June 11, 2019

Bulletpoints: Good Omens

(Being a slightly extended version of the accurate but not very nice complaints sent to her friends by A. Subramanian, definitely not a witch, who will stop now because this format is twee.)

I watched Good Omens, the Amazon Prime adaptation of a book I enjoyed very much about fifteen years ago. I had some thoughts and subjected my friends to them via various messaging and social media things. I used to do media reviews in the form of a series of bulletpoints on this blog, and I like them as a format, so here goes:


  • Having God directly narrate Good Omens is a weird idea (And I don’t care if it is Frances McDormand). Both book and film make much of the ineffability of God’s plan, and sure, people can be present and ineffable at the same time, but it works so much better when the text (and we) have at least as much distance from God’s voice and thoughts as the characters themselves. Plus, this is one of the aspects of the adaptation that suffers from being overly attached to what the book thinks are its best lines–the “God does not play dice with the universe” stuff is overwrought, but it’s still funny coming from an observer who’s just trying to make sense of it all. From God herself, it’s just smug.
  • The …narrowness of the book’s view of the world is unfortunate (everyone is white; the world is bounded by Britishness) but the focus on small-town 80s England, and the Just William-style nostalgia mitigates it; the genre context makes the omissions seem deliberate or at least less unnatural. Set in the present, and with an international (still mostly white, Brit/NorthAm) cast it’s glaring.
  • Okay, all is forgiven, Dog has arrived, what a good boy.
  • Oh cool, it’s the “No Man’s Land, North Africa” scene. One nice (“nice”) thing about having a few key rants that your friends have heard several times is that when something like this shows up in a movie you can count on several of those friends informing you of it immediately. I went in absolutely expecting this scene, but that didn’t make it less unpleasant. Unnamed black and brown people are having a war over something petty, as we do; the peace process is derailed by squabbling and superficial concerns over looking strong, and it all takes place in an unnamed bit of Africa, a continent that expands or contracts as the imperial imagination allows it to. Both racist and dull.
  • When I heard that the series had been given a more recent setting than the book, one of my thoughts was “oh no, the ice-cream joke”. One of the throwaway jokes in the book is that America (a mythical and wondrous place!) has dozens of flavours of ice-cream; a thing unimaginable to Adam and his friends, who immediately set about trying to calculate just how many combinations of strawberry/chocolate/vanilla there can even be. I’m not sure why this is one of the parts of the book I remember so vividly. Above, I mention the adaptation’s unwillingness to lose lines from the book it thinks particularly funny–that’s the only explanation I can see for trying to retain this gag, which feels rather baffling in context.
  • Apparently many fans had strong feelings about Aziraphale’s use of white gloves to handle a rare book (The Nice and Accurate Prophecies…); one of those things that is guaranteed to get a reaction out of an archivist. Neil Gaiman then tweeted that he’d had “a tiny crisis of conscience” over the decision not to revise the scene as it was in the book; naturally fans were charmed by this instance of writers caring about things that they, the fans also care about. No one had a crisis of conscience over No Man’s Land, North Africa.
  • I suppose it’s necessary for the scenes from the Biblical past to take place in a vaguely-defined Middle East, but given the treatment of places outside the UK in the show’s present, it’s a bit uncomfortable to suddenly find ourselves in antediluvian Mesopotamia, as Aziraphale cheerfully explains that it’s fine, only these locals who are going to die; god wouldn’t kill everyone, obviously.
  • This feels like a subset of one of my earlier complaints but history in this series is either Biblical (fair enough) or British–even the World War II section, a rare example of history that also happened abroad (obviously the truly important bit was the Blitz) that most British people are aware of. There is a brief detour into the Reign of Terror; fortunately the show had already mentioned it in a conversation between Crowley and Aziraphale, so the audience need not be too alarmed that events are taking place a whole channel away.
  • More “Middle-Eastern Unrest”; such a weaselly phrase.
  • I guess it’s progress that pollution has them/their pronouns, but it doesn’t feel like it.
  • You can tell that neither Famine nor Anathema is from the third world because both of them are able to hilariously joke around with the immigration official, and because said official is bored and inattentive.
  • I was curious as to which countries, in the show’s imagination, had nuclear weapons. The answer is: the US, Russia, India, Ireland, Australia. The Indian scientist pronounces “nuclear” as “nukular”, a thing I’d always associated with some US accents.
  • How many break up scenes will these characters have? The discourse around this relationship has done little but convince me of how uninterested I am in the questions of whether or not what’s between the characters is platonic, and whether/to what extent sex (whatever that means for divine beings) is involved. Immortal creatures have a literal eternity to figure out what they feel for one another; apparently I’m unable to care unless there’s some mortal sense of urgency.
  • Having said which, I’ve been wanting a fanvid set to “chori chori jab nazrein mili“, a song I believed I had forgotten, but which is close enough to the Good Omens theme tune (I assume they’re both based on the same piece of music somewhere) that I have been unhappily earwormed by it for several days.
May 2, 2019

Elys Dolan, Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory


I first read Dolan’s book when it appeared on the Little Rebels shortlist last summer. Since then it has won a Lollies award, but the first context I read it in was, specifically, as a “radical” children’s book. It’s about striking workers! And they’re chickens!

Going into this, there I had two other books in mind–Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Willy Wonka exploits his immigrant Oompa-Loompa workers and pays them in chocolate) is the obvious one, but also Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit, a picture book about a set of crayons informing the boy who owns them of their various work-related traumas. As you’ll see from the link above, my main concern with regard to Daywalt and Jeffers’s book is that it doesn’t go far enough in its protection of the crayons’ rights and general wellbeing–Duncan’s use of them is killing them (this is implied in the premise) and the best solution that can be offered is that this violence be exerted more equally and more humanely. This isn’t so much Jeffers and Daywalt’s fault as an issue with the analogy itself. It only works if we accept the bleak (true?) premise that our bosses are destroying us–the only way the crayons could survive would be for Duncan not to exist. The Day the Crayons Violently Overthrew the State would be a more coherent book, though perhaps not as popular with children or adults. I also thought of John Yeoman and Quentin Blake’s The Wild Washerwomen, in which seven overworked women in a laundry decide to quit, shove their dictatorial boss in a giant pile of laundry, and embark upon a wonderful spree of lawlessness, causing chaos and disrespecting property and generally being magnificent until they find some men to marry and return to a more civilised lifestyle. It seems children’s books about people standing up to their bosses are pretty much guaranteed to disappoint me.

Mr Bunny’s factory specialises in chocolate eggs, which are made by making chocolate, pressing it into bars, and then feeding the bars to a group of egg-layers, who subsequently “after a bit of squeezing” produce this product. (To fully commit to the obvious toilet humour, Dolan has one particularly large egg stuck in the chute into which they are laid, and another chicken with a plunger attempting to tackle the problem.) Think this Safely Endangered comic, but with a production line. The eggs are wrapped and packed, then passed by the quality control unicorn (Edgar) before going out into the world. The egg-layers are female chickens–this is unsurprising. It’s nice that the majority of the factory workers, in all aspects of the business, are also coded female. (In a later scene in which we’re afforded a look at the village outside the factory, we see a few roosters who appear to be doing largely domestic work–cleaning and laundry.)

Unfortunately, Mr Bunny’s greed for more profit leads him to force the chickens to increase productivity. Everyone is exhausted; the machines are breaking down and there’s no time allotted to fixing them (duct tape is employed instead); the egg-layers are sick from being force-fed so much chocolate; worst of all, Debbie, a new employee, has fallen into a vat of chocolate and disappeared and no one seems to care.

