Archive for March, 2015

March 19, 2015

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library

This new Murakami novella is so pretty. Some more images here.

From this week’s column.


I’ve known individual libraries to be important to me. The one which was a short enough distance from my house as a child that I could walk there unsupervised so that when I read Roald Dahl’s Matilda that was the building I imagined; the tiny cupboard of a place two blocks from my grandparents’ house in Vasant Kunj that had a complete set of the Asterix comics; the eclectic and bizarrely organised school library where I discovered many of my favourite writers for the first time. Yet I remain bemused by the idea of libraries in general. I love and support the idea of a society where libraries are plentiful, well-funded and well-staffed (in the UK the idea that such a society might be lost seems to be regarded as genuinely world-shattering) but I’m aware that large parts of the world seem to manage without them, and find myself a bit bemused at seeing them thus sentimentalised. Libraries are actual, practical, frequently-used spaces that matter; but the idea of them is often romanticised to the point of being rather annoying.

To fetishise the idea of the library feels like the same sort of thing as fetishising the book itself, and Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library is a beautifully produced thing, just right for being turned into a collector’s piece. A novella turned into a little hardcover book (and priced to match); the front cover has one of the ticket pouches found traditionally in library books; the illustrations are plentiful; the endpapers are marbled. It’s gorgeous. It’s tempting to read it as a reflection of the state of the industry: are ebooks making print books have to work harder? (probably) Is it cynical and blatantly commercial to turn a novella into a separate book? (yes).

But then The Strange Library resists all of this by the type of story it is; the furthest thing from a sentimental paean to books and reading. It’s a horror story set in a library.

MurakamiblackThe unnamed narrator stops by the city library on the way home from school to return his books and look for some new ones. Directed to the building’s basement by an unknown librarian he soon finds himself in the clutches of a strange old man who locks him in a cell with books on Ottoman revenue collection and instructions to memorise them within a month. He learns that at the end of this time the old man will cut off the top of his head and eat his brains. (“If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the payoff be for them?”). There’s horror here, but much of it is quiet and layered—the boy’s faltering acceptance of the old man’s increasingly sinister orders, his unease over the mother and pet bird who won’t know where he is, his memories of the black dog that attacked him as a child. Eventually an escape is planned, and we’re in the territory of children’s fantasy adventure, a genre at which I hadn’t expected Murakami to be quite this effective. Through all of this the illustrations (the whole thing is designed by Suzanne Dean) do quite half the work, altering the mood from silly to scary to both with ease. I’m told that the design of the American and Japanese versions are entirely different, and it’s hard to see how that would be possible without changing the book completely.

As our narrator leaves the building things get darker and darker; not for this story the triumphant escape and happy ending, or even the return to order that are the conclusions to the traditional adventure. We’re left to wonder rather a lot about that black dog.

Even after all of this I’m unconvinced that The Strange Library is much more than a very well-padded short story. But if it is it’s one that reminds us that libraries, like brains, are not always the nurturing spaces we’d like them to be and that, maybe, books aren’t all always that great?



March 15, 2015

Mahesh Rao, The Smoke is Rising

“But is it SF?” is probably the “will it blend?” of reviewing, but I find myself prone to doing it anyway.

From this week’s column.


“But is it science fiction?” I asked. I came to Mahesh Rao’s The Smoke is Rising with something of the single-minded purpose of the genre fan who above everything else wants to know whether she can claim this shiny new thing for her camp. In my defence, the blurb with its claim that “the future is here. India has just sent its first spacecraft to the moon, and the placid city of Mysore is gearing up for its own global recognition with the construction of HeritageLand – Asia’s largest theme park” does rather make this a plausible question to ask.

But what The Smoke is Rising is is a novel about modernity and change. And so in the grand tradition of novels about modernity and change it is set in a city (Mysore) whose landscape is being radically altered; its narrative is fractured, skipping between the perspectives of several loosely-connected characters as they go about their lives; the city itself, to resort to that cliché, might be an important character in its own right. Many of these characters are superbly done—in most cases too little time is spent with them for any real insight, but Rao does pick up on all sorts of details that ring true, rendering many of their insights darkly humorous without ever poking fun. By degrees it becomes clear that the narrative keeps returning to three women who are negotiating this changing city: Susheela is a well-off aging widow who finds that she continues to need intellectual, cultural and sexual stimulus even after her husband’s death.  Uma is her domestic help, who lives in a world of reserved female friendships and unpredictable men. Mala is the wife of an older bureaucrat named Girish, outwardly an ideal husband. Girish would risk falling into caricature were it not for the fact that we are given his perspective at the beginning of the book—he’s not monstered for us and so the moment of revelation is as shocking as it needs to be.

