Apr 16, 2014

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

Plain Kate by Erin BowPlain Kate by Erin Bow

Plain Kate was thinking of witches. How in bad times people were more eager to buy her objarka, but more inclined to take a step back, to crook their fingers at her when they thought she wasn’t looking, or when they were sure she was. How they wanted the witchcraft to protect them, but how they looked too for a witch to blame. It didn’t matter that there was no magic in her blade, people saw it there. They saw witchcraft in her skill, witch marks in her mismatched eyes, her bad luck, her long shadow.
Erin Bow’s Plain Kate (published as Wood Angel in the UK, with an inexplicable cover that completely misrepresents the book’s mood and tone) tells the story of a wood-carver, Kate, who after her father’s death must learn to live by her wits, and also to protect herself from her village’s superstition. Plain Kate’s skill with a carving knife attracts suspicion, as do her mismatched eyes — and really anything that might set someone apart. Kate is well aware that at a time of hunger and devastating illness, the village is looking for someone to blame, and as an orphan girl with no wealth or influence she’s a prime candidate.

Plain Kate’s precarious life changes when one day a strange man arrives by boat. He takes advantage of the villagers’ suspicion and of Kate’s isolation to get her to agree to swap her shadow for her heart’s desire, and this magical bargain has greater consequences than Kate could have imagined. To escape the voices whispering “witch”, she and her cat Taggle set off with a group of Roamers — but what begins as a journey towards safety becomes a quest to stop something terrible from happening.

Plain Kate was a complete surprise. I brought it home from the library based on the strength of Meg Rosoff’s blurb (“...full of poetry, magic, humour, sorrow and joy. A wonderful book.”), plus on all the good things I heard about Bow’s second novel Sorrow’s Knot last year. But even then, I didn’t really expect to fall for this novel like I did. I have to say I have absolutely no idea how it wasn’t even on my radar up until now, because it’s so completely my sort of thing it’s ridiculous. It reminded me slightly of Chime and Gifts, two books I loved wholeheartedly; and plus I have two words for you, my friends: TALKING CAT. A lovely, sarcastic, self-interested but still affectionate talking cat named Taggle, who introduces moments of warmth and humour in an otherwise dark novel, and whose relationship with Kate I adored. I have no idea why I didn’t read this ages ago, but hey, better late than never, right?

There’s something about Erin Bow’s writing that gives Plain Kate an emotional weight it might not have had otherwise. This isn’t to say the plot isn’t interesting in its own right; only that what makes it so extraordinarily good is the fact that it’s told in a way that gives it added resonance. Bow’s narrative voice is wonderful, and the result is an engrossing subtle and moving novel, full of shades of grey and of memorable small moments. Plain Kate is the story of a girl’s search for a place where she can belong, and it’s also an examination of all the small things that can go wrong and push someone who’s already on the fringes of society towards complete despair. It’s about exclusion, injustice, grief, and what people do when they believe they have nothing to lose. It’s about how someone might lose their compassion; and about the far-reaching consequences of the hurts we inflict one another. Most of all, it’s about the dangers of hanging on to the desperate belief that bad luck won’t come your way because it only afflicts those who deserve it, of turning on anyone tainted by misfortune, and of one day realising you’ve nevertheless joined their ranks.

The world of Plain Kate is vaguely medieval and influenced by Russian folklore. It’s a world where Rusalkas move among the mist, where magic is real but not infallible, where hunger and disease are feared, where witches are burned, where the Roamers Kate joins are regarded with suspicion, and where menstruating women are thought of as impure. It’s a world whose power structure mirrors our own’s, but what I said recently about The Goblin Emperor also goes here: you can see the fissures. You can see the consequences of a social structure that encourages every vulnerable group to find someone even more vulnerable than themselves to scapegoat. The poor townspeople who suffer from hunger and illness accuse those who are defenceless of witchcraft in a desperate attempt to save themselves, and often turn on the Roamers when they set camp nearby. Yet among the Roamers, women are in precarious positions, and a stranger like Kate is a hair’s breadth away from becoming an outcast. And thus the cycle of exclusion perpetuates itself.

