Saturday, 31 August 2013

Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

When I used to work at a bookstore, my coworkers (and future husband) and I used to joke that Robert Jordan hated trees. Those poor shelves, groaning under the weight of such immensely long books. It'd have to be a damned good story to justify that much prose.

Somehow, I missed this series when I was a teenager. That might have been exactly the time to encounter them, when I didn't have as much to compare them to, and it would all seem shiny and new. Because from the vantage point of my mid-thirties, there's nothing that seems very fresh here, and while it wasn't a difficult read, nothing about the story grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me and compelled me to read more.

Which is another way of saying I don't think I'll bother reading on from here.

But, you know, in a particular vein of fantasy, this is perfectly fine. The story is mostly interesting, the characters a little flat, the backstory a bit opaque (would it have really killed you to give us one solid example of why the Aes Sedai are feared and hated by everyone, Robert Jordan?).

What really got to me was the lack of consequences. I think I'm just too much accustomed to the Joss Whedon school of drama now - for stuff to matter, shit has to have consequences. And those are messy and painful and they can hurt, but darnit, they mean something! Everyone almost getting killed a thousand times but not does not raise tension, it lowers it. The one character who does, it seems, die heroically, that was a good moment. Except that we're given every indication that he wasn't actually killed, including the character who would know best that he isn't dead. Way to treat your audience like they're wrapped in gauze!

A friend was telling me that Jordan's female characters were very badly written, but I'm not entirely seeing that. I mean, all the characters are a bit flat, I'm not seeing the exaggeration there particularly with the women. Some of them are a little testy, but no major problems so far. This may be something that becomes more and more apparent over the course of the rest of the books to come.

So, my verdict on Eye of the World? It's okay?

But unless someone tells me it gets a hell of a lot better (and no one has stepped up so far), I think I'm content to just let this story end with the first book.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Some Spoilers Below

I think I am exactly the wrong audience for this book. I read a lot of science fiction, see, and this book is very much trying to do science fiction without the science fiction. And so my inclination is to want the book to explore at least some of the science behind what's going on, and the steadfast half-refusal to do so is irritating.

I'm fine with eventually scientists saying "we don't know why this is happening," but come on, they don't even have any hypotheses? None? Zero? Really? I call bullshit.

There are also lots of notes saying that "later we would understand that X-Y-Z" about the effects of the phenomenon in the book, but they're never gotten into, never explored, their repercussions just left to float off into the ether. And in at least one case, one seems to be directly contradicted by what goes on in the story - there's a mention that the circadian rhythm is more malleable than we had thought, and that time would bear out the real-timers as the healthier choice. But that isn't remotely what happens.

So, anyway, the earth's rotation is slowing and no one knows why. (Again, I'm fine with it being a mystery, but I do not believe for a second that scientists would simply throw their hands up in the air and say "I guess it's a mystery!") Days grow longer, by ragged chunks. Some days grow longer by hours, others by minutes. But it happens.

(Side note: I also didn't get why there would be such massive tides, since she never went into how this slowing of the rotation affected the moon. Why would the moon's passage over the skies change too? If you want to have that Be A Thing, you have to tell me that and a little bit of why. If not, you make my inner nerd cranky.)

Julia is an early teen, and caught in the middle of a world that is dying with a whimper, not a bang. Her family tries to hold it together, her mother by worrying, her father pretending that everything will be fine. Her Mormon best friend moves away from California to Utah to await the end. The government eventually decrees that everyone needs to move back to "clock-time," detaching experience from the rising and setting of the sun. "Real-timers" refuse.

There are lots of good ideas here that I wished were explored more. Instead, they're sort of shoved aside for the atmospheric gloom of a world on the edge. But that atmospheric gloom is fairly well done, although there was at least one narrative tic that drove me crazy. At least twice, the young narrator says something like "if I'd known how long it would be until I saw her again, I would have done things differently," and both times, "how long" turns out to be about two weeks. Really? If you'd only know it would be two whole weeks until you saw her again, you'd have done what differently? Have you never gone on a summer vacation before? Two weeks ain't that long.

In that way, the narrator, writing from the future back about her younger days, speaks weirdly about things in ways that aren't borne out by the actual occurrences in the book.

I'm absolutely the wrong audience for this book. But the lack of exploration of what was going on in favour of how it slowly affected a family, well, I'd like to think I could enjoy this, but enough was left unexamined in this book that it nagged at me instead. Perhaps if you aren't a science fiction fan, you might enjoy this more.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Warning: Major Plot Spoilers Near The End

Yet again, I've been breaking the rules. This time, it wasn't on purpose! But I went into reading I Am Legend knowing the ending, knowing the twist. Years ago, you see, my husband had wanted to talk about the book, probably when the most recent adaptation to movie form had come out, and I am well known for not reading horror, so it wasn't an unreasonable assumption that I would never read this.

