Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth

This book, first in a series, introduces us to the president's vampire, Nathaniel Cade, just as he gets a new liaison with the White House, an ambitious young staffer named Zach Barrows. They're immediately called to duty as a group of terrorists, working with the man known to popular culture as Frankenstein (who, obviously, has discovered the secret to immortal life), conspires to attack the president with Zombies. There's also an out-of-control secret government agency that clogs up the works, and an early cameo by a pack of werewolves. I found the plot intriguing, but not particularly deft, and the writing acceptable. I'll probably read the other books as they come out, as a form of relaxation, but this is definitely the type of book that you can get from the library or wait for the paperback.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

This book starts out like a Michael Crichton thriller: secret government experiments gone awry let loose a disaster of unheard-of proportions on the people of the United States, at a date in the not-too-distant future. Although the novel is definitely of the post-apocalyptic genre, I think its real strength is actually the ensemble cast, who, after a fair amount of scene setting, leave their isolated outpost to try and confront their problems head-on. The disease/vampires/infection themes are nothing new, but in some ways these vampires seems to offer a critique of the Twilight vampires (they glow in the dark instead of sparkling in the sunlight--and like all good [which is to say, bad] vampires, burn when they go out in the sunlight, and their skin changes to become as tough as kevlar)---and there's nothing sentimental or romanticized about these creatures. I was interested, too, in the themes of political critique (the U.S. faces draconian laws imposed by anti-terrorism forces [which blame the vampires on terrorist nations, despite the fact that, as readers quickly learn, the US Army itself conducted the experiments that lead to the original twelve vampires--in a misguided attempt to develop a new super-weapon], and New Orleans has been destroyed by another hurricane, and is now a wasteland of oil drilling) and of the relationship between the vampires and the Global South (the virus is found by a Harvard researcher in Bolivia, where he goes [funded by the US Army] to investigate reports of a virus that cures diseases like cancer). At any rate, the journeys of the characters make this novel intriguing. The dynamics of the plot remind me of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, or The Lord of the Rings. I'm sorry we'll have to wait two years (at least) for the sequel.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

In this book Granny Weatherwax returns to see to affairs of succession in the kingdom of Lancre after its king is murdered in cold blood. This book was funnier than previous Discworld novels, although I might attribute that to the fact that much of its parody is based on Shakespeare (with whom I'm familiar enough to find it hilarious). Altogether one of the better Discworld novels so far.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

This book is a thrilling conclusion to the Millenium trilogy. Larsson, as in the previous books, does a great job mixing the adventure of a brilliant plot with characters that are unforgettable. But when Mikael Blomkvist sums up the book's climactic trial, he puts his finger on why I find the series so remarkable: "When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it's about violence against women, and the men who enable it" (514). The book makes a very strong case in favor of human rights, and the excellent story and characters and the strong moral stand it takes are what makes it unforgettable.

Exile by Aaron Allston

I loved the parts of this book that felt like an old-school Star Wars reunion (the Jag-Jaina-Zekk team and Leia, Han, and Lando going joyriding across the galaxy and running into Wedge and Corran and then later Luke and Mara) and I thought Ben, who's sent on a special mission by Jacen (really, a test to see if Ben qualifies to become Jacen's Sith apprentice), developed a lot over the course of the book. Really, the part of this book that was a problem, is the part of the series that's a problem. I don't buy the plot line of Jacen falling to the Dark Side. Jaina would actually make more sense, in some regards. This civil war seems more contrived than most, and because it's the fear of war that seems to drive Jacen down a dark path, it makes the whole thing sillier.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

This sprawling account of a family falling apart works much in the same vein as Anna Karenina or A Doll's House. The story is both touchingly intimate (a lot of it is told in the private language that springs up out of the father's nonsense words) and remarkably withdrawn (it felt like lots of secrets were revealed only as things fell more and more apart). This story is definitely of the type where people may live together without ever really knowing each other. Although this story was set in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Annapolis, and all the place names and professions and things were right, it also felt, in a way, as if it could have been set anywhere.

Tempest by Troy Denning

This book worked really well for me. Of all the characters, Luke comes off as the most annoying. I still think the overall political premises (of Corellia's desire for the benefits of membership in the Galactic Alliance without fully participation in the responsibilities) are a bit overworked, but the politics worked better on the level of plot in this book. As much as I hate things about this series and New Jedi Order (i.e. willingness to kill off major characters, and willingness to send Jacen to the Dark Side), I do appreciate that the stakes feel more real in these books.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

This book deals with the Light's last efforts to stop the Dark from rising. Will, Jane, Barney, Simon, and Bran must work with Merriman Lyon to save everything. I thought this book worked really well, from a story point of view--that is, the choices that characters made paid them back in kind. Overall, I found the series to be quite enjoyable. They're obviously aimed at an audience that's a bit younger than I am, but they work. They remind me of Lloyd Alexander's Pyrdain Chronicles.

Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In by C.L.R. James

C.L.R. James began writing this monograph while he was detained by the I.N.S. on Ellis Island in 1953. In the book James contends that Moby Dick is one of the greatest novels of all time because it contains an original character (Ahab). He reads the book as very applicable to life in the 1950s as well as the 1850s. Ahab and Ishmael are both representative of tyranny (Ahab's tyranny is the authoritarian tyranny of leadership whereas Ishmael's tyranny is intellectual). James thinks that Melville wasn't bold enough with the crew, which has the roots of dignifying work and labor in its depiction. In addition to the reading of the book, James also writes a chapter about his detention on Ellis Island, in which he indicts the US government for failing to humanely treat people it chooses to detain and for creating the category of alien, which strips him of rights. This discussion seems all the more relevant in the light of immigration debates happening now and in the light of the way we treat terror suspects. James's reading does not really engage in a critical conversation beyond the book, but I think that the political readings he gives more than make up for his lack of engagement with lit-crit figures.

The Grey King by Susan Cooper

In this book Will Staunton gets to go on his own quest (with less help from Merriman Lyon and the Drew children) for one of the artifacts (a golden harp). He goes to Wales, the author gives a good try at indicating proper Welsh pronunciations, and confronts the Grey King, who is trying to stop him from retrieving the harp and waking the sleepers. The plot in this book was more skillfully managed than in other books in this series. The Arthurian connections are becoming more clear as well.

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

This book starts a sequence describing a conflict between the Dark and Light in (more or less) modern England, though its roots stretch back to Arthur's days. In this book, three children go to the Cornish coast for a holiday and discover an old manuscript that claims to describe the hiding place of the grail. The children, with a bit of help from their Great Uncle Merry (apparently Merlin), must find the grail before the forces of the Dark can stop them. The story was entertaining, but I get the sense that this series would have been much more entertaining to me were I a bit younger when I first encountered it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Globish by Robert McCrum

This book tells the history of the English language and contends that in its many forms, it is now Globish, the new lingua franca, but one with more staying power than Latin or any previous language because of its openness to change, its use in business, and the role of technology in propagating it. The book is a fascinating read, and I can tell the author feels passionately about the language--as the book is full of examples of English at its most eloquent and powerful.

Canticle by Ken Scholes

In this book a series of assassinations rocks the tentative calm established at the end of Lamentation. The main characters come to realize that they are living through a series of plots that go well beyond the treacheries they initially suspected. I am increasingly intrigued by the world presented in this book and can't wait for the rest of the series to come out as I think that future books will make the back story clear.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Lamentation by Ken Scholes

This book constitutes a very promising start to a new fantasy series. In it, a number of characters deal with the complete and utter devastation of Windwir, formerly repository of knowledge of the Androfrancine monks and center to the Named Lands. Although the learning curve for figuring out who was who and what was what was a bit steep for me, I found this book really enjoyable. I also liked the suggestion by the end that all is not as it seems. I'm going to be reading the sequel soon, and the final three books in the series as they come out (the third is due out later this year).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Secret Rage by Charlaine Harris

This book is not for the faint of heart. It depicts a woman's hunt for the man who raped her (and several other women) in the small Southern town where she lives. The mystery was well-plotted and there were several well-disguised red herrings along the way. I found the book to be very powerful and worth reading.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

In this book the eighth son of an eighth son (a Sourcerer) comes to the Unseen University and causes all sorts of mayhem. Rincewind and the Luggage make an appearance (as does Cohen the Barbarian's daughter Conina) and Rincewind manages to save the world after all. It had some pretty funny parts--especially the inept poet trying to write a poem that sounds suspiciously like "Kubla Khan" by Coleridge. A fun read.

Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

In this book Will Staunton must join forces with the Drew children to keep the Dark from getting the manuscript that would allow them the power of the Grail (which they've stolen from the British Museum). It wasn't entirely clear to me why the Drew children couldn't know that Will is one of the Old Ones, and the bit of the book that makes the plot tick was conventional and predictable, but sweet. This entry made a lot more sense to me than the previous one, probably as I grew more familiar with the world.

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer

This book fills in some of the back story of Eclipse. We meet Bree Tanner, one of the newborns who fights in Riley's army. Probably the best part of this story was Fred, whose special vampire power is the ability to repulse people (though Meyer remains congenitally unable to write a physically unattractive character, since once Bree gets near him, he sounds cute), but he gets a minor role. While the part about the newborns trying to figure out the rules of being a vampire was mildly interesting, there was a lot of writing for not much payoff in this book. I found this book to be mildly less misogynistic than the main series, but it's very much in line with Meyer's other work. Take advantage of www.breetanner.com and read it for free online, rather than buying it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bloodlines by Karen Traviss

