Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A year in Books: 2014

So, this year has been a rather good year for reading and (!) I've manage to blog between about half and two thirds of my general reading list this year, something that astonishes me. So (mostly) from this list, I shall present you with my pick of 2014 reads, the good, the bad and the downright peculiar. So, what to seek out, what to avoid and what to gaze upon in awe and wonder.

Best Book: Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Live in the Castle

Despite being up against some pretty stiff competition - even in the same week - and a last minute contender of The King in Yellow giving it a run for the finish line, the prize has to go to this neglected classic of murder and neurosis, of the sly ambiguous Merricat and her terrible days.

Worst Book: Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind

This also had some competition from Dan Simmons' horrifically racist, Song of...

No. Wait. There was no competition. Simmons' orientalism is left staggering on the track asking, "Was it a bird? Was it a plane? No! It was a horrifically misogynist novel that makes light of two acts of genocide?"

Best Re-Read: Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years Of Solitude

This prize does not go to a re-read of the, "I'm ill, sod life, I'm climbing into a bath with Howl's Moving Castle" stripe, but rather the, "Jesus, has it been over ten years since I read that? Philistine." kind. One Hundred Years of Solitude is basically the blue-print for that regret. Since he passed away in April this year, I realised how much I had been neglecting his work and felt appropriately awful. Gloriously written, heartbreaking and archetypal, it is one of the most important books for the twentieth century. The sole advantage of leaving it far too long was that it was fresh to me again. Worth every moment of the hype you have read everywhere else. I didn't blog it because I didn't really feel my voice had anything to add. If you haven't yet, put it on your list for next year.

The New Release of JOY! Prize: Paul Cornell, The Severed Streets

Aka, the Justified Fangirling Award. Utterly brilliant magical-police-proceedural/ horror novel from the alway wonderful Mr Paul Cornell. Don't read it quite as fast as I did (or, if you do, reread it afterwards), and check out London Falling first.

The "Neil Who?" award for Writers Who I Now Like: Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker

Remember that moment before you had heard of your favourite writer? When their name meant nothing to you except that it was printed on the jacket of a book you were about to start reading? Remember that feeling when you suddenly realised that this wasn't the only thing they had writen? Or that they had a new book coming out in six months?

Well, the "Neil Who?" is given to writers who capture something of that feeling. It has a few rules - they must still be alive, and the book must be relatively recent (last ten years.) 

So, whilst honourable mention must go to Max Barry's superlative Lexicon, it is Nick Harkaway's back catalogue after which I shall be chasing in the new year. 

And finally....

The Captain Bluebear Award for Appreciable Weirdness goes to Walter Moens for The Thirteen and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear. If I get a chance to reaward this prize next year, I shall be a very happy pink bear of medium size.

Many thanks to all the wonderful writers who are out there creating fabulous stuff either in the past of present for not volunteering to take part in the Alys Earl Book Awards 2014. To all the non-writers out there: Read more books. 

Happy New Year.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Review: The King in Yellow

What is it about nineteenth century genre fiction that's just sweeties to me? 

I was browsing in the sizeable horror section of my local indie bookstore (LOVE being able to type those words) and I come across a volume with a cool cover and a title that immediately has me humming this:

So, I pick up this book and flips it over it's a "blend of horror, science fiction, romance and lyrical prose" (check), that it deals with a dangerous, forbidden book (check) and that it was a major influence on a certain Howard Philips Lovecraft (...check).

Well, good little shopper I am, I toddle over to the gentleman at the till and asked him if he would recommend it. His answer was that it was great (check), but that I should be warned, Chambers had been a fin de siècle artist in bohemian Paris, and his prose had never quite got... over... it....

That sound? That's me shouting, "Oh, JUST TAKE MY MONEY."

You can see from the cover it's already well loved.
And, seriously?

Sometimes you get that sense that a book was written just for you, like it was dropped into your pocket by the author with a little whisper in your ear to look at it when you get home, or like a kiss upon the cheek that someone has sent half-way across the globe and through a hundred years of time just for it to brush against you, here, now.

This is a book that whispers its horror, not one that screams it. A book that throws shade into subtle and unsettling patterns. Yes, Chamber's prose is rather soaring at times, his pace not modern, but for me that is a long way from a criticism. Uneasy, beautiful, haunting, he is not so committed to otherworldly awfulness to prevent him giving a few whispers of hope, of reconciliation. There are even moments of humour (I've never laughed so much about a cactus.) I shan't harp on about the Carcosa mythos, because many words have been expended upon that by others and justly so. Besides, what made more impression upon me was the way Chambers captured the the soft tragedy of the folk tradition, the way that the volume is like a piece of music that continues playing in your head long after you have finished it.

And I found myself asking if we had adopted lost Carcosa, rather than dread Cthulhu as our rallying cry, if the forbidden text that haunted us were the chilling, seductive King in Yellow, rather than the cold, instructional Necronomicon, would geek culture have taken something of a different path?

Because Chambers' narrators are not generally anaemic, neurotic young men descending into madness from terror of the unknowable, but full, even healthy, personalities who brush against strangeness, madness and despair, whether it be supernatural or otherwise. There are no simplistic absolutes here, no sense of false, cringing lights in the Universe's uncaring abyss, but a seething, unsettling place of questionable moralities, violence, tenderness, politics, sex. Faced with the Other, Chamber's narrators will empathise even while they exploit. What's more, Chambers was not bound by his genre. His supernatural is not a thing apart, howling in its madness. The madness is within us, as is the love, the hope, and the evil. Beyond all this he moved, writing of the future and the past, the real and the impossible while speaking of the same things - power, innocence, knowledge and loss.


Friday, 19 December 2014

Review: Pharos by Alice Thompson

Sorry about the crap photo, though
I love this cover
What to make of Pharos, eh?

I picked this one up at my fabulous local library who have - I think - forgiven me for what I did to their Algernon Blackwood and are happy to let me borrow books again. And it's winter, so I want ghost stories and this one looked very interesting.

Yes. Yes, and it was. Set in the early years of the nineteenth century, Pharos is the story of a young woman shipwrecked upon the shore near a remote lighthouse. Having lost her memory, the keepers take her in, but her presence on the quiet island soon uncovers dreadful secrets and a terrible, haunting.

Thompson is a very skilful writer. Her use of ellipsis through the novel gives you bright glimspes in a way that clearly calls to mind the sweep of a lighthouse beam across a dark sea, the sudden bursts of comprehension in a mind darkened by amnesia, or (of course) the way the tellingly named Lucia shines into the dark places of the lighthouse itself. Other images are drawn through the novel in a way that is pleasing to untangle, creating a plot that moves slowly, that broods and builds in menace, that threatens wonderfully.

It's a novella of atmosphere, rather than character or narrative, and that was at once its weakness and its strength. It made wonderfully uneasy reading, but when examined its resolution was too simplistic. To my mind, the strength of a ghost story tends to reside in its enduring mystery, but Thompson ties down the twisting threads of the first two thirds of the book into a clear pattern of cause and effect. Yet, had she not done this, the earlier chapters would have drifted unmoored, beautiful to read but frustrating. Indeed, she ran rather close to this risk as it was.

At the same time, I appreciate it; a work of the Literary Gothic that does not hide away behind realism, but embraces the supernatural as an integral part of the form, and indeed the world. This is not a ghost story without a ghost, but rather a ghost story which uses the supernatural as its literary device to explore questions of knowledge, identity and culpability. In its literary qualifications it is excellently realised, my complaint would be with its somewhat heavy-handed resolution of the supernatural. So, yes. Very good, but no Woman in Black.

(And, as I won't post again until after the mince pie fest, Merry Yule!)

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

What Price Fantasy? Consent and the policing of desire

This is sort of a follow-up to Alys' Addiction to Villains, dealing as it does with that fraught line between the fictional and the real.

Sex scenes and Consent:

A while ago, I read this fantastic article on the importance of consent in fiction by literary agent Laura Zats. The reason it's brilliant is because she's right. Consent is necessary, and hot and, y'know, the line between fun-times and sexual assault. Yet while the majority of my brain was cheering on this home-run of good sense and ethical sexy times in romance novels, I read this sentence and a tiny part of me flinched.

"Romance novels are also examples of what love and sex should look like in the real world."

I ignored the flinch. I flinch a lot.

But as the article charged on breathless to its rebuttal of rape culture, the little bit of me that flinched wriggled around a bit, pulled and nagged at my mind, and before I knew it I had my arms crossed over my chest and there was that nasty little whisper that used to keep me awake at night, "Just what is wrong with you?"


I thought I'd kicked that one. I thought I'd accepted the kinky mess of my brain, thought I'd settled with myself that dark thoughts and darker desires were not incompatible with self-worth, that I knew what I really needed and deserved, and what was just fun to think about. I thought I was over this.

But you're never over it. And it never takes much to bring it back again. Just some sweeping comment from a misogynist, just some below-the-line comment from an intellectual lightweight trying to save me from myself.

Or a thoughtful, intelligent, necessary article from someone I'd be proud to call an ally.

My shipping, my head-canon, the erotica I write (that you chaps are seriously never reading) would this be judged by others as "examples of what love and sex should look like in the real world", when it's not, and it isn't intended that way, and for goodness sakes, aren't we all aware of that by now?

