Book Reviews (3)

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

As Nathan J Robinson wrote regarding this book in a Current Affairs article on David Brooks: ‘The title is actually somewhat misleading; it might more accurately be called Why It Would Be Nice If White People Could Just Be Quiet and Listen For a Minute Before Telling Me Their Opinions on Race, and Then Maybe I Can Actually Talk To White People About Race.’

Many angry comments based purely on the title perfectly demonstrate Eddo-Lodge’s point. These people seem to find a provocative choice of title more troubling than, for example, that people with non-white sounding names are less likely to get job interviews. There’s a great deal of serious information in this book about structural racism in British society, and a lot of people who won’t bother reading it because they’re too upset by the title.

Eddo-Lodge points out that ‘this isn’t about good and bad people’, that easy to condemn overt prejudice can distract us from more covert and systematic issues. She links race to issues of gender and class (e.g. discussing the use of the white working class as a prop to divert discussions on race, as though the working class is all white or that we can’t tackle race and class issues together), and lambasts shallow performative wokeness: ‘a safety pin stuck to your lapel […] won’t stop someone from getting deported.’

This book argues very solidly on a range of issues, from colour blindness to white privilege to positive discrimination to white feminism to the Rhodes Must Fall movement and more, skewering weak or disingenuous arguments – certainly changing my mind on various points. There are points where the argument slackens, particularly her failure to interrogate Nick Griffin as sharply as she could have.

The stronger logical thrusts are rather satisfying. On outraged responses to the idea of Idris Elba playing James Bond, she comments, ‘This strength of feeling over classic stories being ruined wasn’t around when the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist was remade in a film in which the lead character was cast in the image of a cartoon cat.’

Much more could be said, but really – go read the book.

Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone

The sequel to Last First Snow, with grown-up Caleb as the lead, working for Red King Consolidated to deal with a shadow-thing infestation in Dresediel Lex’s water supply, spilling into a plot of corporate/political machinations with apocalyptic potential.

The pace settles in a happy medium between the breakneck Three Parts Dead and slow-starting Last First Snow, brisk and tense but with time to be reflective. Gladstone deals with the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, exposing more of the brutality underlying a society running on Craft as characters wrestle with whether the system they have can be acceptable, and what a better way might be.

The cast are more compelling than in LFS, particularly adult Caleb, and the world-building is impressive as usual. It might have been interesting to see more of how the Skittersill has changed though.

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? – Mark Fisher

A short text with a great deal of influence in anti-capitalist circles, in which Fisher outlined the nature and consequences of ‘capitalist realism’ – an ideology presenting capitalism as the only conceivable system, while – significantly – concealing its own place as an ideology, instead treating itself as unassailable natural law and anything except capitalism as ideology run amok.

The basic concept is well stated. Fisher was onto something. There are cogent points about subjects such as the injection of business frameworks into public services, or the treating of mental health as an individual biological issue. He puts ideas from Slavoj Žižek and others to good use, e.g. drawing on the Lacanian idea of the ‘big Other’ in discussing ‘an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring [as opposed to] a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.’

(To be honest, I’d just thought of Žižek as a living meme with a weird thing about anal fisting.)

There was definitely some critical-theory-speak I couldn’t figure out. Sorry Fisher, we haven’t all read Deleuze. Worse, Fisher uses weird dodgy logic on occasions, and severely under-explains. It’s often assumed we know what he’s on about, giving no or limited examples of what he sees as a self-evident (actually rather abstract and difficult to immediately grasp) trend in culture. And referring to a couple films for examples doesn’t always cut it when you’re trying to identify a culture-wide ideological keystone.

‘On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate[;] on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection[.]’ How does our culture only privilege the present? How is it given over to retrospection? How on earth is it both at once, man!? Is this unique to modern ideology? This is such a general statement that it’s hard to completely disagree, but also hard to really agree with or pull something meaningful from. It’s frustrating.

As a way to help understand key dynamics of modern mainstream ideology and point towards a 21st century approach for the radical left, this was an interesting and illuminating read. No doubt some of my confusion would ease on a re-read, and again, the central ideas are potent. However, the book too often leaps to big conclusions from little reasoning, and the Theoryese was a struggle.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old – Hendrik Groen

A fictional diary of a year in a Dutch care home, this is a poignant, often tragic exploration of ageing, bureaucratic farce, and society’s treatment of the elderly – balanced by dark and light comedy, friendship, and the resistance of anarchic octogenarians determined to enjoy life.

