Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2018

  1. The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The conclusion to the Broken Earth trilogy, and I think the only book that’s made me cry so far this year. In an airport. It is devastating and hopeful, bleak and beautiful all at once. It’s a book about climate change and motherhood and the trauma that systematic oppression inflicts on its victims and its perpetrators alike. It’s extremely unusual, to say the least, to find a fantasy novel that’s even half as ambitious and important.
  2. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters. I finished this just today, in fact, and it came pretty close to being the second book to make me cry this year. It’s a novel about a Victorian oyster-girl who falls in love with a male impersonator at the theatre, and follows her to London. Waters is amazing at romantic suspense, at writing the sweet painful bliss of seduction, and I spent the four days it took me to read Tipping the Velvet utterly under its spell.
  3. Rosemary and Rue – Seanan McGuire. The first novel in McGuire’s Toby Daye series was exactly what I hoped it would be: smart and fun and not afraid of dealing with darkness, and set in a version of Faerie that’s magical without being twee.
  4. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This is a dense book, a collection of essays delving into the depths of philosophy, theology, history and aesthetics. But it’s worth taking the time and the care to engage with it: it’s a book that advocates empathy, and thorough engagement with the world, and the importance of the humanities in this career-obsessed society.
  5. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. 2018 for me has so far been marked by a growing awareness, and a concomitant grief, of just what a parlous state we’ve brought our planet to. Green Earth contributed to that awareness, but it also gave me some hope: hope that maybe we can fix our broken social system and find the political and social will to do something about rampant climate change before it’s too late.
  6. Space Opera – Catherynne M. Valente. Space Opera’s rather grown on me since I finished it and found it a little insubstantial. Sure, it’s a story about Eurovision in space. Sure, its ending is schmaltzy as all get-out. But it’s hard to resist its glitter and its goodwill and its generous, inclusive approach to the aliens who inhabit the galaxy – as well as the humans fighting for Earth’s survival.
  7. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne M. Valente. While I was reading it, I enjoyed The Refrigerator Monologues a lot more than Space Opera. But…it’s faded a little in my memory by comparison. Partly I think that’s because it’s a collection of short stories about superheroes, or, rather, the girlfriends of superheroes, women who are “fridged” to advance the stories of men. I see Valente’s point, and it’s well and beautifully made, but I just don’t find superheroes that interesting. And the collection as a whole is a little one-note.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. This is just a fascinating look at how cities have been portrayed and conceived of throughout human history, romping through sources as diverse as Thomas More’s Utopia and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, looping round and round its points in a kind of collage without ever quite saying what it means. I’m fascinated by the connections between architecture and literature, so this was absolutely perfect for me.
  9. The Real-Town Murders – Adam Roberts. This is a novel I admired more than liked. I mean, I enjoyed reading it; but not as much as I enjoyed nearly everything else on this list. But, like all of Roberts’ writing, it is doing complex, interesting work with genre, and genre expectations, and the headlong splintering of our shared culture.
  10. Provenance – Ann Leckie. Provenance has this fascinating double structure – just when you think you’ve got to the bottom of things you find a whole nother world behind them. Like Leckie’s Ancillary series, it places a lot of emphasis on identity politics and cultural norms and etiquette. And it does some very heavy lifting in imagining a culture that’s genuinely different from our own Western one, especially when it comes to gender norms and family structures.

(The prompt for this post came from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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Review: Fury

This review contains spoilers.

TW: incest.

Salman Rushdie’s Fury made me, appropriately, furious. It would be nice if I could think that this was a response Rushdie intended to elicit, a deliberate and knowing effect working in concert with the themes of the novel. I’m not at all confident that it is, though. And, for reasons I’ll outline below, I’m not particularly inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Our Protagonist is Malik Solanka, an academic and dollmaker born in New Delhi but lately of London. When the novel begins, he’s left his wife Eleanor and young son to flee to New York, pursued by a nameless fury that he fears will see him murder his family. But there’s fury in New York, too: a serial killer’s on the loose, whacking wealthy young women on the head with lumps of concrete. There’s also a simmering subplot about a small Caribbean nation locked in the throes of a land dispute whose roots lie ultimately in colonialism – a story which Solanka co-opts in the later half of the novel for a multi-media franchise starring his dolls (which in turn starts feeding the conflict).

There’s a lot to unpack here, and Fury would be a fascinating novel if not for its women.

