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Sunday, June 27, 2010

So, what is it with all these princesses?

This is something for which we can't blame Stephenie Meyer. Her heroine is, at least, just the daughter of the local policeman. She might land herself a hot vampire boyfriend (or should that be a cold marble-skinned one?), but she isn't a vampire princess or a chosen one (at least - not in the first book. I haven't read the others yet).

I have just received my latest novel in which the heroine, a "normal American teenage girl" suddenly finds out she's a princess of some supernatural realm. I made myself read something else first, so that I wouldn't be biased.

But there's also a new pile of books at my school, to be processed next term, with at least three of these books in it. I think one of them is about a girl who finds she's a Faerie princess and gets a hot boyfriend from the supernatural realm. Vampire princesses are common. The story is as follows: the heroine is about to turn sixteen. She finds out that her parents are not her real parents, or at least her single-parent family is that way because her mother once had a romance with a vampire, a demon or a Faerie. And the father is always, always a king or a prince. Which makes the heroine a princess. And if she doesn't date the gorgeous mystery boy who has turned up in her life, the world will come to an end. Usually, there are bad guys after her, wanting to use her specialness for their own evil purposes.

Buffy, please come back! She may be the teenage "chosen one", but at least she's not a princess. And before the series was over, she found the reason for the "chosen one" and made damned sure that every girl could do what she did.

But, all this said, for the time being at least, the girls love it. So we older cynical girls will just have to accept it.

On the other hand, at least one of the good readers in Year 7 at my school has asked for the original Dracula. She too is getting a little tired of the vampire princesses.

THE MOTH DIARIES By Rachel Klein. London: Faber, 2004

This book was published a long time ago. I'm guessing that it has been sent for review again because there are plans afoot to make a movie based on it. From what I have read, it will be a horror movie, which may or may not be able to show the questions raised by the book.

It’s an interesting read – and a long way from the vampire romances coming out so regularly now.

Set in a boarding school for girls, some time in the 1970s, this very Gothic novel reads like a cross between Carmilla and The Turn Of The Screw. The narrator writes a foreword and afterword thirty years down the track, saying that her psychiatrist has suggested publishing the diary she kept at school, which he has had since treating her. Names will be changed “to protect the innocent”, but we never learn hers at all.

The narrator resents new girl Ernessa, who has taken over her friendship with Lucy Blake, the golden-haired airhead who, nevertheless, helped the diarist settle into the boarding school where she was sent after her father committed suicide (or did he? Was it suicide or murder?). She becomes convinced that Ernessa is a vampire. Ernessa never seems to eat. Her bed seems to be unslept-in. There is a bad smell coming from her room, though only the diarist seems to notice it. Lucy is gradually becoming weaker and weaker. There is, of course, an irony in the name Lucy - the same as Dracula’s victim - although at one point in the novel the diarist sneers at a teacher who suggests she might enjoy Stoker’s book.

The thing is, the narrator is unreliable, much like the one in Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. There are hints throughout the book that she is not quite right in her mind, that, as with the governess in The Turn of The Screw, it might all be in her head. She does seem to find evidence for her beliefs – very compelling evidence – but is she telling the truth, even in her diary? I was expecting a twist at the end – and there was, so make sure you read it all the way to the end, including the “Afterword”. And, to give the author credit, there are clues throughout the novel. She isn’t unfair to her readers.

I’d recommend this book for good readers from about sixteen up.

There are many references in it to classic supernatural fiction, but the one I would suggest handing the reader afterwards is Carmilla, which is mentioned several times and with good reason.

And please- read it BEFORE you see the movie. However good it is - we'll have to see - it may not be able to throw out the same clues.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

BLOOD FEUD By Alyxandra Harvey. London: Bloomsbury, 2010.

This is a sequel to My Love Lies Bleeding, set only a few days later. The vampire Drake family are now the royal family of the vampire community – that part of it, of course, which is not connected with the Hounds, the Host or the nutty Hel-Blar. The Host, led by evil vampire Montmartre, has been trying to capture Solange, now Princess Solange, the only girl born to her family in nine hundred years, so that Montmartre can be the next king. In the last novel, Solange managed to survive her change to vampire state (it’s a genetic thing in her family) with the help of her friend Lucy, a vampire hunter who became Solange’s boyfriend and a party of Hounds, led by French girl Isabeau St Croix.

