my reading evolution

On the week-end, I made a trip to the library, and then to the book store. I wanted to browse the library before I went to the bookshop because I hadn’t been to the library in a long time, and wanted to scope out what books I could borrow so that I didn’t have to buy them (sometimes I feel like I own way too many books, but then I wonder if there’s such thing as “too many books”…)

(By the way, yes, this was the post I was supposed to write before I went off and wrote that tangential post instead. The preamble kind of ambled away and became the whole post.)

As I was browsing through the library and then through the book store, I found myself reflecting on the evolution of my reading choices. When I was younger, I read a lot of fantasy novels. I still read fantasy occasionally but sometime during high school, I started reading classics. In late high school, and then throughout my uni days, I think I started reading thrillers and sci-fi. I also went through a phase of reading action/crime novels, usually involving secret agents or something and very complicated plots.

These days, I find myself drawn to what I would call “powerful” books, or “emotionally powerful” books – novels that are masterfully written to draw out deep human emotion. These usually have some focus on human suffering – be it physical, emotional or psychological – and often (or increasingly so, anyway), coincidentally have something to do with war. (Of course, I still read more light-hearted books too. Have to have a balance, right?)

I used to avoid novels that were translated from other languages (because I was always a bit wary of the potential of a translated text to fall short of the beauty of the original, regardless of how well the translation is done), but now they make up more and more of my to-read list. For example: “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Marquez, “Snow” by Pamuk, “The Shadow of the Wind” by Zafon, and numerous works by Murakami – these are all on my TBR list.

Reflecting on the evolution of my reading, I’m actually quite amazed. If you had told my 12-year-old self, or even my 15 or 16-year-old self that I would move away from fantasy toward the books I’m reading now, I probably wouldn’t have believed you (or maybe I would have – I dunno, I was gullible and impressionable back then).

In the last two weeks, when I have made two trips to the same book store in search of books to purchase, I have, each time, wandered over to the YA/teen section in search of books by Brian Jacques. I think I went through a phase in my late primary school years when I almost exclusively read the “Redwall” series. There are a lot of books in that series, and I reckon I must have gotten through the majority of them. I know there are several I haven’t read, but it’s been so long now, I don’t know if I could remember which ones.

I’ve only ever been able to find one book by Jacques in the book store. It’s one that I’m pretty sure I haven’t read (it’s just called “Redwall” and might be the start of the series) but each time that I see it there on the shelf, amongst the random other books that never existed in my childhood, I cannot bring myself to pick it up and take it to the counter. It is always with a strange sadness that I put it back on the shelf. Part of me wants to read it – wants to buy it – but another part of me worries that I’ve outgrown it.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Jacques is a brilliant author (I was still reading his novels in high school too) but the beauty in his novels is different to what you’d find in the works of Marquez or McEwan, for example. The stories are still wonderfully constructed, but they were written for a younger audience, and I worry about being disappointed if I read them now.

But, then again, maybe I don’t need to revisit Redwall. Maybe the memories are enough. The “Redwall” series provided so much inspiration to me back then, and if I’m still thinking about it now, that must mean something, right?

My favourite of the series was probably “Salamandastron”, maybe followed closely by “Martin the Warrior”. I don’t remember the storylines exactly, but I remember that they were awe-inspiring, and compelled me to read more and write more. Hmm… maybe one day I will buy a copy. Perhaps not to read from cover to cover, but for sentimentality reasons, and for those days when I’m feeling nostalgic.

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embracing the wonder

OK… I’m going to warn you right now that this is a bit of a long rambling post, so unless you’ve read ‘Akarnae’ or have some interest in YA fiction or fantasy, you probably want to skip this post…

This morning I finished reading Lynette Noni’s debut novel ‘Akarnae’. (It’s pronounced “ah-kar-nay”, as helpfully explained early in the book, in case you were wondering.) I first heard of ‘Akarnae’ through the author’s blog. I started following her blog last year (?) when she was in the final stages of getting her book ready for publishing and release. It was a pretty exciting time, and even more so for me because she’s a local author (same state still counts as local, right?), so I wanted to support her and buy her book when it came out.

It was released early this year, but it took me a while to get around to buying it, and then it took me another while to get around to actually reading it (too many other books in the way). But now I’ve finally finished ‘Akarnae’, so let’s get on with the review!

I haven’t read a fantasy novel since October last year (when I read ‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman), so I had another reason to be excited – especially since everyone says ‘Akarnae’ is a cross between ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Narnia’ and ‘X-men’ (which, by the way, it pretty much is). However, as I started reading it, I kind of felt like my (unintentional) break from fantasy novels was hindering my ability to let go of reality and embrace the fantasy world (or “embrace the wonder”, as the tagline for the novel goes). During the introductory few chapters, where we learn about Alex (the protagonist) and Akarnae (Hogwarts-esque academy for gifted teenagers) and Medora (the parallel world where Akarnae is), I kept thinking that everything was happening too conveniently for Alex. My brain also kept asking questions, and wanting more explanations and for things to be more logical.

