City boy goes to the country. Country things happen to city boy.
Taking a breather from Ben Aaronovitch’s on-going story of the Faceless Man, and giving PC Peter Grant a break after having his partner, PC Lesley May turn traitor and join with said Faceless Man to drop a brutalist high-rise apartment block — the story of Grant and architecture right there. Off to Herefordshire.
About half-way through Foxglove Summer, I opened Maps and traced the story, based in Leominster, following the River Lugg up to Mortimer’s Cross, up the gorge to Aymestrey, into the parks and forests of Croft Castle and Gatley Park, where the land folds in long, north-east to south-west ridges, all the way to Raymond Erith’s Folly, with its domed roof, full of bees. It took a while, but worth it.
This could almost be read on its own, if you were prepared to let references to past events slide, and characters arrive with little or no establishing scenes. Sometimes I like that, an antidote to the plodding literalism of much genre fiction which has to tell and explain every step. So we have fairies, retired wizards (with granddaughters with said bees), unicorns, Roman roads — and Romans, countryside relationships (even queer ones, ’cos rural doesn’t mean parochial), Beverley Brook, goddess of the same river in London, who arranges for a small stream near the Lugg to be reborn (with help from Peter) kidnapped children and changelings, and the original forest of Britain. Just the kind of diversion he needs — and just the kind of opening up of the series so it doesn’t become one tiresome slog to nail a singular evildoer.
And if I could not like this series more, there’s a quiet love of hoonage throughout, from PC Grant’s Ford ASBO, to Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale’s Jaguar Mark 2 with the 3.8 litre XK6 engine, to the Utes of Herefordshire, and a Ferrari 288 GTO in the next novel (which I’m taking as a poignant homage to Iain Banks’ The Business, also, yes, “Brutal.”). He’s got my heart here, Muslim ninja cops and hoonage.
Book 4 of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, that I’ve been smashing the last six weeks. This one goes firmly back into the grand narrative of the series, the Faceless Man, the big, tectonic forces moving PC Grant, and goes from the underground of Whispers Under Ground into the council housing towers of South London’s Elephant and Castle.
Spoilers all over here, PC Leslie May turning traitor and working with the Faceless Man was not what I was expecting at all, and still hurts, two novels later. Aaronovitch is dealing with the superstructure of London here, class divisions, the rich using the poor, immigration and racism. It reminds me of straight people’s unwillingness to see or read queer or trans relationships and identities in fiction (“Oh, they’re just good friends, good friends hold hands sometimes.”) — you could get through (almost) all his novels and pretend this is not what it’s about, but if you’re reading from another side, it’s so gloriously obvious. That’s why I’m reading them. Like being in Peckham with Onyx, Carly, and Naretha, and we’re all saying, yeah, this feels like home here, this feels right.
And if it’s not abundantly clear by now, Aaronovitch’s main characters are the rivers of London, the architecture, the underground, what Onyx called density, history layered and compressed on itself, and capriciousness, one day in love with you, the next, ruins. There’s this idea that genre fiction of the sci-fi and fantasy type is about ideas; contrasting that to literature or whatever, ‘nice’ novels, which are about people. This shows an impoverishment in understanding genre, as well as — again — a classist, elitist devaluing. The best sci-fi and fantasy is only about people (not devaluing a different ‘best’ ripping a banging adventure). Sure, people wrapped up in things that don’t happen in the world right now, but stories of people nonetheless, who we come to know across the pages, who we follow as they grow. And when I say people, unlike so often those nice novels, I mean anything which has subjectivity and agency: a ship’s Mind, or the landscape of a planet in Banks’ novels; or the rivers in Aaronvitch’s, all people as well.
So, devouring these novels here and trying to say something worthwhile about each. Read if you liked Harry Potter or Charles Stross’ Laundry Files but wanted more, wanted a London like Peckham.
