Tag Archives: books

What makes a good story?

BooksI spend more time reading than I probably should. There are many other things I ought to be doing: laundry, ironing, writing… I console myself with the thought that somebody-or-other said that to be good at writing, you should spend a lot of time reading.

This month, I haven’t been having much luck with books. I’ve started reading several, and ended up just not feeling the love. One book was so not-feeling-the-love that I gave up completely after 15% and resolved never to read anything by that author again (at least, until someone tells me he’s stopped doing the really annoying thing he’d started doing that has made me abandon a series six books in). Another, I kind of enjoyed, but couldn’t get into, and found myself distracted by something else.

Luckily, someone recommended that I read Radiance, by Grace Draven. I burned through that in a day or so and reviewed it. It was like being thrown a lifeline: suddenly, I was reading something that I enjoyed. All my mind was on the characters, and their predicament(s), not on how much left there was in the book, and how long it was going to take, and whether I really ought to go and do some ironing instead. And when the ironing starts sounding like a good bet, you know you’re not enjoying the book.

It did, however, make me start thinking about what makes a good story for me, personally.

  • Characters. Personally, I don’t like characters who are too nice. Maybe that’s because I’m just not a very nice person myself, but give me a character who’s at least a bit grey. I particularly loathe good, self-sacrificing heroines. A heroine I particularly like at the moment is Kim Harrison’s Peri Reed: Peri is a materialist. She likes expensive cars and expensive tech. She likes having a job that gives her power and influence, and she’s not into self-sacrifice. Personally, I think we have a few too many heroines who – regardless of how ‘kick ass’ they’re marketed – still go all goody-two-shoes and self-sacrificing at the drop of a hat. I think it’s because there’s still a lot of social conditioning over what ‘nice girls’ do and don’t do – and admitting to materialistic impulses (except when it comes to clothes and shoes) is a no-no.
  • Relationships. I like a romance story every now and then, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. One author I’m continually banging on about how brilliant he is, is Jim Butcher. His Dresden Files is one series I’d hate to give up – and one of the reasons the series is so good is because of the relationships Harry Dresden has with the supporting characters. The poor guy almost never gets laid, but Butcher has surrounded his MC with a circle of friends, enemies, acquaintances, and others who are all fully fleshed-out characters in their own right. This makes the stories much more  complex and multi-layered (insofar as a series based on noir detective fiction can be complex and multilayered). Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series is touted as the London equivalent of the Dresden Files, and I can see why. But – despite the fact that Alex Verus is English – I still much prefer Butcher’s books. The reason, I think, is that Alex, despite several books in the series, is pretty much still a lone wolf. It limits the stories, and besides, I find myself thinking that anybody with any sense who gets attacked as often as Alex Verus does should start building his own power bloc out of self-preservation if nothing else. But the lack of people in Alex’s life really makes the books feel a bit flat.
  • Emotional connection. I like a book where I feel I know the main character – their personality, their motivations. I abandoned a very well-regarded book recently because I just couldn’t connect to the main character. It was very well written and everything, and I could see why it gets such good reviews – but I just found myself not caring what happened. Book abandoned. On the other hand, Jim Butcher (again!) is great at emotional connection. Harry Dresden is definitely a bit of a prat at times (a lot of times in the earlier books!) but he’s very easy to make a connection with, even if you’d like that connection to be your fist and his teeth. Crucially, though, Butcher himself manages to write the books through Harry’s eyes, and still show Harry as being a bit of a prat whose prattishness makes him lose out to the less testosterone-poisoned persons around him. You may sometimes want to punch Harry, but you always care what happens to him.
