Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Kind of Fantasy Land

So if you read the blog even more avidly than all those other people who read my blog, you may have noted my comments discussion with abg, advising her on good reading material for her vacation.  My strongest suggestion was to get in to Jasper Fforde; though it turns out abg was not enamored of his books, I feel like he's one of that elusive few, male authors whose books I like.  The reason, of course, is that his books are comedic.  Not strict comedy maybe, but definitely light-hearted.  They are also very clever fantasy - taking place in an alternative universe where the fictional characters we know and love are real.  Real and living in a world very similar to our own... except that instead of atoms, they have text. The idea isn't that radical.  But the execution is so good. I mean, yeah, I'm the girl whose favorite sporkle category is literature, so I'm predisposed to like it. But come on, metaphor as the elusive element? Gray's Anatomy the hospital? Footnotes as a communication device? It's just cute :)  Actually, abg agreed with me on this; she just thought that despite all this, the books were tense.  And they are tense - they have a bit of the thriller about them, as so many fantasy books do.  But I just don't think it takes it over or anything - or maybe the sheer absurdity of the villains and various hazards just distracts me from any sense of danger.  I think it's like Terry Pratchett in a way - go, British male writers of comedic fantasy! :)

Anyway, that's as far as the series goes (it's the Thursday Next series, by the way, he has some other books too).  I read them a few years ago, and the sixth one just came out.  So first of all, it's not exactly like I remembered everything from the previous books, which was annoying, but you know, you can mostly pick it up (if the author is at all decent anyway).   And with these books, there's so many little cute jokes I miss, it's not like I get everything anyway.  Like in this book, Thursday is bribed to advertise the Toast Marketing Board.   And only then did I realize that though there were constant references in it to previous books, it is never explained what it is - because she went back and added them gratuitously to the narrative! and cute again :)  The point is, even if you don't get everything, there's enough clever little references you will pick up to make yourself feel smart and get a real kick out of the books.  And with this book, it mattered even less than usual... because the book wasn't even about Thursday.

Okay, here's where it gets clever.  So in Fforde's universe, book characters are real.  Thursday Next has had books written about her (in the series, don't worry, it doesn't get that self-referential - at least not yet :)) so she has a fictional self.  So even though when we open up the book and the narrator is referred to (by others I mean, it's first person) as Thursday, it takes a while to figure out that this is not our Thursday.  But the cool thing is that we like her anyway, because she *is* Thursday.  Or if not exactly Thursday, close enough with her that we still feel like we know her.  Actually, I find entire concept pretty mind-blowing.  I mean our Thursday is fictional, this Thursday is fictional, I don't remember the books well enough to notice the personality differences, but still, he tells us this is the fictional Thursday, and all of the sudden I like her, but I feel *just a little* more distant.  Really makes you think about psychological effects and all that.  Oh and the best part of another Thursday was that she totally hero worships our Thursday and it was tons of fun to hear how everyone thinks she's awesome.

So the book was totally brilliant in that respect.  And it had all the hallmarks of a Thursday Next, where the BookWorld mirrors ours so novelly (cute pun, no? :)) and we get to meet all our favorite (and not favorite) larger than life characters.  It had the usual, I suppose tense and dangerous plot, which was as usual not too tense for me because it was just so overblown.  My only complaint was I did feel that some of the cute punny features of the Book World felt a little too pat.  Like, okay, take any vaguely literary detail and insert it in place of something non-literary - presto, the Book World equivalent.  It felt a little too mad-libby at times. But it was okay, it felt just right in others :) And Jasper Fforde shares with Terry Pratchett a predilection for making over science (physics and chemistry) to fit the fantasy world, which of course I like - it's funny how much I like science,  I should really read it more :)  Anyway, that was really my only complaint... so no surprise -
Verdict: 4.5/5

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Y'all Just Ain't That Charmin'

Full disclosure on this one, I kind of cheated.  My books were due on Thursday, and this one had holds on it so I couldn't renew it.  Now it wasn't like I was dead-set keen on reading this book - I just grabbed it off the shelf when I went browsing for the first time in a while - but, you know, once I get something out, I like to give it a whirl.  So  I was debating if I should return it and forget about it, return it and put it on hold, or keep it out a day extra and finish it.  I went to, read the reviews, and decided to keep it and finish it, wasting $.25 but okay.  But of course, then I had already read the reviews, and if you think I'm above being biased by someone else's opinion... well, you're wrong, that's all :)

