Category Archives: Books and reading

Fiction and non-fiction

When reading for fun, do you usually choose fiction or non-fiction? Do you have an idea why you prefer one over the other?The Daily Post

Non-fiction. Yes.

(It’s tempting to end the post right there.)


photo credit: ~Brenda-Starr~ via photopin cc

I read both fiction and non-fiction, but not equally. There is only so much time in any given day to read, time spent reading non-fiction is time not spent reading fiction, and I’m reading more non-fiction nowadays, so the amount of fiction I read has to drop to compensate. My favorite genre is fantasy, but the older I get, the harder it is to find satisfying fantasy novels. This isn’t that whole debate about whether adults should be reading YA books—I’m talking about fantasy novels intended for adults. Much of the time I feel like I’m reading the same story over and over again. Probably a lot of this is life experience: what was new to me when I was in my teens isn’t new thirty years later. Of course it’s possible to make a great work out of the most well-worn plot, but a lot of fantasy isn’t that ambitious. Apparently I want to read fantasy, complete with most of its genre conventions, written to the standards of literary fiction. There isn’t that much of it around.

Meanwhile, the amount of non-fiction I read for pleasure continues to grow. It’s probably just a sign of growing up that I’ve figured out that a book can be interesting even if it’s not fiction. Like not being interested in certain fiction genres, lots of non-fiction doesn’t grab me either. I seem to gravitate towards textbooks (that calls to mind college textbooks, but I don’t have a better catch-all term for books that teach you how to do something) and essays, while memoirs almost never entice me. As long as I keep developing new interests, I won’t feel like I’m reading the same non-fiction repeatedly, which will be a great motivator in its own right for me to be open to new things.

I have this model of the ideal reading balance in my head. First, I’d read a non-fiction book. When finished, my next book would be fiction, so that anything I’d learned from the non-fiction book would have time to soak in. Then I’d read another non-fiction book because it takes time for me to mentally leave a fictional world I’ve been living in while reading a novel, and it’s often jarring to leap straight into another fiction book without a break. In reality, though, I end up reading library books that are coming due or the first book on the shelf that catches my eye as I’m getting ready to go to work or whatever. Oh well, it’s a goal.

Lost in a book

Imagine reading a print book. Most of your attention will be on the content itself, but you’ll be aware of the book itself at some level. Your hand regularly flips a page. You can see how much of the book lies ahead of you, while the pages you’ve read pile up in your wake. With an e-reader, you regularly touch it to advance to the next screen. And while you won’t see the bulk of the pages moving from one half of the book to the other, if you had my old Kindle Keyboard, a progress bar along the bottom of the screen would slowly advance, and it would show you what percentage of the book you’d read.

Last month, I got a Kindle Paperwhite. Most of the new features are definite improvements, but they don’t really change what using an e-reader feels like. Not surprisingly, the Paperwhite has more options for showing you where you are in your e-book. In addition to the standard location or page numbers, you can get an estimate of how much time it will take you to read the rest of the chapter or the rest of the book. There’s no progress bar, but the Paperwhite still shows you what percentage of the book you’ve read. But unlike other e-readers I’ve used, this one lets you turn off that entire part of the display.

Kindle Paperwhite, showing progress indicators.

The Kindle Keyboard’s progress bar was a distraction. Every time I reached the bottom of the screen, there it was, informing me that I was X% of the way through the book. The bar itself millimetered its way across the screen and I ended up studying it rather than staying in what I was reading. How far had it moved since I’d started reading this time? If it was just a smidgen away from the next chapter marker, how far was that in reading time? So I wasn’t sad to realize it had been removed from the Paperwhite, and besides, its replacements were cool in their own right. Page numbers and location numbers are crucial for navigation, but the “Time left in chapter/book” option was fascinating. It’s meant to help you decide if you have enough time to start a new chapter or finish your current one before you have to go do something else, and I’ve found it useful for that. (Can I finish this chapter before we get to my bus stop?) But then I got sidetracked again. How fast was I reading? Had I lost reading speed because I’d gone back to reread a section? Why did it still say I had three minutes left in the chapter when it felt like I’d been reading for five minutes since the last time I looked? So I turned the whole thing off.

