The Calling of Books

Two months into the year and I’ve only ticked off one book from my reading list. Yet I’m drawn to read other books, books that aren’t on my prescribed list. It has occured to me that certain books call to us at certain times. We crave different types of book depending on our mood, our current outlook on life, how much spare time we have, even our age or possition in life.

I once spoke to someone (or read somewhere – I can’t recall) who said that reading A Clockwork Orange as a teenager is all about the thrill of adolencent rebellion, but reading it as an adult, it is all about the fear of revoluting youths against society. Reading is always a deeply personal experience. Reading a book at a certain time in your life can give it a whole different meaning.

I found it impossible to get through my reading list as an undergraduate student. Not only were we expected to read three primary texts a week for various modules, but so many books on those lists looked dry or uninteresting. I could appreciate their literary merit and the context in which we studied them, but since I physically couldn’t read that fast anyway, I would select only the books that called to me. Gulliver’s Travels over Tristram Shandy, for example. Or Titus Andronicus over King Lear (I know, I know…)

In a way, I worry that I won’t read the right books at the optimum time in my life. In other way, it’s quite freeing to just pick up the text that feels right at the time.

I should be reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but instead I’m currently reading Under a Canvas Sky, the autobiography of Clare Peake, Mervyn Peake’s daughter. I find it nostalgic, inspiring and tragic – emotions that are keeping me tethered at the moment. Or providing a sense of escapism. Probably a bit of both.

What are you reading at the moment? What drew you to that particular book? Is there anything you’re meant to be reading instead?

The Bloated Aftermath of Christmas!

As I sit here writing, I’m guiltily bloated with Christmas food and my head is full of snot after getting a second cold in as many weeks. This year, Christmas snuck up on me and was over before I knew it. It has been such a very busy couple of months, and I haven’t been ill for a very long time – I guess everything just catches up with you when you have the chance to stop and breathe! (Or wheeze, in my case at the moment!)

Despite this, I managed to go for a two hour walk today, which made me feel a little better. Until the Thornton’s chocolate Santa beckoned and… got all eaten. Seriously, I have a chocolate problem. I simply cannot ration it.

I had some great Christmas presents, which included a Moleskine notebook, a Moleskine diary, a couple of books and graphic novels, some CDs, lots of chocolate, gift vouchers for clothes, and a few DVDs (Tron, which I love, and one on the Victorians – very handy for novel research). And, tickets to see Phantom of the Opera! I’ve seen it before, but it’s a great show and I’m really excited to see it again.

Looking forward to reading Neuromancer by William Gibson once I’ve finished Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy (which I’m absolutely loving).

I’ve got a lot of work to do for Inkspill Magazine in the next few weeks. I really want to finish my novel over the next couple of months, too, and have been yearning for some time at a writers’ retreat, though I can’t really afford it. Maybe I’ll be able to treat myself after January and my last month temping at Pearson.

As for this week, I’ll be reflecting on this years’ achievements and setting some goals for the new year, while trying to shake this damned cold!

 

 

For the Love of Dystopia

I absolutely love dystopian film and fiction. I seem to be constantly drawn to writing dystopian fiction, and writing about it in my critical essays. So what is it that appeals to me?

In its simplest term, dystopias are utopias that have gone wrong. Usually a force comes into power, or a technology or advancement emerges, which seemingly aids to create the perfect society. Either the power is corruptive, or the vision of perfection is skewed.

Generally, dystopian worlds are set in the future, or occasionally on an alternative plane of reality. Because of this, they often contain elements of science-fiction, though not always. I suppose they would fit nicely into the genre of speculative fiction, as they deal with the premise of ‘what if…?’. For example: The Matrix – what if machines took over the world and used humans as their power source? Or 1984 – what if the government constantly watched and monitored all human activity? Or Logan’s Run – what if people were executed as soon as they reached the age of thirty, to keep the population youthful?

This website has managed to break down the dystopian genre into a further fourteen sub-genres. Most (if not all) dystopian fiction will fall into at least one of these categories, and quite possibly multiple categories. The fourteen sub-genres are: Totalitarian, bureaucratic, cyberpunk, tech noir, off-world, crime, overpopulation, leisure, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, alien, surreal, uchronian (alternative history), machine, pseudo-utopian, feminist, time-travel, and capitalistic. Visit the website for definitions and examples of each.

