Reading August/September

I’ve done a lot of reading the last couple of months, mostly fiction but some nonfiction. As usual, many of them are rather forgettable so today I’ll just talk about five that I enjoyed and are definitely worth your time, and then four others that do exactly what they promise to do and so might prove useful for an unchallenging read on a flight or long commute.

Not discussed here: one novel that angered me so much that I’ve decided it requires its own post. Stay tuned.

Recommended Books

The Air You Breathe, Frances de Pontes Peebles (August 2018)
It opens in northern Brazil on a sugar cane plantation in the 1920s. Young Dores, a gangly plain orphan brought up by the housekeeper, has the run of the Great House that is between owners and mostly closed up. Then new owners move in with their spoilt, pretty, daughter, Graça. What follows is a clash of wills that, despite their vast class difference, turns into the relationship that dictates the rest of their lives. Dores is smart but Graça is ambitious. They both fall under the spell of music and start to sing for the estate’s workers. Eventually they run away and, still teenagers, end up in Lapa, the heart and home of Samba in 1920s Rio. Dores writes songs for Graça, who sings her way to Hollywood where she becomes Sofia Salvador, the Brazilian Bombshell.

This is a sensual book: we smell, and hear, and feel the heat and jungle of north Brazil then Rio in the 20s, and Hollywood and Las Vegas after that. The living beat of the book, though, is samba. The rhythm and duende of samba winds through the prose–pitch perfect, except for the occasional over-the-top moment–and twines through the reader’s heart, pulling us in. Music drives a deep hunger in both women, but while Dores hungers for Graça, Graça hungers only for fame. (Imagine that the real Brazilian Bombshell, Carmen Miranda, had met Chavela Vargas…) Unlike most Hollywood stories, though, this time it’s the straight girl who dies young and the lesbian who lives well and long.

It is strongly written, well-structured, and steeped in longing. It is an adventure, a history, and a love song. One to reread on days when you need an excuse to feel too deeply and yearn for something larger and more vivd than life.

The Parting Glass, Gina Marie Guadagnino (March 2019)
Read The Parting Glass for its rich tapestry of 1830s lower Manhattan, where the stately drawing rooms of wealthy WASPs on Washington Square are sustained by the cheap labour drawn from the tenements nearby whose streets are lit by fires you have to pay to be put out, awash in the blood of slaughter houses, and drained by both the ‘protection’ demanded by the Irish mob and the constant pay-offs to Tammany Hall to stay in business.

Or read it as a fascinating study of immigration and social class, race and ethnicity, religion and sexuality in early New York. Or as the tale of Maire O’Farrell and her twin brother Seanin, fresh off the boat, who are everything to each other, who help each other lie and change their names to survive, to get work in a wealthy household—until they both fall in love with the daughter of the house. Or read it as a tragedy of lies and triumph of love, or a delicious subversion of the marriage plot. Is it perfect? No. I think we could have done with a lot less of Maire’s mooning over Charlotte, which I didn’t really believe, and a bit more of the frank and uncomplicated sex between Maire and Liddie. But it has a clear-eyed view of class and community that I admired, and it’s enormously satisfying. So, yep, read it how you like, but read it.

Transcription, Kate Atkinson (September 25, 2018)

I’ve enjoyed Atkinson’s work since 1995 when I found Behind the Scenes at the Museum, an unexpected novel from a perspective, era, and place I know: a Yorkshire family in the second half of the twentieth century. I liked everything of hers I’ve read, though never really warmed to some of it, such as Life After Life.

Transcription is told by Juliet Armstrong, who, in WWII London, was recruited by Britain’s domestic secret service, MI5, to transcribe the tapes of secretly recorded conversations between fifth columnists/fascist sympathisers and government spies. (I marvelled over the old-school spy tech.) The novel begins in 1950, after the war, with Juliet as a producer of children’s programming at the BBC. Naturally, the narrative doesn’t stay post-war long but loops back to the past. Equally naturally, nobody is exactly who they seem. Atkinson must have had a great time nesting identities inside identities, plot loops inside plot loops, disguises inside disguises. While the story reads cleanly and simply, it is anything but. Atkinson creates a sense of the mundane–the dreary deprivation of war-dimmed Britain with its ugly cardigans, rationing, and general dinginess–living in perfect harmony with the slick sophistication of upper-crust society. The thrill and tension of lives and nations in the balance is matched by a deliciously absurd sense of humour. This is a hopeful, thought-provoking, and absorbing read, both a gentle but beautifully wrought guide to the lessons of history that are applicable today and a reminder of how far we’ve come yet how so much never seems to change.

