Monday, May 27, 2013

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (Part 8)

Happy Memorial Day to all you folks who live in Memorial Day-celebrating regions!  I intend to mark the occasion by not having a review done.  Instead, here's a look at some of the non-fanfic reading that I'm engaged in at the moment.  Click below the break to see what books have drawn my eye.

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, vol. 2), by George RR Martin

What it is:  A fantasy series set primarily amidst the Seven Kingdoms, chronicling the battles and schemes of dozens of different nobles, warriors, and claimants to the Iron Throne.

How I'm liking it so far:  Yes, I'm several years late picking up this "Game of Thrones" thing, but when I finally watched season one I loved it, and now I'm making my way through the books.  The characters are, for the most part, delightfully human, and there's an excellent mix of humor and drama throughout.  There's also plenty of casual cruelty, incest, and general medieval-era morality, some of which I found offputting; the TV show aged most of the characters up, and there were times when I wished the author had done the same.  Still, an all-around excellent and engaging series, halfway through the second book.

One thing I don't get, though; I've been pretty cautious about exploring the internet for Thrones-related content, not wanting to spoil anything for myself, but I gather that Jon Snow is widely beloved of the fans.  Maybe he does something amazing past the point where I am, but so far he's been a decidedly "blah" presence.  He's got an interesting enough story, I suppose, being a bastard child in a world where bastards have few rights, but he himself is awfully bland.  On the other hand, I'm absolutely in love with Tyrion Lannister.  Every time I get to a chapter from his POV, I start grinning like an idiot; his is a much more nuanced take on the distress of noble blood barred from the possibility of ascension, and I never get tired of his acidic wit.  That's who I want to read more about, dangit!

Recommendation:  These books are popular for a reason; anyone interested in a slightly grim, low-fantasy take on a war of succession should give these a look.  There is some questionable content though, and readers looking for unambiguous heroes are unlikely to find them here.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris

What it is:  A series of bestiary fables by the famed This American Life contributor.

How I'm liking it so far:  I heard that Sedaris had a new book out, but it didn't look like my cup of tea.  However, the review I read compared it favorably to Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, his previous work, which sounded much more up my alley.  So, I gave it a look.

This collection is... odd.  A series of unrelated fables, some of these hew closely to Aesopian structure (animals demonstrate a moral, the end), some deploy Thurber-esque twists, and some lack any obvious lesson at all.  Some are comic and lighthearted, some are darkly humorous, and others are just plain depressing.  This is a real mixed bag.  I guess on the whole I'm liking it, but there's no cohesion at all to these stories; nothing in tone, structure, or POV (beyond being about talking animals, I suppose) to connect them.

Recommendation:  Anyone to whom the phrase "bestiary fables" appeals ought to check this out, if only to see what they think for themselves.  I suspect that readers who are put off by major tone shifts and a general feeling of disconnectedness will have trouble enjoying this collection, though.

Vampire Hunter D Volume 8: Mysterious Journey to the North Sea (Part Two), by Hideyuki Kikuchi

What it is:  A series of books chronicling the adventures of the titular D, a half-human half-vampire who travels the post-apocalyptic, monster-filled future, selling his vampire-slaying services and just generally being beautiful and inscrutable.

How I'm liking it so far:  For those of you only familiar with the movies, Vampire Hunter D began as a Japanese novel series.  And it's really, really bad.  Seriously, if this was a fanfic, it would be infamous for its purple prose, its rampant misogyny, its Mary-Sue protagonist, its stilted writing, its... look, let me quote a bit from volume 1 to give you a taste of what we're talking about, here:
     Before she'd finished speaking, a streak of white light shot toward her breast from D's left hand.  In fact, it was a foot-long needle he'd taken out at some point and thrown faster than the naked eye could follow.  It was made of wood.  As it traveled at that unfathomable speed, the needle burned from the friction of the air, and the white light was from those flames.
     But something odd had happened.
     The flames had come to a stop in front of D's chest.  Not that the needle he'd thrown had simply stopped there.  The instant it was about to sink into [her] breast, it had turned around and come back, and D had stopped it with is bare hand.  Or to be more accurate, [she] had caught the needle with superhuman speed and thrown it back just as quickly.  The average person wouldn't even have seen her hand move.
     "If the servant is no more than a servant, still the master is a master.  Well done," D murmured, heedless of the flaming needle in his hand or the way it steadily scorched his naked flesh.  "For that display of skill you get my name.  I'm the Vampire Hunter D.  Remember that, should you live."  As he spoke, D sprinted for the young lady without making a sound.
 Mind you, that's a representative sample; if I went looking, I could easily find even "better" selections to share.  So yeah, this isn't good.  Also, I'm up to volume 8.  Can you say "guilty pleasure?"

Recommendation:  I enjoy these books in much the same way that I enjoy Sy-Fy original movies.  I don't recommend them for their quality, obviously, but there's a certain appeal to seeing a campy, ridiculous train wreck unfold.

