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College books, boarding-school books -- I have a great and abiding love for them. The first one I can remember offhand is The Great Brain at the Academy, and Tom Fitzgerald's hijinks as he struggled to make money and not get kicked out, often at the same time. At the time I was really small, and this idea of going away for school was, well, only something Older And Glamorous people did. Perhaps something of that has stayed with me all this time, because I still love the things. Let's see... there was Tam Lin, which raised my expectations of college to way too high a level (turns out, if you major in physics, you don't get people quoting Greek at you as often), and And Both Were Young, a slight L'Engle and not one of her best works, but lovely all the same, and I'm sure many others I'm forgetting.

One of the things I love most about boarding-school books is that the basic idea is that you get all these unrelated kids together, and they have to gel into some sort of community. (Community and partnership, of course, being one of my button-presses.) The best example I know of this (thanks to [ profile] sarahtales) is Autumn Term (Antonia Forest), where the main characters form individual friendships, but then the class as a whole comes together for a triumph: a very successful class alternative to having a really inferior booth at the school fundraiser. One of the arcs I really like is that of one of the girls who has a not-ideal personality-- she's spoiled rotten and is very passive -- but it turns out she has some talents, and becomes part of the group in the end; the great thing about this is that it's done not by making her oh-just-kidding-she's-actually-fantastic -- she still has all the traits that caused the girls to dislike her, though admittedly has grown out of them a year's worth -- but simply by her decision to be part of the community project, and do it well.

I like fantastical boarding-school books even better, because the tropes seem to work together really well. The boarding-school trope already incorporates the idea of everything being new and fresh and exciting, which turns out to be a great way to showcase exciting magical things (a la Harry Potter, or even Mercedes Lackey's Arrows of the Queen -- I think I liked both these books (which were problematic in a lot of ways) much better than I would have in the absence of the boarding-school motif). Fantasy tends to benefit a lot from being able to do fantastic things within a known structure and known character-community-development arcs; for example, Diana Wynne Jones' Year of the Griffin is my all-time favorite DWJ novel because of the friendships and community (and plot!) that naturally grow up within the boarding-school structure.

This is all to say that I really, really, really wanted to like Ally Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You -- boarding spy school for girls! What's not to love? And for the first several chapters, I did love it. Lots of interesting things about the school... a new teacher... female friendships... a new student who doesn't fit in... exciting classes... all the good, familiar tropes.

But what I wanted was a book that was about school-and-character-development first, some sort of external plot second, and maybe a romance third. Or the external plot could have been ditched, seems a shame in a book about spies, but okay. But what I actually got was a YA romance with the school-and-character-development relegated to second place, or maybe third. No external plot. And the romance was the worst kind: being a spy, she treats the relationship as an espionage mission, and lies to the boy. A lot. We know how this story ends; I didn't have to skim to the end to find out. Grr.

Anyway... any boarding-school books (don't have to be fantastical in any way) that you would recommend? There is, of course, Stevemer's College of Magics, which I've just never got around to reading, but which I'm kind of interested to read. I hear Jo Walton's most recent book is a boarding-school book; is it any good? I'll probably pick up the later books in the Ally Carter series as well to see if it gets better -- seems like there are some external plots in the later ones.
cahn: (Default)
3/5. This was a fast dystopian-spunky-female-lead YA read (of course from my sister) -- that is to say, don't expect lyrical prose or deep philosophical discussions, but it was a page-turner and I enjoyed it. The basic plot is that the 16-year-olds get sorted tested into Houses factions that embody traits like courage and friendship, at which point they have to fight an evil overlord with no nose prove themselves through an initiation process. It's actually pretty entertaining, though sometimes a little anvilicious on the "OMG The System Is Corrupt" messages, and even more eyebrow-raising on the class-consciousness (apparently, if you fail to prove yourself during the initiation process, you are factionless and your career prospects are limited to things like construction workers and fabric makers (and presumably farmers -- no clue who grew the food-- and probably engineers too), the horror!! Still, since it's a trilogy -- what YA book isn't -- maybe this will be addressed in the future).