  • Plot. To be fair, this is a bit of a strange one. For me, I think the characters are the most important thing. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn doesn’t have what I’d call a plot so much as it has a character arc, but I still really enjoyed the book. But whatever it is, it has to be coherent, and it has to make sense. If people do things, those things should be believable (bearing in mind that people are not always logical in real life). Also, don’t dangle things in front of the reader then fail to follow up. One of the things I disliked in The Late Scholar was the mention of a couple of land law/tax concepts that made me think there was going to be a really cool land-law/tax mystery. Then there just wasn’t. Those mentions were just left dangling, as if the author had thought of doing a cool land-law-tax mystery, then found the research to be too difficult/boring and given up.
  • Meta-plot. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of series: ones with a metaplot and ones without. The Dresden Files is one of those with a metaplot. Every book (after maybe the first one or two) advance the metaplot to some kind of conclusion that Butcher already has planned. One of the things that make the Dresden Files so brilliant is that you can see that Butcher has carefully plotted the route to the final destination. You read one of the later books, and you can see ideas and plot points that were carefully seeded several books earlier; seemingly minor events suddenly turn out to have been important. The alternative is the non-metaplot type, where the hero’s situation generally does a sort of reset-to-start between books: the classic example is the noir detective who is always poor, always on the brink of bankruptcy, and always single – if he ever gets the girl, she leaves him or dies. Both – metaplot or no metaplot – are valid options, although I prefer the former. However, if you are going to have a metaplot, you need to advance it. You can have a book where the metaplot takes a back seat (or appears to), but in general, each book should take the plot a measurable step towards resolution. Otherwise, readers start getting impatient and wondering what the hell is going on. Likewise, it’s useful if your readers can tell what the metaplot is. If you just appear to have all this stuff going on, people start to get confused.
  • Not stopping the story to add a sex scene/sermon. This is a deal-breaker for me. Sex scenes irritate me much less than being preached at, whatever that says about me. But if you’re going to add a sex scene, make it mean something. Otherwise, I will just skip it (because unless I’m in the mood for a sex scene, it will bore me), and you wrote all those words for nothing. And other readers might end up skipping the whole book, or even all your books. People are funny about sex that way. However, preaching is to me what explicit BDSM-orgy-erotica is to the Clean Romance reading market. If I detect it, not only will I skip that part, I will skip the entire rest of the book, rest of the series, and quite possibly the rest of the author’s work for the rest of my life. One of my favourite authors is Terry Pratchett, and at his height, he was a master at including political and social concepts in his books. But – at his height (he got a bit obvious later on) – he never preached. The message came through the plot, and through the characters’ actions, and was far more powerful for it. I cry every time I read the passage in Going Postal about John Dearheart’s name being kept alive in the overhead. I’ve never forgotten the way he laid out the unpleasantness of Jingoism and false nationalism in JingoNor his skewering of racism in Thud! and, to a lesser extent, SnuffNight Watch deals with the revolutions, and the hypocrisy of revolutionaries who find that they have not only the wrong kind of government, but also the wrong kind of People. I could go on and on about the important political and social concepts dealt with in Pratchett’s Discworld books. Many authors who wish to make a social or political point should go and read Pratchett, and realise that the best way to make an impression on your readers is not to harangue them, or preach at them, but instead to show them – through the actions and reactions of your characters – what you mean, and why it’s important.

