Thursday, June 19, 2008

Books I'm Looking Forward To (pt. 1)

I don't have anything to review at the moment, as I'm currently wading through several books I'm obligated to read for reviews or essays elsewhere. But I go through withdrawal if I go too long without talking about books, so here's a partial list of Books I'm Really Looking Forward To, in no particular order.

City Without End, the third book in Kay Kenyon's The Entire and the Rose quartet, due out in February 2009 from Pyr. I loved the first two books, both of which I reviewed for Magill Books Online. And the covers are stunning. (I'm a sucker for a gorgeous book cover.) Click here for a larger view.

Also from Pyr (January 2009), End of the Century by Chris Roberson. To quote from Pyr's site, the narrative of this book is "interlaced between three ages, in which a disparate group of heroes, criminals, runaways, and lunatics are drawn into the greatest quest of all time" -- the search for the Holy Grail. It also says that the "three narratives -- Dark Ages fantasy, gaslit mystery, and modern-day jewel heist -- alternate until the barriers between the different times begin to break down...." Sounds intriguing, and again, I love the cover.

From Underwood Books, I'm looking forward to Spectrum 15: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, edited by Cathy and Arnie Fenner. I began picking these books up somewhere around volume 7, and they are wonderful. Artists send in works in response to an open-call jury, and several hundred images of the best submitted artwork are showcased in big, full-color glory. I look forward to Spectrum every year, and I've never been disappointed.

This next title comes from Wildside Press and is due out in July 2008: Japanese Dreams, edited by Sean Wallace. It's described on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble sites as "the first volume in a series of anthologies offering short stories drawn from the storehouse of world mythology," and includes such authors as Catherynne Valente, Eugie Foster, Ekaterina Sedia, Erzebet YellowBoy, Yoon Ha Lee, Jenn Reese, Sarah Prineas, Jim C. Hines, and Steve Berman. I took a Japanese literature course in college, and took my first trip to Japan last year for Worldcon, so I think I might especially enjoy this anthology.

I could go on and on, but I'll end here with one last book... Firebirds Soaring: An Anthology of Original Speculative Fiction, edited by Sharyn November (Penguin/Firebird, October 2008). I reviewed the second book in this YA anthology series, Firebirds Rising, for VOYA a couple of years ago, and I was pretty impressed. As a side note, I think it's interesting that the subtitle has changed from the first two volumes; this is an anthology of "original speculative fiction" while the first two books were anthologies of "original science fiction and fantasy." Whatever works! I have to admit that I've found myself referring to the field as "spec fic" a lot lately. Same with "spec art."

Looks like there's no danger of running out of books to read anytime soon.
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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hold On To Your Horses

It wasn't my intention to review another picture book so soon, but I keep coming across them, and this one is special for a couple of reasons. The title is Hold On to Your Horses, and it was written by Sandra Tayler and illustrated by Angela Call. (I chose my favorite interior illustration to show here.) The story is both charming and useful, and the illustrations are nothing less than exquisite. But you don't have to take my word for it; the author and artist have made the entire book available as a free PDF download. They don't even require an e-mail registration!

The story is about a little girl named Amy who is filled with such creative imagination and energy that she has trouble thinking before she acts. According to the book's website, the author wrote the book to help her own daughter learn to "visualize and control her impulsive ideas." Amy becomes frustrated because she's always getting in trouble when she doesn't mean to, so her mother gently tells her that her ideas are like horses, sometimes running wild, and Amy needs to take care of them and keep them safe. It's a lovely and useful metaphor, and the illustrations carry it through wonderfully.

Since that PDF is available free, the book can speak for itself. A hardcover edition is also available for pre-order and will ship in July; I've ordered one for my niece and one for myself. And bravo to the author and artist for this bold and generous marketing strategy.
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Monday, June 9, 2008

Houston Ballet - La Slyphide / A Doll's House

This past Saturday, we attended the last ballet of the season for the Houston Ballet: La Sylphide and A Doll's House.

Even though we have season tickets to the ballet this year, it's still pretty new to me, and I've never had any formal training as a dancer or a dance critic. So please excuse in advance my lack of appropriate terminology, and of a historical knowledge of classical ballets. (End disclaimer.)

I didn't know anything going in about La Sylphide, but I had heard all about Stanton Welch's world premiere of a short ballet titled A Doll's House. The music, by István Márta, was performed by a percussion ensemble, and the premise was that something had gone terribly wrong in a toy store, such that the toys and dolls were engaged in a full-out battle. Fun enough premise, but the part that got me excited was the costumes. The Houston Ballet had been promoting this for months, with articles and blog posts about the two in-house junior designers, Monica Guerra and Travis Halsey, who had been tapped for this show. For me, here was the magic phrase: anime-inspired.

Oh my.

