April 27, 2015

The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award Shortlist (Part I)

I’m blogging the Carnegie shortlist again this year (eventually), but thought it would be fun to do the Little Rebels award as well. Eight books, of which these are the first four. I’ve read most of the shortlist–I’ll be writing about the next four in the next week or so.

 

Anne Booth, Girl with a White Dog

A children-learning-about-WWII-and-the-importance-of-tolerance story. That’s a bit reductive, though it is essentially accurate.

Jessie is in year 9, and is learning about World War II as part of a class project. Her father works abroad, something which, hearing the adults around her talk, Jessie blames on immigrants coming to the UK and taking all the jobs. Her grandmother adopts a white German Shepherd, but falls ill soon after (and keeps saying things that make no sense), so that Jessie has to look after the puppy. Eventually her grandmother’s mysterious past, her history project, the cousin Fran’s group of bullies and her best friend Kate’s activism all link up.

There are things here that really work. I’m wary of the collapsing of historical and current events into an overarching argument that these are all manifestations of the same terrible impulses, but Booth gives us enough specifics to partially offset this. The framing project about fairy tales also works—the “modern fairy tale” that Jessie writes for homework is blatant, but still clever. Her voice is funny and dry. And there’s a dark undercurrent to that voice that is the result of her anti-immigrant prejudice, which lasts for a good portion of the book.

I suppose my major issue with Girl with a White Dog is how issue-book-y it feels, which is perhaps an unfair criticism to make of something that is quite openly an issue book. Lessons are stated to us directly—when Jessie has a revelation about prejudice, or about some parallel between the issues she’s reading about and those she’s facing, we are told what it is immediately. And her group of friends is a little too pat—I want to see more kids of colour, queer kids, disabled kids, kids with different sorts of families represented in children’s lit but the particular structure of this plot, and the way it wants to link up various sorts of prejudice, unfortunately enhances the sense of issues being ticked off a list with the introduction of particular characters who all deserve more.

Having said which, a thing that is very well done is Jessie’s relationship with her best friend, Kate. Kate is fond of Jessie’s grandmother as well, is good at maths and speaking to people, is in a wheelchair and plays sitting volleyball at the national level, is very, very political and activisty—Jessie feels vaguely guilty that she isn’t more politically aware, as I suspect most of us do, but consoles herself with the knowledge that not everyone can be good at everything (as I suspect most of us do) and this is Kate’s thing. But then this exchange takes place:

Eventually I stuttered, ‘But … but you won that fight with the bus company. You were in the local paper and everything. It was brilliant. You were brilliant. I thought you liked campaigning.

‘Not campaigning all the time! I want to be lazy, to be nice like you, instead of good old campaigning Kate. And, right now, I just want to be alone, Jess. You’re really not helping.’ And Kate wheeled herself off as fast as she could down the corridor away from me.

I’m quoting this here in part because wanting to be able to be nice is such a simple, painfully accurate description of that feeling. But I think in this book, at this point, it’s a little more important than that. The rest of Girl with a White Dog will be about forgiveness and reconciliation and recognising that we, like other people, are implicated in badness. But this moment between Jessie and Kate isn’t resolved; we’re not allowed to believe that there’s some form of the right words that could make this thing between them go away. I don’t mean to say that they’re not still best friends; if anything, they’re probably more so. But Girl with a White Dog allows Kate her bitterness and perhaps suggests that anger is justified and can sit alongside nobler things like forgiveness.

 

 

Craig Pomranz and Margaret Chamberlain, Made by Raffi 

Made by Raffi is about a boy (Raffi) who likes clothes and bright colours and doesn’t like the things that his other classmates seem to, and who worries about what this might say about his gender identity. Then a teacher teaches him how to knit, and he makes a giant stripey rainbow scarf for his dad, who doesn’t seem to mind that it’s about four metres long. He also makes a magnificent cape for the prince character in the school play, impressing everyone at school, so that both friends and family are shown to embrace his creativity.

raffiGood things: Rainbow scarf! The world illustrated by Chamberlain is a fundamentally nice one; Raffi’s school is populated with students and teachers of various ethnicities and degrees of able-bodiedness, girls who play the same sports as boys and girls who don’t (the boys are a bit less diverse in this regard, for obvious plot-reasons) mum and dad both help out in the kitchen, and the only obvious questioning of Raffi’s behaviour comes from Raffi himself. Even where Pomranz’s text tells us that some children on the bus teased Raffi for his knitting, the accompanying image is one of people who are happy and interested (and the scarf, which is really far too long to be practical). And I like that this isn’t a book about queerness and/or gender identity—though the rainbow scarf would make that reading easy—Raffi might well find that he’s queer, or genderqueer (he does ask if there’s such a thing as a “Tomgirl”) but he might easily be a straight, cis kid who likes to make things. All sorts of options are available here. And I really like the spread in which we’re shown how he makes the cape, as if this was an activity book.

