Archive for ‘YA’

March 26, 2017

Patrice Lawrence, Orangeboy

orangeboyI don’t like thrillers. The specific ways in which tension works in a thriller narrative tend to register to me as actively unpleasant. This was true even before the last year or so made me spectacularly unable to deal with vulnerable characters being put at risk. But I knew I was going to be reading Orangeboy, however reluctantly–it was Carnegie-eligible (though not on the shortlist or longlist, but that is a matter for a separate post), Costa-shortlisted, Waterstones prize-shortlisted, Jhalak prize-longlisted; and it’s a work of YA about a young black character and by a black British author at a moment when both British publishing and Britain itself seem to be really doubling down on racial exclusion.

So I did the bad thing (I don’t really think this was a bad thing); early in the book, when our protagonist Marlon has been found with drugs in his pocket and a dead white girl next to him and I was particularly worried about where this was going to go, I flipped to the back of the book to see how it ended. Knowing where it was going to go made it a much easier book to read.

But all of this is perhaps overemphasising my reluctance–even before I’d had to check the ending, I was already surprised by how quickly and easily I’d fallen into the book.

Marlon is in his teens, a bit of a nerd, good at school but generally not remarkable. His father (who is responsible for naming him Marlon Isaac Asimov Sunday) is dead, his older brother badly injured in a car accident some years ago that killed his best friend Sharkie and has left him scarred and, among other things, unable to remember his little brother very well. As the book opens, Marlon is at the fair with Sonya Wilson, a pretty girl from school who has, out of the blue and to his utter bewilderment, asked him out. Marlon has avoided drugs in large part because of his older brother’s example, but Sonya gets him to try ecstasy. Then, as they ride the ghost train, she convinces him to hide the rest of the pills in his pants. And by the time they have emerged from the tunnel, she’s dead and he doesn’t understand what has happened or why. Suddenly, he’s involved not just with the police, but in deeper and deeper trouble, with someone who is clearly targeting him.

It’s interesting to be reading Orangeboy in the same year as I’ve read both (so far) of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton books, because though very different in tone (and Wheatle’s books feel directed at a younger audience) they work off one another in some interesting ways. As with both Crongton books, Lawrence’s protagonist is drawn into this dangerous series of events as a result of an older sibling’s previous choices. (Choice is a loaded word here, and we’re given plenty of opportunity to see how those choices are weighted, but at the same time, these characters are never merely hapless victims of circumstance. There is, for example, a definite moment when Marlon decides he’s going to put himself at risk to find out what happened to Sonya. Even if later events show that had he backed away his targeters still would have come after him, that decision still has meaning.) There’s also, as with Wheatle, a very specific and deliberate use of cultural reference not to underpin the text and give it a particular structure and meaning (or not only that, as that seems to be one of the functions of the quest literature references in Crongton Knights) but for colour, and warmth, and play.

So we get:

Walking through the estate, I tried to remember the streets I’d passed. Rothko Heights, Dali Court, Turner Tower. These ones were different. [...]

Mondrian, Blake, Hirst. This definitely wasn’t the way I came.

(c.f. the Notre Dame sections of Crongton Knights.)

Then there’s a throwaway detail that Marlon’s best friend is really named Titian. Marlon himself, as I’ve said, has “Isaac Asimov” as his middle names (his mother tells him it might have been worse, he might have been named after a minor Blakes 7 character*), and we learn later that his first name is “after Superman’s dad in the film”. His dad proposed to his mother in Klingon, his brother’s middle names are “Han and Luke”, he himself describes Tish’s new boyfriend as “a skinny version of Roy, the mad replicant from Blade Runner“. Some of this feels a bit clumsy (though I’m suppressing my “Star Trek and Star Wars?” scepticism); some of it’s marvellously built in; there’s a moment where he describes his brother’s crooked glasses and “the scar that almost cut his face in two” and doesn’t mention Harry Potter. But either way, I like the way it layers the Sunday family as composed of SF fans, their London as composed of art references, gives them, and their world, more to do and be than characters in a thriller. (The book’s cover also feels relevant here.) Perhaps the one character to suffer that fate is Sonya, whose death quickly shifts from being the central mystery to an unimportant aside, as the book reassures us that really it’s all about Marlon. (But perhaps this is not the time to complain about the Problem With All Narratives That Foreground A Protagonist.)

There’s lots to like, so here are some things: That Marlon has a mum who goes in to fight for him magnificently; that her, and therefore his, circumstances give him privileges that another character like D-Ice can’t count on; that moment where D-Ice invokes fairytale naming powers (if only to remind Marlon that they’re not real; Louis leaving the police force; the number of ways the book dramatises care between friends and family and community–from Tish’s willingness to date assholes for information that’ll keep Marlon safe to Marlon’s own choice to keep his mother safe from the knowledge that her words turned Marlon and Andre into targets (she’s bound to find out, but this again is one of those choices that mean something in and of themselves) to little things like bus drivers who slow down for women to catch them. I’m not reconciled to the genre, and I don’t think I’m going to enjoy reading about danger for a while; but in the spaces outside and around its thriller plot, Orangeboy manages, quietly, to build and make more imaginable things that feel nourishing.

 

 

* Because I’m friends with Erin Horáková (whose essay on Blakes 7 you should read), I feel compelled to point out that Orangeboy spells the title with an apostrophe and my loyalties demand that I register disapproval.

January 26, 2017

Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes A Breath

juliet-gabby-riveraI got lucky in my feminist education. Sometime in the very early 2000s (I was about the same age as Rivera’s protagonist), I was just beginning to write publicly about gender on the internet–it was new, I was still learning (I’m still learning) and I’m sure I said things that would embarrass me horribly now. Someone I knew a bit from their blog invited me to a super secret mailing list composed in the main of people whose feminism/s had to take into account other forms of marginalisation. I’d never heard the word “intersectional” before, though I knew of course that I was brown and queer. Suddenly I had access to new ways of thinking about gender and race, gender and sexuality, gender and class, gender and sex work, gender and bodies–and a vocabulary with which to seek out those ideas in my day to day life as well (it would make it much easier to think about gender and caste, for example, a few years later).

