Tuesday, February 21, 2012

REVIEW: East by Edith Pattou

From my other blog Palimpsest

by Edith Pattou

"Rubbing linseed oil into my blistered hands, I thought wistfully of how magic lets up skip over the steps of things. This is what makes it so appealing. But, I thought, the steps of things are where life is truly found, in doing the day-to-day tasks. Caught up in the world of enchantment as I had been at the castle, it had been the routine things I had missed most, which was why I had set up that laundry room and insisted on doing my own washing. But I had missed so much."

An immersive, detailed and faithful YA retelling of the fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," East tells the story of a girl named Rose who, by an accident of birth, is destined to have wandering feet. She is an adventurous child, much to the chagrin of her family, and attracts the attention of a lone white bear. One night the white bear visits them, and states he will bring their poor family prosperity and health if he can have their youngest daughter Rose. Rose makes the sacrifice against her family's wishes and travels with the bear to his lonely mountain castle. She is surprised to discover that each night a naked man visits her and lies next to her in bed, but never says a word. A great mystery surrounds her imprisonment, but, when her curiosity gets the best of her, her transgression has horrible consequences, and she must undertake an impossible journey to make everything right.

I was nervous about this book at first. It is lauded as one of the best fairy tale adaptations on the market, but  I worried it would be superficial. Boy, was I wrong. Pattou is a master of adaptation. She remains faithful to the story, while giving life and breath and texture to the familiar tale. She takes the symbolic compass directions mentioned in the title and makes them reverberate throughout the book, creating a mythology of birth direction (like the zodiac) that determines your personality and your fate. Rose was born to replace her dead sister, who was an East, and thus mild. But Rose was accidentally born a North, which gave her an itch for exploration. Her father is a map maker, and creates an artistic compass rose for each member of the family. 

She also takes some of the more abstract elements of the tales, like traveling on the north wind, and finds ways to practically embody that in a real adventure: Rose takes a turbulent sea voyage with a drunken captain. She also rather deviates from the story at the end, but creates a compelling climax.

The story is set in 1500s Njord. They travel through countries like Danemark, Fransk and Arktisk, which are apparently the Norwegian names for Norway, Denmark, France and the Arctic. It was fascinating to explore a country that is not England or Italy in the 1500s. The names grounded it in time and space, but their unfamiliarity still give it a fairy tale quality. 

Pattou structures the story with multiple narrators. We hear the story from the Father, Neddy (her brother), Rose, the Troll Queen who enchanted the white bear, and the White Bear himself. They each have a distinctive narrative voice; the White Bear, as it is painful for him to talk in bear form, speaks in short sentences and images, like poetry. She has a talent for selecting which narrator will tell what section of the story. We hear Rose's struggle to make her decision to go with the White Bear from Rose. We see the aftermath of her struggle from Neddy, and we see the actual surprise of her leaving from her Father, each perspective bringing startling and heart-wrenching elements to the story. 

Also, I have been struggling with what my image of a kick-ass heroine is. Is she just a character with awesome fighting skills? With inner strength? Who speaks her mind? This book clinched it for me. A kick-ass heroine is someone who has an impossible task ahead of her, sucks it up, and does what needs to be done, even if it is crossing a narrow ice bridge over deadly water, or rebuilding a boat and learning how to sail it while the captain wallows in despair and drink, or traveling for weeks in the arctic alone to rectify a mistake. Rose is a kick-ass heroine and a role model for girls of all ages. 

Books Like This:
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones 
Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Friday, February 10, 2012

REVIEW: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs

“And that is how someone who is unusally susceptible to nightmares,night terrors, the Creeps, the Willies, and the Seeing Things That Aren't Really There talks himself into making one last trip to the abandoned, almost-certainly-haunted house where a dozen or more children met their untimely end.” 

Jacob grew up listening to his grandfather's stories about how he escaped the war in Europe and hid from monsters in an idyllic home for children with strange powers. As he got older, he started to realize that there was probably no such thing as girls who could levitate, or boys who could pick up giant rocks, or the mysterious caretaker of the house, "The Bird" - Miss Peregrine. Or child-eating monsters with tentacles coming out of their mouths. He distanced himself from his grandfather and ignored his desperate phone calls, blaming it on senility... until his grandfather ends up brutally murdered, and Jacob sees a glimpse of a monster disappearing into the dark woods. After many visits to a therapist, Jacob embarks on a quest to find the house, find Miss Peregrine, and get some answers. He gets more than he bargained for. 

I have a problem with expectations. I expected that this book would scare me shitless. That it would be full of thrills and chills, and that I would not be able to sleep. Like a weird mix of X-Men and the Woman in Black. That is not at all what this book is, and I was kind of disappointed. 

