Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: Royal Assassin

Royal Assassin Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ll repeat my earlier conclusion in this, the second of Hobb’s Farseer trilogy: after George R.R. Martin, she is the most capable person writing in this slice of the fantasy genre. She has a clear vision of the world she’s describing, she has the ability to move a plot forward (though, given the constraints of the way the genre is marketed, she does so very slowly), and she has a sense of deep detail. When you read her stuff, you get a sense of the very specific economy of the seven duchies. You see what it means to run a stable, to make and market your scented candles, or to learn the hard lessons of how to fight. Many of her competitors try, but they fall far short of what she accomplishes. She runs on, but she does so in a careful survey of the world she’s invented.

On top of that, in this volume particularly, she is using her “system of magic” (a term I don’t like since it treats something potentially wondrous like an algebra problem) to explore a legitimate, human question: to what extent are we “selves” in the sense of being locked in our own experience, and to what extent are we connected to others who are sorting out what it means to be alive.

One of the magics in play here, the wit, is precisely that. It’s an extra sense that allows you to know what animals are experiencing. In its extreme form, it means “bonding” to an animal, making an alliance with a creature very different from yourself and thereafter seeing the world through two sets of senses.

Hobb is at her best and most compelling here when she brings that material out. The scenes where Fitz comes to bond with his wolf, Night Eyes, are among the best. Hobb avoids the easy way of describing it, avoids the notion that getting to see through a wolf’s eyes is somehow an addition to oneself. Instead, she makes clear that it exacts a price. It’s too much like love, too close to giving ones full self over, to be something that is merely empowering.

We get the voice of Burrich who knows to fear the wit, who knows the potential for it to turn a man into an animal. Fitz insists he’s wrong, but we see enough to know that Burrich has a point. Giving that much of yourself to anyone – even in the more conventional sense of dedicating oneself to king or country – is somehow wrong. I almost used the word “sinful,” but that’s not quite right. The concept is more fundamental, more a matter of deep gut instinct than any larger system of ethics.

We get a parallel concern in the way ‘the skill’ works. At its best, in the hands of Prince Verity, it allows someone to send his or her strength to others. (It also allows someone to beguile another, but Verity makes clear that such magic isn’t to his taste, even as he spends much of the book practicing it.) It lets you give of yourself to others in ways that simultaneously deplete you. For Verity, it’s also about love, loving his subjects, but it’s wearing him out.

So, with those kinds of ideas in play and the rich detail that Hobb gives, this middle book in the trilogy sustains the strong work of the first book. I can’t entirely forgive what seems like unnecessary slowness, but I did find myself caught up in the action as Fitz found himself going up against Regal and his coterie.

If you don’t care for the genre – and there is enough silliness inherent in it that I get your concern – this isn’t the one to start with. If you’ve enjoyed Game of Thrones, though, this is better than any of the dozens of door-stopper imitators and wannabes I’m aware of.

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Review: Dr. Wortle's School

Dr. Wortle's School Dr. Wortle's School by Anthony Trollope
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm a big Trollope fan. I think the Warden is one of the great works of the Victorian era (or, really, any era), and I have enjoyed some of the bigger ones like Barchester Towers and The Eustace Diamonds a lot. So, as part of my first trip to London, I thought I'd try a new one.

I'd always understood that Trollope is eerily consistent, that just as he sat down and wrote every day, he also maintained a consistent level of excellence throughout his career. This one is very late, though, and all I can think to say about it is that it's Trollope jumping the shark.

For starters, there's something formulaic about this. We get a romance as a secondary plot, but it feels like a fill-in-the-blank exercise. Our sort-of protagonist, Dr. Wortle, has a daughter who's not only pure but blandly obedient. When her "lover" expresses interest in her, all she can think to say is that she's never thought of him in that way. She's a perfect Victorian type -- outside of playing tennis with the young man, she's shown him no interest and merely waited to be acted upon. There's no spark at all to their "affair"; instead, it just seems to fill space in a largely empty novel.

I gave it a shot in the first place because the introduction by John Halperin insisted that it creates and explores a profound ethical situation: what happens when an individual suspects that the majority of people in a culture are wrong in their certainty that someone else is at fault. (I also gave it a shot for its great opening line, "The Rev. Jeffrey Wortle, D.D., was a man much esteemed by others, -- and by himself.")

The trouble is, there's nothing unsubtle about that situation. Dr. Wortle's assistant head of school, Mr. Peacock, has accidentally married a woman whose husband may be alive. Or he may be dead. In any case, Peacock has acted only in entirely above board ways. He's never set out to deceive anyone, and his offense -- marrying a woman whose first husband was a drunk and who abandoned her -- seems not merely dated but a strawman crime as well.

It's an undramatic dramatic setting and then, to compound all the other narrative sins, it spends much of the second half with Mr. Peacock traversing the United States to find the proof he needs of his wife's ex-husband's death. Trollope is good -- at his best he's one of the all-time greats -- but he has no conception of how to describe an American cowboy. Imagine, for instance, Mr. Peacock finding himself in a near knife fight; it's like Downton Abbey working in a brief mafia plot.

There are still some wonderful flashes of verbal economy, sentences like that first one that capture a top-notch mind in the midst of moving a story forward, but the overall structure here falls two or three full notches below Trollope at his best.

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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Review: Assassin's Apprentice

Assassin's Apprentice Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is as close as any contemporary writer I know gets to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones work. I mean that as praise – and I certainly enjoyed reading this – but it’s tainted a little by the fundamental problem of the genre: books that seem bulked up just to feel weighty.

Some people refer to what Martin and Hobb and their rivals are doing as “high fantasy,” fantasy that deals with the politics of competing kingdoms, but I wonder whether it might be better simply to call it “fat fantasy.” We’re invited to read, and read, and read some more about a world different from our own. The joy of it is getting lost in an imaginary place, one reminiscent of our own but also full of possibilities we can never know. That generally means magic, swords, and exotic creatures.

Some of the best-sellers in the field take that imperative of the genre, start at ’10,’ and then amp it up higher still. In the days when audio books meant bundles of cassette tapes you could get only at the public library, I went through a lot of those writers. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth, and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Covenant – to say nothing of R.A Salvatore or Brandon Sanderson whom I’ve skipped – all seem to follow the same pattern. While there may be occasional jokes, the books themselves are fundamentally humorless. They learn that from Tolkien, of course, but they don’t bring his deeper substance. Instead, we get lurid stories of entire worlds at risk from some dark evil.

Martin solved that problem by doing away with “good” and “evil” altogether. His battles are between equally flawed people. Joe Abercrombie does some of the same in his First Law stuff, and to his credit, he brings a sustained irony to the stuffy business. But, in some ways, Hobb is simply a better writer of “fat fantasy” right now than anyone other than Martin. Her books are loooong, but they’re subtle, too. And not even Martin is especially subtle.

What Hobb does best is take the convention and rebuild it from the ground up. The conflicts we see aren’t universe-shaking. They’re rivalries within and between kingdoms. The kingdoms aren’t glittering empires like Tolkien’s; instead, they’re reasonable states that flourish or fall because of a rich but accessible economy. Martin does something similar, of course, but his characters are facing apocalypse. Hers are just wrestling with saving their own lives and possibly keeping the kingdom from falling into the hands of a narcissist.

Her magic isn’t overwhelming. (Another positive feature of Martin and Abercrombie.) There’s a consistency in “the wit” and “the skill.” Each offers power but ultimately turns on making it possible for someone no longer to be alone. It’s a notion of radical communion, tempered by the possibility of the strong controlling the weak, and it gives the novels a dash of philosophy: what does it mean to be closed within ones self when it’s possible to imagine weaving into another consciousness. That plays out at the level of the ‘magic,’ but more impressively it plays out in the larger story as well. The conflict between princes is all about whether to trust others or not, whether, as Black Panther puts it, to build bridges or put up barriers when things get troubling.

And, most impressively, Hobb makes the “fat-ness” of such fantasy relevant as well. Instead of what they call “world-building” – which I take as providing material that ought to be in footnotes – she takes time to admire a world that already feels built. Her best descriptions aren’t exotic but homely. She makes the smells and sounds of a stable come alive. She describes rooms that aren’t that different from the ones of our own world. She talks of a loneliness that’s familiar in the midst of a world that gestures toward the strange.

Anyway, there is a story here, one that unfolds very slowly. Hobb is a gifted enough writer to pull that narrative tease off, though, and the final quarter brings it all to a head. (And, semi-spoiler, the end is a deeply satisfying gesture to the power of “the wit,” that first and more natural power that Fitz discovers.)

This is roughly 450 pages and, in the end, it really just sets up the volumes that follow. I’ve read one of those out of sequence, and I know it holds up as well. So, as a bottom line, know what you’re getting into. This is long and slow, but it’s as good as the genre has given us. I always feel a little guilty surrendering to this sort of narrative, but I also know – in the hands of someone as talented as Hobb – that I’m not going to get let down here.

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Review: The Dispatcher

The Dispatcher The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Several years ago, on the strength of something I started and gave up on almost immediately, I pegged Scalzi as a genre hack. I can’t remember what I read, but I know it reminded me of what I think of as the worst in fantasy: something that took itself too seriously, felt bloated, and depended on trite elements of the form.

Lately, though, I’ve been hearing things that made me think I might have miscast him. Someone somewhere praised his more recent non-fantasy series, and then this book came up on sale and mercifully short. So, I gave it a shot.

In praise of this, I did finish it. What’s more, I admire the root premise: it’s a world where something has changed so that anyone murdered by another returns to life. I grant the intriguing possibilities of that potentially supernatural phenomenon. I further grant that it’s an interesting move to imagine specialists in killing in such a changed world. These dispatchers kill people – usually in hospitals – so they will avoid natural deaths and thereby return to life.

But that’s about where my admiration stops. There’s a mystery in place, but there’s little grace in its exposition or its solution. It’s set in Chicago so, of course, it involves the mob. It also involves hot dogs and the best toppings for them, however briefly. And there’s a cop with whom our protagonist reluctantly partners. None of that material is especially compelling or memorable.

Worse, Scalzi barely mines the implications of his premise. He has his character embrace a too-easy agnosticism. When someone asks if the phenomenon of such resurrections is proof of the divine, he suggests a better proof would be for people to stop wanting to kill each other. That’s a good line, but it suggests a disappointing lack of interest in something so profound.

Since anyone who murders someone provokes this response, it isn’t clear why we need specialists like Valdez. Wouldn’t it make sense for doctors just to kill patients whose operations they’ve botched? Why bring in an outsider when anyone could do it?

In an even more glaring oversight, there’s no real consideration about the change in the value of a life if it’s suddenly so much harder to get killed. Beyond the theological implications, there ought to be existential ones: what does it mean to be alive if, suddenly, we get more chances at life than just the one? I’m not asking for Sartre, but I am asking for something along the lines of the excellent insights of Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

Anyway, I’m willing to bump Scalzi up one notch from the pay-no-mind-at-all level I first assigned him to, but I’m not persuaded to try any more of his work.

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Review: The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy

The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine T. Bettinger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is, essentially, a text book for a class you teach yourself. I walked into it with a scattered and decent sense of what DNA can tell me as a prospective genealogist, and I finished it with a much fuller grounding. There’s a lot I have to go back and get down more clearly, but I’m solid enough with all of this that I could tell an absolute beginner the differences between the commercially available DNA tests.

There’s not a whole lot more to say than that. Bettinger does what he promises he’ll do. The charts are clear, his language is straightforward, and I sense that some of the more detailed discussions will be useful if I ever pursue some of these questions in an applied way.

I understand that this is the definitive book on the subject, at least at this moment. I’m sure this will be dated within a few years – the science is evolving (as Bettinger clearly and intriguingly explains) and much of the approach here is tied to the commercial offerings of 23andme,, and Family Tree DNA, which will, almost certainly, change rapidly to meet new consumer demand – but that’s fine.

If, like me, you couldn’t find a single place to get all the answers, this is that place. It’s going on my shelf, and I expect I’ll be consulting it.

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Review: God Bless America: Stories

God Bless America: Stories God Bless America: Stories by Steve Almond
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wonder if it’s possible to have too much talent. (It would be nice to think that was one of my problems, wouldn’t it?) That possibility comes to mind because, as strong as almost every story in this collection is, there’s a sense in which they don’t quite fit together. Almond has so many different arrows in his quiver – so many different kinds of strong stories he can work on – that some of these feel as if they undermine others.

I met Almond very quickly at the beginning of the summer, and he is staggeringly gifted as a reader. He has mastered what I think of as the “manic style,” and when he’s writing in that mode he is in the conversation for being as good as anyone I know who’s going now.

The best example of that style in this collection is “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” in which a psychotherapist gets drawn into playing high stakes poker against one of his former patients. I love being able to describe the story so neatly and to feel the humor and tension that spill out of the premise alone. Even better, Almond has a way of writing sentences that go on a beat longer than you’d think, that push something that looks like the everyday into absurd, manic dimensions. As you read, you almost run out of breath and then, when that extra tacked-on fragment arrives, you laugh enough that you do become breathless.

Take for example the last sentence of this excerpt: “Oss was secretly thrilled to be treating Sharpe. The depth of his rage was refreshing. It returned Oss to his adolescence, to the loathing he had so lavishly apportioned to his own father, who sold hardware, who developed pathetic infatuations with his prominent customers.” It’s almost like overhearing someone else’s therapy, as if our speaker can’t help clumsily revealing too much about himself as he talks.

