Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday Reviews 4/1/2011

Four books this week; three of which are part of a series.

Jim Butcher - Blood Rites
This is book 6 of Butcher's Dresden Files novels. The premise of the collection is fairly simple - Harry Dresden is a wizard. He lives in Chicago, and he advertises in the Yellow Pages. Being a wizard is less glamorous than one might imagine, at least from the point of view of Harry Dresden - he has some limited powers - a magical shield, a flame blast, the ability to call wind - and some strong contacts in both the mundane and the magical realms. He's not in good standing with the society of wizards, one group of vampires wants to kill him, and he has to pay rent on a regular basis. In tone, the novels are very much noir detective novels, but Dresden has a blasting rod instead of a gun. I like the noir elements, and I like the mystical stuff, and I like Harry Dresden, so I tend to enjoy these books.

Now, as I said, this is book 6 of a series. My local library system has been acquiring these books in an oddly haphazard way, such that I'm not sure that there is a full collection of them anywhere in the system, and normally that would be a problem. I can be a little obsessive about a series of books, insisting on reading the books in order. Most series encourage this sort of reading - each book builds on the previous book, and its often hard to pick up the narrative if you haven't read the earlier books. Efforts to clue readers in to the ongoing story arc tend to be clumsy*, and often inadequate. Butcher seems to have avoided that particular pitfall. I pick these up more or less at random, and it doesn't seem to matter. I've read the first six books, entirely out of order, often with long breaks between books, and while they definitely build on each other, each book seems to stand on their own at the same time, with just enough back story in each book to keep the reader clued in. Each book does two things, in terms of narrative. On the one hand, the books each have a central plot; Dresden has been hired to do a particular job for a particular client. This job is resolved over the course of the book. This results in a tidy narrative with a defined beginning, middle, and end - it is not necessary to wait for the next book to resolve the main plot. At the same time, each book contributes a little more to a bigger narrative arc, such that, like a puzzle, as you read more books you get a clearer picture of what's going on in Dresden's bigger world. I really like this effect.

In this specific book, Dresden has been hired to act as a magical body guard for a director of pornographic movies, Arturo Genosa. Genosa has recently broken away from a major studio to produce and direct his own films. As a director, Genosa has worked hard to present a wide range of people in his films, old people, people of colour, people with a wide range of body types - he's not presented as a hero, necessarily, but he is offered as a paragon among pornographers. His current project, one of three he needs to complete in order to  complete a contract, has been plagued with odd elements of bad luck - women on the set are being injured and dying in bizarre ways. He suspects magic, and Dresden has been hired to figure out who is doing the magic, and to prevent it if possible.

Given that a lot of the action takes place on the set of a porn film, there is almost no smut in this novel. In fact, although Dresden periodically has girlfriends, these novels are, much like the noir detective novels they emulate, largely free of graphic sexual descriptions. That's nice. The story is strong, the twists are not outrageous, the motive is reasonable, and Dresden, for all that he does magic, is not absurd in his heroism. The major themes of the book are revenge, betrayal, and family politics. Although there are no graphic sexual scenes, I'm going to offer a trigger warning for dysfunctional families and child abuse. Beyond that, a basically good book in a basically good series.

*In terms of clumsy - when I was much younger, my sister read the Babysitter Club books. For some unknowable reason, I chose to do so also - I was not in anyway the target audience of the books, being both too old and too male, and yet. Each of the books opens with a chapter detailing how the Club came to be, and what the various baby sitters do, and what their names are, and what their favorite things are and such. We just skipped the first chapter entirely, and started on Chapter 2.

Michael Pollan - In Defense of Food
My food ethics book for the week, naturally. Pollan is hot right now in this realm - The Omnivore's Dilemma and this book served as a wake up call for a lot of readers, and has triggered considerable discussion about food, where it comes from, what's wrong with our food culture, and what we can do about it.

Pollan writes a nice, clear prose. His books are exceedingly well researched and documented, although he doesn't use traditional endnotes or footnotes - tsk tsk. The notes are there, but you have to go looking - an increasingly common phenomenon in publishing these days. Those superscript numbers are just so hard to print. (Sorry, something of a pet peeve - footnotes are something of a religion to me as an historian.)

This book is a follow up to The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan has said that, after the first book was published, people approached him at public events and complained that their reaction to his book was "ack, the further I get into the book, the fewer things I am allowed to eat - if I finish the book, I'll starve to death" - this is his response to that concern. He seeks to provide some clear rules for what eaters should eat. Those rules boil down to this - "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables." Those are the opening words of the book. Pollan then spends the rest of the book unpacking those rules, explaining what they mean (what is "food"? How much is "too much"?), why they are important, and how to apply them to our daily eating lives. 

