Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Skin Hunger" by Kathleen Duey

I had the idea a couple of weeks ago to try to read all the books for the Cybil awards. So, I started requesting them from the library (so far I've requested three and received two). This was the first one I read. In fact, I may have been the first person to read this particular copy of the book from the library. The hard cover had a satisfying creak when I opened it. I hope other people pick it up.

I don't quite know what I expected. Maybe the title led me to think it might be vampires or something. I started it without even reading the back or the flap, and I think the library had placed the branch sticker over the label that indicated it was the first book in a trilogy. (The boy, however, read the back first, and then put it down because the first blurb was from Nancy Farmer, and he read a couple of books by her and was Not Impressed. Interesting how marketing fails. )

There are two non-concurrent storylines, and the chapters alternate.

One storyline happens far in the past from the other one. It concerns three people who are putting together a school of magic. The character Franklin belongs to Somiss, and the girl Sabira has a massive crush on Franklin. I read a review that said that Franklin and Somiss were friends, and that didn't make me feel like the reviewer had understood what they were reading. No, they are not friends. Franklin was sold to Somiss's father when he was three, which makes it a master/slave relationship. It struck me that Kathleen Duey must have a very interesting interior life, to create this particular relationship. Franklin is loyal to Somiss based not just on fear but also worship. Franklin clearly knows that Somiss has some flaws, but he's got some pretty big blinders on, and forgives way too much. But Franklin also has a great deal of influence over Somiss, which continues into the second storyline.

The second storyline concerns a student, Haph, who attends this school of magic that Franklin and Somiss, now very old men, run. It is a horrible place. I absolutely loved his tone when he said, on p. 81, "Only one of us would graduate. Obviously, it wasn't going to be me. What was going to happen to me?" The tone of dread was wonderful--the hunger, the despair. This is one book where the dream sequences and internal fantasy sequences really worked.

The tone reminded me of Megan Whalen Turner. this might have been because the voice was very young-feeling to me. When Haph described his getting up ritual, it involved washing up and taking a piss, which is something the boy would say, but probably neither of the adults in my house would. There were a few times the word crap was used, and shit, which I found refreshing, because it's boring when everything is sanitized all the time. In fact, the obsession with bodily functions seemed normal to me, for a character who was being forced to have an extremely structured, limited existence. His access to food was limited, so he obsessed about his bowels. So few authors go there. I liked it.

The characters and the world seemed really fleshed out for such a short book. Haph and Gerrard are from two extremes in their society. They have few points of commonality, and there's no explanation of, for example, where Gerrard learned to read. In the flashback sequence, Sabira teaches herself to read illicitly, because it's a forbidden skill for all except the rich.

You know, I'm nervous about recommending this book to some people. I knew right from the start that it was going to be emotionally draining. The scene in Chapter 3 (which you can find at set quite a tone. There are things in it that I keep coming back to -- the non-stop, ongoing horror of life at the school, where they are penalized for helping each other, and some of them can't seem to make food, the seemingly senseless torture of the street children by Somiss. I think there's an evil thing in that school. I wonder if that stone that gives them food is sucking the life force out of the nine-tenths of the class who don't graduate. I wonder how far from Sabira's home they find that stone, because I'm guessing that is going to have to be in book two or three.

For book 1 of a trilogy, I actually liked the finish. Both storylines came to a turn, but not an ending.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Another Tolkien comment

You know in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Aragorn and Boromir walk through chest-deep snow, clearing a path for the smaller members of the party? The snow we've had here lately makes me think perhaps Tolkien had never seen more than an inch or two of snow. We got maybe eight inches, and I could barely walk through that.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Outwitting Poison Ivy" by Susan Carol Hauser

Believe it or not, nothing to do with the Batman character. But you can't go wrong with a 100-page factbook about poison ivy written by someone who has a couple of books of poetry listed in the front flap, right?

I bought this book back in April for my sister, who has a lot of poison ivy growing in her yard and is afflicted every year. I learned lots of awesome facts. You can get it from petting a dog. If you burn poison ivy and and breathe in the smoke, that's a bad thing. if you go swimming in water with poison ivy growing right up to the edge, you can get poison ivy. Don't bother trying to dig up the roots. It's related to mangos and cashews and pistachios.

Seemed long for the amount of content, however. Repetitive. I read in an amazon review that this book was a must-have for the well-stocked medicine cabinet. Who has a book about poison ivy in their medicine cabinet? I don't even have a girl guides first aid book.

Apparently everyone who visits my house is lucky they don't leave by body bag.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

New for 2008 -- Saturday Night Rewrites

It all started when one of the other writers in my office left last November. I may have gotten taken advantage of with what seemed like a disproportionate amount or his work dumped on me (temporarily, I hope). Anyway, so I found myself one weekend knowing that a major project I had picked up needed an index, and needed it soon because who knew when the thing was going to product release (still any day now). So one Friday evening I backed up the entire manual onto a thumb drive and brought it home to work on during the weekend.

