Friday, September 5, 2014

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IX

Artwork by Abigail Larson
Sometimes you don't know that you want something until you find out that it exists.  Did I know that I wanted to participate in a challenge all about reading mystery, suspense, thrillers, dark fantasy, gothic fiction, horror, supernatural fiction and anything vaguely related to these genres? Not really.  However, the internet has shown its wonderful side, and has made me aware of just such a challenge.

R.eaders I.mibing P.eril is a reading challenge started by the blog Stainless Steel Droppings.  There are a few separate challenges involved, and I will be participating in Peril the Third. This requires you to read just one book that fulfills the genre requirements - anything that sends chills up your spine goes. The book I've chosen to read is Weaveworld by Clive Barker. I'm not really sure what to expect from it, but I'm excited to get started. What about you? Are you going to be reading along?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Thoughts On: The Chosen One

"Palantír" by Mr. Muggles is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about the "Chosen One" narrative. You know the one; a prophecy says that so-and-so is going to this great thing. You probably don't have to think too hard to think of stories that use this narrative.

However, in spite of its popularity, we seem to have a turbulent relationship with this idea. On the one hand some of the most popular, critically acclaimed and commercially successful stories ever written have used this narrative.  Paradoxically, many critics have complained incessantly that the "Chosen One" is an over-used cliché, and roundly trash stories that use it. So, why is this?

It could be that this is a trend that's run its course.  It was fun, but we've moved on. This is probably partially true, but I think there's more to it then that, particularly as whether or not a work is criticized for using the "Chosen One" narrative isn't directly related to when it was first created.

Maybe the "Chosen One" narrative is always annoying, and some works are just good enough to make up for the fact that they use it. Again, this explanation doesn't seem to add up.  More often than not, the "Chosen One" narrative is central to the story, and it seems a bit strange that other, more minor elements could make up for the central premise.

The solution I propose is probably a bit anticlimactic for such a long set-up, but here it goes: the "Chosen One" is a very convenient narrative device for bad writers, because it can be used to quickly and easily cover up flaws in their work, such as plot holes or pacing issues. Instead of readers wondering why a kid is saving the world instead of a qualified adult, or why an ordinary person can defeat a seemingly omnipotent villain, you can just toss in a prophecy and problem solved. If your protagonist has to learn something, and you can't be bothered to make the descriptions of their training interesting or well-researched, you can just make them the Chosen One and dispense with most of it, because the Chosen One can learn things super-fast, because... Chosen One!

Now, I'm not saying that the "Chosen One" narrative can't be used effectively. There are many talented writers who use it to talk about issues like destiny, free will, responsibility and duty. The key is to really think about what it means to be the Chosen One, or live in a world where the Chosen One exists, and make sure that it adds something to the story as opposed to just being a get-out-of-jail-free card.

What about you? Do you love the "Chosen One" narrative? Hate it? What's your favorite example of the Chosen One narrative being used well/poorly?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book Review: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

A few months back, I saw How I Live Now, and while there were certain aspects of the film that I enjoyed, it was also really confusing. I concluded that certain parts of the book had been edited out, so, I decided to read it. It turns out the book is better than the movie.

Both the book and the movie tell the story of Daisy, an American teenager who goes to live with relatives in England. There's a war brewing, and it isn't long before England is under occupation. The war changes everything on a macro level, and also serves as the catalyst for the growth of the characters.

I thought that the plot and the representation of war (both of them are closely interconnected) were handled well. The plot moved at a quick pace, but still left enough room for the characters to grow. The occupation was fairly well thought-out, but also managed to differentiate itself from many other depictions of war or life on the home front.

The style of writing, something akin to stream of consciousness, felt intuitive, and it was refreshing to see a writer exploring interesting narrative possibilities, especially in a book that was designed for a wide audience.  While I like more unusual or lyrical styles of narration, I can see how someone who doesn't might not like this.

The characters were well constructed, and even ones that were not central to the plot were still interesting and well-rounded.

Overall, a highly recommended read.

Chance of finding it in my imaginary bookstore? 90%

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is an impressive beast: it totals 40 books, the first of which was published in 1983. Even though I've been a Pratchett fan for a while, I'm still working my way through them.

Raising Steam is the latest installment in the series.  It chronicles the arrival of the railway to Discworld. Dick Simnel, building on the work of his father, manages to harness the power of steam to create the Iron Girder, a prototype of the steam locomotive. With the help of Harry King, and later, Moist von Lipwig, the railway starts criss-crossing the world. However, getting the rest of Discworld on board (I'm sorry) proves to be quite difficult.

