Tag: murder mystery

2017 Roundup

Happy New Year, dear reader!

Let’s hope 2018’s a bit kinder to us all than 2017 was, shall we?

My Favourite Things of 2017

Book: Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. Re-reading my review reminds me how clever I found this novel on my first reading of it, but really it’s here because it’s such a comforting read. I love its gentle narrative arc, the way it takes its heroine on her first tentative, hopeful steps towards a future that’s, once again and exactly, full of potential.

TV: Class: Detained. I am sad that Class has been cancelled: it’s pretty much the only TV show aside from Doctor Who I’ve been watching this year, and pretty much all of its storytelling has been pitch-perfect. Detained probably stands out for me because it really makes its SFnal concept work to support its character development, and its young actors do a fantastic job in making it feel believable and claustrophobic.

Film: MoanaI was apparently terrible at seeing films in 2017, so I don’t have very much to choose from. Moana‘s the best of a bunch I have mixed feelings about: it does have a female POC protagonist with no discernible love interest, and I’m still listening to the songs ten months on.

Misc.: Nine Worlds 2017Next year I’m going to drop the Misc. category, on the basis that the answer will henceforth always be “Nine Worlds”. Because obviously.

2017 Reading Stats

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 85 books in 2017, absolutely smashing my target of 73.
  • The longest book I read was One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski, which, at 839 pages, was, honestly, kind of tedious. (If that wasn’t enough, it’s also the first volume of 27. Angels and ministers of grace defend us.) The shortest was Martin Rowson’s brilliant graphic novel rendering of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, at just 80 pages. Overall I read 30,893 pages – considerably up from last year’s 26,492.
  • The oldest book I read in 2017 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a re-read, first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2017 was 44 – up from last year’s 16, probably at least partly because of all the old-school SF I’ve been reading.
  • Genre: As usual the biggest single genre I read in was fantasy – I read 39 fantasy novels (45%), 18 SF novels (21%) and eight lit-fic novels (9%), as well as five each from non-fiction and historical novels, three “classic” novels (which I’ve categorised as such to distinguish them from commercial lit-fic), two “humour” novels and a detective story (The Waste Land, which I suspect actually belongs in “humour”). My reading, in other words, has seen pretty much the same genre split it did last year.
  • I read 10 YA novels (12%) – that’s lower than last year, when YA made up about a quarter of my reading.
  • Just 11% of the books I read this year were re-reads! That’s almost half last year’s 21% – I’m pleased with this.
  • 46% of the books I read in 2017 were by women. That’s disappointing; I thought I’d done better than that.
  • And 18% of the books I read in 2017 were by POCs. I don’t have a target for this one – it’s difficult to know what the baseline should be, and I didn’t count last year – but I’m reasonably pleased with this.
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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.

Top Ten Character-Driven Novels

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is more or less a plotless novel; it relies entirely on what you think of its protagonist Meg. I think she’s great: Thomas has a real talent for writing characters you care about despite their mistakes.
  2. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. The ensemble cast who lead this novel – another one that’s pretty much structureless – range from a vilely racist human to a polyamorous sentient lizard. They all have their own backstories, their own struggles; Chambers gets under the skin of all of them, to try and help us understand why they are who they are. If this book is about anything, it’s about very different people working together to support each other. It’s lovely.
  3. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. OK, this one technically does have a plot, but it’s only perfunctory. Really, we’re reading for four broken strangers, their wretched humanity rendered beautiful by Valente’s infinitely sympathetic gaze and her prose precious as hoarded gold.
  4. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is Gothically strange and dense: its characters are at one and the same time Dickensian grotesques and deeply, richly psychologically imagined. It’s not quite like anything else I’ve read.
  5. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl. There’s some postmodern trickery going on here, but unlike many novels that play with textual authority it has character at its heart: specifically the character of Blue van Meer, a lost, precocious teenager scrabbling for a deeper meaning to her life.
  6. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov. I’ve only read this once, a few years ago, but it’s stuck with me. Like Pessl’s novel, its postmodern trickery is all in the service of building up a character, as Charles Kinbote’s commentary on his neighbour’s unfinished poem spirals further and further away from its initial performance of cool criticism.
  7. Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter. At the heart of Carter’s novel is Fevvers, a larger-than-life circus woman who resists all attempts to define her or pin her down. She’s awesome.
  8. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. It’s not individual characters that Novik’s interested in so much as their relationships. Temeraire is a Regency comedy of manners, really, and Novik’s excellent at delineating the rigid social structures and codes that define her characters’, behaviour.
  9. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. Like Naomi Novik, Leckie’s fundamentally interested in social structures and how they define and proscribe relationships. Unlike Temeraire, though, Ancillary Justice has a protagonist with a degree of complexity: an AI who has lost her hive mind and who’s bent on revenge.
  10. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood. At the heart of Atwood’s novel is convicted Canadian murderess Grace Marks, a woman born into poverty who spends her life fighting the male gaze.

