Category Archives: Misc. Books

Escaping Our Dystopian Futures

If I wanted to know how horrible this world can be, I’d watch the news. Like I said before, when I read, I read books to remind myself of the good things that can exist in this world. That’s not to say I don’t read stories where bad things happen. In some of my favourite books, terrible things happen. I just don’t get why some people like to read books that are dark and despairing from beginning to read, without a ray of hope anywhere.

Like dystopian science fiction.

We had to read The Chrysalids in school. I admit, there might’ve been a miniscule ray of hope at the end. But it was doom and gloom for the other two hundred and thirty-nine pages, as if John Wyndham was doing his best to convince me I’d hate to live in a world devastated by nuclear bombs. Hey, I wasn’t arguing. I won’t even start to argue with that, so why act like you need a whole novel to bang that point home to me? This is why I have such a love-hate relationship with science fiction. The idea of writing about an imaginary future is neat. But does it say something about us that we’re so incredibly pessimistic?

The consensus is, if humanity has a future, we’re going to be struggling out of the ruins of civilization somewhere. I suppose this isn’t an unreasonable assumption – the Roman Empire collapsed, after all. But I think it says something about humanity that we’re so convinced things are getting worse. That no matter what new thing humanity invents, it will somehow contribute to our downfall.

Oh well. Utopian science fiction does exist, apparently. In fact, here’s an author who thinks we should write more of it, and inspire inventors and future engineers. (As if there’s anything left to invent, now that we’ve come up with the iPad?) Maybe I should go read some of that.

What about you – can you handle depressing fiction?

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Famous Now, Famous Always? Not Necessarily…

Fama, the Roman goddes of Fame

Photo by Brunswyk, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Fleeting Fame

Just imagine – you’ve got it made. You’ve climbed to the pinnacle of your career in acting, writing, music, or whatever, and now everyone in the world knows your name. This is what you’ve been dreaming about since you were a kid. A household name. Yeah, that’s you. You bet a hundred years from now, people still will be talking about you.

Wait a minute – what do you mean, that’s not a guarantee? Doesn’t being famous grant you some sort of immortality?

Strangely enough, it doesn’t. Just ask Rudolph Valentino, or maybe Joan Crawford. Both were hugely famous movie stars in their day, Valentino to the point that young female fans attempted suicide when he died. Nowadays, you’ve probably only heard his name if you’re into silent films or something. So will people know who Will Smith or Angelina Jolie are in the next century? Perhaps only as the answer to a trivia question.

This works for authors too. For example, when Jane Austen started out, Sir Walter Scott wrote a review of her work, praising her writing skill. This review was a big deal – if you see J.K. Rowling praising someone else’s book, and she’s telling you it’s the most fantastic thing since sliced bread, you’re more likely to buy the thing. So obviously his name on a review, praising her, meant he was a big deal, and he was trying to use his fame to help her out. Now, Walter Scott isn’t completely unknown (I’ve actually read Ivanhoe), but he’s not the first thing you think of when you think of ‘literary superstar.’

When I was a kid and the Harry Potter phenomenon was just starting, my mom mused about whether they’d be known as classics in the future or not. I was like, of course! How could they not be, when every kid I knew liked them? But now I’m not so sure. People’s opinions towards even acknowledged classics changed over time – Shakespeare had his audience in stitches, and Dickens was so popular people would line up to get their hands on the next installment of his serial novels, but nowadays your average reader finds them inaccessible. They’re still famous, of course. But tastes could change so much in the future that they find Harry Potter twee, or too grim, or who knows what.

Or maybe the Huns will invade and burn all the libraries. That’s happened before…

In the end, we have no idea what’s the key to being remembered forever. Building gigantic pyramids named after you is one strategy, of course, unless everyone else does it too. It is strange how some kings/generals/authors/famous people are remembered, whereas others who were more famous at the time were forgotten. Of course, I’d argue fame isn’t the most useful thing to pursue, anyway. While I’d love it if every kid in English class was forced to read my books in a hundred years (and dissect exactly what I meant with that metaphor of a tree), I don’t write because I base my hopes on that.

I write because I hope some people are entertained by what I write, and maybe even think a little more deeply about some of the issues I present. If I achieve that with my writing in my lifetime, I should be satisfied.

