The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008) K

Date read: 11.8.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Nobody Owens (Bod) lives in a graveyard, has ghosts for friends and family, and a mysterious neither-living-nor-dead guardian. As he grows up, he has to learn both the ways and secrets of the large graveyard as well as deal with the outside world. This foreign world is extremely dangerous place for Bod because the assassin of his family is still on the prowl. Throughout the journey of his childhood Bod basically learns about growing up– girls, beings which are neither living nor, and slowly, how to function in the outside world.

Review

Way to go Neil Gaiman! All those months of meticulously following the progress of The Graveyard Book on his blog certainly paid off– the day it was released, I headed over to my local bookstore, plucked one brand spanking new copy off the display, and settled into an armchair to read for the next couple hours. I read it all in one sitting, and in about a week, after procuring enough monetary funds, I immediately bought the book.

I have to say The Graveyard Book was spot on in so many respects– character development, pacing, storytelling… to name a few. Sure Bod lives in a graveyard, but his childhood frustrations and adventures  are so relatable. He has his own quarrels with his guardians, fighting against the constraints of the graveyard much like children do their own homes. The imagery is simply splendid, especially Bod’s adventures beneath the graveyard and all the different fantastical creatures. And, who doesn’t like ghosts, vampires, and other such creatures? I definitely felt transported into another world through that imaginary magic portal every child wants to travel through. Above all, I was definitely caught up in the snowball effect of the novel– you’re reading and the suspense and developments keep piling on until suddenly, you realize you haven’t been breathing for several pages. That is the feeling I’d been longing to experience again, that same thrill of reading Patricia Wrede or Brian Jacques or J.K. Rowling as a child with breathy light-headedness.

The Graveyard Book has replaced Coraline as my favorite Gaiman YA fiction. It is fantastical, yet down to earth at the same time, and strikes a wonderful balance between barreling trains of action and meandering scenes chock full of character development. Quite honestly, one of my recurring gripes with Gaiman’s works is they typically feel a bit cold, despite being terrifically written and crafted. I usually enjoy every minute of a Gaiman novel or comic, but come away feeling a bit dissatisfied, as if it didn’t successfully speak to me on a deeper level. The Graveyard Book, however, was warm and honest, and definitely a great read for any child or even adult.

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Neil Gaiman

Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) E

Date Read: 6.13.09

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

Oskar is an alienated twelve-year-old living in a decaying Swedish suburb in the 1980’s. He is brutally bullied at school, and fantasizes often about striking back at his tormentors, keeping a scrapbook of newspaper articles about murders as his inspiration. Two new neighbors move into Oskar’s apartment complex: one an older man, and one, apparently his daughter, an androgynous girl named Eli who smells terrible, walks barefoot in the snow, and only comes out at night, but is nonetheless befriended by Oskar.

If you know anything about vampires, you can imagine where this is going. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, translated by Ebba Segerberg) was a bestseller in Sweden when it was published in 2004, and gained further international attention when the 2008 Swedish-language film adaptation (IMDB) won a number of awards and became a surprise hit. I’m not sure now if I heard about the movie or the book first, but unusually for me, I ended up watching the movie first, and read the book shortly after. I enjoyed both immensely, but for slightly different reasons in each case. Given that, I thought I’d do a combined film and book review. Please note that mild spoilers follow.

Continue reading Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) E

The Scandal of the Season, by Sophie Gee (2007) E

Date Read: 12.17.08

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

English poet Alexander Pope achieved his fame and success when in 1712 he published his mock-epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” satirizing the public disgrace of the renowned beauty Arabella Fermor. This novel follows Pope’s rise to fame, as he departs his country home to travel to the city for a season. As Pope struggles to find material for a new poem, and to cope with the hypocrisy and cruelty of London’s high society, the haughty but meagerly dowered Arabella encounters the equally attractive and clever Lord Petre. Amid the stirrings of a new Jacobite rebellion (the conspiracy to return the Catholic James VII to the throne), Arabella soon undertakes a clandestine affair with Lord Petre – an affair that will become the talk of London, and Pope’s making, by the end of the season.

