The Furthest Station – Ben Aaronovitch

furthest-stationAll the previous Rivers of London books, I’ve read pretty promptly after I was made aware of them. But when this one came out as a teeny weeny novella… it still cost loads in hardback compared to the number of pages you got, and I was Stubborn, so I’ve only got round to reading it now that someone has kindly let me borrow their copy. Which came with a warning that the contents weren’t a direct sequel to The Hanging Tree, and were kind of orthogonal to the plot generally. Which was, indeed, very true.

That wasn’t the main issue with it, however. The main issue is that it is actually just too small, and you’ve got what could very nearly be the plot of a whole novel squidged down into a novella… a fairly slim one at that… and so by necessity a lot of the connecting the dots and so on is skimmed over and it just doesn’t hang together very well. Like, the idea is great. But I got to the end and was sort of hazy on how various bits actually related to each other, because you never really got shown exactly, or not in the nice, comprehensive way you do in the full novels. And I kept thinking of more bits where I’m not really sure where it went… threads that just led nowhere. It was really quite unsatisfying.

That being said, I did still giggle a couple of times. It hasn’t stopped sounding like Aaronovitch, even if it is half-assedly cobbled together.

So the idea is, ghosts have been showing up on the Tube, freaking people out, then disappearing from memory. Peter Grant wants to know why. So far, so mystery, so normal. And it does proceed as normal. We get some collaboration with the BTP, some Grant-esque thinking outside the box, some in depth descriptions of London landmarks with a side order of side-eye for the realms beyond the M25. But that’s kind of where it stops being good. Because the seeming is all there, the feel of a Peter Grant novel… but once you get to the bit where the action starts to happen and they start to unravel the mystery, it all falls apart because there just isn’t the space in the book to do the work to tie it all together. We’re talking about getting to a bit of the reveal and me going “wait, what, when did they join those two up?” and having to skim back, and honestly still not finding it. Like, I can figure it out by implication, but it’s just not there. And the resolution, even if you’re happy to rest on implication to get there, isn’t all that satisfying either. It’s all a bit too… convenient coincidences.

So I don’t really see why he made it a novella? It’s not like the publisher is going to refuse to let him do another book at this point, is it? I mean, case in point: Lies Sleeping. So why is this one a short? Layer it in with some background hijinx and it could totally have made a whole novel. The only reason I can think of is that it doesn’t tie in to the Faceless Man plot arc, and so he felt he couldn’t have a whole book taking you away from that storyline. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but if the result is so… unsatisfying… I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile logic anymore.

It’s not that I object that it’s a tangent from the plot – I would have been happy with a book of “some other stuff happens” and accepting that. It just feels like there was a whole novel and chunks have been ripped out of it for the sake of expedience, and we’re left with this bleeding ruin that doesn’t have kidneys or a ribcage anymore.

Which makes me a little concerned for the other novellas he seems to have planned.

The internet tells me there’s one going to be about What Abigail Did On Her Summer, which, cool, could go either way. There’s one about whatsername the American liaison, which, again, cool. And then… and then… there’s one about magic in Roman Londinium and one about Nightingale. And I genuinely made an embarrassing squeaky noise when I found both of those out… so knowing how badly this came out makes me genuinely worried about them as novellas. I admit, unashamedly, to absolutely adoring Thomas Nightingale as a character, human being and general dispenser of Latin grammar based shade… so for the love of god don’t give him a mangled novella. It’d be like taking Good Omens and making a tv show out of it, but giving the guy playing Aziraphale hair that looks like they dunked his head in a bucket of bathroom bleac- oh wait shit. I forgot, the world is a terrible, terrible place.

Maybe I’ll wait until someone else has read the Nightingale novella before I touch it. I’m all for writing scathing reviews (honestly, they are more fun, and definitely easier to write) but I possibly don’t want anyone to see the level of anguished emoting I’d get about Aaronovitch fucking up Nightingale. Or Romans.

Possibly I need to rethink my priorities in life. Who knows.

Anyway. I’m glad I read this one, if only in a completionist sense, but it really is a shambles of a book. I’ve got Lies Sleeping on the go next, and it at least so far looks like we’re back on form in terms of writing a coherent narrative and filling in all the plot holes with community policing and forms filled out in triplicate. Fingers crossed things stay that way… and that he decides actually Nightingale needs his own full series of seven books or so… ideally where he solves crime in a cosy and historical manner. A girl can dream.

