Books & TV in 2014

Yes, I know, I stopped posting my monthly “Books read in ___” sometime back in August. It hasn’t been a great year for reading fiction–too much movement, other demands on my mind, etc. I read something like fifty books this year, the list you can see here: Books Read in 2014. I’m sure that if I hadn’t had to read at least 2,000 pages of student writing I would have read far more books this year than I did.

You might notice a few odd books on this list–The Encyclopedia of the CatBirds of the Carolinas–I’ve found that nature books are good reading for nights I can’t sleep because of anxiety.

But, for the most part, I’ve been getting my storytelling from television. It’s been a year in which all of my mental spoons have been going to work and day-to-day life; as a result, I haven’t had any mental spoons left to get my fiction from books. Let me know declare my shameless enjoyment of:

  • Fringe (5 seasons) — Fringe/weird science meets FBI procedural, plus alternate universes and time travel. Set in Boston and NYC. Strong female lead and great characters.
  • Doctor Who (8 seasons)– Adventures with a madman in a blue box. Classic “monster of the week” episodes, but very fun and sometimes very serious. Set in all of time and space. You can’t go wrong with the Doctor. (And I’m so glad Clara is staying with Twelve for another season!)
  • Torchwood (4 seasons) — spin-off, sort of, from Doctor Who. Strange science, similar to Fringe, but with aliens and British humour. Set in Cardiff. The third season/mini-series is a magnificent piece of science-fiction.
  • Continuum (3 seasons) — Time travel and conspiracies meet police procedural. Interesting storytelling because the characters you sympathise with might not be the good guys, but they are dynamic characters, too. Set in Vancouver and also has a strong female lead.

And here is my dilemma: I’m two episodes away from finishing season three of Continuum and the fourth season isn’t released yet. What show do I watch next? If you haven’t guessed, my “type” of show is a sci-fi (not supernatural) procedural with a female lead and good character development and dynamic. I’m not into the whole “discovering secret superpowers thing” either (yes, that was in Fringe, but it was at the end of season one). Netflix suggests Alphas and Warehouse 13, but I don’t know anyone who’s seen them to be sure.

Any recommendations for a show à la Fringe or Continuum? Or knows how or where I can catch up on Castle?

Post by numbers

Numbers at random for the first half of 2014:

  • 73 days lived out of a suitcase;
  • additional 2 months feeling like living out of a suitcase;
  • 32 fiction books read or partially read;
  • 27 jobs applied for;
  • 12 series/seasons watched on Netflix (Castle, Fringe, Doctor Who);
  • 12 walls painted;
  • 6 countries visited;
  • 5 large bookcases filled;
  • 2 U.S. states visited;
  • 1 Ph.D. graduation;
  • 1 international move.

Expected numbers for the second half of 2014:

  • 17 more days lived out of a suitcase;
  • 4 more U.S. states visited;
  • 2 more series/seasons watched on Netflix (Doctor Who);
  • 2 weddings attended;
  • 1 job interview.

Naturally the second list is shorter than the first. It is easier to quantify what has been done than what hasn’t been done. The future is, of course, uncertain at the best of times, and is so especially now.

In review

Continuing my blog’s annual tradition, the past year in review:

January: I begin the year with a few days in sunny Cyprus with Chris before returning to dark Scotland. Ros passes her viva with flying colours and we all celebrate.

February: Winter is still dark. I start taking voice lessons and Lent begins.

March: Spring comes at last and I attempt to plant flowers and end up forgetting to plant a garden. The month ends with a research trip down South, including research in London, a conference in Oxford, and very brief jaunt to Cambridge.

April: The house turns upside down for April Fool’s and Easter cometh, with all the solemnity and ceremony and joy my church can muster (which is quite a lot). After finishing a draft of a Thesis chapter, I visit Lola in Poland.

May: More work on the Thesis and Kelly comes to visit for two weeks. We go to London and then I introduce her to Fife. The month ends with my birthday, celebrated with friends and mint chocolate chip ice-cream cupcakes.

