Film Review: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

In 2018, two years into the presidency of Donald Trump, a time of deepening division and despair among liberal Westerners, American speculative fiction author Catherynne M. Valente released a novel called Space Opera in which a washed-up glam rock superstar named Decibel Jones competes in an intergalactic version of Eurovision in order to save humanity from annihilation. The novel was arguably Valente’s biggest success to date, earning her a Hugo nomination, a film deal and much wider recognition in the fandom than she’d previously achieved.

2018 was also the year when American comedian and actor Will Ferrell began work on Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a straight-to-Netflix feature film starring Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an Icelandic musical duo who, through a combination of unlikely circumstance and outright political shenanigans, find themselves representing their country at, well, Eurovision. This, too, was something of a surprise success when it finally came out in 2020, in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic: thanks largely to a campaign by author Seanan McGuire, it was actually nominated for a Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, on the strength of a couple of minor speculative elements and, one suspects, its thematic links with Space Opera.

Despite some pretty hokey romance-movie assumptions – like the default heterosexuality that sees someone like Will Ferrell’s Lars ending up with the apparently much younger Sigrit (his bandmate, played by McAdams), without any real explanation as to why they like each other In That Way – the film is actually genuinely quite delightful. Ferrell and McAdams convey a kind of bumbling homespun charm that makes it more or less impossible not to root for their characters: Sigrit’s half-sincere belief in elves is a nice touch, as is the possible-but-never-confirmed existence of those elves – it’s a little oddball/magical-realist in a way I’ve not seen before in a commercial film, lending a sort of gentle earnestness to The Story of Fire Saga that grounds its camper, glitzier moments, like the vertiginous scene where a posse of former Eurovision contestants join Lars and Sigrit in performing a mash-up of pop hits at a decadent private party.

The film’s ending is also nicely done: like Valente’s novel, it avoids the cliched narrative trap of suggesting that passion alone is enough to win Eurovision, instead opting for a quieter resolution that emphasises the communal value of music, its power to bring people together in joy. It’s a choice that gets to the heart of why I think these stories are popular: in times when so much is uncertain, it’s a pleasure to plunge into these glamorous, over-the-top, larger-than-life worlds; to glory in the unashamedly, unironically heartfelt joy of just singing together, celebrating and listening to music together. The Story of Fire Saga is ridiculous, of course. But that’s why it’s good.

Film Review: Prime

This review contains spoilers.

Partway through the 2005 American romcom Prime, Jewish therapist Lisa (played by Meryl Streep) discovers that the 23-year-old man her 37-year-old non-Jewish client Rafi (Uma Thurman) has been dating for several weeks is her son.

This would, I’m sure, come as something as a shock to many parents, and Lisa deals with it sensibly enough by consulting with her own therapist. Who advises her that, conveniently for the plot, the situation only represents a conflict of interest if the relationship goes beyond a brief fling.

To which the only possible response is: ????

This, coincidentally, is also the response I had to most of the rest of the film, which follows Rafi and 23-year-old David through a turbulent and overwrought relationship whose sole foundation would appear to be sex that neither party much enjoys. The script relies entirely on stereotypes to do its characterisation work for it: Rafi is the high-powered career woman with the nice apartment, David is the feckless unemployed artist who lies around playing video games all day. Also we can tell that David’s family is Jewish because they have large animated family dinners on a Friday night. Also the only non-white characters in this film who are not also Jewish are 1) Lisa’s therapist, a wise Magical Negro type played by Indian-American actor Madhur Jaffrey, and 2) the Black doorman at Rafi’s apartment building whose entire thing is that he never smiles or breaks his professional facade. (Unless it is, in another ???? moment, to let David into the building against Rafi’s will, because he is secretly shipping them!)

I have a lot of feelings about this film.

Anyway, one of the chief effects of this reliance on stereotype is that the script never once makes the case for why David and Rafi are together. Like what is all this “is she too old for me/is he too young for me/can we overcome our cultural-religious differences” angst FOR? when these characters spend the entirety of their romantic lives arguing and/or Having Second Thoughts about each other?

I mean, I actually know the answer to this, and the answer is “default heteronormativity”. There is a hot woman and a hot man, of course they will fall in luurve and want to be together, HAVE YOU NO ROMANCE IN YOUR SOUL??? But most romcoms at least make an effort to show their romantic leads, like, enjoying each other’s company.

Which is handy, because “most romcoms” is what you should watch instead of Prime. Unless your goal is to bond/have a good time with your future parents-in-law by making jokes at the film’s expense (which, actually, this turns out to be surprisingly good for!), pick, I’d say, almost anything else.

Notes on “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Just some brief thoughts on Watermill on the Road’s touring production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel of the same name, which I saw in the garden of Stanton Harcourt village hall in Oxfordshire last August.

It was basically fine and I will always be here for gender-bent Sherlock Holmes, but it was nowhere near as witty as it thought it was and the denouement was poorly handled.

A cast of three, including two women, took on all the roles, hence Miss Holmes and Miss Watson. Funnily enough (in a way that’s not really funny at all), while this particular piece of gender-bending was not really played for laughs, the middle-class, middle-aged denizens of rural Oxfordshire who made up the majority of the audience found it simply hilarious when the cast’s single man played a woman and put on a silly voice: proof that we’ve not come anywhere near as far as we think we have when it comes to queer rights.

I can’t remember the specifics of the ending, but I do remember that none of us (“us” being me, the Bandersnatch and the Bandersnatch’s parents) thought that it made complete sense: crucial information seemed to have been cut for pacing. (Possibly it wasn’t clear where the dog had come from?) The Bandersnatch’s parents had seen the production at the Watermill itself, and said it had been altered, and not for the better, for the tour.

It had very little to say about the source text apart from obvious jokes – jokes that aimed for the slapstick end of the spectrum rather than anything else – and all in all felt like a very safe production of a well-known property; something guaranteed to get well-off white people back into theatres and do nothing else. Which is, I guess, fine. But I wouldn’t go and see it again.

Thoughts on Tomahawk Theatre’s “Twelfth Night”

A few scattered notes on Tomahawk Theatre’s Twelfth Night, which ran in the courtyard of Oxford Castle for two weeks in July 2021. On the whole it was a competent but unremarkable production, softened and made romantic by the glow of sunset on old stone.

  • Costume choices were generally steampunk/Victorian-lite, which, while aesthetically rather fun, is probably the least interesting choice available: it removes what can be a fanciful play even further from relevance and into the realm of escapist fantasy. Also: I think every version of Twelfth Night I have seen has struggled to handle Malvolio’s “yellow stockings cross-gartered”, a period-specific fashion that rarely meshes well with modern costume styles. How do you update that to something a modern audience understands?

  • The music direction was…not great. This was firstly a question of singing ability – the actor playing Feste was somewhat lacking in this area – and secondly a question of pacing: the songs were too long and I don’t feel like the director had a clear vision of what they were there for.

  • On a personal level I wish the production had made more of the queer possibilities of the text. While Tomahawk’s Orsino definitely had gay vibes they were played very much as accidental and eventually legitimised by the revelation that “Cesario” is a woman. I mean: that is what the text does: confuses gender categories and then resolves them again to restore the social order; but I wish the production had questioned the neatness of that ending a little more.

  • Generally I feel like the production didn’t have much to say about the original text: all the choices it made were fairly obvious ones. The actors’ performances were on the whole good, but there wasn’t much to get hold of thematically. Don’t get me wrong: it was a pleasant evening; just not a memorable one.

Film Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Hollywood shapes all things in its image. While the novel from which John M. Chu’s 2018 romcom Crazy Rich Asians is adapted is one whose pleasures are ultimately consolatory and conservative, it does at least resist providing an entirely happy ending for the couple at its heart. Its villains remain villainous and, for all its rags-to-riches wish-fulfilment vibe, its Cinderella figure’s access to entrenched power structures remains tenuous and contingent.

The film, by contrast, is as thoroughly conventional, structurally speaking, as it’s possible to get, although its predictability is somewhat leavened by strong performances from the likes of Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Gemma Chan. Wu and Golding play Rachel and Nick, a seemingly ordinary middle-class couple in New York who find their relationship under sudden strain when Nick invites Rachel back to meet his family in Singapore, only for her to discover that they’re some of the wealthiest people in the country. Will Rachel ever be accepted by Nick’s snobby high-society family?

The answer is, inevitably, yes, and the film has to sacrifice some of its own character work to achieve this: Nick’s cold, unhappy grandmother Eleanor, who has throughout the film remained resolute in her hostility towards Rachel, performs an unearned about-face at the end in a move that somewhat fatally undermines the seriousness of the social problem that Nick and Rachel must overcome to be together. Similarly, the film’s “mean girls” are far less relentless and uncompromising in their disdain for Rachel than they were in the novel, as well as far less inclined to seduce Nick away from Rachel. The novel has what teeth it does partly because Nick’s family’s extreme wealth is presented as a real threat to Nick and Rachel’s relationship; the film dilutes even that quite basic understanding of privilege and instead renders the fabulous wealth of its characters as a fabulous fantasy with no real-world effects or ramifications. Who doesn’t want to hire out an entire tropical island for their hen party, amirite?

Crazy Rich Asians is, of course, remarkable for the fact that it’s a major Hollywood film featuring an almost entirely non-white cast, a phenomenon that’s still lamentably rare – and while it’s good to see mainstream films looking beyond the concerns of the global north, there’s been plenty of criticism of this particular film for actually reinforcing dominant hegemonies in Singapore itself.

Ultimately, as a film, it’s basically fine. Watching it is a not-bad way to spend two hours, if you’re after something untaxing and conventional. But I can’t particularly see myself watching it again, the way I can see myself returning to the novel: ironically, despite the wealth and power its characters possess, the stakes are simply not high enough to make it truly engaging.

Review: Nativity!

Let get this out of the way: Debbie Isitt’s festive family offering Nativity! is schlock of the first order, commercialised, trite, anti-feminist and utterly derivative. It has, naturally, spawned three (three!) sequels.

Teacher Paul Maddens (played by put-upon everyman Martin Freeman), an embittered soul who despises Christmas because, inevitably, his implausibly attractive girlfriend Jennifer left him for Hollywood on Christmas Eve, is tasked with directing the school nativity play, with the help of excitable teaching assistant Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton). Paul’s tragic flaw is pride, and accordingly he brags to the despised Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), the headmaster of a nearby private school, that Jennifer, now a big-shot Hollywood producer, is coming to watch the nativity in the hopes of turning it into a film. The local press gets hold of the story and things escalate in a predictable manner, leaving Paul with a problem: because of course Jennifer isn’t actually coming to the nativity, on account of the fact that she lives in America and broke up with him years ago. How, therefore, can Paul save both his career and his love life in one fell swoop?

The film leans heavily on the idea that Christmas is a festival of love, figured here exclusively as romantic love: Paul hates Christmas, and lives in a characterless bachelor pad full of Ikea furniture, because he has no-one to love; Jennifer’s inevitable return is basically the ultimate Christmas present, miraculously restoring his zest for life and for the most commercialised of all holidays. Interestingly, no-one ever suggests that Paul finds a new girlfriend, or gets some friends. Nor is the film particularly interested in Jennifer’s viewpoint: in fact it actively minimises her agency when Paul flies out to America to see her and finds that her high-flying job in Hollywood it is is actually “just” a secretarial position. Although she does eventually convince her film-producer manager to see the nativity, the convincing happens off-screen, and it’s sold to us not as the work of a savvy, confident professional pitching an idea to her manager, but as an indulgent boss graciously condescending to a favoured employee. There’s also absolutely no interrogation of why Jennifer would leave a fairly high-level job where she’s obviously being treated well for a miserable boundary-crosser who she’s already left once. I’m not saying that people don’t move long distances for people they love, but it would be nice to get some sense of why she chooses this relationship beyond “that’s what the narrative logic demands”.

The other capitalist cliché that the film puts a lot of stock in is “you can do anything if you really try”. The children Paul teaches are, ostensibly, disadvantaged kids who’ve been written off as hopeless (in contrast with the privileged children at Gordon Shakespeare’s private school); and so, when their nativity turns out, miraculously, to be the sort of production an am-dram society could be legitimately proud of, it is a testimony to the power of belief, and the power of being believed in. There’s some interesting, if basic, class analysis buried in there: the way in which the British school system disadvantages certain children is not the sort of thing you expect a film like this even to engage with. But the way it’s handled feels basically superficial; the politics are not allowed to trouble the feelgood surface of the narrative too much. For one thing, there’s hardly any indication of the ways in which these children are disadvantaged. No-one is coming to school hungry. No-one has outgrown their uniform or is wearing shoes that are falling apart. No-one is even that disruptive: I think there is one scene in which a boy hits another child, and then has a conversation with Paul in which he is encouraged to mend his ways. We’re told that these children have been given up on, but the evidence just isn’t there. They’re just…quite ordinary middle-class kids who are ordinarily untalented who do ordinary gross-kid things like belch the alphabet (an achievement that the film treats as evidence of serious social dysfunction, for some reason). They’re also all white, apart from one (1) Black child, which, for a film set in Coventry, a city with a sizeable Asian population, is a bit of a surprise.

This all has the effect of minimising the ways in which privilege manifests in the real British school system: the film makes it look like something that a) is not that bad in the first place and b) can be easily overcome by a sufficiently motivated and enthusiastic teacher; neither of which are, of course, true. This representational laziness is symptomatic of the film as a whole: narratively speaking, it consistently takes the easy way out, flattening profound human emotion, hewing slavishly to stereotypes and repeating outdated romantic cliches in contexts that make them seem even more ill-advised than usual (whisking two children away on an unplanned trip to America in order to woo a Hollywood exec? That’s not just a bad idea, it’s practically career suicide if you’re a teacher).

And yet. The songs are quite good. Marc Wootton’s energy as enthusiastic big kid Mr. Poppy is irresistible. And, after all, there is some comfort in cliches at Christmas. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Nativity! in the same way as I can recommend the masterpiece of adaptation that is The Muppet Christmas Carol. But the part of me that delights in glittery, upbeat, campy things would not be entirely unhappy to watch it again. Ideologically, intellectually, it’s a terrible film. But it does exactly what it sets out to do; it works on the emotions in exactly the way it’s supposed to. There’s something a little pleasing about that.

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.