Saturday, September 29, 2012

On Aging Out of Series


30. The Song of the Wanderer by Bruce Coville

31. Dark Whispers by Bruce Coville

32. The Last Hunt by Bruce Coville

Do books, or should books, have age limits? While there are no hard or fast rules, I think most readers can agree that your average adult doesn't need to be reading The Babysitters' Club books or Animorphs (exception granted if you're reading to a child).

This question is more complicated these days for two reasons: 1) The proliferation of book series and 2) More widespread acceptance (or at least practice) of adults reading YA fiction (See Harry Potter and Twilight).

How do book series affect my query? Well, generally, books in a series do not all come out at once. The Harry Potter series, for example, was released over a period of ten years, from 1997 to 2007, during which time I emerged from elementary school, tackled the rigors of middle and high school, and entered college. Now, Harry Potter is a series that aged remarkably well or rather, grew up with me. In each new book, Harry was a year older and often happened to be my exact age or thereabouts. The obstacles that he encountered grew far more sophisticated and the stakes, themes, and implications much greater with each new book, so that I would not recommend the final Harry Potter book to anyone under the age of eleven. But that experience, I think, was more unusual than not and is one of the reasons that Harry Potter became so popular among adults and iconic among my own generation*. The far more likely scenario, if an author keeps writing and writing and writing a particular series, is that kids of the right age will read the first couple books, but by the time the last books are out, they're in high school or college and no longer interested (See Goosebumps, Magic Treehouse, Junie B. Jones, Ramona Quimby and any other series that were popular when I was a kid and appear to be still within the right age set).

I decided to test the theory of whether a book series that one began reading as a kid was worth finishing as an adult with Bruce Coville's The Unicorn Chronicles. I read the first book, Into the Land of the Unicorns, in fourth grade, a couple years after it was originally published in 1995 (Sidenote: Yes, I'm dating myself like crazy). While searching at my local library for quality children's books to use in the class I taught over the summer, I came across a book that had a very familiar premise-and recognized it as the sequel to the book I had read in fourth grade.

Curious as to whether it would live up to the imprint it had made on my mind (I recalled Cara's jump from a belltower into Luster, land of the unicorns, a chattering monkey-like creature called the Squijum, and the terrible revelation that Beloved, the unicorns' greatest enemy, was a many-great grandmother of Cara's), I began Song of the Wanderer, first published in 1999. At that point, I would still have been what I consider the book's target audience, but alas, I never discovered it, despite the first book having ended with a gnarly cliffhanger. For some reason though, I had in my head the idea that Cara's grandmother (her mother's actual mother) was a unicorn who had somehow turned into a human, and this idea was miraculously (or not) vindicated in the sequel.

Song of the Wanderer was undoubtedly a kids' book. The sort of kids' book I'd argue that adults have no business reading. It featured a not-really-catchy song, a really-transparently-see-through-quest, and kinda-cool sidekicks that didn't really make up for the simplistic plot and home-is-where-the-heart-is theme. There were just way too many convenient coincidences and suspicious changes-of-heart that any eight-year-old could probably swallow in a tale about unicorns, but a (twentysomething) could not.

I'd already checked out Dark Whispers, the third book, from the library though, so I gave it a whirl anyway. This one was first published in 2008, when I was already a bona fide adult and starting a little book blog known as Space Station Mir. Why the nine year gap? You'll have to ask Coville. He is also the author of quite a number of other childrens' books, so perhaps he got distracted.

After Wanderer, I did not have high hopes for Whispers. But an amazing thing happened.

In the first two books, the viewpoint is third person limited from Cara's perspective. Cara is supposed to be twelve throughout the series, though she seems younger in the first two books and older in the final two. In the third book, SUDDENLY WE HAVE MULTIPLE THIRD PERSON LIMITED PERSPECTIVES. Seriously, it is as if in one of the later HP books, J.K. Rowling started having chapters from Ron's and Hermione's, and Mrs. Weasley's, and Dobby's POV.

