Tag: comedy

Top Ten Classics

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, and so it retains a special place in my heart. It’s sprawling, melodramatic, often sentimental, sometimes angry, and altogether wonderful. And it features one of Dickens’ most spirited heroines: Lizzie Hexam.
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. I also love Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but Pride and Prejudice takes the crown because of Elizabeth’s spirit, and because Jane and Bingley are simply charming.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. This is a remarkable novel that smushes together Dickensian caricature and Gothic menace. Threatening, ponderous, hypnotic.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Every politician should read this. It’s a stark warning about the consequences of social isolation, the folly of oppression, and the perils of hubris.
  5. Paradise Lost – John Milton. Milton’s verse is a revelation (hah): resonant, spirited and grand, and surprisingly accessible to a modern reader.
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Much like Titus Groan, this is a novel that draws you into its melodramatic world and won’t let go: a lush and richly described work full of foreshadowings and pathetic fallacies and moustache-twirling villains.
  7. Evelina – Fanny Burney. Burney was a sort of proto-Jane Austen, and her first novel is her best: an epistolary tale of a young woman in London for the first time, it combines social comedy with, um, high melodrama. (There is definitely a theme to this post.)
  8. The Tempest – William Shakespeare. My favourite Shakespeare play varies wildly depending on the version I’ve seen most recently. But The Tempest is definitely up there for its elegiac tone, and the way its action takes place in strange boundary states, between the sea and the land, between the city and the wilderness, between life and death.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad. I’ve only read this once, at university: but I loved the lush menace of Conrad’s writing, the gathering sense of dread as we advance along the Congo.
  10. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. I’m a sucker for Arthurian stories, and though Malory’s Arthurian cycle was by no means the first version of the Once and Future King’s story (or the best), it’s certainly been one of the most influential on Western literature.

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

Top Ten Book Covers I’d Frame as Art

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien. Illustrated by Alan Lee, naturally. Look how gorgeous this Rivendell painting is! You can actually get prints of it, apparently, for the low, low price of £400.
  2. The Last Hero – Terry Pratchett. Paul Kidby’s covers just about edge out Josh Kirby’s action-packed paperback ones; they’re a bit softer and feel more like the kind of thing I’d want on my wall. And I particularly love all the art for The Last Hero, a “Discworld fable” that’s probably as close as Pratchett ever got to writing an actual graphic novel.
  3. Saga 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I think this is the cover of the big collected editions, not the individual volumes. I love the way Alana’s glaring right at us. I love the way that explosion bisects the page, but that Alana and Marko and Hazel are still more important than it. That’s exactly what it’s like to read Saga.
  4. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. The Art Deco, stained-glass feel this cover’s got going on is what made me read the book in the first place. The bubbles! The colour! The space rocket!
  5. The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell. I like the movement in this cover: the way that labyrinths twist into spirals twist into circles. Again, it’s a great reflection of what it’s like to read The Bone Clocks: feeling all the certainties twist with every chapter you read, and yet knowing there’s a grand plan, a common thread, to it all.
  6. Inkdeath – Cornelia Funke. Not my favourite of the Inkheart trilogy – that would be Inkheart itself – but I like how that illustration in the centre, with all its lush fantastic detail, draws your eye in, and it’s only with a lurch of focus that you realise it’s also a skull. (Or perhaps I’m just exceptionally unobservant.)
  7. The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath – Ishbelle Bee. This was really not a good book. But I do like the elaborateness of this Gothicky cover, that steampunk-fairytale title font against the simplicity of the gold silhouettes in the foreground.
  8. Goldenhand – Garth Nix. Again, really not my favourite Old Kingdom story. But there’s something about the wild slash of gold against that black background that would make a great, evocative piece of abstract art.
  9. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I find the naivete of this cover quite interesting: the faces look like something from a 1950s Famous Five cover, but then there’s that half-glimpsed steampunk balloon above, and the rust on the basket, and that vast thing belching black smoke. And no Famous Five sky was ever that colour. It’s a book about the hidden structures of oppression beneath the familiar, so the unease this cover generates is perfect.
  10. Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman. That coloured woodcut of the skies of Oxford, with the Radcliffe Camera, and Carfax Tower, and the tower of St Mary’s…well, it’s everything. (The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

50-Word Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island is celebrated travel writer Bill Bryson’s account of a farewell trip around England before he moved to America. It’s sexist in that nauseatingly Middle England way that tells you unconsciously that you’re being a bore if you take offence. And is not even that funny.

(Micro-post because it’s Friday evening and, really, this book deserves nothing more.)

