Friday, March 29, 2013

REVIEW: The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

The Wee Free Men
by Terry Pratchett

"All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany's Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things because they are mine! I have a duty!"

Tiffany Aching wants to be a witch. She is a girl from a shepherding family on a land unkind to witches, but she pays that no mind. And when the queen of the fairies steals her brother, she must summon up every inch of witchiness in her to handle the tiny Nac Mac Feegles, nagivate fairyland, and rescue him. 

This book was supposed to be a palate cleanser after the intensity of Company of Liars, and but alas the taste jarred a little. When I began to read it, it felt like fluff. The Nac Mac Feegles were silly, but unremarkable, and fairyland itself, though dangerous, was forgettable.

However, Tiffany Aching herself is a badass. I believe she might be my favorite female Prachett character to date. She does not have crazy fighting skills like many of the "strong female characters" in books these days (aside from walloping monsters with a frying pan). She has sense. And perseverance. And a deep connection to her roots. She is my kind of gal.

When battling with the queen, she must struggle with her own self-worth, her place in a vast universe, whether everything she ever thought about herself is wrong. It feels like the slippery slope of depression that I feel we have all struggled with. But thanks to her strong roots, she comes out on top. (And made me cry.)

The best parts of the book describe Tiffany's relationship with her grandmother, Granny Aching. Granny Aching is an old shepherding woman with two dogs, Thunder and Lightning. She tramps all over the hills in her giant boots in any weather, saving lost sheep and birthing lambs. She quietly and wisely protects the town and it's inhabitants from any wrong doing. She has died before the book begins, but it is from her lingering presence and her memory that Tiffany draws strength. She takes up the mantle of her grandmother to protect  what is hers. They are the kind of heroines I like to see, and I kind of want to be Granny Aching.

Other books like this:
Equal Rites by Terry Prachett

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

REVIEW: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Company of Liars
by Karen Maitland

"On that morning, I thought I was doing them a kindness, saving them from learning the hard way how to survive on the roads. I thought I was sparing them days of growling bellies and the nights sleeping cold and friendless.... But now, I live with the knowledge that it would have been kinder to have passed them by on the road then to draw them into what was to come."

Camelot, the old relic seller, travels alone through medieval towns, selling "hope" in the form of fake saints bones. By chance, he meets two minstrels from Venice, hard on their luck. Then, one, by one, as rumors of the plague approach, a small company gathers: a couple with a baby on the way, a charlatan magician, a storyteller, a midwife, and an unsettling little girl who reads runes. And they all have secrets. Secrets that, one by one, begin to destroy them as they are stalked by a presence even more frightening than the pestilence. 

This is an amazing book! A mix of the premise of The Canturbury Tales, the character dynamics of Lost, the brutality of Game of Thrones, and the spine-tingling horror of...something very scary (I don't usually watch or read anything scary, so I have no comparison).

First, the premise: a group of strangers from different walks of life travel together. Like in Canterbury  Tales, these travelers tell stories to pass the time. The stories both conceal and reveal the truth about the teller. They present who the character wishes to be, and yet you get a glimpse of who they are trying to hide underneath all the metaphor. 

Second, the characters were fantastic. All were flawed, but you came to see good in each of them as Camelot did. And yet, there are moments when you remember that you don't know them very well. Maybe all is not as it seems. The comradery and the infighting were a joy to read. They don't all like each other, but since they must survive, they are forced to forge an interdependence. 

Third, the medieval world pulled no punches. Two cripples in a town must get married and have sex in front of everyone because it is said to keep away the pestilence. Terror of the Jews runs rampant and they are blamed for deliberately causing the plague. Even those who might be Jewish are rounded up and tortured. Bodies lie in the street, dead from starvation or disease. Or from violent ends. It is not a Disney portrayal of the middle ages, to be sure, but there are moments of joy that shine the brighter for the darkness.

Fourth, the terror. I haven't been more scared of a book since reading The Chamber of Secrets as a kid. I knew that book had a happy ending, so I kept reading, but I knew that if I kept reading this book alone in my house at night that I would not sleep. Maitland leaves little breadcrumbs for you that all is not right. Sometimes it is a glance. Sometimes it is an omen. Sometimes it is the narrator reflecting on the story. She also has a talent for when to stop talking. When to leave a moment to the readers imagination. She knows how to end a chapter, not always with a cliffhanger, but often with a warning of darker things to come. And all the while, the howl of a wolf follows the traveling group from camp to camp, never showing a hair, but always stalking just out of sight. As the book progresses, members of the company begin to die one by one, and (spoiler alert) none of them are killed by the plague. As the evil keeping pace with them pushes the travelers further and further north, they are forced to examine if the evil is in fact already in their midst. 

