May 25, 2018

Anthony McGowan, Rook

rookrookrookRook is the third book in a series (following Brock and Pike, neither of which I’ve read) featuring two brothers who occasionally find and rescue animals. That description makes it sound a bit Willard Price (incidentally, McGowan wrote four sequels to Price’s Adventure series; this intrigues me very much) but going by this book the animals form only a part of the several things that are going on in their lives. At the point when this book opens Kenny and Nicky’s family is doing better than has been the case in the past. Their father, recovering from alcoholism and dating a woman whom the boys like, is able to give his sons more attention than has sometimes been the case; Kenny is happy at school and has made an exciting new friend; money is very tight but things seem not to be completely desperate. Theirs is not, however, the first perspective we see. The opening chapter is told from the perspective of the titular rook, who is having quite a nice day until he’s savaged by a sparrowhawk.

It’s an opening that I really like–we’re immediately thrown into this other perspective, and a voice which is both colloquial and lyrical but (crucially) not twee. It’s treated seriously enough that you’re not immediately hunting for meaning or allegory–though you could, having read the book, link the rook’s injury (implied to be a result of the flock’s bullying of a small male sparrowhawk) to that of Nicky’s bully Pete.

The plot: Nicky and Kenny find the rook, in time to prevent their dog Tina from injuring it further. They take it home and look after it, but while Kenny seems convinced that it’ll be fine Nicky, who narrates the story, is more pessimistic about its chances for survival. Meanwhile, Nicky is being bullied at school, targeted both on the subject of Kenny’s learning disability and his mother (of whom I assume we hear more in one of the earlier books). Nicky also has a huge crush on Sarah, the popular and unattainable sister of his main bully, Pete. Things are taking their toll on Nicky and he lashes out at his brother and his father; he also retaliates and pushes Pete, at which point things go horribly wrong. Pete, who has epilepsy, has a seizure and Nicky is blamed and expelled from school.

[There's a lot to  discuss here about the relationships between the different members of this family, about the prose, about the familiar setting, even the ways this book measures up to the Carnegie criteria; typically, I'm going to talk about none of it.]

Rook is a beautiful object–the thick matte pages are lovely and tactile (this is a pragmatic decision to make the text more readable, but its aesthetic value is a really happy side-effect), and the cover picture and font remind me a little of the Penguin Modern Classics editions with the matte silver spines and backs. Publisher Barrington Stoke aims to provide books with age-appropriate content for children and teenagers with dyslexia or other barriers to reading, and in that context this very consciously grown-up cover makes a lot of sense. It signals its affinity to the sorts of books that get these sorts of covers, suggesting that while it may be easy to read, it’s not for very young readers.

A slight detour but I promise I have a point of some sort: mere hours after I finished Rook I watched the Andrew Haigh film Lean on Pete, about a teenage boy who develops a bond with an aging racehorse doomed to be sold and slaughtered. Before the film I checked with various people whether I should brace myself for an upsetting film in which a beloved animal died–the consensus was that yes, I should; in stories like this the beloved animal always dies. In the circumstances, it’s unsurprising that Rook and Pete should be intertwined in my head. Both are interior stories about teenaged boys with complicated and loving relationships with their families; in both stories the potential death of an animal reflects a larger, awful reality. There are differences, of course; in tone Pete perhaps feels more like the cover of Rook than the book itself.

I went into Lean on Pete bracing myself for the horse to die; Nicky goes into his own story with a similar conviction that the rook isn’t going to make it. Next to Nicky’s cynical resignation, Kenny’s belief looks naive. When Kenny tells his brother that their father has taken the rook to some people who can make him better, Nicky’s sure he knows what that means. He doesn’t–their father really has decided to spend some of the family’s scant funds on Rooky (rather to the puzzlement of the staff at this refuge for wild birds); Pete’s family have spoken to the school and have had Nicky reinstated; Kenny’s new friend may not be the real Doctor Who (though he might be) but he’s pretty amazing nonetheless; Sarah may or may not be interested in Nicky romantically, but the romance takes second place to his recognition that he’s gained a valuable friendship.

It’s possible that I’m arguing merely that Rook is a book in which some good things happen and that is nice–and honestly, that is reason enough to praise it. But I think there might be more than that. It’s not that the world is fundamentally better than Nicky thinks it is; we value these acts of kindness to friends and strangers precisely because they burst out like little miracles in a world that we, and he, know to be difficult. In stories like this the beloved animal always dies–but sometimes maybe it doesn’t.

May 12, 2018

Lissa Evans, Wed Wabbit

Wed Wabbit opens with responsible older sister, Fidge (Iphegenia, which is a weird choice to name one’s daughter), a bit fed up of her younger sister Minnie’s (Minerva) particular fantasies. Minnie is obsessed with the Wimbley Woos, colour-coded and bin-shaped creatures who live in the tellytubbiesesque pastoral idyll of Wimbley Land, and whose adventures Fidge is sick of reading at bedtime. There’s also Minnie’s beloved stuffed animal, Wed Wabbit, which Fidge dislikes–in an unguarded moment she kicks the Wed Wabbit out into the street; Minnie follows, is hit by a car, and hospitalised.  Even as Minnie waits in hospital for her beloved sister to visit with Wed Wabbit, supernatural events have transported Fidge (and her annoying cousin Graham) to Wimbley Land, where they must fulfil a prophecy and save this world if they (and Wed Wabbit) are ever to get home again.