As an adult I now know that it’s not unusual for women and nonbinary people (and sometimes men) in such communities to make their experience available to callow young feminists, but I still feel like I got exceptionally lucky–much of my ignorance was a result of youth but some of it was also the result of laziness, and I’ve never quite felt I earned the trust that being included in such a community implied. (I don’t dive into new knowledge as Rivera’s protagonist does, risking my heart and dignity in the process. [An incident midway through the book, where Juliet discovers what a Banana Republic is, really brought this home.])

This lengthy introduction is in part just a tribute to some good people and in part a way of framing for myself the ways in which Juliet Takes A Breath did and did not feel familiar to me. The plot: Juliet Milagros Palante is in college, is Puerto Rican, lives in the Bronx with her mother and younger brother, is in a relationship with a rather posh sounding white girl, and has just read something called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, by feminist writer Harlowe Brisbane. On the basis of a fan letter to the author, Juliet is offered a holiday internship in Portland, working on a large research project. Arriving in Portland she soon finds herself feeling somewhat out of her depth, surrounded by people whose political jargon is unfamiliar, who all seem to know more than her, and whose knowledge is sometimes relevant to her but is also sometimes off. Juliet cycles through a series of new experiences an ideas–attends an Octavia Butler-inspired SF writing group, discusses the mechanics of poly relationships and argues theology, flirts with a hot librarian, receives a breakup letter from her girlfriend. It can get educational at times–Juliet learns about famous feminists or that she can’t just go around demanding people’s gender identity while other characters patiently explain who and why, nodding encouragingly out at the reader from within the text. (At least these are good things to learn.)

Harlowe herself Juliet finds fascinating and sympathetic, ready with natural remedies to period pains and breakups alike; willing to listen to the feminist mixtapes Juliet had made for her girlfriend Lainie. But almost immediately the cracks begin to show–and when Harlowe publicly does something really awful (I’m not normally cautious about spoilers, but I think the impact of the scene in question would be damaged by foreknowledge), Juliet escapes this environment for one where she can think things through.

(I pause here because it feels like a natural break in the narrative.)

This is a young (or new?) adult book; I’m no longer a young (or new?) adult. I’m reading this book through a lens of “what it was to be young in 2003!”; a lens which, inevitably, places me in a position of knowing more than Juliet about certain things. Readers who are closer to the character’s age may not feel this as strongly, but then the setting of the book in 2003 may play a role there–many of the ideas and much of the jargon that is new to Juliet will be familiar to any queer kid with a tumblr (not to suggest that that information was unavailable in 2003; but possibly harder to find?). I mention this because for me, much of the book was spent waiting for the warning signs in Lainie’s and Harlowe’s behaviour to be proved correct. Everything leading up to the climactic scene when Juliet rushes out of Harlowe’s reading felt inevitable.

There’s a Joan Aiken story I’ve been wanting to write about, titled “Watkyn, Comma.” It’s about a haunted (in the nicest possible way) house and a room that exists in a sense outside of time, where our protagonist can breathe and pause and recalibrate (and obviously one of the things a comma does is to provide a space to breathe in) before reentering the world. (Parentheses do some of this space-for-stepping-out-for-a-moment work as well, incidentally.) I read Juliet Takes a Breath on the kindle and so was able to search for how often “breathe” and “breath” come up in this book–as ways of being, coping, being nourished. There “isn’t enough air to breathe [in the Bronx]. I carry an inhaler for those days when I need more than my allotted share.”; “I hadn’t seen one other Latino. No faces like mine, nowhere to breathe easy.”; “it’s less about there being ‘no white people’ and more of a night for us to breathe easier.” Juliet leaves the Bronx in order to breathe, and then leaves Portland when breathing there becomes difficult as well. Both are temporary moves, both in their way to places of sanctuary; In Miami Juliet finds another community and learns more–this time from an aunt and a cousin who is also figuring these things out.

But this is also the section where Juliet pushes back against her cousin Ava’s dismissal of Harlowe as “some hippie-ass, holier-than-thou white lady preaching her bullshit universal feminism to everyone” (it’s truth though). If the incident that forces Juliet to leave Portland is the climax, the rest is denouement. Juliet returns, able to see Harlowe and her world as flawed and unreliable, but also as people with whom she has to learn to work. Her solutions aren’t mine. But I’m writing this during a week when questions of “universal” feminism and what it erases and what it needs to be forced to acknowledge feel more present than usual (see e.g. these pieces for example), so. This is a coming of age story and this final section has Juliet coming into herself–by the end of it she has tentatively reconciled what she’s learned with what she knows, is able to breathe, is able to say “we were going to be okay”.

April 20, 2016

Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

I’ll be blogging the Carnegie shortlist over the next few weeks, and so decided to write about a few other children’s books that came out this year. Some of them, including the one below, were on the Carnegie longlist.

Becky Albertalli’s Simon vshomosapiens. The Homo Sapiens Agenda takes for its starting point a favourite romcom/fanfiction trope–the Daddy-Long-Legs/You’ve Got Mail model of the mysterious anonymous correspondent with whom the protagonist falls in love.*  Simon sees an anonymous post on the school gossip tumblr about being gay and not out, and contacts the writer to let him know he feels the same. Using fake names and email addresses, and being careful not to give away too many clues about their own identities, “Blue” and “Jacques” spend months talking to one another and eventually admit to their feelings.

There are other things going on in Simon’s life; his correspondence with Blue has been discovered by a classmate, Martin, who is using the knowledge to blackmail Simon to help him spend more time with a  girl on whom he has a crush. Simon isn’t out to his friends or family yet, though he expects them to react supportively (too supportively, in some cases) to the news when he tells them. There’s a production of Oliver! to put on, lots of complicated interpersonal relationships–and then Martin outs Simon on the gossip tumblr.

