book review

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

“I have been asking for thirty years why most critics are afraid of dragons while most children, and many adults, are not”

“fantasy is not primitive, but primary”

6380284This book contains a series of essays on fantasy by Le Guin written in a highly assertive and critical tone. I think I will re-read this every year because it’s a little manifesto worth memorizing. The dominant essay in this collection is the central one (also the longest) focusing on animals in children’s literature and fantasy.

Le Guin begins the series of essays in debunking three stereotypes attached to fantasy like: (1) the characters are white (2) it’s a fantasy land in the middle ages (3) fantasy by definition concerns a battle between Good and Evil. She explores the reasons why some children’s literature is often in a pre-industrial setting, and how fairy tale retellings don’t necessarily mean changing the story, rather, poaching at it and getting into it.

“it interests me that most of these ‘lifelong’ children’s books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche.”

Le Guin questions what the making of fantasy really entails. For instance, a woman may turn into a troll in fantasy, but what does it really mean for a woman to turn into a troll? She compares it to “realist” literature like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Could one say that she has morphed into something monstrous?

Le Guin then turns her attention to the fantastic elements in other novels we consider great ‘realist’ and ‘serious’ literature like Moby Dick.

“The fantasy element of Moby Dick is Moby Dick. To include an animal as a protagonist equal with the human is—in modern terms—to write a fantasy. To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism…Melville’s white whale isn’t a real whale, he’s a beast of the imagination, like dragons or unicorns; hence Moby Dick is not an animal story, but it is a fantasy.”

In the main essay focusing on animals Le Guin examines how we used to be around animals in our earlier stages and what fantasy tries to capture:

“Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals. We might eat them; but then, they might eat us. That is at least part of the truth of my dragons. They remind us that the human is not the universal.”

“As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We are a like in the food chain…each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl.”

In literature we find interdependence between animals and nature, coexisting with humans in the same spaces. Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things shows us, Le Guin emphasizes, that “Lucretius saw no barrier between man and the rest of creation.” As we distanced ourselves from nature an animals with cities, and passed the industrial period, we separated ourselves from other species “to assert difference and dominance.”

Le Guin spends the rest of the book showing us the many ways in which fantasy as genre, found often in Children’s Literature brings us back to this imagined past where animals are integrated in society as equals. She examines Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, among many others and discusses how these points reinforce her thesis, and why they have been so successful. Le Guin uses some of her own stories and shows how she has tried to capture certain things and for what purpose.

Lastly, a part of this book that stayed with me, is Le Guin’s reaction to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Granted, this collection came out the same year as The Deathly Hallows, and didn’t examine in detail the overall effect and its subsequent ‘merchendise, Potter-world, Fantastic Beasts, and  Jack Thorne’s Cursed Child‘ but Le Guin has a bone to pick with the critics who had for years shunned fantasy and all of a sudden went along with the main crowd. Le Guin writes that she finds it normal for the public to fall in love with Rowling’s fantasy because they found something they missed out on since childhood, but she says:

“How could so many reviewers and literary critics know so little about a major field of fiction, have so little background, so few standards of comparison, that they believed a book that was typical of a tradition, indeed quite conventional, even derivative, to be a unique achievement?”

Le Guin blames the modernists, realists, and curriculum builders as well as the Edmund Wilson and his generation who labelled ‘realism’ and its various forms as the only kind of ‘serious’ literature. I love her criticism, brutal honesty, and analysis. All Cheek by Jowl has made me want to do is to read her all her essay collections and all her Science Fiction and Fantasy which is all now on my immediate TBR.

This book is one really well-written argument. The whole time I was highlighting and thinking of all the professors to whom I would like to send a copy. I think this book is perfect in how it’s written and how it delivers its argument. I was trying to think of a retort and couldn’t because her argument was that well done. Even in parts that I felt differently towards going in, I found myself converted by the end. Everyone should read this book.

Acadie by Dave Hutchinson | Review

Acadie_coverAcadie is part of the Summer of Space Opera hosted by Tor.com, the last of the five to be published, scheduled for the 5th of September. Dave Hutchinson, the author, was born in Sheffield in 1960, studied at the University of Nottingham and became a journalist. He’s the author of five collections of short stories, and four novels.

