Tag: murder mystery

Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2018

  1. The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The conclusion to the Broken Earth trilogy, and I think the only book that’s made me cry so far this year. In an airport. It is devastating and hopeful, bleak and beautiful all at once. It’s a book about climate change and motherhood and the trauma that systematic oppression inflicts on its victims and its perpetrators alike. It’s extremely unusual, to say the least, to find a fantasy novel that’s even half as ambitious and important.
  2. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters. I finished this just today, in fact, and it came pretty close to being the second book to make me cry this year. It’s a novel about a Victorian oyster-girl who falls in love with a male impersonator at the theatre, and follows her to London. Waters is amazing at romantic suspense, at writing the sweet painful bliss of seduction, and I spent the four days it took me to read Tipping the Velvet utterly under its spell.
  3. Rosemary and Rue – Seanan McGuire. The first novel in McGuire’s Toby Daye series was exactly what I hoped it would be: smart and fun and not afraid of dealing with darkness, and set in a version of Faerie that’s magical without being twee.
  4. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This is a dense book, a collection of essays delving into the depths of philosophy, theology, history and aesthetics. But it’s worth taking the time and the care to engage with it: it’s a book that advocates empathy, and thorough engagement with the world, and the importance of the humanities in this career-obsessed society.
  5. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. 2018 for me has so far been marked by a growing awareness, and a concomitant grief, of just what a parlous state we’ve brought our planet to. Green Earth contributed to that awareness, but it also gave me some hope: hope that maybe we can fix our broken social system and find the political and social will to do something about rampant climate change before it’s too late.
  6. Space Opera – Catherynne M. Valente. Space Opera’s rather grown on me since I finished it and found it a little insubstantial. Sure, it’s a story about Eurovision in space. Sure, its ending is schmaltzy as all get-out. But it’s hard to resist its glitter and its goodwill and its generous, inclusive approach to the aliens who inhabit the galaxy – as well as the humans fighting for Earth’s survival.
  7. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne M. Valente. While I was reading it, I enjoyed The Refrigerator Monologues a lot more than Space Opera. But…it’s faded a little in my memory by comparison. Partly I think that’s because it’s a collection of short stories about superheroes, or, rather, the girlfriends of superheroes, women who are “fridged” to advance the stories of men. I see Valente’s point, and it’s well and beautifully made, but I just don’t find superheroes that interesting. And the collection as a whole is a little one-note.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. This is just a fascinating look at how cities have been portrayed and conceived of throughout human history, romping through sources as diverse as Thomas More’s Utopia and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, looping round and round its points in a kind of collage without ever quite saying what it means. I’m fascinated by the connections between architecture and literature, so this was absolutely perfect for me.
  9. The Real-Town Murders – Adam Roberts. This is a novel I admired more than liked. I mean, I enjoyed reading it; but not as much as I enjoyed nearly everything else on this list. But, like all of Roberts’ writing, it is doing complex, interesting work with genre, and genre expectations, and the headlong splintering of our shared culture.
  10. Provenance – Ann Leckie. Provenance has this fascinating double structure – just when you think you’ve got to the bottom of things you find a whole nother world behind them. Like Leckie’s Ancillary series, it places a lot of emphasis on identity politics and cultural norms and etiquette. And it does some very heavy lifting in imagining a culture that’s genuinely different from our own Western one, especially when it comes to gender norms and family structures.

(The prompt for this post came from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Advertisements

Review: Fury

This review contains spoilers.

TW: incest.

