If you were an alien observing Western culture, you could be forgiven for thinking Easter is a celebration of chocolate. I guess the chocoholics among us could argue that good chocolate is like a religious experience, but wow – does there have to be quite so much of it? My kids are inundated with enough to last for months by family members eager to spoil them.
You may recall a few years ago I decided to give up sugar. (Sadly a lot has crept back into my diet, but that’s another story.) When Easter rolled around, this posed a troubling dilemma – since they were little, I’d always done an egg hunt with them on Easter Sunday morning. They used to make and decorate their own baskets for collecting eggs, and look forward to it for weeks.
But now it felt like offering them poison – yet I loved the egg hunts as much as they did, and didn’t want to give it up. There’s something so fun about finding tricky places to hide little treasures and watching the kids run around like headless chooks looking for them.
Enter plastic eggs from the $2 shop: a little more challenging to organise, but even more fun for the egg hunters, because they get lots of little surprises.
Buy the biggest ones you can find! These are plastic eggs Mark II; the first year I had much smaller ones, and it was a struggle to find anything small enough to fit inside them.
The other good thing about plastic eggs is you can customise each child’s little gifts by assigning them their own colour eggs to hunt for, so your son doesn’t accidentally pick up the necklace meant for your daughter, for example.
These are a good size, and it’s surprising what you can fit in them: mini torches, novelty erasers, jewellery:
A Lego minifigure! (See if you can guess which duckling that was for …)
Loom bands for Demon Duck’s latest craze:
Even a $2 coin (even the big kids like to get money).
So it does cost more than just chucking a bunch of chocolate eggs around the yard. But hey, they don’t melt in the sun, and you don’t have to try to stop the dog eating them before the hunt starts!
Before we begin, I have a confession to make: despite knowing full well the difference between fantasy (Magic! Wizards! Mythical beasts! Cool stuff!) and science fiction (Strange futures! Aliens! Space! Scientific cool stuff!), I seem to have stuffed up.
A Fantasy Alphabet, despite being only four books long so far, includes two books (Arclight and Divergent) which aren’t actually fantasy. They’re both dystopian sci fi. What can I say? My brain went on holidays and never came back, apparently.
However, since “A Fantasy Alphabet Which Occasionally Includes Books That Are Really Science Fiction” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, I’m sticking with “A Fantasy Alphabet”. I was so keen to read Divergent that I don’t care.
Today in my book review series A Fantasy Alphabet, I’m looking at Divergent by Veronica Roth. WARNING: May Contain Traces of Science Fiction. Ahem.
Divergent is the story of sixteen-year-old Tris, who is about to face the big rite of passage of her society. The people of her world live segregated into five factions with very different outlooks on life: Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity and Candor. At sixteen, you must choose which faction you will live with for the rest of your life, and if it’s not the same as that of the family you grew up in, then bye-bye family.
So when Tris leaves her Abnegation family for Dauntless, that seems like a big enough wrench. But her new life is complicated by the fact that she doesn’t actually fit Dauntless either. In fact her test results showed she is Divergent, ie not fitting in any one faction, but showing traits of all of them. But that’s a secret she mustn’t reveal, because people who are Divergent tend to wind up dead.
Only something strange seems to be going on over at Dauntless, and maybe Tris isn’t the only one in danger. The whole society is teetering on the brink of disaster, and Tris may be the only one who can save it …
I could see right away why they would want to make a movie of this novel. I mean, apart from the whole let’s cash in on the latest YA blockbusterthing. It has great visuals – the five factions, who all dress and behave differently, the shattered city they live in, the many stunts the Dauntless daredevils pull – scenes of ziplining off the top of skyscrapers, or climbing giant ferris wheels. Plus the many virtual reality scenes where the Dauntless initiates have to face their fears. It’ll be great fun to watch.
It was fun to read too. Like Arclight – it seems to be the fashion for this type of novel – it’s written in first person present tense, so it has that sense of immediacy and urgency about it. The reader is riding on Tris’s shoulder, experiencing everything as she does.