In this sense, the strange man who takes Kate’s shadow, Linay, is a fascinating character. At one point I feared that Plain Kate would veer towards romance with someone who’s essentially an abductor, but it doesn’t. Instead, it complicates Linay just enough to make him interesting, and it keeps the focus firmly on the destructive cycle he’s become a part of. Also, I loved that the emotional tie at the centre of Plain Kate is between two girls: Kate and Drina, the girl she begins to think of as her sister. What ensures that Kate won’t become another Linay is the fact that she’s not alone. She finds support and companionship: she has Drina and Taggle. And on that note, prepare yourself for an ending that’s heartbreaking but not in the way you might expect (you wouldn’t be wrong to guess that I kind of have a thing for those). This is a novel where difficult decisions come with a real cost, and where there’s no shying away from the moment when it has to be paid.

In case I failed to persuade you, perhaps Unshelved will? Also, I’m not always the biggest fan of book trailers, but kudos to this one for getting the feel of the novel just right:


They read it too: Steph Su Reads, Bookshelves of Doom, The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia, Chachic’s Book Nook, Fyrefly’s Book Blog

(You?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

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Apr 13, 2014

Bookish Events: Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue, John Carey and Pat Barker

Cambridge Literary Festival
Bookish Events: Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue, John Carey and Pat Barker
In my new adopted city, the arrival of spring means it’s Literary Festival time. To be honest I feel that to an extent I’ve been spoiled by Edinburgh, because every literary festival I go to makes me wish I were there again. But much like last year, I had the chance to attend some excellent events, and I thought I’d give you a glimpse of what they were like. This year I got to see Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue, John Carey and Pat Barker. It’s been over a week and I did a poor job of taking notes, so apologies in advance for the cursory tone and lack of details. Here are some brief thoughts anyway:

Copies of Frog Music and The Luminaries


The Luminaries paperback coverEleanor Catton is a smart and cool lady whose books I absolutely need to make time for (I’ve started The Luminaries, but reading time was scarce this week and I haven’t made much progress. Maybe I’ll use next week’s long weekend as an excuse to really lose myself in it). She talked about many things, but her point about the overlapping of Victorian and contemporary values in her historical fiction especially caught my attention. She said she was interested in telling a story where the characters were true to the values of their time period, but that doesn’t mean there would be no distance between the narrative and this value system. You can simultaneously write historically accurate Victorian characters and create a story that gives humanity and agency to, say, the characters of colour. To Catton, this balancing act is both the challenge and the delight of writing historical fiction.

On a somewhat related note, Catton discussed her use of a third person omniscient narrator and its disappearance from the modern literary landscape. One of her main ambitions for The Luminaries was to recreate the use of omniscience you usually see in a Victorian novel, but to have it be a kind of omniscience that was grounded in a different worldview than what you associate with nineteenth-century novels. Only a very narrow sect of the population (read: mainly straight white men) would get their voices heard and their stories told then, and she wanted to write a novel that made use of the Victorian bird’s eye view but expanded the range of voices it encompassed.

This raises questions of legitimacy and authority that she’s interested in exploring, and she said she can’t help but spot some connections between reactions to her use of omniscience and the fact that she’s a young woman — and therefore not the kind of person who usually gets to speak for everyone. Some of the strongest negative reactions to her novel seem to have the question, “Who are you to speak for everyone?” behind them. The Luminaries was of course very well received, but when pressed to comment on the media’s hyperfocus on the book’s length and her age (which I wasn’t a huge fan of myself), Catton once again said that she suspected there might be a connection. What people really seemed to be asking was, “Who is this young woman to take so much of our time?”

My e-reader tells me I’m only 4% into The Luminaries, but I’m really looking forward to reading further. I’ve seen it compared to my beloved Wilkie Collins multiple times, and the voice and atmosphere of the first few pages did put me in mind of his novels.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue
Immediately after Eleanor Catton I got to see another author of (mainly) historical fiction. Emma Donoghue discussed her new novel, Frog Music, which is set in 1860s San Francisco and sounds absolutely awesome. Donoghue said she was interested in how so much of what we associate with modern life was already present then: mid nineteenth-century San Francisco was a fast-paced urban environment and a multi-cultural city that attracted people from all over the world. She talked a lot about her research process and how her academic background plays into it. Donoghue said she listed her sources so extensively because she feels that to an extent historical fiction relies on a collaborative relationship with what came before. The primary sources and scholarship she draws on play a huge role in her novels, and it’s important to her to acknowledge that.

