Monthly Archives: February 2015

The casual vacancy

The casual vacancy / J.K. Rowling

I have to be honest: I’ve been putting this review off for quite a while. I’m not really sure why. I’ve known pretty much all along what I wanted to say about this one, so hereit is.

The casual vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s big post-Harry Potter novel. It’s almost completely unolike Harry Potter – it’s firmly grounded in the Muggle world, and it’s definitely written with an adult audience in mind. Still, it retains the strong social conscience of the Harry Potter books.

Brief plot summary

Pagford, a stereotypically lovely English town. A member of the local parish council suddenly drops dead. The attempt to elect a replacement for Barry Fairbrother will reveal the many deep-seated divisions hidden behind the seemingly idyllic surface of Pagford.

Continue reading The casual vacancy

Advertisements

Reading list analysis: gender

My decision to start tracking everything I read was largely a reaction to a blog post that my spouse shared with me (but that I haven’t read, and I don’t know where it was from or who wrote it so I can’t credit them). First, it was because my spouse said “this guy says he read 65 books last year, how many did you read?” and partially because the author of that post pointed out how tracking that information caused them to realize that the vast majority of books they read were by white men. I was intrigued and wanted to see what my numbers would look like.

So here I’m going to look at the gender breakdown. To make it clear, the numbers might be skewed one way or the other, because when I recorded the data I looked at the number of books I read that were written by men or women, not the number of men and women whose books I read. So because I read four books in the Aubrey-Maturin series, that counted as four books by a man. One author that I read uses a gendered pseudonym that doesn’t correlate to their real-life gender – I counted that individual under their “real” gender as opposed to the one implied by the author listed on the book.

I’ll note that I’m only looking at novels in this analysis – I don’t read enough short stories or what-have-yous to

One thing I’ve noticed is that the gender disparity on my reading lists is almost entirely genre-related.

In 2013, I read more books by men than by women. It was about 60/40 men-women. Not-coincidentally, 2013 was the year I read way too many naval novels. If I cut those from my analysis, it ends up being much more even. The vast majority of books I’ve reviewed on this blog are from my 2013 list, with a few outliers: books I read in 2012 or earlier that I wanted to include for stylistic reasons, books I included because they fit the theme, and books I read more recently but that someone had specifically requested.

In 2014 the gender split was almost exactly 50-50. 2014 was also the year I fell victim to the participant-observer effect and consciously tried to broaden my horizons and read a wider variety of genres. I didn’t consciously attempt to reach gender parity, but it happened.

2015 (so far) is very different: more than 75% of the novels I’ve read so far this year have been by women.  This is also the year where I’ve been visiting the local public library every week (as opposed to 2014, where I visited either the public library where I worked or, after quitting that job, where I went to one of the larger in-system public libraries). The local library’s mass market sff collection is heavily geared towards urban/contemporary fantasy especially, as one person put it “urban fantasy with a strong romantic component” (as opposed to paranormal romance).* It’s a genre I happen to enjoy, and since circumstances outside my control have lead to a pretty serious increase in my stress level, it’s a genre I frequently turn to in order to “decompress”. With the way things are going right now I don’t have the psychic energy to put up with incredibly dense philosophical tomes so a 300 page book about a woman who can make her art come to life/is secretly Lucifer’s daughter/discovers that John Constantine “Jack Winter” isn’t dead after all/has tattoos that are actually demons who emerge from her body at night/is a salsa-dancing, parkour-ing cryptozoologist/etc. etc. etc. is pretty much exactly my speed (for the time being). I’ve read some stuff in the genre by men, but in all honesty I’d much rather read Séanan McGuire than Jim Butcher. Not to generalize, but the dude stuff I’ve read has been so much more up its own ass that I rarely feel the desire to read more than the first book in any given series. The one exception so far this year has been Daniel José Older, but the first book in his series just came out in January so there hasn’t been the opportunity to fill my reading list with his work.

This imbalance actually started at the end of last year, where only 3 of the last 20 novels I read were by men.