Another good example of stories in this manic style is “Not Until You Say Yes” in which an older TSA worker is assigned to look after a con-artist kid who’s doing everything he can to delay flying cross county to a father who doesn’t really want to see him. Our TSA worker comes both to admire the kid and to resent him; she feels a flicker of a maternal impulse, but she also wants to get back to her own life. The more she suspects she’s being manipulated, though, the more she respects the kid for his savvy and even deeper emotional neediness. It’s a sad story in many ways – Almond is generally sad even beneath the mania – but it moves quickly and it’s compelling.

Toward the second half, though, these stories tend to come in a very different form. There are a handful that turn on Jewish themes – “A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve,” “Hagar’s Sons,” and “A Dream of Sleep” – but none of them quite fit the manic style that seems Almond’s signature. They are solid stories, stories I’d be proud to have written, but they don’t have quite the same distinctive feel as many of the earlier ones. I’d probably admire a collection comprised exclusively of such stories, but they bring a seriousness in tone and style that, next to those earlier ones, feels decidedly unfunny. Almond is never merely about making you laugh, but he’s great at evoking the nervous laughter of the discomfort that comes before disappointment or disaster. In these “Jewish” stories, though, there’s none of that leavening, none of the sugar that makes the horseradish go down. (Maybe I should call these Jewish stories the “matzoh stories” since they are unleavened in such fashion.)

And, finally, if I’m being honest, I simply don’t like “First Date Back,” in which a returning Iraq War vet moves clumsily toward assaulting the flight attendant who’s welcomed him back when there’s no one else to meet him. It’s a disturbing story, and I don’t think Almond quite earns the credibility it takes to level such a serious account in a context so removed from everything else he’s written about. Even here there’s plenty of skill, but it’s so out of the focus of the rest of the work that it distracts from the effect of the whole in yet another direction.

I plan to continue reading Almond’s work, but it may be a while before I go for a full collection. At his best, in that manic mode, he’s doing something I envy and admire; he’s finding a new voice for the short story that makes you laugh, think, and feel. The rest of this is generally good, but its “ordinary impressiveness” makes clear how much better that best work is.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: You Will Know Me

You Will Know Me You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one has been on my list since it came out more than a year ago when a student (thanks, Callie) recommended it to me. I’m glad I waited, though, because outside of a Summer Olympics when the gymnasts get their quadrennial two weeks of fame, this Winter Olympics with its analogous figure skaters is the perfect backdrop for reading this.

As I see it, Megan Abbott is the premier woman writing in noir. I loved her afterward to Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place because it showed the conscious ways in which she sees the potential for bringing a female perspective to the form and its generic concerns. She’s a good writer, that’s clear. More impressively, she’s reinventing the genre in ways I certainly couldn’t imagine.

In place of a detached tough guy who enters a mystery in the capacity of detective – whether formally a detective or incidentally – we get a mother who’s already hip-deep in the world of her family and her child-prodigy daughter’s elite gymnastics world. She isn’t glimpsing some deep unsettling ‘noir’ truth; she’s encountering the dark, then darker, then darkest side of the seemingly perfect family she’s nurtured.

I don’t want to give too much away in the form of spoilers, but this begins with Katie dimly suspecting something dark in the spangled world of her daughter’s gymnastics. There’s a hit-and-run accident – which may not be an accident – and it becomes increasingly clear that it’s connected to an effort to maintain the fa├žade of innocence in their gymnastics world. First we suspect one person, then another, and then finally the real culprit – and it’s the last person we’d have imagined, the one who most represents the supposed happy world. Abbott gets us from one of those suspects to another, gradually unpeeling the red herrings until we’re confronted with what we don’t want to see.

I can see criticizing this for moving slowly. I thought it dragged early, and Callie warned me that it would. She also urged me to stick it out, and I’d glad I did. There may still be room for some tightening in the text early – I don’t want to be too presumptuous with Abbott, who’s taught me to admire her – but I suspect the power of the ending comes in part through its contrast with that carefully sketched world of the opening chapters.

By the end, I found myself holding my breath. It wasn’t a matter of being afraid to find out who did it – Abbott had prompted that realization pretty carefully in the final quarter of the novel. Instead, it had to do with realizing that she really had the guts to end this on such a dark and damning tone.

I admire Abbott in part because her sense of noir incriminates all of us. Here, Katie is a “good mother,” yet that fundamental pose leads her to endorse the worst sorts of crime. This book not only condemns the world of pushed-and-posed girls gymnastics, but it calls into question how complicit we are in our family’s crimes when we justify them in the name of being a parent.

That is a very long way from The Continental Op or Philip Marlowe, but it’s a provocative extension of the same fearless ethical inquiry into how we justify our decisions in the Modern world. I thought Abbott’s Queenpin was really good, but this is even more ambitious. Now, everything she’s written is on my list.

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