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TWIB-II 33  
10:33pm 25/05/2008
Discard Before Using
This week's reads are divided up by book because, being out of class, I have more time to write for enjoyment and thus they are much more comprehensive than usual.

1) The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories - Pagan Kennedy

According to its title page, Pagan Kennedy's The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories is a collection of anecdotes about "eccentrics and eccentricities," but this description seriously sells the volume short. Kennedy refers to the volume's fifteen essays in her introduction as "true stories," which seems a much better label, albeit one that still does not give potential readers much indication as to how surprising and entertaining said stories really are.

Kennedy is a talented writer with a knack for engaging prose and ability to insightfully describe her subjects and what makes them tick. The book kicks off with a biographic essay on Alex Comfort, the "editor" of 1970's literary sensation The Joy of Sex, later revealed to be its primary author. Kennedy's treatment of the man is both incisive and sensitive, avoiding the easy routes of sensationalism, moralizing, or indeed, subjective description. She maintains this tone throughout the volume, and far from making the book a dry, textbook-style litany of facts, her restraint allows her subjects to explain themselves to readers--no mean feat in nonfiction writing.

Eccentrics or not, there are a lot of interesting personalities in this book, from female weightlifters and DIY cranial therapists to indie rockers and biofuels enthusiasts. Kennedy isn't above including herself in this cast of characters, and the volume closes with three essays drawn from her own experiences that are just as insightful and enjoyable as the biopics that precede them. Indeed, if I have one complaint about this volume, it's that I wish many of Kennedy's essays had been longer--I wanted to spend more time with many of these people, as seen through her eyes. In short, whether you're science geek, aficionado of well-written essays, or just looking for a good yarn, The Dangerous Joy of Sex will definitely appeal.

2) The Aviary Gate - Katie Hickman
I'd classify The Aviary Gate as intelligent beach reading. The novel blends historical personages with fictional characters as it tells the story of an Englishwoman sold to the harem of Sultan Mehmed III. It's one quarter captivity narrative, one quarter palace intrigue, and one half history lesson.

Hickman, author of a previous book on courtesans, is informed and enthusiastic about her subject. Although there are equal numbers of male and female characters, Hickman lets the women drive the story, and it's nice to finally see a novel where the concubines are as intelligent, creative, and resourceful as their male counterparts. (Which common sense tells us they must have been, although one would never know it from the way many authors treat the subject.) The descriptions of harem life and the Anglo-Franco-Italian wrangling for trade rights with the Ottoman empire are interesting textbook accounts that read like entertainment. The ending is unusual in that readers never find out exactly what happened to the captive Englishwoman--which is a very realistic outcome given the constraints of historical research, although I go back and forth between considering this a masterstroke or a cop-out.

That said, The Aviary Gate is not without its flaws. Hickman introduces a large cast of characters but underuses many of them. One wonders why she takes such pains to do so when they don't seem to fulfill any meaningful roles. Furthermore, many of these introductions are accompanied by shifts to the new character's POV, to which the narrative never returns again, making for a much less focused read. The 16th century characters all think and behave in markedly 21st century fashions: not bad in and of itself, but why I classify this book as a beach read and not historical fiction.

Then there's the small matter of the 21st century Mary Sue Elizabeth, who's researching the Englishwoman captive's fate. She spends the first half of the narrative inexplicably pining over a (pardon my french) fuckbuddy. Hickman assumes readers will understand the guy's hold over Elizabeth...just because. Readers are never given a single reason explaining why Elizabeth likes the guy; it's just assumed they will understand and sympathise with her inability to break away from him. This is the height of authorial laziness, and these passages fall flat on their face thanks to it, as do the later chapters when Elizabeth is introduced to a mysterious Turk-turned-paramour who fills her with "erotic charges"...just because. It's like Cliff's Notes of Margaret Drabble's The Red Queen, which was itself an insult to fiction.

Finally, although I received this book as an ARC, it came to me hardbound and dust jacketed, making me wonder whether I don't have the same version soon to be on store shelves. If so, it could do with another edit to correct missing capitalization, punctuation, and inconsistent switches between Turkish and English spellings. The Aviary Gate is not without its flaws...but there are considerably fewer of them if you approach the book as relaxation reading instead of historical fiction. That caveat offered, it still makes for an entertaining introduction to turn-of-the-17th-century Constantiople, and if you're looking for a quick fun read, you could do worse than this book.

