The English Student

So...I read a lot. I mean, a LOT. And my family and friends are, generally, bored of listening to me witter on about books. So here I am, Internet. Lucky you.


My Wordpress blog, my Other Internet Home, is here.

Nights at the Circus - Angela Carter

Nights At The Circus - Angela Carter

So some friends were giving away second-hand books as wedding favours (which, I wish I had had that idea) and Nights at the Circus was on the book table. I'd heard of Angela Carter before as a literary feminist writer of dark fairy tales, so I wasn't sure precisely what to expect.


Nights at the Circus, set in 1899 at the very end of the Victorian era, follows Fevvers, a lower-class London woman touring Europe and America as an aerialiste. She claims to have wings: huge, feathered things in various luminous colours. Is she telling the truth? Walser, an American journalist, joins the circus she's touring with in order to find out.


So Nights at the Circus is, um, bizarre. It's about the people on the edge of polite society creating their own communities; people who are othered and made into freaks by grinding capitalism and patriarchy, and their subtle rebellions. Carter has this hallucinatory mode of writing which throws little (or not-so-little) bits of fantasy into what masquerades as a realist text, that throw you (did that really just happen?) and glance you off into the next adventure which then, again, turns odd and metaphoric. It's a lovely subversion of Victorian-realist norms which reflects the novel's subversion of patriarchal rationalism.


It's fairly heavy going - continually aware of itself as Literary text playing off other literary texts. But if this is your kind of thing, it's also hugely interesting, chock-full of imaginative potential, revising minorities into textual history before diversity was a corporate buzzword. "Radical", I think the appropriate word is.

The Owl Service - Alan Garner

The Owl Service - Alan Garner

The Owl Service centres on three young people (I'm guessing maybe fifteen years old?) living in an ancient house in Wales. Alison owns the house; Roger is her stepbrother, Gwyn is the housekeeper's son. One day, they find a stack of plates in the attic, a dinner service with an owl pattern on it. Increasingly weird shit begins to happen (in a very matter-of-fact and understated way), and it soon becomes clear that one of the tragic stories of the Mabinogion is acting itself out - the story of the woman made out of flowers.


It's very much a book about class, which is, I think, my main reason for three-starring it: it feels overwhelmingly like an Issues Book, one of those books you read at school which dresses up an Issue in the trappings of narrative. It's about Welsh people being priced out of Wales because it's so picturesque that bankers from Birmingham will pay more to live there. It's about the privileged simply not being aware of the struggles of those less privileged; it's about Alison being taught about their struggles, which is why it feels so didactic.


It also doesn't feel terribly magical: myth being woven into the real world is like my catnip, but for some reason The Owl Service failed to grab me. I think I just felt that the characters weren't terribly fleshed out - and it really annoyed me how Roger and Gwyn treated Alison like someone weaker than they. (I particularly wanted Gwyn to stop calling Alison "girlie", which felt predatory and patronising.)


OK, but not my favourite.

Updraft - Fran Wilde

Updraft - Fran Wilde

Updraft is set in a world in which people live in bone towers, high above the clouds. They are ruled/controlled by the Singers, mysterious grey-robed people who live in the Spire at the centre of the city and only visit the towers for ceremonial purposes, to sentence Lawsbreakers (usually harshly) or spirit children away to train.


Kirit, an inhabitant of one of the towers, inadvertently breaks one of the Laws and reveals a talent that interests the Singers very much: her voice can scare away skymouths, huge invisible monsters which swallow fliers whole. (Did I mention the people can fly between the towers? The people can fly.) She's forced to trade away her future in the tower for the good of her family, and goes to train in the Spire, only to find that the Singers have lots of Dark Secrets.


Personally, I just found Updraft quite generic. There were points which could have been explored more fully to make the book more complex - the Singers do evil things, but for the good of the city - but in typical YA fantasy style they get waved aside in favour of teenage angst. And I got a bit lost in all the layers of secrets and politics - I think I find that kind of thing difficult to follow in an unfamiliar world.


But it wasn't offensive, so I can see how someone else's mileage might vary.


