June 22, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: Tinder and Cuckoo Song, predictions and thoughts

Clearly we saved the most enjoyable week till the last.

TinderSally Gardner and David Roberts, Tinder: Okay, so I don’t entirely understand the Carnegie’s rules as regards illustrated works. Tinder is the only book on this year’s shortlist to also appear on the Carnegie’s sister award,  the Kate Greenaway’s  shortlist for illustration. Only Gardner’s name appears on the Carnegie, both Gardner and Roberts’s names appear on the Greenaway (this is consistent–in all other cases on the Greenaway shortlist where text and art are by different people, both are credited). But I’m not here to judge the Greenaway, and what I’m left wondering about is this–does this mean I’m supposed to be assessing Tinder only by Gardner’s words?

Tinder is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinderbox” (the one with the magic dogs with giant eyes), but transported to Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. I mention this because it seems important to how Gardner conceptualises the book–the specifics of the war that lies at the back of the narrative is rarely visible. That’s probably fine–the fairytale as a form is an excellent vehicle for a lot of things, but historical specificity is probably not one of them.

Form is probably going to be important to any reading of the book. One of the ways in which fairytales work is by not being very internal–it’s this detachedness that also allows them to talk about horrifying things. But then you have something like Tinder, which is longer than a fairytale (though not as long as it looks, because so much of it is the artwork) and so needs to sustain itself for that length, and is pretty explicitly about PTSD, and yet is shutting itself off from much of the interiority of the novel. I’m not convinced it works; I enjoyed reading it, but not in ways that involved much investment, and while I wouldn’t count that as a flaw in some sorts of narrative, it was something I missed here.

The art is beautiful, though, and I’m glad Roberts is receiving credit for that separately. This would be a much-diminished book without the illustrations–as it is, it’s a beautiful physical object as well as everything else. Not the best book on this shortlist (I haven’t looked at all the Greenaway books so cannot speak for that list, though the Shaun Tan book looks gorgeous) but good, and so pretty.

 

18298890Frances Hardinge, Cuckoo Song: I liked this book a lot.

Cuckoo Song begins with Triss waking up after a near-drowning and piecing herself back together, while trying to figure out what happened to her. The first section of the novel is dedicated to this mystery and it is, to me, the weakest part; still enjoyable to read (Hardinge is good at writing sentences) but not emotionally important. It’s once this particular mystery has been solved, when Triss has to face the truth of what she is, that Cuckoo Song suddenly begins to work really well.

Because Triss is (spoiler!) a changeling, and is inherently parasitic, and is dying. And Cuckoo Song hits so many character notes that I an susceptible to–Triss’s consciousness of her own destructiveness, her detachedness, that sense of feeling at a remove; toxic relationships and sisterly relationships and found family and wanting to protect. And Ellchester and its architecture work and the ways in which we move between horror and fantasy also work. It sometimes does the clever thing where things work as fantasy and allegory at the same time and sit comfortable beside each other and one does not subsume the other. I wasn’t even annoyed that it  was yet another WWI book (if I have a quibble I think it might be that I don’t endorse this book’s conception of history).

When I read A Face Like Glass many months ago, I said it felt as if Hardinge was drawing on aspects of some of my favourite authors– Joan Aiken, Mervyn Peake, Diana Wynne Jones. I see traces of so many things I love in Cuckoo Song, though it doesn’t feel derivative or even deliberately bricolage-y, and it’s extremely enjoyable to read. I don’t know, though, if this is connected to the fact that I enjoyed both of those books in quite a detached way. Even when, in the case of Cuckoo Song in particular, they were hitting all my particular emotional beats.

I’m not sure that isn’t a compliment though.

 

 

Predictions, thoughts: I suppose it would be okay if More Than This or Buffalo Soldier or maybe Tinder (though if Gardner won the Carnegie and Roberts didn’t win the Greenaway, that would feel unfair) won this year’s award, but as far as I’m concerned, Cuckoo Song is the best thing on the list by a considerable distance.

