to label this book. I apologize for the absurdly poor choice I’ve made, but I see none better.

Buy Hygiene De L’Assassin (French Edition) from Amazon to support this blog!

Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Read: 14 April, 2008

Tom Sawyer is an episodic piece that might have been titled “sketches of boyhood.” There is a plot, but it takes a secondary position to main plot – the adventures of a young boy in Mississippi. It isn’t a bad thing. The plot of the story (the discoveries of Indian Joe’s various criminal activities) serves well for little bursts of excitement, but probably would have bogged the story down if it had taken central place.

I’m afraid that I don’t have too much to say about the book. It was a light and interesting read, it was terribly funny at times, and the characterization was superb. I do wish that I had read this when I was a bit younger as I think that I would have appreciated it more. So while I definitely recommend it to anyone, I would especially recommend it to 10-15-year-olds.

Buy The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from Amazon to support this blog!

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Read: 31 March, 2008

Hearts in Atlantis is a collection of short(ish) interwoven stories dealing in some way with the 60s, Vietnam, and the lives of two people named Carol and Bobby. The first and main story is about a kid named Bobby who finds himself just about to grow up. One day, an older man named Ted moves into the building and, in him, Bobby finds an adult he can be friends with. This is the only story that deals with the supernatural and Stephen King fans will find that it connects with his Dark Tower series.

The rest of the stories are considerably shorter and mostly deal with Vietnam – either with the fear of being sent or with the effects of having been there. Wrapping up the novel is a short story that finds Bobby returning to his home town, completing the circular path of the novel.

According to the book jacket, the novel is about Vietnam and the 60s, but it’s done in a very circumspect way. Only the minor characters ever go, the heroes of the shorter stories crammed into the final few pages. The main characters, Bobby from “Low Men in Yellow Coats” and Pete from “Hearts in Atlantis,” never go. Bobby, in fact, never even gets to hear about Vietnam, growing up before the war starts. But “Low Men in Yellow Coats” doesn’t avoid the subject at all, it merely hides it. Bobby is given a copy of Lord of the Flies and becomes obsessed with it, using that novel to understand his world, a world that would be transformed into a scene from the novel in the following years. As for Pete, he comes close to Vietnam, almost touches it, but he manages to scramble back into humanity and away from the mentality of Lord of the Flies that he approaches when he laughs at a crippled classmate who falls and nearly drowns in a flooded path. He regains himself, saving the classmate and raising his grades so that he wouldn’t be sent to war, he is spared the guilt and trauma that affects the main characters of the next two stories.

For a book that centres around Vietnam, Hearts in Atlantis somehow manages to stay off the soapbox. It’s always something that’s bothered me about Vietnam stories. It’s such a raw subject that I’ve yet to see an author be able to handle it without becoming preachy. That’s not to say that King doesn’t show an opinion, but that opinion is not a moral judgement of the war, but rather an exploration of the mentality that led to what happened during the war – like Lord of the Flies, he presents us with ordinary people who were thrust into extraordinary situations and either did or saw things that they spend the rest of their lives trying to deal with.

The characterization is amazing. This is the first actual Stephen King book that I’ve read. I’ve read some of his short stories, but they’ve never appealed to me. Now I know why. His strongest ability is characterization, something that he creates and builds upon over the course of a long narrative. Despite the length, there was an economy of space too. Every scene served to advance character and the result was a lengthy book with very little action that I read quickly and excitedly.

I’m trying to think of labels for the book, but I’m finding myself at a loss. There are elements of suspense and horror, but these are merely vehicles for exploration and not the subjects of it. Not to mention that the supernatural elements of “Low Men in Yellow Coats” are abandoned entirely until the final few pages.

Buy Hearts In Atlantis from Amazon to support this blog!

Harry Potter #3: The Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Read: 2005

The Prisoner of Azkaban is the third instalment of the Harry Potter series. The story opens on Harry’s thirteenth birthday. He is staying with his abusive aunt and uncle (muggles, or non-magical persons) for the summer. What follows is a story of his third year at Hogwarts, a boarding school for young wizards, and his discovery of his long-dead father.

Before I begin, I would like to make it very clear that I will only be discussing The Prisoner of Azkaban in this review. I haven’t read any of the other books in the series, so I really can’t comment on how this particular book fits in. Now that that’s out of the way…

I absolutely loved the way The Prisoner of Azkaban brought mythology to life in a modern and relevant way. It’s not Tristan or Siddhartha Gautama anymore, this is just Harry. I have seen many attempts to revitalize myths for children, but this is the first time I have seen it done quite so successfully (at least since The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia).

The plot is undeniably interesting. Many common child issues are brought up and dealt with in quite a nice pedagogical way. Everything from friendships to coping with fears to bullying to dealing with the loss of a loved one. These are all issues that every child faces, and children can learn a lot about how to deal with fear, for example, in the episode with the boggart (just find a way to make the fear look silly, laugh it to death!).

My major qualm with the book was the way that the plot developed. Rather than a subtle movement or clues for the reader to piece together, the plot moves very slowly, takes a huge leap, moves slowly again, etc. Sometimes, an explanation character is thrown in. These characters have no being of their own, no personalities, no relevance to the story. Rather, they are there just to act as Harry’s (and our) surrogate ears. A good example of this would be Rosmerta at the Three Broomsticks pub. The story hasn’t been told in twelve years, and suddenly they are telling Rosmerta every single detail. Of course, it just happens to be right in front of Harry.

