Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Magic Flute - P. Craig Russell

Phew- managed to squeeze this read in only just in time to hit the deadline for this Graphic Novels mini-challenge! The brief was to read at least one classic novels in graphic form within the month of January 2010.

I wanted to read an adaptation of a story that I didn't know and that discounted all the options in my library's very small selection except one! This made choosing rather simple although it was a complete coincidence that the book I selected for this challenge was also illustrated by P Craig Russell who provided the artwork for Murder Mysteries which I read earlier this month.

The internet tells me that he is actually best known for his “Library of Opera Adaptions” series from around twenty years ago which have now been re-released. The Magic Flute is the first in this series and is, unsurprisingly, a 138 page graphic novel adaptation of Mozart’s opera of the same name.

Although a fan of musicals, I’ve never actually seen an opera and I wonder if I should start with the recent Magic Flute film adaptation, directed by Kenneth Brannagh…

For those, like me, who are unfamiliar with the story, it’s a farcical fairytale (is that even a sub-genre?) following the noble Prince Tamino’s quest to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of Night, from the clutches of the evil Saratro. Accompanying him on his journey is the comic-relief providing bird-catcher Papageno who is on his own search for true love.

The plot/characters are not as complicated to follow as it might appear from the above synopsis and, from the point of view of someone who does not know the story from any other source, I thought it felt complete although I am sure that some elements were very simplified!

The panel layouts were absolutely excellent but the one issue I had with the book was that sometimes the illustrations themselves felt very dated. Pamina, in particular, looked as though she should be gracing the cover of a very old Mills & Boon which I found quite off-putting.
If you want to get a flavour for the artwork, there's an extract here. Then you can make your own mind up!

January Reading Round Up

Outside there are gorgeous blue skies, the current temperature is -3 and and my garden is covered in snow. Whilst I wait for Mr B's football game to be called off, I'm going to enjoy being warm and curl up in my reading chair with a graphic novel. And probably both dogs heaped on my lap as well! Snug.

I've eventually decided what to do after last year's Year of Readers. I am still going to "fine" myself £1 per book I read but rather than pay it all to one charity I am going to add it to my Charities Trust "freedom account" as an additional monthly top up. This money will be ring fenced for literacy-related donations and that (hopefully) means some decent money once my normal payroll deduction is taken into account as well.

This month reflects some post-Christmas impulse purchasing and I have read a few for the Sci Fi Experience so my list is a bit on the eclectic side!

Graceling - Kristin Cashore
Space Captain Smith - Toby Frost
The Stepsister Scheme - Jim C Hines
The Princess Bride - William Goldman
Fire - Kristin Cashore
The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
The Real Story (Gap Sequence) - Stephen Donaldson
Forbidden Knowledge (Gap Sequence) - Stephen Donaldson
Murder Mysteries - Neil Gaiman & P. Russell Craig
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
A Dark and Hungry God Arises (Gap Sequence) - Stephen Donaldson
The Magic Flute - P. Russell Craig

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

I was two (and a bit) books into Stephen Donaldson's Gap Into space opera series when I suddenly realised that I had Space Sickness and needed some antidote.

Deep in the throws of an attack of Bibliocolicism earlier this month, and for reasons I no longer remember, I purchased Sarah Water's novel Fingersmith (which was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange prizes) and it has been the absolutely perfect read to break up a Sci-Fi overdose.

Told from the point of view of two orphans of a similar age, this is a great spin on one of my very favourite sub-genres – the Victorian crime novel.

Susan Trinder is the orphaned daughter of a hanged murderess who has been raised in London by her adoptive mother, Mrs Sucksby in a household with dubious moral values. The home’s lose family unit has an enterprising approach to making money including baby farming and the expert laundering of stolen goods.

At the age of seventeen, Sue is drawn into a plot to help Richard “Gentleman” Rivers woo an heiress. To help him to achieve this, she needs to play the part of a lady’s maid, befriend her new mistress and convince her to marry Gentleman. At which point, he will have the girl confined to a madhouse, claim her fortune for himself and pay Sue (and Mrs Sucksby) a healthy fee.

To this end, she travels from London to the very different environment of a lonely and crumbling country house, where she enters the service of Miss Maud Lilly – who was also orphaned as a baby. Maud’s mother died in a mental institution, where she was placed by her brother, and Maud was brought up by the nurses there for a number of years before her Uncle sent for her to take up secretarial duties and help him to compiling a dictionary of sorts.

