Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Review, 1/6/2012

The first review of 2012! I'm posting from Virginia, on the new laptop (the laptop is named Homer, incidentally.)

4 books this week.

Barry Eisler - The Detachment

John Rain is a Japanese-American assassin who works, mostly, from Tokyo. He combines the best of James Bond with the best of, I don't know, Chuck Norris? Anyway, he's suave and worldly, but he's also brutal when he kills people. He prefers to use methods that mimic natural death, which generally means up close and personal - not guns, but hands. This is the 7th book in the Rain series. As I mentioned earlier, Rain has been trying to retire for 3 or 4 books now. This book opens with Rain retired, and then drags him back into the job to prevent a coup in the United States.

I didn't really like this book. Rain should have stayed retired. Eisler was making a political point about the Global War on Terror and what it does to civil rights and such. Meh. Rain has, previously, been pretty a-political, operating outside of the real world (to some extent) in a sort of every-time setting. There has been some commentary on post 9-11 in the last couple of books - the difficulty of travelling with weapons, mostly - but this is the first book to explicitly address the politics of the current moment.

I'm not suggesting that I necessarily disagree with Eisler's political point - the powers that be have been degrading the civil rights of Americans in the name of safety - I just think that it made for a less than compelling narrative. Perhaps the job should have been given to some other operative - let Rain enjoy his retirement, as much as it's possible for Rain to enjoy anything.

Helen Oyeyemi - Mr. Fox

Mr. Fox is a novelist. He has a nasty habit of killing off his female characters. He is also a decidedly unpleasant man, especially as regards women in general. One of the first things we see him think is that he has "fixed" his wife of complaining by telling her that one of the things he loves about her is that she doesn't complain. Bleh. Mary Foxe is Fox's muse - the personification of the little voice in his head. Foxe has taken bodily form to "cure" Fox of his misogyny. To do this, she drags him into his own writing to expose him to the nastiness of his narratives.

So. I didn't like this book either. The premise was interesting, but the ultimate experience of reading was that Oyeyemi had a collection of short stories, and wasn't sure how to present them. Perhaps she would have done better if she had just offered them as a collection of short stories, because the nesting narrative format didn't really work here. Now, consider, I really enjoyed Cathrynne Valente's The Orphan's Tales, where the narratives absolutely nested - each story was inside another story, and had a story inside of it - people kept stopping a narrative in order to tell their own story. Lots of people found this a little jarring, but I enjoyed it. I was hoping for something like that here, and didn't get it. What Valente did that Oyeyemi didn't (as far as I can tell) is that Valente had a cohesive narrative which kept the whole string of pearls together. Oyeyemi seemed not to do that. An example - one of the stories in the collection was clearly set in "now", with jet planes and the internet. But the framing narrative seemed to be set in the mid 1930's, with Mr. Fox musing on his experiences in WWI. So, ok - either Fox (or Foxe) is psychic and predicted the current state of technology (and how people would use the internet to vet potential romantic engagements) or the book is set now, and the 1930s stuff is a narrative conceit of Foxe (or Fox). But it isn't clear which is the case, and that's a problem.

The other problem I had was that all of the characters were odious. Fox is a misogynist, of course, but all of the other men in the stories were equally bad - philanderers, murderers, milksops, or some combination thereof. The women are all victims, or manipulative hags, or limp, or some combination thereof. I couldn't engage with any of them - not good.

That said, there were a couple of good stories in the mess. I liked the story of the Husband School - that had potential; indeed, it worked by itself. The story of the florist was ok. The story set in the "now" was fine as well. I liked the story of the Blue and the Brown woman. As a collection of short stories, with hints of connection (periodic appearances by Renardine, for instance) I would have been happy with this. Well, happier. The stories were often bleak and ugly, but they worked individually - just not as bits of a novel.

Ursula Vernon - The Danny Dragonbreath collection

My eldest has been collecting the Danny Dragonbreath books, which I had not read previously. On the grounds that the books were very "me", I was urged to read them, which I did. These books are fantastic!

