Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Review, 4/29/2011

A little house cleaning this week - I ploughed through a bunch of books that needed to go back to the library. I even got a couple of them back to the library in time to avoid library fines.

Faith Hunter  - Host

The last of the Rouge Mage trilogy. Last week, as I reviewed Seraphs, I hoped that the trilogy would improve considerably in the last book. I hoped that Seraphs suffered from 2nd book syndrome. That hope was not met, alas. The first book was very good, and the trilogy went down hill fairly steadily from there.

Points in favor of the third book - Thorn does not sleep with the odious male mage who appears at the beginning of the book. It was a possibility - they hated each other from first sight, which sometimes translates into steamy sex by the end of a book. Thankfully, not here. There was a delightful scene where Thorn does diplomacy and politics with a certain amount of flash and aplomb. I am a big fan of politics and political drama, so that scene was good. Hunter backs Thorn into a situation where she cannot call on the aid of the big, strong (male) Seraphs, and must draw on her own resources to solve a problem (great, but several of her resources are big, strong, male Champards. [ick.]). The series resolves fairly decisively - I suppose Hunter could write the continuing adventures of Thorn, Rogue Mage, but I think it unlikely. A decisive end is always a plus. Finally, the world building remained strong throughout, with a caveat.

Things I didn't like. Thorn is clearly unsuited for the role she is designed to play - either she's a big tough battlemage who can fight her own battles or she isn't. If she isn't (and she isn't), people should stop acting as though she is. Mistrend. (Mistress Friend) Ick. Rose as deus ex machina. Possible continuity error - it seemed to me (and my wife confirmed it) that Rose had been taken away while Thorn and Rose were children. Thinking back, in the first book I think it was moderately clear that this was not the case - that it had been relatively recently that this happened - but why we should both have gotten this impression from the second book, I'm not sure. And the caveat for the world building - Hunter includes some short paragraphs at the beginning explaining that, post apocalypse, the US government remains in some form, contact with Asia was cut off (because ships don't work anymore? This is unclear) and Africa has become an unlivable wasteland. (Why? Again, unclear) S.M. Stirling did post-apocalypse better, in terms of politics and such.

In the end, the world building carried this series for me. I didn't really like Thorn all that much as a character, and the further away from Thorn characters got, the less likable they became. Read the first one. If you feel compelled to do so, read the second. Skip the third. The good guys win.

Jeff Greenfield - Then Everything Changed

A work of alternate history, nominally non-fiction. As I mentioned when I picked it up, there is a word for this sort of work in the History discipline - we call them counter-factuals.* Greenfield explores three scenarios in which his narrative diverges from the original history, asking what if Kennedy died before his inauguration (there was a suicide bomber; he saw Jackie kiss JFK goodbye, and couldn't kill Kennedy with his wife watching); what if Bobby Kennedy didn't die in California, and what if Ford had taken the opportunity to clarify a flubbed question in the debate against Carter.

Greenfield's thesis is that not a lot would have changed in the biggest scheme of things. Johnson would have taken over after Kennedy's death (and would have dealt with Khruschev more forcefully, which would not have forestalled the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Greenfield takes in an unpleasant direction when Johnson takes the advice of his military advisors, resulting in the nuking of Guantanamo, and also Smolensk); Bobby Kennedy would have ushered in the era of middle right politics, with a slightly gentler and more sincere hand than Nixon, and Ford election would have resulted in a) Gary Hart running in 1980 rather than 1988 and b) a Democratic victory in 1980, instead of Reagan. The big things don't change that much, the details do.

Greenfield has a light and easily readable tone - reading this is more like reading a novel than a history (which, as far as I'm concerned, makes it a well written history). The book is filled with sly winks to the reader - for instance, Reagan chooses Sandra Day O'Conner as his running mate in the 1980 election, and one of his aides says "well, at least we don't need to worry what she'll say if someone asks her what she likes to read." - a clear jab at Sarah Palin. Greenfield also highlights the way in which people in politics are often in the background for a lot longer than they are in the foreground - Dick Cheney, for instance, crops up in all three of these scenarios, offering advice to more significant figures. It's easy to forget that politicians, as a rule, don't wake up one morning and decide "hey, I want to be President!" - they start out somewhere and work their way up to the big show.

Greenfield has extensive notes - not quite footnotes, more of explanatory notes -  at the back of the book, explaining why he decided which direction the details would go, where quotations a speeches post historical break came from, and fleshing out some of the sly winks and perhaps odd moments (John McCain aiding Gary Hart in the 1980 campaign, for instance).

I would have liked  more complete footnotes, or at least a bibliography. Greenfield points out that the literature on the history of the mid to late 20th century is vast - but, clearly, he chose some texts and avoided others, and it would have been better history to include some sort of bibliography. I would also have liked to have seen all three of the scenarios linked - what would the 1964 election have looked like in the post early-Johnson era? The 1968 election? That would have changed the tone of the book rather dramatically, however, and would not have allowed Greenfield to have explored the points that he did - perhaps some brief notes at the end of each section bringing that section up to the modern era would have sufficed.

