Thursday, July 31, 2014

The age of easy reading

I was upset over a one-star book review today. It wasn’t even for my book. It was for a book I had read and enjoyed and given four stars to. A book that deserved better.

One-star reviews aren’t exactly rare, and they aren’t always fair. They aren’t something to get upset over in general. But I was upset with this one.

The review is actually fairly positive. The reader thinks the book was well written and interesting, and even recommends it to others. But the reader didn’t understand the book. And because of this personal failure, the book only merits the lowest mark.

And that’s what upset me. I find the idea peculiar that a book should be understood in order to be good.

Sadly, I don’t think the reviewer is alone in the notion that a book should be easy to understand. We want our books to have plots that move on well-defined paths we can follow – and anticipate. We want the satisfaction of a story that fulfils our expectations. Genre fiction reigns supreme for that reason alone. If the book doesn’t meet our expectations, the book is to blame. And if we dont understand the book, its not our intelligence that is lacking. Its the book’s fault.

I like genre fiction just as much as the next reader. I write books that are easy to understand. Occasionally, though, I like to challenge myself. I pick a book outside my comfort zone and try to make sense of a more alien narrative. I don’t always like those reads. I don’t always finish them. It is seldom, however, that I blame the book for it. And so I don’t really have sympathy for a reader who faults a book because its too difficult.

But readers who want to be challenged by their reading are in minority. Markets for literary fiction dwindle as readers prefer easier books. In a free market economy that would eventually lead to literary fiction disappearing completely. Luckily, there are authors who go against the markets and write books that aren’t easy. That way there will be something to read in the future for those who aren’t afraid to exert themselves.

Here’s a link to the book, in case you’d like to read something different (for UK readers here). Ella is a short novel, so it won’t strain you unnecessarily. And, quite frankly, it isn’t that difficult. But it is interesting.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Adults who read young adult fiction

I read a couple of great young adult/middle grade books during my holidays. The Glass Republic, the second book in Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne urban fantasy trilogy, and the first two books in Gail Carrigher’s Finishing School steam punk series, Etiquette and Espionage, and Curtsies and Conspiracies. On the surface, they’re very different series. Pollock’s is a dark and gritty story that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, and Carriger’s is light, witty and full of humour.

But they have much in common, a female protagonist and a very imaginative and unique world-building among the most obvious. Pollock’s series is set in modern day London and Carrigher’s in Victorian time, but a young girl's steps towards adulthood and growing pains are universal themes regardless of the time and place.

Both series handle the themes of prejudice and acceptance. In The Glass Republic the protagonist, Pen, is trying to recover from torture she suffered in the first book. Her face marred with ugly scars, she finds it difficult enough to look herself in the mirror, let alone face her peers who are not compassionate. Matters only get worse when she is thrown into a mirror world where she is constantly stared at and admired for her uniqueness, as symmetry and unblemished countenance are found shameful.

In the Finishing School series, Sophronia has it easier. She is looked down on because of her background, but in general she fits in fine. The spurned other is the supernatural creatures, vampires and werewolves. That one of the main characters is black – fairly rare in Victorian London – seems almost superfluous and like an afterthought in this context.

Common themes for many young adult books are finding love and exploring sexuality, but neither of these series put a great emphasis on those. Sophronia, being a fourteen-year-old Victorian girl, is oblivious to latter and only vaguely aware of the first. When she has romantic feelings, her greatest concern is whether the person is socially acceptable or not. While romance isn’t the driving force of the series, Sophronia’s interest in a black working class boy will make things difficult for her in the books to come.

Pen is faced with similar difficulties. There are so many things she has to take into consideration; her Muslim faith and her parents’ wishes for a suitable spouse, and the dictates of the mirror world that is as class conscious as Sophronia’s Victorian society. In the end, she goes against everything and her self-image when she falls for a girl – more acceptable in the mirror society than the fact that she comes from a lower class.