Sorcerer to the Crown - Zen Cho

Sorcerer To The Crown  - Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown, one of the Great Hyped Books of 2015, is actually pretty fantastic. It's set in Regency England (I think? Not 100 per cent sure about the time period), or rather an alternate version in which magic is studied by and taught to rich gentlemen. It's illegal for women to study magic, although the upper classes turn a blind eye to their servants doing untutored magic to help with their household tasks.


England, however, is suffering from a dearth of magic, meaning that the once-powerful Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers is losing its standing, and possibly its funding, with the government. Enter Zacharias Wythe: a black man born a slave, bought as an infant by Sir Stephen Wythe after he showed talent at magic, and tutored by Sir Stephen into the position of Sorcerer Royal, head of the Unnatural Philosophers. Despite his evident talent and qualification for the position, the magicians despise him for his race, and he has to toe the line between serving his country and surviving the machinations of the Society. Which can mean only one thing: Regency politics!


Enter, also, Prunella Gentleman, a young woman whose mother was Indian and whose father killed himself. After the schoolmistress with whom she lives bows to the demands of her charges' parents and makes Prunella a servant, Prunella runs away to London to make her fortune, meeting Zacharias along the way. She, too, has to play the deadly game of politics among London's elite (she has a secret which makes her a target for the members of the Society), trying to establish power in spite of her race and her gender.


First things first: Sorcerer to the Crown is so much fun! I love Regency politics anyway (gods know why, because I can't stand high fantasy politics), but Prunella is absolutely fabulous, feisty and straight-talking and a breath of fresh air through Regency conceptions of what women can do. There are fairies and demons and assassination attempts and spells and all manner of magical accoutrements, not to mention a fair dose of humour added to the Machiavellian politics of it all.


Secondly: Cho's treatment of race and gender in historical fantasy is important. She writes about how Zacharias has to keep his temper, to stay forgiving and patient and quiet, long after others do, because of his race; and how Prunella's parentage makes her undesirable and suspect, how her gender holds her back from advantages that men get automatically. (It's also interesting that women showing inconvenient signs of magic are taught to inflict curses upon themselves to suppress it; this seems to me to be quite a nice metaphor for the various kinds of self-suppression women still do to be accepted in workplaces and in social life.)


Definitely deserves all the hype; and my hardback copy with the gold bits is beautiful too.

Saga Volume 4 - Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Saga Volume 4 - Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

This volume absolutely broke my heart. And then stomped on it.


Hazel is a toddler. Marko has Mysterious Bandages which no-one explains to us. Alana is working on the Open Circuit, a trashy entertainment channel/show/thing featuring high melodrama which sort of seems to be live-streamed? I'm not sure, because one of the characters says the transmissions have to be checked before they go out to the public. She's an actress, anyway, and the long hours she's doing to earn money for her family put her relationship with Marko under strain.


Meanwhile, Prince Robot IV is missing in action, his newborn is captured by a robot malcontent, and Gwendolyn and Sophie are looking for an elixir to save The Will.


So I loved the gender reversal in caring roles that goes on here: Alana is the one who goes out to work to provide for her family, with Marko as the househusband who stays at home all day with Hazel. Generally, the volume goes into depths of characterisation which weren't really present in the third volume, which I really liked as well.


And. The bit where Hazel says

"This is the story of how my parents split up..." was like a punch in the stomach, which just goes to show how invested (obsessed?) I have got in these characters. All along I was hoping for a getout, and I got one which was just as heartbreaking. Godsdammit, Vaughan and Staples, have you no concern for my feels??

(show spoiler)


That last panel, as well? AWESOME.


Possibly my favourite volume yet.

The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath - Ishbelle Bee

The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath: From the Peculiar Adventures of John Lovehart, Esq., Volume 1 - Ishbelle Bee

I have no idea what that was all about.


It begins with Mirror, a fairly young child who was stuffed in a clock by her mad grandfather and rescued by the policeman Goliath, who can shapeshift and who later becomes her protector. Something happened to Mirror while she was in the clock, something supernatural, and Goliath is trying to find out what it was, visiting various mediums and other spiritual frauds.


