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August 2005 Archives

August 31, 2005

O'Nan - The Good Wife

Stewart O'Nan
The Good Wife

O'Nan decided to write a novel about the families of the people who are locked up in America's prisons. He met with officials, toured the system, met with the family members, then assembled a composite, tweaked it for narrative interest, and wrote it up as a novel.

The good part: this is a compelling story of a young woman who raises a son while her husband is a guest of the state. We open with her lying in bed, pregnant and recently married, waiting for him to come home. He never comes. We discover that after a few drinks at a bar with his wife and some friends after a hockey game, she went home and he went out with a buddy for a bit of burglary. It went wrong, an old lady dies, and things progress from there. Nan follows the family through the various stages of the trial and then the incarceration. We see the troubles that she goes through trying to hold things together, trying to make ends meet, trying to stay in touch with her husband during a 28 year absence.

The questionable part: the novel is tightly grounded in space, small-town upstate New York. This is good, for we get a good feel for the people and personalities around our heroine, we follow her as she works on the county road crew, as she holds down some retail jobs, as she goes every weekend to visit her husband in a series of prisons. Nan makes it very clear that most of the people in those prisons, like most of the families coming every weekend to visit with them, are poor, black, and from the Southern part of the state. He made the conscious decision to write his novel about a working, white, working-class family. As a result the novel is very good on the emotions and travails of its heroine, but the heroine is closer to the people reading the book than she is to most of the people who are in that situation in real life. This builds sympathy, a good thing, but it does so in a manner that makes me wonder whether Nan believes that his readers would find a black woman a sympathetic subject.

It might be that O'Nan is a white guy from upstate New York who is writing what he knows - I have no idea where he lives, where he comes from, what voices he is comfortable writing. But I did get a scent of Mississippi Burning in the way that O'Nan structured his novel.

That said, it is a compelling story about emotions, change, and struggle. I liked it. I read it compulsively. I found myself thinking about the book long after I finished reading it. Good stuff.

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Red Ted
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August 30, 2005

Cornwell - Starbuck Vols 1-3

Bernard Cornwell
The Starbuck Chronicles, Vols 1-3
The Rebel
Battle Flag (did not finish)

Cornwell did a very nice job of writing about the Napoleonic British army with his Sharpe series. This is an attempt to write a somewhat similar series about the American Civil War. It might just be that I know more about the ACW than I do about Napoleonics, but I found the first series compelling, the second disturbing.

Both series focus on a difficult young man who is also a very good soldier. Sharpe is a gutter-snipe, raised to be an officer after an act of great valor, then struggling in the class and status-bound world of the British Army. Most of the novels are set in Spain and Portugal, most focus around set-piece descriptions of the major campaigns, and the series as a whole roughly re-tells the military career of Arthur Wellesly, Duke of Wellington, through the eyes of a junior officer. The French are villains, the British officer corps is made up of heroes and slugs (in roughly equal measure), and the British soldiers are presented as drunken, violent, thieving bastards who are also brave and well-trained fighting men.

The big problem that Cornwell faces when he tries to adopt this formula to the American Civil War is not so much military as social. After all, the ACW was in large part a war fought using Napoleonic tactics and mid-century technology. The problem comes with heroes and villains, and with slavery. Much of the market for civil war fiction does not want to read about the evils of slavery - they may not defend it, but they want to read things that make the boys in grey sympathetic. There are several ways to handle this problem, most famously the traditional "lost cause" argument that says that the war had nothing to do with slavery but was about states rights, or tariffs, or modernization, or what have you. Cornwell knows better than that.

Instead he makes his hero the disinherited son of a Boston abolitionist, who ends up fighting in the Army of Northern Virginia. He gets to write about someone who dislikes slavery but who wears the grey and fights for the heroic underdogs, the best of both worlds. The father is right out of Birth of a Nation - I forget but I think he even walks with a cane like the Sumner figure from that movie. Some of the other Southerners are involved with slavery, including the not-so-nice drunk and former slave trader who ends up as Starbuck's commander for a while, but by and large this is a set of novels about people who are not involved in slavery but who are fighting in the Confederate Army. And, to be fair, most of the boys in grey were from non-slaveholding families. Still, I would rather have had an honest Thornwell than this half-assed attempt to create anti-slavery confederates. Of course, then you would face the problem of either making racists into sympathetic characters or making the people your readers want to sympathize with into consistent jerks. The first is the more historically accurate solution, but would make the books much harder to write.

Beyond that, it is a fairly straight-forward recounting of the career of the Army of Northern Virginia through the eyes of these fictitious characters from this fictitious unit from a fictitious Virginia county. However, I found the compromises as to setting, allegiance, and alliances to be to distracting. I read two novels, put the third down half finished, and am highly unlikely to pick up anything more in this series.

