12.19.2010

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death
Who Fears Death
Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death is a book that it should have been a lot harder to read, given the subject matter. The author wrote in the afterword that she was inspired--if that's the right word--by a 2004 article about "weaponized rape" in the Sudan. It's amazing and horrible to think that such an interesting book could come out of that kind of source material. This book took some serious chutzpah to write, and I have to admire Okorafor's courage.

The book jacket claims that this book is set in a post apocalyptic Africa, but the land and people are so different that it's easy to forget that this is supposed to be earth. The protagonist, Onyesonwu, is a mixed race child and the product of rape. While she has unusual talents, everyone except her mother and non-biological father shun her, dislike her, and fear her. Instead of caving to public opinion, Onye grows up brave, strong, and utterly determined to better herself and learn how to use her gifts. Beyond that, she is driven by a terrible need for revenge on her biological father. She learns that that man who raped her mother is organizing a genocide against her mother's people. With a few friends and the love of her life, Onye sets out west to kill her biological father and stop the Nuru's plans to wipe out the Okeke.

I wasn't sure what the purpose of this book was supposed to be at the beginning, but as the plot developed it turned into a kind of inside out gospel. Characters make constant reference to a Great Book, which explains the apocalyptic event in vague, Biblical allegory. If the Great Book is analogous to the Old Testament, there is a prophecy that claims that a great sorcerer is coming to rewrite the book. Onye believes that she is that messiah-like figure. Her travels in the West with her companions (read disciples, but much more human) remind me of parts of the New Testament, but with added wrath and foibles. Even the ending of this book is remarkably similar to the end of the Gospels and the writing style has the same sparse, plain simplicity.

Its subtle, Gospel-like allegory really made the book before me because, without it, I don't know if I would have made it past the first chapters because of the violence against women and a certain cultural practice that no women should ever suffer. This is going to be a difficult book to recommend to people. This book demands a certain amount of bravery on the reader's part.

This is a book that demands that you spend a lot of time thinking about it afterward. I finished it yesterday and I know that I'm going to be pondering Who Fears Death's lessons. I may have to read it a couple more times in order to get to the bottom of it. Well, I already knew that great books are difficult. In this case, it's not the plot or the motives that are tricky to parse, it's the meaning behind it all that's hard to get at. There aren't any easy answers in this book, since it seems like all the characters get punished in one way or another. I will say that I hope this book doesn't disappear. I hope a lot of people read this book and discuss it. It deserves to become a major work.

12.15.2010

Kindred, by Olivia Butler

Kindred
Kindred
Octavia Butler's Kindred is a book that unflinchingly answers the question of why readers read: to try and experience, however secondhand, someone else's life. In this case, we get a small taste of what life might have been like for the millions of Africans and their descendants who were enslaved in the United States. The story follows Edana Franklin as she inexplicably travels back and forth between the 1810s and 1820s and her own time of 1976. For reasons that are never explained in the novel, Dana keeps getting called back to the Maryland farm where her distant ancestors (black and white) lived. At each visit, Dana saves the life of the white landowner (her great-umpty-great grandfather).

Because Dana is from the twentieth century, all she knows about slavery is what she learned from books. Reading about casual racism and the violence and horrors of slave life is very, very, very different from actually experiencing it. Even Dana comments more than once that she doesn't know how her ancestors lived with it. It's a heart-wrenching read. What makes it worse is that Dana's many times great grandfather never seems to learn that just because a person's skin is dark doesn't mean that they don't think and feel like human beings. Rufus is, by turns, kind, jealous, irrational, and violent. He's the ultimate spoiled brat. And yet, Dana keeps saving his life because, if he dies, she never gets born.

Kindred is a short, but intense books. It's exactly the kind of book that I like as it's packed with ethical dilemmas that have no easy solutions. It's the kind of book that immediately makes you ask "What would I do in this situation?" The characters, for once, are sensible and rational. It's just the situation that's bizarre. In an interview, Butler said, "I was trying to get people to feel slavery. I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people." While 1976 had its racism, it was a haven of racial harmony compared to 1820s Maryland. Slaves did escape to the North, but this book successfully showed me why that was so rare. The whole damn deck was stacked against African Americans. Patrollers traveled back and forth across the South, looking for people who weren't where they were supposed to be. Butler shows a small hint of the terror they caused among the free and slave populations. Except for running away and maybe making it North, there were no other options. And instead of living quietly with her writer husband in 1976, Dana keeps getting pulled back into the past to repeatedly save one of the perpetrators of slavery.

Kindred is tightly written, with no spare scenes or language. It's under 300 pages, but in those 300 pages, Dana has to decide whether or not to teach her fellow slaves how to read, help them escape, treat their ailments, or try to resist what her so-called masters order her to do. It's a wonder that Dana didn't just give up and despair after just one or two visits to the past.

All this makes it sound like Kindred is on par with Russian novels for depressing narratives. What redeems it is Butler's care to show the characters' humanity. If nothing else, Kindred showed me that people are people. We respond to our circumstances and environments. It doesn't matter what color your skin is. Some people are saints. Others are assholes. Most of us fall into the wide area in the middle.

The talent and sophistication of Kindred makes me wish that Octavia Butler had more success than she did. I have a few of her books on my shelf, waiting to be read. I'm looking forward to diving in and seeing what I can learn from them.

12.08.2010

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

Way of Kings
The Way of Kinds
Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings is a book that reward the patient. At 1,001 pages, it's huge, a doorstop. The book moves slowly until the last 200 or so pages. But those pages are so utterly glorious that they make up for any drag in the previous 800. I didn't get to bed until after midnight last night because I just could not stop reading. According to his blog, Sanderson has been working on this book for over a decade and it shows in the detail. Chapters featuring characters that aren't part of the main narrative contain hints to the world's history, mythology, culture, even linguistic drift. Some readers might be willing to sacrifice some of that detail to make the narrative move faster, but I read them avidly, looking for clues to what happened in the 4,500 years between the prologue and the rest of the book. This book violates a few rules from the Fantasy Novelist's Exam, but this book is so well done, so interesting, and so original that I didn't care.

The book follows the adventures of two main characters at first. A third is added later. The first characters, Kaladin--a spearman turned slave--and Shallan--a scholar, don't even meet. (This is not a spoiler. You might like the book better if you're not waiting for them to meet.) It's almost like reading two books at the same time, though they're set in the same world. Kaladin's story was, for me, the most interesting. It had pathos. It had warfare. It had endurance. Though Kaladin has his character flaws and a tendency towards depression, I really bonded with his character. He's a hero in the Aragorn mold: reluctant, but honorable. Shallan is harder to like because she doesn't seem as courageous as Kaladin. She's a terrific expository character, however. Reading her sections fill you in on important history in such a way that it doesn't sound like exposition. The third character, Dalinar, is proper and honorable to a fault, but he develops into a wonderful character by the end. They all seemed so real.

After a short interlude in which a king gets assassinated in spectacular fashion, we meet the cast in the middle of a war that's been going on for six years and appears to have no end in sight. Dalinar and Kaladin are on opposite ends of the hierarchy, giving different views of the Alethi war effort. The way this culture fights is pigheadedly wasteful. It's more like a bloody tournament than a war. There's no strategy, bizarre objectives, and no one seems to want it to end except our male protagonists. Shallan is far away in a city with a massive library, studying to become a scholar while secretly plotting a way to restore her family's fortunes.