The chickens unionise (or were in a union already? I’m not sure) and go on strike. These are my favourite pages of the book–there are good signs (“Power to the Poultry”), stickers, and one lone hen still loyally demanding an enquiry into Debbie’s disappearance. All protest is abandoned when Mr Bunny’s attempts to run the whole show alone (even Edgar has deserted him) cause an explosion and a horrific accident. The workers choose to help him because “doesn’t every bad egg deserve a second chance?” (does it, though?); Debbie is found, thankfully still alive; Mr Bunny learns a valuable lesson (“Oh, I see! You’re all important too, not just me!”) and conditions in the factory improve. It’s a happy ending!

Or is it?

Imrbunn the final pages of the book, the factory has diversified its products; the chickens can also now avail of aerobics classes, a salad bar and a ball pool and can even play table tennis while they lay eggs. There are beanbags everywhere. Mr Bunny has undergone an image change and is rolling along on a segway, wearing his black turtleneck and little glasses. It’s not a subtle allusion, though it might be lost on the book’s younger readers.

But the adults know, don’t we, that a ball pool and a salad bar don’t necessarily make for great working conditions, or a healthy relationship between a company and its employees? Even leaving aside the question of whether Mr Bunny and the chickens (it’s not clear whether they now have some degree of structural power; it wouldn’t surprise me, that a group so willing in the main to ignore the missing Debbie should also throw other workers under the bus) have started exporting their labour rights abuses to other countries, what I really want to know is how much time off the chickens get; whether there’s pressure to stay late hours at work now that they can have a nap! in a hammock!; what contractual changes have been made; what Mr Bunny even contributes in this system where the chickens are doing both the “creative” stuff and the actual work.

I don’t, obviously, expect a children’s picture book about chickens laying chocolate eggs to provide me answers to any of those questions. But I’m fascinated by a book about unionising and protest and labour rights that presents us with Steve Jobs as its happy ending. I’ve complained at a couple of points in this post about children’s books on this subject that fizzle out, and I wonder how much that’s ingrained in the genre–if funny, light books about work can at best expose it as inherently horrifying.

April 19, 2019

Swapna Dutta, Juneli’s First Term, Juneli at Avila’s, An Exciting Term

(I wrote most of this last year and for some reason abandoned it in draft form. Recently I read another series of girls’ school stories from India, and thought that before I wrote about them I should probably finish this. Expect that other piece soon or, judging by my current form, within the next year or so.)


We moved to Delhi (from a village in the north of England) when I was ten, and I lost a number of my old books in the move. I was, however, allowed a new book each weekend (which seemed riches at the time, even though I generally finished them in a couple of hours on the Saturday), and usually this was whichever (Armada edition) Chalet School story I could find in the local bookshop. Some adults would hear that I liked school stories and ask me if I’d read the Juneli stories, which had been serialised in Children’s World in the ’70s and ’80s. I hadn’t, and at this point in the mid-’90s they were out of print (in recent years they’ve become available as ebooks); and in any case, though I wouldn’t have articulated it that way at the time, I was a bit suspicious of the results of bodily transporting genres across continents. At least some of this was probably a prejudice against Indian fiction in general, coupled with that (by now well-worn) trope of readers brought up with the literature of the global north not thinking books with brown kids in them were quite real.

This was particularly baseless in the context of my own inter-continental move. In England, I’d attended a state school a short walk from my own house, far removed from the sorts of institutions I’d been reading about. In India, I was at a big private school, with much stricter rules about uniforms and an actual house system. Before I left the UK, I’d told a friend (and fellow school story reader) that I was going to a school with prefects, a house system and a head boy and girl and she was as entertained by this as I was—to both of us these seemed concepts out of fiction rather than real life. Because if Indian children of my generation (and that of my parents) and social circumstances (read: class, caste, etc) grew up reading English genre fiction because of the colonial history that made that fiction culturally available to us, we also grew up in educational institutions that were partly modelled on British ones. (And it’s probably irrelevant to this post [but nonetheless true] that those British institutions were themselves created in an imperial context and were shaped by that colonial history and those relations of power.)

The characters in Dutta’s Juneli books have read the same school stories as I have—and of course Dutta has herself. There’s a long tradition in the school story (as with some other forms of particularly trope-y genre fiction; detective fiction often does it too) of continually referring back to the genre within the plot; for example having the new girl, whose point of view the reader is most likely to share, come to boarding school for the first time and compare it to the schools she’s read of in fiction. (Antonia Forest has a particularly good version of this.) Juneli arrives at Avila’s with a head full of the Chalet School and Malory Towers, having inherited a huge trunk of girls’ own fiction from her mother—when she mentions these series titles, her friend Ritu points out the differences between their own setting, Brent-Dyer’s Austrian Tyrol and Blyton’s Cornwall, revealing that she too knows these books well. What the books insist on, however, is a sort of commonality of schoolgirl experience that transcends time and borders–this is something that Dutta herself suggests in the forewords to the ebook editions, claiming that while she based Avila’s on her own school, readers from a variety of backgrounds have found the characters and situations familiar, and “basically people–including schoolgirls–are the same everywhere”. This may well be true, but in this genre it’s particularly hard to disentangle the shared experience from the shared literature. Soon after Juneli joins the school, a classmate neatly maps the major characters from Malory Towers onto their classmates; the one who’s good at drawing (Ina/Belinda), the vain, spoiled one (Balbinder, whose peers even call her Gwendoline Mary after the Blyton character), and so on.

Part of the reason the Juneli books are satisfying as school stories is because they are so familiar, hitting every trope. In the first book there are guides, midnight revelries, a subplot in which Juneli is Falsely Accused, a daring rescue in which our heroine saves the life of another girl, and a version of the plot of (Elsie Oxenham’s) The Girls of the Hamlet Club, in which a group of girls, left out of other school activities, form a club of their own and eventually have to step in and save the school after the cast of the school play falls sick. I’m not accusing Dutta of being derivative here, so much as suggesting that the genre is often built on a series of set pieces that are instantly recognisable to fans. The second book in the series has an undeserving head girl elected on the basis of her popularity–another plotline I’m sure I’ve read before, but the only instance I can remember is in one of the Naughtiest Girl in the School sequels (by Anne Digby), published long after these stories. It’s only through Juneli’s interference that the misguided headgirl doesn’t re-enact another existing plotline (see: EBD’s New Chalet School, EJO’s The Two Form Captains), where the Bad Girl is off doing something fun and disobedient and is thus not on hand to go to the bedside of a dying parent. The third book has the entire school move to an ancient fort at the last minute and thus provides a fantastic setting for an adventure story involving disinherited young women, cryptic directions that lead to treasure, and a gang of thieves. There are even hilarious domestic science mishaps of the sort that, in Brent-Dyer, are inevitably in a chapter titled “A Little Cookery”.

campfireUnfortunately, the books inherit some of the less pleasant parts of the genre as well. I have read a lot of British girls’ school stories about the camp fire movement (thanks, Elsie Oxenham), and I’m made really uncomfortable by the romanticised/fetishised version of Native American cultures that seems to underpin them–I don’t know how central this was to the American movement, or if it was exaggerated as an embarrassing side effect of its adoption by British writers. (There’s nothing about British school stories’ portrayal of American history that isn’t bizarre to me–there’s a moment in Brent-Dyer’s Rivals of the Chalet School in which the girls decide to play at being the Ku Klux Klan and somehow fans of the genre have just ignored this and gone about our daily ways.) It’s possible that Dutta’s portrayal (in Juneli at Avila’s) of an episode in which Juneli and her fellow girl guides put on “beads and coloured feathers,” and act out bits of Hiawatha is a nod to that tradition. On the other hand, I know very little about Guides in India in the 70s; it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that they thought dressing up as “Red Indians” and prancing about was a fun way to spend time. I started reading school stories in the early 1990s and at that point (unless my childhood was extremely unusual) the idea that parodying other cultures was in poor taste was pretty mainstream, and it’s even more unpleasant to read now.

