Archive for May, 2010

May 31, 2010

May Reading

My reading this month included a number of books I’d read before and quite a bit of fluff (these two mostly overlapped). In addition to the books mentioned here, I’m still dipping in and out of Helen Merrick’s wonderful book The Secret Feminist Cabal. I’ve also just gotten hold of Gwyneth Jones’ Imagination/Space, also published by Aqueduct (here’s a good review). And I’m in the middle of a reread of Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur. I’ll be reading City of Ruin when I’m done. Other books I’m hoping to finish in June include Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist (I started it today and love it so far) and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, which I first heard of a few months ago when Batuman wrote this gorgeous piece for the Chronicle. Assuming that her writing is generally of this calibre, this looks like being a remarkable book.

And so on to the books (in no particular order).

G.V Desani – All About H. Hatterr: I started reading this in April. I loved it; it’s challenging and playful and generally wonderful. I wrote more about it here.

Jesse Bullington – The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart: I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing. It’s incredibly smart, frequently very funny (the brothers’ theological debates in particular), and I absolutely love the cover art. And yet somehow it just did not click for me. I may be missing something obvious, since most reviews I’ve read of it have been overwhelmingly positive. I can’t pinpoint anything that the book did wrong (except maybe the cod academic framework which felt wholly unnecessary) so clearly we were just not meant to be. I will say this for Bullington, his writing is effective. He managed to make me feel rather queasy on two occasions. There’s one particularly unpleasant rape scene, and another scene that I do not wish to spoil for anyone, but between this and Paul Jessup’s “It Tasted Like the Sea” I may never eat fish again.

O. Douglas – Olivia in India: Someone on a mailing list that I read mentioned O. Douglas and I looked her up. I was rather surprised to find that she was John Buchan’s sister. A couple of her books were available on project Gutenberg, and I picked this one to start with. I was a bit wary of a book written in 1912 about an Englishwoman’s travels in India, but found myself charmed anyway. The book is a series of letters from a young woman (who is travelling to India to meet her brother) to an unnamed young man. The colonialism is inevitable, but for the time surprisingly not offensive. Olivia actually engages with India, which is rather nice. Occasionally the attempt to be charming and quirky gets a bit much, but on the whole this was very likeable indeed.

Rick Riordan – The Percy Jackson series: I finally watched the Percy Jackson movie and while it was pretty good I felt that the pacing was off and it was a lot less clever than the books. This made me reread all five books in the series as well as Percy Jackson: The Demigod Files, a slimmer volume containing three short stories and some mock interviews of characters in the series. The series is fantastic; The Demigod Files is insubstantial.

Georgette Heyer – Frederica: I read Heyer when I’m tired, which is why some of her stuff seems to pop up here every month or so. Frederica is not her best, but it is quite good and has a hot air balloon and steam engines. Which makes it practically steampunk, right? Right?

Lisa Kleypas – Suddenly You: This was recommended by a friend who thought I would enjoy a Victorian publishing romance. It was nice and started off very well indeed. But I felt it threw out a number of lures for places that the story could possibly go, and then went nowhere. It’s a little unfair to judge a romance novel for not being more than a romance novel so I can’t really blame it for failing to take up the publishing angle, or the child abuse angle, or… (there were quite a few such angles). But I would have liked a better structured plot, at least.

China Miéville - Kraken: My review is here. My reaction was largely positive, but with a few caveats. Watching Miéville having fun and being a geek was nice.

Mark Mellon – Napoleon Concerto: I’m supposed to review this for someone so I won’t say much here. This is an alternate history steampunk novel set in Napoleonic France. I’ll be linking to my review when it is up.

Nick Mamatas – Under My Roof: I am a bit of a Mamatas fangirl, for various reasons. This probably means that I am biased, but I loved this book to pieces. It’s a hilarious, slim book about a telepathic 12 year old whose father has built his own nuclear weapon (it’s inside a garden gnome on the lawn) and declared independence from the United States. It’s very smart and very political and entirely lovable and I’m surprised more people have not read it.

Julia Quinn – The Bridgerton Series: I did not reread all of the Bridgerton books this month. I read four; The Viscount Who Loved Me, An Offer from a Gentleman, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton and To Sir Philip with Love. There’s not much to say about these – none of them was a particularly strenuous intellectual exercise. But I love Quinn and I’m really looking forward to Ten Things I Love About You (review here).

