Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Reviews-Rethinking A Dance with Dragons, Just After Sunset and more

Rethinking A Dance With Dragons
A good friend started George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series on my recommendation and has read the first four books. She is finishing book five, A Dance with Dragons (ADWD). To put it mildly, so far she is less than impressed. "Dumb, Dumb, Dumb" were her exact words.

We agreed that the first three books were excellent, but that there were a few stumbles in book 4, A Feast for Crows (AFFC). I think AFFC is worse than ADWD but having now reread and discussed ADWD I would make a few additions to my original lukewarm positive review. I briefly touched on these points before but didn't emphasize them.
There are some spoilers from the first book although I will generally avoid spoilers from the other books. If you figure stuff out on your own well I can't help that. Have a cookie because you're smarter than the average bear!

This is the biggest problem with ADWD. It  is just under 1000 pages.  Despite the length, the story moves forward only haltingly. In book one, we ended with Ned Stark's execution and the North's secession under Robb Stark, the new King in the North. In book two we saw feuding between two brothers, special challenges faced by Sansa &Arya Stark, Tyrion given a chance to lead, and an invasion. In book three, well just read it. These stories moved. They were tight and you couldn't wait to turn the page.

But in ADWD we get incredibly detailed histories on which princess married which noble and why certain great families have been warring for years but the story doesn't move much past where it was in AFFC. Because ADWD and AFFC were originally supposed to be one book this is understandable but somewhat frustrating. This leads directly into the next issue.

There are 5-6 critical storylines that make up the series theme. These are
  • What's going on beyond the Wall?
  • Will the Stark children be reunited and have revenge on their family's enemies?
  • Will Daenerys become Queen?
  • Will Jon discover who his mother was?
  • Will the roles of Littlefinger and other chessmasters ever be revealed?
  • What does it mean to be rightful heir?
I don't expect complete resolution now. But after five books I would like to see some progress towards answers. Instead ADWD features many chapters on people whining about their responsibilities or quixotic quests by flat characters in boring new settings. This could have been ruthlessly chopped from ADWD. There are over 20 different points of view between ADWD and AFFC. This harms the narrative flow. Imagine if Lord of the Rings were told from the point of view of Grima Wormtongue and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. That might be an interesting diversion for a while but now imagine that Tolkien had spent a full third of the book detailing the various adventures those relatively minor personages had, what they ate for breakfast, where they used the toilet and what they thought about their one great love who got away.

It looks like GRRM has written himself into a pickle here. I know he's talented enough to get out of it but his incredible attention to detail and every little thing that's happening in a story, combined with a penchant for cliffhangers that end every book means that in ADWD many of the characters we care most about are still too young to have much impact on events. What was needed was a five or seven year break, which would have fit PERFECTLY after the horrific events in A Storm of Swords. Many events in ADWD could have been described in flashback where suitable. The harsh training that Arya and Bran are each undergoing is not necessarily something that needs great painstaking detail. Speaking of specific characters leads me to my last point.

Many characters that we've come to know and love act in ways that simply don't ring true. In some cases they regress. In A Game of Thrones we see Daenerys transition from a frightened girl who is molested by her brother and sold to her husband to a defiant leader who has dragons. In books two and three, people that underestimate her tend to regret it. She's wiser than people realize and combines a savvy realpolitik with a caring nature.
In ADWD she's changed to a horny teenager who is distracted by butterflies and blue beards (don't ask). Whenever a serious decision or deep analysis is needed she runs off to ride the train.

Jon Snow, who famously put (and kept putting) duty and his word above his love and loyalty for his family has turned into an emo moping teen. My friend calls him "Eeyore" and honestly that's a pretty accurate description. He has reason to be depressed (events in books one through three) but still. Of course character growth or degradation is part of a storyline but these are EXTREMELY sudden transitions that don't ring true. Tyrion suffers the most from this. In ADWD Tyrion is definitely the butt monkey.

All in all I STILL THINK ADWD is a worthwhile read. It's just not as good as the first three books. It shares a lack of focus with AFFC. ADWD has sections which compare favorably with the first three books; there's just too few of them. Unsurprisingly the best prose is centered around Jon Snow and the political situation in the North. I wish Martin had made that the central storyline.

I hope that ADWD is just a "transitional" book and the next book gets back to the stripped down churning storylines that made the earlier books so amazing. Martin is still the man. If AFFC was a swing and miss, ADWD is a single. Because Martin's earlier at bats were all grand slams, people notice the difference.

Just After Sunset
by Stephen King
This is a recent collection of short stories by the famed horror author. I picked this up after Full Dark although Just After Sunset is the earlier release. In the foreword King explains that he had lost his taste for creating short stories and was a bit worried about it. He did not feel that his financial success was a fair trade.

After editing another collection of short stories, King felt inspired to write (and in some cases rewrite) some more short stories of his own and Just After Sunset was the result. King is a extraordinary writer of course but I didn't enjoy this book as much as I did Full Dark.

