Friday, December 20, 2013

Odd and the Frost Giants

Odd and the Frost GiantsOdd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A young boy named Odd encounters a trio of strange animals and with their help strikes out on a mission to save the gods of Asgard from the Frost Giants.

Odd is as odd as his name, and everyone in his village knows it. After the death of his father during a voyage to raid the shores of Scotland, Odd suffers a terrible injury that leaves him even more outcast than before.

He runs away, and encounters three strange creatures: a fox, a bear, and a one-eyed eagle. With these companions he takes the Rainbow Road to Asgard to save not only the gods but also his own world from the threat of the Frost Giants and their eternal winter.

Odd is a bold, clever boy who carries no hint of self-pity for his circumstances. This story would be a great introduction to the Norse pantheon for kids who already love stories like the Brave Little Tailor or Jack and the Beanstalk. Gaiman captures that matter-of-fact narrative voice that characterizes fairy tales, while at the same time injecting the tale with modern morality.

I loved reading about the Norse gods as a kid: they seem to be the strangest and wildest set of immortals around. They lack the amorality of the Greek (and later Roman) Zeus and company, with a dark vein of tragedy running beneath each wintry tale. These, after all, are doomed gods who choose to fight against fate. And Loki is the most compelling of tricksters, always on his own side and sometimes cutting off his own nose to spite his face.

Plenty of takes on Norse mythology have been published in recent years. One I enjoyed was the YA novel Runemarks by Joanne Harris. I want to check out Mike Vasich's Loki (not YA) and The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse (a loose YA retelling of the epic poem Beowulf). For those interested in a broader overview of the Norse myths, check out Edith Hamilton's Mythology.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Reversal

The Reversal (Harry Bosch, #16; Mickey Haller, #3)The Reversal by Michael Connelly
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Defense attorney Mickey Haller volunteers to act as Special Prosecuter against a man who claims to have been falsely imprisoned for the murder of a young girl - a man Haller and Bosch believe will kill again.

This story blends Connelly's two popular series, the Harry Bosch (#16) and Mickey Haller (#3) stories. The Haller sections are told in the first person, the Bosch sections in third, and it is fun to see the half-brothers working on the same team for once.

While Bosch investigates the twenty-four-year-old murder, Haller and his ex-wife, prosecutor Maggie McPherson, start putting together their case. Haller is uneasy about representing the side of might for once, but he believes the bad guy is bad and will do more evil if he is released. There is considerable doubt that even the dream team of Mickey, Maggie, and Harry will be able to keep him in prison.

Both of the half-brothers are facing the challenges of fatherhood, which adds a charge to their efforts to keep a child-killer in prison. The procedural details are all there for those interested in the criminal justice system, the details of L.A. setting carefully outlined (a key setting is Mulholland Drive).

It's not the best of the Bosch stories: the purely functional prose often comes across as slack instead of muscular and Hemingway-esque. There is no neat resolution, which may leave some mystery/thriller readers uncomfortable. For me, Connelly's stories are the equivalent of watching an action movie on cable just to pass the time. Enjoyable and undemanding - also entirely forgettable, which may be perfect for your next plane or road trip.

Defending the Damned by Kevin Davis is a nonfiction account Connelly drew on for his characterization of the gray-tinged world of defense attorneys. For those who love legal thrillers, there is of course the juggernaut John Grisham to explore, and for action-packed, somewhat bleak detective stories, dip a toe into Ian Rankin or Lee Child.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Hat Full of Sky

A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld, #32)A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Tiffany Aching goes to the mountains to learn the art of witchcraft, she is soon targeted by an immortal creature, one that not even the bold Nac Mac Feegles can fight for her.

This second Tiffany Aching book is probably my favorite. I love the story of the apprentice learning her craft, and discovering that there is more in the world than she ever imagined. Leaving behind her beloved Chalk, Tiffany finds that her new profession is less about flashy magic and more about caring for the old and lonely, making sure the goats are milked and no one is overlooked.

The witch community is introduced in the book. Miss Level, Tiffany's teacher, is a witch with a very unique talent. There are many other young witches, each with a different variety of magic: a sweet yng pig witch and a snooty spangle-wearer stand out.

In the Feegle mound, there is also a new kelda, Jeannie, who has suspicious views of Tiffany, which leaves the young witch vulnerable to the predations of an ancient creature called a hiver (who is one of Pratchett's most interesting creations).

