Monthly Archives: October 2011

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver has been all the rage for the past couple of years among the teen vampire/werewolf fan set.  And I can see why: it’s got the same obsessive relationship stuff (almost but not quite as chaste as Twilight); the same star-crossed species theme; and a similar paranormal ethos.  Like Bella, Grace abandons friends and family (though, to be fair, her family abandoned her first) to be with her non-human boyfriend all the time.  She also watches him go wistfully, wishing she could transform herself in order to be like him.  Meanwhile, Sam the wolf (like Edward the Vampire) would give anything to abandon his supernaturalness and just be human.  Both boys also quake with repressed sexual desire for their loved ones (though SPOILER Sam’s release comes a lot quicker than Edward’s, and without marriage – which, frankly, I found refreshing).

I didn’t mind Shiver, but it certainly didn’t rock my world.  The concept was not bad – humans bit by werewolves transform according to the temperature, which mostly leads to human summers and wolf winters.  There are a lot of inconsistencies in this setup (what if you move to Florida where it’s always warm?) and the execution (Sam’s transitions initially don’t make a lot of sense)… but gradually most holes seem to be mostly filled by the end.

I read Shiver slowly, so by the end it did seem to be a bit of a slog for me.  I found myself just wanting it to be over, and having a pretty good idea of where it was going (I think one major thing surprised me.  The rest, not so much.)  But I think if you read it all in one go, you’d enjoy it a lot more.  Good for Twilight fans, though not nearly as captivating.  Unlike Twilight, though, I didn’t feel vaguely dirty when I finished Shiver.  The main character has a lot more agency than Bella did, and though she moons over Sam, they have a pretty interesting connection and it’s not quite as mindless (or repetative) as Bella’s mooning over Edward.

That said, I did think Wolf Blood by N. M Browne was a whole lot more interesting take on the werewolf dynamic.  Really great, strong characters driving that – with some good substance, and an even stronger connection to the real animals than Shiver  (even if it did drag a bit in the middle also).  (And for a better book about the cold, read Iain Lawrence’s spectacular Winter Pony).

Leave a comment

Filed under Fantasy, Just Read, Young Adult books

Winter Pony by Iain Lawrence

For days I have been in a land of ice, snow and frozen vistas.  I have shivered through the nights and sweated with back-breaking labour during the days…  Well, not really.  I’ve been sitting indoors on comfy furniture reading the extremely evocative new novel by Canadian author, Iain Lawrence.

A co-worker passed Winter Pony on weeks ago with high praise.  But true to form, I had other books on my list, and I put it off.  I had no idea what was waiting for me.  This is the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s epic quest to reach the South Pole – a race against Norwegian Roald Amundsen to traverse the frozen wastes of Antarctica.  The novel is told from an overarching historical vantage point, and from the point of view of one of the animals brought by Captain Scott – a plucky, if tired, pony called James Pigg.  Lawrence imagined much of this story, but he also stayed true to the facts wherever possible, and obviously immersed himself in the historical record, and the lives of ponies.  This book was startling and left me feeling mournful and rather chilly.

I won’t ruin the story for those who don’t know the tale of Scott’s voyage – as I didn’t.  Lawrence claims he might not have written the book if he had known what it would entail; similarly, I’m not sure I would have read it if I had known the journey I was on.  But once I started I was captivated.  The writing is excellent, and though there is a lot of bleakness, there is humour and comfort also.  The scale of hardship, compassion, and betrayal in this book is hard to fathom, and I sat puzzled by the recommended age level of 9-12.  They want 9 year olds to read this?  I’m not sure I was old enough for it!

To sketch it out: our white pony is captured in his youth from the mountains where he was born wild and free.  For years he is overworked and beaten by cruel men.  One day he is bought and sent on a long journey by train and then boat.  He finds himself among kinder men than he has ever experienced, but also in an unimaginably harsh climate.  Named James Pigg by the Englishmen, he is part of a team of ponies and dogs gathered together to help Scott reach his destination.  The scale of these preparations is remarkable: first the men, dogs and ponies travel south during the summer, laying down the supplies they will need the next year.  Then they return to their base camp to wait out the winter.  The next spring they venture out again in a long dash over hundreds of miles to reach the South Pole.  And this is all in a tense race against Amundsen – never really knowing if he has already stolen their prize of becoming the first to reach the Pole.