I'm done berating myself about this. I got angry. 

Fiction is another word for fantasy. 

Even the most real-world, blow by blow account of an ordinary day is a fabrication, a falsity. And yeah, while I agree that we need a world that does not normalise sexual assault via media, can we not accept that some things are an escape? That some people like to think about things that - in real world terms - would constitute serious criminal acts?

Politically, I am left of centre. 

Actually, I'm left of centre by quite a long way. 

In fact, I probably couldn't see the centre with a telescope, but that's immaterial. As an unrepentant lefty, I would like to think that I am ethical. As such, I want an end to all the ways that people use power to hurt each other. I want an end to rape. I want, desperately, for every kind of non-consensual sexual activity eradicated from our world. I want our conversations around sex to become unambiguous and free from shame. I would like all abusive tosspots to learn how to be decent human beings and, frankly, while we're at it, I'd like an anarchist utopia. 

That's what I pray for, after all: people being decent to each other not because of law, custom or fear, but because it's the decent thing to do.

But just because I want these things, doesn't mean I'm not allowed to read books that glamorise vicious feudal societies. Just because I'm anti-murder does that mean I must resist the charm of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Just because I am a pacifist, am I not allowed to enjoy Preacher?

So, yeah, I'm anti rape. But does that mean I have to bar non-con from my fantasy life as well?

Especially when we get kinky, it's all about consent.

It's probably about time I mentioned BDSM. This is, after all, as much as a fictional framing device as erotic fiction. However 24/7 a relationship, it is still has its limits, however extreme the actions, they are always bound by consent. BDSM allows people to hurt or be hurt at one remove, not to experience power but to play at it. Just because someone someone indulges in interrogation play does not mean they want to be interrogated. BDSM is a safe space for fantasies, it is a yes-but-not-really.

I have heard arguments from erotica writers and readers that this is how it should be, that non-con should always be framed as fantasy within the construct of a story. So, any scene where a questionable act is eroticised it is necessary to reveal it as a consensual activity where all participants are engaging in a mutual game of make-believe. We may see something vicious, even violent, but when the lens pans out we see the mutual laugh and hug afterwards, the safe-word and the quick release restraints. In a longer story, we see these safe guards working, we see that this is all consensual and that, however intense, it is all in the name of good fun.

BDSM gives us as neat a get-out clause in fiction as it does to real life. We can go to these places without ever bringing our ethics into question.

But when we're reading a novel or a story we already have a framing device which tells the reader that nothing that follows is really real. A work of fiction is, of itself, a consensual, mutual game between the reader and the author. If a reader likes the idea of a forceful hunk sweeping them up to the bedroom over their half-hearted protestations, then a book is a place they can have that without the ensuing emotional scars. If at any point something unsettles them, triggers them, hurts them, they can say a non-negotiable "no", and put down the book. Stopping reading is the best safe-word in the world. 

What is more, most adults are capable of this distinction between reality and fiction. We know what we're reading isn't real - any crimes committed are not real crimes, the blood shed disappears with the next turned page. To add to this wonderful game a second disclaimer would be almost like a massive subtitle on the dangerous bits of an action film which state "These explosions are a special effect! Stunt doubles were used and not harmed!" 

When one reads - especially when one reads erotica - one suspends one's disbelief in order to get one's jollies. One does not want to come back to earth with a thump. We get it. It's a construct. If you aren't conversant with that, you really shouldn't be playing the game - you are still scrabbling at the backs of wardrobes seeking passage to Narnia, still walking into walls between platforms at King's Cross. 

So I could get scornful here, vicious against the people who fail to understand that, just because I entertain questionable notions in my head, doesn't mean I am ever going to act upon them in real, non pre-agreed reality.

But this attitude is rather glib.

Because that isn't what this is about. Because even though books are safe spaces, even though they are the finest of fetish clubs, even I draw back from too much realism in my villain. One might be fine with the idea of an elf-lord dreamboat pinning one's hands and ripping one's bodice, but when the setting is a market town in Surrey and the ravisher in question is a stockbrocker then no matter how much emotionally escapist bliss comes into play, to me that's going to sound like date rape.

Likewise, while I know that writers have no particular responsibility to their readers as a moral force, I am also aware of the part they play in creating cultural discourses and normative modes in the media. And these discourses - for all they are created in that 'harmless' realm of paper an ink - can cause real-world suffering, real world pain. I'm not talking about Harry Potter being the slippery slope into Satanism, I'm talking about semiotics. I'm talking about yet another strand of media excusing sexual assault, normalising it, glorifying it. 

In short, I'm talking about rape culture. Faced with that, to say, "It's only fantasy, I won't self censor, sod the consequences" is to show either blinding privilege or borderline malice. 

There should probably be a conclusion here

But there won't be. Because I know that people can't be held accountable for their fantasies provided those fantasies remain fiction (in whatever form). Because I know that reading about non-con, however horrific or scary, and getting off on it is not the same thing as wanting it to happen. I know that, as people, we need to challenge the dark bits of our minds, to embrace them and enjoy them if we can do that without harming people. I know that devotes of the macabre, fans of the kinky among us shouldn't have to feel like freaks, shouldn't need to be ashamed that they get a frisson from things a bit beyond the beaten track. The stigma against these things is strong enough as it is; let's not shame people further.

But I know, too, that if a story is told often enough to become our mode of understanding a thing it can do incalculable harm. I know if a person's, particularly a woman's, "No" comes to signify only token resistance, then we live in a society that excuses rape. And I am a hundred percent certain that this is wrong.

So I can't reach an answer. The line between fiction and reality is nothing like so definite as the line between enthusiastic consent and everything else. The boundary of what is too close to the bone changes from reader to reader, author to author, person to person. What's more, in a society that has so much shame, so much obfuscation around desire, too many people find themselves unable to communicate, to give or to ask consent. So, yes, we certainly need discourses which show us the words to do this, but as fiction reflects reality, we also need words which reflect back the pain of that inability, words for that struggle, for that uncertainty. 

How much do writers owe to ethics? To reality? At what price do our fantasies come? I wish there were a rubric that I could get behind, a pocket guide to acceptability because with the cost so high in human suffering, I could do with one.

All I know for certain is this; I am a Gothic writer, a teller of fucked up little narratives with ambiguous moralities, and I am not always sure that I am doing the right thing.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Review: The Quarry, Iain Banks

I've been putting off reading this.

There's a scene in Y, The Last Man where Yorrick goes to the monument raised to the memory of all the men that have died, there he meets Rose, a young woman who - when asked who she is mourning - answers, "Mick Jagger."
Used for review purposes

That's how I feel. If we had an event along those lines, of course I would mourn my family and friends, naturally I would suffer all emotions a functional, compassionate human would feel, but the writers would be what broke me.

I will still choke up with tears when I am suddenly struck by the memory that there will never be another Cherstomanci book. Still.

And in the same way, I will never again read a brand new Iain Banks novel for the first time.

So, yeah. I've been putting it off.

What can I really say? That I've been measuring it to a different standard because it's the last one? That I didn't want it to end. That if I air any kind of criticism (because, no, it isn't perfect) I'm somehow being disloyal.

This is ridiculous.

I am being ridiculous. I am making this personal, and part of my grieving and it has not damned thing to do with me.

So, the book? Well, the book is excellent. It felt good, it felt powerful to have this last novel not as ambivalent and non-committal, but with Banks firing on all cylinders, kicking back against this inhumane travesty of a ruthless government and the way that it corrupts and brutalises. He is a better man than any of them.

It's just a pity he hasn't outlived them. He deserved at least that.

Appropriately, almost ironically, it is a book about loss, about death, but it is a shout against those things and it's a good thing that it's a shout. It makes me angry at death, angry at injustice, angry at finality. Iain Banks always makes me feel that way, and he always makes me hope, too. The universe he paints is merciless, violent, unkind, but it is not despairing. It is godless, but not cold.

I'm grateful for that.

So, if you've been putting it off, stop. Read it. It's worth your time, now. You'll have to let it go in the end, have to accept you're going to mourn.

RIP, Mr Banks.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Review, N0S 4R2 by Joe Hill

Okay, okay, okay. Sorry. My excuse would be it was November and I was doing Nano, but I finished on the 20th, so it's a pretty lame excuse. Also, I haven't posted regularly since mid October so... mumble mumble, something, social anxiety, mumble.

But let's not talk about sad things! Let's talk about horror novels!

When Joe Hill published N0S 4A2 in the UK he was forced to modify the title to N0S 4R2 because the eponymous pun on that notorious German word was lost somewhere over the Atlantic. I've been meaning to read it since it was released around this time last year, and I finally managed it. So:

I liked this book (I know I say this a lot, but it's true) and I am really taken by Hill's blending of emotional depth and real darkness. His characters are fuck-ups; they make mistakes, they hurt people, they do and say things that are obscenely ugly; but they are also capable of great love, of self-sacrifice. There is very little judgement in Hill's world-view, because even as he shows us the ways in which we have messed up irrevocably, he also presents us with the possibility of healing, of redemption. His characters are broken by life, beaten up and knocked down, but they are never incapable of being their best selves. That was all there in N0S 4R2, and that was all to the good.

