Book Reviews (19)

May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes

After Nixon scholar Harry has an adulterous kiss with the wife of his TV exec brother George at Thanksgiving, a chain of unexpected events hurls them into new lives.

At first this felt like it might be the sort of thing people make fun of litfic for: a struggling academic, an affair, everyone’s a bit unpleasant, etc. But then – everything kept ramping up. The drama. The dark, farcical comedy. The character growth. Bizarre twists and diversions combine with pathos and an extraordinary depth of character. The nephew, Nate, felt particularly real, with insight and conviction but also, well, 13 and trying to deal with a lot.

It’s hard to critique. Sometimes dialogue switches line in a way that threw me for a moment. Some of Harry’s romantic endeavours seemed a bit forced to me. Occasional lax forward momentum. These are minor quibbles, because it succeeds in depicting a tumultuous year in people’s lives – affecting, deeply perceptive, and often very funny.

Covenant – Dean Crawford

Take a thriller where an archaeologist is abducted in an Israeli desert, add some Ancient Aliens stuff, and… eh… The idea could be good, but neither component gets past cliché here – unless things improve after I gave up on page 67.

The sci-fi side is somewhat interesting, but relies on laboured exposition and didn’t really add a fresh angle to the well-worn idea that aliens helped kickstart civilisation. Sometimes a character will rattle through polysyllables, other times they’ll be idiotic as required.

The thriller side is painfully clichéd. The stony-faced agents, the nihilistic and good-at-punching guy, the evangelist preacher who wouldn’t pass a Turing test, the arms company bigshot ‘in this for the money’. I didn’t go in expecting a sophisticated take on Israel/Palestine, but the lazy centrism of Crawford’s ‘brutal military occupation bad, but on the other side rOckEtS’ still grates.

The writing is passable but not good: a big guy ‘swept through the crowds like a tornado through an olive grove’; Troubled Tough Dude becomes a dog who ‘reveled’ in the breeze though a car window; the Jordan Rift Valley is ‘an ancient seismic scar slashed by the tributaries of long-extinct rivers that snaked their way into the endless deserts’.

The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. Danusia Stok

The opening set of stories, prior to the main narrative of The Witcher, introduces an intriguing world drawing on folklore and fairy tales with twists and bite.

Geralt of Rivia stars as the mutant monster-slayer, alongside a few others. His character leans more to the mercenary side than I’d thought, particularly in the first story, which opens with him cutting down a few people for not much reason. Discussions around money are entertaining and sharp, with Nenneke’s comment on exchanging Temerian orens for gems (cheap due to a dwarven mine near Wyzim) and gems for Novigrad crowns highlighting the guy has really made this place. Combat is gritty and dynamically written.

I’ve heard of translation concerns. While some Polish idioms and references are inevitably missed out on, I found the prose perfectly clear and fairly stylish, aside from very few minor points where I couldn’t grasp what it was getting at. But irony lost in translation could explain some of the times where Geralt comes across misogynistic. In any case, he’s a flawed character and better for it.

The Lesser Evil particularly works together various fairytale allusions, questions of morality addressed by flawed characters in a messy world, dramatic combat, and holds the tension of its framing – how Geralt came to be ‘the butcher of Blaviken’.

The weakest parts are a section of the frame narrative where Geralt expositions at a priestess who’s following a vow of silence, and the title story – which at points I found a little vague, a bit too fanservicey over Yennefer, and didn’t do enough to justify the extent of their infatuation (previously hinted in the frame narrative). Maybe I’m missing something there. But both these parts are still definitely good.

Book Reviews (18)

The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

(Mistborn #1)

I got round to reading some Sanderson – and, yeah, it’s good folks. A dynamic, pacey story about a group of thieves, led by the enigmatic Kelsier, working to topple the dictatorship of the immortal Lord Ruler. Vin, a new recruit with burgeoning powers, comes from a traumatic background which has made her expect treachery at every turn. Meanwhile, glimpses into the Lord Ruler’s past hint at a larger story behind his rise to power and fabled defeat of the mysterious Deepness.

At first Kelsier’s smiling and Vin’s frowning were a little much (yeah, I get it…), but all the cast quickly become interesting, complex figures. Allomancy – the magic system based on using various metals – is very clever and works great in action scenes, particularly the pair of steel and iron, which allows for pushing and pulling metals. The way characters fling themselves or objects around is described so clearly and follows a strong logic. However, the categories of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ and ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ are less intuitive for other metals – but don’t worry about it.

Worldbuilding, character, and action with a powerful climax leading to the next book, although some of the last section felt a little bit rushed.

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Not everyone will like this. I loved it, but this is a book without easy answers, the epigraph warning, ‘This is not for you.’

