Top Ten Topics that Will Make Me Read a Book

  1. Books. If your novel is about books? Or libraries? I WILL BUY IT.
  2. Postmodernism. I wrote about some problems with postmodernism in my review of The End of Mr. Y on Monday. I hold by those problems. I know it’s gimmicky, and pretty much imaginatively bankrupt by now. But I will still lap up anything that plays with textual form.
  3. Academia. OK, yes, I am still homesick for my university days, and I’m just drawn to the idea of living a life where all you have to do is read and write and think and theorise.
  4. Steampunk. This is a fairly new one – I’m on a bit of a steampunk kick at the moment, so anything that handles the aesthetic well works for me.
  5. Gothickry. I love big, sprawling, hypnotic novels full of melodrama; imperfect, raggedy around the edges, and all the more wonderful for that.
  6. Cats. I am moderately likely to read any book which prominently features cats. I live in rented accommodation; I have feline withdrawal.
  7. Faerieland/fairy tales. But, like, fairy tales with teeth. Fairy tales which aren’t just retold but reimagined; fairy tales which rage against the world that created them.
  8. Food. Especially chocolate. Or baking. Mmmmm.
  9. London. Or versions of London: New Crobuzon, Ankh-Morpork, Mandelion. Anything that features the city as a character, rambling and craggy and alive.
  10. Transient lifestyles. I’m fascinated by tales of people who live on spaceships (The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet); trains become homes (Railsea); long sea voyages. How do you adapt to the small space you have? What’s it like seeing a different place every time you wake up?

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

Review: The End of Mr. Y

the-end-of-mr-yThe heroine of The End of Mr. Y is a reclusive, cynical and slightly precocious female PhD student whose idea of a good time is curling up for the day with a good book.

In other words, the chances of my not enjoying this novel were very small indeed.

Ariel Manto, the aforesaid recluse, stops in at a second-hand bookshop one wintry afternoon, and finds an extremely rare copy (as in, only-one-copy-exists-in-a-sealed-German-bank-vault rare) of an obscure novel by an almost-forgotten Victorian author: The End of Mr. Y, by Thomas E. Lumas. She buys it for a fraction of its worth, and on reading it discovers that it contains a homeopathic formula which allows the drinker to access a psychic realm called the Troposphere: a realm of metaphors representing humanity’s collective unconscious, from where, Ariel finds, you can slip into people’s minds and read their memories. The Troposphere is addictive: once you’ve visited, you have to keep going back. But it’s also dangerous: because distance equals time there; travel too far, and your body might have starved to death by the time you return. And there are those who would weaponise the Troposphere, making all of humanity potentially vulnerable. Can Ariel stop them before it’s too late?

If you’re wondering: yes, it does occasionally read like an unholy mashup of The Matrix and The Da Vinci Code.

But it’s also doing some pretty hefty theoretical thinking of its own. Key to Ariel’s, and the novel’s, worldview is that old gaping void between signifier and signified: the theory, invoked by the dread names of Heidegger and Derrida, that in our haunted postmodern times the layer of symbol and story and language that makes up our cultural experience has become only self-referential; that there is no “real” referent at all, only an endless cycle of metaphor, of simulacra.

I mean, all vomited out like that it sounds pretty indigestible, but Thomas provides us with a number of variations on the theme throughout the novel. Such as:

  • Ariel’s PhD is in the language and form of thought experiments – which are, of course, stories to illustrate untestable hypotheses. Unlike scientific experiments, thought experiments never manage to reach any kind of objective “truth” – they are there to render mathematical calculations (which are themselves only symbols – but of what?) comprehensible.

  • Ariel herself is a profoundly unreliable narrator. She tells us – and herself – stories about her life that narrate away what is obviously a profound loneliness – but we never have real, direct access to her true experience, partly because it doesn’t exist. Ariel is no more than a collection of words on tree pulp. Trying to work out her “true” experience is a pointless task.

  • Sex is important to the fabric of this novel: Ariel engages in a series of destructive sexual relationships with older men; and finds, as I read it, that contra Lacan, no matter how much violence is visited upon her, she cannot break through the Symbolic to the Real, because for her there is no Real.

