February 17, 2010

The Gates by John Connolly

John Connolly is best known for writing thrillers, though he first caught my attention with his short story collection, Nocturnes, and his first book for younger readers, The Book of Lost Things. The Gates is Connolly's second venture into younger-person friendly fare, and it's got a lot going for it - demons, Satanic rituals, a Large Hadron Collider, and a small, clever dachshund named Boswell. Unfortunately, The Gates also suffers from something that I'm not sure many people would actually mind - the voice of an author who seems to have read Terry Pratchett extensively and wishes to do the same thing. More on that in a moment....

The Gates is the story of young Samuel Johnson, an endearingly odd boy who tries to show initiative by trick-or-treating three days early, and who brings a pin to show-and-tell under the auspices that one cannot prove that there aren't angles dancing on its head. Samuel is a winning protagonist, and his constant companion, Boswell, is one of the most expressive non-talking dogs I've ever had the pleasure to read. Unfortunately, Samuel's adventure, which begins when he sees his neighbor's satanic ritual and it's unfortunate results (they open a portal to the eponymous gates of hell), is regularly interrupted by clever footnotes and charmingly informative, though plot-killing chapters on physics, black holes, and other assorted items of a scientific nature. Granted, a Large Hadron Collider helps open the gates of hell, so a little background information is useful. The information is also presented in a super-charming way, but it's that very charm that distracts the reader from the actual goings-on of the plot.

The Charm (tm) that pervades The Gates is one of those qualities that is fantastically effective in the proper dosage. Terry Pratchett, more often than not, manages to deploy a similar kind of charm to good effect in his Discworld series (though, sometimes, he too hops over the charm-line into the realm of the self-conscious and precious). Connolly slaps Charm (tm) all over everything, cluttering up his prose and wearing the reader down so that it's hard to appreciate it when it's appropriate.

Disclosure: Connolly's particular brand of charm involves the frequent use of something which is an irrational pet peeve of mine. I hate it when an author does this: "She was about to jump off the cliff but, well, she didn't." I really hate that well. Connolly uses it, well, a lot. It might be okay in speech (although I don't like it much there either), but dialogue and narration are not speech, they are the written representation of speech. As such, they leave no room for um's, huh's well's and the like - especially not when used with compulsive frequency. It's just not, well, cute.

That said, The Gates was good fun, and I honestly liked Samuel Johnson. He's a believable boy, despite his carefully chosen idiosyncrasies, and for that alone I think The Gates is worth reading. I would just consider borrowing it from the library instead of, well, paying full price for the hardcover :-)

February 10, 2010

Solstice Wood by Patricia A. McKillip

This is going to be fairly brief under the auspices of "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."

Let's just say that Solstice Wood is not Patricia A. McKillip's best work. McKillip usually writes highly literate fantasy in a vaguely medieval period, such as Alphabet of Thorn. Quite often, there will be well-placed illusions to Celtic myths and traditional fairy tales, as in Winter Rose. Solstice Wood, unfortunately, is neither terribly literate, nor does it feature anything well-placed. It felt like a hodge-podge of Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic, any number of insipid novels prominently featuring knitting or quilting (and no, I'm a knitter so I'm not knocking fiber arts), and teen fantasy centered on how much someone wants to be a witch/fairy/changeling.

The other problem is simply one of structure. The structure is a hodge-podge too. Though the protagonist is meant to be an oddly unlikable young woman named Sylvia, the story is told in the first-person serial, meaning that everyone, from Sylvia's equally un-likable grandmother to a fairy changeling gets a chapter. Sylvia only gets a small handful of chapters in which to establish her role as the protagonist. The result is that the narrative, which is slender at best, has no core. Pair this with the absolute triteness of the conflict and ending, and you've got a book that it's pretty hard to care about.

And now, I think I'll just leave it at that and say that, in the spirit of niceness, I don't have anything more to say.

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

I confess that I actually finished A Great and Terrible Beauty, the first book in Libba Bray's trilogy about her vision-having heroine, Gemma Doyle, about a month ago, but between one thing and another (mostly a series of colds and starting my Masters in library science), I've only just been able to sit down and write anything about it. It is for this reason that my thoughts are going to be pretty general on this one, but I figure that whatever impressions have stayed with me after a month are the ones that are most important anyway.

