Sunday, December 12, 2010


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

                                              W.E. Henley

Friday, August 20, 2010

Eragon, Saphira and Christopher Paolini

A boy, a dragon, elves and dwarves, bloodthirsty monsters and a malicious, crazy king - all pretty standard stuff for a fantasy novel. This one even has a special sword, how much more typical can it get, right? Well, here's one unusual thing about it - the first book in the series became a NYT bestseller while the author was still in his teens. This was a huge surprise to me when I first looked up Christopher Paolini. I've read some fantasy novels that were their respective authors' firsts and they were not so good, to put it mildly. The "too much" and "too little" plagued them and in a genre where poor writing seems to be the usual shortcoming that's pretty darn bad. This one is actually pretty darn good. I'm reading the second book, Eldest, right now and can already see that the writing has improved and that this guy who's only a year my junior has real talent, that his first book wasn't just a fluke. He knows what he's doing and he's getting better at it all the time.
I won't summarize the book here, you can find a synopsis online yourself, I'll just tell you what in particular I like about this story. I like the friendship between Eragon and Saphira, his dragon. They are honest and fair to each other and they have each other's backs and are in a way one while remaining their own selves.
I like how the relationships between characters are real with sympathy, conflict, respect and suspicion present, just like in real life. I also like that the characters aren't either good or bad. There's more to them than the hero or villain tag. They have their pasts and they have their uncertain futures and all that molds them into multidimensional beings. I particularly liked how Mortagh was shown in the first book. There was such a fine line in him between good and evil, suspicion and trust. You could see just how damaged he was without being able to quickly categorize him. To me that shows a certain level of accomplishment on the part of the author.
I like how Paolini shows us the world of Eragon, the lands he travels and the nations that populate those lands. He doesn't give us long descriptions telling us everything about them upfront but rather reveals small bits here and there, allowing us to learn things as Eragon learns them.
I like that there's humor and sword fights and pain and the wonder of first love and mystery all interwoven into the narrative in a way that creates a believable story with believable characters a reader can actually relate to because they aren't too perfect or imperfect.
I like how the past is never just the past, how it comes back to haunt or help. Real life does that too and if you've read more than just one post of mine you know that stories like that appeal to me.
There's one more thing I like about these books - the author himself. From the interviews he's given it seems like he is a very wholesome and grounded young man who gives important things in life some serious thought and even the not-so-important ones get his attention. His interests range from hiking to painting to making his own chain mail, he's read more than anyone else I've heard of and his range is astounding, from antiquity to the present day, and he expresses himself so well I keep forgetting he's a year younger than I am. He creates an impression of a very thinking, solid young man, the kind I would like to meet and make friends with, the kind I wish there were more of in this world.
The weekend is coming and I can't wait to curl up with Eldest in my lap and find out if certain suspicions of mine are correct. If all goes as planned my bookmark will move on to Brisingr by the time Monday rolls around. Sounds like the perfect weekend!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Linger by Maggie Stiefvater (part 2)

This is the official trailer for the book and here's why I'm posting it:
1) This book is great, I love it and think that you should read it too
2) Maggie is kindly holding a contest with awesome prizes and I'd love a chance to win
3) The video is plain cool, especially considering that it's stop-motion animation and Maggie and her siblings wrote the music and made the video. So be very impressed, just like I was.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Review: Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Death on the NileHercule Poirot investigates a triple murder that takes place on a ship taking a tourist trip up the Nile. The murder of an heiress, one of the richest women in Europe, is only the top of the iceberg of intrigue and secrets that obscure the truth and lead to more deaths.

I think that Agatha Christie was at her best when it came to writing novels. Short stories didn't give her as much room to develop the plot and characters in that special subtle way of hers. I particularly liked this story because on the surface it is a mystery but underneath it all it is really a study in human character, the different types and manifestations of love and the role it plays in the lives of people.

