take two

Monday, 5 May 2014 05:40 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Right, we're into the YA. The Sarah Rees Brennan is a duplicate, I ordered the UK one as well for its lovely cover, in a fit of sheer self-indulgence. Young adult gothic, she has a lovely line in character and dialogue. Like Cassandra Clare she's a fanfic writer who's gone fantasy pro; I like Brennan's writing a great deal more than I like Clare's, but I like both of their fanfic more than I like their novels, which is odd. Vague Very Secret Diary loyalty is not sufficient for me to give shelf space to the Clare, but I think they're both young writers who will probably mature interestingly. The Cabot is sheer fluff, I conceived a passion for the wretched things while I was convalescing from the whole DVT fiasco, and they suited my completely brain-dead state at the time. They're actually not as bad as you'd think, they're frequently funny and acute.

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Thursday, 11 October 2012 12:08 pm
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I have just spent two days at home with a weird virus thingy which caused me to feel hot/cold, faint, faintly nauseous, slightly hovercraftian1, and as though my arms are around three miles long. It's an odd feeling, watching your hands do things completely independently of yourself. I am now back at work, but am prone to look vaguely at a point just beyond a student's left ear and mutter things about squid2. My hands are still typing this post more or less off their own bat, to which I say hooray. If I can work out how to outsource actual student advice to my hands, perhaps my head will stop aching.

During the course of the last two days I have read multiple volumes of frivolous YA fantasy (still very enamoured of Kristen Cashore and entertained by Tamora Pierce), played short snatches of computer games which have been prevented from being long snatches by the spinning of my head, and imbibed a great deal of fanfic. The list of links at Making Light is a particularly fine selection which has introduced me to Doctor Who/classic lit crossover fic (Austen and Gone with the Wind) and to Avengers fanfic, which tends to the cute. Still not sure about Tony/Captain slash, though. However, delightful to be reminded that Steven Brust wrote a Firefly fanfic novel. Also, memo to self, must watch Leverage, if only because Christian Kane.

My current state of weird finds curious comfort in H P Lovecraft as agony aunt. With, of course, emphasis on the agony.

1 Floaty, teetering, and likely to spin off in odd directions. Also, full of eels.
2 I have no idea.
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Hooray! I am back in the familiar embrace of Winona, with all my logins automatic, instead of having to type the wretched things in manually on my mother's computer. I miss my own virtual space. I am also much in favour of Virgin trains, which are currently trundling me happily towards Euston with a power point and a table for Winona and easily-accessible internets, with no greater drawbacks than occasional fainting fits in the wireless connection, and a slight tendency to double-type when we go over a bump. Ain't the future wonderful.

I had a truly lovely week in Sedbergh with my lovely mother, and have now sadly left her to her pre-term preparations for the 71 teenage girls who descend on Wednesday. My mental image is of her manning the bunkers wearing an army helmet and an expression of grim determination. She does, however, send love to any of you lot who are acquainted with her.

It is also the start of another month, which is (a) terrifying on account of how the year is doing that acceleration thing, (b) means I missed [livejournal.com profile] wolverine_nun's spanky birthday party on Saturday, woe, and (c) obligated me to pay my intellectual debts. Unsuspecting sources from whom my subject lines have ruthlessly nicked euphonious words over the month of August are as follows:

  • 1st August: one of the more crescendo-to-silly bits of the Arithmetic Song from the Doctor Seuss Song Book, a copy of which I joyously possess. It's actually surprisingly atonal and tricky music to play, but the inherent insanity of the lyrics makes me very happy.
  • 6th August: the Obligatory David Bowie quote, here, of course, from "Life on Mars" in rather nicely layered commentary on Curiosity's perfect landing. The ineffable satisfaction with which a quote clicks into place on several levels simultaneously is... well, ineffable.
  • 10th August: Charles Dickens, the opening Chancery bit from Bleak House, in which he is sustainedly and beautifully rude about lawyers.
  • 14th August: you should have spotted this one - pretty much my statement of weather-related creed from "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head", which was written for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by one of the world's great song-writing duos, Burt Baccharach and Hal David. Those guys wrote great music, particularly for piano rendition. Hal David, by an unpleasant co-incidence, died a couple of days ago.
  • 19th August: a somewhat prescient reference to The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, since, while I have neither seen nor read the work concerned, I have spent the last week rather dementedly catching up on my YA girly literature from the library in the boarding house. This has involved a slightly gruesome amount of paranormal romance in addition to teen fantasy and a bucketload of Meg Cabot. Meg Cabot is fun - funny, acute and surprisingly well written. As a bonus, scientific experimentation suggests I can whack through a Cabot novel in about an hour and a half, which means that the total number of books I've read in the last week is... *counts on fingers* ... somewhere slightly in excess of fifteen. I feel much more frivolous now.
  • 20th August: a horrible pun mashing up the conference venue with the sort of agony-column state I was in after completely screwing up that first conference paper. My second paper is much shorter and more ruthlessly shaped, and I am poised to watch myself like a hawk for unnecessary elaboration.
  • 23rd August: dear Bilbo, slightly drunkenly at his birthday party, quoted in mitigation of the slightly drunken ability of a select cohort of academics to correctly remember the quote at the after-party.
  • 30th August: William Wordsworth, naturally, from "The Prelude". Sticking a pin randomly into "The Prelude" at almost any point will yield a quote useful for heading posts about sight-seeing in the Lake District.
I'm in London for a couple of days, crashing with [livejournal.com profile] egadfly, and lunching with various peoples who are being very kind about my feeble flutterings at the idea of navigating London with a giant suitcase in tow. I go through to Kingston for the conference on Wednesday, and then head back to CT on Sunday. I feel very globe-trottery.
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This month's Ansible reminded me that John Christopher died early in February. Along with my grandfather's collection of Tolkien and Silver Age sf, John Christopher's YA science fiction novels are probably guilty of conditioning me into the dedicated sf/fantasy fangirl I am today. I remember finding the first book in the Tripods triology in a school library, and the twitchy, frustrated wait until I unearthed the rest of the series in second-hand shops years later. I re-read them a couple of years ago; they stand up remarkably well to adult insight.

