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landbeyondmaps

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Partly because of being busy writing my own novel for NaNoWriMo, and partly because one of them was particularly long, I only read two novels during the month of November.

The first was Land Beyond Maps by Maida Tilchen. It was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in the lesbian debut fiction category in 2010, and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy for only one dollar. (The Kindle ebook is still only 99 cents as I write this.)

The novel is set in New Mexico in the very late 1920s, and the main characters are several women who are very independent or don’t easily fit into the roles women were expected to hold in that era.

Two of the women are a lesbian couple (one a photographer and the other a nurse), another is a frustrated artist who gave up her goals to help her husband seek his, another is an asexual woman who becomes obsessed with desert plantlife, and the last one you could probably say is gender queer, even though there was no recognition of that as an identity at that point in time.

The book is very well-written and in many ways can be viewed as a love letter to New Mexico. Tilchen vividly writes about the desert so that you feel you are there, seeing what the characters see. She does a fabulous job of bringing that time period to life, while also providing fascinating depictions of the Navajo people muddling through a cultural transition.

Land Beyond Maps doesn’t have much in the way of a plot. It’s a slice of life novel, looking in on these women at a singular period in their lives as they cross paths and discover what their goals are and what provides meaning for them. If you enjoy that sort of novel then I can highly recommend it. If you need something with a more typical beginning, middle, and end, with a central plot moving things forward, it’s probably not for you.

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The other novel I read, which took up most of the month and the first couple days into December, was The Stand by Stephen King. It seemed like a perfect choice for the dark, rainy days of a Pacific Northwest November, and I was right.

This was the third time I’ve read the book, but it had been about twenty years since the last time I read it, so it was all fresh again. An online acquaintance had gifted me with the ebook copy quite a while back and I was finally in the right mood to read it. This was the uncut, extended version, which I hadn’t read before.

I don’t really want to go into the plot or characters. The book is extremely well known, and the majority of King fans tend to agree that it’s his best, or one of his best, novels. I agree with that assessment.

Even for people who don’t care much for horror, or King’s work in particular, it’s worth giving a try. It’s not heavy on horror. It’s a post-apocalyptic story with a central theme of good vs. evil using supernatural elements. I thoroughly enjoyed my leisurely reread.

The thing I was to discuss is the fact that when the novel was rereleased in the uncut version in 1990, King not only added back most of the original manuscript, he also updated the novel to that decade. (It was originally published in 1978, and written 2-3 years prior to that, I think.) I had discussed my opinion of updating fiction in a post here, and it turns out The Stand is an excellent argument for why I think updating doesn’t work, and shouldn’t be done.

It’s easy enough to go through and change dates, slip in different song titles and other pop culture references that fit a different decade, and update technology in a novel. Provided you don’t miss anything. But what the author can’t do, unless they’re willing to rewrite to a great extent, is update the entire context in which the story was originally written.

Anything a person writes is affected by when it’s written. This is true even for historical novels, but usually in a different way than a contemporary story. How a story is written is affected by how the author perceives the world, and how the author perceives the world is to a great degree dependant on the world around them. And in turn this all affects how their characters in the novel perceive their world.

It doesn’t seem like a twelve year difference in publication dates should have much of an effect on things, and that might have been part of King’s thinking at the time. Technological differences are much more obvious changes, and can be relatively easy to deal with. But underlying attitudes that characters hold are a much trickier thing.

There were many, many places in the updated version of The Stand where things just didn’t read right for 1990. They were right for the mid-1970s. Though in fact, there were quite a few attitudes expressed by characters that were already starting to seem a little dated by 1978. By 1990 they came across as rather archaic.

This is the primary reason I think writers should not attempt to update fiction. While it’s true that some people won’t read older novels because they are no longer contemporary, those people shouldn’t be accommodated. There are enough of the rest of us who don’t care, and in fact enjoy reading novels written in prior decades. Either because we lived through them ourselves and get a sense of nostalgia, or because we like to see what it was like through the eyes of people living through that time.

There’s another more practical reason as well. The Stand was updated for its 1990 extended version release, but that updated version is now more than two decades out of date. So you have to ask yourself, where does it end? Should a novel be updated every ten years? I say no.

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[At the Amazon Kindle Community forum there is a monthly thread where participants list and comment on which books they’re reading at the moment on their Kindles. These aren’t usually full reviews, often  just relatively brief impressions. I’m copying over some of my comments made there into Book Bits posts here.]

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I got really lazy about putting my monthly Book Bits posts up here, but finally decided since I have them in a file on my computer I should stop procrastinating (one of my best skills!) and do it.

11/5

I’m still reading It by Stephen King. Good gravy this is a long book! It’s taking me forever. I’ve been reading it for a week and a half and I’m only about 60% through it.

