Here we are, another calendrical switchover and a new year. This past year was a big year for me, mainly due to personal reasons, but also in my world as a reader.
Believe it or not, I actually cleared out and sorted my library for the first time in years. Perhaps even more than a decade, I would wager. This was necessitated by needing to move the “library” to a new floor, and realising that the library would no longer have its own contained area–not to mention that a substantial portion of the books in it were not books I wanted to read again. Sure, they were books that had neat covers, or books that I might want to cite someday as an example of something–some I had even purchased for that exact purpose. But as the years have gone on, and I hadn’t made much headway in that realm, I figured it was time to move on.
It’s difficult to give up some books, and it’s amazing how emotional ties form to bundles of inked-up paper held together with glue. I had to decide whether I wanted to keep one of the books from my teenage years that helped me get through, by an author that has long since disappeared, even though it was poorly written and unlikely to give anyone else any joy. I still remember the first few “adult” books I read, the science fiction and fantasy novels my dad passed on to me when he realised I was running through children’s books a little too quickly and wanted more–especially more dragons.
The world of speculative fiction is much broader than it was back then, probably about fifteen years ago. I remember walking in to bookstores, being wowed by so many paperback books with amazing covers, and then trying to decide which volume to buy after saving up money for months and months. At that time, libraries only carried popular books in the science fiction and fantasy section, so anything that didn’t sell sell sell (like most mid-list SF books) quickly disappeared. I missed reading some popular authors in my quest to find gems, which I’m happy to say that sometimes I did. In retrospect, the stores were also quite small; what seemed like an overwhelming abundance on 4-6 shelves in one case (two if it was a big store!) now seems like a dearth in comparison to the big box booksellers who have massive shelving units floor to ceiling that would practically outline a large room.
Because of those limitations and the fact that young people don’t really have steady income (I never had an allowance with any regularity), books were like gold to me. Probably even more valuable than gold to be honest. So some of those books that I purchased from way back then, back when paperbacks were less than half the price they are now, while not books I want to reread, they are books that I have trouble parting with. And in fact, most of my books I still treat that way no matter how much I may have disliked them in the past. A book is a book.
Or at least it was. Who knows? Perhaps I can make the switch to e-readers in the next few years. I would miss the rasp of paper, the scent of a new book, and the hefty feeling in my hands of a comforting tome. But I think I would also enjoy not having to lug around boxes upon boxes of books in physical form when it comes down to it. Not yet, but some day. Some day when e-readers are more comfortable to use and to hold, and hopefully, become more affordable.
Now I have the added concern of whether or not my soon-to-be child would want to read any of these books. What if I give away or sell something that he’d love? Of course, this begs the question of whether any child of mine would actually like SF… Though given that my husband already read a full Robert J. Sawyer novel to the baby (Calculating God–review to come soon since I got to listen in), he’s certainly got a decent head start.
In the meantime, I am proud to say that I managed to start severing at least some of those emotional ties so that I have enough room to add some new ones, if I want to. That is, I emptied the library of at least 10 boxes worth of books. And it means I can at least look around for some new books to put in those shelves… for a little while, at least.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: contemporary fantasy, dragons, Reviews, robin mckinley, young adult
Most readers know Robin McKinley best for book-length fairy tale retellings and the Damar novels, which are a more traditional type of heroic fantasy. More recently she ventured into modern vampire fiction with Sunshine (2003), followed by a contemporary fantasy about a boy with the dilemma of illegally raising a dragon hatchling in Dragonhaven (2007). Numerous other authors have taken this basic plot idea for a ride: see also the works of Anne McCaffrey, Jane Yolen, and Mercedes Lackey for examples. This piqued my curiosity, and I wanted to see how McKinley would deal with the story of a boy and his dragon.
Set in an alternate contemporaneous United States, the world has always had dragons and they are still around, though they are limited to nature preserves with enforced borders. Scientists debate what a “real” dragon is, and generally believe that since no one has seen the “real” dragons, they may even be extinct; park rangers know differently even if they rarely ever see one. Then Jake happens upon a dying mother dragon whose last surviving hatchling will die without his assistance. Of course, he takes in the dragon despite the questionable legality of the situation (one is neither allowed to kill or to directly save the lives of dragons in this world). And to make matters worse, the mother dragon killed a human in her own defence.
