Children's · Fantasy · YA

I Shall Wear Midnight

I shall wear midnightby: Terry Pratchett

Ah, two Pratchett novels in less than 7 days! My mom got them for me for Christmas and I ended up reading them one right after the other, due to my current need for light reading to relieve stress.

I Shall Wear Midnight is the most recent installment in the Tiffany Aching series that Pratchett writes for the young ones.  They follow the tales of Tiffany Aching, who starts off deciding to be a witch in The Wee Free Men and finally comes into her own as a witch in I Shall Wear Midnight.

My favorite Pratchett quote comes from The Wee Free Men, actually. It is sheer Tiffany, though she doesn’t say it, and goes as such:

“If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

Tiffany is a great character.  She’s smart, perceptive, and full of common sense.  I’ve liked her in both books, even as she is noticeably more mature in this one. It’s hard to grow a character well, but Pratchett does it.  Tiffany, from whose point of view the book is told, in third person limited, has a sympathetic yet firm way of looking at people. This is helpful, as a dark force is beginning to turn the population of the Chalk and Ank-Morpork against witches and Tiffany must find a way to save herself without turning against the very people she’s supposed to help.

The book starts off with (spoiler!) a man having brutally beaten his daughter.  There are somewhat extenuating circumstances – dark forces are at work – and this and that happen, but in the end, the man never really receives punishment for his actions.  In contrast, there is a female character who is rather unpleasant, yet still a good person, and she receives a distinct comeuppance.

Don’t get me wrong – there was a whole lot this book got right but… That really didn’t sit well with me.  Perhaps because domestic violence, especially against women, too often goes unpunished in our society. Perhaps because the man who was deplorable but maybe redeemable didn’t require a punishment but the unpleasant yet good woman did; why is it easier to freely forgive a man beating his daughter than a woman being rude?

Anyway, onto things I really liked about this book.  Tiffany, like I said, is amazing, and the whole crew – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Oggs, and the Nac Mac Feegles – is there.  I loved Tiffany’s insights into growing up female and her interactions with Leticia, the other main female character.  Though they don’t quite develop a friendship, I thought the interactions between Tiffany and Leticia were the best parts of the book.  I especially loved how Tiffany, now working full-time as a witch and making adult decisions on a daily, if not hourly, basis, does not let anyone call her (or Leticia) a girl.

Tiffany’s narration of the plot was a nearly perfect blend of observations, reactions, and analysis.  Enough mundane things happened that you got a sense of who Tiffany is, and how the village runs, but never get bored.  Then the exciting and adventurous things occur, of course, and while I got swept up in them, I never lost the narrator.  It always felt like Tiffany was present and experiencing and reacting to the events rather than telling a story.

On the whole, it’s an excellent older child’s/YA fantasy book – better than most, I would say.  But – Pratchett’s Aching novels always feel to me like a simpler, slightly diluted version of his adult work; a toning down of the sharpest edges of wit and very little cynicism.  And I just prefer his adult novels.  I read these ones when I have a chance – but I don’t seek them out.

On the whole, if you’re looking for a YA novel with witty observations and great humor, or if you love Pratchett, you should definitely try reading this book.  If you don’t like escapism books that deliberately provoke thought, however humorously, or if you want your Pratchett with an adult edge, then, alas!, perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

Fantasy · Urban Fantasy

Moon Called

mooncalledby: Patricia Briggs

Moon Called is the first book in Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series.  It’s an urban fantasy series, with all the danger, mystery, and adventure implied by the genre.

As an urban fantasy, it works pretty well.  There are vampires, werewolves, and fairies, your usual fantasy mix.  Mercy, the main character, actually draws on Native American lore – she’s a shapeshifter – and is half Blackfoot.  I really liked that (how often do you see a Native American main character?) but Briggs also made her culturally white, which I have mixed feelings about.

Mercy, despite knowing her whole life that she inherited her powers from her Blackfoot father, makes no visible attempt to learn about her heritage.  When your heritage includes strong magical powers you know nothing about, that is a very questionable decision.  I feel like the author is taking the easy way out – she uses a Blackfoot as a main character, but in such a way that she doesn’t have to put any work into making the Blackfoot component culturally accurate, even though it would make a lot more sense if Mercy was actively trying to find out more about her heritage and connect with her father’s family.

