Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World – Lyndall Gordon

5162w0gxjyl-_sx326_bo1204203200_I don’t often read biography. I’m not sure why; it just mostly doesn’t appeal to me, though I do treasure my biography of Michael Ventris* somewhat. And I’m assuming historical fiction based on the life of Cicero doesn’t count. So it has to be something quite enticing to get past this. And this appealed, I suppose, because of the theme and juxtaposition. It didn’t require a fascination with one life above all, but rather an interest in the connecting thread of outcast status among a group of women, some of whose work influenced the others, or who are in some way related, in theme if nothing else, as well as all having had their impact on the literary world. And this did intrigue me – I wanted to see what hypothesis the author might have in connecting these women and their lives. What I got wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but I very much think that the nature of the connected chapters of autobiography, and thus the enforced comparison, really did something to push this more towards being something I enjoyed reading, especially as they are mostly not women I know an awful lot about.

As you can see from the cover, the book goes from Mary Shelley to Emily Brontë to George Eliot to Olive Schreiner to finish with Virginia Woolf, progressing through history (and thus building upon each author to the follower who may have been influenced by her) and literature. The tone is decidedly non-academic (references are reserved for the back of the book, quotations are minimal and decisive statement and bold hypotheses not visibly and immediately supported by evidence are rampant) and definitely aiming for easy reading rather than full on factual provision. In many ways, I see the appeal of this fairly simple and accessible approach – it made the book very easy to pick up and put down as reading time permitted, as well as being easy to stick to for a session of reading. But it did feel somewhat lacking to me. I wanted more substance, more information. Obviously part of this is the necessary brevity of five biographies in one book, but that’s not all of it. There was a sort of insufficiency to the connecting hypotheses around the women of the book, a definite idea, but not enough analysis and discussion to bring it fully to birth.

The real reason I think this comes through is because it feels to me as though the author has chosen to present each women very firmly through the lens of that woman’s own works and words. This came to me most prominently in the Mary Shelley section, where we see Mary’s husband, Shelley, through Mary’s romanticism and love, his actions definitely positive. Gordon does, at the first instance, note that Shelley’s behaviour would, nowadays, be somewhat differently labelled, not as romantic but as “grooming” or potentially “abusive”. Through a modern lens, the early part of their relationship is deeply worrying at best. But once this remark is passed, that’s pretty much it for that. Shelley thereafter remains a figure of romance, no matter what his behaviour. And that is what Mary herself seems to tell of him in her own letters, but wouldn’t have been great to see this relationship from the outside too? To see the views of Mary’s sisters, maybe? Her father? Someone who could look in from outside and say what their world saw, as well as Mary’s own mind and our distant view?

This same issue is true for all the women, but Mary’s is the one I find it most troubling in. Emily Brontë too, I suppose, though in her case it feels more because the author had a dearth of information with which to work, and so it almost feels like what little she had was recycled, and far too much inferred from Brontë’s fiction.

But at the same time, I acknowledge that this is also a merit – it’s clearly what the author has set out to do, to share these women in their own words and actions, and draw conclusions on them from their own mark on the world. Which is admirable, as far as it goes, but the part of me that was taught to side-eye the biographical fallacy when reading the poetry of Horace wonders if maybe this gives too much weight to what we can infer from literary criticism not about the work, but about the author behind it.

But I’m being too nitpicky. Really, I enjoyed reading this, and when I could stop niggling at the way the stories were being told, I did really enjoy the stories. I loved learning more about some authors I didn’t know much about, and seeing how they affected one another’s work throughout their time. It has spurred me into wanting to read more of some of them, and to read more about others. Sure, I am sad for the lack, as I’d have liked it, of analytical insight and historical obsession. Sure, we could have done with maybe some external viewpoints as a contrast and a verification. But fundamentally, I do stand behind the idea of wanting to discover women from the past through their own words, if I maybe doubt the practice of doing so through their fiction.

All in all, a fascinating and enjoyable read, but not one I’d likely recommend for 100% biographical truth. The author likes telling a story, and sometimes that gets a little in the way.

 

*The man who deciphered Linear B. Because I am nothing if not utterly, utterly predictable. Also he was a really interesting guy and the decipherment of Linear B (seriously, read The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick) is just a really cool subject to learn about.

Advertisements
Posted in All, Else, History/Myth, Literary | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Sex Criminal Volume 3: Three the Hard Way – Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky

sexcriminals_vol3-1Ehhhhhh.

