July 26, 2014

Saba Imtiaz, Karachi, You’re Killing Me!

From last weekend’s column. I enjoyed this.

Something that interests me that is mostly unrelated to the book itself is the thing where the cover suggests (current weight, calories) a preoccupation with being overweight that isn’t in evidence in the book–Ayesha goes to the gym maybe once or twice, and spends very little time thinking about dieting. It strikes me that worrying about weight is being used as a genre marker here, and while I suppose this is both obvious and understandable, I do find it rather fascinating.

 

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How a book is packaged can be revealing. Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me! comes with multiple tubes of lipstick on the jacket, alongside a revolver and a view of the street; and is described on the back as a combination of Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Diary of a Social Butterfly. The book begins with a quote from the former, and the back cover gives us such statistics as the weight of its main character, calories consumed, cigarettes smoked. And then, at the end, the most important statistic of all: number of deaths from target killings. It’s a juxtaposition that demands that you notice it; look how incongruous it is to have the sort of protagonist that the rest of those numbers signal placed against this background. To work, this requires the reader to make certain assumptions about what sort of novel this is, and about Karachi itself—assumptions with which the rest of the book will enjoy playing.

Ayesha is a journalist in her late twenties, in the sort of job that requires her to report on everything from bomb blasts to bakery openings. She has a nightmare boss, a popular twitter account, and a social life that her salary (when it shows up) can’t accommodate. She is surrounded by people who think regular weekend trips between Dubai and Karachi are cost-effective, who buy designer clothes and have expensive drug habits; she’s not sure she can afford rickshaw fare to her next assignment.

But she’s also good at her job; something that Imtiaz never tells us openly (since the whole thing is in the form of Ayesha’s diary it’s hard to see how she could without making her insufferable) and enjoys it, and thinks it important. She’s clearly aware of the occasional absurdity of her own situation; being flirted with at 1 am by the spokesperson for a terrorist organisation; driving to parties in cars with guards, reporting one day on the runway cameo of a cat at Karachi fashion week, and on another tracking the runaway pet lion cub of a major gunrunner. Every entry begins with a newspaper headline—hopefully fictional (“Deadly brain-eating amoeba resurfaces in Karachi”), though I could swear I’d seen “Books not bombs at Pakistan literature festival” before—and these too emphasise not only the occasional absurdity of her city, but the extent to which her own life, which involves Breaking Bad and alcohol and the difficulties of casual sex when everyone in your extended social circle knows each other, sits awkwardly in relation to all of this. It works both as an undoing of the ways in which cities like ours are written about, and a comment on how class functions within them.

All of which makes Karachi, You’re Killing Me! sound terribly worthy, and it’s not; it’s just as easy to read as a snarky expose of a certain group of people (and if I was from Karachi I suspect I’d be making wild and inaccurate guesses about who each character was intended to represent). But the real story is Ayesha’s own career, which survives an encounter with an attractive American plagiarist and at least one near-death experience, to put her exactly she wants to be at the end of the book. It’s unusual and wonderful to have a fluffy, snarky wish-fulfillment novel make this the desired object, rather than the attainment of the perfect romance.

Because this isn’t a love story. We rarely see Ayesha think of Saad in romantic terms, and this makes the rushed ending which places our heroine neatly in the arms of her best friend rather disappointing. It’s all done with a good deal of genre-awareness (is an unironic rush-to-the-airport scene even possible anymore?), but it feels a little like a last-minute attempt to force the book into a template that it no longer fits.

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July 13, 2014

Worldcon and Nine Worlds

I seem to be going (perhaps unwisely) to two SFF conventions in London in August– Nine Worlds Geekfest and LonCon 3, and they have (perhaps unwisely) put me on Panels. The Nine Worlds programme is out, and LonCon sent out their draft schedules a while ago. So if you’re going to either convention (and LonCon prices go up from tomorrow, so this is probably a good time to decide), this is where you can find me, and possibly heckle.*

 

Nine Worlds:

 

Mythology and Fairytales: pernicious supernaturalism or meaningful exploration of existence?

Friday (8/8) 1.30pm – 2.45pm

Where do myths and fairytales come from, and how are they influencing genre today?

Panel: Lauren Beukes, Joanne Harris, Rochita Loenen Ruiz, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

School Stories: prefects, headmasters and tuckshops, oh my!

Friday (8/8) 10.15pm – 11.30pm

School stories: why are we so fascinated by them? From Harry Potter to Ender’s Game, from St. Trinian’s to the X-Men, will we ever really escape our school days? Oi, no talking in the back of the class, there.

Panel: Aishwarya Subramanian, Zen Cho, Emma Vieceli, Tiffani Angus

 

Reading SF While Brown

Sunday (10/8) 11.45 – 1.00

For many of us, reading science fiction and fantasy was a formative experience — one that introduced new ideas, and shaped what we knew or hoped to be possible. But what imaginative leaps does a reader have to make to buy into worlds that don’t include anyone who looks or talks like them? And what impact does making that imaginative leap, time and again, ultimately have? Genre writers and readers talk about their experiences of reading SF while brown.

Panel: Aishwarya Subramanian, Taran Matharu, Camille Lofters, Rochita Loenen Ruiz

 

 LonCon:

The World at Worldcon: SF/F in South and South-East Asia

Saturday (16/8) 13:30 – 15:00

South and South-East Asia include a huge span of nations, cultures and languages, so does it make any sense to talk of “Asian SF”? What are the traditions and touchstones of fantastical storytelling in South and South-East Asia? What is the state of genre there, and how have shared myths and a joint heritage of colonialism influenced it? A panel of writers and critics from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and The Philippines compare notes

Panel: Mahvesh Murad (M), Zen Cho, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Victor Fernando R. Ocampo, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

 

Saving the World. All of It.

