Monday, December 26, 2011

A Game of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Everyone has been talking about Game of Dragons on HBO and I even read an article about George RR Martin in the New Yorker right around the time that the fifth novel in the series was released! I'm the type of person that would prefer to read the books before seeing any movie or show adaptations and since I'm sure that I will probably have time to read the first five books of the series before even the first season gets released onto DVD, I thought I would start now.

The book was first published in 1996/97 and won various awards for science fiction when it was released. I'm actually surprised i never heard of it or was ever given a copy given my penchant at the time for authors the likes of David Eddings and Terry Brooks. The novel alternates chapters with various viewpoints through which Martin introduces us to the noble houses of Westeros, a fantastical world that seems to be poised on the brink of civil war and endless winter. The first of three major plot lines follows Eddard "Ned" Stark in his home in Winterfell and the perils that his family faces, including becoming the chief of staff of the reigning King (Robert of Baratheon) and finding a litter of six dire wolf pups that have been seemingly abandoned by their mother (the House of Stark has a dire wolf as its mascot). The second plot follow life along The Wall, an isolated barrier not unlike the Great Wall of China that serves to protect the Northern Kingdoms (of which Winterfall is the seat) and all of Westeros from the forces of darkness beyond. The people that staff the wall are often the exiled that aren't welcomed in any other part of the country.We follow Jon Snow, Ned Stark's illegitimate son, as he becomes inducted into the "black," and follows in the footsteps of his uncle Benjen Stark. In the East, we are introduced to Daenarys Targaryen, whose family was removed from the Iron Throne of Westeros by Robert of Baratheon and Ned Stark many years before (when she was an infant). We follow her in her quest to have her family restored to grandeur and to get her family's throne back from the Usurpers.

The plot is very, very intricate making it very necessary to not try to summarize it completely here (or risk spoilers) and also making it necessary to read the books in the series back to back so that you don't forget all of the plot twists that you learned in the previous books. Each book is close to, if not more than, 1000 pages of wondrous description and plot intrigue. I often found myself either referring to the chart in the back of the book to remind me of characters or to the charts that I had made myself. I thought that Martin wrote the plot lines so wonderfully and with such depth that I found myself not wanting to put the novel down because I really wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters. I found myself relating to certain characters more than others (I really like Daenarys and Catelyn and Arya Stark) but all the characters seemed to be really deeply drawn, even the ancillary ones. I also appreciated that the characters and the situations that they were involved in were painted in shades of gray as opposed to being completely black and white, like some of these sorts of novels are. I appreciated this because life is itself shades of gray, and so even in fantasy, Martin makes the point that there are shades of gray. Through the situations and shades of gray, you begin to know the characters on an intimate level usually reserved for close family members and friends and in this manner, Martin manipulates you into a situation where you begin to form some level of attachment to the characters.

On a related note, the world itself is absolutely recognizable because even though there are elements of magic and fantasy, the way that the characters act are the ways that we as humans might often interact and react to the situations at hand. The magic isn't so overwhelming or over the top that it will turn you off. Martin is also an extremely talented writer - one that can come up with witty dialogue at the same time that he can write beautifully expressive and elegant prose that allows your senses to place you in the situation being described. And he demonstrates his ability over and over again to withhold information until the very last minute and that disclosure acts as a hook, making one want to read more an dmore and more (often to the detriment of all things real world). The transitions are usually not jarring even though the chapters move between the different perspectives of the various characters. More often then not, they are seamless transitions. Definitely a must read and addition to your collection.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by

So, I really like Alexandra Robbins, generally speaking. I have read other books by her - The Overachievers most notably - but I was drawn to this book because the premise was a noble one - to promote (at the very least) tolerance of the non-conformists in high school and, at the best, outright acceptance of the non-conformists. Her philosophy is also a noble one - to encourage acculturation and diversity and appreciation of those things instead of encouraging people to act like drones - thinking alike, dressing alike and talking alike. I think that a part of her also wants to stop the rampant bullying that exists everywhere from our schools to our workplaces. And I genuinely appreciate that - that message is an essential one to get out because that bullying sort of mentality exists even among adults in the workplace.

Her basic premise is also an easy one to understand and agree with - she essentially argues that the qualities that make people non conformists and outsiders in high school are the qualities that make those same people the most successful when they become adults, even if they are excluded in high school by their peers. The narrative follows seven outsiders during the course of one year: the popular girl, the new girl, the the band geek, the loner, the gamer, the nerd. It also includes a lesbian teacher. As someone who would classify herself as a nerdy jock, these categories fascinated me as did this book. I spent a lot of lunches in the cafeteria sitting with my friends as they played Magic (sophomore year), walking out to lunch (junior year) or talking about 90210 (7th grade), depending on what was going on. So I was really interested to see what she came up with.

The most touching parts of the book, for me, were the first person narratives of each of the main characters. I felt so particularly sad when I read about how Danielle joined a club in 7th grade, only to find out that it was the "I hate Danielle club," named as something else and, so, whenever she did anything in that club, not only was she stating that she hated herself, but her so called friends made fun of everything that she did. I also felt tremendously sad for the Gamer, Blue, who put his heart and soul into organizing tournaments for his gaming team only to be ousted by not only the other kids, but by the teacher who was acting as the teacher guidance counselor for the club.

The book, I thought, was well done in some regards and left some to be desired in other regards. I really enjoyed how Robbins made the science and sociological information very accessible for her readers. She broke down the research in a manner that anyone could understand. I also think that having first hand accounts of the experiences that the research discusses is a very effective way of demonstrating that the research is accurate to some extent (it also appeals to me on another level - I studied history in college and my most favorite class was an oral history class. I also think that primary sources are the best sources of information when it comes to history/sociological research). What was somewhat disconcerting, and somewhat dizzying, were the many jumps that Robbins took, often presenting us with many, many different experiences from the same character in the same chapter, but often split up over the course of the chapter. In one chapter, you could have stories told by one character, split up by stories told by other characters and the research segments, so it often got confusing and I often had to remember who was who and where they were in their experiences. It also seems like the information reported was reported second hand by Robbins. It's not like she was writing a transcript of a conversation that the interviewee recorded or that she recorded as she was observing the conversation unfold. The conversations and experiences were, it seems, reported to her by the subjects of the study, making me wonder about how much bias was also given to Robbins.

Altogether, though, this was a decent book that I was happy the tI read because it was easy to read, interesting (because I was one of the fringe to some extent) and served a pretty decent purpose.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...