Bad things: that this book can be easily summed up in terms of good and bad things that it does, and that so many of the “good” ones (not enforcing restrictive assumptions on people’s bodies, hurrah!) are about avoiding problems that other books have fallen into. It all feels a bit bland, and I can’t imagine really, really wanting to give the book to a child.

 

 

Jessica Shepherd, Grandma

Oscar and his grandmother are really close, do a number of activities together and love each other dearly. But Grandma is increasingly suffering from dementia and eventually has to go into a care home, and Oscar must adjust to this change.

Grandma is a picture book, told ostensibly in Oscar’s voice and in a constant present tense that makes it feel like a log book or a diary with gaps between the entries to represent the time between Grandma’s first signs of the condition, her diagnosis, the decision to take her to a care home, the point at which she moves in.

It’s all very simply told, and Oscar’s an unnervingly sweet child. He’s sad when Grandma doesn’t remember him or snaps at him, but we’re not shown any anger, or bitterness at how unfair the situation is for her as well as for him, or really any negative emotion—even his sadness is visible only to be followed with immediate reassurance that she doesn’t really mean it. It’s a deliberate choice for an author to make and I can see why one would. But I do wonder if, alongside its demystifying of dementia, it falls into a sort of telling children what the proper way to react is, rather than giving their own feelings a place to go. (I’m thirty and I have unpraiseworthy feelings over dementia and how it has affected elderly people I love; Oscar’s, what, five?) But that’s the thing, it is about demystifying old age and illness, not about demystifying children’s feelings towards these. On the back cover we’re told that Shepherd’s book “has grown out of her experience in a variety of caring roles” and the story ends with a Q&A about dementia, which rather makes my point for me.

But then there’s the genuinely moving bit where Oscar gets Grandma to tell him stories about herself. “I know them all by heart, so that I can remind her if she forgets one day” (there’s a whole world in that sentence). And the art is rather nice and I love that Grandma, Oscar, and Oscar’s younger sibling all have the same sort of hair.

My real objection to the book has to do with Grandma’s hair though. We’re told that Grandma likes to dress up as she used to do, and that she “loves it when Dad brushes her long, curly hair”. I may have howled a “noooooo” and I think that I was justified in doing so. I’m going to speculate that the author has straight hair.

 

 

Chris Haughton, Shh! We Have a Plan 

As has previously been revealed on this website, I love Haughton’s work. The art is just astonishingly cute, the text is often deadpan funny. It is probably unsurprising that I loved this one as well.

Four people (the promotional material says “friends”, but they all look similar and are clearly all looking after the smallest, so who knows?) are walking through the forest and see a bird.

The smallest doesn’t seem to be in on the plan. The others get into position to capture it, and then they “tip-toe slowly tip-toe slowly” (this book is so much fun to read aloud—later they try “climbing slowly climbing slowly” and “paddling slowly paddling slowly”) till they’re near enough to pounce. Three failures later they are somewhat battered and bruised and drenched and nowhere near success. Meanwhile the smallest has offered the bird some bread and gathered a huge flock around him. The others seem ready to take advantage of their companion’s friendliness and catch a few birds for themselves, but the flock turns on them and they have to run away.

So much of this works because of the art. We’re not told why it is that these characters want to catch this bird—are they hoping to eat it? Sell it? Keep it at home? It doesn’t matter. Colour plays a big role, I think; the pink and orange of the bird (and later the yellows and greens of the other birds), shining out against this twilight, purple and blue landscape, is pure desire.

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I’m most of the way through the Little Rebels shortlist now and as I continue to write about them I can see words like “preachy”, “didactic”, “issue” coming up over and over. This is something that is, I think, built into the structure of a prize like this—if we go out looking for “books informed by inclusive/anti-discriminatory concerns or those which promote social equality or social justice” these are inevitable. And while I may sound impatient with this at times, I do think that finding and celebrating these books is worthwhile.

But they’re not the only form that such literature can take, and I think something like Haughton’s book is a useful reminder of that. Is it radical because the prey turns on the hunters? Is it radical because the one member of the group to have any success is the smallest? Is it radical because the smallest seems to be motivated by friendliness/kindness? All of those, but they don’t strike me as more fundamental to the book than that it is funny and beautiful and completely charming.

