Top Ten Covers I Wish I Could Redesign

Be true, unbeliever.”

Stephen Donaldson

  1. I, Robot – Isaac Asimov. Oh, vintage SF novel, how terrible you always look. I couldn’t find the right edition, but it looks a bit like this, except worse.I Robot

  2. Complete Works – Thomas Malory. This book has knights and magic and quests and actual King Arthur in it, and this is what you come up with? Really? I know it’s supposed to be a scholarly edition, but…Malory-Complete-Works

  3. The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett. Standing in for all of those horrible photographic covers from Corgi which replaced the old cartoony covers. Who thought Discworld should look like a piece of grimdark fantasy? Clearly someone who HAD NEVER READ IT.The_Colour_of_Magic

  4. Redwall – Brian Jacques. The new editions with the weird swirly covers and the evil mice and this is a children’s book, what were you thinking? Also Redwall looks like a prison.redwall-brian-jacques

  5. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier. Because this Atom edition looks like a horrible 1950s romance and no.Rebecca

  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Again, I get that scholarly editions don’t prioritise attractiveness, but this cover makes Radcliffe’s strange, rich, hypnotic novel look like Jane Austen, which is unfair to both authors.The Mysteries of Udolpho

  7. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – Stephen Donaldson. I love these books, but the covers are very, very iffy indeed. They look like vastly substandard high fantasy when actually they’re among the best the genre has to offer. I prefer the look of the Third Chronicles, but they don’t go with my older editions…decisions, decisions.The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

  8. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz. What this cover has to do with the actual book is beyond me. Also, I don’t like people on my covers. Oscar-Wao

  9. Schrodinger’s Kittens – John Gribbin. The picture of the kittens is just not big enough. MORE KITTENS, PLEASE.Schrodingers Kittens

  10. Mostly Harmless – Douglas Adams. This cover in no way accurately represents the goofy craziness of Douglas Adams, even at his worst.Mostly Harmless

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Anansi Boys

It’s easier to say true things in the dark.”

Neil Gaiman

Anansi-BoysSo I have a Chequered History with Neil Gaiman’s books. Stardust and Neverwhere both disappointed me in various degrees, but I enjoyed The Ocean at the End of the Lane and his cat story “The Price”. Anansi Boys I would place somewhere in between.

Fat Charlie, an American with a Caribbean family living in London, hears out of the middle of nowhere that his father is dead. And then that his father was a god. Anansi the spider god, to be precise. And that he has a long-lost brother, Spider, who, as it were, got all the godliness, and proceeds to rock up in Charlie’s life and destroy it. Cue much predictable hilarity and some darkness as Charlie attempts to clean up the mess his father’s death has made.

And if we take just that storyline, Anansi Boys is actually quite a touching story of cultural and familial acceptance, embracing one’s heritage and one’s potential. Charlie grows up, becomes a whole person, god and human and all; the novel is really a humane Bildungsroman, a Western form incorporating a Caribbean folk myth. Which is, you know, interesting and clever and fascinating.

Except that Anansi Boys is the perfect illustration of the fact that “diverse” does not automatically mean “good”. Or even “unproblematic”. I’m about to go all feminist here, just to warn you. Also, SPOILERS.

I really, really disliked the way Gaiman treated the brothers’ love interests. For a start, they are called Rosie and Daisy, which are perfectly good names on their own but together feel like the set-up for a joke. A bad joke. Secondly, they feel like plot devices, not characters: narrative rewards for Our Heroes, ways to signal Charlie and Spider’s entry into personhood and maturity, ways to continue the godly line. Cultural inheritance feels very male here; it’s a book about fathers and sons and brothers, with women as ciphers or as strange and alien Others. Charlie and Daisy’s relationship comes out of nowhere, a way to fulfil the demands of the plot. The Bird Woman’s vengeance on the Anansi bloodline cloaks a male desire for vengeance. Even the death of Charlie’s mother goes nowhere interesting.

