Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Addressing the High/Low bullshit

There's been a lot of talk lately about the difference between high and low fiction, between commercial and literary fiction, or literary and genre. I figured it was about time to weigh into the debate.

I don't read a lot of Literary fiction. Regulars to this blog may have noticed a rather sceptical attitude to what I like to call 'High/low bullshit'. This isn't because I don't think there's a difference in the way genre and literary writers tend to write, or structure their work. It's because I believe this difference is no more significant than the differences between the way (for example) horror writers and SF writers structure their work. It may be more pronounced, but it is not more important. Fact is, any genre has its own way of doing things and, to my mind, the fun comes when writers decide to trample those boundaries in every plausible direction. For writers, genres should be a shrug, should be a Captain Barbossa, "They're more like guidelines, anyway." If they aren't, they very quickly become a straight-jacket, a noose.

No, genres are not for writers. Genres are for readers. Genres establish a certain set of expectations. As well as setting and plot cues (space operas, HEAs, quests) they give you some idea as to the kind of mood you'll be in when you've finished reading. And that's all great. Honestly, it's really helpful. If I want feel life-affirming stuff with desirable main characters and bit of wittiness between fiesty people and brooding ones, I check out chick-lit, romance and Georgette Heyer. If I'm more in the mood to be kept awake all night by a sense of squirming terror and being unwilling to go downstairs to get a glass of water, then lead me to the horror section. Genres are signposts. Even the terminally lost like myself appreciate their utility.

 But the signpost of Lit fic is rather more difficult to define than that of - say - urban fantasy. The expectations I get from the designation of Lit fic relate more to theme, tone and diction rather than plot and action. From Lit fic, I would expect stories that do not tie together too neatly, novels that have an epiphany and just sort of stop rather than an 'ending' per se. I expect questions unanswered, trailing threads that will haunt me, images that will ring in my mind for months.

And actually, when I put it like that, I read tons of Lit fic. It just tends to be the kind you find in the SF, fantasy and horror sections of your libraries. And here comes the problem. If we define the difference between genres as qualitative, but not hierarchical, we cannot justify the automatic privilege that Lit fic receives. If it is just a way of pointing readers in the direction of what they are looking for, why then does describing a work as literary (with or without that capital 'L') make it automatically more serious, more worthy, more valid?

If literary were used merely as a moderator, as a way of further classifying within a genre, this would be less problematic, and this is how some use the term. But, to many, Literary fiction tends to imply a work that is founded in, or is a reaction against, the life-as-it-is novel. Magical realism can be literary but magic cannot. Romance is fine, provided it has a capital 'r'.  It's an exclusive club, and anything 'genre', anything 'commercial' is going to have to work a lot harder to get in.

And speaking of hard work, we are prepared to work harder for Literary fiction. Our cultural expectations tell us that, by definition, Lit fic it is better, it is more profound, more formally challenging. When we read a book marked with those signposts, our expectations guide us and there is the danger we will see insight where there is only pretension, genius where there is self-indulgence, and inventiveness in what is an unstructured mess.

Yet, some books are harder than others, some require more work from us. I stopped exactly halfway through Wilson Harris' incredible Carnival trilogy - actually halfway through The Infinite Rehearsal, a book that was moving and astounding me with every sentence - because I have kids and I was getting interrupted so much I couldn't follow the grace of the prose. Much as I admire her, if I read too much Doris Lessing I start getting a headache. Umberto Eco is easier, but still, I need to be on the ball. The tag of Lit fic is useful, it can give one a head's up: clear your diary before reading this.

What's more, it can guide us, because without the understanding that a book is trying to challenge, trying to unsettle and bend what is familiar to us, we run the risk of inverting those assessments, dismissing beautiful, intelligent stuff as "too much like hard work" and, "trying to be too clever."

Yet the assumption that harder books are necessarily Lit fic, and Lit fic is by definition 'harder' is no unsatisfactory. Something being difficult to read is not necessarily and endorsement, challenging =/= quality. Besides, other things that merit the capital 'L' can be read in the bath in one sitting: Angela Carter, George Orwell, Gabriel García Márquez... These books aren't any less clever, don't remain with you any less, don't change your world to a smaller extent simply because the very act of reading them is not a hammer applied to your grey cells. They are no less formally inventive, narratively challenging, verbally brilliant - they are just easier to read. 