Things are less dramatic than might be expected. Simon does point out that the consequences of being gay and out in his small town are potentially more serious than they might be in other places, but it’s also clear that his personal circumstances (supportive friends, family and teachers) make it possible for this not to be a story about the horrible dangers and persecutions of being queer (and we need those stories too, obviously, but also our fluffy romcoms). There’s some homophobic bullying, but it is quickly shut down. Everyone has problems, but no one has problems that are horrific or insoluble. Martin is not villainised for the awful thing he has done, but the book doesn’t require that he be forgiven for the sake of a tidy ending (though there’s reason to believe that he will be forgiven soon enough). People are occasionally angry and hurt, but in temporary ways. If I have a complaint about the book (and I’m not sure I do) it’s that its politics are a bit too good–everyone has thought their positions through a little too well and is able to articulate them a little too clearly. Perhaps this is an alternative universe where everyone is just better at feelings and thoughts than me. (Perhaps this is true of this universe.)

I find myself talking/thinking/writing about Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda as if it were a particular sort of fanfiction. Because when I go looking for fic often I’m looking for precisely the things that this story provides–the bulk of a full-length novel, gentle, kind, low-stakes romance with characters like these characters. It’s comforting and restorative and accomplished and low-stakes. It is in part because it’s those things that I’m not too bothered by its non-inclusion on the Carnegie shortlist (then again, I’ve seen far less ambitious, and less good, things on that shortlist in the past, so hm).

But there’s one thing that the book does exceptionally well and it is this: looking. I’ll try to explain what I mean by this. We know that “Blue” is someone in Simon’s school. We know, because we know how narrative works, that he must be someone Simon knows, or someone he will meet over the course of the book. We’re primed therefore to treat this as a mystery; to look at every boy mentioned (and perhaps characters who aren’t boys; what if Blue’s lying?) as a suspect (which is not the right word for a prospective love interest, but I’m not sure what would be).

Simon himself says at one point that “Simon means ‘the one who hears’ and Spier means ‘the one who watches.’ Which means I was basically destined to be nosy.” We discover that this is not true at all–Simon has in fact been pretty oblivious to quite a lot of things. And yet the book places him in the position of having to be the watcher–he too is aware that one of the boys he meets might be Blue, he is looking at them, and because we’re in his head (it’s a first person narrative), we get to see him looking.

(We’re also relatively sure, long, long before he is, who he wants to be looking at, but like I said, Simon’s not very observant.)

I’ll be writing about Robin Stevens’ Jolly Foul Play soon, and hopefully will expand on this there, but so much of the attraction of girls’ school stories for me is in the ways characters look at each other, how looking is fascination is attraction. (I like David Ehrlich’s formulation here, that “falling in love is an act of looking” (though he goes on to say that being in love is an act of seeing, and I don’t know that I want to burden these kids who have just met with the weight of that). But the book’s achievement is a sort of active readerly participation in its looking; one that isn’t objectifying, but that serves as a reminder of what the act of being fascinated can be.

 

 

*Disclaimer: I use those as examples of a form, but feel it necessary to explain that a) The correspondence in D-L-L is one-sided, b) both of these examples contain some sort of creepy power difference that is not really in evidence here. But still.

March 16, 2016

No Time For Goodbyes/Split

 

Andaleeb Wajid, No Time For Goodbyes

A friend finds it deeply annoying when trilogies (or books otherwise in series) fail to indicate the fact somewhere on the cover (front or back). I’m less hardline than him on this subject, but that there’s no hint anywhere on or in Wajid’s book that this is the first of a trilogy seems an odd choice on the part of the publisher (Bloomsbury India). I genuinely wouldn’t have known had I not looked the book up online.

No Time For Goodbyes is a time travel romance. Tamanna, just out of school and about to begin college, finds an old polaroid in her attic and is sucked into the past; the early 1980s Bangalore of her mother’s schooldays. Appearing in her grandmother’s house with no way of explaining what has happened to her, she pretends to be the Australian pen pal of the boy next door—Manoj, whose scientist grandfather created the camera responsible for her predicament. Naturally Manoj and Tamanna fall in love; naturally Tamanna returns to her present just as things are getting interesting; naturally it appears the two are destined to be tragically torn apart.

One doesn’t particularly want scientific rigour from this genre, and critique from that angle is therefore a bit pointless. But I want to pick at threads—why would Tamanna’s mother name her daughter after the weird Australian who showed up at their house and was rude about their clothes (and refused to buy any of her own) and made her friend sad; why has she not noticed that her daughter looks identical to said weird Australian; has no one given the Christ College library a decent spring clean in three decades? (Okay, that last one is plausible.) And there are things I find jarring about its engagement with pop culture—the determined, awkward references to the Harry Potter books, to the friend who likes the Twilight films (Tamanna, of course, has nothing but scorn for them).

I mention this awkwardness in part because while Tamanna herself often thinks longingly of the comforts of the 2010s (better ice-cream flavours, better YA fiction, not having to wear Mirinda orange dresses, the internet), none of these are particularly deeply-felt arguments for the present, as they might be presented (um) by one who lives here. I’m speculating, obviously, but it rather feels as if someone sat down and tried to think of reasons a teenage girl might like to live now, but wasn’t convinced by their own arguments (and do teenagers in the 2010s see enough of Mirinda for it to exist in their consciousness as a colour the way Digene pink was for my unfortunate generation?). Underneath it all the book seems far more convinced by its nostalgia for the Bangalore of the past, where there were more trees, less crowded public transport and affordable cinema tickets (all good things, don’t get me wrong, though I have questions about the public transport thing). Perhaps people with a greater connection to the city might find this less trite than I did, but I imagine reading a similar take on my own city and I cringe. And if a girl from the future came along and told me she liked my world because it was “quaint”, I don’t think I’d be falling in love with her (Manoj is clearly a nicer person than I am). For a teenage romance, its notion of the present sounds suspiciously like it was written by someone who also writes letters to the editor (the editor of The Hindu).