After reading Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London, books 2 and 1 respectively of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, I ordered the lot (except the latest, it seems), and read them. And I was in London! So I was all, “I love this city!” and felt like I knew it so much because of these novels. What I call “Harry Potter if he was a black cop in London, played by a young Idris Elba, or Stormzy, and Hermione Granger was a Somali Muslim cop on the Murder Squad.”
I slammed the whole series over the last two months, as they arrived, and usually in a couple of days per novel, except when I was on tour — so they’re also firmly bound with the joys of travel and rivers for me now, the Danube and Thames, which is fitting. Whispers Under Ground doesn’t obviously follow the larger story of the Faceless Man, which almost makes these first three stand-alone works. It does introduce a whole pile of characters, locations, peoples, who fill out the world of the series in this and later novels.
I’m probably going to re-binge the whole series in the coming weeks (just need to re-buy Rivers of London first), which tells how much I’m enjoying these. Funny that they’re a series too, ’cos I’m always reluctant to commit, but cheers to Gala for introducing me to this. Best joyous fantasy read of the twenty-tens.
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.
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.
Another year of reading. Ten years I’ve been at this, blogging every book I read (almost every, a few slipped by over the years). Going from just blogging the book covers, to a few lines on why I was reading, to my recent frankly absurd multi-thousand word essays on some of Iain (M. or not) Banks novels. Trying to rein in that latter particular excess.
Usually at this point, I look at what I wrote a year ago, so I can aim for some sort of consistency.
A lot of fiction this year, almost twice as much as non-fiction, for a total of 34 books read — or attempted, I gave up on a few, and there’s a couple that I’ve already started but won’t make this list, ’cos I haven’t blogged them yet. Blogging is reading, just like rubbing is racing.
There were a few other non-fiction works, but let’s get onto the fiction, or science-fiction and fantasy, ’cos I still don’t read anything else. I went on a lengthy Iain M. (plus a couple of non-M.) Banks binge earlier this year. I needed to just read, eyes rush over the pages, know before I started I’d love the story, sink back into familiar worlds and lives. Obviously that mean starting with my favourite book ever, Feersum Endjinn, and this being my first Banks re-read in some years, I came to him with a tonne of new reading behind me, and wow did I ever write about all my new thoughts. I followed that up with Whit, which has never been one of my favourites, nor did I think of it as one of his best. Wrong again, Frances. Back to The Business after that, definitely one I adore, and have read at least 6 times, then back into his skiffy with the late / last trio: Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Matter. I feel a little unsure putting these in my year’s reading here, as though there’s nothing remarkable about reading him multiple times, or that this is supposed to be about new books I’ve read. On the other hand, fuck it, it’s my blog and my reading and I can fuck off if that’s the attitude I’m going to bring.
There was a sizeable dip early- to mid-year, disappointment in fiction, feeling apathetic about the heaviness of non-fiction (thanks, Twitter), and also perhaps just steamrolling through scores of books year after year is an unrealistic monotone that I’m not. I did have a thrill with one more of Steph Swainston’s Castle novels, Fair Rebel, followed almost immediately by Above the Snowline, and love that she decided to return to writing, ’cos she’s one of the best. Not easy, these are large, demanding works that don’t mainline narrative reward, but she’s got one of the most captivating and extensive fantasy worlds I’ve read.
At the same time as Swainston, I got my grubby mitts on Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger. Something of marketed as Young Adult (is not), and not especially long (longer though than his novella Slow Bullets), and it feels like a Girl’s Own bit of romp, then he massacres an entire ship’s crew and continues in his very, very dark and existentially terrifying way right up till the end. Book of the Year for me, right there. Then there was the aforementioned Banks tour, and not until I was in Brussels did I get mad thrilled about fiction again. Cheers, once again, Gala. Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Grant series, A young Idris Elba / Stormzy cop with Harry Potter powers. A more cheerful Liminal People series. I started with number 2, Moon Over Soho, which meant reading the first in the series, Rivers of London had both plenty of, “I know who these people are,” and “Oh shit, her face is gonna fall off, isn’t it?” I’ve got the other 5 in the series on order.
