Archive for ‘people most awesome’

February 12, 2012

Kuzhali Manickavel, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies

I bought Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings before I’d heard of Kuzhali Manickavel or Blaft Publications, purely on the strength of the title and cover. Since then I’ve grown rather evangelical about both author and publisher. Blaft published this e-chapbook of a new Manickavel story a few months ago and it was, unsurprisingly, excellent.

I wrote about Eating Sugar, Telling Lies for my Left of Cool column last weekend.


How long should a piece of writing be? At what point does flash fiction cross into short story into novelette into novella into novel? And how big does a book have to be before it is split into two volumes? There are approximate answers to some of these questions (mostly of the “I know it when I see it” variety); some are simply a question of categorising things for ourselves. Yet others are the result of the material limitations of creating books – what size of page is easiest to hold, shelf, and pack; how many pages it is practical to print at one time; what amount of paper can be securely bound.

If there’s one thing the internet has reinforced for us it’s that a piece of writing doesn’t need to achieve a minimum word count to be a complete work in itself. So you have writers turning even to twitter for their medium – Teju Cole, the author of Open City, works wonders within 140 characters. And it is possible now to buy works in electronic format that would never have made it through the practicalities of the printing side of publishing.

Kuzhali Manickavel’s debut collection of short stories, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, was published by Blaft a few years ago. Manickavel’s stories are often structurally experimental, usually dark and occasionally very funny. But she continued to work mainly with the short story form. Unless she were to write another themed collection, it seemed that those of us who admired her work would have to keep seeking her out in various short fiction magazines (and on her wonderful, infrequently-updated blog).

But then ebooks became a viable way to publish short fiction, and in 2011 Blaft published an e-chapbook of a new Manickavel story, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies. This odd little piece is set in Tamil Nadu, in a house that seems so big that its own inhabitants don’t seem quite sure what it contains. Secret stashes of Doritos or dead bodies could pop up in the next room.The maidservant appears to have abandoned her job, and her employers speculate over why. The narrator is one of these; her companions known only as “the Family Cataract” and “Gorgeous George”.  Various middle-class clichés about the behaviour and motivations of servants are deployed (they will steal anything, they like to be patronised by their employers) to explain the absence of “The Thieving WhoreQueen”, the only name by which The Family Cataract knows her. The truth turns out to be quite different.

Eating Sugar, Telling Lies is an uncomfortable fable about class and gender and the things we choose to look away from, and one which is far more complex than its length gives it any right to be. The Family Cataract cannot be bothered to learn the names of her servants and parrots various banalities about the tendencies of “these people” but she is also the one most strongly affected by the terrible discovery they make. The female characters make it clear that they know the threat of sexual violence, but they tolerate and have long friendships with GorgeousGeorge who claims to have had sex with a fourteen-year-old servant girl last year. The narrator herself seems the most sympathetic of the characters until the very last line of the piece. The tangled, contradictory and deeply dysfunctional set of relationships that these characters have to class, to sex, to each other and to themselves is revealed for the mess that it is. Set against all of this, the child’s voice reciting the nursery rhyme in the title (and there again, you’re forced to think about the English language and the implications of power it contains) is a brilliant, perverse contrast.

Jonathan Franzen was widely quoted this past week for suggesting that ebooks are damaging society. Franzen is entitled to his opinion, but when the existence of ebooks allows for the existence of brilliant, bitter pieces of work like this one? I think it’s very clear that he’s wrong.


May 1, 2011

More on Among Others

As I mentioned in my previous post, Jo Walton was kind enough to let me pester her over email with questions about books and fandom and genre. Here is a (very little edited) transcript of that conversation:


AS: You’ve mentioned in a couple of places that this story is partly based on something that happened to you in your childhood. How much of Among Others is from your own life?

JW: The books are all real. But it’s best seen as a mythologisation of part of my own life. Some of it is actually literally true, some of it is made up, some of it is the simplified essence of what happened — and all of it anyway is filtered through memory. I compressed some things and made up other things. The good stuff — the library group, all of that, is made up. I didn’t discover fandom until I was grown up.

AS: And that’s another thing you’ve talked about a bit – the ‘truth’ of how something was experienced, which can differ quite a bit from the *facts* of what happened. In some ways, how you choose to mythologise your life may be even more revealing than the bare facts. Was that particularly difficult or frightening to do?