Like Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue is interested in how historical fiction allows us to examine different value systems and to think about our relationship with them. She’s interested in the “defamiliarizing effect” historical novelists get to introduce — the little moment when a century and a half suddenly thrusts itself between you and characters you felt quite close to up until then, and you’re reminded that there are real differences in terms of dominant attitudes that have implications in terms of how people live. For example, she expects it will give her readers a jolt to suddenly see some of the characters in Frog Music make reference to the fact that the age of consent was ten, and to realise what this means in regards to how little legal recourse other characters have.

Donoghue was a lively and engaging speaker, and again I feel bad that I’ve read so little of her work. I loved Kissing the Witch (a collection of lgbtq fairy tale retellings that unfortunately I never got around to blogging about) when I read it a few years ago, and it’s about time I stop ignoring the copy of Slammerkin that has been waiting patiently on my TBR pile for over a year.

The Unexpected Professor by John Carey What Good are the Arts? by John Carey
John Carey, whose What Good Are the Arts? I adored, was at the festival to discuss his new book The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books. Carey said that when he was invited to write a memoir, he realised that he was more interested in talking about how he met certain books than in the time he spend among “important” people — so although the title “My Life in Books” was vetoed by his publisher, that’s still the real focus of the book. He wanted to write a book that was “joyful about reading”; a book that focused on the works that have affected him and added something to his life. His new memoir also focuses on how he experienced class as a grammar school boy at Oxford on a scholarship in the 1950s, on how these experience informed his life and career, and on what has changed and what has not.

I liked that Carey called out the chair of the event for referring to What Good Are the Arts? and The Intellectuals and the Masses as “his two polemics”. He did so in a good-humoured but also very no-nonsense kind of way: “polemics” as opposed to “serious books”, he said, as if he were merely being provocative and couldn’t possibly stand by what he says in those works. Yet Carey clarified that he very much does. When asked how he managed to reconcile his belief that aesthetic judgement are subjective with his professional life, Carey very sensibly explained that he has no trouble at all doing so. For him, teaching, reviewing or judging literary awards is not about arriving at an unquestionable truth about a literary work, or about settling once and for all whether or not it’s a “good” work. Instead, it’s about explaining, as persuasively as he can, why a certain work matters to him, so that he can hopefully pass that on. What he hopes is that someone else will want to engage with it closely, and hopefully find the same source of joy and meaning in something that he loved as he did.

Carey also discussed the issue of politics vs art: he used Lawrence, who he finds an extraordinarily moving writer even though he held some monstrous political views, as an example, and said that he especially struggles to reconcile the two and separate the work from its creator in the case of literature. This is because literature gives us tools to think with. Literature is all about engaging with ideas; it’s about being invited to enter someone’s moral world and seeing what it looks like from the inside. The only solution he’s come up with over a several decades’ long career is to accept the invitation, but not leave his critical faculties at the door. Being moved by Lawrence or Eliot doesn’t mean you can’t also appraise and discuss the very troubling political implications of some of their works.

I got a lot out of Carey’s talk — so much of what he said about the process of writing about books resonated with me. It got me thinking about how I discovered his work through Nick Hornby, and how they’ve both been such an inspiration. They have informed my approach to my own modest form of writing about books over the years, and as such they’re very important to me. Having said that, there are two things I can’t not mention. One, Carey talked a lot about books he admires, both classics and contemporary works, and as much as I agree about the excellence of Never Let Me Go, which Carey called his favourite contemporary British novel, I have to say that now I’m slightly terrified that I’ll pick up The Unexpected Professor and find out it doesn’t mention a single book by a woman. Considering that Carey is a nearly eighty year old man, I imagine that his formative influences, the works he was exposed to through his education, are likely to have been overwhelmingly by male writers — which accounts for his memoir’s bias to an extent. But this is the sort of thing I just can’t unsee, and the blind spot saddens me all the same, especially in someone who’s as sensitive to issues of class as he is.

Secondly, sometimes I got the impression that Carey rather wants to have his cake and eat it too: he wants to acknowledge subjectivity and address the dehumanisation implicit to certain forms of art snobbery, but he also wants to say that adults (“grown men”, as he put it) who read Tolkien on the tube are nor inferior, just “very, very different” than he is, and egg his audience on as they laugh uproariously. (Dear Professor: we’re perhaps not as different as you imagine.)

Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker
Lastly, I got to see the amazing Pat Barker, who, in honour of the Great War’s centenary this year, mainly discussed her excellent Regeneration trilogy. Hearing her talk was a perfect reminder of why I loved those books: it was the next best thing to revisiting them, and it left me aching to find the time for a reread this year even though it hasn’t been that long since I read them for the first time.

