Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Graveyard Book

Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2008

The boy’s family was murdered when he was about eighteen months old. Just big enough to totter around, he wandered out of the house and up the hill into the nearby graveyard while the killer searched around for him. There he is taken in by unlikely pair named Mr. and Mrs. Owens, who were never able to have children. The only problem is that they’ve been dead for about two hundred years. The graveyard residents aren’t sure what to do with the boy, who has no name but what the Owens gave him, so they give him the Freedom of the Graveyard and name him Nobody.

Nobody Owens grows up very differently than most children. All of his best friends are dead. In fact, everyone he associates with has been dead since Victoria was Queen. His guardian is a vampire named Silas. He learns his letters and numbers from the fellow residents of his graveyard, and he thinks nothing of sleeping in a tomb every night. It’s all he’s ever known. The outside world isn’t safe for Nobody Owens, yet as he grows he dreams of meeting the living. But it isn’t safe, he’s told. The Man Jack is still looking for him.

And so Nobody Owens’ story is that of most people: that of self discovery. Nobody just does it better than everyone else, perhaps because Death isn’t something that frightens him. He lives in the world, and is more aware of his world, than anyone else because he learned from the dead that life is your chance to make your mark on the world, to go out and do what you can, to be who you can and to make the most of every moment.

We only follow Nobody for about thirteen years of his life, but he does more in those thirteen than most people accomplish in fifty, and for that he is a truly remarkable individual. But what is most charming about Nobody is his sweet naïveté. He can discuss for hours the uses of Ghoul Gates or who the Lady on the Grey is, but something as simple as “P is for Pig” delights him. He’ll anger fellow graveyard residents to borrow the books they have or find the deepest of the Tombs and confront those who live there. It’s Nobody’s character, delightful in al its angles, that kept me reading. And when it was over I wanted more but loved that that was all there was written down about Nobody. Gaiman’s ability to leave some adventures open to the reader’s imagination only adds to the joy his books bring.

The Graveyard book is told from third person limited, following Nobody Owens on his adventures.

My Thoughts:
This book was another one nominated by Jean-Luc, and it didn’t disappoint. At first I was reminded quite a lot of Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett, but as the story progressed I found this was due only to the location at which the story takes place and the fact that many of the main characters are deceased. I almost cried at the end, because I was so happy for Bod, but so sad that it was over. I think it’s perhaps the best book I’ve read by Neil Gaiman, a prolific author with many wonderful works to his credit. I would recommend it to anyone and was a delight to read.

Favorite Scene:
My favorite scene was when Bod confronted the Sleer with Scarlett in tow. Fascinating, creepy, exciting and thought provoking. But then, I've always been fascinated with the Celts. The chapter titled “The Witch” was also great.

Who this book is best for:
Listed as suitable for 9-12 year olds on Amazon, I would disagree. I would keep this for kids 11 years or up, despite the easy writing style and age of the main character, because of what goes on during the story’s climax. 9 may be a little too young to deal with some of the themes explored in The Graveyard Book. However, it has won the Newbery Medal and completely deserved it.

Violence: 3 of 5 for the creepy Sleer and the Jacks of All Trades.

Stars: 5 of 5

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Title: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - The Classic Regency Romance Now with Ultra-violent Zombie Mayhem
Author: Jane Austen and Seth Garahame-Smith
Genre: Classic/Fantasy
Published: 2009

Mix these two lines: "...A single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife..." and "...A zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains..." and you'll have the mish-mash that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The classic tale of the five Bennet sisters’ struggle to get some husbands, preferably rich ones, now has the added terror of the undead rampaging through Britain.

