I was up way too late last night reading. That’s okay: I planned for it. You see, Amazon brought me Mira Grant’s latest, Deadline, and I’d set aside time to read it.
I’ve been asked a number of times in interviews about what my favorite book is, or what I like to read. I have a hard time listing a favorite. I have lots of favorites, the books I’m nostalgic about, the books I come back to reread year after year, and the books that grab me, and make me keep thinking, long after I put them down.
But one of the things I often talk about is why I read science fiction and fantasy: in brief, it’s because I love exploring the possibility of “what if”. By their very nature, books set in a different place, a different time, let us ask different questions, or see the answers from a different perspective. And books that do that especially well, give us a way to bring back those ideas, those understandings, those steps towards answers, back into our own lives.
Back to this series.
Mira Grant is the name used by Seanan McGuire for this series, and some other related work – basically, things that fall more in the horror genre than in fantasy or science fiction. And Seanan McGuire is very good at what she does: she’s the winner of 2010 John M. Campbell Award for Best New Author, and Feed was selected as one of Publishers Weekly’s best books of 2010.
She’s also a prolific writer and creator: there are four books currently out in her October Daye series (also awesome), another one coming out in September, she’s released three CDs, and has a couple of other projects I’m avidly awaiting. In between that (and a day job!), she writes a fair amount of short fiction, much of which she shares for free on her journal and website.
For example, as a run-up to the release of Deadline, she did a series of almost 30 short fiction snippets about the world. (They take place about 20 years before the first novel opens, so they won’t spoil any of the actual plot if you read them before you read Feed, and they’re a great way to get a sense of the world and her writing style.) I think this is an awesome way to share a sense of the books, without spoiling the actual content.
I’d been aware of her Tobe Daye series for a bit, but what got me hooked on trying Feed was a post in John Scalzi’s (another SF authors) blog series called The Big Idea, where authors talk about the ideas that got them writing a particular book. This has turned into one of my favorite sources of books, and even more interestingly, the books I find out about here have tended to be widely successful when I’ve suggested them to library patrons. (In part, I think, because the posts give me as a librarian a great way to talk about the book and why someone might find it interesting that goes beyond the cover blurb.)
Anyway, I recommend the Big Idea posts for both Feed and Deadline to get a sense of the series. I’m not usually a huge horror reader (there are times my imagination doesn’t need a lot of help, y’know?) but the Big Idea about Feed immediately made it clear to me that there was a lot more going on there that I’d find fascinating.
And so it is. The book has zombies, yes, and there’s a certain amount of death and blood and misery. But it’s really more about living in a world we don’t understand, and that we don’t always have as much control over as we think we do. It’s about speaking truth, and making connections, and trying to leave the world a little better than we found it – but it’s also about the question of “who decides what’s better?”. It’s about friendship, and love, and collaboration, and it’s about how we decide who to believe. And it’s about how fear changes the world we live in, and whether we ought to let our fears win over our truths and hopes.
And those are all things I find totally awesome in books.
It’s also about something near and dear my heart: the power of writing and technology to bring people together, share information, and create community (because, after all, in a world full of zombies, many people don’t go out much.)
One of the things I love about both books is how the narrative is interspersed with excerpts from blog posts (the main characters are professional bloggers in a world where that’s one of the major news sources.) I love how the reason there are zombies has a reasonable scientific background. (These are science zombies, not magic zombies, in other words.) As something of an epidemiological geek myself (though not to the extent Seanan is), that’s awesome.
Okay. Back to why you should read this book. (Actually, why you should read Feed and then read this book, because you’ll care a lot more about this book if you do.)
I agree with the comments on the Big Idea article that the author makes – Feed is a political thriller, while Deadline is much more psychological. Put another way, Feed is more heavily plot driven (with some awesome characters), while Deadline is much more about the characters (and the inside of their heads), with a good helping of action and plot. (Zombie fights! Daring escapes! Intrigue and espionage! Plenty of action.)
Deadline is also an amazingly strong second book – often the weakness of trilogies. There are some places that’s obvious (especially the end), but the beginning does a great job of easing you back into the world and reminding you how things work before the story accelerates (which it does quite rapidly.) And then there’s a solid plot that both serves this book, but is clearly laying down foundation for a powerful conclusion. Waiting a year for the last book in the series is going to be hard.