 

Why do you think some famous people are remembered, while others are forgotten despite their fame? Is being famous worthwhile?

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Filed under Harry Potter, Misc. Books, Randoms & My Life

I Need to Read More Books

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ve probably started to see a pattern. I know I have, from writing it. The same books keep coming up over and over. If you were to take a guess at which books exactly were my favourite, what would you come up with? Say Lord of the Rings, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Pride and Prejudice, and you’d be pretty close.

Now, these keep coming up partly because they made a book impact on me, and I want to know why I classify some books as “good” and some books as “horrible.” But at some point the well is going to start getting a little dry. There’s a chance all you readers out there are going to start predicting, “She’s talking about romance again? I bet the example will be Pride and Prejudice,” or, “Is the topic fantasy? Lord of the Rings, of course!”

The obvious solution for this is for me to read more good books.

And here we come upon the realization that has slowly been dawning on me for the last couple months. I don’t read near as many books as I used to!

Part of the reason for this is because in highschool I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to have a forty-five minute long bus-ride to school, so I taught myself to read on the bus without feeling nauseated. This meant I had time to read all kinds of books that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise–All Quiet on the Western Front (which I found gory but hugely insightful into the misery of war), Hiroshima (similarly gory, like All Quiet on the Western Front, but about how people felt after the atom bomb dropped on Hiroschima), The Old Man and the Sea (which I didn’t entirely understand) and The Three Musketeers (which I hardly remember, and should re-read sometime). I may not have read these books otherwise, because they don’t exactly fall into my usual genres of romance and fantasy, as you may have noticed. In university, I just don’t have as much time. Of course, I get to read lovely non-fiction books such as Imposing Decency and Revolutionizing the Sciences, which probably educate my brain too. But after reading assigned pages of somewhat dry material, my brain is too tired to read novels for fun.

The other up-side to being in highschool (and there’s not too many of these) is that you’re assigned books to read in English. Now that I’m done all my English classes for my university degree, no one is forcing me to read certain bits of fiction. Highschool is the reason I read The Great Gatsby, most of the Shakespeare I’ve read, The Chrysalids (which I hated) and Lord of the Flies (which I also hated, but I was forced to read it over summer vacation). Sometimes being forced to read stuff means you at least know what pop culture is referencing when they parody it–pig’s head on a stick, anyone?

I hope this is not part of growing up. I remember, as a kid, hearing my mum complain about never having time to read, and I used to wonder how anyone didn’t have time to read. Books had such a magnetic draw for me that I had to make time to read them, or go crazy. Now I understand a bit better about how sometimes, no matter how much you want to do something, you just can’t fit it into your schedule.

For example, I started re-reading The Hobbit, and it’s taking me a month. I think it took me a day the first time I read it. And the last ‘classic’ I started, Cyrano de Bergerac (on the recommendation of some of my lovely visitors here), I haven’t finished yet. But I will. I will make time to read.

Because if I’m reading a good book, I find it improves my writing immensely. It seems to turns on that creative side of my brain. That’s why finding and thinking about good books is so important to me. That, and getting another perspective on how one can view life. I do hope I do not reach a point where I am perpetually too busy to devote myself to challenging stuff.  

How about you – do you think you read less than you used to? What books have you been meaning to read, and haven’t got around to?

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Filed under All Quiet on the Western Front, Misc. Books

The Lesser Known Works of the Better Known Writers

Or, Wait–She Wrote That?

Lucy Maud Montgomery, from wikimedia commons

 Sometimes an author is so good you want to read everything they wrote–so you go out and read every single thing on their list of publications. You know, like when you finish Lord of the Rings and go out and find The Silmarillion (somewhat of an interesting surprise for people!) Sometimes you find more gems, and sometimes you find out why only one book of theirs is famous. Here’s a couple of interesting lesser known works:

 L.M Montgomery – Blue Castle

I had to blog about a Canadian author at some point because–well, I am Canadian. And I am a fan of L.M Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables being her best known work). She actually wrote at least twenty-one different novels, so there’s lots of her work to choose from. But Blue Castle is one of her few works of adult fiction. It wasn’t actually that successful during her life, since if you read it it’s more of a fairytale than your typical “adult fiction,” as well as being based on the conventional plot of “what happens when a shy, picked-on girl finds out she has terminal heart disease?” All the same, I absolutely enjoyed it. I find some of L.M Montgomery’s work somewhat uneven–I can’t get into Emily of New Moon or Pat of Silver Bush–but despite any faults of Blue Castle, I found myself cheering for Valancy Stirling and hoping things worked out somehow in the end.

