Top Ten Books I Recommend Most Often

  1. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel. Station Eleven is SF for book club readers (which sounds a good deal less positive than I meant it to). It’s an inoffensive and quietly touching book, and its focus is on people not setting.
  2. Sabriel – Garth Nix. I have had something of an awakening to just how good the Old Kingdom books actually are in recent years: strongly-characterised heroines who are moral but strong, subtle sex positivity, really solid worldbuilding and a sarcastic cat. In a publishing scene awash with high fantasy that can often barely summon up a female character not defined by romantic relationships, these are a breath of fresh air and I’m so grateful to have grown up with them.
  3. Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett. Does this really need saying? Pratchett’s books are an Old Favourite: humane and funny and so lovely to return to like a comfort blanket and I’ve met very few people who don’t like them.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Everyone should read this. Everyone. Firstly because it’s nothing like popular culture tells you it is. And secondly because it is a warning about the perils of forgetting the dispossessed and the downtrodden, the terrible power of the disenfranchised.
  5. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. I don’t recommend this as often nowadays, but I used to plug it to absolutely anyone who would listen. I still think the first three books are astonishing, understated, fresh pieces of epic fantasy; my love for them is just a little tarred by the bloat of, especially, Wolves of the Calla and The Dark Tower.
  6. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I have a special place in my heart for Our Mutual Friend, and I always recommend it to people asking about Dickens. This is probably a bad idea, since it’s a sprawling, dense novel which I imagine turns a lot of people off. But I can’t help it: it is my fave.
  7. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. I do hesitate to recommend this sometimes: I think it’s a book that only certain people will like. But if I think you are certain people? Then I will recommend the heck out of it.
  8. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Yes: it is an academic tome. Yes: it was first published thirty years ago and is extremely very hectoring and feminist-ragey. But I maintain that absolutely saved my life in university and every English student should read it and it is totally badass and awesome.
  9. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. I read this only quite recently and have therefore had limited time to recommend it; but it is a breath of goodwill and hope in a post-Brexit, terror-scarred, shifting-to-the-right world.
  10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. A book whose relentless optimism about the power of community bears down on the horror of German-occupied Guernsey and flattens it. Just universally agreeable.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Gracekeepers

the-gracekeepersThe Gracekeepers is another circus book; one that comes as something of a disappointment after the glorious Gothickry of Nights at the Circus, which I reviewed on Friday. Set (we assume) in a post-climate change future in which the seas have risen to swallow most of the land, the novel follows two women, Callanish and North, as they navigate a society stratified into those rich enough to live on what little land remains (the landlockers, who control food supplies and thus have all the power) and the vast majority of humanity who scrabble out a living of sorts from the sea (the damplings, allowed to moor up to land only when the landlockers find it convenient).

North is the bear-girl of a travelling circus whose ringmaster Red Gold wants her to marry his son Ainsel to ensure that his descendants have a place on the land once more; little realising that she’s pregnant, and not with Ainsel’s child either. North is reluctant to dissuade him of the notion, knowing that if she does so he will kick her off the boat and she will lose her beloved bear. Much of the novel’s not-inconsiderable tension is driven by this predicament: will North and Ainsel ever manage to stand up to Red Gold? Will North’s child come before they get a chance?

As for Callanish, she is a gracekeeper: she lays those who have died at sea to rest in her graceyard at the equator, living a lonely life on a tiny buoy just big enough to hold her one-room hut. She’s chosen this self-imposed exile after something terrible she did in her life as a landlocker, and unravelling this (ultimately quite underwhelming) mystery is the other driver of the plot.

OK. So, as a circus story, The Gracekeepers is a novel that’s thinking about queerness, albeit in a way that feels rather simplistic after Nights at the Circus. (It may not be quite fair to compare the two, but I can’t help it.) It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say that Callanish and North, after a chance meeting at the beginning of the book, fall in love and spend the rest of the novel being vaguely driven together again; their eventual reunion is a chance for both of them to carve out a new space between land and sea, away from the conformist pressures of heteronormativity; it’s a way to mark out a new kind of life and escape the social order.

