Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Mount Toberead 7: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I'm not sure why this one sat on the mountain as long as it did, and it was literally years. It could have to do with the fact that I'm really not that into Gaiman. I have read some of his work (Good Omens, which he cowrote with Terry Pratchett and I mainly read that because of Pratchett's involvement, Neverwhere and Norse Gods), and came away not all that impressed. Norse Gods was fun, but I tend to prefer the retellings by the likes of Roger Lancelyn Green.

Anyway the letter G came up. I looked at the shelves in the library and The Graveyard Book leapt out at me. It is far and away the best Neil Gaiman book I've read. It won the Hugo and I can see why. It may suffer from the fact that people see it as a 'kids book', and yes it was clearly written for a younger audience, but it's one of those rare books that works on a cross generational level. Kids can read it and will enjoy it, but adults can also read and enjoy it, but possibly for a number of different reasons.

It's certainly a different sort of book, about a child who escapes from a murder attempt and is found by ghosts in a nearby graveyard. They raise him, along with the help of a vampire and dub him Nobody. Often protagonists in novels aimed at younger readers can grate on older readers. I didn't get that with Bod, I genuinely liked him and wished him well.

The Graveyard Book is quite enchanting. It is at various times funny, touching, sad, frightening and tense. I haven't heard anything about a filmed version, but I think it would work well on screen, possibly better than other filmed Gaiman works have. The version I read featured illustrations by Chris Riddell and they set it off perfectly.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mount Toberead 6: The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

How did this one even wind up on Mount Toberead? The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde's debut and the first book in the Thursday Next series) is one of my all time favourite books. I've read it many times and enjoy it every time. The two sequels (Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots) were worthy successors and together make a wonderful trilogy. That is however where it should have ended. There can be too much of a good thing, and the Thursday Next books have been becoming less and less entertaining, beginning with the 4th book of the series (Something Rotten), there have been 3 books since Something Rotten.

Jasper Fforde hasn't written another Thursday Next book since The Woman Who Died a Lot, that was in 2012, and while there is a note in the back that Thursday will return, there hasn't been anything forthcoming. I kind of hope there isn't, because Thursday Next has become the sort of series that lives on past glories and has gone to the well too many times, only to find it dry.

Some of my most loved things about the books were the Bookworld and Thursday's Uncle Mycroft. Neither are present in The Woman Who Died a Lot. Fortunately Thursday still has her pet dodo Pickwick, but there's not enough of the extinct bird, either.

By now the jokes have become stale and strained. The characters behave illogically, they've always been silly, but that was in keeping with the sheer weirdness of the reality they lived in, in this book and the previous one, it just seemed off. There's a great deal of deus ex machina at work here, so readers know that the characters aren't in any real peril, because they'll find some magical way out of whatever situation they find themselves in. This kills tension and detracts from the narrative itself. The situation of Thursday's son Friday was one of the most interesting, but even that ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

To be honest, and it hurts to say this, but The Woman Who Died a Lot could have stayed on the mountain and I wouldn't be any the poorer for not having read it.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Mount Toberead 5: The Hanged Man by P. N. Elrod

Firstly do not pay any attention to the cover. It's awful. I'm not sure what they were trying to do with it, but it bears next to no relation to the book behind it.

My wife had read this and really enjoyed it, so when I came to E in this particular reading challenge I decided to give it a whirl.

It's fairly hard to categorise. It's rather steampunky, although I don't recall seeing an airship. It is set in Victorian times in London, although it's an alternate Victorian age, with the young queen marrying a charming commoner, rather than Albert, and as a consequence gave the vote to women much earlier than happened in our reality, and they play larger more responsible roles in society in general.

There's a paranormal aspect to it, in that the central character Alex (full name Alexandrina, after the Queen) is a reader. This means that she can partially read people's minds. Werewolves and seers also make appearances in the book.

It has a mystery. Alex works for the police force in a way and uses her talents to solve murders, which is what the title refers to, her latest case concerns a hanged man.

There's also some romance between Alex and the by the book, but upstanding Lieutenant Brooks, who is assigned to Alex for  most of the case in the book.

It was quite a lot of fun with plenty of quirky characters and an interesting look at an alternate reality. It occasionally put me in mind of Gail Carriger's The Parasol Protectorate, although not as funny and The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences by Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris, not as steampunky.

