Tag: book reviews

Review: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

You know what kind of book this is: the kind of book that’s shelved under “humour” or “novelty” or “gifts”; the kind of book they stack next to the checkouts in case of impulse purchase.

It’s fine. It took me about an hour to read, cover-to-cover. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this, exactly; somehow I thought it might be meatier, or have a more coherent narrative.

Instead, it’s a collection of one-liners and anecdotes about dealing with bookshop customers:

Customer: Do you have that book – I forget what it’s called; it’s about people with large, hairy feet.

Bookseller: Do you mean hobbits? The Lord of the Rings?

Customer: No…erm – The Hairy Bikers.

Some of them are funny; some of them are disturbing (the customer who, on being told that the LGBT+ fiction is shelved with the rest of the fiction, looks suspiciously at the book she’s holding and sidles out); some of them shed light on the troubles independent booksellers are facing (customers asking for recommendations and then buying on line; customers asking for discounts). It’s perhaps a little nose-tapping, especially when it comes to the latter issues: “well, of course that’s ridiculous and I wouldn’t do that,” says the wise reader, but the fact is lots of people are doing that, or these anecdotes wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Anyway. It’s a diverting enough read. Borrow it or give it as a gift; probably not worth buying it for yourself.


Review: The Gate to Women’s Country

TW: homophobia, transphobia.

This review contains spoilers.

It was only as I was leaving my local library with Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country in tow that I remembered that Tepper was responsible for the woeful The Margarets, an unfocused and regressive novel that took me simply ages to finish.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened The Gate to Women’s Country, and with some surprise that I realised I rather liked it.

It’s set in a post-apocalyptic version of what is probably North America, about three hundred years after what was probably a nuclear war. The recovering landscape is dotted with small towns with names like Marthatown and Susantown. In these towns, the women work, learn, practice medicine, grow food, raise children and generally run a functioning, sustainable society (complete with a thriving artistic culture), while the men (mostly) live in garrisons and conduct periodic wars with the garrisons of neighbouring towns.

It’s the kind of over-simplistic social stratification that I usually find deeply suspect. And, to be sure, Tepper makes her society’s views on queer people abundantly, vindictively clear:

“Even in preconvulsion times it had been known that the so-called ‘gay syndrome’ was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as ‘hormonal reproductive maladaption’ and corrected it before birth. There were very few actual HRNMs – called HenRams – either male or female, born in Women’s Country, though there was still the occasional unsexed person or the omnisexed who would, so the instructors said, mate with a grasshopper if it would hold still long enough.”

That nasty paragraph, round about page 76, is extremely hard to swallow. (It’s worth noting that The Margarets is similarly homophobic and transphobic – though less explicitly so than here.) And I don’t want to play down the damage it does!

And yet – still I found Tepper’s novel fascinating. Because this isn’t a Hunger Games-style dystopia, where a Chosen One works to bring the system down. No. The Gate to Women’s Country is a bildungsroman of sorts: we watch as Our Hero, the young woman Stavia, grows into her society; as she strains against its apparently arbitrary restrictions and rules, she begins to appreciate their function.

Because one of the big questions the novel is asking is: what price utopia? The novel’s most vertiginous reveal, right at the end, is that the secrecy-shrouded sisterhood that rules this society is basically running a selection programme with the remnants of humanity: they’re striving to breed violence out of the population to avoid another catastrophic war. This, without the consent or knowledge of the people who they’re sterilising or impregnating to get the right results. It’s this sisterhood that Stavia grows into, having experienced first-hand the violence that men can visit upon women when she inadvertently strays into a community of paternalistic fundamentalist Christians which is suffering from a chronic shortage of wives. (Content warning here for rape.)

While the idea that violence is a) exclusively male and b) genetically determined is obviously simplistic, I think the moral picture here is quite interesting. It’s pretty clear that having to make these decisions on behalf of the populace is a curse for these women; and equally clear that they feel it’s necessary to protect humanity from itself. It’s also clear that Women’s Country is, by and large, happy, stable and functioning; there are sacrifices to be made, when sons reject their mothers to join the garrisons; but everyone is reasonably well-fed, everyone is healthy, and though the women work hard they also seem fulfilled. (Garrison culture, on the other hand, is basically toxic. But then that’s Tepper’s point.) So: is this contingent, imperfect utopia – which is getting ever better as the land heals and fewer and fewer boys choose to join the garrisons – worth the price everyone is paying for it?