June: The Diamond Jubilee, the Olympic torch comes through Town, and I watch with pride as Ros, Allie, and Rob all walk across the stage to get capped and graduate. That same week, I served in Allie’s wedding and danced the night away at her reception ceilidh.

July: Not finding summer in Scotland, I run away to Croatia for a few days with Joanna to enjoy the sunshine and Mediterranean and spend a unbelievable afternoon in Istanbul. I spend lots of time watching the Olympics.

August: A certain young man begins to endear himself to me. After their mission trip to Ukraine, my parents visit for two weeks and we visit the Isle of Skye.

September: I began the month with a research trip down in Oxford, where it is lovely, as always. Then the changing of the housemates: Ros moves out and Elena moves in. Term begins, including the launch of the Postgraduate Christian Forum (PGCF). I take another trip to Poland, this time to help Lola move to London.

October: Work on the Thesis continues and I buy a bike. Life is very busy but with in-town busyness: thesis, museum, church, choir, PGCF, swimming, socializing. The month ends with Edgar Allen Poe readings and a Halloween ceilidh.

November: More work on the thesis. See October: life is busy, but life is also good. F. helps keep me sane by reminding me to eat, sleep, and by going on walks.

December: I furiously continue work on the Thesis chapter with elation and tears, while hosting a St Nicholas Party and performing in a Christmas concert. Then I jump on a jet plane to Texas, where it is sunny and warm; drive to South Carolina to have a belated Christmas with my brother’s family where I meet my youngest niece and nephew, and then drive back to Texas to ring in the New Year with Kelly.

What a year! I did quite a lot of travelling this year and am rather proud of the fact that my passport is almost full. (It only needs three more stamps to be completely full — I foresee a trip sometime between now and June when it expires…)

And this year? The ending of the Thesis and the great unknown afterward — but it will be an adventure. Here’s to 2013!

Gilead

Opening line: ‘I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.’

Reverend John Ames of Gilead, Iowa has lived a long life on the prairie. This novel is a letter and a journal written for his son, a child he has been blessed with late in his life. Ames’s heart is failing; this letter is his legacy to the son he will never see grow into a man. He writes about his father and grandfather, who were both preachers in Gilead, and of his friendship with Robert Boughton, the Presbyterian preacher in Gilead, and how he met his wife. This is a novel about faith, about forgiveness, about blessing.

Reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, I kept thinking of all the people I could recommend it to or give it as a gift at Christmas or some other occasion. I’d read a paragraph and read it again, soaking in the words. This is not a book you read quickly. This is a book you savour — and I am afraid I have not savoured it enough. I found myself wishing I’d known John Ames, that, even though he is a fictional character, his wife and deacons didn’t burn all of his sermons but instead published them. I would want to read them, if they existed. That is how beautiful his thoughts are, how poignant his interpretation of theology. I have tried to find quotes to share, but as soon as I find one, I think of another, and would end up quoting most of the book.

I hope my own grandfather’s sermons have been kept. I would like to read them, someday.

Read this book. It will be ponderous and slow, but it will be worth the time spent reading it.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Opening line: ‘My mother used to tell me about the ocean.’

Nestled deep in the forest is a village, isolated from the rest of the world, surrounded by the Forest of Hands and Teeth. The village is fenced in: the fences keep the villagers safe, the fences keep out the Unconsecrated. Life in the village is fragile; every member of the community has their role to play, including Mary. After losing one parent to the Unconsecrated, Mary risks losing another and, when the fences are breached, her whole world. What world lies beyond the fences? Can life exist in the Forest of Hands and Teeth? Is there such a thing as the ocean?

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is the first book of trilogy about our world sometime in the future, when a pandemic swept across countries and continents, forcing humans to seek refuge in isolated places and build walls to separate themselves from the Infected. Mary has grown up hearing that her village is the last on earth, they the last people; she has also grown up listening to her mother’s stories, passed down through the generations, of the world how it existed before the Return. She dreams of leaving the village and finding a new world beyond the forest, of finding the ocean. An Outsider, free from infection; a brother’s betrayal; the breach of the fences all contribute to Mary’s flight from the village into the Forest of Hands and Teeth, where she must survive, pressing onward even with the remnants of broken dreams.