I give it a mneah: read it if you like this sort of thing, but Sharpe is a cleaner narrative.

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Red Ted
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August 23, 2005

Carey - Banewreaker

Jacqueline Carey
New York : Tor Books, 2004.

I liked Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel trilogy and so I snapped this up the moment I saw it.

Like her first three books, this is a pastiche of common fantasy elements, put together in an unusual mosaic, arranged around plot elements from a romance novel, and then painted with details of b&d. The combination works, at least for me.

What are those elements. There is a family of gods. They quarreled and one was cast out. He is then portrayed as evil, and the peoples of the earth are rallied against him. The novel tells the tale of three of this fallen god's chief servitors, and their actions when it appears that some form of prophecy is about to be fulfilled.

So we have a powerful wizard leading a company of nine on a dark and dangerous quest - including an archer, the last descendent of a line of kings, and a youth carrying a great burden that only he can bear. What makes it interesting is the perspective - the wizard is a manipulating git, the uncrowned king is vain and arrogant (but still heroic), the archer is female, and the burden-carrier is a teenager from a tribe of desert aborigines.

Events progress, tragedies happen, people change and grow, the whole thing is very satisfying. I read this months ago. I just now picked up the second in the trilogy and am looking forward to when it will come to the top of the reading pile.

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Red Ted
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August 17, 2005

Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights, 1997

I liked it.

I wanted to listen to the director's commentary, even though such things are usually pretty much worthless. I will throw the Howard Cosell Memorial foam brick(tm) at the TV the next time I hear a two-minute ramble about making the movie "real." I digress.

The stories is inspired by John Holmes - we see our nebbish from the Valley who stumbles into porn and discovers he is good at it. In fact, it is about the only thing he is good at - the rest is fantasy life and make believe.

What made the movie, for me, was the cast as a whole, especially Burt Reynolds as the producer and Julianne Moore as his wife. I liked that there were a whole mess of folks here, each with their own compelling and consistent story, and their stories were linked but distinctive, strands in a crochet.

What got a little too predictable was that the plot was stolen from VH1. Our hero becomes an overnight success, struggles with fame and fortune, falls into drugs and almost gets caught up in violence - I was convinced at one point that we were going to re-watch the Neverland murders - and finally gets his act together. Sort of - as much as a struggling porn star can be expected to get his act together.

The movie is framed around the legacy of John Holmes, which is good because he was a compelling personality. What they loose from this framing is that, to my understanding, much of the porn business is built around the dynamic of male producer/director/money men and female starlets. That would be a very different movie.

So, some good performances, a cliche'd plot, and a setting and subject matter that has its own little prurient thrill. Give it a good, but not an excellent.

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Red Ted
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August 16, 2005

Greeley - Emerald Magic

Andrew M. Greeley (ed)
Emerald Magic: Great Tales of Irish Fantasy

I am terribly behind on my writeups, since I remember reading this around St. Patrick's Day!

This is a collection of short stories. Like most collections, it was a little spotty.

On the other hand, it had a lot of authors whose stuff I generally like.

I wish I could say more, but all I can remember is the Irish Tiger from the first (and over the top) story, and that I was generally fond of the collection. Greeley is a good editor.

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Red Ted
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August 13, 2005

Zettel - Usurper's Crown

Sarah Zettel
The Usurper's Crown : a novel of Isavalta
New York : Tor, 2003.
ISBN 0312874421

When I pick up one of Sarah Zettel's books I know that I may or may not like the book, but that the book itself will be good. It will be well written. The characters will have plausible motivations. The world will be fleshed out. There will be no plot holes or other flaws in the construction. The entire work will be, well, stable. It may or may not be compelling, but that is a statement about my reading and not her writing.

I found this one compelling.

This is book two of a three-part series about a family of women from Lake Superior who end up crossing between planes to a world of magic. I am sad to say that I let this one sit for a long time before blogging it, and so I forget many of the details, but what I remember I remember fondly.

The narrative involves a princess in the land of magic who has made a terribly bad marriage and whose husband has usurped her power. She tries to get things back, and does so with the help of a loyal wizard and the woman he brings with him from Lake Superior. There are extended meditations on duty and love, and on the relationship between familial expectations and personal action. Both the princess and the American lass face similar tensions, both challenge expectations, but one is more willing than the other to take responsibility. This will have consequences, for as I later learned the princess in the second volume is the old and grasping queen of the first book in the series.

The other interesting twitch is that Zettel leans on the worlds of central European folk myth for the creatures, not gods but powers in this earth, who dominate the space between the worlds. The Vixen is one, Baba Yaga is another. These are familiar yet dreadful creatures, and the characters have to maneuver amidst the plots and counterplots of the supernatural Great Powers.

That's about all I have to say about this one.

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Red Ted
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