Review: Fairies

“Fairies are nature spirits and the guardian angels of the natural world”, declares the blurb of Flavia Kate Peters’ tersely-named Fairies, which promises to “introduce…readers to the mysterious fairy world” and teach them “Where to find fairies and how to communicate with them”. I picked it up in a fit of open-mindedness, and also, if I am honest, childish nostalgia for flower fairies and the like.

A lot of this is actually just repackaged Wicca: Peters covers the Wheel of the Year, the five elements (each linked to a different type of fairy), moon magic and various correspondences, advocates environmental awareness and talks about reconnecting with nature and the landscape. All pretty uncontroversial Wiccan topics, if a little simplistically framed.

It’s the original content that is, uh, unconvincing, to say the least. The following passage is representative:

The Sylphs [fairies of Air] purify the air and so without these fairies we could not exist. They keep us alive. Sadly, they are having to work that much harder as the air is becoming more and more polluted. Before the Industrial Revolution, they had a much easier task, but since then they have had to work tirelessly to clean up pollution from car exhaust and factory fumes, methane gas emissions and even nuclear explosions!

Ohmyword, where to start with this nonsense.

My particular flavour of Neopaganism contains a lot that probably looks like nonsense to non-Pagans; Tarot is an obvious example. What’s different about this text? Does it go beyond the usual problem of religious writing, that it seeks to describe that which is by definition indescribable, and thus will always fall short?

I think Peters’ writing does come into it, thuddingly literal and radically over-simplified as it is. “The fairies work to purify the air” probably makes a lot more sense as an unverbalised concept than it does written down.

But. I mean. I don’t think it’s just a problem of verbalisation. There’s also something profoundly troubling about the text’s misunderstanding of how the earth’s ecosystem works and why we should care? As I said above, environmental awareness is a key theme of the book, and there’s sensible practical advice about what individuals can do. One way to help the sylphs, Peters suggests, is to

Become conscious of any chemicals that you use that might be harming the air, including the ozone layer, and substitute them with more environmentally friendly products. Encourage others to do the same.

But what’s lacking, I think, is systemic awareness: the tenet of interconnectedness that is a hallmark of Paganism. There’s a New Age-y kind of selfishness, or, better, self-absorption, to Fairies. You should look after the earth not because it is beautiful or sacred in itself, but to build a relationship with the fairies, who will in turn reward you with success in love or wealth. (A couple of times, Peters mentions incidents when she feels she’s been rewarded by the fairies: the reward is generally shiny jewellery, which is telling, I think.)

All of this – the writing style, the self-absorption – denies the mystery and magic that has been the province of Fairyland since time immemorial. Peters’ fairies are too relatable, too accessible, too humanised to be taken seriously. They are the worst of all things: they are twee.

Review: Kintu

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu is a multi-generational saga about the descendants of Kintu: a clan elder living in what’s now Uganda in 1750 who inadvertently kills his adopted son. The boy’s birth father lays a curse on Kintu’s family, a curse whose legacy the novel traces over a century and a half. Its characters include an evangelical Christian couple, a young orphan haunted by her dead twin, an Oxford-educated intellectual and many more.

It is, in short, a big book, alert to many different flavours of the human condition under the weight of history; I want to say a generous book, because in its pages wronged souls find peace and even redemption. Its key final pages see a vast family gathering, many of them unknown to each other, to lay the curse to rest in an elaborate ritual: a scene we can read both literally and metaphorically. As the clan lays its ghosts to rest, so too do its members reestablish their family ties, settling old grievances and finding ways to move forward from their various personal crises.

This kind of duality is important in a novel which features a number of twins, who in Ganda culture are considered to have a single soul: they are two in one, or one in two, the same and different at once. One of the things Kintu is doing, I think, is holding traditional belief and modern attitudes in tension, together, two in one and one in two, so that both are true and valid at the same time; and I think it’s this refusal to collapse the possibilities of existence, this dedication to reconciliation at the level even of form, that, to me, is interesting about the novel. In an age where discourse is becoming increasingly polarised, Kintu refuses such simplicity, and the very notion that there is such a thing as one “true” story.

Review: Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake begins with Snowman: an old man living in a forest by the sea. The forest is full of savage genetically-engineered monstrosities; Snowman, starving, might be the only human left on the earth following a deadly plague. He’s not exactly alone, though – by the shores of the sea live the Crakers, a group of posthumans who have also been genetically engineered to, among other things, digest grass and other raw plants, have sexual urges only at specific times, and heal each other by humming at a certain frequency.

