Little Friday review

Little Lost Robot
by Paul McAuley

This is actually a short story, not a novel, that Tim had been trying to get me to read for some time. It was first published in Interzone, which has been home to some excellent science fiction, so I finally gave it a go.

The story begins impersonally, describing the “superbad big space robot” as it travels through the universe, fulfilling its killing mission. Gradually it becomes more and more personal. The machine has four “subselves”, programs I suppose, that run it together, in collaboration. They repair damage, formulate tactics, arm weapons and discuss their next move. Over time the robot has taken a lot of damage, including to its memory, and this is where it gets interesting.

It’s such a short story that I’d rather not give away much more than that. I found myself a little doubtful that I would like the story at first. It was a robot at war, described distantly and with reverence. But the story slowly zeroes in on the robot’s Librarian subself, imbuing it with something approximating personality, self-doubt, humanity even. It’s a very cleverly written and structured piece and toward the end I definitely felt warmth for this cold space warrior.

It probably helps, reading this, to have some familiarity with computing terminology. The robot uses a combination of strictly mechanistic terms (time periods in teraseconds, rather than being broken down into years) and oddly human terms (anger, loneliness, tenderness).

The story wasn’t what I expected. The title suggested to me something cute and sweet, maybe Wall-E-like and, though there are similarities, that’s not what this is. This is the super-efficient soldier slowly revealing his inner humanity and it’s definitely touching, but it’s not cute.

Published 2008 in Interzone 217. You can read it here or listen to it here.

Nominated for the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction 2008.

I may have written far too much this time

Becoming Drusilla
by Richard Beard

This isn’t an easy review to write. For a start, the book is about a friend of a friend, fellow blogger Dru Marland. If my friend likes her, then I’m predisposed to like her too. Which means I didn’t approach this book neutrally. But then when do we ever? Aren’t we always biased or conditioned in some way that we probably don’t even realise? That’s the kind of question this book asks a lot. It’s very well written but a little tiring.

What started out as a biography, written by Dru’s good friend Richard, turned more into Richard’s story of his own attempts to understand Dru. Or, more specifically, Dru’s decision to become a woman.

Dru was born male and transitioned to female in her 40s. She and Richard had been friends for many years, sometimes going off on camping and walking holidays together, and the announcement that she was going to start living as a woman came as a shock to him. They remained friends through the years of Real Life Experience, hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, not to mention divorce, family rejection, workplace troubles, cruel newspaper articles and public taunts and stares.

A couple of years after the surgery, they went on a fortnight’s walking holiday, their first since Dru became Dru. The book is structured around that holiday, using their journey across Wales as a metaphor both for Dru’s transition and for Richard’s understanding. Which is a little cheesy, and also initially confusing because it means that there are three timelines – the holiday (2 weeks), the transition (7 years), Dru’s life (49 years at the time of writing, I think). There were also frequent breaks from the story for facts – statistics; details of how gender reassignment works on the NHS, privately and in some other countries; quotes from autobiographies and biographies of other transsexual women; and other research that he has done, which there’s a lot of. A lot of this was absorbing but I’ll admit that I found the quotes superfluous. I get that this background reading was an important part of Richard’s attempt to understand, but I didn’t find a quote about someone going through gender reassignment in the 1970s all that relevant. Not only was the world very different then, but it’s also not Dru’s story. And Dru’s story is a fascinating one, even without including the sex change.

This book is a thorough examination of its subject and it’s sensitively done. Obviously, Dru’s his friend. Their friendship is very sweet and engaging. And yet Richard doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions. In fact he’s far braver than most people would be, I suspect. He not only probes into every aspect of Dru’s transition, he also probes himself for his own feelings about the whole thing and he’s startlingly honest. For every potential insult of Dru (is she deluded? mentally unbalanced? too masculine-looking to pass as a woman?) there’s an equally negative question aimed at himself (am I scared to be seen with her in public? because I think it’s obvious that she has changed gender and people will judge me for being with her? because I think she’s not an attractive enough woman to appease my masculinity? because I’m irritated by her not trying hard enough to be feminine, even if it has been a long arduous day of walking in the rain?).