 Jane Austen – Lady Susan

Most of Jane Austen’s work is pretty well known. The problem is she only wrote six novels, so you get through them pretty fast. Well, imagine how happy I was to find she’d completed this novella, Lady Susan, as well! It’s written in “epistolary novel” form, which means the story is told through the characters writing letters to each other. And it’s highly amusing! Lady Susan is an unscrupulous woman who sinks her claws into the very man who swore he’d never be caught by her … and then what happens? My only disappointment with this novella was how abrupt the ending was. I felt Austen could’ve gone on longer and made it a full novel, instead of quickly tacking a conclusion on the events. But for the extra bit of Austen enjoyment I got out of it, it’s worth it. (Plus, it’s actually finished, which is more than can be said for The Watsons and Sandition).

UPDATE: Lady Susan was made into a movie in 2016, starring Kate Beckinsale! It’s retitled ‘Love and Friendship’ and I absolutely loved it. I think it really catches the spirit of the novella.


So… don’t know what to read? (How can you not, after I gave you that nice chart of fantasy novels last week? But maybe fantasy’s not your thing.) Find an author you really enjoyed, and see what else they wrote. Or read one of the above–I enjoyed them. What other lesser known works have you read that you’d recommend?

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The Pleasures of Re-Reading

Reading in bed, by Artotem. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution LIcense 2.0

Or, Surprise! I Actually Like This Book

Some novels can stand up to the pressures of being re-read over and over – Lord of the Rings, Howl’s Moving Castle, Pride and Prejudice – and get better and better each time I read them. To come back to them is like finding a comfortable old friend, to pay more attention to sections I merely skimmed over before, or to open my eyes wider and wider to the genius of the author. Other novels fail this test miserably. Still others that don’t seem all that great on their first reading actually improve once you’ve read them multiple times. I’m not sure why that is. Either sometimes the story benefits because I know exactly what the plot is and where the author is trying to go, or somehow all the little annoyances get less annoying the more I read them. Anyway, here are a couple of novels I’ve experienced this with – which just goes to show that not judging on first impressions extends to more than just not judging a book by its cover!

Emma, by Jane Austen:
You probably think I’m the biggest fan of this book, especially after posting that “missing chapter” on this blog last Saturday. Actually, for the longest time I never understood why so many fans of Austen’s work liked this book so much. Not that I thought it was exactly lesser quality of prose than anything else she wrote, but she seemed to demonstrate rather too well how little went on in the life of a well-bred young lady in that time period – how closed and confined her society really was. All Emma does is drive into town, or visit with her neighbours, or “cheer” her father’s spirits. I had nothing against the general plot, but I thought the author could’ve cut out some long passages of “nothing happens.”
Here is an example of what I mean by a book being better when you know where the author is going. The first read-through you are completely guided by Emma. But all those long passages of “nothing happens” are liberally sprinkled with clues that point exactly to the ending, and you have to be as blind as Emma to miss them. It is a joy to read them over and figure out what they all mean. Frank Churchill is not fixing Mrs. Bates’ spectacles merely out of the goodness of his heart!
I have to admit, it took me at least three read-throughs to appreciate this one, but now it has gone up my hierarchy of Jane Austen’s novels. All I can say is – worth the effort.

Good Wives, by Louisa May Alcott: 
This is the sequel to Little Women, and is in fact packaged in the same volume as Little Women in most editions. I actually read it long after I read Little Women, and thought it far weaker than Little Women, Little Men, or Jo’s Boys. Again, it took me three times reading it to appreciate it on its own.
*Spoilers ahead*   Surprisingly, it was not the much complained about fact that Jo does not marry Laurie that bugged me about this book. I don’t really mind that Laurie marries Amy instead. I never saw it coming, but I find their relationship relatively sensible. Professor Bhaer came way out of left field though, and I could not see him as a romantic interest (in fact, I still see him as a better husband and father than a romantic interest – not all good husbands make good heroes of romance novels, remember that!) And I had no idea why Jo went off with him to start a school, since to my younger self “starting a school” was unheard of – all schools I knew were institutions and not run by random individuals. In fact, probably most of my displeasure with the book came from reading Little Women when I was so much younger – I accepted Jo and Laurie as just good friends, and Jo as rather motherly towards him, and to see them hurting each other as a result of misplaced romance was just weird. And Beth dies, when the high point of Little Women is that she lives after her illness. And so on. I had to get over my preconceptions to fully enjoy it. And once I did, my opinion of it rose.

