Monthly Archives: March 2011

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Anansi Boys, the sequel to American Gods, has a decidedly different feel to it compared to its predecessor.  While American Gods had the feeling of a sweeping epic, Anansi Boys is the story of one particular young man.  This just goes to showcase the talent that Neil Gaiman possesses, because both books are exceptionally well-written.

Fat Charlie Nancy is our hapless protagonist, shifting as life forces him to move.  He gets bossed around at work.  His fiancée, Rosie, refuses to sleep with him until after they’re married.  The one aspect of his life that causes him the most trouble, however, is his father.  He spent most of his childhood being tricked, and, understandably, enjoyed the fact that his mother moved the two of them to England when he was a child, while his father stayed behind in Florida.

The real adventure starts when Fat Charlie’s father dies.  It is then that he learns that his father was a god — Anansi, the spider god — and also that he has a brother.  When, in an idle impulse, Fat Charlie asks a spider to bring his brother to him, his problems really start.  His brother, Spider, is everything Fat Charlie isn’t — confident, self-assured, and charming.  Spider also ends up in love with Rosie.  Fat Charlie’s frustration with his brother boils over, and his anger leads him to make a dangerous decision with unforeseen consequences.

Most likely the best thing about both Anansi Boys and American Gods is their use of traditional mythological characters while maintaining a realistic modern sensibility.  I’ve read books where the author has taken a mythological or religious theme and placed it in the modern day and made it cloying or cutesy; Anansi Boys is never either of those.  Rather, Gaiman’s novel has a sharpness to it that creates a sense of believability that is uncommon in books with fantastical components.

Another wonderful aspect of Gaiman’s writing is the lightness of it.  Even when characters are in peril and the pacing is fast, Gaiman’s prose is supple and flowing.  His use of humor is also quite smooth and rather dry, which goes well with the overall tone and subject of the book.

My only quibble is the ending, which I found a bit too neat.  That might just be me, thinking ahead to future books, but I would have liked a little more ambiguity in the final results of Fat Charlie’s story.  I also would have liked a stronger development of Fat Charlie’s boss, Grahame Coats, and his relationship to Tiger.  Until very close to the end, Gaiman didn’t discuss a direct relationship between the two; while this might have been because he wanted to create a surprise factor, it isn’t too terribly difficult to imagine, and I think the story might be more interesting if there were a more defined partnership between the two.

Overall, Anansi Boys is well worth the read, especially for its interesting take on magical realism and Gaiman’s strong writing.  The gods may be based on African ones, but the story belongs to us all.  Let’s take advantage of that.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Working for Yourself: Law & Taxes for Independent Contractors, Freelancers, & Consultants by Stephen Fishman

Unlike the first Nolo guide I read, which was about how to buy your first house, Working for Yourself is not directly related to my everyday life.  I don’t have my own business, and though the thought of working for myself is appealing, I don’t really know what I’d do.  I read this guide more out of my own personal interest as to what laws and regulations business owners have to take into consideration.  For my goal, Working for Yourself is more than adequate, because I think anyone could use it to get their business started with a stable legal and tax foundation.

The most valuable chapter of Working for Yourself is, in my opinion, the first one.  “Working for Yourself: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” discusses the pros and cons of setting up shop on one’s own.  The most important thing I took away from this chapter was that my workplace actually provides me with many benefits I hadn’t really thought of before, like automatically taking my taxes out of my paycheck and providing me with a modicum of job security.  This really is the chapter that taught me two important things — one is that people who employ themselves do a lot of work besides their work, and the other is that I’m probably not cut out for running my own business.

The rest of the book provides plenty of legal advice, most of which centers on tax law.  I had no idea that self-employed people have to pay estimated taxes four times a year, which is a little scary in its frequency.  I knew that there are different kinds of companies, but Fishman goes into detail about the pluses and minuses of being considered a sole proprietor as opposed to a partnership or a corporation — did you know that a sole proprietor is a lot more likely to be audited than a corporation?  I found a lot of the information interesting in the abstract, at least.

