Tag: cats

Review: The Familiar Volume 1 – One Rainy Day in May

Mark Z. Danielewski’s One Rainy Day in May is the first of a projected 27 (!) volumes about a 12-year-old girl who rescues a kitten.

I wish I was joking.

I love Danielewski’s seminal House of Leaves; I honestly think it’s the best Gothic haunted house novel out there, and what’s more it’s supremely aware of itself as haunted text, and I’d better stop there because otherwise I’ll fall down the critical-theoretical rabbit hole that is Thinking About House of Leaves. The point is: the postmodernism in House of Leaves is fascinating and thought-provoking and scary; whereas just reading a review of One Rainy Day in May makes me feel exhausted.

There are a handful of frame narratives to the book, including some Youtube mock-ups that remind me more of Marisha Pessl’s Night Film than anything else. The meat of it, though, is made up of the points of view of nine different people – I’m going to quote from the Strange Horizons review here, because writing them all out is just too tedious:

Xanther…a 12(ish)-year-old girl who has epilepsy. Her parents, a game designer and a psych-in-training, have a surprise for her one rainy day in May…Meanwhile: a gang pretends to initiate a new member only to kill him; an older couple is on the run from someone for the possession of an Orb which seems to have some connection to a possible alien intelligence; someone in Singapore steals a bunch of chocolate coins and takes a bunch of molly while working as a translator; a cop investigates a case; a man goes to court against a cop and helps a professor move some boxes; and someone practices superstitions and helps deliver some crates.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Danielewski uses typographical and stylistic tricks to represent the unique and digressive nature of thought as opposed to narrative: so, for example, Xanther’s mother Astair’s narrative is full of nested parentheses; her father Anwar, a game designer, thinks in square brackets and >>s and {}s; Singaporean Jingjing’s thoughts are rendered in Singlish; a different font is used for each character’s sections. What’s interesting about this is that the typographical choices aren’t just used to reflect who each of the characters are, as might be the case in a lesser author’s work; they also reflect how the characters think of themselves – their Second Thoughts, as Pratchett might have put it. It’s that level of self-reflexiveness that saves Danielewski from the rather uncomfortable fact that an Armenian character’s thoughts are rendered in broken English – it’s not because he can’t think fluently in Armenian, but because he chooses to see himself as someone who speaks English.

As we might expect from the author of House of Leaves, a novel ultimately about meaninglessness, Danielewski’s well aware of the irony of the fact that he’s using language to try and represent thought, the unrepresentable. Language, and, more specifically, text, is tricksy in One Rainy Day in May; unreliable and threatening, as when the question “How many raindrops?”, repeated tens of times, falls rain-shaped across the page, the onset of one of Xanther’s seizures – an overload of text that brings not meaning but meaninglessness, because the question can’t be answered; or when the thoughts of Cas arrange themselves on the page to outline the shape of the Orb she’s deliberately not thinking about. In other words, by formally innovating to better imitate the patterns of thought in text, Danielewski’s also revealing the exact inadequacy of text to do just that; a (Post)Modernist paradox if ever there was one.

There’s also the over-arching SFnal “plot”, for want of a better word, which further underlines the artificiality of narrative: it becomes clear as we read that the nine characters are actually being narrated by what seems to be a storytelling artificial intelligence, TF-Narcon9. This device serves to defamiliarise the act of reading; to highlight the alienness of having apparently omniscient access to another person’s mind, the point of view we as readers are so used to.

It’s clever. I’m not going to argue with the fact that Danielewski is probably a genius, and that he’s doing work that will probably be studied in universities in two hundred years. (His work actually reminds me quite a lot of William Blake’s: their texts have a similarly deliberate visual quality, an interest in how a book looks as well as what it says.) But it’s also a bit – sterile?

I’ve never been a fan of Modernist novels. Ulysses annoys me with its meandering, unreadable pretentiousness. Virginia Woolf bores me. Don’t talk to me about D.H. Lawrence. Formal innovation is important, of course, but it seems to come so often at the expense of any reason to care about what we’re reading. As with One Rainy Day in May, there doesn’t seem to be a point to showing up the falsenesses of narrative, beyond revealing that it’s all a lie. And that particular point’s been made before, over and over again (I mean, Chaucer did six hundred years ago in his Parliament of Fowles, did you really think there was anything new under the sun?).

