No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015/43: Karma Girl -- Jennifer Estep

“We all know that villains cheat and steal and lie, but the heroes do it too. They lie to their friends and families. They make excuses and let down those closest to them time after time. That’s bad karma. One day, all that lying is bound to catch up with them. I just make sure it happens sooner rather than later. What goes around comes around. It’s karma.” [loc. 270]

Carmen Cole discovers her fiance Matt and her best friend Karen in bed together -- on what was supposed to be her wedding day. Furious and hurt, she discovers and unmasks their secret identities. Matt (unsuspected by Carmen) is the Machinator, a local superhero: Karen is Crusher, the corresponding supervillain. Carmen is determined to unmask every 'super' out there: 'No woman would come home to find her boyfriend slipping into a neon pink codpiece. No man would be puzzled over why his wife had a strange collection of whips and an odd affinity for black leather' [loc. 196]. She turns out to be very good at this, and ends up working at The Expose, a major newspaper in a thinly-disguised New York.

Then Carmen finds herself caught up in a power play between the Fearless Five (heroes) and the Terrible Triad (villains). Can she discover the identities of the villains in time to save herself? More to the point, will she ever unravel the secrets of Striker, the masked superhero with whom she's having a steamy affair?

Carmen is something of a Mary Sue: she's even red-haired, and she single-handedly saves the day. She also fails to notice that all the superheroes and supervillains (not to mention Carmen herself) share one very obvious characteristic. This does, oddly, add to the reader's enjoyment: we can see the plot unfolding well before its protagonists do.

Karma Girl is more of a romance than a superhero novel, though it does make some astute observations about the genre and its tropes. There's a moment, too, where Carmen -- who's already been captured by, and escaped from, a group of supervillains -- is attacked and sexually assaulted by common-or-garden lowlifes. She's rescued by Striker, but the experience shocks her. It's too real, too personal, too basal. ' Malefica and Frost’s tubs of radioactive goo had frightened me. Now, their threats seemed petty, almost cartoonish, in comparison to the attack tonight.' [loc. 1654] I appreciated the juxtaposition of comic-book violence and the real threats faced by women every day.

Less ironic, and less humorous, than some of the other superhero novels I've read lately: but a quick, light, entertaining read.

Monday, December 28, 2015

2015/42: Boxer, Beetle --Ned Beauman

When I am in a stressful situation, I often like to ask myself: what would Batman do in my place? I find Batman so inspiring – his intelligence, his tenacity, his self-sacrifice – that it sometimes makes me slightly tearful. But the trouble is, it’s hard to imagine Batman in a Little Chef. I don’t mean that flippantly: it’s a fundamental problem. Most of the places where I spend most of my life – NHS doctors’ waiting rooms, the local twenty-four-hour corner shop, Happy Fried Chicken, my ex-council flat, the tarmac playground down the road where I go when I want to sit down in the fresh air – seem to distill their peculiarly English ambience from that feeling you get when your mother wipes snot from your nose with her sleeve on the bus. [loc. 1973]

Boxer, Beetle is a dark and occasionally vicious comedy (and a tragedy): it entwines the stories of Kevin Broom, collector of Nazi memorabilia and sufferer of an unpleasant disease, and Seth 'Sinner' Roach, gay Jewish boxer with 'unusual physiology'. Kevin's narrative is contemporary, and frames Seth's story, which is set in the Thirties, in London's East End. Yet the two are intimately connected, by an aristocratic entomologist who admires Hitler, and by Kevin's employer Grublock, who is eager to discover the location of Seth Roach's grave.

This is a tightly-plotted novel: even the most outre details turn out to be germane to the story. Kevin, despite being someone you would absolutely not want to meet in real life (see above under 'unpleasant disease') is oddly likeable: Seth, who lacks social graces and whose dialogue is a stream of profanity, nevertheless seems the most principled character of all. And Erskine's marvellous beetles -- which, at the climax of the novel, reappear in a scene reminiscent of a horror film -- do have standards.

I find I don't have much to say about Boxer, Beetle, despite finding it a very enjoyable (and weirdly educational) read. Beauman gives good description, from East End boxing dens to Futurist conventions and country house parties before WW2. The characterisation is intriguing: the characters are far from stereotypical.

