Tag: murder mystery

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel, which (astonishingly, when you think about it) puts it relatively early in the series. It’s the third novel about Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, a police force which is slowly regaining relevance under Commander Samuel Vimes.

As with all of the Discworld novels, the plot is so encrusted with wordplay and humour and rich vital detail that it’s pretty much vestigial, but it is, more or less, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing old men. Somehow, the golems of the city are involved: giant clay people without voices, who are feared at worst and ignored at best, although they’re highly prized as workers because they don’t need to rest or eat or sleep. There’s also a plot to depose Ankh-Morpork’s supreme ruler Havelock Vetinari, because there’s always a plot to depose Vetinari. And there’s a dwarf who defies convention by openly identifying as female, in what is possibly Discworld’s closest approach to a queer storyline.

There is, in other words, a lot going on. That’s one of the great joys of the Ankh-Morpork novels, though: how full they are of life and incident, of the anarchic and wonderful energies of the archetypal city. (Ankh-Morpork is pretty obviously a mirror of London, with its great curving polluted river, its Isle of Gods, its defunct city gates.)

Much of that energy is generated by the social tensions the novel lays out, conflicts between old and new: the centuries-old vampire who manipulates short-lived humans like pawns on a chessboard comes up against the newly-relevant Watch and its stubbornly working-class Commander Vimes, fast rising to prominence; the brand-new concept of dwarf femininity attracts the opprobrium of much of dwarf-kind; the idea of golems suddenly having rights and thoughts and plans of their own is abhorrent, even terrifying, to Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry. But there’s nothing schematic or straightforward about this broad pattern of tension. Cherry Littlebottom, the lipstick-wearing, skirt-clad dwarf, harbours a commonly-held prejudice against werewolves, which she expresses repeatedly to her friend Constable Angua, who is herself a closeted werewolf. Vetinari, despite being the best ruler the city has ever had, despite being despised by aristocrats and generally on the side of justice, is an unelected tyrant with the capacity for occasional cruelty. The golems aren’t really new, they’re old, much like the Watch: so old they’ve become invisible. It’s this seething complexity, this web of allegiances and relationships, that makes Feet of Clay one of the very best of the Discworld novels: its view on the world is not simple.

But there is an arc, of course, and it is the long arc of justice. Discworld, and especially Ankh-Morpork, is founded on a vaguely Victorian idea of progress: the idea that things are getting better, slowly, by degrees, but inexorably. Things tend to be slightly better for people at the end of a Discworld novel than they do at the beginning.

Which is what makes these novels so comforting to return to, over and over again, in a time when things seem to be going backwards, when civil rights campaigns are appropriated by the interests of capital. That reassurance that things will get better, coupled with that acknowledgement that the world is messy and complex. The energies of a city slowly climbing to the light.

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Review: Maskerade

This review contains spoilers.

Maskerade is the eighteenth novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, so Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge tells me. I tend to think of it as one of my favourites, because there are some habits that are hard to shake: I was distinctly unimpressed with it on my last read over Christmas, but here I am again, going, “Maskerade! That’s a good one!”

To be clear, that’s not because I actually think it’s a good Discworld novel, as Discworld novels go. It sees a pair of formidable witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, heading down to Ankh-Morpork, the big city, to recover a young woman called Agnes Nitt. Agnes has run away to join the opera, with the help of her literally preternatural vocal abilities: she can sing in harmony with herself. Only, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg want her to join their coven in the benighted, mountainous country of Lancre.

When this merry cavalcade reaches the Opera House, though, something is amiss: performers and staff alike are being terrorised by a mysterious masked, cloaked figure who makes improbable demands punctuated by far too many exclamation marks. The opera people know him as the Ghost: until recently he’s done nothing worse than demand a box to himself on opening night, but now he’s killing people. And yet: the show must go on…

And go on it does, with Pratchett’s customary humour, wit and humanity.

There’s something very Twelfth Night about this novel: the Opera House is a place where people experiment with their identities, slip into new roles, as it were. Agnes reinvents herself as Perdita X. Nitt (“Perditax”, as Nanny Ogg insists on calling her), a person she feels is more interesting and thinner (more on that later) than Agnes is. Nanny Ogg becomes A Lancre Witch, bestselling author of a cookbook that puts Nigella Lawson’s innuendoes to shame. A painfully shy young man finds confidence and grace when he puts on a mask.

It’s good fun seeing the witches confronted with this chaotic role-play: Pratchett tends to put them in stories about stories anyway, about how stories shape our perceptions of ourselves and others, and how we perform those stories. But I think Maskerade is a weaker example of the type: I’m not convinced that its anarchic performative play has a point beyond itself. It’s just fun. The Opera House, and its particular superstitions and narratives, is important in that it allows for this kind of experimentation, but it is ultimately a closed world, beholden only to itself. When people leave, things go back to normal. Nothing changes, outside in society.