 

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Inversions – Iain M. Banks

7155JwU-cvLI thought I’d read all the Culture novels… and I kinda had. But I needed something appealing to kick me out of the “but I could just keep… reading Cadfael?” streak, and a bit of Banks SF was a clear way to do that. Especially as the setting is a pseudo-medieval-Europe planet, so it even sort of felt like fantasy at some points. An author I know I love, and a comforting veneer of fantasy… what more could I want?

Well, not much, since it was bloody good.

Honestly, I had thought Banks had peaked around Player of Games or Use of Weapons, but nope, this is up there too. It was written some later, two years after Excession, and yet it feels very much on par with what I had previously considered his two absolute stand out science fiction novels. So yeah, resolution to keep reading the Banks archive I guess. I mean, I never was sat here saying the rest of the Culture novels were bad or anything, but there’s not the same feeling of “woah” you get when finishing Player of Games*. This… kinda did have that feeling.

Which sort of surprised me, because I just hadn’t heard it discussed anywhere near as much as most of Banks’ other main SF works**. Which either says to me that it’s one of those books I just irrationally glommed onto (Vellum by Hal Duncan I see you), or everyone else is a bit daft. I’m not ruling out either option, tbh.

Or, the premise, which isn’t… entirely obviously SF, is putting people off.

The book is made up of two interwoven narratives, that of The Doctor and The Bodyguard, with a preface suggesting that one was written by the doctor’s assistant, and the other collected from an unknown source, likely one of the characters in the tale of The Bodyguard, then the two adapted together by the doctor’s assistant. The narratives relate stories happening roughly contemporaneously in two states on a distant world, some years after the fall due to natural disaster of an empire of which they were both a part. Both states are in a fragile political state, recovering from the empire’s fall in different ways, and we see the King and the Protector and how they navigate this new world, through stories of people close to them – the King’s doctor and the Protector’s bodyguard. Both are in privileged positions close to the seat of power, allowed to hear and see things many others could not, despite not being themselves in a position of power to change events.

And the stories really are very well interwoven, not just in how the two plots overlap, but in the pacing and timing too. I often find with multiple perspective narratives, that there’s the one I just don’t care about, and spend much of their chapters going “ughhh come on get to the good one”. This is… not that. Each chapter seems perfectly calibrated to get you to “oh nooo don’t end now”, then a page later you’re just as engrossed in the other character. There’s definitely no “better” narrative, and the speed with which you alternate means no scene or theme gets to drag too long before you switch over to the next one.

Equally, for all that they are not their own narrators, both the Doctor and the Bodyguard are compelling main characters, both told from plausible yet intimate outside perspectives. The observer of the Doctor has plot-stated reasons to be paying very close attention to her, but it’s his ability to draw conclusions and to project his own feelings that make her narrative so compelling, and his ability to miss things that, in hindsight, should have been obvious all along, that makes him a wonderfully real narrator. For the Bodyguard, some of the interest lies in the mystery of who the narrator is – we are left to figure their identity out for ourselves – and so you get a more anonymous view, but one that equally draws a very close portrait of a fascinating character.

They’re both also people I found it very easy to sympathise with – they have clear motives that, while not wholly innocent and pure are understandable and supportable, and they have human but forgiveable flaws that round them out. You want them both to succeed, even if you don’t always know what the end goal is. There’s also interest in how well they lie in parallel – even their roles are closely different takes on the same aim – keep their employer alive. And I think that’s where the true joy of the book is. It’s one of the closest and best enmeshed split narratives I’ve come across, because clearly so much thought has been put into the subtler resonances between the two, as well as the obvious.

And then of course it’s all told with Banks’ usually wry style. Even when I’ve not loved the plot of one of his books as much, his writing remains consistently joyous – he’s never laugh out loud funny, but he is always smirkable, and he has a way of phrasing things that I can’t put words around, but if you showed me a bit of text I’d know immediately. And he has a way of seeing things from that slightly skewed angle, that make them all the more interesting, the more you think about them. And that writing style is possibly what pushes him, for me, into one of the top spots of SFF authors… because you never stop thinking that the words he’s put there on the page have been precisely crafted to make you smile, make you think, make you realise you missed a clue 50 pages ago, and that at every moment he’s set things up to leave you feeling exactly as you are. And well, Inversions doesn’t dispel that notion for me at all.