So, there we go. I’m going to go back to reading The Death of the Necromancer, which I first read years ago. I just found out it was really cheap on Amazon Kindle, so I’ve got myself a Kindle copy. And it’s just as good now as it was then.

What do you think?

Writing Women in Traditionally Male Roles

Thankfully, we’ve got beyond the idea that a woman’s place in literature is to be the hero’s (prospective) love interest, and to scream and break her ankle a lot. However, I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where we’ve got it right yet – this is not surprising. What gets written in books reflects (at least in part) the author’s experiences – whether experiences in life, or what they’ve learned through deliberate research. And society has not yet figured out gender equality. To be fair, this is a pretty big ask, given how many thousands of years has been spent on the patriarchal model. It’s a bit much to expect all of that to be binned in a few decades. We’ve made a lot of progress since my grandmother’s day, when women were expected to give up their jobs when they got married, and it was normal to have the “women’s pay scale” (less) and the “men’s pay scale” (more) for the same job. We can recognise how far we’ve come, while still acknowledging that we’ve some way to go yet.

One of the less obvious issues is, what do we mean by equality?

Some kinds of equality are easy to define: women should get paid the same as men for doing the same job; men should be allowed to be midwives, and women should be allowed to be soldiers. More subtle are things like the value we put on different job roles, and different personal qualities. Traditionally female/caring roles tend to be valued less than traditionally male/aggressive roles. Personal qualities seen as traditionally “feminine”, like being caring, or diplomatic, are seen as less valuable or praiseworthy than traditionally “masculine” characteristics like aggression. When we look at literature, where there is currently an emphasis on “strong female” protagonists, especially female characters who adopt traditionally male roles (e.g. warrior/soldier) it’s interesting to note that these women are often written with so many “male” characteristics, that the impression is (quoting from someone else) “a man without a cock”.

Now, how much of this is just gender-bias, and how much is true? Is there really a psychological difference between males and females which should be written into a character?

Partly, this depends on how much of gender differences in behaviour are genetically determined, and how much is social. If we believe that there is no real psychological difference between men and women, and that all apparent differences are due to social conditioning (which a character may ignore or overcome), this has two consequences:

  1. Homo sapiens would be just about the only species that doesn’t have differential gender roles. Just about every animal species I can think of has differential gender roles between the sexes – whatever those roles might be. Since animals presumably act mostly on instinct, this must mean that in the majority of cases, females have different instincts to males.
  2. Gender dysphoria/transgenderism could not exist. You cannot simultaneously declare that there is no difference, psychologically, between males and females and then say that it’s possible for a person to be physically male and psychologically female (or the other way around). The most you can say is that you have a person of one gender who expresses the characteristics demanded of the gender role of the other gender, and societally-dictated roles are so iron-clad that it’s easier for that person to declare themselves to be the other gender, than to say that they are gender A but prefer the things that gender B is supposed to prefer.

So, yes, there’s a lot of societally-determined gender role enforcement going on – but I don’t think that we can say that there is no real psychological difference between men and women.

So, if we accept that men and women are fundamentally different, psychologically, then what does that mean for writing?

For instance, I attended a fantasy convention this year where in all seriousness one of the panel discussions was “Can a female character be an anti-hero?” I think that – given the context – the organisers were doing the “women are nice and good and moral, and men are base beasts controlled by their lusts” angle, but what this actually means is “Do women have the full range of moral and emotional responses that men do?”

Another example of rampant sexism is this article in Writers’ Digest, which defines male anti-heroes by what they do, and what their morality is, and female anti-heroes by their appearance (smudged lipstick), who they have sex with (men she doesn’t know well), and an inability to fit into traditionally female roles. Admittedly, this was published in 2008, but seriously…!

However, sexist these two examples may be, but they do have one thing right: men and women are psychologically different (just not in the way these examples assume). It’s obviously a sliding scale in both cases, with some overlap – but writing a female character does not mean taking the “easy way out” and writing a male character then adding something stereotypically female, like an obsession with shoes. Or crippling self-doubt about her looks or attractiveness. Jack Reacher and James Bond don’t have problems with self-doubt, so why should your heroine? If we accept that women and men are psychologically different, writing a female character who is essentially male (or is a caricature) can be just as sexist as writing only female characters who scream and break their ankles a lot. Equality is not achieved if the result is to obliterate femininity, or present a one-dimensional view of it.

So, how do you write a character who is female, yet does traditionally “male” things, without making her into a caricature, or just “a man without a cock”?

Furthermore, if we accept that women and men are psychologically different, this will affect how they respond to the situations they encounter, and how they relate to the other characters in the book. What is it like to be female when most of your co-workers are male? What are the characteristics of women choose to move into traditionally male roles/jobs?

To be fair, I don’t have the answer to this. My mother would be the first to tell people that I never got the hang of femininity myself, so I’m hardly in a position to explain it to anybody else. My advice would be to go and talk to women who do things similar to your “strong female” protagonist. Or if you don’t know anyone like that, read words written by those women and listen to interviews. At the very least, read about such women – what problems did they encounter, how did they handle it, how does history see them? How did their contemporaries see them?

