This book was bad. I found parts of it way better than the first book, Wizard's First Rule, and parts of it abysmal. The only saving grace was the facThis book was bad. I found parts of it way better than the first book, Wizard's First Rule, and parts of it abysmal. The only saving grace was the fact that I'm a sucker for crowning moments of awesome, and this book has quite a few.
Richard seems to be turning into a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu, if you have it that way). Don't get me wrong--I love to torture a character, rip away his world, and do bad things to him in general. But you need to make them stick. When you send someone through this pain and they emerge completely whole and happy, what's the point? So far Richard seems to be a rather static character. Yes, he's learning more magic, but he's still a headstrong idiot.
And what's with Kahlan being raped nearly every second chapter? Seriously, I could do without that. Rape is a very potent device, which is why it shouldn't be used too often, especially not on the main character.
Weighing in at 979 pages, this book is a doorstopper that could have been edited down to a respectable 500-600. Parts of it were unnecessary, adversely affecting the pacing of the entire story. By the end, I just--well, I wanted it to end.
The story has merit. The characters are likable (not loveable). With some effort, I find the books enjoyable. But they could be better....more
I first heard about this book when Daniel Levitin appeared on a Spark episode to talk about organization. I recommend you follow the link and listen tI first heard about this book when Daniel Levitin appeared on a Spark episode to talk about organization. I recommend you follow the link and listen to the interview; his examples are pretty much straight from the book, so it should give you a good idea of whether or not to read this. I mentioned the book to my friend Rebecca, because it seemed like she would be interested in it. Lo and behold, she goes out and buys the book herself … and then turns around and lends it to me before she reads it, because she has other books to read first. I don’t know this happened, but somehow I managed to acquire excellent friends.
Anyway, The Organized Mind is not a GTD (Getting Things Done) book in that it doesn’t pretend to have one amazing system to turn you into a productivity powerhouse. Rather, Levitin aims to use cutting-edge neuroscience and cognitive psychology to give the reader some insight into how our brains organize information and use that to make decisions. As he points out several times, humans are unique among animals for our ability to plan for the future and visualize alternative scenarios. But another thing that makes us unique is our ability to hack our own brains.
That’s what Levitin is trying to teach us here. He’s showing us how to hack our brains.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the best (or worst, I guess, depending on your perspective) procrastinator: you can still be productive if you can find a system that works for you. And the best way to do that is to be aware of how your brain works, and to work with your brain rather than fighting it.
The first part of the The Organized Mind addresses the way our brain reacts to external information. Levitin identifies two complementary modes of attentional awareness: the default mode, or mind-wandering/daydreaming mode, and the central executive. The former is so named because it appears to be what our brains lapse into given the chance. It’s good for creativity, for chewing over tough problems “subconsciously” (in quotations because Levitin points out that consciousness is a more fluid notion than it used to be). The latter is what takes charge when we need to accomplish a specific task. It says, “Hey, we need to do this now!” If you’re following a recipe or, like me, writing a book review, your central executive is keeping you on task.
I like how Levitin’s careful explication of current neuroscience reinforces how we used to view the brain in such black-and-white, siloed terms. To some extent this remains the baseline in mainstream perceptions of the brain: you are a “left-brain” or “right-brain” individual; you are logical or you are linguistic. Eyeroll. Levitin points out that being detail-oriented and organized is not necessarily antithetical to creativity; some of the most successful creative people succeed because their organizational system gives them more time to be creative. Similarly, specific cognitive functions are not always localized; sometimes they are distributed among neural networks throughout the brain. This is particularly important when forming memories—the same memory might be triggered by a sight, sound, smell, or link to another memory or concept, because of how memories get formed by our networks. Levitin is very skilled at using computer metaphors for describing how the brain stores information without making the common mistake of likening the brain too much to a computer.
Of course, even with a better understanding of how our brain works, there are limits to how far we can push that lump of grey matter. Levitin is a big proponent of cognitive offloading as a way of dealing with information overload. Basically: if you write something down, your brain treats it as stored, and stops mulling it over so much. Want to stop worrying about how much you have to do? Jot down a to-do list. Consequently, in this model of cognition, external organization systems are not just productivity fetishes but potentially useful adaptations. The Organized Mind explores several such systems, from the random-access 3x5 index card system to flat files and computer storage. Levitin makes it clear that he’s not trying to advocate “One System to Rule Them All” but instead encourage the reader to find something that works for them.
I was surprised by how fascinating I found some of the history behind these systems. We take file folders for granted, but there was a time when they were being introduced and everyone was as excited about them as we are about the new iPhone. (Apparently Dewey premiered some of this technology at 1893 World’s Fair, which would be the equivalent of a modern day tech expo like CES.) There are some interesting anecdotes, such as the fact that the majority of people didn’t know the order of the alphabet in the eighteenth century. As a student of English literature I knew about the great variation in spelling, but it just didn’t occur to me that the order of the alphabet would be so unimportant. This just demonstrates how our current cultural values bias our view and assumptions of the past.
At times Levitin’s digressions get the best of him, and he wanders off into tangents that don’t seem as related to organization as I would have liked. His discussions of statistical decision-making reminds me a lot of How Not to Be Wrong, with a few of the examples almost verbatim. And he refers to the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky quite a bit, being a student of the latter, so there is some overlap with Thinking, Fast and Slow. For what it’s worth, Levitin’s writing is more enjoyable.
The Organized Mind also has much to say about education, a topic I’m just a little passionate about. Neuroscience seems to support constructivism—the theory of learning that promotes student-led inquiry and construction of knowledge, rather than merely receiving it from an expert. Levitin points out that doing something imprints skills on our brain in a way that merely reading about or hearing about something does not. There are a couple of times in my notes where I’ve just jotted down, “Flipped classroom!” (a term in which students learn by tackling problems set by the instructor, who acts as another resource or guide but doesn’t actually lecture or otherwise instruct). And the conclusion is basically an impassioned plea by Levitin to make sure we are teaching students what they need to know for now rather than what we thought they needed to know a decade or two ago. In the Internet age, students need to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you know about how you can get the knowledge you need.
I can’t not recommend this book. It’s intelligent, insightful, and well-written. The barrier to entry is on the higher side; even after hiding away the four-fold tables primer in an appendix, Levitin leaves an awful lot of science and math vocabulary out on the lawn for the neighbours to see. (Is that … is that a correlation coefficient in your driveway? How gauche!) I say this not to frighten but to be upfront: this is not a beach read type of popular science book but a “frown and think” type. I still recommend it, but know what to expect and what frame of mind you’ll need to get the most out of it.
Oh, one last thing: this might seem like a thick book. However, if you are like me, the first thing you will do is flip to the back and see if there is an index and notes. There are, and they are over a hundred pages combined. This is a well-indexed, well-annotated science book, and that is even better. Sexy, even. Because I have a confession, ladies: I like big brains. I cannot lie. And you other brothers? You cannot deny that when a girl walks in with a big heavy bag and shoves a book full of learning in your face you get pumped … to spend a weekend reading about cognitive neuroscience.
So you wrote a highly-successful trilogy. Congratulations! What now? Well, you could write a sequel trilogy: new narrator, same old world and intrigueSo you wrote a highly-successful trilogy. Congratulations! What now? Well, you could write a sequel trilogy: new narrator, same old world and intrigue. Some writers want to milk the cash cow for all it's worth. Other writers, like Jacqueline Carey, create worlds compelling enough to justify returning to them time and again. Sinking into Kushiel's Scion is like having an old friend come to visit: all the things that you remember are there, but time has passed, and with it has come change. So you get to know each other again, laugh over old jokes, and share new ones.
Imriel is really the only logical choice for narrator of this trilogy. He belongs to the next generation, and although he is third-in-line to the throne of Terre d'Ange, he is first-in-line to inherit the political turmoil set in motion by his exiled mother, Melisande. It's fitting from a dramatic perspective as well, for Imriel is Phèdre's adopted son, a successor of sorts for her. The son of the antagonist of the previous trilogy is the protagonist of the new trilogy, and his first order of business is related to exactly that issue: who the hell is Imriel de la Courcel, and is he good?
I kept on waiting for something to happen in this book. At each turn I expected someone—Imriel—to get kidnapped or beaten or framed for a crime. That last one sort of happens, and it is a minor if important event. I was looking for something big, something that would incite action and drive the rest of the plot, much like Imriel's kidnapping drives the plot of Kushiel's Avatar. That kind of plot bomb is absent from Kushiel's Scion. Most of the book covers the span of years prior to Imriel's coming-of-age, at which point he leaves for the university at Tiberium. Then, in the second movement, if you will, we get some action that influences Imriel's outlook, prompting him to return to the City of Elua for the book's recapitulation.
Now I realize I was doing what many other reviewers have done, which is compare Kushiel's Scion to Kushiel's Avatar. I think it's natural to want to compare two consecutive books in a series, and from the perspective of writing quality it's a valid comparison to make. Nevertheless, Kushiel's Avatar is the concluding volume in a trilogy, and as such its plot is constructed differently from Kushiel's Scion, which is the beginning of a trilogy. It's far more apt to compare this book with that other beginning, Kushiel's Dart. Indeed, then we see the similarities emerge.
As Kushiel's Dart does with Phèdre, this book quickly covers a number of years during Imriel's youth. Imriel is of noble birth, but both our narrators are outsiders to nobility, for he was raised as an orphan and a goatherd. Moreover, both of them have psychic burdens they will bear for the rest of their lives: Phèdre, of course, is Kushiel's chosen; Imriel has Daršanga, as well as the shadow of his mother's betrayal hanging over his deeds. Kushiel's Dart is Phèdre's coming-of-age novel, the story of how she comes to terms with who she is and ends up embracing a life into which she has been manipulated by Anafiel and Melisande. Likewise, Kushiel's Scion is Imriel's story of growing up. He is part of the Courcel family yet not a part, part of the Shahrizai family yet not a part. Restless from this sense of not belonging, he eventually strikes off beyond Terre d'Ange to seek some sense of direction. It's not adversity that Imriel needs; it's reassurance that he can be good, that he is not a slave to fate.
As far as the change in narrators goes, I think they're really interchangeable. Phèdre was a great narrator, and so is Imriel, because they're both Carey narrating with a single voice, one which uses a somewhat archaic, stilted vocabulary and syntax. I don't mean to say that they are the same person, and if you replaced Imriel with Phèdre, you'd definitely have a very different story. Yet the style of narration remains the same, which is both reassuring and a little disappointing.
Also much the same are the politics. I love the politics in this series. Carey achieves the proper balance between national interests, like the Alban succession issue, and the conspiracies among families and houses, like Bernadette de Trevalion's plot to murder Imriel. One of the reasons I find historical fiction so fascinating is its ability to portray that dynamic between the massive national conflicts and the smaller, personal conflicts that drive individuals. Epic fantasy can accomplish the same thing, and Carey is an excellent example of this. Ysandre may trust Imriel, love Imriel as her cousing; but as the queen, she has certain obligations. Obtaining justice is not as simple as accusing the guilty party and presenting evidence, not when such accusations might breed more distrust and discontent. As he matures, Imriel recognizes that this is part of being nobility. Instead of choosing to reveal Bernadette's plot, he blackmails her into secrecy in an attempt to prevent future blood feuds.
If anything, I wish there had been more politics. Most of the intrigue centres around the Unseen Guild, a secret society that manipulates events in Europa for its own purposes. This is the society that taught Anafiel Delaunay the ways of espionage. Imriel encounters the Guild in Tiberium, personified as Claudia Fulvia, wife of a Roman senator. They are just as interested in him as he is in them: having a Crown Prince of Terre d'Ange, someone who is third-in-line to the throne, in their organization would be incredibly beneficial. Imriel stumbles upon the Unseen Guild while trying to discover who taught Anafiel. Soon, however, he becomes obsessed with learning more about the Guild and their relationship to his exiled mother.
Honestly, the problem with having the Guild as adversaries (I'm deliberately avoiding the less neutral term of "antagonist") is that they're so damn shadowy. Aside from Claudia, and perhaps Canis, we don't knowingly meet any other Guild members. As a rule, I am suspicious about enemies who operate behind the scenes—they smack of plot device. To Carey's credit, the Guild is not the one that rides to Imriel's rescue when Lucca comes under siege. Still, they are far from a compelling addition to the canon.
As the first book in a trilogy, Kushiel's Scion captures the introductory flavour of Kushiel's Dart. Unfortunately, it lacks a big central conflict. Even the latter book has one in the form of the Skaldian invasion. The siege of Lucca is a major turning point in Imriel's life, but it lacks the gravity of previous events in the Kushiel series, where every book, including the first one, left Europa altered in some fundamental way. So in that sense, Carey did not meet the standards she set in her previous trilogy. But I'm not saying it's bad, and I'd venture that it's something more than good. In terms of characterization, which is a parameter I rank highly (often even higher than plot), this is a great book. For those who have read the first trilogy and are aching to return to Terre d'Ange, I don't think you'll be disappointed. I know, I miss Phèdre too. But every generation must eventually cede new adventures to the next one, and it's Imriel's time now.
Saga first came onto my radar last year when it was nominated for a Hugo Award. (Volume Two was nominated this year!) In fact, I’m pretty sure that itSaga first came onto my radar last year when it was nominated for a Hugo Award. (Volume Two was nominated this year!) In fact, I’m pretty sure that it was included in the Voters Packet.
I didn’t read it.
I don’t read many graphic novels. I understand why people like them, and part of me wishes I read more—but obviously that’s not a big enough part, or else I actually would. Simply put, I am a word person. I like massive blocks of text—the meatier the better, which is probably why Victorian novels are often my jam. When I see a page filled with pictures, and maybe a few speech bubbles, I skim. It’s a kind of inattention that others probably reserve for the opposite situation, when the only reaction to a wall of text is to read every couple of lines and interpolate. I feel bad for this reaction, because I’m aware that artists put amazing work into graphic novels, and I don’t want to devalue that work. I’m just wired to like and revel in words more than pictures. (This is why, despite having worked in an art gallery for six of the last eight years, I seldom spend much time actually looking at the exhibitions.)
When I read graphic novels, though—I’m saying this in my best Most Interesting Man in the World Voice—I read speculative fiction (but not, typically, superhero fiction). Saga is definitely in my wheelhouse in terms of what I want from a graphic novel. The actual motivation for reading it now is that I bought the first three volumes as a Christmas present for a friend. I like to give friends books I have read, so I can honestly recommend them; that isn’t always a realistic option, though, so sometimes I madly rush to read the book before I have to give it to them.
If anything, this first volume demonstrates the versatility and power that a graphic novel, unlike its literary sibling, wields in the hands of a good writer and artist. Since I spent a paragraph describing why I don’t prefer graphic novels, it only seems fair that I now spend some time talking about how graphic novels can do things that only the most sophisticated of novelists can accomplish with the written word. Fiona Staples isn’t simply illustrating Brian K. Vaughan’s story … she’s reifying a vividly imagined world of possibility.
The protagonists are humanoid. One has wings. The other has horns. They exist in a space operatic setting in which a planet and its moon are at war. There’s spider-like bounty hunters, lie-detecting cats, robot nobility with literal blue blood. The planet Sextillion features such weird imaginings as headless guards with mouths in their bellies (and rather … interesting codpieces). Saga is indubitably graphic, but in the most fascinating way. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is that Staples’ art comes as close as I can imagine to China Miéville’s words. Staples would do a good job illustrating New Crobuzon.
The plot of Saga, Volume One is simultaneously conventional and unique. Vaughan unites magic and technology into a single science fictional setting that is heavily reminiscent of Star Wars, if ILM had still done the special effects but somehow George Lucas had decided to outsource all the creative decisions to the directors of the Flash Gordon era of science-fiction filmmaking. Staples’ character design is iconic in its use of colours and shading—not only to create a brilliant sense of difference, as I describe above, but to create depths of tone. I love the expression on the characters’ faces.
The story is exactly what I want in a space fantasy opera, though: intense interpersonal relationships set against the backdrop of a larger, interstellar conflict. Alana and Marko just want their child to grow up and be loved—what parent doesn’t?—but neither Landfall nor Wreath can let that happen. Peace is too dangerous to their eternal warfare. It is a beautiful, heart-wrenching, gut-punching story. It is … a Saga.