Salman Rushdie’s Fury made me, appropriately, furious. It would be nice if I could think that this was a response Rushdie intended to elicit, a deliberate and knowing effect working in concert with the themes of the novel. I’m not at all confident that it is, though. And, for reasons I’ll outline below, I’m not particularly inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Our Protagonist is Malik Solanka, an academic and dollmaker born in New Delhi but lately of London. When the novel begins, he’s left his wife Eleanor and young son to flee to New York, pursued by a nameless fury that he fears will see him murder his family. But there’s fury in New York, too: a serial killer’s on the loose, whacking wealthy young women on the head with lumps of concrete. There’s also a simmering subplot about a small Caribbean nation locked in the throes of a land dispute whose roots lie ultimately in colonialism – a story which Solanka co-opts in the later half of the novel for a multi-media franchise starring his dolls (which in turn starts feeding the conflict).

There’s a lot to unpack here, and Fury would be a fascinating novel if not for its women.

Simply put: Solanka, or Rushdie, or both, see women as objects. Or, at best, as sacrificial supports for Solanka’s own self-actualisation. He becomes entangled with two different women in the course of his sojourn in New York, both of whom he turns into dolls, more or less literally. The first is Mila, a twenty-something manager of a group of Silicon Valley-type techies who are Changing the World, “a girl of exceptional beauty”. Mila reminds Solanka of Little Brain, a doll he created for a TV show exploring the great philosophers, whose character and concept quickly spun out of her creator’s control and became super-famous. He begins thinking of her as Little Brain; and, far from resisting this objectification, Mila leans into it. She dresses like Little Brain and acts like Little Brain, and the whole thing spirals very quickly into a disturbing not-quite-affair with semi-incestuous overtones. (In short, Mila has daddy issues. Oh, such original characterisation! Such nuance!)

Then there’s Neela. Neela is literally so beautiful that men – only men, apparently – routinely drop stuff, fall over and randomly beg her for dates (or, rather, appeal to Solanka for permission to date her, ugh) in the street when she passes. They are unable to control themselves in her presence, see. (This is rape culture speaking, of course.) Solanka turns Neela into a doll: not one but two of the characters in his multi-media franchise are based on her. And then she dies in the conflict that his franchise has helped to engineer. To teach him a lesson in irony, perhaps. Or something like that: I can’t be bothered to work it out when she is so obviously disposable to the narrative, sacrificed on the altar of male self-examination and male woe.

In that respect she’s like those three murdered rich girls, incidentally, who are killed just so Rushdie can prove a point. We’re invited to see the serial killer’s fury as analogous to Solanka’s; indeed, for a time we wonder if Solanka actually killed them. As it turns out, they’re murdered by their boyfriends, who are involved in a violent sex cult whose excesses Rushdie links to the ills of capitalism. There are actually interesting thoughts about ownership and male entitlement and male violence going on here; but they’re overshadowed by how the rest of Fury‘s women get treated. And, anyway, the point still stands that Rushdie’s not interested in these women and the way their lives have been taken from them in a moment of horrific violence. They’re only symbols whose meanings Solanka can fear and ponder on; they’re only objects.

One of the things that makes it difficult to tell whether this objectification is something the novel’s aware of, and working purposefully with, is Rushdie’s prose, which is a headlong rush of detail:

Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a golden age.

That’s the first sentence of the novel. And there are so many currents and undercurrents of meaning going on there: in those parentheses especially we see the traditionally omniscient third person singular clashing with free indirect discourse, with Solanka’s own narrative of himself. In short: we don’t ever quite know whether it’s Rushdie talking or Solanka; whether we’re meant to read Solanka as a misogynist, or whether Rushdie actually is one.

Of course, there are plenty of other avenues we can go down when we’re talking about this particular prose style. But, my gods, I’m so fucking sick of not seeing myself represented in literary fiction; of being relentlessly objectified in the service of endless male existential crises. I don’t want to have to wrestle constantly with male entitlement just to think productively about the latest critical darling. I am so done with excusing literary fiction. That’s not what I want to read for.

Review: Rosemary and Rue

This review contains spoilers.

TW: sexual abuse.

I finally got round to starting Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, which came highly recommended by my TolkSoc friends and geekdom in general, and which has been on my must-read-series list for, oh, quite a long time.