I mean, I liked volumes 1 and 2. I did. And part of that was that the premise was funny and clever, and part of that was the characters and storyline. But now… the cleverness of the premise has sort of worn off and… the plot and characters haven’t really gone anywhere. Nothing… really happens in volume 3. Nothing gets resolved. We just get a few more additions and nothing… changes. And that’s a bit dull.

It was actually kind of weird?

I’ve been enjoying so many of the comics I’ve been reading recently that I wasn’t expecting much less of this. But… I dunno, maybe I’ve just read too many good comics recently? This somehow didn’t feel up to scratch.

When I say “nothing happened”, I guess that’s not fair. Events occurred, for sure. But nothing happened with regard to the characters and their relationships? It didn’t feel like there was any development. And the characters were always kind of the point, beyond the clever idea. So without any movement for them… it feels a bit empty.

I mean, that’s not me saying nothing happened at all and the book was entirely worthless. It was still quite fun, quite clever, quite funny. They enjoy breaking the fourth wall. The art is still amusing… but it just doesn’t have the sustained character stuff that makes a series continue to be good, so it feels like it’s trailing off, unable to live up to the promise of its forbears. Which, hey, that’s sad, but it happens.

I’ll probably read the next one. I mean, I won’t buy it, but if the boyfriend does, I’ll borrow it and read it (such a bold statement, I know).

But… I’m just not excited anymore? The next one would have its work cut out to prove this isn’t a one trick pony, and that they can keep delivering on characters, on ideas and on plots. And if it does do that? Then that’s fantastic. And I’m not ruling it out by any means. I think they have the potential to do it. But volume 3 just isn’t reaching that potential for me, and so it feels so wooden and empty compared to the two who came before. Which is a problem with a good series. You’ve got to keep on being a good series. And that’s probably a lot harder than simply being a good book. And definitely a lot harder than just being a good idea.

Posted in All, Graphic Novels & Comics, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

7165t3ep2bdlShockingly, given it won the Booker Prize, I was expecting this to be good. And, doubly shockingly, it didn’t disappoint.

This isn’t going to be a shocking review, all told.

You know sometimes you get that feeling with something – reading, watching, listening – where if you were just that little bit smarter, it would all make sense immediately? Like you’re lagging a little behind, and you’ll get there in a minute, but you’re not quite keeping up the pace. Not getting things the way it expects you to, or in its pre-ordained timescale. That’s how reading this book felt, nearly all the way up to the end, and that feeling of being just that one step behind most of the way is why I loved it. Because it kept me wondering and guessing and not quite sure of what was coming, and it kept on keeping me there, through 300 pages and more, without seeming to take any pains about doing it. It wasn’t trying to leave me behind. Come on. Keep up.

I guess that probably sounds a little odd? But it’s definitely been my experience that books that pitch slightly too high for me are fun. I have definite memories of childhood reading, and definitely not getting all the jokes, but enjoying that feeling of having to really work hard to follow what was going on, because it felt like it was actually pushing me… it wasn’t just… another easy read that would speed on past in a couple of hours. And that’s really… nice?

Mostly, Roy accomplishes this by going “chronology? lolno!”. Which again, is something I tend to like anyway. But she does this with a complete disregard for any sort of signposting of what she’s doing. The text is just joined up as if the novel was a normal novel, and you have to figure out for yourself where exactly in the timeline this current bit fits. And it dots around a fair amount. But also she does it by having a writing style that is, above all, atmospheric. Sometimes at the expense of coherence. And this is obviously by design – I’m not accusing her of accidentally sacrificing sense when she tried to make her prose pretty – and sometimes leaves the reader completely overwhelmed. You have this enormous sense of place, the smell of it, the tiny, strange details only someone intimately familiar would see, the odd moments you’d notice without paying attention, and you’re so awash with all the sensations of being right in the picture she’s painting that you don’t have any brain left to think about the plot. Like she’s pushed you into a moment of such sudden awareness of place that everything else is forgotten (for me, that felt like staring out of a train window, but I imagine ymmv).

And I love that. I don’t always love the details we’re lost in – Roy has a real knack of evoking the stuff of childhood, but the stuff of childhood is often kind of disgusting – but I love the effect of them, of being completely adrift in an unfamiliar landscape, yet feeling as though I’m seeing every detail available to me.

