Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

Bantam Books
July 2011
1040 pages
Buy here.

Let me start off by saying that I am a relatively new fan of the Song of Ice and Fire series.  I only learned of it through the TV series, which I didn't start watching until a couple of months after it originally aired.  I then proceeded to plow through the books at a ferocious pace.  My point is, I have not had to experience the torment of waiting years in anticipation for this book to be published, nor have I spent hours, days, months, years speculating on where the whole thing is going.  I read the books because I am curious to see where it will eventually go, but I have by no means invested the same time and energy into this series as most other readers, and I have no doubt that this causes me to have a fairly different perspective on this book.

Having said that, it seems like this book is the least liked of the series, which I felt I understood the first time I read it myself.  However, I just finished reading the entire series a second time, and I now think that this may be my favorite of the bunch so far.  Many people have complained that it drags on, that nothing happens in terms of plot, that nothing is really resolved in terms of the character arcs.  I can sort of see how all of that is true, and that was initially why I didn't like the book much the first time around.  After a second reading, though, I felt like the action and immediate aftermath of the War of the Five Kings was a bit too drawn out between A Clash of Kings and A Feast For Crows.  Too much fighting, too much laying waste to the land, a ridiculous number of dead main characters.  It was all too much of the same for me across three separate books.

Dance With Dragons is a step in a new direction, though.  While the events of the book happen simultaneously as those in Feast for Crows, the distance in terms of setting helps to separate the two books, as does the introduction of so many new characters.  Things move forward in a much more significant way in this book than they do in Feast for Crows, and part of that has to do with much of the plot given as memories.  We do not need to know every single detail of every single character's journey, because all those details can easily be summed up.  Martin's focus in his writing is more on character than plot, it seems, so writing in this way allows him to focus on character interactions rather than what is simply happening, and I like that.  The events of this book are strange in that they look both forward and backward, but much farther backward than the war that just ended.  History literally comes back to life in this book, in the forms of Dany's dragons (which, duh, hatched in GoT, but have been all but weak pets up until this book) and in the young prince who everyone believes is dead.

I guess what I like about this book so much is that it brings us back to the grand sweeping history that Martin started off with in Game of Thrones.  The War of the Five Kings was necessary of course to change the immediate political conditions in Westeros, but it seems like in Dance With Dragons Martin was finally able to get back to the greater issues that have yet to be resolved.  Yes, the action in books two through four was nice, but ultimately the War of the Five Kings is not the point of the overall series; it is merely a stepping stone to setting up a new ruler (one who, I hope, ends up being a Targaryen).

Many readers complain that nothing "happens" in this book, but I don't know why that's a bad thing, particularly after all the action of the previous books.  The direction of the series is shifting, and to shift painlessly things need to be set up a bit more, as they are in this book.  While there may not be as much action as the earlier books filled with warfare, I find it hard to agree with the idea that the series has not moved forward with this book.  Personally, I would much rather read interesting setting and character development than action after action, and I don't mind that Martin is taking his time establishing the next steps of the story.  Everything that was established after Robert's Rebellion is in ruins, and the last of the Targaryen dynasty is revving up to restore their claim.  If there really are only two books left, I have no doubt they will move quickly now that all the pieces are in place.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

New England Frontier by Alden T. Vaughan

This book is by no means new (the latest edition was revised in 1995), but it is still readily available, and for good reason.  The focus of Vaughan's work is Puritan/Native American relations between the landing of the Mayflower and the start of King Philip's War, and covers topics such as Puritan laws, trade between Puritans and Native Americans, and Puritan efforts to convert Native Americans to Christianity.  Vaughan takes a fairly objective stance on these topics, showing how both parties managed to remain quite amicable for a good while, and blaming each party for things going sour only when blame is warranted.

I am by no means a historian, but I found this book to be quite readable and easily understandable.  Vaughan lays down the basics of New England's Native American tribes up to the point of the Mayflower landing, and he gives some background on earlier European exploration of America.  Chapters are, on the whole, arranged thematically rather than chronologically (though the information within each chapter is chronological).  For this reason, I found this book much more effective than, say, Nathanial Filbrick's more recent work, Mayflower, which is organized through a straight chronology of the same time period.  Vaughan's thematic approach makes the topic much more coherent, and he doesn't focus on so many minute details that Filbrick does, which also makes it more cohesive.  For readers looking for a broad overview of early Puritan/Native American relations, Vaughan's book is definitely a good place to start.

Rating: 4/5
Buy here.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Beyond the Wall edited by James Lowder

BenBella/Smart Pop Books
240 pages
Published June 26, 2012
Buy here.

This is an excellent collection of fourteen essays of literary analysis that covers a variety of topics relating to George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  There are three different types of essays in this book, the first one being straightforward interpretations of the texts through close readings of Martin's words alone.  One of my favorites in this grouping is "Men and Monsters" by Alyssa Rosenberg, who argues that Martin does not use sex and sexual violence gratuitously in his books (as he is frequently criticized of doing), but rather as an indication of serious character and societal flaws.  "The Brutal Cost of Redemption in Westeros" by Susan Vaught is another excellent piece, and in it Vaught argues that there are no obvious boundaries between "good" and "evil" characters, but that the coming winter is the one true "evil" force of the story.  "Evil" characters, then, are the ones who act only in their best interests and tear at the fabric of Westerosi society, making unified preparation for the coming winter difficult.  Other essays that fall into this category are "An Unreliable World" by Adam Whitehead, in which Whitehead discusses the problems of time-keeping in Westeros (both in terms of the history of the land and the histories of specific characters), "Of Direwolves and Gods," in which Andrew Zimmerman Jones discusses the various religions of Westeros and surrounding lands, and "A Sword Without a Hilt" by Jesse Scoble, which explores magic in Westeros and beyond.

