Friday, 21 October 2016

Review: Tigerman, Nick Harkaway

Well, this wasn't Angelmaker, either.

Of course it wasn't, Alys. Stop wanting things to be Angelmaker.

But... but there are no steamtrains!

No. There are no steamtrains. Now write the review.

Humph. Alright.

Robust and generally ethical, Nick Harkaway is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers. Even though not all his books have war-elephants and steam trains in them. Tigerman returns us to the faintly post-colonial, magical realist kind of setting you find in The Gone-Away World. Weird stuff is happening because of unchecked cultural imperialism and Western exploitation of resources - and now we've established that backgroud, let's have a rolicking adventure.

Which is what is delivered, if I'm honest. This is a superhero story with questions that are not answered because what kind of idiot asks that sort of question (but why is there a tiger? What do the clouds actually do...?) Oh, stop whining and enjoy it.

I do sometimes wonder if a white, Western writer addressing issues like the ecological ruination of island populations, with a male British soldier playing Western-saviour* to the inhabitants of an ex-colony, shouldn't bother me more, and it is a uncomfortable issue. However, within the realms of wildly enjoyable narrative, I think Harkaway handles it with a certain carefulness. Ultimately, I think it better that he is prepared to address the ugly underbelly of our society and government - however clumsily - than blithely ignore it. I accept that some might disagree.

This is probably my least favourite Harkaway book thus far but the other two are such an enduring joy that this isn't too much of a criticism. It's a clever inventive novel with a heart. Perfect weekend reading. 

Now, all together: I. DO. NOT. TRAIN. NINJAS!


*I may be wrong, but I'm pretty certain that nowhere does it state that Lester Ferris was white.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Review - Little Star, John Ajide Lindqvist

Oh, Gods, I shouldn't read Linqvist novels. Not because they aren't good - they're brilliant. Not because I don't enjoy them, because my Gods, I do, but because everyone else in my life could do without me vanishing into yet another tome, emerging only to snap that it would be nice if the people around me were... well, not around me... and finally coming out the other side, shell shocked, prone to dark reveries and really quite disturbing connections.

You will never look at baby food in the same way again.

Oooooooh, *rubs hands together* you can't really go wrong with Lindqvist - provided you don't mind gore, twisted characters, a uniquely Scandanavian bleakness, and rock music. He tells outsider stories in which you recognise just enough of yourself to think, there, but for the grace of God. If you had been that bit lonelier, if the bullies had come down that bit harder, if this lifeline had been snatched from you, or that one offered instead...

His characters are not likable, not honourable, but, oh, but, they can still be redeemed. The dark little strands of love which hold them together might just be strong enough. Or, if they could only break this run of bad luck then, maybe - maybe they can save themselves...

Little Star is very much about those hairs-breadth redemptions and damnations. Its about the doom you bring on yourself by taking babysteps into the ocean, each one so small, you do not notice them until you have gone too far to swim back, and then you realise that the tide is coming in. It's about those moments when your life veers off in a completely different path because of some random chance - as Lindqvist himself writes, "It's frightening to think how apparently insignificant events can influence the direction of our lives." If I had not opened the door then, if I'd crossed to the other side of the street, if, if, if...

A recurring theme in recent reviews is the way that it a writers humanity - rather than their inhumanity - that makes their work horrific. Lindqvist is a prime example of this and - in Little Star - something he manages admirably. You care for his characters - bitter, corrupt and morally questionable as they might be - because he is prepared to take their side, to give them sympathy, to let you see all the ways in which they are broken and struggling. Whether they commit or suffer terrible things, ir is something you must process upon a human level, rather than as part of a careless splatter-fest.

As to the plot? Oh, the plot is weird and disturbing and dark. Another thing I like about Lindqvist's books is the way his blurbs are written - giving away only enough to hook the reader's attention.
I don't want to spoil that with this review. All the same, taking on his usual themes of bullying, isolation and dysfunctional relationships, Little Star also branches out into the more contemporary themes of internet trolling and reality TV. He handles them beautifully, and gives the tired idea of the 'lone wolf' - beloved by online misogynists -  a deserved battering.

What makes this book for me, however, is its enduring mystery. Casually magically realist, Linqvist recognises that some things are not - and need not - be known. We see everything but the explantation, because that would break the power of his work. Instead, we follow slow, blinkered, methodical paths to the conlcusion which - when it comes - could have been prevented so easily, but which, with hindsight, seems inevitable.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Up a Road Slowly - Picking A Side, Part Two.

One year ago, I took screwed my courage to the sticking place and decided to make a phonecall. I'd been prevaricating for a while, but decided that it needed to be done.