Richard asks more general questions as well – how much of gender identification is down to social conditioning? how much influence do the parents have? is sexual orientation a factor? Some of which can’t be answered. And there are questions that Dru can’t or won’t answer. So while we discover Dru’s full biography and almost none of Richard’s, we come away having got to know Richard just as well, if not better.

All those probing questions forced me to ask some difficult questions of myself. Did I want to read this book just because it’s about sex change? Why is that of particular interest? Is it because it’s something I haven’t experienced and I want to know about all things human? That would be acceptable. Or does it have a particular draw for some darker reason? A voyeuristic preoccupation with men dressing as women, like in all those TV shows (transvesticism does seem to have a certain place in British humour), perhaps. Did I want to read it because it’s about Dru, who I have come across in a few places on the internet and found engaging?

I’d like to think that I am completely accepting of transsexual people, that I agree with the medical view that gender dysmorphia is a real condition and that the best cure is to “give them what they want”, as Richard puts it. And from a distance that’s absolutely true. I also think it’s very brave to go through something that’s so alien to other people, that requires constant explanation and effort, for the rest of your life, that’s physically difficult and painful, though those involved clearly feel that the alternative is worse. But up close, do I stare? Do I comment to my companions that I think that woman over there might not be “real”? Or if someone else points that out to me, do I eagerly watch for the clues that they saw before me? I honestly hope not, and if I ever do, I am deeply ashamed of it, but can it be helped? Aren’t we all conditioned to try to fit in and reject what doesn’t seem to conform?

One thing that really hit me about this book probably says a lot about me and my confusion on this topic. Richard casually mentions that the name most commonly chosen by transsexual women in the UK is Kate. By quite some way, apparently. Which caught my attention for obvious reasons. On one level I find that very interesting and am curious why it’s top of the list. Is it for any of the same reasons that my parents chose it for me? Not so much the “short and simple enough for my then-toddler sister to pronounce without difficulty” but more the unambiguously female, familiar and popular, timeless. Or is it for reasons that my parents probably didn’t consider? It’s definitely a girl’s name but it’s not soft and feminine. There are many famous examples, maybe including people who some transsexual women admire or aspire to. On another level I definitely experienced a moment of annoyance. Why must they choose my name? Which is significantly less accepting than I thought I was. I can justify myself a little bit by pointing out that I have always been annoyed by how common my name is, but that’s not much of an excuse.

I found this book engrossing, I greatly enjoyed it, but I didn’t tear through it and did sometimes put it down for days at a time because Richard’s self-examination can’t help but prompt a person like me to self-examine as well and it’s exhausting, challenging and a little scary to reveal yourself, even to yourself. Which makes what Richard did pretty brave in my view. It’s also reassuring that everything I could think and question about this topic and far more is covered. It’s not just me. And if the close friend of a transsexual woman admits to these thoughts then it’s probably okay for me to think them too.

I definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in friendship, the everyday life of someone who’s in some way “different”, gender roles and self-examination. Is it alright to recommend it to people who are interested in gender dysmorphia? Should I stop with these questions now?

By some kind of fortuitous timing, Dru and Richard have just launched a new joint website, Being Drusilla. Check it out!

Published 2008 by Harvill Secker, a division of Random House

Don’t open that door

Coraline
by Neil Gaiman

This is one of that excellent trend of children’s books that don’t shy away from being scary or gruesome because, well, children like that kind of thing. I did. Far more so than I do now.

Coraline is a young girl who moves, with her parents, to a flat in a big old house one summer. Her parents rarely have time to spend with her and as the long holiday drags on she gets increasingly bored of rainy days with nothing to do and starts exploring the house and grounds until the only thing left is whatever’s behind the mysterious door in the drawing room. Despite cryptic warnings from the neighbours, Coraline finds a way to unlock the door and her ghostly adventures in a strange new world begin.