The only thing I would say, is that I’m glad I read it after the Culture novels. Or at least after having read a handful of Culture novels. And if you read the paperback version, look it up on Wikipedia afterwards for the post-script that for some reason they only included in the hardback.

But all in all, a fantastic book that rockets right up my list of his novels… frankly for me it’s sitting with Player of Games and Use of Weapons and there is something of a gap before you get to the rest. I should maybe read Consider Phlebas again, actually… see if it looks better in the light of other Banks novels. But anyway, this is stand out amazing, and it got 5 stars without question. It’s Banks banksing at full Banks, and I loved it.

 

*Or, and this is a direct quotation from me at the time, “what the FUCK?!” when finishing Use of Weapons.

**SPOILER (maybe? Depends how picky you are) – I’m dancing around it a bit, but this is almost certainly another Culture novel, and is listed as such on Wikipedia. I say “almost certainly”, because the contents of the novel hint very strongly at it, but it’s never actually fully said out loud. But it’s clear enough that it’s very much there.

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One Corpse Too Many – Ellis Peters

A1jBnYOJbuLDid I just immediately buy and read the second Cadfael book? It’s a mystery none shall ever solve.

Ok so, look. The problem with murder mysteries, right, is that once I’m in the mood for them, it’s really really hard to… stop. And when I know the whole series is 20+ books long, so it’s not even like I have to pace myself to make sure it lasts me, what am I supposed to do? If you answer “exercise some restraint”, then I’m afraid you don’t know me well enough.

I will at least stop after this one. For a bit. I’ve got some Iain M. Banks to read.

Shockingly, given how much I enjoyed the first one, I continue to be much enamoured of the doings of Brother Cadfael – this time, with additional historical shenanigans, as it’s more clearly entrenched in the history of the period (a few years after A Morbid Taste for Bones), and Stephen and Matilda are having it out to decide who gets to be monarch. I am led to believe they keep doing that for a while, with various mildly improbably escapes and so forth, so it may be a backdrop I stay used to. But it’s good having something I actually know* about as the setting, not just “medieval Welshness occurs”. Because of course our protagonist is conveniently closed to important historical occasions. Why else would he be our protagonist?

In terms of actual discussion of the book? To be honest, there’s not much I can say that I didn’t say a couple of days ago about the first one. Cadfael remains great, the mystery is just the right amount of mystery and solvable, and there’s some lovely other characters to cheer/boo.

The only real difference is the increased historical setting. It’s pretty heavily centred in the story, and with a strong hint of more to come in future, which is fine by me. And we dive straight into “oh hai thar Stephen”, so it’s not shying away from getting us involved right into the whole scenario. I might criticise how easily some random monk got to go visit the possibly-king and talk to him about how someone done a murder, but if I really cared about that kind of plausible narrative, this sort of book I should be picking up. I mean, how plausible even is the concept of the pseudo-forensic monk in a medieval setting to solve crime? This seems to run slightly contrary to my understandings (admittedly limited) of medieval crime, punishment and law enforcement. So I’m not really going to get into “well is it really realistic that he’d go talk to the king”. Realistic is not why we are here. Admit that to yourself. You are not reading a murder mystery to take in the authentic ambience of medieval Shrewsbury. That is not what it is for. I am fully here for puzzles, adorable monks and shocking revelations. Also period women sassing people.

So yeah, she didn’t forget how to write a good mystery in between books. Hurrah for that. Please brace yourselves to be extremely bored of Zanna on Cadfael in the coming year because I don’t anticipate me stopping reading these for more than brief lengths of time. I’m not sorry.

Next up, I’m at least reading something else for a little while – there turned out to be more Iain M. Banks I’d not read. Spoilers – I enjoyed Inversions.

 

*Embarrassing revelation time: I had to double check that Maud = Matilda. I’ve only ever seen her as the latter. I mean, I was 98% sure, but I didn’t want to talk about it afterwards and look suddenly very daft indeed.

