9.26.2009

An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon

An Echo in the Bone
An Echo in the Bone
An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon, is the seventh novel in the continuing adventures of Jamie and Claire Fraser. This time, they are facing the start of the American Revolution, spies, warring armies, vengeful ex-wives, press gangs, and other eighteenth century dangers. I've been waiting for this book since 2005, when I finished the last entry in the series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes. I can tell you that this this book was worth the wait, in spite of some of its problems.

The draw of these books is--and always has been--the story of Jamie and Claire. Their love story is so amazing (and complicated) that it makes these books hard to classify into one genre or another. I've seen the books in Romance, Fiction, and Fantasy. But the characters are so interesting to watch that I frequently re-read the series just to see it all play out again. Since book four, though, other characters have started to take stage time away from the Frasers. And the problem is that I don't care about them as much. I'm not as invested in seeing what happens to them or watching their problems get worked out.

The first half of An Echo in the Bone is mostly about these peripheral characters, in particular William Ransom (Jamie's illegitimate son) and Lord John Grey (William's adoptive father). William is part of the British Army under General Burgoyne and Grey is involved in a scheme with French spies. As you read, you pick up clues as to what's really going on. But, being an American with some knowledge of my country's history, this tangential stuff is not as interesting to me as seeing my favorite characters at Fort Ticonderoga and the battles of Saratoga. Unfortunately, the story didn't get that far until about 400 pages in. I was very tempted to skip through the parts that didn't interest me. Really tempted. I stuck with it, though, because I know that every clue and bit of plot will come back to play later in the story. At least I got more page-time with my favorite characters after we crossed the halfway mark.

Though I have some mixed feeling about the book (it is not the best in the series), what I did enjoy was the level of historical detail. That's part of the reason these books take so long to write. I can't imagine how many books and articles Gabaldon has read since she started writing these books. The chapters are so backed with details about smells and customs and tastes and language and textures that you feel like you're there in the action. Claire's medical exploits in particular are fascinating. It's amazing what this character can do with limited resources, like remove adenoids and embedded bullets with homemade ether.

What really ticked me off about this book, though, was the ending. It's just a cliffhanger. Normally, these books wrap themselves up pretty neatly. Sure, there are events and concepts that will act as catalysts for the plot in the next book. But the books don't just stop in the middle of the action. I'm okay with cliffhanger chapters, but not at the friggin' end of an 800 page book. Oy. And now I have to wait another three years for the next installment. After this book, I have to wonder where Gabaldon is going with this series. There are more characters and more plots, and I can't help but think that she's starting to move away from the essence of the story.

9.20.2009

The Manual of Detection, by Jedidiah Barry

Manual of Detection
The Manual of Detection
Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection is, frankly, a weird book. It's complicated in that there are plots inside of conspiracies. There are multiple motives and the characters acting them out are hard to understand. It's set in a nameless city that's policed by an Agency of detectives. It's like being inside a Christie novel, one of those old-style mysteries where the characters' motives and methods are all a little outlandish and unreal and sometimes it seems like the mysteries happen for their own sake.

Charles Unwin, a clerk at the Agency, finds himself mysteriously prompted to detective with a dead watcher. Before he can get his feet under him, Unwin is investigating a case that gets weirder by the moment. The ending is hugely complicated, with all the mysteries coming together. It's actually a little hard to keep track of everyone at that point. And it doesn't help that Unwin has no idea how to be a detective. He's given the eponymous Manual, but he never has a chance to read it and learn its lessons. Moreover, for a good part of the beginning, Unwin tries to get his promotion reversed because he thinks that his promotion was the result of a clerical error somewhere in the Agency's chain of command.

At the end, it is revealed that the criminals and the detectives are playing out their roles as agents of anarchy and order (not evil and good). The Agency needs the criminals, or else they would be out of work. The criminals need their organization, the Carnival, to stay organized. I hate to give away the big secret, so I'll just say that the genesis of Unwin's mystery is the result of the big bad upsetting the balance between the two, with third and fourth parties trying to restore the balance and sneak in a little revenge. It's an interesting idea, but I still felt like I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of everyone.