As Sue gains Maud’s confidence, and grows fond of the lonely girl, she begins to doubt her ability to go through with the con and she wrestles with the conflicting need to bring home money to her adoptive family.

The book is split into three parts with Sue opening and closing the story and Maud’s point of view over the same initial time period taking the middle section. I found Sue to be a more sympathetic character but Maud’s narrative really helped to
add another layer of perspective to events as they unfolded.

This is a book with a cracking plot and nobody’s motives are quite as straight forward as they seem.
I really enjoyed reading it and feel an urge to delve into Victoriana for a while. Or buy Sarah Water's other books as, other than this one, I've only read Night Watch.

I've just discovered that Fingersmith was made int
o a BBC drama in 2005 so I am clearly well out of the loop on this one! I would rather like to watch it but might have to leave it for a while to give me a chance to forget some of the plot twists.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Murder Mysteries - Neil Gaiman & P. Craig Russell

This is my first Graphic Novels Challenge 2010 Read.

Murder Mysteries is the graphic novel adaptation of one of Neil Gaiman's short stories that appears in his collection Smoke and Mirrors. I've not read the source material so I can’t comment on how well it transferred to this format but taken by itself I thought it worked nicely.

Murder Mysteries has been on my wishlist for a while and yesterday I was looking at the Graphic Novel section of my library for Classic Graphic Novels mini-challenge (more on that in a few days) and I was very pleased to see it lurking on the shelf! "What's it about?" I hear you ask. Well...

The angels are hard at work constructing the world when one of their own is discovered dead, which prompts Lucifer to dispatch Ragual, Angel of Vengeance, to find the culprit. Hearing about the story of the first ever murder, from a stranger who borrows a cigarette from him, is a young man in contemporary Los Angeles for reasons that are initially unclear but become (slightly!) more so as the story progresses. Interestingly, Ragual’s investigation, and what he uncovers during it, provides the possible rationale for Lucifer’s eventual revolt against God.

In spite of the size of the book, this is a deceptively deep story - which I suppose I should expect from Mr Gaiman. In it's handful of pages it covers some meaty questions* and packages it up in a page turning whodunnit with a great ending. For a great review of this book pop over and visit The Book Smugglers - should have known it was their fault it ended up on my wishlist in the first place!

The adaptation to comic book was carried out by P. Craig Russell (who by coincidence also provided the artwork for the book I will be reading for the classic graphic novel challenge) and I really like his style. Very elegant, simple and with a lovely colour palette – I especially liked the very stylised images of the
City where the angels live and work.

If I am honest, I’m not sure I’d have been as pleased with this book if I’d bought it unseen in hardback (which is quite hard to do as it seems to be out of print) as it is a very slim volume indeed. Given I borrowed it, I can’t but be delighted with the value for money and I very much enjoyed the unexpected story of an Angel of Vengeance. I really should get around to reading the Sandman books this year...

* Like the concept of free will v. pre-determination - now that brings back some ancient memories about my history of medieval political thought classes!

Friday, 15 January 2010

Happy Blogiversary to meeee!

Wow. It's two years today since my first The Bookling post. In that time I have read around 275 books, thousands and thousands of reader feeds from fellow bookish bloggers, taken part in some fun challenges, "met" some incredible people and had a great time expanding my reading horizons.

I honestly believe that I would not have read even half of the authors I've discovered in the last couple of years without the recommendations, and support, from other online readers so thank you!

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Forever War - Joe Haldeman

This is a Sci-Fi Experience read.

The Forever War was first published in 1974 and won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel. It’s also the first of SF Masterworks series of books which, if I am honest, was why I picked it to read next!

Private William Mandella is a reluctant soldier conscripted into an interstellar war against the alien Taurans - about whom little is known. He is part of an elite group of troopers who have been chosen for their intellectual capabilities and subjected to a grueling training regime which few make it through alive.

The soldiers who survive training, and then battle against the Taurans, experience time dilation. This means that a couple of years in their lives equals significantly longer on Earth. On finishing their tour of duty, Mandella and his partner Margay return to Earth and struggle to fit into, or understand, a society that has evolved beyond their understanding. I won't go into the details for fear of spoiling the progressing of the story but both William and Margay end up re-enlisting rather than remain there.