The storytelling is ace, as well. Terse, brutal and winding, Hill is casual with atrocity, laying down his cards with an unsettling rapidity, leaving ugly images that will grip your guts for days to come. Maybe it isn't scary - he hasn't had me jumping at shadows since Heart-Shaped Box - but it is horrifying. You will ache with a need for everything to come out okay, and you will weep at the prospect that it won't. You will weep for his characters, too, knowing no happy ending can fully repair the damage done to them by the narrative and by themselves. And the ending? Startling and unexpected - despite my protests - it worked in the manner of an denouement that slots perfectly into place.

But in this otherwise wonderful book, there is a flaw. Or perhaps it isn't a flaw.

The heart of novel is the monstrous character of its villain, Charlie Manx. He alone failed to convince. Don't get me wrong, he was engagingly warped. His diction was elevated, making his talk of innocence, his euphemisms wry, self-mocking. The quiet, forceful bitterness with which he promulgated his bigoted interpretations of the world called to mind a 'type' I recognise from English Literature, the world-weary, high-status villain - erudite, amusing and coldly wrong-headed. He struck me as someone who knew the evil that he did, but continued more from a vindictive precision than any real commitment.

Yet the sympathetic characters referred to him as 'dumb', as a hick, as good-ol'-boy-gone-wrong. They claimed that he 'really believed' in what he was doing. Cue cognitive dissonance. It felt as though I was being shown one thing, yet told another. In a bad writer, I would feel that this was a refusal to surrender the premise of an earlier draft, the insistence of forcing the teller's meaning upon the reader's perception - but I think Hill is a better writer than that.

What I believe was occurring was a cultural misunderstanding. English - as spoken in the UK - is a language of puns and evasions. It is entirely possible that an adult might twist a euphemism in front of a child ["fiddling with his fiddlestick"] as a private joke without any suggestion of vulgarity or barnyard bad manners about it. We have elevated innuendo for to an art-form, a game enjoyed by educated. Simply listen to any radio broadcast of I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue. Or my dad's Father of the Bride speech.

By reading this into Charlie Manx, I was assuming that this was the case everywhere. Perhaps what I understood as sly mockery was merely childish avoidance of 'dirt', his broad statements of slightly ironic entitlement merely the right-wing mumblings of the misinformed. Perhaps what I was being given were indicators of another type, one which - with my different set of references - I did not recognise.

It is possible, after all, that it was not merely the punning title that was twisted out of shape on that Atlantic crossing.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Please, tell me a ghost story

Oh, I do love ghost stories. The staple of my late childhood reading, if you count out Narnia and Diana Wynne Jones, were stories of revenants and warnings from beyond the grave, beginning with my Dad's copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination (not the Edgar Allan Poe compilation of the same name, but a TV tie in to what I'm guessing is this series and a lifelong confusion regarding that particular title) and going from there.

But, you see, I wasn't just surrounded by adults willing to hand me totally inappropriate books, I grew up surrounded by a rich tradition of the oral ghost story. Family tales, polished by time and hyperbole; odd, unresolved fragments of 'something strange that happened to me'; weird co-incidences; Urban (or perhaps rural) legends; and of course the "I live in the middle of nowhere, and the best form of fun is to make up shit and terrify my friends."

I know hundreds, and most of them gained from that opening gambit, or a book passed to me in desperation upon hearing it. Just because I know them doesn't mean that I can tell them, but there are a few that I can. Many of them have never found their way into print, or if they have only as part of a compilation of real life ghost stories. Because that's the thing about ghost stories, once you encounter them. The best ones are true, or at the very least 'true'.

"My Grandmother, who was not a fanciful woman..."

Do you believe in ghosts?

We are always assured that the original teller does not. M.R James, master of the form, understood this. Ghost stories do not - or at least, should not - happen to believers. A credulous person cannot be trustedin these things. They will always jump to the most sensational conclusion. No. What you need is someone calmer, someone rational and a little sceptical. At the very furthest reach, we need an open mind, an 'I've not seen enough evidence to persuade me either way." In James' work, his narrator is usually taken in hand by a older acquaintance, wry or solemn, who is older, more experienced, and more comfortable with the truth in Hamlet's words, "There are more things..." Even the believers do so quietly, without fuss.

In our own tales, we are equally discriminating. Our source is always reliable. My Great-grandmother was not a fanciful woman, but... My friend, who doesn't believe any of this stuff... It's the classic urban legend source, two removes. It does not happen to you, the listener, or the one telling the story, but someone with whom they could have direct contact, their great aunt, their cousin's friend, their next-door-neighbour's mum. It is close enough that belief is conceivable but, ah, always just that little bit too far to check the facts.

First hand ghost stories, in my experience, are generally told ruthlessly, without embellishment. Unless there is a gap of many years, they are dropped in a way that makes telling them to someone else a bore, "Yes, but you did you notice that..." Perhaps it takes some distance to spin a proper tale around them.

So do you believe in ghosts? According to this article, which I read about two years ago (and got angry at), 38% of the population of Britain believe in ghosts. But of that 62% who ticked the 'no' box, how many of them love a good, scary tale? How many of them will, in he right conversation, divulge some curious little fragment of their own life, or a family recollection by which they will swear? How many of them are undecided? Asking someone if they believe is almost invariably a prelude to getting a tale, a much more effective way than my childhood efforts. "Well, no. I don't. But..."

Friday, 7 November 2014

Review: Dirty Work, Chris Farnell

Quick confession time: I hate screen reading.

If you're wondering why I tend to review only physical substance books bought in bricks and mortar book shops - and can persuade me not to mumble unconvincingly about aesthetics and supporting local businesses - it comes down to two things: an eye condition called scotopic sensitivity syndrome and the fact that I do most of my editing (and beta-ing for others) on an e-reader. Basically, ebook technology makes me a fussy bitch with a migraine.

But, as short stories are less likely to give me eye-burn and this was recommended to me, I found that dipping in and out of this over about a week wasn't enough to send me running for the ibuprofen and a smoke coloured transparent overlay. So, here is the spoiler free premise of Dirty Work by Chris Farnell.

Eight stories linked by the rather tenuous theme of 'jobs' within an generally SF/F set up, we have post-apocalyptic soldiers in a war against no-I'm-not-telling-you, dystopian futures of advertising narratives, and someone who felt a bit like a dodgy financial advisor who specialises in Faustian pacts. Suffice to say that even the blurb was enough to call up a giggle.

I think what sold me on it was the way that there was clearly the mind of tinkerer at work, a writer willing to take a worn premise and giving it a fresh little kick to bring it to life. While bleak and occasionally horrifying , there is a real playfulness to these stories. They read like shaggy dog tales told by a skilled comedian, not afraid to indulge in genuine human emotion but always willing to throw in the laugh.

Farnell's prose is snappy, idiosyncratic and light. These are stories you can enjoy over a cup of tea and a biscuit while you're pretending to reply to a very important text message - just be careful not to laugh too much. Although the plots are at times convoluted, the cleanness of style and the general 'flash fiction' quality of the collection keeps things simple and easy to follow.

On the downside, I had a bit of a gripe with the way that most of the stories opened. The first page or so or narrative felt somewhat perfunctory, as though character and style were being set up before the real business of the tale commenced. 'Flipped', for instance, starts with something of an info-dump before the second page drops what could have been a killer hook. Still, if you have the patience for a slow beginning (and you won't need to wait long. As I said, flash fiction) then it quickly kicks off to something compelling, amusing and just a little bit scary.

So, if you want something light to read midweek and enjoy your SF/F, then Dirty Work is well worth it's very modest cover price.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Knowing Jack: The Ripper crimes and the Gothic imagination.

The first time I realised that the Internet could provide any information I might care to find I was in year 8, in the IT labs at school. Drunk on my new powers of limitless knowledge, I did what any self-respecting, blood-thirsty little toe-rag would do and typed the title of a very famous murderer into the Lycos(!) search bar along with the word 'photographs'.

You get one guess as to series of murders to which I refer.

I was a nasty minded little horror junkie, innocent in my fixation on the gruesome details, the theories, the hyperbole. I was keyed up on blood and thunder. I'm still ashamed at what I did that day.

And what I found? Grainy, morgue photographs, violence in all its tragedy, the human body rendered frail and somehow obscene. My prurience seeped away. No splatter-fest with Hollywood lighting, no gruesome and intriguing details, just the images of five women stripped of human dignity, of life. That afternoon, September-hot and staring at old, thick screened monitor, I lost any interest I had in serial killers.

Don't get me wrong, I was still as morbid as hell, still a nascent Goth with a fevered imagination. I still am. But I draw the line at real crimes, real people, real tragedy. I can't look at it any more and see a mystery, see the puzzle for a autumn afternoon. I can't care about justice, or sleuthing or conspiracy theories. I don't want the perpetrator blazoned on my imagination like some byword for Victorian fog and squalor, a set-piece of the Gothic. I rather not be giving these things any further house-room.

