Tag: Harry Potter

Top Ten Characters Who Struggle

I was thinking this morning that I’ve read quite a few books recently about characters for whom life is a struggle; not because they have to contend with dystopias or ravening monsters or war or tragedy, though some of them do, but just because, you know, emotions, or because being a human means that sometimes you don’t want to get out of bed and talk to other people. So this post sort of leads on from my review of Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution.

A couple of these also aren’t books, because I thought thematic coherence was more important than pedantry. In this one, isolated instance.

  1. Marya Morevna – Deathless, Catherynne Valente. “You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief.”
  2. Katin – Nova, Samuel Delany. There’s a fantastic bit in Nova, which is a novel all about perception and subjectivity, where Katin says (I haven’t got the book with me, alas, so a paraphrase) that if someone seems to respond negatively to something he says he goes over all the different ways the conversation could have gone in his head. And the Mouse, bless him, says, “I like you, Katin. I was just busy, is all.” Something like that goes on in my head practically every day.
  3. Harry Potter – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany. Now, in the original books Harry is at best inoffensive (Philosopher through to Goblet) and at worst irritating and entitled as only a teenager can be. But grown-up Harry is a different prospect altogether: traumatised by the Dursleys’ abuse and by the Battle of Hogwarts and by years of sharing Voldemort’s fucking mind.
  4. Kesha – Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink. A podcast, not a book. At some point Kesha, the narrator, says something like: “I’m afraid of nearly everything, nearly all the time. But it doesn’t stop me doing what I need to do.”
  5. Meg Carpenter – Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas. I am not going to shut up about Our Tragic Universe; it is hands down my favourite book of the year so far. (Apart from my reread of The Scar, which I’m not counting.) Meg is slightly having a mid-life crisis, stuck in a toxic relationship with a useless boyfriend and half in love with an older man. And wondering if we are all living in a computer simulation, and about what the point of an afterlife would be, and whether there really is a Beast on Dartmoor. And about stories. And her life gets incrementally better, bit by bit, throughout the book; so there’s never any huge revelation or massive argument or great triumph; just a climb to hope and new possibility. It’s utterly lovely.
  6. Pencil Khan – The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock. Pen’s surviving with PTSD after being possessed by a creature of barbed wire in The City’s Son. But, like Kesha, she doesn’t let it stop her do what she needs to do.
  7. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. Lirael opens with its eponymous heroine contemplating suicide. I sort of wonder whether this actually gets treated seriously enough by Nix, because she doesn’t just think about it in an emo-teenager sort of way, she actually goes up out onto the mountain and prepares to jump off. But, in any case, I think this story of lonely Lirael finding a purpose and friendship and a family is a hopeful one.
  8. Zan – The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley. Zan has lost her memory. Over and over again. She knows she’s done terrible things, but can’t remember exactly what, or why. And still she goes on.
  9. Bellis Coldwine – The Scar, China Mieville. Actually I am going to mention The Scar. Bellis fascinates me. She’s thoroughly unlikable, and yet Mieville gets us to sympathise with her, gets us under her skin. She’s torn away from her city, without any way back. And she keeps her grief raw, refuses to accept her new reality, as a form of defiance against her captives: the only method of resistance she has.
  10. Grace Marks – Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood. Grace is another character who uses her emotional instability as a weapon, a weapon that eventually grants her a kind of victory. She resists reading by doctors and vicars and others who want to co-opt her experience, her selfhood, for their own social or commercial ends. And she, too, goes on.

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


Top Ten Bookish Things I’d Like To Own

  1. A Jay Johnstone Tolkien oil painting. I mentioned this particular life goal here about two weeks ago. I just love these paintings: they strip away the modern realism that characterises the high fantasy aesthetic at the moment in favour of a more thematically appropriate medieval feel. For instance, isn’t this treatment of Isildur fascinating?
  2. A time turner necklace. I am still operating under a fairly significant play hangover (like a book hangover but for plays) after going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last week, so it may be that this particular wish has dissipated by next week.
  3. Ankh-Morpork board game. I played this at a geek meetup a month or so ago, and it is fantastic (unlike the wretched The Witches game). Everyone gets a different role and you FIGHT for control of Ankh-Morpork! And there are special-effects cards with, like, Susan Sto Helit and the Librarian and it’s AWESOME.
  4. This Josh Kirby Librarian print. This list is going to have a lot of prints in it. Josh Kirby’s work is so detailed and animated and I would definitely not object to looking at this every day.
  5. A Charter Mark necklace. This exists! It kind of took my breath away when I saw it – not because it looks particularly complicated to make, but, oh my, the nostalgia. I love these books so much I almost don’t notice.
  6. Beszel/Ul Qoma “Unity” badge. Yes, I know it’s horrifically ironic to buy merchandise based on socialist novels, and also I didn’t like The City and the City very much, but this is quite cool.
  7. This Gormenghast print. I just found this on Etsy and wow, I love that really intricate artwork – very like Chris Riddell’s work. In fact, I might buy this right now.
  8. This Midsummer Night’s Dream t-shirt. Isn’t it pretty? It reminds me of that unspeakably lovely Russell T. Davies adaptation of the play on the BBC last year.
  9. This Reading is Radical print. It may not be entirely true. But look at it, godsdammit.
  10. This Little Women bookmark. Because, oh, yes. What a perfect quote.