The year is yet young so it’s likely that this will change, but considering that only 2 of the 7 novels I have out from the library are by men I doubt it will change too much.

 

*If you’re reading this and want credit, let me know.

The kingdom of the gods

The kingdom of gods / N.K. Jemisin

The kingdom of the gods is the final book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. It shakes things up a bit by transferring the point of view to one of the gods, and as a result has a notably more “cosmic” tone than the previous two.

This post will be fairly short since I’ve already written about the first and second books in the series.

Brief plot summary

Sieh is the first child of the three original gods. Although this makes him the oldest godling, as the child-god he remains an eternal child, as acting against his nature will destroy him. His friendship with two humans will have permanent consequences for all of the gods and their children.

Continue reading The kingdom of the gods

Skill and stuff as the arbiter of goodness

One think I think about pretty regularly when reading is what separates the “good guys” from the “bad guys”. There are a couple of ways that this usually works. The simplest is by author fiat (these are the good guys because they are the heroes) but it’s actually fairly uncommon, as there are usually other signifiers. For my purposes, I’ll break them down into three general categories, although they are all fairly coextensive: relationship to the status quo, moral virtue, and skills n’stuff.

In most mystery novels the status quo is the arbiter of goodness – the good guys are the ones who protect the status quo, the bad guys are the one who threaten it. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of the genre. There are certainly mystery novels that do otherwise (The Millennium trilogy was in some ways an explicit attempt to challenge cultural complacency about extreme ideologies) the basic mystery novel formula is deeply conservative. The superhero genre has some of the same issues, although it wasn’t always that way and authors seem equally likely to use the characters to the opposite effect. Sff as collective genera are much more willing to be subversive. Star Wars is the most well-known example of this: the heroes are the people actively fighting against the status quo.* It exists everywhere there’s an “evil empire”.

It’s probably most common to divide the good guys and the bad guys by dint of their moral behavior. The good guys are the one who exhibit “good” morality – they don’t murder, they don’t commit property crimes against innocents (usually), etc. etc. I’m planning another post on this eventually so I’m not going to go into too much depth here. I’ll just say that there are times when this trope is subverted: The chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The three musketeers, and Blood meridian come to mind immediately. I’m sure there are more. It’s a technique that is used much more often in books and movies than it is in video games, where “good guy by fiat” is pretty much the default for player characters.

It’s the third method of distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys that I’m interested in talking about here – that we know who the good guys are because they are the best at what they do or because they have the best stuff (or both). It’s something that I haven’t been able to stop noticing once I thought of it. The good guys always have the best toys. It’s almost necessary in order for the good guys to win (see Star Wars again), otherwise it would skretch** credulity to see the scrappy underdogs defeat the overwhelmingly superior force.

It happens other places, too. It’s a mainstay of naval novels, that the heroic British/Manticoreans have the superior firepower and/or much more highly skilled crews than the nefarious French/Havenites whose successes are largely attributed to running into the wall so many times it eventually collapses on them. It’s so common that the hero is extra skilled that it goes practically unquestioned.  It’s one of the things that really drew me to the October Daye books – it’s immediately made clear that Toby is vastly less powerful than the average fae citizen and is even less powerful than many changelings. This weakness forces her to behave differently, to pick her battles, and to find creative solutions and/or enlist powerful allies. It goes a long way in making the books more interesting.***

It even happens in books that explicitly pose moral questions – while I’m not very fond of Brandon Sanderson (and sometimes it feels like I’m the only one), Mistborn raises some interesting questions about the morality of the fantasy novel hero (and of the evil overlord), but even there the heroes have abilities that surpass virtually everyone else.

It’s especially common in video games, but since most video games are, in their secret hearts, power fantasies, it makes total sense. One of the strengths of the Metal Gear series is, like Mistborn and unlike the vast majority of games, it examines the differences between power and “goodness”, and it’s rarely clear whether or not Snake is actually doing the right thing or is on the right side. Like Mistborn, Metal Gear also explicitly addresses the moral context of the hero’s casual killing of the “bad guys”.**** George R.R. Martin also takes pains to avoid this trope, and it’s one of the reasons he has the reputation he does.

