Friday, November 30, 2012

This Week at the Library (30 November)

This past week I read A South Divided, by David Downing, which covers  the same ground  in part as David Williams' Bitterly Divided, in that it examines the importance of southerners who worked against the confederacy. But whereas Williams argued that the Confederacy's loss in the American Civil War was primarily one of popular support, not of combat operations, Downing's history is less pointed: he doesn't cut to the quick like Williams, but chooses individual cases in different categories (a southerner who became a leading Union officer, a slave who ran away and took a steamship with him, a given band of anti-confederates fighting from a particular swamp, a county which refused to secede from the Union) to explore the different reasons southerners had for resisting or fighting against the Confederacy.  Although his narrative is missing the teeth of Williams', Downing is an English professor, not an historian, and what he delivers is admirable: a book which tells another side of the Civil War, one rich in human interest. His work is superb for illustrating Bitterly Divided, expanding on the untold towards of the southern fight against the confederacy, but by itself it lacks the critical substance.

I also finished Charles C. Mann's 1493, which enthralled me for the most part. It seemed to lose vigor after the first four hundred pages, but I'll be giving full comments in a few days.  I hadn't intended to read it so soon, but The Humans Who Went Extinct has gone missing on me. I have far too many cases and piles of books that a given work might disappear into when I absent-mindedly set it down...

I'll be trying to find that, and in the meantime I'm doing my annual Christmastime Harry Potter re-read. On the serious side, I've got Cattle: An Informal Social History, by Laurie Winn Carlson.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


© 2003 Robert Sawyer
448 pages

"You manage to comfortably feed six billion people with plants?"
"Well, ah, no," said Mary. "About half a billion people don't have enough to eat."
"That is very bad," said Ponter, simply.

