The third and final part of June’s 11 in 11 by 11/11/11 book reviews.
There were two books I read in June that were truly outstanding, both in different ways.
Geraldine McCaughrean is not a well-known author in the United States, which is a shame, because her young adult fiction stretches the boundaries of any genre she chooses to write in. The White Darkness is a contemporary adventure with elements of the supernatural, a journey to the bottom of the world and back. Sym has always been fascinated by Scott’s doomed expedition to reach the South Pole, and particularly by the romantic young Captain Titus Oates–throughout her childhood and teens, he’s been her imagined companion, the voice inside her head she shares all her problems with. When her uncle takes her on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica, Sym is so excited that she doesn’t pay attention to the signs that this is not an ordinary trip. When catastrophe strikes and the trip turns into a desperate fight for survival, everything Sym has ever believed is put to the test, and her connection to the imaginary Captain Oates becomes her last link to reality.
The most astonishing thing about this book is that despite the blindingly obvious hints that something is fishy about Uncle Victor, the clues that the reader interprets easily but that Sym totally misses, none of that feels annoying, like so many books where the author has heard of dramatic irony but doesn’t realize that it shouldn’t be wielded like a Louisville Slugger. Sym’s innocence is so plausible that it makes perfect sense that she wouldn’t know that Uncle Victor has been lying to her not just about the trip, but about everything, her whole life. If McCaughrean had gone the other route–of making Victor seem honest to the reader as well as to Sym until some dramatic reveal–it would have been just as much a cheat. The reasons for Victor’s behavior have to be obvious to the reader in order for the story to have an impact. I also like that Sym’s almost-total deafness isn’t revealed until several chapters in; it’s a challenge that doesn’t define her, but isn’t trivial either–and it makes possible one of the most moving events in the entire book. Personally, I like the uncertainty of the supernatural elements: is Oates’s presence in Sym’s head imaginary, or is it something more? The story doesn’t hinge on this question, so it’s possible for it to stay uncertain if the reader doesn’t want to resolve it one way or the other.
The other excellent book, of course, is Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. I groused about this one publicly through Facebook status updates. I used to love giant fantasy epics, and then I didn’t anymore. And there’s something about Sanderson’s novels (barring the Alcatraz books) that makes me antsy and impatient, something I can’t identify. It’s not like they’re bad books; I’ve read all but Warbreaker and I like them very much. And it’s not the length; I read Anathem in almost one sitting and it’s almost as long as The Way of Kings. I don’t hate the prose, I’m interested in the plot both long- and short-term, and I mostly care about the characters. And every hundred or so pages I just had to put the book down and do something else.
In discussing the book with a friend, I realized that part of my problem was probably that I was only truly interested in one of the three plots, in the sense that it was the one I wanted to come back to. The other two, I cared about while I was reading them, but…it’s a military campaign, I’ve read about dozens of military campaigns, and the girl in the other section was an academic, a researcher, and practically a librarian, so give me a break, where did you expect my attention was going to go? So it’s possible that my impatience is a desire to get back to the story I care about, but it shows up only as low-level mental itchiness because the other two plots are at least worth reading. Usually with books like this (multi-plot stories) I either like all the plots, or I’ve got one I love and I’m bored or annoyed by the others, so my reaction is a lot more extreme. It could also be that the density of the material is just overwhelming. It took me a month to read the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo, because I’d read for a couple of days and then have to put it down before my brain exploded. And I love that book with an unseemly passion. Still, I’m sort of leaning toward the first reason.
But as much as I would have enjoyed a book that only had that one plot, The Way of Kings simply wouldn’t have worked without all three intertwined. The Stormlight Archive, of which this is the first volume, is going to be an extraordinary work of fantasy, and Sanderson is either a genius or completely off his nut to even contemplate it. I’m interested in the world, I’m interested in the mystery of what happened to it, I’m interested in where the characters will go next. I want to know what Dalinar got that was worth losing all memory of his wife. I want to know what Jasnah’s research will turn up about the world’s history. I want to know how many hints Kaladin has to have dropped on his head from a great height before he works out what kind of power he has. I’m interested enough that I will stick with the next book despite putting it down at least a dozen times before I’m done. This is a different kind of achievement than Anathem, but if Sanderson can keep it together, I expect it to be marvelous.
Next up: July’s books. More of them, and a higher number of really good ones.
Posted on: September 1st, 2011
In which I continue with reviews of the 11 in 11 by 11/11/11 project books I read in June.
