Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner

First published in 2009 by Random House

I liked Bones of Faerie well enough, but I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about. It didn’t leave that much of an impression on me, but it’s a good quick read and one of the better YA faerie books I’ve read, if only in that it takes a slightly different path to the usual paranormal-romance path. It’s much more Franny Billingsley’s The Folk Keeper, say, than Aprilynne Pike’s Wings.
Interesting mesh of paranormal romance and post-apocalyptic fiction. For the most part I think it works. The details of the actual war that caused all the resulting chaos and divide between human and faerie are a bit lost on me, but Simner deals with the fall-out well and makes it a set-piece for Liza’s journey with her companions. I would have liked to see her take it further, but I don’t really think this book was meant to be bogged down in the expository and complicated plot.
I’m actually really glad the romantic side of things wasn’t taken further between Liza and Matthew. It’s enough to imply, and put the story’s focus elsewhere. I wasn’t really feeling them as a couple, anyway, and the book wasn’t long enough to make a developing relationship plausible, so props to Simner for not taking the easy path.
Was not a fan of all the italic bits, the memory/vision parts. By which I mean what Liza actually saw was interesting enough, but stylistically I really disliked the way it was told and we were dropped into it, and especially because it happened so often. Just a pet-hate of mine, that style of writing, and I didn’t care much after that.
That’s about it for this one. Nice story, good concept, but personally I just found there was not much in it. Good opening chapter though.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

First published in German, 1979

What an important, amazing and imaginative book The Neverending Story is. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that can balance such magic and imagination with such insight and perception into the human psyche and the real world, and have the two inform understanding of the other. And then, above all, to do it within the framing device of the central character literally stepping into a book that teaches him all these things, and at the same time relies on him to keep creating the stories within. So clever, and so much fun.
I have read Momo by Michael Ende, and wasn’t such a fan – it was just a little too preachy and twee for me. The Neverending Story has a similar sort of intellectual whimsy, but I found I could stomach it better. Perhaps because the over-arching message is quite beautiful, and the way the central figures, Bastian and Atreyu, discover these things is through exposure to such wonderful things and creatures, whose beauty and magic helps them realise very human things like courage and individualism and selflessness and my personal favourite, imagination. When the fantastical comes to reflect and impact on the real, this is my kind of story.
To begin with I found The Neverending Story a little fussy – there was so much going on, and I wasn’t quite feeling the writing style (especially the parts told wholly in italics!), and there were so many strange creatures coming and going that I had to keep reading back to keep up. But as soon as Cairon the centaur went to find Atreyu, then I got swept up in his quest and all the fabulous lands Ende takes us to and the even-more fabulous creatures he has us meet. And I also didn’t mind Ende’s plot device of ‘but that’s another story and shall be told another time’ – this reinforces the idea of the book living on long after we close the pages (the neverending story), of wonderful things still to discover and stories to tell.
The Neverending Story has a lot of colour and vibrancy. It seems Ende’s imagination never runs out. The places we go to are not the same old places we might find in a fantasy book (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but just marvels of strangeness and wonder. In this way, The Neverending Story reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth. We go from the magnificent, like the Sphinxes guarding the three gates, to the spectacularly strange and creepy, like Spook City, to long ladders formed out of letters of the alphabet, to the beauty of Perilin, the Night Forest. And then all the creatures we discover inbetween – it never ends, and it never feels like too much. One of my favourites was the idea that forgotten dreams fall out of a person’s sleep and into the earth where they are mined, and collected, waiting for the moment when a person needs them again. I love it when an author  can take something from the human world that we don’t really think about much, and turn it into something entirely new and full of meaning.
This book also has a lot of heart. It feels like Ende really did have a lot to say about the power of the book and of the imagination, and a way of making you believe it yourself. The Neverending Story is also full of themes, but the big ones concern memory and choice, power and compassion. I wasn’t such a fan of Bastian in the real world (I found those scenes just a little too sentimental), but in Fantastica his story is powerful and engaging.
And this book also has much sadness, which I love. I love the tragically beautiful in books and movies. I love when characters come to an end that isn’t wholly sad, but certainly bittersweet. This, I find, is when the worlds and creatures authors create come the closest to real life.
And so I loved Morla, who has lived so long she finds the world ‘empty and aimless’, who knows so much that ‘nothing really matters anymore, because it’s all the same’. And I loved the Spook City ghosts who leapt into the nothing because they have given up hope and become weak. And Gmork, the bitter old werewolf.  And the City of Old Emperors, whose inhabitants have used up all their memories and so wander around aimlessly, because ‘without a past they can’t have a future, and they can never change so nothing changes for them’. What a sad, beautiful idea. And of course Dame Eyola, who waits so long for Bastian and then gives him all of her love and affection so that all her vibrancy wilts and she becomes like a ‘black, dead tree’.
I have seen The Neverending Story film of course, but I am so glad I’ve now read the book. I did like the first half (the movie half) better for adventure and excitement, but I found that the second half really reinforced the thematic material, and was just as important in its own right. A wonderful book that should not be forgotten, because in every way it reinforces the idea of what a book is really about.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Top Ten Picks for Christmas

If you need some last minute Christmas gifts (and what better than a book!), here are my top ten  middle grade fiction books for kids (and kids at heart). They are both my own personal choices and what has been selling heaps and getting great feedback in my bookstore in the Christmas season. Enjoy.

Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver 

Ship Kings: Coming of the Whirlpool by Andrew McGahan        
 Northwood by Brian Falkner

Wildwood by Colin Meloy

The Truth about Verity Sparks by Susan Green       
 Tales from the Tower: The Wicked Wood ed. by Isobelle Carmody & Nan McNab

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy 


The Flint Heart by Katherine & John Paterson         
 Ravenwood by Andrew Peters

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Saltwater Vampires by Kirsty Murray

First published in 2010 by Penguin

Picked up Saltwater  Vampires after falling in love with Eagar’s Raw Blue. For me, this one was not in the same league. But there were lots of things I enjoyed and appreciated about it.