Why did humans kill off the Neanderthals? Nobody likes a scold.  Researchers studying neutrinos are startled when a Neanderthal suddenly appears in the bowels of their laboratory, though not as surprised as he, who materialized into a tank of heavy water while conducting some quantum research of his own. Quantum research? Yes, this Neanderthal is no time-traveling caveman. He's a scientist from a parallel world, one in which Homo sapiens is extinct and Neanderthals are the dominant species -- and what they've accomplished puts humanity to shame. Hominids is the beginning of an intriguing yet maddening SF trilogy that I can't help but wonder at even as I wince.
Sawyer uses a small group of viewpoint characters to tell a fast story. Two scientists in our world are responsible for taking care of  their interspatial colleague  "Ponter", who has no idea what's has no idea what's happened to him and finds himself in a world that is utterly alien, yet mockingly familiar in terms of geography. He knows the landscape: it is his home, and yet these are not his people.  Across the divide, one of Ponter's coworkers is desperate to find out what happened to him, as in the wake of Ponter's disappearances, the assumption is that he has been murdered...and the coworker is the only plausible suspect. Sawyer uses the two Neanderthal men to explore the differences between the societies that Sapiens and Neanderthalensis have created. Although the story itself has little dramas -- the trial, Ponter's attempts to communicate, the question of how his displacement occurred -- anthropology carries the day, along with mystic physics and sketchy musings on consciousness.
By our standards, the Neanderthals have created a utopia wherein poverty, hunger, and crime are unknown, and technology is highly advanced even though the population is smaller and more widely dispersed. A global population of 185 million people is sustained on a diet of meat and fruit, and the only species human beings have driven extinct are themselves -- Sapiens, are extinct on that world, and viewed as stupidly violent by Neanderthal anthropologists. Neanderthals live close to the Earth; literally, their beds are flush with the ground, and they use moss as their flooring. Their ways seem ancient, at times -- a council of elders, called the Grays, are the leaders, and men and women live apart in separate groups for most of the month -- but are also inseperable from modern technology. Therein lies a darker side to the utopia: violent crime isn't an issue because violent offenders are castrated or sterilized, as are whichever members of their family share 50% of their DNA.  Even those who carry an impulse toward violence are careful to keep it in check, because the odds of their being discovered are nearly perfect: all Neanderthals carry an implant which records everything they do (rather like the implants in The Final Cut, with Robin Williams) onto a data cube. 
The novel puts forth a lot of interesting ideas, ideas which come from scholarly sources but are unlikely to find as broad an audience as an exciting novel might find. Because Ponter's people never embraced agriculture, nor domesticated the attendant animals, they and he are not susceptible to diseases that were born in livestock and later spread to humans through close association. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel made the same point about native Americans: because they didn't use cattle, horses, and pigs, they were never exposed their diseases until Europeans arrived  in the Americas, pestilence in tow. Unfortunately, these ideas are presented with all the subtlety of a club to the head. The Mary-Sue esque lead character of Earth's Children, Aayla, was a Sapiens woman raised by Neanderthals: she could do everything, perfectly, the first time. Little wonder: she must have been raised by Sawyer's Neanderthals, because they're just so gosh-darned wonderful. Ponter spends most of his time slack-jawed, not because he's ignorant, but because he's bewildered by the actions of people -- people, with their smelly internal combustion engines, and their violent crime, and their patent failure to embrace birth control,  and their gods and taboos. (Neanderthals are not only nonreligious, they've never had anything like religion and are utterly baffled by it.  Their every measurement system is based on tens, with no religious calendars to bother with, so they're a bit like beefy French revolutionaries.)
I tend to agree with the author on the merits of his Neanderthals, but they're so overplayed and the Sapiens are so ridiculously weak that the constant preaching becomes obnoxious. Yes, I get it. Humans are terrible. But we have spunk!  Sawyer's humans don't. When Ponter wanders and finds a Catholic character following the Mass on TV, he stands jaw agape at what she's doing, and later schools Mary on why she's irrational. And incredibly, Mary marvels at what a fool she's been her entire life.  She's like a character from a Chick tract, and not any more believable. With the exception of one Neanderthal, most of the characters are sock puppets used to put forth arguments that lose interest when one realizes there's no tension in them: there's never a chance that the humans won't go "Gosh, we're so dumb."   And the one time that humans do something that impresses Ponter -- going to the Moon, which he's just flabbergasted by -- he loses interest upon learning we did it once, decades ago, and for the trivial reason of proving the worth of economic systems. But he tries hard to make his new human companions think he's still impressed, sounding for all the world like a parent presented with a crayola drawing of a box with legs from their child and marveling at it as though it's a masterwork.
I like that Sawyer overturns expectations by having his Neanderthals be more intelligent than Sapiens: unfortunately, the expression thereof is just unbelievable. Even beyond the characters, his society itself strains credulity. How exactly did the Neanderthals build an advanced world society without agriculture? What is its material basis, considering how many resources it takes to sustain scientific enterprises in the 21st century? The Neanderthals don't use fossil fuels, so how on Earth did they go from hunter-gathers to the scientific and industrial revolutions?  They use solar power, fine -- but what power did they use to produce the materials that solar plants need?   I'm sort of hoping that the next book, Humans, or the third, Hybrids, will answer those questions...which is why, even though  the series off to a problematic start, I'm planning to read more. Whatever its limitations, the central idea fascinates me.  

If you'd like to read a sample, there's a chapter available here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (20 November)

" others. I....all..." He shook his head, and spoke again. The Companion switched to its female voice, speaking for itself. "I do not have the vocabulary  to translate what Ponter is saying."
Mary nodded slowly. "The word you're looking for," she said gently, "is 'alone'". 

p. 196, Hominids, Robert Sawyer

"When his slaves began sneaking away to nearby Yankee camps, a Vicksburg planter asked the 'patriarch' of his slaves, Silas, if the elderly man and his wife were planning their escape as well. Oh, no, 'Uncle Si' reassured his owner, they were too old for that and they were going to stay right where they were. That night all the remaining slaves on the plantation slipped away, including the aged couple. When the planter rode out after them the next day, he found Uncle Si in the woods, bending over the lifeless body of his wife. The planter asked, not unsympathetically, why the old man would subject her to such a strenuous journey, one she clearly was not strong enough to endure. Silas replied simply that it couldn't be helped, adding pensively, 'But then, you see, she died free.' "

p. 166, A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy. David Downing.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Space Chronicles

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier
© 2012 Neil deGrasse Tyson; edited by Avis Lang
384 pages

On July 20th, 1969, America mesmerized the world by landing men on the Moon. For the first time in history, human feet stepped on the soil of another planet. But on July 21st. 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down on the runway and the United States ceased to be a spacefaring nation, for the shuttle program had ended. Space Chronicles collects essays by astrophysicist and science advocate  Neil deGrasse Tyson which looks back on the history of the American space program and reflect on its legacy both to science and the human endeavor before arguing that the United States need to return to space with  bold ambitions.