Broken Ground, Val McDermid (December 5, 2018)

Val McDermid is another writer with the gift of combining gritty realism, history, and a good read. Perhaps it’s a northern thing. Once again, we’re dealing with the fallout of decisions made in the second world war, only this time we’re in present-day Scotland with DCI Karen Pirie of the Historic Cases Unit. Artisan gins in Edinburgh, vintage American motorbikes buried under the turf by an upland croft, dead Highland Games athletes, and cold-eyed, well-dressed, yoga-and-flat-white-devotees who plan murders are all part of another satisfying, expertly-plotted narrative by a master.

The Green Man’s Heir, Juliet E McKenna (March, 2018)

The Green Man’s Heir is, like the two previous discussed novels, set in the UK, and, again, harks back to the past, though this time much, much further, to a world of British myth and folklore. And, like the two previous novels, it begins with a crime. However, unlike those city-based narratives, The Green Man’s Heir is firmly grounded in the English countryside, specifically the Peak District.

This novels is almost, but not quite, what I think of as an English landscape fantasy such as Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. A love of trees and wildlife shines from every page. Those books, though, concern (mostly) ordinary people stumbling upon the extraordinary otherworld that over- (or under-) lies our own. Daniel Mackmain, on the other hand, is a greenblood, the son of a dryad who can see naiads and dryads, shucks and boggarts. An ordinary human might hear the farm dog barking frantically but they can’t see the boggarts tormenting it. Dan knows that the recent murder of a woman in the woods is not the work of a serial killer but supernatural in origin. But it’s hard to solve murders when you don’t want to be tracked on CCTV because you can’t allow yourself to be in any national databases. After all, most people don’t age so slowly…

If you like woodworking, folklore and myth, trees, a good story, a bit of sex, and protecting the innocent, this book is for you. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Books that do what it says on the tin

Firefly, Henry Porter (October 2018)

Workmanlike prose, great research, and a timely subject: a young Syrian immigrant codenamed Firefly is on the run in Central Europe as he tries to avoid organised criminals and the terrorist he has betrayed. Meanwhile Paul Samson (a character who reads like the lovechild of Le Carré and Alastair Maclean) scrambles over hostile mountains and slips across international borders to save him. This is absolutely as described by the publisher, a “timely thriller following the refugee trail from Syria to Europe…a sophisticated, breathtaking race against time from an author who brings a whole new level of urgency to the genre. A cut above most in the genre.

The Dream Daughter, Diane Chamberlain (October 2018)

Apparently Chamberlain is a prolific bestselling author of romance-flavoured fiction but I didn’t know any of that when I picked up The Dream Daughter. (That is both a positive and negative of the lucky dip that is NetGalley but I wouldn’t change it. It reminds me of being a young reader when every book was a new adventure and I had no idea what to expect.) The prose isn’t great, and there’s a gaping plot hole drive like a stake through its heart but I finished it anyway. This is a super straight family-oriented Christian-tinged fiction with time-travel. (Yes, it’s as odd as it sounds.) Carly, a young widow, discovers that her unborn child has a heart defect that, in 1970, is unfixable. But then her sister’s handsome, sensitive but mysterious physicist husband, Hunter, tells her there is a way. Hunter, it turns out, is a tie traveller from 2017 where they do things like fix foetal anomalies in utero. Of course, not everything goes smoothly because Hunter sort of forgets to include 9/11 in his calculations… Why did I finish it? I’m not sure. Probably because I wanted to see how Chamberlain would navigate Carly through the eras and plot obstacles. So maybe you will, too.

The Burglar, Thomas Perry (January 2019)

I loved Perry’s early Jane Whitefield novels about a member of the Seneca Wolf clan with extraordinary skills who helps those in danger disappear. (Start with Vanishing Act.) The protagonist of his latest, Elle Stowell, is also a young, fit woman with extraordinary skills. She’s a burglar, a very good one; to stay safe she never lets anyone into her personal life. But then on a job she stumbles over a triple homicide and suddenly none of her old rules apply. Perry’s prose is weirdly stiff in places, but if you’re after a niftily-plotted take-down-the-bad-guys read, this one’s for you.