The story is excellent and the characters brilliant, either ghoulish or eccentric apart from Coraline herself, in that slightly exaggerated manner that makes sense in children’s books. The other world is cleverly imagined, starting off as a bright, attractive place and gradually becoming stranger and scarier. Coraline is a strong heroine who learns to appreciate her slightly absent parents and to solve problems for herself. The language is very simple, in fact possibly simpler than is strictly necessary. It reads like a children’s book and as an adult I found the language a little offputting. Clearly I am not the target audience but I do think perhaps Gaiman has tried too hard to distinguish this from his more adult fiction.

However, I did enjoy it. I genuinely flinched at the scarier moments and laughed out loud at some lines. I loved the downstairs neighbours, two retired actresses whose talk of treading the boards and famous Shakespeare quotes make no sense to Coraline but might to a well read (or read to) child. The main villain is chilling and original and described well enough to picture – the illustrations by Dave McKean help, of course. I would not hesitate to recommend this for a child but not necessarily to an adult.

First published 2002 by Bloomsbury.

What's the blogging story?

This was a debate held at the Watershed in Bristol tonight as part of the Festival of Ideas and an NUJ/MediaAct/Media Wise joint project to look at the future of journalism and the impact of the blogosphere. It was a lively event with a well chosen panel (actually two panels) and the whole thing was streamed, tweeted and no doubt heavily blogged so I won’t summarise everything here but I will give my reaction.

The internet is full of a lot of stuff and of course it’s not all of a high ethical and moral standard with diligently checked sources and open, honest debate, but then neither is the mainstream media. Some of tonight’s speakers mentioned the continuous lies and disinformation printed by certain widely read newspapers and, to be honest, it’s amazing that there is still such widespread trust in the printed word. An intelligent, interested person can easily find the facts (or lies) behind most, if not all, news stories with a little bit of digging around on the internet. In most cases you’ll likely find a number of blogs have done the hard work for you, providing links to verify the information.

There was a lot of talk about regulation, whether it’s necessary or helpful, and whether it could or should be applied to blogs. The PCC came in for a lot of criticism but of course any code will have its restrictions, both in what it can cover and how it can be applied. A lot of panel-members felt this was covered by self-policing, which is in some ways laughable if we’re just talking about the Fleet Street old boys club, but when you take the internet into account it does begin to make sense. There are lots of people out there ready to point out your mistakes and this actually makes it a little scary publishing anything at all on the internet. Once it’s out there it’s out there, even if there wasn’t a general rule that you shouldn’t remove your mistakes but instead add an update explaining them, or that you shouldn’t delete the comments that point them out. Both rules, by the way, that I don’t think are as widely known and acted on as some of tonight’s speakers seemed to think.

And that, I suppose, would be the point of having some kind of code of conduct that bloggers could sign up to. Yes, it’s only those who would have followed the rules anyway who would sign up, but not every reader is internet-savvy enough to know the rules of netiquette and I think it would help some of those people to sift through the endless words on the internet to find ones that have some semblance of trustworthiness.

Unsurprisingly I think the internet is a wonderful thing, a gigantic leap forward for humankind, and it saddens me that there are people who think of it as a means of opting out from “real” interaction and action. I doubt I have to persuade anyone reading this, but that opinion was voiced tonight and I have to rebut. How many campaigns, marches, demonstrations, petitions and meetings are organised on the internet, using blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc? How many local events have been revitalised since they gained the tool that is the internet to communicate, research and publicise? How many genuine, true, life-changing friendships are forged on its pages, or kept alive by it? I could go on and on. I won’t.

