Category Archives: Reading

Escapism and settings

I’ve been reading (well, listening to) Ready Player One this week, and it’s made me think about settings. Okay—lots of things make me think about settings, but the book is what inspired the blog post.

Ready Player One takes place in our world a few decades from now. The world is pretty crummy—natural disasters, recessions, energy crises, etc—but it includes an expansive virtual reality world that almost makes up for the real world’s crappiness. In the virtual world, you can mute other players, design your own avatar, and explore a whole universe of fantasy and sci-fi worlds. You wouldn’t want to be in main character Wade’s real world, but a shot in that virtual reality? Sign me up barring the fact that you apparently lose all progress when your avatar dies which is pretty much the lamest rule ever and can only be there to increase story tension but that’s another matter entirely. Shh, self.

AHEM. Anyway, I’ve always considered myself more of a characters person than a settings person. I never got through the Silmarillion; I couldn’t bring myself to care about a book that seemed to be just world-building—but of course there’s no such thing as a “just characters”-person. People don’t exist in empty white rooms. The way I see it, settings in escapist novels can entice readers in by having attractive qualities, or they can force readers to relate to the characters by being so soul-suckingly horrible that readers root for the main characters to change the setting. For instance, the setting for the Mistborn trilogy is grim, but there’s a cool magic system that pretty much allows characters to fly, and it’s set up in a way that makes it seem real—and the main characters are trying to change the world for the better. The characters in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall universe have to fight against oppression and foreign invaders, but they live magical lives that include facetime with gods and goddesses, who are always awe-inspiring. Lastly, horrible as it is, the pageantry in The Hunger Games makes for an engaging read while readers wait for Katniss to triumph against the odds. Setting is the backdrop for any scene, and much as I didn’t want to accept this when I was still finding my footing and only wanted to write “the good bits”, it matters. A lot.

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It wouldn’t be Hogwarts without the enchanted ceiling

When creating a fantasy world, or even depicting a real-world town, I think it’s important to give readers something to hold onto. The changing weather patterns above Hogwarts’s Great Hall might not be essential to the story, but they add a kind of glamour people remember. The same is true for any other fictional place, even when it’s set in the real world—and even when only the story is fictional. What’s special about the place? Why would people escape to it? I think it’s important to know why you’re creating the world you’re creating, and what purpose it serves in the story. If it could be replaced by a green screen or persistent fog, wouldn’t it be better to add something else to draw people in? I think so—but then, I am a fulltime, grade A escapist. This player one is always ready to head for the fictional hills. Some flicker of hope is vital to my favourite escapes, and I prefer some scenic backdrops along the way. What’s essential to your favourite fictional places to go?

The Hunger Games post

For a while now I’ve been promising the amazing Ingrid that I’d write “that post” about the Hunger Games. You know—the one that compares the books to the movies and finds the movies wanting. Until Mockingjay Pt 2 came out, I didn’t think I’d be writing a post like that, because—apart from the first film—I thought many of the book-to-movie changes had been well done.

Unfortunately, here we are..!

Turn back the clock a few years to when the first Hunger Games movie came out. My facebook feed was awash with people complaining that it was either a cheap imitation of Lord of the Flies or Battle Royale, depending on who you asked. I’ve only read summaries of these works—and passionate arguments that people miss the point of LotF by ignoring that it’s a response to The Coral Island—but I doubt they’re the same thing. Fights to the death, yes—but that’s the grisly window dressing, not the point.

The Hunger Games series, for me, was the reverse hero’s journey. It’s the Disney’s Hercules scene where Hercules jumps into the green underworld goop to rescue Meg (Prim), but he fails and never goes back to being his shiny muscle-bound self; in fact, people have to stop him several times from jumping into the underworld toilet bowl himself. Katniss doesn’t emerge from her story a hero; she emerges from her story heavily scarred and unable to perform basic tasks, at least until much later, after a concentrated effort to heal and put trauma behind her. I saw that referenced in the movie, but I never quite believed it. I waited dry-eyed for Katniss’s grief to move me (I was crying five minutes into Mockingjay Pt 1) and found myself unmoved. What the hell, movie?! I knowingly didn’t wear make up when I went to see you!