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A Morbid Taste for Bones – Ellis Peters

91a-aasfrTLI didn’t read anything immediately after The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, because it left me solely in the mood for murder mysteries, and I had none available. So when I was reminded of the existence of Cadfael in book form, it seemed the exactly ideal thing to pick up next. I’ve never actually read any of them, having only experience Cadfael in Derek Jacobian glory on tv instead. Which is fine, and happened long enough ago in childhood that I can’t actually remember any of the plots, only that it was great.

Luckily, it’s still great in book form.

More to the point, it was both exactly what I was in the mood for – more cosy, historical murders – and a genre I find incredibly soothing and comforting, so an easy way to break into my new year’s reading challenge and a decent pace. Cosy murders are always fairly easy reading anyway, and have the added bonus – if they’re any good – of a desperate need for the next clue, the next step forward to the solution, pretty much regardless of the actual pacing of the writing. I want to solve the mystery, and that means getting as much of the information as I can, as soon as I can. All in all, a strong start to the year.

For anyone who has somehow missed out on Cadfael up to this point, the series follows a Welsh Benedictine brother of an abbey in Shrewsbury in the 12th century (so around the time of the Anarchy), whose experience in the Crusades and life in general before he took his vows, as well as his current vocation as herbalist for the abbey, leave him in a conveniently useful position to figure out how people have died in all kinds of circumstances… who just happen to come to his attention. The first book involves the abbey’s decision to seek out the relics of St. Winifred over the border in Wales, where their mission is interrupted by a murder which casts suspicion on both the brothers and the villagers, and Cadfael must determine the culprit to serve both his order and the justice of his Welsh compatriots… especially as he’s one of the few people around the village who is fluent in both Welsh and English. It’s the sort of mildly contrived-feeling circumstance of many murder mysteries, but the author does enough work to make it feel sufficiently natural, and so I’m happy to let it pass.

It’s clearly meant to be a good way of showcasing Cadfael and his views, his Welshness when compared to the other English clergy, his pragmatism in the face of some of their determined naivety about the world, his somewhat practical approach to religion, belief and miracles, his usefulness in a crisis, and his desire more for his own ideals of justice than any arbitrary legal rules. And yet he is loyal to his order, clearly happy to be withdrawn from the secular world in a general sense, a believer in god and his judgement of worldly affairs, dedicated to the brotherhood and aware of local mores and their importance to the people. We get just enough of his backstory to understand why he has the skills he needs to be the ideal man to solve a crime, but not so much that it ever feels like an info-dump, and more importantly, not so much that there isn’t plenty to go around in future novels.

It’s also just a good showcase for Cadfael as a human character, someone who is pleasant to read, thoughtful and considered, and whom we want very much to succeed because he’s just… that nice. Practical. But definitely the hero all the same.

Peters is, by contrast, happy to make the secondary characters somewhat more caricatured. The prior of the abbey is definitely set up as a long running antagonist, and his comical arrogance and self-assurance make him an easy target of reader dislike, for all that they’re obviously meant to be a reflection of Cadfael’s views more than a detached, authorial perspective. The filter through his views makes the caricatures and unsubtlety plausible, and easy enough to let by when reading, but it does, to an extent, leave the book without many fully formed secondary characters. Only Sioned, the daughter of a local Welsh lord, seems to get much in the way of complex personality, and partially this seems to be because Cadfael approves of and admires her for her clever and sensible nature.

There aren’t a great many women in the book, but those that there are seem to be treated with a great deal of respect and equality… at least by Cadfael himself. This is hardly a shock from a female author, and I’m honestly not aware enough of 12th century social history to know how historically accurate it would be. But kindness to women and servants/those of lower social class is definitely used as a marker of “good” in a character (and the reverse likewise of “bad”), which feels definitely, to an extent, to be an intrusion of modern morality onto the narrative… that being said, it’s a welcome one. We get, once again, enough of a mildly contrived logic to support Cadfael being generally respectful to and appreciative of women and their function as real, valid human beings, so I’m happy to go along with it, rather than demanding strict, historical misogyny. If it’s wrong… eh, I’ll live. Though if anyone knows more about 12th century clergy attitudes to women/women’s intelligence/role in the community and fancied telling me, I wouldn’t exactly protest.