Actually, I picked a bad time to call and - not wanting to cause worry them - I didn't make a big deal about it and said I'd call back later. Then, I scheduled one of my encyclopaedically long texts to be delivered to them both of my parents the next morning - the jist of which was, "Not in fact a girl. Pretty sure I'm non-binary. Probably gender fluid. Thought you should know."

Yes, I did include the links.

Thirteen days later, the entire internet knew. 

This is less to do with the fact my parents are terrible gossips, or demon bloggers with a penchant for outing their children than the fact that I am rash, impulsive, and the human version of the expression, "without further ado." Basically, I lost my temper on Twitter and what started out as a rant aimed at Germaine Greer turned into me shamefacedly saying more or less the same thing I'd told my parents less than a fortnight earlier.

In retrospect, this was a mistake.

As with stories about religious conversions, people like transition stories to be neat and finite. It is a genre of absolutes and binaries - male and female, pre-transition and post-transition - a genre of certainties. One says I always knew, I always felt. The end point is a clear, an obvious stopping point, the movement from one category to another - the pay off.

I don't wish to say that no trans people ever experienced gender and transition that way - I'm sure many have - however, that particular story has a certain cultural capital. It is the accepted narrative, the story that one is pressured to present if one wishes for support or medical transition, the one that flatters cisnormative and patriarchal ideas of gender. The more often this story is repeated, the more it becomes default, and the more that recently out trans people are expected to conform to it in order to be perceived as valid.

And the harder it becomes to recognise what is going on if you don't quite fit the model.

My journey to tranition is a mess. 

I couldn't say that this time last year. I had to be together, to be bullet proof in the face of saying something pretty major about my identity on a public platform. But how I felt then was just a brief moment of calm in the middle of a life-long muddle.

After all, I was pretty sure I wasn't a boy. I wanted to be one, sometimes. It would have been simpler. If I could just fool them in thinking I was one of them, then I could have lived with that - but I knew I'd be faking it.

And as to being a girl? Well, people kept telling me I was, so I supposed they must just be right. There was no repugnance there, per se, just a discomfort - the sense of jumper that was too tight around the cuffs, a skirt that kept riding up and tripping me, a label with a panic-edge scratch on the back of my neck. I had to trick them, too. Pretend I knew the rules when I didn't.

It took me a long time to work it out, an embarrasingly long time. I edged and shifted around the cracks of what I could do. My life - from the age of twelve to twenty one - was a long process of working out a kind of femininty I could inhabit without turning myself in to a quivering, self-hating wreck.

I assumed that this was me growing in to womanhood, that it was an Anne of Green Gables affair, that I would emerge from this tumultuous journey, ready to take up the mantle of adulthood, all the awkwardness grown out of me. That I would rebel, but keep my rebellion within certain limits. That I would thereby succeed. This is the cultural myth we give non-conforming AFAB children. We tell them that they will soften, the will learn, and will eventually prove themselves. We tell them that they will get there.

Instead, what I got was a series of costume changes, a womanhood that was entirely performative, that had no substance beneath its layers of ruffled lace or fragile silk. It was less an identity than a set of masks that dodged and evaded such absolute terms as "woman". I was a flower child, a Ren Fayre type, a tomboy, chic vampire, rocker, manic pixie, punk, goth, earth mother, pantomime boy, or riot grrrl.

And, of course, I cross-dressed quite a bit.

I was mildly notorious for all this - showing up massively over-dressed, like the whole world was my costume party. I was striking, unconventional and, frankly, weird. Then, just when you were wondering what I'd pull from the wardrobe next, I'd appear in standard gear - black t-shirt, a paint-spattered army surplus shirt, a pair of torn jeans and my hair over my face. Sorry - but I'm not a performing monkey.

Because every time a role or identity or performance began to chafe, I'd chuck it back in the cupboard and pull out another one. Yeah, I never felt like I belonged, that I was entirely convincing. There'd still be the days when I couldn't look at - let alone touch - my breasts or my stomach, the days when I'd look at my face and body and ache for something different, when I'd yank handfuls of my hair and shout about just hacking it all off, but hey. Time for another costume change.

You can survive like that. You can survive like that for a very long time.

Until you have children.

It's not just that getting pregnant makes your body do that horrible puberty thing where it changes without you asking it to, not just that your breasts swell up and you stomach bulges out and your skin gets spotty and your muscles melt away. It's not that, afterwards, you're tired all the time and can't be bothered with hair or make-up.

Actually, that (or most of it) was pretty good for me. I stopped giving a fuck. I stopped seeing myself so much through other people's eyes (Do I make a convincing woman? Were they fooled?) learned to rejoice in slobbishness and practicality. But the costume changes were harder.

