Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Review, 3/11/2011

Andrew Lane - The Death Cloud

This is the first of Lane's Young Sherlock Holmes books. The series is approved by the Doyle family, which adds a little something to the experience, perhaps. At any rate, Lane set out to piece together Holmes' adolescence from the hints that Doyle had presented. He writes about the exercise here, and concludes that, for the most part, Holmes' childhood cannot have been a pleasant or comfortable one. Given that, I had expected that this book would be rather more dreadful than it was.

Lane has set himself an interesting challenge - we know, of course, how Holmes turns out; more importantly, we know what skills he has. Doyle, of course, presents us with a preternaturally competent man with a wide array of interests and abilities. Lane has to do two things. First, he has to show us a young Holmes gaining those skills and interests, and second, he has to tell a story worth reading at the same time. I think he succeeds entirely at the first part, and does a pretty good job at the second part, although there are some places where the whole exercise goes somewhat off the rails. Mostly, Holmes inserts himself into situations that he (as an adolescent) has no place inserting himself into. This is, of course, the meat and potatoes of the adolescent detective novel; the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the various books of Enid Blyton (The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, and the Adventure books), even Encyclopedia Brown; all hinge on children and teens inserting themselves into matters which are entirely beyond the scope of the average young person. I have no idea why it bothers me here, but it does, a little.

The story turns around the summer that young Sherlock spends with his uncle, since his father has been sent to India with his regiment. Sherlock's brother, Mycroft, newly hired by the British Government, ensures that Sherlock has a tutor for the summer. The tutor, as might be expected, is somewhat non-traditional in his approaches. Against the better judgement of the tutor, Sherlock solves a mystery involving the defense of the realm.

In the end, the whole thing was fun, but not particularly deep.

Grace Pundyk - The Honey Trail

Here's the food ethics book for the week. Pundyk, an Australian free lance writer, sets out to explore the world of honey. Starting in Yemen, she travels to Australia, New Zealand, Borneo, Russia, The United Kingdom, Italy, Turkey, the United States, and China. In each country, she seeks out honey producers and honey sellers. She reveals the twisted history of honey. Honey bees of one sort of another exist natively on every continent except North and South America (the honey produced in the Americas is made by transplanted European bees.) - despite this, Argentina is one of the world's biggest honey producers (only China produces more). Each country makes a slightly, or indeed wildly, different type of honey, depending on the flowers the bees visit, and the species of bees being kept.

The book is fascinating. Honey is deeply complicated. The plant life needed to keep bees is under pressure all over the world - bees are kept in some of the most sensitive ecosystems, from the leatherwood forests of Tasmania (under threat of logging) to the wetlands of Borneo (under threat of being converted into palm oil plantations) to the midwest of the United States (where drought and agricultural monocultures are having a significant and negative impact on bees and honey.) In Australia, Pundyk finds bee keepers who argue that the government is not doing enough to protect forests - and other bee keepers who argue that the government is doing too much. By keeping them out of national parks, the government has significantly impacted the territory of some Australian bee keepers, who must keep moving around the country in order to expose their bees to new flora on a regular basis. In Borneo, she works through a local NGO devoted to turning bee keeping into a viable business in order to keep plantations out of the sensitive land - the NGO works to teach traditional honey hunters more modern techniques, so that fewer bees are killed in the process of harvesting the honey.

Honey is also big business. Pundyk talks a little about the fact that honey has been shipped all over the world since the very earliest of civilizations - there are reports, for instance, of Chinese traders acquiring honey from Borneo, and there are temple paintings of honey trading in Egypt. Honey is, in addition to being a relatively easy to acquire sweetener, highly valued as a medicine. Different honeys are often attributed with different medicinal qualities, and so trade across national borders makes sense.

In modern times, honey remains an important commodity.  Pundyk discusses the struggle that smaller producers have in maintaining their local product.  For instance, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and the United States have all raised significant tariff walls against Chinese honey, both because it is much cheaper than locally produced honey, and because there have been some serious problems with chloramphenicol - an antibiotic. Australia and New Zealand both have very stringent import laws - Pundyk is concerned that her honey will be confiscated as she enters these countries (although, actually, it is only as she arrives in Sweden, en route to the UK, that her honey is confiscated. Not, as she feared, because of import laws, but rather as a part of the prohibition against liquids on planes.) Despite this, Australian honey has been found with high levels of nitrofurans - a different antibiotic, used in Argentina, but not in Australia - keeping honey "pure" is harder than it looks. The ban on Chinese honey resulted in the near collapse of one of the major honey producers in the UK - the honey they had been selling was largely Chinese. Other honey companies capitalized.

Argentina ships a vast amount of honey to the US - most of the honey sold in the US is a blend of honey from the US, Canada, and Argentina - but how much of each sort of honey is in the blend is hard to tell. Bee keepers in the US chapter complain about the competition from Argentina - and yet, Pundyk has a surprisingly hard time finding honey, either domestic or imported, in the stores she visits in the US. This leads to a short discussion of food deserts - as she drives across the American South, she is amazed that she sees so little fresh produce on grocery shelves.

In addition to writing about bees, Pundyk writes about herself, about travelling, about finding a home, about falling in love, and blues music, among a great deal else. The books rambles all over the map, just as Pundyk does. At times, this is a little distracting; at other times, it is endearing. In the end, the book is a fascinating meander through a vastly interesting topic, and a nice way to end the Honey Month.

Terry Pratchett - I Shall Wear Midnight

This is the fourth of Pratchett's Tiffany Aching novels.  This series is a young adult series, and serves, perhaps, as an independent introduction to Pratchett's Discworld. Tiffany, a young witch, wanders through environments which will be familiar with existing fans of the Discworld novels, but which are presented in a new and fresh way in these books. The books are delightful, regardless of whether you've read any of the rest of Pratchett's work or not - but, there are some grace notes which will enhance the books if you are already a fan. This novel features a cameo appearance by a very old character - Eskarina Smith, the central character of Pratchett's much earlier novel, Equal Rites. If you haven't read the earlier novel, it doesn't matter, but if you have, there's a strong Aha! moment when you recognize Miss Smith, which is nice.

Pratchett plays with metaphors in all of his writing.  Here, Pratchett is writing about inclusiveness and interpersonal relations. He is also writing about witch hunts, both literal and figurative - it wouldn't be hard to see this as a novel about the way in which, people of, say, Middle Eastern extraction are treated in Western society. Despite that, the novel is not at all preachy. Instead, it is a romp; entirely delightful. If you are already a fan, this is a must read. If not, I'd say start with The Wee Free Men. My wife contends that the Tiffany Aching books are not necessarily a good place to enter into the Discworld, because Pratchett writes them much differently. Notably, the Tiffany Aching books have chapters, and a relatively small cast of highly developed characters, while the rest of the novels have no chapters, and have vast hordes of characters with somewhat differing levels of development. Pratchett novels are a cumulative thing - the character of, for instance, the witches, evolves quite a lot between Equal Rites (the first appearance of Granny Weatherwax) and Carpe Jugulum (which I reviewed earlier, as part of the vampire thing). The same is true of the members of Ankh Morpork's Night Watch. I think Tiffany Aching is as good a place to start any any other, probably - if you like these, you'll probably find a great deal that you like in the rest of the books.