On the face of it, it’s about a Lovecraftian house developing dark empty rooms and shifting corridors, possibly infinite on the inside. Photojournalist Will Navidson documented the horror his family and others experienced in The Navidson Record. Most of the book is an academic manuscript about the film and its events, dictated by an unstable blind man, Zampanò. After Zampanò’s death the documents are discovered and put into some order by Johnny Truant, a tattoo shop employee.

The story in the film, told straight by itself, would be a good creepy novel with engaging characters. But the experimental approach House of Leaves takes is more complex, challenging, and interesting. Zampanò’s analysis of The Navidson Record leads off in many directions, engaging with psychology, mythology, science and literature. His and Johnny Truant’s footnotes relate subplots and lead to materials in the Appendices, like Truant’s mother’s letters to him from an insane asylum. One of her letters needs to be decoded – it’s not hard, but it forces you to slow down and makes the emerging story so much more impactful as you find what’s coming (but is it true?).

Chapter 9 is particularly incredible. While discussing labyrinths, it is itself one. The footnotes lead to dead ends and endless loops. The pages have various segments read in different directions, even parts that need a mirror. It’s not just gimmicky. In this chapter, as in others, formatting quirks reflect the content – accentuating story, playing jokes, reflecting themes.

Truant’s story can be a little tiresome at points – yeah I get it, the guy lays pipe, enough dude – but his developing mental collapse and questionable relationship with the manuscript add so many layers to the book.

The film, and the many other academic treatments of it which Zampanò references, don’t actually exist. But if the whole thing is merely Zampanò having a mental break, why does the manuscript affect Truant? And where did those claw marks come from? Does the minotaur represent a eldritch Nothingness (‘There is nothing there. Beware.’) which erases the house and film behind it, then becoming the manuscript – then, perhaps, erasing Truant as it becomes House of Leaves, then on to erase its readers? 😮 Perhaps Johnny Truant was that dead baby all along, and the whole damn thing is his mother processing trauma in the asylum? Is there a real house and minotaur? Or is it all symbolic?

Truly mind-bending.

The Bees – Laline Paull

A thriller following a bee in the totalitarian society of the hive through religious purges, wasp invasions, and the trials of winter. The life of the hive balances fact and artistic license to make an alien society centred around the Queen, beset by internal and external threats.

The idea is great. The writing is mostly solid – many scenes breathtaking, other points a little awkward. References to ‘data’ passed through antennae and encoded in scent can make the bees sound strangely computerised, and once when Flora sneaks into an area her attempt to slowly turn a door handle is like – since when are there door handles in the hive?

Mostly, the tricky balance between actual bees, and the humanised version Paull needed to tell a story that made sense to humans and is this good, works well. Occasional confusion and awkwardness is worth it to get the unique, action-packed theocracy.

Book Reviews (17)

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Reform or Revolution? – Rosa Luxemburg

The German revolutionary’s response to Eduard Bernstein, who argued for a path to socialism through gradual reforms, without a revolution.

Reading this felt a bit like watching Rosa put Eduard through a wood chipper. The arguments are fairly accessible to the sort of weirdo who would read this, and when she directly addresses her opponent it’s with an entertaining irascible tone.

She would be disappointed that (as of now) capitalism hasn’t irrevocably collapsed in crisis with the proletariat rising to seize the means – in a sense, she was too optimistic. But other theoretical forecasts are prophetic, such as credit being a ‘mighty instrument for the formation of crises’ (rather than a mitigation, as Bernstein argued).

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – Paul Kennedy

Kennedy’s thicc account of the rise and decline of leading powers through economic and military change from 1500 to 2000 was popular with DC wonks on its release in 1988 mainly because of the last chapter – an analysis of existing trends and informed speculation on the near future.

These days the last chapter is more of an example of how a well-educated cautious broadly-liberal American observer saw things in 1988. It’s fascinating that such an intelligent and informed person could be so naive as to refer to ‘fissures [which] often compel the United States to choose between its desire to enhance democratic rights in Latin America and its wish to defeat Marxism’. PAUL, YOU MUG, THE U.S. USES ‘SUPPORTING DEMOCRACY’ AS A RHETORICAL PRETEXT WHILE SPONSORING ANY DICTATOR GOING, YOU’RE TOO SMART TO FALL FOR THIS!

Also intriguing looking back from now is Kennedy’s reference to balancing the three competing priorities facing governments heading to the 21st century – ‘guns’, ‘butter’, and sustained growth – as a very difficult task. Continual economic growth is demanded by capitalism, but is impossible (not merely difficult) due to the threat of climate change, and, indeed, the finite amount of resources and demand – good luck breaking the laws of thermodynamics. It would be interesting to hear his response were he pressed on this point now.

The book is primarily a work of history, looking at how economics, technology, and warfare relate to the global balance of power from 1500-1988/2000. You don’t need to memorise particular battles, names, or dates. Kennedy’s writing is as engaging and narrative-driven as you could expect of something like this.

