Occasional Readings until Halloween

I’ve been reading fairy tales as a response to some reviews in the Guardian of two new collections.

I started with Jamila Gavin’s collection, Blackberry Blue and Other Tales (Tamarind, £9.99). In her preface, she writes that she to write tales that ‘extended the European image’ so that more diverse children might enjoy them. She does this successfully with tales of transformation. A core to these stories is the notion of knowing and accepting oneself to become. This book came out a while ago but I’m ashamed to say that it has taken this long to read.

The next collection is Marina Warner’s Fly Away Home (Salt, £8.99) which mixes both the fairy tales and the short stories in this world. As coming from a historian f fairy tales, Warner dives into the deeper and more abstract meanings. It reminds me slightly of Helen Oyeyemi’s work.

I’ve got the new Salman Rushdie which is a retelling of the 1001 Nights and updates it to this world but linked deeply to the original world. It reminds me of Ian MacDonald’s Cyberabad Days and Rover of Gods in its mix of stories.

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Into the heart of the original with Aylett

If you have ever wandered the streets of Beerlight or enjoyed the works of Jeff Lint (books or documentary on AylettVision on YouTube) or Dinner with Argle on YouTube, then you may be aware of the originality of Steve Aylett.

In the Heart of the Original, Steve Aylett writes his first official non-fiction on the subject. As one might expect, it is written with vim and vigour with more than a soupcon of experimentation and humour. The core is the argument that art, in particular, needs more originality to be pushed.

As Aylett argues, there is a large amount of recycling that happens of ideas which is claimed as original. Truly original in some cases. In a slightly haphazard fashion, the author skips across many authors and books, showing how they were original before becoming accepted.

The part I do have an issue with is that mining the past might not be original. If this didn’t happen we might not have Eliot’s Wasteland or Chaucer, both of which are original in execution and style but rely upon knowledge of the past.

Perhaps what he is getting at is the amount of similar novels and works of art available. Some are touted as original when they are retreads. I do question whether this is due to a  lack of understanding or knowledge of theirs and related genres. Without stating it, he attacks the “wannabe” culture that has been increasingly engendered, looking for clones and variations of successful ventures, rather than creating other successes.

It builds on the arguments in Lint and the accompanying And Your Point Is? (Yatterings blog post). Companies such as Unbound or the small presses are revitalising older publishing models. Out of this arises the opportunity for interesting and original authors. What worries me, and perhaps Aylett, is that the underlying culture is in deep trouble, but is this cyclical? Are we just in the dark before we get the next punk movement (which will be subsumed, this is the way things go)? I hope so.

Yet this is a book that should be read and enjoyed. Then read his other books.

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Occasional Readings 27 September

Jon Courtenay Grimwood posted a photo of The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalani (Periscope Books, £9.99) on Twitter and in a fit of excitement, I got a copy at Blackwells whilst looking for something else.

The novel tells “Estebanico’s” story, the black slave who was taken on a doomed Spanish journey of conquest in Florida. Splicing his story with the Spanish and his own life pre-being captured as Mustafa, he builds up an uncertain narrative about having his identity refashioned by both himself and his owners, the would-be conquerors.

The wider narrative is uncertain as the world is being made from stories. The Spanish sped across the Atlantic for the fabled cities of gold and the internal political struggle that fuels this as well as the slave trade. Added to this is Mustafa’s recollection of his life and that he is translator and narrator. The narrative is under his control. In this gap in history, his voice is the only one that really matters, the only one with which we might converse.

At first it might be read as a purely a novel about the iniquities of slavery and its barbarism. Lalani deftly unpicks the onion layers of the issue and gets to the fear of the unknown that underlies some of the responses. Yet she shows how little the attitudes change, despite the words, of the Spanish who are less worried about the native people than their social position, whatever they say. Lalani shows the unmoving and unthinking nature of the conqueror.

