Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Reviews, 10/7/2011

So, it comes to that point on a Friday evening where I'm reading a book, and I could probably finish it before midnight, and then post about three books instead of two - or I could wait, and post about it next week. And I'm thinking next week is the better bet, because what if I don't finish it by midnight? And, anyway, I have no particular desire to be up at midnight making a post, although heaven knows it's happened before. So, only two books this week. Although it might have been three, and not just because I'm part way through a third - my wife keeps stealing my books from me! Good taste, that.

Anyway. Two books this week:

Ally Carter - Heist Society

So, last week I read a couple of books that were "caper" novels. One, the Cherie Priest, I defined as such, and the other, the Eoin Colfer, I suggested was mis-advertised. This week, however, I had an actual caper novel, and I'm thinking that the Priest novels are not, really, caper novels at all. They're a lot closer to spy novels, perhaps. Raylene doesn't run a string so much as she reluctantly accepts the assistance of a side kick - she's very much a lone wolf type. And the focus of the books is not really so much a specific criminal exploit as it is a quest, a search for the next piece in a puzzle. So, I rescind Priest's caper novel designation (without, I should stress, implying that there is anything AT ALL wrong with the books, which are fantastic).

Ally Carter has written a caper novel. Katarina Bishop, for a number of very good reasons, must break into a heavily guarded art museum in London, and steal five paintings. To make things interesting, the art museum is entirely unaware that the paintings are there in the first place. To accomplish this, Kat (what the hell, spell check! Katarina isn't acceptable, but Kat is? No wonder my students can't spell.) must assemble a string of fellow thieves. Together, they assemble a complex plan which involves subterfuge, con artistry, a little bit of sneaking around, and a pinch of pyrotechnics. As is generally the case in a caper novel, things don't quite go as planned. As I suggested last week, one of the key elements of the caper novel is the moment at the end where all of the participants have gotten a piece of what they wanted, but not all. If the participants in a caper got everything, nothing would keep them from retirement. Just ask Donald Westlake - his character, John Dortmunder, gets almost everything he wants in What's the Worst that Could Happen?, and promptly retires (only to be brought back for another five novels, only one of which fully lives up to the tradition of the series.)

Carter has not only written a proper caper novel, she's done an excellent job of it. The writing sparkles - consider this bit:
The assembly of a crew is a monumental event in a young thief's life. There are meetings and phone calls, Plans, and occasionally, a celebratory cake.
 It's the cake which really seals the deal for me, frankly. The whole book is like this, just a little wry, just a touch funny - and that's the way it should be. I think the standard audience isn't really interested in reading about criminals without that touch of funny - The Talented Mr. Ripley entirely to one side. Still, even with that touch of funny, Carter has woven a truly (and surprisingly!) complex plot which is about morals and ethics as much as it is about art theft. I really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it highly, especially for avid readers of YA. An example of high praise - I went looking for the sequel on Tuesday/  I didn't see it; perhaps it was on a cart somewhere, since it had been part of a display which had recently been dismantled. Maybe next week.

Daniel H. Wilson - Robopocalypse

If you liked Max Brooks' World War Z, I think there's a decent chance you'll enjoy this book too. It's not a zombie book, but there's an eerie similarity between Brooks' zombies and Wilson's robots. Both are implacable foes. Both overwhelm the humans more through the use of numbers than through cunning (although Wilson presents Archos as a central organizer of the robots, and the chief villain here - a queen ant, if you will - that Brooks does not. The robots have direction, in a very broad sense, just not autonomy). The narrative style is quite similar as well, distantly linked vignettes presented as historical primary sources, and finally coming together as a narrative whole.

I don't wish to imply that Wilson's novel is derivative, because it isn't. He's clearly going in his own direction here, and exploring some interesting questions about humanity while he does so. Still, by framing the book as a future history, Wilson is somewhat limited in his narrative choices. It's clear from the outset - from the first paragraph, even - that humanity wins the war against Big Rob. Wilson can only stray very tentatively from that central idea - he can't, half way through, present the idea that, in fact, humanity has lost. He can't even suggest it in a twisty sort of way, really. (Although, you know, it depends on how you view motivations. Archos claims from the beginning that his goal is to create a world in which humans and robots can share equally - to what extent is that the world that exists at the end of the book? Unpack and discuss, using no more than one blue book. You may, if you wish, use quotations. 50 pts) I can't help but wonder if that was a mistake, frankly. Would it have been better to keep the reader guessing, wondering if what we're reading is a triumphant account of victory or a final bitter account of ultimate defeat? I'm not really sure.

I will say this - zombies and robots solve one of the perennial problems of mil-fic. How can an author write about war while avoiding the human tendency to de-humanize the enemy? It is possible to present both sides of the conflict, if you are writing about a historical war (although few authors do, frankly. It's much easier to stick to one side of the account. Bernard Cornwell doesn't go out of his way to humanize Napoleon's army, any more that C.S. Forester went out of his way to humanize Napoleon's navy.). I suppose it might be easier to do that if you are writing about an entirely fictional war - but with zombies and/or robots, you don't have to humanize the enemy. Everyone recognizes that Big Zed or Big Rob is NOT human. (And yet, Wilson plays with that idea too - what constitutes "human"? CAN humans and robots live together, once true artificial intelligence is created?)

Hmmm. As I write about it, I am beginning to think that this was actually quite a deep book, pretending to be somewhat shallow. If you like deep books which, at least on the surface, feel somewhat shallow, or if you like mil-fic which turns out to ask some rather probing questions, or if you like zombie/robot apocalypse novels, then this is clearly the book for you.