Acadie is set in the future following protagonist Duke who has been summoned by a group of leading researchers who have created “Kids” a long time ago for the purpose of colonizing other planets. After several generations Kids evolved to be more and more human-like, but their creator Isabel Potter is bent on finding all of them and killing them. We find that:

“the Kids were superbrights, tall fragile children with towering IQs, and a penchant for terrible jokes.”

Conversations between the Kids resemble equations as they are hardwired to see all problems in doing a specific activity.

This novella is short but filled with humour and great character interactions. While it resembles “hard sci-fi” it has many moments of reflection and character development. As readers we get an insight into Duke’s history, opinions, and frustrations. I found it particularly interesting when Duke tells readers that after travelling in space for long enough “it’s all just stars and emptiness…all space looks the same.” The writers and engineers who work for Isabel Potter, the original creator of the Kids, are like a giant fandom group from Comic-Con dressed as LOTR and Star Trek fans or as Duke calls it: early 20th century media references. The ‘Writers’ in this novella have higher powers. Their ‘creations’ shape more than expected and they have abilities like conducting complete memory-wipe on another, should they choose to.

The last few pages contained a surprising ending (which I will obviously not spoil) but it added a different dimension to the novella. It can be easily read in one sitting and it’s very exciting. I think this is one of the reads I would add to “get out of a reading slump” kind of book lists because it’s short, well-written, and highly atmospheric.

Also, the cover design by Stephen Youll is absolutely beautiful. I’ve linked his website so you can take a look at all his extraordinary artwork.

The Emerald Circus | Book Review

34218720I requested this book from Tachyon Publications for review, as retellings are something I enjoy immensely, and they kindly sent me a copy. Many thanks! This collection will be published on November 24, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order.

The Emerald Circus is an excellent collection of fairy tale ‘retellings’ written by Nebula Award-winning author Jane Yolen. Although I use the term “fairy tale retellings” since it is a labelled sub-genre, Yolen’s collection incorporates the retelling of more than just fairy tales. Children’s books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Peter Pan are also retold in this short story format from different perspectives, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Emily Dickinson’s lifestyle and inspiration. The third category of retellings in this collection is of medieval legends of Camelot and Robin Hood. “The Quiet Monk” is the story of the hidden grave which supposedly had Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies in it which falls under Arthurian Retellings along with “The Confession of Brother Blaise,” and “Evian Steel.” Some of the short stories in this collection have been previously published in anthologies, or individually. For instance, “Lost Girls” the feminist retelling of Peter Pan where women riot and protest for their rights in Neverland won the Nebula Award in 1999 and has been published in Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

The Emerald Circus is a great introduction to Jane Yolen as it incorporates works from various points in her writing career. This anthology includes all the stories that haunt us past childhood and stay with us in a collective imaginary space. Arthurian Legends, Children’s Literature, and 19th Century American gothic poets share a fantastical quality that remains a point of comparison when reading contemporary literature. At the end of the collection of retellings, Yolen takes a few pages to explain how the idea for each of these stories came about. I will focus on one of her stories to give you an idea of how Yolen’s stories come through. As a big fan of Peter Pan and Neverland retellings, “Lost Girls” was the story that stayed with me most.

Yolen explains:

“I wrote ‘Lost Girls’ because I couldn’t forget the uneasy scene in which Peter Pan is weeping because he can’t re-attach his shadow. When Wendy sews it on for him, he crows and cries out ‘Oh the cleverness of me!’ As if Wendy had done nothing and he had done it all.”

Yolen’s research led her to Alison Lurie’s study of Peter Pan in a 2012 essay where she compares Peter’s existence with what we currently know of child psychology. He is easily distracted, has little understanding of the future, and lives in a world where real life and make-believe are almost the same thing. Peter might be “gay and innocent and heartless” as the last words of Peter and Wendy suggests, but according to Yolen:

“he [Peter] is also deeply self-centered and without remorse…Peter might be eternally young in his looks, but his eyes betray his real age. He has seen so much, he would have an old and narcissistic soul.”

