23 January 2016

Imminent Future: A Review of The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Patrick Ness

This is the month of preoccupied reading; progressing from one great book to another, allowing little time to digest the last as I immerse myself in the next. If the world was filled with this type of problem there would be little to grieve. Unfortunately, I am finding my enthusiasm obstructing any attempt to review through this blog. Four books stand firm in my brain, flashing to be heard through this medium but I have a book to finish and the cycle perpetuates.

And yet, as I am one hour from trekking off to the local natural history museum for a day of dinosaur bones, rock collections and bat dioramas with my son, I am going to do the impossible and post. Writing, as Twitter loves to highlight, is an arduous task, a procrastinator's nightmare, for me though it is a struggle with timing. Waiting for the planets to align, my posts lack consistency because of my creative process. I need to feel it and if that is lacking then little writing will ensue. In all likelihood, I am in need of a regimental writing course, something to shake the creative out but with a book sitting next to me there is enough of a justified distraction. That book, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, has undergone the most dramatic about-face regarding my review.

Patrick Ness is a renowned children's author with two Carnegie medals, and a legion of much deserved praise; or so I can gather from my brief dalliance on the internet. The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a the typical coming-of-age story, narrated by Mike, a high-schooler documenting his last few weeks with his friends before graduation launches them into their imminent futures. 

With Judy Blume holding fast to the crown of demystifying growing-up, Ness's attempt to step into the realm is lacklustre. And yet, I respectfully admit it took me to the very last page to arrive at this sad conclusion. Mike has OCD, his sister battles anorexia, her best-friend is on the brink of moving to a war-torn country with her missionary parents and his best-friend is the grandson of the god of cats. The gods of cats, and it is here that this very ordinary story of teen development takes a dramatic turn. Firmly entrenched in a world of monsters, vampires, gods and immortals, the suburbia life of Mike and his friends is anything but ordinary. By applying a layer of fantasy to an already popular literary theme, Ness had me convinced that he had opened a world up to normalizing mental illness. With 50 pages left, he most soundly had but suddenly the mystic slipped away and the story became a glaringly obvious retelling of prom. Even with the blue lights and the monsters and the dying kids, the denouement killed the magic.  

The brilliant discussion of mental illness veiled as a monster trope that I thought I was reading, is not.  This girl is discontent with what could have been.

9 January 2016

Vintage: A Review of Foundation's Edge, Isaac Asimov

The call to vintage SF arms could not have been better timed with the surprising arrival of Foundation's Edge through the library system. Deep into November I had compiled a stack of holds conceptualized to inspire the beginning of this reading year. A super fan of the first three:  Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation it is of embarrassment that I never read Asimov's later additions to the series. Apart from Dune, no other SF book has impacted my reading soul as has Foundation. It is a glorious example of world-building, complete with historical depth and mathematical shenanigans that woos the reader into believing in psychohistory. Asimov's ingenious fictional science, psychohistory:  the predication of future events of mass populations through the combined study of sociology, history and mathematical statistics exemplifies the power of quasi facts to strength a sci-fi story. 

While I insist upon reading vintage, my actions do not always equate those intentions. Dragonriders of Pern, A Wrinkle in Time and a smattering of Heinlein books that went spectacularly wrong, have been my lacklustre venture. Thus the arrival of Foundation's Edge has become a fortuitous event, destined to arrive just as I vowed to join the Little Red Reviewer's January challenge. And so, as I devour the book, falling deep within Asimov's prowess to story-tell, I am beyond content. After-all there is no greater reading pleasure than finding a new tale to an already loved series:  I feel like an old friend has come over for tea.

During the glory days of the Galactic Empire, a scientist by the name of Hari Seldon predicted the fall of the Empire at which humanity would dive into a deep dark age of 30,000 years. With the aid of psychohistory, Seldon purported that humanity's great fall could be averted to only 1000 years if certain variables were put into place. Those variables, the creation of Foundation and it's hidden brethren Second Foundation are the stories of the first three books. In this, the fourth book, the deviant The Mule, a mutant with mind-control powers has been defeated, ending the crisis that almost crushed Seldon's plan, spiralling humanity into darkness. 200 years have passed, Foundation has achieved further advances in technology while Second Foundation, unbeknown to the First keeps a steady, psychohistorical control on the entire galaxy. Both Foundations continue to pursue the dream of Seldon, one through the physical sciences, the other through mental with both intent on actualizing the rise of the new Empire with their descendants the ruling power. Using the laws of mass action, the future of one individual cannot be foretold and it is one man, an exile from Terminus that could foreseeable derail the Plan.

Truth be told, the first 20 pages of Foundation's Edge was duller than a bread knife.  Asimov's intention to capture the Roman Empire's fall via the medium of science fiction can be brilliantly boring. Reading intellectuals pontificate even while acknowledging that the boredom is intended by the author is Foundation's Edge's achilles heel. Without the fortitude of a steam roller I would have tossed this copy to the return pile before ever discovering it's hidden diamond plot-line. A quest always brings the happy to town and no greater search in the canon of SF is there, than the quest for Earth. Earth, a myth so deeply folded into it's past that it has disappeared, has become the twist to reanimate the series. As I continue to read, discovering the true importance of Earth, and whether Seldon's plan has been compromised, preoccupation that only a good space book can do, drapes over me. 