This short summary might lead one to ask why it took Sanderson over 1,000 pages to tell the story, but the book is stuffed with battles and intrigues, dreams and visions. The interludes give the reader glimpses of what's happening in the rest of the world. As I read them, I got a picture of a world that appears stable on the surface but that is starting to fracture. At the end of the book, you learn that some characters are deliberately upsetting the balance. I don't want to give away too much, but I will say that the plot really started to move in those last 200 pages. Okay, one more thing. There is a battle sequence at the end that is on par with the Battle of Helm's Deep. The battle and the ending were so good that I almost wanted to start reading the book over again so that it wouldn't end.

This little review* doesn't do justice to this book, but I don't think I can say how much I like it without resorting to atrocious hyperbole. The Way of Kings was the best book I've read all year. It might be the best fantasy novel I've ever read. (So much for avoiding hyperbole.) The only downside is that I have to wait a minimum of two years to read the next one. Mr. Sanderson, I'd tell you to hurry up and write, but I know better. Books this good cannot be rushed. So I'll be patient and wait for my reward.

___

* I don't know why I call these reviews. They're not systematic at all and I don't really do plot summaries.

11.24.2010

Worth Dying For, by Lee Child

Worth Dying For
Worth Dying For
Worth Dying For is the second Jack Reacher novel this year. The first one ended on a cliffhanger (though we knew he would be alright because there's this book). I'm not sure what I was expecting in this book, but in the first pages, we find our hero getting pulled into yet another mystery. He doesn't even get time to recuperate from the injuries he received in the previous book. There are some familiar elements in this book: the deadline, the mysterious truck that's at the heart of everything, and the evil local guys who have the whole town under their thumbs.

The best thing about this book is the brilliant use of misunderstanding among all the bad guys. It's almost farcical the way they behave. Before I get into that, let me back up and talk about the mysterious truck. Throughout the book, we get progress updates about the truck, but are never told what's in it. The local bag guys, the Duncans, have promised the contents to some very bad men in Las Vegas. When the shipment is delayed, they blame Reacher. The Las Vegas guys (and their bosses and their bosses' bosses) send men to Nebraska to take care of Reacher. But since they also have orders to eliminate each other, things rapidly devolve into a bloody and hilarious (if you have a sick sense of humor like I do) debacle.

As Reacher methodically takes out all the henchman (an extraordinary number in this book), he also has a side project. Taking pity on the non-evil locals, Reacher starts to investigate the disappearance of a little girl twenty-five years prior to the start of the novel. Everyone is sure that the Duncans had something to do with it, but no one can prove it. Readers who pay attention to the foreshadowing and hint-dropping should be able to figure it out, too.

This secondary plot helps bulk up the book as a whole and gives it a bit of humanity, too. I say that because this is an extremely violent book. All the Reacher books are violent, but there's a level of cruelty here that surprised me. Reacher always had a reason for doing what he does, and it's fun to watch him crack skulls now and again. While he has his reasons here, I feel like Reacher is going to a new and disturbing level of violence. It seems like he's so tired of fighting people that he just wants to end fights so definitively that people will leave him the hell alone. One the one hand, I can (kind of) sympathize with that point of view. But on the other hand, I have to wonder if Reacher needs some therapy or at least a hug.

While this is not the best entry in the series, I sense that this book is a kind of turning point for Reacher. I wonder if he's starting to realize that his lifestyle (traveling around the country as a reluctant knight-errant) isn't working anymore. I'm very curious to see what future books have in store for him.

11.20.2010

Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane

Moonlight Mile
Moonlight Mile
It's been a very long time since I've spent time with Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, my favorite private detectives. After publishing Prayers for Rain, I read somewhere that Dennis Lehane was going to retire the characters because he was done torturing them. I was surprised and excited to hear about Moonlight Mile, the first Kenzie and Genaro book in about a decade. I missed these characters.

Moonlight Mile revisits the events of Gone, Baby, Gone, which contained one of the thorniest ethical dilemmas I've ever come across. (You can read the plot summary of the book to find out what it is. If I explain what happened, it will ruin a very good book.) In Moonlight Mile, Kenzie gets a visit from an old definitely not-friend who tells him that the kidnapped girl he tracked down in the previous book has gone missing again. The new case brings up all the unfinished business of the old one.

While they were never the greatest detectives, Kenzie and Genaro are a little rusty this time. It's not all their fault though, since nothing in this book seems to add up. There are Russian mobsters who seem awfully nice. There's the missing girl's family who seem even worse than they used to be. And then there's Kenzie's family. His four-year-old daughter keeps him from diving into the danger and taking risks. Kenzie isn't the same man he used to be. He has bills. He has ties. But most of all, the job is getting to him. He's tired of petty and ugly disputes.

Beyond everything else this book sets out to do, I think that this book is the end. Loose ties are wrapped up. Forgiveness is earned. Wrongs are righted (as much as they can be). Even with all that, the sense I got of this book was that it was another chance to visit with old friends before saying good bye. It wasn't a big adventure, but it was a fun read.

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

Ghosts of Belfast
The Ghosts of Belfast
When I picked up Stuart Neville's Ghosts of Belfast I thought the ghosts described were metaphorical. After all, what former killer for the IRA doesn't have the "ghosts" of his victims following him around? We meet the protagonist, Gerry Fegan, drinking in a pub, trying to drown out the voices and sight of the quite literal ghosts that have been following him around since just before he got out of Her Majesty's Maze Prison. There are eleven of them, and they let him know that the only way to get rid of them is to get revenge on the people who caused their deaths.

Gerry's ghosts and his memories take the reader on a trip through the violent history of the Troubles, while letting us know that the bad times aren't as over as they seem to be. Catholics and Protestants still hate each other, almost as much as Republicans and Unionists do. As Gerry goes after Republicans and undercover Scots, members of the provisional government and law enforcement try to hunt him down and stop him before Gerry destroys the Good Friday Agreement. This makes Gerry sound like a violent psychopath, but he's not. In spite of everything, he's a good man. He argues with his ghosts to try and spare lives, but they are relentless in getting what they want.

The writing in this book is incredible, with a wonderfully drawn cast of heroes and villains (and some characters who are a bit of both). I felt for Gerry. He's good at killing people, yes, but all he wanted was to stop and go on with his life. Neville gives you the necessary history without letting the pace of the book bog down. (Though I will admit that I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia looking things up. I couldn't help myself.) Even though I knew roughly what was going to happen, I couldn't predict where each subsequent chapter would go. I didn't even know if Gerry would live long enough to get the ghosts their revenge. This an amazing first novel by an author I hope has a long career.

11.08.2010

Android Karenina, by Ben Winters

Android Karenina
Android Karenina
About three years ago, I read Anna Karenina and I absolutely hated it. Not only was it incredibly dull, but I didn't care for most of the characters. Reading it was a long, hard slog and I blame my reading group for letting me choose the book in the first place. So, when I saw Android Karenina, I had two thoughts. First, I had no problem with Quirk Press turning it into a horror story. Second, it has freaking robots! Anna Karenina can only be improved by the inclusion of robots.

I have to say, I was not disappointed by this book. I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and while I enjoyed it, I mostly thought it was silly. Android Karenina somehow rises above the silliness and had some interesting things to say about authority. Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this book stays pretty close to the book it's based on, with a lot of material cut out to make room for the wackiness. Unlike that other mashup, this book has an entirely new ending.