(A note, briefly, on Thomas’ use of kink: though I think it’s reasonably clear here that the self-destructive nature of Ariel’s relationships stems not from the fact of transgressive sex itself but from the lack of connection she finds in them, the novel does steer dangerously close to using kink as a shorthand for “unhealthy”.)

In other words, The End of Mr. Y is a Postmodern Novel.

It’s funny: though I love a good Postmodern Novel, when I write about them I often find myself reduced to writing lists of features like the one above, spottings of things that are mildly interesting in themselves but don’t really amount to a properly solid reading of the novel. Partly, I’m sure, this is a failure of my own critical method: I’m a year out of university now and it’s fairly hard to keep those skills fresh outside of an academic environment. But, partly, I wonder if postmodernism hasn’t run out of things to say.

I can’t help but think of Richard Cooper’s recent review in Strange Horizons of the Netflix show Stranger Things. In it, Cooper argues that cultural production in the twenty-first century has been entirely dominated by reboots and reworkings, with very little in the way of creating new icons for our age; reading between the lines (and also alongside an Adam Roberts review of Aurororama in his review collection Sibilant Fricative), he seems to be suggesting that we’ve reached a kind of post-historic era, in which we’re no longer capable of creating heroes or heroines who can adequately represent our experience. The general thrust of Cooper’s argument feels too pessimistic to me, and I certainly think he gives J.K. Rowling short shrift (as well as ignoring the works of Terry Pratchett – most of which are, admittedly, not really of the twenty-first century), but it’s hard, in the face of BBC schedules which are entirely made up of Agatha Christie remakes and new series of Poldark, of the onslaught of Marvel movies and fairy-tale retellings from the film studios, not to concede that he has a point. The postmodern tools of irony and metatext (what does a remake do but return us, endlessly, to a receding series of “originals”, simulacrum upon simulacrum?) have become, not only mainstream, but the mainstream techniques for telling stories; we seem as a (Western) culture to have lost our faith in story’s ability to describe lived experience in ways that are new and fresh, and have fallen back on deconstruction, on pointing out hipsterishly that, like, stories are not like life.

But we are Homo narrativus, the storytelling ape: and though deconstructing familiar narratives, revealing the biases that lie behind them, can be valuable and necessary work, it needs to be accompanied by reconstruction: the creation of new stories, the making of new meanings.

Back, then, to The End of Mr. Y. To me, the saving grace of this novel is this: it allows us to read the absence of an ultimate referent in two ways. First, the nihilistic reading, the ironic reading: everything is, finally, meaningless, and there is no way adequately to represent anything, and no reason to try. The end of art. Secondly, however, a reading that the novel suggests without quite confirming: if all that we can access is story and symbol, does that not give us, as the storytelling ape, enormous power? We only need to tell a new story, and the world is changed. We tell a story, and suddenly a cat can be alive and dead at one and the same time. We tell a story, and suddenly connection is possible, where once it seemed as far away as the end of the universe. We tell a story, and we find our Eden.

Firefly Review: Heart of Gold

This review contains spoilers.

Heart of Gold is the penultimate episode of Firefly, and it’s probably the one that deals most explicitly with issues of disenfranchisement and oppression (at least, as we recognise it in our society). Nandi, an old companion friend of Inara’s who now runs a brothel on an outer planet, requests the crew of the Serenity‘s help, promising a fee if they do so: a local bigwig is laying claim to the unborn baby of one of her prostitutes, and he’s not above using force to take it from her. Mal and the gang are needed essentially to blow seven hells out of him and his cronies.

It’s an episode, then, that’s primarily foregrounding misogyny as a form of marginalisation. The issue with the bigwig, as I read it at any rate, is not really that he wants the child; it’s that he doesn’t care about its mother, who he’d much rather see as a baby-making machine, an object, than a person who wants to keep the child. It’s about commodification: prostitutes as means to an end (where the end is, obviously, male pleasure) rather than as people who have chosen a particular line of work for pretty much the same reasons as anyone else chooses any other line of work (which is how the crew of the Serenity, by and large, see Nandi and her found family). The episode is about defending the kind of communities I’ve discussed in relation to Firefly before: communities carved out in defiance of the law of unregulated capitalism, in which help is shared rather than bought (Mal chooses to waive the fee for defending the prostitutes) and people support each other as people rather than as commodities.

