Summer Reading: Be a Literary Tourist


Summertime is a time to read—a time to read new books, reread old books, or finally get to that series you’ve been wanting to read for months. You can travel to half-imagined places, and never get stuck in an airport.
Summer reading comes with a freedom that I don’t experience at any other time of year. Since I teach children’s literature at a university, much of my reading during the fall and winter months is dedicated to kid’s and young adult books. But now it’s July. That means I can read what I want. My MP3 player is my mini-library, so I read where ever I am—and whatever I want.
Two summers ago I decided to read everything in the Dune series by Frank Herbert. I read the original six books by Herbert, and then I read the rest of the Dune saga written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. It was bliss. I told someone at the university what I did, and he thought it was such a good idea that he read everything by Philip K. Dick the next summer.
I spent part of last summer reading Bernard Cornwell’s The Warrior Chronicles, and I ended August with Stephen King’s Under the Dome. No offense to Stephen King fans, but I thought the ending ridiculous. Far too much like The Squire of gothos in Star Trek, the Original series.
Here are some of my picks for this summer:
Margaret Atwood, The MaddAddam Trilogy
Why haven’t I read this series? I’ve mostly been avoiding it up to now. All part of my Atwood eversion.
Trudi Canavan, The High Lord
I’ve read the first two in the trilogy, and I want to finish it. The series has a slower pace than most, but I highly recommend it.
Robert Galbraith, The Silk Worm
In case you didn’t know, this is J. K. Rowling. I read The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first of the Cormoran Strike books. The big reveal at the end was painfully convoluted, but I still liked the book.
Guy Gavriel Kay, The River of Stars
I’ve read one of Kay’s books every summer for several years now. It’s something of a tradition, so I’m happy to revisit Kay’s world. The River of Stars follows Under heaven, which I read last summer.
There are some of my summer picks. Where ever you are this summer, whatever you are doing, remember to pack a book. And if you read something good, then convince your friends to read it too. Books change people’s lives, so never deny someone the possibility of a new life by keeping your best reads to yourself. And, of course, enjoy.

Walk, Read, Think


Walking and reading is one of the best things you can do. You get to enjoy the walk; you get to enjoy a book; you just need to watch where you’re going.
When I’m walking and reading, I of course think about what I’m reading, but what I’m reading often reminds me of something else I’ve read. Here’s an example.
I’m reading Trudy Canavan’s The Black Magician trilogy as I’m walking. It’s a slower paced fantasy that takes place at a university for magicians. It sounds derivative, I know, but it’s a good series.
A particular scene gets me thinking. Some of the novices are gathered in the university’s arena, practicing various warrior and combat spells on one another. Guess where my brain went with this one: University for magicians—school for wizards—competitions—Hunger Games—Triwzard Cup.
Reading about a school for wizards—or in this case magicians—of course gets me thinking about Harry Potter, but Hogwarts isn’t the first school for wizards I’ve encountered. The first school for young wizards I met was the school on Roke in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. This is a series that has become part of my literary map.
But back to my walk. I start thinking about competitions. The 75th Hunger Games and the
Triwizard Cup are both competitions, although the stakes are of course considerably higher in the Hunger Games. And then something occurs to me. Katniss is aware all through the games that her every move is being watched by both the Capitol and the districts. She uses that knowledge to help her manipulate the games.
In the Triwizard tournament, things are a little different. The first task in The Goblet of Fire has Harry retrieving a golden egg from a dragon, a vicious Hungarian Horntail. But what about the other two tasks?
The second task takes place beneath the lake on the grounds of Hogwarts, while the third task happens inside a maze. The school gathers for all three tasks, but interestingly enough, they can’t actually observe either the second or the third task.
What’s the good of a competition you can’t actually watch? I wonder if anyone ever pointed this out to J. K. Rowling. Does the lack of a crowd to observe the competition diminish Harry’s victory? Don’t get me wrong, I love The Goblet of fire. It might be my favourite book in the Harry Potter series. But this is a point that irks me.
There you have it. The random thoughts of a walker/reader. If you want to meet the thoughts of someone else who walks and reads, check out what Lev Grossman has to say.
The third book in his Magician’s trilogy comes out this summer. That’s a summer read I’m looking forward to. And I will probably be walking while I read it.