As a murder mystery, it fills the exact space it needs to. You get the clues you need to try to make your own solutions, and it fulfils all the required tropes – you know you want to search for a red herring suspect as well as the real one, and you get enough of a sense of who likes whom and what people want to start being able to draw motives and put the plot together, as well as enough foreshadowing of Cadfael’s own thoughts and conclusions to provide hints if you catch them. When the solution comes, it feels satisfying, and points you back at clues you might have missed or misconstrued previously, as well as just making sense.

Likewise, the pacing is pretty solid, not leaving you dawdling too heavily in the scene setting portion of the book, and even when you’re there, giving you that foreshadowing so you can start to draw your own conclusions about what the crime will be, who the victim and so on.

Is it a wholly unique piece of literature, forging new ground in the detective genre? Hardly, though I am led to believe the Cadfael Chronicles popularised the historical detective subgenre, and so must have been trendsetting in their way. But purely in terms of mysteries, it follows all the right themes and tropes to be totally comfortable reading… just coincidentally in a very carefully drawn historical view of the 12th century Welsh border region. And so for all that it’s no innovative wonder, it’s a very solid, well-written example of what it is, and an enjoyable read to boot.

I gave it 4 stars and immediately bought the second to read afterwards, too. It’s just really good detective fiction.

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2018 in Books

row of booksIt’s 2019 (what… how…), I’ve read all I’m going to read for one year, so it’s time for my annual round up to see what I thought about things in the long view.

And, first things first… I once again failed to complete my reading goal of 75 books. I came a lot closer than I did last year, finishing 66 books (roughly 90% of my challenge), compared to 2017’s 58, but we were still a way off. As with last time, what killed me was a period of long inactivity, and for all that I made a push afterwards to get back on track (and beforehand, to get ahead) it just wasn’t enough to make up for the annual slump… again, just after the Hugos/Nebulas, so I reiterate last year’s plea to have some better things in the awards in 2019. They were a bit better in 2018… just not enough. I also refuse to read a pile of tiny things just to make my goal, because that would feel like cheating. Fingers crossed the improvement continues and I make my goal this time around.

But there was good news – I once again completed my Hugo and Nebula readalongs (and on time this time), even managing to drag someone else into the madness with me. The boyfriend only did the Nebulas, but it’s progress, and it definitely made it more fun (and gave me more impetus to keep moving) knowing I had someone to discuss them with afterwards. I thought about adding the Booker shortlist, but I think I’m going to keep leaving it off. There’s definitely a post-award slump in my reading, so I think if I want to have any chance of hitting my goal, that wouldn’t be the way to go. That said, I will keep an eye on the shortlist for that and the Women’s Prize, and probably aim to read at least one of them again. Home Fire and Everything Under were both some of my favourite books for their years, so clearly it’s worth keeping an eye out.

The blog… well, I caught up by the end of the year. I didn’t do it for absolutely every single book I read (I didn’t think the book about tiny gardens and how to achieve them necessarily counted enough, or that anyone would want to know about it), and nor was I consistent about getting them out promptly, but this year at least, I had a decent excuse. And hopefully one that won’t repeat. I’m going to keep trying to blog everything, because I think it’s a good practice for structuring my thoughts around everything I read, but I will possibly relax my expectations for the length of posts for graphic novels, sequels and non-fiction. Some things are just harder to write 1300 words about.

But now, onto the books!

Best Book of the Year

Oh god this is hard… I read some really beautiful things this year, and it’s nearly impossible to pick between them. But as this is a self-imposed premise that requires me to do so, pick I shall! In the running are Folk by Zoe Gilbert, which was a tiny novel full of atmosphere, beauty and myth that I fell in love with instantly, then recommended to basically everyone I saw. We also have two glorious mythic retellings, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie and Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, both of which take the spirit of the myth and make it something wonderful, beautiful and current.  Then there’s the old favourite of The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, which just remains a joy and a wonder. And the joyous fun of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, because who doesn’t like learning about Georgian sex? It’s a tough choice, but I think Folk takes it, just by being… utterly wonderful in every way.

I do think it’s interesting that nearly all of my best books of the year are lit-fic, this time around, while the worst are all SFF… hmmmmmmmmm…

Best SFF

That being said, I feel like I should give honourable mentions to both The Sparrow and Ancillary Justice for being just as wonderful on rereading as they were the first time around, and being brilliant topics of book club discussions.