This is definitely a personal thing, and it may be that I just prefer the consolations of traditional narrative to the excitement of formal innovation. But, to me, One Rainy Day in May, though not a slog by any means, feels more than a little like sound and fury signifying nothing much.

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Review: A Street Cat Named Bob

A Street Cat Named Bob is part of the extensive and well-selling genre of sentimental true stories about animals, to be filed alongside Marley and Me and Dewey the Library Cat. In this case, street musician James Bowen tells the story of how ginger tom Bob appeared on the doorstep of his sheltered housing one evening and just never left. Bob and his human charm London: what, after all, is more adorable than a cat that catches the bus every day? And Bob gives James the impetus he needs to kick his methadone addiction and start turning his life around.

That’s…pretty much all there is to say. The bits about the cat are predictably heartwarming – and he is still alive and well at the end of the book (indeed, there are two sequels), avoiding the sting in the tail of most animal fiction. Equally predictably, Bowen is no stylist, even with the help of professional writer Garry Jenkins. So, though I did find myself racing through some of the tenser bits of the story – Bowen going cold turkey with Bob at his side, Bob getting lost in London, Bowen being arrested after being framed by hostile Underground staff – I don’t think I was really as emotionally engaged as I could have been.

I do think, though, that it’s a slightly less egregious bit of sentimentality than most animal books, shining a light on a social ill that doesn’t really get talked about very much in Britain: homelessness. Bowen may not have been sleeping on the streets during the period he describes in A Street Cat Named Bob, but his life circumstances were very precarious indeed. He worked as a Big Issue seller after his fears for Bob’s safety drove him out of playing street music, and this is where Street Cat is doing its most important work if not its most interesting – because we all see Big Issue sellers on the streets on a regular basis, and this book, with its straightforward narration of what it’s like to try to sell the magazine, I think gives us an opportunity for empathy. We shouldn’t need books to make us empathise with the people our society dispossesses; but, because we are human and imperfect, we do.

A Street Cat Named Bob is, in sum, a short, easy read which opens a window on homelessness. It won’t set the Thames on fire, but read it if you like cats.

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.)

Film Review: The Jungle Book

“There’s no place in the jungle for these tricks.”

Bagheera the panther

Oh gods.

I knew, of course, that Disney’s live-action remake of its late 60s cartoon Jungle Book, based on the works of arch-colonialist Rudyard Kipling, would have to work very, very hard to be anything other than problematic.

I was seduced, however, by the theatrical trailer, with its lush, orchestral rendition of “Bare Necessities”, blatantly designed to induce nostalgia even in people who haven’t seen the film, into thinking: well, it can’t possibly be that bad…

For a film which is so overtly invested in looking back to its antecedent, The Jungle Book actually does very little to build on the original, and what it does do only serves to make the film, er, worse.

(I should note at this point that my memories of the cartoon version are very vague indeed.)

The film begins similarly to its predecessor: the presence of a human child, Mowgli, in the company of a pack of wolves in an Indian jungle draws the unwelcome attention of Shere Khan, a scarred and tyrannical tiger. In order to save the pack and restore the law of the jungle, Mowgli, accompanied by his panther mentor Bagheera, must return to the human village, hunted by the tiger at every step.

Which, OK. Fluffy exotic carnivores do make for a good children’s film. (See also: Ice Age.)

But then the remake veers off on its own, presumably in order to demonstrate that it is grown up now and can make its own mistakes. Mowgli meets Baloo the bear, who is a good deal more acquisitive than his original and wants Mowgli to fetch him some honey which Baloo can’t reach. Mowgli rises to this challenge by using (gasp) tools to create a rudimentary pulley. When Bagheera catches up with Mowgli and finds Baloo’s massive cave stocked with possibly more honey than he could ever eat, he’s furious: the jungle has no place for human tricks, he says. And this is where the film’s main failure lies: its insistent, perfidious refusal to address precisely why human tricks are bad for the jungle.

It certainly feels like there’s room for an ecological message here – looking at those vast racks of honey, I actually thought Bagheera might note how there’s now not enough for other jungle denizens, and I certainly don’t think it would be an egregious turn from the spirit of the original to reframe the story as an exploration of how humanity can interact with the flora and fauna of the forest to mutual benefit. But the ecological potential of the honey moment remains unstated: Mowgli shouldn’t use his ingenuity in the jungle just because. And although he does go on to use it later in the film, uses it, in fact, to save the jungle, it remains something that is exclusively his – the quintessence of humanity, if you like – something exclusively within his control, something that he imposes upon the jungle creatures instead of sharing it with them.