Don't let the title fool you: many of the characters bear little resemblance to those from the original. At first they're not such marked differences. Jane is still disgustingly sweet to everyone. Lydia is still a reptilian little wretch. Mrs. Bennet doesn’t care about anything but seeing her daughters well married. And so Elizabeth and her sisters routinely behead the undead, who always seem to arrive just in time to ruin a ball or party. So what? Mr. Darcy finally found a sense of humor? Good. Mr. Bennet took lovers when his daughters were training in the Orient? Who doesn't? And the disgusting plague explains some of what went unsaid in the original: Why is there a whole Army regiment stationed in Meryton? Well, if the place is overrun with unmentionables eating or inflicting their unfortunate plague on the general populace it makes total sense.

But over all, the story stalled. Seeing how the beloved characters would respond to the new threat only held my interest for about half of the book, and then it was a struggle to finish. The constant conflict between Shaolin training and what the higher class nobles receive in Kyoto aren’t differentiated. Not once does the reader see the difference between the two, but apparently it matters enough for Elizabeth to eat someone’s heart over it. The heat between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth seems forced and even unbelievable in certain instances. Mostly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a good idea that stagnated.

Third person limited, P&P&Z follows Elizabeth for most of the story, and Darcy a few times.

My Thoughts:
Maybe my expectations were too high for this book. I love the original, and at first the language and actions of the characters followed it very closely. Yet the further into the story I went, the less involved I felt and the more obtuse everyone grew. I think it lost me completely with Elizabeth calmly munching on someone’s heart after killing three ninjas blindfolded. Eating someone’s heart may have been fine in Last of the Mohicans, but it doesn’t fit with Regency England at all.

Favorite Scene:
Mr. Darcy sallying up and returning snide remarks for every compliment Ms. Bingley gave him while he wrote a letter was pretty funny. It seemed like the things he was always thinking but was too polite to ever say.

Who this book is best for:
I’d keep this for adults or mature high-schoolers. It gets pretty violent, ala Dawn of the Dead.

Violence: 5 of 5 for zombies eating living people, heart eating and random dismemberment. Besides, in the title it calls itself "ultra-violent".

Stars: 2 of 5


Title: Beauty
Author: Robin McKinley
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 1978

Grace, Hope and Honour - who as a child didn't understand her name and asked to be called Beauty, for all that it didn't and still doesn't suit her - are the daughters of the failed merchant, Roderick Huston. They live with Hope's fiancé, a blacksmith in the town of Blue Hill far to the north of the city they grew up in. One day, years after their relocation, word comes that one of their missing four ships has returned at last. Roderick sets out at once to meet up with his former employees, and perhaps discover the fate of the other three vessels, but before he leaves he asks his daughters what they would like from the city of their birth. Grace and Hope ask for jewels and gold. He knows they are joking, for they have no use for such things now. Beauty, always practical, asks for seeds. Rose seeds for their garden.

It is not to be. Rose bushes and rose cuttings can be found in abundance, but they would not survive the two month trip back to Blue Hill. The return journey is uneventful, and Roderick leaves the caravan he traveled with close to his home. This is when the story truly starts, for he is set upon by a blizzard. Lost and alone in the forest he stumbles into a castle where invisible servants provide everything he needs. On his way out the castle gates towards home, he snaps off a single red rose to take home to Beauty. The Beast appears, and after hearing Roderick's story demands he return in a month to die or let one of his daughters, who agrees to come of her own free will, come to spend the rest of her life at the castle.

What makes this version of Ms. McKinley's retelling so enthralling is Beauty herself and how she responds to the magic of the castle and to the Beast. She takes it all in stride, and makes it work for her as though magic were always part of her life, not something new and a little bit frightening. From books that don’t quite exist yet or convincing her placid horse that the Beast won’t eat him, Beauty wiggles her way into a stifled world, sending out ripples that change everything the Beast and we know about the classic story. Because Beauty is a strong character she creates strong situations around her. While she feels she isn’t physically beautiful, and is described as awkward and gawky, Beauty has enough intelligence that even a doctoral admissions board would have to pay attention to her, and that makes her shine.

Beauty is told from Beauty’s perspective, in first person.

