5.20.2008

I passed!

Normally, I don't do personal announcements but this is too big. I got my grades back for my last semester of graduate school. I have a 4.0 and am, officially, a Master of Library Science. In a week and a half, I will get hooded in our belated graduation ceremony.

Merde Happens, by Stephen Clarke

Merde Happens
Merde Happens
Merde Happens is the third book in Clarke's Merde series about Englishman Paul West's attempts to live with an alien race: the French. The first two, A Year in the Merde and In the Merde for Love, were wonderfully hilarious as West encountered the absurdities of French language, bureaucracy, and women. In Merde Happens, Paul goes to America as a consultant for the British Tourist Authority. His job is to oversee a series of tourist events and try to help Britain win a competition to be the World Tourist Capital. On his trip, Paul realizes that most of the events' organization has been outsourced to India and that he is really overseeing a series of catastrophes waiting to happen.

I read Clarke's books for two reasons. First, there's the absurdity factor. I love authors who take strange circumstances and create absurd situations and let them develop into side-splitting scenarios, and Clarke has a knack for piling merde on West until everything spins out of control. Second (and this ties into the first reason I read Clarke), is that Clarke is very talented at highlighting the absurdities of culture. I know that every culture's rules and habits make sense to the members of that culture, but when you're an outsider like Paul, a lot of things seem downright odd.

But I'm starting to think that Clarke needs to move on. While I sympathized with Paul as he dealt with a series of incompetents and weasels, it's that I think the character has lived its useful life. Paul has stayed remarkably naive and seems to have learned nothing about dealing with foreign cultures after his years in France. He's not a good communicator. I found that I kept getting frustrated with Paul's inability to explain himself to people. And I particularly got fed up with Alexa, Paul's girlfriend, because she never gave him the opportunity to really explain himself. Not that I'm really comparing this novel with Othello, but I think that the plot problems in both could have been averted if all the characters had attended group therapy sessions.

The other thing that annoyed me about this book is that I kept waiting for Clarke to treat American culture the same way he treated French culture. I mean, he had a bit of a go at our out-sized restaurant meals, our tendency to sue instead of dealing with accidents, and such. But I don't think Clarke took full advantage of his setting. Perhaps it's because, as far as I know, he hasn't lived in the United States or been over here as long as he's been in France and England and doesn't really know us.

While I enjoyed parts of this book, I found it to be disappointing over all. But I still want to get my hands on Talk to the Snail, because I think it has great potential to be very funny.

5.15.2008

The Outlaw Demon Wails, by Kim Harrison

The Outlaw Demon Wails
The Outlaw Demon Wails
I know that I'm not reading "serious" books right now, but I just finished my last semester of graduate school. My brain needs a break. For those of you looking for serious literature, I am going to start reading A Tale of Two Cities soon for a book club.

So, The Outlaw Demon Wails. This is the sixth Rachel Morgan book by Kim Harrison, and I think I like the series more and more as it goes on. It's a contemporary fantasy and, yes, there are vampires. But this is one of the few series I've seen that actually gives face time to other fantastical creatures. In this case, demons, witches, elves, and pixies. (This is also something I like about Charlaine Harris.) There's a wealth of legend and myth in the Western tradition. It seems like a shame not to use it.

In this book, Rachel Morgan again faces her nemesis: Algaliarept. She also has to deal with a murdering elf who is trying to save his species from extinction, a mother who is trying to set her up with a nice guy, a vampire who's in love with her, and her own missing memories about who killed her last boyfriend. There's a lot going on in this book and Harrison does a great job of pacing. I could feel the tension building as I read, but it didn't do so fast that I felt like I was losing track of the twists and turns. I've read a few books were so much happened in two or three pages that I would have to go back and re-read them just to figure out what the hell was going on.

The other thing that I liked about this book is that things got wrapped up and we can no move on to new, interesting things. I always wonder a little about series writers, and how much they plan out in advance. I've read that James Lee Burke, for instance, has no plans when he sits down to write and others will map everything out. Laurell Hamilton, according to her blog, writes ideas down on post-its and uses them to kind of storyboard her books together on her office wall. (I read in a recent entry of hers, that she's had ideas on her wall for so long that the post-its have stared to fade.) So I wonder about multi-book arcs. I appreciate that you can build characters and stories over several books, but I think you have to be careful about it so that it doesn't seem like you're going over the same ground over and over again.