There are two couples in this book and the story jumps back and forth between the two. First, there are the eponymous Anna Karenina and Count Alexei Vronsky. They meet at a train station and it's love at first sight. Almost right away, they begin an affair. Second, there's Konstantin Levin and Kitty Shcherbatsky, who pursue a more traditional path to love. When I read the original, I thought that Tolstoy was showing his readers that sin leads to ruin and that virtue leads to a good life, thought more subtly than I just phrased it. Both couples have their ups and downs, but only Levin and Kitty get a genuinely happy ending.

That much remains the same in Android Karenina, but in this book more plot is packed in where Winters trimmed out Russian gentility. For one, Winters packed in a lot more action. Vronsky literally fights for promotion in a very cool weaponized exoskeleton. Anna and Vronksy survive an attack by aliens at the theater. Levin almost gets blown up a couple of times. If only Tolstoy had thought to include a few more explosions. He would have held on to my attention better that way than with petty romantic squabbles.

In the original, I felt like there was a tone of sadness to the whole thing. That feeling as been placed with one of dread. There are hints that something big is coming throughout the book, though not enough to figure out what's going on until near the end. One of things that contributes to this (and is one of the biggest changed from the original) is Anna's husband. He's just as cold and brooding as in Anna Karenina, but in this book he turns into a terrifying villain who seems intent on not only wrecking Anna and Vronsky's lives, but also on ruining the entire country. Because Karenin was part cyborg, it was a little easy to see that he would go Doc Ock eventually. What made his subplot so engaging and terrifying was that there was no one to stand up to him and stop him. Anna and the rest of the characters were too busy living their own stories to wonder what Karenin was up. Getting to know the new Karenin made reading this book absolutely worth it.

A large part of the entertainment factor of this book is seeing how the robots fit into this society. The manners are the same and I found that I could enjoy the story more knowing that these people's cozy lives weren't resting on the backs of the serfs. Some of the characters take trips to the moon and into orbit, replacing the spa trips in the original book. But by far the best part of this book, I thought, was the ending. It's very different from the depressing end to Anna Karenina, which can only be a good thing. I hate to say too much, but it involves a huge deus ex machina and a little bit of time travel. It was wonderful and I'm actually kind of looking forward to more mashups from Ben Winters.

10.30.2010

Carrie, by Stephen King

Carrie
Carrie
Just as I like to read irreligious books at Easter, I like to try and read a genuinely scary book for Halloween. My own small Halloween celebration this year was to reread Carrie, by Stephen King. I forget how long ago it was that I first read it and, since I've never seen a film version, I'd forgotten enough of the plot to get really involved in the book again.

Compared to later King novels I've read (and I'll be the first to admit that I'm selective about which King books I read), Carrie has a lot of raw emotional power and is more skillfully constructed than a lot of those later books. Carrie is told in two strands, for lack of a better word. In one, you follow the major characters in the days leading up to the infamous prom. In the other, you get excepts of news dispatches, scholarly books, congressional testimonies, and letters. This second thread lets you know in advance that something terrible is going to happen, though they withhold the details. It gives the whole book an atmosphere of inevitable catastrophe, making it a great tragedy in the full literary sense of the word.

Even without Carrie's latent talents, this would have been a gut-wrenching book. Carrie, modeled on two girls the author knew while growing up (according to the author's foreword in the paperback edition I read), was one of those kids who everyone picks on. She's just different enough and friendless enough that everyone picks on her. Contributing to Carrie's delicate psychological state is her hyper-religious mother. I've long thought that too much religion will warp the psyche, and Carrie and her mother bear our my theory. (I would say they bear it out nicely, but there's nothing nice about this family.) Carrie's mother, Margaret, is so extreme in her beliefs that even churches with a fundamentalist bent are too liberal for her. Instead, she hold her own services. Because she kept her daughter at home except for school, Carrie has been subject to her mother's twisted ideas and violent will since she was a child. Carrie is abused at school and at home, and has no friends or hobbies that can help take her away from that.

...Until the day that a spectacularly cruel stunt at school triggers something paranormal in Carrie. Throughout the book, the secondary sources quoted refer to it as TK--telekinesis. This fluke of genetics gives Carrie what she needs to exact revenge on her mother and classmates. The only kindness Carrie experiences is when a classmate tries to ameliorate her guilt at participating in hazing Carrie talks her boyfriend into taking the unfortunate to the Spring Ball. This boyfriend, Tommy, is a very good boy and does help Carrie have an enjoyable time--until some other students decide to pull one last prank on her.

When I read this book before, I remember disliking Carrie at the end of the book. It was so long ago that I'm not sure why I disliked her. This time, I saw Carrie as a wounded animal, like an abused dog that keeps trying to please its masters but gets beaten down so much that it turns mean. At the end, all she wanted was to hurt the people who had hurt her and could not be reasoned with. While some people were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, I could still sympathize (a bit) with Carrie. As I said before, Carrie strikes me as a genuine tragedy. Carrie was a flawed human being who managed to turn the tables on her antagonists for a while, then died a death full of pathos.

10.23.2010

On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers

On Stranger Tides
On Stranger Tides
I've had this book on my shelf for a while now. I really only picked it up because I watched all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies earlier this week. Interestingly, when I looked the Pirates movies up on Wikipedia, I found out that not only are they filming a fourth movie right now, but that the producers also bought the rights to this book and the fourth movie will be based in part on Tim Power's On Stranger Tides.

When I was asked earlier this week to describe what I was reading, all I could really come up with was pirates messing around with voodoo. The more I thought about it, the more this description fit. After an exciting prologue in which a character tries to retrieve his dead wife Orpheus-style, we meet our protagonist, John Chandagnac. Chandagnac, a puppeteer, soon becomes Jack Shandy when the ship he's traveling on is taken by pirates who have problems pronouncing his French name. Shandy becomes a reluctant part of their crew and is swept up in the pirates' plans.

This book has a great cast of antagonists. More than once, they steal the scene from Jack Shandy.  First, there's Shandy's captain, Philip Davies, who pushes our hero to greater and greater heights of criminal behavior--but who is ultimately Shandy's best friend. There's Ben Hurwood, the would be Orpheus who will stop at nothing, not even the murder of his own daughter, to resurrect his dead wife. And then there's my absolute favorite: Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard. He first steps on to the stage in full piratical rig out, including the smoldering slow matches braided into his hair. Blackbeard is portrayed like a force of nature. Even when he's not actually involved in a scene, he still seems to influence events. When he and Hurwood team up to find and use the Fountain of Youth, it's captivating and terrifying to watch. Shandy just gets tangled up in their plans, but he's the only one who knows what they're up to and has the wherewithal to stop them. The last scene of the book, when Shandy takes on Blackbeard, is marvelous--in the original sense of the word, not the fashionista sense. It truly is a marvel to read.

This is one of the first books Powers wrote and published. I've read his later books and can tell the difference. I really enjoy reading Powers, because he is incredibly skillful in blending history and oddball supernatural stuff together. In Declare, it was World War II and the djinn. In Last Call, it was poker and the Fisher King. In both of these books, Powers steadfastly refuses to reveal more than he absolutely has to. It's like he met an expository character when he was young and formed a violent abhorrence to their kind. In contrast to the later books, there is a lot of exposition in these books. Not only to characters say what they're doing, but they also explain why things work the way they do. It was a pleasant change, but after a while, I found that I missed the challenge of trying to figure out just what the hell was going on.

Still, On Stranger Tides is an entertaining and unusual read. With a full compliment of zombies, voodoo practitioners, and loas, On Stranger Tides is one of the most imaginative books I've ever read. I'm really looking forward to the next Pirates movie, just to see what those writers did with this story.

