9.29.2011

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

The Magician 

King
The Magician King
It's rare that a sequel is better than the first book in the series, but I have to say that Lev Grossman's The Magician King is better than The Magicians. The story seems to have settled into its setting. We know who the characters are, so we don't have to waste time going over the same ground. Instead, the plot marches solidly on towards an unpredictable but fantastic conclusion. If this book means that Grossman is just going to get better and better with these books, I don't know if I can handle another book without completely geeking out and forcing my friends and family to read them all.

We meet our heroes and heroines--the kings and queens of Fillory and former students of Brakebills in New York--killing time. Their kingdom pretty much runs itself, and the lack of anything worthwhile is starting to wear on Quentin in particular. He decides to get away from the capitol on an errand, volunteering one of his co-rulers to go with. That errand, a trip to an outlying part of the kingdom, turns out to be the start of a quest--though Quentin doesn't realize it. Grossman puts a lot of things into motion in this book. I didn't even realize that some of the unresolved questions from the first book--such as where one of the characters learned her magic, what the Neitherlands really are, etc.--come back to play unexpectedly. When you've read as much as I have, you learn to love books that can surprise you.

The quest takes Queutin beyond the borders of his kingdom and back to Earth. After his desperate attempts to return to Fillory finally succeed, we all find ourselves in the end stages of the quest. The pace changes from leisurely to so tense that I ended up reading late into the night to finish it off and see how it all turned out. I hesitate to say anymore, because everything ends up so neatly and beautifully. But I will say that it ends with a segue into a possible new chapter for the series. Grossman opened a new door there, literally, that I really want to go through.

By the end, I realized that this book was about three different things. First, it is a quest. Quentin and his companions have to save their adopted nation and magic. More importantly, this book is about what it really means to be a hero, to make sacrifices. Quentin sacrifices more than he thought he was capable--more than I thought he was capable of, considering what a whiner he's been in the past. But above all, I think this book is about taking responsibility and paying the price for your mistakes. It's almost like there's a karmic balance to be met. Instead of characters being able to carry on trying to redeem themselves, they have to make sacrifices to make up for them. It's an interesting point to ponder. The sacrifices these characters make are far from easy ones. Crowns are lost. Doors are permanently barred. But once they've paid their karmic price, it's like the slate is wiped clean. On top of being a wonderfully imaginative fantasy and being terrifically written, it's also a great philosophical read.

9.18.2011

Pirate King, by Laurie R. King

Pirate King
Pirate King
Sometimes it's fun to read a lark of a book. Laurie R. King's Pirate King fit the bill after the slog I had with Robert McCammon's Swan Song. Pirate King is the 11th book in the Holmes and Russel series, but it's somewhat outside of the main story. The best way I can describe it is to say it's a side jaunt. This is a fun book. Wildly unbelievable, but fun.

We open with Mary Russell reluctantly agreeing to work for and spy on Fflytte Films, a British Film company that is haunted by flops and criminal activity. Russell takes the case more to avoid her brother-in-law's visit more than anything else and soon finds herself up to her eyeballs in spoiled actresses, megalomaniacal directors, translators with multiple personalities, and latter day pirates. As one of the few people with common sense in the film company, Russell soon becomes essential.

There's a lot going on with the Ffytte company, but Russell doesn't find much evidence of crime until the pirates show up. The main crime here is a bit of a stretch, I'll admit. Pirated on a brigantine in 1924? Really? But they play their part to the hilt--'scuze the pun. Once the action starts to roll, Russell finds herself as one of the few people who knows what's really going on. It's up to her to save the lives of the oblivious actors and crew from the pirates.

By the end of the book, there are a lot of coincidences that tie up the last wild strands of plots (in both senses of the word). I won't say any more on that score so that I won't ruin the ending. But as I said, this book is a jaunt. It's meant to be wild and fun more than anything else. And who doesn't like spending time at sea with pirates? (That is, as long as you do it in such a way that you don't have to smell them.) To add to the swashbuckling, King peppers the narrative with references to Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.

This book is really for series fans, but it's a hoot to read.