I was actually able to see Sophie Gee speak about this book and the research that went into its making, and found her a very intelligent, engaging speaker, so I had this quite high on my reading priority list. Plus, 18th-century bedroom/social intrigues have been a pet subject of mine ever since I fell in love with Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Unfortunately, Gee appears to be a pretty terrible novelist. Most of her book is graceless and entirely deficit in subtlety and real character development – the only area in which she demonstrates any deftness is the sometimes witty, cutting dialogue. Erotic scenes occasionally offer a break from the plodding narration, but are executed with a mix of irritating coyness and heavy-handed, charmlessly vulgar metaphors. (Imagine the most obvious sexual innuendo possible involving swords, hilts, and sheaths. Got it? Good. You have now succeeded in equalling every sex scene in the book.)

The saving grace of The Scandal of the Season is that it’s based on real people and real events, and ones in which Gee is clearly an expert, such that the weight of their true personal histories and characters give substance to an otherwise poorly-constructed novel. As such, the only reasons I kept reading this were that 1. I bought it (damn), and 2. I really wanted to see what would happen to the characters. The end is very bittersweet and truly fascinating historically, but Gee effectively robs it of most of its emotional heft. Boo.

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Sophie Gee

The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman (1995) E

Date Read: 6.11.09 (reread)

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

I must have picked this up at a used book sale a little while ago and forgotten that I had done so, because I found it on my shelf with no distinct memory of having acquired it – something that has been occurring with increasing frequency lately. Whoops.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is a medieval coming-of-age story, the story of a nameless girl picked up out of a dungheap by a sharp-tempered, greedy midwife. Christened Beetle by the midwife, she begins by sweeping floors and running menial errands, but begins to realize that she has more wits than the rest of the world gives her credit for.

I first read this in about fifth grade, but never liked this as much as Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman‘s other medieval historical fiction, although Midwife won the Newbery Medal. (Catherine “only” won the Honor.) Even at that age, I found the Moral at the End of the Story a little offensively obvious; Cushman also fell prey to the lesson-in-your-face YA tactic in Catherine, but that book’s greater narrative heft makes it more forgiveable.

However, The Midwife’s Apprentice is still an extremely enjoyable read. It’s very effective in creating a sense of space and slowly passing time despite its slim size, and there are quite a lot of wryly funny parts that I forgot. And Cushman’s attention to the details of medieval life is always extremely rewarding and fun – she creates a uniquely lively, earthy, and warm atmosphere, painting colorful pictures of village life, market fairs, and the breathtakingly detailed esoterica of the midwife’s trade, which employs ingredients from crushed emeralds to murderer’s wash-water. Her characters similarly have great warmth, and she effectively plays a broad emotional range over the course of the story. Overall, a very fun and feel-good read.

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Karen Cushman

The Millenium, by Upton Sinclair (1924) K

Date read: 12.24.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

(Copied from the back of the book). The year, 2000; the place, Central Park’s 100-story Pleasure Palace, built expressly for the “pleasure of the ruling class.” Shortly before the opening ceremony a radiumite explosion kills everyone in the world … except for the eleven people already inside the Pleasure Palace. Most of the eleven survivors are wealthy and can’t imagine living in a world without servants or luxuries: “No more quail in aspic, no more theatre parties, no more tailors,” they moan in unison. As the group battles to exist in a chaotic world without rules or structure or money, three of the survivors, led by Billy Kingdom, the poor yet resourceful outsider, go off to build a new utopian society, the Co-operative Commonwealth, on the banks of the Pocantico Hills of the Hudson River, north of new York City.