In short, it's a stronger story than the first Aching book, and one that fans of this Discworld YA series will eagerly read. You might also pick up one of Neil Gaiman's YA novels: Coraline is my first favorite, but there is also The Graveyard Book. And to complete the trio of great authors, there is Diana Wynne Jones. (Definitely start with Howl's Moving Castle for the best introduction to her books.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do AgainA Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This keenly observed series of essays encompasses tennis in Tornado Alley, television's effect on fiction, the films of David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair, and a superbly snide summary of a supposedly fun Caribbean cruise.

If you read nothing else in this collection, read the title essay to see David Foster Wallace (DFW) at his best. "A Supposedly Fun Thing" takes on the cruise industry with hilarious observation. DFW promptly rechristens his ship the Nadir, finds his liberal sensibilities tested by benefiting from the servitude of the cruise staff, wonders at the on-board entertainment, and makes witty and crushing observations about his fellow passengers in his trademark footnotes. He's erudite and clever, and it's easy to see how he earned his towering literary reputation.

In "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All," DFW turns a supercilious eye toward the Illinois State Fair. His self-consciously acquired distance from his home state is punctured by the refreshing (and too-brief) presence of his foul-mouthed friend, whom he refers to only as Native Companion. His account of a dangerous baton-twirling competition is especially funny and worthwhile, and I think this is the second best of the lot.

"Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" does what the very best essays do - blend two seemingly disparate topics with panache. You can lose yourself in his virtuoso language, which effortlessly blends ten-dollar words with expletives for humorous effect.

The essay "David Lynch Keeps His Head", which documents the making of Lost Highway, is strongest when DFW steers clear of film criticism (his tastes tend to the obscure and overly arty) and simply details the oddities of a Hollywood movie set (I mostly enjoyed reading about DFW's disdain for actor Balthazar Getty, which seemed pettily personal but in keeping with DFW's writing persona).

I find DFW's East Coast hyper-referentialism and snark sometimes off-putting (the worst offender, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction", also feels dated, penned before the cable boom enriched TV and started trends toward more serialized storytelling), but his pose of detachment and gift for ironic observation makes it worthwhile to wade through the pretentious bits. However, I rarely find his worldview as compelling or as deep as his prose.

DFW is at his most powerful when aiming his formidable vocabulary at people and places: his true talent is in describing and classifying people with the precision of an lepidopterist with a flock of butterflies. He is much less interesting when venturing into analyses of art or literature - it's easy to get lost in his school-of-criticism buzzwords and East Coast irony. For essay lovers who are already fans of Annie Dillard's peerless Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, or Joyce Carol Oates' excellent anthology The Best American Essays of the Century, you shouldn't overlook David Foster Wallace.

So Quotable:

"I had gotten so prescient at using stats, surface, sun, gusts, and a kind of stoic cheer that I was regarded as a physical savant, a medicine boy of wind and heat, and could play just forever, sending back moonballs baroque with spin. Antitoi, uncomplicated from the get-go, hit the everliving shit out of every round object that came within his ambit, aiming always for one of two backcourt corners. He was a Slugger; I was a Slug." - "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley"

"They made no sense. Houses blew not out but in. Brothels were spared while orphanages next door bought it. Dead cattle were found three miles from their silage without a scratch on them. Tornadoes are omnipotent and obey no law. Force without law has no shape, only tendency and duration." - "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley"

"Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests." - "E Unibus Pluram"

"Indifference is actually just the '90s' version of frugality for U.S. young people: wooed several gorgeous hours a day for nothing but our attention, we regard that attention as our chief commodity, our social capital, and we are loath to fritter it." - "E Unibus Pluram"

"I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells likes spread over 21,000 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as 'Mon' in three different nations. I have watched 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide." - "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Mysterious Howling

The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place #1)The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A young governess enters the mysterious Ashton Place to care for three children raised by wolves - can she tame their howling and squirrel-chasing ways?

Miss Penelope Lumley is only fifteen years old, but she has been well-trained to handle emergencies by an excellent upbringing at the Swanburne Home for Poor Bright Females. All her compassion and ingenuity will be called upon to deal with her new charges, siblings Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia Incorrigible.