Now let me ramble for a bit about my fantasy vs. science fiction habits. )

This is to say that Divergent would have worked much better for me as a fantasy book. It would have been really easy to tweak it -- make the testing process depend on magic instead of technology, same with the initiation process (the only place it really depends on being based on our world, I think, is in using a couple of Boston landmarks, and that's easily changed). Because the core idea of dividing people up into factions like the Harry Potter House system -- it just doesn't make sense to me as something that could be reasonably extrapolated from current-day US. For a SF book, that really hampers my enjoyment. But for a fantasy book, I'd totally buy it. And I wouldn't keep wondering who was growing the food. ...Maybe this is just me, though.
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[ profile] sarahtales has written a really excellent essay, from the point of view of an author, about race-sexual-orientation-disability-what-have-you in fiction. Go read it..

Here's a quote:

So, let us discuss the most common fake fictional world of all. It doesn’t involve vampires or werewolves. It involves – well, rent a majority of mainstream movies and you can see it. It’s a world where everyone is a certain way – white, straight, able-bodied – and the really important stories are always a guy’s.

There mayyy be people who aren’t white, straight and able-bodied around in this world. I believe they live on the Isles of Issuelandia, and they are very seldom allowed onto the mainland where the adventures are at.

This is a fantasy world we’ve all been shown a million times over in our lives, so many times it’s had an effect on all of us, whether we know it or not. But most of us, if we stop and think about it, can put our experience of the real world up against the fake default-this-way world we get shown, and say ‘Whoa, these pictures are kind of different!’

The complete brilliance of Isles of Issuelandia aside, I did have to laugh a little at this, because when I sat down and thought about it, my real life is actually rather like the fantasy one she describes, particularly in terms of race. (It hasn't always been like that; college and grad school, which together made up a big chunk of my life, were rather more diverse.) I realized just now that I am the only non-white person on technical staff in my company (out of 90) and one of only four women on technical staff. (Lots more women on admin, but only one other non-white, and she's not full-time.) And not for lack of trying. My company really tries to recruit women and non-whites, and is really excellently friendly towards women and (I've come to realize and very much appreciate since E. was born) moms. When I joined there were three non-whites, but they've all left now (not because of race; I believe they are all working at other jobs with a similar demographic).

Non-work socialization is mostly through church and moms groups right now, which are not quite as bad race-wise, but it's still sort of a "three token Asians, one token Indian, four token Hispanics out of 150" thing.

And although I know tons of gay people (mostly from grad school), none of them are from my current (real) life. Well, church-wise, for obvious reasons, and for some reason everyone at work seems to be straight, too, at least judging in terms of their het relationships, drama involving girls (since they're all guys), and so on.

So, yeah, if you wrote a book about my current life, it would totally be criticized for not having any non-white-straight characters, except the token main one!

(I think the race thing has a lot to do with a) the peculiar demographics of my heavily tech US-citizen industry, b) the really peculiar demographics of the place I live, which tends to be segregated by race and income a lot. Not geographically, so my Whitey McWhite life will probably change somewhat once E. gets in school. The straight thing? No idea.)
cahn: (Default)
[ profile] julianyap has once again declared National Put Quotes in Your Blog Month, so I'm going to put one in every post I make this month.

"Truth is all I have, and truth is never a comfort. But understanding truth, that is what you taught me to do. So here is the truth. What human life is, what it's for, what we do, is create communities. Some of them are good, some of them are evil, or somewhere between. You taught me this, didn't you?"

