Thursday, October 7, 2010

"The Notebook" by Agota Kristof (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Agota Kristof at Wikipedia
Order the Trilogy (The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie) HERE
Read from The Notebook on Google Books

INTRODUCTION: Recently, a copy of Agota Kristof's trilogy found its way to me and on opening it, I was just blown away by the first several pages. The trilogy contains one short novel that should be a "new classic" of our times - ok the late 1980's when it was first published. This is The Notebook which is just mind blowing and utterly original - very dark, graphic and explicit so not for everyone but awesome nonetheless and I found myself alternately laughing out loud and being quite shocked by its twin boys' narration.

The Proof that directly continues The Notebook and The Third Lie that reinterprets all that came before are excellent too, but they are a bit superfluous and The Notebook should have been left on its own. The other two novels are more conventional with stuff we have seen before - still dark and occasionally explicit - and they cannot help but lessen the impact of The Notebook since
the stark - short sentences, short chapters - structure of The Notebook as it befits its children POV(s) is just un-replicable in more common tales like the next two.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: In the easily available 1997 Grove Press English edition linked above that contains all three novels, The Notebook takes the first 185 pages or so out of a total of some 480. It is divided into 64 short chapters, each written in very short but precise sentences by the twin boy narrators. The chapter titles are descriptive: "Arrival at Grandmother's", "Our Chores", "Exercise to Toughen the Mind","Exercise in Begging", just to give some of the most memorable ones but each name is quite important in what follows.

And for completeness, I will add that the following books change structure considerably, with The Proof that immediately follows the events in The Notebook, divided into eight numbered parts with third person narration from essentially one POV, while The Third Lie is divided into two parts, each narrated by one character.

The Notebook is another novel that is hard to classify; on its surface it is a tale of survival among the horrors of total war, but it is much more than that, being also a novel of discovery as the boys try to make sense of the "grown-up world" that seems to have gone mad around them.

Note: The Notebook has been translated from French by Alan Sheridan, The Proof by David Watson and The Third Lie by Marc Romano.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Notebook takes place in an unnamed Little Town on the border with "our side" where the twin narrators are brought to "Grandmother's House" by Mother from Big Town to escape the daily bombardments and the shortages. It is easy to place names and dates (eg Big Town is Budapest, the border is with Austria and so on), but the intended vagueness in names and places work better in reinforcing the universal themes of the novel. The use of capitalized common words for names: "The Postman", "The Cobbler"... also adds to the authenticity of the children's POV narration and is another great touch.

"We start writing. We have two hours to deal with the subject and two sheets of paper at our disposal.
At the end of two hours we exchange our sheets of paper. Each of us corrects the other's spelling mistakes with the help of the dictionary and writes at the bottom of the page: "Good" or "Not good." If it's "Not good," we throw the composition in the fire and try to deal with the same subject in the next lesson. If it's "Good," we can copy the composition into the notebook. To decide whether it's "Good" or "Not good," we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.
For example, it is forbidden to write, "Grandmother is like a witch"; but we are allowed to write, "People call Grandmother the Witch.
It is forbidden to write, "The Little Town is beautiful," because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.
Similarly, if we write, "The orderly is nice," this isn't a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, "The orderly has given us some blankets." We would write, "We eat a lot of walnuts," and not "We love walnuts," because the word "love" is not a reliable word, it lacks precision and objectivity. "To love walnuts" and "to love Mother" don't mean the same thing. The first expression designates a pleasant taste in the mouth, the second a feeling.
Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.""

The excerpt above which is more than half of the chapter "Our Studies" is in some ways the "heart of the novel" and it both gives a clear example of its style and of its theme with detachment and "distant analysis" being the mode of protection our heroes adopt in the face of the mad world. Though the extract is quite benign, considering the darker happenings in other parts of the novel and the explicitness that may shock readers - explicitness that is described factually as being what the narrators see, without comments or interpretations. Or maybe this matter of fact acceptance is what's shocking.

Slowly the boys develop a "moral sense" that guides their actions and which is quite rational considering what's going on around them and that is another of the elements that elevate The Notebook beyond its original story. There is action and there are moments that will chill, thrill or shock you, but the novel is darkly funny most of the time despite its content. While it has a seemingly small and remote location, The Notebook is peopled by quite a few distinctive characters whose interactions with the narrators range from mundane to weird. Grandmother, The Priest, The Orderly, Harelip and The Housekeeper are the ones that stuck most in my memory. The ending is perfect and while the story continues in the next two books, that was not really necessary.

The Notebook (A++) is one of the most powerful and unusual novels of contemporary literature.

"The Spirit Thief" by Rachel Aaron (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Rachel Aaron Website
Order The Spirit Thief HERE
Chapter Excerpt [1st two chapters; pdf format]

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Rachel Aaron lives in Atlanta with her family.
She graduated from University of Georgia with a degree in English Literature. She's fond of reading from her childhood and now has an ever-growing collection to show for it. She loves gaming, Manga & reality TV police shows. This is her debut.

