Friday, April 30, 2010

Steampunk Short Stories

edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

This anthology of steampunk writers from over twenty years begins with the essay "The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk" by Jess Nevins, which gives the reader a lot of background about the genre and its roots in the novels of Jules Verne, dime novels, and authors' political responses to science fiction. The stories included then go on to show just how broad this genre can be, from diabolical inventors to a really creepy character who created rifts in time to a sort of comedy-of-manners in which a wife tries to distract her husband from gardening.

You may not love every story here - in fact, considering the range of stories, I would be surprised if you did - but you will surely come away with an appreciation of the breadth of subjects and styles that steampunk can encompass. My personal favorite was "Seventy-Two Letters" by Ted Chiang, an intricate short story involving the power of naming, kabbalistic ideas, and automata. On the other hand, I skimmed rather than read "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel" by Joe R. Lansdale. Though an interesting premise, that the main character from H.G. Wells' Time Machine created rifts in time and becomes insane, the story involved such a large amount of violence that only those with a very strong stomach should read it.

Finally, if you enjoy some of the stories, you will come away with a list of further books to read. I want to look for more by Ted Chiang, as well as James Blaylock and Michael Chabon. Besides the authors included, the final two essays give you even more to look into. Rick Klaw surveys steampunk books, movies, and games in his essay "The Steam-Driven Time Machine: A Pop Culture Survey," in which he includes a list of his top-ten steampunk books and movies. The final essay, "The Essential Sequential Steampunk" by Bill Baker gives readers a brief sketch of steampunk stories in comic book format.

If you're interested in learning about the steampunk subgenre, this collection of short stories is an excellent place to start. Though the editors admit in the introduction that the best of steampunk is novel-length, the essays and stories included in this anthology are an excellent source of information, authors, and title suggestions for a newbie like me and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a quick introduction to the genre.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

YA Through the Decades: 1990s

Looking for Alibrandi
by Melina Marchetta
New York: Orchard Books, 1999.

Josephine Alibrandi knows what it's like to deal with labels. She never felt like she fully fit in, because she was born in Australia but had Italian roots, and has a single mother. Now she's a scholarship student and a senior at a Catholic high school, still struggling to know herself. Josie has to navigate relationships with her mother, her Italian grandmother who seems to find nothing good to say about her daughter, and her father, Michael Andretti, who shows up out of the blue after abandoning her mother eighteen years ago. She wants to break free of everyone's rules and expectations, but does Josie even know what she expects of herself?

Written in an almost-diary format, Josie has a compelling and authentic voice of a seventeen-year-old. Each chapter is written in first-person past tense, but comes across as if the events she relates just happened. It's not quite a diary, however, as there are no dates heading up each chapter, and weeks can go by between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Almost an entire year is covered, as Josie learns about herself, her family, and her dreams. The story covers a lot of ground in terms of her relationships with friends, boys, her father, and her grandmother, but the theme holding the story together is Josie's coming of age and growing to know herself. Realistic teen fiction doesn't always age well, but the only elements that date the story are brief references to Doc Martens and a tape deck. Josie's search for identity certainly continues to have currency and I would still recommend it to today's teens.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Howl's Moving Castle

by Diana Wynne Jones
Greenwillow Books, 2008, 1986.

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, and as everyone knows, that is not the birth order one wants to have in a fantasy story, especially if this particular sister is the stepsister of the youngest. But this is not your typical fantasy story and Sophie is not your typical heroine. When the Witch of the Waste grows jealous of Sophie's magical ability and turns her into an old woman who can't tell anyone she's under a spell, Sophie leaves the hat shop to seek her fortune. She comes across the Moving Castle owned by the Wizard Howl, who - as everyone in Ingary knows - eats girls' hearts, and bullies her way on board. Calcifer, a fire demon, let her in and seems to like her alright, offering to break her spell if she will break his contract with Howl, though he can't tell her what it is either.