April 20, 2015

Elephants? Feminism? Something.

wen hsu elephant 2Some recent (and very cute) children’s books involving elephants. I think the essence of this column is that elephants are a) adorable and b) fun to draw?

 

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“Not so long ago” a King decides that he wants to know the weight of his pet elephant. Unfortunately, the kingdom doesn’t have the necessary elephant-weighing technology in place, and no one is entirely sure what to do. Various groups of people try to work it out—fruit sellers and jewellers find their weighing machines inadequate, while the rope makers who try to rig up some sort of pulley system find that their ropes just aren’t strong enough. Bureaucrats and scientists fail. Finally a little girl comes up with the solution—to put the elephant in a boat and measure the change in water level, fill the boat with stones until the same effect was achieved, and then weigh the stones.wen hsu elephant 3 CUTEST

It’s a story many of us will have come across before in some form or the other. Geeta Dharmarajan’s version How to Weigh an Elephant, illustrated by Wen Hsu, names the little girl Lilavati and in doing so opens up the possibility that this is the historical Lilavati, the daughter of Bhaskaracharya to whom his Lilavati is addressed. History doesn’t tell us whether Lilavati herself grew up to be a mathematician, but she has often been adopted as a symbol for women in science in India—a 2008 anthology about Indian women scientists is titled Lilavati’s Daughters, for example. Dharmarajan’s book ends with a section on neglected Indian women scientists as well, signalling clearly that it sees books like this one as having an important social role to play.

The “twins” in the title of Kavitha Mandana and Nayantara Surendranath’s A Pair of Twins share neither parents nor a species but they do share a birthday. (Human) Sundari is born on the same day as (elephant) Lakshmi, into a family of Mahouts. The two babies form a lasting friendship and Sundari often pretends to be a Mahout on Lakshmi’s back—but in secret, because being a mahout is a job for a man. Until the Dussehra procession, when the usual elephant is unwell and only Lakshmi can take his place; with Sundari on her back, of course. A Pair of Twins is ‘about’ gender in ways that How to Weigh an Elephant is not; a longer text for slightly older children, it addresses the harm of both masculine and feminine stereotypes. Sundari’s brother would rather be a musician than a mahout, Sundari would prefer not to have to dress up as a man in order to do the job she has finally been allowed to do.

PoT1Both Dharmarajan and Mandana’s texts are helped by some gorgeous illustrations. Wen Hsu’s work won a Katha Chitrakala award in 2011 and uses cut paper and unlikely colours to great effect (and great adorableness). Nayantara Surendranath restricts herself to a more limited palette of browns and creams and pinks with the occasional bolt of blue. Her art is full of detail: the lines on tree bark, the print on a piece of cloth, be it part of a dress, a curtain or a howdah. Where there are no details she adds them in so that plain surfaces become unlikely things of beauty. And the limited palette serves at least one important purpose; when Sundari, having won all her battles, shows up to take her place as the leader of the parade in a very feminine turquoise blue dancer’s sari (turquoise is the book’s word for it but it seems a pity not to use the vastly more appropriate “ferozi”) the image bursts out from the page.

pot2It’s not clear whether elephants have anything to do with the fact that these two books for young readers are strongly feminist. It’s tempting to come up with a theory; popular science suggests that elephant herds are largely matriarchal societies, and that might have something to do with it. As with most things, the true answer probably lies in the fact that elephants are very cute, but that needn’t stop us from speculating.

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I didn’t have room here to also talk about An Elephant in my Backyard by Shobha Viswanath and Sadhvi Jawa (and that book isn’t really about gender in any way more obvious than that it has a girl for a protagonist) but it might deserve a separate post soon.

April 11, 2015

Newcastle: Eclipse

There was a solar eclipse a couple of weeks ago! It was very exciting. British media kept warning people about not permanently damaging their eyesight, Newcastle locals huddled together to look at the sky and tremble, Niall yelled at clouds (I may be exaggerating slightly), and I indulged in some occidentalism.

(Here is a column)

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In the power of a primitive and barbaric ruler Allan Quatermain and his companions need some way of getting the other inhabitants of the kingdom onto their side, escaping execution and putting the rightful heir on the throne. One of Quatermain’s companions, John Good, carries an almanac which lists important celestial activity—including a conveniently timed (lunar, in this case) eclipse.