The image at the top of this post shows sketches for the costumes "Panda", "Mohawk Man", and "Aquaman", and those are only three of the nineteen costumes. This entry from Houston Ballet's En Pointe blog, written by Travis Halsey, states that the costumes incorporate "full body suits that have been hand-painted, ... embroidery, soft sculpture, hand-made jewelry, glow-in-the-dark paint, neon-lighting, fur, fringe, crystal, leather, French lace, pom-poms, bells, buckles, beading, quilting, smocking, yards of pleating, yarn spinning, etc." This online article from Playbill gives more information and another costume sketch.

Even with all this build-up, the costumes did not disappoint. They were whimsical, playful, and edgy all at the same time. Similarly, I loved the music, which seemed a bit techno, and the choreography.

My only bit of disappointment lay in the set design, or lack thereof. Now, I'm guessing two things played a major role in the decision to go with a minimalist set, consisting of the very rough outline of a house on the back wall of the stage, as if outlined in thick, colored masking tape. The first thing is that this show was paired with La Sylphide, which itself requires two major sets. Preceding La Sylphide with another elaborate set would have been quite the challenge, logistically speaking. The second (suspected) factor was cost. The Houston Ballet is a world class company, the fourth largest company in the U.S., in the fourth largest city in the U.S. Yet for the first Saturday performance of a world premiere by Stanton Welch, that auditorium was nowhere near full, which borders on tragic, in my opinion. However, even if the theater was sold out for every performance of every ballet, that doesn't cover the cost of several productions over a season.

In other words, I understand why they might not have done an elaborate set for this ballet. (And it is possible they made that decision for artistic reasons, so as not to compete with the costumes.) But I really feel that the costumes were short-changed, that they cried out for a wonderful, bizarre, grotesque toy shop background, with oversize props they could have danced and hidden behind occasionally, or even leapt on top of, during their battle. I wouldn't have wanted the set to overwhelm, but oh, it could have added so much.

During the first intermission, I read up in the playbill about La Sylphide, one of the oldest ballets in existence, created by Danish choreographer August Bournonville in 1836. A young Scottish farmer is about to be married, but is visited in his sleep by the Sylphide, a fairy or butterfly-like enchanted creature. He is eventually lured away, but not before he commits the cardinal sin of being rude to the old soothsaying woman who is telling fortunes at his betrothal celebration. Well, it's an old ballet, so perhaps you can guess: the old woman curses a filmy scarf that James places around his new beloved's shoulders, and it poisons her. She dies, he dies, and the witch cackles in triumph.

This image shows principals Connor Walsh and Sara Webb in the roles of James and the Sylphide. Sara Webb danced at the performance we saw, while James was performed by Ian Casady.

I fully expected not to like this, and I was unhappy that the season was going to end on a downer story. But I was so wrong! The ballet was divided into two acts, and there was a Scottish dancing scene with a large corps, including some children, that was really spectacular. There was a bit more exaggerated pantomime that I would have liked, but I guess that's quite common in classic ballet. Anyway, the music, by Herman Lovenskjold, was stirring. And the tragic scenes in the second act were gorgeous. I think this is probably the first time as an adult that I've seen such a classic ballet scene, with a full female corps doing en pointe steps in the most graceful, fluttering manner. The little tiny steps (here's where my lack of ballet terminology really shows) even made their tiny wings flutter. It was truly lovely. Oh, and the opening of the second act, with the witch and her cronies gathered around a cauldron in a very MacBeth-like manner, was wonderful.

All in all, a great evening. Here is a link to the review in the Houston Chronicle, which I haven't read as of the writing of this post. (That's where I'm headed next!)

They're doing Swan Lake next season. I think I'm finally ready for it!
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Saturday, June 7, 2008


I first came across Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat books during my young adult lit class in library school. They weren't required reading for that class, but another student spoke very highly of them and I eventually sought them out. I found them to be lovely and charming, and I followed them to FLB's Violet & Claire, which was much darker in tone and subject matter, but still contained the magic quality I had come to associate with FLB's writing.

Unfortunately, Quakeland has not followed suit. The dustjacket describes it as an "intertwining series of emotionally charged stories," but I found it to be a depressing and utterly confusing mess. The main character, Katrina, experiences disaster on every level. She has prophetic dreams that foretell September 11 and the Asian Tsunami of 2004, and her name was certainly not chosen by accident. She takes Zoloft to control the dreams, but stops taking it when her new boyfriend, Jasper, tells her to. She has a sex addiction that qualifies as unhealthy. A close friend experiences a recurrence of skin cancer. And the worst is that instead of being supportive, Jasper is cruel to the point of abuse. Because he's so "in touch with his feelings," he believes he must tell Katrina every hurtful thought he has about her, including the fact that he's glad she's not as attractive as other women because she's therefore not as much of a distraction.