Simply put: Solanka, or Rushdie, or both, see women as objects. Or, at best, as sacrificial supports for Solanka’s own self-actualisation. He becomes entangled with two different women in the course of his sojourn in New York, both of whom he turns into dolls, more or less literally. The first is Mila, a twenty-something manager of a group of Silicon Valley-type techies who are Changing the World, “a girl of exceptional beauty”. Mila reminds Solanka of Little Brain, a doll he created for a TV show exploring the great philosophers, whose character and concept quickly spun out of her creator’s control and became super-famous. He begins thinking of her as Little Brain; and, far from resisting this objectification, Mila leans into it. She dresses like Little Brain and acts like Little Brain, and the whole thing spirals very quickly into a disturbing not-quite-affair with semi-incestuous overtones. (In short, Mila has daddy issues. Oh, such original characterisation! Such nuance!)

Then there’s Neela. Neela is literally so beautiful that men – only men, apparently – routinely drop stuff, fall over and randomly beg her for dates (or, rather, appeal to Solanka for permission to date her, ugh) in the street when she passes. They are unable to control themselves in her presence, see. (This is rape culture speaking, of course.) Solanka turns Neela into a doll: not one but two of the characters in his multi-media franchise are based on her. And then she dies in the conflict that his franchise has helped to engineer. To teach him a lesson in irony, perhaps. Or something like that: I can’t be bothered to work it out when she is so obviously disposable to the narrative, sacrificed on the altar of male self-examination and male woe.

In that respect she’s like those three murdered rich girls, incidentally, who are killed just so Rushdie can prove a point. We’re invited to see the serial killer’s fury as analogous to Solanka’s; indeed, for a time we wonder if Solanka actually killed them. As it turns out, they’re murdered by their boyfriends, who are involved in a violent sex cult whose excesses Rushdie links to the ills of capitalism. There are actually interesting thoughts about ownership and male entitlement and male violence going on here; but they’re overshadowed by how the rest of Fury‘s women get treated. And, anyway, the point still stands that Rushdie’s not interested in these women and the way their lives have been taken from them in a moment of horrific violence. They’re only symbols whose meanings Solanka can fear and ponder on; they’re only objects.

One of the things that makes it difficult to tell whether this objectification is something the novel’s aware of, and working purposefully with, is Rushdie’s prose, which is a headlong rush of detail:

Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a golden age.

That’s the first sentence of the novel. And there are so many currents and undercurrents of meaning going on there: in those parentheses especially we see the traditionally omniscient third person singular clashing with free indirect discourse, with Solanka’s own narrative of himself. In short: we don’t ever quite know whether it’s Rushdie talking or Solanka; whether we’re meant to read Solanka as a misogynist, or whether Rushdie actually is one.

Of course, there are plenty of other avenues we can go down when we’re talking about this particular prose style. But, my gods, I’m so fucking sick of not seeing myself represented in literary fiction; of being relentlessly objectified in the service of endless male existential crises. I don’t want to have to wrestle constantly with male entitlement just to think productively about the latest critical darling. I am so done with excusing literary fiction. That’s not what I want to read for.

Review: 42nd Street

This review contains spoilers.

It turns out that 42nd Street is an older musical than I thought it was: it was first performed on Broadway in 1980 and seems to have been revived reasonably regularly since then. It’s currently on at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, and Time Out was offering £15 tickets, and, well, the rest is history, as they say.

It’s a weird musical, this one. The plot is perfunctory: it’s 1933 and Julian Marsh, notorious Broadway director, is doin’ a show! And every girl in New York wants to dance in it – including Peggy Sawyer, who’s never done any theatre work before but who, conveniently, can sing and dance like anything. And including Dorothy Brock, a faded star and terrible dancer whose awful Texan sugar daddy is bankrolling the show.

But no-one cares about the plot, which is just an excuse for musical number after musical number. There are lots of threads left messily loose, in a way that feels careless rather than purposeful: Dorothy’s secret lover Pat, Peggy’s dalliance with actor Billy, whether Peggy was in fact out of line when Dorothy’s ankle got broken. And that…wouldn’t be a huge problem (though I think I’d still be slightly dissatisfied with it), if not for the fact that the show is so consistently, outrageously problematic.

Or, rather, its characters are problematic. The show-within-a-show, Julian Marsh’s magnum opus, Pretty Lady, is problematic. Pretty Lady doesn’t seem particularly to have a plot, but it definitely puts a lot of stock in women-as-decoration: it’s got those ridiculous ostrich-feather swimming costumes that are a cultural shorthand for a certain type of Broadway extravaganza, and one of its biggest numbers, “Dames”, has a chorus that straight-up goes “Keep young and beautiful/if you want to be loved”, together with a dance routine involving women preening in hand-held vanity mirrors.