Yolen takes this analysis and applies it to her story “Lost Girls.” In it, the main character is a young girl named Darla who has been raised by today’s Western standards of feminism and equality. As Darla reads Peter and Wendy she finds it unfair that “Wendy only did the housework in Neverland and that Peter and the boys got to fight Captain Hook.” Darla arrives in Neverland that night and Peter immediately sees her as “a regular Wendy” —as all women are interchangeable to him, in fact he refers to all the women he comes in contact with as “The Wendys.” As celebrations continue with Peter and the Lost Boys, the girls would obediently stand behind the boys “like banquet waitresses.” When Darla cannot stand being called a ‘regular Wendy’ she asks the girls why Peter refuses to call them by their actual individual names, to which the girls respond:

“Because he can’t be bothered to remember…and we can’t be bothered reminding him…it’s all right…really. He has so much else to worry about.”

The injustices present in Neverland and children’s literature are highlighted by Yolen in this story as she pinpoints examples in narratives that follow us and we enjoy without questioning. Yes, Peter Pan is about adventure and fun but who gets to have most of it, and who ends up hurt in the end as she must put up with his moods, flaws, and inability to adapt to circumstances? Innocence and living in the moment as ‘fun’ children do results in selfish behavior and unbearable cruelty to others.

This story is just an example of the kind of excellent work that Yolen accomplishes by creating alternative possibilities in this collection of retellings. Such attention to detail is present in all the stories in The Emerald Circus and it is a collection I would recommend to everyone.

Welcome to Night Vale | Review

23129410This book has been an experience for me in the last week: I read the text while listening to the audiobook, and listened to the Podcast when colouring, walking, or doing other activities.

The book is written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and is published by Harper Perennial.

Night Vale is a town in the middle of the ‘American’ desert that is overall peculiar. All its inhabitants are very strange. The main story follows a single mom (of a shape-shifting boy) Diane, and a pawnshop owner named Jackie. A mysterious man in a tan jacket arrives leaving behind a note with only two words on it “King City.” The memories of this man fade and all Jackie is left with is “King City.” It’s a mystery/thriller that feels very much like Twin Peaks, but with the storytelling style of The Twilight Zone. The strangeness of each character is fantastical similar to Stranger Things where it’s sci-fi but told in a realistic way, highlighting human mundane problems using the supernatural. Between the narratives there are passages that look like transcripts from the town radio show. The radio passages unite the narratives because the news applies to all citizens of Night Vale and as a reader one can get a better sense of what goes on in town and what all the characters talk about communally.

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Podcast Cover

I understand that the Podcast is wildly popular and has achieved great success between 2015 and 2016. I did not get a chance to finish the Podcast so I will write my impressions of the book/audiobook.

First: if you can get the audiobook I recommend it strongly. In fact, if you must choose between the printed text and the audio, choose the audio. There are several reasons why it works better in audio format. The first reason is that in Night Vale there is a radio broadcast and the narrator who reads the radio host voice Cecil is also the one who does it in the podcast. The second reason is that this is not a ‘literary’ book, but a highly atmospheric one. The musical accompaniment and sound effects from the audiobook help enhance the setting and atmosphere. It reminded me of so many things (like the shows mentioned above) and reading it I just got an overall feeling of eeriness and mystery. The plot itself is not that exciting and the characters are not that deep, but somehow it works and it works well.

If I had to choose between its three existing formats as a narrative I would say the Podcast is the best. Although I haven’t heard it through to the end, I can tell from the few episodes that it is this narrative’s best format. The novelization incorporates some characters from the Podcast but not necessarily the best ones. There are several parts with lulls where the novel lost my interest but it does pick up again.

That said, overall I loved this book and the experience of it. I look forward to finishing all the Podcast episodes.

The book is filled with lines that left me in awe and some that just made me laugh out loud. Here are some examples of lines I found funny and some I found beautiful.