But the thing that really got up my nose? Rosie and Spider. Rosie, Charlie’s fiancee, has decided not to sleep with him until they’re married. But when Spider turns up, disguised as Charlie but Super Hot (Charlie, of course, is not Super Hot, because he is Fat Charlie), Rosie rolls quite happily into bed with him. Because Rosie’s decision was made solely because Charlie wasn’t hot enough? Thanks for that, Neil Gaiman. That’s a great message right there.

I really don’t understand why the internet thinks that Neil Gaiman is the Best Writer Ever. Nothing that I’ve read suggests any kind of nuance, any kind of real darkness or strangeness or sophistication in his work. If you’re looking for wild fairytales about stories and monsters in the down deep, you’re much better off with Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series.

Review: Mort

Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.”

Terry Pratchett

MortMort is the first Discworld book I’ve read in its entirety since the news of Pratchett’s death in March, which makes the re-read a little poignant, both intrinsically and in the fact that Mort is, well, a book about Death. I may, as a result, have felt a little more nostalgic about the book than I might have otherwise, but I didn’t enjoy Mort as much as I thought I would (considering the fact that I was well in the midst of the Valley of the Shadow of Finals when I read it).

The story sees Death, the anthropomorphic personification with the white horse called Binky, take on an apprentice, a rather gangly boy known, appropriately enough, as Mort. While Death tires of his lonely work and becomes gradually more human, Mort, after messing up the fabric of reality quite badly by rescuing a beautiful princess due to die, starts becoming more and more Deathlike.

It’s a novel, then, if I’m going to put my English student hat on, that inscribes the importance of the illusory: as Mort becomes more Deathlike he becomes more real, losing his knowledge of important human fictions like compassion and justice. (“There’s no justice; there’s just me.”) And, of course, it goes the other way, too: as Death becomes less Deathlike he learns to appreciate fictions like Job Satisfaction and Happiness. I guess Mort at its heart is a book about the human need for such fictions.

Which is a nice moral, as far as it goes, one that’s very much in line with Pratchett’s humanist ideas. Justice and compassion aren’t objectively real, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. It’s just that I’m not convinced it’s handled very well. The novel veers into pastiche at several points, primarily of the sword-and-sorcery variety, and I’m not terribly convinced that pastiche is the best vehicle for Pratchett’s humanism, seeing as it’s usually pretty mean-spirited as a genre. (This, incidentally, is why I prefer the later Discworld books: the world is more established and the humour more subtle, rising as it does rather from situation than from style.) There were a couple of things that struck me as problematic, if not openly sexist: there’s a throwaway scene based on that old misogynist joke of the harridan wife, and Ysabell, Death’s daughter (it’s a long story) comes in for a good deal of fat-shaming. Possibly this is supposed to set her up as Not the Love Interest (or at least Not the Obvious Love Interest), but I can’t help feeling there’s a better way of doing this.

I’m probably not being particularly fair to the book: I’m aware that my sense of humour is markedly different to most people’s, and I don’t laugh easily. Although Death’s pronouncement that “I COULD MURDER A CURRY” is definitely one of the best lines in the series. And also the bit with the cats. And the library is cool. And a pastiche that takes its own story seriously is rare enough to be worth paying attention to. I just think the series becomes more warm-hearted and more interesting about three books after Mort.

50-Word Review: Cat Stories

“The city of cats and the city of men exist one inside the other, but they are not the same city.”

Italo Calvino

Cat Stories, ed. Diana Secker Tesdell (Everyman Pocket Classics)

Surprisingly well-balanced collection of, well, stories about cats. Each one is different: there are sad stories, cheerful stories, horror stories, experimental stories, fairy tales, fables, existential mutterings, pastiche and parody. Every kind of story, so long as it is cat. Such fun. Favourite story: Alice Adams’ “The Islands”.

Word count: 48

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has been on my radar for a while, but it wasn’t until quite recently that I inadvertently sort-of stole it from the Circumlocutor (sorry). Apparently I am very competitive when it comes to books.

