Top Ten Books I Read in 2017

There are a few days left of 2017, but I think I’ll manage at most one more book in that time.

As always, these are books I personally read in 2017, because who’s organised enough to read stuff in the year it’s published?

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. I’ve read this approximately two-and-a-half times this year, probably more if you count all the times I’ve dipped in and out of it. I love it. I love its discursiveness, its artful artlessness, its gentle and undemanding hope, its ultra-readable engagement with literary theory. It’s become my go-to comfort read, and it’s not even SFF. (Sorry, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.)
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. Palimpsest continues my quest to read all the Valente that exists in the world. It may actually be my favourite Valente (although that is an ever-changing thing). I read it slowly, on a long train journey, savouring Valente’s gorgeous prose and the lostness of her characters. I want to cosplay November someday. (I doubt anyone would get it, but there you go.)
  3. The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherynne Valente. Yes, it’s a bit troubling that this is a collection of stories and poems about Japan by a non-Japanese author, but that’s an aggregate issue; individually, each piece in The Melancholy of Mechagirl is gemlike, heartbreaking, enchanting, utterly and sublimely lovely.
  4. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin. It took me ages to get around to reading this, but I’m glad I made it eventually: it’s  incredibly cleverly structured, with a chatty narrative voice that plays with reader expectation and generic conventions. It features three different POV characters, each telling a horrific tale of institutional emotional abuse, tragedy and oppression.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. This is a novel rooted in fairytale. And, like a lot of novels rooted in fairytale, it doesn’t quite manage to escape the sexist mores fairytales so often encode. It’s fucking gorgeous, though, and doing something very clever with irony and sincerity, its apparent naivete concealing and revealing the horror at the heart of the Atlantic slave trade.
  6. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. Another short story collection! These are hopeful, open-ended stories, full of queer characters. Like Valente’s work, they ask us to look at life again and re-experience it as magical.
  7. A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers. I didn’t like this as much as The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: I missed the episodic, rambling structure of the first book. But I loved that A Closed and Common Orbit is just about people looking after each other. I think we all need more books like that.
  8. The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin. It’s so very rare that I read something that imagines a genuine alternative to capitalism; The Dispossessed does exactly that, building a world in which mutual aid, not competition, is the basis for all human relationships. Also, it has gay couples. In 1974. That’s awesome.
  9. Viriconium – M. John Harrison. This volume collects Harrison’s novels and stories of Viriconium, a city at the end of time that’s haunted by a long-distant past that it can never truly access. It’s a Gothic riff on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as a lot of other things. It’s hypnotic, unsettling, shifting: a science fictional Gormenghast.
  10. Nova – Samuel Delany. Nova surprised me immensely: you expect certain things from SF published in 1969, and Delany’s novel is none of them. It’s incredibly colourful, interested in the sensual rather than the rational; it plays interesting textual games.
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OK, I’m taking a break.

I’ve been around people near-constantly since last Thursday, which I’m fairly sure is a personal record for me, and while this is in many ways a good thing and many of them are wonderful people I am fucking exhausted. Also, Christmas.

I was going to write about Hamilton today but I have a lot to say about Hamilton and I can’t really handle essay structure at the moment. So…I’m taking a brief hiatus. Normal service will resume when I feel like it. This may be tomorrow. Or next week. Or, at latest, early in the New Year for Spreadsheet Analysis Fun.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find something fun on Steam.

 

Review: Under the Pendulum Sun

The heroine of Jeanette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun is Cathy Helstone, the Victorian sister of Laon, a missionary to Fairyland who’s stopped answering her letters. Funded – as she thinks – by the missionary society that sent him, Cathy braves the dangerous journey to Fairyland to find him.

But Under the Pendulum Sun is no fairytale; its ancestors are Jane Eyre and Ann Radcliffe, not the faerie-tinged historical fantasies of Susanna Clarke and Zen Cho. So we actually see very little of Fairyland: pretty much all of the novel’s action takes place in the thoroughly Gothic castle the fae have granted to Laon for his missionary activities, Gethsemane.

It was more castle than manor, a knot of spires and flying buttresses atop a jagged hill. Stone leaned against stone in a bizarre edifice, with nothing but scorn to the very concept of aesthetic consistency and structural purpose.