The Crakers see Snowman as a kind of god, and press him for stories about their creator, Crake. As Snowman tells them sanitised fables designed to consolidate his own position, we learn through flashback the true story of their genesis and of the apocalyptic plague. We hear about Snowman’s childhood friend Crake, who grows up to be a top geneticist with dangerous ideas, and about his crush Oryx, a sexual fantasy made suddenly real.

There’s a lot to unpack in this text. I want to think first about Atwood’s oft-quoted claim that her books are not science fiction: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” This is not only a bad take, it’s a weird one, rooted as it is in the assumption that what happens in a book, its plot, is the most important or indeed only element doing any work. And, really, it’s hard to imagine that Atwood really, truly thinks of the events of Oryx and Crake as something that “could really happen”. Its SFnal parts – by which I mean mainly the parts involving Crake – are brightly painted and shallow, peppered with capitalised neologisms (RejoovenEssense, HelthWyzer, BlyssPluss) and references to a hyperviolent society gone far, far off the rails, with freely available child pornography, televised executions and general brutality as entertainment. A complex and skilful portrait of a realistic future it surely ain’t; in fact it’s in the grand old tradition of the cautionary tale, as exemplified by George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit-451.

These parts of the novel are, in other words, satire; satire of corporate power, of our obsession with shiny new tech, of our ever-more-toxic relationship with the internet. And in their satire they’re as – hmm – referentially unrealistic as the talking squids, intergalactic space travel and Martians Atwood repudiates so vehemently. They’re using a type of fantasy to talk about present culture, present obsessions.

But then there’s the other half of the novel: the parts about Oryx and Snowman. And these are in their own way as chilling as anything Crake gets up to, despite their lower stakes. See, Snowman first sees Oryx, as a child, in a porn video. As her story unfolds it becomes clear that she was trafficked away from her village in an unspecified non-Western country. It also becomes clear that Snowman is more attracted to her as a victim than as a person, constantly nagging her for details about her childhood which she is unwilling to give. (Snowman, of course, thinks he loves her.) Oryx’s strategies of evasion remind me a little of Grace Marks, the heroine of Atwood’s earlier novel Alias Grace: like Oryx, she’s surrounded by men who want to solve the riddle of her, and manages to preserve her humanity by remaining elusive, mysterious. These sections of the novel are more conventionally “realistic” than those featuring Crake, focusing on things that could and do “really happen” and on Snowman’s and Oryx’s reactions to them – in other words, they’re much more character-based, in a way that literary fiction tends to prize. So it’s true, in a way, that Oryx and Crake transcends science fiction: SF is just one of the modes it’s deploying, but it’s not all SF.

But what’s Atwood hoping to achieve by folding these two modes, SF and litfic, together? To answer that, I want to look first at what she’s doing making Snowman our point-of-view character. He has no heroic qualities: pre-apocalypse, he is an advertising copywriter cynically twisting the English language into unrecognisable shapes; post-apocalypse, he’s quite happy to manipulate the innocent Crakers for his own comfort (forcing them, for example, to kill fish for him every day, despite their vegetarianism). By comparison with Crake, certainly, he is utterly unremarkable.

The key lies, I think, in his willingness to go along with Crake’s plans when he’s eventually hired by Crake’s corporation; his utter moral incuriosity about the fact that Crake’s literally breeding a new strain of humans. Snowman is Everyman, accepting moral compromise in return for material comfort, as most of us are forced to under capitalism. His inaction makes him complicit in Crake’sa hubris; and his Everyman status makes us, in turn, complicit. We are all Snowmen: enablers, willing or unwilling, of a globalised system that objectifies humans and animals both. Because what else is Crake doing, in engineering a perfect version of humanity, than failing to see humanity “in the round”, the good and the bad?

Snowman, too, is guilty of objectification, in the way he treats Oryx, not as a person but as an ideal. This, then, is the link between the two modes, SF and realism. And through this link Atwood suggests that small, individual failures of humanity, empathy, curiosity can, writ large, spell disaster; is, in fact, the same as disaster.

It has to be said that this is not a terribly interesting conclusion: substituting the speculative for the real is just what SF writers do, and have been doing for a long time. Really I think that sums up my experience of Oryx and Crake: it was a fine book, I didn’t dislike it, but nor can I see myself reading it again.

Review: It Devours!

Like its predecessor Welcome to Night Vale, Jeffrey Fink and Joseph Cranor’s second Night Vale spinoff novel It Devours! is much better than anyone had a right to expect.