Comedy is at its roots a conservative genre, of course, and Pratchett is a small-c conservative writer: his Discworld novels mostly involve something going wrong in the body politic, and that something becoming redressed by the end. (The Rincewind books are notable exceptions, as is Small Gods.) That conservatism also finds its way out in some slightly, uh, old-fashioned views. In particular, Maskerade has a bunch of fat jokes that haven’t aged well, and like Pratchett’s early writing relies on some humour with subtly sexist undertones.

I still like it, of course. Some habits are hard to shake. Besides, visiting Ankh-Morpork, this wonderful vibrant world of Pratchett’s, pragmatic yet hopeful, is always a joy. Just. Maybe don’t start with this one.

Review: The Secret History

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is set at an exclusive college in rural Vermont. Our Narrator is Richard Papen, an ambitious but not particularly well-off young man who, by way of an esoteric course in Ancient Greek, falls in with a group of fantastically wealthy students.

It has what I think of as a Gothic structure: one that turns in on itself, compulsively enacting a sort of Freudian return of the repressed. Right at its centre (literally and metaphorically) there is a murder: the entire novel revolves around that still point, as we discover why it happened and the effect that it’s had on these students’ lives. It is an essentially stagnant structure: the narrative’s constant return to the image of the murder reflects the characters’ inability to escape its consequences. As Richard explains in the prologue, their lives will contain no other story but this one. They are trapped in this moment of trauma, defined by it, even as they move further in time from the event itself.

It’s not quite Gothic enough for me, though: it lacks the hallucinatory overwriting of a proper Gothic novel (think Gormenghast or The Mysteries of Udolpho). Tartt’s prose is just a little too conventionally “realistic” to suck you in, cloak you in the abject horror of the repressed returning past. I enjoyed The Secret History, but it felt just a little too controlled; a little too carefully structured.

Review: White Tears

At last! A Tournament of Books contender that I don’t hate!

Well now, that’s a little unfair. I like Ruth Ozeki’s work, and Station Eleven is lovely, and I really enjoyed thinking about Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. Bu-ut, generally, the people who follow and read along with the ToB are looking for different things in their reading than I am. As a case in point, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, which I think is doing unusual and important work, didn’t make it out of the first round of this year’s Tournament, despite a relatively high seeding, which means my memory has apparently fabricated a rich vein of discussion about it. (The ToB is possibly the only place on the internet where it’s not only safe but actually productive to read the comments.)

Anyway. The very fact that White Tears made it into the ToB in the first place means that, although it draws on genre elements, it falls squarely into the Literary camp: it relies more on affect than plot to generate meaning. But a bare-bones plot summary might go something like this.

The novel follows two young white men, astronomically wealthy Carter and un-wealthy, unworldly Seth. Carter draws impressionable, eager-to-please Seth down with him into the depths of an appropriative obsession with Black music, a search for a spurious “authenticity” which they think the Black people they actually meet in college lack. Together, they form a production company specialising in creating this “authentic” sound for (mostly white) musicians, using the substantial library of original 1920s records Carter has put together. Things take a sinister turn, however, when Carter releases online a blues track put together by Seth out of a couple of enigmatic recordings he’s made while walking the city; Carter passes the song off as genuine, claiming that it’s by an artist named Charlie Shaw. An ex-collector reveals that Charlie Shaw was in fact a real Black artist – and decades of systematic racism, oppression and appropriation literally come back to haunt Carter and Seth.

Literally: a couple of commenters on the one ToB judgement White Tears did manage wanted to know what “really happens” towards the end of the book, when Seth apparently experiences flashes from the life of Charlie Shaw and possibly other Black victims of institutional racism. Kunzru also sets up a couple of murder mysteries that never get solved comprehensively, at least not in the way we’d expect from the detective-story traditions he draws on. I think that asking what literally happens misses Kunzru’s point here, or is, rather, the exact opposite of Kunzru’s point: these flashbacks, these lacunae, deliberately disturb the “logical”, “rational” surface of the text, the level on which we can rationalise out motives and psychologies and chains of cause and effect. They, precisely, haunt the text, as the spectre of racism haunts America. The novel isn’t interested in logical, rational explanations because it’s not interested in allowing us to construct racism and appropriation as logical, rational responses.

There is something here, too, that’s to do with artistic and narrative erasure. On the most obvious level, Carter and Seth are erasing Black artists, and the cultural tragedy their work is rooted in, by appropriating their “authenticity” for their own profit. (It’s worth noting here that Carter’s family has made their fortune off Black labour and Black lives.) So the novel eschews conventional narrative solutions as a way of performing this erasure: Charlie Shaw, the brilliant young artist, is denied the narrative arc that would (and, under the terms of the novel, should) bring him to fame, fortune and recognition by a system that exploits his labour and life: his career is derailed before it’s even begun by white capitalists who refuse to acknowledge his humanity.

