Tag: comedy

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.)

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Review: Soulless

This review contains spoilers.

Mrs Loontwill…burst into the room. Only to find her daughter entwined on the couch with Lord Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, behind a table decorated with the carcasses of three dead chickens.

Which is Soulless in a sentence. And it is glorious.

Some context: Soulless is the first novel in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, an immensely satisfying confection of steampunk, paranormal romance and British wit. (Which is particularly remarkable given the fact that Carriger’s actually American.) When a lone vampire is found murdered in a library (totally not stabbed with a sharp parasol, no not at all), Alexia Tarabotti, confirmed spinster with an unfashionably Italian complexion and decidedly unbiddable demeanour, becomes drawn into the investigation, alongside the ruggedly handsome werewolf alpha Lord Maccon.

High jinks ensue, as they inevitably do in these situations, helped along by the fact that Alexia has no soul, and can thus turn vampires and werewolves temporarily human while she’s touching them.

The best thing about Soulless is that it is completely aware of how utterly ridiculous its premise and its plot are. It knows that no actual Victorian gentlewoman would ever be allowed to get herself into half the compromising situations Alexia finds herself in (let’s just say that there’s a lot of entwining). It also knows that letting Victorian women do what they would never have done is part of what steampunk’s for: it is wish fulfilment, and also an exploitation of a historical moment (Soulless is set in an alternative 1873) when femininity was on the cusp of becoming something new. It’s partly that tension, between tradition, etiquette, the trappings of wealth (Soulless is obsessed, again in a gloriously knowing, over-the-top way, with stuff: colourful Victorian costumes – many of them worn by the gay vampire Lord Akeldama – mouthwatering cakes, carriages and carpets and those devoured chickens), and social progress, the boldness of youth, that draws us back to steampunk, I think. It’s a space in which the future is both full of potential and bounded in very specific ways, and that’s an interesting site to explore.

Of course, because it is steampunk, and a romance, its progressiveness is limited. It centres privilege: Alexia may have been passed over for a husband, and her mother and stepfather may not be loving parents exactly, but they hardly deprive their daughter. Delightful as the novel’s interest in manners is – Alexia is more likely to spike a piece of cake with her fork than drive a stake into a vampire’s heart – it’s also symptomatic of steampunk’s central flaw: its conviction that, to put it flippantly, etiquette and breeding make the world more shiny. Adam Roberts explains it better than I do (in his review of Aurorarama, printed in Sibilant Fricative):

…the ground of [steampunk’s] appeal is a sense that the modern world is lacking in refinement. What steampunk tells us is that there’s nothing to prevent the marriage of contemporary technological convenience with the elegance and good manners of the 19th century. shorthand for this, of course, is breeding, and to think of it like that is to understand the extent to which steampunk is embroiled in reactionary ideologies of class superiority.

And: Alexia is headstrong, intelligent, pragmatic and active – in other words, a female character who’s allowed to be as complex as her male counterparts – but she does also end up married. Her revolutionary potential, her infinitely-horizoned future, is tamed, redirected into heterosexual romance. It is, undoubtedly, a particularly satisfying romance, and a better match than a lot of female characters get – I don’t want to downplay that at all – but it does still represent a closing-down, a narrowing of horizons. This is not a novel that has solutions for other women like Alexia, or indeed for lower-class women.

But that’s not what Soulless is aiming for, after all: it’s aiming for affectionate parody, for lovely romance, for a bold female character who knows what she wants, for a swift plot with vampires and werewolves and insults and cake.

So: take it as it is, and it is glorious.

I’ve asked for the sequel for Christmas.

50-Word Review: Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee

Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, Meera Syal

Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee follows four Indian women in London, tracing their friendships and their romantic entanglements over a year. It’s a novel about culture clash and the weight of parental expectation. Like life, Syal’s writing is lyrical, lush, with the sting of realism in its tail.

Theatre Review: The Tempest

Well, this review is well out of date, I’m afraid. I managed to catch what I think was the last performance of the RSC’s The Tempest at the Barbican, directed by Gregory Doran, on the 18th August, a good two months ago.

I’m reasonably familiar with the play – I did a close reading of “Come unto these yellow sands” as part of the coursework for my degree, and I’ve read it a couple of times – but I’ve never seen it on stage before. So this is not so much a review as a series of scattered thoughts.

My general impression was that Doran didn’t particularly have anything to say about the text. Its USP, so to speak, involved giving Mark Quartley, who played Ariel, a motion-sensitive camera and projecting a CGI sprite on hanging screens at particularly dramatic moments. Which, given that you can access CGI literally at the flick of a switch nowadays, feels like a bit of a cheat onstage, and too over-the-top for The Tempest anyway; perhaps it would work in something like the riotous Midsummer Night’s Dream, but The Tempest is subtler and sadder and stranger, and, to my mind anyway, needs a magic more tenuous and less obvious.

Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, on the other hand, was fascinating and not at all sympathetic: veering unpredictably between generous patriarch and jealous, insecure tyrant, afraid of losing what power he has over his daughter and the people of his island, but tired of his isolation. If the Barbican Tempest was about anything, it was about the tragedy of old age, the loss of it. In this context, I found the final speech of the play – “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/Let your indulgence set me free” – really quite interesting; a fourth-wall-breaking appeal to the audience to applaud Prospero, end the play, redeem his faults, give his story meaning and purpose through the closure of an ending. I actually did some work on similar endings to plays of the period for my degree: plays like Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Apprentice and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, which end in judgement scenes which also tend to break the fourth wall. There’s a sense in which Doran’s Tempest leaves the questions and contradictions of Shakespeare’s text open for the audience to judge.

The play was most unsatisfactory, though, on its treatment of Caliban – in fact, I’d say it revealed exactly how much of a problem Caliban is in the original text. Like Prospero, Joe Dixon’s Caliban was unpredictable, veering between sympathetic and abhorrent; unlike Prospero, however, he was never given the benefit of the doubt – we were supposed to see him as comic relief at best, as monstrous at worst. It’s become commonplace to read Caliban as the colonised Other, and Doran’s refusal to engage with that, his decision to allow Prospero to drive Caliban off, the only character not to receive a consolatory happy ending, was vaguely troubling.

The Tempest as text is quite notoriously slippery – it’s been categorised by some critics as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, precisely because it’s difficult to say exactly what it is and what it’s for. In this context, the little uneasinesses of Doran’s Tempest make a sort of sense: they’re an attempt to render the text reasonably faithfully onto the stage; to create a kind of “neutral” theatrical version of The Tempest. In other words: this is conservative Shakespeare, an attempt (despite the CGI gimmickry) to represent Shakespeare’s text authentically. It’s a job that it does well! As you’d expect from an RSC production, it’s very competent indeed – well-acted and well-staged. But it’s not a memorable thing.

Top Ten Underrated Fantasy Novels

  1. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Nobody talks very much about Palimpsest, but it might actually be my favourite of Valente’s novels. The city of Palimpsest is at once beautiful and magical and painful and terrible; reading the novel makes the world seem wide and wonderful again.
  2. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Hardly anyone outside academic circles has heard of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which seems ridiculous, because it’s had the most enormous impact on fantasy as a genre. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste: it is dense, baroque, Gothically overwritten. I love it.
  3. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. Hardinge actually seems to be getting more press since The Lie Tree won the Costa; at least her new novel A Skinful of Shadows is being advertised on the Tube, which, surely, must be an Author Goal? A Face Like Glass is wonderful in ways that are similar to Palimpsest: the world where it’s set is horrifying and dystopic, but also lush and full of wonders.
  4. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. The few reviews I’ve read of Oyeyemi’s collection of linked short stories have been vaguely critical of its unfocused nature; but to me that’s a feature, not a bug. I love the messiness of the book: again like Palimpsest, its inconclusiveness leaves doors open for wonder to creep in.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. Ben Okri is hardly underrated; nor is he a fantasy author, strictly speaking. But I’d never heard of Starbook before I stumbled across it in the library, which is a shame, because, although it has problems, it’s also very beautiful. It’s rare that anything I read really makes me see the world differently, and Starbook did.
  6. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist is a novel from a genre completely overshadowed by Tolkien and his literary descendants. Published in the 1920s, it’s a story of Fairyland – where Fairyland is at once alluring and perilous, sitting just out of reach over the horizon. It does wonder very well indeed, maintaining Fairyland’s mystique and magic right through to the end.
  7. Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho. This is a fun, diverse Regency romance that draws on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Like Clarke’s novel, it also scrutinises the self-defeating nature of institutional oppression.
  8. The Book of Taltos – Steven Brust. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard more about Brust’s novels: The Book of Taltos is one of the very few epic fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed recently, precisely because it doesn’t take itself very seriously. And because, I suspect, of its moral ambiguity: its protagonist, after all, is a wisecracking assassin.
  9. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven feels more like fantasy than SF: it’s about dreams becoming reality, and nothing is more fantastical, probably, than dreams. I also get the impression that it’s one of Le Guin’s minor works – which still makes it better than whole swathes of SFF by other authors.
  10. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I reread this first book in Reeve’s MG series about mobile cities preying on each other recently, and was seriously impressed by a) how steampunk it is, and b) how aware it is of institutional oppression. It’s a very sophisticated work of MG, and I want to get round to reading the sequels again soon.