But I’m underwhelmed. I wasn’t always the biggest fan of last year’s shortlist, but other than the two particularly unfortunate titles (Ghost Hawk and The Child’s Elephant) I could see why each of those books was on that list. In a more just world the judges would have recognised that Liar & Spy was perfect, but The Bunker Diary was ambitious and had an integrity that I really do admire. This year’s shortlist has felt toothless to me; Hardinge aside, Landman and Ness’s books are the only ones that feel like they might be important, and both falter for me in crucial places. As a representative selection of the best children’s lit published in Britain over this period, this would be depressing if I didn’t know I’d read better things over this period. Where, for example, was Robin Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike? If they wanted smart, earnest, funny things (they did last year; surely that was part of the appeal of Rooftoppers and Liar & Spy?), where was Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees? Not even claiming either of these books was perfect (Murder Most Unladylike is about as close to perfect as it gets, though), but they don’t have to be.

And that’s two British children’s book awards shortlists I’ve read this year that have been made up entirely of white authors, as far as I can tell (usual disclaimers apply), and last year’s Carnegie shortlist (I did not see last year’s Little Rebels shortlist) was the same. That really is depressing.

June 21, 2015

Of interest (21 June, 2015)

Here are things I thought were good and worth reading this week.

 

Not-genre (loosely):

 

Megan Milks interviews Daviel Shy about her upcoming film based on Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack. (via Milks)

Diana George on Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, which is a thing I didn’t realise was out and I need it now and so do you, probably.

This essay by  Ken Chen starts from Goldsmith and Place and goes on and is long and meaty, so that I haven’t fully absorbed it (and therefore) nor am willing to *endorse* it, but it is certainly worth reading. (via Dala)

Nandini Ramchandran being wonderful on Jessa Crispin’s Dead Ladies Project and, relatedly, Subashini Navaratnam on spinsterhood and, relatedly, Crispin herself on Kate Bolick’s Spinster.

Jennygadget on this week’s whole John Green thing.

 

Genre (loosely):

Joshua Clover on change, Mad Men, Mad Max and The Coca-Cola Kid.

Annie Mok on queerness, community and Moomins (this wrecked me).(via Ben Gabriel)

 

 

June 21, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: When Mr Dog Bites and The Fastest Boy in the World

Short version: I’m not particularly into these books either.

 

wmdbBrian Conaghan, When Mr Dog Bites: After my lukewarm feelings about the last couple of books on this list, I was almost surprised to find that I was quite enjoying When Mr Dog Bites. The story of a teenage boy who has Tourette’s, a missing dad and an unreciprocated crush and, at the beginning of the book, discovers that he has a bigger problem: (spoiler!) he’s going to die within a few months.

In the context of a very earnest shortlist, something that involves wordplay and swearing (the sort that is the result of coprolalia as well as the sort that isn’t) was refreshing, even though it was hard to see why Dylan would have decided to randomly adopt cockney rhyming slang as his chosen medium, considering that he is in Scotland. It was also refreshing that the book didn’t seem to be trying to make a well-meaning point about disability or mental health; the bulk of the plot is to do with Dylan discovering family secrets and failing to be cool around the prettiest girl in school. And I love everything about his mother.

But, but, but. The mannered writing doesn’t feel right, Dylan himself feels inconsistent (I kept having to check his age because it seemed to be fluctuating all over the place), and there are so many little things that put me off. Like the Pakistani best friend who smells of curry (but it’s okay, because Dylan likes curry!), who is unmoved by Dylan yelling racial slurs at him because he doesn’t mean them, and who protests at being romantically paired with the only brown girl in the school before … entering a relationship with the only brown girl in school (she’s Indian, he’s Pakistani, how will they tell their families???); the attitude towards bodies, whereby Michelle Molloy’s leg is treated well enough by the text (she can still be sexy, hurrah) but the school bully has to be fat and therefore grotesque.

And it’s so pleased with itself for the swearing. Look, I think we could all do with a bit more profanity in children’s books–sometimes it’s warranted by situations, sometimes it’s just beautiful and creative and fun. Much of the swearing in this book is attributed, as I say above, to Dylan’s Tourette Syndrome. Except that coprolalia is not that common in Tourette’s patients, and yet is disproportionately prominent in media representations, and with that context, something about the choice to sell this book with the tagline “a story about life, death, love, sex and swearing” feels a bit gross.