But very little time is spent on this storyline: the book headhops chronically, getting progressively weirder as we see things from the point of view of a constable investigating a missing child case, a murderous 700-year old clock maker who steals the souls of children, the Lord of the Underworld, the wife of the Lord of the Underworld, and the Lord of the Underworld's son, and yes all of this sounds fabulous but you end up wondering if this was actually the best way to tell the story. The headhopping, and the non-chronological narrative that comes along with that, is just confusing as you try to work out what the fuck is going on and why you should care.


The setting is almost aggressively confused: as the cover suggests, it's vaguely steampunky, but the Victorian-ish setting is not very convincing and occasionally anachronistic. (You wouldn't, for example, be able to tell the title of a book from the front cover, as one character appears to do at one point.) Which is a problem, because the book's going for a Neil Gaiman-y adult fairytale vibe (I can tell this because it says "Perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman!" on the back) and one thing that Gaiman's books are quite good at is establishing a sense of place, and, more importantly, the magical rules which govern it, without which all fairy tales descend into chaos, as this book does. Lyrical and whimsical gets very, very tiresome after a while if there's no depth to the story.


There's a really icky bit at the end when

Mirror gets aged by magic and becomes Goliath's wife, which, wasn't he supposed to be like a father figure? Ugh, ugh, ugh.

(show spoiler)


And the book doesn't manage to shake off steampunk's colonialist aspects: it exoticises Egypt pretty severely, with talk of magical Egyptian princesses who can stop time and all the magical stars they have in Egypt and excavating Egyptian tombs and no actual interest in Egypt as a real, living place.


So, yes: I don't think this book really achieved what it was trying to do. Whatever that was.

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah follows the lives of two Nigerians: Ifemelu, who moves to America to study and starts a very successful blog about race in America (seriously, from what Adichie writes you'd think that getting blog views is easy); and Obinze, who moves to the UK to get work and is considerably less successful.


It's, sort of, a love story. It's also a book about race, about Lagos, about America; about the immigrant experience; about living between two countries; about finding oneself; about coming home. It's a sprawling novel covering a number of years, one of those books that you never quite know what it's going to be about until you reach the end, and one that's really difficult to describe because to describe it is to reduce it.


Speaking as a white person: it's a book that made me aware (more aware?) of how I think about race, how easy it is to fall into well-meaning but still othering patterns of thought. At one point, Ifemelu meets the mother of one of her boyfriends (I think?) who goes out of her way to demonstrate how Accepting she is; it made me think about whether I do the same thing.


Despite the anger we undoubtedly get at times from Ifemelu and Obinze, Americanah manages to be an extraordinarily non-judgemental book: like Ifemelu's blog, it observes without judging, drawing out the unfairnesses of Ifemelu's and Obinze's situations without blaming anyone in particular for them.


It also made me cry a couple of times: Adichie renders emotions and relationships beautifully, the trap of depression, the misery of being separated (physically and emotionally) from an SO.


Just a lovely, lovely book.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling

The Ministry of Magic has fallen. Muggle-borns are being rounded up. Hogwarts is compulsory for all wizarding children (so long as they're pure-bloods), complete with poisonous lessons about wizard supremacy from Death Eaters. And Voldemort is hunting down the members of the Order of the Phoenix, while Harry, Hermione and Ron try desperately to find the remaining Horcruxes and destroy Voldemort for good.


Surprisingly, I didn't actually find Deathly Hallows as interminable and obnoxious as I did Half-Blood Prince and Order of the Phoenix. I have no idea why this was, because the book, although slightly shorter than its predecessors, is not exactly what you could call tightly plotted, seeing as it essentially consists of Our Heroes wandering around the countryside arguing and occasionally committing ill-advised and unlikely break-ins into key wizarding locations. It's like Lord of the Rings without the songs.


(I'm not being entirely flippant: the locket-Horcrux actually works very much like the One Ring, especially in terms of the effect it has on those bearing it.)