All of which makes my attitude to the Ripper crimes somewhat conflicted. We're at that season, after all, as my Gothically inclined Twitter-feed subjects me to a run of speculation, of recreation. And, one glance at my bookshelves hammers the message home, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, Brian Talbot's Alice in Sunderland, Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, Paul Cornell's The Severed Streets. Why are we so obsessed with Jack the Ripper? Why do even I keep returning to it?

Yet all of these writers are ambivalent about the legacy at which they pick, the tragedy real and human, the murderer co-opted, played out, lionised or demonised until its power far transcends the cruel and ultimately petty act of murder. As Moore say, the crimes don't tell us anything about themselves, simply about us, our fears and obsessions. Newman tells the story of tragic madman, co-opted and exploited to a political end, Talbot of the bitter moral it doles out upon female sexuality. Cornell, ah, Cornell...

I won't be spoiling that for you.

Books aside, though, the focus is always on the killer. Whose names, or aliases, live on in our consciouness? The victims pushed aside, ignored, erased or sensationalised. Killers post manifestos on YouTube, hoping to gain some scrap of Jack's immortality, or at least a passing fame.

Sometimes they succeed. There are crimes, sometimes, that capture the zeitgeist of the time that they were committed. I can think of a few that have happened in recent years, but their memory fades as the society that birthed them dies. Interest in the wanes to the few people who have long memories, and those whose interest in the macabre stretches as far as reality (and there is nothing wrong with that.) But the Ripper crimes are as much part of our historical consciousness as the work of Conan Doyle, Shelley, or Stoker. We have all let this one inside us, even if we turn from these things.

But they are not feats of Frankenstein science, not Sherlock Holmes mysteries, or Dracula-seductions. They, and the hyperbole surrounding them, were moments of exploitation, of xenophobia, poverty and misogyny. They are symbolic of their age, all its conflicts, all its failings.

And yet we still tell these stories among ourselves, brood over them, gloat, create ever more elaborate theories and retellings. Even I do it, still, and I try to stop myself.

What does that say about the age we live in now? How far, really, have we come?€

Friday, 17 October 2014

Review: An English Ghost Story, Kim Newman

More in the mood of Jago than the Anno Dracula books, An English Ghost Story sees us returned to the West Country as the wonderfully named Naremores flee city life, attempting to escape the tensions and neuroses that almost destroyed them. Coming to the idyllic Hollow, they begin to rebuild their relationships, aided by the strange, magical atmosphere of the house. Yet, as they grow closer and more confident in their magical surroundings, things take a rather more sinister turn.
First things; this book is addictive. Newman is a master of pace, and An English Ghost Story has a real nightmarish intensity. It sneaks into your head, making a world both treacherous and real. What's more, as one would hope from the title, it is very English. The first 'movement' as the family discover and fall in love with the Hollow captured all the wonder and mystery of an ancient house, and succeeded in being distinctly eerie without ever being openly menacing or distractingly twee. For me, it recalled Lucy M Boston's Green Knowe series, where fear was balanced with magic, so that a child reader suffered anxiety as to the benevolent intentions of the house's other inhabitants,whilst feeling cared for and protected by the narrative - and indeed the house - itself. Newman taps into this vein of national consciousness, conveying the confidence which the protagonists have in their story, whilst our more adult awareness renders their hopefulness creepy in the extreme.

However, as the novel moves into its second and third phases this slow build of anxiety, this hat-tip to the traditional ghost story, is dispelled by Newman's trademark focus on characters, and the self-destructive tendencies of the human mind. The drama leaves the dream-house itself and refocuses upon the hell apparent in the human mind. This section has all of the strengths and weaknesses of Newman's work; his characters are alive, brilliantly realised and compelling. However, the text is at times difficult to follow, the sudden changes of mood and behaviour a little jarring. There is madness here, and it is powerfully portrayed, but sometimes off-putting.

As I would have expected it is also gloriously nasty. This is not going to be everybody's thing, but I found some laugh out loud moments, as well as a couple of sly jokes that were at once hilarious and devastating. Artfully gruesome, Newman takes no prisoners with either his prose or his themes. His characters are not especially likeable. They are (to quote another novel) strugglers rather than saints. Jordan is the best of the bunch, but she is still a teenage girl with all that entails. Speaking of characters, there is at least one familiar face - as I would expect - but in a much more minor role than in many of Newman's other cross-novel references.

If I had any major complaints, they would be structural. While it hangs together better than last year's Johnny Alucard and is more cohesive than Jago, the different sections of the book don't always gel perfectly, and the reader is at times bombarded by with information, subjectivity and events. Things leap and lurch in places, the p.o.v. and narrative focus shifting as often as the territory inside the characters' minds. I feel like I need to give it a careful rereading, which for me is a plus, but might be annoying for others. The ending, which obviously I won't spoil, left me uneasy - but I'm not entirely sure as to why.

Generally, though, yes. A quick, affecting and occasionally vicious novel about the flexibility of identity, about the roles we play and the ways they can control and destroy us. A fabulous read for Hallowe'en - just as I expected it to be.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Review: Lexicon, Max Barry

 Okay. About a week ago I had the thought that the government was monitoring us via the ubiquitous Playbuzz quizzes that I and everyone around me find addictive. They would use these endless list of questions, preferences and gameplaying to identify subversive elements, to mark us out, to control us.

Isn't is nice when fiction pays into your paranoia?

Actually, Lexicon is pretty fantastic. (Thanks Debs!)

 Rippingly well paced, it tells an engaging, intelligent story with some wonderfully threatening overtones. A thriller with a brain, a heart and a political conscience, it moves through real sweetness, visceral intensity and laugh out loud wit. It twists, turns, and confounds you. It's a full on, all boxes ticked wonder. It is genre fiction at its best.

 So, the premise: words create chemical signals in the brain. The right words spoken in the right order can create hormonal conditions which bypass our societal defences, leading to a state of euphoria and suggestibility. With the right words one can control a person, utterly.

The words used depend on a person's psychological profile, their 'segment', or 'type'. Even without these control words it is possible to manipulate someone by knowing their type - by knowing a more superficial set of buttons to press, by being able to guide their thoughts.

Hence all the questionnaires.

An organisation who call themselves 'Poets' study these words, teaching themselves defence against them, using them to shape the world that we know.They recruit Emily, a young woman from the streets with a natural ability for verbal manipulation, or 'attack'. Elsewhere in the narrative, Wil is 'the outlier', a man kidnapped by the Poets, a man who words cannot control. He is the only man to walk away from a disaster engineered by the sinister Woolf.  People want to know why, and how they can use his power of defence.

Any more information would constitute a spoiler. Go, read it, it's brilliant. Not perfect, and the ending... yeah, I had issues with the ending. But go read it, like right now.

Full out recommendation, no caveats.

Review: No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

A little while ago, someone suggested I subtract my age from the biblical threescore and ten, work out how many weeks that was, and multiply the resulting figure by my average 'books read per week' score. The diminutive aspect of the answer was intended to make me think more carefully about my reading choices.

It may interest you to know that the same person who suggested this also suggested No Country for Old Men as October's book group selection. October's book group, which I could not attend on account of concussion.

And it took me a week. A whole %*&£$% week. One week closer to death. One whole week's worth of brilliant books I am not going to get to read.

Come, come, Alys, let's be fair.

I don't think I'm the target audience for this book. This is the sort of book that - if I read it for a course - I would detest until I read all sorts of interesting and thoughtful essays upon it, whereupon I would start to see how Cormac McCarthy's writing is oh-so-clever. Then I might see hidden depths and, convincing argument permitting, become a champion of it. Even if that didn't happen, I would begin to appreciate the skill behind it and accept that it was worthy, interesting and not for me.

But I was supposed to be reading it for pleasure and by all the Gods in Asgard it was a slog. I'm sure McCarthy got what he was aiming for with the prose, but reading it was interminable. Perhaps I was supposed to drift into some zen-like state from the accumulation of minutia ("He pulled in at the filling station under the lights and shut off the motor and got the survey map from the glovebox and unfolded it across the seat and sat there studying it.") but mostly my eyes just glazed until we reached the crux of the matter. I have a four-year old with a similar attitude to conjunctions, and it is the only way to survive.

Sadly, when my four year old gets to the sodding point, I have some idea of what she's talking about. In this book, it was mostly to do with guns.

To make it worse, I couldn't tell any of the characters apart. I mean, I know, I know, defamiliarisation and taut, minimalist expression (you see McCarthy occasionally catch himself out in a bit of imagery that he seems immediately to regret) but everyone spoke, thought, acted and engaged with the world in the same way. It felt as though it were a blow by blow account of a movie whose cast consisted solely of Clint Eastwood. Each part played by one man with subtly and intensity which, however faithfully it is recorded, cannot be conveyed by the listing of each taciturn movement.

In fact, I spent most of the novel trying to work out which of the several male characters we were dealing with at any given time. They all did the same sorts of things, anyway; get shot, check into a motel (or trailer park, or tar paper shack, or big ol' ranch), speak in homilies for a bit, perform some rudimentary First Aid on their wounds and then go and threaten, interview or shoot someone else.

Eventually some of them died.

Put like that, it sounds almost like a Beckettian masterpiece, which I might have quite liked. But this ain't Beckett.

