Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sister Mine

Sister Mine
by Nalo Hopkinson

Just to get this out of the way: I suspect more of you have read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys than Nalo Hopkinson's Sister Mine (if nothing else because his book came out some years ago), and if you have you will note similarities right away: Twins demigods have to help out their dad, who is in trouble. Of course, stories about the half-kids of gods are nothing new; China Mieville's King Rat belongs to the genre, as does the Percy Jackson series. The thing is: This book is much better than Gaiman's. Anansi Boys isn't his strongest effort, and Sister Mine is more interesting and has better world-building.

The book has several twists, as our (mundane) heroine and her sister fight and reunite as they try to find their father and restore his spirit. This quest involves their extended divine family, some human caretakers, and some plain old humans, many of whom have their own angles on how best to help dad out. Not all those angles intersect with what our the twins want, or what is best for them.

The characters feel fully fleshed out, and the settings are vivid. The book has a great sense of place (and I haven't been to Toronto since I was 9). Moreover, the book had a high barrier to overcome with me; I have an irrational dislike of stories about rock musicians, and this novel cleared that hurdle easily. It's also a fast-moving book, raising questions and answering them only to ask more on the next page.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner

This is, I suppose, not Wallace Stegner's fault, but if the book had been written by a woman, it wouldn't be considered a "literary" novel.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Three Squares

Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal
by Abigail Carroll

At some point in my adult life, I learned that not every culture had a concept of breakfast in the American sense. Lots of cultures had morning meals, but the idea of special foods for that meal was more unusual than not. I felt rather sorry for these societies - realizing full well that was a spectacular act of ethnocentrism on my part.

I turned to Three Squares to find some answers on why American dining is different. It's not a comparative work, although the American meal system is contrasted with the British and Native American styles in the colonial era and the French in the Victorian era. (One key point: Not only is having three meals a day not universal, the concept of a "meal" isn't even universal.) Rather, it's a historical effort, tracing the changes in American eating from colonial times to now.

The big takeaway for me was how differently Americans ate even 150 years ago. We tend to take our meal structure for granted, and even people who should be more creative with it, such as science fiction and fantasy writers for the page and screen, tend not to do anything more creative than promote teatime into a fourth meal.

The book is also full of some fun trivia. "Snack" and "lunch" used to mean the same thing - a snack. The "wonder" in Wonder Bread is that it is sliced. And one of the Kellogg brothers was excommunicated by the Seventh Day Adventist church for adding sugar to Corn Flakes.

Carroll has a PhD in American Studies, and it shows in the writing. The concepts and vocabulary aren't particularly academic and should be accessible to most readers, but the structure of each chapter has more in common with academic prose than creative nonfiction. Readers who don't read a lot of academic prose likely won't notice, though.

I would have liked to see more international comparisons, particularly as the book moved forward in time (are Canadian mealtimes in any way different? What about those Brits?). That said, that is my request, not the book she was trying to write, and to include that would have made it a much larger book.

The downside of this book? I've been wanting to eat nothing but breakfast for the last week.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Steel Spring

The Steel Spring
by Per Wahlöö

I picked up this book on the sale table at Book Culture. My knowledge of Scandinavian crime lit consists solely of (1) I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and (2) It's a big thing, apparently. Needless to say, I hadn't heard of Wahlöö (a double-umlaut author!), who may have invented the genre in concert with his collaboration on the Inspector Martin series, Maj Sjöwall. The Steel Spring is not part of that series; it's actually speculative fiction, set in the near future - at least from the perspective of 1960 - although it is a police procedural. The puzzle is much larger than one dead body, though.

The book handles the speculative element well, unlike many genre books written by authors outside of it. Another book I read recently also featured a dystopian future, one that in many ways was poorly thought out, and I got the sense that the author thought that didn't really matter, because the dystopia was all-too-obviously only a metaphor for today, so why bother? Wahlöö is also extrapolating from his time and political sentiments, but he made the effort to get the details right.

This book reminded me at times of Thomas Disch's 334 (which might just be the similar covers on the editions I own, and, geez, doesn't that make me sound like a ditz), as well as every mystery since that ever featured a hard-boiled police officer. Wahlöö uses a very interesting point of view: The book is in limited third. It's almost camera eye, as Inspector Jensen seems to have very little interiority, but strictly speaking it's not; details are revealed, such as the pain in his side before surgery or his thoughts about an ambulance crew, that put it into limited third. I had a sense that Jensen has ruthlessly suppressed his thoughts and opinions, not that we just can't see them.

I now wish I had picked up Wahlöö's "Murder on the Thirty-First Floor" while I was at the sale table; it is his other novel featuring Inspector Jensen. The Steel Spring is a fast read, but I suspect I'll spend some time picking apart some of the author's craft.