Friday, 8 September 2017

Reading Roundup - August 2017

Nothing on the Reading challenge this month. I've got through a double bill on my Harry Potter re-read/listen, however, with arguably the strongest entries in the series: The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire.

The Prisoner of Azkaban introduces us to the Night Bus and the Dementors, expands on the backstory linking Professor Snape with Harry's parents and their friends, and presents us with the first concrete example of Dumbledore being wrong about something; he changes his mind when presented with evidence, but he and McGonagall are initially as sure as anyone that Sirius Black was a murderous traitor. This was also the book which first described the Quidditch Cup in a way that makes any kind of sense (see also The Goblet of Fire.) Whereas previously it seemed as though everyone but the Seeker was extraneous, here we meet the idea that accumulated total score is important. Yes, the Snitch usually determines victory in the match, but to win the season the other players need to rack up the score as well.

Probably the most memorable addition to the canon are the monstrous Dementors, who serve as putative protectors, antagonists, and as foreshadowing that not all is well in the wizarding world if law and order is in the hands of such creatures. Similarly, the prejudice against muggle-borns rears its ugly head again, accompanied by anti-werewolf prejudice as represented by Professor Lupin, the first decent Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in the series.

The Goblet of Fire begins with scenes set at the Quidditch World Cup, which initially provide a light-hearted opening – and show that in professional matches, the Snitch is not the sole arbiter of victory – before seguing into one of the darkest moments in the series. Actually, I say segue, but the fact is that there is an undercurrent of darkness from the first, with Arthur Weasley being one of the only wizards at the Cup who makes any effort to try to hide his family's wizarding nature from the mortals who own and manage the campsites around the pitch, rather than just magicking their way about and occasionally zapping someone's memory rather than inconvenience themselves. Coupled with the bureaucratic bulldog that is Barty Crouch, and the continuing influence and good name of the Malfoys, it is clear that the wizarding world is no more utopian than the muggle one.

And then comes the Death Eater rally, which was just uncomfortably apt to current events. Usually I go to sleep listening to my audio book, but even the dulcet tones of Mr Fry couldn't lull me to slumber around a subject so reminiscent of the real-world horrors of Charlottesville. There are many who say that JK Rowling should stick to writing children's books and stay away from politics, but between the Death Eaters at the world cup, tormenting Muggles for fun, the poisonous Rita Skeeter, and the seemingly affable Cornelius Fudge(1), it is apparent that even when writing children's books she has and always has had a keen pen for a bit of political satire. Even her heroes come in for some schtick, especially in this instance Hermione, whose well-meaning attempt to liberate the Hogwarts House-elves is the rankest patronisation, regardless of her good intentions.

Prisoner and Goblet represent for me the pinnacle of the series, representing a significant maturation over Stone and Chamber, and preceding the bloated misstep of The Order of the Phoenix. Actually, I say that, but I've been surprised by enough as I listened to the first four volumes of the series(2) that I am not going to write off Order just yet. I do find it chilling that the Death Eater rally seems so much less over the top than it did in the faraway past of the year 2000. Also notable in the re-read is just how many characters have much longer careers in the series that I remembered, just because their names didn't register so much in early appearances.

As a side note: Avoid Pottermore if you don't want to lose hours of your life.


The Remnant is the final volume of the Oversight trilogy, although at times it doesn't feel like it. Beginning with a fractured Final Hand, beleaguered on all sides, things rapidly go downhill for London's magic police. Even by the standards of the previous instalments, this is a pretty bleak prospect, and the more interesting as the characters are given the space to wonder if they didn't fuck up a generation past by not giving the whole thing up as a bad job and falling back to lick their wounds and rebuild their numbers. It is unusual in many ways, not least for the primary villain, the man behind the curtain who has motivated the entire plot, dying largely by accident without ever having met most of the protagonists.

Perhaps more impressive is that the series concludes with the apprentices genuinely seeming to get the point better than their mentors, and the ancient order overturned, but not entirely for the worse. Even the sluagh, the trilogy's particular take on the faerie(4), embrace some aspects of change. Moreover, those of our heroes who survive the climactic battle do so as much because of their willingness to show mercy and compassion as because of their skill and strength. All this makes The Remnant an interesting book, although in all honesty it does not feel like the conclusion of a trilogy. There are too many fleshed-out side characters whose stories and actions are left unresolved, in particular those of Caitlin and her American associates, not to mention the somewhat sinister implications of the East Coast Remnant's seemingly cult-like process of 'regulation' and John Dee's designs on both the mirror world and the West. The novel certainly leaves one wanting more, but the palpable threat that there won't be any presented by that 'trilogy' designation makes the degree of that wanting less than comfortable.