And on the whole I’d say that Guernsey is very much worth the competition. Told in letters, it’s the story of a growing friendship between writer Juliet Ashton and the titular Literary Society, formed under dubious circumstances during the German Occupation of Guernsey; the whole takes place in a subdued post-war version of England. I practically inhaled it in one afternoon after handing in my dissertation, which is, I think, the perfect way to read it, guiltily, in one sitting, with a cup of tea and a purring cat. And possibly a roaring fire, if you can stretch to that.

See, it’s a very gentle book, this one. In fact, it reminds me rather of Call the Midwife, in its relentless good-naturedness, its determination that Everything Will Be All Right in the face of practically all historical evidence. There is horror here; given the setting, the novel can hardly avoid it. But the horror is cuddled, stroked, swathed in love and friendship and general good-heartedness by the efforts of a caring and softhearted community of friends until it gives up and goes away. The book places great faith in the potential of community to heal a heavily wounded society; rather than the paean to reading everyone seems to think it is (really, there are hardly any bookish passages here at all), I’d say that it’s a kind of wistful construction of a society everyone wants to live in but that nobody really does, or possibly ever did. The fact that it is fundamentally a fantasy does not make it any less delightful to sink into on a rainy afternoon: Juliet’s voice is witty and kind, and her relationships with Sidney and Susan and, later, with the islanders feel convincingly heartfelt.

Reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is in many ways like spending an afternoon with a group of very good, very kind friends. It’s an excellent antidote to stress, and if it’s nothing more than that, well, that’s rare enough in a book to make this one a treasure.

The Haunter of the Dark

“There is in a god’s face more of marvel than prediction can tell.”

H.P. Lovecraft

This book is the perfect example of why star ratings for books are stupid.

I guess Lovecraft needs no introduction, but just in case: The Haunter of the Dark is a collection of horror tales of various sorts from an acknowledged master of the genre. My feelings about it are decidedly mixed.

Firstly, I want to say that…okay, wow. Truly, some of the stories in here are absolutely fantastic. Perhaps not stylistically (although I may be damning myself as I say that, since the app I Write Like claims that my style is akin to Lovecraft’s, except when it’s like Tolkien’s), but atmospherically, thematically, whatever-ly, Lovecraft nails something in his dream-cycle stories that I’ve been trying to pin down in my own writing for a long time. Stories like “Polaris” and “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”, set in worlds reachable only in dream or imagination, have real power, catching at the alien without making it familiar; the alien is wonderful, it is beautiful, it is noble, but it is also alien, strange, terrifying. These stories are excellent.

Even some of the more prosaic tales – which is to say, the tales set in small-town America – have a genuine sense of suspense and horror; I really enjoyed the title story, “The Haunter of the Dark”, which sees an impressionable writer becoming obsessed by a ruined old church and the horror from unknown realms which dwells within. Again, the stories – most of them – are good at catching the atmosphere of horror and running with it without entirely deflating it. One or two of the stories (“Herbert West – Reanimator”, I’m looking at you) do feel forced and irritatingly sensational, but this is a big collection; for all of the tales to be perfect would be too much to expect.

I started off enjoying the fact that all of the tales linked up – that dream-cities recurred, that characters cropped up again and again in the tales – but I think reading them all at once as I did isn’t the best way to enjoy this effect, as the terror of that High Priest guy with the yellow silk mask wears off somewhat when you realise he’s just one of those green things with teeth from the Moon. (Yeah, it is as weird as it sounds.) What’s slightly more satisfying is now possessing (like Randolph Carter, I guess) a sort of silver key to a lot of fantasy that came after: Lovecraft is massively influential, and now I’ve read him I can see where Terry Pratchett’s Dungeon Dimensions come from, why The New Albion Guide to Analogue Consciousness is so aggressively abstruse, and why everyone thought I was referring to Batman when I mentioned Arkham.

