Divergent Trilogy #1: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Read: 17 March, 2014

Sixteen-year-old Beatrice must make a choice that will shape the rest of her life – she must choose her faction. Though she grew up in Abnegation, she simply cannot see herself living as Abnegation for the rest of her life. Yet choosing a different faction means betraying her family and losing everything she’s ever known.

I quite enjoyed Divergent. The premise is a little brow-beaty, but it worked once I settled myself into a solid state of suspension of disbelief. I also felt that the ending was rather rushed. There’s a slow exposition process, a mystery, a number of characters working on solving the mystery, and then the Big Bad just starts cackling and reveals the whole plan. The turn around from plotline to resolution felt too quick, too brutal (in a literary sense though, of course, it’s brutal within the story as well).

All in all, I felt that the book would have benefited from another draft, but it was still a good bit of fun. I’ll definitely be grabbing the next book in the series.

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    The Kingkiller Chronicle #1: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

    Read: 14 March, 2014

    Many stories and rumours surround Kvothe, but now, for the first time, he will tell his own story – the real story.

    I was blown away by Name of the Wind. I first heard of it when it was mentioned in Game of Thrones and Philosophy as a book with a consistent magic system. That was enough to intrigue me, and I bought the book, sticking it on my overflowing “to be read” bookcase. I finally read it after I heard enough people raving about it.

    And I can see why. The story is long and, for the most part, rather mundane. Kvothe travelling with itinerant performers, Kvothe living in the streets, Kvothe worrying about money, Kvothe enrolling in university, Kvothe counting his coins (again). Yet despite this, even with long stretches between the action scenes, I found the narrative very compelling.

    There’s a good deal of humour in the novel, and it’s well-used. The narrative is quite serious, of course, but whenever there’s a danger that it might take itself a little too seriously, Kvothe makes fun of himself. It breaks the tension, and it keeps a certain amount of humility in the first person narrative of what is, essentially, a Perfect Character.

    I quite enjoyed the little games the narrative plays as well. For example, when Kvothe – as narrator – tells his audience that the next part of the story is about meeting the woman he would fall in love with. Then, over the next few pages, several women are introduced. It’s cute, a fun little narrative device that I don’t see used too often.

    As I mentioned earlier, the magic system is definitely something special. I struggle a bit with fantasy because I always feel like the magic system needs to make sense, and I feel like verisimilitude is broken when the magic system is too powerful, or contradictory, or doesn’t make sense. In Name of the Wind, the naming system of magic is pushing my threshold (though I hold out hope for explanation in future installments), but the sympathy system is fantastic.

    I also really enjoyed the religion. It’s not front and centre in this book (though I suspect that it’ll feature more prominently later in the series), but the glimpses of it are quite interesting. On the surface, it’s very much like Christianity – there’s a single god, the god dies and the people await a return, the people wear a symbolic torture device on a necklace, etc – but it takes on a distinct quality as more is revealed. I especially liked the variations, the many local traditions that that give the religion distinct flavours in different regions, the appropriation of older religions, and the schisms. I’ve very much looking forward to a deeper exploration of it as the series continues.

    I have a few minor complaints about the book, but nothing worth mentioning. I enjoyed it an awful lot, and I’m looking forward to getting The Wise Man’s Fear.

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      The app that makes reading faster

      A friend told me about a new-ish app called Spritz that makes reading books much faster. It works by displaying only one word on the screen at a time, and by identifying the “Optimal Recognition Point” (ORP) (“the precise point at which our brain deciphers each jumble of letters”) and aligning the words on that point. That way, your eye no longer needs to move and locate itself with each new word.

      Reading App

      You can read the whole article for more information.

      When I first read the article, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this idea. On the one hand, it sounds like a great way to get through school textbooks or other non-fiction where the purpose of reading is not enjoyment and where the prose doesn’t particularly matter. On the other hand, it sounds like a terrible idea the prose is important.

      So I looked around and found a couple articles essentially saying the same thing, including this one that argues that Spritz is “reading to have read.” It’s a bit melodramatic, but the essentially point is one that I agree with – that a method like Spritz gets you through content fast, but not necessarily well.

      Still, I think of all the stress I could have saved myself in university, and the idea certainly has its appeal…

        The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

        Read: 6 March, 2014

        Mists of Avalon retells the story of King Arthur and his knights, but from the perspectives of the women in the story – Guinevere (called Gwenhwyfar), Mogana le Fey (called Morgaine), and others.