Clearly there’s an element of parody here. This is ’30s Broadway TO THE MAX! It’s ’30s Broadway as it never really was; ’30s Broadway as it lives in our cultural memory. Pretty Lady doesn’t have a plot because it doesn’t need to; we (where “we” is a largely white, largely middle- and upper-class Western audience) can fill in the blanks from our own assumptions about what ’30s Broadway musicals are like, even if we’ve never seen one. And ’30s Broadway musicals are full of self-obsessed pretty women, of course.

But, if it’s parody, then it’s not parody that’s doing anything useful; it’s not parody that’s actually interrogating the ’30s Broadway musical, or our idea of it. It’s parody in the service of nostalgia, which seems to me a rather dangerous combination. There’s an interesting moment at the end of Act 1 when Pretty Lady becomes the same as 42nd Street; the frame narrative and the story-within-a-story merge. The Pretty Lady safety curtain comes down, Julian Marsh announces in character that we can get refunds at the box office, the house lights come on for the interval. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a piece of recursive self-obsession: we discover that 42nd Street is, in fact, about Pretty Lady; and Pretty Lady is about a certain kind of ’30s-style musical; and 42nd Street is a ’30s-style musical. All it cares about is itself.

This all comes to a nasty head at the end of Act 2, the end of the show. Julian Marsh has convinced Peggy to take over the leading role in Pretty Lady after the ankle-breaking incident. She’s had to learn the whole part in two intensive days, and she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Julian is unsympathetic. Actually, he’s a complete and utter bastard.

And, in between his hectoring and bullying, he kisses her.

The show gives us very little indication as to how we’re supposed to read this: she still has unresolved romantic tension with Billy, and the show ends very quickly afterwards. It’s a convention of musicals that kissing equals love, but Julian’s treatment of Peggy reads more Harvey Weinstein than Captain von Trapp, and I’m not at all sure that the show’s aware of this. There’s a shadow of a suggestion that, in fact, Julian loves the idea of Peggy as his leading lady; he loves her because she brings his show alive. So he too is self-obsessed. He becomes the symbol of an entertainment industry that’s turned in on itself, chewing up everything outside it (love; talent; friendship) to feed its own monstrous self-absorption.

42nd Street actually reminds me of the 2016 musical film La La Land. Both musicals are only interested in themselves, and both of them use the falsifying, reactionary light of nostalgia to register that self-interest. But La La Land at least made the world feel a little more glamorous and a little more romantic and a little more sad than it did before. 42nd Street was a lovely evening for £15: the dancing’s fun and some of the actors can actually sing properly. In particular, Steph Parry as Dorothy has a gorgeous jazz voice (and it seems she joined the cast as an understudy, which is incredibly impressive). But…it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Review: Rosemary and Rue

This review contains spoilers.

TW: sexual abuse.

I finally got round to starting Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, which came highly recommended by my TolkSoc friends and geekdom in general, and which has been on my must-read-series list for, oh, quite a long time.

The eponymous October “Toby” Daye is a changeling: half human, half fae. She can pass for human in the right light, or with just a little bit of magic. As Rosemary and Rue begins, she’s working nights in a 7-Eleven, hiding from her fae heritage, trying to make ends meet. It’s not working out great, as you might expect, and everything changes when a fae aristocrat, Evening Winterrose, is murdered. Evening’s last act is to lay a curse on Toby – she has to find the killer, or die in the attempt.

It’s obvious from the word go that McGuire is not! fucking! around! here: the novel literally starts with Our Heroine being turned by an evil fae into a koi carp for fourteen years, losing her human husband and child in the process, which is, you know, fairly traumatic. And it goes on to do some pretty heavy lifting for a novel that’s so squarely, unpretentiously of its genre.

At its heart Rosemary and Rue is a novel about class. As a changeling, Toby’s considered a second-class citizen by most of the pureblooded fae. Her magic’s nowhere near as strong, and though she’ll live a couple of centuries that’s nothing compared to the near-immortality of the purebloods. More importantly, changelings are shunned, pushed to the borders of fae society even as they’re unable to live fulfilling human lives.

Shunned by both races, many changeling children end up at Home. And this is what I really want to talk about, because this is where the novel does some of its best, and also its most troubling, work.