But let's pretend I just read the book without hearing any outside opinion first... I'm pretty sure it would have been much the same anyway.  The book in question is Saving Cee-Cee Honeycutt, but Beth Hoffman.  It's pretty and floral, all pink, purple and green.  And that's not just the cover.  Cee-Cee Honeycutt is a twelve-year-old girl whose mother is severely mentally ill. So not exactly a happy childhood.  But then her mother dies, and Cee-Cee goes south to live with her great-aunt Tootie in Savannah Geo-gah.  The rest of the book... well I suppose it's about saving, as the title suggests, but it mostly seems like a celebration of Southern cliches to me.  I'm not one to care much about plot, but I must say I was impressed by the complete lack of one here.  The book jumps from incident to anecdote, each one charming, amusing, or poignant in its own way (or some combination of the three of course).  It's pretty amazing actually - just when you think there's going to be some follow through, the previous chapter's storyline gets resolved and we get treated to something new.

I'm sure you asking, but would you complain about that? It's not like I've ever complained about light and easy stories, and I did describe this one as charming and amusing.  Well, first of all, that charming and amusing was more a description of the what the book (or the author) thinks of itself, not necessarily how I feel.  But, it's true, at times, even most of the time, there was a lot to enjoy in this not very deep novel.  So why are you detecting a slightly sardonic note in my faint praise? Because even though I'm just fine with a book that wants to do nothing but amuse and entertain, I think this book aspires to more than that.  This is a book that wants to do two things - examine the healing process of a child coming from a broken home and celebrate the bright and bountiful world that was the old South.  As far as the latter goes, I don't believe a word of it - the South wasn't this kind and gentlemanly paradise, where (almost) all the women are good and loving.  And I'm not even talking about the ugly racial and economic divides.  Even within the privileged upper class that Tootie rules, it wasn't all coming up roses all the time.  And while I don't mind being fed a little feel-good myth once in a while (not at all actually), this was more like a binge-worthy onslaught of fluffy fairy tales.

But at least as far as the South goes, the book does a good enough job of potraying it as intended.  My far greater objection was to the more serious lost childhood storyline.  First of all, I'm not going to disagree that a girl who grew up with a mother who seemed to be severely bipolar, and certainly very mentally unwell, is in need of a lot of help and loving.  But Cee-Cee, who tells the story first person, does not exhibit very much damage at all.  She's kind of quiet and in amazement about all the good bestowed her, but the most of the hints that all is not well come from overheard conversations between Tootie and her cook, Oletta.  I don't get very worried about Cee-Cee, and my heart therefore just can't get that warmed at her eventual blossoming.  And I just can't get into all the pseudo-significant events along the way either.  There's a death, a racial episode, an endangered hummingbird... each one treating with all due pathos in its turn, and all undue pathos too.  I can't count the number of times where *something* happened.  It was then that... it was that... that was the... let me tell you something, girl, if everything that happens is a revelation, ain't nothin' much left covered.  Basically, I couldn't go far just enjoying the story before some annoyingly maudlin or tremblingly stupendous *moment* interrupted.  With all that, I did manage to finish it pretty fast, so it wasn't all that hard to get through... I guess

Verdict: 2.5/5

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Set of Fangs Doesn't Have to Hurt

If you're a frequent reader, you no doubt have noticed that there is a proliferation of Austenalia out there in bookland.   You are of course not the only one who's noticed - Michael Thomas Ford, for one, came up with the bright idea of an Austen-vampire mashup... obvious, in a way, given that other ubiquitous (okay, far more ubiquitous :)) creature du jour.  Actually, sad as it is, he is not the only one to come up with this - I say sad, because while Ford's novel is completely tongue-in-cheek, and quite funnily so, Mr Darcy, Vampyre and Vampire Darcy's Desire (I think those are the two titles I know) capitalize on the dual trends with an absolute straight face.  Because Darcy is just so much better with fangs.  Anyway, in this case the pairing was made only for for the sake of humor.

