Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Shepherd's Crown

This is not really a review. This is my tribute to the man who helped me deal with the scary transition from childhood to reality, that time when you find out that all the things you thought were facts are actually shifting shapes in a myriad shades of grey, and you can never really know anything for sure. And that even if you are clever, you will sometimes also be wrong. And that's ok. Terry Pratchett's books have been a constant presence in my adult life, and his characters and stories have not only made me laugh and exposed me to dangerous concentrations of puns, but they have comforted me when I was sad, and shown me many ways in which I can try not to be an awful person. For this I am grateful.

I have an uncomfortable relationship with endings. I suppose, deep down, we all do - none of us like the thought of dying, of time passing and irreversible change, each second passing another point of no return. My fastidiousness with endings has a particular effect on my enjoyment of literature. I despise a bad ending. I don't mean that all endings must be happy. After all, how is happiness defined? Surely a good outcome for the princess must go badly for the witch. What I crave is the satisfying feeling of a story told, the brief glow of peaceful pleasure when you reach the final page and for a moment everything makes sense - sort of like the Catharsis promised by ancient Greek tragedies, but without so much blood all over the place. Poetic justice, if you like. Sometimes, if the story is really good, you can carry that glow with you as you crash back into the messy world of real life, and feel a little lighter for a while, slightly less confused about it all. But a bad ending can ruin a good thing, or at least rob me of a good night's sleep (Arlington Road, I am looking at you. And don't get me started on Ian McEwan's Atonement - but I guess that's what you get for dabbling in High Culture). So it was with great trepidation that I picked up The Shepherd's Crown.

The Shepherd's Crown is a book of endings. It was the last book Sir Terry wrote before he died, and within the first few pages, the world he created many of us came to know and love experiences a transformation through death. Death is not an unusual subject in the Discworld series - in fact, Death is one of Pratchett's most likeable characters, and an exemplary comic foil. But in this case, there is a solemnity to the proceedings absent from other Discworld death scenes, most of which occur at the ends of stories, and offer a sort of solace to counterbalance the bleak feeling of finality. The description of the death launching the action in The Shepherd's Crown didn't quite work for me - perhaps because Pratchett's writing style is incompatible with melodrama,  and I could be satisfied by nothing but a shameless tearjerker in this particular instance. After its shaky beginning, the book gathered momentum, and drew me into the familiar territory of a cracking Discworld adventure for one last time. There were plenty of laughs, which were all the more enjoyable for being shaped around familiar and comfortable jokes, and several moments that brought a pricking sensation to the eye. I couldn't say how one would read this book without my accumulated baggage of nearly two decades reading and rereading the Discworld novels - I can never have that experience. But I am glad and grateful that this book came into my hands, and I feel like it was a final gesture of Sir Terry's love for us, his readers, that he offered us, one last time, the sense of an ending.

Thank you, Sir Terry. For everything.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Super Girls: Femininity and Agency in Young Adult Literature

Among the top ten things that strike terror into every middle-class, Western parent's heart, along with the possibility that their child may do drugs, drop out of school, and/or get arrested for indecent exposure, is the fear that their child may identify with the character of Bella Swan. (Yuck.) She is passive, stupid and inarticulate in a most infuriating fashion. No, the dreamy look in her eyes when she contemplates either one of her borderline-abusive love interests does not redeem her in any way. This has led many people to wonder, usually right after 'what is wrong with this world, and why do I live here?', whether there are other female characters in Young Adult literature who are worthy of the title 'heroine'. So here I provide some brief sketches of female leads who are not a complete waste of the air they breathe, and may have the potential to inspire young people, or even give an insight into the interactions between femininity and agency in young people today. Some are more successful than others, so I have given each a 'Supergirl Score'; rather than the overall quality of the book, this is meant to reflect the heroic credentials of the character discussed. As Katniss Everdean of The Hunger Games has been widely discussed as the Anti-Swan I've decided to go with a less famous bunch of heroines. There are actually plenty of them out there...

Gallagher Girls, by Ally Carter
Cameron (Cammie) Morgan

Cammie is one of the few female characters in YA fiction who is allowed to experiment with more than one boyfriend (go Cammie!). Cammie is a student at the Gallagher Academy, an all-girls' exclusive boarding school that trains future spies. You may think this demands an elephant's helping of willing suspension of disbelief, but actually the setting is sufficiently fantastical that it is quite easy to take it's silliness in one's stride, and believe that in Cammie's world it is perfectly normal for parents to sign their children up for a lifetime of morally ambiguous work that risks their safety and often involves shooting people. The Gallagher Academy is a bit like a Spy-Girls' Hogwarts, complete with recurring jokes about teachers (eg. the one who has plastic surgery before each new term because he is on the run), quirky classes (eg. the one which moves to a lower level of basement with each level of student achievement), and the inevitable luxurious dining hall (where students have to make conversation in a different language and regional accent at every meal).