I’m writing this review having finished the first two volumes; I’m about to start Volume Three. So excited. I am not a graphic novel reader, but Saga definitely got me hooked. It just goes to show that you need to keep an open mind and read widely, because every form and every genre has things to offer you.
It's easy to like Kvothe. I won't say it's inevitable, since I can also see some people disliking him. But he already scores points because he's not insufferably badass. There are only so many Magnificent Bastard masculine heroes I can take before I need a good dose of farmboy naivety. Kvothe falls somewhere in the middle, a happy medium between crazy-capable and powerless. He's clever--something he mentions several times--but far from infallible. He makes plenty of mistakes. He has an insatiable love for learning--something with which I can personally identify--and is totally clueless about women--again, something to which I can relate.
Now, this was fine in book 1. The problem is that by book 2, Kvothe begins to drift firmly towards that land of insufferable badassery that condemns him to Mary Sueness.
I appreciated that in the first book, Patrick Rothfuss set up a frame story that promised a tale of Kvothe’s daring exploits that could only end badly—namely, with Kvothe a failed and broken innkeeper in some piddly village during dark times. Sure, there are all these legends about Kvothe’s amazing powers, his ability to communicate with the Fae, his musical prowess … but that’s all they were, legends, exaggerations. Kvothe goes on and on in both books about how he intentionally started most of these rumours. So the appeal, then, of Kvothe’s narrative was getting to hear the actual story, the one where Kvothe more often than not fell flat on his face.
Trouble is, in The Wise Man’s Fear, those legends seem closer to reality than hyperbole. I think this Hulktastic review makes the point best:
KVOTHE IS BEST LUTE PLAYER, IS BEST SONG WRITER, IS BEST WEAPON-MAKER, IS BEST FIGHTER, IS BEST ACTOR, IS BEST INVESTIGATOR, IS BEST KILLER, IS BEST GIRL RESCUER, IS BEST MAGICIAN, IS BEST IS BEST IS BEST IS BEST! EVEN FAERIE ENCHANTRESS LOVE KVOTHE BECAUSE KVOTHE IS BEST FIRST-TIME LOVER IN ENTIRE HISTORY OF MADE-UP WORLD! HULK FROTH AT MOUTH WHEN THINKING ABOUT PERFECTION OF ALWAYS CLEVER KVOTHE!
Could not have put it better myself. Thanks, Hulk!
So we’ve gone from Kvothe being a screwed up street orphan who gets into the university, gets himself banned from the archives, and is barely getting by … to Kvothe being super-amazing at everything. Not that he would brag about it, mind you. It’s almost as if Rothfuss took all the various fantasy protagonists rattling around his head and amalgamated them into one super-protagonist. It would have been interesting to have a story about the best lute player, another story about the best fighter, etc. That’s how the fantasy genre tends to work—and the best writers can hold more than one of these characters in their heads at once and create a compelling ensemble cast, where the protagonists’ strengths complement one another. Rather than going that route, however, Rothfuss seems to be determined to make Kvothe fill the role of an entire ensemble cast, and this is a mistake. Not only does it make Kvothe annoying, but it devalues the other characters. At best they become less interesting; at worst they become one-dimensional.
Some reviewers have commented about this problem in relation to the women characters. It’s a valid criticism, but I would argue that it’s equally applicable to the men as well—both male and female supporting characters are poorly drawn here. They exist only in relation to how they can help or hinder Kvothe. Even when they are at their most interesting (such as Sim’s revelation that he can read Eld Vintic), it’s only so that they can somehow help Kvothe become more awesome. In other words, the other characters in this story aren’t people—they are props to help Kvothe be the best Kvothe ever.
You could chalk this up to the frame story and an unreliable narrator, but it happens within the outer story as well. Bast is literally a manipulative bastard Fae who is trying to force Kvothe to wake up and be awesome again. He has no other purpose.
The Wise Man’s Fear is actually about 17 novels in one—OK, maybe not 17, but definitely at least 7—nested like Russian dolls one inside the other. Kvothe leaves the university to go travelling, goes searching for bandits, gets distracted by the Fae … just when you think that the current story is going to end and we’ll return to the next story up the chain, a new story starts! And it’s fun and interesting and fascinating the first two or three times it happens, but then it just feels old.
It’s really a shame, too, because Rothfuss is just so damn good at creating settings and distinct aspects of cultures. For example, in Vintas the nobility exchange rings of different metals to signify different relationships. In Ademre, people speak sparingly and modify their speech with hand gestures. These kinds of touches, and Rothfuss’ willingness to explore them in great detail, are brilliant. This is exactly the kind of worldbuilding I’m looking for in a fantasy novel, and Rothfuss once again demonstrates he is a strong new voice in this respect.
The epic, quasi-medieval fantasy subgenre has taken a few knocks in the past decade or so. It’s difficult to write good stories that don’t feel all that derivative. And there are certain aspects of the subgenre and its conventions that can be problematic as well. Rothfuss largely manages to avoid these pitfalls to produce a splendid and refreshing fantasy story. Despite my utter and unapologetic change of mind about Kvothe, I still managed to enjoy reading this story. I can’t help it: there’s something about the way Rothfuss tells the story that picks me up and takes me on a journey, which is exactly what I want.
If you did not like The Name of the Wind but had hoped to pick up The Wise Man’s Fear anyway, then this book is not going to change your mind. In many respects the story is every bit as good, if not better, than the first book. Rothfuss gives himself a little more freedom to roam the vast world he has created. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way he slips the reins off Kvothe’s characterization, and our clever-but-fallible orphan protagonist from the first book transforms into an annoyingly modest Mary Sue. And the taste this leaves in my mouth is all the more bitter for knowing that this probably one of the best epic fantasy works of this decade.
Somewhere between the title of the book and the fact that it is a fantasy setting, I became convinced that The Edge of the World was set in a world thSomewhere between the title of the book and the fact that it is a fantasy setting, I became convinced that The Edge of the World was set in a world that is literally flat, with a ship that literally sails off the edge. This mistaken perception is entirely my fault, and it quickly became obvious that I was wrong when I began reading the book. Just thought I would warn you in case you laboured under the same generous delusion as I did.
Instead, The Edge of the World is one of the lazier stories I've read this year. I mean, Kevin J. Anderson has himself a world with frelling sea serpents. That's badass, man! And what does he choose to do with this storytelling boon? He squanders it on a pathetic, poorly-conceived religious war that stretches on for fifteen years.
And not. A Single Thing. Happens.
Your "obvious hyperbole" alarm should be ringing by now, but I am not exaggerating too much. The Edge of the World is a long but quick read because almost nothing of any interest or importance happens in the story. Characters live and grow older. Some of them die. Some fall in love, give birth, raise children. But none of it really seems to matter.
The problem lies with the central conflict, which is so contrived that I can't take it seriously. The two major religions of the known world happen to be distributed by continent, so that the Tierrans worship Aiden and the Urabans worship Urec. An accidental fire burns down their mutually holy city, Ishalem, sparking a war between the two continents/religions. Well, not exactly a war. More like a state of mutual aggression. Both sides commit atrocities, build navies, and do some raiding of fishing villages. But neither side's leader seems to have any desire to prosecute the war to any extent. Anderson does his best to make both leaders sympathetic, multi-dimensional characters. Unlike their followers, who do their best to imitate mindless zealots and stereotype the other side as inhuman, heretical monsters, these leaders are rational men who know that both Tierra and Uraba benefit more from peace than war. It just seems, thanks to the actions of various subordinates and serendipity itself, like they have no choice in the matter.
Anderson seems to trying to comment on how easily religion can be twisted for political purposes, as well as emphasize the horrors of blind hatred at the hands of the masses. There are some truly terrifying moments when the Aidenists or the Urecari commit one atrocity or another against their heinous enemies. Ultimately, however, I don't care about either side in this religious war, because Anderson does not spend enough time making his religions convincing. Like his people, the religions themselves are paper-thin caricatures of the real thing, designed only to further the plot. This undermines their ability to make any grand point about the horrors of religious war.
It is tempting to blame this on the multitude of characters and viewpoints Anderson makes available to us. There are so many characters and so many subplots, and we jump from one to another so quickly that it is difficult to become invested in any one plot. But Anderson does the same thing in his Saga of Seven Suns series, and it's not a deal-breaker there. No, the real problems with his religious war are timing and realism.
Are we supposed to believe that the Aidenists and Urecari have lived on adjacent continents for centuries yet are ignorant of each other's societies? That's absurd. Either they would have already gone to war, or the degree of interaction between the two continents would be far greater than it is at the beginning of this book. Instead, the Tierrans and Urabans know almost nothing about each other, despite their proximity and the fact that we know the former, at least, love to trade at Uraban ports. That's not how societies work, and Anderson never offers any explanations for how such an unlikely stasis could persist.
Yet persist it does, even against Anderson's attempts at exploration. For a book called The Edge of the World, most of the action takes place on the continents of Tierra and Uraba, with precious little exploration being done. The first time the King of Tierra sends a ship out to explore the vast unknown, it gets unceremoniously wrecked by a Leviathan (which is awesome). The second time he does this, the ship doesn't even get out of port. The only real discovery that happens in this book is the result of a journey across a desert to this world's equivalent of the Far East and the Mongol Empire.
With that second failure at an exploratory expedition on Tierra's part, my enjoyment of this book really soured. Criston Vora, the only survivor of the first expedition, shows up after a decade of self-imposed hermitage just so he can go on the second voyage. And what happens? He watches the arkship burn. Harsh. I felt as if Anderson had crossed the line between confronting his characters with adversity and smacking them against a brick wall. Seriously, what is the point of making me read about not one but two expeditions that go nowhere? The loss of the first ship was fine, but with the second ship's loss, I started to wonder if Anderson really wanted to explore the rest of his world. He seems content enough, at least for the majority of the book, to spend time not waging his silly little war.
So as a book of exciting exploration and adventures, The Edge of the World is a huge disappointment. And as a book of an intense religious war filled with moral ambiguity, insane priests who think their job is to go about burning churches, and depressed sailors, The Edge of the World still manages to be bland and boring. I found the political machinations just as predictable as I found the lack of exploration surprising.
I have only mentioned one character, Criston, in this entire review. That's not to say that Criston is the only important or noteworthy character; many of the main characters are struggling to do the best they can with the plot Anderson hands to them. Criston merely served to demonstrate a point for me; otherwise, I would not have mentioned him at all. For if there is one thing I want you to walk away with from this review, it is an understanding that this book is so mired in generalities that it almost feels like it was pulled from a random story generator.
Kevin J. Anderson has never impressed me with his characterization before, and he has not changed that opinion here. I don't mean to indict him just for The Edge of the World, because even though it is an unsatisfying read, I can still tell it is a sincere effort. So yeah, you do get points for trying, but that's not nearly enough.
Some books are better left unexplored, not because they are so bad they're good or so bad they're bad but because they're so bland they aren't worth your time.
Reading this book was like reading someone's plot summary of this book. I can't tell if it's Maria V. Snyder's writing or worldbuilding at fault; regaReading this book was like reading someone's plot summary of this book. I can't tell if it's Maria V. Snyder's writing or worldbuilding at fault; regardless, the outcome is the same: we are never fully-immersed in this story. Like a stage play, Poison Study is a diorama with two-dimensional scenery and live actors. The only thing keeping the fiction from tumbling down is that thin fourth wall.
Ixia is a former kingdom that suffered a coup d'etat just before Yelena was born. Throughout the book we hear horror stories of monarchy and how life under military discipline is better. I'm sure there's both truth and fiction in such propaganda, but not having seen the kingdom of Ixia, I can only judge its successor state. Now divided into eight military districts, creatively designated MD-1 through MD-8, Ixia is ruled by Commander Ambrose. Together with his generals, who each administer a district, the Commander (as he is called) crafted the military-like Code of Behaviour. Ixia is really serious about the rule of law, and there are no exceptions to the Code. Everyone works, everyone wears uniforms, and every punishment for every infraction is predictable. This really sucks for Yelena, who killed someone in self-defence, since the punishment for murder of any kind is execution.
On its surface, Ixian society is interesting. However, it is as much a fantasy as the magic that later appears in the book. I can easily imagine a military coup followed by an unrelenting Code of Behaviour. But to have such a code cover every possible infraction? I doubt we can ever develop such an iron-clad law that we would have no need of lawyers. Human behaviour is too dynamic, too intricate, to ever fully classify in such a manner. And humans are so creative—both when it comes to good acts and bad ones—that it wouldn't be long before someone ends up in front of the Commander for a crime as-yet unanticipated.
When it comes time for the plot to rescue us from plot summary, Poison Study struggles but doesn't find a niche. And this isn't actually a problem of plot so much as one of characterization. In particular, the two villains, Brazell and Mogkan, fall squarely into the sinister, moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash school of villainy. In fact, nearly every antagonist in Poison Study is a brute, an idiot, or both. The exceptions are usually characters who turn (either from face to heel or vice versa), e.g., Valek and Rand. Valek begins as the stern, somewhat antagonistic master who will not hesitate to replace—i.e., kill—Yelena should she prove unsatisfactory as the food taster. He warms to her (understatement). Rand is the former king's cook, now the Commander's cook, who has gambling problems that make him beholden to a traitor. He also warms to Yelena (understatement laced with tragedy). These characters, in addition to Yelena, demonstrate that Snyder can write good characters, so Brazell and Mogkan rankle me even more. They just make all the classic villain mistakes, and Yelena's victory seems to owe more to those mistakes than any particularly clever planning on Yelena's part. I don't like those kinds of endings, and Yelena was definitely clever enough to win on her own.
To be fair to Snyder, I really liked Yelena, and she almost makes Poison Study worth reading. Her dilemma is real even if her world is not realistic. She has few allies and fewer friends, and she's still trying to run away from her past. Snyder's intriguing magic system doesn't get a lot of development in this book, something I assume gets remedied in Magic Study. Yelena's need to hide her magic is not, itself, a source of much suspense—we've all seen it before. But Snyder pairs this with a need to learn and develop her powers lest they overload her, which would be fatal to Yelena and dangerous for other practitioners. Thus, not only does Yelena have to keep her abilities secret from her magic-sensing master, but she has a year to develop them or face assassination by an Ixian sorceress. It's a tight deadline, and that is suspenseful.
I must admit, I was rather expecting Poison Study to have more to do with poison than magic. This isn't a criticism of Snyder, because it's her choice how to write the book; my interpretation of the title and the teaser just led me to expect something else. And it didn't quite prepare me for the sudden romance near the end—again, however, Snyder foreshadowed it and developed it throughout the story. So consider this a caution, not a criticism.
No, Poison Study is not a bad book. Unfortunately, watching Yelena reclaim her life—literally—and vanquish her personal demons, saving the country as bonus, is marred by a very pedestrian narrative style. The exposition is not so much dry as it is utilitarian. By focusing only on what is relevant to her plot and not on how Ixian society would realistically function, Snyder creates a world that serves its purpose but nothing more. It's the type of worldbuilding that is perfectly acceptable for entry into the country club of worlds, but only just, and all of the fancy-dressed well-to-do worlds look down on this one. And so do I.
How many people have sat down one day and said, "Gee, I think I need to learn more about the history of misogyny!"? I did! I saw my coworker reading tHow many people have sat down one day and said, "Gee, I think I need to learn more about the history of misogyny!"? I did! I saw my coworker reading this and expressed interest in it. Unfortunately, I don't think the brief part of A Brief History of quite sank in at the time ... I was expecting something a bit more....
For anyone largely uninitiated into gender issues or the history of misogyny, I would recommend this book as a good read. Holland is a good writer, and he covers the subject comprehensively. However, the book was difficult to finish. It didn't pull me into the analysis of misogyny like I had hoped. This book suffers from several oversights or deficiencies that don't detract from the material in the book so much as they prevent the book from achieving its full potential.
Firstly, it should be called A Brief Western History of Misogyny. Jack Holland starts in ancient Greece and Rome and works his way up to Victorian Britain and 1960s America. Yes, he briefly detours into pre-colonial India and China, and toward the end he turns his gaze on Taliban Afghanistan and the Muslim Middle East. Overall, however, his overview of misogyny is written from a Western perspective. It's understandable, since most of modern society can trace its roots to ancient Greece and Rome. However, I would have liked to hear in more detail about the other ancient cultures that contributed to modern society (mostly Eastern cultures), as well as a little expansion into tribal Africa.