He explains how Europe became the centre of world power due to its internal competition in technology and trade, with its geography making it difficult for, say, the first country to develop gunpowder to take over the whole continent and have innovation stall there. From there he looks at the leading powers which rose in the continent, and the factors which helped each to prominence as well as those which led to downfall – the Habsburgs, Napoleon; and Britain’s place as an imperial/merchant superpower spurred by the Industrial Revolution. Developing through the two world wars comes the long-predicted ‘bipolar world’ led by the U.S. and Russia, taking Kennedy through to 1988 and fears of nuclear war.

Is this a good book? Yes. Do you need to know a lot of history or economics? No, though you might want google here or there. Did it take me a long time to read, and is it a bit dry? Yes.

Wakenhyrst – Michelle Paver

H/t Matthew Richardson.

A well-paced, character-rich gothic story of a murder in 1913. A manor in a fen; a somewhat unfortunate, bright, ‘plain’ female lead; an overbearing misogynist father figure; superstitious villagers with strong accents. All the familiar tropes – very slickly executed.

The marsh setting is an atmospheric point of contention between Maud and Edmund Stearne, the girl and father whose… difficult… relationship forms the core of the book. Paver alternates a close third-person focused on Maud with an epistolary style, each character’s voice stark and engaging. Young Maud’s understanding of her mother’s regular miscarriages, Edmund’s awful pompous journals, and Maud’s inexorably growing knowledge of what’s really happening around her are well served by the approach, which leaves room for doubting everyone’s reliability.

An atmospheric read, well-researched and suspenseful.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

A funnier, better characterised, modern adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, about two feuding academic families. The narrative centres on the Belsey family – the white academic father, Howard; black hospital admin Kiki; budding Christian Jerome; self-styled hustler Levi; intensely driven student Zora.

The Belseys alone are diverse and well-realised (though Kiki perhaps less so – a human counter to Howard’s ultra-cerebral nonsense who’s given less chance to shine in her own right); but add in the black conservative Kipps family and you get a lively cast with complex personalities and conflicted relationships driving the plot. Add in other characters: Carl, a rapper thrust into poet’s circles, sensitive to being taken a fool; Claire, a perfect satire of a poet; the delightfully elliptical Jack French and his dictionary… – it’s funny, with powerful, frustrating, and touching encounters.

At times the nods to Forster can ring a little false. The opening awkwardly uses a Forster highbrow style to frame the more natural, effective email exchanges (before the fantastic dialogue introducing the Belseys); making the plot reflect its earlier inspiration sometimes requires unconvincing gambits like Howard not having a mobile phone.

On the whole, though, very entertaining and meaningful.

Book Reviews (16)

Books 16

Earthsea: The First Four Books – Ursula Le Guin

Fantasy set on an archipelago world, with magic rooted in true names and the balance of the natural world. The first trilogy – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore – covers the heroic exploits of the mage Ged, who starts out as a gifted, impatient, arrogant goat-herder. There’s action in there, but it’s a chill pleasant read. Would’ve liked more of the school on Roke. Le Guin’s Daoist influence is used well.

Tehanu changes tack in interesting ways. It’s good overall – the turn towards ordinary life and women counterbalances elements of the first books, and a weaker writer would’ve forced a way around The Farthest Shore’s ending. But the pacing is choppy, and sometimes it feels a bit like an essay poking through.

The character and worldbuilding are high-class.

Why You Should Be a Socialist – Nathan Robinson

Robinson’s arguments for democratic socialism emphasise core principles – solidarity, concern about class structures, commitment to democracy in the economy (e.g. the workplace) as well as in the usual political sphere. As with his work in Current Affairs, he draws a sharp divide between his politics – based in libertarian socialist  ideas – and the more gulag-y stuff.

One weakness is a lack of a clear distinction between social democracy and socialism, linked to his excessive reticence to define terms. He veers between arguing for (good) reforms within capitalism along the lines of Bernie Sanders – pointing out the successes of individual socialist mayors, etc – and calling for more radical systemic change. Many liberals could come out of this thinking ‘okay, the Democratic party needs reform and it might be good to have a few socialist voices here and there, but I’m still not convinced about seizing the means of production.’ But hey, that’s not a disaster.

He does, though, make a lot of good points for newcomers, especially hammering the points of real commitment to democracy beyond the limits of liberalism, that public ownership needn’t mean state ownership, and that libertarian socialism is a thing.

It’s very obvious, given that we live on a planet with finite resources, that endless growth is impossible. And yet we have created [corporations] that exist to pursue endless growth[.] This is a recipe for civilizational suicide.[…]

Whether people are free depends not just on whether they own themselves, but whether others have power over them in practice.[…]

We should probably focus less on the question of whether something is in [the public sector or private sector] than on questions about who gets the benefits and who holds decision-making power.[…]

Liberty without socialism means rule by CEOs, socialism without liberty means rule by bureaucrats.[…]

I can never understand why using an iPhone means you cannot object to the conditions under which iPhones are produced and sold and advocate for changing them. […] If a resident of the Soviet Union had gotten a free education in state schools and a job in the state bureaucracy, would they be a hypocrite if they criticized [the] structure of the Soviet economy?