The great thing about John Christopher's writing is that he didn't pull any punches. His work was often dark, post-apocalyptic; he did not scruple to throw death, threat, corruption, loss and really nasty people at you. I loved the Tripods trilogy, which is probably the best-known of his works: the alien overlords who have taken over Earth owe a lot to H G Wells, but they're a properly horrible and richly satisfying creation. The scrabble for existence in a shattered world in the Prince in Waiting series is also compelling: Christopher seems to have a thing with post-apocalyptic regression to pre-industrial lifestyles. The dark/gritty/lost feel of the novels reminds me a lot of Peter Dickinson's Changes series.

The Ansible paragraph was interesting, because there's really a lot I didn't know about him, oddly given that he's a favourite writer. John Christopher was a pen name; the author's name was apparently Sam Youd. I've always thought of him as leading that separate, John-Wyndhamesque existence outside of sf fandom structures, but in fact he published in the pulp magazines of the 40s, and was apparently part of early British fandom, at least for a while. I need to track down his adult novels, too. I think I may have read The Death of Grass at some stage, but I don't remember it at all.

RIP John Christopher. Integral to my sf experience and growth.
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I started reading pulp fantasy, as opposed to children's fantasy novels, at university. The role-playing crowd introduced me to people like Feist and Eddings, who I happily grafted onto the solid groundwork of a childhood spent reading Tolkien and Susan Cooper and E. Nesbit and Earthsea, and my grandfather's considerable, if rather random, collection of Golden Age sf.

Anne McCaffrey I stumbled on all by myself. I was perennially broke in undergrad, owing to non-wealthy parents and the horrible exchange rate between Zim and South Africa, and insufficient gumption for it to have occurred to me to go out and find a part-time job. I used to haunt second hand book stores, a habit picked up from schooldays. There was a little junk shop in Mowbray, just the Tugwell side of Shoprite, that had a single shelf of books. One Friday afternoon I wandered past there and found something called Dragonsong. There was also the sequel, Dragonsinger: Harper of Pern, but I was being too cautious with money to buy them both. I took Dragonsong back to my res room and devoured it whole that evening, in a state of suspended enchantment that I suspect was shared by a lot of you who are female and met McCaffrey in your teens. The wish-fulfilment elements of the fire lizards, the fascination of the setting, the whole musical element, Menolly's growth out of her marginalised life - I desired more, passionately.

I couldn't go back and buy the sequel because I left for the airport to go back home to Zim for the vac really early on Saturday morning. The desperate need for more of the same world led me to overcome the mouse-like introversion of my first year, and actually voluntarily speak to the girl in the res room next door, who was likewise a Zimbabwean. She was leaving a few days later. I gave her money for the book, and asked her to buy it for me and bring it up to Zim, which she cheerfully agreed to do.

I remember this all astonishingly vividly, given that it happened over twenty years ago. Her house wasn't far from ours in Harare, up on a hill; I remember finding my way there one evening, and having a perfunctory chat with the girl, whose name I can't remember; I have a vivid mental image of her rummaging around in her not-yet-unpacked suitcase to find the book for me. I must have hit her for it the instant she got back. The whole episode is outlined in my memory by the tense, thrumming expectation of actually getting my hands on that book, of continuing the immersion I'd started a few weeks before and from which I'd been horribly excluded. I don't even remember reading Dragonsinger for the first time, but boy howdy, do I remember desiring it.

A lot of Pern is, objectively speaking, fairly grotty: its world-building is prone to holes, McCaffrey's storytelling suffers at time from pacing issues, her prose is occasionally awkward, and she tends to recycle plots. A lot of the dragon/human interaction is frankly the stuff of adolescent fantasy, and the sexual politics are downright dodgy at times. Notwithstanding all of this, it's a world that for a lot of fantasy geeks has profoundly shaped our experience of the genre. The Elizabeth Bear take on animal-influenced sex may point to the huge problems with McCaffrey's over-romanticised version, but Pern's dragons perfectly encapsulate the profound human desire at the heart of a hell of a lot of fantasy, which is for an ideal of communication and connection with non-human creatures. The novels explore, transform and enable, at base, the traditional adolescent female love of horses, with all that that relationship allows in the way of validation and power. Pern's semi-medieval, semi-sf environments cunningly use elements of both discourses to both challenge and empower their protagonists, who tend to be real people, individual and compelling even when, like Lessa, they're not entirely likeable, and whose construction represents huge leaps for the representation of female characters at the time the novels were written. I subject my fantasy/sf collection to periodic weeding, lest the bookshelf crisis become critical, but there's still a row of Pern novels there, and every now and then I re-read them, because they're comfortable friends and still hold the resonance of their meaning to a much younger me.

Anne McCaffrey's recent death is thus a huge sadness. I can't always say that her books have unqualified literary value, but their unqualified significance to me, and to people like me, is never in doubt. She was an icon in the field. I'm sorry she's gone.
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A happy day playing quite a lot of Dragon Age yesterday (I'm getting better at setting tactics), but I got to my Twitter feed late last night to see that Diana Wynne Jones had died. This wasn't entirely a shock, I had a horrible suspicion it was her when Neil Gaiman tweeted about a friend on their way out, but it was still incredibly sad, and I'm still rather weepy. She's probably in my top 3 favourite fantasy authors ever.

I'm not sure if I should be glad or sorry that I never read any of her novels when I was actually a kid - if they would have been a richer or poorer experience than reading them as an adult. On the whole, I don't think it matters. I can't at this stage even remember who introduced me to her novels and which one I read first, but it was sometime in my first few years of university. (Vague suspicion rests on [livejournal.com profile] virtualkathy, and possibly Fire and Hemlock, or The Power of Three. I know the Evil Landlord hit me with Archer's Goon at some stage, but I think it was later). She's always been the author whose next book I will automatically buy, without question, in hardback if necessary, and which I will automatically enjoy. She never had off days. Each novel was a perfect, quirky, original, meaningful thing.

DWJ is the ultimate literary exemplar of the thing that Buffy got right, what JK Rowling dreams of being, vainly, in her most aspirational moments - fantasy that uses magic and symbol intelligently and with considerable emotional reality to talk about human experiences, issues, angsts. The Ogre Downstairs is the perfect Difficult Step-parent novel, through the lens of an enchanted chemistry set. Archer's Goon is the ultimate sibling rivalry cautionary tale. Black Maria is about emotional manipulation and gender stereotyping. They're brilliantly written, sharp and humorous and warm, and jam-packed with ideas - she tucks away in odd narrative corners whole edifices of fancy around which a lesser writer could construct an entire novel.