I suppose part of that familiarity comes from the structure, the babbled, unchronological mixture that feels like memory rather than story, the way that the mind throws things up for you to catch in any old order, reminded by some unexpected thing. It’s an incredibly intimate book, like that. You feel drawn into some stranger’s mind, though you’re not even sure which of the characters it is, even if it is any of them. I suppose, if it is any of them, it is Rahel, but sometimes it feels like not. But it’s not really important who it is, so much as the fact that intimacy is there, that close feeling of knowing all the context, despite having almost none of it most of the way through.

And now I’m just rambling. Because I don’t have much in the way of criticism.

The book is set in a small town/village in India, and follows the lives of two twins, Rahel and Estha, and their family around them, in the twins’ childhoods and adulthoods, as well as the political situation in India at the time, as it reflect into the village. We learn about some of the awful things that happened to the family, and why and how they happened, while watching their effects years down the line, and hearing the echoes of those events before we ever see them happening. It’s a book about change, and family, and love. And of course, because nothing so closely focussed could avoid it, it is a book about people and who they really are.

I suppose that, more than anything else, is what I love about it. Because it paints such vivid pictures of so many of the characters. This isn’t a book for one stand out lead and a cast of cardboard cutouts. Even some of the characters that only exist as memories feel so fleshed out and distinct – from the twins to their mother and grandmother, their uncle and great-aunt, their young cousin, their grandfather who dies before the book begins… all of them feel real and tangible, and so very like actual people. Some of them are awful, to be sure, and the contrasting characters are what drives the plot back and forth, and makes the book compulsively readable. I want to know more about all of them, constantly, even the ones I hate (and one cannot help but hate Baby Kochamma).

It’s a beautifully written book that drifts, seemingly aimlessly, through the events of several lives, but always brings you back to a point, just when you think it’s wandering off. The pacing is subtle but marvellous. And she’s managed to keep the book at just the right length, holding the reader in suspense for a long way, but never quite making us lose interest, or get frustrated. There’s never a feeling of “just tell me, alright?”, though it skirts close. We build towards result… then drift away… but always come inexorably toward the conclusion, and with a certainty that means you can’t put the book down because you know you’re going to get there, if you just hold on that little bit longer.

Basically, it’s a fantastic, beautiful, emotional and moving book, brilliantly written, beautifully paced and gloriously atmospheric. And so I can’t really fault it. It got five stars on Goodreads and I’m extremely glad I read it. And that’s… it?

Posted in All, Else, Literary | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ms. Marvel Vol. 2: Generation Why – Wilson, Alphona, Wyatt

51vsiucng5l-_sx320_bo1204203200_First book of the year, three days in! Go me, fully on schedule and everything.

I’ve been meaning to get round to this for a while, a I was very kindly lent it by the husband of a friend (who had been informed of my enjoyment of Monstress and Ms. Marvel so passed on more of those plus Spires – all solid reads), and I rather imagine he wants it back. Also because volume 1 was excellent and I should just get on this. So I did (so I can give the book back tomorrow, ok, shush).

That said, I’m not really sure what there is to cover here that I didn’t already cover talking about volume 1. The art remains really good, really punchy and apt for the story (while lacking the real edge it’d need to be OH MY GOD AMAZING). The storyline is definitely proper comic book hero… but with that twist that makes it interesting, just that slight difference of personality, attitude and upbringing that make her a unique protagonist in the genre (as far as I know, which isn’t that far). And it remains a constant thread of the story through volume 2, too. Never over-laboured, but still definitely there, not something you could put out of your mind while reading. It’s part of who she is as a character and the world she inhabits, and that’s brilliant.

I suppose one thing to me did seem to change between the two volumes – there definitely seemed to be a lot more… heroic monologuing in this one. The rousing speech and the urge to stand together that can, at moments, feel trite and sticky. You have to get it just right to avoid sounding like you’re a 1950s stereotype hero, and even then it doesn’t always land perfectly. I just find it cringey.

That being said, they don’t completely fluff it. It’s kept short where possible, and stays focussed on the now to drag it back from the edge of the Saccharine Chasm for the most part. But it definitely nudges into that territory and it bothers me, because it in some way clashes with the more realistic edge the rest of the comic has, and the humour. Contrast that, for instance, with Kamala’s conversations with Wolverine, and the difference is immediate. There’s an easy conversational rapport that feels like natual, human interaction that is lacking from the inspirational stuff, and that is a loss.

I do like the bit with Wolverine though. That was pretty cool.

They continue to manage the balance (inspirationality aside) of real human behaviour and slightly ridiculous, comical villainry very well, by contrast. It could be so easy to slip into cliché, and they manage to stay on the aware and astute side, rather than the tropey side of those bits. Predictable things do happen, but they’re managed in unpredictable or interesting ways, and that rescues them.

