Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Review Post, 5/27/2011

So, I need to face facts - I'm not going to finish Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order today. Or tomorrow. Hopefully, I'll finish it by next week, but it's the sort of book that you have to read other books at the same time as. If that makes ANY sense. I have two problems with it - I can't read it while feeding the baby, because it's too massive for me to hold the baby, hold the bottle, and hold the book all at once. And, I can't read it right before bed, because it's too dense - it's not boring, but it's tough to get through and understand if you're already sleepy. So. Watch for a review of that next week.

I did read two other things this week (while reading Francis Fukuyama).

Frank Beddor - The Looking Glass Wars

Beddor re-imagines Alice in Wonderland. He posits that Alice Liddell was actually Alyss Heart (huh. Liddell is not in the spell check, nor is Beddor - but Alyss is? Odd.), heir to the throne of Wonderland. Fleeing a coup led by her aunt, Redd, Alyce finds herself in 18th century London, where she is adopted by the Liddells, eventually meeting Charles Dodgson (who wrote as Lewis Carrol), and confided her story to him. Carrol re-wrote Alyss' story into Alice in Wonderland.

In "reality," says Beddor, Wonderland is the hub at the center of all universes, where inventive ideas begin. Someone in Wonderland has an idea, and that idea is set loose (through a giant crystal), and somewhere in other universes, an inventor invents that idea. As a result, you want a strong, stable queen in charge of Wonderland, so as to avoid dangerous ideas slipping out. Redd is not a strong, stable queen. While Alyss is in London, Redd is creating a totalitarian nightmare in Wonderland, and fighting a running civil war with Alysian rebels - folks loyal to Alyce. Eventually, Alyss is rescued from our world, and returns to fight a final cataclysmic battle for Wonderland, as one might expect.

Things I liked - a novel idea. Beddor has a fun concept, and the congruent timeline at the end of the book is interesting - for instance - July 1865: "Henry Wortz, [Confederate] commandant of Andersonville prison where 13,000 out of 50,000 prisoners died [during the US Civil War], is executed for war crimes." In Wonderland, "Redd awards the Crimson Sash of Success to the wardens of Krag prison, where no prisoners survived." Another example; May 1868: "Last public hanging in Britain at Newgate prison." In Wonderland "First execution under Redd's law outlawing silence. Silence breeds independent thought, which breeds dissent." Beddor has done an interesting job of pairing real events in our world with fictional events in Wonderland. It's a neat concept.

Things I didn't like - Beddor doesn't really explore the concept all that well. The whole book feels a little thin; a little rushed, like it wants to be a trilogy, but it's trapped in a single volume. I mean, you could have had a whole book of Hatter Madigan (yes, he's the Mad Hatter - a highly trained elite warrior tasked with protecting the royalty of Wonderland. His hat turns into a throwing blade.) wandering around the world looking for Alyss. Instead, we get a chapter or two, a couple of notes on it - and nothing more. You could have had a book just on the battles by the resistance paired up with Alyss' experiences in England, and then a third book about Alyss' war against Redd, and the plot would have been deeper and the concept could have been better explored.

It was a neat idea, and I liked Beddor's characters, so I may pick up another of this series, but I doubt it.

Sally Spencer - A Rendezvous With Death

Also set in Victorian England, this was a very interesting police procedural detective novel. Spencer is a pseudonym for Alan Rustage. Spencer is the name under which Rustage publishes his Chief Inspector Woodend series - set in modern England. Under the name James Garcia Woods, Rustage publishes the Paco Ruiz mysteries, also police procedurals, set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. This series - the Inspector Blackstone series - is supposedly the first that he published under his own name. Except it isn't, because it's actually published under Sally Spencer. Rustage says that these books are written by Sally Spencer writing as Alan Rustage, which is just confusing. So, right from the start, the book is interesting - even before you open the cover.

Inspector Blackstone is a product of the English working class who has bettered himself by serving in the Army in Afghanistan during one of England's attempts to pacify the fractious territory (largely, Spencer/Rustage asserts, to keep the Russians at bay). He translated his military service into a job at Scotland Yard, where he has done fairly well for himself. We meet Blackstone midway through his career - he has some successes under his belt, he has some respect from his superiors, and he is jaded enough that he's an interesting character. In this novel, he investigates the mysterious death of Charles Montcliffe, the youngest son of Earl Montcliffe, a fairly important nobleman. After identifying Montcliffe's body, Blackstone is called before his superior to receive an unenviable (and possibly impossible) task - solve Montcliffe's murder without anyone knowing that it has taken place. Because Victoria's Diamond Jubilee is days away, and the government doesn't want anything to distract from that, least of all some scandal involving the family of one of the people involved in the Jubilee - namely, Earl Montcliffe. Blackstone sets off on this impossible task in classic police procedural fashion - plodding his way through people who know a little bit of something, teasing out information from people who don't want to give him information, and doggedly tracking down enough evidence to prove who killed Charles.

Things I liked - a fine example of the sub-genre. Blackstone is an excellent police detective, and also a very compelling character; old enough to be experienced and cynical, but not so old as to be on his way out to pasture. I really liked him. There was a complex plot that only slowly unfolded. Everything made sense in the end, and there wasn't anything that seemed added in at the last minute. Good, solid detective novel.

Things I really liked - Spencer/Rustage played with the class ideas of the Victorian era very nicely. Plus, s(he) uses the novel to make some subtle comments about current events - on some level, Victorian England is a stand in for modern America, for instance. One of the characters ponders why people in India are less than grateful for the civilization that the British Army is bringing them, and there is this broad assumption on the part of many that the universe revolves around the British Empire. It's subtle, but somewhat pointed - very nicely done.

In final assessment, I really liked this book, and will pick up the next when I get a chance.