The ending pretty much plays itself out in this same way. In a typical Nick and Nora style, all the relevant characters are gathered together and three chapters are spent revealing the truth. A lot of new information is added, sudden leaps are taken so that the reader could not have guessed the outcome for him/herself, and several instances are still left unexplained (for example, why, if Sirius Black is so good, did he break Ron’s leg? One explanation someone has given me is that he’s gone a little crazy with his desire for revenge. Why, then, did he not just kill Scabbers once he had him in the Shrieking Shack? Why did he wait in a dark corner until Harry and Hermione appeared and waited for Ron to shout out that it’s a trap?).

The only other trouble I had with the book was the fact that everything plot critical was repeated several times. So you would have a main character explain something, then someone would ask an idiotic question that pretty much requires that main character to repeat what he just said. I suppose this is technically a children’s book, so it makes sense that it would not require quite so much memory, attention, and piecing together as what I normally read. But as an adult, this was quite frustrating to read. And I feel that, somehow, it’s short-changing children, too. From what I’ve noticed, kids tend to be a whole lot more perceptive than they are typically given credit for.

The use of names in The Prisoner of Azkaban is really interesting and entertaining. The names are whimsical, but also very descriptive of the character. Take “Snape” for example. This man is a jealous, petty, conniving man, one of those bullies in books that the reader just loves to hate. His name sounds exactly like that. “Snape” firstly sounds a lot like “snake,” but it also conjures images of the petty and the low. Then you have “Remus Lupine,” the werewolf. Remus, of course, taken from the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, the twins who were raised by a she-wolf. And “Lupine” from the Latin word “lupus” which means “wolf.” Playing around with pronunciations and possible meanings of the names is almost more entertaining that the novel itself.

All in all, I did enjoy it. I think Ms. Rowling is certainly an extremely intelligent woman and she puts a lot of that intellect into her work. Getting kids to read on such a large scale is certainly an amazing feat. However, the plot development style does not help anyone. If this is a children’s book, I would like to see more clues throughout the novel so that it is possible (note: not ‘easy’) to figure out the ending. I think it’s not just important that children read, but also what they read. Giving them something that has room for guesswork would do far more to improve their critical and observational skills than just having a couple little stories and then having a complete gear shift for an ending that pulls strings out of thin air with which to tie loose ends. As an adult reader, it would make the novel more worth-while.

Buy Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban from Amazon to support this magical blog!

Continue reading

Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin

Read: 6 December, 2007

Book jacket summary: Scattered among poor, desolate farms, the families of the Uplands possess gifts. Wondrous gifts: the ability – with a glance, a gesture, a word – to summon animals, bring forth fire, move the land. Fearsome gifts: They can twist a limb, chain a mind, inflict a wasting illness. The Uplanders live in constant fear that one family might unleash its gifts against another.

Two young people, friends since childhood, decide not to use their gifts. One, a girl, refuses to bring animals to their death in the hunt. The other, a boy, wears a blindfold lest his eyes and his anger kill.

So that wasn’t entirely laziness on my part. It’s a fairly difficult story to describe in a few short words. OK, so maybe it was partially laziness…

I’d like to start off by saying that I’m a huge Le Guin fan. Her Earthsea books were my first taste of fantasy (and probably the reason why I don’t read much fantasy – very few books compare). From that perspective, I found Gifts to be a little disappointing. I could see hints of what made her other books (like the Earthsea cycle or Left Hand of Darkness) so amazing, but they didn’t seem to come together in as solid a book as I might have hoped. That being said, it was still a very good story.

One of the things I like best about Le Guin is that her stories tend to be character driven more than anything else. Several chapters might go by before something really happens or there’s any action, but her books are interesting and readable from start to finish regardless. This was present in Gifts as well.

I also enjoyed that Gifts didn’t wrap up or give the sense of a completed story. Rather, it mimicked life – ending with a new story beginning. This makes the characters feel alive, it makes them feel like they really exist somewhere and we readers are merely getting a chapter from their lives.

The characters themselves were fairly well constructed. They all felt real and distinct. However, I found that Orrec seemed to think in a strange way. He would come to a conclusion that isn’t necessarily obvious and then hold to it as fact. It’s almost as though Le Guin wanted X to happen but wasn’t sure how to do it, so she implanted the thought into one of the characters’ heads. This wouldn’t be such a problem (heaven knows we all believe things that aren’t strictly backed with facts) except that he’s always right.

One of the classic Le Guin traits that made it into Gifts is the real world theme conveyed by the story. In this case, dealing with power. There aren’t many authors who are able to carry both theme and story as Le Guin does and she does so quite well in this story.

In conclusion, this isn’t my favourite book, but it isn’t my least favourite either. If you have a spare afternoon and don’t know what to read, this is a great choice. On the other hand, I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it either.

Buy Gifts (Annals of the Western Shore) from Amazon to support this blog!

Discworld #4: Mort by Terry Pratchett

Read: 2007

Mort was an awkward farm boy with the horticultural talents of a dead starfish. Eager to send him into a trade that might better suit his dispositions, his family agreed to place him in an apprenticeship with Death.

As far as coming of age and first love stories go, this is one of the better ones I’ve read. That’s the major aspect of the Discworld novels I’ve always liked – they are hilarious, but the stories would still be quite good even without the humour.

Like most of the Discworld series, I loved the book right up until the climax. At that point, I usually feel like Pratchett is letting some fumbling inner author take over and I lose interest completely. It’s usually a struggle for me to read the last 10-20 pages.

Overall, though, I highly recommend Mort as well as just about any other Discworld novel for anyone who enjoys comedy, particularly the more word-play witty humour of Britain rather than the slapstick/situational humour of North America.

Buy Mort from Amazon to support this blog!

Continue reading