Top Ten Books for Firefly Fans

  1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. It’s been noted across the internet that this book is pretty much Firefly with aliens. It’s an episodic amble across the galaxy, complete with crew tensions, individual character arcs, space pirate invasions and dodgy cargo. There’s even a bubbly lady engineer.
  2. Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks. Consider Phlebas is a lot chillier than Firefly, but it wears the same kind of pessimism about the universe. It centres on a mercenary ship, the Clear Air Turbulence, whose crew feels like Serenity‘s without the rose-tinted goggles: a group of ruthless pirates without loyalty, love or hearts of gold, who kill without a moment’s thought.
  3. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy is all about doing what you can in your small corner of space, which is very much a thematic core of Firefly‘s. Its universe also feels as culturally immersive as Firefly‘s does, and it’s about resisting a totalitarian government.
  4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This may seem like a weird pick: it’s not SFF at all, but an epistolary novel about how the people of Guernsey survived the Second World War. But, like Firefly, it celebrates the power of community to resist and overcome evil.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delany. Another space-pirate story, this one’s about the importance of the ordinary and the powerless.
  6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams. It’s set in space! I’m not sure why I feel like this should be on this list. It’s got Firefly‘s lightness of touch, its irreverence for authority.
  7. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. Although it’s a Regency military AU with dragons, I think Temeraire has something of Firefly‘s emotional heart, as its hero Laurence carves out a space for empathy in his rigidly defined social world.
  8. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. This is a steampunky story about a far-future world in which cities eat each other to survive. It’s got Firefly‘s beaten-up, lived-in aesthetic, and its deep, cynical distrust for capitalism.
  9. Railsea – China Mieville. Railsea‘s characters are, like the crew of Serenity, nomadic: the novel’s set on a train that hunts moles through the desert of capitalism. It’s about radicalism and salvage and storytelling, all concerns of Firefly‘s.
  10. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel. This is about a travelling theatre wandering through an America devastated by superflu. It’s nowhere near as depressing as it sounds: again, it’s about carving a community in circumstances that seem hostile.

(The prompt for this post comes from the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader isn’t really a novel; it’s more of a long short story – a novella, perhaps – which first appeared in The London Review of Books in 2007. The titular uncommon reader is Queen Elizabeth II, who finds herself by accident (thanks to her unruly corgis) in a mobile library in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. It seems rude to leave without borrowing a book – so she does so; and thus begins an obsession with the written word that plunges her advisors into despair. Soon, the Queen is neglecting her ceremonial duties in favour of her books, and nonplussing her adoring subjects by asking them what they’re reading instead of where they’ve travelled from. And when she actually starts talking about writing a book…

The nice thing about The Uncommon Reader is that it takes a joke and weaves it into something a bit more layered, a reflection on the nature of reading and on the nature of the British monarchy. The Queen’s reading embarks her on a process of becoming specific, transforming from a symbol of authority to a person who can use that authority – though, fortunately, what she mainly uses it for is to obtain more books. In other words, the Queen’s encounter with other minds, other selves through her reading forces her to define her own self, to differentiate her self from theirs: she transforms from object to subject, and begins to have her own opinions.

Hence the consternation of her staff, because that process of selfhood proves incompatible with effective queening. The political neutrality we’ve come to see as emblematic of the modern monarchy is gone: instead of finding common conversational ground – or seeming to, at any rate – with everyone she meets, whether that’s the ambassador of France or the person handing her a bunch of flowers at a hospital opening, she’s looking to have proper, in-depth conversations about reading, which her advisors see as elitist and out of touch. (And they are not, in fact, entirely wrong: Bennett’s Queen Elizabeth shares the sneering contempt for genre fiction that much of the British literary establishment still displays.) What they mean, of course, is that a reading Queen, a Queen with her own opinions and her own established selfhood, is no longer a mouthpiece for the government: she’s a separate entity, with a constitutional power that is suddenly threatening. Like an eighty-year-old Katniss Everdeen, she’s pushing back against an oppressive structure that allows her only one role to play.

Lest we start, through the empathy of reading, feeling sorry for the real Queen, though, it’s probably a good idea to remember that the monarchy’s image of neutrality and universal accessibility – is there anyone in England who really, virulently hates the Queen? I honestly don’t think so – is largely one of her own creation. Her father, George V, defied constitutional law to show support for Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler; her uncle, Edward VIII, chose marriage to a divorcee over remaining king. And Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, still effectively had some political power. No: although the concept of a politically neutral monarchy existed before Elizabeth came to the throne, she has played a key part, over her extraordinarily long reign, in constructing the image of the monarchy that we all now take for granted.

