Book Review: Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

I was recently browsing the shelves at my local library branch, when I noticed that the only book by Tim Powers on the shelf was On Stranger Tides. This was likely on the shelf due to one of my earlier recommendations: I had told the staff that the Pirates of the Caribbean film was loosely based on Powers’ novel. As I was checking out, I saw his most recent novel, Hide Me Among The Graves. This novel is a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, although it doesn’t need any previous knowledge of the earlier book.

Hide Me Among the Graves book cover

This latest novel takes place a generation after the events in The Stress of Her Regard: the poets Shelley, Byron and Keats are long dead, and the Nephilim, the pre-Adamite stone creatures with vampiric tendencies have been banished, along with their poetic gifts, when a new wave of poets unknowingly invite them back.

I’m not as familiar with the works of the Rossettis as I am with those of Byron, but once again, Powers works his magic, weaving a fictional secret tale with historical records, which in some ways seems to make more sense than the original records.

 

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Book review: Triggers by Robert J Sawyer

I recently finished reading Triggers, the latest novel by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J Sawyer. After the television adaptation of his novel Flashforward, there was an obvious desire to tap into a larger market of potential fans. Many of Sawyer’s earlier novels had elements of suspense, but none could ever truly be called a thriller. They have all been heavy on the philosophical issues, exploring ideas and thoughts on the meaning of humanity.

Book cover for Triggers

Triggers is the combination of this philosophy on the human condition, mixed with high stakes action. Sawyer manages this quite well. While Sawyer’s message is as positive as always, the comparison to Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers is more relevant than ever.

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Book review: Enter, Night by Michael Rowe

I’m not really into the whole vampire craze. Zombies are more my style. I think I read some Anne Rice novels after Interview with a Vampire came out. The most interesting vampire literature which I’ve read would have to be The Stress of Her Regard, by Tim Powers. However, while at Ad Astra this year, I picked up a copy of Enter, Night by Michael Rowe.

Enter, Night
Enter, Night is a much darker novel. It is grittier, more immediate. It evokes a primal response. Disquiet and fear. It makes me wish that tonight wasn’t garbage night, and that I didn’t have to step out into the forbidding darkness.

Chizine Publications Pin

I think what makes Enter, Night so effective is the careful blend of the familiar with the unknown. Instead of a straight up vampire novel, it blends the vampire mythos with native legends of the wendigo. The setting of a small, remote northern Ontario town gives a sense of isolation, allowing the major characters to interact with stereotypical small town conservatism. While familiar, they aren’t the experiences of the reader, who is of course, intended to follow the returning urbanites. We are supposed to share their distaste at the ignorance, prejudice and hypocrisy in Parr’s Landing.

The theme of prejudice against the other, the fear of being different, is woven throughout the novel. Whether it is through issues of premarital sex and pregnancy, sexual orientation, or racial status, Rowe shows the pain of being different. Ironically, the true Other in the novel is a vampire, who unifies his victims. A sense of personal identity is important in the novel, and the loss of that personal individuality is crushing. This adds a much richer fabric for the story, and issues to talk about. Speculative fiction is a literature of ideas, and Rowe’s novel speaks on issues of importance.

It’s refreshing to read a vampire novel where all the traditional means of defense exist: stakes, sunlight, crosses and holy water. Churches as places of refuge, and the need for permission to enter a residence. This is another sign of the familiar, balanced by the addition of the wendigo myths. Further anchorage is provided through comics, such as the very real Tomb of Dracula series published in 1972 by Detective Comics. It roots the story in the familiar, framing our expectations.

The story has good characterization. The major characters are well fleshed out, and even minor characters have well defined motivations, often based on strong inner conflict.

After the main story, the book also contains an additional story, a historical narrative, explaining the origins of vampires in the area which became Parr’s Landing. It’s a document referenced in the main text, and provides an interesting view of history, especially regarding Canada’s colonization of the native tribes. It traces not just the history of the vampires, but also of the guilt that we should feel for the way we have treated others.