My Thoughts:
I do prefer Rose’s Daughter of the two Beauty and the Beast retellings that Ms. McKinley has done because I love its’ ethereal quality, but if for nothing else I would adore Beauty for her brains. Young ladies need strong role models, and most of the “princess” types (Cinderella, Little Mermaid, etc) don’t usually fit into that category. Beauty has potency, passion, ideals and depth. Beauty accepts everyone for who they are, even if it means overcoming her own terror. She shines off the page as someone I wish I could be. This is a much more personal Beauty and the Beast than any other I’ve read. It draws you in. The flowers are fragrant, the people are full of personality, and even the animals show you that they’re cognizant of their world.

Favorite Scene:
I love when Beauty introduces Greatheart to the Beast. The scene is so tense and heartrending that it makes you wonder how this poor girl can ever make things work.

Who this book is best for:
Beauty is probably more of a book for girls than for boys, but it’s suitable for anyone over about 12.

Violence: 0 of 5. The worst thing that happens is a horse being spanked on the rump.

Stars: 3.5 of 5

Monday, May 11, 2009

The High King's Tomb

Title: The High King's Tomb
Author: Kristen Britain
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2007
Series: The Green Rider Series (Book 3)

Karigan G'ladheon didn't want to be a Green Rider, one of the King's own messengers. She wanted to be a merchant, like her father, and take over the clan's textile empire when he died. But we've had two books since her inadvertent entry into the service, and she's learned to deal with it. Besides, being a Green Rider is far more interesting. Possessing small, but hidden, magical talents, the Riders carry the King's missives across Sacordia and deal with all manner of trouble along the way. And Karigan seems to run into more of it than all her fellow Riders combined.

Plagued by lingering romantic feelings towards her sovereign, unpleasant bouts of swordplay with her Armsmaster in full court regalia and the running of the Rider account books, Karigan is more than happy to set out on a message errand to the far corners of the kingdom... until she finds out she has to take a trainee along with her. They are off to find a book, that may or may not exist, which tells how the D'Yer Wall was created Ages ago to contain the evil within Blackveil Forest. Without it, they may not be able to repair the breach, and Sacordia may fall.

The High King's Tomb picks up where First Rider's Call left off, and fortunately there are many more Riders now that the extra broaches have been found. But hardly any of the main plot lines are moved forward in this installment. Karigan and King Zachary do not settle the feelings between them. The Wall doesn't get repaired. Alton is still mad at Karigan. Mornhavon the Black does not return. This entire book seems to exist only to add bunches of new characters to the playing field and to provide back story. (We do get to learn a lot more about the D'Yer wall, which I've always found fascinating.) Couple that with writing that was far below the standard set by the last book, and over all it was a downer for the series.

The Green Rider Series is told from third person omniscient and bounces back and forth between a number of important characters.

My Thoughts:
I was very excited for this book when it came out, but felt let down after I finished it. The writing didn't stand up to what I had come to expect after First Rider's Call, and the plot went almost nowhere. I felt many scenes could have used some heavy editing or even be cut altogether. Even scenes with the Wall, my favorite character other than Alton D'Yer (yes, his ancestors built the Wall), were repetitive. Karigan's troubles with her trainee take a lot more words to deal with than they should. Most of the scenes with Lady Estora and the Raven Mask were flat out dull and usually lost my attention entirely. Over all, this was a significant disappointment in the series, and I would recommend finding an abridged version or the cliffsnotes. I really hope that the next book is better, because the series has so much potential. Even if you don't pick up this one, do read the others in the series.

Favorite Scene:
I really enjoyed Karigan being solicited by a lady in the brothel "The Golden Rudder". It was pretty funny. It's a toss up between that and Alton reading his letter.

Who this book/series is best for:
Kids in high school or advanced readers in 7th or 8th grade could enjoy this series, despite it being shelved in the Adult section.

Violence: 3 of 5 for battle scenes and torture

Stars: 2 of 5