Tyson first caught my attention a few years ago when a book described him as "the next Carl Sagan".  Here, he lives up to expectations as a passionate science communicator: he is earnest, witty, and urgently excited about the matter at hand. Although  ostensibly about the exploration of space, Chronicles is more fundamentally a book about the value of science -- and not just the knowledge itself, which enriches human experience and provides the spark for material progress, but of scientific thinking -- skepticism and wonder. The epilogue, which stresses the value of the "Cosmic Perspective", practically channels Sagan.

Science advocacy is the message, but Tyson uses the inspiring and exciting adventure of space exploration  as the messenger. Although enthusiastic about humanity's accomplishments thus far, Tyson avoids being labeled a starry-eyed optimist by consistently stressing the pragmatic aspects of space exploration, the technological boons. It's not the spin-off products like Velcro that Tyson has in mind, though: he points out that NASA's endeavors have  effected progress in other fields through "cross-pollination": one example he uses is that of the Hubble research team pioneering methods to put together meaningful conclusions from scant data while the telescope was impaired, methods that were adopted by cancer researchers to improve their analyses of mammograms.  More strikingly, though, he makes no attempt to interpret the space race of the 1960s as a bold, purposeful step forward in human exploration: instead, he sees it as being motivated by the desire for economic and military gains. Tyson emphasizes this not to convey cynicism about space exploration, but demonstrate how much was accomplished even though the motivations were less than inspiring, and to to point out that aerospace can continue to be a source of economic progress today.

In fact, aerospace is a source of progress for humans today, but not for Americans. Americans, Tyson laments, have gone backwards by standing still. Other nations are becoming the technological leaders of tomorrow, and Tyson -- an American, writing to motivate his fellow citizens to start believing in and working for the future again -- despairs of this. He sees hope in China's aggressive ambitions in space: if competition with Russia sent us to the moon back in  1960s, perhaps competition with China will take us further.For the time being, however, even our past accomplishments are beyond us now.

Space Chronicles sees Tyson communicate a great deal -- the history, motivation, and practical aspects of space flight, the value of science, critical thinking, and wonder, the United States' emphatic need to re-prioritize science, mathematics, and industry -- and do so with style. There is a slight weakness in the fact that Chronicles is an edited collection of essays and interviews, and not a monograph written as a cohesive whole. Repetition of certain facts, examples, and so on exists, but this is a weakness only and not a glaring flaw. As it stands, Chronicles  is impressive and engaging, of interest to both space enthusiastic and critics.

Friday, November 16, 2012

This Week at the Library (16 November)

The postman was kind to me this week, delivering a batch of reading I'm very much looking forward to. Some of the books I received include works I’ve been intending to read all year long: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles and Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Discovering the World Columbus Created. Adding to that is The Humans Who Went Extinct, which I’ve had on my 'book wishlist' since its inception, and the most recent book in the Star Trek Voyager Relaunch, The Eternal Tide. And who is that on the cover?
Janeway's back and you're gonna be in trouble
Hey-la, hey-la, Janeway's back...

Oh, what fun times we’ll have. Also, to go along with The Humans Who Went Extinct, I’m going to be exploring Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax series, which establishes an alternate universe where Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens, are supreme on Earth. I have the first book, Hominids, checked out from the library.  My reading tends to flow in moods, and right now the prevailing wind is one of natural history.