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

Review: Affinity

TW: suicide.

This review contains spoilers.

Like her later novel Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ Affinity is formally an excellent copy of a classic Victorian novel, only with lesbians instead of straight people. Margaret Prior is an unmarried woman recovering from a suicidal depression. As part of her convalescence, she becomes a Lady Visitor at Millbank Prison, visiting female convicts, talking to them about their lives, and (in theory) guiding them to repentance and good behaviour.

One of these women is Selina Dawes, a spirit medium convicted of murder. As time wears on Margaret becomes ever more obsessed with Selina. Is she a guilty fraudster, an innocent victim, a real medium, or a combination of all three? And can she possibly share Margaret’s sexuality, which is part of what triggered her depression? The novel’s narrated through Margaret’s diary entries, making for a singularly claustrophobic account of her cloistered, unhappy existence, marked by the grief of her father’s death and her former lover’s marriage to her brother, by her mother’s overbearing nature and by the stone walls and inhumanity of Millbank.

On the face of it, this is a novel that should generate shedloads of potent ambiguity. Margaret’s slow decline into madness (complete with hefty doses of laudanum); our uncertainty as to whether the various oddnesses associated with Selina are magic or trickery; the ever-present awareness of repressed queerness; the epistolary format, with the questions that raises about the truth of the account we’re presented with – all of this feels like it should, or could, combine into something Gothically disturbing, a re-writing of the patriarchal literary tradition Waters is imitating, or pastiching.

But, unlike Fingersmith, Affinity never manages to ghost its own traditional plot structures. In particular, I’m bothered by its ending, which strongly implies that Margaret commits suicide because, in effect, she’s gay and cannot see a future that includes her. It’s not quite queer tragedy, because the three other lesbian characters presumably go on to have decent lives; in particular Selina and her girlfriend are triumphant. But neither is it a challenge to the patriarchal narrative that says LGBTQIA* people are doomed to death or isolation, a literal erasure.

There are better novels about women in prison: Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which I name-checked in my review of Fingersmith, is one. Affinity, unfortunately, feels like a very minor work; one which, just, fails of its promise.

Review: The Islanders

It should not come as a surprise when I say that I enjoyed Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. It’s a book that could have been written with me in mind: a gazetteer of a fictional, fantastical and fundamentally unmappable archipelago that’s also the elliptical story of a murder? Yes please!

And so: the Dream Archipelago, we’re told by the mysterious Chaster Kammerton, who writes the novel’s foreword, consists of an unspecified number of islands – at least twenty thousand, and almost certainly a lot more, each of which has its own customs, its own laws, its own currency. It cannot be mapped, and travel is haphazard and slow, because of “temporal distortion”. It is caught between the warring nations of the north and south continents – despite its Covenant of Neutrality, the effects of those wars frequently spill over into the islands themselves. It is, in sum, a liminal place, a borderland, never one thing or the other.