And of course that “everything” includes a first kiss, with a dark and brooding hero named Four. And – wonder of wonders! – only Four. There is no love triangle, which is not only a refreshing change for YA, but a much more satisfying relationship as far as I’m concerned.
It’s an interesting world, with the different factions and their political manoeuvring. Though if I was going to quibble, I’d have to say the idea of people slotted into rigid factions is the least convincing thing about the book. It makes for a great story, and provides a good way to separate the young heroine from any parental support, and I was perfectly happy to go along with it for the sake of being entertained – but it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.
People just don’t fit into such neat boxes in reality. No one is all one thing or another. The idea that there must be something weird or “divergent” about someone who can be friendly and brave and clever and truthful and self-sacrificing instead of just one of them doesn’t jibe with what humans are really like.
Roth takes a couple of other liberties with reality too – Tris seems to grow new muscles after only a week of training, and learns to fight pretty quickly too. The baddies are pretty much unremittingly evil, in a rather over-the-top way. But Tris and Four are well-drawn, and their romance, with all its teenage uncertainties and complications, is nicely realistic.
Overall, it’s a satisfying story. I can certainly see the attraction for the teenaged market – a fascinating world, a gutsy heroine trying to save it, and an appealing romance. And you certainly don’t have to be a teenager to enjoy those things! Just don’t look too closely at the premise of the worldbuilding and go along for the ride, and you’ll be rewarded with some entertaining storytelling.
I came upstairs to use my computer one day and found someone was there before me. This little Ender Man obviously had a burning desire to play Minecraft. Either that or Baby Duck has a very silly sense of humour.
I didn’t say anything, just moved the Ender Man. I set him up in front of the TV, remote control in hand and 3D glasses on (do you know how hard it is to put a pair of glasses on something that has no ears or nose??). When Baby Duck came to see what I thought of his surprise he was highly amused.
That kid makes me laugh. He has quite a dry wit. Watching kids grow and develop is fascinating in many ways, and the development of a sense of humour is one of them. When they’re little they often make you laugh, but at that stage it’s unintentional (and often at their expense). By the time they start school they’re trying very hard to get a handle on how jokes work, and often failing in hilarious ways.
Demon Duck’s first attempt to make up a joke was:
Q: Why did the chicken knit a scarf?
A: To keep her eggs warm.
We still laugh about that one. The poor baby couldn’t understand why her joke wasn’t funny. By age 7 or 8 they understand what makes a joke funny, and can retell ones they’ve heard, but it’s not till about 9 or 10 that they start to come up with original situational humour.
One recent Saturday morning, Drama Duck, who is not a morning person, was flopping around on a couch resisting all efforts to get her moving. I asked her several times to get up and have breakfast, but groans were my only reply.
Her brother gave her a withering look.
“Have breakfast,” he advised. “It’s brain food. You need it.”
Before February slips away completely, I want to point you towards
You can see why I love him. Ridiculous man. He was so proud of himself.
Don’t worry, no cute white bears were harmed in the making of this extortion attempt. He took the bear to a local craft shop and asked the lady behind the counter to make him a matching ear. When he explained why, she was so amused she added blood stains and didn’t even charge him.
Certainly a memorable Valentines Day, if a trifle … unorthodox. My husband – the last of the true romantics.
What about you? Do you have any good Valentines Day stories to share?
Today it’s time for the letter C in my book review series “A Fantasy Alphabet”, and the book I’ve chosen is, well, Chosen, by Benedict Jacka.
Chosen is the fourth in the Alex Verus series, about a mage living in modern London trying – and usually failing – to keep out of trouble. People always seem to be trying to kill Alex, often through no fault of his own, though there was that apprenticeship with a Dark mage that earned him a few enemies …
Now, in the fourth book, we learn much more about that long-ago apprenticeship, as the motive for the current attempts on his life are directly tied to his actions as an apprentice, despite his years of (relatively) clean living since. Alex has always been a bit of a flawed hero, and now we find out exactly how flawed.