 

Elizabeth Laird, The Fastest Boy in the World: I do not have a long list of complaints about this book, which is perfectly inoffensive. It’s about a few days in the life of an eleven year old Ethiopian boy named Solomon, who loves to run and dreams of becoming a famous long distance runner like one of his sporting heroes–I did like that one of those heroes is Derartu Tulu because it is (I was going to say “surprisingly” but it’s not really surprising) rare to see a sportswoman casually positioned as someone a boy might look up to. Solomon and his family live twenty miles (a long day’s walk or a bus ride) away from Addis Ababa, which Solomon has never visited, mainly (as far as I can tell) so Laird can show us his First Glimpse of a Big City. Solomon and his grandfather visit the capital, walking the whole way, which proves to be a bit too much for his grandfather’s health. They show up at the home of relatives (whose vague annoyance at unannounced visits is proof that there’s something a bit wrong with them); the relatives are found to be hiding something; we learn about grandfather’s mysterious past; grandfather takes ill and may be dying; Solomon heroically runs most of the way home to tell his family what has happened.

I phrase it all this way to show that there’s no lack of actual incident in this book. Mysteries past and present, an unexpected connection with Haile Selassie, the death of a beloved relative, Solomon’s triumphant run and bright future,  each of these would be more than enough to fill a book in its own right. So I’m not sure how it is that this book manages to strip most of the conflict out of them; skipping over each one so lightly that I’m left wondering why it bothered including them at all. There’s nothing wrong with The Fastest Boy in the World, it just sort of … exists. I’m not sure what the point of it is.

June 17, 2015

Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border

From a recent column, and also a very loosely sketched outline of several things I’ve been thinking about recently. Also relevant, possibly: Adam Roberts on the “strange pastoral” of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach books, and pretty much anything that contains the word “anthropocene”. I’ve decided, basically, that The Wolf Border is absolutely a book about climate change.

There’s a Lionel Shriver review of The Wolf Border, here,  in which she is a bit unimpressed at Hall’s choice to have Rachel keep the baby she isn’t sure she wants. And I absolutely get that in the context of women’s ongoing struggle for reproductive rights we could all do with seeing more fictional abortions. But then that choice against certainty, against decisive action (or decisive feeling) is fundamental to my reading of this book. I don’t know how I can advocate for the continued assertion of women’s rights to our bodies and control over our reproductive selves and also the necessity of fiction that imagines women (and men, and everyone) not in control of our bodies and surroundings (in ways different from the ways in which we already socially lack that control), or choosing to give up the sorts of control we do have and here we are anyway.

 

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badgerOne of my favourite facts about Britain is that its largest remaining native carnivore is the badger. This is not to disparage badgers or their abilities (a simple internet search will lead to several stories of badger aggression*) but it’s hard to imagine them as a threat—the lasting image for me, at least, is of the fussy character in a dressing gown in The Wind in the Willows. It would probably be unfair to blame Kenneth Grahame entirely for the domestication of the British landscape, in imagination or reality, but he does rather leave one with an impression of it as populated by the animal world’s equivalent of elderly men in slippers.

More intimidating predators are still a possibility, through multiple rewilding projects taking place across Europe. Already there are plans to reintroduce lynxes, as well as wolves, though within protected territories.

It’s with the rewilding of wolves that Sarah Hall’s most recent novel, The Wolf Border, is concerned. Its protagonist, Rachel Caine, has been working on a reservation in Idaho for years, but returns to her native Cumbria to participate in a project to reintroduce the grey wolf to a private estate, in the face of local opposition to the project. The estate in question belongs to the Earl of Annerdale (the name echoes the rewilding projects in Ennerdale in England and Alladale in Scotland), whom Rachel immediately dislikes. She is shown to have good reason—the project is tied up in larger political concerns and the Earl’s interest is (predictably) hardly altruistic. Yet he, and the world he represents, fade into the background for most of the book, which is in the main about Rachel herself; her family, her pregnancy, her relationship with this landscape that is familiar from her childhood and that she has not seen for years.

