Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saturday Review, 4/9/2011

So, last weekend I hunkered down with some Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson novels. My wife had a huge stack of them, and she had devoured them over a couple of days - I figured I could binge on them, and they knock out the Raj Patel. It turns out that either my wife reads more quickly than I do (possible) or that she was able to schedule more time without distractions (also possible - she's breast feeding, which kinda pins her down for long periods of time.) Either way, by Monday morning, I had only finished two of the Briggses, and then Raj Patel took longer to read than I expected. At any rate, here is this week's review post.

Patricia Briggs - Blood Bound

This is the second of the series - the first is Moon Called. Mercy Thompson is a skinwalker - she can become a coyote, but is not a were. She was raised by a pack of werewolves, and she currently works in the Pacific Northwest as a VW mechanic. She has a degree in History (she mentions this several times). She lives in a world - in our world, more or less -  where she is surrounded by Fey and vampires and werewolves and sorcerers and witches. The Fey revealed themselves sometime in the 1970s, and many of them now live in Fey reservations around the country - by their own choice, apparently. Werewolves "came out" between book one and book two, and are currently fighting for recognition as full humans - there is some legislation in Congress to regulate werewolves under the Endangered Species Act, which would render them animals. All of this is background stuff.

Skinwalkers, apparently, are good at hunting vampires. Vampire magic doesn't work well on them, and they can speak with ghosts (ghosts congregate around vampire lairs, because vampires kill people on a fairly regular basis). In this book, Mercy is called on to hunt down and kill a rogue vampire who is messing with people. She also finds herself trapped in a love triangle between the head of the local werewolf pack (who has, for political reasons, announced that Mercy is his mate, although they have not done anything to create that relationship in any meaningful way) and the son of the Marok - the head of all werewolves in North America (and also an old family friend). So, kinda powerful figures.

Plot wise, the book wasn't awful. Briggs did an excellent job in creating a creepy atmosphere - the villain is very villainous. Briggs also includes several twists and turn which keep the interest of the reader; very nice. Romance wise - I dunno. It's fairly clear which of the two men Mercy is going to end up with, but I don't really buy the relationship. Mercy is a strong female character, but both of the men in her life are very very dominant, to the extent that entering a relationship with either of them will mean that Mercy has given up a lot of what makes her an interesting character. It may be that things change in later novels, but if Mercy allows herself to slip into a submissive role, I don't think I will be able to enjoy them.

Also, a note on covers - I really don't know. She's supposed to be a tough woman, self sufficient, a mechanic and a woman of action - so why do all the covers depict her half-dressed? Ok, I know why, but the cover art is largely inconsistent with the internal characterization - quite disappointing.

Patricia Briggs - Iron Kissed

This is the third book in the series. Briggs is called in to solve a series of murders in the local Fey reservation, and then to clear the name of her friend, a Fey who sold her the mechanics business she runs. Here, the romance continues - Mercy ends up making a decision, and seems to move further towards a submissive role. There seems to be an implication that if she is willing to submit to the pack leader she will gain a dominant role in the pack; I'm not sure it's a worthy trade off. We'll see where book 4 goes.

The plot here, I think, is stronger than in the previous one. I found the character of the villain to be far creepier and more surprising than the previous book as well. Significant trigger warning for a rape scene, but I liked Briggs' depiction of the recovery from the rape.

Raj Patel - Stuffed and Starved

Of the food ethics books I've read over the past month and a bit, this is, I think, the least fun. Patel approaches the problem of our food system from a variety of different angles, most of them far outside the United States. There is a chapter on farming in India, a chapter on Brazil, a chapter on Africa, and several bits on South Korea, Mexico, England, and the United States, but the US takes a largely backseat role in this book, which is a nice change. In approaching the problem from places where US food policy has had a significant effect, Patel shows, very clearly, that fixing the system is going to take more than farmers markets and eating more veggies.