Barker said that part of the reason why she decided to write about WW1 was her grandfather: he survived the war, and all she had growing up was the knowledge that he suffered due to an old bayonet wound and his silence. As a writer, that was all she needed: a mystery, an unanswered question, a story no one was willing to tell. Her imagination filled in the gaps. She added that she finds it extraordinarily moving that her grandfather passed away in the 1960s believing that the war got him in the end. He died of stomach cancer at a time when no one would say the “C” work and doctors would hide the truth from their patients, so he believed everything he was going through was the result of the old wound acting up.

She also discussed the fact that WW1 tends to be used as a metaphor for all wars, but this, in addition to being an Eurocentric view, doesn’t do justice to the reality of contemporary conflict. In most wars the conflict isn’t far removed from civilian populations. They don’t just suffer the grief of losing loved ones; they also suffer — sometimes to a much greater extent than the armed forces — because they’re in danger or aren’t getting enough to eat. All this to say that while WW1 was horrific, it’s dangerous to think of it as a template for all wartime experiences.

The Great War also interests her because it’s a hypermasculine setting, but also one where men were cast into nurturing roles. She’s interested in those contradictions and in the tensions that resulted from them. The war was meant to be “manly”, yet men at war often had to care for others more vulnerable than themselves. The war also put them in positions of powerlessness, where there was nothing to do but wait and try to make their fellows' lives a little less unbearable than they’d otherwise be. This was directly at odds with what so many of these young men were raised to think their role in life would be. Barker’s exploration of these ambiguities is probably my favourite thing about the trilogy.

***
As I said, this is only a glimpse of everything that was discussed at the talks I attended — I must do a better job of taking notes next time. It will probably be a long while until I get to go to Edinburgh again, but I have to say that in the meantime my local festival will more than do. Fingers crossed that the excellent programs continue in the next few years.

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Apr 7, 2014

My Mad Fat Diary

My Mad Fat Diary
My Mad Fat Diary is a TV adaptation of author Rae Earl’s My Fat Mad Teenage Diary, a memoir of growing up as an overweight music-obsessed teenager in Stamford in the 1980s. I haven’t read the book (nor any of Earl’s work, though I really want to now), so I can’t tell you how faithful it is, but I can spot some immediate differences from the description alone. The TV series is set in Lincolnshire in the mid 1990s, and, over the course of two seasons and 13 episodes (WHY SO SHORT *sob*), it tells the story of 16-year-old Rae’s life in the months that follow her release from the psychiatric hospital where she’d been following a suicide attempt. Rae continues treatment as an outpatient, and we follow her as she makes friends, falls in love, adjusts to living with a mental illness, and works through the issues that led to her breakdown.

The result is a story that’s every bit as hilarious as it is moving. My Mad Fat Diary has excellent characterisation, warmth and real heart, and lots of feminist concerns that are dear to me at its centre. Also, before I go any further, I have to tell you about the series’ absolutely perfect soundtrack, which won me over from the very first episode. I wasn’t yet a teenager in 1996, but I do have an older brother, and my music taste has always been very late 90s and early 00s. So it’s no surprise that nine songs out of ten played in the series had me squealing with glee, or that I grinned non-stop in the episode where Rae begs her mother for a copy of the newly released Pinkerton. If you like The Cure, The Smiths, PJ Harvey, Eels, Radiohead, Mazzy Star, Beck or Björk, you’ll probably be as excited about the series’ use of music as I was.

I have a lot I want to say about the series, and since the subheadings format seemed to work reasonably well for my Friday Night Lights post, I thought I’d adopt it again here. I’ll try to keep major spoilers to a minimum, but be warned that some will be inevitable. So if you want to remain 100% unspoiled, read on with caution.

1. Sexual Beings

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Finn inside Gush heart
You know that thing I’m always saying? That thing about how I want more stories to acknowledge that while social pressure to be sexually active is a real thing, plenty of teenage girls experience genuine desire and curiosity about sex? Well, My Mad Fat Diary delivers like nothing else I’ve seen before. Rae is allowed to be a sexual being, and this involves not only experiencing desire but actually expressing it by saying things like, “I want him to go down on me for so long that he has to evolve gills” in a completely non-stigmatised way. The series, which does some interesting things with narration and perspective (more on which in later sections), also subverts the male gaze: we see the boys Rae is attracted to through her eyes, which means there’s an emphasis on male rather than female bodies as the focus of desire that’s still rare enough in mainstream media to be remarkable.