Anyway, to recap the books: at the start of the story we have a heroine who’s willing to sacrifice herself for her sister, but who still fights tooth and nail for survival. At the end (minus the epilogue), we have a heroine who just wants to die. When she can’t take a suicide pill, she starves herself. She suffers from PTSD (has done for two books now) and she’s physically so weak that, back in District 12 after going out to her old haunts, she has to be rolled back to her house in a cart used to move the bodies of the dead.

In the movie, I didn’t see that weakness. Her burn wounds healed in a matter of moments, and the next time I saw her she was made up and perfect. She was composed and beautiful days after her great loss, and I don’t recall a scene where a team made up a gaunt and lifeless Katniss—I couldn’t tell that she was empty on the inside, though of course it’s harder to show that on screen. Still, to my mind, movie Katniss went from strength to strength, overcoming incredible trauma to deliver a trite lecture on survival in the last few minutes of the film. If the movies hadn’t been split into two parts I might have accepted the lack of emotional development (or degeneration, I suppose), but with the amount of time this movie had to spend on characters I’d hoped for more, and it makes me suspicious that one of the biggest themes in The Hunger Games—the eventual helplessness and trauma of the hero—was not deemed acceptable movie material.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. I think the last movie was made too palatable for general audiences, and I say that as someone who pretty much hated the last book in the series. I hated it—but I hated it because I wanted to believe the hero could always overcome the odds, and Katniss couldn’t. What made for a dull narrative (hero is always caught up in other people’s struggles, loses will to live, is moved about by other players) made for a powerful message. If the message had happened in a literature book it would have been acknowledged, but because it happened in a dystopian YA book, I think people ignored how unusual it was, and the movie didn’t manage to carry it to a wider audience. Hence, disappointment—and that’s it for The Hunger Games post. Long story short, I believe Collins deserves credit for writing an unusual narrative that acknowledges trauma, the helplessness of political figureheads, and how long it can take to heal. The movies, while improving on certain aspects, failed to carry that message home.

 

 

Reading as a (not yet) young adult

This post was going to be titled “reading as a child”, but I was twelve once, and while I might look back now and label who I was then a child, I wouldn’t have done so at the time. Furthermore, I volunteered with middle schoolers for a brief happy period in 2013/4, and I volunteer with primary school children now, and while both age groups are charming in their own ways (and infuriating in their own ways), there’s really no way to lump them together.

Incoming: huge wave of nostalgia.

I grew up in the Harry Potter generation. One vivid memory I have is of primary school me feeling a huge amount of pity for my older brother, who was past age eleven and never got his letter from Hogwarts. I mean, I probably realised that mine wouldn’t be forthcoming either, but I did have this self-indulgent theory that JK Rowling was a wizarding world whistleblower who’d gotten away with writing the HP books because no one would believe her anyway.

(Nobody but me, and probably thousands of other hopeful children—but I digress.)

Harry Potter is one of the most visible book series in the world, and I love to talk about it because so many of us know it. You don’t ever have to explain the significance of Harry Potter to a 20+ year old; everyone’s used to the discourse. It’s harder to explain your other “young book loves” to friends.  It’s been over a decade since I was a young girl refreshing Tamora Pierce’s site frequently to see if Trickster’s Choice was going to come out any sooner, but to this day I still remember the first line of the little excerpt she had up as if it’s a prayer I learned as a child:

Nawat stood against the wall, relaxed and alert…

I think any child who grew into a “big reader” has a few dozen books like this—books read early on, that can’t be seen objectively. A preteen reader experiences many things for the first time: kisses, betrayal, loss, romantic love. When I was twelve, I didn’t want to read about twelve-year-olds; they were too young, and that made them boring. I wanted to read about sixteen-year-olds, who got to do things I couldn’t do yet, who were amazing, who were  clever and resourceful and basically non-boring adults.

