Feb 11 2010

Bog Child

The last few days I’ve been holed up at home, watching the snow fall and drift. Other than pulling on some jeans and a top layer or two to go shoveling, I’ve stayed inside lounging about in my pajamas, working through a store of microwaveable dinners, talking on the phone about the “snow”, and reading. Last night, I started reading Siobhan Dowd’s 2008 novel “Bog Child“. Today, I finished it.

The book was published posthumously, following the author’s death in 2007. The book is intended for teenagers and is not a difficult read. I’m not even sure who turned me on to this book; something tells me it was an old friend who is both a rapacious reader and school teacher but I can’t be sure–it’s been sitting on my “to read” shelf for far too long.

The story takes place in Ireland during the summer of 1981. It begins when Fergus, the 18 year old main character, discovers an Iron Age bog body outside his hometown. While the discovery and unfolding secrets of the bog child are interesting, Dowd is not content with a single brushstroke. The book also deals with family dynamics, friendships, loyalties, hopes and sacrifices, young romance, and religion, all painted on the tattered canvas of the “Long War” between the IRA and the British Army. Honestly, I had completely forgotten about Bobby Sands until last night and there I was learning about him all over again in a book aimed for teenagers. I think that’s great.

Again, the book isn’t particularly challenging but it is assembled very well. It gives readers (especially teenagers who may not be familiar with the Troubles) important insight into what life may have been like (I wasn’t there) and how asymmetric (or fourth generation) warfare affects everyone, at all levels. This was a good and compelling read.

“We sin, Fergus, more by the sin of omission than of commission.”

4 out of 5


Feb 10 2010

The Windup Girl

Today, I finished Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2009 sci-fi novel, “The Windup Girl“. Bacigalupi (who I’d never heard of before I picked-up this book) is an up and coming sci-fi author with a penchant for environmental issues. He’s been nominated four times for a Hugo award (not for this one… yet) and receives rave reviews on Amazon, LibraryThing, etc. I decided to give him a try and now that I have, I’m not really sure what all the buzz is about.

The book plods along for the first 300 pages, following half-a-dozen characters as they struggle with cultural, economical, and political intrigues in post-Expansion Thailand. As the story unfolds, the reader discovers that the world has been ravaged by rising sea levels, climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels, and a number of pandemics stemming from agricultural genetic engineering. Most world governments have collapsed leaving power in the hands of the agri-corps, which hold the remaining population in thrall with the controlled supply of sterile gene-ripped crop strains. None of this is explained in the book; it’s up to the reader to infer these things from the conversations and thoughts of the book’s characters. Which brings me to my biggest problem with the book, the writing…

OMG is it dry! Everything is written in short clips of present tense. Maybe the book was supposed to be emotionless? I really don’t know. Maybe I’ve been reading too much 19th century writing to appreciate this style. It was hard to tap into the emotions of the characters, the unfolding conflict… The story itself is interesting enough, maybe even compelling to some degree (for the last 60 pages or so). I would have preferred that more be explained from the outset, so I could understand what was being said, characters’ motivations, &c. Instead, I was obliged to push through a number of story lines with I wasn’t particularly interested in, in order to figure out what was going on. I wasn’t even sure why the windup girl (see title) was anything but a secondary character until the story’s end. Maybe I should have read an earlier novelette of Bacigalupi’s (i.e., “The Calorie Man”) but there was no indication that this was a sequel. *sigh* Would it be so hard to have a short glossary (for all the Thai terms and phrases), perhaps a time line or prologue explaining some of the history leading to the present state of things? I guess so. Is that considered trite in serious science fiction? *shrug*

In the end, after pushing myself to finish it, I just didn’t care. I’m left with a story with some good ideas mired in a writing style that was simply frustrating.

“We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it.”

3 out of 5


Feb 1 2010

The Three Musketeers

Today, I finally finished Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 classic “The Three Musketeers” (in English). I bought a copy of this book about 18 years ago and made a number of failed forays into the first chapter or two. Recently, I picked-up a better copy (I’m partial to hardcovers) and committed myself to seeing what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t hard. In fact, I’m not sure why I had so much trouble starting the book in the first place. Like all good adventure books, the story soon is pulling you along and before you know it, it’s over. Well, not completely over… There are two follow-up books to the d’Artagnan Romances (e.g., Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne) and three further stories (e.g., Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere, The Man in the Iron Mask) but I have too much else on my list before I even think about embarking on those.

The book itself was a strange blend of familiar characters involved in unfamiliar circumstances. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising having seen innumerable adaptations in cartoons, television, movies, abridged children’s books, etc. Anyone who has read a version of the story in elementary school should revisit the book again. I was expecting it to end with a huge mêlée between the King’s Musketeers and the Cardinal’s Guards, but nothing like that ever manifested. Maybe in a later book? Instead, the story tacks back and forth between a number of villainous characters before settling on one and pursuing that storyline to the finish. As I was coming to the end I began to seriously doubt how the story-lines could ever be wrapped-up in the number of pages left. There is a large and confusing cast of characters, all addressed as M. or Mme., Count this, Countess that… It wasn’t as bad as “Crime and Punishment” where everyone has three names that could be used interchangeably as the narrator saw fit, but it still took some reprogramming every time I put the book down for more than a day at a time. Whining aside, the book was a good deal of fun.

For those unfamiliar with the story (how is that even possible?!), the book revolves around three mysterious Musketeers (who have changed their names to escape their respective pasts) and a young Gascon swordsman who travels to Paris wishing to  join the Musketeer ranks. The story mostly follows d’Artagnan’s adventures, friendships, and romances. In the process he crosses swords and wits with a number of villains ranging from the the Countess de Winter, Cardinal Richelieu, and the Man from Meung while professing his love, honor, and service to every lady he meets (married or not… such is the French way?). Despite a wide network of characters, plots, intrigues, and twists the story wraps-up satisfactorily (which is amazing). I will read it again should I ever find the time.

“You are young,” replied Athos; “and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves into sweet remembrances.”

4.5 out of 5