And it’s nice, yes, that the book doesn’t make much of a fanfare about their gender, doesn’t seek to label them or their relationship. It is, on the whole, a nice book, which is something dystopia rarely manages.

But – I felt that its gestures towards queering (as well as Callanish and North’s relationship, Logan also makes much of the androgynous gender play of the circus performers) weren’t really bolstered by any fierce revolutionary sentiment. The worldbuilding of The Gracekeepers is not scrupulous or necessarily very consistent (think Station Eleven rather than The Hunger Games), which can work for some narratives, but here it just felt as if it needed a better connection with political and social realities to achieve its project. The ending feels as if it’s trying to reach a metaphorical conclusion, an ideological resolution as well as a narrative one, that isn’t made explicit enough in the story. Its SFF trappings, ultimately, feel wasted and unnecessary and simply wrong for this kind of book.

I enjoyed reading it, and there are many good things about it. I just feel, in the end, that it’s a little inessential; that it missed its purpose in life.

Review: Nights at the Circus

nights-at-the-circusNights at the Circus (1984) turned out to be a wondrously unexpected confection of high Gothic camp and sly cultural criticism.

I say unexpected; in actual fact I had no idea quite what to expect going into the book. Angela Carter is famous – in some cases notorious – for her bloody, dark Gothic fairy tale retellings, awash with trenchant second-wave feminism. Never having read any of her work (and having neglected to read the back of the book before I started it), I was expecting a collection of short stories; what I got was a novel.

Nights at the Circus, then, follows Fevvers, an aerialiste travelling Europe with a circus in 1899, the last months of the nineteenth century. She’s something of an international star, due to the pair of enormous technicolour wings she sports on her back. Are they real, or false? Is she fact or fiction? Jack Walser, an American journalist, tries to find out: first by interviewing her, and then by joining the circus and following her across Europe, even to the frozen wastes of Siberia.

Like all good Gothic novels, it’s a book engaged in pushing at the limitations of narrative, which is also where Carter’s feminism – or, rather, her radicalism – comes in.

A key part of this pushing, it seems to me, is the book’s treatment of time. It’s no accident that Nights at the Circus is set right on the boundary between one century and the next: a liminal space, a pause where the nineteenth century runs out of steam and the twentieth has yet to gear up; a place of potential, and thus of uncertainty.

In the first section of the novel, in which Walser interviews Fevvers and her ever-present companion Lizzie, and is treated to an extended recitation of her increasingly colourful and unlikely life story, he hears Big Ben strike midnight. And then again. And again. Walser is a rational being, and he cannot quite fit this into his head: is it a trick? A mistake? Is he hallucinating? The uncertainty this creates – and, deftly, Carter manages to maintain it as uncertainty, never quite making the women’s power over time explicit – reverberates through the book, setting up interference patterns with its ostensibly realist mode, leaving it constantly in an, as it were, startled destabilisation that never exactly topples into something surer.

Because, of course, Nights at the Circus is pastiching the classic Victorian novel, with its three-book structure, its dense run-on syntax, the cynical and would-be objective observer (Walser) with whom the story begins; which, again, makes it all the more effective when moments of hallucinatory magic realism creep in; as when, late in the novel, the train carrying the circus through Siberia crashes in the wilderness, and Fevvers looks on the carriage that once held the tigers:

[blockquote] …the tigers were all gone into the mirrors. How to describe it. The “wagon salon” lay on its side, ripped open like the wrappings of a Christmas toy by an impatient child, and, of those lovely creatures, not a trace of blood or sinew, nothing. Only pile upon pile of broken shards of mirror…On one broken fragment of mirror, a paw with the claws out; on another, a snarl. When I picked up a section of flank, the glass burned my fingers and I dropped it. [blockquote]

Is this metaphor or truth? Hallucination or magic? The text is never allowed to retain the objectivity of Victorian narrative, and never allowed to stabilise into anything else, either. The Victorian novel is, in fact, queered: to create that carnivalesque circus-space which, matter-of-factly, defies normativity of all kinds. There is space in the circus for strong and ambiguous female relationships like Lizzie and Fevvers’; for unambivalently queer relationships like that between the female tiger-tamer and Mignon, a girl picked up on the streets of St Petersburg with a history of abuse at the hands of men; for humankind’s close cousins, the chimpanzees, to come into their own as intelligent and independent beings. This space, of course, is space denied to these groups by the traditional Victorian narrative.