Jake and Lois’ shared growth is written as a retrospective from a twenty-something Jake’s point of view in 1st person narrative. Since the prose tends towards the frenetic, this didn’t really jive with me as the character’s voice; it reminded me more of a ten year old on a sugar rush:
I was tired, and hungry myself, and my head really hurt, and I was all wound up about what had happened, and about the fact that I had landed myself with an orphan dragonlet that I hadn’t a clue how to take care of, and how it was all going to be my fault when it died and I already felt as if everything that had happened was my fault–even though I knew that was stupid–and when it died too I’d never forgive myself and go crazy or something (52).
Whew–that’s enough to take the gusto out of the rest of my night. Good thing I wasn’t reading this one aloud to someone! Because of the discordant narrative style and consistent run-on sentences with stumble-over-the-next-word-to-get-there-fast-enough rhythm, I admit it took me a while to get into this book. Normally I’m able to relax into Robin McKinley’s prose almost immediately, but this story took a little time. I also wondered if the author’s own voice outweighed the character’s voice at times, given the similarity of flow McKinley has when blogging.
If you’re a stickler for logic there are a couple things that might cause hang-ups for you. First up: the non-interference clause preventing people working in Smokehill National Park, the US dragon preserve, from healing/helping dragons even though there are “lesser” dragons being cared for in a zoo setting. The contradiction here just makes my head hurt. Then there’s the debate about what a “real” dragon is, the general taxonomic politics, and how problematic this seems to be for the park. Taxonomy is one big debate about categories, and academics eat it up with a smile–look at the human species’ fossil record alone and you’ll realise we can’t manage anything certain for a relatively well-studied population. I just can’t believe the lack of research done on dragons even with political interference and controversy.
However, if you can suspend enough disbelief and want a story that closely follows character development and discovery of New Things (ie, dragons, which I might add are done believably) then you will really enjoy Dragonhaven. The journey is a slow one, but the moments that forward the plot itself are worth seeking out. Five years after the dragon discovery Jake writes an “epilogue”, and it includes the majority of character development and plot movement in the novel, but takes 288 pages to get there. Earlier parts of the novel could have benefited from some judicious editing, but on the other hand, the journey was worthwhile.
Dragonhaven is not the best book it could have been, but it was good nonetheless. It definitely has a coming-of-age feel to it, and McKinley put an interesting spin on the boy & dragon plot by giving it a modern and somewhat more political setting, even if the politics languished in the background. In the end, Robin McKinley has some interesting things to say about growing up, bridging understanding, the involvement of politics in knowledge production, assumed obligations, and sacrifice. For those messages, Dragonhaven is definitely a worthwhile read.
McKinley, Robin. Dragonhaven. New York: Ace Books, 2007. 338 pages. $8.99 (Canadian), paperback.
After much delay, I finally gave in and made the jump to WordPress.com. So far I’m pretty pleased, since it will save me a lot of administrative time in some respects and I can put that energy into more reviews. This pleases me, since I like writing reviews that people like reading, whereas I’m not a fan of sitting and deleting/moderating spam for 3 hours a day (which is relatively thankless).
For those of you wondering, I’m now toddling along fully encasing and nourishing another human life, which is a pretty cool experience to say the least. I expect that sometime in mid-January said human life will emerge and generally ensue in all sorts of new adventures.
I might also start experimenting on here with some shorter summary reviews, since I’ve been able to read more than post… This doesn’t mean my longer-winded reviews won’t happen, eventually they’ll be along. Keep in mind also that things are still going to be shifting around here for the next while, so if the theme suddenly explodes… well, just don’t be too surprised is all!
And please, please, if I am not linking to you at the moment and you think you fit in well with the other link-ups I’ve made, please let me know since I haven’t had as much time to wander the blogosphere as I used to–I always enjoy seeing other people’s opinions even if I don’t agree! Also, if you previously were around and now aren’t, it’s only because I couldn’t import my blogroll. Just give me a nudge and I’ll get on it right away.
