Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Five Book Reviews

Sense and Sensibility
by Jane Austen
Recommended Ages: 12+

Originally titled Elinor and Marianne, this book's final title refers to the same two sisters. Elinor, the eldest of three Dashwood girls, believes in governing her emotions with restraint and good sense. Marianne, like their widowed mother, wears her heart on her sleeve and would regard a lack of "sensibility" (i.e., outward demonstrations of emotion) as a betrayal of her noble feelings. Elinor believes in being discreet, keeping confidences, and sparing other people pain no matter how much it hurts herself; Marianne believes in all kinds of romantic ideas, such as the impossibility of falling a second time after once being passionately in love. As both sisters are tested in love and the hope of marriage, each learns the limits and drawbacks of her philosophy.

The girls' father wished, on his deathbed, that they be well taken care of. Nevertheless their hypocritical half-brother and his greedy wife have done as little as they can for Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters. Supported by a meager income, the ladies move to a cottage in Devonshire, owned by a distant cousin who occupies the nearby manor house. There, in a series of visits, dinner parties, and country walks they get mixed up in a romantic comedy that strains Elinor's composure and runs Marianne through the emotional mangle.

All right, so Edward Ferrars loves Elinor, but he can't marry her because (a) his snobby mother wouldn't approve the match, and (b) he has already promised himself to an even less suitable girl named Lucy. The despicable Lucy puts Elinor in the painful position of having to give comfort to the person who is breaking her heart. But she won't let on that it hurts, because she doesn't want to make everyone feel worse, since Marianne shows every sign of dying of a broken heart thanks to a handsome scoundrel named Willoughby. And don't let's forget Colonel Brandon, who in spite of his advanced age of thirty-six, seems to have romantic intentions toward one of the sisters.

So the well-to-do heir of the Ferrars fortune must risk being cut off entirely, and adopting the life of an impoverished clergyman, in order to make one woman happy... but which will it be? Colonel Brandon, a well-to-do man with a sad secret in his past, wants nothing better than to make one of the Dashwood sisters happy... but which will it be? Some of the characters are playing the marriage game for personal gain, some in hopes of love and happiness, and some (such as Mrs. Ferrars) for family pride and glory. Some of them will lose the game. Some will win, and regret it later. But one thing you can count on: what becomes of Elinor and Marianne will remain in suspense until near the end, and it will challenge their resolutions on "second attachments" and on whether feelings should be expressed or suppressed.

This book was my second visit to the world of Jane Austen, after Pride and Prejudice. I'll admit that I liked it a bit less than Pride and Prejudice. As a main character, Elinor Dashwood didn't have quite the sparkle of Elizabeth Bennet. But it was still a very enjoyable novel, filled with droll characters, acute observations of the attraction and repulsion of social bodies (mainly orbiting the supper table and the drawing room), and the complex laws that govern tricky transactions in the late-18th-century world of feminine emotions, manners, morals, money, rank, and personal honor. It also has a subtle wit that sometimes gleams with a razor edge, as in this bit:
After a proper resistance on the part of Mrs Ferrars, just so violent and so steady as to preserve her from that reproach which she always seemed fearful of incurring, the reproach of being too amiable, Edward was admitted to her presence, and pronounced to be again her son.

Her family had of late been exceedingly fluctuating. For many years of her life she had had two sons; but the crime and annihilation of Edward a few weeks ago, had robbed her of one; the similar annihilation of Robert had left her for a fortnight without any; and now, by the resuscitation of Edward, she had one again.

In spite of his being allowed once more to live, however, he did not feel the continuance of his existance secure, till he had revealed his present engagement, for the publication of that circumstance, he feared, might give a sudden turn to his constitution, and carry him off as rapidly as before.
I would have laughed heartily at this, even before the publication of the recent spoof novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which inspired me to think: "This calls for Sense and Sensibility and Vampires!" Ha, ha. Seriously, though, Jane Austen writes in a highly engaging style. She makes you care about her characters and their emotional entanglements. She makes you grin at their foibles, pointed up with such ready wit.

And should anyone complain that Austen's books don't set a good enough example for today's young women, do consider that they view reality entirely from the point of view of young women. In Austen's time, social convention prevented women from discussing social and political issues. So the focus is entirely on the human dynamics of men and women relating to each other. Plus, Austen herself knew so little about what men discussed among themselves that there isn't a single scene, in all of her works, in which a female character is not present. (I owe this factoid to an editorial preface to Emma, which I am reading now.) Compare that to the many male-centered fantasy-adventure books that make you forget that women exist, and then ask yourself: which type of fantasy brings more joy to young women?