Although characters from the first novel do feature, it’s a standalone story in its own right, following the adventures of scientist Nilanjana as she investigates what’s been causing the mysterious and deadly sinkholes opening up in the desert on the outskirts of Night Vale. Her researches lead her to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, a church whose members seem to be taking their belief in a giant all-devouring centipede a little too literally for the town’s comfort.

Because, of course, this is Night Vale, an absurdist vision of small-town America where wheat and wheat by-products have been banned since they all turned into snakes in 2012, black helicopters circle overhead recording citizens’ every move, and a radiant glow cloud serves on the school governing board. (All hail the Glow Cloud!) The ever-encroaching, Lovecraftian-but-funny chaos of the town makes it an ideal setting for a story about people trying to make sense of a vast and confusing universe, whether that’s through science or religion.

The novel’s nuance, such as it is, comes from its refusal to land on either side, its ultimate point being that trying to understand the universe through any one limited set of values is at best futile and at worst actively dangerous. Of course, Night Vale’s scientists look precisely nothing like any scientist you might find in the real world: the life’s work of one of Nilanjana’s colleagues involves repeatedly admonishing potatoes to see how it affects them. But then the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God looks very little like the kind of religious congregation you’d expect to find in real life (as opposed to in popular media). The very fact of reducing the values of these groups down to the point of absurdity, removing them from the sphere of realism, reframes the debate: this isn’t a novel retreading the hoary old arguments pitting science against religion, though it may look like one. Instead, it asks us to think beyond that traditional binary and consider the universe as radically inexplicable by either method.

To a point, anyway. It’s a thoughtful novel, surprisingly so for a media spin-off, but it is not particularly complex. Its plot structure is solidly built and satisfying, but a little too…schematic for a novel about the randomness of existence. It’s got a good heart, though, and that is not something to be sneezed at.

Review: Pathworking Through Poetry

Fiona Tinker’s Pathworking through Poetry looks at work from three Celtic poets – Seamus O’Sullivan, Fiona Macleod and, inevitably, W.B. Yeats – that deals with Irish and Scottish mythology, teasing out pagan metanarratives from each poem that then inform Tinker’s pathworkings – a series of guided meditations/visualisations that bring their practitioners face-to-face with Celtic deities, in theory.

The idea’s nice, but the execution is decidedly mixed.

Full disclosure: visualisation, especially in the form it tends to take in Pagan traditions, sets off my woo detectors like little else. This is a me problem, and I probably need to do a lot more reading on the role of imagination in spiritual experience to understand why it works for some people. Suffice it to say that it’s not for me, at this particular moment in time. It’s just unfortunate for Pathworking through Poetry, whose entire spiritual content is basically visualisation.

Although – it has to be said that the pathworkings seem to have very little to do with the poems and the readings Tinker constructs of them (which are themselves pretty cringey, being a mixture of extremely basic close reading and A-level speculation), which begs the question of what the point of the whole endeavour is. I did enjoy the poems themselves, as well as the bits and pieces of folklore Tinker recounts (for example, I was interested to learn that Bride/Bridget is a sun goddess; I hadn’t come across that association before). There’s a certain joy in picking up little tidbits in all kinds of different places, so for that reason I’m thankful to have read this! But it’s not something I’ll read again, or that I need on my shelf.

Review: Shopaholic Ties the Knot

This review contains spoilers.

Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series is a real guilty pleasure for me. Much like the consumer goods its protagonist Becky Bloomwood is always buying, they offer wish-fulfilling instant gratification that also feels a bit gross, long-term. In this, the third novel in the series, Becky gets engaged to her hunky rich boyfriend Luke and starts planning a wedding. But she soon finds she has to choose between a lavish New York wedding organised by Luke’s snooty and emotionally uninvolved mother Eleanor, or a homespun one at her parents’ house in English suburbia.

The solution combines the logic of capitalism with the logic of romantic comedy: she has not one but two weddings, and helps Eleanor and Luke rebuild their strained relationship along the way, thereby neatly pacifying both families and reconciling two apparently competing value systems: the one that says “family comes first” and the one that says “all your dreams can come true!” Although this reconciliation is really just a triumph for capitalism, which, as we know, is flexible enough to consume everything, even ideas.

Of course it’s ridiculous to talk about a Kinsella novel in this way, because ultimately they are the fast fashion of literature, meant for reading and discarding, no brain engagement needed, and they are very successful at that! But I wouldn’t want them to be the only things I read.

2019: A Year in Reading

My 10 favourite books of 2019

(none of them published in 2019. sorry.)

