Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Georgette Heyer

Once again I have Jo Walton to blame for introducing me to Georgette Heyer. Heyer has written an awful lot of books, so Jo saying that "A Civil Contract" was her favorite gave me a starting point.

So far I have read Civil Contract and Cotillion. Both of them are absolutely "comfort reading". I love them in exactly the same way that I love Jane Austen and Maeve Binchy. They are stories about normal people, living normal (for the times) lives, and generally doing their best to be happy (this mostly involves falling in love, but I'm ok with that). I'm coming to realize that I like stories about happy people...they make me happy, and I think that's a good thing. Maybe not as deep and enlightening as it could be, but when it comes to comfort reading, I will go with happy.

The thing I've enjoyed most about both of these books is that they aren't the traditional 'Harlequin' romance. You know the one where the main characters fall in love at first sight on page 1, have a whirlwind romance, and then something truly stupid happens (usually just a misunderstanding) which splits them apart, and then they finally get back together in the last few pages? I get irritated by those. The people in those stories spend all their time being overwrought and despairing. The sort of romance that Robert Jordan writes, where you just want to put everyone in a room together and force them to explain exactly what is going on and then they can all be happy instead of miserable.

Heyer is doing something completely different here. Both of these stories involve two people, forced together by circumstance, developing their personalities and figuring out who they are and what they like to do, and at the same time falling in love (rather than lust) with one another as they come to recognize the real worth of the other person and realizing that being married to this person is going to make them really happy. (Again with the happy...I really do like happy and so often stories are written about unhappy people because stories must be interesting, and it is easier to write an interesting story about unhappy people).

The difficulty with these stories is that they are set in the 1800s in London. The dialogue is filled with anachronistic slang which takes a bit of work to decipher. I still haven't worked out exactly what she means by "Greeks" and "Corinthians"...and what precisely does it mean to describe a gentleman as a "leg". Also there are a huge number of characters, and their precise social positions and relationships to one another are very important to the story. Then you throw in the fact that they can be referred to by first name, last name, or title depending on who is talking to (or about) them...and you wind up with the same problem I have when reading Chekov (first name, last name, patronymic - all used interchangeably - and requiring a slightly better understanding of Russian than I possess). Ok, at least here I don't have quite the same language gap as with Chekov - but it is still almost to the point that I'd like some translation. Or maybe just an introduction with a bit of explanation for some of the terms.

But problems of slang aside, I devoured both these books and plan to find more of them.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Leviathan - Scott Westerfeld

I would have inhaled this in a single sitting if I could have. Unfortunately there was a small girl who needed my attention and I had to put the book down.

I was a bit nervous when I picked this up, as it is quite thick, but it is actually a very quick read. The story flows nicely, and part of the bulk is due to think paper and gorgeous illustrations. Westerfeld commissioned the artwork himself which gave him much more control than authors usually have with this sort of thing. The illustrations really add to the story, it is an alternate history where you have 'Clankers' (who make really big, clanky, steampunk machines) and 'Darwinists' (who have taken genetic engineering in some really crazy directions) and both are far more understandable with the illustrations than they would be otherwise.

The other thing I loved about this was the two main characters. They are both children who are forced into adult situations. This is done very believably, and I think most kids would be able to empathize with them. The setting is quite interesting on its own, but the book is action-packed and easy to read (which is possibly why I like YA so much).

I've enjoyed all the books by Scott Westerfeld that I've read, but I think this is my favorite so far. I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel!

