Archive for September, 2011
I got an egalley from NetGalley, offered by the publisher (Thanks, guys!). It was featured in one of NetGalley’s promotional emails, and the description intrigued me.
Yes! This would also be a great book club book – or for anyone who likes serial killer fiction but is getting tired of the gore.
Jean Vale Horemarsh is an ordinary, small-town woman with the usual challenges of middle age. She’s content, mostly, with the life she’s built: a semi-successful career as a ceramics artist, a close collection of women friends (if you ignore the terrible falling out she had with Cheryl all those years ago), a comfortable marriage with a kind if otherwise unextraordinary man. And then Jean sees her mother go through the final devastating months of cancer, and realizes that her fondest wish is to protect her dearest friends from the indignities of aging and illness. That’s when she decides to kill them . . .
I had an absolute ball with Practical Jean. I love genre fusions of all kinds, but chick lit + serial killer was not something I’d expected to see. I also didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Despite being female I am not at all the target audience for chick lit, so as a rule, I tend to get frustrated with it pretty easily. I don’t know if it was the serial killer aspect that made Practical Jean so much fun – it’s not actually all that prominent in the first part of the book – or if it was just the excellent characterization, but I absolutely could not put this down when I was reading it.
The setting is also tremendously important to Practical Jean. This is a story about a very particular kind of place, the kind of small town where chief of police is an inherited title and everyone knows and tolerates the one person who isn’t polite to people she doesn’t like. Kotemee reminds me, actually, of the small town in Edward Scissorhands, and Jean of Peg. It’s almost painfully normal, the kind of place where Things Like This Don’t Happen – but Cole, thankfully, never descends into that cliché. He seems to be familiar enough with this kind of small town to know that actually, Things Like This happen all the damn time, we just don’t talk about them much.
The chick lit half of the story and the serial killer half of the story are so perfectly integrated it’s impossible to pull them apart. This is achieved largely through excellent, excellent characterization, and the kind of psychological writing I always want to find in serial killer books and almost never see. In the early pages, we get to meet Jean’s friends, Jean’s husband, Jean’s small-town nemeses – and Jean’s mother, who has just died at the beginning of the book after three grueling months where Jean was her only caretaker. We also get to see flashbacks to Jean’s childhood, little vignettes that are somewhere between tragic and horrifying, like the time her mother drowned a litter of puppies in a bucket in the backyard and little Jean drowned all her stuffies to keep the puppies safe in heaven. These little flashbacks make Jean’s great plan start to seem perfectly understandable, in context.
I did find that the ending came on a little suddenly, but part of that might have been the genre confusion – are we getting the serial killer ending, where the murderer is apprehended and killed or imprisoned, or the chick lit ending, where the friends reconcile and kick back with a glass of wine? A little bit of both, naturally – but while the ending is extremely fitting, I did still find it quite abrupt. I was very grateful for the epilogue, although I don’t usually like books that tell you exactly what happened to everyone after the end of the story, but here it seemed appropriate.
In a Sentence:
Practical Jean is a fun genre mashup with impeccable writing and characterization – and yes, some insightful moments as well, even if you don’t think that murdering your friends is the best thing you can do for them.
I chose this book for my Banned Books Week read because of its recent appearance in the news and picked up a library copy.
For anti-war sentiments and innovations in fiction, yes; not so much for general pleasure-reading.
Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.
Don’t let the ease of reading fool you–Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters…” Slaughterhouse-Five (taken from the name of the building where the POWs were held) is not only Vonnegut’s most powerful book, it is as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author’s experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut’s other works, but the book’s basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy–and humor.
Slaughterhouse-Five is at once a very straightforward and a very difficult book. The story is told in short sections and in short, declarative sentences, but exactly what kind of a story it is is a more complicated question than it seems. The passage I quoted for Teaser Tuesday actually does a lot to explain this novel – nonlinear and ambiguous, it isn’t a story so much as a series of events. The level of reality is also skewed; the first chapter is written in the first person and there are occasional interjections by that narrator throughout the rest of the story, and it’s left to the reader to decide whether this is an unnamed first-person narrator or Vonnegut speaking with honesty through the story.
In all honesty, I didn’t like it very much. The non-linearity was very well executed, and the characters very well defined (despite the disclaimer that “there are almost no characters in this story”), but while I can acknowledge that it’s a well-written book, I didn’t enjoy reading it. All the summaries and reviews talk about how funny it is; I didn’t find it funny, more kind of wryly amused at itself, and that only every once in a while. For the most part, I simply didn’t care.