It's difficult to say which are my favourite DWJ books, because as I think of them, each of them becomes the obvious candidate. I have a very soft spot for Chrestomanci, the dashing, witheringly sarcastic enchanter in the midst of alternate realities, and the rabble of gifted and chaotic children who surround him (and as one of which he started himself). The Chrestomanci regulation of magic is a more intelligent and Victorian precursor to Rowling's Ministry of Magic, and has a far more real sense of the costs of power, control and responsibility. But I am also enamoured of the chatty, down-to-earth witchery of Sophie and her sisters in the Howl's Moving Castle series, as well as Howl himself, and of the beautiful, devastating critique of bad fantasy and bad teaching in The Dark Lord of Derkholm and its sequel. And, of course, the magic-infested fantasy convention in Deep Secret makes me incredibly happy, as does the alternate-worldery of The Merlin Conspiracy. Also, salamanders. And Minnie the elephant.

I give up. I love them all. I re-read them often, and in fact over the last week or so I've just ambled contentedly through the Howl series yet again. The long row of DWJ books in my shelves is a storehouse of treasures, an old friend, a magic box which I open to connect me with someone who I wish I could have met: a warm, vibrant, vital, slightly mad mind with an earthy sense of reality and a sharp and compassionate eye. I can't bear to think that my DWJ collection is now complete, that there will never be another new book from her. The rising young stars of the fantasy genre will have to scramble to match her. But they'll never be her. She was an original.
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Very tired from the week, but I made my orientation leaders chocolate chip cookies, and they gave me sunflowers, so I think on the whole we probably negotiated the interpersonal relationship aspect of the orientation period fairly successfully. I'm a total zombie, though. Am playing Deus Ex and swearing a lot when I have to sneak around. I hate sneaking.

I have also, in between shouting at the screen during Smallville (predictable villains! I have seen all the "plot" "twists" in the last half dozen episodes coming a mile away), actually done some actual reading in the last week. Book club books, even. To distact me from registration woes. It ended up as an extremely bizarre selection that should probably be giving me mental whiplash, to whit:

1. Robert J. Sawyer, Wake. One of those beautifully elegant confluences of ideas which manages to make the Great Firewall of China, a blind internet geek, and apes communicating via Skype all perfectly logical and inevitable contributing factors to the development of AI. Conceptually I loved it. In terms of actual reading experience it drove me bats - Sawyer is in the "workmanlike" rather than "scintillating" prose category, and I don't think he quite pulled off the teen female voice. Even worse, the AI voice didn't work at all for me. I have no idea what a developing machine intelligence's thoughts would be like, but that wasn't it. Also, I do like some scintillation with my prose.

2. Kathy Reichs, Virals. YA sort-of-werewolf thriller. I ploughed through this like a rubber snowplough through syrup snow; its writing style is in the Dan Brown "incompetent mutated journalese" category, all sentence fragments and synonomous repetitions of ideas put into their own splendid isolation in a paragraph for added punch. The plot moves with glacial slowness and telegraphs its reveals well ahead; while it's an interesting concept and I rather liked the teen protagonists, it also suffers from unlikely villains and a perfectly disconnected and inexplicable teen debutante plot crowbarred into the middle of the thrillery shenanigans. I read it to the end more in stubborn disbelief than anything else. And for the cute wolfdog.

3. Elizabeth von Arnim, One Enchanted April. Possibly the original "life-changing foreign holiday for unhappy women" book. I loved how it was written - both pithy and inconsequential, and the characters extremely well-observed, compelling even when they weren't likeable. The plot does that sort of happy ending that works only because everyone's basically misunderstanding each other, but it's satisfying nonetheless. Recommended for lovers of period drama, awakenings and gardens.

4. Douglas Coupland, Generation A. Douglas Coupland is quite possibly certifiably insane. I honestly wouldn't have believed you could make a coherent narrative out of the death of bee populations, corporate drug plots, post-Freudian narcissistic individualism and cathartic storytelling in the interests of brain chemistry, but by gum he pulled it off. The different voices really worked for me in anchoring the weird conceptual stuff. Also, I think we need to be very worried about the death of bees.

Next up, the first volume of Superman comics, and Zamyatin's We. Now I am going to crash, because gosh wow I'm tired. My voice has dropped about an octave. It's usually a bad sign. 'Night.
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Still a Bear of Very Little Brain, despite - or possibly because of - a week doing effectively nothing, except playing Plants vs. Zombies, watching Doctor Who, reading Iron Man graphic novels, re-reading my Sookie Stackhouse collection (hawt vampire sex! yay!) and reclining on the sofa fulfilling my god-designated role as Warm Cushiony Thing to an array of cats. I still feel short on sleep and as though someone's punched me in the neck repeatedly, but I'm back at work today, and haven't actually bitten anyone yet, so possibly there are cautious grounds for hope that I'll wake up one of these mornings and not actually want to go straight back to sleep for eight hours.

One of the other things I did manage to read was Holly Black's White Cat, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I know her mostly for her YA faerie series, Tithe et al, which are solid and slightly gritty pieces of YA urban fantasy but which don't really expand the boundaries of an increasingly crowded genre. White Cat is different in that it felt genuinely fresh. The novel assumes that magic is real, but that it's been outlawed; the contemporary setting does an interesting echo of Prohibition in that, logically enough, if magic is illegal then curse workers will, in fact, be controlled by organised crime. Lots of lovely plots, double-bluffs, truly nasty people, and a slightly sketchy but rather fun play with the eponymous fairy tale. Recommended.