Saturday (16/8) 20:00 – 21:00

When aliens invade, why do they almost always hit New York? With a few partially-honourable exceptions, such as Pacific Rim and District 9, the American-led alliances of Independence Day and its ilk are still the norm for SF cinema’s supposedly global catastrophes. What is it like to watch these films outside the Anglophone world? Do attempts to move away from American exceptionalism feel real, or are they just window-dressing? And how do different countries deal with apocalypse in their own cinematic traditions?

Panel: Victor Fernando R. Ocampo (M), Yasser Bahjatt, Aliza Ben Moha, Irena Raseta, Aishwarya Subramanian, Samantha Joseph Ms

 

 

Writing post-colonialism

Sunday (17/8) 18:00 – 19:00

Many sf novels of invasion and colonisation end with the glorious liberation. But what happens next? How deep does the impact of colonisation go – culturally, politically, economically, socially – and how long does it really take to recover from its consequences? In what ways is the coloniser, too, changed by the experience? What can we lean from real historical case studies of conquest, settlement and trade exploitation?

Panel: Jennifer Terry (M), Nin Harris, Grá Linnaea, Aishwarya Subramanian, E. Lily Yu

 

Fandom at the Speed of Thought

Sunday (17/8) 19:00 – 20:00

The story of fandom and the SF field in the twenty-first century is the story of the internet: more voices, fewer gatekeepers. How are authors, reviewers, editors and readers navigating this shifting terrain? In what ways has the movement of SF culture online affected the way books are written, presented, and received — and how has it affected the way readers identify and engage with authors and books? Do the old truisms — never respond to a review! — still hold sway, or are author-reader shared spaces possible, even desireable?

Panel: Chris Gerwel (M), Ana Grilo, David Hebblethwaite, Kevin McVeigh, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

 

Critical Diversity: Beyond Russ and Delany

Monday (18/8) 11:00 – 12:00

The popular history of SF criticism might just be, if possible, even more straight, white and male than the popular history of SF — but things are changing. Online and in journals, diverse voices are starting to reach a critical (if you’ll excuse the pun) mass. Which publishers and venues are most welcoming to critics from marginalised groups? What are the strengths and weaknesses of academic and popular discourse, in this area? And most importantly, whose reviews and essays are essential reading?

Andrew M. Butler (M), Liz Bourke, Fabio Fernandes, Erin Horakova, Aishwarya Subramanian

 

[Shorter version: they gave me a school story panel! They gave me a ranting about the state of crit panel! I have just noticed that they put me on back-to-back panels, one of which is about "the speed of thought" and there is probably a joke in there somewhere!]

When not on panels I’ll be lurking in corners and looking ill at ease. Feel free to say hello if you see me.

 

*Please do not heckle, I’m easily flustered.

July 13, 2014

Megan Milks, Kill Marguerite

The whole time I was reading Kill Marguerite I was conscious of an undercurrent of yes these are my people yes in my head. On twitter, I described it as “genre-blend-y, queer, outsider-y, perverse fiction that is also about 90s girl pop culture and myth”(I ran out of space for “intertextual”); I was never not going to love it. It all got quite personal, and now I’m afraid that if I ever meet Milks I will embarrass myself in some awful way.

But even if it hadn’t been so obviously relevant to my own interests (and I’m sometimes dismissive of readings that value recognition above all else, but on the rare occasions that I find it I realise that it can be incredibly powerful), I’d think a lot of this collection. It’s fiercely intelligent, it’s energetic, it’s just very good writing. There are entire sections I’ve marked simply for how perfect those words in that place are.

(Also, I want someone to read this alongside Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe, just for their complementary covers)

A slightly shorter version of the piece below was published as my regular column on Sunday.

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Somewhere in suburban America teenaged Caty is making out with a boy on a rope swing. The setting with which Megan Milks opens her collection of short fiction, Kill Marguerite, is a familiar one to me, as I suspect it would be to most people reading this. Not because I’d lived it (Delhi in the ‘90s was short on rope swings) but because scenes like this seem to belong to a mythical preteen/teenagerhood of the 80s and 90s that is part Instagram-filter and part the result of reading too much American preteen fiction. Not that Caty is thinking of the genre she belongs in; she is preoccupied with how kissing this boy on this swing will help her relationship … with her best friend, Kim. And shortly she will be embroiled in a series of attempts to kill her rival Marguerite, in a universe that follows the conventions of a video game.

This title story encapsulates a number of Kill Marguerite’s concerns. A preoccupation with girlhood in popular culture; the queering of relationships; dizzying shifts between genres that test out the limits of each.

Some of these limits are of format. There are fourteen stories in the collection but only thirteen included in my ebook—“Circe”, which requires its recto and verso pages to be read simultaneously, had to be left out for formatting purposes but is available on the website. Meanwhile “Sweet Valley Twins #119: Abducted!”, fanfiction with large chunks of text borrowed from the original series, is in the form of a choose your own adventure story, to which the ebook format is far better suited than the print versions we had to grow up with. Many of the stories are collaborative—“Floaters” is written with Leeyanne Moore, “Earl and Ed” illustrated by Marian Rink and “Traumarama” pieced together from the responses of several friends. It’s obvious that other texts, whether classical or popular, are closely interwoven into these stories, sometimes less obviously. “The Girl With The Expectorating Orifices” doesn’t gender its narrator and doesn’t draw the reader’s attention to this, until a throwaway reference to Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body which famously did the same.