Home is run by a changeling called Devin. Devin is, to put it baldly, an abuser. He takes changeling children in, teaches them to do his work (which mainly involves politicking with the various faerie courts), teaches them to fear him, and rapes some of them. Toby spent much of her teenagerhood at Home, as Devin’s favourite and his “lover” (as she puts it to herself). She’s known at Home as the only one who ever escaped Devin’s clutches, rescued as she was by a friend of her fae mother.

So when Toby finds that her only option for solving Evening’s murder is to go Home and call in some favours…well, there are a couple of ways this could have gone. Devin acts every inch the concerned lover towards Toby – she’s seriously injured several times in quick succession, and he pulls out all the stops to save her. He does her favours without asking for anything in return – something that’s practically unheard of amongst the fae. For a while, it sort of looks like we’re maybe supposed to root for Devin as the romantic interest, which, given everything we and Toby know about him, is pretty damn creepy.

But McGuire, it turns out, is better than that: in the last few chapters of Rosemary and Rue, it turns out that Devin’s been working against Toby all along. And I love how clear-eyed the novel in retrospect is about Devin’s behaviour: like any abuser’s, it’s all about power and control, and McGuire doesn’t flinch from that. I kind of wish I could give Rosemary and Rue to every teenager obsessed by Twilight.

Except I also kind of don’t, because there’s something a little reactionary going on with the treatment of Devin that I want to unpack a bit. Devin betrays Toby because he feels his lot as a changeling is unfair. He wants eternal life, a pureblood’s life, and there’s a McGuffin in the novel that can give it to him, and Toby’s in the way.

Of course Devin is a monster. But I’m a little…troubled by the idea that at least part of his monstrosity is rooted in not knowing his place. Striving for the benefits the purebloods get automatically – benefits they could share, the text suggests, with the changelings – is in itself an evil thing to do, it seems.

It’s an effect exacerbated by Toby’s relatively privileged social position: sure, she’s a changeling, but she’s got the ear of the leaders of at least three different fae realms thanks to her mother’s bloodline. Toby is not remotely in the same situation as Devin. And yet I felt that I was being encouraged to compare them: Toby is a good person because she accepts her position in life. She feels it isn’t fair, yes, but she doesn’t do anything positive to change it. Devin, on the other hand, is a monster because he’s not willing just to take the scraps thrown to him by the purebloods. The very framing of the question is suspect.

I mean: this wasn’t really something that affected how much I enjoyed Rosemary and Rue, which I did, a lot. It’s pacy and fascinating and full of faerie lore; it balances magic and modernity really quite well. And I think there’s certainly room for a more nuanced reading of Devin’s monstrosity: that it’s a symptom of the social divisions in fae society, something rotten in the state of Faerie, rather than a dramatisation of reactionary anti-social-mobility sentiment. I mean, I’ve heard that the later books double down on Rosemary and Rue‘s treatment of class, so maybe not. But I’ll still be hanging round for those later books.

Review: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

I feel like I say this more often than not, but Jerry Della Femina’s From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor was not quite what I expected.

It was the subtitle that drew me in: Front Dispatches from the Advertising War. Advertising is my field, so to speak. When I’m not overthinking pop culture, I’m a bid writer, which is a specific kind of advertising that calls on you to hold someone’s interest over pages and pages of technical information. It’s tough. It’s fun. If you want to write for your living but also want, you know, financial security, check out becoming a bid writer.

The point being that advertising, the process of advertising, of getting inside your audience’s head and staying there till you’ve said what you want to say, fascinates me. So a memoir about America’s golden age of advertising, by the founder of a major advertising agency, seemed just the thing for a holiday in Norfolk.

(“The cult classic that inspired Mad Men”, says a little silver circle on the cover of my library copy. I haven’t watched Mad Men, but I do love me some 1970s glamour, and so! here we are!)

Here we are, in New York, 1970. The first thing you need to know about From Those Wonderful Folks is that Della Femina is, well, a bit of an arsehole, even by the standards of his time. You can’t read a page, practically, without stumbling on a sexist or homophobic or (as you might have guessed from the title, a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a campaign for Panasonic) racist remark. Fairly unusually for me, the detail of the book was interesting enough that I could tune this out after a while – but your mileage may well vary.

The second thing, the more surprising thing, is that From Those Wonderful Folks doesn’t really have a coherent shape as a book. It doesn’t have a story. It’s not about a man who sets up an advertising agency (though presumably it could have been). It’s not even about a man who starts a career in advertising one day. It’s just…pages on pages of anecdotes, grouped loosely into chapters, written in slangy, repetitive and kind of terrible prose, like Della Femina has just talked at a dictaphone for several hours and some poor ghostwriter has tidied it up a bit and thrown it at the page as-is.