As the war continues, centuries pass on Earth and Mandella becomes the "oldest" surviving soldier who is promoted and put in charge of a unit where he finds he no longer even understands the language. In order to communicate with him the soldiers need to learn his version of old English. To give a scale to the changes that take place during William Mandella's own lifetime, the books starts in 2007 and concludes in 3134. That's time for some pretty major changes and looking back to the early medieval period and imagining what anyone alive would feel if they came forward to 2010.

I don't want to go into the details of how humanity changes over that course of time as I had no idea what to expect from the plot and that allowed me to learn along with Mandella. I found the Future tech battle interesting ideas and Haldenman's ideas about developments in the acceptable social norm was intriguing although initially I was a bit shocked by Mandalla's reaction to some of them. Again I don't want to spoil the story but if you do read this book, there's a point to some of the earlier hard to accept view points.

Joe Haldeman was a soldier in the Vietnam War, where he was wounded and won a Purple Heart, and his experience there influenced much of his work. I understand that the alienation felt by Mandella, and the other long term soldiers, mirrored the disorientation that Haldeman himself felt on returning from that War and that certainly puts an interesting perspective on this intriguing novel.

Ridley Scott has bought the rights to the film version and it'll be made in 3D. Should be interesting!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Fire - Kristin Cashore

Because of Kristin Cashore's debut novel, Graceling, I fell rather early on in the 2010 reduced book-buying steeplechase and on New Year's Day I placed an order for her second book, Fire which is a sort-of stand alone prequel. A combination of bank holiday and the snow that's currently covering much of the UK meant it took a week to arrive. What agonies!

When I finished The Princess Bride I meant to select another Sci Fi book for the Sci-Fi Experience I am participating in but somehow, at 10pm, I found myself holding Fire instead. I had only meant to read a couple of chapters (yeah right) but somehow read the whole book in one delicious gulp. Oh how my eyes stung!

Set over the mountains from the Seven Kingdoms, which was the setting for Graceling, is The Dells. With a very different manifestation of magic, this is a world filled with rainbow coloured "monsters" who are mutated versions of regular animals. Fire (named for her mane of red hair) is a rare mix of human and monster who is both stunningly beautiful and incredibly dangerous to those who are susceptible to her appeal. Her looks confuse the minds of those around her and she unwittingly inspires either mindless adoration or intense hatred.

Before his death her monster father, Cansrel, was adviser to the former king and she has inherited his ability to read people's minds and manipulate their actions. Cansrel was power hungry and encouraged moral depravity in the King and between them they drove the Kingdom to the brink of civil war. Now, the young King Nash has inherited his father's Kingdom and together with his brother, army commander Prince Brigan, they are struggling to hold their land together.

Conscious of the part her father played in causing the war, and under the guard of Brigan, Fire leaves the safety of her secluded home and ventures into the wider world. She is very aware of her almost unique power over others and is determined not to abuse it as her father did. This means that her desire to use her powers wisely is in conflict with the practical need to gather information that could help to win the war and she struggles to choose the right course of action.

Given I read both of these books within a week of each other, it's hard not to compare Fire with Graceling and I should say that I love them both but in slightly different ways!

Fire is both similar to, and very different from, Katya - the lead character in Graceling. Both are struggling to come to terms with their uniquely dangerous abilities and have to deal with the fear and distrust that they inspire in others. Both in their late teens and on a journey of self-discovery trying to define their identities and find their morality whilst dealing with almost constant personal danger. Both are beautiful, capable, independently minded and develop relationships in which they are very much equal partners.

More adult in tone, and with a more complex plot, than Graceling the story takes longer to establish itself but once it does it's so, so very enjoyable! At the risk of sounding like a gushing girly, Kristin Cashore is a definite new favourite author of mine and her next book, Bitterblue, is on my insta-buy list when it comes out!

Friday, 8 January 2010

The Princess Bride - William Goldman

When he saw that I had picked up this book as my next read, Mr B commented that I should perhaps take a break from selecting so many “rotting my brain” books back to back. But with a streak of SF&F books as much fun as the ones I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the last couple of weeks there’s not much chance of that! Please note that I’m going to avoid getting into the whole debate with him about why just because a book has magic/dragons/elves or is set in a fantasy land/outer space that does not make it mind-rotting! I'll have to force him to read some...