Myth and metaphor and reality blur into one another in these stories, and it’s never possible to claim that, for example, “Dionysus” is “about” a relationship with an alcoholic. In “My Father and I were Bent Groundward” the “sword” that impregnates the narrator and her father (both of whom claim a dislike of penetration) is also able to slice off their legs. In “Slug”, a young woman who has been on a disappointing first date has sex with a giant slug while turning into one herself. “Tomato Heart” is, literally, about a woman with a tomato for a heart, and has the distinction of being the only story (in a collection full of stories about bodily fluids and slug erotica) to make me feel a little ill. In “Circe” the myth and video game genres slot neatly together as Hermes “drops bottle of immunity into Odysseus’ lap”. The connections between stories are as startling and as perfect; the “Patty has died” in “Slug” which connotes orgasm comes shortly after the series of “Caty has died” in the previous story that signify her failing to beat a level in the game. A metaphor from the relatively mundane “Floaters” resurfaces in the weird, liminal space of “Swamp Cycle”. As each story progresses it becomes clear how much about this world each protagonist takes for granted; the resignation with which one narrator, for example, explains “that was when I knew we were to bear immortal children from our wounds” is very appealing. When the lovers in “Earl and Ed” (an orchid and a wasp) enter into a transgressive relationship, the text immediately turns them into a singular Earl&Ed.

Yet my favourite thing about this collection is its interest in a particular kind of adolescent girlhood in which other girls are all that matters and where aspiration, desire and the urge to wound are all tangled together; particularly if you’re the sort of girl-reader (too not-blonde, not-white, not-straight, not-etc) for whom this model of adolescence is fundamentally impossible. A story based on a column from the magazine Seventeen, for example, and another told through Tegan and Sara lyrics. This last is “Elizabeth’s Lament”, another piece of Sweet Valley High fanfiction and also an angry, incestuous declaration of love. All of these stories, with their young female narrators, begin from the assumption that teenage girls are fascinating. It’s particularly pleasing that Milks does much of this through fanfiction, a medium that has developed in large part through unravelling and queering received narratives.

This is an area of popular culture which literature rarely draws upon—possibly because of its association with young girls, whose tastes are always particularly vulnerable to mockery. That Milks sees it as important would be itself be enough to make me love her work. That the collection deals with it in this way—smart, queer, perverse, intertextual—means even more. The stories in Kill Marguerite are unsettling and often unpleasant but they feel like a gift.

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July 7, 2014

Bulletpoints: Maleficent

I loved many things about Maleficent and rolled my eyes at many others. Some rambly bulletpoints because I can.