HaggardI can no longer remember whether H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines was the first time I encountered the story of the educated Europeans who use their superior knowledge of astronomy to their advantage in this way. I also have no way of knowing whether it is the earliest iteration of this trope—one of the things that makes the book so enduringly entertaining is the fact that it is the perfect storm of adventure story clichés so that only the most unsullied reader could come to it without the sense that she had seen a lot of this before. There’s a hidden kingdom in Africa with an unknowably ancient past, a corrupt usurper, a prince with a birthmark that proves his royal status, a beautiful native girl who must be saved from becoming a human sacrifice (and who will fall in love with a white man because if nineteenth century fiction teaches us anything it is that white Europeans are irresistible). But most important are the credulous natives for whom the ability to recognise an eclipse is proof of supernatural power.

They're wearing PITH HELMETS, ffsIn Enid Blyton’s The Secret Mountain a family is kidnapped by the sun-worshipping inhabitants of a hollowed out mountain, also in an unidentified part of Africa. Once again a diary containing information about an eclipse saves the day (another life lesson from this genre seems to be that of always carrying a diary of some sort on one’s adventures); the father hurls a well-timed knife at the sun and the world gradually goes dark. Then there’s Herge’s Tintin adventure, The Prisoners of the Sun, which sets a version of this story in Peru and has its main characters captured by the  worshipers of an Inca sun god (the comic’s research fidelity to Inca myth is dubious to say the least). Tintin has NOT had the good sense to bring some form of celestial calendar with him, and it’s only owing to the merest coincidence that he happens to find a scrap of newspaper that happens to  mention the eclipse that is soon to take place. Once again the sky is darkened and everyone panics except the smug Europeans who alone know what’s happening.

If it seems a bit unlikely that all these native cultures should have spent thousands of years worshipping celestial bodies without figuring out that occasionally eclipses happen, that’s because it is. European adventure fiction oscillates wildly between the conviction that the natives are primitive and ignorant and the worry that they’ve been around a while and might know stuff. As ever it’s that man of science, Professor Calculus, who knows that something is amiss. As his companions look smugly upon the terrified crowd he (under the misapprehension that this is all a play) praises their acting.  Even Calculus has seen or read this story too many times to think it’s really real.

tintin eclipse 1 tintin eclipse 2

A couple of weeks ago I stood with a crowd of people in the middle of a city watching the sun disappear. You wouldn’t think this would be an unusual sight in the north of England, but it was quite an Event, with a screen set up by a local observatory in case the clouds should, er, obscure the sun. Fists were shaken heavenwards at any passing clouds that dared. Eventually the skies darkened even by local standards; there was something eerie about the quality of the light. Perhaps the gods were angry.

And then it passed, and the light was normal again, and the natives cheered.

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April 9, 2015

A Terry Pratchett post

I thought I wasn’t going to do a Terry Pratchett column (as I learnt after Leonard Nimoy died last month, I’m not good at talking about why certain public figures meant a lot to me) but then realised I couldn’t not say something.

So, this.

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At some point in my mid-teens a friend from school lent me a copy of something called The Light Fantastic, by someone called Terry Pratchett. It was the sequel to a book neither of us had read, which was a pity, but there was enough in there that we recognised to make this book, both a perpetuation and a parody of fantasy tropes, fun. I borrowed the book and loved it, she moved to another school, then another city, and we lost touch for years before Facebook made communication possible again, I kept the book. I found that there were others.kirby discworld

If parodying fantasy tropes had been the only purpose of the books, I suspect the joke would have worn thin very quickly (and reading the early books as an adult, I can see that it often did). But the Discworld books widened and deepened into something larger and deeper; while never losing the sense that a good portion of a book could be dedicated to the fulfilment of a terrible pun and that that was as noble a goal as any. In the first few years I read them in the order that I found them in, skipping back and forth in an already-chaotic timeline and across British and American editions. When I’d read all that had been published I moved on to making sure I had a complete set in the editions with the nicer covers (if there was a Josh Kirby cover, that was the one I wanted; a British edition was always preferable to an American one). As I caught up, I began collecting the books in hardback, as they came out, which was usually (serendipitously!) around my birthday. Friends in other countries would pick them up if they were delayed in India, or stood in line to get them signed. For years now I’ve associated the whole process of growing older with the arrival of a new Terry Pratchett book—I’m not entirely sure how to do that, now that there will be no more.

When I found out that Pratchett had died last week, it was through friends whom I’d badgered into reading him in college, messaging me to ask if I knew and to thank me for introducing his work to them.  I dithered over emailing my old friend and expressing the same sort of gratitude–I’m not sure “thanks for letting me steal your book fifteen years ago” is something I can articulate very well to someone who is now almost a stranger. But I am, deeply, grateful.