The children have a habit of howling and various attitudes toward bathing, but a regime of squirrel desensitization and firm training is intended to prepare them for an all-important Christmas ball that may change their future. At the same time, their new governess is aware of strange undercurrents at Ashton place, especially involving the frequently absent Lord Frederick Ashton and his frivolous young wife Lady Constance.

There are plenty of mysteries left unanswered at the end of this humorous first in the series, which makes the sequels essential. The narrative voice is a less acidic version of Lemony Snicket's all-knowing narrator, with educational asides on vocabulary and the wise sayings of Miss Lumley's Swanburne mentor. A Series of Unfortunate Events books are a great next read, as well as The Wolves Chronicles of Joan Aiken.


"She had chosen Dante because she found the rhyme scheme pleasingly jaunty, but she realized too late that the Inferno's tale of sinner being cruelly punished in the afterlife was much too bloody and disturbing to be suitable for young minds. Penelope could tell this by the way the children hung on her every word and demanded 'More, more!' each time she reached the end of a canto and tried to stop." - 91

Monday, December 9, 2013

Beating Back the Devil

Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence ServiceBeating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service by Maryn McKenna
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Center for Disease Control has been on the front lines fighting the effects of war, terrorism, and disease since 1946; this book recounts many of their most important cases.

Beating Back the Devil reads like a collection of true crime stories, rarely pausing to parse its technical terms or explain some of the statistical methods of epidemiologists, but galloping into the mystery of disease.

Tracking a small group of disease detectives in the Epidemic Intelligence Service's (EIS) class of 2002, the case histories range from the successful international efforts to eradicate smallpox, the spread of AIDS-related infections in minority drag queen communities, fighting cholera in Rwandan refugee camps, to tracking the post-9/11 anthrax letters.

There are surprising details here - for example, the U.S. government has a uniformed Commissioned Corps that has a military structure (to which the civilian doctors of the EIS struggle to conform).

My favorite chapter recounts the mystery of how West Nile virus contaminated donated organs, and it hints at the incredible amount of legwork required to come close to controlling an outbreak. There is also an interesting account of organizing a study of pregnant women in Malawi to fight malaria, and the story of efforts to prevent the spread of tuberculosis among the underground drag queens (whose extravagant balls are documented in the film Paris is Burning). The specter of AIDS looms large over many of the stories in the book, since AIDS victims' compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable to infection.

The chapter entitled "War" tells the surprising story of EIS efforts in refugee camps after the Rwandan genocide: CDC doctors made sure relief workers knew how to treat cholera patients and used their research skills to verify food distribution and make sure that women and children were not overlooked. The CDC doctors witnessed the continuation of horrors of genocide (many of the refugees were the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide), the children without parents, and the privations of an overcrowded refugee camp.

For those interested in the history of disease, be sure to check out Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. There is also a free CDC Solve the Outbreak app for iPad that will teach you the basics of epidemiology, and the CDC Zombie outbreak guide, which is a light-hearted take on disaster preparedness. For more from the front lines of the CDC, check out Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC by Joseph B. McCormick.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Gods Like Us

Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern FameGods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame by Ty Burr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charting the highs and lows of stardom from the silent idols to today's over-exposed pantheon of celebrities, film critic Ty Burr examines the cultural history of Hollywood fame.

As a longtime reader of Us Magazine along with other trashy entertainment news, one of my favorite pasttimes is learning the incredible history of celebrity. The scandals of today often pale in comparison with the hushed-up doings of the old studio stars like Clark Gable, Clara Bow, and Charlie Chaplin.

Celebrity studies (a fascinating new field that merges film/literary criticism with cultural history) examines the pleasure of watching beautiful and talented people enact fantasies that at once reflect and change our shared culture. Burr, a film critic for The Boston Globe, writes ably of the trends of Hollywood then and now. Even the most ardent buff will add unfamiliar titles to the list of films to see and find him or herself googling unfamiliar names to see the Julia Roberts and Harrison Fords of yesteryear.

If you read everything by academic Anne Helen Petersen (who writes classic celebrity biographies for The Hairpin as well as posting on her own blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, her Twitter account, and Facebook page), then you may recognize a few of Burr's anecdotes. His book is more than simple history, though: it's also criticism, and it's a pleasure to read Burr's insightful assessments and descriptions.

