Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Reviews: The Help, Game of Thrones Series.

Summer is finally the time where I can dive headfirst into the stack of books I've been saving all school year to read. This summer has also been pretty prolific (in numbers of pages read) if not very diverse. (I love a good fantasy series.) With that being said: book review time!

1. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. Synopsis: A white college grad writes an exposé of the domestic experiences of black women in white homes with the help of maids across Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s.

Thoughts: I appreciate that the author tried to remain as faithful as possible to the relationships of the women in the novel. However, it was a mediocre attempt at really trying to "bridge the gap" between ethnicities during Segregation in the 1960's. A lot of the success of the main character Skeeter (a squeaky clean college grad) is based around the novel idea of "talking" to black women. Granted, Skeeter did eventually enlist the help of a dozen maids to help her write her novel, I wish she had done a bit more: talked to other people (such as Celia, Stuart, the Senator, her father) and inspired them to help her make bigger changes for Civil Rights in the community in the year it took her to write the book. Even the author admits the book falls short of her goal of: "...trying to understand [what it's like to be a black woman in Mississippi in the 1960s] is vital to our humanity" (p. 451). Granted this is a tricky subject to write about as a white writer, as she talks about in the Afterword, quoting Howell Raines's Pulitzer Prize Winning article, "Grady's Gift": ...There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism... So the entire book was suspect for me as a white reader- I can't know what it's like to be a black woman, never mind in the 1960s. It's uncomfortable, brash, unforgiving, painful, especially with Hilly Holbrook's blatant racism, but it's important to experience the weight of her words from the perspective of the women she and others are targeting, and it stings. In the end however, the villains (Hilly included) get what they deserve when Skeeter's book about them is published, and then black workers educate the community, earn a modicum of respect and appreciation, and gain the confidence and knowledge that they can make a difference. 

Advice: Read it. 100-pages in and it's a quick-paced exposé.

A Song of Ice and Fire
George R.R. Martin's Epic Fantasy Series:

George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones 4-Book Boxed Set: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire)After watching the first episode of Game of Thrones on HBO this past spring, I immediately downloaded the electronic novel onto my iPhone and started reading Daenerys' storyline chapters through the end of the book. I couldn't wrap my mind about reading the multiple story-lines of  a 900-page book yet. Expeditiously, in episode two I began anticipating other story-lines as well, and eventually started reading the book (after purchasing the 4-book paperback set) [$20 online at Amazon] from cover to cover. What is frustrating (and endearing) about the series is the length and scope of the stories, families, settings and characters, and the time it takes to read each novel because of this verbose author. Granted, many fantasy aficionados started or have discovered the series prior to the HBO series, (since G.o.T was release in 1996) over the past fifteen years. That would allow a certain anticipation as the five books were released and  suitable amount of time (3-5 years) until the next installment. Being late to the bandwagon, I had over 4,800 pages to catch up on. (Especially as A Dance With Dragons was released this summer WHILE I was catching up!) Having read 4,500 of them now (I am loathe to finish the last 300 pages of Dragons knowing a half a decade might pass before the next one is released,) I have a renewed appreciation for Martin's J.R.R.Tolkien-esque world. He journeys far deeper into character development, plot (a series for twists!), and continents than Tolkien ever did, making him the King of the Fantasy genre. With trepidation I can only await the next installment. For as George R.R. said in his own words: "After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don't want me to 'pull a Robert Jordan' on you and deny you your book." — George R.R. Martin 

...Touché, George...and now a review of the best and worst of the series.

Supplementary Materials:
1. Like Tolkien's Middle Earth- the world of Game of Thrones has its own online encyclopedia. For a sneak peek of the scope of the Houses in the series: check out this list.

2. The Cartographer's Guild put together this GORGEOUS map (on right) of Westeros for fans to chart and follow as they read the series. (It enlarges to poster size).

3. Although there are maps in each novel, a "world" map is missing- one that shows the location of the East as well as the Seven Kingdoms. The Best one that I could fine is here.  (Thumbnail on left)

A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One1.  A Game of Thrones (Book One). 

Synopsis: The fictional Seven Kingdoms are in turmoil as King Robert Baratheon dies and there is a scramble for succession which leaves many lead characters dead. (Recently I was reading an interview with George R. R. Martin and he was talking about the fan reactions to the deaths in the HBO series and he mentioned this HILARIOUS 4-minute YouTube review rant  [Warning: foul language] about the Season Finale.)