Giant Days Volumes 1 & 2 collect issues 1-8 of John Allison's virtual dead tree university opus. Following the academia-bound adventures of Tackleford's Goth princess 'Dark' Esther de Groot, grounded Northampton lass Susan Ptolemy, and the whimsical, homeschooled Daisy Wooton. The three wrestle with illness and romance, struggle with the spectres of boyfriends past, contemplate their sexuality, do battle with the forces of internet-enabled toxic masculinity, and even, on occasion, find time to study. Daisy even finds time to fall victim to a psychological condition which dissolves the boundary between reality and fiction, binging on Friday Night Lights until she becomes a down-home Texas gal, much as Shelley Winters once believed Homicide: Life on the Streets to be the true reality(5).

Giant Days is somehow both bizarre in the best way, and very down to Earth, much like its siblings in the Allison stable. It's a little odd to see that style and humour delivered with a different style, but really no more so than looking at decade-old SGR strips or – heaven help us – Bobbins. I admit I was reluctant to get into it at first, in part because damnit Esther/the Boy was my OTP and then the Giant Days webcomics turned him into a bit of a jerk, but honestly I think it's helped in that regard by providing further context to Esther's life after the Boy, in particular by going to immediately after, whereas Eustace Boyce didn't appear again until he was all growed up into a barely likeable man-child(6), which did little to endear the break up to me as a plot development.

The world might be a very different place if more people
spoke boot.
Finally for the month, the Sherlockian odyssey continues with His Last Bow, ironically the penultimate collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, including the titular oddity in which our hero is brought out of retirement on the eve of the Great War to do battle with a German spymaster. It's an oddity in part because it is narrated in the third person, and in part because it departs the familiar ground of robbery and murder to embroil Holmes in an espionage thriller. It's not really Doyle's forte and, as a result, is far from his strongest work. It's a little reminiscent of The Secret Adversary, Agatha Christie's foray into the world of spies, in that regard, the trappings of a whodunit proving ill-at-ease with the less forthright lexicon of the Great Game.

The collection also includes the two-part 'The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge' and the bait-and-switch of 'The Adventure of the Dying Detective', which has its impact somewhat lessened for its inclusion in a collection which asserts in its preface that Holmes is alive and well in 1917. 'The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax' takes our investigators across Europe for perhaps the first time since 'The Final Problem', and sees Holmes nearly defeated. 'The Adventure of the Devil's Foot' and 'The Adventure of the Red Circle' both see Holmes allowing or excusing acts of murder which is considers justified by survival or retribution. A number of these stories contain elements familiar from earlier entries in the canon, but then could Doyle really have been anticipating, even at the height of Sherlock mania, the kind of scrutiny and longevity that his work has since enjoyed?

(1) Who it turns out is actually much more sinister than I gave him credit for the first time around. Mostly he is ineffectual, but he embodies subconscious privilege with his unthinking deference to blood purity, even while notionally against pureblood supremacy, making him a classic liberal bigot.
(2) And I know enough people who reckon that Jingo(3) isn't that bad at a second glance.
(3) Once I've got through Potter, I might have a bash at revisiting the Discworld series.
(4) Or at least those of the masculine persuasion.
(5) I like that the weirdness is consistent.

(6) He got better.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Reading Roundup - July 2017

Just the one book this month, with Carpentaria actually taking until the 3rd of August to finish. Both a first look into a culture that is almost completely new to me and a weird parallel to One Hundred Years of Solitude, it blends oral storytelling with magic-realism to great effect.

This month past saw me through three more books in the Complete Sherlock Holmes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third, and probably most well-known, of the Sherlock Holmes novels. Set during the earlier years of the partnership of Holmes and Watson, it was presented during the period of the great detective's death as a means to stave off pressure to return the character full tie. It pits Holmes against an apparently supernatural foe, and features some of the classic moments of the canon, as well as some prize examples of Holmes's dickery. He lies to Watson, and despite knowing who the killer is from the get go, holds off in search of evidence so long that his client is almost mauled to death and a young woman brutally beaten (in as much as the narrative cares after she has been revealed as the killer's – largely unwilling – accomplice; Watson is Judgey McJudgerson on this one.)