I usually try to keep my summaries short, but there's a lot going on in this story. Believe it or not, I only scratched the surface and didn't go beyond page 60. Part of the reason I love and reread this story is because of its complexity and having the opportunity to perhaps pick up on small clues to the plot that I overlooked the first time. The other reason is that Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, Michael (Howl's apprentice), and all the rest are fabulous characters. I love Sophie's sort of bullying magic, Howl's ridiculously vain behavior, and Michael's longsuffering. Their interactions are entertaining whether it's the first or the third time I've read the book, and even when I know exactly what's going to happen and how, I enjoy spending time with them. Howl's Moving Castle has a permanent place on my bookshelves.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Enchanted Glass

by Diana Wynne Jones
New York: Greenwillow Books, 2010.

Andrew was working at a university when his grandfather Jocelyn Green died, leaving him a legacy that turns out to be more than he can remember. For example, he can remember that the panes of glass on the back door should not be broken or that he leaves his gardener's inedible vegetables outside overnight, but he doesn't remember their importance or who eats them, respectively. Then there's the field-of-care, the tract of land under the protection of his grandfather, and now Andrew himself. Aidan Cain, a boy with no little magical ability himself, runs from mysterious visitors into Andrew's protection. Will Andrew be able to remember what his grandfather told him and come into his inheritance? Why is Aidan in danger? And what is the importance of the panes of glass on his kitchen door?

Diana Wynne Jones is one of the authors on my "automatic order" list - when a new book comes out, I immediately put it on hold at the library sight unseen and knowing as little about the story as possible. This story does not disappoint. The story is a fast read with twists and turns carrying the reader along with it. The characters sometimes run to eccentric but are so much fun to spend time with. Like Howl's Moving Castle, each individual's approach to magic is a little different, and magic is accepted alongside science as part of reality. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One Should Always Have a Parasol

by Gail Carriger
Orbit, 2010.

*As the second book in a series, this necessarily has spoilers for the first book, Soulless. Potential readers beware!*

Lady Alexia Maccon, the new muhjah and wife to werewolf Conall Maccon, has a new problem to solve when London and its environs suddenly does not have supernaturals. The ghosts disappear, and vampires and werewolves become mortal, generally in the environs of the Thames. Most disturbingly, no one knows why, though apparently their ancient lore suggests that this is not the first time something like this has happened. Lord Maccon travels to Scotland to try to work out the mystery, and Alexia soon follows when his Beta discovers that the plague - or whatever it is - appears to be traveling in the same direction as her husband.

I so enjoyed returning to the inventive world first encountered in Soulless. Alexia and Lord Maccon are as entertaining married as they were before - and their argumentative and stubborn natures stay quite true to their characters. While the first book had only a hint of flying airships and alternate technology, this one has a little bit more, and the introduction of some of the scientific alternatives in this world were fun. I'm very much looking forward to the next book which, sadly, does not come out until September.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Recipe for Melodrama

The Haunted Hotel
by Wilkie Collins
New York: Dover Publications, 1982.
(Originally published: London: Chatto & Watts, 1879)

A strange woman comes to visit a doctor, claiming that she may have a strange malady, perhaps even madness. The doctor examines her, but can find nothing wrong. After she leaves, he is intrigued: who is this woman, and why does she think another - her former rival in love - is fated to be her undoing?

Identity, madness, and fate are familiar themes to readers of Wilkie Collins' more famous books, The Moonstone and The Woman in White. This novella explores them all in a frenetic plot that I found somewhat compelling but far too melodramatic (a little bit of crazy female here, add a ghost here...) Maybe I'm just too cynical or maybe Collins' last story really does show the state of his own doped-up brain, as the back cover of my edition suggests. Either way, I found it hard to find the story believable, and his characterizations of females in this story annoyed me more than they have in the past. I think I would have been more affected by it when I was a teenager, scared more easily by the atmosphere of the story. I would, however, recommend it as an interesting (and short) example of early mystery.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Lexicographer's Dilemma

The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park
by Jack Lynch
New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2009

Have you ever wondered why split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions were forbidden by grammar books? Maybe you're more curious about dictionaries and their history of recording, and sometimes making judgments about, the language. Jack Lynch covers all this and more in The Lexicographer's Dilemma, a history of all those rules (grammar, spelling, etc.) about our native language that we had to study at school - or, as he more succinctly puts it, "the evolution of 'proper' English."