Cammie's story begins in I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You with her using her spy skills to bend the rules at her exclusive spy school and flirt with a Normal Boy. In this book, the action is instigated by her crush on a boy, but all planning and shenanigans are carried out by Cammie and her crew of trusty female friends, demonstrating the fact that girls can plan, climb, run and break rules. All good things for a young girl to know. The fact that Carrie breaks up with said boy later on is even better - let's be honest, how many people end up in a lifelong relationship with the person they had a crush on in their early teens? It is useful, not to mention refreshingly believable, to portray female characters moving on from relationships. In later books, the plot gets a bit heavier and more melodramatic, as Cammie falls in love with mysterious spy-boy Zach, and discovers she is being pursued by an international organisation of super-spies, for no discernible reason. There is much excitement throughout, and even at her lowest points, Cammie is still an independent individual, who makes decisions for herself, and takes risks for the people she loves.

Supergirl Score: 8/10

Ringmaster, Empty Quarter and Deadlock, by Julia Golding
Darcie Lock

Darcie is a tomboy, reminiscent of George from the Famous Five, but without the cross-dressing. She also breaks multiple layers of social taboo: she plays with boys, makes friends with an older male soldier, as a white girl in Zimbabwe she learns the local language and interacts with the local residents. She is egalitarian in the way she views both herself and other people, and this is one of her greatest strengths. On several occasions, she defeats her adversaries because she has high expectations of herself and they underestimate her; likewise, she escapes some major trouble by befriending people other girls of her race and social class may dismiss: a Zimbabwean taxi driver, the chef on a luxury yacht etc. One of the best things about Darcie, however, is that she is mostly a completely unremarkable teenage girl. Her skills and talents are all acquired and developed through hard work; she is fit because she swims and plays football, she is clever because she pushes herself and tries to think, she makes friends easily because she takes the time to see the world from other people's perspectives. In this respect, Darcie is the best role model of all the heroines examined here. She is an ordinary girl who achieves extraordinary things through hard work and by forming healthy friendships.

Another fabulous thing about Darcie is that she does not have any sticky teenage romances going on with the male characters in her novels. She has friends of both genders, and of varying of social class and racial background. Though she also has enemies, she is often forced to relate to them on a human level, so the books challenge the notion that the world is divided into 'good' and 'bad' guys. Yet they still maintain narrative tension, move at a roaring pace and have satisfying, if not always happy endings. Unfortunately, it appears that Darcie has fallen victim to market forces, and her ordinary extraordinariness is no substitute for a good ole sticky teenage romance, because despite the fact that book 3 ends on a cliffhanger, Golding says 'I'd like to write another but would have to do so on my own time.' This suggests her publishers are not crying out for a continuation of Darcie's story. It's hard out there for real (-seeming) girls.

Supergirl Score: 10/10

Spy Society: An AKA Novel, by Robin Benway
Maggie Silver

Spy Society is derivative of Gallagher Girls. A girl with extraordinary abilities goes to a posh school and proceeds to use these abilities to pursue an attractive boy. In Maggie Silver's case, however, she is instructed to befriend the boy in order to gain access to his father's study, and crack a safe, safe-cracking being a skill she allegedly first demonstrated at the age of three. But all goes awry when she finds herself falling in love with the boy (shock! horror! bet you didn't see that one coming!) and she presumably re-assesses the ethical implications of her intrusive mission. Or maybe she just gets more worried about getting caught, I can't remember.

Anyway, as a veteran safe-cracker and member of a secret spy organisation, Maggie has a certain aura of competence, and the conceit of her being an experienced super-spy but inexperienced normal teenager is reasonably well-realised and
entertaining. She also makes a female friend called Ruby who wears her school blazer inside-out because she is a Rebel.This dilutes the potency of the icky-sticky teenage romance which inevitably develops between Maggie and her mark, and reduces the significance of the boy in Maggie's various decision-making processes. So overall, it is an entertaining little universe, with fun characters that don't contribute too drastically to the perpetuation of female oppression in contemporary society.

Supergirl Score: 7/10

A Spy Like Me, Laura Pauling
Savvy Bent

Savvy is annoying. In the opening scenes of her first novel, she ties up her love interest (Malcolm) and removes his trousers, which is all very funny, but then he gets shot, and she whines about how bad she feels for the next thousands and thousands of words. Savvy is eighteen, and working for her father who runs 'Spy Games' in Paris, sending his customers on a series of missions through Paris which his daughter and some other employees help to set up. Her mother has disappeared, which makes her Sad and Angsty, and leads to a teenage rebellion in which she is reluctant about her job, and skips her training runs. This catches up with her at some point when she decides she needs her fitness for a 'real spy mission', which leads to a 'training sequence' in which she goes for a run and does some sit ups, and then aches all over the day of the mission (really, what was the point in that?). The plot manages to be both complicated and daft, featuring secret spies, evil assassins, and a borderline-psychotic pastry chef. This sort of hinders Savvy's character development, a situation which does not improve in later books. Basically, the series is like a poorly-executed version of the Gallagher Girls. And Savvy really is annoying.

Supergirl Score: 4/10

Investigating the Hottie, by Juli Alexander
Amanda Peterson

First of all, what is with that title? I mean, I had a music teacher once who used to wax lyrical on the immense potential of 'the well-placed clichĂ©', but this is really taking 'does-what-it-says-on-the-tin' to its absolute extreme. I suppose that's all one can expect from someone who voluntarily calls themselves 'Juli', but still, how could title possibly have seemed like a good idea? The book is nowhere near as bad as the title suggests (though that doesn't say much). Also, perhaps surprisingly, the main character (Amanda) is a reasonably inspiring individual. She plays sports, speaks languages, and argues with the adults in her life when they are being, frankly, ridiculous.