The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, by James W. Pennebaker

What it is:  From the dust jacket:  " psychologist and language expert James W. Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking reasearch in computational linguistics--in essence, counting the frequency of words we use-- to show that our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence.  Our most forgettable words, such as pronouns and prepositions, can be the most revealing: their patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints."

How I'm liking it so far:  I'm only 40 pages in, so it's hard to say too much.  The premise is one I was interested in from the start, but the presentation so far has been very academic, and more focused on the mathematics and definitions used than on any actual results.  That may change once I get a little farther in, but right now, it's feeling pretty dry to me.

Recommendation:  Anyone interested in the confluence between linguistics and sociology might want to give this a look, though those looking for something easily accessible may find this not to be to their liking.


  1. ASoIaF (worst acronym ever, by the way) is incredibly good at muddling the waters between good and evil, and fleshing out even the most boring characters. Jon Snow, for instance, went from one of the most "meh" characters in book 1 to one of my 3 favourites (alongside Tyrion and Aria) as the series went on. There is also an impressive arc for a character starting on book 3, probably the most impressive re-imagining I have ever read (so hard to say this without spoilers...).

    I might check that "Life of Pronouns" book, but as a researcher in this area, I can safely say that there tends to be a lot of personal bias in the interpretation of the results, such as taking small differences as justification for preconceptions, or using data just to reaffirm (instead of challenging) a personal opinion, so take what is being said with a grain of salt.

  2. "[...]I gather that Jon Snow is widely beloved of the fans[...]"

    A huuuuuuuge part of that because of how attractive his actor is on the television series. I am not joking.

    The creators of Avatar put it very well.

    Tyrion was definitely one of my favourites in the earlier books, but I felt that he was kind of overstaying his welcome in a couple of the later ones. Without going balls-deep into spoilers, my impression was that, even though he was still a very entertaining character, he had a disproportionate amount of chapters for the plot relevance and character development contained in that pagespace. When I actually found myself skimming Tyrion's chapters (which was a really odd feeling—I usually find myself skimming to GET to them), I realised that Martin could've cut out quite a lot of the material without losing very much at all. Then again, everyone says that the last couple of books have pacing problems, so I guess I'm not really saying anything new here.

    And Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, oh boy. I love David Sedaris, and this book was no exception. (Naked is a good read as well!) I remember having a long debate with one of my friends about whether or not the chicken chapter was about religion or regular old cosmic superstition, and whether or not there was a difference. And oh my god, that owl/hippo butt leech story... *looks at a nursing calf* "Faggots! Faggots!" "Actually, that's just how mammals feed their young." "Yeah. Faggot mammals."

    I think I just curled up in a ball and died.

    1. I still haven't seen Game of Thrones, so I had to look this Jon Snow guy up. He's alright, I guess, but nothing to obsess over

      Women have poor taste in men

    2. >A huuuuuuuge part of that because of how attractive his actor is on the television series. I am not joking.

      Oh Lord, it's Legolas all over again. Orlando Bloom and teenage girls ruin everything.

    3. Indeed they do. Teenage girls, I mean. I used to be into Twilight - yeah, I know - back when it was just the one book and my friend and I seemed to be the only ones into it. Then those little girls had to come along and ruin everything with their Team Jacob crap...

      I don't really get Legolas' appeal, to be honest. If I had to pick a character from LotR to fawn over, I'd go with Aragorn. Really, though, they should've cast Kevin Sorbo if they wanted an attractive male star :D

    4. >teenage girls ruin everything.

      See also Equestria Girls. :V DOHOHO

  3. Vampire Hunter D.

    The way you describe this almost makes me want to see how crazy it gets.

    1. It's... it's an entire novel of that, basically. And then thirty-something more following it up.

      It's kind of sickeningly amazing, in its own way. Check it out, but don't blame me!

  4. I like The Song of Ice and Fire books, but I really feel like Martin overuses the journey. He's constantly having people make plans, then having the plans go awry and then they make new plans, which go awry. At a certain point, my suspension of disbelief gets a strain. I've read through book five of the series and I find myself rolling my eyes more often than getting excited over new plot twists. Book four was a real trial. It might have been that I was reading it right after my surgery, but it was very difficult to get through. It's a thousand pages of nothing much happening at all.

    As for Jon Snow, I think the appeal of his character is that he's put upon from the beginning, so he's got this underdog status and we know he's been wronged. That gets people on his side. His chapters tend to be a little more action packed, like Arya's are. That action garners a lot of the attention.

  5. Man, I do love me some train wrecks, but I don't think I've ever even heard of Vampire Hunter D. Definitely sounds hilariously bad though.

  6. Maybe it's because I'm currently drunk, but I burst out into giggles when I read that quote from Vampire Hunter D. Then again, I too am a fan of Sy-Fy original movies, so perhaps I would enjoy it while sober.

  7. i've never seen Vampire Hunter D but it did get a video game on the ps1 and a anime.

  8. Do you think a writer could use /The secret life of pronouns/ to write dialogue that better hinted at the speaker's feelings?