Well, here goes nothing…
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: blogger's book club discussion, camp concentration, Reviews, science fiction, speculative fiction, thomas m. disch
Given that WordPress has now eaten my review for the second time for no apparent reason when it has never done this before, I’m starting to get extremely frustrated. So, I’m going to go after a somewhat different, more compressed, format, since I’m getting sick of typing out the same damn thing over and over.
Thomas M. Disch published Camp Concentration in 1968. Timing-wise, this places the book in the midst of a) political upheaval and both internal and international conflict in the US, b) the New Wave movement in science fiction literature spear-headed by Michael Moorcock, c) a time when several other prominent SF authors wrote books with Faustian references. This last point amuses me in a general sense; authors include Phillip K. Dick (in 1969) and Roger Zelazny (in 1966).
Plot summary available from Wikipedia if you aren’t familiar with it.
Narrative structure is journal format, divided structurally into two books. Our records-keeper is Louis Sacchetti: poet, conscientious objectioner (“conchie”), obese man, Pallidine-carrier, and unreliable narrator. Why? Well, I would be unreliable too if I knew the director of my newfound prison and his pet military researcher running the experiment received copies of my journal as a daily newsfeed.
Did I like Camp Concentration? No, I did not. Not only does Disch align the reader with those holding power over Sacchetti by giving us the same “gaze” that they have–we join the heads of Camp Archimedes as the journal’s audience–but also creates a separation between us and Sacchetti with this same practice. I could not fall into the narrative per se, and further to that, with all the name-dropping literary-referencing madness-tinged-discourse-inserting it was just too much work for a payoff I didn’t even want by the end of it. Disch writes in a dense, compressed style that packs a lot of punch with a low word-count: his poetic leanings win out in his prose, which makes it a work-heavy read that necessitates interpretation.
What do I think of Louis Sacchetti as the main character? Hard to tell, since he censors himself as a record-keeper. This is something that bears analysis, and to be honest, I didn’t like the book enough to read it over 2-3 more times to put every single piece together of a complex, unlikable, and unsympathetic character. For example, it takes Sacchetti until the end of the first book to acknowledge he has been infected by Pallidine: is this denial, inability to connect the dots, or purposeful concealment of his knowledge from his captors? I could not tell you.
That said, what do I think of Camp Concentration? It’s a book that espouses ideas more than characters. What is the nature of genius? Is genius book knowledge, self knowledge, power over the natural world, or ability to exact what you want from other people? Is it genius, or an illness, or something else? As Sacchetti muses near the end of the novel: “I exist without instincts, almost without images; and I no longer have an aim. I resemble nothing. The poison has had not two effects–genius and death–but one. Call it by which name you will.” (p. 184).
It also brings into question the ethics of biological warfare and human test subjects, rampant government control, and war in general. Throughout the course of the book identity, the nature of science, and the regulation and politics of knowledge production are hot-button issues, as is a hard look at the compromises made for meeting one’s goals. Disch provides us with a large amount of commentary on social control relating to the government, the separate groups of prisoners (more so in the latter half of the book), and religious beliefs within this context. Definitely more idea-driven than character-driven, though character certainly plays a large role in the book itself.
The ideas? Fascinating. Worth the read if you like to consider big questions, but if you are a completist and feel a need to look up and search out context for various quotations and references, you can spend an awful lot of time on Camp Concentration, which is relatively short. Really, the title itself gives one enough pause: allusion to concentration camps in Nazi Germany, within the bounds of the story there is Camp Archimedes itself which promotes concentration and study within the camp, and the concentration required from the reader. Imagine what you could pull out of 184 pages packed with multiplicities of meaning, if you are so inclined.
If anyone out there is looking for fodder for a scholarly study, this book would be a grand topic. It might not be your cup of tea for an engaging, escapist read–though I suppose that depends on what you like your escape to be. Although certainly a worthwhile and thought-provoking read, Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration will never be a favourite of mine.