There’s also a sub-question, here, about what honour looks like. Is it the men squabbling in their barracks, scheming maliciously against the women and punishing the weak – but, oh, how bright their banners? Or is it the women, working steadily to remake the world? I do enjoy Tepper’s examination of women’s work and how fundamental it actually is to a functioning society – it’s something SF doesn’t often consider structurally, and in that respect I can see how this has been hailed as a feminist classic.

Of course if you’re going to do that you also have to acknowledge the limits of its feminism: its exclusion of LGBT+ people, and its gender-essentialist conclusion that women are not capable of excessive violence (and that they’re genetically inclined to its obverse, the work of nurturing and caring). It is, in other words, a massively flawed work – albeit a well-structured one with an unusually coherent worldview and some pertinent questions about what society should look like. I enjoyed it without enjoying its politics, which I think is pretty rare for me. I’ll approach Tepper warily in future, though.

Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad

Set in 2005, after the US invasion of Iraq, Ahmed Sadaawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad both is, and is not, what it says on the tin.

Narratively and formally, it is. A junk dealer named Hadi assembles a composite corpse out of the human body parts littering the explosion-wracked streets of Baghdad. It’s possessed by the ghost of a security guard killed in one of those explosions, and animated by the command of an old woman who thinks the corpse is her long-dead son. The resulting creature haunts the city’s streets, trying to justify his existence and avoid the authorities bent on his destruction. Like Mary Shelley’s original, his story is told in nested found narratives: first, a report put together by an unnamed journalist; second, a tape recording made by the creature himself.

Unlike Shelley’s novel, though, the focus of Frankenstein in Baghdad is not really, or not quite, the creature; he is merely the uncanny feature that unites them. (More on this in a moment.) Sadaawi’s writerly gaze lands on a number of lives, all of them affected by the conflict tearing Baghdad apart: Hadi the junk dealer, the old woman who borrows the priest’s mobile phone to call her daughters once a week, the owner of a failing hotel, a journalist unexpectedly promoted to editor. As Sessily Watt points out here, war creates in each of these characters’ lives some sort of absence – whether it’s the absence of relatives who’ve moved out of Iraq in search of greater stability, the absence of once-abundant hotel guests and thus a viable livelihood, or simply the absence of trust in those around them.

The creature literalises these absences. And he does that by refusing to be read, to be fully understood as a phenomenon. As (almost) the sole speculative element in an otherwise realist world, he is contextless, without framework. A cult springs up around him, reading him as prophet/messiah: they are wrong. The authorities read him as a dangerous but human criminal: they are wrong. He is unreadable because his existence is irrational: he doesn’t make sense within the worldviews of those around him.

In other words, he represents, in Lacanian terms, an irruption of the Real into the world of the text: the Real that lies behind the symbolic structures we impose on the world, to make sense of it. Structures like family, society, nationhood – which are the structures damaged by war. So the creature is a literalisation of the unspeakable trauma visited on a city, a community, that is every day faced with the prospect of random annihilation. Car bombs don’t discriminate, after all. There’s no rhyme or reason to who they kill. Traditional realism on its own isn’t very good at dealing with that specific flavour of irrationality, because it’s based on the idea that life in all its mundanity is fundamentally narratable – so having speculative elements do that work makes a lot of sense.

Hence the found-footage-type framing of the novel. What Frankenstein in Baghdad does share with its predecessor is this sense of uncertainty: do we really know what happened, through two or three layers of reportage? This is Shelley’s Gothic in play, these gaps between the edges of the characters’ reported experience. In Sadaawi’s novel, this further destabilises our sense of the rationality of realism: the invasion of Iraq has brought utter chaos to Baghdad, together with an almost apocalyptic sense that all the rules of lived human experience are breaking down. The centre cannot hold.