Since World War Two, US food policy has managed to set up a situation where a very few big companies have captured control of the middle-man role in the food market - receiving food from farmers and then distributing it to grocery stores. Patel presents these as bottlenecks in the system - it is these bottlenecks which cause farmers' wages to remain low while prices in stores remain relatively high - farmers get very little of the cost of the final product, because much of the money gets trapped by the bottlenecks. Patel shows this quite well with coffee from Uganda. Farmers sell coffee to a middleman for 14 cents/kilo - the middleman sells it to mills for 19 cents/kilo. The mill processes the coffee for 24 cents, and it is shipped for 26 cents. After roasting, Nestle pays $1.64/kilo - and then sells it for $26.40/kilo. And that's why coffee is expensive when we buy it, but farmers who produce it are starving to death. The problem is vast, and fixing it is not something we can necessarily do from our end as consumers.

Patel does mention things like farmers' markets, Community Sponsored Associations (CSA), and the Slow Foods movement. He points out that these are all realistically, quite expensive. As a fix, these have problems. Patel also discusses, at quite length, the Via Campisano movement - the movement, or loose affiliation of movements, of peasants struggling to take over the food system from the production end. This is a very long term fix to the problem, but should guarantee that the payment for food goes to the farmers, and the savings go to the consumers. The advantage of a CSA or of a farmers' market is that they create a relationship between the farmers and the consumers. The Via Campisano movement does that too, but from the bottom up.

In terms of writing - Patel writes a lovely clear prose which is easy to read. He also includes significant dense endnotes and lots of charts. It's depressing, but also hopeful, its dense but readable. Fantastically thought provoking, and highly recommended.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Delayed Friday Post

I have arrived in Virginia after almost 10 hours on the road (with several stops - it's only a 6 hour drive if you go straight through, and there's no construction, and no traffic). I'm working my way through Raj Patel's Stuffed and Starved, and I probably won't finish it tonight, but might finish it early tomorrow. I'm slated to go to the GV Book Fair tomorrow as well. All of this to say, my Friday review will go up tomorrow. Two Patricia Briggs novels, and the Raj Patel. Watch for it!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wednesday Review; The Hickey of the Beast

So, I've taken on this task, and, as I sit down to do this, I suddenly realize that I don't actually have a plan for doing this. Perhaps I should start at the beginning. For those that missed my announcement last week, I've purchased a subscription to the Candlemark and Gleam serial publication of Isabel Kunkle's The Hickey of the Beast, and have thus, for the past 4 weeks, been receiving a chapter of the novel every Tuesday. I announced that I would engage in some long form review of the book on Wednesdays (theoretically, that gives me time to read the chapter first), but I've run into a problem. The only examples of this style of review/critique are designed to attack the work under discussion, and I don't want to do that. First, because Izzy is an acquaintance, possibly a friend (I'm not sure - I only know her online, and I'm not fully clear on where the line is between online acquaintance and online friend. Hell, let's call her a friend.), and it wouldn't be nice to subject the work of someone I like to that sort of violent critique. Second, I don't think the book needs that sort of critique - what I've read so far is quite good, and I've enjoyed it. If the book suddenly veers off into some unexpected region of bad writing, I'll let you know, but I suspect that is highly unlikely.

So, how to proceed? Well. I've read 4 chapters. I can tell you this - the book is set in a boarding school. The heroine is Consuela (Connie) Perez and her mother is the head(mistress) of the school. ETA: I really impressed by Izzy's choice to make her heroine a person of colour. She does this without cliches, but does highlight the fact that a non-white head of school has some problems inherent. I'm looking forward to seeing if there is any conflict which stems from this.

Connie has just started at the school (although her mom has been head for quite some time). She is having nightmares which are sequential, involving a large vase and giant mosquitoes. She is also dealing with all of the sorts of things that one might expect her to be dealing with - difficult classes, the food in the cafeteria, boys, the boyfriends of her girl friends, and making the JV soccer team.

The book has started off fairly slowly. Based on the title, and the prominence of the bad dreams, I'm expecting to discover that Connie is somehow involved in something demonic, but I also suspect we're going to take a little while to get there. Right now, I'm enjoying the description of early high school, and of boarding school life. It's the sort of thing that seems to be a lot easier to read about than I remember it was when I was experiencing it (well, high school. I've never been to boarding school.)