Review: Linger by Maggie Stiefvater

Linger (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #2)Maggie Stiefvater is back with a sequel to last year's Shiver. No spoilers as the book isn't even out in the stores yet but I will tell you that this story is different from the last one. It doesn't have the quietness and the feeling of going with the flow and just being happy in the moment. It has the feeling of anticipation coursing all through it, anticipation of something you don't particularly look forward to but that is going to happen regardless because that's how life is, things happen. It also sets the scene for mystery, so I'm betting your gray cells will get a workout trying to answer all the why's before the last installment is on the shelves.
The characters have more depth to them, they aren't children any more, even if they were already 17-going-on-30. They're young adults making their decisions and choosing their path, even if they have to face the fact that they may be burning bridges in the process. The secondary characters are also multi-dimensional and interesting and they make the reader care about them. They also provide a nice contrasting backdrop for the leads.
What puts these books on my list of favorites is that so much of the story is real, the people, the situations, the consequences. If everything worked out perfectly for everyone all the time it would've been fake and Maggie doesn't write fake. What Maggie does write is real people living real lives with all their beauty and all their ugliness and she's not afraid to put it all out there. Writers who are afraid write rubbish and this is not rubbish, very far from it.
This is the kind of book I'm glad is out there for the young readers. They'll have a chance to read about real tenderness and caring and appreciation and devotion and relationships that aren't flashy and won't end up on the front pages of the social gossip columns or on TV but will make all the difference in the world in the lives of two people.
A word of caution - you will laugh some and you will cry some, so get the tissues ready.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Angelique, Part 2 - The Dirty Underbelly Of Publishing

I've been reading a lot of fan message boards and fan sites about the books and the author and found something that got my hackles up. Turns out that Mme. Golon's publisher and agent were in cahoots to not pay her for her work. Exactly, outrageous. Apparently she has had to take them to court over rights to her own books, litigation lasted for almost two decades and she only recently won the battle and now owns everything she's supposed to own as the author. So this got me thinking, how crooked do people have to be to make a talented writer live hand to mouth for decades while they were benefiting from her work? Because, make no mistake, people are still reading these books and the movies that were filmed based on them are still shown on TV in European countries. How shameless and how low does one have to be to live for years knowing that they've taken away a person's only income and to continue doing it? Hard to even imagine, although, of course, there can never be enough money, right?
Another appalling part is that they apparently took out sections of the last 3 books, had someone else connect the dots and then published the books without even telling the author about it. Why, is what I'd like to know. What could have been in those sections they just could not allow to appear on the page? Hard to imagine there being something so current and volatile for France of 1980s that it couldn't be published in a novel set in the XVII century. Was it that they were lousy? I have trouble believing that an author who's written 10 books in this series alone and has only gotten better with time has all of a sudden deteriorated in her skill and talent on the 11th. May be she's simply gotten bored with it all? May be she did, but then why is the writing like a sinusoid, with some parts gripping and exciting and others so dull you only keep going for the fear of missing something important?
So what do we have now? An 88-year-old lady reworking the existing 13 volumes to contain all the pieces and plot lines that were taken out and getting them released by a different publisher while she's finishing up the last 2 books in the series. I can totally understand her, release the books, make some money and may be ensure a comfortable living for herself and a little something for her children. I just hope we see those last two books and I hope this "author's cut" is good. After all, it has been 25 years since the last book was published. And now my brain comes up with another question: why didn't she write the 2 last books in the last 7 years or so? The battle was won, nobody could take her work away, why not finish? I may never know the answers. But would really like to ;)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Angelique Series by Anne Golon