This is what a sixteen year-old looks like, right?
This is what a sixteen-year-old looks like, right? (Spoiler: it’s not. I think we’ve collectively forgotten what teens look like as a society thanks to the wash of twenty-somethings playing them in films.)

It’s hard to look at young adult stories now and predict how I might have reacted to them if I’d been younger. Often, I read criticism that characters read as “too old”—adults in sixteen-year-old bodies. But would I see it that way back in my fit-the-demographic days? I never had trouble believing sixteen-year-olds could be brilliant, or could fall deeply in love with someone they belonged with, or-or-or-or. Sure, a modern-world sixteen-year-old who calls instead of texting would be absurd, unless there was some explanation, but a sixteen-year-old saving the world? Makes sense, doesn’t it?

And yet now, while I still think sixteen-year-olds are amazing and can do great things, there’s a part of me that’s just a little uncomfortable with the unintentional narrative that says you finish growing around the time you’re eighteen, once you’re done saving the world. I didn’t question this as a young teen, but now—surrounded by smart twenty-somethings who feel like failures for not having made all their dreams come true—I wonder if the boom in YA without a corresponding boom in (new) adult stories about people still growing is doing people a disservice. Still, this is mostly a question for another time, and I’m digressing yet again.

So: if an adult looks at someone 16-18 and thinks “person who is not yet fully formed and might not have the life experience to see how their decisions will affect them”, and if young adults look at people 16-18 and see “adult”, or at least “person in charge of own destiny who can make smart decisions and understand the consequences of their actions”, who are YA books written for? Should a YA writer try to move against the perception that the person you fall in love with at 14/15/16 is your forever-person? Is #veryrealisticya the way to go? (Probably not; your book would be used as a pillow more often than not if it accurately represented teenage life.) I don’t really have answers to these questions, but I know that what I read when I was 10-16 is important to me in a way no other books will emulate. And I know that teens now deserve fantastic narratives they can connect with—with better representation of race, gender, sexuality, etc. They deserve a safe place to have adventures, to experience their first heartbreak, to squirm over fictional kisses—the list goes on. These are books they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, and if the young characters are read by adults as being too mature, or too smart, is that really a bad thing?  I’m not sure. Perhaps it breeds false expectations—but it inspires, too.

In sum, there’s no substitute for what it’s like to read when you’re young, when everything is a first. Being told your growth is important by the books you’re reading is a wonderful thing. But then—and I might just be saying this because I’ve aged out of the target demographic I so enjoyed being in—I don’t think it hurts for adults to read that either.

Seasons, moods, places

In November of 2014, I moved further north than I’d ever lived before—to Dundee, on the east coast (ish) of Scotland. There were a lot of warnings about the weather, and how oppressive it could be in winter, but my husband and I were pleasantly surprised. “Manageable,” we concluded in the spring of 2015. “Not that bad.”

Fast-forward to last winter, when suddenly the place I lived felt less like Dundee and more like The Pit Of Eternal Night. There seemed to be two types of darkness: day-dark and night-dark. It shook me to feel so disconnected from nature, even though I don’t consider myself a particularly outdoorsy person. Seasonal affective disorder reared its ugly head, and I clung to my blue daylight lamp like a lifeline—even though it strengthened the impression of being on some spaceship where light from an actual sun was a distant dream.

The Tay from Kinnoull Hill
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Do swans get SAD? – taken at Clatto Reservoir
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Blue Sidlaws & frosty fields

Given the opportunity to write about an oppressive (not snowy—oppressive) winter, I could easily call specifics to mind. The days that barely dawned, the damp feel of the air, how grey a city can look and how little the yellow streetlights do to combat it. Each time I move somewhere, there’s a different feeling, a different way of life, a different slant to the seasons—in short, a different everything, and it makes me leery of writing about any place I haven’t lived, and even about places that I have. My memories of the Netherlands are all cycling, school, train stations. Do I know what it’s like to live there now, as an adult? Could I write it convincingly? Does Alexander McCall Smith ever worry if he’s getting Edinburgh “right” in his books?