(Come to think of it, that’s probably exactly what happened.)

Another surprising thing: it’s nowhere near as scandalous as the cover copy would have you believe. Della Femina is very keen to establish that there’s nowhere near as much drinking or sex at the advertising agencies as the pop culture of the 1970s says there is. There are some delicate creative types (one anecdote is about a copywriter threatening to push his desk out of a high window), but delicate creatives have existed since Apollo killed Niobe’s children, so.

What From Those Wonderful Folks does have is some lovely insight into 1970s ad campaigns. This was a time when big, stuffy, old agencies with huge overheads were being threatened by younger, leaner, more creative operations, and were becoming more careful, more conservative, as a result. Della Femina looks at campaigns and pitches and business practices from across the industry, at why they worked or why they didn’t. There’s Volkswagen’s famous “Think Small” advert; the Jolly Green Giant; a disastrous campaign for low-calorie beer that failed because 1970s beer drinkers couldn’t give a fig about losing weight. It’s all this precise detail, this fine-tuned understanding of the psychology behind capitalist consumption, that, for me, made it worth wading through that terrible and decidedly unenlightened prose. It’s certainly not my favourite read of 2018 – not even close – but it’s pretty interesting, and worth a read if you’re into advertising and can look past the rampant 1970s prejudice.

Review: The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki is Joanne M. Harris’ first foray into adult epic fantasy; you’ll probably know her better as the author of Chocolat. It’s a retelling of the Norse myths, all the way through from creation to Ragnarok, from the point of view of Loki, trickster-god, god of stories and fire and generally pissing off The Man.

It should by rights be brilliant fun. It should be witty and irreverent and rich with meaning. I’m thinking Neil Gaiman at his darkest, most fairytale, least sexist best.

It is…not.

A disclaimer before I dive in: my knowledge of Norse mythology is limited to the brilliant Ragnarok/Cthulu mashup that is steampunk band The Mechanisms’ The Bifrost Incident, and a vague osmotic awareness that there are characters called Thor and Loki inhabiting the Marvel universe. Oh, and a sense of the uniquely Scandinavian grandeur of Norse mythology: mountains that hold the sky on their shoulders, relentless days and weeks and months of snow and ice, and gods to match – menacing, inscrutable, cold and above all huge. If there’s one thing Norse mythology should be, it’s awesome. It should inspire awe. That’s my feeling, anyway.

With that in mind: my overwhelming sense about The Gospel of Loki is that Harris isn’t clear on what she’s trying to do. As far as I can tell, she’s stuck pretty closely to her source material – apart from Loki’s voice. And therein lies the rub. Loki inhabits a world in which women – even goddesses – are things, domesticity is oppressive, femininity is insulting, and gay sex is banned. I think this is Harris’ idea of pre-modern Scandinavia. I don’t know whether it’s accurate (although given the 1950s-style prudishness of it all I suspect it isn’t really); it’s certainly plausible that all of this is in the original texts. But I don’t understand what the point is of repeating it all when Harris has already gone to the trouble of updating Loki’s voice. Why not use anarchic, disruptive Loki to interrogate the sexism and racism and homophobia on which the Norse myths are based (if indeed they are so based)?

That’s the thing, though: Harris’ Loki has no sting for all his talk. In a word, he’s boring. His wit and sarcasm is mainly limited to rote phrases like “so shoot me” and “it wasn’t an easy sell” and metaphors involving cookie jars and terribly misjudged jokes about women and mixing bowls. His cynicism doesn’t revitalise the Norse myths for a modern audience, which I think is what Harris is going for here; instead, it flattens them, makes their great dramas into dull soap operas. Even Ragnarok is boring when it’s narrated by this Loki, and if your apocalypse is boring then, I submit, you’re doing something wrong.

The Gospel of Loki isn’t a rewriting, a deconstruction or an interrogation of Norse mythology. Nor is it a direct translation that’s faithful to the spirit of the original. It’s a weird and pointless halfway house that doesn’t, despite its title, have anything useful or interesting to say about modernity or myth. It repeats harmful stereotypes which the author presumably doesn’t share. And the writing itself is flat, empty and superficial.

In short: I didn’t like it. Your mileage may vary. But probably not.

50-Word Review: Space Opera

Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

A new Valente novel, and the second Hitchhiker riff I’ve read this year: humanity’s singing for its life in the galactic version of Eurovision. A meditation on what counts as sentience and the transcendent power of pop music. Fun and fabulous, but a little…slight for Valente.