Depression and pscyhological abuse are valid subjects for both fiction and nonfiction, although they are not subjects I tend to read about because, quite frankly, I already know a lot of people who are either clinically depressed or have other anxiety problems, and I don't feel I gain much by witnessing even more of it via fiction. But even without this personal bias of mine, I don't feel that Quakeland presents these subjects in an effective way.

First, there's just too much going on. (Warning: spoilers follow.) Katrina's friend Grace does indeed die of skin cancer, leaving behind three-year-old twins who have always sparked Katrina's jealousy, since she herself wants a baby and has already had a miscarriage. Jasper is impotent. Another friend named Kali reads Katrina's past lives, naturally "discovering" that Katrina has been through this victim cycle before, possibly with Jasper in one of his previous lives. Kali too was once ruled by her belief that she was nobody without a man. Katrina obsesses about earthquakes. People keep taking off their clothes and dancing for no apparent reason. Katrina has a hideous dating history. And on and on and on....

And while many novels (or collections of linked stories) both justify and effecitvely manage this level of complexity, Quakeland makes it worse by containing sections in which the reader cannot tell if Katrina is awake or dreaming; whether Katrina is writing a letter or writing in a diary or simply relating something to the reader; or whether another character entirely is "speaking" (made even more confusing in that some sections are headed by other characters' names). The book also seems, to me, to have a higher-than-average number of typos, the kind that exist specifically for copyeditors to find, such as "she couldn't bare to have her children see this."

In the end, I'm afraid that I couldn't quite finish this book. I'm willing to work for it, but at two-thirds of the way through, Quakeland has too little payoff for too much effort.
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Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Misadventures of Gaspard and Lisa

Picture books in the The Misadventures of Gaspard and Lisa series, written by Anne Gutman and illustrated by Georg Hallensleben, are originally published in French but some are also available in other languages, including English, Spanish, and German. And although I own one in English and one in German, I thought it would be more fun to display the covers of the Japanese editions, for two reasons. First, I own three of them in Japanese, but only one in German and none in English. Second, Japan was where I discovered these books, and where I fell in love with the funny stories, appealing illustrations, and charming characters.

Lisa (for some reason renamed Lola in the Spanish and Nina in the German editions) and Gaspard (Lukas in the German editions) are dogs that -- with no explanation -- live like people, even though there are actual people in their world. Actually, in some of the illustrations they look a bit like rabbits because of their ears, but I think they're dogs based on their tails. Anyhow, Lisa and Gaspard are best friends who constantly get into adventures, or misadventures. Occasionally the books deal with slightly serious issues -- Lisa is jealous of her new baby sister, Gaspard has to spend the night in the hospital, etc. -- but it's always with a light and humorous touch.

Now, many of you may know that Japan is the World Capital of All Things Cute. They are more than happy to import and adopt whimsical characters from other countries and merchandise the heck out of them, producing stickers, little wallets, plush animals, pencils, notebooks, you name it. In any case, when my husband and I went to Japan last year for the World Science Fiction Convention, I wasn't buying pottery or dolls as souvenirs -- I was buying children's picture books. We'd been taking Japanese lessons one day a week for a year in preparation for our trip, and I thought picture books would be a fun way to supplement our learning. (OK, that's a bit of an excuse -- I just love picture books!) I'd already purchased several picture books original to Japan, which have just stunning illustrations.

And then I happened upon Lisa and Gaspard in a department store. Oh my.

I decided I would get just one. I mean, after all, they weren't native to Japan, and I'd already bought a lot of books that we would have to stow in our luggage. So I picked up Le petit chat de Lisa, or basically "Lisa's Little Cat" or "Lisa's Kitten" (this one hasn't been published in English, apparently). We have cats, and I was missing them while we were on our trip, and it seemed perfect. Plus, how funny is it that the little dog gets herself a kitten as a pet? I have actually transcribed the hirigana and katakana into romaji, which is the sort of phonetic translation of the characters into the Roman alphabet. I can pick out a word here and there, but I can't really read it, because Japanese is a challenging language and I had to stop the classes when I started my new job. But oh, it's adorable!

Then, the next day, we were in another bookstore, and their Lisa and Gaspard display had the most wonderful book, Gaspard et Lisa as musée, or Gaspard and Lisa at the Museum. Now, I'm into science fiction and space and dinosaurs... and this book showed the two little dogs among the dinosaur fossils in a museum. How could I not get this book? And although they're obviously for children, they have some sly humor that adults can enjoy. Lisa and Gaspard go on a school field trip to a museum, and are a little miffed when their human classmates jokingly say that they look like some of the extinct animals on display. So the little dogs decide to play a joke: they pose within the exhibit behind signs they make up saying "very rare animal (white)" and "very rare animal (black)". But then they accidentally get locked in the museum for the night!