I get to this point of writing, and I’ve added the covers of all these books, so I’ve got a nice visual treat in front of my mug, and I scroll through them … smiles all the way. And a little shiver of goosebumps. I’m lucky as all shit to be able to buy new books almost every week even when I’m on the verge of poverty (cheers, Germany and your incomprehensible to Australia attitude to cheap books), and lucky as all shit to have the time and education and all the rest to be able to read them. It’s a human right and every day I give thanks to the people (shout out to Eleanor Roosevelt here!) who fought and continue to fight for our inalienable rights.
Maybe I’m going to make this a thing (which always feels contrived), but I’ll finish quoting myself again, first from 2013 and then from 2015:
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
And speaking of designers and artists, I decided to do a Book Covers of the Year thing, dunno why I haven’t before now. Mainly because both Revenger and October have covers that smash it. Also the original Feersum Endjinn, class late-20th century sci-fi cover art there.
Thrilled and awed by all this reading? Here’s the last years’ anniversary lists:
Just as Gala handed off Moon Over Soho to me, so do I hand off Rivers of London. I finish it beside the Danube, just upstream from Ottensheim. It’s been my book for the week I’ve been there. I bought two because I’d mostly finished this, but that’s how much reading time I had. I pass it on to Kali Rose, I say, “I think you might like it,” ’cos as much as we’re all at reading the theory and non-fiction for what we’re up against, part of it is seeing ourselves, or just seeing representation in fiction. It’s a political act to write fiction, and to read it. (Also ’cos I didn’t have room in my bag to bring it back on the plane, which means I’ll have to buy it again.)
I’m way behind on my writing about reading at the moment, so this isn’t going to be a slab of text like I wrote for the Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch’s second novel in the PC Grant series. Rivers of London is the first, and is probably better. Whether that’s because of the foreshadowing hanging over it because I know where the story is going with face-mangling magic, and what it means for PCs Peter Grant and Leslie May. Equally a lot of the river story and characters in the second novel — which we’re supposed to know what he’s talking about with, ’cos we’ve read the first, eh? — take on their proper form. Still, yes, you can read second before first and it’s solid and stand-alone enough to not feel disappointment and confusion.
The crime story of Rivers of London is perhaps more grandiose — and goes on some real, deliberate trips — than that of Moon Over Soho — possibly because I was crossing the Danube multiple times a night and had only its waters for company, some of which is still in my lungs. Moon Over Soho, on the other hand brings PC Grant’s family into play, and that was what grabbed me so much, though there’s enough of growing up Black and BAME in London in the first novel that if I’d only read that one I’d still be ordering the whole set.
All of them. All seven of them. All large typeface so I can read them while I fall asleep and pretend I don’t need glasses. Better than Harry Potter? Yeah. Better than Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series? Yeah. All I want to do is order the rest and take a week off, shack up on a nice sofa in the autumn sun (in Berlin, Frances?) and read them all. Are you going to read them too? Yeah. Should they be movies? Yeah.
“What’s an Airwave?”
“umm … dunno. What’s the context?”
“‘I bunged a spare airwave in with my backup laptop just to be on the safe side. ’”
“Maybe a portable Wi-Fi hotspot?”
“… something something Hogwarts …”
“Gala, what are you reading?” “Moon Over Soho, it’s by Ben Aaronovitch. Sort of magical police?”
“Never heard of him. Off to the Wikis, I s’pose?”
“I’ll give it to you when I’m done.”
And my backpack — which I can legit get at least a week of living out of if I don’t take climbing shoes — had just enough room in the front mesh pocket for me to take it on the plane. I began in the airport, stupidly early because I read boarding time as wheels up, kept going that evening, finished it off with peanut butter and jam on toast and accompanying coffee — which is how I want to go out (if I’m denied my, “What happens if I—oops,” moment somewhere high in the Central Asian mountains), because there is nothing better than PB&J, coffee, and a boffo novel.