10.17.2010

Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold
Best Served Cold
I've continued my dive back into epic fantasy be reading Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold. When I was browsing the shelves at the library, I was looking for something gritty, dark, without any of the cliches or tropes of the fantasy genre. I found what I was looking for in this book. As you'd imagine, Best Served Cold is a revenge tale. By the end, it seems like all the major characters are seeking revenge against all the others.

We begin the book by meeting Monza Murcatto, a mercenary and great general. She's on top of the world and because I have the benefit of foreshadowing and the book jacket blurb, I wanted to warn her. In a scene reminiscent of Kill Bill, her employer tries to kill her. He succeeds in killing her brother and throwing Monza down a mountain. She is cared for by a very creep amateur doctor and, as soon as she gets back on her feet, she immediately starts to plan her revenge on the seven men who tried to kill her. At this point, I was expecting something like a grimmer criminal plan where the protagonist rounds up specialists and puts together an elaborate plan. Only the first part happens, but Monza never really develops a grand plan. A whole lot of people die. Plans are thrown together and almost immediately go to hell. Monza and her employees get very battered and even caught up in a couple of major battles along the way. But then, isn't there an old proverb about how the path to revenge is never a straight line? Or maybe that's a line from Kill Bill.

While revenge consumes many of the characters, they still develop and change throughout the narrative. While they are people you'd never actually want to meet--because they are bastards to man (and woman)--they do seem like real people. Throughout the narrative, Abercrombie includes some very restrained flashbacks at the beginning of each section to show you want Monza's life before her employer tried to kill her. You get to see how she got her nickname as a butcher. As these short, tight flashbacks unfold, you learn the real story and my opinion of Monza and her brother changed. These revelations were really well done. Until I got this part of the story, Best Served Cold was just a bloody revenge story, albeit very well written. The action scenes are some of the best I've ever read. It's cinematic, like John Woo in print. And I have to say something about the humor that punctuates the book. Even though it's very violent, it's also got some hysterically funny moments:
"And what do you think is God's plan is, General Cosca?" "I have long suspected that it might be to annoy me." (p. 469*)
And this one, when Cosca addresses his troops before a battle:
"Brave heroes of the Thousands Swords!...Well, let us say brave men of the Thousand Swords, at least. Let us say men, anyway...My boys, you all know my stamp! Some of you have fought beside me...or at any rate in front...May Mistress Luck be always at your side and mine! She is drawn, after all, tho those who least deserve her! May darkness find us victorious! Uninjured! And above all--rich!" (449-450).
By the end of the book, the revenge narrative turns into something else entirely. In retrospective, I can see the political part of the story developing, but the end of the book is very different from its beginning. I hate to give too much away, but I will say that there is a lot of irony in the ending. There are still some mysteries that I kind of wish Abercrombie had addressed, but I admire the skillful way that he wrapped up all the major plot thread. One of the biggest cliches of the genre is that every story is told in at least a trilogy and sometimes more than three books. But, remarkably, Best Served Cold is a satisfying stand alone novel.

This book is set in the same world as Joe Abercrombie's trilogy, The First Law. I can clearly see some elements of our history in Abercrombie's world: an empire based on Rome, Northern barbarians, an Ottoman-like empire. Monza's country resembles nothing so much as Renaissance Italy, with warring city states and roving mercenaries and a superfluity of poisoners and assassins running around. It's one of the most dangerous and interesting settings I've encountered. Abercrombie does a great job of subtlety writing in the long, long history of this world without letting the action bog down. You really get the sense that this world will keep rolling along after the last page.

* All quotes are from the 2009 Orbit hardcover edition.

10.10.2010

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Name of the Wind
The Name of the Wind
It's been a while since I read an out and out epic fantasy novel. But I've had The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, on my shelf for a while and I finally decided its time had come. I'm glad that I did. The Name of the Wind lives up to its hype, in spite of a few cliches and rough patches in the plot arc. This book is the first in a planned trilogy--what fantasy debut these days isn't?--about a unorthodox hero named Kvothe (pronounced Quothe). We meet Kvothe in an inn in the middle of nowhere, under an assumed name. After a lot of pestering, a wandering scribe and storyteller convinces Kvothe to tell his story. Our hero agrees, but tells the scribe that his story will take three days. The Name of the Wind includes the first day of Kvothe's story.

This book is mostly story within a story, exactly like an extended flashback. Kvothe takes us all the way back to when he was twelve years old and still traveling with his parents troupe of traveling actors, musicians, and entertainers. Because we only get hints about Kvothe's later great deeds, it's a little hard to tell where the story is going. The story meanders all over the place, but you have to trust it because the character is telling his telling his own story. He has to get to the point some time. So, we get to see tragedy strike the troupe, Kvothe being left to fend for himself on the streets of a tough city, Kvothe using his wits and fast tongue to be admitted to the University. Unlike a lot of fantasy novel heroes, Kvothe doesn't just charge off to avenge his family and friends. Instead, he goes to the University to learn more about the literal demons that killed his family. Things would have gone a lot more smoothly, but our hero has about the worst luck of any character in the genre. He is thwarted at almost every turn, mouths off to the wrong people, and otherwise gets caught up in impossible situations. And then, just as Kvothe gets ready to launch into the next big chunk of his story, the book ends and we have to wait for the next book in the series.

I started reading this 700+ page book last Thursday, and got completely sucked into the story. Kvothe is a terrific character: a smart ass with a frighteningly quick mind and a strong sense of honor. I highly recommend this book to fans of big fantasy novels. There are a few problems with the book, but they are fairly minor and pretty common in fantasy novels. It's a little jarring when a character says something's okay or when the main character and his companions sit down to a meal of a whole pig killed less than an hour before. But Kvothe and his story more than make up for these problems. I am really looking forward to the next book when it comes out this coming spring.

10.06.2010

The Devil's Alphabet, by Daryl Gregory

Devil's Alphabet
The Devil's Alphabet
The Devil's Alphabet, by Daryl Gregory, centers on the aftermath of a strange epidemic in a small Appalachian town. Ten years before the events of the book, a disease ripped through the town of Switchcreek. Those that survived had their DNA altered to the point where the scientists don't even think they're human anymore. Apart from some seriously bizarre explanation of where the disease came from (that, frankly, even I don't give credence, too), there isn't much talk in this book of the disease. Instead, this book is more about how the survivors have learned to live with their new bodies and how the world is still learning that lesson.

Ten years after the epidemic, Pax--a skip who wasn't touched by the disease--returns home for the funeral of one of his childhood friends. Once he arrives back in Switchcreek, he gets tangled up in the local politics. It was hard to pick up on an overarching plot. I got the sense of Pax getting caught up in other people's schemes; he reacted for just about the entire length of the book. He is a strangely passive protagonist. I was much more interested in the other characters: the corrupt but hospitable mayor, the gigantic and honest unofficial "chief," Paxton's loopy ex-preacher of a father. If Gregory had chosen one of them to be the main character, this book would have been a lot more interesting.

I read Gregory's previous book, Pandemonium, and while this book shares the same originality, it doesn't have the same kind of intensity. I kept waiting for this book to pick up, to get to the point, but it never got there.