Alex is a great character – something of an everyman, if you can overlook the fact that most regular guys can’t see the future. He’s done some bad things in his past, and now he tries to do good to balance it out, but he’s not perfect, and his good intentions are often hampered by a lack of trust from other magic users. This is the first book where he even has more than one friend, having always been a bit of an outcast.
And he’s no superman. He can’t throw fire or do anything flashy. His one power is the ability to see possible futures, which often allows for clever solutions to problems. And he needs every ounce of cleverness, as once the attacks start they keep on coming with barely a chance to catch his breath. The plot unreels at almost thriller-pace as it careers towards a surprise ending that promises a world of pain for Alex in the next novel.
The world of Chosen takes the “urban” part of “urban fantasy” seriously. London is so richly described it feels almost like another character. I love the sense of place in these novels. It feels like travelling without ever leaving home.
If you’re a fan of Ben Aaronovitch or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, you’ll love the Alex Verus novels. Chosen is a fast-paced addition to what is becoming a favourite series.
Today, somewhat belatedly, we arrive at the letter B in my review series “A Fantasy Alphabet”, with Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.
First up, don’t you love that cover? A clever and intriguing piece of artwork, with the title popping out as the only touch of colour. Very eye-catching.
It’s a clever premise too, and one that had me itching to read this book: whenever Miriam Black touches another person’s skin she experiences a vision of their death. She knows the cause, the date and time down to the minute, but not the place. She’s also learned, from bitter experience, that she can’t do anything to save anyone.
Naturally this has left her rather antisocial, to put it mildly. She’s damaged and embittered, living the life of a drifter, never getting close to anyone. She battles her misery with alcohol and a biting dark humour that brings some relief to the relentless gloom of the first-person narrative.
One night she hitches a ride with a truck driver called Louis, who seems like a genuine nice guy. Only problem is, when she touches his hand and sees his imminent gruesome murder, he’s calling her name as he dies. And then she meets other people, and begins to see how she might be involved, and realises Louis’ death scene might be her own too, if she doesn’t somehow save him.
This is a real and gritty adventure through the seamier side of life. If swearing in books bothers you, you won’t like Miriam. Of course, you may not like Miriam much anyway – she’s prickly and difficult to like, even though you can see her prickliness is a shield, and you certainly feel for the terrible situation she’s in.
Her great redeeming feature is her sense of humour, which often made me laugh. Chapter 10, for instance, is titled “The sun can go fuck itself”. Chapter 11 is “The Sunshine Café can go fuck itself equally”. Though the humour is dark, without it I don’t know whether I could have finished the book. The pace is relentless, and seems to be racing Miriam and the reader to a terrible inevitable ending. As a person who usually reads lighter fare, the sense of impending doom hanging over the story filled me with dread.
That’s not a criticism, of course – when a book makes you feel something so strongly, the writer’s done a good job. And a reasonable person wouldn’t expect a read full of sunshine and roses from a story about someone surrounded by constant death.
It was a relief, though, to find some light at the end of the tunnel after all, and a ray of hope for Miriam, whose basic decency finally manages to claw its way free from her hard shell and arrest the story’s terrible downward spiral. Certainly not a Happily Ever After, which wouldn’t have suited the tone of the book at all, but a hint of redemption that raises interesting possibilities for the next book in the series.
“Grimdark” is a subgenre of fantasy that’s big at the moment, due to the popularity of authors like Joe Abercrombie and George RR Martin, but usually appears in epic fantasy, in medieval-type secondary worlds. I haven’t seen it used in urban fantasy like this before. (It may have, of course – I’m not claiming to be familiar with the entirety of the urban fantasy genre – but it was a new experience for me.)
If you like your fantasy grim and edgy but you’re tired of the swords-and-sorcery flavour, Blackbirds could be a good choice for you. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a well-written, immersive experience.
Next up in “A Fantasy Alphabet”: C is for Chosen.