So there I was, completely pleased with my two Japanese Gaspard and Lisa books, and guess what happened! The next store we went into had a book titled Gaspard et Lisa au Japon, or "Gaspard and Lisa in Japan" (unfortunately not published in English). Gaspard and Lisa, on the cover with cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji (Fuji-san) in the background!

I'm sure you see where this is going. But I couldn't help it! This book is priceless. It starts with Lisa and Gaspard on an airplane (with Lisa's family, I think). They arrive in Japan and stare out the taxi window at the hustle and bustle and lights of Tokyo. They stay in a traditional Japanese hotel, and are very entertained by the electric toilet. They struggle with chopsticks, and they accidentally knock a man into the rock/sand garden at a temple they visit. When the man ends up with a cast on his leg, they helpfully draw pictures of themselves, Japanese temples, and the Eiffel Tower on it so he will remember his new friends.

So, if you have children, or nieces and nephews, or any small child in your life for whom you buy gifts, you can't go wrong with Lisa and Gaspard. Several books in the series are available in English via Amazon, or at the library. There's one where Gaspard gets a puppy -- too funny! -- but I think it was only published in French. There's also one in which they both visit Venice, and another in which Lisa goes to visit her uncle in New York. These books really are delightful, and I hope some other adults out there enjoy them as much as I do.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Customizing a blog

I've customized this blog to get three columns, plus the "read more" expansion for posts.

Whew! I know how to code in html, and I still found this whole process to be pretty complex. Fortunately, through blogger's help boards, I eventually found my way to a helpful article that gave me code to copy and paste, and told me where to put it. I then found someone else's instructions on how to achieve the "read more" cut. But honestly, I don't see how someone not familiar with html code could accomplish this. It's not clear to me why blogger isn't offering the 3-column version of its templates since it's clear from the help boards that so many people want them. I also think the "read more" capability should be an option in the settings. But I probably shouldn't complain -- after all, it's a free service.

And sigh... it appears that once you've inserted the code into your template to allow "read more" -- you have to have "read more", even with a very short post. The words "read more" appear regardless, and it would be annoying to readers to click it and find nothing, so that kind of encourages the blogger to keep rattling on....
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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Author meme

I recently added this review blog to a "Books and Blogs" webring of reviewers associated with Library Thing, and was tagged by Literary License with this meme. So here goes:

Author Meme Rules: Link to the person that tagged you, post the rules somewhere in your meme, answer the questions, tag six people in your post, let the tagees know they’ve been chosen by leaving a comment on their blog, let the tagger know your entry is posted.

1. Who’s your all-time favorite author, and why? Well, dang. I can't answer this question. I can easily answer every other question in this meme, about first favorite author, newly added favorite author, who comes to mind favorite author.... All-time favorite author? That would mean emphasizing one of these categories of favorites over another, and I just can't seem to do it.

2. Who was your first favorite author, and why? Do you still consider him or her among your favorites? I'd have to say that Arthur C. Clarke was my first truly meaningful favorite author, who started me on the road to science fiction. In 1984/85, I spent my high school junior year as an exchange student in (then West) Germany. At the begining of the year, I couldn't read German well enough to read young adult or adult fiction, so one of my teachers lent me a box of old SF paperbacks someone had left in his attic, including some Clarke and Asimov. After I'd run through those, I found an English-language bookshop in downtown Hamburg that had a great sci-fi section, and I've never looked back. That was also the year the movie 2010 came out, and I was blown away by both the book and the movie. My favorite Clarke titles are probably Imperial Earth and Songs of Distant Earth, which aren't considered among his "important" works, but they're darn important to me. I do still consider him among my favorites, but I see his writing differently now. I see the flaws, and the little things I don't like about his writing, and mostly I feel a fond affection for those flaws, if that makes sense, as if only one who knows his writing this intimately could see and so easily forgive those flaws.

3. Who’s the most recent addition to your list of favorite authors, and why? Glenda Larke, an Australian fantasy writer, blew me away with her Isles of Glory trilogy: The Aware, Gilfeather, and The Tainted. The world-building was astounding, the stakes were high, and the characters were fully drawn. I'm now reading her next trilogy, and I hope we see more and more books from her in the future. Oh, and Kay Kenyon -- based on her The Entire and the Rose quartet, of which two have so far been published: Bright of the Sky and A World Too Near.

4. If someone asked you who your favorite authors were right now, which authors would first pop out of your mouth? Are there any you’d add on a moment of further reflection? Mary Doria Russell, Joe Haldeman, Glenda Larke, Nicola Griffith, Ian Falconer, Lauren Child, Marjory Hall.... (I'm pretty sure most people won't have heard of that last one....)

5. Tagged:
Medieval Bookworm
She is too fond of books...
A Reading Life
Calliope's Coffee House
Silverheron's Nest
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