We also get an unapologetic first orgasm through masturbation scene, and we watch three major female characters (Rae and her friends Izzy and Chloe) experience sexuality in a variety of ways. The first orgasm scene struck me as particularly momentous, especially when you consider that showing a woman rather than a man experiencing sexual pleasure will often earn a movie a higher rating. Additionally, it’s not often that you see a young woman take her sexuality into her own hands in a TV series. There’s an abortion storyline in the first season, but, as in Friday Night Lights, this is only one among several stories involving sexually active teen girls, which makes it less likely that it could come across as a cautionary tale about sexuality in itself. The abortion is upsetting for the girl in question (for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it takes place in the context of a seriously skeevy relationship with a much older man), but at the same time, it’s not presented punitively or portrayed as life-destroying.

The frank portrayal of Rae’s sexuality is also important in the context of her weight. Overweight girls and women are often perceived as lying beyond the boundaries of acceptable femininity, and because our cultural understanding of sexuality is so tied up with traditional gender roles (as Katherine Angel so well explains in her book Unmastered), you get very few narratives that acknowledge that women of all sizes and body shapes are sexual beings. Thank goodness, then, for My Mad Fat Diary: Rae is allowed to express desire, to experience pleasure, and to live through all the excitements and complications of seeking intimacy with other people.

I loved how sex-positive My Mad Fat Diary was, but I have to say that, because this is a series about a girl struggling with self-esteem issues and recovering from a serious psychiatric episode, I was a little bit worried that it would end up portraying heterosexual romance as the “cure” to Rae’s problems. This isn’t to say that love, acceptance and sexual intimacy can’t be portrayed as healing, but a story where Rae learned to love herself solely because a boy found her loveable and desirable wouldn’t do justice to her struggles.

I needn’t have worried, though. Although the series ends with a loving sex scene (which, incidentally, isn’t Rae’s first time, and nobody makes a big deal about this — hooray!), this comes after Rae makes significant progress towards health. I’ll say plenty more about the relationship between Rae’s weight and her depression in the next section, but for now let me just say that I thought the series captured the vulnerability of sexual intimacy very movingly. Physical nudity and the emotional exposure of sex are sources of great anxiety for Rae, but as the series progress we watch her get to a place where she’s willing and able to risk them.

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Finn sleeping

2. The Meaning of Health

In her post about the series, The F Word guest blogger Lily Kendall said that while it’s great to see a larger teen girl like Rae tell her own story on screen, it’s a pity that weight is portrayed as a source of unhappiness and anxiety for every larger woman you see in film or on television. This is a valid point, and one that makes me go back to my usual mantra of “all the stories, please”. I want to see stories about larger women who are happy and perfectly comfortable in their own skin, because there’s no shortage of them out there. At the same time, though, I’m also interested in the stories of teen girls like Rae: stories about how harmful cultural messages about body size and female beauty can get inside your head, amplify your fears, and do real damage to your self-esteem. It’s a shame we don’t yet live in a world where the two get to coexist.

One thing I really liked was how My Mad Fat Diary didn’t present Rae’s journey towards health as a journey towards weight loss. As the series progresses, we learn that Rae has used binge eating as an anxiety coping mechanism in the past, but this doesn’t mean that compulsive eating is the explanation behind her weight, nor that developing a different relationship with food will have to equal dieting. We also get a glimpse of the many factors that play into Rae’s belief that being fat is an unforgivable sin: the unrealistic standards of female beauty she sees in billboards everywhere, her mother’s own fears and anxieties (which are presented compassionately rather than accusingly), the town bullies who see her as an easy target, the cumulative weight of the many small ways in which our culture’s attitude towards larger women manifests itself.

Having said that, I also liked that weight wasn’t the full story behind Rae’s self-esteem issues. One of the show’s greatest strengths is that it doesn’t try to come up with a single neat answer to the question “why?”. Rae’s best friend Chloe wants to know why she attempted to take her own life, but Rae can’t come up with a simple answer. A dozen hurts, great and small, pushed her to the brink, and it’s impossible for her to untangle them all at a moment’s notice. Working with her therapist, Kester, Rae manages to identify some of the factors that contributed to her breakdown, but even then it’s not a matter of arriving at a definitive answer — it’s a matter of coming up with better coping mechanisms and more adaptative thought patterns to make sure nothing of the sort will happen again.