10.03.2010

The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader
The Reader
The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, is a remarkable book that manages to present a number of ethical and philosophical dilemmas without sacrificing plot or characterization. The first part of the book introduces us to Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz. Michael is fifteen when he meets the older Hanna. They start a relationship, partly, I suspect, because they are so isolated from everyone else and partly because they "get" each other. Because we get to see the relationship from its genesis, it doesn't seem and strange and, well, illegal as it should. Michael and Hanna settle into a long term love affair with each other, until Hanna leaves.

In the second part of the book, more details are revealed and Schlink brings up some uncomfortable questions and situations. Hanna is accused of (and admits to) being a camp guard at an auxiliary camp at Auschwitz. She's put on trial begins with a bunch of other former guards. Michael finds out about the trial because he was part of a group of law students who made a project of studying trials of former Nazis and Nazi officials. In one of the most civilized acts ever seen in history, these people were given trials to determine their responsibility. Even now, I have to admire the restraint it took to not execute the worst offenders. Further complicating the matter is the inadequacy of the law when the crime are so huge. Meanwhile, Michael asks himself (and us):
What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? (104*)
Michael is right and yet, we have to discuss the Holocaust, if only to keep the memory alive so that it never happens again.

Schlink is a remarkable writer, to ask such difficult and important questions in such a slim book. It would have been easy to let questions like these take over the book but Schlink shows us that, in spite of everything, life goes on, even for former camp guards. As I read the second part of the book, I kept thinking back to the strange love that Michael and Hanna had. Did Hanna deserve to have that love? And as the trial rolls along, I also had to wonder just how much guilt and responsibility Hanna bore for what happened on the death march from Auschwitz back towards Germany. I know she wasn't innocent, but was the verdict actually just?

The Reader is unsettling. There's more than enough here to trouble anyone's ethics. To my way of thinking, making readers think and question and ponder even after the book is over is a sign of a really great book. This is a rare and meaningful book.

* 1997 Vintage International trade paperback edition.

9.12.2010

Conspirata, by Robert Harris

Conspirata
Conspirata
Conspirata, by Robert Harris, portrays the continuing adventures of Marcus Tullius Cicero. This time, we join the story just as Cicero is about to take office as consul. Even before he takes office, the trouble starts. This book really deserve its title. There are so many conspiracies and plots that its hard to keep track of them all. First of all, Cicero has to deal with Catiline, a former candidate for consul who just can't deal with losing. He's such a poor sport that he actually foments a "small" rebellion: the Catiline conspiracies. And there's the First Trumvirate. Behind the scenes, Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gnaeus Pompey Magnus essentially seize power in Rome by masterfully using the Republic's own laws against Cicero and the Senate.

After reading Conspirata, I really hope that Robert Harris writes the next book soon--not just because it takes us into a part of Roman history that I find utterly fascinating (the transition from Republic to Empire), but because the book leaves Cicero at such a low point you have to wonder how he's going to be able to get back into the Senate.

As I read this book, I spent an awful lot of time on Wikipedia filling in the gaps in my knowledge about Rome. Most of what I know comes from fiction and some history classes I took way back when. I can recognize the names and I know generally how the history goes, but I looked up an awful lot of Romans and Roman custom. I just love books with an educational element. This book was like a more entertaining episode on the History Channel.

One of the things that struck me towards the end of the book and as I read through the relevant Wikipedia articles was how broken the system seemed to be. Granted, Caesar and the other triumvirs were manipulating things behind the scenes by catering to the mob (who could overrule the Senate) and by outright bribing people or threatening them with armies. But for a system that lasted almost 500 years, it's amazing they got things done at all. After the ousting of Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), the Roman people put an extraordinary number of checks on executive power. There were two consuls who acted as president of the Senate in alternating months. They were only in office for one year and prohibited from running again for at least a decade. Generals gave up their military power as soon as they entered the city. The Senate could be overruled by assemblies of the people. They held elections all the time and so many people voted that they had to hold the balloting out on the Field of Mars to accommodate them all (at least before it got built up after the end of the Republic). The fictional Cicero at one point remarks that there were so many elections the Republic may have gorged itself to death on them.

Conspirata is a much more exciting book that its predecessor, Imperium, for two reasons. First, the stakes are a lot higher. Instead of losing an election or a court case, Cicero is up against rebellions and conspiracies. He doesn't know it yet, but he's watching the Republic start to die. Just fifteen or so years from the end of the events in the book, Caesar gets himself declared dictator for life. Seventeen years after Caesar's assassination, the Senate basically makes Augustus its first emperor. The historical Cicero meets his end well before this time, but he was there for the beginning of the end.

9.07.2010

Imperium, by Robert Harris

Imperium
Imperium
I read Robert Harris' Imperium as part of my ongoing fascination with Roman history. Unlike Roma--which I just finished--Imperium doesn't try to tell the entire story of the kingdom and republic of Rome. It centers on the early life of Marcus Tullius Cicero and his quest to become consul. Unusually (I think), it's narrated by Cicero's secretary, Tiro. Tiro really did exist and really was Cicero's secretary. He wrote a biography of Cicero, but it was lost. Imperium is a fictional version of that biography. While I understand the desire to use this historical detail, I wonder why Harris chose not to try and get inside the head of one of the world's greatest orators and a major figure in Roman history.

Imperium picks up as Cicero finishes his posting as a magistrate in Sicily and heads to Rome to take his place as a senator. At that time, Rome was still a republic and the Senate was still a going concern. After getting involved in a major corruption case, Cicero becomes aedile and continues to rise through the ranks. The novel does not follow the traditional single plot arc. Instead, there are several. As Cicero wins higher offices, he keeps getting involved in bigger and bigger conspiracies.

Throughout the novel, Cicero faces ethical dilemma after ethical dilemma. He's caught between political advancement and his Republican (in the Roman sense, not the modern sense) values to do the right things. As a young man, he choses to prosecute a corrupt governor and alienates the aristocrats. But as he rises and the stakes get higher, he starts to compromise those values. And yet, Tiro keeps you on Cicero's side. Even though you're not inside his head, you can clearly see and even understand why he makes his choices.

This novel follows the history closely, glossing over some events in order to get to the big events in Cicero's life. But because the real Tiro's biography was lost, we don't know all the details. Harris does exercise some poetic license by filling in dialogue and the relationships and the emotions, but I sensed a certain timidity in this book. It seemed like Harris was reluctant to invent too much, to take too many liberties. Imperium read more like creative nonfiction than like fiction. Again, it's a choice I don't understand.

I am, however, looking forward to the next book in the series, Conspirata, which covers the opening salvos in the battles between Cicero and Caesar.

Roma, by Steven Saylor

Roma
Roma
Steven Saylor's Roma is a book in the Edward Rutherfurd-mode: a generational story of a city. It follows a pair of families down through the centuries, highlighting the turning points in their city's history. In this case, that city is Rome. Saylor follows the Pinarii and Potitii families from 1000 BC to 1 BC and we get to see Rome grow from a small trading post to the seat of an Empire.

Because the book is structure as a series of short stories, it's hard to bond with any of the characters. It also doesn't help that some of the characters are jerks. Just like a Rutherfurd novel, you have to keep remembering that the main character isn't really a person; it's the city. If you read it that way, Roma is an amazing novel. Like the best works of historical fiction, it shows how much like us our ancestors were. They were smart. Their civilizations were complex. And yet...the Romans are also alien. They were brutal. They were very religious and superstitious.

As I read Roma, one of the things that struck me was how small historical events can become legendary. Saylor uses Roman festivals like the Lupercalia and places like the Caci Stairs (Scalae Caci) and invents stories to explain their origins. Something will happen, sometimes something small, and then a few stories and a few generations later, its a venerable tradition and no one knows exactly how it got started.