Hendrik forms a group staunchly committed to getting on with life without the negative, passive attitude of many of their fellow ‘inmates’. While their humour, warmth, and refusal to age gracefully lifted the mood, I still found this a bit of a downer.

It’s billed as a comedy, but I didn’t find it that funny generally. A lot of people seem to have found otherwise, so you might find it a bigger laugh. Still a good book, but not what I was expecting.

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Choosing a Point of View

Point of view is one of those things that seems fairly straightforward – who’s telling the story? – but the more you look at it, the more complicated and interesting it all gets. There’s a very wide range of ways to handle it, and each one has its pros and cons.

POV has several factors. The first is person – who is telling the story. There are three options:

  • First person – one of the characters. ‘I did this.’

  • Second person – ‘You did this.’

  • Third person – a non-character narrator. ‘They did this.’

The second major factor is access – what the narrator can see and know, how many minds they can access. The three basic options are:

  • Omniscient – potentially knows everything and can report anyone’s thoughts and feelings.

  • Limited – limited to the knowledge and experience of one character.

  • Dramatic – like a camera showing action, dialogue and setting, without direct reporting of thoughts and experiences.

There are other things to consider: is your 3rd person narrator neutral, or do they take stances and have a distinct voice? Is your 1st person narrator the centre of the story, or a peripheral lens on someone else like Nick Carraway is to Gatsby? Is the POV ‘distant’ or ‘close’? There are things like frame narratives, and stream-of-consciousness, and other tools associated with POV.

The standard options

The most common choices are 1st person, limited 3rd person, and omniscient 3rd person.

A first person POV gives a very strong narrative voice, and lets you get very deep into this character. They’re the one telling the story, so the reader can get to know them intimately.

The narrator can’t access others (or can they?…), but they can often dip toward omniscience in the sense of accessing another to character to say ‘Jane was angry’, in the way people can tell these things about each other. They can sometimes tell stories about another person’s life as though they had omniscience, like Carraway does with Gatsby. Whether or not they’re right is another thing, and you can have an unreliable narrator with wild or deceitful speculations.

For the most part, though, if you choose first person you’re stuck inside one mind for a while. The advantages of deep access there correspond with the disadvantages of lack of access to anyone else. The narrator has to be interesting enough to spend the whole time with. If writing in the past tense it can be natural for them to reflect on past events or foreshadow future ones (before the time of writing); but flashbacks can be a crutch.

The narrator has to get information without it being a deus ex machina. Detective fiction is often first person so that the detective can find clues as we do, but readers feel cheated if the detective solves the case not because of being smart with the clues, but because some information materialises at the end.

Limited third person is similar to first person in that we’re getting the story through one person’s eyes, but it’s filtered through a separate narrator. This makes it easier to withhold information the character knows to generate tension or surprise (like in my story Earth’s Invasion), and also allows the narrator to give information the character knows but might not be inclined to say. It’s useful for showing where they’re lying or deluded, because the narration can contrast with the character.

LTP is something of a compromise between first person and omniscient third, giving other ways to manipulate the flow of information while restricting access to the main character.

A risk is accidentally veering into omniscience. As Michael James says: ‘You’re going to screw up and write something about your secondary characters that your MC has no way of knowing.’

That leaves omniscient third person. You can go anywhere, read any mind, know anything. This has the obvious advantages of being able to do those things. However, you have to be careful not to reveal too much or too little, and it’s important to have a handle on the narrative voice. If the narrator has their own distinct voice, then it has to be written well to be engaging, like in first person. You have to avoid the temptation to use the narrator as your mouthpiece, relying too heavily on telling rather than showing. If the narrator doesn’t have a distinct voice, otherwise emotional scenes can risk being blunted by the neutral camera. Also, a camera flitting from one place to another constantly can be jarring.

Out of the box

Second person tends to be awkward. It’s a bad idea for a novel, and even in a short story it’s weird for the reader to be told they did this and that as though they’re someone else. It could be interesting in something meta-fictional or dealing with memory, identity weirdness, etc, but it’s rarely used for good reason. I can’t think of any examples of second person really working, though perhaps it could if:

  • The word ‘you’ isn’t overused.

  • It really makes sense for this thing to be written to ‘you’, perhaps in a letter or as a note to yourself.