The novel is certainly timely given the fear engendered in Europe about migration. The subtle narrative of political ear and lack of humanity and the stronger one that we have to listen to all voices in the larger story. By ignoring them, we are committing similar acts now to historical ones and as a set of societies, we cannot afford this to take place. I will be looking for her earlier writing now.

I finally got around to reading David Barnett’s Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (Snow Books) which is an enjoyable romp around Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century Science Fiction cultures. Barnett provides a light hearted story that wears its scholarship lightly but enjoyably.

The final collection was The Names by Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez (Vertigo). I waited for the graphic novel collection to come out. Using the idea of a unnamed cooperative called the Names, they present a world in which the secret masters cannot control any more. Merging the cyber with the human in terms of language, they create a frightening world which is out of control. It does feel slightly hurried towards the end of the series but I hope that we might see something more in this vein at some point.

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Occasional reading notes 28 Aug

I am having a few days off at the moment and so catching up on some long overdue reading.

I have been able to read The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath by Ishbelle Bee (Angry Robot, £8.99). I picked this up browsing in Blackwell a while ago. A mixture of nineteenth century fairy tales and modernism, it tells the stories of three people – Jonathan, Mirror and Goliath – and the way that they respond to life or lack of it.

Ambitiously the book uses both nineteenth and twentieth century narrative structures and typesetting tricks to embed the reader in the world. The novel comes across as whimsical but there is a delicious thread of horror which builds up but does not swamp the rest of the novel. At the end of this novel I was reminded that I should reread the Gail Carriger novels (I have a new series of these to read as well), or perhaps Jesse Bullington’s first novel. Egypt continues to overshadow the weird fantastic.

At the suggestion of a post by Farah Mendlesohn, I read the Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury Circus, £12.99). I ought to re-read this soon but it is an impressive first novel that crosses UK and Japan. She creates a wonderful historical fantasy with touches of steampunk and conspiracies. I do wonder if there is some Joseph Conrad about the book, crossing cultures and appearing to enjoy itself.

I saw a mention of Genevieve Cogman‘s The Invisible Library (Tor UK, £7.99). Ostensibly about the search for a forbidden book through a multiverse. Superficially this book is about the journey of Irene, a professional spy, and Kai, a “distinctly not what he appears to be” assistant, to find a book for their library employers. It would be easy to ignore Cogan’s musing on the nature of reading, where the reader takes pleasure in crossing through multiverse of the genres and types. Our reading and rereading takes into new place and times, allowing us to search and enjoy the search. Rather than disappear into a pseudo- Umberto Eco or Alberto Manguel reading, I am looking forward to other volumes in this series. There are some ambitious ideas in this novel that are in skeleton form.  I look forward to the stop motion of seeing it animated as I read more.

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Now is the shortlist of our discontent

Adam Roberts has two posts on thoughtful posts on awards on his Sibilant Fricative blog.

Firstly his thoughtful post on this year’s Hugo’s, “Hugos 2015: Delenda est Hugo” considers many angles and puts it into a wider context of self-promotion as well as the use of force within the rules. It follows on in part from Nick Mamatas’s post on the subject.

Secondly and far more positive is his post on the Clarke Award shortlist which has recently been announced. It has reminded me that there are two books on there that I must get. As he points out, there is a fair amount of post-apocalypse in it which perhaps says more about the context than the books.

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The eeriness of the land

Robert Macfarlane, in this week’s Guardian, has published an article on “The eeriness of the English Landscape“. Using MR James as a starting point, he gets into the weirdness of the land and how it fascinates writers.

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A misreading of Fantasy and some thoughts on fairy tales

John Mullan is a writer whom I enjoy reading in the Guardian Books section. He is an astute reader but his piece on fantasy,”George RR Martin, Game of Thrones and the triumph of fantasy fiction“, misses the mark by quite some distance. As well as ignoring women writers, he also ignores the writers who blend in genre with their own writing.