  • Sleeping Beauty is one of the best of the classic Disney fairytales to adapt because it is presented to us in the form of a book. We come to Maleficent (those of us who have seen and remember the original) with a sense already of the story as something told.
  • Maleficent gives us two countries, side by side. One of them is populated by “people like you and me”, says the voiceover, making me wonder as it always does if I’m a person “like you and me”. The other country is populated by communists.
  • I don’t know why Maleficent is so much bigger than the other fairies, or why she flies around graciously telling the other residents of the moors what a good job they’re doing, if there’s no hierarchy in this country.
  • Meanwhile, the King of the other country claims to have promised his people he’d conquer the Moors. Perhaps it’s because I have no honour but I don’t get why this is such a problem. Is he worried that he won’t be king anymore if he doesn’t fulfil his electoral promises? I don’t understand the political systems of these countries, is what I guess I’m saying.
  • It’s with patchy films like this one that I’m most grateful that the bulletpoint format doesn’t require me to come to conclusions. This film does some things so well, and others so very badly.
  • Maleficent befriends and falls in love with Stefan, an ambitious young man who gives her “true love’s kiss” before drugging her and cutting off her wings in order to be appointed the king’s heir. Hurt and angry, she seals off the Moors and settles down to wait and plan her revenge. When Stefan and his new wife (who has more screentime in this than in the original and is still barely present) have a child, she curses the baby, throwing “true love’s kiss” in Stefan’s face as the only thing that can save the child. This is the point at which the scene diverges from the 1959 film, to which it is otherwise faithful—and I have to wonder if the role of making the curse breakable is given to Maleficent as part of her redemption.
  • Instead of spending years looking for the child, Maleficent instead spends years watching her, occasionally saving her from the effects of the “good” fairies’ (i.e. collaborators with the people who tried to invade their country) incompetence at parenting. Eventually the two women meet, and grow to care for one another.
  • One of the things the original does better than the new one is Aurora herself. A thing that I find annoying about even new!feminist! Disney is the wide-eyedness of its heroines—and I mean this literally. When Frozen (a movie I mostly really liked) came out, it was pointed out that Disney’s recent animation style demanded that female characters all be tiny with tinier hands, huge heads and even huger eyes. Aurora has rMaleficent Aurora 1elatively normal sized eyes, and it’s not even obvious what colour they are—they appear dark for most of the film, though in the scene where she awakes from her enchanted sleep we find that they’re blue. She’s allowed to look knowing, to be amused by her fairy godmothers in ways that don’t involve tinkling laughs, to have, when singing, quite a deep voice. And in the film’s final scene, you get the sense that she and Philip are thoroughly enjoying the fact that they know what has happened and their bewildered elders do not.
  • I think this is important. Because of all the classic fairytales Sleeping Beauty is among the worst in terms of the lack of agency it gives its heroine. She’s a baby, then sixteen, then unconscious; then a man she doesn’t know kisses her and somehow this is enough to wake her and have her live happily ever after. In some versions, as Sady Doyle notes here, she is raped and only awakens after she’s already had children. The 1959 movie doesn’t entirely fix any of this, but it does have Aurora and Philip meet and actively choose one another (though Aurora hasn’t exactly had much opportunity to meet other young men). Even in the trance-state in which Aurora succumbs to the curse (and I’m amazed this didn’t give me nightmares as a child) she isn’t entirely robbed of agency—just before she reaches out to prick her finger on the spindle you can see her come to herself. One of the things that makes the 1959 Philip work (and I do genuinely enjoy new!Philip’s gormlessness) is the sense that he, like Aurora, has the measure of the powerful adults around him. When this couple are both present and conscious, you can imagine them as allies.
  • Maleficent uses this sense of children who know things also, though it does so mostly by making every adult who isn’t the title character comically incompetent or entirely absent. The three fairies who raise Aurora should clearly not be trusted with a child (does Juno Temple always play characters who could conceivably be called “Thistlewit”?); Stefan goes from power-hungry and obsessive to power-hungry, obsessive, and completely falling apart; his wife is absent. Aurora is aware of Maleficent’s presence when her guardians are not; she also knows instinctively that she is safe with her. She figures out that the woman she’s been visiting every night (which is such a good use of the “Once Upon A Dream” thread) is the evil fairy of whom she’s been told.
  • Aurora is also intolerably twee—as Maleficent recognises, and is played for humour more than once. From Smiley Baby and Cute Toddler she grows into the sort of person who calls people her fairy godmother (Jolie’s “ … What.” is one of the high points of the film) and who adorably has mud fights with trolls. She’s nauseating, but you can see why someone who has literally raised a wall of thorns around herself might also see her as new and bright and grow to love her. Which is all very well except
  • In the early scenes of the movie when everything is still good and the moors are still a place of fullcommunism and rainbows, when Maleficent flies around spreading sweetness and light and telling the other crcommunism rainbowseatures what a good job they’re doing, like a royal visit from Madeline Bassett, she’s nauseating as well. This is the perfect state of affairs that Stefan’s violation brings to an end, and taken in conjunction with Aurora’s character later, the film seems to position these traits as necessary to lovability. Meanwhile the adult audience and Aurora herself, at least, are learning that the opposite is true; that the decidedly un-sweetness-and-light adult woman is the one thing about this movie to love.
  • This will be a problem throughout. Jolie is at her best when she’s playing the villainess, whether caustic and funny or hurt and enraged; she’s particularly enchanting when she’s tormenting people. The moors are far more interesting when they’re dark and fertile and swamplike. Her redemption—protective, possibly maternal (though possibly not!) love, the institution of monarchy in the moors (wait, why?) is boring.
  • As far as I can tell, her evil!headdress is to wrap her horns in leather. Her battledress is leather trousers. Look, leather’s just really evil, okay?
  • In my headcanon Maleficent knows about the care and feeding of children because of the communal, it-takes-a-village-ness of the moors. Instead, we get the sense that even this scarred, hurt, angry woman cannot but love babies because babies. Which feels of a piece with the film’s discomfort with its title character’s anger, as well as with her evil. No, but she’s nice really! She likes babies! And rainbows! Even though we’re acknowledging that babies and rainbows are annoying! And so on. And yet there’s that wonderful moment when she tries to lift the curse and can’t, that seems to hint at rage and grief as the powerful, irreversible things that they are.
  • I think Jolie’s great in all her evil!scenes, but the best scene in the movie is one lifted almost entirely from the 1959 film; the christening sequence. Still so good.
  • I’d been warned in advance that the film had chosen to portray the theft of the wings as rape, and was consciously arming myself against that moment (one of things that recent debates around trigger warnings have done is to make me mindful of how I do this, and sometimes notice other people doing this). It still hurt a bit to watch.
  • Some of the strongest moments in this film take emotional beats, rather than plot points or lines, from the original. The thorns that come out of the ground to create a wall – around the Moors this time. The iron-spike-maze that Maleficent must walk through to get to the castle.
  • Maleficent is the latest in a series of Disney movies that very carefully signal their discomfort with the idea that hetero-monogamous love is the cure for all things. Brave has Merida escape the need to make a political marriage; Frozen has Anna happily paired off but has the act of true love that saves the day be between sisters; in Maleficent Philip’s kiss doesn’t work, and comes after he protests because he’s only met Aurora once and she’s unconscious.
  • That it’s Maleficent’s kiss that does wake her leaves the whole thing open to an obvious queer reading; particularly since soon after we learn that “the kingdoms were united”. Alas, this doesn’t mean what I want it to mean; merely that Maleficent has made the Moors boring again and handed them over to Aurora to rule, with her useless but very pretty prince.
  • It is still not as pretty as the original.

800px-SleepingBeauty_(2)Disney

July 7, 2014

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jean of Storms

So, Jean of Storms (the subject of last weekend’s column) is really weird.

I’ve been skim-reading a couple of the Chalet School books this last few days, as you do when you have deadlines to meet, and before I’d always laughed a bit at how many near-death experiences the characters seem to have. But after Chalet School Reunion in particular, I’m now completely sold on the idea of these books as a form of horror narrative in which the landscape itself is hostile to the characters. As they’re being shown the local sights, one of the guests at the reunion laughingly asks why all the stories associated with these spots are near death experiences. Shortly afterwards, they all nearly die when the bit of land they’re standing on falls into a glacier moments after they have left it. In a couple of chapters, a cliff will crumble while a character is on it. Naturally there’s a nature-related near-death experience in Jean of Storms as well, but more important is the way in which this revelation makes the insertion of stock horror characters into the lives of healthy-minded schoolgirls make perfect sense. Nature herself is trying to kill these people; it’s only sensible to read their stories as horror.