Conversely, the final novel – The Valley of Fear – is perhaps the least known and regarded of the four, despite featuring the second and final appearance(1) of Professor Moriarty in the canon(2). Similar in structure to A Study in Scarlet and, like Hound set before the fatal confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls, it swaps Mormons for Masonic trade union mobsters terrorising honest mine owners and opposed by the brave men of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, based loosely on the case of the Molly Maguires. As with many of Doyle's inclusions of contemporary secret societies or fringe groups, the depiction is startlingly black and white to modern eyes, but would have represented the first and all that many of his readers might have heard of such things. It is also of note that the main narrative doesn't even feature an actual murder until the epilogue, and that it features a police detective whose skills almost rival Holmes's own.

Finally, The Return of Sherlock Holmes was Doyle's capitulation to market pressure for more Sherlock Holmes' stories. It begins with 'The Adventure of the Empty House', in which Holmes returns to London and reveals his survival to Watson, before bringing down Moriarty's lieutenant, Colonel Sebastian Moran.

'The Adventure of the Norwood Builder' and 'The Adventure of the Abbey Grange' both feature cases in which the accused client reaches Holmes in a state of dishevelment having been set up, in the one case to take the fall and the other to provide an alibi for murders that are not, for one reason or another, ever actually committed. 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men', on the other hand, belongs to that subset of Holmes stories in which Holmes' preference for intellectual rigour over action arguably results in the death of his client, a category from which 'The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist' escapes by a matter of moments.

'The Adventure of the Priory School' sees Holmes claiming his biggest ever payday when he uncovers a plot to manipulate an aristocrat's will. Also of note, ' The Adventure of the Second Stain' brings Holmes into affairs of national importance, and features a twinkly-eyed Prime Minister of no given name and peculiar perspicacity.

'The Adventure of Black Peter' is a fairly routine terrible history case, ' The Adventure of the Six Napoleons' sees Holmes tangle tangentially with the Mafia, and ' The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez' has a bit of both, as a murder leads to the uncovering of an academic's secret past in a Russian revolutionary brotherhood. Comparatively speaking, 'The Adventure of the Three Students' and 'The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter' are light fare, although the latter's seemingly trivial case of a missing rugby player resolves into a tragic denouement with no criminal component.

Perhaps the most remarkable story in the book is 'The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton', not least for Holmes's singular failure to resolve the case in hand for himself. Tasked with recovering compromising material from the titular master blackmailer, Holmes makes a reckless attempt to strong-arm the villain before finally deciding to break into his house, quite by chance on the night that he happens to be murdered by another party. It's a rare show of fallibility, with Holmes operating out of his comfort zone and stuffing it almost completely.

I've sometimes had mixed success with the work of Cornelia Funke(3), but Ghost Knight is a cracking read. It's nothing all that new – boy sent to boarding school after friction with potential stepfather, threatened by ghosts, makes a friend in the local eccentric, resolves the problem(4) and in so doing finds a way to resolve his personal issues as well – but well told and wonderfully pacey; I finished the short novel in a day.

Rosie Revere, Engineer is a book that I bought for my daughter and which, in her inimitable style, she flatly insisted that she didn't like until I practically forced her to listen to me read it, after which she asked for it every night for a week. It's a simple, but affecting, tale of young Rosie, who hides her desire to invent for fear of being mocked. Then her Great Aunt Rose – who is implied to be the original Rosie the Riveter – assures her that it's great to try and okay to fail, so long as each failure leads to another, better failure on the road to – maybe – success.

For my bedtime listening, I've been going back to the Harry Potter series(5), and have so far got through Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. My biggest takeaway from this – besides t
he fact that I find it odd that Stephen Fry doesn't give Professor McGonagall any kind of Scots accent, and puts the stress on the second syllable of Malfoy – is that damn those books were dark. I'd sort of blanked out just how horrid the Dursleys are, and had forgotten that even in book one we have Voldemort suckling on unicorn blood while living parasitically in the body of another human being. Then book two has children being stalked by an unseen monster, giant spiders trying to eat the protagonists, and a young girl's soul being consumed by a possessed book. Never mind bringing a generation to reading, I'm amazed it didn't bring more of them to therapy.