That’s the point at which reading got slightly eerie.

With the progress indicators turned off, I can’t tell where I am in the book. Much of the time this isn’t an issue because I’m caught up in the story itself. It’s a sign of a bad reading experience if you’re constantly checking to see how much longer the book is going to last (“Are we there yet?”). But I do come up for air every now and then, and each time, it’s disconcerting to realize that I don’t know where I am, story-wise.

Many of the how-to-write books I’ve read lately talk about the three-act structure. People swear that this is a natural structure for story and that readers expect it at some level, so much so that a story that diverges wildly from it will rub most people the wrong way. Well, the Paperwhite or any other e-reader with optional progress indicators may be a good test of this theory. With practice, will I be able to tell from the events in the story where I am in the book overall? Or will I be surprised when the story suddenly ends or wonder why it hasn’t ended yet? Can you tell?

Staying power

So there’s this meme going around Facebook: list ten books that have stayed with you. Let’s just get my list out of the way right now. In alphabetical order by title:

  1. Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle
  2. D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
  3. How to Become King by Jan Terlouw
  4. Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto by Anneli Rufus
  5. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  6. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  7. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman
  8. The Soul’s Religion: Cultivating a Profoundly Spiritual Way of Life by Thomas Moore
  9. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
  10. Witchdame by Kathleen Sky

10 books on a bookshelf.
There, and you didn’t even have to be friends with me on Facebook to find out what they were. I’m not saying they’re all works for the ages. I’m fascinated by the story world of Celestial Matters, but its character development could use some work. The Soul’s Code is a mite dry; I liked Witchdame better when I was in high school and college.

The original meme advised people not to think about this too much. I can only think that the person who came up with that had only read a few hundred books in their lifetime. So many books have stayed with me, that I had to allow some time for my mind to sift through them and get the ten “stickiest” ones. And I could add several books to this list; ten is such an artificially complete number.

As I tried to think of my ten books, I wrestled with the phrase “stayed with you.” What did that mean, really? After all, the meme didn’t ask for my ten favorite books or the ten books that changed my life the most. The phrase suggests that only books you read years ago can qualify, because how else would you know that these were the books that you’d remember for years to come? One of my first criteria was that the book had literally stayed with me: i.e., I owned a copy. Admittedly, some of the oldest, out-of-print books on my list might have been difficult to get, but I did have the ones I was thinking of—and that helped me narrow down my list of candidates. In the end, it was a combination of things. Some of the books were the ones I reflexively thought of when I read the meme for the first time. I figured these would be my childhood favorites, the books that always come to mind when I hit a question like this. I wasn’t expecting The Soul’s Religion and The Soul’s Code to pop into my mind right then. It’s nice to be surprised like that…and maybe I should reread them soon. I did list a few favorite books. How could I resist? And then there were the books that have changed my life, at least for the time being, and directly influence how I approach life.

In my highly unscientific survey of my friends’ lists, I’d say mine has more nonfiction on it than most people’s. Does fiction stay with you better than nonfiction, or is it that we’re more likely to read fiction when we’re young and impressionable, when books stand the best chance of embedding themselves in our psyches? If I’d run into this meme as a young adult, my list would be entirely fiction. I read those four nonfiction books within the past ten years, and even as I listed them, I was wondering if they’d still be with me mentally ten years from now. There are so many books out there I haven’t read yet that might displace them!

I just finished reading a book called My Ideal Bookshelf, which is pretty much this meme in book form. The editor interviewed people from various creative fields who talked about what books they’d put on their hypothetical ideal bookshelf, and the book’s illustrator provided a picture of each of these shelves. It sounded like a neat concept when I started reading it, but I never really connected with it. I think it was because I’m not familiar with many of the people interviewed, and even when I knew who the person was, often I didn’t care much unless I’d already been interested in them. It’s been much more interesting to read my friends’ lists of books, even when I don’t want to ever read any of their choices. The books we choose for whatever reasons say something about us, and it’s always fascinating to try to figure out what that something is.