In the middle of the range–books that were excellent but not mind-blowingly so–were three books. Dunk, by David Lubar, was as good as I’d expect from that author–and that’s very good indeed. Chad’s admiration for the skills of the Bozo, the guy in the dunk tank who taunts and ridicules passersby so they’ll pay to take a fling at him, leads him to want to be the Bozo–to have that gift of gab. What he learns is that the Bozo’s talent isn’t just about hurting people, but about making a connection with them, good or bad. Lubar’s brilliant twist on this is that Chad is the kind of guy who in another book would be the juvenile delinquent, the loser, the thug; he gets us inside Chad’s head so that his attitude is understandable but never excused.
Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons was a late addition to the list, replacing a book I changed my mind about reading. Stella Gibbons is probably best known for the brilliant Cold Comfort Farm, and if you don’t feel like reading it, you might try the movie–Kate Beckinsale before she became an action hero, Ian McKellen as family patriarch and itinerant preacher of a weird Protestant sect, and source of many obscure quotes in our family. Ahem. Nightingale Wood is a hybrid between 1930s literary fiction and romance novel, and I think it would have been better if it had stuck to one or the other. The romance aspect is especially troubling because the romantic hero is kind of a selfish git and not really someone you can root for; the secondary romance, though, is very satisfying.
Finally, Billie Letts’ second novel, The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, suffers only by comparison to her first, Where the Heart Is. Like that one, it’s got quirky characters, an unusual setting, and a redefinition of the meaning of "family," and Letts is really good at that…but she’s done it before, and while the situation is different, the core of both stories is the same. I realize that this sounds like damning with faint praise, so I want to be clear—this was a very enjoyable book. I liked reading it and was never dissatisfied with the plot or characters or prose. It just didn’t grab me like I think it could have.
Next: the exceptional books.
Posted on: September 1st, 2011
Summer turned out to be too busy to keep up with the review-writing schedule, and now that summer’s over, I really don’t want to write individual reviews for all those books. (I just noticed that the last review I wrote was in July, for a book I finished end of May.) I broke this into three sections, because I love the sound of my own voice, even if it’s an imaginary sound because I’m, you know, writing it, and the whole thing got too long.
I got behind on my reading schedule in June, partly because I spent six days wading through The Way of Kings and partly because I read a lot of other things in between. Most of what I’ve read so far I’ve really liked, so if you break it down by month there’d be maybe one or two that were okay (or worse) and the rest would be very good. June’s reading was split more evenly between excellent and meh. (I do have a rating system that I keep track of in my database, but I don’t post those with the reviews because for me, the fine gradations between Super-Fabulous and Poke-My-Eye-Out-With-A-Stick are not consistent. I’ll mark a book as Enjoyable and later realize that it was actually better than that. So I don’t like associating those ratings with a public review.)
Two of the books, Death in Florence by George Alec Effinger and Armor by John Steakley, were on the lower end of the ratings spectrum I don’t post. Death in Florence is one of Effinger’s early novels, a story about a utopian experiment that, like all utopian experiments, is rotten at the core. The premise is interesting as long as you read it as absurdism, but it doesn’t feel like it goes any deeper than that.
Armor, on the other hand, is beautifully characterized, has a well-realized fictional world, and is also a kind of philosophical exploration that I think is more successful than Effinger’s. Where it loses points with me is how hard Steakley hammers on the philosophical point he’s making. This science fiction novel focuses on a soldier in a future war whose main weapon is the armored suit that gives him protection, weaponry, and life support. When his entire unit is wiped out by the enemy, a computer glitch keeps sending him on mission after mission, sometimes while he is seriously injured, simply because none of the human personnel believe that sort of thing could happen. Steakley’s point about humanity and needless war is unfortunately obscured by his unrelenting portrayal of all things military as either stupid or evil. It is a pointless war of aggression, and the high leadership is totally ignorant of the situation on the ground, but–not a single officer who shows humility or understanding? Not one leader who, with boots on the ground, can admit that the strategy is doomed to failure? I recommend reading this book in conjunction with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which uses the same basic premise but with a completely different attitude. (Armor is one of my husband’s favorites, and our disagreement about how good it was made for great tension because he wouldn’t admit I was right.
Next: the mid-range books, ones that were good but not outstanding.
