Saturday, September 10, 2011

Friday Reviews, early on Saturday, 9/10/2011

Well, so. I spent most of the week away from home. That involved two lengthy plane trips, which should have afforded the opportunity to read a bunch. Actually, it did afford the opportunity to do exactly that, but - well, you'll see.

Four books this week.

Chris Ewan - The Good Thief's Guide to Venice

This is the fourth in Ewan's "Good Thief's" series. They follow the exploits of Charlie Howard; caper novelist and aging gentleman thief. (Thief is an odd word. Written once, spelled properly, it looks fine. Written several times, it begins to look wrong...) Howard is in Venice, working on his latest novel and committed to a retirement from his "night" job. He promised his agent he would stop the whole burglar thing. That holds until, oh, the middle of the first chapter. Someone breaks into his apartment and steals Charlie's lucky copy of The Maltese Falcon. Charlie finds himself back in his old life in an effort to get the book back, and is soon embroiled in a deep plot involving black jack and assassination.

Ewan's prose sparkles, as always. Charlie is snarky, and his dialog is delivered with a wink and a sneer through most of the book. Charlie likes to pretend that things don't get to him, but he knows he's pretending. Ewan deepens the relationship between Charlie and Victoria (Charlie's agent). It remains to be seen if the dynamic of the novels will withstand a shift in the relationship from mostly Platonic to something more.

This novel, like the rest of the series, is a caper novel - a novel about a crime being committed. As in all good caper novels, all of the various actors get a piece of what they want, but not everything. That's what I like about caper novels. The author knows that the protagonist cannot totally win; that would be boring. At the same time, the protagonist cannot totally lose; that would be depressing. Ideally, the crook should end up trapped in hir own complicated plot. Here, that doesn't happen, because Charlie is not in control of the action.  Instead, he is reacting to a shifting situation, and never really gets on top of things. He gets most of what he wanted, but he doesn't walk away rich - there would be no future to the series if Charlie had walked away rich.

My only disappointment - in one of the earlier novels in the series, Ewan includes a short essay on picking locks. I had hoped this would be a regular feature - something on cracking safes, maybe, or something on opening combination locks. Alas, it seems it was a one time thing.

Jonathan Kay - Among the Truthers

This was a great book until suddenly it wasn't. Kay, a journalist for the Canadian (largely conservative) newspaper, The National Post, immersed himself in US conspiracy culture for two years, focusing largely on the 9/11 Truth movement (the premise that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were an "inside job" of some sort), with a little bit of discussion about the Birther movement (the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the United States). He opens with a quick glance at the history of conspiracy theories, with a heavy focus on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He then uses his two key modern conspiracies to highlight some central elements which he claims are present in most conspiracy theorists. Finally, he attempts to explain why conspiracy theories are different now. I think it is in this third part where he goes off the rails.

The first part of the book trues up fairly well with my understanding of the history of conspiracy theories. The second part is interesting; perhaps a little overly pop-psychology, but not bad. The presentation of various figures within the Truther movement helped support Kay's contentions, and kept the book relevant. The final section - Kay concludes that the modern conspiracy (he dates "modern" in this instance to 1996) derives its key elements from three factors. One: the internet allows the spread of conspiracy theories much more quickly and much more broadly than before. As a result, a homogeneity of thought predominates. Pre-internet, every conspiracy theorist had hir own twist on the event under examination (look at the tangle of theories surrounding the JFK assassination). Post-internet, a few key "facts" anchor the theory, and most theorists agree on these elements as "true". Fair enough.
Two: post-modern liberal arts education has diluted the idea of Truth, creating a culture in which everyone can have their own sense of "truth," and expertise in one area can easily translate into expertise in all areas. Ok, I'm no fan of the post-modern turn in the liberal arts, but this seems a little sweeping, frankly. Also, a little off base, since the two movements Kay is looking at seem to stem from the conservative side of the spectrum. In order to support this assertion, Kay brings in the anti-vaccination movement (the idea that vaccinations of children cause autism), which hasn't been a big thread in his discussion up to that point.
Three: anti-racism has created an environment in which everyone is forced to be a racist. This feels very much like a standard conservative attack on the idea of white/male/straight privilege. Not an attack on the privilege, but an attack on the idea that white/male/straight people HAVE privilege in our modern society, and that this privilege has an effect on how the society looks and works. It feels like a defense of the Birther movement - Kay is saying that the Birthers are not really motivated by the idea that a black man is in the presidency, but by something else. There has been a thread of this throughout, but it really comes to the surface here, and it scars the rest of the work.