Past Tense, Lee Child (November 2018)

Lee Child’s series about Major Jack Reacher, US Army (Ret.), follow the same pattern: Reacher, the 6’5″ ex-military cop, is hitching about the US. He gets dropped off in the middle of nowhere with only cash, cash card, and toothbrush, has assorted adventures, initiates serious mayhem in service of saving a bunch of locals from Black Hats, has some good and respectful sex, then hitches off alone into another sunset. A modern version of Shane, the famous film gunfighter. (Interestingly, Alan Ladd, who starred in Shane, was about the same height, 5’6″ or maybe 5’7″, as Tom Cruise who plays Reacher in Jack Reacher and Never Go Back.) Past Tense breaks no new ground, though Reacher does a bit less than usual in sorting out an illegal hunting operation (spoiler: they don’t hunt animals…). Also as usual, it pays not to look at the plot too closely because it doesn’t really make sense. In this one part of my active suspension of disbelief involves a young, untrained, unfit, unarmed woman who ends up killing two experienced hunters armed with bows and night-vision goggles. But who cares? Jack Reacher is doing what Jack Reacher does, and the status quo is restored.


Caveats:

These posts are not meant to function as in-depth assessments. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a combination of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood).

The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published (sometimes via using a kind of lucky dip system on NetGalley or Edelweiss, more usually being sent a galley to blurb), old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get either because they’re already old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, or a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. (This is the kind of book I’d read with flu, or doped up on opiates: it does not require full attention but is a great distraction from discomfort.) The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines.

I start many books; I don’t finish most. When that happens, I usually don’t discuss them. In terms of living writers, punching down isn’t acceptable and punching up can be counterproductive. On occasion I’ll do both but I have to feel seriously provoked in terms of either narrative choices (cripples as narrative prostheses; women as victims of sexual violence) or a writing habit that has pissed me off once too often. Punching dead writers often feels tacky, but I’ll make exceptions if I believe my commentary might prove useful to a potential reader or a new writer.

Tomorrow: Me and Maria Dahvana Headley, Seattle Central Library, Monday 10th September, 7 pm

NG-MDH

On Monday night I’ll be talking with Maria Dahvana Headley about her new and amazing novel, The Mere Wife, at the Central Library in downtown Seattle. See the Facebook events page for more details.

I loved this book. It is an unmistakably modern novel with the sensibility of now, but it excludes the appurtenances of the twenty-first century: smartphones, mobile internet, social media (though not security devices such as motion detectors and gate cameras). It is not timeless, exactly, but it is outside this particular time. It is set in the US, northeastern commuter territory, and is about women at war, in all the ways women have always been at war. Whether army vets or suburban wives, mothers or daughters, women have always fought: with blood and bloodlines, with love, with fury and vengeance, with the armour of composure and masks, with political and social spin. You should read this book.

Here’s the blurb I sent to the publisher:

The Mere Wife is an astonishing reinterpretation of Beowulf: Beowulf in suburbia–epic, operatic, and razor sharp. It uses Beowulf’s three-part structure and a fascinating take on Old English traditions of animism to create a story not of thick-thewed thegns but of women; women at war, literally and figuratively. It is Maria Dahvana Headley’s women who are the givers of grief, the dealers of doom. They are not objects but most definitely subjects whose primary allegiance is to each other. They rule and they fight. They fight as individuals and in groups (Headley brilliantly co-opts another Old English tradition of collective voice), as wives and warriors, mothers and matriarchs. Their chosen weapons are as likely to be swords as public relations, and they wield both fearlessly. Monstrousness is in the eyes of the beholder and these women are terrifying in defence of their people, their position, and themselves.

Maria’s a good friend, and we’ve been talking for years about some of the issues raised in The Mere Wife. Maria will give a brief reading, then we’ll be talking for about half an hour about race, gender, patriarchy and political smashing, inciting revolution, monsters and monsterhood, and the ways in which we can reimagine the past and tell it as it should have been told all along—and so much, much more.

The Central Library is wonderfully accessible. And the facilities people have promised they won’t make the air-conditioning too fierce.

So come and listen, and put your own questions to the ferociously smart, funny, fabulous (and fabulously dressed!) Maria Dahvana Headley.

 

Why stories matter

I’m not sure when most of this video was shot, but my part was done winter 2013/2014 when I was in the middle of the most horrendous few months of pain I’ve ever had. I wasn’t really sleeping, so I look pale and thin and fragile. That’s not how I look now—I just want to reassure you! But the message of all these authors is the same: story is woven into our lives; story is a human thing; story matters.

