Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 review #8 The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately to complement the two selections we’re reading in twitter book club #1book140 (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow).  Jane Aiken has been mentioned as an influence in a lot of author interviews that I’ve read lately so I picked this book up from my library.

I have to say, this book is not at all what I was expecting it to be.  Because of the title, and the ominousness of the wolves in the first chapter, I was expecting book to be some form of supernatural story.  In fact, it’s really a classic Gothic storyline, the sort which implies the supernatural but ultimately has a reasonable explanation for everything.  That makes it sound as if I didn’t enjoy this book, but I really did.  Just because it’s a genre book, and thus adheres to certain generic traditions, doesn’t mean that it isn’t well-written or fun to read.

This book is almost like a cross between Jane Eyre and the Little Princess.  Cousins Bonnie and Sylvia are living in sprawling mansion Willoughby Chase under the charge of their governess, the villainous Miss Slighcarp.  Bonnie’s mother is very ill and her father has taken her to tropical climes in hopes of finding a cure for her illness.  As soon as the children (and the estate) are completely in Miss Slighcarp’s charge, misfortune reigns down on these two plucky heroines as Miss Slighcarp and her conspirators seek to take over the wealthy estate and dispossess the two girls.

One of the pleasures of this book was that I genuinely didn’t know how it was going to turn out (though I felt that the two main characters would triumph in the end, I really did not know exactly what their happy ending would look like).  Aiken’s descriptions are so evocative that I was completely sucked into the brooding yet innocent world of her story.  While the characters have some of the oversimplification that one particularly sees in vintage YA literature (a la Little Princess), in the context of this fairy tale-ish world, the lack of complexity didn’t really bother me.  Particularly given that the plot was much more suspenseful than is usual for vintage YA.   Good stuff.

Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 review #5 Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

If you’d have asked me two weeks ago which of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice novels was my favorite, I’d have answered Through the Looking-Glass.  For one thing, the idea of traveling through a mirror to an alternate universe that is the reverse of the one we’re in is GENIUS and one I was completely obsessed with as a kid.  Just way more captivating (to me) than the idea of falling down a rabbit hole (although Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole is every bit as amazing and delightful to read now as it was the first time around).  Also, I love the idea of the story being organized around Alice’s journey across a chessboard, a pawn hoping to end up as a queen.  Last, but not least, Through the Looking-Glass has Jabborwocky in it and I *love* that poem.

But now?  Now, I think now I’d say that Alice in Wonderland has a more satisfying plot, but …  Through the Looking-Glass is still an astonishingly inventive book.  I absolutely adore Lewis Carroll’s wordplay and nonsensical flights of fancy and both qualities are on sparkling display in this novel.  Are there more songs than I (or Alice) would like?  Yes.  Does it get a little repetitive towards the end?  Also yes?  Do I care?  Not really, no.  Through the Looking-Glass is deliriously enjoyable to read and I still love it.

Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 review #4 Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass were two of my favorite books when I was growing up.  I fell thoroughly and deeply in love with the books’ delicious nonsense and I can’t say I ever really got over it.  To this day there’s nothing that delights me quite so much as a story with imaginative, unrealistic elements.  Illogical impossibilities such as talking animals, spaceships, impossible travel, gods, monsters and conscious machinery?  Sign me up, I can’t get enough of it.

Recently I listened to the audiobook version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and I realized just how deliberately Neil Gaiman is following in the tradition set by Lewis Carroll.  His hero, Richard Mayhew, falls into an underworld version of London and his adventures there reflect the wordplay and delirious sense of fun of the original Alice books.  Gaiman consciously echoes the Carroll’s language, talking about how many impossible things Richard had believed before breakfast.  (I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have the book in front of me.)  Revisiting London Below inspired me to revisit Wonderland and I’m very very glad I did.  This is a marvelous book, justifiably celebrated as a classic, and I find it every bit as inspiring as an adult as I did as a child.


Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 Review #3 Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This review is for the audiobook version of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell narrated by Simon Prebble.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an absolutely wonderful book, definitely in my top ten books for the first ten years of the 21st century.  It’s a masterfully written tale of an alternate history world in which magic exists.  It’s the story of two magicians, the only two English magicians in centuries, it’s the story of English magic, the classic story of the tragic consequences of deals with faeries set in the era of Napoleonic war, the era of Jane Austen. Susanna Clarke writes wittily and elegantly and with a delightful attention to detail.  The book is full of discursive anecdotes and footnotes which color in the history of the alternate Britain Clarke has imagined.  This is the perfect book for the person who as a child wanted to go through the looking glass to explore strange other worlds, grew up to love Jane Austen and now wants to have that same sense of transportation and wonder.  I can not recommend this book highly enough.

Wonderfully narrated by Simon Prebble (who was perfectly cast and gave wonderful voice and inflection to all the characters in the book), this audiobook may be one of the best I’ve ever listened to.  I listened to it before falling asleep at night and it truly made the perfect bedtime story for a grown up.  I was completely transported by Prebble’s soothing and drily witty storytelling style.  I highly recommend the audiobook version of this book.

Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 Review #2 Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow is one of those writers I liked before I picked up one of his books.  I’m a fan of his website, Boing Boing, I love what he has to say about DRM and copyright issues and he was really nice to my friend Sarah.  (The last bit is probably the most important.  If he’d been a tool, it would have been all over for me.)  I got Pirate Cinema in the Humble Bundle last year (a project which Doctorow curated – on top of everything else, the guy has fantastic taste).

Set in London in the not-too-distant future, Pirate Cinema follows the adventures of teenager Trent McCauley.  Trent’s passion is for mixing content featuring his favorite actor, Scot Colford, into short films.  Because he is using copyrighted material, Trent is punished by having his household’s internet access pulled. This has catastrophic consequences for his family.  His clever younger sister’s grades suffer because she doesn’t have access to all the study materials she needs, his father loses his internet-based job and his mother loses her disability assistance (which she has to file for online).

Trent runs away to London in shame where he falls in with an enterprising young homeless man called Jem.  Jem introduces Trent to the life of a “gentleman of leisure”.  They find an abandoned pub which they fix up and turn into a cushy squat.  They feast off of gourmet food found in tips (dumpsters) behind luxury food stores.  Jem hooks Trent up with Aziz, who scavenges tips for electronics, and Aziz helps Trent set up a super deluxe laptop with which to make his films.  Soon, Trent is swept up in an underground world of activists and artists and becomes passionately involved in the fight to decriminalize copyright infringement.

Intellectual property issues are obviously a passion for Cory Doctorow, and sometimes the book leans heavily on the line between fiction and polemic, but for me it never leaned so far that it became tiresome.  I was entertained by the book’s gleefully anarchic, bubbling youthful energy and by Trent’s madcap adventures.  I definitely enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading more by Doctorow (especially Little Brother and For The Win).

Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 review #1 Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

This review is for the audiobook version of Neverwhere, read by Neil Gaiman.  Neverwhere is one of my favorite novels.  The sheer inventiveness of it makes my brain fizz over with happiness.

Richard Mayhew, a Scot living in London, helps an injured girl named Door and is drawn into the world of London Below, a city that exists in the mystical margins of London Above, peopled by the people who fell between the cracks.  Like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s books, Richard is forced to face a series of impossible events that he is barely able to cope with.  Door’s entire family has been slaughtered and she is being stalked by Croup and Vandermar, supernatural assassins (and seriously among the best villains ever created).  She needs to find out who is after her and why before Croup and Vandermar can finish her off.  For anyone who has ever looked at a London Tube map and marveled at the names, Neverwhere is a particular delight as Neil Gaiman’s vivid imagination turns various tube stop names into real things.  We have an Angel named Islington, an Earl’s Court (a medieval court housed in a train carriage that travels the Underground, presided over by an Earl), actual black friars.  These delights only scratch the surface of all the delightful improbabilities of London Below.  It’s not a place I’d want to live but it is an amazing place to visit.

I already loved the book before downloading this audiobook version but hearing Neil Gaiman read it made me fall in love with it over again.  Who knew that Gaiman was such a good reader?  He does a great Scottish accent for his hero Richard Mayhew and gives marvelous life to his delicious villains Croup and Vandermar.  I highly, highly recommend checking the audiobook out.