        I loved how complex the characters were, and how seamless their transition as they grow older and change their opinions. I loved the religious discussions and the tug-o-war between old and new. I loved getting to hear all the familiar King Arthur stories, but from the perspectives of characters who had always seemed to be on the outside.

        It was a long book, and it took a long time to read, but it was well-worth it. I found it exciting and interesting and wonderful and so totally “up my alley.”

        I highly recommend this book for its complex and nuanced look at life, religion, gender, sexuality, and so much else.

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          The Handmaid and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg

          Read: 24 February, 2014

          Berg re-imagines the story of Jesus’s birth from the perspective of his parents – following them from the moment they met until Joseph’s death.

          I picked up the book because I’ve enjoyed similar attempts to re-tell such a well-known story in the past, such as Lamb, or Testament. I find it an interesting exercise with a lot of potential. Handmaid, however, is absolutely terrible.

          Firstly, there’s the writing quality. Some reviews describe Berg’s writing as “poetic,” by which I assume they mean “full of purple prose and stilted faux-historical dialogue.” If that’s the case, then yes, it’s very “poetic.”

          The plot of the book shows that while Berg has probably picked up her Bible a few times, she’s done very little research besides. For example, when the angel comes to Joseph, it tells him that Mary’s son will be fulfilling the prophecy of Emmanuel, born of a virgin (p.97), except that there’s no such prophecy. The whole thing is based on a wonky translation in Greek – which Joseph had no reason to be familiar with in the first place – and a bibliomantic search to shoe-horn “prophecies” into a text after the fact. It’s one of Matthew’s most well known errors, and Berg should have known that. At the very least, she might have just skipped over it and avoided looking the fool.

          She also follow’s Luke’s narrative and sends the family to Bethlehem for a census. This makes no sense in the gospel account anyway, since a census strives to document a population’s current positions, not their positions at birth. The premise is absurd. Then Berg makes it all the more absurd by having Joseph and Mary go all the way to Bethlehem for the supposed census, give birth, and then immediately leave for the circumcision in Jerusalem, without the census ever actually taking place.

          This also means that Joseph puts a woman who has literally just given birth – mere hours earlier – onto a donkey’s back for an 8km walk. And when they finally arrive at their destination, Mary is “sore from the ride” (p.126). Not from giving birth, but from riding a donkey.

          I don’t know if Berg has children of her own, but if she does, she clearly hasn’t let that experience temper her theology. Jesus is, of course, a calm newborn who “cried rarely: only to show his want for food” (p.132). That’s pretty typical for a newborn, first of all. But also, crying is a baby’s last resort when it’s hungry. I dislike it when books so blindly promote this idea of crying as a feeding cue because babies left to starve until they have to resort to crying are often too upset by that point to be able to actually nurse. Many women who wish to breastfeed and don’t know any better give up because their babies just won’t stop crying long enough to nurse – all because of this media image of only taking crying as a hunger cue. As a feminist, it really bugged me that Berg so casually and uncritically furthers that image.

          Then there’s Joseph. Despite multiple angelic visitations, and all sorts of strangers – including the Magi – pointing out that Jesus is the messiah (something which has had disturbingly little impact in the fortunes or lives of his family), he still firmly believes that Jesus’s father was a Roman soldier. Further, he forced a woman so close to her due date to accompany him on a long journey – knowing that it would be painful for her and potentially disastrous if she went into labour – because he didn’t trust her enough to leave her alone at home (p.130). This is abusive behaviour, by the way. Then, with a newborn in tow – a mere few hours old! – he forces his family on even more journeys for no reason other than to avoid his personal discomfort that a few shepherds stopped by to see a new baby. Surely, Joseph must have known how precarious newborn lives are, how easily and how quickly they can die. His selfishness is absolutely astounding.

          The whole book is trash, a little piece of theological masturbation for people who, I guess, really don’t want literature to challenge them. Thankfully, the book is blessedly short and the font very large, so it’s quickly over with.

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            Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

            Read: 20 February, 2014

            As a child, I never liked the Winnie the Pooh books. My father thinks that it’s because the dumbed-down Disney versions came out at around the same time and spoiled me, which is quite possible.

            Thankfully, I’ve had the opportunity to read them again as an adult, as I’ve just finished reading the first book - Winnie-the-Pooh – to my son. He’s quite enjoyed the stories, which is a little surprising because at his age (he’ll be 3 in a few weeks), he doesn’t often have the patients for such a high test-to-picture ratio.

            For my own part, I really enjoyed it, and I found it very interesting to see the “new” perspective on all the characters. Eeyore especially, I think, got a bit of a short stick when it came to the Disney version. He is hilarious!

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