Secondly, Holland's adherence to the historical pattern of development is often at odds with his tendency to draw parallels to the various contributing factors toward misogyny (his favourite appears to be dualism). This is why I had to force myself through some parts--they just felt very dry.
Finally, I think Holland over-extends his analysis a little too much. I do agree when he points out the misogynistic aspects of the Holocaust, of Nazism, of communism, etc. Sure, fine. However, these mentions feel more cursory than other areas of the book. I don't think he did these topics justice.
A Brief History of Misogyny is exactly as advertised. It's brief, and it's a history. It's comprehensive and informative. It's not an incredibly entertaining book, so if you're worried your non-fiction enthusiasm is waning, don't read this book right now. On the other hand, if you're like me and spontaneously develop a desire to learn more about misogyny, then this book will serve that purpose fine....more
**spoiler alert** Oh, Mockingjay, I’m just not sure what to do with you.
I suppose that at this point the trilogy has taken on a certain trajectory. Ka**spoiler alert** Oh, Mockingjay, I’m just not sure what to do with you.
I suppose that at this point the trilogy has taken on a certain trajectory. Katniss rebelled against the Capitol, inadvertently started an uprising, and now finds herself the face of that revolution regardless of her desires in the matter. It seems inevitable that the third and final book will feature the climax of this uprising, an assault on the Capitol, and one last confrontation with the apparently serpentine President Snow. This is my way of saying that Mockingjay’s predictability was itself predictable and not inherently a bad thing. Unfortunately, Suzanne Collins did nothing to allay my problems with the world and characters she has constructed.
In my review of Catching Fire I lamented Katniss’ loss of agency. This remains a problem in Mockingjay, where Collins explicitly portrays it as part of the conflict Katniss faces: District 13’s leaders want her to be their “Mockingjay”, a face of the revolution for propaganda and inspiration. Collins lays on thickly the parallels between the Mockingjay role and Katniss’ time as a tribute and victor for the Capitol, including an outfit designed by Cinna and her old prep team back for one last bow. She has almost no say in where she goes or what she does, and she is not so much a frontline warrior as a glamour soldier for the cause.
So the question then becomes: does Katniss somehow regain her agency by the end of the book? Does she retake her independence and begin once again making decisions for herself? Arguably she does, but it’s a long time in coming and not very satisfying when it happens. The problem with Mockingjay and, alas, by extension the entire series, is that it confirms the suspicion lurking in my mind since the middle of Catching Fire: Katniss is just a spectator. She was in the right place at the right time to spark a revolution, and now she is going along for the ride.
Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with this. Indeed, perhaps on some level this is how many revolutions work: few symbols intend to be symbols or set out to inspire rebellion. Yet it’s disheartening, especially after the first book’s emphasis on Katniss’ self-determination, to see that she has been reduced to nothing more than an observer. True, without her presence as a symbol the Capitol would likely have crushed the rebellion with extreme prejudice. But that’s all she is, at every turn. Even toward the climax of the novel, when she finally makes it to the Capitol and goes off to murder President Snow, Katniss is just an observer to the final act that ends the rebellion. She wakes up a few days later and gets filled in by another character. (Fade to black: rebellion over.)
This is a dramatic and very strange arc for Katniss’ character. One would expect it to work in reverse: a character with very little volition or agency slowly begins to gain a sense of self and self-determination, culminating in a final act of rebellion or sacrifice that makes the difference. Here, we begin in The Hunger Games with Katniss urging Peeta to commit suicide with her in order to cheat the Capitol of its victor. In Catching Fire she resolves to save Peeta once again but ends up being rescued by District 13 in the eleventh hour. Now, in Mockingjay, she sort of floats around aimlessly for the majority of the novel. Towards the end we get flashes of the former, fiery Katniss, only for any hopes of significant contributions to get dashed by the events I mention above.
Except, of course, it’s not that simple. It never is, is it? Katniss does commit one act so shocking it requires a trial, an act that alters the future of Panem forever—hopefully in a positive way. Try as I might, I cannot pigeonhole Mockingjay or Katniss into a neat little box of disappointment. There are glimmers of hope that are enough to keep me ambivalent about how this trilogy ultimately concludes.
The ending also portrays Katniss as suffering through a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t want to mislabel anything here—but I think Collins does a good job demonstrating the toll that Katniss’ twisted life has had on her psychology. Although I continue to long for a more explicit discussion of this whole killing thing—because, let’s face it, Collins makes every other message in these books explicit and obvious—I have to admit that the Katniss of Mockingjay is no longer the uncertain child we met at the beginning of The Hunger Games. She is damaged goods now. Worse still, she survives the rebellion. Many characters mention throughout the book, in one of several clumsy incidences of foreshadowing, that no one knows what to do with Katniss.
Collins plays up the “what happens to the warrior after she wins the war” theme very neatly. It’s so easy for a series like this to conclude immediately after the rebellion ends and offer no hints as to the future. Collins instead goes more the Harry Potter route, with an all-too-brief epilogue. But this is enough to let us see the permanent scars to Katniss’ psyche. It’s rather like the exchange between Mal and the Operative in Serenity: the Operative is working to create a better world, a world with no place for men like the two of them. Katniss created a world that no longer needs her, but by dint of all that she has experienced, it’s not the world she needs.
This series has catapulted to absurd heights of popularity. I don’t think it deserves to endure as a literary masterpiece (then again, I don’t make those decisions). Yet I won’t heap upon it unearned condemnation simply because of the hype that follows in its wake. The Hunger Games was a pretty good novel. In many ways, the latter two books are disappointing, especially by comparison. Their stories are still relatively complex, but their characters’ motivations are less fully explored.
In discussing this review and my reaction to the series with a friend, I came to one additional revelation. For all my griping, it seems obvious that these books are far superior to Twilight, and even if one doesn’t always appreciate the story or think highly of the plot and character development, the following is true: these books make readers, particularly teens, think. Katniss doesn’t always have agency, but she has issues beyond wondering whether to date a vampire or a werewolf. She’s trapped in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian police state that forces children to fight to the death! That’s something to talk about. We can have discussions about The Hunger Games beyond “Team Edward or Team Alice?” (Hint: answer is “Team Alice”). That potential for meaningful conversation is valuable.
In the end, though, I think it all comes down to Katniss Everdeen. She is the heart and soul of these books: their narrator, their protagonist, their girl on fire. The books live or die on Katniss’ ability to hold the reader’s interest, to be someone with whom the readers can empathize. We don’t always have to like her, but we have to understand her. In my opinion, the last two books in the series begin to waver in their connection with Katniss. In so doing, they lose what made The Hunger Games so special, fading back into the general noise of all those other books that want to be like them.
Two years ago my friend Vivike gave me Kafka on the Shore for Christmas, assuring me that I would like it—and she was right. I also found it confusiTwo years ago my friend Vivike gave me Kafka on the Shore for Christmas, assuring me that I would like it—and she was right. I also found it confusing and daunting and knew that, in Haruki Murakami, I had found yet another author whose works I will continue to digest long after I devour them with all the tenacity my love of reading requires. So for this Christmas as I considered which book to inflict upon Viv, Murakami’s latest was a natural choice. And I prefer to give people books that I have already read, so that my recommendation is all that more genuine. Of course, when I went to buy 1Q84 last Thursday, I didn’t quite realize it was 925 pages. Since I planned to give it to Vivike when I saw her on Monday, I had an intense few days of reading to do. But I made it!
I liked 1Q84 better than Kafka on the Shore almost immediately. It might be owing to the more overtly science-fictional premise, this idea that Aomame might just have slipped into a parallel world. It might be that the mystery in this novel develops at a much less sedate pace than its impressive length suggests. It could be that, unlike the somewhat unequal relationship between Kafka on the Shore’s two main characters, Aomame and Tengo are a much more evenly-matched duo. Watching their stories converge, seeing the foreshadowing that Murakami uses, is one of the most delightful things about this book. I kept developing—then discarding—various theories as to what was going on. There were moments when I was so sure of an answer, only for Murakami to pull the carpet out from beneath my feet a hundred or two hundred pages later. Yeah, occasionally I was right—but who am I to keep score?
1Q84 is a mystery and also a little bit of a fairy tale. Aomame is the investigator, and she is also an Alice in a Wonderland that is uncomfortably similar to her own world. Quickly it becomes apparent that the cult at Sakigake, the Little People, and Air Chrysalis all have something to do with Aomame’s sudden transition to this alternative worldline—but what, precisely, is the connection? Meanwhile, Tengo struggles with the ethics of his role as the ghostwriter of Air Chrysalis; he has also begun to wonder how the novel relates to Fuka-Eri’s real experiences at Sakigake. It’s a rich and multi-layered mystery. Wanting to know the answers was definitely one reason I kept reading (aside from my self-imposed deadline!). But the style and substance in which Murakami steeps his mystery makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
1Q84 reminds me of Bridge of Birds in the way that many of its characters are less like actual people than they are like characters from a myth or a fable. (Alice in Wonderland has a similar quality to it.) The Leader, Professor Ebisuno, the Dowager, and even Fuka-Eri all have an advisory aspect to their personae. Even their names (Ebisuno is commonly addressed as “the Professor”, and while we do learn the dowager’s name late in the book, no one ever calls her by it) suggest the roles they play rather than people. The effect of this characterization is two-fold. Firstly, it supports the Jungian archetypes that Murakami explicitly employs throughout the novel. Secondly, it emphasizes the almost meta-fictional nature of the book—I say almost because 1Q84 never quite reaches the point where I would call it meta-fiction, but it comes very close. As novels that feature novelists as characters often are, it is a novel that is very keen to discuss and allude to various aspects of the conversation around literature.
And like Bridge of Birds, 1Q84 has a happy ending because it has something to say about the nature of happiness. Both Aomame and Tengo have solitary lifestyles that they believe have made them happy, so they must confront whether this happiness to real or merely a wishful delusion (and if it is the latter, does that matter as long as it feels real?). Aomame finds herself making a friend just as she learns her next assassination will result in her going underground and changing her face and name. The death of Tengo’s father, and his mounting foreboding over his relationship to Fuka-Eri and the Little People, make Tengo realize that he is not really close to anyone and that he has no one on whom he can rely. As someone who has few close friends and leads a sparse social life with an emphasis on solitude accompanied by tea and a good book, I appreciated seeing this nuanced and complex take on such lifestyles. Murakami doesn’t draw conclusions so much as present possibilities.
One person noted on my review of Kafka on the Shore that “the best authors (and I include Murakami here) do not set out to write a novel within the boundaries of a particular genre”. I would tend to agree, and 1Q84 is an excellent example where this appears to be the case. This novel flirts with so many genres but ultimately transcends them all. Much like China Miéville, Murakami seems very comfortable taking complete ownership of his story. He very clearly has influences (1984 being only the most obvious one, and perhaps the least significant). Yet like Miéville he seems less concerned with genre than with setting and character, as he should be. Yet Miéville and Murakami approach worldbuilding in totally different ways. Miéville is like the medieval artist who would sea serpents into the corners of maps: he describes his wonderful and terrifying new worlds to us with a level of detail that makes them come alive. Murakami, in contrast, is more minimalist, allowing the reader to build up a world through a relationship with the characters who traverse it. Aside from what Aomame learns, we don’t really know how 1Q84 differs from 1984—and it isn’t all that important. Although these two approaches are different, they achieve the same end: a work of fantasy that is not mired in the medieval tropes embraced by those who seek to emulate Tolkien and Vance. Both are extremely creative and talented authors with original voices.
Maybe it’s because I’m slightly more familiar with the theories of Jung than those of Hegel or Kafka that I preferred 1Q84 over Kafka on the Shore. That said, familiarity with Jung is certainly not a prerequisite to understanding or enjoying this book. There’s room to interpret 1Q84 through the lens of the Shadow and the Magus, but there are many additional layers of meaning. You will notice that this review focuses on the literary qualities of 1Q84 almost to the exclusion of other concerns. That’s just my particular hang-up, and I hope you won’t come away with the impression that this is a book only book-lovers can love.
There are so many other topics that 1Q84 covers. In general it’s a fascinating window into Japanese culture back in 1984. It deals with issues of abuse, of both women and children, and does not shy away from the ugly truths around this subject. It addresses the fine line between religion and cultism. Also, it’s an interesting example of a novel that wouldn’t work the same if it were set after the advent of the Internet. Murakami refers to computers a few times in the novel—Tengo notably buys a dedicated word processor—but I get the sense that if the novel were set in, say, the 2000s, its tone would be completely altered. The march of digital technology has changed us in ways that we don’t necessarily perceive until we read fiction written now about then.
I can’t quite bring myself to give this book five stars. Unlike some people I’m not going to criticize it for its length, and I was pretty satisfied with the pacing. However, some parts of the book did feel repetitive (and perhaps this was because the three books were published as separate volumes in Japan). For example, I’m not convinced that Ushikawa as a character adds enough dimension to the story to merit his own chapters. (Yet Murakami chose to introduce a third character to the existing duet, altering the structure of the narrative rather significantly, so there must be more to it.) Combined with the extremely compressed time frame over which I read it, this repetition meant that there were moments when I wished Murakami would just get on with it.
For each of those moments, however, there was definitely another moment when I was so invested in this story, so completely sold on its premise and determined to find out what would happen. Without a doubt, 1Q84 is a novel expansive in its philosophical and literary scope in a way that does not sacrifice the true core of any tale of fiction: the story. This is the second Murakami novel I’ve read, and it’s even more enticing than the first. With his careful eye for detail and for balance, Murakami is a first-class writer—and as always, kudos to the translators as well, for their dedication is responsible for helping Murakami’s voice cross the gap between our languages.
The Great and Secret Show reminds me of the only Tim Powers novel I’ve read, Last Call. And that, for anyone wanting a one-sentence review (contingeThe Great and Secret Show reminds me of the only Tim Powers novel I’ve read, Last Call. And that, for anyone wanting a one-sentence review (contingent upon understanding the nature of my opinion of Last Call), is that.
In many ways, coming across a book that doesn’t interest one even though it’s a good book makes writing a review far more difficult than coming across a bad book. But if one truly reads widely—and it’s something I take pride in doing—then it will happen. So what then?
I could try to praise The Great and Secret Show for its merits, for the characteristics that endear it to other readers. Clive Barker brings an impressive imagination to the table. His credentials portray him as someone more in the “horror” camp of speculative fiction, and that’s borne out by the book—not horror in the nu-school sense of gore and death, but horror in the old-fashioned sense of dread, evil, and doom.
There are times when Barker’s baddies are positively Lovecraftian. Behind the shadows, lying in wait, pulling the strings, exist the Iad Uroboros on another plane of existence. They are the stuff of nightmares’ nightmares and want only to slip into our dimension, drive us mad, and subjugate the empty shells of human beings who are left. If that doesn’t describe an Old One, I don’t know what does. Thankfully, there is a magical "ocean" called Quiddity lying between us and them.
Central to the story is the attempt by one character to upset this balance. Randolph Jaffe is a sociopath who stumbles upon the secrets of Quiddity and the Art, gradually morphing into a less-than-human being known as the Jaff. He recruits an unconventional scientist, Fletcher, to help him with a final apotheosis. It goes wrong, but Fletcher turns against him. The two transcend human existence and wage war, embodying aspects of what a more limited mind might call “good” and “evil”. Their battles bring them to a temporary rest in Palomo Grove, California.
And then it gets to the weird, horror part of the story, what with the impregnation and the children and the creepy love-at-first-sight. But even this is good, in a sense. Even this I can understand. Barker needs to provide the reader with more human characters—the story of the endless battle between the Jaff and Fletcher has grown thin. But as various humans become drawn into the conflict, the stakes increase. The bad guys become more real, and suddenly this becomes a battle for reality itself.
For the right audience, I can see how this book would be the pitch-perfect blend of creepy horror and high-stakes urban fantasy. Alas, at times it drags, feeling far longer than it needs to be. Plus, this just isn’t my favourite corner of the fantasy realm. I enjoy a bit of darkness with my fantasy, particularly when that darkness has its origins in our own, flawed human nature, as Barker portrays through Jaffe and, to some extent, Kissoon. Yet I’m very picky when it comes to the ways in which urban fantasy deals with the interface between the magical and the mundane. The Great and Secret Show approaches the supernatural as a very spiritual, personal experience, whereas I tend to prefer magic that is showier, flashier, more style than substance. Is that crass of me? Probably. But I just like its stark contrast against the backdrop of an otherwise ordinary, regular world.