I knew nothing about Wed Wabbit when I started reading it, and there was a point when I wondered if this genuinely was a creepy toy horror story. The rabbit is creepy enough, and I can imagine my easily-terrified childhood self being incredibly reluctant to read this. At the point at which Fidge and Graham were magically transported to another world, that genre possibility seemed to have ended, and others opened up. An older sister on a quest through a fantastic land in order to redress a mistake made out of annoyance and save a younger sibling; my first thought was of Labyrinth, my second of Shalini Srinivasan’s fantastic Vanamala and the Cephalopod.

But more importantly (to me, anyway), Wed Wabbit is a portal fantasy, and has a surprising amount to say about that genre. It even begins with a map.

Wimbley_Land_map

Fidge enters Wimbley Land having already read everything she needs to know–that she wasn’t paying enough attention isn’t entirely out-of-genre behaviour. Minnie’s beloved book, The Land of the Wimbley Woos, presents the sort of totalising knowledge of the secondary world with which portal fantasy readers and protagonists are often provided–the Wimbleys are conveniently colour-coded in the distribution of particular skills and character traits; blues are strong, purples know things, pinks really like hugs. On top of this, she finds herself the subject of a prophecy–one that is written on an actual parchment scroll (with a literal wax seal), is a riddle in verse, and declares her one of the “four brave strangers / to release us from all dangers”. The book continues the tradition of treating the secondary world as a form of therapy–the new landscape provides Fidge and Graham with opportunities to face their individual weaknesses and get past them, so that on their re-entry into our world they are better equipped to cope. Both have wise guides to help them understand the new landscape–except Fidge’s is a rather excruciating elephant toy, and Graham’s is a plastic carrot called Dr Carrot. It’s so on the nose that I’m pretty sure Evans knows exactly what she’s doing–you could pick up any scholarship on the portal fantasy (e.g. Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy) and this would feel like a point-by-point embrace and parody of all the features of the genre that it identifies. (The other reason to think of this as a book more broadly in conversation with portal fantasies is that Graham is so very clearly a descendant of Eustace Scrubb. Graham’s foibles, arising from real health issues, are however treated more seriously, even if they’re also played for knowing laughs.)

This knowingness about the genre feels more significant when you begin to realise how much of Fidge’s information is inaccurate. Major changes have taken place that have rendered The Land of the Wimbley Woos out of date–the former king is in jail; the blue wimbley woos, driven by their greed for sweets, form a totalitarian police force and carry out the orders of the mysterious new dictator who recently appeared in their world (spoiler: it’s Wed Wabbit). Meanwhile the very existence of the country is at stake–some mysterious force is sucking all the colour out of the world at the boundaries of the country and whatever it is it’s moving inward. (Early in the book, Fidge guiltily uses Wed Wabbit to mop up some spilled orange juice.) Further, the prophecy which she is given suggests that she needs to look past the current anthropological classifications of the Wimbleys, “look again at every hue / a different word for each is true”. In the end,once all the lost colour has been restored, it comes in a giant explosion (“like a paintbox blowing up or a really huge kaleidoscope falling to bits or being shut inside a washing machine filled with sweets or spun about by a tornado full of confetti”), splashing everywhere so that the colours are all mixed up, so that none of the Wimbleys is one solid colour/trait anymore–previous categories of Wimbley are now entirely irrelevant. (And in any case, Wimbley Land is too anarchic to be particularly amenable to that sort of categorisation; in some crucial ways it’s more Alice in Wonderland than the Chronicles of Narnia.) The book’s epilogue shows that this state of affairs has continued–in the new book about Wimbley Land, published sometime after these events, “the rhymes are dreadful, and the colours are all mixed up and they’ve introduced new characters–an elephant and a … a vegetable of some kind”. (A stray thought here about the power fantasy of materially affecting the media one consumes.)

A few more stray thoughts:

I enjoyed Wed Wabbit because it felt like a parodic take on a genre I know well–it’s harder to imagine how it would read to someone without that knowledge. My friend Mariana suggests that the book’s humour in general is a bit too knowing and thus inaccessible to most children. I think this is true of a lot of humour (and is double-edged–feeling like you’re in on the joke is an incredibly welcoming sensation as a child reader) but it does bother me that, as Mariana points out, a lot of the foreknowledge it assumes is tied to a particular social class.

I’m not sure what to do with the revelation that the real solution to Wimbley Land’s problems is to hug your evil dictator. In the context of the plot it makes perfect sense, if only to squeeze out the sucked-up colour; and it’s of a piece with a general tendency in kidlit to teach children to see other people’s points of view, understand that they have points of view, and troubles of their own, etc. The recent Wrinkle in Time film, for example, has a scene where Meg learns that her most dedicated bully has massive body-image related insecurities, and while it’s a useful and necessary bit of characterisation it really could do with an explicit “but that doesn’t cancel out the harm she has done” statement. It’s relatively easy not to worry about it here, given that everything about Wimbley Land is ludicrous, but. Sometimes bad rulers like hugs a little too much.