-Diko to her mother Tagiri, Pastwatch

[ profile] winterfox had a very interesting post. It's locked, I think [EDITED: unfortunately, has been deleted], but here are the money quotes:
...even in fairytales where the girl is the one setting out to rescue the boy (i.e. "The Snow Queen"), the alpha and omega of her desires--her person, her motive, her dreams--is still a man.
It's like, a lot of authors who think they are being feminist and shit don't... quite get the point: their female protagonists, rather than forming strong relationships with other women, are defined by their relations with men. Their fathers shaped them from childhood. Their boyfriends give them a reason to exist. It's all... proper.

Oh, sure, their dads supposedly taught them to be progressive and enlightened and strong and shit, but why not their mothers? It could just easily have been. Or their older sisters, or their aunts. Whatever. Why can't these super-feisty heroines grow up with female role models?

My first reaction was, "Ah, that can't be so!" and then I went to look at my bookshelf. Cut for randomness and rantiness )
And ending with a strong-female-friendship quote in honor of NPQiYBM:

It finally dawned on her that their exaggerated courtesies signified respect.

It made her furious. All Kareen’s courage of endurance had bought her nothing, Lady Vorpatril’s brave and bloody birth-giving was taken for granted, but whack off some idiot’s head and you were really somebody, by God—!

2-5-11: ETA link to unlocked post, above.
cahn: (Default)
Okay, I finished Mockingjay. And... I liked it more than I thought I would. I actually did think it was good, though I certainly found the second half way way way WAY more compelling than the first (I have a couple more thoughts about this). More than that, it made me want to rant about it, which a) is a good sign, and b) usually means that it is both doing a lot of things right (otherwise I wouldn't care) and is seriously flawed (otherwise I'd just rave and declare undying love, which I'm not doing at all).

Mockingjay-destroying spoilers! I compare Suzanne Collins unfavorably to Sarah Rees Brennan, Megan Whalen Turner, and Lois McMaster Bujold. I've tried to avoid spoilers for any of their books, but there are probably mild meta-spoilers. )

ETA: GAH, I am sorry for the un-cut spoilers. Defective tag has been fixed.

Book meme

Oct. 19th, 2010 10:47 am
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I started this months ago but am only now getting around to posting. I think this was from [ profile] thistleingrey but I'm not sure.
Cut for length )
cahn: (Default)
Not to be confused with things that push my buttons -- these are things that make me bounce up and down and proclaim "This is awesome!" (and more likely to be plot- or meta-based) as opposed to things that make me fall utterly in love (which are more likely to be character-based).

-Stories that are ambitious -- that go off in a number of epic directions. Like, I love how Dune is about the problem of prescience and power struggles and Messiah legends and ecology! John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting is about magic and vampires and religion and an answer to Charles Williams' Byzantium and the problem of Richard III.

-Characters who are plotting-within-plots. What I mean by this is something like Dune, where all the characters say one thing and mean another, and then they have some twisty plot they're trying to advance underneath that. I realize this can rapidly turn into laziness -- I think Dune is probably rather lazy in this regard, what with all the explicit notes on how the Baron really is communicating X when he says Y. But I love it anyway.

-Characters who are smart! Or at least not criminally stupid. If I want to read about really stupid people I'll pick up one of my old journals, thanks. I don't expect my fiction heroes to be perfect -- in fact that's boring -- but stupid is even more boring. (Here I must mention, not in a good way, Harry Potter, and even worse, George R.R. Martin's Dying of the Light.)

-Correct discussion of science, particularly physics. Seriously, if I never read another discussion of the EPR paradox that says "This means you could transfer information faster than light!" it will be too soon. (Bill Bryson, I am looking at you! You are single-handedly responsible for several people I know having to be disabused of this notion.)

-A mindset that thinks scientists/the scientific method/analytical thinking are cool. The canonical example for me is Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books -- actually those go a little too far in this direction, as I find her scientist-worshipping society a little too pat and a little too idealistic for my taste. But in general, books where a character has a somewhat analytical, skeptical view (e.g., Cazaril in Curse of Chalion) do well with me.