It was a privilege to hear Iqbal Tamimi speak about her work since having to leave her home in Palestine, how she has used the internet to get information out and voices heard. This matter of getting news from behind closed doors, getting deep into human rights issues, raised the question (again) of anonymity and whether it should be a right, covered in law or at least some journalism code of conduct. The ever eloquent Brooke Magnanti reminded us how near impossible it is to maintain anonymity, whether in the face of hungry tabloids or extreme governments there will be someone who has the ability to track down and identify you. Here in the privileged West it’s easy to say that anyone who has something to say should be willing to put their name to it and that may or may not be true, but it’s a very different story when simply speaking the truth about your daily life, your government, your country can land you in jail or have you killed. That people are brave enough to write in the face of horrific punishments, simply because they want the world to know what’s happening, that is true journalism.

A huge thank you to all who those behind tonight’s event. It was fantastically interesting and I think by the end everyone was nodding along in agreement to all the very reasonable things being said.

Fluffy as fluff should be

The Learning Curve
by Melissa Nathan

You may notice that this is not my usual fare. There’s a lot of pink on the cover and big curly letters, with testimonial quotes from B magazine and Jilly Cooper. You got me – it’s chick-lit. And not well written, wittily observed, you-could-almost-call-this-literary-fiction chick-lit either. But I needed a day of mindless entertainment and, much like a Friends boxset, this provided it.

I haven’t read anything approaching this genre since I was a teenager so I’m not entirely sure how this compares with others of its kind, but I’m sure chick-lit authors don’t expect to be compared to Milan Kundera or Bret Easton Ellis and that’s fine. I don’t deny that a lot of the books I read require a bit of work to get my head round, or just to get into, and I definitely see the attraction of sinking straight into a story from page one.

This isn’t good literature. There were no phrases or descriptions that made me smile at the choice of language. I didn’t find myself transported to a place I’ve never been or start thinking deep thoughts about life, the universe and everything. It was enjoyable, in a guilty kind of way (again, much like Friends). The characters were both familiar and realistic enough to be interested in and the storyline kept me hooked. Perhaps more importantly, on a day when I was pretty much exhausted, a state in which I normally struggle to read, I was happily devouring this without getting a headache.

The storyline is simple. Nicky Hobbs is a primary school teacher who always wanted kids but hasn’t got her man yet. Now she’s turned 30 she’s discovered she also has ambition in the workplace and she worries that she’ll have to choose between career and motherhood. If a man comes along to make the latter an option, that is. As it happens, two men start showing an interest. Rob is a fellow teacher at her school and her ex. They’ve been friends for years since the break-up but the flirtation seems to have subtly changed lately. Then there’s Mark, father to Nicky’s favourite pupil and a workaholic absent father, and single parent. Cue lots of agonising over life-changing decisions and also more minor ones like wardrobe choices, pouring out of hearts to close girl friends and misunderstandings that take months to be cleared up.

The twists and turns of the story are obvious from a mile off and this occasionally grated. The phrasing seemed to suggest that I should be surprised at this, that or the other when I was just thinking ‘About bloody time.’ The debate about career versus motherhood is an interesting one and the differences between parenting styles is also something I’m interested in. They weren’t explored in great depth but they gave a little bit of background colour. There was a decent extended cast of characters who were all fully fleshed out and the dialogue was realistic and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. The school is the setting for a lot of the book and at times it felt like I was reading a novelisation of Teachers, which is a series I loved so that’s probably a compliment. The bitchiness and cliquiness of the staff room, the sudden changes of allegiance when a relationship is formed or breaks up or a promotion opportunity is announced, the division between those who genuinely love teaching and those who don’t – all felt familiar and provided much of the humour. Nicky herself is a fairly typical white middle-class British woman who worries about whether she looks good and what people think of her but is also determined to have a career on equal terms to any man. Not exactly a feminist but a reasonable approximation of how a lot of women I know think.

I probably won’t seek out other books by this author – which there aren’t many of because Melissa Nathan sadly died of breast cancer shortly after completing this novel, aged just 37 – but if I find myself in that same state of exhaustion without a TV again and another of her books happens to be handy for borrowing, I’ll accept the offer.

Published 2006 by Arrow Books.

Warmth behind the sadness

The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath

I have been putting off reading this book for years because I expected a very dark, heavygoing affair. In fact, though it’s hardly light reading, it was much more readable and warm than anticipated. And, of course, the language is exquisite.

