Tag Archives: imaginary worlds

Places to live from literature

I’m apartment hunting. In honour of this task of looking for a new home, I wonder if there are places you’ve seen described in a book that you would like to live in. I know I’ve got a few. In no particular order, Places In A Book That I Wish Were Places I Could Rent in T.O.:

1. The Gryffindor dorm in Hogwarts. I don’t want to share, mind, so I don’t need all the rooms and all the beds, just the common room and a bedroom. And house elves in the kitchen, paid of course.

2. The London townhouse owned by the Aird family in September (Rosamunde Pilcher). I’d probably change the furnishings around and make sure I had a study in there, but the space sounds fantastic.

3. The house that ends up being Judith’s home in Coming Home (also Pilcher). I’d need a gardener though. I like the idea of the garden, but keeping it that way isn’t my thing. And again with moving the furniture and making sure there was a study. Possibly the little house in the garden could be a writing room.

4. The Hermit’s place in The Horse and His Boy. Because I’m a hermit. And there’s a wall around the garden.

5. Bilbo’s house in The Hobbit. No explanation needed.

6. The Magician’s house in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There are books!

What about you? Where would you like to live?

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Connections between books

I just finished The Retribution by Val McDermid. It is a mystery featuring Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, recurring characters in 7 of McDermid’s mystery books. This book followed up on an earlier Hill/Jordan mystery, The Wire in the Blood, the first McDermid book I ever read. It hooked me on this series, and on McDermid’s work more generally. I was amazed that she killed off a key character in Wire. Now in The Retribution the killer Hill, Jordan, et. al. caught in Wire escapes from prison and sets out to revenge himself on Hill, Jordan, and others he thinks have betrayed him. It is a bit of a wild ride. I quite enjoyed the ride. I might have to go back and re-read Wire in the Blood because it is good, and because it has been a while.

I wasn’t expecting the connection between Retribution and Wire, but was quite pleased by it. I like it when authors bring in characters or use settings from other books, even when they aren’t in the same “series.” Of course one expects the overlap in books in the same series (though the degree of overlap can vary widely even in a series), but it is nice when it happens in places that are not quite expected. The author has an imaginary world, and populates it with characters who show up in each other’s space from time to time. McDermid does this in some of her other books. Characters or situations make a drive-by or background appearance. John Grisham also did it in some of his earlier books — the FBI director was the same in Pelican Brief and The Firm. Those are the two I can think of off the top of my head. Do you know an author who re-uses background characters or situations in different books, not in the same series?

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The Reading Experience (and Digital/Analog discussions continued)

Part the fun of reading a book is the general experience of reading. I think there is more than one kind of reading experience.

First, there is the relaxing reading experience. By this I mean the experience of kicking back in one’s favourite reading chair, beverage of choice to hand, possibly snack of choice to hand, and diving into another world. Many people think of this experience as the only possible one for reading. I don’t think this is necessarily true, but I do like this one. A lot. And in my discussions with various people around reading eBooks, it seems that they don’t really think digital books are appropriate for this setting.

Then there’s the reading to pass-the-time experience, usually done on the subway, airplanes, or in waiting rooms. Of course, for a dedicated reader, reading to pass the time can be relaxing and enjoyable. It is not the same experience, though, as reading in your favourite chair. Here digital books seem more acceptable, especially when travelling long distances. Airplane mode anyone?

Reading for information or to learn something is another experience. This kind of reading can be done in the locations already listed — but there is a different posture of both body and mind involved. When reading for relaxation, I tend to slouch down and put my feet up. No note-taking equipment is required. On the other hand, when reading and studying, I tend to sit up straighter, keep paper and pen to hand, try to tune in to pay attention to the page, and take notes as I go. Some people find it very difficult to adapt the particular posture of body and mind with digital books. Taking notes is possible, but does one want to use the same tablet for notes AND reading? Marginalia is possible, but it doesn’t have the same feel as underlining/writing in a book.

I’m still too early in my digital book experience to decide what I prefer. So far I’ve taken much longer than I would have for a paper book to read the eLibraryBook I checked out. Part of that is because I find it easier to whip out a paperback on transit than to whip out my iPad. Also there’s the whole battery thing — as in recharging. One thing I’ve done with this mystery novel on the iPad that I couldn’t do with a paperback is look up the locations mentioned in the book. The setting is in the UK, and I don’t quite have the geography in my head. So I opened up a map and then I could flip back and forth between the book and the map and get a sense of which highway the detectives were driving down. This may not enhance YOUR reading experience, but I kind of liked it.

How do digital books fit into the idealized reading experience(s) you have in your head?