Pollan's over all argument is that the food culture of "the West" (by which he sometimes means Europe and North America, and he sometimes means North America, and he mostly means "the United States") is broken or non-existent, and that, until we get that back under control, we are going to continue experiencing societal dietary problems - diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and the like. Pollan is, perhaps, a little alarmist (although, I think, largely for effect), and some might argue that his "fix" for the problem is a little expensive, on the individual level. He argues, and I agree, that "organic" food doesn't need to be wildly more expensive than "regular" food (a nice linguistic quirk there, by the way - what, after all, is inorganic food?), but "organic" has become a brand now. Yes, it's possible to find naturally grown food if you have access to a farmer's market, or a backyard garden (and, if you do have access to those, I urge you to take advantage), but if you buy "organic" food from the store, it's going to cost you more than otherwise; and that puts the sort of eating Pollan argues for out of the reach of a lot of people. (There is a bit where he suggests that we, as a society, spend a lot on television and the internet, and that if we really valued food, we could cut back on other expenses in order to buy good food. This is, I feel, a little unrealistic, and even patronizing.)
If the book has flaws (and all books have flaws), they are fully encapsulated in the book's subtitle. The book is subtitled An Eater's Manifesto. The two flaws, which are common with many aspirational works, are these: 1) people who already agree with Pollan will find themselves nodding, but won't necessarily learn anything new and 2) people who already disagree with Pollan will find plenty in the book to argue with, to the extent that they will be entirely closed off to things they might agree with, if presented otherwise.  I think it is possible to take the parts of Pollan that work for you, and discard the rest - eat the meat and throw away the bones, if you will - and I think that doing so will be better for everyone than not doing that at all.

Final assessment, I found this book to provide a nice balance for the Twinkie book last week.

Johnathan Stroud - Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon
This is the second book from a series, except it's not really from a series at all. Johnathan Stroud wrote the Bartimaeus Trilogy, a series of books about (and partially narrated by) Bartimaeus, a djinni, summoned by a magician employed by the British government. The time frame of that novel is a little hard to pin down - sometime after 1936; e-mail and airplanes are mentioned, but the American Revolution did not end in the favor of the Americans, and Britain is still trying to deal with it. That trilogy was a lot of fun, and I think it was fun largely because of the character of Bartimaeus.

 I really like Bartimaeus. He's snarky, and that's fun. He's also a grand example of an unreliable narrator. He boasts, unrealistically, of his achievements while complaining about the vanity of others. He complains about being forced to serve a master, and yet seems clearly to enjoy what he is asked to do. He claims to be fearless, and yet certainly is not. He resents being pushed around by greater spirits, and yet goes out of his way to push around lesser spirits. He is a bold, brash, boastful bully, and yet he's fantastically compelling as a character, both in the original trilogy and here, in this prequel.

 This book describes a period in Bartimaeus' life while he is (tangentially) in service to King Solomon. Solomon, through threat of the use of the titular ring, has seventeen powerful magicians working for him, each of whom can summon legions of spirits; imps, foliots, djini, afrits, and marids. Bartimaeus is one of those summoned spirits. The action of the novel turns on the adventures of Asmira, a young guardswoman/slave/assassin sent by Balkis, Queen of Sheba, to kill Solomon and steal his ring. Bartimaeus narrates about a third of the novel, the remainder is told from the point of view of Asmira and several of the other lesser characters.

The novel stands entirely on it's own - there is no reference at all to the original trilogy. There isn't even a framing reference - no "Young Nathaniel, let me tell you of the time I worked for King Solomon," nothing of that sort. If you have never read the original trilogy, you can pick this book up entirely cold, enjoy it thoroughly, and never read about Bartimaeus again. Although that would be silly, since he's such a compelling rogue of a character. As a way of handling a text within, or tangential to, a series, I like this a great deal.

Final assessment - Very nice. Strong female character, plus Bartimaeus. Plenty of action, a nicely twisty political plot, some thought provoking stuff about slavery. Highly recommended.

Jana Oliver - The Demon Trapper's Daughter
This is the first of a series of books about demons, and the people who trap them for money. It is set in the near future in Atlanta, probably. Society as we know it has largely collapsed - food still comes into the city, but the city, and, it is assumed, the rest of the country, is broke. Riley Blackthorne - the protagonist - and her friends go to school in gutted grocery stores and Starbucks. They are taught by any teacher willing to work for whatever they can be paid. The city is crumbling, roads are falling apart, gas is fantastically expensive, and demons are everywhere.

I say it is set in the near future, probably, because it is not quite clear which of these two possibilities is true. Either Oliver has set her novel in our own world, slightly into the future, and demons have always been present but only apparent to a few trappers and hunters sanctioned by the Vatican until just recently, but now things are so bad that everyone is aware of them, or this is an alternate world in which demons have always been evident, and everyone has always been aware of them. I'm not sure it really matters which of these two things is true, but it does make it hard for me to place the book, temporally.

Riley is the only daughter of Paul Blackthorne, who is widely regarded as one of the better demon trappers (trappers catch demons and sell them to the Catholic Church through various licensed intermediaries. The Church sends the demons to monasteries in Europe where monks chant over them until they disappear. Hunters, directly sanctioned by the Church, kill demons when they find them. There is tension there.) and is training to be a demon trapper herself. She will be, if successful, the first female demon trapper - a noble goal.

There is, naturally, conflict. Riley is 17, she has to deal with the things that 17 year old girls deal with - cliques at school, boys, parents, and also trapping demons, who a) seem to recognize her even though they should not and b) don't necessarily want to be trapped. Things rarely go smoothly, and Oliver throws in plenty of delightful twists to keep the reader engaged.

The book is fast paced, the characters are well presented, especially spunky Riley Blackthorne (who has a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in her background) the concept is intriguing, and the world creation is excellent, if a little depressing. Oliver does make use of regional accents - this is a practice that I almost always find a little grating - it is no different here. Also, as has been pointed out in the comments, the book ends on a cliffhanger. This is not unusual with books in a trilogy/series, I suppose, but I also don't think it is unreasonable to expect at least the first book of a trilogy to be able to stand on its own. What if it sells poorly, and readers never get to read the second book? It's happened before. Hopefully it won't happen here - this is, accents and unsatisfying ending aside, an excellent book, and well worth taking a look at. I await the sequel.