I’m also not sure what to do with Wed Wabbit‘s implicit understanding that people who can’t pronounce their “r”s are inherently funny–my own inability to do this caused school friends years of hilarity, and in discussing this book with other people I’ve tended to construct my sentences so that I avoid saying the title. (Then again, one of my favourite children’s books [di Larrabeiti’s The Borribles] also plays this for humour, so I’d be a hypocrite to object here.)

Do I think it will (or should) win the Carnegie? Probably not, but I enjoyed reading it.

May 11, 2018

April Reading

Perhaps it’s time to accept that I’m only going to read two or three books a month, and stop trying to excuse it? Anyway.

 

Nisi Shawl, Everfair: Read as part of the book group/podcast I mentioned in last month’s reading round up–along with Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People and Samatar’s Winged Histories. All three books bounced off each other in ways that were genuinely productive and sometimes unexpected, and this one in particular satisfied my love of nineteenth century settings, and worlds that are big and rich and (politically, socially, ideaswise) interconnected. I did some inarticulate flailing to Jonah and Maureen, and that podcast will eventually be available for your consumption, but I’m a little bit in awe of this book, and the depth of knowledge and research (even if, as Maureen said, it wears that research lightly) and ambition it represents.

The other reason the book felt immediate and real to me was that I’ve spent a lot of the last few months thinking about activist movements and their dynamics–because of my current research, and the university strikes, and other movements elsewhere, as well as things I’ve been reading and watching. There’s a certain blend of hope and exhaustion and cynicism and utter despair that Shawl’s characters sometimes tap into and that is overwhelmingly familiar (one particular moment, towards the end of the book, utterly destroys me). It’s good, and you should read it, is my point here.

 

Lissa Evans, Wed Wabbit: I’ve decided to shadow the Carnegie shortlist again this year; partly because the medal has finally achieved a not-entirely-white shortlist, and partly for academic reasons. This was a book I knew very little about, I was really pleased to see a solidly middle-grade title on the list. Now that I’ve read it, I have a lot of thoughts about portal fantasies–to be revealed in a forthcoming post. I don’t know that I’d consider this one of the best children’s books published in the UK this year, but it is good.

 

Sharanya Manivannan, The High Priestess Never Marries: I’d had this for a year or so, and kept meaning to read it–I like some of Manivannan’s nonfiction, and this collection promised me mermaids and loosely connected short stories and characters who tell stories. It has all of those things, and yet I felt disappointed–I wanted to be more startled than I was by the people here; wanted them to be less same-y; wanted the prose to be … not less purple, necessarily (though tightly controlled prose will always be where my heart is), but purple in ways that wrongfooted me. The story about the red giraffes, however, was great.

 

May 5, 2018

Lauren Wolk, Beyond the Bright Sea

Are we doing this again? We are (or I am). I’m reading the Carnegie shortlist again. There’s a Patrick Ness book on there (again), and a Marcus Sedgewick (again); is this 2016, and were the last couple of years a horrible dream?

I’ll be blogging this year’s shortlist in the order in which my shadowing group read the books–we’re doing two books every couple of weeks. First up, then, Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea. This is one of a couple of (very welcome) middle-grade-ish books on the shortlist this year. It’s set in 1920s America, in the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. One of these islands, Penikese, historically had a hospital that quarantined and treated leprosy patients (when the book opens it has been deserted for a few years), and at the beginning of the book our narrator, Crow, learns that many in her community believe her to have been born there. As a baby, Crow washed up on the shore of a neighbouring island in a leaky boat and was found and raised by Osh, an artist and himself a relative newcomer to the islands. Crow is determined to learn who she “really” is; Osh, who has raised her, is both nervous at her apparent need to discover a family other than him and concerned at what she might find if she stirs things up.

I’d expected to begin this post by saying something like “obviously it’s impossible to talk about this book without talking about Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything“, a book which was also set partly on a real historical island that was used to quarantine those with leprosy, and which was also nominated for the Carnegie this year. It turns out that beyond that similarity of setting (and the Phillippines and the north Atlantic are quite different settings) there’s very little that the books have in common in tone or plot. It does intrigue me, though, to think that at some point the judges of the medal might have been judging the two books directly against one another.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book very much–the cover matter seemed to me to emphasise a generic Girl Goes Off to Find Herself plot (alone, in a boat, sailing into the distance). Luckily, this turned out to not at all be what the book was about–Crow does “find” herself, in the sense that she ends the book with a more definite understanding of who she is, but she’s never alone, and the book’s real focus seems to be her consolidating her sense of herself as part of the small community/family that she, Osh, Miss Maggie and Mouse-the-cat have forged for themselves. Rather remarkably for the protagonist of a children’s adventure, Crow actually talks to the adults in her life, telling them when something odd or potentially dangerous has happened to her, particularly when it might put them all at risk. She sees them as potentially vulnerable people, as they are–for example, the book is pretty straightforward about Osh’s discomfort with Crow’s quest to find her biological family. Actions are seen to have consequences for the group as a whole–when a dangerous object is hidden on Miss Maggie’s property, Crow and Osh both take for granted the fact that Miss Maggie should be warned of the potential danger to her. As they should (it’s basic decency), but so many protagonists seem to barge heedlessly through the world that it’s a relief when one doesn’t.