 

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As a child I was expected to prepare for family holidays by doing research into the history (and culture, and art, and literature) of every new destination. As I grew older that research morphed into reading fiction around a place. I’m less diligent about it than I was at the age of eight, but it still gives me a thrill.

If I think of reading fiction about a place as the same sort of thing as reading fact, it’s because it’s not so much that a sense of the territory makes a book more real as it is the other way around. Fiction can be a lens through which to read a place, and when there’s a vast body of work set in a particular place those stories can layer themselves one atop the other. But we all know those places—the Londons and New Yorks of the world are so deeply embedded in literature, and literature is so deeply embedded in them, that switching between the ‘real’ and fictional city is easy and natural.

It’s the less used settings that interest me more, particularly when there are only a few competing narratives to clash with one another. One of my favourite examples of weird, almost diametrically opposite books coming out of the same place is Arundel Castle in England; it inspired the home of the sunny, folk-dancing-obsessed Earl and Countess of Kentisbury in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey books for girls, and the heavy, gothic, over the top setting of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Recently I discovered that I now live near the home of another major author of books for girls; Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, best known as the author of the Chalet School series, a staple of my childhood. Brent-Dyer spent most of her life in the North of England but never wrote about it—or so it was thought until 1995, when a fan discovered Jean of Storms, a serialised novel for adults set outside Newcastle and published in the Shields Gazette in 1930.

A romance for adults, Jean of Storms contains within it a weird clash of genres that is particularly fascinating to a reader familiar with her larger body of work. The title character is a young woman of twenty-three who becomes the guardian of her niece from India when her sister-in-law dies. This is all very Secret Garden-ish; the child spoilt but goodhearted, the Indian ayah who cannot stop fussing about her “Missy-baba”. There are elements, also, of the school stories for which Brent-Dyer was already gaining a reputation when this serial was published—the dramatic sequence in a cave on the cliffs, the relationships with doctors and curates for which Jean and her friend Mollie are thoroughly unprepared (“as fresh-minded on such subjects as they had been as school girls of fourteen”, Brent-Dyer informs us, as if emotional immaturity were a desirable thing), the strong community of women.

But underneath all of this is something more sinister, that belongs to a different genre altogether, and that manifests itself in the form of Morag, Jean’s terrifying Calvinist cook-housekeeper, and in Mollie’s obsessive, malevolent housekeeper. These characters seem to have wandered in from a gothic novel; as has the landscape, all treacherous rocks and dramatic waves crashing against cliffs. The book’s cover, in its Bettany Press edition, reflects this weird mix of genres—it bears a photograph of country-dancers, but of the old, black-and-white sort, where everyone looks wary of the camera.

Above, I spoke of having multiple, conflicting literary lenses through which to view a place. Jean of Storms contains those conflicting lenses within it; school story, imperial children’s tale, gothic romance. It makes for an uncomfortable and genuinely weird read, but perhaps more importantly, it has made the nice seaside town I’m familiar with into something more akin to Wuthering Heights.

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July 1, 2014

June Reading

Not the most productive month, readingwise. Perhaps I’ll read some Hugo-nominated short fiction in July?

 

Rebecca Stead, Liar and Spy: Part of my attempt to read through the Carnegie shortlist. This was my favourite book on the list by a considerable margin; Stead may be an actual genius.

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures: I enjoyed this, but coming after the brilliant KJF story (I wrote about both here) it felt rather insipid.

Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk: No.

Michael Faber, Under the Skin: I read this a couple of months after watching the film and should probably write more about it at some point. For now, a column here.

Stephanie Laurens, The Masterful Mr. Montague: There is a murderer, there are Cynsters and Cynster-adjacent people, an attractive, competent woman finds love. I’ll have forgotten the plot of this by next month, but I enjoyed it.

Theresa Romain, To Charm a Naughty Countess: Why must genre titles be this way? Again, a book I enjoyed (virginal man with anxiety issues, beautiful, poised woman who has loved him forever, science and irrigation and science) but that I’ll forget quite soon.

Julie Berry, All the Truth That’s In Me: This was often gorgeous, and I’m glad it was on the Carnegie shortlist.

William Sutcliffe, The Wall: About as horrifying as it needed to be, but far less nuanced than I’d have liked.

Loretta Chase, Vixen in Velvet: A thing I thought particularly interesting about this: the plot apparently has our hero and heroine make a bet over her makeover of another woman, with the stakes being a Botticelli painting (if she wins) and two weeks of her time (if he wins). Which is the sort of thing historical romances occasionally do; but unless I misread one particular scene entirely, this one had its hero declare that this time spent together is just supposed to involve general getting-to-know-one-another activities. Meanwhile the made-over woman (his cousin) does get her man, but not through her improved looks. This is interesting because we have here two well-worn genre tropes made … not particularly feminist, but certainly less regressive. I’m not, however, a huge fan of this particular subseries; it’s enjoyable, but nowhere near some of Chase’s best work.

Megan Milks, Kill Marguerite: I’ll be writing about this at length, but it’s the sort of book that feels to me like coming home, if home is also really gross and kind of nauseating. It’s so good.

 

 

 

 

June 23, 2014

William Sutcliffe, The Wall

A mere couple of hours before the award is announced I come to the last book on the Carnegie list.