I think the things that made it bearable for me had nothing to do with the actual book. I found a crumb of comfort, after Brexit and Dallas and all the crappy shit that's happening in the world at the moment, in the solidarity of the Order of the Phoenix and the kindness they all continued to show to each other even in the face of the Dark Lord: I particularly enjoyed the bit where our ka-tet listen to Potterwatch on the radio, the defiance of those trying to keep themselves free.


Unfortunately, these little suggestions of ordinary bravery are entirely eclipsed by an increasingly rickety plot consisting mainly of retcon, infodump and ideological fuckery. I hate that the narrative keeps insisting on how awesome and selfless Harry is when to all intents and purposes he's just an ordinary teenager. I hate that his sacrifice (which turns out to be no sacrifice at all) means so much more than the sacrifice of all those nameless hundreds defending their families and homes and friends. By the end of book seven we still have no real sense of what exactly makes Harry so different that he alone can conquer Voldemort. And how much do I hate that ridiculous, overblown and self-congratulatory final sequence? Let me count the ways.


And: I'm sorry, this world just doesn't work. I don't usually care too much about world-building - I've never been interested in questions like "but do Balrogs have wings or not?" - because fantasy is not a mimetic genre and can tell truths without being realistic. But I think the books, especially the later ones, and all the marketing around them are explicitly asking us to read their world as an immersive and "realistic" one, when a moment of thought about any single aspect of it will reveal gaping holes. (Why do wizards need house-elves when they can do the cleaning by magic in seconds? Why?)


I love the first few HP books. They are funny and tightly-plotted and clever and satisfying. It's a huge shame that they ended up here, in a stupid and bloated mess.

House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski

I gave myself a re-read because I'm well ahead of my reading target this year. 


This time around, I read it out of order, going along with the skips and jumps the book suggests everywhere (e.g. "see chapter XI", "Appendix II-C", "page 345" or whatever).


It's an interesting experience but I don't think it's a particularly good way to read the book for the first time. I had all these dim memories of what happens in the book but I never seemed to get to the point where I read them, instead only stumbling across hints and after-the-fact mentions - that endless deferral of meaning a nice metaphor both for the endless lightless corridors of the house and for the way the text itself gives us no direct access to the film at the heart of it. To get Saussurean for a moment: we don't ever experience the thing, only interpretations of the thing.


The ending felt weirdly abrupt and simple, like Danielewski ran out of steam and went "fuck it, I'm just going to finish this thing now". Of course, that could equally be Zampano saying that, in which case it's a deliberate authorial move and not a failure.


It's all a lot of fun to think about: I'm a huge Gothic fan and I love the way Danielewski plays with the conventions of the genre so knowingly. Fittingly for a book framed as commentary, I think a lot of its (literal) twists and turns are useful for thinking about what other Gothic novels are doing too.


Reading House of Leaves was quite an academic experience this time around. I enjoyed it.

The Dark Side of the Sun - Terry Pratchett

The Dark Side of the Sun - Terry Pratchett

A pre-Discworld SF spoof, The Dark Side of the Sun sees Dom, scion of the hideously rich Sabalos family who rule the wet planet of Widdershins, going on an interplanetary quest for the origins of the Jokers, the first intelligent life in the universe.


It is, essentially, a romp: think a less subtle and less funny Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There are some interesting ideas - it features a version of that old SFnal chestnut, "what if we could predict the future using science?", a la Foundation - and the various personages we meet are suitably off-the-wall (a sentient planet, a cannibalistic race whose change of sex during their life-cycle was probably more off-the-wall in 1976 than it is today, a security officer who runs checks on himself), but a little-known comedic gem this is not. It lacks the wit and perception of the Discworld novels, at least for me.


Completists will probably enjoy it though - both Hogswatchnight and Soul Cake Night feature in the book, and the Joker storyline definitely has echoes of The Long Earth in its quest for transcendence. Not as disappointingly bad as the later Discworld novels (Snuff, Raising Steam) - the story at least works on its own terms.

Freedom's Choice - Anne McCaffrey

Freedoms Choice - Anne McCaffrey

TW for rape.


I read the first book in the Catteni series (Freedom's Landing, I think?) ages and ages ago (as in years), and literally the only thing I remembered about it was the relationship between an alien and a human.