When I read these books for the first time I wasn't even in my teens and fell in love with them, despite the good-natured ribbing of my family who doubted the books' literary value. To their credit I kept getting new volumes for birthdays and Christmases as they became available.
Fast forward to 2010 and my acute bouts of homesickness. I kept wishing for some way to reconnect, if you will, and what better way to go back in time than with a multi-volume book series? And so for the last month I've been reading like I used to, during lunch, while waiting in line, for 10 minutes between breakfast and rushing out the door and way too late into the night. I devoured 13 books in a month, some over 500 pages long, and couldn't be happier. For one thing I re-discovered the absolutely amazing historical novels where fact and fiction are blended so seamlessly you never know where one ends and the other begins and where the plot and characters are so beautifully and thoroughly developed that I've been looking up places and people on the web for days now and guess what? They're all real! Another reason for happiness is that there are 2 books at the end of the series I didn't know about and the last one, written decades after the first, shows that the brilliant Anne Golon hasn't lost her touch or interest in her cast of characters. Last, but not least, I was thrilled to find out that 2 more books are coming and now I only hope that the 88-year-old author finishes them and we fans get to spend more time with the heroine who's become so real for us. We know everything will end well because so say the Tarot cards of the two little quakers but how exactly will the Sun King deal with not having his two willful vassals under his red heel? That question hasn't been answered yet and I just can't wait to find out.
I can write more, much more, but as it will not be enough will stop for now. May be later I'll talk some more about things this series has made me think about but right now I just want to tell you to go out and find these books, even though they've been out of print for the longest time, read them and discover the series that just might be impossible to categorize as a single-genre creation because it is history, adventure and romance all in one. What it is not is mediocre erotica the covers suggest it is. I would really like to know who designed those and what in the world were they thinking....

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Count of Monte Cristo and other books-turned-movies

Growing up this was one of my favourite books, thrilling me with romance and adventure and taking me to lands far away and times long gone. I read it in the middle of the night with a flashlight under my blanket listening for the sound of my parents coming to take the book away in just as I was getting to the most interesting part. Every new page was 'the most interesting part' of course. 
When the DVD came in the mail I wanted to savour it and wondered if it would be anywhere near as exciting as my memories of the book. It was more exciting actually, what with the chases and duels added on as is often done to make the story more dynamic onscreen, and I was glad that my memories were so old, otherwise I would've bucked at all the twisting of the plot to accommodate the medium. I still gripped the armrest of the couch during Dantes' last fight with Mondego, so no harm done.  
I wonder though about adapting books to accommodate a different media and the effect the adaptation has on the story. Oftentimes characters, scenes and subplots are added or removed in the process, things we would usually have to figure out on our own are right there on the screen in the blink of an eye and the suspense and the thrill of figuring out a character's secret are gone. There's no time for subtleties and more often than not we get a nuance-less story that doesn't do much to benefit the reputation of source material. 
Another aspect I wonder about is what it does for the audience of such an adaptation. Die-hard fans notice discrepancies right away and omissions of their favourite moments leave a sour aftertaste, robbing them of some of the enjoyment of the film as an entertainment product. Those who are exposed to the story for the first time don't know any different and form opinions based on what they see on the screen and what if the movie is only 'based' on the book and has little in common with it besides the names of characters? They may hate the film and never read the masterpiece that inspired it. And those who watch the movie for the value of ultra-condensed Cliff's Notes of the Cliff's Notes that doesn't require turning the pages don't get even a third of what's out there and most likely will never realize that they've been short-changed and that they did it to themselves. 
I don't blame the motion picture and television industries for not putting everything that's in the book in the movie. There's simply not enough time for that and the medium doesn't allow for the same effect as what the written word is capable of creating. I do however blame ourselves for being lazy and not reading more, for not training ourselves to use our imaginations and see books as more than a collection of pages with black characters on them. I blame ourselves for not teaching our children to see beyond the glowing screens in front of them or bypass them entirely even for just a couple of hours a day. 
It's not just bitterness though. I also have hope. Hope that with the widening array of electronic readers populating the market we'll go back to reading more, especially since it won't involve lugging around heavy volumes and the draw of a screen with buttons to assist in navigation will be satisfied. I am one of those constantly-plugged-in myself and my nook is coming tomorrow. I've already saved a ton of books on my computer in preparation for its delivery and am ready to forget where I put the remote. But that's a subject for another post. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review: The Next Thing On My List by Jill Smolinski

