Monthly Archives: March 2008

Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy

Skulduggery PleasantA twelve-year-old girl, niece of a now-dead bestselling horror writer, teams up with an old friend of her uncle’s to investigate his death and other weird occurrences. This old friend happens to be a brilliant, witty, well-dressed, fire-throwing, skeleton detective.

If you think that would make a great movie, you’re right; I have no idea whether anyone’s optioned it for a movie yet, but I won’t be surprised if it happens. It’s written in a very cinematic way, with exciting chase scenes and fight scenes and inventive visual detail. I am so loath to compare books with Harry Potter, but – yeah, in that respect it does remind me of the HP books.

But the other part that made this book fun for me was the dialogue between Stephanie and Skulduggery, which is wall-to-wall deadpan sarcasm. And it is fun, at least at first, but after a while it starts to wear thin and become predictable – it’s not the kind of book where you really get attached to the characters, and it’s hard to expect anything more than fun from a book like this.

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Frida: Viva La Vida!, by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand

Viva La VidaA biography of Frida Kahlo, narrated in first-person poems.

The trouble I generally have with nonfiction-in-poetry is that it’s often not that good as poetry. I’ll make an exception for Marilyn Carver’s book on Emmett Till, but that’s it. The poems here are just good enough: never bad, never mawkish or hagiographical or cliched, but they rarely sing like poetry. Except – the book does include lots of color prints of Kahlo’s paintings, and her most symbolic and surrealistic paintings are accompanied by poems that give them context and background. Do “San Francisco,” “The Two Fridas,” “My Diego My Child” explain too much? Well – they explain enough, and I’m able to understand the paintings in a way I otherwise might not have been able to.

I do feel some small discomfort for the author putting words in Kahlo’s mouth, but a lot of the phrases are actually taken from diaries and correspondence and other biographical sources, which is pretty neat!

Worth reading just for the artwork, good poetry or no.

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande

BetterGawande tackles the question of what people can do to be “better” through a medical lens – not necessarily from a surgical point of view, and there’s no scalpels-and-gore in here, but in relation to doctors and medical situations. He divides “performance” into three rough categories: diligence, morality, and ingenuity. It’s interesting how these aspects play into each other. Ingenuity isn’t merely about cleverness; it’s about not being willing to accept the status quo, about being certain that there could be a better way of doing it. And it’s clear from the chapter on washing hands that merely “trying hard” isn’t good enough. You need to set up systems that make it easy to do the right thing.

There’s a wide variety of topics covered in the book’s eleven chapters: washing hands, a polio outbreak in India, war casualties in Iraq, morality around seeing patients naked, malpractice lawsuits, cystic fibrosis, childbirth. Each is thoughtful and revealing of things I hadn’t thought about.

Unless something is seriously wrong with my own body my interest in medicine tends to be limited to watching House on TV, but I read Better on the strength of other people’s recommendations and I wasn’t disappointed.

Red Spikes, by Margo Lanagan

Red SpikesMuch like Black Juice, this is a collection of intellectual, beautifully-written, dark, and obscure stories that stretch the boundaries of fantasy, horror, and magical realism. It seems to me (though I’m not certain) that it deals more explicitly with religious themes than Black Juice did; “A Feather in the Breast of God” and “Under Hell, Over Heaven” deal with different visions of the afterlife, while “Mouse Maker” and “Forever Upward” take on the sociology of religion.

These are stories that take a lot of thought to get the most out of, thanks to the complex themes, Lanagan’s brilliant use of language, and the blank spots in the stories; Lanagan never overexplains, and there were times when I wished for something a little bit more straightforward, a little bit more linear and spelled-out. But then they wouldn’t be Margo Lanagan stories, would they?