So your mission for the day: go find a good story and enjoy it.

Nearing the cliff edge

Charlie Stross has just saved me the trouble of writing another Brexit screed. He makes a lot of sense. Go read it.

I am so tired of talking to people in the UK who wilfully refuse to believe the coming shit storm*, who insist, “Oh, the government would never let that happen to us!” They are mostly white, middle-class, nondisabled straight Christians; they won’t be first against the wall. They are the people who voted Leave. They’re used to being Us, not Them. (Those of us who have been Them all our lives are much less sanguine.) Even so, if I were them I’d be stockpiling food, meds, and fuel. If I had room for stockpiled fuel, I’d buy a generator. I’d cancel plans for travel anytime after February 2019. And I’d be very, very glad that, when the unrest comes, there aren’t more guns in the hands of UK citizens.

For those in North America and Europe (and every other continent for that matter), remember that the more complex and intertwined a system becomes, the easier it is to break. And civilisation is extraordinarily complex. Short term, what happens here after Brexit will be nothing like the UK. Long term? You might want to start looking at your supplies.


* Just eight months to go…

Glimmer: new audio fiction

Earlier this year I wrote a very short story, “Glimmer.” I recorded the audio last week. It’s 8 minutes.

If you like it, maybe I’ll start a regular audio feature here.

I wrote the story for Particulates, an anthology of very short fiction written in response to Rita McBride’s art installation, Particulates, at DIA:Chelsea, and edited by Nalo Hopkinson. It’s for sale from DIA Books and available for pre-order.

Image description: Photo composite of (left) the green cover of anthology Particulates, and (right) the table of contents: stories by Elizabeth Bear, Samuel Delany, Kameron Hurley, Nicola Griffith, Annalee Newitz, Ken Macleod, Karen Lord, Sofia Samatar, Daniel Jose Older, Minister Faust, Mark Von Schlegell, Victor LaValle, Vandana Singh, Gina Ashcraft, and Nalo Hopkinson.

 

Fighting words

Image description: Black and white photo of a white woman’s fist coming at the viewer. 


Fighting words are usually sexist, racist, ethnic, homophobic, and ableist slurs levelled by a member of a culturally and socially powerful group against a member of a traditionally oppressed group. They are not only beyond the boundaries of polite discourse, they are the kind of words that, when hurled as an insult in certain circumstances, might allow a jury of peers to forgive the insulted person for responding physically.

Some insults have deep and abiding links to violence.1 They are so closely associated with physical danger that I would rather not write them here: their use can be construed as violence, as harm. They are not just hate speech but can be, in and of themselves, hate crimes. Their use when combined with an intensifier (filthy is common) often signals imminent harm to the victim, sometimes fatal. It’s not unreasonable for a member of a traditionally oppressed group who hears the C word, the N word, the R word, and so on, to feel not only dehumanised, but to believe they are in danger. Women, people of colour, disabled people and many others don’t only dislike these words, we fear them, and with good reason.

I don’t have the data but I’d be surprised if detailed reports of hate crimes didn’t show these fighting words thrown by the perpetrators as a warm up to the main event. Certainly every single time men have threatened or attempted to physically assault me, they’ve called me a dyke, a bitch, or a cunt.2 As a result, if a man yells “Cunt!” in my face I might hit him in the throat, hit him hard enough and in just the right place that he could have difficulty breathing. Cunt, from a man to a woman, particularly when no one else is around and so the abuser is less likely to feel constrained by law and custom, is, to me, a fighting word; striking first is self-defence.

As with all slurs, if a member of the same oppressed group is doing the insulting, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s not nice to be called a bitch or cunt by another woman, or filthy dyke by another queer person. And it’s no fun being insulted by a clearly unwilling-to-act man or straight person in a crowded public space. But to me at least it doesn’t signal the same clear and present danger as when those words are used by a member of the dominant group in a dark alley, lonely field, or locked room.

So fighting words are only fighting words in certain circumstances. More often they are firing offences—or should be. But that’s a whole other post.


1 The word insult originates with the Latin insultāre “to leap upon” or “assail.”
2 One of the reasons I studied martial arts, and then studied and taught women’s self-defence, so intensively for so many years is so that, with one rather spectacular exception, the men could not get beyond the threat.

Reading May/June

Another busy couple of months with travel, and performance, and writing, and interviews. Again, no nonfiction. This month as well as the usual Recommended titles I’ve listed a handful that could be worth your time picking up but about which I have no deep thoughts. Not listed: some other books I finished because I was stuck in circumstances with nothing else but which I found worthless; no titles of the books that seriously pissed me off.