But Lovecraft’s tales are terribly problematic, even for the period in which he was writing. To put it baldly, Lovecraft is massively racist, sexist, and quite possibly a number of other ists. Basically, if you are not white, male, American, and at least middle-class, you are a monster from Beyond the Dawn of Time, or about to end up being eaten by one. So I’m kind of torn between reading everything he ever wrote ever immediately, and wanting to time travel back to 1930 specifically to punch him in his pimply face. It’s a tricky one, and for me it raises some interesting questions: is The Haunter of the Dark‘s undoubted aesthetic effectiveness enough to outweigh its problems? Is reading Lovecraft any different from reading, say, Orson Scott Card’s novels despite that author’s homophobia (leaving aside royalty issues)? (I ask this because, interestingly enough, nobody ever suggests boycotting Lovecraft because he’s a bigot, whereas everyone wants to boycott Card’s.) Can you excuse bigotry because it was normal in the era in which the bigot grew up?

I’m going to go through the tales in this volume one by one, because I still have issues with some of them that I’d like to raise. Whatever the answers are, though, I probably won’t be reading more Lovecraft any time soon, if only because this book took me a heck of a long time to finish, and I’ve overdosed on Lovecraft for the time being.

The Haunter of the Dark. A little slow to start, but, like I said, a generally enjoyable story about churches and evil things from the dawn of time. A great start to the collection.

Polaris. Probably one of my favourites. A dream-cycle story, it’s really chilling and conjures up this brilliantly alien, wonderful world of imagination.

The Doom That Came to Sarnath. Loved it. Loved Sarnath. Loved the lake. Fantastic.

The Statement of Randolph Carter. One of the weaker stories, it concerns the testimony of a guy who watches another guy go into a catacomb beneath the earth and not come out again. Suspenseful, but a little over-the-top.

The Cats of Ulthar. Actually, this is the story that convinced me to buy the book: I saw the title and was like, “A story about cats. Sold.” And it is indeed a story about cats, which automatically makes it perfect.

Celephais. Another powerful dream-cycle story about the dangers of the imagination, the seductive draw of the unreal. I love that we see the guy return in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” as someone who really, really misses Cornwall.

The Other Gods. This one has links to “The Cats of Ulthar”, which is nice (because cats), and is again a great dream-cycle story. Some people go looking for the gods on a mountain in dreamland. I hardly need to tell you that it does not go well.

Herbert West – Reanimator. This story was actually published serially, and it really shows. It’s essentially Frankenstein, but worse in every single way imaginable: hysterical, repetitive, overwrought and deeply irritating.

The Unnamable. I don’t remember what this story was about. It was probably OK.

The Shunned House. Long and not very interesting. It’s just an embellished haunted house narrative with too much family history.

The Horror at Red Hook. In which horror is brought to innocent and clean New York by immigrants from the East. OF COURSE. Made me ragey; but the weird trippy bit at the end is undoubtedly quite good.

Pickman’s Model. Just why.

The Silver Key. One of Lovecraft’s more famous stories – Paul Shapera did a musical version of it under the name Mochalab (it’s on Bandcamp, search it). I liked it as an ideological manifesto, but not so much as a story.

The Strange High House in the Mist. Oh, this one was great. It’s about a mysterious house on a cliff that everyone thinks is haunted. There’s such a sense of atmosphere here: I kind of wish I lived in Kingsport, and the mixture between wonder and fear is particularly potent in the ending.

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Although its length (over 100 pages) means that it can’t really keep up its atmosphere of strangeness and it occasionally descends into farce (I mean, I love cats, but on the Moon? Really?), the places it visits are fascinating, and there is genuine terror here.

The Colour Out of Space. Meh. Gory, and unnecessarily so.

The History of the Necronomicon. I love that Lovecraft literally made up a whole fictional history for his fictional book.