The back cover of my copy of The Princess Bride (presented as William Goldman's abridgment of an existing book) describes this as “a fairy tale like no other” with “fencing, fighting, torture, poison, true love, hate, revenge, giants, hunters, bad men, good men, beautifulest ladies, snakes, spiders, beasts, chases, escapes, lies, truths, passion and miracles.”

What’s not to love about that for a story taster?

The edition I read was the 25th anniversary one (love Nathan Burton's cover!) which has an additional forward from William Goldman in which he talks about his struggles editing the first edition of S Morgenstern's classic, but occasionally impenetrable, Florintian tale. This is a story that his father read for him as a child and his version extracts only the "good parts" as selected my his father that move the plot along at a pace.

That meant that it took thirty-five bit-champing pages to get to the start of Chaper 1, The Bride, when the “proper” story eventually kicked off and we are finally introduced to Buttercup, who will grow up to become the most beautifulest lady indeed, and how she attracts the eye of the evil Prince Humperdink, and Wesley the farmhand who loves her very much indeed.

I am enormously fond of Rob Reiner's film version of this story and have watched it a number of times over the years. ('My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!') Allowing for differences between the screenplay and the book, this means that I pretty much knew what was going to happen to the characters from the outset but I don’t think that my reading experience significantly suffered as a result. The “story” of The Princess Bride is really only half of the book with the other half consisting of italicised asides from Goldman commenting on his experiences and decisions taken whilst editing Morgenstern’s original tale.

The edition I read also includes a new end section dealing with Goldman's attempts to secure the rights to abridge Morgenstern's follow up book (against stiff competition from Stephen King) called Buttercup's Baby. This includes a sample treatment of the first chapter of that book (with the usual asides from Goldman) which left too many threads dangling for my liking but does give more depth to Fezzik and Inigo's characters.

I must admit that I'd expected to read a book version of the film and I was very pleased to discover that wasn't entirely the case! At heart, this is an entertaining, swashbuckling romance and although I gather some readers find the asides extraordinarily irritating I was not one of them!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The Stepsister Scheme - Jim C Hines

The Stepsister Scheme is the first in Jim C Hines' Princess series of books and features the what-happened-next for Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

For Danielle (Cinderella) the story didn’t end when she marries Armand, her prince charming, and she discovers that life is not always happy ever after. Now a Princess herself, and living at the palace, she finds herself struggling with the lack of self-worth that is the inevitable result of years of systematic bullying at the hands of her (now deceased) stepmother and (still living) stepsisters. Suddenly, Charlotte appears at the palace, tries to kill Danielle with access to surprisingly strong magic that she shouldn't have had and hints that Armand, who she still feels should have married her instead, has been kidnapped. To top it all, Danielle discovers that she is pregnant...

(This is not your usual fairy tale).

Despite best efforts, Charlotte escapes and step forward Armand’s mother, Queen Beatrice, who has, it emerges, employed two Princess bodyguards aka Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. In this unusual spin on the usual fairy story, it’s the damsels who head off to rescue the Prince. Talia (Sleeping Beauty) was especially damaged by her “fairytale” experiences but all three Princesses have serious trust issues and the causes emerge throughout the course of the book as the three women risk their lives to get Cinderella's prince back.

The Stepsister Scheme has an action packed storyline featuring very capable (if emotionally damaged) heroines who are fearless, capable and brave. There is honestly never a dull moment in this ‘girl powered’ what-happened-after tale and I enjoyed it very much. Next in the series is The Mermaid's Madness in which the princesses face the (not so) Little Mermaid. Sounds interesting!

Monday, 4 January 2010

Graphic Novels Challenge

I've just signed up for the Graphic Novels Challenge 2010 as this is a genre I'd like to explore further this year. In 2009 I dipped my toes in and read some amazing books like Maus, Persopolis and The Burma Chronicles (as well as a few lighter non-fiction ones!) and I would love to read more in 2010. Maybe I'll even get around to reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman!

There are three levels of participation - Beginner (3 Comics or Graphic Novels), Intermediate (3-10) or Expert (10+) and I am going to aim for Intermediate but secretly hope to hit Expert.

