Archive for February, 2017

February 2, 2017

scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day

My access to O. Douglas/ Anna Masterton Buchan has been restricted to what’s in the public domain, and so I’d only read three of her books before. The impression I’ve had of her based on these, and seeing other people discuss her (see also), is of a sort of Scottish L.M. Montgomery. Recently, however, I ended up reading The Setons, about a vicar’s daughter and her family, and members of her father’s church in Glasgow. It is exactly what you expect it to be–the Setons are bookish and generous and religious and Not Vulgar; Elizabeth is beautiful and natural and has a nice singing voice; a young man from London visits and is charmed and falls in love. It’s funny, and comforting, and utterly predictable. Then, just as we’re nearing the end, there’s this:


You know, of course, Gentle Reader, that there can be no end to this little chronicle?

You know that when a story begins in 1913, 1914 will follow, and that in that year certainty came to an end, plans ceased to come to fruition—that, in fact, the lives of all of us cracked across.

Personally, I detest tales that end in the air. I like all the strings gathered up tidily in the last chapter and tied neatly into nuptial knots; so I should have liked to be able to tell you that Elizabeth became a “grateful” wife, and that she and Arthur Townshend lived happily and, in fairy-tale parlance, never drank out of an empty cup; and that Stewart Stevenson ceased to think of Elizabeth (whom he never really approved of) and fell in love with Jessie Thomson, and married her one fine day in “Seton’s kirk,” and that all Jessie’s aspirations after refinement and late dinner were amply fulfilled.

But, alas! as I write (May 1917) the guns still boom continuously out there in France, and there is scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day.


The Setons is Douglas/Buchan’s second novel, and she’ll go on, after the war, to write more of the sort of books I associate her with, their strings “gathered up tidily” and happily (in nuptial knots)–reading her years later and out of order, as I’m doing, imposes a false chronology, and perhaps makes this departure from a pattern she hasn’t even set yet seem a bigger deal than it is. And the book will go on to in some measure gather up those strings in any case–characters we’ve known and liked are reported on, and some of them are reported dead. There’s some form of closure, because there has to be, even if the closing image of the book is a family praying before sending another young man off to war. the-seton

Chronology feels significant here– if that “You know, Gentle Reader” is addressed to me, then yes I do know. A century later not only am I aware of the dates of the war, but I’m used to reading fiction that treats the period leading up to it as the last golden summer, I’m used to foreshadowing; from the moment a character in The Setons casually reveals that he’s living in the winter of 1913 I’m on my guard. But I also know when the war ends–my version of this story isn’t “in the air”. The gentle readers of 1917 may not yet be used to having the summer of three years ago turned into myth, or to reading clues to it into their literature; their relationship to the thing that is actually happening to/around them is probably very different. A few years ago I wrote of Penny Plain that the effects of the war were all over the book. But that book too is written after the war. In The Setons the war isn’t merely a tragic event but a genuine shock that tears through the book itself. We know what sort of book this is–until it isn’t. In 1917, with scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds etc., the shape of this narrative is impossible. At particular moments, particular sorts of stories become unthinkable.

We know this, we all did a Modernism module at some point. I don’t know, though, that I’ve ever felt it this cataclysmic within the text. I don’t know what I make of the fact that by 1920 (when Penny Plain is written) for Douglas this story has become possible again, and I don’t know if it’s possible to find comfort in that fact.


February 1, 2017

January Reading

This month I attempted to re/read all of Frances Hardinge’s work, for this event, taking place a few days from now. In addition:


Arshia Sattar and Sonali Zohra (and Valmiki, I guess?), The Ramayana: I’ll be writing about this separately, but what really matters is that it’s a very pretty edition with stunning (by Zohra) art.

Sarnath Banerjee, All Quiet in Vikaspuri: I suspect that there are a few overlapping things between this and Banerjee’s The Harappa Files, which I haven’t yet read, and which I’m going to have to. I enjoyed AQiV more than I ever have Banerjee’s work before–it’s a little too keen to explain to you how capitalism and its depredations of the water table work, which is fine if that’s what the book wants to do but it’s not clear to me that it knows what its priorities are, and yet. It feels more of my city than I’d expected–I read it a couple of weeks after a morning (and subsequently an afternoon) at the Bhikaji Cama Place passport office where the book opens, and I live and have worked in the parts of the city that subsequently are the focus of the water wars.