JW: Yes. I don’t think I could have done it if I’d been any closer to it. Thirty years is quite a lot of perspective.

There’s also a thing where fiction has to make sense, and reality doesn’t. I had to leave a lot out and simplify a lot because of that. It just gets to be too implausible if you work too closely with reality.

AS: You obviously like playing around with genre structures. I’m thinking particularly of Farthing (and the mixing of the country house mystery with the alt-history plot) or Tooth and Claw. Among Others offered plenty of opportunity to do that (school stories, fantasy, basic coming-of-age story, etc). Did you consciously choose not to?

JW: Yes. Well, sort of. I remember saying to my editor Patrick Nielsen-Hayden at one point when I was writing it — my most successful books have been very conscious of genre and playing with it, but with this one it’s hard to even say what genre it is. But all that sort of thing is part of what I need before I can start writing, it’s part of the axiomatic things that surround the possibility of a story. So I’d already decided on all of that when I started writing. The thing that was most conscious with that was the magic — I really wanted the magic to be different from the way magic is in books.

AS: In the piece you wrote on John Scalzi’s blog, you mentioned Catherine from Austen’s Northanger Abbey as one of a few characters in literature who we see reading and being influenced by what they read. Who are the other characters you can think of that do this, and why do you think there aren’t more of them? (I ask this partly because reading Among Others I was reminded a number of times of one of my favourite writers who also has a main character who reads a lot – Antonia Forest)

JW: I haven’t read Forest, though she’s been recommended to me before. There’s Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. There’s Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, of course. Byatt’s Possession, which is full of it and there’s the lovely moment when somebody is searching for something in a house an they are overcome with the memory of the laundry lists in Northanger Abbey. A recent excellent example is Cherryh’s Deliverer where there’s an alien child who has read Dumas and uses it. And Delany does this wonderful thing at the beginning of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand where he replicates the experience of reading through a culture in a couple of pages, and the culture is all made up, all science fictional. And then you see the character who did that from outside for the rest of the book, and you keep seeing flashes of what he has read in what he does and how he reacts.

I think there aren’t more of them because people are afraid, as Byatt says in Possession it’s self-referential and can remove the reader from the experience of reading by reminding them they are reading. I wish Byatt would read Delany! But I think she’s wrong, I don’t think it does that, and really most of the reactions I’m getting to Among Others seem to confirm this.

AS: I think Byatt’s wrong too (And surely we don’t need to be reminded that we’re reading?) That sense of identification with the main character – both as a reader in general and as a reader of those specific books – is really intense.

A friend of mine just read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and broke down at one of the bits where the main character is reacting to Tolkien.(And the most powerful moment (for me) in Among Others was a direct Tolkien quote. I’m not sure how to frame this into a question, but.)

JW: I haven’t read Oscar Wao either! I’ve thought of another example — Roald Dahl’s Matilda. In the book he doesn’t reference titles, but in the film you can see the books she’s taken out of the library in her little cart and one of them is the old Unwin edition of The Hobbit. I think when you see something like that,. or the conversation betweem Cassandra and Topaz in I Capture the Castle about War and Peace it just gives you an extra layer if you connect to the book too.

AS: Unlike Wim I have read Vonnegut, but could you talk a bit about the concept of the karass as Vonnegut uses it and as Mori does?

JW: Vonnegut describes it as a group of people who have a genuine connection, as opposed to a granfalloon, who have a supposed but unreal connection. So being from the same town as somebody would be a granfalloon. A karass orbits around the same object or idea. The way Mori uses “karass” is that she wants people with a genuine connection to her because she feels so disconnected — but she uses magic to find one. So is that genuine? Interesting thought. Because she uses magic for that, she’s going to remain connected to those people all her life, whether she wants to or not, they will keep turning up.

AS: And fandom is a karass of sorts?

JW: I think it is. I don’t know if Vonnegut would have agreed.

AS: One of the most enjoyable things about Among Others is the knowledge it assumes on the part of the reader – Mori’s belief that Tiptree is a man, or the line “huorns will help” that can go unexplained (or a more mainstream example, where Mori thinks I Capture The Castle is about a siege). It’s so obviously a book for a community of people who have read what you’ve read. In a book that is partly about fandom as a community, are books about books in some way about finding a karass?