And I’m grateful to Pratchett, and to the books (particularly the Discworld books) themselves. For a world in which the insides of people’s heads (our second and third thoughts as well as our first) are important. For Granny Weatherwax’s ventures into Headology; for Sam Vimes who creates a policeman in his own subconscious to keep a check on his anger*.

I suggest above that the earliest books in the series are slight parodies, but they were still enormously important to me. You can’t think about why things are the way they are until you notice that they’re that way in the first place; Pratchett is one of a few writers who taught me how to read, and read critically. Eventually I’d turn that gaze on his own books—he gave me the tools to be dissatisfied with his work. I’m grateful for that as well.

But most of all I’m grateful for how kind the books are. One of the reasons that I find the books’ social commentary occasionally unsatisfying is that some things simply can’t be done nicely, however strong the author’s feelings or sharp his commentary. But kindness is safe, and warm and human (almost everyone’s human in Pratchett). Earlier this year, after a death in the family (not, alas, a Death in the family, though Pratchett’s Death might be the most human of all) I spent a couple of days in my parents’ house just reading Discworld books under a blanket.

I might need to do that again this week.

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*Vimes remains my favourite Discworld character, even though the correct answer to that question is Granny Weatherwax, precisely because of that anger. It has been vital to me–and it was only in the weeks following the author’s death that I realised how many people I know for whom this is true.

April 2, 2015

March Reading

I’ve been bad at reading this last few months but March wasn’t so bad.

 

Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad: I’m reviewing this elsewhere and will post the piece here when it’s out, but the important revelation that I had about Zen Cho (other than that her work is brilliant comfort reading) is that she reminds me of Joan Aiken. I’m not sure there’s a higher compliment.

Deji Bryce Olukotun, Nigerians in Space: For a review. I will not be counting this in my stats for the year because it’s a reread; it’s worth reminding the world that it’s great, though.

Kavitha Mandana, Nayantara Surendranath, A Pair of Twins: I’ll have a piece on this up in a couple of weeks. Feminism and elephants and excellent art.

Shobha Viswanath, Sadhvi Jawa, An Elephant in My Backyard: I also liked this very much, for reasons that will remain mysterious until next week’s column is republished on the blog.

Danez Smith, [insert] boy: I discovered Danez Smith’s work a few months ago, when Sridala linked me to “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown” (at Split This Rock, but I’m linking to Buzzfeed because that way you also get  “alternate names for black boys”) and was broken by it in the best way. I read this collection in bits over the month and it may not have been the wisest choice for a fragile time, and I’m still trying to work out how to talk about it because I’m quite sure I need to. But you should read it.

Alan Garner, Red Shift: For a Strange Horizons book club discussion (with some of my favourite people) which you can find here.

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library: I wrote about this here.

Gail Carriger, Prudence (The Custard Protocol): I’m going to have to write something longer on this because it’s set in steampunk-supernatural colonial India and almost does some clever things and then … does so many other things which are not so much “clever” as “terrible”.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant: I’m discussing this elsewhere and will be posting a link when that’s up, but rarely have I seen so many critics so confused by something that doesn’t fit an expected shape. And yet it’s not that strange.

March 19, 2015

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library

This new Murakami novella is so pretty. Some more images here.

From this week’s column.

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I’ve known individual libraries to be important to me. The one which was a short enough distance from my house as a child that I could walk there unsupervised so that when I read Roald Dahl’s Matilda that was the building I imagined; the tiny cupboard of a place two blocks from my grandparents’ house in Vasant Kunj that had a complete set of the Asterix comics; the eclectic and bizarrely organised school library where I discovered many of my favourite writers for the first time. Yet I remain bemused by the idea of libraries in general. I love and support the idea of a society where libraries are plentiful, well-funded and well-staffed (in the UK the idea that such a society might be lost seems to be regarded as genuinely world-shattering) but I’m aware that large parts of the world seem to manage without them, and find myself a bit bemused at seeing them thus sentimentalised. Libraries are actual, practical, frequently-used spaces that matter; but the idea of them is often romanticised to the point of being rather annoying.

To fetishise the idea of the library feels like the same sort of thing as fetishising the book itself, and Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library is a beautifully produced thing, just right for being turned into a collector’s piece. A novella turned into a little hardcover book (and priced to match); the front cover has one of the ticket pouches found traditionally in library books; the illustrations are plentiful; the endpapers are marbled. It’s gorgeous. It’s tempting to read it as a reflection of the state of the industry: are ebooks making print books have to work harder? (probably) Is it cynical and blatantly commercial to turn a novella into a separate book? (yes).