 

As has probably become clear over the course of the last couple of weeks, I’m suspicious (usually with good reason) of issue books by outsiders. William Sutcliffe’s The Wall is about the Israeli occupation (apparently Sutcliffe describes himself as a Jewish Atheist) but it also comes with an approving blurb from Raja Shehadeh, the author of Palestinian Walks, which seemed promising.

I don’t think The Wall ever actually uses the words “Israel” or “Palestine”, but unless the child reading it is genuinely unaware of the existence of either (it’s recommended for children aged 11+, for what that’s worth) it’s so obvious as to not need stating. Joshua lives in a new settlement near the Wall between his own people and the others. Travel between the two areas is carefully regulated and all around him Joshua hears about how unsafe he is, how he and those around him are constantly under threat of attack. Then one day he finds a way to cross the wall and sees what conditions on the other side are like.

It’s almost an anti- portal fantasy. Joshua finds his secret tunnel, and is continually drawn back, but the other side is not exactly filled with friendly talking animals who think he’s special and want to give him tea. He is in danger all the time he’s there, and eventually is permanently disabled as a result of his injuries.

It’s tempting to read The Wall alongside Ghost Hawk, and the two do fit neatly into what feels like an established genre of children forming friendships across conflict lines. Where I think The Wall wins out on this front is in its highlighting of how deeply fraught these friendships are (since half of Cooper’s pair is dead for most of their acquaintance the question doesn’t really arise). As a direct result of Joshua’s association with Leila’s family, her father is brutally beaten, his health deteriorates and the family garden that means so much to him is destroyed. Joshua is forced to learn that his good intentions mean very little when set against the vastness of this disparity in power. And yet these relationships are worth something. Joshua and Leila’s friendship feels rather perfunctory, but his bond with her father, for whom he digs the garden, tries to save the trees, risks his life, is difficult, but to both characters very real.

Another way in which the two books are similar is in their family structures. Both Joshua and Cooper’s John have widowed mothers who marry abusive religious fundamentalists who don’t really see the other side as human. I have to say I’m a bit tired of this. I have no personal stake in defending religion against denigration, I’m an atheist myself. But bad religious types have showed up in the last three books on this shortlist that I’ve read and Liev, Joshua’s mother’s partner, is far from rational in his hate. To the extent that: “His cheeks are flushed and his breath is short. Two off-white curls of foamy spittle have settled in the corners of his mouth.”

I may not have a stake in defending religion, but I do have one in the idea that children’s lit can depict a world that is vast and morally complex and in which, if there were no religions (thank you John Lennon) everything would not magically come right. There are enough people who support Israel’s actions who are not conveniently foaming at the mouth; to refuse to engage with that fact is to ignore most of the problem. Joshua’s mother offers a potential candidate to undo this, but we’re never sure how much of her stated hatred for the Palestinians is toeing the party line for peace within the home.

That it’s all filtered through Joshua’s consciousness is probably an indicator of Sutcliffe’s intended audience, or possibly of the author’s own experience learning the full extent of the problem. Joshua’s ignorance, a consequence of his privilege, might be read to parallel the hypothetical reader’s education. But there’s power in operation even at the level of narrative—the consequences of these events are painful and awful for Joshua but we know his story. Part of his privilege over the Palestinian characters is the privilege of narrative. I don’t know if Sutcliffe intended this to be part of the point, but I think it’s an important one.

 

 

As I write this, the Carnegie Awards ceremony is in progress. I’m not going to try and predict a winner, but I know what I’m rooting for. I’d be quite happy for Julie Berry, Kevin Brooks or Katherine Rundell to win, and William Sutcliffe and Anne Fine’s books are both good, but Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy is perfect; I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t win this, but I will be disappointed.

 

 

June 23, 2014

Julie Berry, All The Truth That’s In Me

The penultimate part of my Carnegie Award shortlist readthrough.

A trigger warning for rape might be necessary. (There are also spoilers, as always)

 

Apparently Julie Berry’s All The Truth That’s In Me began as an experiment in writing in the second person. I expected this stylistic choice to feel more forced (certainly more visible) than it does—but to me it flowed quite naturally. It does raise questions about the book’s framing narrative; the context in which Judith is addressing the story to Lucas and where this telling exists, chronologically in relation to the story weren’t clear to me. I mention this because one of the official criteria upon which the Carnegie is to be judged (not that this series of posts has paid much attention to those criteria) is control over plot, and in this instance I’m not sure that control is fully exhibited.

All The Truth That’s In Me is set in what feels like a puritan settlement called Roswell Station. Berry deliberately omits real detail, so apart from the general mood of things this could be any settler colony of history or fantasy. A couple of years before the story opens two young girls, Judith and Lottie, went missing. Lottie’s body was found in the river shortly afterwards. Now Judith has returned, her tongue cut out, unable to tell what has happened to her or who is responsible.

In a sense, then, this is a murder mystery told by the only person (other than the murderer, obviously) who knows what has happened. In most books this would require some pretty elaborate narrative strategies for concealing and revealing information. I don’t see them here, and yet somehow the whole thing works. For much of the book we’re led to believe that the villain of the piece is Ezra, the father of Judith’s childhood sweetheart Lucas. The village believe Ezra to be dead; as the novel progresses we learn that he is not, and not as straightforwardly villainous as he appears at first to be—though that still leaves him plenty of villainy.