This sense both of the vulnerability of individuals and the ethics of community living is something that recurs through the book in minor ways. While lobster fishing with Osh, Crow ponders the fact that islanders never steal from each other’s lobster pots, even though it would be easy to do, because the community requires that shared trust to function (Osh compares these small island communities to settlements in Westerns). These ethical* (but not necessarily nice) relationships extend to animals as well–Miss Maggie, who feeds whisky and milk to wild turkeys in the winter, is sorry for the dead rabbits that she turns into stew, and mourns a dead lamb; Osh, who will eventually kill and eat the lobsters he catches, but will not leave them in their traps longer than he can help, and who devises a unique strategy to eat starfish without killing them.

If the whole book had been quiet island life and ethical community living, I’d probably have liked it more (though, as other participants in the discussion noted, the prose in these sections isn’t effective enough to take full advantage of this setting). Instead, the book throws several plots at us and never really gains focus. We’re landed with the mystery (not much of one to a reasonably experienced reader, but perhaps that’s an unfair standard by which to just an MG book) of Crow’s parentage, the mystery of the pirate treasure rumoured to be buried around these parts, a thriller plot involving a violent treasure seeker who pops up at unexpected moments, and finally Crow’s discovery that she has a brother, still alive, and that there may be a chance of finding him. It’s all a bit too much, and ends up feeling uneven–the final sections in particular feel particularly rushed.

The book’s thinking about community and care almost, but doesn’t quite, extend to one of these major subplots–the one where Crow finds pirate treasure. Unable to openly claim the treasure, as the island on which it was buried is state-owned land, she nevertheless wants to keep certain keepsakes in memory of her mother. The rest, Osh suggests might be given away. The treasure is divided (as her brother, should she find him, might reasonably expect to have some of his parents’ legacy) and hidden in separate caches–Crow eventually chooses to give most of hers away to orphanages. It feels like this variation on the found treasure plot ought to be significant, yet Crow’s dithering over what to do with it and the questions that her possession of it raises are things the book skims over as if it weren’t interested.

It strikes me that many of the things I admire about Beyond the Bright Sea are negatives–it doesn’t treat Crow’s biological family as more significant than the one she has created; it doesn’t provide us the happy sibling reunion we might expect; Crow’s adventures don’t need to involve lying to or concealing things from the people she loves; no one is rich off the treasure. The thing that it actively does do, its treatment of its loving community, is worthwhile, and I wish I felt that the book was willing to centre it and value it more. Ultimately the thing about this book that matters to me is Osh’s deep conviction that the island life that he and his companions have built is something fragile and precious, that must be protected and defended.

 

 

 

 

 

*I’m using “ethical” here to signify that the characters have given real thought to the morality of these actions/relationships, not to imply that their choices are unquestionably Correct.

 

April 2, 2018

Stephanie Burgis, Snowspelled

I’ve read and enjoyed Burgis’s regency fantasies for younger readers, and in general the combination of regency romance with fantasy is exactly the sort of fluff that I like. As readers of this blog know, I’ve also spent part of the last few months reading (and rereading) books about the fraught relations between fairyland and magical Britain. So this novella, involving an alt-historical England with magic and an uneasy treaty with the elves, and an estranged couple coping with Still Having Feelings, was always going to either be my new favourite thing, or just vaguely disappointing because I’ve spent far too much time thinking about what I want these genres to do/be/achieve. Snowspelled does some things I like, and if this was a proper review I’d spend more time on those things (some are mentioned below), but here I want to think about the structures underpinning its world.

I’ve said several times before (to the point that people who’ve read this blog before are rolling their eyes) that a regency romance that delves too deeply into the politics or economics of historical Britain is generally setting itself up to alienate me, because I cannot be that interested in the personal lives of people whose comfort, I’m reminded, is predicated on huge amounts of suffering, most of it visited on black and brown bodies. And in any case at this point, the genre is so well established that it can be treated as its own little mythos; one that doesn’t require much thinking about its nuts and bolts, because it’s more of an aesthetic than an exercise in Worldbuilding. Snowspelled is set in a regency-flavoured “Angland”; a country where women wield most of the political power, as part of a council called the Boudiccate, but only men get to study and “cast” magic. We enter the story at a point when a major disruption to this situation has already occurred. Our protagonist Cassandra Harwood has previously managed, through a combination of talent, privilege, and stubbornness, to force these institutions to allow her to study magic, and before the story opens had already proved herself one of the most powerful magicians of her generation. But evidence of talent (and several important academic papers, a detail I liked a lot) has not led to job opportunities–while her brilliant fiancé has been taken on by the Boudiccate, no one seems interested in a female magician, however brilliant. Out of frustration, Cassandra has attempted to prove herself further by carrying out a spell too strong for a single magician–nearly killing herself in the process, and ensuring that she can never cast magic again. This is the situation on which the book opens: Cassandra is unable to do magic, has ended her engagement, and isn’t entirely sure what to do with herself.

So far, so promising–the book negotiates the fraught social aspects of the situation well, and is generally nuanced about Cassandra’s coming to terms with this massive change in how her body inhabits the world. It’s a short book, so doesn’t have space to tease out the complexities of how gender works in a context where social roles are so rigid, but political and social power seem more evenly divided. But again, if you’re a reader of regencies, the idea that a bunch of well-connected upper-class women form a centre of political power is familiar enough not to jar.

