Monday, May 19, 2008

An Artist's Life

I'd checked out a novel on Peter Bruegel, As Above, So Below, once before and nearly got a perma-ban because I kept it so long, without reading the thing. I had better luck this time.

The book uses Bruegel's works to talk about his life, and each one makes up a heading for a chapter. I had done my aborted colonial reading thing around this time last year, so a look at Holland before that era began was interesting to me. The author (who I don't remember, and I already returned the book) did use a Cheap Animal Trick not once, but twice, to illustrate imperial oppression, but it was effective. I didn't know much about Bruegel as an artist, so I did learn a lot from the book. If any of you are considering this one, I'd suggest taking a book of Bruegel's paintings out of the library as well -- the plates in this one are in black and white, and suck anyway.

I've put off writing about this one simply because it's one of those that I don't have much to say about. It simply is what it is, no more or less than what you'd expect, neither terribly emotionally moving nor a total wasteland; neither incredibly informative nor devoid of detail. I wouldn't steer anyone towards this, nor would I warn against reading it. If it interests you, go for it. If not, well, I doubt that reading it will change your mind.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

When magic misses the mark

I recently picked up The Alchemyst at Central. It piqued my curiosity because it was all about Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle, who made an off-stage appearance in the first Harry Potter book. I had no idea they were real people or even established mythological figures, so I checked out the book partially to find out which.

My disappointment is probably evident from the title of the post. The story centers around teenaged twins Sophie and Josh Newman, who get sucked into the centuries-old battle between the Flamels and a man named John Dee. Josh works for Nick and Perry (as they've styled themselves in the 21st century) at the bookstore they own; Sophie works at the coffee shop across the street. The battle (briefly) is over control of the Codex of Abraham the Mage, which is a copper-bound book that is part instructional and part prophetic. The Witch of Endor, Bastet, Heckate and the Morrigan all have their roles to play in the tale, as do some less familiar figures, such as the mythological female warrior Scathach.

By all rights, it should've been a compelling tale, but it just didn't have that X-factor. I finished it while I was riding home from a wedding across the state, so I've had plenty of time to ruminate on its shortcomings, and I think it lies with the characters. The Harry Potter books can trace much of their success to its character development. True, there are a few cardboard cutouts in there, but at least they're archetypes. You look at Draco Malfoy and you see the snotty rich kids who used to make fun of your Payless sneakers. You see in Fred and George the class clown that you would've had somewhat of a crush on but could never quite take seriously. Cho Chang was the one you desired without really even knowing anything about. But you just can't warm up to Josh and Sophie, or even to Nick, Perry, Scathach or the others, in any way, shape or form.

The book teems with emotions, but they're shown, not described. You know Josh is hurt and angry because the text says "Josh felt hurt and angry," when showing him slamming the door or kicking a pebble would've conveyed the message. The twins are so passive it's hard to feel anything for them. They get caught up in the saga and continue to essentially do as they're told without questioning it. They're so slow to cotton on to some things that it angers the reader (quick, tell me what you think of an island known as Danu Talis that sunk beneath the ocean in ancient times? ever hear a story like that anywhere else bfore?). You get a bit bored waiting for them to play catch-up, and you've read enough similar books to know how it will all turn out anyway.

Actually, there was one surprise waiting for me at the end. It turns out that the author intends to make this a franchise, and apparently has part of the next book already written. No doubt, the author is seeing dollar signs and a movie deal in his future. Whenever anything new becomes popular, it always spawns a variety of imitators. Nirvana and Pearl Jam had their Candlebox and Stone Temple Pilots, and so the renewed interest in J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the success of J.K Rowling and Phillip Pullman have spawned much new work in the fantasy genre. But if you're in search of the next Harry Potter, you can cross The Alchemyst off your list of hopefuls.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Promised and Delivered

Nearly every book you encounter comes with gushy blurbs on the back cover, the first few pages, the book jacket, or in all three places. "The best book this year!" "Wildly inventive!" "An astonishing new voice!" Most readers learn to take these with a grain of salt before they leave the primary grades. However, Jonathan Barnes' The Somnambulist actually lives up to its hype, and then some. It really is "inventive and often witty" (Observer, U.K) and it truly does "make the familiar daringly unfamiliar" (Jeff VanderMeer). And yeah, you should "remember the name Jonathan Barnes," as the book jacket itself advises.

The book was terrific, every reader's dream. It is a sort of fantasy/thriller/detective novel set in Victorian London. At the start of the novel, we have our protagonist, Edward Moon, preparing to take the stage for his nightly performance. Edward Moon is a detective and magician, quite past his prime, who performs his nightly show with his partner, The Somnambulist of the title (a mute giant who does not bleed when stabbed). But he longs for the glory days, when he was a fixture of society and a well-known detective. The wish for one last great case has nearly passed into pure fantasy when the last great case explodes into his life with a vengeance. Along the way, there are such jewels as the Freak Brothel and the man who lived backwards. I highly reccommend this one. It's original, inventive and entertaining, with many amazing elements and no small dose of humor. Check it out, if you can find it.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Booking through...err...Saturday

Before the panel this week:

Quick! It’s an emergency! You just got an urgent call about a family emergency and had to rush to the airport with barely time to grab your wallet and your passport. But now, you’re stuck at the airport with nothing to read. What do you do??

And, no, you did NOT have time to grab your bookbag, or the book next to your bed. You were . . . grocery shopping when you got the call and have nothing with you but your wallet and your passport (which you fortuitously brought with you in case they asked for ID in the ethnic food aisle). This is hypothetical, remember….

I kind of don't get this question...wouldn't nearly everyone just go to the airport bookstore and pick something up? Hell, I've done that even when I'm packing a perfectly adequate selection. I'm hoping to never have to face this, at any rate, as I plan to pick a book fairly soon and designate it my "emergency book" to keep in my car. You know, in case I plant my car in a ditch and have to wait for Triple A to winch me out (happened!), or wind up with a long wait for an appointment somewhere (happened too), or wind up staying over somewhere when I didn't plan to (also happened, although that night turned out to be pretty interesting without a book, but anyway). The only hang-up is which book to designate. I'm leaning towards
On the Road by Kerouac, as I'm not terribly likely anymore to need it inside, but still like it a lot. Do any of you have an emergency book, and what is it?