Tuesday, March 30, 2010

book reviews!

A mixed bag, strangely full of troubled adolescents.

Tamsin, by Peter Beagle, Firebird 1999. Jenny is a plain, resentful teen whose mother's remarriage uproots her from New York and dumps her, all bare roots and wilting leaves, in a crumbling Dorset farm. There she meets Tamsin, a ghost girl who died during the time of the Bloody Assizes, and finds that Tamsin herself is haunted, and that more dangerous spirits than a wistful ghost girl walks by night.
On the whole, I liked this (I'm sure Mr. Beagle is relieved to hear it). Jenny's misery and self-aware sulkiness are well-conveyed, with her devotion to Mr. Cat and her steadfast aid to Tamsin demonstrating that she is more than self-pity and snappishness. The Dorset countryside is brought to life, in more ways than one, and the secondary characters are distinctive. I'm still reading with my cutting goggles on, though, and I did wonder whether the story demanded both the pooka and the Wild Hunt? Sure, they Do Things In the Plot, but.

One for Sorrow, by Christopher Barzak, Bantam 2007. When Adam's classmate and almost-friend Jamie is murdered, his ghost comes to Adam for comfort and acknowledgement. Adam too needs comfort, as his family breaks apart and he slides from his high-school niche of nobody-much to outcast status. Even though Jamie's ghost-world is cold and dangerous, with skinless men lurking by the gates, it is a place where Adam seems to have purpose, and for a time living companionship with the girl who found Jamie's body and is also haunted by him.
One for Sorrow has several themes & tropes in common with Tamsin - the ghosts' memories are fragmentary and easily lost, and trying to recall traumatic memories breaks them apart; the living teens are faced with losing their ghost friends by helping them move on - but Tamsin is a fairly conventional mystery at its heart, and Barzak never attempts to solve Jamie's murder, which I liked. It did feel like a first novel (if that isn't a pretentious thing for me to say), with the story wandering about rather once Adam runs away from home, and the spunky black girl who befriends him being, um, kind of Magical Negro, and Adam's family getting their act together perhaps a little too much while he's hiding out. Still and all, this was a memorable and original story.

I Am Not a Serial Killer, by Dan Wells, Headline 2009. I bought this at World Fantasy because of his elevator pitch, and damn if it doesn't deliver more than what was promised. I'm not keen on using terms like 'compulsively readable', but I'm awfully tempted in this case. As I was getting near the end of the book, I was scared not only of what John might do but scared for him, and wondering how in heck Wells was going to pull a satisfactory conclusion together without being false to John. (spoiler: he does it.)
You can read about it over on Scalzi's Big Idea, which is probably more to the point than me blathering.

The Witch's Boy, by Michael Gruber, Harper 2005. I bought this for the astoundingly beautiful cover and for the opening: "Once upon a time, in a faraway country, there was a woman who lived by herself in the middle of a great forest. She had a little cottage and kept a garden and a large gray cat. In appearance, she was neither fair nor ugly, neither young nor old, and she dressed herself modestly in the colours of stones. None of the folk who lived nearby (not the oldest of them) could tell how long she had dwelt in that place."
Terri, if you haven't read this book, do so - you will love it. Gruber plays with any number of fairy tales, with incidents and characters wandering in and out of the plot, some central, others only winks or nudges to the well-read reader. He takes a risk by having Lump, the ugly goblin-like child that the witch absently adopts like a stray kitten, be as damaged, angry and selfish as he is, but when I fell out of sympathy with Lump, the other characters kept me involved, from the cat who becomes a man (a mercenary soldier, because 'he does so love killing') to the grown-up Hansel and Gretel, a cheerful and resilient pair through all their fortunes and misfortunes, to the daughter of Bluebeard and his last wife, who drove him to his death by her utter lack of interest in his locked and Bloody Chamber (yeah, I weep bitter tears there, that my conceit for Bluebeard Contented has been used).

I was thinking I should post about The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones, in terms of how it influenced my plotting and worldbuilding - but that's probably another post altogether.


Terri-Lynne said...

Ack! MORE BOOKS FOR MY TBR PILE!!! You iz a wicked one, you iz.

I'm definitely buying The Witche's Boy. I already have Tamsin. I'll start with those. Thank you for the recs! Our tastes are so similar, I'd be hard pressed NOT to pick up a book you recommend. :)

It also reminds me that it's been far too long since I read The Last Unicorn. Time to take that baby out again too. It's at least a once a decade read.

Great reviews, btw. Another writerly endeavor you're great at!

batgirl said...

I know you are my faithful reader ;) A re-read of Last Unicorn? Not a bad idea, come to think of it...

John Chu said...

I love The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. It's riotously funny for anyone who's read the right books in their youth. (However, it's really easy for a writer to end up reading it as a list of things not to do.)

batgirl said...

The Tough Guide for me is rather like the Evil Overlord's list, a source of ideas to bend your fantasy into different shapes.
I've been dipping into it along with How Not to Write a Novel - the road is strewn with pitfalls.

Terri-Lynne said...

I bought the Witch's Boy, curse it all! I hope it gets here in time to take with me to Myrtle Beach.

See what you've done? You've not only added to my TBR pile, you've usurped the order!

Now aren't you ashamed?

batgirl said...

You know you love me for it!