The stories are fantastic and sometimes unbelievable: for example, the casting of Scarlett O'Hara for the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's blockbuster novel Gone With the Wind took a full two years and encompassed every star in Hollywood, even the ones that in retrospect make little sense: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Paulette Goddard, and even a young Lucille Ball. Nationwide auditions were held, exciting a frenzy of speculation and amateur enthusiasm: one woman actually shipped herself into the producer's office in a crate to give him a surprise reading and bonus striptease. In the end, the most coveted role in Hollywood went to an unknown Englishwoman: Vivien Leigh (who at the time was quietly carrying on an adulterous affair with Laurence Olivier).

There are also anecdotes about an entire studio taking daily nooners; the way the studio system cold-bloodedly cultivated its stars (to the point of arranging a marriage for gay actor Rock Hudson); how silent film actors first discovered the crushing wheel of celebrity (Florence Lawrence's trajectory is familiarly tragic), and many memorable turns of phrase from Burr (John Wayne, he writes, emerges like a "Venus on the half-saddle").

Burr mentions stars of prestige and popularity, and various mixtures thereof. There are many eras to examine: the earliest silent films, the bumpy transition to talkies, the heyday of Old Hollywood glamor, the rise of the counterculture (embodied by Marlon Brando, arguably the best actor of all time), then TV, cable, VHS, MTV, indie films, the Internet, and dreaded "reality" television (ugh). Hollywood has always reflected the world around it: bloody wars, new technology, shifts in culture, and larger-than-life personalities show up in Tinseltown as in a funhouse mirror, history's players morphing in unexpected ways. It's fascinating for any student of contemporary culture or of American history.

Marlon Brando, acting god

For your next read, I definitely recommend picking up Anne Helen Petersen's book when it comes out: Scandals of Classic Hollywood. David Thomson has also written extensively on the history of films. With Netflix and the trusty Criterion Collection, even the oldest films hardly seem out of reach any more, so I highly recommend checking them out. A look through past Oscar Best Picture nominees provides a convenient list to start with (though the Academy often got it wrong in their choice of winners).


"When [director D.W. Griffith] tried [the closeup] out in a Biograph film his bosses were horrified. 'We pay for the whole actor, Mr. Griffith,' he was scolded. 'We want to see all of him.'" - 21

"The history of modern fame, from the first movies to today, is a struggle for control between the people who make the product and the people who buy it." - 84

"If anything, star singularities force a need for their persona into the culture rather than the other way around. There was no call for Fred Astaire before Fred Astaire existed. ... The young Katharine Hepburn seemed so eccentric to mainstream audiences that it took fifteen years for them to come around. Edward G. Robinson looked like a toad and was built for character parts and ethnic caricature, but he had the crude forward momentum of a sex symbol; he was a star because he acted like one." - 104

"The problem with gods who look and act like us is that they get old like us, at which point they cease to be gods. So we continually choose new ones as young and beautiful as we hope we are when we look in the mirror. Each freshly born divinity is a reflection of who we think we are at that moment in time and culture, or, more precisely, who we might want to be." - 143

"As always since the very invention of movie stars, these actors and their peers each embody an idea, a narrative whose potential energy is shaped by aspects of physical appearance, attitude, talent, and luck." - 321

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cordelia's Honor

Cordelia's Honor (Vorkosigan Omnibus, #1)Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When an attack leaves her stranded on an uninhabited planet, Cordelia Naismith is forced to travel with Aral Vorkosigan, a man better known as the Butcher of Komarr.

Cordelia and Vorkosigan undertake a difficult journey to find supplies and shelter in the alien world, with an injured comrade in tow - but the uneasy alliance between people from radically different cultures transforms into an odd friendship of equals. The two soldiers slowly reveal their histories and characters to each other, always aware that their countries are on the brink of war. Vorkosigan is facing a mutiny, and Cordelia is forced to walk a narrow line to help the man she admires but who nevertheless represents a threat to her cherished way of life.

Cordelia's Honor is two novels in one: Shards of Honor and Barrayar. I'd definitely hand Shards to a romance reader who wanted to venture into science fiction: its tale of two opposites bonding on a trip through an alien world is a classic romance storyline, told by Bujold with the science fiction premise of spacefaring human civilizations. Barrayar is likewise more invested in the characters than the setting, in contrast to other classic science fiction like The City and the Stars or Asimov's Foundation books. (For example, I can't imagine Arthur C. Clarke adding a postscript that is a vignette of the aftermath of battle, when the bodies must be gathered and cared for. The scene is at once deeply moving and thought-provoking, proving how great Bujold is at depicting the human cost of war.)