These first two books are what Tolkien might have called essays in the craft, with Rowling not yet the accomplished writer she ended up. As a result the prose is a little hit and miss, but overall they hold their own among the crowded field of children's fiction, even if they aren't quite up to the standards later set by their successors.

My actual copy of this is as old as dirt and
looks like the opening credits of The Time
Tunnel
.
Finally this month, A Wrinkle in Time was another re-read, and a slightly disappointing one. The opening volume of Madelaine l'Engle's Time quar/quintetis chock full of interesting ideas, but in retrospect the dialogue is somewhat stilted and the 'love conquers all' finale is a little bit pat in a novel of cosmic good an evil. Or perhaps it's the only ending that makes any sense? Still, it's got a lot going for it and a strongly humanist theme(6) that I approve of, and I especially like that the young protagonist Meg learns to recognise that her father is not omnipotent – and that that's okay – as well as that her 'flaws' – the 'unladylike' traits of anger and stubbornness – do not have to be weaknesses.

(1) Well, he's never 'on screen', as it were, but his actions directly affect events, rather than simply being referenced at a distance.
(2) An appearance which, notably, contradicts some of the details of 'The Final Problem' by implying that Watson and others of Holmes's associates knew of his pursuit of the Professor.
(3) Her more YA-oriented fare, such as the Inkheart trilogy and the Reckless series have generally gone down better than those aimed at younger readers.
(4) In this case by undertaking an apprenticeship with a long-dead knight.
(5) I wasn't quite an early adopter, but started reading the series around the publication of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, so I beat the absolute Pottermania that kicked in for the fourth book.

(6) The series doesn't get really Christian for a while.

2017 Reading Challenge - Carpentaria

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright (read by Isaac Drandich)
Reason for Reading: A while back, I caught the first episode of a series called Cleverman, which has joined the list of stuff I Will Get Back to One Day. I've mostly put off watching it because it's a pretty dense piece of work, and quality, thoughtful TV requires more focus than I necessarily have to spare from family life from day to day. Anyway, this prompted me to add Australian literature to my challenge list, specifically seeking out Aboriginal writers. The research I was able to do with my limited time and resources turned up two significant titles: The Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, and Carpentaria.

Sometimes comic, often tragic, Carpentaria presents the struggle of an indigenous people to retain their meaning and relevance in the face of a world that wants to forget their stories. In a rambling, non-linear narrative, the novel tells the story of the town of Desperance on the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the aboriginal families of the Pricklebush live uncomfortably alongside the white folks of Uptown. Through the lives of Pricklebush patriarch Normal Phantom and of his estranged son Will, of travelling religious leader Mozzie Fishman, of Norm's wife Angel Day and of Elias, an amnesiac white man washed ashore on the beach, and through the blending of the natural world, Christianity and the ancestral spirit world of the Queensland Aborigines, Wright weaves a tale that, although set about fifty years later and on the other side of the world, is a close match for the first book in my challenge, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The parallels are not so exact as to suggest plagiarism, merely indicative of similar influences. Both are set in isolated, ill-founded towns – Desperance was created as a deep-water port, only for the river to shift course and leave it locked behind miles of mudflats and simultaneously exposed to cyclones – whose local worthies struggle against outside authority. Both towns hold strong against government interference, but capitulate to the crushing power of international capitalism; the Gurfurrit Mine takes the ancestral land of the Pricklebush mob, and offers them dangerous jobs in return. Both feature characters with their own, eccentric religious and philosophical views. They even both end with a catastrophic storm sweeping away all that has gone before. Where they differ markedly, however, is in their narrative voice, with Wright adopting the customs of oral storytelling in contrast to Garcia-Marquez's intense literary style. This is not to say that Carpentaria is less well-written than One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a meticulous piece of writing, where a deliberate rawness rubs shoulders with profound eloquence.

The next book on my list is That Deadman Dance, which is not available in audiobook or Kindle format, so will be approached in dead tree format, and an imposing format it is.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

2017 Reading Challenge - Halfway Summary

Arya is doing a summer reading challenge at the library, but due to busy
weekends is unlikely to complete it.
So, I guess the big news is that I'm about two months behind. If I can finish up Carpentaria, I'll have read 9 of my target 14 books; everything up to April and the first of two books for May.