They also don’t fall into awkward, second book syndrome, because the plot answers questions in the same breath as asking more. We get resolutions and outcomes, as well as drama and intrigue moments, and in a good balance to feel like a continuing story, not a desperate pedal to fill in the gaps, as some books can.

And that’s sort of… it? It means I’m leaving this a pretty short post, but I just don’t really have all that much to say, since so much of it is ground I covered and recently. Is it the best comic I’ve ever read? No. Ody-C and Monstress can fight it out over that one, I think. But it’s solidly up in the top ten for sure, and looks set to stay there, especially if I get my hands of more of it soon enough to continue reading. It’s a good look into the world of superhero comics, and does make me feel like I want to nudge my way further in… but if I left it there I also don’t feel like I’ll have missed out on anything good available.

So yeah, good read, good start to the year (as is The God of Small Things, which I’m part way through right now, so likely to be up next).

Posted in All, Graphic Novels & Comics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

2017 in Books

dc9rk86diIt has been a year! With books in! So I’m going to ramble on about that and someone might even read it. Truly, we live in an age of wonders.

First thing’s first, I did… not manage to complete my Goodreads reading goal. I got to 58 out of 75, which is a way off. The main reason for that is I took nearly two months to read one book, and god knows how long on another, which rather threw me of my 1.5 per week stride. I’d say maybe I need to get better at quitting bad books, but one of them was very good and one was for the Hugo read, so it wouldn’t even help. I just need the Hugos to be better quality this year, I guess? I’m going to keep the same goal going into next year, and hope I don’t get caught up like that again, because two months on one book is pretty ridiculous by my standards. Fingers crossed.

On the other hand, there have been some successes. I read along with the Hugo and Nebula novels (and was only a bit late finishing), even though I had to read a middle-of-series book to catch up on one of them (and it was dire). It remains a really good goal, and I’ll be carrying it through to this year, when the boyfriend has agreed to read along with the Nebulas with me. I am also toying with adding the Booker shortlist, but that might be over-ambitious, especially as I don’t think I’d have enough time between it being announced and the winner coming out to get through them all. I will consider.

I did also read more than last year, if not by as much as I wanted, and succeeded at blogging every book I read. That has been an interesting experience, and not always fun. I have definitely had pile-ups happen, and it is so, so hard to force myself to go back and catch up on those. But it worked, and I’m going to carry on with it, because I really enjoy the critical thinking process that goes into it – I’m inclined to read fairly analytically anyway, it’s not something I can turn off, but I find that having to write about it after provides an excellent set of mental scaffolding and helps me make all that more structured and coherent than it might otherwise be. Obviously this means the blog will still be mainly SFF, but retaining a subset of non-genre to keep me on my toes.

And now, to the books!

Best Novel of the Year: Well, this was DIFFICULT. I’ve read a lot of good stuff this year. But there are two major candidate for the spot – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Bright Air Black by David Vann. They both push the right buttons for me in different ways. Bright Air Black is one of the best Classical myth rewrites I have ever read… which is pretty high accolade. But I think The Handmaid’s Tale just edges it out, because it has that enduring relevance and impact that I don’t think the Medea story quite manages to drag out (however gloriously written). So that’s a win for The Handmaid’s Tale, and a very honourable mention for Bright Air Black.

Worst Book of the Year: This one is also difficult, and made more so by a strong late contender for the role. In the shortlist we have: Red Rising by Pierce Brown, Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu and just sneaking in at the end, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. They’re all awful, but they’re all differently mediocre, from the dizzying and ambitious heights of what-the-fuckery of Too Like the Lightning, to the raw, amateurish inadequacy of Red Rising, to the stunning mediocrity of Altered Carbon. So it comes down to a question of whether ambition should be rewarded, in spite of failure, or whether it is better never to have tried at all. Because Red Rising and Altered Carbon both suffer from a complete lack of skill, finesse, talent or originality… while The Dark Forest and Too Like the Lightning both manage to have some interesting ideas… and use them to plumb new levels of Jesus Christ why the hell would you do that. I think it comes down to two, AC and TLtL… and ultimately, I think the contrast of knowing Palmer can do better (some of her world-building is really very interesting) makes the awful bits that much worse by contrast. Also the worst bits are just worse, where Morgan just bumbles along a very low average and doesn’t deviate very far. But he should be proud; he came a very close second. So yeah, Too Like the Lightning it is.