-Allusions to things I think are cool -- I will like you if you quote John Donne or e.e. cummings, and I will utterly think you are made of awesome if you show me you have read Charles Williams, Cordwainer Smith, or the Mabinogion.

-Meta/criticism of canon, if you're working off of some established canon. My favorite published example of this are John M. Ford's Star Trek novels, in one of which he takes down the entire approach to Klingons (um, be aware this was before Next Gen and all of that), and in the other he turns Star Trek into a musical. A book-length one. Literally.

Okay, I, um. I thought, especially once the last book came out, I was done reading Harry Potter fanfic and we could just ignore that episode in my life entirely, yeah? And then I stumbled across Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, an AU, where -- what would happen if a) Harry were brought up in a loving super-rational super-academic household, and b) everyone and everything in the HP universe was, well... more-or-less reasonable? (Not necessarily sane, mind you -- just not holding the Idiot Ball.)

It's like this fic took all the things that make me go squee! and plugged directly into those areas of my brain. Harry starts out by explaining things like observer bias to various people at Hogwart, and decides to run experiments to figure out how magic works! He explains Punnett squares to Draco in the context of blood purity! The first several chapters are a little one-note like that, but I don't care because I love that note! I would have loved it had it all been riffs on that, but as it progresses it also acquires a really interesting plot, layers on layers of hints to be explained, I think maybe every character in the entire fic is now involved in at least one secret plot, and I find the relationship between Harry and Draco extremely moving (and no, not in that way; it's gen/het).

Remember how in The Magicians I was practically mortally offended that on discovering Wood Between the World no one ever thought of doing any experiments? Yeah. This is the answer to that.

Note: this is a WIP. I don't read WIPs. I definitely don't rec them. This is what this thing has done to my brain!
cahn: (Default)
[ profile] winterfox's excellent review panning Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (thanks for the link!) pointed out that Jemisin says (about the character who most embodies my complaints about Eeeeeevil characters) the following:

See, the way I see it — others’ mileage may vary — one of the staples of epic fantasy is clearly-delineated good and evil... So I needed there to be one absolute, unadulterated ratbastard in the story, and [character redacted] was it.

And to keep [] absolutely evil, I needed to keep [] relatively unknown. I don’t know []'s back story.
But this is all I know about []. It’s all Yeine needed to know. And it’s all either Yeine or Iwanted to know, because it’s hard to plot another person’s death if you know them and understand them.

There are so many things wrong with this that I don't even know where to start. Let me just say that this is completely contrary to my entire philosophy of life and literature. I have gone from "not really interested in next book" to "by no means picking up next book."
cahn: (Default)
I was listening to Pandora today and a song from Les Miserables came on. (They must recently have gotten the rights, as Les Mis songs had to my knowledge never shown up before.) It catapulted me back to the first time I ever saw Les Mis -- I was in middle school at the time -- and it blew my mind and knocked me flat, in large part because it was the first real Broadway musical I'd ever seen, partially because it was first adaptation of a book I'd ever seen where they actually got the spirit of the book right. I can't even describe the effect seeing it had on me except by saying that I went out and bought not just the recording but the full symphonic recording -- and when I was that age the $30 that you had to shell out for the full recording was basically a real fortune, something like six months' worth of discretionary spending. (To compare, I don't think I bought any other CD that was more than $5 until I went to college.)

Now that I'm older, I can see the flaws. Many of the tunes are simplistic bordering on inane (no, I never did like "Castle on a Cloud" much). Much of the libretto is quite silly (especially Cosette's lines). I suspect if I saw it now I would think it was okay, but nothing special. I'm really glad I saw it as a kid, when it had the power to do that to me.

The only other things I can think of offhand that had this effect on me were reading The Dark is Rising and A Wrinkle in Time, both of which I got to at precisely the right time (fourth grade and, um, second grade? respectively) for them to turn my world upside down and explode it into color. (And no, LoTR didn't do that for me -- I grew into that one.) Oh, and Dead Poets Society, which I now recognize as a maudlin sentimental film, but which I saw when I had no idea about poetry (fifth grade, I think), and it had a profound and dizzying effect on me.