JW: I first listened to the Beatles because they’re mentioned in Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and I first listened to Holst because he’s mentioned in Mary Renault’s Purposes of Love, and Cassandra Mortmain put me off Bach for years… I think there’s a kind of culture tracking that goes through books set in the real world. I think that’s the big plus of setting your book in the real world, actually.

But then there’s also the fun of being in another world. There’s Lucy buying Nineteen-Seventy-Four in Farthing “by that man who wrote the animal book” thinking it will cheer her husband up, and in Half a Crown Elvira reads a book by Alice Davey, which is a book that Tiptree never wrote in our universe.

The thing I wanted was for it to work if you didn’t get the reference,but for it to work better if you did. I mean if somebody hasn’t read I Capture the Castle, they can just think it’s something about a siege, the way anybody naturally would.

Where it’s about a karass, it’s about saying that the more of that you pick up, the more you and Mori are part of the same karass. You can enjoy the book without remembering precisely what huorns are, but the more of that you do know the more you’re likely to like it.

One of the things that’s been great since it’s come out is the reaction from people much younger than me and the people from different cultures who see something of themselves in Mori.

AS: Connected to this, and going back to my Lord of the Rings question, how far do you think a canon of sort is necessary for this sort of community (or this sort of book) to work?

JW: If you don’t have shared references then what you’re left with is people whose minds work a certain way — and I think that can be enough, but sharing the references helps. You don’t have to get everything. But caring about some of the same things is where fandom starts.

AS: Mori’s growing awareness of politics, particularly gender politics, was another thing that I enjoyed watching – such as her realization that only one (female) member of the book club seems to initiate discussions about female authors. Another such moment is her analysing why The Tempest doesn’t work the same way for her if Prospero is played by a woman. Were you thinking of the recent Julie Taymor film that did just that?

JW: No, I wrote it a couple of years ago, ages before that. That’s honestly one of the autobiographical things — i really saw a production of The Tempest about then which has a female Prospero and which didn’t work. And I wanted to put The Tempest in for thematic reasons, drowning books, and magic, and because that’s the production I saw when I was fifteen, I just put it that production in.

AS: Another thing that felt very 2011 was the insistence on the importance of libraries in the story as well as the dedication, particularly since as I read the book I was also watching the outrage in the UK over library cuts. Libraries: how amazing are they?

JW: Well I wrote it in 2008 I think, but don’t get me started on the decline of British libraries, because I can rant about it at great length. Fortunately I live in Canada where we have still have terrific libraries. It’s ridiculous really — I live in Montreal, which is French speaking, and the provision for books in English in libraries for the Anglophone minority here is better than where my aunt lives in Cardiff.

As for the dedication, this is my book about books — it had to be for librarians!


April 24, 2011

Julian Gough, Jude: Level 1

My most recent Left of Cool piece gushes rather embarrassingly about Julian Gough’s Jude: Level 1. A couple of things:

I was in Jaisalmer for a few days last year and rode a camel for the first time in many years. One thing I learnt on this eventful ride (it involved a thunderstorm, the village of the children of the damned, and some very dubious gin) was that to ride a camel is basically to perform a series of pelvic thrusts. I am not sure how much research Mr Gough did for this book, but the sex scene atop a camel strikes me as almost plausible.
The stealing of Will Self’s pig is in itself a brilliant act, but I wonder if I should not have mentioned it here. Gough’s book is good enough to stand on its own and the author should not have to stand in the shadow of his own felonious awesomeness forever. Still, here’s a link to a video of it.
Edited version below.

“If I had urinated immediately after breakfast, the Mob would never have burnt down the Orphanage.” Julian Gough’s Jude: Level 1 manages an opening line that is bound to become a part of literary history. With luck it will lead at least some people to read this excellent book.

Julian Gough is an Irish novelist as well as the singer and lyricist for the group Toasted Heretic. Activities for which he has been famous in recent years include an attack on fellow Irish writers for failing to engage with modern Ireland (2010) and rather magnificently (and Wodehouseishly) stealing Will Self’s pig (2008). The pig in question was a Gloucester Old Spot, the prize awarded every year to the winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic writing. Jude: Level 1 had appeared on the shortlist that year, and had lost out to Self’s The Butt.