The Next Thing on My ListThis is exactly the kind of book I enjoy - light, funny, real and with some deep-running undercurrents.
The realness of it all was probably the best part. So often in fiction everything happens just like the protagonist plans it, a couple of snags along the way but in the end all dreams come true. Here things do work out, but not quite how June thought she wanted them to, which in itself is so real. She wants to date the hot guy who appears to want to date her, but... as soon as she tells him about her plans to adopt a baby fire turns to ice and he's not so eager any more. A teenager pregnant after a one-night stand, a child preparing to have a child; she is so grown up in planning to quit her regular classes and thinking about the realities of having to take care of a baby but at the same time she gets thrilled at the prospect of make-up and new clothes. A thirty-something woman seething in her cubicle when she gets passed over for the promotion she was waiting for. A middle-aged woman hiding the pain of losing her daughter and the fears of not being able to mend the ties behind the tough facade of a biker. A couple who have been trying to have a baby for years and who must face that nothing is working, leaving them broken-hearted and exhausted. The guy who at first comes across as extremely obnoxious and even disgusting turns out to be a genuinely good person, even if rough around the edges. The best of it though for me was the last chapter, when June has finished someone else's list and is beginning her own, beginning her own life after years of going with the flow and not taking her life into her own hands. She's sitting there and she still doesn't know what to put on that list, what it is she wants. She's just like so many of those of us who are great at following instructions but not necessarily writing them, even for ourselves. And yet she's gotten a taste of what it's like to finish something and what it's like to keep trying regardless of how far this trying takes her out of the cocoon of her comfort zone so she writes something down and surprises even herself with what it is. She'll do it too, I know it.
There's plenty of laughs in this book. In fact I giggled through it, all the while thinking about these people who inspired June and Deedee and Bob and Troy and Marissa. They're out there, eating at restaurants, driving cars, making mistakes and trying new things. To me fiction is life, disguised as make-believe for the benefit of entertainment but it's all real, it all happened somewhere to someone to some degree. Even if the story is undeniably fantasy, there's real people in there underneath the blue skin and fur and antennae. Here Ms. Smolinski simply didn't go as far as antennae, she stopped at making them all real and you know when an author has done a good job when the next morning you're still thinking about the twists and turns and the outcome. I finished the book last night. Today mid-morning my text to a friend read "I still can't get over June and Martucci and that the girl didn't even call her to tell her she decided to not give up the baby!!". Enough said.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare

The Mortal Instruments Boxed Set: City of Bones; City of Ashes; City of Glass (Mortal Instruments, #1-3)There's plenty of controversy surrounding these books. They've been criticized for the apparent incestuousness of the relationship between the two main characters for about 2 books out of 3, for two secondary characters being gay and another a rather promiscuous lady. There's blood and gore and cold-hearted twistedness and frankly I don't think these are YA books. The characters are teenagers, but to me that's not enough to make a book suitable for teen reading. Then of course there was the scandal of Cassandra Clare allegedly plagiarizing everything fantasy from TV to books in her Harry Potter fanfiction. I haven't seen or read the allegedly plagiarized works or the said fanfic so am not qualified to have an opinion on this, I can say though that there are elements in MI that are common to other stories. The extremely powerful and charismatic villain with a group of supporters he gathered while they were all in school and the orphan courageous enough to stand up to him come to mind immediately and I think we all know what they're reminiscent of. Here's what makes that not matter to me: anything after the folk tales, myths and legends is a repeat, anything written now has been done before in one way or another and the important thing is not to create something absolutely original (that I think would be next to impossible) but to make something familiar your own and different. I think Cassandra Clare does that beautifully.
I really enjoyed these books, could hardly put them down really. Ms. Clare's writing is witty, the characters are realistic enough with all their flaws and fine qualities, there's plenty of action and lovelorn adolescent angst to satisfy both types of readers. Even mild character continuity problems, like the bookish Clary who regularly skipped PE in the first book all of a sudden becoming strong and agile in the second, didn't ruin the experience. I loved how developed the world is with plenty of fantastical creatures, their intricate dynamics and how the fantasy world coexists with the regular world with the 'mundie' humans suspecting not a thing. If you are the kind of reader who can manage to not let the things I talked about in the first paragraph make these books unpalatable I think you're in for a treat and you should put them on your To Read list.

