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    Book Club in a Bag

    Great Science Fiction Reads

    by Dieu - 3 Comment(s)

    I must confess that for a very long time I had a prejudice against science fiction. I thought of science fiction books as all the same with their usual spaceships and aliens. Science fiction just didn’t seem like real literature to me until I discovered books that, yes, involved aliens and space travel and other common elements of the genre, but were as moving, fascinating, thought provoking and compelling as anything I’ve ever read.

    Expand your summer reading list and your mind by including some great science fiction reads. If you have never read science fiction, I recommend trying out these outstanding books to give you a sense of what you’ve been missing, and hopefully have you wanting more.

    The Sparrow book cover

    The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

    Set in 2019, the novel is about humanity’s first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization and the ethical, moral, religious and philosophical complications that can arise with such an encounter.

    When an observatory picks up radio broadcasts of music coming from Alpha Centauri, the nearest star in our solar system, a Jesuit missionary order decides to organize an expedition to the alien planet. A crew made up of agnostics, believers, and scientists is formed. Led by Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest and linguist, they embark on their journey with idealistic hopes of meeting intelligent life beyond their own world. Upon their arrival on the planet, which will come to be known as Rakhat, the travelers discover that the planet is occupied by two different alien races that are hostile to each other, the Runa and the Jana’ata. The humans settle among the Runa, learn their language, study their customs, and over time become friends with them. However, through seemingly harmless and well intentioned actions, such as introducing to the aliens the growing of coffee beans, the humans set off a series of disastrous events which will cause them to question their own morality and humanity.

    Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award, The Sparrow is a powerful, suspenseful and provocative read.

    Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

    Depressingly beautiful, devastating, and emotional, Never Let Me Go is one of my all time favourite novels. The novel starts off as a female coming-of-age story, but turns out to be something so much more profound and unsettling. Set in 1990s England, the story is told from the point of view of Kathy H., who is now 31 and recalling her times at Hailsham, the boarding school where she, along with her fellow classmates, grew up and were "told and not told" about their secret conditions.

    I hesitate to say more about the plot of the novel, so as to not spoil the secret hidden at the center of the story. Without saying more about what happens, I can say that Ishiguro's descriptions of Kathy H.'s memories of her childhood and coming of age into adulthood are restrained, taut, and dream-like. Never Let Me Go is a novel that raises controversial questions about what makes us human, what are the limits of scientific progress, and the value of human life.

    Never Let Me Go book cover

    Einstein

    I consider Alan Lightman’s slim novel, Einstein's Dreams, as made up of a little bit of magic realism and science fiction all dashed together. The story begins with the young Einstein as a patent clerk who is secretly working on his theory of relativity. When Einstein heads to bed, we take part in his dreams. These dreams make up a collection of stories of different worlds where the nature of time changes. For example in one story, time is circular and people are destined to repeat the same events and actions over and over again. The stories are imaginative, poetic, philosophical and whimsical. After reading Einstein’s Dreams I found myself going back to certain phrases and ideas that were like little poems:

    “Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but is noble to live life and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.”

    Celebrate your Freedom to Read

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    In preparation for Freedom to Read week, which runs this year from February 24 to March 2, I've been looking at lists of banned and challenged books. Have a look through Freedom to Read's list of Banned and Challenged books for more details on specific challenges in Canada and the outcomes.

    The most interesting thing I notice about these types of lists is it's often those books that receive the widest critical acclaim that are also the most often challenged or banned. Incidentally, two of YOUR chosen favourites from "Calgarians Choose a Century of Great Books" are also titles that have caused complaints, requests for banning, and even a book-burning! (Well, book-cover-burning...) Since these two titles are also two of my all-time favourites, and both by fabulous Canadian authors, I'll feature them here with a few suggestions for further reading:

    The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

    This book is considered a modern classic, chilling and yet believable in its portrayal of a future in which infertility is reaching crisis proportions. And the fallout from this situation is horrifying for the average woman...

    From the book's description:

    It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now...everything has changed.

    We love dystopian fiction here in the Readers' Nook and have posted about it before. Read more from Atwood: Oryx and Crake (also a "Century" title) and The Year of the Flood both explore the same near-future world, a disturbing place in which "[t]he triple whammy of runaway social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event." (Publisher's Weekly)

    Oryx and Crake is told from the point of view of Snowman, who introduces the strange world he finds himself in, alone, starving and bewildered; the story gradually reveals how he came to survive, and what lead to the cataclysmic changes in the world. What is most fascinating to me is how Atwood builds a believable near-future in which we can recognize all the disturbing trends of our own world which have snowballed and grown until daily life is both unrecognizable and eerily familiar.