I got the feeling that I was supposed to be engaged, that I was supposed to care. Occasionally, a character would have a moment of introspection, or honour code, or of not shooting the dog and I got the impression I was meant to be invested in this, somehow. That I was meant to be reading this as some great tragedy set in the "it just happens" of real life that undermined and contextualised the the Romance of the Old West. It's just, for that to work I would need to care for and  believe in these fatally macho "good ol' boys" and their retiring, saintly, much younger wives.

Like I say, I don't think the target audience was me.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Kill the Moon: Maidens and Mothers in Doctor Who

After Saturday's Doctor Who, Kill the Moon, I went into the kitchen with my husband and dredged up some pretty tough things from the last five years, and cried for a good twenty minutes.

Then I drank a glass of wine, watched two episodes of Blackadder and - typing this twenty four hours later - am feeling a lot better.

Better enough to say some things that have been on my mind for a while.

It is a truism in some corners of the interwebs that while Doctor Who under RTD was a joyous experiment in tolerance, feminist messages and the trampling of conservative thought patterns, current showrunner Steven Moffat is a misogynist dinosaur who is intent on dragging our favourite show back into the Dark Ages™ and normalising all kinds of horrible things. While this is an opinion I do not share, I can see some aspects of justice in it. RTD's vision was carefully inclusive, squeaky clean and PC (not a criticism), whereas Moffat seems to have an much more cavalier attitude to such matters, instead telling the stories he wants to tell (and using the writers he wishes to use) while letting the pieces fall where they may. Moffat's showmanship seems characterised less by wilful offence than by unexamined prejudices and whilst I agree this is a problem, I'm not sharpening my guillotine about it. 

So, yeah. There are problems. There are also - despite all his best efforts - problems in RTD era Who, as well. As I've said elsewhere, we live in a society that is by its very nature unjust and problematic, so that - however hard we try - we cannot make our work just and utopian. No, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't try, but we should also accept that however hard we do try, we're still going to mess it up. And,when we spot it, we should call it out. So, it's calling out time.

Some people just can't hack it.
One of the things that bothers me enormously in RTD era Doctor Who are his concepts of worthiness. In classic Who, companions travelled with the Doctor because they wanted to, because they needed a lift home, or because they were refugees with nowhere else to go. Under RTD's guidance, they travel with the Doctor because they are 'worthy'; they ask the right questions, they make the right choices, they can - in short - hack it. Throughout the series, we repeatedly meet people who 'fail' this simple companion litmus test, they attempt to exploit the possibilities of time travel, they assert themselves in a non-Doctor approved fashion, or they simply fail to have the stomach for the role.

In some ways, this was an improvement. Eccleston and Tennant's companions are no wilting flowers, they do not archetypally 'fall and twist their ankles', they do rather more than pass the Doctor his test-tubes and tell him how wonderful he is. The problem comes, however, in the dynamic it creates in the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. Classic Doctors were frequently exasperated by their co-travellers, and companions were often hurt, dismayed or angered by the Doctor's less pleasant attributes. There was spark and conflict in the TARDIS - companions were anything from colleague to antagonist, friend to grudgingly accepted stow-away. The Doctor was generally kind towards Nyssa (refugee), playfully scornful of Tegan (getting a ride) and openly abrasive to Adric (stow-away). However, if a companion needs to pass a necessary test of worth to gain admission in the first place, an immediate onus is placed upon the Doctor to respect that worth, to give Nu-Who companions a kid-glove treatment that those in the classic series were not guaranteed. This is not to say that he is uniformly kind, gentle and forgiving to them (the writing is too good for that), but that their relationships are more static and less conflicted.

It also raised the question of what constitutes worthiness. All three RTD era consistent companions are female, human. They all have an implicit, absolute dependence on the Doctor. None of them have a serious romantic relationship at the time of them travelling with the Doctor. None of them have children. 

All three of them have a bad relationship with their mothers. In fact, all three of them come from what are arguably single parent homes - Martha's parents are divorced and one assumes the mother had custody, Donna's father is absent, Rose's is dead. These are mothers who have fought everything to raise daughters who are worthy, daughters who are strong, confident and feminist-icon enough to go to the distant ends of time and space with a man they hardly know, daughters who are clever and articulate and compassionate.

Yet, the mothers are unarguably awful. Shrill and hysterical to a woman, they cannot be trusted not to start making a horrible fuss. They don't trust the Doctor, and are not happy with their child's new-found adventurous life-style. They attempt to stunt, to close in, to drown these wonderful children of theirs in domesticity - arguments about laundry and marriage and car-sharing schedules. Every time these daughters leave their mothers in the lurch, with every blasé, "I'll be fine!" kiss goodbye, every, "but I trust him!" truism, every pair of car keys thrown into a bin, we are supposed to smile and nod and applaud their liberation from the cloying maternal clutches. Of course, we sympathise with poor old mum getting a call that says, "I'm okay, but I'm being shot at," from God knows when, meant to congratulate her on each, "You'd better take care of my daughter", but ultimately, these women are not worthy. They are not companion material. Unless they learn to sit back, have faith in the Doctor and allow him to send their child into whatever danger he so chooses, they are in the wrong.

Feminism has always had a problem with motherhood

To accept the role of motherhood implies a biological imperative, a role which women naturally fulfil, for which they are uniquely suited. Essentialism, determinism, biology as destiny. Of course, it postulates a utopian ideal of childrearing, one which is split equally between the parents, one which pays no heed to a person's chromosomal make-up. But, ultimately, it is the female-bodied who pay the toll of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding. It is the female-bodied who have a hormonal response that makes the cry of their child physically painful. Regardless of the intentions or ideals of the people in your life, it is the female bodied who have to take the rap for this one.

And it's such an awful job. The pay is terrible and the hours are crap. You will be hit, kicked, bitten, shouted at. You have to clean up all manner of bodily fluids. You are responsible, ultimately, for the way this child grows up, for the actions they make as an adult, for the people they hurt. Parenthood; someone has to do it and, despite all the rhetoric and the promises of equality, the majority of unpaid carework in this country is done by the female bodied. In the main, it is done by mothers. Every lunch box to be packed; every tantrum to be endured; every boundary, lesson, hygiene rule to enforce; every broken heart to console, this is on you, girls.

Motherhood will rip you apart.

No wonder so many feminists want no part in it. It's hard to do your best thinking when you've had an hour and a half's sleep because a there was a baby with colic who wouldn't latch and then wouldn't settle.

And here's a thing - it's difficult to write your Master's dissertation when you're freaking out about teething, or to compose a letter to an agent when you're busy sewing name-tapes into school uniform. No matter how loved your baby, no matter how wanted, when you're neck deep in dirty laundry and there is Lego everywhere you aren't thinking about travelling the world, or activism, or fighting the Daleks. No. You're hoping that the kids will stop fighting long enough for you to get the house tidy and that the baby won't choke on something your elder child has left on the floor and that you set the timer on the washing machine correctly because otherwise no-one will have anything to wear tomorrow. In those moments your ambition shrinks to managing the school run, to at least sweeping the kitchen floor, to getting five minutes by yourself with a cup of tea. It sets you down a few levels on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It trivialises you. It limits your horizons.

It makes you unworthy.

But there's a get out, of course, isn't there? There's a way not to get ground down into that biological essentialism that is forced by way our society manages leave, finance and expectation around childbirth. Simply don't have kids! Be young! Free! Single! Travel the universe and really far-out stuff. Join the boy's club by virtue of not being a housework-bound-child-rearing-drudge. Be the exceptional woman. Be worthy of the Doctor.

Never mind who you leave behind. They had it coming, after all. They chose that life, didn't they? They opted to give it up.

But who else was going to do it?
Amy and the tragedy of motherhood:

One of the most vicious criticisms I've seen levelled at the Moff during his tenure on Doctor Who is that Amy Pond was "just a womb to him". Because, of course, in between her many adventures and her active role within them, she married, got pregnant, had a plot significant baby and then a plot significant discovered infertility. As though to turn an unflinching eye at the choice of motherhood and its unwilling denial utterly deleted her person-hood. As though this wasn't an issue women faced, as though it wasn't a terrible, silent tragedy in so many people's lives.

As though there were a 'just' in this scenario.

I'm sorry, I'm getting fervent. The thing is, though, with Amy, Moffat turns the gaze of the viewer onto a woman who has made a choice that does not fit into the comfortable worldview of someone who has her 'freedom', as someone who turns her back on the grant of tolerance we give to an unattached young woman who doesn't bring her messy, fertile 'baggage' on an adventure with her. But we condemn this because mothers are not 'worthy', they do not count as people.

Moffat, for all the questionable things he has said about women, for all the legitimate complaints that can be raised against his tenure, has a respect for motherhood that RTD seemed unable to compute. Yes, I admit, he takes this too far at times (The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe...) but that is always the danger. If one treats motherhood as a valid choice, an honourable choice, a worthy choice, one does play into the hands of gender essentialism - and the aforementioned cavalier attitude to nuance really does not help with this. But not running this risk is a far more questionable strategy - who is raising all these strong, remarkable, forthright women who cheerfully clutch the ninth and tenth Doctors' arms? Who is doing the grunt work, the laundry, the duty of care while being shoved into the background as hysterical, demanding, unreasonable?