The eponymous October “Toby” Daye is a changeling: half human, half fae. She can pass for human in the right light, or with just a little bit of magic. As Rosemary and Rue begins, she’s working nights in a 7-Eleven, hiding from her fae heritage, trying to make ends meet. It’s not working out great, as you might expect, and everything changes when a fae aristocrat, Evening Winterrose, is murdered. Evening’s last act is to lay a curse on Toby – she has to find the killer, or die in the attempt.

It’s obvious from the word go that McGuire is not! fucking! around! here: the novel literally starts with Our Heroine being turned by an evil fae into a koi carp for fourteen years, losing her human husband and child in the process, which is, you know, fairly traumatic. And it goes on to do some pretty heavy lifting for a novel that’s so squarely, unpretentiously of its genre.

At its heart Rosemary and Rue is a novel about class. As a changeling, Toby’s considered a second-class citizen by most of the pureblooded fae. Her magic’s nowhere near as strong, and though she’ll live a couple of centuries that’s nothing compared to the near-immortality of the purebloods. More importantly, changelings are shunned, pushed to the borders of fae society even as they’re unable to live fulfilling human lives.

Shunned by both races, many changeling children end up at Home. And this is what I really want to talk about, because this is where the novel does some of its best, and also its most troubling, work.

Home is run by a changeling called Devin. Devin is, to put it baldly, an abuser. He takes changeling children in, teaches them to do his work (which mainly involves politicking with the various faerie courts), teaches them to fear him, and rapes some of them. Toby spent much of her teenagerhood at Home, as Devin’s favourite and his “lover” (as she puts it to herself). She’s known at Home as the only one who ever escaped Devin’s clutches, rescued as she was by a friend of her fae mother.

So when Toby finds that her only option for solving Evening’s murder is to go Home and call in some favours…well, there are a couple of ways this could have gone. Devin acts every inch the concerned lover towards Toby – she’s seriously injured several times in quick succession, and he pulls out all the stops to save her. He does her favours without asking for anything in return – something that’s practically unheard of amongst the fae. For a while, it sort of looks like we’re maybe supposed to root for Devin as the romantic interest, which, given everything we and Toby know about him, is pretty damn creepy.

But McGuire, it turns out, is better than that: in the last few chapters of Rosemary and Rue, it turns out that Devin’s been working against Toby all along. And I love how clear-eyed the novel in retrospect is about Devin’s behaviour: like any abuser’s, it’s all about power and control, and McGuire doesn’t flinch from that. I kind of wish I could give Rosemary and Rue to every teenager obsessed by Twilight.

Except I also kind of don’t, because there’s something a little reactionary going on with the treatment of Devin that I want to unpack a bit. Devin betrays Toby because he feels his lot as a changeling is unfair. He wants eternal life, a pureblood’s life, and there’s a McGuffin in the novel that can give it to him, and Toby’s in the way.

Of course Devin is a monster. But I’m a little…troubled by the idea that at least part of his monstrosity is rooted in not knowing his place. Striving for the benefits the purebloods get automatically – benefits they could share, the text suggests, with the changelings – is in itself an evil thing to do, it seems.

It’s an effect exacerbated by Toby’s relatively privileged social position: sure, she’s a changeling, but she’s got the ear of the leaders of at least three different fae realms thanks to her mother’s bloodline. Toby is not remotely in the same situation as Devin. And yet I felt that I was being encouraged to compare them: Toby is a good person because she accepts her position in life. She feels it isn’t fair, yes, but she doesn’t do anything positive to change it. Devin, on the other hand, is a monster because he’s not willing just to take the scraps thrown to him by the purebloods. The very framing of the question is suspect.