The Toll – Neal Shusterman

At first I was a bit concerned about how this trilogy would be finishing – the initially ambiguous gap in time from Thunderhead was confusing, the Tonist interludes seemed too out-there, some fast perspective hopping, and thoughts of ‘really, this is a super-intelligent AI’s plan?’

But it does all come together! It’s a lot of fun, and works back through questions raised by the first two books to tie up in a story of enormous scale. Greyson and the Thunderhead have a great weird dynamic, all the characters are enjoyable (though Goddard is a little ‘mwah-ha-ha!-y’), the conclusion wraps up in a satisfying way without being too sugary. But I find it weird that people still struggle to understand people like Jeri?

A good ending to a refreshing, fast-paced take on (u/dys)topia and AI, with nice worldbuilding around post-mortality – albeit the themes on that are nothing new – and an interesting cast.

Selective Accuracy in Fantasy

Walpurgis
source

Some guy on the Daily Wire reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher: ‘No woman can fight with a sword. Zero women can fight with a sword.’

His complaint is, by the way, inaccurate. Many people have brought up Julie d’Aubigny, a bi opera singer/swordswoman who – among other adventures – attended a ball dressed as a man, kissed a woman, got challenged to a duel over it by three men, beat them all in succession, then went back to the ball.

Everybody knows that, on average, men have a strength advantage. But that’s an average, and besides skill in weaponry is supposed to make it possible to defeat someone who may be stronger than you. His reference to a ‘5 to 10-pound sword’ is also a joke, considering even claymores were around 5.5lb, with most swords much lighter.

More importantly, fantasy isn’t real. That’s sort of the point. Why is this fairly mundane area the point where his suspended disbelief snaps?

In Taking Artistic License I considered times when strict accuracy may or may not be convincing or entertaining. But there seems to be a particular trend for selective demands for accuracy in fantasy, based in reinforcing certain social attitudes. This can be at the expense of actual accuracy, or represent an arbitrary block on imagination:

‘But this historical period…’ Are you absolutely sure? Really, no foreign traders or anything? Nobody’s in the closet? You might be right, in which case fair enough. But if your version of Ancient Greece is completely straight, your research slipped up somewhere.

‘Ah, but in my fictional world of…’ So your worldbuilding has the full details of a steampunk society powered by burning the blubber of sky-whales – daily life, ecology, politics, history, five paragraphs about perfumes made using sky-whale bile. But you can’t (or didn’t choose to) imagine [multiple demographics or alternative social attitudes]

Samantha Shannon pins this down in her essay:

[E]ven in fictional worlds, the oppressed must remain oppressed. Any attempt to do otherwise is evidence of liberal fragility, box ticking, the sanitization of history or the shoehorning of unwelcome “politics” into entertainment. […]

It is typical that the same critics often base “historical accuracy”—both in historical and fantastical stories—on the fiction of a white and heteronormative past. In their minds, people of color, queer people and powerful women only had the nerve to exist in the last couple of centuries. […]

Creators can and have used fantasy to highlight both modern and historical inequalities to great effect, and they must always have the opportunity and space to do that—but, lest we forget, fantasy is not history, and is therefore not beholden to it. It can be exhausting to read about the same racist, homophobic and sexist worlds over and over again.

Fantasy as a genre is rooted in being able to picture radically different realities, where not only history and geography, but the laws of reality itself, can be reshaped from the ground up. So to me there’s something very petty about insisting that issues such as gender have to match with the comparable real-world place and time.

I’m of course not saying that every work of fiction has to be actively progressive, or that there aren’t ham-fisted ways of trying to be that can detract from entertainment or believability. But I can’t relate to the mindset where things like a medieval society being cool with gay people are less believable, and need more justification, than the dragon flying overhead or the dead raised from their graves.

Book Reviews (15)

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Steering the Craft – Ursula Le Guin

‘I want to say up front, it is not a book for beginners. It’s meant for people who have already worked hard at their writing.’

The contents page might suggest this is rather dry and technical – a chapter on sentence length and syntax; another on adjectives and adverbs. But Le Guin writes with clarity, enthusiasm, and dry humour, illustrating points with extracts from varied works and providing plenty of exercises to work with.

We’ve all seen Adverb DiscourseTM, but Le Guin’s statement is better expressed than most: ‘When the quality that the adverb indicates can be put in the verb itself (they ran quickly = they raced) or the quality the adjective indicates can be put in the noun itself (a growling voice = a growl), the prose will be cleaner, more intense, more vivid.’

I wrote a post about her take on conflict.