The relationship between the men and ponies was incredibly touching to read.  Through James Pigg’s eyes, the reader sees Captain Scott as a brave, compassionate, and driven man who refuses to yield before his ambitions.  The themes of this novel are incredibly grown-up – but they are told largely through the eyes of a rather child-like pony, which renders it all a bit softer and more bearable.  I think it would be a wonderful book to experience with children.  I cannot help but think it would be a memorable read, and one that might lead them into finding more fiction or nonfiction about these adventurers.

By all means, immerse yourself in this frozen world – but make sure you pack plenty of provisions, and that you don’t get lost on your return journey.  This is not a voyage for the faint of heart.

2 Comments

Filed under Books I've Enjoyed, Books I've loved, Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction, Must-Reads!

Half World by Hiromi Goto

Half World is one of those books that I pick up from time to time from the Children’s section where I work.  I find a poor, neglected volume that is due for return to the publisher, but which I can’t send back before at least trying first. I was somewhat surprised to find Half World on my returns list – not only is it an award-winner with an amazing cover, I was sure it had enough buzz to propel it along.  But life is tough at my bookstore – often without a staff member to love and recommend it, a book will die an undeserved death.  This is why I constantly lament the imbalance in my time/book ratio in life.  This time my efforts were rewarded – I found Half World to be a solid, satisfying fantasy with enough unusual elements to make it very enjoyable.

I loved the setup for Half World: there are three realms of existence: the Spirit Realm, the realm of Flesh, and Half World.  These realms are meant to be interconnected – we pass through Flesh to Spirit, or to Half Life if we must cleanse ourselves of something.  After a stretch in Half World we find release as a spirit; when our energy begins to flag we are reborn as flesh.  But somehow these realms have become disjointed: the spirit realm is drifting away as spirits forget their connection to flesh and slowly fade from existence; the flesh world is filled with dismay and discord without the release provided by the other two worlds; and those in half life are trapped, repeating their trauma and reliving their nightmares for an eternity.

In comes Melanie Tamaki, an unhappy fourteen-year-old who has been neglected by her mother and outcast by her peers.  Melanie doesn’t know that she belongs to two realms: her mother became pregnant in Half World and journied to the Wold of Flesh to raise her daughter.  Now, fourteen years later they are both being called back to repay a debt and to account for the impossibility of this life that was created in Half World.

Once it gets going, Half World becomes one of those child/teen-goes-to-a-strange-world-and-saves-it-then-returns-home-with-a-solution-to-his/her-original-problems book.  It’s such an overused plot that I have become quite impatient  with it.  Unless the book is special – we’re talking Narnia special – then I get very bored and annoyed.  I think I find these books tedious because they always end the same way – the world is saved and the character returns home with more than they originally sought.  If the ending is going to be that predictable, then I darn well want the main story to be unique and fascinating.

In this case, it was almost fascinating enough.  There is not much that is truly unique about Half World, but it does contain some great elements capably combined.  The feel is very Neil Gaiman, with a disturbing alternate world and some kind and clever guides (I’m thinking Neverwhere and Coraline in particular).  It has just the same level of threat and violence that you would find in one of his books.  The great villan (I won’t ruin his secret, which is one of the best parts of the book) is Mr. Glueskin.  In his gloopy, sticky and disguisting appearance, he reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, and slimy, depressed Howl.  These are wonderful authors to borrow from, and Hiromi Goto does a good job of creating a similar feel, but with a concept that stands all on its own.

The main character was interesting – Melanie has a good heart, but trouble remembering things, and she has never fit in.  I am actually quite pleased to see that there is a sequel coming out next spring because I’d like to see her grow up – there was just a hint of what she could become in this novel.  I would also enjoy seeing her in love, and being loved by someone romantically.  I think she could be remarkable if she was ever in her own element (I’m not sure what that would be though – she navigates our world and half world well, but doesn’t belong to either).