Fortunately, McCaffrey provides a neat recap at the beginning of the book: the Earth has been invaded by Catteni, an alien race under the control of a sinister disembodied alien race called the Eosi. The Catteni MO for subjugating inhabited planets is to round up the inhabitants of fifty cities and dump them on unexplored planets to in order to kick-start a colonisation process.


So Freedom's Choice opens a couple of months after the previous book finished. The mainly-human camps on the planet of Botany (named by its unwilling colonisers after Botany Bay, Australia) seem surprisingly well-established after only nine months of work, but they've yet to find out who built the vast barns on the planet, and what the automated harvesters they've cannibalised for parts are there for. The events of the novel, then, mainly cover the colonists' attempts at 1) finding out who the absent Farmers are, and 2) trying to escape the planet and go rescue Earth.


There are two problems with Freedom's Choice: firstly, it's fucking boring. The colonists' plans, carefully detailed in advance, all go perfectly to plan, keeping any tension to a bare minimum. Secondly, it's fucking sexist.


The central characters in the book are Zainal, a renegade Catteni dumped on the planet alongside the humans, and Kris, his human girlfriend. (Theirs is the human-alien relationship I mentioned earlier.) About halfway through, Kris is informed of a vote taken while they were out on a scouting mission which says that, to help the young colony thrive, every woman of an appropriate age has to have at least one child in the imminent future.


Kris is really upset about this, partly because having a child has never been on her agenda, and partly because she and Zainal can't have a child (him being an alien and all). When he finds her crying, he basically tells her that she's being silly and prevents her from walking away from the conversation using physical force. McCaffrey seems to think that this is a sensible attitude for someone's boyfriend to take.


Later on, a human colonist deliberately gets an injured and vulnerable Kris drunk (Zainal is off on another recon mission) and has sex with her. One of the colony's leaders does call this out as rape; but Kris thinks that because she enjoyed it it doesn't count as rape. Predictably, Kris gets pregnant by her rapist; at first she conceals the fact that the child is his from him, but later regrets it and lets him know, whereupon everyone is happy. The whole thing is treated like a hilarious and wry joke instead of, you know, actual rape. Again, McCaffrey seems to think this is perfectly OK.




And why do we only ever see female colonists on washing up duty when supposedly everyone does it? Why?


Needless to say, I won't be reading the rest of the series.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince  - J.K. Rowling

So the plot of Half-Blood Prince is "Harry cheats at Potions and Dumbledore infodumps".


That, bar some snogging and an extremely drawn-out and overwrought ending, is it. That is all Rowling thinks is necessary to include in a 600-page book.


I actually quite enjoyed the first half: I think for me the heart of the series' appeal is the saturation of its worldbuilding, the sheer amount of day-to-day detail Rowling manages to pack in about the wizarding world, and Hogwarts in particular. So when Serious Horcrux Stuff starts happening, well, for me it's just filler to be skimmed through; which means that I found the second half much more tedious.


Harry is also beginning seriously to annoy me. I hate his obsessing over Malfoy, the idea that he considers himself so much cleverer than teachers who are, what, half a century older than him. Ugh, ugh, ugh. Just shut up.

Codex - Lev Grossman

Codex - Lev Grossman

This is just such a weirdly-conceived book.


I think it wants to be a more cerebral Da Vinci Code, but what it ends up being is neither particularly cerebral nor particularly successful as a thriller.


It follows Edward, a hotshot financial lawyer person (I think?), as he's hired by the mysterious aristocratic Went family to catalogue their extensive library. Soon, the Duchess is asking him to find a codex (or, in normal English, a book) in the library which holds the key to some mysterious and terrible secret about the Went family.


There are a few interesting bits - I particularly found medievalist Margaret's speculation about the codex's contents (she thinks it's a fake) fairly convincing. But some of Grossman's history is just plain wrong (Chaucer was the only person reading Dante? Um, not so much, given that Dante was the thirteenth-century equivalent of J.K. Rowling), and the novel is strangely and aimlessly plotted, with Edward spending much of his time playing a computer game that turns out to have only a tangential relationship to anything.