In addition, there’s the apparent willingness to mock characters for their weight or lack of athletic ability (in school stories as in life, the two are often unfairly conflated). This is all realistic enough–girls at school are as capable of cruelty and bullying as anyone else–but when in all other respects Juneli herself is treated as ideal (good, honourable, kind, etc), her willingness to participate in things like fat shaming suggests that the book itself endorses (or at least thinks nothing of) this behaviour.

Which is to say, reading these books was like reading any other school story–familiar, entertaining, and often jarring with the reminder that my values are not those of the genre’s earliest authors. In a series so relatively recent, I wish that this were not still the case.

April 16, 2019

Bali Rai, City of Ghosts

I have a post about Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts on the Children’s Literature in Newcastle blog, as a way of commemorating the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Alongside the book (and since I finished it), I’ve also been reading Kim A Wagner’s book on the incident; it’s published as Amritsar 1919 outside India, but here it’s only Jallianwala Bagh, which I think speaks to the sort of mythic resonance that it has within how Indians (at least, Indians from my part of the country) tell our history.

Rai’s book was published in the UK in 2009–I don’t know if it was ever actively linked to the 90th anniversary of the massacre. Nevertheless, I feel that questions of how the empire is remembered have been so much more prominent over the last few years (Brexit, Rhodes Must Fall, multiple rounds of the was-Churchill-bad wars) that reading it now may be quite different from reading it a decade ago. The centenary has taken place amid a number of calls to the British government to issue an official apology for what is now, at least, widely acknowledged as a horrific event (it’d be nice to be able to be shocked that the public at the time did the equivalent of a racist GoFundMe [to steal the term from my friend Vajra] to support Dyer, but then this happened this week and I’m not surprised at all.). I’m unconvinced that an apology is worth much–as I say in the blog post linked above, I’m suspicious of attempts to cordon off particular aspects of imperial violence and mark them as uniquely awful, when doing so serves to render all the other imperial violence (i.e. all of empire) relatively benevolent (on twitter I linked to Tom Bentley’s thoughts on this, which are good). I’m also suspicious of how these arguments constantly quote Churchill and work to suggest that he wasn’t a big fan of large scale violence on nonwhite colonial subjects.

As for the book itself, I think my main feeling was that I wanted it to go further and be the full-on angry indictment that it could have been. Given its audience, I’m not sure how far it could have gone, though. I got curious and read as many online reviews of the book as I could find, some from ten years ago and others more recent, and while they were all complimentary none of them suggested a possibility of deep engagement. Several iterations of “I’d never heard of this awful event!” (fair enough, sorry about the history curriculum); at least one that was uncomfortable with the fact that the book seems to endorse Udham Singh’s doing a murder; one, memorably, that sought to compliment Rai by comparing his presentation of India to Kim, by Rudyard Kipling (who famously called Dyer the “man who saved India” and supported his actions during the massacre. I love Kipling’s prose but if there was ever a time this comparison was inappropriate …). I’m suspicious of narratives of progress, and I don’t know that the relative prominence of imperial history in the public discourse over the last few years has actually led to an increased public understanding of it (most of the time, all it seems to mean is that people say offensive things more often and with more media coverage). Would the dramatic indictment I craved be more likely to be written in the current climate? I’m not sure. I’m currently doing some work on contemporary British children’s books and how they imagine/memorialise/ negotiate the imperial past, and I suspect I’ll be coming back to City of Ghosts to think about it more.

April 9, 2019

Aditi Krishnakumar, The Magicians of Madh

The Magicians of Madh is set in the sort of independent city state you see in quite a lot of fantasy, and so is immediately familiar. Krishnakumar knows you know this. Madh is full of hooded and cloaked figures, improbable architecture, competing and tax-avoidant temples, and more than the usual quantity of supernatural beings. The city’s skyline is dominated by the Academy (not actually the tallest building), where young people study magic and alchemy, as well as maths and philosophy. The assassins who roam the streets have, pragmatically, unionised. It’s all rather Terry Pratchett, and that is generally a good thing.

Strange events are taking place across the city; evidence of powerful magic but with no trace of who the practitioner/s might be. Teenage genius Meenakshi, along with her more practical foster brother Kalban, undertakes to find out what, who, and why.

I’d assumed from the back cover, and the fact that the book is squarely aimed at a middle-grade readership, that the Academy was a magic school, a setting that I thoroughly enjoy. For a while after the book opened, I found myself slightly disappointed that I wasn’t getting all the educational scenes I’d hoped for—and then I realised that what I was actually reading was magic university.

There’s space here for another call back to Terry Pratchett, but it wasn’t the one that felt most immediate to me. I have no way of knowing whether Krishnakumar has read Diana Wynne Jones’s Year of the Griffin, but some of that book’s (and to some extent Dark Lord of Derkholm’s, which it follows) sense of university life unfolding in the plot’s background, of deep immersion in personal projects, academic rivalries, earnest and ridiculous debate, awkward relationships with irascible supervisors,  and university social life (there’s even a Disembodied Voice Society, which I love), is present here as well, and is genuinely charming when it happens. (Also there are griffins.) The city in the background can sometimes be a bit of a gimmick taken too far (In other cities people would run away from danger! In Madh they run towards it! In other cities you’d look conspicuous all hooded and cloaked! Here you pass unnoticed!); the university is less of a genre parody and more a space in which people live and interact, and possibly even work.

There might be a reason for that (and note that this is a mystery story, and anything mentioned here may have relevance to the solution). The Academy is enchanted, in a very particular way, so that how it appears to each person is constantly changing, and no one has ever seen what the building itself looks like. Most often, as the characters creep through its corridors, it seems to look rather dungeonlike—dramatic and medieval and rather too dark. It’s giving its students the sort of portentous, pseudo-medieval setting they expect, as well as the one we expect—as the book does in its broader descriptions of Madh, it’s working with, building on and undercutting its audience’s expectations of what this sort of setting looks like, and what sort of genre this is.

And then events transpire so that we do see the Academy’s true form. It’s only described briefly; the characters find themselves in a room whose “floor was tiled in polished stone and the walls and ceiling painted a pale neutral cream.” Not much there, but shortly after Kalban describes the experience as seeing the Academy while it “looked like a government building designed by an architect in the middle of a minimalist phase.” I love this. For multiple reasons: I like the sort of building this seems to suggest; I like that Madh is the sort of world that might plausibly have minimalist government buildings; and I love how familiar, how immediate, and how Indian such a building feels to me.

Calling it “Indian” feels important given that all my references to other works thus far have been British ones–the names are Indic (Meenakshi, Chitralekha, Paras, Nalini), but is there more to it than that? Fantasy (or at least a certain sort of fantasy) in India faces something of a challenge when it attempts to build worlds that draw on the national past. (I can’t let that sentence pass without noting that medievalist European fantasy has been weaponised by Nazis more than once, including very recently, so the problem is not unique to us.) So much of Indian history, myth, folklore has been co-opted into a Hinduist narrative that a story that tries to use those things risks being co-opted in similar ways.