There’s a clear cognitive-behavioural sensibility to Rae’s scenes with Kester, and the former psychology major in me was quite pleased with that. I did think that, in season one in particular, Rae and Kester’s relationship stretched the bounds of credibility: Rae shows up at Kester’s house repeatedly, and we watch him confide in her about his divorce. However, the thorny boundaries issues this raises are addressed in a painful but necessary episode in the second season. Rae is reminded that there’s a difference between a therapist and a friend, and although the former is part of her support system as she recovers, he can’t be its total sum if she’s to make real progress.

My Mad Fat Diary - cast photo

3. The Truth Shall Set You Free (Or Not)

If there’s one thing that let me down, it was the fact that My Mad Fat Diary framed telling the whole world the truth about yourself (namely in regards to things like mental illness or sexual orientation) in too absolute terms. Obviously I do wish for a world in which depression or homosexuality aren’t stigmatised, but since that’s far from being the world we live in, I don’t think teens like Rae and her friend Archie owe anyone the truth, or indeed any explanations at all about themselves. Telling people can be the right choice for specific individuals, but it’s not an inherently superior choice to keeping quiet, nor is keeping quiet a condemnable form of deceit. Unfortunately, I felt that the series veered dangerously close to portraying it this way.

This is what happens in My Mad Fat Diary: at the end of season one, Rae grabs the microphone at her mother’s wedding and tells everyone in the room that she hasn’t been in France like her mother told them, but at a psychiatric hospital. Then in season two, everyone at school finds out that Archie is gay. This happens against his will, but in the end, even though he experiences some backlash, coming out is portrayed as being for the best. To be clear, I realise that having to be in the closet is not exactly great, but I do think that sometimes it may be necessary for someone’s safety, and I wish the series had acknowledged that self-protection is also a valid choice. Both Rae and Archie go through wonderful healing moments when they open up to their friends, and these were lovely to see. However, I was less certain about the fact that they both experience a sense of relief in regards to the fact that everyone knows, and that this is portrayed as something that will inevitably follow from being out or exposing your history of mental illness.

I don’t want to make light of the fact that it’s hard and awful to live in a world that requires you to pretend to be someone you’re not in order to be accepted, and I can understand their relief when they let go of that. Yet at the same time, it’s absolutely okay for teens and adults everywhere to stay in the close (or keep their psychiatric history private) if that’s going to make their everyday life easier or ensure their safety. This, and not a sense of loyalty to an inflexible notion of truth or of honesty with others, should always be the priority. As this post puts it,
Beyond just personal preference, the pressure to come out can be dangerous for a large portion of the queer community, especially in less accepting and more violent areas. In the eyes of many queer activists, the pressure to “come out” for the benefit of overall society trivializes the danger many closeted individuals face.
I really wish Rae and Archie’s stories had been told in a way that did a better job of acknowledging this.

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and her friends on a school bus

4. Complicating Chloe

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Chloe
If you think I sounded gushy up until now, that was nothing compared to what I’m about to tell you. Rae’s relationship with her best friend Chloe was — much to my surprise and delight — my favourite aspect of the series. I say to my surprise because at first My Mad Fat Diary seemed to be going for the kind of “frenemy” dynamics I don’t always have the time for — not because teen girls don’t have complicated or ambivalent relationships with each other, but because of, well, everything Jodie wrote in the “About” section of The Friendship Zone: there are far too many harmful myths out there about how girls and woman interact, and we need to pay more attention to the many, many instances of us sharing relationships of genuine affection and support.

It made me especially sad that in the first season it looked like Rae and Chloe were going to be pitted against each other because of a boy. Spending so much time competing for a boy’s affection made it look like their relationship was subordinate to the relationships they might form with men. On top of that, there was the huge can of worms inherent to portraying conventionally attractive, skinny and “girly” Chloe as shallow and duplicitous in contrast to no make-up, jeans-wearing Rae’s genuine nature and depth of feeling. I absolutely want more stories that focus on girls like Rae, but I’d prefer it if they were ones where girls like Chloe aren’t villainised (this piece on femmephobia does a great job of explaining why something like this would have troubled me).