And look how big-brain this is: ‘I see the big difference between the past and present tenses not as immediacy but as complexity and size of field. […] Use of the past tense(s) allows continual referring back and forth in time and space.’

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Ugh. I gave up just under halfway through.

There was a promising start – glimmers of humour and gorgeous, thoughtful passages suggested smooth sailing ahead. Throughout what I read, there were sections that showed exactly why this might be considered a great classic. These kept me going as long as I did. But there’s just far too much bloat.

Melville loves his semi-colons. Potential neat ideas are stretched and dragged out to hundreds of obsessively expanded words, action is drained of urgency, and long nautical digressions lead nowhere.

With some ruthless editing the early promise would pay off well. As it is, it’s a tiring slog.

Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

h e l l  y e s

Going from Moby Dick to this is like going from Ambien to crack. Alex Stern, the only survivor and ex-suspect of a bloody crime, is granted a Yale scholarship despite her lacking education due to a traumatic past of truancy and addiction. But she is tasked with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies – users of dark ritual magic for the elite – as a murder on campus threatens to unravel a tenuous balance.

The characters are fantastic: dark, sassy Alex (‘you want seconds?’ Lmao!); dandyish Darlington; scholarly Dawes… The magic and societies are varied, gritty, and lavish, with the power and its dynamics explored to its daunting implications, the ritual scenes written with cinematic flair. The action drives a twisted, breakneck plot.

There’s some intense stuff, so be warned if that’s not for you. Otherwise, highly recommended.

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

This is a lot of fun. Peter Grant, probationary constable, gets a witness statement to a murder from a ghost. From there the case spirals through bizarre violent incidents across London, while a feud brews between the spirits of the Thames and their nymphs from London’s lost rivers, and Grant studies magic under wizard Inspector Nightingale.

The sense of setting is powerful, the magic lessons based on Newton’s systematic development of the field are enjoyable, the diverse cast’s dialogue vivid.

Some sentences felt a little awkward, some small points a bit off – I thought Grant’s scientific, experimental mind didn’t match with C grades. Small quibbles aside, it’s a good blend of adult Harry Potter and CSI with an imaginative, compelling view of London, magic, and crime.

Book Reviews (14)

Books (14)

Dracula – Bram Stoker

I’ve seen a few people saying they struggled with Dracula, particularly the slow middle. I enjoyed it overall, but I see where this is coming from.

The key problem is that the main characters – each taking turns writing in various documents – can come off a little, well, dim. When someone is losing blood, has puncture marks on their neck, and seems to do better with garlic plants placed in their bedroom… come on, are you really going to dance around the V-word for a hundred pages? And not immediately realise what’s up when someone else gets lethargic? There’s dramatic irony, and then there’s wondering if the cast has lead poisoning.

But it’s a classic for a reason. There are striking passages, as well as a looming unholy threat deeper than some more modern vampire fiction. The Victorian religious context raises the stakes (lol) higher than the mere threat of dying or becoming a sparkly emo. Undeath is a curse, trapping a soul in a state inimical to the laws of God and man, barred from heaven and casting ruin on the earth.

Renfield’s spider thing is grim as hell, when things get going they do get going, and I liked the dry humour of workmen hinting for a liquid bribe – ‘dusty work’ indeed. If you like Victorian writing or vampires, here’s the obvious place to go.

Also, there’s some interesting stuff in this edition’s (Penguin 2003) appendices. Nobody has ever had less chill than Stoker in his gushing letter to Walt Whitman.

The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco

A series of murders in a monastery in 1327, investigated by William of Baskerville and his assistant Adso. William must attempt to solve the case before a papal legation arrives for an important meeting on a matter of doctrine dividing the church and setting the peasantry against the nobility.

This is far from a straight thriller. Eco focuses deeply on the historical and theological context, with long debates on philosophy – heresy, ownership, semiotics. William’s detective work does showcase puzzle-solving talents, while the murders strike tension, but the pace is moderated by an immersion in medieval monastic concerns that, while definitely interesting and insightful, can get a bit obsessive.

At one point Adso, the narrator, spends pages describing the outside of a door. The book itself opens with Eco pretending, in detail, that he didn’t actually write it, but found a French translation of Adso’s original Latin text. So what? And why leave so much Latin untranslated – is Eco showing off his intellect as William does?

Perhaps the book would’ve benefited from some trimming – but not too much. If this was just a fast-paced historical thriller it wouldn’t have its depth of immersion, its portrait of divisions and power struggles on every level, or its grasp on character and psychology.

William and Adso are a brilliant monastic Holmes and Watson, and watching them figure out the way through a labyrinth is fun. I appreciated the rich context and broader concerns behind the sleuthing, but some of it is a bit dense.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them – Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

(H/t Michael James)

A fun read, with great examples of how to do things wrong and plenty of jokes.

