Sunday, August 10, 2014

Whispers Under Ground

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Whispers Under Ground (Del Rey, 2012).

I saw this book in my wife's to-read pile and asked "Hey! Ben Aaronovitch! You know who he is, right?"

"Never heard of him," she said. "The book sounded promising."

"He wrote a really great Doctor Who serial and another one a year later that was a lot worse. Then he wrote some of the Who novels for Virgin, each of which was better than the previous one. One of those names-to-watch, young talent of the early nineties, who sort of faded from view. I wondered what happened to him." Turns out he wrote some direct-to-CD Blake's 7 audio dramas and not much more in the way of fiction during the 2000s. In early 2011, Gollancz released Rivers of London, the first in a series of urban fantasy novels featuring a young constable, Peter Grant, who gets inducted into a secretive branch of the London police force that investigates magical doings.

Whispers Under Ground is the third in the series and I really enjoyed it. I especially liked that while modern magic plays a big role in PC Grant's life and career and punctuates the plot and characters throughout, it is not the critical element of the actual investigation of the crime, which revolves around a doozy of a locked room mystery. The son of a New York state senator, studying art at a London college, is found dead in a station on the city's underground "Tube" Circle Line, stabbed in the back with a piece of pottery. CCTV shows him emerging from the tunnel, mortally wounded, but there's no indication of him entering the system that day. The transport police know about several service shafts and connections that the general public don't, but there's no indication that he used those, either.

The solution requires going back to the Underground's construction, and the architectural compromises made to accommodate steam engines that ran beneath the surface, and some unscrupulous vegetable sellers, and "nazareth" black markets that constantly shift location to avoid detection. It's a very fun and fascinating story, full of history and research that turn a good story into a great one. I enjoyed this a lot, and hope to read the other books in the series soon. Recommended.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Chop Suey, USA

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Chop Suey, USA (Columbia University Press, 2014).

You know you're reading a book for academic types when this happens: the author, Yong Chen, who's an associate professor of history at the University of California - Irvine, makes a point that "the development of American Chinese food followed the trajectory of America's evolution as an empire." He then spends the next eight pages defining what the heck he means by "empire." Oh, settle in, readers, because sweet and sour chicken might be comfort food for some of you, but this won't be comfort reading for anybody.

Chop Suey, USA is a dry but fact-stuffed analysis of the socioeconomic rise of inexpensive food made for the masses, cooked with compromises for American tastes and shortcuts for ease of service. Food in Chinese restaurants was, in the days before McDonald's, the least expensive dining-out option, letting people in the early 20th Century have a taste of affordable cooking outside their homes on a regular basis.

So this is a denser read than something that would come with a Food Network logo on the front cover. It required me to reactivate long dormant parts of my brain, the ones that, once upon a time, wrote 65 dense, dense pages about Ezra Pound's embrace of fascism in Italy, to tackle any more than about seven pages of economic theory, class, history, and sociology without falling asleep. Those of you who are used to the academic need to explain and footnote absolutely everything for fear of some peer asking a question they had not already answered in meticulous detail - that's why academic texts are so damn dry, because the writers are anticipating scrutiny that the rest of us, particularly bloggers, don't suffer in quite the same way - will probably find this an interesting little jaunt over the last 150 years.

On the other hand, those of you who are interested in the history of Chinese-American cuisine in a slightly more offhand and anecdotal way will find this, frankly, a longwinded bore. See, for me, Chinese-American food was historically a reasonable compromise to enjoy with friends or family who liked it more than me. I knew that it was not "traditional" or "authentic," but never really knew what was until about the last eighteen months, when I started digging into the menus of some Chinese-owned restaurants along Buford Highway in northeast Atlanta that do not really advertise to Americans, or cater to them with sweet and sour sauce, orange goop, or MSG. I make a distinction between what I term suburban Golden-This-Happy-That joints and the more authentic ones, and I wondered whether that's really fair. This book leads me to think that I'm correct. Chapter 7 goes into this in great detail. Interestingly, chop suey itself has gradually fallen out of favor - I honestly don't think that I've ever had it - and kung pao chicken or shrimp is more frequently seen as the most popular Chinese-American takeout dish. Neither dish is generally known inside China.

Don't get me wrong - this is a good book and an enlightening one. The conclusion and the afterword, "Why Study Food?," are fascinating essays on their own, but I found myself craving a lighter touch, more anecdotes, and more studies of modern subcultures where authentic Chinese cooking may be available for locals to find, instead of pages and pages of old economic theories. Recommended, mildly, with a cup of coffee by your side.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury, 2003).

This could well be my very favorite fantasy novel... not that there's a whole mess of competition, as I generally don't care much for the genre. I reread it recently, and it took a little while. My edition is more than 1000 pages long; it took several days to finish. I didn't mind at all. It's an epic story that takes place over the course of more than a decade. It shouldn't be read in a single sitting.

The novel is an alternate history that suggests sometime in the 15th Century, magic was somewhat common to England, but it fell into disuse, neglect, and not a little embarrassment, after the "Raven King," John Uskglass, abdicated his strange claim to a throne of sorts, incorporating the north of England and some of the kingdoms of Fairie. Centuries later, in the early 1800s, a recluse called Mr Norrell decides it is time for English magic to return, but only on his terms.

Not long after Norrell sets himself up in London society and finds ways of getting in good with the government, he takes on a brash pupil, the talented and slightly arrogant Jonathan Strange. He, in turn, is asked by the government to go to Spain and assist the Duke of Wellington in the war against Napoleon. Unbeknownst to both men, an earlier act of magic by Norrell has had amazing and tragic consequences. The wife of Sir Walter Pole lives half her day in our world, exhausted and entranced, and the other half in Fairie, where a thistle-haired gentleman slowly - very slowly - plots to restore magic to Earth in his own way...

The story itself is absolutely fantastic and huge fun, and I can't wait until the TV adaptation (January of next year, they say...?), but the way that this book is written is part of the joy of the story. It's full of archaic spelling and sentence construction, and punctuated throughout with lengthy footnotes. Some readers have been seen to complain about them, missing the simplicity behind them. Many are effectively short stories set in the same world. Highly recommended for readers with a couple of weeks free.