It's awesome. It changes the tone and theme of the book(s), bringing in adult and otherworldly perspectives. One of the new POV characters is Rocky, a member of the underground-dwelling delver race with an unexplained (but oh it will be explained) vendetta against the unicorns. It's the bringing together of these diverse perspectives, and a much more sophisticated and higher-stakes plotline, not to mention more legends that add layers and layers of depth, that turns this series into at least that caliber of YA that can be a guilty pleasure read for adults.

After the third book, (which also ended with a steep cliffhanger that would be unbearable if all the books weren't out), I sought out The Last Hunt. The final book, at least, was only a two year wait from the one before it and came out in 2010. Still, that is FIFTEEN YEARS after the release of the first book. If the target age group was eight-year-olds (and let's be real, it was probably twelve-year-olds), they'd be 23 by the time the final book was published. Besides being cruel, that just doesn't seem like a smart marketing ploy. But onto the book itself...

The Last Hunt was a welcome continuation of Dark Whispers. The multiple perspectives persevered and even more (only slightly obvious) legends came to light, aspiring to Tolkien-esque creation myths. No, it's not nearly on a Tolkien level, but the attempt is appreciated, especially becomes Coville does bring several new twists in the form of engaging mythological creatures that are either completely new or not much explored in modern fantasy. Coville gives these creatures a chance, not only the starring unicorns, but a gryphon, a dragon (okay, dragons do get more attention),centaurs, some angels, the delvers, and creatures known as the Squijum and the Dimblethum get plenty of page time. In the last book, Coville even pulls a few tricks out of J.K. Rowling's books (and Joseph Campbell's heroic journey) and makes some sacrifices that will genuinely upset readers. If it's worth having, it's worth losing. And that is a mark of truly successful modern fantasy, I think.

On the topic of today's more widespread acceptance of adults reading children's books, I have a Unicorn Chronicles related anecdote. I happened to be reading The Last Hunt, which features a flying dragon on the colorful cover, when I went in for some tests. I was more than a little embarrassed about it, and even more so when the technician mentioned, "I noticed you're reading a fantasy book..."

I was mollified a bit that he even said "fantasy," rather than out-and-out children's book. But I reflected that, these days, it's difficult to tell and maybe the lines are all but completely blurred. All fantasy used to be children's books, now all fantasy can be...anyone's guess. I appreciate that fantasy has become so accepted in the national consciousness that it can be assumed you're reading a book for adults (or that you've joined a growing movement of adults reading kids' books). But I want to draw some sort of line, because I don't want you mixing children's books up with my SFF Lit**.

So, did I age out of The Unicorn Chronicles?

Despite my respect for the later books, yes. These are children's fantasy books and I'd buy them for my young cousins, but wouldn't recommend them to adults.

And after all this work, I'm just asking another question: Where do you draw the line between children's and adult fantasy?


* In talking about Harry Potter, I feel obligated to acknowledge that J.K. Rowling's new book (I'm sure you've heard of it) came out this week. I have no immediate plans to read it as it sounds far removed from what I love about the HP universe.

** Disclaimer: I am not saying that children's books can't be literature. They can. But they can be either children's literature or literature that really shouldn't have been children's books in the first place (i.e. LOTR) and just got pigeonholed into it. The Unicorn Chronicles is not any kind of literature, IMO.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Top Ten Series I Haven't Finished

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic at the Broke and the Bookish: "Top Ten Series I Haven't Finished (because either you didn't like them, you just have procrastinated, etc.)"

1. The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman

I read the former, but not the latter.

2. The Babysitters' Club

Who could read all of these? Seriously.

3. American Girls

I LOVED these as a kid, but I'm too old for the later ones.

4. Animorphs

Okay, I aged out of these, but they were getting worse and worse.

5. Replica

See above. I really liked the premise-a girl who finds out she's a superhuman clone. Did anyone else actually read these?

6. The Abarat

I read the first two, and actually own the third, just haven't read it yet.

7. Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth

I'm getting to it, I swear.

8. The Dwarves

To be fair, I only recently finished the first book.

9. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies

I haven't finished the second one, even though I own it. Shame, I know.