To a modern-day reader (of either sex) the world of Jane Austen is a wonderful fantasy world, all the more wonderful because of its place in our history. And though the heroes and heroines in each of her novels quest for nothing more than marital happiness (perhaps with a side of financial security), they are not banal. Such a grail remains elusive today, in spite of the "progress" our society has made in sexual freedom. This novel proves that pursuit of that grail, in a fantasy world where honor and purity matter, can still be vibrantly entertaining and true to life.

London Calling
by Edward Bloor
Recommended Ages: 12+

Such books as Tangerine, Crusader, and Story Time have made the name of Edward Bloor synonymous with "Uh-oh, better keep a hanky handy." This book, told by a man in the year 2019 as a memoir of his present-day boyhood, stays true to tradition. It ventures boldly into territory that would scare away most children's authors today. It depicts alcoholism, depression, crisis of faith, broken marriage, survivors' guilt, and school bullying so severe that it makes a boy ill. It tackles historical revisionism, the horrors of war, the death of loved ones, treason, espionage, pimping, and well-known historical figures (such as JFK's father) selling out to the Nazis. It begins in a malfunctioning school setting (also a common theme in Bloor's work), and ventures into big questions such as the possibility of time travel, the existence of angels, and the question everyone will be asked when they die (What did you do to help?)

Put that way, it sounds like an awfully heavy book: maybe too heavy to pick up. But it actually isn't. Through the main character, Martin Conway, we see an intelligent mind questioning established beliefs and, instead of rejecting the beliefs, learning to live with the questions. We see a boy crushed by shame and depression, then pulled into an adventure so strange that he fears for his own sanity. We see a complex father-son relationship, a passive victim learning to stand up for himself, a young man whose destiny seems predestined taking control and breaking free of his family's sacred history. But all that merely adds emotional depth to what is basically a story about a kid who, aided by a vintage radio, goes back in time and witnesses the German bombing of London in 1940. And somehow, even without being able to affect anything that happened in the past, Martin -- or is it Johnny? -- uses what he observes to make a difference.

The fact is, this book works because it isn't about an issue. The fact that all those issues are swirling around in John Martin Conway's life only makes him credible as an American kid of today. And it helps us to care about him, care enough to be moved by his struggle and growth, his disappointments and triumphs. This book will be especially appealing (and challenging) to Catholic youth, with its spin on their church's teaching on heaven, hell, and purgatory. Families of other faiths will be challenged to consider and discuss what it implies about what happens after death and why.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
by Patricia A. McKillip
Recommended Ages: 14+

I had this book on my shelf for several years before I got around to reading it. When one of my co-workers saw me reading it in the break room he said, "I've had that book on my shelf for years, but I've never gotten around to reading it." Now, I realize this doesn't constitute a scientific poll, but I reckon there are a lot of people who can say the same thing. If you've been tripping over The Forgotten Beasts of Eld while deciding what to read next, stop. Pull it down from that shelf, crack it open, and read the first chapter. You may be surprised at how hard it is to put down.

Patricia McKillip's choice of words isn't always ideal. She was the author I had in mind when I kvetched that one should use "often" instead of "frequently," "always" instead of "perpetually," and so on. But these little slips were the exception, not the rule. I wouldn't have noticed them if they hadn't stuck out like a few lumps in an otherwise smooth batter. On the contrary, every page of McKillip's prose is a garden of delight for the senses. Her writing is sheer poetry, though not in verse form. And her story is poetic too, worthy of a Greek playwright, with an elegant dramatic shape and a way of drawing you into its emotional connections. It is passionate, touching, dangerous stuff that makes the breath catch in your throat. At both the level of words and sentences, and that of the overall plot, it is writing transformed into magic.

And still, you have no idea what the story is about. Would you read it if I didn't tell you? I should hope so. But let me clinch the deal by mentioning that it is about a wizard woman named Sybel, who lives on a lonely mountaintop with a menagerie of magical creatures whom she, like her father and grandfather before her, holds to her will through her power of calling things by name. Into her lonely sanctuary comes a man whose family has been fighting for the throne of Eldwold. Coren presses an infant into her arms, telling her to raise the child with love, and to protect him from being used as a royal pawn by King Drede and his counselors.

Young Tamlorn grows up chasing goats on the mountainside, getting his skinned knees treated by the local witch, and teaching Sybel to love with all her heart. But the outside world and its conflicting interests soon intrude. Drede comes to fetch his son and prepare him to be king. Coren comes to fetch Sybel and make her his wife. And in between, an evil wizard plays a trick on Sybel that will unsettle everything. Because of this, a young wizard woman who has but slowly learned to love, quickly learns to hate. Her anger threatens to ignite a war in which the two people she loves most will be sworn enemies.

