Friday, October 15, 2010

Chris Ewan - The Good Thief's Guide to Vegas
So, I'm chewing my way, slowly, through Philip Dray's There Is Power in a Union, which is very long. Perhaps taking a break in the middle of the week to read Mr. Ewan's most recent work didn't do anything to shorten Dray's Epic Story of American Labor, but it did give me something to post about this Friday, so I hope you won't think poorly me of me as a result.

This is Ewan's third "Good Thief" novel, the first was "Amsterdam" and the second was "Paris." Charlie is a mystery novelist who also, sometimes, breaks into people's houses. This, sometimes, gets him into trouble. Therein hangs the story that Ewan is telling. This time, after being chased out of France, Charlie and Victoria, his editor (who appeared, in person, at the end of "Paris") find themselves in Vegas, where they learn something about the people who run the city - largely, that they are neither nice, nor particularly patient, and they do not like it when people steal from them. Charlie and Victoria get involved with a stage magician, they steal some stuff, and they fail to steal some other stuff, and, look, it's a mystery novel. If I tell you too much, the whole story stops working, right?

The characters are well written, they have real problems (Charlie is suffering from both writer's block and arthritis, for instance), and they use their wits and talents to get into and out of trouble. Ewan writes with a dry British type wit, in Charlie's voice. If you like dry British type wit (as I do), you'll probably like this. Plus, it's a caper novel, so if you like novels where slightly crooked types put one over on slightly more crooked types (as I do), you'll probably like this too. There was one scene and one plot element that I didn't like all that much, the scene seemed to be a point where Ewan felt that he had made things too easy for his characters, and so walked things back a little - it felt natural, but it also felt a little like padding - an opportunity to show Charlie's skill at safe cracking (which skill is a significant plot point, but which had already been adequately demonstrated at that point, I think), combined with the aforementioned making things hard for the characters -  the whole sequence could have been left out, and the plot would not have been affected. The plot element I didn't like involves a sudden reveal of a character secret, and it felt a little like cheating - Ewan hadn't offered any clues to the secret at all, which is fair, I suppose, but it made the whole reveal seem sudden. I think the element makes the character more interesting, potentially - we'll see what Ewan does with the character in later books.

At the end of the book, as at the end of most caper novels, the mostly good guys have gotten away with their plot, mostly, and Ewan has left himself open for at least another book.

A final thought - "Paris" ended with a brief tutorial on how to pick locks - this book does not end with a brief tutorial on how to, for instance, crack safes - a little disappointing.

An actual final thought - this sounds like I didn't like the book very much, and that would be wrong - I enjoyed it quite a lot. It's just that the elements I liked, I can't talk about without giving away the twists of the plot. You know how it is.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Did I say Tuesday? I clearly meant Thursday. Much belated reviews, plus bonus library post!

Beth Fertig - Why Can't u Teach me 2 Read?

I found this book mildly depressing. Fertig tells the story of three people, two boys in their very late teens and one girl in her early 20s, who have managed to reach high school graduation in New York City without learning how to read.  They sue the school board and are awarded funds to get tutoring and assistance, sometimes quite significant assistance, with learning disabilities. Along side the story of these students, Fertig tells the story of the NYC school system in 2008, as Mayor Blumberg attempted to implement significant change to the way that schools were rated, and the way in which they taught students.
I liked the way Fertig organized the book by splitting it into the seasons of the school year. This provided structure. I found particularly interesting the revelation that, really, we don't know how to teach students how to read. There is considerable, significant debate over the "whole language" versus the "phonics" systems, plus additional suggestions that a blend of the two - phonics early on to help kids learn to read, and then whole language later so they can read to learn - might be the best method.  But none of these methods are grounded in solid science, or, at any rate, the debates do not center on that science - instead, this has become an ideological battle.  Conservatives like phonics, liberals like whole language, and each has staked considerable political value on their position. Thus, as administrations change, especially at the state and city level, schools are bombarded with new facts, and also "facts", about this style of teaching or that style of teaching - and the schools and the students loose as a result, because there is no consistency. Further, if the experts don't agree, how are parents, who often don't have the time, let alone the training, to make fully evaluated decisions on the "right" way to teach kids, to decide if the school is doing the best for their children? Fertig really highlights this dilemma - the three students she shadows are all children of first generation immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.  Their parents are often working long hours, and often do not speak English - this makes it easy for them to not be aware of all the options available to their children, and it makes it easy for their children to fall through the cracks.