Set in a world where last year’s Scottish referendum resulted in a victory for the “yes” side, The Wolf Border is also speculative fiction of a sort. The political and ecological differences between this world and our own are not particularly big ones; if Annerdale isn’t quite where the book says it is this is a divergence from reality no greater than most realist fiction, and if the Scottish referendum didn’t go as the book says it did, for (presumably) most of the book’s genesis it was still possible. Yet there’s something else The Wolf Border is doing, something that to me feels inherently speculative.Wolf Border

At one point in the book, Rachel invokes the Chernobyl disaster, which had occurred when she was ten years old.

“They told us not to go outside if it was raining. Where I come from, it’s always raining. We had exercises in school for nuclear disasters afterwards. This bell would ring and you’d have to duck under the desk and count to one hundred. […] They’ve only just stopped testing the lambs before sending them to the market.”

Her companion recalls being in school when Mount St Helens erupted and he and his brother “[stayed] under the bed for three days […] There was black shit on everything.” Whether it’s the ravages that humans have wrought on the world, or nature itself, the “dark old republic” whose past and future Rachel imagines, we have never truly been safe.

So much of The Wolf Border is about discomfort, about plunging into discomfort even when one doesn’t have to. Rachel’s pregnancy, about which she is ambivalent but which she chooses not to terminate. Landscape and bodies and borders are mutable; and the sheer physicality of Hall’s prose insists that we engage with them as such.

And if I, however unfairly, blame the domestication of the British landscape on Kenneth Grahame’s anthropomorphic animals, part of the work of rewilding it must also belong to literature. It is becoming harder to pretend that we’re safe in the world, that hiding under desks or beds will shield us. We must live unsafe in the world and one of literature’s tasks for the near future must be the speculative work of imagining ourselves no longer at ease.

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*A good place to do this is in a university library where the person working at the next computer can look over and see you googling “badger attack” and lose all respect for you forever.

June 15, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: The Middle of Nowhere and Buffalo Soldier

This year’s Carnegie has been short on drama so here is some drama: will our heroine finish blogging about the books in time? More importantly, will she care?

Probably not, to be honest.

 

Geraldine McCaughrean, The Middle of Nowhere

Comity is the daughter of a telegraph operator on an isolated station in the Australian outback, her only friend an Aboriginal boy named Fred. When the book opens her mother has just died (of a snakebite), and her father Herbert is falling apart from grief. Things rapidly get very, very bad–as Herbert is less and less able to cope his new assistant, Quartz Hogg, gains more and more power and Comity, Herbert and Fred are increasingly isolated.

The first part of The Middle of Nowhere makes for a really effective horror story; the isolation, the slowly building tension, the sheer evil of Hogg, who manages to be racist, sexually predatory and violent. You can see how beautifully this would work on film. The tension is broken, however, when Comity and Fred run away into the wilderness, but then Fred nearly dies, they meet some “Ghans” (Muslim immigrants who are not from Afghanistan), before eventually coming home to even more horror than they left.

I feel like there are two good books in The Middle of Nowhere. One’s that first horror story, the second, tonally completely different, is the last section of the book, in which a terrified Comity is trying to protect her father and almost causes a war. One of the people present for this discussion said there was something a bit Frances Hardinge about this part of the plot, the image of this child in her father’s office sending these messages out into the world, and I can see that–and children struggling to protect people they love is a thing I am (like most people?) susceptible to.

The problem, for me, is the rest of the book outside these two sections (and some of the parts of it inside them as well). It’s slack, in parts, and a bit toothless. Its treatment of race is often infuriatingly simplistic: good white people, like Comity and her parents, are not racist; bad white people, like drunk sexual predator Hogg, are. Comity’s afraid of the “ghans” because she doesn’t know anything about them, but then she learns. The warring people of colour have to ally immediately to stop the Europeans from killing them all (okay, that one’s probably accurate). Between this and some of the functions to which the text puts Fred, I rolled my eyes several times. I wish we’d had either of the books this one could have been; and I wish the genuinely great moments (the dried-up prehistoric sea!) had been built on.

Also: rarely has such a good first line of a book been so let down by its second line.

 

Tanya Landman, Buffalo Soldier:

I was dreading this one. Last year’s book about race and American history did not go well, shall we say– indeed, nothing about last year’s list suggested that nuanced discussion of race was one of the criteria the judges were applying.