With fantasy, local knowledge problems don’t exist in the same way. You come up with a world and a climate and you stick with it. It’s inspired by the real world, or what you imagine the real world to be, but it isn’t bounded by it; that draws me, but lately I’ve been enjoying books set in the real world too. Moving around hasn’t made me any less curious about all the other places out there, and reading books by authors with local knowledge is the only way I’ll get to experience them. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng sent me to Malaysia; Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought me to Nigeria. The fact that they were novels—not nonfic, which I still don’t have the stomach for—kept me invested. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write a book like that, one that sets the reader firmly in one locale, expertly written—but it’s interesting to think about.

Could you write about your town, city, village, if you wanted to? Would you want to? And how much complaining about the weather would there be?

Seeing things done well (or: fantastic hooks & where to find them)

Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff tells the story of a book critic whose childhood love of language has been spoiled by a lifetime of reading. We had to read it for senior honors English, and nothing has been the same since. Okay—I’m joking, mostly, but the whole not-loving-the-stuff-you-used-to-love thing is one of my greatest fears. Sometimes when thoughts about predictability and consistency and a million other things keep me from enjoying a book or movie as much as I might have if I was thirteen again, I want to bash my head against a wall until all prior knowledge falls out. HOWEVER, there is a flipside. A beautiful, high-shine side of the coin:

Seeing things done well, and being able to recognise when it happens.

bujold
An excerpt from Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

“Is that all they told you?” Van Atta asked in astonishment. At Leo’s affirmative shrug, he threw back his head and laughed. “Security, I suppose,” Van Atta went on when he’d stopped chuckling. “Are you in for a surprise. Well, well. I won’t spoil it.” Van Atta’s sly grin was as irritating as a familiar poke in the ribs.

Too familiar—oh, hell, Leo thought, this guy knows me from somewhere. And he thinks I know him… Leo’s polite smile became fixed in mild panic. He had met thousands of GalacTech personnel in his eighteen-year career. Perhaps Van Atta would say something soon to narrow the possibilities.

I was a little confused when I came across this in my camera uploads because I generally only take pictures of passages I love. And I do love this passage—but not because it’s poignant or anything. Instead, I love it because it shows one of my favourite authors laying down a subtle hook. Bujold’s Falling Free didn’t start out with explosions or robberies or dramatic tension; it started with a routine check-up, but still managed not to be boring. With the revelation that Van Atta is someone the main character should know but can’t remember comes sympathy—who hasn’t been in that situation?—and interest. How do they know each other? And what’s the thing Leo is about to be surprised by?

Thinking back on other hooks I’ve loved in the past, I tend to enjoy the more in-your-face kind where a character is about to undergo a big change: The Reaping in The Hunger Games, or the girl running away from the farm (hey, that’s Bujold too), or some obscure ceremony like the choosing in Divergent. Keeping the main character a mystery helps too. Why is she running? Who’s after her? Questions like that, even if they’re nowhere near as subtle as “damn it this guy knows me—how?”

For others it might be different. I’m personally very tired of the “mysterious stranger walks into a dimly-lit inn” type fantasy starts, but there might be fantastic ways to pull that off too. The only thing I can say for sure is that if you’re a nerd who likes to see things done well, having your phone camera handy when you’re reading isn’t a bad thing. Learn by doing, yeah—but learn by seeing others succeed, too!

Anyway, getting back to the existential fear at the start of this post, I’ll probably never be able to enjoy books as indiscriminately as I would have if I’d stayed thirteen. On the other hand, when I was thirteen I was writing a book about a green-haired girl finding an enchanted egg in the forest and needing to bring it to the emperor. It had no subtlety whatsoever—or paragraph breaks—so I’ll take what I can get, and deal with that unwelcome analytical part of my mind that comes with experience. There are so many amazing authors out there that I still won’t have too little to read.