I don’t know whether Krishnakumar is actively trying to negotiate this situation, but if she is she comes up with some appealing solutions. Madh has its elements of Hindu mythology—a “Celestial Dancer” (Krishnakumar chooses not to say “Apsara,” but she’s not hiding what Chitralekha is—or for that matter her superiors Rambha and Urvashi) is one of the major characters, dividing her time between trying to solve the mystery alongside Meenakshi and irritating Kalban. It’s probably more a case of shared sources than a deliberate allusion, but the name of the neighbouring kingdom, Melucha, kept reminding me of Amish Tripathi’s Immortals of Meluha–fittingly, as Melucha seems a more traditional mythic kingdom.

And then we have the academy, and its blocky minimal-ness and suddenly I’m at home in a completely different way. I’ve spent most of my life in a country many of whose public institutions were built in the mid-twentieth century, and whose architecture reflects that moment. I’m suspicious of schools that want me to notice that they look like Hogwarts; I like a medieval castle in its place, but I’m suspicious of what about its old-ness I’m being asked to admire. Madh is–fundamentally–a post medievalist world, one into which government buildings just fit naturally. There may be some of the trappings of medievalism in its material culture (why are people wandering about with bows and arrows?), and Kalban in particular may be used to a court full of intrigue and assassination (I’d love to read fantasy set in Melucha, but I’m glad it’s offscreen in this story); but it’s no accident that the book’s appendices consist of a chart depicting the structure and hierarchies of Madh’s bureaucracy where many other fantasies would have family trees and glossaries. It seems the India I want from Indian fantasy is a post-independence one.

I realise that Krishnakumar probably did not set out to create a Nehruvian alternative to mythological fantasy, and I’m okay with that knowledge.

My feelings about buildings and bureaucracy aside, I’m not completely sold on this book. A couple of years ago I complained about another Indian fantasy that was aimed at middle-grade readers that it felt incomplete, as if there’d been several more chapters of backstory and worldbuilding. There’s a similar feeling of incompleteness about this book, and it has a bigger effect on me when I read. I describe the book above as a sort of mystery/detective novel–there are lots of small background details that turn out to have a real bearing on the solution. But in order to participate in the working out of the solution we need a basic understanding of how the world and its magic work and we don’t, quite. I have no idea whether Krishnakumar plans to write more books set in this world; if she does the main attraction for me would be that gradually I might come to understand this world better.

March 22, 2019

December Reading (and other 2018 book things)

Normally, at the beginning of January I’d publish a post (or two) talking about what I’d read in the previous month and looking back at my reading (and thinking) across the year as a whole. And here it is, and it’s most of the way into March, which is probably telling. Delhi had its one week of glorious spring and I think this is now summer.

I’m going to try something different in 2019, and not publish monthly (or bi- or tri-monthly, of late) lists but maintain one list for the end of the year (I do want to keep track, and publicly for some reason), and talk about books I actually want to talk about as they occur. (Given the frequency with which I’ve written here recently, I won’t vouch for how often that might be …)

Quite a lot happened in 2018; I moved to India For Good, moved back to the UK, moved back to India (For Good?); had a really cool job (if only it hadn’t been a 6 month contract…); had two horrific family bereavements that I’m still trying to get my head around. And yet in many ways, the whole year felt like it passed by in a blur of recovery from the previous few years–I’ve started new and exciting things, I’ve done some work I’m really proud of, and yet everything still feels like aftermath.


Anyway. Some stuff I read in December:

Anthony Berkeley, The Wychford Poisoning Case: When last heard of (November), I’d read Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d try one more in the series. It was very much what I’d expected from the first book, but I liked it less–the best characters in Chocolates are relatively minor ones, and the spreading around of perspective was much more appealing to me. I spent much of the book (spoiler alert?) yelling “has no one read Dorothy Sayers’s Strong Poison??!” before realising that no, they probably hadn’t (this was published a few years earlier) and concluding that everyone in the golden age was obsessed with arsenic eaters.


Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand: I’ve been looking forward to this, advertised as a Mughal-inspired epic fantasy. My Mughal history is pretty perfunctory–the CBSE syllabus from the late 90s and early 2000s, shored up by assorted snippets (and living in Delhi)–though even then I’m probably at an advantage over readers of this book who live in other parts of the world. As a result, it’s possible that I missed some of what made Suri’s world specifically Mughal, but the social structures felt true to most of what I know of medieval India generally. I struggled more with the disjointedness in my own head between djinn and (for want of a better phrase) magical Bharatnatyam.

That disconnect aside, I enjoyed this. Firstly because Empire of Sand takes on a fantasy trope that I love–magical contracts, and how you negotiate them. The protagonists have both inherited a supernatural trait by which promises or contracts made by them are seared into their skins and physically binding. Forced to swear allegiance to the Maha, a monstrous religious figure, they’re constantly looking for ways to work with those constraints while protecting each other and keeping a sort of faith with one another. This also feeds into a love I have for a particular fanfic trope, where plots are built to allow characters to precisely and tortuously map out their own boundaries in relation to each other, how consent works for them, etc. I think I might be too old to fully appreciate Suri’s sad, tortured hero, and I share Nibedita Sen’s questions here about gendered magic, which hopefully later books will clarify.


Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone: I’m still quite conflicted about how I feel about this book. Adeyemi’s prose is good, I’m enjoying the setting, and I’m genuinely looking forward to the next book, but I did often find myself frustrated with the structure. One of the inevitable consequences of dividing a narrative neatly between a set number of perspectives is that it implies a sort of equivalence in the weight afforded to each. Here, where one of the point of view characters is a member of an oppressed minority group, dragged unwittingly into a dangerous situation, the other two are from the powerful family who have participated enthusiastically in that oppression (even though they both have significant vulnerabilities to contend with), the result ends up feeling unbalanced. This is possibly enhanced because the book is so clear about how structured it is–two sets of siblings (both brother-sister pairings), each attracted to one (of the opposite gender) in the other set, point of view characters on either “side” of each conflict. Having said all of which, this giving us these particular points of view works exceptionally well towards the end, as one character we’ve been allowed to sympathise with and understand turns out to be too susceptible to the ideas he was raised with to change; it’s not a shocking twist, but it’s a very effective one.


Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater: As is probably clear from what I say above, I haven’t particularly enjoyed reading for most of the last year. Reading Freshwater at the end of December, I was honestly a bit shocked to realise that I was feeling energised and absorbed again. I’m not yet sure how to talk about this book usefully. I found that immersing myself in it worked wonderfully but has made it hard to think about in terms of actual words (and when I do I sound like a bad blurb–Did You Know this book is Rich, and Lyrical and Stylistically Daring?). Emezi’s on the Women’s Fiction Prize shortlist, which means that presumably a lot of people will be reading this book if they hadn’t already. I’m rather hoping that one of them will have the words. I can only say that it made me pace the room a lot.


Ram V, Dev Pramanik, Dearbhla Kelly and Aditya Bidikar, Paradiso Vol. 1: I was curious about this, as it’s been on some end of year lists; also because Bidikar’s an old friend and it’s just nice seeing him appreciated. I struggled a bit to get into this–there’s clearly some backstory and some worldbuilding that are going to become apparent as the series continues, but what I gathered of it all felt too much like other things I’d read before for it to strike me as a memorable thing in and of itself.


Some reading stats, as ever (disclaimers from previous years still apply): I read about 50 books, not counting (because I binged them over a couple of weeks, and am no longer sure which ones) some anthologies of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn stories–so the real number is probably closer to 60. 37 (ish) of the 50 were by authors who aren’t men (at least one’s nonbinary, and I don’t want to assume the others are all women). 28 were by authors who to my knowledge weren’t white, and as in previous years, I seem to have binge-read white women authors most–note that these stats do not even include the Ngaio Marsh binge.


And so on to 2019! She said, three months into 2019.

December 9, 2018

October and November Reading

Two months of books! Many of these were read on a week’s holiday in mid-October–I’ve struggled a bit to read since I came back to Delhi.


