Friday, March 13, 2009

Book Review: The Graveyard Book

I'm not normally in the habit of reading kids and YA books. I keep hearing great things about a lot of newer YA fantasy, and I'm sure that it is great, but there's a lot of adult fantasy that I still have to read, and those books tend to be longer, thus giving me more bang for my buck. However, I was intrigued by Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book when I first heard its premise, and decided that I would eventually read it.

At first, I planned to buy the book, but the holidays were approaching and my mother-in-law knows that my husband and I love Gaiman's work, so I decided to wait and see if a copy was part of our holiday package. It wasn't, but then I got distracted by other things. Then my in-laws came to visit from NY and my MIL had read The Graveyard Book on the plane, and she gave it to me, because that's the sort of awesome mother-in-law she is.

A month passed while I was busy, and then one night (Wednesday, to be exact), I was sick and bored, and there it was, sitting, waiting for me on the little end table in my living room. I said to myself "I believe I shall start reading this book." I then proceeded to read it in essentially a single sitting, with only one brief web comic reading break.

Like I said above, kids books, they are too short!

Despite being short, and not as in-depth as I would have liked, The Graveyard Book was a good read. It tells the story of Nobody Owens (Bod for short, Bob to the sort of people who don't care enough to pay attention to what your name really is), a child who is raised in a graveyard by ghosts after an assassin murders the rest of his family. The chapters jump forward in time, different episodes in Bod's life that tie together to form the main plot. It's episodic enough in nature that I could easily see a parent reading a chapter a night with or to their child, but compelling enough that I can also see that parent reading ahead after the kid has gone to sleep.

Bod's graveyard is full of an interesting variety of ghosts from the different eras during which people were still buried in the cemetery (which, at the time of the book, had long since been closed and turned into a nature preserve), ranging from a Roman ghost to various Victorian-era children who become Bod's playmates. These secondary characters are mostly sketchy, but still enjoyable. The book is too brief to really develop any of the characters in depth, another reason why I don't read a lot of kids books.

The Graveyard Book is dark in tone, but whimsically so, much like the movie Coraline (and the book, too, I'm assuming. I just haven't read it). Some kids may be scared by it, but I think that most parents are probably a good enough judge of their children to know ahead of time whether they'll like a book full of ghosts. There are some intense moments in it, but nothing too bad. I think it's the perfect read for a fledgling Goth.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Gaiman was heavily influenced by Kipling's Jungle Book when he wrote this. Unfortunately, I had a deprived childhood and never read that book. I've only seen the animated Disney movie, and I'm sure that's not much of a comparison (hey, I have read the original Little Mermaid and that isn't anything like the Disney movie. Don't even get me started on the original versions of Snow White or Cinderella).

I'm currently working my way through Halting State by Charles Stross, so expect another book review soon.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Book Review: Twice a Hero

Back when I was complaining about how much I hated Seize the Night, it was suggested to me that I read some Susan Krinard before I totally write off paranormal romances as utter twaddle. I took this recommendation with a small grain of salt, as it was coming from Susan Krinard's own husband, and I know that husbands often think that their wives are great writers (mine still maintains that the short novel I wrote at age 14 is awesome, whereas I know that it is garbage). Nonetheless, I felt that I should give Susan a fair chance, so I looked for her at the used bookstore* and found that they did not have Kinsman's Oath, which was recommended to me, but they did have a bunch of her books. I chose Twice a Hero, because it had time travel, and most of the others were about werewolves. Now, I don't hate werewolves the way I hate vampires, but I do love a good time travel story, so it was an easy decision.

The good news is that Twice a Hero avoids a lot of the problems that I've had with previous romance novels. I didn't feel like the author was ramming home to me that the leading man was "ohmygawd, the sexiest thing on the face of the planet." The description of his handsomeness was succinct and relatively objective, describing his features and allowing me to decide if that was what flipped my cookie. There was no "hot sexual chocolate" or "long, flowing hair." He read to me as ruggedly but believably handsome.

Likewise, the leading lady believes herself to be plain and unattractive, and describes herself in such a way that we can see how she feels that way, but when we see her through the eyes of the male lead, we can understand how and why he finds her traits attractive. It's not a case of a drop-dead gorgeous woman who believes herself plain, it's a case of a non-standard beauty and a man who finds that she's the sort of woman who revs his engine, so to speak.