Fungi from Yuggoth. A retelling of “The Silver Key” in verse? Lovecraft’s verse is serviceable but not good; I could have done without this tale.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth. In which fear of the foreigner is thinly disguised as fear of slimy green things with teeth. It’s also not a very interesting story.

The Dreams in the Witch House. Just please go away with your racism, Lovecraft.

The Thing on the Doorstep. In which we get to meet the single major female character in THE ENTIRE COLLECTION and she not only turns out to be ACTUALLY A MAN in a woman’s body but about to steal her fake husband’s body SO SHE CAN HAVE A BETTER BRAIN (because men’s brains are literally better than women’s brains). All of which is hilariously Freudian (empowered women are scary, man!), but also like, whatever, H.P. Just shut up.

The Shadow out of Time. I actually liked this one; I felt the concept was really interesting and the tension well-built.

Supernatural Horror in Literature. A so-called “essay” on weird fiction. Actually just a list of ghost stories, some of which may well be added to my TBR radar. So that’s something.

Edit to add: Oh dear gods, Lovecraft’s birthday is the same as mine…

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

“It’s always too late for sorries.”

Neil Gaiman

This, Constant Reader, is going to be a story about the Providence of Reading.

You see, I had no interest in and no intention of reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane when it first came out in 2013. Despite the fact that Neil Gaiman appears in all his public manifestations to be some kind of Reading Genius who gets what books are for perfectly, I’ve never really got on with his actual writing. Stardust was a huge disappointment, Neverwhere was simply nondescript, and although I love Good Omens with all my heart and soul Terry Pratchett wrote half of it, so it does not quite count. At least not in my brain. So when the whole of the internet was reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane and being like, “OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS! THIS IS SO AWESOME READ IT” I sat there, hipsterishly, thinking, “Neil Gaiman is, like, so overrated.”

Anyway. The Resident Grammarian announced recently that he’d acquired a copy, and would I like to read it, and I was like, “well, okay, free book”.

The Gods of Reading, it seems, are not without a sense of irony.

Because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is actually…well, I hesitate to use the word “sweet”, for reasons that will become apparent later, but that’s the general sentiment. It’s a memory story: an adult narrator, visiting a childhood spot, narrates a strange tale of powerlessness, adult blindness and ancient magics, remembered through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy. That’s an interesting framing device in itself, and Gaiman uses it to reflect on the distance between childhood and adulthood, and the tricks that memory plays in between. And though the book does occasionally read like a YA novel, there are darknesses to it that feel much, much more adult. I’ll admit that I felt predisposed to dislike this book when Gaiman killed the narrator’s beloved ickle wickle kitten Fluffy (AWWW KITTENS) literally a page after nobody turns up to his birthday party. Can you get any more pathetic? NO. (Also there’s this horrible wormy thing which is actually an evil monster….UGH.) But the magic of this book sucked me in. It’s an ancient, primal kind of magic which is deeply satisfying in the sense that it’s how many of us secretly think the world actually works. Science tells us that the universe is a soulless machine which cares nothing for consciousness. Gaiman, however, tells us that, yes, we are only the tiniest, most insignificant part of reality. Yes, there are vastnesses to the universe which we can never understand. But we are not alone. There are powers ancient and vast just around the corner who remember when the moon was made; who can control monsters with broken toys; who can mend an injustice with a snip of the scissors; who can keep an ocean in a pond. The familiar becomes deeply, ritually powerful, invested with a majestic sense of otherness. To quote the Dark Tower series: “There are other worlds than these.”

It’s a magic which makes sense out of memory; which imbues those deeply familiar rituals – the farmhouse meal, the fairy ring, the hated babysitter – with actual and objective power. They pull us, says this magic system, because they are literally potent. Because they objectively mean something. Gaiman manages, somehow, to combine cosmic science with meaning, with perpetuity, without ever leaving us in doubt of the frailty and ridiculous pomposity of humanity.