I’m not really a reader of time travel romances so I hesitate to generalise about the appeal of the genre. But it seems to me that a big part of the point is the impossibility of a happy ending (until, of course, there’s a happy ending but then often there isn’t). And as much as I dislike this book’s treatment of time and change, it often does manage to invoke the bleak impossibility of this couple’s getting together. The choppiness of Tamanna’s movements between times is genuinely discombobulating, the lack of explanation given to the device makes the characters seem helpless in the face of an enormous, unknowable universe. There’s enough there to make me curious about the next two books in the trilogy (both published in 2014, though I haven’t yet obtained them).

 

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Split

This is a more recognisable (to me) version of teenage romance. Noor is part of the group of popular girls at school, and has an ideal-sounding home life with cool parents with cool politics and tastes. But her mother has fallen in love with someone else and moved to Paris, and Noor finds herself unable to tell her friends (incidentally, this is done in emotionally believable ways that made perfect sense). Forced to go to an after-school support group she finds herself lying to and drifting apart from her older friends and socialising with children and nerds. She also meets A Boy who is funny and nice and from Bombay, but has not been previously vetted and declared acceptable by her popular friends.

I say “recognisable” above for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the book is rooted in a very specific (in terms of class, gender, geography, family) South Delhi milieu, one which is relatively close to my own upbringing; though separated by 15 years and a bit more privilege. Which I’ll come back to, but the other reason it feels familiar is that it’s a lot closer to high school narratives that we’re mostly familiar with through literature/TV/film. So obviously football players can be regarded as acceptable boyfriends; boys with glasses are a bit iffy; the head of Noor’s little clique is more than a little Regina George-ish. (This isn’t Mean Girls; Madhavan takes much of what that film suggests about teenage friendships for granted, but shows a lot more empathy for her popular girl characters, and manages to write them as vulnerable children.) This isn’t really the space for musing about how high school romances as a genre inflect the lives of teenagers who are exposed to the genre, but I think both forms of recognisableness are interlinked and sustain one another in complex ways.

I don’t know if it’s a feature of the book (the author’s about my age) or a feature of me that I spent the whole thing thinking how young and vulnerable everyone was.

But. The book is, as I say, fixed in a very particular milieu, and it is very much Noor’s own. We’re seeing through her eyes, and it’s not always clear where the split between book and narrator lies. Which is fine to an extent–as we cringe at her bigoted grandmother, or learn with her to appreciate the younger, poorer girl with the looped, ribboned plaits,  and so on (some visible assumptions are being made here about the sort of reader the book expects). A corollary of sorts is that you sometimes wonder if Noor’s prejudices are in fact the book’s–the fat girl from West Delhi who has no taste but they keep her around for the money, and whose inferiority is left unquestioned? (Not the only example, but one that irritated me with how blatant it was.)

Split is good at the inside of a (certain sort of) protagonist’s head, then, but I have some reservations about how it has said characters interact with the world.

May 22, 2015

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, This One Summer

From a recent column.

 

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There’s a particular kind of light I associate with memories of childhood—a sort of mellow golden glow that is probably the result of the time of day one would spend out (after school and a certain amount of lounging about; before it got dark) and the latitudes at which that childhood was spent. It’s both a personal association and a general one—it’s at the root of that one Instagram filter that everything seems to use, so that it’s suspiciously easy to make anything seem immediately pregnant with yearning.this one summer 2

I mention this because in This One Summer Jillian Tamaki seems to go out of her way not to use that shortcut. The result of a collaboration between Tamaki (art) and her cousin Mariko Tamaki (words), this graphic novel is the story of two girls on the cusp of teenagehood and one summer holiday. It’s illustrated entirely in indigo and white (the kindle edition, in which I originally read it, ruins the effect by making it merely black and white); if it’s softer than pure black and white, the cool colour scheme denies any unearned nostalgia and creates the effect of something much more detached. This does not at all mean the same thing as emotionally distant, as we learn, but it does easily fit the content of the book. Because none of the events that happen in This One Summer happen to Rose, our preteen protagonist, or her “summer cottage friend” Windy and yet Rose in particular is transformed by them.

Rose has spent every summer since she was five with her family at the cottage on Awago Beach, spending most of her time with Windy, who lives nearby. Things are different this year—Rose’s mother has, in recent months, become closed-off and hard to live with; her parents are fighting, partly as a result of this; all their daughter really knows is that her mother wants or wanted to have another child. Rose has become interested in boys and has a crush on the older teenager who works in the local shop and who appears to have impregnated his girlfriend.

this one summer 1The Tamakis’ earlier, brilliant, graphic novel Skim also took for its subject sensitive young characters who come face to face with questions of sexuality, gender and mental health. This One Summer feels different in tone to me precisely because its characters are at one further remove—to some extent Skim’s title character is also an outsider and observer, but Rose and Windy’s trying to piece together the two interwoven stories are in territory they have no way to navigate. Sex is new—Rose is terrified and intrigued, Windy is still mostly grossed out. It’s too easy for Rose, with a crush on an older boy, to assume that the older girls he’s interested in are “sluts”, just as it’s too easy for her to blame her mother for the situation at home. To this adult reader, at least, those moments are both familiar and uncomfortable—and such a reader is to some extent assumed. Though this is a book about young adults, and accessible to young adults, something about the framing and the narration (perhaps it’s just that summer holidays are always in the past, perhaps it’s the frailty of these adults) allow you to assume a much older Rose telling the story.

The two stories (those of Rose’s mother and the pregnant teenaged girl Jenny) come together finally in what might be a little too pat a way. But Rose seems to need that structure—all along this has been a quest for answers. It doesn’t matter that the reader probably worked out at least part of what was bothering the adult characters. This One Summer captures better than most things just how inexplicable the journey into adulthood is.

