Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Book Review: The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy

The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy, by Jill Maclean.
Reviewed from uncorrected proof. Available October 2009.

Girls get little respect. That is a gross generalization, but it’s still true when it comes to children’s literature. Girls will read stories about boys, but boys have a harder time reading about girls. Would boys have read Hermione Granger and the Philosopher’s Stone, about a witch with a lightning-shaped scar? Who knows? Either way, good for Jill Maclean, who has followed up last year’s The Nine Lives of Travis Keating with a book about his friend, Prinny Murphy.

Prinny’s story takes place a few months after Travis’s, but the subject matter has become darker, and it’s more mature. At the age of twelve, Prinny keeps house for her father, a well-meaning fisherman who doesn’t know the first thing about a daughter’s needs. Number one on that list would be a good mother. Prinny’s mother is a woman who chooses Captain Morgan over her own daughter; her alcoholism got her kicked out of the house a few weeks before the story’s beginning. A trio of mean girls bully and blackmail Prinny with photos of her mother with another man. To make matters worse, Travis abandons her when he falls for the new girl, the rich and pretty Laice Haddon. There might never have been anything romantic between Prinny and Travis, but he was her only real friend, and he was the only person with enough backbone to stand up to the bullies.

Life, it seems, has it in for Prinny. When Prinny tells Laice that she hoped they could be friends, Laice replies that she’s not that desperate. The cruelty Prinny endures from the bullies is so bad that you just have to admire her courage. Although she is in remedial reading (yet another source of embarrassment for her), she finds a book about a downtrodden heroine. The book is Make Lemonade, by Virginia Euwer Wolff, and it opens Prinny up to hope, strength, and resolve.

Once again, Jill Maclean convincingly portrays bullies and the power they can have over other children. This time the bullies are girls, but that doesn’t make them any less effective than the bruising Hud Quinn from The Nine Lives. (Hud makes a brief but powerful appearance in this novel.) Children will recognize the dirty tactics of the schoolyard (or the school bus, or the washroom, or the mall, etc.), but the book also shows that a bully's power diminishes with defiance.

Another of the book’s strengths is how beautifully it’s written. Maclean uses Prinny’s voice to tell the story, and her voice is authentic for a girl who had to grow up fast. The language manages to be simple and easy (not always the same thing), yet beautiful and poetic.

All in all, this is a fabulous story about the importance of friendship, family, and courage, and it’s a great read for children and parents alike. Hopefully there’s a third novel up Maclean’s sleeve. Something about Hud Quinn, perhaps?

Verdict: Cream of the crop.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Constant Readers,

Sometimes there are a million things on the go. This is not supposed to be one of those times. I could have a pretty cushy week ahead of me. Instead, I find myself filling it up with writing, biking, swimming, car repairs, and a whole list of things--of my own free will! I know, I know, the end is nigh.

Monday is almost done. I could write up a review of an upcoming book, but it doesn't hit shelves for another couple of months, so... I think I'll postpone it until tomorrow. I think I'll go sip a hot chocolate instead, and--because I'm extra-nice--I'll leave you with a recipe for The Neil. You haven't heard of The Neil? Well, allow me to introduce you to one helluva bizarre drink.

Thank you for your patience.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Book Review: Elantris

Perhaps "review" is too strong a word, but some of us at Fiefdom (Errant Knave, Francesco, and the hamster that runs the wheel in my brain) would like to keep track of the books that I buy, borrow, and sometimes even read. July 18th seems as auspicious a day to begin as any other, but let me point something out: I will usually like the books I post. I read what I'm in the mood for (unless it's for work or school), and I'm rarely in the mood to be disappointed, so I pick books that I hope will be good. I rely on word-of-mouth, critical praise, and my own judgement. All three have been known to fail me, but chances are that my review will be positive. Everyone ok with that? Good. Let's begin the begin (an REM reference, for those of you not in the know).

