Saturday, March 27, 2010

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

A wench in 1840s America was a "colored woman of any age; a negress or mulatress, especially one in service." Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the powerful story of four wenches, all of them slaves and mistresses of their southern white masters.

It's inevitable that Wench will be compared to the currently popular book club favorite, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, about black maids in Mississippi during the '60s civil rights era: The Help and Wench, although their stories take place about 100 years apart, are both vivid accounts of critical times in the lives of African Americans.

Having carefully read and enjoyed both books, I thought Wench was the more skillfully written of the two, perhaps because at times Stockett, I felt, pushed her plot a bit to make a point, making some scenes rather unbelievable.

Perkins-Valdez chose as her setting a real place, Tawawa House, an Ohio resort that catered to white men who brought their slave mistresses for summer retreats. That Ohio was a free state made the location compelling for the novel's location, and even more compelling was the talk of abolition, and the talk of war...

The book centers on four vividly realized characters: Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet, who have been summer friends for many years; and Mawu, a new arrival who is strong and brave and wanting to run away.

The book jacket says "...they are bearing witness to the end of an era." This book is important reading, and it's as haunting as Gone with the Wind, Roots, and--yes, The Help.

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Skunk Cat received this book from the publisher for review.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans by Michael A. Woodley

Forty-odd years ago, Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans published a book called In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, which attempted to take a practical, scientific look at sea serpent sightings. Heuvelmans gathered as many sightings as he could dig up from the previous several centuries and studied them. From the more reliable-seeming accounts, he developed a list of ten categories of creatures that would help classify the various types of sea serpents.

In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans takes a fresh look at Heuvelmans' categories and updates them, taking into account new sightings and new knowledge of relevant fossil sea creatures. The subtitle of the book is "An introduction to the history and future of sea serpent classification," and it's a very scholarly approach. If you like your facts pre-digested and on the sensational side, you'll probably be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you really get into this kind of thing (like I do, obviously), this is a wonderfully meaty book, and full of wonders.

I like the scholarly way the information is presented. It feels a bit like reading someone's dissertation (which, considering Woodley was a doctorate student when it was written, is not surprising), but it's beautifully clear. I particularly like that Woodley makes it clear that he's not making assumptions about whether sea serpents of any kind actually exist; instead, he's taking the data and making educated inferences from them: "If the sightings aren't misidentifications of known animals or objects, maybe this is the type of creature being sighted."

I'm only an amateur naturalist, but I had no trouble following the content. I enjoyed learning about various sea creatures, extinct and living, that might have given rise to some sightings. I also enjoyed following along with Woodley's reasoning for his suggestions and why he makes certain revisions to Heuvelmans' categories. I even read the appendices because I didn't want the book to end.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

MythOS by Kelly McCullough

I hadn't intended to read MythOS so soon after I finished CodeSpell. I guess I'm just in the mood for this kind of light, cerebral-but-warm book right now.

In MythOS, Ravirn and Melchior go searching for the lost webtroll Ahllan. She's been missing since the events in the second book (unless it's the first; I read those two last year and can't remember) and they're both worried about her. Unfortunately, at the same time that Ravirn traces Ahllan's last known whereabouts, something awful happens to Necessity--the goddess who long before transformed herself into a vast living network that she the other gods and powers use to keep the universe running. Ravirn, Mel, and the Fury Tisiphone are catapulted into another universe entirely--one where the Greek gods are myths, and the Norse gods rule.

I found the whole idea of this book delicious. Ravirn's confusion and annoyance with his trickster counterpart Loki is particularly interesting and well-done. While Ravirn's friendship with Mel isn't as vital to this book as the earlier ones, I liked the way his relationships change and grow with Tisiphone, Ahllan, and the new gods and powers he encounters.