But another thing for which the book doesn’t have space is an account of global politics in this alternate universe, and how Angland fits into them. Cassandra’s former fiance is a man by the name of Rajaram Wrexham, who is “from a Maratha-Anglish sailor’s family”, while her sister-in-law Amy has “dark brown skin”. At least one other member of their social circle is a powerful older woman with dark skin. We’re not given any particular sense of how common this is within their world, but the characters themselves seem to treat these signs of racial difference as relatively unremarkable. So okay, Angland is multiracial and takes racial difference for granted in ways that Regency England did not. But I find myself wondering whether this is worldbuilding along the lines of E.K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing, where the point seems to be to create a situation where the reader can enjoy the trappings of regency society (again, a society built on slavery, empire, and other horrors) in ways that don’t make her uncomfortable, and that absolve the world thus created of the horrors of its imperial context–if black and brown characters are also getting to be debutantes, can it really be that bad? Of course it is possible to do a Brown People In Empire Line Dresses book that doesn’t erase imperial violence–Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown does a lot of this work. I don’t think Snowspelled is in any way trying to be that sort of book, and in any case it’s much shorter, so perhaps it is unfair to compare the two. But I want to know what the relations between the Marathas and the Anglish are, and whether all the tea the characters drink is somehow obtained through fair trade. How many of the politically-connected families whose women primarily make up the Boudiccate are gaining part of their wealth from plantation slavery, or is that not a thing in this world? Are the black and brown characters the result of histories of imperial displacement as they tend to be in our own world, cordial diplomatic relations, or a generally freer attitude towards immigration than our own world can claim?

I’d be okay with not knowing any of this (sometimes you just want a nice romance with pretty dresses and no discussion of imperial violence), were it not for the elves.

So: early in the book, Cassandra has an encounter with a sinister elf-lord, with whom she makes a dangerous bargain. The human and elvish worlds are held in precarious balance by a treaty which, if broken, could have horrific consequences for the island both share. The elves have a “kingdom” whereas the Anglish have a “nation”; the elves have less enlightened class and gender politics (and are dependent on traditional hunts–the Tories to Angland’s innocent-of-history Cool Britannia). In the book’s climactic scene, Cassandra ends up defending, not just herself, but Angland (“I won’t break our agreement [...] any more than my nation has”) against charges of treachery. The elf-lord Ihlmere’s anti-human rhetoric is all very familiar; his desire “to bring us back to greatness”, his horror that his ancient culture is being weakened and diluted by human influence and weak liberal policies. He’s the villain, he loses, it’s a happy ending.

But what is defended is an England that is signalled as decoupled from empire, but still filled with tea and the occasional brown person and probably curry–this version of England under siege from sinister forces and manipulators of contracts, already sharing the space of the nation but threatening it from within. I’ve lived in Britain as an immigrant (and a visibly not-white one) as a child in the 90s, and as an adult in the last five years, and it’s impossible for me not to see the process by which the national narrative papered over that imperial history in the late twentieth century, and the disturbing ways in which that papering over has affected my life in the twenty-first. I don’t think, as I say above, that Burgis is attempting to write into/in conversation with postimperial discourse, and that’s fine; but while a book can elide discussion of empire,and can present England as the vulnerable, threatened victim of tricksy contracts, I don’t think the same book can do both without validating much that is alarming about the nation in the present.

April 2, 2018

February and March Reading

In February I travelled to America for a short visit, travelled to the UK to spend the next six months working on a project here, and spent a lot of time doing visa paperwork. In March, I flathunted, moved into my new place (I’m still in the process of settling in, and also have no internet at home), and began work. I ought to have read more over this period than I did, but well.

 

Robin Stevens, A Spoonful of Murder: I’ve been a bit nervous about this book. The pitfalls of writing a novel in which an aristocratic English girl visits a friend in 1930s Hong Kong are many and I’m invested enough in this series that I don’t want unpleasant feelings spoiling it for me. In the event, I can’t speak for the quality of its depiction of a city I’ve never been to (at a period I wasn’t alive), but it seemed to avoid the specific pitfalls that I’ve been used to looking out for. More importantly, the depiction of a relatively (or in Hazel’s case extremely) wealthy and privileged girl showing the place she’s grown up in to the British friend and being acutely aware of how certain things look from outside is an experience I can speak to, and here it feels real and nuanced. And the series continues to be wonderful at invoking complex, painful interpersonal relationships, and subjecting Hazel (who I love, and intensely want to protect) to various forms of emotional devastation.

 

John Agard, Book: I planned to read this a couple of years ago, when it was one of the only books on the Carnegie longlist by a BAME author (it did not make it to the shortlist, in common with all other books by BAME authors on Carnegie longlists since*). I wish I’d read it earlier, because it’s wonderful. A separate post to come; but I grew up reading good nonfiction as well as fiction, and it saddens me that I see less of it in bookshops (and even less on award shortlists etc) than I used to. This is the sort of thing I’d have loved as a child–its history of the book is as much an etymological history as anything else (this is where this book-related term comes from and this is why), it’s interspersed with quotations that open up such a wide and unexpected bibliography for a children’s book (just the thought of discovering Brecht when I’d been the target age for this book!); and while we get the North-Africa-Europe-Gutenberg version of book history, we get enough of the rest of the world that it becomes global and vital.