Camp Concentration - Thomas M. Disch

Once again, I read this because of a review by Jo Walton. She did a fantastic job of writing about the book without spoiling it, so you should go read that first.
I'm a bit conflicted about this book because while I liked the story, I didn't enjoy reading it. Although having finished it I am extremely tempted to re-read it as I suspect I might really enjoy it the second time around. One of the things you really need to do, in order to truly enjoy a book, is to trust the author. This story is about some normal folks becoming really super-intelligent, and as Jo says, this is hard to do. It is also something that I don't really trust most authors to do, although in retrospect I think Disch did a fine job of it.
The biggest problem was that I really disliked the main character. The entire book is his journal, and is being read as he writes it. Very similar to Agyar, but with a totally different feel - in this case the writer is a professional poet, writing in the journal is required of him, and he isn't the main character of the story in the same way that Jack is the main character in Agyar - he is meant to be writing about the other people in the prison, the actual subjects of the experiment. There are often responses inserted by the people reading the journal, and in many cases he writes things deliberately to provoke a response. There is a large chunk of text in the middle of the book where resorts to writing gibberish, and I found that incredibly annoying. Once I got past the gibberish (and realized that it wasn't going to be like that for the entire book) I understood the point of it (the folks reading his journal had been even more irritated by it than I had been), I wanted to go back and see what sort of structure I could find in it...but was too irritated to do so.
I think my lack of enjoyment of this is largely due to the fact that I react very emotionally towards books, especially the first time, and this book is very black. Dystopias sort of have to be. But I really missed the point with this story. There's the really obvious 'twist' which comes as a big surprise to the narrator, but not really a surprise to the reader, but there is quite a lot more going on. Many of the characters (prisoners, experimental subjects) are actually super-intelligent and are busy hiding this fact from the folks in charge. And because the text you are reading is being written for consumption by the folks in charge, you get fooled right along with them. Which is really quite ingenious. Now I just need to get over my revulsion towards the setting and re-read it, because I suspect I will really enjoy it the second time around.

Editing to add: I just re-read it, and while it didn't make me nearly as grumpy reading it the second time around, I still didn't really enjoy it. While the story is clever, I still don't like any of the characters, and there is a grittyness to SF written in the 60s which depresses me. I've noticed this mostly in short stories, but many authors writing back then seemed to be assuming that the future was very bleak. That overpopulation was going to be a huge problem, nuclear war was inevitable, and that the Russians were the ultimate evil. Maybe it is really a problem of projecting forward and imagining yourself in this very strange world of the future. You would probably hate it if you were suddenly transplanted 100 years into the future (or the past), but as Sky pointed out to me years ago, most people manage to be quite happy, no matter what their circumstances. Humans are incredibly resilient. Maybe someday we'll manage to kill ourselves off, but in the meantime we seem to manage to enjoy ourselves. I think happiness is what's missing from this story. Granted, the characters are all stuck in prison (whether prisoners or guards, they're still stuck), but there are some genuinely uplifting moments, and some wonderful descriptions of food...and yet none of the characters ever seem happy.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Anathem - Neal Stephenson

Anathem totally blew me away. I've been a fan of Neal Stephenson since I read the first couple pages of Snowcrash. There were bits of Cryptonomicon that made me laugh so hard I fell out of my chair. I've even read The Big U (he's improved dramatically since then, Big U is fun but really really awful).

The world of Anathem is so different from our world that an average writer would need to devote the first 10 chapters to description and a historical summary. Stephenson manages to focus on the familiar and then explain the differences as they become relevant. I never needed to just keep reading in the hopes that things would start to make sense eventually. I didn't wind up partway through the book needing to start over because I finally had enough information for the first chapter to make sense. He got the flow of story and flow of information absolutely perfect. He also managed to make a very alien world and culture feel extremely comfortable.

Given the awesomeness of the setting, this would be a good book even if the story itself wasn't all that great, but that isn't the case at all. The story is fascinating and the plot unfolds at just the right pace to keep you riveted without being overwhelmed. I'm totally in love with the Socratic dialogue all the way through, the style of communication that's used to teach new ideas by leading you through the entire thought process so that you get to make the discovery yourself (or get totally planed by the person leading the dialogue). The dictionary definitions starting each new segment - the fact that you've often encountered the word before with just enough context to make sense of it, but are now getting the full definition and derivation of the word with all of its different nuances - were totally amazing. The language is almost an evolving character in the story. Words can have different meanings depending on who is using them (which could wind up being totally confusing, but Stephenson manages the context so well that it doesn't).

I do need to read this again. I didn't pay nearly enough attention to the whole Rhetor/Incanter history as I wish I had. It didn't feel quite as relevant to the story as it wound up being. I really thought the book was going to be very different than it actually was. I was surprised by the turn things took halfway through, and yet it was a good surprise rather than a bad one. Surprise is a great thing coming at the very end of a mystery, but coming halfway through a book like this, turning the story in a completely unexpected direction - could be very upsetting if done wrong.

This was a fabulous book. It is only overwhelming because it is so long, but it isn't at all hard to read - the plot and the characters keep things moving along quite nicely.