I love the broadness of dystopian fiction. The scope for imagination. The main purpose of dystopian fiction is to hold a mirror up to our own society, or our own perception of the human experience. They show us possible alternatives to our current state of existence, and break down the mental misconceptions we have about ourselves. And often this mirror shows a fascinatingly dark and ugly world.

Here’s a list of the ‘Top 50 Dystopian Movies of All Time‘.

Personal movie recommendations:
Gattaca - set in a world where genetically enhanced people are superior.
Battle Royale – School children have become out of control, so every year a different class is sent to an island and told to fight to the death until only one is left as a bid to control youth through fear.
The Matrix – Typical ‘brain in the vat‘ premise.
28 Days Later – More horror than dystopian, but I would argue the latter half set in the army camp has strong elements of dystopia, as well as the premise of the ‘Rage’ virus.

And ‘The 16 Best Dystopian Books of All Time‘.

Personal book recommendations:
The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells – Looks at the experimentation of human and animal genetics.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – Though it is unclear in the film, this novel is actually set in the near future, where youths are running riot. Follows the story of a boy who is psychologically conditioned, and looks at the philosophy of free will.
I am Legend by Richard Matheson – One man is left alone in a world infected with a vampiric disease. (Way, way better than the film.)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Incredibly dark and bleak. An unexplained apocalypse has left the world a barren wasteland. The few remaining humans wander the planes, either as solitary nomads or gangs of cannibals.

Here are a few slightly obscure dystopian films you might want to watch:

THX 1138 (1971) – The ideas in this film are interesting, but I feel many of them have been implemented into more modern fictions, so they’re not quite as original as they would have been when this film was first released. This film has a dream-like quality to it that creates a horrible sense of unease. Surreal, but slow paced in places.

The City of Lost Children (1995) – Extremely surreal and sometimes a little hard to follow (unless that’s just me…). Wonderful visuals, such a beautifully ugly film. The first film that made me respect Ron Perlman as an actor!

Dystopian fiction is so versatile. It’s recently become quite popular in the Young Adult sector, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of The Hunger Games when I have the time. And dystopias don’t always have to be horrific or bleak.

I by no means have exhausted dystopian recommendations in this post. I still have a lot more iconic films to see and books to read. What are your recommendations?

‘Soulless’ by Gail Carriger

[CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS]

Soulless by Gail Carriger fearlessly spans many genres. The book doesn’t take itself too seriously, and because of this it is quite a fun read. There are many dark and solemn supernatural or steampunk tales out there. The humour in Soulless is quite refreshing in comparison. However, I fear that it’s array of genres ultimately dilutes this book.

Blurb from Amazon.co.uk:

Alexia Tarabotti is labouring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette. Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire – and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate. With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Or will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart? SOULLESS is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.

At first, I found the main character, Alexia, slightly annoying. Unused to reading humour, it took me a while to relax into the tone of the book. Alexia first appeared as prissy, but as I began to see the world she lived in, and as I began to uncover more about her character, I started to warm to her. By the end of the novel, though, she had began to irk me a little again.

The book deals with Victorian high society. And to be honest, it’s this kind of corset-wearing, tea-drinking, party-going superficial pointlessness that I find least appealing about this era in history. I’m really not bothered about the colour and trim of a dress, or how many parasols or hats one person can own… This isn’t a criticism of the writing, but I think it all adds to the slightly irritating prudishness of the book. One reviewer on Amazon said they found the writing ‘smug’, and I think some people might well read it that way, mostly because of the high society that the book deals with, blended with the richly sarcastic tone. Some may view this as a flaw, but others I’m sure will view it as a strength. This aspect of the novel, I feel, is very much down to personal preference.

This aside, my favourite characters by far were the werewolves. In Carriger’s world, supernaturals are integrated into society, and are even part of the government. Lord Maccon (alpha werewolf and head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry) is gruff and rude; his beta Professor Lyall is intelligent, loyal and well respected. I thought both their characters were very well painted.

Lord Maccon quickly becomes the story’s main love interest, and Carriger has perfected the art of teasing us with this sub-plot, and doesn’t give us what we want until the very end – as it should be with all good love stories. By the end of the novel, however, the story did start to boarder on Mills and Boons. The slightly more graphic Epilogue cheapened the eroticism and romance that was so well executed throughout the rest of the book.

The steampunk elements of this book seemed fairly tacked-on. In one of the early chapters, Alexia and her even more annoying friend Ivy are taking a walk. They come across some airships tethered in Hyde Park. Alexia makes some fleeting comments about how amazing they are, and then they never crop up again.