This is, though, fundamentally a human story. There is human darkness here. There is the fear of the child in the face of the mysteries of adulthood, and the realisation that adults, too, are fallible – there’s something very Coraline-ish about this story in its defamiliarisation of parenthood, although even that book was less brutal than this one, because the parents here are the real parents, not button-eyed monsters. But if there’s darkness, there’s light too, and one of the ways through the woods (to mix my metaphors) is books.

 Gaiman is, as I said above, very, very good at writing about books. He writes here about how his narrator used books as a child – used them for solace, for escape, for advice, for inspiration and at one point for actual practical information. And – this sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true – he just gets my childhood. It’s uncanny. This guy I have never met totally understands how I feel about literature.

 Also cats. There are lots of cats in this book. The awesomeness of this needs no elaboration.

 The Ocean at the End of the Lane is unlikely to be my favourite book of the year, and it’s not going to change my life in any fundamental way. But it does have its own quiet beauty, its own lyricism; as an exploration of childhood and memory, it’s interesting; as a story, it’s deeply satisfying; as a magic system, it’s tantalisingly right. You can tell, I think, that this is a personal story for Gaiman.

 You know what? I’m going to go ahead and use the word “sweet”. Despite the darkness and the fear, it’s a sweet story about childhood, magic and memory. Do go ahead and read it, won’t you?

Clariel

“Madness is unfortunately not incompatible with government.”

Garth Nix

I was ridiculously excited for Clariel almost without realising it. It’s the prequel to Nix’s rather wonderful Old Kingdom trilogy, which features, among other things, strong female protagonists, fast-paced plots and a really interesting magic system involving necromantic bells and raising up the Dead. In short, they were awesome, and still are.

Clariel, though? Less so.

The book, set several hundred years before the action of the Old Kingdom trilogy, follows Clariel, daughter of one of the most skilled goldsmiths in the kingdom, as she and her family move to capital city Belisaere. Clariel resents this move, and wants only to return to the forests of Estwael to become a Borderer. But, of course, Clariel finds herself being drawn into the intrigues and manoeuvrings of a city that looks down upon Charter Magic as servile and increasingly seeks to usurp the power of the dotard king.

I’ll start with what is probably my most personal and therefore least fair criticism, which is simply that it’s not the Old Kingdom trilogy. Clariel isn’t a Charter Mage, so there’s comparatively little Charter Magic here, and what  there is appears to work more or less exactly like electricity. The overall impression of Belisaere, therefore, is one unhappily similar to those annoyingly sanitised medieval fantasies where no-one is ever cold and there’s always enough light at dinner and you can travel sixty miles an hour because MAGIC. There are all these mutterings about discontent among the peasants but, frankly, I was never entirely sure why they were discontented.

There’s no river of Death here either, no great quest, no bells, no Dog or Touchstone, Orannis or Kerrigor or Great Danger; just a slightly eccentric king and a power-hungry goldsmith. It’s more YA political fantasy and it’s rather dull.

My second complaint: Clariel, as a novel, feels chronically disjointed. Essentially, Nix has taken what should have been a few lines of backstory in Abhorsen and expanded it into a five-hundred page book. The result is a novel that not only feels somewhat indulgent – an author’s nostalgic return to a world he doesn’t really inhabit any more – but is also rather unsatisfying, shape-wise. There’s a whole lot of stuff set up at the beginning of the book, in Belisaere, which doesn’t end up being addressed: the people’s rebellion? The failure of the Great Charters? Aziminil’s grand plan? All dismissed with a bit of authorial handwaving: “And Then It Was All Magically Better.”

I do appreciate that Clariel was asexual – an interesting choice for YA – as well as a beserker, but it didn’t stop Nix waving the possibility of a romance in his readers’ faces, which sort of defeats the point somewhat.

On the other hand, the book does see the return of Mogget, the sarcastic Free Magic cat who was such a delight in the original trilogy. I would quite happily read a whole book about Mogget. Heck, I would read a whole trilogy. Mogget gets three stars all on his own.