The format is first person narrative, Izzy has framed the narrative as a letter from Connie to a friend from summer camp, Amanda. Obviously I can't say if this framing technique will remain through the whole work; if Amanda will, at some point, write back, if Connie will write letters to other people, or what. Thus far, it is a pleasant conceit which doesn't seem to add anything to the work, but does not detract either. Were it to become an epistolary novel, I would not mind - I like that format, when it is done well - provided that Izzy avoids the chief pitfall of the format. That pitfall would be the problem of conveying action in a meaningful way. However, if the whole novel is told in an after the fact sort of way, that pitfall would seem to be avoided.

The narrative voice feels authentic - Connie sounds like a teen; perhaps a little exaggerated, perhaps not. The chapter breaks are good - as a reader, I feel compelled to read on, and not just because the chapter has arrived in my e-mail. I am anxious for the next one. Although the plot is building slowly, it is clearly building, and I see no reason to suspect that it will be anything less than satisfying.

Ok. Specifics about chapter 4.

Chapter 4 opens with the second bad dream of the novel, which picks up where the first dream ended, with giant mosquitoes filling Connie's living room. As Connie puts it:

I was so glad that part had stuck around for Episode 2. Really. 
Thanks, brain. 
 The dream sequence feels realistic - in the way that, when someone describes a dream after the fact, and you know that they were terrified when they were having the dream, but the description doesn't sound so awful. I accept that Connie was terrified - I believe that she was terrified - but I am not terrified by her description of the dream. (Note, I'm not saying it was poorly written; I don't think the purpose of this dream is to make the reader terrified. I anticipate some terror later in the book, though.) Connie sleeps poorly, and thus indulges in more coffee than normal to compensate. The description of caffeine overdose combined with sleep dep feels accurate as well - Connie is distracted and irritated for the rest of the day. The chapter ends with a revelation tying the dream from the beginning of the chapter into an event from the previous chapter - thus setting us up for the revelation that the dreams are connected to some weirdness in Connie's waking life. I can't wait!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Monday Library Post, 4/4/2011

Two books this week, both nominally non-fiction.

Rick Bowers - The Spies of Mississippi
This is a short book about spies hired to break up the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi. This one is absolutely non-fiction. I think I heard an interview with Bowers, or with someone else who had written a book on this topic. Anyway, eventually I'll get to teach the Civil Rights movement again, so this is good for that.

Jeff Greenfield - Then Everything Changed
This is what we call in the History discipline a collection of "counter-factuals", or alternate histories. Greenfield looks at three political events in US History - the aborted attempt to blow up JFK before his inaugural (the bomber was all set outside Kennedy's house in Florida, but Jackie and the kids came to the door to see Kennedy off to church, and the bomber couldn't attack with them watching); the assassination of Bobby Kennedy (he wasn't supposed to be in the kitchen of the hotel in California at all, that was a radical change in his schedule); and Gerald Ford's gaffe in the presidential debate with Carter. Alternate histories can be useful to historians, or they can be a distraction. We'll see where this fits in that continuum.

Next week I'll be out of town on a research trip, so there probably won't be a Library Monday. However, research trip means trashy books; I have a list already, I'll have to see what I can find from it - watch for that, not this Friday, but probably next. Also, I'm planning a trip the Green Valley Bookfair, so there might be some books from there to mention.


So, I read a book back in the dark ages, when I was a kid. (For all of you who are older than me, I just made you feel old. Sorry.) It featured, I think, a guinea pig (possibly a tortoise?) who could do magic by completing a magic square - a particular sort of math game, in which all the numbers in the grid had to add up to the same number at the end of each row or column. If she managed to make all the numbers work out properly, her spells worked properly; but if (as was often the case) she was off in her math somewhere, the spells went amusingly wrong.

The bigger kid is doing magic square type math things right now, and I thought it would be fun to give her this book to read - but I can't remember what the title is, or the author, or even if it's a guinea pig or a tortoise who did the magic squares. Help?