But then The Strange Library resists all of this by the type of story it is; the furthest thing from a sentimental paean to books and reading. It’s a horror story set in a library.

MurakamiblackThe unnamed narrator stops by the city library on the way home from school to return his books and look for some new ones. Directed to the building’s basement by an unknown librarian he soon finds himself in the clutches of a strange old man who locks him in a cell with books on Ottoman revenue collection and instructions to memorise them within a month. He learns that at the end of this time the old man will cut off the top of his head and eat his brains. (“If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the payoff be for them?”). There’s horror here, but much of it is quiet and layered—the boy’s faltering acceptance of the old man’s increasingly sinister orders, his unease over the mother and pet bird who won’t know where he is, his memories of the black dog that attacked him as a child. Eventually an escape is planned, and we’re in the territory of children’s fantasy adventure, a genre at which I hadn’t expected Murakami to be quite this effective. Through all of this the illustrations (the whole thing is designed by Suzanne Dean) do quite half the work, altering the mood from silly to scary to both with ease. I’m told that the design of the American and Japanese versions are entirely different, and it’s hard to see how that would be possible without changing the book completely.

As our narrator leaves the building things get darker and darker; not for this story the triumphant escape and happy ending, or even the return to order that are the conclusions to the traditional adventure. We’re left to wonder rather a lot about that black dog.

Even after all of this I’m unconvinced that The Strange Library is much more than a very well-padded short story. But if it is it’s one that reminds us that libraries, like brains, are not always the nurturing spaces we’d like them to be and that, maybe, books aren’t all always that great?

 

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March 15, 2015

Mahesh Rao, The Smoke is Rising

“But is it SF?” is probably the “will it blend?” of reviewing, but I find myself prone to doing it anyway.

From this week’s column.

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“But is it science fiction?” I asked. I came to Mahesh Rao’s The Smoke is Rising with something of the single-minded purpose of the genre fan who above everything else wants to know whether she can claim this shiny new thing for her camp. In my defence, the blurb with its claim that “the future is here. India has just sent its first spacecraft to the moon, and the placid city of Mysore is gearing up for its own global recognition with the construction of HeritageLand – Asia’s largest theme park” does rather make this a plausible question to ask.

But what The Smoke is Rising is is a novel about modernity and change. And so in the grand tradition of novels about modernity and change it is set in a city (Mysore) whose landscape is being radically altered; its narrative is fractured, skipping between the perspectives of several loosely-connected characters as they go about their lives; the city itself, to resort to that cliché, might be an important character in its own right. Many of these characters are superbly done—in most cases too little time is spent with them for any real insight, but Rao does pick up on all sorts of details that ring true, rendering many of their insights darkly humorous without ever poking fun. By degrees it becomes clear that the narrative keeps returning to three women who are negotiating this changing city: Susheela is a well-off aging widow who finds that she continues to need intellectual, cultural and sexual stimulus even after her husband’s death.  Uma is her domestic help, who lives in a world of reserved female friendships and unpredictable men. Mala is the wife of an older bureaucrat named Girish, outwardly an ideal husband. Girish would risk falling into caricature were it not for the fact that we are given his perspective at the beginning of the book—he’s not monstered for us and so the moment of revelation is as shocking as it needs to be.

What ties these stories together, however, is the ongoing project to modernise the physical terrain of Mysore; landscaping, new housing developments, shopping centres, fountains to make the lake look like Geneva, many at the cost of the local farmland. Most important of these is HeritageLand, a theme park where “cutting edge technology could harness the drama of the ancient epics”—mechanical Garudas, a Yamaraja Monorail, ample merchandising opportunities—the city’s modernisation thus tied up in this attempt to preserve its heritage. Everyone in the world ought by now to have gathered that India, like most countries, contains elements of the old and the new juxtaposed and that there’s nothing particularly incongruous or thinkpiece-worthy about any of this. Rao does rather belabour the point—the new Museum of Folklore boasts “a modernist design [and thus] lack of harmony between the exterior of the museum and its collections of tribal and folk art from all over India”.

But there’s something else going on in this relationship between old and new, and I think it comes back to the character Venky Gowda’s vision for HeritageLand and the possibilities inherent in using “cutting-edge” technology to validate Hindu myth. It’s telling that most of his ideas have their bases in myth rather than history—history doesn’t offer technology the opportunities to impress that myth does, for one thing. But this is also a time in which “Ancient Indians had space travel and plastic surgery” is not something that is only said by that one angry uncle at a party and this too is significant. Those who insist on our ancient possession of nuclear weaponry and the like are implicitly suggesting that the authority conferred upon these stories by the aura of Science validates them in some way. It’s no accident that the blurb I quoted earlier mentions India’s ventures into space exploration, then, because The Smoke is Rising becomes fundamentally a book about our changing relationship with technology.