On a similar note, genre novels aren't necessarily 'easy'. The number of times I've had to put down Banks' SF novels and massage my temples for a couple of moments while my brain cooled down are beyond counting, the number of friends who have returned Mythago Wood half-read depressing. Doing 'the clever stuff' is not the preserve of conventional, realist Lit fic, nor, for that matter, is Literariness. 

There is a double standard at work here. Lit fic - however middle brow, however simplistic - is given a legitimacy denied to other genres. Genre work is automatically 'not as accomplished', not permitted to make you work as hard. So, again, my copy of Little, Big comes back with an, "Honestly? I think he's trying to be too clever."

So, to get around this, we employ the strangest distinctions. We have the hundred times I hear the squirming self-justification of, "Yes, it's a comic book, but it's not a comic book-comic book". Because, of course, if a work of genre fiction gives the lie to the assumptions about that genre, that's because it's no longer really a work of genre fiction. No, it is elevated by dishonest little terms like 'Speculative Fiction', or 'graphic novel', it is given a half accepted place that does not quite have literary's cachet, that must always by preceded by excuses.

Yet to do this is to make life more complicated, make it harder to find a good book. In terms of book-shop organisation, it is literally to move the signposts. It is to reinforce the idea that anything,  'in genre' is, by default, incapable of being literary. It is to negate the worth of labels that have served us well, have guided us. It is to break down the links between books, the 'if you enjoyed x, then you might like..." If Shikasta is not SF, what of First and Last Men? If we let Stapleton across, then what of the works they inspire that do not quite meet the standard? As a reader, where do I go if I want dream-visiony, spiritual SF?

Terms like 'graphic novel', like 'genre slumming' are loaded with the implication that things which 'aren't' encompassed by those privileged works are even worse. Indeed, they serve to negate even those privileged works themselves. If we are put of by the 'graphic', we are reassured that this is a novel. The textual element, the 'acceptable' part, are receives plaudits, the visual element is overlooked. We ignore the fact that a comic is not simply a 'novel with graphic elements', it is an interaction between the two that should work to the enhancement of both. If we are alarmed by the 'genre', we are reassured by the 'slumming'. Yet why should we be reassured by the fact that the writer neither respects nor understands the genre in which xie is working?

I like good books. In my experience, good books are made by good craftspeople and to be a good craftsperson, one needs to respect, to understand one's tools. Good books are made by good artists, who have a passion, a vision, a drive. To set up false distinctions, to over privilege one mode of doing something, does not encourage craft in those less privileged places. It pays into the belief that certain readers are undiscerning, that certain types of fiction are, and can be, 'off the peg'. It encourages bad writing, it cultivates niches that do not wish to interact with the wider world of readers and experiences. And to someone who just likes to be nice about excellent books, this is very sad thing indeed.

Friday, 25 April 2014

What I've been reading: Jamaica Inn

Cue the drumroll, dim the lights as I say with tears in my eyes that this week I have managed to read a grand total of one novel.

Also, excuse me for a moment as I go, "Squeeeeeee!"

Because I damned well adore Daphne du Maurier. She is the is the first, the original, the shining light of those who take a genre and twist it until it starts to crack. She takes all the tropes, all the expectations of the Gothic (yay! Gothic!) or romance, or ghost story and makes them mainline a reality check. What results is terrifying, is rip-roaring, is as dark as treacle poured in your eyes during a power cut.

Dammit, yes, I'm enthusiastic because when push comes to shove, Daphne du Maurier writes for me and me alone.

That's how a good writer should make you feel, right?

Okay, some stuff

Just as Rebecca was a 'ghost story without a ghost', Jamaica Inn is essentially 'Udolpho with a main character you don't want to punch.' Like Emily, Mary is sent to live with a tyrannical uncle and a vain weak-willed aunt. Like in Udolpho we have isolation, we have coercion, we have dark deeds done under darknesses cover. Like in Udolpho, the driving force is the heroine's uncertainty, we are enthralled by terror, not horror, we fear what is suspected, not what is not seen. Unlike in Udolpho, however the sense of a strong but helpless person under continued stress is realistic and actually frightening. With Emily, you got the impression she'd act like that in a suburban house if she didn't like the colour of the wallpaper, but Mary Yellan is no delicate scion of a noble house. As a piece of psychological realism, Jamaica Inn is unsettling, as a work of Gothic, it is sublime.