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January 11, 2015

Himanjali Sankar, Talking of Muskaan/ Payal Dhar, Slightly Burnt

This was a bit uncomfortable to write, and I’m not even sure how objective I can be (one author’s a friend, both books were edited by friends), but there you go.

(Published column here)

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A couple of weeks ago saw the anniversary of December 2013’s Supreme Court decision overturning the Delhi High Court’s ruling that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. It felt like an important occasion, particularly since I was at the time reading two recent YA novels, both of which structured themselves in part around that moment in our recent history.

Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan has been heralded as India’s first queer YA novel. The action opens on the day after the Supreme Court ruling, which is also the day after the title character has attempted to kill herself. The narrative then shifts to a few months earlier, and through the voices of three of Muskaan’s teenaged classmates (best friend Aaliya, clever-but-poor Shubhojoy, spoilt, rich Prateek) we piece together the events leading up to this moment.

Komal, the narrator of Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, is another teenager who is shocked to discover that her best friend Sahil is gay. Even as she is absorbing this new information, the news about Section 377 breaks, forcing her to confront the levels of intolerance that still exist around non-normative sexualities among her friends and family.

Komal’s initial reaction to Sahil’s coming out is far from ideal—and perhaps this is realistic. She feels uncomfortable with his sexuality, resentful of his lack of normalcy, betrayed because he is not who she thought he was. So shaken is she that she must go to the school counsellor for advice on how to process things. Dhar doesn’t entirely indulge her in her discomfort—the counsellor gently, and the internet less gently, remind her that Sahil is probably suffering more than she is.

But this doesn’t change the fact that Komal’s discomfort, and the process by which she overcomes it, are the story of Slightly Burnt. Sahil probably is going through a lot, but we don’t see it directly. Sankar’s book too is talking of, about, around but never by, or to, Muskaan.

Dhar and Sankar’s choice of (mostly) heterosexual narrators makes sense in a way, and the references to Article 377 form a part of this. We’re reminded over and over that all non-heteronormative sexualities (it’s to both books’ credit that they do not erase bisexual, transgender, or other queer identities) are the subject of ignorance and prejudice, and that people need to be educated about them or risk causing unimaginable harm to vulnerable people. Komal’s change of heart comes when she reads up on LGBT suicide rates; Aaliya’s comes after her best friend nearly dies. There’s a sense in which the reader too is being educated along with the characters.

Both books, for all that they adopt the idiom of contemporary YA, are very much in the tradition of the teenage “problem novels” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which brought their protagonists face to face with a social issue, and over the course of their pages educated, unpicked said issue, and generally promoted tolerance. In a country where the sex lives of consenting adults can be criminalized and queer youth must constantly be reminded that they are “unnatural”, education and tolerance can only be a good thing. And yet.

As an (admittedly very lucky) young adult, I didn’t think of my own feelings as a burning social problem. I looked for myself in poetry, in romance, in tensions simmering under the radar; not in novels that explained me and the harmlessness of my tastes to the world. Both of these books assume a heterosexual reader who needs to be educated past her prejudice and reflexive (both books seem to assume that this is inevitable) disgust, not a queer teenager trying to find herself in fiction.

“At some point it has to stop being about you,” says Usha, Komal’s counsellor. Perhaps as long as this law exists that point cannot be reached. For now, queer readers will have to resign ourselves to reading books about, not for us.

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December 23, 2013

Bulletpoints: Catching Fire

I watched three movies in one week recently. This was one of them.

 

  • I remember so little of the books beyond basic plot that I find it difficult to be sure how far the things that are wrong with the film (there is a lot right with the film though) are also things that are wrong with the book. I’m not a fan of criticisms that excuse the film based on the book’s flaws though–particularly since I get the feeling that the biggest problem could quite easily have been fixed without too great a deviation from the book’s plot.
  • That biggest problem is this–that this is a series of three books about violent revolution told from the perspective of someone who remains unaware of said revolution (that her own actions exist within that context) until the end of the second book. It’s less glaring in the first book and movie, in part because we don’t know much about this wider context either. But one of the things the first movie did well, I thought, was to fully utilise its shift from the first to the third person and allow us to see things Katniss couldn’t. The second movie rarely does this; it seems that one of its strategies is to keep us as innocent as Katniss is.
  • Katniss’s innocence/moral purity/something is another interesting point. One of the complaints I had when I read the first book (and I saw many people say the same of the first movie) is the way in which, despite the awful circumstances she’s put in, Katniss never has to make a morally difficult choice. All the people she has to kill are presented not only as trying to kill her (it’s the Hunger Games, it’s not like they have a choice) but as fundamentally bad as well. ‘Good’ people who might have posed a challenge (Rue, whom she befriends and Thresh, who saves her life) are conveniently killed off by bad people. Catching Fire takes this and makes it a plot point–suddenly there’s an entire set of characters invested in making sure that Katniss never has to do anything that would make her morally grey, since apparently this would compromise her status as a symbol. (Which, Collins seems to suggest, would seriously compromise the revolution? I’m no expert on revolutions, but I have my doubts–but sure, let’s assume this to be fact.) I find this fascinating, because it’s as if we’re asked, in the second movie (and book? I can’t really remember), to notice something that feels like a clear flaw in the first book-and-movie.
  • That absolutely wonderful, believable moment where Katniss says no, really, she hasn’t got time to think about love because awful things have happened and she’s dealing with those.
  • YA gets a lot of flack for its love triangles (though I really don’t see that many in the YA I read) but this trilogy’s general treatment of romance is a lot more complex than it gets credit for. Love can be part performative, is at least partly voluntary, is ultimately part disposable. People can have no time for it, people can choose the relationships that won’t destroy them. Obviously there’s an element of wish-fulfillment in the fact that Katniss gets to do all of these things while two attractive men are pining for her, but why not?
  • This is connected to a general, practical heartlessness that we see glimpses of and that I adore. Think of Katniss calmly telling Haymitch that she wants him to volunteer (and therefore probably die) in Peeta’s place.
  • I do like that Peeta’s the stronger one in the political arena.
  • Finnick is Aquaman.
  • Perhaps it’s old age or general callousness or the sheer numbers involved, but I find it hard to care about the characters in the arena once I’m aware of what’s happening outside it. I went in expecting to cry quite a lot (I cry at all movies–I once managed to cry at Legally Blonde) and warned the friend with whom I was watching. He was a little confused, therefore, when I spent most of the time snickering at the pure evil being inflicted upon our heroes by the Capitol. I did get a bit teary at the early scene in District 11, but once that was over it was hard to feel very strongly about Katniss and Peeta and their struggle for survival.
  • In an early scene, Katniss is unable to shoot a turkey without having a traumatic flashback to her time in the arena. A couple of weeks later (we haven’t seen her shooting at all in the interim), when she’s training for the games, she’s fine. I can think of multiple reasons for this, but the movie chooses to visit none of them.
  • Didn’t Kristen Bell want to be Johanna?
  • Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket was one of my favourite things about this movie and I’m hoping that the next two movies are as ambivalent about her as I remember the books being.
  • I suspect that when I have few thoughts about a movie this whole bulletpoint format just highlights that fact and makes me look bad. Oh well.
  • Edit: It strikes me that a useful way of reading the trilogy (I’m sure someone’s done it properly by now) is as a progressive widening of perspective; beginning with Katniss’ very individual sense of grievance against the state, moving to the wider political ramifications of the games (beyond the ways in which they compromise Katniss’ selfhood, which is the driving force behind her rebellion in the first book), realising (as the audience also gradually realises) that other people have subjectivities, that Gale’s involved in rebellion as well as pining for her, that Prim has capabilities other than being saved, and so onward and outward to the events of the third book.
August 19, 2013

Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season

I don’t understand this book.

I understand why a lot of bad books exist–they may not be original or show any writerly skill, but they’re still frequently joyful, interested in their own story, convinced of their own worth.

There isn’t even that much to criticise about The Bone Season–it’s utterly predictable and its characters are undeveloped, but that’s true of lots of books. But its by-the-numbers-ness and sheer lack of conviction just wore me down and made me so unhappy.

This review appeared in Mint, and is on their website here.

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Somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, things changed. Certain human beings developed the power of clairvoyance, enabling them to commune in various ways with the spirit world. Samantha Shannon’s debut novel, The Bone Season, is set two hundred years into this alternative timeline. In the London of 2059, clairvoyance can get you arrested and it’s in your best interests to hide it as best as possible. The city is under the control of a security force called Scion and members of the criminal underworld, like nineteen year old Paige Mahoney, are in constant danger. Then Paige is captured, and learns just what has been happening to those clairvoyants who have been arrested over the past two centuries.

Shannon’s novel has been greeted with a certain amount of hype—as a seven book fantasy series by a new author (and published by Bloomsbury, no less), the Harry Potter comparisons were all but inevitable and the publicity around The Bone Season has taken full advantage of this. But the comparison was invalid from the moment it was made. The debut author of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone would never have presented the world with a close to five-hundred page tome (the superstar writer of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could, but that’s a different matter). Shannon clearly has plenty to say, but the thought of wading through six more books of this size is more alarming than enticing.

Worldbuilding is a sometimes-contested aspect of fantasy literature. It’s one thing to create a substantial and fully realised setting in which your story is to take place—but how much your reader needs to know about the world is a separate question. Do we need notes on the grammar of its fictional languages, family trees for its major characters, and detailed maps? Sometimes we do, and sometimes these genealogies and grammars can be as absorbing, or more so, than the stories themselves. But sometimes these additions merely seem an easy alternative to thinking about and fleshing out a setting. Shannon begins her book with a chart of the various types of clairvoyant and a map of her fictional Oxford and ends it with a glossary, but none of these add much to the text itself. Despite all this information, often served up in long sections completely separate from the plot around them, the whole thing feels curiously sparse. There’s little sense of the past two centuries’ history that makes this world so different to our own, or of characters’ complex feelings towards their own powers. Perhaps all this extraneous information will come in useful in later volumes in the series. I’m particularly intrigued to learn whether Shannon’s use of Hebrew words (“rephai”, “sheol”) will have greater significance., but to dedicate a first volume entirely to set-up seems rather ill-judged.

In the absence of a particularly interesting setting, we’re forced to pay attention to character and plot. And there’s plenty here that could be potentially absorbing—we have shades of dystopian fiction, revolution, slavery, romance, a powerful and terrifying government. But Shannon’s characters, like her setting, all lack depth. Early on, Paige is faced with a difficult choice between betraying a friend and her own survival. The choice is quickly taken away from her, leaving her morally untainted. Our heroine is brave and kind, defiant and possessed of amazing powers (even in this world of people with supernatural powers). Our villain is entirely evil (if she had a moustache she would doubtless be twirling it). When Paige is given into the care of “a Rephaite creature with dark honey skin and heavy-lidded yellow eyes. He is her master. Her trainer. Her natural enemy” we know exactly where this is going. Can she trust this beautiful man or not? (You already know the answer.)

Fiction doesn’t necessarily have to be original to be satisfying. A well-worn plot populated with interesting characters can often make for a great read. But once the setting has been put into place, The Bone Season slips into a sort of by the numbers samey-ness that it never manages to break out of. There’s no joy here, little to absorb or fascinate or terrify. It is almost oppressively predictable.

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March 22, 2012

On The Hunger Games as dystopia, and so forth

Wednesday’s Indian Express carries this piece on The Hunger Games by me. I have felt quite lukewarm towards the series from the beginning – I love the potential for political revolution that this setting offers, and I love Katniss herself, but I’ve also been very frustrated by how little the story does with the potential it has. I think the first book is the best in the series, yet it lets me down in many ways. It chooses to neglect the political history of this world in favour of the characters, yet even for the characters things are made too easy. Katniss never really has to face the possibility of killing someone she likes, for example; the book disposes of or saves everyone in the arena with whom she might have that kind of connection. In my Indian Express piece, therefore, my major complaint is that the books are too safe. A version of that piece is below.