As an anti-war novel, it does seem to work. It’s quite an experience, reading a Vietnam-era anti-war book in the middle of reading books about the Napoleonic Wars. The attitude toward war and honor is completely different. In the early pages of Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator is planning his book about Dresden, planning to put at the climax of the story the execution of an American soldier who was tried and sentenced and shot in the bombed-out ruins of Dresden for stealing a teapot. It’s great irony, he says. And I think, in an earlier age, that wasn’t irony, that was the only thing you could do to maintain some kind of civilization in the face of war. Wellington did the same thing. And sometimes I think that this change in attitude is a natural result of the uneven evolution of warfare, the kind of thing that gave you World War I and the Battle of the Somme, and these old-fashioned notions of honor really did fall by the wayside at that point. And sometimes I think it’s just a sign that we’ve given up. Never having been in war, I try not to be too judgmental about it, but after all that is what war novels are for, to make you think about such things.
So am I surprised that Slaughterhouse-Five has been challenged and pulled from a high school reading list? Not really. There’s a lot of talk about violence and a lot more talk about sex (although I do have to pity the reading history of anyone who’d call it explicit sex). Is this a book that’s going to scar a lot of teenagers for life? Probably not. Is it a book that ought to be read and discussed by high schoolers? …Maybe. It’s an interesting and important book, and it would be wonderfully insightful to discuss in the light of the Vietnam War. It’s a fast read, but it’d be a tough discussion. In the hands of the right teacher, I would have loved to read this in high school. It’s a good thing we didn’t, because I don’t think the teachers I had would have been up to it.
In a Sentence:
Slaughterhouse-Five is a justifiable classic, an interesting experiment of a book about war and death and life, but I didn’t find it all that earth-shattering myself.
So as you surely know by now if you are at all a bookish person, it is currently Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s annual event to encourage awareness of books bans and challenges. Banned Books Week is actually a product of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which does a ton of work in supporting libraries who are undergoing challenges as well.
This year I was interested to read a couple of articles from LibraryJuice with a different perspective on the Office of Intellectual Freedom’s efforts – one somewhat skeptical, and one outright critical. First, Rory Litwin criticizes the terminology of “Banned Books Week,” saying that really,
what counts as a “banned book” is actually a “challenged book,” and what counts as a challenged book is something quite different from an effort to prevent a book from being published, sold, or even made available in a library.
Second, Litwin interviews Dan Kleinman, organizer of the SafeLibraries campaign which actively works against the ALA’s (and more specifically the OIF’s) work to support challenged books. I admit, I am not on board with Kleinman’s organization and projects, but I do think it’s important to see what the other side of an argument has to say. Kleinman argues that
The problem is the OIF. It advises, correctly, that parents are responsible for book selection. At the same time, it makes recommendations for parents that do not provide accurate information. So when those parents actually do get involved, and when they trust the ALA for a list of reading material, they end up being misled, and, for example, their 12 year old ends up reading a graphic description of oral sex.
Definitely read the whole interview.
And what about me? Well, I am somewhat sympathetic to Litwin’s argument: a parent objecting to a book’s inclusion in a curriculum is not the same thing as a book not being published or being officially forbidden. But at the same time, challenges to books on a recommended reading list often turn into removing the book from the library, or as good as – like the recent incident where parents challenged the inclusion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and the school board first removed the book from the library entire, and then created a special “secure section” of the library which required parental permission for students to get ahold of the books.
So okay, the book is still available, and this is only one library, and Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t necessarily a book that’s going to save someone’s life. But what about books on sexual health, or books about kids who are depressed, or are gay, or are living in an abusive home – the kinds of books that often get challenged? Is requiring parental permission to check those out going to do those kids any good at all? (We weren’t kidding with the #YASaves project.)
Of course, it isn’t only challenges that reduce the kind of books that are available for people to read. Book challenges are a pain, and librarians know this – and passive censorship, deciding not to purchase some books or categories of books because you know they’ll cause a stir, is a topic of much debate among librarians. Everyone agrees it’s bad, and most people won’t admit to doing it, but it absolutely happens.
But all of this happens to books that have already been published. What about the books that never see the light of day? A couple of weeks ago there was quite a dust-up over two authors’ claim that agents and publishers were editing gay characters out of authors’ manuscripts, presumably out of a belief that they wouldn’t be marketable. (See also, of course, the response.) If these books aren’t getting published in the first place, isn’t that just as bad as removing them from libraries once they have been published? Actually, it’s probably worse – when Slaughterhouse-Five was removed from the Republic High School library, local bookstores gave away copies to students, but if the book doesn’t exist you can’t read it at all. I think an important part of Banned Books Week is not only to support books that have been banned or challenged, but to support what you want to see in books in the future, to make it worthwhile for the publisher and the author and the librarians to put up with a challenge in the end.