So, wrong, in the long run, but it made reading this for the first time a very different experience than it would be for someone who was going into it cold.

And I think it made the book more horrifying, not less. Knowing what I knew, many actions suddenly appeared in a new light. I would recognize how someone would interpret it the first time, but then have the chill down my spine that knowing the narrative twist created.

In this book, Robert Neville is possibly the last human left alive. Well, that's not quite true. The last uninfected human left alive, anyway. At what point do you cease to be human? What are the defining characteristics? The rest of the human race, as far as he knows, has contracted an illness that closely mimics vampirism. (I'm not marking that with a spoiler, that comes out in the first five to ten pages, and I'm of the firm opinion that stuff that happens that early needs no spoiler tag.) Some have died, and are reanimated, walking at night. Many others are infected humans.

Neville at first works only on the simple mechanics of staying alive - it takes all of his time and mental energy, not that he has much mental energy, having lost a wife and daughter to the plague. Eventually, he turns his attention to science, and discovers certain things about the plague and why it works the way it does, although his efforts on some fronts fail to explain certain aspects - there seems to be a potential mingling of the viral and the supernatural.

I Am Legend is the story of a harried, traumatized man, trying to survive, and lashing out at those who nightly try to kill him, while he hunkers down in his barricaded house. That story, in and of itself, is interesting. It is the narrative twist that Matheson puts on it at the end that elevates it into something more.

I want to discuss some things about the ending, so let's get into spoiler territory.

At the end of the book, Neville is captured by the newly forming society of those who are infected but alive, and is sentenced to death. He realizes that he has, in fact, become the Boogeyman of this new society. If they are all that is left, he is the monster, preying on them while they sleep, particularly killing women (the book makes a point of this), dragging people from their beds and murdering them, so that when others wake up, all they find are the dead bodies of those they knew and perhaps loved.

Not only is there no place for him, but there is the recognition that he had decided they were not human and deserving of summary execution, but they saw themselves as still people, bloodsucking tendencies notwithstanding.

But this brings me to the most horrifying part of the book, one that is only vaguely hinted at, but I'm pretty sure I'm reading this right. Neville's wife died. He couldn't bear to take her to the firepits where, at that point, the authorities were mandating all bodies be taken. He buried her. She came back, and tried to kill him.

That's all pretty clear. What's less overt is that, as far as I can tell, when he was able to disable her again, he took her to a mausoleum, nailed her into a coffin, and CONTINUES TO NAIL HER INTO THAT COFFIN every time she makes progress on breaking out. He visits, and checks on the nails. There is an earlier scene where he wonders if he'll have enough coffin nails, and this is the only use for which they are mentioned.

So you have a man who, from the perspective of the vampires, preys on them while they sleep, steals family members out of their beds and leaves their dead and decaying bodies behind, keeps a woman trapped in a coffin eternally...yeah, he makes a pretty good boogeyman.

Because we've taken the ride with him, that's an unsettling realization.

It's also why the people have to remain vampires, not get turned into zombies, or mutants, or whatever. Nothing else gives you that time period where they are quiescent, sleeping during the day, unable to wake up, while he stalks among them. But I'm not sure Hollywood's ever going to be up for that ending anyway.

I found I Am Legend unsettling to read, in a good way, and the rest of the stories in the version I had to be entertaining. And that twist is one of the all-time greats. I have a hard time thinking of a better. 

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I can't say that this is my favourite Dickens, and I found the first two hundred pages or so rocky going, with a few misunderstandings on my part that served to baffle rather than inform. But as the novel started to come together, and the disparate characters started to interact more strongly, I ended up very much liking it.

Dickens always has a cast of dozens, at least, but I've never had quite so difficult a time trying to figure out how they all fit together. That is mostly due to the way that this book is structured, which is quite unlike the other Dickens I've read. Mostly, the characters are in constellations around the main character, but the focus stays on one person. In this case, it is the plot that takes centre stage, and so we are taking a meandering walk through so many different people, which, given previous Dickens experience, I wasn't quite prepared for.

And for the first hundred pages or so, I was convinced that Ada and Lady Dedlock were the same person, and that we were moving back and forth in time - that eventually Ada grew up and married Lord Dedlock, and we would find out why. This is a problem with the narration. In the chapters with Esther and Ada, Esther always referred to Ada as "my darling," "my dear," or "my pet." The first few Lady Dedlock chapters are narrated by a servant who keeps calling her the exact same things - so I thought we still had Esther as a narrator, and that that meant Ada had later married.