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Really interesting author

I mentioned Mark Helprin before in my post on comedy and prophecy. I’m reading another book by Helprin. He is becoming a favoured author. One cannot read his books too quickly. The one I’m presently reading Winter’s Tale features New York City and a white horse with certain special abilities. The book is slightly surreal, as was Freddy and Fredericka which I read before. The surreality is part of the appeal. But in all the surreality, Helprin also makes some statements about society. And about philosophy too. I thought of the mis-communication that was a constant theme in F&F when I read about language and the ability most of us have of communicating with one another most of the time in a philosophy book recently. I wondered to myself whether Helprin was making a comment on deconstructionists and people of that ilk when he wrote F&F. I decided he probably was. His books are simply too intelligent for that not to be the case. Check out Helprin. He writes good stuff. Why is he not read more?

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Examples of Atmosphere; or, A Sense of Place

Previously I suggested that it was a particular kind of atmosphere in some books that meant I classified them as a comfort read. Most books that I re-read have a strong sense of place. Pride and Prejudice is overshadowed by Pemberley, whose shades would be polluted by association with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. All the Harry Potter books centre on Hogwarts. But there’s more to it than just that. Somehow the place has to be properly suggested by the author. Here is an example of a scene that gives a sense of place:

“Respect the Pedestrian, say the street signs of Metro Manila. As soon as Randy saw those, he knew he was in trouble.

“For the first couple of weeks he spent in Manila, his work consisted of walking. He walked all over the city carrying a handheld GPS receiver, taking down latitudes and longitudes. He encrypted the data in his hotel room and e-mailed it to Avi. It became part of Epiphyte’s intellectual property. It became equity.

“Now, they had secured some actual office space. Randy walks to it doggedly. He knows that the first time he takes a taxi there, he’ll never walk again.

“RESPECT THE PEDESTRIAN, the signs say, but the drivers, the physical environment, local land use customs, and the very layout of the place conspire to treat the pedestrian with the contempt he so richly deserves. Randy would get more respect if he went to work on a pogo stick with a propellor beanie on his head. Every morning the bellhops ask him if he wants a taxi, and practically lose consciousness when he says no. Every morning the taxi drivers lined up in front of the hotel, leaning against their cars and smoking, shout ‘Taxi? Taxi?’ to him. When he turns them down, they say witty things to each other in Tagalog and roar with laughter.”

That description comes from Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. Randy walks to work — the whole of his walk gives a sense of place. It was hard to choose a particular passage from that book — one thing that Stephenson does well is give a sense of the variety of places there are on the planet. Characters in Cryptonomicon travel a lot, and Stephenson manages to capture well the sense of difference between places.

Do you have particular places that inspire your imagination and prompt you to return to books? Or is it an entire world (Narnia?) that draws you back? Or do you just think I’m a little bit crazy?

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Further reflections on Genre, or What makes Rowling, Whedon, and Shakespeare Great

The title of this post may seem strange to you. Why would I link J.K. Rowling, Joss Whedon, and William Shakespeare? It is all the Playwright’s fault. Once I asked her (because someone asked me) what makes Shakespeare great? I wasn’t disputing the greatness, I just wondered at the universal acclaim surrounding the name. She gave me a long disquisition on the topic. I’ll summarize it for you:

Reasons Shakespeare is Great:

  1. Timing – the renaissance was a very fruitful time for all the arts in Western Europe.
  2. Number of works and Scope of work: Shakespeare wrote a lot about all kinds of things, both comedy and tragedy, history plays and  fantasy plays, and also poetry.
  3. He was Joss Whedon, that is, he took familiar stories/genres, and  gave them a little twist so that they became something different. That is, both Shakespeare and Whedon play with the boundaries between categories.
  4. He wrote fractals, that is the words, lines, stories, symbols all were interconnected and reflected each other very well so you can take a word or a line and begin to see the whole.

You’ll see that the Playwright put Whedon and Shakespeare together for me. She claimed that their works do similar things — blur category boundaries. Example for Whedon: Firefly. This completely awesome series blurs the boundaries between a Western (y’know with cowboys and gunfights and things) and Science Fiction. The stock characters from Westerns are present – the doc, the courtesan, the loner-fighter-for-justice, the minister, the hired gun, and etc. But they all live in a space ship. The best comedy moment of the series plays with the genre bending. (Wash: That sounds like something out of science fiction. Zoe: We live on a spaceship, dear.)

The other day when discussing genre, I acknowledged that Rowling flies pretty close to the edge of the way I define Fantasy. I posted my thoughts on genre and then went away and thought more about the Potter books. In an aha moment I made a connection between the genre boundaries Rowling negotiates and the genre boundaries that Whedon and Shakespeare also play with. Possibly this is part of why Potter is such a huge success. Rowling has given us something new — in between familiar categories she found and carved out a new space all for herself.