So it was a massive relief that this turned out to be much better than I’d expected (caveating this with my lack of expertise in American history). Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, it’s the story of a young black woman, Charley, who pretends to be a man and joins the army, originally for want of anywhere else to go. Plantation life is not glamorised but nor is what “freedom” is available to these characters after the war, and Landman gives as much time to the minor depressing realities (the necessity of a lot of walking, the continued existence of bodily functions–it shouldn’t be this refreshing to have a character menstruate) as she does to the major ones–for obvious reasons this is not a cheerful book. But the camaraderie between Charley and the other soldiers occasionally lightens things a bit (until they die, of course). Most importantly, Charley’s not magically tolerant in the way that Comity’s family, above, seems to be–she begins the book prejudiced against Native Americans and has that prejudice repeatedly challenged and (this is important) repeatedly fails to learn and get past it. But up to a point we see that process and the gradual reframing of thoughts it requires, and it feels realistic and fair to the character as well as real, historical people. And then Charley meets a young Apache man named Jim and falls in love.

 

[Rough, confused thoughts ahead]

I’ve spent a lot of time ranting with a friend recently about political agency in fictional characters. Katniss just wants to protect the people she loves and she’s swept up unwittingly in a revolution that she has to learn to navigate and that’s fine, but we’re never offered characters who begin from a position of having a broader morality-based politics–unless you count the fanatics who are willing to kill whoever stands in the way of the bigger cause. What I mean, and I don’t wish to put the responsibility for this on children’s literature when it feels like something that’s missing across the board, is that I don’t see models for collective morality that aren’t based in a purely personal relationship. Comity is prejudiced against the “ghans” and learns better, but she’s helped along the way by Moosa being helpful and pretty and fluent in English; Charley might eventually have overcome her prejudice on purely intellectual/moral grounds but is saved the necessity of this by Jim’s being really attractive.

And perhaps it’s unfair to criticise these books for not doing things they’re clearly not trying to do, but I want something more than “we should be nice to people who are not like us because they are more like us than we think, and/or sexy”. What would it mean to come up against the limits of our present capability for empathy, to face people or problems genuinely outside those limits, how do we behave morally then? It’s a question that feels very current to me (in part because I’ve kept turning to Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities this year, but it’s related, I think, to this post by Kate Schapira [and Niall Harrison raises a similar question in a soon-to-be-published review]), but it’s also one that seems like it ought to be central to the history of racism, so that historical fiction might legitimately be a space for exploring it. Neither of these two particular works of historical fiction provides such a space–I don’t think McCaughrean’s book particularly wants to, but Buffalo Soldier comes frustratingly close. It’s not a useful metric by which to judge either book, though, probably.

June 14, 2015

Of interest (14 June, 2015)

(This has been a fun week! We had multiple domestic plumbing disasters and had to evacuate the house for a few days [a flood and subsequent exile, it was very Biblical], I injured myself, and my laptop decided we were no longer friends. Nevertheless, I survive to bring you links.)

 

Phenderson Djèlí Clark on George Schuyler’s Black Empire.

A new Karen Russell story in The New Yorker.

Keguro Macharia on Octavia Butler’s Survivor and romance. (Lots of other very good things in the new Interfictions also, particularly Peri Himsel, Natalia Theodoridou, and Sunny Chan’s pieces)

People keep linking to that Samuel Delany piece on racism and SF and it makes me feel complicated things every time but here, you might as well have it so you too can feel complicated things.

Molly Smith on Northern Ireland’s new sex work laws and the trouble with the “Swedish model”

On Twitter, @AmbaAzaad and others started a project to crowdsource recs for trustworthy, non-shaming gynaecologists in India. I’m not contributing because all the gynaecologists I know have been family friends (which is frequently awkward, but has also meant I’m protected from a lot), but I think it’s a fantastic idea and hope it helps people find safe medical treatment. The form is here, the directory is here.

On Twitter, Paul Gilroy linked to this 1981 special issue of Urgent Tasks on the life and work of C.L.R. James.

Thanks to Ethan, I’ve been reading excerpts from Almeda Sperry’s love letters to Emma Goldman and they are stunning.