Yet once again, I needn’t have worried. As much as I enjoyed My Mad Fat Diary as a whole, I can honestly say that it was the final two episodes of season two that made me fall head over heels in love with the series. In these episodes, the writers complicate Chloe beyond my wildest hopes. Explaining how will require some spoilers: when Chloe runs away from home, Rae finds her diary and can’t resist the temptation to read it, and as a result we revisit previous events in the series, particularly ones that cast Chloe in a bad light, from her own perspective. Not only do these scenes humanise Chloe, but they also reveal that Rae is a bit of an unreliable narrator. The episodes suggest that if Chloe’s account is biased, so too is Rae’s — the truth lies somewhere in the middle. All the moments where Chloe seemed not to give a damn about her best friend were filtered through the eyes of someone who can’t quite bring herself to believe that anyone could possibly care about her.

This isn’t to say that Chloe never let Rae down, but the reverse is also true. When we compare their perspectives, what emerges is a story about two girls who genuinely care about each other, but whose very human failings will sometimes make them unable to tell when they ought to be supportive. Rae’s struggles with depression add another layer of complexity to this, because being so focused on her recovery makes her (understandably, but still painfully to those close to her) very focused on her own hurts. Breaking free of that is a huge step forward for her.

I also really liked how taking a closer look at Chloe gave the writers a way to examine the double bind women find themselves in. Like Rae, Chloe has low self-esteem: while her friend is told she’s worthless because she doesn’t fit conventional standards of female beauty, Chloe is told she’s worthless beyond her appearance. Over the course of the series we watch Chloe get caught up in two abusive relationships, both with statutory rape involved. The story steers clear of victim-blaming as it sheds light on the circumstances that pushed her towards these men, and the initial lack of support that made it so hard for her to get out.

Lastly, I loved how the final episodes reframed Rae and Chloe’s relationship as central to their emotional well-being, as well as to the series as a whole. Initially we think that Rae’s moving rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” is informed by her feelings about Finn’s absence, but then it becomes clear that her emotional turmoil is very much about her best friend. As much as I loved the romance in My Mad Fat Diary, it was wonderful to see the series recognise that the emotional ties girls form with each other are crucial too.

5. “I already have a dad”

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Karim
Last but not least, I want to talk about a small but wonderful aspect of My Mad Fat Diary: the relationship between Rae’s mother and her fiancée and then husband, Karim, as well as the relationship Rae herself develops with him. When we meet Karim, he’s an illegal immigrant living secretly with Rae’s mother, Linda. Although he’s younger and more conventionally attractive than she is, the two enjoy an obviously loving relationship, and there are less than subtle hints that they have a satisfying sex life.

Over the course of the series, Linda says again and again that she doesn’t understand what a man like Karim could possibly see in her, and I was just bracing myself for the awful moment when he’d be exposed as a scheming bastard using a naïve older woman to gain legal entry to the country. But! That moment never comes, and in a media landscape where immigrants are still casually portrayed as troublemakers or flat-out criminals more often than not (Bletchley Circle season two, I’m looking at you), it was such an immense relief to see that Karim is exactly what he seems: a kind man who loves his wife and stepdaughter and who wants his family to be happy.

Also, Karim is from Tunisia and he’s a Muslim. When Linda becomes pregnant, he tries to share his faith with his wife and unborn child, and that’s portrayed as exactly that: not as an act of oppression, but as a man sharing something that matters to him with the people he loves. Again, it was refreshing and absolutely lovely to see.

***

Time for some parting words: I adored My Mad Fat Diary, particularly because of how the final episodes complicate our understanding of the story we’d been told up until then. There’s a lot I didn’t touch on here (Tix, Danny, Rae’s complicated relationship with Liam, the “Mean Girls” episode in season two), but hopefully I’ve given you a glimpse of some of the show’s greatest strengths, as well as of a few of its shortcomings. If you’re a fan of heartfelt teen shows like My So-Called Life or Joan of Arcadia, this is something you absolutely need to watch. And then you need to come talk about it with me.

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Apr 4, 2014

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie StiefvaterThe Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races is set on Thisby, an isolated island where every year the cappaill uisce come up from the sea. Based on the kelpies from Celtic folklore, these are terrifying, deadly, savage creatures that no one in their right mind ought to approach.

Except of course people do.

Every November, the Scorpio Races are run under the cliffs of Skarmouth. The crowds gather to witness the often lethal event, where dozens try to hang on to their capall uisce for long enough to make it to the finish line in one piece. Nineteen-year-old Sean Kendrick, three times winner of the Scorpio Races, is racing on Corr, the capall uisce he loves beyond reason. Winning just one more time could be the difference between losing him and not. Puck Connolly, the first girl to enter the Scorpio Races, is racing for equally strong reasons — her house, her family, and the Thisby life she loves so much all hang in the balance. Circumstances set Puck and Sean against each other, yet as they prepare for the races together they grow increasingly close.