Jon Courtenay Grimwood – Pashazade: Another alternate-history novel. Ashraf Bey arrives in Al Iskandriya and is immediately embroiled in a murder mystery. Fast paced and clever and massively entertaining. I suspect I’d need a second read to attempt any sort of critique (and I think there are aspects of it that could do with some examining) but I found it extremely enjoyable.

John Gardner – Grendel: I recently confessed on twitter that I had not read this, though I’d meant to for a while. The recommendations of a couple of people who had read it convinced me not to put it off any longer. I’m glad, it’s stunning. There’s not enough space here for anything like a review – and since I finished it only a couple of days ago I think I’d like some time to think about it and possibly return to Beowulf - but it’s a glorious book.

Georgette Heyer – Lady of Quality and Black Sheep: These two books are the same book: discuss.

May 29, 2010

Squid pro quo

Today’s Indian Express has a short review I wrote of China Mieville’s Kraken. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but thought it was a bit flabby and relied too much on its references to pop and geek culture. I could not resist using the Express’ gloriously bad pun in the title. (The repetition in that last paragraph is all my fault).

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The main attraction for visitors to London’s Darwin Centre is a perfectly preserved giant squid, Architheusis dux (Archie to those who work there). Then one day it disappears, tank and all, without a trace, and Billy Harrow, a museum curator, finds himself the target of a number of very strange people. With this, the reader and Billy are thrown into an alternative London, replete with squid-worshipping cults, rival gangs (one of them ruled by a terrifying sentient tattoo) and unionising animals; where a special branch of the police force exists to control supernatural happenings. It’s a London where one can literally read the entrails of the city to divine the future. And everyone seems to think that the world is about to end.

China Miéville was recently awarded an Arthur C. Clarke award for his 2009 novel The City & the City, making him the only author ever to have won the award three times. His latest book, Kraken, is a comic, allusive adventure story set in London. This is far removed from the dense, baroque language of Miéville’s earlier books. If anything, it is closest in style to his young adult novel Un Lun Dun. This does not, however, mean that it’s an easy read. Like any Mieville book, Kraken is brimming with ideas, about (among other things) groups and fandom and cities and religion and belief. It’s also Mieville’s least restrained work yet.

The book reads as a loving tribute to geekdom, a gleeful tour of all that growing up as a science fiction fan entails. The fascination with cephalopods and tentacles has been a big part of geek culture for a while now, and is traceable back to the pulp horror writer H.P Lovecraft. There are references in the text to other major writers who have influenced Miéville, including J.G Ballard and Michael Moorcock. There are a number of references to Star Trek: Wati, a disembodied revolutionary spirit, spends much of the novel communicating with the other characters by inhabiting an action figure of the original series’ Captain Kirk. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, another fantasy novel set in London, gets a nod in the form of Goss and Subby, two apparently immortal assassins who call to mind Gaiman’s Croup and Vandemar. There’s even an element of The X-Files in the interaction between Vardy and Collingwood, members of the special police.

Last year, Booker judge John Mullan dismissed the entire Science fiction genre as being “bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other”. Miéville has been critical of this extremely reductive (not to mention ignorant) view of the genre. Yet Mullan’s description seems a strangely apt description of the world Billy enters. It’s far too tempting to point to the parallels between the cult-filled underbelly of Kraken’s London and science fiction fantasy fandom itself. In part this is because the preoccupations of this world (giant squid! Atlantis!) are so fannish. Miéville makes the connection even stronger with the introduction of Simon Shaw, a character who is both a “Trekkie” and a part of the supernatural underground.

Far more than being a book about fans, though, this is a book for that “special kind of person”. If you grew up watching Star Trek, reading Moorcock, playing Dungeons and Dragons, Kraken is an utter delight.

But this may actually be the book’s biggest flaw. At times it appears more an act of redamancy towards the genre than an actual novel. Plot is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of a pun, or a clever allusion. The conclusion is clever but it is unnecessarily dragged out, to the point that we end up having multiple “final showdown” moments.

With a little more of the discipline and rigour that characterise some of Miéville’s other works, Kraken could have been brilliant. Yet a Mieville book is always worth reading. Kraken is the product of a fascinating mind at play, and is worth reading for that reason alone.

May 26, 2010

Some Book links

…a few things I’ve been meaning to link to:

Paul Charles Smith recently reread Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan trilogy. My love of Peake is well known to those who have been reading this blog for a while, but if I haven’t yet convinced you of his greatness I hope that Paul will.