(From the [spoiler alert for link] Wikipedia page about her – which you should read, as it’s hilarious – she doesn’t even attempt to find her father’s family until the 6th book, even though in the very first book it becomes clear there’s a lot about her powers she doesn’t know.)

The writing was decent – a little choppy and too much explaining here and there, but not terrible. The plot was well-paced and  it’s a quick and easy read.  I wasn’t terribly motivated to pick it up but once I started reading, I wanted to finish.  There was a bit of romance, which was the main point of nearly every interaction Mercy had with her two main love interests. That got annoying pretty damn fast. There were lots of moments where the sexual/romantic tension was completely unnecessary.

In the end, I didn’t like the book and I won’t be reading any of the sequels.  The book had some major problems with sexism and I’m afraid it’s just a deal breaker for me.

First of all, nearly every adult woman in the book actively dislikes Mercy.  The werewolf women all hate her because she can bear children and they can’t; apparently she was essentially shunned as a young child and teenager.  All of the werewolf women that she’s ever met, apparently, take an immediate dislike to her and treat her coolly.

Just think about that.  You probably know somebody who can’t have kids or struggled to conceive.  Try to imagine them hating a 14 yr old girl because she could, potentially, have children and they can’t.  Now try to imagine a whole town full of women who all hate the same young girl for that same reason.

It doesn’t paint a very flattering view of women, does it? And with the exception of one strong-willed and poor but plucky Latina single mother, who has about two lines, and a teenager, all the women in the book intensely dislike Mercy.  So we have a situation where every adult woman is bad, except for the main character and one Latina character.  (The same thing happens in 50 Shades of Grey and one of the better analysis I read described it thusly: non-white women aren’t competition for men’s attention and thus it’s okay for them to be good people because no (white and thus main character) man would be interested in them romantically.) And I know Mercy is half-Blackfoot but for the most part, she is written as a culturally white woman.

Besides the whole women-against-women problem, we have the men.  The love interests are domineering Alphas – like a wolf alpha – and spend much of their time manipulating Mercy and ordering her around. Her responses are childlike rebellions: mouthing off and cheeky but inconsequential actions.  Adults have serious, potentially relationship-ending conversations about this kind of provocation; only children think that fighting back with cutesy tactics will prove any sort of point.

Which brings me to my next point: The men are constantly losing control of themselves; they become violent and controlled by their emotions.  And it’s all excused because they’re werewolves and thus dominant alpha-males who can’t control themselves. The myth that men can’t control themselves because they’re so incredibly male is not only pure bullshit but extremely damaging in our society.

It isn’t an animalistic thing, because Mercy certainly doesn’t suffer from that problem.  And the women werewolves – few and far between; women, apparently, are too weak to survive the change – aren’t given enough voice in the book, despite its being completely overrun by werewolves, to see if they are controlled by their alpha tendencies. Either way, since the men are constantly losing control over women, and Mercy seems constantly afraid of the men she’s attracted to, it’s not a motif I’m willing to get behind.

The cast, despite having a female protagonist and being set in a world where magic could easily equalize any physical differences between the sexes, is almost entirely male.  The women are constantly having to be protected and it’s heavily implied, especially at the end, that all the “good” men are naturally going to be immediately, creepily, overprotective of any woman they find physically attractive.

To top it off, Mercy notes, several times, how sexist the werewolf society is and how the women werewolves depend entirely on their mates for their social standing. Charming.

It wasn’t all terrible, mind you, but sadly, the good points did not outweigh the bad.

If you like urban fantasy with a well-written female protagonist or tales of vampire and werewolves, you should give this one a try (but think critically about the treatment of women). If blatant sexism is a deal breaker or if you’re looking for a diverse cast and completely fresh approach to the urban fantasy genre, then this book probably isn’t for you.


A Natural History of Dragons

anaturalhistoryofdragonsby: Marie Brennan

Apparently I never wrote or posted a review of one of the most awesome books I read last year.  The funny thing is that I started this review twice but then never finished it. Well, it’s being published today, though I read the book many months ago.