Alright, it isn't perfect, but it's fabulous. Go read it. Go read it now.

Friday, 18 April 2014

What I've been reading: The Polish Boxer, MaddAddam, The Sign of the Four

It's been so long since I've read any Literary fiction that I wasn't sure how to respond to The Polish Boxer. What's more, it's one of those books that defies an easy categorisation of form. A collection of short stories that not quite fictional, but are by no means purely autobiographical. Also, this isn't really a short stories collection - it's more a kind-of novel told through a series of interludes.

Except it isn't. The Spanish version of The Polish Boxer might be that, but the English on is distinct, both in content and organisation. It is in fact a short story collection compiled thematically by a handful of translators. Any 'unity' the volume appears to have is an act of editing that questions the very notion of authorship. Also (as I just mentioned), it's translated, which always makes things more interesting, especially if there are a handful of translators at work.

So, what the heck is Eduardo Halfon's The Polish Boxer?

Well, it's certainly worth your time. Ten stories that talk about belonging, prejudice, privilege and difference. They are stories about outsider status, about how dangerous that can be, about the lies we tell ourselves to make it bearable, to construct a narrative we can understand. They are about kinship, they are about, ultimately, the failure to connect.

These are not kind stories. Some of the darkest parts of the 20th, and indeed 21st, centuries are insistent in them  - we are dealing with Jewish and Roma protagonists, after all.

The prose is sparse but elegant, and I assume that's how it goes in the original. I did get annoyed at the narrator's tendency to undermine that elegance, his insistence on 'authenticity' at the expense of poetry, an image being given and then rejected in the following sentence. Once or twice it was effective, but its repetition, twinned with a reluctance to show enthusiasm, imbued the narrative voice with a desperation not be mocked. I found this irritating. It felt almost that the narrator was desperate to be seen, to show us the strings, tell us how the magic trick is done. Nowhere was this more obvious than in 'Distant', nowhere was it more avoided - thematically and stylistically - than 'The Pirouette'. Perhaps this was intentional.

To finish, I have seen a couple of other reviews that claim it's impossible to see the seams in the translation, that, despite having four translators who worked on separate stories, the work has a certain tone that remains equal throughout. I would dispute this. I can feel a different hand at work in different parts of The Polish Boxer. That in itself is not a problem - the problem is that I preferred some of them to others.

Another writer who seems to be intent on showing us the strings is Margaret Atwood in MaddAddam. This makes me very sad. I love Margaret Atwood.

It isn't that MaddAddam is a bad book, per se, it's that it is an unnecessary one. Oryx and Crake is perhaps the most terrifying dystopia I've ever encountered. It's sheer bleakness recommends it, especially as Jimmy reflects on how long it would take society, any kind of society, to rebuild itself given mankind's comprehensive destruction of the world's natural resources. The Year of the Flood, as sequels go, was not needed. Still, it gave further insight into a well constructed near-future, and it told of two women's journeys in faith and in love in moving, intelligent terms.  

MaddAddam? I don't know what function this book serves. Sure, it's more hopeful (marginally) and it ties up a lot of loose ends, but the loose ends are what made the first two novels so powerful. By existing, MaddAddam undermines itself.

That said, there are some lovely bits. The reflection on the function of story, the corruption and the coming-of-age of the Crakers is Atwood at her best (this is the middle chunk of the novel) and Toby's attempts to reconcile the faith she reaches at the end of The Year of the Flood with the practicalities of life is very well handled - although somewhat rehashing old ground. I was least convinced by her exploration of the MaddAddam of the title, and less than taken with her characterisation of Adam. So, not a bad book, but something of a disappointment.

Last, but not least, The Sign of the Four! A book that threw me because I got the distinct impression I had read it before now but couldn't remember doing so, or indeed, a damned thing that happened. This doesn't happen to me and it distracted me the whole time I was reading it. On completion, I discovered that, yeah, I've read it before. I must have been very tired, feverish or drunk when I did so, though. Or perhaps it just isn't the best Sherlock story out there.