And, dear God, the pain that comes with motherhood, with its creation, with its denial. With Amy Pond, Moffat delves deep into the territory of the 'lost' baby, the 'missing' baby, the baby 'denied.' With the everyday tragedy that women you know will have faced, and will almost certainly not tell you about.

 I am pro-choice. I am not ashamed of this. A bundle of cells is just that - a growth which has a very low chance of survival. An embryo, a fetus, is not a baby. It cannot survive independently, and actually, its chances of surviving with a maternal body are not that hot; 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage, usually in the first twelve weeks.

But I also knows what it feels like to want a baby, painfully, physically with a gut-deep ache of need, a constant, nagging absence in your head, with tears of frustration at each little, blue 'negative' pregnancy test. The difference between an embryo and a baby is not scientific, it is emotional, it is philosophical.
The month before I conceived my first child, my period was a week late. When it came, there was a sense of loss, of mourning. What I had lost was not simply that month's blood, it was a baby. Not a real baby - it's likely I hadn't even conceived - but a baby nonetheless. With that week of negative tests, that thundering torture of hope, I was building a narrative in my mind. A baby. Nine months of pregancy, childbirth, a little downy head snuggled against my chest. The warmth of it, the smell.


As soon as I got a positive the next month, it was confirmed for me. What I was carrying was not a bundle of cells, was not an incidental meeting of sperm and ovum, it was immediately all the potential of an entire life. It was a baby. My baby.

1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage, usually in the first twelve weeks.

Amy tells the Doctor she's pregnant. A week later, "I was. I mean, I thought I was. Turns out I wasn't."

You just have to get on with your life.

Even if you're lucky, even if you are the three in four, there is terror there. You are powerless to stop this little life growing inside you in whichever way it chooses. There is nothing you can do if one day it stops moving, stops growing, if it develops a disorder that threatens its life, or your own. Every moment of a wanted pregnancy is like this, fear and helplessness. What if it goes wrong? What if it can't live? What if it kills me? When the longing, the need, is so intense, when there is so much love for a thing the rational part of your brain knows isn't even alive...

Motherhood rips you apart. 

In some families, there is a baby who is missing. Late miscarriage, stillbirth, cot-death. They are so frail, so vulnerable. I know women who will say they have two children, even though only one survived pregnancy. I know women who will still choke up when they talk about that missing baby, ten, twenty, sixty years down the line. Ordinary women. Women with lives, and interests and passions. Women that you might know. 

Having a wanted baby is an amazing thing, a bliss and a joy, a struggle and a chore, it is also an investment in fear. They can just melt away into nothing. That's the terror of it. When they are so small, so vulnerable, they could vanish and leave no trace except the scar you do your best to hide. Two days after my first was born, I was beginning to feel human again. My baby was asleep in my arms and I was back in something approaching 'my' body as I like to perceive it. There, in a moment of bliss, of peace, I had the sudden terror that this had all been some kind of mistake, that the 'real' grown-ups were going to be back any minute, that they were going to take this baby away. That she would simply vanish, melt, just like little flesh-Melody.

That horror is primal, absolute.

For some mothers, it is also real.

And you just have to get on with your life.

The same goes for infertility, that final, grace-note of cruelty that Moffat throws in from The Church of the Papal Mainframe. "Whatever they did to me at Demons Run, I can't give you children."

Dear Christ, that line hurts. The sense of total loss, the feeling of failure and bewilderment. 'Whatever they did to me' - because you never know, really. There's no sense or logic or kindness to it. And as somebody who has wanted a child, wanted a child the way Rory probably wants a child, this is a huge deal. When it becomes an absolute like that, a 'never' rather than a, 'maybe not', a 'not now', an 'I'd rather not'. All of those others suggest a mutability, a possibility of change, or retraction at some future date. One can live in hope, even if that hope is never satisfied. There is no 'over-reaction' when feelings that strong are at play. And Amy, knowing the irrevocable truth of it, that one child lost, and all possibility of another snatched away. Because it feels like a theft, it will always feel like a theft, like someone has cheated you of it.

There's a lot of talk online about the fact that Doctor Who is a sci-fi universe, that somewhere, there must be a 'cure'. But that misses the point. Science fiction gives us metaphors through which to understand the world, and sometimes - in the world - there is no fix, no get-out, no reset button. There are all kinds of things people can try to overcome infertility, but there is no guarantee that it will work. Sometimes the sentence is immutable.

Being a Mother, being a person:
Also, because this is fiction, just because the character of Amy has been used to explore the darkest sides of fertility does not mean she can't be utilised to explore a more fully realised, sympathetic version of motherhood. After all, the whole tragedy of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, is that they are invisible. One can already have children, or (infertility aside) go on to have more. The lost child becomes simply a mark in your life, as you continue and are not defined by it.

And, of course, having children, these children grow up, they become independent, outgoing, confident people in their own right. They fly off around space and time, making decisions that are not necessarily healthy and bringing themselves into all sorts of danger, and - as a parent - you kind of have to live with that.

Don't get me wrong, I think we are much too harsh on the 'overbearing', 'over-protective' type of mother. One of the things it is very hard to lose is that sense of frailty, of vulnerability that your child has as a very small baby. They will always be your baby, no matter how big and independent they get. Personally, if someone was dragging my child into the firing line of Daleks, Cybermen and evilly inclined Time Lords, I wouldn't be bawling, "You take care of her!", I would be finding out in a very visceral manner just how many regenerations the Doctor had left.

You don't mess with my kids.

At the same time, you do have to accept that your child will run risks on their own, will have to make decisions and mistakes and - I hate typing this - suffer the consequences. You have to accept that one day you will hand them off to people you don't entirely trust - schools, partners, friends - who will take them away and turn them into someone that you don't quite recognise, who cannot be the same little baby who didn't recognise anyone in the world but you.

Hell, I still have a nervous collapse when I consider letting my eldest walk to the swings on her own in a few years. But in another six, she'll be walking across town (or getting the bus) to get to school on her own. In another ten, she'll probably want to be going out of an evening, with all that entails.

I'll probably be letting her. You just have to set your chin and deal with it.

Motherhood. It tears you apart.

But Amy handles it, just like most of us have to handle it. She lets River have her independence, and they remain on good terms. Not cloying, patronising, 'dear old mum', terms but as two separate adults with their own lives. Motherhood is a part of Amy, it is a part of her and Rory's marriage, but it does not define her in the way it defines Jackie Tyler, or Francine Jones, or Sylvia Noble. She continues as herself, a woman with her own interests and pursuits, while also having a good relationship with her daughter. Even if, for story reasons, she missed the messiest and most exhausting bits of parenting.

Frankly, that's why I prefer Moffat's stuff. I'm a mother, and I get the feeling he takes me seriously.

Finally, to Kill the Moon.

Okay, I went on a bit.

The thing is, Kill the Moon - while not written by Moffat himself - is another story commissioned and approved by him that gives a serious, thoughtful look at some of the terrible dilemmas around parenting, most specifically around motherhood.

Obviously, Kill the Moon engages with this in relation to the question of abortion. It looked at the matter as being a 'woman's choice', as being something private and personal that cannot be decided by opinion pole. Yes, on some levels it had an anti-choice (or, more generously, a pro-life) message that as a pro-choicer, I found deeply unsettling. But, as science fiction, as metaphor, it had the possibility of asking a bigger question, of addressing a wider set of concerns about parenthood and risk and life.

Every pregnancy is a gamble for the female body that hosts it. However wanted, however desired, however remarkable you are sure the offspring will be, however invested in the philosophical ideal of 'baby' lodged in that fetus - it could kill you. In pre-modern times, every pregnancy carried a roughly 1 in 13 chance of mortality for the mother (if I remember my figures correctly). What's more, once labour starts, it cannot be stopped. Every action is made in a pressed time-frame of irreversibility. Decisions have an effect that is immediate, and potentially fatal.

A friend of mine haemorrhaged and, without modern medical care, probably would have bled to death.

During my first labour, my heart-rate went from around 80 to about 120 in the space of five minutes, which isn't too much of a worry, except I'd been lying down for four hours and my contractions had all but stopped. It was also weak enough to be mistaken for the baby's. Hers, however, had dropped from around 120 to about 80 - and become so weak as to be difficult to find. I was on the sofa in the front room, a fifteen minute drive from the hospital, with no ambulance present and six inches of snow on the ground.

An hour earlier, the midwives had suggested going in to hospital, but my birth partner had convinced them to wait. I wanted a home-birth so badly.

They said they could leave it another sixty minutes.

Perhaps we would have been okay. Perhaps another couple of lacklustre contractions and she would have been born. Perhaps neither of our lives were ever in danger. The speed with which the midwives acted suggests differently.

You get one shot of this, one try, one chance, and, ultimately, it is down to you.

When my second child turned breech at 36 weeks, I had to make the decision of whether to stick to my principles (natural birth, home birth, low-intervention), or take the medically recommended Caesarian at 39 weeks. I had to research things like cord prolapse, foetal brain damage, popliteal pressure, Lovset's manoeuvres. I read that extended breech births were perfectly safe if delivered by a confident and experienced midwife, but that few midwives felt that way because of the ubiquity of Caesarian for breech delivery. I had to decide whether my baby's personal safety was more important to me than the preservation of skills in the community for the furtherance of natural birth.