Humour extracted from Cecil’s Broadcast:

“coming up after this break, some exclusive clips from my recent three-hour interview with myself, in which I interrogated myself on my motivations, where I am in life, why I’m not in a different place in life, whose fault that is, and why I said that one embarrassing thing once.”

“If you see one of these False Police, act right away by shrugging and thinking What am I gonna do? And then seeing if anything funny is on Twitter”

“if the School Board could not promise to prevent children from learning about dangerous activities like drug use and library science at recess…”

“if you see hooded figures in the Dog Park, no you didn’t.”

Beautiful Lines

“Later she understood databases, having become the person she’d lied about being…”

“How does a person discover whether they are shy if they never have the time to meet new people?”

“There is nothing more lonely than an action taken quietly on your own, and nothing more comforting than doing that same quiet action in parallel with fellow humans doing the same action, everyone alone next to each other.”

“She left the shower as most people leave showers, clean and a little lonely”

“A person’s life is only what they do.”

Hopefully I captured some of Night Vale’s charm. I definitely recommend the Podcast, and the book/audiobook. This work will have a sequel coming out on October 17 this year with the title: It Devours! from the same authors.

The Audiobook is available through the public library with Overdrive. The ebook is also on Overdrive, and  the public library should have the printed copy in its system.

There are also two volumes of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast SCRIPTS:

  1. Mostly Void, Partially Stars
  2. The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe

 

 

Rendezvous with Rama | Review

774928I set myself up for a project (which has no time limit on it so it could take a while) where I try to read all of the winners of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. More on that project: HERE. I realized going through the list that I haven’t read anything by Arthur C. Clarke himself so I decided to read Rendezvous with Rama–winner of the Hugo and Nebula Award.

By the year 2130 humans have already been travelling in space to various planets, and after a disastrous event of asteroids hitting the Earth they created many protocols and safety systems to prevent future celestial objects from hitting our planet. When a large celestial object is “at the gates” Commander Norton and a committee of space military advisers go explore this celestial object which is spherical in shape. We are told:

 

“by our standards, Rama is enormous–yet it is still a very tiny planet…its ecology could survive for only about a thousand year.”

They try to map it by giving several points names of cities on Earth, and the ‘asteroid’ is given the name of Hindu God Rama because:

“long ago, the astronomers had exhausted Green and Roman mythology; now they were working through the Hindu pantheon.”

The greatest chunk of this book involves the various encounters with Rama and its cylindrical sea. The silence, the darkness, and the attempts to understand it. We see most things through the eyes of Commander Norton. Some of the writing is actually quite funny. For instance, Norton thinks:

“when Rama shot through some other star system, it might have visitors again. He would like to give them a good impression of Earth.”

or

“you know Jerry Kirchoff, my exec, who’s got such a library of real books that he can’t afford to emigrate from Earth? Well, Jerry…” (:D)

I loved this work so much. I was trying to analyse what sets it apart from less heavy sci-fi and I think what made this book wholesome for me were the many historical references and deep roots. It rounded the characters and gave the story line a sturdy foundation. For instance, when the Commander is hypothesizing what Rama could be he considers that he has once heard of the excavation of a tomb from an Egyptian pharaoh, King Tut and how Rama too, could be a tomb. He contemplates the possibility of that by discussing King Tut for a little while. Moments like these made Rama real for me as a reader. Another time, we find that Norton is a big fan of Captain James Cook who had sailed the world between 1768 and 1771. He read all the Journals and knew everything about him:

“it still seemed incredible that one man could have done so much with such primitive equipment…it was Norton’s private dream, which he knew he would never achieve, to retrace at least one of Cook’s voyages around the world.”

Norton became so interesting to me the moment he had a dream and was a well-read person with historical heroes. The historical details sprinkled in this futuristic novel make it dynamic, and it works.

There were some things that upset me in the projected future. I decided to let it slide because it’s a great book and it was written in the early ’70s. The main one is that Norton, like other people who are making all these important space decisions and meetings, has two wives and two separate families. One is on Mars, one on Earth (they travel fast). The way women are discussed ever so briefly are like these interchangeable things who have enough on their hands because Norton or whichever man impregnated them. There is one team leader doctor/biologist Surgeon-Commander Laura Ernst and she has some influence, and I think it was here where I kind of let the whole “2-wives” thing slide and trying to keep 1970s as a context.