Still, it has everything you want from Mr Holmes (Deductions! Honour among thieves! Providential conclusions! Cocaine!) and a few things that you sort of expect but don't really want (racism! phrenology! cultural imperialism!) As it is, if you haven't already read it, it's pretty much what you'd expect. Not as good as some of the others, but it has the redeeming feature of the best closing line of anything, ever.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Songs of Kali: Orientalism, post-colonialism and the Calcutta Chromosone.

This is one of those articles I feel a bit weird writing, the sort of thing I worry when I approach. After all, I'm white.

Okay, sure, a good handful of my DNA has its origins in places like north India or the Middle East, but that isn't what I'm talking about. If you look at me in the street, there will be a little box that is ticked in your head: white. Probably British.

Not only am I white, I really don't know a whole heap of stuff about India. Sure, I've read Midnight's Children and while I don't want to say, "and that's about it", there isn't masses more I can bring to this conversation. When it comes to the subcontinent, I sit up, let other people do the talking, and I do try to pay attention.

Which is why, if we're honest about it, Song of Kali pissed me off. Heck, if I found so much of this book worrying and repellent, what was the response of people know about this stuff? People who have to deal with this kind of cultural assumption every day?

If you want an answer to that question, here's an article that seems to nail it. I've found plenty of people online who seem to think Song of Kali somewhere on the scale icky to downright indefensible. In the same manner, I can find lots of people on the web who are willing to praise Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosone (and rightly so.) What I can't find, however, is anyone who thinks one might be a response to the other.

In Song of Kali, Robert Luczack is searching down the poetry and person of M.Das, an Indian poet of some celebrity. In The Calcutta Chromosome, Antar is seeking some explanation of the disappearance of a colleague, L. Murugan. One of the first people we are introduced to as being around Murugan before his disappearance? Sonali Das, the celebrated film star and writer.

Okay, common name. Still: Why did M.Das disappear? He contracted leprosy - a disease almost unknown in the West - and was restored by supernatural means. And L. Murugan? Syphilis. Again it is rare in the West, easily cured. But again, our character was cured not by modern medicine but a procedure given almost mystical status by the narrative - the action malaria upon syphilis.

These echoes of names and plot tease you throughout the text: Where is M.Das? He has been drawn into the underworld of Calcutta's cults, on whose behalf he writes powerful and impassioned pleas. Where is Sonali Das met? At the Rabindra Sadan auditorium, where the great writer Phulboni makes an impassioned plea to the "unseen presence" that must be sought in "the darkness of these streets". I even found myself asking if Antar's education, a scholarship at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, was not meant to draw attention Simmon's narrator's naive and hostile understanding of communism.

Perhaps it's apt given the books I'm writing about that I'm picking up hints with all the care and illogic of someone chasing a conspiracy. Literary criticism can lead you astray, and before you know it, you're sincere and slightly scary, drawing certainties from co-incidence, and believing there is some grand design here. Still, even if The Calcutta Chromosome is not a direct response to Song of Kali, even if I am imagining things, even if Ghosh has never read Simmons, it remains that the books have something to say to each other.

Both writers make a great deal of pronunciation - especially pronunciation of names. In Simmons this is de-familiarisation at work - look at all this strange, Indian names! We see the narrator, Luczack, barging in, correcting everyone's attempts to fathom his Polish surname, yet visibly stumbling over that of everyone he meets. Ghosh, however, shows the secrets, the accommodations, the colonial mindset that informs the mispronunciation of a name. One knows where the power lies in an interaction where a foreigner introduces himself, "That's Loo-zack", and where it resides in one saying, "The name's Murugan[...] But feel free to call me Morgan."

Similarly, understanding of space is used to portray power in both narratives. The American locations in Song of Kali are given specificity: we are invited into them, asked to understands their quirks and secrets (that's Loo-zack), while Calcutta - indeed, the entire general global area of Asia - is a sprawling mass, a blank and grotesque canvass of 'otherness' inhabited by swarming, stinking, brown hordes of dirty, bodily sub-humanity (count the number of instances of the verb 'squat' to describe the actions of the inhabitants of Calcutta.) The few 'respectable' inhabitants live in ivory towers that are still squalid by Western standards, ignoring the poor and dispossessed in their midst.