A friend recommended this book to me after I finished the Chaos Walking trilogy and wanted another YA dystopian trilogy to ready, and I’m glad she did (thanks Amber!). YA dystopian is a popular genre at present, so it seems, which is good because I’m definitely a fan. Even being in a popular genre, however, The Forest of  Hands and Teeth feels fresh and unique. The writing is honest. Though the Unconsecrated are frightening, they are also to be pitied. This novel demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit in adversity, and also, how sometimes, it can just be too much. It is also one of the few novels I have read that deals with one’s loss of faith in God so sincerely. As I said, this Ryan’s writing is honest.

At times The Forest of Hands and Teeth reminded me of M. Night Shyamalaman’s film The Village and of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. If you liked either of these, and if you like YA and/or dystopian, you might also like this novel. I did, and I will keep an eye out for the next book in the trilogy.

Green Rider

Opening line: ‘The granite was cold and rough against the grey-cloaked man’s palms. It was good, solid granite, from the bones of the earth itself. He traced hardly perceptible seams between the huge blocks of the wall. It was the seams, he believed, that held the key. The key to the wall’s destruction.’

Trouble is brewing in Sacoridia. The king’s brother plots in hiding. The wall that could never be broken, the wall separating Sacoridia from its evil, magical and corrupt neighbour, is breached. And a king’s messenger, one of the elite Green Riders, rides into the path of a schoolgirl, slumped over his horse with arrows in his back. With his dying breaths he entreats the girl to fulfil his mission, deliver his message, before it is too late. Karigan agrees, even as she is warned to ‘Beware the shadow man’…

And thus follows the adventure of Green Rider by Kristen Britain as Karigan races against all odds to get to Sacor City with the precious message. Hounded on every side, from assassins to brigands to monstrous beasts, as well as the Grey One himself, lost in the forests and plains of the kingdom, Karigan must use her own wit, strength, and stubborn will to survive.

It had been over a decade since I last read this book and I remembered only the basic premise of the novel. I vaguely recall that it was supposed to be a series, but since the subsequent books didn’t come out until after 2003, I forgot about it. A year or so ago, I saw the series, with their beautiful new UK covers, in a bookstore, and on a whim picked it up from the local library (yes, it was actually whim: it was on the shelf; I didn’t have to reserve it). The novel is far more action-packed than I remembered, filled with much more world-building detail and intrigue. I read it in a space of two days while I was in bed with a cold, and it was very diverting indeed. The magic at times reminded me of the Charter Magic in Garth Nix’s Sabriel books, but was also unpredictable, as magic should be. Of course, I could find things to criticise — is ‘defiant’ the only way to describe a wolf’s eyes?, Karigan would have been more traumatized by her assault by a mercenary, the Anti-Monarchy Society served no purpose in the plot, and so on — but overall, I was more pleasantly surprised by how rich the world of Sacoridia is, with its history and clans and how the country had changed over the centuries and how the architecture and politics and universities reflected these changed. I have already requested the next book in the series from my library.

If you enjoyed Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, Sabriel by Garth Nix, and/or The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, you most likely will also enjoy Green Rider by Kristen Britain.

O Pioneers!

Opening line: ‘One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.’

O Pioneers! is a novel that follows the Bergsons, a family of Swedish immigrants, and their community at the turn of the 20th century. Alexandra Bergson, the eldest of four, inherits her father’s estate when he passes away. Despite drought, despite year after year of bad harvests, Alexandra invests in the land that so many pioneers abandon. It takes a lifetime, but she pulls her family into prosperity, realising her father’s dream that the youngest son, Emil, might go to college and have a life that isn’t tied to the land. Of course, Emil has his own dreams, and Alexandra learns to have dreams of her own.