Take this line from a passage parodying Russian literature: “Come, let us go to another room and slowly reveal to each other our unhappinesses!”, or this warning on shady agencies: ‘If an agent is charging you a fee to read your book, you would probably do just as well responding to that intriguing e-mail from Nigeria.’

All the key bases are covered: plot, character, dialogue, setting, aspects of style; as well as a range of more specific issues, like ways to prevent characters having access to a phone.

Some points felt a bit old fashioned – implying younger readers ‘may be under the vague impression that cell phones were invented by Galileo’, stating that self-publishing is only a success story if you end up offered a book deal.

Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation – Grace Blakeley

A rigorous but fairly accessible analysis of the financial sector. Blakeley explains why it took its current extractive and speculation-laden form, how it led to the crash, and the failings of austerity, providing bold, detailed suggestions for where to go from here.

I learned a lot from Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, but thought it shied away from the radical implications of its own content. This is rather the opposite.

Financialised capitalism may be a uniquely extractive way of organising the economy, but this is not to say that it represents the perversion of an otherwise sound model. Rather, it is a process that has been driven by the logic of capitalism itself.

Stolen keeps class at the centre of analysis, explaining how policies and models follow on from power structures, reacting to the struggle between labour and capital.

The outline of the 1970s discontents and Thatcher’s rise provides a compelling narrative of the contradictions of social democracy – a system aiming to maintain a stalemate between classes – falling apart, paving the way for neoliberalism. Thatcher locked in a new regime for decades through detailed strategy, including promoting home ownership with rising asset prices to secure a ‘mini-capitalist’ base in the middle class.

The financialisation of the firm provided an immediate fix to the profitability crisis of the 1970s – a fix built on the repression of wages and productive investment. [States] deregulated their banking sectors in order to give households greater access to credit and expand asset ownership [to] disguise the chronic shortfall in demand finance-led growth threatened to create, and to make the system politically sustainable.

But that housing bubble eventually had to burst, didn’t it? Meaning that the reality of stagnation is no longer hidden by the bubble, and old ideas are new again.

Blakeley wants to conduct an inverse Thatcher. With wide-ranging financial reforms (counter-cyclical capital requirements for private banks to support balanced investment, a National Investment Bank supporting a Green New Deal, debt refinancing, etc) taking place alongside the development of a People’s Asset Manager and Citizen’s Wealth Fund, she hopes to rein in the sector’s excesses, improve most people’s living standards, and secure long-term support for an expanding system of collective, democratic ownership.

Very illuminating, though some typos tripped me up, and some of the points on capitalism vs. socialism could use more expanding to fully answer the concerns and questions a newcomer to this way of thinking would have.

Here’s a good interview on the book.

Book Reviews (13)

books 13

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

I somehow hadn’t read either Pratchett or Gaiman before, so I joined seemingly everyone else in reading their joint story of the apocalypse going wrong. It’s a playful blend of funny and dark elements, with great turns of phrase and imagination, like when the demon Crowley ‘blessed under his breath’.

The Antichrist getting into new-age magazines, the corporate-training-paintball-thing, Aziraphale’s attempt at stage-magic despite being an actual angel, the holy water: there’s fantastic memorable scenes.

Like Ally said there’s the odd bit like ‘prease to frasten sleatbert’ (no enormous deal for me, but, eh). I would’ve liked a bit more of the sinister notes too, but taste varies.

Milkman – Anna Burns

An account of the Troubles from ‘middle sister’ in an anonymous town, with conflict brewing in an environment of rumour and sternly enforced unwritten rules. Another story of simmering darkness lightened with absurdity, but with a very different feel.

Burns captures a mood of conflict and rumour baked in community life – a place where there are acceptable or unacceptable baby names, films, even brands of butter; depending on political/sectarian allegiance. Along with the Troubles, there’s an intriguing feminist angle. Middle sister’s wry narration addresses the town’s perception of the feminist ‘issues women’, the policing of men for proper masculinity (with enjoying cooking or viewing sunsets being suspect), and the psychology of unwanted sexual attention going unrecognised as a form of threatening harassment (if they’re not touching you, it can’t be violent).

The absurd elements keep a current of laugh-worthy wit through what would have been dense and depressing by itself. The humour shifts the tone brilliantly, with great side characters like tablets girl, nuclear boy, or chef.

The language is evocative while maintaining the air of protective secrecy, with turns of phrase steeped in implication. The style is thoroughly distinctive, although the first third is slow in places and the dialogue can be a bit stodgy and unrealistic. I see what Burns was going for with the speeches filtered through middle sister’s knotted mind, told in her non-committal and defensive style, but some more direct straightforward speech could’ve been a nice contrast.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Verne

The mysterious Captain Nemo takes unwilling guests on a journey under the seas in a submarine far advanced for its time.