Beauman's appeared on various 'best new / young writers' lists. Boxer, Beetle was his first novel: I think I'd like to read his other work to see if the promise of this book is fulfilled.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015/41: A Symphony of Echoes -- Jodi Taylor

One event leads to another, which triggers something else and before you know where you are, the ramifications spread far and wide throughout History. Echoing down the ages. Getting fainter and fainter, but never completely dying away. They talk of The Harmony of the Spheres, but History is A Symphony of Echoes. [loc. 2625]

In which Max encounters Jack the Ripper, mocks some dodos, adjusts Mary Stuart's love life, and witnesses the assassination of Sennacherib. ('Standing on a small, grassy knoll at the site of an assassination is never good in any language.') Her affair with Leon Farrell takes a couple of unexpected turns, and the enemies of St Mary's Institute of Historical Research (who have the unique advantage of possessing actual time machines) come up with new and horrible ways to interfere with St Mary's personnel -- and with history itself.

This was a headlong read: Max barely gets a moment to breathe, and I read the novel straight through on a delayed flight. Only in hindsight did I notice that a couple of the episodes seem totally disconnected from the rest of the plot. The 'Jack the Ripper' incident seems to have no lasting effect: the visit to Niniveh ditto. The primary plot, concerning a forged Shakespeare play that reflects an altered history, threads through the whole novel: perhaps we're just being shown that it isn't the only matter on Max's plate.

Max does some pretty nasty things in the course of this novel. She is not the only one. As a character, I find her llikeably fascinating -- and I can absolutely relate to her refusal to take any more, even when she's wallowing in self-loathing and guilt. (I'm not entirely convinced I'd like her if we met, though. And her refusal to discuss her feelings is ... vexatious in the extreme.)

Jodi Taylor writes good history, and good time travel, and doesn't shy from the nastier or more complicated aspects of either. Always a good read.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

2015/40: Season of the Witch -- Árni Þórarinsson (trans. Anna Yates)

"...he said to me once: What Loftur did by old-style sorcery, I’m doing with modern-day sorcery. If Loftur were alive now, he’d be doing the same as me. Loftur and I are human beings who become our own gods."

"And it destroyed both of them?" [loc. 4860]

Einar is a crime reporter with a history of alcoholism, working for a Reykjavik-based newspaper: he's assigned (or banished) to the small northern town of Akureyri, which initially seems quiet and old-fashioned. Einar -- who is not impressed with all this new-fangled technology, cellphones and laptops -- quickly finds that as well as the hoary journalistic staples of missing dogs, student theatre and 'question of the day', there is plenty happening in Akureyri. The charismatic teenage star of Loftur the Sorcerer, Skarphédinn, is murdered: a middle-aged woman drowns (surely an accident?) on a corporate away-day: the local youth gang are increasingly out of control, and nobody seems able to rein them in.

I rather liked Einar. Though he constantly complains and initially seems to dislike practically everybody, he's a compassionate, sometimes self-effacing, and self-aware man. More pertinently, he works through the murder mystery at the heart of Season of the Witch by wit and logic alone: he's a journalist, not a detective, and his methods reflect his trade. And he knows that truth and justice are seldom black and white.

This novel was originally published in 2005, before the Icelandic financial crash. The pre-crash boom is underway and society is changing, with increased industrialisation and the spread of social problems from the capital to the remoter parts of the country. It's well-written, neatly plotted and -- as far as I can tell -- the translation is good. (It certainly flows well!)

2015/39: Fangirl -- Rainbow Rowell

“There are different kinds of talent. Maybe your talent is in interpretation. Maybe you’re a stylist.”

“And you think that counts?”

“Tim Burton didn’t come up with Batman. Peter Jackson didn’t write Lord of the Rings.” [loc. 4174]

Cath is a BNF (Big Name Fan), internet-famous for writing Simon Snow slash fiction. (In Fangirl, the Simon Snow series is analogous to the Harry Potter books, of which you may have heard.) Cath, and her extrovert twin sister -- and former co-writer -- Wren, are starting college, and as Wren's path diverges from Cath's, Cath begins to realise that her life is off-balance. While Wren makes friends, gets drunk and attempts to rebuild a relationship with their mother (who walked out on September 11th, 2001), Cath becomes increasingly isolated. Her high-school boyfriend dumps her; her roommate Reagan apparently hates her; Reagan's boyfriend Levi doesn't hate her; her partner in Creative Writing, Nick, takes her suggestions on board but doesn't give much back ... and her Creative Writing tutor finds it necessary to explain the concept of plagiarism to Cath.