For Ghosh, each city, each place, has its character. It shows different faces to outsiders, to insiders, to the interested and the personally involved. Calcutta is a city, nothing more. It has rich areas, poor areas, it has poverty - dreadful poverty from which Ghosh does not flinch - but also buses, social clubs, flower shops, markets, hospitals, memorials and auditoriums. The most important thing about this city is that it is inhabited and visited by people. They agree or disagree, they love or hate, they gossip or ignore.What is more, they move, both narratively, emotionally and socially. Urmila is poor and ambitious, yet she spends her time with the famous Sonali Das, with once-rich Mrs Aratounian, with Murugan, the westernised outsider. There is a discernment, a precision in Ghosh's writing - poverty is something which occurs by degrees, in ways that are not always recognised by those experiencing it. In showing the humanity, the specificity, his portrayal of its hardships is more precise, more effective.

The same goes for their portrayal of cults, of cultures. In Simmons, the antagonist is Kali, who he portrays as some sort of blood-cult-delusion meets eldritch abomination. This 'baddie' and her destructive intent is balanced - thematically, if not literally - against Mother Teresa. Those who inhabit and perpetuate Kali's 'song' are various communists strikers, the Indian literary establishment and, just for fun, most of the Middle East. When Luckzack tells us "there are other songs to sing", the only one he offers is a 'moderate risk' adventures about friendship and fun for American middle class children. If you're not already getting an vibe of "Western, American values and Christianity good, everything to do with brown-skinned people and, by the way, Karl Marx, bad", it's possible that you aren't paying attention.

Perhaps the worst thing about this is that, in creating his supernatural threat, Simmons uses an actual Goddess that real people actually worship. Perhaps realising the vilely offensive potential of doing so, he makes a big point of balancing the vicious, mindless cult of Kali with the peaceful, loving, mother-earth hippy type worship of Durga. Durga worshippers, he suggests, are not a threat to Western values. No. They are sweet, exploited and impoverished villagers who stay away from the hell-city that is Calcutta. Although I'm not an expert on this by any means, this Kali/Durga dichotomy strikes me as such a wilful misinterpretation of the nature of Godhead in Hindu belief, such a total set of false assumptions botched together by a failure to understand complex philosophical beliefs, that one could almost overlook how fucking patronising it is to type-cast an entire actual religion into bolshy cultists and the kind of person who tips their cap and says, "Gor blimey, thanks for the centuries of cultural imperialism, Guv'nor."

*deep breaths, Alys, deep breaths*

More sensitive to cultural identities, this is something Ghosh handles with far more respect. He is careful - he is extraordinarily careful - never to associate the cult of 'silence' as anything other than an aberration, as anything other than a woman who thinks she is a goddess, to a group of people who believe her to have supernatural power. That his model of silence, of the healing and the restorative power of something usually considered destructive, is much closer to what I understand of actual Kali worship is sort of the point. "Look," he seems to say, "let me explain this through metaphor, in a way you might understand - you are dealing with a different paradigm, something irreducible to battles between East and West, between bad and good."

Indeed, Ghosh even gives Western readers the suggestion that our culture may be viewed with as much horror as Simmons' heaps upon Kali. One image that resonates in both books is the severed head. In Song of Kali this is a response to the way that - in one of her four arms - Kali holds a severed head. In the temple of the cult the hand is ominously empty, to be filled by the beheading of an unsatisfactory initiate. We hear the drip, drip, drip of the blood falling onto the temple floor. As an portrayal of horror, of savagery, it is effective.

But, like so much of Simmon's work, this horror is founded on a misunderstanding. Just as the body upon which Kali places her foot is not a vanquished foe, so the head she brandishes is not 'real' in the sense of 'killing people'. It's function is either mythological - the head of a demon she has killed - or symbolic, the false consciousness she had destroyed with the sword of knowledge. Perhaps this does not mitigate the disgust felt by those who wonder why one is worshipping in front of a statue holding a severed head, but to think like this is to consider that disgust as the product of a cultural misunderstanding.

