Reread Review: The Scar by China Mieville

Author: China Mieville
Title: The Scar
Series: Bas-Lag novels
Format/Source: Paperback/my copy
Published: 2000
Publisher: Del Rey
Length: 578 pages
Genre: Mieville is his own genre (steampunk?)
Why I Read: In the mood for a strong ‘place as character’ book
Read If You:  Like original world-building, grounded characters or ocean adventures
Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
Third book for the Reread Challenge. Read my original review.

WHEN I First Read – At the start of January 2013, while I was house sitting for my aunt.

WHAT I Remember – The vivid and intense world building. The immensity of the avanc (real whales freak me out because of their size – I got chills reading the descriptions of the avanc). Down-to-earth Bellis. The general decency of most characters. And something vague about how the story ends, but nothing about how it got to that point.

WHY I Wanted to Re-Read I wanted to enter that sort of world again. I wanted a meaty book I could really get pulled into. I knew I could rely on this one to do that. I picked up a physical paperback while visiting a huge bookstore in Osaka that has half a floor of English books *-*

HOW I Felt After Re-Reading – Excellent! Why didn’t I give this five stars + favourite before? I think I read the ending too fast on my first read and didn’t quite understand it. I was surprised by how much of the story I had forgotten (for example, I did not remember Simon at all.) was pleased to find aspects of the novel that I liked the first time surpassed my expectations this time. Bellis is such a great character, I think one of the most realistic and believable characters I’ve read in an unbelievable situation.

WOULD I Re-Read Again – I think so. I love the prose, the characters and the world, but it’s a thick book that’s relatively plot heavy and I think some time would have to pass so I can ‘forget’ the plot and enjoy it again.

This wasn’t a book I thought I would reread this year, but I’m glad I did! Have you read anything by Mieville? Are there any fictional worlds you’ve been wanting to revisit? 

Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Author: Neal Shusterman
Title: Challenger Deep
Format/Source: ebook/Edelweiss
Published: 21 April 2015
Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult
Why I Read: New work by a favourite author
Read If You: Want to understand what experiencing mental illness can be like
Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for my honest review. 

I don’t know what to say about this book, beyond that it’s probably Shusterman’s best and one I’d recommend to anybody.

The story feels deeply real. I felt I was finally able to understand a bit better what it’s like to have this sort of experience. Shusterman’s prose cuts sharply, more so than anything I’ve previously read by him before. He writes with sensitivity and clarity. I thought he had to be writing from personal experience. His note at the end confirmed this.  His son Brendan experienced mental illness during high school. Brendan’s illustrations during that time are included in parts of the book, and Neal worked closely with Brendan to write this story. (See link to interview below.)

I’m not sure what else to say. If you’re thinking, “Oh, not another book about mental illness” – forget the others, this is something different and definitely worth your time.

The Bottom Line: Read this book to gain at least a glimpse of what it’s like to experience mental illness.

Further Reading: 

Quick Review: If I Stay and Nothing to Envy

It’s been a few months since I reviewed two books in one quick review post. The only way I could think to connect these two is that they’re both for Adam @ Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge. These are my fourth and fifth reads for that challenge.

