September and October Reading

I only read one book in September. and did not want to isolate it in a post of its own, therefore this combined post.

 

Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows: I’m still thinking about this one, and I suspect I’ll have more to say about it in time, but at the moment I’m struck most of all by the fact that (if this is a spoiler it’s a very minor one), though we learn early on that the main character was renamed by her mother when the two of them went to live with her Puritan relatives, we never find out what that name was. This feels of a piece with the several name changes that Makepeace must put on/take off over the course of the book–as well as the (not a spoiler, really) number of people with whom she has to share her head. So often children’s lit is about asserting one’s selfhood against forces that seek to control or diminish it, and this book often does that (literally, for several of the characters); but Hardinge is also always good at dramatising the ways in which selfhood is contested and constructed and never as comfortingly innate as to make you secure about it (see in particular: Cuckoo Song)–so we don’t get to know Makepeace’s “original” name and feel like we have a hold on something important about her. And perhaps most crucially, we also see characters deliberately ceding selfhood out of choice or kindness. There’s so much here; it’s a genuinely rich book, and I’m looking forward to writing about it at length.

 

Osama Alomar, (trans. Alomar and C.J. Collins) The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories: I’d planned to review this for Strange Horizons’s special issue at the end of October, but managed instead to catch some sort of flu and conjunctivitis (it  was not the best week) and there was no way I was also writing a review. I’m really intrigued by the ways in which this edition of the book (put out by New Directions) signals at these pieces both as poetry and as prose, and I think I’d want to read a lot more on the modern Arabic “very short story” before writing at length about the collection, but these stories are funny and bitter and clever, their imagery is startling and often SFnal, there’s a shifting between metaphor and real fantasy that wrongfoots you constantly. I felt out of my depth, but I enjoyed it a lot.

 

Ann Coburn, Glint: In early October I chaired a conversation between Ann and Chloe Daykin (the author of Fish Boy, which I write about here, and still plan to write about properly sometime). This book is two books–there’s a more mundane plot in which a girl searches through Berwick for a brother who has disappeared, and a fantastical one in which the character the siblings created in their childhoods goes on a quest, saves some dragons and meets a strange wild boy in the woods. The fantasy plot is dissatisfying, unsurprisingly; one’s always aware of it as only a metaphor. The realist narrative, on the other hand, genuinely works, and there’s a really strong sense of the town. Given that I’ve spent a lot of the last few years writing about fantasy landscapes and real space and the relationships between them, this was a really nice thing to read and not have to write about.

 

Patrice Lawrence, Indigo Donut: I was expecting to like this, given that I really enjoyed Lawrence’s Orangeboy earlier this year. I was a bit surprised, however, by how I ended up devouring it–with only occasional pauses to listen to Blondie songs, which form an important aspect of the plot. It’s a teenage romance (a genre that is by its nature usually going to be satisfying), but Indigo Donut is genuinely compelling on top of that. It’s also a sort of hybrid family story/mystery; the answers our characters find are difficult ones, and yet (again, as with Orangeboy) there’s a genuine sweetness about its relationships, how its decent people care about and for one another, that saves its more difficult moments from feeling gratuitous or marking it as That Sort Of Thing, and instead makes them just things that happen to these people.

 

Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage: I don’t think I’ve actually reread the His Dark Materials trilogy since 2006 or so, though in the interim I have read the two or three shorter books/short stories that Pullman has had published. Still, it’s been ages, and it was a surprise to me how much reading La Belle Sauvage, Pullman’s new novel set a decade or so before the events of the trilogy, felt like sinking into something warm and familiar. I read it while I was ill in bed, so I’m still not entirely sure if the weird, dream-sequence-y journey by boat that I remember as the second half of the book actually happened, but I want to believe. I want someone to write about this with The Faerie Queen, and I want them to write about it with The Buried Giant (and I refuse to be either of those people.)

 

E.K. Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing: My comfort reading/guilty pleasure is the regency romance–and I use “guilty” deliberately here, not because I’m ashamed of my low-culture leanings, but because the genre as a whole is built upon an economics of slavery and empire, things that I can’t not be aware of. I read the books, but expect, and accept, that occasionally the horror of the whole enterprise will suddenly be present on the page in ways I can’t ignore for the space of my comfort reading. Johnston’s book seems to me, in part, a reaction to similarly ambiguous feelings about the genre–unfortunately, it strikes me as about the worst possible reaction.

The book is set in an alternate future, based on a world in which, according to the author, the British Empire made the best possible/least brutal choices at every point in its history, rather than, as often happened, picking the most violent. As a result, it has survived into a future where young people, reaching marriageable age, enter their genetic data into a computer which helps them to meet compatible matches. Besides the technology, the social structures that involve high status debutantes meeting eligible partners at a series of social events have remained largely unchanged since the nineteenth century–as have the clothes, though these high-tech corsets are apparently a lot more comfortable. Debuting this season in the Canadian social scene (still a part of the empire, obviously) are, first, the heir to the throne, disguising herself as a more ordinary young woman in order to escape the public eye; and another woman who is already in a relationship with an old friend. These two women meet and, in complicated circumstances (adopting fake identities online and in real life) fall in love; since, for some reason, it’s still unacceptable for the heir to the monarchy to marry another woman, they, and the abovementioned boyfriend enter into a discreet poly relationship for the good of the empire. There’s something about that particular relationship that genuinely does work for me; a group of sensible adults working out a system that they can all live comfortably with. But this is set against a background that really, really does not work. The whole thing feels like an attempt to render a beloved genre unproblematic, and while I can sympathise with that desire, the book does so by suggesting that empire is only bad when it’s at its most violent, and eugenics are only bad when they’re racially-motivated; that a benevolent empire could be a sort of wish-fulfillment.

It is not.

 

O. Douglas, Priorsford, Pink Sugar, The House that is our OwnThe Proper Place, The Day of Small Things, Jane’s Parlour, Taken by the Hand: I had such good resolutions for my holiday. We were driving around Scotland, and I took a bunch of things (academically relevant in some cases, just generally important in others) to read. I then spent the whole time reading O. Douglas books instead–I went to look something up and found myself reading almost all of her work within the week. I don’t really know what to say about these books, except that they were very satisfying, do some genuinely interesting things with character, and went very well with a hotel room by the sea.

 

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