But whereas earlier episodes on this theme (particularly The Message) made this kind of community triumphant, what the final stories of the series seem to play up particularly is the fragility of these alternative societies: they win a little at a huge price. The child is saved and the bigwig defeated; but Nandi (alongside a couple of unnamed prostitutes) is killed and Inara leaves the ship.

It is a particularly downbeat episode, and not among my favourites; but thematically it’s mildly interesting in the light of the final Firefly episode and the film Serenity. For which, reviews to come!

Top Ten Books I Read Before I Was a Blogger

  1. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m currently re-reading this, and I think one of the things I love about it is how autumnal it is: that gentle, gorgeous sadness.
  2. Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. Or, all the Discworld books. Going Postal is one of my favourites, though: I’m fascinated by showmen, and if Moist is anything he’s a showman.
  3. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. Apocalyptic and vast, a story of truths half-told, of men in black and way stations and mutants under mountains: in many ways this is just perfect fantasy. I’ve never read anything like it since.
  4. Sabriel – Garth Nix. I read and re-read this, and its sequels Lirael and Abhorsen, endlessly. It’s got an awesome heroine, a sarcastic cat, a vast and wonderful library (in Lirael), and an invented world with a lot of depth.
  5. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, which I read when I was in school: I fell in love with its sprawling sentimentality.
  6. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. Another novel that features libraries: its main characters track down Dracula through a paper trail of pamphlets and books from across time. It made me want to go to university; not that I hadn’t wanted to go before, but this made me want it concretely.
  7. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams. Dirk Gently is one of the great comic creations of English literature: irreverent, off-beat and ironical.
  8. Persuasion – Jane Austen. Another wonderfully autumnal novel: I read it for my A-level course, and it was just so rewarding to study.
  9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling. This was the first Harry Potter book I read (don’t ask) and I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since. I think it strikes a great balance between worldbuilding and plot, a balance that the later books don’t ever really achieve.
  10. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman. I just really, really loved the idea of daemons, and the fact that it was a huge, dense book to get stuck into. Reading it back now, it’s also full of quite complex ideas about science and metaphysics and philosophy.

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

Review: Truthwitch

truthwitch-susan-dennardSusan Dennard’s Truthwitch is something of a curious beast.

It’s set in a fairly typical cod-medieval fantasyland: the Witchlands, made up of a number of rival kingdoms on the verge of war as a twenty-year truce comes to an end.

What makes it stand out (a little; I’ve no wish to over-egg it) is its central characters, Safiya and Iseult; both female, and best friends to boot, in a genre that traditionally values neither femininity nor platonic female friendship. Safiya is a rare Truthwitch, with the ability to see truth from lies; essentially, the novel concerns the shenanigans the various powers of the Witchlands go through in order to control her in the race to get the upper hand in the impending war. Refreshingly, Dennard doesn’t go for the endless political minutiae of high fantasy; hers is a much closer focus, on Safiya and Iseult’s relationship and Safiya’s journey from powerlessness to self-determination.

This is a novel, then, that is basically aware of the toll that traditional high fantasy political machination takes on minorities. Safiya begins the novel about to be married off, all unknowing, to the revolting Emperor of Cartorra, and spends a good deal of it being carted around like so much baggage (which I imagine could turn off some readers); her arc is about gaining political power for herself, recognising her own influence instead of being used like a bargaining chip. Iseult, for her part, is also a powerful magic-user – she’s a Threadwitch, meaning she can see people’s emotions – and has experienced racial discrimination herself as a Nomatsi, an ethnic minority not allowed to live within the cities. Personally, I think this warranted more exploration; but, again, it’s a recognition that the world of traditional epic fantasy is not a pleasant place to be for everyone.

It bears repeating that these are interesting and important things to be doing: representing female friendship, strong platonic relationships, female power and racial oppression. But, for me, the novel still feels conservative, and I think this is because Dennard’s examination of these things feels superficial rather than structural. Her world is still cod-medieval, and life in the larger empires still feels pleasant and comfortable for pretty much everyone. (The ravaged Dalmotti Empire seems rather overdone and never quite generates the outrage it should.) I enjoyed reading it because that very materialistic Tolkienian setting feels familiar to me; not because it challenged my thinking or rewrote the genre.