The Islanders, meanwhile, takes the form of a gazetteer of these islands, as I’ve said; that is, it purports to describe each island rationally, objectively, even scientifically, looking at the geography of each island, the tourist attractions, the currency, the laws. Some of the entries, however, have very little to do with the particular qualities of the island they purport to describe; instead, there’s a short story about someone living on the island, or otherwise connected to it. These apparently unrelated short stories – whose very presence serves to disturb the self-avowed objective rationality of the text – move slowly into place as you read, building up the story of a murder.

The tension the novel generates, or rather makes visible, between the scientific impulse to categorise and describe and the essentially uncategorisable, unknowable nature of everyday human experience reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I also love and which is long overdue a re-read. It’s a novel that asks its readers to work for meaning – to make implicit connections to work out the “truth” behind the surface. It’s also – necessarily – beautifully structured: each piece of information you get, however irrelevant or incidental it seems at first, becomes vital to building the whole picture.

I find it particularly suggestive that both novels – Nabokov’s and Priest’s – prominently feature artists. In The Islanders, most of the named characters, who crop up across many of the short stories and the more straightforwardly “factual” ones, are artists of one sort or another: novelists, writers on social reform, landscape artists, magicians. And many of them operate on the wrong side of the law – for repressive laws, shadowy government agencies, official secrets crop up again and again throughout the novel, again generating an uneasy tension between the official, “scientific” version of the truth and whatever it is that might actually be going on. An admittedly reductive analysis of The Islanders might posit that the artists are seeking to represent the actual lived experience of the islanders, while those in authority are protecting an “official” version of a multifarious “truth”.

That’s a lot of quotation marks for one post; but that’s also the kind of novel The Islanders is. It disturbs notions of textual authority in a way that’s deeply satisfying, emotionally as well as intellectually. It isn’t, strictly speaking, doing anything that’s particularly new (Pale Fire does pretty much everything The Islanders does), but it does do it well. And, c’mon. A fictional gazetteer? Be still my ever-geeky heart.

Top Ten Characters I’d Want with Me on a Desert Island

  1. Granny Weatherwax – the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. I reckon Granny would be great on a desert island; she’d get me to pull my socks up and get on with building a shelter and finding food and making a fire signal. I’m not saying it would be a fun experience, mind.
  2. Juliette Nichols – Wool, Hugh Howey. Juliette’s got a practical mind: she’s an engineering problem-solver. She’d be good at survival.
  3. Sam Gamgee – The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Sam is a sweetheart who never gives up. As the LOTR musical had it: “Wouldn’t retreat, just followed his feet/Now and for always.”
  4. Alana – Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Alana is badass and sassy and sexy and determined.
  5. Rosemary Harper – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. Another practically-minded woman who just gets on with things. Good in a crisis.
  6. Vlad Taltos – The Book of Taltos, Stephen Brust. Again, Vlad just seems very matter-of-fact; plus, he has survival skills, which seems an important quality in a desert island partner.
  7. Breq – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. I’d want the Breq from later in the trilogy, the person who manages and politics her way to the most pragmatic and most equitable solution she can reach for everyone under her command. She’s someone who protects.
  8. Luisa Rey – Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. A quick thinker with a highly-developed sense of morality. Yes.
  9. Saltheart Foamfollower – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, Stephen Donaldson. The Giant Saltheart Foamfollower would be endlessly cheerful, and have an endless store of stories. “Joy is in the ear that hears.” He’d just be awesome.
  10. Dirk Gently – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams. Dirk would be infuriating, and in all likelihood very sexist, but also probably highly amusing. And amusement is at a premium on desert islands.

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

Review: The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a wondrous and entirely unexpected thing which I acquired for the princely sum of 20p at my local library: a graphic novel retelling of T.S. Eliot’s seminal Modernist poem by Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. It seems there are two editions of this gem: issues with Eliot’s estate meant a second edition had to be published – it’s this edition I’m reviewing here – which couldn’t quote any of the original poem; not that this seems to have affected the general parodic quality of the piece.