There are several interviews conducted by Strange Horizons on impressions of Rendezvous with Rama, looking back on it, and Karen Burnham says:

“So wow, this was really refreshing! A mixed-gender, mixed-race, comfortable-with-polygamy team and society with some solid world building involving asteroid threats. I liked it much more than I thought I would.”

I gathered from this comment that this was as “mixed-gender” as sci-fi got at the time.

Full Strange Horizons interview: CLICK HERE.

All in all, this is a great book, great science fiction classic, and I strongly recommend it. I especially recommend it to those interested in science fiction and fantasy and want to read the foundational texts or “classics” in the genre. Heinlein, Clarke, Herbert, and Asimov are the four main pillars.

 

Central Station | Book Review

25986774Lavie Tidhar’s Sci-fi Novel Central Station is one of the six on the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was a finalist for the Locus Awards, and only two weeks ago has been awarded the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction of the year.

The composition of Central Station is known as a ‘fix-up’ novel, meaning that several stories that have been published in the past (in this case ranging between 2011-2015) have been brought together along several new added chapters to form one cohesive narrative.

In its essence Central Station is an in-between place, similar to an airport and/or port located between Jewish Tel Aviv and Arab Jaffa. We learn that trades and cargo play a huge role in this distant future, even on a spiritual level:

“Cargo came from everywhere. In space, cargo was a religion all by itself. It came from Earth, shipped up to orbit, to the massive habitat called Gateway. It came from Lunar Port, and it came from the Belt, from Ceres and Vesta where the wealth of the Belt poured.”

The location is the core of the novel because it’s the only thing all the characters have in common. In the prologue an author sits down and writes of a civilization in the future imagining and reminiscing of the past (which is still quite distant from us and what we know). The term often used is the “imagined past.” It reminded me of one of those notebooks that certain hotels or locations make you sign every time you visit. It’s as if all these species of ‘people’ from the future (from all over the Solar System) get to sign their names at Central Station and tell their story.

Every chapter focuses on one character and is told from a different perspective, and the same character will re-appear in future stories as a secondary character. What is astounding is that even though all these species of the future are so different they seem to be a lot more tolerant of each other and understanding than humans are now. They look to us and our history the way we look at Cavemen. There are a few characters that dominate the naraative, mainly Miriam (Mama Jones), Boris, Caramel, and Kranky.

What amazes me is that Tidhar managed to create entities so different from us and somehow breathe air into their lungs and humanize them giving them relatable cravings and vices. The story I found most fascinating was that of a creature called “Strigoi” which we follow in chapter five, by name of ‘Caramel.’ Strigois are data vampires and absorb everything one knows. We follow how Caramel herself became a Strigoi and what her feelings were being at Central Station:

“she had never imagined the Conversation as she experienced it just then –the nearness and yet the distance of it, the compressedness of it all. Billions of humans, uncounted billions of digitals and machines, all talking, chattering, sharing at once. Images, text, voice, recordings, all-immersive memcordist media, gamesworlds spill-over—it came on her at once, and she reeled against it.”

When she meets Boris and Miriam at Central Station her parasite-like nature is viewed by Miriam as a disease, something Caramel can’t help similar to the ways we look at depression or Schizophrenia. There is a sort of dangerous aspect about being a Strigoi but also involuntary on their part. For Boris, Caramel is a sexualized entity. He is

“aroused by her difference…all the while knowing his own weakness, admitting to his sexual infatuation with her, this human kink that made them lust for Strigoi, for the thing that could harm them.”

To me this story is representative of the whole. Tidhar takes something so distant from us and makes it relatable. As readers we empathize with the non-human and that is the result of great craftsmanship and storytelling. I absolutely love this book and I will read it again soon.

Also, the cover art for this novel is so beautiful. This is the work of Sarah Anne Langton. 

I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys science fiction. To learn more about Lavie Tidhar and his other works click HERE.

