Saturday, December 22, 2012

Most Entertaining Book of 2012: Good Omens

"I think it was a bit of an overreaction, to be honest," said the serpent. "I mean, first offense and everything. I can't see what's so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil, anyway."

     "It must be bad," reasoned Aziraphale, in the slightly concerned tones of one who can't see it either, and is worrying about it, "otherwise you wouldn't have been involved."

     "They just said, Get up there and make some trouble," said the serpent, whose name was Crawly, although he was thinking of changing it now. Crawly, he decided, was not him.

     "Yes, but you're a demon. I'm not sure if it's actually possible for you to do good," said Aziraphale.  "It's down to your basic, you know, nature. Nothing personal, you understand."

     "You've got to admit it's a bit of a pantomime though," said Crawly. "I mean, pointing out the Tree and saying 'Don't Touch' in big letters. Not very subtle, is it? I mean, why not put it on top of a high mountain or a long way off? Makes you wonder what He's really planning."

     "Best not to speculate, really," said Aziraphale. "You can't second-guess ineffability, I always say..."

-- excerpt from Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

I have a special place in my heart for irreverent British humor. I also am proud to admit that I know all of the lyrics to all of Queen's greatest hits. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that, unlike most of my peers, my knowledge extends beyond the hooks and choruses, but I digress. Good Omens catered to both loves and gave me a unique reading experience that was both hilarious and thought-provoking.

The story begins with Crawly - now known as Crowley - the demon and Aziraphale the angel. They have been working at cross purposes for thousands of years; however, despite their inherent natures, they aren't exactly mortal enemies. In fact, they're a bit like rival businessmen who often meet for lunch. Just doing their jobs, no hard feelings.

One day, Crowley gets the call from The Powers that Be: the Antichrist has been born, and it's Crowley's job to work behind the scenes and ensure the harbinger of the apocalypse gets a properly demonic education. Neither angel nor demon are thrilled by this bit of news. They've come to enjoy the marvels of the modern world, and humans are such interesting creatures. It would be a shame to see both meet their end in a storm of fire and brimstone.

They work together to throw the end of the world off track by giving little Warlock the kind of upbringing that would make it impossible for him to ever choose between good and evil. Eleven years later, they make an embarrassing discovery. Turns out there was an accidental switcheroo at the hospital. Warlock is not the Antichrist. Hi-jinks ensue as the denizens of Heaven and Hell (and a few humans too) race to find the real Antichrist, Adam Young, a typical English boy who is completely unaware of the world-changing powers at his disposal.  

I've loved Pratchett's satirical humor since before I was a teen, but Gaiman is a new discovery, and the timing couldn't be better. My current oddball state of lapsed-but-still-devoted Catholicism has made me much more receptive to humorous, yet honest examinations of faith and the faithful than I would have been in the past. But this book isn't just 300 pages of poking fun at religion. There's a genuinely good story happening on the surface, and the characters are their own people, not just mouthpieces for the authors' worldviews.

To put it in figurative terms, Good Omens is like broccoli disguised as cotton candy, but not at all like broccoli flavored cotton-candy. (If Mr. Pratchett or Mr. Gaiman ever read this, I hope they understand what a ringing endorsement that is.) If that isn't enough of a sell, how about this bold declaration: I think any book that contains demons using the recorded voice of Freddie Mercury to communicate with one another is a book that deserves to be on anyone's reading list, regardless of their creed.

Although Good Omens was new to me, this is not a recent release by any means. Some aspects of the setting are comically dated; however, given how angsty the world is getting about faith, politics, and the blending thereof, the themes are perhaps even more relevant now than they were when Good Omens was first published in 1990.

In fact, I'm rather disappointed that I couldn't get this post done a day earlier, when the Mayans supposedly predicted that the world was supposed to end. It would have been so wonderfully fitting. *kicks self*

P.S. I would encourage you to read a physical copy of this book, rather than the e-book version. The footnotes are great, but the e-book format makes flipping back and forth such a pain. It really hampers the delivery of the humor.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Most Compelling Book of 2012: The Sehkmet Bed

"Thutmose's full attention was on his second wife; he helped Mutnofret fix her perfumed wax cone to her lovely gleaming wig, touched her soft hand, told her she was beautiful, so beautiful. 

Ahmose's belly soured. 

The night dragged on forever. Mutnofret was a perfect woman, graceful and winsome, smiling her approval at all the performers, brushing her arm now and then against Thutmose's, her cheek against his shoulder. Thutmose was not unmindful of Ahmose, to be sure; he offered every dish to her first, asked her opinion of each performance. But all his attentions had the flavor of duty, not the adoration she craved. 

Is this to be my marriage then? A dutiful husband who cannot take his eyes off my sister, even for a moment?

-- excerpt from The Sehkmet Bed, by Lavender Ironside

Good Egyptian historical fiction is hard to find. I don't understand why, because ancient Egypt has everything: beautiful landscapes, unique religious customs, fascinating societal structures, and historical figures with plenty of gaps in their recorded lives to allow for some creative license.