In other news, [livejournal.com profile] first_fallen just lent me all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I started watching last night. So far I have concluded the following:
  • It's very slow-paced, which works well for my fledgling knitting skills. Eight rows of Ravenclaw Scarf last night, about to embark on the colour change. However, the Evil Landlord urgently needs to replace the bulb in the light above my sofa, I can't see properly to knit and there's a clear and present danger I'll end up knitting a clockwork train owing to the gloom.
  • Good lord, Wil Wheaton is ickle. And Wesley Crusher is not nearly as annoying as urban legend would have him. Also, about two-thirds of his blog suddenly makes sense.
  • I have absolutely no tolerance for the Portentous Crashing Musical Score, which is all about Flagging! Important! Moments! And! Lots! Which! Aren't! Important! But! Which! Are! Flagged! Anyway!, causing me to mutter a lot and grind my teeth. I may have to acquire a wax doll of the composer, and prod it at vindictive intervals with my rosewood 3.5s.
  • Most of the cast is kinda cute.
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My browser currently has an open tab entitled "When Hollywood Sucks, or, Hungry Girls, Lost Boys, and Vampirism in the Age of Reagan." Occasionally my life ain't 'alf bad. (Although that last student essay absolutely was. Apparently it's not enough to wantonly plagiarise most of your essay, in bizarrely fragmented bits, from a critical piece only vaguely related to the topic, you also have to randomly scatter it with entirely erroneous page references for a completely different article you don't seem to have read. Honestly).

Apparently all you lot don't also read my Twitter feed, which means the happy occasional link I fling out there for general delectation passes you sadly by. (By "all you lot" I possibly mean Jo, actually). I am absolutely going to sign up for Delicious one of these days, honest I am, but in the meantime, just for you, the latest random happenstance which has brought me linkery joy. (Ecited to add: "one of these days" apparently means right now. Who knew. Go me. Delicious link in left-hand sidebar, under "Extemporanea Elsewhere").

  • This is a rather seriously good discussion of relationships in Buffy, although by "seriously good" I may actually mean "Jennifer Crusie gets the Spike chivalric lover bit in the same terms I do." Whatever. Worth a read.

  • Space Nazis! No, seriously, Space Nazis. I really want this film to be made.

  • James Blue Cat has posted the first quarter of his kids' fantasy The Cabinet of Curiosities on his blog, further chapters to follow. It's a very happy-making piece of writing that pushes a lot of kids' fantasy geek buttons with wanton deliberation. [livejournal.com profile] pumeza, you may enjoy playing spot-the-reference. It's also very nicely written - tight, focused, pacey, quirky, should make kids as happy as geeks. By a bizarre freak of happenstance I'm currently reading Robin Jarvis's The Woven Path, a kids' fantasy also featuring a strange magical museum full of references, and Cabinet is making me realise how badly written Jarvis's is. Honestly, I suspect I'm going to chuck The Woven Path before finishing it, it has a line in staggeringly awful sentences and clumsily unnatural action which is reminding me forcibly of some of my students. (Which is sad, because I adored Deathscent). I shake my tiny fists impotently at the Cosmic Wossnames for the fact that some twit published Jarvis and no-one wants to publish James. Sigh.
I suddenly recollect that there are at least two parcels waiting for me at the post office, and by some miracle there aren't actually students scratching feebly at my door. *flees while the getting's good*
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Gaah. This post brought to you courtesy of (a) a mad day full of angsting students, so I couldn't post during the day, and (b) a sudden quick run to the supermarket owing to the fact that my keyboard just died in the middle of a sentence. I do love a cordless keyboard and mouse, their spaghetti-wrangling capacities are immense, but Sod's Law says the battery will always die at the exact moment when you've exhausted the stash of AAAs on non-computer (i.e. inessential) frivolities like the bedside clock. Usually in the middle of a particularly good sentence, too. Sigh.

So, yesterday I did no work for several hours on account of how Cory Doctorow just released his new book, free for download under a Creative Commons license, as is his wont. For The Win (available here) is kind of a cross between Little Brother (kids resist fascism!) and Stross's Halting State (shenanigans in online worlds! news at 11!1!!1!). It always faintly surprises me how much Doctorow's books drag me in, as I don't think he's a great stylist and middle-of-the-road writing style usually jolts me slightly but continuously out of the absorption. What he does, though, is to dissect, acutely, intelligently and with a shifting, manic energy, the current zeitgeist, a word the Evil Landlord has recently taught me how to pronounce. Devouring For The Win in three hours flat has caused me to unleash two major sizzling insights, viz:

  1. Good lord, economics is the new geekery. SF writers of a certain stamp have always gleefully indulged in technobabble, and they're pretty fearsome if you unleash them on the increasingly technologically-defined systems and processes of modern-day economics. Quite apart from anything else, market operations are at least as arcane as anything a SF writer can come up with in the arena of quantum gadgets, string theory or the singularity. Doctorow does it here, packaged in a YA-friendly format with lots of analogies which means even I got most of it; Stross does it, with rather more first-world political wossname, in the Merchant Princes series. What they both achieve is that particular kind of obsessive, geeky insight which delights in expounding and exploiting a system for its own sake. I'd never really expected to have the economic version infect me, but it really does.
  2. Economics is arcane, and these days it's deeply abstract and virtual to the point of being magical. If you have to talk about life-affecting realities whose abstracted systems are weirdly dislocated from the real world, the MMORPG environment is a bloody marvellous metaphor through which to do it. The recent stock market disasters have revealed, if nothing else, that the whole house of cards is a conceptual system with a hell of a lot less to it in the way of logic, coherence, rules and self-limitations than your average online fantasy realm. I couldn't help reading the book as a nastily acute and finger-pointing satire on recent economic trends, and as such it was deeply satisfying.
I thus recommend that ye go ye forth and read the damned thing. It's a slightly odd mix of surprisingly gritty and surprisingly utopian, and gives you rather more insight into Chinese and Indian poverty than is entirely consonant with first-world complacence, but it's very much worth a read.

I now return to the loving embrace of The Vampire Diaries. Damon is turning out to be a total shit, but very, very pretty.

Literary Lions

Friday, 13 November 2009 10:39 am
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Following a vague recommendation from someone-or-other, I completely forget who, I've spent chunks of the last few weeks scientifically investigating the works of Tamora Pierce. Pierce is a writer of young adult fantasy, and I was interested in her because she does some quite deliberate things with feminist themes and strong women negotiating medieval, male-dominated societies. It's been a slightly ambivalent reading experience. She's easy to read, and I find myself mentally classing her stories with the Anne McCaffrey Dragonsinger ones in terms of their tendency towards wish-fulfilment and cute-creature-hugging; I also worry a little about a potentially slightly facile feminism. Nonetheless I'm left overall with a strong sense that her Tortall series is a worthwhile project that does something necessary in terms of role models for teenage girls.