I’m interested in what Sadaawi’s doing here, but at the same time I’m not sure I’d read Frankenstein in Baghdad again. It’s a little too bleak and airless; too…controlled to really grab me. But it’s good SF work: it would have been interesting to see this on the Hugo shortlist, for example, and I’m half-surprised that it’s not being talked about more in genre circles.

Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

My head hurts today, so it’s gonna be a short post.

I liked Where’d You Go, Bernadette, though. Our Heroine is Bee, a high-school student whose mother, the titular Bernadette, disappears after a rapidly-escalating dispute with a parent next door. The story’s told through letters, emails, notes and other found-footage-type paraphernalia, collated by Bee in an attempt to tell her mother’s side of the story.

It’s a good-natured, fun novel which also resists simple solutions. Bernadette has agoraphobia, which reads to the people around her as fecklessness or thoughtlessness; at one point her husband believes she’s a danger to herself, and tries to get her committed. Bee’s project of collecting evidence serves as a reminder that there are many sides to every story – once we have the full picture, Bernadette’s actions look a lot more rational. The novel’s a reminder not to leap to quick judgements, and to treat people with compassion and respect even when they make bad decisions. I’d really like to read more like this: gentle, funny stories that embrace neurodiversity and do some proper thematic work in the meantime.

Review: The Grass-Cutting Sword

Hah. Now, this is a strange little novella: a very early Catherynne Valente work, now out of print and available only through t’Internet. (It’s her fourth novel, I think? But she’s written about a million, so, yeah, comparatively early.)

It’s a retelling of a Japanese legend in which the god of sea and storms Susanoo is banished from heaven and falls to earth. There, he meets an impoverished peasant family whose eight daughters have been devoured by a dragon – which he promptly vows to slay.

But, alternated with Susanoo’s chapters, we get the point of view of the dragon and each of the eight women he devours one by one, with something like love? or desire?

So: we have this balance between the power of Susanoo and the reverence he gets, and the low status of the eight daughters, who are each devoured on their wedding night, as they’re given one after the other to the same man in payment for the devouring of the one before. They are accorded the same status by the narrative: in fact, the daughters are elevated by their devouring, into an opponent worthy of Susanoo, as they become one with the dragon (their consciousnesses all, apparently, remaining, so the dragon’s mind is eventually a cacophony of voices).

There are, even, some equivalences drawn between Susanoo and the unnamed daughters. The story of Susanoo’s mother, who becomes the earth, sees her abused by her jealous and controlling husband; so that she, too, eventually becomes a devourer. The Grass-Cutting Sword, then, is a tale of women who become monsters as a response to the objectifying gaze of men. It’s a tale that gives a voice to those women, who we see throughout mythology (Grendel’s mother, Medusa, Scylla, Charybdis).

It’s not my favourite of Valente’s works: despite, or perhaps because of, its formal play (the narration of the dragon alternating with the narration of the daughters on a sentence-by-sentence basis), it feels more controlled than her later novels, less inclined to the achingly beautiful flights of prose I love about her work, the sly invention. The Grass-Cutting Sword is an experiment, and feels like it. I wouldn’t recommend starting here; but if you’re already a fan, it’s worth getting your hands on, if only for completeness’ sake.

Review: A Clash of Kings

Probably you know that A Clash of Kings is the second book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – which you may know better as Game of Thrones. In this instalment, the war for the Iron Throne of Westeros has begun in earnest. Robb Stark has declared himself King in the North; King’s Landing, home to the court of the sadistic eleven-year-old King Joffrey Lannister, prepares for a siege at the respective armies of warring brothers Renly and Stannis Baratheon.

We see, of course, plenty of the political manoeuvrings that bring things to this pass, the counsels of war and diplomacy the various powers take, as well as getting glimpses into the work of the Night Watch as they venture beyond the Wall to try and protect Westeros from the long winter to come, and into the exploits of Danaerys and her new-formed khalasaar. So far, so like the first novel.