Isabeau, as we learn in this book, had survived the French Revolution and her time in the streets of Paris, only to be turned into a vampire in London, by evil British vampiric earl, Greyhaven, who had then left her buried for two hundred years before she was rescued by the Hounds and brought to America (in this world, vampires don’t seem to have any special problems with crossing water, any more than they vanish from mirrors). The previous novel was centred around Solange and Lucy; this one is about the blossoming romance between Isabeau and Solange’s brother Logan.

Montmartre hasn’t given up, of course. And Isabeau discovers that Greyhaven is still around and helping him.

The author has taken trouble over vampire culture and legend. I suppose there would be some if vampires were born as well as made. Some things I found a little strange. The Hound culture seems to be very ancient, connected with female shamans – shamankas – and dogs, but, though it’s set in America, there doesn’t seem to be any Native American connection.

Of course, there were people in North America before the Native Americans – they may have been responsible for killing off all the prehistoric animals whose remains have been found. Maybe they were even vampires – who knows? But the Hounds seem to speak Welsh! This needs some explanation and perhaps this will happen in the next novel. And I’d like to know how genetic vampires age. The family matriarch, a mediaeval Frenchwoman, is still around, somewhere, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone else that old. Isabeau still looks eighteen, but she was turned. Will Logan stay eighteen? Will his mother stay Queen forever unless someone stakes her? It’s no wonder Tolkien made an “out” for his immortal Elves, or they, too, would have had the problem of Mum and Dad being around forever, telling you what to do! (As it was, 2000-year-old Arwen still had to do her father’s bidding).

Never mind. The series is fun. It takes itself a whole lot less seriously than many others of this genre. Logan is turned on by the fact that Isabeau can really kick butt. And vampires stake each other! Isabeau rolls her eyes at those pretentious vampires who carry polished stakes, when her comrades just sharpen sticks. There are cheeky references to such things as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, though there are probably a lot of teenagers out there who haven’t heard of Buffy(Pity about that).

The first book has been popular in my library and I have every intention of putting this one in as well. In fact, there's a student waiting for it right now...

THE WILDKIN’S CURSE By Kate Forsyth. Sydney: Macmillan, 2010.

This is a so-called “companion volume” to The Starthorn Tree, which I haven’t read, but it doesn’t matter. It can be read as a stand-alone story, though it is set some years later.

The novel is set in a world in which there are different types of people – the aristocratic starkin, the lower-class hearthkin and the wildkin, who are more or less human, but with an Elvish feel about them –pointed ears and magical abilities. There are Faerie-type beings in the forests and the air, who are associated with the wildkin. In the first novel, a group of teenagers set off on a quest to rescue the brother of one of the characters, who was in an enchanted sleep. This time, the children of those characters are on a quest to free wildkin Princess Rozalina, whose starkin father is keeping her locked up in a tower and has plans for her. The fate of the entire country depends on what they do – but Princess Rozalina is dangerous, though not intentionally. Her prophecies always come to pass. Always.

Kate Forsyth is the author of a large number of award-winning children’s fantasy novels and it’s not hard to see why they won prizes. She creates characters you can care about. I don’t generally like quest novels, but this one is not about an elf, a long-lost prince a bad-tempered dwarf and a couple of bickering warriors going after a magical object. The characters are human. They love and hate, they get tired and cold and hungry.

She has also worked carefully on her cultures and background. The society is a strange mixture of Middle Ages and eighteenth century France. She uses whatever bit of history is convenient for her story. Somehow, it works. And it works, also, as a cracking good adventure.

Excuse me. I’m off to find a copy of The Starthorn Tree, so I can see where it all began.

SILAS AND THE WINTERBOTTOMS By Stephen M. Giles. Sydney: Macmillan, 2009

On a tropical island called Sommerset, rich – and nasty - old Uncle Silas Winterbottom is dying. He has been out of touch with the family for years. Now three younger Winterbottoms, Milo, Isabella and Adele, have been summoned to the island, told that he will be leaving his fortune to one of them and has not yet decided which one.

Each of the children has his or her own agenda – but so does Uncle Silas. And his agenda has nothing to do with giving away his fortune to any of them…

This is an over-the-top Gothic tale with tongue planted firmly in cheek. None of the characters is particularly believable, but they’re not meant to be. It’s just a little hard to believe that all this stuff could happen in the present day, even with all the explanations about why no one could so much as get on the phone let alone use the Internet, but then this is not the first book of which this can be said and at least this writer does explain it, unlike some others. And it is deliberately over-the-top.