Both series are immensely enjoyable in their different ways. Their rich worlds and imaginative plots, the drama in Pollock’s series and comedy in Carrigher’s kept my interest throughout, and ensure I’ll be reading the upcoming books too.

And I’m not ashamed to admit it.

In June, Ruth Graham wrote in Slate how adults “should feel embarrassed” when what they’re reading is written for children. Not because the books are bad – she discards the obviously bad books and concentrates on those with literary merit. She objects to them because their (adult) readers “are asked to abandon the mature insights … that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.”

Graham shows curious lack of empathy. I think our different perspective is precisely what makes young adult books enjoyable. Like with any books we read, we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and experience life from a different angle, for however briefly.

In that, a teenager’s perspective isn’t any worse or less valuable than an adult’s. We can learn something of ourselves just like we do when read about ‘mature’ characters. It can be even more valuable for someone who has adapted to the dictates of the mature society to see things like a child would.

Graham rejects YA fiction because she sees it merely as “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia”. It’s all that, but I don’t see them as bad things. Nostalgia is necessary for humans from time to time. It puts our present and future into perspective. With YA fiction we can relive the bitter pain of the first crush without the emotional upheavals and insecurities of the actual teenage, and feel good knowing that whatever happens, we don’t have to return to that again. Moreover, YA fiction is not alone in pandering to easy emotions. Adult genre fiction does the same, its popularity a proof that readers actually want escapism from their books.

However, the biggest crime of the YA fiction is, in Graham’s opinion, that it lacks the “emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fictionof the real world”. Neither of the series that I read can be said to be realistic. That doesn’t mean they don’t represent reality. The themes are real and they are treated as multi-dimensional. Pollock assumes that even younger readers are capable of seeing the world in other shades than black and white, and Carrigher has created a school where young children are taught the morally ambiguous skills of espionage and assassination.

I have no idea how to defend YA fiction – or any fiction for that matter – against the accusation of not being ‘of the real world’. In real world, and apparently in fiction based on it, there are no happy endings, and so “adult readers ought to reject [YA fiction] as far too simple”.  In Graham’s opinion, adults should be adults in everything they do. But the definition of adulthood has changed.

There is a trend in modern society of postponing the adulthood. People well in their thirties do not see themselves as mature. They don’t want to grow up, if it means giving up things that they’ve enjoyed doing since childhood. Reading young adult fiction with its “uniformly satisfying” endings could merely be a symptom of that trend. Whether this is good or bad can, of course, be argued over. But I doubt that reading realistic fiction will make anyone mature faster.

The oddest of Graham’s notions is, however, that adults who read YA fiction rob teenagers a chance of moving to the ‘grown-up’ fiction. I don’t even know how that could be possible. There is no natural path that guides readers from one type of books to another, and from one age group to another. Books from different times, genres and literary ambitions coexist for anyone to find and read. Adults who read YA fiction do not make teenagers blind to other books. Moreover, just like adults want to return to their youth, teenagers have a need to experience the world of adults. They will discard YA books far faster than the adults who read them – perhaps to return to them later.

I don’t read YA fiction exclusively, nor do I read all of it. But I won’t discard good books merely because of my physical age or my assumed stage of maturity. I won’t limit myself to books suitable for my age either. I don’t need fiction to constantly remind me that life is hard. And I won’t be ashamed of sometimes wanting to forget it, be it with the help of young adult or some other escapist fiction.

That in mind, let me remind you that Our Lady of the Streets, the last book in Pollock’s trilogy will come out in August, and Waistcoats and Weaponry, the third book in the Finishing School series, is published in November. And Grahams article can be read here.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The lure of books

It’s been a long while since I posted on this blog. I’ve no excuses, other than being busy with my latest book. However, that’s been out for two weeks already, and still I haven’t written anything.

