Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Reviews, 10/7/2011

So, it comes to that point on a Friday evening where I'm reading a book, and I could probably finish it before midnight, and then post about three books instead of two - or I could wait, and post about it next week. And I'm thinking next week is the better bet, because what if I don't finish it by midnight? And, anyway, I have no particular desire to be up at midnight making a post, although heaven knows it's happened before. So, only two books this week. Although it might have been three, and not just because I'm part way through a third - my wife keeps stealing my books from me! Good taste, that.

Anyway. Two books this week:

Ally Carter - Heist Society

So, last week I read a couple of books that were "caper" novels. One, the Cherie Priest, I defined as such, and the other, the Eoin Colfer, I suggested was mis-advertised. This week, however, I had an actual caper novel, and I'm thinking that the Priest novels are not, really, caper novels at all. They're a lot closer to spy novels, perhaps. Raylene doesn't run a string so much as she reluctantly accepts the assistance of a side kick - she's very much a lone wolf type. And the focus of the books is not really so much a specific criminal exploit as it is a quest, a search for the next piece in a puzzle. So, I rescind Priest's caper novel designation (without, I should stress, implying that there is anything AT ALL wrong with the books, which are fantastic).

Ally Carter has written a caper novel. Katarina Bishop, for a number of very good reasons, must break into a heavily guarded art museum in London, and steal five paintings. To make things interesting, the art museum is entirely unaware that the paintings are there in the first place. To accomplish this, Kat (what the hell, spell check! Katarina isn't acceptable, but Kat is? No wonder my students can't spell.) must assemble a string of fellow thieves. Together, they assemble a complex plan which involves subterfuge, con artistry, a little bit of sneaking around, and a pinch of pyrotechnics. As is generally the case in a caper novel, things don't quite go as planned. As I suggested last week, one of the key elements of the caper novel is the moment at the end where all of the participants have gotten a piece of what they wanted, but not all. If the participants in a caper got everything, nothing would keep them from retirement. Just ask Donald Westlake - his character, John Dortmunder, gets almost everything he wants in What's the Worst that Could Happen?, and promptly retires (only to be brought back for another five novels, only one of which fully lives up to the tradition of the series.)

Carter has not only written a proper caper novel, she's done an excellent job of it. The writing sparkles - consider this bit:
The assembly of a crew is a monumental event in a young thief's life. There are meetings and phone calls, Plans, and occasionally, a celebratory cake.
 It's the cake which really seals the deal for me, frankly. The whole book is like this, just a little wry, just a touch funny - and that's the way it should be. I think the standard audience isn't really interested in reading about criminals without that touch of funny - The Talented Mr. Ripley entirely to one side. Still, even with that touch of funny, Carter has woven a truly (and surprisingly!) complex plot which is about morals and ethics as much as it is about art theft. I really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it highly, especially for avid readers of YA. An example of high praise - I went looking for the sequel on Tuesday/  I didn't see it; perhaps it was on a cart somewhere, since it had been part of a display which had recently been dismantled. Maybe next week.

Daniel H. Wilson - Robopocalypse

If you liked Max Brooks' World War Z, I think there's a decent chance you'll enjoy this book too. It's not a zombie book, but there's an eerie similarity between Brooks' zombies and Wilson's robots. Both are implacable foes. Both overwhelm the humans more through the use of numbers than through cunning (although Wilson presents Archos as a central organizer of the robots, and the chief villain here - a queen ant, if you will - that Brooks does not. The robots have direction, in a very broad sense, just not autonomy). The narrative style is quite similar as well, distantly linked vignettes presented as historical primary sources, and finally coming together as a narrative whole.

I don't wish to imply that Wilson's novel is derivative, because it isn't. He's clearly going in his own direction here, and exploring some interesting questions about humanity while he does so. Still, by framing the book as a future history, Wilson is somewhat limited in his narrative choices. It's clear from the outset - from the first paragraph, even - that humanity wins the war against Big Rob. Wilson can only stray very tentatively from that central idea - he can't, half way through, present the idea that, in fact, humanity has lost. He can't even suggest it in a twisty sort of way, really. (Although, you know, it depends on how you view motivations. Archos claims from the beginning that his goal is to create a world in which humans and robots can share equally - to what extent is that the world that exists at the end of the book? Unpack and discuss, using no more than one blue book. You may, if you wish, use quotations. 50 pts) I can't help but wonder if that was a mistake, frankly. Would it have been better to keep the reader guessing, wondering if what we're reading is a triumphant account of victory or a final bitter account of ultimate defeat? I'm not really sure.

I will say this - zombies and robots solve one of the perennial problems of mil-fic. How can an author write about war while avoiding the human tendency to de-humanize the enemy? It is possible to present both sides of the conflict, if you are writing about a historical war (although few authors do, frankly. It's much easier to stick to one side of the account. Bernard Cornwell doesn't go out of his way to humanize Napoleon's army, any more that C.S. Forester went out of his way to humanize Napoleon's navy.). I suppose it might be easier to do that if you are writing about an entirely fictional war - but with zombies and/or robots, you don't have to humanize the enemy. Everyone recognizes that Big Zed or Big Rob is NOT human. (And yet, Wilson plays with that idea too - what constitutes "human"? CAN humans and robots live together, once true artificial intelligence is created?)