I mean: this wasn’t really something that affected how much I enjoyed Rosemary and Rue, which I did, a lot. It’s pacy and fascinating and full of faerie lore; it balances magic and modernity really quite well. And I think there’s certainly room for a more nuanced reading of Devin’s monstrosity: that it’s a symptom of the social divisions in fae society, something rotten in the state of Faerie, rather than a dramatisation of reactionary anti-social-mobility sentiment. I mean, I’ve heard that the later books double down on Rosemary and Rue‘s treatment of class, so maybe not. But I’ll still be hanging round for those later books.

Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. The Dark Tower series – Stephen King. A Dark Tower TV series is already in the works, but given it’s associated with the decidedly lacklustre film I have basically no confidence it will be any good. The whole series is crying out to be televised, with a prestige TV budget: the battle of Jericho! Blaine the Mono and the waste lands! The desert, and the man in black. Roland of Gilead weeping. It would be fucking fantastic. Someone get it done, please. (I can’t believe there wouldn’t be an audience for it, given King’s readership.)
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. Does Peter Jackson do television? Yes, I know he made an unholy mess of The Hobbit (STILL NOT OVER IT), but The Silmarillion is another kind of beast altogether: properly epic and wonderful in the way the Lord of the Rings films are. It wouldn’t work as a film (please don’t do this, anyone, or I will cry) because there’s like a million characters and no overarching plot except for “everyone dies and everything is shit”, but it could make for beautiful TV.
  3. Lirael – Garth Nix. Only, I’m imagining like a version where Lirael stays in the Library and has magical monster-of-the-week adventures with the Disreputable Dog and gradually learns to make friends and accept herself and it would be wholesome and wonderful and full of books.
  4. Perdido Street StationChina Mieville. I know, I know, I wrote a whole post a couple of weeks ago about how Mieville doesn’t work on TV and it should never happen again, but on a purely superficial level I think New Crobuzon would be amazing on screen, if it was done properly. Plus, the novel has that sprawling Dickensian quality that would give a TV series time to explore the world properly while, y’know, having a plot.
  5. The Discworld series – Terry Pratchett. There was a series called The Watch that was happening a while ago. Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims it is still happening. I’m hoping a) that it does happen and b) that it is not shit. (The films are fairly shit, but it is pretty fun seeing Discworld come to life, however underfunded it is.)
  6. A Madness of Angels – Kate Griffin. This is another one that would work really well as a monster-of-the-week show, carried by its wise-cracking protagonist and BBC special effects that are dodgy enough to look a little bit real. (See also Doctor Who.)
  7. Soulless – Gail Carriger. Steampunk and vampires and werewolves, oh my! (Seriously, this book is obsessed by scenery. If anything was written for TV it’s this.)
  8. The Temeraire series – Naomi Novik. Temeraire is adorable, and the books are really fascinated by relationships in a way that I think would work well on TV. You could flesh out the arcs of some of the supporting characters, and it would be like Downton Abbey but with dragons. And naval battles.
  9. Night Film – Marisha Pessl. For obvious reasons, this would work well on screen: I mean, it’s literally about film. And you could translate some of the novel’s narrative tricks pretty well into TV. I can also see how a TV adaptation could be disastrous, though.
  10. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. It would be like The West Wing, except with climate change! And lord knows climate change could do with raising its profile.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Queer Characters