No - I can't wear that, it has a fiddly side zip and I can't breast feed in it. Recycled silk tears if you wear a sling over it. Floaty layers of dragonfly colours snag on changing bags and push-chairs. Tight lacing means you can't bend down to hear what they're saying. Long skirts tangle in your legs when you go from standing and kneeling. Mirrors stitched in to clothes scratch little faces. Velvet does not appreciate having noses wiped on it. And the second there was clumsiness, mess, rips and shabbiness, I wasn't convincing any more. The mask was ripped away and underneath...?

No. Shrink. Find a niche where you can hide from it.

My in-use wardrobe became three pairs of jeans and an endless succession of black t-shirts, my social circle to the other mothers at parent and toddler groups. And there, I began to see just how very binary the world still was. I'd forced myself to look away from it, to see presentation as play, as dress up. But for the first time since my early teens, I was surrounded by women - real women - who apparently didn't feel like they were faking, who said things like, "we're all girls together" and actually seemed to mean it. People who believed gender was innate and meaningful.

Meanwhile, I was trying to be a gender neutral parent, trying to bring up the Sprogs with a wide range of interests and the knowledge that they could do and wear and be anything they wanted. I pushed (very gently) against the waves of pink that threatens to engulf AFAB children and put blue ever so slightly forward, hoping that this would counteract the inevitable wider socialiasation. More than that, I pressed for green, red, yellow, purple, orange. I read them books with a wide variety of protagonists who did gender non-conforming things. I bought them lots of animal toys, bricks, musical instruments, duplo - but very few cars and even fewer dolls.

And I had to face other parents saying things like, "That's right dear, pink for girls and blue for boys."* I had to hear every, "typical boy" and "daddy's little princess", had to nod vaguely at every "Well, you know what men are like. I think women are just more ____, you know?" When, in truth, I didn't know, and was obliquely offended by the implication.

I spent a lot of time getting angry on the Sprogs' behalf.

And, to preserve my sanity, I got on Twitter and made all sorts of interesting friends, and found myself involved in intersectional feminism - rather than the second wave variety on which I'd been raised. I discovered and read and educated myself. I learned about queer theory, trans rights. Things formented. I decided this was all very well, but I was too far along in my life to do anything like that any more. That this was great for the kids, but I was more use, more radical, as a Gender Non-Conforming woman.

My body returned to its usual shape. I found I could - occasionally - wear my nice clothes when the children were about, provided we weren't being too active. I stopped breastfeeding. The end of nappies was just visibile on the far horizon. I tried to grab with both hands the next bit of the journey, the bit which all the stories promised would come next - the unconventional but totally respectable adult womanhood.

 And I found my tenuous peace with my dangling mammary glands had come to an end. That I hated the weakness in my shoulders and my core. That I had an anxiety attack if I went out in a dress unless I'd spent an unconscionably long time getting my 'mask' in place. I tried to ignore it making a desperate bid for femme-ness, for my birthright - even as I acknowledge all that was rubbish. I was desperate for confirmation, compliments on how well I did this woman thing, but getting them sent me into a spiral of self-hatred.

I made a few stupid decisions.

I tried very hard to be normal for my children.

And one night, sick and furious and reeling from a tough year, I sat in the bath cut of all my long, red hair with nail scissors. It felt incredible. Men hated it.

I hit Google, trying to work out what was wrong with me, why I couldn't pull it off any more. Why people were seeing through me, recongising me for a confused kid playing dress-up rather than the confident woman I wanted to portray. I wondered why the fury I felt at every "it's a girl thing" felt less like an attack on the Sprogs, and more like a knife under my own skin. I wondered why, when I kicked off about it, I raged not about essentialism or sexism, but the gender binary.

In retrospect, I am astonished at how slow I was.

My partner listened to my rants and my angsting. My searches changed from things likes, "male identified woman" and "am I a man or a woman" to "diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria" and, finally, "how do I tell if I'm gender queer?"

It took months of emotional upset and yet more angst. If you see my blog posts from this period, I use strange (and probably inappropriate) circumlocutions to talk about bodies and gender - things which still interest me a lot. I'm letting them stand because they show a point on my journey, to remind everyone that no-one is born knowing everything.

My partner assured me that - whatever I did, whatever I decided - he would still love me. With him, all labels were temporary, open to change and flux as I tried to work it out. I started lifting weights and looked in to taking up a martial art. I looked at the cost of binders, built up shoes. Sometimes, I stole his clothes. Then I realised that I'd always done that.

Once, mid-freak-out, I called my sister and she talked me down and gave me love and reassurance. After a time - a very long time - I had something approaching a label (gender fluid) and a sense that it probably applied to me. I had a list of websites and resources, and a binder on order from eBay. I was seeing my parents at Christmas. I didn't want to hide - not from them. I also definitely did not want to come out on Christmas dinner after far too much wine and my usual absence of tact. ("So, I'm BI!" - yes, thank you for the memory.)