I'd had the impression that this novel presented the creation and reading of fanfiction as 'just a phase': fortunately, that is far from the truth. Rainbow Rowell illustrates a fanfic author's frame of mind with accuracy, sympathy and humour. Everything from the pressure of readers' comments to the joy of writing in a familiar world to the fear of not finishing a work-in-progress before canon catches up ... Cath is pretty open about her fic-writing, which lets Rowell cover a range of responses that many fanfiction types will recognise: the girl in the library who gushes about 'Magicath' without realising it's Cath's nom de plume; the guy who extricates himself from a relationship with the immortal words, 'You have stronger feelings for Baz and Simon'.

A lot of the story is about Cath's writing -- fanfiction and original fiction -- and her gradual relaxation into college life, complete with friends and boyfriends and interaction. (Early on she says "There are other people on the Internet. It’s awesome. You get all the benefits of ‘other people’ without the body odor and the eye contact." [loc. 1951]. I can relate.) But weaving through that is the story of Cath's family: Wren's increasingly wild behaviour, their father's bipolar disorder, their absent mother, and Cath's inability to communicate with any of them.

Cath's story is punctuated by excerpts from Simon Snow canon (as by 'Gemma T. Leslie') and Cath's own fanfiction, both perfectly convincing, and definitely comparable to Rowling-level canon and HP fan-writing. Just one niggle: this is a universe in which the Harry Potter books are also a Thing (as evinced by a throwaway comment), but it seems unlikely that two very similar series could co-exist.

Fangirl is a very enjoyable read for anyone who's active, as reader or writer or both, in the world of fanworks. I imagine it's especially engaging for Harry Potter fans: I'm pretty sure there are a lot of allusions and references I missed. It's also an intriguing novel about growing up and leaving home, and a convincing portrait of a socially-awkward teenager. Recommended.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015/38: Wanting -- Richard Flanagan

Lady Jane had requested in writing a scientific specimen—a skull from what she termed ‘the vanishing race’—and this the Protector had been happy to accommodate. But as he had decapitated, flensed, boiled up and rendered down his friend’s skull, glad to know that it was going to such fine people of keen scientific mind, he had not anticipated the request now made across the dinner table. As a further course of roast black cygnets was served, Lady Jane announced she wished to adopt a native child, as though it were the final item to be ordered off a long menu. [loc. 764]

In 1854, nine years after her husband's disappearance in the Arctic, Lady Jane Franklin visited Charles Dickens and asked him to respond to a recent article accusing Franklin and his crew of cannibalism. Dickens promptly produced a racist diatribe, 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers': you can read it here.

That historical fact is the germ of Richard Flanagan's Wanting. The novel entwines parallel stories: Jane Franklin's marriage and widowhood; Charles Dickens' mourning for his dead daughter and his love affair with an actress; and the life and death of Mathinna, a young aboriginal girl from Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) who survives a massacre and is adopted by the Governor -- Sir John Franklin -- and his wife.

Mathinna and Dickens are both defined by what they want -- by their wanting -- as, to a lesser extent, are the Franklins. Jane Franklin wants a child. John Franklin wants the cold white spaces of the far North, 'a world of lost children whose failures were celebrated as the triumphs of men'. Dickens wants absolution for his child's death. Mathinna wants to belong somewhere, to be loved -- and because her old life has been destroyed by the British, she tries hard to make a new life in the Governor's household. Everybody wants: none of the characters are sufficiently introspective to understand the wants of others.

Wanting is a powerful condemnation of racism, imperialism and colonialism. Mathinna is perhaps the single likeable character in it -- and she's not always especially likeable. Flanagan's writing is sensuous and rich: the novel's full of evocative phrases such as 'the summer morning heat was raising a chutney of odours'. And his portrayal of the inherent cruelty of Victorian attitudes (see the quotation above) is masterful.

I cannot say that I enjoyed this novel, but it is extremely well-written, savagely critical, and emotionally wrenching.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015/37: Uprooted -- Naomi Novik

He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. [loc. 43]

Agnieszka has grown up in the shadow of the Wood, which is a source of malevolence and monsters. She and her dearest friend Kasia have also grown up knowing that a girl of their age will be chosen by the Dragon -- not an actual dragon, but a powerful and reclusive sorcerer, who chooses a girl every ten years and takes them away to his tower. It's always the most 'special' girl who is chosen. This time around, it's sure to be pretty, charming, neat Kasia. So Agnieszka -- prone to clumsiness and with a knack of attracting any dirt in her vicinity -- is horribly wrongfooted when the Dragon chooses her.