As Banned Books Week wraps up, there are all kinds of events still going on – there’s always the massive Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop, if you want a chance to win a batch of banned books for yourself. This year, the Office of Intellectual Freedom is hosting a Virtual Read-Out, with authors reading passages from banned books. Or, if you jut want to see what’s out there (and maybe get some reading recommendations), there’s the list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. And most of all, read what you want – read what you love, and make sure you support what you love, by buying the books, writing reviews, and making a huge and diverse collection of literature available to everyone.
This is book four in the Temeraire series. I cannot stop.
Yes! But you’ll want to read the earlier books first – we’ve definitely reached the point where the continuity is necessary.
Tragedy has struck His Majesty’s Aerial Corps, whose magnificent fleet of fighting dragons and their human captains valiantly defend England’s shores against the encroaching armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. An epidemic of unknown origin and no known cure is decimating the noble dragons’ ranks–forcing the hopelessly stricken into quarantine. Now only Temeraire and a pack of newly recruited dragons remain uninfected–and stand as the only means of an airborne defense against France’s ever bolder sorties.
Bonaparte’s dragons are already harrowing Britain’s ships at sea. Only one recourse remains: Temeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, must take wing to Africa, whose shores may hold the cure to the mysterious and deadly contagion. On this mission there is no time to waste, and no telling what lies in store beyond the horizon or for those left behind to wait, hope, and hold the line.
Oh man, this one is emotionally wrenching. From the tragedy of the dragon plague to the absolutely heartbreaking ending, Novik does not shy away from throwing rocks at her characters in Empire of Ivory. And, from a literary perspective, it works perfectly; I could not put it down. (I spent most of Saturday in my pajamas finishing this book.)
Which is appropriate, because this is the book that takes us to this world’s Africa to see all the changes that dragons have wrought there. At first glance, it looks pretty much like our world’s Africa did at this point in history – heavily colonized around the edges, with the slave trade running brutally and quite efficiently from the north-western coast. Europeans haven’t traveled into the interior of the continent because of all the feral dragons – it must be feral dragons, right? It’s not like the Africans are capturing and taming dragons.
Hah. The Tswana system of ancestor-reincarnation through dragons is fascinating, and seems very appropriate given what I know about African religions. (She also does a great job with variety in cultures – the Xhosa down by Capetown are quite terrified of dragons.) I’m pleased to see that, as the series goes on, there’s a lot more exploration of how dragons and dragon-breeding might change the course of history – and for the first time I find myself wondering if the United States even exists in this universe. I don’t think we’ve been told for certain, yet.
Character-wise, Empire of Ivory is absolutely shattering; this is definitely a low point for Laurence. And alas, with Granby as the captain of one of the only healthy dragons left in England, we don’t get to see much of him. We do, however, get to see quite a lot of Catherine, and more of Laurence’s complete inability to understand aviators’ casual attitude toward things that he is just too English to deal with. (Hilarity all around.)
In a Sentence:
Empire of Ivory is another wonderful entry in a wonderful series, with excellently thought-out worldbuilding in a part of the world you don’t often get to see much of in a Napoleonic adventure.
- His Majesty’s Dragon
- Throne of Jade
- Black Powder War
- Empire of Ivory
- Victory of Eagles
- Tongues of Serpents
I thought I might pull out something thematically appropriate for the beginning of Banned Books Week. I’m afraid I don’t know if Tiptree has ever been banned, but it wouldn’t surprise me; her works have all the qualities one expects to see in a banned book, that is, a great deal of insightfulness and social criticism, leavened with the kind of storytelling that leaves you incapable of apathy.
(Are any of you looking at that sentence and thinking, “her”? It’s true – James Tiptree Jr. is the pen-name for the remarkable SF author Alice Sheldon. At the time she wrote, there were precious few women making a name for themselves in SF, and she didn’t want to deal with being a lone woman in a field full of men. Robert Silverberg was famously very embarrassed when her true identity was revealed, as he’d gone on at some length once or twice about the masculinity of Tiptree’s writing.)
All of Tiptree’s stories are wonderful, complex explorations of gender and societal roles, and “The Women Men Don’t See” is no exception. Reading it, it’s both easy to see how people thought she was a man and mindboggling to think that no one ever thought she was a woman: the narrator is such a traditional man’s man, but the subtext is so clear and perfect. Talk about your unreliable narrators.
(I would like to take this moment to give a shout-out to the Internet Archive Project, without which this story would not be so readily available to link. The Internet Wayback Machine has to be one of the great inventions of modern civilization.)
