BOOK & BLOG
March 10, 2008
Books of the Week: A COMPANION TO WOLVES by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, and THE SHANGHAI TUNNEL by Sharan Newman
I had good book luck again this week; I read A COMPANION TO WOLVES by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, and THE SHANGHAI TUNNEL by Sharan Newman.
Anyone who’s a regular reader of this feature knows that I love Sarah Monette’s work, so when I saw she’d collaborated with Elizabeth Bear on a book, I bought it. It’s been on my TBR pile for a short time, and I picked it up a couple of days ago. (That means that with a lot of trouble I wriggled it out of a huge stack.) I loved this book, with a few reservations. This book is a fantasy, which means the society in which it’s based is created by the authors. It’s a complex society loosely modeled on the Viking times. I’m not going to explain the whole mythology, but there are feudal lords, and to protect each feudal territory from the threat of trolls there is a fighting force of men who’ve bonded with threllwolves, which are like super-wolves. Each wolf bonds with one man, and they share a collective consciousness.
The protagonist is Isoltr, who begins the story as Njall, son of a ruler. When the number of young men who should be sent to the wolf hall grows small, the wolf leader goes to Njall’s father to demand some boys to train. Though his father has tried to hide Njall, Njall creeps out to see the wolf, and is taken to the wolf hall. He finds the society very tough and demanding, but to his liking. After a time, he bonds with a wolf puppy. Unfortunately for Isoltr, I suppose, the puppy is a bitch, and not just a bitch, but destined to be a queen. This leads to some great unpleasantness for Isoltr when she goes into heat.
Aside from that, Isoltr’s ultimate awareness that his society is the only one he’s encountered that suppresses women seems a little fashion-forward, so to speak. Those are the only two jarring notes in an otherwise super read. Monette and Bear are both reknowned writers for good reason, and I really couldn’t put this book down. It’s fabulous.
In the mystery genre, I read Sharan Newman’s THE SHANGHAI TUNNEL. If you’d asked me, I would’ve said I didn’t like historicals, but I sure have read a lot of them lately and enjoyed every minute. Newman’s book is set in Portland, Oregon, following the civil war, when the city was becoming of a city and less of a frontier town.
Widow Emily Stratton arrives from China and goes to Portland to live in the house purchased by her late unlamented husband Horace. Emily is only too glad to be a widow, though she tries to remember Horace’s positive points, which pretty much boil down to his having been a good provider. She is joined in her journey by her son Robert, who has his own secret life. Unfortunately, Robert takes after his dad in some key ways, but he adores his mom and keeps his trips to whorehouses and bars as secret as he can. (Robert is a teenager, incidentally.)
Since Horace Stratton was dishonest, his business partners are equally crooked, and they view Emily’s intention to handle her own business affairs with horror. There is too much for Emily to find out.
I felt it a pity that Horace didn’t get killed a lot sooner, actually, and any mother will cringe at Robert’s secret life. But Robert gets smacked in the face with a huge life lesson, and Emily persists in her determination to manage her own destiny. Along the way, she’s in danger a few times, and we find out a lot about policing in early Portland and polite and impolite society in those times. Newman is a super researcher, and while she never makes the mistake of cramming too many details down the reader’s throat, I came away feeling that I had a pretty good idea of daily life in that town in that era.
Emily, the child of missionaries, is an interesting character all on her own. You’ll really enjoy this book.
There’s a reason adages become adages. They express a general truth, and they encapsulate a whole argument into one sentence. “Better safe than sorry.” That telescopes a long discussion pretty effectively, doesn’t it? Or “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”: a neat way to sum up a whole value system.
The adage I’m thinking of this week is “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This observation first appeared in ancient Greece and has been reiterated in different words through history. To put it in different words, people bring to their concept of “beautiful” all the factors that have made them what they are: their culture, their exposure to the media, their mother’s face, their body image. I see a plate by Charlotte Rhead and I think it’s beautiful. When I show off my collection proudly, I can see other people are looking doubtful, or surprised, or bored. It’s gone right by them.
This week, with the casting of Eric, that idea has been at the forefront of lots of posts. “Yes, Skarsgard is gorgeous, he’ll be perfect.” “There are so many men who are better looking! Why’d they cast him?” “He doesn’t look at all like Eric.”
I’m not a casting director. I’m not a television producer. I have a very limited understanding of how the whole process works. But it seems to me that the process of casting boils down a formula that might go something like this: Physical appropriateness + acting talent + availability. I’m afraid a lot of casting doesn’t pay attention to the “acting talent” component. But competent even inspired casting has to.
I also believe that enough acting talent can ensure the actor embodies the part. That’s the essence of acting, right? The ability to be someone else, believably?
I’m looking forward to Alexander Skarsgard’s convincing me he is Eric Northman. I want to see Anna Paquin fill Sookie’s skin. I want to see William Sanderson become Bud Dearborn, and Sam Trammell become Sam Merlotte. I’m ready to give the cast a chance to embody my characters. I hope you all are keeping an open mind, too.
While we’re talking about the series (because I’m not going to keep on blogging about this until the show is on the air, because I won’t be thinking about it that much), prepare yourself for differences from the books. Everything that reads well doesn’t film well. Plot devices that work on the page don’t necessarily work on the screen. “True Blood” will be a completely different experience than the books, and rightly so. It’s a different medium.
Still, I’m looking forward to that experience, and I hope a lot of other people will enjoy it, too.
© 2009 Charlaine Harris