The plot is simple enough. At the age of eighteen Jude unwittingly causes the destruction of the orphanage (located in Tipperary, Ireland) where he grew up. In the process a valuable letter that might contain the secret of his parentage is destroyed. Jude travels first to Galway, then Dublin, spreading chaos and destruction in his wake.

Jude: Level 1 is a picaresque novel, with a title character who feels rather like a Don Quixote. Jude is a hapless innocent who falls unknowingly into adventure wherever he goes. In the course of his travels across Ireland he blows up a building, leads a group of anarchists to bloody revolution, is mistaken for Stephen Hawking, has plastic surgery to make himself look like Leonardo DiCaprio and (in unusual circumstances) obtains a second penis in place of his nose. He also falls in love, and spends a large part of the novel trying to locate the love of his life; a quest that leads him from fast food restaurants into the depths of Ann Summers and finally across the sea.

Humour can be difficult to sustain and Jude: Level 1 occasionally grates. The journey to Galway at the end of the first section and the long (long) pursuit of Angela across Dublin in the third can get particularly tedious, particularly if one attempts to read the whole thing at one go. But it’s hard to imagine why any reader would: there is so much to savour.

An extended joke about Apple products allows also for a Biblical gag that is terrible and wonderful at the same time. One scene, in which Jude loses his virginity on a galloping camel while leading a revolutionary army, would itself be a good enough reason to read this book even if the rest of it were terrible.

It isn’t all just silliness, however. Jude: Level 1 is a satire, and quite a serious one. It takes for its target a number of the features of Celtic Tiger era Ireland; its economy, its relationship with Europe, its relationship with England and with its own past, the role of the church, and so on. This may perhaps make the books a little less accessible than they would otherwise be – to a reader completely unfamiliar with the country’s history and politics things like the Charlie Haughey cameo and the references to Eamon de Valera might be meaningless. Yet humour throws up strange similarities across countries. I defy any Indian reader to read the account of a Fianna Fáil political rally at the beginning of the book and not find it both familiar and hilarious.

The promised sequel (to be set in England) still has not appeared, though I am trusting that it eventually will. But sequel or not, Jude: Level 1 is a ridiculous, brilliant piece of writing. Had I read it in 2008, I too would have been tempted to steal Will Self’s pig.


December 6, 2010

Starter for Ten: In which I discover the perfect quizmaster

On Saturday I read David Nicholls’ comic novel, Starter for Ten. It’s set in the 80s, and is about Brian, a young man who is earnest, lower middle class and a University Challenge fan. He gets into university (Englit) and makes it onto the University Challenge team. He also falls rather stupidly in love.

Nicholls is capable of being really funny. This, a few pages into the novel, was one of the passages that had me giggling and made me want to continue with it:
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never been a slave to the fickle vagaries of fashion. It’s not that I’m anti-fashion, it’s just that of all the major youth movements I’ve lived through so far, none have really fitted. At the end of the day, the harsh reality is that if you’re a fan of Kate Bush, Charles Dickens, Scrabble, David Attenborough and University Challenge, then there’s not much out there for you in terms of a youth movement.