But no. These are completely different characters, and there is no trick with timelines here. (The other confusion I had was when a character changed names between pages - on going back and reading it over a few times, I think he was being introduced under a false name, but the switch is so sudden and unexplained that it took me a bit of time to figure it out.) Once these confusions were out of the way, and the story started to draw together, the book became much more interesting.

Bleak House is the story of an ill-fated lawsuit, which taints the lives of all it touches. It has been the property of the lawyers for so long, and has consumed the lives of those who wait for a judgement that may never come. John Jarndyce, who essentially adopts three young people, including the overly modest Esther, the beautiful and kind young Ada, and the somewhat flighty Richard, has long eschewed knowing anything about the case. Two of his wards, however, have interests in the case, and for one, it becomes a source of obsession, that someday he shall be rich. This distracts him from doing anything with his life, and sinks him deeper and deeper into dire straits, and alienates him from those who love him.

Meanwhile, Esther has some shadows over her early life, and comes, over the course of the book, to find out her origins. And the whiff of old scandals is never exhausted - it can always be resurrected to wreck someone's life anew.

The book also takes aim at charity in Victorian England, with those who do charity professionally under Dickens' merciless microscope. They do very little good, and much ill, and those who just help out quietly are shown to be much better.

Oh yes, and there is a case of spontaneous combustion.

As always, a huge cast, and if they don't jump out at me quite as strongly as do many of the David Copperfield characters, there are certainly some memorable ones, most of them unpleasant. I could have strangled Mr. Skimpole.

Bleak House is a very different kind of Dickens, more plot-oriented, with much to say about the ills of Victorian society. I can't say I liked it quite as much as the ones I've already come to love, but it is more cohesive, eventually, and well worth the read.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver

This book gave me desires. Deep dark desires for...gardening. And making my own cheese. And doing more things from scratch. And doing them now.

The thing is, these are aspirations I have anyway, but my way is rather slower than the way Barbara Kingsolver and her family approached trying to eat locally for a year. I'm trying to make small, long-term changes, one at a time, hopefully in a way that I'll stick to it. But it was fun to read about someone else's experiment, in mostly non-preachy tones, and, you know, quite a lot about turkey birth, sex, and death.

I wanted to live like this, and want it badly. Small steps, I tell myself, small steps. You're a grad student. You have no money. One thing at a time. It's tempting to want to change everything, all at once.

But what sold me most on this book was the primary emphasis - that beyond reducing your carbon footprint, and supporting your local economy, and all those good things, making things from scratch and eating things locally and when they're in season, tastes better. I heartily agree.

We started making many more things from scratch in the last five years, because my husband tends to find that one of the major triggers for an upset digestive system is preservatives. Or something in processed food. I don't know what. But I do know that while cheese is always a trigger, processed cheese will be very painful, and good cheese will likely be not. That I can make a shepherd's pie from scratch that will bother him not at all, while one from the supermarket will mean an unpleasant evening.

Having been raised in a family where my father stayed home with my sisters and me, and turned himself into an amazing cook, I knew that homemade food tasted better, and I've come around to making so much more myself. Because it tastes so good.

A year and a half ago, we started to notice that the veggies we were getting from our supermarket were going over in a matter of days. And I'm not talking fragile veggies here, I'm talking potatoes and carrots. Which should be able to be stored for months. In theory. So either we were buying last year's potatoes and carrots, or they were storing them improperly.

Luckily, we live smack in the middle of the best agricultural land in the province, so the solution was obvious - start hitting the farmer's market more. I had assumed it would be more expensive, but it wasn't. The prices were about the same, and the market was actually closer than the supermarket, so I could do a couple of trips a week and get just what I wanted. This, it turns out, is key for cheaper groceries. For so many items, buying in bulk is such a scam.

Then this last year, I finally got brave and tried the butcher in my local market. This, I was sure, was going to be so much more expensive. Surprisingly, no. Often, his prices are about the same as the sale prices at the supermarket. And oh my god, the meat is so much better. Stewing beef that isn't the tough pieces they can't find any other use for. Beautiful chicken breasts. Smoked pork chops. Mmmm.

So, yeah. I loved this book, because it was in tune with things I'm trying to do anyway. It's a celebration of good food, good tastes, and taking the time to live in season.

I just need to remind myself not to try to do everything. Some day, I'll have a vegetable garden. Some day, I'll make my own cheese. But for today, my goal is simple - make my own bread. I haven't done it in almost a year, and today's the day. Screw the breadmaker. This'll be done by hand. And it'll smell like it did when we'd come home to the smell of Dad's fresh bread, two giant loaves to break into right away, and the three small loaves for our lunches for the next day.

Learning to make my own chicken stock, and maybe how to can tomatoes, that can wait. For a little while.