Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Watership Down

Watership Down is my favorite fantasy novel.

Yesterday I reread it with a more critical eye so I could review it. The book was first published in 1972 and the style reflects this to some extent. Descriptions of the English countryside tend to be lengthy, as do infodumps (and the narrative includes some explanations in parentheses)1. Kehaar’s dialect can be painful—but thankfully it was kept to a minimum, as opposed to the tod’s speech in Adams’s The Plague Dogs—and it was difficult not to think of General Woundwort as the rabbit Hitler.

This is still an amazing novel. I could reread it again and enjoy it just as much.

The story starts off simply. Hazel’s younger brother Fiver senses that a great danger is coming to their warren, and they all need to leave. To the Chief Rabbit, this is nonsense, but Hazel trusts Fiver’s intuition and the readers know of the notice-board set up nearby to say that the surrounding land is going to be “developed with high class modern residences”.

Hazel and Fiver decide to leave, and a few other rabbits join them. Of those, Bigwig, so named because of the thatch of fur on his head, is my favorite: he’s blunt, loyal, tough, always ready for a fight and not inclined to respect authority unless that authority accomplishes the near-impossible task of earning his respect. And Blackberry is the clever one of the group—he figures out how to cross rivers by sitting on flat pieces of wood that float.

That’s one of the things I love about this book—the characters are rabbits, not furry humans. They’re small, they’re scared of the unknown and they’re simply not aware of things we take for granted.

Compared to the others, Hazel often comes off as ordinary, but he holds them together, keeps them moving and believes in Fiver’s vision of the safe place they will eventually find. Even when they make a home on Watership Down, he thinks of their future—or rather their lack of one, since they brought no does out of the warren. And that need eventually leads the rabbits to the warren Efrafa, which is ruled with an iron, er, paw by the terrifying General Woundwort.

Few fictional places are as nightmarish as Efrafa, with its Council police and the system of scarring the rabbits to mark and segregate them. The worst is a would-be escapee being mutilated, exhibited to each Mark in turn and forced to repeat, “Every Mark should see how I have been punished as I deserve for my treachery in trying to leave the warren” — with the knowledge that he will be killed once all the Marks have seen him. The infiltration of Efrafa and the escape are only topped when General Woundwort, coldly furious at his defeat, leads an expedition to destroy the Watership Down warren.

Every element in the book works together to hone and enhance a gripping plot. Even the stories the rabbits tell of their trickster god El-ahrairah play a role in the story, and the foreshadowing is brilliant, such as when Bigwig says sarcastically that on the day he calls Hazel the Chief Rabbit, he’ll stop fighting. That day is the last day of the siege of Watership Down.

The book is also self-contained. Unlike a lot of fantasy novels, there’s no trilogy or even a sequel, unless you count Tales from Watership Down, which I don’t. There was no need for feminism among the rabbits, or magic powers for El-ahrairah. The book is as close to perfection as possible, a classic of the genre and a wonderful read.

1. Also footnotes.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why I will not review your book

I get occasional emails from writers requesting reviews. Although I read nearly all of these, my time for the past few months has been very limited. Even now that school and placement are officially over, I'm catching up on a lot of things, including a TBR pile, so I'm extremely picky about what I request.

Fortunately (for me, that is) the vast majority of the emails make this an easy decision.

So I came up with a checklist of things I've seen that mean I won't be requesting the book. Several of the examples, by the way, are from actual review requests. If any writers hopeful for a review are reading this, please ask yourself if your email contains

___ an attachment?

___ a copy-and-paste of a press release?

___ something that shows you haven’t read my blog, e.g. “Since you enjoy reviewing political thrillers…”?

___ white text on a black background?

___ several errors, e.g. “Set in , this book tells the story of a serial killer and his murderous rampage through this sleepy country town”? I scrolled down to see who had released this and read “Publisher: Press”.

___ anything that suggests the book was rushed into print, e.g. “I decided to self-publish my book so I didn't need to wait for anyone else to like it or shop it around"?

___ grandiose prophesies, e.g. “This book will be a bestseller”?

___ a claim that your book was top in its sub-sub-genre on Amazon’s free Kindle best-selling list both yesterday and today?

___ a bit too much information upfront? A recent email began: “Marian, Raped at the age of seven, I was a lost and lonely child.”

___ any suggestion that the author is a little too close to the book for me to risk providing an objective review? In the email referred to above, the novel was about a seven-year-old who was raped. I'm very hesitant to comment on anything which seems like self-therapy for the author. Plus, I’ve already had the experience of pointing out something that seems unrealistic, only to have the author claiming it was possible because it happened to her.

___ requests for something I can’t provide, e.g. “I need your help to make my dream become a reality”? I just run a blog here.