Onjali Q. Rauf, The Boy at the Back of the Class: I was a little nervous of this, as I am of much of the “children’s books about refugees” phenomenon that has become a thing of recent years; it’s understandable, and probably necessary, but raises so many questions about who it is being written about/for/by, and often fails to answer them. Rauf seems to answer those questions clearly–her narrator is a British child who doesn’t know much about refugees, and there’s an expectation of a reader who will learn at the same time; the back of the book contains various teaching materials as well. But Ahmet (the “boy” of the title) isn’t just a sad, silent presence in the book; he often actively participates in the telling of his story to the people he accepts as his friends. And the British characters have complicated family histories–the protagonist is mixed-race and has a grandmother who “ran away from the Nazis”. And it’s not a purely utilitarian “teaching” book; its genuinely funny, there’s material targeted at a more knowing reader (for example, a boy who keeps asking Ahmet if he’s actually the age he says he is; is he sure he’s not older?), and real skill in the way the narrative works to conceal the name and gender of its protagonist without drawing our attention to the fact that it’s doing so until close to the end–think The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler.

(More importantly?,) the book manages to treat racist immigration policy as policy,  not the unfortunate results of individual bad actors, tragic accidents, or people who Just Don’t Understand (though there are a few of those among the wider cast of characters). At one point the children contemplate writing to the Prime Minister for help, and one of them points out that “the Prime Minister was in charge of the government and had probably been the one who told the security guards to lock the gates and sent them her special keys.” It’s a bit of a shame that an appeal to the Queen ends up being part of the solution–Rauf leaves open the possibility that the massive PR campaign that the children unwittingly initiate may be what spurs her to help, but it’s hardly explicit and feels of a piece with British media’s weird habit of treating the royal family as somehow outside/innocent of politics and power. This affront to human dignity aside, The Boy at the Back of the Class is great at getting at the sheer, visceral horror of small, individual acts of racism (the school bully destroying the backpack that Ahmet has carried with him, even as he’s lost his parents and seen his sister and cat die) as well as big, structural ones (that closing the borders means separating traumatised children from their families is something that most adults know, and yet). It’s very good.


Esi Edugyan, Washington Black: I made copious notes on this book while I was reading it, and have thus far completely failed to turn them into any sort of coherent response. Reading over them now, though, what I kept coming back to was the centrality to the book of Titch, a white Englishman from the wealthy family that owns the plantation on which the title character, Washington, begins his life. Titch is the committed scientist who first interests Washington in the subject, and is also the first white person to treat him with some level of decency–but far, far from enough. I don’t think Edugyan ever falls into the trap of treating Titch like the Good White Character who appears in so many books about race in the 19th Century–and Washington’s aware that, e.g., “Once he’d finished his papers on aerostation and the treatment of slaves on Faith, I had lost some value for him. I had become, perhaps, too solid, too heavy, too real–an object to be got rid of”. And yet he’s so central, even in the large swathes of the book from which he’s absent–at one point in my notes there’s a plaintive “I wish this whole book weren’t a meditation on the morality of Titch”. In his post about the book, Dan Hartland also discusses Edugyan’s appearance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival where, he says, she described this as a “post-slavery” narrative. This feels crucial to me in reading the book, because one part of facing the history of slavery (and empire more generally, I think) in a post-slavery (however debatable that “post” is) is creating some sort of bearable narrative about the architects and beneficiaries of those systems, with whom one has to continue to share a world. Washington’s preoccupation with Titch makes a lot of sense in that context, as much as I’d love for him to just break free and have more flying machine or marine life adventures. I’m not happy about it (nor, understandably, is Washington’s partner Tanna), and yet some of the book’s most powerful moments are when Edugyan has Washington struggle with his feelings about Titch; the moments where he confronts him in words that he “could hear what a false picture they painted and also how they were painfully true”.


Robin Stevens, Death in the Spotlight: I had about a week of conversations with friends that just consisted of us yelling the word DAISY at each other and knowing exactly what we meant. DAISY. I think what has impressed me about this book, beyond imagining how I’d have felt about a tiny 1930s lesbian detective when I was a younger reader, is the fact that Stevens has managed to do this–have a character just say outright that she’s attracted to a girl (and not boys, never, why would you even)–and still retain something more delicate, a more ambiguous approach to feelings and sexuality. This probably requires more space and better thinking but: traditionally single-gender dominated genres like the school story (and the books in this series are sometimes school stories, but even when they’re not they’re stories about a girl writing about her adventures/relationship with another girl) are often read productively as queer because they’re so often about girls looking at and constantly thinking about other girls (or the equivalent, but boys). And I think there’s sometimes an assumption that their ambiguity (about whether that fascination between characters is gay) is a purely result of what could/couldn’t be printed/acknowledged in The Olden Days, and sometimes that’s true–in 2018 you’re still much more likely to get hate mail for writing the bland acknowledgement of a character’s queerness than you are for a long, fraught, yearny thing where no one actually says it out loud. It matters to me that I can read children’s books starring gay characters now, but in my heart I don’t want us to lose the other thing, the ambiguous yearny thing. And we’re lucky that there’s so much richness in Hazel and Daisy as characters, in Hazel’s looking at Daisy (through a lens that’s coloured by her own diffidence, her foreignness, her not-white-ness, her class position, as well as the fact that Daisy is fascinating) and Daisy’s looking at Hazel (in the short stories), so that here we can actually have both ways of talking about desire.

In unrelated observations about the book, I’m glad I had my Ngaio Marsh binge earlier this year; I felt very prepared for a theatre murder.


Mohsin Hamid, Exit West: I spent quite a lot of my thesis years thinking about portal fantasies and the ways in which they interacted with the spatial politics of the real world. So when Exit West came out I was both eager to read it and angry that I was expected to think about these things some more. When I started reading it, sometime in 2017, it became very clear to me that I didn’t want to at all. A year later, I really enjoyed this. Hamid isn’t an SF writer (except insofar as he has clearly written a book with an SFnal concept, which may be the only meaningful … anyway), and his interests in how the world responds to this book’s novum–that “doors” between random parts of the world may open up so that traditional methods of border control are increasingly unfeasible–don’t entirely fall in the places that mine would. But the later parts of the book in particular, when the world is being reconstructed to make room for its refugees, meant something to me; an active, constructive vision of the future that was a relief to read.


Nidhi Chanani, Pashmina: This is a YA graphic novel about an Indian-American girl named Pri (Priyanka), who lives with a mother who constantly evades questions about their family and their past. The discovery of an old pashmina shawl takes her into a fantasy world where she meets a peacock and an elephant and is introduced to an Incredible India! version of India; one that’s constantly disrupted by the shadow of something that wants to communicate with her (and that her two guides are very eager to dismiss). Simultaneously, she visits her family in the “real” India; learns some uncomfortable family history, and as the two storylines merge, something of the history of the shawl, and its connection to Shakti, whom her mother worships. So far this is a familiar enough genre–coming of age, family secrets, learning about one’s heritage, general feminism (there’s an all-women workers’ raid on a factory that pleased me very much). But it feels a little bitty–you can’t help feeling that with a slightly different structure the whole thing would feel more coherent than it does, would make its links more smoothly and without awkward exposition (such as Shakti explaining that “There is too much injustice,” and “That pashmina will allow women to see their choices”). I was thrown by the phrasing “Lord Shakti”, which I’ve never heard before, and couldn’t decide whether the book had chosen to deliberately not comment on the fact that Rohini, the original weaver of the shawl, is liberated from her factory job (as the target of what’s heavily implied to be a sexually abusive boss) by her dream of … working as a domestic worker for Pri’s great grandmother. On the other hand, I did appreciate Chanani’s choice not to do anything with Pri’s dislike of her uncle; a lot of writers wouldn’t have been able to resist resolving that plotline, however unlike the real world such a resolution would be. In short, my feelings were also bitty, and generally lukewarm.


Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (eds), The Djinn Falls in Love: Because I love her work, the moment I received a copy of this I jumped ahead to the Kuzhali Manickavel story (“How We Remember You”) and ended up not reading the rest. How that I’ve read the whole thing from beginning to end, I can also reveal that Saad Z. Hossain’s “Bring Your Own Spoon”, set in a future where the cooking and eating of real food is both radical and dangerous, is one of its highlights; the Kamila Shamsie story (“The Congregation”) has the feel of a very good myth. I can’t decide how I felt about Sami Shah’s “Reap”, a horror story told from the perspective of American drone operators surveilling a village in Pakistan, but whatever it was, I felt it viscerally. Some of the stories in here feel a bit gimmicky to me–for example the Claire North story is trying to imitate a particular style of storytelling but comes across as forced and a bit coy. But when this collection is good, it’s excellent–and I really want someone to write the essay on Manickavel and that one large family house that seems to keep recurring in her work.


Mahesh Rao, Polite Society: Emma in Delhi has already been done, in the film Aisha, which I’ve never seen but am obliged to disapprove of because when it came out people sang the title song at me a lot. I was excited about this book, because what I’d read of Rao in the past suggested that he’d be good at an Austenesque world–he’s both ruthless about people and extremely amused by them. That latter trait is necessary in Polite Society, because Delhi’s elite (I may be including myself here; my uncertainty about my position within this book’s social world added a lot to my reading*) are unspeakable. Unlike Austen, Rao isn’t able to feel affection for his interfering heroine, and that’s great, because she doesn’t deserve it. On the other hand, he’s able to be gentler (if not kind) to the more vulnerable figures in her orbit–and is never (overtly) cruel enough to the book’s Mr Knightley. I laughed a lot, recognised a lot of stock figures (and sometimes thought I’d recognised individuals); it was good.


Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kingdoms of Elfin: I bought Kingdoms of Elfin years ago, but my copy has been in storage (in a friend’s garage) for almost a year now. During that year I reread Hope Mirrlees, and read Jeannette Ng, and started work on a paper about England-Faerie international relations (there’s a new Zen Cho in a few months, which I expect to be of some relevance here), and not having access to this book felt like a real absence. Luckily, a new edition has just been published. I’m discussing the book in detail as part of a Strange Horizons book club, but as a preliminary comment, I’m very glad I had that recent Mirrlees read to ground this for me, tonally. I don’t know much about either writer’s life, but I assume they knew of each other, possibly knew each other.


Anthony Berkeley, The Poisoned Chocolates Box: I was listening to an episode of the Shedunnit podcast, about classic detective stories, and Berkeley’s name came up a few times. I’m not a golden age expert by any standard, but felt a bit odd that I’d read all the other people mentioned, if not extensively, but never any Berkeley. This is probably his most famous, and with its multiple solutions it doubles as a commentary on the genre in ways that I was very entertained by. Reading the introduction (by Martin Edwards–this edition was one of the British Library Crime Classics) afterwards I discovered that a character I’d been suspecting of all manner of things may have been based on E.M. Delafield, author of the wonderful Provincial Lady books; I’m finding it pleasing to believe that Delafield (gloriously, born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture– “de la field“, you see?) was this splendidly cold and cynical and diabolical in person.


*I watched Crazy Rich Asians with a friend a couple of months ago, and we found that watching it as relatively rich and highly privileged but-not-like-that Asians in an Asian capital city put us in an odd position as viewers. Polite Society had a little of that feel for me; even as I read and was amused by these ultra-privileged aliens I was furiously calculating my own place in their world.

October 3, 2018

July, August, September Reading

It has been Several Months since I posted a reading list (or posted anything at all); and there’s been very little to say. I read very slowly this summer, but I did do some good work, spent lots of time walking around Newcastle and saying goodbye to it, was officially awarded my PhD, and organised yet another intercontinental house move.

Lots of the things included in the list below are things I read several weeks ago, and so I’ve not got a lot to say about them. One book in particular seems to have provoked a longer rant, so I’ve left it till the end. Anyway, here’s what I read over the summer.



Robin Stevens, The Case of the Missing Treasure: I was a bit nervous about this book, with a very Egyptian sarcophagus on the cover. I have Views on Egyptian (and other African and Asian etc) artefacts in European museums, and while I don’t expect characters in 1930s settings to wholly subscribe to them, I’m rarely in the mood for the sort of entitlement that characterises British responses to these artefacts. In the event this short story was not as radical as I’d have loved it to be, it does manage to weave a great deal of discomfort with the museum into the narrative–through George’s moral clarity (I love him so dearly) and even more effectively, through Daisy’s uncertainty.


Gabrielle Kent and Rex Crowle, Knights And Bikes: Going in I knew almost nothing about this book; I don’t tend to pay much attention to games (this is set in the same world as a forthcoming one), and only gathered from the cover that it was about two kids with bikes. The knights/quest narrative I’d rather assumed to be something along the lines of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights–more a product of the characters’ imaginations than an Actual Supernatural Adventure. I was wrong about this; this is absolutely the sort of local fantasy quest that I read as a small child, castles rise from the sea, statues come to life, and so forth. More importantly, there’s treasure, formed of Crusaders’ loot, and it becomes essential to the book that that treasure be returned to the places from where it was stolen. Combined with the Stevens story above, and Emma Carroll’s Secrets of a Sun King, which I’m currently reading, it feels like there’s a lot to say about writers responding to current critiques of the imperial museum and yet attempting to still write familiar forms of story. I’m not sure if I’m the person who’s going to write it–at the moment it feels a little too intertwined with arguments I’m making throughout my PhD, but I’m hoping to find a way.


Katie Tsang and Kevin Tsang, Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts and Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Sharks: Breezed through these during a long-haul flight, and thoroughly enjoyed them, though my enduring memory is a sort of uncomfortable awe that Sam, who is (like me) afraid of snakes, is keeping one *in his house* where it can sometimes escape.


O. Douglas, Eliza for Common: As I’ve said on here before, I really like O. Douglas for a very particular sort of mood and character-observation. This was one of the major books by her that I hadn’t read, and it’s great for a really clear, sympathetic depiction of adolescent … self-fashioning, for want of a less good phrase; the forming of Good Taste (and so often in these gently middle-class books good taste is treated as inherent and genetic; to see it as a construct here is rather nice), the appropriate short form of one’s own name; the right level of cosmopolitanism. For that, and for a sudden, painful moment towards the end of the book that felt very familiar at the time, I’m very glad I read it.


Nadia Shireen, Billy and the Beast: A very classic picture book plot–intrepid small child outwits and defeats monster–and it’s adorable. The cat, who is fat (and called fat cat), has the grumpiest little face, Billy’s big, curly hair means that she can hide useful tools in it, the hedgehog is reading a classic penguin paperback. This will probably be the book that multiple friends’ small children are given this year, and I think they’re going to love it.


Malala Yousafzai and Kerascoet, Malala’s Magic Pencil: This was on of the books on the Little Rebels shortlist, which was my main reason for reading it. I … wasn’t a huge fan; I think it needed to be either an explanation of Malala’s activism and shooting or a book that took our knowledge of that context for granted, because the magic pencil itself gets rather lost. The Kerascoët illustrations are very good, though.