I received a digital copy of this novel from Tachyon Publications in exchange for an honest review (thank you Tachyon!) however I bought my own copy and an audible version. I hope it’s come through that I genuinely enjoyed this work. It brought me to a good place and I will take a look at Tidhar’s backlist and forward to his future publications.

 

Drinks with Dead Poets | Book Review

“Every word, phrase or sentence spoken by the literary figures in this book is drawn verbatim from their letters, diaries, journals, or essays.” – Preface

33011553The main character is a professor by the name of “Glyn Maxwell” (name of Author) who finds himself in a dream-like, quaint, rustic, village school. There’s a pub, a church, all like in the old days. He must teach a semester-long course on poetry.  He is charismatic, funny, and passionate–a bit like Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society.

He is given this syllabus to teach: “Reading List for Elective Poetry Module” featuring a week on each one of these poets: Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Brontes, Coleridge. Poe (on Halloween), Clare, Yeats, Whitman, Browning, Byron.

Each lesson feels like you, the reader, are present in a small seminar at University where the students can freely joke with the professor and also become fully engaged with the material—and the professor is passionate, and charismatic as he decomposes poems, discusses the poet(s), and asks thought-provoking questions. The lecture is followed by a vivid ‘hallucination’ or imagining that the narrator is meeting the poet in discussion. This whole book is a dream-like state. The dead poets talk to the narrator, get invited to class where they are publicly interviewed and they share anecdotes. They also explore parts of this town like the library, or pub. I enjoy the ways in which the whole text is full of literary references. For example if a student jokes a bit too much the teacher announces that ‘Yorrick’ is in the class. Simultaneously it merges the past with the present. Students for instance pick up that Bob Dylan songs have Poe references, as do Hitchcock films. I was more intrigued by the poets I genuinely like (Dickinson, Poe, and Whitman) because I was curious what Maxwell would do with them, and what new things I might learn about them. I found there were many funny parts, like when the narrator/author tries to write a letter to Walt Whitman but he just can’t get it right, because it sounds too much like something a teenage fan-girl would write, so he crumples up every draft thanking his lucky stars he didn’t ‘send it.’

Here are some of my favourite lines

Keats Lecture:

“poems that stay stay because the body feels them”

Dickinson Lecture:

“You can’t teach Emily Dickinson, you can’t write like her either. You no more have to write in her stanzas than you have to write limericks or clerihews. But you do have to absorb that she wrote about everything else she could think of—herself, others, life, death, God, Time, being here, being gone—in little quatrains shaped like hymns, rhymed or half rhymed, mostly four beats then three beats, four, three, stanza-break, and she barely left her bedroom…what you owe to such a poet is a true pause for thought.”

The visit to the library (with Emily):

“There are old books on every stall, twelve stalls, volumes and volumes, and great swathes of canvas thrown back behind the hardwood frames as if to protect them when needed.”

(A draft) Letter to Whitman:

“There’s more Life than there is Art, your poems seem to say, and the glory is in the reach, the stretch, the straining ever upwards like plant-life in the sunshine.”

I really enjoyed this book, and it really comes across as a work of passion. I wish I would have spread it out and read the poet alongside each chapter so that it feels like a real course. One can see that the author is well-versed and well-acquainted with the poets he teaches. The whole work felt like a love letter to these poets. I hope that if this work gets worked into an audiobook there will be more voices for each student and they find suitable voice actors for the dead poets because the whole work is mostly in dialogue and it would be fascinating to experience it that way—something like the way they recorded Lincoln in the Bardo. I thought it was well written, and captures the poets spot on because as the preface mentions the words, the attempt to reconstruct them, and capture their spirit comes from the poets’ archives and is probably as close as we will ever get to them.

I strongly recommend this book to readers who enjoy poetry, have liked studying poetry, want to learn any more about the poets listed, and who like 19th century literature from the Western Canon. Again, the feeling I had reading this was akin to sitting in a University lecture taught by a great professor…and that is a very pleasant feeling.

The book is scheduled to be published in August by Pegasus Books. Click here for link.