Sunday, August 16, 2009

Monstrous Regiment

A wonderful book for fans of fantasy and satire, Terry Pratchett delivers yet another brilliant book in his bestselling Discworld series. Although sold as an adult and not a teen novel, the story focuses on teenager Polly Perks, resident of the tiny country of Borogravia, which has spent the last several centuries waging war on its neighbors. When her brother goes missing in Action, Polly cuts her hair, dresses up as a boy and signs up with the local regiment. Here we meet Pratchett’s usual array of zany characters. Her “brothers in arms” include a vampire who has sworn off blood and now craves coffee; an Igor who doesn’t lisp (if you’ve read the other Discworld books you’ll understand!) and a religious fanatic who claims to hear the voice of Borogravia’s Duchess, who has not been seen in over a decade. This motley crew, led by battle hardened veteran Sgt Jackums, sets off to win the war single handedly, an impossible feat since many larger countries have joined forces against pesky, war mongering Borogravia. As the story progresses, we learn that Polly is not the only one with a secret, and that sometimes the best man for the job is not a man at all! As with all Pratchett books, some more than others, beneath the humor is a darker side. This story explores why countries go to war, and does not gloss over the horrors of war. I also doubt that I was the only reader to notice an eerie resemblance to current conflicts… This novel does have some less then polite jokes, so would probably not be good for younger teens. Highly recommended for both newcomer’s to Discworld and avid fans.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Scott Westerfeld books

For books that are often enjoyable, sometimes insightful, you can rarely go wrong with Scott Westerfeld. Here, for your reading enjoyment are two of my favorites…

Peeps: A Novel by Scott Westerfeld

If you pay any attention whatsoever to teen literature, you’ll have noticed that vampire books are big right now. Sadly, most of them I find very boring and unoriginal. That’s why I was very pleasantly surprised when I found this one. Instead of the usual tormented vampire love story, this is a fascinating novel that uses the concept that there is absolutely nothing occult about vampires. It’s quite simply a disease, and a dangerous, fast spreading one at that. The main protagonist, a self proclaimed nerd named Cal Thompson, is infected with the disease himself, but is lucky enough to be a carrier only, someone who suffers none of the more common symptoms. Problem is, as a carrier he can still transmit the disease to others. Driven partially by guilt, he becomes a vampire hunter of sorts, tracking down those infected and bringing them in for medical treatment. And that’s where we meet him, attempting to capture one of his former girlfriends, a dangerous job considering one of the symptoms of vampirism is cannibalism. There is a feeling of constant suspense throughout the novel, as Cal tracks down vampires (or “Peeps” as they are more commonly known among the Night Watch, whom Cal works for), and more importantly tracks down knowledge, because there just may have been something different about the woman who infected Cal, and dark things are stirring in the depths of the city… One thing I absolutely loved about this book was that between every chapter Cal gives us a mini lecture on various types of real life parasites (something that ties in very nicely with the concept that vampires are simply infected with a nasty parasite), and although absolutely disgusting, it’s also quite fascinating… Considering the subject matter, this book is pretty gory at times. Also of note, there’s some bad language, sex, etc. so readers be warned.

So Yesterday: A Novel by Scott Westerfeld

In this very enjoyable novel, part action story, part mystery, and part satirical critique of current consumerist culture, this story is all about just what it means to be “cool”. Hunter is a seventeen year old trendsetter who actually gets paid to find cool innovations for the biggest names in clothes and fashion. And as an official trendsetter, his job is to observe the “innovators” (think the legendary guy who first wore his hat backwards), and to sport the latest cool trends, but not to get involved. But then he meets Jen, a very curious innovator who starts to change the way he thinks, and when Hunter’s boss goes missing, they most definitely get involved... Although at first Hunter sees it as fighting against the Jammers, those who want to bring down crass commercialism as we know it, as time goes by he questions more and more just who’s side he’s on… Gently funny, with joking avoidance of name brand dropping at every corner, and lots of cool shoes, this novel is very good light entertainment, with a premise that makes you stop, and think how truly ridiculous consumerism can be!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Firebirds: An Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction

I love reading novels, the long sprawling stories, getting to know the characters so well, I feel like I actually know them. But I hold a soft spot in my heart for short stories. Novels can be too wordy, getting bogged down in too much description and unnecessary scenes. A good short story, however, I’ve always thought of as a jewel. Precious, and small enough to hold in your cupped hands. One good anthology that I’ve found is Firebirds: An Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction. There is no particular theme to this anthology, except for the fact that all the contributing authors write teen fiction that is published by Firebirds imprint. The stories range from a reworking of the legend of Medusa (Medusa), to the story of a baby left in the night deposit box of a library, who is then raised by the quirky librarians who live there (The Baby in the Night Deposit Box). Some of my favorite stories include Cotillion, the best retelling I’ve ever read of Tam Lin in short story format, and my absolute favorite from this collection, Little Dot. Cat lovers everywhere will adore this odd and enjoyable story from Diana Wynne Jones, about a cat who, with the help of her fellow furry friends, rids the countryside of a vicious beast, and in the process wins back the affection of her owner. One of the few stories I really didn’t like was Garth Nix’s Hope Chest, a creepy, unnecessarily gory old western story. Overall, a great read and a good introduction to the wonderful world of short stories! If, after reading this, you decide you like you like short stories, here are a few other anthologies you may want to check out… Hidden Turnings: A Collection of Stories Through Time and Space compiled by Diana Wynne Jones; Unexpected Magic: Collected Stories by Diana Wynne Jones; Twice Seven: Stories by Ben Bova; Book of Enchantments by Patricia C. Wrede; Firebirds Rising; Firebirds Soaring; The Green Man: Tales From the Mythic Forest; The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm; and The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tam Lin Retellings

Have you ever heard of The Ballad of Tam Lin? If you have, you’ll know that it’s an old Scottish ballad that tells the story of young Janet, and her romance with Tam Lin. Tam Lin was stolen away by the Fairies, and in the ballad, although he now dwells in our world (at least partially) the Fairies still have a claim on him. In the end, Janet rescues him and they live happily ever after. This ballad proved to be a great inspiration to many authors, as I have read numerous retellings in both short stories and novels. Here are a few novels that you might enjoy reading…

O I forbid you, maidens a’,
That wear gowd on your hair,
To come or gae by Carterhaugh,
For young Tam Lin is there.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

In this retelling, Janet is a college student at Blackstock (one of the buildings is called Carter Hall), and Tam Lin is a fellow student by the name of Thomas Lane. Set in the early 70’s, I thought the hippie era worked great with fairies! This novel is definitely a character study above all else, and I liked the way that Janet (along with the reader) saw little glimpses of things that weren’t quite normal throughout the book, until finally figuring out what was going on… My only problem with this book was that although the first three-quarters were captivating, near the end it started to drag. I think the story should have been re-worked so that it covered only Janet’s first couple of years at college instead of following her until her senior year. I loved that this book has the complete Ballad of Tam Lin at the back of the book, complete with old Scottish spelling.

An Earthly Knight by Janet Elizabeth McNaughton

In this version, set in 12th century Scotland, Jeanette (better known as Jenny) is the daughter of a minor nobleman, and is therefore expected to marry whomever her father chooses. She, however, has other ideas, especially after she meets Tam Lin. This novel follows fairly closely to the ballad, and the setting adds interest, but I found this novel a rather average read. Of special interest to historical novel fans.

Fire and Hemlock By Diana Wynne Jones

This novel, by one of my favorite fantasy authors, is by far the strangest retelling I have read. The story opens were Polly is packing to go away to college, and having problems with dual memories, one set of happenings overlaying the other. In an attempt to find out what really happened, she casts her mind back ten years to when it all started… I highly enjoyed this unorthodox (although normal by Diana Wynne Jones usual standards!) version, full of quirky characters and unexpected twists. Highly recommended!