A few pages later a character is described as “carbuncular”. I was sold.
However, I think I’m just not cut out for comic novels where the protagonist (particularly a first-person protagonist)’s cluelessness is the butt of most of the humour. This was my major problem with Sidin Vadukut’s Dork, when I read it earlier this year. As with Robin Verghese, I spent most of the novel being irritated by Brian’s various idiocies. Even when he is being treated horribly by the woman he is supposedly in love with I’m hard pressed to sympathise – serves him right for being shallow and uninteresting. It’s a pity; as I said above, Nicholls is incredibly funny.
My other problem with the book is that there is not enough University Challenge in it. Quiz shows in general are things that make me happy, but UC is just special. The BBC does not broadcast it in India and this is something that makes me miserable on a regular basis. (I’ve tried asking friends in the UK to record each season for me. They refused to believe I meant it.) I could have dispensed with a good portion of the actual plot of the book if it were replaced with people answering questions.
Starter for Ten was made into a movie, Starter for 10, a few years ago. I have never seen this movie. But it has Rebecca Hall in it (and also Benedict Cumberbatch from Sherlock; this will become important) and is therefore presumably worth my time.
Another movie that involves education and a quiz show is St. Trinian’s. I’m not entirely sure how to excuse my love for this film – I’m inclined to think that anything that brings together Ronald Searle, delinquent schoolgirls, Stephen Fry, and Rupert Everett in drag cannot be a bad thing. I own all the older St Trinian’s films and they are a constant source of joy to me.
In St. Trinian’s a team of schoolgirls competes in a quiz show called School Challenge so that they can get into the National Gallery for nefarious purposes. Stephen Fry is the quizmaster of School Challenge, and he is excellent. Fry does, of course, have a long history with the quiz show.
Fry is soon to appear in the role of Mycroft Holmes in the sequel to last year’s Sherlock Holmes.
In Starter for 10 the quizmaster (Bamber Gascoigne) is played by Mark Gatiss. Gatiss plays Mycroft in the BBC Sherlock (the Cumberbatch version).
I’m not sure that this says anything profound about the character or about quizmasters in general – unless it’s that the sort of actors who look like they could play men who like a sedentary lifestyle and a lot of information also look like they could play men who like knowing things (and often also like a sedentary lifestyle). But it’s a nice little coincidence. It’s obvious that Mycroft Holmes would be the perfect TV quizmaster – if he could bestir himself to show up at the studio.
October 23, 2010

Stephen Fry on pedantry and loving the language

As most of you know, I write a weekly language column for the New Indian Express’ EdEx supplement. I write this column because I love the English language and it seems to me entirely reasonable that I should write public love notes to it on a regular basis – much like accosting strangers with pictures of one’s offspring (“aren’t they beautiful?”). I think I manage not to be a pedant most of the time, though I stand by the occasional argument for clarity, whatever Stephen Fry may say in the video below.
As for said video, I think it’s gorgeous and true and it made me cheer. Watch it immediately.
October 17, 2010

I gush shamelessly about Gail Carriger

Some of you may remember that at the end of last year I listed Gail Carriger’s Soulless as one of my most memorable reads of the year. Since then, Carriger has been most obligingly prolific- Changeless came out this spring, and Blameless a month or two ago.

I wrote a short appreciation of the Parasol Protectorate series in yesterday’s Indian Express. Talking about three books in a limited number of words was difficult, but I managed to touch on some of the aspects of these books I love: that they’re funny, fluffy, clever and wonderful at relationships. I wish I’d also been able to talk about how they’re very, very geeky. Romance novels that my boyfriend is as excited about as I am. That is pretty amazing.
My gushfest about the series is below; earlier pieces on the first two books are here and here.

Everyone is sick of love stories with vampires in them. Most people are well on the way to being sick of werewolf romances as well. And among the groups of people who actually know what Steampunk is, it has for some time been commonly thought to have had its day.

With this in mind, Gail Carriger’s series of steampunk romances featuring both vampires and werewolves ought to feel stale and annoying. Yet three Parasol Protectorate books (Soulless, Changeless and Blameless) have come out in the past year, I have devoured them all, and I am in no danger of tiring of them.

Soulless introduces us to Alexia Tarrabotti, a London spinster afflicted with a large nose, an Italian surname and a surfeit of intelligence. She’s also a preternatural, the opposite of supernatural. Not only does she have no soul, but physical contact with makes vampires and werewolves temporarily mortal.

Unlike most well brought up Victorian ladies, therefore, Alexia knows “the supernatural set” quite well. She is especially fond of the vampire Lord Akeldama with his outrageous clothing and harem of attractive young men; and Professor Lyall, the wonderfully sane werewolf Beta. Equally, she feels strong dislike for the gorgeous Lord Maccon, a werewolf pack Alpha with an annoying protective streak where Alexia is concerned. Of course she does.

Romance fans know exactly where this is going.

Soulless is primarily a romance (though with plenty of blood and guts and mad scientists). Its sequels, Changeless and Blameless are closer to adventure novels. Changeless has Alexia traveling to Scotland (by dirigible), while Blameless has her being chased across Europe amongst a gloriously silly profusion of guns, false moustaches and hot air balloons.