What I loved was seeing a wider range of interactions. It was particularly awesome to see more about how After The End Times (the blog/news service that the major characters run or are involved with) staff interact. Learning more about Maggie, and about Mahir was lots of fun, too. They don’t always agree, either, in a way that’s messy and complicated the way people can be, even when they’re mostly wanting the same basic goal.
But I also loved the way that we got more depth into things going on. What the Rising did in other parts of the world. What that changes. How things we mostly take for granted (grocery shopping, flying, driving) are a whole lot different. And I loved how, in this book, the damage from the first book – the hurts, the pains, the misery – isn’t wiped away. These are human beings, who don’t bounce back from that sort of thing all the time, not idealised symbols.
This is not a book to read if you want to be cheered up. It is not an easy book in places: hard things happen, miserable things, things that will probably make you want to scream at the book. People make choices that may have you doing the equivalent of yelling at the TV screen.This is not the best book to read somewhere if people are going to look at you funny if you start laughing, crying, or talking back to the pages.
But amazing things happen, too. And it’s a book that will almost certainly make you think differently about your world, and what matters, and what to trust, than you did before.
No links from me today, because this week has involved interviews for two very different jobs, in very different places. (Erm. Both of them have serious Winter. And they both involve education and learning. But that’s about it for the similarities.) Both are things I could see myself doing, but they’re totally different directions, which is quite cool. Anyway, that means I’ve been prepping for the interview yesterday (for one of those jobs) and the interview today (for the other) all week rather than doing.. well, much else.
But, since my interview today was at 2pm, and since the new Narnia movie came out, and since I am not often out near suburban movie theatres at times I could easily go see a movie, I bought a ticket online for a showing at 4pm, and had a lovely time watching it.
This is not a movie review: I loved it, but it does not follow the letter of the book (and does, on review, mangle it in more than a few places), but does, to my mind, follow the spirit of it. It’s a distillation of essence, not a replica. It is absolutely stunningly gorgeous and visually powerful, though the first line was not the first line it should have been. I recommend it. In part, I wanted to go see it in its first week because what I *really* want them to make is the Silver Chair, which has always been the one I pick if I have to pick a favorite. On which more in a moment.
But I am also a fairly deliberately uncritical watcher of most movies (except for picking on historical inaccuracies in movies that are trying to take themselves seriously that way and getting it wrong) because my head is full of literary analysis and musical analysis and historical costume design, and theatrical staging analysis and much more, and I have found that I need at least *one* media form where I do not cling that tightly to the analytical, and allow myself to get swept away by the pretty. And this was very pretty. Dazzling, in fact, and rich in detail.
(Also, in general, I believe that books and movies are different for a reason, and I’d rather see a movie do things that movie can do well, rather than try to do the thing that books do well and fail. Which, again, I think this managed, though at the expense of some of the things that make the book an amazing book.)
There are places where I cried, even while knowing perfectly well what was about to happen – or perhaps, because of it. The movie (all three of them now, really) get something right that movies don’t always do, which is the sensory richness of Lewis. There’s a point where he describes digging hands into Aslan’s mane, for example, or the richness of the colors, or the feeling of dragon scales being torn away. And the movie gets that part right.
Back to the books.
My copies of Narnia are well-worn, and from an edition that puts The Magician’s Nephew where it properly ought to be. (Which is to say, last.) They have dog-eared pages, and broken spines, and they’re going yellow, in the way that books that are thirty years old do.
They were not the first books I read, when I could read books like that – The Wizard of Oz wins that award. But they’re there, very early. And they continue to be there. They’re one of the series that are a repeated touchstone for me, as they have been for so many others. (And like many of my friends, I always wanted to be Lucy.)
But watching today, I thought about why that is. Part of it is that – given the series as a whole – Lewis actually does a fascinating job of telling different kinds of stories. You have The Silver Chair, which is in many ways a very medieval fable or lais. You have The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is partly ‘defeat big evil’ and partly coming of age. You have Dawn Treader which is very much a hero’s journey.