Kay ends with a conclusion that states that the cure for conspiracy is prevention. He proposes a curriculum on conspiracy theories, focused on The Protocols, on the grounds that they have been entirely discredited, and so should cause no controversy. The idea of the curriculum is that it would teach students how to avoid the mental traps that lead into conspiracy minded thought, and thus save our Enlightened society.

If Kay had not tried to find some Grand Unifying Theory of Conspiracies, this would have been an excellent book. As it is, it's still a pretty good book, and worth taking a look at.

And then, we got on the plane back home.

I started out by reading:

Trisha Telep (ed) - Corsets and Clockwork

This is a collection of 13 YA Steampunk Romances. Quite a merger of genres there. Most of the short stories work very well. There were a couple I didn't like very much.

I found it interesting that Telep seems to have imposed almost no editorial policy on what constituted "steampunk" - most of the stories feature some sort of Victorian setting in which steam and rationality are subverted by magic and individualism, but, midway through, there's a story set in Texas in 1958. ("Chickie Hill's Badass Ride" by Dia Reeves) It features a 1958 Thunderbird and the struggle against segregation. It didn't, as far as I can tell, feature steam power in any particular way. (I liked that story, incidentally; I just don't see it as steampunk, particularly). There was another story which featured Lovecraftian horrors, but also had no steam power. ("The Vast Machinery of Dreams" by Caitlin Kittredge) (I didn't like that story - the narrative style was cludgy and hard to deal with.) Some of the stories relied more heavily on magic than others - "Code of Blood" by Dru Pagliassotti is set in Venice, but all of the technology is actually driven by elemental magic - is it steampunk, if the steam is caused by a salamander?

My favorite stories in the collection:

Michael Scott - "Deadwood" - on a dirigible trip across an American west, two young people meet and rescue each other (and a bunch of other folks) from greedy industrialists.

Dru Pagliassotti - "Code of Blood" - a young girl saves Venice from Napoleon.

Adrienne Kress - "The Clockwork Corset" - An alternate WWI story, with some interesting gender role switches

Dia Reeves - "Chickie Hill's Baddass Ride" - A couple of black teens save their Texas town from a threat which isn't the KKK - and also from the KKK.

Kiersten White - "Tick, Tick, Boom" - the daughter of a British lord crafts magical bombs to aid labour unionists in their struggle against the factories.

It's a fine collection, highlighting the work of a group of authors I've never met before (but will look for in the future), and possibly offering a toe into the genre of steampunk for folks more inclined towards romance. Or vice versa.

Midway through the flight, my wife gaffled that book, and forced me to begin:

Lev Grossman - The Magician King

Grossman caused a stir last year with his novel The Magicians; a realist inspired novel about a group of teens who find themselves enrolled in a school which teaches magic. And odd non-fantastical Hogwarts, perhaps. The Magicians was moody and complicated, it rambled, and the central thread was sometimes hard to follow. I reviewed it on my other blog (which pre-dates this one): here.

My first impression when I saw that Grossman had written a sequel was "huh. I don't remember that the first book ended in such a way that a sequel could happen." I was wrong. This book is an excellent sequel to the earlier book. It is moody, and it is complicated. It has a lot of the post-modern realism that the first book did, with moody, complicated characters who find that magic, by and large, does not make their lives easier. It is all of that, and it is also far more cohesive than the first book. The pacing is better, and the central narrative thread is much easier to follow. The bits which, in the first book, felt flat - those are not here.

The central thread is a quest. Well, a pair of quests; one by Quentin, and the other by Julia. The Julia bits are told in flash back, and Grossman switches, chapter by chapter, between Quentin and Julia. This works quite well - Quentin is a bit much at times, and Julia's experiences are a little overwhelming at times, and so the whole thing tends to balance nicely. Just as the reader is being bored by Quentin's moping, there's a Julia chapter. And, just as the reader is being horrified by what Julia experienced, there is a Quentin chapter. It fits nicely.

Grossman is still playing with the idea of fantasy as a genre. He's turning tropes on their heads, twisting the ideas that make quest narratives work, and bringing a lot of post-modernity into play here. If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, this may not be the book for you. It isn't a safe book - it's the sort of book that will wake you up, weeks from when you've read it, with new, moody, complicated ideas bubbling through your brain. But, suggests Grossman, that's what fantasy and speculative fiction are supposed to do; that's what is missing in so much of the genre. And that's why the first book was a best seller - because we're hungry for books that make us think.

Trigger warning - Grossman is not gentle with his characters, especially Julia. Julia's quest for an alternate route into the world of magic (she didn't get into Brakesbill, the college that Quentin attended) takes her down a highly self-damaging path, and ends messily. Julia survives, sort of, and is repaired, sort of. In the end, this makes Julia a more interesting character than Quentin, who is basically moody and complicated throughout.