Like all classic Gothic castles, Gethsemane is an impossible tangle of corridors and passages, strange noises, rooms you can only find once, and ominous ancient objects. It’s threatening in its unknowability; but, as the novel wears on, it becomes simultaneously the only source of familiarity in the treacherous landscapes of Fairyland:

When I finally returned to Gethsemane, the castle was ablaze with light. It was a beacon above the mists, and I saw it far, far before I reached its gatehouse.

That’s not the only Gothic trope the novel uses, of course: it’s positively stuffed with doubles, changelings, madwomen, unintelligible diaries, mysterious staff who can’t or won’t explain anything, forbidden desires, and things that look real but aren’t. In other words, it plays extensively with ideas of truth and disguise: a recurring theme is that the fae tell the truth only when it will hurt more than a lie. As in many Gothic novels, the castle is a place where the dark side of society bubbles to the surface; a place of illusion which, paradoxically, reveals truths that can’t be spoken in the Victorian England it mirrors.

I don’t really feel, though, that Ng is doing anything particularly interesting with all this Gothic paraphernalia: Under the Pendulum Sun is missing that oppressive weight that characterises novels like Jane Eyre or The Mysteries of Udolpho or Rebecca, that particular desperate overwriting concealing and revealing a void of meaning. While its plot is uncanny – that is, uncanny things happen to the characters – the novel itself isn’t: it doesn’t encode at a textual level the profound and deeply threatening paradox of a house that doesn’t work like at a house should. And for me, that’s key to the success of the Gothic: that link between house and text, the sympathetic magic by which the threat of the house becomes the threat of the word. Without that link, Gothic becomes melodrama.

And yet: there is strangeness here. As the house’s name implies, Under the Pendulum Sun is deeply interested in Christian theology – and as Abigail Nussbaum points out, it’s unusual in making that theology a fundamental part of its worldbuilding rather than a flawed ideology. And, actually, what it does with that theology – reworking the Christian myth to take account of the fae (I won’t spoil the details, but Lilith is involved) – feels subversive: the Helstones’ theories, as they gather more truths about the world around them, are heretical, and writing that back into a novel that’s very deliberately pastiching the voice of a Victorian novel feels like a reclamation of history.

Why’s that important? I think we can read Under the Pendulum Sun as partly a novel about colonialism: to the Victorians, Fairyland is there to be exploited; Laon Helstone is literally there to convert what he sees as godless savages. So the Helstones’ work of creating heresy, of writing the fae into the Christian narrative not as people going to hell but as something else – that’s a decolonisation of Western Christianity. Which, you only have to look at America’s Bible Belt to realise that’s intensely relevant work.

For me, Under the Pendulum Sun didn’t quite click; the Gothickry isn’t quite right, and that’s so central to the affect of the novel that I can’t overlook it. And it takes just a little too long to signal to readers that you actually need to pay attention to this theological stuff, it’s not just furniture. But there’s plenty that’s fascinating here, and I suspect readers who aren’t quite as obsessed with how the Gothic works as I am will probably enjoy it a whole lot more.

Top Ten Series I Want to Start

  1. The Orphan’s Tales – Catherynne Valente. I have made no secret of my desire to read everything Valente has ever written. I’ve never seen The Orphan’s Tales on sale in the UK, though.
  2. The Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold. Ohmyword, I said back in February I’d definitely start reading these this year. I HAVE FAILED.
  3. La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman. The first in the series, The Book of Dust, just came out, and I am excited! (Like, His Dark Materials was a significant presence in my childhood, so revisiting the world will be lovely. Hopefully.)
  4. The Dandelion Dynasty – Ken Liu. Because I’m trying to read more SFF by POCs, and this series sounds like it could be fascinating.
  5. The Alliance-Union series – C. J. Cherryh. This…is another series that’s been on my list since, um, January. To be scrupulously fair, these are actually quite difficult to find in the UK.
  6. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor. I’ve been wanting to read this for ages. Weirdly, my local library – in the manner of libraries everywhere – only has the sequel, Binti: Home. Which is frustrating.
  7. Johannes Cabal – Jonathan L. Howard. I am assured this is a fun series. It sounds like a fun series. My library has the first book. A fortuitous concatenation of circumstances.
  8. The Southern Reach trilogy – Jeff VanderMeer. This kind of feels like it’s essential reading for SFF fans, and I still haven’t made my way to it.
  9. October Daye – Seanan McGuire. It’s really getting embarrassing how many things I said I’d read I actually haven’t.
  10. Dune – Frank Herbert. The Dune series is a perennial on my want-to-read lists; it never manages to make it to the top of them. One day. One day.