The book: Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson
This is a stand-alone novel, which seems rare in fantasy (almost as rare as good cover art). The characters and the world are so clear and realized that it almost makes me wish there were more stories about Elantris. Almost. Stand-alones are good because the story gets wrapped up in one book, instead of having to wait around for twenty or thirty years until book 14 of the series gets published. (Ironic: Sanderson is the author chosen to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, which means he has to write books 12, 13, and 14.)

There is an author blurb from Orson Scott Card on the front cover, and it says "Elantris is the finest novel of fantasy to be written in many years." Typical hyperbole for a book cover, especially when you consider that this was Sanderson's first published work, back in 2005. Except... maybe this time the hyperbole was right.

Elantris is a story told from three perspectives, and they belong to:
-Raoden, the former prince of Arelon, cursed to live as an Elantrian.
-Sarene, princess of Teod, and Raoden's widow, even though they were never married.
-Hrathen, high priest of Fjordell, bent on converting the people of Arelon before his lord and god invades the nation.

Raoden gets a chapter, followed by Sarene and Hrathen, and then the cycle is repeated. The device uses three limited perspectives that overlap to give us a complete story.

This is not a fantasy story with elves and dragons, witches and wizards, or any of that. It has a couple of magic systems, but a lot of the story is about the loss of magic. Elantris used to be the shining city of the gods, but that stopped being the case ten years earlier. Regular people would be chosen, transformed overnight to become Elantrians, and they were granted wisdom, special powers, and long life. Something happened to change all that, and becoming an Elatrian now is worse than death. The first line from Chapter 1 is: "Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity." Grim.

This is what happens when you're an Elantrian: you wake up without hair, with shriveled and blotchy skin. Your heart doesn't beat, and you don't have to eat (because you're kind of dead), but you still get hungry after a while. But worse than hunger is pain; any cut, stub, or injury you sustain does not go away or diminish over time. Accumulate enough minor injuries and you'll go mad. Your body doesn't heal, but it doesn't die. Many of the citizens of Arelon don't know this because they lock the Elantrians away in Elantris, now a slime-covered reminder of the past.

To Raoden's credit, he decides to make the most of his situation. Likewise, Sarene makes the most of being a stranger in a foreign land, widowed to a husband she never met. Oh, and she thinks Raoden's dead, because the king thinks the lie is better than letting the people know their beloved prince became one of the walking un-dead.

Raoden and Sarene are intelligent, brave, and completely likable. Which leaves us with Hrathen. He's supposed to be the bad guy, because he's from the bad country. However, he's just as intelligent and brave as the other two, making him a perfect foil, and (in my opinion) just as likable.

There's a good set of secondary characters, and political drama to spare. Plus, since we're privy to Hrathen's thoughts, we know that the Fjordell invasion is coming, so the clock is ticking for everyone to resolve their problems in time.

My criticisms are small. The only blatant example I can think of concerns a revelation involving Sarene's uncle Kiin. It goes nowhere, making it kind of pointless (unless there's a sequel). Other than that, the book is stellar. If it doesn't feel like a first novel, it's probably because Sanderson wrote five more before this one, but this was the first one to get published.

Oh, and remember what I said about fantasy cover art? How some of it can be really, really bad? Well, Sanderson seems to have luck with this sort of thing. The Mistborn trilogy, Warbreaker, and Elantris all have good cover art. Click on the cover image to see a higher-res image of Hrathen and Sarene with the shadow of Elantris behind them.

Verdict: Highly recommended.

Note: This might have to become a one-a-month experiment, because I don't know if I'll be disciplined enough to write after every book. I'll also have to devise a rating system. I could do the recommended thing, or go with four or five stars. I could even be like the New York Times, or Quill and Quire, and save a single star for the very highly recommended books. Any preference?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Third, some publicity

Oh, right. I almost forgot about the bit of news. This was actually the only important bit that I had this morning. Yet here I am, just minutes away from tucking into bed with my current novel (Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson), and it almost slipped my mind. Fear not! I have remembered.

So, who is the intern just enlisted to help do the updates and upkeep for Fitzhenry & Whiteside's Facebook and Twitter accounts?