I'd love to hear the things that you found extraordinarily powerful at the time and that now you wouldn't quite be so impressed by...

Words meme

Aug. 1st, 2009 12:08 pm
cahn: (Default)
[Um, so, yeah. I have been really, really bad about posting recently. There is a reason for this, which I'll get to at some point. Meanwhile I think I may be able to get back to posting.]

Via [ profile] ase [an unfortunately long time ago, now; sorry!]: reply to this meme by yelling (or even saying gently) "Words!" and I will give you five words that remind me of you. Then post them in your LJ and explain what they mean to you.

Science, novels, choral, California, and camera )
cahn: (Default)
Perhaps y'all have seen these (and here and here, though I think the first is the best) before, but I hadn't. Hysterically funny especially if you, like me, grew up reading bad 80's SF/fantasy novels (Dragonlance! Xanth! Valdemar! ...hey, why are you running away? Wait, did I actually admit to reading those?)

I'll add
Katherine Kerr: People Make the Same Dumb Mistakes When Reincarnated
Patricia McKillip: Riddles in the Welsh Tradition Kinda Suck
Diane Duane: The Door Into Alternative Lifestyles
Rosemary Kirstein: Wouldn't It Be Cool If People Revered Their Scientists?
Susan Cooper: The Search for Plot Coupons (okay, that one was not original)

(and yes, I adore McKillip and Cooper, and have a certain fondness for the others; I mock because I love!)

Any other suggestions? Especially for 80's stuff? (Most of the really bad 80's stuff I read has completely escaped my memory...)

kindle 2

Mar. 19th, 2009 09:35 am
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Yeah, so, I've been busy with frivolosities, and I'm not going to post more than once more until after the Kid's wedding on 4 April. Meanwhile, I've been playing with gadgets! Just the kindle today so I can get it out for [ profile] julianyap, though I may quickly post on cameras in the near future.

A really wonderful co-worker let me borrow his kindle 2 for a couple of days. (He's a tech geek, not a lit geek, so only really bought it for travel.) Oh, man, I so wanted to like this. Some of it is awesome. The free web access? Worth the purchase price. The amazon store easy access is both really great and also will make a mint for amazon once I get one of these things.

But. BUT. The buttons are lame, more like pushing a (rather hard) mouse button and not at all like tapping an Ipod button, which is what it should be like. Since I have longstanding struggles with RSI, this was by itself a dealbreaker. If I wanted to push a mouse button to turn a page, I'd read on my computer.

Also, I do not read linearly. I read a page, wonder if the protagonist is going to die, flip to the end, decide I can read further since the protagonist still seems to be alive, realize I may have missed a Clew a chapter back, remember that oh, wait, something that was said at the very beginning was relevant... On the Kindle, you have to access a menu to flip to different parts. A menu! ...No.

And yet... once I gave it back to my co-worker, I missed it. I missed being able to carry lots of books in one package. I missed having (free!) web access all the time. I missed being able to download free sample chapters on practically anything that struck my fancy. I missed not struggling with a huge hardback book on the reading rack on the exercise machine. Bah.

My "themes"

Aug. 3rd, 2007 07:32 am
cahn: (Default)
Look, before I start recommending any more books to people, let's talk about my hot buttons so you know when I'm recommending something that might not press your hot buttons.

Short version: Redemption, hard choices, friendship, growing up, history. Long version, with examples, under the cut. )
cahn: (Default)
I got The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years out from the library, because my friend DFK had a blog post a while back on LIW... I'd forgotten how much I love these books.

Because DFK's post had a link to a link to this essay I was thinking a little about the historicity of the books. It doesn't bother me at all that (as the essay states) she made up a spring from which they got water. I'm totally willing to compromise on details, and even larger details, like if the Liza Jane incident didn't happen, or was a little different. But her courtship with Almanzo? I'd be totally crushed if it didn't happen like that. Especially where he's all "Would you like a ring?" and she's like, "It would depend on the ring!" Ha!