In part, this is because really good books are much more demanding than books that are just okay, or even quite good. There's a density of text in truly great literature that defies speed reading or - in my case - casual listening. A few moments of distraction or a noisy bus can cause you to miss days of meaning. It also makes them really difficult to tackle while tired, and I am so often tired at the moment, what with parenthood and all.

I began the year with 'Magic Realism', and one of the remarkable things I've noticed is how deeply that concept pervades the other books I've approached. Gothic is the sinister twin of magic realism anyway, but if Sylvia Plath didn't coin the term in The Bell Jar, she defines it, and Carpentaria reads like the antipodean One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Moving forward, I think I'm going to ditch the monthly targets and just stick with my themes:

Australia

  • Carpentaria - Alexis Wright
  • That Deadman Dance - Kim Scott

Emancipation

  • Beloved - Toni Morrison
  • The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

India

  • A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
  • The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

The Luke Cage Syllabus

  • Little Green - Walter Mosley
  • Crime Partners - Donald Goines

Africa

  • Dust - Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
  • We Should All Be Feminists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Undefined Theme

  • Travel Light - Naomi Mitchison


Muslim Authors

  • Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi

Mother Russia

  • Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Secret History of Moscow - Ekaterina Sedia

Poetry and Music Bonuses

  • Guante - A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry
  • Edgar Allen Poe - Collected Verse
  • Te Vaka - Havili
  • Freida Hughes - Wooroloo

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Reading Roundup - June 2017

2017 Reading Challenge
Back up to pace this month, as I finished off Wild Swans and moved on to Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. In the end, the problem with these two books was that, while the world of China during the Cultural Revolution is definitely a new one to me, the two had almost identical perspectives, being written by literate city children from Chengdou who went to the mountains. They were both excellent, and of course Wild Swans had a much broader scope, while Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress cared far more about character.

It's a sort of horror-western-fantasy mashup. Damn, you'd
have to have been King to get this published in 1982.
With the movie The Dark Tower coming out soon, I thought I'd have another crack at the original, with Stephen King's The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger(1). Full disclosure, I'm not a fan of King's writing in general, although the first two volumes of the series have been the exception so far, in that I got off the first page and, indeed, through the first two (or maybe three) books before the library failed me. Maybe it was the contemporary setting in the other books - I wasn't much into modern day until I was... well, ever really; even my crime reading tends to be old noir - but the western/post-apocalyptic/horror/fantasy mashup of The Gunslinger really hooked me. Or perhaps it was the opening.

“The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”(2)

The Gunslinger kicks off in media res, with the titular pistoleer-paladin in pursuit of the Man in Black, a wizard and corruptor seemingly set on bringing ruin to what is left of a blasted, dying world, having already overthrown the Gunslingers' kingdom of Gilead(3). Death follows in the Man in Black's wake, wrought by him and delivered by the Gunslinger, with a young boy from modern(ish; the book is old) day Manhattan the latest in the crosshairs. The Gunslinger is the hunter, but the Man in Black has all the power, at least at this point in their cat and mouse. It's an intriguing opener, much stronger on set-up than on payoff, but there it goes; it is the start of a seven book plus two novella series, so you wouldn't expect it to wrap everything up neatly.

Oddly, the Red Riding Hood persona is only
mooted in this volume.
Next on my list was The Rules of Supervillainy, a semi-parody set in one of those worlds where superpowers are fairly commonplace. Gary Karpowsky is a happily married white collar worker who receives the magical Reaper's Cloak after its previous 'partner', superhero the Nightwalker, dies. Gary sets out on a career of crime as Merciless, the Supervillain without Mercy(4), but his idea of supervillainy is more that of a kind of anti-establishment heroic outlaw than an actual villain (or as he puts it, he's a villain, not a jerk.) This outlook brings him into conflict with actual villains - most of whom have a serious hard-on for murder, rather than wanting to buck the system that keeps the little guy down - as well as superheroes and 'antiheroes'; that subset of vigilante murderers whose targeting of villains seems to excuse their monstrous, murderous behaviour, but whose methods are a large part of Gary's motivation for eschewing straightforward heroism.