I’ve spent most of my time – spare and that which I could ill spare – catching up with my reading. Quite a few great books have come out this past year that I haven’t had time to read. And new ones are published all the time, adding to my reading pile – or making it impossible to shorten the pile as I tend to jump to the newest publication.

Last weekend it was the latest Charley Davidson book that captured my interest. Sixth Grave on the Edge by Darynda Jones was officially published yesterday, but my favourite bookstore had it on display already on Saturday, so of course I had to get it immediately. And I had to read it instantly too, so that I could finish it before it was officially published. Don’t ask why that matters. It just does.

My favourite bookstore often has new books on display before they are officially published. They receive the books well in advance so that they can be ready on the actual day. It probably works well for them to put them on sale early too, especially when it comes to popular series. I can’t be the only customer who browses the shelves for an occasional early bird.

Theres another thing lures me to the store too, a ‘Paperback Passport’ as they call it. I get a stamp for every paperback I buy and get the tenth book free. Every time I’ve filled one and got my free book, I make a decision not to start another one. I have shelves overflowing with books as it is. And every time I take a new passport anyway. I started a new one in March and already I’m only two books short of a free book. How did that happen?

Despite my decision of buying eBooks to save space, I still buy physical books. Little perks like early access and free books keep me buying them even though many eBooks are cheaper than physical ones. A free book is a free book, even though I spend more money earning it than I would if I bought the same books as eBooks.

But it’s not just perks that lure me to bookstores. I like books, plain and simple. A book is a beautiful object. I like how they feel, and how they smell too. So, despite my decisions, books will continue to lure me, not just for their contents, but as physical objects too.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Should we care about the accuracy of historical fiction?

I’m a historian by education and a voracious reader. However, I don’t read much historical fiction – or watch historical movies, for that matter. Every student of history knows why. The incorrect historical facts and details mar the enjoyment of a good story.

I used to read plenty of historical fiction though, back before I studied history. It’s what got me to studying it in the first place. I was able to immerse myself in the past worlds without a care for the accuracy. I was rather sure, actually, that authors made up most of the details anyway. Not everyone things that way though.

It seems the word ‘historical’ makes readers assume a certain level of accuracy in books. Readers of historical romances, which often are more story-driven and less limited by the accuracy of details, are as unforgiving about wrong details as readers of more serious historical fiction. Readers trust the authors of historical fiction. Georgette Heyer has taught generations of readers and writers about the life in Regency England. Even if there were incorrect details in her books, no one would care at this point; her world is accepted as the truth.

But what about the kind of historical fiction that comes with the authority of academic learning and exhaustive research? The Guardian brought up the issue in a recent column, “How true should historical fiction be?” The writer, author Stephanie Merritt, has a clear view:
novelists are not history teachers. It's not our job to educate people, and if we start using words like “duty” and “responsibility” about historical fiction – or any fiction – we’re in danger of leaching all the vigour out of it with a sense of worthiness.
While authors “have a responsibility to not present readers with deliberately false information about a historical character or period”, the story should come first.

The trouble for an ordinary reader, or even a historian, is that we don’t always know when the author invents characters or events, or adds details simply because they fit the story. Even if readers assume that everything is invented, they can’t help but learn, the narrative helping with the process. And occasionally we learn things wrong.

Pretty much everything I know about the fall of Constantinople (1453) I learned from Johannes Angelos (English: The Dark Angel, 1953), a 1952 book by Finnish author Mika Waltari. Finnish literary tradition maintains that he did exhaustive research for his historical novels and that all details are accurate. But he was one of the most prolific writers of his time – of any time, really – so how much time did he actually have for research. His historical fiction is so rich in detail, however, that it takes a dedicated reader or a specialist to detect the inaccuracies. Like with Heyer’s books, the sense of historical accuracy is strong in his books, which trumps all other concerns.