Swan Song, by Robert McCammon

I didn't realize when I read it, but Stephen King's The Stand has colored my reading of every man-made apocalypse I've read since. When I read The Stand for the first time, it freaked me out so much that I could only read it in 60 page bursts or so before I had to go read something else for a while. It made such an impact on me that I can't help but compare similar books to it and see if they can measure up. On top of this, it doesn't help that Robert McCammon's Swan Song has some very strong similarities to The Stand. Sure, it's different enough that plagiarism is not a concern, but I couldn't help but think as I read it: Hey, I've seen this sort of thing before.

Swan Song
Swan Song
The beginning of Swan Song is, frankly, terrifying and utterly believable. Written in 1987, it drops you into the middle of escalating tensions between the American government and the Soviets. For me, this was the best part of the book. It was tense and cynical, like Dr. Strangelove without the humor or absurdity. In this opening, we see a president getting backed into a corner by his cabinet. The Soviets have been posturing, which means that--according to that cabinet--we need to grandstand right back. We can't appear weak. The Soviets only respect strength, etc. etc. The president ends up pushing the button and nuclear war breaks out. The United States is devastated, in the fullest sense of the word. It's remarkable that anyone survived at all. Even if the explosion and radiation didn't get you, the subsequent starvation should have.

At the same time McCammon sets the stage, he also starts dropping in hints of the supernatural. He turns it into a slow show down between good and evil. On the evil side, is a creature that the other characters liken to the Devil card in Tarot. All it seems to want is destruction, to stamp out hope. It possesses other characters in order to destroy a girl named Swan--who has a gift for making things grow in impossible conditions. Also on the evil side is a whacked out Vietnam vet and his sidekick, a twisted boy with a penchant for torture. The vet and the kid are out to conquer what's left of the population Mad Max style. On the good side are Swan and her protectors who, for the most part, don't have any plan except to survive as long as possible. For most of the book, the protagonists and antagonists circle each other over the wastes of the United States. Most of the action in this book is crammed into the first and last hundred pages or so. The middle is slow, I have to say.

McCammon starts to get heavy handed with his symbolism later in the book with the Job's Mask phenomenon. The people who get this condition are all out of the ordinary in some way. When their mask falls away, their "real face" is revealed. The beautiful people are Good; the ugly people Evil. Once this starts to happen, McCammon starts to build towards his climax where the Devil (for lack of a better name) wants to unleash one last super weapon. The ending is better than the deus ex machina ending of The Stand, I'll give McCammon that. Human foibles started the whole mess and humans, on their own, get out of it.

By the end of the book though, I was just glad that I was out of pages. It was an exhausting read. I don't know If I'd recommend it to anyone except hardcore apocalypse readers, in spite of the awards it won. I'll stick with The Stand.

9.01.2011

Fated, by S.G. Browne

Fated
Fated
S.G. Browne's Fated is a fun read, especially if you have a warped sense of humor. Like I do. Fated is a demented book, but I mean that in a good way. Everything is fair game in this book, even god. (Perhaps especially god, who is known as Jerry in this book.) I had a very good time reading this book. I'd recommend it to all my friends with warped senses of humor.

Our narrator is Fate, who is in a bit of a rut after more than 250,000 years of assigning life paths to billions of humans. He's forbidden to interfere and with the rise of consumerism and the other attendant evils of modern life, his humans are consistently screwing up their lives. Everyone's miserable and it's making Fate depressed. The only bright spot on the horizon is a very special, funny, and lovely woman who Fate keeps bumping into. But Sara is on the path of Destiny (who is a bit of a bitch, actually) and Fate supposed to stay away from her. But you just can't help who you fall in love with.

As Fate falls more deeply in love with Sara, he starts to cheer up. He also starts to bend the rules about interfering, nudging his humans towards better lives. As I read, I thought this would be a fairly run of the mill funny book. But then the plot starts to twist and the book just gets better. I loved how this book twisted and turned its way to a wonderfully bittersweet ending. I won't ruin it for anyone else, in spite of what the scientists say.

But what I loved about this book was its cast of intangibles and emotions and deadly sins and virtues. Karma is an absolute hoot; he stole every scene he was in.
I've seen this reaction before, back during the Classical Age, after the exodus and before the birth of the Roman Empore, when the vast majority of humans were hungry for messiahs and spiritual leaders. Karma would sit down on a hill or under a tree and just start taking and the people would flock to him, asking him to lean them out of whatever persecution or injustice they suffered. When he got them all good and worked up, right where he wanted them, he'd spontaneously combust and they'd run away screaming.