I can vaguely forgive him for not knowing the underrated Aimee Bender but Jonathan  Lethem, Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz? None of these writers are really unknown. Also they are men – which causes me some anxiety. Debut novels from  Anna Smaill, The Chimes, and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship blend in genre without worrying or batting an eyelid.

To be fair, I have not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant yet but have it on the shelf to read next. I am looking forward to it and also thinking, given the pieces that I have seen so far, about the relationship with Gawain and the Green Knight and also perhaps John Gordon’s work.

It was a frustrating read from someone whom I had a lot of respect for. I wish he had given the respect back to genre fiction and readers in general.

Update: Maureen Kincaid Speller has posted an excellent analysis of the article on her blog, Paper Knife.

On the other hand, Michael Newton, editor of Victorian Fairy Tales, wrote an entertaining piece on Cinderella in film as yet another version comes to entertain us.

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Traversing the scarce universe

Neptune’s Brood, the second of the Saturn’s Children novels by Charles Stross, is nominally a space opera. Set in a post-human universe, AIs have spread across the planets but the costs of doing this are crippling. The worlds are divided into those with slow and fast lives and currency.

Poking holes at the space opera, such as the failings of faster than light drives and the move into the stars, as the realm of the rich and impossible, Stross merrily converses with Clarke and Heinlein’s dreams. Of course, different times call for different dreams.

Post scarcity in a post-financial crash world leads to the less rosy picture of the world. The emptiness of the world is explored and the immorality of the founders who worked out how to manufacture ways of spreading the debt and costs around the wolds in largely invisible fashion. The laws of robotics are gleefully abandoned as the intelligences seek to create their own nests.

I wonder if I would have a different reading if I had read John Lanchester’s Capital and other post crash fiction. At the same time, this is a gleeful conversation with the space opera whilst also trying to see how it might work when the author’s world has changed. It no longer holds entirely true but perhaps Alistair Reynolds saw this in his current series.

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Lost in translation

As far as I remember the novel, which is rusty, the film of Horns is not terribly faithful to the novel and I am not entirely shocked by this. It does make me want to re-read Joe Hill’s novels though. The film echoes the Crow and Stand By Me.

Yet it reminds me of a conversation that was had this morning at Sarah Churchwell’s discussion of F Scott Fitzgerald and her book, Careless People. She talked about the need for a morality in satire and irony for it to work. For her that core is needed  to really make the Great Gatsby work.

A pillar of Hill’s work is the morality play of horror  – the horror of the small town world, be it the US or the UK. The supernatural echoes the secrets of the world around the outsider; even though the outsider is a member of their community. In part the world is fearful of itself and its inability to face up to its demons.

Alexandre Aja tries to get this but becomes lost in the supernatural and special effects, rather than the play being explored. The Gothic becomes lost in the spectacle and perhaps another film was created.

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A flame to a moth

I’ve been meaning to read Rachel Klein‘s The Moth Diaries for some time and, having made the time, I can only wonder why.

In true Nineteenth century style, the novel is told in the form of a diary kept by the narrator. Immediately we know that the narration is fundamentally unreliable as it the memory that it purports to tell us. More subtly it links us to stories such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and nineteenth century vampire literature whilst also being set in a boarding school.

The narrator becomes obsessed with Lucy and the new girl, Ernessa. Confessional posts would become more nervous and obsessive, the reality portrayed becomes increasingly frayed, hinting at the reason why the narrator is in hospital. It is a subtle book that is going to repay reading and also reading some of the potential source material.

The Gothic comes through the discussion of the madness; it is a safety valve in that respect for one of the taboos for our society. Teen female madness is a particular horror for society and this plays so well on it. It reminds me of the episode in Buffy where where she is in the asylum or perhaps the Bell Jar. We never know the reality but can guess it.

This is one of those books that slipped through my net originally which is frustrating as it is so wonderful and well written. It is a truly strange piece of Gothic fiction.

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