  1. Innon – The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin. A bi, poly pirate who’s also really hot. *mic drop*
  2. Sissix – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. Sissix and Rosemary’s relationship is one of my favourite things about this book. They actually TALK about things instead of trying to guess at what the other person’s feeling. And visibly support each other. Also! I think this was the first queer SF book I read, and I read it when I was just starting to come out (to myself as much as anyone), and I was so grateful that Sissix/Rosemary could exist.
  3. Nyx – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” Boom! Nyx is bi – as are most of the characters in the novel, actually – and defiantly, violently female, and lord knows she’d be a terrible person to have dinner with but she’s a great character to read about.
  4. Lila – A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab. Lila is a cross-dressing, genderfluid steampunk pirate who (at least in the first book) shows no interest in romance, and it’s great.
  5. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. I mean. Everyone in Palimpsest is queer. I like November most, though: I’m drawn to lonely, unassuming characters trying to fill the spaces left by their hopes.
  6. Alma – The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts. So Alma is here because she’s incredibly unusual in fiction: she’s in a long-term relationship with another woman, who she cares for 24/7. And they’ve been together so long (and Marguerite is so ill) that it’s not even particularly romantic any more. It’s a couple dynamic we see very rarely in fiction – although Roberts presents it so matter-of-factly it’s easy to miss how radical it is.
  7. Pencil Khan – The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock. Pen’s another really unusual character: a teenage girl, practising Muslim and trauma survivor who gets a queer romance that’s believable and adorable without getting in the way of the very real dangers she faces. All this is brilliant in a YA novel.
  8. Ingray Aughskold – Provenance, Ann Leckie. This is another novel where Everyone is Queer (the best kind of novel), and Ingray’s developing crush on a female police captain is just adorable. And one of those romances that make you want to shout “JUST KISS ALREADY!”
  9. Avice Benner Cho – Embassytown, China Mieville. I just remembered this one! Avice is in an asexual relationship with her husband Scile, because they don’t enjoy sex together but still want to be partners. Which is another unusual, and welcome, dynamic.
  10. Fevvers – Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter. OK, so it’s never confirmed that Fevvers is in a relationship with her chaperone? agent? friend? Lizzie, but my word this book is definitely queer. And Fevvers is brilliant: larger than life, subversively feminine, altogether wonderful.

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

The City & the City Review: Beszel

Look! The BBC put a China Mieville thing on television!

I mean, I don’t like The City & the City very much; to me it falls into the group of Mieville’s work that I find dour and affectless (also in this category are Kraken and The Last Days of New Paris).

But! The BBC put a China Mieville thing on television!

It makes sense that it would be The City & the City. Its brand of noir detective story, a cynical investigator struggling against an indifferent and grey-hued world, is common to practically every new TV show that the BBC makes these days. So the familiarity of protagonist Inspector Tyador Borlu is doing, investigating the death of a young woman in possibly tawdry circumstances, offers viewers a way into the strangeness of Mieville’s premise.

Said premise is this: there are two cities, shiny, neoliberal, rich Ul Qoma; and shabby, poor, vaguely Central European Beszel. They occupy the same geographical space – some streets are in Ul Qoma, others in Beszel, and there are some dangerous “crosshatched” areas that are both. Their separateness as cities is maintained by the culturally specific practice of unseeing: there is a powerful taboo against the inhabitants of either city seeing or acknowledging the physical presence of the other city. To break this taboo is to bring down the fearsome and unaccountable organisation that is Breach on the heads of everyone in the vicinity.

One of the things this first episode does very well (I thought so, anyway) is establishing the force of this taboo, the centrality of it to the cultures and the lives of the cities, and how unthinkable it is to most inhabitants of the cities to break it. There’s a great scene near the beginning where an Ul Qoman car swerves into the path of the car of our protagonists, who are in Beszel:

“Did you see that?!”

“That Ul Qoman red car? No, I didn’t!”

Let me qualify that “very well”, actually: I think the dialogue is more effective than the camera work, which signifies the practice of unseeing by blurring out whichever city our inhabitants happen not to be in. This is fine. It does the job. But, and this I think is generally my problem with the whole episode, it flattens the conceptual complexity of Mieville’s unseeing. It does all the work for us, which is very much the opposite of what Mieville’s fiction is generally aiming for. It has all the content and none of the style.

Perhaps necessarily. This is television, after all, and exciting as it is in theory to contemplate Mieville on screen, I’m not sure it’s the right place for him to be: so much of his work is specifically about challenging our reading strategies, about wordplay, about genre conventions. There’s no way for a visual medium to recreate the conceptual richness of novels like Perdido Street Station, or even Railsea.