Adam Roberts has been reading (for the first time, and I suspect it will be the last) Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books. Fans of the series may not find these posts entirely enjoyable, but I think they’re excellent. A sample:

As Samuel Beckett’s career progressed, his writing became more and more pared down, less and less verbal, increasingly approaching the asymptote that was at the heart of Beckett’s bleak vision: silence. The great, productive paradox at the heart of Beckett was that one of his century’s greatest verbal artists mistrusted the ability of words ever to articulate truth—not just particular arrangements of words but verbal art itself. The Unnameable, in that near-sublime novel, says: ‘I’ll speak of me when I speak no more.’ For him silence is ‘the only chance of saying something at last that is not false.

To step briskly ab sublimi ad ridiculus, Jordan’s career manifests something similar. Insofar as Heroic Fantasy is a fundamentally narrative artform, to which readers go in order to experience the pleasure of following the movement of characters through time, Jordan says: no. Wotix is the closest he has yet come to a book that disperses that force of narrative momentum—that great strength of the novel as a mode—into a great swarm of indistinguishable coexistent characters and non-progressions. If the traditional novel takes the shape of a quest, a linearly horizontal progression through narrative time, Wotix explodes that linearity in a bewildering near-dimensionless knot or tangle of non-progression.

The above, combined with their shared connection with Russia, makes me wonder if Roberts is distantly related to the Pandeys.

Larry Nolen has also been reading the Wheel of Time books, though in his case these are rereads. He’s generally worth a read, and though he’s kinder to the books than Roberts, these are still thoughtful, critical, and funny.

Casting actors for imaginary movie versions of books is generally great fun (and something I have spent far too much time on). A few months ago Gail Carriger discussed who she would like to see play her characters here. I love most of her choices, except that Paul Bettany would clearly make an ideal Professor Lyall.
Now Celine Kiernan has a competition up on her blog where you get to cast her three main characters for the chance to win the trilogy – which means getting hold of The Rebel Prince many months before the rest of us. And then I will be forced to hunt you down and commit violence upon your person. Go look.

Gav at the NextRead blog has been hosting a short story month. Plenty of excellent story recs there, but here I am talking about an Edith Nesbit story that I love.

You’ve probably already read Sridala Swami’s interview of China Mieville. If not, do so immediately. I admire both of them, and they seem like they’re both really enjoying this conversation.

And while on the subject of Mieville, Jonathan McCalmont wrote this epic review of The City and the City. I liked the book rather a lot when I read it last year. But it’s a good review – I’ve only recently discovered McCalmont and so far I’m a fan.

Also, Roswitha (like me) has been keeping a record of everything she reads this year. She’s also (unlike me) a wonderful writer, and her Book Munch posts are a joy to read.

Finally, and not particularly book related: Aadisht is now writing an opinion column for Yahoo India. The first two columns are here (I took that picture!). I may be biased, but I think they are hilarious. Sanjay Sipahimalani and Jai Arjun Singh are also writing for yahoo. Nothing but good can come of this.

May 19, 2010

All About H. Hatterr

G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr occupies a strange place in the canon (if there is such a thing) of Indian writing in English. One hears of writers who love it – Salman Rushdie is quoted at length on the back of my copy – but really, hardly anyone has read it, it’s close to impossible to find, and most people have never heard of it. I did a course on 20th Century Indian Literature in my first year of college, and I don’t think Desani was ever even mentioned.

So I was thrilled to find a copy (nyrb edition) a couple of months ago in a Delhi bookshop. I was also extremely intimidated by it, which is why this Spotlight Series on NYRB Classics came at such a good time. I forced myself to get on with it.

All About H. Hatterr begins with an introduction (“All About…”) by G. V Desani, with an account, presumably mostly fictional, of how the book was published.

So to Betty Bloomsbohemia: the Virtuosa with knobs on. I was summoned, Come Monday: but bagged Tuesday. I was questioned closely. Honouring me, as I never was ever! she insisted that I do explain the ABC of the book. Awed, I did the best I could. A. A man’s choice, Missbetty, is conditioned by his past: his experience. That’s true of his words too. I dare you, there are other ways of saying ‘Aspirin’. ‘Corpsereviver’, ‘Acetyl-Salicylic compound’. To one, M.P stands for a Member of Parliament. To another, it might mean major parasite. Depends on his experience. That’s all why this book isn’t English as she is wrote and spoke. Not verbal contortionism, I assure. B. There are two of us writing this book. A fellow called H. Hatterr, and I. I said to this H. Hatterr, ‘Furgoodnessakes, you tell ‘em. I am shy!’ And he tells. Though I warrantee, and underwrite, the book’s his. I remain anonymous. C. As for the arbitrary choice of words and constructions you mentioned. Not intended by me to invite analysis. They are there because, I think, they are natural to H. Hatterr. But, Madam! whoever asked a cultivated mind such as yours to submit your intellectual acumen or emotions to this H. Hatterr mind? Suppose you quote me as saying, the book’s simple laughing matter?