Speaking of which, I finally finished Twilight of the Mammoths, which I began....months ago. I'd wanted to learn more about the megafauna that dominated the Americas before humans arrived. I'm utterly fascinated by the idea of primitive North America as a land of lions and cheetahs, a wilderness teeming more with large life than even Africa. As it turns out, a primary source for learning about ancient mammalian behaviour is...dung. Dung is mentioned more  in Twilight of the Mammoths than it is in Flushed: how the Plumber Saved Civilization. That I mark impressive, but it's versatile stuff, dung. The oh-so-serious dung dissection didn't interact well with my desire to be awed, so my interest trailed off until being reignited by Baxter and Pratchett's The Long Earth, which involves as part of its setting an Earth in which humans never spread to the Americas, and so the native ecology is intact. Twilight exists to argue that human predation ("overkill") was the primary cause of megafauna extinctions in the Americas, as opposed to climate change.  In the decades since Martin released this book, I believe overkill has become the standard explanation, but even so this is a worthwhile book for the curious mind. It puts overkill on solid ground for those new to it, provides a catalog of large animals that were driven into extinction,  and ends with a smaller argument advocating for the restoration of the prehuman ecology, one using still-living animals to replace the many gaps the spread of human civilization created. He suggests, for example, using camels to counter the spread of mesquite in the southwest.  

Read of England 2012

Last week, Britons celebrated or observed Guy Fawkes Night on 5 November, a date I usually try to do some English-themed reading around, just as I do readings for the Fourth of July and Bastille Day. This year's reading consisted of my finishing off Bernard Cornwell's excellent King Arthur trilogy, along with two nonfiction works: Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island and Kate Fox's Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.

To start off my set, I decided to take a tour of Britain with Bill Bryson, an American humorist author who lived in England for twenty years, beginning in the 1970s.  Before returning to the United States, Bryson decided to mull over his adopted homeland  by traveling over it, in part repeating the journey he made upon first arriving. Bryson is a riotous author for me, and here he's of course an entertaining guide, cheerfully rambling through the country, offering commentary that varies from serious reflections on English culture to absurd thoughts and irrelevant tangents.  At the outset, when repeating his initial 1970s travels, the commentary  compares the Britain of his youth to Britain today, though the changes he notes (in the flowering of chain stores, the destruction of older architectural for modern boxes) are scarcely for the better.  Even so, this is a delightfully fun book.

Kate Fox's Watching the English takes a more serious tack, slightly so. The author has a earnest endeavor -- scrutinizing English culture with an anthropologist's eye -- but she offers a spirited analysis. Although her intent is to discern the rules governing English behavior by watching how Britons act, she's no passive observer,  instead turning her fellow Brits into lab rats and experimenting on them. She devotes afternoons to jumping queues (cutting into lines) and bumping into people on purpose, noting how many of them automatically apologize. As she studies one area of English life after another -- work, hobbies, sex, shopping -- patterns emerge, rules which interact with one another, and eventually the patterns create a cohesive analysis of English culture. Fox declares that the English are fundamentally socially anxious, and that many English behaviors act to counter that awkwardness. The weather, for instance, is not actually all that interesting to English folk, regardless how how incessantly they speak of it: instead, talking about the weather is a way to be social without being impolite, to make a human connection without seeming weird.  Fox sees her countrymen and women as being desperate for fellowship, but denied it by a culture that encourages emotional coolness -- reserve, moderation, and the respect of privacy. Other aspects of English culture she touches on are the prevalence of class consciousness (which is ubiquitous, being expressed and betrayed not just by the word you use to describe household furniture, but which items you are willing to buy from a Mark's and Spencer), English humor, and a fundamental belief in fair play.  While I can't judge her book against personal experience (not yet having traveled  to England's green and pleasant land), I found it utterly engaging and entertainingly written.

The Long Earth

The Long Earth
© 2012 Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter
400 pages

Suppose there were an infinite succession of Earths, and travel between them was as easy as taking a step. A new age for humanity begins when a reclusive scientist posts plans for a “Stepper” online, a relatively simple piece of machinery that is remarkable only for the potato it uses as a power source. Suddenly, the borders of states are irrelevant, and the very idea of scarcity is outmoded. Travel to the other Earths has few limits: iron can’t make the passage, and stepping between worlds induces nausea for most. But not for Joshua Valentine, a strange boy raised in an orphanage by nuns who “read Carl Sagan before they read Genesis”. When a globe-spanning corporation of infinite power and aggressive curiosity decides to launch a mission into the “Long Earth”, the chain of infinite planets humanity is now spreading into, they come to Joshua for help.

