Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The very idea presented in this book fascinated the first time I heard it. The narration in the book is speculation about what would happen to the Earth and all of its inhabitants if human beings were to suddenly all disappear. The author provides a handful of explanations for such a disappearance, but none of them are particularly plausible. The idea is just to brainstorm what may happen to all of the marks of our civilization: our cities, roads, wonders, trash, art, agricultural areas, and even what happens to the wilderness that we leave behind.
Weisman uses knowledge gained from many fields of science to complete this brainstorm. He covers archeology, oceanography, and zoology, among many others. He looks at areas of the Earth that have either been untouched by humans, or left the way they are intentionally, whether for decades, centuries, or millenia. He discusses chemical composition of the many things that we will leave behind, and how those things will fare over time. He even brings up some very intriguing points about evolution, and considers what might be the next "human" to evolve once we're gone.
The book is a fantastic overview of our society and species, and catalogues in detail the devastation that we have wrought upon the Earth. It seems that if we were to disappear tomorrow, the world would be left mainly with our chemical waste, in the form of plastics, pesticides, and even nuclear leftovers. Everything else would be absorbed back into the Earth eventually, but these chemical compositions that never existed on Earth before us would remain. It's a frightening thought, and makes this book not only a tremendous catalog of the things that we have created that were beautiful, but also brings home the point that trash goes somewhere, whether or not we ever see it again. The Earth will recover from humanity's depredations eventually, but the hope brought forward in this book is that the recovery will happen while we are still here to see it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Twelve Houses Series by Sharon Shinn

Over the past two weeks I have read the first three books of the series of The Twelve Houses, by Sharon Shinn. I was forgetting to do book reviews individually for them, so I thought I would just do them as a group. The three books are Mystic and Rider, The Thirteenth House, and Dark Moon Defender. They take place in a fantasy world called Gillengaria. (Gillengaria is actually the name of the country; their are a handful of other lands in this world, where the action does not take place.) This country is made up of twelve houses, each house owning the majority of the land under their control. The politics within these noble houses are as in depth as many other fantasy novels.
The basic plotline for the entire series is that there is rebellion brewing in the southern houses, who do not believe that the king will live much longer. They have no faith in his daughter to rule after him, and so have plans to depose her once the king dies. The king's death seems to be a foregone conclusion, although he is in perfectly good health. The other issue that is causing unrest in the kingdom is the presence of mystics. Mystics are people who have various types of magical powers, and they have been around for as long as anyone can remember. But a new religious cult is spreading fear and distrust of mystics throughout the land. Because the king favors mystics, he is seen as weak, and perhaps even under their control.
Each book follows through this plotline, revealing more information and developing the story as time passes. All three books follow the same six characters that are introduced as traveling companions in the first book. These are the central characters to the story, although a few others are introduced along the way. Each book centers on one or more of these central characters, telling the story from their point of view. The relationships between the characters are very well developed, and very complex. There is also a good amount of romance, that fits in very well with the overall plot of the series, and does not seem in any way out of place. Shinn includes at least one romance in every one of the books I've read by her, and she always does a lovely job of making you really feel connected to the characters. This series is just as inventive and entertaining as her Archangel series, and I look forward to reading any new books that come out.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton

This book was bound to appeal to me, as it is written about a librarian who decides to travel to Africa to work with the Camel Bookmobile. The librarian, Fiona Sweeney, is trying to find something to do with her life that has some meaning. She feels bogged down in her job as a public librarian, as though she makes no difference in the people she works with, does not affect their lives in any way. She learns of the Camel Bookmobile, which is literally a camel train that takes donated books out to isolated tribal villages in Kenya. Fi is particularly struck by one village that she enters, and this village is the center of the story. It is the village of Mididima, where we meet the teacher and his wife, the tribal elders, the drum maker and his sons, and the widowed grandmother and her granddaughter. Of course there are many others in the village, but these are the characters that become central to the story. The other main character is the public librarian from the Kenyan city of Garissa, where the Camel Bookmobile is based. Mr. Abasi is a grumbling, isolated man who became a librarian because he did not want to have to interact with people, and he believes that the people funding the Camel Bookmobile are misguided in their attempts to educate the natives. He understands the views of the elders, and how set they are in their tribal ways. The books the camels bring just cause trouble.
This is the main issue in the book, the struggle between the way things have always been and the ways in which they are changing. The elders of the Mididima tribe do not want change, and they see the books as a threat to their way of life; Mr. Matani, the teacher, as well as a few others in the tribe, see the books as the only way into the new world that has come to bear on their lives. Fi is caught in the middle of this struggle, and does not understand the affect that her American views have on the tribe, for good or ill.
Hamilton does a wonderful job developing each of the characters through their own voices. As the story unfolds, we learn more and more about how the lives of these people intertwine, about village life itself, and about the disruption caused by "the white woman" and her books. Although Hamilton is not a librarian, she captures the way that working in a public library can sometimes feel, how bureaucratic it can get. But she also gets at the reasons people want to work with books, to share them with others as a way of opening up their lives to every possibility. Fi even misses some of her more eccentric patrons while she is out in the bush. But she grows through the trip, and if she doesn't quite achieve the goal of recruiting all of Africa to her cause, she learns more about herself, and those she is serving, in the process.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