Impression One: Use of the first person present progressive tense in a novel gets tiresome. While many would argue that sentences like, "I am running down an alley, sobbing," put the reader directly into the action, I would argue that being constantly told that "I am doing this," and "I am doing that," gets distracting - not critically so, but enough that I had to fight the impulse to put the book down in the first couple of chapters.

Impression Two: Libba Bray definitely knew her material. A Great and Terrible Beauty reads like part gothic romance, part Victorian pulp in the tradition of H. Ryder Haggard's She, and Bram Stoker's Lair of the White Worm - there's lots of occult danger and Eastern 'otherness' (both sexy and threatening to a respectable, young Englishwoman), lots of lurid drama. All in all, it's pretty fun.

Impression Three: Libba Bray also really knows young women. Gemma Doyle is a good heroine, as far as teen-age heroines in historical fiction go - she's active, she has agency, she's flawed but passionate. There's a fair amount of conflict and fight in her, which would make her easy for a modern teen to relate to. Gemma's friends are also interesting - the drab, unattractive Ann (who is a cutter, due in large part to her implied depression and alienation), the gorgeous, ornamental Pippa, who just wants to be loved, and Felicity, who, of the four, has the most force of personality and complexity. They're an interesting mix of types and not one that comes together easily (there's a great deal of initial antagonism). Though I found the progression of their friendship to be a little forced, it was also believable in that there are girls for whom dislike is an automatic precursor to respect. The four of them together make a pretty interesting dynamic.

Overall, A Great and Terrible Beauty is quality YA - fun, dark, a little edgy and sexy in a historical way. The thing I liked most about it however, was the fact that all four of the girls, Gemma, Pippa, Ann, and especially Felicity, want autonomy - they want personal power, they want to valued for themselves, they want to be heard and, in their own way, they fight for that privilege in a Victorian world that valued silence in its women and girls. For that alone, A Great and Terrible Beauty is worth reading, though I'm not quite tempted to read on in the trilogy.

January 14, 2010

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

I am not a fanatic fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. I do, however, enjoy the books, albeit some more than others. Hogfather, for example, is pretty wonderful in my opinion. Some of the others (usually ones that don't feature Death, Susan or Lord Vetinari, but that's just me) can get a little tiresome as they seem to rely more on unrelenting cleverness than actual plot. Soul Music falls somewhere in between.

Soul Music is the story of how rock n' roll came to Discworld and got everyone all shook up. It's also the story of Susan's first time stepping into her grandfather's professional shoes (her grandfather being the anthropomorphic personification of Death). Lots and lots of promise there, and Soul Music definitely doesn't fail to amuse. Rock n' roll, called Music with Rocks In for Discworld purposes because the drums are a set of rocks banged on by a troll, literally infects the residents of Ankh-Morpork from the Unseen University down. Suddenly seventy year old wizards are acting like teen-agers and fashioning robes out of studded leather, and middle-aged housekeepers are tossing their undergarments at the lead singer of The Band.

The lead singer is the connection between the Susan plot and the music plot, and it's a connection that I feel wasn't taken full advantage of. The singer, a young druid named Imp y Celyn, forms a band with a troll and a dwarf, accidentally gets his hands on a magically electric guitar, changes his name to Buddy, and unleashes Music with Rocks In on the unsuspecting populace. Unfortuantely, Buddy was supposed to have died, (enter Susan doing her grandad's job), but the music reanimates him. Her heart then goes "twang" and she spends the rest of the book trying to save him from the music. I think. It gets a little muddy in there. And that's the main problem.

Pratchett tosses lots of fun stuff at the reader, but ultimately, when it comes time to wrap everything up, it all feels rather messy and contrived. In the end, it does all come together, but it does so in a bit of a tangle, so while Soul Music is definitely a fun little ride, it leaves you in a less than satisfying place. I wouldn't go so far as to not recommend it to someone looking for a little light fun, but if you want an ending that satisfies, I might look somewhere else.