Best Graphic Novel: No real contest here, as it’s got to be Monstress: Volume 1. I’ve read a lot of good comics this year, and it’s something I really want to carry on doing, but this one (which I’d been meaning to read for ages) just knocked them all out of the water. Good story, great art, great characters, wonderful world-building and a host of female characters peopling the fore- and background. Easy and well-deserved win.

Most Fun: This easily goes to Imperium, because what more fun could I ever have than in reading about Cicero*?

Most Likely to Become Comfort Reading: The Imogen Quy books all were a wonderful bundle of cosy detection, and I definitely foresee them joining the rota of books I read to cheer me up, especially since they’re quite so small.

Special MentionEverfair by Nisi Shawl. I didn’t love it and I didn’t want it to win the Nebula. But it did an amazing job of showing what Steampunk could do, if it decided to stop glossing over the inadequacies of the past, and what the genre really could be if it ever stopped to try. Not that I think it’ll change much in that regard – I don’t think much will trample the Steampunk aesthetic for a good while, only time, distance and maybe some painful hindsight on some people’s parts – but the fact that it exists and showcases a better way of doing things I think is really laudable. I’ve recommended it to people, and will continue doing so, because it really really engages with the realities of the Victorian world, and the darker, grimmer parts of that that we should never ignore, lest we be seen to be glorifying a part of our history that was entirely built on those exact grim realities. It’s not a fun book, but the best ones aren’t, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who think Steampunk isn’t for them on these grounds. Also it is very, very well written.

Best Film: I would be shouting “WONDER WOMAN” at the screen without pause, had I not recently seen Thor: Ragnarok. As it is, I’m still going to settle on Wonder Woman, because very few films affect me emotionally the way it did. It’s such a step in the right direction for women and the superhero genre, and I really really want to see more. Shame Justice League is a) apparently rubbish and b) full of Joss Whedon throwing sexual tension at WW and indeed c) whichever idiot sexied up the Amazons’ costumes. I’ve not seen it, and based on the above, definitely don’t intend to give it cinema money to do so. Maybe when it’s on Netflix. I await WW 2 with unbridled joy, however.

Author I Should Have Got to Sooner: This one’s a tie, between Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler. Both wrote amazing books I read this year (multiple for both) and both are sufficient notables of their respective genres that I have no excuses for dithering. I adored Kindred and Bloodchild, and I’ll be making the effort to pick up more of Butler’s work, having honestly never heard of her until she came up in a FB discussion earlier in the year. Atwood… I had been meaning for so long to read The Handmaid’s Tale, and when it really didn’t disappoint, it kicked me into getting onto some of her other work. The Penelopiad particularly was such a beautiful thing, clearly resonant with understanding and research of what she was discussing, that I felt genuinely sad younger me didn’t get to experience it.

And that’s that!

So, did I meet my aims from last year?

  1. Continue an average of one ‘blog post per week for the year. CHECK
  2. Continue to read more current SFF, ideally from within the last 12 months. Not… entirely. Must try harder.
  3. Try to increase diversity of authors in what I read. CHECK
  4. Read along with the Hugo novel nominations CHECK
  5. Read along with one of the Nebulas, BFA or Hugo not-novel nominations. NEBULAS CHECK
  6. Vote in the Hugos. … I’m too much of a cheapskate, ok?
  7. Log all of my read books on Goodreads (or similar) so I have a record of how many books I actually read in the year. CHECK
  8. Try to read at least some of my now 80+ item To Read list. Does it count if I no longer have the list as it died when I got a new phone? I’m going to say yes…

And indeed, here are my aims for this 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.
  2. I might add the Booker shortlist, time pending. This one isn’t set in stone.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  6. My Goodreads reading challenge is once again set to 75, and this time, I fully intend to get to it.
  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).

I think those are reasonable things to be getting on with, and mostly achievable. The main issue is my social life keeps getting in the way of reading, distressingly, so I’ll need to work on making time to just sit and read, rather than dithering on the internet.

So, wish me luck!

Next post will either be The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy or the second volume of Ms. Marvel, both of which seem an excellent way to start the year.

 

*Don’t answer that.

Posted in All, Off-Topic | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan

altered-carbon_uk_pbWhat an unutterably execrable piece of absolute shite.