9.16.2009

We Bought a Zoo, by Benjamin Mee

We Bought a Zoo
We Bought a Zoo
Last night I read a book I've been meaning to read since I read a review earlier this spring: We Bought a Zoo, by Benjamin Mee. As the title suggests, it's about a family who, finding themselves in possession of a spare 1.2 million pounds, decided to buy a declining zoo in Devon. Through a lot of hard work and a lot of worry, the Mee family managed to resurrect the Dartmoor Zoological Park and even become the subject of a reality TV series. It was a crazy idea, but they pulled it off.

The book starts with Mee reminiscing about his family's time in Languedoc in the south of France. One day, his sister sent him a realtor's ad for a zoo in Devon. Other offers came in, but most of them involved plans to sell off the animals and turn the land into something else. The Mees sold the family house and negotiated loans to get their hands on the property. (It's not that easy. The negotiations and the sale take up almost half of the book. Their first bid was actually rejected.) On top of all the legal and financial wrangling, they have to figure out how to take care of the more than 200 (mostly) exotic animals and turn the place into a successful business. Besides all the real estate stuff, the family also has to bring the exhibits and the zoo restaurant up to code. If anything had gone seriously wrong, this exercise could have turned into the Money Pit with monkeys in a hurry.

Even though Mee is an experienced author--he used to be a columnist--this book doesn't really read like a traditional, organized book. It's more like having a conversation with Mee. He meanders from topic to topic. I wished, though, that there were more animal stories. It's a zoo, for crying out loud. There are great stories about escaping jaguars and tranquilizer-proof tigers. The Day of the Dentist is an amazing little vignette in exotic veterinary medicine. And my favorite animal fact was when  Mee shared that, unlike other raptors, caracaras like to run down their prey like "mini T-rexes" (86). But, like I said, most of the book is about getting the zoo back on its feet financially and legally. Weird, really. As far as I'm concerned, zoos are all about the animals.

One of the major themes of the book, and one of the most enjoyable, is about how zoos went from a place where animals were exhibited for the entertainment of humans to a place where reintroduction efforts and breeding programs are launched. Mee writes that even as recently as the 1970s, zoo keepers and biologists didn't think that breeding programs were viable options. He writes about successful programs and important people, and I ended up spending an instructive half hour learning about Przewalski's horses and Mauritius kestrels. It's bittersweet reading. On the one hand, I feel glad that an animal that might have disappeared forever gets to survive. But then, I feel unutterably sad that the species' situation got to that point.

My verdict on this book is that it's a very enjoyable read. It could have been better, but it was a lot of fun to picture all the Mees running around with their staff putting the zoo back in order.

9.14.2009

The Walking Dead, Book I, by Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead
And so I go from seeing worlds built up to watching them fall apart. Last night, I started reading the first collection of episodes in the Walking Dead series. The purpose of this series is not just to tell a kick-ass zombie story, but to tell one that doesn't end. Kirkman writes in his afterword that the thing he hates most about zombie movies is that they end. He always wanted to see what happens to the survivors after the credits rolled.

The beginning is a little derivative, as it starts pretty much the same way that 28 Days Later does, with the main character waking up in a deserted hospital after waking from a coma. Rick Grimes is a former small town cop who realizes that his family is missing, and that everyone left in the hospital and the town has turned into a zombie (Romero-style, not Boyle-style*). He find a pair of survivors who tell him that the last they heard, people were supposed to gather in the cities and that his family has probably headed to Atlanta to wait for a cure. When he arrives, as you'd expect if you've ever seen a zombie movie or read a zombie novel, that everyone in the city is dead. He meets a scavenger that leads him back to a camp where (surprise!), Rick finds his wife and young son. From that point on, Rick, his family, and the other survivors travel from place to place, trying to find a place to settle down and live in peace.

The art is a very stylish black and white, which I appreciate. There's zombies about every five pages or so, on average, so if they did it in color the book would be covered in red and gore. It also harkens back to the original Night of the Living Dead.