Who Wants to Read a Best-Seller, Anyway!

Every kid’s book I find these days seems to have made it onto a best-seller list—that or made into a film after becoming a best-seller. It’s disheartening—to say the least. Does a kid’s book have to be on a best-seller list to be good? Not likely. Does a book have to be a movie in order to get some attention? I sincerely hope not.
I heard somewhere that Veronica Roth received a movie deal for Divergent before it was even published. A tale to make any author salivate. This might be an Internet myth—I hope so—but true or not, it helps to make my point.
I’m sure you, like me, have books close to your heart that have never been turned into a film, never raved about on the Internet, or—imagine this—no one else has read. The Internet being what it is, you can, of course, find those personal treasures out there. Shockingly, other people will have read those books over which you have claimed personal ownership, and Wikipedia will more than likely have something to say as well. Sometimes it’s just a good idea to avoid the Internet.
All this in mind, having favourite books that only you seem to have read is empowering. When your friends have never heard of a particular book that is one of your all-time-favourites, you get to tell them all about it. It’s like being a pioneer, going, dare I say, where no one has gone before.
Two books I remember reading as a young person were The Runaway Robot by Lester del Rey and A Walk Out of the World by Ruth Nichols. I’ve only ever met one other person who read The Runaway Robot, and I’ve never met anyone who has read A Walk Out of the World. I’m sure some of you have read one, or maybe even both.
The Runaway Robot is a book about Rex, a robot who is the property of Paul, a boy living with his family on Ganymede. The book is told from the point of view of Rex, which I think made me like the book even more. A Walk Out of the World is about Toby and Judith, brother and sister, who find their way into a fantasy world, and discover they belong there. I was a newly indoctrinated Tolkien freak at the time, so I was looking for anything that would take me into other worlds that were far away from my own. But as a new reader, every book was a new world, and every author a new discovery. Even still, I was desperate to create a list of books I had read that not everyone else in the world read first. I remember, with admitted nostalgia, feeling as though it was just me who was trying to understand the strange and compelling world of Lord of the Rings. But that’s what it’s like when you’re twelve.
Fortunately, I have grown somewhat as a reader since then. I no longer want to hoard a list of books that only I have read. Sounds too much like some dragons I have known. Better by far to share obscure and lesser known books, to talk about them, to rave about them, to tell anyone who will listen that they simply have to read one of your favourite books. And those pioneers you meet along the way will no doubt want you to read theirs.
So here’s to books that were never a best-seller, never made into a movie, and never, never seemed to get the credit they deserved. You can no doubt find them on Amazon, but leave cyberspace for a while and go to your local library.

The Dream of the Tree: An Original Fairy Tale


Once there was a man who had a dream that ruined his life. In the dream, he was walking across a vast country. He was not just walking, he was striding, striding with seven-league steps while the ground beneath him and about him blurred and shimmered. He passed through forests, over great plains of grass, and through the gaps between the mountains. He strode on until he saw a mountain rising up before him. It was a mountain as he had never seen a mountain before. It went up-and-up, climbing higher and higher until it was lost in the sky.

