Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Review Post, 7/8/2011

I was much more successful this week - three books. Although, to be fair, I was mostly finished Liberty's Exiles last Friday. So.

Maya Jasanoff - Liberty's Exiles

My wife and I are fans of a band called Eddie From Ohio. EfO perform a song called Fifth of July, the chorus of which is this:

It's the fifth of July- feelin independentPlease step aside- the celebration's overWe're on our own for the first of our liveson the fifth of July- now what? 
This book has nothing to do with the fifth of July, but it does address the whole "now what?" that the Loyalists felt after it was evident that England had lost the war, and that, as a result, they had backed the wrong party.

After the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Loyalists poured into the cities that the British held - New York, Charleston, and Savannah - and began figuring out what they were going to do with their lives. The British government promised them transportation to somewhere else, and some sort of compensation for their lost property. In the decade after the end of the US War for Independence, the Loyalists scattered to England, to Nova Scotia and Upper Canada (later Ontario), to Jamaica and the Bermudas, to India, and to Sierra Leone in Africa. Most got a little bit of money from the British government, often nowhere near what they had lost in terms of property during the war - some, due to good connections, got much more than others.

Jasanoff tracks a number of Loyalists through their various travels, and highlights the good and bad aspects of life in the various locales where Loyalists landed. Further, and more importantly, she argues that this diaspora of Loyalists served, on the one hand, to aid the spread of the British Empire, but, on the other hand, to also spread basic ideas of liberty and the relationship between citizens and government.  Loyalists were British citizens, and they were devoted to the idea of being British. At the same time, they were also Americans, and many of them had been deeply affected by the rhetoric of the American Revolution.  Indeed, some of them had been members of the Revolutionary camp; only leaving the movement when they felt it had become too radical, or too violent, or too divergent from its original intent. At any rate, Jasanoff argues (convincingly, I might add) that the British Empire which expanded throughout the globe after the American Revolution was far different from the Empire which had existed prior to 1775. She concludes that it was a combination of efforts by the United States and by Great Britain which caused the spread of democracy as an idea (and an ideal) in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The book was fascinating. I enjoyed it considerably, both as a reader and as an historian. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in a deeper appreciation of the period immediately following the American Revolution, as it gives a much deeper and more nuanced picture of Britain, and the young republic, in those tentative early days. Good stuff!

Terry Windling, ed. - Teeth

This is a collection of YA short stories dealing with vampires. If you have a young adult in your life, and they like stories about vampires, you should give them a copy of this book, assuming they haven't found it themselves, because it is an excellent collection. They will undoubtedly enjoy at least one of the stories inside; this might, hopefully, lead them to explore the works of the author whose story they liked, and that would be good on many levels.

I really liked a lot of things about this book. First, Windling is a stellar editor - she clearly makes her authors bring their A game to everything she works on. Additionally, she writes fantastic introductions to her compilations - this book has a lovely discussion of vampires as cultural phenomena around the world, and some musing on why we get stuck with Dracula and Edward Cullen instead of Chinese hopping vampires. So, right from the start, an excellent work.

I love the inclusion of poetry – Windling does that a lot, which is nice. Poetry is not easy to get published in any sort of large market, so including a piece or two in a compilation like this (or the new Bordertown collection, for instance) provides an outlet for a genre that gets ignored. Additionally, because the poems are written by people like Neil Gaiman (in this collection), Windling allows her authors an outlet that they don't normally get to pursue, which is also nice. 

All of the stories were really well written. Several of the stories were really creepy and good, a number were funny, which is odd in a vampire collection.

Following the introduction, I wasn't surprised to see several non-“traditional” vampires – a great Chinese vampire, a vampire from the Jewish tradition, a couple of good re imaginings of the central idea of vampires - but I was impressed.

I want to draw particular attention to a few of the stories:

"Gap Year", by Christopher Barzak – a re-imagining of the idea of vampires being everywhere. Barzak's vampires are not all blood drinkers, which allows for some interesting permutations.

"Vampire Weather" by Garth Niz – exploring a world in which vampires used to be common - what tactics would remain even after they were no longer needed? How would society treat people who refused to give up the fear of vampires?

"Late Bloomer", by Suzy McKee Charnas- a quirky story which ponders what vampirism does to creativity.

"Sit the Dead", by Jeffrey Ford – a lovely look at the problem of vampires in the family. If vampirism ran in your family, what steps would you take? This one had a bleak downer of an ending.

"In the Future When All’s Well" – Catherynne Valente – a darkly funny look at vampirism as a problem among the youth, and the counselling offered via schools.

Cassandra Clare and Holly Black team up on "The Perfect Dinner Party", which is creepy and good.

The only one I didn’t really like was "Baby" by Kathe Koja, and that was due to the writing, not the plot – she uses a particular narrative style that I didn’t like, especially the use of dashes to denote dialogue. What’s wrong with quotation marks?

As always, Windling brings together some excellent established talents as well as a number of delightful fresh voices. This is an excellent collection.

Eric Flint - 1636:The Saxon Uprising

This series may be a little hard to get into at this point. Flint knows this, I think - his afterword details the ways in which the series has expanded since his original novel (1632), and offers a reading guide. It's tough to know what to say about this book, actually. If you've been reading and enjoying the series, you'll want to pick this up - but you knew that already. If you haven't been reading the series, this is not the place to start. 

So, what else? The series, as I believe I mentioned when I talked about 1635: The Eastern Front talks about the huge changes to Europe in the early 1630s caused by the appearance of a late 20th century West Virginia mining town in the middle of Germany. This book describes a civil war in the United States of Europe - an attempt at a coup in an effort to restore absolute monarchy to the German states comes up against the republican ideals which have been spreading out of Grantville, the West Virginia town. The conflict turns into a mostly political one, with only a little bit of military stuff. As usual, the military stuff is well handled - officers are presented as rounded individuals, soldiers are neither purely good or fantastically evil; as mil fic goes, this is pretty good. There's the usual attention to detail as well, Flint is known for it. So, that's all good.

The book has Flint's usual mix of dry wit and broad, almost slapstick sense of humour. Notably, there are a pair of running jokes throughout - as information about the civil war spreads across Europe, the reactions of various people as catalogued. There's a series of interludes involving some fishermen; at the beginning they all voted for one of the two candidates, by the end they all assert that they voted for the other guy. In Spain, the news arrives late, because no one there has a radio. It's not subtle humour, but it's funny if you like that sort of thing.

I found myself, as I was reading this, wondering what was going on in the rest of the world. Flint has focused very closely on Europe, and that makes sense. At the same time, by the 1630s there were colonies in North and South America - what's going on there? What's been going on in Africa - people have wandered in that direction. Have people made it to China? To what results? It looks like there's a planned book set in North America; I'm looking forward to that.

In final assessment, if you're already reading the series, you'll want to pick this up. If you aren't already reading the series, and what I've described sounds like the sort of thing you like to read, start with 1632.