Enter, Night is clearly worthy of the Aurora nomination this year. Read it with a mind open to these ideas, but you might want to keep the lights on.

Book Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Tigana was first published back in 1990, although I first read it in 1999. It has remained one of my favourite novels. I have a signed first edition hardcover, in addition to my paperback reading edition.

Tigana is a wonderful novel which examines the power of memories. The theme of remembering is woven throughout, starting with the opening prologue, where the Prince of Tigana muses on what legacy he leaves his country: “Oh, our pride. Our terrible pride. Will they remember that most about us, do you think, after we are gone?” to which his companion states that “the one they that we know with certainty is that they will remember us. Here in the peninsula, and in Ygrath, and Quileia, even west over the sea, in Barbadior and its Empire. We will leave a name” (16). The novel quickly opens to the tragedy of Brandin of Ygrath’s great wrath, where in his magic he ripped away the name and cultural heritage of the province of Tigana, such that only those born in the province can comprehend the name.

There may be spoilers after the cut, but the book has been out for over twenty years. It’s still a worthwhile read.
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Kindle for Academics

Currently, no ebook reader appears to completely solve my needs. Some come close in some areas, while still making things unnecessarily complicated in the final steps of the solution.

Ulysses notes

Some ebook readers, such as the Kobo, quickly fail to solve my needs. The standalone Kobo ereader provides no means for text entry, having only a D-pad toggle. My first need for an ereader is to highlight and take notes on the text.

While there appears to be some support for these annotation features on the iPad Kobo app, they don’t appear to sync across the cloud. Their desktop app, for example, provides no annotation features at all.

The Amazon Kindle has more strict Digital Rights Management (DRM), which restricts some forms of access to the text, such as in 2009 when Amazon deleted George Orwell novels, including 1984, from all Kindle devices. This is a level of control I’m uncomfortable with a large corporation to have. The opportunities for abuse are evident, as Amazon has shown in January of 2010, by pulling all books published by subsidiaries of Macmillan, including SF publisher Tor, from the Amazon store. This was done as part of a power play on digital rights sales, such as Kindle books, but it involved pulling all print editions as well.

Amazon’s Kindle has a multi-platform triple-threat. In addition to their portable ereader devices, they provide a desktop reading solution, as well as other mobile devices such as the Apple iPad. While Kindle is available for BlackBerry, like many other things Amazon has to offer, this isn’t available in Canada.

While I haven’t used the Kindle ereader hardware, I have used both their desktop reader, and the iPad version. Both of these offer highlighting and text annotations, which sync wirelessly with each other. They also maintain your reading position between the two applications. This is unfortunately only the first part of the solution.

The important part is where Amazon fails. Once you have selected portions of the text, and made annotations on the go, students need to access this text. Amazon sometimes allows these “clippings” — as they refer to the selections — to be exported via their web interface. Note the qualifying word of sometimes. Each book in their system apparently has some undefined, undocumented limit as to how much of the text can be exported in this manner. Some books have a hard limit of no exported text. While I can understand the publisher’s desire to stop people from copying the book, this is not helpful for students in the least.

Sadly, copyright tends to actually be more restrictive for academics in Canada. Concordia University has a helpful comparison between fair dealing (in Canada) versus fair use (in the United States). The restrictions in clipping length may be analogous to the lack of definition of the term “substantial” in the Copyright Act (s.3). As this term is undefined in the Act, publishers may decide on a more restrictive definition than commonly accepted.

The web interface that Amazon uses is also difficult to use. In an ideal world, I would be able to select my highlighted sections from the desktop app, and have them copied in proper citation format, including an entry for my works cited list.

Another problem when dealing with the Kindle is directly related to citations. Amazon has standardized on a “location” number to reference text in a book, rather than the term “page”. The thought on their part is that at different zoom levels, pagination will change, making page references unstable.