Reading up

My hometown public library, like most public libraries, grouped fiction by age range. It was a two-story library, and the first floor was home to the easy books in one corner and juvenile fiction over against the far wall. Teen books were on the second floor. You were old enough to read YA when you could go upstairs without your parents. (Adult fiction was also on the second floor, so your parents might be upstairs too, but they weren’t with you.) I was reminded of this while reading Ruth Graham’s now-infamous article, “Against YA.” Mixed in with that headline-grabbing pronouncement about embarrassment and the general tone of frustration that so many adults are reading books meant for teenagers, I found her markers of reading maturity to be interesting, even when I disagreed with them.

But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up.

reader and book

photo credit: Kelsey Weaver via photopin cc

My objective in youth was to graduate from the first floor, and once I made it upstairs, I was in no hurry to leave the YA section I’d just earned my way into. But why didn’t I yearn to make that next move as Graham so clearly did? Maybe it was just that there was no staircase involved, no obvious rite of passage—all I would have had to do was walk across the room to get to the adult stacks. But also, I expected adult fiction to be boring. Over the years, I’d looked at the books my parents read, and they weren’t promising. Dad never read fiction at all. If adult fiction was so wonderful, why wasn’t he reading it?

But the YA and “new adult” boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books.

What happens, of course, is that when you’re ready to read something, it becomes interesting. I don’t remember deciding that I was too old for the teen book section; I just found myself looking for books I’d heard of and wanted to read, and finding them in the adult section instead. So I’m not worried that teenagers will fail to move to adult reading simply because adults are reading YA. See, here’s the corollary: when you’ve outgrown something, you lose interest in it. The problem is predictability, the feeling that you’ve read this story a few hundred times before. There are times I envy teenage readers, because with their comparative lack of reading experience, they still have so much to discover. But when they want to read something beyond YA, I’m sure they’ll make the leap.

And why must it be a one-way progression? Yes, I read YA. My favorite genres are fantasy and science fiction, and a lot of YA books fall into those genres, so yeah, I’m interested. But I also read adult SF/F. And New Age books. And poetry. And philosophy. Heck, I read The Day Tiger Rose Said Goodbye last month, a book in the easy books section of my hometown library. Really, why limit yourself? (Come on, it wouldn’t be a reaction to “Against YA” without a statement that you should read whatever interests you.)

But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.

Okay, people, as much as many of us adults love reading YA books, we’re not the intended audience. No one will force you to suppress your mature insights, but an adult perspective can’t be a requirement for enjoying YA books or teenagers will be shut out of the very books meant for them. It seems to me that here Graham is holding YA books to a higher standard than other works. For example, many books present a white male perspective uncritically. It doesn’t mean they’re badly written. It doesn’t mean that readers who aren’t white males won’t enjoy them or shouldn’t read them. Some of them are classics of literature, masterpieces of language, characterization, and plot. But it doesn’t work to fault YA for a trait that a lot of fiction shares.

Googling “Against YA” not only turns up the article itself, but pages of links to reactions to it, most of them negative. Okay, I’m writing this—obviously I cared enough to spend time thinking about it. I don’t seem to be able to work up as much anger about it as many people had, though, because I don’t think she’s entirely wrong. The tone of the article is off-putting and I hope the assertion that adults should be embarrassed to be reading YA was mostly meant to get people’s attention (it worked!). But the core argument, that people should be willing to grow, to try books that are out of their comfort zone, is sound, and it would be a shame if it was lost in the kerfuffle.

Reading women, part 2

Last year, I discovered a new (to me) author when Amazon put the Kindle edition of Fathomless on sale. Jackson Pearce’s retelling of “The Little Mermaid” is told in first person, alternating between Lo, the mermaid, and a human girl named Celia. I was impressed that Pearce had written not one, but two female characters. In fact, there’s only one male character who sticks around for more than a few lines: the prince-equivalent. A nice guy, but definitely a secondary character. Now I knew long before reading Fathomless that male authors can get female characters right. Guy Gavriel Kay is my favorite fiction author in great part because of his ability to create distinctive characters, both major and minor, both male and female. But good characterization skills are not the first thing I associate with male authors, so I was happy to think that I’d found another one. Then I got to the end of the book and the author bio, and learned that Jackson Pearce is a woman.* Oops.

