Monday, December 10, 2018

December Reads Part One

The Fall of Dragons by Miles Cameron
Blood of Assassins by R. J. Barker
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Walks with Men by Ann Beattie (read in October but forgot to mark it down)
Salute the Dark by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I'm not sure why I put off reading the second entry in Barker's Wounded Kingdom series. Barker is such a solid storyteller that even when toiling in the fields of homogeneous fantasy tropes (kings, assassins, blood, thrones), he reaps insightful and beautiful fruit. Girton, his complicated protagonist, full of angst, righteous anger at an unfair world, a cruel world, Girton, the honourable, the hyper competent but not too competent assassin, is a wonderful protagonist to hang a trilogy on. The fantasy I've read has not featured much in the way of meaningful or fluid characterization. Most characters react to obstacles, emotionally and in terms of action. Girton, on the other hand, like many human beings, doesn't evolve along a liner path from adolescence to maturity. There are steps forward and steps backward. The dynamic aspect of his characterization makes for a frustrating read if you hang all your sympathy for the novel as a whole onto the shoulders of the characters (we do not behave like that around these parts thank you very much). Girton will no doubt remain one of the most memorable protagonists thanks to this dynamism. As for the plot, it's a rehash of the first book (Girton has a mystery to solve, the identity of a traitor) but the stakes are dramatically increased (his master is waylaid by illness etc). Rehash might be too negative sounding. When the core storytelling is this good, the uniqueness of the plot is an afterthought. I'm friends with Barker on Twitter, but I don't think that's affected my judgement. Barker is really that good.

I've owned a copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for eons but never have I got around to it. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her memoir, is our queer bookclub pick for the winter. I never finished the last selection (The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, even though I was liking it) so I felt responsible to read the next one. I don't read a lot of memoirs because I find their form, their structure, to be a little staid, a little boring. I prefer the magic and wonder of a narrative, the tricks it can pull. Why Be Happy does some things differently, such as structuring the linear chronological narrative by themes, but it's still linear. What works for the book as an experience, and what obviously affected Winterson herself to a galactic degree, is the character of her mother, this imposing, larger-than-life, fervently religious manic depressive woman. She commands the stage when she appears, so when she is finally left behind after the second third, the memoir suffers for her. Hand in hand with her mother's presence is of course the Northern England setting. I'm a sucker for Northern England. The poverty, the language, the family dynamics, the insularity and backwards culture while still producing important cultural objects. I was reminded quite a bit of Alan Moore's Jerusalem while reading Why Be Happy; where Moore works his thesis into the cosmology of his myth, Winterson says it outright: the North was and is being eroded by capitalist governments who care more about profit than the people. The policies of the governments treat the working class as a problem instead of as an integral part of the fabric of the country. Winterson provides a short history of Manchester, highlighting the industrialization and the Nori bricks, as both context and metaphor for the ways in which the poor and working class have been disregarded, ignored, dismissed, downtrodden, oppressed by the ruling class. Where Moore imagines a waste incinerator as a wound in the world stretching backwards and forwards in time, depleting the North of England of its humanity, Winterson suggests Thatcher and her ilk are to blame. Neoliberalism and greed hastened the inexorable decay of the Mancunian culture. The uniqueness of Manchester can be summed up by this delightful bit of novelistic detail from Why Be Happy:
The outside loo was shared with two other houses. It was very clean—outside loos were supposed to be very clean— and this one had a picture of the young Queen Elizabeth II in military uniform. Someone had graffitied GOD BLESS HER on the wall.
I laughed very hard at this. Why is there a picture of her in the outside toilet? And if there was to be graffiti, why God Bless Her???? Hahahaha. Unfortunately, the chuckles end after the two thirds mark, when Winterson's mother exits stage right and the spectre of Winterson's birth mother enters stage left. The rest of the memoir tracks the writer's agonizing over her decision to meet the mother who gave her up for adoption. As somebody who is not adopted, but who has an adopted grandparent (my Pappy was born in abject poverty and was lifted from this status by a benevolent doctor and his wife. My family owes their middle class status, in part, to this much feted athlete, war hero, and physician Lorne Cuthbert Montgomery), I struggled a bit with this section. Perhaps because I'm so distant from her plight, I had trouble connecting. I grew impatient. Not only with the tedium of the bureaucracy she faced (no doubt intentional on the part of the memoir) but with Winterson's emotional turmoil. The description, the actual words she used, the sheer quantity of words, failed, I felt, to convey the depth of these emotions. The effect, unfortunately, is opposite to her intentions: in describing her emotions so much, and in such detail, they grew artificial. The overall feeling was not of a great well of feeling but of a show of feeling (like Eddie Redmayne: in his strenuous efforts to act, all that can be seen is his craft and not the soul of the character). Overall, I liked the memoir, but I did not love it, and I could have done almost entirely without the final third.


Salute the Dark is the fourth in Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series and, until I reached the final 50 pages, I thought it was yet another entry in this serialized story. The finale though changes the game, something not unwelcome. Tchaikovsky's plotting is still breakneck in its speed, sometimes moving so fast it feels there's another novel just peeking out from the edges. So much material, a surplus. Much of the issues I've had with this series persist—a lack of proper description, a homogeneity to the characterization, a surfeit of plot—though not to the point of distraction. The rougher edges are smoothed out better than in previous entries. At almost the halfway point (I can't believe I'm four books deep into a 10 book series), I can confidently affirm Tchaikovsky's mastery of just good storytelling. I'm invested in this world, hoping with each entry secrets are revealed, heroes turn out to be traitors, traitors turn out to be heroes, and the world itself deepens. I'm still of the mind that Tchaikovsky's masterpiece is Children in Time, which as time passes increases in esteem for me. 

Walks with Men is a novella by Beattie in her more typically obscure mode. The narrator starts a love affair with an older man, who treats her as a student to be educated in the ways of high culture and fashion and society. Later, the older man simply disappears, leaving the narrator to ponder the effect he had on her. There's not much plot to this, and characters are even more passive than in her usual style. Hence, the absurdly low Goodreads score. I liked it a lot but I wonder how much more glittering and diamond hard it could have been as a short story instead of a novella. Not sure why I didn't review it in October. Or November. But since so much time has passed, I don't remember much in the way of specifics. Still, a great read from a reliably terrific writer.  

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