The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean

White DarknessSym adores Antarctica. And she adores Lawrence Oates, nicknamed Titus, one of the men in Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition. Titus Oates is something like an imaginary friend to her, or what fanfiction authors might call a muse: a voice in her head that she talks to for comfort, for advice, or just for good conversation (better than she gets from her shallow classmates). She adores, too, her Uncle Victor, who is not actually her uncle, but her late father’s business partner. So she leaps at the chance to go to Paris with Uncle Victor, except that it winds up not being Paris, but Antarctica. Which is great, right? Except that it’s not.

What strikes me about this book is that it’s an extremely literary novel dressed up as a survival/adventure story. The meticulously researched setting and the perilous events are there, but the real focus is what’s happening underneath, what really happened, who knows which secrets. I loved the first moment I picked up on the distance between what Sym tells the reader and what is actually going on, but even better than that was the first moment when Sym dismissively says that of course she knows things are a lot worse than they seem. What is this: something she’s known all along? A defense mechanism, like she doesn’t want to admit to having been deceived?

This is a Printz winner that I can get behind a hundred percent: a book that is complicated and rewarding from a literary perspective, with more subtle technique than a lot of literary YA novels, and that is also thrillery and suspenseful and full of absolutely convincing polar atmosphere.

<blockquote>At the center is a blank whiteness where the planet isn’t finished. It’s the address for Nowhere.</blockquote>

Wicked Lovely, by Melissa Marr

Wicked LovelyAislinn – it’s pronounced Ashlyn – has always seen faeries, like her mother and grandmother; she has always known the rules for dealing with faeries. Don’t. Don’t let them know that you notice them. Don’t have anything to do with them. She lives in an industrial city full of cold iron and has a best-friend-guy who lives in two abandoned train cars. However, when the Summer King starts stalking her, thinking that she could be the Summer Queen who’ll break the bindings on his power, following those rules suddenly gets a lot more complicated.

Gosh, I liked this one. It’s the kind of urban fantasy that’s fluffy comfort reading, and maybe doesn’t work at a level above fluffy comfort reading, but it does what it does really well and doesn’t make me want to hit the author over the head with some Betty Friedan. (The author has taught gender studies at the university level, so that’s not so surprising!) It manages to be awesomely romantic while sidestepping all of the dumb cliches, and Aislinn is bold and smart and self-sufficient, and she’s able to take on all the frightening things she has to take on with –not recklessness, but hard-nosed common sense. And I really enjoyed the politics of the faerie court – they were interesting without being tangled and complicated. (Tangled and complicated is good, but simple done well is good too.)

The ending was perfect; I wonder if it wasn’t maybe a bit TOO perfect, but still. It’s a really fast-paced book, almost all plot, and I sort of wish that it had taken more time to explore Aislinn’s life in non-faery-related aspects… basically, though, this is the kind of book that I wish Twilight had been.

A Swift Pure Cry, by Siobhan Dowd

A Swift Pure CryIt was interesting to read this one directly on the heels of Mistik Lake; both have main characters who are teenage girls with absent mothers, eldest sisters caring for their younger siblings, and brilliantly realized settings.

The eldest sister in this one is Shell (Michelle) Talent. Her mother is recently dead of some unspecified chronic illness; her father is unemployed and always off collecting for charity, having become fanatically religious after his wife’s death. Shell, meanwhile, has entirely lost her faith in God. The setting is County Cork, in the southwestern corner of Ireland, in the mid-1980s by the songs playing on the radio – but it feels older because of Shell’s family’s isolation and poverty.

Being about a dysfunctional Irish family, the elements are there for a drippy melodrama, but that’s not what this is. Its genre is firmly “beautiful writing about inchoate yearning.” For the first half of the book, the winter and spring, it remains a very quiet story about grief and the struggle to build a life in the midst of it. The plot doesn’t begin to intrude until the next section, the fall; it was at that point that I stopped noticing the beauty of the prose, because it started getting really interesting in the way that made me race through it in order to find out what would happen next! At which point it still, somehow, manages to avoid turning into a drippy melodrama.