Where does that leave The Uncommon Reader? It’s an interesting look at what reading can do, its bourgeois interpretation of what “good” reading looks like leavened a little by the Queen’s footman Norman, whose reading choice is dictated by whether or not the author is gay. Bennett’s portrait of the Queen is sprinkled, as all good comedy is, by a note of the tragic: her sadness at realising that she has missed a lifetime of reading, and will never catch up no matter how hard she tries. And its analysis of what the monarchy is is sound. But to cast the Queen as a trapped woman bound to passive compliance with her ceremonial role, like some Earl of Gormenghast, when in fact she is a dedicated and canny leader, is disingenuousness itself.

Top Ten SF Novels

  1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. This book is so hopeful about humanity’s future, our ability to accept other ways of life and make diplomatic relations possible with alien races. It’s a book to turn to, for inspiration and courage, in the face of populism and division.
  2. Railsea – China Mieville. By contrast, Railsea is pretty angry and sarcastic, an attack on capitalism and global consumption, “shaped in the shit in which it sits“. It’s also a fantastic story about storytelling, and hunting giant moles in desert sands.
  3. Embassytown – China Mieville. I really like Mieville. Did you notice? He’s one of those authors – relatively rare in the SFF world – who you can tell is thinking about every word he uses, fully aware of its whole range of connotations. There are whole depths of thought and concept in his novels.
  4. God’s War – Kameron Hurley. I am vocal in my love for God’s War‘s first sentence – “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” As that sentence suggests, the book is confrontational, angry, and ultimately all about women.
  5.  Saga – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Maybe this isn’t strictly speaking a novel, but I’m counting it. It’s set in this utterly absurd world of rocketship trees and cyclop authors and spider-women, yet it manages to tell these incredibly intimate and touching stories about people.
  6. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu. This is science fiction as metaphor, a playful novel about memory and paternity and fictionality. I’ve never read anything like it, which is a shame, because it’s the kind of thing that SF is uniquely set up to do.
  7. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. It’s rare to find an SF novel so astute about the relationship between scientific endeavour and society – much less one that throws first-wave feminism into the mix.
  8. Artemis Fowl – Eoin Colfer. This has a place on the list mainly for sentimental reasons – I haven’t read it for several years, but I re-read it countless times as a child. Its high-tech fairies are absolutely badass.
  9. The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Pratchett and Baxter aren’t so hot on character and plot, but the worldbuilding in The Long Earth is worth the price of admission all by itself. It’s basically two very geeky, very clever people working out all the consequences of the sudden appearance of an infinite number of extra-dimensional Earths, in a way that’s accessible and interesting.
  10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams. But of course. Awake to the absurdity of the universe, and at micro-level to the absurdity of humanity, this is a classic through and through.

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

Top Ten Subversive Female Characters

In honour of International Women’s Day.

Also, the Tournament of Books has started! Unfortunately I cannot honour both at once, but you should definitely go read the Tournament – it is wonderful and thoughtful and, yes, subversive.

  1. Alana – Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Alana’s a fighter and a mother and a lover. She’s determined not to give up her own identity and her own right to defend herself; and her right, too, to fall in love with whomever the hell she likes. She’s sassy and sexy and vulnerable and real.
  2. Nyx – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Honestly, Nyx is not really a nice person. In fact, she’s utterly ruthless, ready to kill and betray to protect herself. But she’s bisexual and forthright and defiantly, unapologetically female.
  3. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. Ignore the film version: book Adora is not going to be shoehorned into the sentimentalities of traditional romance. If she’s going to date someone, it will be on her terms.
  4. Lyra Belacqua – Northern Lights, Philip Pullman. Lyra is not good. She is not pretty, or honest, or nice. She is loyal, though, and fierce, and clever. And she knows what’s right and wrong.
  5. Mosca Mye – Fly By Night, Frances Hardinge. Mosca’s very much in the mould of Lyra. She’s a liar. She runs away from her family. She has a pet goose. She’s nothing that a girl is expected to be: but she thinks for herself, and she works to make things better for others.
  6. Hermione Granger – Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling. Again: Hermione’s not pretty. Nor is she, particularly, a fighter. But she’s clever, and brave in her own way, and she works almost behind the scenes to bring Voldemort down.
  7. Emily Roland – the Temeraire series, Naomi Novik. She’s a female aviator, and not particularly showy about it: matter-of-factly in love with a dragon captain she can’t marry, and straightforward about having sex with him; quietly convinced, in defiance of society’s surprise, of her being just as competent as her male counterparts.
  8. Sonmi-451 – Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Sonmi is quietly, cold-bloodedly defiant and brave. She knows that she has been lied to and manipulated, and she knows what her future is. And still, she goes on, because she also knows that she’s sowing the seeds of rebellion.
  9. Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Katniss may not be a subtle revolutionary, but I think that the fact that she has no good choices and no real good ending makes her important in YA.
  10. Yalda – The Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan. What makes Yalda so interesting is that her rebellion is about doing science: creating space for her and her friends to have a meaningful intellectual life, while fighting their biology to give themselves a future.