A Natural History of Dragons is the memoir of the fictional Isabella, Lady Trent, the world’s foremost expert on all things dragon.  Set in an alternate version of Victorian England, it is truly one of the best books I read last year, despite my lack of review.

This particular books covers Lady Trent’s formative years, as she begins to develop and pursue her interest in dragons and the natural sciences.  One of the things that I most loved was that Lady Trent did not set out to be a trailblazer and completely revolutionize the world of dragons and women’s role in the sciences.  She just worked towards opportunities and took them when she could.  Don’t get me wrong, the world needs revolutionaries and trailblazers, but a lot happens because of people like Lady Trent, who aren’t necessarily striking a blow for (here) feminism as much as they are following their interests and passions without much regard for the rules.

Within this book, Lady Trent is exploring how to live in a society that does not approve of ladies doing unlady-like things, and is trying to balance conforming to gender roles with being herself.  I like the way the book is realistic about the types of challenges she must face, from outsiders and from the men who are in charge of her life, and also from within, in terms of how she thinks she must behave and how she wants to be able to function inside society.

The plotline itself was a fun adventure.  It had a strong scientific bent that I really enjoyed – not science jargon, just an inclusion of what scientific work is often like. (Detail-orientated, demanding, repetitive, and often boring.) Lady Trent, who has always had an unusually strong interest in the natural sciences, finds herself and her husband presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, to travel to a remote village in a foreign country and study dragons.  Though it’s not at all proper for a Victorian lady to traipse off after adventure, she strikes upon a plan that will let her maintain some of her reputation and most of her adventure, and sets off with her husband for a life-changing adventure.

Lady Trent herself is a practical person, not given to flights of emotion or idealization about the world.  She’s of a very scientific bent, detailed and prone to thinking things through and accepting the realities of the world as she sees them.  She has no illusion as to what studying dragons will do to her reputation or standing in society, nor does she think she can survive outside of society as an outcast.  But she is prepared for adventure and clearheaded; this is no Jane running off to study gorillas, but a Madame Curie, determined and steadfast.

I don’t have the book anymore, having given it away in preparation for the Great Move this month, but it really is one of my absolute favorites and I can’t wait for the sequel, which comes out in March.  I know I ranted on about Lady Trent in this review, but I do assure you, the plot was well-done: adventurous, a little suspenseful, and including a fairly broad range of characters that I really enjoyed; the writing was excellent, and overall the book really worked.

If you like strong female characters, dragons, science, adventure, or are just looking for a good fantasy book, you should give this one a try! If you like characters who are emotional or dramatic, or if you are not a fan of a slightly drier style of writing, then perhaps this is not the book for you.

Children's · Fantasy · Humor

The Carpet People

carpetpeopleby: Terry Pratchett

The Carpet People is Terry Pratchett’s very first book – kinda.  It was the first book he ever published but after he made it big – long after this was out of print – people started trying to find it.  So he went back and reread it and then he rewrote it as a 40-ish successful writer.  In the introduction, he says it is not the book he wrote at 20 but also not the book he would have written at 40. Which makes it a fascinating book to read, if you’re curious about his development as a writer.

Though the writing is unmistakably Pratchett’s, it doesn’t actually have many elements of a Pratchett book.  Oh, you still find the humor and the occasional Pratchett funny truism, just on a much smaller scale.  The plot is extremely straightforward and easy to follow, with no big surprises or moments where suddenly everything makes sense.  The Pratchett-ism I really missed was the characters – those characters who really should be caricatures or even stereotypes but somehow end up being fully developed characters – Corporal Nobbs and Sergeant Colon, for instance.  Or Lord Vetinari.  There were none of them in this novel, though you can see the inklings of that development in a few of the characters.

That isn’t to say the characters aren’t good; they are.  They’re pretty well-developed, given the simplicity of the story and the plot.  It’s enjoyable and quick-paced and it doesn’t have the moral that most Discworld novels have, hidden deep inside, which makes it a little more escapism reading than Pratchett’s novels usually are.  I mean, there are inklings of a moral here and there, but it didn’t make me think and laugh simultaneously the way most of the Discworld novels do.