The second type of essays in this collection are those that view and interpret Martin's series through some sort of specific lens.  Myke Cole applies the Cooper Color Code to explore the different ways in which Arya Stark and Theon Greyjoy show evidence of suffering from PTSD in "Art Imitates War." Linda Antonsson and Elio M. Garcia Jr., in "The Palace of Love, the Palace of Sorrow," explore the elements of 19th-century Romanticism that Martin employs in his series, primarily through characters' nostalgic views of their own world and other characters.  In addition, "Petyr Baelish and the Mask of Sanity" by Matt Staggs explains how Baelish is a psychopath, in the clinical rather than popular sense of the term.

Finally, the third variety of essay deals with issues a little outside of but connected to Martin's texts.  In "Same Song In a Different Key," Daniel Abraham highlights the challenges inherent in adapting stories in general and Game of Thrones specifically into a graphic novel, while John Jos. Miller discusses the collectibility of various versions of the books in the series in "Collecting Ice and Fire In the Age of Nook and Kindle."

These essays are well written and well supported, and this collection makes an excellent companion piece to the Song of Ice and Fire series.  Events and characters from all five of the current books are explored and referenced, and although the HBO series is alluded to, the books are really the focus of analysis, and a good grasp of the show's textual foundations is necessary for understanding and appreciating these essays.  For the more-than-casual fan, though, the essays provide great insight into the world and characters that George R. R. Martin has created.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Zombie by J.R. Angelella

Soho Press
353 pages
Published June 5, 2012.  Buy here.

I’m honestly a bit mystified by this novel, but I’ve yet to decide if that’s a bad thing or not.  The story is told through the eyes of Jeremy Barker, a high school freshman at an all-boys Catholic school in Baltimore.  Jeremy loves zombie movies, and he maneuvers through his daily life and personal encounters by sticking to his code of survival, which he pieces together from various zombie movies.  Between his divorced parents (addict mom and Vietnam vet dad), school bullies, girls, and aggressive teachers, Jeremy’s is certainly a world that warrants careful use of survival techniques. 

The plot itself has less to do with zombies (there are, in fact, no literal, brain-munching undead to be found in the whole book) and more to do with the ways that Jeremy’s favorite movies are intertextualized throughout the story.  Weaved within Jeremy’s adolescent tale of survival, though, is a bit of mystery surrounding a video he finds in his father’s room, his father’s nightly disappearances, and his father’s unexplained relationship with one of Jeremy’s teachers.  The tone of the book is a bit dark and all the characters are oddities in their own ways, but the writing is great and there are many laugh-out-loud moments.

Still, I can’t help but feel like I missed something with this book.  The mystery of Jeremy’s father is revealed in the end, but even during the reveal it’s hard to get a grasp on what is really going on.  Interactions between characters are, on the whole, fairly awkward and roundabout, and there are times when it’s hard to understand why characters say certain things or respond in a certain manner.  None of the characters are particularly likeable, especially the adults, and the overall organization of the book (extremely short chapters in ten different sections titled after zombie movies) doesn’t immediately make much sense.  

Despite all this, though, the mystery element and the odd humor make this a good read; the difficult bits will make a great re-read, and I'm looking forward to diving into it again to figure out all its little perplexities.  If you like zombie movies, young adult fiction, and/or bizarre stories, definitely check this one out.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Research Virtuoso by The Toronto Public Library

Annick Press, 2012
122 pages
Buy here.

The Research Virtuoso is a fun, straightforward, and handy introduction to conducting academic research and writing research papers.  Authored by Jessica Rovito and Peggy Thomas of the Toronto Public Library, this book is general enough to be used in any course that requires research, either at the secondary or collegiate level, while providing very specific tips and resources for students to use in the research process.

The book is divided into four parts.  Part One focuses on the pre-research stage, from receiving and understanding a specific assignment to planning and brainstorming to identifying and consulting initial sources.  Bloom's Taxonomy is introduced as a concept on its own and as a tool for writing research papers.  Particularly helpful parts of this section are the examples of different organizational structures and web addresses for online brainstorming tools.  Part Two emphasizes finding information, more specifically the where of research (Internet, libraries, archives, people) and the how of performing keyword searches with electronic sources.  In Part Three, readers learn about skimming and scanning, evaluating resources, taking good notes, avoiding plagiarism, and using different methods of citation.  Finally, Part Four is all about the writing process and putting together a solid presentation of a research project.

Each section is very easy to get through, and headings are a bit tongue-in-cheek to help keep readers interested.  (One section heading is titled "Pick Some Brains: Not Just for Zombies.")  Each part is chock full of information, but the authors avoid overloading the reader by interspersing that information with short comic strips, tables, checklists, and worksheets.  Overall, it has a wonderful mix of textual, visual, and interactive components.

This book is very usable as a textbook in a writing/research-oriented course, and can easily be supplemented with lectures, discussions, and activities.  The language is simple, explanations and definitions are clear, and the organization is logical.  I will certainly be using this book the next time I am in a position to choose my own textbooks.

Rating: 5/5