Posted on: September 1st, 2011
The Tomorrow Code by Brian Falkner
Random House, 2008
11/11/11 Category: Science Fiction
The Tomorrow Code starts out with an interesting premise: if people invent time travel in the future, why can’t they send the information back in time to certain individuals so they can invent it sooner? Call it paradox, but New Zealander teenagers Tane and Rebecca think it might work—and if their future-selves can do it, who else would they tell about it? Rebecca, a young science whiz, knows about a project that uses theoretical aspects of physics to encode information, and she and Tane tap into the data stream to find a pattern that, when decoded, turns out to be…the winning Powerball number. Their future-selves have made them rich, but surely time-travel/communication could be used for more noble purposes, right? As more and more messages arrive, Tane and Rebecca begin to piece together the parts of a mystery that, if they don’t do something about it, could cause untold destruction to the human race.
Interesting plot hook, right? And Falkner’s writing is good, considering this was his first real YA book. He deals with the complications of sending and receiving information from the future, particularly the circularity of learning something from the future only *because* you learned it from the future and later sent it to your past selves; where would the ideas have come from in the first place? The characterization is serviceable but nothing to write home about—young friendship turning into unrequited love, kids maybe a little too much smarter than the adults around them. Rebecca’s backstory of a dead scientist father and a clinically depressed mother is too large a history for the small role it plays in the story, and I’m not sure I buy how wealthy Tane’s dad is. Overall, not a bad adventure.
Would that that were true.
Rebecca is established early-on as an environmental activist, always participating in rallies and stuff like that. It’s the foundation for the main plot complication: scientists have engineered a kind of retrovirus that attacks and destroys certain complicated life forms. Specifically, humans. Chimps, our nearest biological relatives, are safe; it’s just humans who are affected, leaving the land and lower life forms untouched. Naturally, this virus—more like a living entity; I don’t care enough to go into the details and probably you don’t either—escapes from the lab where it’s being studied and drifts across the New Zealand peninsula, killing every human in its path. It’s very creepy the way Falkner describes it.
You can see where this is going, right? Yeah. According to Rebecca, the moral voice of the novel, humans DESERVE TO BE KILLED. We’re a cancer on the Earth, a virus the planet’s trying to get rid of, because we pollute and kill animals and torture fluffy bunnies for medical research and have technology and basically have lost our pure and unsullied connection to Mother Gaia. There’s no counter-perspective; the adults fighting the outbreak are Wrong (we know this because they’re willing to kill poor defenseless research animals to, I don’t know, SAVE THE HUMAN RACE), people who don’t believe in environmental causes are Wrong, all humans are ultimately Wrong because they don’t live in small towns and grow their own food. At one point Rebecca not only voices the opinion—whoops! See what I did there? Not really an opinion, coming from her—that the mysterious life form should be left to sweep the Earth clean of the human plague, but is willing to take action to let that happen.
How self-loathing. How arrogant. How stupid.
Notice that this attitude is a long way from the desire not to pollute our shared resources, not to kill unnecessarily, not to waste the wonderful richness of the natural world. This attitude says that humans, of all creatures on the earth, are somehow not natural—that our intelligence damns us, that we are the only creatures who despoil the environment or kill our own kind (neither true), or that human development equals human culpability. It also suggests the bizarre notion that any environmental damage humans do is somehow equivalent to “destroying the earth,” which is itself an arrogant notion because the so-called “destruction” amounts to making Earth unlivable for humans. In this novel, love of the environment means believing humans are pollution—and I don’t believe that’s a requirement of environmentalism in general.
What really gets me is that people who think this way (and they exist) seem to have forgotten that their leisure to agonize about philosophical pap like this depends entirely on the technological advancements of humankind, all of which have come at an environmental cost. In the book, Rebecca is a computer genius; she uses powerful tools to receive and decode this message from the future; she and Tane spend most of their lottery winnings on an advanced submarine that will let them survive the oncoming disaster. Humans may be a disease, but that doesn’t stop her taking advantage of their technologies. This also accounts for one of the flaws in the plot, because future-Rebecca sends those warning messages back in time to PREVENT the disaster…so how does that explain present-Rebecca whingeing about evil humanity?
There’s plenty of room for disagreement about the role of humans vis-à-vis the earth. My attitude is that humans are stewards of the earth who should use its resources wisely—a perspective that some would deride for being too soft and others would criticize for being too anthropocentric. But even the most hard-core moral relativist can care about environmental issues without turning to self-loathing. Rebecca’s attitude in this book represents an extreme point of view that I can’t respect—and it’s a pity that an otherwise interesting book had to hinge on such a suspect moral question.