I’ve been puzzling over precisely how to express my views of this book since about 15% of the way through. I’ve even been live-tweeting it (mainly as an outlet for bafflement and fury), and come up with some suggestions there*, but I think this about sums it up. Because it was, without a shadow of a doubt, a terrible, poorly-written, poorly-plotted, poorly-characterised, boringly-paced, predictable, formulaic, smug, misogynistic piece of utter garbage. I am angry at this book for existing, to be honest. I have been angry since the second fucking page and I am going to continue being angry.

And breathe.

So, the book is set in generic, grim cyberpunk future. Corporations! Corporations everywhere! Our protagonist is a hard-boiled investigator from a much grimmer planet than earth, with a shady past in the Extreme Military (so that he is Amazing At Everything), brought to earth by a rich dude to solve a murder. The twist!? The murder is of that very rich dude! Because in this future, you can download yourself into a new body if you have enough money. It is… not a stunningly original plot. Hard-boiled protagonist must then wander earth being hard-boiled and solving crimes/sexing ladies/being aware at the reader about the fact he has a penis.

Yes, seriously.

Because, for some reason known only to the author, it was apparently really fucking important to keep us up to date on the erection status of our protagonist. And have him walk down the street with all the prostitute advertising. And inform us again. And give us a really detailed description of the interactive prostitute advertising and its effect on his intimate areas. And also describe prostitutes with penis necklaces. And a man with a snake-but-also-it’s-a-penis tattooed on his abdomen. I shit you fucking not. Now, call me a prude, but I am just not that interested in penises.

And don’t get me started on the sex scenes, sweet Jesus god I mean…

Firstly, “milking” is not a word I’m ever going to consider fine for sexy usage, and doubly so when describing an act performed upon a woman. Also, “pneumatically-breasted” is… I don’t even know where to start. Also there’s the bit about someone’s heated buttocks which is just creepy. And their nipples being like… rope? And then, AND THEN, we get the sexy sex drug that one of the sexy ladies secretes, to make her extra sexy. Right up until the author describes it as being in “her juices” *shudder*, at which point nothing is ever going to be sexy again. I could go on, but I don’t think anyone wants me to.

The point is, to drag us back a little, that the sex scenes are appallingly cringey, and I consider it an honourable service I have performed in my duty to books to have actually read both of them. I don’t think even teenage boys are quite so ridicu-… ok fine, maybe teenage boys. But anyone with a shred of awareness is not going to be anything other than embarrassed on the author’s behalf. He’s turned the dials up to eleven to demonstrate that OH MY GOD THE PROTAGONIST, HE SO MAN, SO GOOD AT THE SEX. And left us with something ridiculous. Multiple times. And the hint of sexy clone sex island of paradise and glory.

It’s just juvenile and pathetic, really.

Which isn’t helped by the fact that all the characters are horrifically two dimensional. There are the sexy women (one manipulative, one angry… and then some prostitutes whose defining characteristic appears to be being prostitutes). The evil woman, who is ever so slightly sexy, but mainly evil. The rich guy, who is mainly rich and monologuey. And then our protagonist, who has the depth of puddle in the Sahara and the interest value of a damp j-cloth. He’s 100% off the rack, writing-by-numbers, hard-boiled detective.

Which brings me nicely round to the misogyny. So you take some cyberpunk (often misogynist) and smush it up into some hard-boiled detective story (often misogynist) and of course, the misogyny cancels out. Spoilers: no, no it does not. A woman is fridged on the fucking second page. And not even really fridged, because to be honest the protagonist mainly forgets about her while he’s busy being Manly and So Hardcore and Very Detective. And thinking about his penis. But she gets killed off, just after the protagonist describes her curves as being like a sine wave, and thinks about her pulling woollen socks over “the sheen of her thighs”… which seems a bit implausible to me, being as I am acquainted with both socks and thighs. And that’s all she is. He brings her up a couple of times but isn’t even… that sad? Too busy sexing the ladies, I suppose. And it doesn’t ever really get above that low, low bar. There are a lot of jiggling breasts, short skirts and suggestive handling of tennis rackets, and not much in the way of actual female agency, even from the sexy female police officer.

Because apparently everyone just wants to do what this guy says, because he’s been in the Extreme Military (which is like Peter Grant’s magical GCSE in everything, but much more violent). Even when he decides to just… kill a lot of people. Very dead. For spurious reasons that I would consider misogynist (I think the author thinks they’re chivalrous). Because the protagonist is a horrible, horrible human being… but never gets cast as an anti-hero, which would at least mean the author had noticed the shittiness and made is aware of it. But no, we’re meant to blithely accept Captain Murder and his Head Chopping Habit as an actual, honest to god hero. Come the fuck on, Morgan, give us some credit as vaguely intelligent beings. Give us… something to work with. But no, clearly we’re meant to be in some way impressed by the machismo bollocks… like it’s nineteen-fucking-seventy or some shit. It’s 2017**! PLEASE TRY.