It seems that simple genre categories never work for really good books. Possibly this is the reason — really good writers find a niche between categories all their own and write it up. Then the rest of us sit back and admire what they’ve done, what they’ve seen that we hadn’t been able to see before. We are amazed we didn’t notice this between-space before because it now seems so obvious and familiar. Now we should all go read Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams.


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Fantasy Is Not Science Fiction (and vice versa)

Recently Margaret Atwood wrote an essay in “The Guardian” on genre — and she defined what she meant by the terms “science fiction,” “speculative fiction,” and “fantasy.” (I’ve referred you to this article before, I highly recommend it, go read it now. Atwood’s literary essays are always worth reading.) It annoys me, and I think it also probably annoys Atwood, that Fantasy books are often shelved with Science Fiction books in bookshops. The two genres are stuck together with the SFF label. My friend the Biologist recently asked me what the difference is. I’m afraid I gave her an extended lecture. Here is a slightly condensed version that may be slightly better thought through.

Fantasy is best exemplified by J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books. They are books set in a completely other world with no apparent link to earth as we know it, except that people live there. In these other worlds there are also other creatures, like dragons, and elves, and wizards. Not all fantasy books have dragons in them, nor are all fantasy books swords and sorcery books, but they all have a not-of-this-world aspect to them. These other worlds might have technology (example China Miéville’s worlds), but the worlds themselves have no connection to this world.

Obviously this definition means that the Potter series is not strictly fantasy. It is connected to this world. Harry leaves for school from a London RR station that you can visit — and loads of people do visit it. I still think Potter is fantasy because Harry so clearly enters a different realm when he goes to school. Similarly, in the Narnia series, people travel from our world into Narnia and other worlds. In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar series people also travel from this world into another. Fantasy worlds are parallel to our world at most — but the key idea is that characters travel between worlds and the main world of the story action is clearly not this one. J.K. Rowling comes closest to merging her fantasy world with our reality. There are an increasing number of books that introduce fantastic elements into our reality. We might need a new genre for those works.

Science Fiction is exemplified by works like War of the Worlds or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It deals with the interaction between this world and the worlds possible out there in space. Lots of science fiction has little (if anything) to do with life on earth in the future, it has lots and lots to do with life in distant galaxies and how to get there, or at least how to travel around said galaxies. Or it can be about earth colonies on other worlds — like Mars or the Moon or things like that. Generally science fiction depends a lot on the technology available to people, and the technology available is often crucial in some way to the story. In some ways, if there isn’t a crucial piece of technology then some space operas are just another form of fantasy.

I like Atwood’s discussion of the difference between speculative fiction and science fiction. I find the distinction helpful. Some speculative fiction has a crucial piece of science or technology at its core; others depend on some other possible future course for humanity and for earth as we currently know it. Atwood’s definition means that most of William Gibson’s oeuvre should be classified as speculative fiction. Interesting thoughts.

Once I thought that if I wrote fiction I’d want to write fantasy novels and create an entirely different world. The more I read well-crafted Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Speculative Fiction, the more I admire people who can build a consistent and different world and make it live for readers. Some writers are spectacularly good at this (Rowling, Gibson, Atwood, Bujold to name but a few) and others are not. I feel a bit intimidated to even try. But I might yet.


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Present Fantastic World: Harry Potter

I have to admit that I was skeptical of Potter at first. I watched Potter go viral. Then I watched (some) Christians jump up and down and yell about what a bad influence the books were. I finally decided that I’d better read the books before I made a judgment. I started reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone after Prisoner of Azkaban  was out in paperback, but before Goblet of Fire was released in July of 2000. One morning I sat in a coffee shop reading Philosopher’s Stone and a girl (aged 10 maybe) at the next table told me that what I was reading was a very good book. I thanked her and said I was enjoying it so far. And it was true. I was enjoying it much more than I expected to.

J.K. Rowling can write! Her imaginary world is tightly woven, filled with interesting detail, and remarkably consistent from book to book. Little details from early in the series come back in a big way later in the books. This requires a lot of organization — and a careful author and careful early readers and editors. Oh that all writers were as careful.

I also like the theological ideas floating in the background of Potter. These become more obvious as the series progresses, and I don’t want to give anything away for anyone who is just beginning to read. Let’s just leave it at the distinctions between good and evil, and the fight between good and evil has strong theological overtones.

It is hard to pick a favourite Potter book because they all have their own distinctive flavour, and together they tell a bigger story. I think it would have to be Goblet of Fire if I was pressed to choose. Partly it’s the dragons, partly it is the interesting contests in the Tri-Wizard Cup. Most of all I like it because this is the book where the world shifts, and it becomes clear that Harry has to fight evil for keeps. It isn’t just little skirmishes any more. The real battle begins.