Kids are likely to enjoy the exaggerated characters and storyline, including Uncle Silas's pet crocodile.

If they do enjoy it, there’s a sequel. Stand by.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

LEVIATHAN By Scott Westerfeld. Illustrated by Keith Thompson. New York: Simon Pulse, 2009

Imagine a world in whuch Charles Darwin discovered DNA way back in the 19th century. It might be somewhat like Leviathan, an adventure set at the very beginning of World War I, in a world where genetic engineering is in full swing – but only in Britain and a number of other countries allied with it. Some prehistoric animals, such as woolly mammoths, have been brought back from extinction, but the genetic engineering has mostly been used to create living technology. Double-muzzled dogs are used to sniff for hydrogen in the giant living airships. “Mammothines” are used for transport. Krakens are useful to the British Navy.

Most impressive are the airships, created from whale DNA and home to an entire ecosystem that keeps them going and strange creatures from stingless bees to “flechette” bats, which eat figs containing metal flechettes and then excreting them to fight the enemy.

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire live the “Clankers” whose technology is more like our own, though they use “Walkers” that look more like something out of the Star Wars movies than like the tanks in our world.

The two protagonists are Deryn, a British girl who has disguised herself as boy to be able to join the navy and fly in an airship, and Alek, the (fictional) son of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, whose assassination started the war in both universes. The two meet when Deryn’s ship, Leviathan, is grounded in the Swiss Alps. The two groups have to use their combined technology to survive, with the help of Darwin’s scientist grand-daughter (and yes, she was a real person, though she didn’t travel with a pet Tasmanian Tiger) who herself is on a secret mission. Be warned: it ends on a cliffhanger, with another volume promised.

I must say, Scott Westerfeld is one of the few writers who could convince me that this sort of technology would be around so early, but then, he was also the only writer who ever convinced me that vampires might be possible, if their condition was based on the real world of parasites. The idea of living technology is not original; Harry Harrison did it in his Eden series of novels, in which the dinosaur-killing comet never hit and the more intelligent dinosaurs developed their own civilization based on genetically-engineered living technology.

But the Eden novels took the ideas in a different direction. And this one has the charm of the steampunk genre, along with the alternative universe “what if one thing in history had been different…?”

This is a ripsnorter of an adventure, beautifully illustrated by Keith Thompson, who has contributed gorgeous plates of the kind produced in books published at the time in which the novel is set, and endpapers which feature an elaborate map of Europe, showing where Clanker and Darwinist technology is used.

I’m sure it will be fine in paperback, but if you can get hold of the hardcover for yourself or the young adult in your life, do so, for the full experience.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

On Subscription Renewals and Special Offers

Last year I renewed a subscription for my library, a magazine the kids love to read. We got a special offer, $49.95 for twelve issues! This year, we got another "special offer" - the same amount for a whole ten issues! Yay! But ONLY if we subscribed NOW. Two months ahead. It took me ages to get through to the publishers to clarify. They kept answering every question except the one I had actually asked: what happens if I don't take advantage of your fabulous offer? Do I pay more but still get 12 issues? Are you cutting back to ten issues a year? And whoever was replying refused to give me a name to speak to. It may be I was hearing from more than one person, but still...

Finally, someone admitted that they were cutting down to ten issues a year and I had to renew, because they STILL haven't told me what I have to pay if I leave it till August, the date we really are due and I have had enough of this back and forth.

I have to take my hat off to this company's marketing division, though :"Let's send them a whiz-bang special offer and hope they don't notice we've cut the goods back AND we get all the interest on the payment in the meantime." Take from your customers and make it look like you're doing them a favour. As far as I'm concerned, I would have preferred to get a message saying, "We're cutting back, but if you renew now we can keep it at the old price." I would still have taken up the offer, but not had all the annoyance.

Ah, well.

Addendum: Today I got in to work and found a new message from the company offering TWELVE issues for the same price as the previous one. After I'd faxed through the order for the ten.

I rang up the company and spoke to a nice gentleman who fixed it for me and promised an invoice in a few days. I got his name. When you get a competent person on the other end, you don't want to lose them.