Not much is known about the real Ahmose. We know she was the mother of Hatshepsut, one of Egypt's most famous queens and Pharaohs. Her own parentage is unknown, but it's likely that she and Mutnofret were at least half-sisters. Lavender Ironside (best pen name ever) chooses to take advantage of this, and the result is the most real, bittersweet depiction of sibling rivalry I've ever seen.

Ahmose is 13, intelligent, pious, and a bit naive. Mutnofret is 16, worldly, cunning, and wild. Both are shocked when, after the death of their father, it is Ahmose who is declared queen. She becomes Great Royal Wife to the new pharaoh, a title Mutnofret had prepared her entire life to have, while the elder sister is instead given the lesser title of second wife. The immediate consequences are, of course, a suddenly much more strained relationship between the two women; however, that's not what pushes them to the breaking point. Egypt needs an heir. If either woman can provide their country with its future pharaoh, it can not only determine their status in the palace, but also affect the very course of Egypt's history.

Herein lies Ahmose's disadvantage. Unlike her sister, she does not yet have the body of a woman, or the feminine wiles to compensate. And while Thutmose, the pharaoh, is an entirely likeable Prince Charming, he is also a man of flesh and blood.  

First of all, being romantic rivals with your own sibling must be one of the worst experiences in the world. But when you know that the outcome carries political weight, so much weight that the fate of an entire nation relies on it? The pressure has to be unreal.

As intriguing as it is, the premise alone wasn't what made this the most compelling story I've read this year. Ironside could have easily told it so Ahmose was the long-suffering good girl, with Mutnofret as no more than a sort of wicked step-sister type. She didn't do that. As much as I rooted for Ahmose, she makes some pretty sketchy decisions to maintain her position, and as an older sister myself, I keenly felt Mutnofret's pain at being usurped by a twiggy young girl who was never supposed to be a threat.

Because of this, it didn't matter that, as historical fiction, I already knew what happens at the end. That's not the only thing at stake. Motivations are often difficult to parse out in this book, but one thing is clear: both women genuinely love this man, and they care about each other too. Watching them struggle to preserve a once-healthy family relationship while at the same time look out for themselves romantically and politically was endlessly captivating.

It's extremely rare nowadays for me to find a book I have to fight to put down. In addition, I honestly find most love triangles irritating. What made this book different was the depth and the realness of the characters. When I wasn't reading about them, I was thinking about them. Months later, I'm still thinking about them. I can count on one hand the number of books that have made me do that, and most of them are not recent reads.

As with all books there were a few flaws. Frankly, I barely noticed them at the time because I was reading too fast, which is why The Sehkmet Bed is my Most Compelling Book of 2012.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

I'm home, and I have Show and Tell!

This visit home was easily the best I've had since moving away about 2 1/2 years ago. With the exception of those who just had to get dreadfully sick (the nerve of some people), I had plenty of time to see everyone I wanted to see. My family is just as low key and laid back as they were when I left them, so for most of the week I felt relaxed and content.

We spent one evening flipping through old photo albums and other mushy memorabilia. I now have some great pictures that will one day be in a scrapbook for the benefit of posterity. I also stumbled across some pure comedic gold: my first grade creative writing anthology. 

Oh my gosh, you guys. 

I don't remember writing a word of this stuff, which made it all the more hilarious to read out loud. As I rediscovered my 7 year-old mind, I also realized two things. 

1.) Small children appreciate life's small things in a big way.

2.) My tendency to start too many sentences with conjunctions goes back much farther than I thought.

For your entertainment and my self-deprecation, I have transcribed two of my very first stories below. My teacher was awesome enough to preserve all spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. I will do the same, with minimal commentary. 

Conner Prairie Visit
(This is a true story.)

When I visited Conner Prairie I got to carve wood three times! And I saw a man making potery. And then I went to this little tiny log cabin and on the seling I saw a lot of animals skin.  And there mugs were made of clay and we saw Dr. Campbell. And he had a large house! and (And, and, and, and...) we learned how they made clothing and then the best part of my life. (Of my LIFE,  you guys!) I bought a doll and a bonet and candy stick. 

At The Circus
(This is not a true story. Thank God.)

Once upon a time I went to the circus. I saw the clowns do silly things. And when I saw the lions, one of them begged me to get on his back! And when I got on his back he ran all over his cage. So I quickly got out and ran straight to the monkeys. But when I got to the monkeys, one of them grabbed by hand and swung me all over there cage, Hellllp! (I love that I drew out the L, not the E.) I said as they swung me around in circles, so I gragged (???) the bars quickly.  and got out fast and went to see the elephants, but when I got to the elephants, one of them caght me by his trunk, and picked me up I think now would be a good time to leave I said. (I don't think we had learned quotations marks yet.)


I really couldn't have found these at a better time. Not only was the whole immediate family around to crack up with me, but I appreciated finding these all the more now that writing is such a big part of my life. I saw how far I've come, and how much farther I have to go. Much, much farther. 

Gotta work on those conjunctions.

And those run-on sentences.

(See what I did there?)