  •  Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • Ugh, why am I reading books about North Korea? Okay, it’s only the second book I’ve read, but man, they are so bleak and unbelievable, in the sense that is so difficult for me to comprehend that this is happening in the world I live in, right now. That makes reading about it a different experiences from reading about WWII atrocities. It raises so many how questions: How can people be okay with this, how can someone want to rule a country like this, how can we let this happen, how do you rate a book like this; how do you react to it? Especially when there is so little you can do. I had basically the same reaction upon finishing Escape from Camp 14 (thankfully, Demick’s book is a slightly easier read because of her more general subject matter.)
    • Early in the book I thought there were too many details and characterizations that Demick possibly couldn’t know and that she had  to be using a lot of artistic license. I wondered where she got all her information from. I’m not sure why I was critical of this point at the start of this book – I know it must be the case for many non-fiction books that tell people’s stories. Gradually I settled into the narrative style and it didn’t irk me after the first few chapters.
    • A large part of this story is grounded around the change from Kim Il-Sung to Kim Jong-Il. I wonder how much of the story is out of date – or, perhaps more accurately, what has changed since Kim Jong-un took over.
    • I’d recommend reading Nothing to Envy before Escape from Camp 14, because that book has a narrower focus on one particular life within North Korea.
  • If I Stay by Gayle
    • Rating: ★★½ [ratings guide]
    • I messaged my sister immediately upon finishing this book. I wrote, “Wow I just finished reading If I Stay and I was wholly underwhelmed. It felt like a writing experiment, not a novel. I couldn’t believe it was so short!! My ebook said 217 pages but the story finished at 167. I read it in one sitting. It had some good moments but it ain’t no John Green 😛 /immediate reaction.” Let me expand on two points:
      • Emotional depths – I expected some moving tale on the level of a John Green story, from the way people talk about this book. Because it’s centered on teenage romance, however, I couldn’t get into it (although I appreciated how realistic Adam and Mia’s relationship was). I’ve never been into teen romances, even when I was a teen. It’s not that I think they’re invalid; they’re just not interesting to me. (Green’s novels appeal to me in spite of any ‘romances’ within them). Overall, I didn’t find the story that sad. It is sad…but not an emotional tearjerker.  I thought it was more intellectually interesting for me, given the discussion of life and death that it explores. There are some very good moments that gave me a swell of emotion and paused my reading (for example, Mia’s comment about her mom and dad on page 28 or her thoughts on Mr. Dunlap on page 86).
      • Shortness – This ties into the point above. The story’s shortness surprised me. I think I would have appreciated it a lot more if it was a short story or a novella, with most of the flashbacks cut out and the boyfriend storyline minimized, distilled so it’s just ruminations on life after death.
    • The information dump in the first three pages almost turned me off this one. My interest kept me going and thankfully, the story gets started right after that.
    • What’s up with the parents? They were too unbelievable for me; they never felt real. I get that that super-cool parents do exist, but these were almost like caricatures of some teen’s ideal mom and dad. 

Have you read any books about North Korea? What did you think of If I Stay (am I off base about the parents?)?

Response: Understanding Éowyn, Part Two

Last month, I wrote about how The Lord of the Rings Éowyn is one of my favourite Tolkien characters, despite my struggle to comprehend her from a feminist perspective. I want to develop a more perceptive view of Éowyn, so I can better inform my opinion of her and understand her role in Middle-Earth. Ultimately, I’d like to settle whether I can successfully argue Éowyn is a feminist icon (or conclude that that’s an unwinnable debate) through examining various facets of her character along the way. What I didn’t mention in Part One (because I didn’t realize it then) is how this process mirrors what I did when starting an essay – read the source, take notes, add a few thoughts, eventually synthesize all sources into my final argument. I really do miss university! In Part One, I commented on Brent D. Johnson’s article “Éowyn’s Grief”, in which he explores her “grief and recovery [as] a portrait of many soldier’s family members who remained in England during World War I” (117). The article I will explore this week links to Johnson’s in that it also considers Éowyn’s role in context with World War I.

Smith, Melissa. “At Home and Abroad: Eowyn’s Two-Fold Figuring as War Bride in The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 26.1 (2007): 161-72. Web. (Purchase digital article)

