November, you know, is just a silly month. Part of this is entirely my own fault - the second test of the semester comes in November, and I need to grade it. And, actually, I hate grading tests (and often wonder why I even bother assigning them in the first place) so I put it off and put it off. It's not even that grading takes that long - I can generally turn papers around in about two days, if I sit down and do the work - it's just tiresome reading essentially the same responses over and over again, and the same basic errors of understanding (which suggests that I, the instructor, have made a fundamental error in the way that I have explained something, which never feels good), and wondering if that one really good response is plagiarism (and sometimes it is, but often it isn't)... Anyway, I hate grading, but I have a bunch of grading to do in November. Plus, I'm gearing up for the end of the semester, and wondering if I've left quite enough time to finish everything I've said I will finish in the syllabus (and I have, really). And then there's Thanksgiving in the middle of everything. And the weather can't decide if it's late fall or early winter, so we get these alternate gross wet days and absurdly bright and warm days, whipsawing through my immune system. November sucks. (And, of course, all the rest of the year, I post my posts exactly as I have scheduled them, and I never ever have to post a place holder. Ever. Riiiight.)
Bleh. I did finish three books this week, though. So.
Isabel Cooper - No Proper Lady
Same author as Hickey of the Beast (different name, but same author, I assure you.) This is a paranormal romance, with rather more emphasis on the romance than the paranormal. Joan lives in the future (2088, possibly), and it's a horrible future. Demons roam the earth, brutally oppressing humanity. Humans have two choices - become docile cattle and live under the demons, or live a miserable existence in tunnels, constantly fighting demons and their thralls. Humanity is losing. In order to fix things, Joan has, through magical means, traveled back in time to England, 1888. There, visions indicate, she will find the person who wrote the book which unleashed the demons which destroyed the world.
Simon Grenville lives in England, in 1888. A member of the landed gentry, Grenville is also a minor dabbler in the magical arts. He has returned to his country estate with his sister, Eleanor. Simon has recently rescued Eleanor from an unspeakable magical ritual being performed by Alex Reynell, formerly one of Simon's best friends, and his fellow dabbler in the magical arts. Reynell has decided that the black arts is the way to go, and, when Simon tries to prevent Reynell from pursuing that line of action, Reynell takes Eleanor and tries to have her possessed by a demon.
Reynell, incidentally, is the person that Joan has come back to deal with, which makes the whole thing very tidy.
The good stuff - Cooper has done better than average research for the genre, and creates a believable picture of Victorian England. She has also given considerable thought to the world that Joan comes from, even if we only see it in snippets. So, good solid world building. I honestly liked Joan, and Simon, and Eleanor, and cared about their eventual success. I particularly liked Eleanor standing up for herself and insisting that she be allowed to participate in the plan. I also liked that Joan initiated sex - none of the "it's not rape if you (eventually) enjoy it" trope here. There are some musings on the nature of power and what it means to be human - somewhat surprising for a romance novel.
The middling stuff - For all that it is well written, it's still a romance novel. It's somewhat predictable and a little formulaic - which is what you want, generally, from the genre. There's no real question about the ultimate success of the mission - although there are some interesting twists in the way that the success occurs. There is also no real question about the possibility that Joan and Simon will eventually have sex - of course they will. They dance around it a little - will this harm the mission? - but it's inevitable. Again, that's more or less what you expect when you pick up the book with the heart on the spine (at least that's how my library codes romance novels). So, yeah, it's there.
The less than good stuff - my god, Izzy, the cock! It's like that's Simon's favorite word. Surely there are other euphemisms that were current in 1888? And, also, Joan's genitalia is never directly mentioned - Simon "enters into her" (with his cock!) - through what? A conveniently placed door flap? I get that Simon, perhaps, might not have euphemisms for the female genitalia that he feels comfortable sharing with Joan, but Joan is from the future, and she's comfortable with her sexuality - what does she call her lady parts? For some reason, this really bugged me. I suppose it could have been worse - cock is nicely direct and to the point. Simon is not described as having a "tender hardness" or an "erect manhood" or any of the other tortured euphemisms that romance novelists employ. Still.
So - a delightful romp of a novel, with some surprising musings on deeper philosophical matters, and an abundance of cock.
Peter Van Buren - We Meant Well
Van Buren works in the State Department. He was assigned to Iraq in 2009. In fact, he states that, as of about 2007, all Foreign Service Operatives (FSOs) in the State Department were required to serve for a year in Iraq, helping to rebuild the country, if they expected to advance in their careers. This is, perhaps, not the best way to motivate people to do what is necessary to rebuild a nation.
Indeed, the whole premise of the work is that the entire mission of the State Department in Iraq was and is a largely unmitigated disaster. The goal of winning "hearts and minds," of making the Iraqis like us and want to be like us, has been rendered impossible due to the way in which the agents of the US military and the US State Dept. have gone about doing their jobs. Van Buren recounts the extensive efforts of military officers and State Department employees to mold Iraqis into the image of Americans. His opening vignette is about a collection of books that his predecessor ordered - great American classics of literature, translated into Arabic. The idea is that, by giving Iraqi schoolchildren access to great American literature, we can help them to become more like American school children (as if this were a desirable goal). The plan ignores several critical things:
- The fact that Iraqis have access to great classics of Arabic literature (already IN Arabic!)