Thoughts: Game of Thrones will only take you ankle deep into the Seven Kingdoms, but it's a depth that is as refreshing as a mountain stream on a hot summer day. But, winter is coming (Literally- winter can be decades long in this world) and the characters must now prepare for the succession fallout.

Advice: Everyone should read this book. It should replace the whole LOTR trilogy in high schools. (Finally some strong female characters I can care about! Sorry Tolkien.)

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2)2. A Clash of Kings (Book Two). 

Synopsis: The three warring families: the Starks (of the North), the Baratheon's (of King's Landing) and the Lannisters (of Casterly Rock) all submit candidates for King for the realm and this novel is the resulting war and fallout as thousands of testosterone-laden protein junkie soldiers try to find something to do. (I'm kidding). The best story line is Arya Stark, the ten-year old daughter of Eddard Stark, who flees King's Landing on her own and defends herself with her trusty short sword Needle before she is swept up in disguise as a boy around the realm by various lords. Also: across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen, the true, but deposed queen to Westeros, raises her newly hatched dragons and plots her conquest of Westeros to be able to reclaim her throne.

Thoughts: Clash is my favorite of the series so far. A classic "sequel" to Game of Thrones, it answers the questions I was left wondering about at the demise of Ned Stark in book one. It reads quickly, and pulls you deeper into the world Martin has created. You won't want to turn back at the end of this one.

Advice: Only read it if you can commit the next three months of your life to finishing the rest of the series because it really will engross you obsessively!

3. A Storm of Swords. (Book Three)

Synopsis: Book three broadens the realm with new characters and narrative points of view. The reader's thirst for answers is barely sated, as this world expands with more complexity into different continents and back stories. A new and surprisingly witty plot-line involves Brienne of Tarth, a female warrior, who is hired by Catelyn Stark to transport Jamie Lannister safely back to King's Landing. It does not go well for her, but her disdainful "relationship" with Jamie is delightful to read. Arya is now traveling with a band of brigands, but is later captured by Sandor Clegane who wants to ransom her to her mother. They arrive too late, as her mother and brother are killed at the Red Wedding. Catelyn is eerily re-animated by a Red Priest several days after her demise and now sort of resembles a  zombie. It's vague. We never really hear about her again. Jon Snow (Ned Stark's bastard son of fifteen) up at the wall (a brother of the "Night's Watch") between the North and the "Others," journeys north of the Wall into the creepy frozen wasteland Haunted Forest to discover the reason the wildlings (native northerners) are gathering. Jon is eventually chosen as Lord Commander by his peers of the whole watch.

Thoughts: A book of twists! It's the longest paperback in the series at 1,216 pages, but it's easily the most entertaining along the way.

Advice: Enjoy it. The next two books are equally frustrating as Martin splits the plot into two books and divides them by continent.

4. A Feast for Crows. (Book Four)

Synopsis: Following the story-lines of Arya, (as she escapes Clegane and flees across the sea to Bravvos) Sansa (Arya's sister, smuggled out of King's Landing to her Aunt's castle in the Eyrie) Sam (Jon's steward who smuggles Gilly and the Wildling King's baby south to Oldtown) and the Greyjoys over in the Iron Islands as they try to reclaim the North. In the South, we are introduced to the Martell family, (Kings of Old) who are looking for a way to reclaim Westeros as well and Brienne of Tarth is looking for the Stark sisters. Cersei Lannister plots the demise of the young queen Margaery Tyrell but both end up in custody of the church on charges of adultery. Jamie Lannister is not quick to save his sister, having grown apart from her shallow politicking. 

Thoughts: It is hugely irritating to not read about the other characters at the same time. I think Martin should have split the huge story into two books by time, not place. It's extremely frustrating. 

Advice: You're too deep now in the series to quit so like all of the rest of the fans you grumble and complain and read it anyways.

A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Five5. A Dance with Dragons. (Book Five.)

Synopsis: Following the story-lines (at the same time as the events of Storm) of Jon Snow up at the wall with King Stannis, Mance Ryder and the Red Priestess, Daenerys across the sea as she conquers and holds Meereen in Slaver's Bay, Tyrion Lannister, who fled to Bravvos after killing his father Tywin, head of the Lannister household and discovers that Daenerys' nephew Aegon is alive (another heir to the Targaryen bloodline). A fake Arya Stark (Jeyne Poole)  is married off to the bloodthirsty Boltons.

More to come tomorrow when I finish the book!