I was in love.

It makes little sense for me to tell you that the rest of the book (“H. Hatterr”, by H. Hatterr) is divided into seven parts, with a “critique” (“With Iron Hand I Defend You, Mr. H. Hatterr, Gentleman!” by Yati Rambeli, formerly widely known as Sri Y. Beliram, B.Com., Advocate, Original and Appellate, Civil and Criminal) at the end; that H. Hatterr is the son of an Englishman (in the navy, I think?) and a Malay prostitute; or that each section begins with the words of a different sage of some sort. Because what really matters about this book is the language. I’ve marked out passages on practically every page of my copy simply because they delighted me. This is taking ownership of the English language, and it’s pure brilliance. Hatterr and his firend Banerji’s cultural references are to Shakespeare and old school ties and pantie-vests from Bond Street made in Huddersfield, but they’re also very much of India. It’s an acknowledgement of our past – this is where we come from, this is what we have been, this is an authentic language for our experience.

Amardeep Singh discusses the novel far more intelligently here.

May 18, 2010

YfL13: Rules and Pudding

I’ve missed out of posting a couple of weeks’ Yell For Language columns. I apologise if anyone was particularly looking forward to them. Here is yesterday’s, anyway.

[An edited version of this was published in the New Indian Express' educational supplement yesterday].

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To Prove: To establish the truth or validity of by presentation of argument or evidence.

To Prove: To determine the quality of by testing; try out.

I have a peeve. It is not a pet peeve, because I have many peeves and asking me to choose a favourite would be akin to asking a parent to choose a favourite child.

My peeve is this: the rampant abuse of the expression “the exception that proves the rule”. It’s one of those things people will just glibly throw out when something happens that doesn’t fit their current system of understanding, and it’s clear that they have no idea what it actually means.

This expression does not mean what you think it means.

People nowadays tend to think of the word “prove” in terms of evidence; like fingerprints on a murder weapon (the victim in this case apparently being the English language). But think about what this would mean for “the exception that proves the rule”. You’re effectively saying “I have a theory about how the world works. This piece of information, does not fit my theory. Therefore my theory must be accurate”. No one with half a brain would accept this as a rational, logical statement! The only reason people continue to throw the phrase around is because they’re used to throwing language around without thinking about what it means. The continued, thoughtless use of this phrase is just another indication that we live in a world where the vast majority of people haven’t got a clue what they are actually saying. I find this thought depressing.

So what does the phrase actually mean? It’s all in the word “prove”, and it becomes obvious when you think about other situations in which we use the word. “Waterproof” does not mean “substance that proves water exists”; it’s fabric that withstands water. To “proof” a document has to do with checking it for errors. “To Prove” has multiple meanings, and the two I’ve listed at the top of this article are, I think, the major source of confusion.

Ultimately there are two possible ways to read the phrase in question. One is quite close to the usual interpretation (though different enough to matter): If something is to be considered exceptional, it implies (or proves) that there is a normal state (a rule, in the sense that we use “as a rule”) for it to be an exception to.

The other possible reading takes the word in its other sense; “to test”. In this case, “the exception proves the rule” because the existence of an exception causes you to question the rule, and find out if it really is universally applicable. I prefer this version of the phrase, but it is less popular.

It’s precisely because of this sort of linguistic confusion that I’m fond of another phrase, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. This one presumably means that one tests the quality of pudding by eating it, but it works both ways – it’s equally true that eating pudding is a great way to discover whether or not pudding exists. Plus, it is a phrase that positively demands that we all eat pudding, which is surely a good and noble task.

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May 15, 2010

Storyfinding help?

There is a (fantasy) short story that I read years ago and recently I’ve been thinking I’d like to read it again. The only problem is that I cannot remember who it was by. It was in an anthology of some sort when I read it; I’ve skimmed through some of the fantasy anthologies I own but haven’t found it (which doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t there). A title and author would help.