It’s the story of the Munrung tribe, a people who live peacefully in the Carpet, and the troubles that suddenly beset them.  Mostly, it follows their leader, Glurk, and his younger brother, Snibril, as they attempt to lead their people to safety after the coming of the Fray.  Glurk is brave and Snibril is clever. There are other characters – wise, some, mysterious others, and a requisite few are evil.  It is, now that I think of it, a little formulaic; not subversively so, either.  That being said, it was easy to get caught up in the novel -it was a great adventure to go on!

The best thing about this novel was the world building.  The implication is that the whole world is set in someone’s living room carpet. It was so much fun to think about! From the details to the overarching narrative, Pratchett did an excellent job of drawing the reader into the world – and maybe making them think twice before carelessly trodding on their living room floor.  If you’ve got a vivid imagination or just love to revel in someone else’s, I would recommend this book in a heartbeat.  It is not only a fairly quick read but engrossing and delightful to think about.

It’s also a children’s book, or at least that’s how I would classify it.  Simple, exciting, imaginative and age-appropriate, with excellent drawings interspersed throughout.  And I realize I’m comparing it somewhat negatively to his other works, but I truly enjoyed reading it and would do so again without hesitation.   It was a book to get lost in, for the sheer fun of reading and ignoring the realities of the world.

If you love imaginative adventures, are looking for a book to read out loud with your kid, or are interested in Pratchett’s earlier work, I would definitely check out The Carpet People.  If you’re into Pratchett’s book because of their witty social commentary, if you like your adventures bloody and tense, or if you’re a big fan of complex, surprising characters, than alas! this may not be the book for you.


Contemporary Literature · Fantasy

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

ocean at the end of the laneby: Neil Gaiman

I know it’s been a few months since this came out, but my mom bought me a signed copy for Christmas so I held off on reading it until I received the signed copy.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s latest fairy tale.  Gaiman always writes things with a darker edge, and this was no exception. It was written more along the lines of Coraline and Stardust than, say, American Gods or Neverwhere, with a simpler plot line and less complicated storytelling.  It is an adult’s book, though I would say anyone 12+ could safely read it.  (There is a part or two that might exclude your under-12 crowd; a not-terribly-indiscreet sex scene, or implied sex scene – there’s rather passionate kissing – and a few scary and many suspenseful parts.)

It’s the story of a nameless narrator, who goes back to his hometown in his middle age and finds himself wandering out to his old childhood home and then onto his old neighbor’s property. After a cup of tea and some conversation, he finds himself at the edge of a pond, struggling with half-formed memories.  But then he remembers – it’s not a pond, it’s an ocean.  And both he and the reader are plunged back into the year he was 7, a year of adventures and magic and mysterious others.

I won’t delve much on the plot. It’s good – fast, intriguing, paced well enough that you hold your breath during the scary parts and never quite relax until the end.  There’s lots going on and it’s much less fill-in-the-holes-y than some of his other stuff. (American Gods, anybody?)  Which is nice; this is a short read but also a quick one.  At the same time, it still feels like you’re reading a Gaiman novel; the world is complex and you can tell there’s more going on than he’s letting the reader see.

It’s told in first person POV and we can only see what our 7 yr old narrator sees; it’s not colored, at least not obviously, by the 40 yr old’s recollections.  I really liked the choice of narrator, actually. He’s observant and intelligent, though believable as a child.  He’s very sympathetic and he does have all those moments children dream of having, like rebelling against authority figures and being right while the parents are wrong – though, of course, not in the way you’d expect.  At the same time, he’s flawed and well-rounded.  He’s brave, but not extraordinarily so, which I appreciated.  So rarely do you read of a hero in an adventure with ordinary courage, if that makes any sense.

The neighbors, by the way, are the Hempstocks, three generations of women who live at the edge of the ocean.  They possess great, but not unlimited, power.  The grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, is a woman both comforting and intimidating.  Her granddaughter, Lettie, is practical and extraordinarily brave, in a very matter-of-fact way.  In the non-literary sense, they are the heroes of the story.  I, of course, love strong female characters and this book is peppered with them.  They’re – I hesitate to say well-rounded; not every character needs to be well-rounded – but well-developed.  The reader begins to understand them, and though they may not be terribly multi-faceted and complex, they are immense and deep characters and it is enough.