Pratchett tends to be a divisive writer: some people love him, others wonder why people read his work, and I don't think this will change any minds.  This novel is definitely in the classic Pratchett style, and, as you are probably able to tell, this is fine by me. This book is still as funny and pertinent as his earlier work.

This novel brings us another installment in the exploits of Moist von Lipwig, Lord Ventari, and Adora Belle Dearheart, among others, and the returning characters are just as charming and fun as usual. Not all of the characters grow and change, but there is still enough character development to keep the story engaging.

The plot is based on an interesting premise.  However, there are some points where it seems to drag a bit, and some of the plot development could have been set up better.

Chance of finding it in my imaginary bookstore? 90%

Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
(my own photo)
Outliers is the book in which Malcolm Gladwell outlines an idea which is either mindblowing, or mindblowingly obvious.  Simply put, while an individual's success and failures are often put down to talent and determination, more often than not, luck, opportunity and background play a significant, and often ignored, role.

Covering a range of outliers from tech tycoons to professional athletes to the citizens of Roseto, California this book suggests that while these individuals did have attributes that contributed to their success, they also were often fortunate enough to be presented with opportunities not available to their peers, or to have a background that gave them certain advantages. This book is also credited with bringing the 10,000 hour rule into the public consciousness.

I'm not really sure that how qualified I am to judge the actual content of the book: the ideas he puts forward seem to be accurate and well-supported by evidence, but I can't claim to be an expert on the subject matter.

The writing has a nice flow, and he manages to draw together a wide range of data, biographical detail, and other relevant information and communicate it clearly. This means that it is a quick, easy read.  If you agree with the conclusions that he draws, then it can seem a bit unnecessarily repetitive.

Chance of finding it in my imaginary bookstore? 85%

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
(my own photo)
Whether it's The Matrix, Harry Potter, or The Chronicles of Narnia, we all know stories that centre on the "Chosen One/s" attempt to defeat evil. Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy attempts to examine this trope by exploring a world in which the Chosen One has failed.

The Final Empire is the first book in this series. It focuses on a thieving crew, lead by Kelsier, and their attempt to overturn the Final Empire, a dystopian nation governed by the tyrannical Lord Ruler. The protagonist, Vin, learns that she is a Mistborn.  Mistborns have the ability to use Allomancy, a form of magic that uses metals to activate certain skills, such as becoming stronger and faster, or the ability to soothe other's emotions. Through the use of these capabilities, Vin and the rest of the crew attempt to gather an army, infiltrate the government, set the nobility against each other, and eventually destroy the Lord Ruler.

This book was an enjoyable, faced-paced read, with enough creativity to hold my interest over 643 pages.

The pacing was quick and tight, which means that it was a gripping read.  I also really appreciated the way that the plot was paced in terms of the series as a whole. Although this novel is part of a trilogy, and there is still more story to tell, the book was satisfying and enjoyable on its own. My friend recommended this book to me on the basis of the plot twists, and it delivered on that front.  While there were a few that I saw coming, that may have been due to the fact that I was looking out for them.  It is one of the few novels where you genuinely believe that the main characters could die early on in the series. Overall, the plot was one of the book's strengths.

The world-building was excellent. Many of the supernatural elements in the novel, such as Allomancy, aren't based on any particularly well-known myths and legends, but the ideas are still easy for the reader to follow. Even though there is a glossary at the back, most readers probably won't need to use it.

The book provides an interesting take on the "Chosen One" narrative. Certain elements of Vin's plot seem to be playing this idea fairly straight, but there are plenty of other aspects of the book that subvert this trope. While it is entirely possible to write a compelling "Chosen One" narrative, this idea has become slightly overplayed, and is often written poorly.  It is refreshing to see someone engaging with the idea in a slightly different manner.

That being said, the book isn't perfect.  On the one hand, it seems to be conscious of trying to avoid a simplistic good guy/bad guy dichotomy, it often falls into that trap. There are some characters that seem quite complex at the beginning of the novel, but in the end their actions are explained in a way that allows them to be seen as either entirely "good" or utterly "evil".

While I don't know when I'll be able to read the next book, I'm looking forward to finding out what happens next.
Chance of finding it in my imaginary bookstore?  85%

Monday, March 31, 2014

Thoughts On: "Liking" Characters

I like talking about books; I think it’s great that people can have different opinions on the same book.  However, there is one particular opinion that people seem to be very fond of expressing, and I really wish they wouldn’t.  It’s “I don’t like this book because I don’t like the main character.”