Afterward, we'd have a good laugh about it over some wine and unleavened bread. (188)*
And how can you not love a book where Death is better known as Dennis (and rigor mortis creeps him out) and god is Jerry? There are heaps on historical jokes. Fate had one night stands with Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. And:
Faith has been replaced more than once over the millennia, Fidelity was transferred to a desk job in the wake of the free-love debacle, Reason got canned after the Salem Witch Trials, and Ego lost his job after the Beatles broke up. (20)
You'd think a book about fate would be terribly depressing, but this book was an absolute joy to read. I actually wish it was a little longer so that I could hang out with the cast a little bit longer. And then there's the style. This book is concise and punchy, never wearing out jokes and scenes by making them drag on too long. Fate is a delightfully irreverent narrator:
The thing about Truth is that he's a kleptomanic...The thing about Wisdom is that he has an inferiority complex. (206)
I hope Browne has more books like this one inside. I'm very much looking forward to whatever he comes up with next.

* All quotes from the 2010 trade paperback edition.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird
I haven't read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird since I was a teenager. All that I remembered about the book was the court case, Boo Radley, and the immortal line about it being a sin to kill a mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is a richer book than I thought it was. I finished it on Monday and scenes and ideas are still sparking for me. I've since read that the literature on this book is sparse, relatively speaking. But there's so many ideas and characters to explore.

I won't waste time on a summary of this book. If you haven't read it, you should. So, I want to jump right into the ideas that are still roaming around inside my noggin. First, feminism of all things. Scout Finch has a lot of models of womanhood around her. There's the strident and militantly proper Aunt Alexandra. There's the quirky neighbor Maudie. And there's the elegant and strong Calpurnia, the Finch family's housekeeper. Throughout the book, Alexandra and Calpurnia try to mold Scout. Maudie doesn't do much other than threaten Scout when the girl is about to cause some kind of property damage. As I read the book, I saw Scout grow and not necessarily for the better. At the beginning, Scout is an unapologetic tomboy. She rebels against dresses and the strict manners others try to push on her. I love early Scout. She's the kind of kid I would have been if I'd had more guts. By the end of the book, Scout has learned--painfully and dragging her heels every step of the way--to hold her piece, to present herself as the kind of girl her Aunt and Calpurnia want her to be. I found the transformation very melancholy. As I finished the book, I wondered what Scout would have been like as an adult. Would she continue to kowtow? Or would she hold on to her spark until she could be herself?

I can't write about To Kill a Mockingbird and not talk about racism. But I forgot how much classism plays a part in this book. At several times in the book, different characters lay out the hierarchy of Maycomb. For everyone except the African Americans in the community, there's someone to look down on. Only the outsiders don't know how the system worked. Everyone in the community has stereotypes for each other because the families have all been around for over a hundred years. A lot of behavior is dismissed as, "Well, they don't know any better" or "That's just how they are." The classism and racism are deeply ingrained. Only a few characters seem to rise above it. When the jury takes hours to come back with a verdict for Tom Robinson, you feel a little bit of hope that it's not a forgone conclusion--at least until Lee smacks you upside the head with the inevitable. It's clear by the end of the book that it's going to take a long time for Maycomb to change their attitudes, if they ever manage to change them.

As a corrollary to this idea, the community does seem to be able to change those attitudes on an individual level. You can change a person's mind, given the right methods and motivation. It's the community as a whole that has a hard time changing. Lee shows us this in the scene where the mob confronts Atticus at the jail where Robinson is held. When Scout singles out Mr. Cunningham, the entire scene changes. It's a brilliant piece of writing.

Moving on. The trial of Tom Robinson is a gut-wrenching miscarriage of justice. With a decent jury, the case would have been tossed out of court and the Ewell family would have faced some investigation. In spite of the best efforts of the judge and Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson was facing the ingrained racism and classism of Maycomb. The Ewells were higher in the hierarchy. The community had terrible ideas about African American men. The jury failed to see through the transparent lies of the Ewells. It's so painful to read. I wanted to climb inside the book and shake every member of the jury until their teeth rattled. How could they not see the truth when Atticus put it right there in front of them?

