Reading Diary: RIP XIII and otherwise

It’s the end of October – autumn is really here now, almost winter. It’s dark early. It’s cold. I’ve been back in the UK for less than a week, and already it’s clear: we’re in a different season. On the upside, I guess: stews, scarves, the three-month festival of eating that is Halloween + Thanksgiving (/Friendsgiving) + Christmas + New Year. And books!

A lot of what I read in October qualifies for RIP XIII, it turns out. Here, at last, is the rundown.

9781408896266First, a few things that don’t really qualify, including Georgina Harding’s new novel, Land of the Living. This, I’m afraid, I shall have to be fairly brief about, as I read it before I went away (so about three weeks ago now), but it did serve as my introduction to Harding’s work and a good one it was. It’s a novel about a farmer called Charlie, back in England and married after the end of the Second World War. He was posted in Kohima, and his experiences there haunt him: not just the murder of a lost (or deserting) Japanese soldier, or the deaths of the other members of his platoon, but also the strange period of time during which he gets lost in the mountainous jungle and is rescued by a remote tribe that seems never to have had contact with white people. Harding’s descriptions of the north Indian jungle landscape are the stylistic standout of the book: so lush and evocative, you’d swear you can feel the steam rising from the vegetation. The narration jumps back and forth between Charlie’s time in India and his life now, farming, with his wife Claire. He tells her stories about the war and about foreign places, which she accepts with the incredulous equanimity of an Englishwoman in the late 1940s who, while not a fool, has never been abroad and can’t quite believe in the reality of the people her husband describes to her. Meanwhile, Harding also shows us Charlie through Claire’s eyes: a lovable man but one permanently distanced from his wife, as much by the fact that he’s a man as by his vaster life experience. That narrative even-handedness is what invests the reader; it’s not as though there’s a dearth of WWII novels, but the standouts are the ones that articulate an idiosyncratic kind of war, an individual’s war. Land of the Living is a standout.

isbn9781473679894One of the many joys of bookselling is that moment when a publisher’s rep flips to the next page of their sales catalogue (now usually in PDF form, though I understand they used to be made of Actual Paper) and says something like “Ever heard of this author? No? Well, we’re reprinting their backlist anyway, with natty new jackets, and I’m going to spend the next five minutes trying to convince you to buy every title, despite the fact that you’ve never heard of them and they died in 1987.” That all sounds sarcastic, but it actually sometimes is a joy – who doesn’t want to find a great, underrated author and get in on the ground floor of their renaissance? Pamela Hansford Johnson, it turns out, actually is fairly well known, except by me: she wrote twenty-seven novels, reviewed extensively for newspapers and magazines, and married C.P. Snow. The Unspeakable Skipton seems, at least at first, as though it might be not unlike The Talented Mr. Ripley: an Englishman abroad in Europe makes his living by conning people. The difference is in the protagonists: Ripley is cool and psychopathic, while Skipton is frantic, hotheaded, and pathetic. Convinced of his own genius as a novelist, he lives in Bruges and spends his days writing letters to his long-suffering London editor in defense of his unpublishable manuscripts. In the evenings, he latches on to expatriates and provides various services (procuring and art dealing chief among them) for money. In a way, the vast gulf between Skipton’s conception of the world – his own righteousness and the rest of humanity’s crass ignorance – and the way the world sees him is reminiscent of A Confederacy of Dunces. Certainly there’s an absurd humour in watching Skipton’s mad antics, although Hansford Johnson is hardly likely to make you guffaw the way Toole is (and she doesn’t want to, either). Mostly, though, it’s a novel about an unpleasant man getting his just desserts from equally unpleasant people. It’s neatly observed, and if it’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like it, but it’s an awfully hard book to love.