I wonder if my not minding the novel’s refusal to provide logical explanations has to do with genre reading protocols? While it refers to our murder mystery expectations only to subvert them, it’s also clearly drawing on horror tropes to frame its discussion of racism and appropriation – and I suspect that not fully understanding a text on a rational level bothers readers of speculative literature (including horror) less than it does readers who primarily favour mimetic litfic. Or maybe that’s a gross simplification of people’s actual reading habits; I don’t know. In any case, I think this ghost story/murder mystery/Literary novel is a really effective way of laying bare the connections between the slave trade, institutional racism and oppression and cultural appropriation, and the utter savagery of those systems.

Review: The Future is Blue

The title story of Catherynne M. Valente’s latest short story collection The Future is Blue is set in the mid to far future, when the hungry seas, fed by climate change, have swallowed up Earth’s land. What’s left is

Nothing but ocean and more ocean and a handful of drifty lifeboat cities…circling the world like horses on a broken-down carousel. Nothing but blue.

One of those cities, the one in which the story is set, is Garbagetown, a floating patch of rubbish the size of Texas, made habitable by the labour of people who

spent [their] whole life moving rubbish from one end of the patch to the other so that a pile of crap could turn into a country and babies could be born in places like Candle Hole or Scrapmetal Abbey or Pill Hill or Toyside or Teagate.

The Garbagetowners, in other words, dwell literally in the shadow of our rubbish. Which got me thinking about the salvagepunk aspects of Valente’s work, and especially this collection. At the micro level, one of the building blocks of Valente’s whimsical, faux-naive prose style is the list. From “The Future is Blue”:

I love encyclopedias, a cassette I found when I was eight that says Madeleine Brix’s Superboss Mixtape ’97 on it in very nice handwriting, plays by Mr. Shakespeare or Mr. Webster or Mr. Beckett, lipstick, Garbagetown, and my twin brother Maruchan.

Items of junk, items of value and people all get the same treatment here, partly for effect, but there’s also something going on here to do with excess. The story’s heroine lives among junk, in the shadow of junk, and so for her it’s difficult to distinguish what is junk from what is important. The importance of rubbish in Garbagetown has its echo in the next story in the collection, “No One Dies in Nowhere”, which is set in a kind of purgatory: the dead bring with them the objects they used or dwelt on in their last day alive, but over the centuries these relics lose all trace of meaning and are traded away for the small items that others have brought with them. They become items of junk, despite/because of the fact that they are the only things the dead have left.

Evan Calder Williams has this to say about salvagepunk:

Perhaps, then, the salvagepunk world should be seen primarily as the dreamwork of choice and construction…it is a world of stealing from the ruins, robbing the graves, and rearranging the leftovers.

This is, Williams goes on to add, a kind of reaction to the “doomed-to-repeat trajectory” of late capitalism: salvagepunk as resistance to, and rejection of, a “fluid”, comfortable worldview that we nevertheless have little choice but to participate in. So one of the things salvagepunk aims to do is change our relationship to capitalism, and thus to its products, junk, salvage, the detritus of our consumer existence. The heroine of “The Future is Blue” rejects, at great personal cost, the kind of resource-hungry, capitalist sense of entitlement that drowned the world in the first place and, in her view, threatens to destroy her world a second time:

They were gonna use up every last drop of Garbagetown’s power to go nowhere and do nothing and instead of measuring out teaspoons of good, honest gas, so that it lasts and we last all together, no single thing on the patch would ever turn on again, and we’d go dark, really dark, forever…This is the future. Garbagetown and the sea…We are so lucky. Life is so good.

And the meaningless system of trade and barter that the dead of “No One Dies in Nowhere” engage in to pass the time is only an echo of our own meaningless consumerism, trading junk we think will give us status and power and above all individuality. The goods of the dead do not serve to identify them one from the other.

This reimagination of our relation to the status quo is of a piece with the rest of the collection. Almost all of these stories are about existing in the shadow of ancestors who have fucked everything up – whether that’s (my personal favourite) “Down and Out in R’lyeh”, in which millenial Lovecraftian monsters complain about the Elder Gods having stolen all the limelight and done everything worth doing, or “A Fall Counts Anywhere”, which recounts humankind’s betrayal of fairykind through the medium of a robot v. fairy wrestling match. And all of these stories end with a fundamental reimagining of the status quo; a reimagining that, in fact, breaks the story, makes it impossible to continue because the terms have so radically changed.

(An exception – albeit a very honourable one – is “The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, The Luminescence of Debauchery”. It is, nonetheless, probably my second favourite story in the collection, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.)