That's not to say that he's making fun of these rules, though on the occasions he does, it's very entertaining. Generally Lynch takes a balanced approach, recognizing the need to learn and know standard English for writing at school, work, and other situations, while recognizing and even celebrating the natural changes made in language as years go by. His chapter on eighteenth century grammarians really bring this balance to light. Some pile on these men all the faults of trying to force English into a Latin mode with such rules as "don't split an infinitive." Actually, Lynch argues, many of these rules did not begin in the 18th century - and the three big names in grammar were not strictly lay-down-the-law types. He quotes from many sources at length to prove his points, and I've made note of a few more books I want to read in the future.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey

by Trenton Lee Stewart
Listening Library (WMA audiobook), 2008
read by Del Ray

The Mysterious Benedict Society, made up of four extremely and intelligent children - Reny, Kate, Sticky, and Constance - of various ages and talents, is back in this amusing tale of clues and mystery and dastardly plots. Mr. Benedict, their benefactor and friend for whom the group is named, is missing, and the evil Ledroptha Curtain has him in his clutches. The children begin following clues that Mr. Benedict has left for them, hoping against hope that they can follow them to Mr. Benedict himself and save their friend.

I enjoyed this story of smart kids and mysterious clues, though it had been so long since I read The Mysterious Benedict Society that I had trouble recognizing even familiar characters. Also, this is a tough book to listen to before bed - it's the equivalent of 11 CDs long, and it took me so long to finish it that I'd forgotten a lot of what happened in the beginning by the time it was over. But Reny and Kate, Sticky and Constance are smart, fun characters and I enjoyed their travels and banter. I will consider reading the third book in the series, but would probably reread the books first to better follow the story.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

by Helen Simonson
Random House, 2010.

Major Pettigrew, a sixty-eight-year-old retired widower from a small village in Sussex, England, learns that his brother died. While he is still in a fog from the news, his neighbor Mrs. Ali comes over and helps him out. She offers to drive him to the funeral, where he hopes to convince his brother's widow to give him the Churchill - one of pair that his father had divided between the two boys with the understanding that they would be passed on together to subsequent generations of the Pettigrew family. But Marjorie and her daughter seem much more interested in selling the pistols, much to Major Pettigrew's chagrin.

This charming story is less about the pistols than it is about an older man who looks back with fondness on the glory days of his youth and his country, as well as the friendships that he has in the village and his growing friendship with Mrs. Ali, the shopkeeper of Pakistani heritage. Major Pettigrew, Mrs. Ali, and the people of the village of Edgecombe St. Mary are so finely drawn that I truly hesitate to call them "characters" rather than "people." I grew to have a fondness for many of them, particularly the Major and Mrs. Ali, who each have very human flaws yet are so endearing that I truly enjoyed spending time with them.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Covers, More Automata, and Magic

Magic Under Glass
by Jaclyn Dolamore
Bloomsbury, 2010.

I first heard of Magic Under Glass reading the review over at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy. Then, Liz B. followed up with some comments about the cover, which sealed the deal for me to check it out. The protagonist, Nimira, describes herself as dark, yet the original cover (the publisher since changed it) showed a definitely white girl. Actually, I thought the old cover wasn't very representative of the story as well as the character. But if you haven't seen the comments about the cover, and covers in general where a white cover model is chosen when the character is definitely not, head over there and check out the links, too.

So other than the cover, one of the first things I noticed is that I had chosen to read two books with automata right after the other, which was a little weird. Granted, Magic Under Glass is a completely different story from The Affinity Bridge. Nimira is a "trouser girl," who sings and dances to make her living, not that it's much of one. During one of her performances, a gentleman notices her and speaks to her. Hollin Parry, a sorcerer, offers her a job singing along with an automaton who plays the piano; the girls he has hired before left believing it was haunted. Indeed, the first time Nimira winds up the automaton, it/he begins moaning, apparently trying to communicate with her. Could it really be haunted, and if so, what is Nimira to do?