Here are some suggestions:

Women working in traditionally male roles

Diaries and Memoirs

Women who dressed as men

Diaries & Memoirs

Other Non-Fiction

Women who have worked in traditionally male roles (personal experience) and are now authors

Women who have researched women in traditionally male roles

  • Mary Gentle. Did an MA in War Studies at the University of London, looking at the roles of women in combat/war. Wrote Ash: A Secret Historywhich is a sort of weird alternate-history/fantasy/sci-fi novel/series about a female mercenary, starting in 15th century Europe.

Fiction written by men or women who have not performed those roles, about women in traditionally male roles

These authors don’t have personal experience (as far as I know) of being a woman in a traditionally male role, but either I’ve read their stuff and I think it’s well done, or someone else has mentioned it as being good.

I intend to add to this list, as and when I can. If you have additions you would like to suggest, please comment!

Review: Raw Power

Raw Power
Raw Power by Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ordinary bloke gets demon heart-transplant and finds it does more than just pump blood. Plus, he now has a new job, and life has got more complicated.

What I Liked
Lucian. Lucian (who doesn’t like being called ‘Lucy’, but had probably better get used to it) rang true for me. He’s bright but lazy, making a reasonable living prodding buttock and collecting debts – and, later on, art. He’s allowed himself to drift to where he is, without thinking about any of the morality involved – and he’s so overconfident you just know he’s in for a shock. Shocks. In short, he comes off as a realistic twenty-something lad with more testosterone than brains (and since he’s a bright lad, that’s a lot of testosterone). However, he has enough self-awareness to make him someone I would actually like to spend time with.

The whole demon-heart business. This is a new idea, or at least a sufficiently new spin on an old idea that it looks new. There’s some interesting hints that we’ll see more ramifications later on in the series.

Lucian again. Lucian doesn’t go from ordinary ass-kicker to supernatural hero overnight; he does what most twenty-something lads would do in that position: he screws up. Repeatedly. It’s the testosterone thing again. It can be irritating to watch, but Ibsen made the right decision, I think. Lucian is a more interesting character for being just a bit morally ambiguous, just a bit too laddish for his own good. It’s just not realistic for an ordinary person to be given some kind of supernatural power and then to immediately think “With great power comes great responsibility; I must be sensible and mature from now on.”

The magic system. We don’t actually get much information on the magic system, but Ibsen seems to have some interesting ideas.

What could have been improved
Pacing. Apart from a few blips, everything seemed to go a bit too much according to plan. There wasn’t that sense of imminent failure and risk that heightens the tension late on in most books.

Character interactions. I’ve observed before that the best urban fantasy (at least, for me) tends to be where the main character has a team he can bounce off. Where the character is isolated, either because he has no friends, or because his colleagues aren’t sharing, it makes the story a bit two-dimensional. I’m hoping that in further books, Ibsen will lighten up and let the other characters have a bit more page time (come on, Ibsen, you’ve set up some really good stuff and I want to know!).

Conclusion
This is a solid three-star read for me; I can’t quite justify giving it four stars, not when I compare it to such authors as Kim Harrison, Faith Hunter, Jim Butcher et al. However, I think Ibsen definitely has the potential to get there. Technical things like pacing can always be sorted out with practice; what Ibsen has is the ability to write an engaging character whom you’re actually interested in reading about – and I think that’s more difficult to learn.

So, Ibsen is a new author I’m going to read more of. I love it when that happens. 🙂

I’ve already bought Book 2, Roaring Blood, which has zombies.

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Review: Sovereign

Sovereign
Sovereign by C.J. Sansom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s taken me years to get around to reading this, and having finished, I’m left with one inescapable thought: Why did it take me so long?

Matthew Shardlake and his trusty sidekick Jack Barak are off to York with the Royal Progress. King Henry is intending to to prod some serious Yorkshire buttock, and Shardlake is along to help with the legal petitions. He has also been given the task of ensuring the health and welfare of an accused traitor, who is being brought back to London for “questioning”.

Pretty soon, it’s clear that something is rotten in the county of Yorkshire (other than the King’s ulcerated leg, and the bits of traitor still nailed up over the gates), and before the tale is done, there are murders, attempted murders, lies, betrayals, seductions, narrow escapes, and celebrity gossip.

