August 22, 2014

Frank Cotterell Boyce, The Unforgotten Coat

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and so have been slow to put the last few columns here. But from two weekends ago, here is a thing on Frank Cotterell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat which does some things that I love and one thing that I really, really do not.

 

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Last week I spoke about the ways in which things like cover art, blurbs, epigraphs affect the ways in which we read books. They’re meant to; the text may be the real substance of the book, but all of these elements affect the lens through which we read it. All of this is obvious, of course, but it’s useful to remember that reading is rarely a completely unmediated experience, and to expand this understanding further. Our reading is affected by where in the bookshop something is shelved; it is affected by the gender of the name on the cover; it is affected (however grudgingly) by things we may know about the author’s life and opinions.

It stands to reason that the afterword of a book might also entirely change the way in which we read it. But this has never happened to me until quite recently, with The Unforgotten Coat, a novella by Frank Cotterell Boyce with photographs by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney.

In Julie O’Connor’s last year at primary school two new students show up. Their names are Chingis and Nergui (not his real name), they are from Mongolia, and Julie is entirely fascinated by them. She undertakes the job of being their “good guide” to the considerably less exciting town of Bootle, reads everything she can find about the history and culture of their country, and over and over, unsuccessfully, tries to get them to invite her home. Their world, as she experiences it through their stories of hunting with eagles, her own research and the polaroid pictures that Chingis shows her, is rich and strange and she cannot get enough of it. It’s new and unknown, and the mere realisation that there are unknown things makes her world a bigger and more magical place. The polaroid pictures, included throughout the book, depict a series of uninhabited landscapes or close-ups of unfamiliar objects. It’s another world, rich and strange. When Julie finds out that Nergui is being pursued by a demon, that his nickname means “no one” in an effort to throw this creature off the scent, in this new world it is no less believable than all the rest. “If there were seas of grass and woven palaces in this world, why wouldn’t there be demons too?”

Of course, the reality of Chingis and Nergui’s world is more mundane than Julie wants to believe. The bare flat in an unsavoury part of town, the crying mother. Rather than keeping up the mystique, they insist on learning about football, trying to fit in. “I’d been hoping he would turn me into some kind of Mongolian princess, but instead he was turning into a Scouser”.

And then we discover that the strange landscapes in the pictures aren’t so strange after all; that Chingis has used both his adopted Englishness and his perceived exoticness as shields from the truth. The boys are refugees fearing deportation, the photographs were all taken in Bootle. In a gorgeous sequence towards the end the three children go on a walk through a landscape that is strange and familiar by turns.

The whole thing is framed through the adult Julie looking back on this short period of her childhood. And there sometimes appears a rueful recognition of the ways in which the child Julie exoticises these two boys, speaks over them, demands that they be foreign enough for her story, even as everything about them undercuts her assumptions. So what are we to make of the Afterword, in which the author explains that the whole thing is based on a child he met at a school, where “the other children were touchingly proud of her” and “her presence massively enriched their lives”? It seems inconceivable that the intelligent (if imperfect) book about exoticism and its uses and this cringeworthy section that treats a child as if she were a sort of class mascot should have come from the same source but they have. I am completely thrown by this. And while The Unforgotten Coat is a far better book if I pretend that this afterword doesn’t exist, I’m not sure that I can.

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Also here, with bonus comment from the author.

August 3, 2014

July Reading

 

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jean of Storms: Which I read in June, but failed to include in my monthly reading round-up for that month. So it is here, and it is weird, and here is a column that is sort of about it.

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike: I loved this. It loves its genres, and it gets what it means to sit uncomfortably within them and it’s funny and its characters are real and it felt like a hug. Column here.

Kate Zambreno, Green Girl: I should probably write about this at some point. But as I read it I kept having to go back and read Suba so really she should be the one writing about it and the internet should nag her about this forthwith.

Garth Nix, Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen: Still deeply satisfying. I spent the first couple of books finding the emphasis on bloodlines a bit too bad-fantasy-cliche, and then Sam becomes a Wallmaker (spoiler? whoops?) and I was a lot less annoyed. Why isn’t this a movie/tv series?

Saba Imtiaz, Karachi, You’re Killing Me!: This was a lot of fun. I wrote about it here.