Never assume.

Never assume.

Not all that long after this misunderstanding, a FB friend passed along The Year I Stopped Reading Men by Anna Szymanski. A few months later, the same friend led me to E. Catherine Tobler’s The Women We Don’t See. Both articles talk about not reading books by men or women for a year or more. After only reading women authors for a year, Szymanski became sensitized to how male authors, both historical and contemporary, portrayed female characters—usually unrealistically. At the time Tobler posted her article, her friend hadn’t yet broken his unintentional 2-year fast from women authors, so I don’t know if he had been made equally aware of some common feature of women’s writing.

These two articles got me thinking about how many male and female authors I’ve been reading. Beyond that, though, why do I read the books I read? When I tallied up the authors of each gender, I lumped fiction and nonfiction together. I’m not going to run another count right now to see if there’s a noticeable difference in the gender balance between the two, but I’m wondering: do men have as large a presence as they do now only because I read nonfiction? I’m guessing my tolerance for female characters who are mainly “male anxiety wrapped in a vagina” is almost as low as Szymanski’s. So if I read only fiction, I suspect I might be reading more women authors than I have been.

I’d like to think I choose my books based solely on book descriptions that sound intriguing. I really did think that was what I was doing, and that the author’s gender was only a secondary consideration at most. I know it isn’t true that only women writers can write believable female characters. I know there are female authors who can’t seem to do more than make utterly predictable two-dimensional characters. But obviously I haven’t been assuming that men writers as a group do better, or I wouldn’t have been so pleased by Pearce’s characterizations. After realizing that she was a woman, I still like Fathomless and want to read some of her other books, but I haven’t been giving her credit for centering her story on two girls the way I had when I thought “he’d” been comparatively radical. Nothing about Fathomless has changed, of course, just my perception of Jackson Pearce. So there I am, stereotyping authors, but so often those stereotypes prove true. Life is short: why spend time on books I may be able to predict I won’t like?

Okay, I’ve just made it more difficult than it already was to choose my next book. I suppose reading only nonfiction for the rest of my life really isn’t a practical solution. Besides, I haven’t even really begun to think about what different expectations I may have for male and female nonfiction authors.


*Probably obvious from the get-go to anyone with the print edition.

Reading women, part 1

Last fall, a Facebook friend posted a link to The Year I Stopped Reading Men, an article by Anna Szymanski on what it’s like for her to read a book written by a man after spending a year only reading books by women. It was interesting, and some of us had a lively discussion about it, but between one thing and another, it drifted off to the back of my mind until that same friend posted a link to a similar article. In The Women We Don’t See, E. Catherine Tobler writes about her realization that a best books of 2013 roundup by a (male) friend of hers includes no books by women. At which point, I really began wondering about what I myself read and how I read it.

First, I needed to see what I’d been reading. So like Tobler, I counted how many authors of both genders I’d found over the past three years (and like Tobler, I skipped the anthologies). Fiction and nonfiction, I’ve been reading more stuff by women authors than by men.


Since I haven’t been consciously taking the author’s gender into consideration when deciding what to read next, apparently I find male and female authors both simply by reading what I want to read. (I’m guessing it’s not that simple. I’ve probably got unconscious preferences a-plenty, and I’m likely to be paying a lot more attention to an author’s gender from this point forward.) I can see from the comments to Tobler’s article that several people are aghast that her friend managed to not find any books by female authors he wanted to read for two years. I’m mostly bewildered, myself. Aren’t they just there? Don’t you just glance up and see them when you’re at the bookstore, or scanning the new books section at your library, or browsing online? Don’t your online booksellers recommend a few of them to you? Enough about Tobler’s friend: how did I find 52 female authors last year, anyway?