10. The Malloreon

I really, really want to finish these too, I just haven't been able to get the books on Bookmooch or from the library, like I promised myself I would.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Committed

29. Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

A three-in-a-row nonfiction streak! I think this is a new record for me.

I'll confess, I never read Eat, Pray, Love. Maybe I'll get around to it one of these days. But this book has a much more interesting premise for me: What would you do if you had to get married?

Let's back up. I'm not talking arranged marriage or marriage for money. Not even accidental pregnancy. Elizabeth Gilbert's situation is a little more unique. See, she's in love with a guy from Brazil with an Australian passport whom she met in Bali. He and she swore eternal love, they've been living together all over the world, and they've also sworn never to get married. Why? Both are survivors of bad divorces and don't trust the institution.

Okay, so one day they arrive in the United States together and her Felipe, her love, is taken away. He's been coming to the US too often, it appears that he's in fact (gasp!) de facto living there, on consecutive three-month visas. Therefore, he is banned from entering the country. Ever again.

Unless...

He can get a better visa. What's a better visa? A marriage visa.

But, unlike a recent episode of Switched, they can't just get hitched there at the airport. No, they have to wait to submit their paperwork; proof of their association, proof of each one's good standing in their respective countries, proof of their intent to marry. In the meantime, they travel to Southeast Asia and Gilbert does some digging into the origins of the Western institution of marriage and how it came to be the way it's traditionally pictured today.

I was primarily attracted to the book because of this research. I have my own host of doubts about the institution of marriage, its state-controlled benefits and gender-specific downsides. Gilbert does a good job of synthesizing her sources and making her thoughts into entertaining reading. My one quibble is that while she does note the major works that she reads and reflects on, I would have appreciated footnotes for where specific ideas came from and particularly a bibliography at the end. Even a selected one, for heaven's sake!

What Gilbert uncovers is that marriage and family are NOT the bedrock of Western religious civilization-not unless you're Jewish that is. Early Christians advocated celibacy and considered marriage little better than fornication. In medieval times, marriage was mostly about the transfer of property, and political claims, in the case of the higher class.

In Cambodia, Gilbert speaks to a Hmong grandmother, who considers "husband" as a particular role to be filled by working in the fields and siring children. It's the modern idea of love and choosing our own spouses that started this idea that your spouse must be your confidante and best friend in every way.

She cites all the relevant statistics that we've heard before-when people choose their own spouses, the divorce rate goes up (the US divorce rate is approximately 50%), men benefit more financially, socially, and emotionally from marriage than women do, and divorce rates are lower for those who marry when they're over the age of 25. Women are more likely to be happy in their marriages and divorce rates are lower when they are more educated, marry older, and leave children out of the picture. Gilbert has all of the latter three going for her-though unfortunately not the statistical likelihood that you will be more compatible with someone of the same cultural background and socioeconomic class.

One of the most interesting studies she reads is one from a member of the British conservative party, who posits that marriage and family are essentially subversive. I think this is it, looks like it's out of print. While it's a book she chose based on the title and would not have picked up if she knew the author's identity beforehand, Gilbert was comforted by the notion that pair bonding was a phenomenon that governments could not stop (remember the story of St. Valentine), so they decided to restrict it instead, and then pretend it was their own idea. It's a much more hip narrative anyway.

I'm glad I read Committed, although Gilbert is more interested in what will make a marriage work, and I'm more interested in how the state controls or regulates marriage. It's definitely a worthwhile read for anyone contemplating marriage or with an academic interest in marriage and gender relations. I'm sure tons of Eat, Pray, Love fans read it, I have no idea if they were disappointed or not. I will say though it is not an academic work in itself, it's far too informal and politically incorrect for that (despite painful attempts to be politically correct-ahem).

Tolkien and Lewis

I apologize-I have moved to Chicago and had no Internet in my apartment until this weekend. There are lots of posts to come! This was one I'd mostly written and hadn't scheduled yet before becoming Internetless.