 

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This month sees the release of the first of a series of movies to be made from Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful Hunger Games trilogy. These books are set in a far-future America in which twelve districts are forced each year to send two ‘tributes’, children above the age of eleven, to the city of Panem. Here the children battle for survival in a gruesome televised competition that ends when only one tribute is left alive. In The Hunger Games, the first of the trilogy, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film) volunteers to be the female tribute from her district in order to protect her younger sister from the same fate. She is joined by Peeta, a boy from her district for whom she may have warmer feelings than she has realised. The bulk of the story focuses on Katniss’ experiences in the arena, forging and breaking alliances, coming to terms with the fact that she may have to kill a friend, and putting on a good show for the audience.

The Hunger Games is the most prominent of a number of dystopic novels aimed at young adults that have been released in recent years. It’s always a little ridiculous to come up with grand, overarching theories about trends in fiction – I defy anyone to come up with a watertight explanation for vampire romances – but it is tempting to consider what might be behind this recent flood of grim, post-apocalyptic future fictions.

The dystopian novel is not particularly new (see 1984) and if the dystopian young adult novel is, that is more likely because Young Adult (or YA) fiction has only comparatively recently emerged as a publishing category. What is new, or at least constantly changing, is the specific form that these dystopias take at different points of time. Most of the books in the genre are or draw from science fiction, and science fiction has historically reflected the concerns of its contemporary society.

So what are the concerns that create these fictional worlds? The Hunger Games gives us very little information about the events that turned present day North America into the world of the books, though we know that “rebellions” of some sort were involved. There are hints that global warming triggered the enormous changes in the world – an earlier generation of books would have nuclear holocaust in this role. Climate change appears over and over again in this genre – it is the motivating factor behind Saci Lloyd’s two Carbon Diaries books, as well as Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road. Yet the process that led to the creation of this world is never the focus of The Hunger Games as it is of so many of these books. Instead, the series takes as its central conflict another feature of many dystopian novels; the totalitarian state.

In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies books and Ally Condie’s Matched, the government exerts an abnormal degree of control over the bodies of its citizens; Westerfeld’s teenage characters are made to undergo mandatory plastic surgery, while Condie’s have their partners chosen for them by the government. Lois Lowry’s The Giver (an earlier novel, published in 1993) depicts a society in which all emotions are suppressed by the use of pills. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother has as its villain a surveillance state.

The seat of power in the Hunger Games universe is called Panem, from the Latin “Panem et Circenses”, or “bread and circuses”. It is clear from this that the real purpose of the games in the trilogy is as a form of distraction – the people want food, the government give them spectator sports. Hunger versus games. It’s impossible in this context not to mention Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale, in which, again, the spectacle of children killing each other is used as a means of state control. The Hunger Games is frequently dismissed as being derivative of Battle Royale, though  apparently Collins had not previously read the book.

Yet, as with the hints of almost apocalyptic climate change, the reality television aspect of the games often seems mere furnishing. The Hunger Games chooses instead to focus almost entirely on the struggle of its protagonists to retain their sense of self in the face of a state that tries to treat them as pawns.  Katniss thinks, “I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.”

It cannot surprise anyone that so many teenaged readers should be drawn to books about young people asserting their individuality in the face of authority. In a way, the trilogy’s willingness to ignore all the political fodder that the genre makes available renders the books toothless and rather too safe. But it also taps into a story that is universal and never stale.

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This evening (a few hours after that Indian Express piece was published) I watched the Hunger Games movie at a special screening. I doubt I’ll get around to thinking things out and doing a proper review, but preliminary thoughts are on twitter and recorded here for posterity (sorry, posterity).

Edit: Abigail Nussbaum has a fine post here that both gets at some of the things I liked about the movie and explains my problems with the book (at least, what I said above about it being too safe)

July 7, 2010

June Reading

Looking over this list I realise I read less SFF than I usually would last month. This is interesting, I guess? I didn’t read half as much as I wanted or expected to; especially considering how much of this is fluffy bedtime reading. I am forced to blame the world cup.

Hope Mirrlees – Lud-in-the-Mist: This is such a classic that I’m mildly embarrassed about never having read it before. It turns out it’s utterly gorgeous. Plot-wise it’s incredibly simple (middle class townspeople threatened by the smuggling into town of fairy fruit – I’m tempted to describe it as a crime thrille) and I wondered when I started reading if it was going to be pretty and insubstantial. It’s not, it’s gloriously ambiguous and lyrical and full of light and shadow. I’m very tempted now to reread The King of Elfland’s Daughter (published a couple of years before Mirrlees’ book) and see how it compares.

Sarah MacLean – The Season: I didn’t enjoy this one at all. I suspect this is in part because I’m used to reading Regency mystery/romances for grown-ups, who are expected to be familiar with the setting. Having things explained for young readers (and heroines who are modern teenagers in empire line dresses) really put me off.

Kate Hewitt – The Greek Tycoon’s Reluctant Bride: Read because someone at work thought my reaction would amuse them. This proved to be the case.

Elif Batuman – The Possessed: I reviewed this for the Indian Express and talked a little more about my reaction to it here.

Tom McCarthy – Tintin and the Secret of Literature: I’m still not sure what the big “secret” turned out to be, unless it was that ‘popular’ literature is as fruitful a ground for literary criticism as capital L Literature. This was still tremendous fun to read; McCarthy bombards the Tintin books with multiple sorts of theory and in the process succeeds in writing a book whose main point seems to be look, look, theory can give you so much to play with. Which it can, of course, and this is one reason why I like it, but I suspect if you’re the sort of person who likes that sort of thing you already know this.