Saltwater Vampires is like a weird mesh of old-world type vampires invading the very contemporary Rocky Head music-festival scene – an old-school sensibility meets a young, hip awareness complete with all the typical modern teen emotions. For me, it wasn’t quite a perfect match, and that was my main problem with the book. I appreciated it, but I didn’t really get it. I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on. The way the three distinct story overtones overlapped was all a little too complicated, with the different stories becoming distractions from the other stories to the point where I couldn’t really commit to any of them.

I liked the ‘contemporary YA’ overtone the best, and this is what I think Eagar excels at. Jamie and his gang of friends and vamp-busters are all funny and likeable and totally cool and all the rest, and their interactions are true to life and affectionately written. I liked where Eagar was taking their emotional stories, but the nature of the book – with all it’s time-jumping and shifting perspectives and what-not – means I never really got involved, like I did with Carly in Raw Blue.

This is a book all unto its own genre – it’s not a conventional vamp story, especially as we’ve come to know them from YA, and it’s not quite contemporary Aussie YA-lit. I do feel that with everything that was going on, it was more suited to an adult readership. Of course I’m all for YA pushing conventions, but I felt the plot, pacing, stories, scope, etc, would just be a better fit for ‘adult fiction’. But I did enjoy its novelty, and also the fact that these vamps were ugly and nasty – something to be scared of, disgusted by, instead of romanticised and smitten by. The whole book had a good grittiness to it.

Aussie setting is used well – the beach, the coastal town, the music festival – in a way that’s familiar but then, as Eagar works her word magic, into something strange and atmospheric and full of the unknown. Particularly the night-surfing scene and when Jamie’s bike breaks down in the national park – fantastic stuff.

I enjoyed the final big ‘showdown’ scene at the end – it provides a nice pay-off, gives the whole book a sense of urgency, and is fun to read. I found the final ‘dealing with the vamps’ (at the festival) a bit weird but that’s a minor quibble – I guess I’m just used to vamps crumbling to dust or something.

Also, a teeny bit long. Weird and wonderful and well-written but not quite perfect –kept me entertained, but just a little too much going on. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

First published in Australia by Pan Macmillan, 2010

This was one of those 'awesome Aussie YA' books that have been on my radar for a while - aka with the likes of Graffiti Moon and Good Oil and Raw Blue - the books that have been doing well overseas and racking up all the awards and nominations.

It's cute and cool, most definitely.  Funny and awkward in the most endearing of ways.  It never quite felt 'real' to me - though, and by this I mean every problem seems to have a happy, convenient resolution,  and the emotional heart of it doesn't quite ring true.  It's very entertaining and I can't fault the writing; it's one of those books where I can't actually find anything wrong, but it just didn't quite suit my tastes. I love quirky and awkward and silly-funny, but I like there to be a little grit as well. I found Six Impossible Things to be as light and fluffy and fun as they get.

Who doesn't love Dan? He is a real cutie,  and makes 'being awkward' cool. His social ineptitude is familiar and endearing, and some of the situations he finds himself in (and inwardly reacts to) are hilarious. I particularly liked the walking across the road to avoid the awkwardness of walking so near to his crush Estelle, only having to cross back over so he can get home (she lives next door). I've done it, and numerous other predicaments he finds himself in. I really love it when an author can expose all those awkward moments we all have in such a genuine and warm-hearted way, and this book is full of them. And of course the teenage years are such rich material for this.

I didn't mind the 'crush' Estelle, but I wasn't really feeling their relationship. The cuteness of it came from Dan and his thoughts more than any meaningful interaction they had. I like relationships to be angsty in YA - I guess you can say this one kind of is, but it's all so funny  and Dan such a mooning clown that for me it sat on the 'cute' level and nothing more. Also it was all just a little too perfect - but once again, that's just a personal choice.

Cute supporting characters - the Mum annoyed me a bit. Some nice stuff with the gay Dad, if a little too forced. And Howard is as great a 'pet' character as you can get - in fact I'd almost say he was my favourite. I do love a wise, perceptive poodle.

Impossible not to like this book ... but for me, impossible to fully love it. There is also a nice, subtly done message about not wallowing in pity and just cutting the crap and taking responsibility for your own feelings and actions. Fluffy and fun. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sleepers Almanac No 7

I am running around living the cliched 'too much to do in December' life at the moment, and so am not getting to read or blog as much as I'd like. That being said, there are so many kids books out right now that look so absolutely amazing and I'm dying to read - Christmas sure knows how to bring them out. Every time I come to work at my bookstore my eyes boggle and fill up with greed and I want them all. The (Australian) Independent Booksellers Summer Reading Guide is full of great stuff - you should stop by your local indie and check it out.
But I did get time last night to attend the launch of the latest Sleepers Almanac - up to number seven now, and still the same eclectic and talented mix of new and established authors totally killing it with this collection of short fiction. One of my stories is in it as well, so you should definitely go and pick up a copy and see what makes Sleepers one of the best short fiction collections in Australia ;)
It was also fairly nice to once again see my name and work in print (in an actual book - alright!) That feeling certainly never gets old.

Some places you can buy Sleepers are here:

And of course you can buy and order from most bookstores.

And a selection of some of my fav/recent books, perfect for Christmas presents:
WILDWOOD by Colin Meloy
 THE APOCOTHERY by Maile Meloy

WICKED WOOD (Tales from the Tower Volume 2)
edited by Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab