Sunday, February 15, 2015

Margaret Atwood turns The Odyssey on it's head

Margaret Atwood is a great writer. She's given us scholarly studies, fine analyses, and excellent novels like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and many others. With The Penelopiad she turns her feminist's eye towards Homer and tells the story of what really went on while Odysseus was making his 10-year journey home from the fall of Troy.

Atwood's take on Penelope's story is both educational and amusing. She brings out a number of points which Homer did not, and cites her sources for each. For example, did you know that Penelope was the cousin of Helen of Troy? That she was the daughter of a naiad? These factiods are used to build up Penelope from the one-dimensional faithful wife of Homer's story to a woman who struggles to hold together Odysseus' household until either their son Telemarchus comes of age or Odysseus' return.

Atwood manages to make Penelope a real person, a woman of her time, and a feminist commentary on the role she had to play. Yes, Atwood has an axe to grind here - but she grinds it with restraint, not letting the commentary overshadow what is both an entertaining story and an excellent character study. Witty, entertaining, informative, and educational - what else could you ask for? Recommended.

Against A Dark Background and other thoughts on Iain Banks

The late Iain Banks has long been one of my favorite writers, both as ‘Iain Banks’ for his mainstream works and ‘Iain M. Banks’ for his science fiction. His final novel The Quarry was published just before his death in mid-2013. I held off reading it for over a year, not wanting to have read my last Banks. It did not disappoint, and was especially interesting in that it's almost a mirror image of his first novel, the deeply disturbing The Wasp Factory.

Around Christmas I began re-reading some of his science fiction, and have just recently concluded his second novel Against A Dark Background. The title is certainly fitting, but after reading it, The Quarry and Consider Phlebas in close proximity I was surprised at some common themes. I'll try to avoid spoilers below, but since most of these have been in print for a quarter-century, I'm not going to try too hard.

Both The Wasp Factory and The Quarry have major themes on family and know one's identity in a family. The two books could hardly be more different, but on these points the similarities are very strong. Both focus on a young man, damaged, making his way in a dysfunctional family while dealing with his damage. In The Wasp Factory the protagonist is literally insane, and a great deal of the story is both he and the reader learning about why he's crazy and how his family is the root cause. In The Quarry the protagonist is a high-functioning autistic whose father is dying of cancer, and his largely estranged and impromptu family comes home for a last visit. Wasp Factory is a horror story of the first water, and certainly one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. The Quarry is encouraging and optimistic, and ultimately redemptive. But the common theme is the same - a damaged young man coming to terms with what he is within himself and his family.

Consider Phelbas seems at first to be a novel about a noble struggle of Idirans, an honorable and deeply religious society, which is under attack by a hedonistic and irreligious culture (The Culture, for those of you who've read Banks before). Part-way through the novel you realize that things are upside down, and the Culture with all its many failings is a far better place than the Idiran empire. The reader takes a while to realize this because Bora Horza Gobuchul, the primary viewpoint character, is from a society that is largely outcaste but has been well-treated by the Idirans. The Idirans don't really come on-stage until about 2/3 of the way through the book, and only then do we realize they tolerate these outcastes because they're useful. When (if) the Idirans win the war, the outcastes will be first against the wall. This fact is carefully hidden from Horza, and he sides with the Idirans because they seem to treat him and his people as, well, family.

All of which bring us to Against A Dark Background, which comes at family from multiple angles. The story focuses on Sharrow, a daughter of one of the most aristocratic families of her world. At a young age her mother is assassinated in front of her, with Sharrow surviving only because of her mother's quick thinking and self-sacrifice. As a young adult, Sharrow becomes leader of a “personality-attuned combat team”, a small group of soldiers who under stress function almost as one person. Some parts of this go badly, and as the story opens, Sharrow's life is threatened by religious fanatics and she re-unites with the survivors of her team to deal with the situation.

The story thereafter focuses on the actions of Sharrow, her team, and the surviving members of her family as they attempt to either lift or survive the threat. It's an action-filled and often funny story (you will never forget dinner at the Onomatopoeia Bistro), but all this takes place against the dark background of the title. There is much loss, and while things come to a satisfactory conclusion, it certainly cannot be called a happy ending. It's well-written, quite involving, and a damned good story - just not a happy one. Sharrow is ultimately stripped of every vestige of family, both formal and informal. One could question whether her survival is worth the price, but on the other hand, it's likely that price would have been paid if she survived or not. An excellent book, but like a number of Banks' novels, not something with a happy ending.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Slammerkin - A Loose Gown, A Loose Woman

Emma Donoghue took the thinnest of historical data and wrote Slammerkin, a story of England in the 1670s. I'm not a scholar on the England of that period, but everything Donoghue presents is completely believable, from the squalor of central London to the Welsh countryside near Monmouth. Even the most minor characters are fully realized, and I came away from the book believing in both Mary Saunders and the world she moves through.

Moves through? Yes. Early in the novel the 14-year-old Mary becomes her own master, but she has no real understanding of how to do anything beyond her desires of the moment. Her eventual life of prostitution begins with a childish desire for a red ribbon, and she takes one step after another without much thought other a yearning for fine clothing and a horror at being told what to do. she rarely actually takes control of her life; most of her choices are simple or naive reactions rather than actual decisions.

Further, Mary is the poster child for bad decisions. Time and again she finds herself with opportunities and positions which lift her out of her low circumstances. But when her new circumstances don't give her complete freedom, she pushes back against them until she either leaves her rescuers or destroys the situation. After enough conflicts, she finally takes actions which can neither be escaped nor repaired and comes to a bad end.

This is not a happy book. Mary is so sympathetically drawn we want to see her do well; Donoghue draws her so fully that we understand what drives her even as she fails to manage the reins. But her world is so interesting and the people in it so realistic that it's well worth reading, even if only as a tale of failure.

Recommended. I'm going to be picking up more by Emma Donoghue in the near future.

Some upcoming stuff: I seem to have fallen into a cycle of reading several books at once, and have nearly completed Iain M. Banks' Against A Dark Background and Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation, the first of his Southern Reach trilogy. Both have proven compulsively readable, and the Vandermeer is one of the oddest things I've read in a long time. Expect reviews soon.

Monday, January 05, 2015

For the first book out of the gate this year, we have Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe by Martin Rees. Unfortunately, it's just not that great a book. At only 167 pages I wasn't expecting a lot of depth, but there's little here that I wasn't already familiar with. His selection of six numbers that influence the structure of the universe was pretty strong, but his writeups were often disturbingly vague. He regularly points out that &lsque;small’ variations in these numbers could have drastic effects on the structure of the universe, but his descriptions of same are remarkably vague, and &lsque;small’ sometimes means ± 20% and sometimes means differences of 1000-fold. As a well-educated layman in the field, I found it all very vague and filled with gosh-wow handwaving rather than educational.

The average layman is probably going to be equally lost. Rees is clearly trying to steer a middle course here between presenting enough data to educate the layman, but not to much as to bury him. But his explanations aren't strong, and I think the average reader would walk away more confused than enlightened.

In short, not recommended.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014 Informal Reading Review

It's a new year, and time to fire up this old blog for the purpose of reading and reviewing 52 books in 52 weeks. 2013 went completely to pot due to family issues, and a lot of that bled over into 2014. I read a number of books in 2014, but only minimally recording and reviewing off on another site. It suddenly folded up in early autumn, so I don't have notes about everything read during 2014. Here are a few that stick out in fond memory.

Andy Weir's The Martian is absolutely riveting. I got it for Christmas, started in a day or two later, and literally read it in one sitting. OK, I did get up and go to the bathroom once, but I took the book with me. Exciting, smart, funny, pretty much everything the reviews say it is. Larry Niven blurbed it best saying it was "like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as written by someone brighter." If you've somehow missed the reviews of this, the plot is simple: Astronaut Mark Watney is lost in an accident, presumed dead, and has been left behind on Mars. He must turn a limited amount of food and air into something that will let him live for the years until the next expedition. And he has to do it without being able to communicate with Earth. I laughed, I cried, I occasionally sat there in slack-jawed amazement. Read it.

When Graham Jordan died this year, I'd never heard of him. The literary obituaries made him sound like my type of writer, so I picked up Some Kind of Fairy Story. Wow. The core idea is simple enough: the 17-year-old daughter of a small-town British family disappears and is presumed murdered by her boyfriend. Twenty years later she returns, still seventeen, to re-meet with her parents, brother, and ex. Her story comes out in bits and pieces, and neither it nor the rest of the novel ever go where you expect. It's brilliantly written, with even the most minor characters vivid and interesting. The plot that never sells out to the glamour of the ideas, and the end is as satisfying as it is unexpected. I'll be reading a number of his books in 2015.

Iain Banks (known as Iain M. Banks for his science fiction novels) died in mid-2013, and I'd been avoiding starting his last novel, The Quarry because, dammit, there wouldn't be any more. I'm both happy and sad to say that it was as good as I expected from Banks. It also has some curious reflections of the themes and circumstances in his brilliant but repellant first novel The Wasp Factory. But this book anything but repellant, being an entertaining novel of both coming of age and the passing of youth. Highly recommended.

Last summer Ann Leckie made my buy list with her first novel Ancillary Justice, and the followup Ancillary Sword lives up to the first. The central character is the sole survivor of an intelligent spaceships that use mind-blanked human auxiliaries as crew. When the ship was betrayed and destroyed, a single crew member survived. She carries the personality of the ship, and wants revenge for what is lost. If the book were simple slam-bang action, that premise would be enough to tell good stories. Leckie goes far beyond that, with exploration of gender, the evolution of consciousness, and far more. A third and concluding book is due in 2015; it's already on my buy-in-hardback list.

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep is ostensibly a sequel to The Shining, but it would not be improved nor diminished by severing that link. King's strength is his characters, and with this one he brews up a whole batch of people who, good and bad, you're reluctant to see go. Last year I also read King's A Wind Through The Keyhole, a sidelight story to his Dark Tower series that I'd initially not planned on reading. When it turned up cheap at Half-Price Books I yielded to temptation, and was entertained well beyond my expectations. A fine little novel of stories within stories.

King's son Joe Hill hit a home run with his latest NOS4A2. At first it seemed an homage to his father's writing, but quickly proved a fascinating tale of it's own. Hill has inherited his father's talent, and while not as prolific, may prove to be the better writer in the long run.

Steven Brust added a new novel Hawk to his always-fun Vlad Taltos series, but his big win for the year was The Incrementalists, co-written with Skyler White. It's the first of a series, and suffers a bit in how much backstory must be brought out in order to make a relatively small plot fly. But with that background established, I expect future books to be even better - and that's a very high level of expectation.

Also on the series front, Charles Stross added The Rhesus Chart to his entertaining Laundry stories. These books are now into some very dark places for his central character, and I suspect that Stross may be reaching a conclusion - or at least, some massive turning point in the series. Still recommended, but start from the beginning or you're going to be totally lost.

And now, on to 2015!