Tag Archives: review

“The Guest Cat”, by Takeshi Hiraide (2015)

My wife and I have lived with cats for twenty years now which is a shocking realisation. This book, an unexpected birthday present, is a meditation on how the relationships between ourselves and our cats (and neighbours) form and the ways in which we negotiate the fiddly, fussy social barriers defining the spaces and transitions between us.

A couple rent a property and find a cat begins to visit them regularly. She (the cat, Chibi), becomes more and more important as the narrator and his wife negotiate a major change in their lives, the Showa era ends and the Japanese property bubble of the late 80s begins to evaporate.

I suspect something of the flavour of this book has been lost in translation, though more through the unbreechable gap between the Western language of subject-object and that of Japanese (something the book explicitly addresses), where the distinction all but dissolves, rather than through any fault of of the translator. 

What we have, however, is still a touching mediation on loss and marriage and the kind of love that descends like snowflakes overnight. 

Advertisements

Romance and bromance and YA fiction

I struggle with romance.

That is to say, I struggle with the idea that YA without romance is coffee without milk. For one thing, coffee without milk is actually a pretty undiluted coffee experience. For another, whilst teenagers seldom get through the next ten minutes without thinking about sex and relationships (not unlike your average ‘middle-aged adult’), they seem to be able to function for weeks on end without plummeting into a crisis featuring either.

That isn’t to say that romance doesn’t spring up in the strangest of environments but can it please be credible romance? Especially in a war zone full of flying live ammunition? There is romance a plenty in a war zone (they aren’t call the Baby Boomer generation for nothing, you know) but it isn’t high school. I mean, was I the only person who felt that elements of the love triangle in the Hunger Games trilogy were a teeny bit flown-in?

There’s actually a technical term for this problem, which YA seems to suffer from more than any other genre – Sex in a Submarine. Let’s say you have a story where five male and two female (or vice versa) teens are trapped on a space satellite high in orbit with the air running out. They have six hours left. The whole focus of your thriller is the frantic rush to cobble together a rescue mission, the tension felt by the waiting families, the mid-plot turn-around as its revealed that one of the crew actually sabotaged the ship etcetera, etcetera…

And then an editor somewhere asks “Where’s the romance? Teenagers live for that frisky stuff. Can’t two of them have an affair or something?”

They’re on a spaceship. A small one. With no air. They are all going to die if they don’t spend every second working on a solution. They have to keep breathing slowly and evenly and not get excited. “Frisky” is out of the question.

That isn’t to say that one can’t approach the issue in a more creative way. The crew have back stories and those back-stories might be fairly intense. Two of them might be twins separated at birth. Another pair might going steady (and one might have to make a life or death decision about the other). Otherwise, you know, spaceship.

Lastly, why aren’t there more proper boy/girl bromances in YA? Because that’s the secret. Mulder and Scully, Cagney and Lacey (sort of), Starbuck and Apollo in the Battlestar Galactica reboot…And the secret to a good bromance is that, no matter what the frisson (and we want frisson), they must never, ever kiss. Especially (see below) if one of them is a skeleton.

Six recent YA (or close as dammit) reads which do and don’t resort to the Submarine Stratagem in one form or another. There may be spoilers. Proceed at your own risk etc.

  1. All You Need Is Kill by Sakurazaka Hiroshi. I’m cheating already. It isn’t strictly speaking YA (too much of that horrid swearing) but with a big Tom Cruise movie based on this imminent and a large manga following, it’ll find itself shelved in the same zone. This is a book where this is nothing but shooting and killing. Lots of killing. There’s a romance if you look hard enough but it’s a wistful, between-the-lines, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of romance that belies the unsubtle nature of the rest of this novel. And observe the male/female bromance factor!
  2. Artemis Fowl vol 1-4. Artemis really has other things on mind – chess, crime, being a super-genius, winning Nobel-prizes as a hobby. Is it a coincidence that the moment Eoin Coifer began (for me)  to feel that he needed to explicitly address adolescence, the series began to lose a little steam And the switch from the marvelous ‘bromance’ between Holly Short and Artemis to icky inter-species snogging? Eww!
  3. The Girl of Fire and Thorn by Rae Carson started out so promisingly! Arranged marriages! Hopeless husbands! Weight issues! Then the heroine goes all Keira Knightley in the dreadful King Arthur (ie skinny, likes pointy things) and the hot boys are suddenly all over her. Sigh.
  4. Red Shift by Alan Garner. I’ve written before about this short, brutal take on love, sex and adolescence (with a side order of mysticism and genocide). I don’t think love, violence and dystopia – even if the dystopia is the caravan park in our heads – have ever been integrated as well as here.
  5. Firebrand (Rebel Angels #1) by Gillian Philip. Now this isn’t perfect (though I thoroughly enjoyed it) but one thing Gillian Philip does very well is evoking the almost constant physical ferment of adolescence without letting it get in the way of the ferocious action at the core of the book. Plenty of bromance but we are, after all, dealing with a book about two brothers.
  6. Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy. I do love me a good Skulduggery novel and Valkerie is a genuinely original heroine. Are there boyfriends, romance? Yes. Do they drive the story convincingly? Yes. Do they occasionally come to satisfyingly, sticky, messy ends? Yes, quite literally. And there’s also another wonderful bromance, between Skullduggery and his sidekick Valkerie.

“The Rebel Worlds” by Poul Anderson (1969)

Poul Anderson’s The Rebel Worlds begins so promisingly:

Make oneness.

I/we: Feet belonging to Guardian of North Gate and others who can be, to Raft Farer and Woe who will no longer be, to Many Thoughts, Cave Discoverer, and Master of Songs who can no longer be…

And so on, for five hundred or so impenetrable, poetic, evocative words as Anderson takes us deep into the thoughts of the thoroughly alien race he’ll eventually (and all too briefly) introduce us to. Unfortunately, we’re cheated. The novel we’re actually given is a fairly standard, if entertaining, space opera enlivened by a chastely portrayed love triangle between doomed, heroic figures: Commander Flandry, the swashbuckling, womanising hero of a number of Anderson’s books, the rebel Admiral McCormac and his wife Kathryn, whom Anderson blesses with one of the more bizarrely rendered accents I’ve encountered in a major character. Possibly it’s meant to be Irish. It reads like the speech impediment I had as a child.

“Well, learnin’ does seem to go easier’n for our race, but ’tis not instantaneous…”

Overall, this is classicist stuff – readers of Heinlein and the ‘New SF’ of the late sixties will recognise the push and pull between reactionary libertarianism (men are men and women are…well, we’ll come to that) and counter-cultural mores (“We have the regular assortment of drink and drugs…and would you like a bite to eat?”).

The plot, hinging on the tension between rebellion for short-sighted but well-meanng motives versus long-sighted paternalistic imperialism, is well structured and pacey and the action sequences all you’d expect from the author of Broken Sword. Flandry is a surprisingly complex creation and the aforementioned aliens justify the entire book.

But seldom have I encountered a text so thoroughly (and, occasionally, comically) of its time – 1969.

“Because his object was not to enlighten but to simply to seduce her, he twirled his mustache and leered…”

Oh. My God. The lead character has a mustache. Which he twirls. The mission he’s sent on interrupts his birthday celebrations with “three gorgeous girls, ready and eager…” A page later, he meets another woman dressed in a ‘translucent wisp of rainbow.’ Fortunately, “she was constructed for it…”

Finally, however, Flannery meets his match in the formidable Kathryn. Astonishingly, she looks like his mother! And he promptly gets the hots for her like no other woman he’s ever encountered in his life. Perhaps its because she’s dressed in a “nacreous slip”?

What exactly is going on here? From ‘woman is the recreation of the warrior’ to Oedipus within a few hundred words? She is of course, a red-head. Every ‘strong woman’ in the whole history of 20th century SF has red hair, from EE ‘Doc’ Smith and his Lensmen onwards. She’s also broad-shouldered, muscular, bronzed and did I mention that she looks like his mother

Enough already. The Rebel Worlds is a product of its time and no more or less sexist than most of the rock music or art produced in the late sixties. The question one has to ask is “Shouldn’t science fiction writers of the time have known a little better?” One can make excuses for Dickens – I’m not so sure that ‘it was the times’ holds completely true by the time we were putting a man on the Moon.

Still, there are at least those aliens which provide another Freudian twist to the text. They’re tri-partite beings consisting of a lumbering manual labourer, a flittering bird of prey type thing and a vaguely chimp-like creature. Together, they form a single sentient being. It’s hard not to speculate about ids, egos and superegos, though Anderson’s id seems to take charge of his typewriter every time a woman wanders (slinks, sashays, flirts…) onto the page. 

Overall? Read with gritted teeth or (better) seek out Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, published in the same year. After that, things would change. Slowly.


Book – “Red Shift” by Alan Garner (1973)

Back when I was in secondary school, I tore through Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor. Red Shift, along with its immediate predecessor, The Owl Service, was tougher stuff altogether. His earlier novels were full-blown fantasy of a particularly intense and mythic kind. Back then, they left one feeling that the reality of the world could at any moment be torn away. Nowadays, I’d understand that as a visceral sense of the sacred, the wildness and the connectedness inherent in the world around us and within ourselves, and the power that stories and words have over us. The power that almost anything has to become, and wield power as, a myth.

Red Shift confronts that wildness and connectedness head on, without recourse to fantasy but through the interlocked stories of three couples dominated by the myths of their own times. The first couple, a Roman deserter in early Roman Britain and a tribal ‘corn goddess’ survive through capitulation to the mythic discourse shaping their world. At the time of the civil war, conflicting political myths bring nothing but death to a village in the same part of Cheshire and the couple there are nearly destroyed in the process. In the ‘modern’ Cheshire of the early seventies, two teenagers struggle with discourses of science and class – contributing myths of our own time – and ultimately break up. All of this is held together by a sacred axe passed from age to age and a mysteriously sacred landscape.

As was becoming typical of Garner, all this is communicated through intense, elliptical dialog and starkly visionary evocations of time and place (and the reality is that he’s always thought this way). It’s hard to believe Red Shift was written for a teenage audience and it suggests that YA fiction hasn’t exactly progressed in the last few years in comparison. Mind you, most fiction suffers in comparison with Garner.

Some things about Red Shift sting a lot more today than they did then. The smothering nature of modern-day Tom’s family  is both poignant and horrifying and uncomfortably reminiscent of my own awkward relationships with my father and mother. The incessant jargon and in-jokes and the atrocities committed by the gang of deserting Roman squaddies (survivors of the lost Ninth legion?) are a little too obviously paralleled on American actions in Vietnam but the violence is economically and brutally evoked.

It’s not an easy read but those of you who remembered Garner from your childhoods and felt bemused by Boneland‘s challenging ‘completion’ of the Brisingamen trilogy may find it a bridging work that helps you make a little more sense of his most recent novel (which I loved, by the way).


Alan Garner’s Boneland

How on earth am I supposed to respond to Boneland, Alan Garner’s completion of a trilogy begun with the Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath nearly 50 years ago?

Boneland  tells a the story of Colin, one of the siblings at the centre of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. Colin is an astro-physicist and clearly a genius whose life centres around the radio telescope of Jodrell Bank and a dimly perceived mission as a kind of guardian of Cheshire’s Alderley Edge, the scene of certain events in his childhood that have vanished from his memory. He also has Asperger’s syndrome and we meet him on the edge of a titanic personal struggle against mental breakdown. Colin’s story is juxtaposed against an early, prehistoric inhabitant of the Edge with an explicitly mythical or metaphysical mission in maintenance of the landscape. This unnamed figure is fighting a far more literal kind of breakdown, one that threatens to swallow not only his life and future but the whole of his world.

The earlier books were written for children (would the modern marketing classification be ‘young adult?) but Boneland is definitely written for grown-ups, not so much because of any inherent sex and violence, but because of its density and unashamed difficulty. This is quite a gnarly text. Its centre-piece, for example, is thirty or pages or so of intense dinner table conversation between a man who is about as psychologically damaged as it is possible for a human being functioning at a high level to be and his therapist. They touch on myth, archaeology, geology, physics and much else. They also drink a great deal of wine. There is hysteria and a sort of geographical menstrual flood.

And yet, this is expecting no more of us, the readers of those earlier texts, now twenty, thirty, forty years older, than the Weirdstone and The Moon did of us as children. If the earlier books, written at the inception of Garner’s career, were full of folklore, information, terror, gnawing dark and, yes, violence, the violence and terror at the heart of Boneland is yet darker. It is the fear of utter dissolution.

That isn’t what shook me most about Boneland as a narrative, however. The real, heart-rending core of the book is an express of unbelievable grief and loss so powerful that, half way through, I wondered if I’d be able to finish it. What’s trickier to engage with are the mythological underpinnings to Colin’s story. There are nods to the Triple Goddess, prehistoric humanity’s relationship with the stars and a compact, granite like erudition over such a hugely ranging area of subject matter that I could really have done with a text two or three times as long to help me make sense of it all. Like Alderley in winter, this isn’t a book that suffers fools gladly.

Still, perhaps I should remember the admonishment of Stevie Smith and simply ‘read it again then’. Ultimately, this is a book carved out of three landscapes – that of the modern Alderley of Colin’s experience and his struggle to maintain it in a wider context, the beautifully rendered Alderley of the deep, mythological past and behind these, the relentless challenge of Garner’s intellect. It isn’t a novel that has much time for character development – the business it is about is too urgent for this. At worst, the characters are placeholders for larger meanings. At best, as with Colin, they are beautifully, precisely-expressed cyphers to themselves. If nothing else, it left me convinced that there was the serious business of someone’s soul at stake here.

Would I recommend it? Unreservedly. But don’t expect any elves or goblins. They’re still there but they’re buried deeply and digging them out will demand a lot of you.