Posted on: June 2nd, 2011
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
Originally titled The Legacy
William Morrow & Co., 1950
11/11/11 Category: Modern Classics
So the reason I picked this up at the thrift store was because of the song “A Town Called Malice” by The Jam. That and I liked Nevil Shute’s most famous book On The Beach back in my ill-spent youth of bingeing on postapocalyptic fiction. Then the reason I read it was that the cover blurb sounded interesting—two people survive the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, each in their own way, and end up together because of or despite it.
But the book is kinda weird in how it’s put together. The original title was The Legacy, because the frame story is about this elderly lawyer who is responsible for an estate that’s left to a young woman by her uncle (great-uncle? can’t remember). So it starts with this extended passage from the lawyer’s POV about the uncle, and what kind of person he was, and how the lawyer had to track down the right inheritor, blah blah blah. It takes a long time to get to the girl’s story, which is fascinating, but there’s this niggling little reminder that even when the story moves into her perspective, it’s actually the *lawyer* retelling what the girl told him. Every time it moves back to the lawyer’s perspective, it’s jarring.
But the actual story is interesting enough to overcome that. Jean Paget is a young Englishwoman working for a company in Malaya (sic) when the Japanese invade early in World War II. She, along with a handful of wives and children of other British employees, are captured. Since no Japanese official wants responsibility for them, they are made to walk hundreds of miles from camp to camp with little food, rest, or medical care. Nearly half of them die along the way, and Jean ends up caring for a toddler whose mother and sister are among that number. On the road, the little group meets a pair of Australian POWs who work for the Japanese in exchange for not being locked up in prison camp. One of them, Joe Harman, befriends and helps Jean, and ends up being executed for it…or so she believes. Long after the war is over, when Jean’s lawyer finally gives her the inheritance, she learns that Joe survived his near-death. Joe, for his part, assumed Jean was married (because of the child she carried) and around the same time learns that she’s single. The two go through long journeys before finally meeting again and falling in love. Joe is a cattle station manager, and a good one, and Jean doesn’t want him to give that up—so she learns to love the town near his station, and even turn it into something wonderful…a town like Alice Springs, an anomaly in the 1940s Australian outback.
Jean’s journey is based loosely on a true story, in which a handful of Dutch women were transported from camp to camp in Sumatra during WWII; Shute misunderstood the story and believed the women were made to walk the whole time, which makes the novel oddly more powerful than the reality. Shute clearly loves Australia, and his portrayal of the small towns and the realities of life in them make the book come alive. Though the novel contains the language of racism endemic to white civilization at the time, the non-white characters (both in Malaya and Australia) receive sympathetic treatment and even respect. The white women, for example, have to adapt to tropical life by giving up the trappings of Western culture during their pseudo-imprisonment, with Jean leading the way. On the other hand, Jean’s first business efforts (opening an ice-cream parlor in a small Australian town—it makes sense, trust me) involve a brief conversation about the need to segregate their services because they just “can’t” serve blacks and whites at the same counter. Since the book isn’t actually *about* race relations, I didn’t wince too often.
Shute’s cultural myopia is reserved primarily for the very specific field of women’s sexual desires, but boy, does he miss not only the boat but the entire 8th Fleet on that one. The scenes leading up to Jean and Joe declaring a mutual love are awkward—they each carried memories of the other for years before learning there was no impediment to their being together, so the reality is, well, awkward. Eventually Jean realizes she’s going to have to make the first move, so she dresses in her native sarong (the way he’d seen her long before) to show Joe that she’s attracted to him. The next moment, she’s literally swept off her feet by his embrace. It would be very romantic, except that Jean just stands there like a log and lets Joe kiss her, protests that they’re outdoors where they could be seen, and then lets him carry her inside to his bed.
And there it just gets ridiculous. Although Joe is a virile, attractive man to whom Jean is clearly physically attracted, she barely responds to his caresses, thinking things like “I suppose it had to happen sooner or later, and isn’t it nice that it’s Joe who’s going to do it to me?” and “If he really needs it, I suppose I should let him do it, even though we’re not married.” I realize that women have not always been as unashamed of their own sexual desires as they are these days, but I find it very difficult to believe that someone as culturally uninhibited as Jean Paget would display such a prudish attitude. The whole thing comes off as Nevil Shute never having met an actual woman—or, worse, believing that nice women only ever lie on their backs and think of England when it comes to sex.
I liked this book a lot, but it would have been far more enjoyable without the awkward frame story. Also, it turns out that there are worse ways to write about sex than including a healthy smut scene.
Posted on: June 2nd, 2011