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100 Books in 2011 review: Edge

I was looking forward to reading Edge by Thomas Blackthorne. I liked the blurb (which you can see in the picture). It sounded like it was going to be an ultra-violent Running Man fun type of silliness. Predators in book form. But that’s not what it was. Bad Angry Robot. That’s the second time I’ve read a book from this imprint that did not contain what was on the label.

Edge is actually a thriller set in a near-future dystopia. The son of a wealthy and influential tycoon runs away from home so he hires an ex-SAS soldier with mad software skills to find the boy. Doing so reveals illegal activity on the behalf of the tycoon’s biggest rival in cahoots with a corrupt government. It’s set in a near-future UK where everything is tracked and recorded electronically all the time and getting off the grid is tough. Knife duels are legal and as a result crime is down but loads of people die in duels. And sports/reality TV is dominated by a duelling league where combatants die every week for your viewing pleasure. But the book doesn’t focus on that part of it. That’s the backdrop for the real story.

It was a good thriller. It was easy reading and fast paced. The protagonist, Josh Cumberland, is a fairly typical modern thriller hero; big, buff, beautiful, with special forces training (which in this world includes cyber warfare) and an anger management problem. What lifts Edge up from the mass is the cast of strong female characters that support the protagonist. Cumberland’s team of ex-SAS buddies are not all male – and the ones that are, have three-dimensional personalities. His insider on the force is a policewoman who gives free self-defence classes in her spare time. The ‘love interest’ is a psychologist whose skills are pivotal to resolving the central mystery. And it’s nice that her role as psychologist way overshadows her role as love interest. I thought the characterisation was real and sensitive, and I think this might actually pass the Bechdel test.

The near-future setting was rich and cleverly put together. It was distinctive, memorable and thoroughly thought through, and yet at no time did the setting overshadow the story. I was disappointed that the knife duelling reality show didn’t have more airtime, but that’s only because that’s what I thought the book would be about. But Edge is excellent, and it was a better story than that. I hope Blackthorne writes more stories set in this world.

Writing-wise, it was clean and competent. Blackthorne has a very understated style. The writing focusses on plot with description and characterisation subtly woven in-between dialogue and action. Ignore the blurb and give it a go.   

100 Books in 2011 review: Grass

Book number 1 in the 100 books in 2011 challenge is Grass by Sherri Tepper. It’s number 48 on the SF Masterworks list. The blurb says:

Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture… Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Grass follows Marjorie Yrarier and her family as they go as ambassadors to Grass with the secret mission of finding a cure for the plague. There are two societies on Grass; the aristocrats, an ossified relic of old European aristocracy that spends its time hunting; and the Commons which is a vibrant, trading nation. Then there are the Hippae, who act as mounts in the aristocrats’ hunts, but who are far more than semi-intelligent animals.

I loved this. The central mystery is well-handled and the reveal is done slowly over the last third of the book. Grass as a world is vividly realised and it’s inhabitants and their relationships are well-drawn. The ideas about social organization are subtly woven in and the plot is always at the foreground. I actually couldn’t put it down. It’s nice to read something with a middle aged woman as the protagonist – especially science fiction, especially an adventure mystery. Marjorie is a wife and a mother, and yet she is portrayed as an individual, as active and as as driving the story. Marjorie is purposeful woman, driven to solve the mystery at the heart of the disturbing planet she finds herself on and, although she has love interests (three if you count her husband) they are secondary to the main plot. It’s worth mentioning because it strikes me that female protagonists, in this type of story, are pretty rare. Tepper avoids the traps of either making her female protag solely defined by her family and romantic relationships or making her a man in a lady costume. It’s so refreshing.

I only have two minor niggles, and seriously, they are tiny. First. the planet Grass is sharply drawn and the word picture is rich and vivid. The group of colonies that it is part of is quite fuzzy; I don’t even know whether to call it a galaxy, system or universe. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as most of the action is on Grass but it does feel slightly incomplete. The other niggle is the omniscient third person POV. Tepper handles it well so it doesn’t feel like head-hopping, but I did find it a little old-fashioned and in one or two places it is confusing.

So, Grass was excellent, overall. It was complex, deep and thought-provoking. It was beautifully written. It made me want to read everything else she’s written. Highly recommended.

Thoughts on reading: The Bluest Eye

I discovered I could edit on the train so I wasn’t reading for a while. I’ve got as far as I can with editing the current work-in-progress; it now needs more writing and I can’t do that on the train quite so well. That does mean I’m reading again which is no bad thing as active reading leads to better writing.

The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison‘s first novel. I wanted to read it as it deals with the impact of cultural conceptions on beauty on people who don’t, and can’t ever, be beautiful on those narrow terms. And Toni Morrison is an important writer whose work I haven’t before read.