Birdie Milano, Boy Meets Hamster: This has been a nice summer for the teenage romcom– I enjoyed Love, Simon and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and (bookswise) Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat. Boy Meets Hamster fit in very well with this general mood; gay romance set in a rainy caravan park and featuring an alarming hamster mascot. It’s at its least convincing when its protagonist is smitten with the horrible boy next door–if the book is from Dylan’s perspective, surely his horribleness shouldn’t be this obvious to us? I would still watch the cute netflix film of it though.


Smriti Prasadam-Halls and Jonathan Woodward, The Ways of the Wolf: As some of you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about children’s nonfiction over the last couple of years, and particularly about nature-related nonfiction. Woodward’s art here is beautiful, Prasadam-Halls’ prose is lyrical, for a format that’s of necessity sparse. I rolled my eyes quite a lot at the reference to Native American stories about wolves–instead of being included in the other myths and folktales about wolves, this was is part of a double-spread titled “Friends of the Wolf” where the “friends” were black-winged ravens and Native Americans (which Native Americans?). Besides this, I did like a lot about the book–when dealing with animals, it’s substantial and beautifully made.


Margaret Biggs, Christmas Term at Vernley: Team who are bad at stuff make good is another classic plot, especially within the school story (as I wrote this, I had to go and reread Wodehouse’s The Head of Kay’s), and the sports film. A favourite iteration of this is Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Pony Club Cup; the Woodbury Pony Club triumphs, sort of, but they and their ponies never cease to be a bit of a mess. Christmas Term at Vernley straddles this comic tradition and a more straightfaced “for the sake of the school” narrative, but falls mostly on the comic side–it’s set in a school where there are only two houses and one is better at everything. The head of the other house is challenged to reform her half of the school, and sets about this with the dubiously-useful aid of an eager little sister. The younger girls evolve series of grand plans that go wrong; the elder girls quietly make friends. This is the first thing by Biggs that I’ve read (it’s a standalone book and I didn’t want to start collecting a new series); it’s good enough that I might have to look into her Melling books.


Tamora Pierce, Tempests and Slaughter: I’m not sure the Tortall books were ever going to survive rereading by an adult. (Except the Keladry books, because those are good.) Pierce is such a formative writer for so many fantasy-reading women of my generation–she’s where many of us saw women having periods and casualish sex for the first time in the genre, she’s good at stubborn girls with magic (or without) and their rather daunting destinies. The Tortall (and surrounding countries) books are less good, and less interesting on things like race and empire–Tortall itself is just another fantasy medieval western European nation, and its main social difficulties seem largely solvable by having a sufficiently progressive monarch. (The Keladry books point out many of the limitations of this, but settle for a sort of patient centrism that insists that you read it as pragmatic.)

Non-white cultures occasionally appear–the Carthaki empire that is inhabited by black- and brown-skinned people, is a centre of learning and does slavery; the Yamani who have enigmatic poetry, tea ceremonies and martial arts and who train themselves out of facial expressions; the nomadic tent-dwelling Bazhir tribes, etc; there are flashes of interest with some of these, so perhaps I’m being unfair in reducing them to their stereotypes, but the books make it very easy to and that’s telling. In the Trickster duology, there’s a promising set up involving an island nation to the west colonised by (white) Easterners where the slave trade and a form of plantation slavery are practised. The duology documents the overthrow of the white colonising class and the establishment of a multiracial queen whose blood is sufficiently noble under both traditions. Even here, though, the books are unable to not make the story that of a white Tortallan girl, Alanna’s daughter. It’s not that the Copper Islanders have no agency, it’s that the books are unwilling or unable to wholly hand us over to them–Tortallan values, and Tortallan perspective must be present, must be nuanced.

And so to Tempests and Slaughter, a prequel to Pierce’s Immortals tetralogy, and providing backstory for that series’s beloved Numair Salmalin. Numair’s childhood was spent in Carthak; and Pierce’s portrayal of that empire in the earlier books is rather jarring and continues to be so here. We have the oriental despots with their dependence on overornamentation and slavery, the virtuous hero who, the book is careful to inform us, is not really from here–his family are from the north (this also serves as a hint that he’s white) and so even growing up in a society where slavery is normal and uncommented upon has not encroached upon his innate love of Freedom. It’s not clear to me why this is better than, say, The Horse and his Boy.

There are other issues. This is primarily a book about magic school and I love magic school as  a genre. There are inter-student politics, intense boarding school friendships, and even a hint of the animal-transformations-as-education of T.H. White. But in all of this the book is hamstrung by the worst sort of prequelitis. The later books have already determined what aspects of Numair’s past are going to matter when he’s an adult, and so this book is determined that we get all of them. He was friends with Ozorne when they were children? Now they must be intensely involved best friends. He had a girlfriend at some point? Now he must have been in love with her from childhood. In adulthood he’s friends with a man who’d escaped slavery? Then the enslaved man he befriends in his youth obviously must be the same man. It’s stifling. This focus on the characters’ futures also means that the book’s relationships are only effective if the reader already has all the context of the later books–which seems a weird choice, given that the Immortals books were published in the early 90s. This reads like nothing more than a litany of complaints, but it just doesn’t work, and I retain enough fondness for these characters that I wanted it to.


July 4, 2018

June Reading

Almost all of the things I read this month were children’s books (the Carnegie and Little Rebels prize shortlists both contributed to this), and a couple of things I had to stop reading, like Emma Glass’s Peach (I will go back to this, but … not yet, I think), but it was still a better month for reading than I’ve grown to expect over the last couple of years.


Henry Lien, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword: I’m writing a longer review of this for Strange Horizons, so expect to see it there soon. But: this was a lot of fun. Since I read it I’ve been reading Lien’s other stories set in this world, which add a further layer of complexity, but it works very well as a standalone piece, as a fantasy school story, as an increasingly complex middle-grade novel. I liked it a lot, basically.

Elys Dolan, Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory: I didn’t have time to read all of the Little Rebels shortlist this year, but I picked up a few of the books that were on it anyway. This is a picturebook about labour rights in a chocolate egg factory, where the workers are chickens. I’ll be writing about it at length, but as with other children’s books about labour rights, I was disappointed that it didn’t go far enough. No one seems to have the courage to depict the violent overthrow of the system, which is a shame.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Beautiful Ones: This is a historical romance, of the sort we’re all familiar with–awkward debutante, beautiful and sophisticated older woman, intriguing self-made man who has travelled to parts of the world that seem strange and exotic to his own people. It’s also a fantasy because of the setting–another world, but with fashions and social mores drawn from our own 19th century (Moreno-Garcia describes it as inspired by the Belle Époque)–and because some people in this world, including two of the protagonists, have telekinetic powers. The fantasy is perhaps the least interesting part of this story–it’s never very clear to me that the world is significantly altered by the presence of telekinesis, and all it does is give Antonina and Hector something in common; references to the larger, alternate geography are intriguing, but the plot doesn’t give us much opportunity to explore. I’m not sure that matters though, because the relationships do work. If this is a romance, it’s a conflicted one–do we accept Hector’s reform because Nina does? And what Hector feels for Nina may be very wonderful, but at some level the book knows it’s not the same thing as what he felt for Valerie and the difference may matter someday. There’s a yearny, bittersweet undertone to all of this; it’s a little bit Barbara Pym. Which is not a comparison I thought I’d be making when I started out. (The Les Liaisons Dangereuses comparison, which everyone has made, is also accurate.)

Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends: Several words on this (excellent) book here; it has since won the Carnegie medal.

Patrick Ness, Release: Several words on this book here.