The Long Earth has a lot going for it, particularly the titular setting, which tickles the readers' fancy with Earths-that-might-have-been, alternative natural histories. A step away, and the differences are slight: absent of humans, the Americas are still wild and home to megafauna that seem otherwordly to 21st century. In more distant Earths, evolution has taken wildly divergent courses from what Joshua would consider 'normal'. Deep into the long Earth, there are strange and inhuman intelligences, and something is driving those that can step across the earths forward -- toward the datum, and away from danger. Joshua and his companions choose to probe further into the darkness, to confront whatever lays beyond them. Throughout most of the book, his only only traveling companion is a sentient AI named Lobsang who claims to be housing the soul of a reincarnated Tibetan bicycle repairman -- definitely a quirky sort. Fate seems to be an active component of the book, as there are hints that Joshua is Bound for Something, the Chosen One. He's an agreeable enough main character, but the setting takes center stage, especially as human society begins evolving in its new boundless universe. The new abundance of resources means that gold is transparently useless; instead, bartering and the exchange of favors are king. With people breaking away into small communities that can sustain themselves through forage and hunting, human history seems to be reversing itself.
The Long Earth ends with the partial end of a journey, but it isn't the end of the story: a second novel is in the works. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (13 November)

"I have studied the rules of sparring for an adequate time," said Lobsang, standing up. "Two millionths of a second, to be precise. Sorry, did that sound smug?"
Joshua sighed. "Actually, it sounded like exaggeration for humorous effect."
"Good" said Lobsang. "That's exactly what I intended."
"That sounds smug."

p. 138, The Long Earth. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

"You might find her sunbathing among the dinosaurs."
"Dinosaurs! Her! Sunbathing!"
"You'll have to see for yourself. But be careful, Joshua. The dinosaurs look amiable enough. Well, some of them. But she might bite..."

p. 208, The Long Earth. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

Suppose there were an infinite succession of Earths, and you could move between them with a single step? Such is the premise of The Long Earth which I started a few days ago and have found to be  most intriguing.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Reads into Reels: Timeline

Chris is a twenty-something guy with the hots for Kate, an archaeology student who is studying under Chris's dad, The Professor. But smitten as she is by the world of medieval France, Kate won't give Chris the time of day. Fortunately, The Professor has gotten himself lost, via time machine, in medieval France, and the Amoral Corporation responsible for this has decided to send in a bunch of archaeology students to rescue him, which will give Chris and Kate some bonding time. Sure, they're just kids; they know nothing about self defense, they haven't been inoculated for anything, and they apparently know nothing about the culture they're going into except for the fact that once upon a time, Evil British guys hung a young woman from a castle under siege, and it so enraged the French army that they captured the castle in one night -- but the corporation has decided to send them in instead of security goons, because they're at least aware that the medieval world is marginally different from the modern world and won't spend their time wondering where all the cars are. 

Unfortunately for the students, not only do they transport into time right over water, they also appear right in the middle of a chase scene. Some Evil British fellows on horseback are pursuing a young French woman, and although she gets away, the aforementioned Evil Brits decide a bunch of wet young people dressed in generic-but-clean medieval clothes will do nicely. When the students are presented to the Evil Brits' lord,  Oliver, they introduce themselves as Scottish.  Now, if *I* were to be transported into the court of a medieval English lord during the hundred years war, when England fought against France and its chronic ally Scotland, I would not say to the lord, "I am a Scot".  This, to me, would be like infiltrating the Taliban and pretending to be Israeli.  But I'm just a lowly history student. Perhaps archaeology students possess more wisdom, wisdom that can make full use of being imprisoned in a town that will be set ablaze by an angry French army within a few hours' time.  

In present course, the kids escape through a hole in the roof, though it does them little good since the Evil Brits find out quickly enough and the Chase Scene continues until the end of the movie. The movie is in fact one great long Chase Scene,  with occasional breaks for speeches and war.  The chase scene could be set anywhere, and that's the great problem with this adaption of Michael Crichton's novel of the same name, because the novel was a unique blend of history and science fiction, but the movie is generic. In the novel, the medieval world itself presented the challenge that characters had to contend with. They had to grapple with the fact that modern English and modern French would be mutually unintelligible to the medieval forms and dialects of these languages:  social mores were an obstacle that had to be navigated, as Chris learned in the novel when he accidentally accepted a challenge to a duel by picking up a laid-down glove.  Here, the kids might as well as had invaded a Renaissance fair. 