Amazon has lately started to remedy this problem, by including page numbers which presumably link back to a print edition of a book. While I see this change on the iPad, my desktop application only provides Location information. In either case, I still have to manually type the quoted text into my essay. How is this more convenient than just using a print book again?

What’s the solution? It’s been tempting to run screenshots through OCR software, except that I’d still have to proofread the text for corrections. I guess what really bothers me is that this is something that would likely be easier than what Amazon is doing now, and not just for students.

The Last Man

Mary Shelley is primarily known for writing Frankenstein (1818), and while many people think themselves familiar with the tale, their knowledge is usually based on the many play and film adaptations, rather than the original literary text. In the Billion Year Spree: The History Of Science Fiction (1973), Brian Aldiss argued quite successfully that Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel. Certainly the creation of a manufactured being, based to some extent on the science of the day should qualify as such.

How then should we examine Shelley’s later novel, The Last Man (1826)? While I don’t believe that it really qualifies as science fiction, many of the themes Shelley includes are familiar to a modern audience. This post apocalyptic tale will seem familiar to readers of modern anthologies such as Wastelands, edited by John Joseph Adams. Stories like The Last Man bear a strong similarity to works by Stephen King, such as The Stand (1978), where a global catastrophe has depopulated the earth. Unlike King’s novel, Mary Shelley’s story lacks the supernatural elements, aside from the narrative framing device. Shelley mourns for a lost world, just as she mourned for her husband and child. As she notes in her novel, “all things proceed, decay, and perish”.

Much of her novel can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Many of the characters seem based off those in her life. The story is a kind of momento mori, memorializing those who proceeded her. In many ways, The Last Man deals with death and emotion in a far more sophisticated way than Shelley dealt with this issue in Frankenstein. While Victor Frankenstein is unable to express grief or true remorse for anyone, in The Last Man, Lionel Verney memorializes the entire world, saying that “my thoughts were gems to enrich the treasure house of man’s intellectual possessions; each sentiment was a precious gift I bestowed on them”. Verney becomes a kind of living monument to the peoples of the earth.

This theme can also be seen in Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend (1954), for which the movie adaptation starring Will Smith utterly fails to conclude in a satisfying manner. In Matheson’s novel, Neville is also a “last man”, fighting for the memory of mankind.

While Shelley’s The Last Man may not fully qualify as science fiction, the themes she used have formed a groundwork for authors who have worked inside and outside the genre ever since.

Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

While I’ve read plenty of books with Jeff VanderMeer’s name on the cover, it’s generally been preceded by “edited by” rather than “written by”. As such, Finch is the first Ambergris novel I’ve read. It’s a very atmospheric novel, with a great deal of style. The city of Ambergris seems quite alive, just as China Miéville’s Bas-Lag is a rotting corpse of a city.

It’s a gritty detective noir story, and the fungal atmosphere really works. While there is obviously backstory with some of VanderMeer’s other Ambergris novels, each takes place at a different point in the city’s history, which means that the previous stories are alluded to, rather than requiring knowledge. It works rather well for those coming to his fiction for the first time.

VanderMeer seems at home with the mystery genre, and the plotting makes sense once the story is done. The further I got into this book, the harder it was to set down, as if fungal spores had grafted themselves from the book into my hands. The plot tension of the novel ramped up, and VanderMeer’s narrative kept pace.

VanderMeer plays with the liminal. The occupying forces are fungal creatures, not truly plant, nor animal. John Finch is a detective, but working for the occupying forces. Blending things even further are the Partials: human-spore hybrids, accepting greater power in the occupation, but equally feared by everyone. While there’s a strong sense of independence and rebelliousness in the human detectives like Finch, the Partials strongly evoke the feel of collaborators in the war-time occupations in Earth history.

Finch is a very stylistic novel, with a near perfect mix of plot and characterization. It raises issues of colonization and living in an occupied state, something which resonates strongly in many areas of the world today. A very enjoyable read.