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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Round-Up

Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip: This was a re-read of my favorite McKillip novel. Her prose tends to be very metaphorical and beautiful and a bit impenetrable, but as my friend put it, this is one of her more lucid stories. It is also about an orphan taken in by librarians and given a mysterious book to translate and an ancient myth to unravel, so no wonder I love it.

Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip: This is another of her more straightforward stories. The difference here that is when I first bought it years ago, I could not get into it. Re-reading Alphabet of Thorn made me want to tackle this again, and frankly I don't know what was wrong with me twelve years ago. Another orphan needs to discover the truth about his background (which, to be fair to McKillip, is completely different from the above orphan's origins) and avenge a great evil perpetrated on his family. Like her other books, McKillip populated this one with a number of complex, very human characters. The one sort-of exception is the antagonist -- he's not two-dimensional like villains in fantasy novels all too often are, but unlike the antagonists in other books his humanity is not enough to even partially redeem the horrible things he has done. I have no problem with that, it is just something I noted because McKillip's antagonists are rarely truly evil.

(As an aside, whoever's trying to sell a copy of this book on Amazon for $99 is insane, and greedy; is selling several copies for under $10.)

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine: A take on Sense and Sensibility, gently skewering modern sensibilities. Like Jincy Willett, Schine creates satirical characters but treats them with genuine affection, so that the reader cares about them even as she loses patience with their actions. Also, Schine appears to correct a plot point of Austen's that always bothered me, so points for that.

I Zombie by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred: This is a new series from Vertigo Comics, highly praised. I've read ten issues so far, and while it is pretty good it has not lived up to its hype. The premise is that Gwen is a reluctant zombie who must periodically eat a human brain (to avoid killing people she works as a gravedigger); doing so gives her the dead person's memories, allowing her to resolve any unfinished business or solve any mysteries.* Surprisingly little of the first ten issues was spent on this, however, as the writer set up what are clearly to be the overarching plot points -- how did she become a zombie, will she eventually have to start killing bad guys to feed her appetite, what is that armaggedon-like thing looming on the horizon, and will she get the cute guy who's vowed to destroy her kind? Roberson has come up with a neat mythology to explain the existence of revenants, ghosts, zombies, poltergeists, vampires, werewolves, and so on (it has to do with the fact that every living creature has both an oversoul and an undersoul), but the series as a whole seems designed to cater to the 18-24 demographic. With the exception of three stock characters -- the sassy older waitress at the diner, the cantankerous grandpa, the tough, weather-beaten monster hunter who will clearly be played by Samuel L. Jackson should this ever become a movie -- all the characters are young and hip and trendy and not nearly as interesting as they think they are. There is a lot of promise, so I'll continue to read it for a while longer.

*In this sense it reminded me of Agnes Quill, a wonderful comic about a girl who is pestered by ghosts until she does what they want her to do.

From Demons to Dracula by Matthew Beresford: I read this way back in October but kept forgetting to write about it. It purports to tell the evolution of the vampire myth, but it is remarkably poorly written. Beresford jumps from topic to topic, country to country, and even century to century with little or no transitions, and he makes conclusory statements with little or no explanation of how he got there; in short, he doesn't show his work. Which is a shame, because he clearly has done a tremendous amount of research and he really knows the material. Not everyone is great at telling a coherent story, and I think he would have benefited from a good editor. I also wish he'd give me his research notes, so I can learn more.

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