Anyway. The story, such as it is, follows a hard-boiled noir detective, Chris Marlowe (an escapee from a Raymond Chandler novel, or a seventeenth-century playwright, or both), as he searches for his missing business partner, Mike the Minoan, in Eliot’s Unreal City: London, though a disconnected and fragmented version of it. (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”)

A Goodreads reviewer, Liam Guilar, suggests that Marlowe’s search for his partner in Waste Land London is a performance of the search for meaning with which befuddled first-time readers approach Eliot’s poem – “the irony being the only coherence the poem has to offer is the reader’s search for it.” This is a brilliant and elegant reading which, frankly, I wish I’d come up with myself. (There are also interesting resonances here with the theme of the Grail quest Eliot threads half-heartedly through the poem.)

So Rowson renders Eliot’s text as place – specifically, as a nightmarish version of London, identified mainly (as it is in the poem) by the River Thames, curling its symbolic, stinking way through the text’s heart. Marlowe is literally a stranger in this city; in the first chapter of the book he’s knocked out and shipped across the Atlantic to London, and we see it through his stranger’s eyes – the caricature grotesquerie of Rowson’s art style rendering it larger than life and half-unrecognisable. As another Goodreads reviewer pointed out, rather less insightfully, “the story seems to jump all over the place.” Well, yes. That disconnection is pretty much the whole point of both texts: Eliot renders it linguistically, as a breakdown of cultural touchstones, a scattergun range of quotations and intertexts that don’t relate to anything, “a heap of broken images” with no shaping connective tissue; Rowson renders it narratively, in a search that doesn’t make sense with a solution that “is no solution” (Guilar again), and spatially, in a London that doesn’t look quite like our London, teetering on the edge of the familiar, and populated by anachronistic historical figures: Queen Elizabeth I in a modern-looking crowd on the banks of the Thames, Joseph Conrad in a London pub.

That spatial rendering is rather Gothic, in the sense that Rowson’s London looks and works a lot like the huge, impossibly rambly castles and country homes in Gothic literature – like Gormenghast and Manderley and the Navidson house. These Gothic spaces are uncanny: they take the familiar, ordered space of the home and render it unknowable, unmappable, architecturally impossible. The Gothic as a mode is often associated with the bourgeoisie, but here Rowson’s making a connection with Modernism too; a connection that’s always been latent, because if the Gothic disturbs the rational space of the home then it also, simultaneously, disrupts the rationalism of the Word – the Western Christian construct of the written word as holy, always true, a perfect window into the thoughts of men. The Gothic, characterised by linguistic excess (there’s a reason all those eighteenth-century moralists were appalled by the idea of young ladies reading The Mysteries of Udolpho), by sentence structures that you can get lost in just as you get lost in the corridors of the castles they describe, conceals and reveals the void at the heart of all things, especially at the heart of Western rationalism. And that’s something Eliot’s Waste Land, not to mention Modernism at large, is also urgently concerned with: “the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats wrote just three years before Eliot published The Waste Land; Western morality and thought has become a haunted house, the shared cultural and religious touchstones we used to have in common dissolved and vanished. “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”

Why is this important? What does it add to our understanding of The Waste Land?

Something which I do find suggestive about Rowson’s treatment of the poem – which links back to Guilar’s point above about the search for coherency in Eliot’s poem constituting the only coherency the poem possesses or can offer – is that, for readers familiar with the original, it becomes a way to navigate Rowson’s text; we decode Marlowe’s search for Mike the Minoan by spotting the references to the poem, a self-reflexive circle which points out the essential meaninglessness of critical approaches to The Waste Land. The poem by its very form denies meaning, even obfuscates it deliberately; that’s ultimately what Rowson’s parodic treatment brings us to realise.

I still love Eliot’s poem, and you get the sense that despite his mockery Rowson does too. His graphic novel treats it as the cultural touchstone it (ironically) is nowadays, and yet it also uncovers and deflates the nihilism that lies behind its artistic vision (and, by extension, the artistic vision of much of today’s literary establishment). It seems sort of pointless to write anything else about The Waste Land – Rowson’s said everything there is to say. Which is good value, for 20p.