Rarely is this an entirely positive thing. Hearts are broken. Things are lost. People die. War comes. That is the terrible poignancy of The Future is Blue: broken systems need changing, but it’s impossible to change them without losing things that are good. It’s a book that feels fiercely of its time, of this time, when the neoliberal capitalist system is so broken, and yet even beginning to change it seems an impossible task.

2018 Roundup

Behold, from deep in the Valley of the Christmas Holidays, a roundup post…

I’m going to try and post a bit more regularly in 2019. Starting next week, that is.

My Favourite Things of 2018

Book: The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The Stone Sky made me cry in Stansted Airport. The last book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, it is not a happy book. It is not one I’ll return to for comfort or reassurance. It is just stunningly good.

TV: Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum. I’ve been really terrible at reviewing TV on the blog this year: it’s basically just been Doctor Who. But what a series of Doctor Who! Tsuranga encapsulates everything I love about it. It is hopeful, inclusive and searching, a story that asks us to reimagine what Doctor Who is and what it’s for.

Film: Jupiter AscendingYeah, the film reviewing has fallen a bit by the wayside this year, too. And I’m pretty bad at seeing films, anyway. So let’s go with Jupiter Ascending, a film from the Wachowski sisters that is absolutely bizarre, utterly gorgeous to look at and contains Eddie Redmayne.

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 76 books in 2018 – ten short of my total of 86, dammit.
  • The longest book I read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, which at 1069 pages is technically three novels in one, and probably one of my favourite books of 2018. Meanwhile, the shortest was Jorge Luis Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity, at a slim and forgettable 105 pages. Overall, I read 30,048 pages – unsurprisingly not quite as good as last year’s 30,893 (although, not that far off…)
  • The oldest book I read in 2018 was Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, published in 1841. The average age of the books I read in 2018 was 42, down from last year’s 44. (I’m pretty sure this average is dragged down quite a lot by my annual Tolkien reread.)
  • Genre: The genre split of my reading has shifted quite a lot this year – I relied much more on the local library than I have in previous years, and the SFF section only goes so far. So: 36% of my reading was fantasy, down from 45% last year; 21% was science fiction, the same as last year. 17% was lit fic, significantly up from 9% last year, and 12% was non-fiction, again significantly up from last year’s 6%. The rest was split between historical, contemporary, crime and humour (all the annoying interchangeable categories, in other words).
  • 9% of the books I read in 2018 were re-reads – down from last year’s 11%, which is great.
  • 53% of the books I read in 2018 were by women – up from last year’s disappointing 46%.
  • And 24% of the books I read in 2018 were by authors of colour, another increase on last year’s 18%.

Ten Fictional Bookworms

  1. Blue van Meer – Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. I love that Blue sees the world filtered through the dubious gauze of academia and literary thought and scientific theory, and that this isn’t necessarily a good thing. I can relate: it’s always tempting to overlay mundanity with deeper meaning.
  2. Catherine Morland – Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen. Catherine’s much like Blue: she sees everything in terms of her beloved Gothic novels, when there’s usually something less melodramatic but more insidiously serious going on.
  3. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. Lirael’s bookishness is more a matter of convenience than a choice, I guess: she works in the fabulous Library of the Clayr because it’s quiet and she can avoid her endless cousins, rather than because she particularly likes books. But her librarian background stays with her through all her adventures, and it really is an awesome library, so I’m counting it.
  4. Alana – Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Alana believes, right down in the core of her being, that a book can change the world. What bookworm doesn’t relate to that fervour? And, who knows, she might be right.
  5. Ariel Manto – The End of Mr Y, Scarlett Thomas. Ariel spends her last £50 on a rare book. She’s one of us, all right.
  6. Meggie Folchart – Inkheart, Cornelia Funke. Meggie sleeps with a book under a pillow at night! When she goes on adventures she takes the books that will give her courage! Lots of my reading habits are modelled on hers – I read this when I was like eight, and it’s stayed with me ever since.
  7. Hermione Granger – the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling. I mean. I basically have to include Hermione, who is obviously the best of the three Harry Potter kids. (Much more interesting than Harry.)
  8. Francesca – A Novel Bookstore, Laurence Cosse. If only because her dream of opening the perfect bookshop, a bookshop that sells only the best literature, is so perfect, and a thing I want to see so much. “We want books that leave nothing out: neither human tragedy nor everyday wonders, books that bring fresh air to our lungs.”
  9. Katin Crawford – Nova, Samuel Delany. Katin’s…a little out of touch with the world, to put it mildly. In the far-future world of Nova, the novel as an art form is thousands of years obsolete. But Katin still wants to write one, to draw together all the strands of the historical moment he inhabits. He’s fascinated by them. He’s like all of us: a thinker, a dreamer, a person who knows there are other worlds than these.
  10. The creature – Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. The creature gets his entire education from Paradise Lost, basically. Which, in all honesty, is probably precisely as healthy as basing your childhood morality on The Lord of the Rings. Which I definitely did not do. Ever. *coughs*

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