PLOT SUMMARY: Eli Monpress is talented. He's charming. And he's a thief. But not just any thief. He's the greatest thief of the age - and he's also a wizard. And with the help of his partners - a swordsman with the most powerful magic sword in the world but no magical ability of his own, and a demonseed who can step through shadows and punch through walls - he's going to put his plan into effect.

The first step is to increase the size of the bounty on his head, so he'll need to steal some big things. But he'll start small for now. He'll just steal something that no one will miss - at least for a while. Like a king…

CLASSIFICATION: For the most part, The Spirit Thief is a classical fantasy novel set in medieval times, the book invokes tales akin to those popularized by Terry Brooks & David Eddings in the early 80s.

FORMAT/INFO: The Spirit Thief is 310 pages long divided over twenty-eight numbered chapters. Narration is in the third person via many different characters such as Eli Monpress, Miranda Lyonette, Renaud, Nico, Josef Liechten, Marion & King Henrith. The Spirit Thief can be read as a standalone novel, but it is the first volume in a series of five books. There's also an "Extras" section which has an author interview as well as an excerpt from the next installment, "The Spirit Rebellion".

ANALYSIS: Rachel Aaron is an author who came out of the left field when I noticed her books in Orbit's fall catalog. What drew me to The Spirit Thief was that the blurb promised a fun caper and there were two more sequels within the next couple of months as well. I checked out the excerpt on her website and found that I enjoyed and wanted to read more. So I requested a review copy from the author & Orbit readily obliged.

The first chapter introduces us to the titular character, Eli Monpress as he's locked away in a jail. He then proceeds to charm his way on the door as he convinces it to go back against its primary function of being a door and makes his escape so he can go on his way to complete the job. The second chapter introduces us to Miranda Lyonette, a spiritualist from the Spirit Court who is chasing Eli Monpress and his gang; she makes an entrance riding her ghost dog Gin who is a rather scary creature but extremely intelligent as well.

Eli's gang consists of Josef Liechten, a swordsman with a rather special sword and even more talent and Nico, a rather thin girl who wears a huge cloak and certain special cuffs and has a rather special presence (so to say). Eli wants to keep on increasing the bounty on his head which currently stands at twenty thousand since his ultimate aim is rather extravagant. His current plan to kidnap the king and demand ransom seems to be going well, when Miranda's presence causes a snag and an early encounter between the two showcases who is deadlier.

Complicating the whole situation is the reappearance of King Henrith's elder brother, Prince Renaud who is a wizard on his own and seems to fill in the regal post rather quickly, and of another person who is searching for one of Eli's gang with a plan of his own. Then the story proceeds on its linear track with enough twists and surprises to keep the reader amused and entertained. The book ends on a nice climax and also gives the reader something to ponder about, namely Eli Monpress's abilities and his origin.

There are hints of a deeper picture, especially in the League of Storms, an organization which seems to be the "magical military" and which searches for something that may be cataclysmic. Josef and Nico seem to share something meaningful since they have a past history which will most likely be explored in future volumes and could possibly be a focal point for the series.

The world building is medieval in origin and the magic system is based on the all around presence of spirits, especially in inanimate objects. There are major and minor spirits which can be reasoned, coerced and counseled with for granting their favors. The Spirit College serves as a training ground for Spiritualists (or wizards for a simpler term). They are taught to protect the world around them and gain the respect and services of spirits and thereby rise in rank. The League of Storms seems to guard against mad wizards, destructive demons... though not much is revealed in this series opener & there's the enigmatic person who seems to know the most about Eli and his special abilities.

The Spirit Thief was a great page turner and the characterization was well done, though a bit predictable. Rachel Aaron's greatest strength is that she has written a very engaging tale and the world scenario seems to have more surprises in store for the readers as the storyline will be unraveled in the future books. This book was a nice surprise and a complete winner for me.

Rachel Aaron has written a fun story which can be best described as "Terry Brooks Meets Scott Lynch" in a lighter vein. This book is a refreshing change from the gritty wave that fantasy seems to riding right now and is a nice throwback to the light classical fantasy. A very enjoyable read and with further sequels to follow soon, I'm sure the author has some neat plots planned for the readers. I'm hooked on for this series and will be following it eagerly.

Liviu's Short Take: In contrast to Mihir above, I cannot say I enjoyed The Spirit Thief that much and I have no plans to read more in the series, though I liked well enough the author's writing style to try a more interesting book by her.

In a nutshell, I found The Spirit Thief taking itself too seriously for a light fantasy, and being too light for a serious fantasy so my suspension of disbelief soon found itself suspended so to speak, though the engaging style of the author kept me fast reading it to the end, hoping it will get better content-wise. Sadly, it never did...

When I got an unexpected arc of The Spirit Thief (C from me for the author's narrative energy), I thought it will be something similar to the lighter but very entertaining and fun Lex Trent Versus the Gods by Alex Bell, but the first pages disabused me quickly since as mentioned the book is taking itself way too seriously for what it is, so try the excerpt linked above since I think it will be enough to decide if you want to read it or not.