I at first thought that this book might end up on my "books I gave up on" list. I gave it 50 pages or so, and wasn't sure how much more I was interested in reading. But then I picked it up again. And somehow, slowly, I was sucked into the story in a way that I was not expecting.
As a general rule I do not go out of my way to read mysteries. I am just not a big fan. This book is a murder mystery, but it does not really feel like one. The world that is created by Chabon is so interesting, and full of depth, as are his characters, that it doesn't even really matter what the story is about. The story takes place in Sitka, Alaska, but it is a fictional Sitka. The world of The Yiddish Policemen's Union is different from this one in that instead of resettling in Israel, the Jews ended up in this part of Alaska. But there is still the dream of returning to the Holy Land. That dream shapes the mystery as you go deeper into it.
The murder happens right at the start of the book, on the first or second page. Solving the murder becomes the main focus of the detective, Meyer Landsman. As we get to know Landsman, he endears himself to us, in his struggles to simply make it through the day. He is at a low point in his life, and this case is what he latches on to to drag himself back from the brink of depression. While reading, I really did forget that this was a murder mystery. I just wanted to read more about Landsman, about his world and his relationships. But the mystery part of it is unexpected, and very well done as well.
This book took some getting into, a little bit of effort to keep reading it. But once you find yourself captured, it is well worth the finish.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Reserved for the Cat by Mercedes Lackey

This is one of those fantasy books that I read in a day, just for fun, because I love Mercedes Lackey. Her books are incredibly easy to get through, and are great for escaping and just reading something entertaining. Not that they are shallow. She always deals with interesting issues, usually psychological in nature, and the Elemental Masters series (of which this book is the latest) always deals with some interesting social issues as well.
Every book in this series takes place in early 20th century England, but an England where magic happens, that most are not aware of. All of the main characters are female, and they all become embroiled in plots where magic is involved in some way. Throughout the stories, Lackey deals with social issues regarding women's rights, the poor and working classes, and even issues like abortion. Her women are no-nonsense people that do what needs to be done to survive. They are incredibly likable, as are most of their supporters. It is interesting to note that in this series all of the villains are also female, usually very devious and power-hungry. And they are definitely hate-able. There is also usually a love interest, but that is not the focus of the story, and he is almost never the one that actually does any rescuing. The women rescue themselves.
The Elemental Masters series is more formulaic than Lackey's Valdemar books, but I enjoy the formula, so that's okay. The books also do not need to be read in any sort of order, as they are not sequels of each other; they simply take place in the same world. In this book, the main character is a poor Parisian ballerina who is under the protection of a cat, supposedly made her protector by her vanished magician father. The cat leads her to England, where he hopes to help her create a home for herself where she will no longer suffer from poverty. She takes the name of a Russian ballerina, because her name carries no notoriety. Unfortunately, the Russian ballerina was destroyed, and had her body (and name) taken, by a nasty magical creature. When the creature discovers her name being used, she sets out to destroy the impostor. And from there, the story fits nicely into the formula, as things come more and more to a head. It all comes together right at the end for the big final showdown between the good and bad guys, with an epilogue to nicely wrap things up.
An enjoyable read, and as usual, a quick one. If I could read these books slower, I would, because I do really like them. But there is still plenty of Lackey's books that I have not read (she is extremely prolific), so when I need another quick escape for a day off, one will be there.