Archives for posts with tag: review

I’ve always been torn on China Miéville. He writes beautiful prose about strange otherworlds, and that is totally my kind of thing. I love books about weird places and the unfamiliar people living there, and I love the kind of writer who shows you around their setting in carefully chosen phrases, who can happily spent a page describing the view from a character’s window. Miévilleis definitely that kind of writer.

But I have to put him in a certain box in my mind. This box is labelled ‘DOES NOT WANT TO GIVE US NICE THINGS’, and sitting there waiting for him is one Mr. Iain M. Banks. They’re there to give me advance warning: these are otherwise appealing writers who I need to remind myself just can’t manage to get through a whole story before their inner eight-year-old takes over and sends them on a rampage to smash up the whole intricate world they’ve been building up for a whole book.

I mean, I guess they’re not just having a senseless tantrum: they’re both authors with things to say about nihilism and destructive social and political structures and the dark side of human nature and the like. Still, Embassytown and Perdido Street Station and The Player of Games and a bunch of others were all novels whose premises gripped me and whose writing style I admired a lot, and in all of them a shift took place towards the end that just left me fed up. Rocks fell; everyone died or lost the will to fight. I’d invested hours of attention in these places and characters, and it turned out their stories were going to end in misery and mindless destruction. I couldn’t help but feel a bit betrayed; I’d wanted to like these characters, and I got frustrated having the story set them off to make a difference to their worlds only to trip up in the final act and spend the rest of the story flat on their faces learning a hard-earned lesson about futility. It just didn’t seem in keeping with the thoughtful storytelling theirs novel start with any more than it would have if the power of friendship saved the day in the nick of time. Sorry, guys; I’ve wandered off from the same page as you.

So that’s my background, and I’ll come out and say that normally, futility isn’t something I’m interested in reading about in sci-fi and fantasy and genre fiction. It works in The Scar, though: it really works.

At the story’s start, the central character gets lost: one Bellis Coldwine loses her home and her social position and her support network, and the novel dances around her current situation as she considers substitutes for them. An elaborate, evocative society moves around her; other characters negotiate their own lives and relationships. Not all that much happens, for a 700+ page novel in a fantastical world with a lot of volatile and dangerous people in it. Whenever something does happen, Miéville assesses its impact; he writes his way towards the big destructive climax of the novel gradually, taking the temperature of the town as he goes and showing us all the stages that lead towards civil unrest.

Miéville earns all the mess and explosions and the big dramatic break-down in this novel in a way I haven’t seen him do elsewhere. I was interested. As always, the setting was beautifully original and detailed, and Miéville’s enjoyment of making up monsters fits in well here. His antagonists were sympathetic and his protagonist flawed and engaging; the ending was well-pitched, and he left some pleasing ambiguities open without it feeling like a lazy writing decision. It wasn’t a book I felt utterly amazed by in any one moment of creative genius, but it feels like a coherent and satisfying story in a way none of his others have to me. Bellis changes very slowly over the course of the book, so subtly that I didn’t notice him write any one key moment for her until I looked back on the finished whole. That’s one of the reasons everything falling to pieces works for me in this Miéville plot more than any others: these huge events that are shaking up whole civilisations are linked close to our main character’s narrative arc, but the way they affect her isn’t at all straightforward. That’s a pretty subtle piece of writing, and it’s more than earned a place as my favourite one of his books.

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Out of the feminist writing I’ve read this year, this was the most individual book I came across – readable, anecdotal, and wry even when the subject matter was upsetting, Ingrid Bengis tells the story of her relationship with men, women, love and feminism. It’s incisive and surprising and very self-aware.

It’s fascinating to read about a woman’s experience of oppression written from outside a feminist framework: she doesn’t call herself a feminist, isn’t straightforwardly straight but doesn’t call herself bi or lesbian, and by away from these familiar concepts she takes a number of easy assumptions away from readers. She defines as ‘man-hating’. She hates and fears and fights this identity, and she watches men closely and slowly finds that this man-hating of hers is born from their behaviour: from abuse she’s faced and the unthinking oppressions she notices when she looks.

It’s not a comfortable book: she talks about being raped, she talks about her own internalised homophobia, she talks about being sexually assaulted as a child. I didn’t find it added many big ideas or concepts to my understanding of feminism, either: what I felt like it taught me was how different women could relate to feminism – Bengis is a glamorous white cis woman from a conservative background who grew up presenting as heterosexual, and I only tick three of those boxes – and how lucky I am to have come to feminism without nearly as many internal struggles as Bengis needed to get where she did.

(I’m not keen on linking to shops, but while found this in a library it looks long-since out of print and probably hard to source. So in case it’s handy for anyone, when I was putting it on my list of books to buy if I ever got to make myself a feminist bookshelf, it looked like the cheapest place to find it in the UK was on AbeBooks: here)

Continuing my review-writing kick and switching themes and genres pretty dramatically, here’s some thoughts on the dead tree image-free version of Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games and worries about the glamorous film version that I haven’t yet witnessed! This post brought to you by the plethora of interesting writing about the film that’s going around the internet at the moment but not saying quite the things that I thought about the franchise.

 

I’ve just made plans to go and see the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, record-breaking teen blockbuster movie of the year and widely feted rival to the Twilight saga. I’m interested but also pretty apprehensive. It’s already chosen to only solicit auditions from white women for a character a bunch of other people and I read as explicitly biracial , so my hopes aren’t exactly sky-high, but it sounds likely that it’s going to be ambivalent about at least a few of things that normally get taken for granted and presented uncritically in mainstream media.

The book really surprised. I’d borrowed the first two books from a library last summer, having heard the name around for long enough to get curious. It was with a fair bit of trepidation: I remembered visiting a bookshop, reading the blurb and going “no, I don’t think your love triangle’s any more interesting for being set in an improbable dystopia”. It felt to me like dystopian themes were fashionable at the moment and that murderous reality TV shows weren’t novel enough ideas to be anything other than gimmicky plot devices to make a setting artificially bleak; in short, that the books’ premise was the genre fiction equivalent of filtering grainy sepia over the top of your mediocre photography to make it instantly evocative.

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The blogger Clarisse Thorn published a book a week or so ago; she called it Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, and I wasn’t quite sure how much she meant the ‘chaser’ part of the title. The term implies that you’re fetishising a group, often in problematic ways. I haven’t seen anyone claim it in much seriousness.

Besides, the subtitle was ‘Long Interviews with Hideous Men’. That contrast there stays throughout the book: a title that casts her as an eager admirer set against a subtitle that warns a reader off the misogyny of the men she’s after. Kink and fetishisation set against the (feminist) revulsion against the pickup community. I found this pretty fascinating: I wouldn’t want to read about pickup artists except through a feminist filter, and most feminists I know wouldn’t want to research and write about them except to issue sweeping dismissals. Clarisse Thorn has written a lot of things about women’s sexuality that I find incisive and rarely see discussed overtly: a lot about BDSM, about her sex life without orgasm, and about her later deconstruction of that progression, and how she doesn’t see orgasm as the be-all and end-all of sex, and more.

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