Saturday, October 15, 2011

Friday Review Post, 10/15/2011

Maybe I should just move my Friday post to Saturday? Anyway, four books this week:

Emily Diamand - Raiders' Ransom

Lilly is a fisher girl in a post apocalyptic England. The exact basis of the apocalypse is never made clear, but it is presumed to be global warming combined with some sort of computer virus. Much of England is under water, London in particular. Technology is largely banned (except in Scotland, where they use solar power and such.) Scotland has expanded southward to swallow up most of the island, leaving only ten counties of England in the extreme south. I'd love to post a map, but I can't find one. Anyway, a raid by pirate/vikings from the fringes of Scotland occurs while Lilly is out at sea. She returns to find that the daughter of the English Prime Minister has been kidnapped. In an effort to avert a war, in which her sweetheart has been forcibly enlisted, Lilly sets out to rescue the Prime Minister's daughter.

The plot was satisfying, although not particularly deep. The writing was good, the characters were enjoyable. I would, perhaps, suggest that this was a little younger than most young adult books - 12 or 13, rather than 15-16, say. Good world building - the setting is several generations post-disaster, and Diamond has clearly thought through what that would mean in terms of culture and society. Highly recommended; I've grabbed the sequel.

David Liss - The 12th Enchantment

Mr. Liss continues to be a very dangerous author. This is pretty typical of his work - a complex historical drama with strong characters, a twisty plot, and excellent writing. Set in England during the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the book tells the story of Lucy Derrick. Lucy, an orphan, is dependent on the good will of her uncle (who is not actually her uncle, but rather a distantly good friend of her father). She is engaged to be married to a local industrialist; the owner of a cloth factory who is plagued by Luddites. Lucy's plans are complicated by the sudden arrival of Lord Byron. Byron is incoherent, spitting up pins, and tells Lucy that she must not marry her industrialist, and that she must "gather the leaves". With the timely intervention of a local woman schooled in magic, Lucy removes a curse from Byron, and finds herself plunged into a dense conspiracy. This conspiracy involves fairies, the Rosicrucians, ancient vampires, and alchemy, and it unfolds delightfully into a deeply convoluted but entirely satisfying plot.

Some reviewers have found Liss' use of magic to be distasteful. Liss' other works tend to be less ... fanciful, perhaps. However, given the setting, the conflict between magic and technology is entirely appropriate. The inclusion of Byron and, later, William Blake, did not bother me either. If you are going to write a novel about mystical politics in Regency England, Byron and Blake are bound to show up (as are the Rosicrucians, naturally). I think this is clearly a case of "you got fantasy in my historical fiction!" "no, you got historical fiction in my fantasy!," and, ultimately, the merger works remarkably well.

This, by the way, was the book that my wife kept stealing last week. She also enjoyed it, especially the way that the plot built and expanded and grew increasingly more complex the further into the book she got.

Eoin Colfer - Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl, scion of the Fowl crime family, billionaire, and 12 years old. In an effort to restore his family's fortunes after the untimely death of his father, Fowl devises a scheme to extort gold from fairies. What ensues is a complex narrative of double-crossing and high technology, mixed with fairy magic (and fairy technology, which is often the same thing).

I can see why the books are popular, and there's nothing really wrong with the writing. I just didn't really like the characters. The narrator is clearly sympathetic to the fairies (the book is supposed to be an official report on Fowl), but the fairies are hard to like. Fowl is presented as evil (although he clearly isn't), and I couldn't find myself rooting for him either. Perhaps my problem is a timing thing - this clearly compared poorly to the Liss. I may try the next on my next research trip - as fluff, the books might work.

Steve Turner - The Band that Played On

A delightful history of the band from the Titanic. Turner was commissioned to write a book to catch the wave of the Titanic anniversary. Telling the story of the band which continued to play as the ship went down provides a new and interesting entrance into the well known story of the ill-fated ship Turner had his work cut out for him, though, because we don't know very much about the various members of the band. As such, this was a fascinating book on a number of levels.