Headed by a Tolkien scholar, three children's authors, and moderated by a self-described "Inklings fan," (again, names are lost due to my as-yet-unfound notes) the panel on Tolkien and Lewis explored the following questions:

Why did Tolkien and Lewis decide to write for children? What was it, either about the nature of their works or their own goals that made them write for children?

The moderator began with a poll. Who was there for Tolkien, who for Lewis, who for both, and who for neither?

Most of the room was there either for Tolkien or for both, a smattering of hands for Lewis alone, and one or two "unwilling captives" (there with friends).

The moderator went over the respective histories of Tolkien and Lewis, which I was mostly familiar with, but contrasted them in interesting ways. For example, it's well known that they were both religious Christians, but Tolkien is described as a "family man" and Lewis the "perennial bachelor." Though their situations changed later in life.

So, why children's literature?

For Tolkien, it seems more like he had no choice. Fairy tales were not taken seriously for adults, so his was children's literature by default. Lewis' choice was more deliberate, especially if you've ever paid much attention to the narrator in Chronicles of Narnia.

Also discussed were the impact of WWII on their wriring, particularly Tolkien who lost four of his closest friends. That intimacy with war is certainly present in Lord of the Rings and belief in the afterlife prominent in the work of both authors. Maybe they couldn't process it any other way.

Among the panelists and the people in the room, Tolkien was the clear favorite, but it's divided on which books are the best choice for kids. I'd personally go with Chronicles of Narnia around age 8, The Hobbit around 9 or 10, LOTR around age 12. But a lot of the panelists differed, recommending The Hobbit be read to kids as young as 4!

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Top Ten Books That Make You Think

This week's Top Ten Tuesday over at the Broke and the Bookish.

An appropriate topic for the anniversary of September 11th. It was a Tuesday morning. I will never forget.

1. The Theory of Everything by Stephen Hawking

2. Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood by Barbara Demick

3. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert

4. Night by Elie Wiesel

5. The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal

On his deathbed, a Nazi soldier asks a Jewish prisoner to forgive him. What would you have done?

6. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

7. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

8. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

9. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

10. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

After his father dies in the September 11 attacks, nine-year-old Oskar searches for a lost message that his father left him. But the true question of the story is, who are we and how do we define ourselves? "War," "Peace," "Father," "Son,"...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Sex and Romance in SF(F)

Alas, I lost my notes on who the panelists were and immediate thoughts I had on the panel. In fact, I've lost all my notes, which is why I've been slow on posting, in the hopes of finding them.

Either no such luck, or they will turn up as soon as I post this.

The central questions of the panel: What is the role of sex and romance in science fiction and fantasy? Do they even belong in science fiction and fantasy?

The panelists included four women and one man, all of whom were authors. One writer writes romances as well as sci fi romances, one writes primarily sword n' sorcery adventure, one was a short story writer who writes erotica and children's stories, one writes...science fiction, I think, and the man writes fantasy, I remember (I really wish the website had left up the schedule so I could get these people's names).

In any case, their collective answer to the second question was a resounding yes. The romance writer in particular was emphatic that she was delivering a particular need, but even the fantasy writer, who admits he stays away from sex scenes in order not to be remembered for that, felt they both had a place. Some of them qualified that sex especially had to move the story along or be crucial to the development of a character.

Here is where I wish the structure of the panel had been different.

While I appreciate that there were previously thought out questions in order to shape discussion, thought the panelists were well qualified, and was very interested in their answers-I was itching to get in on the discussion myself!

I had to sit there squirming while the panelists answered questions and then audience members were allowed to ask additonal questions.

Why not open up the floor to the audience?

I realize there can be timing issues, but first of all, the panel was an hour and a half long, there weren't THAT many people in the room, and an authoritative moderator would be well placed to set time limits or just let a particular topic of interest take over.

For example, I have a somewhat different take on the issue. Do sex and romance belong in SFF?

For me, it depends.

Sex is part and parcel of A Song of Ice and Fire, and while it's something that bothers me about that universe, it's not something that could or should be removed from it. Romance is essential to The Hunger Games and is a major motivation and game-changer for the protagonist.