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

Ten Fictional Characters Who’d Be in My Friendship Group

  1. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. She works in a library and she doesn’t like talking to people, but she has a rich inner life. I mean, she’s basically me. If I worked in a library.
  2. Hermione Granger – Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling. Basically because she’s bookish and academic and we would bond over our shared dislike for rule-breaking.
  3. Ponder Stibbons – the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. Ponder is just a complete nerd. And he takes life seriously. So, naturally, he would be my friend.
  4. Meggie Folchart – Inkheart, Cornelia Funke. She sleeps with books under her pillow! And has read all the books! My kind of person.
  5. Katin Crawford – Nova, Samuel Delany. Katin’s a little bit anxious, and he’s working on a long pretentious novel even though the form’s been obsolete for centuries. Yep, sounds like my kind of person.
  6. Fuschia – Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake. Fuschia’s another character with a rich inner life and a less-than-satisfactory external one. She’s prickly, but once you were friends with her you’d be friends for life.
  7. Rosemary Harper – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. Rosemary is geeky about paperwork, and also does not like breaking rules. Check, check.
  8. Nutt – Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett. Nutt is just adorable: achingly polite, intensely clever and, oh, an orc.
  9. Arthur Dent – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. There’s a bit somewhere in the trilogy where Arthur breaks the spaceship because he’s trying to get a proper cup of tea out of the vending machine and YES.
  10. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne Valente. November’s intense, lonely, focused, fascinating.

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

Review: Told by an Idiot

I’d never heard of Rose Macaulay before my housemate lent me her Told by an Idiot, and while I don’t necessarily think it’s the most consequential work of literature out there I’m certainly glad I read it.

Published in 1923, the novel looks back over the last years of the Victorian age, following the Garden family over three decades between 1880 and 1914, roughly. Mr Garden (or papa) is a clergyman who loses his faith and finds a new one on a regularly rotating basis; his six children, Victoria, Maurice, Stanley, Una, Irving and Rome handle this and the various vicissitudes of the years in various ways. Our implied point-of-view character is Rome, a detached and rather cynical observer who, after a brief and tragic love affair, essentially opts out of the sound and the fury of it all, in order to enjoy the circus of life as best she can.

Reading Told by an Idiot, I found myself thinking of Jane Austen’s description of Pride and Prejudice: “light and bright and sparkling” – despite the novel’s apparent pessimism. It’s a witty book, written in wry, pacy prose:

You may, for instance, inquire of a popular preacher, or any one else, who denounces his countrymen as “pagan” (as speakers, and even Bishops, at religious gatherings have been known to do) what, exactly, he means by this word, and you will find that he means irreligious, and is apparently oblivious of the fact that pagans were and are, in their village simplicity, the most religious persons who have ever flourished, having more gods to the square mile then the Christian or any other Church has ever possessed or desired, and paying these gods more devout and more earnest devotion than you will meet even among Anglo-Catholics in congress.

It is not particularly interested in the inner lives of its characters; its main point, made a number of times over the course of the novel, is that there is nothing new under the sun, that young people of each generation are always thought more daring than any young people ever before, that life is, in fact, a sort of inconsequential merry-go-round, ridiculous and occasionally wonderful.

Like many witty novels, it has at its heart a vein of frustration and bitterness. The Gardens are a middle-class family; they never really have to worry about money; they are as privileged, really, as anyone could have been in the late 1800s without actually being members of the aristocracy. And yet they are prevented by their society from fulfilling their potential in a number of ways. Maurice becomes trapped in marriage to a beautiful but selfish woman who won’t give him a divorce until he’s too old realistically to consider marrying again; and Stanley becomes trapped in a marriage to a man who cheats on her repeatedly, only to insist on his love for her. Perhaps most interesting is one of Stanley’s daughters (whose name I cannot at this point remember), a girl and then a woman with a highly developed inner life in which she sees herself as a man – a man who can go sailing on the high seas and fight in wars and battle Red Indians in America. (Stanley’s daughter is, unfortunately, quite racist.) This doesn’t get explored very much, but it’s present enough as a storyline that I wondered if it can’t be read as an early trans narrative.

And yet. I think, ultimately, the novel’s answer to these frustrations is insufficient. It’s essentially a novel about Rome: a woman who chooses to step away from her society, to remain unmarried and cynical and jobless – all the things that a woman isn’t supposed to be. She simply chooses not to participate, in an era that involved among other things the suffragist movement and the Boer war. She chooses apathy, the comfort of telling herself that the world cannot be changed. And, through her, so does Macaulay.

In other words, it’s a novel that’s conservative at heart. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it: it’s a wonderfully light read given its age, and a fresh look at a period that often feels all too familiar. It does mean I didn’t agree with it. And that’s fine! We don’t, after all, have to agree with everything we like.