In practice, it’s rare to stick with one POV approach through a whole novel. It’s normal for the level of access, the distance between narrators and characters, and other factors to shift, although this needs to be handled smoothly. Person should generally stay the same. But it isn’t necessarily impossible to change person with good effect, so long as there are consistent rules.

I’ve occasionally used first person with more access than normal, such as telepathic narrators. A first person narrator with unlimited and constant omniscience would present problems: it’s important to keep consistent limits so the narrator can’t insta-win and you don’t give them a deus ex machina. You can have unique interactions between characters, switch neatly between first and third person, and other neat things it’s hard to do otherwise.

Dramatic third person POV is something I’ve found helpful as an exercise in show>tell. It can be limiting, or it can be a way to present strong, atmospheric feelings without the melodrama that depicting mental states directly sometimes risks.

First person dramatic is impossible as first person inherently accesses the narrator’s mind, but aside from that there’s a great deal of scope to experiment with applying different techniques and combinations.

Active Description

Two bad writing habits when it comes to describing things are: not doing it, and doing it by drowning readers in descriptions of the landscape at dusk until they have to go commit arson to relieve the tedium.

I’ve definitely done these things. They often come from treating description as though it’s something passive, separate from all the interesting stuff – as Emma Darwin said, ‘a lump of scene-setting which you have to put in, so that the dialogue and action will make sense once the reader’s allowed to get there’.

So for one thing, the reader probably doesn’t need five paragraphs on what a meadow at dusk looks like in the first place. When writers advise using details to describe things, that doesn’t mean ‘be exhaustively detailed’. It means, ‘mention a small number of specific, unique, evocative, memorable details to point the reader’s imagination in the right direction, allowing it some free motion’. Sunset behind a distant barn, buttercups – and there it is.

Give a reader too much to picture at once and they’ll get bored and confused. Give them a couple well-chosen things, and their imagination will fill in the rest automatically. Choosing a few good details instead of a mass of adjectives makes whatever you’re describing more memorable and alive, distinguishing that specific setting, object, or character. A poker chip on a church pew, an object out of place, bruises on a character’s knuckles: these can say a lot.

I tend not to give characters enough physical description in first drafts, but how much is enough? It should be enough to give a picture, but not too much for a reader to remember without constant reminders. If a character is introduced with an extensive treatise on their every feature, many of us will have forgotten what colour their eyes are by the time we’ve got to the bit about their shoes.

The setting and the objects in it aren’t a passive background on which everything else gets plastered. They need to be integrated. If your characters, action, and dialogue can be plucked from one setting and dropped in another with no changes, the setting is a passive background – even if it’s highly developed.

This doesn’t mean everyone in a New York setting has to be saying ‘fuhgettaboutit!’ all the time as they get in yellow taxis – obviously that’s cringy – but it shouldn’t be interchangeable for Shanghai either. A character going up a steep slope should react to that in some believable, natural way. If you’ve said the hill is steep, the character going up it shouldn’t be exactly the same as if they were walking on a level road.

Description can be snuck in through action, as per that good old ‘show don’t tell’. A character who steps on a chair to reach something must be short, one who ducks through the doorway must be tall. If someone’s breath is clouding and they put gloves on it clearly isn’t a hot summer’s day, so don’t worry about finding six synonyms for cold.

Characterisation, description, and point of view work together, and not just in first-person. If you describe something through the perspective of a particular character, that also suggests something about them – what they find interesting, what they feel about a subject, how they feel about another character. A kleptomaniac will pay more attention to stealable objects lying around, a bookworm will glance at the bookshelves, an envious neighbour will notice their rival’s new car. What a viewpoint character chooses to focus on doesn’t only give an insight into that subject – it gives insight into them.

Passive description is dropped in writing as though from a height, a stodgy thing breaking up the action and challenging readers to picture a mass of adjectives all at once. Active description interplays with the scene as a whole, implying things by engaging the imagination of readers as well as just giving them information.

Democracy When Convenient

I saw this article in the (sigh) Daily Mail from yesterday:

The House of Lords voted to give Parliament the power to force ministers to reopen talks if MPs reject Mrs May’s deal with Brussels. […]

Yesterday’s amendment to the Government’s flagship Brexit legislation gives MPs the power to decide what ministers should do – including ordering them to hold fresh negotiations with the EU – if the Commons votes against the final Brexit deal.