Best Graphic Novel

There’s really only one possible contender for this. Is it Monstress again? Yes it is! We pre-ordered it, we got it on release day, we read it immediately and we kept loving it. I can’t wait for the next volume to come out, and I hope it keeps hogging the graphic novel limelight, because it is an absolute joy.

Worst Book of the Year

There are three lucky lucky books in the running for this, and to no one’s surprise, they’re all from the Hugo/Nebulas. Autonomous got an early lead on awfulness, setting an impressively low bar for sheer writing quality, as well as obnoxious politics and just being batshit. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter took literary figures I loved and mangled them beyond all recognition into a twee monstrosity of fanfiction horror. It was poorly written, poorly plotted and just awful, but also dragged legitimately great things down with it – thanks for tainting things I enjoy, Goss. Thanks. And then there was New York 2140, in case I ever felt the need to be patronised about economics. I didn’t, but I’m glad Kim Stanley Robinson was standing by should the situation arise. And really really keen. Like, really. Please stop, Kim. For all our sakes. It’s a tough choice, but I think Autonomous takes the prize. It didn’t make me as angry as The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, but it was just bloody awful. Congrats…

Most Wasted Opportunity

Has to be Circe by Madeleine Miller. It could have been so much and so wonderful, to take such a powerful woman from mythology and tell her own story in her own words… but as ever, I remain spoiled by Bright Air Black, to which frankly nothing seems able to compare in that regard. I’d been a bit put off by descriptions of The Song of Achilles, and Circe seems to have confirmed all my doubts about Miller. Yes, she writes beautiful prose, but I just could not bring myself to push past how much she pushes Circe down, and makes her less than she was, or could be. I won’t be seeking Miller out again without a frankly stunning recommendation.

Special Mentions

Two books vie for the award of Most Baffling Reading Experience, being The Rift by Nina Allen and Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Both committed wholeheartedly to their choices of batshittery, and I commend them for their dedication to confusing or frustrating the hell out of me. Good job, please keep on going. It’s good to be confused, once in a while.

The Silver Pigs should also get a look in, simply for being so enjoyably in my wheelhouse that it was steering the whole boat, as well as being the first in a series long enough to keep me in comfort reading for a good long while into the future. It absolutely wins the Pandering to My Interests Award. Which is obviously incredibly valuable to the author. Obviously.

And finally, I don’t read a lot of plays, but I got a so much joy from reading Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm as a way not only of reliving the fun of being there while it was being put on at the Globe, but giving me the poetry of a Elizabethan feminist to enjoy alongside it. It was a wonderful Christmas present, and one I know I’ll want to keep coming back to again and again.

I do also think it’s worth noting that only two male authors made it onto my roundup at all this year… one in the running for worst book, and another for most baffling. It’s been a great year for feminist plays and literature for me, and I hope the trend pushes onwards into 2019 because I am loving it.

Did I meet my aims from last year?

  1. The Nebula and Hugo readalong was a good idea, especially adding the Nebulas, so I’m definitely gunning for a third year of awards reading. Check!
  2. I might add the Booker shortlist, time pending. This one isn’t set in stone. Nope!
  3. Speaking of which, I’ve picked up several really wonderful bits of literary fiction this year, and I need to get on that more often. Even if I don’t do the Bookers, I want to increase the literary portion of my reading. Definitely check!
  4. I also have some non-fiction I’d like to get into, so I’m going to try to up my portion of that as well. Also achieved!
  5. I didn’t manage to read that much published in 2017 this year, so I’m going to make a dedicated effort to seek out and read things that are really current, especially within genre. Semi-check… could still do better.
  6. My Goodreads reading challenge is once again set to 75, and this time, I fully intend to get to it. ALAS.
  7. And I’m going to continue blogging every book, as I’ve found that really helpful. The aim is to get each post out before I finish the subsequent book (which I nearly always achieved this year). Aaaahahahahaa no. Lol.

So a reasonable set of achievements, but still room for improvement. I think I might simplify for 2019, and settle for:

  1. Continue the Hugo and Nebula read-along. This has become a solid feature of my year, and it even looks like book club will be joining in on the Nebulas. If anyone else wants to do this/plans to, do let me know so we can have chats about them!
  2. Meet. My. Damn. Reading. Goal.
  3. Keep reading current fiction, both SFF and literary, ideally from 2018/19.
  4. Related to which, read at least one book from the Booker or Women’s Prize shortlist.
  5. Keep blogging, but with permission to keep it short for things where there just isn’t all that much to say. Hopefully, this year, we’ll stay up to date.