Don't get me wrong, this is a great first book for Riggs! He has some fun prose, like "The sky was the color of a new bruise." The beginning is fantastic, setting up his listless life, the shock and horror of his grandfather's murder, and the aftermath where everyone thinks he is crazy. I love his initial investigations when he sleuths around the Welsh island. I got some minor thrills when he is exploring the dark, musty ruins of what once was Miss Peregrine's Home, trying to solve the mystery of their fate, while hoping their ghosts did not kill him in the process. The last 50 pages are chock full of thrills, murder, monsters and bombs. 

However, (spoilers) he discovers the pocket of endless summer that is "the loop," an idyllic haven for the peculiar children who are now in their 80s, but eternally in children's bodies, still approaching the world as children. This was less satisfactory for me than if their was some element of Claudia from Interview with a Vampire in there. Fun, fucked-up psychology of an 80 year old trapped in a child's body. Anyway, this is where the story stops dead for me. They go swimming, and fall in love, and yes there are interesting characters to be introduced to, and lots of explaining, but other than that, not much happens for a good 100 pages. 

One interesting fact about the book is that all the photographs are real. He pulled them out of archives, yard sales, and personal collections. Sometimes I felt he was writing to justify the picture's presence in the book, but other times they creepily supported and expanded upon the text. 

It is a charming book (which is not what I expected to say about it), and a well-written first part of a series. At least it reads that way. I hope there are more books coming that can get into the guts of the action, mystery and horror without the weight of exposition. 

I said the same thing about the last book. Am I growing impatient?

Regardless, here is the awesome book trailer:

And here is the making of the book trailer:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

REVIEW: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey 
by Jasper Fforde

“The safest course was actually the simplest-do nothing at all and hope everything turned out for the best. It wasn't a great plan, but it had the benefits of simplicity and a long tradition. ” 

Edward Russett lives in a future where everything is governed by color. "Something Happened" a long time ago that messed with everyone's vision. Now people can only see one color, and the color you see, and how much of it, determines your place in society, from the lowest Grey to the highest Purple. Nighttime is an empty time, as everyone has lost their night vision. It is socially important to marry within your color, or up-spectrum to either maintain or improve your social prospects. 

Everything is governed by the rules of "Our Munsell," a leader from centuries before when the "Something Happened." He had an "Epiphany" and brought order to chaos, regulating every aspect of the community, from high values (like politeness) to what people should wear on what occasion (for excursions into the wild, people must wear "Outdoor Adventure #9s). Rules cannot be changed. There is a spoon shortage because he forgot to include spoons in the list of utensils to be manufactured. Or he could have left it off on purpose. Munsell works in mysterious ways. 

The story follows Edward as he travels with his father to East Carmine to conduct a mandated chair census as punishment for a prank so he will develop some humility. He makes friends and enemies, and starts to uncover the dark secrets that serve as the basis for the society. 

Long synopsis, I know, but it is Jasper Fforde, and I am not even touching the tip of the iceberg on this one. Animals have barcodes. Most people die of Mildew or giant swan attack or balls of lightning. There is a place called High Saffron from which no one returns, but legend says has lots of color to harvest. Tip of the iceberg.

Happily, Fforde seems to have learned how to time-release information. His witty, intricate world-building is not as overwhelming as it is in the Thursday Next books and crops up at an appropriate time, with an explanation reasonably close behind it. 

The pacing was a little strange. The whole book takes place over the course of the week, but enough happens that you think he's had to have been there at least a month. At the same time, not much of "oh my god the society is horrible, and we need to do something about it" occurs until about the last 50 pages. 

I loved this book at first. Fforde gleefully plays with the reader's expectations. It made me happy to see that he couldn't resist literary references (a layover from Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime books: he includes a strange empty library, over-staffed by librarians with nothing to do (Munsell-regulated staffing rules). He even put in a few literary jokes here and there (list of approved sports includes "reeling and writhing" though no one knows what it is - Alice in Wonderland reference), and there is a memorial statue to Oz, though its meaning is lost to the citizens). They have "Leapbacks," where technology deemed too unnecessary or progressive is taken away... like light bulbs, or any car above a Model T. Same with books. Catch-22 is gone, legend says it was a very popular fishing book in a series. No one knows why Little Engine that Could was so subversive, nor what it was the little engine could do. It is Fforde at his comic best, an equal of Douglas Adams or Christoper Moore. 

However, the ending is very dark. In a book like this, you think it has two possible outcomes: 1) the main character reveals the evils of society and starts a revolution or 2) the main character discovers horrible things, but is too overpowered by society to effect change, and is absorbed back into it's rhythms or is killed. This one ends with a rather stomach-turning bastard child of the two. 

All I'm saying is that there better be a sequel where something satisfying happens. 

You might like this book if you liked:
A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde
Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde