Tag: comedy

Review: Grace & Style: The Art of Pretending You Have It

I’m pretty comfortable with my style (low-key steampunk/medieval, on a good day) nowadays, but I do always find it fun reading other people’s takes on theirs. Grace Helbig’s Grace & Style, though, has very little serious fashion content: Helbig is, as I discovered only after taking her book out from the library, a YouTube comedian, and Grace & Style is about 230 pages of light, vaguely self-deprecating humour.

I had a hard time with it. I didn’t find the jokes especially funny and I couldn’t really see what the book was doing apart from building on Helbig’s personal brand: it’s not like it has a recognisable schtick like, say, the Darwin Awards books, or Richard Ayoade’s Ayoade On Top. There’s an extended bit about a pair of jeans going to college but because they’re jeans the college is a shopping mall, which is all very ??? what is the point here, exactly? Is there a point?

It’s eminently possible that people who are already fans of Helbig will enjoy this, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone coming in cold.

Review: A Conspiracy of Truths

Alexandra Rowland’s first novel A Conspiracy of Truths, published in 2018, features a fleshed-out fantasy world with an unusual political system and a halfway convincing economy, a multitude of queer characters and characters of colour whose queerness and nonwhiteness go unremarked-upon, an unreliable narrator and a moderately interesting narrative structure featuring a number of interpolated stories. Nevertheless, it doesn’t quite work.

Our protagonist is Chant, an itinerant storyteller who’s arrested for witchcraft while journeying with his apprentice in the rather dismal land of Nuryevet. When he inadvertently admits his friendship with a renowned pirate and spy executed in Nuryevet twenty years previously, espionage is added to the list of his charges, instantly making him an object of interest to the country’s rulers. Here’s where that unusual political system comes in, by the way: Nuryevet is ruled by five democratically elected Primes who head up the departments of Law, Justice, Order (who enforce the laws), Pattern (who oversee foreign affairs and spycraft) and Coin. So: Chant finds himself of interest to both Pattern and Justice, and, with the help of his ambitious advocate Consanza, his trusting apprentice Ylfing and Ylfing’s revolutionary boyfriend Ivo, he sets out to play them off against each other, hoping to make himself useful enough to stave off an impending death sentence.

Chant is, as I’ve said, an unreliable narrator. Posing as a crotchety old man who doesn’t need anyone else, he tells himself and the reader small, obvious lies throughout the text: his eyesight isn’t failing, his hearing is just as good as it ever was, he’s not at all fond of Ylfing. While on a paragraph level these remarks contribute to the wry, humorous tone of the novel, their larger effect is to cast doubt on Chant’s motivations; or, rather, since his motivations are crystal-clear throughout, on whether he has the right to do what he’s doing. It becomes clear as the story progresses that Chant’s actions are about to destabilise the country’s political order altogether, and in fact he begins explicitly trying to make that happen – all in an attempt to save his own skin and escape Nuryevet. His excuse, which he repeats often to Ylfing and to himself, is that Nuryevet is doomed anyway, with corruption rife among the Primes and the courts, a decadent middle class more interested in getting ahead than in bettering their society, and astronomical taxes impoverishing the rural working class. Through her ironisation of Chant’s narration, Rowland asks us to consider whether any of that excuses Chant’s cynical destruction of a country – which eventually leads to misery and death for many of those in Nuryevet’s capital Vsila – for his own apolitical ends. My personal view of what the answer to that question is meant to be is admittedly heavily influenced by the novel’s sequel, A Choir of Lies, in which we get some ofYlfing’s perspective on events – but I would argue that we see the culmination of Chant’s realpolitik at the end of the novel, when Chant inflicts a massive personal betrayal on his loyal apprentice.

This is all interesting stuff, especially given current concerns around foreign influence in elections and the general political landscape in the West. And yet I found the novel resisting me as I read it; I kept feeling the urge to put it down and do something more interesting, or at least more immediately gratifying. A big part of this is the novel’s voice, which is strongly contemporary despite the late medieval setting (Nuryevet has a middle class but no heavy industry, plus the culture is heavily superstitious):

They’re like boots, stories. Some fit you just right, some keep your toes warm in the winter, and some of ’em rub at you until you’re sore and blistered.

This voice has a twofold effect: it in theory helps increase our understanding of and empathy for characters in historic settings by conveying to the reader that these characters are just like us (which they aren’t); and in this novel in particular it establishes Chant as an outsider observing and commenting on Nuryeven politics (although it has to be said that the Nuryevet characters talk like this too). I find, though, that it tends to distance me from the characters rather than increase my empathy for them: the text isn’t allowing me access to how a medieval-type person understands a cultural milieu that is very different from our own. I also found that the interpolated stories – some told by Chant, some by other characters – tend to interrupt the flow of the narrative more than they enrich the novel’s world: again, they distanced me from the characters and the story, working as a distraction from what the novel’s trying to say rather than an amplification of it.

It is possible to conceive of a novel that successfully puts a contemporary voice into historical fantasy: Steven Brust is quite good at this, partly because his novels don’t take themselves very seriously, and partly because the dissonance between the fantastical setting and his protagonist’s irreverence is part of a larger point he’s making about social class. Rowland is arguably doing more – or at least attempting more – with their novel, but the fact that they’re not leveraging their protagonist’s contemporary voice as much as they could means that A Conspiracy of Truths is less successful, for this reader at least. It’s an interesting novel. But I don’t feel tempted to read it again.

2020 Roundup

Happy New Year to everyone using the Gregorian calendar! 2020 was a weird year: I read loads, much more than I have in any year since I started recording my reading in 2014, thanks to a lack of commute and social obligations; and although I read lots of thought-provoking, ambitious books, I’m not sure any of them were truly standout. Here’s my top ten from 2020 (read, not necessarily published, last year); and, afterwards, some stats from my spreadsheet.

Top Ten Books of 2020

  1. This Is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019). OK, when I said there were no standout books this year, that was a lie. This Is How You Lose the Time War is intricate, queer and devastatingly triumphant; its tale of mortal enemies attempting to build a space in which they can be together is both timely and timeless. I read it twice – once for pleasure, once for review – and cried both times.
  2. Speak Easy – Catherynne M. Valente (2015). A Prohibition-inspired retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, Speak Easy is everything I hoped it would be: a gem of a book full to bursting of Valente’s baroque, euphonious prose, a whole glittering, glamorous world conjured in its 142 pages.
  3. AuroraKim Stanley Robinson (2015). What surprised me most about Robinson’s take on the generation ship story was how this very science-focused novel gave me a new perspective on my own flavour of neopaganism: it’s all about the complexity of the feedback systems that keep us alive on this rock spinning through space, and the idea that everything affects everything else is a core neopagan tenet. It helped me reframe how science intersects with my own religion; in other words, how I understand the world at a fundamental level. And what more can we ask of our reading than that?
  4. Gideon the NinthTamsyn Muir (2019). This is here because it was so damn fun to read, its Gothic Gormenghast-esque space setting punctured by Gideon’s sarcastic, memeified voice: it’s a very now read, a novel aimed at a very specific subset of SFF-loving internet denizens. Plus: space lesbians!
  5. The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold (2001). I was quite dismissive of The Curse of Chalion while I was reading it, focusing more on the resistance I tend to experience when reading fantasy novels than its formal qualities. I think that’s because it’s best looked at as a whole, when its cathartic structure becomes visible and thus Bujold’s thesis on the intersection of free will and faith emerges fully. It’s a brilliant work of fantastic theology, and it manages to depict the mysteries of faith in a way that very few contemporary novels do.
  6. The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanigahara (2013). This is at times an extremely uncomfortable read: content warnings apply for child sexual abuse and quite graphic scenes of animal experimentation. It’s here for its combination of a Nabokovian unreliable narrator with themes of Western entitlement, colonialism and habitat destruction. Above all, it’s an extremely powerful portrait of a white man who believes himself superior to everyone else and thus beyond reproach, leaving him completely blind to his own selfishness and monstrosity.
  7. LentJo Walton (2019). Another religiously-focused work, Lent is a cleverly structured meditation on sin and redemption. Because it’s so immersed in its 15th century Italian setting, it gave me a lot to think about with regards to medieval Christianity and how it was practiced, and thus some ideas for my own religious practice too.
  8. The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995). I read a bunch of Kay’s work in 2020, mainly because that was what we had in the house, so The Lions of Al-Rassan stands here for a few of his novels. I like this one in particular for the clarity with which his three protagonists stand for three of the main political forces in his fictionalised Europe, making their friendship always already tenuous, verging on the impossible.
  9. Circe – Madeleine Miller (2018). Feminist rereadings of Greek myth and witchcraft are not new at this point, and so the trajectory that Circe’s story takes is perhaps not surprising; but I still enjoyed Miller’s complication of her portrayal as a tempting and dangerous seductress. The novel is both true to the original myths (albeit following one of the less familiar plotlines) and surprisingly satisfying in the end, as Circe manages to find some measure of peace and freedom.
  10. Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (2020). Piranesi‘s slow reveal of the truth about the strange world it’s set in gives it a sick kind of propulsiveness, as we come to realise that its generous-minded protagonist is being manipulated by people who believe themselves above reproach; in that sense it has some striking similarities with The People in the Trees. It’s also very gentle to those who its villains have harmed, rejecting narrative satisfaction to some degree in favour of recognising that such damage cannot necessarily be entirely undone.

Stats from my reading spreadsheet!

  • I read a huge 121 books in 2020; that’s 22 more than in 2019.
  • The longest book I read was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind at a bloated 662 pages; Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach and Shaenon K. Garrity’s The Astonishing Excursions of Helen Narbon & Co., neither of them very compelling, are tied for shortest at 100 pages each. Overall, I read 41,837 pages in 2020, unsurprisingly considerably up from 2019’s 35,803.
  • The oldest book I read was E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which was first published in 1820. The average age of the books I read in 2020 was just 12, down again from 14 in 2019.
  • Genre: 45% of the books I read in 2020 were fantasy, up from 31% in 2019; 26% were SF, unchanged from 2019. 12% were non-fiction, down from 2019’s 19%; just 8% were litfic, down from 15% in 2019 (although my personal definition of “litfic” changes from year to year so this figure is a bit finger-in-the-air). The other 9% consists of two comedy novels, two crime, three historical and two horror.
  • Surprisingly, just 9% of the books I read in 2020 were re-reads, down from 2019’s 11%. I would have thought this figure would be higher, given my lack of access to the library and other sources of new books during the pandemic.
  • 60% of the books I read in 2020 were by women and non-binary people, quite a lot up from 48% in 2019 (note: I read no non-binary authors in 2019, as far as I’m aware); I’m happy about this and also surprised – I expected my lack of library access to make my reading less diverse, not more.
  • On the other hand, I shouldn’t congratulate myself too soon: just 18% of the books I read in 2020 were by people of colour, down from 24% last year. I did expect this: I’m careful when borrowing books from the library to choose works by people of colour, but long periods of being forced to choose from the books I actually have on my bookshelves have revealed that those books are still very white. Going forward I’m committing to making sure that I’m buying books by people of colour in the same proportion as borrowing them from the library.
  • 15% of the books I read in 2020 were by queer authors, up from 5% in 2019. This is pretty good too, I think.

Review: The Reactorside Reader

The Reactorside Reader is a kind of miscellany of side stories – both graphic and prose – associated with Shaenon K. Garrity’s webseries Narbonic. Here we get glimpses into the childhood of mad scientist Helen Narbon, and into married life between her and IT guy Dave (spoiler: it’s chaotic).

The first two stories, “Space” and “The Other Time She Made Him a Sandwich!”, both of them comics rather than prose, are rather sweet little standalones: it’s a pity there aren’t more stories of Dave and Helen post-marriage, as I found them more interesting than the strips in the main run. The whole book exudes a general sense of fannishness: these aren’t texts that have coherent narrative projects but rather spaces in which to hang out with beloved characters. There’s a sort of metatextual dialogue going on too, an awareness of a community that’s formed around the texts; an atmosphere of co-creation between the reader and the author.

Of course, with these strips bound into a physical book, distanced from their original circumstances of production, it’s impossible to access that community any more, or to participate in that dialogue; which might be why I’ve struggled to get into Narbonic as a whole. It’s the kind of morphing text that’s responding to ephemeral cultural circumstances – in-jokes, tropes, fannishness – and that probably needs to be experienced over a period of years, not days or hours, to achieve its intended affect. I just don’t think it’s ever going to be For Me.

Review: Sixteen Ways to Defend A Walled City

I find myself thinking quite often about this essay by Adam Roberts quite a lot when I’m reading contemporary fantasy. Its central thesis is that style and language are crucial to worldbuilding: that “a bourgeois discursive style [typical to 20th and 21st century literature] constructs a bourgeois world”; and that, therefore, evoking a pre-industrial setting is not just a question of set-dressing, it’s about recognising that pre-industrial mindsets and habits of thought were radically different to those that modern Western societies currently possess. It’s precisely the mismatch between style and content which Roberts identifies in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind that bothered me about K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.

The novel’s protagonist is Orhan, colonel-in-chief of an engineering regiment belonging to what is essentially the Byzantine Empire except with all the names changed. One of life’s natural con artists (he has strong Moist von Lipwig energy), Orhan finds himself, through a series of calamitous events, the highest-ranking military officer in a not-Constantinople besieged by a mysterious barbarian army. The situation looks dire: the entire chain of command has fled, the emperor is in a coma and the closest thing there is to a military force in the city is three thousand carpenters with blunt swords. Orhan must come up with a string of increasingly unlikely and desperate schemes to keep the city’s remaining population alive and stave off the barbarians’ inevitable assault a few hours more.

It ought to be entertaining, even thought-provoking, touching on such weighty themes as institutional racism, the fall of civilisation and the ingenuity of ordinary people. Its lack of meaningful engagement with the actual sociocultural and moral dynamics of the period, though, means that it ends up just being slight. The novel is meticulously researched, the world carefully built; Parker can, and does, tell you all about how military supplies are distributed, about the workings of the city’s criminal underworld, even about its sewage disposal systems. None of it changes the fact that Orhan expresses himself in a jarringly 21st century idiom.

He stabbed me. I hadn’t seen the sword in his hand. I thought; what the devil are you playing at? He pulled the sword out and swung it at my head. I may not be the most perceptive man you’ll ever meet, but I can read between the lines; he didn’t like me.

More egregiously modern are the novel’s racial dynamics: Parker trots out that old faux-profound chestnut, “What If White People Were The Oppressed Ones???” (The besieging barbarian army are all white, as is Orhan, whereas the civilised people in the city are called, derogatorily, “blueskins”.) I will admit I don’t know much about the racial dynamics of the period, but it seems unlikely to me that they would have so closely mirrored our own constructs of whiteness and Blackness only conveniently flipped (the flipping in itself a misunderstanding of how modern Western culture treats race).

There’s a sense, possibly, in which I’m being unfair to the text. Orhan’s modernity is after all deliberate: his irreverent, working-class voice is meant to contrast jarringly, or at least surprisingly, with the antique setting, just as his lack of social status and proper respect for authority make him an extremely unlikely commander-in-chief of the empire’s forces. For me, though, this isn’t a productive contrast; it doesn’t make me revisit my understanding of the classical period the text is set in, it doesn’t force me to confront genuine strangeness. In fact the novel’s prioritisation of a Western 21st-century perspective feels pretty egotistical: the assumption that we in this corner of the globe in this particular historical moment, have somehow stumbled upon the best, the only way to understand the world around us. If I’m reading about the past, and especially if I’m reading alt-history, I want to read something that can only be set in that past; where the cultural specifics of that past are key to the author’s thesis. That’s something I don’t get from Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.

Review: Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Volume 2

So, here we are: the second half of Shaenon K. Garrity’s webcomic Narbonic, which ran daily between 2000 and 2006, recounting the adventures of mad scientist Helen Beta Narbon, IT guy Dave, intern Mell and superintelligent gerbil Artie.

Like I guess many comic strips, it’s as much a character-led thing as it is anything. Lots of plotty stuff happens – time travel, visits to the afterlife, gerbils scheming to destroy the human race – but viewed at the level of the book (as opposed to at the level of each strip, or each subplot) it’s all monster of the week type stuff: we probably vaguely want to know what happens but it’s not why we’re reading. Broadly speaking, we’re reading because we want to know whether Dave and Helen will end up together. So: character-led.

It’s a pleasant enough read: the characters are likable if broadly defined; some of the jokes are quite funny. I do think it reinforces gendered stereotypes as part of its humour; not mean-spiritedly, but identifiably. It’s also not pushing anywhere, by which I mean that it stays firmly within the bounds of its genre. But it’s fun, and non-taxing, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need.

Review: The Return of Heroic Failures

Stephen Pile’s The Return of Heroic Failures is a bathroom book. You know the type: collections of vaguely humorous anecdotes, for a certain value of “humour”, with which to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon or a visit to a relative whose taste in reading material is very different to yours. A successor to The Book of Heroic Failures, it contains stories of general human incompetence, neglect and plain foolishness. Categories include “The Least Successful Shipbuilding”, in which an Italian firm builds four ships for the Malaysian navy before discovering that the only way to the sea lies past a bridge none of them can fit underneath; “The Least Successful Attempt to Murder A Spouse”, concerning a man who makes seven unsuccessful attempts on his wife’s life without her even noticing; and “The Least Appropriate Speech”, in which a member of the House of Lords speaks for five minutes on entirely the wrong subject.

Having been published in 1988, some of the book’s humour is a little off-colour, shall we say, although I don’t remember anything particularly egregious, just the general background assumption that you the reader are a straight white male Westerner that you often get in this kind of book. As for the quality of its humour: I laughed a couple of times, but it’s more “mildly amusing” than “side-splittingly hilarious”. (But see my previous posts re my sense of humour, which is not highly developed.) Basically, it’s fine for a few hours’ entertainment, but I wouldn’t recommend shelling out more than a couple of quid for it in a charity shop.

Review: The Cockroach

I am not, as I said a couple of weeks ago, really the right reader for literary humour. It’s not something I’m very good at parsing, as someone who reads primarily for plot and symbol rather than tone or character. A work that is entirely humorous – that doesn’t, for instance, take its own comedic premise seriously – will more likely than not read to me as inconsequential and forgettable.

So it is with Ian McEwan’s Brexit satire The Cockroach, a reversal of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a cockroach wakes up in the body of the prime minister, bent on enacting a disastrous economic policy with the help of his similarly cockroach-ified cabinet.

I think my main problem with this sort of work is its self-indulgence. Who benefits from a text like this? What does it add to the cultural conversation? It’s not going to change minds or encourage readers to examine their biases and preconceptions; for all its undoubted eloquence, the jokes and comparisons it makes have already been made by any number of left-leaning social media feeds. Boris Johnson may deserve to be likened to a cockroach, and it may make us feel briefly better to do so; but does it actually get us very far? Is this not, in fact, a collective, consolatory wallowing in our middle-class liberal discomfort?

I’d be responding to this differently, I think, if it wasn’t an Ian McEwan book; a book written, in other words, by supposedly one of our finest literary minds. As it is, I expected it to add more to the literary scene than Five on Brexit Island. Give me the rage that bubbles just under the skin of the comedic novels of Terry Pratchett any day; give me the radical socialism of China Mieville; give me something of substance to help me deal with the left’s crisis over this thin, conventional “satire”.

Review: Ayoade on Top

Ayoade on Top is a satirical monograph by comedian Richard Ayoade (whom you’ll know as Moss from The IT Crowd) on the American aeroplane romcom View from the Top, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. View from the Top has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 14%, just to give you an idea of the calibre of work we’re talking about here.

Ayoade has some fair if obvious points to make about this genre of film:

Cinema helps us to remember that although we all have the right to shine, some of us must shine in the background, out of focus, and not too brightly.

And I can’t help but admire the sheer randomness of this project: a parody of a type of writing most people don’t ever read, about an obscure film most people will never see? How does one even go about selling that? let alone convincing people to buy it? I suspect name recognition helps, but still, the market for this book must be less than enormous – it’s a refreshing change from big-name commercial cash-grabs like The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet.

It’s an entertaining enough read, in other words (especially if you can do Ayoade’s deadpan voice in your head), but the joke does become – a little laboured. 250 pages is about 150 pages too long for this particular gag. For all its originality, I think Ayoade on Top is destined to go down in the annals of publishing as no more than a minor work.

Review: Moranifesto

I didn’t not enjoy Moranifesto, a collection of journalist Caitlin Moran’s irreverent, feminist Times columns, together with some new content covering familiar ground. It’s well-written: Moran has a lively, colloquial style of the sort that’s very difficult indeed to achieve. It’s inoffensive, apart from a liberal dose of swearing. Even the claims of irrelevance plenty of Goodreads reviewers are making miss the mark: it’s true that the columns here cover events as long ago as 2012, but we’re talking about once-in-a-lifetime, big-ticket things like the London Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee. It’s not as if Moran’s tackling obscure current events with players nobody remembers any more.

And yet, that word irrelevant keeps coming to mind when I think about Moranifesto. Of course it’s hard to achieve anything earth-shattering within the constraints of a 1000-word newspaper column. But it doesn’t help that nothing Moran says is truly that original. She sets out, I think, to be shocking, with her profanity, her frequent references to vaginas and other taboo feminist issues, her irreverence for royalty and politicians and other things the Sunday papers like to treat as Very Serious. And it works! It works when it’s a page in the Sunday Times Magazine talking about periods or how difficult it is to find comfortable women’s shoes or how shitty and exploitative Benefits Street is – it’s a breath of fresh air amid four-page interviews with celebrities and strait-laced pieces about politics. As a book, though? There are fiercer and bolder voices out there: voices like Zadie Smith, Roxane Gay, Catherynne M. Valente. Actually even Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl is more groundbreaking: the principle of “show not tell” inherent in all fiction gives her themes greater power and greater impact.

Moranifesto is fine. There’s no reason not to read it if you already like Moran’s columns; if you’re a feminist and a little bit of a socialist too. If you’re looking for a read that’s appropriately angry without being too mentally taxing. But nor do I think there’s a particularly compelling reason to read it. Try How to Build a Girl instead.