I didn't like the way that Fertig flipped back and forth between the students and the discussion of school board policy. Both parts of the book were fascinating, but I would get to the end of a chapter discussing a student, and be left hanging - will they advance? Will this be the time they drop out of the system for good? And then shift into discussion of principals fighting for their schools and teachers struggling with new technologies. I felt that both stories lost out due to this model, but I'm not sure that the book could have hung together had the two stories been divided. Perhaps a greater blending of the stories was in order.

I really didn't like the fact that that the NYC schools (and not just the NYC schools, but American schools in general) could have done, could do, so much better if they were better funded - class sizes down by 1/2, for instance, and dedicated reading teachers throughout the system. I am increasingly convinced that standarized testing is a bad idea. Fertig presents an argument that standarized tests, if used properly, can help teachers to see which students need help in which areas - I buy that idea, except that the tests are also used to determine if a student is suitable to move up the next grade, and if the teacher is suitable for retention, and if the school is suitable for funding, which is too much burden to place on a periodic test. Plus, if the test reveals that a student  is doing poorly because they cannot read and understand the test on a very basic level, the teacher has very little recourse. They are teaching 14-29 other students, all of whom have minor problems with the test, all of whom need to be prepared for the next test; the one student who is struggling gets left behind. The one student who is excelling - who needs no help on the test, who is beyond their classmates in a particular subject - there is nothing for them either. The solution to this problem is tricky, but I'm pretty sure its not to sink money into new technologies that the schools cannot afford to teach teachers to use, and then fire half the teachers because they can't or won't use the technology.

Adrian Tchaikovsky Blood of the Mantis

I had borrowed this one ages ago, and had to take it back before I could read it - it got recalled by someone else. Anyway, I've finally managed to borrow it again, and have quickly read it so that I can review it.  You may recall that I quite like Tchaikovsky's steampunk with insects. This book is no exception. Tchaikovsky has mostly written a spy story this time.  It has a little bit of politics, some musing on the nature of war and honor, episodes of violence, death, and violent death, with a few excellent scenes of aerial combat to round things out (actually, the aerial combat plays a major role in the book and the development of various characters), but it's mostly spies, intrigue and skull duggery. With fencing! The plot moves forward, the characters become more interesting and complex, and we discover what giant insect-people eat - smaller insects, mostly. There's a great deal to love here, and if you haven't started reading these books, I urge you to begin now. Seriously!

Nathalie Mallet Princes of the Golden Cage

In numerous discussions over the years, my wife and I have posited that all novels are, on some level, mystery novels. That is, a critical element of the plot is focused on the principle characters trying to figure out what is really going on. In some cases, this element of the novel is closer to the surface than in others, but the mysterious element has to be there, or what's the point? (Additionally, all novels are romance novels, and all novels are horror novels, and all novels contain some element of the fantastic...) This book has the element of mystery fairly close to the surface, given that it's actually a fantasy novel and not a mystery. Clearly Mallet's first novel, Princes features fantastic characters who react to their surroundings and their situations mostly realistically, an excellent plot with lots of nice twists and double-backs and a fine reveal at the end, and good pacing. Mallet needed a better editor to catch many minor word choice errors - properly spelled, but the wrong word - one does not bare weapons (well, I suppose one does, but that's not what she meant), one bears them - and phrasing peculiarities - "I took the direction of the kitchen" is the one that stuck out - but those were fairly minor concerns. Some of the plot twists were easy to anticipate, and there were some moments where Mallet's characters were deliberately obtuse in order to not figure things out quite yet, but the writing was still strong. I look forward to the next book.

Bonus Library Post!

Before we left town on Friday, I had gotten a note that a book had arrived at the library for me - but I arrived just as they were closing, and so could not pick it up. I went in on Tuesday and got it:

J.M. Sterling - The High King of Montival

I've been enjoying this extended series of post-apocalyptic novels, and this is the most recent one. I sense that Sterling is coming to some grand conclusion, possibly a point wherein the magic fixes everything, but perhaps not, we'll have to see. Anyway, watch for a review of this in the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

lack of updates

Dear readers,

I am in Virginia through tomorrow afternoon. That means there was no Friday review (no kidding!), and there will not be a Monday library post (most likely), although I can report on the book fair again. I do have notes for the Friday review, but I have to flesh those out - there might be a Tuesday review as a result. So, I guess, watch for that!