Saturday, January 22, 2011

Friday review, only a few hours late: 1/22/2011

So, this is late. But I have a valid excuse!

Yesterday, we brought our second child home from the hospital. That took precedence.
(The book is Scott Lynch, Red Seas Under Red Skies, the second Locke Lamora novel. The baby is Helen.)

Three books this week.

S.M. Stirling - A Meeting at Corvallis

This is the third book of the first Emberverse trilogy, which I have now finished re-reading. Stirling has done an amazing thing with this trilogy - he's more or less re-invented the fantasy novel. It might be argued that this is actually sci fi, but I think it's pretty clearly not. The second series really makes that clear - what we're looking at is a work of fantasy, with magic spells, noble heroes, and a divine sword that would not be out of place in something by T.H. White - actually, it might have been lifted from White in the first place. And, at the same time, it does what a good sci fi book should do - provides gentle commentary on the modern world. It's solid writing, the heroes are heroic, the villains are still human in this one, and the solutions are palatable. You'll probably like these books better if you tend towards fantasy - the fans of hard sci fi will find these a little fluffy, I think, and might want to stop after book 1.

Scott Westerfeld - Behemoth

This is the second in the Leviathan trilogy. It's an alt-hist work, focused on WWI.  England and her allies are Darwinian, meaning their society is based on genetically modified beasts - huge beasts of burden, tiny talking lizards, vast floating airship beasts, and voracious sea monsters, among others.  Germany and her allies are Clankers, meaning their society is based on technology - flying crafts, giant metal walking tanks, Tesla cannons, things like that. Within that context, Westerfeld is a) pretty consistent and b) oddly historically accurate, all things considered.

The book, as I mentioned when I picked it up a few weeks back, is lavishly illustrated. Westerfeld got his publishers to allow for a heavier paper stock, and paid the artist himself, and the result is simply gorgeous. Really, these books are worth the price for the drawings alone, they are quite honestly that good. The end papers this time are a political cartoon/propaganda poster, which is entirely accurate to the spirit of the period, and the pictures internally add a great deal to the narrative.

Of the narrative - you won't be disappointed. It's not Tolstoy, or even Hemingway, but the book is well written. The characters are believable, the plot is strong, and everything basically hangs together. The pace is very rapid - lots of action - but Westerfeld has lived up to the challenge of his illustrations by also packing the book with lush descriptions - the book works nicely as a whole.

The historical note is a very nice touch - I love when authors do that.

One final observation, though. This book seems to be marketed as "steampunk", and I'm not at all comfortable with that designation here. Spleenpunk, perhaps. This isn't an problem with the book - it is what it is - but rather with marketing. Words mean things, and publishing companies should know that.

Final book - an odd treat -

Dr. Ralph Y Hopton and Anne Balliol - Bed Manners and Better Bed Manners
(with many devilish illustrations)

A friend of mine dropped this little gem into my lap. It's a 1942 omnibus edition of two 1930s etiquette manuals dealing with bedroom etiquette. I don't know where she got it, but it came, at one point, from the library of the U.S.S. Hector - a navy repair ship launched in 1942, and decommissioned in 1984. I can just imagine the crewmen of the Hector amusing themselves by reading this trip of a book to each other.

It is a trip of a book. I'm not sure how much of the book to take seriously, frankly - it seems to be about 2/3rds a spoof of the etiquette manual in places - but in other places, it clearly means to be what it purports to be, and that makes the whole thing more absurd. The book claims to be about how best to behave in the bedroom, an area left out of most etiquette books. It opens with a detailed explanation of why the reader should buy this book rather than borrow it from the library - one should meditate on the chapters one at a time - and contains advice on how to behave when sleeping at home, when coming in late, when waking up, when sleeping on a friends yacht, when sleeping on a train, when invited to a country estate, and so on. Some of the humor comes from the over-the-top descriptions of situations and the delightful 1930s style snark (nobody has ever done it better, frankly) about things like sleeping in a train car, and staying home from work, sick, and etc. Most of the humor comes from the assumptions the authors make about their readers (everyone is upper middle class, they have servants and spend much of their time drinking and carousing, everyone sleeps in separate beds...), and the world. Some of that humor is of the "had to laugh to keep from screaming" variety - the diatribe against women wearing face cream (twice. These authors have a real hate for face cream.), for instance, or the casual racism in the advice on how to treat Pullman porters. (If elderly enough to remember being a slave, tell them you want them to be a personal body servant, and call them "Boy." If younger, call them  Buddy, and mention that you know Cab Calloway. Really.)

So, it's a hoot. It's a fascinating glimpse into the ideas and ideals of the '30s. Some of the advice is actually not awful. It contains the following unusual phrases:

bolster buddy
counterpane chum
mattress mate
pillow partner
bedroll buddy
pillow pal

All of which refer, naturally, to the person you are sharing a bed, or at least a bedroom, with. There is, however, no reference whatsoever to the oral-genital kiss of love, or, indeed, anything more than the most glancing reference (wink wink, nudge nudge) to things one might do in bed that don't involve sleeping, reading books, stealing covers, or convalescing from German measles. Indeed, despite the numerous references to maintaining certain standards of attractiveness (for both genders), there is no suggestion of why one might want to do that. There are a couple of references to children (such as: safe topics to discuss in bed: the [poor] quality of food served at other people's houses and the [poor] standards of child rearing practiced by other people. Unsafe topics to discuss in bed: the [poor] quality of food served in your own home and the [poor] standards of child rearing practiced by your spouse.), which implies the sorts of activities which result in children (ie, sex), but there is no discussion of sex whatsoever. Not even a reference to being quiet while sleeping on a boat, or anything like that.

Anyway, if you're interested in old etiquette manuals or the social-sexual mores of the 1930s and '40s, or just want a good laugh at some classic snark, this is an interesting book, and you might enjoy it.