But A Clash of Kings also offers us some insights into what life is like for the smallfolk – those with no political power or influence, the farmers and the labourers and the people who make the lords’ and ladies’ lives possible. We see riots in King’s Landing as food grows scarce and refugees from burned villages flood in. We see Arya, fleeing the city in the wake of her father’s death, captured by the Lannisters, who, unaware of her noble status, set her to work scrubbing the stones of Harrenhal Castle. We see a miserable, squalid wildling camp beyond the Wall; and, over the Narrow Sea, we see Danaerys rag-tag khalasaar starving in the deserts as they try to find a way to the coast. We see burned villages, their populations slain; we see murdered peasant children; we see people for whom the lords they work for are interchangeable, equally remote and equally uncaring.

These are some of the most interesting parts of the book; I’ve no doubt that Martin intends to call attention to the plight of these people, as part of his project to deflate the high-flown, noble rhetoric of Tolkienian fantasy. The feudal contract is broken in Westeros: it’s a rare lord who lets their beleaguered peasants into the castle for protection, as Catelyn Stark’s brother does. The peasants are left on their own, to do what it takes to survive – many of them don’t care whether their lord’s on the side of the right or not.

All of this is undermined somewhat, though, by the fact that we only come into contact with the smallfolk when our highborn protagonists do. The riots in King’s Landing become urgent only when they threaten the Red Keep – and when the rioters turn on their lords. We only know about the peasant workers of Harrenhal because Arya, a lady in disguise, finds herself among them. And so on. Jon Snow may be an illegitimate son, but he’s been raised as a lord; Danaerys may be orphaned and wandering in the wilderness, but she can hardly be called a nobody. There are no viewpoint characters who are peasants; the closest we get is an ex-smuggler who’s now a knight high in the counsels of Lord Stannis. This tends, I think, to put our sympathies with the highborn characters. We know Arya’s in the right when she asks Genly the smith to help her escape Harrenhal, despite Genly pointing out that he’ll be considerably worse off if he does. And we hardly bat an eyelid when we see King Joffrey’s court feasting off roast chicken and red wine when the people in the city below are living off stewed rat; because there is no voice in the text that objects to this.

I know that’s kind of the point. Even the most level-headed of the highborn characters have blind spots; even supposing they actually care about their people, which most of them don’t really. But that’s exactly why we need the voice of the smallfolk to balance them out – if we’re to think of Westeros as actually “realistic”, rather than just so much grimdark misery.

Because, oh, there’s a lot of torture and violence and assault on women here; so much so that I reached a point in the last fifth of the book where I just wasn’t interested any more? I don’t want to have to wade through so much viciousness just to meet up with my favourite characters – so much pointless viciousness, that is. This is violence as an aesthetic; because, actually, and as per Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, you only need a very small amount of graphic violence to play merry hell with the conventions of Tolkienian fantasy. The less there is, the greater the effect – and the more interesting the conversation. Saturating a world with senseless violence doesn’t say anything more about what human experience is “actually” like – it says more about your limited authorial imagination, actually.

I’m honestly not sure I want to read any more of this. If I do, it’ll be a while. And, no, I don’t want to finish watching the TV series.

Review: Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Volume 1

Narbonic was a webcomic that ran daily between 2000 and 2006. I only know this because the Bandersnatch supported a Kickstarter to publish the entire run in two physical volumes, which thus currently reside on our bookshelves. (You can also find Narbonics here, for free, with notes by author Shaenon K. Garrity. This will prove to be a source of distraction and procrastination for me for at least the next week or so. Although I am told it is also a source of spoilers for the second volume, so.)

The strip revolves around the exploits of Helen B. Narbon, mad scientist, and her henchfolk: Dave the computer guy, Mell the evil intern and Artie the genetically engineered superintelligent gerbil.

Actually analysing something like this feels a bit like missing the point. It’s not really…for that? Most of what it’s doing is mashing up our cultural expectations of what mad scientists are and do with Western cultural codes around the workplace. For Humorous Effect, obviously. And it’s a webcomic: I’m not sure how far Garrity planned in advance, but certainly the early strips are an explosive mish-mash of cultural references and themes and general light-hearted internetty fooling around. It’s fun, and it’s possible to enjoy things that are fun, but I’m not sure there’s that much more to say about it.