Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Book three of 2008 is The Children of Hurin by J.R.R Tolkien.

Ok, it's really only kinda written by Tolkien, especially since he's been dead since the 70s. This, like the Simalrilion was cobbled together by Tolkien's son Christopher from unfinished writings Tolkien left behind. I don't actually have a problem with this, if you're named the executor of your father's literary estate, why not try to continue to publish as much stuff as you can? Although sometimes, it does make me wonder if Christopher does this because he has a gambling problem or something and needs an influx of cash every now and then.

I jest. Anyway, the Children of Hurin is a collection of stories Christopher basically took from an unfinished epic poem Tolkien had been writing. And not only writing, but he was writing it in the meter that was commonly used by Old English epic tales such as Beowulf or the Battle of Maldon. There's an excerpt of the poem in the book's appendix, and I was shocked at how well Tolkien was able to mimic the style of those poems. Although, I now realize I shouldn't have been shocked, after all, the man was a scholar in Old English.

But yes, reading this book was like a journey back to John Chamberlain's Old English class in second year university. I felt like I should be translating these lines as I read them, full as they are of strange (yet tantalizingly familiar) place names riddled with awkward combinations of consonants and vowels. The pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book was pretty much identical to the one at the beginning of my Guide to Old English. Of course, this means I knew I was pronouncing all those names correctly.

This book is not for fans of sword and sorcery fantasy. Heck, I wouldn't even completely recommend it to those who usually read high fantasy, the very genre Tolkien himself pretty much invented. The Children of Hurin is more like an epic historical legend, something from the Icelandic or Norse sagas, complete with ogres and dragons and tragic heroes who are at once noble and brave, but oh so flawed as well. They win the day, but are still brought low by much adversity.

There's actually lots of characterization in this book, but its almost hard to discern because you're tripping over so many names. Names of people, places, things. Damn Tolkien liked to name things. And he had a name for everything. But hey, you develop your own language, you should be allowed to show it off. I say there is characterization because the main child of Hurin, Turin, is almost unlikeable. He's such a prat sometimes you just want to slug him. He comes across as self righteous and with absolutely zero ability to take criticism. Unfortunately, he's also right a lot of the time, and somehow, he does manage to inspire loyalty and love from followers. Of course, he also manages to piss people off nearly as often as he gains respect though. He meets a suitably tragic end, although its also one that's very uncomfortable, but completely in line with type of legends that Tolkien was trying to write here.

As a literary work, The Children of Hurin is a masterpiece. I don't think it ever aspired to be anything else really. It certainly isn't like the majority of fantasy fiction out there, inspired by the author's earlier works. I know people often complain that the Lord of the Rings is nearly inaccessible, well, The Children of Hurin make LotR look like Harry Potter.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Second book of 2008 is Dave Bidini's Around the World in 57 1/2 Gigs .

First things first, by gigs, he means musical gigs, not computer terminology gigs.

I'm a big fan of Bidin's writing. In fact, at this point, I've read every single one of his books except Baseballissimo because I generally find Baseball boring. But I imagine if I did read it, I'd probably enjoy it because Bidin's style is very engaging. He has great sense of metaphor and also a wonderful sense of humour.

This book basically takes place over parts of 2006 and 2007, where Bidini finds himself facing the breakup of his long time band, the Rheostatics. The Rheostatics are a Canadian band of (as Bindini himself puts it) moderate success. They've been together for over 20 years at this point, have had highs, and a bunch of lows, and one of their main members, has just said he's quitting. Which causes another member to quit. Bidini has to decide if he should fight for the Rheos, or finally let them go.

He chooses the later.

As a way to continue in music and perhaps as a way to get over the breakup, he embarks on a whirlwind world tour, playing solo stuff, mainly of his own composition, but also a variety of Rheostatic tunes. Bidini's never really embarked on a solo tour before, so his nerves are high and his confidence low as he travels to Finland for his opening gig.

He obviously enjoys his time in Finland, where heavy metal is alive and well, the crowds restrained (he basically calls Finns 'everything that Canadians think we are, but aren't really'.) and the people friendly but reserved. He plays some successful gigs and works out some of his pre-jitters and realizes that he can do this and have fun.

Over the course of the book, Bidini intersperses tales of his own life (including the account of saving Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip's life), his introspection over the breakup of the Rheostatics and the history and impact of rock and roll not only on his own life, but on that of the world.

He travels to Russia, to China, to Liberia and Sierra Leone, places of poverty and recently stricken by war, all of whom searching for their own rebellious rock n' roll voice, some not finding it easily, some doing so. In China, there isn't much rock at all, but they do revere some Beatles tunes, while in post-communist Russia, there is a lot of rock n' roll being made, and there, the impact that the Beatles had was increadibly huge.

In Sierra Leone, he meets two young boys who lost large parts of their families in the recent civil war, who have been forced to grow up way too fast, and who are finding their voices through hip-hop and rap, singing about the state of their country and the hope they have for its future. Bidini is obviously very greatful to be there for this.

Overall, an enjoyable book, mainly for the tour of world music, both present and historical, told through the voice of a Canadian hoser.