These books are ridiculous, and entirely comfortable being that way. But they’re also intelligently conceived. The series is thoroughly grounded in history – in Carriger’s universe the Puritan fathers left England over the decision to welcome supernaturals into society, and werewolf and vampire skills, social dynamics and safety converns are the major reasons for the Empire, the bureaucracy, and the blandness of British cuisine. Real historical concerns are brilliantly woven in; for example the second and third books in the series both address the Egyptian Question in ways that are wholly unexpected.
Alexia is a wonderful heroine. There’s never any danger that falling in love will cause her to lose herself. She’s clever, frequently self-serving, not particularly nice, and fully capable of bludgeoning you to death with her parasol should she feel threatened.

Equally, as satisfying as Carriger’s rather Heyeresque romance plot may be, the majority of the series’ most moving moments have come from the marvelous cast of side characters. I love Alexia and Maccon but would quite happily sacrifice their adventures if it meant more time with Lord Akeldama and his partner Biffy, or Madame LeFoux (excellent milliner or evil genius?) or (especially) the magnificent Professor Lyall.

Carriger’s language owes a lot to Wodehouse. It’s a difficult style to sustain, and occasionally the author slips up or sounds too forced. But this is easy enough to forgive. These books are unselfconsciously funny, smart, and completely fresh. They’re an absolute delight.

I don’t know how long this series is going to be; a fourth and fifth book have been announced, but there is no information on whether the fifth will be the last. But if Carriger is going to keep producing things at this rate and of this standard, I’d be quite happy for it to be, well, endless.


October 12, 2010

Garner love

For many months now I’ve been promising myself a reread of Alan Garner’s magnificent book The Owl Service (and a rewatch of the very good BBC adaptation alongside). I’ve written about Garner on this blog, though never enough to express quite how vital he has been to me, and to how I read.

Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (which I only read quite recently, in 2008) is now fifty years old, and The Guardian have an interview with him up here. And though I’ve linked to it before, here is an essay by Garner that I am particularly fond of.
October 10, 2010

Kindle, The Beetle, and hints of great change

Kindle is a new monthly magazine. It looks good and has some very impressive ideals. I’ve really enjoyed the last couple of issues. Now the nice people behind the magazine have offered me a regular column. Each month I will be reviewing something that is awesome, out of copyright, and available for free online. I’ve been trying to read more old books in any case, and I like being able to justify this as “work”.

I also like that I will be sharing pagespace with people for whom I have a tonne of respect. The books page also has Aditya Bidikar (who writes short strange fiction and comics, writes about comics and is lovely in all ways) and Abhijit Gupta (who is brilliant, judges things, and who I first befriended over a shared love of Mervyn Peake).

My piece for the October issue is on something that I consider to be a classic, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle. It’s bizarre and delicious and I wish someone would make it into a movie.


In 1897 a certain book is published about a strange, seductive, foreign creature that comes to London and wreaks havoc, and kidnaps women. A group of men (one of whom has already had a harrowing encounter with the creature in its lair) set out in pursuit. It is part detective novel, part horror story. But this book is not Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is Richard Marsh’s mostly-forgotten classic The Beetle. Dracula was also published in 1897, and Marsh’s book outsold it considerably. It’s strange that the book is so little known today.

A young politician named Paul Lessingham encounters a mysterious cult while traveling in Africa. He manages to escape it, but is pursued to London by a strange and inhuman creature. Along the way Lessingham’s fiancée Marjorie and her friend and would-be-suitor Sydney Atherton get caught up in this mess. As do an innocent clerk and a private detective. Eventually the Beetle kidnaps Marjorie.

One thing that makes The Beetle fascinating to me is that it encapsulates so perfectly everything one might be worried about in Britain in 1897. Imagine; there you are, trying to convince yourself that the British Empire is strong and mighty and invincible. But you’ve conquered parts of Africa (and especially Egypt) that are constant reminders of great empires eventually collapsing. They’re also reminders that the people you’ve conquered are capable of more than you give them credit for, and may even have knowledge that you do not have. It’s an uncomfortable thought.

Back home, things are equally fraught. Feminism has happened. Women are demanding the vote. Even gender isn’t that stable anymore. And in the middle of all this, Richard Marsh writes the character of the Beetle –able to shape-shift, androgynous, African, tanned and genuinely scary. It’s almost as if he purposefully set out to create the embodiment of everything his countrymen feared, wrapped up in one demented package.