Here is what I remember: a brother and sister arrive (by ship) at an island, and there is a creepy but strangely attractive flying boy. There is possibly a cave as well.

That’s all I remember. Does anyone recognise this? I get the feeling it’s by someone at least reasonably famous.

May 8, 2010

April Reading (II)

And we’re well into May.
April was a really busy month workwise, and I found myself reading quite a bit of fluff. May is likely to continue in the same vein, though I do have the new China Mieville book, and I’m also planning an Iron Council reread when I’m done with it. Here is the rest of what I read in April, anyway:

Victoria Alexander – What a Lady Wants and A Visit From Sir Nicholas: I’ve mentioned reading some of Alexander’s books over the last few months, and it’s probably obvious that I’m susceptible to light fiction that appears in series form. A Visit From Sir Nicholas is interesting that way, in that it’s historical romance, and it’s the same family, but is set a generation or so later, in the Victorian age. It also makes lots of references to A Christmas Carol and was in general quite entertaining and fun (and won a Romantic Times Viewers Choice award). What a Lady Wants on the other hand felt a bit pointless – I spent most of it wondering what the two lead characters were whining about.

Amanda Quick – Mischief: The title (which really put me off the book) turned out to have nothing to do with the story. This is a romance set in alternate-History Regency England, where the craze for Egyptology (I’ve mentioned before that Imperial Britain’s fascination with Egypt is something I love reading about) is replaced because some British explorers found an island kingdom called Zamar with an equally fascinating history. Both main characters are obsessed with the island – he is the man who first discovered it, and she analyses the facts he reports and publishes papers under a male pseudonym. It was great fun to read, though the plot (they are investigating the truth behind her best friend’s death) was less entertaining than the setting. I spent quite a bit of time wondering if the alt-hist aspects of the book meant that I could classify it in my head as Spec Fic. I have decided that I can.

Georgette Heyer – Arabella: Old favourite. There is a comical dog, there is the recognition that Regency England also contains lots of un-picturesque poor people, and there is a hero who actually recognises that he has been an arse and apologises for it.

Elsie J. Oxenham – The Girls of the Hamlet Club: As some of you know, my Masters’ thesis focused on school stories, and I’ve grown up reading a lot of Girls’ Own literature. This is the first of the Abbey Girls books – a series that is absolutely massive. I’d read The Girls of the Hamlet Club a few years ago and have only read the later books in the series since. Coming back to this one, I was surprised at how different from the others it was – there’s a half-written post on this which will be published soon.

C.S Lewis – Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength: Since I’ve had reason to refer to these books a few times lately, I thought a reread might be in order. Result: I still think Out of the Silent Planet is a decent space-travel story. It has some good aliens, some lovely alien landscapes, and it does First Contact rather well. And the religion stuff isn’t too jarring at this point, partly because the greedy businessman and the mad scientist are both pretty obvious villains without our needing much convincing. The book is also made better by the hints about another Martian race who were wiped out by a cataclysm, and who Ransom (the Very Christian philologist who is the main character of this series) is fascinated by.
Perelandra was intolerable. It’s a pretty colour palette, and some of the underground sections are genuinely terrifying, but the long, simplistic theological debates? Lewis seems to enjoy writing “debates” where one of the characters is either a complete strawman or a bit of an idiot – see for example that awful bit in The Silver Chair (which may or may not be based on Lewis’ debate with G.E Anscombe, and I don’t particularly care) – and all they really do is to make their author seem smug, simplistic, and incapable of questioning himself.
That Hideous Strength was the one I was looking forward to because I hadn’t read it in a while and had good memories of it. Evidently I had forgotten the hilarious scene where Jane (the female half of a couple who have been terribly misguided by modernity, education, and all this “gender equality” rubbish) is told by a resurrected Merlin that she’s the wickedest woman in Britain because she and her husband were fated to have a baby who would Save the World but then they went and used birth control! It’s possibly the greatest anti-reproductive rights argument I have ever encountered. What would have happened if the Virgin Mary had been on the pill? Lewis asks us, Had you ever thought of that? Had you?
I cannot say that I had.
Also, what is with Miss Hardcastle? Did Lewis really write a lesbian character?
Having said which. Despite the utterly bizarre/reprehensible politics of this book, I really enjoyed it. It’s dystopic, has sections that feel like classic science fiction (along with classic SF’s cheerful disregard for actual science), and contains Merlin and a bear.

I wonder how Lewis would feel at being included in this post. Other than his own, all the books are by women, and most of them romance writers.