The ending indicates that it's the first book in a series, although no sequels have yet appeared.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Mount Toberead 4: The Woodcutter by Kate Danley

Why was this in the pile? Look at that cover! How could you not buy it? The cover initially drew my eye when I first saw it in the book shop and I bought it for my wife. It was more her sort of thing than mine. For one reason or another (mostly that we have so many books!) neither of us ever got around to reading it, until now.

On the surface of it The Woodcutter sounds like another fairy tale themed YA romance. The actual book is very different. There is a romance, but it's not YA. There are also fairy tales, but it's not one fairy tale, it's loads of them. There is pretty much every European fairy tale you could think of, and even a few you may not know, shoe horned into the pages of The Woodcutter.

It's a quick and easy read, but also quite fun. It's not really humourous as such, in fact the title character is rather humourless, but the fun comes from the spin that Kate Danley has put on the well known tales and seeing how she'll weave them into her narrative.

I was pleasantly surprised by this. It made me think of Garth Nix's Frogkisser! which I adored, but whereas Frogkisser! riffed on fairy tale tropes, it was an original story with original characters. This has those same tropes, but because they're being enacted by the characters they were originally written for, no new characters.

I also kind of like the idea that there's a world out there where all the fairy tale characters live together. That's one of the things I like about Amy Mebberson's webcomic Pocket Princesses. I liked the idea so much that I've even used it in two books of my unpublished Realmspace series. Admittedly Realmspace may never be published, but I keep writing them because they're so much fun.

It's that rare beast in fantasy these days, in that it is a standalone story. Admittedly I'm uncovering more of those with this reading project (3 out of the 4 books I've read have been standalone). I could see it making a pretty good film and it's one of those unknown little gems.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mount Toberead 3: Chalk by Paul Cornell

Chalk didn't spend long on Mount Toberead, but it was the only unread book by an author whose name began with C that took my fancy. I think my wife bought it, but it was something that we knew we'd both read.

I've enjoyed Paul Cornell's Shadow Police novels, although he tends to be best known for his Doctor Who work. So, it wasn't much of a chance when I pulled this one off Mount Toberead.

Chalk isn't really a fantasy novel, it's not really horror, either. The title refers to the giant chalk figures that appear in some parts of England, and what magic there is in the book is in relation to them.

It's really the story of Andrew Waggoner a bullied boy growing up in the early 80's. The confronting nature of the story doesn't make Chalk a necessarily easy book to read, despite it's size (it's not much over novella length), although I read it quickly, largely because I felt compelled to read on.

After a particularly brutal bout of bullying, Andrew suddenly gains a shadow. The new boy looks like Andrew and he's nearly always with Andrew. Andrew calls him simply Waggoner (most of the characters, especially the male ones, are referred to by their surname) to differentiate from himself, and while he's at pains to explain that Waggoner is real, the fact that no one else can seem to see or really hear Waggoner, suggests that he's a part of Andrew's personality that was unearthed by what the bullies did to him.

It is very well written, despite how confronting it is, and the characters while not exactly engaging or likeable are both compelling and believable. I prided myself in knowing nearly every song that was referenced in the early 80's pop soundtrack that was the backing of Andrew's life and the story of how that life changed over the course of one year.

Chalk is highly recommended, it's the sort of book that you can lose yourself in and that will stay with the reader for a long time after they close its pages for the final time.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mount Toberead 2: The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

This one had been sitting on the TBR pile for a very long time. I can't remember exactly why I bought it. I was looking for something a bit different and from things I heard about The Sword-Edged Blonde, it would fit the bill. Despite the Baenish cover, it is actually a Tor release.

The idea behind it is to write a hard boiled detective novel, but put in a fairly generic pre industrial fantasy world setting. Alex Bledsoe does this effectively. Eddie LaCrosse would fit right in with Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. At times early in the book the setting comes across a bit more like an old West, rather than  mid 20th century Chicago or New York.

It's once the story settles in that the problems begin. It's a fairly standard sort of detective story. Eddie is hired to clear the name of a beautiful woman who is accused of a gruesome crime that she claims to not have committed and doesn't even have a clear memory of the night it took place. All so far, so standard, and so good.

It's at this point that the story takes a rather long journey to the Forest of Coincidence. The accused woman is the wife of one of Eddie's best friends, and he's the king of a nearby country, Eddie himself is the rightful Baron LaCrosse, but he ran off years ago for reasons that will later be explained.

The story then splits into two. One is set in the current time and the other takes place 13 years before. The switching between the two timelines is rather confusing at first. There were times when I wondered if I'd missed something and had to check.

