Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
When I started through my morning blogroll today, I was amused to see a post on the latest Harry Potter book over at Calpundit Monthly (Warning: Spoilers). Put together with all the other speculation and commentary floating around the Net, this started me thinking about the book some more.
This is not a particularly good idea, as these are not, for me, books that reward deep thought. Whenever I end up thinking about the details of the Potter universe, I end up finding a whole bunch of things that strike me as stupid and annoying, and I wind up thinking less of the series than I did when I started.
In the interest of cutting this (somewhat) short, then, I'm going to bang out a quick booklog post, and move on to other things (I'm halfway through Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson right now, which is just a little bit of a change of pace...). In the interests of politeness, I'll keep the main body as spoiler-free as possible, and put all the spoilery stuff about the ending in comments. That's probably the most interesting bit, so do make sure to look, if you're no longer worried about spoiling the book. I will, of course, be happy to respond to comments here, though I'm going to try to avoid reading much of anything else about the book after I post this.
So, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was better than the last volume, that's for sure, though given how little I liked the last book, that's not actually saying much. The hormonal teenager bits are still excruciating, but at least they're not used to drive an idiot plot (a sub-plot in which people act like idiots, yes, but that's not as bad). We're also spared the ham-handed attempts at social satire that marred the previous couple of books-- the new Obligatory Bumbling Professor is another Type who comes in for ridicule, but it's not as irritating as with the tabloid reporter and the horrible educational bureaucrat. There's also some actual movement on the overall series plot, which is good.
Unfortunately, this is all really too little, too late. While this is a much better book than the previous one, it seems like the previous book squandered the last stock of goodwill for the series. For most of the book, this one failed to really hold my attention-- it wasn't a chore to read, or anything, but it wasn't difficult to set it aside to do other things, either. And it was awfully easy to find things to dislike about it on the way through-- things that were intended to be cute and charming (and may have worked that way in the first couple of books) generally came off as irritating.
On a slightly higher level, I thought there were some serious structural problems regarding Chapter 2 and the ending (which I viewed differently than Kate did), and I'm not really thrilled about some of the things the ending sets up for the second book. Detailed thoughts on those problems, and why I'm hoping most fans of the books are wrong about the ending, will follow in the comments.
Posted at 8:01 PM | link |
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Meeting Expectations, Continued
Two more books that I really can't discuss sensibly in any details:
Mike Carey's The Wolf Beneath the Tree maintains the high quality of the Lucifer series (it's volume 8). There's not much else that can be said about it without massixe spoilers for the earlier volumes.
Whenever the entire arc in complete, I may try to do some full-series wrap-up. Until then, well, if you liked the earlier volumes, you'll like this. If you haven't read the earlier volumes, read them first.
Carl Hiaasen's Skinny Dip is, well, a typical Carl Hiaasen novel. The Good Guys are charming and smart and come out on top, the Bad Guys are stupid and venal and destroying Florida's environment, and their demise is colorfully inventive.
You'll get more of the jokes if you've read his earlier books, but it's also reasonably self-contained. It's a high-quality airport book-- sort of like Elmore Leonard with more noble protagonists.
(Also, I did some minor updating of the template. More substantive posts are coming, really.)
Posted at 9:34 AM | link |
Preaching With Intent to Convert
Over on her LiveJournal, Kate offers a list of books to introduce people to fantasy literature. (This apparently grew out of a discussion elsewhere in LiveJournal space that I never saw.) Her list of books (if you want the reasons, go read her post):
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay.
Finder or War for the Oaks by Emma Bull.
Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny or Jhereg by Steven Brust.
Last Call by Tim Powers.
Spindle's End by Robin McKinley
Resurrection Man or Mockingbird by Sean Stewart
Sorcery and Cecilia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer or The Element of Fire by Martha Wells.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton.
I am, of course, completely unable to resist this sort of thing, and I'm also egotistical enough to put this on my own site, rather than leaving a huge comment in Kate's space. Hence this post.
There are a couple of different ways to approach this sort of thing. Either you can attempt to do a list of books that provide a comprehensive survey of the genre and its sub-genres (more or less what Kate was doing), or you can come up with a list to pitch to a specific subset of non-genre readers. I did the comprehensive survey thing on my other blog, with regard to pop music, but I'm more inclined to do the other version here.
Thus, to make the problem a little more tractable, I'm going to pre-emptively restrict the set of imagined readers-to-be-converted to primarily people who read mainstream fiction, a term which here means "books you find shelved under 'Literature' in your local big-box chain." I'm not going to attempt to pick books that might appeal to people who read romances or mysteries, mostly because I figure those people need less convincing-- if you're buying books in those categories, you've already had to get over the idea that genre fiction has cooties. The people who need to be convinced to read fantasy are the ones who think it's all craptastic D&D knock-offs. (Also, I don't read romances, and only read a specific subset of mysteries, so I can't really speak sensibly about the tastes of those readers... It's not that I read all that much mainstream literary fiction, either, but I feel like I have a slightly better idea what works there.)
I would keep a few of the books from Kate's list: Tigana has already been shown to work well for some English faculty, and Tooth and Claw would probably work pretty well with anyone who has read Victorian fiction. Good Omens is a fine choice as well.
I'd also keep a couple of the authors from Kate's list, but choose different books. For Powers, I'd be somewhat inclined to go with Declare rather than Last Call. Declare is a secret history Cold War spy novel, and nicely mixes supernatural elements with real history and a fairly straightforward spy plot. It's not likely to work for Tom Clancy people, but I think it would be an easy sell to people who read, say, Alan Furst. Last Call covers more important territory in the fantasy landscape, but it's very confusing for the first two-thirds of the book, and might turn some people off.
Of course, with the inexplicable popularity of poker at the moment, it might not be that hard to push on people...
Speaking of poker, I like Steven Brust enough to want to keep one of his books on the list. Unfortunately, Jhereg doesn't really seem like the best choice. It's fundamentally not a terribly deep book, and I'm not sure it would appeal to anybody who wasn't already comfortable with the fantasy genre. The series as a whole has some real depth to it, but the books that might appeal to a more mainstream reader require so much backstory that they can't really be read alone.
A better choice might be Agyar. It plays most of the same games with unreliable first-person narration that the Vlad Taltos books do, but it's much more polished than the early Vlad books, and it's self-contained.
The other author I'd keep is Sean Stewart, only I'd go with his most recent, Perfect Circle, over Mockingbird, for much the same reason that I'd prefer Decalre to Last Call. They're similar sorts of books, in many ways, being family stories set in Texas, but Perfect Circle is a little more restrained, hewing much closer to the territory of mainstream literary fiction. Mockingbird isn't a bad choice, but for the specific task of getting mainstream readers interested, I think Perfect Circle would be slightly better. (To be fair, Kate hasn't read Perfect Circle yet, as far as I know.)
Of the others on Kate's list, I haven't read Sorcery and Cecilia, The Element of Fire, or Spindle's End, so I can hardly recommend them. I like both the Emma Bull books mentioned, but neither of them really feels like the sort of thing I'd recommend to a non-genre reader. I'm tempted to suggest John M. Ford's The Last Hot Time as an alternative, but I suspect that the whole subgenre of Borderlands-style urban fantasy is probably no good.
Things I would push at non-genre readers? Someone in Kate's comments suggested either The Princess Bride or One For the Morning Glory. As William Goldman has a decent reputation as a mainstream writer, I'll give John Barnes the nod. Kate thought the vocabulary might be a problem, but I think it would fit right in with a certain strain of cutely experimental metafiction that already exists in mainstream fiction. The biggest knock against it is probably the fact that he really hasn't written anything else that's remotely similar to it (the soon-to-be-booklogged (really, I swear) Gaudeamus comes closer than anything, but it's not very close), and some of his other books are really pretty dire.
Another suggestion in Kate's comments was Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, which is a good idea. Helprin is more likely to be found on the Literature shelves than over in the genre fiction ghetto, though, so I'd probably go for John Crowley's Little, Big instead, as Crowley is more closely associated with SF than Helprin. They're very similar books, in many ways-- big stories of sweeping magical transformations, drunk on their own imagery. Crowley's has more concrete ties to existing mythology, and a somewhat tighter focus. They're both books that tend to leave you wondering what happened, but that's not really that big an obstacle.
A somewhat problematic inclusion is Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman. Not because I have any doubts about the book-- it's a fantastic book-- but because I originally thought of lumping it together with Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds, which kicked off a big spiral of liberal guilt, as if I was just looking for one token non-European book, and so on.
Ignore all that, though. It's a terrific book, rich with detail, and absolutely deserves a place on the list. The fact that it's a non-European story is just a nice bonus.
Including duplicates and slight modifications from Kate's list, that's nine books. The tenth is the real problem-- Kate has The Lord of the Rings in that last spot, but I don't think it's a sure thing for people who normally read modern literary novels. It can work for some people, but there's not a lot of overlap between the virtues of Tolkien's work and the virtues of modern literary novels.
Of course, leaving it off means that there's nothing on the list in the "epic fantasy" sort of vein, which runs afoul of a sort of residual desire to span the whole fantasy genre. It's a big omission, because whatever nasty things people may say about "Extruded Fantasy Product" and the like, it's a very big part of the genre as it exists today. And it's really, really hard to come up with any other epic fantasy to recommend.
But then, on reflection, it's probably not that bad a thing to just leave it out. After all, if there's a subgenre of fantasy more likely to confirm all the worst prejudices of mainstream fiction readers, I'm not sure what it would be (are "Magic: The Gathering" tie-in novels a subgenre?). Fundamentally, it's just not an area of fantasy that's likely to appeal to someone who isn't already inclined toward that sort of thing.
And, really, if you were setting out to try to get an SF reader to read mainstream fiction, it'd be idiotic to give them the sort of deadly-dull books that they probably hated in high school (Ethan Frome or whatever). If you want to get a SF reader to see some redeeming qualities in mainstream fiction, you should give them books that are closer in spirit to SF-- Chabon, Lethem, Pynchon, some Tom Robbins, that sort of thing. You'd start with the "mainstream" side of "slipstream," and go from there. How do I know this? Because that's how I got back into reading some mainstream novels.
So large-scale epic fantasy is a write-off. OF course, that leaves the list sort of heavy on modern-world fantasy, without much in the way of your classic knights and dragons sort of stuff, which shouldn't bother me, but does. So I'd probably go for filling that last slot with something like Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. It's not really much of a modern novel, either, but it's got a much different feel than Tolkien, in a way that it seems to me might be more effective for people who don't like more traditional genre fantasy.
Ask me again in a week, and I'd probably come up with a completely different list, but that's a place to start, anyway.
Posted at 9:36 PM | link |
A week or two back, we had some sort of discount coupon for Borders, and made a sweep through the store picking up things that didn't seem interesting enough to get at full price. One of the items on the list was Neil Gaiman's 1602, a graphic-comic-book-novel in which he transplants a bunch of Marvel comics characters to Elizabethan England.
The idea has some potential, along the same lines as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the good first volume, not the dire second). He's used a bunch of X-Men characters, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and a bunch of others that I don't really recognize, along with some of their associated villains, and it's interesting to think about what would be involved in translating those heroes (who have a sort of quintessentially 20th Century American feel to them) to a radically different milieu.
The execution, alas, is too cute by at least half. Probably more. It was really kind of hard to follow the plot (which is sort of dopey) through the sound of jokes whistling by overhead. I am not a regular reader of comic books (my knowledge of the Marvel universe is drawn almost entirely from cartoons and movies), and as a result, I felt sort of left out.
The general effect was similar to that of Gaiman's Hugo-winning Sherlock Holmes meets Lovecraft short story, multiplied by about a thousand. And like that story, it's not done in a manner that makes me want to run out and read the originals, to find out what jokes I missed. It was more a "Yes, you're very clever. Now shut up." sort of thing.
The few bits that I did understand were good (there's a running joke concerning Peter Parquah and spiders that was pretty amusing), but there weren't enough of those to really carry the story. If you're not a regular-to-obsessive reader of Marvel comics, I'd say don't bother with this book.
Posted at 9:04 AM | link |
Magic for Beginners
As I said of Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link's stories are awfully hard to categorize, but very, very good. Her new collection, Magic for Beginners was a definite buy-on-sight, and hearing her read part of the title story at Readercon bumped it right to the top of the to-be-read list.
It's hard to say anything really coherent about the stories, though. There's a sort of breathless inventiveness to many aspects of them, as in this bit from the title story:
In the previous episode of The Library maske pirate-magicians said they would sell Prince Wing a cure for the spell which infested Faithful Margaret's hair with miniature, wicked, fire-breathing golems. (Faithful Margaret's hair keeps catching firs, but she refuses to shave it off. Her hair is the source of all her magic.)
The pirate-magicians lured Prince Wing into a trap so obvious that it seemed impossible it could really be a trap, on the one-hundres-and-fortieth floor of The Free People's World-Tree Library. The pirate-magicians used finger magic to turn Prince Wing into a porcelain teapot, put two Earl Grey tea bags into the teapot, and poured in boiling water, toasted the Eternally Postponed and Overdue Reign of the Forbidden Books, drained their tea in one gulp, belched, hurled their souvenir pirate mugs to the ground, and then shattered the teapot which had been Prince Wing into hundreds of pieces. Then the wicked pirate-magicians swept the pieces of both Prince Wing and collectible mugs carelessly into a wooden cigar box, buried the box in the Angela Carter Memorial Park on the seventeenth floor of The World-Tree Library, and erected a statute of George Washington above it.
(At the reading, she said that part of the inspiration for the story was the ending of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a desire to have some new tv show to obsess over.)
At the same time, she has an excellent eye for the mundane details of life, particularly for the adolescent heroes of "Magic for Beginners":
Jeremy and Karl and Elizabeth have known each other since the first day of kindergarten. Amy and Talis are a year younger. The five have not always been friends, except for Jeremy and Karl, who have. Talis is, famously, a loner. She doesn't listen to music as far as anyone knows, she doesn't wear significant amounts of black, she isn't particularly good (or bad) at math or English, and she doesn't drink, debate, knit, or refuse to eat meat. If she keeps a blog, she's never admitted it to anyone.
The Library made Jeremy and Karl and Talis and Elizabeth and Amy friends. No one else in school is as passionately devoted. Besides, they are all the children of forms hippies, and the town is small. They all live within a few blocks of each other, in run-down Victorians with high ceilings and ranch houses with sunken living rooms. And although they have not always been friends, growing up, they've gone skinny-dipping in lakes on summer nights, and broken bones on each others' trampolines. Once, during an argument about dog names, Elizabeth, who is hot-tempered, tried to run Jeremy over with her ten-speed bicycle, and once, a year ago, Karl got drunk on green-apple schnapps at a party and tried to kiss Talis, and once, for five months in the seventh grade, Karl and Jeremy communicated only through angry emails written in all caps. I'm not allowed to tell you what they fought about.
A few of the stories ("The Cannon," "The Great Divorce" and "Lull") get a little too weird at points, but they all have their moments of weird poetic genius. The best of them ("Magic for Beginners," "The Hortlak," and "The Faery Handbag" (which is the most straightforward of the lot)) are scarily brilliant. One of them, "Stone Animals," was picked by Michael Chabon for The Best American Short Stories, and while the ending was weird and abrupt, it seems like a good choice.
And, really, that's about all I can say regarding this collection. If that's not enough to get you to read it, I don't know what would be.
Posted at 8:27 PM | link |
Dogs in the Moonlight
I wasn't even going to booklog this collection of Jay Lake's Texas-themed short stories, until a snarky remark by a panelist at Readercon.
Weirdly, the first three panels I attended on Saturday at Readercon all included at least one rant about the badness of mainstream literary fiction. Now, rants about the superiority of SF in general are to be expected in that setting, but this was a little different-- these were specifically comments about mainstream literature being "soooo boooring."
The real kicker was one panelist-- I forget who-- who expressed his distaste for mainstream literature by saying something very close to:
I mean, how many stories can you read about abusive Southern families with incest?
The striking thin about this, to me, was that that's almost exactly the reaction that caused me to return Dogs in the Moonlight to the library without finishing it. And Jay Lake is an award-winning SF author.
The stories in this collection are basically all fantasy stories, and they're all set in Texas, which provides a loose organizing theme. Unfortunately, the first half-dozen (or so) are also all squalid-- everybody lives in either a remote shack or a trailer park, they're all poor and ignorant and frequently drunk, and an alarming number of the stories contain at least one reference to sexual abuse. I have no great love for the state of Texas-- frankly, I'd be happy to let them secede, provided they take their politicians with them-- but I was vaguely offended on behalf of the Texans I know.
What really put me off was that the sexual abuse bits seemed awfully gratuitous to me. Not in a prurient way, just a "Look at me-- I'm Edgy!" sort of thing. Because God knows, nothing says "Literary" like minors being groped.
Taken separately, some of the stories probably would've worked pretty well-- "The Goat Cutter" in particular was interestingly creepy. As a package, though, I found it pretty repulsive.
Posted at 8:05 PM | link |
Some time back, I booklogged Dean Koontz's Life Expectancy, and noted that a number of readers at Amazon had said that it was good, but not as good as Odd Thomas. Since I enjoyed Life Expectancy quite a bit, that was too good a recommendation to pass up.
This is another quirky first-person book, narrated by the title character (whose name really is Odd), a young man who sees ghosts. He's telling the tale some time after the events, under strict instructions:
Don't worry: These ramblings will not be insufferably gloomy. P. Oswald Boone has sternly instructed me to keep the tone light.
"If you don't keep it light," Ozzie said, "I'll sit my four-hundred-pound ass on you, and that's not the way you want to die." [...]
When at first I proved unable to keep the tone light, Ozzie suggested that I be an unreliable narrator. "It worked for Agatha Christia in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," he said. [...]
Understand, I am not a murderer. I have done nothing evil that I am concealing from you. My unreliability as a narrator has to do largely with the tense of certain verbs.
Don't worry about it. You'll know the truth soon enough.
This book is very similar to Life Expectancy, and it's similarly excellent. It's a little mroe serious in tone-- Odd sees some pretty dark things-- but there's a goofy side to the story as well. The book is frequently funny, occasionally scary, and the revelation of Odd's unreliability is genuinely moving.
This isn't your typical supermarket best-selling thriller novel, despite Koontz's association with that semi-genre. It's really good stuff, and I recommend checking it out.
Posted at 9:20 PM | link |