Superhero parody is ten a penny, but The Rules of Supervillainy kicks off a series with a certain something. Gary is an appealing protagonist, combining well-meaning family man with his dedication to an almost non-existent code of noble supervillainy. The superpowered action is perhaps a little lacking, with Phipps seeming more assured with the comedic and dramatic aspects of the story, but those other aspects are deftly handled and Gary's tragedy - the loss of his ex-supervillain brother, and the collapse of his previous relationship with a superheroine - complements his comedy well.

Winter Tide is a Lovecraftian novel with a twist. Growing out of the short story 'The Litany of Earth', it takes as its premise the idea that the Deep Ones of Innsmouth were a persecuted minority, rounded up by the government thanks to lies like those in 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth'. Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb are the last surviving land-bound children of Innsmouth. Aphra lives with a Japanese family who were interned with them during WWII, works informally with an FBI agent seeking to foster greater ties with the Aeonist(5) community, and has begun teaching magic to the owner of the bookshop where she works. Caleb, meanwhile, has been trying to recover a vast wealth of books from Innsmouth that have been claimed by Miskatonic University. Agent Spector offers a means to access MU's 'Innsmouth Collection', if the Marshes can help him to track the possibility of a Russian spy using body-switching magic as a tool of espionage.

Devoted, yet fully woke Lovecraft fan Ruthanna Emrys brings a sincere affection to the mythos, even as she deconstructs its underlying assumptions and horrors. Through Aphra's eyes, the time-travelling, body-snatching Great Race of Yith are the sole legacy of a world whose destruction is preordained, and the one certainty that someone takes note of human(6) affairs in this uncaring universe. Innsmouth was a town of pagan fish-people minding their own business, and Miskatonic University is a bastion of elitist, intellectual snobbery. Ancient religions respect the balance of natural and unnatural forces, while the federal forces I shall call Schmelta Green are a bunch of dangerously amateur hacks(7).

Winter Tide is a melancholic novel of the search for a world long lost, as well as a threat new established. It blends Cold War uncertainty with Lovecraft's Yog-sothery to almost(8) entirely reinterpret the latter. Most of its horror, such as it is, comes from the human world, and the unchecked power of the government in dealing with 'the other', and notably most of Aphra's allies are in some sense 'other', be they Deep Ones, cripples, Jews, gays, blacks, Japanese or descendants of other human strains.

Finally, and in a similar vein to The Gunslinger, The City of Shifting Waters is the source material for a forthcoming movie, specifically the first in the Valerian and Laureline series of scifi comics, which are the basis of the forthcoming Luc Besson extravaganza Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets(9). Spacio-temporal Agents Valerian and Laureline are sent to the 1980s, the start of an historical dark age from which no records remain until the formation of the great, world-spanning civilisation that will arise from its ashes. Valerian is in pursuit of an old nemesis, Xombul, across a flooded New York. Teaming up with smuggler Sun Rae and scientist Schroeder, Valerian and Laureline must prevent Xombul establishing control of history and forever altering the timeline in his own favour.

The City of Shifting Waters suffers somewhat from a slightly haphazard Kindle conversion, but in many ways the narrative itself is ahead of its time(10). Laureline is a slinky red-head, but seldom sexualised, and Valerian admits that his problem with allowing women in the service is that they outshine old hands like him. It might be nice to assume that in the 28th century the inclusion of women in a space-time agency wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but it was written almost fifty years ago. The story is reminiscent of some of Strontium Dog's time travel stories, and it's hard to keep in mind that in fact this predated those by decades. It's impossible to see any of this in the trailers for the movie, mind you, which looks to be all about the spacio and not the temporal.

(1) A book that, in its original short story form, is almost as old as I am.
(2) Frequently listed among the best opening lines ever.
(3) I couldn't help drawing comparisons between the macho Gunslinger kingdom and The Handmaid's Tale's fascist state, but I suspect they are just drawing on the same Biblical source.
(4) It's a work in progress.
(5) Anyone who ascribes to the religion or philosophy that the Earth will host a range of dominant species through Aeons catalogued by the Yith.
(6) A category that here includes Deep Ones, who are merely a branch of humanity that sought refuge in the waters during the great population crunch.
(7) Okay, nothing revolutionary there.
(8) Only almost. The events of 'The Thing on the Doorstep', for example, are pretty much as described in the short story, but with the added note that seeking immortality by switching bodies with first his daughter and then her husband made Ephraim Waite a criminal to the Deep Ones as much as to anyone. All in all, the impression is that much of the conventional mythos fiction represents the actions of bad elements in the Aeonist community.
(9) Laureline apparently doesn't rate a mention.
(10) 1970; this one is older than I am.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