Steampunk comes more into play at the end of the novel, when were are faced with revolutionary and horrific cog-filled torture machines. These were fascinating, yet their darkness contrasted almost unnaturally with the light-hearted tone of the rest of the book.

An automaton also becomes integral to the plot. Carriger describes this mechanical man with appropriate horror (the unyielding strength, the dead skin, the carved forehead…). The mystery around this character really drives the novel forward, but once we find out what it is, so much suspense is lost, and from that point, the automaton loses much of its original character and falls very much into the background. The revelation about the carving in its forehead was a disappointment to me, too. The word was ‘VIXI’ and I thought it would represent Roman numerals, perhaps suggesting there are many more of these monsters, but instead it turns out it is part of some magic spell, and all that is needed to defeat the automaton is essentially a face wash.

In all, the book is well structured and the characters are rich. Though the main themes have been done many times before, Carriger brings a freshness to them with some original thought. The amalgamation of genres makes this a difficult book to place in the market, and I feel the light tone and the supernatural romance elements are the strongest. The steampunk elements are mostly aesthetic, and I feel that Carriger is more enchanted by high society Victorian England mixed with supernatural creatures than anything more technological.

‘Boneshaker’ by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker seeks to combine the steampunk genre with zombie horror. Published by Tor in 2009, it was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2010, though public reviews are mixed and varied.

Blurb from Amazon.co.uk:

At the start of the Civil War, a Russian mining company commissions a great machine to pave the way from Seattle to Alaska and speed up the gold rush that is beating a path to the frozen north. Inventor Leviticus Blue creates the machine, but on its first test run it malfunctions, decimating Seattle s banking district and uncovering a vein of Blight Gas that turns everyone who breathes it into the living dead. Sixteen years later Briar, Blue’s widow, lives in the poor neighbourhood outside the wall that s been built around the uninhabitable city. Life is tough with a ruined reputation, but she and her teenage son Ezekiel are surviving until Zeke impetuously decides that he must reclaim his father s name from the clutches of history.

And surprisingly, I’m not giving away too much of the plot, as much of that background info is crammed into the first couple of pages. It is presented as an extract from a historical novel, which one of the characters is writing.

This character, Hale Quarter, is one of the first people we come across in chapter one. We see the world from a mixture of his and Briar’s point-of-view. Then, Quarter disappears, and doesn’t reappear again in the novel. Not a particularly smooth introduction to the story.

The novel is structured with two dominant view points: Briar and Zeke. Each have their own chapters. Briar’s chapters are illustrated with a pair of goggles at the beginning, and Zeke’s chapters with a gas lamp. A nice touch.

I felt Priest painted Briar’s character quite well. Her history, her flaws, made her more human. However, she boarded on the stereotypical ‘mother who will stop at nothing’ to save her child.

Zeke, on the other hand, was an incredibly annoying character. He is meant to be an older teenager, but acts more like a ten or eleven year old. He lacks a sense of maturity, and his thoughts are simple. Often, he comes across as rather dumb, and I felt almost completely unsympathetic towards him.

Whereas Briar has a much more active stance in moving the plot forward, Zeke is lead around by others, making him passive and quite boring.

All four-hundred pages of the book take place within a few days. And this slow pace often takes its toll. The action scenes are well executed and exciting, but the spaces between them are often bogged down with unnecessary description, bantering, and time-fillers. It seems to me that there is no real control over the contours of action and suspense.

I commend Priest’s original zombie ideas. The term ‘rotter’ is both apt and phonetically pleasing, and I liked the idea that these zombies were created by a poisonous gas. However, there is no attempt to explain why this ‘blight’ created the undead, or why or how it was being formed beneath the city. The characters don’t even wonder about this, which I found strange. The role of the zombies in the plot is quite unoriginal. They are just there to loom, chase and destroy.

The steampunk elements are largely aesthetic. There are copious amounts of goggles, airships, weird weapons and strange devices. Nothing seems superficial in the sense that all the steampunk objects are important to the narrative.

The book itself bears a sepia text (as opposed to traditional black) which I personally found a little hard on the eyes. However, I adore the cover art and design.

Overall, I did enjoy reading Boneshaker, despite its flaws. Priest’s imagined world is rich and dark. Perhaps with a little more fine tuning, this book could have been even better.

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