However, the entire plot is premised on the idea that there are people who are 'hotties', and people who are 'nerds', and that 'hotties' are more difficult to get to know, sort of like celebrities, or killer whales. The plot also seems to be derivative of both Spy Society and the Darcie Lock novels; in both Spy Society and ItH, the female protagonist is tasked with stalking an unsuspecting teenage boy for the benefits of a nefarious spy corporation; in both ItH and the Darcie Lock novels the protagonist is a tomboy who is forced to look more feminine and is not cool with it. However, a significant difference in the treatment of femininity in the cases of Darcie and Amanda is that Amanda comes to accept looking more feminine, while Darcie invariably manages to mangle her feminine finery, and even uses expensive trinkets to fashion life-saving gadgets, McGuiver-style. Amanda just has a mini-camera and cellphone in her bra. Because that gives Juli a reason to talk about her heroine's boobs. One redeeming feature is that by the end of the book, the 'hottie' is demystified, and revealed to be just another teenager, like Amanda.

Supergirl Score: 6/10

Spark by Rachael Craw
Evangeline (Evie) Everton

Spark, unlike the other novels discussed in this post, has a sci-fi element to its plot: in Evie's world, a genetic experiment gone wrong has resulted in three mutations in the human population: Sparks (hopeless victims), Shields (brave defenders), and Strays (vicious killers). (Don't you just love alliterative jargon?) Evie's life is turned upside down when she discovers she is a Shield, and her Spark is her petite and very killable best friend Kitty. Conveniently, the moment of bonding between Spark and Shield causes the third side of the triangle, the Stray, to awake, drop everything and start planning murder. This is all delightfully silly, mercilessly sacrificing all concessions to common sense on the altar of narrative contingency. Evie is a sympathetic character. But it is disappointing that all her athletic prowess is obtained by means of a magical gene mutation, rather than pure hard work. Craw includes 'training sequences', but in these Evie is mostly encouraged to relax and let her mutant genes take over; this could cause the unfortunate belief in teenage girls that they cannot be physically active or powerful without mutant genes. (It's not true, girls. If you run every day, eventually you will run faster. Fact. Likewise, if you punch things, you get better at punching things. Give it a try.)

Worse still, Craw claims this mutated DNA has the side-effect of making the bearer 'hot', in order to increase their chances of reproduction and perpetuation of the gene. This suggests that there is an objective standard of 'hotness' which for girls is reached through the possession of big boobs, small bums and luscious hair, and for boys through the possession of washboard abs, above-average height and, counterintuitively, long eyelashes. Both genders benefit from razor-sharp cheekbones, for some reason. Back in the real world, which is where most of us are forced to live, people are attracted to each other for all sorts of different reasons, of which some make sense and some really don't. Attraction can occur in response to another person's body language, smell (pheromones are a thing) or even in response to the novelty of being found attractive. Because the 'love' narrative in Spark is discussed in terms of the results of genetically-induced hotness, it fails to engage with any of the real issues of teenagers learning how to conduct romantic relationships. It also radiates silliness into the stratosphere.

Nevertheless, the book was fun. I just wouldn't recommend it to anyone who has not yet had at least two serious relationships, including loss of virginity. Not because the content of the book is in any way raunchy, but because it has the potential to be so catastrophically misleading. Likewise, it should not be read by people who do not have at least a casual acquaintance with sport, lest they become convinced success requires magic genes, rather than buckets of sweat and bloody-mindedness. So despite the fact that Evie is a strong female character who is of pivotal importance for the future of her world, she is let down by the fact that all her achievements are credited to the effects of a mythical gene mutation, rather than her own hard work and ingenuity.

Supergirl Score: 5/10

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Manly Magic: Harry Dresden vs. Alex Verus

Alex Verus is the star of an urban fantasy series of novels by Benedict Jacka, each titled with a past participle. So far there are five books: Fated, Chosen, Cursed, Taken and Hidden. Alex Verus is a wizard living in contemporary London, specifically Camden, who runs a shop selling magical doodads and doesn't really have any friends. He also has problems with authority. Despite his desire for a quiet life, Verus constantly gets embroiled in magical disputes, often as a result of the exploits of his sort-of apprentice Luna, mostly involving a Bad Guy of some flavour who is trying to kill him, forcing Verus to unleash wholesale destruction on Bad Guy and Evil Associates alike. I started reading the Alex Verus novels because Jacka (or his unnamed minion) writes a mean synopsis. Also, Fated was on sale, so I got it for 99p. As I read the novels, I became increasingly confused by the fact that the first review for every single one was by a guy called Jim Butcher, who smugly informed me that 'Harry Dresden would like Alex Verus tremendously - and be a little nervous around him.' Who is Harry Dresden? I thought, and, as the marketing staff of Amazon had intended (I imagined them secretly watching me, gleefully rubbing their hands/tentacles together), I googled him. 

