Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Review, 5/6/2011

Two books this week, both quite dense and complex in their own ways. Both first novels, and both very very good.

Toby Bell - The Vaults

The cover material presented this book as having a "dystopic 1930s setting", but I'm not seeing the dystopia. Although, perhaps, anything set in the 1930s is a little dystopic. Certainly, the government of The City is corrupt, but a corrupt government does not a dystopia make. Other than that, I was very happy with the book.

It was very noir, with one of those plots that builds slowly on itself, circling and circling the point and slowly accreting facts until you arrive at the end and everything makes some sort of sense. There were multiple character view points , which was very nice, although shifting abruptly from one character to another with each chapter was a little jarring in places. Over all, though, the technique was well done, and gave the narrative depth. The character names struck me as a little inventive - perhaps to blur the lines of which city, if any, The City represents. At any rate, the principle characters were Arthur Puskis, the archivist (he works in the Vaults); Frank Frings, the muckraking journalist; and Ethan Poole, the socialist private eye (and former college football player, and WWI veteran). Other characters included Feral Basu, who does dirty work for the mayor (and is, perhaps, East Indian); Reiff deGraffenreid, a criminal who we never actually meet, although he plays an important role; Joos VanVosen, a former legal transcriptionist for the city, and current amateur crime historian; and Red Henry, former boxer and current mayor of the City.

The plot focused on 1930s style machine politics (also very nicely presented), and some good gangland type stuff. The book was set in The City - possibly New York, maybe Chicago, could be Boston, or Milwaukee, or really any big US city circa 1930, which is the point. Frings, Poole, and Puskis each come into the plot at different points. Poole is involved in blackmailing one of the major businessmen in the City so that he will allow a strike (organized by Poole's girlfriend) to go ahead. Frings is following a lead involving the businessman that Poole is blackmailing, something entirely unrelated to the blackmail or the strike. Puskis is following up on a shocking error he has discovered in the Vaults - a situation where two folders for the same criminal exist, with essentially the same information, but a different photograph. All three stumble into a complicated plot by the previous mayor, designed to save the City money, which has been co-opted by the current mayor in an even more complicated plot to make the mayor money. I hope that hasn't given too much away.

At any rate, the various plot lines twist and squirm in on themselves and on each other, building to an exciting climax. An altogether satisfying book, and an excellent first novel. I would happily read more by Mr. Bell.

Anthony Huso - The Last Page

This is also a first novel. Unlike Bell, Huso has written a complicated political novel of dark fantasy with a hefty dose of steam/magicpunk tossed in for good measure.

Caliph Howl is the heir to the throne of Stonehaven. Stonehaven is on the verge of civil war, and unless Howl can keep several political and diplomatic balls in the air, while amassing potent weapons (both magical and technological), he is going to lose. He is aided, and hampered, in this by his lover, Sena.

Sena is a witch, part of a group of witches known for their espionage and assassination skills, as well as their promiscuity (in service of espionage and assassination). She has discovered an ancient magic text which, if she can open it, may be the key to saving Stonehaven. But opening the book will require her to betray Howl.

Around them both are forces, political and magical, which do not want them to succeed, and will stop at little to prevent them from achieving their various aims.

I love dense political novels. I am, as you all know, a fan of the steampunk genre (and this book has just enough of that flavor to count, I think). I'm not necessarily a fan of the dark fantasy genre - this book has a lot of blood and oogy critters, a great deal of the magic involves blood (and one of the things the various magic users are seeking is the means to do magic with someone else's blood), and the big magic (not the one that Sena is looking for, but the OTHER big magic - the atomic bomb of magic) deals with trapped souls; forcing animals, and people, to work forever, beyond death. It's a little squirm-worthy, and I can see, easily, why some might find it off-putting.