Samit BasuTerror on the Titanic: Nothing I say about this book could possibly be unbiased – not only is Samit a friend but the book is published by my employers. So you might want to keep that in mind when I claim that this book is funny and smart and utterly silly, and that the Morningstar Agency series looks to be a strange (and hilarious) mixture of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the Bartimaeus trilogy. But also I’m right.

Stephenie Meyer - The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner: I’m not a fan of Stephenie Meyer, as this old, desperately trying to be fair, post probably makes clear. Still, I’d read all four Twilight books, and thought that this novella, removed from the main story of the series, might avoid some of its major flaws. Plus someone on Twitter dared me.
I’m sure I came to the book prejudiced against it. Still, it was remarkably bad. Meyer continues to be unable to create a real, flawed, likeable character for her narrator, and if she has gained in self-awareness since writing the first of the books (I’m choosing to believe that certain choices she made were deliberate) her prose is still frequently cringeworthy.
I did giggle at the “Hulk smash!” bit though.

Edmund Crispin - Holy Disorders: This was my first Gervase Fen book, though I’ve had friends accost me and read out bits of others in the past. It made me accost people and read out bits. I was rather alarmed by the ending (basically, some people are just evil. and it might be genetic.) but it was a fun read.

John Mortimer – The Antisocial Behaviour of Horace Rumpole/Rumpole Misbehaves: I’ve read only a few of the Rumpole books. I was surprised to see how comparatively recent this one was (2007). I know Mortimer died last year and I think this may have been his last book, but iPods in Rumpole are a bit jarring. Still, it was extremely funny.

Susan Stephens – The Italian Prince’s Proposal: Discussed here.

Julia Quinn – To Catch an Heiress and How to Marry a Marquis: Lumped together because they are a duology. I love Quinn. She’s utterly reliable; likeable, frivolous romances with plenty of witty banter. These two books, involving aristocratic agents of the Crown and the women who love them, aren’t her best, but they’re still fun. How to Marry a Marquis is better because it involves Lady Danbury (familiar to readers of other Quinn books) and a woman dressed as a pumpkin.

Julia Quinn – What Happens in London: I said I liked Quinn. This book, though, deserves a seperate entry, because nothing else will demonstrate. It has spies. It has possibly evil Russians. It has couples who bond over reading bad books to each other. This is entirely similar to my own romantic life except for the spies and possibly evil Russians. It is the most delicious piece of froth since Loretta Chase’s The Devil’s Delilah. Also:

There were really no words to describe it.
She stood in the doorway, thinking this would be a fine time to create a list titled Things I Do Not Expect To See in My Drawing Room, but she was not sure she could come up with anything that topped what she did see in her drawing room, which was Sebastian Grey, standing atop a table, reading (with great emotion) from Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron. If that weren’t enough—and it really ought to have been enough, since what was Sebastian Grey doing at Rudland House, anyway?—Harry and the prince were sitting side by side on the sofa, and neither appeared to have suffered bodily harm at the hands of the other.
That was when Olivia noticed the three housemaids, perched on a settee in the corner, gazing at Sebastian with utter rapture. One of them might even have had tears in her eyes. And there was Huntley, standing off to the side, openmouthed, clearly overcome with emotion.
“‘Grandmother! Grandmother!’” Sebastian was saying, his voice higher pitched than usual. “‘Don’t go. I beg of you. Please, please don’t leave me here all by myself.’”
One of the housemaids began to quietly weep.
“Priscilla stood in front of the great house for several minutes, a small, lonely figure watching her grandmother’s hired carriage speed down the lane and disappear from view. She had been left on the doorstep at Fitzgerald Place, deposited like an unwanted bundle.”
Another housemaid began to sniffle. All three were holding hands.
“And no one”—Sebastian’s voice dropped to a breathy, dramatic register—“knew she was there. Her grandmother had not even knocked upon the door to alert her cousins of her arrival.”
Huntley was shaking his head, his eyes wide with shock and sorrow. It was the most emotion Olivia had ever seen the butler display.
Sebastian closed his eyes and placed one hand on his heart. “She was but eight years old.”
He closed the book.
Silence. Utter silence. Olivia looked about the room, realizing no one knew she was there.

The sequel-of-sorts, Ten Things I Love About You, was out this month, and I should be getting my copy any day now. The Booksmugglers do not seem to be bowled over, but I can trust Quinn to at least be amusing.

P.G Wodehouse – Young Men in Spats: Wodehouse. Short stories. Idiotic young men, love, nudity, Tennyson, animals, and that one story where Uncle Fred breaks into a random house and furthers the cause of young love. I’ve read them all before, but they’re still delightful.

Chris Lavers – The Natural History of the Unicorn: Leavers traces the various possible origin stories for the unicorn – not just the physical features of the animal (and how they change over time) but all the other bits that go into making up the myth. And then he looks at all those bits in the contexts of the societies that added them to the myth, and…I tried to explain what this book was to a colleague and baffled her completely. I really enjoyed it – it’s clever, frequently very witty, and I like fantastic beasts. Leavers doesn’t come to any solid conclusions, only suggesting directions to think along, and I appreciated that. It was excellent, and I think I’ll be using it in the future; not for anything specifically unicorn-related, but as a pointer to how myths come into being.

Robert Holdstock – Avilion: Holdstock’s last book affected me in much the same way as the first one I read did. It’s a more direct sequel to Mythago Wood than Lavondyss was (I have not yet read The Hollowing or Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn). In the past I’ve always had to read Holdstock books twice – once to feel them (he is an incredibly sensual writer) and once because the being caught up in the feel of the book means that I don’t engage with the intellectual aspect that he also brings. On a first read, this is beautiful, though I don’t think it quite lives up to Mythago Wood. On a second – we’ll see.

* Edit – I’m not sure how Chris Lavers ended up being credited as David. Wtf, brain. Sorry Mr Lavers!