 

Misa Sugiura, It’s Not Like It’s a Secret: A YA novel involving a Japanese-American protagonist who moves from the Midwest to California and finds herself facing the possibility of a mostly-Asian friend group for the first time in her life, as well as coming to terms with her own queerness and falling in love with a Mexican-American girl. Meanwhile, her increasing knowledge of her father’s long-term affair with another woman, as well as her mother’s response to it, is another huge and complicated thing which she needs to assimilate. This is a teenage romance, and follows all the rules of that genre, and is in general very satisfying. But it’s also willing to be interested and complex about the ways in which power dynamics play out in multiracial groups,  families are complicated, and teenagers are genuinely really new to some of the big ideas they’re facing, and can be clever and well-meaning and clumsy and lacking in nuance at all at the same time. Though, as with Julie Buxbaum’s Tell Me Three Things, I could do with less adolescent thoughts on poetry; they remind me too much of my own youth and not in a good way.

 

Swapna Dutta, Juneli’s First Term, Juneli at Avila’s, An Exciting Term: This is a set of school stories written and serialised in the 70s and 80s, and set in a school in India. I’d heard of them before, but only recently realised that they were available as ebooks, and was intrigued enough to buy and read all three. A post to follow (I have many thoughts on genre and intertextuality and the school story and empire; who knew?), but I enjoyed these.

 

Ngaio Marsh, a whole bunch of three-in-one anthologies: In times of stress I turn to golden age crime, but had thus far never actually read any Ngaio Marsh. I therefore attempted to read ALL the Ngaio Marsh at one go. Still in the midst of this foolish enterprise, but I’m enjoying it very much.

 

*This year’s shortlist does at least recognise one black author, which feels like a huge improvement, but as Angie Thomas is American, and The Hate U Give had already been massively successful in the US, this inclusion doesn’t tell us much about improvements in the British children’s publishing world, or indeed the ability of the judges to recognise quality books without having the work already done for them …

February 13, 2018

January Reading

In January I packed up the entire last few years of my life, moved continents, did visa paperwork for a short trip to America, and drafted an article. I did not read many books, but honestly I’m impressed that I read any:

 

John Agard and Satoshi Kitamura, The Young Inferno: I’ve made some notes on this, and will be writing about it at greater length soon, probably. It’s a smart, and slyly clever retelling of Dante; the deviations in form make sense for several good reasons (especially the switch from Virgil to Aesop as a guide for a young boy); Kitamura’s art is always great.

 

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories: Reading A Stranger in Olondria a few years ago, I said (unoriginally, probably) that “stranger” was the important word–that this is, fundamentally, the story of an outsider to the fantastic word, and one whose relationship to that world has been mediated through text. This companion novel is almost the opposite of that one in that its protagonists are very much the insiders to this world–thought they’re all women, and forced to negotiate particular restrictions, not only have they grown up within reach of the Olondrian empire’s metropolitan centre, but three of the four women have been among or close to those who make the major decisions that shape this world. In a sense they’re even greater insiders to the narrative than if Samatar had decided to include a sort of Olondrian Man-on-the-Street; the rather confusing civil war that is the background to Jevick’s visit is of their making. Because it’s an insider’s perspective, this book widens and deepens what we know about Olondria’s internal functioning (and internal empire). Unsurprisingly, this is also a book about books–how texts live in the world, and how they live with one another.

I’ll be discussing this book, along with two others, with Maureen and Jonah, so less superficial thoughts to come.

 

Deepak Unnikrishnan, Temporary People: Also read for the above discussion, and because this is a book about which I was excited. A collection of short, fantastical stories set in the Gulf, usually among Malayali migrant workers, it’s necessarily a fragmented narrative–but one where the individual stories bounce off each other, and off what the reader already knows about this immigrant community, to gradually build up and layer a larger story. In its multilingualism and the sort of detached understanding of what narratives the reader already has access to as well as the stories it wants to tell, it reminds me a little of (the in all other ways completely different) Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. It’s good, it’s formally interesting, I’m glad it is winning prizes. (Am I allowed to quietly boast that I shared a TOC with Unnikrishnan once?)

 

Stephanie Burgis, Snowspelled: I started writing about this and it turned into a seperate post (or half of one; I’ve been lazy recently) so I guess that’ll be here soon? Spoiler alert: I’m being conflicted about regency romance again.

 

January 24, 2018

2017, begrudgingly

For the last few years I have, after posting all my reading round up posts for the year, done a sort  of summary, reflecting  on my reading (and my year) and  thinking about the year to come. But, as I said on twitter a few days ago, I haven’t felt very present in 2017. For much of the summer I had a mysterious illness that may have been exacerbated by stress, and that still flares up every so often, though less severely. And getting through the final months of the PhD was as exhausting as several people had warned me it would be. In most ways I haven’t made the transition from last year to this one–as I write this I’m visiting my parents in Delhi, in limbo between the thesis and a job I’ll hopefully be starting in the spring, and Of No Fixed Address. I’ve discarded most of what I own (all but the books, obviously) to fit the rest into a few suitcases; I’m not entirely sure what country (or continent) I’ll be in in a couple of months, so any marching boldly into the future has had to be put on hold. I’m feeling this page (the second one, on the right) of a comic by Krish Raghav quite intensely at the moment–everything is either endless queues or the possibility of more change than I can wrap my head around.

