Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tiny People

The Borrowers: illustration by Beth and Joe Krush
   My current preoccupation is with books about tiny people. I'm remembering books I have read in the past, researching which books I should read next, and fantasising about being tiny myself. Depending on just how tiny I was, I think I'd like to live under the floorboards of a nice house - much as the Borrowers did. We were having this conversation in work at the weekend, and a colleague said that she'd like to live in a doll's house, especially since so much lovely doll's house furniture is available these days. For myself, I have always found most of the attraction of the Tiny People story to be in the use of 'borrowed' objects as household items - note the clothes pins being used as clothes line in the illustration from 'The Borrowers' by Mary Norton. In 'The Rescuers' by Margery Sharp, I seem to remember Bernard using an old matchbox as his bed - and very cosy it looked, too!
Brambly Hedge: illustration by Jill Barklem
    Roald Dahl's 'The Minpins' is another classic, and I particularly loved the idea of tiny people inhabiting a tree as a town. Jill Barklem used this idea in her lovely Brambly Hedge series, in which a colony of mice live inside various hedgerow trees. When I used to read these to my young sister, I enjoyed them as much as she did, and especially the beautiful cutaway illustrations showing the tree dwellings of the rustic mice. One of the books that has emerged as the frontrunner of my To Be Read in the 'Books About Tiny People' category is Timothee de Fombelle's 'Toby Alone'. This shares the tree setting of 'The Minpins', promising an ecological allegory as well as a coming-of-age adventure for the young hero.  
   In the course of my research, I've also discovered that the current deplorable fact that I've never read Terry Pratchett will have to be remedied in the course of my catch-up of books about Tiny People. His first ever book, 'The Carpet People', tells the story of the Munrungs, tiny people living deep inside a carpet. The Bromeliad trilogy ('Truckers', 'Diggers', and 'Wings') tells the story of the Nomes, a race of - you guessed it - tiny people. These ones are from another world and now live hidden among humans. 
   For my birthday, could you please get me a Time-Turner so that I have a few more hours to read all of these?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Holders

  '17-year-old Becca has spent her whole life protecting her brother – from their father leaving and from the people who say the voices in his head are unnatural. When two strangers appear with apparent answers to Ryland’s “problem” and details about a school in Ireland where Ryland will not only fit in, but prosper, Becca is up in arms.
   She reluctantly agrees to join Ryland on his journey and what they find at St. Brigid’s is a world beyond their imagination. Little by little they piece together information about their family’s heritage and the legend of the Holder race that decrees Ryland is the one they’ve been waiting for—but, they are all, especially Becca, in for a surprise that will change what they thought they knew about themselves and their kind.'

Strange Chemistry, £7.99
  Julianna Scott's Young Adult debut, 'The Holders', will be released on the 7th of March from Strange Chemistry, Angry Robot's Young Adult imprint. Amanda in Strange Chemistry very nicely sent me an ARC a few weeks ago when I expressed interest in the Irish setting!
   Ryland Ingle is a boy who hears voices in his head, which turn out to be the thoughts of people around him. His sister Becca has spent her life protecting him, so is understandably annoyed when she arrives home from work one evening to find that their mother is entertaining two guests who claim to have the solution to Ryland's problem. They tell the family that Ryland is not mad, that he has a special ability, and that they would like to bring him to their specialist school to train him in using his ability. Sound slightly familiar? The bad guy in all of this is a former associate of the school, a man also possessed of amazing abilities, whose aim is to subjugate the portion of humanity who do not have these powers. Not familiar yet? The masters of the school suspect that this bad guy needs Ryland's power in order to fulfill his mission of domination, and believe that he is in immediate danger of being kidnapped. It seems a pity that such an obviously talented writer hasn't noticed how similar the plot of this novel is to a certain hugely-successful movie franchise.  
   The Holders, of whom Ryland is one, are an ancient group of Irish people with amazing abilities, which is why their school is in Ireland and why Ryland and Becca move there. The whole novel is infused with elements of the Irish language, Irish mythology, and the Irish countryside. Since it's such a huge element of the novel, I was disappointed that a little more time had not been put into ensuring that these were correct. The location of St. Brigid's Academy is given as 'Clare County, Ireland', which should have been 'County Clare, Ireland' - a tiny difference which perhaps betrays the decisions made to be appealing to American or Australian audiences rather than to be accurate. Most of the words and phrases translated into Irish are incorrect to some extent, which is unfortunate as I don't think it would have taken too much time to have an Irish speaker proof-read the dozen or so words and phrases.
   'Dubh Inteachán' (dubh = black, inteachán = iris) is given as the Irish for the Black Iris, a powerful artefact at the school. This breaks one of the first rules of Irish syntax - that an adjective is placed after the noun it describes (Inteachán Dhubh would have been correct).
   The baffling sentences 'Is breá liom tú ró, mo lómhara. Tá tú gach rud a dom.' appear three quarters of the way through the book, and they're a bit of a mess. Let's break them down:

Is breá liom = I love (but is used to describe strong feelings for a movie or foodstuff, definitely not correct for telling someone you love them!). The correct word for describing romantic love is grá, so the phrase should be 'Is grá liom'.
tú = you
ró = too (but means 'in excess' rather than 'also': ró-tabhachtach means too important). The correct way to say 'also' would be 'chomh maith' (directly translates as 'as well').
mo lómhara = my precious (hilarious, but not incorrect)
Tá tú = You are (not incorrect, but 'Is tusa' would be nicer)
gach rud = everything
a dom = this is intended to mean 'to me', but 'dom' is a prepositional pronoun which by itself means 'to me'.

   The corrected version would look more like this: 'Is grá liom thú chomh maith, mo lómhara. Is tusa gach rud domsa.'

   *Rant over*

   Plot aside, or if you happen not to have seen the movie 'X-Men', this is a well-written Young Adult novel. Scott introduces a believable new teen voice in the main character, Becca, and a host of interesting peripheral characters, ideas, and settings. I loved Min, a rare female Holder who teaches at St. Brigid's Academy, and Becca's love interest, Alex, manages to be sexy while avoiding any 'bad boy' clichés with his squeaky-cleanness. It's a fresh new voice and, at the end of the day, that's always a good thing.
Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99
   I've half-read a lot of good books this week. I've still got 'The Shadow Rising' by Robert Jordan, part of my on-hiatus epic re-read of the Wheel of Time, on my To Be Read pile. I've added to my half-read burden now with Catherynne M. Valente's 'Deathless' and Justin Cronin's 'The Twelve', and I last night started what is possible the most perfect book in the world for me at the moment - 'The Wisdom of the Shire' by Noble Smith. It's a hobbit-style self-help book, featuring chapters with titles like 'How Snug is Your Hobbit-hole?', 'Sleep Like a Hobbit', 'Eat Like a Brandybuck, Drink Like a Took', and 'The Lore of the Ents'. It's funny as well as touching - in an early footnote, the author notes that 'after losing the One Ring, Sauron could only appear as a lidless eye ringed in fire. The disembodied Dark Lord of Mordor was incapable, therefore, of enjoying strawberries and cream.'
   On that note, farewell!  

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Tor US, $25.99
   Yesterday I read Marie Brennan's 'A Natural History of Dragons', which is released on Tuesday. As you can see, it's a beautiful volume, or is it just me who's obsessed with dragons? The cover illustration, and those throughout, are by Todd Lockwood.
   While I really enjoyed the premise of the story (intellectually-curious girl in Victorian-type society pursues her dream of studying dragons), the book did not live up to my expectations. The story of Isabella's travels concerned local people, customs, and politics far more than the dragons she had travelled to study. There were, however, some tantalising hints at the climax of avenues for possible further writing - and I see some suggestions online that there may be a sequel(s). It's not one I'd particularly recommend - only for either the dragon-story-completists or those with only a peripheral interest in dragons and an interest in feminism in fantasy. It's well-written in a Victorian style, and let down solely by the weak plot.
Penguin, £6.99
Temeraire cover art, Todd Lockwood
   'A Natural History of Dragons' did have the one benefit of making me think more about the dragons I have loved in books - and there are many of those! My favourite dragon concept is probably that used by Ursula Le Guin in the classic Earthsea cycle. Here dragons are huge, powerful, wise, ancient, and cunning - making it all the more tragic when some have their minds destroyed, turning them into nothing more than huge flying animals. Naomi Novik's concept in the Temeraire series is somewhat more light-hearted. The dragon Temeraire himself is curious, intelligent, loyal, and brave, and the characters of the other dragons are as varied as the personalities of their commanders and riders. 
A-Through-L, by Ana Juan
   Honourable mentions go to the merciless Smaug in 'The Hobbit', Catherynne Valente's beautiful dragon/library cross named A-Through-L in 'The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making', the last remaining examples of their species in Robin Hobb's new series the Rain Wild Chronicles, the transmogrified Eustace in C.S. Lewis' 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', and the still-mysterious young dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. 
Berkley Prime Crime, $7.99
   My reading this morning on a very pleasant day off was 'Bookplate Special' the third in the Booktown Mysteries series by Lorna Barrett from Berkley Prime Crime.  For those of you outside the US who are unfamiliar with Berkley Prime Crime, they are a publisher specialising in niche crime mysteries such as the Tea Shop Mysteries, the Embroidery Mysteries, the Pet Rescue Mysteries, and lots more, as well as more contemporary titles from authors such as P.J. Tracy and Walter Mosley. I have read that the niche mysteries fitting into Berkley's 'Cosy Mysteries' genre are its most popular, and these are exactly the ones I'm reading at the moment. They're fantastically fun in their light approach to a murder mystery - the perfect solution for a squeamish soul like myself. 
   My next reads will by John le Carré's 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' for my bookclub, 'Out of the Easy' by Ruta Sepetys, and as a treat, possibly the next in the Booktown series - 'Chapter and Hearse' and 'Sentenced to Death'.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Explorer and Between Two Thorns