Of course, in a fantasy novel, not everything is going to “make sense” exactly, but considering that ‘Akarnae’ is about a fictional world that has a link to our world, I would have liked for it to be a bit more believable (if that makes sense).

When I had a quick look on Good Reads earlier, it seemed like everyone who read ‘Akarnae’ really loved it. I started thinking that maybe I hadn’t been in the right mindset to read it …until I found one reviewer that pretty much had the same critiques as I did. Mostly it was about how Alex just instantly became friends with Jordan and Bear, who also promised keep her secret about coming from another world, and dedicated themselves to helping her settle in; and also about how she kind of just went along with everything and resigned herself to spending months in this bizarre academy while she waited for someone to send her home. I mean, if I’d found a door to Medora, as awesome as that would be, I’d be majorly freaking out (a lot more than what Alex did).

In my opinion, however, the descriptions – of people and landscapes and whatnot – were actually quite good (if a little cliched). However, I think there’s something about idyllic scenery in novels that kind of puts me off a bit (is that weird?)

Unfortunately this particular GR reviewer had only read about a quarter of the novel before deciding to abandon it. To Noni’s credit, I thought ‘Akarnae’ actually got better as it went along, particularly the second half of the novel. I kind of wonder if Noni rushed through the introductory part of the book so that she could get stuck into the action. That being said, there’s a lot of detail throughout the novel as well. I actually considered re-reading it so that I can soak up all the details, but I usually don’t re-read books (in general), so it’s probably not going to happen (unless I have to wait years for the sequel).

The only other (kind of) negative I’d add is that the writing style didn’t seem very refined. However, if you go from reading Irving and Marquez to reading YAF, you’re probably going to notice some disparity in writing style… I will say, though, that her writing generally flowed quite well, so it was really easy to just keep reading and reading (particularly the second half!)

Since I followed Noni’s blog before I read her book, I also wonder if that biased my opinion. On one hand, I think I was more likely to enjoy reading it because Noni actually comes across as a genuinely awesome, yet humble person on her blog. Conversely, being aware of this potential bias, I might have subconsciously tried to counteract it by being hyper-critical about her novel. I’m not entirely sure which way it went in the end.

Speaking of ends, I really liked how ‘Akarnae’ ended. Everything clicked into place and everything made sense. It does well as a stand-alone novel, but there are enough hints and teasers to make me want to read more. On top of that, I kind of get the feeling that Noni has a bit of a crazy imagination (in a good way, of course), so I’m quite interested in seeing where she takes Alex next.

like a moth to a light

Over the week-end, I finished reading ‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman. It’s a book/series that I’ve wanted to read since I was a kid, but just never got around to it for one reason or another. Yep, it seems that even as a kid I had an impossibly long and ever-growing TBR list. And while I kind of forgot about the series as I grew up and moved on to other books, when I saw a shiney new copy at the library the other week, I just could not resist!

In a way, it was kind of refreshing – to the mind and the imagination – to read a YA fantasy novel again. I regretted never reading it when I was younger (it’s exactly the kind of book that younger me would have loved), but I don’t think my enjoyment of ‘Northern Lights’ was lessened at all by all these years of intending to read it.

I kind of wondered about writing a post/review for ‘Northern Lights’, seeing as it’s certainly not a new book, but I figure that people discover “new” books all the time. A colleague of mine, who I consider to be quite well-read, said she’d never heard of ‘Northern Lights’ before I started bringing it to the lunch room every day.

Well, anyway, I did thoroughly enjoy reading ‘Northern Lights’. I liked the premise of the story, especially the whole “daemon” concept, and having a constant companion (in the form of an animal) that you live and die with. I reckon Pullman did well with explaining about daemons throughout the story, in ways that made sense, rather than overloading readers with facts and background information at the start. The book made me want to have a daemon, and more than once led to day-dreams about what sort of daemon I would have… That’s the sort of thing that good fantasy novel does!

I also liked that he used a female protagonist in Lyra Belacqua. (I also have a certain admiration of fantasy/sci-fi authors who are good at coming up with really cool names, or names that really suit the character they belong to.) She’s a bit tomboy-ish, a bit brazen and daring, but still human and overall reasonably relatable.

There’s actually not much that I didn’t like about ‘Northern Lights’. Well, except maybe the ending. The ending wasn’t bad, but it felt kind of random and rushed, and not explained properly. At first I thought that this impression was born from my rush to finish reading it before it was due back at the library, but I actually re-read the ending the following morning, and was only slightly less dissatisfied…

I think there may also have been a few instances where the conversation didn’t seem to flow as naturally as it could have, but it was never anything really major. The overall writing style, however, was energetic where it needed to be, and smooth everywhere else. It was just incredibly easy to read (and not just because the font’s a bit larger than your average adult novel).