One of things that bothered me about this book--and it bothered me a lot--was Saylor's tendency to gloss over important events in history. Granted, Roma covers 1,000 years of history. Saylor can't cover everything. But a lot of events were omitted that I was really hoping to read about: the Battle of Actium, the story of Cincinnatus, the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Augustus' rise to become emperor, etc. Some of the chapters would cover the aftermath or mention this events, but these elisions made the last third of the book unsatisfying. I might read Empire, the sequel that covers 14 CE to 138 CE, but I don't have high hopes.

8.31.2010

The List 2009-2010

It's that time again. Here are the books I've read during the previous year:
  1. The Becoming, Jeanne C. Stein
  2. I, Lucifer, by Glen Duncan
  3. The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia
  4. The Sword of the Lady, by S.M. Stirling
  5. Walking Dead (Book 1), by Robert Kirkman, et al.
  6. We Bought a Zoo, by Benjamin Mee
  7. Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry
  8. An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon
  9. Walking Dead (Book 2), by Robert Kirkman, et al.
  10. Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
  11. Walking Dead (Book 3), by Robert Kirkman, et al.
  12. The Devil's Food Dictionary, by Barry Foy
  13. Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey
  14. Soulless, by Gail Carriger
  15. Bite Marks, by Terrence Taylor
  16. The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell
  17. Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett
  18. Making Money, by Terry Pratchett
  19. Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
  20. The Fifth Elephant, by Terry Pratchett
  21. Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett
  22. Tempest Rising, by Nicole Peeler
  23. Heat Wave, by “Richard Castle”
  24. Darker Angels, by M.L.N. Hanover
  25. Ghost Ocean, by S.M. Peters
  26. The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson
  27. Terra Incognita, by Ruth Downie
  28. Moon Called, by Patricia Briggs
  29. Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada
  30. The Art of Detection, by Laurie R. King
  31. Forever Flowing, by Vasily Grossman
  32. Blood Price, by Tanya Huff
  33. Blood Bound, by Patricia Briggs
  34. Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn
  35. Kitty Goes to Washington, by Carrie Vaughn
  36. Kitty Takes a Holiday, by Carrie Vaughn
  37. Kitty and the Silver Bullet, by Carrie Vaughn
  38. Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand, by Carrie Vaughn
  39. Kitty Raises Hell, by Carrie Vaughn
  40. Kitty's House of Horrors, by Carrie Vaughn
  41. Divine Misdemeanors, by Laurell K. Hamilton
  42. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, by John McWhorter
  43. Storm Front, by Jim Butcher
  44. Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
  45. Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron, by Jasper Fforde
  46. The Fortune Cooke Chronicles, by Jennifer 8 Lee
  47. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
  48. Waiter Rant—Thanks for the Tip, Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, by Steve Dublanica
  49. Far North, by Marcel Theroux
  50. Day After Night, by Anita Diamant
  51. The Law of Nines, by Terry Goodkind
  52. Blackout, by Connie Willis
  53. Cooking Dirty, by Jason Sheehan
  54. Black Magic Sanction, by Kim Harrison
  55. The Hundred Thousands Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin
  56. Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose
  57. Blue Nowhere, by Jeffrey Deaver
  58. Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
  59. A Spectacle of Corruption, by David Liss
  60. Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim
  61. A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss
  62. A Touch of Dead, by Charlaine Harris
  63. Changeless, by Gail Carriger
  64. Bite Me, by Christopher Moore
  65. Midnight Guardians, by Sarah Jane Stratford
  66. Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
  67. Bean Trees, by Barabara Kingsolver
  68. Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver
  69. Club Dead, by Charlaine Harris
  70. Dead to the World, by Charlaine Harris
  71. Dead as a Doornail, by Charlaine Harris
  72. Definitely Dead, by Charlaine Harris
  73. All Together Dead, by Charlaine Harris
  74. From Dead to Worse, by Charlaine Harris
  75. Dead and Gone, by Charlaine Harris
  76. Dead in the Family, by Charlaine Harris
  77. Serpent's Shadow, by Mercedes Lackey
  78. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
  79. Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley
  80. 61 Hours, by Lee Child
  81. Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis
  82. Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larrson
  83. Deadly Dinner Party and Other Medical Detective Stories, by Jonathan A. Edlow, M.D.
  84. Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton
  85. Lost World, by Michael Crichton
  86. Breathers: A Zombie Lament, by S.G. Browne
  87. Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland
  88. Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest
  89. Daemon, by Daniel Suarez
  90. Burning Wire, by Jeffrey Deaver
  91. Sizzling Sixteen, by Janet Evanovich
  92. Passage, by Justin Cronin
  93. City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare
  94. Naamah's Curse, by Jacqueline Carey
  95. City of Ashes, by Cassandra Clare
  96. City of Glass, by Cassandra Clare
  97. Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan, Jr.
  98. Story of Sushi, by Trevor Corson
  99. Blood Oath, by Christopher Farnsworth
  100. Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones
  101. Johannes Cabal the Detective, by Jonathan L. Howard
  102. Kitty Goes to War, by Carrie Vaughan
  103. Moonshine, by Alaya Johnson
  104. Persuasion, by Jane Austen
  105. Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva
  106. Day by Day Armageddon: Beyond Exile, by J.L. Bourne
  107. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
  108. Persona Non Grata, by Ruth Downie
  109. Timeline, by Michael Crichton
  110. Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson
  111. World War Z, by Max Brooks
  112. Mila 18, by Leon Uris
If you're curious, this is a new personal record.

8.29.2010

Mila 18, by Leon Uris

Mila 18
Mila 18
Leon Uris' Mila 18 may be the most depressing book I've ever read. It's based on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the events leading up to. To anyone who knows their history, it's a nail-biting and heartbreaking read because you know exactly what's going to happen and that the odds of any of the characters surviving is pretty much nil.

We meet our cast of characters in 1939, a scant handful of days before the Germans invade Poland. Some of the characters serve in the Polish Army, which was shockingly outdated. (One of the main characters was even in a cavalry regiment. They were ordered to go up against Panzers.) Before long, we're in a besieged Warsaw. About a third of the way through, the anti-Jewish laws and directives start to get passed and the ghettos are established. While most descriptions of Mila 18 that I'd read before I started the book make it seem like the book is primarily about the Uprising, it's actually mostly about how people survived in the ghetto. On the one hand, you've got the puppet Jewish Civil Authority who try to save lives by compromising. On the other, you've got the Zionists and the Communists and other political groups who form a kind of shadow/underground government.

Not only does Uris show us characters in both of these organizations, but he also shows us characters on the Nazi side. At first, the book seems very Zionist. I thought for the first hundred pages or so that it was going to be a rah rah book for the Jews, like Inglourious Basterds but without the humor or the revenge fantasy. But the characters grew more complicated as the book rolled along. There were cynical Nazis who knew that what they were doing was a crime, Jews who were out to save their skins and make money while others suffered and died, and Poles and Catholic priests who both helped the Jews in the ghetto and turned their backs on them. Some characters start out good and slowly drift towards being self-serving and cowardly. Others go the other direction. Meanwhile, there is the history telling you that no matter what any of them do, a lot of people are still going to die. This complexity helps make the book terribly real.