And perhaps most importantly, the love scenes were sexy without being ridiculous, and were not the main thrust (if you'll forgive the pun) of the story. The romance is believably interwoven into a tale of being misplaced in time, along with a love quadrangle and a bit of intrigue, all set in the backdrop of 1880s Guatemala and San Francisco. I didn't feel like the story simply served as a way to get the characters from sexy scene A to sexy scene B. It served to introduce the characters, put them in trying and sometimes steamy situations, occasionally pulling them apart to bring them together again.

I'm not an expert on 1880s San Francisco, where most of the book takes place, but the story felt well-researched, and the characters felt authentic to their time. Almost too authentic, in the case of the male lead. Typically chauvenstic, I found him to be abrasive and really questioned whether he'd ever be able to adapt to living the rest of his life with a headstrong woman of the 90s (this book being set in the year it was published, 1997). I often have this problem with romantic stories about people from different times (whether it involves time travel, or centuries-old vampires). It's hard for me to believe that once the initial glow of passion subsides, that the vast gulf of eras will be so easy to bridge.

And really, that's my main complaint with Twice a Hero. I loved watching the clashing personalities of the two characters, as they traded barbed comments frequently throughout the book. And I found their attraction natural and believable (I also appreciated that their courtship spanned a month or more, rather than mere days). But I couldn't see them having a viable, long-term relationship. I also frequently found myself off-put by the leading man's condescending and at times almost abusive attitude towards the leading lady, not to mention his habit of turning to the bottle when he was upset.

Over all, the writing was good and relatively error-free. There was the occasional metaphor that I felt was over-the-top, but there was no throbbing manhood or burning groins or anything else laughably bad. The plot moved along at a believable pace, the secondary characters were believable and likeable, and the things that I thought were going to turn into stupid misunderstandings to tear the characters apart were actually usually handled in a reasonable manner.

Unfortunately, this felt like more of a gateway fantasy romance than a full-blown one. It was heavy on the romance and light on the fantasy, with only a possible family curse and the time travel to differentiate it from a standard romance novel. Perhaps I would have been better off with the werewolves in that regard. I'll probably pick up another of this author's books, one that looks to be more fantasy-heavy, and see if it has a less off-putting male lead. If so, they could definitely be a good guilty-pleasure read.

In the meantime, if you'd like to see some hilariously bad romance writing, worse even than anything in Seize the Night, click here. It has NSFW language, and may cause you to bust out laughing. Don't say I didn't warn you.

*Having learned how little authors get per book sold, I usually try to buy books new these days, to support the people who provide so much of my entertainment... but when it's a new-to-me author, I do prefer to hit the used bookstore, so I'm not out seven bucks if it's not any good.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Flight collection of graphic novels

I've been pretty scatter-brained and busy lately, and when I feel this scattered, I find that I can't focus on writing or reading anything of any length. This is a good time for graphic novels! Reading them, obviously, not writing them. I gave up on writing comics back when I was a teen.

Flight is a serious of graphic anthologies that my husband likes to pick up, and that I sometimes read. They're edited by Kazu Kibuishi, creator of the on-line comic Copper. Chris is a big fan of aforementioned comic, and discovered in via the links section of another favorite comic, xkcd. At Comic Con, we met Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd, and Chris was complaining about Copper never updating, and Mr. Munroe said "That's because Kazu has been working on Flight, and he's standing at the booth right behind you." Chris then squeeled like a fan girl*, turned around, and bought Volume 1 of Flight, getting it signed by Kazu and the other creators who were in the booth at the time, a process that took probably about 10 minutes of the book getting passed from artist to artist. It was a big, crowded booth.

Anyway, rambling story of how we discovered Flight aside, it's a neat little series. Each sizable volume is packed with an assortment of stories by various authors and artists. Some you may have heard of, most you probably haven't. Each one seems to have a vague theme, but the stories still remain unique and different from each other. It's a something for everyone sort of anthology. There's action stories, funny stories, kids stories, romances, real life stories, fantasy, sci-fi, dreamscapes, talking animals, mythology, not to mention dozens of different art styles.

In each volume, you'll probably find a few stories that stand out as great in your mind, some that you don't really get the appeal of, and a bunch that are neither good nor bad. In my experience, even when I'm not into a story, I can really enjoy seeing how the artist interprets the story, and admire the different art and narrative styles on display.

Flight anthologies tend to run $25 in the US, a good price for such a sizable graphic novel. They can usually be found in the graphic novel department of your local bookstore, if you don't patronize comic book shops.

*This is a little something that I like to call revisionist history, and it will also let me know when Chris sees this blog post.