So let’s park that for a moment and think about the Red Flower (fire), which, like Mowgli’s tool-using abilities, is posited as an exclusively human possession. Apart from the fact that this is just obviously factually incorrect (forest fires, anyone?), the name the animals use for it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the kind of superstitious, childish speech which Western colonialist authors have patronisingly ascribed to native human populations for several centuries. The Jungle Book, with its essentialist emphasis on Mowgli’s – on humanity’s – innate superiority can be read as a colonialist fable, one perpetuated by its ending (again different from its original’s), which sees Mowgli remaining in the jungle, riding one of the previously untouchable holy elephants: a colonist not deigning to share his technology but expecting to reap the benefits of the jungle, and, what’s worse, ruling it by right, because of his nature. Quite apart from the colonialist overtones, it’s a profoundly anti-democratic sentiment.

And, yes, this is only to be expected in an adaptation of Kipling’s original Jungle Book, published at the end of the empire in 1894; but this present Jungle Book is a remake of something that hardly resembles that original. Besides, the more immediate source material (Disney’s ’67 cartoon) is actually less problematic, which is astonishing given the progress we’re supposed to have made since then. (It’s especially notable that the directors of the remake have made the evil snake Kaa female, without touching the gender of any of the other characters. Did the studio honestly not realise how offensive this is?) It quite honestly beggars belief that this kind of thing can keep getting made.

Top Ten Books I’d Hand to Someone who Doesn’t Like Reading

“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.”

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling. OK, I know this is kind of a cliché, but there’s a reason for that. Rowling knows how to hook her readers in, and she knows how to craft a gripping plot, and she knows in her early books not to weigh down the story with extraneous and bulky ideology.
  2. Mort – Terry Pratchett. Or, in fact, any of Pratchett’s Discworld series: funny, humane, intelligent and comforting reads that have a pretty good chance of luring the unsuspecting non-reader into the world of SFF fandom.
  3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams. In a similar vein to the above. Adams is everything Pratchett is, and Hitchhiker is a classic as well as being short, an agreeable and intelligent way to while away a few hours.
  4. Wool – Hugh Howey. So the gender politics of the later novels in the trilogy do get a bit squiffy, but there’s very little I’ve read that can rival Wool in its slow (tortuously slow) reveal of the depths of Howey’s dystopia, plus Juliette is one of my favourite heroines ever.
  5. Room – Emma Donoghue. Another page-turner (one that’s recently been adapted for film, no less), harrowing and powerful; one for those who don’t like (or don’t think they like) SFF.
  6. Bridget Jones’ Diary – Helen Fielding. More intelligent and better-written than a lot of the novels in its genre (I’m looking at you, Shopaholic), it’s also very, very funny and acutely observed. Also, with any luck it might get my hypothetical non-reader into Pride and Prejudice, and after that the entire history of English literature is your oyster.
  7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Maybe some of the book love of the islanders may rub off on my non-reading friend. This novel is just a gentle, undemanding love story, too; I actually can’t think of any reason not to like it.
  8. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I literally defy you not to be hooked.
  9. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger. Another eminently readable love story, carefully constructed (although I can see the timelines getting a bit irritating) and tinged with tragic inevitability. Her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, is also great.
  10. Cat Stories. Short stories are forgiving, easy to put down and pick back up, and who is there who doesn’t like cats?

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

2015 Roundup

“Scars are memory. Like sutures. They stitch the past to me.”

China Mieville

Happy New Year, Constant Reader!

2015’s been an eventful year, starting in January with my penultimate term of university, spending six weeks on a dissertation on Gormenghast and Rebecca (such fun!), studying like mad for my final exams in May, having two long and eventually rather boring months off in June and July, and moving away from home for my first real job in July, after which point my time was rather tightly circumscribed. In 2015, I started watching Firefly with the Circumlocutor; Sir Terry Pratchett died; Stephen Moffat finally, unarguably ruined Doctor Who; the Hugos got broken, and then sort-of half-mended again; Star Wars came out and made more money than any other film ever; and I failed to enjoy my reading as much as last year (though I still reached my reading challenge target).

The English Student’s Favourite Things of 2015

As ever, these are things I reviewed or wrote about in 2015, not necessarily things released or published in 2015.)