  1.  My Year of Meats – Ruth Ozeki (1998). This tale of meat production and motherhood (yes) is sensitive, empathetic and inclusive right up to its last five pages, when it takes a hard left into “domestic abuse is ok so long as Tru Luv”. Which is a shame. But I loved Jane and Akiko’s stories so much: the grace Ozeki affords her flawed and broken characters is beautiful and heartbreaking. (I think this might be the first year I’ve ranked a litfic novel first in one of these lists!)
  2. The Gate to Women’s Country – Sheri S. Tepper (1988). OK, this is another one where I had to overlook Teh Problematic to enjoy it. I was fully prepared to hate this SF novel, which depicts a post-apocalyptic society of women who’ve exiled their men to garrisons to spend their aggression on each other, for its explicit pathologisation of queerness and its gender essentialism. But, despite those very real problems, it turns into something complex and dark and morally ambiguous by its close, asking that old question, “what price utopia?”
  3. Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986). This classic graphic novel features a dysfunctional group of superhero vigilantes, each of them struggling with their own particular problems. It’s dark and violent and its treatment of women is pretty questionable, but I found its exploration of what happens when different moral universes clash compelling and original.
  4. Raven Stratagem – Yoon Ha Lee (2017). I found this second novel in Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy much more accessible than its predecessor Ninefox Gambit. It’s set in a world that is uncompromisingly bleak and violent, a dystopia that uses torture to enforce a consensus reality, a society that is built on constantly redrawing the boundaries of “citizen” and “heretic” in order to stay functional. Yet it presents a kind of radical hope in its characters, who are equally uncompromising in their quest to create something that is at least marginally better.
  5. The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern (2011). Ah, this was just nice, this tale of a travelling circus and the battling magicians who maintain it. I tend to think that it wastes the radical potential of its circus imagery a little bit, but its glamour and mystery were enough on their own to draw me into its world.
  6. New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2017). I just finished this and of course it was great. A century and a bit into the future, the melting ice caps have flooded downtown New York, but that hasn’t stopped people living there, in waterproofed skyscrapers and dangerously unstable brownstones. This is the tale of a co-op running the MetLife Building, now converted into residential accommodation, and their bid to fight off the forces of capital that have devastated much of the world without checking their stride.
  7. Woman and Nature – Susan Griffin (1978). What a strange book this is! A work of second-wave feminism that explores how the patriarchy treats women and the natural world (anything, basically, that isn’t a man or made by one), its pitting of the voice of male rationality against that of the exploited world makes it more like a poem than an argument, a call to emotion over reason – which is very much the point.
  8. The Children’s Book – A.S. Byatt (2009). What is it like, being the child of a children’s author? To have your existence storified, commodified for an adoring public? That’s one of the questions Byatt asks in The Children’s Book, which is in a wider sense about our own conceptions of childhood, and how those conceptions are based chiefly on nostalgia.
  9. A Song for Arbonne – Guy Gavriel Kay (1992). I really liked Kay’s treatment of courtly love in this fantasy tale based on medieval Provence: his recognition that courtly love was highly performative, founded more in politics than romance, and that it had little to do with actual sexual or romantic freedom for women. This was one of those rare fantasy novels where all the characters come alive, balancing their own personal values with the demands of society and stability.
  10. The Reading Cure – Laura Freeman (2018). Laura Freeman’s memoir recounts how fictional feasts supported her recovery from anorexia. It made me cry. Enough said.

…and some spreadsheet fun!

  • I read 99 books in 2019, by some margin the most I’ve read in any year since 2014.
  • The longest book I read was Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, sprawling and overambitious and ostentatious and kind of brilliant; the shortest was Zadie Smith’s kind-of forgettable Embassy of Cambodia. Overall I read 35,803 pages this year – quite a lot more than last year’s 30,048.
  • The oldest book I read was, huh, The Hobbit, first published in 1937. The average age of the books I read this year was just 14 (considerably down from last year’s 44). Hmm.
  • Genre: just 31% of my reading this year was fantasy, down from 36% last year. 26% was science fiction, up from 21% last year. 19% was non-fiction, up from 12% last year; 15% was litfic, down from 17% last year. At this level of granularity genre definition gets a bit hairsplitty; but I’ve recorded 6% of my reading as “contemporary”, plus one horror book (Ghostly, a collection of ghost stories edited by Audrey Niffenegger) and one manga (Love Is War volume 1, by Ake Akasaka).
  • 11% of my reading was re-reads, up from last year’s 9%.
  • 48% of the books I read this year were by women, down from last year’s 53%.
  • 24% of the books I read this year were by authors of colour, the same as last year.
  • 5% of the books I read this year were queer authors, with the disclaimer that this information isn’t always publicly available.