- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays – some from Hurley’s blog, some written specifically for this volume – about oppression of all shapes and sizes, in geek culture specifically and the Western world more generally. There’s a lot about feminism, including her Hugo-award winning essay “We Have Always Fought”. But there are also essays about racism (“What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Race in America”) and classism (“The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live”) and the abuse of creators’ power (“Let It Go”). In short, it’s a collection covering anything and everything in geek culture and beyond that challenges the white male status quo.
Like all of Hurley’s work, and despite the insinuations of the cheerfully irreverent cover, it is not a book that offers easy answers. Which is to say, it does not peddle the brand of upbeat geeky feminist positivity channelled by books like Sam Maggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy (though, don’t get me wrong, that kind of work has a place too); it’s a book whose focus is squarely in revolution, and all the blood and sweat and tears that real revolutions entail.
A central theme of Hurley’s is perseverance, endurance, persistence: the work that’s involved in Being a Writer, in being a responsible creator, in fighting the system’s biases – sometimes just in surviving. The collection weaves personal material in with its politics: so we have, for example, the harrowing “The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance”, which should be required reading for everyone with an influence on health policy on both sides of the pond, sitting alongside “Becoming What You Hate”, a short piece about the controversial blogger Requires Hate and the ethics of assumed identities on the internet. This is generally symptomatic of the book’s eclectic approach: while notionally it’s divided into four sections – “Level Up”, “Geek”, “Let’s Get Personal” and “Revolution” – to be honest I’m not sure how meaningful these distinctions are. The message of all of them – if there is a single message – is simply that the fight for equality is not over, and perhaps never will be; that after every victory there are countless battles yet to fight.
On a personal note, and weirdly, I found this idea comforting rather than dispiriting. I think there’s a cultural narrative in the West – it’s quite a capitalist narrative really – which casts life as a quest for something specific, whether that’s a dream job or a perfect partner or a social life that makes Kim Kardashian seem like a stay-at-home, a quest at which you either succeed and become immediately happy and graceful and self-confident, or fail and remain a miserable loser for the rest of your life. Hurley’s collection, with its stories of personal and political endurance, is a counter-cry to that narrative, reminds us that the great story of the world is not, in fact, about us as individuals at all. We’re more like those extras at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields who maybe get to stab an orc or two, if we’re lucky. After every victory, there’s always another battle to fight: so it’s OK, actually, not to be OK all the time. It’s OK to cut ourselves some slack, so long as we pick up that sword again after a while and keep fighting.
After all: we have always fought. And we always will.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- This Reading is Radical print. It may not be entirely true. But look at it, godsdammit.
- 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.)
- The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is the trilogy that launched a thousand imitations, but no-one’s really tried taking on The Silmarillion. No-one who’s succeeded, anyway. It’s not really a novel, because it doesn’t really have characters. It’s not a fictional history, either – it’s too self-consciously literary. It’s a fictional myth cycle, and I’ve never heard of another one of those.
- House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. Oh, House of Leaves! A real puzzle-box of a novel, a horror story about the treacherous power of story, one that thinks about the intersection of text and space, the uncanny and the unheimlich, in such a fascinating way. It’s almost a literary essay in its own right.
- The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake. This is kind of impossible to place in any particular literary tradition. It’s definitely not realism, but it’s not quite fantasy either; by turns deeply, claustrophobically psychological and almost absurdly Dickensian in its caricature. It’s precisely that indefinability that makes it so interesting, though.
- Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is quite recognisably literary fiction; but unlike most literary fiction I’ve read, its approach to the big questions in life feels specifically shaped by literary theory. It’s also bewitchingly charming in a way that I can’t quite pin down.
- Nova – Samuel Delaney. I read this a couple of weeks ago, and it’s very unusual indeed: sixties SF that’s formally innovative, eschewing scientific infodump in favour of sensory affect and literary theme.
