Saturday, January 16, 2010

Winter Break Wrap-up

I chewed my way through four books during my holiday travels. Not bad, considering everything else I managed in that time. However, I've returned most to the library or their rightful owners, so I'm working form memory.

Title: Summer Knight
Author: Jim Butcher

This comes much earlier in the series than the only other one I've read. It establishes why Harry has weekly house-cleaning and pantry-stocking service provided by pixies, but that doesn't show up until the last chapter or so. Clearly not the point of the book.

Someone has killed the Summer Knight (protector/enforcer of the Summer Court of the Fae) and stolen the source of his power. The Winter Queen, Mab (of all people/things), hires Harry to find out whodunit. Ok, technically she kind of blackmails him into it. Naturally, nothing can ever be as simple as just a murder investigation. If Harry doesn't solve the murder in time, the balance of power between the two courts of the Fae will shift, leading to (more) rains of frogs and the eventual destruction of life and order as we know it. Plus, his own White Council of Wizards will turn him over to the Red Court vampires--the same as an execution, because they're still mad about Harry attacking them in a previous story--to end the war between Red and White. Believe it or not, the war between wizards and vampires is the background story, hardly mentioned at all.

The story is complex and bizarre (as expected, and lots of fun), and Harry cracks wise in the middle of a reality-threatening battle which takes place in the sky above Chicago, lays out pizza as bait for pixies with strange armor and ridiculous names, and partners with a gang of werewolves, who aren't the bad guys you might expect them to be. It's weird in all the best ways.

Title: Moose Droppings and Other Crimes Against Nature: Funny Stories From Alaska
Author: Tom Brennan
Bookmark: various pieces of airport paperwork

Every year, one of the smaller cities in Alaska (I know, that sounds redundant) holds a Moose Dropping Festival. One year, an environmental group called to complain, wanting to know exactly how high up the moose were lifted before being dropped. Hence the book's title.

Brennan presents us with an insight into Alaskan life and history by inundating the reader with the humor of our largest and newest state. Some of the entries are just jokes from and about Alaska (including an entire Dave Barry column); many are true stories about Alaskan personalities both well-known and obscure, ranging from bush pilots and prostitutes to politicians and executives. Some are laughed with; many are laughed at, but all are hysterically funny. I laughed so hard reading this book on the first half of my flights home for Christmas that I was afraid they'd take the book away from me so I'd stop disturbing the other passengers. The lady in the seat in front of me kept turning away from her counter-cross-stitch to glare at me between the seats.

Highly entertaining; unusually familiar.

Title: Ella Minnow Pea
Author: Mark Dunn

In the fictional island nation of Nollop, 23 miles of the coast of South Carolina, lives a girl named Ella Minnow Pea in a city built around a statue of Nevin Nollop, revered native son and author of the famous pangram "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." Nollopians live in a happy sesquipedalian society, with a great love of words and language, until one day one of the tiles, a Z, falls from the cenotaph. The High Island Council decrees it to be a sign from Nollop, and orders that the letter Z be stricken from all language, written and oral. A first offense earns a warning, stocks or public flogging for a second offense, and the third merits banishment--death if banishment is refused. A beekeeper is sent off the island almost immediately.

As more tiles fall, more letters are removed from their language, and more Nollopians leave, some by choice, others by official decree. The council issues an official proclamation that the lost graphemes will become legal again only if an islander can create a new pangram using only 32 letters. At least one woman goes completely insane, covering her body in brightly colored paints (the only way left for her to express herself). Others work night and day on the new pangram. One cult is formed declaring Nollop to be the only Supreme Being, and another is formed primarily to contradict the first.

The best part: the novel is epistolary, consisting only of coorespondence between characters and the official decrees of the High Island Council, meaning that as letters disappear from their island, they also disappear from the book. By the end, it's barely comprehensible gibberish.

And it's wonderful. Easily one of the best books I've read in a long time. The actions of the govenment are outright terrifying. It's not just a story about a love of language, but of freedoms relished and rescinded, the power of beliefs and cults, loves lost and found, rebellion, unlikely heroes, serendipity, and the madness that sometimes overtakes people when they refuse to question their own questionable beliefs. It's fantasstic, and I highly recommend it.

Title: Red Harvest
Author: Dashiel Hammett

The nameless operative of the Continental Detective Agency is one of Hammett's best known characters. I read a short story that featured him in a much larger collection, but this is the first book I've tackled. If you are as bad with names as I am, don't make the mistake I did and slow down while reading it. I didn't read fast enough on my flights, and when I got back to my place I was too busy to read during the day so I only got a bit of reading done each night before falling asleep. I never remembered who anybody was, and ended up very confused until I waited to finish the whole thing the next Saturday.

The ConOp shows up in Personville (usually called Poisonville, but not always by guys with a heavy New Joisey accent) at the request of a man who is murdered within a couple hours of their scheduled meeting. He takes it upon himself to start investigating the murder, but simultaneously blackmails the most powerful man in town (who happens ot have the mayor, governor, chief of police, and a couple crime bosses in his pocket) into hiring him to clean up the corruption in town. What follows is a constant onslaught of double-dealings, murders, drive-bys, and frame jobs. The ConOp doesn't keep his nose completely clean, but stays mainly within the bounds of law, operating mainly by letting other people know what their rivals are planning--or have already accomplished.

It's complicated and messy, but if you enjoy a good pulp thriller, it's good stuff.

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posted by reyn at 6:12 PM


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