HarperVoyager, £12.99
  Last October, I received an advance copy of James Smythe's 'The Explorer' from the very kind people at Harper Voyager. In what can only be explained as a relapse into a depressed sort of inactivity, I have only just managed to read it. It's not a huge book. It's not dense prose. I had only just finished Smythe's previous book 'The Testimony', so I had a very good idea of the style of the book before me, and I remained frozen. Well, it's now the New Year: the book is in the shops and resolutions have kicked in - I read it last week.
   It's a thrilling and unsettling read. Cormac Easton is a journalist who has been chosen to accompany a remarkable new expedition into space. As a precursor to a manned mission to Mars, the purpose of this expedition is simply to see how far into space it is possible for the current technology to get, and come back with lots of new data. In order to get as far into space as possible, new propulsion systems have been introduced to make the initial take-off many times faster and more powerful than any previous launch. The only way for the human body to withstand the pressure this creates is to place all of the crew into hypersleep for the launch. The first problems of the trip arise when the First Pilot fails to awaken from his hypersleep - he is dead, and has been for many days by the time the crew wake to find him. After that, and all in the first chapter, the rest of the crew follows 'one by one, falling off like there was a checklist', until only Cormac remains alive. What follows is a claustrophobic and suspenseful psychological portrait of a man driven to desperation by a terrifying sequence of events. The sparse prose perfectly suits the location, and the first-person narration (meaning that we only know as much as the main character - not very much) really contributed to the pervading sense of imminent doom and/or madness. 
HarperCollins, £7.99
   While I'm here, it's worth also recommending Smythe's first book 'The Testimony'. I read this in one sitting one surreal night last summer, feeling as if I was reading a news story instead of a novel. It seems to be due out in paperback this month. It has an fantastic concept - here's the blurb: 
   "What would you do if the world was brought to a standstill? If you heard deafening static followed by the words 'MY CHILDREN, DO NOT BE AFRAID'?
   Would you declare it an act of terrorism? Turn to God? Subscribe to the conspiracy theories? Or put your faith in science and a rational explanation?
   The lives of all twenty-six people in this account are affected by the message. Most because they heard it. Some because they didn't."
Angry Robot, £8.99
   My next read this week was Emma Newman's forthcoming 'Between Two Thorns', due in March from Angry Robot. The novel is set in a world where humans (mundanes) live unaware of a connected mirror world (the Nether), inhabited by immortals with the patronage of various Fae Lords, who live in Exilium. Catherine Papaver is a rebellious immortal who has run away from her life of privilege in the Nether to live as a student in Mundanus. The novel begins as she is tracked down by Lord Poppy, the patron of her family, and ordered to return to her life in the Nether to marry. However, she returns in time for some unexpected disruptions to the society calendar, and soon she is working alongside a sorcerer and an Arbiter to find her uncle, the Master of Ceremonies of Aquae Sulis, the mirror city of Bath where the story is set. 
   I was briefly unconvinced by the story at the very start as it seemed too similar to other stories I had read recently, but I was very quickly captivated by the brilliant characters and fast pace of the story. Cathy is a fantastic character to read as she contemplates her forced return from the freedom of Mundanus to the repressively old-fashioned society of the Nether. There were lots of really enjoyable touches (the Arbiter has a gargoyle containing his dislocated soul for a sidekick, Fae Lords are attended by tiny faeries with dragonfly wings, the impossibly long-limbed brothers Thorn) and I particularly loved the mysterious Shopkeeper, with his shop full of artefacts and charms - no two alike and not displayed in any obvious order. It's the first book in a planned series 'The Split Worlds', and my only (small) complaint about this one is about its ending, which I felt was not quite satisfying enough for a stand-alone novel. Luckily, the two sequels both have planned releases for this year, so it won't matter for long!
   I'm off now to read 'A Natural History of Dragons' (yay, dragons!) by Marie Brennan, and 'Bookplate Special' (Booktown Mysteries #3) by Lorna Barrett. I shall report back!