412b7oycz4xl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Back to books that qualify for RIP XIII, the next of which was Red Snow, Will Dean’s follow-up to his smash hit Dark Pines, which featured bisexual deaf investigative journalist Tuva Moodyson. (Yes! All those adjectives!) I have to confess I didn’t read Dark Pines, although if it comes anywhere near Red Snow for atmosphere and detail, I can see why it did so well. The pleasure of Dean’s writing is in his ability to convey uncomfortable experience with the authority of one who’s lived it: not only the mental effects of a long, cold, dark, isolated, rural Swedish winter (and he does know about that, because he lives year-round in rural Sweden), but smaller things that contribute to characterisation. Tuva wears hearing aids, and in the cold they become uncomfortable; Dean lets her tell us about that, about the minutiae of her lived experience, in a way that’s dignified and convincing. (It isn’t just Tuva’s deafness that gets this treatment; he remains the only male writer I can think of who has memorialised in print the intense joy of a woman coming home after a long day at work and taking her bra off.) The crime and investigation in Red Snow, oddly, is the least convincing element of the book: there’s an apparent suicide at a liquorice factory, which has been the major employer of the tiny town of Gavrik for generations, followed by a bizarre murder in which the victim’s mouth is stuffed with liquorice and his eyes covered with liquorice coins. The pacing of the investigation (both the police and Tuva’s) is bafflingly slow and circular, readers are expected to sympathise with the family that owns the factory simply because the author and protagonist tell us we should, and the impact of the final revelation is (I suspect) diluted if you haven’t read the first book. Read it for the atmosphere, though, and for Tuva: prickly, curious, and no one’s fool. (RIP categories: mystery/suspense)

51bd3oyemyl-_sx329_bo1204203200_I doubt there’s anything I can say about Perdido Street Station that hasn’t been said before. Its impact on the fantasy genre has been so huge, despite the fact that it was published just eighteen years ago, that the aspect of it that seems to have most thrown readers for a loop when it was originally published didn’t have that much of an effect on me: the in- and subversion of genre tropes for which Mieville’s book is so famous has now become largely internalised by the genre itself. In other words, thanks to the fact that Perdido Street Station fucked with its readers’ heads unexpectedly, we now expect fantasy to fuck with our heads. It’s a theory, anyway.

Perdido Street Station is a very long book, although it doesn’t read like one, and there’s a lot going on in it, but once it gets going, it’s mostly about a ragtag bunch of criminals, outcasts and refugees who have to band together to save the city from a nest of soul-sucking menaces known as slakemoths. (They eat, or rather drink, your dreams, and they’re immoderate about it: slakemoths feed by literally putting their enormous tongue in a victim’s face and devouring every part of the brain save for the brainstem, leaving their prey alive but vegetative. They’re basically dementors.) Fundamentally, though, it’s a book about a city: Bas-Lag, which is lovingly mapped and described and explored and traversed throughout the course of the novel. It’s neither medieval London nor steampunk New York, though it’s reminiscent of both; really what it reminded me of was Ankh-Morpork if you drained all the zaniness and replaced it with menace. The comparison is a little unfortunate because it makes Mieville seem po-faced, which he isn’t quite, just serious: about this city, about this story, about story in general, its illusions, the way a person can be misled. His project in the New Crobuzon books, if we extrapolate from this first one, must be to make a world, and indeed Bas-Lag already feels more solid to me than Ul Qoma/Beszel of The City and the CityPerdido Street Station is a phenomenally accomplished start. (RIP categories: urban fantasy)