It is a glorious text; but I confess to being disappointed by its closing third, which sees the circus gradually scattered by the vastness of Siberia, Fevvers herself fading from brash and defiant technicolour to more muted shades of lostness. I think there is a reading here, perhaps, that sees the trappings of civilisation, and thus the very need for such queering, stripped away by the wilderness at Russia’s heart: Walser ends up among a shamanic tribe who have no sense of historic time (here again the theme of the tyranny of history), briefly made amnesiac from the crash, so that his links to white male civilisation are shorn away, and only that experience makes him worthy to be (inevitably but still disappointingly) paired off with Fevvers. And, in a side-plot, the Siberian wasteland becomes a site for queer revolution, as female prisoners in a nightmarish pantechnicon fall in love with their female guards and rise up against their tyrant jailer. The point being, I think, that the frozen wastes outside civilisation crumble old assumptions about civilisation away, generating a new, and most importantly stable, space for the dispossessed and the downtrodden that is not fetishised and contingent as the circus necessarily is.

And yet: I missed the glorious and defiant Fevvers of the first half of the book; and I also feel uneasy about the superstitious portrayal of the Russian tribe that helps Walser to his epiphany. They exist without context in a novel in which everything else is complicated, and that feels like a lazy and an exploitative choice.

It’s not a perfect book, then; but the Gothic is not a genre of perfection; precisely the opposite, in fact. The Gothic creates gaps in our orders of signification; and here, fairly unusually, those gaps are serving a political purpose as well as a structural one. If Nights at the Circus isn’t perfect, it is at least fascinating and full of ambivalence, and my, will I be keeping an eye out for more of Carter’s work.

Top Ten Books on My TBR

  1. The King – Kader Abdolah. This seems to be a novel about historical Persia – I borrowed it from the library as part of my ongoing effort to read more (or, indeed, any) books by POCs. It sounds like it could be either fascinating or extremely dull.
  2. A Gathering of Shadows – V.E. Schwab. Another library book and the sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, which I rather liked. I’ve seen some slightly iffy things recently about Schwab’s conduct on social media, though, so my enjoyment might be coloured by that.
  3. Steampunk Fairy Tales. A work colleague gave me this because, in her words, “I know you like fairy tales and I know you like steampunk”. And, yes, that’s a pretty perfect combination. #excited
  4. A Street Cat Named Bob – James Bowen. A present from the Circumlocutor’s mother. Alongside fairy tales and steampunk, cats are one of the best things you can ever expect to find in a book.
  5. The House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard. Part of my enormous Nine Worlds haul, this sort-of urban fantasy is also part of my diverse reading project and has been on my radar for ages. It sounds awesome and I just cannot wait to start.
  6. The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor. Another Nine Worlds book and another diverse read. I read Lagoon earlier in the year and enjoyed it rather a lot. I’ve heard this is a prequel, though, so I’m slightly worried I might be missing out on other bits of story when I read it.
  7. Deja Vu – Ian Hocking. I got this free in my Nine Worlds goody bag and it looks like it could be mildly interesting? It sounds like it might be a vaguely cyberpunk-y SF thriller – I’m imagining a cross between Neuromancer and Channel 4’s Humans, though that may have something to do with the cover.
  8.  The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett. I got this at the wedding of some TolkSoc friends I went to over the summer where they gave out second-hand books as wedding favours (how lovely an idea is that?). A story apparently about the Queen becoming a bookworm, it sounds like it will be a fun read with heart.
  9. The City’s Son – Tom Pollock. Yes, OK, another Nine Worlds purchase. I actually accidentally bought the second in this series a while back thinking it was something else and figured that since I was already saddled with it I might as well read the series in the right order. Serendipitously, it looks like it might be a rather enjoyable urban fantasy.
  10. The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley. I promise, this is my last Nine Worlds purchase, as well as possibly the one I’m looking forward to most. Hurley became one of my favourites when I read God’s War earlier in the year and it was awesome and powerful and gutsy and sure. And, yay feminism!

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Owl Service

owl_serviceAlan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967) is a classic of young adult literature, published before YA was really a thing. I was, apparently, supposed to have read it for my Children’s Literature course in my last year of university (was that really almost two years ago now?), despite the reading list saying “all texts below this point are optional”. I didn’t read it because I took this pronouncement at face value.

I recently read the first volume of The Sandman, which was also on that list. And while I very much wish I had read The Sandman two years ago when all the considerable resources of the Bodleian Library were at my disposal to get my hands on the next few volumes, I can’t say my life has been diminished because of not reading The Owl Service before now.

It’s a retelling, sort of, of one of the blood-soaked Mabinogions choicer stories: that of Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers to be the unlucky bride of a man who was unable to find a wife any other way. Inevitably, Blodeuwedd betrayed her husband with another man; her lover murdered her husband, and she was transformed into an owl.

So our story begins with another trio, this one of teenagers, who find themselves reenacting the whole terrible myth. Alison and her stepbrother Roger are staying in a Welsh valley, in a house Alison has inherited from her English father. Gwyn is the Welsh son of the house’s cook. When Alison hears mysterious scratchings in her ceiling, the three discover an old dinner service in the attic, patterned with owls; Alison quickly becomes obsessed, and various strange things happen throughout the house.

I think one of the reasons I couldn’t really engage with The Owl Service, despite its promising premise, was personal: I like my magic Gothic and hypnotic and ostentatious, concealing and revealing all at once, and there’s not much chance of that in Garner’s sparse realist prose.

Another reason, though, is that it feels very much like an Issues Book: which is to say, one of those books you are saddled with at school that teaches you about something Important under a thin disguise of story. The Owl Service is about class, and how the cultural appropriation of Welshness by the English and the gradual pricing out of Welsh tenants from Welsh lands is a Bad Thing, and, yes, the revolutionary socialist in my heart is very happy to agree with Garner on these subjects but it all seems to be wearing a slight veneer of didactic obviousness.

Which sort of brings me to the third reason, which is that although I’m fairly sure there are other things going on here I just can’t put my finger on what they are. In truth, The Owl Service is about more than class; it has to be, because the Mabinogion myth is not really a myth about class. In fact, it’s the theme of social and generational entrapment that seems to wind its way through the novel. The three parties of the Blodeuwedd myth are trapped from the moment Blodeuwedd is created (what, the book seems to ask, can you expect but bitterness when a woman is literally created for a man, without her say so?) and that entrapment perpetuates in a thousand ways: in the endless reenactment of the myth by the valley’s inhabitants, down the generations; in the locking away of the owl service to try to block Blodeuwedd’s power from returning; in Alison’s inability to escape the power of her stepmother; in Gwyn’s entrapment in the realities of poverty and English disdain for Welshness; in everyone’s inability to escape the roles dictated to them by their social contexts. If anything, The Owl Service feels intensely claustrophobic, as tensions rise in the valley; that terse prose binds us to the reality of events, unable to escape into fancy or metaphor. It’s quite a horrific novel, in its way.

And so we never quite see anything beyond this complex network of social pressures. The ending offers some hope of escape – but we leave the trio right on the ambivalent edge of escape, forever on the boundary into something else and never exactly reaching it; always, potentially, cycling back into the trap.