5.13.2008

From Dead to Worse, by Charlaine Harris

From Dead to Worse
From Dead to Worse
Yes, I'll admit it. I read vampire novels. This weekend, I read From Dead to Worse, the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel. What I like most about these books is that, unlike a lot of other contemporary fantasy/vampire novelists (*cough* Laurell Hamilton *cough*), the story isn't bogged down in unresolvable character problems or sex, even though this is the eight book of the series. These books rely on plot, and Harris isn't afraid to wrap up plot threads and move on instead of spinning them out over two or three books. She brings in new characters; she actually kills off old characters who've served their purpose to the plot.

For those who aren't familiar with this series, Sookie Stackhouse is a Louisiana barmaid in a small town who is telepathic. Over the course of the last seven books, she's gotten inextricably involved in the vampire and supernatural communities. For me, this book felt like a clearing-the-deck sort of book. A lot of old plot threads were wrapped up. It feels like Harris is going to move on into new territory in the next book. (Hurrah!) I don't really want to say too much about this book because, if you're interested, you've probably read the other books and I don't want to ruin how things turn out.

I will say that I really liked this book. Part of this satisfaction may be coming from the fact that I feel frustrated when I read other vampire/contemporary fantasy novels. After a while, they get so bogged down that the books feel like quagmires. With Harris and Stackhouse, I always feel like progress is actually made. The rest of the satisfaction comes from the fact that Harris can make you laugh, feel apprehensive, worry about the characters, feel curious about what's going to happen. She's a very fun writer to read.

5.01.2008

I am Legend, by Richard Matheson

I am Legend
I am Legend
I saw I am Legend when it first came out. The theater was packed with people, and we all jumped and gasped during the movie. It was the most terrifying movie I had seen since 28 Weeks Later. So when I saw the original 1954 novel on the shelf at my new favorite used bookstore, I snagged it. As many horror fans know, Matheson's I am Legend has now been made into three different movies. I haven't seen the first two, but the Will Smith version was good enough for me.

I've read that I am Legend is also one of the inspirations for the zombie genre. I can well believe it now. It's got all the elements: mass infection, seemingly invulnerable walking corpses, a few survivors holed up in fortified buildings, tensions about the fate of mankind. This book has all of these. And its all packed into a little more than a hundred pages. I'd read descriptions and such, but it seemed (before I read the book) like a lot of material to get through. Plus, I'm used to movies only showing or telling you half of the story.

I am Legend is also a very sparely written book. Even though you get the main character, Robert Neville, thinking and talking about whether or not he should just give up, if there's anything worth fighting for, etc., this book is mostly about Neville's day to day life: repairing his defenses, finding food, and so on. In retrospect, Will Smith's Neville seems a lot more human, more emotive, than Matheson's original. The original Neville is kind of hard to like, because he's been through so much horror and because he's had a lot of hard decisions to make. He also doesn't get many moments to show his humanity to the reader, where Smith had several episodes added into the movie script for that purpose.

Another thing that interested me in this book is now Matheson and Neville use science to explain the infection, with some of the original vampire legends thrown in. The bacteria that causes vampirism in this novel reminds me a lot of Max Brooks' zombie virus. At one point, Neville raids the Los Angeles Public Library to learn all he can about hematology and bacteriology and, through his research, you learn a lot about how the epidemic spread. (I also appreciated the shout out to libraries there.)

As I was reading the book, I realized that with a lot of these end of the world stories and movies, you rarely get one that's set entirely in the epidemic. You get flashbacks and hints, but I don't know about one that just does the outbreak. Curious. I'm trying to think right now of a book or movie that qualifies, but I'm coming up blank. Maybe Darwin's Radio? I don't know, but I think it would be interesting to read one since one of the things that draws me into these books is the mentions of what happened. I really like trying to piece those together.