I do have a few books lurking on the shelves that qualify and Nymeth and Chris (who are hosting the challenge) posted a link to Flashlight Worthy's Best Graphic Novels of 2009 list which looks interesting. Another reference I will be using heavily is my copy of 500 Essential Graphic Novels which has been heavily marked with books I would like to read. In a bid to lower my 2010 book buying expenditure I will try to borrow as many as I can from my Library as it has quite a good comic/manga/graphic novel section. Famous last words!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Space Captain Smith - Toby Frost

This is my first Sci-Fi experience read!

Gosh. How on earth do I start to describe Space Captain Smith in a way that it'll all even faintly make sense? Perhaps having a good look at the cover will help. See that Victorian looking chap with the immaculate moustache? Yes. That's Captain Isambard Smith posing for a photo with one vanquished alien...

The blurb: "Together with his bold crew- a skull-collecting alien lunatic, an android pilot who is actually a fugitive sex toy and a hamster called Gerald- he must collect new-age herbalist Rhianna Mitchell from the New Francisco orbiter and bring her back to the Empire in safety. Straightforward enough – except the Ghasts want her too and, in addition to a whole fleet of Ghast warships, Smith has to confront void sharks, a universe-weary android assassin and John Gilead, psychopathic naval officer from the fanatically religious Republic of Eden before facing his greatest enemy: a ruthless alien warlord with a very large behind…"

It's the 25nd Century and the British Space Empire is thriving. Space Captain Smith, as you have probably gathered, is a parody of the Space Opera genre. Frost has an affectionate sense of the absurd and this is a book that does not take itself at all seriously. Packed with action, and with an amusing cast of misfits, this book was effortless, chaotic fun.

With two published sequels, I'm sure this is a franchise that'll grow and I shall be keeping my eye out for the next installment! I know it's a bit late for the festive season but Toby Frost has written a couple of Christmassy short stories, When Slay Bells Ring and The Celery and the Ivy. Well worth reading if you fancy a series taster!

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Graceling - Kristin Cashore

It's New Year's Day. You did not get to bed until 4:30am. It's now 3pm and you've just taken the dogs for a snowy walk accompanied by friends. You feel it's time to snuggle up, and maybe have a little snooze, with the first book of 2010. There is an almost revoltingly (but not quite) large pile of reading options so you narrow it down to a few and pick one at random. When next seen it's 8pm and you've not had that nap. Bliss!

Credit goes to The Book Smugglers for alerting me to this book - those girls are going to ruin me! Young Adult fantasy, and New York Times bestseller, Graceling was Kristin Cashore's debut novel.

Occasionally people of the seven kingdoms are born with a Grace and are marked by odd coloured eyes. Some people develop the ability to excel at swimming, weather or cookery however Katya's Grace is that of Death. Since the age of eight, when she accidentally killed for the first time, her uncle, the King of Middluns, has trained her to hone her skills and he uses her as his personal enforcer. Known by her fearsome reputation throughout the kingdoms, and now in her late teens, Katya is beginning to question her obedience to her Uncle's demands and to develop her own moral framework.

Katya is an absolute delight of a female lead. She is strong, independent, courageous, loyal and unquestionably kicks ass. Since childhood she's been viewed by most people as a monster and the circle of people she can trust is tiny. She hates the work she has to do for her bullying uncle and each successful mission she undertakes on his behalf only cements her fearsome reputation and serves to set her further apart from normal people.

Early on she encounters (and bests) Po, who is Graced with a talent for fighting, and at last she has someone in her life who can challenge her both physically and mentally. Katya has little experience of friendship, or how to relate to people, and Po helps her to take steps towards evaluating her own self-worth and growing as a person.

All of which sounds a little worthy but honestly it's not! Katya is just all over fab, Po is lovely and their blossoming romance is a delight. *swoons*. The engaging plot is filled with twists and turns and it was absolutely the perfect read for a cozy New Year's Day. Although Young Adult, this book never felt that it was compromising on plot or peril so I would comfortably say that anyone who likes a dollop Fantasy would enjoy it.

I should confess that when I was about half way through the book I took just one little break so I could order Cashore's next book, the standalone prequel Fire, as I neeeeeeded it. I am a little disappointed that my stern resolve to cut back on book buying fell apart on the first day of the year but I honestly just could not resist as I've read it's even better. Can't wait! :)