If it isn’t already obvious, I don’t have a thesis for this review. I don’t really know what to take from The Owl Service, though I think my respect for it has grown since I’ve been thinking about it. For someone, it’s likely a hugely powerful novel; and though I can see that potential, I’m not that someone.

TL;DR: your mileage may vary.

Film Review: Star Trek Beyond

This review contains spoilers.

The third film in the Star Trek reboot series, cryptically titled Beyond, sees Kirk and the gang three years into their storied five-year mission in various states of motivation and employee engagement. Arriving at the space station Yorktown (a rather cool transparent bubble filled with skyscrapers), they’re alerted to a distress call: a captain speeding from an uncharted nebula claims that she’s lost her crew on a planet within. The Enterprise is despatched on a rescue mission which quickly turns out to be a trap as the film’s Big Bad, Krall, causes the ship to crash into the planet and kidnaps the crew so he can suck the life from them and thereby extend his own life. After many shenanigans, it turns out that Krall is a veteran struggling with the fact that the Federation has embraced those it used to fight; he plans to detonate a bioweapon in Yorktown to, um, kill everyone and sow discord. Can the plucky crew of the Enterprise stop him in time?

None of this, of course, makes much sense, but then it is not really the job of a Hollywood Space Blockbuster to make sense. The job of the Hollywood Space Blockbuster is to blow things up.

Actually, I think one of the key problems with Beyond is a clash between theme and genre. Thematically, it wants to be a story about the importance of unity, of diversity and inclusion. Generically, though, it can’t get away from the fact that it is a Hollywood Space Blockbuster, and needs to make money.

The effect of this is that the Hollywood Space Blockbuster’s need to blow things up and make everything bigger and bolder and louder sort of undermines the film’s more utopian gestures. Beyond‘s plot is quite invested in individual heroism: its denouement (following a series of ever more dramatic climaxes, which eventually get exhausting and irritating rather than tense and exciting) sees Kirk and Krall wrestling hand to hand over Krall’s bioweapon, with Kirk heroically sacrificing himself (only not really) to save everyone on the space station. What the film ignores, of course, is that in the kind of cooperative organisation Starfleet is supposed to be this scenario should never arise. The fact that the day has to be saved by dangerous heroics goes to show that Starfleet is an incredibly dysfunctional organisation – which is exactly opposite to the film’s intention.

I also want to talk about another incident in the film which prioritises individual heroism over cooperative and responsible working, and which also illustrates something far more insidious about Beyond; namely that, if you look closely, it’s a film not about unity but about assimilation. During a moment of mild peril when the male officers of the Enterprise are trying to rescue the rest of the crew from Krall’s clutches, Spock dashes off to rescue his ex-girlfriend Uhura, with Kirk’s permission. Firstly, this is just a gross failure of a Starfleet officer to do his job; Uhura is a Starfleet officer too, and should be relied upon to do her own job in a dangerous situation without someone rushing in romantically to help her like she’s a clueless newbie. (She seems to be managing perfectly well without Spock’s help.)

Secondly, this moment is symptomatic of the film’s flattening of difference. Spock is, canonically, a creature of logic. And logic in this situation says that the best way of getting everyone safely out of Krall’s camp is for everyone on the crew to do what they do best. Again: Uhura is a Starfleet officer, and not a new one. She can look after herself just as well as her male colleagues. (Spock is, in fact, guilty of workplace discrimination.) But in this film, Spock’s logical worldview (which is different from the worldview of most Western audiences) is softened to no more than an endearing quirk. We can’t cope with difference, you see. It has to be flattened out, erased, whitewashed.

The core of this issue of assimilation lies, ultimately, with the film’s racial politics, which are at best misguided and at worst actually racist. As I see it, we have two main “alien”-coded characters, both external to the Enterprise‘s crew: Jayla, a spiky castaway hiding out in an old Federation spaceship, played by Algerian-French actor Sofia Boutella; and Krall, the veteran who looks alien but isn’t, played by Idris Elba.