3) Wasteland - Francesca Lia Block
Wasteland finds Block at her best, hitting every nail on the head with precise, poisoned cotton candy prose. California. bam Nineteen-eighties subculture. bam Teenage despair. bam High school social pyramids. bam Family disfunction and dark secrets. bam Regret. bam Redemption. bam

I've often felt that (with the exception of I Was a Teenage Fairy) Block has been going through the motions with every book she's written since the original Weetzie Bat novels: sticking to a formula that worked for her in the past, but from which all the animating soul leaked out long ago. She's got that soul back here, and in spades. This is some of the most precise, cuttingly minimalist prose I've read in ages; that Block has managed to pack so much punch into under 100 size-12, double spaced pages is a feat of literary magic.

The novel's structure is quite complex, so don't be fooled by its short length. There are several twists and revelations even before one reaches the final reveal, itself a twist so massive I'm still conflicted over it hours after finishing. On the one hand, it makes poignant aspects of the story that might otherwise have been secondary, if not cookie-cutter; on the other hand, it feels as though Block ultimately shied away from the very issues and taboos she seemed to be exploring for the majority of the novel. Still, Wasteland is an excellent book. Read it.

4) His Majesty's Dragon - Naomi Novik
fragilistikal passed this book on to me several years ago, and I've just now gotten around to reading it. It is, in a word, wonderful.

His Majesty's Dragon is set during the Napoleonic wars, with one critical difference: dragons. This is an idea that could have gone very, very badly wrong, but Novik pulls it off with panache. She's one of the few fantasy authors I can think of, along with Susanna Clarke, who has the speech and social customs of the era down pat. Authors of 19th century historical fantasy often misstep by attempting to introduce characters who think and act ahead of their time; they're supposed to be iconoclasts, but usually come off as anachronistic and unbelievable (I'm looking at you, Libba Bray). Novik ingeniously manages to have her cake and eat it too by setting up a parallel, more progressive milieu in the novel's Victorian setting in the world of the dragon-riding aviator corps, then sets her main character into conflict with it. And it works.

More impressive yet, the bulk of His Majesty's Dragon is exposition: on how a British naval ship is run, on how dragons hatch, how they mature, how they eat and interact with each other and their human riders, how they're outfitted for military deployment, how they're flown and handled in combat... And it's terribly entertaining. Not many authors could pull this off. Oh, and the climactic battle scene is terribly well-executed.

Although the book can be read as a one-off, there are three sequels (one of them recently published!), and China plays a role in book two. I really hope Novik can pull this off, but I'm pretty optimistic that she will. Read this book.

Incidentally, if you're interested in reading even more book reviews, kbookreviews.wordpress.com has an exhaustive list of LT bloggers here.

That will be all.
music: asian kung-fu generation - night diving
tags: books, reading
    Mr. Howe! - 4 Pilotless drones - - Link

(no subject)
03:43am 26/05/2008 (UTC)
N: meme
Enjoyed #4 also. I read it after reading Eragon, so I had little expectations from it. I liked the world she set up.

If you read the sequels, please review them, too. I sorta lost interest in the characters by the middle of the 2nd book and struggle to finish the 3rd. I don't have any real criticisms though.
picword: meme
    Mr. Howe! - Thread - span>Link
(no subject)
04:27pm 27/05/2008 (UTC)
Discard Before Using
I've tried to read Eragon multiple times but can't. It just seems so blah.

I'm planning on starting Throne of Jade in a week or so. I was wondering if the sequels wouldn't be as good--especially if they're as exposition-driven. But, we shall see. Obviously TPTB think book five is good enough to be released as a hardback, so hopefully Novik's over any slump she may have been in.
    Mr. Howe! - Parent - span>Thread - span>Link
(no subject)
09:08pm 26/05/2008 (UTC)
I'm supposed to be receiving Pagan Kennedy's book soon so it'll be interesting to see if I like it as much as you do.
    Mr. Howe! - Thread - span>Link
(no subject)
05:39am 09/06/2008 (UTC)
Amy Sisson
Thanks for pointing me towards your Wasteland review -- I'll have to give that one a try!
    Mr. Howe! - Thread - span>Link

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