Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

I loved this sequel to The Last Dragonslayer. Jennifer Strange is still temporarily in charge of Kazam, King Snodd is still an incompetent jerk, and Fforde is still as funny and witty as ever. Because Snodd is trying to use the government to control magic, Jennifer finds she must pit Kazam's sorcerers against those of iMagic--and King Snodd and the iMagicians are not against using any means necessary to take Kazam's team out of the picture. The plot comes together nicely with plenty of wit and derring-do. I especially love seeing such an awesome teenager in charge of a bunch of wizards. Plenty to enjoy for everyone (except, perhaps, the fact that US publication lags way behind UK publication for this series).

The Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card

This book presents the childhood of Alvin Maker, the seventh son of a seventh son, and thus a very powerful figure indeed. In fact, because of Alvin's great power, he early in his life (even before his birth) attracts a sort of supernatural ire (which we later find out is the manifestation of the Unmaker). I really enjoyed this book, not just for the story of Alvin and his family (which was very entertaining, if a bit episodic at times), but also for the imaginative world the work inhabits. Here we have a variety of peoples contesting for power in the Americas in a history in which the colonies did not unite into one political body and in which George Washington was hanged as a traitor. Although the history stuff neither confuses or dominates the text, it is a great addition to a fine story. I can't wait to see where Alvin's luck takes him.

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

This book provides much of the older history of Tolkien's Arda (home of Middle Earth). I have found increasing rewards each time I read this book--although the first time was very slow and hard to get into, now I find the story quite moving. It's biblical in tone, and none of the characters are fully characterized--although some do come into later stories (or other works like The Children of Húrin) which do provide more of a sense of character and self. I sympathized much more fully with Fëanor this time, and I understood more clearly why the oath he and his sons take is so devastating. I also noticed for the first time that Elendil's sons Isildur and Anárion are named for the sun and the moon. I think these stories are so moving because there are clear consequences to actions and because so many things of great beauty and worth are unique--they can only be made or achieved once. This book is richly rewarding.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Inadvertent Epic: From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Roots by Leslie A. Fiedler

This book contends that there's a female, domestic tradition in American literature that critics ignore or dismiss at their peril. Fiedler traces this tradition from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Dixon's The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman (and Birth of a Nation) to Gone With the Wind (both the novel and the movie) and ending with Alex Haley's Roots. This book still seems representative of an older form of criticism (more observations than quotations and little direct engagement with a broader critical conversation). I appreciate Fiedler's attempts to reopen and redefine the literary canon, though I'm not sure he gets there with this book.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

This book tells the story of Ayla, separated from her family by an earthquake and raised by the Clan of the Cave Bear. Although Ayla is obviously different, one of the Others, she quickly learns the ways of the Clan, even if she finds them unduly strange and restrictive at times. I really enjoyed this story--the characters and their struggles felt real and familiar, even as their surroundings, culture, and customs were totally foreign.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Vampire Legends in Contemporary American Culture: What Becomes a Legend Most by William Patrick Day

This book looks at the role of vampires in American culture. After a short introduction to the topic (bringing vampires out of folklore and into fiction, and from there into the twentieth century), this book focuses on twentieth century materials, ranging from film to television to novels, and focusing most (but not exclusively) on American works. Day suggests that three main modes of vampire stories exist: liberation stories, in which vampires have been sexualized and turned into the protagonist; horror stories, in which vampires are no longer the boogeymen of the past, but harbingers of a terrifying future; and slayer stories, which turn the focus back to the vampire slayers. The book gives good readings, and offers a basic theoretical framework--it wasn't bad, but nothing to knock your socks off, either.

The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon

This book sends Jamie and Lord John on an adventure to Ireland, to deal with the remnants of the Jacobite cause. The pacing in this book was much stronger than several of the recent books that focus on Jamie and Claire. I enjoyed the adventures of the characters, and I liked the ambiguity about loyalties that the book introduced (Jamie has effectually sworn off the Jacobite cause because he knows it can only end in failure). There was a nice twist at the end that wasn't fully resolved to my satisfaction, but all in all, a very enjoyable read.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Blood is the Life: Vampires in Literature edited by Leonard G. Heldreth and Mary Pharr

This collection of essays analyzes the role of vampires in literature. It's particularly interested in both Dracula and in the changes in the portrayal of vampires at the end of the twentieth century. The collection of essays covers a fairly broad span of literature. The essays contribute more to an understanding of the individual works they focus on than to overarching theoretical developments.