At various times The Sword-Edged Blonde hits on every detective story trope in the book, and there's nothing wrong with that. Cliches aren't necessarily a bad thing, if they're used in a different way. That doesn't happen here, it's almost as if the author had a checklist and worked his way through them. Possibly he was trying to do a parody of them, but just lacked the skill to pull it off effectively.

My biggest issue was the setting. It was only the pre industrial fantasy setting when it suited the author to be that way or if he could shoehorn the concept into it. For instance Eddie doesn't carry a gun, instead he's referred to as a 'sword jockey'. However he frequents what are called inns or taverns, but they're written as if they're 20th century diners and the customers are served by waitresses who wear name tags. That's only one example of the anachronisms that abound throughout the book.

I kept reading and I finished it. It was readable, but not particularly memorable and I have no desire to read the sequel (there apparently was one, there are even a few pages in the back of the book advertising it, but I can't remember ever actually seeing it). If anyone was in the mood to read something along these lines, but done better there's Glen Cook's Garrett P.I series and First Watch by Dale Lucas, which felt like Lethal Weapon, but in a high fantasy setting.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Mount Toberead 1: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

We've all got one, come on admit it, you have a mountain sized amount of books about the place that you always meant to read, but for one reason or another have never gotten around to.

I have kind of given up on the 3rd iteration of my Reread Project. There were a few reasons, it was my 3rd time around and I was running out of things to reread. My experience with Creator by Jeremy Leven was kind of shattering, that was a book I never wanted the suck fairy to visit, and it visited that book...HARD. Then I got bogged down with Julian May's Saga of the Exiles, which always seems to crash and burn in the 3rd book for me.

So, I looked at the shelves in our library and thought there were all these books that either I, or my wife, have bought and intended to read, but one of us never has. I decided to go through the library alphabetically (I may miss the occasional letter, there aren't many authors whose surname starts with Q for instance) and find one of these long neglected tomes and read it, then talk about it here.

My first choice was Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

This is not a biography of Michael Hutchence's daughter, but a sort of a prequel to Peter Pan.

It's probably best described as a YA fantasy romance, but there's a bit more to it than that.

The book is curiously narrated in first person by Tinkerbell. This was an interesting choice, and it allowed the author to give the reader little previously unknown facts about the lives and habits of the Neverland faeries, as well as Tinkerbell's life pre Peter (her father took off with a faery called Belladonna, which is interesting as they normally keep the same partner for life).

Mostly it is however about Tiger Lily. Jodi Lynn Anderson had to play around with canon here a bit. Tiger Lily isn't a Native American, she's a member of a tribe indigenous to the island, although she's not really one of them either, she was found by a character called Tik Tok, who was a sort of shaman and adopted into the tribe.

Because she doesn't act like the rest of the tribe, Tiger Lily frequently finds herself on her own exploring the island and that's how she meets Peter and his gang of boys, the Lost Boys, which is not how they're referred to in the book.

Peter seems to have a strange fascination for all the women that cross his path. First Tiger Lily, then Tink and lastly Wendy. He also had some sort of relationship with at least one of Neverland's mermaids.

It initially becomes a love triangle, which later turns into a square when Wendy arrives, and there's also the presence of Maeryn (the mermaid) lurking around on the fringes.

Recently it's become rather popular to portray Peter as a rather sinister, manipulative character. I;m sure the temptation to do that was there for Anderson, but she doesn't really. He's definitely not heroic, he's dangerous, boastful and fairly self obsessed, but he's a young boy who never grew up. If her origin story is taken, unlike the rest of the boys, he got to his current age (she describes the main characters of Tiger Lily, Peter, Wendy and the boys as being around 15 - 16, which doesn't quite ring true to me. I've always seen them as closer to 12, and their behaviour is more like pre teens than 16 year olds) without any external influence. They can remember other people and some of their behaviour is influenced by that. Peter's isn't. So he's best described as careless.

Cat Valente said in her wonderful Fairyland series that all children are heartless, because their hearts haven't had time to grow and develop, and that's Peter to a tee. He doesn't think about anyone other than himself, because he's never had to do so.

Aside from the relationship between Peter and Tiger Lily, which is beautifully and lyrically described and written, it also comes across as a very real portrayal of young affection between characters who are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally, there's a side story about Tiger Lily's tribe and how they lose a sense of what they've always been, especially the tragic Tik Tok, due to the intervention of the well meaning Englisher Phillip. Oh, and I found Anderson's versions of both Smee and Hook very interesting and different.

I wouldn't put this in my top books for the year or anything like that, but I did enjoy it and it was a pretty decent start to the project.