Anushka Kalro, Rajasee Ray, Sankhalina Nath, Shubhangi Goel, Bhoomi’s Story–SPACE: This is part of a “first look science” series from Tulika books that tells the “stories” of particular things in the natural world–others include Boondi, Dhooli, Gitti and Beeji (or WATER, AIR, EARTH and EARTH’S SURFACE). This one, as the title suggests, is about earth-as-planet; its place in the vastness of space. I love Tulika’s children’s books, and the illustrations here are beautiful, with lots of unexpected little effects–the long, swirly lines that depict earth’s oceans, the dotted lines to show you Jupiter’s gases. It’s not clear to me which of the authors credited was responsible for the art; a note at the end mentions that the whole project was developed with Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. I was briefly put out by being told that Bhoomi is “not too cold or too hot to live on” (child!me would have had some serious questions about “life” in this context) but then got to this, close to the end, and was won over:

(If anyone wanted to send me a copy of Dhooli, feel free.)

Chandrakala Jagat, Shakuntala Kushram, (trans) Rinchin, The Magical Fish: I’ve written more about this (gorgeous) book here.

Foz Meadows, An Accident of Stars: I write academically about portal fantasies, among other things, and one of my constant questions when I read modern ones (especially ones, like this one, that are trying so hard) is to what extent the genre can escape its imperial roots. The answer, unfortunately, seems to be not very much–even populating the secondary world with characters with a range of loyalties, races, sexualities, religions (only two religions, but still) doesn’t entirely mitigate the fact that the language with which we describe the fantastic encounter and the language with which we describe the colonial encounter are so inextricably intertwined–and while Meadows’s our-world teenaged protagonist is often confused and terrified by the situations she’s found herself in, there’s a certain amount of “only this person from another world could have seen/done this thing!” which is, again, unfortunate. But this is all, as I say, a genre-related issue rather than one particular to this book; and I do like the interactions between the adult characters and their various conflicting attitudes towards care of the young people who live with them. And there’s an extended sequence involving dragons. A problem that is particular to this book–it is, as I say, trying very hard wrt race and sex and gender and the result is sometimes rather crude, as if someone is explaining in a voiceover somewhere (and that was when Saffron realised the thing she was thinking was racist!). Mixed feelings, then.

Ashwin Pande, Arjuna Susini, Aditya Bidikar, Mistry, P.I #1: (Disclaimer: I know both Pande and Bidikar–the latter for several years–and am disposed to like things they make) This is a supernatural crime series where a pair of detectives (also a thing I’m disposed to like) consisting of a golem and a young man with a Mysterious Past investigate things in Mumbai and in this particular plot rescue some dogs. I’ll probably be reading the rest of the series, because it’s funny and I owe it my loyalty for rescuing the dogs, but as is usually the case when I’ve just read one issue of something, I don’t have deep insights to share.

Ayisha Malik, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged: I only heard of this because of the embarrassing Jenny Colgan review of the book Malik wrote with Nadiya Hussain. So it’s nice that something positive came out of that mess? It’s not a perfect book–I enjoy our protagonist’s frivolity, but when she’s then paired with a much more seriously, very politically aware man there’s an uncomfortable undertone of him educating her about racism and islamophobia (his politics are, however, sometimes undermined and I suspect this is going to be explored a bit further in the sequel); the whole thing does feel overlong, and I’d really enjoy seeing some further recognition of Sofia’s own flaws beyond her seeming obliviousness to men who are in love with her. Having said all of which, Sofia’s frequent angsting about things like tone and stereotype and writing to a British audience within a book which, etc., is great: there’s nothing particularly radical about this sort of metafiction anymore, but it makes possible a particular sort of dwelling on the shape of the fiction that I really enjoy. Plus, it’s a nice, satisfying romantic comedy.

Eloisa James, Seven Minutes In Heaven: I’d almost forgotten that I’d preordered this several months ago, and then it showed up on the last day of the month, mere hours after I’d sent off a biggish piece of writing and really wanted a book to wallow in. I read James because I like series fiction and big, interconnected worlds–this particular book is even more series-y than most series books because it’s the sort of thing where lots of minor characters from the author’s earlier books show up and are married off, in ways that I would object to strenuously (tying up narrative threads is gross and immoral) if they weren’t in a historical romance. A thing I liked: the shifting between Eugenia’s fond memories of her late husband and our more ambivalent sense of him–there’s still an implied sense that we can see more clearly than she can, but it’s far more nuanced than the usual portrayal of this sort of thing. (It slackens a little when she and Our Hero have sex–till now, the book has been refreshingly cliche-free in suggesting that Eugenia’s husband was great in bed, that she’s a woman who has had a fulfilling sex life in the past, but convention demands that the hero of this book must obviously be better. Suddenly she’s the sort of heroine who is amazed by men going down on her, and it’s a shame.) A thing I didn’t like: for much of the book the characters are away from the nice, interconnected community that the series allows us to have, and it feels like a waste. (Also, why doesn’t Reeve have any friends?)