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

Review: The Melancholy of Mechagirl

This is going to be a criminally short review for one of my favourite books of the year, because I was too busy inhaling it through my eyes to write anything down. And so, as my brain is not set up to remember short stories as it remembers the plots of novels, and also because my copy of the book currently resides at my parents’ house, approximately a hundred miles away from where I am, The Melancholy of Mechagirl lingers in my memory only as a dream of wonders.

A warning: I tend to stray into purple-prose territory when I’m talking about Catherynne Valente’s work. Here, there be rambling.

The Melancholy of Mechagirl, then, is a collection of Valente’s SFF stories about Japan. As she explains in her foreword, it’s a place that crops up in all her novels to a greater or lesser degree; it’s somewhere she appears to feel ambivalent about, having lived there mostly alone as a Navy wife for some years. There’s a semi-autobiographical description of those years in – I think – “Ink, Water, Milk”, one of the stories in this collection, and it hits you like a gut-punch:

She is sad. She does not speak Japanese. Her husband went to the desert months and months ago. Every day she goes to the market and brings back chocolate, a peach, and a salmon rice-ball for her dinner. She sits and eats and stares at the wall. Sometimes she watches television. Sometimes she walks three miles to Blue Street to look at necklaces in the window that she wishes someone would buy for her. Sometimes she walks along the pier to see the sunken bicycles, pinged into ruin by invisible arrows of battleship-sonar, crusted over with rust and coral. She likes to pet people’s dogs as they walk them. That is her whole life. What should she dream of?

Valente’s prose is full of stuff, full of details; it’s embellished and sensual and specific (“chocolate, a peach, and a salmon rice-ball”). That accumulation of detail is, I think, what makes her work so rich; it defamiliarises our reality, makes us re-experience it as magical: “the sunken bicycles…crusted over with rust and coral”. Rubbish is elevated to symbol; as in a fairytale, everything in these stories has meaning, everything is there for a purpose, however mysterious, and it’s that which makes her stories devastating as well as beautiful.

Of course, we do have to confront the fact that this is a collection of stories about Japan written by a white author. Valente’s up-front about this in her foreword: she makes it clear that

It is not a book that purports to speak for Japanese culture in any way, but one which speaks for its author, for a span of ten years of circling Japan and never reaching it, and a single woman’s relationship with a nation not her own, but one which, very occasionally, sat down to tea with her.

(quote from her website, because as previously mentioned I am a terrible blogger who utterly failed to take notes)

The publisher is also, it seems, Japanese.

All of this opens up questions that are too big to answer here, or anywhere on the internet, maybe: to what extent can authors write about experiences that aren’t culturally theirs? To what extent are creators responsible for interrogating their influences, or trying to escape them?

For my part (which is not worth very much, white, Western, and knowing nothing at all about Japan), I do think it’s kind of uncomfortable that this is a whole book of Japanese stories – for the practical reason that a collection like this is, potentially, taking the spotlight away from a collection by an actual Japanese person. These stories (and poems) are gorgeous, as Valente’s work always is – but had they been anthologised differently, bound with other stories, they’d feel less like a “take” on Japan, an attempt to mediate between Japan and America.

But then, your mileage may vary, as they say.

And whatever I feel about the collection-as-concept, the stories and poems – which I know I haven’t said much about, and which are varied and jewel-like and often surprisingly formally innovative – are just too lovely not to return to.

Review: Brida

I’ve procrastinated starting this review for about an hour now, because, honestly, even just thinking about Brida makes my eyes want to bleed.

I have a terrible habit of reading an author’s worst work first and then not going back, because if you can’t hook me from the first book why should I bother with the second?

Probably most of us have heard about the supposedly life-changing genius of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. My library didn’t have The Alchemist in when I went to look; it only had Brida.

And so, here we are.

I submit that your reaction to Brida‘s foreword (or, as Coelho calls it, “Warning”) is probably an excellent barometer of your response to the book as a whole:

the few rituals described in Brida are the same as those practised over the centuries by the Tradition of the Moon…Practising such rituals without guidance is dangerous, inadvisable, unnecessary and can greatly hinder the Spiritual Search.

Passing over that grammatically hideous second sentence and the rather precious capitalisation, this “Warning” frames Brida as not really a novel but a kind of parable, a metaphor containing essential truth. The register of the “Warning” – and thus of the book as a whole – is naivete: “this is how the world is; the lessons you’ll learn in here are true”.