The book is driven by plot, though not at the expense of the characters.  Though character growth is not focused on – and indeed, I am not sure that many of the characters even grow – it does a great job of exploring the characters, which was enough to satisfy me, especially given the brevity of the story.  In short, it’s a remarkably well-balanced book and I absolutely loved it.  And, it should go without saying that Gaiman is an excellent writer and this was no exception.

If you have been wanting to like Neil Gaiman but find his works intimidating, or if you like darker fantasy books, or if you like child narrators (ug, sorry if that sounds weird), you should definitely give this one  a shot.  If you lean more towards epics or stories where the main character is heroic and saves the day, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.

Fairy Tales · Fantasy

The Fairest of Them All


by: Carolyn Turgeon

First of all, hello from Boston! I’m all moved in to a new apartment and not quite unpacked.  So my blog will resume it’s normal sporadic updates – yay!

I picked up my first book from Boston, Fairest of Them All, while stopping by the university (where I work) bookstore for a fleece jacket, because it’s fairly chilly in my lab.

I needed a book to escape into and this book was perfect for my purposes.  It’s a retelling of both “Rapunzel” and “Snow White”, from Rapunzel’s point of view (first person).  The blurb revolves around the prince and Rapunzel’s relationship; this is a false synopsis.

The prince is, at best, a secondary character and really pales in comparison to Rapunzel and even Snow White.  His character is quickly sketched instead of complex and developed and he mostly serves as a plot device rather than a character in his own right. This works perfectly for the story, however. I love that the fairy tale gets re-imagined completely around Rapunzel, instead of true love.  Rapunzel is, indeed, the active character in the story and it is her and Mother Gothel’s actions that drive and create the plot, rather than Rapunzel’s fate being determined by a witch and a prince.

Rapunzel herself is a fascinating character. I don’t know that I like her – she seems devoid of morals and certainly lacks ethics.  Indeed, though she certainly can be empathetic, due to her particular brand of magic, she seems unable to see how her actions will harm others; she is only able to feel how her actions have harmed others. She is oddly self-aware, though not introspective; she understands she does not have a “great heart” and is not prone towards morality.

Ever since “Tangled” came out and did such a brilliant job of depicting an emotionally abusive relationship between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel, I’ve been fascinated by that relationship.  There are so many directions it could be taken in. Turgeon takes an unexpected approach and because Rapunzel is not self-reflective, leaves much of the interpretation open to the reader. I wish there had been more exploration of that relationship.

Mother Gothel’s moral ambiguity through the story is also very nicely done.  There’s such a disconnect between how she presents herself to Rapunzel and how the rest of the world views her that it really is impossible to see if she’s misunderstood because of a growing movement against magic or if she truly is evil.  Or perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

I would have liked a little more character development on Rapunzel’s part on the back third of the story and I do feel it ends right as she truly begins to grow up. In terms of plot, the ending makes sense; in terms of character, it almost leaves you hanging.

The plot itself is quick and nicely paced – perhaps a little too busy at the end, but at that point I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t notice until I’d finished.  The writing is good – a tiny bit on the simpler side, which fits in well with the fairy tale aspect.

I wish Turgeon had spent more time on social critiques of the “fairest of them all” aspect.  She does such an excellent job of setting up rich material for a stark, scathing look at the importance of female beauty in society – but she never really goes anywhere with it. Very sad.  I also hate that both the blurb and the synopsis before the book club questions seem to think this is the story of a prince and a princess and the most important relationship is between Rapunzel and the prince.  In reality, that is the least important relationship and it is annoying that someone(s) seemed to think that the male character of course had to be the most important secondary character in the story.

If you like reimagined fairy tales, feminist takes, or morally ambiguous main characters, you should definitely give this book a try.  If you don’t like instances of rape (though not rape scenes), not-good main characters, or prefer beautiful, complex writing, than perhaps this, alas, is not the book for you.