2017 Reading Challenge - Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Book 8 (April, China)
 
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (read by B.D. Wong)

Reason for Reading: I picked this one for much the same reason as Wild Swans. It's a semi-autobiographical novella, rather than an actual biography, and also short, which is a mercy since I'm still on April's books at the moment. In some ways it's a bit of a cheat, as I've already seen the author's later film adaptation of the story.

If I have a regret about choosing Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, it's that it is so similar in setting to Wild Swans, or at least to the section about Jung Chang's re-education. Following the experience of two boys sent into the mountains of Sichuan from Chengdu, the tales of carrying wicker baskets of shit up treacherous mountain paths were very familiar. Where they diverge, however, is in the characters and the focus. Jung Chang was giving a factual account, as best she could, while Dai Sijie is writing a story of doomed romance and the loss of innocence.

The unnamed narrator and his friend Luo are sent to the mountains to learn from the peasants. Luo is quickly established as a silver-tongued devil when he convinces the village headman to let his friend keep his violin - a 'bourgeois toy' - in order to play the Mozart sonata 'Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao'(1). The children of disgraced medical 'experts', they fall in with a writers' son named Four-Eyes(2), whom they realise has somehow managed to smuggle a suitcase full of books up the mountain. When his mother gets him a job in the city(3), they steal the case and its wealth of translated French classics, reading them to the Little Seamstress, a beautiful young woman of whom they are both enamoured. It is Luo's affections that are reciprocated, but ultimately his desire to 'civilise' the mountain girl backfire, and she leaves her village to start a new life in the city.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a short novel, in which nothing much happens. There is only one point where the boys almost fall foul of the Cultural Revolution, and a number of instances which in a more melodramatic work would lead to danger or conflict are gently subverted, as when the narrator and Luo inscribe and sign favourite books as gifts to one another without this ever being used as evidence against them. BD Wong reads with a perfect intonation, shifting from the strident tones of the headman to the warm, plausible voice of Luo.

I'm not sorry to have chosen this novel, but it does fail in expanding my horizons beyond anything in Wild Swans.

(1) Sadly, as the book ends more abruptly than the film, we don't get the delightful scene where Ma (as the narrator character is named) meets the headman after the revolution and learns that he knew exactly what they were up to; he just liked the music.
(2) Luo is practically the only character with a real name.
(3) It is interesting that the semi-antagonist Four-Eyes is the character most like Jung Chang's description of herself.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

2017 Challenge - Wild Swans

Book 7 (April, China)

Wild Swans, by Jung Chang (read by Pik-sen Lim)

Reason for Reading: China found its way onto my theme list thanks in large part to The Three-Body Problem, which features some early scenes from the Cultural Revolution, a period of which I know very little. Wild Swans was pretty much a shoe in.

Wild Swans is - as you are probably aware even if you haven't actually read it - the semi-autobiography of author Jung Chang, her mother and her grandmother. It begins with her grandmother Yu Fang's excruciating foot binding, and her marriage to a Warlord General in pursuance of her father's career. As the Second Sino-Japanese and Second World Wars give way to continuing civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang, Jung Chang's mother Bao Qin (alternatively De-hong) becomes a Communist spy, and later marries Communist official Wang Yu (or Shou-yu) and becomes an official herself, working in education. The family then live through the Cultural Revolution, where Jung's parents find themselves at odds with the collapse of the old party system into the cult of Mao, and Jung herself grows up a natural academic in a country that despises education.

Reading Wild Swans is an eye-opener. We tend to assume we have a good working knowledge of 20th century history, but the fact is that there is a huge amount of the world that we learn fuck all about in school. The Japanese occupation of northern China and the Cultural Revolution are things that I know happened, but most of the details were new to me. Wild Swans is a fascinating and disturbing look into a historical period that has a worrying number of parallels with a modern world where political and economic realities take second place to cults of personality, and political opponents are dogged and harassed by allies in the press or vilified for daring to question a great leader.