Judging from the slant of the article and many of the comments underneath, it’s apparent that the right, at least as represented by this ‘newspaper’, doesn’t have a consistent, serious opposition to the existence of an unelected upper chamber, as I do. Or a consistent support for parliamentary sovereignty. Far from it.

They only seem to kick up a fuss about the Lords when the vote is inconvenient for them. In fact, when I look back on the last few years, every time the government has wanted to act without checks and someone has tried to make it so Parliament gets a vote on the matter, the Daily-Mail-right has, ironically, branded that intervention undemocratic. It’s apparently fine for the Prime Minister to not have to consult anyone else on anything, so long as she wants to enact the ‘will of the people’.

Gina Miller? Enemy of the people! Why? She wanted parliamentary approval to be required to implement Brexit. For the great crime of wanting the representatives we elected to do what we pay them (too much) for, and represent us in accord with the way this country’s political structure works, she was savagely slated in national media, and in August 2017 it was revealed she ‘has been receiving threats of acid attacks for months and is afraid to leave her home.’

Defending herself in the Mail, she wrote:

These experienced, senior politicians do not appear to know what any first-year law student knows: only Parliament can grant people rights, and only Parliament can take them away.

They talked airily of using the Royal Prerogative – an ancient self-serving right that Kings and Queens once used to rid themselves of their enemies – as a way of circumventing Parliament.[…]

So, to be clear, it is not the idea of Brexit that filled me with dread. It was the idea of an unchallenged, unanswerable Government taking us back to 1610 and ripping a hole through our democratic structures.

Theresa May bombing Damascus without asking anyone? Fine, apparently. She had to hurry after the coattails of her mates Donald and Macron. Stop winging about MP’s having a vote, lefty snowflakes. Sometimes we need a strong and stable leader to do whatever they think is best (so long as it matches what we think is best, of course…) with as little oversight as possible.

The point of representative democracy is that, in theory, everyone who can be bothered to vote gets a representative, and all the representatives argue, vote, hash out some sort of compromise. Obviously it doesn’t work quite that neatly in practice, but it’s better than just letting the government implement policy unopposed. That results in, at best, a tyranny of the majority – where 51% get everything they want implemented, and the rest get nothing. There’s a reason we have a government and an opposition. Were Daily Mail readers not taught to share their toys?

If this was a matter of good-faith concern about democracy, they’d oppose having Lords all the time – not just when the Lords are being inconvenient for them. If they were serious about democracy, they would have been outraged to see Amber Rudd outright censor a candidate in this video at a hustings in Rye last year.

If they were really serious about democracy, they would oppose things like the Royal Prerogative, no matter what it’s used for. Maybe, if they were truly serious, they’d even oppose the monarchy itself – a literal unelected elite, in their position only because their ancestors were handy with a sword – instead of ridiculously fawning over them.

They certainly prefer democracy to the alternative. But it’s also abundantly clear that they don’t want too much of it, and only when convenient.

Earth’s Invasion

At first, they’d thought it had only been a power cut. But then a neighbour had come round with a radio playing the emergency broadcast. Her house mate had been standing on a chair rummaging for candles in the cupboard, and had almost fell off when he heard it.

Sofia passed a matchbox and he lit the candles. He blew out the match and sat in the middle of the living room’s circle of candles, hunched with head in hands. The neighbour let himself out, the radio playing some of the impossible words back again – billions dead of unknown causes linked to power from Arc reactors. The government has shut down the grid in Arc-supplied regions for your protection and requests all citizens remain indoors. The aliens are – until the front door closed behind him.

After the click of the latch, the room was silent. Both of them tried to process the nightmare that was happening. Sofia sat on the sofa, watching flickering orange candle light play across her hands, telling herself it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. The visitors had sent a mothership over every capital city, speaking messages of peace and co-operation in the local languages, and freely offered technology like the Arc reactors; replacing most of the planet’s power stations with clean energy. Relations had been warm.

She went upstairs to fill the bath and sink like the broadcast had said to, ignoring the sound of her house mate hyperventilating. Without electricity, it was only a matter of time before the water stopped. Sofia sat on the edge of the tub, phoning home with a shaking thumb. After three tries she realised their landline obviously wouldn’t work, slapped her thigh, tried her parent’s and sister’s mobiles. No signal. Of course not. She bit her lip, turning off the taps. Downstairs, her house mate hadn’t moved.