And yet – and especially if, like me, you have not only read his other fiction, but his non-fiction and his letters – what continues to fascinate me about his writing is the complexity of what lies beneath the surface. Oh, it’s possible to get irritated, as an adult reader, at occasionally heavy-handed allegory. (And of course, there are places where he is so very much writing from a mid-20th-century English male perspective.)
But it’s the glimpses of those depths – or perhaps, glimpses of the stained glass light through a cathedral window – that fascinate me. Those moments where questions of identity, of what it means to be a grown-up in the best possible ways, show through. Of whether honor is bravery in the face of danger (maybe), or whether it’s really something more: being willing to look at yourself, and to try and do better. Of looking at what we might have become, if we had not taken that one extra step forward into transformation and a new world.
It’s those questions that paved the way for so much of my adult reading, into the questions raised by the post-Great-War novels from Evelyn Waugh and Dorothy Sayers to Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. (Of how to go on after tremendous loss, with something like grace and dignity. Most of the time.) It’s that exploration of the ‘what if’ moment that has guided my reading into character-drive science fiction and fantasy: into Lois McMaster Bujold, Pamela Dean, Emma Bull, and many others.
And there’s something in what it means to be responsible – the power and importance of knowing what you’re changing, when you’re king, or queen, or wielding magic – that also lies in the heart of the Narnia stories for me. And that, of course, has lead me deep into all kinds of non-fiction, and into one of the paths of the numinous in our world: connecting people with information that changes their lives.
I could stop there, but there’s one more thing. I mentioned that The Silver Chair is the one I pick if I have to pick a favorite, and I think it’s because it’s in many ways the most medieval of the lot. Lewis was, of course, a medievalist by profession, and his writing on courtly love is still some of the finest on the topic.
But what that reminds me of is something that it’s so easy to forget. It’s so easy to place people in a tidy little box, and label them with something. What Lewis reminds me of – what Lewis *always* reminds me off – is of what we lose if we do that. If you read Narnia, you read richness and story, and heroic acts and growth and redemption and transformation. But if that’s all you read, you lose the moments of adult and mature grief that echo in some of his works. Of his own transformation from a determined bachelor into a loving husband. Of someone who could become his own devil’s advocate, or write letters to friends of great power and potential. And none of those truly touch his actual professional work, or the students he taught directly, or many other topics.
The Narnia stories echo all of that, but I think you have to be looking for it to see all the places those things are tucked away. But once you know it’s there, the glimmers and gleams of those other moments, those glimpses into sideways worlds, touching alongside ours as much as Narnia does, but just as distant, reward attention again and again.
Next question is a great one – and I hope will fill many people’s reading lists for a good time to come:
I really want to read more sci-fi by writers who are queer and/or PoC and/or feminist besides Nalo Hopkinson, in particular more recently published stuff (i.e. definitely not the scifi canon – yet). Not picky about sci-fi subgenre. Open to multiple genres and formats: novels, anthologies, sci-fi magazines, online repositories …
May I slightly amend it to additionally specify whatever magazines or other serial publications tend to have the latest work in sci-fi? I want to be able to keep up to date with the latest developments, since the kind of fiction I want to write is more or less sci-fi. I hope that’s not too much of a separate question.
This is a huge question, but also a great one, so I’m going to take an initial stab at it, and I know that readers on my personal blog will have more comments, so I’ll come back here with a few more additions in a couple of days.
Continue reading Ask This Librarian: Reading suggestions
More than a few days late – the combination of helping run a community event all weekend and then doing the preparation for a phone interview today left me with limited time on Friday. But I don’t want to wait until next Friday, since some of this week’s great links are about Banned Books Week, which runs this week.
Access to resources: Banned Books week is meant to highlight books (and other materials) challenged in or removed from libraries – but it’s also meant to highlight other issues. Jessamyn has her yearly great round up of posts and notes. And this year, The Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association is blogging daily – there are great links to videos, discussions, and other detailed thoughts.
And one other issue of access: there’s been a huge conversation in the online library world the past week or so about libraries using Netflix to provide occasional access to materials (the kind of thing a teacher needs only once, or only every couple of years, as opposed to more regularly used materials, often.) Jessamyn, as always, writes a really great roundup with links to the major conversations.