A couple of lines in Working for Yourself were a little questionable to me.  At one point, when Fishman discusses renting business property, he says something to the effect of that, as opposed to when you rent an apartment, you aren’t covered by as many laws because you’re considered to be “an adult”.  While this sentiment might resonate with many self-employed people, the last time I checked, very few minors are allowed to rent apartments.  We’re all adults; the two spaces are used for different things.  Businesses aren’t as covered by regulations protecting the renter because people don’t live in their businesses.  Housing is essential, business offices aren’t.

The other line that bothered me was when Fishman, referring to a fee for starting a business, calls it “basically a tax”.  No, it’s not a tax.  It’s a fee.  That’s why you don’t put it on your tax form and you pay it up-front.  If it were a tax, they would call it a tax and assess it as such.

Other than those couple of bumps, I thought Working for Yourself to be a comprehensive resource on business law and business taxes.  I’d recommend it without reservation to those interested in setting themselves up.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

So, I’ve finally reached the end of the His Dark Materials series.  I have my answers as to what happens to Lyra and Will — for the most part.  I also have answers for what happens to all the major characters, which is satisfying.  Out of all the books, The Amber Spyglass is the most complex of the three by far.  It is, therefore, the most rewarding to read.  Pullman constructs a universe whose properties lend us the freedom to imagine many answers to our questions, and to make what we will of the final events in Lyra and Will’s story.

We start out the book with Lyra kidnapped and drugged by her mother, with Will and Iorek in pursuit.  Meanwhile, Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, is raising an army — and an armory — to wage war with Metatron, the angel who has taken control of all the forces loyal to the Authority.  The main story in a more conventional book would be the fight between Lord Asriel and Metatron.

Instead, we follow Will’s efforts to free Lyra from her mother and keep her safe.  They are joined, at various points, by angels, Gallivespians (a sort of fairy-like creature), and Mary Malone, the scientist from The Subtle Knife.  Their main task, Lyra discovers from the alethiometer, is to set free the spirits in the world of the dead.  The two of them, along with two Gallivespians, travel to perform this task, facing significant peril along the way, not the least of which is separation from their dæmons.

Meanwhile, Mary Malone, who slipped through into another world after destroying equipment back in Oxford, finds herself at home among a species of creatures called mulefa.  She lives with them, learns their ways, and discovers that even they are untouched by the problems of Dust; it’s required for the survival of trees the mulefa depend upon, and it’s not flowing as it used to.  Mary constructs a spyglass in order to view the Dust directly, which comes in handy when she happens upon Will and Lyra once again.

I think the beauty of The Amber Spyglass is that it has a lot to say about religion — especially Christianity — but that one can interpret its message in many ways.  There’s a historical commentary in there, as well as a warning about the dangers of blind faith.  That’s one of the reasons I liked the book so much; I can see many of my own attitudes toward organized religion (as opposed to faith come by honestly) folded within.  I don’t agree with everything Pullman suggests, but I at least enjoyed the food for thought he provides.

I’m going to miss this series.  I whizzed through it, by my own standards — I usually break up series in order to provide myself a little bit of time to process what’s going on.  It was just too engrossing for me to do that this time.  I think the His Dark Materials series is one of the best I’ve read that’s intended for children and young adults.  I’ll be holding on to them for my own children to read some day, and that’s one of the highest sorts of praise I can offer a book.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller

This is a book I read out of semi-necessity.  We are soon bringing a puppy home, and, while I have trained a dog before, my fiancé has not.  We thus made a trip to Barnes & Noble, where he used his gift card from Christmas to buy The Power of Positive Dog Training.  True to how our relationship works, I ended up reading it first, and he’ll start it a little later.  I found Pat Miller’s book to be full of perspective-changing ideas, and I think there will be a lot of information she included that I will incorporate into our training process, but we won’t be using her entire repertoire of techniques.