The secret the codex contains is disappointingly mundane, and the ending of the book just seems to continue the theme of overall aimlessness. I don't know why we're supposed to care here.


(Oh, also? Edward's attempts to contact Margaret after their first chance meeting in a library are seriously stalkerish.)  

Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes - Neil Gaiman

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, Vol. #1 - Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg

Like much of Gaiman's fiction, the first volume of Sandman goes to some dark places, draws heavily on minor and unsung bits of myth and legend (in this case, the old folk figure of the Sandman, who gets lumped together with the minor Greek god Morpheus), and is just very vaguely - almost unknowingly - sexist.


The story is quite straightforward: Dream/Morpheus/Sandman is released from a seventy-year captivity and sets about restoring his powers and his kingdom. Possibly because of the graphic novel format, and possibly because so much of it is founded on bits of myth that we already know, I found it a lot more convincing, world-building wise, than most of his work that I've read: what it's doing not only with old stories but with new genres (a couple of DC superheroes turn up in one of the issues) feels rich and fascinating, and I enjoyed how it plays with panel placement, so you're never quite sure where you are, or where you're meant to be, on the page. It has an appropriately dream-like feel to it.


On the other hand, female nudity seems to be a big theme, with male nudity kept to an absolute minimum. There's a male character who literally wanders around with no clothes on; the lengths the artists go to to make sure his genitalia aren't visible beggar belief in a book in which the first thing the narrator mentions about a starving woman are her shrunken nipples and breasts are on display at every opportunity. Gaiman also seems to make a lesbian sleep with a man - admittedly, both are under the control of a superpowered maniac, but the denial of her sexual identity feels offensive and unnecessary.


And, let's face it, Dream may as well be Neil Gaiman himself. Which is just a little bit disturbing.


The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant, set in post-Roman Britain, is the story of an old married couple, Axl and Beatrice, who go on a journey to find their son. They think he lives in a village a couple of days' walk away. They're not sure, because the land is cloaked in a mist of forgetting: no-one seems to be able to remember anything beyond yesterday.


I suspect that it's something of a Marmite book: you either love it or dislike it. The prose is highly stylised, copying the stiltedness of medieval texts and older legends, but at least for me this didn't sap any of its emotion: I actually thought Ishiguro did a fantastic job of capturing how those texts can tell effective and meaningful stories without feeling entirely "real".


I also enjoyed how Ishiguro used the fantastical elements - dragons and boatmen and ogres and giants - at once metaphorical and real; again, it was a great display of how fantasy can reveal truths about love and history and war without needing to be strictly realistic.


Also, Arthurian elements! Arthurian stories are so interesting to me, and this one is no different - it calls back to everything we associate with Arthur, making a novel that's at once thoughtful and a great story.

John Dies at the End - David Wong

John Dies At The End - David Wong

A silly and very male horror-comedy along the lines of Shaun of the Dead. Some evil Lovecraftian monsters are planning to take over the world and, in fact, all of the worlds; all that stands between them are John and Dave, two small-town video-store employees.


Perhaps it's the way I read it - in snatched half-hours before work - but John Dies at the End feels very episodic and very non-linear. It begins explosively, with an enormous alien invasion in Las Vegas and plenty of B-movie style casual deaths; and then it enters this strange sort of lull, and becomes much more focused on John and Dave and a slow build of mystery and weirdness with a strangely anticlimactic showdown.


Also, the central romance is really icky: Amy is cpllege age (I'm not sure how old Dave is - I thought late twenties, but that might be completely wrong), he constantly thinks of her as a "kid", but their relationship is definitely sexual. Ugh.


Oh, and David Wong is a pseudonym for a very definitely white internet columnist. There's a reason given for this in the book (which is pseudo-biographical) - Wong is allegedly the most common surname in the world, which apparently means that Dave will be more difficult to trace - but this still reeks of white privilege wanting the advantages of racial minority without, you know, all the racism.  


Not completely terrible - Korrok in particular is quite a cool idea - but not very interesting, and I won't be reading the sequel.