And the choice was mine. I had brilliant doctors, consultants and midwives (thank you NHS!), I had a supportive family and the best husband anyone could hope for, but the choice was mine. My body, my baby. Ultimately, I got to hit the switch. The stress, the trauma of those three weeks is still with me.

There was no right decision.

Actually, the wriggly little beggar turned back at 39+1, the day after I would have had the Caesarian, had I made that choice. Like Clara, I lucked out. I never had to live with the consequences of fouling it up. It still hangs over me. If I had folded at the last minute, I would have had an unnecessary medical procedure, a scar, a weakened uterus. If I hadn't had that thousand to one luck, I would have had to live with the consequences of attempting home-breech birth, whatever they may have been.

You can't know. You just can't know, and you can't ask anyone else to make that decision for you. You don't even get to say, stop, no. I don't want this. It's too late for any of that. You missed your chance on that call. You have three weeks, 45 minutes, one hour, whatever - you can open it up to a poll, you can take expert advice, but no-one can tell you what to do.

The decision you make will always be the right one, because it is the only one you get.

That doesn't mean it's easy. It doesn't make it comfortable television.

But necessary?

Yeah. Maybe it does make it that.

Friday, 3 October 2014

What I've been Reading: The Thirteen and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear

If I were giving prizes, this one would cheerfully sweep the board on the weirdest damn novel I've read this year. But I'm there, I've done it and, in the last couple of 'lives' it actually started to develop something resembling a plot.

It was strange.

Very strange.

And, actually, quite a lot of fun. It takes the shape of a series of very tall tales, each piling absurdity on to fabrication until some part of your mind just goes, "You know what? I can live with this." And after that, it's a pretty smooth ride, even when the narrative comes blundering through the fourth wall with all the subtlety of a tractor on amphetamines (I don't deal in spoilers - I will simply say, "Congladitorial Duel".)

It has swash and buckle in reasonable quantities, bizarre coincidences in spadefuls and so much deux ex Machina that Moers names a character after it. Plus, it tells you what really happened to Atlantis.

I'll be honest. This is not a book to be undertaken lightly - it will eat a good month out of your reading schedule. And, in the main, it isn't really a novel in the conventional, modern sense of the word. It's an exercise in creativity, in verbal dexterity, in performative storytelling.

I've encountered a lot of discussion as to whether it's a children's book or not, but that isn't really relevant. It's a book for a certain type of person. Personally, as a child, I would have found the book high-handed and frustrating - but that does not mean it isn't suitable to children. As a teenager, I would been put off by the illustrations, the fact the protagonist is a bear of middling size (I was pretentious as hell)... But other teenagers may well enjoy the satire of it. As an adult, I thought it was a brilliant laugh.
Yes, I have issues with it (the characters are all rather shallow, there are so few women in it...) but I'm finally the kind of person who will pull up a stall and let Captain Bluebear tell me all about the cinnamon and wood-smoke smell of adventure.

Friday, 26 September 2014

What I've been reading: The State of the Art, The Thirteen and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear

If you ever plan on coming to visit me, my house has an important rule: don't leave your books unattended.

Seriously, unattended books will be kidnapped, and read, and you may get them back when I have finished. It is a known hazard, a general health warning applying to any house which I inhabit. You think that my husband might have worked that out by now...

Yay! Banks.
So, I've just reread The State of the Art and endured the ensuing resentful glances. Oh, but I do like this book. Yes, it isn't Surface Detail, and, yes, Iain M. Banks was clearly feeling out the possibilities of this genre rather than pushing them, and - if I'm honest - it reads like something written near the beginning of someone's career, but none of that matters. If you're sick minded, cynical and left-wing, it's a total gem.

A collection of short stories with a SF bent, told with all of Banks' freshness and wit. Although some are clearly better than others, and none of them reach the scope or heart-rending grandeur of some of his later work, there is not a single bum note. And, invariably, his world-building floors me. In the two Culture stories, we see a civ that is fully realised and remarkably rendered. Okay, I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Banks, or to anyone who wasn't already into their SF, but it's worth picking up a copy. Or stealing one from your life partner.

Now for something a little more....



Okay, sometimes, you just encounter a book that leaves you utterly unsure how to... I don't even...

What does this cover tell you?
The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers! Perhaps I'm taking it all too seriously. I don't know. Send help. Send supplies. Send me a bloody bookmark.
It's huge, it's confusing, it's...

Part memoir, part encyclopaedia of the continent of Zamonia (you know! Zamonia, with the Demerara Desert and Atlantis and the Gloomberg Mountains...) it feels very eighteenth century. I suspect it reads a little like Gulliver's Travels (which, to my shame, etc. etc.) except that Gulliver's Travels was not narrated by a blue bear of middling size.

I have got through just over half of the titular lives and... No idea. Completely lost. Don't even know why I'm still reading other than the fact I seem to have lost the ability to stop. This is not the kind of book I'd recommend to read when from sleep deprivation. It doesn't make any sense and I really don't think its going to start any time soon. I will keep you posted - unless I actually start to hallucinate.

If that happens you can all send me cards during my convalescence.

Take care!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Functions of Fantasy, or, Alys's Addicition to Villains

It appears I have mentioned in passing something of a predilection for fictional bad guys and characters so morally grey that they could be used as camouflage on the dark night of no moon. Give me cads, rogues, and schemers of all types. Give me a character who is something of a bastard, who is ruthless, conniving, swaggering, manipulative, and the chances are I'll swoon and maybe put his name on some kind of t-shirt.

No. I am not joking. Yes. This is the way my mind works.

I read Fantasy novels and Adventure novels, I read Horror, and Historical Fiction full of sweet, charming, beautiful men and women. People who are honorable and upstanding, who are intelligent, kind, devoted and if I have to list the fiction heroes who get my heart racing, it stands at Wilhelmina Murray, Percy Blakeney and that's your lot.

I don't get crushes on heroes. Anti-heroes, maybe. Morally questionable, domineering types on a redemption arc, sure. Flat out, total bastards? Well, duh.

Used for review purposes.
Okay. Maybe not all interest.
This is not Draco in Leather Pants. Sure, a bit of emotional complexity, a little bit of grayscale does not go amiss, but I do not want these characters redeemed. I do not want them to be any less evil and bastardy. I do not think they can be saved by the Love of a Good Woman.

If they were saved, I would lose all interest in them.

Yes, Edmond Dantès is sweet, and lithe and kind of pretty to think about, but it's only when he emerges as the socially aggressive and unprincipled Count of Monte Cristo and people start mistaking him for a vampire that I begin swooning in this ridiculous fashion. Frankly who would take a night with one of Shakespeare's vaguely insipid romantic leads if there was the offer of a night with Oberon? Sure, you'd regret it in the morning! Does that mean you shouldn't do it?

Well, probably, yeah. 

Actually, I wouldn't advise it at all.

But that is entirely beside the point

Were I to draft a checklist of necessary qualities to invoke my fawning and excessive devotion to a character, it would start something like: powerful, ruthless, proud, unpredictable, amoral/morally questionable, domineering. After a few thousand synonyms, I might think to include some physical characteristics (cheekbones!) but no matter how pretty a character might be, unless xie can muster a fistful of evil, I'm not interested.

I might get emotional attachment to a hero, my heart might melt for them, I might cry myself to sleep at their pain. I might love Percy Blakeney with all the passion and truth that I could muster at thirteen, but if you put him a fight against Christopher Syn (something I'd pay to see), my feelings are going to be totally on the side of the Scarecrow. 

Used for review purposes.

Mmm. Murderously ambiguous morality.

Yet I have a husband. He is not a supervillain. In fact, he is one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest and most honorable men you will ever have the pleasure of encountering. 

Because, as far as the daily life goes, domineering bastards are obsolete. Dear Christ, can you actually imagine actually living with any of these people? Athos, with his brooding man-pain and his alcoholism? Sir Francis Varney and all the theft, the molestation, the jumping-on-chair-backs shenanigans?  

None of this is real:

Being the submissive floozy of some supernatural baddie is nice for one's head-canon, but in real-world emotional terms it isn't exactly sustainable. Frankly, I don't see Jareth bringing me a cup of tea in the morning because I can't be bothered getting up. I don't see Nathaniel Crozier offering any sympathy if I get myself involved in a flame war and need a hug. Those among my literary crush stable who aren't actually malevolent tend to be emotional wrecks. Besides, they aren't exactly pleasant to be around. Villains, remember? 

Used for review purposes
Difficult themes through metaphor
Their lack of flat-mate qualities aside, their very unreality is sanctioned by the texts in which they appear. People like this simply do not exist. Romantic highwaymen and charming vampires are a thing of fiction. And that's a good thing, by the way. Fiction is a door into a world that lets us weigh up people and actions with far more care and nuance than we can permit when dealing with flesh-and-blood individuals, with real emotions. We can explore motivations that we would not normally consider, try to understand moralities that are beyond our usual scope of acceptability, and - most importantly - ask questions the which the real-world forbids. As such, we need to create characters that do not exist, that will never exist because they allow us to explore difficult themes through metaphor. They allow us to push events in a certain way, to lead to emotions and decisions that we would not otherwise understand. 