Two examples are probably enough for now. There’s plenty more books I have NOT been able to get into, despite the number of times I re-read them (I could never get into Emily of New Moon, despite loving the Anne of Green Gables series). Who knows, maybe I just have to re-read them a few more times.
What about you? What are your favourite books to re-read, and has re-reading a book ever changed your mind about it?

This post comes to you on Friday, not Thursday, which I think will become the regular schedule for this semester. Class-wise, it works much better for the next couple months. 

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts, Jane Austen, Misc. Books

A Meaningful Universe?–Defining Fantasy

Fantasy, according to Crawford Kilian, takes place in a morally meaningful universe, and that is why readers like it so much. “In fantasy, meaning is not something we slap on from the outside, it’s built right into everything from the rocks and trees to the political system.”

I do love fantasy, possibly because I believe everything on this earth is morally meaningful in a rather messed up way. Everything in this world points to something. So I was very intrigued by this explanation of what defines fantasy. It might explain why I enjoy fantasy, and am rather ambivalent about sci-fi. But even for people who don’t think the way I do–most people would like to imagine a world where everything that happens is meaningful.

Then I wondered–does this actually apply to all fantasy?

For old school fantasy giants such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, it obviously applies. Prophecies predict events that happen. Good is recognized as good (and is considered attractive and beautiful by other good people), though some are deceived by its humble nature and rough surroundings. Evil, while attempting to appear beautiful, is revealed as ugly and not worth following.

But even in quite different books, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, this theory of meaningfulness applies. Especially so, since so many of her character names, place names and spell names gives clues to what the thing is actually like. The hero has a plain, ordinary name–Harry Potter. The Death Eaters‘ names all sound ominous–Lucius Malfoy, Draco, Bellatrix Lestrange, Mulciber, Yaxley… The appearance of the Thestrals in the fifth book are a clear indication things are getting darker. And so on.

I am still not sure all fantasy follows this rule though. Some books seem to plunk characters down in a world solely because the author likes that kind of world, and the towns/forests/roads the characters are travelling don’t seem to mean much. I’m not sure if Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is set in a meaningful universe–it’s so incredibly huge I have no idea what it’s trying to say–if you have any ideas on that, add it in the comments below.

That’s one drawback to Crawford Kilian’s book (Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy – I really enjoyed it, by the way). He makes good points, but insists everything in a story should be there for a reason, even if symbolic. As a reader, I do hate pointless scenes. But if they entertain me (and I’m speaking as a reader here, not a writer), fine–I personally don’t care what every object “means,” or represents. That’s why I hated highschool English (Did Shakespeare really mean that?). It is important to put thought in your stories, and not be random. But even Tolkien put in long passages of description that meant nothing to the plot as a whole. (Actually, this was a bad habit of Tolkien’s, but some of it is enjoyable).

How about you–what would you say a good description of fantasy is?

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Woman-Haters and the Challenge of Unconquerable Males

An Unrepentant Old Bachelor? Never!

Sherlock Holmes, by Sidney Paget. Via Wikimedia Commons

 A romantic subplot is a necessity for almost every book/film/play whatever, but every once in a while you come across a character that just doesn’t get one. You can’t figure out it when he (I’m going to look at male characters for this post) has a magnetizing personality and women obviously find him attractive, yet either he doesn’t notice women, or he views them as a distraction, or he despises them. Or some combination of all three.

The most obvious of these is Sherlock Holmes. Never married, never courting (unless it’s a ploy to gain information), making disparaging remarks about the “softer passions” – he is unapologetically a bachelor. And fans can’t stand it. They can’t imagine that he’s never met a that was able to change his mind, that he could resist all female charms and stick to his claim of being happy without a woman by his side. Enter wild stories about secret affairs with Irene Adler, or periods of marriage after falling off Reichenbach Falls. Sherlock Holmes without a romance? Never!