June 7, 2015

Of interest (7 June, 2015)

Links! Still evolving the form of this as a weekly feature (were I a Proper book blogger it would have a snappy title and dedicated graphic).

Brit Bennett on black dolls in American culture, childhood and innocence and looking away. Via Kip Manley, in that way he has of posting contextless, sourceless quotes and making you hunt.

Jenn at ReAppropriate on Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, and Marvel’s and Hollywood’s general failure at Asians on film (I’ve felt so much cleaner since I cut out Marvel properties, and they keep reminding me why that was a good move). Link via Samira Nadkarni.

Various writers responding to recent incidents centred around Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place (context provided in the link), via Sridala Swami.

The Decolonial Atlas, a project that collects and creates maps that destabilise and reimagine the world. Via Sean Singh Chauhan.

China Miéville on the inextricability of utopia and apocalypse. Via Brendan Byrne.

Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint’s Late Anthropocene, via Sofia Samatar. “How do you document a geological feeling? Late Anthropocene is a register of the psychic fractures created by unprecedented planetary unsettling, a work of mourning, and a meditation on the bewilderment of the human species.” YES, OMG.

Lana Polansky on Ecco the Dolphin, difficulty and environmental storytelling. Via Ben Gabriel.

 

 

 

June 7, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: More Than This and Apple and Rain

This time last year I was trying to read (and write about) the whole of the Carnegie shortlist in far too short a time. This year we gave ourselves ample time–two books every three weeks (clubbed together relatively randomly in our discussions, as they are here)–and are now six books into the shortlist of eight. Despite all this extra time, and for reasons that will probably become apparent as we go through this shortlist, I am not doing separate posts on all the books this year.

 

Patrick Ness, More Than This: NessMore

Definitely a good thing I’m not writing entire posts about these books because I only skimmed this one this time. I’d read it properly at the end of 2013, shortly after it came out, and while I enjoyed it (as far as you can ‘enjoy’ something as upsetting as this) I wasn’t entirely bowled over by it. In part this was because of the insistence, more prominent at the time of the book’s publication, on the fact that the main character does die at the beginning of the book. I am clearly nitpicking, but it did rather feel like the book was trying to claim to be doing something quite difficult (writing a story in which the protagonist is really, properly killed off at the beginning) while at the same time trying to benefit from an ambiguous is this real? is it fantasy? is this the afterlife? are we in the matrix? that continues for much of the plot. That plot, in brief: Seth drowns, then wakes up in a deserted English town he recognises from his childhood. The rest of the novel is spent in trying to find out what has happened, surviving his present situation (alongside two other children, Regine and Tomasz) and for the reader, piecing together the children’s past lives. Ness’s real strength isn’t so much the exploration of situations (I think very highly of the Chaos Walking books but not as a nuanced exploration of colonialism and war) as of people in those situations–when talking about the specifics of characters he’s able to capture something that is strong and honest and moving. He’s at his weakest when dealing in abstracts–it’s when he writes about particular people feeling particular things that he’s at his best. All of Seth’s memories of his previous life felt urgent and important to me in ways that the book’s present rarely managed–and that’s including the Robinson Crusoe-y bits at the beginning and the (terrifying, seriously) Driver. I really should read Ness’s non-fantasy work.

 

Sarah Crossan, Apple and Rain:

APRAINI haven’t read The Weight of Water, Crossan’s novel in verse, and on the strength of Apple and Rain I think I might like to. This book is told from the perspective of Apple, a teenage girl who has not seen her mother for years, and lives with her grandmother (with occasional visits from her father and his new partner). When her mother returns, all remorseful and cool and willing to let her daughter skip school and occasionally drink alcohol (such a contrast to her overprotective grandmother) Apple is completely won over, even when it turns out there are things her mother has been keeping from her. Like the existence of Rain, her little sister. Teenage girls navigating complex family relationships and dealing with unreliable adults–everyone I discussed this with immediately brought up Jacqueline Wilson, who of course does that sort of thing brilliantly. This is also one reason Crossan’s book failed to impress any of us very much–we’ve read versions of this book several times before so that it would need to be done very well to stand out. It isn’t done that well–the relationships between the main women characters work, but the characters themselves often lack much depth (and Rain’s age seems all over the place). There’s also, presumably not in a bid to collect the complete set of clichés, the mysterious, perfect, new boy at school who only has eyes for Apple; also a Dead Poets Society English teacher in whose classes the students learn that war is bad (there’s a great moment when he’s forced to acknowledge the presence of a student whose father is in the army, however) and to express themselves; who does not recognise appropriate teacher-student boundaries (showing up at a student’s house randomly? No.) but does recognise Apple’s special poetic talent. I’m probably being more dismissive than a book I genuinely enjoyed reading deserves; there are moments that genuinely do work and Crossan resists the temptation to wrap it all up too neatly. But Apple and Rain is one of those books that just doesn’t feel thought-through. There’s only a sporadic sense of the other characters in this world having real, complex lives worth knowing about–at any moment the book will choose to fall back on mean girls and perfect boys next door and uniquely talented protagonists.

June 3, 2015

John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish, All Yesterdays

I really enjoyed this book and then I wrote this column and then this story came out.

(Pictures screenshotted from the kindle version–how great is that manatee?)

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Watching the trailer for the rather abysmal-looking Jurassic World we all agreed that the only thing that might have redeemed it for us was for the dinosaurs to have had feathers. Naturally they did not.

I have let my knowledge of dinosaurs slip over the last couple of decades—at eight or nine I knew about as much as popular science would let me. I’d heard the theory that they might have had feathers, though I suspect my interest had waned before more concrete evidence was found. (I think I had also heard that Brontosauruses weren’t real, but can’t have been very convinced; when they were reinstated this year I was genuinely happy for them).Screenshot_2015-06-03-00-16-07

Part of the appeal of dinosaurs is that our knowledge about them has changed so much over time—even just over my own lifetime. I’m not sure it’s possible any longer to capture the sheer mystery and wonder of that first revelation a couple of centuries ago that at some point giant beasts had walked (or swum) the world, but we’ve had something else: we’ve seen our knowledge growing and changing, old mysteries solved (or at least provided with believable solutions) and new ones arriving to take their place.

In culture, however, dinosaurs have remained oddly static.

It’s at the level of popular culture that John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish’s All Yesterdays (featuring skeletal diagrams by Scott Hartman) is particularly fascinating. The authors’ point (Conway and Kosemen are paleoartists) is simple enough: that there is a certain amount of knowledge that we can gather from fossils, and that knowledge is mainly concerned with the musculoskeletal system—what goes on top of it—the integument—is not always as obvious, even as we continue to learn more about it. Popular images of dinosaurs tend to be the shapes of their skeletons with skin over the top. But as we know from the animals that we study in the present, nature isn’t always that obvious. All Yesterdays concerns itself not with what we know, but with the range of possibilities that might fit within the facts that we have. And so we have Plesiosaurs that camouflage themselves among coral, Leaellynasaura adorably covered with fluff and given a flagpole-like tail, semaphoring Carnotaurus, Protoceratops climbing trees because in our world lots of animals that are not specifically adapted for particular behaviours indulge in them anyway. This is also the reason that the authors are able to imagine dinosaurs playing, resting, coexisting with hostile species, having interspecies sex (the book is meticulously illustrated).

Screenshot_2015-06-03-00-20-19This project (speculating about the possibilities of bodies within certain fixed parameters) is one that is familiar to science fiction fans, though it’s usually directed at the future, rather than the past. In a later section, titled “All Todays”, the book does take us into the future. It imagines far-future scientists, studying the remains of what is our present and coming to conclusions of their own that are a little bit off—car crushing, predatory hippos, graceful, antelope-like cows, bipedal toads and vicious cats that crept into human homes before finishing off their inhabitants.

As convinced as I am of Kosemen and Conway’s points (and as approving as I am of fluffy dinosaurs) I can’t imagine real scientists adopting these images—an openness to possibility is probably a good thing for a scientist, but so is sticking to relatively solid fact. But it’s not to scientists that the authors are addressing themselves—they’re responding to popular imagery. This is clearest when they depict a peaceful, sleeping Tyrannosaurus or a Tenontosaurus which is, incredibly, not being torn apart by predators.