All in all, a thought provoking exercise in speculative history; well worth a look.

*The difference between an alternative history (alt-history) fiction and a counter-factual non-fiction is that the counter-factual has a clear thesis, while the alt-history has a plot.

Gail Carson Levine - Ever

My wife said I needed to read this to "clear my palette". It was a lovely palette-cleanser. A quick read, more of a novella than a novel, this was a Babylonian inspired YA romance/fantasy. A young wind god falls in love with a mortal girl, and they struggle to render her immortal so that they can remain together. Part fantasy, part fairy tale, all lovely.

I honestly don't know what else to say about this book - it was sweet and fresh - a new setting for fiction (at least for me), some pleasant characters, and uncomplicated plot. It was just plain good.

Lauren Willig - The Orchid Affair

The most recent of Willig's Pink Carnation books. Eloise, our intrepid modern heroine is in Paris to support her boyfriend at a family function, and also to do some follow up research on the activities of the Silver Orchid, the latest of the British anti-Napoleonic spies to bedevil the French. Laura Grey (Griscoigne) takes a job as a governess at the behest of the Pink Carnation. Her employer is Andre Jaoune, the second in command of the Paris police, a figure of terror for British spies. Naturally, she and he fall in love (gradually, and partially against their own better judgement). They become embroiled in a complicated plot to kidnap Napoleon and replace him with one of the rightful heirs to the throne.

As with all of Willig's books, this is a story of high adventure and tasteful romance. The good guys win, there is some swashbuckling, a little fencing, some (off stage) torture, some passionate kissing, and some "fade-to-black" love scenes (Willig, as a rule, does not indulge in purple prose about long, hard eagerness and the like, which is nice).

I did notice (and enjoy) the transitions between Willig's modern plot (which is mostly a framing device) and her Napoleonic main plot. The modern plot is what holds the series together - Eloise is doing research for her dissertation, the topic of which is Aristocratic Spies of the Napoleonic Period. In the first couple of books, the Napoleonic plot followed her research quite clearly - Willig would describe Eloise reading some letters, and then go into several chapters telling us the events that lead to those letters. In more recent novels, this explicit linking of Eloise's research to the broader plot has become thinner. I think this reflects the fact that Eloise is engaged in an actual plot of her own now, which doesn't link as tidily to the Napoleonic material as it originally did. This is fine - Willig does an excellent job of crossing back and forth between the main and the framing plot. Eventually, though, Eloise is going to finish her dissertation, and her plot will have to resolve, which will end the whole series - I'm not sure I'm looking forward to that. I'm not sure that Willig is, either. (Alternatively, Willig is headed towards the end of the Napoleonic era as well, and that will end the series just as effectively.)

I remain jealous of Willig's easy prose - Willig is one of the authors I wish I could be, especially since she has a degree in history.

Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson - Science Fair

Another suggestion from my wife. Madcap hilarity ensues when the students at a middle school just outside Washington DC engage in a science fair. Rich kids try to buy first prize (as they have for several years running - getting their projects from a mysterious benefactor for $50 a project, and having them constructed by a curmudgeonly store owner at the local mall for rather more than $50 a project), and poor kids try to win first prize with projects they really did themselves (which, of course, cannot compare to the glitzy work of the rich kids.) Terrorists (from an ill defined, but horrifically backwards Eastern European nation) attempt to use the fair to get their hands on top secret devices. The Oscar Myer Weinermobile features.

It's not deep. It's really very silly, and it's clear that Barry has been able to run roughshod over Pearson, at least in terms of suggesting plot points - the Weinermobile? A levitating frog? The day saved by Rollerblade Barbie, setting fire to something? Yeah, that's all Barry. But it's funny - laugh out loud funny in some places - and it's a quick read.

Rick Bowers - Spies of Mississippi

Got a history paper to write, and you've decided to look at the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s? Need a twist on the topic? Check this book out. Bowers offers a fascinating (if not terribly deep) look at an aspect of the period which is not normally covered - the Sovereignty Commission of Mississippi, an independent body accountable to the governor of Mississippi and tasked with ensuring that the state policy of segregation was upheld. The Commission infiltrated civil rights organisations like the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE in an effort to keep tabs on the movement, and possibly hinder its efforts to bring racial equality to Mississippi. Actions extend to assassinations, both of character (through the efforts of obliging Black newspaper editors) and of body (through the efforts of obliging White supremacists). Bowers' take on the period is intriguing and eye opening (even to me, who has studied the era with some rigor). His writing is punchy, and easily digested - this book is aimed at young adults. It's a good place to start, and Bowers provides some suggestions as to where one might go next to continue the research. As a professor, I would not want to see this work as a strong source in a paper by one of my students, but I would not be dismayed to see it cited in a bibliography. Were I teaching middle school, I think I would be delighted to see this book in use. I would have liked footnotes, though, and a more in depth bibliography - good use of primary sources, but not enough discussion of the secondary literature.

That's it for this week - it looks like a lot, but three of them were short. It was all in an effort to chip away at my ever growing "To read" stack. I'm grading papers this weekend, so next week's offering will probably be a little slimmer.