I wonder, sometimes, if female readers are so insistent on this point because it feels like an offense to our sex to find a male the author claims is unconquerable by us. I know my first reaction is to view it as a challenge – what kind of women would get under this guy’s skin? How would she go about it? Could I write a believable character that does? And thus wild theories are born, fanfiction get written, and fake videos of the character’s romance goes up on Youtube.

Though this is just a guess on my part. There’s probably more reasons why people get a kick out of pairing up the “unattainable male.”

Another example: Henry Higgins in the original version of My Fair Lady (actually entitled ‘Pygmalion’ before it was a musical). He was an unrepentant old bachelor, and while Eliza might entertain ideas of him “making love” to her, he never would bend to her (the play has her go off and marry Freddie). If you’ve seen the movie, you know they’ve changed the ending. There’s a possibility Henry Higgins will be won over – in fact, he practically admits it himself when he says he’s grown “accustomed to her face.” There is no way he can remain immune to Eliza’s charms.

Until recently, I was going to include Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory in this category. As Leonard declares, Sheldon “doesn’t have a deal.” Which, of course, mean every Big Bang Theory fanfiction on the planet tries to pair him up with someone, usually with Penny. But the current season of the show itself has been toying with the romantic possibilities of this character, so it will be very interesting to see what category he ends up in…

The temptation to play around with such pairings is obvious: tension between “normal” characters and strangely “romantically resistant” ones. Wouldn’t that make a great story? Sparks flying, tension growing, both trying to win without giving in… yeah, it’s almost a missed opportunity when the author/creator resists the idea. (Of course, they usually don’t go there because they’re trying to include other themes in their work besides romance.)

What about you? Are there any characters out there you’d love to see get paired up?

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Filed under Misc. Books, Pygmalion

Fantasy Round-up

Lately I’ve had people ask how I get inspiration when writing, and one big part of it is – reading other books! Good books show what works, what techniques are out there, and what tropes exist (obviously not for the purpose of blatant copying, that would be pointless). Bad books show what fails horribly, and gives me hope that I can at least do better than that. Since one of the genres I dabble in is fantasy, I thought I’d examine some of the ones I’ve read here.

So, after devouring Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (no need to recommend them – there’s obviously huge names in fantasy and worth reading), I turned to the rest of the epic fantasy world in an attempt to find something just as good. Either I just got a lot more picky, or nothing could measure up, because I wasn’t really satisfied with what was out there. Feel free to disagree:

–         The Sword of Shannara: This was a lot like Lord of the Rings, except lacking something (Tolkien’s genius?). I did like some of Terry Brooks’ (the author’s) later books a bit better – The Scions of Shannara and Antrax.

–         The Belgariad: I got a little annoyed at how the plot just made the characters run from country to country mostly just for the sake of describing strange new places. I did enjoy Belgarath the Sorceror though, since it was pretty much a condensed version of the original story. I tried the Sparhawk trilogy by the same author, but it bored me and I never finished.

–         The Wheel of Time: This is a very well-known and popular series by Robert Jordan – but maybe a little too long and detailed (I know, I know, the details are why people like it). I think I reached the fifth or sixth book before giving up, and I was a little tired of the frequent mentions of naked women (???).

I found more children’s fantasy books that I enjoyed, actually.

–         Diana Wynne Jones: This is an author who’s written a wide variety of books all in the fantasy vein. She’s just got absolutely unique plots. She also mocks some of the clichés of the fantasy world, with books such as Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. I really loved: Hexwood (somewhat dark), Howl’s Moving Castle and Archer’s Goon (absolutely unique).

–         Artemis Fowl: A very unique hero (or anti-hero, I guess), who steals fairy technology and has to defend himself (a highly original plot). I loved the first two books, and found the series petered out from there, though they are still entertaining.

I have to mention the Chronicles of Narnia here, since they were the first fantasies I ever read and are responsible for sparking my interest in the first place. Puddlegum, in The Silver Chair, is great.

Note: I haven’t posted any of my fantasy writing up here, but maybe that’ll change. 🙂

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