  • Smith’s perspective: “Éowyn’s relationships with Aragorn and Faramir thus cast her in the dual roles of war bride-left-behind and foreign war bride”. She is “a negative example of the former [but] a positive example of the latter” (161).
  • Smith recounts the origin and definition of war bride (161-3). The term can refer to either “the newlywed wife left in the homeland by the soldier” (applicable to Éowyn  and Aragorn) or “a bride of foreign origin married after necessarily hasty engagement to a serviceman of the occupying, usually friendly, country” (applicable to Éowyn and Faramir) (163).
  • Smith acknowledges in footnotes alternatives to the interpretation of Éowyn’s love for Aragorn as romantic. She references Janet-Brennan Croft, who argues Éowyn’s love is the same sort of “homoerotic, non-physical ‘crushes’ experienced by soldiers” in WWI (qtd in. 163). 
    • This continues to be an aside throughout Smith’s article (although whether Éowyn’s love is romantic or not isn’t wholly relevant to Smith’s argument – Éowyn still embodies characteristics of a war bride). I prefer to take this up as the main interpretation of Éowyn’s love of Aragorn, rather than an ‘alternative view’. Indeed, this is what both Aragorn and Faramir perceive (Smith quotes Faramir’s observation on 164).
  • Éowyn as a war bride-left-behind
    • Smith compares Éowyn to Ruth Wolfe Fuller, who penned  “The Experiences of War Bride” after her “husband was drafted into the United States [WWI] army two months after their marriage” (162). Smith highlights moments when Éowyn’s reactions to Aragorn “mirror” Fuller’s reactions (164). Some examples:
      • Éowyn discourages Aragorn from seeking the Paths of the Dead in part because he will find no honour along that path. Similarly, Fuller and her husband “chose not to claim exemption because to do so would be a ‘compromise with honour'” (qtd in. 164).
      • Both cannot bear to be parted from their loves, yet they strive to their duty as necessitated by living in wartime (164-5).
      • Both are eager for news from the war front (165).
      • Smith concludes this segment stating that Éowyn functions as an “Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a modern homebound war bride” but “fails to be an exemplary one” (165) because of “petulance and reluctance to accept her role” (167). In this Éowyn differs from Fuller.
        • Smith carefully notes this is not a criticism of Éowyn’s character. In footnotes 11 and 12, she acknowledges Éowyn’s struggle to find her place in society, citing her naturally strong spirit, her upbringing among among men in a warring society, and her training that she is forbidden to use (166-7).
      • Smith also draws parallels between Éowyn and Edith, Tolkien’s wife and herself a war bride during WWI. I had not thought to connect the two. Both experience great discontent with their expected roles during wartime (166-7).
    • Éowyn as a foreign war bride
      • Smith begins her second discussion on a lighter note, writing that foreign brides do not experience so much of the “demoralizing passivity” that brides-left-behind do – that Éowyn experienced in her relationship with Aragorn. Éowyn’s “new role […] requir[es] the intrepid spirit and desire for activity so prominent in her character” (167).
      • Éowyn and Faramir’s relationship shows “many similarities to descriptions of courtship as experienced by young soldiers and their lovers in foreign lands” (167). Some examples:
        • The rapid development and forward acknowledgment of interest
          • Smith notes such characteristics are “uniquely acceptable” during wartime,  “when relocation and even death loom large in the future” and relationships must blossom “to endure separation” (167-8).
          • Tolkien himself addressed criticism of the speed of Éowyn and Faramir’s relationship, writing, “In my experience feelings and decisions […] ripen very quickly in times of great stress” (qtd in. 163).
        • Éowyn initially expresses reluctance to accept Faramir’s interest. Smith attributes this to “the idealistic faithfulness of the war bride-left-behind [doing] battle with the readiness of the foreign war bride” (168). Éowyn has already been impressed by soldier Aragorn, but uncertainty and absence lies with him, so she accepts Faramir in his stead (as foreign war brides did with their suitors). 
        • Another characteristic of the foreign war bride and her soldier is the “approval of fellow men-at-arms to make marriage possible” (168). Éowyn and Faramir’s union plays out amongst and with the support of those who have just returned from battle.
        • Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of the foreign war bride is the process of assimilation she must undergo, both into her husband’s family and a foreign culture (169).
          • Éowyn sharply observes her potentially difficult situation when she says, “Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor? And would you have  your  proud  folk  say  of  you:  ‘There  goes  a  lord  who  tamed  a  wild shieldmaiden  of  the  North!  Was  there  no  woman  of  the  race  of  Númenor  to  choose?’” (qtd in. 170)
          • In the end, though, all works out for Éowyn, and her marriage to Faramir is considered a “positive unification of two cultures” (171).
    • Towards the end, Smith’s comments prompted me to think about something more related to Johnson’s article than anything Smith discusses here – about Éowyn’s renouncement of her desire to achieve honour and glory in death on the battlefield. Smith’s comment about Faramir and Aragorn thinking the Rohirrim lesser people who love war (170) prompted me to think, “Oooohohohoh it’s not just Éowyn who desires glory in war; it’s her people”. Now I realize this might turn the sexism discussion into a racism one, but at the very least I think it’s a good comment on attitudes towards war. It’s not about honour or glory, it’s about defending what one loves. Recall the iconic quote from Faramir: “[…] I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend”. Faramir holds the ‘correct’ attitude to war, which Éowyn comes to recognize. (Ahhhh and now I’ve gone back around to the sexism argument, possibly, but that’s an ongoing conversation.)
    • Smith focuses more on Tolkien’s personal views than I am interested in. Part of her argument is that Tolkien sympathized with the plight of war brides and “the difficult of the role that war imposes on women”, which Smith claims disproves the idea that Tolkien was a “narrow-minded misogynist who dooms the women in his work to weakness and failure” (171). While I appreciate Smith’s exploration of Éowyn as a war bride, I think this conclusion is a bit of a stretch from what she discusses in her article. I think the overall article would have been stronger as a sole exploration of Éowyn’s rather character, rather than as an attempt to prove Tolkien isn’t a misogynist. It’s a great exploration, and gives further understanding to Éowyn , but I don’t think it’s a strong enough argument to base a claim that Tolkien wasn’t misogynist (for the record, I don’t believe he was. I just don’t think this article is the best place to make the argument.)