___ too many rhetorical questions? One email concluded with, “Will Rod be able to save his family from the clutches of the evil Terry and his own greedy sister-in-law? Will Rod be able to save himself?” Given that the rest of the book description barely even mentioned Rod, I had no idea (or interest).

___ claims that something which is common to most books of this type is unusual about your book, e.g. “The story is developed through several intertwining plot lines that unfold through the actions of multidimensional characters”? Well, that certainly sets it apart from the novels with a single plot line which is uninfluenced by the actions of one-dimensional characters.

___ a description of your book as straddling three or more genres, e.g.. “New Science Fiction Novel Is Part Mystery, Part Thriller, And All Adventure‏”? This is the literary equivalent of turducken.

___ cover quotes without names appended to them? I have to assume you called your own book “a work of dark genius”.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fighting Fantasy blogs

Fighting Fantasy role-playing gamebooks were a phenomenon of the eighties, but dwindled in popularity with the rise of video games. Still, retro sometimes comes back into fashion—several of the original gamebooks have been reissued by Wizard Books—and Fighting Fantasy remains popular among a lot of people who grew up in the eighties and fondly remember rolling up SKILL and STAMINA scores.

Myself included, of course. I have the entire collection—some of the books I bought over fifteen years ago, and purist that I am, they’re all the original releases. Recently, though, I found a couple of bloggers who are playing through the books and describing the experience, including the incongruities of the stories, the amazing number (and type) of meals you have to eat and every time you die.

The latter is one of my favorite things about the series, of course. The more sophisticated the books became, the more elaborate the deaths (or non-victory adventure endings, i.e. more or less the same thing).

Dan of Fighting Dantasy tackles every book in the series. The moment I read this ending to his City of Thieves adventure I knew I would enjoy his blog.

I had no food either, having traded it all for a silver arrow.

So when a boy came up to me offering to sell me either plums or apples, I was ecstatic. He recommended the plums, and knowing this town pretty well by now I chose the apples, and they were a bit off, doing a single point of stamina damage. Problem: I only had one point left.

I was killed by an apple marginally past its use-by-date.

Then there’s Sword of the Samurai:

Next thing we know, we meet a forty-foot centipede, which I assume must've been common in medieval Japan...? It bit off Moichi's arm, and no amount of food was going to fix that, so I felt justified (but not exactly honourable) in not giving him any. If he needed food that badly, he should have bought his own.

The other blog is Turn to 400, which is much more detailed and snarky.

Somebody needs to let these guys know that when it comes to last words, pithiness is what gets you over. You shouldn't be glancing at your wrist-watch during a guy's dying words. You shouldn't start wondering what might be for dinner. You shouldn't have to interrupt to clarify whether the man is, in fact, actually dying at all, or whether there might still be enough time to drag him down off the mountain or invent all of modern medicine.

I can’t wait for the author to get to my favorite book, House of Hell.

You can also check out back-issues of the Fighting Fantazine here - they’ve got mini-adventures, interviews with authors and artists, humor columns and much more. Enjoy (and don’t drink the white wine)!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Final rotation

This was the Chemistry rotation, and it left me so burned out that I haven’t even felt like talking about it until now.

Imagine you’re working in a fast-food restaurant. You have to cook the burgers, pour the drinks, operate the cash register and handle the drive-through traffic. At lunch hour. Oh, and if you get any of the orders wrong, someone could die. It was a bit like that.

Chemistry encompasses more tests than any other department, which meant a huge number of samples to process. Like Hematology and Transfusion, Chemistry operates around-the-clock, with huge analyzers that take dozens of specimens at a time and which are constantly working.

Yet it’s not as simple as feeding in the specimens at one end and collecting the results at the other. The analyzers need regular (and sometimes constant) maintenance, cleaning, calibration and topping-up. If one breaks down, it can cause an serious backlog. And as well as running these, the technologists need to do a number of other tests which are few enough in number that they can be handled manually—analyzing sweat samples for cystic fibrosis, running the flame spectrophotometer, pregnancy tests, fecal occult blood tests and so on.

Most of the time, though, I felt as though I was just trying to keep my head above water—or above the flood of specimens. There was no time for the technologists to ask me questions about the theory behind what we were doing. Chemistry can be interesting, and I never found it particularly difficult in college, but towards the end I was so exhausted I was just counting off the days.

And after it was over, there was the qualifying exam to study for. That was on the 16th, and even if I had wanted to get a full night’s rest before it, I was too tense. I probably had reason to be, since the exam was tough, and I honestly have no idea how it will turn out. CSMLS will let us know in four to six weeks, so that’s another month of worrying I have ahead.

Though at least now I can start looking for jobs. For the past nine months I’d been working part-time in a bookstore owned by a psychic, but I quit that when it got to be too frustrating – here’s a link to the story. Things have got to get better from here.