Narrative and Freedom: the Shadows of Time by Gary Saul Morson

This book investigates the question of whether time is closed (and our fates are fixed) or whether it is open. Instead of looking at the question simply philosophically, Morson uses literature (and particularly the realist fiction of nineteenth century Russia, as practiced by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky). Even though fiction seems to imply closed time (both through devices such as a foreshadowing and backshadowing and through its ability to place the reader outside of the time of the narrative, which is always already fixed), Morson suggests that there are ways to read the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that work against this fated view of history--namely sideshadowing. Sideshadowing is a technique by which a work of fiction opens up parallel histories so that the reader cannot determine which of these histories is actually "true." I found this book very convincing and provocative.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland 2012 by Bob Sehlinger

This book is similar to the Walt Disney World title--indeed, many of the anecdotes are repeated from the Florida version of the book. At times the advice of the authors seems overbearing (for example, they recommend dressing everyone in matching shirts--which definitely works for some families--but it's presented as a best method). There's also a one-size fits all quality to the books, despite the fact that they give multiple touring plans for Disneyland and rate each attraction for each different age groups. I found the attraction, restaurant, and hotel descriptions more helpful than the touring advice (although I definitely plan on using the touring plans!). Overall a thorough and amusing guide book.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

This book is another great entry in a series that keeps getting better and better. I am starting to realize that something more than case-of-the-week links these stories, but it grows organically out of compelling mysteries each time. This time, Harry's asked to investigate a black magic practitioner and something going wrong in the Faerie courts. As it turns out, these cases are linked, and the black magic practitioner has a history similar to Harry's own. Harry, as usual, narrowly gets by with his wits, his power, and a little bit of help from more-or-less-reliable allies. I enjoyed this story and I'm eagerly looking forward to see how many of the new questions (like Mab's supposed madness) pan out.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

This book is the story of Jacob's quest to decipher the meaning behind his grandfather's mysterious last words. As it turns out, his grandfather was one of the children sent from mainland Europe to England to escape the Holocaust--but he was subject to additional dangers because he was peculiar and so found himself in the care of Miss Peregrine. The book is beautifully illustrated with vintage photographs (repurposed as illustrations of the peculiar children) and a mythology slowly develops. Indeed, as the story continues, you begin to realize that worlds and ideas are opened that could not possibly be closed within the confines of the novel. I'll be interested in seeing how the sequel develops and how the world of the peculiar children plays out. The part of this novel that felt clunkiest to me was the portrayal family relationships between Jacob and his family (especially his parents). I understand why the main character needs to be a loner or isolated in this story, but it didn't seem to be handled quite as smoothly as it could have been. Otherwise a fantastic and fantastical story!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

This book is set in a world much like ours, except, perhaps, that elevators loom larger than life in its mythology. While it first seems almost enchantingly quirky, we gradually discover that what's at stake is not just a guild election or a disagreement between two methods of elevator inspection (Empiricists look at the parts of an elevator to see problems whereas Intuitionists ride and meditate and know)--instead it's all about race and society but also about the roles of corporations in our government and social life. As Lila Mae Watson, the first black, female elevator inspector discovers, the question of passing becomes very important, not just to her ability to do what's seen as a white job, but to the theoretically underpinnings of elevator inspection itself. I found the book thought-provoking and beautifully written. It's definitely much better and more interesting than Sag Harbor or Zone One.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

In this mystery Flavia de Luce is back on the case again, this time when a stranded puppeteer presenting Jack and the Beanstalk falls dead onto the stage during a performance. The mystery is expertly handled (although Flavia is far from an expert detective) and the story continues to advance the story of Flavia's family (her mother died in a mysterious accident, and it seems her family is about to lose the ancestral estate) below the surface. Flavia has all the advantages of Miss Marple, being able to get into the hearths and hearts of her neighbors. The series and this book are both highly enjoyable, especially to fans of classic British mystery authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh.

Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

This book is a shorter novel set in the Mistborn world. Although it's not one of the three planned trilogies (one of which has already been written and released), it doesn't quite work as a stand-alone novel either--there seems to be more story waiting even after the end of the novel. I enjoyed the story (there were some moments of humor), but it wasn't quite as good as the original Mistborn trilogy (in which the reader had to work out more of the mythology and whose characters seemed stronger to me). Still, I liked the story and I liked the mystery, and I especially liked Wayne and Marasi. I'll definitely be interested in the sequel, whenever it may come out. I read this book on my Kindle, and I found the accompanying graphics clear enough (although Sanderson has also made them available on his website).