Hopefully next time I’ll be able to report on some lovely, chewy research reading for Menewood. Meanwhile, please see caveats below.

Read and Recommended

Maggie Terry, Sarah Schulman
Set in 2017 Manhattan, Schulman’s latest is day-after noir: the party is over, the neon burnt out, and there’s nothing to drink but cold-pressed kale juice. While you were doing lines and knocking back shots, your wife took your child and left, your partner got himself killed, and you lost your badge. So now you have nothing but 12 steps. And while you weren’t looking, or at least not seeing, someone slowly strangled your community. It’s all gone: the gays have left, the bodegas are shut, and rat-infested tenements all replaced by condos overrun with man-buns.

This is classic Schulman: crime fiction, yes, but the murder that matters is of the urban neighbourhood. Schulman flenses and dissects the human condition, weighs every organ—how we connect, what forms the beating heart of a community—then magically breathes life back into the husk and helps it rise, reborn. Schulman asks, Who are you when you have nothing left? What can you do when you can do nothing? You go on. You learn to see, or see clearly, to tell yourself the truth and accept that truth, and shoulder the responsibility. Maggie Terry is a light shining in the waste, offering hope: Where there are people, there is the possibility of connection, and together we can make it. You should read this.

Disobedience, Naomi Alderman
The Wikipedia plot summary: “The novel is a first-person narrative of Ronit Krushka, a 32-year-old non-practising Orthodox Jew, who is working in New York as a financial analyst and having an affair with her married male boss. The death of her estranged father, a powerful rabbi, brings Ronit back to her childhood home in Hendon, London, where her provocative ways outrage the local Orthodox Jewish community. Discovering that her cousin Dovid, who is also her father’s chosen successor, is married to her former lover, Esti, forces Ronit to rethink what she left behind.”

It took two tries to finish this one. Partly it’s because I started reading on a plane, and the claustrophobia of air travel resonated too strongly with the claustrophobia of a small, inward, restrictive—particularly of women, extremely of queer women—religious community. This is a world I do and do not know. Alderman’s setting is the London suburb of Hendon, while I grew up in the Catholic community of Leeds. In both, everyone knows each other and social mores are iron rules: the congregations are hives of gossip, school reinforces restrictions, and there is zero privacy. Both are stifling. I realised, a few weeks after putting the book down, I was reading for a kind of lesbian vindication, or at least satisfaction, which does not appear to be Alderman’s goal. I wanted Ronit and Esti to end up back together, to kick over the traces and—after hot and satisfying sex—fly over the rainbow to the kind of life they should have had.

It’s obvious very early on that this is not that kind of book but—partly because I so wanted it to be, and partly because Alderman is so very good as a writer—I kept reading anyway. And of course got crosser and crosser and more and more claustrophobic. When I picked it up again last week it was with adjusted expectations, and this time I read it dispassionately to the end. Will I read it again? I doubt it. Am I glad I read it the first time? Yes. And you should, too.

Visible Empire, Hannah Pittard
This book took me completely by surprise. I knew nothing of it, or the author, but something about the title or the cover intrigued me so I downloaded it from NetGalley. And once I started, I was hooked. Like Disobedience, and like Maggie Terry, this is a story of how community works, how it forms, breaks, and reforms. How it faces inequity, and how it changes in the face of events. Like Obedience, Visible Empire is set in a world I do and do not know: this time Atlanta. It’s Atlanta 30 years before I lived there, but many of the underlying structures of wealth and discrimination and mythology have not changed much.

In June 1962, a chartered jet carrying 106 of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens, crashes and burns as it takes off from Orly. It is an earthquake in Atlanta’s cultural community: families, friends, spouses, businesses all left without their anchors and suddenly adrift. Importantly, too, for those involved, established hierarchies are disturbed, with money being inherited, lost, and shifted abruptly, upsetting the city’s equilibrium. The publisher’s blurb reads “An epic novel—based on true events—of love, grief, race, and wealth, charting a single sweltering summer in Atlanta that left no one unchanged… Visible Empire is the story of a husband and wife who can’t begin to understand each other until chaos drives them to clarity. It’s a story of the promise and hope that remain in the wake of crisis.” But I read it as a examination of the mythology a community weaves for itself, that hides its own knowledge of the truth. And what happens when that curtain is twitched aside, even temporarily, and we’re exposed to reality. Reality, of course, always redrapes itself, but sometimes over a slightly different shape. Pittard does a lovely job of showing how much we fool ourselves, how we believe what is convenient, and how we might change for the better. A couple of important white characters felt a little too optimistically drawn in that regard, but I understand the impulse to give the reader an easier experience. On balance, yes, recommended.