I'm looking forward to the next books in the series, but I need to wait for the publishers to print more copies because Amazon seems to have run out of copies for the time being.

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* Romero-style zombies: slow-moving zombies, created by unknown causes but allegedly because "there's no more room in Hell for the dead." From the Night of the Living Dead series.

Boyle-style zombies: fast, aggressive zombies that were possible created by a virus or something. Still alive, but very hard to put down. From the 28 Days Later series.

The Sword of the Lady, by S.M. Stirling

Sword of the Lady
The Sword of the Lady
So, the continuing saga of characters in a world where electricity, steam powder, and explosive chemical reactions don't work. The Sword of the Lady is the sixth book in this series, and the third to feature the second generation of people living after the radical change in physics that resulted in the end of civilization as we know it. The first trilogy, about the first generation, was much more rooted in survival and politics. In the second trilogy, fantasy starts to creep in. Rudi and Co., the forces of Good, etc. are still chasing after a prophesied sword that will allegedly help them defeat an overwhelming and terrifying enemy. Like the previous book, though, most of this book describes Rudi and his companions trip across what used to be the United States. Which I think is the best part of the series, because you get to see the little nations that have sprung up in the twenty-odd years since the event.

We pick up the story in the former state of Iowa, now a provisional republic. After returning a cartload of salvaged artwork, Rudi and his group head northeast to Wisconsin. As they travel, they fend off attacks and plots by agents of a separatist cult that's set up show in Montana and eastern Idaho. I will say one thing for Stirling, he's great at creating monolithic and frightening enemies that you think would be unbeatable. When we get glimpses of what's happening back in Rudi's homeland, things just look bleaker and bleaker. The enemy outnumber Rudi's family and their allies, and they're using otherworldly weapons to cheat. On the one hand, you want Rudi to linger so that you can learn more about customs and things and on the other, you want him to get his pigsticker and hightail it back to Oregon to lend a hand.

I think my favorite part of this book is when Rudi and his gang stumble upon a tribe of Neo-Norse in what was formerly Maine. This tribe has another dose of founder's effect and has taken on the beliefs and ideas of the people who kept them from starving during the Change. (I'm pretty sure there's a term for this, but I've forgotten what it is.) And since a significant chunk of my own family comes from Scandinavia, it was good to see people going a-viking again.

There's another book planned for this, with a duology to follow (according to Wikipedia), but there's so much to get through that I don't know how Stirling is going to wrap it all up. I mean, it took two books to get from one coast to another. How is he going to get back and kick some bad guy tuchus in one book?

People who know my reading habits know that I like to watch things fall apart in fiction, but I also like to see how things put themselves back together again. In this installment of the series, a lot of the older characters remark that the younger generations think differently than they do. One of them put it well when he said that rather than trying to live up to legends, the younger generation are actually living them out again. (I can't find the exact quote, otherwise I'd put in a page number here.) But it is rather amazing to see people taking the trappings of ideas and beliefs and use them to cobble people together into communities and then to see the younger generation actually believing it all. The older generation remark that they're more reflective, that they think more about thinking (another phrase I can't source from the book), but they forget to mention that they're a lot more cynical than the younger people. They profess to believe, but they don't really. It's an interesting sociological experiment, to say the least.

The downside--apart from some typographical errors--is that I have to wait another year to see what happens next. Nuts.

9.12.2009

The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia

Secret History of Moscow
The Secret History
of Moscow
The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia, is just the sort of book that I love. It's got folklore. It's got an original plot. And, it's set in Russia. The story centers on two main characters: Galina, who is trying to find her disappeared sister, and Fyodor, a street artist with a terrible fear of gypsies. Galina's story starts first when she suspects that her sister has turned into a jackdaw. (Stay with me. I told you about the folklore, didn't I?) Fyodor's begins when he discovers a way into underground Moscow and shows Galina and her cop ally in to try and locate the erstwhile sister.

That's when the story gets really interesting.