For now, though, I’m in this city I love, and close friends and family (and this perfect dog) are all within reach, so feeling stuck isn’t all that bad.

Some mandatory reading stats (see previous years’ disclaimers for this year’s disclaimers): I read (about) 50 books, of which (about) 35 were by writers who weren’t cis men, and (about) 25 were by writers who I knew to be non-white. As in previous years, the authors I binge-read tended to be white British women. Things I read that mattered: My SFF recommendations are in the Strange Horizons year in review, here, and I wrote about one of those books, The Magical Fish, here. I also liked both of Patrice Lawrence’s YA novels, and found comfort in the familiarity of the new Philip Pullman. I rarely talk about my academic reading on this blog (and maybe I should try to do more of that in the future), but the most engaged I’ve been this year has been when I’ve been rereading Simon Gikandi and annotating furiously.

Other things:

This interview with the Out of the Woods collective. One of the things that I (and others, I know) have found exceptionally difficult recently is to think in ways that aren’t fragmented. (As my friend Kate put it, “we don’t want to pretend things are okay, we want to know about the direness as it is–but it’s also hostile to having a train of thought. The fear and grief bursts come closer together.”) Something about the certainty of this interview, and its subjects’ ability  to define … not a manifesto, necessarily, though I think it might be that as well, but a broad, clear moral position, gave me something I really needed.

This essay, by aforementioned friend Kate. It’s very specific and personal (a decision not to have a baby), but it’s also about thinking about the future, loving people in this present, and other things that feel central to living in the world now.

This review by Samira Nadkarni, as a touchstone when I need to step back and think about what frameworks I am or am not willing to work within in my critical writing. (Also as an example of writing that is personal and emotional and rigorous all at once.)

 

2018, then. *Deep breath*

January 1, 2018

December Reading

So much of December is ritual reading. I read A Child’s Christmas in Wales out loud on Christmas day, and started a reread of The Dark is Rising (along with about half of twitter) at midwinter. I read the Christmas play section at the end of End of Term. And as I explain below, I’ve been rereading various things set in fairylands. Here are the other things I read, before I ignored the pile of newish books I’d been half planning to read in favour of a bunch of murder mysteries.

 

Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun:  I just spent four years writing about the relationships between fantastic and imperial other spaces, and decided, sensibly, that I should give myself a rest and not think about those subjects for a while. So naturally, I read this book, which is about missionaries who go to Arcadia/Elfane/Faerie. It’s also: a sustained piece of Bronte fanfiction that engages with their lives, their published works and the Angria and Gondal stories; a book that quotes extensively and makes genuinely interesting use of its intertexts; quite a traditional fantasy about weird fairies; a book in which characters argue theology for a good portion of their lives (though a lesser chunk of the book itself than other reviews had prepared me for; as a result I felt a bit let down that there wasn’t more). This is all a bit much–even though I’m willing to forgive a lot when a book does so many things I like, it’s all a bit too much to sustain itself. Which is in keeping with the general Gothic excess of many of its source texts, and I might be complaining only because it’s the particular threads that I am most interested in that get dropped. (The other thing about Ng’s book is that I’ve also ended up spending much of my holiday season slowly rereading Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and I’m planning to start the year with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin, so we’ve got a theme running.)

 

N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky: I’ve been enthusiastic about this series before, so this will be nothing new. The Stone Sky continues to be stylistically ambitious, and continues to portray relationships in this hellworld (the Stillness, but also this hellworld) as inherently broken, but still potentially tender; but it also (and this is the bit that is amazing) continues to do things that, a couple of years and several hundred pages in, make me think oh, clever. This book gives us what the previous two have denied us–context (a word that has some significance within the text as well, because these books are nothing if not self-aware), for the history of the world and the weird tech it has inherited as well as its bizarre climate. I was a bit dubious about this at first–in the earlier chapters dealing with this long-past time I suspected a more compact infodump would work just as well–and I’m still not entirely convinced by it even though what it adds deepens the main (?) plot. But it feels fitting that the first book should first focus our understanding of its world by shifting from three perspectives to one, and that the second and third should subsequently widen our focus in perspective and time. (A possibly trite thought I had while reading–I haven’t seen detailed discussions of this series’s worldbuilding, and in the wake of this book I want to; I get the feeling that much of traditional Worldbuilding Discourse tends to ignore precisely the questions of what worlds are built on that this series takes as fundamental to understanding its world.) (This has been another thought about Empire, probably.) And in the book’s present we’re given some of the possibility for rebuilding that the previous books have of necessity denied us; I don’t think this was precisely missing (these books are ruthless and they need to be), but it felt the more precious for that.

 

Charles Keeping (illus.), The Christmas Story: Keeping’s the only person credited by name on the cover, but the opening pages add that this is “as told on Play School”, and the inner flap explains that it has been produced to be legible to the youngest children, that it was originally told by Roy Castle, and that it’s based mainly on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. None of this matters (I wasn’t reading it to the youngest children); I bought this book for its illustrations, particularly one. During a talk on Keeping  several months ago, Brian Alderson showed an image of this book’s endpapers–just the star over Bethlehem, blazing white light over what I thought at the time was sepia, but in my copy is black and white and a greyish green. The star shows up in several of the images that follow–all monochromatic, with only hints of earthy pinks and greens, but full of light. (Some examples here, but not of the endpapers.)

