Thursday, January 24, 2013

Storytime 2013: Short story blitz

I think I will start saying how I happened upon these books. Sometimes that can be fun.

Short stories are great to keep on the nightstand, because you can read a whole one, then close the book up and go to sleep. Unfortunately, these two are not exactly bedtime stories...

"Black Juice" by Margo Lanagan

This collection of short stories was recommended by a friend from my program in college and who is now an English teacher. It was a suggestion for my quest to read more female authors.

Every single one of these stories is really strange. I am the first to fall in love with grotesque stories, but I bristle against books where the author creates a whole new world with specialized jargon and societal rules, and that happened in every one of these stories. In the time that it takes to read one story, I just start to get used to the setting, and then it's over and I have to start again with a different kind of world. For example, the first story is about a family whose sister has committed a crime, and her punishment is to be slowly sunk into the tar pit. The next story is about a lord's wife who has run off with gypsies and the next is about clown killers. Yeah, clown killers. And all of them have special slang to interpret, which is tiring, one story after another.

Where the stories do work is that the reader gets little hints about what is going on and why. Lanagan spaces out the information so that first the family packs a picnic as if going on a day trip, then the sister starts to sink into the pits, then you find out why she's being executed. I appreciate the dark nature of "Black Juice," but I found the stories hard to relate to because I felt like I needed Lanagan's personal dictionary just to get my bearings. C+

"There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales" by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

I found this book at my local library by doing a search for fairy tales, then clicking the category "Slavic."

The first half of this book is mostly ghost stories. You know the type, the Vanishing Hitchhiker, Sixth Sense type of story where throughout the whole story someone has been dead and either they or their loved one doesn't know it. They all kind of end the same way. Plus they're set in Russia, so they're all pretty bleak apart from the whole death everywhere thing. Not to say they're not well written, just go out and get some sunshine afterward, okay? The section at the end, Fairy Tales, gets a little bit lighter and there's less death. This is a good story selection for someone who likes a bit of the supernatural in the real world, and who doesn't need a happy ending. Even if you don't know anything about the Soviet Union, you get the feeling that the characters are used to a life that doesn't treat them well or often, so a little supernatural harassment doesn't bother them. The author doesn't waste any time on "Oh no! A ghost!" and I appreciate that. B-

Friday, January 11, 2013

Storytime 2013: "Leviathan" by Scott Westerfeld

This year I am not setting a goal number of books to read. 50, 60, maybe I will read that many, but there are some really long books on my "to read" list that might slow me down on a goal like that. So I'm setting some themes for myself this year. I'm sure that not all of the books that I read will fit into these themes, but it gives me an area of focus, and I feel like I haven't really studied a specific area of literature in a while. One of my themes is books by and about women. I am a lady writer, but I read very few books written by ladies. I also want to honor my historical sisters by learning their stories. 2012 was the 100th anniversary of the women's right to vote in Oregon. A friend once called me "a stubborn woman," and I am very thankful to the stubborn women who came before me. Another theme that I'm setting for myself this year is folktales and fairy tales, or modern stories based on folktales. Specifically, I want to read stories set in cold places like Scandinavia, Iceland, Russia, etc. Don't ask why, it's just the mood I'm in at the moment. If you have any suggestions for books that fit into either of these categories, please leave them in the comments! Happy New Year and happy reading!

"Leviathan" by Scott Westerfeld

The first book that I finished in 2013 is an alternate version of WWI, where the German and Austria-Hungarian forces fight with mechanical animals and the British forces fight with genetically engineered animal machines, clankers and beasties, respectively. Alek, the (fictional) son of Archduke Ferdinand is forced into hiding after his parents' assassination. Deryn, a young Scottish girl disguises herself as a boy to join the Royal Air Service. They meet in Switzerland, where Deryn's airship, the Leviathan, crash lands near Alek's secret hideaway. They find that they have a lot in common despite cultural and military differences and decide to trust each other.

The semi-steampunk flavor of the book is all right, but what I find really imaginative are Westerfeld's "beastie" creations. The lizards on the Leviathan can scramble around with their sticky gecko feet, but they serve a purpose as messengers, speaking in the voices of the humans that "record" the message. The flechette bats are fed metal spikes that they then "drop" on the enemy in the natural fashion. The Leviathan is a huge whale like creature that fills itself up with hydrogen and floats like a zeppelin. The controversy of manipulating nature in this way is not glossed over. Alek and Deryn each openly criticize and secretly admire the innovations of the other's culture.

The writing style is simple enough for middle school readers who are just learning about world history. In the afterward, Westerfeld points out the historical facts and fictions in his book, which will probably stir up some interest in the time period. There is an inkling of romance between the young main characters, which I'm not so keen on, but we'll see how he continues that plotline. Leviathan is the first in a series of three books. B-