Here be dragons

I read a couple of Anne McCaffrey books as a kid, but I was never all that into dragons. I like them when they show up in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire — and especially in the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation — but that series is really about the people. Dragons are just a superweapon.

league of dragons

But in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, dragons are characters and that's the genius of the series. She just wrapped it up with League of Dragons, and she did it well. Fortunately there are nine books in all so if you're feeling bereft about the end of the series you can just start from the beginning again, with His Majesty's Dragon.

I can't really suggest these books for people who are jonesing for Game of Thrones between TV seasons or the much longer wait between books. The better comparison is with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series — because both are set in the British service during the Napoleonic wars and have a friendship at heart that is the most important in both parties' lives. But Naomi Novik is obviously writing an alternative/fantastical version of history (there are dragons!). So you get fun twists you'll never find in straight-up historical fiction. Like: Some dragons only allow women to be their captains/companions. Napoleon ranges even farther afield — all the way to South America. And most importantly, our protagonists and the society as a whole are forced to wrestle with their treatment of the dragons, many of whom are more intelligent than most people. Temeraire is an exceptional dragon, to be sure, but he is expert at mathematics and speaks multiple languages. And all the dragons are sentient beings, even if they are too often treated like livestock — or convenient weapons.

Really, these books are best suited for anyone who has ever felt strongly connected to an animal, like a dog or a horse. The fantasy isn't so much that there are giant, flying reptiles but that your companion from another species could communicate with you directly — and both delight and exasperate you with his or her idiosyncrasies. Dragons, in Novik's world, are imprinted on the first human who harnesses them and will do everything in their considerable powers to protect that person. Many are intelligent, though they have a weakness for treasure, especially the shiny kind.

That consideration of how dragons should be treated within society as a whole is really the heart of this series, and what elevates it above just another fantasy ... with dragons. Though it may have inspired me to give Anne McCaffrey's books another look (it's been more than 30 years). And also to finish the Aubrey-Maturin series, which I have been drawing out for well over a decade now.

Read these, not that

Not this

 If you must do this, do it on audio. Or better yet, wait for your local library to get the audiobook.

If you must do this, do it on audio. Or better yet, wait for your local library to get the audiobook.

Let’s get the negative out of the way: Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. This is a serialized novel from the creator of Downton Abbey – I heard an NPR interview with him about it, I like historical fiction, I figured I’d give it a go. I also like to check out innovative or slightly different modes of storytelling – though the serial format is a bit of a throwback, too, it’s one that’s rarely seen anymore.

First, the app. It sucked. You had to sign in every time, it never remembered where you were, simply turning pages was far glitchier on the same device than it was in the Kindle or iBooks apps. You had to reload everything every time. New chapters didn’t appear until the day after they were promised. Overall, not pleasant.

Second, the content. I listened to the first (free) chapter on audio. Hiring the actress Juliet Stevenson to narrate the audiobook was the best decision anyone made regarding this enterprise. I liked it enough, and was feeling supportive enough about the whole idea, that I invested $14 to get the rest of the book, delivered in weekly installments.

I started reading the next few chapters and …  see page-turning glitchiness complaints, above. Also, it soon became clear that while Fellowes may be a supremely talented creator of high-end soap operas, he’s not a great writer, even in the context of historical romance. I read enough of those to know. This wasn’t, strictly, a romance — I’d call it more of a melodrama. But it was insanely predictable and two-dimensional even by those standards.

Which made me very surprised to read in Entertainment Weekly an interview about his latest project, Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (for future reference: avoid projects where the creator’s name appears in the title). Fellowes said this: “Trollope is one of my favorite writers of all time. His emotional position is very similar to my own in that nobody is all good or all bad.”

And my immediate reaction was, what the hell are you talking about? Your villains are so bad they practically twirl their mustaches and the good guys are so good you almost want to smack them. I was glad when I saw that the good critics at Slate had also noted this odd contradiction, as Laura Miller wrote Fellowes “professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal.” (She credits the TV critic Willa Paskin though Paskin’s review is kinder toward the TV show than Miller’s — enough that I might give it a try since we have Amazon Prime anyway and I’m curious to see Fellowes-as-Hitchcock. Or maybe I should just, you know, read Trollope.)

I went back to listening to the chapters on audio and found the experience improved considerably – thanks, Juliet Stevenson! Maybe Fellowes just writes better for dramatic presentation than old-fashioned reading anyway. Plus no more glitchy page turning. There’s nothing that makes you feel stupider than repeatedly swiping and tapping your iPad so you can read the next page of a book you don’t like that much that you paid real money for. Was it a waste of time? Kind of, though once I’d plunked down that $14 I was going to see this melodrama through to the melodramatic finale. I think that’s what I’m most annoyed about – if I’d gotten this book from the library or even paid a dollar or two on the Kindle, I would be OK with it. But $14 is real money, bookwise, and I feel like I fell for a British-accented, elaborately costumed scam.

And I didn’t even watch Downton Abbey.

These!

 Worth the wait, and the length.

Worth the wait, and the length.

Enough with the negative. Let’s move on to gushing about highly hyped entertainment reading that delivered on its hype: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. This is the third in the dystopian trilogy that started with  back in 2010. I was working at the library then and jumped on the train. Loved the first book, liked the second enough to get through it all (these books are loooooong) and I was damned sure going to finish the last.

It had been awhile (four years!) since The Twelve, though, so I was a little worried about what I remembered about the plot. And it’s not like you’re going to plow through a thousand-plus pages AGAIN to refresh yourself. So I used the same method I do on the rare occasions that George R.R. Martin produces a book – I read the plot summaries of previous installments on Wikipedia. Plus, Cronin used a future-history-of-the-chronicled-events plot device that reminded me of the events of book 2. And we were off.