As the novel progresses we see Judith’s increasing urge to communicate, and her finding ways to do so. An attempt to learn how to read is thwarted by her mother, but she finds an excuse to go to school with her brother—where the schoolmaster sexually harasses her (it’s all rather grim). She befriends another young woman, and in her finds a friend in front of whom she’s not afraid to attempt to speak. Among the things the novel does extremely well are these small personal relationships and character sketches. Judith’s relationships with her brother and mother, female friendship and solidarity when they are needed, people who are not the main couple but who care for one another deeply.

Her relationship with Lucas I was occasionally less sure about, if only because it’s easy to be tired of these always-meant-to-be romances in fiction. It’s nice, however, to see young women’s desire placed at the centre of a narrative—and it’s almost refreshing when she does a sort of reverse-Twilight and creepily snuggles down to lie under a blanket with him while he’s asleep.

At more than one point we’re asked to consider how this relationship can have a future when first we, then Lucas, believe his father to have raped and killed one girl and mutilated another—a shadow like this one is bound to hang over a relationship. Yet the big twist at the end when Judith finds her voice does away with this particular concern. Ezra is not Lottie’s killer or Judith’s torturer after all.

It’s this ending that disappoints me a little, coming after what is mostly an excellent novel. Everything is made easy for the reader—the villains is a religion-obsessed sexual predator, Judith’s lover’s father turns out to be her protector (so awful are many of the other men in the book that Ezra’s choices to kidnap Judith for her safety, struggle not to rape her for two years, and finally to cut out her tongue and send her home when the stress of not raping her grows too great are made to sound positively benign in comparison—this is not treated as a cloud that will hang over the characters), Lucas has loved her all along.

Ending aside, though, this is a strong, often beautiful book. It’s not my choice for the award, but would be a worthy winner.

June 22, 2014

Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk

The sixth in this series of posts about this year’s Carnegie Award shortlist. I love Susan Cooper’s work so much, and I wish I’d been able to love this book.

As always, there are spoilers.

 

My people still live in some parts of this New England, a few thousand of them, on tribal reservation lands. They keep alive our traditions and our spirit; they struggle to revive language in places where it has faded away; they fight for the rights of the tribes under the nation’s law. They are the soul of the land to which we belong, where once we roamed free. But now they share that freedom with others, in the new nation to which they too belong. They are Americans.

Most of what is wrong with Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk (and this review is going to take the position that a number of things are wrong with Ghost Hawk) is present in the paragraph above.

Hiromi Goto recently began her Wiscon Guest of Honour speech with a version of an Acknowledgement of Country—that link is to a Wikipedia page on the Australian custom, and I don’t know if the US (or Canada, which is where Goto is from) have a similar tradition in place, but it’s one I wasn’t very aware of before, and one that I think is important. Because surely one of the ways in which we deal with legacies of settler colonialism is through acknowledgement—through not forgetting who was here before us and why, in many cases, they are not here, or their presence is significantly diminished, now.

I mention this because I think at the heart of Ghost Hawk there’s an attempt to reconcile this past with America’s present, and with the rights of those who have immigrated since to feel themselves at home there. And to do Cooper justice, I think that she’s right that this difficult thing has to be done (centuries of history cannot now be wiped out) and that it is difficult.

Ghost Hawk begins with two epigraphs; a Roger Williams quote about how the ‘Indian’ is as good as any Englishman, and a bit of Woody Guthrie’s “This land is your land”. I’m not sure to what extent we’re supposed to take either quote uncritically— I’ve only heard Guthrie’s song used in a folk-y, claiming back the land by the disenfranchised sort of context. In the context of white settlers in America, the recurring “this land was made for you and me” gets really uncomfortable, unless we clarify exactly who the yous and mes in this equation are. The Williams quote is unremarkable besides being quite progressive for 1643.

The story itself—the first half is the story of Little Hawk, of the Pokanoket Tribe, of the Wampanoag Nation, who goes into the woods in the dead of winter to prove himself ready for adulthood by surviving alone and off the land. He returns many weeks later to find most of his village dead, killed by a mysterious disease bought by the white man. The survivors of other, similarly affected villages band together and begin to forge new bonds, and all the while there is the question of the white men and how they are to treat with them. Little Hawk meets a boy named John Wakeley and though they can’t speak to one another they manage to share names. Then, about halfway through the book, John’s father is trapped under a fallen tree. Hawk lifts his tomahawk to help, two Europeans assume he has violent intentions and shoot him dead.

It’s both a bit awkward and a great idea because one generally expects the narrator of a book to survive it, even when the title promises ghosts. Having died, Little Hawk’s spirit attaches itself to John for most of the rest of the book, magically teaching him the language and allowing us to see things from the settlers’ perspective until John dies, many years later, as an old man.

There’s never any reason to believe that all this isn’t meticulously researched (though I gather that the choice of which materials to research might be an issue). Nor is there a flinching from violence; and in an afterword Cooper lays out a timeline and statistics that make the sheer scale and duration of that violence, and which side bore the brunt of it, clear. But so much of this is just not good. It plods along (and I hate this, because plodding is not a thing I’ve ever had to accuse Cooper’s work of), it flattens most of the white characters into noble anti-racist or evil, foaming at the mouth racist cartoon. For his new stepfather John gets saddled with what may have been the only man in Plymouth hostile to reading. It seems weird to say of such a book that it’s unfair to the European settlers, but it is. On the other side of the divide, the Native American characters are stoic and noble or hot-tempered and noble. No one is coming out of this well.

John is made important at the cost, I suspect, of other interesting Plymouth natives (Williams in particular is rendered dull) and of various Native American characters. He’s made into the saviour of Metacom/King Philip’s life, and we’re never given an in-text reason why Little Hawk should attach himself to this person after death, as if we’re to take it for granted that his spirit should gravitate to a white boy he’s met once, rather than, say, go and check up on what remains of his family.