You will feel Sybel's bitter, burning anger. You will cringe as the shadow of great tragedy draws near. And you will swiftly accept each surprise revelation that will decide what becomes of Sybel's love and hate. Meanwhile, you may enjoy the company of her strange, mythical beasts, such as the boar of wisdom and the giant, protective hawk. Some of the creatures she summons are more disturbing, particularly the one whose name is best spoken backward, just to be safe.

Because it depicts two contrasting magical professions -- namely, wizard and witch -- you may appreciate having an Occult Content Advisory to prepare you for the spiritually and ethically questionable magics you will find herein. But if you can tolerate a bit of hocus-pocus, in the service of a poetically rich fantasy tale, you'll be glad you finally pulled The Forgotten Beasts of Eld out of your bookcase.

Od Magic
by Patricia A. McKillip
Recommended Ages: 14+

I really must be more careful about how I throw around words like "best" and "favorite." But from a fairly early chapter in this book, I was already thinking about using them in this review. Let's call it the best book I have read since the last book I anointed "best of the year so far." If you're a mature Harry Potter fan, looking out for something similar, yet ready to sink your teeth into heavier and headier fare, I think you'll be equally pleased. For here is a story about a school of magic -- but one in an altogether original fantasy world, flavored with exotic spices and tinged with Patricia McKillip's unique style of poetic prose.

How can I begin to summarize this tale? It's got an awful lot going on. But I suppose your first question will be why the first word of the title is spelled with only one d. That's because "Od" is the name of a wizard, a female wizard, who started the school of magic in Kelior, the capital city of the kingdom of Numis. Since Od saved Numis from being overthrown in battle, the king permitted her to open her school in the shadow of his palace, and under royal protection. Hundreds of years later, the practice of magic in Numis has become so closely tied to the throne that only magic done in service of the king, and under the guidance of his royal wizards, is allowed.

Problem No. 1: Od is still alive and moving around the country, surrounded by animals she has helped and healed. No one sees her for years at a time. The last person to glimpse her was a young wizard named Yar, 19 years ago, just after he had saved the city from another dire threat. Yar was on his way to study at Od's school when he spotted a monster attacking the city, and stopped it using powers he didn't know he had. His reward (from Od) was to enter her school through the elusive "door under the shoe," through the abandoned cobbler's shop where the school was first started. Yar's reward from the king was to have all magical initiative, curiosity, and creativity trained out of him, and to be kept at the school as a teacher so that the king's wizards could keep an eye on him.

Problem No. 2: Brendan Vetch, the school's new gardener, has amazing powers even he doesn't know about. The first person since Yar to see Od and to find the door under the shoe, Brendan just wants to talk to plants. He doesn't realize that the weight of loneliness and grief inside him is actually a huge source of power. Doesn't realize, that is, until a fire breaks out, and Brendan unthinkingly uses that power to stop it. His reward is to become an outlaw, hunted by the king's men as a threat to the royal monopoly on magic.

Problem No. 3: Tyramin, a mysterious master of illusion, sweeps into town with a troupe of dancers and jugglers, enchanting the senses of the citizens with a display of swirling silks, sparks, flames, flights of birds, and showers of flowers. Some say he uses real magical power to pull off his illusions. If so, then he too is committing a crime against the king. But when one of the top police officers in the city goes to investigate Tyramin's powers, he falls under the spell of the magician's daughter.

Problem No. 4: The king's daughter Sulys has been learning her great-grandmother's brand of "little magics" from a faraway country. How will she keep this a secret when she is supposed to marry Valoren, the king's chief magical adviser? And how can she break this secret to her father and her husband-to-be when they are always too busy to hear a word she says? Sulys tries to get their attention, but as bad luck would have it, the king and his counselors are in an uproar over Tyramin and Brendan -- who they think have abducted her.

Problem No. 5: Do we really need another problem to keep this story moving at a frantic pace? Maybe not, but we get one anyway, when a lady doing research for a biography of Od stumbles across some disturbing clues about the powerful magical beings that live in the northern mountains, within the borders of Numis but outside the king's control. Are they a threat that must be destroyed, or an opportunity for discovery and wonder? This will become the burning question as Brendan, Yar, and Valoren converge on them in a race to determine what future magic will have in the kingdom of Numis.

Magic, mystery, a state crisis, romantic complications, and a series of perfectly-timed misunderstandings combine to make all these problems as tricky as they can be, all at the same time. The city of Kelior fills up with policemen, wizards, and soldiers serving conflicting agendas, searching for people who aren't missing, turning innocent people into desperate fugitives. Lovers find their loyalties tested. Students, teachers, rulers, and subjects find their roles reversed. And all of it happens amid the glittering, perfumed glory of McKillip's prose.