It seems that for centuries, bits of Russia's history have been hiding out underneath Moscow. Old gods, refugees from the NKVD and its incarnations, characters out of folklore, soldiers who fought against Napoleon's troops in 1812, and even a former member of the Golden Horde. They're all there, mingling and reminiscing and living. It's a fascinating setting. Unlike a lot of books where I'm left wanting more detail, Sedia gives the minor characters a chance to tell their stories. So you get to learn how a Tatar gains refuge among Russians and a Decembrist's wife makes friends with rusalki. Fortunately, the plot lives up to the premise.

Galina & Co. travel across the underground seeking answers. It turns out that two malevolent mischief makers (One-Eyed Likho and Zlyden*) have been giving magic to thugs on the surface to cause trouble. The ending is a little chaotic, because the surface world and the underground start to overlap each other in a forest called Kolomenskoye. It gets hard to keep track of where people are and who is rescuing who.

The ending of the book is nothing short of magical. Even though most of the book is a remixing of Russian folklore, the end gets back to those roots. It comes down to magic and poetic sacrifice and it was a perfect ending to this fractured fairytale.

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*Zlyden is not listed in Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Mythica. I Googled him, but I didn't want to wade through links to people's MySpace pages to get to actual stories about the little gnome.

9.03.2009

I, Lucifer, by Glen Duncan

I, Lucifer
I, Lucifer
Glenn Duncan's I, Lucifer is the latest book to try and tell the Devil's story from his own perspective. The premise of this short novel is that God gives Lucifer another chance at forgiveness. If he can live as a mortal for a month without committing any hell-worthy sins, Lucifer can join the heavenly host. As you might expect, Lucifer decides to use his month to a) tell his side of the story and b) work his way through all the venal sins.

This novel features some turns of theology I've seen before in novels. (Most in Lamb and Good Omens, but still.) Examples: humans think up and perform most of the evil without so much as an infernal nudge and that everything is part of the ineffable plan. The parts of the book where Lucifer talks about his rebellion and the Garden of Eden are probably the best parts of the book. A lot of the rest, unfortunately, is  taken up with Lucifer's binging and whinging. This novel could have used a lot more plot, I think. A good idea can only sustain a novel so far. Towards the end, I admit that I had to skip a few pages just to get to the point of it all.

This book, I should note, is not a "Sympathy for the Devil" situation. (That would have been pretty interesting actually.) It's just a chance to look at the Fall from a different perspective. It's not so much pride that leads to the Fall so much as independent thought, taking time away from praising God to think about yourself. Personally, I don't think this is such a bad thing. The Old Testament God was not a fun entity to be around, what with the punitive Shake 'n' Bake every other Book. But that's free will for you. You have to take the bad with the good and have the guts to do what you think is right.

But this premise has been done better elsewhere. Milton, for example, in Paradise Lost, give Lucifer this speech in book one:
[Lucifer]: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? yet not for those
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage
Can else inflict do I repent or change,
Though chang'd in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur'd merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav'n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.
So spake th' Apostate Angel.
(Book One, I'd give you the lines, but I can't be bothered to count them).
Duncan's Lucifer can't compete with this, even discounting the language. Then end was pretty good, actually. But I think this story might have worked better as a short story or a novella, because the beginning was interesting and well done, and the ending was much better than the cop out it could have been. It was just all that stuff in the middle that didn't seem to serve a purpose. The problem was that the narrator kept digressing and wandering away from the point. The entire Declan Gunn plot just seemed superfluous. (And the name really made me wonder if the character was really an Anti Sue, as opposed to a Mary Sue.) I didn't care about the character at all, and the more I heard about him, the less I cared.

Coincidentally, I got a copy of Religulous today from Netflix, so I've been thinking about belief and religion for a few hours now (and probably will be for a while). All things considered, I would agree with the idea that there's no Devil and that Sartre was right when he said that hell was other people. We have free will, and we can't blame the Devil for the shit that we get up to. I don't know about the ineffable plan, though. (And if anyone thinks this is a cry for some proselytizing, I'll consider those comments to be spiritual spam. I am happy with my current afterlife plan, thank you.)