The hero just being “better” at whatever the plot requires seems to be pretty common, especially in genre fiction. It works because it plays on the culture of hero-worship and it provides a convenient justification for a happy ending. It’s a trope that has existed virtually forever (neither Gilgamesh nor Enkidu is exactly a moral exemplar, and the Biblical King David was essentially a bandit). Sherlock Holmes is one of the easiest “modern” literary figures to point to here, since it’s essentially his entire gimmick. It makes for exciting stories. Still, it represents a pretty significant departure from the extraliterary world.

It’s something that I enjoy pondering when I read – why are the heroes the heroes? It’s a question that books are well suited to addressing. It’s an issue that’s especially important in science fiction and fantasy, where the relationship between the literary world and the extraliterary world is more abstract than in “realistic” fiction. It’s caused me to notice how often the main characters in the books I read end up playing god, or at least stand in judgment of those who aren’t like them. It’s not exactly a comfortable realization, but I think it’s a worthwhile one.

*There’s an argument to be made that the rebels of Star Wars aren’t actually fighting the status quo, since it’s essentially a conservative rebellion, seeking to return to the old status quo rather than instituting a new one.

**That was supposed to be “stretch”. For a full fifteen minutes I was convinced that there was a k in the word stretch. I have no idea how or why that happened but I’m leaving it because skretch seems like a cool word to me. It has a Jim Henson kind of feel to me.

***I’ve read all of the books in the series that were published as of December 2014, and what I say here isn’t strictly 100% accurate for various reasons that I can’t go into without revealing way too much about the books.

****I’ll look into this in more depth if I ever write the post about the moral stuff.

The telling

The telling / Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is widely known for things she’s done in the past – The left hand of darkness,

Brief plot summary

Sutty has been assigned as an Observer to a prospective member of the Ekumen. She arrives to discover a world controlled by a massive corporation bent on purging its own past.

Continue reading The telling

Spider kiss

Spider kiss / Harlan Ellison

Here’s something that’s interesting:

a novel by an author usually considered a short story writer.

a “realistic” novel by an author usually considered an sf/horror writer.

a novel about rock music from a self-professed non-fan of rock music.

Spider kiss  (original title: Rockabilly) is all of these, which makes it relatively poorly-known outside of rockabilly aficionados. It’s not in Ellison’s “normal” genre, it’s about a long-gone era of rock music, and as is par for Ellison, it firmly rejects any kind of nostalgia.

It’s also a book that can be effectively summed up in one sentence.

Supremely brief plot summary

Told from the perspective of his manager, Spider kiss describes the rise and fall of 1950s rockabilly star Stag Preston (real name Luther Sellers).

Continue reading Spider kiss

The girl with the dragon tattoo

The girl with the dragon tattoo / Stieg Larsson

So, I’m a bit behind the times when it comes to trendy books. Several years ago, when everyone was reading Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, I was puttering and reading more comics than anything else. After it was recommended to me by my parents in 2012 or 2013(Hi, parents!) I watched the first part of the Canal+ TV version of the Swedish films* and figured that I’d check out the book.

So here it is, my thoughts on The girl with the dragon tattoo (Swedish title: lit. Men who hate women). I’m undecided as of yet whether or not I’ll do posts for the rest of the series.

*And people think keeping track of superhero franchises is complicated …

Brief plot summary

Mikael Blomkvist is an editor at the magazine Millennium. Having just lost a libel case against the wealthy Hans-Erik Wennerström, he receives a deferred prison sentence and must pay damages. Hired by another wealthy Swede, Blomkvist is tasked with solving the disappearance of a young girl nearly 40 years previously. Promised concrete evidence against Wennerström if he succeeds, Blomkvist finds himself teaming up with the socially awkward hacker Lisbeth Salander.

Continue reading The girl with the dragon tattoo