By the way, the linked essay leaves a rotten taste in my mouth, as essays usually do when they start analyzing things too much. Dr. Seidman says, "I want Eliza [her six-year-old daughter] to understand the limitations of the American past on matters of social justice, gender, and race. Yet I also want her to be able to experience that intense relationship with Laura. How can she if she doesn't trust her?" Your second instinct is right, not your first. Your kid needs to trust Laura. Eventually she will grow up and figure out the social justice and whatever herself eventually. And LIW is-- she is an honest writer; she tells things according to an underlying truth, a clear-eyed and grace-filled look at the world. (Well, except for Nellie Olsen, who Laura/LIW is totally not fair to, at all, probably-- she's the only 1D character I can think of. But even then it serves to flesh out Laura, who is a really good girl in most ways... but once you get on her bad side, and do it repeatedly...) And this means that even when the societal attitudes are different from those of modern society, the underlying truth comes through.

For example, Laura doesn't care one bit about getting the vote (something which, well, I'd be really annoyed if I didn't have); yet the underlying truth is that she's as feminist, within the bounds of her society, as any heroine I can think of (I love the bit where Almanzo tries to put his arm around her, and she's all, "Um, I think not-- hey look, your horses are going crazy, I wonder why!") and she is NEVER hobbled by her society, or even thinks to be -- and I've always thought of Laura as totally independent. Of course, growing up in the 1980's, I assumed that I was going to vote when I grew up, and that having it withheld from me would be wrong. And simultaneously I was able to hold the idea in my head that LIW didn't care about having the vote, and that was not wrong either. Even when I first read this as an, I don't know, eight-year-old, I was able to do this. (I have a similar relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my all-time absolute favorite books.) Now, it's very true that Dr. Seidman comes to about the same conclusion, but it just kind of annoys me that she's asking the question at all.

Back to this idea of honesty-- contrast Rowling, who doesn't have that core of integrity (or if she does, I'm not sure I like her worldview). For just one obvious example relevant to my LIW example above, Rowling has decided that Spunky Is Good, so of course Ginny, when she gets old enough to actually be interesting, has to be Spunky-Feminist, to the extent that she snaps at her boyfriend for holding the door for her-- AND at the same time is playing stupid hard-to-get mind games with Harry! Now, I'm not saying that such contradictory attitudes can't exist in the same person-- most people, like me, are a mass of contradictions-- but Rowling doesn't ever add any depth to this to show us that it's consistent. And so I am led to the conclusion that she is sloppy, or cheating-- there's no underlying truth there.

ETA: I meant to say that Rowling doesn't always have that core. Harry himself is really well done that way, even when I don't like Harry himself... the other characters' mileage varies greatly.
cahn: (Default)
I reread Dune recently. It's much, much better than I remember. He's extremely good at taking complicated plot points and following them through in such a way that there is clearly a large quantity of backstory and thought involved (even if you don't read the Appendix). I don't think I picked up on half of those the first time I read it (in my defense, I was, what, 12?)--

I've always thought the end is a little strange. Not the general end, which ends in exactly the right place, but the very last paragraph, and indeed the last line:

"History will call us wives."

Isn't that a strange last line? The status of concubines vs. wives is, while certainly somewhat emotionally important, a very minor plot point in relation to the plethora of other galaxy-shattering subjects...I made the mistake of complaining to D about this. He immediately came up with several alternate last lines:

" 'History will call us Bob.' "

" 'History will call us back.' "

"Jessica goes to Sietch Tabr, and sits down, and says, 'Well, I'm back.' "

"Feyd-Rautha nobly takes the sword in his breast and says, 'It is a far, far better thing...' "

Have added "science-fiction author" to list of Careers We Are All Happy D Did Not Choose.


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