Plath had clearly borrowed heavily from her own life in this tale of New England college girl Esther Greenwood who is winning writing prizes and attracting men and has the world at her feet but somehow feels distant from it all, as though she doesn’t fit in, as if the rest of the life stretching out before her is terrifying and dull. As she recedes into herself her depression worsens and a long series of doctors and potential cures are tried.

So it goes to some dark places, certainly. Esther develops an obsession with methods of suicide, collecting press cuttings and secretly reading the scandal sheets. But her tone throughout is chatty and open, with amusingly catty descriptions of the people around her and a sense of humour even when she’s talking about death or when she’s confused and hallucinating due to drugs or lack of sleep.

I should have thought, considering the real life of the author, that this is a very genuine, realistic account of depression and I find it interesting that, while there are moments of melancholia and sadness, that isn’t the overriding theme or tone of the narrative. It’s more about loneliness, being somehow different, not understanding and being convinced that everyone else does understand and is together and fits in. Though of course the realisation that that isn’t true isn’t a cure for Esther, it is a step forward.

Knowing a little about the author from newspaper articles, excerpts of her journals and the film Sylvia (which I loved) I did find it a little creepy reading the parts that I knew were closely if not directly autobiographical. Chills down the spine may be a good effect for some books to achieve but here it was horror tinged with deep sorrow.

I definitely recommend this to everyone. The language is beautiful and yet straightforward. It’s not a hard read but it does effectively cover a hard subject.

First published 1963 by William Heinemann.

See also: reviews by Novel Insights and Farm Lane Books.

Man Booker winner: must-read item?

I’m a fan of the Booker Prize. It tends toward my personal taste and I have read and enjoyed many past winners, not to mention runners up. With my TBR pile teetering as high as it is I’m unlikely to rush out and buy this year’s winner, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen, but I will probably read it eventually.

All of which has got me thinking about book-buying habits. Would you buy a book just because it won a particular prize – e.g. the Orange Prize or the Hugo Award? Do you tend to buy books on a whim, maybe based on a combination of title, cover and synopsis? Do you only ever follow recommendations or stick to known authors? Do you possibly even read book reviews with the actual purpose of finding out about books you might like?

Personally I do all of the above, hence my TBR. None of them is guaranteed to lead to a great reading experience. My favourite books have come from all sorts of sources but I have also had recommendations, prizewinners and promising bookshop finds turn out to be a bit rubbish. Or at least, not to my taste.

The savage beast who’s innocent

Vernon God Little
by DBC Pierre

It’s Booker season again, and in honour of Tuesday’s announcement I thought I would read and review one of the former prizewinners from my TBR. This was the 2003 winner of the Man Booker Prize.

This book kind of smacks you in the face and forces you to keep reading. It’s rough, savage even, with the darkest of dark humour and language that reminded me of Hunter S Thompson or William Burroughs. But with more swearing.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it greatly. It didn’t take me long to read and I frequently laughed out loud. But I still felt a little bit like I’d been assaulted with someone’s secretest dirtiest fantasy. Disturbing. But funny.

The story is told by teenager Vernon Gregory Little whose best friend Jesus took a gun to school and massacred his classmates before killing himself. The only witness is so badly wounded he can’t speak, which means he can’t confirm that Vernon wasn’t there. A series of people and events bewilder Vernon into incriminating himself and soon the whole country is baying for his blood.

Vernon isn’t a sweet likeable misunderstood hero. He’s a foul-mouthed, judgemental, difficult, slimy piece of work who struggles to say anything coherent out loud and I didn’t empathise with him very often (though there was a bit of a reveal at the end that made me like him more). But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the way he describes his life, people and places. Some of the phrasing is actually quite beautiful, yet still distinctly him. There were some very original descriptions that I went back to re-read and even underlined, which I hadn’t done in years. Here’s one:

“A shimmer rises off the hood of Pam’s ole Mercury. Martirio’s tight-assed buildings quiver through it, oil pumpjacks melt and sparkle along the length of Gurie Street…all the money, and folk’s interest in fixing things, parade around the center of town, then spread outwards in a dying wave…Just a broken ole muffler shop on the outskirts; no more sprinklers, no more lawns.”