The first Tortall series follows Alanna, who wants to train as a knight but has to disguise herself as a boy to do so. The disguised-as-a-boy bit is not treated realistically at all: young Alan should have been discovered posthaste and probably raped. But the urgency of the girl's need to fulfil a role not prescribed for her by her society is very apparent, and you end up rooting for her throughout. It's clearly an early work; the book's writing is a bit halting at times (she definitely gets better over time) and the magic/fighting combination is a little too idealised. The subsequent series which focuses on Keladry, the first girl to actually train openly as a knight, is stronger, more straightforwardly mundane and far more realistic as well as better written.

Good Things: solid detail in fighting, war, tactics (I am so an SCA geek); training is hard work, particularly for girls trying to overcome the strength deficit compared to boys. Prejudice against girls fighting. Page hazing rituals. Social awareness: the feudal system's privilege is neatly deconstructed in Keladry's story. Good teaching. Realistic teen romance! ye gods, how rare is it for teens in y.a. books to (a) play around with sex (b) sensibly (c) in a valid emotional context and (d) with a shifting series of partners, crushes and relationships. Death to the One Troo Love! JK Rowling's bloody saccharine Epilogue, take that!
Bad Things: clunky writing at times, narrative hiccups, falters and rushes. Slightly Shakespearian gender-swapping unrealisms. Too much cutesy power, too many cutesy people, not quite enough grey between heroes and villains. Bloody magically-enhanced animal deus ex machinas, although I can completely see these appealing to the teen girl demographic.

In completely another area of the young-girl-protagonist spectrum, Cathrynne M. Valente has posted the final chapter of her wonderful fairy tale, the one with September and the leopard and the wyverary A-through-L. And the soap golem. Baumish. Nesbitesque. Thurberoid. Other good things, including unexpected and off-beat and occasionally very cruel. Definitely well worth a read, particularly now that the whole thing's up.
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I'm subscribed to the IT mailing list of my Cherished Institution, mostly because there's a sort of mournful satisfaction in finally receiving the mail which tells you that you haven't had internet for two days on account of a virus/a DoS attack/that worm that targets promiscuous student swappage of memory sticks/an explosion in the server room/the giant squid attack on the undersea cable. Today the notification was of a routine electrical power-down in one of the buildings over the weekend, ostensibly because "A new supply cable needs to be pulled in and livened up." I am fascinated by the word choice. Do you think this is inept use of vocab, or actual technical terms? do electrical engineering types indeed talk about "livening up" a cable when it's connected? It's lovely word choice in some ways because it sounds energetically physical.

I think everymoment recommended M.T. Anderson's feed to me, and I spent a couple of hours yesterday imbibing it in a single, gulping inhale while flat on my back on the sofa (Sid has been all rampageous, with enthusiastic assistance from glandular fever resurgence; I couldn't look at a computer screen without active nausea until about 3pm yesterday and was feeble and spaced enough not to actually feel guilty that I wasn't at work). It's a damned good book, a sort of dystopian near-future young adult thing that's surprisingly dark and real in its depiction of teen relationships and concerns. Mostly, though, I was blown away by the writer's ability to capture not only the delirious speed and flickering change of a data feed plugged straight into your brain, but use of that data by the pervasive, iniquitous, seductive power of corporate consumerism. It's not a cheerful book, despite its hip surface and moments of humour: it's a tragedy, a meditation on the power of consumerism to pervade, to betray and to diminish its participants to a level of unthinking, oblivious naivety which presents itself as pathos rather than culpability. These kids struggle only feebly towards knowledge, context or understanding of either themselves or the rape being perpetrated on their world by the corporate interests which lull them with ownership. The fate of the one main character is tragic because it simply depicts, more quickly and obviously, the fate which awaits them all as capitalism, blindly grabbing, destroys them all. It's an absorbing, terrifying, slightly harrowing read that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Middleman gave us "The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation", last night, an episode tragically low in Goofy Middlemisms, although points for "Bram Stoker's widow!". Suitable vampire references litter the thing, but only this series can entwine Vlad the Impaler with sinister ventriloquists' models in one episode, leading to the interchange which neatly encapsulates the episode:
The Middleman: Dubbie, did he just turn into a bat puppet?
Wendy: Man, I don't even have an opinion.
This show, how much it is loved. By me. And, hopefully, after all these carefully-displayed gems, by most of you lot too.

I will be your slave

Thursday, 20 August 2009 11:11 am
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I have a dreadfully unscientific method of book-acquisition, frequently entailing a random drift around bookshops until something catches my eye. In this case I thought vaguely, "Ooh, remember someone on Teh Internets somewhere saying something vaguely good about that, and it has a catchy title and is cheap, bonus!" This is how I became the proud possessor of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party. I admit in retrospect that I may also have been seduced by the book itself, which is a beautifully-made hardback with lovely, period-feel fonts and layout, and that wonderful fluffy irregularity to the edge of its pages. I find myself stroking them a lot. The book itself is an appropriately concrete realisation of the story it houses, a tightly-focused exercise in eighteenth-century voice.

Octavian Nothing is absolutely not my kind of book. I bought it because I vaguely associated it with young adult fantasy; it's certainly not a fantasy, and I'd quarrel quite radically with the idea that it's a young adult book. What it is is a stunningly period-voiced disquisition on human brutality, race, misplaced science, slavery and the American War of Independence. I read it in an enormous gulp during one sitting on Tuesday afternoon, when I was reclining on the sofa being Sidded; it was a cruelly mesmerising read, emotionally flaying and horribly inevitable while gripping like a boa constrictor. I hate politics, I know very little about American history, I particularly find slavery and race politics difficult, and I could not put the damned thing down.

The story is quite weird, actually: the titular character is a black boy, son of a slave, raised in truly odd circumstances, in considerable luxury amid a houseful of intellectuals - scientists, philosophers, artists who effectively give him a Classical education. Octavian's own voice is thus unique and compelling in the sections he narrates, and his naive perspective on his surroundings is frequently damning. The book's effect is subtle; the issues and true circumstances emerge gradually, inescapably. You will, I have to say, never look at science in the same way again - the eighteenth-century notion of an acceptable experiment would curl your hair.

Above all, though, this is a superb example of narrative in the Gothic mode, its true focus the monstrous, the abject, the entrapping. I would have been utterly traumatised to read this as a teenager. I'm not sure I wasn't utterly traumatised anyway. On the other hand, you should probably read this book.

all billered and curled

Wednesday, 22 July 2009 01:14 pm
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Monday's dawn saw a sort of sea-foggy thing rolling in, which from my office window exhibited the most amazing giant, soft, billowy wave effect, which I then almost completely failed to actually catch in this photo. On the upside: bonus geese.


In other news, while not wibbling financially I am managing to distract myself very nicely, thank you, with a combination of reading and knitting. (Ravenclaw scarf in bamboo. 20 rows in and still haven't screwed up the rib. On the downside, am conscious of mild desire for a wand (willow, unicorn hair) and the relevant incantation to make the knitting do its own automatic thing, at least until I get to the interesting bit with the bronze stripe. One of my colleagues in my Late Lamented Department persists in referring to me as "Hermione", I figure I may as well make it work for me).

On the upside, have discovered Ysabeau S. Wilce, courtesy of (a) a recommendation from, IIRC, [livejournal.com profile] sarahtales, and (b) the book title: Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. For YA fantasy this is some high quality worldbuilding, characterised not only by a sharp, vivid, economical writing style but by some truly lovely games with gender identity, family obligation and the nature of "evil" (if you think it's evil you probably haven't heard its side of the story). Her giant, animus-inhabited houses are also pleasingly demented, and she has a nice line in capitalisation. I thoroughly enjoyed this: in intelligence, originality and wit it's a cut above the usual YA fantasy fare. And she's written a sequel! So I'm going to cheat like hell, and assume that that's my Ginormous Fantasy Epic for the day, although strictly it probably isn't. But at least you're spared me wittering on about Sheri S. Tepper1.

In a nutshell: Victorian cultural nods, kick-butt female soldiers, giant shapeshifty houses, stupid dogs. Very cool magic, including Strange Symbols to the power of n. Blue supernatural entities with talons and droopy spaniel ears. Huitzl, humming-bird gods, housework, human sacrifice. Rangers, a new and original formula. Effeminate pirates. Couture. Kilts. Confusion. Roman cultural bits.

1 I should generally be prevented from wittering on about Sheri S. Tepper. Feminism results. Also, postmodernism. Also, fangirly drool.

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I think I'm randomly dubbing July Random Ginormous Epic Fantasy Series Month, just because. (Probably mostly because my posts seem to be very boring at the moment. I could tell you about the irritatingly arrogant phone call from the delusional wannbe-Fine-Art-student this afternoon, or how I woke up this morning feeling as though someone has socked me in the left eye, but see? very boring). Also, I'm randomly craving Ginormous Epic Fantasy Serieses, which means I absolutely have to dig some of them out of my backbrain/bookshelves in order to re-read them. And as with YA Fiction Month I'm trying for more obscure examples, which all things considered is fortunate: I know David Eddings died recently, but there are limits.

Does anyone else remember reading Geraldine Harris? Her Seven Citadels series comprises four books following the quest of Kerish-lo-Taan, Prince of the Godborn, for the seven keys which will unlock the prison of the Saviour of Galkis. He travels through a variety of bizarre, vivid, faintly Eastern, rather hallucinogenic adventures, in which I remember swamps, wastes, strange deserted cities, jungles and diaphanously-clad sorceresses, or queens, or possibly sorceress-queens. (Did I mention that the names are great? the names are great. Ellandelore and Gidjabolgo and Chirandermar). Kerish himself is a fascinating figure, initially naive and sheltered, but gaining maturity as the story twists and turns; his growth belies his frankly Mary-Sue-ish physical construction (I mean, black hair with a white streak, and violet eyes flecked with gold? In less able hands he'd end up dating Aragorn and destroying the One Ring). The writing style has a deliberately stilted, slightly archaic quality which fits very well with the story's frequent strangeness and its measured, inevitable pace. (And, in fact, with the fact that the author is apparently an Egyptologist when she's not writing YA fantasy). Ultimately the narrative does a weird, dissolvey, shifty thing and folds into itself in a completely non-standard fashion given its extremely questy nature. It's a strangely memorable and trippy read.

You don't get a picture because my edition of this is the initial UK imprint, the black-edged Unicorn edition, a scan of which I absolutely cannot find online. Internets, you have failed me.

Oh, yes. Devil's Peak. Silly hat.

strange powers

Thursday, 18 June 2009 04:41 pm
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Sid the Sinus Headache is flexing his gosh-darned muscles and growling again, so I shall attempt to distract him by being Literary. True Blood and Doctor Who 4 notwithstanding, I've actually managed to do some reading lately, which is just as well because my Bookshelf of Unread Doom is stretching L-spacily again...

So, Sarah Rees Brennan. Better known as Maya, authoress of, among other things, bunches of Harry/Draco slash and also "Draco Malfoy the Amazing Dancing Rat", which is one of my favourite pieces of Potterfic, not least because it rather entertainingly ships Draco/Hermione and features geeky homework-related flirting over lots of coffee. She's also just published her first YA fantasy, called The Demon's Lexicon, which I have just read.

This was fun. Fairly straightforward urban fantasy stuff - contemporary England, demons, teen brothers, and the snappy and often funny dialogue which is her trademark. She also evinces the particular qualities I've come to associate with fan fiction, even at the more accomplished end of the spectrum her work inhabits, which boil down to (a) bucketloads of angst, and (b) pretty boys being emotionally intense. (Another case in point: Cassandra Clare's City of Bones). Really, this is what slash is all about: not the sex, per se, but male characters embroiled in difficult, demanding, complicated feelings, whether they like it or not. In Demon's Lexicon it's a brotherly rather than a romantic relationship, but the vibe feels very familiar.

This also accounts, perhaps, for the overall impression I have of the book: while it's intensely readable and boasts a rather spectacular and well-done plot twist, it also feels young, not just because it's aimed at young adults, but because it's a young writer. The first half or so of the book drags slightly, marking time while the payoff is set up: Ms. Brennan is definitely in command of her characters, but she's not quite in command of her narrative. My sense, however, is that she very definitely will be in the not too distant future, and I shall watch her career with interest. (She says, pushing her pince-nez back on the end of her nose and channelling a Victorian lawyer).

The other fantasy novel I've read recently is John C. Wright's The Last Guardian of Everness, which my Evil Landlord left carelessly lying around an obscure corner of his bookshelf where I happened to be rootling. I loved Wright's Orphans of Chaos series, which I described as a "sort of weird semi-inexplicable Victorian/modern heroic school story". Everness does a splashy and inelegant belly-flop into Lovecraft's Dreamlands, immersing itself thoroughly while spreading detritus around wholesale: the detached, drifty approach to a world beautiful, strange, inexplicable, threatening and corrupt is absolutely nail-on-the-head in terms of tone and feel. Also, bonus mad faerie women, cheerfully crude and sociopathic Selkie and giant set-piece battles between death knights, animated stone statues and small, confused military detachments with machine-guns. This book is trippy, beautiful and gut-wrenching by turns: it's like being repeatedly hit over the head by an exquisite statue constructed in five dimensions from bloody human bones. On the whole I think I like it. Certainly enough to dig up the sequel.

In other news, Woolworths eaten by vampires. Just because I'm relieved that someone else experiences the same degree of lateral to their conversations.
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It's usually quite easy to mentally map a Terry Pratchett novel, at least in terms of its issues and concerns and what have you - oh, it's The One About Religion, or The One About Vampires, or Film, or Fairy Tale, or Consumerism (And Cthulhoid Shopping Malls). This is not a flaw, but rather a natural upshot of his kind of emblematic writing and the very direct and acute response it supplies to particular modern-day issues. He's a surprisingly complex writer, but usually the particular themes and symbols of a novel will dovetail into each other with easily-graspable neatness. You can, in effect, see what he's doing. He's both a sophisticated social critic and a popular writer.

Nation is thus something of a departure. It's already unusual in that it's not a Discworld novel, taking place instead in a sort of alternate nineteenth-century Earth where things are almost, but not quite, identical to our own world (we don't, to the best of my knowledge, have tree-climbing octopodes, although one rather wishes we did). Its overt themes are postcolonial - daughter of Victorianoid civilisation meets son of island-dwelling primitive nation - and its characters work through fear, grief and sacrifice, but you can't say that that's what the novel's about because it's also about social expectation and community and war and gender and religion and tradition and science and bigotry and history and the nature of evil and what happens when a powerful, technologically advanced culture meets a smaller, less advanced one (hint: generally not good for either party. If the African colonial experience teaches us anything, it's that the destruction of a culture's soul goes both ways.) It is, in short, a complex novel.

So this would be, in my possibly slightly premature opinion (this book needs marinating) the work in which Pratchett actually overcomes the drawback of being an intelligent postmodern writer in a popular field. Popular writing is weighted with all sorts of expectations and the Discworld in particular, while a marvellous and powerful construct in its own right, could also easily become a millstone around the writer's neck. It's always a risk with genre - if you want to use the extremely useful shorthand of a generic code, you also have to conform to it to some extent. One of the reasons I am continually fascinated by the operation of genre is because of the extreme, hold-your-breath sort of pleasure of watching a good writer negotiate the tricky balancing act between using a genre and letting it limit you. I think Pratchett wins this one, but he can only win it by abandoning the Discworld, a generic juggernaut in its own right. He does things with themes (loss, grief) in Nation that he couldn't do with the Discworld; he resists expectation, he packs more in than the Discworld's familiar contours would allow.

At the same time he's still working within the expectations that we have about him as a comic and fantastic writer, and he uses that extremely cleverly to balance the seriousness of what he's doing. This is still a very funny, very acutely observed novel with more than its fair share of those classic, compacted Pratchett lines which cause equal parts amused snorting and recognition that their insights are profoundly true. He also doesn't stint on the occasional moments of broad comedy, mostly about booze and cultural misunderstandings. (I have conceived an undying love for the parrot. The bit where it debags the Grandfather Birds has me giggling like a loon every time I read it).

I think this is a very successful book, but not quite in the same way that the Discworld novels are - this one sneaks up on you, it doesn't allow the sort of popular postmodern pleasure of congratulating yourself that you've followed the writer's reference or unwrapped his themes. It takes work. It is, in an odd sort of way because I don't think Pratchett's been an immature writer since approximately Sourcery, a mature book. For this reason I find the most difficult and heartbreaking part of the novel to be the author photograph on the back flap, where he's now turned away from us. He has to give us a novel about working through grief and loss, because when this horrible disease catches up with him, the grief and loss are going to be extreme.
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Slipped, fell and ordered books over the internet again, good lord, my sense of financial balance is as ungainly as the real one - elbows, knees, credit card, all bent, bont and splugged. However! New Robin McKinley, new Neil Gaiman, there went last night. Tepper 0, Potter 0, Literary Self-Indulgence 10. I'm unrepentant.

Robin McKinley is in some ways a guilty pleasure for me: some of her fairy-tale rewrites I find professionally interesting, but my response to her books is always a bit patchy. I will, for example, re-read Beauty more or less annually, when tired or depressed, because it's lovely; Deerskin is quite a challenging revision of a fundamentally dodgy fairy tale; and my devotion to Sunshine is unending (intelligent vampire-dominated world-building! and a heroine who cooks). But The Blue Sword, while compelling, is unashamed Mills&Boon, and her later work, including Spindle's End and Rose Daughter is starting to feel repetitive, a bit shapeless and not entirely successful.

Chalice, the new one, has a fascinating setting, a medieval society in which a feudal structure overlays a profound, magical connection to the land which expresses itself both through the bloodline of the landowner and through the circle of land-linked functionaries who support him. Mirasol, the new Chalice to a troubled demesne, is an extremely sympathetic character, pitchforked into vital and unfamiliar duties through tragedy and need; again professionally, I'm a sucker for magical land-connection as a metaphor for power and control. She's also a bee-keeper, and I loved the bee-keeping detail and the resonance between its logic and that of the land itself. But the weird land-owner himself is a bit too much, too alien and distant to be empathised with, and the story's conclusion somehow too pat. Worst of all, though, I wish McKinley wouldn't descend into measured, formalised interchanges between her main characters, which lay out motivations and plot details in great, chunky, over-emotional paragraphs. I think she's going for a sort of archaic, heightened tone, but I really don't think it works.