Shardlake and Barak make a good team, even though they don’t always see eye to eye, and Sansom is obviously moving their story on: this is a good thing, as it’s always vaguely unsatisfactory when the main characters’ lives never change, despite what’s happening around them.

Sansom also manages to get the paranoid atmosphere of Tudor England under the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign: an increasingly tyrannical and unstable king with nearly absolute power. Religion and politics inextricably linked. The danger that a wrong word or look to the wrong person in the wrong place, and someone might end up in the Tower of London however innocent they might be.

This series is going from strength to strength, and I will definitely be reading the rest of it.

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Review: Guns of the Dawn

Guns of the Dawn
Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was nothing like the book I expected from the blurb. I had expected a fast-moving adventure, featuring a young woman who discovers that she isn’t fighting the war she thought she was, and then having to do something about it. Although that description technically fits, it really doesn’t convey the right impression.

Emily Marshwic is a young woman of a slightly-impoverished gentry family. She does the usual young-women things, including keeping alive a long-running feud with her father’s enemy, who is unfortunately now the mayor of the local town. When neighbouring Denland kills its king and invades, the usual thing happens. First the volunteers go to the war, then the conscripts – first, male, and, finally, one woman from each household is required to go to war.

And so Emily ends up in the first tranche of female recruits, is given fairly minimal training, promoted to ensign, and arrives on the front equipped with musket, sabre, and her father’s pistol.

It takes quite a long time for the book to get this far. Even more time is spent on Emily learning her business as a soldier and a junior officer. I found myself thinking that the story wasn’t really about Emily – she was just the focus for it. The story is about the war, its progress, and what war does to those left at home and those involved in the fighting.

It also has much in common with a coming-of-age tale – Emily starts out as a fairly typical (though rather outspoken) young woman of good family; she ends up as a competent soldier and officer in the army. We get to watch the change in slow-time, as she grows into a new person with a different place in society.

So far, so good. However, nothing special. If you want to read about war from the soldier’s perspective, try All Quiet on the Western Front. If you want to read about a woman soldier, read The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

For me, what took this book from a solid four-star tale – competent, entertaining, well-written and so on, but without that special something – to five stars, was the very end. I saw the events of the final scene coming, but that did not make them any more satisfying, or any less what the book needed to acquire that special something.

And I wonder how much the author has read of the English Civil War – King Luthrian reminded me very much of Charles I, particularly at the end.

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Technology: Winners and Losers

A Dodo

History is full of winners and losers, and it’s particularly obvious when dealing with technology. Take video recording, for example. Does anybody remember Betamax? I remember borrowing video cassettes when I was a kid – the shop had lots and lots of VHS tapes, and tiny little section for Betamax. Pretty  soon you couldn’t get Betamax at all (although if you really tried, apparently you could – as Sony only stopped making them this year). I did hear that Betamax was actually better technology – it just didn’t take off. Now, of course, the VHS has been replaced by DVD, and the last manufacturer of VHS tape players stopped making them.

E-books are an example of a technology that was somewhat slow to take off until Amazon brought out the first Kindle device. As a person who started reading e-books on a PDA with a battery life about an hour and a half, I desperately wanted a Kindle when they first went on the market – but unfortunately, I couldn’t have one because they were only on sale in the USA. Now, they are everywhere – and I’ve said before that I think they will eventually completely replace mass-market paperbacks. The market for paper books will probably continue, but only for presentation and collectors’ editions.

But the advent of e-books also brought with it additional sub- technologies. When e-books first became available, there was an assumption that the time of a book as being simply words on a page – whether that page was electronic or paper – were drawing to a close. Books would be enriched with audio, and video, and probably a bunch of other enrichments too.  And that is what the company Booktrack thought too: they develop soundtracks for books that include background music and sound effects, just like a film. The technology never really took off, and possibly one reason was because the only way to listen to the soundtrack with via their app.  Another reason may have been that in the early days, most people were reading on dedicated e-Ink book reading devices, which may not have had audio capability. Now that more people are reading on smartphones, this raises the possibility that Booktrack were simply ahead of their time – were they to start up now, would they do better?  Since they are still going, will they manage to popularise their technology? Or will it die, a technology that simply did not fill a need? It happens: look at the Google Glass. While in the abstract, it’s kind of cool to think of having your own heads up display, in reality it probably makes you feel a bit silly, not to mention getting you thrown out of restaurants. I expect the Google Glass will make a reappearance, but probably aimed at security services rather than the general consumer.