I’ve never really needed what I learned from Johannes Angelos anywhere, so it doesn’t actually matter if I’ve learned something incorrectly. Most of what we learn from the historical fiction is purely for our own enlightenment. Nonetheless, it would be nice to be able to rely on that learning. A reader should know when the author deviates from historical accuracy:
if you are going to play fast and loose with historical fact for the sake of a good story, you'd better have done your research thoroughly if you want readers to take you seriously; only then will you have the authority to depart from those facts.
In the end, even historical fiction is bound by the rules of fiction, not fact, but also liberated by them: “By making clear that you're writing fiction, you claim the freedom to speculate, to stray beyond what is known, and so breathe new life into long-dead characters.”

As all historians know, “any attempt to recreate the past requires a leap of imagination.” This is doubly true for historical fiction. So perhaps I should get over myself and start reading historical fiction again for good stories, not for exercises in my learning. Who knows, I might even enjoy it.

(All quotes from the Guardian article How true should historical fiction be?)


I’ve been on an urban fantasy reading binge recently. I’ve read books that were published ages ago, but I haven’t had time for, such as the latest books in Patricia Briggs’s two series. I read Dirty Magic, the first book in a new series by Jaye Wells called Prospero’s War that came out a couple of months ago. All were very enjoyable reads. I read the latest Anita Blake book too, which didn’t reach the greatness of the earlier books in the series, but was much better than the previous book.

This week, I started a new series – new to me, the first book was published in 2006 – called Quantum Gravity by Justina Robson. The first book is called Keeping it Real. It’s urban fantasy set in the near future where some kind of quantum explosion has torn open the borders between various realms or dimensions, forcing humans to interact with elves, fairies and demons. The heroine, Lila Black, is a human cyborg, which makes her a fairly unique character. I’ve read about a third of the book and I like it so far.

I’ve also began to read a collection of short stories by Pete Langman called Black Box. Good, but grim, read. I have a hunch some of the stories may be well beyond my comfort zone.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Kalevala

Tomorrow, February 28th, we celebrate our national epic, The Kalevala in Finland. It’s a compilation of 19th century poems collected by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884). Before him, the poems had only existed in oral form, meant to be sung, but they were already disappearing. Lönnrot saved them and gave them the epic form. The first version was published in 1835. The first English translation is from 1888.

While never my favourite reading, The Kalevala is nonetheless part of my heritage. The stories are interesting. Complete with a creation myth, they depict life in the prehistoric Finland, with tribal clashes, lust, seduction, warfare and magic. It ends with an allegory of Christianity's arrival to Finland. They’re written in a unique Kalevala metric, but personally I like the stories best in prose form.

The Defence of the Sampo by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1886.

Here’s a small sample of the second rune, Wainamoinen’s sowing. The translation doesn’t do justice to the rhythm, but it’s the only one I could find.
Straightway rose a form from oceans,
Rose a hero from the waters,
Nor belonged he to the largest,
Nor belonged he to the smallest,
Long was he as man's forefinger,
Taller than the hand of woman;
On his head a cap of copper,
Boots upon his feet were copper,
Gloves upon his hands were copper,
And its stripes were copper-colored,
Belt around him made of copper,
Hatchet in his belt was copper;
And the handle of his hatchet
Was as long as hand of woman,
Of a finger's breadth the blade was.
Then the trusty Wainamoinen
Thought awhile and well considered,
And his measures are as follow:
"Art thou, sir, divine or human?
Which of these thou only knowest;
Tell me what thy name and station.
Very like a man thou lookest,
Hast the bearing of a hero,
Though the length of man's first finger,
Scarce as tall as hoof of reindeer."
Then again spake Wainamoinen
To the form from out the ocean:
"Verily I think thee human,
Of the race of pigmy-heroes,
Might as well be dead or dying,
Fit for nothing but to perish."
Answered thus the pigmy-hero,
Spake the small one from the ocean
To the valiant Wainamoinen
"Truly am I god and hero,
From the tribes that rule the ocean;
Come I here to fell the oak-tree,
Lop its branches with my hatchet."
Wainamoinen, old and trusty,
Answers thus the sea-born hero:
"Never hast thou force sufficient,
Not to thee has strength been given,
To uproot this mighty oak-tree,
To upset this thing of evil,
Nor to lop its hundred branches."
Scarcely had he finished speaking,
Scarcely had he moved his eyelids,
Ere the pigmy full unfolding,
Quick becomes a mighty giant.