I enjoyed the second book in the Legacy of the Force series. The politics are a little silly, but the book's main focus is on families: Boba Fett's search for his daughter (which is also tied to a quest to regain something of his youth), and the way that the conflict between Corellia and the Galactic Alliance and Jacen's increasing fascination with the Sith and tolerance of techniques repulsive to most Jedi work to split the Solo and Skywalker families. These books feel like there's more at stake than in the Yuuzhan Vong books, and I'm liking that, as much as I hate the path down which Jacen's turning.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

In this book Will Staunton discovers that he is the last of the Old Ones on his 11th birthday. He is called into service of the Light to fight the Dark, which is rising (manifest in a terribly cold snap between Midwinter's Eve and Twelfth Night). At times it felt like Will was more a pawn of forces he didn't understand than a true hero, but that could be because he only learns about his powers in bits and pieces. It took me a while to get the feel of the mythology, but I did enjoy this book. It feels very English both in the mythology and the situation (it's clearly the same culture that produced Agatha Christie's delightful murder mysteries).

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

In this book Sanderson writes about a land that's been struck with a mysterious plague--whereas in the past people were changed into shining beings with God-like powers, now they become pitiful corpses. As political and religious tensions run higher, a princess whose intended husband has been struck with this plague and hidden in the city of Elantris must navigate the perils of an unfamiliar court, while her betrothed works against time to figure out the mystery of the plague and a priest from an unfriendly religion tries to figure out how to convert the city before the troops of his religion take it by force. This book leaves some unanswered questions, and doesn't fit together quite as well as the Mistborn trilogy, but it's still an amazing read.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

This book juxtaposes the history of the 1893 Columbian Exposition and its architect Daniel Burnham and the author's exposition of a series of crimes committed around the time of the fair by a psychopath who called himself H.H. Holmes. I thought this book worked really well. Larson does a good job with the historical aspects, and makes a convincing case about Holmes's murders as well. I happen to find World's Fairs fascinating, and this book made me really wish I could visit the White City in 1893, see the Midway, and ride on the world's first Ferris wheel. The book also has a lot of footnotes--while it's not the most scholarly book I've ever read, I really appreciated that the author made it possible for readers to trace his work.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson

This book reflects on the English language through history. Although I don't agree with all of Bryson's points (at one time he says that people like English because its spelling and pronunciation are uncomplicated), he does a fine job covering the basics of how English was formed (the ur-moment of the Norman Conquest from which Anglo-Saxon and Norman slowly grew together into something new), but for me, the really new and interesting parts focused on spelling and pronunciation and tracing back their roots to find the sources of the weird and wonderful ways in which English works. There's also reflection on translation and the future of English (in questions like: Will English go the way of Latin and split into vernaculars? but also questions relating to immigration and bilingual education in the US) that I found thought-provoking. Not the most scintillating thing I've ever read, but I'm glad I got the chance to read it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"They Say / I Say": The Moves that Matter in Persuasive Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

This book presents a solid introduction to college writing. I think it does an excellent job explaining one of the most important parts of an academic paper--engagement with a larger, critical conversation. Also, the authors take most of their examples from three essays included in the back, and this move really makes the examples more clear. The questions and prompts at the end of each chapter are also great. I do question, however, the wisdom of all its templates. I definitely agree with the argument that sometimes we are blocked from writing because we just don't know quite how we want to say what we're thinking about. I think the questions and approaches the templates suggest are generally good ones. Still, I think asking students to write from templates works against my style of teaching. If I use parts of this book in my writing classes, I will present the templates as guidelines or models, rather than as fill-in-the-blanks.

Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor by Elizabeth Young

This book proposes that in American culture, the figure of Frankenstein has at times been imagined as black as a method of antiracist critique of culture. The book starts with nineteenth century images of Frankenstein. Although at times racists have used the figure, Young argues that it's far more useful for an anti-racist reading because of the human sympathy with which the monster is portrayed in Shelley's tale and in other versions of the story. The next two chapters focus on The Monster, by Stephen Crane, in which Young proposes that Crane retells the Frankenstein story to both make a political commentary (which gives the story a tragic ending) and an aesthetic commentary (which gives the story a successful ending), and Sport of the Gods, by Paul Laurence Dunbar, in which Young investigates the role of irony and parody in Dunbar's reworking of the Frankenstein story. The last chapter deals with 20th century film and popular culture figures of Frankenstein, and how the Frankenstein figure relates to masculinity. I thought Young gave really good close readings, and I think that this book is a good example of transatlantic scholarship, but I felt that it was a little uneven as far as the time periods went--that is to say, I thought her argument hung together better in the 19th century as an unit, and in the 20th century as an unit, than it did in the book as a complete whole.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Writing Circle by Corinne Demas

Because the First Look group has not yet finished discussing this book yet, I'm putting my review under a cut.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

In this magnificent book Sanderson tells the story of a society poised on the brink of war, and two royal sisters who work independently to stop that war. They learn a lot about themselves in the process. It took me a while to figure out the political stakes and the religious/magic systems in this book, but once I did, I found the book really compelling. The plot is brilliantly designed, and the characters draw you in to their worlds. I'm looking forward to more from this author.