This was actually a watershed moment for me. I had six hours in my weekend, every weekend! that I didn't know about. Sure, sometimes when we're done with our Saturday activities, we rent a movie or go to a friend's, but most of the time, that time is mine, and I didn't know about it. I usually frittered it away with knitting while watching home improvement shows, and even when I did have a social activity, well... I bet I waste a lot of Friday nights, too. "What Not to Wear" isn't that important, really.

So, seeing as I have no trouble finding time to write 1st drafts, and the real lack in my life is any sort of time for structural or line editing, I hereby declare Saturday to be Rewrite Night. Two hours, minimum.

We'll see how it goes.

(I did it last Saturday, and it went pretty well. It was hard to sit down and start, but once I got going, Ed had to pull me away.)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

"The Fifth Child" Doris Lessing

My younger sister claims my older sister asked for Doris Lessing books for christmas. So, since my older sister is pretty poor about providing a wish list, and she buys everything she needs, pretty much all she got was Doris Lessing books. However, she says there might have been only one she was interested in. Probably it wasn't this one. As my dad put it, when he saw me feverishly reading it on the 23rd, "Your sister is not interested in children."

But this book isn't really about children, anyway. It's about British society in the 70's, the shift in cultural values away from the traditional family, and young thugs and crime.

When I heard my sister wanted Doris Lessing books, I immediately ordered this one from Abe Books, because it was the Doris Lessing book on my list (not the one I provide my sisters and my dad every year at Xmas time, but the one I carry with me in case I find myself with a few spare hours in a library or something). I had read about it on some blog or other, shortly after DL won the Nobel Prize for literature. The reviewer said this was their favourite Doris book, and the sequel, "Ben in the World" was awful. I probably won't be reading that one, but I really liked this book. It's about 160 pages, and I read it in a sitting.

I must admit, I didn't find it very science fiction. Not that I expected a Nobel laureat to be all spaceships and made up drugs and stuff. The story is something like this:

Mom and Dad get married and buy a house too big and expensive for them, with the plan that they will fill it with children. At least six. And they're going along well, though they're probably having the children too close together, but their large extended family comes for holidays, and it's full of love and happiness. And then they have the fifth child. The pregnancy is horrible. The child is horrible. They try institutionalizing him, drugging him, all sorts of things. He kills animals. He attacks his siblings. He has to be locked in his room at night with bars on the windows. The whole family drifts away, including the older siblings. The story takes place over maybe 23 years.

I'm not really ruining the story by telling all that. It's not about what happens, it's about the ambiguity as to whether Ben has something wrong with him, or if he's just not like the rest of the family. I loved that the mother kept taking him to doctors, only to be accused of not loving him enough, and all the youths that he falls in with seem not to have any problem with him. He doesn't seem to be mocked because he's different, the way the story would be written now (or maybe I watch too many programs about the morbidly obese, or primordial dwarves, or people with rare bone conditions on television, where it's always made out that they're the nicest person in the world and everybody loves them -- so maybe being made fun of for being small or averagely fat, or whatever is just because you're on the edge of normal, not a freak, and Ben was a freak, because everyone except his family seemed to like him).

I mentioned to my team leader that I was going to read a DL book, and she said she could never get through them. My sister seems to be having the same experience. She would go to bed, and the next morning tell me she was on page 5, or 23, or 40. She found the prose too spare, I think. Not much description to skip over. Whereas I rather liked that.

Friday, January 04, 2008

"Angels on Toast" by Dawn Powell

"Angels on Toast" by Dawn Powell
This book came up passing in some article I read online. I don't remember the thrust of the article, but the author said somewhere that Angels on Toast was one of the best stories about a bad marriage, like ever. So I requested it through my local library.

I got it about a week later. If I can use the speed with which a book reaches my branch through the TPL system to judge its popularity, I would have to say this book is not popular. But it's a spurious statistic, I know. The introduction by Gore Vidal discusses how popular Dawn Powell should have been, but I can sort of see why she's not. Her characters are middle class, and they are mocked mercilessly. People might see themselves a little too much in these characters -- their hopes and dreams and why they fail. It's like nagging, maybe, to read about why we fail.

I had a hard time remembering which of the two main male characters, Lou and Jay, was which. I didn't have a similar problem with the female characters. The two men seemed to be pretty much the same, whereas the women that were around them were much more distinct. I read about 35 pages, and then put the book down for maybe 10 days before going back to it, because it was making me uncomfortable. I don't like books that make me uncomfortable, especially when I know I can't flip to the back and read the ending and make sure it's all going to come out okay, so I can return to my place and enjoy the ride.

The book was published in 1940, and there are lots of allusions to the troubles in Europe at the time. One of the characters is a woman who claims to be from Russia and can't go back because she's a jew or something, and yet can't stay in America unless someone marries her. Also, I gather people drank rather a lot back then.

I quite liked the ending because it was a surprise. I liked the use of time. I never really got what the title meant, even though I googled it. That annoyed me.