Harry Dresden is the star of an urban fantasy series of novels by Jim Butcher, each titled with a two-
word pun. There are fourteen books so far, so I won't list all the titles; the first four are Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight. Harry Dresden is a wizard living in contemporary Chicago, who runs a one-man wizard detective agency, concocts and creates magical doodads in his basement (with the help of an animated skull) and doesn't really have any friends. He also has problems with authority. Notice any similarities? One difference is that in Dresden's case, at least in the first few novels, it is not his personal attachments that lead him into trouble, but his need for cash - he starts most novels on the brink of bankruptcy, and wheedles consultant work out of the Chicago Police Department to keep himself afloat, which somehow always results in him saving the world from definite destruction. But both Dresden and Verus function in similar ways in their narratives: they are Unconventional, they are Mavericks, they Get Things Done and they are Manly Men.

One of the things I find particularly entertaining when reading the Dresden Files is that I get the feeling the books are addressed explicitly to a male reader, in much the same way that Twilight or The Hunger Games are directed at girls. While the reader is expected to relate to Dresden's various heroic activities, and Butcher does a decent job of making him both admirable and vulnerable, the books exude an expectation of heterosexual maleness with regard to the reader. As a woman, this creates moments of cognitive dissonance for me. For example, Dresden often says that in defiance of women's status as independent subjects, he still has a chivalrous, protective urge hardwired into his very being that leads him to try and defend women, and forget the consequences. One cannot help but feel that this is addressing a male heterosexual reader who is expected to relate to Dresden, while women should want to sleep with him, because he is oh-so-sexy in his leather duster and frankly bizarre hat. As a result, in defiance of authorial intention, I experience a gleeful sort of schadenfeude when women fail to be swayed by Dresden's last-knight-of-the-round-table act, show up at the location of the novel's climactic showdown, and screw everything up. Of course, it is disturbing that a series of novels written in the twenty-first century should peddle the notion that weak women should stay out of things, otherwise people will get hurt. Especially in the case of Susan. Susan is a cretin. But it is hard to take offence; after all, this is a series of novels about a sleuthing wizard in Chicago. There is a limit to how seriously one can take them.

Like Dresden, Verus is presented as a character men should want to be and women should want to bed (though he has a kind of rubbish sex life, and his only meaningful emotional attachment for most of his life has been to a gargantuan talking spider).  Indeed, both Butcher and Jacka seem to create characters who function to some extent as wish-fulfilment: Butcher's Harry Dresden is a geeky, slightly strange misfit, but he turns out to be right all the time, and his enemies routinely have to eat their words, either because they turn out to have been wrong about him, or because he has set them on fire. Verus is also a somewhat strange misfit who is weaker than his enemies, but somehow always prevails in the end. This character structure actually causes Jacka some problems as the series progresses: in the first two books, Verus grows from a sarcastic, solitary misanthrope into a rounded person with life experience, as he gradually faces the traumas of his past (inflicted upon him by the hilariously named supervillain Richard Drakh) and learns to play with the other children. By the end of book two, Jacka is faced with a problem: Verus has started to get his act together. He's not really a loner, he's not really a misanthrope, and he's already killed most of the people who were trying to kill him. This leaves little cause for adventure, and raises the dreadful possibility that Verus will settle down with Luna and pop out some perfect yet cursed babies. Jacka averts this development in book three by broadening Verus' world. Luna becomes Verus' apprentice, which forces him to engage with the Light Council, because Luna has to attend a training program. This introduces new characters, and a whole new range of parameters affecting Verus' life and relationships, enabling Jacka to maintain the narrative tension. It also helps that the mystery at the centre of the novel is engaging, unpredictable, and features a creepy villain. 

All is good in book three, but once again the loose ends of Verus' existence are tied up a little too neatly, leaving no fertile ground for a new plot. So by the time we get to Chosen, Jacka has to turn to Verus' less-than-pristine past to dredge up some adversaries. Here the problems begin. In Chosen, Verus is pursued by a gang of teenagers with funky hairstyles and bad attitudes, who seek vengeance for something awful he did in the past. This leads to a blood-soaked showdown, because for some strange reason even though Verus and all his friends are adult mages, and their adversaries are teenage adepts (i.e. half-magical people) they are unaccountably unable to disarm the vicious teenagers without doing them terminal harm. 

In the context of Chosen, this all works fine. The denouement seems unnecessarily bloodthirsty, but the outcome makes sense according to the rules of the world Verus lives in: everyone is violent, murderous and unpleasant, the difference between Dark and Light being that the former are more up-front about the whole thing, and the latter have a more kafkaesque bureaucracy. Where it all falls down is in book 5, Hidden, when the entirety of the plot is determined by the fact that Verus' friends are all cross with him because he committed mass-murder at the end of book 4. Wake up guys, he does this all the time! This is clearly a device to get Verus back to his former Lone Wolf status, so that he can function as a masculine maverick and save the day. Not only is it grating as a device, but it also costs us two sympathetic characters, Sonder and Anne, who play a pivotal role in earlier books. In Anne's case, her reasoning for avoiding Verus is sort of believable, though her inability to communicate this earlier in the plot is sort of annoying. In the case of Sonder, on the other hand, his reasons for rejecting Verus' friendship make him seem like a whiny, entitled brat. Overall, one gets the impression that Jacka is trying to emphasise Verus' aura of 'danger', as a means of maintaining his exceptional status with reference both to the real world and the fantasy world he inhabits. Unfortunately, what makes Verus interesting is not his ability to be exceptionally violent when needed, but his Odyssean ingenuity and resistance to authority. The whole 'dangerous' aspect gives the impression that he's trying to look cool in front of a bunch of teenage boys.