The stories here seem to be connected by fears of loss, aging, disease and dying. If you are the sort of person who is REALLY bothered by the fact that at some time over the next thirty years your body will greatly deteriorate, you may contract some chronic disgusting disease or condition, and you will eventually pass into non-existence, this probably isn't the book for you. King only goes for the disgusting gross-out once in "A Very Tight Place" which details the battle of a man trapped in a port-a-potty by a vindictive neighbor. More typical though is "Willa", a ghost story told from the POV of ghosts, "Rest Stop" in which a wimpy author tries to find the courage to confront an abusive husband or "The Things They Left Behind" which directly confronts the 9/11 horror.

It's a mug's game trying to figure out what was going through a writer's mind when he wrote a story or how much of himself he put into it. King is sympathetic to that point of view but does nevertheless include some afterword notes on each story. I was grateful for that. It is always fascinating to get a peek under the hood so to speak, into the mind of a creative person to see how it works. Little things that the rest of us ignore or take for granted are seeds for that person's inspiration.

The Pigman
by Paul Zindel
There are some books that may be written for teens but really have a lot to say to us all. The Pigman is such a book. When I think of books that influenced me to become the cynical, distrusting person that I am The Pigman would have to be near the top of that list. In some stories the author uses examples to try to convince people to live a better life.  I'm not sure that Zindel did that with The Pigman.

The novella is pretty depressing actually. In some respects it was both forerunner for more realistic books aimed at young adults and really a downsized noir novel. It's about two high school students, high spirited troublemakers, John Conlan and Lorraine Jensen who enjoy among other pranks, making calls to people pretending to be charity workers looking for money. One of the people they call is Angelo Pignati -an old man who is desperate for human contact. John and Lorraine go over to his house to pick up the money but find that Mr. Pignati is such a great guy that they become good friends with him.

This relationship starts out in a lie of course but becomes real as neither John or Lorraine know as much about life as they think they do and since Mr. Pignati is widowed his only friend besides the teens is a baboon at the zoo. The story ends on a very dark down note. There's something to be said for the idea that we come into the world alone and leave alone. But maybe while we're here we can add a little happiness. I don't know. I know what I took from this novella was not to trust people so easily.

The Way of the Wiseguy
by Donnie Brasco (Joe Pistone)
Joe Pistone is an Italian-American former FBI agent who worked undercover for over six years infiltrating the NY Mafia. He started out with small time hoodlums associated with one Family.
Using skills learned in the FBI but mostly from his own experiences growing up in an Italian-American New Jersey neighborhood, Pistone reinvented himself as "Donnie Brasco"-jewel thief, occasional drug dealer, and all around tough guy. He infiltrated the Bonanno Crime Family and was in fact proposed for membership. The fact that Pistone survived undercover as long as he did without losing sight of who he was was amazing. He was after all working closely with people for whom killing was second nature.  His cover was so good that in fact when he was pulled from the assignment and his FBI status revealed to mobsters, many mobsters who worked closely with him refused to believe it and thought that the FBI must have kidnapped and brainwashed "Donnie".

Although it's somewhat arguable as to how many mobsters are in jail because of Pistone-he claims over 100- what's beyond debate is that for six years he swam with some of the biggest sharks in the ocean of organized crime and didn't get bit. So he may know a little bit about how Italian-American gangsters (or as they like to call themselves "wiseguys") behave.

The Way of the Wiseguy is his second book on the topic. Here he's more relaxed and less "on" as an FBI agent. We get to see more of Pistone's own nature and thoughts come out. He repeats throughout the book that there is nothing honorable or decent about wiseguys. They are the scum of the earth and he had no problem putting them in jail.  He says he's pretty much the same person coming out of the assignment as he was before-same values, beliefs and goals. But he does admit to this though:
The one thing that did stick with me long after I ceased being Donnie Brasco was the wiseguy attitude. Not backing down from confrontations, standing up for yourself, taking no sh**, cutting corners here and there. I'm not talking about acting like a tough guy or throwing your weight around or doing anything illegal or unethical. I'm talking about being someone who understands how the world works and makes it work for him. Nobody's sucker. A guy who knows his way around.
There was one instance where Pistone was working with his mob mentor Lefty to close a deal with a corrupt bank exec. The exec got scared and backed out. The exec told Lefty that he was scared of "Donnie's killer eyes". Pistone was impressed, relieved and miffed that his acting was so good. Lefty had been involved in over twenty murders and evidently didn't scare the executive as much as an FBI agent pretending to be a mobster.

The book is a short (200 page) but revealing and to the point discussion of how wiseguys differ from normal people. Pistone explains Mafia protocol, how wiseguys make their money, why wiseguys aren't nice people, their typical day, why you should never ever ever let a wiseguy do you a favor, what their hierarchy is, how wiseguys relate to women and other such questions you may have. The book also has some CD transcripts of discussions between "Donnie Brasco" and Lefty in which Lefty had noticed some inconsistencies in what "Donnie" had done and was trying to determine if this might lead to "Donnie's" murder or, more importantly from Lefty's POV, his own.
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