Perhaps, also, it’s unfair to compare the TV show with the novel, given the differences between the two media. I can’t escape that comparison, though, when the only reason I’m watching The City & the City is because I happen to think the novel’s author is one of the best SFF writers (and writers of the radical left) around today.

So maybe my response is predictable. It’s the same response I have to every first episode of every gritty crime drama I’ve ever watched.

I didn’t mind it. I’m not sure I can be bothered with the rest.

Ten Books From My Childhood That I’d Like to Revisit

  1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling. I mean. I’ve read this at least twice as an adult, so maybe it doesn’t really count as revisiting. But I grew up with Harry. For all that the books are imperfect, for all that I dislike the last three, for all that Rowling’s writing never gets better than serviceable, they’ll always be part of me, and I’ll always go back to them for a reminder of what it was to sink absolutely, uncritically, childishly into a fictional world.
  2. Predator’s Gold – Philip Reeve. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times recently – or, rather, I’ve mentioned its predecessor, Mortal Engines, which I re-read last year and, unexpectedly, loved. So I really want to find some time to re-read this sequel.
  3. Sabriel – Garth Nix. I very much want to re-read all the original Old Kingdom trilogy, straight through, at some point. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve really understood how lucky I was to grow up with these books, with their brilliant, flawed, shy, vulnerable heroines who have real agency and lovely romances that don’t compromise that agency.
  4. Fire Bringer – David Clement-Davies. I’m a bit nervous about this one. I have no idea how it will stand up to re-reading. I remember it being quite a dense book for seven-year-old me, so I suspect I might now find it leaden and/or overwrought. And possibly a bit heavy-handed on the Nazi allegory. BUT WHO KNOWS. I just loved the deer.
  5. The Bad Beginning – Lemony Snicket. Oh, the Series of Unfortunate Events books! They are gorgeous: I think you can only get them in hardback, and the thirteen of them (fourteen counting the Unauthorised Autobiography) are quite something lined up on the shelf. I loved the twisted Gothicness of them, the way they’re ostensibly set in this world, but twisted through ninety degrees so everything takes on a new and sinister significance.
  6. Redwall – Brian Jacques. Oh, Redwall. You were so species-essentialist. And you also had delicious food. This is another world-immersion thing, I think: I have about ten books in this series, and I used to read them all in one go, rolling around in the peace of Redwall Abbey and the swashbuckling adventures on the high seas and the weird posh Britishness of Salamandastron and…
  7. The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy – Gavin Maxwell. This is in no way a children’s book, and I have no idea how I got my hands on it in the first place. It’s the memoirs of a guy who lives in a remote house in Scotland and takes in various animals, including, famously, a succession of otters. I remember it as often adorable, sometimes tragic, and fascinated by the landscape of Scotland. It would be interesting to see if that memory’s correct, and if I get anything else out of the book as an adult.
  8. Midnight Over Sanctaphrax – Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. The Deepwoods books were so deeply weird, they were brilliant. Sanctaphrax isn’t the first novel in the series, but it was my favourite because it featured an awesome library (a non-trivial theme of my childhood reading). I think it also had overtones of satire on academia, so that would be fun to re-read.
  9. The Thieves of Ostia – Caroline Lawrence. I don’t think I ever made it to the end of the Flavia Gemina series, but the ones I did read I re-read a lot: I loved how they called up Ancient Rome so thoroughly.
  10. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – Chris Wooding. I don’t have a fucking clue why this particular book, which I read once at school, has stuck in my mind for so long: why the name Alaizabel Cray, or the word wych-kin, calls up such a delicious shadowed horror in my brain. I barely remember what it’s about. I remember a monster that you could hear as an echo to your footsteps, that would eat you not the first or second time you looked around for the source of the footsteps, but the third. (Seriously? That’s terrifying.) And that’s about it. I actually suspect I’d find it magnificently underwhelming if I read it as an adult.

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