(The prompt 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.

2016 Roundup

Lord. It’s the beginning of a new year again.

2016 was a better reading year for me than 2015. It had to be, really, given everything else that went on around the world.

And so, without too much further reflection: let’s begin.

The English Student’s Favourite Things of 2016

As always, these are things I first read or watched in 2016, not necessarily things published or released in that year. How organised do you think I am?

TV: Class: For Tonight We Might Die. Class just edges it over the last episode of Firefly because it was such a surprise to see a Doctor Who spinoff that actually cared about its characters and that treated its SFnal premise with something like respect. I’m hideously behind on the series, but I’ve every intention of catching up. Eventually.

Film: A Midsummer Night’s DreamRussell T Davies’ luminous and magical version of Shakespeare’s play gave me an emotional hangover for days: joyful, hopeful and inclusive.

Book: Railsea – China Mieville. A story of deserts and giant moles and people who live on trains and salvage and stories, all woven up with Mieville’s militant socialism and vibrant intellect. And that ending

Misc.: Nine Worlds 2016. Three days of pure and unadulterated geekery. What else is there to say?

2016 Reading Stats

  • I read 72 books in 2016 – the same as I read last year, and one fewer than I was hoping to read, thanks to a miscalculation last week. So close
  • The longest book I read was J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which needs, oh, less than half of its 766 pages, I’d say. Tied for shortest were Saga‘s second, third and fourth volumes, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, which in contrast deserved every page they had. Overall, I read 26,492 pages in 2016 – down from 27,390 last year.
  • The oldest book I read was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, first published in 1911. The average age of the books I read in 2016 was 16 – lower than last year’s 25.
  • Genre: I read 30 fantasy novels (42%), 17 SF novels (24%) and 6 “literary fiction” novels (8%) – although, obviously, take that latter category with a pinch of salt. Also: four thrillers, three humour novels, two historical, one horror (House of Leaves) and one “classic” (The Secret Garden). So I obviously slid back towards genre this year.
  • I read 19 YA novels (26%) – an increase on last year.
  • 21% of the books I read were re-reads – a slight increase on last year’s 19%, but not a disastrous one.
  • And, finally, my favourite statistic: 58% of the books I read in 2016 were by women – an improvement on my goal of 50%!

Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I admit, I was sceptical about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The Harry Potter franchise seems to have turned into a bit of a cash cow recently, with both Fantastic Beasts and the West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child released in book form as well as theatrically, which just seems a bit crass, frankly.

But for someone of my generation actually seeing the film at some point seemed, well, compulsory. Plus, the delightful Eddie Redmayne (who, by the way, is worth the price of admission all by himself, even if we did go on Saver Night) was very much a temptation.

Fantastic Beasts, then, set in the Harry Potter universe in 1926 (forty-odd years before the events of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), sees twenty-something wizard Newt Scamander (played by the lovely Eddie) arriving in New York with a suitcase full of various magical creatures, all of which, incidentally, are outlawed by the American wizarding community. Inevitably, some of the creatures escape.

The plot is rather loose: it sees Eddie lurching Britishly and oddly Doctor Who-ishly across New York, rounding up – or, at least, attempting to round up – his creatures, which are causing various forms of chaos in various ways, and in the process entangling with the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, MACUSA. In particular, he’s trailed and occasionally aided by Porpentina Goldstein, an ex-Auror demoted for being a little too dedicated to her duty, her sister Queenie – a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if ever I saw one – and genial Muggle Jacob Kowalski whom Newt accidentally draws into the magical world. (By the way, the American word for “Muggle”, “No-Maj”, may be the most ridiculous name I have heard in a long time. And I’ve read a lot of high fantasy.)

Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s first outing as a screenwriter, and it seems to mark something of a return to what’s good about her writing. In particular, like the early Harry Potter books, the film’s whimsical surface overlies something much darker: for beneath New York’s lushly rendered 1920s glamour (ooh, flapper dresses and diamond necklaces and beautiful long peacoats) roils a melting pot of tension and mistrust. Particularly, the shadow of Gellert Grindelwald, who will be familiar to readers of the later Harry Potter books as essentially the wizarding world’s Hitler analogue, lies long across David Yates’ frames. A sub-plot sees the rise of a Muggle movement called the New Salem Philanthropic Society, which holds that Witches Are Among Us and should be burned at the stake, and which is led by a nasty, puritanical woman, Mary Lou Barebone, an abusive mother whose intolerance of magic proves disastrous. A few bare scenes take us into the political upper echelons of Muggle New York society: a dinner hosted by a senator running for President is imagistically very reminiscent of Nazism (the senator speaks in front of a blown-up banner depicting himself, in a hall of classical marble and high ceilings), while a scene with the senator’s media tycoon father feels disturbingly Trumpian. Not even MACUSA escapes: its president (unfortunately the only person of colour in the film) is ruthless and contemptuous towards her staff, towards poor Eddie, and towards the film’s most tragic character, Mary Lou’s adopted son Credence. There is a lot going on here, politically, and it makes what could have been a frivolous cash cow actually a rather grounded look at the poison and unrest that intolerance and ungentleness can generate. It’s a credit to Rowling’s writing, too, that this simmering tension, although it does give a tone of bittersweetness to the film, doesn’t drag it down into “depressing” territory: the tragedy and the terror are leavened and anchored by Newt’s goodheartedness and the frequently adorable antics of his animals, as well as some lovely production design.

I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m actually very interested to see what Rowling comes up with for the inevitable sequel. Fantastic Beasts is, like Harry Potter was when it was first published, an unexpected surprise.

Top Ten Dystopias; Or, True and Accurate Representations of Post-Trump America

  1. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. A lone gunfighter wanders across a desert wasteland, killing as he goes. There are mutants under the mountains and sex demons in stone circles. The one town he passes through tries to murder him.
  2. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. A vast and corrupt ruling class keep the city in line with an iron fist. They research horrors without appropriate safeguards. Criminals are horribly and disproportionately punished.
  3. God’s War – Kameron Hurley. An endless religious war rages across an entire planet, but no-one can remember what it’s about or where it started. The government hires assassins to take out draft dodgers. Racial and gender intolerance abounds.
  4. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. Corporations and institutions perpetuate endless injustice. Tiny steps forwards are met with enormous leaps back. Evil is easier and more common than good.
  5. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. Poor people live crowded together in unstable and irradiated plastic bubbles in space. The only kind of revolutionary activity that works is the ultra-violent kind.
  6. Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne Valente. Everybody gets the raw end of the deal. Abuse perpetuates abuse. You submit or you die.
  7. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel. Everyone dies of flu. Religious intolerance is a thing.
  8. Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins. Children are sent to kill each other to keep the population in line. The working classes starve while the rich eat so much they vomit it up to make more room. The only kind of revolutionary activity that works is the ultra-violent kind.
  9. Wool – Hugh Howey. The people in power keep pulling the wool over your eyes (see what I did there?). What’s worse, they make you pull the wool over your own eyes, to keep you all safe and alive. Also, you live underground in a giant silo and have never seen the outside world.
  10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling. Hogwarts is taken over by an increasingly paranoid megalomaniac with a face like a toad. (Sound familiar?) Student clubs are banned. Magazines are banned. The aforesaid megalomaniac tortures her students and drives out all the sensible people.

Review: The End of Mr. Y

the-end-of-mr-yThe heroine of The End of Mr. Y is a reclusive, cynical and slightly precocious female PhD student whose idea of a good time is curling up for the day with a good book.

In other words, the chances of my not enjoying this novel were very small indeed.

Ariel Manto, the aforesaid recluse, stops in at a second-hand bookshop one wintry afternoon, and finds an extremely rare copy (as in, only-one-copy-exists-in-a-sealed-German-bank-vault rare) of an obscure novel by an almost-forgotten Victorian author: The End of Mr. Y, by Thomas E. Lumas. She buys it for a fraction of its worth, and on reading it discovers that it contains a homeopathic formula which allows the drinker to access a psychic realm called the Troposphere: a realm of metaphors representing humanity’s collective unconscious, from where, Ariel finds, you can slip into people’s minds and read their memories. The Troposphere is addictive: once you’ve visited, you have to keep going back. But it’s also dangerous: because distance equals time there; travel too far, and your body might have starved to death by the time you return. And there are those who would weaponise the Troposphere, making all of humanity potentially vulnerable. Can Ariel stop them before it’s too late?

If you’re wondering: yes, it does occasionally read like an unholy mashup of The Matrix and The Da Vinci Code.

But it’s also doing some pretty hefty theoretical thinking of its own. Key to Ariel’s, and the novel’s, worldview is that old gaping void between signifier and signified: the theory, invoked by the dread names of Heidegger and Derrida, that in our haunted postmodern times the layer of symbol and story and language that makes up our cultural experience has become only self-referential; that there is no “real” referent at all, only an endless cycle of metaphor, of simulacra.

I mean, all vomited out like that it sounds pretty indigestible, but Thomas provides us with a number of variations on the theme throughout the novel. Such as:

  • Ariel’s PhD is in the language and form of thought experiments – which are, of course, stories to illustrate untestable hypotheses. Unlike scientific experiments, thought experiments never manage to reach any kind of objective “truth” – they are there to render mathematical calculations (which are themselves only symbols – but of what?) comprehensible.

  • Ariel herself is a profoundly unreliable narrator. She tells us – and herself – stories about her life that narrate away what is obviously a profound loneliness – but we never have real, direct access to her true experience, partly because it doesn’t exist. Ariel is no more than a collection of words on tree pulp. Trying to work out her “true” experience is a pointless task.

  • Sex is important to the fabric of this novel: Ariel engages in a series of destructive sexual relationships with older men; and finds, as I read it, that contra Lacan, no matter how much violence is visited upon her, she cannot break through the Symbolic to the Real, because for her there is no Real.

(A note, briefly, on Thomas’ use of kink: though I think it’s reasonably clear here that the self-destructive nature of Ariel’s relationships stems not from the fact of transgressive sex itself but from the lack of connection she finds in them, the novel does steer dangerously close to using kink as a shorthand for “unhealthy”.)

In other words, The End of Mr. Y is a Postmodern Novel.

It’s funny: though I love a good Postmodern Novel, when I write about them I often find myself reduced to writing lists of features like the one above, spottings of things that are mildly interesting in themselves but don’t really amount to a properly solid reading of the novel. Partly, I’m sure, this is a failure of my own critical method: I’m a year out of university now and it’s fairly hard to keep those skills fresh outside of an academic environment. But, partly, I wonder if postmodernism hasn’t run out of things to say.

I can’t help but think of Richard Cooper’s recent review in Strange Horizons of the Netflix show Stranger Things. In it, Cooper argues that cultural production in the twenty-first century has been entirely dominated by reboots and reworkings, with very little in the way of creating new icons for our age; reading between the lines (and also alongside an Adam Roberts review of Aurororama in his review collection Sibilant Fricative), he seems to be suggesting that we’ve reached a kind of post-historic era, in which we’re no longer capable of creating heroes or heroines who can adequately represent our experience. The general thrust of Cooper’s argument feels too pessimistic to me, and I certainly think he gives J.K. Rowling short shrift (as well as ignoring the works of Terry Pratchett – most of which are, admittedly, not really of the twenty-first century), but it’s hard, in the face of BBC schedules which are entirely made up of Agatha Christie remakes and new series of Poldark, of the onslaught of Marvel movies and fairy-tale retellings from the film studios, not to concede that he has a point. The postmodern tools of irony and metatext (what does a remake do but return us, endlessly, to a receding series of “originals”, simulacrum upon simulacrum?) have become, not only mainstream, but the mainstream techniques for telling stories; we seem as a (Western) culture to have lost our faith in story’s ability to describe lived experience in ways that are new and fresh, and have fallen back on deconstruction, on pointing out hipsterishly that, like, stories are not like life.

But we are Homo narrativus, the storytelling ape: and though deconstructing familiar narratives, revealing the biases that lie behind them, can be valuable and necessary work, it needs to be accompanied by reconstruction: the creation of new stories, the making of new meanings.

Back, then, to The End of Mr. Y. To me, the saving grace of this novel is this: it allows us to read the absence of an ultimate referent in two ways. First, the nihilistic reading, the ironic reading: everything is, finally, meaningless, and there is no way adequately to represent anything, and no reason to try. The end of art. Secondly, however, a reading that the novel suggests without quite confirming: if all that we can access is story and symbol, does that not give us, as the storytelling ape, enormous power? We only need to tell a new story, and the world is changed. We tell a story, and suddenly a cat can be alive and dead at one and the same time. We tell a story, and suddenly connection is possible, where once it seemed as far away as the end of the universe. We tell a story, and we find our Eden.