As much as I love Scout, what really makes this book for me is Atticus. He's the embodiment of a quiet hero. He does the right thing no matter how hard it is because it is the right thing. Atticus knew he wouldn't be able to hold his head up if he failed to do his duty by Tom. Facing down the scorn and hatred of his community is harder than going off and fighting an enemy. It must have broken Atticus's hear to see the depths that his neighbors could sink to. And yet, the experience doesn't break him, even though he lost. He's still the same steady good man as he was before. That's strength. As a Taoist or Buddhist would put it, Atticus can bend without breaking. He's a character type that sadly doesn't appear much in fiction. Both in real life and fiction, we could use more people like Atticus.

The List, 2010-2011

Here are the books I've read in the last twelvemonth and thus ends another book year:
  1. Roma, by Steven Saylor
  2. Imperium, by Robert Harris
  3. Blameless, by Gail Carriger
  4. Conspirata, by Robert Harris
  5. In the Balance, by Harry Turtledove
  6. Tilting the Balance, by Harry Turtledove
  7. Upsetting the Balance, by Harry Turtledove
  8. Striking the Balance, by Harry Turtledove
  9. The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink
  10. Devil's Alphabet, by Daryl Gregory
  11. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
  12. Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie
  13. On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers
  14. A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb
  15. Carrie, by Stephen King
  16. Android Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters
  17. Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville
  18. Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane
  19. Worth Dying For, by Lee Child
  20. Walking Dead, volumes 1-6, by Robert Kirkman, et al.
  21. Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
  22. High King of Montival, by S.M. Stirling
  23. Kindred, by Octavia Butler
  24. Kill the Dead, by Richard Kadrey
  25. Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor
  26. Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  27. The Plague, by Albert Camus
  28. Bone Rattler, by Eliot Pattison
  29. The Stranger, by Albert Camus
  30. Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
  31. The Half-Made Word, by Felix Gilman
  32. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
  33. Thicker Than Water, by Mike Carey
  34. Vicious Grace, by M.L.N. Hanover
  35. Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, by Mark Hodder
  36. Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson
  37. Lonely Werewolf Girl, by Martin Millar
  38. World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler
  39. Kraken, by China Mieville
  40. Naked Heat, by Richard Castle
  41. Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain
  42. All Clear, by Connie Willis
  43. Pale Demon, by Kim Harrison
  44. A Madness of Angels, by Kim Griffin
  45. Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
  46. The Lonely Polygamist, by Barry Udall
  47. Malinche, by Laura Esquivel
  48. The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie
  49. The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss
  50. One of Our Thursdays is Missing, by Jasper Fforde
  51. Sleepers, by Lorenzo Carcaterra
  52. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
  53. Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde
  54. The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde
  55. Company of Liars, by Karen Maitland
  56. Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde
  57. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte
  58. The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
  59. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
  60. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  61. Dead Reckoning, by Charlaine Harris
  62. The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
  63. Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne
  64. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
  65. The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, by Mark Hodder
  66. The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells
  67. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
  68. Preacher, by Garth Ennis, et al.
  69. The Unincorporated Man, by Dani and Eytan Kollin
  70. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
  71. Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart
  72. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams
  73. The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
  74. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
  75. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
  76. Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
  77. Smokin' Seventeen, by Janet Evanovich
  78. The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson
  79. The Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson
  80. Embassytown, by China Mièville
  81. The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin
  82. Heartless, by Gail Carriger
  83. Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell
  84. A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness
  85. Flashback, by Dan Simmons
  86. Life, On the Line, by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas
  87. Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell
  88. Kitty’s Big Trouble, by Carrie Vaughn
  89. Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest
  90. Portrait of a Spy, by Daniel Silva
  91. Naamah’s Blessing, by Jacqueline Carey
  92. The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell
  93. Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian, by Scott Douglas
  94. Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes
  95. Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
  96. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
  97. The Complaints, by Ian Rankin
  98. These is My Words, by Nancy Turner
  99. Deus ex Machina, by Andrew Foster Altshul
  100. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  101. Fated, by S.G. Browne
Not as many as last year, but I did teach a graduate course this past summer. Oh well, something to shoot for next year.