Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Review, 5/20/2011

Four books this week, although, to be fair, I had almost finished one of them last Friday.

Elizabeth Moon - Kings of the North

This is the sequel to Oath of Fealty, which was the first book in a new trilogy featuring Paksenarrion. Except, not really featuring her at all, just in the same world. She makes a brief cameo in this book, which is mostly about Kieri Phelan, struggling with his new duties as king of Lyonna, Dorrin Verrakai, struggling with her new duties as Duke Verrakai, and Jandelir Arcolin, struggling with his new duties as commander of Phelan's former mercenary company.

This is very much the second book in a trilogy. It has a satisfying narrative of its own, but it's clear that the overall narrative is connected fore and aft to the first and last books in the trilogy. I would not recommend, at all, picking this book up without first reading Oath of Fealty - I might even suggest that you re-read the first book before starting this one, if it's been a while.

Plotwise, there's a lot of politics here; diplomats negotiating marriages, kings balancing advisors, that sort of thing. There's action as well - Arcolin continues to fight against bandits, there's some sword fighting, there's a forest fire, an surprising assassin or two - but the heart of the book is politics. And that's great - this is a much more mature novel than any of the first trilogy. Political novels are tricky to write, I think, because you have to keep the pace up while nothing physical is going on. So, in that regard, excellent.

I was concerned going in that the novel would be scarred somehow by Moon's regrettable statements about the Park 51 Islamic Center. I think, ultimately, the only thing that the whole thing spoiled was my ability to read easily - if there's a screed in the book, it's very subtle, and I missed it. The novel remains full of the things I like about Moon's writing - deep complex characters, especially women; a celebration of choice and free will, especially for women; and, above all, a compelling story with a lot of threads leading in a lot of different directions. Existing fans of Moon will, I think, be pleased.

Scott Nicholson - Everyone Plays at the Library

Nicholson invites us to see the library as more than just a place to get books. He suggests that the library is a social forum, and that playing games is one of the things we do in social forums. He states that we've been playing games (like chess, checkers, and Scrabble) in libraries almost as long as there have been libraries in the US. He then presents a number of different sorts of games, rating them based on how well he thinks they would fit in a library setting. He ends by suggesting a number of ways in which different sorts of games can be integrated into the mission of a library.

The premise was interesting, and the presentation is very professional. As a library advocate, I found the work valuable. As a reader, however, it was a little dry, and as a game player I found a lot ... not to disagree with, I guess, but to quibble over. Games that, perhaps, I felt would work better, or less well. Nothing egregious, just the sort of things that gamers like to debate - this game is clearly superior to that game because of a,b, and q. So, interesting to an extent (especially for those involved or invested in public libraries), but not exactly a page turner - a good starting point, and a valuable reference.

Maria V. Snyder - Poison Study

A delicious political novel, with nice world building, and a little taste of romance. Yelena is scheduled to be executed for killing the son of a General. She is offered a choice - she can hang, or she can take a job as food taster for the Commander of Ixia (the nation she lives in); ensuring that his food is not poisoned. She takes the job, and discovers that there is a great deal of danger in the job, not all of which has to do with poison in the food.

The world is interesting - Ixia, previously a kingdom, is currently run by the Commander, who took power in a coup. He has imposed a fairly harsh order on society - everyone wears a uniform, everyone works at a designated job, movement is restricted, killing anyone for any reason is a death sentence - but there are suggestions that this order is greatly preferable to the random chaos that existed under the king, where citizens were killed at the whim of the aristocracy, people starved and froze in the streets for lack of clothing or employment, and there was no justice. The ambiguity of the situation was compelling - everything is grey, there is no clear black or white in Snyder's world. Compelling and entertaining.

There is magic here as well - banned in Ixia, but prominent in Ixia's neighbors - and that is, perhaps, less well explained. (I suspect that a full exploration of the magic system will come in the sequel, Magic Study). Still, the book has a great deal that I like - strong female characters, compelling plot, dark politics, devious intrigue, and a touch of romance - I'll be picking up the sequel.

Trigger warnings - torture and (mostly offstage) rape.

Michael Capuzzo - The Murder Room

This was not a great book. I'm just going to lead with that. Capuzzo is telling the (non-fiction) story of the Vidocq Society - a group of 82 forensic experts and dogged crime solvers named after E.F. Vidocq, the father of the Surete in France (and the inspiration for the first detective novels by Edgar Allen Poe, and by Arthur Conan Doyle). The club, based in Philadelphia, brings together experts to solve cold cases - murders which have not been solved for over two years. Police, and the parents and loved ones of victims, bring the cases to the Society who look into the case and provide advice which sometimes results in catching the killer.

So. Not a great book. Capuzzo's writing style is a little off putting. He likes to use little cute phrases to describe people - not all the time, because that would make the book unreadable, but often enough that it's awkward. Also, he plays games with chronology - he'll introduce a case in a chapter, then move onto another case in the next chapter, then return to the earlier case in the chapter after that - distracting. Finally, the subject material is unpleasant. Most of the cases involve very violent murders, and the book features serial killers, sexual sadism, child abuse, and any number of other unpleasantness. Consider that a trigger warning - the subject matter is unavoidable, because it's all pervasive. The Society doesn't get asked to solve simple murders where the murderer is easy to finger and the motive is fairly simple to discern - they get called in to solve complex cases where the motive is murky and the killer is playing games with the cops.

Finally, I really didn't connect with the Society members that Capuzzo chose to highlight. They were, in their own ways, psychologically off - the suspicion is that they are able to catch serial killers because, save for some indefinable elements of personal history, they could have gone down that path themselves.

