Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Review, 3/25/2011

Lauren Willig, The Mischief of the Mistletoe  - I like Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation books. They narrate the story of the fictional British spy, the Pink Carnation, and the stories of all the various people who come into her social circle and get dragged into her anti-Napoleonic plots. The books are complex enough to satisfy, but not overly complex. They are well researched, and Willig provides good author notes to show where she has played with the history and where she has not - I like that in a historical book. As romances, they are pleasantly well written, with strong characters and historically appropriate sex, for the most part. (The first one had a scene of bodice ripping, as I recall, but the later ones tend to keep themselves to kissing until marriage. After marriage, things get somewhat more steamy, though.)

After the heavier reading of last week, I found this particular book refreshing, and not too complicated, which is what I wanted - a confection after the meal of Ms. Kingsolver. It was nice to pick up some familiar characters, and I was happy to see Turnip Fitzhugh get to be the hero for a change, rather than the clown. I was a little sad not to see Willig's modern historian narrator. The rest of the books feature Eloise Kelly, a modern historian doing research towards her PhD, and getting swept up in a romance of her own. I identify with Eloise more easily than with the Regency characters she is supposedly researching, and so it helps me to get into the story. Perhaps because this was just a short Christmas story, that Eloise's story arc was not furthered - I have the most recent of the primary novels, so I will see if she has returned. I really like Willig's use of Eloise as a framing technique, and it was missing here. I did like Arabella Dempsey, especially the scene where she grades history papers. Very realistic. Final assessment - a lovely, fluffy treat, but not enough to make a meal out of.

Walter Jon Williams, This is Not a Game - This was a nice change of pace, because it was devilishly complicated - in the end, I'm still not entirely sure that I, or the principle character, actually know what happened. That's not something I want out of every book, but every once in a while it's nice to be shown that I'm not necessarily as smart as the author.

The premise - some short time into the future (the date is unspecified, but Dagmar, the protagonist, drives a "old battered Prius," and a lot of the basic technology is a little more advanced than present), Dagmar works for Great Big Idea productions, a company which produces "Alternate Reality Games"(ARG) - an interactive fiction which takes place through the internet and in real life. Players agree to participate, and can then receive tasks from the "puppet master." Games can span the entire globe, with players cooperating to solve problems outside of their immediate geographic area, and much much bigger than themselves. ARGs are real things - so, again, just a little way into the future.

As the book begins, Dagmar is in Jakarta, on her way home from a big gamne concluding event in India. Getting out of Jakarta proves difficult, because the Indonesian economy collapses, and the nation descends into chaos. Dagmar enlists the aid of the ARG community, who combine their skills to effect a rescue. They are assisted in this by Charlie, Dagmar's boss - he provides the money.The second part of the book focuses on Dagmar running a game, which ends up being more real than she expects. Again, she pulls the players into a real situation; using them to solve , and eventually avenge, a crime.

What I liked - the story was compelling, if a little too real - collapsing economies are depressingly realistic right now, as are unscrupulous investors - this book features both. I liked Williams' realistic depiction of net behavior - the ARG players set up net forums, and Williams' presentation of those fora felt spot on. The sense of an unreliable narrator - Dagmar doesn't narrate, but the story follows her point of view. As a result, at the end, I am unsure if Dagmar has actually made the right decisions, or if she has made a radically bad move based on faulty logic. It could easily go either way, really.

What I didn't like - I'm not entirely sure that I bought the central threat. Further, if Dagmar did make the wrong decision, then she wasn't as bright as she was supposed to be - perhaps. Minor concerns, though - the book, over all, was very intelligent.

Steve Ettinger - Twinkie, Deconstructed - This is, of course, my food ethics book for the week. Ettinger traces all of the 25 ingredients in Twinkies. An alarmingly large number of them explode, are toxic, are made from petroleum, or are used in the production of cement. Sometimes, they combine two or more of these attributes. Ettinger suggests that this is true not only of Twinkie ingredients, but in much of the food that we consume on a regular basis. Even things as straightforward as flour and baking powder contain things that we might not generally consider to be food. Further, things that we do consider food, like eggs and milk, are often highly processed before they arrive in our stores. So, in that way, this was a mildly alarming book.

Only mildly alarming, however, because Ettinger writes in a painfully matter-of-fact way, without getting overly emotional about the products he is writing about; either for or against, really. His broader point is that these products come from the sources that they come from because that keeps them cheap, and that "chemical" need not necessarily mean "inedible" - in his final chapter he lists the chemical "ingredients" of an apple; many of which are also in Twinkies in one form or another. Still, it would have been nice for him to get a little upset, or to engage in a little bit of pro-chemical boosterism; then at least the reader would have know where Ettinger stood. In the end, this matter-of-fact style got a little repetitive - "You'll never guess where THIS ingredient comes from! That's right! Petroleum!"* - and even a little dry. If you found Michael Pollan to be a little alarmist, this book might serve as a useful balance. Otherwise, I'd say read excerpts - in small doses, it isn't bad. Not unlike Twinkies, I suppose.

*not an actual quote.