 

Georgette Heyer, Envious Casca, Death in the Stocks, A Blunt Instrument, Detection Unlimited, They Found Him Dead, No Wind of Blame, Duplicate Death and Behold, Here’s Poison: I bounced off Heyer’s detective novels several years ago, and it was Christmas and I wanted some golden age-y murder. I don’t think these are anything like as delightful as her regencies (and the regency that’s most obviously a crime novel, Regency Buck, is also not great), but this time around I found them solidly enjoyable examples of exactly the sort of thing I wanted to read.

However: I have a question about monocles. In Detection Unlimited we meet an elderly spinster who “invariably wore suits of severe cut, cropped her grey locks extremely short, and screwed a monocle into one eye. But this was misleading: her sight really was irregular.” I assumed that the thing that was “misleading” here was a reference to the character’s sexuality–apparently wearing a monocle was just something cool lesbians did in the 1920s. However, in A Blunt Instrument we meet another monocled woman–this time, a “slim”, “young” journalist, who (spoiler, possibly?) ends up in a relationship with a young man. Does Heyer no longer know about lesbians; is her understanding (and, indeed, the contemporary understanding) of queerness more fluid–is this character closer to what I’d think of as bi; are the charms of a rich upper-class Englishman just too impossible to resist? A Blunt Instrument was published fifteen years earlier (1938, while Detection Unlimited is 1953) and is also earlier within the books’ internal chronology–but I’m not sure what to make of any of that.

 

 

December 4, 2017

November Reading

Things that happened in November: I passed my viva (trust me, I’m a doctor), I helped run a symposium, I conferenced, I continued to have a very persistent flu, I hung out with a cute dog and watched a lot of Agatha Christie adaptations but not the new one. I reread my own work a lot (for the viva, not out of vanity); I just about managed to read some other things.

 

Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties: Read in bits and pieces across the month. I’d read some of these stories before–and “Inventory“, which I love, was published in Strange Horizons, so seeing us mentioned here made me feel generally warm and fuzzy (nb: I have nothing too do with the decisions made by the fiction editors and therefore probably do not deserve to bask in their glory). This is a great collection–it’s good at bodies (the title would suggest this, I know, but really  good) and worlds that are suddenly (and have always been) hostile and strange, and there’s both desire and a sort of rueful acknowledgement of it, and it’s brutal. Machado has, to me, a really distinctive voice, and it’s one I enjoy a lot.

Also, rereading “The Husband Stitch” reminded me to reread Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Bluebeard“, so that was an extra good thing.

 

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility: Din (who I’m hoping will write about this soon) has been reading and thinking about Austen, and I realised I was unequipped to have a conversation about Elinor Dashwood unless I reread this book–I don’t think I had in at least a decade and probably longer. Much more than my last read, I think, I was struck by how fallible Elinor is–that Austen clearly approves of her doesn’t prevent her from being a character who will get things wrong, and who we can see doing the sort of thinking that’s going to end badly. I love her for it, much more than when she was merely the Good Sister. (Marianne is still an annoying brat, the book is too kind to Edward and Brandon and devastating and great to everyone else.)

 

Arthur Flowers, Manu Chitrakar, Guglielmo Rossi, I See the Promised Land: I’m writing about this at greater length elsewhere, but Newcastle has been having a very Martin Luther King themed few months, to celebrate his trip to this city, and honourary degree from Newcastle University, in 1967. I’ve had this book for a couple of years now, and this seemed like an appropriate time to finally read it. It’s gorgeous, obviously; but also the form of the book, and the context in which I read it has made me think rather sentimentally about solidarities across nations, about MLK in the Britain that produced the Rivers of Blood speech, and Ambedkar writing to W.E.B. Du Bois; and it’s a reminder that I never did get around to finishing that strange Du Bois novel.

 

Maud Hart Lovelace, Emily of Deep Valley: My main reason for reading this was curiosity over a conversation about its portrayal of Syrian immigrants in 1910s America (it’s set in 1912; it was published in 1950). I completely failed to encounter the Betsy-Tacy books when I was growing up (she said, losing all Girls Own cred forever), and have only read one since, so I’m not particularly attached to the setting, and it’s only when Betsy actually showed up that I realised that this was set in the same town as those. Emily is classic YA though–she’s quiet and clever and a brilliant debater, and has a crush on the sort of clever, confident boy that readers who identify as quiet and clever know a little too well. He goes to college, along with all their less deserving friends; Emily, who has made a commitment to look after her grandfather, stays home and makes the best of things. And then there are the Syrians, who, we’re carefully told, are Christians fleeing religious persecution–just like the Pilgrim Fathers. Their inclusion in the novel is … interesting–there’s some 1912- (and maybe even 1950-) style stereotyping, and yet the attempt to write them into the mythology of America feels effective, in a novel that seems to fully believe in that mythology. (There’s an awkward moment when Emily’s new boyfriend bonds with her soldier grandfather over how his grandfather was also at Gettysburg, before adding that he was on the other side. They decide to tell both sides of the story to the Syrian kids. Or something.) Anyway, it is a YA story that has a romance and a makeover and is a lot less cringeworthy than it might have been, and I found it very satisfying.