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French’s first standalone novel, The Witch Elm, flips her usual perspective on crime: instead of filtering the world through the eyes of a detective, she gives us the experience of a victim. Toby Hennessy considers himself a lucky man: he’s got a wonderful girlfriend, he’s just managed to avoid a serious scrape at work with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, he owns and likes his flat, everything has always been okay. All that changes on the night two men break into his place, steal his valuables, and beat him almost to death. Left with potentially life-changing injuries, Toby struggles to recuperate until someone suggests that he move into the old family house, where his bachelor uncle Hugh still lives. Hugh is dying of a brain tumour, and someone needs to be on hand. Toby’s reluctant, but his girlfriend Melissa thinks it’s a great idea, and they move in. All is going well, until a family visit when one of Toby’s nephews finds a human skull hidden in the wych elm at the bottom of the garden. And then old secrets start to come to light… One of my favourite things about Tana French’s writing is how she wrongfoots you. This looks like it’s a murder mystery, and Toby looks like he’s the protagonist because he’s our narrator, but actually it’s a story about privilege, although French never uses that word. Toby is so shaken by his attack because he has never, not once in his whole life, experienced powerlessness or vulnerability, and the moment he sees himself that way, his entire self-conception falls apart. Moreover—and not to spoil anything—the body in the wych elm, it becomes clear, was killed for reasons relating very strongly to privilege and its misuses. The Witch Elm isn’t a novel about Toby at all. I’ll leave you to read it to find out which character is its true center. I highly recommend that you do. (RIP categories: mystery, suspense)

41zz1laegyl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Vonnegut’s one of those writers whose first sixty pages I often find tiresome, but then I bear with it and get invested, and by the end I’m genuinely moved by and emotional about the whole book. The Sirens of Titan is his most overtly science-fictional novel, I think (having not read all of them yet), centering on the richest man on Earth, whose name is Malachi Constant. It’s almost impossible to do justice to the plot by summarising; let it be enough that the book is about free will, futility, war, love, and belonging. As ever with Vonnegut’s books, female characters aren’t mistreated so much as ignored; Beatrice Rumfoord, the woman with whom Malachi Constant eventually has a child (amusingly named Chrono), feels like a character-shaped prop, lacking even the distant, ironized sort of interiority that most of Vonnegut’s male characters are given. Yet she’s not unsympathetic; there are moments when her emotional responses are given narrative priority; and when you consider that this book was written three years before the first James Bond film, its treatment of women starts to look positively progressive. Vonnegut was at best ambivalent about NASA’s space program—he questioned whether it was worth spending money on exploring the stars when there were people starving right here on Earth—and his genre fiction, as well as his more conventionally realist novels, always seems to have this grounded sense of humanity at its core. The Sirens of Titan might be a good introduction to Vonnegut for a neophyte, in fact.

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The Ear, the Eye and the Arm is a children’s/YA novel from 1995, of which no one outside the US appears ever to have heard. My dad brought it home for me in 2001, and it was so entirely unlike any other book I read as a child that scenes and characters from it have haunted the back of the immense broom cupboard that is my reading mind for years. It’s set in Harare, Zimbabwe in the late twenty-second century, which is kind of funny because most of the technological innovations that signal future-ness in the book are standard parts of our daily lives now: holophones (basically FaceTime), robot servants (Alexa). Flying buses and taxis are really the only thing we haven’t got now—oh, and genetically engineered talking blue monkeys. General Makutsi’s three children long for an adventure, and moreover, they want to earn their Explorer badges for Scouts. Their only human servant, a white man whose job is a form of ritualised flattery called Praise Singing (the imagined racial hierarchy of post-colonial southern Africa in this book is particulary interesting to an adult reader), lets them out of the house, but they’re almost immediately kidnapped and brought to a female crime boss known as the She-Elephant, who lives in a toxic waste dump and rules over its population of homeless, outcasts and petty criminals. When the She-Elephant decides to sell them, the children uncover a conspiracy involving a gang known as the Masks, who practice human sacrifice—but not before getting caught up both in an enclave in the middle of the city whose inhabitants live in a traditional African fashion, known as Resthaven, and in the home of the Praise Singer’s mother, a white woman looking for a fat ransom payout. In the midst of all this, eldest son Tendai has to find a role for himself and come to terms with his fear of disappointing his father. The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, meanwhile, are the three detectives sent to find the children, each of whom is from a different ethnic background within the nation of Zimbabwe, and each of whom has a supernaturally strong sense: the Ear has supersonic hearing, the Eye has inhumanly good eyesight, and the Arm is both unnaturally tall and an empath. A film ratings board would say that the book has “mild peril” at best, but that seems appropriate for a middle-grade novel. The strong flavour of Afrofuturism and focus on Zimabwe’s spiritual traditions (the ultimate villain is essentially conducting a form of voodoo warfare) makes the book both fascinating and informative, without being didactic. An excellent YA backlist title. (RIP categories: urban fantasy, I guess)

