Archive for October, 2010

October 23, 2010

Stephen Fry on pedantry and loving the language

As most of you know, I write a weekly language column for the New Indian Express’ EdEx supplement. I write this column because I love the English language and it seems to me entirely reasonable that I should write public love notes to it on a regular basis – much like accosting strangers with pictures of one’s offspring (“aren’t they beautiful?”). I think I manage not to be a pedant most of the time, though I stand by the occasional argument for clarity, whatever Stephen Fry may say in the video below.
As for said video, I think it’s gorgeous and true and it made me cheer. Watch it immediately.
October 17, 2010

I gush shamelessly about Gail Carriger

Some of you may remember that at the end of last year I listed Gail Carriger’s Soulless as one of my most memorable reads of the year. Since then, Carriger has been most obligingly prolific- Changeless came out this spring, and Blameless a month or two ago.

I wrote a short appreciation of the Parasol Protectorate series in yesterday’s Indian Express. Talking about three books in a limited number of words was difficult, but I managed to touch on some of the aspects of these books I love: that they’re funny, fluffy, clever and wonderful at relationships. I wish I’d also been able to talk about how they’re very, very geeky. Romance novels that my boyfriend is as excited about as I am. That is pretty amazing.
My gushfest about the series is below; earlier pieces on the first two books are here and here.

Everyone is sick of love stories with vampires in them. Most people are well on the way to being sick of werewolf romances as well. And among the groups of people who actually know what Steampunk is, it has for some time been commonly thought to have had its day.

With this in mind, Gail Carriger’s series of steampunk romances featuring both vampires and werewolves ought to feel stale and annoying. Yet three Parasol Protectorate books (Soulless, Changeless and Blameless) have come out in the past year, I have devoured them all, and I am in no danger of tiring of them.

Soulless introduces us to Alexia Tarrabotti, a London spinster afflicted with a large nose, an Italian surname and a surfeit of intelligence. She’s also a preternatural, the opposite of supernatural. Not only does she have no soul, but physical contact with makes vampires and werewolves temporarily mortal.

Unlike most well brought up Victorian ladies, therefore, Alexia knows “the supernatural set” quite well. She is especially fond of the vampire Lord Akeldama with his outrageous clothing and harem of attractive young men; and Professor Lyall, the wonderfully sane werewolf Beta. Equally, she feels strong dislike for the gorgeous Lord Maccon, a werewolf pack Alpha with an annoying protective streak where Alexia is concerned. Of course she does.

Romance fans know exactly where this is going.

Soulless is primarily a romance (though with plenty of blood and guts and mad scientists). Its sequels, Changeless and Blameless are closer to adventure novels. Changeless has Alexia traveling to Scotland (by dirigible), while Blameless has her being chased across Europe amongst a gloriously silly profusion of guns, false moustaches and hot air balloons.

These books are ridiculous, and entirely comfortable being that way. But they’re also intelligently conceived. The series is thoroughly grounded in history – in Carriger’s universe the Puritan fathers left England over the decision to welcome supernaturals into society, and werewolf and vampire skills, social dynamics and safety converns are the major reasons for the Empire, the bureaucracy, and the blandness of British cuisine. Real historical concerns are brilliantly woven in; for example the second and third books in the series both address the Egyptian Question in ways that are wholly unexpected.
Alexia is a wonderful heroine. There’s never any danger that falling in love will cause her to lose herself. She’s clever, frequently self-serving, not particularly nice, and fully capable of bludgeoning you to death with her parasol should she feel threatened.

Equally, as satisfying as Carriger’s rather Heyeresque romance plot may be, the majority of the series’ most moving moments have come from the marvelous cast of side characters. I love Alexia and Maccon but would quite happily sacrifice their adventures if it meant more time with Lord Akeldama and his partner Biffy, or Madame LeFoux (excellent milliner or evil genius?) or (especially) the magnificent Professor Lyall.

