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Staff Selections: George

altThis month’s “Staff Selections” contributor is George, who is a security officer for the Norman and Moore branches of the Pioneer Library System.  George has been a Trooper for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol since 2000.  Prior to that, he attended the University of Oklahoma, where he majored in Political Science with an emphasis in Comparative Politics and International Relations. 

George has worked for PLS since 2010.  He grew up in Norman and spent a lot of time at the library during his childhood, so he was very happy when he got the opportunity to work there.  “What’s not to like?” he said.  “I work in a building full of free books- I used to come to the library all the time on my own, and now they pay me to be here!”

 “I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but more than that, I appreciate any author who’s good at his craft, whatever the genre,” George says. Based on that, he's calling his 'Staff Selections' column “Novel Recommendations,” which he says are books he chose because he felt that the author took a unique or “novel” approach to the genre they were writing in.  “I love to be pleasantly surprised when I’m reading a story” he says.  “So many authors, particularly in popular fiction, tend to use the same old setups and plot/character devices to advance their stories so that it’s easy to become bored reading some books.  Nobody ever wants a predictable story.”


Shogun - coverShogun by James Clavell

A ship captained by the awesomely-named John Blackthorne wrecks on the coast of Japan in the 1600’s.  Blackthorne finds himself in the middle of a feudal power struggle and must quickly learn to navigate the intricacies of Japanese Samurai culture, as well as dealing with the plots of all the players on the political scene, including the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church, one of the most powerful ships of the sea, the Spanish “Black Ship,” a mysterious high-ranking Japanese Catholic woman assigned to teach Blackthorne about Japanese language and culture, and various lower-ranked scheming lords. 
What’s “novel” about it?    
Blackthorne’s cultural transformation from the coarse pirate he was at the beginning to a powerful and respected samurai as the story ends is very entertaining.  What could have been simply a “fish out of water” story about a European in feudal Japan became a cultural study of Japanese Samurai history by an accomplished author known for novels set in Asia.  It’s really well done, and the plotting by various schemers keeps you guessing about who to trust.  Fun fact: John Blackthorne is based on actual English sailor William Adams, who was became the first recorded non-Japanese Samurai.   Pioneer Library System also carries the popular 1980 television miniseries based on the novel, which stars Richard Chamberlain.


The Passage - coverThe Passage by Justin Cronin

In honor of Halloween, I felt I needed to include a novel with a “horror” theme this month.  In this book, the world as we know it has essentially ended due to an attack of genetically-engineered vampires.  It’s a really interesting look at the way society might restructure itself after a catastrophe like that.  It’s been compared to Stephen King’s The Stand, another great post-apocalyptic novel.  Check out the first line- it’s what drew me to the book when I saw it printed in a review: “Before she became The Girl From Nowhere – The One Who Walked In, The First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy.”

What’s “novel” about it?
For too long, vampires have been written as tragic and beautiful (Anne Rice), sexy and funny (Charlaine Harris) and even sparkly (Stephenie Meyer).  These vampires are straight-up monstrous killing machines.  They aren’t human anymore, they don’t lament the fact that they’ll never see another sunrise, and they certainly aren’t seductive.  Combine that with the interesting characters, the fascinating version of society after the collapse that Cronin created, and you have a fresh look at both vampire and post-apocalyptic fiction.  The sequel to The Passage, entitled The Twelve, was released in October 2012.



The Amulet of Samarkand - coverThe Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

This book begins a series called The Bartimaeus Trilogy.  Nathaniel is a boy who is being trained as a magician.  In Stroud’s dystopian England, magicians head the government, and their existence is not a secret.  Nathaniel is being raised and taught by his Master, Mr. Underwood, who is a cold and somewhat cowardly middle-ranking magician.  When Nathaniel is humiliated by a high ranking magician, he vows revenge.  He resolves that he will summon a 5,000-year-old Djinn to steal an artifact from his enemy, but in so doing, stumbles into a plot involving treason and murder.  This is technically a young adult title, but I think anyone would enjoy it. 

What’s “novel” about it? 

What makes Stroud’s world interesting is the magic system.  The magicians in this book don’t actually have any power of their own.  Their secret is that they summon spirits that are invisible to humans, and those spirits actually wield magic.  The interesting thing is that the spirits are bound to do the will of the magician- depending on the skill of the magician.  All the spirits want is to be released to return to their realm.  Stroud basically turns the standard “magic” story on its head: wizards are (mostly) evil and power-hungry, and the demons they summon are basically slaves.  Some are even good.  The chapters switch perspective in a very inventive way: a third person narrative from Nathaniel’s point of view, and a first person narrative from the perspective of Bartimaeus, Nathaniel’s Djinn, who has no choice but to obey him.  Bartimaeus clearly upstages Nathaniel in this story.  He is very witty and sarcastic, and laugh-out-loud funny.  The best comparison I can make is a darker, more petulant and sinister version of the Genie played by Robin Williams in Disney's Aladdin.  Later in the trilogy (which gets better as it goes) the depth of his character is shown, and he is proven to be much more “human” than many of the human characters.  

(Note- The Amulet of Samarkand is also available as a downloadable audiobook, as are the other two books in the trilogy, The Golem's Eye and Ptolemy's Gate.  Do yourself a favor and give it a listen- I actually like the audio version better than the book.)   


Mistborn - coverMistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Another dystopian series, Mistborn tells the story of a group of slaves in a world ruled by an aristocracy.  A hero named Kelsior has formed a group to overthrow the Lord Ruler, and Vin, a female petty criminal, joins up, only to discover that she possesses abilities that she was unaware of. 

What’s “novel” about it?

The theme of a hero with magical power rising up against an oppressor is a staple of fantasy/sci fi literature.  What made this book fresh were the action scenes, and the magic system, which is called Allomancy (metal magic).  In this book, certain characters are born with the ability to “burn” certain metals (like tin, copper, zinc, etc.) which gives them certain abilities depending on the metal.  Most allomancers can only burn one metal, but Mistborn can burn all of them.  Because of the physical nature of allomancy, the action scenes are very cool- and that is what makes me recommend this book.  It’s not a deep, thought-provoking book, but it would make a great “rainy weekend” read.


Lonesome Dove - coverLonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
This book is a very famous western novel about the difficulties faced by a group of cowboys led by two aging former Texas Rangers, Captain Woodrow Call and Captain Gus McCrae, on their cattle drive from Lonesome Dove, a small town on the Texas/Mexico border, to the unsettled wilds of Montana. I know that many people have seen the classic TV miniseries (also available here at the library.)  If you enjoyed it, you really need to read the book.  I’ve watched the miniseries, and loved it, but I can honestly say that the book has so much more depth.  Books can give a much more intimate look at a character than any movie because they can place you inside the head of the person.  This particular story is not really action-driven; the story is driven by the incredible characters McMurtry created, and their physical or emotional responses to the action that occurs. 

What’s “novel” about it?
The characters.  It is one of the top 5 books I’ve ever read, and I’m not really a big fan of Westerns.  The book elicits a host of emotional responses from the reader- it’s funny, exciting, philosophical, and at times, heartbreakingly sad.  So even if you’ve never read a Western novel- give this one a chance.  It is brilliant.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for a reason.


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