The Graveyard Book, on the other hand, is unalloyed delight. Gaiman is a sneaky, sneaky man: here, as much as in Sandman, American Gods or Anansi Boys his mythologies sidle up to you nonchalantly, ramifying casually off the edges of the text in a way that feels naturalised and inevitable. This works because they're powerful, coherent and understated, offering a slow pleasure in gradually apprehending the system in which his characters, alive and dead, function. His theme is death, naturally enough, but it's handled with particular power in the relocation of death's intrinsic concerns away from the actual dead: in the end, death is revealed in its stark truth as being about loss, separation and, in a strange way, maturity - simply coming to terms with life and living.

A lot has been made of the book's debt to Kipling's Jungle Book, but I think it's an understated homage, mostly found in the idea of growing up as different and thus alone, however supportive the alien culture - animals, the dead - which sustains you. The book's episodic structure is effective, bound as it is by the solid integrity both of his mythology and of his narrative vision, and, as usual with Gaiman, is nicely balanced between the chilling, the amusing and the emotionally real. I love the mix of times and tones in the dead characters, and the apparently random and unexplained intrusions of mythological figures. Also, bonus points for a seriously threatening villain, etiquette details across about five centuries, and occasional nightgaunts. Every nice novel needs a nightgaunt. I've always thought they got unnecessarily bad press.

In other news, Vienna Teng. Apart from the lovely voice and groovy piano, her name's fun to say.
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Hmmm. Term must be approaching at speed, judging by the increasing trickle of bemused students lining up outside my door to have their curricular hands held. I swear one of last week's was on drugs, though. What illegal substance would create verbal diarrhoea and a complete inability either to focus on my face, or to directly answer a question? Or are we looking at a paranoid schizophrenic?

The pile of books I've been reading has a healthy proportion of kids' and young adult material, which has given me a happy couple of days in between Farscape.

  • Does anyone share my fondness for Edward Eager? He wrote mostly in the 50s, children's fantasy in the E. Nesbit mould, children dealing with magical artifacts or creatures - the one I've just read is Half Magic, but I'm also fond of Magic By the Lake and The Time Garden. He writes with a sly, dry deadpan wit which yesterday had me chortling out loud, and has a wonderful tendency to continually reference the best of children's lit.

  • I was also tickled by Margaret Mahy's wonderfully off-the-wall collection of short stories for younger kids, The Downhill Crocodile Whizz & Other Stories. Unlike her young adult works (The Haunting, The Tricksters, The Changeover, among others), which are beautifully-drawn character studies with a mature, serious treatment of the supernatural, the kids' books have a marvellous line in logical lunacy and unlikely juxtaposition which I find pleasantly akin to James Thurber in "Great Quillow" mode.

  • I wasn't so impressed with the John Christopher: A Dusk of Demons is relatively interesting post-apocalyptic kids' sf, but its underpinnings don't quite hold together, and it's not a patch on the understated menace of his Tripods series.

  • Christopher was more interesting, however, than The Green Hills of Earth, which is a Heinlein short story collection largely representing gritty, solar-system-bound near-future realism with the usual line in moral superiority and extremely dodgy gender politics. Looking at the extent to which most of these were one-idea wonders, the sf short story has come a hell of a long way since then.

The nice man is coming to tune my piano tomorrow, after randomly phoning me to suggest this was due. Clearly this was prompted by posting about playing it. Either everything is interconnected by cosmic wossnames, or else blogging does, in fact, make the world go round.
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There's snow on them thar mountains. You can tell by the way that your fingers and nose go blue and fall off in the early mornings. And singing in the car on the way to work (what?! I like singing! although not work, so much) is depressingly obvious to onlookers on account of the smoky clouds of breath.

In the Department of OMG Apparently I'm Still Fangirling Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. has signed up to play Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie. I type this from the fainting couch, being overwhelmed as I was with girly glee. I've had a passionate crush on Sherlock Holmes since I was about twelve. Damned, intellectual, inaccessible men. (You may also notice that that Pajiba page mentions a planned Elfquest movie, which I am fully prepared to find entertaining despite, pimping from Confluence notwithstanding, the shakiest of acquaintances with Elfquest. Alien elf porn, how can you go wrong?)

The onset of Friday (calloo! callay! - and my bouncing cat mood icon is currently exactly in time with the Fratellis' "Lupe Brown") seems to have engendered a certain lack of attention focus, since what I really meant to do with this post was to rave about vampires a bit. Jumper notwithstanding, I seem to have consumed an above-average quality of pop culture lately.

I've previously wittered on about Scott Westerfeld in this forum - he's the y.a. sf writer who produced the very interesting Uglies series, set in a post-apocalyptic future where all adolescents are given plastic surgery when they hit a certain age, so everyone is equally pretty. I recently, in a fit of failed saving throws in the bookshop, picked up his 2005 novel Parasite Positive, which is not only young adult fantasy rationalised as science fiction - and heavy on the science - it's possibly the only intelligently scientific treatment of vampires I've ever come across.

The action story of the young vampire-hunter tracking down ex-girlfriends is fun, fast-moving and psychologically real, but it's alternated with chapters which give entertaining, accessible and fascinating accounts of parasite behaviour, a positive galaxy of parasitological stars. Thus the novel doesn't just posit vampirism as a logical and goal-directed parasite, it also provides a lovely collection of frequently disgusting facts about specific real-world organisms. Toxoplasma modifies your behaviour to make you more in tune with cats, for example. Lancet flukes give ants religion. Wolbachia scrambles genes to select for mates who are also hosts, and causes sex changes in wasp offspring. The parasite information is beautifully linked with the vampire-hunting adventure story, and enormously illuminates it. I loved this novel, it's intelligent and unusual, and wryly inventive in its play with the classic vampire tropes. What it does with anathema (the thing which makes vampires afraid of crosses and sunlight and what have you) is both brilliant and, at times, hysterically funny. Look out for the bits with Elvis.


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