I know that you will enjoy this book. Or if you don't enjoy it, you will at least finish it, close the book, swear under your breath, and then listen for a faint howl of a wolf for the rest of the night. 

Other books like this:
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
An American Plague by Jim Murphy

Friday, March 8, 2013

REVIEW: Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day
by David Levithan

“But there’s something about her—the cities on her shoes, the flash of bravery, the unnecessary sadness—that makes me want to know what the word will be when it stops being a sound. I have spent years meeting people without ever knowing them, and on this morning, in this place, with this girl, I feel the faintest pull of wanting to know. And in a moment of either weakness or bravery on my own part, I decide to follow it. I decide to find out more.” 

"A" wakes up every day in a different body. He (for the sake of clarity I will call him a he) is fully himself, but can access the memories of the person he is inhabiting. He has lived this way all his life. He doesn't know where he is from, who his family is, or even what gender he is. He gets powerful glimpses into the lives of thousands of people, but never has a thread of continuity that he can call his own life. No touchstone that is consistent each day. He has learned to adapt. To go with the flow. To not disrupt the world. Until he meets this girl.

This book was incredible! Levithan, like A, is able to jump into the lives of dozens of very different people, in very different situations and each life is complex and fleshed out. You wish, like A, that you could linger with these stories that he passes briefly through to discover what happens to them: the gay man having doubts about his boyfriend, the girl who might commit suicide, the boy trapped in a home-schooled fundamentalist family, the girl who was in a drunk driving accident (and lots of happy ones too, but those were the most interesting).

The meat of the story comes in the questions the story wrestles with. If you were gifted or cursed with this life, how should you use it? Should you respect the life of the person and just live an uneventful day? Should you try to change their lives for the better? Should you say "fuck them" and try to live your own life through that person?

A makes all of these choices as he tries to find Rhiannon from day to day, each day greeting her in a different body. As she discovers his liminal state, other questions rise to the surface: Can you love someone who is always changing their face, a boy one day and a girl the next, sexy on Tuesday, and then not at all your type on Wednesday? What if you can't make plans for the next day, much less long term, since you don't know where or who they will be? Can a relationship survive? Is it fair?

And what happens when one of the people you inhabit wakes up the next morning and remembers that his body was taken over by something else?

Excellent questions wrapped in a compelling, beautiful, tender, heart-breaking prose as the lives of the people he inhabits begin to counterpoint the life that he wants. It leaves me like the end of Joan of Arcadia, and I really want a sequel!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

REVIEW: Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars
by Katherine Marsh

"You now act as if the stars are everything, as if the accident of birth is the only measure of a man. The stars, your parents, your past -- none of them can tell you who you are. You know who you are by the choices you make and the feelings in your heart."

Jepp grew up the happy son of an innkeeper in the Spanish Netherlands in the 17th century. Jepp is a dwarf, but his mother has always protected him from those who would ridicule or tease him. One day, a man comes from the court of the Infanta in Brussels and whisks him away to a life of luxury as the court dwarf. He and his fellow dwarfs pop out of pies, dance, sing and tell jokes for the ladies and gentlemen, and in return they are kept in style. But when a tragic event reveals the true nature of his gilded cage, Jepp must struggle with himself and the world to find if fate has predetermined his life, or if he has the power to shape his destiny.

This book annoyed me in a way only good books can. I was forced to live inside the perspective of Jepp, whose limited vision made me truly feel his frustration and confusion as to who was friend and who was foe. I was angry with Jepp for not paying attention to the signs that something was clearly wrong at court. When his friend Lia becomes withdrawn, he believes she no longer likes him and selfishly pulls away from her, rather than seeing that she was distress. However, I kept forgetting how young he was, and his naivete and childish navel gazing in the beginning really give him an excellent baseline for his growth in the second half. And grow he does!

The book really kicks off as Jepp is thrust into a new place. After his experiences at the Infanta's court, he is suspicious of everyone to a fault. Jepp slowly begins to take command of his own destiny, and as he starts to get a firmer grip on his own abilities and his self-worth, the story gains traction. After that, I couldn't put it down. Jepp's voice rings clear and heart-felt, and Marsh gives us a strong, smart, determined female character with her own very human flaws for the second half of Jepp's journey. I championed them both to the end.

I did have some difficulty with a few plot points that felt like they were going to become a larger obstacle for Jepp, and never really resolved into anything, but I realize it is because Marsh was telling a different story. The final showdown for Jepp needed to be about the phantoms of his past, not the enemies of the present.

I am sorry to be so vague! Much of the joy in this book comes with discovery, and I don't want to spoil things for you.

Overall it is an excellent read! Thanks to the lovely Miss Megan at Hooray for Books bookstore for recommending it to me!