A public library’s also taken an interesting (and less common) take on dealing with stolen materials (in this case, games). Tame The Web has a good writeup and video. I like the way it highlights the consequences without shaming too much.
Finding great books to read: A recent discussion on the PubLib email list asked for alternatives to the NoveList database to help patrons find books to read. The sites suggested include:
Great design: Following a tip from the PresentationZen site, I found the Before and After quick videos from their design magazine. A number of them are really useful for libraries and library programs. Check out How to Design a Logo Fast, and The Visual Oxymoron. You can check out the others on the video page. (Both of these are reasonably well captioned.)
Related, PresentationZen posted a list of the top ten presentation books. I just finished reading Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, and am thinking about how those techniques apply to library and education work (in lots of ways, though we don’t always have the fun and useful tech tools to help things look seamless.)
Social networking scenarios: Doug Johnson has followed up his great post asking for suggestions with another pulling out a list of situations from Carl Anderson. Both are great things to be thinking about in offering education around social networking skills.
Other moments of fun and of interest:
(First: all theme related stuff should now be back to normal. If you do notice something odd, please let me know via the contact form or a comment!)
Day 02: A book you wish more people were talking about
My current wish along these lines is Mira Grant’s Feed. It’s a complicated book, both for world-building reasons, and because of the complexities of the plot, which is all about truth, journalism, blogging, and having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the cost. It’s also about zombies, as the worldbuilding part involves two vaccines (for the common cold and for cancer) having spread and combined. Everyone in that world – 2040, 20 years after these two vaccines combined – carries a resevoir of the viruses, and if they die (of whatever cause), they reanimate as zombies, who are also much more contagious, unless totally destroyed.
It’s a hard book, and Grant pulls few punches about what it’s like to live in that world, but also about how news stories, blogging, journalism, and other fields might have changed and developed in a world where going outside and travel we take for granted right now is extraordinarily risky. I’m definitely looking forward to the sequels.
There’s a fascinating 30 day book meme going around, that I thought I’d chime in. (I don’t anticipate 30 daily posts, and I may skip some – complete list below.) While there aren’t spoilers in this one, I will make note of any, and put them below the ‘more’ tag.
Day 01 – A book series you wish had gone on longer OR a book series you wish would just freaking end already (or both!)
I read a lot of series books, and am therefore pretty tolerant of the problems of a series – things that get so tangled that going on is immensely complicated, or where the author just needs to change what they’re doing, or a series stops selling well.
I would love especially to have more books in Deborah Grabien‘s Haunted Ballad folksong series (the last one was in 2007, and I don’t know if she has more planned), and in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series (I’m also deeply fond of her Vorkorsigan books, and her others, for that matter: she does hope to return to that world at some point.) And I’d love another Jacqueline Kirby book from Elizabeth Peters (though again, I also like her other series, and just finished the latest in the Amelia Peabody series). But mostly, I don’t pine for series, as much as I do for more stuff from authors I love.
Beyond that, I’m not so sure. I try not to pine for series where the author has died, as it seems a waste of time. (Though I am among those who would cheerfully inhale more Dorothy Sayers, for example.)
In terms of series that I wish had stopped sooner than they did: Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books took a sharp turn after about Blue Moon, and I wish she’d done a more deliberate split at that point (or perhaps a book or two later) than what she ended up doing – perhaps branching off a new sequence with a coherent arc/series title, or something.
continue below for all 30 days of this meme.
Continue reading Book meme
No links post this week, as I’m travelling, but there’ll be one next week. In the meantime, I’ve been working on weeding through my bookshelves and thinking about what I want as a ‘collection’ in library terms. (The realities of job hunting right now mean that there’s a reasonable chance a move will be involved. So I’m sorting through books and weeding out stuff I no longer need to own, on the theory that if I move, it’ll be useful, and if I don’t move, it’ll still be useful.)
My starting point:
- I currently live in a little tiny house with limited bookshelf space. (To the point that the childhood books I adore but rarely reread live on the top two shelves in my pantry, which are too tall for me to use for kitchen storage without a ladder.) Everything I own therefore needs to pass the ‘do I love this enough to make room for it?’ test.