Moon Over Soho is the second of Aaronovitch’s PC Grant Mystery series, currently numbering seven — but did you know he wrote for Blake’s 7 audio dramas? Blake’s 7! The best sci-fi series ever made. And Doctor Who, and Jupiter Moon (I dunno about that last one either). But his PC Grant series is him doing novels proper. Coincidentally (or not), Gala got me up for us watching Luther, starring Idris Elba as the PTSD’d detective. It was shite. Utter fucking cringe-inducing shite. But Elba would make a brilliant PC Grant, except he’s too old. Second novel, then. Doesn’t matter, I picked up most of the carry-over from the first novel, and it’s self-contained enough to make it enjoyable not knowing all the backstory. Enjoyable enough to order all seven? I reckon.
It reminded me plenty of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series (and somewhat of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People trilogy) — and obviously plays with post-’00s Harry Potter —so much I had to look to see who wrote what when, not convinced at first there wasn’t some heavy borrowing going on. But similarities are unavoidable lately. Everyone’s influenced by Potter in the same way previous generations were by Tolkien; Cthulhu Mythos accounts for a chunk of fantasy, post-Twilight for another, and for police procedurals of the British type, there’s 25 years of The Bill to contend with. So if I’m reminded so much of other novels, why am I all, “Woo! Gonna throw Euros at the whole series!”?
’Cos it’s good. ’Cos it’s the series I wish Stross had listened to. It’s the series for a London where the Mayor is the son of working-class bus driver, whose Muslim family immigrated from India to Pakistan post-partition and then on to South London; a London where Stormzy says, “I’m so London, I’m so South,”; the London of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, where centuries of diligent, ceaseless effort could not stop Brown, Black, South Asian, everyone who is ‘not-white’, who was colonised, who came to the UK, becoming British and Londoners and making the place so, so much more and better than it could ever have been without. It’s a London of those clunky words that I still love for what they aspire to: diversity and multiculturalism.
It wasn’t until I read Moon Over Soho that I could articulate what’s been bothering me in Stross — as much as I like his novels, and as much as I’ve already articulated at length on his problems with representation. It’s the difference between describing a character’s skin colour or sexuality or gender, and leaving it at that, having them move through the white world as anyone else who can, and having a character like PC Grant, who goes home to his mother with all that entails as a child of a working-class, jazz musician father, and a Black British Fula mother of a very extended Sierra Leonean family. And there was a series of short scenes, introducing a recurring character, with a very much tough, butch dyke detective as the intermediary:
She clicked her fingers and a couple of Murder Team detectives came padding down the stairs with gloves and evidence bags. Stephanopoulis pointed at the staff door and they dutifully trooped past me to do a more thorough search of the cloakroom. One of them was a young Somali woman in a leather biker jacket and an expensive black silk hijab. She caught me looking and smiled.
“Muslim ninja,” she whispered.
Stephanopoulis lent me the Somali ninja girl whose name was Sahra Guleed and who turned out to be from Gospel Oak, which is just up the road from where I grew up—different school, though. When two ethnic officers meet for the first time the first question you ask can be about anything but the second question you ask is always, “Why did you join?”
“Are you kidding?” said Guleed. “You get to legally rough people up.”