I loved it. I spent the entire weekend wallowing around in that book – not rushing through, though it was a page-turner, not savoring though I was perfectly happy hanging out in that world. It wasn’t one of those giant tomes where you’re like, “This thing could easily lose a couple hundred pages and no one would notice.” The extended backstory was interesting and a fun return to the 1990s — and a refreshing break from the dystopic present of the novels. I liked it at least as much as the first novel and much better than the second. So I was very grateful to my local library for buying several copies and wish I could take that $14 back from Julian Fellowes and give it to Justin Cronin.

 All the Austen essentials, delightfully updated.

All the Austen essentials, delightfully updated.

My local library was also kind enough to supply a copy of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This update of Pride and Prejudice (should that be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?) got a rave in the New York Times Book Review so I figured I’d like it. And I liked the earlier installment I’d read in this series of contemporary Austen updates. It was also the perfect antidote – or remedy is maybe a better word — to my City of Mirrors book hangover. It’s not like I wanted to live in Justin Cronin’s created world — but I had been so intensely immersed in it that it was hard to focus on minor things like my life and my job. Eligible is a frothy social comedy in the best sense – and it was just so much fun to both learn about these new versions of Bennets and Bingleys and Darcys – as well as watch them reach the happy endings I knew were in store. My only complaint about Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense & Sensibility were that I felt she did some contortions to fit the plot into the 21st century. Sittenfeld’s use of a Bachelor-like reality show (the titular “Eligible”) was brilliant.

I loved how she adapted and changed the characters’ roles and ages but managed to hold onto the essentials – Liz is smart but sometimes a little too sharp, Darcy is uptight but honorable, Jasper Wick (ie Wickham) is a charming douchebag, Mrs. Bennett is pretty awful but hey, she’s your mom and Mr. Bennett is smart and funny but disastrously disengaged. Though my favorite change might be the most radical — Kathy DeBourgh as a formidable Gloria Steinem-like feminist icon.

I did gallop through this one – really, really short chapters made me feel like I was supposed to be doing that – but I was happy to do so. And immediately went to the library and got the two Austen updates I hadn’t read yet, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I really can’t wait to see who gets Persuasion.

 Just because.

Just because.

In review

So … five stars to Justin Cronin, Curtis Sittenfeld, their editors and publishers and of course my local library.

Two stars to Julian Fellowes – mostly for trying something a little bit out of the norm. Stick to screenwriting, dude, and next time hire a much better app developer. Though I will check out Downton Abbey one of these years.

 

True crime on page and on air: A fan's notes

Read this

dreamland.jpg

Dreamland by Sam Quinones showed up on a lot of year-end best lists last year. I still resisted it. I know the opiate epidemic, fueled by pill mills, has transitioned into a heroin epidemic, especially in the midwest and the Northeast, where I'm from. I know they are related, and have been devastating to families and communities.

But I had a hard time getting past the difference between the societal and governmental reaction to this drug scourge, versus crack in the 1980s — which begot the whole three strikes policy that saw people going away for life for a lousy $30 drug buy. Prescription pain medication abuse wasn't treated the same way. Plenty of people died from the crack epidemic, too. Plenty of lives, families and communities were destroyed. But now pain meds and heroin are affecting white middle class kids and their parents! So suddenly it's everybody's problem.

Still, when I saw Dreamland on the table at our new Books & Books at The Studios of Key West I couldn't resist picking it up — and I'm so glad I did. This is one of the best works of reported nonfiction I have read in years.

Quinones expertly traces the two streams that converged to create our current opiate epidemic: the over-prescribing of opiate medications, on the (mistaken) assumption that they weren't terribly addictive and the marketing of black tar heroin by young men from one particular region of Mexico.

The pain pills were the result of doctors who genuinely wanted to help people - and drug companies (and less scrupulous doctors) that wanted to make money. All of them relied to an inordinate extent on a short letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about the addictive qualities of opiates - a letter that was later cited as a "landmark study" in the popular press and pharmaceutical sales pitches.

The Mexican heroin trade looks almost admirable by contrast — because the "Xalisco boys," as Quinones calls them, created an insanely successful, resilient web of heroin sales that relied on pagers (and later cell phones), moving small amounts and an apparently infinitely sales force. They didn't carry guns and they only imported small amounts and carried even smaller amounts when they sold. It was far easier to deport them than to prosecute them. And the drugs were delivered to clients in fast food parking lots, not scary street corners.

Quinones assembles an astonishing amount of information and tells the story so well you don't feel like you're reading a treatise or a sociology text. And he takes time, when appropriate, to address that beef I have with the way the opiate epidemic has been treated – because now the kids of people in power are getting affected.

Listen to that

The other piece of excellent reporting I've come across recently is the second season of Breakdown. That's the podcast produced by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. They said forthrightly that they were inspired by Serial but in some ways I prefer it. It's more straight-up reporting, with less introspection. And in the first season, they really addressed the systemic problems facing the defendant — and all poor defendants in Georgia.

 Ross Harris left his son in a car and the boy died. Was it murder, or a horrible accident?

Ross Harris left his son in a car and the boy died. Was it murder, or a horrible accident?

Like Serial, the second season is not a question of did-he-or-didn't-he. It's a what-crime-did-he-commit (if any). And they've picked a doozy — Ross Harris, the young Atlanta father who left his toddler son in the car all day. The son died. Harris, it turns out, was a serial philanderer, making the defense's case even harder.

Throughout, AJC court reporter Bill Rankin is a terrific guide to the case and to the court system in general. He's knowledgable and good at explaining proceedings for laypeople, as well as consulting attorneys and other experts who know the system from the inside. It's all exactly what I want from a journalism podcast — going deeper into a story than you possibly could in a 15-inch newspaper story or a 4 minute radio feature. Bravo.