And it didn’t even have the decency, as most detective novels of this type do, of being an easy read. My god it dragged. I got through it quickly by sheer force of will, because I wanted to be done with the fucker, and get onto a halfway decent book (The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, if you’re interested), not by any virtue of the writing or pacing. At its best moments, the prose is entirely unmemorable, but at its worst, it is so, so clunky, with some descriptive turns of phrase that are evidently meant to be quirky but clever but just fall totally flat. He’s obviously aiming for grimly industrial and gritty, but you can’t just put it everywhere. It doesn’t work for describing e.g. breasts. Mostly, it makes you look a prat. Who can’t write.

I think you’re getting the idea of what I think about it. Maybe.

So, I made some predictions when I was early in the book and I was preeeetty close to the mark. Those predictions were a) the solution to the whodunnit and b) which of the ladies he would sleep with. It was not a stunning bit of detective work on my part to get there. But I did. Nothing that happened in the book surprised me, except by the depth of its terribleness. And the sex scenes. And focus on penises.

Apparently, they’re making a Netflix series of this too (which is why it’s even vaguely relevant). The only good thing I can think of about that is it’ll deprive us of the protagonist’s internal monologue, for which we should all be grateful. But seriously? Why? Reading this made me want to watch The Matrix, because Keanu Reeves is hands down a more convincing, emotional being than our protagonist could ever hope to be. Even in the third Matrix film. EVEN THEN.

So, before I just end up saying “penis” again***, to sum up: this books is godawful on every metric – oh, I didn’t even mention the bullshit “science”, where apparently women’s skin is an organ but men’s is a barrier, and women would be way better than men but they’re impaired by periods so it’s all fine… among other quackery – and no one should have to suffer it, ever. Somehow, it won an award. I can only assume either the panel or the voters (I don’t know what sort of award the Philip K. Dick is) were all blind drunk and/or massive misogynist eighties nerds. It’s the only explanation. There are no redeeming qualities that could explain it otherwise.

So… yeah. I hated it. It got 1 star. It’s competing for “worst book of the year” and I almost think it might have beaten Too Like the Lightning to that accolade… because that at least tried to be interesting on any metric. This is just bland, generic, totally predictable bollocks. I’ll have to think on this one. But don’t read it. Don’t ever read it. You’ll never get those hours back.

 

*Of which by far the most likely was “My review is just going to be me shouting “I DON’T CARE ABOUT HIS PENIS” over and over again, isn’t it?”. Which tells you probably more about this book than you’d really want to know, because oh my god yes, that was a valid issue I was having.
**Still, just. 25 minutes left.
***Thing that actually happened, I was discussing this book early on in reading it, and we ended up singing “penis man, penis man, does whatever a penis can”. This is what it does to people. Be warned.

Posted in All, Blacklist, Detective/Mystery, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Imperium – Robert Harris

cover

I much prefer this cover… most of them look like airport thrillers.

So… it may be known that I am a woman of predictable tastes. And it may be known that “Cicero” fits very very neatly into them. So it’s no shock I adored Imperium. I mean, also the fact I’d read it before, but that was yeeears ago so sort of doesn’t count. It was before I knew enough Roman history to have valid opinions. Reading it again, as an adult… I just loved it.

I’ve sort of been meaning to reread it for a while, but the thing that spurred me into it is the fact we’re going to see the two plays based off Harris’ Cicero trilogy in Stratford next month. We saw a five star review of them and it jut massively kicked off my excitement all over again (we booked the tickets months ago; I got distracted) and I just couldn’t help myself but dive in in preparation. And then I’ve been glued to the book for a couple of days.

It’s not so much that it’s some perfectly accurate piece of history in narrative form, as obviously there’s artistic licence going on… but like HBO’s Rome, it manages to transcend the issues of historical fact and nitpicking by just getting, for me, the tone dead right. Rome cuts things, changes things, messes around all over the place… and yet it feels so perfectly and precisely right on a more fundamental level that I’m willing to forgive a lot of not-necessarily-quite-accurate-on-the-details. I’m not just a pedant, ok? And this falls into the same bracket. Mainly because Cicero feels like Cicero. And yes, there are errors (or things I think might be errors and I just haven’t checked). But… eh. I always liked reading Cicero himself, and part of that is because you often get quite a strong sense of personality coming through*. And you get that here too – especially the recurring notion that Cicero can’t help but undermine himself by saying something witty and cutting when maybe, just maybe, he’d have been better off keeping it to himself. It’s delightful.