Fingers crossed for success across the board come January 2020, and a year full of books by women, about women, and enjoyable to women (or at least this one woman sat right here), as well as books shared with friends, loved, hated and generally engaged with to the absolute fullest.

What’s next? I have no idea… I should figure that out now, I suppose.

Happy New Year!

 

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton

Seven DeathsAnd so, the final book of 2018!

This is actually January’s book club book, but I was Keen. Because it’s a murder mystery, right… but it’s also SF. The investigator lives the day of the murder over and over, in different bodies who witness the crime until he can solve the case.

It’s already a pretty good idea, and then he goes and does a really good murder mystery? Amazing! It’s absolutely spot on for a cosy mystery style murder book, and it’s even set in a turn of the century country house full of aristocrats with dark secrets, mysterious servants and slightly elaborate plots. There’s a map in the front too*! It’s got the genre stylings pretty much down pat, and even the prose has that lovely cosy feel to it. It’s not exactly trying to pretend it was written when Agatha Christie was writing (or by her) but it’s definitely choosing a particular region of the genre to situate itself in, then doubling down on that. It wouldn’t work were it not done very well – it would just come off as a cheap copy of something we’ve all seen before – but Turton is clearly a dab hand at creating a mystery, and so he does manage to land it.

One of the most fascinating things about the whole book, and something I wasn’t expecting going in at all, was the fact that you have to discover exactly who the protagonist really is along with him. He’s not beamed in fully actualised – he has no more clue than we do what’s going on or who he is, and so he has to piece together his own identity from the start, all while trying not to lose himself in the personalities of his hosts, each of whom is… pretty distinctive.

And that balance is something Turton strikes really well. He really pulls off the feeling of living in someone’s body and mind, and being limited by their limitations. The protagonist has to suffer being a coward one day, but brave the next, or smart one day but with zero attention span the next. He also has to live with the revelations of who exactly the people he inhabits are – for that one day, he is them, and people see in him all the flaws the host themself exhibits. He clearly has a kernel of self that judges from afar, but at the same time is truly situated within another person. It’s very well done.

He must likewise suffer their physical limitations… and there lies the ones hang up I have with the book. For the most part, this is done really well – going from a fit young man to a 70 year old is going to feel very different, for instance – but there is one host where I think the author hasn’t quite managed it. One of the hosts is a very fat man. It’s not specified exactly how fat, but it’s made clear that it’s to the extent of being debilitating. And there is… not only an amount of judgement about this, but a certain amount of parody and caricature. And sure, I’m sensitive to this more than most people, but it really did feel ridiculous. Apparently, despite bathing multiple times a day, someone that fat just stinks. Seems… weird. And of course the fat man also eats like an absolute pig, despite being a lord and in all other regards apparently impeccably polite. Sure, why not… Turton seems to really dwell on the physical limitations of fatness in a way that carries judgement, that we don’t really get for the others.

It’s really grating, at least to me, but you do only have to put up with it for one host. It didn’t spoil the book, it just left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth… and I don’t think it actually changed my rating. I just want to register my objections somewhere. Let them be noted.

On the plus side, Turton is amazing at atmosphere. It obviously helps that he’s plugging into a time period that has definitely been done for murder mysteries – it’s something we can all easily slip into “ah, that’s where we are” and bam, we’re just there – but he still manages to do some pretty brilliant bits of descriptive prose, especially around the dramatic and tension-filled moments in chases or building up to the resolution. He also does a really wonderful job of giving the reader the sense of being stuck in someone else’s body, bound by their limitations and with a job to do, so trying to work through those obstacles as quickly as possible.

And I guess that feeling of urgency – because we get the time limit given to us pretty early – is what keeps the book moving at such a fantastic pace. There’s no time for languishing in the sun room making possibly portentous small-talk. Time’s a-wasting! It’s the sense of needing to get everything out of each host, use what they do best to the utmost while he has the chance, that feels like it drives the plot onwards. And for all that we do occasionally see the same scene from a different angle, as two hosts get involved in a conversation, across time, Turton doesn’t dwell on those, which might leave the plot wallowing a bit much in re-examining scenes again and again. Instead, he directs us outward, so that the host may briefly cross paths, but are always spreading wider and hunting for more instead, to try to cover all the available ground in the time he has to solve the case.