Ahem. C'est moi. (Translation: ME!)

Broadcasts will begin from a pirate satellite as soon as I learn what to do and how to do it.


Second, a question of guilt

No, this isn't my original piece of news. This is something else that came to mind. It seems that German prosecutors have formally charged John Demjanjuk with 27,900 Nazi charges. That is not a typo, and now I'm wondering if that number was rounded. He is suspected of being a guard at the death camp Sobibor. The man is 89 years old.

This reminds me of the Rat Line, or ratlines--a sort of underground railway for Nazis and fascists fleeing Europe. I first read about it in Ian Rankin's The Hanging Garden, an Inspector Rebus mystery, and the book brought up the issue of guilt, vengeance, and justice.

How do you prosecute someone after more than 60 years, and do you prosecute them? I think they must be prosecuted, because a crime is still a crime 60-odd years later. However, it's getting harder and harder to find evidence as records fade or get lost, witnesses die off or refuse to speak, and governments refuse to help because who knows what ugly truths might get uncovered. The small percentage of cases that can make it to court are even worse. Either they involve lesser criminals, or the evidence is inconclusive. So... where's justice? I think you have to hope there's an after-life, one where "'Vengeance is mine,' sayeth the Lord" is for real. Of course, justice and vengeance aren't the same thing, but... (Pst! Errant Knave, you're rambling.) Right.

On the other hand, modern justice systems are in place to protect the innocent, too. What if some of the accused are innocent? How would you like to have survived World War II (or any war), only to find yourself tried and maybe even found guilty of being the enemy you tried to resist? I don't think anyone wants that.

And then there's the third option, the murky one. The one where the accused committed his or her crimes under order, or even as a double-agent. To use a WWII example, what if you sided with the Allies, but lived in Nazi-occupied lands, and you had to fit in or be imprisoned or killed? How do you keep your innocence then?

There must be countless books on the subject, and movies too. Off the top of my head I can think of Europa Europa, Divided We Fall, and Black Book.(Odd... they're all foreign films.) I think The Reader may be about that too, but I haven't seen it yet, or read it, so someone let me know what the deal is.

First, a warning

I say 'first' because there is at least one more blog-worthy notice in me today. However, this bit comes first. It is sports-related, and it only has one literary connection, so if you care nothing for sports, and the fans who invest their emotions in over-paid athletes, this first post of the day may not be for you. Some people don't like professional sports, and that's ok. Still, there have been some very good articles written about sports. No less a writer than John Updike wrote this beautiful piece on Ted Williams for a little old publication called the New Yorker. I can't write like that, so I'll keep this brief. Here's how it breaks down:

Roy Halladay, nicknamed Doc (after Doc Holliday, best friend of Wyatt Earp), is the best pitcher in baseball, year in, and year out. His consistency is incredible. He's been a Toronto Blue Jay his entire career, and the 29 other teams in the major leagues would love to have him. By the end of the month, one of them could have him. As a fan of the one team that actually does have him, this is not good.

The American markets are in a frenzy over this. The guys at Sports Illustrated, ESPN, CNN, etc., are drooling over the possibilities. Rumours are created every day as journalists and media outlets speculate over Halladay's probable destination. Very few of them seem concerned about the damage any trade would do to Toronto's fan base. How much damage would it do? A lot. I'm not kidding. Some people would say that seems a bit extreme for an athlete few of us have met, someone making more money in a year than most of us will make in a lifetime (although he's underpaid by major league standards... which is a product of his loyalty and humility). I don't think it is extreme.

There are good reasons for a team to trade away its most valuable asset. None of them apply this time around. I hope the Blue Jay officials who matter realize this.

What about trading him in the off-season? Sure. What if a different general manager were in charge? Sure. So... just don't trade him right now? Correct. It would be a slap in the face for Toronto fans, and I, for one, would not be in a forgiving mood.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

WoT, woooot!