Sarah recommended this book to me last week after I posted about My Daniel. I was in the mood to read My Daniel, but since I don’t have my copy of it here in Scotland, I checked out O Pioneers! from the library to read instead. I had only read Willa Cather’s short fiction in an American Literature survey course years ago during my undergraduate. The novel was a quick, lyrical read. I enjoyed the descriptions of the prairie and of prairie-life: the fairs held in the basement of the French church, the Swedish mother attempting to recreate the Old World in her garden, the vastness and coldness and awe-inspiring quality of the prairie, capable of rendering one to insignificance as well as inspiring hope. Read this novel for a glimpse into the life of the pioneers who dared settle in the West, which was, surprising, not so long ago in the order of things.

Luka and the Fire of Life

Opening line: ‘There was once, in the city of Kahani in the land of Alifbay, a boy named Luka who had two pets, a bear named Dog and a dog named Bear, which meant that whenever he called out ‘Dog!’ the bear waddled up amiably on his hind legs, and when he shouted ‘Bear!’ the dog bounded towards him wagging his tail.’

Dog the bear was a dancing bear, and Bear the dog could sing in tune; Luka had rescued both from the cruel circus master Captain Aag. When Luka’s father Rashid Khalifa, the Shah of Blah, the most renowned storyteller in Alifbay, falls gravely ill, Luka follows his father’s death-shadow into the World of Magic. Together with his friends Dog and Bear and with the dubious aid of Nobodaddy, the death-shadow, Luka journeys through the World Magic seeking the Fire of Life that would save his father, undo his friends’ enchantments, and ultimately save the World of Magic itself. Unfortunately, the Fire of Life is at the very peak of the Mount Knowledge, guarded not only by the Mists of Time, El Tiempo the Whirlpool, the Trillion and One Forking Paths, and into the Heart of Magic. If Luka gets through all of that, then he still has to meet the Aalim, representing the Past, Present, and Future, who guard the Fire of Life jealously. Oh, and one other thing: the Fire of Life has never, successfully, been stolen before.

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie is the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but you don’t necessarily have needed to read one to read the other. Whereas Haroun goes to the moon to the Sea of Stories in his adventures, Luka stays ‘on earth’, so to speak, to travel in the World of Magic. (‘The Torrent of Words, by the way, thunders down from the Sea of Stories into the Lake of Wisdom, whose waters are illumined by the Dawn of Days, and out of which flows the River of Time.’) For Luka, the World of Magic takes on videogame-like qualities: he must acquire certain things to give him ‘lives’, he must advance through various levels and find the ‘save’ button so that that if he ‘dies’ he doesn’t have to go all the way back to the beginning. In essence, the World of Magic is read or navigated by Luka by what is familiar to him — in the Real World he plays lots of video games, so when faced with a Magical World, he interprets what he sees by what he knows. Likewise, the World of Magic is clearly the world of Rashid Khalifa’s invention, created by all of the stories he has told Luka. It is a very imaginative story, with plenty of allusions to other stories — both new and old, from Doctor Who to ancient Sumeria.

Personally, I prefer Haroun and the Sea of Stories to Luka and the Fire of Life, but I think that is mainly because I am not quite the intended audience for Luka. Having never been big into video or computer games, the structure of the World of Magic didn’t resonate with me. My favourite section was when Luka and his companions travelled through the Heart of Magic and came across the valleys of old, forgotten gods of mythology. No longer believed in in the Real World, the gods of various mythologies had retreated to the World of Magic, where they can still live on in stories. Rushdie’s commentary about the different gods (ranging from the Greek and Roman to Chinese, Korean, various Native American and African, Aztec, etc.) was particularly amusing, and the portrayal of Coyote was the best of all.

This books is well suited to the 8-12 age-group, and for any pretend-grown-ups who enjoy creative storytelling and Salman Rushdie.

Tales of Beedle the Bard

Opening line: ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a collection of stories written for young wizards and witches.’