Since I just reviewed CodeSpell two days ago, I'll leave this one short. The fifth book in the series, SpellCrash, will be released at the end of May. You can bet I'll be reading it.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

CodeSpell by Kelly McCullough

CodeSpell is the third book in this series, after WebMage and Cybermancy. They're both really good, and I bought MythOS, the fourth book, this afternoon. From the titles, you can guess this series is a mixture of magic and technology. I bet you wouldn't guess the Greek mythology part, though.

In cold blood, the notion that Greek gods and powers run the universe using a system of magical technology sounds really stupid. Somehow, though, McCullough makes it work--so well, in fact, that by the third book I don't even have to suspend my disbelief anymore than I have to suspend my disbelief that sending an email is just like sending a paper letter through regular mail. As far as I'm concerned, it's all magic.

Ravirn is the hero of the books, a self-described hacker and cracker. I won't try and recap the whole series, and I can't tell you too much about this book without spoilering the first two. I'll just say that Ravirn's now known (against his will) as Raven and has become a minor power of chaos. The events of the second book have left the universe in disarray; in essence, Necessity (and by extension, the mweb) has been targeted with a magical virus that nearly took down all of existence. During the confusion, the goddess Nemesis was released and has now targeted Ravirn; as if that wasn't bad enough, his girlfriend is pissed at him and a Fury has the hots (literally) for him.

I get the feeling that my lack of tech knowledge means I'm missing layers of this book that others would enjoy (Lertulo, I'm looking at you here), but I do like the characters. Ravirn is thoughtful but impulsive, a normal guy and a power of chaos at the same time. His best friend in the whole world is his webgoblin Melchior. I like that this book continues the series's theme of Ravirn pushing for AI rights. In the books, the webgoblins, webtrolls, and other AI creatures made for helping with spells have soulsl--but most people refuse to acknowledge that they're not just constructs that can be discarded once they're no longer useful. Ravirn's friendship with Mel is touching and realistic.

The books are quick reads. While there's a lot of exposition about how the mweb works and so forth (which I just sort of blip over since I don't understand most of it), there's a lot of action too. I sometimes find the minor characters interchangeable and the writing is more serviceable than brilliant, but the good far outweighs those issues.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Better Part of Darkness by Kelly Gay

I started this one late last night--like, "read the first chapter before bed" kind of late--and finished it tonight. That really sums up the thing: it's light-weight, keeps moving at a good clip, and is compelling enough to keep the reader from doing other (no doubt more important) things.

Being modern urban fiction, there's a lot in here that borrows heavily from--or at least resonates strongly with--other contemporary series. Fortunately, there are enough differences to keep it from feeling at all like a knock off.

The setting first, since that's probably the most novel part. Some brilliant scientist managed to rip a hole in dimensions--never mind that, okay?--and discovered that there are at least two other worlds out there, populated with living beings and complex societies and all that. One, Elysia, is a rough analog to what we call heaven; the other, Charbydon, is a bit like hell. The theory is that our old heaven-and-hell mythos came about long ago when the worlds still mingled. Now that the dimensional rip thing has happened, they're mingling again. Creatures from the other worlds are coming here in some quantity, though Elysia won't let many humans go through to there (and no one really wants to go to Charbydon). It's a little hokey, sure, but it's easily as stable a premise as any other UF series builds on.

Then there's the protagonist: a tough-as-nails human female cop working in an "integration task force"--that is, a division that's supposed to help with human/nonhuman problems. Sound a little like Murphy from Dresden? Not dissimilar. Ex-husband, attachment problems, etc. Except that the MC here is turning weird: after a death and mysterious resurrection, she's picked up inexplicable and erratic superpowers (maybe a little like Greatest American Hero, if you remember that show, but with more death and blood and stuff).

And the "urban" part. Has to be a big city, right? We've got series based in Chicago, Minneapolis, New York... this one's in Atlanta. It doesn't really feel at all like Atlanta, though, except for the one throw-away reference to Georgia Tech students. Where Dresden posits a "Chicago underworld" composed of sunken houses' and businesses' first floors and tunnels, here there's an "Atlanta underground". This one's a little more plausible, though: it's closer to a Chinatown than anything, with no hidden entrances and shops that cater to three worlds' worth of people.