What ties these stories together, however, is the ongoing project to modernise the physical terrain of Mysore; landscaping, new housing developments, shopping centres, fountains to make the lake look like Geneva, many at the cost of the local farmland. Most important of these is HeritageLand, a theme park where “cutting edge technology could harness the drama of the ancient epics”—mechanical Garudas, a Yamaraja Monorail, ample merchandising opportunities—the city’s modernisation thus tied up in this attempt to preserve its heritage. Everyone in the world ought by now to have gathered that India, like most countries, contains elements of the old and the new juxtaposed and that there’s nothing particularly incongruous or thinkpiece-worthy about any of this. Rao does rather belabour the point—the new Museum of Folklore boasts “a modernist design [and thus] lack of harmony between the exterior of the museum and its collections of tribal and folk art from all over India”.

But there’s something else going on in this relationship between old and new, and I think it comes back to the character Venky Gowda’s vision for HeritageLand and the possibilities inherent in using “cutting-edge” technology to validate Hindu myth. It’s telling that most of his ideas have their bases in myth rather than history—history doesn’t offer technology the opportunities to impress that myth does, for one thing. But this is also a time in which “Ancient Indians had space travel and plastic surgery” is not something that is only said by that one angry uncle at a party and this too is significant. Those who insist on our ancient possession of nuclear weaponry and the like are implicitly suggesting that the authority conferred upon these stories by the aura of Science validates them in some way. It’s no accident that the blurb I quoted earlier mentions India’s ventures into space exploration, then, because The Smoke is Rising becomes fundamentally a book about our changing relationship with technology.

It’s not science fiction though.  


March 6, 2015

Romilly and Katherine John, Death by Request

A column from ages ago, first published here. I’ve been having unoriginal thoughts about narrative a lot lately.

The book itself was bought only because I like the Hogarth Crime books and their particular shade of purple, and I was in Barter Books and it seemed like a good use of my time.  I doubt I’ll be rereading, alas.


One of the detective fiction conventions established by the Detection Club, a group for British mystery writers that included Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Baroness Orczy and G.K. Chesterton and other genre greats, was that of “fair play”. Information was not to be withheld from the readers, who ought to, if smart enough, have a chance at solving the crime themselves. There were to be no bizarre twists, the solution could not be a supernatural one, unforeseen identical twins or doppelgangers could not suddenly be revealed to have existed the whole time. The detective must not commit the crime, and the thoughts of the ‘Watson’ figure must not be hidden (the rules were “codified” by Ronald Knox in 1929– after the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

The importance granted here to giving the reader a chance to figure things out suggests that the detective novel is considered a kind of activity book, which in practice it often is. But it also renders the world of the book fundamentally solvable, and understandable. Everything makes sense, at a basic level, the police may not be as good at their jobs as aristocratic amateur detectives, but justice is eventually served (and we know what justice is) and order is restored. For a world full of random murder, it is nonetheless very soothing.

But in the real world, things are often concealed from us, the narratives we’re offered are occasionally manipulated by the people responsible for terrible things, violence is random and unexpected and things don’t fit together and the  truth, if we have it, makes things messier and more complicated.

Two recent reads have reminded me of this, and of the fact that Fair Play or not,  the world of these books is not always a comfortable one. The first of these is a reasonably well-known classic, Josephine Tey’s 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes, in which an amateur psychologist spends some time lecturing at a women’s physical training college. When an unpleasant girl is found dead in the gym it is assumed to be the result of a tragic accident, and no one but Miss Pym has any reason to suspect murder. But justice is complicated and perhaps nothing can be gained by ruining another life, and she chooses to let the murderer go because it is a person she likes and admires. And as the book ends we’re given reason to think she might be wrong.