Having said all this, I am looking forward to the release of Veiled, the next instalment in Verus' adventures, this August. And I'll probably keep reading the Dresden Files as well, although if I buy them all I'll probably have to declare bankruptcy...

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Flora Segunda: gentle subversions of gender and genre

Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau S. Wilce, is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Flora and Udo are characters as brilliant as Mosca and Saracen the Homicidal Goose of Fly By Night. The overall aesthetic of Flora's fantasy world is reminiscent both of Mosca's universe and of Valente's Fairyland in Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. But Flora Segunda addresses a slightly older audience than the above - the narrator is about to turn 14, which in her society is the age at which she must chose her future career, and cease to be a child. This places the book on the edge of the Young Adult category, where it shares space with various novels trying to capture the experience of transition from childish innocence to the experience of reality (pick any book by John Green, for example) as well as Twilight, The Mortal Instruments, and a variety of other supernatural-themed manuals of how not to live your life if you want to be a balanced and happy adult.

The premise of Flora Segunda is not unusual - Girl of Spirit gets lost in her own vast mansion, meets a Mysterious Character (in this case the house's magical butler, banished by her mother for some unknown reason) and has great adventures as a result. It ticks all the boxes of children's/ young adult literature: the heroine is misunderstood and pressured by her parents; she decides to rebel as a result; her rebellion gets her into all sorts of trouble which could be solved pretty quickly if she would just come clean to her parents; when the situation gets dire enough for her resolve to waver, she no longer can get help from her parents, and has to sort things out herself. In the end, Flora discovers that her parents are flawed and human, but that they still love her dearly, though that doesn't mean they can solve life's problems for her. A typical coming-of-age narrative.

There were two things I absolutely loved about the book.

1) Wilce's sense of humour. 

The characters are all vibrant technicolor extravagazas seen through the eyes of Flora, who is probably an unreliable narrator, given that she is a bit of a teenage drama queen. The use of language was also simply hilarious. The characters speak a sort of dialect of English with some words substituted for others which may sound daft, but actually really works. Flora and Udo, her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, argue often and call each other 'snapperheads'. Flora also spouts the wisdom of Nini Mo, a Ranger (aka secret agent) and heroine of a series of pulp fiction books referred to as 'yellowbacks', who she wants to be like when she grows up - there’s no way out but through and a ranger is made, not born. Udo favours The Dainty Pirate, who is a real pirate but also has a dedicated series of yellowbacks written about him. The names of the books are unfailingly hilarious, as are the names of the rooms in Crackpot Hall and Bilskinir House. For example, Poppy (Flora's dad) spends all his time in his Eyerie, which is reached by the Stairs of Exuberance, and Udo and Flora run from Paimon, the Butler of Bilskinir House ending up in The Cloakroom of the Abyss. Finally, Flora accuses Lord Axacaya of 'being all boo-spooky', which I found hilarious.

2) The negotiation of gender issues is truly great. 

Wilce creates a convincing world in which men and women are equal without being too direct or preachy about it. Flora lives in a very female-dominated world, as her role models are her mother who is the General, her sister who is a soldier, and Nini Mo, the fictionalised Ranger. Her father is an alchoholic for most of the book, so his input is minimal, but her relationship with him is also significant - she cares for him, and it turns out in the end that he has been trying to help her. But Wilce doesn't try to disrupt the patriarchy by replacing it with a matriarchy that operates in the same way - the Warlord, Flora's mother's boss, is a man, as are many of her colleagues. What is significant is that gender is not the first element of a character's identity to be presented - within the military which plays a significant role in the narrative, characters are referred to as 'sir' regardless of gender, while everyone seems to wear kilts. 

Similarly, Flora's relationship with Udo is a relationship of equals. They bicker and pout and call each other names, but also care for each other deeply, and rescue each other on several different occasions. When set against other boy-girl relationships in young adult fiction, this is unusual. In all the Twilight-type novels out there, the girl is rescued by the boy who is in turn saved by her love. Wilce does not fetishize teenage heterosexual attraction and present it as the guiding principle of adult identity. This is a Very Good Thing. Flora's journey of discovery has to do with her relationship with her parents and her understanding of them as independent humans who had lives and experiences before she was born which affect their attitudes towards her, and their behaviour in the present. It also has to do with her gaining the ability to articulate her desires for her own future and place these within the context of her family and the nation she lives in - she learns to ask for what she wants, but to do so with an understanding of what she can realistically have. 

The novels that Flora and Udo read have a significant function in the negotiation of their expectations and realities. Flora wants to be a ranger like Nini Mo, and Udo wants to be a pirate like the Dainty Pirate. Flora’s desire to be a ranger is a manifestation of her desire to articulate an identity that is independent of both her parents and her family history. This desire expresses itself within the narrative in the form of Flora trying to live by the wisdom of Nini Mo as expressed in the yellowback novels she has devoured. Flora takes this very seriously, but is critical of Udo’s desire to become a pirate, as his desire is motivated by the Dainty Pirate’s reported dress sense. Flora’s stance is hypocritical, given that her desired career is as based on trashy novels as Udo’s. Her many little hypocrisies are exploited by Valefor, the banished Butler of Crackpot Hall, who manipulates her into trying to help him escape. 