Danny is a dragon. He lives in a community with a bunch of other reptiles. His best friend is an Iguana. They go to a school with a bunch of lizards and snakes and such. Danny is not a particularly good student - he has an overly active imagination, and doesn't really like to do his school work. Wendell, Danny's friend, is a much better student, although he is also interested in the comic books and movies that Danny likes. Danny and Wendell get into some odd situations, which generally end up teaching them things.

In the first book, Danny and Wendell go to visit Danny's cousin, a sea monster in the Sargosa Sea, to help Danny with a report on the ocean. In the second book, they visit Mythic Japan with the new exchange student, to cure an infestation of ninjas. In the third book, they venture into the sewers to find a sentient potato salad in order to fight off an invasion of werewolveshotdogs. In the fourth book, they travel to Mexico to visit another of Danny's cousins who works with bats. (All of the trips out of town take place via city bus - "it's a very good bus system!") Each book gently teaches a little about the subject (I'm not sure what we learned in Curse of the Werewiener, but I'm sure there was something there). The tone of the books is lightly ironic - there's enough wry humor to appeal to full grown adults, but the vocabulary is safely at the 8 or 9 year old level, and there's enough action to keep a young reader engaged.

The truly novel element of these books is the use of graphic novel snippets. Every couple of pages, there is an illustration which serves both to illustrate the narrative and to further the plot, with speech balloons and such. The books are not graphic novels - the bulk of the narrative is in traditional written form - but the cartoonish bits act as a nice transition between the two genres. The books are fantastic for emerging readers more comfortable with comic books, but ready to move onto something with a little more meat to them. Plus, they're funny! Delicious!

Chris Moriarty - The Inquisitor's Apprentice

Sacha Kessler is a young Jewish immigrant to New York (in the early 20th century). But the New York that Sacha lives in is not our New York. No - it is a New York where magic works, where Vanderbilt is Vanderbilk and Morgan is Morgaunt. Where Edison has invented a machine which can detect witches. In which the New York Police has a branch to investigate illegal use of magic - a branch which recruits Sacha when it becomes clear he can see magic being done. Delightful premise!

I really liked this book. The characters are excellent, from Kessler and Lilly Astral (Astor), the apprentices to Inquistor Wolf (their mentor), to Rosie DiMaggio (I loved Rosie!) Edison's assistant (and hoochiecoochie dancer), to the villains - J.P. Morgaunt and the other Wizards of Wall St, mustache twirlers all. Sacha, Wolf, and Lilly work to protect Edison from a dybbuk, a mythical Jewish creature; a soul-eating monster who can be summoned by a Rabbi to assail an enemy, eating the enemy soul and then replacing the enemy. But, Sacha's grandfather informs him, no Rabbi would actually summon one - so who could have summoned this one? And, if it's attacking Edison, why doesn't it look like Edison?

I loved the world building - it's sometimes tricky to take a historical setting and gently twist it, but Moriarty has done an excellent job; keeping the historical feeling, while spicing things up nicely. Excellent stuff! Moriarty includes a historical note (I love that!), and her research is clear throughout the work, in big ways and in little ones. A nice touch, I thought - Sacha tells his father that he expects to be able to contribute some of his wages to the family, much like his older sister, Bekah. Sacha's father tells Sacha that the family would never accept money from Sacha - boys need to be able to use their wages to better themselves, and thus improve the lot of the family generationally. This is a fairly accurate depiction of gender roles in the city at this point - a little thing, a couple of lines of dialogue, but a sign of some research - delicious!

Helping with the world building are illustration by Mark Edward Geyer. These simple line drawings bring the setting to life - they look like newspaper engravings, adding to the period feeling of the work. I love illustrations in a book - I'm sure I mentioned this in the Leviathan reviews earlier - and I wish more people used them.

My wife and I did have some problems with the ending of the book. The work builds very slowly for most of the book. Then, suddenly, after a "training montage", the action shifts abruptly to full steam, and we advance, a very few chapters, to the climax, and then the conclusion. The book does conclude, mostly, but it's clear that there will be further books in the series. This is great - the characters are delightful, and I want more - but the book has a strong unfinished quality to it which is a little frustrating. The villain lives to fight another day, Sacha has a Destiny to live up to, or avoid, and some stuff happens that isn't really well described, almost as if the ending was a little rushed. Despite that, an overall strong book, and I'll be watching for the next one eagerly.