So, icky subject matter, off-putting characters, and a distracting narrative style. All in all, not my thing - not bad, but not a great book. When I picked the book up, I noted that it could be dreadful - I don't know that I would go quite as far as that, but it's certainly not my new favorite.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hickey of the Beast Wednesday, 5/18/2011

(Link to the Serial Page here)

Chapter Ten. We're now officially 1/3 of the way through the book. Connie is starting to notice patterns, and she's clearly starting to question what's going on. Becky is still in the infirmary, and the doctor issues a warning that flu may be starting early this year. In the midst of this, we get this astonishing statement about growing up, which is simply brilliant:
You're just hanging out, doing your own thing. Then you're somewhere else. Someone else, maybe. Someone who doesn't expect to sit with her family in Commons, who speaks a little bit of French, who knows the smell and the feel of the team bus practically by heart now. Or maybe that's not Springden, or even boarding school. Maybe that's just how growing up works. Hell if I know.
And then, you know, I was just thinking it's been a while since Connie had a bad dream about giant mosquitoes... This time, she realizes why she recognizes the scene outside the living room window - it's the church yard on campus. The church yard where, in the first chapter, we learned that there was some sort of dead animal that needed removing. That church yard. Clearly, Izzy has read her Chekhov - do not introduce a partially rotted animal corpse in the first 1/3rd of the novel if you do not plan to have your characters investigate the partially rotted animal corpse before the final 1/3rd of the novel. I paraphrase a little.

If this were a play, we would have, I think, just finished Act 1, and are now moving into Act 2. If I recall my high school English, Act 2 is rising action, which means that things look bad for Connie in the next 10 chapters or so.

I must say, I'm really enjoying this book. A lot.

Library Supplemental, and a question, 5/18/2011

Back to the library today, seeking a book which the library claimed we had, but which, we hoped, we had returned. Today, hope won - the book was on the shelf, and so we don't have to turn the house over to find it. This time. While there, I grabbed:

Michael Ford - Jane Goes Batty

This is the sequel to last year's Jane Bites Back, which I reviewed last year. The premise is delightful - Jane Austen is a vampire. She lives in up state New York. She's been trying to get her last novel published for a really long time. The last book turned on what happened when a publishing company agreed to publish the book, and it suddenly became a best seller. This book hinges on the aftermath of that; how do you follow up a best seller? What do you do when Hollywood descends upon your town to film a version of your book? How do you deal with Lord Byron (also a vampire, and a successful romance novelist)? So, I'm looking forward to that.

The question: I'd like to have some sort of a contest. I have this ARC of Zombies vs. Unicorns, which I reviewed a couple of months back, and I'd love to send it on to someone else. What sort of contest should I have? (I'm tempted to have a "propose a contest" contest, but then I would have to run the proposed contest, and find a prize for that too.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Monday Library Post, 5/16/2011

Hey! It's Monday! And here's a post!

Four books this week, which is, frankly, ambitious, since I've been averaging two a week, but classes are done, my grades are due on Wednesday, and so I'll only have family to get in my way for a week or so.

Sally Spencer - Rendezvous with Death

It's a murder mystery, set in London during Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (1897). It's the first of the Inspector Blackstone novels - the most recent of which (set in New York in 1900) was on the new bookshelf, but I like to be introduced to characters in a natural way, not willy nilly in the middle, so. This prompted a discussion of pen names with my eldest, because it was originally published under the name Alan Rustage, so I had to explain why an author might choose to publish under a pen name. I gather that I was less fascinating than I thought, because she wandered off towards the end of my explanation.

Francis Fukuyama - The Origins of Political Order

Fukuyama is mildly controversial in the History discipline because of his book length essay, The End of History and the Last Man, a book which most historians (at least, as far as I've been able to tell) didn't actually read. Fukuyama was, in the early '90s, a neo-liberal, but has mellowed somewhat since then. His big work argued that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we could stop looking at capital "H" History as a societal driving force, and start studying it as a discipline again. Further, we should start seeing the rise of free market democracies to take the place of socialistically ideological states. Or so I recall. I did read the book, but a long time ago, and Fukuyama is a writer of fairly dense prose; an historian of the literary turn, even, full of Derrida and Foucault, neither of which believed in transparent prose. This is the first volume of a two volume attempt to explain why we have politics, and why it looks like it does. This book covers everything from the dawn of time to the American and French Revolutions; the second book will cover the rest of human history. Mr. Fukuyama does not think small... Anyway, I'll be teaching the politics of the American Rev next semester (again), so it might be a good idea to keep up with the literature.

To that end,
Maya Jasanoff - Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World

A book about the Loyalists; the Americans who remained loyal to the British Crown during the War of Independence, and what happened after the fall of New York at the end of the war. It's always good to look at historical matters from as many angles as possible.


China MiĆ©ville - Kracken

MiƩville writes "weird fiction," and I, at least theoretically, like weird fiction. Thus far, I've steered clear, because his stuff looks very dense and complicated in ways that I don't enjoy - playing games with language designed to show off how smart the author is, that sort of thing (which may well be unfair - if I like this one, I may go back and look at some of his other stuff). This, however, seems to trigger the same enjoyment circuits as Vonnegut, Pynchon, and Tim Powers - a world slightly to the side of our own, or an aspect of our world which runs tangentially to the rest of the world. Conspiracies and doomsday cults, and a giant squid int the London Museum. It looks good, I'll take a chance.