Politics, complex magic, moral dilemmas, deep realistic characters - all yummy stuff, but all things that other authors have done too. Even the zeppelins and big magic weapons combined in the same world. What does Huso offer that is truly unique? Well, let me tell you, Huso has invented a number of new languages for the book. I am not a linguist, but they look like they follow a set of fairly rigorous rules, and each is distinct and used in a fairly reasonable way. The Old Tongue (which a number of characters use periodically) has delightful accents scattered throughout the words - umlauts, cedillas, the whole bit. Additionally, Huso made very interesting use of fonts - the Unknown Tongue (the language used by magicians to effect changes to reality) uses a unique font, and the language that Sena's books is written in - the Inti'Drou Glyphs - well, there are two examples in the text, and they are very very impressive. They are huge things, all complicated lines and eerie images, like Lovecraftian beasts eating each other all over the page. Very imposing. I wish I could find you an image, but I can't - you'll have to get your own copy of the book to see them. I would almost say the glyphs are worth a trip to the library.

Initially, I wanted a pronunciation guide, eventually I found it, hidden in the back. It wasn't quite enough - a glossary would have been nice, perhaps a short note on the various languages, and I would have liked it up front - but it was almost enough, and the experience of new languages (which were, largely, translated anyway - some phrases were used repeatedly, and thus were not translated beyond the first instance. Some of the magic words were not translated) was nice.

The only other thing I would have added is more maps. This is a novel featuring a war. The campaigns don't move all that quickly, but it would have been nice to see more clearly where things were happening, and it would have been nice to see more clearly where Stonehaven fit into the broader world. This would have been nice, but, ultimately, not necessary.

A very good debut novel. Lots of praise for the knotty politics and a complicated magical system. Minor points off for lack of a full glossary and not enough maps, but full points for zeppelins and great big electric swords. If dark fantasy doesn't put you off, take a look - if dark fantasy is exactly your cup of tea, definitely take a look. I'm watching for Huso's next novel, Black Bottle.

More on the HarperCollin's e-book thing

Here's an article from, here is another - a number of libraries and library systems have decided to boycott HarperCollins until they change their policy on e-books (26 views, then the library must purchase a whole new copy of the book). I'll be looking into this at my local library, which has just started offering e-book borrowing.

Here's some thoughts on the whole matter by Kate Sheehan (who's blog will be linked in my blog roll on the left) (eta - for some reason, I cannot add this blog to my roll, and so I have not).

Here is another well written post by another librarian (Sarah Houghton-Jan) proving once again that messing with deeply intelligent, well informed, highly verbal people (like authors and librarians) is a bad idea in the internet age. (Not that it was a great idea in the pre-internet age - deeply intelligent, well informed, and highly verbal people have always been good at making their ire known.) Here's another, which provides further details about this issue. Needless to say, Sarah's blog will be added to the blog roll, which is, as always, too the left.

Here is a lovely, and very short, explanation of the issue.

Here is a nice page to help you all keep track of the ongoing situation. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Library activism on a Thursday

(This is totally copy and pasted from a mailer to me. None of the following are my words, although I endorse them fully. Andy's blog, referenced below, is here, and I am adding it to my blog roll, the the left.)
By day, Andy Woodworth is a mild-mannered librarian. By night, he's still a librarian, just less mild-mannered. 
Andy is kind of famous in the librarian community, mostly for getting the Old Spice guy to do a video about how great libraries are, and unsuccessfully campaigning to get Ben & Jerry's to create a flavor called the "Gooey Decimal System." (If you don't get the pun, just ask someone ten years older.)
Oh, and now he's using to help lead the charge in a fight against NewsCorp, one of the world's most powerful companies. 
See, more and more libraries are beginning to buy e-books, like those read on a Kindle or similar device. They're programmed to be like normal books -- lent out to one reader at a time, returned, and downloaded by another reader. It's simple, and especially great for working parents or the disabled who have a hard time making it to a library. 
But publishing giant HarperCollins (owned by NewsCorp) is trying to force libraries to only buy e-books that literally self-destruct after the 26th reader in an attempt to maximize profits. 
 Having to repeatedly buy the same book will be a financial and logistical disaster for libraries, one that could force a few to close their doors.
Even worse, there are signs that other publishing companies may soon follow the lead of HarperCollins, which could devastate libraries all around the world.  
Some amazing librarians have launched a full boycott of HarperCollins until the decision is reversed, but they urgently need widespread support to force NewsCorp to back down. 
Andy's petition demanding an end to self-destructing e-books has a goal of 100,000 signatures -- click here to add your name now:
Andy declares on his blog that "The world needs more badass librarians." It's true, though right now the world also needs more readers who will stand alongside them. 
Thanks for doing your part, 
Patrick and the team

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wednesday Hickey of the Beast Post, 5/4/2011

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First up, I think I lose my official geek card if I don't mention that today is Star Wars Day - May the Fourth be with you.