Uris, especially in the last quarter of the book, works hard to not only get the reader to see what life in the ghetto was like, but also to hear and smell it, too, especially when most of the Jewish characters have to move permanently into their bunker at Mila 18. While nothing can compare to what it was actually like to be in the ghetto, Mila 18 was, at times, almost unbearable to read because you always know that the horrible, soul-crushing things that Uris is describing really did happen.

Whenever I read or watch something about the Holocaust, I always end up asking unanswerable questions. Why did the Holocaust happen? Why did people let it happen? Why didn't more people help the Jews and other people targeted by the Nazi regime? But one thing that makes Mila 18 different from other books I've read and movies I've watched is that it describes one of the times that the Jews fought back. Even though I new most of them were doomed, I also know that some of them survived. Some of them, even made it to Israel. At the end of the Uprising, these escapes became more important that fighting back the Germans and their allies. One of the characters comments, "There is a line which we cross when it is no longer our duty to die but to live" (512*).

Mila 18 is one of the hardest books I've ever read, but I would recommend it to strong readers who want to experience a slice of history.

* Bantam Books paperback edition.

8.18.2010

Julian Comstock, by Richard Charles Wilson

Julian Comstock
Julian Comstock
It's hard to know what to make of Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson. First of all, it's set in the twenty second century, but there is a distinctly old Western setting and tone. It reminded me a bit of Firefly in that respect. Second, there are hints dropped all over the place that the subject of the book is a major historical figure, but the book ends up being more about the narrator, Adam. I can't say much more about this bait and switch without totally giving away the ending. The book is a pile of contradictions. Entertaining, but contradictions nonetheless.

The book is narrated by a young Adam Hazzard, a childhood friend of Julian Comstock. While setting the scene and remarking on the unusual history that derailed the future into an odd recreation of the nineteenth century, Adam pulls us into the conspiracy surrounding Julian. In this America, the Presidency is inherited. While Julian is the President's nephew, the President is trying to kill Julian. There is a vague plan to conscript Julian into the army and send him to the front lines in Canada, but Adam and Company manage to evade death. The first third to half of the book reminds me a lot of what I've read about the American Civil War. They even have blue uniforms. Along with Adam's folksy Twain-flavored prose, the nineteenth century feel really starts to come through. And yet, it's set 160 years in the future.

Adam and Julian's Army adventures were my favorite parts of the book. After they leave the Army, things start to get out of hand. I don't just mean that the plot starts to heat up--which it kind of does--but the book derails a little bit.

SPOILERS AHEAD. I'M GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE ENDING, SO IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS, SKIP OVER THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.

Adam has been dropping hints about how people in his future write books about Julian's Presidency, how turbulent a time it was, etc. etc., but I just don't see anything Julian does that merits that kind of attention. It's not like he permanently overthrew the status quo. He didn't right many past wrongs. He just seems to spend most of his time as President pissing off the clergy and working on his movie about Charles Darwin. For most of the book, Adam builds Julian up as a hero, but Julian just doesn't live up to the hype.

END SPOILERS

Julian Comstock is an interesting story about a possible (but highly unlikely) future for the United States. It's also a good Western(ish) yarn. I had a lot of fun reading it. The only major complaint I have is that it's too condensed. Even though it's over 400-pages long, it feel abbreviated because Adam keeps glossing over what he thinks are the uninteresting parts. (Not only that, but the narrator calls attention to this all the time.) While it does keep the book from possibly bogging down, I wanted to spend more time in the world of this book.

Timeline, by Michael Crichton

Timeline
Timeline
Barring the interesting--and probably wildly inaccurate--science, Michael Crichton's Timeline has a lot of surprising similarities to Jurassic Park: a megalomaniac capatlist who wants to use the amazing technology his company invented to create an amusement park, a ticking clock, and a Faustian warning that just because you can, doesn't mean that you should.

In Timeline, this cautionary tale begins with an escapee drawing attention to a company that's up to something secret. Then the academics are introduced. In Timeline, they are historians, currently excavating a castle in France. The historians are flown in to investigate the technology and, because it's a Crichton novel, things go to hell right rapidly. The technology, based on some interesting ideas about quantum physics, effectively transports people through time. You'll have to read the book to find out how the science works, because I know it will sound ridiculous if I try to explain it.

One more similarity between Timeline and Jurassic Park: the technology fails right when they need it. The historians are stranded in the past until the time machine gets fixed.

The historians get transported back to their castle during one of the hot points in the Hundred Years' war. And just like we learned in Jurassic Park, Timeline reinforces the point that the past is a lot more dangerous than we give it credit for. The middle ages, as Crichton portrays it, are not a place of courtly love and ignorant peasants. The knights are deadlier than raptors if only because we know to stay the hell away from the raptors. Within seconds of arriving in the past, the historians' guides are dead and they are on their own. I lost count of the number of times they almost got killed.

Even though it's even less believable than Jurassic Park, Timeline is a fun read. It's one of the few works of historical fiction that I think actually get close what life was like. The only thing that could have made it more real was if the publishers put scratch and sniff on the pages. Crichton did a terrific job of describing the sights and sounds of medieval France. With the clock ticking down the minutes until their time machine irreparably fails and the historians trying not to die, the plot just hums along.

8.08.2010

Persona Non Grata, by Ruth Downie

Persona Non Grata
Persona Non Grata
I finally got my hands on a copy of this book. I've been looking for it since I finished the last book in the series. Persona Non Grata is the third book to feature Gaius Petreius Ruso, a senior surgeon of the XXth legion and the wars in Britannia. In this book, Ruso answers a summons from home and the man who plans to take that family to court promptly drops dead in his home.

Downie has the same talent that my other favorite writers of historical fiction have: the ability to share historical detail without bogging down the narrative. It's clear that Downie--a part time librarian--has done her homework. She even prints a short bibliography of sources at the end of the book. Roman history fascinates me. Their laws were complex and sophisticated, even if they could be surprisingly brutal. Every time I read about Rome, I wonder where we would be if Rome hadn't fallen and the Dark Ages hadn't happened.

One of the other things that drew me to this series is to see a possibility of how murders and other mysteries might be solved without anything like a police force or, in this case, without even thief takers. As in the other books, the investigation amounts to Ruso asking questions and trying to piece together what really happened. Also as in the other books, Ruso has the help of Tilla, a Briton who used to be a slave. Of course, her kind of help often works at cross purposes to what Ruso is up to and then spend about half of their conversations arguing with each other. The sparks of their relationship really help being this series to life and gives the main characters a lot of personality.

Along with her refusal to dump information on the reader, Downie also doesn't over-write the books. It's a pleasant challenge to piece together the world of this book from just the necessary adjectives and details. Compared with the last book I read, Leviathan, with its illustrations, it was wonderful to have to use my imagination again. This goes for the mystery as well. There are so few clues at first that it's hard to see how Ruso's going to solve it and find out who really murdered the slimy Severus.

Persona Non Grata is a wonderful escape book, with just enough challenge to it that it pulls you along--but not so much that you feel like you need a degree in criminal psychology and ten years experience in law enforcement to fathom what's going on. The only problem I had with it was that I only took me a day to read it. I wish I could have spent more time with Ruso and Tilla.

8.07.2010

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield

Leviathan
Leviathan
I surprised myself by reading another young adult novel this week. Normally, I shun them as unsophisticated and message laden. But Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, is dark enough and imaginative enough that I enjoyed it quite a lot.

