Archive for young adult books

Shades of magic [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , on February 20, 2021 by xi'an

After seeing the books in a Denver bookstore (in the summer of 2019), I eventually came to try one, then the others. Even though the setting is somewhat simplistic, or may intended for young adults, with ideas also found in earlier novels, it makes for a pleasant read. The underlying concept is having several Londons set in different universes and connected by magic for the happy few able to travel between them. One of them is “our” Victorian London. Labelled as Grey London. Then there are White, Red, and Black Londons… With some pivotal pubs existing in all (?) of them. This reminded me very much of Neverwhere, one of the few Gaimans I deeply appreciated. Or of Pullman’s Oxfords. The first volume sets the scene, with two main characters, (Grey) Lila and (Red) Kell, whose paths will come to cross, some villains in the least privileged London, and some sudden existential threat on Red London. The latest being the least convincing part of the plot as lacking subtlety. The second volume mostly takes place in Red London and the first part sounds a wee bit like the female part of Red seas under red skys. That is, a smart thief at sea. And a smarter captain. With on top of it a magic competition where all main characters cross path. Again a poor part of the plot as the competition feels like Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire, while a new danger is building up to bring the fodder for the third volume. Not completely uninteresting (I read most of it over Xmas day, by a log fire), but somewhat two-dimensional (with a surprising lack of moral reticence to kill people, most surprising for a YA series). The third volume, A conjuring of light,  is a bit more predictable, including the deaths of some major characters (one or two more would have helped). And the ending could have been less all-inclusive and rosy!,  but this was an enjoyable conclusion nonetheless.

a journal of the plague year [december reviews]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2020 by xi'an

Read only a part of a Brandon Sanderson’s novel, Steelheart, that I found incredibly terrible (given the achievements of the writer). With a few cardboard characters, incl. the (compulsory) nerdy teenager with unique skills and a David Copperfield childhood (also named David) and cartoonesque villains with superpowers. Until I realised, while looking at its Wikipedia page, that this was intended as a (very?) young adult novel… And did not try to finish the book (first of a trilogy) before leaving it in the exchange section in front of our University library.

Cooked (and enjoyed) a fennel and (local) honey tarte tatin and a broccoli polenta with Vacherin (cheese). Made several rye breads as I find them easier to knead and bake than other flours, once I found that I could get fresh yeast by the gram from my favourite bakery.  Fell into a routine of cooking winter vegetables, like pumpkins, butternuts, and cabbages, Jerusalem artichokes (a pain to peel!) and (expensive) tuberous chervil. Plus the available mushrooms.

Watched a few episodes of the Korean drama Two Cops (투깝스), more for the scenes showing bits and pieces of Seoul, than for a very thin and predictive plot. Following a radio broadcast mentioning Carol Reed’s The Third Man as one of the best movies ever—although I had read Greene’s novel a long while ago—, I tried to find it online but ended up instead watching for the first time Fritz Lang’s Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse,  which is his third Mabuse film and the last film he shot (in 1960). While the harsh lights and grainy surveillance TV screens, along with absolutely everyone smoking, put some perspective to the story, connecting post-war West Germany with its immediate past, I did not enjoy much the acting, which sounded very artificial, and the plot was quasi-nonexistent.

Read Olin Steinhauer’s The Bridge of Sighs, which was his first novel, as I had greatly enjoyed The Tourist. It takes place in an unnamed Eastern European country that could be Moldova (since Hungary and Czechoslovakia are described as West, while Romania is mentioned as another country, but the city could well be Szeged, both for having its own Bridge of Sighs and for being crossed by the Tisa), right after the War, as a Stalinist regime is under construction and a rookie cop, grand-son of a communist ex-hero, tries to navigate the new regime. I really liked the book: it is very well-written, meaning an attention to style and perspective that stays away from the usual endless dialogues in crime novelsand the characters have depth and originality, I enjoyed also the somewhat Mediterranean cum Balkanic feel of this post-war Soviet satellite. And will presumably seek the following volumes from UK resellers…

the ninth house

Posted in Books, Kids, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2020 by xi'an

“Monsters often operate metaphorically in fantasy. We can banish those literal monsters, but to banish the figurative monster at the same time does a tremendous disservice to readers, because trauma doesn’t finish with the last page of a book,. And for those of us who live with any kind of trauma in our past, the idea of purging it in some kind of magical way is offensive.” L. Bardugo, Bustle, Oct 9, 2019

As I had rather enjoyed the style of her YA Grisha series (despite a superficial scenario and equally superficial Russification of the fantasy universe there), I followed another Amazon link to Leigh Bardugo’s first “adult” novel. (Which denomination means not purposedly “young adult”!) The Ninth House. After a highly laudatory New York Times book review.