I watched this movie because I wanted something medieval, and because I'd read the book. In retrospect I'm glad I read the book before watching the movie, because I probably would not have read a book with a plot I thought to be as irrelevant as this.  The movie's technical setup establishes that while the Amoral Corporation was trying to figure out teleportation, their machine connected to a Wormhole that sent everything from the machine into 1357 France.  Part of the reason the corporation sent the professor and the kids into the past was so that they could figure out why this was the case. This is immediately forgotten by everyone involved.  The movie has exactly one interesting character, Andre Marek, who is portrayed by the film's salvation, Gerard Butler. Butler, who also played King Leonidas in 300, appears in Timeline's every scene of worth, starting from an early one in which a passionate Marek attempts convey the value of studying history to Chris.

The presence of two other actors is a highlight for me: Billy Connelly, who played Uncle Monty in A Series of Unfortunate Events, is a professor here, rather like Monty except that his penchant is for medieval history instead of snakes, and David Thewlis, who is the project head for the Amoral Corporation. You may know him as Professor Lupin. Predictably, the movie is poor history: the opposing armies each wear uniforms, red for the villainous English and blue for the valiant French. Each speaks modern English or French, with the only barrier to communication being that a French woman doesn't understand Marek's euphemisms when he attempts to chat her up. "Am I seeing anyone? I see you..."

Timeline doesn't do justice to the book, and it's not a particularly good movie by itself, but if you're really in the mood for swords and bows, it should prove entertaining, especially seeing as it features Gerard Butler, who I became a fan of while watching it. You might be better off with Men in Tights, however, which has as much historical integrity and much better acting.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Excalibur: a Story of Arthur
© 1999 Bernard Cornwell
436 pages

In Britain's darkest hour, a man named Arthur came to rule. With the high king dead and enemy Saxons filling the shores looking for land to settle, he confronted the tremendous challenge of uniting the feuding British kingdoms and guiding them to victory against a foe superior in numbers and in spirit. He faced adversaries from within his camp, as well,  as even longtime companions proved treacherous when tempted by ambition. Now Bernard Cornwell tells the final story of Arthur with Excalibur, a fitting conclusion to an extraordinary trilogy.

The trials that Arthur has faced would break lesser men,  even other heroes. It would be easy to give into despair, to abandon hope -- but here in Excalibur, Arthur again looks  adversity square in the face.  Although an uneasy peace prevails at the start of the book, the aftermath of Enemy of God's epic ending, for Arthur and his ally (our narrator, Derfel), the growing might of the Saxons will soon need to be reckoned with. The unity Arthur fought for seems to have dissolved, but he remains determined to defy the inevitable, and this culminates in the Battle of Baden Hill, which is incidentally the only historical reference we have to an Arthur of any kind.  But Baden Hill is not the end, for this King Arthur trilogy is inspired both by history and by myth, and the final battle is between Arthur and a final betrayal, that of the dark prince Mordred. The conclusion is masterful, beautifully appropriate: this being a trilogy about King Arthur, it could not end but with a flourish.

Excalibur lives up to Cornwell's usual legacy, but reveals an additional strength of this trilogy in particular: character evolution. Although Cornwell doesn't shy away from writing evil characters, in the Arthur trilogy the lines between heroes and villains isn't a clear cut. Guinevere, for instance, was utterly despicable in Enemy of God, but moves toward redemption in this final volume, while someone who has been Derfel's friend since his childhood becomes monstrous, continuing a trend that began in Enemy of God.  It points to the complexity of life, of people and our motivations, and the fact that nothing can be taken for granted.

