Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book #5: Aotearoa/New Zealand

Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey.

I could go on and on about awesome New Zealand-featuring books, but I’ll try not to. I might bore you. This one is set in Christchurch (yes, the city that had a 7.1 earthquake recently) and weaves Maori mythology into real life. I love the idea that the mythological world exists as it is in the minds of people, and as people’s ideas change, it changes too. And hot guys trying to hide their hotness are also good (goes with my love of awesome people in disguise).

Ellie literally stumbles across the magic world that exists beside our own when she stumbles into Mark Nolan. He’s the hot guy she’s had a crush on since she moved to Christchurch, and things become ever more mysterious from there. There are secret societies and chanting wars in the forest, and you never quite know who is on which side. Ellie’s magical problems worsen along with her normal problems, and I think the fact that she has to deal with ‘real world’ situations as well as fantastical situations makes the story all the more convincing, and draws you right in.

There’s something different about reading books about places you know, especially if they’re of the urban fantasy variety. It makes it all so much more immediate, and you find yourself looking around you and wondering. What if it really was real? What if there’s a patupaiarehe around the next corner? Obviously I’m a Kiwi (the person, not the bird or the fruit), and I love the Kiwi-ness of the language. Healey uses munter (heehee) and No. 8 wire and taonga, which is loosely translated as precious treasure/heirloom, as well as many other Maori words. I recognise the landscape and I’ve grown up with the myths. I think she does a great job of evoking the spirit and feeling of New Zealand.

A few other awesome books worthy of mention (that I can think of at the moment):
Halfmen Of O trilogy by Maurice Gee (there are bits in NZ...)
Dreamhunter duet by Elizabeth Knox (pseudo-nineteenth century NZ)
Because We Were the Travellers by Jack Lasenby (post-apocalyptic NZ)
I am not Esther by Fleur Beale (normal NZ, but scary...)
Lots of things by Margaret Mahy. I like Alchemy.

Goal of the week: reduce my use of the word ‘awesome’.

Any books set in New Zealand you like? And no, Lord of the Rings does not count.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book #4: Japan

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn.

This is another setting I have to remind myself isn’t actually real. My travel bug pricks up its antennae and doesn’t really care about the fact that Japan is in the twenty-first century like the rest of the world, and doesn’t have supernatural ninja people. That we know of.

One of the things I love about this book and the rest of the series is the style of writing – poised, poetic and with an undercurrent of tension. It takes a bit to get used to it, but it really evokes the contrasts in feudal Japan – the calm of art and tea ceremony against the fierce and bloodthirsty battles for control.

It’s a coming of age story (like most of YA I guess), and there are assassins and secret identities and hiding in plain sight (in a few senses of the word). Personally, I love secret identity stories. I can’t help grinning when the hero or heroine tricks everyone into thinking they’re a mild-mannered reporter or a hypochondriac fop, when really they’re SO much more awesome underneath. And when everything is revealed...

The book is told from alternating points of view, with the hero and heroine meeting only briefly and falling desperately, mythically in love. I like alternating POV because you get to see the main characters from each others’ points of view, and you get different perspectives on the same world. I also like it because I tend to write it...

It’s not really much to do with the story, but I LOVE the covers for this series (Hachette hardbacks). I’ve rubbed all the ‘gilt’ off Nightingale Floor because I’ve read it too many times, but it still looks dreamy and balanced and beautiful. I like the design of books. I have been known to buy books because they have a see-through dust jacket (Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness) or the chapters are numbered backwards (The Foreshadowing, Marcus Sedgwick). So pretty/different books make me happy.

Okay, I think I’m going to go read this book again.

More suggestions for Japanese books?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book #3: Canada

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Yes, I know, the protagonist is thirteen so this isn’t really YA, but let’s just ignore that.

A boy. A hatchet. Alone in the Canadian forest. It’s about as high concept as you can get. I think all of us, no matter whether we live in a fifty-second floor New York apartment or the jungles of Borneo, can relate to this: the struggle to survive against a Nature that doesn’t care whether we live or die.

Brian must figure out how to survive on his own, and hope that rescue comes soon. He’s up against mosquitoes and bears and poisonous berries as well as thoughts of his parents’ divorce. Everything’s distilled out here into life and death, good and bad choices. What seems important in the world of people is insignificant.

It’s amazing how the entire story can be carried by one character alone in the forest. We get flashbacks, and a brief cameo of the pilot at the beginning, but for the vast majority of the book it’s Brian on his own in the wilderness. It scares me to think of writing a book with only one character carrying all the action. It’s almost like that guy who wrote a book without the letter ‘e’.

But it works. You’re riveted until the final page, and then you go back for more in the sequels. I love that Paulsen wrote Hatchet: Winter, playing with the fluidity of storytelling by changing the ending and making room for an entire alternate-reality book. It’s the same kind of idea as a lot of fanfiction, but more awesome because it’s actually written by the author.

I think the book also catches onto you because it’s about a kid taking control of their life. When I was a kid, I spent hours making secret huts and imagining living in piles of driftwood on the beach. Brian perfects his shelter and actually lives in it, something I could only dream of as a hideaway architect.

I’m not sure I want to be stranded in the middle of the Canadian forest after reading this book, but at least I know to have a hatchet with me at all times.

I wonder if airport security would let me.

Any Canadian books you like?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book #2: Australia

Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden.

I love the way this book gets right into you and makes you think about the world and choices and courage. Many of us live in countries where the possibility of invasion is laughable – how would anyone do it? Our military would stop them. The United Nations would stop them. Decent human goodness would stop them. We feel safe.

And then we’re faced with Ellie and her friends, who thought just that and have been proven wrong. Australia has been invaded, and they have to decide what to do. They’re in a good position – they could go bush and stay out of trouble. Or they could try to fight back.

The invaders have understandable reasons for invading – they have too many people and too few resources, whereas Australia is rich, fertile (in some places...) and sparsely populated. They’re not the root of all evil, even if some of the characters think so, and the morality of fighting or not fighting is explored. People are people, even if they’re on the opposite side of a war.

Everything seems so real, so immediate. You go into the bush, walk along Tailor’s Stitch, descend into the sanctuary of Hell. Reading through the book again, I was amazed at the careful ratcheting of tension right from the first page. Anything can happen, and does. There are love triangles and snakes and mysterious murder stories, bush-bashing and bulldozers and dentists in hiding, uncalled-for dressing gowns and blowing things up...

Ok, I confess. I like explosions. Not the real kind, just the fictional kind. And this series, starting with TWtWB, provides a lot of them. Yes, Ellie tries to figure out if it’s ok to kill other people to save yourself, and how the Bible can say ‘thou shalt not kill’ and then present all these heroes who kill people. But in the end this book is also about fighting for what you believe in, once you’ve weighed your beliefs very carefully. In a situation like this that means explosions and ingenious plotting, both on the part of the author and of the characters. And explosions are fun. In fiction.

However, I’m glad that the number of fictional fatalities is kept low-ish (at least in the first book). It’s enough to give you get a sense that this is serious, that lives are at stake.

The book leaves you thinking, which the best books do.  What would you do if your country was invaded? Would anyone have understandable reasons for invading? Can you do anything to make the world a fairer place?

So what books set in Australia do you like?