    The Year of the Flood revisits this before-and-after time again from a different perspective: a group of followers of a new religion, God's Gardeners. We are introduced to the characters in the "before" time, and then follow some of the same people years later, as they try to survive in the bleak "after" world. It's difficult to describe in detail without giving too much away... Both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood can be read as stand-alone novels, but plot points and characters overlap, and if you read them as a pair, each one enriches the other.

    Other great dystopian visions you might enjoy:

    The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

    Seed by Rob Ziegler

    Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

    Lovestar by Andri Snaer Magnason

    The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

    This riveting work of historical fiction follows the life of Aminata Diallo from her childhood, through her life as a slave, and later as an associate and speaker for slavery abolitionists in London. It is the most powerful and memorable novel I've read in a long time, and it highlights some little-known corners of Canadian history, one example being the document from which the book takes its controversial title.

    From the book's description:

    Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle--a string of slaves-- Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. But years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic Book of Negroes. This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own. Aminata's eventual return to Sierra Leone--passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America--is an engrossing account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey. Lawrence Hill is a master at transforming the neglected corners of history into brilliant imaginings, as engaging and revealing as only the best historical fiction can be. A sweeping story that transports the reader from a tribal African village to a plantation in the southern United States, from the teeming Halifax docks to the manor houses of London,The Book of Negroes introduces one of the strongest female characters in recent Canadian fiction, one who cuts a swath through a world hostile to her colour and her sex.


    For more from Lawrence Hill, try his novels Any Known Blood and Some Great Thing.

    If you've already read these and are looking for other epic historical fiction that transports you to a time and place, I will recommend a few more favourites:

    What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

    The Tiger Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin

    A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

    The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

    Did The Hunger Games leave you a bit peckish?

    by Suzen - 0 Comment(s)

    America Pacifica by Anna NorthSo I’ve been on this pretty major dystopian fiction kick. It’s an on-going theme – storylines beginning in the not too distant future when the environment has crumbled under the weight of humankind, the government has become a totalitarian regime and the protagonists are hell-bent on revolution. My recent obsession started with The Hunger Games, a wildly popular trilogy by YA author Suzanne Collins that’s presently being developed into a series of huge blockbuster films. I devoured (ha, ha) the books in a matter of days and became so invested in the characters’ fight for survival that I felt a little lost when the story ended. Immediately, I began scavenging for more books within the genre and found America Pacifica, the debut novel from author Anna North.

    America Pacifica is one of many in a genre of dystopian futures. In this book, North introduces us to Darcy, a young woman who lives in the grim replica of North America located on a small island in the South Pacific Ocean called “America Pacifica”. Overcrowded and divided by the unequal distribution of wealth, the island is dissolving into the sea from toxic pollution and on the verge of civil war. Our heroine, Darcy, works as a cook and nurse’s aide at World Experiences, a retirement residence for the island’s first inhabitants, and is completely ambivalent to the problems of the island. That is, until her mother disappears and Darcy’s safe and private world is thrown into a tailspin.

    The novel follows Darcy’s desperate search for her mother through the island’s most troubled districts where she is acutely suspicious of everyone she meets. The small world she had come to know as a child dangerously expands to include mute nuns with talking parrots, circus folk with missing limbs, bug-eyed solvent addicts and rich kids with too much free time. There are very few acts of kindness in this world and Darcy quickly learns that everything comes at a severe emotional, financial and physical cost. As the secrets of her mother’s past and disappearance come to light, Darcy finds herself the unwitting heroine of a revolution set to overturn everything she has ever known.

    Like The Hunger Games, this book shares a similar character-driven storyline set in a future not terribly far off from our own, where the struggle for freedom is a matter of life or death and survival tests our most vulnerable of human virtues. America Pacifica is a fast-paced and a very quick read, and if you can forgive the author’s often long-winded use of dialogue, this novel is a great compliment to other dystopian reads. While some readers may think the genre a bit morbid, I’ve always appreciated the perspective it gives to our current political, social and environmental climate. If things are bad now, how much worse could it get? While America Pacifica does take a fantastical approach to the imagined fate of North America, at its core I found myself relating to Darcy and her plight, contemplating how I would respond in similar situations. Would I run or would I stay and fight?

    I would recommend this book to anyone fascinated by the end of the world. If you enjoyed similar titles such as The Hunger Games, A Handmaid’s Tale or 1984, you’ll definitely quench your dystopian appetite with America Pacifica.

    Similar titles:

    When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

    Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood

    Children of Men by PD James