Yet the trashy-novel inspirations for Flora and Udo’s ambitions have another narrative function which contributes to the creation of a sense of gender equality: Flora idolises Nini Mo, and tries to model her life on her books, in which Nini Mo has a sidekick, Boy Hangsen. Udo idolises Boy Hangsen, making the Nini Mo books a sort of doppelgänger of Flora’s narrative in Flora Segunda. At the same time, Udo’s agency is recognised through his fixation with the Dainty Pirate - his obsession with the Dainty Pirate novels, which Flora does not share, suggests that he is the narrator of his own personal story to which the readers of Flora Segunda are not privy. Udo’s agency is also apparent when he argues with Flora and abuses his power in situations where he gets the opportunity. This set in contrast to Flora’s first person narrative presents the two characters as independent individuals with agency who are trying to learn how to communicate with each other and the rest of society in order to achieve the things each of them considers important. Flora's frustration at her inability to control Udo is matched by his frustration when she does things that he considers silly, but ultimately both recognise that friendship, and human relationships in general, are not about asserting dominance. Their friendship is strengthened when they agree on the importance of certain things and work together to achieve them. They do not swoon into each other’s arms while the world around them fades to black, which, frankly, is refreshing. 

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Alchemyst, or how to kill an innocent plot

This review concerns the first hundred or so pages of The Alchemyst, on account of the book being so boring it might kill me if I try to finish it.
The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott, is a fantasy novel in which Nicholas Flamel really did create the Philosopher's Stone and make himself and his wife Perenelle immortal, while John Dee is his evil nemesis. There is also a mystical Elder race, lots of demonic crows, and people have spangly auras, the color of which determines their value. So far so good. For reasons that left me completely mystified, the action takes place in and around San Fransisco, and involves fifteen-year-old fraternal twins Sophie and the other one. That's right, Josh. They have no real distinguishing characteristics, from each other or anyone else. They do have red belts in some martial art or other, so presumably the narrative will at some point call for them to beat someone up, but at the point where I stopped reading they did nothing more than complain about how their cell phones didn't work in magic land.

It is possible that the reason I took a dislike to this book is that the opening action sequence involves the gratuitous trashing of an antiquarian book shop - crimes against literature and pretty things shall not be tolerated. Or maybe it really is just bad. Here are some things that are bad about it:

1. 'Show don't tell': it is obvious by page two that Scott has not been shown or told this basic rule. Although I guess he's not so much guilty of describing characters' reactions as he is of picking uninteresting reactions to describe. For example, Josh and Sophie spend the first hundred pages expressing their surprise that magic is real in different sentence structures. Not only is this repetitive, it is actively disruptive to the genre. I'm not surprised there's magic, it's a bloody fantasy book. By having the characters express unending bafflement without signs of PTSD, the author just makes them look stupid. So the rule should be 'show. And show something interesting, profound or funny.' Not that I'm demanding or anything.

2. The dialogue: omglol. And not in a good way.

3. Balance between action and backstory: basically, there isn't any. They'll be in the middle of a high octane chase where demon crows are about to devour the dopey teenage protagonists' succulent livers when suddenly, and for no discernible reason, the narrative veers away from the action and gives a detailed description of a moment in the eternal Alchemyst's childhood when he discovered his favorite color, and had an epiphany about the sound snails make when you roll on them naked. Narrative tension = down the toilet. It reminds me of myself trying to tell a story after about three glasses of wine, at which point I can no longer distinguish between what is relevant and what is not. And I can only pronounce vowels.

4. The full name thing - every few pages he introduces characters using their full names as if a) that's relevant and b) we might have forgotten. Some sound particularly ridiculous like Perenelle Flamel.

5. The Accent thing - in times of extreme stress, immortal characters display European origins in speech. This suggests that anyone who has traces of a faded French or British accent is weird and probably 500 years old and trying to hide it. Anyone heard of migration?

6. The narrative has no flavor. The good characters are all uniformly nice, the bad characters are all uniformly creepy, so there is no chance of complexity of character or anything as daring as that.

Conclusion: this is a young adult book that really is for young adults. Bizarre. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Film Adaptations: The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street

This post is a bit of a cheat, because it is about the film adaptations of books rather than the books themselves. However, while the film of The Great Gatsby inspired me to read the original there is no way on earth I'm touching The Wolf of Wall Street, as I feel I wasted quite enough of my life watching the film. (Three hours! Are you f'n kidding me?) So this post is about the films, though it's more about the narrative arc than its visual representation.

Both feature Leonardo DiCaprio playing a disgustingly rich man with the gift of the gab who became wealthy by shady means. The former is a mysterious millionaire who worships women like objects on a pedestal, throws enormous parties he does not attend, and drinks gin like it is going out of fashion. He is based on a fictional character. The latter is a slimy stockbroker with a defective moral compass who treats women like objects for his consumption, defrauds everyone he encounters of their money and hoovers drugs like they’re going out of fashion. He is based on a real person. Neither film, in its depiction of excess, gave me any desire to ever make money, which I suppose is the point. Both create the impression that people, as a species, are awful, and if they make too much money they just acquire the means to become more prolifically awful.

The Great Gatsby is a cross between coming-of-age narrative, (for the narrator) and star-crossed-romance (for the subject, Jay Gatsby). If you’ve read the book, you’ll know the plot anyway, but here’s a summary: a Good Young Man (Nick Carraway) moves into a small cottage next door to the decadent mansion of Jay (The Great) Gatsby, who throws debauched parties featuring cocktails, partial nudity and feathers on a nightly basis. Nick receives an invitation to one such party, where he discovers that most of the guests have never seen Gatsby. It transpires, after much mincing about in evening dress and necking gin, that Gatsby only wants to be reunited with Nick’s cousin Daisy, for whom Gatsby has had a thing since adolescence. It is to gain her favour that he has amassed his ill-gotten fortune, and the endless decadent parties are held in the hope that she will one day wander in to see what the fuss is all about and drink some gin. Daisy is, unfortunately, married to a man with a moustache, a drinking problem and a bad temper. With Nick’s fortuitous intervention, Gatsby and Daisy meet, they have sex, and pledge their eternal love. Daisy’s husband gets jealous despite being constantly unfaithful himself, and finally Daisy’s impossibly bad driving gets Gatsby murdered when she runs over her moustachioed husband’s lover outside a petrol station. Cousin Daisy and her moustachioed husband wiz off into the sunset as if nothing has happened, and nobody wants to come to Gatsby’s funeral because there isn’t any free booze. Nick concludes that they are all rotten bad sports.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a baffling object. One reaches the end of the film feeling that, firstly, it should have come a great deal sooner, and secondly, it is unclear what one is meant to be feeling or thinking about the mind-numbing three hours of footage of Leo-as-Wolf (aka Jordan Belfort) snorting cocaine off various women’s intimate areas, often with no regard for basic hygiene. Some of the drug fueled escapades can be considered funny, but they are by no means harmless, which tinges any laughter or enjoyment with an edge of horror and self-loathing for laughing at something so awful. Belfort hurts everyone around him, including himself in the long run - only he is too fixated on the importance of being rich to realise he is a miserable bastard with no friends. I mean, I like a good champagne as much as the next person, but I’d rather have a happy marriage than neck bottles of it at work while pretending to myself that I’m doing things that are great and clever. Drunk people are never clever. All you need to do to verify this statement is stay sober at one party where everyone else is drunk. Just sayin’. Anyway, the moral of the story seems to be that Brokers are Bad. But also that if you sell bullshit with sufficient fervour you will come out on top every time.

Both films left me with a distinct aversion to the idea of having money. In both films, the main character starts out with a problem and the conviction that its solution is to become extremely rich; in Gatsby’s case, his problem is that he is in love with the idea of a woman who in reality is a dishonest greedy cow who is emotionally as deep as a puddle; in Wolfie’s case, his problem is that he is a complete psychopath. Both narratives demonstrate that the quest to become wealthy solves no problems, and instead erodes the seeker’s integrity, leaving him in the end with nothing but his salesman’s patter. In Gatsby, this represents the end of an imagined golden age in which there was human integrity and the possibility of Great Romance - Gatsby himself is the last gentleman. Similarly, in The Wolf, the narrative arc could be read as a chilling warning against the moral decrepitude of the values of the present day - despite all his devious machinations and morally bankrupt strategies, and despite getting caught, he continues to make money after his release from prison, by, irony of all ironies, becoming a motivational speaker. The main difference is that in the case of The Wolf, there is no imagined golden age - the degeneracy of the human spirit is timeless, making the whole thing more depressingly hopeless.

From the two films, one gets the impression that DiCaprio wants to warn us all against the pursuit of wealth, by showing that all rich people are morally bankrupt, not to mention utterly miserable. This is odd, because one imagines he is rather rich himself, mainly because all the teenage girls of the 1990s fell in love with his floppy blonde hair, and he subsequently made a soppy movie set on the sinking Titanic, in which he played someone poor who fell in love with someone rich. Maybe these films are meant to warn against potential pitfalls of extreme wealth, rather than represent the inevitable outcome of making money. Or maybe DiCaprio is a Miltonian devil-character, degenerate but aware of his own degeneracy, and dashingly romantic as a result. Either way, these films made me worry a whole lot less about the fact that my decision to study literature means I will never make any money. The resulting debauchery just looks too exhausting.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Large Ex-Military Mavericks - Reacher, McEvoy or Strike?

There is a sub-genre of crime fiction where the hero is a rugged, manly person recently discharged from the military, who despite his professed desire to live a simple, blameless life surrounded by kittens, rainbows and ponies, gets drawn inescapably into investigating some bloody civilian crime, which is not a patch on the crimes he investigated when he was in the military, but somehow still takes him 500 pages to solve. Three notable specimens of this type are Jack Reacher, Daniel McEvoy and Cormoran Strike. All three are over 6ft tall, stacked and brooding. But each has his own charm. Here is a summary of each one's first appearance, for the sake of comparison:

Jack Reacher first appears in Lee Child's Killing Floor. Having recently left the Military Police, after a lifetime of army bases man and boy, he decides to become a Hobo, and listens to lots of country music travelling around the USA on public transport and paying for things in cash. He gets off a bus one morning in the middle of nowhere, and walks into a small and inconsequential town in Georgia that happens to be in the throes of a tidal wave of inexplicable crime. In fact, he is immediately arrested for a shooting that happened the previous evening, because he is a stranger, and people in small towns think strangers are bad. This is not a bad development for Reacher, though, because it enables him to meet Finlay, the local detective who will be his slightly dimmer old sidekick, and Roscoe, sexy woman cop who looks good in shirts, jeans and uniforms as well as out of them. She also occasionally says something clever, but is mostly there as an excuse for sex scenes. The plot involves some satisfying twists, but the revelations are so heavily signposted you may well work out what is going to happen a good fifty pages before it actually does. This is annoying. Reacher himself is an interesting character. He is a distillation of all things masculine; tall, strong, martial arts expertise bordering on the supernatural and a love of large guns. Interestingly, he is not that great at driving, but this seems to be a case of ticking the 'character must have at least one weakness' box. He knows everything there is to know about combat and anger and death, and he is never surprised. He has feelings, but they are always secondary to his instincts, his effortless ability to distinguish right from wrong and willingness to act on that distinction by braining people with a blackjack and creating rivers of the blood of his enemies. The book itself is not a particularly traumatic read - horrible things are done by good and bad guys alike, but the characters are cardboard cut-outs that can only elicit so much sympathy in their passing. Overall, it is not a bad read, if you have a large vat of willing suspension of disbelief lying around. And as an unintentional bonus, the fact that it was written in 1997 makes it amusingly dated - Reacher delights in skipping around leaving no trace of his identity which is somewhat harder to do in the age of facebook and ubiquitous CCTV. But I digress.

Daniel McEvoy appears in Eoin Colfer's 2011 Plugged. The title refers to his recently acquired hair implants, carried out by his friend, dodgy doctor Zeb. McEvoy has recently left the Irish army, where he worked on various UN peacekeeping missions, and acquired some serious mental scars which he does not discuss in detail. The main advantage McE has over Reacher is that he has a sense of humour, which runs through his first-person narrative like a seam of gold, making it very easy to ignore whether or not things are believable. The plot is as tightly constructed and gloriously twisted as Killing Floor's, but the characters are far more believable, despite their stereotypic qualities. In fact, they are constantly pushing against the boundaries of their own stereotypes, and constructing images and identities for themselves which are fictional but they are willing to defend quite viciously. The driving force of the novel is itself wonderfully quirky: McEvoy discovers that Zeb has gone missing, and the same day his occasional girlfriend Connie is found murdered outside the nightclub where they work. While trying to find out what happened to Connie, McEvoy has the constant nagging voice of Zeb in his head, complaining about how McEvoy is not looking for him. McEvoy has picked up some skills in the army, both physical and strategic, but he is reluctant to use them, and though he engages in violence he does not exactly revel in it. In fact, more often than not the sage advice he follows was given to him by his boozy psychoanalyst, to whom he was assigned after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. That combined with his concern about the hair plugs gives the impression that McEvoy is trying to better himself, that he would like to have friends and fit into society rather than being a tough loner, and that makes him sympathetic. At the same time, he is not shy of a bit of sarcasm, and never soppy.

Cormoran Strike is a different breed to the previous two creatures. First appearing in Robert Galbraith's (aka. J.K. Rowling's) The Cuckoo's Calling, he is an x-soldier, discharged because he lost part of his leg in an explosion in Afghanistan. This is a recurring theme in the plot, as he has to do all the daring things a private investigator has to do with the added challenge of his prosthesis, which often causes him trouble. Like McEvoy, Strike is not one to romanticise the military. But although the book has many humorous moments, Cormoran is a brooding Heathcliff character who takes himself exceptionally seriously. He is the son of a rockstar and deceased groupie, which both helps and hinders his investigative career. It is unclear what made him decide to become a detective, but he is reminiscent of the BBC's rendering of Dr Watson in Sherlock. And what is most interesting about The Cuckoo's Calling is really the way the character of the deceased victim, Lula Landry, emerges and is modified by each revelation in Strike's investigation of her death. Strike is of less central importance than McEvoy or Reacher, because this is a third-person narrative, and he shares point-of-view character status with his assistant, Robin. Nevertheless, an engaging hero is useful for a successful detective novel, and Strike is engaging. The mystery of his past, which he is not too keen on discussing, unfolds beside the murder investigation, and the fact that his detective agency is almost bankrupt and he has personally hit rock bottom gives him all the more motivation to pursue this case. The prose may get a little Rowling-esque at times, but it is still certainly better written than Killing Floor, and somewhat more substantial than Plugged, though it lacks the easy humour of the latter.

All in all, Daniel McEvoy is a bit too unbelievably calm, not to mention glib in times of stress, Cormoran Strike is a big brooding baby, but Jack Reacher tops the lot by being a murderous psychopath who coats his killing sprees with a veneer of justice.