- School syllabi are built around the Iraqi literature, and shoehorning in a bunch of American books is impossible
- American school children are not the way they are because some teacher forced them to read A Scarlet Letter
- The problem in Iraq has far less to do with a lack of great American literature, and far more to do with a lack of adequate school buildings.
Throughout the book, the projects which Van Buren describes are more or less exactly like this. Some Colonel or embassy official decides that what Iraq needs is [X] - where X is some trapping of US capitalism. This totally ignores [Y], [Z], and [Q], where Y is the fact that Iraq had been managing without X for centuries, Z is the fact that the infrastructure which allows X to work in America has been completely destroyed and Q is the fact that due the fact that Z is entirely our fault, X is never going to be embraced by the Iraqis, because we are proposing it without addressing Z.
The whole book is written in a wry tone which allows the reader to laugh at the bumbling. This is vital, because if you cannot laugh at the story Van Buren is telling, you'll find yourself screaming - $86 Billion (with a B!) has been more or less dumped on Iraq. If the money had been piled up and burned, at least the resulting fire might have warmed some people up a little - instead, we've constructed roads that go nowhere (and then blocked the roads off because they allow terrorists to travel more easily through Iraq) and ignored the fact that the nation needs clean water, reliable electricity, and accessible doctors. Not to mention the fact that the $86 Billion could easily have been spent in the US, fixing roads which already exist, and which go to places. Or libraries, or schools, or any number of other things which are desperately needed in the US. Now I'm all pissed off again.
The book is written in a series of disjointed vignettes - not unlike a collection of blog posts. In his afterword, Van Buren thanks Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, a book about the Vietnam War. Herr's book is written in much the same fashion - a collection of journalistic dispatches from the war - and so Van Buren's construction makes more sense. It's still a little odd, and makes the book feel a little uncoordinated and jumpy.
If you are looking for a book that will make you feel a little (or a lot) pissed off about government waste, and which will make you chuckle ruefully at the same time, this is probably a good book for you.
Ekaterina Sedia - Heart of Iron
It's somewhere in the middle of the 1850s (Sedia does not specify), in Russia. But not our Russia - in this Russia, the Decemberist revolution was successful. (The Decemberists attempted to ensure that Constantine, and not his brother Nicholas, would ascend the throne in 1825. Constantine, Sedia suggests, was more moderate than Nicholas, and engaged in a policy of freeing the Russian serfs (which, in reality, did not happen until 1861) and a thorough modernization and mechanization of Russia (which didn't really happen until after WWI). This is a Russia fully engaged in the industrial revolution - a Russia with a Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1854 (in reality, not completed until the 1890s). In this Russia, Alexandra (Sasha) Trubetskaya is given the chance to go to the University of St. Petersburg as part of an inaugural class of female students. While there, she becomes friends with a group of Chinese students (who can travel to St. Petersburg because the Railroad is complete). When Russian secret police (under the command of Nicholas, Constantine's brother) raid a Chinese social club, Sasha finds herself caught up in a complex web of intrigue and espionage. A mysterious British student, Jack, helps her out, but also further complicates things.
For most of the book, this is a delightful spy story with strong steampunk trappings (in the classic sense of the term - the presence of steam powered devices allows radical changes to society. The cultural tension exists between elements which want change and elements which don't. Sasha ends up getting the benefit of both the pre and post steam world, and shaping things to her best advantage). There is also some evidence of wuxia style kung fu - the highly acrobatic over-the-top style of heroism. In movies, this is assisted by wires - lots of leaping over buildings, punching people through walls, landing so hard the surface of the road cracks - that sort of thing. This plays only a minor role in the story, but suggests that there is the possibility for further narrative exploration there.
The good - I really liked the steampunk stuff. There's a lengthy description of Sasha's corset, which allows her to dress as a young man (for an espionage driven trip across Russia to China) - lots of authors talk about girls dressing as boys, but Sedia puts some thought into what that would entail, and maps it out. I love the narrative style, which has just enough of a flavor of late 19th century literature to be fun, but not so much that the book is unreadable. It's mostly there in the phrasing and the sentence structure - delightful. I like the effort that Sedia has made in thinking about the world she is crafting - how would Constantine's reforms have affected the geopolitics of the late 19th century? How would Britain have reacted? What effect might it have had on events in China? Excellent world building.
The not so good - first, the novel ends rather abruptly. As I approached the end of the book, I got that dreaded "there's going to be a sequel" feeling - and then, in the last chapter, Sedia wraps everything up, and tacks on an epilogue to tidy up any loose ends. The book could easily have been 1/4 of its length longer, and the pat ending is a little too much. I suspect that Sedia is thinking in terms of a sequel, but wanted to avoid the problem of the unfinished first book. That's the only really big flaw - there are some minor details that bugged me a little - a little cultural appropriation here, an inconvenient fever there - but nothing major. I would happily read a sequel.
If you like steampunk, if you like historical or counter-historical novels, if you like headstrong female protagonists and over the top cinematic action, then this is clearly the book for you.