But does sex belong in Ender's Game? Even romance?

Assuredly not. It would change the entire nature of the book. And I don't think that means it's lacking anything.

In conclusion, Sex and Romance in SF was a thought-provoking panel and I'm glad I went. I liked that the panelists extended the question to fantasy, and answered questions in a way that gave insight into their writing processes and philosophies. I wish I could remember their names! But next year, maybe let audience members answer questions too? Pretty please?

Even More Books

So in the week leading up to and during DragonCon, I went book crazy*.

I picked up some used books at Capitol Hill Books in D.C. before I left:


They have quite an impressive collection of Bradbury and Heinlein in the basement, if one is interested in such things. And quite amusing handwritten notes (depending on your political affiliation) scattered throughout the store.

I also scored a free book from T.C. McCarthy, the one science fiction author on the Transhumanist Panel at DragonCon:


Unlike the other panelists, he was interested in the darker implications and dangers of self-directed, mechanically enhanced evolution. Since this is a book blog, I'm not going to talk too much about it, but audience members brought up some really insightful questions about who will own or control the technology, what people have a right to do with their own bodies, and what constitutes "you." Several people did suggest science fiction books on the topic, including Singularity Sky, Permutation City, and the Golden Age trilogy, none of which I have read as yet.

Finally, I bought a book, since after attending the talk with Kevin J. Anderson, I was burning to read more of his stuff. I've read and enjoyed his Dune books with Brian Herbert and this is the first in his fantasy saga.




*For the above purchases and acquisitions, I blame my bibliomania-enabling boyfriend.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Variety of Books Acquired in a Variety of Manners

Meanwhile, I've been extremely promiscuous with literature lately:

Books Acquired in the Library:


Books Acquired for $1 each at the Decatur Book Festival,which took place the same weekend as DragonCon:


Books Received for Review (from Tor on the left and Algonquin Books on the right):


DragonCon Overview

DragonCon is the largest science fiction/fantasy convention in the world, and this year I got to go.

This was my first convention and definitely not my last! I'm so glad I had the opportunity to go. In particular, I was very impressed with the demographics-boys and girls, men and women of all ages attended.

There were so many panels I wanted to go to and so many people to see and things to do, I didn't get to nearly half of them. I'm going to list the panels I did attend, some book-related and some not-so-book-related. For the book panels, I'll do some follow-up posts so I can have a chance to respond to them. I do wish there was more time for the audience as well as panelists to discuss issues, not merely listen or Q&A.

The picture is of " A Night in Bree."


DragonCon Panels I Attended:

Friday

Top Ten Things I Wish I'd Known [As a Writer]
with Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta

Writers Talk: David Gerrold

Sex and Romance in SF

Saturday

The Never Ending Trial
with Jonathan Frakes, Michael Dorn, and Levar Burton

Tolkien and Lewis

The Higgs Boson and the Mystery of Dark Matter

Sunday

TOR to Come
with editors from Tor, an imprint of Macmillan

Fantasy World Building

A Scientific Study of Polyamorous Families

Monday

Transhumanist Open Discussion Panel

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Top Ten Books on My Fall TBR List

Top Ten Tuesdays are over at the Broke and the Bookish!

I've been bad lately and acquired all kinds of books in a variety of manners (some at DragonCon, which I attended this weekend and plan to write more about over the next week)!

HOWEVER, as I am moving to Chicago in just over a week now (!), I think I'll focus first on library books.

1. Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert (this is sort of cheating, I already started this.)

2. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

3. The Last Unicorn Hunt by Bruce Covey

4. Demon Lord of Karanda by David Eddings

5. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Coming out this month! I'm excited to learn more about Yunior and to read more of Diaz's unique style.

6. Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Yes, I know this was also on my spring list, but now I have it, so I'm really going to read it!

7. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

8. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

This may also have been on my spring list, but now I own it!

9. The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Received for review from Algonquin Books.

10. The Second Empress by Michelle Moran

Because I'm on a great run for historical fiction this year, and I'd love to learn more about Napoleon's second wife.