It is a decent piece of YA fantasy, though, and I think I would recommend it to those who particularly enjoy that genre (alongside Sabriel and Uprooted).

Review: Rags & Bones

rags-bonesRags & Bones is an anthology of “New Twists on Timeless Tales”, which sounds exciting and Gothic and subversive. The impression is only reinforced by the prominent presence of Neil Gaiman and Garth Nix’s names on the cover.

In actual fact, the tales on which these stories are based are not timeless at all (if any tale – even fairy tale – ever is timeless). Most of them are very much products of their time (Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”; Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla; Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene); only two of them are fairytale retellings (Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle” and Kami Garcia’s “The Soul Collector”). In fact, a more accurate subtitle for the book would be “Retellings of Stories Some Authors Happened to Like”.

Which pretty much epitomises my experience of the book: it feels random, pointless and inessential. I haven’t read many of the original texts, but I do know about a few of them, and it feels like most of the stories here expand on their originals only in one (often the least interesting) dimension. So “The Sleeper and the Spindle” aims at a feminist retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”, but is ultimately thwarted by Gaiman’s continuing objectification of minor female characters (it really adds nothing to a story to tell us that a sleeping woman had cobwebs between her enormous breasts); Holly Black’s “Millcara” (from, obviously, Carmilla) renders LeFanu’s darkly seductive heroine as a thinly-characterised modern-day teen; and Kelley Armstrong’s sole contribution to the subgenre of retellings of “The Monkey’s Paw”, in her story “New Chicago”, is to set it during a zombie apocalypse.

There are a couple of standout’s: Garth Nix’s retelling of “The Man Who Would Be King”, “Losing Her Divinity”, is engaging mostly because of his prodigious gift for worldbuilding; and Saladin Ahmed’s “Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy” feels like the only really necessary story in the whole collection: a short meditation on the first three books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene through the eyes of its “Saracen” antagonists Sansfoy, Sansloy and Sansjoye, it’s a dissection of Western fantasy’s habit of typecasting entire races as “evil”.

Overall, though, Rags & Bones is a disappointment, and a fairly tedious one. Borrow it from your local library for Ahmed’s story, and perhaps a couple of others (Garcia’s “The Soul Collector” is quite enjoyable), but it’s not worth buying.

Top Ten Character Crushes

  1. Alana – Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I feel sure I have written about Alana before. She is witty, fierce, quick to act (sometimes too quick), completely badass and very sexy. Staples also gives her the best facial expressions.
  2. Roland Deschain – The Dark Tower series, Stephen King. Obviously Roland is utterly unsuitable, being a trained killer and all, but he’s got charisma. He’s mysterious, hardened by years of wandering alone through vast deserts – isn’t there something romantic in that?
  3. Eugene Wrayburn – Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. I think it’s just the slightly hipsterish vibe of louche cynicism Eugene has that I enjoy. Also, Victorian dress.
  4. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. I love the way that she is literally all spikiness, none of this “heart of gold” rubbish. Also, neo-Victorian dress.
  5. Faramir – The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Is Faramir Middle-earth’s only liberal? I submit as evidence his riposte to his obviously-Conservative father Denethor’s pronouncement that “in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death”: “So be it.” Swoon.
  6. Steerpike – Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake. There’s a scene somewhere in the book where the Machiavellian Steerpike shoots a catapult at a far blue window. I’m pretty sure that was the scene that got me. I hate Steerpike for his cruelty, his indifference to those around him – but his razor-sharp control in Titus Groan, his showmanship, the way his icy amorality slices through the stuffiness of castle ritual, is terrifyingly compelling.
  7. Jack Glass – Jack Glass, Adam Roberts. Another ruthless killer. I think we are beginning to see an unfortunate theme here. Nevertheless: Jack is razor-sharp and fascinating.
  8. Robert Frobisher – Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Is it Frobisher’s unrelenting commitment to his art? His wry and biting comments about his mentor Vyvyan Ayres? Or the fact that he is played in the film by the achingly attractive Ben Whishaw? Who knows?
  9. Dirk Gently – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams. Because he is funny and brilliant and scathing and just does not give a fuck about anything. I could spend all year with Dirk Gently.
  10. Fevvers – Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter. Larger than life in a way that comprehensively ignores any sense of male disapproval, she’s powerful precisely because she possesses none of the traditional trappings of power.

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