‘I’m going,’ she said, slipping shoes on.

‘What?’ He looked up.

‘My family-’ She croaked, took a breath, steeled herself.

‘We’re meant to stay in.’

‘I can’t just sit here with you,’ she said, then paused. ‘Sorry, I mean, I’ve only been here two weeks…’

‘I know. We don’t really know each other. But we’re supposed to stay.’

‘It was a request, not an order. Sorry,’ she said, fumbling to get her arms through her coat sleeves as she stepped out into the night. He followed, put his hands up as she drove away, looked up into the sky for a moment then darted indoors.

There were no street lights on, no light seeping through cracks in curtains, no traffic lights. For that matter, no traffic. Most people were following the request to stay home. Or – the part of her mind she wished could stop said – or they were dead. She tried the car radio. For a while the emergency broadcast played on a loop, but then, she guessed, the radio towers’ backup generators ran out. She drove on in silence, occasionally seeing bodies slumped by street lights appear in the light of her headlamps, trying not to imagine how the attack might have worked. She sped up, fixing her gaze on the road.

Her sister hadn’t slept for two days after first contact: watching rolling news, standing in the garden staring up at the mothership, poring through files the aliens had released online. Their parents had allowed it. It was history, after all. We weren’t alone.

Ha.

The city loomed ahead, dark save for the glowing craft above. Military vehicles sped past, honking horns as they overtook but not trying to stop her. Sofia told herself that Freya and their parents had been out of the city, avoiding the capital’s light pollution while she used her telescope, just thinking there’d been a power cut. That they wouldn’t be among the bodies in the streets and homes. That she’d check the house first and not find them there, then go to the top of that hill and Freya would be there. Looking at the stars, still seeing friendly faces out there waiting to be met.

There was a jolt of light from the ship. The ground quaked. Sofia gasped, brakes squealing as she stopped in the middle of the motorway. She brushed a hot tear from her cheek and pummelled the dashboard, then gritted her teeth until her jaw hurt, accelerating towards the city. The occasional fellow ignorer of the government’s request was parked by the roadside, along with the military trucks, all staring towards the craft.

As she entered the city she found roads packed with cars, all the drivers dead. Sofia abandoned driving and ran through dark streets lit only by the soft blue glow from above. She took a dead woman’s bike and carried on, hoarse and panting. When she saw a group of people walking down the middle of a street, she stopped to ask about survivors.

It was only as she got close that she realised the people had no tails. She froze. One of the aliens stopped right in front of her. He had soft smooth skin, hair on top of his head, and his eyes had a round iris. Her scales itched, her barbed tail and fangs reflexively dripping. She wanted to sting or run, but, as in a bad dream, she felt stuck in place.

He spoke in halting Valiri. ‘Stay out of our way.’ Her tail swung over her shoulder, the barb darting for where his heart would be. It stopped on thin air. He hadn’t flinched. ‘Stay out of our way, cold blood. This is Earth’s planet now.’

They ambled down the road. Sofia watched, feeling like the last insect in a failing hive, a magnifying glass looming overhead. A second jolt of light shook tiles from roofs. Her family was from the suburbs, she told herself. Not directly under the ship. There was a chance.

She cycled the rest of the way with cramping legs and left the key in the door as she finally stepped inside. She called out and nobody answered. Her parent’s bodies lay in the dark living room, but no time to take that in, where was Freya? She checked every room, and finally saw her sister at the far end of the garden. Freya was watching through her eighth birthday’s telescope as a cloud of shuttles swarmed from the mothership.

When Dialogue Gets Stuck

When it’s going well, writing dialogue can be like transcribing what the characters are saying all by themselves, trying to keep up with them. Before you know it, a whole scene has gone by and the characters have pulled you off piste, changing the direction of your work in progress to something better than you’d planned.

Other times, it’s like trying to pass a kidney stone. Here are some things I’ve found helpful for getting through stuck dialogue.

Give them the reins.

The problem may be that you’re trying to direct where the conversation is going. Of course the characters aren’t real, and anything they say does come via you. But if you have an overbearing ulterior motive for their conversation that pulls it out of character, the discussion will feel off and be hard to write.

Sometimes this issue involves trying to make a character say something which expresses your Big Idea. The protagonist has asked the guy at the truck stop the Big Question, so now you want the truck stop guy to become a philosopher for one line of dialogue to answer it. Nope. The character isn’t your mouthpiece.