The story is rather unsurprising at one level, namely a college town (Yale, New Haven), “secret” societies (nine of them), some happy (?) few having access to magical powers, a parallel world, ghosts and demons, a freshwoman coming from a highly traumatic past and an unprivileged background, brushing with much more privileged classmates and catching up amazingly well in English literature and languages (but staying away from STEM, why is that?!), not so much an anti-hero as the author would us like to believe but who single-handedly solves a murder (or a few) and exposes some of the murderers for her own sense of justice. With a pending sequel to seek a missing paladin and mentor. With an elaborate enough style and enough twists and surprises in the plot to keep the reader hooked, especially readers with a past or a present in said college town. Or another Ivy League town.

However, there is more depth to the book than a mere exploitation of successful tropes, in that the main character is building meaning all along the book, with her supernatural abilities more curse than blessing and a massive past trauma that cannot heal and threatens to define her. Which makes the above statement from the author quite powerful. I thus found the book equally powerful, despite not being a big fan of ghost and horror stories, to the point of looking for the next installment, whenever ready.

sorcerer to the Crown [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by xi'an

Sorcerer to the Crown is an historical fantasy book by Zen Cho I got into buying by reading a review linking most positively the novel to the monumental Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Obviously I should have known better, given that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was several years in the making, with both a very convincing reconstitution of a 19th Century style and a fairly deep plot with fantastic historical connections that took me several reads (and the help of the BBC rendering) to completely understand. Nothing of the sort with this first book in the series, except for the acknowledged influence of Susanna Clarke’s novel. I started reading Sorcerer to the Crown wondering whether this was the young adult version of the other book, the parallel being almost obvious, from the decline of English magic to the Fairy Land accessible from a shrinking number of places, to the inhumanity (or rather a-humanity) of the King of the Fairies, to the old men ruling the magician society by being adverse to any sort of innovation. The attempts at differentiating the story from this illustrious predecessor are somewhat heavy-handed as the author tackles all at once race (the two main characters are African and Indian, respectively, and face discrimination, albeit far from the extent they would have been subjected to in the actual late 1700’s England), gender (magic is repressed in girls from the upper classes), class (see previous!), politics (the British Crown would like very much the help of magicians in fighting Napoléon), imperialism (as British links with India and Malaysia are shown to support local rulers towards gaining hold in these countries).  Once more, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell addresses these issues more subtly from Stephen Black‘s significant role in the story, to the equally major impact of Arabella Strange in the unraveling of her husband greatness, to the contributions of Jonathan Strange to the Napoleonic wars… This however made for a light travel read that I completed within a few days. Enjoying the dialogues more than the [rather uni-dimensional] characters and the low-intensity action scenes.

The Magicians [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2016 by xi'an

While in Melbourne, I heard a recommendation for Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and the next day, while checking the Melbourne Writers Festival bookstore, found the book (rather than the Kristoff volume I was seeking), bought it, and read it within a few days.

‘Brakebills will remind readers of Hogwarts, though with more illicit fondling. Grossman has written what could crudely be labeled a Harry Potter for adults.” , NYT

So is this an Harry Potter for adults?! First, I think Harry Potter can be read by adults (if I qualify as adult!). This remark presumably means the book should not be read by young readers, maybe, due to recurrent sex and alcohol consumption, plus some drugs and an overall depressive tone.

Back to Harry Potter, there is the same magical boarding school feeling, even though it is located in upstate New York on the Hudson river.  And not in Scotland. With an equivalent to Quidditch, an evil magician, exams, surly teens, one or two love triangles, &tc. If in a more modern and American way. The difference with Harry Potter is that it also doubles as Narnia! A Narnia eventually turned wrong and sour, but nonetheless a strong similarity of stories and ideas. Of course, this parallel could be seen as an attempt at deconstruction, exhibiting the inconsistencies in the original novels, but it is so subtle it does not feel like it. There are the same encounters with sentient animal creatures, who never reappear after, the same call for Kings and Queens, as in Narnia. This lack of depth at exploring the connections between Harry Potter, Narnia and even some aspects of the Wheel of Time is frustrating in that something great could have come of it. And then… then… comes the worst literary trick in my list, the call to a subterranean quest with endless monsters and accidents! (I obviously exclude Tolkien’ Moria episode from this list!!!) Concluding with the evil character dumping information in the last battle to explain missing bits and pieces in the story.

So, in conclusion, not such a magical book, even though I read it within a few days thanks to my 39 hour trip back to Paris. The Magicians remains too teeny for my taste, hearing self-deprecating depressive monologues occurs way too often to make the main character congenial, and the story has not enough depth or structure to be compelling. A reviewer rightly pointed out it feels like fandom fiction. Rather than a universe on its own. (As for instance Aaronovitch’ Rivers of London series.)