    I really enjoyed the two articles by Johnson and Smith. They gave me new perspective and have me excited to dig in further. Because these are new ideas fresh me, I haven’t been too critical but perhaps later on I’ll come back and reread these and have more constructive thoughts on them. Something I’ve been thinking about is how both articles relate key parts of Éowyn’s character in context with Faramir…that’s a bit tricky; is she only defined in the context of her relationship with a man? But then, I think that’s overdoing it – everyone is affected by how they interact with other people. It doesn’t have to be a sexist thing (but perhaps it is, and that’s the issue I’m continuing to explore). Now the question is – what to read next? Smith cites some articles that look interesting. I’m not sure when I’ll post Part Three, but certainly this won’t be the end of my exploration! Have you read any stories featuring war brides, or characters who undergo circumstances similar to a war bride? What was their experience like?

    Quick Review: The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

    • Key words to describe this book: Diversity and Canadian history and classism and folklore and sexism and racism and adventure! Whoo, that’s a lot for one book to address, but all these topics factor into the story. I guess the best word here is intersectionality? It’s great to see that in a novel for younger readers. Even though this book tackles many subjects, it’s primarily a fun story. You could dig deeper into those topics if you wish, or you could just enjoy it as an adventure book. It has a great premise and kicks off to a strong start.
      • I like how the darker side of the CPR’s history is acknowledged. For example, comments are made early in the book about how it was a terrible working situation for Chinese people.
      • Will and I have the same hometown, a city where many Métis people live. I was excited to find Mr. Dorian is Métis (111). I’ve never read a fiction book that wasn’t specifically about Indigenous people where there’s a Métis character.
      • I was a bit thrown when they dressed Will in yellow face like that wasn’t at all a problem (141). With racism being a forefront subject in this novel, I thought that such disguises would have been handled more sensitively
    • I’m not sure about Maren’s role. I think she could have used more fleshing out. It’s great that she spurns Will’s coddling and shows she can make her own decisions and take risks, but I felt that was her only purpose (“Look, girls can act on their own!”). She’s also the only female character of any significance.
    • I thought the story was well-paced (though it did slow up a bit in the middle as they moved their performances from class to class). I was surprised when I noticed I was already 50 pages in.
    • Oooohhhhh, the description of breakfast makes me want to cry. I want to eat it all!!!! (121)
    • Overall, an entertaining and easy read, enhanced by the historical Canadian setting infused with a touch of folk fantasy.