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Three books this week, two of which were repeats.

1) The Good Neighbors: Kin - Holly Black & Ted Naifeh
A typical Black yarn: young adolescent leads relatively carefree existence prowling around NYC landmarks with her alternatrendy friends before the discovery of her faery heritage endangers her ties to the human world. The story suffers somewhat for being in graphic novel format: the characterisations seem flatter and the plot development more rushed without Black's prose to flesh out background and regulate story pacing. That said, Naifeh's artwork is detailed, atmospheric, and perfectly suited to the story, turning what could have been a run-of-the-mill comic into a good one. Any reader with a decent grounding in British fairytale lore should be able to spot the big reveal long before it happens, but this isn't necessarily a detriment--I'm not convinced that the pleasure in reading such stories comes as much from being "smart enough" to figure it out as it does from the climactic revelations themselves. I could have done without the gratuitous suck ups shout outs to that plagiarist Cassandra Claire in the Afterword, but all things considered, this is a well-executed and entertaining first volume in a promising series.

2) Of Nightingales That Weep - Katherine Paterson
I read Katherine Paterson's Japan novels as a child and loved them, but had been reluctant to revisit them as an adult. What if my nine-year-old self hadn't been able to spot the Orientalism? What if my mind had filled in narrative holes I hadn't realised were there?

Well, having reread Of Nightingales That Weep, I can now state that my fears were unfounded. This is a damn good book; the vast majority of YA fiction out there can't hold a candle to it. Paterson uses all the themes--the meaning of family, of honor, of loyalty, of growing up, even bona fide history--that we've been told Young Readers Don't Like and all the elements--war, death, insecurity, disappointment--we've been told Young Readers Can't Handle and turns them into a powerhouse of a story, one that neither pulls its punches nor results to either the cutesiness or purience of more recent YA titles that posit that kids just want pap.

Paterson's Japan is realistically depicted, and she doesn't gloss over the elements of Japanese society that modern Western readers would find disturbing or inappropriate for young readers, but neither does she pass value judgments on them. Her only misstep is the ending: it confused me as a child, and as an adult I found it ill-conceived and ill-justified compared to the rest of the novel. Still we're talking about a few pages in an otherwise excellent book.


3) Asking About Zen - Jiho Sargent
This is the first book I've reread in four years of book blogging. I'm pleased to say it has held up quite well: Sargent is to be commended for her focus on aspects of Zen practice ignored (or in many cases, misrepresented) by many more popular English-language offerings on the subject. That said, the manuscript could have withstood a more thorough editing job and, having spent two years practicing regularly at Rinzai Zen temples in Kyoto, I can say that many of Sargent's generalisations concerning Zen aren't quite as general as she leads readers to believe. Nevertheless, Asking About Zen still remains one of the top three books on the subject as far as I'm concerned.

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January 2012

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