However, as much as I’d like to get on to reading the sequel, I kind of feel like I need a break from YA fantasy for a little bit. You know, just to allow my imagination to have a bit of a breather or something. Nevertheless, if I never get around to reading the rest of the series (which is quite possible at the rate I’m going), I’m perfectly content with having read the first instalment anyway.

old fears, new deaths

I’m not really sure where to begin this post, so I suppose I may as well go back to where it all began.

I’ll begin with a thank-you to Buffy for this review of ‘Who Fears Death’ (by Nnedi Okorafor) that so inrigued me and compelled me to seek out a copy. I quite possibly would have never read it, or even come across it otherwise.

Ironically, there’s so much I want to write that I don’t know what to write first, yet if I had to, I can sum up WFD in just three words: graphic, confronting and unique. And I mean “unique” in a good way; it’s probably a story I’ll remember for a long time. I’m not entirely sure what I actually expected from WFD but it’s certainly unlike anything I’ve read before – granted, I haven’t really read post-apocalyptic fantasy novels before, but I feel like I’ve read my fair share of the fantasy genre.

I’m also struggling to think of any novels I’ve read in recent years that were set in Africa, or had some significant link to that continent. Admittedly, I don’t have a particularly great understanding of African culture and history, so my appreciation of underlying themes and messages mightn’t be the best. Not that WFD is overly subtle or anything. As I said, it’s confronting and not shy about big issues like rape, oppression, genocide, ostracism, etc. (Onyesonwu, the protagonist, is born from rape. Although this makes her “evil”, she eventually finds a way to realise her role in ending the conflict between the two races that have both ostracised her.)

Something I really liked about WFD is the “magic”, particularly the shape-shifting. The other forms of magic, or “Bushcraft”, also had a sort of fascinating quality about them, although the “going to the wilderness” thing kind of reminded me of the Eon/Eona books (by Alison Goodman). Again, I’m not well-versed in African mythology and novels of this genre, so I’m not sure how accurate it is to say that the magic in WFD was very original. However, I will commend Okorafor for her descriptions of not only the magic itself, but of the actual experience of performing these feats and the repercussions on Onyesonwu herself.

Ok, now, I don’t want to spoil these positive vibes, but there is a “but” that I feel obliged to mention. As I read WFD, I did come across a few grammatical errors and other small mistakes that seem to have been missed in the editing process. Never major things, but I feel like as soon as I found one, I was subconsciously hyper-alert for more. It kind of saddens me to think that this may have detracted from the overall reading experience (even a little).

The other thing that kind of bothered me was the references to tigers. Based on the various descriptions of the landscapes (mostly sand and more sand) it doesn’t seem like somewhere you’d find a tiger, especially considering that it’s post-apocalyptic, and tigers are already endangered as it is. Maybe tigers of this future are different to the ones we know now. Maybe I missed something in the description somewhere.

Having said all this, I don’t think that ‘Who Fears Death’ is a book that I’d read again (keep in mind here that I rarely re-read novels (because there simply isn’t enough time!) but there are a number of books that I intend to re-read one day). However, I’m definitely open to reading more works from Okorafor, or other dystopian/post-apocalyptic fantasy novels.

story of a story

Just finished reading ‘The Name of the Wind’ by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s quite refreshing in a sense to read a fantasy novel after so long without reading from that genre. There’s just something about reading about made-up places with made-up people doing impossible things.

I’ve always thought it was quite a skill to be able to make up names for fictional places and people and creatures and whatever else comes from people’s imaginations. You have to construct a name that suits what you’re naming and that also sounds suitable to the characters who say/use the name. (Hopefully you get what I’m saying there…)

Also impressive is making up a language for a fictional civilisation, especially if you include long bits of dialogue in/throughout the story. There’s probably some sort of trick to it…

Back to ‘The Name of the Wind’: I really enjoyed reading it. Feels like I say this a lot, but it was quite different to other books I’ve read. This time, it’s different in the sense that it’s sort of a story of a story. That is, the protagonist is telling another character the story of how he became a hero. The hero’s history is pretty much the bulk of the book, but you get little intermissions where you go back to the “present day”, if you will, when the hero is telling the story.

But there are certain events in the “present day” that let you know that the story isn’t just going to end when the past meets the present, so, really, it’s more than just a story about a story.

[Caution: Possible spoiler in following paragraph] However, it did remind me a bit of ‘Harry Potter’, when you consider the very, very basic concept behind the story: evil person(s) kill kid’s parents, kid goes to uni to become educated in “magic” and to find answers, kid makes enemy of pompous/snooty guy but has a few true friends, kid builds up quite a reputation for himself at uni. But other than that, the two stories and the two respective protagonists are very different.

Another thing I liked about ‘The Name of the Wind’ was that Rothfuss seemed to anticipate all of my questions. There aren’t any holes or loose ends in the story (except for the ones he intentionally left for the purpose of creating intrigue).

All in all, I definitely want to read the sequel.