The tension that this creates in the reader or the viewer allows feelings and attachments that our real-world selves would not countenance. In some people this creates a turmoil, a breakdown of the boundaries of reality and fiction, but most people just get over it. We find a way to frame these emotions in a form we understand. I suspect the aforementioned  'Draco in Leather Pants' trope arises from people attempting this, that the conflict between sexual attraction and the repulsiveness of the character leads people to the 'walk two moons' approach: if we only saw this from the villain's p.o.v, they would not seem so bad. Others have, simply compartmentalise, drawing a line between 'real' and 'fantasy' and leaving it at that.

 Well, that's the theory...

Which leads us to Rhett Butler

As I was making my pigheaded slog through Gone With the Wind and having one of my little kicking-the-kitchen-cupboard fits and ranting about how Rhett Butler was the most odious, manipulative, abusive bastard I had ever had the misfortune to read about, an unwelcome voice popped into my head and asked, "So why the hell don't you fancy him?"


I went back to the book with a more clinical perspective. Look, he's vile, overbearing and something of a bully - all strong indications. Ruthless, amoral, yep. He's even vain, which is always a plus. I came to my conclusions - Rhett Butler is essentially a shit. It really should have been a no-brainer.

So, in the thick of that literary annoyance of a book part of me was thinking, Just why the hell not? Heck, it would have made reading it more enjoyable.

Fiction allows us to go to places that reality will not take us, allows us to feel things that are not grounded in the logical world, but doing this requires a backing-away. In order to be lead into the darkest places within us, and come back more-or-less unscathed, we need to suspend some aspect of our disbelief, to recalibrate our moral compass. Even if, in real life, I would find Rhett Butler abhorrent, surely I'd fall for him in the context of the book? That's my whole thing.


Why no? 

Fiction, by its very nature, simplifies and sanitises. No matter how evil a character, the people they injure bleed ink, not blood. The results of their actions do not matter in actual human terms. Their glamour is a direct consequence of this. A healthy dose of realism would destroy any one of them, or at least the charms they appear to possess. 
Used for review purposes
Go read Mystery Babylon

To go one further, the splendid, uncomplicated, ruthless evil they represent is only possible within the boundaries of that fictional world, the metaphor through which they are created. If he weren't a vampire, Sir Francis Varney would be a dirty old man, Dracula a rapist. Sans magic, Nathaniel Crozier becomes a two-bit confidence trickster and thief. By inhabiting magical, or at least fantastical, worlds, these characters become part of a whole other moral discourses that daily life cannot touch. We allow them to display both the malevolence and the grace with which real-world monsters do not trouble themselves. 

Much as it grieves me to admit it, you're never going to meet a Jareth, or a Christopher Syn, or a Milady. In the unlikely event that you did,  you would probably run a mile. I know I bloody would. They are safe only because they are remarkable, exceptional, unreal. In short, they are a fantasy. 

But you will have met a Rhett Butler

"That Rhett Butler," as Angela Carter wrote, "with his travelling salesman's lines...". You know the type, haunting the pub at University campuses, amateur philosophers with their well thumbed copy of Ayn Rand and their leer at any woman brainwashed enough to think that something is worth hearing just because it's a man saying it. Oh, Gods, have you met men like Rhett sodding Butler.  They'll spout forth about how much they like, "strong women", but if they meet one will retreat as quickly as if they've been kicked in the nuts. They have a nauseating belief that everyone, everything, has it's price, and that price is well within their remit. They will say things like, "Your girlfriend is too clever for her own good."

Speaking of fierce, beautiful challenges...
The most terrible thing about real life bastards is that they are so grubby, so mundane. Vampires, femme fatales, Goblin Kings all these represent a fierce, beautiful challenge to the established order, to one's expected beliefs. Their purpose is to disrupt, to bring about change. They force the heroes, the reader, to confront their own shadows, to face their monsters. And to face a monster is to be transformed. Literary monsters are a test of fire, even if the status quo is eventually restored. A well written villain (especially an ambiguous one) is as much a threat to the powers-that-be as any rebellious hero. Even Richelieu feared Milady.

But Rhett Butler and his ilk are too much a part of this world to unsettle it. They are too invested in the dominant, cultural paradigms. Rhett is a misogynist, a capitalist. Oh, sure, he shakes things up a bit, but only within the sanctioned means of commerce and predatory male sexuality. The disruption he causes rides the same waves of profit and speculation that caused 12.5 million human beings to be shipped across the Middle Passage like so much cargo. Had he been born fifty years earlier, he would have wound up a plantation owner. If he lived today, he'd have made a killing selling bad debt and food securities, and sod the consequences. He's an opportunist, nothing more.

The same goes to his attitude towards women. The male examples of my adored villains can hardly be held up as examples of 'feminist ally of the year', but they at least have a basic respect and understanding of a woman's potential, a fear of that potential turned against them. Jareth might smoulder, "You're no match for me", but when push comes to shove he never denies that her will is as strong as his nor her kingdom as great. Nathaniel Crozier - misogynist extraordinaire- uses his sway over women to draw out their darkest, most terrifying capabilities (capabilities which he respects even as he abuses them.) Even Athos gives credit where credit is due when during a diatribe on Milady's wickedness he admits, "it must be allowed, she supported her rank becomingly". Nor does he ever underestimate her. When they meet face-to-face, he is smart enough to keep a pistol between them.

So, what of Rhett Butler and his claims that Scarlett is too good and too clever to waste away in widowhood? 

He never seems to speak to Scarlett but to belittle her, never admits that her faculties might be on a par with his own. The women who are as smart as him (and smarter) he either flatters or avoids. He pursues Scarlett because she is not dangerous to him - she is 'gorgeous' when she is angry rather than potentially fatal.  And from this position of arms-length, unshakeable tormentor he proceeds into a kind of abuse that is horribly familiar. He isolates Scarlett from her community by manipulating the perceptions of those around them, bringing the full weight of patriarchal disapproval upon her for behaviour which he has incited. He removes her children from her custody without her consent, vanishing with them for unspecified periods of time. He forbids her from taking contraceptive measures and threatens her with violence. When she withdraws sexual favours from him, he casually asserts that if  he really wants to have sex with her, he will rape her.

There are too many men like Rhett fucking Butler. They all too real. I don't want my fantasy landscape cluttered with them as well.

Rant Aside
If you are one of those people who find his mojo alluring, then that is your fantasy life and I have no right to police it. I might hate the guy with a vengeance, but given the record of my literary crushes, any moral high-ground is currently avalanching from beneath my feet. The above few paragraphs of vented spleen are the merely the more or less logical thought processes which helped me understand my reaction. 

Which is about where we draw the line on reality.

Because real world powerful, unprincipled seducers do not believe women to be 'fine, dark death-hounds' - they bully and bluster, manipulate and abuse. For all I might get into a girlish fluster about Mr Crozier (historian, warlock, philanderer) in the real world I do what I can to make sure men like him wind up before war-crimes tribunals. Edmond Dantès might charm me senseless between the pages of a book - but if I met him down the pub, I'd probably pick a fight. 

For years, I struggled with this paradox. The scorn, the anger, the disbelief that people face when they admit such a predilection is remarkable. You will be mocked, belittled, told that your critical opinions have no worth. Often - in my experience - these verbal attacks are gendered. In terms of self-worth, it has an emotional toll. For all I said I wanted a lover, a friend, a soul mate, my mental space was packed with people who could be nothing of the kind. How could I claim to be worthy of love, respect, affection while still having a total passionate yen for utter, tyrannical bastards? 

So, I write. It's what I do. I work through it in short stories, in novels, stretching existing metaphors, setting up the problematic of the attraction, creating terrible villains who allure, and their victims who bleed... 

Well, it's still just ink, but I flatter myself that it's scarlet ink.

In my own life, though, I just drew a line. There is reality and there is pretend. Reality is where I live, and pretend is writing, is fantasy, is questions of morality the real world can not address. And, just as a child falling back in the playground, clutching their shoulder and crying, "Yah got me, pardner!" does not wish to be shot with an actual gun, neither do my escapist desires or worrying at a theme change or reframe my real-life rights and needs. The game is more complicated, but the rules remain. Pretending a thing does not make it real, but not wishing for a thing to be real does not mean that one is not permitted to pretend. 
Used for review purposes
Alan Moore, there. Nailing it.

But what Rhett Butler made me realise is that the line I have drawn is permeable, that it plunges and dives encompassing this, but not that, refusing one foible, but permitting its neighbour free reign. It does not only contain that notional space that is created when one opens a book, or watches a film, but is an ongoing conversation with the worlds of fiction and reality. It is personal, tied implicitly to how we escape, how we engage with those fantasies. It makes us uneasy.

For me to fancy Rhett Butler would be to reconcile myself with everything I detest. I cannot view him, or Gone With the Wind as anything other than a cultural artefact of genocide and misogyny. As such, he belongs to this world, to this reality. I tell myself that my creations are only fictions, but they slip this way and that, they hurt and they worry.

There is nothing empirical about unreality.