Jane Goes Batty (currently under review) is actually the second book in the series.  I read the first last year, I think off a recommendation on Austenblog, because I wasn't reading Austenprose at the time (and Austenblog still had regular posts :( ).  I was slightly hesitant (for obvious reasons, and also because, as always male authors are a warning sign) but I thoroughly enjoyed Jane Bites Back.  It could have gone either way, since a lot of the potential in the situation of Jane as a vampire is that Jane is alive today.  And Jane being alive today means Jane can see what we've done with her books... everything we've done.  So, very realistically, Jane is not altogether enthusiastic about her fandom, at least elements of it.  But there's a fine line to tread here, since what is Michael Thomas Ford, but another lowly plebian trying to ride the Austen popularity wave? In any case, he does manage to tread the line pretty well.  I'm not saying his Jane isn't a little too vulnerable at times and a little too snarky at others, but she's believable.  I think if Jane Austen was a vampire who couldn't reveal her true identity she might well struggle with the lack of appreciation shown her and the sometimes misplaced homage to her works.  I don't think she would suffer from writer's block or have trouble getting her novels published, but okay, it's permissible.

Most importantly, you don't have to take anything these books say seriously, because they don't take anything seriously at all.  The writing is... well if not juvenile, simplistic enough to be understood by the masses so even the most dramatic moments have a kind of drab ordinariness about them.  And right when things start gettings tense, everything just kind of resolves itself without too much effort.  It's great, at least for the book's purposes.  No matter what kind of ridiculous antics everyone is getting up, you can take it because it's all in good fun.  And I think there's definitely room for fun here - I mean yes, I read Twilight and yes, I read Mr. Darcy's Diary et al. - but I know they're kind of silly :)  And Michael Thomas Ford does a good job with pointing that out using just the right kind of gentle jibing.

Besides all this, it's fun to read about Lord Byron, and Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austen.... like my version of a tall tale :) And the story itself ain't bad either - quite a decent romance going on, if you were wondering (not a real romance of course, the author is a man).  But in any case..
Verdict: 3.5/5

And I totally forgot...
100 POSTS!!!! Yay!! :)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ms Austen She Is Not

Continuing with my usual practice of picking up books recommended on Austenprose, I took The Three Weissmans of Westport out from the library when I came across it on the shelf.  I heard about it as a modern retelling of S&S - *not* chic lit - that got rave reviews, and did not bother to reserve it based on the dual signals of S&S and *not* chic lit, but when I saw it, I was like, well why not, rave reviews, huh? So out it came, and it was actually the first of all the (okay, not all that exciting) titles into which I ventured, due to its status as the only book with a hold on it (since, filled I think).  But before I even started it, Chava tried it, and informed me that she found it fairly unfun to read.  Now that was not a good sign, because to Chava, *not* chic lit doesn't spell doom in the same way it does to me.

Anyway, once I started, I was surprised by Chava's opinion.  Being an S&S retelling about two Jewish girls, there was a lot about it that reminded me of Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector.  That title was not a real retelling, just one that purported to be in the spirit of S&S.  It did have two sisters, one the practical one, one the dreamer, so I suppose that classification is not unwarranted.  Anyway, Chava loves Allegra Goodman, while I am not as much as a fan (if you want to know why read this).  So this book was about secular Jews, but still very Jewish Jews, and it was pretty much for women by women about women kind of fare, so I definitely felt the similarity.  But, at least initially, I found T3W (like that? :)) to be much lighter, much less literary and therefore much more fun.  Like, if not chic lit, then at least nothing with any pretensions beyond a desire to entertain.

That was in the beginning.  But as the S&S plot dictates, the story got more serious.   And as the plot thickened, the characters... whined.  I mean, I don't like Marianne even in the original.  But Eleanor's all right, and I have nothing against Mrs. Dashwood.  But here it was like, I don't know why anyone finds Miranda endearing, she is, as she styles herself, a nightmare.  And as for Annie, it's not like you have to be pathetic, secretly sorry for yourself, and kind of dull just because you're more practical than your sister is.  So, as S&S isn't exactly laugh-a-minute fun anyway, here we have a tense story with annoying people taking center stage.  And as for light... not a whole lot of fluffiness, and very little dark humor to lighten the mood either.  Meanwhile, the book got more and more, I don't know if you want to call if more philosophical, more pretentious, but more happy to make blanket statements about life and whatnot.  The one I was really unimpressed by was on page 118 - I remembered the page so I could refer to it later... but I now don't feel like getting the book out of my bag to cite it, so I guess you'll just have to go look it up yourself to satisfy your curiosity :) But anyway, the point was, instead of being a more light and funny take, it was this heavy handed adaption... with not much point, because it's not like any of the Weissmans are realistic and relatable or like their story is a common tale.