Monday, January 07, 2008

First book of 2008 is the third book in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Amber Spyglass.

It took me a little longer to get through this one because, as I discovered reading the back of this book, Pullman took some inspiration from Milton's Paradise Lost for this puppy, so I was sort of mentally cross-referencing stuff that happened in Spyglass with stuff that happened in Paradise Lost.

A large part of Amber Spyglass takes place in the alternate world Dr. Mary Malone found her in, living with mulefa and trying to solve their world's problems, specifically the dying trees (which the mulefa depend upon) and the dwindling amount of Dust in their world. Mary has supposedly been cast as the Serpent in the Garden of Eden (the mulefa's world) who will tempt Lyra, but honestly, I didn't really see it. Oh sure I could see the Garden of Eden comparison, but Mary not so much in the role of the Serpent.

And it is not that Lyra and Will are so much cast out of Eden, but they have to leave it as they (or anyone really) cannot survive for long out of the world that they were born into. They leave due to nessecity, not out of any wrong doing or transgression. Although, in Pullman's world, as there are characters trying to 'kill' God (or the Regent in this case), there really isn't any Authority to rebel against in this Eden.

So, anyway, the overall story though? Good, but bittersweet. Pullman kills off characters left and right with an abandon I haven't seen since George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire opus. And its cool. I always think characters should die during these large, fantasy epics. Its what makes them epic. And Pullman doesn't disappoint, killing off many, many characters, and always at times that make sense and are not just for shock value.

I also liked his 'redemption' of Mrs. Coulter. She's been one of the hardest characters ever to figure out, and right down to the last moment, Pullman did a really excellent job of making you wonder 'will she or won't she"? Its been difficult for two whole books to figure out whose side she was really on (other than her own), and when the answer is finally known, it doesn't feel forced either.

But its the overall ending that is the most bittersweet as Lyra and Will are not only forced to leave Eden, but they are forced to leave one another as well. Due to more circumstances beyond their control, they choose to live apart from one other, despite their great love, and live out their days in their respective home universes. It really was quite sad and I did feel myself choking up a little.

On the whole, His Dark Materials is a coming of age story. Lyra goes from child to young woman and her epic journey is vastly harrowing and difficult. I like stories like this one and the characters are all well done, as is Pullman's internal consistency. Everything is connected and tied up together very well.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Here we are, 2008. Another new year, another new bunch of books.

In 2007, I still did not manage to read 50 books. I have excuses though, as to why I only managed to read 30. I volunteer for the board of directors at my son's daycare, which amounts to a (non-paid) part time job on top of my regular job, we travelled to San Diego this year, oh and I got married, and between that and moving my new husband's myriad of belongings into our house, it was a pretty busy year.

So as we look upon 2007, what were those 30 books I read? Let's list 'em shall we?

The Golden Compass and the Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman
Touch Wood: Confessions of an Accidental Porn Director by Anoymous
Yes Man by Danny Wallace
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier by Alan Moore
Making History by Stephen Fry
Cthulhu Tales by H.P. Lovecraft
Shock Doctrine: The Rise and Fall of Distaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Fluke by Christopher Moore
Late for the Wedding by Amanda Quick
Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
Fall of Knight by Peter David
Wilson: A Consideration of Sources by David Mamet
Mordred: Bastard Son by Douglas Clegg
Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot
Curse of the Narrows by Laura M. MacDonald
Give Our Regards to the Atom Smashers: Writers on Comics by Various
Serpents Garden and Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley
Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts
Anasasi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
Bitten by Kelly Armstrong
Inheritance by Devin Grayson
Five Hole Stories by Dave Bidini

It's a nice cross section I think, of things I usually read. A smattering of horror (Bitten, the Night Watch, Cthuhlu Tales), some Arthurian Legends (Mordred:Bastard Son, Fall of Knight), some historical non-fiction (Curse of the Narrows, the Shock Doctrine), stuff written by people who also write comic books (Anasasi Boys, Inheritance), some funny stuff, both fiction and non (Fluke, Yes Man, Touch Wood), some 'serious literature' (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Rebecca) and of course, some fantasy (Ysabel, Harry Potter, The Golden Compass).

Some highlights? Any year where Guy Kay has a new book come out is a spectacular year as far as I'm concerned, and Ysabel did not disappoint. I was both inspired and entertained by Danny Wallace's Yes Man, educated about my own country with Curse of the Narrows, and made increadibly angry (in a good way) by The Shock Doctrine.

The disappointments? The final installment of Harry Potter fell a little flat. The promising Five Hole Stories by Dave Bidini, a collection of short, erotic hockey stories (sex and hockey, two of my favourite things), wasn't as... erotic as I hoped, and Alan Moore's the Black Dossier was nearly impenetrable in parts.

But as I did manage to read more new books than I did last year (and with nearly as many re-reads), I feel 2007 was a winner overall reading-wise and I look forward to 2008, which already sees me half way through the final book in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, and on my nightstand, presently in queue are Dave Bidini's latest book, J.R.R Tolkien's Children of Hurin and Michael Palin's diary from his Monty Python years. All reads I'm looking forward to.