At the other end of the scale, you have Pokémon Go. A game that involves people walking around in the real world, looking for imaginary monsters. Most people stop doing that at about the age of five. Yet, it’s become a global craze. People are getting mugged, falling over cliffs, and crashing their cars because they are paying more attention to hunting Pokémon than to the real world around them. Who would have guessed that the game would take off to such an extent?

It makes me glad that I’m a writer.  No matter what the technology – whether audio or visual, dead tree or electronic – people will always want stories. The way in which they consume those stories might change, but the story’s the thing.

Review: Bellwether

Bellwether
Bellwether by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read this years ago, and it became one of my favourites. I read, and enjoy, a lot of books – but only very few get filed on the “favourites” shelf.

On re-reading, a number of years later, the story hasn’t lost anything. In fact, I probably enjoy it even more now than I did then, being older and more cynical.

Sandra works for Hi-Tek, researching trends. She wants to find the origin of hair-bobbing. She also wants her mail correctly delivered, her photocopying done, and her stapler returned.

Bennett also works for Hi-Tek, under the impression that he has moved away from studying chaos. He wants some macaques so he can study information diffusion.

Flip attends at Hi-Tek, in the sense of: “Do you work here?” “No, I just attend.” She is the cause of chaos in other people.

It’s quite difficult to describe this book, because there actually isn’t a great deal in the way of plot. In some ways, it almost operates like the nineteenth century roman a clef in which ninety percent of the fun is that you know who the characters are supposed to represent. In the case of Bellwether Willis takes the whole book to poke fun at people who mindlessly follow trends without even known that they’re doing it, and at corporate-management-jargon.

This book was first published in 1996, and so certain aspects are rather dated (e.g. one character’s cellphone, which keeps going out of range, and the computer equipment) but the story as a whole has stood the test of 20 years. Given the subject matter, that’s rather depressing – but not surprising.

Anyone who has worked for a large company will immediately recognise Management (who is never named!) who comes up with a new acronym every week and is incapable of telling the difference between people who sound good and those who can actually do their jobs.

But the main portion of the book is about trends – good ones and bad ones. Why do people flock to a particular pursuit, or thing, in droves – and then abandon it a short while after? Everyone can probably think of a few (e.g., Pokemon Go, at the moment – with people getting mugged, or crashing their cars, because they’re playing the game and not paying attention to their surroundings. Or even wandering into landmines). But to some extent, these trends are (mostly) harmless, if rather irritating for those not caught up in them. But Willis also points out that other things are also trends: intolerance of a particular group being one. It used to be Jews. Now it’s Muslims.

Ultimately, I think Bellwether is one long (amusing!) rant by Willis about the ridiculousness of people who blindly follow what’s “in” – and about the very real damage that people can do by simply following the crowd. What would society be like if people stopped just following, and actually stopped to think?

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Shelf Love Challenge: Why do I read the books I do?

IMG_0877

My TBR pile!

This month’s question is: Why do you read the books you read? Why do you gravitate towards certain genres and/or authors. How do you pick the next book you will read?

So, why do I read the books I do?

Good question. It’s something I’ve never really thought about – my favourite genres are fantasy, science fiction, and detective stories. My least favourite is literary fiction. Or poetry. The only poetry I really like is limericks.

I suppose I graduate towards genre fiction because I tend to prioritise plot and characterisation over beautiful writing; I can see why other people go all gooey over a well turned phrase, but it’s not my thing. Plus, I like magic, and as soon as you add a wizard it’s fantasy regardless of what else is going on.