Well, that, at least, I could look into, not that I found an obvious pattern. Several of them were authors I was already familiar with, and I was reading more of their good stuff. One of my favorite authors had a new book out last year—had to read that, of course. There were new additions to two series I’ve been reading—didn’t want to fall behind. I read several writing books last year, and many of them were written by women. I discovered a few new authors via the Kindle Daily Deal and’s recommendations. One book was recommended by someone whose blog I read. I read a lot in the New Age Body, Mind, and Spirit genre and I suspect that has a higher percentage of women writers in it to begin with; ditto for knitting books, which I read a few of last year as well. But I’ve read more fantasy than anything else for the past two years, and there are plenty of men who write in that genre. I still found books by women.

Tobler asks good questions: How do female authors still go so very unnoticed? How is it their books aren’t getting in front of eyes that would enjoy them? How can we make it so they do? The commenters make good points: books by women are marketed differently than those by men; they have different covers; when people make recommendations, they recommend books by men. Maybe some of those things have worked in favor of the female authors I chose to read—perhaps the different marketing was what got my attention or I found the different cover to be more to my liking than if it had been the kind of cover male authors get (whatever that would be). It’s hard to tell anyone Do what I did! when you’re not sure what that was.

When you’re deciding whether or not to read a book, do you take the author’s gender into consideration?

Reading, 2013

At this time of year, it’s customary to look back on what we’ve accomplished. Among other things, I think back on the year’s reading and try to see what books stand out from the crowd. (Not that books really come in crowds. Stand out from the mass? Stand out from the pile?) I read 119 books in 2013. Some of them strain the definition of book; one of them was only 15 pages long. But I’m counting them anyway because I also read The Lord of the Rings, and I figure its 1,138 pages make up for a lot. Choosing only 10 books out of all that was more of a challenge than I thought it would be, which is a good thing, since that means that many books were memorable, and not just words passing in front of my eyes to keep me temporarily entertained.

And with that, the list:

  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (8/10; finished 2/12/2013): Bad fantasy geek that I am, I’d only read this once before, in high school. The time was finally right to reread it as an adult. Really, can you read LOTR and not remember it? In some ways, rereading it improved it greatly. I appreciated Tolkien’s descriptions of the different cultures, peoples, histories, and languages far more now than then—I think that’s a side effect of growing up. I could tell the characters apart and picked up on some subtleties in their depiction that I missed the first time. I realized that the appendices had interesting material in them, instead of skimming through them. But this time around, I also had a better idea of why I disliked what I disliked: flat character depictions, the dearth of female characters, the attempt to dictate to the reader how to judge the characters. It’s a measure of Tolkien’s writing skill that despite those flaws, the detailed battle descriptions (not to my taste), and his practice of leaving one group of characters or another in limbo for hundreds of pages at a time, I still give this book 8 stars.
  • Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan (10/10; finished 2/14/2013): My rebound book after finishing LOTR, but unlike many rebound relationships, I came out of this one glowing. I lavished admiration on this book right after I finished it, but here’s a short version: Mel Duan’s best friend has fallen in love with a vampire, and he with her. She wants to become a vampire herself, leaving her human friends and family behind. Can Mel bring her to her senses without destroying their friendship?
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (10/10; finished 3/26/2013): Yes, sometimes I read books other people have heard of. Sometimes I even read bestsellers. It took me a bit to get into the rhythm of this story, but once I realized that different chapters took place at different times, it clicked. Some books I love for their characters and some for their plots, and The Night Circus has both, but I admit neither is awe-inspiring. But the combination of the shifting timeline, the magical circus, these characters, and this plot was awe-inspiring, enough that even though I’d checked the book out from the library, I ended up buying a copy for myself.
  • Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi (12 volume manga series, series average: 6/10; finished 7/24/2013): I’d read this back in the 1990’s when it was first translated into English. The new, accurate translation—yes, accuracy was one of its selling points—finished up this year. The gaping plot holes and uneven characterization were jarring, and could no longer be blamed on questionable translation. The episodic plotting wore thin quickly (let’s just repeat a battle with each girl and each villain until it’s time for the final confrontation!), the villains were two-dimensional at best, and if I ever had patience for power-ups as a plot device, it had evaporated by this reading. But…the heroines are still likeable, and there’s still something about this story of reincarnated planetary princesses with magical powers based (loosely) on astrology that captures my imagination. Just as long as I don’t read the source material too closely or too frequently.
  • The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt (10/10; finished 7/29/2013): Having been blown away by The Righteous Mind last year, I wanted to read more from Haidt. Here, he looks at the teachings of the world’s great religions and philosophies, asking, now that we know more about how the brain functions, which of these teachings actually can bring happiness? I was disappointed to learn that Stoicism may not work. I still like it anyway.
  • Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton (9/10; finished 8/1/2013): I found this book the old-fashioned way, by seeing it on a shelf at a bookstore and being intrigued enough to pick it up. De Botton looks at Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism to see which practices (not beliefs!) are of benefit to their practitioners and speculates on how they could be adapted to an atheistic society. Reading it, l learned things about both religion and secularity that had never occurred to me. The book is brimming with photographs; I realized I’m not used to that in nonfiction (excepting art books) beyond diagrams and call-out boxes used to clarify points.
  • Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert Johnson (10/10; finished 8/27/2013): Not a dream dictionary. Johnson has written a two-part manual for working with your dreams and more generally, your unconscious mind. The first part spells out a procedure for interpreting your dreams, but you’ll be the one figuring out what all the symbols and characters mean. In the second part, Johnson teaches you the basics of active imagination. I was delighted to find a book that took such a practical approach to this instead of being mostly theoretical or mystical, and the instructions made sense (hey, not everyone can write coherent instructions).
  • River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay (10/10; finished 10/2/2013): Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite authors, so any book of his is likely to show up on this list. I’ve read comments that River of Stars gets off to a slow start because Kay needs a good amount of space to introduce a vast number of characters and their world: an alternate version of Song Dynasty China. True. But in doing all that, he also lays the foundation for a political and cultural disaster, and waiting for the moment when his carefully-constructed world would start to collapse was anything but boring. And I continue to be amazed at how well he manages a sweeping plot, enough characters to populate an empire, and a timeline that stretches over decades without a misstep.
  • Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke (8/10; finished 10/5/2013): I spent three months reading writing books this year, and many of them were excellent. Indeed, I gave some of them higher ratings than this one. But this one stands out for me because it spelled out the key problem I’ve seen in so much fiction in its very title. Plus, I liked his approach to characterization: using the MBTI and other typology systems as a skeleton for characterization. Since by his own admission he finds plot-writing easier than characterization, I hoped that he’d be able to explain it better than so many writers who have the inverse problem.
  • Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison and others (9/10; finished 12/18/2013). I read my first fanfiction as a teenager, and whenever I fall in love with a new SF or fantasy series, I usually end up searching out its fanfic. This is the first time I’ve gotten to read nonfiction about fanfiction, though. It’s hard for me to summarize this book. Jamison outlines a history of fanfiction, complete with illustrations—I was tickled to see photos of fanzines like what I read way back when and screenshots of websites that I used to visit regularly. Jamison’s (and others’) essays on Twilight fandom and the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon was educational, thought-provoking, and a bit unnerving.

Book musings: Team Human

Books are rarely read in vacuums. I read Team Human right after The Lord of the Rings, and deliberately chose it for the contrast. I’d just read a humongous tome: Team Human promised a quick read. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a mythical time in a land reminiscent of northern and western Europe; Team Human is set in modern Maine. The Lord of the Rings is fairly serious throughout, with a few exceptions like Bilbo’s birthday party. I expected Team Human to be gently humorous (cover blurb: “Friends don’t let friends date vampires”), which it was, with a few exceptions which would be spoilers if I revealed them. And yes, after 1100+ pages of almost no female characters, I was more than ready for a change on that front as well. Basically, Team Human looked like a parody of the Twilight novels, and I was expecting little more. So when I realized that my little bit of escapist reading was also feminist, I was delighted. Which was certainly in high contrast to The Lord of the Rings, although I hadn’t actively been looking for that difference.

cover of Team Human

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

Mel Duan has three close friends: Cathy, Anna, and Ty. At the start of their senior year, Cathy falls for Francis, the new vampire student at their high school. Francis’ vampirism is no secret: vampires live openly in New Whitby, Maine. They contribute to the local economy as a tourist attraction, have their own police force, and the town accommodates them with volunteer blood banks and smoked-glass windows in all public buildings. Still, knowing that some of the citizens view other citizens as dinner is bound to create a few tensions, and Mel is horrified to watch Cathy and Francis’ romance develop. Meanwhile, she’s also trying to help Anna, whose father ran off with a female vampire the previous summer. It would be fair to say that Mel doesn’t have the highest opinion of vampires.