This alternate history is set in 1914, as Europe gears up for what in our history would be called the Great War. Germany and Austro-Hungary are literally gearing up for war against Serbia, France, Russia, and Great Britain. What makes this historical timeline different from ours is a very early discovery of DNA and the ability to manipulate it. In addition to the alliances, Europe is also divided into two technological camps: the Clankers and the Darwinists. Germany and Austro-Hungary are Clankers, who build war machines from engines and gears. The rest are Darwinist, who build their own war machines out of genetically fabricated animals. It sounds a little unbelievable when you put it baldly like that. (Come to think of it, the plots of a lot of the books I read are like that.) But in this world it works. And normally, I pass on books with illustrations. I like to imagine the characters for myself, thank you very much. But here, they're a great addition, especially when they show the fantastical beasts the Brits have created.

The story follows to adolescents, one Austrian and one Briton. The Austrian is the orphaned son of the Archduke Ferdinand, Aleksander. The Brit is Deryn Sharp, a girl in disguise who joins the Air Corps at the beginning of the book. Their paths collide rather spectacularly near the end of the book. Before they do meet up, we get a lot of simultaneous background information and action sequences. It's very deftly done and no expository characters in sight.

As I said before, one of the things I appreciated about the book was its darkness. Even though the characters are about 15, they're in mortal danger for big chunks of the book. Deryn's airship gets blown out of the sky by German zeppelins. Aleksander gets in a fight to the death with a German soldier. Westerfeld doesn't soften anything just because the characters are young teenagers. Because of the high tension level, it was easy to get caught up in the book and to genuinely worry about the characters.

This book claims to be the first in a series, but I haven't seen any news about a second book--not even on the author's website. But if a second book is published, I will gladly spend another couple of evenings in Deryn and Aleksander's company.

8.01.2010

Beyond Exile, by J.L. Bourne

Beyond Exile
Beyond Exile
After reading Day by Day Armageddon's sequel, Beyond Exile, I feel like I need to watch a comedy or something before I can get to sleep tonight. Reading this book is like playing Left 4 Dead late at night; it freaked me out. I'm really glad that I read it broad daylight. Holy cow.

We met our nameless hero in the first book in San Antonio. In order to deal with everything and to keep a record of his life--for however long it lasts--our hero keeps a roughly daily journal. Beyond Exile finds him at Hotel 23, a missile silo somewhere in Texas with the other survivors that he collected in the first book. Just when it seems like there's no one else alive, the crew at H23 intercept a distress call from a group of marines. After rescuing the marines, Nameless' people makes contact with what's left of the US military.

Things hum along at Hotel 23 until a reconnaissance mission goes wrong and strands Nameless more than two hundred miles away from his safe haven, all on his own. The rest of the book (more than half) is all about his attempts to get home to his girl and safety. It's a bit like reading a narrative version of Max Brooks' Complete Zombie Survival Guide. It's all about fighting off hordes, noise discipline, and finding shelter. It's a cracking read. Even though the writing style is spare and our hero doesn't do a lot of reflective thinking, you feel like you're right there, riding along on Nameless' shoulder, dodging the undead and trying not to die.

The book ends with a clear set up for a third book and I am very much looking forward to spending another day reading. (I sure as hell won't read it at night.)

The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva

Rembrandt Affair
The Rembrandt Affair
In The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva, shows our hero Gabriel Allon getting back to his roots. After chasing down Palestinian terrorists and evil Russian oligarchs, an old friend asks Gabriel to track down a stolen $45 million painting of Rembrandt van Rijn's mistress. The book even opens in in Port Navas, Cornwall--where Gabriel hid/lived during the early books, after the death of his family. Not only that, but the book is peppered with appearances from old characters. And even though it was 460-odd pages, I blistered through it yesterday.

After a few chapters to set the scene, an old friend visits Gabriel to enlist his help in tracking down the stolen painting. It takes a little arm twisting by Gabriel's wife, but soon Gabriel is headed for the Continent to track down the painting by finding out its provenance. Meanwhile, we get to see what's happening to the painting. For a while, it seems like the painting is just getting further and further away while Gabriel turns up old horrors about Dutch Jews being forced to give up their property before being deported. The provenance trail leads to Argentina, then to a wealth Swiss industrialist with a spotless reputation.

It is a law of fiction that two apparently unrelated plot lines will eventually converge. When they do, a simple (for a given amount of simple) job of recovering a painting turns into an operation involving the intelligence services of three different countries. Nothing ever goes off without a hitch in a Silva novel. The only problem I had was that most of the action took place in the last sixty pages. Everything else was background and buildup. Until the big finale, I felt like Gabriel was taking a back seat to the action. I kept waiting for him to take the lead, but it just wouldn't happen until almost the end of the book.

I was reminded as I read it of my favorite books in the series, the ones that weren't just about terrorists. But it wasn't quite as good as those books. I saw a few things in this book that worry me and make me worry about the future of the series. Is Gabriel going to start taking a more behind-the-scenes role? Are his fighting days really behind him? If so, who's going to be the new Gabriel? I hope this isn't the end of the line for my favorite assassin/art restorer.

7.25.2010

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Persuasion
Persuasion
After what I've been reading lately, reading something like Jane Austen's Persuasion is a bit of a surprise. All I can say is, yeah, you're right.

I've not read Persuasion before. I've always stuck pretty firmly to the trifecta of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Persuasion was written just a year or so before Austen died. It's not as complex as her earlier books. As the back of the book states, "Austen seem[s] to paint on a small canvas." That's a diplomatic statement, I fear. While Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility have multiple plot lines and entire boatloads of characters, Persuasion is told from the perspective of Anne Elliot, an unloved middle daughter of a vain and pretentious country baronet. When she was nineteen, Anne fell in love with a sailor and he with her. Unfortunately, Anne was persuaded not to marry him by her mother's best friend. Eight years passed and Anne always regretted it. Then, like a cliche stolen from Dickens, Anne's lost love reappears. Eventually, they reconcile--because it's an Austen novel and they must end in weddings.

I'm being polite, because this book was written by Austen, and who am I to lob barbs at Austen, for crying out loud? But I have to say, as I read, that I though Anne Elliot was a Mary Sue. I know that Austen died a spinster. I don't know much if Austen had a lost love, but I know there's been speculation. I'm not the only one to think so. In her biography of Austen, Claire Tomalin wrote:
In one light it can be seen as a present to herself...to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring. (256*)
Anne was on the very cusp of spinsterhood before she was "rescued" by her Captain Wentworth, who managed to survive the Napoleonic wars after making a fortune capturing ships. All through the book, Wentworth and Anne barely speak to each other. I knew they had to reconcile. I was waiting for it for 220-odd pages. And then, suddenly, Wentworth writes her a letter that tells her that he never stopped loving her and that his offer of marriage still stands. There's some very minor wrapping up of outstanding plot lines and then...that's it. The book's over.

On top of this, nothing much happens in the book, plot-wise. Anne visits her younger sister, visits Lyme, goes to live in Bath with her father and older sister. Attachments are formed and broken. Jealousies are conceived and resolved. Anne's cousin has a vague plot to marry her and secure his place as heir to the baronetcy and the estate, but that never gets off the ground because Anne suspects him of being up to something from the first. There's none of the passion or any of the plot turns like there were in Austen's earlier novels.

Persuasion is a very mellow book. I didn't dislike it, but it's not one of my favorite books. There's little of Austen's usual wit to liven things up. I did chuckle at a few lines in the book, aimed at Anne's vain and prideful father--an easy target. I'd recommend it to someone who wanted to read a gentle romance.

* Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.