Thoughts on this batch of reading: Almost all of these were fantastic, and it was particularly nice to a) choose my own reading while I was abroad, instead of reading to a schedule imposed by bookselling/my own mad ambition, and b) feel okay about reading a little bit less in a month. It was also nice to find that a lot of what I read fit in naturally with the RIP XIII challenge. I’m now feeling emboldened to seek out additional seasonally appropriate reading, such as the Annual Winter Dickens, some might-be-described-as-Gothic fiction, some Victorian pastiche, and some more (perhaps historical) crime.

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Diary, Reading and otherwise

I’ve been at my parents’ house in the States for the last week, which coincided with my brother’s college fall break; we’ve been trying to cram the greatest quantity of Organized Fun into six days. This has involved a lot of visits to vineyards and ciderworks, of which there are about 200 in the state of Virginia, as well as a hike in the nearby Blue Ridge, a movie in the little town where my mother works, and an extended family get-together this past weekend. Both my dad’s parents died within twenty-four hours of each other last month, so it felt particularly important to all be together, and particularly nice that I could take part.

But, books! I don’t think I’ve updated since the beginning of the month, which is shocking. Since the 1st of October, I’ve read ten books – not great, but preparing for and staying with my parents always minimizes the available time for reading. Several of the books I’ve read have qualified for the R.I.P. challenge (Readers Imbibing Peril), too. Here’s the first half of this month’s reading:

the_little_stranger_28film29The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters: It was very difficult to decide how to feel about this: on the one hand, it’s an extremely atmospheric ghost story, set in decaying Hundreds Hall after the First World War and playing on an obsession with class and tradition that manifests itself in the character of Dr. Faraday. On the other hand, as Abigail Nussbaum points out, Sarah Waters makes genre and realism pull against each other, and therefore neither element is totally successful; the ambiguity of the ending is less richly satisfying and more of a frustration as a result, as though Waters simply can’t be bothered to decide. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book is the phrase “the little stranger”: it was a Victorian euphemism for an unborn child, and the entity which knocks from ceilings and scrawls childishly on walls seems to suggest that it is the ghost of Susan, a little girl who died at Hundreds Hall several decades earlier – but there is also a suggestion that ghosts in general are psychic emanations of the people who live in a haunted house, non-physical children, in a sense. It’s the sort of book that will probably need another look. (RIP categories: horror; supernatural.)

51udevpxrxl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: It seems fairly evident, simply from watching the news and following the barest minimum of the relevant folks on Twitter, that the experience of being a person of colour in America now – let alone historically – is so quotidianly bizarre as to almost register as a form of science fiction or surrealism. The literary response to this has varied (but think of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, or, maybe more relevantly, of the movie Get Out); from Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah comes what seems like a natural response, which is a collection of short stories that take the experiences of various black American characters and make of them an anthology that reads like a series of Black Mirror. “The Finkelstein Five”, the collection’s opening story, concerns the trial of a white man who decapitated with a chainsaw five black children (at least one of whom was as young as seven or eight). Adjei-Brenyah’s dialogue in these trial scenes is flawless; the arguments of white men who murder black children, like George Zimmer, barely need exaggerating. In another story, a young black man works at an amusement park which is actually named ZimmerLand, in which patrons confront and “kill” him on a suburban street. Three linked stories, meanwhile, explore the zombie-like horror of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that has traditionally been America’s busiest shopping day. What makes Adjei-Brenyah’s most successful stories stand out, instead of merely being exercises in grim, heavy-handed satire, is the moral detail of them. ZimmerLand, for example, gives its customers the option of taking a mobile phone or a gun, or nothing, into their scenario; more than ninety percent of them make the choice to take the gun. The young salesman protagonist of the first Black Friday story wants to win the regional sales competition that day because he wants the chance to bring his mother a nice coat for Christmas; the ludicrous violence and twitching bodies are semi-inevitable and so he continues to work that shift, in that mall, in a neat parallel of the violence and destruction behind most American consumerism, even the relatively restrained kind. Adjei-Brenyah is one to watch, I think. (RIP categories: fantasy; horror.)