- Realistically? There is this thing called the Internet, and this other thing called the Library. I own very few reference books, because the Internet does most of what I need in a far smaller space, and I own very little non-fiction in general because the library is likely to have what I want. (Exceptions noted below.)
What I own:
Reference: A small reference collection useful for the kinds of questions easier to work with in print than online. (Greek lexicon, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phase and Fable, that sort of thing.)
- books which would be very expensive to replace but that are in formats I am affectionate about or sentimentally attached to. (The Riverside Chaucer, several gorgeously illustrated books on the history of the book, etc. etc.)
- A very few college and grad school textbooks that remain reasonably current and useful, in subject areas I’m likely to want to reference at home. Or if not current, at least a reasonable starting place (A classic in this category is Grout and Palisca’s music history text book, though I forget which edition I have. A number of other music books, as well.)
- cookbooks I refer to regularly (though I usually start by checking them out of the library first to see if I like them.)
- a few pieces of classic literature that include annotations of usefulness (I have a number of the Penguin editions of various Arthurian legends pieces.)
- and a few miscellaneous non-fiction books that I come back to regularly and enjoy rereading for pleasure (The Mummy Congress (mummies) or Honey, Mud, and Maggots (where modern science and folklore around healing and remedies coincide), or Color: A Natural History of the Palette (color))
These are about a fifth of my shelves.
- Books I re-read at least every 2 years or so.
- Genre series where the library has proven unreliable in keeping copies of everything …
- … or which I want to read at 3am when I can’t sleep (or I’m sick, or any other thing that makes it unlikely that the library will be very useful.)
- And a small collection of fiction that I don’t necessarily re-read very often, but when I want to read it, it’s for a very specific reason, and I like to have it handy.
These are about half of my shelves.
Religious non-fiction (and some fiction):
(For other people, this might encompass books about a hobby or a very specific interest, too.)
The library is not a good and reliable source for a sizeable amount of the material I refer to in my religious life: often copies would only be available via ILL, and even then, not very reliably (since my home library right now is the biggest public library system in the state: chances are decent that if they don’t have it, it’s going to be hard to come by, as we’re talking ‘books for members of the religion’ not ‘academic discussion of the religion’, which would be easier to come by from university sources.)
So, I have copies at home (both of books I like and recommend, and a shelf that a friend of mine labelled ‘Books of Ill Repute’ where I like having certain popular but problematic titles handy. It’s a lot easier to say “On page 50, I really disagree with the assumption that…” and “This section in chapter 3 is really muddy and poorly explained: I’ve heard people interpret it this way, and that way, and this other way.” if, in fact, you have the books in front of you.
I do the least weeding here, honestly – because I never know which of these books is going to be useful or not useful, and in which circumstance. (And because replacing them would be more expensive and complicated in many cases than replacing, say, a genre mystery series I decided I do want to keep.)
I’ve also gotten (through the kindness of a friend) a number of copies of items that are now fairly hard to come by (small press run books in the days before Print on Demand), and I figure I ought to keep them until I find a specific better home for someone to make use of them.
So, mostly, I look for whether I’m going to want to refer to a book repeatedly, whether it fits a hole in my existing collection, and the quality of information before I bring it home, and after that, expect to keep it (though I do plan to do a little bit of weeding here, as there are a few things that probably don’t need to live with me anymore.
(These, if it weren’t obvious, are the rest of my collection.)
I am very odd in that I shelve by sub-genre in fiction. All my historical mystery series are together. All my urban fantasy are together – near, but separate from – my high fantasy, and my historical fantasy (my term for books clearly in the fantasy genre but clearly in a world closely influenced by our history – Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s books.
Within those, I go by place within series (usually chronological internal to the series, rather than publication date), and then by ‘where does this fit on the shelf’ (so my authors are not always in alphabetical order, since for some series, they’re all paperback, and in others, there’s a mix of mass market, trade, and hardcover editions.)
In the non-fiction, I group by general topic (and in the religious materials, by subtopic).
In an ideal world with more shelves for bookshelf space, I’d have the space to spread everything out, and to go alphabetically by author (and then by place in series) and so on, but until then, I make do.