For the sake of full disclosure, I'm putting out an Occult Content Advisory on this book. At least some of the magic in it seems to come from a world outside or before ours, inhabited by indescribable beings whose thoughts exist beyond language. Some of the magic involves talking to plants and animals, and listening to what they say back. There is a bit of divination in it, and the character of Od resembles the holy figures of certain religious traditions as she slips into and out of history, sometimes in disguise.

But as I say all this, I know too well that it will increase more people's interest in the book than otherwise. And that's all right. For, though I distrust some of the spiritual implications of this book, I enjoyed it for its value as art and entertainment. In fact, I enjoyed it enough to deem it one of the best handful of books I have read this year. That's odd magic indeed!

Night Watch
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 14+

Several years ago, I read straight through the first 26 Discworld novels. My reviews of them, spread out between here, here, here, and here, were essentially the egg out of which the Book Trolley hatched. So I owe a lot to Discworld. Nevertheless, I haven't cracked a single book in the series since then, the Tiffany Aching trilogy excepted. I have been content to let subsequent installments in Pratchett's fantasy-philosophy-humor extravaganza pile up on my shelf, so that I can guiltily look at them while I pick other things to read.

Why did I stop reading Discworld? Any answer that I can give must have the word "momentum" in it. But the only excuse that really matters is that I have been reading other books. Hundreds of them. Why did I start reading Discworld again? At least partly, I was prompted by the news that Terry Pratchett had decided to stop writing them. He really has no choice, since Alzheimer's disease is taking the ability from him. Little as I suspect he believes in prayer, I ask my faithful readers to "do a lap around the rosary" for Mr. Pratchett and his loved ones.

The news of his condition is deeply saddening, but this book will cheer you up. Published in 2002, it shows the author still in full possession of his gifts as a storyteller and humorist. And since I haven't visited Discworld since 2002 or -03, it's worth saying that it took me no time to get back into it. The characters of Sam Vimes, Carrot, Nobby, Fred Colon, Lord Vetinari, etc., reprised their roles in my mental cinema without any need for lengthy recap. They came to life again, and immediately began to entertain, as if six or seven years hadn't passed since my mind's eye last opened on the city of Ankh-Morpork.

Appropriately, this book takes City Watch Commander Vimes back to an Ankh-Morpork he only distantly remembers. As he pursues a serial killer across the rooftop of Unseen University's library, Vimes and his suspect are transported back in time by a freak magical accident. Desperate to get back to his own time, Vimes makes a deal with the "history monks" to see the city through a tricky historical crossroads. First he must insinuate himself into the Night Watch, where he meets himself as a rookie copper. The elder Vimes quickly realizes that he must play the role of the seasoned veteran who taught his younger self everything he knows!

But that's not the tricky part. The tricky part has to do with a riot that marks the end of one Patrician's reign and the beginning of another's. The old Patrician, Lord Winder, has grown so paranoid that his latest laws will lead, inevitably, to a revolt. Disarming the citizens, enforcing a strict curfew, allowing his soldiers to fire on peaceful demonstrators, and creating a "law within the law" whose enforcers apply hideous methods of interrogation... it's only a matter of time until Winder gets himself assassinated.

Meanwhile, the people of the city are primed for a riot. Vimes knows it's going to happen, because he has already lived through it once. He knows that the man whose identity he has assumed -- John Keel, a natural leader of men -- will be pivotal in saving many innocent lives. And he knows that before the night of chaos ends, John Keel will be dead.

While Ankh-Morpork's society trembles on the brink of collapse, you will tremble on the edge of your chair or sofa. Vimes has only a handful of days to rise from a stranger found naked in the street to the inspiring leader who kept a quarter of the city safe through a night of cavalry attacks and siege warfare. Only John Keel could forestall a riot between the citizens and police at just that moment in history... only John Keel could organize the denizens of so many barricaded streets to defend themselves... only John Keel could keep the young Samuel Vimes alive, and teach him how to be a good copper, in those few days... and unless Sam Vimes can become John Keel, history will change and the child his wife was about to bring into the world may never exist.

That's enough of a taste, I think, of what this book is about. Rely on Terry Pratchett to make it relentlessly funny, frequently moving, constantly exciting, and endlessly thought-provoking. It has its share of naughty innuendoes, yet the merits of Vimes' philosophy and ethics could stimulate serious debate. Its huge gallery of characters contains fine observations of many personality types, while also leaving plenty of room for broad humor. The plot exhibits many gears of varying shapes and sizes turning at different speeds, yet it all seems to move together smoothly and in order. And the possibility that the Ankh-Morpork we know could be wiped from history, provides material for some really nifty suspense.

It's a good enough book to make you feel really, really bad about what its author is now going through... and really, really good about what he could do, even 27 (or 31?) books into this consistently entertaining series.

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