Or it might be about getting the plot to move along your plan. You might think you really need Sarah to address what Jack did now they’re alone on the pier, but if she’s well established as having a pathological avoidance of conflict, it’s likely not happening. Let the characters take the reins.

Maybe Sarah’s creepy sister Meg will force her to mumble what happened and Meg can go set fire to Jack’s house, sparking a whole new exciting chain of events. Maybe Sarah will hold it in, gradually slide off the rails with the strain, and go postal later on, ultimately beginning to learn assertiveness. And so on. If your characters are reasonably developed, they’ll go somewhere interesting given some free movement.

Get back in touch with who these people are, and what’s going on in the plot and the setting that they’re likely to talk about. They write the story, not you. Each one sees themselves as the protagonist of their lives, and each one is trying to get something for some reason.

Break from excess neatness.

Sometimes I’ve been struggling to come up with a character’s next line of dialogue – until remembering that they don’t actually have to be the platonic ideal of a conversation partner. Dialogue isn’t always a neat clean chain of back and forth, each person speaking clearly, taking polite turns, and responding to questions with satisfactory answers.

Characters can ignore each other, interrupt each other, not have something witty or insightful to say, sharply change the subject, mishear, and repeat themselves. Take this line from Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: ‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’

Seven pleases. That’s not standard. It probably breaks a rule somebody has pronounced from on high, but rules are made to be broken. Dialogue is allowed to be a little messy or uncooperative, the way it is in real life. Breaking from excess neatness is helpful for realistic dialogue between characters with conflicting interests.

Use action and the surroundings.

Where are the characters? There might be something around them which provides a jumping-off point for the next segment of dialogue. Don’t forget that your characters aren’t disembodied voices resting in infinite void. Let them interact with stuff, and a flat scene might become much more dynamic, with a stronger sense of character than you got through dialogue alone.

If your characters began the scene drinking coffee, they’re having a furious argument, and now you’re stuck for the next lines, maybe one of them could smash their mug on the wall and storm out. The other character might follow them along a busy street yelling while barging through pedestrians. Or the scene could end there. Or the other character might pick up the pieces and get out superglue.

Use objects, use sights and sounds and smells, use the weather, use bystanders. If you’re stuck for what words they’d say, show it with action instead.

Reported or implied speech.

When I’m finding a scene really awkward or melodramatic, it can help to just not have it as dialogue. Instead of making the reader plough through a monologue or a conversation that only exists to get to the next action, summarise or imply what would’ve been said.

Phrases like ‘they said what had happened’ can do a lot of good work. Does the reader need a scene where they discuss the plan for the robbery, or is it better if you simply use reported speech? Do we need to hear that phone call, or does it turn out more poignant if we don’t get to listen in, instead watching the physical reaction to it?

However, this can be used to make cheap suspense. If a character finally opens up about their terrible secret but we don’t get to hear it for some contrived reason, only getting ‘Greg told Jane the truth’ dangled before us, we’re going to feel a bit cheated.

Skip ahead.

If you know what’s going to happen but it’s a struggle to write, consider leaving a note and filling it in later. It might be easier from the other side, or you may find that you don’t actually need to write it anyway.

Write some trash.

Just grit your teeth, get through the scene, and edit later. Nobody has to read it.

Take a break.

You’re even allowed to go back to it tomorrow! Nobody gets arrested for not reaching a self-imposed word count.

Book Reviews (2)

The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury

The book opens with a vividly described prologue about a carnival worker covered in moving tattoos, one of which will, after a while, show the viewer’s life and death. Unfortunately not much is done with that concept. It’s used as a framing device for the short stories, feeling a bit tacked on to either side.

The stories, though, are polished classic sci-fi, with dark undertones and crafted lyricism. Recurring themes are technology as it relates to human life, and our tendency to screw things up – whether simply not making the most of our lives, starting a nuclear war, or instigating Jim Crow or censorship. This misanthropic tendency is offset with a sincere, but not saccharine, appreciation for glimmers of simple goodness. Mars often features as the potential ‘fresh start’.

I’m not sure what to make of Bradbury’s view on children here. ‘The Veld’, with those weird kids, and ‘The Playground’, with the children attracted to an anarchic battle-royale playground, felt weaker than the rest of this collection. I most liked ‘No Particular Night or Morning’, about a man’s growing extreme solipsism on a long space voyage, and ‘The City’, about a wonderfully personified mechanical city waiting for visitors so it can fulfil its dark purpose.