This morning's message is brought to you by Dabel Brothers Publishing. The Eye of the World is the first book in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, and it's being made into a graphic novel. I'm always skeptical when my favourite books get adapted for anything, but sometimes it works (see Stephen King's Dark Tower). There are more images for the WoT preview at Dragonmount.com, but right now I'd have to say I love love love this image of Tam al'Thor finding baby Rand. (Aside: I never really pictured Tam as a young guy. He was always grizzled in my imagination.)

There's blood on the snow outside Tar Valon, the Aiel have finally lifted their siege, and Rand has just been born on the slopes of Dragonmount. If I have one quibble, it's that Tigraine isn't in the picture. Did she give birth and fling Rand away before she died? Oh well. It's a minor quibble.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Things to keep out of a time capsule

We're back to the five-day work-week. I hope everyone had a great Canada Day/Independence Day weekend, and I hope no one went too far overboard on the chips and bevvies. For those of us north of the border, the fireworks at Ontario Place were pretty cool. It made me miss the days of driving through southern states and passing fireworks stores every 10 minutes on the highways. I don't like making generalizations, but I think it's safe to say that people south of the Mason-Dixon Line like things that go boom.

I don't know why that made me think of Dr Strangelove. Weird.

Speaking of weird, a co-worker brought a blog called Awful Library Books to my attention. Awful? What do they mean by awful? Well, there's your garden-variety awful, like the book on how to create special effects in photography if you get teleported to 1985 without your computer and Photoshop. There's the out of date awful like books on car repairs (mechanics ripping you off for $100? If only.), or The Picture Life of OJ Simpson (published in '77, it could probably use an update). And then there's the awfully good old sexist stuff that every woman who wants to be a wife and homemaker needs to know. Ladies, click on the picture to enlarge, and become enlightened.

Here's what the caption reads: "With all due respect for the liberation of women, someone has to clean the house and do all kinds of boring chores. Actually those jobs don’t take too long, and this photo shows Judith with the vacuum cleaner. Look at her closely and see the excellent posture she maintains as she walks around the room, pushing the machine on the carpet. Her shoulders are relaxed, her head is high, and in doing this rather boring but occasionally necessary job, she is aware of watching her posture and supporting her baby well with her abdominal muscles."

Doesn't it make you yearn for the days of yore, aka 1975? I thought this book would be from the 40s or 50s. I was wrong. It makes me wonder if we've even improved that much as a society since then.

One more before I go, because this one takes the cake. Is anyone really surprised that people used to publish homemaking books like the one pictured above? I don't think so. But can you say the same for a book called Creative Recreation for the Mentally Retarded?

I shake my head. In the simple and direct words of the good folk over at Failblog, FAIL!

Thursday, July 2, 2009


After realizing that my last post ended up getting posted with some scary typos, I just about had a fit. Almost. What's the point in criticizing lists and making your own if crucial information (like the numbers) are shuffled around. (Case in point: Original post complained that Animal Farm was languishing at #1. Excuse me? How is #1 a bad thing? Well, it is when the number is supposed to be 61.) I edited the post, but it seems Blogger wanted to take a few hours to update my revision. Oh well. What's life without the occasional healthy bout of indignation?

Aaaanyway, I've decided that my whole list thing was kind of... impossible. There is so much that was missing from that list, but how could I do anything about it without breaking things down into sub-categories? Sure, the 25 titles are all good, and you should read them, but it's also very safe. Very vanilla. I mean, where were the zombies? Why didn't I include Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? 80% of it was created by Jane Austen's brain. The other 20% offers brains as a snack with your afternoon tea. Doesn't that sound more interesting?

Broad lists are a load of ineffable twaddle. (I didn't make that up.) I'll be honest: I loved Toni Morrison's Beloved, but I'm not in a hurry to pick up Song of Solomon (both on Newsweek's Top 100). I've owned For Whom the Bell Tolls for a few years now, and I still haven't read it--and I love Hemingway. Likewise, I haven't read A Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse-Five, or Portnoy's Complaint. Am I missing out? Maybe. Are you missing out if you haven't read Jurassic Park, A Game of Thrones, and Anansi Boys? Maybe. In the end, my brains will taste just as good as yours to a zombie.