Jayla’s English is imperfect (and her vocabulary strangely inconsistent: she knows what “engineering” is but calls the speaker on her radio a “little mouth”), and the music accompanying her entrance is backed by African-style drumming. She’s coded, in other words, as “other”; specifically, as racialised non-Western. And yet: we never hear her speaking in her own language; she gives up her ship to the officers from the Enterprise with no more than token demurral, despite her spiky exterior; in fact, her one contribution to the crew’s mission is her very American rock music, which is used, in a sequence impossible not to read symbolically, to blow up Krall’s flock of drones. Already associated with Federation (which is to say, American) values through her music and the fact that she inhabits a crumbling Federation ship, her example of the non-threatening (because already part-assimilated) other is a deliberate contrast with Krall’s example. Krall, the film’s only original black character (I don’t think we can give Beyond‘s creators any credit for Uhura, who was written fifty years ago by Gene Roddenberry and whose role in this film in any case amounts to little more than being shocked and sad), has become literally inhuman through preying on the Federation – immensely problematic given the long history of the dehumanisation of people of colour. Desperately disenfranchised, as are so many black Americans even today, and conceivably suffering from PTSD, he is used as an example of how not to do assimilation. His worldview is perhaps the most radically different of all the film’s supposedly diverse characters’: he rejects the values of the Federation because they seem wrong to him.

What does the film do with the angry disenfranchised in this Federation that works always for unity? Work out a way around? Try to accommodate?

Nope, it flings him into the outer darkness.

Beyond is a film that talks at great length about unity, but it isn’t confident enough in its thesis or in its audience ever really to confront what that might mean in a properly multicultural universe; whether that’s by having its science fictional heroes behave like they’re in a functional workplace team, or by including diverse worldviews within that team and allowing them to coexist. In other words, it’s boring, it’s conventional, and it fails even as a disposable summer blockbuster.

Top Ten Series I’d Like to Start but Haven’t Yet

  1. Southern Reach – Jeff VanderMeer. A series that was very talked-about a couple of years ago (it featured in the 2015 Tournament of Books) and sounds simultaneously terrifying and intelligent. From what I can tell, it’s about a mysterious jungle area that springs up somewhere in Florida, and the gradual deterioration of the teams that go in to investigate it.
  2. Dominion of the Fallen – Aliette de Bodard. This is slightly cheating given that the first book, The House of Shattered Wings, is already on my TBR; but that title is a draw all on its own.
  3. The Parasol Protectorate – Gail Carriger. Steampunk!
  4. Sookie Stackhouse – Charlaine Harris. The Sookie Stackhouse series is one of those cult series that seems to have become something of a cultural touchstone for certain online communities. It’s a series of vampire books revolving around the troubles of the eponymous Sookie, and it sounds like it could be fun.
  5. The Orphan’s Tales – Catherynne Valente. I will read anything by Valente; she is perhaps my only “auto-buy” author at the moment. To be honest? I would have read them without knowing anything about them.
  6. Dune – Frank Herbert. One of the series I keep meaning to start without ever working up the impetus to do so; I think their very canonicity puts me off – what if they’re old-fashioned, irritating, a chore? But they’re classics, and I’d like to get round to them someday.
  7. Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin. See above. I have so many doubts, but I feel like I shouldn’t miss them.
  8. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s famously dismissive about SF as a genre, which is irritating, because, um, SF is exactly (and fairly exclusively) what she writes. The Oryx and Crake series seems right up my alley, anyway: SF that thinks. It might be too dystopic for me. We’ll see.
  9. Xenogenesis – Octavia Butler. I’ve heard good things about Butler, and I’ve never read any of her work. Again, her SF sounds really interesting, and from what I’ve heard does some fairly radical thinking about gender and sexuality.
  10. Terra Ignota – Ada Palmer. The second book in the duology is coming out fairly soon, I think? Anyway, it looks like a utopian story, timed for the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. I’ve read mixed reviews, but it sounds different enough that I’m curious about it.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)