The Millennium was first written as a four-act drama in 1907, after the collapse of Sinclair’s own “Co-operative Commonwealth” in New Jersey. Its production on Broadway was delayed over and over until all copies of the play were lost. In 1924 Sinclair rewrote the story in novel form.

Review

Well, pretty much all you need to know is actually on that back cover summary– it tells you exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Overall, The Millenium was exactly how it sounds– a funny, informative, quirky, and insightful read. It is painfully clear from the dialogue (dramatic, very exclamatory), static settings, and narrative that the work was meant to be a drama and the style is rather enjoyable as long as you are expecting it.

The Millenium is a humorous dose of… everything that goes wrong with every form of government. Basically, after the explosion, the survivors cycle through all sorts of governments including Socialism, Communism, Captialism, Feudalism, and plain Survivalism. It was incredibly funny to see each form of government build itself up around one ridiculous product (nutrient pills, which in this futuristic society were the only form of sustenance) and the workings of the “economy”. You also get to see these intense, miniature forms of government comprised of 2-6 people clash against each other and watch one muscle its way to victory.

There really is not much in terms of character or setting development– the characters were very apparently only tools for Sinclair to use. And, well, the moral of the story was that governments suck and utopias rule. But what else can you expect from Sinclair?

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Upton Sinclair

The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003) E

Date Read: 5.24.09
Book From: Borrowed from kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

The Etched City is one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the best and most memorable fantasy books I have ever read. I hate to make hand-waving pronouncements like that, but I really can’t think of any other way to begin this review.

The book follows two protagonists, both wanted for having fought on the losing side of a civil war: Raule, an emotionally deadened physician, and Gwynn, an elegant, amoral, and apparently indestructible gun- and swordsman. Somewhat begrudgingly reunited by circumstance, the two flee the Copper Country, to lose themselves in what Raule prematurely hopes will be a “proper” civilization.

Bishop’s writing in the beginning is stark and straightforward, but daubed with bursts of unexpected vividness, as she describes the Copper Country, a searing, deathly land that seems equal parts Middle East, American Old West, and Australian outback. The scenes are painted with a memorable and somehow terrible clarity – there’s a frightening kind of oppression and lostness to the Copper Country, with its sand-channeled beds of nail grass, black ruins, and rotting hamlets whose stillness is punctuated only by gunfights. (The book opens with a gratifying bang, as a four-man gunfight ends in the shooting and decapitation of three of the four.) The weight of the country, the sense of both mythic and mundane desolation, actually reminded me of many scenes in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle. Continue reading The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003) E

Beauty, by Robin McKinley (1978) E

Date Read: 5.27.09

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

McKinley’s first published novel is actually one of the last of hers that I read, when in high school I belatedly rediscovered her books and went on a rampage through nearly all of her work – when much younger, I had tried and failed to get through The Outcasts of Sherwood, and hadn’t gone back since. (Actually, I’m currently still not up-to-date on her newest two novels, Dragonhaven and Chalice.) From what I’ve seen, Beauty might also be the most widely beloved of her work, in competition largely with the Damar books (The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown).

I remember that my working backwards to Beauty actually had an adverse effect on my opinion of it at first read – her later books tend towards much weightier plotlines and intricate, metaphorical language, so that I found Beauty simplistic by comparison. On re-reading it, I found that simplicity to be a great part of its charm. McKinley’s later books can perhaps be overburdened by axe-grinding (Deerskin), lengthy protagonist hand-wringing (Sunshine, which I passionately love nonetheless), and other excesses. (On reading Rose Daughter, McKinley’s second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, one of my roommates frankly remarked that McKinley “could use an editor.”)

By contrast, Beauty is fresh and openhearted, and although the prose may not be as elegant as that in McKinley’s mature works, her descriptions are exuberant and generously enchanting. Beauty, whose nickname here is ironic, is immediately recognizable as the archetype of McKinley’s heroines: likably bookish, plain, and straight-spoken, these anti-damsels may now litter the YA fantasy landscape, but McKinley’s are some of the first and definitely still some of the best. Beauty’s voice is funny and thoughtful, and being an inveterate lover of books, horses, and gardening myself, it’s pretty hard not to identify with her.