When it comes to detective stories, a line from one of Dorothy Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey books comes to mind: Lord Peter says to Harriet Vane, who is his wife and a detective story writer, that detective stories are “the purest form of literature we have”. He goes on to explain that in detective stories, good (almost) always triumphs over evil. Detective stories provide a vision of justice that we all hope is true, even if we fear that it isn’t. For the duration of reading the book, we can pretend that good always triumphs, the bad guys always get caught, and karma bites.

Science fiction and fantasy, even though they might seem very different, are actually very similar: both deal with worlds that don’t exist. The difference is that science fiction often explains very carefully how the handwavium works, and fantasy just says, “it’s magic; live with it”.

Sci-fi and fantasy therefore get an undeserved bad press because it’s all made up stuff, therefore not real, therefore not relevant. This ignores the significant problem that the characters in oh-so-respectable literary fiction aren’t real either. Sci-fi and fantasy deal with exactly the same problems as any other form of fiction, just with more dragons (or spaceships). Furthermore, because the setting isn’t constrained by reality, the author can set up the world to showcase a particular problem or situation. JK Rowling did this very well with the Harry Potter books. She set up a wizarding world full of unfairness and inequality, and then made Harry and his friends face up to all of it – bullying and the realisation that you can’t always trust adults in the first book; war, sacrifice, larger issues of inequality and the power of a corrupt government in the final books. Would it even have been possible to have dealt with these themes in a non-fantasy book? Even if it were possible, what kind of book would that turn out to be?

I suppose, then, what I also love about Science Fiction and fantasy, is that they usually end with hope. Even if the good guys don’t have it all their own way, even if the outcome is decidedly ambivalent, there is still hope for the future. There is still hope that, in the end, good really will triumph.

So, how do I pick the next book I will read?

The first thing is, Is there a book by one of my favourite authors that I haven’t read yet? I do have a few authors whose books I’ll pretty much always get as soon as they’re published.  Jim Butcher, Barbara Hambly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, to name a few. For these authors, I’ll drop everything and read their latest offering.

Beyond that? It depends. Sometimes it depends on how I’m feeling: after a hard day, I can’t cope with anything emotionally demanding. So I’ll go straight for the mind-candy – those books that are just fun to read. Otherwise, I tend to read in phases. I’ll read a run of fantasy, then a run of detective fiction. Right now, of course, I’ve joined the #ShelfLoveChallenge so another factor is When did I get this?

One thing that doesn’t factor in, or hasn’t until recently, is recommendations. Until now, the only person I know who is really into reading is my husband. Although we both read voraciously, and we both read science fiction, our taste in books doesn’t actually cross over all that much. But I’ve recently started interacting more on Goodreads and Twitter, and it’s nice to make contact with other readers.  Not only is it nice to discuss books in general, but I’ve had some good recommendations – long may it continue.

So, if you’d like to link up and talk books, I’m, on Goodreads, and on Twitter. Drop me a line and say hello!

And here’s a link to my #ShelfLoveChallenge page.

Review: Bushido, the Soul of Japan

Bushido, the Soul of Japan
Bushido, the Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is short, and accessibly written (provided you view ordinary late nineteenth-century writing as accessible).

When reading this book, it is important to remember two things:

1. It was written in 1900. The approach and the ethics therefore reflect the attitudes and society of the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first.
2. It was written by a Japanese man who had seen the fall of the feudal system, to explain Japanese and, particularly, samurai culture to Westerners. In fact, it was originally written in English and only later translated into Japanese.

Some people have criticised this book for its ethics in general – but I think this is unjust, as it’s a book of its time. Although there are parts which do more than merely raise eyebrows, it is only fair to the book, and to the author, to acknowledge that our ethics are a century away from Nitobe’s. It is unfair to expect a nineteenth-century Japanese man to have exactly the same moral values as twenty-first century Westerners.

Others have criticised the book for its very intent: to explain Japanese culture in terms that Westerners could understand. Again, it’s very easy to criticise from our twenty-first century internet-enabled Western point of view. If we want to know about Japan, or any other country, we can look it up on the internet in a few moments. In fact, nowadays, it’s very hard not to know at least a little about other cultures unless you deliberately shut yourself off.