- Evelina – Frances Burney. Evelina is a gem. Published in 1778, it’s a novel about a young woman coming out into society. It mixes sensational melodrama with sharp social comedy in a way that’s really quite interesting, and revolutionary, too, for a woman writer in the 18th century.
- The Gunslinger – Stephen King. I still haven’t read anything like the first few books of the Dark Tower series, with their apocalyptic dream-sequence landscapes, their uncanny echoes of our world; and I don’t expect I ever will.
- Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Each of Valente’s novels is different in theme and setting and approach, though they’re tied together by her approach to myth and story. Palimpsest isn’t my favourite – that would be Radiance – but it is the one I most wanted to savour: its meaning unclear and becoming ever more multiple the more you think about it.
- How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu. This was another surprisingly literary SF novel, one that plays with the inherent metafictional tendencies of SF to say something about science fiction and about reality.
- The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. This is interesting because it talks about the intersection between science and culture, a theme that doesn’t crop up too often in SF. Also, feminism!
(The prompt for this post came from the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
- The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. As with, I suspect, many other people, The Hobbit was my gateway into The Lord of the Rings, a book that, almost uniquely, sits deep in my psyche. And so it was a gateway, too, into a fandom and a way of writing and thinking and into a shared code of story.
- The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. This was my gateway into feminist thinking, and into serious, weighty literary criticism in general. It showed me what you can do with criticism, the anger you can wield with it and the worlds you can create.
- Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. A gateway into the Gothic, a mode which holds so much interest for me, deep and dark and ambiguous and strange.
- The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. This was the book that made me realise that postmodernism is actually pretty cool, definitely more cool than Modernism.
- Havelok the Dane – Anonymous. Havelok the Dane is a thirteenth-century narrative poem about, er, a Dane called Havelok who…invades Britain or something? I can’t even really remember what happens in it. Anyway, I read this a couple of weeks before I started at university, in a vague panic because I didn’t get the reading list when I was supposed to get it, and just being utterly enchanted because it was so Tolkien-y and fairy tale-esque. And it was that that made me choose to study Middle English instead of Old English in my first year, so I got to read lots of other wonderful works like it, including several Arthurian romances, and overall I had a great insight into a literary period that doesn’t get studied very often.
- Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This was my first graphic novel, and I couldn’t really have asked for a better introduction. It’s punchy and fearless and full of emotional truth.
- The Gunslinger – Stephen King. So this was my gateway into proper grown-up fantasy, really: fantasy in which worldbuilding is metaphor and metaphor is worldbuilding, in which our world is always half-glimpsed in the strangenesses of another one.
- Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I was quite lucky that this was my first Dickens novel: it’s sentimental and sprawling and right up my street, and it’s why I continue to read Dickens novels. (To be fair, there’s only been one real dud among the ones I’ve read.)
- The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This made me properly want to go to university and study things in dusty old libraries.
- Steampunk Your Wardrobe – Calista Taylor. I mean, I still haven’t made anything from this book, but it was my first steampunk reference book, so to speak. I now have three, and intend to collect lots more!
(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
- Get a novel published. I mean, I have no intention of stopping at one if I can help it. But one is a start. One is the doorway.
- Have my own personal library, i.e. a room that is just for books. This is a goal that is very much for when I am Grown Up and am living in more than one room. I mean, you don’t really need a living room, right?
- Own one of Jay Johnstone’s Tolkien paintings. Like, one of the big oil paintings with a commensurately big price tag. They are gorgeous: very different to how Tolkien’s work traditionally gets represented visually, but at the same time instantly recognisable as Tolkien art. It would go in my library.
- Get a reader’s card at the British Library. You’re only supposed to use the BL’s collections if you can’t find the text easily elsewhere. So I need a good excuse to do some proper primary text research – which would, in itself, be very cool.
- Write a long research piece about how buildings and texts work in the Gothic. I did my undergraduate dissertation on “breathing buildings”: how crumbling Gothic piles take on lives of their own and threaten the reader as well as the characters. It had Freud in it. I got a First for it and I feel like I have so much more to say on the topic – so whether it’s a Master’s dissertation or something else, I definitely want an excuse to do some more work on it.
- Know more about book binding. Ever since I read Inkheart at age 12 I’ve wanted to be the kind of person who can look at a book and go, “Yes, that is a classic Coptic binding with oak boards,” or whatever. I went to a British Library conservation day the other week, which was fascinating, and I need more!
- Meet, have a book signed by or otherwise interact with China Mieville. Mieville is probably the one author I would fangirl at meeting. (Terry Pratchett would have been, too, but alas, that chance is gone forever. I have a birthday card signed by him, though. It has a cat on it.) Not only is he a stupidly clever fantasy author, he is also really quite attractive.
- Watch the upcoming film adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and pray that it is not terrible. I’m seriously nervous that it’s not a straight adaptation but an alternative take on the series – that could be a great decision, or…not. Plus, they seem to have cut Susannah? And Eddie? And Oy? This teaser poster, though. I approve.
- Read all of Saga. I think I got to…about #5 and stopped? This one is probably dependent on finding a library that has the volumes in it.
- Make one of the projects in my Steampunk Your Wardrobe book. This could be tricky as I am terrible at sewing – and, indeed, anything requiring more than a modicum of hand-eye coordination. I want to try doing a bustle skirt, though.
(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)
Because, after all, there are still nice things in the world.
- Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. If I had ever met Terry Pratchett, the one thing I would have wanted to say to him was “thank you”. His books are an antidote to illness, a holiday escape, a refuge in times of sorrow. They taught me scepticism and they taught me humanity. They have their flaws, of course; but their small perfections are so much greater.
- My degree. I was fantastically lucky to be able to read for three years and be taught by experts in their fields and have access to world-class libraries. I started learning to think rigorously about books and culture; I got a good grounding in historical attitudes to literature; I developed my own theories and learned for the first time that criticism doesn’t have to mean sucking the joy out of everything.
- Steampunk. I know this isn’t just a bookish thing, and I know, too, that steampunk can be conservative and reactionary and nostalgic in an unhelpful way. But I also think good steampunk can be fantastic at deconstructing the oppressive structures inherent in our society, precisely because so many of its core elements foreground those structures.
- Tolkien. His philosophy, defiant in the face of evil, is just what we need right now. And also because Tolkien has brought some lovely people into my life.
- Libraries. Libraries! Libraries are amazing places: buildings that contain whole worlds, that anyone can access for free (mostly). And not just bookish worlds, either: libraries are meeting-places, community hubs, study spaces, Internet access points, vital sources of information in an information age.
- Strange Horizons. And all the other online venues doing thoughtful, intelligent SFF criticism: Andrew Rilstone, Ferretbrain, Asking the Wrong Questions, Tor.com: people who think this essentially popular genre is worth thinking about critically. This Internet microcosm has encouraged me to keep this blog running, practising the critical skills I started learning at university and generally keeping me sane (even if all I do on those sites is lurk).
- Forbidden Planet. It is impossible for me to go in here without making my purse cry. It’s just full of stuff I like to read.
- T.S. Eliot. It’s kind of a cliché to cite The Waste Land as a favourite poem, but there’s a good reason that it’s a cliché: because Eliot’s poetry speaks to the condition of modernity in a way that few poets ever nail down, while still capturing timeless human emotion. It’s also strongly SFnal, as Stephen King noticed in The Waste Lands.
- Nine Worlds. I just want life to be Nine Worlds, is that really too much to ask? Seriously, though, Nine Worlds 2016 was such an overwhelmingly positive, thoughtful, diverse space, and I think making “real life” more like that would be no bad thing.
- Postmodernism. Is “thankful” really the right word? I’m not sure. Rife with problems as it is, though, postmodernism gets us to think about how our dominant cultural narratives work, which is really important for any critic.
(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)