Lock up your women and children! The lists are coming!

This could end up being a very silly exercise, but I’ll try to defend it for now. You see, I used to love making lists. In high school my friends and I would make Top 3s, 5s, and 10s for anything; girls, books, movies, songs, bands, etc., and then we’d break them down by genre or style, decade or year, and so on. This fascination continued into university, and when I read High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby, I felt like I’d found a long lost relative. Was it Hornby, or was it Rob Gordon? The sense of kinship went beyond list-making, but who needs more than one crazy topic per blog post? Twilight Zone this ain’t. No craziness around here. No sir.

Ahem. Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Last week I saw an article about The Ten Most Important Books of the Century… So Far, a totally tantalizing title. (What? You have a problem with alliteration?) This list was going for books that made an impact culturally or financially. Admirable, interesting, but kind of snooze-worthy to me. I suppose they were right... the ten best books would have left blood on the floor.

This morning I saw another list, Newsweek’s Top 100, which is very ambitious. It tries to be well-rounded, but the usual snobbery prevails. War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Lolita are the only Russian lit books present. The only children’s books to make the list are Charlotte’s Web, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and His Dark Materials. Lord of the Rings is the only adult fantasy book. Harry Potter doesn’t make the list at all, and it's not the only notable ommission. Where’s Cormac McCarthy, T.S. Eliot, and Stephen King? Some that made the list ended up with low rankings (Pride and Prejudice at #10? To Kill A Mockingbird at #40?). Some of the rankings are puzzling (1984 could be #2, but Animal Farm is all the way down at #61?). This list looks like one big mess. It’s more of a compilation of other lists rather than a thought-out list with any kind of a plan. At least Dan Brown’s nowhere to be seen.

Before I finish, I should say that I’m not well-read enough to put together such a massive list on my own. So I’ll content myself by putting together a list of 10... no, 20... no, 25!... yes, 25 books (limit one per author) that I think you should read, if you haven’t already. They are:

Surfacing – Margaret Atwood
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Alice in Wonderland, and Through a Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Moonstone – Wilke Collins
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Daniel Deronda – George Eliot
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
The Iliad and The Odyssey – Homer (Ok, that’s two books, but you can buy them in one volume.)
High Fidelity – Nick Hornby
The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan
’Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
Life of Pi – Yann Martel
Animal Farm – George Orwell
Gates of Fire – Steven Pressfield
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course, there could be several more. I didn’t include any plays, poetry, non-fiction, graphic novels, or medieval work. Some heavyweights (like War and Peace) didn’t make the list because if you haven’t read these books, you should probably work your way up. That’s honesty, not snobbery. I read War and Peace once. It’s great. And it’s massive, both in size, and in literary scope. It’d be crazy to jump into it after reading The Devil Wears Prada (also a good book, but not quite the same). Dare to dispute? I welcome any and all feedback, criticism, and general slagging.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Oh Frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Picture and video time! First, we have photos from the upcoming Tim Burton adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, only one of my favourite stories ever. Bless your heart, crazy Tim. This could be a match made in heaven. Well, heaven through a looking glass.

Next up is a page from Girl Genius. I ranted about it in my last post. Here's a snippet of the Jagerkin, or Jagermonsters. They're sort of monsterish and almost indestructable. The three jokers in this panel are trying to join a circus, but most people are terrified of them. They love fighting, and they think they're very suave. Anyway, read it and find out.

There's also a trailer for a movie about the invention of lying. Yes, imagine a world where everyone told the truth. It might not be that much fun. Now imagine that you discovered how to lie. What would you do? Well, if you're Ricky Gervais, you might do this:

Last but not least, there's a fantastic music video about... well, just watch it. Happy Canada Day!

P.S. Both videos were brought to my attention by Malene Arpe over at her Stargazing blog. I love her snarky humour.
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