Now, characters have always been a huge part in my enjoyment of books; I find that I can forgive a lot in a book if the characters are interesting, realistic, and well written. However, sometimes when people say that they don’t like a character, they don’t mean that they don’t like how poorly written they are, but rather that they don’t like that character’s personality or agree with their choices.  In other words, if they met this character in real life, they wouldn’t be their friend.

The first issue I take with people who don’t like books because they don’t like the characters is that just because you don’t like a character’s personality doesn’t mean that the character can’t be realistic or interesting, or that their stories are not worth telling.  Take Sherlock Holmes, for example.  If you think about it, you probably wouldn’t want him as your friend, even if you disregard the cocaine; he’s obnoxious, a bit self-centred, and has no problem pointing out that he’s smarter than everyone else.  A lot of adaptations tend to avoid presenting these characteristics to make him more likable, but that’s a rant for another day. However, the fact that Sherlock isn’t particularly nice doesn’t mean that he’s not an interesting, well-rounded character, or that it’s not exciting to read about his detective-work.

A common complaint about characters is that they annoying whiners. Holden Caulfield, Sylvia Plath; they’re all just whingers who should stop being so miserable and self-absorbed. Because of this, their stories somehow become worse, or less valuable. However, it’s important to bear in mind that sometimes they are underlying issues that justify their complaints (abuse, clinical depression, etc.).  Even if a character is just being an angst-y teenager, I think if we’re all honest with ourselves we’ll admit that some people are like that in real life.  So, if it’s handled correctly, there’s no reason why there can’t be a place for moaning, and it doesn’t automatically make a book bad.

What if it’s not just a personality issue? What if the characters are morally despicable?  Well, I think then it largely comes down to an issue of framing; if the author seems to be presenting whatever horrible things the main characters are doing in a positive light, then yes, that can ruin a book.  However, a lot of books with immoral characters tend to make it clear that we’re not supposed to like those characters, or at the very least that we’re not supposed to agree with their choices.  Wuthering Heights springs to mind.

So please, dislike books because the characters are badly written, or unrealistic, or justify horrible ideas, but not because you wouldn’t be best friends.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Women in Horror Month and The Lottery

February is Women In Horror Month, an annual event that celebrates the achievements of female writers, artists and film-makers in the horror genre, and promoting the consumption of work within the horror genre created by women.

When I heard about this, I planned on reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and maybe writing about it.  However, I then realized that February is both the shortest and one of the busiest months of the year.  So, I decided to read 'The Lottery' instead.

It seems a bit pointless to write a traditional review of this classic short story, suffice to say that my heart began to race from the first page. It was absolutely incredible, and demonstrates the capacity for social commentary that the horror genre has.

In the absence of a full review, allow me to get up on my soapbox for a second and encourage everyone to give horror a chance.  The horror genre has the ability to do so much more than just make the squeamish amongst us sick; it can advocate for social causes, it can be art.  The important thing is that we start expecting more of horror, and reject the idea that it's just a weird niche genre for sadists.

Have you read/seen something for Women in Horror Month?  If so, what was it?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book review: Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks

Free Radicals by Michael Brooks
(my own photo)
If I was to pick one word to describe this book, it would probably be disappointing.  It wasn't great, and I've had so little time to do extra reading over the past month or two that I felt quite annoyed that I wasted my time on a sub-standard book.

Most people have a particularly understanding of how science and the scientific world works. Science it typically presented as completely objective, as a discipline where everyone is motivated purely by the desire to advance our understanding of the universe.  Now, this is probably true of certain individuals working in science, but it's not the whole truth.  

As someone who's interested in science and ethics I've been thinking a lot about the ideas brought up in this book, and I've done a lot of reading in this area.  As a result, it did cover a lot of territory that I have some familiarity with.  Unfortunately, it was covered quite poorly.  The book is clearly designed to reach a certain conclusion; if something it doesn't fit, it's either not mentioned or brushed over. Even with all of the cherry-picking, the conclusion still seems forced. 

Even if you discount the issues with the content, it just isn't a well-written book.  It jumps really suddenly from one topic to another.  I also take issue with his use of the word 'anarchy'.  I understand that it's supposed to be a keyword that ties the whole book together, but he uses the word in so many different ways, very few of which have anything to do with the generally acknowledged definition of anarchy.  In one chapter, he uses the word anarchy to describe both a scientist sending another scientist a bottle of champagne, and a scientist destroying another scientist's career.

It's not a terrible book, but it is one that I could have happily lived my life without reading.

Chances of finding it in my imaginary bookstore? 45%