The most valuable aspect of The Power of Positive Dog Training is its emphasis on using rewards (and the occasional removal of pleasant rewards) in order to shape a dog’s behavior.  I have been through training sessions in which I’ve been instructed to, for example, suddenly turn about-face on a walk if a dog pulls forward, so that he gets a sharp jerk on his leash.  I’ve never felt comfortable with that, even though I tried it for a while.  I found it much more comforting to me, and just as effective in regards to changing the dog’s behavior, to simply stop and wait until the dog started watching me again for cues as to when to walk.

Miller suggests many techniques similar to this — ignoring and turning away when a dog jumps up, for example.  This is also something I have done, and it works better than pushing down on the dog or a knee to the chest.  The dog really wants attention, and, for a lot of them, they don’t care whether it’s a little rough or not.  Deny the attention, and the behavior is extinguished.

Probably the best surprise I got in reading Miller’s book was something very small and simple — avoiding the word “no”.  “No” is a big problem, if for no other reason that it’s frequently said with a negative tone.  She recommends saying something like “oops” instead, which I love.  It’s virtually impossible to be angry when saying “oops”.  Go ahead, try it.  It’s so much softer, and I’m going to make a game try to keep that word in the forefront of my training, instead of “no”.

The one big drawback for me with this book is that the actual training is based on clickers.  I don’t have experience with clicker training myself, but my parents trained their second dog partially with a clicker.  I don’t think they were overly thrilled with the results; unlike Cody, their older dog I helped train, Ollie, the younger, clicker-trained one, is less likely to listen.  That might still be rambunctious puppy behavior to a certain extent, but I still think that the clicker was less effective.

I also don’t like the fact that she has the person doing the training purposely not teach the dog the verbal cue for the behavior until they’ve somehow shaped or lured the dog into performing the behavior several times.  It hurts my brain to think of me not having some sort of verbal interaction with my dog while training him, and I really want him to learn to listen to my voice, pay attention to my face, and learn the term along with the behavior.

So we’ll have to see.  Miller has definitely changed my mindset on how to train a dog, to a certain extent.  The effectiveness of some of her techniques, though, will need to be proven to me before I feel comfortable with them.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

I rarely read one book after another in a series; I like to have other books interspersed in between to allow me some time to process the events and to put them in perspective.  I just couldn’t do that with the His Dark Materials series.  The first one was too good.  This time, Pullman provides us with a strong hero to go along with the strong heroine he gave us in The Golden Compass, and the result is another wonderful book.

The Subtle Knife starts off with a bang.  Will Parry, a young man with an absent father and a mentally ill mother, is forced to leave his mother with a neighbor while he tries to track down his father.  On his way out of town, he kills a man who is trying to steal from him and runs from the man’s partner.  Seeking a place to hide, he finds a small slit in space and walks through it into another world.

It’s in that other world where he meets up with Lyra.  The two band together, moving back and forth between Will’s universe and the crossroads universe known as Cittàgazze.  Will’s world matches closely with ours (I suspect it’s supposed to be our world), and Lyra visits a scientist at Oxford to ask about Dust.  Her inquiries, combined with Will’s crime, make life a little sketchy for the two of them there.

Things aren’t much better in Cittàgazze.  There is an abundance of children, but few cognizant adults.  Specters, invisible and harmless to children, seek out adults and seem to feed on their consciousness.  Life isn’t easier for Lyra and Will in this child-only place; events occur that make it just as uncomfortable and dangerous as Will’s world.

Part of the danger comes from Lyra ignoring the alethiometer.  It tells her that her task is to assist Will in his quest to find his father, and she seeks out information on Dust instead, which tips off the people looking for Will.  One ignores an oracle at one’s peril, it would appear.

Throughout the book, Pullman gives us more information about the larger story behind the smaller events of Lyra and Will’s lives.  The Oxford scientist, Mary Malone, is researching dark matter (what she terms “Shadows”), and also used to be a nun.  On Lyra’s first visit, she asks about Dust, and the connection is made that dark matter and Dust are most likely the same thing — which helps them to some extent, but leaves them still not knowing exactly what it is.

