Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday Review, 2/4/2011

There will be 3 posts today; this post, a vampire post, and a Honey Month post. This post will address the books I read at the end of last month.

Kathryn Stockett - The Help
This is a lovely historical novel about life in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. It focuses on the fraught relationship between white middle-class homeowners and their black servants - the "help" of the title - at the height of the Civil Rights movement.  The book was often funny, and just as often painful. The plot centers on a project to document the lives of the servants - a sort of anthropological tell-all work.  Historically accurate for the most part (Stockett notes a few minor details which she moved around historically, like the introduction of Shake and Bake), and all in all a satisfying read. My mom recommended it, and I'm glad she did.

Terry Pratchett - Wee Free Men
This is the first of a quartet (thus far) of YA novels set in Pratchett's Discworld (mentioned earlier, see the Christmas Eve post). Focused on the actions of a young witch-in-training, Tiffany Aching, as she saves the world from an invasion by the Elf Queen.  This book has much of the characteristic humor that we've come to expect from Pratchett, with perhaps a few considerations for the YA market.  Unlike much of Pratchett's work, for instance, this book has chapters, which make it much easier to stop reading periodically. The protagonist is younger than in most of Pratchett's other works - 9 years old - and she approaches the world from a fairly straightforward YA sort of perspective.

The highlight of this book, and indeed the series, is the Wee Free Men of the title. Pictsies (so, basically, little Scotsmen), they approach the world with their own sort of straightforwardness - if it can't be eaten, drunk, stolen, or fought with, they are not interested in it. They believe that they died in an earlier life and are currently in heaven - with an abundance of good things to eat, drink, steal, and fight with, where else could they be?

Highly recommended for the 9-15 year old, or the adult with good contact with their inner young adult.

Kit Whitfield - Benighted

As I said when I brought this one home, I know Kit a little, which makes reviewing her book a little touchy - what if I don't like it? Thankfully, this is not the case - this was, for the most part, an excellent book. The premise - a world in which 99% of the population are werewolves (or, rather, "lunes," as they are called in the book), focusing on the 1% of non-lunes, as they struggle to survive as second class citizens - was interesting.  However, what made the book such a satisfying read, and one which I heartily recommend, was the characterization.  Ms. Whitfield has done a fantastic job of making her characters fully and believably human, and they are a delight to read.

That is not to say that they are likable - although I loved the characterization, I didn't particularly like the characters.  Non-lunes have a very important role in Whitfield's society. They are, almost to a person, members of the Department of Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity. (DORLA) On full moons, they make sure that society continues to function by rounding up stray lunes who might injure themselves or others, and (it is suggested) by keeping the basic functions of the military running, so that no nation is able to attack another while the majority of the population is in animal form. In that capacity, they basically act as a medieval inquisition - indeed, the historical scraps that Whitfield provides state that the organization began as an inquisition. Lola May, the central character, is not a nice person, and she is not doing a nice job. Over the course of the novel, she grows as a character, and, given two or three more books, might turn into a nice person (or, alternatively, very much not), but she was exceedingly difficult to like in this book. And, because she was so well written, that didn't matter.

A note on Whitfield's lunes - they are not wolves. This is fascinating - there has been some effort by authors over the past couple of decades to make werewolves into people who become wolves, and thus live like wolves, even when in human form. Werewolves, in this construction, form packs, and act like wolves - that sort of werewolf would never run amok, or madly attack humans, or anything of that nature. Whitfield's lunes are not wolves who become human, they are humans who, in beast form, are stripped of all the human inhibitions without gaining any of the animal instincts - they are the sort of beast who would destroy livestock, or attack a human without thinking, or damage themselves.

The combination of utterly bestial lunes and the inquisitional nature of DORLA really dictate the tone of the book - this is a dark novel, which deals with dark and painful matters. It does what all good speculative fiction does - it forces the readers to confront their own world (where people behave in a bestial fashion towards each other with the excuse of lycanthropy), while maintaining an enjoyable narrative. This is not an easy book, and, in places, it's not even a particularly pleasant book, but it is a very very good book.