It’s not science fiction though.  

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March 6, 2015

Romilly and Katherine John, Death by Request

A column from ages ago, first published here. I’ve been having unoriginal thoughts about narrative a lot lately.

The book itself was bought only because I like the Hogarth Crime books and their particular shade of purple, and I was in Barter Books and it seemed like a good use of my time.  I doubt I’ll be rereading, alas.

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One of the detective fiction conventions established by the Detection Club, a group for British mystery writers that included Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Baroness Orczy and G.K. Chesterton and other genre greats, was that of “fair play”. Information was not to be withheld from the readers, who ought to, if smart enough, have a chance at solving the crime themselves. There were to be no bizarre twists, the solution could not be a supernatural one, unforeseen identical twins or doppelgangers could not suddenly be revealed to have existed the whole time. The detective must not commit the crime, and the thoughts of the ‘Watson’ figure must not be hidden (the rules were “codified” by Ronald Knox in 1929– after the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

The importance granted here to giving the reader a chance to figure things out suggests that the detective novel is considered a kind of activity book, which in practice it often is. But it also renders the world of the book fundamentally solvable, and understandable. Everything makes sense, at a basic level, the police may not be as good at their jobs as aristocratic amateur detectives, but justice is eventually served (and we know what justice is) and order is restored. For a world full of random murder, it is nonetheless very soothing.

But in the real world, things are often concealed from us, the narratives we’re offered are occasionally manipulated by the people responsible for terrible things, violence is random and unexpected and things don’t fit together and the  truth, if we have it, makes things messier and more complicated.

Two recent reads have reminded me of this, and of the fact that Fair Play or not,  the world of these books is not always a comfortable one. The first of these is a reasonably well-known classic, Josephine Tey’s 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes, in which an amateur psychologist spends some time lecturing at a women’s physical training college. When an unpleasant girl is found dead in the gym it is assumed to be the result of a tragic accident, and no one but Miss Pym has any reason to suspect murder. But justice is complicated and perhaps nothing can be gained by ruining another life, and she chooses to let the murderer go because it is a person she likes and admires. And as the book ends we’re given reason to think she might be wrong.

Romilly and Katherine John’s 1933 Death by Request is less known—I only picked it up at all because it was a part of Hogarth’s crime series. It’s so packed with genre tropes to be almost a cliché; the small village, the country house filled with illustrious guests, the sinister butler, the handsome lord who is found dead in full evening dress, the blustering colonel, the amateur detectives who solve the case. The whole thing is narrated by the local vicar, an elderly man who is sometimes comically shocked by the current generation, sometimes dryly funny. The whole is set in an oddly brutal world, full of bullying and infidelity, and it seems of a piece with the awfulness of everything else that the amateur detectives should prove their case by setting a trap that kills the murderer. But as with Miss Pym Disposes, we discover soon after that perhaps even the brilliant amateurs are wrong about the identity of the killer and his motive (I do not wish to give the ending away, but the true killer has one of the best motives I’ve come across in the genre).

Even in something as groundbreaking as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, justice is served, the murderer found and exposed. Tey and the Johns offer us a much more sinister world; one in which the real culprits might be left free, innocent victims destroyed by fallible detecting methods; where the detective can be wrong. 

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March 5, 2015

February Reading

A slightly better month than January, anyway.

 

Jennifer Marie Brissett, Elysium: I’ve been writing a longer piece about post-catastrophe fiction and my feelings around it and I’m hoping to unpack my thoughts on Elysium as part of this at some point in the near future. But it is very, very good, and also you should read this brilliant review by Niall Harrison (I am biased because I edited it, but it really is.)

 

Robin Stevens, Arsenic for Tea: Stevens’ first book, Murder Most Unladylike, might have been written for me. School stories? Murder mystery? Queerness? General inter-war-ness? Non-white readers of English popular fiction? Come on. Arsenic for Tea is not set in a school and is almost entirely heterosexual (or is it? I know who I was shipping) but despite these flaws it is wonderful–it continues that uncomfortable, strong relationship between Daisy and Hazel, will never allow you a comfortable ending, will make its most loved characters as monstrous as it needs them to be. It’s a funny, cosy crime story, but it’s ruthless in places that are crucial to it.