Romilly and Katherine John’s 1933 Death by Request is less known—I only picked it up at all because it was a part of Hogarth’s crime series. It’s so packed with genre tropes to be almost a cliché; the small village, the country house filled with illustrious guests, the sinister butler, the handsome lord who is found dead in full evening dress, the blustering colonel, the amateur detectives who solve the case. The whole thing is narrated by the local vicar, an elderly man who is sometimes comically shocked by the current generation, sometimes dryly funny. The whole is set in an oddly brutal world, full of bullying and infidelity, and it seems of a piece with the awfulness of everything else that the amateur detectives should prove their case by setting a trap that kills the murderer. But as with Miss Pym Disposes, we discover soon after that perhaps even the brilliant amateurs are wrong about the identity of the killer and his motive (I do not wish to give the ending away, but the true killer has one of the best motives I’ve come across in the genre).

Even in something as groundbreaking as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, justice is served, the murderer found and exposed. Tey and the Johns offer us a much more sinister world; one in which the real culprits might be left free, innocent victims destroyed by fallible detecting methods; where the detective can be wrong. 




March 5, 2015

February Reading

A slightly better month than January, anyway.


Jennifer Marie Brissett, Elysium: I’ve been writing a longer piece about post-catastrophe fiction and my feelings around it and I’m hoping to unpack my thoughts on Elysium as part of this at some point in the near future. But it is very, very good, and also you should read this brilliant review by Niall Harrison (I am biased because I edited it, but it really is.)


Robin Stevens, Arsenic for Tea: Stevens’ first book, Murder Most Unladylike, might have been written for me. School stories? Murder mystery? Queerness? General inter-war-ness? Non-white readers of English popular fiction? Come on. Arsenic for Tea is not set in a school and is almost entirely heterosexual (or is it? I know who I was shipping) but despite these flaws it is wonderful–it continues that uncomfortable, strong relationship between Daisy and Hazel, will never allow you a comfortable ending, will make its most loved characters as monstrous as it needs them to be. It’s a funny, cosy crime story, but it’s ruthless in places that are crucial to it.


Julia Quinn, The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy: I feel like the whole Smith-Smythe series has been a bit of a letdown after the glorious heights of What Happens in London and Ten Things I Love About You. I’m aware that the form requires some terrible thing to come in between our main characters, but in this case I think it may have been too big a thing, and the fallout felt rather phoned in. Meh. (Edit: I managed to mistitle this and strip Sir Richard of his title. Clearly it did not make a big impact upon me)


Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: I don’t plan to list books read for the PhD here, but Affective Communities turned out to be all but irrelevant to my thesis, and very relevant to everything else. People who have spent this time with me will probably find it hard to believe that I’ve spent the last few months feeling very grateful for community and the sort of allyship that is born of ethics, and people who see imbalance without having to be talked around to it, and for all those reasons Affective Communities ended up being important and moving–and this sounds trite, but it wasn’t. Also there’s the thing where Gandhi is just very enjoyable to read.


Sheila Ray and Stella Waring, Island to Abbey: Survival and Sanctuary in the Works of Elsie J. Oxenham: Really interesting overview of Oxenham’s books, grouping them chronologically and tracing particular unifying themes in each distinct period. I think it may be time for a new critical study of Oxenham though–it feels like Auchmuty has said everything that needs saying about communities of women but maybe not?


Mahesh Rao, The Smoke is Rising: I have a column about this that will be posted once it has been published, but three things: 1. Rao’s prose is gorgeous. 2. Sambhar is ruined forever. 3. I want the sequel to this book that is set in Heritageland and is outrightly SFF or horror.


Samita Aiyer and Garima Gupta, The Last Bargain: I’m a bit biased here because Garima Gupta illustrated one of my work projects from a few years ago, but she really is brilliant. This is a short children’s book about a rat named Chooheram who makes one bargain too many and it would be an ordinary morality tale (don’t overreach, kids) if not for the fact that the rat is just mildly downcast after his adventure; the princess (there’s a princess) just goes home and is like I married a rat, it was weird, meh; and the art is gorgeous and features many cows.

Gupta Chooheram

(Many cows.)