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a modern ‘edition’ of the original runic texts, ‘translated’ by Hermione Granger and with an introduction by J. K. Rowling. After each of these short tales are Professor Albus Dumbledore’s notes. In this ‘edition’ you can find ‘The Wizard and the Hopping Pot’, ‘The Fountain of Fair Fortune’, ‘The Hairy Heart’, ‘Babbity Rabbity and her Cackling Stump’, and ‘The Tales of Three Brothers’. Each story is a delightful fairy tale that can easily be read alongside our own, mundane ‘Muggle’ tales.

I read The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling in preparation for chairing a panel at the recent Harry Potter conference held at my university. Overall, I felt that it was a charming book to read. I liked Dumbledore’s notes after each story and JKR’s introduction. I used inverted commas for ‘translated’ and ‘edition’ in my description above because, of course, the entire work is a work of fiction written by J. K. Rowling. I’m somewhat disappointed that she didn’t play the ‘these stories were translated by Hermione Granger’ farther. There were no notes or commentary from ‘Hermione’ at all. I would have liked to see JKR’s ‘introduction’ recast as the preface, and see an introduction written by ‘Hermione’ about her translation techniques and the literary background to the tales, and then to see her footnotes alongside Dumbledore’s in his notes. But alas, no such paratext exists. Yes, I am fully aware that it is my role as an academic, and a medieval one at that, that sees me automatically looking for meaty introductions and extensive footnoting in translated editions.

My favourite story of the collection was ‘The Fountain of Fair Fortune’ and ‘The Tale of Three Brothers’.

The House of the Scorpion

Opening line: ‘In the beginning there were thirty-six of them, thirty-six droplets of life so tiny that Eduardo could see them only under a microscope.’

One of those droplets is Matteo Alacrán, the clone of the dictator of Opium. El Patrón is a drug lord, dictator, and lord of an empire that forms the border between the U.S. and Mexico (now called Atzlán). Nothing goes in or out of Opium without El Patrón’s knowledge; El Patrón never lets anything go. El Patrón is 134 years old.

Matteo knows that he is different. What he doesn’t know is how different he is.

You see those shiny things on the cover of The House of the Scorpion? Those are awards, and Nancy Farmer deserves every single one of them. This novel is so beautifully and poignantly written, the world so evocative, that my mind was turning over phrases and scenes when I wasn’t reading the book. I didn’t want it to end; in fact, it’s one of the few books that once I finish reading it, I go back through and reread sections of it, unwilling to let it go just yet. The summary I gave was purposely very sparse — it is better if you go into it knowing as little as possible. Just know that this is Young Adult Science Fiction at its best.

Earlier this week I read Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, an urban fantasy novel set in South Africa. I didn’t like it very much, but I wondered whether it was because I couldn’t identify with the setting. I’ve since handed it over to my Zimbabwean friend (who went to uni in South Africa) to see what she thinks. By the same token, I wonder if my love for The House of the Scorpion is influenced by my familiarity with the borderland of Mexico and the U.S. I grew up in South Texas; I’ve tasted most of the foods mentioned, know the legends of La Llorona and the chupacabras, heard the cadence of Spanish in my head. While I read it, I was in the desert where it is harsh and warm, instead of in Scotland, where it is cold and wet and windy, feeling like November instead of May. It was familiar. It felt like home.

Now, this isn’t to say that I have to be personally familiar with a setting to enjoy a book set in a certain place. I do read predominantly fantasy and science fiction after all — considering that most of the books I read are set in places that don’t actually exist, having to be personally familiar with a setting to enjoy such books is nigh impossible. It is more likely that I don’t like urban fantasy. It shows Nancy Farmer’s skill that she can recreate a setting with which I am so familiar and I still love it. Granted, it is a setting with which she is familiar, too.

After finishing it yesterday, I went online to see what other titles by Nancy Farmer I might want to read. To my surprise and delight, I found that there is a sequel to The House of the Scorpion coming out possibly later this year! Being as The House of the Scorpion was published in 2002, I wasn’t expecting there to be a forthcoming sequel. Be assured, I will be waiting in anxious anticipation.