Tag: murder mystery

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.

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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.

Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far This Year

I’ve read some great books this year. Some not so great, of course, but let’s not dwell on those. And we’re only halfway through 2017!

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is a charming novel. Its heroine, Meg, starts in a bad place, broke, unfulfilled and in a toxic relationship. By its end, she’s in a much more hopeful place, ready to start moving forward; but the movement between the two is almost imperceptible. It’s a deliberately storyless novel, full of chatting, basically, but Thomas’ skill at characterisation means it’s never boring.
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. This story of a sexually transmitted city is one to be read slowly and savoured; full of Valente’s lush sensory prose, her instinct for just the right symbol, creating a world that’s fresh and magical and right all at once.
  3. Starbook – Ben Okri. I think Starbook has its issues, ideologically (review to come), but there’s no denying that the writing is masterly. The novel’s written in an oblique, fairytale prose that can be hard going, but which rewards the work you put into it. It transforms the world around you; and it brought home to me, as nothing else has, the absolute monstrosity of the slave trade.
  4. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood. I loved this tale of madness, of resistance to exploitative patriarchal systems of being. I liked its ambiguity, the way it deliberately resists interpretation. I liked Grace.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delaney. Nova was just utterly unexpected: a 60s SF novel that focused not on hard science but on individual, human experience, especially sensory experience. The universe it evokes feels genuinely full of wonder, even as it’s also (still) full of injustice.
  6. 2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson. Another SF novel that surprised me. On the one hand, it’s exactly what you’d expect from its cover and blurb: hard SF looking at issues like advanced AI, terraforming, interplanetary politics, climate change. On the other hand, the actual writing is technically really good: we have detailed characters with real depth, images and motifs weaving through the text, an actual identifiable prose style that isn’t just conveying information.
  7. The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor. This is here, really, because it feels “important”. It’s a novel that takes on terrorism as a product of systematic oppression, while still recognising it for what it is. It’s brutal and horrifying and not one to read lightly.
  8. The Islanders – Christopher Priest. I confess, I enjoyed this primarily not as the Pale Fire-ish murder mystery woven through it, but because, on a fundamentally geeky level, the idea of a gazetteer of an entirely invented chain of islands is really fascinating to me.
  9. The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley. Hurley’s work is always hard-hitting: even a collection of internet essays like this one is unflinching about the amount of work still to do in the social justice arena. Her combative style won’t be to everyone’s taste, but, personally, it did me a lot of good.
  10. The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi. I enjoyed the inventiveness of this SF novel, which does the quite tricky work of imagining a post-human future that’s fundamentally different enough to be interesting without depriving readers of any point of reference.

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

Ten Books I Should Have Put Down

  1. Pamela – Samuel Richardson. The problem with Pamela is Pamela, which is a pretty critical problem for a book named after its protagonist to have. She is whiny, sanctimonious, weedy and indecisive. And tedious. Ugh. Of all the books written in the eighteenth century, this had to be one of the most important? Why?
  2. Ulysses – James Joyce. “It’s a masterpiece!” everyone says. “The defining work of twentieth-century literature!” Maybe; but it is also interminable, navel-gazing twaddle, and I got absolutely nothing out of reading it cover to cover.
  3. The Prelude – William Wordsworth. I thought I liked the Romantics, until I read Wordsworth’s autobiography in verse. Then I realised I much preferred the Modernists. The Prelude just doesn’t sing like poetry should. And, yes, I appreciate it must be tricky writing a whole book in blank verse, but Shakespeare managed it without sending his audiences to sleep.
  4. Middlemarch – George Eliot. I think I’m just taking out all my rage on my university reading lists. Middlemarch is like Dickens, except without the humour, the life, the warmth; it’s like Austen without the compressed wit, the angry sarcasm. It’s dry and dull and long.
  5. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline. This is just one of the most utterly self-involved books, and it doesn’t even have the benefit of good writing. It can see nothing which isn’t white, male and straight. It thinks white-washing is the answer to racism. Fuck off.
  6. The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart. The Dice Man was amusing enough, but it’s also sexist and pointless and trashy.
  7. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett. How is this novel problematic? Let me count the ways. A narrative that makes a disabled boy magically better by The Power of Nature; that says depression is just a failure to think happy thoughts; that uses its female heroine only as a way to make sure the male line continues in strength and health. Fantastic.
  8. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller. I was far too young when I first read this; I didn’t get it at all, and now it’s probably spoiled for life for me.
  9. On – Adam Roberts. I knew there was a reason this was in the second-hand bookshop (which is invariably where bad science fiction goes to die). It’s one of those books that prioritises experimentation above story, and becomes dry and sterile as a result. A shame, because Jack Glass is so good!
  10. Kraken – China Mieville. I love most of Mieville’s work, which is probably why Kraken sticks out as such a disappointment. It’s another one that puts its literary project above its story, and turns out something that doesn’t really succeed at either.

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

My Top Ten “Gateway” Books

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.)
  9. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This made me properly want to go to university and study things in dusty old libraries.
  10. 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.)

Review: Deja Vu

In Deja Vu‘s opening chapter, a woman named Saskia has twelve hours to figure out who killed her secretary and stuffed her in the fridge.

But it’s when she works out – with the help of some clever computering – that the murderer is herself that we know something really weird’s going on.

Turns out the investigation is a test; that Saskia is a criminal being controlled through a computer chip implanted in her head to become an agent for the EU police; that, if she refuses to work for them, or runs away, she’ll die.

Oooh! I thought. State repression and an exploration of personhood and technology! It will be like Nikita but futuristic and good!

Sadly, after the first couple of chapters, Saskia is shunted sideways to make room for David: an English academic, suspected of bombing a research facility twenty years ago and killing his wife, who’s encouraged by a mysterious masked woman to return to the scene of the bombing and destroy a virtual world he once worked on. What follows is a really tedious thriller plot, as David goes on the run from the police, with Saskia and a member of the British police hunting him. There is also time travel.

The problem I had with Deja Vu was that genuinely interesting, SFnal stuff gets subordinated to this thriller plot, which for at least three-quarters of the book might as well take place in the present day. For instance, there’s talk of capital punishment and mind-wiping as established punishments, and the EU has its own FBI analogue – but once the action moves to England there’s no sign of any of the political climate that’s brought these developments about. The virtual world David created and must destroy is apparently full of artificial intelligences for which it is a prison – but, again, nothing is made of this dystopian premise. And although Saskia’s gradual rediscovery of her own criminal past, her struggle with what it means to be a person without memory, is a theme throughout the novel, it turns out that essentially her entire psyche is based on her suffering a sexual assault. Her whole identity is “rape victim”, and, sure, she was really fucking angry about it – her crime was enacting revenge on her attackers – but, really? There was nothing else important in her past?

Deja Vu feels like an interesting novel buried in a marketing category. It’s such a pity that that damn thriller plot and that white male academic (*cough* Robert Langdon *cough*) get in the way of a story about a woman struggling to define herself under state control.