It was different at the end of the nineteenth century: Japan had only just emerged from its isolation, and not only was its culture strange to the Western world, but most societies were much less multicultural than they are now, so people were less likely to have encountered a culture other than their own.

Thus, Nitobe discusses Bushido with lots of Western and Christian comparisons and examples, because these are what will make sense to his chosen audience.

The result is a very interesting book.

Nitobe himself was born in 1862, so he was eight years old when feudalism was abolished, and ten when the carrying of swords was forbidden. This not only gives Nitobe a unique perspective, but also means that when the book was written, many Japanese people would have remembered the feudal system. To them, it was not some foreign (or even barbaric) practice – it was their own culture. It was normal.

So with this book, there is a strange mix of explanation and defence. Nowadays, it’s shocking to read the story of an eight-year-old samurai boy being order to commit seppuku (ceremonial suicide by disembowelment) and actually doing it. But under bushido – and to Nitobe, who seems to have been of the samurai class himself, or close to it – the story emphasises the strength of devotion to duty, and courage, of even samurai children.

The attitude to women, too, is shocking nowadays. However, it’s important to remember that since this was written in 1900, the attitude to women in the West wasn’t much different. Admittedly, young girls in the West weren’t given daggers in case they needed to commit suicide to protect their honour – but then, neither were boys. If you read much about the life of women in the West during the late 19th century, you do wonder who had the better deal: the samurai girl in feudal Japan, or the middle-class young woman in London.

All in all, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking book – and not the least because it’s not written as a scholarly study by an outsider, but by a man trying to explain (and, in some senses, justify) his own culture. It therefore has the result of telling the reader perhaps more about feudal Japanese society and culture than even the author intended.

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Review: Last Argument Of Kings

Last Argument Of Kings
Last Argument Of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was every bit as excellent as I expected it to be. Joe Abercrombie’s skill as an author cannot be overstated. The plot moves swiftly, the language is clean, yada yada. He’s a great author.

What I enjoyed most about Last Argument of Kings, though, was the characters. Joe Abercrombie writes “grey” characters like no-one else. Is Logen Ninefingers a good man forced into fight after fight, or is he really a homicidal maniac? Is Sand dan Glockta a good man in a bad position, or is he a sociopath? Even the minor characters are notably ambivalent. Whether this is Abercrombie deliberately playing with fantasy tropes (the wizard isn’t as benevolent as all that either), deciding that he’s tired of characters who can be neatly sorted into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, or just deliberately making sure that his readers never know quite what to think, I don’t know. Just as you think you’ve got it worked out, Abercrombie has his characters do something that shakes your certainty: this is not fantasy where the characters have the luxury of easy decisions, and they then have to live with the consequences.

But this is another thing one notices about many fantasy novels: after all the dust has settled, the good guys retire to live a life of peace and prosperity, and everything is pretty much OK. Abercrombie, again, doesn’t have much truck with that. We’re talking war, people. We’ve all watched the news. When it’s all over, do we really think everything goes back to normal immediately? War is not glorious: it is messy and tragic. Good people die along with the bad. Nobody, as Glockta says, gets what they deserve in life. And everybody has to live with what happened, with the gaps in their lives and their property. And, of course, in their morals. What happens to your own personal morality if you have to do appalling things to survive, and to achieve your goals? What if you’re threatened and blackmailed? Yes, we’d all like to believe that we’d willingly die before compromising our most basic morality, but would we really? When it gets down to it, how many of us would choose someone else’s pain rather than ours?

Abercrombie also has a master’s touch when it comes to poisoning chalices. I don’t think anybody ends up with an untainted chalice, although some of the poisons are pretty subtle. (The closest, though, is Glockta himself. I was really, really happy about the way that turned out.) There is one instance, done very subtly, where you think… wow. A combination of perceptiveness and ruthlessness on the part of one character, obliviousness on the part of another, and a species of living hell on the part of a third. You’ll know it when you get to it, but, really, what Abercrombie giveth with one hand he taketh away with the other. And vice versa.

This book could be adequately subtitled: Be careful what you ask for: you might just get it.

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