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The Trespasser, by Tana French: I won’t subject you to too long a dissection of yet another Tana French novel, partly because I read them pretty regularly and partly because I not only reread a second one of her Dublin Murder Squad books this month, but also read her new standalone, The Witch Elm, which I’ll be talking about later. This is only the second time I’ve read The Trespasser; the first was the weekend after my ex broke up with me last year, so my memories of it were pretty patchy, to say the least. It’s not on quite the same level as her best books (Broken HarbourThe LikenessThe Secret Place, for my money), partly because the motive is less interesting: it circles around a girl called Aislinn Murray, found dead in her home, whose entire life seems to be a blank. Only when the detective on the case, Antoinette Conway, remembers that she’s seen Aislinn before – years ago, asking questions about the father who went missing when she was a child and who was never found – do clues start making sense, but they all point to the one place Conway really doesn’t want to go… As always, French is uniquely excellent at differentiating her detectives, making them individuals whose problems are complex and convincing, far from the dysfunction-by-numbers drunk with marital problems that often seems to pass for a detective in this genre. Conway’s got issues – trust and an absent father among them – but she deals with them in her way, and part of her need to put Aislinn Murray’s case to bed stems from a deep personal irritation with Aislinn’s way of handling problems similar to her own. The writing, also as always, is spectacular, a blend of grit and lyricism that works incredibly well for me. Long may Tana French reign, I say. (RIP categories: mystery; suspense.)

imageA Political History of the World, by Jonathan Holslag: It’s nice to think of oneself as an eclectic reader, and I think for the most part I genuinely am, but recently I’ve been experimenting with reading things that really are very off-brand for me, and a three thousand-year history of global diplomacy and warfare certainly qualifies. Jonathan Holslag is a professor of international politics in Brussels, which is both an occupation and a locale that would seem to equip him thoroughly to write this book. For the most part, it’s delightfully informative, covering Asian pre-history and antiquity as well as the obvious Western empires. There’s much less about North and South American civilisations, though Holslag acknowledges, occasionally, peoples like the Olmec and the Maya, with the addendum that the documentary evidence for civilisations in these places is thinner on the ground. (This is probably true, although it seems rather weak sauce.) The main problem, though, is that he covers so much in the way of historical event (kingdom A fought kingdom B; kingdom B, forced to defend against kingdoms C through E, declined until its overthrow by kingdom F, which had been quietly amassing strength for decades) that he leaves little room for analysis or exposition regarding diplomacy, which is, in theory, the purpose of the book. It’s of little interest to know about the vacillations of power amongst kingdoms A through F when the rationale, or the psychology, behind those vacillations remains largely unexplained.

51hnj-b63wl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Likeness, by Tana French: The second of my French rereads this month, and my very favourite of all her books, mostly because it’s set amongst a tight-knit group of friends, postgraduates at Trinity who all live in an old and beautiful house out in the countryside surrounding Dublin. I’m increasingly convinced that one of French’s major themes is the dynamics of friendship: how people develop non-sexual intimacy between themselves, what kind of power that intimacy can hold, the potential danger of it, how far someone might go for people who are neither blood relatives nor romantic prospects. The Likeness also, like The Trespasser, contains a detective convinced that her personal issues are under control, who is forced eventually to confront the fact that those very issues are deeply resonant with her case and might well be affecting her judgment. Some of French’s most beautiful writing is in this, and the final paragraph (as I’m sure I’ve said before) makes me cry every time I read it. (RIP categories: mystery; suspense.)

The second half of October’s Reading Diary should be up in the next few days, so keep an eye out… Are any of you participating in the RIP challenge this year?