For realz. That good.
I just stare at this photo ’cos I almost can’t believe it. Look at my beautiful sisters.
This year I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write about what I’m reading. Maybe that’s because I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write long blog posts in general, or because I’ve been a little too negative lately and tend to emphasise the things I haven’t enjoyed in a work over what I have. Some of these books I’ve enjoyed hugely, but can’t muster enough of a cheer to write a whole post about. Perhaps it’s habit. After years of writing about everything I read, my impulse is to say, nah fuck it, that’s enough. Who am I writing this for anyway, besides myself?
So, a small pile of books I read between February and April, alphabetically.
Two from Alastair Reynolds, he of the madness of Revenger, which I also read again during these months. He also of Slow Bullets. He’s best when he writes women as main characters. Chasm City is one of his Revelation Space novels, and I got a kick out of those. Elysium Fire is a sequel to The Prefect. I like Reynolds, in specific instances. Neither of these two really got me. See what I mean about negative?
Barbara Newman’s Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine I’m still plodding through. (like I’m still plodding through Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Capitalism, 18 months later). Good stuff here, of that dense, Germanic mediæval stuff. Not easy reading, hence the plod.
Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate in the World: How Aborigines Made Australia, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? I read immediately post-Naarm. They cover similar ground but are complimentary rather than duplicating. They should be compulsory reading for all Australians, and I felt fucking ashamed at my ignorance reading these. Fucking ashamed. Another reason why I haven’t been writing about reading is if I did on these two, it’d be a long piece of anger against white invasion and genocide and erasing history. And I feel like so much of my life and the lives of friends and acquaintances is full with anger and fear these last years, ’cos it’s far from being over.
Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi and Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You is a rather sweet short collection of reading Hindu mythology for queer and trans stories. I have absolutely no way to evaluate the scholarship of Pattanaik, but still, one of the barely begun tasks is re-finding the diversity of selfhoods in pre-colonised cultures; we’ve always been here.
Fred Grimm’s »Wir wollen eine andere Welt« Jugend in Deutschland 1900-2010: Eine private Geschichte aus Tagebüchern, Briefen, Dokumenten. Zusammengestellt. has been on my shelves for ages. Katrin gave it to me as a present, and I’ve read bits and pieces of it. I’ve a heap of books I’ve never blogged that I didn’t read in the conventional start-to-finish way like this.
JY Yang. I think I read about them on io9, or maybe on one of the Asia-Pacific blogs I read. It was definitely in the context of an article or two on Singapore sci-fi / fantasy / speculative fiction, and coming off reading The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia (which was awesome) so I was vaguely paying attention. I read these in the wrong order, ’cos I liked the cover of The Red Threads of Fortune more than The Black Tides of Heaven. I also liked the former more than the latter, but that’s partly my particular preferences. I seriously love JY Yang and will read anything they write.
I’ve got a whole ’nother stack of books I’ve read since then and not blogged. Maybe doing it like this is the way for me to go for now.
I read Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose’ This Is Grime late-last year, a few months after Grime4Corbyn and the UK elections had happened. Any book about Grime has to come up against that one, and everything I said about their book and Grime still stands. I’m not in the mood lately for writing long book ‘reviews’ or whatever, so two things, how and why, I keep returning to for This is Grime and Dan Hancox’ Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime. The why is to understand one part of late-20th and early-21st century colonialism and racism, how New Labour and the Tories, gentrification, racial profiling, defunding education and social services, continue an unbroken agenda of white supremacism targeting immigrants and generations of children of immigrants like unfinished business. The music comes from being young and black and poor and treated like shit in your own country for the long haul. The how is to read these books as companions, flipping between reading and listening, starting Inner City Pressure with the Conflict DVD, Roll Deep on pirate radio Deja FM in 2003. It’s on YouTube, 36 minutes of madness. Pay attention to the names and the crews and the places, all of it’s on YouTube somewhere. Listen to the words and the noise, especially the earliest stuff. Maybe it won’t do anything for you; for me, it’s like coming up for air.
As Onyx said, “Oh panda repping the colours! 🖤💛❤️”. Currently reading The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia by Bill Gammage, picked up along with [-o-] t-shirt at Bunjilaka on that last day in Naarm, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, which was waiting for me when I got back.
“Paintings on my WhatsApp and my iPhone too”
— “Paintings? Like, art?”
“something something hashtag merky …”
“Merky? What’s Merky?”
“Like he’s got lots of money so he’s driving a Mercedes, like a Merc?”
“Like Wu Tang C.R.E.A.M. or Young Thug Check?”
“Yeah, nah, I dunno, he’s wearing Adidas shower flipflops. Is that especially merky?”
“I dunno even what I’m listening to. What are we listening to here, Frances?”
“Grime. We are listening to Grime. We are edjukating areselfs.”
“Merky. Merking, murdering, like killing it, smashing it. Like deadly.”
“Yeah. Innernet says so. Also he’s not looking at paintings of ‘The brown skinned girls and the white ones too’, it’s peng ting.”
“What’s that, then?”
“errr … yeah, maybe like poontang? … wait! Innernet says UK slang of Jamaican Patois origin, someone who’s attractive. And ‘ting’ is ‘thing’, so, ‘pretty things’.”
“O. That makes more sense.”
“This Stormzy. This one I like. What else you got?”
“There’s this one called JME? He sings about murking too.”
“I dunno if it’s singing, love.”
“If you don’t know what Grime is, then you must be 86”
“JME, he clocked me listening. And he’s skanking on rollerskates. What’s this one with Giggs? — Did he just work Harry Potter, HSBC bank, and a Uni degree in?”
“… Digestives, cinnamon tea …”
“I think I’m having that reaction like when I first heard Black Metal!”
“Good, eh? Blame Grime 4 Corbyn.”
“O! So that’s why you’re reading This is Grime, ’cos Corbyn was reading it when JME met him.”
“All of that, yeah.”
“Is it good, then?”
“It’s mad, innit. It’s got photos by Olivia Rose and Hattie Collins did the words.”
“Two women, then? Like when Kemistry & Storm ran the drum & bass scene in the late ’90s?”
“Yeah! I’m just gonna listen to their DJ Kicks set, bangs like all fuck.”
“Reminds me a lot of grime, too, and early-’90s dub, but on 45 instead of 33.”
“So you listened yet to all the grime lot, then?”
“Nah, not yet. Bits and pieces, Tried a couple of the early classics, like Lethal Bizzie, Wiley, Dizzee Rascal …”
“So good! Makes me laugh it’s so good.”
“Lord of the Mics! in Jammer’s basement.”
“Fire in the Booth! NoLay, Lady Lykez, A Dot, Ms Banks, Shystie.”
“You’re repping a lot of women there.”
“Yeah, that’s the problem, like JME said, Too Many Man. Sian Anderson, Julie Adenuga.”
“But the book, what about the book?”
“It’s like this. It’s black and white photos and all these people talking one after the other for 320 pages from before the start when grime didn’t even have a name right up to now, when Stormzy is charting in the UK at No. 1, and grime almost changed a national election in 2017. It’s political, it’s art, it’s so London, it’s so … like, this is the future. Like, the mayor of London is a feminist, Muslim son of working class Pakistani immigrants who grew up in council housing, and grime is a bunch of kids who grew up in Bow E3 in the late ’90s and early ‘00s in council housing. It’s about immigration and colonialism and racism and making art when you’re at the bottom, and then suddenly, you’re not. It’s about history, just as the internet changed how we remember things. It’s London. It’s beautiful. I love it so hard.”
Reading started ten years ago with just the covers of whatever I was reading — or about to read, blogged at the start. Then I added a paragraph or two about why I was reading whatever. Definitely not a review, I kept on repeating. More or less they’ve become reviews which I write either some way into the reading or at the end. Sometimes still at the beginning. Reviews, not reviews, whatever, reasons for reading. This last year at least, that’s turned into multi-thousand word essays on some books.
Fark! But wot about the cover art, Frances?
Reading is about the object, its materiality. The weight of the paper, the typography, the width of the margins, the smell of the ink and binding, the texture of the cover, the volume it occupies. The cover art.
A good cover thrills me. A bad one makes me cringe. Cover art is bound as much to genre constraints as it is to budget — and every class and decimal of Dewey is a genre. A good cover on a mass market paperback is not diminished by the crappiness of the print (cos the paper will yellow and grow brittle in the space of years), but no amount of expensive binding or price makes up for shiteful cover art and typography. So here are my favourite covers from 2017.
I love thematic consistency, editions or series by the same designer with a common style. I know it’s been done for decades, but it still seems new to me, maybe because I enjoy seeing the idea developed across multiple books. I especially love it when there’s a consonance between cover and story, like Steph Swainston’s Castle series, of which I read Fair Rebel this year (no idea who did the cover art, but it reprises the original trilogy). Totally fits the world. I see these covers and I immediately have images of the Fourlands, the Circle, of Jant fill my head.
Becky Chambers, whose The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit I read this year do attractive simplicity — lowercase typeface in shifting colour over astrophotography and silhouette of small figures on a hill in the lowest fifth. Again, I see these covers and know the world and characters. At the opposite end, full design, where typography and art are one, there’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London (cover art by Stephen Walter, and cheers again to Gala for introducing me to his brilliant series). Aesthetically, they’re not really my thing, but they suit the novels in a way (or you could go the whole Ayize Jama-Everett direction, or South London Grime, which might be more congruent, though scare off the nice readers).
I have Iain M. Banks covers. Not published any time recently but just as he’ll never not be my favourite author (“On what timescale, Frances?” “Oh, you know, heat death of the universe?”) the unified cover art of his various editions I love. The original editions are by Mark Salwowski (and I just discovered I can buy prints!), then the 2005 imprint was done by blacksheep, some of which I like more than the originals, but some, like Feersum Endjinn are iconic. No matter what edition or genre, these covers do solid typography and art. The post-2005 novels retain the 2005 style, but — for The Hydrogen Sonata at least — Lauren Panepinto is the artist. I could easily throw in any of these late-Banks covers here, but this is his last Culture novel and I have a deep fondness for it. The colour of the cover is that of the story.
Returning to Gesamtkunstwerk territory, China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is a glorious piece of art. Andrea Guinn’s responsible for that slab of Russian Constructivism. If I was going to go all Cover of the Year, this would be one of them. Caroline Walker Bynum’s are around half the time understatedly gorgeous — academic publications act like they don’t have much to prove with their covers, but Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe is a pleasure to hold. I’d love to see her work redone entirely by someone like Andrea Guinn. Another Cover of the Year would be Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, by Christopher Norris, also gets best fucking title of the year, along with being my non-fiction Book of the Year. Which leaves Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger, which I have got more than a couple of friends to read, and is my fiction Book of the Year. The image here does it poor service, in the real world, the almost matt black is a light-deadening rectangle that looks larger than it is, it’s a suitably unfriendly cover to go with a disturbing story that I’ll be reading again and again.
11 covers then, in my first — and perhaps last — dance with cover art. Slightly less than a third of the books I read have covers (or complete design and binding, which is an even smaller subset) I think really gives the author and writing their due — and the reader, ’cos there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful book. So cheers to all you designers and artists and typographers, and cheers to the publishers who represent their authors with such art, you make the world a better place.
And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 10th Anniversary.