Monday, 21 April 2008

The Book of Dead Days, Marcus Sedgwick

The Book of Dead Days has been variously described in online reviews as "fast-paced", "spell-binding", "chilling" and "suspenseful". It was nominated for the Guardian Award, and was also shortlisted for the Sheffield Book Award and the Edgar Allan Poe Award. This book is not part of my Once Upon A Time II challenge list, but I picked it up after finishing My Swordhand is Singing for the challenge, so I might as well to review it for the Challenge review site, in case anyone else is interested in it.

Set in the Dead Days between Christmas and New Year's this is a young adult's fiction whose central character is a young boy simply named Boy. Boy serves as something of a slave to a famous magician Valerian. The focus of the story is Valerian's attempt to escape a devilish pact made 15 years ago before his time runs out on New Year's Eve. Aided by Boy and a young servant girl, Willow, Valerian runs about, encountering obstacles and detours, trying to find a book that will provide him with a way out of this death pact. There is a twist at the end of the story, that is linked to Boy and the solution to Valerian's problem.

After reading My Swordhand is Singing, I did not have unreasonably high expectations for The Book of Dead Days. I only wanted a quick and easy read, knowing that Marcus Sedgwick's writing is straightforward and plain, as it should be to be suitable for young adults target market. The Book of Dead Days began with some promise: descriptions of The City in which these adventures take place evokes a haunting and complex labyrinth of crumbling, dark structures and some interesting characterisations of Boy, Valerian and Willow. However, these promising starts did not continue into the rest of the book. After the first few chapters, the book ended up purely driven by plot. Sadly though, the plot was so contrived and peppered with so many awkward plot devices that I lost interest in the story! I only finished the book so I could evaluate its suitability for my 8-year-old son.

With the many loose ends and unanswered questions at the end of the book, the story is set up for a sequel, which I imagine the author hopes will leave readers yearning for more. But I did not even feel for Boy nor did I want to know how the story continues for him. I did not enjoy this book at all and I'm sorry to say that I will not be reading the sequel, but I'll ask my son to write a review if he decides to read The Dark Flight Down. For such a positively-reviewed book, nominated for so many awards, I think I'm really being very picky about the books I want to read! I've even lost interest in Interworld, which I'll ask my son to review, since I'm moving on to The Dark Materials trilogy ASAP!

Saturday, 12 April 2008

My Swordhand is Singing, Marcus Sedgwick

Amazing! I finished My Swordhand is Singing in 24 hours. The fun of reading an easy children's book! I didn't even spend all day reading. I started the book last night, did all my usual Saturday stuff today, then continued with it in the late afternoon, finishing it at about 0930pm.

I'd recommend this book for anyone seeking a simple and enjoyable escape. Set in Churst in the middle of winter, it is a story about a father coming to terms with a secret from his past and a son's coming of age, as they both confront a menacing evil in the form of "vampires" or the dead who return from the graves to terrorise and infect the Churst villagers.

The plot is straight forward and the writing refreshingly uncluttered. Despite the creepy subject matter, the scares are few and far between. Marcus Sedgwick instead relies successfully on mood and anticipation to build tension and suspense as the story unfolds. I think children will enjoy this fast paced story that reasonably does not delve too much into introspection or lengthy descriptions. It is also not too frightening or gory, so I wouldn't hesitate to let even my son read it if he wanted to.

I am pleased that I found several Marcus Sedgwick books on my trip to the library today. I borrowed The Book of Dead Days and The Dark Flight Down. I expect they will be equally quick and pleasant reads, and look forward to starting on them. I also found Neil Gaiman and Michael Reeves' Interworld. Since there is a due date to return these books to the library, I will be reading them first. I don't think it will take too long to read them, so I can afford to put off reading The Dark Materials omnibus for a few more days.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Lyra's Oxford, Philip Pullman

I read Lyra's Oxford in one sitting the other night, before I started on The Dark Materials trilogy. This is because I need to return the book to the library this weekend and also I felt I wouldn't lose much as I already know quite abit about the Dark Materials world from the publicity and fanfare of The Golden Compass film release.

Lyra's Oxford is a short story that takes place post-The Amber Spyglass and tells of Lyra's encounter with a bird-shape daemon, Ragi, his witch and the alchemist Sebastian Makepeace. In this short story, Lyra escapes from a death trap when she is assisted by various forces in Oxford, particularly the birds, and this leads her to believe that Oxford is protecting her.

I liked Philip Pullman's easy tone that draws the reader into the story quickly. I anticipate I will enjoy The Dark Materials Omnibus that I caved-in and purchased last weekend. I had been trying in vain to borrow all the books in this trilogy, so when I found it in the omnibus edition, I purchased it so I could read them all consecutively.

With this trilogy, Lyra's Oxford and Vellum, I am technically fulfilling the Quest The First criteria of reading 5 books from the Once Upon A Time II genres of fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology.

However, since I listed 6 books when I signed up for the challenge, and I have decided I can't bear to read Ink, I am replacing Ink with My Swordhand is Singing, by Marcus Sedgwick. It is a vampire story for children that I borrowed from the library, so I shall be reading this first, before I dive into The Dark Materials books.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Vellum, Hal Duncan

This is a difficult book to review.

First of all, there isn't a clear straight line narrative in this book. The plot and pace are sparse yet convoluted due to the lack of the linear progression. It's not an easy book to read. In many portions, it reads like an extended version of an epic poem with many remixes. This is clearly due to the fact that, as Hal Duncan admits in his Acknowledgements section, "large portions of this novel involve adaptations of various ancient myths, poems and plays." And Vellum is repetitious, mainly because Hal Duncan is out to prove a point, that I will mention in the next paragraph.

Secondly, I'm not going to lie and say that I understand Vellum. I'm guessing someone with larger and deeper knowledge of ancient mythology might do better than I did with this book. Hal Duncan seems adament about proving, through his novel, the theory of archetypes in myths that recurr in different cultures in different times. Almost all the subtexts, premises and underlying connections between the central characters in his book are based on knowledge of these myths. This also leads to the repetition of passages, used as a stylistic means for expressing the idea of cycles.

The tone, pacing and prose in this book is also very uneven. I was bored to death in certain portions and gave in to my frustration by skimming through several long passages and some pages. But in other portions, Hal Duncan's prose is lyrical, the imagery lush and raw. I experienced quite a literary rush reading those parts. And in 2 to 3 instances, where there was actually some plot driving the story forward, it became quite exciting to see ideas and events unfold.

My personal view is that if Hal Duncan wanted to dabble with or make an argument about theories, I think he might have done better to write an essay. There are some interesting ideas that he presents in this novel that I wish he expanded on, eg. the Vellum, the war between the forces of good and evil angels, etc. but he only keeps harping on the idea of beings trapped in cycles of action / fate / destiny. It's sad to see promising portions drowned in Hal Duncan's obsession with this idea.

I'm having second thoughts about reading his follow-up novel Ink, because to be honest, I'm not done with Vellum but I'm already thinking of giving up, at page 369 out of 499. But since I'm already amost done, I'm going to spend a couple more days with Vellum and see how it goes, then will read Ink and see how I feel about it.