It is this cultural misunderstanding that Ghosh presents. He shows us not the leavings of a cult but the failed sensitivity of American computer who does not understand - or perhaps does not care - that humans might find such things upsetting. Again, the image is compelling in its horror. As Antar crops the hologram so that he does not need to see its whole body:
he discovered that Ava had done such a realistic job of severing the head that every artery and vein was clearly visible. He could see the throbbing capillaries; even the directional flow of blood was reproduced, in motion, so that the head looked as though it was spouting gore.
What comes next is what is really interesting. Antar reacts with horror, not only because the image is so visceral (even though no-one has been hurt) but because it reminds him of:

a vision that often recurred in his worst nightmares; an image from a medieval painting he had once seen in a European museum, a picture of a beheaded saint, holding his own dripping head nonchalantly under his arm, as though it were a fresh-picked cabbage.
The message is clear; what to one mind is horror and savagery, to another is religious art. What to one is a clear representation of certain facts (literal or mythological) to another is nauseating and obscene. It is something that Simmons' narrator, with his brash insistence on the pronunciation of his name, is unable to comprehend. It is something of which Ghosh's narratorial voice is acutely aware.

While reading, I found myself wondering if the reason Antar contracted malaria in the rather unusual Egypt was to point out Simmons' homogenising of the geographically and religiously diverse East into 'Song-of-Kali-general-mindless-evil'. Found myself asking if his conspiracy-of-malaria were not a way of pointing out that, when dealing with real people, one needs to be careful of what one says. Wondering if the unprecedented scorn Murugan faces at daring to challenge the official, colonial narrative of science were not another way of showing that the rules are different if you are not white. Even if the references are not direct, it answers the tendency of orientalism that informs Simmons' work. Not only is The Calcutta Chromosome a better book, it's provides us with a far more vital narrative.

Better still, it doesn't just reassure and flatter those up to their necks in privilege. It makes them think.

Friday, 11 April 2014

What I've been reading: The Casual Vacancy and The Big Sleep

Down to business, then.

I really didn't expect to like J.K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. Having heard mixed things I was expecting a dry, unedited slightly preachy tome - think the worst bits of Harry Potter books 4-6 without the leavening offered by madcap characters and adventuring wizards. What I had forgotten, of course, was Rowling's fine touch for the comic, especially when it comes to skewering the self-important. There was more than the odd shade of "Mr and Mrs Vernon Dursley of number four Privet Drive were proud to say..." about it.

It was compelling, too. I really didn't do a lot of talking to people while reading it. The characters, although mostly detestable, were vivid, powerful. She managed to capture that too rare sense that their lives were charging on when the book was out of my hands so I needed to pick it up again asap. It isn't an emotionally easy read, though. Trigger warnings for such things as domestic abuse, drug abuse, bullying, self-harm, rape, neglect and probably a few more things that got lost in the morass of failed morality the book portrays.

There were only a few complaints - the minor one being the dyslexia (if you can't be bothered following the link, suffice to say dyslexia =/= illiteracy), the more major being the character of Krystal. I felt she was used far more as a symbol of a certain 'type' than a fully realised character. She was a poster girl for everything that is feared, everything that people try to redeem. Rowling handled many of the issues surrounding her carefully, but I still feel that she exploited Krystal at least as much as the other characters in the novel exploited her. What's more, Krystal's motivation in the final part of the plot failed to convince me, and, as this drove the entire end of the novel, it should have been stronger.

Still, the last chapter made me cry.

Wow, I really need to make these shorter.

So, in my quest to read a bit of everything, I come to pulp, and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and the archetype of noble, sensitive hard-men everywhere, Philip Marlowe. I wasn't really sure what I was expecting from this: Tight plotting, violence, and distressing damsels, naturally. The seamy side of Hollywood life, well, yeah, of course.

That this was joined by astonishing prose was a surprise. It seems Chandler created the 'male sentence' of our day, fresh, terse and light on the adverbs. Generally, I get pissed off with this kind of writing, its omnipresence, the assumption that it is the one 'right' way to do things, but Chandler does it well. The sentences still crackle even 75 years down the line.