Sure, I liked the tone of Team Human—the authors do a fine job of mixing humor with the serious elements of the story. But what really impressed me about the book was that it didn’t treat friendship lightly. Way too often, friendships in novels seem to be there as filler. If the central character has friends, they exist to give the protagonist someone to talk to until the romantic interest comes along, and then perhaps to add a little conflict to the story. Those friends tend to be let go as the central romance gets underway. Here, romance tests friendship, but friendship is really what drives the story. The question isn’t Are Cathy and Francis truly in love? or Will Cathy choose vampirism? but Will Mel and Cathy still be friends by the end of the story?. (Actually, given that this is a vampire novel, it’s not unreasonable to also ask Will everyone still be alive by the end of the story?—at least the ones who were alive to begin with.)

Also, as you can tell from the book cover, Mel isn’t white. Odd though this may sound, I was glad to see that this wasn’t crucial to the plot. See, the last two fantasy novels I read that had characters of Chinese descent, their being Chinese was why they were in the story in the first place (their novels involved specifically Chinese magic). The fantasy element in Team Human is vampires, basic Dracula-style vampires, and to a much lesser extent, zombies. These are not special vampires out of Chinese folklore and Mel doesn’t need to know Chinese to deal with them, which is just as well since she doesn’t speak the language. If the authors had chosen to make Mel white, it would pretty much be the same story.* By not going on autopilot and inserting a white girl here, the authors have put into practice some of those ideals that I’d like to see in books, that I understand that other people would like to see in books, but which so rarely are in books.

Publishers have worried that easy access to ebooks in libraries might diminish their sales. Having read my library’s copy of Team Human, I’m giving serious consideration to buying a copy for myself.  Yes, dear publishers, the key is to produce books that are good enough to want to keep!


*Although there is some irony that would vanish if Mel were white. At one point, she speculates that Francis pays more attention to Cathy and Anna (white) than to her and Ty (Chinese-American, African-American)—which doesn’t stop her from expressing several prejudices of her own against vampires.

Concerning Boromir

Back in the 1990s, Babylon 5 was one of my favorite TV shows. One of the recurring villains was Alfred Bester, a high-ranking member of the Psi Corps. In one episode, Bester pays a visit to Babylon 5, much to the dismay of the regular characters, and it turns out that whatever the threat in that episode was, Bester had been right about it. I don’t remember the details this many years later, but I’ve always remembered a comment from the show’s creator J. Michael Straczynski, that Bester had to be right about something or he’d lose credibility as a character.

My first reading of The Lord of the Rings was plagued by confusing Aragorn and Boromir. Having gotten them sorted out, I realized that I still have problems with Boromir because he fails the test that Bester passes: he’s (almost) never right about anything. Being a fictional character, of course, this isn’t his fault, but that of his author, and while Boromir will never be my favorite character, he deserves better from Tolkien—and by extension, so do we readers.

Boromir’s attempt to take the Ring from Frodo pushes Frodo into taking off on his own, breaking the Fellowship. It also demonstrates the Ring’s subtler powers of corruption, even on those who have never touched it. The Companions have been traveling in close proximity to the oh-so-desirable Ring, and if no one had given in to temptation, credibility would be strained for a different reason. It’s no surprise that Boromir snaps; Tolkien has been emphasizing Boromir’s flaws since his first appearance at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell.

It starts subtly enough: “And seated a little apart was a tall man with a fair and noble face, dark-haired and grey-eyed, proud and stern of glance.” I don’t know if there is any significance to Boromir’s slight separation from the rest of the Council, but “proud” is a loaded adjective for Tolkien: not the kiss of death by itself, but it helps if there’s a worthier adjective nearby to counter it. A few pages later, Boromir expresses doubt over Aragorn’s identity and capabilities. Yes, this allows for a bit of back story about Aragorn’s lineage and history. But as Bilbo gets annoyed at Boromir for his doubts and Aragorn magnanimously forgives him then lectures him on what the Rangers do, the point is made: Boromir isn’t quite with the program. But why should he be? Aragorn doesn’t make a regal first impression unless he intends to: just ask the hobbits what they thought of him when they first met him at the Prancing Pony. Boromir has just spent almost four months on the road, traveling to a land so far distant that it’s practically legend to his people, and everyone in the Council except maybe Gandalf is a stranger to him. He doesn’t know them; he does know what the power of Mordor is like, since Minas Tirith has been defending against it for generations, and he barely survived a battle in Osgiliath. A few pages later, Boromir is arguing that the West should use the Ring against Sauron rather than destroy it. He’s hearing of many of the Ring’s powers for the first time, so it’s reasonable that he wouldn’t be instantly convinced that it couldn’t be used for good. He’s wrong, of course, which those of us who’ve been with Frodo from the beginning know, and so he is corrected. Not that the correction necessarily sinks in: “Boromir looked at them doubtfully, but he bowed his head.”

This sets the tone for the rest of Boromir’s…well, the rest of his life, as it turns out. Every time he offers an opinion, he misses the point and it’s obvious that he’s wrong about just about everything. When challenged, he backs down, but he doesn’t change his mind; he simply brings the argument up again later. (I suspect that Boromir’s worst sin up until he attempts to steal the Ring isn’t that he’s wrong, but that he continues to harbor doubt after he’s been corrected.) While still in Rivendell, he sounds his horn, and Elrond, sounding like an annoyed father speaking to a small child with a loud toy, suggests that he not do so again until he’s back in Gondor. The Companions frequently accuse him of not listening:

  • “‘Things have changed since you came north, Boromir,’ answered Gandalf. ‘Did you not hear what I told you of Saruman?'”
  • “‘Do you not know, Boromir, or do you choose to forget the North Stair, and the high seat upon Amon Hen, that were made in the days of the great kings?'”
  • “‘Were you not at the Council?’ answered Frodo. ‘Because we cannot use it, and what is done with it turns to evil.’

In the end, the only time his experience benefits the Companions is when they’re attempting to climb Caradhras:

‘I will add a word of advice, if I may,’ said Boromir. ‘I was born under the shadow of the White Mountains and know something of journeys in the high places. We shall meet bitter cold, if no worse, before we come down on the other side. It will not help us to keep so secret that we are frozen to death. When we leave here, where there are still a few trees and bushes, each of us should carry a faggot of wood, as large as he can bear.’

Finally, he’s right: they do need to burn the wood to keep from freezing, and his size and strength prove to be useful when it comes time to force a path back through the snow.

Of course there are stubborn people in the world and in literature, people who do not learn from experience, people who will argue about everything. But they’re rarely wrong about everything. Boromir is dense to the point that it damages his credibility as a character. He hails from one of the more dangerous areas of Middle-earth. If his judgment had been always been this poor, I have trouble believing that he would have lived long enough to journey to Rivendell. It seems more likely that he would have done something foolish in battle and have been gutted by an orc years earlier. I’m inclined to think that up until he arrived at Rivendell, he was a competent fighter and capable of making decisions that wouldn’t get him killed. Tolkien has Boromir be wrong so often that it feels manipulative—I resent being told how to feel about a character.

Boromir is certainly necessary to the story. Someone (besides Gollum) has to be seduced by the Ring, and the mounting death toll reminds the reader that it’s possible that the quest will fail long before anyone sees Mordor. I get that Tolkien preferred characters who were clearly good or evil. Boromir has to be a mixture of both in order to function in his role in the story, which may have made him difficult to work with. But I think the book would have been stronger if Boromir had had more praiseworthy qualities and had been a more credible character overall; betrayal hits harder when it’s unexpected.