So, there is much working in favour of this book. And I’m having a hard time understanding why I didn’t enjoy it much more than I did—but this problem itself indicates to me that, for whatever reason, the book and I just didn’t click. Is this what dating feels like? I’m sorry, The Great and Secret Show: it’s not you; it’s me.
Some stories are so popular they have permeated culture to the point where almost everyone knows them, even if they haven’t so much as glanced at theSome stories are so popular they have permeated culture to the point where almost everyone knows them, even if they haven’t so much as glanced at the source material. Such is the case with A Christmas Carol, which has inspired numerous adaptations in every medium imaginable. As a result, Ebeneezer Scrooge is a household name, and the basic plot of A Christmas Carol is a familiar one. The source material, however, is well worth the read. Charles Dickens tells the story with his usual skill for setting and characterization. In his hands, the redemption of Scrooge really does become a Christmas miracle.
I confess I find the idea of dedicating the end of the year to a binge on good cheer somewhat hypocritical. Shouldn’t we just be good to people all year long? Scrooge, however, makes any twinges of misanthropy on my part look statistically insignificant. As the fact that his surname has become synonymous with his catchphrase, “Bah! Humbug!” attests, Scrooge is the ultimate antidote to Christmas cheer. For Dickens, he is also a caricature of the cold-hearted, supercilious Victorian businessman who is unwilling to give succour to the poor. Yes—you didn’t think Dickens would write a book without championing the downtrodden working, did you? I love this line uttered by Marley’s ghost:
I wear the chain I forged in life....I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.
I don’t believe in the afterlife. There is no promise, for me, of an eternity in heaven or hell. Some might suggest this leaves me less motivated to do good works—after all, I labour under no fear of eternal damnation, no hope of eternal paradise. I choose to look at it differently: this is all I get, so I better make the most of it. Nevertheless, I still find Dickens’ imagery compelling, and the message behind it equally so: Scrooge has forged the chains himself; they are of his own making. It is our actions by which we are judged (if not by a higher power, then certainly by other people), not our wealth or acumen or even, sad to say, our intentions.
And for Scrooge, Dickens, and his contemporary audience, the idea of Scrooge’s glimpse at his afterlife—and the ghostly visitations that follow—certainly have an impact. A Christmas Carol is not religious in any strict sense. Dickens doesn’t name-check God, Jesus, or the angels. This isn’t about honouring the birth of the Saviour so much as instilling in Scrooge the value of Christmas spirit and, consequently, of being nice to people. While Dickens doesn’t overtly involve the Christian mythos, however, spiritualism and mysticism play a large role. Scrooge is, quite literally, scared into being nicer.
As a narrative device, the visitations of the three spirits works extremely well. They split this novella into three clear episodes, each of which show Scrooge’s progression from curmudgeon to reformed man.
The first ghost, of Christmas Past, provides context, showing how Scrooge grew from a lonely boy into a man who chooses money and business over the love of his life. Here, Dickens criticizes the Victorian “sensibilities” that have supplanted to the Romantic idealism of the previous century. He challenges the reader to entertain, for a moment, what Scrooge’s life might have been like had Scrooge chosen Belle, teasing us (and Scrooge) with a vision of her life with another man. The spirit shows Scrooge how the choices he made have brought him to this point.
The second ghost takes over from there, showing Scrooge how people regard him currently. Two major scenes dominate this section: the house of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s clerk; and the house of Scrooge’s nephew, who is entertaining some friends. In both cases, Scrooge observes examples of Christmas merriment, the type of unbelievable joy and warmth that can only come from family and friends celebrating together. Dickens works tirelessly to humanize the lower class, to show that even the poorest families can have noble spirits and celebrate in the same manner as the wealthiest of families. Despite their poverty and the ailment of Tiny Tim, the Cratchits seem to have an abundance of joy. Both parties also mention Scrooge at one point—unfavourably, of course—just to hammer home the point that he is not well-liked and is the antithesis of the happy moments they are now enjoying. Scrooge’s reconsideration of his attitude is most evident when he begs the spirit for a glimpse of Tiny Tim’s fate. Suddenly the child he would have consigned to death as “surplus population” seems so important to him!
The final ghost is supposed to be the most terrifying. Whereas the other two spirits were communicative, this ghost is a glorified tour guide. Oppressively silent and cowled, this ghost leads Scrooge into the future—or, at least, a possible future—one where he has died and no one is bothered. The final tally is taken, and Scrooge’s life—all that he has striven for—is worth, what? Some sheets? Some bad memories? Once again, Dickens’ message sneaks through: money isn’t worth it unless you have people to share it with, people who will benefit from you while you are alive and when you are gone.
Scrooge’s redemption in so short a period of time, given how much of a curmudgeon Dickens portrays him as at first, is truly miraculous. I like to think it’s because, deep down, there is a tiny part of Scrooge that knows he should be nicer, should be more humane. All the spirits are doing is talking to this part, giving it voice. And is there really any doubt what the outcome of this book will be? A Christmas Carol isn’t compelling because of suspense; it’s compelling because of the way in which Dickens illustrates Scrooge’s arc. Moreover, in terms of its status as a perennial classic, there seems to be something about this book that makes it easy to adapt (the same can be said for Shakespeare’s plays). Scrooge’s story can be transposed into virtually any setting, from ancient times to the present day, and retold to the delight of any audience. This is what makes it endure, despite the gulf between Dickens’ contemporary Victorian audience and the audience of today.
Dickens has never been afraid to pontificate in his other books, and A Christmas Carol is no exception. In this case, however, he can wrap it in the seasonal setting of spreading the Christmas spirit. The result is something rather beautiful. On one hand, this yet another treatise from Dickens on the inequities of the Victorian class system. On the other hand, it’s a cautionary tale of how our choices and our actions determine how we will be judged—in this life, and in the next. The caution comes with a potent reminder, one of hope: it’s not too late to make amends.
N.B.: This edition also contains The Chimes and The Haunted Man, so I will probably read and review those sometime soon.
Michael Chabon owns his writing style in a way that few authors have the guts to do. His style breathes life into his characters and their surroundingMichael Chabon owns his writing style in a way that few authors have the guts to do. His style breathes life into his characters and their surroundings. When reading a Michael Chabon book, you don't just feel like you're there with the characters; you feel like you're experiencing it as the characters. In an era when the novel is being dominated by straightforward, cinematic narratives, Chabon's excelling at creating chilling and compelling tales.
The book is steeped in Judaism (what did you expect?), and as a non-Jew, I'm extremely glad that it provided a glossary. For the uninitiated, I imagine it's a different type of book than those who are more familiar with the Jewish faith.
Religion aside (I realize those are two big words in this case), the main character is one with whom any reader, Jew or not, can identify. Landsman is an alcoholic detective, divorced, somewhat down on his luck. About to lose his job. And dead set on solving a murder that just gets weirder and weirder. Oh, and there's chess involved.
Parts of the plot--the mystery parts, not the religious parts--are rather predictable. But the religious part adds flavour and keeps you guessing. Landsman can seem like a bit of an unpredictable loose cannon, and the ending may seem anticlimactic. But that's the thing. It never was about the mystery. It's about Landsman, his friends and family, and the fate of the Jews of the Sitka District, who are once again finding themselves exiled from yet another promised land. Chabon builds an alternate universe, stocks it with an entire world of round characters, and then proceeds to lead us through a theological exploration of a man's soul....more
**spoiler alert** Two years, almost to the day, have elapsed since I read the first book in this series. Since then it has gone from trendy young adul**spoiler alert** Two years, almost to the day, have elapsed since I read the first book in this series. Since then it has gone from trendy young adult sensation to international book series phenomenon. My second student-teaching practicum is in a Grade 7/8 environment, where it seems like every student is reading one of these three books. I even got to accompany my Grade 7 and 8 classes to watch the movie when it came out in theatres. (The movie is nowhere near as good as the book, in my opinion. It has a certain stylistic appeal but beyond that seems to emphasize all the wrong things.) With the popularity of this series so evident in my current situation, I decided it was high time to read Catching Fire. Also, borrowing it from my associate teacher was much easier than putting my name on the waiting list at the library….
As with anything that gets as big as The Hunger Games has, deep divisions and schools of thoughts have emerged surrounding this book and the messages it might or might not send to youth. My ardour for the first book has probably cooled somewhat since I wrote my review, but I remain of the opinion that it’s a good book for adults as well as adolescents. The argument that it’s “better than Twilight,” while true, strikes me as extremely disappointing: what does it say about the state of YA literature that we have to praise things for being better than Twilight?
So I went into Catching Fire with a two-year gap in my memories only partially restored by the movie’s light dusting of plot. I know many of my friends rank this as their favourite in the trilogy, and I can see why. In my first review, I hoped for “a deeper exploration of the issues inherent to the Hunger Games and the quality of life in Panem" in Catching Fire, and for the most part that wish comes true. (We can quibble about depth later.) We get the satisfaction of seeing the fallout from Katniss and Peeta’s survival, including a lengthy and frank conversation between Katniss and President Snow. And Suzanne Collins makes it clear that Katniss’ disobedience has been the catalyst for something so gigantic it might conceivably lead to another rebellion. So much for retiring peacefully.
Alas, I couldn’t help but see Catching Fire as a faint retread of everything in the first novel. Was anyone really surprised that Katniss once again has to fight in the Hunger Games? It seemed like a foregone conclusion the moment the book began that she would end up in the arena again. Once that gets announced, the majority of the book follows the structure from the first book. Granted, it’s much more satisfying than many aspects of the first book: we learn more about the other tributes, for instance, and the description of the Games themselves seems to focus more on the intricacy of their design and less on Katniss’ own need for survival.
In a way, this makes sense: The Hunger Games was about Katniss’ own personal struggles in a harsh, totalitarian world; Catching Fire is a transition to a story that is wider in scope, involving uprisings of entire Districts. Katniss still has a personal stake in this story, but it is clear now that hers is part of a much larger narrative sparked by her unconventional strategy in the Games. Now she has to deal with the consequences, continue being someone she isn’t and try desperately not to say or do anything that could be perceived as rebellious. In the end, of course, she fails miserably, because she can’t help but be the kind and inspirational symbol the would-be rebels all need. This isn’t her fault.
Collins’ problems with creating a believable post-apocalyptic police state continue in Catching Fire. Panem is a very simplistic attempt at a totalitarian government, with the Capitol emerging as little more than snivelling bad guys in this book. We are supposed to believe, from Snow’s visit, that the Capitol finds themselves in a corner of their own painting: Katniss and Peeta are now high-profile celebrities, so the most expedient route of arranging for an “accident” would instead result in martyrdom. Instead, Snow resorts to intimidation of Katniss and then outright oppression of District 12. Thematically, I suppose it’s an effective way for Collins to demonstrate how people who are oppressed to an intolerable point will eventually erupt in violence … strategically, it’s a bonehead move. The Capitol is not a very well-run police state.
So with their precious little system in peril, the Capitol catapults Katniss, Peeta, and a score of other former victors back into the Hunger Games. Once again, Katniss needs to come up with a plan for both tributes from District 12 to survive. One of the more disappointing aspects of The Hunger Games was its failure to address Katniss’ transformation into a killer. To Collins’ credit, Katniss talks a bit about it in Catching Fire, but it still seems to be an issue on the moral back-burner in this series, which is more interested in making sure that Katniss is uncertain about who she should fall in love with. It’s not a coincidence that the tributes who die in the arena are the ones Collins fails to flesh out in any detail—two of them don’t even have names but are just described as morphling (morphine?) addicts.
Combined with a deus ex machina ending of the first order, we’re left once again in a situation where Katniss doesn’t actually have to make any tough moral choices. Yes, there is death and tragedy and sacrifice. But it’s all happening around Katniss, and while some of it is about Katniss, none of it is really her own doing. Which leads me to ask a question that might be somewhat incendiary: is this really better than Twilight? The main premise of that argument is that Katniss Everdeen has much more agency than Bella Swan, who faints at the merest hint of an action scene. To some extent, this is true in the minutiae of the plot, especially in The Hunger Games: Katniss volunteers to be a tribute; Katniss has a strength of will and character that constantly gets her into trouble. She is most certainly not like Bella Swan. Yet her role in Catching Fire is little more than a first-person vehicle for the reader: she is not involved in most of the decisions that seal her fate or Peeta’s; she is constantly overruled by other people (mostly men) who know better how to play this game. Where did my Katniss from the first book go? Who is this changeling that has taken her place?
I am intentionally writing this review before I read Mockingjay, which I’m about to start. I don’t want my experience of the third book to influence my opinion of the second. I expect that it will tie up loose ends, both when it comes to the nascent rebellion in Panem and Katniss’ love triangle. I will continue to hope for more depth and more detail when it comes to the dilemmas that are a natural consequence of the events Collins includes in these books. Catching Fire disappoints me, because it seems so uneven. The first part of the book reads like a laundry list of all the problems Katniss has caused, both for herself and for the Capitol. Some these are real and terrifying in the way they remove her ability to choose her own path in life. But this serious discussion evaporates to make way for yet another bout in the arena and another unlikely resolution. It’s like there’s two books in here, one that is really good and studious but probably somewhat boring, and one that is exciting and flashy but probably not very substantial. Both of them are vying to come to the fore, but neither quite manages to win the day.
This criticisms are not meant as a condemnation of the series or this book. The Hunger Games was really good, and while Catching Fire comes nowhere close to meeting that level of quality, it still delivers a pleasant echo of that first hit. I just think there’s plenty of room for improvement. Because I’m not content to settle for “better than Twilight” for myself or for my students. I want something that’s just awesome for its own sake.
Mindy Kaling is absolutely right: men do take too long to put on their shoes. At least, I do, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Send help!
It’s saMindy Kaling is absolutely right: men do take too long to put on their shoes. At least, I do, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Send help!
It’s safe to say I probably wouldn’t have read this book if my friend Rebecca had not literally put it in my hands. (As Goodreads friend Megan remarked recently, this is the one way to ensure I will actually read a book you recommend to me this century.) I see in retrospect that many of my Goodreads friends have read this, but even that might not have been enough. I’m vaguely aware of Mindy Kaling is, in that “I think she was a guest on The Colbert Report once?” kind of way, but I’ll address the elephant in the room, and if you feel like I’m less of a person and never want to read any of my reviews ever again, I’ll understand.
I didn’t watch The Office.
And I don’t mean I made a point of not watching. It’s not that I was opposed on principle to the show. That, at least, would be defensible. No, I simply had no interest in The Office, and strangely, managed to avoid watching anything more than about half an episode. I had no idea that Kaling was a writer for or actor on The Office. Indeed, on a broader level, I’ve largely managed to avoid modern comedy—aside from dipping in and out of SNL here or there, I don’t watch stand-up or sitcoms.
So I feel like I lacked a crucial frame of reference when reading Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me?. Kaling alludes to recent social phenomena with which I have very little familiarity, even through the vicarious medium of TV. Aside from Monty Python, I barely recognize, let alone have watched, most of the shows she mentions as inspirations or topical in her formative years. Hence, my overall bemusement: I really enjoyed Kaling’s writing style, to the point where she makes me laugh out loud. But I couldn’t connect with a lot of the essays about the entertainment industry. Is this, I wonder, how other people feel about reading books about math and physics??
With this in mind, I can see how it is tempting to dismiss or marginalize Kaling’s book as just “yet another attempt at a funny semi-memoir.” The chapters where Kaling attempts to lampoon her childhood experiences fall flat, because she does it by way of winking at and nudging the reader, lazily relying on the comedian’s shorthand: “Childhood—parents sure are funny, eh? Look at my wacky haircut and lack of fashion!” I wish there were more substance to these stories, that Kaling had gone a bit deeper. When she does get real, as in the chapter where she talks about her “secret friend” from high school, Marcia, and how that friendship blossomed while her friends from middle school went their separate ways, then Kaling’s stories immediately become more interesting.