And then John is killed (by Little Hawk’s friends and kinsmen, oh tragic irony) and Little Hawk is stranded, attached to the earth by his tomahawk, forced to watch as things get increasingly bloody and he wants to be released. And then there’s that passage I quote at the beginning of this piece. And … no. “they share that freedom with others, in the new nation to which they too belong”, this to me is an offensively glib elision of the disparities in that “freedom”. I’m not sure how one goes from the bloody history portrayed here to a present filled with forgetting and systemic racism and sports teams called the redskins and comes out with the message that this land belongs to everyone now, hurrah!, but here we are. 

We move on to an epilogue, in which Little Hawk’s salt marsh island is now the home of a woman named Rachel who only plants “native” plants and trees in her garden, but has brought a decidedly non-native dog named Pan to live here. Rachel’s gardening causes the head of Hawk’s buried tomahawk to be uncovered, and she can see him. And this is where things get uncomfortably personal because in her author’s note Cooper states that seven years ago she built a house on Little Hawk’s island. I’m forced at this point to read Rachel (“a wise woman, even though she is not old”) as an authorial insertion.

She says, “I’m trying to take care of this piece of land, Little Hawk. I’ll do my best.”

Something about the tilt of her head reminds me of Suncatcher again.

I say suddenly, “Are you Wampanoag?”

She shrugs. She says, “There are all kinds of tribes in me, most of them from across the ocean. And I don’t belong to any of them. If human beings weren’t so big on belonging to groups, I don’t believe they’d fight wars.”

It’s Rachel, the nice, wise, English lady, who manages to devise a completely made up ritual that will release Hawk from the land; who suggests, groundbreakingly, that if people didn’t have any sort of group affinity they wouldn’t kill each other so much; who swoops in and fixes things. I said at the beginning of this piece that I read Ghost Hawk as trying to tease out the difficult question of belonging to a place and also acknowledging the horrors that led to one’s own belonging there; that Cooper is speaking of her own home and its history I think bears this reading out. Which is all well and good except that Ghost Hawk flattens this as it flattens so much else; the discomfort with which this question begins is jettisoned in favour of these glib answers, and the whole, bloody history of the land is turned into reassurance that yes, people like Rachel can call it home as well.

June 19, 2014

Michel Faber, Under the Skin

At some point (which is beginning to feel like “never”) I feel I should sit down and write a proper-sized thing on the Glazer movie and my many issues with it, though I liked some things about it very much. Reading the book made some of those issues stand out in sharper relief; but one, the movie’s androcentricity, I find myself more lenient towards.

Basically, this week’s column is me complaining that no one is writing the impossible, unwriteable alien stories I want, with properly alien aliens.

 

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Reading Michel Faber’s Under the Skin recently, I realised how rarely I read a book after watching its adaptation to screen. I’m not sure if this is a hangover from my teenage conviction that the book would always be better; if I am interested in something I tend to read the book first or not at all. But Jonathan Glazer’s recent adaptation of Faber’s novel, starring Scarlett Johansson as its mysterious main character left me both intrigued and disappointed; because it was beautifully made and speculative, but also in many ways so tame.

In both book and film a young woman drives around Scotland picking up hitchhikers whom she proceeds to evaluate by criteria that may take us a while to work out. She then either drops them off safely, or takes them home (drugged in the book, though not in the film). It soon becomes clear that the young woman is not from this planet at all. Faber’s novel makes explicit that the men she kidnaps are being processed and sent to her home planet for food.

Both book and movie, then, have a non-human protagonist looking upon a human world, but what they do with her is very different. In the film Johansson’s character remains an enigma, never even named. Glazer’s alterations to the plot shift the action to cities and we’re given far more chance to watch human interactions from the outside, as it were. Yet, for all the invocation of the alien gaze, the film treats its humans as human, vulnerable (particularly its naked men) and familiar. It even gestures towards a narrative arc in which the alien observer is gradually humanised, or wants to be. It’s a deeply androcentric film.

This may be less true of Faber’s book. Our access to Isserley’s perspective (and her name!) gives us a connection to a completely alien world, fragments of class, economic and gender politics that hint at an entire existence to which our own species is largely unimportant. The word “human” is often used, but it’s very quickly made clear that Isserley is referring to her own kind, not ours. She is wholly matter-of-fact about the place of the creatures she calls vodsels; they (we) are a resource and her professional responsibility, but no more. Unlike sheep (Isserley’s people are furry quadrupeds who I imagine to resemble llamas), they don’t even look human.

The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous to human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

Isserley knows that we turn things into people by recognising that they are like ourselves; at one point in the book she lies to a visitor from her own land, telling him that the shapes scratched out by the captive vodsels (they form the word “mercy”) are meaningless—to recognise that they too have a language would confer personhood upon them and jeopardise the whole enterprise.

And I wonder if this notion, that we cannot speak of aliens or grant them subjectivity without humanising them is at the heart of this book as well. Above, I praise Faber’s book for giving us an alien character whose life does not revolve around the human; but the conditions of Isserley’s own culture very deliberately echo those of our own. Under The Skin is too sophisticated a novel to be merely a satire on the economics of food production, but that aspect is there. In this sense, Glazer’s rendering of Isserley as a nameless, unreadable creature may come closer to the sort of truly alien (and perhaps alienating) narrative I crave.  I don’t know if such a narrative is even possible, and yet I wish someone would attempt it.

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