Continue reading Beauty, by Robin McKinley (1978) E

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion (2009) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date Read: 3.31.09
Book From: Personal Collection

Warm Bodies is the tale of a zombie in a society of zombies. R (he can’t remember the rest of his name), originally the entirely nameless protagonist of Marion’s beautiful “I Am a Zombie Filled With Love,” here has his story extended: during a raid on a human encampment, he inexplicably makes the decision to shelter a living human girl, so that they make their way together in a stagnating world.

I would primarily describe this novel as cinematic, both in good and bad ways. Good because so many of the scenes are uniquely vivid and striking and just beg to be visualized – zombies swaying back and forth in “church;” R riding an airport’s moving walkway and coming to a stop just opposite his soon-to-be zombie wife; the Stadium that is the center of life for a surviving human community. Bad because most of the plot and execution is cheesy as hell.

This really just needs to be stripped down and rewritten, or at least have a stronger editing hand. It’s not just some of the questionable language (“the sun stood over us like a royal guardian,” “my mystique has thickened and intensified like balsamic reduction”), it’s the overall plot concept. A rebellious, artsy-bohemian girl who Changes Everything by having the protagonist fall in love with her? [SPOILERS FOLLOW; HIGHLIGHT TO SEE] Humans literally being so soulless that they turn into zombies? Please. Pleeeeeease.

The original short story was charming and likable because it was quirky, lovely, and unexpected – this beats all of its loveliness and unexpectedness into a sticky, saccharine pulp. I read most of this with a sort of mild curiosity as a result, rather than real interest, despite the many excellent individual concepts. Still, I love Marion’s work in general, and am extremely excited to see his career take off,  so I’m very happy to own one of the few copies (I think about 220 were printed in the end) that he designed and self-published. Signed, too!

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Warm Bodies (2009) [K]
Isaac Marion
Some words (and exploding high-fives) with Isaac Marion

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion (2009) K

Reviewer: Kakaner
Date Read: 3.15.09
Book From: Personal Collection

Summary
A zombie in a post-apocalyptic desolate landscape befriends a rare living girl and finds himself being transformed by his relationship with her. An extension of a short story by the same author: I am a Zombie Filled with Love.

Review
This was… sadly underwhelming and disappointing given Marion’s previous works. I was initially very excited to read this because 1) ZOMBIE FICTION MOG! and 2) the short story was pretty amazing. The first chapter opens up with the original short story, a very poignant 1st person zombie narrative describing the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the narrator during one slice of a day. There is emphasis on the zombie’s inability to think coherently, speak, or process thoughts quickly. The zombie’s outlook on the world is extremely complacent and only slightly quizzical, but it is apparent the zombie brain cannot handle being inquisitive.

In order for Marion to tell the story he wanted to tell, he had to break away from the narrative restraints he set up in the short story by giving his narrator a larger capacity for thought and purpose. However, the result was a rather obvious discontinuity between the first chapter and the next couple chapters in narration, and the subsequent abrupt change in atmosphere and storytelling wasn’t handled very well. Overall, the characters and story were rather predictable, and as ashamed as I am to say this, the story was just cheesy. All of Marion’s works are very romantic, and usually he manages to either avoid cheesiness or fully embrace it and turn it into something special. I lost interest about halfway through Warm Bodies, frustrated by the narrative inconsistencies and the plot.

Although The Inside wasn’t perfect, I think it suited Marion’s style and storytelling better. There was a lot more confidence, atmosphere, and passion in that novel. I guess Warm Bodies still makes for an interesting casual read because it is still zombie fiction for once NOT presented in graphic novel form.

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Warm Bodies (2009) [E]
Isaac Marion
Some words (and exploding high-fives) with Isaac Marion