My dear People. My dear Bagginses and Boffins, and my dear Tooks and Brandybucks, and Grubbs, and Chubbs, and Burrowses, and Hornblowers, and Bolgers, Bracegirdles, Goodbodies, Brockhouses, and Proudfoots. Also my good Sackville-Bagginses that I welcome back at last to Bag End. Today is my one hundred and eleventh birthday: I am eleventy-one today! I hope you are all enjoying yourselves as much as I am.
I shall not keep you long. I have called you all together for a Purpose. Indeed, for Three Purposes! First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits. I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
Secondly, to celebrate my birthday. I should say: OUR birthday. For it is, of course, also the birthday of my heir and nephew, Frodo. He comes of age and into his inheritance today. Together we score one hundred and forty-four. Your numbers were chosen to fit this remarkable total: One Gross, if I may use the expression.
It is also, if I may be allowed to refer to ancient history, the anniversary of my arrival by barrel at Esgaroth on the Long Lake; though the fact that it was my birthday slipped my memory on that occasion. I was only fifty-one then, and birthdays did not seem so important. The banquet was very splendid, however, though I had a bad cold at the time, I remember, and could only say ‘thag you very buch’. I now repeat it more correctly: Thank you very much for coming to my little party.
Thirdly and finally, I wish to make an ANNOUNCEMENT. I regret to announce that — though, as I said, eleventy-one years is far too short a time to spend among you — this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!
And so (in a way) it begins – the speech that really gets things going in The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins’s one hundred and eleventh birthday speech. In case you didn’t know, it’s Hobbit Day, which is celebrated every year on September the 22nd. (Which really is Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday; Tolkien was very particular about his calendars.) Today should be celebrated with lots of good food, good beer, and good friends. Which is what hobbits do every day anyway, so I don’t know why an excuse is needed, but still.
Recommended? Yay! I mean, Yes!
After their fateful adventure in China, Capt. Will Laurence of His Majesty’s Aerial Corps and his extraordinary dragon, Temeraire, are waylaid by a mysterious envoy bearing urgent new orders from Britain. Three valuable dragon eggs have been purchased from the Ottoman Empire, and Laurence and Temeraire must detour to Istanbul to escort the precious cargo back to England. Time is of the essence if the eggs are to be borne home before hatching.
Yet disaster threatens the mission at every turn–thanks to the diabolical machinations of the Chinese dragon Lien, who blames Temeraire for her master’s death and vows to ally herself with Napoleon and take vengeance. Then, faced with shattering betrayal in an unexpected place, Laurence, Temeraire, and their squad must launch a daring offensive. But what chance do they have against the massed forces of Bonaparte’s implacable army?
Review: This series is just irreversibly awesome. After spending a whole book in China exploring cultural attitudes and expectations (and turning Temeraire into a raving revolutionary), we now crawl all the way back across the continent, with a brief stopover in Istanbul, just in time for the disastrous Prussian campaign of 1806. Disastrous for Prussia, that is. Bonaparte was kicking ass and taking names, and Novik does a great job of portraying the situation – you can really understand why everyone was so convinced that Bonaparte was going to take over the world. (But now we come to the problem with historical fantasy: these battles are going to stick in my head, despite the fact that I know perfectly well that Bonaparte did not really have a Chinese dragon assisting him with his aerial strategy. Although if one had been available, I’m sure he would have happily taken her advice.)
There’s some more lovely character development in Black Powder War as well, as Granby gets to take more of a central role and Laurence grows more sympathetic to Temeraire’s cause (and even without reading the summaries for later books, I could tell you that is going to get him in trouble one of these days). We’re also introduced to Tharkay, the half-English/half-Nepalese guide who leads Temeraire and crew back across the Himalayas and into Turkey; Arkady, the leader of a pack of feral dragons; and my favorite, Iskierka, the newly-hatched fire-breather. (I love the baby dragons; they’re so enthusiastic.)
This series reminds me very strongly of both the Sharpe and the Aubrey/Maturin series (and what greater praise I could give it I don’t know), not only in setting but in the episodic way the stories are told. There are definitely character arcs holding them all together, but the different situations the characters find themselves in means that the tone can shift quite rapidly – from, for instance, the explorer-adventure feel of the Himalayan crossing to the awful depressing repetition of the Prussian war, all in one (relatively short) book. It makes them a little hard to review, but tremendous fun to read.
In a sentence: Black Powder War is an excellent continuation of the Temeraire series, and adds some great new characters while building tension for the inevitable fallout upon Temeraire and Laurence’s return to England.