Waiting to read

When I was growing up we had works of classical literature on our standard school reading list. For example in junior year of high school we had to read and analyze War and Peace, among others. This always bothered me because, let's face it, there aren't many 16-year-olds who would willingly read the huge volumes let alone relate to fictional characters from some other century. A brief examination of the YA shelves at the local Barnes & Noble shows that unless it's fantasy or adventure young people simply aren't interested and the amount of shelf space devoted to classical literature is so miniscule in comparison to the fantasy, romance, sci-fi, crime and manga that even specifically looking for the section I almost missed it. 
So why do the educators continue to force Tostoy, Kafka, Hugo and Dickens on our poor minds when we don't even possess the maturity to understand half of what the authors set out to tell us? Are we supposed to be so grown-up by the time we graduate from high school to grasp what adults with grey in their hair spent countless hours putting on paper? They might think that if they don't make the kids read these books now they never will. They also might think that the teenagers are ready to process and learn from these stories.  If they're old enough to have sex they might as well read One Hundred Years Of Solitude. As if. 
The fact of the matter is majority of stories that we know as "classics" were written by adults brimming with realizations and understanding of life they gained through years worth of experience and I suspect they didn't write for fresh-faced youths whose main concern is whether a particular someone likes them. They shared excerpts of new chapters with their friends, not the friends' children. 
I dutifully read what the teachers told me to read in my school years but don't remember a third of it. The deep moral lessons I'm afraid are also forgotten. Sounds like wasted time and effort if it left no trace at all. Wouldn't I have been better off reading something more age-appropriate? At least I would remember it!
War and Peace is on my list, as well as a hundred of other books that are considered classics worthy of admiration. I figure if so many generations praise these works there must be something to them. Will I tackle them this year? Probably not. I'm waiting for the right time and mood and a glimmer of confidence that the works of great minds won't be wasted on me once again. As the saying goes, art is long, time is short. I'll add "especially if it's wasted". In the meantime, I'll spend my hours on lighter reading, surely the bowing shelves of my book case will appreciate that. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #1)A friend of mine recommended this book to me and although at first I was skeptical within only a couple of chapters the pages started to almost turn themselves and I just had to keep up.
Here's how it all begins: bookish teenager Grace is fascinated with wolves who live in the woods on the edge of her back yard, especially with one of them who keeps coming back and with whom she has an inexplicable bond. When her classmate is mauled by wolves and the townsfolk decide to hunt them down Grace feels she must save them all and 'her' wolf in particular. Soon after she hears the hunters' shots in the woods she finds a naked boy, bleeding and almost unconscious. When she looks in his eyes she realizes immediately that he is her wolf, who is in fact a werewolf.
While this story of fantastical romance is common nowadays Maggie Stiefvater's treatment of the fantasy element is very different from everything else I've read so far. Her wolves aren't affected by the moon but turn when the weather gets cold. They can be killed with regular weapons. They hunt just like any other carnivore in the wild. Sooner or later they stop turning and live out their days as wolves with no conscious memory of their human life. Perhaps the most unconventional though is that there is a cure and Grace is living proof of it, fighting to keep Sam human as long as she can and hopefully forever.
This story isn't action-packed until the last several chapters but this only adds to it's charm. The unhurried narrative gives us glimpses of Grace and Sam alone with their hopes, dreams, fears and reservations. We see them develop and open up to each other and as they do we begin to care more about them and hope for their triumph even as they seem to fail without any hope of putting the pieces back together. The secondary characters are also well developed and interesting in their own ways, with their own plot lines. I really can't wait to see where the next book in the series takes them.
The only thing about this book that I didn't like is that the adults are clueless, again. Sam spends almost all of his time in Grace's room, drives her to and from school and her parents notice nothing. How is that possible? If my parents even suspected whispering in my room in the middle of the night they'd come to investigate but here, just like in many other YA books, they are perfectly oblivious.
I'll let you in on something that I didn't figure out until the last chapter of the book. Under every chapter title there is a temperature indication, it's either for Grace or Sam, depending on who is the protagonist in the chapter. The temperatures are always different, even if the two teens are side by side, and only in the last chapter are they the same because only in the last chapter are they truly together. When this dawned on me I literally got chills.
All in all it's a very satisfying read with a fresh take on a familiar story and I've been recommending to my fantasy romance-loving friends ever since I turned the last page, just as I recommend it to you.