Gladys Mitchell, Laurels Are Poison: I was surprised recently to find that Mitchell was writing well into the 1980s. This one was published in 1942, Tom Brown’s Body (the only other one of hers I’ve read) in 1949, and those years feel late for both of them. All the class and racial politics you’d expect (woo), but also a relationship to the genre itself that feels a lot older.

Rokeya Sekhawat Hosein and Durga Bai, Sultana’s Dream: Also read in June and not included in that month’s reading round up. I’ve read the story before, several times (and here is a thing where I talk about it) which is why I was in a position to notice what a difference Durga Bai’s illustrations made to how I read it. This is the reissued Tara Books edition, and it is beautiful.

Courtney Milan, The Suffragette Scandal: All you really need to know about The Suffragette Scandal is that one of its protagonists spends most of the book telling the woman he’s falling in love with everything that’s wrong with him–to warn her off, or to prepare her– to know that I was going to drown myself in it. I think I have a long piece of writing about this book in me somewhere; how it feels like the series has come full circle since The Duchess War, how personal its relationships felt to me, how it achieves that thing where it can be accurate about depressing historical realities and also be like fuck you these characters are starting their own egalitarian commune. And that’s before the feminism bits, and the women writing stuff bits and the queer relationship that is a side-plot, and the queer relationship that isn’t a side-plot because everyone just takes for granted that it exists so it doesn’t need to be a plot at all, and real and adopted families and the central metaphor that is taken from Shakesville and I was drained by the end of it but in the best possible way.

Frances Hardinge, A Face Like Glass: For at least a couple of years now people have been demanding that I read Frances Hardinge and I have been collecting her books (Cuckoo Song and Gullstruck Island are the only ones I don’t have) and failing to sit down and read them. I have finally made a start, and A Face Like Glass is a bit Mervyn Peake and a bit Diana Wynne Jones and a bit Joan Aiken and I thought it was really good. Many of the people recommending her work to me aren’t huge children’s lit readers and I did wonder if Hardinge could really be as good as they claimed or if the hype was in part the result of a lack of familiarity with other good writing in the genre. Turns out she’s great, if not (maybe) uniquely so.

Linda Grant, I Murdered My Library: Should write a longer thing on this soon, but I really enjoyed it.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon: Yes, okay, I read my way through all the Peter-and-Harriet books last August. But I was at a secondhand book market and there was a copy of Strong Poison and what else was I going to do, realistically?

Jane Green, Jemima J.: As a romance-loving fat girl I feel I should have more intelligent things to say about this than that I didn’t like it very much. I didn’t.

Nikesh Shukla, Meatspace: Underwhelming, and yet. I have a lot of questions about it, that may end up being a column soon.

Stephanie Laurens, The Curious Case of Lady Latimer’s Shoes: Insufficient murder. This sub-series of books has done the romance thing, and brought its various protagonists together, and they all seem to be managing their personal lives quite well, and these later books’ attempts to connect said personal lives to the plot just feel forced. Surely at this point we can move on to fun, historical murder mysteries?

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian: For the next few months I get to read about Narnia and call it work. This is a thing with which I am entirely okay.

 

 

July 31, 2014

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike

I bought Stevens’ book about ten minutes after I’d discovered its existence (via Daisy Johnson and Farah Mendlesohn, who both had good-to-gleeful things to say about it). So obvious was it that it was for me that a friend asked if I was sure I hadn’t written it myself. I hadn’t, I’m not good at fiction.

Part of the reason this was such a wonderful discovery is that I’ve been in a school story murder mystery mood for a few months now. I reread the Blake and Crispin books mentioned below, two Gladys Mitchell books (I discuss Tom Brown’s Body below. Laurels Are Poison does not have a non-white student; it does have an Amusing Black Servant. Fun times!), and Gaudy Night. And earlier this year I read Missee Lee, which is not a murder mystery or a school story, but which also has that incongruous figure, the brown student who worships everything English and tries so hard. And I cringed a bit when Hazel speaks about her family’s obsession with England; it’s heavy and unsubtle and one of the few places the book slips up for me. But for the rest of the book, the ways in which Hazel does not fit that stock character type came as such a relief.

Plus, how nice to have a prominent character (okay, the murder victim, but she wasn’t murdered for this reason at least?) be bisexual, and have no one within the book’s universe be surprised or puzzled.

From this weekend’s column.