Since last week, I’ve finished reading The Golem and the Djinni, and Do Unto Others. Click the names for my reviews of them. I enjoyed both books immensely. However, The Golem and the Djinni left me a little sad, and Do Unto Others mightily frustrated, like only short stories can. But both were well written, wonderful stories that I warmly recommend for everyone.

This week, I’m reading Wicked Business by Janet Evanovich. I have no excuse, other than wanting to give the series another try. There isn’t a third book in the series that I know of, perhaps mercifully so. The book is mildly entertaining, but it’s nowhere near the delightfulness of some of her earlier books.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


I have made a couple of changes to this blog. It has a new name, for one. It used to be All the Books that I Have Ever Read. I liked the name, imposing and pompous though it was. But I found the name somewhat limiting nonetheless. The new name of the blog is Susanna Reads – for now, anyway. I’m not entirely happy with it either, but Susanna’s Book Blog sounded equally dull. You may suggest a better name if you want. I might even use it.

With the name, I changed the concept of the blog slightly too. I will be writing about books that I’m currently reading, as well as about any reading related topic that catches my fancy. I’ll still be writing about the books that impressed me growing up, but they’ll be among the mix.

So, in that spirit, here’s what I’m currently reading.

I’m reading two books, in fact. One is The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker. I had heard only great things about it, and for once all the praise turned out to be justified. It has been a wonderful read so far, a unique blend of magical and mundane with interesting characters and effortless narrative. The beautiful writing is a cause of true envy for me.

The other book is by my editor Lee Burton. Do Unto Others is a small book, less than a hundred pages, but only outwardly. It’s an intriguing story of a stranger arriving to a remote town to deliver a message. As befits a short story, no background is given and we don’t know what the message is; the reader has to work out the clues as the story unfolds. So far, I’m fairly sure it’s a dystopia, but it might turn out to be something completely different in the end. Like with Wecker’s book, what especially holds my interest is the narrative style and language. Both are delightful.

So, here it is, the new blog concept. I hope you like it. If you’ve read either of the books, let me know what you think of them. But since I haven’t finished them yet, no spoilers please.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A poem for the Valentine's

Here’s a brief interlude for the Valentine’s Day, a poem by John Donne. It’s somewhat cynical take on love, but I like the imagery. Plenty of analyses exist about the poem. Mostly it’s seen as an analogy on how the search for spiritual love is futile. Donne doesn’t have a great notion about women in love either. They are “but, Mummy, possest”, a body without mind.

Loves Alchymie 

Some that have deeper diggd loves Myne then I,
Say, where his centrique happinesse doth lie:
I have lovd, and got, and told,
But should I love, get, tell, till I were old,
I should not find that hidden mysterie;
Oh, tis imposture all:
And as no chymique yet thElixar got,
But glorifies his pregnant pot,
If by the way to him befall
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinall,
So, lovers dreame a rich and long delight,
But get a winter-seeming summers night.
Our ease, our thrift, our honor, and our day,
Shall we, for this vaine Bubles shadow pay?
Ends love in this, that my man,
Can be as happyas I can; If he can
Endure the short scorn of a Bridgegroomes play?
That loving wretch that sweares,
Tis not the bodies marry, but the mindes,
Which he in her Angelique finds,
Would swear as justly, that he heares,
In that dayes rude hoarse minstralsey, the spheares.
Hope not for minde in women; at their best
Sweetness, and wit theyare, but Mummy, possest.

John Donne, c.1595.