We also get more theology mixed in here.  There are angels traveling through the universes to join with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father.  Lyra herself is talked about in some religiously-interesting ways.  We still have witches — Serafina Pekkala is still with us — but we also gain a shaman.

And, of course, there’s the knife itself.  Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife at a high price and knows of its powers to keep away specters.  What he doesn’t know is that it has some other interesting lore attached to it, and that lore may have a great deal to say about what Will’s destiny is.

The most interesting thing to me about The Subtle Knife is the mythology Pullman is building.  I really want to know what’s going on, and can’t wait to get into the third book to see how he wraps everything up.  I’m at a complete loss for how this is going to play out, and it makes me really happy to find a book series that keeps me guessing.  Maybe it’ll be fantastic, maybe it’ll fall apart at the end; the fun is in the anticipation of how great it can be, which makes this book pretty great in and of itself.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it.  I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.

There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives.  She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel.  Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life.  Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will.  Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.

Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined.  Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications.  I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it.  Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology.  Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together.  I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.

The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted.  Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events.  The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.

But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself.  She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do.  She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar.  Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth.  More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child.  Lyra is not that, and will never be that.  She is, however, a remarkable child.  Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring.  Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.  They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later.  After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.

Rating: 5/5.

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A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I think the first warning about A Discovery of Witches should have been that I heard about it in “Parade”.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with “Parade”; I like to read it on Sundays as much as the next person does.  But it’s not really known for being a reliable source for literary insight.  I read their little blurb about this book, though, and I thought it sounded pretty good.  Then my mother said she was getting it for my cousin for her birthday, and I thought it would be nice for us to have both read the same book around the same time.  Unfortunately, I’m now in the awkward situation of knowing that my cousin’s going to get a book that is not spectacular, to say the least.

A Discovery of Witches starts off with our protagonist, Diana Bishop, establishing that she is a witch, but that she refuses to use her powers.  She’s a researcher, interested in the history of science — in particular, alchemical manuscripts (so, really, she’s interested in the history of pre-science).  She’s an American professor who’s younger than thirty, yet has earned a sabbatical year so she can study at Oxford.

While looking at old alchemical texts, she notices that one is enchanted.  She manages to open it, pretty much ignores what’s inside, and returns it.  After that, all hell breaks loose, and “creatures” (Harkness’ term for daemons, vampires, and witches) come out of the woodwork to threaten Diana in all manners of ways.

But this is all okay, because she quickly runs into Matthew Clairmont, a vampire on a mission to protect her.  Then Harkness spends four hundred pages ruining the premise she set up in the first thirty by making Diana completely dependent on Matthew for her physical safety and personal well-being.  He does everything from guard her from other creatures to making sure she does yoga.  This is extremely irritating.  Don’t create a character that you call strong and brave and then have her be completely clueless as to how she’s supposed to behave without a man to reference.

I will say that Harkness’ writing flows well.  I found it a pleasant read, language-wise, and would love to read something that isn’t so pseudo-feminist and, frankly, insulting to independent, strong women.  I’d love for her to either write something that doesn’t involve a strong romantic theme or, conversely, something that is open about the fact that it’s a romance and embraces the genre.  At least then the work would be honest.  One of the worst things an author can do is lie to the reader within the book’s own text.  I feel disrespected and betrayed, and feel almost that I should give my copy back to my mother so she can return it and recoup her money.

As it stands, however, A Discovery of Witches falls flat for me.  It doesn’t even end satisfactorily; planning on two more books to come, Harkness made this one end in a cliffhanger.  Sadly, this is just another turn-off for me, and I won’t be seeking out Diana and Matthew for another go-around.  Unless my mother buys me the sequel.  Then I’ll be duty-bound to read it, and most likely much more grumpy for the return trip.

Rating: 2/5.

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