So I have been won over, and the book will stay on our shelves.  I enjoyed the Japanese elements and fantasy that borrowed from Asian sources.  There were amazing illustrations, and an interesting enough tale and characters to keep me moving through the well-drawn (though familiar) plot.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books I've Enjoyed, Fantasy, Just Read, Young Adult books

Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

This is one of my old favourites – the Alanna quartet by Tamora Pierce.  In order, the books are: Alanna, In the Hands of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant.

I actually saw Tamora Pierce once.  Years ago when I was working at a bookstore as a cashier, I worked an in-store event where she appeared.  Having never heard of her, I was mildly amused to see dozens of teenage (and some post-teenage) girls pack in to see a mild-mannered middle age woman discuss a series of fantasy books she had written (I don’t know why, but I always expect fantasy authors to look more dramatic, or toned.  I forget that these are people who enjoy escapist fiction for a reason).  I kind of dismissed it as fluff at the time, but was eventually persuaded by a co-worker to pick up the series a few years later (at another bookstore).  And of course I loved it.  At that point, I would have happily joined the excited teens clutching books and eager to see Ms. Pierce.

Recently I found most of this series in a bargain-bin at my local library – they were clearing them out, shame on them!  Their loss was my gain and for about $1.50 I had three quarters of the series.  I put them on my shelf for later… and it turned out to be only two weeks later that I decided to read them as a present to myself.

Alanna of Trebond is about eleven when the first book starts, and she is about to be sent off to a convent to learn how to be a lady; her twin brother Thom is to be schooled as a page, then a squire, then a knight for the realm of Tortall.  However, Alanna has other plans.  She convinces Thom to switch places, and the two disguise themselves and slip away from their absent-minded father – Alanna to knight school, and Thom to the convent where he will learn to be a magician. However, only boys can become knights, and in order to realize her dream, Alanna must disguise herself as a male, putting herself at great risk.  Though the obstacles and challenges she faces as the smallest and weakest page are many, her stubborn dedication pays off and she rises through the ranks.  The first two books follow her years at school as she becomes a knight and makes friends with Jonathan, the crown prince, and George, the disreputable but loyal King of Rogues.  The last two books chronicle her adventures during the first couple years of her knighthood as she saves numerous people and kingdoms.

When I read them the first time, the love triangle between Alanna, Jonathan and George made me charge through the series.  Which was her perfect match and who would she end up with?  (Perfect for Hunger Games fans who wouldn’t mind fantasy)  Unfortunately, the relationship issues in the book also make it hard to recommend.  I’m never quite sure what age it is written for.  As the first one starts off, you think – “ah, a perfect book for a 10-12 year old” – just the write tone and dificultly of language and plot.  However, as it goes on it gets more complex and she begins sleeping with the men in her life (though there is never any detailed description of course).  Rather like how Harry Potter becomes very very dark as the series progresses.  I kind of love that she actually sleeps with them and it’s an issue of course – but not a huge huge one.  In her mind there’s no wrong in sleeping with someone you love – the world doesn’t end, and in itself it isn’t a holy grail.  But I do have a hard time recommending it to 10 year-olds and their mothers as a result…

There is a lot of action and just stuff in these books.  They are great fantasy/adventure, but their plotting is admittedly awkward, and the conspiracy leading to the climax in the last book is still confusing and full of plot holes on the second read.  However, that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading Alanna.  The main character is so strong and amazing – I really would love all pre-teens to read these.  The books date from the 1980s, and there have been many iterations over the years.

Recently they have been repackaged, and while I find the new covers kind of distastefully Disney (Alanna is like a gigantic tinkerbell minus the wings and plus the sword.  Why is she glowing??) – maybe it will appeal to teens today.  They remain my favourites, and I very much look forward to my next trek through this excellent series.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books I've Enjoyed, Books I've loved, Fantasy, Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction, Must-Reads!, Young Adult books