This, I like. I get anxious when I pulled in like this, as with Legend of Korra, or Orphan Black, or quite a few others where the writers are doing necessary work, where they’re explicitly repping. What if they’re not, though? Or what if they fuck up? What if I’ve missed something obvious and it’s actually embarrassing how not good it is? What if it’s appropriation instead of representation? The appearance of ‘diversity’ so they don’t have to do the actual hard work, in art and their lives. What if the — so far — cisgender and hetero and male PC Grant comes to signify an entire world prioritising such characters and perspectives? I expect a shitload of effort once a writer reaches a critical mass of Getting It Right. I’m not saying they’re not allowed to fail, I’m not acting as an infallible arbiter, rather that the consequences for screwing up hurt me more as a reader than for the great wash of bollocks, inconsequential because firmly within the derivative norm. If I care about a novel and the characters and the story, it’s because it means something. I don’t want to trawl through a novel for morsels, scraps, and glimpses of representation, I want that to be the core, ’cos that’s the world, that’s real, it always has been.
I think I’m far too hard and cynical a person to be the audience of Becky Chambers’ novels, like them though I do. I wrote at length about her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and plenty of that holds true for A Closed and Common Orbit. I think this novel isn’t as successful though, perhaps because it alternates between only two characters and tried to build parallels between them that don’t really hold up.
The hard, cynic side of me also finds the general tenor of the characters flattened by a pervasive, apologetic niceness. There’s a scene early on where one of the two main characters, Pepper, at this time around ten-years old, escapes the slave scrap recycling plant she was born into and flees across the endless junkyard surface of the planet until stumbling by chance close enough to a destined-to-be-junked spacecraft she is rescued by the ship’s AI. So here’s a kid who’s obviously traumatised, dehydrated and malnourished — and we later learn the ship knows exactly what kind of planet and child this is — yet the AI spends pages before apologising for not flipping into emergency mode and doing triage, which the AI does not a little ineffectually. It’s a general over-caring niceness that ends up reading pathetic and monotonous, and grates against my “harden the fuck up” tendencies. Which may be my failure. “Always check the equipment for sensor error first.” As Iain Banks said.
Against me here, I wonder if the kind of world Chambers proposes is not a little of utopian, queer North American communities, and for people whose lives are made legible in such places, this novel might be really fulfilling to read, to see themselves represented in worlds which they yearn to live. And maybe if I’d been born 15 or 20 years later, coming of age in the LiveJournal and tumblr eras, I’d feel the same.
But I wasn’t.
But I like her novels enough to keep reading — even though I skipped a few pages out of boredom. I’d like to think she’s going to keep writing, have those glorious jumps in maturity and adroitness that happen to writers as they get a full handle on what they’re doing, cos for all my crapulous, old bitterness — which is going, “Frances, you’d fukkin hate being crew on their ship, haaate.” — I like reading her.
That boredom’s separate from still thinking he’s suss for the shite playing a trans woman character for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks — plus his editors, publishers, manuscript readers, who all let this version through. There’s way too many white, cis male writers (in all fields from novels to series to film) lately who blab loudly about their feminist and whatever cred yet throw up dodgy. It’s like the noise they spray about being allies gets in the way of their thinking, convinces them they’ve earned the right to be ‘edgy’ or some shite. It’s really, really hard for me to come back to an author after this, like William Gibson in his return to form (finally!) of The Peripheral, or N.K. Jemisin in The Fifth Season, all three I suppose aiming for ‘sensitive representations of trans women’ and — for me anyway — very much not nailing the landing. But with Stross, because I’ve been reading him since my Zürich days, I still buy what he writes, and in this case reading with a little trepidation in case he he was onto a winning idea with trans characters.
I read this a couple of weeks ago and having a lot of difficulty recalling the story. I do remember that it so heavily relies on the throng of characters introduced over the previous seven novels — and chronologically follows on so directly from The Nightmare Stacks as to be Part II — I was resorting to the internet to remind myself of who’s who. Yup, thinking my brain out here and still can’t recall the actual story. Fun to read for sure: I did it in over a weekend, but annoyingly insubstantial. And that’s been my criticism of Stross for a while. He’s more than capable of sophisticated, nuanced ideas and storytelling, but seems to be spinning his wheels throwing out stuff that’s on the flimsy side of late. But most people love it and I know my tastes are demanding. It’s not the one to start the series with either way.