He paused at the foot of the mountain and looked up. Only one thing to do. He began to climb.
He went up-and-up, stepping over streams, wide meadows, and over stands of trees. He went on until he came to the end of the trees where there was only rock. He kept climbing.
This mountain, he thought, was surely the highest mountain in the world. He climbed and climbed.
Finally, after what seemed a year and a day, the man arrived at the top of the mountain. Across a great plain, the man could see a tree. It was surely the tallest tree he had ever imagined. It went up-and-up until impossibly far overhead the tree spread its branches.
The man walked across the plain towards the foot of the immense tree. As he did, his seven-league strides kicked up swirls of leaves. There were countless numbers of them, and as he caught one of the leaves he realized that each leaf held a story, or a fragment of a story.
He caught leaf after leaf. He read snatches of stories about people who lived and died, fought tremendous battles; stories of boys and girls, of men and women who wandered far, searching for love, for revenge, and for treasure. He read snatches of stories about patients and greed and the longing that goes with lost love, friendship, and family.
The man looked up to the great tree. “This must be the tree where all stories come from,” he said, aloud to himself.
He hurried forward to the trunk of the massive tree that rose up like a wall before him. Reaching out a hand he touched the trunk of the great tree. For one, indefinable moment he had a glimpse of the ongoing story of the world, from its beginning in the depths of space and time to its conclusion at the end of all things.
And then he woke. The cry that escaped his lips in that moment was a cry of grief and loss. The man had glimpsed for one instant the story of the world, and as he sobbed aloud in the grey morning, the dream began to fade.
Later that day, the man sold his house and everything he owned. He took the money from the sale of all of his belongings, and he wrapped it in a handkerchief with a loaf of bread. He left the home where he had lived all of his life and took to the road. He told himself that he was going to find that tree, if he had to search to the ends of the earth, for he wanted just one more glimpse into that story.
 And so he did. He wandered far and met many people, and to whomever would listen he would tell what he could remember of that story and the fragments he read on the leaves. Many people thought him mad, and others just thought him a storyteller. Some were glad of his stories, but many were not, for in everyone he met, he planted a seed of that longing for the story he glimpsed when he touched the tree in his dream.

Dystopian Young Adult Fiction and the Future of the Future


The latest film to feature teenagers in a dystopian future is Divergent, directed by Neil Burger and starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, and Kate Winslet, and based on the novel by Veronica Wroth. I haven’t yet seen the film, and the book struck me as a rather clumsy representation of the future, in which society has divided into factions based on allegorized personality types. Triss, our teenage girl hero, is Divergent, which means her abilities extend to more than one of the factions in this future society.
But I’m not interested in reviewing either the film or the book. I’m interested in what lies behind these dystopic renderings of the future featuring teenagers as their central characters. Commentator’s on young adult fiction and teen fantasy offer many reasons why the genre lends itself to depictions of the future, not the least of which is the nature of adolescence itself as a time of emotional upheaval and physical changes in the crossing of the threshold between childhood and adulthood.
Having said this, one of the major tropes that finds its way into teen fiction is that of the love triangle: a teenage girl, often the narrator, who sees herself as plain and sometimes bookish, and who finds herself suddenly in love with two boys, both of whom find her compelling and irresistible. Think of the Twilight books. I know you’ve read them too.
Two of the best examples of this type of teenage fantasy set in the future are the Matched series by Ally Condie and The Hunger Games books by Susanne Collins. While most books of this type have the girl hero caught between the love of two boys, The Hunger Games offers a more complex and compelling variant of the story.
My question is, has this particular story of teenage romance in a dystopic future burned itself out? Will we continue to get characters such as Triss, Cassia, and Katniss who have to negotiate their way between romance and the politics of the future? And why the wide appeal? These are, after all, books and films that focus on seventeen year-old girls. Is the popularity of such books and films fast becoming a teen fetish or a cultural obsession with adolescence?
I have love dystopian fiction since first reading H. G. Wells the Time Machine at age twelve. The teenage romance novel is one that seeks to find a home inside other genres, in particular the supernatural. Perhaps it will eventually tire of wearing dystopian clothes and move on to dominate some other genre.
By the way, if you want more dystopian fiction that isn’t really about teenage romance, read Lois Lowry’s Son, the conclusion to the series that began with the giver. Intensely frustrating books in their own way, but still good dystopian stuff.