We are up to Chapter Eight, and things are starting to move now. There are 30 chapters, so we're not quite 1/3rd of the way through the book. Now is a good time for the plot to really start kicking in; for our heroine (if she IS a heroine, and not a protagonist, or even the villain in disguise...) to start sensing that this is really about her; for the novel to start wrestling with it's central premise, to start asking the big questions. Izzy does not disappoint, Chapter 8 is a doozy.

We open with a little world building. Actually, this is interesting, because the novel is set in New England, so Izzy isn't really doing world building, per se - it's not like she has to describe the tall blue trees and the corkscrew shaped mountains in the background, or explain why the elves live underground and the dwarves live in trees (contrary to the usual tropes/cliches of the genre). She just has to describe New England as it actually is - but she does have to do that, because most of us are not lucky enough to actually live in New England. And here, at the beginning of this chapter, she does that - we get a breathtaking vision of New England in early Autumn, when the northeastern United States are really at their best. I can almost smell the woodsmoke and see the reds and oranges on the trees.

Then, we get a further piece describing the school environment - the season sets off the grounds nicely, and the students, forced to dress for the weather, are at their wholesome best, so brochure pictures are being taken.

Then, we get a nice piece of character building - Connie is a tad boy crazy. We meet Tony Alligo. I believe this is the third or fourth boy we've met with a name, and Connie has (in her letter to Amanda) rated each of them as to their datability, explaining that she doesn't have a crush crush on any of them (really), but it's clear that Connie evaluates boys this way on a regular basis. As is right and proper, of course. As a reader, by the way, Tony is the first guy thus introduced that I feel any identification with whatsoever, and so I hope we see more of him later in the novel; either as a love interest, or as part of Connie's Scooby Gang, or whatever. Tony and Connie compare notes on their history papers about mythical beasts (I mentioned this, right? The students are writing history papers on mythical beasts, and the possible real world causes for the myths.) - Connie has written on vampires around the world, and Tony has written on sea monsters. This comparison of notes feeds into the description of the class, in which Tony and Connie are called upon to present their papers, briefly.

Finally, the plot rears its head. Becky, the featured guest in Connie's most recent nightmare, is called upon to present. She spaces out a little (Connie notes that this is normal for students at about this time of the semester - especially given that most of the class was probably up until after midnight finishing the paper. As an educator, I cringe, but I also know this to be true.), and then, after speaking a sentence (she has written on the Sirens), she collapses. Staring in Connie's nightmares has consequences in the real world, and now it's fairly clear that Connie is a little freaked out.

So, I think Izzy is setting us up to look out for vampires. Connie has presented on vampires, and not necessarily blood sucking ones, but rather vampires that feed on various forms of life essence (Chinese qi drinkers, incubi and succubi [although she carefully does not mention these sex related demons in her class presentation], etc). She's had dreams involving giant mosquitoes - blood sucking insects. The result of those dreams seems to be the collapse of the featured guest. That points to vampires, I think - but perhaps this is too obvious, perhaps it is a red herring. Perhaps it is a real clue cunningly disguised as a red herring. Perhaps... perhaps I will have to wait until next week to see where the story goes.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Wait, what, it's Tuesday? What happened to Monday? Library Post, 5/3/2011

My wife points out, quite rightly, that I have not made a Monday post yet this week. I have no excuse - I went to the library yesterday, I had the time yesterday evening, I honestly don't know. Anyway, two books:

Michael Capuzzo - The Murder Room

This might be true crime? Maybe? I don't know. The subtitle is "The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases," which sounds intriguing to me. It could be dreadful. I guess we'll find out.

Holly Black - Red Glove

The second of Black's "Curse Workers" novels - YA, magic meets caper novel. I haven't even read the plot synopsis - I enjoyed White Cat enough to pick this up without even thinking about it.