...nothing, that is, except for the quality of a Cornwell novel. This trilogy has been absolutely stunning, and I'm sad to have finished it. Happily, though, it can always be re-read.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Mark of Athena

The Mark of Athena
© 2012 Rick Riordan
608 pages

In The Son of Neptune, Percy Jackson -- a demigod, the son of a human mother and Poseidon -- discovered another population of half-blood like himself, a veritable city called New Rome. The Romans are hostile to Percy and his Greek brethren, but the two sides must unite against Gaea and her plans to destroy life and create it anew -- which is unfortunate, because Percy's plans for an alliance soon crumble into war. The Lost Hero  introduced Jason Grace, the leader of the Romans, and in The Mark of Athena he and Percy (joined by five other demigods drawn from both of the camps) have to score a victory against Gaea before the Romans reach Camp Half-Blood and destroy it.  Their quest takes them to the old world where Annabeth Chase must descend into the bowels of Rome on a private mission from Athena, one that offers the hope of achieving peace between the demigods and preventing the real city of Rome from being toasted by two campy giants.

Riordan's novels tend toward the episodic, with a monster milestone threatening to destroy life next week if the kids can't scamper across the continent (or the world, in this case) in two days and win out, but Heroes of Olympus has already established itself as a different beast altogether from Riordan's previous Greek and Egyptian series.  The first two novels read very similarly to the previous series: there were three characters, each trio had a private romance, and the group had to accomplish ludicrously  big things alone. But Heroes of Olympus is developing into a more mature series. Now there are seven characters, each with a fascinating story to tell, and tension between them is rife. Jason and Percy are accustomed to leadership, for instance, and subtly vie for the role of alpha male. While a monster-killing mission usually drives these novels, here it's incidental, just a very small part in the larger scheme of things, and marginalized by Annabeth's solo mission. There are of course lots of monsters;  the book writhes with urgent fight scenes against all manner of unpleasant beasts,  from giants with snakes for legs to American tourists. Happily, not every fight is resolved with strength; sometimes clever escape is the best option, and the book ends by depriving two heroes even that, giving readers something of a somber cliffhanger.

Heroes of Olympus continues to delight.

Friday, November 2, 2012

This Week at the Library (2 November)

Being as 5 November falls in a few days, it's finally time for me to do my reading set in tribute to England, and I've been looking forward to it since before July -- though when it came time to order my books, I forgot a couple of the titles I had on my short list. Alas.  I'm currently in the middle of Bernard Cornwell's Excalibur, which has me bowled over. It's not as fantastically dramatic as Enemy of God, but  he's already portrayed the epic battle of Mount Badon, and I'm all a-quiver with anticipation as to how he's going to end the trilogy.

Strictly speaking, Excalibur wasn't part of my planned English reading. That will include Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, about his cultural observations of England, and Watching the English, an anthropological study of English folk which takes offense at Bryson's notes for dismissing English weather as uninteresting.  I had planned to introduce myself to the works of P.G. Wodehouse by reading one of his Jeeves & Wooster collections, but there's always next year. Besides, I'm distracted by the fact that I have two library books out at the same time, and both Demand to be Read Immediately. One is The Mark of Athena, the latest in the Percy Jackson series, and some of my friends know I am partial to the grey-eyed goddess of wisdom.  Given the series' newfound Roman emphasis, it should be interesting...but I must finish Arthur first.  On all this, I found a copy of The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup, which I've been wanting to read for quite some time now. It's rather expensive online, selling for $30 even used, but I found law library in Alabama that was willing to check the book out to me through my own, so now I've got it.

In short, I have entirely too much to read this weekend, but both the English books both seem breezily fun.  On top of this I've dipped my toe into doing NaNoWriMo, mostly because I've had this fantasy novel in my head for years now and  despite constantly playing scenes from it in my head and tweaking them, I've not actually written anything down.  One problem is that I'm such a pedant that I can't so much as put a star in the sky without thinking "How would that affect this culture's mythology? Can I have months without a moon? And if I don't have a moon, how will this world have predictable seasons?" 

I think next year I will do my English tribute on St. George's day in April, in part so it won't be so close to Armistice Day, and in part because then I can stop explaining to people that yes, I know Guy Fawkes night isn't England's national holiday,  but it's as close as I can find. Besides, St. George's Day seems so charmingly old-fashioned. I don't know if anyone outside of England or an English literature class would recognize the name. (I must confess my curiosity was picqued by that "Once more into the breach" speech in Henry V...)

I've finished Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, and was much impressed by it although it didn't delve into the history of Apocalypticism like I'd hoped. Expect a review for that this weekend.