Zanib Mian, The Muslims: This won the Little Rebels award, and I enjoyed it very much; I was interested particularly in how directly it addresses islamophobia and racism in the UK by building them into the book’s structure: the title, for example, is derived from a bigoted neighbour’s constant references to what sinister activities “the Muslims” are up to (she does learn to like them, but there’s a hint that her acceptance of these racially-other neighbours doesn’t extend to other communities). Since reading the book, I’ve also used it in a class (about antiracist activism, children’s literature, and illustrations) with some school students, who were intrigued by it. I’ll be writing about it separately soon.

Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, The Racial Imaginary: I was looking for a particular piece in this collection (it turned out to be one of Loffreda’s own entries), and ended up reading the whole thing, almost straight through, over a couple of days. It wasn’t the ideal way to read the collection, which I’d only dipped in and out of previously; but there are a few pieces in there (Bhanu Kapil!) that stood out to me despite my fire-hose approach to reading it.


June 18, 2018

Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends

world endsI wonder if there’s something to be said about the fact that “based on a true story” is so big a part of this year’s Carnegie shortlist? Where the World Ends dramatises events of 1727 -28, when a group of boys and men from St. Kilda left the island of Hirta to harvest birds for food on nearby Stac an Armin, and were stranded there for several months as, due to an outbreak of smallpox on Hirta, no one was able to sail out and collect them. When they returned, their community had been almost entirely wiped out by the disease. In her afterword to the book, McCaughrean claims to have altered some of the details–she adds another child to the group of 8 recorded in the historical account, and softens the blow of their return slightly by leaving a few more survivors in the village.

McCaughrean’s version of events is told through the eyes of Quill (or Quilliam), a boy probably in his teens who has been on the journey to the stac before. His reluctance to leave Hirta at the beginning of the book is entirely due to the presence of Murdina, a visitor to the island who tells stories he doesn’t know, and who speaks to him of trees. As the group on the stac first realise that no one is coming for them and then begin to buckle under the strain of the circumstances, Quill takes partial refuge in imagining Murdina on the stac with them, and himself becomes a storyteller, attempting to give shape and meaning to the lives of his struggling companions. Quite a few of the reviews, and even the blurbs, for this book refer to Lord of the Flies, and it’s a rather obvious comparison to make. I think that there’s a difference, though. Readings of Lord of the Flies as being About The Inherent Savagery of Humans are a bit glib and annoying (among other things, to insist on reading general “human nature” from a bunch of posh British schoolboys feels limited to say the least), but the book is fundamentally allegorical. Where the World Ends is not. Though the characters occasionally tip over into moments of irrational rage or cruelty, they usually do so in ways that are consistent with their individual selves. There are two moments when they seem to lose all sense of self, but as horrific as they are they’re also temporary. Having said which, if you’ve read Lord of the Flies (or anything in the larger horror category in which humans succumb to sudden bloodlust) it’s probably hard not to have that narrative hanging over your head and making you wary. Particularly when I discovered that one character was a girl in disguise I was bracing myself for some horrific act of sexual violence. (Her transition within the book from having lived as a boy all her life to a relatively unproblematic girlhood was a bit hard to believe; I had to tell myself that Quill probably wouldn’t have seen the complications that might arise so their omission from the narrative was justified.)

This sense of the characters as individual people is important because one of the things that McCaughrean does very well here is to plausibly and complexly render a set of perspectives that are really far removed from those of her presumed readers. Finding themselves abandoned with seemingly no attempt at rescue, the only explanation that the companions are able to imagine is that the world has ended, their families ascended to heaven, and they, hidden on this small rock in the sea, have been overlooked. This sincere religious belief is twinned with a strong sense of the myths and superstitions of St. Kilda in general and Hirta in particular, and there’s a really strong sense of the interplay between these sets of beliefs and how they exist for each individual person. Quill’s perspective is, unsurprisingly, the closest to what most readers might feel–whether or not he believes that the world has ended, he’s willing to make up stories about it to make the others feel better (which suggests that for him finding a narrative that enables them to survive is more important than the truth of the matter). I was prepared to roll my eyes a bit at Col Cane, one of the monstrous characters one often finds in children’s fiction, who weaponises religion in order to commit acts of shrill cruelty*, but there’s enough variation in the beliefs on display here to make his form of faith only one of many. The other characters include a saintly young boy whose faith is so strong that he sees visions and feels guilt at not being able to walk on water, another small child who believes his mother to be in heaven yet is worried that his absence will mean she’ll lack enough peat to burn through the winter, and Quill’s friend Murdo, whose main regret at the end of the world is that he never got to sleep with a woman–”Ye canna do that while you’re standing about in Heaven singing hymns, and with all sorts looking on … And I d’na think we get to keep our bodies there, either. We are just wee spirity things, a-floatin’” (I don’t feel able to discuss McCaughrean’s rendition of the characters’ accents.)

The book dramatises one important moment in these islands’ history–it makes reference to another as well, though McCaughrean makes no explicit mention of this in her quite detailed Afterword. In 1840 the last Great auk in Britain would be captured on Stac an Armin–its captors beat it to death some days later, believing it to be a witch that was causing a storm. Four years later, the bird was extinct worldwide. A Great auk, or garefowl, plays a major role in this story. Quill is surprised to find it living alone on the island, as he knows that birds of this species generally live in large flocks. As the months go by, Quill feels a growing bond with the bird, which is tangled up in his feelings for Murdina. The others, however, find the garefowl uncanny and a little too human–particularly after it seems to attempt to feed a trapped boy. In a genuinely shocking scene (the book’s Lord of the Flies moment, if it has one) towards the end of the book, Quill’s companions turn on the bird and reenact (pre-enact?) the scene that will take place a little over a century after these events–they believe it to be a “witch” and “storm-bringer,” and they put a sack over it and beat it to death with a rock.

Reviewing another book on this Carnegie shortlist, I don’t think I said that it had disappointed me by being set on a small island and not giving me enough seabirds and saltwater and wind. Where the World Ends made up for this by being tremendously evocative of all of those things (and rock, and horrible rotting-things smells). Best of all, the book ends with a glossary (with illustrations!) of sea birds native to St. Kilda. That alone would have won me over.



The Carnegie announcement is a few hours away, so this is a good time for predictions. I haven’t had time to write about the last book on the list, Will Hill’s After the Fire–that post is forthcoming, but I’d be surprised if the book were to win the medal (it did win the YA book prize a couple of weeks ago, though). On the whole, this has been a relatively good year for the award, or at least for my reading of it; in previous years I’ve disliked the majority of the list and been actively angered by (on average) about a quarter of it. This year, I genuinely liked at least three books on the list (The Hate U Give, Where the World Ends, and Rook); felt well disposed towards some others (Wed Wabbit, about 60% of Release), and only actively disliked one (Saint Death). Despite this, before I read Where the World Ends I thought that The Hate U Give was the best book on the list by a huge margin–I still think it’s the best book on there, but WtWE is polished enough to feel like a serious competitor.

So a decent year for me; but what does this shortlist say about the Carnegie itself? I was glad to see some actual middle-grade books make the list, given the dominance of YA in recent years, but it’s still very unbalanced (and I understand makes organising school shadowing groups quite a complicated procedure). And, given a chance to demonstrate a willingness to engage with criticisms of the award’s lack of racial diversity, the fact that the shortlist excludes any UK-based BAME writers feels like a doubling down–as if change can wait until after the Diversity Review. Whichever book wins (I’ve discussed  my ambivalence on this subject), this year’s medal will feel a bit overshadowed by that context.





*On this shortlist alone we have versions of the character in this book and After the Fire (Release does not, though the version of Christianity espoused by some of its characters is a deeply unpleasant one); of the books on the longlist The Island at the End of Everything also has one.