In the introduction to the edition of The Bluest Eye that I had, Morrison talked about what she had tried to achieve and how she felt that she’d failed. She’d tried to tell the story of a person who is smashed by rejection, who had no self from which to speak because she had internalised the dismissal and hate. To do this, she used a variety of voices to relate a number of incidents that build up to a picture of the child that results. Morrison doesn’t feel she succeeded. As I don’t know what she was trying to do, I can’t say, but it seems to me that what she wrote was exceptional.

What I particularly took from this novel was the way in which Morrison manages to convey accent and rhythm of speaking with word choice and sentence structure. She doesn’t rely on dialect spellings to give her characters authentic voices, meaning the reader doesn’t need to work out how things are supposed to sound. She uses words that were contemporary to 1950’s Black America and structures her sentences in ways that mimic the rhythm of this type of speech. She allows the world of the novel to be built up quickly without distracting the reader from the story.

The second learning point for me was around structure. The novel has four sections which correspond to the seasons and in each section a part of the story is told by a number of different characters. It isn’t chronological for the seasons aren’t necessarily in the same year. Each event adds another layer to the story of the life of a child until you see just how brutalised she is, and just how unintentional most of it was.

In her introduction, Morrison says that few people were moved by The Bluest Eye – I certainly was.

Thoughts on reading: The Hard Way

Plot. I have issues with plot. I have a mental block when it comes to getting my characters from one big event to another via smaller events. Perhaps it’s just a confusion, a lack of being able to see the big picture, and the plot really is there and I just can’t see it. If it is there, it won’t be because I did it deliberately.

With this in mind, I picked up The Hard Way by Lee Child. It’s heavy on plot, one of those thrillers that’s all plot and not much else. In actual fact, it’s more of a detective novel with the emphasis on gathering the little clues and interpreting them to fnd out what really happened. The ending is sufficiently explosive with Jack Reacher dispatching the bad guys at a breakneck pace that makes it rather exciting.

Characterisation is on the light side. This is the second Jack Reacher novel I’ve read and I don’t think I know him any better than I did after reading the first one. The rest of the characters are fairly thin. The bad guys are bad and several of the seven-man crew have only names and a couple of physical features to describe them. Reacher hooks up with an ex-FBI agent turned PI, who is a woman in her fifties given an active role and is the love interest, so kudos to Lee Child for a positive, powerful representation of an older woman. Unfortunately, her role is limited to being a foil for Reacher and at the end she is tied up waiting to be rescued.

It is good to see that there isn’t a high body count amongst the female characters, and a theme of strong sisters fighting for their families runs through the book. It is done rather unsubtly but is a nice touch in a genre that is often misogynistic. There is also a drop of social commentary on the privatisation of the defence and security industries. It’s not great literature, but it is fun and is better than several thrillers I’ve read recently.

In non-fiction I turned for help to The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman. I got this because it was mentioned by a panelist at alt.fiction 2010 and I have been worrying about plot lately. It has some useful suggestions in it and a couple of things I hadn’t read before, so it was worth it’s purchase. What I didn’t like was the highly gendered use of pronouns when talking about characterisation techniques. At the beginning, Lukeman says he will use he as a generic term, which is lazy at best, but ok. Except that’s not what he does. He sometimes uses he and sometimes uses she. If he had just alternated that would have been ok, but he doesn’t. He only uses she when talking about things that are associated with women in traditional gender stereotypes and never uses she outside of talking about children, attractiveness and domesticity. Grating, and enough to spoil the book, especially as it was written in 2001.

Thoughts on reading: Club Dead

The Book People come to where I work and sometimes you can gets lots of books for little money. The last time they had eight Sookie Stackhouse novels for a tenner. Even taking off the two I’ve already bought, it was still a bargain, so here I am, reading more pulp fiction.

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris is the third in the series. Like the others there is something compelling about it but I can’t put my finger on what. The writing is ok; it’s not great but worse gets published.

Sookie’s overwhelming attraction for the supernatural men around her is tiresome. She’s so special and different (undefinably, because it’s not about her telepathy for all them) that they just have to have her. Of course she says regular men find her unattractive but there aren’t actually any in the books. In Club Dead, Sookie is angry with Bill for cheating on her, but she doesn’t know that for sure, and she goes off to rescue him anyway. Along the way, she smooches with Eric and a werewolf without managing to pick up any understanding for Bill. Reversing the double standard doesn’t make it better.

I don’t think I can even read it as sex positive, because Sookie doesn’t have agency. She is at the mercy of passion, swept along by the force of male desire, unable to help herself. And that’s why it’s not sex positive. Sookie isn’t having these encounters because she is choosing them, she’s having them because she is unable to resist. Which just reinforces negative stereotypes about women and sex.

Of course, for all its many faults, it is a great story that is an easy read. And there is no doubt I will read the rest, probably soon. I’m not sure why I like them, and I feel slightly soiled, but I do like them. Can anyone explain it to me?

Non-fiction titles I’ve been reading are The Gods of the Celts by Miranda Green and Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body by Susan Bordo. Gods of the Celts was really interesting, if a little dry. The evidence is largely archaeological and the Celts didn’t leave behind any written explanation of their own, so inferences must be carefully done. It was fascinating and represented a take on religion that is different to the current dominant paradigm. Unbearable Weight was awesome. It is a collection of Bordo’s essays on feminism and the cultural aspects of eating disorders. Highly recommended and for a serious academic work, very accessible.

Crossed Genres, Issue 5

Issue 5 of Crossed Genres is sci-fi/fantasy crossed with humour. There are five stories.

The first is Archimedes Nesselrode by Justine Graykin. The start of this put me off. I think perhaps this information could have been worked into the story as part of the narrative, rather than as an introductory scene. The setting is lovely but I think Graykin has missed a trick. Her writing is competent but her style is quite matter of fact and works against the picture she’s trying to convey. The characters didn’t really come across well and it didn’t make me laugh.

A Simple Matter by Linda Linsey did make me laugh. I loved the updated take on fairy godmother stories. More could have been made of the ending, which struck me as a little hurried, and the ‘twist’ was telegraphed early on. Although I was amused by it.

I really liked the concept of Condiment Wars by Jill Afzelius. It’s inventive and entertaining. The pacing is good and the author draws the ending out nicely. There were a few moments that made me smile and I’d be interested in reading the further adventures of ketchup and mustard. I found the writing style laboured though. It seemed a little unsophisticated and often the dialogue was stilted. As it’s a dialogue-heavy story (in principle, a good thing) this is quite important. This is a great idea that would have benefitted from a serious re-write.

Story number 4 is A Smoking Idol by Max Orkis. Well, it’s not so much a story as an anecdote. This is some good writing; I’m just not sure this piece showcases it that well.

The final piece is A Tale of Two Bureaucracies by Jeremy Zimmerman. Hee. This is genuinely amusing – or at least, genuinely appeals to my sense of humour. It’s also well written and an intelligent take on bureaucracy. Zimmerman had a story in Issue three that I really liked. And just checking back I realise I haven’t reviewed Issue 4. Ooops. Anyway, this tickled me. Definitely the best of the bunch.

Three out of five of the writers in this issue are women. I’ve no idea whether this was done consciously or not, but I would like to commend Crossed Genres for equal gender representation in this issue.

Writing and Unconscious Bias

I’ve been pondering this one for a while. A few weeks ago I stumbled across a radical feminist critique of one of my favourite shows, Firefly. My first reaction was ‘no, say it isn’t so!’ and my second was ‘maybe she’s got a point’. I don’t intend to address the arguments about Firefly, as that’s been done here and here.

What I do want to talk about, and what has been occupying my mind ever since, is what is it I do when I write. How much prejudice of any type is revealed in my writing because I am unconscious of it? I think writers want to show people as they actually are – and that sometimes means characters who are bigoted in various ways. That means characters who think they are not prejudiced but reveal by their words that they are.

Lately I’ve read novels and short stories where characters that are not white are described by their skin colour. It’s niggled at me and is possibly a sign that my consciousness has been raised a smidge. A white male character is just ‘a man’, whereas a black male character is ‘a black man’. It would be fine if all white male characters were described as ‘a white man’. Why does the black character need to be identified by his skin colour rather than some other characteristic individual to him? What it reveals is the (unconscious) assumption on the part of the author that white is the norm and that any deviation from this norm needs to be flagged to the reader.

Of course writers have to describe people and it’s nice as a reader to have some physical information to base their imaginations on. But in most cases does it matter if the reader is visualising your character as white or black, gay or straight? How often is it really relevant to the story or to character development? And when it is, it can be just about the individual rather than applying a label.

The trouble is, people use shortcuts and labels. In order to cope with all the information we process everyday, our brains code things. It’s even better if the people around us use the same codes. This is how stereotypes and tropes and mores get born. It’s why we have misunderstandings – because my word ‘woman’ might have different associations to your word ‘woman’. We need assumptions to get through even the most basic conversation.

I think as a writer, I need to have greater awareness. This is for entirely selfish reasons; I want to control what my words say as much as is possible. I don’t want to be misunderstood because I wrote something lazy, muddled and ill-considered. I think I’ve been a bit complacent about being tolerant and inclusive and that I have a bit of work to do in identifying my assumptions.