Saturday, February 25, 2012

Witty Post Title Here

I made it to the library on Thursday, and picked up a couple of books:

Christopher Phillips - Constitution Cafe

Phillips tours around the US, talking to folks about the US constitution with the intention of writing a new draft of the document. Seems interesting.

Daniel O'Malley - The Rook

So, the tag is "On Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service" - beyond that, I didn't really need to read the dust jacket.


I also read five books this week. Well, four, and finished Dance With Dragons, but I had almost 200 pages of Dragons left to read, which is most of a novel all by itself, right? So, five.

George R.R. Martin - A Dance with Dragons

 The most recent of the Song of Ice and Fire books. I said last week that this book was too long, and I really think it was. Martin's innovative bit in this series is the use of lots and lots of point of view characters. It's a big deal, and it's realistically what keeps me reading the books - Martin has this gift of making a whole array of characters work. But, in this book, it feels a little out of hand. There were several points where I felt that I didn't really need another character. There were several places where I would start a new chapter and say "c'mon, I want to find out what's happening with the chapter I just finished," and then I'd get into the new chapter, and then it would end, and I'd say "c'mon, I want to know what's happening with the chapter that I just finished." And yet, were there fewer characters, surely I would miss something. Plus, it's dangerous to wish that Martin had fewer characters, because he's inclined to kill characters, and, often, it's the character that you really care about. So.

Still, the fear that I felt through this book is this: What if, when I finish reading the series, I look back, and discover that I really don't like the cumulative effect? A strong element of the series is unpleasant people doing nasty things to each other; I think there's a strong chance that, when the series is done, I'm not going to like what's left - the characters I like will be dead, the message will be "a strong dictator is necessary to make society function," and that's not something I want to see. But there's only one way to find that out, and that's to finish the series.

This book in particular is about identity. Various characters put on false faces over the course of the novel in order to survive. Other characters find themselves doing what they think is right, even though they don't want to. The characters who do the best in this book are the ones who remain closest to their central identity; the others find themselves getting swallowed by the false identity they've created for themselves (or had created for them), or they end up stabbed in the back. "To thine ownself be true," I suppose.

I'm not going to avoid the next book; there are still characters in the series that I like, and I do want to know how the story ends. I'm not going to wish for fewer characters, because Martin is holding my favorites ransom. I don't know how assiduously I'll look for the next book, though. This one was a slog, and I only enjoyed about 70% of it - maybe 80%.

Henry Alford - Would it Kill you to Stop Doing That?

As a tonic for Martin's unrelenting grey world, Alford could not have been better. This book sparkles - an exploration of the idea of manners and etiquette with a delightfully light tone. The tone throughout is snarky in that way that only a gay New Yorker can be snarky (which is to say, slightly less snarky than someone from the 1940's - although, a gay New Yorker writing during the 1940s - perhaps that would be unsustainable levels of snark, I don't know...).

Despite the light tone, Alford tackles a serious issue - etiquette, and the way we teach it. He concludes that manners are, on an important level, entirely artificial, and yet, on another important level, entirely critical to our continued survival as a species. He ponders the way that manners have evolved over time, and the way in which they are under pressure in this world of electronic media.  He looks at the writing of several etiquette columnists, and tries his hand at offering etiquette advice. He visits Tokyo, and describes his job as a visit coordinator in New York. There's a lot of stuff in this book!

All in all, a delightful read; light, but deep, and well worth a look.

Kevin Hearne - Hounded

The first of the Iron Druid series. Atticus O'Sullivan is a multi-centuries old Druid, living in Arizona, running a occult book shop, and hiding from the Celtic love god, Aengus Og, who wants Atticus' sword. And to run the Tuatha De Dannan.

This was a fun book, with lots of funny bits, and a bunch of action. Hearne has put a great deal of thought into  how Atticus would approach the modern world, and has obviously done at least a little research on Iron Age druids and Celtic deities. Plus, there's a talking Irish Wolfhound, and I'm a sucker for a talking dog. Although my wife complained that the dog was too smart - I dunno.

First book in a series, but Hearne ends it solidly, with only the most basic of loose ends to tie into the next book. However, my local library system owns the second and third book, but the second book is being repaired, so I may have to wait some time before I get to find out what happens next.

Adam Selzer - Extraordinary

This is a world sequel from I Kissed a Zombie, and I Liked It - the book is set in the same Iowa setting, where zombies and vampires have "come out of the coffin," but a couple of years (I think, I haven't read the first one) later, and with a totally different cast of characters (except, possibly, Fred the vampire).

Jenny Van Der Burg narrates this book as a counter narrative to Born to Be Extraordinary, which is the "fictional" account of her encounter with a fairy godmother, as told by Eileen Codlin. I was hoping for a little more of "Codlin's" narrative, but Selzer gives enough - a passage or so before each chapter - for the counter-narrative to work. Van Der Burg insists that the way things happened is entirely different from what Codlin says, and that all of the girls who have started camping on her lawn in order to be turned into princesses should just get over themselves and go home...

Narratively, this is a relatively straight-forward YA high school novel, with vampires and a fairy god - well he's not a god mother. He prefers "godmofo." A performance of The Music Man features, as does a very smelly unicorn, and a young man named Mutual.

In the end, this is slightly deeper than the set up would suggest, but not much. It's a quick read; quirky and light, and an interesting addition to the "vampire at high school" ouvre. I'm happy to say, though, that my concept for a fairy godmother centered novel is firmly intact.

Ally Carter - Uncommon Criminals

Speaking of quirky and light - this is the sequel to Heist Society - a cute little caper novel with a high school aged girl as the protagonist. Katarina Bishop has decided, after the events of the previous novel, that she will only steal stuff that has been wrongfully taken from its owner - paintings stolen by Nazis, for instance. She is approached by a woman with a story about an emerald - supposedly once owned by Cleopatra, and discovered by the woman's archeologist parents, but then stolen by their unscrupulous assistant. She contracts Katrina to steal the emerald back. Of course, the emerald is cursed - what would be the point otherwise? - and also heavily guarded. Still, Kat puts together her string, and they (somewhat reluctantly) set out to steal the stone.

This has all of the elements of a good caper novel, with a little teen romance/angst thrown in for good measure. It has complex schemes with absurd names. It has flashy locations (Monte Carlo! Paris!). It has painstaking actions scenes where crooks have to work through a series of tasks under exacting conditions. It has double and triple crosses. It doesn't have the pratfall ending where everyone gets part of what they want, but no-one gets everything; I suppose I can't have everything. Anyway, it's delightful, a little silly, but generally good - I recommend it for fans of YA and fans of caper novels. A nice sequel.