 

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I am a very limited crime fiction reader, and I know what I like. Amateur detectives, not much gore, a focus instead on the web of individual human dramas that make up the small community (golden age detective fiction is very fond of small communities) and a comparatively low stakes (though not for the victims, presumably) approach to murder. There’s a reason they call more modern iterations of this genre “cosy crime”. It’s soup on a cold day, or an airconditioned room in summer; at least as far as any of these comforting things can be built upon violent death.

For the lover of school stories (and readers of this column know that I am one), the detective novel set in a school or college is particularly magical. And so much great crime fiction has this setting. There’s Edmund Crispin’s wonderful Love Lies Bleeding (which combines crime, a school setting and Shakespeare and therefore almost deserves a genre of its own); Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. John Le Carré ventures partway into the genre with A Murder of Quality. The first of Cecil Day-Lewis’ Nigel Strangeways novels, A Question of Proof, has a school setting as well. And I have a fondness for Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons and Val McDermid’s Report For Murder, even if neither of these is an example of either author’s best work.

But most of these authors belong to an earlier time, and reading them today it’s hard not to notice that it was apparently a time in which casual racism was acceptable, the working classes are fundamentally slack-jawed and superstitious, and if occasionally a character is not upper-class or white, the reader is very quickly made to wish they were. I recently read some of Gladys Mitchell’s classic crime novels; the “African prince” in Tom Brown’s Body has an unfortunate habit of biting opposing footballers due to his ancestry.

And then there’s Murder Most Unladylike, the first in a modern series of crime novels for younger readers by Robin Stevens. Set in 1934 (but published in 2014), it follows the adventures of thirteen year old boarding school detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, after Hazel finds the body of one of their teachers in (where else?) the gymnasium. Both Stevens and her characters are very genre-conscious; early in the book we learn that the girls have been reading Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, and we will discover that Hazel is a school story reader as well. The whole thing opens with one of those terribly useful floor plans, and we have all the school politics and crushes and annoying juniors of an Angela Brazil book. The references to earlier literature are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle enough to be in-jokes. More than once I laughed out loud in recognition.

But it’s unfair to Stevens to treat this merely as a pastiche of two genres, and it’s where she deviates from them that Murder Most Unladylike is at its best. Because Hazel, our narrator, is from Hong Kong (she is, as far as we can tell, the only non-white pupil at Deepdean school); she’s clever and pretends not to be; she has a complicated relationship with her overbearing, popular best friend. This is about as far as it’s possible to be from Gladys Mitchell’s African prince, or the Hurree Jamset Ram Singh of the Billy Bunter books—or even Christie’s precocious Princess Shaista. Stevens’s depiction of Hazel’s cultural background is sometimes clumsy, but it always acknowledges her as more than a stock character, and depicts a world in which casual racism exists and affects those who are its targets. It’s unlikely that most of the target audience for this book will recognise these deviations from a pattern with which they are not yet familiar, but they mattered to me. In more ways than one, Murder Most Unladylike felt like being given a place in a genre (two genres) that I love.

 

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Apparently Stevens’ next book in the series is a country house murder. Which, as far as I’m concerned, just proves that she is writing for me.

July 26, 2014

Saba Imtiaz, Karachi, You’re Killing Me!

From last weekend’s column. I enjoyed this.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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July 13, 2014

Worldcon and Nine Worlds

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

 

Nine Worlds:

 

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

Friday (8/8) 1.30pm – 2.45pm

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

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

 

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

Friday (8/8) 10.15pm – 11.30pm

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

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

 

Reading SF While Brown

Sunday (10/8) 11.45 – 1.00

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

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

 

 LonCon:

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

Saturday (16/8) 13:30 – 15:00

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

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

 

 

Saving the World. All of It.

Saturday (16/8) 20:00 – 21:00

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

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

 

 

Writing post-colonialism

Sunday (17/8) 18:00 – 19:00

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

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

 

Fandom at the Speed of Thought

Sunday (17/8) 19:00 – 20:00

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

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

 

 

Critical Diversity: Beyond Russ and Delany

Monday (18/8) 11:00 – 12:00

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

July 13, 2014

Megan Milks, Kill Marguerite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 7, 2014

Bulletpoints: Maleficent

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

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

800px-SleepingBeauty_(2)Disney

July 7, 2014

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jean of Storms

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 1, 2014

June Reading

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

 

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

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

Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

June 23, 2014

William Sutcliffe, The Wall

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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