The Best Bad Things, Katrina Carrasco
Gritty street fiction set in the lawless 19th century when Port Townsend was the Deadwood of the Pacific Northwest, The Best Bad Things is a bloody brawl of a book. Carrasco uses a whippy structure and flexible prose to play an unsettling shell game as Alma, dressed as Jack, sheds her impulse control along with her corsets, and the plot accelerates into a visceral, unexpected underworld of bare-knuckle fighting, opium smuggling, and genderqueer lust. Both Jack and Alma are creatures not of head—or heart—but gut. In the streets and between the sheets they live for the thud of bone on bone, wrench of muscle, and tear of breath. Neither they nor Carrasco flinch before the bold choice and the result is a jaw-dropping knife-thrust of an ending. Definitely recommended.

Queen of the Unwanted, Jenna Glass
First of a feminist fantasy trilogy with all the main roles played by women ranging from teens to young adult to middle-aged to old. What they all have in common is being, in various ways,  unwanted and shut in/shut out of power. This is a patriarchy-has-all-the-power-until-the-worm-turns thought experiment about reproductive rights (and magic, and swords and ponies, and romance) designed to tick a lot of #MeToo, #Resistance, and #prochoice boxes. One of the protagonists is a middle-aged matron, another an astonishingly responsible and wise maiden, another a crone-in-training who’s still young enough to have hot sex with the strong-but-gentle warrior.

The real crone died at the beginning working the magic that sets up the change in the world order around which the plot turns: women gain complete control over their fertility. After this spell that’s generations in the making, women cannot bear a child to term unless, deep down, they really truly want one. (Don’t think too closely about this or logic holes begin to appear.) It doesn’t matter how much a king desperately wants/needs an heir, unless he can make his queen happy in her marriage, he won’t get one. (Just go with it.)

The majority of main characters are women. After the spell, they get to have sex and romance and run countries and make decisions. They move from the periphery to the centre

Queen of the Unwanted is a kinder, gentler, epic fantasy version of The Power—much more #Resistance than #FightBack; women commit no overt violence. But it’s definitely a worthy thought experiment that kept me happily reading in strange hotel rooms. It’s stuffed with fantasy-romance names like Ellin and Alys, and the only sex is straight sex, if I recall correctly—though I read it fast and I read an early bound manuscript so that might not a reliable recollection. I’ll probably pick up Book Two when it comes out and hope that some queer women have been magicked into existence.

Also read

Rogue Protocol, Martha Wells
The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal
The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware
Head On, John Scalzi

Couldn’t finish

There were half a dozen novels I’d like to rant about here—ranging from those that grind a promising idea into the dirt then grind some more; to tedious, self-absorbed narrators I’d flee from at any party; to what I at first mistook for a reprint from the 50s the gendered characterisation was so bad; to an overdone noir whinge about the poor choices of badly done-to white men; to the vile tale, disguised as a thriller, of a deluded man tormenting a woman—but I’ll save everyone by stopping there.


Caveats:

These posts are not meant to function as in-depth assessments. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a combination of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood).

The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published, old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get for .99¢ from BookBub, sometimes because they’re old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, sometimes because it’s a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. (This is the kind of book I’d read with flu, or doped up on opiates: it does not require full attention but is a great distraction from discomfort.) The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines. Some of it is also not-yet-published, some ancient and out of date foundational reading, and almost all a combination of fascinating, difficult, annoying, and necessary.

I start many books; I don’t finish most. When that happens, I’m often won’t discuss them. Why? Because in terms of living writers, punching down isn’t acceptable and punching up can be counterproductive. On occasion I’ll do both but I have to feel seriously provoked in terms of either narrative choices (cripples as narrative prosthesis; women as victims of sexual violence) or a writing habit that has pissed me off once too often (the misuse of language; avoidance of specificity, particularly in matters of time and/or place). Punching dead writers often feels tacky, but not always. I’ll make exceptions for a) those for upon whose reputation my comments will have little or no impact (which is, y’know, most of them) and b) if I believe my commentary might prove useful to a potential reader or a new writer.