 

Julia Quinn, The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy: I feel like the whole Smith-Smythe series has been a bit of a letdown after the glorious heights of What Happens in London and Ten Things I Love About You. I’m aware that the form requires some terrible thing to come in between our main characters, but in this case I think it may have been too big a thing, and the fallout felt rather phoned in. Meh. (Edit: I managed to mistitle this and strip Sir Richard of his title. Clearly it did not make a big impact upon me)

 

Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: I don’t plan to list books read for the PhD here, but Affective Communities turned out to be all but irrelevant to my thesis, and very relevant to everything else. People who have spent this time with me will probably find it hard to believe that I’ve spent the last few months feeling very grateful for community and the sort of allyship that is born of ethics, and people who see imbalance without having to be talked around to it, and for all those reasons Affective Communities ended up being important and moving–and this sounds trite, but it wasn’t. Also there’s the thing where Gandhi is just very enjoyable to read.

 

Sheila Ray and Stella Waring, Island to Abbey: Survival and Sanctuary in the Works of Elsie J. Oxenham: Really interesting overview of Oxenham’s books, grouping them chronologically and tracing particular unifying themes in each distinct period. I think it may be time for a new critical study of Oxenham though–it feels like Auchmuty has said everything that needs saying about communities of women but maybe not?

 

Mahesh Rao, The Smoke is Rising: I have a column about this that will be posted once it has been published, but three things: 1. Rao’s prose is gorgeous. 2. Sambhar is ruined forever. 3. I want the sequel to this book that is set in Heritageland and is outrightly SFF or horror.

 

Samita Aiyer and Garima Gupta, The Last Bargain: I’m a bit biased here because Garima Gupta illustrated one of my work projects from a few years ago, but she really is brilliant. This is a short children’s book about a rat named Chooheram who makes one bargain too many and it would be an ordinary morality tale (don’t overreach, kids) if not for the fact that the rat is just mildly downcast after his adventure; the princess (there’s a princess) just goes home and is like I married a rat, it was weird, meh; and the art is gorgeous and features many cows.

Gupta Chooheram

(Many cows.)

February 10, 2015

“The sky, if you can call it a sky, is the colour of a bruise.”

Nandini quoted some Angela Carter on twitter and I found myself reading bits of Shaking a Leg again, as you do. And so I found myself rereading this, and it was just as I had started reading Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium (which is great, incidentally), and I’d forgotten how strongly it had resonated with me as an SF fan (and as someone whose apocalypse nightmares are always quiet). From “Anger in a Black Landscape”, originally published in Over Our Dead Bodies: Women Against the Bomb in 1983.

 

One of the most curious phenomena of the postwar period has been the growth of fictions about the blissfully anarchic, tribal lives the lucky fifteen million survivors are going to lead in a Britain miraculously free of corpses, in which the Man with the Biggest Shot-Gun holes up in some barbed-wire enclave and picks off all comers. (Polygamous marital arrangements are often part of these fantasies.) The post-nuclear catastrophe novel has become a science fiction genre all of its own, sometimes as warning — more often as the saddest and most irresponsible kind of whistling in the dark.

Have you seen Goya’s “black” pictures in the Prado, in Madrid? You go through several rooms full of sunlit, happy paintings — children at play, beautiful young men and women dancing, picking grapes, a world of sensual delight — and, then, suddenly … paintings in black and ghastly grey and all the colours of mud, where swollen, deformed faces emerge from landscapes incoherent with devastation. The most awful one, that most expressive of a world of nothingness, shows a dog’s head peering over the side of a mound of slurry. The sky, if you can call it a sky, is the colour of a bruise. And you know, from the infinite desolation of the scene, he is the last dog left, and, from the look of him, he’s not going to last much longer.

Impossible, in that appalling room, to escape the notion, that Goya, in his famous despair, in his hatred of war and human folly, saw further than most people; there is something prophetic in these pictures, that have the look, not so much of paintings, but of photographs taken with some time-warped, heat-warped camera, of a Europe in a future that remains unimaginable … a wreckage of humanity, a landscape from which all life has been violently expelled … unimaginable; but not impossible.

[...]

Yet the iconography of such catastrophe is, surely, familiar to us all, by now! Anyone who reads this book will have her or his own private nightmare of pain, loss, annihilation; my own private image is not a violent one. It is of a child crying in the dark, and there will be nobody to come, not ever. Which is the worst I can possibly imagine.

 

Also relevant to my unformed thoughts here is Matthew Cheney on apocalypse stories.