My favourite chapter, as I alluded to above, is the extremely short meditation on how long it takes men to put on their shoes. It sounds facetious, but it is a serious matter that affects millions of men every day, and I’m glad someone like Kaling is finally taking a stand. Yet my enjoyment of that chapter surprises me. It is the most stand-up–iest of all the chapters here in a book that is very much an attempt at literary stand-up comedy. And I hate stand-up comedy with the fiery passion of a thousand white-hot stars. But maybe I wouldn’t hate it quite so much if more of it were like Kaling’s writing.
Kaling manages to capture how difficult comedy is, not just as an industry but as a genre for creation. Comedians have it hard, because unlike the rest of us people who are just happy to consume the funny, they have to dissect it in their comedy labs. They have to put on sterile clean-suits and cut into their beloved sitcoms and stand-up routines and ask, “Why is this funny? How does this work? How can I riff on this?” You can spend a lot of time on this, crafting what you think is the best, funniest thing ever—only for it to fall completely flat. Sometimes the flop isn’t even your fault: it could be a matter of timing, of current events making your joke insensitive or unfunny; or maybe you’re just before the wrong audience. But when your comedy goes awry, there is nothing left. It’s not like tragedy, where if you fail or ham it up too much, then it’s funny—that is kind of the intention of comedy. “So bad it’s good” is inaccurate: if your comedy is “so bad it’s good,” then either it’s just bad but some people are laughing anyway because they feel sorry, or it’s good because you are clever enough to pull off a deconstructive, self-referential routine (and you are Monty Python).
I was fascinated by Kaling’s story of how she went from amateur funny person to professional comedy writer. She and her best friend from college wrote and starred in a play called Matt & Ben, inspired by the apparent inseparability of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. But when she ended up in LA, she ran up against the wall most would-be writers encounter in that city, until she caught her “break” and got the chance to show her funny to the world again.
She also deserves respect for the self-deprecating way she mocks her own gradual envelopment by Hollywood television culture. From moving to LA to her involvement in The Office, Kaling has worked her way from being “outside” onto the “inside.” She is now part of the shallow, celebrity-obsessed machine she used to mock and continues to mock, but she knows her position in that machine has changed. It’s always heartening when celebrities maintain that self-awareness.
This self-awareness stems from a related sense of humility that Kaling masks with facetious self-importance. Unlike, say, a white and male comedian, Kaling is very much aware of and willing to acknowledge the role that luck and timing played in providing opportunities for her talents to shine on a wider audience. Beneath the offhand comments and the flippant voice she puts on, Kaling makes it clear
This is why it would be a mistake to dismiss a thin, outwardly-light book like Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?. Just because it aims to be funny, or because it’s a memoir written by someone on the younger side of 50, doesn’t make it any less interesting, sympathetic, or true. I don’t share Kaling’s love of stand-up or all of her tastes in humour (but we do share that love of Monty Python). But I appreciate reading her perspective and hearing about her particular vector into comedy and celebrity. Above all else, I appreciate the question Kaling implicitly asks with her humour: why, as a society, is it so important for our social cohesion to tear people down so we can build ourselves up? Why have we made it so difficult to differentiate between critique and criticism and nastiness? It’s possible to love something and critique it, not like something without judging it harshly.
The title says it all. We walk a fine a line between “being ourselves” (whatever that means) and being the people it’s easiest to be to fit in and not make waves so we can slide through our lives unhassled. We all compromise. We all yearn to express ourselves. We all do each of these things; what differs only is the relative degrees to which we place value on each action. We worry about everyone hanging out without us—but how far can we countenance changing ourselves, just so people hang out with us? There is no single answer that works for everyone. This book is just Mindy Kaling’s personal journey trying to answer that question.
Screw magic. Give me some political fantasy any day, and I'm a happy reader.
I liked Kushiel's Dart. I'm not sure if there's a definite quality improveScrew magic. Give me some political fantasy any day, and I'm a happy reader.
I liked Kushiel's Dart. I'm not sure if there's a definite quality improvement or if I'm going too easy on this one, but I loved Kushiel's Chosen.
The Kushiel's Legacy series takes place in a sort of Fantasy Counterpart Culture world where it's Europe, only not. From this starting point, Jacqueline Carey creates a world that, while somewhat similar to our own, nevertheless has unique societies and politics. As she crisscrosses Europe—sorry, Europa—in search of the escaped traitor, Melisande Shahirizai, Phèdre tours many of these societies and inevitably gets involved in her politics. The combination of her stunning beauty, sexual promiscuity, and savvy spy skills can be very persuasive.
Indeed, it's quite possible to label Phèdre a Mary Sue and call it day. That doesn't do justice to Carey's intricate plotting though. Rather, I love Kushiel's Chosen because it teeters on the brink of being contrived; Phèdre balances just on the precipice of Mary Sue-dom. All these people Phèdre encounter tend to help her, for one or more of the three aforementioned character traits she possesses. To put it in perspective: upon escaping from an inescapable island prison (and nearly drowning), Phèdre soon rebuilds her power base, befriending in the process not one but two other nations, and returns to Venice—sorry, La Serenissima—to stop the assassination of her Queen.
What saves the book, and Phèdre, is the difficulty level at which Carey has set her game. Despite her ever-ready allies, despite her shrewdness and knowledge of political intrigue, Phèdre spends most of the book suffering failure after failure. It's like Carey has constructed a giant locked room mystery (where the room is the size of a continent), and Phèdre has interrogated all of the witnesses and suspects, but she still guesses wrongly. Meanwhile, I guessed where Melisande was hiding long before the big reveal (and I never solve those mysteries). But does this make the book bad? On the contrary, it's very smart. By choosing it to do this way, Carey divides the book into two parts that are almost self-contained narratives in themselves, with introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement.
In the first half of Kushiel's Chosen, we're re-introduced to Phèdre, Terre d'Ange, and being a Servant of Namaah. The main focus is on discovering how Melisande escaped custody at the end of Kushiel's Dart (and hence, where she has gone to ground). To this end, we're immersed in the court life in the City of Elua, with Phèdre unsure of who is trustworthy, since someone supposedly beyond reproach had to help Melisande escape. After staging a falling out with Queen Ysandre and relocating to La Serenissima, Phèdre soon discovers where Melisande is hiding. But it's too late, and she's imprisoned in an inescapable fortress on an island.
The second half features Phèdre's lucky escape, several brushes with death, and the befriending and bedding of a pirate. The mystery is over, and now it's all about rebuilding her power base so Phèdre can return to La Serenissima in time to prevent Ysandre's assassination. It's pretty obvious that Phèdre will succeed at this one task, even if she has failed at everything else, so the source of the drama comes from everyone around Phèdre. Who lives and who dies? What's Melisande's fate? More importantly, how do the machinations of a D'Angeline traitor affect Serenissiman politics? Carey constantly impresses me with her ability to effortless manage so many characters. The universe of Kushiel's Legacy is very heavily populated, but not so much so that it's Name Soup.
Kushiel's Chosen is sort of a political/spy thriller set in a fantasy world, albeit only in the sense that slow-moving historical fiction can be a thriller (as the events take place over the course of a year). It's weakest in its characterization, especially with Phèdre and Joscelin's relationship, which is far too prolonged. (Also, of all the exposition that Carey skips in the second book, she doesn't re-explain the nature of the Cassilines, something I had forgotten in the year that managed to elapse between books.)
By far, the most intriguing relationship is the one between Phèdre and Melisande. They are each other's nemesis on both an intellectual and visceral level. Phèdre and I both admire Melisande's aptitude at the game of thrones. She is a delightfully crafty enemy and well a match for Phèdre—in more ways than one, as Phèdre considers Melisande delicious as well as delightful. If her existence as the world's only anguissette isn't conflicting enough, her attraction to Melisande is inconvenient and almost deadly. At first, I didn't entirely understand this aspect of their relationship—it's obvious, after all, that Phèdre would never betray Ysandre and join the dark side.
But it's more than just mere attraction. Phèdre is a lonely heroine, and has been from the start of the series. After the deaths of Alcuin and Anafiel and the loss of Hyacinthe in Kushiel's Dart, Phèdre is more alone than ever. This situation only escalates throughout Kushiel's Chosen as Phèdre alienates Joscelin and loses some of her companions. Moreover, wherever she goes and whatever she accomplishes, she is always still "the anguissette," identified sometimes more by myth than her own personality. (The fact that she saves the kingdom and is commended by Ysandre for this at the end of the book doesn't exactly help.)
As her nemesis, Melisande is a part of Phèdre's identity. She beat Phèdre in the first halves of both books. Although Phèdre was ultimately victorious (twice), Melisande promises that it's not game over. Similarly, Melisande is the only patron of Phèdre's who ever extracted the safe word—sorry, signale—during a sexual exploit. I would go so far as to say that Melisande is the single person who best understands Phèdre, both as an anguissette and as spy—she certainly understands Phèdre better than Phèdre's love, Joscelin. At the best of times he's clueless about the complications of Phèdre's commitments to Namaah's service; at the worst of times he's openly disdainful.
And so, Kushiel's Chosen takes the best aspects of Kushiel's Dart and amplifies them, grafting on a better plot with more sinister intrigue and a stellar cast of supporting characters. More than just court drama (although Phèdre never hesitates to give us a play-by-play of what she's wearing), Kushiel's Chosen is the intimate dance between two like minds conducted with an entire continent as their battlefield. Phèdre and Melisande face off in a conflict that is both deeply political and deeply personal. In so doing, Carey captures the breadth of human expression writ large and writ small.
Returning to Terre D'Ange and Phèdre's Europe—sorry, Europa—was truly a pleasure. I recommended Kushiel's Dart to fans of epic fantasy; now I'll go one step further and say that even straight up historical fiction fans can find enjoyment here. Carey's skill as a writer is something that transcends genre, and while Kushiel's Chosen is fantasy in name, it is fantastic by nature.
**spoiler alert** Now, I am a lucky and spoiled person who is reading Saga collected in volumes, rather than reading each issue as it is released like**spoiler alert** Now, I am a lucky and spoiled person who is reading Saga collected in volumes, rather than reading each issue as it is released like a chump—er, I mean, true fan. I guess it’s comparable to binge-watching a show after the entire season has been released rather than watching it week-by-week. In the end, you get to the same place. But the experience is totally different.
Saga, Volume Two raises the stakes after Volume One set up the universe and the conflict. Alana and Marko are still on the run, and now they have a destination: Quietus, home of schlock romance writer D.O. Heist, who is apparently Alana’s idea of a sage who can advise them on how to spend the rest of their fugitive lives. But there’s a twist—because Marko’s parents have tracked him down, and they aren’t thrilled at his choice of wife. The ensuing family drama really showcases Brian K. Vaughan’s ability to synthesize different levels of conflict.
The centre of Saga is Hazel, the child of two worlds (TVTropes) who is also the narrator. This is her saga, it’s implied, her genesis and coming of age. She is important because her heritage is unique—Landfall and Wreath hate each other so much that both sides are terrified at the prospect that two of their soldiers could possibly have fallen in love and had a child. She is also important because of her parents—not only did they make her, but they have the drive and desire to raise her peacefully. In addition to the struggle to survive and stay one step ahead of everyone who wants to kill or capture them, Alana and Marko’s biggest struggle, and the centre of this story, is going to be about how to raise Hazel. We can already see that happening in these early issues.
I think it’s interesting that even as Alana and Marko adjust to being a parent, both of the antagonists hunting them are dealing with the possibility of fatherhood. Prince Robot IV learns that his wife is pregnant while he is on the hunt for the fugitives. His appears to be a marriage of state; though he seems to have some fondness for his wife, so far I get the impression he’s more concerned about perpetuating his robot line. (Generally, I think he’s kind of a dick.) The Will, on the other hand, has essentially adopted Slave Girl, whom he busts out from Sextillion because he’s down with killing children but not having sex with them. (I like the Will, unlike my feelings towards Robot IV—I feel like, despite his past, he seems like he can be redeemed with the right sort of experience.)
Even as Vaughan’s storytelling expands the universe and advances the plot, Staples’ art once again elevates Saga above simply “a good space opera.” Her characters are fun and diverse: robots, humanoids, mice medics…. This time I want to remark on the backgrounds and the scenery. Thanks to the different POVs and the magic of flashbacks, we see quite a few planets: Cleave, Landfall, Wreath, Quietus, and others. Staples gives each different characteristics and climates. I suspect that is difficult to do given the limited page space and how much has to be taken up by characters, action, or dialogue. But this, combined with the dialogue and narration, really helps lend a sense of grandeur to the setting of Saga. People in this universe get around. They planet hop, whether on their own ships, like the Will does, or chartered cruisers, like Prince Robot IV does when he goes from Landfall to Cleave (until he gets his own wheels, because reasons).
Volume Two ends on a sweet twist/reveal and cliffhanger that left me really excited to read Volume Three. I loved watching Robot’s confrontation with Heist only for the “camera” to “pan up” and narrator!Hazel to reveal that, in fact, they preceded the Prince to Quietus. Sweet! Can’t wait to see how this turns out.
If Volume One hooked me into Saga, then Volume Two only reaffirmed that feeling. This is premium grade crack storytelling. Don’t look at me funny when I say that, or I will cut you.
**spoiler alert** The Pillars of the Earth is packed with dynamic characters who evolve over the course of fifty years during the civil war between Ki**spoiler alert** The Pillars of the Earth is packed with dynamic characters who evolve over the course of fifty years during the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda (Maud). Follett expertly weaves the historical facts into the narrative of the story, often including his characters in pivotal moments--such as Philip's role in the aftermath of the assassination of Thomas Becket.
This story is one of raw determination. All of the characters' motivations become apparent as the story progresses, and we see that they are utterly determined to achieve their goals. The protagonists succeed largely through wit and the innate distrust that the antagonists have for each other (the problem with being a traitor once is that you'll always be suspected of betrayal ever after). The shifting allegiances and characters' opinions of each other are quite realistic; the lifetime that the book covers allows Follett considerable character development. Not all of the protagonists like each other throughout the course of the story; their feelings change as the situation develops.
It really gets good after Part Two (these are long chapters and even longer parts--not that I'm complaining). With Bishop Waleran and William of Hamleigh set up as the main antagonists, it becomes a tug o' war game between the two sides, each wanting a cathedral and the prestige that comes with it. Follett portrays the antagonists as terrible men, with Waleran a self-serving servant of God and William an irredeemable sociopath. In contrast, the myriad protagonists are more dynamic in their actions. Everyone, from Prior Philip to Jack to Aliena, has flaws and makes mistakes that allow the antagonists temporary victories.
I found the rhythm of the book somewhat predictable; the pacing is probably the most ordinary thing about this story. Every so often, the antagonists would implement a scheme that causes a setback for the protagonists, who would have to find a clever way to succeed in the face of adversity. Rinse and repeat. This doesn't change, so I just ignored it and instead focused on the characters and relationships.
The relationship between Jack and Aliena annoys me, mostly because of Follett's portrayal. Their love develops very well, but then toward the end of the book, Aliena temporarily considers leaving Jack, because they are forced to live apart until the Church annuls her marriage to Alfred. At this point, I found Aliena's behaviour unrealistic. However, that may just be because I didn't live through the last fifteen years like she did. One of the disadvantages of the scope of the story is that the time jumps cause a bit of disorientation for the reader: the characters will have developed, sometimes in unanticipated ways, and we'll have to adjust before we feel comfortable again.
I could have done with a little less description of architecture, but I gather that this was one of Follett's primary motivations for writing the book. In that case, I suppose it was a good thing. The Pillars of the Earth is a worthy book to read with exactly the elements required for a great story. At times it can be slow or predictable, but in general I would recommend it to anyone with interest in historical fiction....more
This is the second map book I’ve read recently, the other being A History of the World in Twelve Maps. These two books are similar enough that I couThis is the second map book I’ve read recently, the other being A History of the World in Twelve Maps. These two books are similar enough that I could spend the entire review comparing them, but I’d rather not do that. So let me make the comparison now and then move on: On the Map is neither as detailled nor, for me at least, as satisfying as A History of the World in Twelve Maps (or H12M, as I’ll call it from now on). Simon Garfield covers very similar territory less thoroughly. I’ll give him some points for style, but otherwise, H12M is the far surperior choice for people interested in history, maps, or the history of maps.
Where the two books diverge is probably in their audience: On the Map is ostensibly more about maps, with history as a backdrop to the story of cartography; H12M is more about history told through maps. So there’s that. But this is not good for On the Map, because I found that H12M often exceeded it in terms of the detail it goes into about the development and creation of maps.
I was thinking about how I read and remember non-fiction books while reading this. It has been over a year since I read H12M. I don’t remember much about it. My memory sucks. Why did I bother to read the book at all if I don’t remember anything that I learned from it? And if I’m not going to remember much from a book, why should I care if it is detailled or not?
Well, hopefully I did learn something from it, and it will bubble to the surface of my mind at the appropriate moment at a cocktail party where I can regurgitate it and look smarter than I am. And when that happens, it’s the details I recall. While reading about the Cassini project to map France or the acquisition of the Waldesemuller map in this book, I recalled Brotton’s discussions in H12M—I even went so far as to pull the book from my shelf and glance over those sections again.
So when I read non-fiction (and this is where I’ll stop comparing On the Map to H12M, I promise), I need little details that will get stuck in my brain like burrs. I’ll feel the itch but won’t necessarily know they are present until they resurface. Unfortunately, Garfield’s surface-treatment makes it harder for those burrs to form.
He’s at his best when discussing individuals, and particularly contemporary individuals he can interview himself. His journalist credentials are obviously on display when he discusses how he tracked down and met with an obscure person in the maps world. And those chapters are lovely. They don’t always stick to maps per se as the topic of discussion, but they show, as Garfield probably intends, the human element of mapmaking. Garfield successfully chronicles the way that mapmaking has mirrored the political and philosophical differences throughout history.
Some of my favourite chapters discuss how people relate to maps. Chapter 8 chronicles the rise of the atlas, and Chapter 16 talks about the evolution of guidebooks. Garfield goes beyond the nitty-gritty of how these maps were produced and talks more about the business and economics behind the mapmaking. I enjoyed reading about how the public seized upon maps as a new way of seeing their world (these days, who doesn’t check out their house on Google Street View?). And the idea that guidebooks revolutionized travel across a newly-industrialized Europe, especially for single women, was very interesting. It puts into perspective the literature of the time that I love to read.
In later chapters, Garfield goes on to address the rise of digital mapmaking. I wish he had done more with this: he pretty much just says, “it exists, and here’s how GPS works” but doesn’t go much deeper than that. He doesn’t talk too much about the surveillance implications of mapmaking. He doesn’t talk much about geocaching. He seems more interested in chronicling the rise of the various GPS and satnav firms, who bought whom, etc. For some people I’m sure this is very fascinating, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, and it didn’t match the human element that Garfield elucidates in previous chapters.
On the Map is a very uneven book. At times it is sumptuous in its discussion of maps and mapmaking. At times it is disappointing in the directions that Garfield pursues—some of these are a matter of taste, some are a matter of style. It’s not my favourite map book, but I’d recommend it if all you want is a sporadic discussion of mapmaking.
Pirates of Nirado River takes place in an alternative universe where kids have been forced to form ad-hoc pirate gangs that cruise down the rivers aroPirates of Nirado River takes place in an alternative universe where kids have been forced to form ad-hoc pirate gangs that cruise down the rivers around Dog Lake in tricked out canoes. These gangs fight wars with crap apples, commit arson on abandoned cabins, and poach rabbits off Crown land. When one or more gangs have a dispute, they settle it through complex negotiation, kidnapping, and bondage.
All of the above is true, except for the “alternative universe” thing. Actually, the pirate gangs are just “clubs” (the precise amount of formal organization is never made clear) that children belong to based on age group. The Nirado River Pirates are one such club, with children aged 11 and 12 in it. There are a few other bands: the Dog Lake Pirates, the Spruce River Pirates, and the Silver Mountain Pirates. But the (potential) arson, rabbit poaching, and rampant crab apple warfare are all true; I swear.
This book is perhaps the furthest from my usual fare that I’ve read all year. I’m making a conscious effort to read more young adult fiction in an attempt to stay connected to what the students I’ll be teaching are reading. This, of course, is not young adult fiction; it’s a chapter book billed for ages 7–12. I am doubtful I would ever have picked this up on my own.
The school where I’m doing my student teaching practicum is reading this. Every class has to read it together and do some kind of activity based on the book, culminating in an assembly next week with a visit from the author. Michael Setala is local and the book is set nominally in an area outside our city, though it doesn’t really matter. Our class is reading the book this week, so I read it in preparation. At 78 pages of large print, it was not a massive infringement upon my time. Indeed, my tea hardly got cold.
Children’s literature is, in some ways, a whole different ballgame from adult literature. I don’t know how to review it (or really how to read it, for that matter), so take this review with a grain of salt. From what I know of children’s literature, though, writing it must be hard compared to writing adult fiction. An author writing adult fiction has the benefit of being on relatively even ground with the audience, who will have about the same vocabulary and comprehension skills (though authors are probably more practised in these categories for occupational reasons). With children’s literature, the author is writing to an audience whose skills are neither developed nor nuanced. Moreover, the variation across and within age groups is staggering. Some 6-year-olds are reading chapter books for 10-year-olds while their older siblings struggle with the 6-year-old material. So not only do authors have to get in the right mindset to write stories that will captivate kids, but they need to write in a language that is meaningful.
What I’m trying to say is that I have the utmost respect for children’s authors and their labours.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll let just anything slide. If anything, I’m going to be more critical, because what children read is almost as important as what they eat—food fuels the body; books fuel the mind.
Pirates of Nirado River is set to the northwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Thunder Bay is my hometown and the only place I want to live (though I may move away for a few years until I find work here). I love this place, even though I am not the most outdoorsy type of person, and I’m always thrilled to learn of fiction set here. While this book is set here, it’s not really set here. All the author does is drop the names of some local rivers and landforms. I feel like the story could be transposed to any other location with rivers and a mountain and work just as well. Perhaps this universality is a virtue for the book and its potential audience, but I think it undermines any argument in favour of this book simply because “it’s set in Thunder Bay”.
For all its sweeping universality, though, Pirates of Nirado River contains a lamentably uncomplicated story. The Dog Lake Pirates are trying to burn down the Nirado River Pirates’ cabin in retaliation for something they think the Nirado River crew has done. So the venerable Captain Corey decides to negotiate, and after several misunderstandings, all gets resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and they sit down for some rabbit stew. I suppose Setala is trying for the message that compromise and conversation are better ways to resolve conflict than all-out fighting; he wraps the message in several scenes of crab apple warfare for some action goodness. But the conflict and its resolution seem wildly unbalanced.
At its core, the conflict is basically a territorial squabble between gangs. It’s not very interesting, so I can understand why it only takes a few chapters to resolve. There is no real meat to the story, just scene after scene of the Nirado River Pirates paddling up and down the river to meet with various gangs and fling crab apples. It’s supposed to be invigorating and suspenseful, but it’s unremarkable more than anything else.
The only part of the plot that really got my attention was the two attempts to burn down the cabin used by the Nirado River Pirates. I don’t know who owns the cabin or the land it’s on, but I doubt they would take kindly to arson. What kind of “club” structure is this that encourages children to retaliate by burning down cabins? And this cabin is off a lake, presumably in a wooded area, where an uncontrolled conflagration can easily lead to a forest fire. Where is the forest ranger? Who’s supervising these hooligans?
On some level I’m sure I’m taking this too seriously when I should just sit back and enjoy where the story takes me. I disagree, but the plot isn’t the only problem with Pirates of Nirado River. Its characters are similarly dull and lifeless. Now, just as Setala does an excellent job describing the action, he also does a good job describing the characters themselves. I don’t take issue with how he describes them. But the characters he creates through these descriptions are just as uncomplicated as the conflict they solve. There are never any moments of doubt, nor are there moments of heroism, of treachery and betrayal, or of regret. Children experience emotions every bit as complex as adults; they may not be able to understand the emotions using the same language we do, but those emotions are there and should be portrayed in the characters they read about.
Also, Pirates of Nirado River is a boys-only book. The single female character is someone’s mother, and I think she has about one line. There are no older or younger sisters hanging about, let alone any girls in the gangs proper. From cover to cover, this is a book about boys doing stereotypical boy activities. Granted, they resolve their problems through level-headed discussion, which is commendable. Ultimately, though, if we ask girls to be a part of a reading experience—such as when an entire school reads a book—we should try to find books that will appeal to them as well. I’m not saying Pirates of Nirado River appeals only to boys, but it doesn’t go out of its way to make it easy for girls to identify with the characters or their problems. Despite its positive theme and upbeat conclusion, as far as genders go in this book, girls are invisible—and I find that deeply problematic.
I feel a little bad adding this book to Goodreads and then eviscerating it. To be fair, it’s not so much poorly written as it is poorly conceived. The book itself is probably—I don’t have much experience to go on—fairly typical for the kind of fare I expect we’re feeding children. But it’s not amazing, and if anything it’s too simple, especially for an older audience like my Grade 8 class. In the afterword, we learn that the author wrote the first draft of this story when he himself was around 12 years old … and frankly, that explains a lot. There’s a reason most authors have consign the first novel they ever write to the deepest, darkest corner of a locked drawer in the bottom of their filing cabinet: no matter what the skill level or the intent, the product just isn’t that good. Pirates of Nirado River is an earnest effort and definitely something I would love reading if it came from someone in Grade 7 or Grade 8. From an adult trying to write to children … it’s lacking.
Roommates lending books they love can be a dicey proposition. It wasn’t that I was worried I would dislike Skallagrigg; I just worried I wouldn’t likeRoommates lending books they love can be a dicey proposition. It wasn’t that I was worried I would dislike Skallagrigg; I just worried I wouldn’t like it enough. This feeling stayed with me for the first part of the book, because it didn’t seem very straightforward at first. There was cryptic foreshadowing that would make sense towards the end. Thankfully, after the first few chapters, the book changes tack and becomes much easier to like. William Horwood deftly balances the excitement of the vista of 1980s computing with the challenges that being physically disabled presents (in any era). Skallagrigg is a canvas of hope and disappointment and all the states of being in between.
Esther Marquand has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. At first, her father, Richard, is unsure what to do with her. She is a reminder of losing his wife, and like most able-bodied people, he isn’t sure how to interact with her. For a while, he remains distant—but he can never bring himself to abandon her completely. That’s all she needs. Gradually, Richard takes a more active interest in Esther’s life and development, eventually purchasing a more suitable home and moving her out of the place that is caring for her. As they learn how to communicate, Richard and Esther’s relationship becomes more like that of any father and daughter, complete with the occasional conflict over Richard’s affections, Esther’s future, and grandparents. Horwood is very skilled at creating characters who are sympathetic because they are three-dimensional. Richard is nice; he loves Esther and has her best interest in heart. But he’s not perfect, and sometimes he doesn’t understand Esther’s choices. Similarly, Esther spends quite a bit of time being rude to Richard’s girlfriend, despite her grace and courtesy. It’s a typical rejection of someone she feels is usurping the affection that should be hers. While Horwood carefully depicts the challenges Esther faces, being dependent on others for the most basic necessities, he also makes it clear that, mentally and emotionally, she undergoes the same developments and changes that we all do.
Esther becomes interested in stories told by other people with CP. They describe a boy with CP, Arthur, and his experiences in a hospital. Over the years, a mythical character named the Skallagrigg repeatedly saves the day. Arthur and his friends never seem to meet the Skallagrigg directly, but they also credit him with the save. Esther becomes convinced that the Skallagrigg and Arthur are real people who might still be alive. She begins collecting the stories, searching for clues as to Arthur’s whereabouts. Her research takes her along a dark path into the history of Britain’s treatment of people with disabilities. It is not pretty. In this way, Skalligrigg exposes the inadequacies of Britain’s treatment of and education of people with disabilities. As I learnt, through Esther, how bad it really is, I felt a growing conviction that we have to do better; we have no excuse for not doing better. The idea that people with physical disabilities are mistakenly diagnosed with mental disabilities simply because we haven’t found a way of communicating with them is not just frustrating; it’s gobsmackingly negligent. It’s an indictment without being pedantic, because it all happens in service to this wonderful story.
Skallagrigg also captures the excitement present in 1980s computing, when having a personal computer meant one had to do a lot more programming than one does today. Richard owns a computing company that recognizes the importance of computing to businesses. He brings home a computer for Esther and her friend to try, and they become captivated by its possibilities. Esther finds the patterns and logic behind programming comforting; as a mathematician and programmer myself, I can relate. She also discovers, thanks to the help of a creative engineer, a way to communicate using a specialized keyboard that allows her to express herself like never before. Never underestimate the power of having voice.
Horwood uses gaming as a way for Esther to express the emotional impact of her research. She begins work on a game called Skallagrigg, which is a maze/puzzle adventure that asks its player difficult, non-obvious questions along the way. It’s this game that the narrator has played, in which he finds clues Esther scattered to bring him to this story. As someone who loves computers and understands their appeal in a way Esther does, I really enjoyed this part of the book. Even if you don’t, however, it remains a powerful metaphor: Esther is creating, she is taking control in a computer-based world because she has so little control in this world. It’s exciting and amazing, but at the same time one has to think about why she is making the game and what she puts into it. She doesn’t just pour in her wonder and appreciation for the Skallagrigg; she puts in her frustration with her disability, her disappointment in the system and its history, her depression and worry that her destiny is not in her own hands.
I blubbered quite a bit reading this book, never outright crying but definitely verging on tears. There were a few awkward train rides where I had to stop reading for a while until I could pull myself together. I think it’s fair to say that some of the scenes in Skallagrigg are sappy—but that works here. Horwood is able to tug the heartstrings because he creates something that is mostly believable. Esther is smart and capable but at a big disadvantage, physically. She is lucky in that she has a father who both cares about her and has the resources to help her, in stark contrast to Arthur, whose mother had no such recourse. Life isn’t fair, but it still seems like the tribulations Esther undergoes are more unfair than many people have to suffer. And this is all with an awareness that Esther is actually quite privileged. If countries like Britain can barely care for disabled people properly, imagine how less well-off countries fare.
I’ve chosen to label this book as science fiction, because it is. Firstly, as some of the footnotes reveal, it is set in the future (well, relative to when it was written)—2019 or later. Secondly, Horwood’s use of gaming and the Skallagrigg game itself are science-fiction set pieces. Science fiction doesn’t have to be set in the future, and it doesn’t have to involve any technology more advanced than what we already have. It just needs to take the technology we already have and look at it through a slightly different lens. Horwood does that here; he asks how a very carefully-created, complex text-adventure game might be used to communicate across generations and speech impediments. He is somewhat ahead of his time in recognizing how monumental video games will be as ways of transmitting stories and memes. For these reasons, Skallagrigg is science fiction—more along the lines of Atwood than Asimov, though, and therefore such a label is no reason to avoid it.
No, the only reason one might want to avoid this book is to avoid the tears that might be spilt over its pages. I can promise, though, that some of those tears will be of joy. It’s not a depressing book, just a starkly realistic one. Horwood doesn’t pull punches, but at the same time he rewards the reader for sticking through it. Like all great literature, Skallagrigg simultaneously tells a story while also making the reader think, and think not just about the issues the book raises but about their own beliefs and convictions. Because it’s one thing to read books, and it’s another to have the courage to let books change you.
I have a soft spot for urban fantasy in which there is “another” world within our own world—Neverwhere comes to mind as a good example. I think it sI have a soft spot for urban fantasy in which there is “another” world within our own world—Neverwhere comes to mind as a good example. I think it speaks to the reader in me; for someone who inhales escapist fiction, the prospect that any door could potentially be a portal to another place is just … intoxicating. Daughter of Smoke and Bone capitalizes on this idea. Karou is the human adopted daughter of a demonic being called Brimstone. He trades wishes for teeth—human teeth, animal teeth, doesn’t matter. His shop opens onto doors all across the world. But there are so many things Karou doesn’t know about Brimstone or his world.
Laini Taylor says she writes “books for young people”, and Daughter of Smoke and Bone does indeed have a “young adult” feel to it. Voracious readers of YA literature might be excused for not recognizing this feeling, however, because the recent explosion in YA might have deadened their sensitivity to what good young adult fiction is. Compared to a good deal of YA on the market, this is a lot more mature in how it deals with its subject matter. Karou is neither innocent nor helpless nor, indeed, the chosen one. She’s lost her virginity; she draws men naked; she travels across the world, risking further bullet wounds, to collect teeth from Brimstone’s traders. But she isn’t going to be taking down a dystopian society any time soon, thank goodness.
I suppose at this point I should mention that I read this book in a single sitting, something I almost never do. (I don’t mind reading books in a single day, but I prefer to get up, take a break, and distract myself with something else for a while.) I brought it with me to the eye clinic, but because I’m an idiot, I showed up at 1:40 instead of 3:40, when my appointment was actually scheduled. So I had two hours to kill in the waiting room instead of, say, twenty minutes (and then it was another hour after that before I actually saw a doctor, although I was done the book by then). So I buried my nose in Daughter of Smoke and Bone with the kind of intense concentration one can only acquire when one wishes to block out the depressing hush of the hospital waiting room. And I ripped through it, and enjoyed it.
The book engages in some interesting contortions as the story evolves. From a simple tale about Karou’s attempts to balance her human life with her role as an errand-runner for Brimstone, the story expands to encompass an all-out war between angels and demons. As Karou gleans more information about the conflict in Eretz, she also gets closer to the truth of her own origins, which are shrouded in mystery for her. She meets Akiva, an angel on the cusp of turning renegade, and their reunion proves most interesting indeed.
Despite these changes in tone and pace, I found myself enjoying each of these new parts of the book in turn. I loved meeting Brimstone and Issa and the others for the first time. I enjoyed seeing the parallels between Karou’s interaction with her family and her arm’s length interactions with her friends. She is a very careful woman, one who knows from experience as well as story that she should not reveal too much. Beneath this veneer of wisdom, however, lurks the self-centred impatience of a teenager, as demonstrated by her newfound pleasure with wishing itching.
After Karou gets cut off from Brimstone, the focus on the mystery of her origins intensifies. Until then, Karou knew almost nothing about the wider supernatural world of Elsewhere. She had no idea whether Brimstone was unique or part of a supernatural species. He never answered such questions, thrusting her instead into an almost-but-not-quite normal human existence. And while she has the option to embrace that existence totally after her access to Brimstone’s shop is cut off, she chooses instead to pursue a dangerous path towards self-discovery.
Because she’s, you know, a capable protagonist in her own right who doesn’t need to wait around for her boyfriend/love interest/plot-driving male companion. There are no extended training montages to showcase Karou’s natural skills. There are no lengthy conversations about how Karou is “different” or “special” and therefore destined to be the one to change everything. No, she goes off to Marrakesh, makes a deal with a twisted Fallen angel, and then goes on a rampage to collect wishes.
The only squicky part of Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the budding romance between Akiva and Karou. Now, he is a fifty-year-old seraphim, and she is a seventeen-year-old human. So there is an age gap there. But it’s cool because of the truth behind Karou’s existence (without spoiling it, she is special to Akiva and Brimstone and other individuals, but she isn’t special in the sense of being a “chosen one”, which is a relief). Indeed, Karou’s existence is inextricably tied to something that gives Brimstone’s people an edge in the angel/demon war—an edge that just barely keeps them from capitulating. It’s this edge that Akiva was sent to eliminate by cutting off Brimstone’s shop from the human world, and in so doing, he finds Karou and recognizes in her something familiar.
I’m ambivalent about the middle part of the book, in which Taylor flashes back to life before Karou and events leading up to her adoption by Brimstone. In revealing the details of life for the chimerae, she almost makes them seem … pedestrian. Some of that spark of magic that comes from being otherworldly and different fades as one realizes that the chimerae and seraphim are, actually, just as flawed as human beings—just with slightly different technologies for waging war and body plans.
Indeed, it’s not entirely clear what effects, if any, the war in Eretz has on the human world. I don’t know if that’s something explored in later books. Here, though, it seems like the war is nearly entirely self-contained. Aside from Brimstone’s interaction with procurers of teeth and the incursion of Akiva and his two angel brethren to mark and destroy Brimstone’s portals, it sounds like the seraphim and chimerae both give Earth a wide berth. Again, this is a refreshing change from YA fantasy that places the fate of humanity and the Earth in the hands of our protagonist, who is usually squaring off against a sinister and evil antagonist that might or might not have once been a trusted friend.
Rather, the conflict in Daughter of Smoke and Bone is not of Karou’s making, but she must decide whether or not to join up. (Spoiler: guess what she chooses?) And thanks to past events and her own present choices, she is now in a special position … but whether anything will come of that, whether she and Akiva can succeed, is up in the air. (Literally. The story ends with them ascending into a portal in the air.)
Daughter of Smoke and Bone is an entertaining and refreshing voice in young adult fantasy. Karou is a capable protagonist whose choices drive the plot. The world Taylor creates enchants the fantasy fan in me, and I definitely want to learn more about it. While there is a sappy romance subplot, Taylor manages to integrate it into the overall story in such a way that it doesn’t feel bolted-on; it is, in fact, rather necessary. If the other two volumes of this trilogy can deliver the same quality of storytelling, then I’m looking forward to them indeed.
The only part of this book that truly aggravated me was the end. Once again (and I can say this without spoiling it, because I won't reveal any detailThe only part of this book that truly aggravated me was the end. Once again (and I can say this without spoiling it, because I won't reveal any details), Richard manages to avoid the consequences of the tragedy introduced during the rising action. Maybe I'm just sick. Maybe it's wrong of me to want characters to suffer. But this guy's luck is incredible.
The redeeming aspect of the end is that there are sort of consequences (the chimes), but they won't make an appearance until the next book. I guess that's okay. But this reveals Goodkind's heavyhanded writing style that mars the previous books.
I must say that from a philosophical standpoint, the books are actually getting easier to stomach, not worse. Almost everything I read about them told me to expect the opposite. Instead, the amount of exposition is now tolerable. Maybe it's because Richard's character has evolved to the point that the philosophical arguments Goodkind is trying to espouse actually make sense from Richard's perspective. He has the whole "burdened hero" motif. Or perhaps I'm just too naive (or maybe too jaded) to actually pay attention enough to pick out the philosophy Goodkind is apparently attempting to impress upon his readers.
Compared to the last book, however, this book is rather slow. It reminds me of The Stone of Tears, although I'll admit that this one has more action in it.
Goodkind struggles with portraying all of his characters and putting them in interesting situations. Some authors pull this off well (i.e., George R.R. Martin). Others, like Goodkind, are very good at creating a lot of characters and giving them important roles in certain parts of the story, but then later they fade into the background. This is also noticeable in the next book when it comes to Verna and Warren. This is a shame, because many of those characters are interesting. Some of them get less page time than the villains. The books are already rather long, but maybe a different editing approach would have allowed our favourite recurring characters some more time to shine....more
One of the nice things about working in a school is that I can nick books from the English cupboard, bring them home for a day, or a week, or most ofOne of the nice things about working in a school is that I can nick books from the English cupboard, bring them home for a day, or a week, or most of the year, and quietly return them without anyone complaining. It’s a perk that almost makes those times you accidentally stand under the bell worth it.... Anyway, earlier this year I was reaching for short stories to show my sixth form students, and it occurred to me that “A Sound of Thunder” is a damn fine short story, both in a technical and a literary sense. I found copies of this anthology, which includes “A Sound of Thunder”, and away we went. Long after we were finished with Bradbury, I kept my copy of the book, intended to read the rest of the stories “soon”. Now it’s almost the end of the school year—but better late than never!
The Golden Apples of the Sun is an old collection, older than I am. It showcases the diversity as well as the sameness of Bradbury’s writing. I think of him (and a lot of people, I think, would agree) as a science-fiction author. Yet many of the stories here aren’t overtly science fiction. There are a few I can’t quite puzzle out, and a few that are definitely science fiction, but not in the sense that we conceive of science fiction these days. Bradbury is a master of that space within the science-fiction experience where the writer exaggerates one or two scientific or technological phenomena as a tool for social commentary (“The Meadow” and “The Garbage Collector” are both good examples of this.) In contrast to the rockets and blasters and robots that pervaded Golden Age SF, Bradbury focuses on the everyday.
There is a strong, almost melancholy sense of loss to most of these stories. People are losing their homes, their livelihoods, their dignity. In “The Fog Horn”, the monster has lost its potential mate again after waiting millions of years. The eponymous “April Witch” is torn between her heritage and her love for a mortal, a choice she tries to avoid in vain. In “The Great Wide World Over There”, Cora loses her temporary connection with the rest of the world when her nephew leaves after writing letters for her but not actually teaching her to read or write. And, of course, the protagonists of “A Sound of Thunder” lose their present.
On a larger scale, Bradbury seems rather ambivalent about how technology is transforming society. “The Pedestrian”, “The Flying Machine”, “The Meadow”, and “The Garbage Collector” all depict slightly-exaggerated ideas about the future that will be familiar to anyone who has read Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury is obviously concerned about the convergence of communications technology and nuclear capability. We are simultaneously able to talk faster and make war faster; and everyone knows how easy it is to get into a heated argument and then do something one regrets. So, these stories display a healthy scepticism for the benefits of better phones, more TV, etc. And the nuclear apocalypse that was such a threat following World War II looms over the backdrop of some of the later stories.
I don’t mean to give the impression that this is a downer book. Far from it: I think this collection celebrates a lot of the strongest ties that bind our society. It’s an ecomium of family and friendship, of connection to our past and the importance of always looking towards the future. Though there is a deep foreboding in some of these stories, it’s only there because of Bradbury’s fears about what the mechanization of the world does to these ties. Bradbury wants balance; the trouble is, he doesn’t seem sure what that balance might be or how it might even be achieved (let alone maintained). Thus, while this isn’t a downer book, it isn’t necessarily optimistic about human capacity for moderation. Whatever else we might be, we are an eager species when it comes to what we perceive as “progress”.
The nice thing about this being a slim anthology volume is that I can’t really feel bad about recommending it. Regardless of past experience with Bradbury, you will probably find something interesting in The Golden Apples of the Sun. The stories are all short enough to read in a single, brief sitting—but they are deep enough that even the shortest provides enough meaning to spend an afternoon with. It’s a nice snapshot of the early part of Bradbury’s fiction, and it’s an interesting exposure to an attitude towards writing SF that is, if not as cynical as some of the cyberpunk that would come much later, then just as apprehensive about the developments it sees happening.
My first fantasy experience, and what sparked my love of fantasy, was The Belgariad by David Eddings. Since I've matured (that was in grade seven), I'My first fantasy experience, and what sparked my love of fantasy, was The Belgariad by David Eddings. Since I've matured (that was in grade seven), I've come to realize that much of epic fantasy is, in fact, fairly formula-dry stuff. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Most of Wizard's First Rule is predictable if you are familiar with the genre. In the first part of the book, combined with a terrible amount of dialogue exposition, this is almost unbearable. It gets better toward the end though. By that time, the exposition decreases, replaced by rather clumsy foreshadowing.
Much of the story is fairly enjoyable, if you do recognize that it is ploddingly predictable and instead focus on having fun. The main character, Richard Cypher, is an idiot. I love it when the main character is a victim of Plot Induced Stupidity; this seems to happen to Richard every second chapter in one form or another. I love this, almost as much as I love a main character who is competent. His powers as a the Seeker, this series' "Chosen One" champion, are inimical to his own psyche and even limit themselves based on his convictions. This seems to be part of Goodkind's message throughout the novel, which is that tools (i.e., magic) are neither inherently good nor bad. People use them for good or bad ends.
Once again, the gods who created this poor, forsaken universe had the sheer malevolence to create an artifact (in this case, the three boxes of Orden) that could do one of three things to the person who opened them: a) Give them power over everything in the universe b) Kill them or c) Destroy the entire universe. When will gods learn that leaving these sorts of things around is incredibly stupid?
I read up on Goodkind before I started reading this book--my coworker has been rereading them over the summer, and she convinced me to try them, even though I'm sure I had passed them up for some reason or another. The later books, apparently, are merely thinly-veiled treatises on Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Inklings of such viewpoints are present in this book. They don't interfere too much with the plot--they certainly guide Richard's actions, but overall his actions are pretty much consistent with the "save the world" mentality that seems to come over those determined to save the world. The worst manifestation of philosophical dogma comes with much of the dialogue, especially in the first part of the novel.
Goodkind claims not to be a fantasy author, that he just uses fantasy to tell tales of humanity. Well guess what? That makes you a frelling fantasy author! And most fantasy authors manage to cloak their philosophical viewpoints better--they show, not tell through lots of dialogue.
I may seem harsh toward the end of this review. Honestly, Wizard's First Rule is a good book. If you like fantasy, you would probably enjoy it. If you like fantasy that acts as a vehicle for more profound themes, then you'd probably read into this book as much as Goodkinds wants--whether you disagree with his viewpoint or not is totally up to you. It won't change the fact that this is not an excellent book--excellent books are good regardless of whether or not you agree with their philosophy....more
Britain had some whack ideas. Remember that time they colonized an entire continent with convicts? That was whack.
Gould’s Book of Fish is the epistolaBritain had some whack ideas. Remember that time they colonized an entire continent with convicts? That was whack.
Gould’s Book of Fish is the epistolary adventure of William Gould, a convict imprisoned on Sarah Island. Somewhere along the way he picked up enough painting skills to become an artist, and he starts painting fish for the island’s science-and-status–obsessed Surgeon instead of working on the chain gang.
I enjoy books (The Luminaries comes to mind) set in this frontier period of the colonization of Australia and New Zealand. Like The Luminaries, this book has a somewhat pretentious structure and style as Flanagan attempts to use Billy Gould to plumb the depths of human suffering and soul-searching. Each chapter is headlined by a particular fish from this book that Gould is working on, and the fish becomes a metaphor for the philosophical ramblings of that instalment in Gould’s life.
Basically this book is an account of Gould’s suffering on Sarah Island, and of the various strange and nonsensical happenings that he witnesses there. Since we’re being told this all from Gould’s perspective, there are some serious unreliable narrator issues here. So it’s not possible to take the events of the story at face value, to say, “this happened,” and use that certainty as the metric by which we can judge Gould’s rambling.
Case in point: the characters of this book aren’t so much people as they are examples of types of excess that afflict the human experience. (This is confirmed, in the most postmodern of ways, by the “afterword” note.) Each character is a facet of Gould’s madness—a madness that might have been exacerbated by his imprisonment but maybe has lurked there all along, lurks beneath all of us.
Two things that I loved about this book.
Firstly, Gould’s narrative voice is rich. It’s one thing to write a book set in a historical period and another thing to write with the voice of someone from that period. Through diction, sentence structure, and punctuation, Flanagan makes Gould’s voice come alive. This makes the book entertaining despite the darkness inherent in Gould’s experiences.
Secondly, just when you think you’ve seen all Flanagan has to offer, he manages to change things up and deliver an even crazier situation. He certainly has imagination, and it shows on every page here. This is a very creative book, and that made it more enjoyable.
So what stops me from singing more than dull praises? Is it the weird ending? The bizarre use of a frame story that Flanagan never returns to (except with one passing reference)? Or the constant parade of deaths, either real or metaphorical, without much in the way of happiness? Gould’s is a very Hobbesian view, mixed in with a certain amount of postmodern irony. Humans are just other animals, full of natural and atavistic urges. We pretend we suppress those urges, but that’s a lie. And that’s apparently the source of our unhappiness.
This is a book that tries to be deep, and I suppose if you are willing to spend the time to study and analyze and prod it, you’ll find those depths. Maybe I’m just growing impatient in my old age. Maybe I’m losing my enjoyment of subtext. Whatever the reason, Gould’s Book of Fish was an adequate way to spend my time. But neither Gould’s voice nor Flanagan’s capacity for storytelling surprises could quite compensate for the almost desultory atmosphere that pervades the text. Maybe this will be the intensely philosophical, brooding text that you have been waiting for—I can’t discount that possibility. It just didn’t speak to me. I know this because I’m not particularly proud of the quality of this review. I could have spent more time talking more deeply about the philosophical underpinnings of this book. I just don’t care enough about it to do so. I’m going to go buy tea now instead.
Oh, I do enjoy the conceit of the English country novel. It’s second only to the Agatha Christie country house detective. In these stories, it’s not tOh, I do enjoy the conceit of the English country novel. It’s second only to the Agatha Christie country house detective. In these stories, it’s not the policework or even the mystery that matters so much as the effect of the crimes on the collective psyche of the town in which they take place. Lafferton, the setting of The Various Haunts of Men is a cathedral town. Simon Serrailler describes it as "a jumped up market town", just big enough that not everyone knows everyone else, but the degrees of separation must be pretty close. It’s the kind of community that would be shocked by a murder. Except a murder isn’t what they get here: instead, three women (and a man, though his disappearance apparently isn’t noticed) go missing over the span of several weeks. The police aren’t even certain foul play is involved until very far into the book—but thanks to our privileged position, we know we’re dealing with a serial killer obsessed with conducting post mortems.
Susan Hill balances the relationships of Lafferton’s inhabitants with monologues and meditations by the serial killer. As a result, we get to know the antagonist well. She exposes the various traumas and events that triggered his latent urges. Gradually, she connects the dots until his identity is obvious. Whether one guesses the killer’s identity before its revelation or not, the actual identity is a betrayal of sorts. But it’s nothing next to the final twist in the plot.
One question I ponder whenever I’m reading a mystery novel is whether a good mystery must leave enough clues for the reader to solve it, if they are able. I would say no; although no longer my favourites, Sherlock Holmes has always held a special place in my heart—and, let’s face it, the stories are still popular and captivating—despite the fact that in almost every story, Holmes’ deductions rely on obscure clues that only he has noticed and connected. Yet I do enjoy books where it is at least theoretically possible for the reader to solve the murder, even if I don’t usually manage to do so. I happened to uncover the killer in this book before Hill revealed it, and I don’t consider that a flaw in the book’s design, though I am rather surprised by myself.
As for the big twist, which involves the protagonist, Freya Graffham, I saw that coming as well (albeit not as early as I saw the killer’s identity). I hoped I was wrong, and briefly following the events, I thought Hill might have faked me out. In the end, though, she indeed carried through. It’s a decision that no doubt alienates just as many readers as it captivates. Good. Don’t do anything by halves.
These are all just party tricks, though. The substance of The Various Haunts of Men is Hill’s rich portrayal of the relationships between the main and minor characters. She builds up a network of friends and acquaintances of each of the victims. Everyone seems to know Cat Deerbon, even if she isn’t their GP, and her budding concern over the rise of unregulated "complementary therapists" proves to be a major plot point. Hence, while someone like Karin McCafferty isn’t directly related to the mystery part of the novel, her involvement is an opportunity for Hill to demonstrate how Cat navigates the difficult waters of doctor-patient counsel. I found this part of the book very interesting, and it’s one of the reasons I got hooked.
Freya’s unrequited love for Simon was less interesting. I felt very sorry for Freya, because she is head-over-heels, and I couldn’t help but think that, inevitably, Simon was going to end up hurting her. However, this aspect of the book is very one-sided. For a novel that is apparently the first in Simon’s series, he is just barely a main character, and the narrator certainly keeps Simon’s cards close to his chest. Most of what we know about Simon comes instead from what others, particularly his sister, divulge about him to Freya.
This penchant for telling rather than showing is perhaps the flaw to The Various Haunts of Men that haunts me. Hill proves herself skilled in crafting intricate webs of characters and circumstance, creating a potent mystery that sticks with the reader. Her descriptions leave something to be desired, sometimes, and she can go overboard with the exposition when her narrator gets on a roll. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to overlook this because of the style of the book, in which such lengthy depictions only contribute further to the unhurried, small town atmosphere that Hill is trying to create.
This is not a thriller, and while it involves murders, it is barely even a murder mystery to the characters within the story. For them it is simply a case of missing persons, with the reality that there is a serial killer among them only revealed very close to the end. From the reader’s better-informed perspective, though, this only heightens the tension. As the investigation becomes more complex, the killer starts to panic, to forget his rules that were supposed to set him apart from killers past. It’s interesting watching the killer unravel. Meanwhile, the other characters show themselves committed to their causes—whether it’s finding the killer or protecting innocents from being exploited by "psychic surgeons" and other quacks.
The Various Haunts of Men is an entertaining and enthralling book. Hill captures the charm of the stereotypical small English town and then plunges it into the dark abyss of the tortured human psyche. It’s reassuring and disturbing at the same time, with warm and sympathetic characters. In short, it’s exactly what I want in a nice and juicy mystery.
**spoiler alert** The world of The Giver, Jonas' world, is one without sunlight, without colour, without anger or love or indeed any strong feelings a**spoiler alert** The world of The Giver, Jonas' world, is one without sunlight, without colour, without anger or love or indeed any strong feelings at all. Sexual urges are a suppressed by a daily pill. Jobs are assigned by the community's Council of Elders. The only one who remembers—whose job is, in fact, to remember—what life was like before humanity went to "Sameness" is the Receiver of Memory. And Jonas is the lucky new recruit for the job.
As a reader of hardcore fantasy, I noticed that Jonas' relationship with the Giver is as an apprentice's relationship to a wizard. The apprentice often does things he's not supposed to do, and as he learns, he begins to question the world around him, often with the encouragement of the wizard. Likewise, the Receiver's position in the community is as a sort of shaman, offering counsel based on what wisdom the "spirits," the memories he holds, can give him.
That's the key to the world in which Jonas lives. Despite their retention of advanced technology, people have chosen to live in a too-stable society, have deliberately engineered their world and themselves so as to ensure that society remains stable and "same" for as long as possible. The mentor/apprentice relationship of the Giver and Jonas exists for the benefit of the reader, so we can understand why this world is an undesirable one. And Lowry fleshes out this world in a subtle way, through Jonas' interactions with his friends and family, as well as a little exposition here and there. The result is a dual-layered story that makes The Giver young adult fiction adults can still enjoy. I saw "release" for the euphemism for euthanasia that it was long before Jonas learns about it, but one doesn't have to be quick to connect the subtextual dots to get something out of this book. I suppose that's why it deserves all these awards and whatnot. It makes kids think. I can go for that.
The Giver earns high marks for its depiction of a utopia. Almost from the first page, I was stuck in a cringing expression as every sentence went against the very core of my being, went against my ideas of what it means to be free, to be an individual, and to be happy. Upon closer scrutiny, her society isn't as seamlessly functional as Lowry tries to make it, but she still deserves praise. It was truly terrifying and a strong reminder of why I would never want to live in a perfect world.
But I can't shake the feeling that The Giver is missing something, something essential for me to rave about a book's quality. Was it the fact that Lowry doesn't explain why everyone chose to go to "Sameness"? Plenty of post-apocalyptic fiction never bothers to explain How We Got Here. Well, what about the lack of any real conflict until the end of the book? But that's part of the utopian vision Lowry's examining. No, it's the ending that bothers me. And here's why.
Utopian fiction often consists of an act by the rebellious protagonist designed to change society or at least make people "realize" that life can be different. Still, the outcome of the act can be ambiguous, with society remaining unchanged and the protagonist often defeated—the idea being that the author's intention is to provoke thought in the reader. (The former, "happier" approach seems more prevalent in movies. I think the studios think it sells more.)
In The Giver, Jonas succeeds in his rebellious act. We never really learn if it has the effect on his community that he hopes it will. (The fact that we don't learn what happens to Jonas doesn't bother me at all.) My issue, however, is that I had a "So what?" moment during the ending, because Jonas appears to be doing exactly what the previous, failed Receiver trainee did: leaving the community to deal with its memories itself. Granted, Jonas is going fugitive instead of euthanizing himself, but the goal is the same. After spending so much time explaining how the previous Receiver trainee's actions didn't have much of an impact, I was underwhelmed that Lowry's master plan was "more of the same, try it again."
With worthy themes and an interesting look at utopia, The Giver deserves some of its constant praise. Nevertheless, there's a weakness in its final act that undermines the book's narrative. Yes, The Giver is a powerful reminder of how much we like our sunshine. But it also makes me hope that if you ever have the chance to take down a utopian society, you come up with a better plan than Jonas does. The Giver sets the stage but is always grasping at ideas that seem beyond its reach or ability to convey. This is good utopian literature, but there is much better utopian literature, for kids and adults alike....more
I really am not an adventurous person. Moving to England—having never lived on my own before—aside, I’m not the sort of person who enjoys embarking onI really am not an adventurous person. Moving to England—having never lived on my own before—aside, I’m not the sort of person who enjoys embarking on “expeditions”. I took a trip up to Edinburgh back in October, and that was adventurous enough for me for a few months. These days, a train to Norwich is about as much adventure as I can muster. I read National Geographic and watch the Discovery Channel and soak up all these stories of adventure and exploration vicariously—but I cannot imagine actually doing such things myself. I can’t imagine journeying to Antarctica, struggling to survive in a land of endless night and blinding snow … so reading about the plight of Sym Wates was a mixture of shock and awesome.
The White Darkness fulfilled a hunger in me I wasn’t even aware I had. Thanks to the lucrative Twilight and Hunger Games series, it seems like every other young adult novel is some type of escapist, fantasy or science fiction story. I’m the last person who would complain about this. But it’s nice to have an example of a novel that is escapist and fantasy without actually being escapist or fantasy. That is to say, everything in The White Darkness is possible (if slightly implausible). At the same time, it is in the vein of escapism, and it has elements of a fantasy in the way it allows imagination to take over.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s writing is also amazing. With her simple but elegant descriptions, she manages to create the voice of a fourteen-year-old girl who is isolated but not particularly depressed. McCaughrean’s diction and description communicate a sense of remove from the surrounding world. Sym is bookish and academically inclined; she has friends but is not among the fastest-moving of them. She is a romantic who lives so much in her head that a romantic is about all she can be. Above all else, Sym is interested in polar exploration—so much so that she hears the voice of the late Lawrence “Titus” Oates in her head.
Sym joins her honourary “Uncle” Victor in a trip to Paris. Her mother can’t join them at the last moment—her passport mysteriously goes missing—so they go to Paris alone. Then—improbably, unlikely, bizarrely—this short trip away from home turns into an expedition to Antarctica, the one place in the world Sym would love to visit. As far away from home, friends, and family as Sym could possibly be, she finds herself among a group of strangers at the edge of the world—and her uncle might just be the most strange of them all.
From the beginning, McCaughrean insinuates something untoward about Victor’s relationship with Sym. It’s both delicious and unsettling at the same time, because we experience everything from Sym’s perspective of innocence and naivety. Mom can’t come—no passport. Victor eats the SIM card in their mobile phone as a “joke”. He takes Sym shopping for over-priced clothes that make her look more grown-up. As the evidence mounts, McCaughrean lets us draw our own conclusions about what Victor plans to do on this trip to Paris. Is he kidnapping Sym? Is he going to abuse her? Will she manage to figure it out and escape? But at each turn, McCaughrean twists away from the obvious answer.
It turns out that Victor’s designs on Sym are quite different from the more ordinary tale of sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend. No, though Victor is still guilty of abusing Sym, it’s an abuse that functions on a much more sophisticated level, something that has stretched back far into the past—beyond Sym’s birth, even, to his friendship with her late father. Their unannounced trip to Antarctica is the culmination of Victor’s plans—his schemes, if you will—the confirmation of the conspiracy theory that has captured his mind.
I love books where some of the most bizarre elements, the elements that you think have to be fictional because they are so outrageous—or just so specific, so convincingly told that they have to be lies—turn out to be the truth. Such is the case with the particularly nineteenth-century flight of fancy that powers the plot of The White Darkness. McCaughrean draws on names, like John Cleeves Symmes, that are probably obscure to the average reader, but are real enough to those with the right interests. She uses real historical people, places, and events to create a backstory, and from there she creates a plot that is fictional—both for us and, sadly, for Sym and her uncle.
As everything comes crashing down around Sym—both her faith in her uncle and her own certainty in the order of her world—she finds a sudden need to develop agency. Indeed, the first part of the book suffers only in that Sym is a passive protagonist. She just goes along trustingly with Victor, never gainsaying him, never wondering if she shouldn’t find a way to contact her mother. This is frustrating, and I suppose McCaughrean wants it to be that way so that we feel a growing sense of dread as we contemplate what Victor has in store for Sym. Nevertheless, the book doesn’t really come into its own until it lets Sym start acting instead of reacting.
From that point, The White Darkness turns into a story of survival. Though not my favourite genre, this transition worked for me because of the faith I had built up in Sym, and my need to see Victor laid low. McCaughrean delivers an ending that is satisfactory, albeit somewhat succinct for my tastes. Sym undergoes a crisis both physical and mental, enduring a level of deprivation that I doubt I would ever be able to tolerate.
It’s possible her imaginary Oates is what helps her through. Oates’ voice runs throughout The White Darkness like an authorial counterpoint, commenting upon events and providing a subconscious voice with which Sym can debate. Oates is funny and charming, warm and prone to reminiscing without being immodest. He is probably the type of adventurer Sym imagines herself being, if she were a man and alive at the turn of the twentieth century…. As it is, Oates becomes the only crutch she can lean on as everything else falls to pieces around her. It’s an interesting, very narrative way of externalizing the ways that people process emotional trauma and abuse.
The White Darkness doesn’t have zombies, or vampires, or giants or werewolves or angels. It doesn’t have a smooth-talking wizard, a mysterious goblin king, or even a Jesus allegory lion. It’s a skilled, highly satisfying combination of a (sadly) ordinary story of obsession and abuse coiled around the extraordinary tale of exploration, survival, and a quest for something that could never be.
I read this on a train back to where I’m living in England from a trip up to Scotland for a holiday. It didn’t take me long to read, and I can see nowI read this on a train back to where I’m living in England from a trip up to Scotland for a holiday. It didn’t take me long to read, and I can see now why it is so relentlessly studied in schools. The story itself almost seems designed not to be imposing, and the physical volume is much the same. The way my copy—a Longman edition for students, with extra notes and questions for consideration—was bound, as a slick hardcover built to withstand years of desks and bags and storage cupboards and everything else in between, with the sans-serif font staring out at me, definitely makes it even less imposing. Like so many classics, Of Mice and Men has become a book that can be packaged and consumed—classics meet mass culture.
Of Mice and Men has a simple style but should not be taken as a simple book. It’s certainly worthy of being regarded as a good novel, for despite Steinbeck’s adherence to clear, descriptive prose and plenty of dialect-infused dialogue, there is a very serious, thoughtful subtext here. There are enough layers here for one to peel it very thoroughly over several readings. This style is not one that appeals to me that much, but Steinbeck demonstrates how, my own tastes aside, it remains as vibrant and viable as any other.
The core of the novel is the relationship between the two main characters, George and Lennie. George is small, clever, and has dreams for the future. Lennie is big, too strong for his own good, and “simple-minded”. Theirs is a relationship that vexes many other characters: why does George bother sticking up for, and looking out for, Lennie? Steinbeck never explicitly addresses this, though he comes close, hinting that without Lennie, George would truly be alone and would staunch that loneliness with the same remedies as the rest of the farm labourers—booze and women. George needs Lennie to keep the dream of the future—their own plot of land—alive. Without someone else to work towards this goal, George would lapse into easier but emptier ways.
The emptiness of that era, or at least that part of society in that era, pervades the story. Steinbeck’s sparse writing lends itself well to creating a sense of isolation on this farm. The world has stopped; progress has come to a standstill. To these men there is only the job: six days on and one day off, getting paid so they can spend it at the end of the week, moving on when it is time to find a new employer. It’s a dull cycle, and though we may gripe at our 9-to-5, we would be hard-pressed to say that we are worse off, with our Internet, mobile phones, libraries, and parks.
I can only fault Steinbeck for not being as loaquacious and expansive as I would like. There’s nothing stopping him from expanding his narrative. As it stands, Of Mice and Men’s story suffers from the kind of aimless, “and then this happened” storytelling that lesser writers make intolerable. It works here, thanks to Steinbeck’s other stylistic choices, but it’s not my favourite type of storytelling. And I know one can achieve effects similar to Steinbeck but with purpler prose—Of Mice and Men reminds me of John Irving’s works, particularly The Cider House Rules.
So I can see why Of Mice and Men has ruled the charts for so long. Like many classics, it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me personally—I think it’s a good novel, but it’s not one of my classics. Its brevity and simplicity mean, however, that reading it is not a chore. For that reason alone, this is probably a good novel to put on your list so you can cross it off and say, “Yeah, I’ve read that.” It’s another chapter in the cultural consciousness. And you never know … it might mean a lot to you.