Barrayar picks up where Shards leaves off, setting up the intricacies of a society wholly dominated by a wealthy military elite, further stratified by caste and gender. Compared to Cordelia's democratic homeland, Barrayar is a medieval totalitarian state (Bujold consciously modeled it on pre-revolutionary Russia). Newly pregnant, Cordelia uncomfortably assumes her new role Lady Vorkosigan, trying to untangle the conflicting agendas of the people around her. Soon an assassination attempt damages her unborn child and she must struggle not only to save his life but to defend her new homeland during a civil war.

Cordelia's reactions to her new home always come from a character place. Bujold's insight that the loss of a human life is not just the death of a person someone loves, but also a waste of all the resources that went into the person - education, experience, energy, etc, is a worthy idea that she explores fully.

As a novel, Barrayar feels more complete than Shards. It starts slowly, but once the civil war kicks in to test the new Regency the story and characters are firing on all cylinders. (My copy of Cordelia's Honor contained an excellent afterward by Bujold about the creative process for those who geek out about the craft.)

I think James S.A. Corey space opera novel Caliban's War is a good match for fans of Honor because it's full of great characters - especially female ones - who drive the story forward: but I can't recommend starting there instead of with its superbly scary and fast-moving prequel, Leviathan Wakes. You could also try On Basilisk Station by David Weber for kick-ass female characters, and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell for thoughtful, character-driven science fiction. (Side note: This omnibus include the first two books published in The Vorkosigan Saga, though you can find the internal chronological order of the series here.)


"About three meters away, he was now, she thought. An uncross able gulf. So in the physics of the heart, distance is relative; it's time that is absolute." - 80

"Kly regarded her with bemusement. 'So what are you, off-worlder not-a-lady?'
'I was an astrocartographer. Then a Survey captain. Then a soldier, then a POW, then a refugee. And then I was a wife, and then I was a mother. I don't know what I'm going to be next,' she answered honestly, around the gum-leaf. Pray not widow." - 357

Monday, December 2, 2013

Book Read in November

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card - A brilliant young boy is molded into a military leader to save humanity from an alien threat in this classic work of science fiction.

The Girls by Lori Lansens - Can you really know another person, even if you spend every waking moment with her? Ruby and Rose are conjoined twins narrating the story of their remarkable shared lives.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett - When the Queen of the Fairies steals her whiny little brother, witch-in-training Tiffany Aching joins with a rowdy group of tiny kilted men to rescue him.

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett - When junior witch Tiffany Aching joins a dance of the seasons, she attracts the attention of the Wintersmith and needs all of her ingenuity to rebalance the world before it plunges into permanent winter.

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett - Tiffany Aching, Chalk witch, must cope not only with everyday human failings of the people she watches over, but also the rise of an old evil that is out to destroy witches everywhere.

Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson - Kindly white witch Beladonna has never been able to do black magic, but when the handsome wizard Arriman sets a contest to find the wickedest witch to be his bride, she is determined to give it her best shot.

The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke - In the immortal city of Diaspar nothing changes - until Alvin is created, the first new human in eons, and the first to ask what lies beyond the city's gilded walls.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett - Polly cuts off her hair, names herself Oliver, and joins the army of Borogravia - only to discover that she may not be the only one in her regiment of fresh-faced recruits hiding a secret.

Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold - When an attack leaves her stranded on an uninhabited planet, Cordelia Naismith is forced to travel with Aral Vorkosigan, a man better known as the Butcher of Komarr.

Gods Like Us by Ty Burr - Charting the highs and lows of stardom from the silent idols to today's over-exposed pantheon of celebrities, film critic Ty Burr examines the cultural history of Hollywood fame.

Beating Back the Devil by Maryn McKenna  - The Center for Disease Control has been on the front lines fighting the effects of war, terrorism, and disease since 1946; this book recounts many of their most important cases.

The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood - A young governess enters the mysterious Ashton Place to care for three children raised by wolves - can she tame their howling and squirrel-chasing ways?

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace - This keenly observed series of essays encompasses tennis in Tornado Alley, television's effect on fiction, the films of David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair, and a superbly snide summary of a supposedly fun Caribbean cruise.