I did not have pronouns. I did not have a plan or a referel to a GIC. I had no real opinion on hormones or top surgery (second question my mum asked). I had no idea how this was going to affect my life, my relationships, my self. I'd not even really squared it with my faith. All I actually had was a starting point, a label, a subject heading.

I've spent the year trying to work out what to write underneath that. 

Slowly, tenuously.

But after outing myself on Twitter - then following it up with a blog post which is even more popular than my one about Alan Garner -  I have done a lot of that in public. More than I'm comfortable with.

Currently, I am in the unenviable position that most people in my daily life perceive me as cis female, but that my gender identity is one of the first things that comes up when you google my name. I still have no idea how to correct someone who misgenders me - and I remain by turns rubbish and embarrasingly blasé about coming out.

But I'm getting there. I'm on my feet and I'm fighting it. You all help - lovely people. If I'm ever awkward about it, it's because I've put myself in this place, not because you aren't wonderful.

If you want to know how I'm getting on: 

I have pronouns now (they/their/them), and a noun (I am an enby.) I've started using the label non-binary trans. I still don't know how I feel about the medical aspects of transition, but have switched Ms for Mx, and am lobbying for the use of Myr as an alternative to Sir or Ma'am.

More importantly: in my small, old-fashioned town, I get a lot of funny looks and the occasional slur yelled from passing cars. Then again, I was goth for most of my adolescence so that's nothing new. I'm more concerned that - now I present as fairly masculine - my partner and I will get hassle for being a same sex couple, and that serves to drive home how much privilege I've had in my life thus far. Also, I'm exhauseted by the balance of being 'authentic' and remaining safe when it comes to things like changing rooms and public toilets - where there often isn't a gender-neutral option.

However, I get less bog-standard street harrasment (WIN) and while people do try to figure me out, they do it more through intense and disconcerting stares than intrusive questions. I've also noticed a slightly increased tendency for my Martial Arts teachers to use my name rather than call me Ma'am, and for unfamiliar shop keepers to avoid honorifics all together.

 Oh, and disapproving matrons give me 'the look' a lot. For the first time in my life, I am not cowed. You are not seeing through me - you are seeing me.

No, I probably wouldn't have chosen to do it this way. What's more, I worry that sometimes I go on about this whole gender thing too much - we're here for the vampires and the folk songs, right? But if my being out and loud about it helping anyone else struggling with this, then, honestly, it's worth it.

Besides, we all know that genies don't go back in to bottles.


* Yes. This happened.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Review: My Glass is Runn, Die Booth

Zombie stories I actually liked!

Okay, that isn't a review. Let's try again.

Die Booth's latest collection of short stories My Glass is Runn is a delightfully ambiguous mix of terror and tenderness. These are stories that are not afraid to look at the dark places, but are capable of remarkable grace, and it is in this tension that the collection works.

Take a story like 'The Ghost Bride' where a bereaved mother is haunted by a white clad apparition - the victim of a terrible crime. The sense of eireeness, of the uncanny, of the awful things one does for love are intense - but Booth never looses that human dimension, giving the denoumont it's power. These are tales that slip through cracks, offering different constructions on horror truisms, motivations that come at you from the left field. These twists of perspective can be used to offer a redemption, even a happy ending. Sometimes, they can throw you headlong in to the shockingly dark. Perhaps most unsettling, however, is when Booth decides to bring the two into ambiguous synthesis.

This is a collection that is wary of authority, or conventional success. It sides against parents, bosses, peers groups and urban life, in favour of more equitable, human connections, life lived on a smaller scale. There a real tenderness here, even in the most uncomfortable moments - a sense of outsiders tenuously clinging to one another, seeking some desperate relief. This is not to say there aren't some distinct and impressive scares - 'Don't Be Afraid of the Lights' is a glory of skin-crawling horror - but Booth deals in a quieter unease which I found remiscent of Kate Mos.

However, for all its strengths, My Glass is Runn is an uneven collection; many of the stories have previously been published elsewhere and some of the shorter examples have the abruptness I associate with a tight word cout. It isn't that they aren't perfectly satisfying ghost stories as they stand, it is only that compared to the longer pieces in the collection it becomes clear that they could could have done with a little more space to breathe.

Indeed, Booth's fiction seems more suited to a slightly longer tale - with the exception of 'Dust Bunnies', my favourites tended to be those where more time was allowed for character development and the slow build of terror. And, where this suceeds, it is sublime. 'Maketh the Man' is probably my favourite, and a nightmarishly intense look at infatuation and its consequences, but 'The Fourth Ape' is also a fantastic take Gothic, while 'To Be Heard' is a wonderful ghost story in the old style.

Also, zombie stories that I liked.

There really is an awful lot to love here. Booth balances the familiar ghost story form with a fresh and unconventional voice. Not only is My Glass is Runn a book to read - he is an author to watch.