Forces of Nature – Prof Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen

I’ve seen most of his TV work, but this is the first time I’ve read Brian Cox. The book has the same feel as his documentaries – asking basic questions like ‘why is the sky blue?’, and following that thread down to the point where nobody knows the next bit yet, a palpable excitement for human curiosity and the continual improvements in our understanding of the universe.

One difference is that there’s less dumbing down, with times where he says things like ‘allow me one paragraph of postgrad physics’ or ‘if you’re not a maths person, feel free to skip this bit…’. So some of the book went a light-year over my head – but most of it was explained in more ordinary language, and the picture that emerges is fascinating.

It was great how many times FoN says things are currently unknown. After starting off with a question about the shape of snowflakes or why hot things glow, the reader gets led through increasingly advanced frameworks of physics/chemistry/biology; and the original question is basically solved but we run up against a deep issue in our current understanding of the universe. Cox’s enthusiasm is infectious, though the pages showing quotes in block capitals sometimes felt a bit random and cheesy.

Conspiracy – S.J. Parris

Paris, 1585. Heretic-turned-spy Giordano Bruno is charged with solving the murder of a priest, leading him into the midst of conflicts between the King, the hard-line Catholic League, Protestant spies, and trouble among the court. The threat of a sectarian massacre looms overhead, and finding the truth may be dangerous.

I haven’t read any of Parris’s previous Bruno books, but the essential bits of backstory are re-introduced seamlessly. She’s constructed a convincing setting steeped in religious and political tension, populated with vibrant characters: chiefly the protagonist, an entertaining narrator. The plot is intricate but not too dense, though I did occasionally find it overly reliant on Bruno messing up.

Last First Snow – Max Gladstone

Continuing on with the Craft Sequence, this is the first chronologically. A younger Elayne Kevarian works on a property dispute in the city of Dresediel Lex, where the deprived Skittersill district is protected – and restricted – by the wards of gods slain by the ruling King in Red.

At first I wasn’t so into this as Three Parts Dead. Debates about the contract for redevelopment of the Skittersill, while very real – a community organiser makes the memorable point that forced ‘development’ from on high could be like someone trying to make a spider’s web better by constructing it ‘efficiently’ out of wire, ruining it – were a big change of pace from TPD’s driving action. However, the situation takes a turn, and by the end I was very much won over.

Craft continues to be a brilliant magic system, integral to this world’s economics, politics, and history. The theological competitor to Craft in Dresediel Lex has a distinct Mayan flavour, with a range of half-sleeping gods and godlings providing slivers of power to the priest Temoc, while clamouring to be properly fed as in the old days.

Complete Stories – Flannery O’Connor

I picked this up because I vaguely remembered O’Connor being a big name. Judging by this, that’s very much deserved. She was a master of constructing strange, irritating, deeply compelling characters. While I didn’t always fully pick up on – or agree with – the strong Catholic themes in these stories, O’Connor uses symbols, irony, and humour to great effect, articulating her convictions without ever feeling like a sermon.

A common figure is the self-righteous supposed ‘intellectual’, coming back to the small Southern town they look down on and being shown up for the fool they really are. At the same time, the other characters aren’t held up as icons either. It’s brilliantly nuanced, and despite the cutting irony on both parties it doesn’t feel like O’Connor is merely dunking on both sides, sneering from the fence.

Some of the earlier stories, while worth reading, lack something when compared with the latter ones. I didn’t get what ‘Wildcat’ was on about. The top three for me were ‘The Enduring Chill’, ‘The Partridge Festival’, and ‘Parker’s Back’, although there are many must-reads in here. Very powerful, and unmistakeable for anyone else.

The Green Mile – Stephen King

The book is prison guard Paul Edgecombe’s recollection of the time during the Depression when John Coffey, a gentle giant convicted of the rape and murder of two young girls, was on death row. John Coffey has mysterious abilities, his initials are J.C. – *thinking emoji*.

It’s really good. The conversational tone of voice is immersive, the setting and characters are memorable, the action is gripping. Lots of intense feels. Any lit snobs deriding King have obviously not read this. Even the mouse Mr Jingles has buckets of personality – despite, naturally, having no dialogue.

And if you’re not a book person try a different blog the film is well worth seeing too.