On a similar note, I almost liked Marlowe. Most of his inheritors and imitators leave me kicking walls, but Marlowe is pretty alright. I laughed, reading this, I laughed a lot.

But then there was the homophobia. More surprisingly, for its time, there was the biphobia - and I actually mean phobia, not just erasure of the type I normally encounter. It was vicious, it was virulent and - for about two, three chapters - it killed any pleasure I could take in the book*.

I know, I know, it was written in '39. Homosexuality was illegal, was pathologised. People - especially the 'ordinary joes' to whom pulp was marketed, really felt that way. If you can deal with that, if you can throw down the 'of its time' stuff, then, okay. It's a good read nevertheless.

But as I said, I almost liked Marlowe. I sort of expected better of him.

*Similarly, some may wish to avoid this book due to its attitudes towards mental health and epilepsy. Personally, I found the ableism displayed more as medical ignorance than bigotry, and as such it lacked the aggression of the homophobia. Others may disagree.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

What I've been reading: Fearless, Gentlemen and Ladies, and Namesake

As I write this, I'm looking at my 'just read' pile with an element of horror because it appears it's taken me almost seven days to read one slim practically-a-novella and a YA book. Yikes. Still, as we're here...

Gentlemen and Ladies by Susan Hill is, it appears, not the kind of book one reads quickly. It is also not at all what I expected. I'm used to the dark intensity of her horror and detective fiction, whereas this felt more like the few Barbara Pym novels I've read than anything else. Set in the '60s, in a rural community of gentlewomen of straightened means it is, in some respects, a comedy of manners.
 It's Hill's third novel (did you know she had her first book published when she was in sixth form? This almost warrants an interrobang) and Gentlemen and Ladies does give the sense of a young, talented writer imitating her peers and influences with a rather serious face.

That said, it's still a formidably accomplished novel. From the moment one of the characters suffers what is essentially a panic attack I was recognising the bleak psychological realism I recognise as Hill's trademark. Still, I noticed that her authorial voice is both less ruthless and less compassionate than it later becomes. She is as scathing as one would expect a comedy of manners to be towards the despicable, the silly, but her connection of 'unsympathetic' and 'mental illness' troubled me, as did the ease with which she 'lets off' her 'good guys'. Then again, the gentleness is probably a good thing. We don't want me left sobbing into my spotted hanky, again.

So, to conclude this over-long review - good book. A little dated, and unexpected, but worth a read, especially if you have not yet sampled Hill because horror and crime are not your thing.

Have to say, I don't read a lot of YA any more, by Fearless by Cornelia Funke makes the cut based on recommendation from a trusted source (thanks Jem!) and it's a total treat. The sequel to Reckless, it's an adventure quest in a world where fairytales are real. Sound clichéd? Alright, but this is dark. Reading it as an adult, I can see just how pitch-bloody-black the premise behind this novel is. It isn't an adventure quest, it's a story about the industrial revolution, about the dirtiness of empire building, the force of social segregation and racial intolerance. It's an all out, vicious, political narrative masquerading as a kid's fantasy novel/ love story. Okay, vicious is a relative term - it is still YA - but there is some really clever stuff happening here, and - as folklorist and adult - I do love playing 'spot the reference.'

My only gripes are a slow and slightly fragmented start (a problem that I also had with Reckless) and trouble telling the characters' ages. This is, after all, a YA book about adult stuff, and while the MC is apparently 25, this isn't always clear from his actions and behaviours. Still, a brilliant read.

While I'm here and talking about YA, I'm going to chuck in a review/shout-out for Namesake by Isabelle Melançon and Megan Lavey-Heaton: a beautifully drawn and utterly compelling webcomic that - if you don't like screen reading - can also be purchased in trade paperback. It tells its story so well that even a foul-mouthed darkness junkie like myself didn't realise it was PG rated until I'd read over a third of what's online. These days I just hang around waiting for it to update. Obviously, the form and genre might throw up a few problems for some readers (eg, as the story develops, I'm noticing the threat and darkness are being kept in much tighter parameters than I might otherwise like) but it's fun and its fresh and it's clever. Well worth your time.

Wow! That was positive! Have a good week.