Saturday, December 10, 2011

Saturday Review, 12/10/2011

4 books this week:

Kevin Mitnick - Ghost in the Wire

Mitnick is a big deal in the computer hacking world. This is something of an autobiography, covering Mitnick's discovery of social controls (con artistry, more or less) and then computers and phone networks in California. In the mid-80s, Mitnick became a desired target of the FBI and such agencies, a situation which did not change into the '90s. Eventually he was arrested and became something of a cause celebre because of the way his rights to sentencing were rather severely bent, because of his scary (and largely false) persona as super-hacker (what Mitnick calls the Mitnick Myth). He is now a consultant, engaging in hacking for companies who want to test their own network security.

My overall reaction to the book is meh. Mitnick wanders through his personal narrative, often noting something to the effect of "while this was going on, this other thing happened," and breaking his narrative flow. Further, I found Mitnick's description of himself to be highly distasteful. Throughout, Mitnick engages in highly anti-social actions - breaking into networks to steal the code for cell phones; tweaking his own cell phone so that his calls were billed to someone else, tricking officials into giving him private information - and doesn't seem to fully get why these things got him in trouble. In his defense, he didn't use the data he stole, or even make money off of it in anyway, but if I break into your house and take pictures of your art collection, I have still engaged in an illegal action. Mitnick comes across as mildly sociopathic and, despite his protestation, doesn't seem to be particularly likable. Had the writing been more entertaining, the content wouldn't have mattered. Had the content been less disagreeable, the writing wouldn't have mattered. Combined, the whole was less than lovely.

Tom Perrotta - The Leftovers

The Rapture has occurred, or something that looks very much like the Rapture - lots and lots of people have disappeared. Only some of them are not the sort of people who the Rapture should affect - non-Christians, and open sinners, and all manner of people. The Sudden Disappearance, although central to the plot, is never explained - which is probably for the best, since that's not really the point of the book. As the title suggests, the book is about the people left behind, left with the painful task of picking up the pieces and figuring out what to do next.

Perrotta's characters do all manner of things next. Some of them join cults which are more or less destructive, depending on the cult, and on the joinee. Some of them throw away their lives on drugs and sex and general hedonism. Some of them become politicians. Some of them lose their faith, and some cheat on their spouses, and some of them remain faithful to something or someone. For the most part, life goes on - and, largely, I think that was Perrotta's point. Peoples is peoples (and frogs are frogs), rapture or no rapture.

So, that's somewhat hopeful, I suppose. Life goes on, and humanity adapts to all manner of oddness. Beyond that, though, the book was somewhat depressing, as you might expect. Billions of people just vanished, and the world has changed. Everyone in the book is damaged and grieving and not sure how to go on, all at once, all at the same time. It makes for very difficult reading at times. I can imagine that it would be extremely difficult reading if you've recently had a death in your close personal circle. Perrotta's writing is excellent, and that makes the book highly readable, even enjoyable in places, but the subject matter, ultimately, remains difficult to digest. Finally, the book just ends - on a hopeful note, with a baby who will probably reknit at least one small family - bang, right in the middle of things. Which is, more or less, where the book starts. This would be an interesting book to have a discussion about, and I imagine that lots of book groups will do that over the next year.

Peter Spiegelman - Thick as Thieves

Caper novel. A bunch of crooks set out to steal money from a money launderer. Things go awry, which is normal for this sort of book, but work themselves out, more or less, in the end. Which is also normal.

The book is a little deeper and twistier than the typical caper novel, asking questions about the nature of humanity, and about growing old, and about the danger of secrets, and the inevitability of betrayal. All around these deeper themes, Spiegelman tells a highly entertaining story about breaking into dark houses and stealing things. There's a lot of technical detail, and a few explosions. In the end, a delightful novel with some fantastic twists (although I had figured out one of the big twists before the end - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as the it makes the reader feel smart rather than the author look stupid, if you follow me) and a highly satisfying ending. Good read, and a nice step down from the Perrotta - deep enough that it stands up against the literature, but not so deep that the two books back to back swamped me.

