December 23

New Moon by Stephenie Meyer

Ok, just for a few minutes I will pretend that there is someone in this world who hasn’t read this series, or seen the movie. But somehow I can’t believe it. 

I read this book a few weeks ago. I will even admit that in the midst of exams and all the rush for the end of the academic year, I spent several hours each day caught up in the Bella and Edward romance. And after that, how could I discipline the girl who sat through my chemistry class engrossed in the story rather than the fine details of dipole interactions.

Now for the plot summary, that is once again very easy. If Twilight was a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, this book comes from an even older tradition, the love triangle. Edward leaves town, for Bella’s own good. In her grief she turns to Jacob for friendship. This friendship rapidly becomes something much more, at least for Jacob. And then Edward returns…

OK, not original, but there is a reason the theme is so common. Readers love it! But once again Meyer brings in her own special interpretation of mythology and folklore. This time concerning werewolves. Instead of wild beasts that only appear on the full moon, Meyer’s werewolves can appear at any time in response to the presence of evil, especially vampires. It is a genetic trait handed down through the Native American tribes, but the genetic expression only takes place in times of need. With the Cullens living nearby, suddenly there is an explosion in the number of werewolves found in the tribe. Interesting interpretation that relates well to the American folklore.

If you have already read this, then I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. And if you haven’t read it, then get started. But you must start with Twilight. Don’t trust the movie to tell you everything you need to know.

December 23

The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

There are times when I simply hate publicists. The nerve of some people that send you books one and two of a fantasy trilogy and refuse to send the third. How on earth is a reviewer supposed to give a fair review. It is a bit like all those movie reviewers that saw Lord of the Rings part 2 without ever reading the books and then condemned the film for its violence. I am sorry, but to be fair, I need the whole story as soon as it is available.

Now that is out of my system, I have just finished the best fantasy trilogy that I have read in a very long time. Brent Weeks is a new author to the genre, in fact I suspect a new author altogether. But he has created a spellbinding sword and sorcery fantasy series that has provided the bulk of my reading for the past week. Even a week before Christmas with all the chores that need doing, the book comes first.

At the start of the Way of Shadows, Azoth is a little boy surviving in the slums. As a necessity, he is part of a gang, but being small and untalented he knows that he will not survive long if he doesn’t find a way out. He meets Durzo Blint, a wetboy (highly skilled assassin) and eventually becomes his apprentice. But this apprenticeship does not come without a price, and the price is that Azoth must completely disappear. The new personality created is Kylar Stern, the son of a distant minor nobility. The Way of Shadows is about Kylar’s apprenticeship, his training and his eventual revenge on the bullies of his youth.

But like any opening book of a trilogy, the story is much bigger. All kinds of characters are introduced, opposition wetboys, Madame K, the evil king, three mad mages, and Logan, Kylar’s opposite, but best friend. And I liked them all! Weeks has a wonderful way of creating his characters that immediately engages the reader. Many times as I was reading this opening book I was reminded of Jimmy the Hand and Pug from Feist’s Riftwar Saga. 

Yes, this book is a traditional fantasy opening. It follows all the cliches, but still manages to give them a freshness. Durzo is a hard taskmaster to young Azoth/Kylar, frequent beatings and rare praise. But the reader can clearly see that there is more to Durzo’s story. We just can’t see it yet. We can forgive his tough treatment because it is totally in line with the tough character. But it is also much more than an opening novel of a trilogy. It introduces the characters, and hints at the grand task ahead, but there is still more than enough adventure within the pages of this book to keep the reader entranced.

Thank goodness the second book was published the following month so the reader could go straight on rather than waiting for a year or more for part 2.

December 1

I Dream of Magda by Stefan Laszczuk

Very rarely do I have the time to read a prize winning book. This one arrived with the Vogel Award badge printed on it’s front cover. But yet it is a new release. Does that mean that the manuscript won the award? Very impressive.

 The book is about a dysfunctional family. George works at the local ten-pin bowling alley at a dead end job. His boss has him pegged, and he gets the garbage jobs, literally. His girlfriend has just left him and he is grieving for the relationship while trying to work out what went wrong, and even dreaming of putting things back together. He is clearly suffering from post traumatic stress after walking in on a home invasion. The details are sketchy, but that constant fear has a serious impact on his behaviour when a prowler is seen in the neighbourhood. His brother Matthew is seriously troubled. He was driving when in a moment of youthful silliness there was an accident and his girlfriend/fiancé was killed. Grief and depression overwhelm the young man who can only find solace in a fantasy relationship with Magda Szubanski. George is looking after his older brother while keeping an eye on sad-but-smiling Mum. Enter Stacey, who seems to provide easy comfort, but what does she really want?

 This book thoroughly deserves the award. The writing is surreal, but absorbing. The reader very quickly comes to care about this family. George’s narration is straightforward and sensible, very clearly indicating the responsible young man that he is. Matthew’s narrations are far more symbolic and literary, but still have a warmth and sincerity that holds your attention. I even liked Mum, clearly suffering from a mental illness, but her love for her sons is genuine.

 As is often the case, I do have a problem with the publisher’s marketing. The cover indicated that I could expect a humorous book. Admittedly everyone has a different taste in humour, but I found this book to be very clearly a family drama examining the nature of grief. Thought-provoking and powerful, yes. Funny, no.

December 1

Lost Boys by James Miller

This book by first time author Miller is certainly new, fresh and unusual. But I haven’t got a clue about genre. Is it horror, suspense, fantasy or just a good old-fashioned war story. I for one haven’t got a clue.

 

The setting is modern England. Middle-class teenage boys are disappearing, hundreds of them. It looks like they are all running away, but they are never seen again. What is going on?

 

The situation is made much more intense by focusing on the disappearance of one boy, Timothy Dashwood. His father is a big wig for an international oil company, and the whole family have spent some time in the Mid East. With these connections, there is the assumption that Dashwood has been kidnapped and all that is to be done is wait for the ransom note. But several other boys from the same school have also disappeared, and no note appears.

 

The story is told in three parts. First through the eyes of Timothy as he drags himself through the last week of school before the Christmas break. He is the new boy at an exclusive private school and subject to bullying. The reader can clearly sense his desire to escape this torment. Once Timothy disappears the story is taken up by his father as he listens to a series of tape recordings made by the private detective hired to find the boy. These tapes gradually build tension and horror until the detective disappears, and only Dashwood knows how and where. In the final section of the book Dashwood decides to continue the investigation in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery.

 

I found this book really quite disjointed and difficult. There were tons of literary references thrown in. Even the title has links to Peter Pan. Did Miller want to demonstrate his education by name dropping? Or was there a point to all these references that I missed. And the second section could easily have been cut in half. After 100 pages, I no longer cared that the tapes were old and faulty, so painstaking descriptions of every hiss and crackle was wasted ink. I was so accustomed to skipping all the italic comments about the quality of the recording that I nearly missed it when the detective disappeared. The third part was packed full of unnecessarily graphic language and sex that had absolutely no place in a story of a father’s search for his son.

 

But maybe I missed the point. Maybe the whole book is about the tragedy of children caught up in war. Maybe Miller was trying to convince his readers that as long as war exists anywhere in the world, no child is safe.  A worthy theme that is hard to treat with a fresh approach, but a reader shouldn’t be wondering in the end.

 

This book would have made a great novella, or even a short story, but in its current form it is simply too long and complicated.