This isn’t really my thing, cynical British SFF reader that I am; but it can be used to interesting effect, as Ben Okri does in his Starbook, which undermines its apparently utopian fairytale charm with complex shades of irony, with rich, dark imagery.

Of course, Coelho is doing no such thing. Brida‘s naivete translates not into a sense that we’re learning something deep and important and true, but simply into a blithe unawareness of how narratives work. It forgets the first thing you learn as a student of literature: that words are not clear windows onto some objective truth, but that they’re always compromised, always subjective, always situational.

Technically, I suppose, it’s a kind of Bildungsroman. Brida is a young woman searching for meaning and purpose in her life. She goes to two teachers (quoting from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, because I can’t actually bring myself to put this into my own words):

a hermit mage who teaches her to overcome fear and a witch who teaches her how to dance to the hidden music of the world.

But they don’t teach her to question; and surely that’s odd? Surely if you’re learning about magic as a hidden truth in the world (which, remember, Coelho is framing as true) you learn to question everything, to weigh evidence, to work out where the truth lies? That’s how SFF readers read, which is perhaps why I personally found Brida so jarring.

Because the mundanity of this magic! Much of the book revolves around Brida working out who her Soulmate (yes, capital S, kill me now) is. See, Coelho trots out the old chestnut that we are all one half of a soul and we have to find the other half of our soul and they are our Soulmate who we will love for all time. On the face of it this is vaguely romantic; if you think about it for more than three seconds it’s deeply fucking depressing – especially since, in Coelho’s version, the two halves of the soul are specifically male and female. Where are the gay people in this narrative? Where are the aromantic people? This explanation of the universe only sounds right because our culture has a deep, patriarchal investment in the concept of heterosexual romantic love – and a certain kind of romantic love at that – as the highest possible form of human emotion. Far from being an ultimate truth of the universe, it’s a lazy, unexamined cliché steeped in a specific cultural moment.

If this is magic, I want no part in it.

I’m not going to read The Alchemist.

Top Ten Places Books Have Made Me Want to Visit

  1. Istanbul. This was a by-product of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which is about a literary treasure hunt across Europe and makes Istanbul sound absolutely fascinating, a mix of ancient and modern. Sadly it’s not the safest place to visit at the moment.
  2. Exeter College, Oxford. I remember vividly, the first time I visited Oxford, using the map in Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford to find Jordan College. Which is Exeter. Yes, I am a nerd.
  3. The Discworld Emporium, Wincanton, Somerset. Do I really need to explain this? My parents now live within touching distance of Wincanton, anyway, so I’m hoping to visit very soon!
  4. The Shambles, York. The Shambles are the original of the Shades in Ankh-Morpork, the sprawling, smelly city-state in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Fortunately you are approximately a hundred per cent less likely to get murdered in the Shambles than you are in the Shades. Although the prices in the shops there do amount to daylight robbery (some of them, anyway).
  5. Tolkien’s grave, Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford. Tolkien’s buried with his wife Edith, and carved below their names are the names Beren and Luthien: the species-transcending lovers of The Silmarillion. When I went in February, there were fresh flowers there, but it wasn’t a shrine or anything; just solemn and sad and I had a moment.
  6. King’s Cross Station, London. YES I AM A VERY SAD PERSON AND I WAS EXCITED TO GO TO KING’S CROSS FOR THE FIRST TIME BECAUSE HARRY POTTER. I AM VERY SORRY.
  7. The Pump Room, Bath. This is a restaurant now; but wouldn’t be cool to go there and pretend to be a Jane Austen character? Yes. Yes it would.
  8. New Zealand. Actually I’m not a huge fan of the whole getting-on-a-plane-for-a-zillion-hours thing, but if I had to it would be New Zealand I’d go to – for, yes, Hobbiton and Mount Doom and Edoras and all the wonderful corners of Middle-earth. Actually, doing the Simple Walk into Mordor would be quite fun, for a given value of “fun”.
  9. The Whalebone Arch, Isle of Harris. The actual arch is less impressively Mievillean than I hoped it would be (I was thinking the Ribs from Perdido Street Station, which, not so much), but it’s still pretty cool: an arch made of the jawbones of a whale.
  10. East Coker, Somerset. Yes, because of that poem by T.S. Eliot. (Which I read part of at my granddad’s funeral in January, so it’s kind of important to me.) I don’t think there’s actually very much at East Coker, just one of a thousand tiny villages you’ll find in the hollows of the Somerset hills, but. But.

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