I’m enjoying re-reading the story because I’d forgotten huge chunks of it in the intervening twenty or so years since the last time I read it and it really is a great story. But my inner editor has been wanting to get out the blue pencil and strike parts to get things to speed up!

I used to have a lot more patience with, and actually prefer, very long books. I’ve noticed that since getting my Kindle that’s not so true anymore. It has to do with getting antsy about having so many other unread books waiting on my Kindle that I want to read. The longer a book is the fewer books I get to read. (Life is finite!)

A large part of the reason I have so many unread books on my Kindle is because I buy a lot of books on sale for 99 cents to $2.99. Whereas in the old days of paper books a long book meant getting to put off having to rush out to the bookstore to buy another stack of full price paperbacks to replenish my TBR stack.

11/15

I finally finished It by Stephen King. I was down to the wire. I had it on loan from the library and the loan expired the same day I finished, which means it took me 21 days to read it! (I might have gotten done a bit sooner if not for NaNo being this month.)

For the most part the plot and characters are brilliant. I don’t read a lot of horror, but of what I have read It scared me more than any other novel the first time I read it. There’s plenty of really scary stuff, though thankfully, reading it a second time it was more in the creepy category than terrifying. Also thankfully, I’m not suffering sudden terrors around sink and bathtub drains like the first time.

I will say I think it could have been edited down into a much tighter novel. It was 21,000 locations and there were times when I was groaning just wanting things to move on at a better pace. A lot of the extra description just isn’t necessary. Also, since it’s an older book there are quite a few OCR errors in it, though not so many as to make for difficult reading, just mildly annoying reading at times.

I’m glad I read it again, but it’s going to be a while before I start another long book! Here’s a couple highlights of things I enjoyed:

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It (Stephen King)
– Highlight Loc. 3471-72 |
He wandered off into the stacks, pulling a book here and there, looking at it, putting it back. Choosing books was serious business.

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It (Stephen King)
– Highlight Loc. 18580-84 |
What would he assume if he found out that she had called him from a room where there was a dead man on the floor with a jagged bottleneck planted in his guts? That she and four other strangers had just come into town the day before for a little reunion and this guy just happened to drop by? Would she buy the tale if the shoe were on the other foot? Would anyone? Of course, they could buttress their tale by adding that they had come back to finish the monster that lived in the drains under the city. That would certainly add a convincing note of gritty realism.
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Then I started The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff . I had pre-ordered it and it downloaded on November 1st, but I had to get through It before I could finally dig in! This is one of three expensive books that I’ve splurged on this year. I’m about half way through it and it’s been worth it to me so far.

The Wild Ways is a sequel to The Enchantment Emporium, which was originally intended to be a stand-alone novel when it was published two years ago. In The Wild Ways the main character is Charlie, who was a secondary character in The Enchantment Emporium. Huff has made me laugh out loud several times already with her trademark humor and I’m enjoying the plot, which involves an evil Cruella de Vil type villain who is trying to obtain a permit for oil drilling in the Atlantic by blackmailing a family of Selkies.

Here’s a couple of my highlights from The Wild Ways so far:

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The Wild Ways (2) (Tanya Huff)
– Highlight Loc. 477-78 |

The aunties’ response to people stuffing their noses in where they didn’t belong was not subtle by several fairly terrifying degrees of not.
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The Wild Ways (2) (Tanya Huff)
– Highlight Loc. 2595-97

“You know what the T-shirt says.”
Charlie glanced down. “If we’re attacked by zombies, I’m tripping you?”
“Not that T-shirt.”
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11/26/11

I finished reading Blood Debt, the fifth and final novel in Tanya Huff’s Blood series. Great stuff! It’s my favorite of the five. Though when I think about it, for me it has the least interesting central plot (illegal organ transplants and murders, along with some vengeful ghosts), but I love the interactions between the characters.

It’s kinda funny. There’s one scene from that book that has stuck out in my mind since I read it the first time over ten years ago. I remembered it so vividly, I thought. Yet when I got to it this time there wasn’t hardly any detail. Somehow Huff managed to create a scene that I fully filled in with my imagination and it became memorable because of how I’d seen it all in my head.

I’m now half way through The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham. I got it on sale for 99 cents. It’s the second Wyndham book I’ve read this year. The first one was The Day of the Triffids, which someone gave me as a random act of kindness gift. (Thanks again!)

I’m coming to the conclusion that Wyndham is a brilliant novelist. It’s a bit unusual that I would like his books so much because his characters don’t have a lot of depth. They’re merely tools to tell the story, and I tend to prefer character-driven fiction. But dang, he sure knows how to tell a story. His prose is fairly spare, yet like Atwood makes great use of the words he chooses to use. And his pacing is exactly right. In Midwich Cuckoos the Big Question is asked at almost exactly the halfway point. That can’t be accidental.

One other thing that struck me about Midwich Cuckoos is that I suspect it might have been a partial inspiration for Stephen King’s Under the Dome.

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