And if this book is addressing popular images of dinosaurs, it’s also addressing those of us who produce and consume those images. It’s okay to demand feathered dinosaurs from our terrible blockbuster movies. In fiction at least we can build ourselves a fluffier, less gray-green past.

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June 2, 2015

May Reading

Books! Carnegie books, other books. In addition to these I’m partway through Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World and Indra Das’s The Devourers, but May has gone by alarmingly quickly.

 

Geraldine McCaughrean, The Middle of Nowhere: (Read as part of this year’s Carnegie shadowing) The early parts of this book would make for a fantastic horror movie. There are bits and pieces in the later parts that would also make for good things. As a whole, it’s underwhelming, rather dull, and I find its treatment of history’s good and bad actors trite.

Tanya Landman, Buffalo Soldier: (Also part of the Carnegie shadowing project).This is a lot better than it might have been, considering the horrors we were subjected to last year. I was never really gripped though, and I find the later parts of the book abrupt and rather disappointing (and I’m talking about this elsewhere, I know, but I WISH I was seeing more books where characters’ political opinions were a bit less about their personal feelings for individuals and more … political).

Jenny Offill and Chris Applehans, Sparky!: Jenny Offill wrote a children’s book! About a sloth! Called Sparky! That does nothing because it is a sloth! I knew, vaguely, that Offill had written children’s books, but I’d never come across any and am used to thinking of her in the context of Dept. of Speculation (the Literary World’s narrative of her seems broadly to be that she wrote her first book, then spent a few years silent, then produced her second in 2014), so this still came as a big surprise to me. Sparky! is great–it’s dryly funny and has a genuine warmth to it but is also filled with long silences, and Applehans (whose work I’d also never come across before)’s illustrations remind me a little bit of Jon Klassen. So good.

Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, Sex Criminals (vol I): I’ve been hearing how great this series is for a long, long time now, and I’ve had this first volume for months. Okay. You were all right. It is very good.

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, This One Summer: I wrote about this here, and it is gorgeous.

P.G. Wodehouse, Sam the Sudden: It’s getting rarer and rarer to find an entire Wodehouse novel that I haven’t read, but the Everyman reissues over the past few years have made it slightly more possible. I picked this one up at a book fair last month, read it on a sick day recently, and it’s very definitely Lesser Wodehouse; charming, impulsive young man is less charming than usual, beautiful, sensible girl next door is also less so than usual (though for once it’s nice to have a Wodehouse heroine object to having the hero rush in and paw at her?), &c. Set against that are some excellent Soapy and Mrs Molloy and Chimp Adair moments, and also lots of Lord Tilbury, the Rupert Murdoch of the Wodehouse world. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not exactly a classic.

Elizabeth Laird, The Fastest Boy in the World: Another Carnegie book that I was wary of because last years shortlist was so awful at the one book set in Africa. This one’s about a boy who likes to run, in Ethiopia, and it manages to take Mysterious Relatives Concealing Something, Granddad’s Secret Past, Ethiopian history, deaths in the family, and running and somehow turn the whole into something quite inconsequential and low-stakes. Which is an achievement of a sort, I suppose.

Naomi Novik, Uprooted: I’m writing about this elsewhere, and I’m still a bit confused about what makes it so good. Because it is. It’s patchy, and unashamedly trope-y and there are sections (the forest bits in particular) where I couldn’t help but think of other authors whose prose would be more suited to this in my head but it is so satisfying, and so good at women caring about (and being angry at) one another, and at protecting people who need it, and other kind, real things. And it is a book that gets that sometimes you want your teenage heroine to be not pretty but have special powers and eventually a relationship with a grumpy older wizard. Satisfying, as I say. Possibly even fulfilling.

Brian Conaghan, When Mr Dog Bites: Another Carnegie book (only two left! she gasped, relieved). This one has more meat to it than some of the others and for that reason alone I quite enjoyed reading it. Unfortunately this meant it also managed to do many more things to annoy me than they, merely being dull, did.

John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish, All Yesterdays: Dinosaurs! I really enjoyed this, and will be putting my column about it up soon.