17 August 2009

Review: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

When I bought Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (well, "The Ender Quartet," really) I knew next to nothing about it. I knew it is a highly regarded science fiction novel, originally published when I was a young child. (The story the novel was based on was published in 1977, the novel in 1985.) I knew too that it seemed to be a polarizing book – people loved it or hated it without so many opinions falling somewhere in between. As for me, I loved it, flaws and all.

Opening paragraphs:
"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get."
"That's what you said about the brother."
"The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability."
"Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He's too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else's will."
"Not if the other person is his enemy."
"So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?"
"If we have to."

Ender's Game is military science fiction, taking place in a future where the human race has banded together to fight off the threat of invasion or destruction by an alien race known, for their bug-like appearance and hive-mind behaviour, as buggers. The world has become so over populated that there are strict laws limiting the number of children a family might have, but the governing body will make allowances for families raising child geniuses who as children may train to become soldiers to fight in the bugger wars.

14 August 2009

Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes was the winner of Canada Reads 2009 on CBC radio. Basically, the idea behind Canada Reads is that a panel of famous Canadians each choose a book by a Canadian author, which they think Canadians should read. On the radio program, the panellists defend their choices, eventually eliminating four of the books and choosing a winner. I'm not really sure where it all goes from there, if anywhere, since I've never actually listened to the program, but the books chosen do get a fair bit of exposure, winners or not. Probably I wouldn't have picked up the novel if I hadn't heard about it via the CBC website blurbs about Canada Reads. (In some markets, this novel is known by the title Someone Knows My Name, which I think is an insipid title that tells you nothing at all about the story, whereas the Canadian title gives you an idea of the time in which it takes place and of the people the story will be about.)

It's the story of one African woman, Aminata Diallo, beginning with her capture as a child by slave traders in the interior of Africa in 1745. The novel follows her journey to the US (then a British colony) and into her life on an indigo plantation where she learns, in secret, to read and write. Eventually Aminata finds herself in New York, working for the British during the war against the rebels, first as a midwife to "catch" the babies born to the (mostly black) mistresses of the officers and then later as a record keeper, filling in the Book of Negroes, a document detailing some 3000 Black Loyalists who the British sent to other colonies following their defeat. Aminata travels on one of these ships to Nova Scotia, then later to Sierra Leone and finally to London, from whence she writes her story.

Opening paragraph:
I seem to have trouble dying. By all rights, I should not have lived this long. But I still can smell trouble riding on any wind, just as surely as I could tell you whether it is a stew of chicken necks or pigs' feet bubbling in the iron pot on the fire. And my ears still work just as good as a hound dog's. People assume that just because you don't stand as straight as a sapling, you're deaf. Or that your mind is like pumpkin mush. The other day, when I was being led into a meeting with a bishop, one of the society ladies told another, "We must get this woman into Parliament soon. Who knows how much longer she'll be with us?" Half bent though I was, I dug my fingers into her ribs. She let out a shriek and spun around to face me. "Careful," I told her, "I may outlast you!"

The Book of Negroes is a lovely story and in many ways a heart-breaking one. It's a story about loss, loss of family and homeland and identity. It's about survival as well, and strength and overcoming the odds, not by luck but by knowing when to fight and when to hide. It's an interesting mix of uplifting and heartbreaking because for all that Aminata does, there always remains the backdrop of her lost family and freedom and the fates of so many other enslaved people who weren't so capable or adept at survival.