Despite the fairytale trappings -- an isolated Tower, an antagonistic and bad-tempered man, a young woman out of her depth -- this is far from 'Beauty and the Beast'. There is a romantic element, but it's far from the primary focus of the novel. When Agnieszka's story begins, she's ignorant in many ways: her education, and her gradual realisation of the nature of the Wood (a fascinating because non-human foe) and the ways in which it can be combatted, form the main arc of the story. There's plenty, too, about the roles into which women in this world are shaped, and the ways in which those roles trap and stifle them. Agnieszka may be the Dragon's protege, but that doesn't grant her much protection from casual misogyny or sexual harassment.

Like most of the other characters, she's well-rounded: certainly not defined either by her relationship with the Dragon, or by the skills she learns from him. Agnieszka's main quest is, at least for a while, to rescue her friend Kasia from the Wood: she, rather than the Dragon, is the agent of change here. And her perceptions of the flow of magic, the metaphors she uses for it, bring the magical system to life. (That said, I could have done with fewer lengthy descriptions of magical battle. Yes, it's a relentless war, but whether battle is magical or physical, repeated accounts of it pall.) Uprooted focusses on the female characters: Agnieszka. Kasia, the Queen, the ... other Queen.

An enjoyable read: it reminded me somewhat of The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic (which I note I read almost exactly a year before Uprooted), but in Novik's novel the magic, and the magical, are foregrounded, and there's no secondary world.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015/36: Every Day -- David Levithan

The body is the easiest thing to adjust to, if you’re used to waking up in a new one each morning. It’s the life, the context of the body, that can be hard to grasp. [loc. 71]

The nameless, genderless narrator ('A') of Every Day wakes up in a new body each morning. It might be male or female, black or white, overweight, ill, blind, suicidal ... However, it will be sixteen, and it will be in Maryland, USA. A's life has been like this for as long as they can remember (which may be considerably more than sixteen years: it's hard to tell). Every day is a challenge; every day is a new life. "The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent every life has in common." [loc. 926] Well, every teenage life in America ...

One major downside of A's condition is that, when A meets Rhiannon (the girlfriend of an arrogant lout named Justin, whose body A wakes up in one morning) and falls in love, there are ... complications.

Every Day is a teenage love story with more obstacles than most. It's also a profoundly human story about the similarities of different lives, the artificial nature of gender, race and class distinctions ("There were days I felt like a girl and days I felt like a boy", loc 2786), and the human urge to have one's life known, recognised and accepted by another human being. What would A do to stay in a single body? Can Rhiannon love an individual who will be a different person -- at least from the outside -- every day?

Soul transference, or body-swapping, is a hoary SFnal theme (Wikipedia quick ref): if you include possession (demonic or otherwise), it's a trope that goes back thousands of years. Levithan doesn't explain the mechanics of A's condition, but he does explore a plethora of variations on the theme. Can A change someone's life? Do A's unwilling hosts remember A's presence? Is A doomed to be a lonely drifter, living in the moment, forever? Is the body just a vessel? Can A 'make a deal with God', as that song that plays again and again on car radios suggests?

I really liked Every Day: it's funny, painful, incisive and well-observed. I especially liked the ending, which was surprisingly low-key and not what I had expected. Tempted to read the companion volume, Another Day, which tells Rhiannon's side of the story. Also tempted to read Levithan's other novels -- YA, yes, but I enjoyed Dash and Lily's Book of Dares too, so that's a 100% success rate thus far.

... Gosh, he's written a lot ...

Here's A on depression:

Some people think mental illness is a matter of mood, a matter of personality. They think depression is simply a form of being sad, that OCD is a form of being uptight. They think the soul is sick, not the body. It is, they believe, something that you have some choice over. I know how wrong this is. When I was a child, I didn’t understand. I would wake up in a new body and wouldn’t understand why things felt muted, dimmer. Or the opposite – I’d be supercharged, unfocussed, like a radio at top volume flipping quickly from station to station. [loc. 1355]