This kind of language isn’t all that easy to read at first but you soon get into it and it adds an awful lot to the characterisation. As long as you don’t mind lots of swearing.

Sometimes this book got so dark and twisted that I wondered if I was meant to take it as satire, rather than sort-of realistic storyline of bad shit getting worse, and to be honest that never became clear. Certainly the involvement of the media seemed more satirical than anything. It’s definitely humour aimed at the worse aspects of modern American society, including obesity, consumerism and lazy policing.

One thing that did concern me – there are two men in this book who turn out to be guilty of taking advantage of boys in their care and it is suggested that Jesus (a mass murderer) may have been gay. There are no other gay characters. Perhaps the implication was unintentional, but it has a pretty homophobic whiff about it. Of course, that could just be part of the world view of Vernon, who isn’t the most open-minded teenager.

For a book with such a coarse, not particularly bright narrator, this is a clever book with some subtle plot development (no, really) and it definitely deserves the outpouring of praise and prizes it got.

Published 2003 by Faber and Faber.

Examining happiness

Happy Creatures
by Ángela Vallvey
translated by Margaret Jull Costa

This is an odd book. I know this because every time I mentioned a scene to my friends they were incredulous as to why I would want to read such a book. But even with the weirdness, I thought it pretty good.

It’s also cerebral, much in the manner of Sophie’s World. There’s a simple storyline told in simple language but you rarely get through a paragraph without learning some philosophy.

You can tell it’s going to be cerebral from the start because the main characters are Ulysses, Penelope and their infant son Telemachus. They’re living in modern-day Madrid and very much aware of the provenance of their names (in fact it’s why they named their son as they did) but that doesn’t stop the author comparing their life events to episodes in The Odyssey.

Ulysses and Penelope are separated. She left him holding the baby when Telemachus was just three months old to pursue her career in fashion design. This episode is not told fully until more than halfway through the book, though it is referred to often. The first section of the novel is told from Ulysses’ perspective so it is a bit of a jolt to finally hear Penelope’s side of things and realise she had her reasons, and not bad ones either. I was impressed by how this was handled.

Another large element of the first part of the novel is Penelope’s father Vili’s class that he teaches at the Academy about the philosophy of happiness. Vallvey details a lot of conversations held at these classes, and also snapshots of the lives of several class members. These add interesting colour around Ulysses’ seemingly endless search for his own happiness.

So far so good, although the endless quotes do get a bit tiresome. But what I found disconcerting was how…comfortable the characters are with their bodies and discussing sex. I’m no prude but there were a couple of scenes at which I cringed and struggled to believe could be real. Maybe it’s a Spanish thing.

It was an entertaining read with some good comic moments and some interesting observations. However, I found the philosophising a little tedious and felt there was too much of a tendency to judge characters’ actions.

First published in Spain in 2002 by Ediciones Destino.
This translation first published in Great Britain in 2004 by Viking.

All the way from the US of A

Today I got my Snailr postcard from Anna Pickard. It’s postmarked 17 September so it took its time but now it’s here! Yay! Here’s me looking a lot less pleased about it than I actually am:

(I am not good at taking self-portraits, it turns out.)

This was part of a fantastic, or should I say brilliant, project that Anna devised to combine business, pleasure and travel writing in a novel fashion on a recent train journey around America. Rather than noting down her travel-related thoughts and anecdotes for herself to blog, she wrote them on postcards and sent them to fellow internet folks all over the world. Here’s my card:

"Wee kin hilp you"

(Yes I did very nearly forget to erase my address. That would have been bad.)

I loved this idea. It combines the old-fashioned fun of getting actual post with the super-modern ability to instantly connect with people all over the globe. Plus Anna is funny. Thanks for including me!