At one point, I was thinking, maybe it's my fault for getting this out - after all, S&S is my least favorite Jane Austen.  I haven't read it in a while, and my presumption has always been that I would develop more toleration for it rather than less, since that's been the general trend for me for a while.  But here's the thing - S&S was enjoyable reading even when I read it last in 12th grade - I just hated the ending.  The two romances are neither of them at all decent by my standards.  Eleanor and Edward know they love each other from the beginning, their obstacles are no source of decent angst, just annoying.  And as for Marianne... she doesn't even love Colonel Brandon at the end, and who cares about her anyway, she's an idiot.  But like I said, Jane Austen is Herself, and she keeps it light.  Not here.  It's almost blasphemous the way these whiny authors think they are carrying on the comic tradition on Jane Austen.  Or maybe they don't think so, they just like recycling her plots.  If that's the case, I have plenty of sympathy. Nothing I like more than a good modern retelling of P&P. But when they choose S&S, I suppose I have to be on my guard, at best...   I mean, it's simply not a plot I love (which won't stop me from watching From Prada to Nada, of course :)).  But here's the kicker - after a whole book of tense whining and depressed moments, we are finally supposed to end up with Eleanor and Edward, and Marianne and Colonel Brandon, right? Wrong, apparently.  She goes ahead and changes the ending! Why? I don't know, I don't think it really adds much thematic value.  Maybe she thinks her way is more realistic? I think it's mostly just for shock value.  But unfortunately, since I had pretty much lost interest in the book by that time,  I don't know if I cared enough to be really shocked.  More like disappointed.  Is nothing sacred? Okay, that was facetious, but seriously, this book was no good enough to merit its own ending.  And I am therefore demoting it from 2 to a

Verdict: 1.5/5

Sidenote: I looked back at the review on Austenprose, and it turns out she was not one of the rave reviewers - she thought pretty much the same thing I did, and she gave it 3/5, which is quite low for her. I really should read those reviews a little more carefully :)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Series Settling in to its Genre

Well it took me long enough, and it's not even original... Before I had even finished Flavia, part II (a.k.a the purple book) Sarah Sp. told me she had purchased part III.  Whatever reservations I had about The Weed that Strings the Handman's Bag (oh, that was the title :)) I certainly enjoyed it enough to read the next one, so I put it on the top of my list.  I then proceeded to take a week and a half to finish, but to be fair, that was without reading at all on Shabbos (busy with Peryl's sheva brachos).

It was much the same as the other ones, an English countryside mystery, mostly driven by Flavia's energy and imperturbability (I must admit I thesaurused that from unflappability, which I think I used already, but it was at the tip of my tongue).  It also continued the pattern (is it a pattern after two times?) of becoming more of a mystery and less of a genre bend than its predecessor.  Well you know that didn't particularly warm it to my heart.  And the mystery itself, while full of promising elements (Gypsies, forgery, old secrets, religious fanaticism) didn't *quite* deliver... some of those plot twists could fallen by the wayside without changing the outcome much.  But okay, like I care about the crafting of the mystery... it's much more important to me that the sleuthing be ever-intriguing... and I suppose every outlandish extra helps.  So I'm not really complaining about that, just commenting.

If I am complaining about anything, it's of course about the non-mystery segment of the novel.  I keep on waiting for Flavia's family life to change, for her to have some epiphany, for her sisters to suddenly grow up, for her father to thaw out... but thus far, not much.  On the father front, there were some tender moments (points) but I am increasingly mystified by Feely and Daffy.  One presumes they are not meant to be monsters but the way they torture Flavia does not strike me as the normal playful teasing of sisters.  It's so incongruous with the dignified tone of the book it almost makes me wonder if Alan Bradley has some hangup about it.  In the first book, Flavia gave as good as she got, which freaked me out a little too... but I feel like it just keeps getting worse, not better, with every book.  And I'm definitely starting to get tired of it. But I hold out hope and wait, hoping that every book will bring about that much needed revolution (preferably with Harriet (Flavia's mother) coming back from the dead - you heard it here first :))

So with all that, Flavia is still a lot of fun to hang out with.  She's smart and capable, indefatigable and ever resourceful.  And excellent sleuth and one whose little idiosyncrasies are easily excused by her tender years.  And though the mystery isn't my prime motivation for reading this book, the author manages to keep it interesting.  And those little scraps of humanity and progress I perceive every now and then from Flavia and her relations are better than nothing.  It wasn't bad, it wasn't bad at all.  And I'm looking forward to number four.

Verdict: 3/5