I finished the book in nearly one sitting. Nim is a well-drawn character, an immigrant in a land that doesn't think highly of her people, but she is determined to make her own way. Unfortunately, I only got a sense of connection with her as a character and not any of the others, though that may be partially because Nimira is the first-person narrator. There are hints of the broader world, such as politics between sorcerers and fairies that were enough to tantalize me in wanting to know more about this place, but never deeply explored. The ending hints at the possibility of more story to come, and I hope there will be.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Airships, Automata, and Mystery

The Affinity Bridge
by George Mann
Tor, 2009.

A "glowing policeman," perhaps a ghost, kills in Whitechapel, baffling police - an airship crashes and kills all passengers, apparently with no explanation - revenants prowling the streets pass on the plague that infects them, making the foggy streets of London dangerous. Sir Maurice Newbury, in the service of Queen Victoria herself, is on these cases, tackling them with the help of his assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes, and his good friend the police commissioner, Sir Charles Bainbridge.

This is my latest read in the exploration of the Steampunk genre, and I can see how its alternate technology and Victorian setting fit into the parameters. The technology is interesting, too - from airships to automata to medicinal remedies. I had trouble getting into the story at the beginning (which was more about my brain still being on the Attolia series than any fault of the book itself), but I'm glad I persevered. The pacing built well over the course of the story, until it was strumming along at the end, when I just had to keep going and find out how everything fit together. Newbury and Miss Hobbes are interesting characters, and I enjoyed their conversations and growing respect for one another. I would certainly consider reading more of their adventures.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Happy National Poetry Month!

Every April I read a selection of poetry for National Poetry Month. Does anyone else do this? If so, I'd love to hear about your selections.

This year, I chose Native Guard, a collection that had me alternately holding back tears and wishing I could read a history of the American Civil War:

Native Guard
by Natasha Trethewey
Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin), 2007.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection by Natasha Trethewey contains twenty-six poems divided into three sections. Each section's content is linked thematically as the poet examines her grief over her mother's death, the history of the eponymous "Native Guard," and growing up of mixed race in the South.  The themes sound disparate, but are truly linked, often by the repetition of a thought or phrase, so that the collection as a whole flows together unmistakeably.  Indeed, though I sometimes paused to linger on a single poem, I more often found myself wanting to go on before I lost the connecting thread.

I do not read much poetry; after reading Native Guard, I have determined that I do not read enough poetry. Each poem reads simply - by which I do not mean that it is easy, but that I do not have to attack it with a sledgehammer to determine its meaning - contains strong emotion, and begs to be read aloud and savored. Though I find it hard in such a well-seamed collection to pick out one or two pieces as favorites, I often turned back to the first poem, "Theories of Time and Space," and had to stop reading to hold back tears when I came to "Graveyard Blues." This will definitely be one of my most memorable reads of the year.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Conspiracy to Keep Me Rereading

A Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whalen Turner
Greenwillow Books, 2010.

For the other titles in the series, this is a **spoiler warning**

Last we heard of Sophos, Eugenides receives intelligence that a group of rebels captured the heir of Sounis, and no one is sure whether he is alive or dead.  In this story, readers get to learn Sophos' story, primarily told by him as narrator, when he is captured while in exile and sneaked off the island disguised as a slave.

Faithful readers of the series will remember Sophos as the young blusher, looking up to Ambiades and the Magus during their adventure in The Thief.  Even while staying true to his character - and keeping readers on their toes by shifting to his perspective believably - this story explores how he grows into a man and king.  Reading this today and yesterday, I was so full of anticipation and hurry hurry hurry, I need to know what happens, that I read the book over two days, taking a total of about four hours.  I think I would have to reread it to really do the story justice and figure out how I like it in terms of the rest of the series, but I have no doubt I would read it again.