Vintage SF January is going so far, very well indeed.

3 January 2016

Balance: This Girl's 2016 Resolution to Read Vintage SF

Resolutions are fast and free this week. January, the month of personal promises finds many of us trying to extend our reading piles while reducing our waist lines. While I gave up on adding more books to my steady 50, 50 I pledge, 50 I read, I am going to dip my toes slightly into the waters of hopeful intentions by reading more vintage SF.

With Heinlein effectively ending any interest I may have had with publications before 1971, I am none too excited. If anything those unsuccessful reading attempts taught me to be more thorough in my choice of grand-daddies. Thus I look to Asimov to save my day, fulfilling the Little Red Reviewer's January plea to wander the second hand bookstores in search of the classics. Which vintage books exactly are unknown as time spent in the back quarters of a used bookstore's SF section is a treasure trove of mysteries. My hope is the continuation of the Foundation series, but what I truly wish, as does many, is an Alfred Bester; the holy grail of SF classic publications. 

Of any reading month, January is my busiest. I always have a pile of gift books that has to compete with my expansive library requests. With so many words to read I am slightly worried; after all, it is advantageous to remain present in the moment when raising a child, nor forsake the hubby who does seem to like my company. Balance is the key, especially when V. E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic sits beguiling beside me, winking and flirting, daring me to join the magical adventure.

 If there is one thing I have discovered about my reading self, I am unable to resist magic. Christmas of grade six, I received a a magic kit, complete with wand, table and 5 tricks to master. Special satin scarfs borrowed from my mother's fancy draw draped the magic table as I honed in upon my spiel, in my mind successfully dazzling those around me with my slight of hand. Magic though, magic that keeps me nose deep into a good book is the one of power, of wonder, of sparkly amazement; the magic that runs deep through Harry Potter, seeps out of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the one that powers the blood of Merlin, Gandalf, Myfanwy. It is this magic, the magic of fantasy that has my soul. Maybe the key to 2016's resolution is discovering vintage magical space opera. Oh my!

1 January 2016

Ringing in 2016 with Salvation: A Review of Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace

2015 stretches behind while 2016 gleams with promise, as I glance over to my pile of Christmas books. This girl got all the books  and is smugger than Smaug upon his horde of golden treasures. I have found myself under the tree an inordinate amount of times simply shuffling through the books, slightly grinning, pondering which one I should tackle first. Never one to think through the timing of a read, the first to be drawn was the post-apocalyptic nightmare, Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace that kept me deeply troubled as the holidays played around me. 

The Archivist, a servant of Catchkeep, the keeper of souls, marked in the heavens as a constellation of 16 stars, observes, catches and traps ghosts. An outcast of society, an Archivist acts as a medium between the dead and the living. Without the ministrations of these young girls, marked from birth as Catchkeep's servants, ghosts would overwhelm the town, harming the living who struggle with the most mundane pursuits of food, water and shelter. The Catchkeep Priest with his hounds provides a consistent threat, maintaining a hive of Upstarts who yearly struggle to achieve the role as Archivist. Archivists do not live long, nor well; her title earned through death, is a young woman's only path to salvation.

A light reading pursuit for this, the end of 2015, it is not but powerful it so very much is. Nicole Kornher-Stace has written a nightmarish adventure that follows Wasp, the current Archivist who has successfully fended off yet another Upstart attack, and now having barely healed from the death-match is required to continue her ghostly pursuits. The ghosts are between the world of substance and the world of myth. Death is a land of great unending confusion, a place that seeps out a ghost's memories, eventually leaving a shell that wanders the ages, searching for that which they do not know. Without the Archivist the town would be riddled with ghosts trying to gain substance to their identities, attracted to salt, blood, many rage filled, harming, even killing the living. Without the Archivist's ability to bind a ghost, without the 400 years of recorded observations, Catchkeep's wrath would fall down upon the town. 

And it is with this that we follow down the warren tunnels of myth, religion and societal needs, exploring how violence is accepted, why we turn on our very own. I loved this dark tale, the exploration of the living and the dead, the idea that a ghost over time is simply a less complete version of it's living memories. I loved the startling realizations revealed almost reluctantly of the timing and place of this novel. Kornher-Stace dives her readers into a very oppressive world and only over time offers glimpses into what once was and how far in the future we truly are. Not every story you read needs to be so blunt with time and space. There is a definite feeling of mythos to this book; a cautionary tale we one day might find in the annals of our own spiritual fables.

Archivist Wasp is YA, Young Adult, a category that always seems to follow any tale that is violent, dark and with teens the protagonists. Barely myself able to stomach the depth of cruelty found within the pages, I would greatly resist having any of my teen nieces and nephews read it until their maturity matches their ability to see beyond the despair. This is a difficult book, written in a very accessible way, thus creating a conundrum of who the target reader should be. I continue to be surprised by what some children/tweens are reading simply because their vernacular is extensive enough to suss out the plot. An ability to read does not equate the ability to carry the levels of violence found in many of YA books on the shelf. 

While my surprise in discovering Archivist Wasp to be YA brings some caution to my overall recommendation, I still stand fully behind this novel. It is a gem, a dystopian, bleak gem that will haunt your waking dreams, inspiring you to delve more into the land of fable and nightmares. Nicole Kornher-Stace is a talented writer someone who is now fully on this girl's reading radar.