TV: Firefly: Serenity. For clarity: not the fan-made film, but the first episode of the TV show. It’s a flawless, glorious hour and a half of spacey fun, less banal than most television entries in the genre, with more interesting and more relatable characters, and certainly better dialogue.

Film: Bridge to Terabithia. I still haven’t read the book, but I just thought this film was a beautiful piece of storytelling: bittersweet, layered and complex, with a deeply interesting refusal to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It wasn’t at all what I expected from this children’s classic.

Book: The Scar – China Mieville. A baggy, absorbing and intelligent novel about the sea and about possibility. It’s grown on me since I read it in January – possibly because nothing I’ve read this year has yet been layered and complex enough to challenge this particular behemoth.

Misc.: Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival. Pullman wasn’t, it has to be said, very forthcoming about, well, anything; but it was a great chance to see the fantasy author in the flesh, as it were, and he does have a lovely reading voice.

2016 Reading Stats

  •  In 2016 I read 72 books – one more than I read last year.
  • The longest was Stephen King’s Wizard and Glass, at a frankly unnecessary 845 pages; the shortest was The Library of Unrequited Love, by Sophie Divry, at a short and sweet 92 pages. Overall, I read fewer pages than last year: 27,390, compared to 28,105.
  • My average rating in 2015 was 3.5, exactly the same as last year, which just goes to show that star ratings for books are absolutely meaningless.
  • The oldest book I read this year – the one published longest ago – was Fanny Burney’s Evelina, a re-read, published in 1778. The average age of the books I read this year was just 25 – significantly lower than last year.
  • Genre: I read 35 fantasy novels in 2015 (49%), 11 non-fiction books (15%), 10 SF novels (14%) and five contemporaries (7%). I also read a couple of historicals, a couple of horror novels, three classics, an animal book (Cat Stories), a drama (A Game at Chess) and a thriller (Zero Sum Game). Though I’ve read considerably more fantasy than I read last year, my non-fantasy reading has been considerably broader.
  • I’ve read just 11 YA novels this year (15%, compared to 31% last year), with the rest, 89%, being adult works; I read no MG novels, compared to four last year.
  •  Again, I bought about half of the books I read this year.
  • I managed to do less re-reading this year; just 19% of 2015’s reads were re-reads, compared to 25% last year.
  • I also managed to read more books by women this year: 40%, compared to last year’s 31%. In 2016, I’d like to get that percentage up to 50%.

Top Ten Minor Characters

Did you ever look into an English novel? Well, do not trouble yourself. It is nothing but a lot of nonsense about girls with fanciful names getting married.”

Susanna Clarke

Just kind of easing my way back into Regular Posting with a Top Ten today. Apologies for the hiatus: a crazy little thing called Life got in the way a bit. (Bonus points if you get the reference.)

  1. Faramir – The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Does this really need elaboration? He is awesome, plus he would not pick up the Ring if it lay by the wayside. IN YOUR FACE, BOROMIR.

  2. Marvin the Paranoid Android – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. I have so much love for Marvin. Partly, it has to be said, because his name rhymes. But also because he is adorable.

  3. Twemlow – Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. I just adore that last scene in OMF when Society is being mean about Lizzie and dear old tweedy Twemlow stands up to them all and everyone is flabbergasted. Dickens was great at writing memorable minor characters.

  4. Oy – The Dark Tower, Stephen King. I can have Oy, right? Oy is wonderful, loyal and funny and furry and sweet.

  5. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler – Discworld, Terry Pratchett. I especially love that there are iterations of Ankh-Morpork’s dodgy food salesman all across the cultures of the Disc. It’s a running gag that ties the whole series together really well.

  6. Serafina Pekkala – His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman. There is something icy and strange and alien about Serafina, and something warm too; she’s a contradiction, and a fascinating one.

  7. Fred and George Weasley – Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling. Their exchanges may be some of the best things about these books. Certainly the funniest.

  8. Arabella Strange – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke. Admittedly, Arabella is probably only on this list because I watched the TV series recently and need an excuse to fangirl about the Stranges. But, seriously, Arabella is fantastic: spirited without being obnoxious, empathetic without being a pushover, and clever without being, well, like Mr Norrell.

  9. Mogget – Sabriel, Garth Nix. Mogget is a white cat who goes around being sarky to Our Heroine. Need I say more?

  10. Maximus – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. Well, really I want all the dragons, but Maximus will have to do to start off with.

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