It’s a unique view of the world, with lush description of marine vistas. There is a fair amount of specialist vocab and exposition in there, explaining the submarine and doing sums. Unless you know the names of a lot of marine species, you’ll find your eye glazing at points, unsure what you’re meant to be picturing.

Definitely a bit stiff in style and dialogue – but it’s an enjoyable voyage, with striking scenes and interesting thoughts.

The Spellgrinder’s Apprentice – N.M. Browne

An orphan boy runs from his apprenticeship grinding spellstones, an escape punishable by death, but this doesn’t explain why the island’s tyrannical ruler is hunting him: fearing a return of true magic to threaten his power.

A quick easy read with deft worldbuilding and strong characters, magic and betrayal. The plot packs in a good clip of action and connecting threads. I last read this when I was a lot younger so half-remembered a few surprises, but it still holds up as a clever adventure with deep details, like how magically providing bread affects the market for farmers. Vevena’s ways of working around her curse make for inspired writing.

The dodgy comma placement is annoying, though.

Book Reviews (12)

Books (12)

Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala

Akala tells the story of race and class in his life – featuring interactions with police, violence growing up, racist experiences throughout his education – and places it in a wider social and historical context.

His deeply informed and nuanced analysis picks apart narratives of ‘black-on-black crime’ (were the Troubles or Glasgow’s gangs ‘white-on-white crime’?); exposes our shallow self-serving vision of the end of the slave trade (which omits the role of slave rebellions); reveals Cuba’s significance in fighting apartheid; and much more.

Akala uses history and data to place his own experiences in the context of a class-stratified society forged in racialised imperialism, and unable to face up to the reality of its past or present. All more clear and readable than I’m making it sound.

Here he is talking about this stuff.

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy – Mariana Mazzucato

In mainstream neoclassical economics, things are seen as valuable to the extent they fetch a price on the market – reflected through supply, demand, and marginal utility. Mazzucato contrasts this ‘marginalism’ with earlier theories of what value is, how it’s generated, and how it may be extracted – arguing that as economics largely stopped debating the meaning of value, it has become easier for value extraction to masquerade as value creation.

The financial sector fetches a price on the market, but much of it is hardly ‘productive’. Often profits are ‘justified’ by risk-taking, but most of the real risk is taken in prior public investment and not rewarded. Inflated medicine prices are unjustified by research costs, and the argument their prices are high in proportion to benefit to society is false and has unacceptable implications (how expensive should water be?).

The public sector is undervalued, making it more vulnerable to capture by supposed ‘wealth creators’. Short-termism is incentivised, with firms spending astronomical sums on share buy-backs to please shareholders (instead of wages and investment). GDP has bizarre holes – if a company cleans up its own pollution that’s a cost which reduces GDP, if someone else is paid to clean up then GDP rises because paying workers adds value!

Marginalism is riddled with problems. Mazzucato doesn’t present a new alternative theory of value – the book’s long enough, to be fair – but calls for renewed debate about it to give rise to better policy. She does have a range of reasonable prescriptions, like using a financial transaction tax to incentivise long-term investment, nationalising natural monopolies such as energy, and upholding ‘stakeholders’ rather than shareholders.

I’m no economist, but I couldn’t help feeling she kept dodging the implications for capitalism itself. If landlords extract value, while there are more empty homes than homeless people, should housing even be a market commodity you can earn money just by owning and renting out? Isn’t the logical endpoint of ‘stakeholders>shareholders’ (at very least) Jeff Bezos losing a great deal of ownership and influence to all those employees he’s got pissing in bottles? If value doesn’t really track price, might markets and the profit-motive be inherently problematic means of arranging production and exchange? Important questions, but the answers are taken for granted here.

Even the Dogs – Jon McGregor

A man’s body is found lying in his dilapidated flat. Those who knew him watch from the sidelines as he is investigated, their stories of homelessness and heroin addiction unfurling in a close, intense portrayal of troubled lives.

This can be difficult to read, not just because of the subject matter, but also because the chronology is stretched and shuffled, speech merging into narration, sentences occasionally fragmented and paragraphs tumbling out of control. But if you can stick with it, you come to find the rhythm of the prose and the story, with each crisply depicted moment and detail adding to something deeply compelling, informed, and empathic.

There are some fantastically beautiful evocative passages, and the darkness is tempered by the humanity of the characters and moments of humour – ‘I don’t think I’d even have mental health problems in the first place if the voices were just a bit nicer to me, you know what I’m saying?’

From Hell – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

A  t h i c c  graphic novel exploring the case of Jack the Ripper. More than a theory of occult conspiracy and a story of legendary violence, it’s also an inspired depiction of the Victorian world and the birth of the modern age, reflecting on power and our fascination with evil.

Campbell’s simple but expressive black-and-white imagery fits the time period, portraying vistas of London as well as graphic brutality. The style complements the mood of Moore’s writing, rendered in suitably rough font – though I sometimes wanted it a little clearer or bigger.