It is probably obvious that I think you should read Potter, and that you should let your kids read Potter. You might want to think about Harry’s age in the books when thinking about ages that kids can read them. Harry turns 11 at the start of the first book and 17 at the start of the 7th. He does age-appropriate things in all the books, so keep that in mind. Don’t be surprised when, in the fifth book, he acts like a 15-year-old boy. The movies are good (brilliantly cast), but the books are better and should be enjoyed first. When I want to revisit the world of Harry Potter I go back to the books not the movies. Though my reading is influenced by the movies. Professor McGonagall always looks and sounds like Maggie Smith in my head.

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Blast from the Past: The Chronicles of Narnia

Yesterday I wondered if my preference for UK mystery writers stemmed from an early taste for the mysteries of Enid Blyton. The same year I discovered Blyton and the Famous Five etc. I also read a book in the Narnia Chronicles. I was hooked. Completely hooked. I didn’t get the whole set at once — I was given one book at a time, in no particular order that I can remember. The first book I read in the Narnia series was The Horse and His Boy. I loved it. It is still my favourite of the Narnia books. (Here my friends the Playwright and the Norwegian would insert their horror at this being my favourite and all the ways this is a politically incorrect selection.) I read the copy I got when I was seven until it was in tatters. I searched for a new copy with the same blue cover, but sadly had to settle for a newer cover with a different picture on the front.

My second favourite in the Narnia series is The Silver Chair. (Insert more distaste from the Norwegian who prefers The Dawn Treader.) That one also fell apart and the newer copy is from the same set as my newer copy of The Horse and His Boy. One reason I dislike the trendier covers is the numbers are incorrect. I read the books in publication order, not in Narnia-chronology order. I feel that reading The Magician’s Nephew first violates the writing process somehow. That book is clearly a prequel, written after The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — and the references to the Narnian world in The Magician’s Nephew are made with the earlier-written book in mind. I realize that C.S. Lewis approved the Narnia-chronology order in his letters to his readers, but I still prefer publication order.

One reason I loved the Narnia books was – and is – the imaginary world that Lewis created. I loved the details including the maps and the fantastic illustrations by Pauline Baynes. This was escapist reading of a new kind — I got to go to a completely different world! Yup, I’m still hooked on fantasy. But more of that tomorrow.

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Tom Clancy’s Ryanverse

If I’d had a smartphone and been on a social network Sept 11, 2001 I’d have tweeted something like “I feel like I’m in a #TomClancy novel.” (Yes, I know, smartphones and social networks didn’t exist in 2001, but go with me here.) Fans of Clancy’s will know that the novel that most came to life that Tuesday was Debt of Honor. (I won’t tell you how the book was so similar to 9/11 in the way it ends because when I was reading it for the first time, someone told me the ending. And I was quite annoyed. But that is another story.) Clancy’s books featuring Jack Ryan somehow managed to capture a little twist on the present and near future all through the 1980s and 1990s. Since 9/11, the one Ryan book to be published didn’t have the same edge. As history actually unfolded and both collided with and diverged from Clancy’s imagined world, the Ryanverse couldn’t keep up. Clancy has begun a new series featuring Jack Ryan Jr., who was born in Patriot Games, but I wasn’t impressed by the first of this set published in 2003. Possibly the next will be better if Clancy took the time to integrate the reality of our world and the crazy way it collided with his imagined world in 2001.

The first of the Ryanverse books, published in 1984 (ancient history!), is The Hunt for Red October. I listed Red October as the Clancy book I’ve read more than 3 times, but I’ve actually read many of the Ryanverse books 3 or more times. Debt of Honor is the one I’ve read most often (5 times). I’ve only read Red Rabbit, Teeth of the Tiger (both post 9/11 publications), and Without Remorse once. (My friend the Biologist likes Without Remorse the best and is always shocked when I say I haven’t re-read it.) Red October is actually the book that hooked me on Clancy, thus I thought it would be best to list it as representative. Plus, I first read it long before I started keeping track of my reading in 1993, so I don’t know how many times I’ve read it.

I’m not sure I think Clancy is great literature. I’ve re-read his books a few times, and I think they do interesting things. He builds a very believable parallel universe populated with characters that are consistent through the 12 books. This is very impressive and difficult to do. He does some interesting things with ethics and ethical arguments. Jack Ryan is Roman Catholic and so the ethics of the books are very Catholic. The problem is that the ethical lectures in Clancy are too obviously ethical lectures, handily placed in the mouths of characters. Better to show not tell, or so I’ve heard. I think someone could do an interesting thesis on Catholic ethics in the Ryanverse. Clancy tries hard not to be anti-women. I’m afraid he just doesn’t make it there. His female characters are interesting, but ultimately they always need the protection of the men in their lives. Sigh.

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