On one level, this is a retelling of the story of the Titanic. One of the reasons that the Titanic continues to grab our attention is that it's a great story, and Turner works with that. He doesn't go into a great deal of detail about the nature of the ship, the technical specs, or any of that - as he points out, there are plenty of books about that. Instead, he discusses the lives of the band members, explaining where they came from, why they were hired to serve on the ship, and what, potentially, motivated them to sacrifice themselves as the ship sank. Turner tells a compelling story of heroism in the face of tragedy.

On another level, this is a story about music and management and the business of luxury cruise liners just prior to the First World War. In his narration of the lives of the musicians, Turner discusses where they would have played before serving on the Titanic, and uncovers a world of public musical performances in which world class musicians become ornaments for hotels, resorts, and the cruise liners which serve as both hotel and resort. Turner discusses the agents who hired musicians for the great cruise lines. He also touches, a little, on the business of cruise liners, discussing the rivalry between the Cunard and the White Star lines. What was the purpose of the Titanic? Bruce J. Ismay was clearly responding to Cunard's Lusitnania and Mauritania, the two fastest cruise ships in the world at the turn of the 20th century. The White Star Line decided it could not compete in speed, so Olympic and Titanic were not as fast, but were far more luxurious. As the most luxurious ships, they needed the best musicians.

On a further level, this is a story about how to do history. How do you re-construct the stories of eight people who were famous for a brief moment, but were otherwise not considered worthy of remembering?  Each of the musicians had a family, one was married, several were engaged to be married, at least one had a child. Turner looked at the letters and telegrams that were sent to the family members, before and after the disaster. He considered newspaper reports about the earlier performances of the musicians. He looked at play bills and reviews of their performances. Ultimately, he pieced together eight lives, based on solid but fragmented evidence. This is one of the things that historians do.

On a final level, Turner engages in the prominent debate over the band - what they played as the ship went down. According to legend, the band played "Nearer, my God, to Thee" as the ship began it's final plunge.  The newspaper reports of the event refer to this, based on the testimony of numerous survivors.  Monuments to the musicians often included reference to this song. The song was performed at the funerals of the musicians, and at concerts to commemorate the disaster. In their effort to raise money for the families of the musicians, the Amalgamated Musicians Union (AMU) printed a collectible poster with pictures of the eight band members and a verse from "Nearer, my God, to Thee." Several thousand copies of this poster were sold, and the money was given to the parents and sweethearts of the musicians.

Despite this clear connection to the hymn, there is continuing doubt over the performance.  Several of the survivors insist that the hymn was not played - that the band played popular music while the ship sank, and that a hymn would have reminded people of their mortality and caused panic. The hymn was not in the collection of music the band was commissioned to perform on the voyage. Further, there were at least three different versions of the hymn, none of which were alike, and yet American passengers, British passengers, Methodist and Anglican passengers all asserted that they had heard the hymn. All of this calls into doubt the possibility that "Nearer, my God, to Thee" was performed. Perhaps it was just one of those things - one person said they heard it, and suddenly everyone remembered hearing it.

Turner argues, quite persuasively, that the hymn was probably performed. He states that there were, in fact, four versions of the hymn, and that the fourth version was a popular (not a church) arrangement, which would have been relatively well known on both sides of the Atlantic, and across various denominations. Wallace Hartley was the band leader. His father was a choir leader in a Methodist church. Hartley's father was known to love "Nearer, my God, to Thee," and Hartley was quoted (after the disaster, certainly) as having said it was his favorite, and that he wanted it performed at his funeral. Turner contends that the band began playing hymns after the last life boat had been lowered - that is, at the point when it became clear that the band was going to go down with the ship.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the band played - but that's what makes Turner a historian. This is the other thing that historians do; we argue about things that no one else really cares to argue about. It makes sense that the band played "Nearer, my God, to Thee," it also makes sense that they didn't. There isn't anyway (short of time travel) to resolve the issue. This is the sort of argument that historians thrive on, and the way that Turner presents his argument is an example of excellent historical craft.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is already interested in the Titanic. I would recommend it to budding historians. I would recommend it to people who like a gripping story of doomed heroism. This is a fine example of the intersection of popular and scholarly history - easily readable, yet well researched - a book for professionals and amateurs alike, and all around well written.