The story is fascinating and multi-layered, going beyond the murders themselves to delve into the police drama and to highlight the victims; who are treated as meaningful in themselves, and to whom the work is dedicated. All the characters are convincing, their interactions showing different perspectives and places in society, backed by research, understanding, and wit.

Book Reviews (11)

books 11

Four Roads Cross – Max Gladstone

Back to the Craft Sequence with the sequel to Three Parts Dead. In the wake of what happened there, Kos’s shareholders attempt a hostile takeover while protests, zombie traffickers and demonic incursions rock the city.

Great stuff. Tara develops further in the odd position of Craftswoman for a god in a world where they don’t tend to mix well, while aware that staying in the firm would’ve paid much better. Cat and Raz have fun interactions, and the whole vampirism thing was inspired – really fresh sides to the idea. The farmer’s market subplot and characters were okay, but not quite as interesting.

Gladstone’s fusion of the bizarre and realistic – contracts as magical structures, student debts laying claims on one’s soul, market fluctuations in a fire god’s church threatening global economics – forms an insightful fun-house mirror reflection of reality.

There were little points where I found things weird for the sake of weird, but, as usual, the wildly unique ideas and plot notes tie up into an overall logic with an action-packed conclusion.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

The Allies lost WW2, with the US divided between Japan and Germany. In a neutral buffer zone lives the writer of an underground bestseller, telling a story where the Allies won. The characters deal with everyday life in occupied territory, take part in risky plots, and witness a power vacuum open at the top of the Reich.

The story takes place mainly in the Japanese-run Pacific States of America. The way power relations work in ordinary life here is masterful. The natives hate or fear the ruling Japanese, while adopting their customs and coming to view them as subtly superior. As lives interconnect, reflecting recurring Taoist themes, relatively benign Japanese rule is contrasted with the spectre of Nazism. The Fascist regime is presented as a nihilistic madness which has swept genocide through Europe and Africa, papering over the cracks in its instability with technological grandstanding.

The only character I couldn’t connect with much is Juliana – she seems quite vague, blown about passively by events and the I Ching. Why did she join Joe on that trip, exactly? Maybe I’m missing something, but some of those segments were the few areas where an otherwise deeply considered world and psychological nuance slipped.

The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

Very t h i c c and very good. It’s hard to summarise the plot: a Queendom without an heir, dragons, international ideological conflict, an ancient enemy rising.

Ead has a fantastic arc, sent from the mages of the Priory to secretly protect the initially cold-seeming Queen Sabran. Both of them grow substantially through the novel, while far in the east the dragonrider Tané pursues her ambition, at great risk, through some of the most intriguing and emotive parts of the book. Loth felt like he should have been interesting, but didn’t quite click for me – though the gruff but complicated alchemist Niclays was a strong character.

The core ‘ancient enemy rising’ plot thread tying all this together was the weakest aspect for me. That threat felt distant and amorphous much of the time, coming in rapidly near the end. I liked the mythology, drawing on St George and other lore, and the tension springing from different regions’ perspective on it clashing. But this involved a fair amount of exposition and exposition disguised as dialogue.

The court intrigue, character arcs, and personal and political conflicts are where Priory shines. Those aspects are richly crafted, forming the real heart of the book. Well-developed characters, rivalries, friendships and relationships more than make up for the flaws, with enough compelling drama and fantasy for novels in their own right.

In the Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami (trans. Ralph McCarthy)

Frank, an American tourist, hires Kenji for a guided tour of Tokyo’s seedy nightlife. Kenji swiftly finds himself swept along with Frank’s real murderous desires, in a novel described on the cover as ‘American Psycho – the Holiday Abroad.’

I was expecting a bit of 3edgy5me escapism, but this isn’t gritty so much as grotty. The atmosphere is mainly… empty. Yeah, there are some shocking gory scenes, and some nicely executed tension as Kenji attempts to keep his unpredictable client placated. The overwhelming mood, though, is loneliness and materialism and cultural void.

Sometimes that atmosphere feels thoughtful, as when Kenji muses on the ‘matchmaking pub’ cruddy furniture, the blank face of the man running it, the lonely and desperate characters trying vainly to assert themselves or connect with others. Other times it comes off as bland nihilism, not backed up by deeper engagement with setting or culture or character. I don’t know much about Japan, but this doesn’t feel like a convincing, disturbing portrayal of anywhere. It feels more like Murakami needs to get some sun and lighten up.

I can appreciate certain scenes. But as a whole, this doesn’t feel real enough to be creepy. Frank’s violence doesn’t mean much unless it’s somewhat explicable – rather than a cheap, ‘oh, he’s just insane’. Without more of a human counterpoint – which Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun, was supposed to be, though why is he dating a 16-year-old? – for a contrasting element of substance, the empty mood detracts from the threat.