But while doing all this, and spreading himself so thin across the plot, he does still manage to seed the entire thing with the clues you need to build to a great resolution of a mystery. And not only that, but he works in the repetitive time element so it’s fundamental to the plot and how we solve the case. We can never escape or ignore it, and that was probably my biggest worry for the book. I can see it would be so easy to come up with a good idea for a murder mystery – “it’s like an Agatha Christie novel, but they’re in space!” looking at you Six Wakes – and have it all either be just a murder mystery with frills on, or fail to be a good mystery and just be SFF. But Turton has failed at neither point, and the timey-wimey is fully rooted into the whole thing. I can only imagine there was an enormous schedule spreadsheet printed out somewhere, to ensure none of the characters’ actions were chronologically impossible. I kind of want to see it… But however he managed it, Turton thoroughly integrated his SFF into his mystery, and made each entirely crucial to the other. You couldn’t take one away, because it just… wouldn’t work anymore.

It’s a brilliantly well done, energetic and enjoyable book. I read it all in just over a day, and haven’t read anything since because I just want more of the same. Seems like a great start to Book Club 2019 to me.

 

*Contrary to the “maps in fantasy” thing (i.e. a warning that the book is going to be tropey and shit, most like, though a few exceptions exist), I am fully in favour of maps in the front of murder mysteries. I want to be able to puzzle things out, see if it’s plausible to get from the drawing room to the library without being seen from the sun room. That’s what murder mysteries are for, right?

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Emilia – Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

71HIg7bTnZLDo I blog about plays now? Apparently I do! But only when they’re written down.

I saw this at the Globe back when it was on (second to last day of the run, even) and I loved it. Probably my favourite play of the year (depends when you ask me, The Writer at the Almeida was also stunning, don’t make me pick). It was an absolute joy, especially with an all female cast absolutely hamming it up in drag as men flirting outrageously in Elizabethan costume. And taking the piss out of Shakespeare himself. But primarily, it was a play about a woman trying to make her voice heard in a male-dominated world, and it was not subtle about that message. Not in the slightest. It shouted it – sometimes literally – at the audience and made damn sure you knew what the problem was, and indeed is. There were Brexit references and all that too, but it was a play about women’s voices being heard, and it was the only play I’ve ever watched where I felt a standing ovation was actually deserved*.

So when I got the hardcopy as a Christmas present, I was already pretty thrilled… but then it comes with the original poetry of Emilia herself in the back! And the author explains, this is because the main edition of Emilia’s work comes with some commentary mostly drawn from a contemporary source that was… quite unflattering of her (because she wouldn’t sleep with him) and she wanted there to be a version which didn’t have that skew to it. Multiple wins here.

Obviously, I’ve seen the play, so I knew it was a beautifully written bit of theatre going in – and it really is, seriously, it’s transferring to the West End and literally everyone should go watch it – but getting the poetry in the back was wonderful too.

Because it turns out, Emilia Lanier (née Bassano) was pretty kickass and quite the feminist. A lot of her poetry is… pretty forthright on that matter. There’s one bit which I was already familiar with, because it got made into a folk song in the album Elizabethan Sessions called “Eve’s Defence of Women”. Yeah, that level of feminist. It’s also pretty good poetry… at least as far as I can tell, not knowing anywhere enough about Elizabethan poetry. Lovely rhythm though.

Mainly, I love this as a memento of a wonderful, gloriously feminist play about a black woman poet in Elizabethan England, trying to tell her life in her own words, the men around her be damned. As it happens, I also quite enjoy reading plays, as well as watching them, but I’m aware that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you can only do one, just go see it. I promise it’s wonderful.

 

*I get really annoyed when people give standing ovations to literally everything. Like, there’s been one play I’ve seen in the last six months, I think, where there wasn’t a significant portion of the audience standing up. And guys… not all theatre is that good. Raise your god damn standards, please. Clap! That’s how you show a normal level of appreciation! I have… weirdly strong feelings about this and I’m honestly not super sure why.

Posted in All, History/Myth, Plays | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment