There was a big gap this year when I had a little money for and no way of getting books. All that talk on social media of supporting artists during pandemic quarantine by buying their books hit up against furloughed supply chains.
Completely off topic here, I discovered yesterday I’d been using the entirely wrong word, furlong instead of furlough (and lifetime usage of either is in the single digits). And then I discovered furlong is 1/8th of a mile, so now I have Vin Diesel, or rather Dominic Toretto in my head going, “I live my life two furlongs at a time.”
Back to buying books. And no, e-books are not an option. I like paper, I like the feel and smell and aesthetics of books, I like how line lengths, page size, fonts, typography, layout, margins, the density of ink on paper, all that, I like how it creates a specific way of reading. So, no new books for some months and a rapidly dwindling pile of that variety which take months or years to read (Spivak, I’m looking at you.)
And then my favourite bookshop let me know books were available again and damn did I go hard. First, the Jhalak Prize announced its 2020 long and short lists and the winner, and I’m doing that thing again where I’ll end up throwing cash at about half the long list.
What is the Jhalak Prize (’cos clicking links scares me or something)? It was started in 2017 by Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla, and the sadly defunct Media Diversified and is an annual award for British and British resident writers of colour in any genre. And it’s consistently a banger. If I had the cash, I would without question by everything on the long list as soon as it’s announced.
And second, a bunch of weird old books I’ve been hitting my bookshop up for availability and prices for absolutely years turned up. A couple I’ve been asking about for five years. No, I cannot say no.
Some of these books have been sitting on my reading shelf since last year; some of them I finished months ago. I’m not doing that way too intense essay per book and annual Book(s) of The Year thing anymore, pumped the brakes on that. I still want to remind myself and celebrate a pile of authors who, all of whom did that indescribable magic a book can do. Some of these (’cos that’s my tendency) are hard, painful reads. Even these have beauty and joy and hope in them, and I reach for that. All these authors are my teachers and I’m grateful beyond words to have enough space in my life that I can read and appreciate and celebrate them.
A question I got asked today. I’m writing a lot lately (a long overdue distant continuation of this), and well, sometimes I write, and sometimes nameless horrors what fancy themselves to be comedians write me (& cheers to Vass for leading me down the award ceremony trail).
“Tell me a truth time! What’s your porn category?”
“Hot Action Alien Tentacle Sex 6-Way Shemale Gang Bang?”
“That’s very specific.”
“Where all the tentacle suckers are James Franco’s face going ‘Eyyy, how ya doin’?’ in a shite Brooklyn accent.”
“That’s suddenly Category: Not My Fetish!”
“Bait and Switch, child! The Category is…—”
“Aw, steal my punchline, why doncha?”
“Just like Franco steals your award at the ceremony.”
“Tentacles take stage like Kanye at Taylor Swift, ‘Imma let you finish,’ rips Franco’s face off with razor-toothed Franco suckers.”
“Camera cuts to Xzibit in the audience, ‘Yo dawg, I heard you like James Franco Tentacle Suckers…‘”
“Shit just writes itself, eh?”
“It’s not a porn category unless it starts with ‘Hot Action’.”
“Amateur Porn? naah. Hot Action Amateur Porn? Now that’s a category.”
“Now That’s What I Call Hot Action Amateur Porn!”
“Hot moaning and grunting, wet sounds of skin slapping, screams of terror and ripping of flesh, ‘Eyyy, how ya doin’?’”
“Stop. Please. Stop.”
“Won’t stop, can’t stop.”
Excluding re-readings of Iain (without the M.) Banks, Steph Swainston, Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds, and a few others I’ve forgotten because a) too poor for new books, b) too sooky to want to read new books, and c) very much wanting the comfort food of old books, even when I discovered I was hate-reading. Turns out I hate-read. I’m surprised and shamed at my pettiness, but here we are.
New books I did read though:
Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures, by Roma Agrawal, one on the shortlist for the 2019 Jhalak Prize, which in itself is guaranteed dead solid reading every year. And Roma has a podcast now. Buildings and engineering. Nice!
Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, by Liao Yiwu, who is the one Chinese political writer everyone should read, up there with Svetlana Alexievich.
Edges, by Linda Nagata, someone I’ve heard about for years and had never read. Strong reminders of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, high probability I’ll keep reading the series.
Fast Ladies: Female Racing Drivers, 1888-1970, by Jean Francois Bouzanquet. Large-format coffee-table-ish book of women hooning the shit out of fast cars. Obviously 10/10.
Geochemistry, by William M. White, which I picked up yesterday and haven’t actually started. One of my periodical forays into geology fun. This one’s packed with formula and equations, which is slightly intimidating.
The Gilded Wolves, by Roshani Chokshi, which I don’t remember much of, except it reminded me a lot of Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series, whose The Mortal Word I also read. Chokshi though, didn’t work for me, despite wanting to like it.
Growing Up African in Australia, by Maxine Beneba Clarke, along with Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff’s (of the awesome gal-dem) Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children, both collections of autobiographical essays and both critical reading.
Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, by Brian Eyler, which I was expecting a lot more of, and got instead a weirdly messy history of the river like ’90s white Euro-American journalism.
The October Man: A Rivers of London Novella, by Ben Aaronovitch, this one set in Germany (or Germland as I’ve been calling it recently), and a very German take on “What if, Harry Potter, but he’s a black cop in London?” I also re-binged his entire series while in Spain at the rate of a book a day, “Yeah, seven books will be enough for 12 days …” (runs out of books.)
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, by Michael Azerrad, which I somehow decided was all about US hardcore. It’s not. A few bands I’ve never listened to, several bands I used to love, revisited while reading and was sad at how they didn’t touch me at all when they used to define the movement of my life. Very worth reading for a particular moment in time and place.
Permafrost. Hello, Alastair Reynolds. Not a novel, sadly, but we had the sequel to Revenger, this year, Shadow Captain, so, can’t be greedy. Basically he’s my Iain M. Banks replacement, and I love his terrifyingly dark Space Opera.
The Raven Tower, by another solid fave and Iain M. Banks replacement, Ann Leckie — probably neither would like being called ‘replacement’, but fuck it, me doing high, awkward praise. This is her venturing out of Space Opera into not-really-fantasy but no obvious spacecraft, and it’s both the best thing she’s written since the Imperial Radch trilogy, and her best stand-alone novel since her first. Very, very, very good.
The Rise of IO, by Wesley Chu, which I have almost no memory of, vague nudgings of recognition when I read the plot, but … nope, not much beyond that.
To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe, edited by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande, which I’m randomly picking at. Some essays, like dealing with being a black woman academic in Germany, are very head-nodding, yup, it’s all that, uh-huh, others are … Black, cisgender heterosexual (whether middle-class, academic or not) feminism that operates as though trans and queer are things that don’t need to be at all considered, are ancillary, not relevant — like white feminism of the same type — is a thing. Fucked if I know why, either. Especially because my experience of Black feminism / activism in north-west Europe is that it’s hella trans and queer. But maybe they’re not the ones in academia, getting to publish essays.
And that’s it. Potentially acquiring a stack of new books soon, potentially reading them, vague possibility I’ll blog them. It’s all a balance for me between enjoyable focus and going too far with it, pleasure becoming obligation, and all.
The second book of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy. I did not re-read the fat slab of pages of the first, The City of Brass, before reading this, but there was enough exposition to remind me of who’s who and what’s where. I loved the first novel; this one I thought could have used a trim, kinda like how the Harry Potter novels expanded as they went on. It also hit me on a peeve of cliffhanger endings. I don’t read novels to be left unfinished and waiting for the next, that’s what sci-fi TV shows are for — even if it’s a trilogy or series, it’s possible to make each one self-contained without compromising the main narrative. Around the time I was reading this, I also felt a nagging pull to read more than just sci-fi and fantasy (in the fiction realm, I mean). It’s been a ride, the last many years, but with Omar Sakr and a heaving mass of poets and writers who touch me, who feel real and immediate and necessary …
A while ago (like early this decade at the latest), I tried to formulate in words how I ‘audience’. Go where they are. It’s not enough to say, oh I support underrepresented and marginalised ‘x’ demographic. This all too easily becomes oh I want to support ‘x’ but they’re not doing ‘thing I like’. The number of trans women or feminine people, Middle Eastern, Brown, Black, Indigenous, queer, combinations of, and writing sci-fi is approximately fuck all. So if I stick to what I like (in this instance, I like sci-fi), I’m gonna be supporting approximately fuck all. Go where they are. Go where we are. If we’re writing poetry, that’s where we go. If we’re making loud, scary music of ‘currently vilified genre’, that’s where we go. If we’re doing some weird sport, and “I’m not into sport”, child, you are now. I was sitting in my favourite café on Sonnenallee yesterday, having a mad good yarn with someone I’d just met, who said for them, their ability to be engaged in other people’s deep interests is (paraphrasing, ’cos brain like tofu), “I admire their focus.” Go where the people are you want to elevate, whether they’re ‘your’ people or not, admire what they do, even if you don’t (at first) ‘like’ it. Being an audience is not always about oneself. Marginalisation is never going to let many of us in; the terms and conditions for admittance make us palatable and legible to them without them having to make any effort to learn about any of us. So we gotta go where we are. Make being audience a privilege to be before people creating.
Because I had some ‘spare time’ in January, because I wanted the enjoyment of re-reading something I’d loved the first time around, because I have to carefully ration my re-readings of Iain ±M. Banks, because once I’d started Ancillary Justice, I was reminded just how utterly blazingly good a story it is, and a writer Ann Leckie is, so obviously I had to read the following two. Yes, the second novel still dips a little for me, yes, also, the third novel isn’t quite the equal of the first, yes, the ending, which is set up over the course of three novels remains fucking brilliant, yes, it’s still the best — the best — debut, trilogy, space opera, science-fiction, novel(s) of this decade, and effortlessly slides into my top ten of all time. Also, the covers. Perfect. I’m still sad John Harris’ art was never (as far as I know) released as an affordable-ish poster / print.
Picking up shortly after Revenger finishes with one of the most delightfully gruesome reveals I’ve ever read, the middle child of the trilogy, Shadow Captain, swaps the narrative from Arafura to her sister Adrana. Remains just as bloody and unhinged. Every book I’ve read of Reynolds has managed a deeply unsettling darkness, like a faint light guttering in the void. Considering he largely keeps his stories bound to a single solar system, and any interstellar travel is slower than light, he creates a horrible sense of vast emptiness and abandoned hopelessness. Shadow Captain is no exception.
I was thinking about disappointing or failed trilogies and series while reading this, ones which start with such brilliance and possibility, and exhaust themselves in the first work. Often they follow a structure in which the shift from first to subsequent is one of qualitative to quantitative. The first is a shift in world view, scouring off normalcy and opening up a larger universe; The Matrix and Star Wars are two examples which have the the most overbearing cultural influence. The subsequent works largely only add to and expand this larger universe, and if there is another shift in perspective or revelations, it functions within this, rather than instigating a comparable usurping of the protagonist’s world to the initial one.
In The Matrix, this moment is Neo taking Morpheus’ red pill (let’s ignore fun speculation he took the blue pill and the remaining two and a half films are him ‘believing what he wants to believe’, but not ignore this is a movie made by two trans women, and there’s heaps more going on here than the first layer reading), and if we lived in the best of all possible worlds, Neo waking up would have been the end of the first movie. Everything that happens after serves to reify this newly established world. It’s a bit like a gigantic cum shot, one and done; there’s nothing left to do, which is the primary failure of the hero’s journey. If you’re invested in the story of a single, usually white, cishet man, then it’s all good, he still has 3/4 of the journey to go to catch up with the rest of us. But if it’s the profound workings of writing characters as real people and imagining worlds that reveal themselves through unfurling layers, it’s gonna be a bad lay. (I don’t know why I’m using this metaphor here.)
So I was reading Shadow Captain knowing on one hand a sequel that is a bare fucking banger as the original — which Revenger is — is setting way high expectations, and dialling it back 20%, pumping the brakes, gives the work a chance to be read for itself. On the other hand, I know Reynolds when he shredding hard.
Revenger’s cover is better. The title is None More Black fucking metal as you can go. I know he has a notebook of fully sick titles, Slow Bullets, for example, and the last of the trilogy is Bone Silence, but I can’t see a better title on my shelves, up there with Feersum Endjinn and Wonderful Blood. Incidentally, if Iain M. Banks wrote a sequel to Feersum Endjinn, it’d be like Reynolds writing a sequel to Revenger. And where the former gets to by the end reminds me quite a bit of where Shadow Captain is at and what it proposes for the final part of the trilogy.
Which is to say, I loved Shadow Captain, and I was judging fucking harshly. It doesn’t have that end reveal, and Reynolds, you are a dark motherfucker right there, but has more than one twist and shift that are dead majestic. Even without these, it’d be better than the majority of sci-fi / fantasy in any medium (and I hoover up this shit like no one’s business). With these, you wanna read a storyteller at the top of their game, and with the circumstances to permit this, Revenger and Shadow Captain are it.
I was thinking of an analogy here, ’cos I know my opinions are marginal (yes, Feersum Endjinn is the exemplary Iain ±M. Banks novel), and went down a bit of an ’80s SST Records trip last night. Hüsker Dü. No, they’re not fucking emo, fuck off. Land Speed Record, Metal Circus. The influence these had on artists and genres from the ’80s till now, rather than the success or fame of the band is what I’m getting at. Revenger and Shadow Captain are like these. Or if this is a crap analogy for you, like Kemistry & Storm’s DJ-Kicks. It’s shit you need to know, you uncultured gronk.
Oh, and I read sisters Arafura and Adrana (and the whole ship’s crew) as totally queer and increasingly trans and non-binary (while still rocking feminine), or whatever words propose an expansiveness of selfhood outside cishet-icity than these, and as I think about all the novels I’ve read from him, wondering how many characters veer towards asexual-ish and neurofuckery (I’m so tired of the word ‘diversity’ right now), and I reckon it’s heaps. Which is a common part of the characters in Banks’ novels I rate, like Whit, so me being so very slow, it’s dawning on me (hi, Elsa!) why I like, or more accurately identify with certain sci-fi and fantasy works.
Unmotivated to blog / write about what I’m reading, I didn’t even do an annual Books of The Year thing in October — and I’ve been doing that for ten years. “Life Project” and all (still quoting Emile on that), so … change and shit, I suppose. Still reading though, at a much diminished rate, partly because lack of time and energy and eyes needing a rest. Books have been read and are being read. No particular order.
Miri Song’s Multiracial Parents: Mixed Families, Generational Change, and the Future of Race, ’cos I’m trying to understand myself, my family’s history, and all. You’d think by the time you’re in your forties, you’d have this somewhat nailed, but nope, thanks to family secrets and family aspirations to whiteness, or some shite. Like my middle name never blew that fantasy up.
Charles Stross’ The Labyrinth Index, nth book in a series I’m long over. I keep reading like an old lover whose time has passed and, yeah, Lovecraft mythos is really creaking on its Zimmer frame these days.
JY Yang’s The Descent of Monsters. Very much a favourite author right now. South-East Asia is slaying it in the sci-fi / fantasy lately. I wish these were longer and JY Yang would write more. The so-far trilogy for some reason reminds me of The Water Margin (水滸傳, Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn), which is, I dunno, about as high praise as you can get from me.
Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Joseph Norman’s The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks. Only two references to Feersum Endjinn. I was broadly disappointed. More so because trying to divide Banks’ work up into skffy / non-skiffy, or sci-fi / non-sci-fi, is never going to work (and I’m not even going to start on the glaring errors referring to The Hydrogen Sonata). Ken McLeod’s essay was beautiful.
Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping: The Seventh Rivers of London novel. Still holding fast to ‘Harry Potter, a black cop from London estate’. Glad he finally dealt to the Faceless Man, and hope he moves on a bit from this narrative arc (apparently, yes, he is planning to). I’m likely to re-binge this series rather soon, while listing to proper LDN Grime.
Ruth Pearce’s Understanding Trans Health: Discourse, Power and Possibility. Not fun reading. Considering lending to my endocrinologist because he gives a shit but I swear it’s like the last 30 years of ‘progress’ hasn’t happened in Germany. Primarily focussing on the UK and NHS, but I’ve dealt with health systems in several countries around the world (either Euro, or influenced by / aligned with Anglo models), and “Tru dat” was said a lot. Also “Fuck cis people”.
Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few: Wayfarers 3. Reading a lot of series, me. This is the series where nothing much happens, in a rather large universe (of the world-building type, I mean; mostly takes up a small bit of a small bit of a galaxy). I’ll keep reading because for some reason I like the story.
Kevin Martens Wong’s Altered Straits. Currently reading, and had been waiting for this for an age. Trans-dimensional, time-travelling corporeal horror. Once again, South-East Asia, and Singapore bringing it in the sci-fi / fantasy.
Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. I’ve been reading her blog for years. I kind of talked back to her a lot while reading, particularly of the, “Well, if you’d read history, and get outside a euro-centric model of science and philosophy, maybe some of these ‘intractable’ problems wouldn’t be there in the first place?” A frustrating like.
Tiffany Trent and Stephanie Burgis’s The Underwater Ballroom Society. Plus for the cover, plus also for Ysabeau S. Wilce, a stack of really good stories, probably going to have to read some of these authors.
Victor Mair’s translation of Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. He of the blog Language Log. Also been reading that for years. And I knew he was all about this stuff, but somehow blind spot assisted me in missing this. I like Zhuangzi heaps, my 404 is not complete without.
I also re-read a bunch of other novels, some Iain Banks, and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy for the second time, even better than the first.
She will always be Servalan to me, Supreme Commander Servalan of the Terran Federation, eternal foe of Blake’s 7, Avon’s nemesis, best-dressed interstellar dictator four seasons running, the woman I wanted to grow up to be.
“a tasteless megalomaniac,” “a credit to her background – spoilt, idle, vicious,” “any attempt to embarrass her personally is an exercise in total futility,” “she has all the sensitive delicacy of a plasma bolt,” “the sexiest officer I have ever known.”
This turned out to be slightly more involved than anticipated. I should have known: Iain Banks is always in the details. Until starting this — and I’m still reading The Crow Road, for the maybe 3rd time — I hadn’t realised how fundamentally cars and vehicles form characters in his novels, much as landscape does, and if the landscape is up the Scottish end of town, the cars are solidly British, with rare excursions to various four-wheeled hoonage from across Europe.
I haven’t really decided how to do this, making it up as I go along, I thought to include the sentence where the car was named enough to make an educated guess at, which sometimes turned into multiple lines. Published in 1992, The Crow Road is set late–’89 to late–’90, at its most current period, with narratives in a number of periods back to just post–war. I’ve tried to match cars to the periods they were mentioned in, so no car is newer than end–’80s, and ‘old’ is 15–20 years minimum, relative to the scene’s time period. I discovered just how specific Banks was in choosing the ensemble of cars (2/3 of the way through and at least 27) when I was looking for an image of a Metro — Austin, MG, Rover, it got passed around — and found there was a period when it had no marque, it was just Metro. That’s the one he was talking about. And the Peugeot 209 isn’t, so either that’s an error, or this is Banks subtly trolling his Scottish alternate / coexisting realities again, like in Whit or The Business. In this reality, probably a 205.
And thank you to Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and all the contributors, editors, photographers who enlightened and educated me, and provided the images for this banger collection of whips here.
That’s enough. Here are the cars of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road.
Instead I’d sold Fraud Siesta, my Car.
‘The car; it’s a Lagona Rapide Saloon’
‘Yes,’ I said, smiling a little ruefully to myself. ‘Yes, I know’
The car came screaming up the crematorium drive, leaves swirling into the air behind. It was a green Rover, and had to be doing sixty.
Everybody in the crowd outside the crematorium was watching the green 216 as it skidded to a stop, avoiding a head-on collision with the Urvill’s Bentley Eight by only a few centimetres.
The big Super Snipe growled into the car park, heeling as it turned and stopping with the passenger’s door opposite Kennith.
‘Anyway, couldn’t we take the Rover?’ Kenneth wasn’t keen on the Morgan; its stiff ride hurt his back and gave him a headache, and Fergus drove too fast in the ancient open-top. Maybe it was the sight of all that British Racing Green paint and the leather strap across the bonnet. The Rover, 3.5 though it was, seemed to calm Fergus a little.
The upholstery of Fergus’s Rover was cleansed of the debris and stains associated with Verity’s birth and the car continued to serve the Urvill family for another five years or so until 1975, when it was traded in (for what Prentice thereafter would maintain was a scandalously small sum, considering that the thing ought to have been preserved as some sort of internationally-recognised shrine to Beauty) for an Aston Martin DB6.
“We got into the Fiesta; she dumped the brolly in the back.”
I kind of wished I’d sat behind Verity; I wouldn’t have seen so much of her – not even a hint of that slim, smooth face, frowning in concentration as she barrelled the big black Beemer towards the next corner – but I wouldn’t have been able to see the speedometer either.
Verity wiggled her bottom, plonked it back down, calmly braked and shifted up to fifth, dawdling along behind the green Parceline truck while she waited for it to overtake an Esso tanker.
Her battered, motley-panelled 2CV had looked out of place in Ascot Square, where I think that anything less than a two-year old Golf GTi, Peugeot 209 or Renault 5 was considered to be only just above banger status, even as a third car, let alone a second.
‘I play games’, she told me.
‘Yeah,’ she nodded, licking her lips, ‘Like Name That Tail-Light.’
‘What?’ I laughed
‘True,’ she said. ‘See that car up ahead?’
I looked at the two red lights. ‘Yeah.’
‘See how high up the lights are, not too far apart?’
‘Mm-hmm. One it’s overtaking?’
‘Horizontally divided lights; that’s an old Cortina, mark 3.’
‘Here’s a Beemer. New five series … I think, about to pass us; should have lights that slant in slightly at the bottom. ’
Verity Walker, clad in a short black dress, was dancing sinuously on the roof of Uncle Fergus’ Range Rover.
‘Ha!’ Prentice said, as the battered Cortina II drew to a stop just past them.
He helped Fergus drag the small corpse down the slope to the track, where the Land Rover was parked, and accepted a lift back to the road.
An hour or so later I saw my mother’s green Metro, just about to turn out of the drive-way of Hamish and Tone’s house.
‘Na,’ he said. The Volvo estate accelerated down the straight through the forest towards Port Ann. ‘Though maggoty meat and people with one eye did come into it at one point.’
Fiona brought the Rover to a halt behind a beaten-up Mini, standing on the gravel in front of the castle’s main entrance.
‘Isn’t that Fergus?’ he said, nodding.
‘Racing green Jag, heading north.’
‘Is that what Ferg’s driving these days?’ Rory said, rising up in his seat a little to watch the car pass.
I’ve always had this fantasy, that, after uncle Rory borrowed his flat-mate Andy’s motorbike and headed off into the sunset, he crashed somewhere, maybe coming down to Gallanach; came off the road and fell down some gully nobody’s looked into for the last ten years, or – rather more likely, I suppose – crashed into the water, and there’s a Suzuki 185 GT lying just under the waves of Lock Lomond, or Loch Long, or Loch Fyne, its rider somehow entangled in it, reduced by now to a skeleton in borrowed leathers, somewhere underwater, perhaps between here and Glasgow; and we all pass it every time we make the journey, maybe only a few tens of metres away from him, and very probably will never know.
One of my pals — graduated, employed, moving on to better things — sold me his old VW Golf, and I drove down to Lochgair most weekends, usually on a Thursday night as I didn’t have any classes on a Friday.
We took Lewis and Verity’s new soft-top XR3i — roof down, heater up full — out into the grey-pink dawn and drove through Lochgilphead and then into Gallanach and just cruised about the town, waving at the people still walking about the place and shouting Happy New Year! one and all.
I parked the Golf behind a Bristol Brigand which sat half on the gravel and half on the grass.