Carriger’s language owes a lot to Wodehouse. It’s a difficult style to sustain, and occasionally the author slips up or sounds too forced. But this is easy enough to forgive. These books are unselfconsciously funny, smart, and completely fresh. They’re an absolute delight.

I don’t know how long this series is going to be; a fourth and fifth book have been announced, but there is no information on whether the fifth will be the last. But if Carriger is going to keep producing things at this rate and of this standard, I’d be quite happy for it to be, well, endless.


October 12, 2010

Pradeep Sebastian, The Groaning Shelf

The Sunday Guardian (who will get their website up and running soon so I can finally link to them) carried my review of Pradeep Sebastian’s The Groaning Shelf this weekend.


If you’re the sort of person who likes books, collects books, or spends more time and money on books than you can really afford, there’s something very attractive about the genre of books-about-books. Because what these ultimately are, are books about readers. Quite apart from the rather egocentric pleasure of reading about oneself, it’s comforting to know that one is not alone.
The Groaning Shelf is a collection of short personal essays by Pradeep Sebastian, covering various aspects of book love. The book contains pieces on unusual bookshelves, book theft, first editions, the art of reading and specific books or authors.

The collection as a whole is somewhat inconsistent. Particularly in the earlier pieces Sebastian seems unsure of what audience he is addressing. At times he addresses the reader as a fellow bibliophile, or at least as someone reasonably well-read. At others the reader is assumed to know nothing; it is hard to warm to an author who says things like “As we bibliophiles say”. In an essay on titles, for example, Sebastian refers to a friend who preferred not to title her work even before she read e e cummings. The reader who is familiar with cummings has no trouble understanding this. But surely even the reader who has never touched a book in his life (it’s hard to see what such a reader would be doing with a book about bibliophilia) can work most of this out from context? Apparently Sebastian thinks not, and a paragraph later he is explaining that cummings published a book with no title. Similarly, while quoting a friend who draws an analogy between marginalia and Ariadne’s thread of Greek myth, he feels the need to retell the entire myth.

I suspect that this particular problem arises from the fact that many of these essays are edited versions of Sebastian’s columns in various papers. It is understandable that those particular pieces might originally have been pitched toward a more general audience rather than a circle of Serious Bibliophiles (though the tone seems rather patronizing even then) but surely they could have been brought to some consistency?

The newspaper connection might also be the source of another issue I had with the collection. Each piece is only a few pages long, and when Sebastian tackles broad subjects like book covers or first editions there simply isn’t enough room for him to go into any depth. The grouping together of the essays by theme does help with this, but it’s not quite enough.

It would be interesting if the individual essays in this collection had dates on them, as it’s not clear whether this is all recent work or a collection of writings over a period of time. The later pieces are far superior to the earlier ones. Presumably subject matter has something to do with it. Sebastian is at his best when he is dealing with more specific subjects. His enthusiastic pieces on Amitava Kumar and Pico Iyer (in whose cases I share his opinions) and on J.D. Salinger are far more fun to read. The chapter in which he attempts (albeit unsuccessfully) to garner critical respectability for the movie version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is hilarious. A piece on Sherlock Holmes rewrites and pastiches is probably the best thing in the book – Sebastian leaps gleefully about, from Chabon to Bayard to Gilbert Adair. This is book-love, made far more visible than in the earlier pieces about things like cover-design and shelves which are, after all, ultimately extraneous matter. But then, perhaps, that’s one of the fundamental differences among book-lovers that Sebastian notes.
Sebastian’s book is uneven in tone and occasionally pompous, but among the essays included are some absolute gems. It wouldn’t be an essential part of my collection of books about books (if I had one; Sebastian does) but it is an enjoyable read.
October 12, 2010

Garner love

For many months now I’ve been promising myself a reread of Alan Garner’s magnificent book The Owl Service (and a rewatch of the very good BBC adaptation alongside). I’ve written about Garner on this blog, though never enough to express quite how vital he has been to me, and to how I read.

Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (which I only read quite recently, in 2008) is now fifty years old, and The Guardian have an interview with him up here. And though I’ve linked to it before, here is an essay by Garner that I am particularly fond of.
October 10, 2010

Elsewhere on the internet

The Future Fire have my review of Mark Mellon’s Napoleon Concerto. I really wanted to like this more than I did (and I feel particularly guilty when I’m harsh about small press books) but it simply didn’t live up to its promise, for me.

October 10, 2010

Kindle, The Beetle, and hints of great change

Kindle is a new monthly magazine. It looks good and has some very impressive ideals. I’ve really enjoyed the last couple of issues. Now the nice people behind the magazine have offered me a regular column. Each month I will be reviewing something that is awesome, out of copyright, and available for free online. I’ve been trying to read more old books in any case, and I like being able to justify this as “work”.

I also like that I will be sharing pagespace with people for whom I have a tonne of respect. The books page also has Aditya Bidikar (who writes short strange fiction and comics, writes about comics and is lovely in all ways) and Abhijit Gupta (who is brilliant, judges things, and who I first befriended over a shared love of Mervyn Peake).

My piece for the October issue is on something that I consider to be a classic, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle. It’s bizarre and delicious and I wish someone would make it into a movie.


In 1897 a certain book is published about a strange, seductive, foreign creature that comes to London and wreaks havoc, and kidnaps women. A group of men (one of whom has already had a harrowing encounter with the creature in its lair) set out in pursuit. It is part detective novel, part horror story. But this book is not Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is Richard Marsh’s mostly-forgotten classic The Beetle. Dracula was also published in 1897, and Marsh’s book outsold it considerably. It’s strange that the book is so little known today.

A young politician named Paul Lessingham encounters a mysterious cult while traveling in Africa. He manages to escape it, but is pursued to London by a strange and inhuman creature. Along the way Lessingham’s fiancée Marjorie and her friend and would-be-suitor Sydney Atherton get caught up in this mess. As do an innocent clerk and a private detective. Eventually the Beetle kidnaps Marjorie.

One thing that makes The Beetle fascinating to me is that it encapsulates so perfectly everything one might be worried about in Britain in 1897. Imagine; there you are, trying to convince yourself that the British Empire is strong and mighty and invincible. But you’ve conquered parts of Africa (and especially Egypt) that are constant reminders of great empires eventually collapsing. They’re also reminders that the people you’ve conquered are capable of more than you give them credit for, and may even have knowledge that you do not have. It’s an uncomfortable thought.

Back home, things are equally fraught. Feminism has happened. Women are demanding the vote. Even gender isn’t that stable anymore. And in the middle of all this, Richard Marsh writes the character of the Beetle –able to shape-shift, androgynous, African, tanned and genuinely scary. It’s almost as if he purposefully set out to create the embodiment of everything his countrymen feared, wrapped up in one demented package.

And there’s Marjorie Linton. It’s difficult to be sure what the book makes of Marjorie. She’s a feminist, makes her own decisions, and campaigns for the right to vote. She has more personality than any of the other major characters. The inability of this little group of Victorian men to deal with her (Atherton’s moustache-quivering outrage is particularly choice) is occasionally played for laughs, but equally there’s an undercurrent of unease over where all this women’s liberation will end. Marjorie does not get a happy ending.

But you don’t need to be a Victorian to be affected by The Beetle. At its best moments (these generally involve large insects) it is genuinely menacing. It’s also marvelously structured, with its multi-person narrative, its flashbacks and its changing styles. It’s the sort of book that is so tempting to analyse that one often forgets that it is an incredibly entertaining and surprisingly accomplished book in its own right. It’s ludicrous and pulpy, but that could be equally said of books that are far better regarded. At the end of the day, The Beetle is enormously fun to read, and who’s going to turn that down?


And now here is a hint of great change. Great changes are to occur to this blog in the near future. I hope you’ll all stick around.