Some of the characters' reactions plucked a foul chord or two, and the triumphant resolution sounded a little sour: the final battle seemed a little easy, for example, with the big baddie doing totally nada. And a lot of strings were left untied, but that's forgivable since this is clearly the start of a series.

Anyway, if you're into urban fantasy this is probably a good one to pick up. I'll be buying the sequel.

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier

I picked this one up because of the title and the cover, and because the main idea seemed interesting. In the book's world, almost everyone has what they call a fairy--although no one's ever seen a fairy. Some people have a finding-loose-change fairy, or a never-getting-lost fairy. Main character Charlie (short for Charlotte) has a parking fairy, which means any car she's in will always get a great parking space. Charlie, who is fourteen, is sick of being borrowed by family members and friends when they're going somewhere. At the book's opening, she's been walking everywhere for two months in an attempt to starve her fairy out and get a new one.

That's a great concept, but it's what Larbalestier does with it that makes this book fantastic. Charlie has problems beyond her fairy: she loves basketball, but she blew the team tryouts; she's got more than just a crush on her new neighbor, Stefan, but she's not sure where she stands with him; and, of course, walking everywhere has made her late for class often enough that she's racking up demerits. She's desperate enough to get rid of her fairy even if it means asking for help from her arch-enemy, Fiorenze, a girl who has an all-the-boys-like-you fairy.

Charlie is tough but likable, funny without being snarky. The worldbuilding is excellent too--I thought this would be a fantasy, but it's far more science fictional. Charlie is a first year student at a sports school in what seems to be a city-state called Avalon; people in Avalon are so wrapped up in their city that they scarcely know (or care) anything about other cities. This combined with the strict rules of Charlie's school--ten hour school days, six days a week--give the book a slightly oppressive feel. It works with the story, though.

I've never read a book quite like this one. I'm not doing it a bit of justice with this review. I highly recommend How to Ditch Your Fairy.

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

His name was Deogratias, or "thanks be to God" in Latin. The reader meets Deo as he is boarding an airplane that will take him away from the slaughter (where a million people died) in Rwanda and his homeland, Burundi, a genocidal war fought between the Tutsi and the Hutu.

Deo had been a third-year medical student at the top of his class when he escaped Africa and, thanks to the kindness of a wealthy classmate's family, flew to New York City on a business visa (he was told to say he was in America to sell coffee).

He had $200 in his pocket and spoke only French.

A baggage handler at the airport offered Deo space in his apartment, which in fact was only a squatter's room in the worst part of upper New York City.

Deo learned rudimentary English by studying a French-English dictionary. His money gone, he managed to find a job delivering groceries for $15 a day, working for a contemptuous manager who poked him with a long pole to get his attention. When Deo's benefactor, the baggage handler, returned to Africa, Deo began sleeping at night in hidden places in Central Park. He found it peaceful--trees and stars and grass, like Africa.

Not only did Deo experience loneliness and cruelty in America, but he also endured appalling memories of the last months in Burundi. He slept poorly, was always afraid, and saw no hope for a future.

He prayed to God to end his life.

Then Deo met a kind nun who reached out to help him, and within two years, amazingly and miraculously, Deo was enrolled in Columbia University...

How the kindness and support of strangers served as catalysts to transform his bleak future is the central part of Kidder's book.

But this astonishing true story doesn't end with Deo's triumphant entry into an ivy league university: Kidder also follows Deo, now a graduate student in the public health field, on a journey back to his past, where he finds some of his family still living; and he describes Deo's intense efforts to help build medical facilities for his people.

Although often uncomfortable to read, Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains is a superb accounting of a single human life that endures and triumphs in the face of overwhelming trauma.

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