That all being said, and it also being said that I gave it five stars on Goodreads without a second thought, in some ways, I did think it wasn’t quite up to par with McCullough’s First Man in Rome etc. series. Harris’ work feels like it lacks depth, when I compare the two. Though I suppose, realistically, that’s what you get for only writing 400 pages compared to the umpteen thousand per book McCullough manages. And she encompasses a wider cast, all of whom get their depth and breadth and development, whereas Harris’ brevity by necessity calls for a monofocus on Cicero himself. And Tiro, to an extent, but that too is an issue. Because Tiro is… I suppose, he’s unfamiliar. He’s not a historical figure I know so much about. And I’m reading this precisely for the comfort of “omg it’s Cicero”, so Tiro sometimes gets in the way? Which is a shame, because he’s a very pleasant narrator in a lot of ways, and there are moments where it’s obvious how a) Harris has taken care to root his attitudes in his time and b) Harris has taken care to notice the differences between the attitudes of the time of Tiro writing (i.e. in old age, post-civil-war-shenanigans) and the time of the events of the narrative. Had I come to him cold, as a new character in a new story, I think I’d be really very fond of him indeed. And I don’t dislike him. But there are moments when I wish we’d just dispensed of the conceit of a known third person from whose perspective all things are told and discussed, because maybe then, just maybe… we’d have more got into the mind of Cicero himself.

Yes, yes, alright, I know… I’m biased. I just really like Cicero, ok?

One of the things I really did enjoy, if I move slightly away from historical fangirling, is the pacing. Harris has spaced things out according to Cicero’s career, and it gives each section a really good dramatic build and climax, without being over-drama. But on the flip-side, it has enough drama that even though I know which elections Cicero is going to win, it still feels compelling reading. I still want to know how he solves the problem and how he pulls through in the end, even if I’m denied the drama of uncertainty. And I feel like if I didn’t know? It would have been really well played out.

I think the other thing that stands out to me is Harris’ building of a plausible and realistic Roman scenery and world. We get the grotty sides, of people throwing up and drunk and the closeness of the streets and all that… but not too much. We don’t focus on the grot, but give it enough page time that you can’t glamourise it away. It’s not some pristeen, white and flawless world we’re watching. And much likewise, and yes, here is where Tiro being narrator makes a difference, we’re not allowed to forget the grim parts of Roman culture, particularly around slavery. I think possibly we don’t have it brought to mind as much as we could and should have, but the points when Tiro is concerned for his future (what if Cicero does sell him to Crassus? What if Caesar does get revenge for what Tiro accidentally saw?) and where he expresses his dreams for the future while acknowledging their reliance on the actions of his master… it’s a slight reminder that things were not all roses. And of course, Tiro is by far one of the luckier ones, to be a private secretary rather than anything else, and he acknowledges that too, but it’s one of the reasons I think to prefer Tiro’s narrative over Cicero’s – you are forced to include this aspect of the world and naturally so, whereas, were we from Cicero’s point of view… he’d just never consider it. He’s a senator – what reason would he have to worry over the lot of a slave?

I’m not saying it does it perfectly, of course – there are moments I think it does glamourise the life of a slave, as well as the lot of woman, in the Roman world, as well as sometimes just skimming past the details that might be distasteful to us now – but it manages to incorporate the grubbier aspects seamlessly into the narrative, and without any way of letting us forget that they’re there.

Obviously, I am biased. I was going to love this book unless it was dire. But I did love it, and I’ve already ordered the sequel, and I’m utterly unrepentant about how much I enjoyed it. Some books just make you happy, and for me, this is one of them. Is it the most stunning piece of literature in the world? Of course not. Have I read much better books this year? Yes. But everyone likes to read indulge in their biases now and then, so it gets five stars and that’s that.

Next up, Altered Carbon. I know I’ve said I don’t like steampunk, but have I ever mentioned how I don’t much care for cyberpunk either…

 

*Ok ok, I know, biographical fallacy, but you know what I mean. The bits where he’s being a sarcastic bastard. Obviously all this stuff was published and so there’s going to be the hand of self-promotion/image-management behind it all, but EH.

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