Disch, Thomas M. Camp Concentration. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. $17.95 (Canadian), but likely at your local library, trade paperback.
Expect a review of Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch in the next couple of days as a belated part of the “Blogger Book Club”–would be here today if not for a family emergency. Hope everyone out there in the blogosphere is doing well.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: alternate history, ha'penny, jo walton, politics, Reviews, science fiction, small change series, speculative fiction, WWII
Jo Walton‘s Small Change series started off on solid ground with Farthing, a murder mystery “with fascists” set in a very different WWII era United Kingdom, and continues in her 2008 Prometheus Award winner Ha’Penny. Walton’s writing has always had a historical bent, first evident in The King’s Name series as historically-tinged fantasy, and more so in Tooth and Claw, a Victorian novel with dragons. Writing alternate history therefore isn’t much of a stretch, and her talents in creating period mood in prose certainly shine in this series.
Picture a U.K. that made peace with Hitler’s Germany after the Blitz in 1941: this is Walton’s world, several years later with a British populace manipulated into complacency. Ha’Penny focuses on two characters: the actress Viola Lark, blackmailed into participating in a scheme to assassinate the leaders of both the Third Reich and Britain, and Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, whose homosexuality opens the door for Britain’s leaders to blackmail him into participating in their political maneuvering. Carmicheal also played a major role in Farthing, and mostly due to his recurring presence and fascinating character development, I recommend not starting the series with Ha’Penny–as well you may miss some political subtleties.
Ha’Penny, like Farthing, hinges on the familiar both in plot and content. Plot-wise, Farthing used the murder mystery, while Ha’Penny follows more of a suspense/thriller format. While Ha’Penny doesn’t deliver a page-turning potboiler in the traditional sense, it delivers a politically-charged character driven view of what might have been that reflects on current political tensions. Walton’s use of familiar, comforting structure and setting serves as a lull to amplify the danger and contrast with more subtle political violence. The real story and Walton’s own agenda paddles along frantically beneath a calm surface.
Carmichael, reluctant though he is to aid the government, has made the choice before to acquiesce to the demands of those in power for his own safety and comfort. Viola’s first person narrative of wakening to action serves to contrast his more removed and stoic internal third person narrative. She begins the novel as an actress who must work for a living, though born into privilege and willingly removed from the political arena, who becomes strong-armed into a plot she sees no purpose in. Walton uses her role in Hamlet to mirror her character, especially in the latter half of the novel. Viola’s revelation and change in character at a society event with the leaders she plots against packs a softened, yet wounding, blow:
“What about Germany?” I asked. “That they wanted the war? But they didn’t, did they, no more than we did, that’s what the Farthing Peace was all about?”
“No, about the camps.” Lord Ullapool drained his wineglass and stared off at the dancers, but I don’t think he was seeing them. “Anything you’ve heard about the work camps on the Continent, about enslaving the workers and confiscating their property, about working them to death, about gassing those who can’t work, it’s all true.”
I’d never believed it before, not when Siddy mentioned it in the Lyons, not even when Malcolm was giving me facts and figures, but hearing it now in this gentle old man’s quiet voice I couldn’t doubt it. (p. 238)
I usually do not read alternate history because the ideas behind it frequently overwhelm the characters, but Walton places character development in the forefront, hinging the novel on this. While written with an agenda, the reader must decide whether there really is a “good” or “evil” in this story, and where they sit amid shades of grey. This is part of the source of the power in the novel’s message; readers who choose to engage in the novel in this way are forced to look within to know where they might stand, which is not so simple in a world where complacency and ignorance can be so easy and potentially rewarding, even inadvertently, as the culmination of the novel demonstrates.
Ha’Penny is an excellent piece of literature that makes me wish I had more grounding in both Hamlet and WWII history; since I have only smatterings of the two, I can only say that the book is deftly engaging and eerily plausible in the current political atmosphere we live in today. I’ll definitely keep a watch for Walton’s third Small Change book, Half a Crown, which will be released near the end of the month in hardcover.
Walton, Jo. Ha’Penny. New York: Tor Books, 2007. $9.99 (Canadian), paperback.