Tanya Huff - The Wild Ways

A further step away from Perrotta and Spiegelman, this is the sequel to Huff's Enchanted Emporium, both pleasantly interesting paranormal romance. Huff, of course, has been writing paranormal romance since before paranormal romance was a thing - the Blood series, with Victoria Nelson the ex-cop PI and Henry Fitzroy the ancient vampire (and Victoria's lover) present clear precedents for the sub-genre. Huff has had, and continues to have, highly positive effects upon the sub-genre.  In particular, Huff has gone out of her way to include characters of colour and characters with different sexual orientations, even (especially) when those features are not critical to the plot. In this book, the principle character is bisexual (well, ok, Charlotte Gale is more of an opportunistic forager when it comes to sex, but she clearly doesn't discriminate between genders), one of the important secondary characters is black (just because), another pair are gay (and deeply committed to each other). All great stuff.

A little background. The Gale family are not quite human. The women in the family are skilled at casting magic with "charms" - little patterns that cause things to go more smoothly - the car doesn't need repairing as often, the windows open more smoothly, people tend to like you a little more, etc etc - and they like to put these charms in baked goods, especially pies and pancakes. Pies and pancakes feature heavily in the books, almost a running gag. Perhaps exactly a running gag. As the women age, they become Aunties - matriarchs who control the family with carefully hidden iron fists. The Gale Aunties would give Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax a run for their money - or, at least, a fair fight. The men in the Gale family tend to turn into stags when frightened or excited. Especially when excited.

Sex in the Gale family is ... odd. Very open, and highly ritualized, and tightly tightly controlled for the good of the family. And it involves men who turn into stags when they get excited. Huff doesn't really discuss the logistics of that, particularly, but you can tuck it away for consideration, if you like. (That sort of implies that there's a lot of sex in these books, and that would be untrue - it happens, Huff sometimes describes it (not in particular detail), but it's not a central feature of the books.)

In this book, Charlotte (Charlie) Gale heads to Cape Breton to help out a friend with a Celtic rock band. (Did I mention that the books are set in Canada? They are - Canadianism runs deep in the books, which excites me a little - I've actually been to some of the places Huff describes! Whee!) While there, she gets mixed up with a bunch of selkies trying to save their habitat from an oil rig. This is all complicated by the fact that Charlie is a Wild Talent - she can do things that the average Gale girl cannot, like charm people with music, and walk between woods (allowing her to cross distances quickly by playing music to trees, more or less). Further, Charlie finds herself baby sitting one of her cousins - who is a dragon. (That's a bit of leftover plot from the first book, incidentally)

The good bits of the book - I love the Maritime Canada settings - brilliant. I love the whole magic through baking gag. I love the 14 year old dragon. I love Charlie. The characters are fantastic - the bad people are not one dimensional, and the secondary characters are almost as well described as the primaries (which makes sense, because Huff has a tendency to spin off secondary characters - easier to do that if they are well written in the first place).

The bits that I didn't like - the bad guys are an oil company. Huff (accurately) describes Cape Breton as a region of Canada desperate for employment, which the oil company would have provided. Clearly, the drilling would have disrupted the sensitive selkie habitat, and that's bad - but Huff's characters don't really offer any solid alternatives either. In an otherwise surprisingly deep book, this conflict is dealt with rather shallowly, and that bugged me a little. Also, Charlie's ability to walk through woods results in her bopping back and forth from Cape Breton to Calgary (where her familial support base is). A dangerous ability, which threated to derail the narrative in a couple of places. Huff manages to keep the whole thing moving forward, but I felt like telling Charlie to pick a locale and stay there, damn it.

In the end, a very satisfying read, and very quick - I started the book this morning, and finished it before dinner.