Hmmm. As I write about it, I am beginning to think that this was actually quite a deep book, pretending to be somewhat shallow. If you like deep books which, at least on the surface, feel somewhat shallow, or if you like mil-fic which turns out to ask some rather probing questions, or if you like zombie/robot apocalypse novels, then this is clearly the book for you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hickey of the Beast Wednesday, 10/5/2011

(Link - although if you haven't started reading the book til now ... you're probably one of my students.)

Chapter 30

This is it, the end of the book. Connie deals with repercussions, Edward deals with repercussions, and the student float a number of rumors. About what you would expect. This was a nice bit of realism:

You want to know something weird, Amanda? I mean, weird in a different way than all the rest of this? After the incubus had taken its power back, Edward still looked pretty good, or would have if he wasn't insane. It wasn't an instant hormone rush to see him any more, and his eyes were still a little beady, but he really had filled out over the summer, and I bet his hair would've looked fine, too. I think he could've been popular on his own. Maybe not captain-of-the-hockey-team popular, but he could've gotten invited to parties, and girls would have liked him; he could have done perfectly fine for himself. I wondered if he'd wanted more than that or just to be sure—or if he thought the other way would've taken more work.
The book ends in such a way that a sequel is not out of the question, but no one will feel cheated out of a resolution if no sequel is forthcoming. But, Izzy, a sequel, please?

Some final thoughts. A solid novel, a little predictable in a couple of places. There were two or three places where a twist could have gone. Mind you, twists for their own sake are cheap ways of making an author look smarter than hir audience, so perhaps the straightforward approach has its good points too. As a serial novel, I think this mostly worked. The couple of places I think it missed were probably a result of the fact that the book existed in its finished form before being presented in its serial form. There were a few places where chapters could have ended in a more cliff-hanger-y way. I think had Izzy been writing the book as it was being published - had she been dependent on retaining readers from one installment to the next - the chapters would have ended more breathlessly. I'm not sure this would have been an overall improvement, though. Serially written novels (as opposed to serially published novels) lend themselves to numerous abuses, not the least continuity errors. I'm glad we avoided those. So. Final thoughts - I would read a sequel, and I'm looking for Izzy's other work, No Proper Lady - a romance novel. My local library HAS a copy, but it's check out. (which is good news, I think! It's in demand and stuff!). Further, I would happily read another serial novel, and review it in this way.

So, now my weekly reading project is done. I really like having something like this, and I'm open to suggestions. Right now, all I can think of is to read some book deliberately one chapter a week, but I don't know that I could do that, knowing that I didn't have to do that, you know? Perhaps if someone else were reading along with me, like some sort of virtual book club?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tuesday Library Post, 10/4/2011

You know, the problem with moving Library Day from Monday to Tuesday is that, on Monday, I used to go to the library in the evening, just before dinner. So, after the library, I would come home and make dinner, and then make my post. (yeah, right. Because I was always punctual on Mondays!). But, on Tuesdays, I'm going to library in the middle of the afternoon. (which is nice, incidentally. There's noone else there. Which isn't true, but there are fewer people there, anyway. Actually, right now the library is busy as a FEMA data collection point, so people are coming into the lobby to talk to FEMA folks about the property they lost in the flood. Today, there was also a computer class in the back of the library, upstairs. So there were people wandering in and out.*) So, I get home much much later, and the books I've selected, I've forgotten already. Hmmm.

Anyway. Two books this week.

Eoin Colfer - Artemis Fowl

I thought, since I read his adult fiction debut, it would be good to go back and take a look at the books that made Colfer famous. Artemis Fowl is a YA caper novel (in that Artemis is a thief, who steals things), with fairies. Not the nice kind. There are several books in the series, and Colfer clearly rode on the Harry Potter wave. That is to say, this was a series of YA novels that were a) inordinately popular and b) had this huge publicity thing driving each release. Lots of authors benefited from Ms. Rowling's success, which is the way it should work. Good for her, and good for them, and good for us!

Steve Turner - The Band that Played On

This is a book about the band on the Titanic. I think, actually, that more or less says it all. My dad is a huge Titanic buff (he's a naval engineer, so I think it's partly a professional thing), so I sort of grew up around Titanic stuff, but not much of it rubbed off. Anyway, this looks like an interesting way into the Titanic story. I hope it's better written than the last non-fiction I picked up.

*(left a dangling footnote there. Oops.) This is a perfect example of why supporting your local library is a fantastically good investment for local government. It's not just a big building full of books. Last year, our City Hall had some sort of renovation accident which resulted in toxic dust throughout the building. While they cleaned up, the City Council met in the library (we had to go through metal detectors to get into the library for a month - it was trippy.) The library is a meeting place for essential services at the city, state, and even the federal level (like FEMA).  It's a place to offer classes which help people develop job skills, or personal independence, or both. A couple of weeks ago, we acquired a kitten for my eldest daughter. We found the kitten through craigslist (which my spell check recognizes as a word, incidentally), and the provider of the kitten wanted a safe public place to meet to do the kitten delivery - we met at the library. All this AND a building full of books!

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Monday Plug

Hey, I have a post up at Slactiverse, on libraries and religion. You can read it here!