And there’s Marjorie Linton. It’s difficult to be sure what the book makes of Marjorie. She’s a feminist, makes her own decisions, and campaigns for the right to vote. She has more personality than any of the other major characters. The inability of this little group of Victorian men to deal with her (Atherton’s moustache-quivering outrage is particularly choice) is occasionally played for laughs, but equally there’s an undercurrent of unease over where all this women’s liberation will end. Marjorie does not get a happy ending.

But you don’t need to be a Victorian to be affected by The Beetle. At its best moments (these generally involve large insects) it is genuinely menacing. It’s also marvelously structured, with its multi-person narrative, its flashbacks and its changing styles. It’s the sort of book that is so tempting to analyse that one often forgets that it is an incredibly entertaining and surprisingly accomplished book in its own right. It’s ludicrous and pulpy, but that could be equally said of books that are far better regarded. At the end of the day, The Beetle is enormously fun to read, and who’s going to turn that down?


And now here is a hint of great change. Great changes are to occur to this blog in the near future. I hope you’ll all stick around.

August 12, 2010


I’m thinking I should just give my language column to @Grammarhulk.



May 26, 2010

Some Book links

…a few things I’ve been meaning to link to:

Paul Charles Smith recently reread Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan trilogy. My love of Peake is well known to those who have been reading this blog for a while, but if I haven’t yet convinced you of his greatness I hope that Paul will.

Adam Roberts has been reading (for the first time, and I suspect it will be the last) Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books. Fans of the series may not find these posts entirely enjoyable, but I think they’re excellent. A sample:

As Samuel Beckett’s career progressed, his writing became more and more pared down, less and less verbal, increasingly approaching the asymptote that was at the heart of Beckett’s bleak vision: silence. The great, productive paradox at the heart of Beckett was that one of his century’s greatest verbal artists mistrusted the ability of words ever to articulate truth—not just particular arrangements of words but verbal art itself. The Unnameable, in that near-sublime novel, says: ‘I’ll speak of me when I speak no more.’ For him silence is ‘the only chance of saying something at last that is not false.

To step briskly ab sublimi ad ridiculus, Jordan’s career manifests something similar. Insofar as Heroic Fantasy is a fundamentally narrative artform, to which readers go in order to experience the pleasure of following the movement of characters through time, Jordan says: no. Wotix is the closest he has yet come to a book that disperses that force of narrative momentum—that great strength of the novel as a mode—into a great swarm of indistinguishable coexistent characters and non-progressions. If the traditional novel takes the shape of a quest, a linearly horizontal progression through narrative time, Wotix explodes that linearity in a bewildering near-dimensionless knot or tangle of non-progression.

The above, combined with their shared connection with Russia, makes me wonder if Roberts is distantly related to the Pandeys.

Larry Nolen has also been reading the Wheel of Time books, though in his case these are rereads. He’s generally worth a read, and though he’s kinder to the books than Roberts, these are still thoughtful, critical, and funny.

Casting actors for imaginary movie versions of books is generally great fun (and something I have spent far too much time on). A few months ago Gail Carriger discussed who she would like to see play her characters here. I love most of her choices, except that Paul Bettany would clearly make an ideal Professor Lyall.
Now Celine Kiernan has a competition up on her blog where you get to cast her three main characters for the chance to win the trilogy – which means getting hold of The Rebel Prince many months before the rest of us. And then I will be forced to hunt you down and commit violence upon your person. Go look.

Gav at the NextRead blog has been hosting a short story month. Plenty of excellent story recs there, but here I am talking about an Edith Nesbit story that I love.

You’ve probably already read Sridala Swami’s interview of China Mieville. If not, do so immediately. I admire both of them, and they seem like they’re both really enjoying this conversation.

And while on the subject of Mieville, Jonathan McCalmont wrote this epic review of The City and the City. I liked the book rather a lot when I read it last year. But it’s a good review – I’ve only recently discovered McCalmont and so far I’m a fan.

Also, Roswitha (like me) has been keeping a record of everything she reads this year. She’s also (unlike me) a wonderful writer, and her Book Munch posts are a joy to read.

Finally, and not particularly book related: Aadisht is now writing an opinion column for Yahoo India. The first two columns are here (I took that picture!). I may be biased, but I think they are hilarious. Sanjay Sipahimalani and Jai Arjun Singh are also writing for yahoo. Nothing but good can come of this.