First of all: holy bookish Batman, is The Scorpio Races astonishingly well written. What I said about The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves goes for this too: there’s just something about Maggie Stiefvater’s writing that feels organic, like something that is rather than something that was crafted (which I fully realise is actually the result of an impressive level of craft). The puppet strings are so well disguised that I find it hard to distance myself from her characters enough to write about them. There aren’t many writers out there who make me feel this way — Patrick Ness comes to mind, but that’s pretty much it. Hence the fact that a rough draft of this post had languished unfinished in one of my folders since January.

I adored The Scorpio Races, and I’m going to attempt to explain why by telling you about the three seemingly unrelated pieces of media it made me think of. I know, I know: comparisons can be a hallmark of lazy reviewing, but I’m hoping that the sheer outward disparity of these three things — The Brides of Rollrock Island, Friday Night Lights, and To the Lighthouse — will grab your attention and convey just how unique this novel actually is (while also giving me a way to explore some of the aspects of the story that resonated the most with me).

The Brides of Rollrock Island is perhaps the most obvious of these comparisons. Seriously, what is it about atmospheric, magic-infused, folklore-inspired novels set on fictional Scottish islands that gets to me so much? One thing these two stories have in common is the fact that they broke my heart, albeit in completely different ways; another is how they both combine moments of real horror with moving scenes in which people manage to connect and understand each other, often against the odds. Additionally, they share a very strong sense of place that’s not only interesting in its own right (I do love me some vivid landscapes and well-realised fictional communities), but helps bring their themes to life. Lonely, sparse, wind-swept Thisby, the island Puck loves so much, is inextricable from this story. The Scorpio Races is as much about what it means to love a place like Thisby as it is about what happens once Puck decides to enter the Scorpio Races.

Both Lanagan and Stiefvater bring a clear feminist sensibility to their stories, which manifests itself in a willingness to directly address how women are relegated to secondary roles in these communities. As I mentioned in my synopsis, Puck is the first girl to enter the Scorpio Races, and as such she encounters the obstacles every trailblazer has to face along the way. The force of convention, while not immutable, is palpable and ever-present, and it’s not easy to be told again and again that you can’t do something simply because no woman has done it before you. There’s a very basic feminist story at the heart of The Scorpio Races — a story where a woman does something everyone considered her incapable of doing by virtue of her gender and does it well — and it’s well-realised, grounded in excellent characterisation and very human details, and always worth telling.

However, Stiefvater takes her analysis further — which is where To The Lighthouse and one of my favourite aspects of The Scorpio Races come in. Puck’s story is about triumphing where everyone expected her to fail, and along the way proving that “because it has always been so” is a pretty lousy reason to keep the gates barred against women — but that’s only part of it. Her story is also about her fear that trespassing against the rigid norms of expected gendered behaviour could have very real personal and social consequences for her. Her story is about asking herself if she’s willing to risk getting hurt to discover the possibilities for genuine intimacy that could lie beyond such rigid roles.

I was reminded of Woolf’s novel because it, too, analyses how the straitjackets of “proper” feminine and masculine behaviour are an impediment to real intimacy, and yet breaking free of them and throwing the script of normative courtship away is absolutely terrifying. I found the following conversation between Puck and fellow islander Peg one of the most interesting moments in the novel because of the light it sheds into these fears:
Peg continues, “When you’re too much like them, the mystery’s gone. No point seeking the grail if it looks like your teacup.”
“I’m not trying to be sought.”
She purses her lips. “All I’m saying is that you’re asking them to treat you like a man. And I’m not sure either of you want that.”
There’s something discomforting about what she says, thought I’m not sure if it’s because I disagree or agree with it. I think of Ake Palsson backing his horse away from me and the combination of her words and the memory sit uneasily on my chest.
“I just want to be left alone,” I said.
“Like I said,” Peg replies. “You’re asking to be treated like a man.”
Peg cautions Puck that moving away from her expected role comes with a price, and there’s no telling what it might mean for her personal relationships. And yet Puck knows what being “treated like a man” really implies — it means having your humanity fully recognised, because a relationship model that relies on women being mysterious and elusive sought-after creatures is one that denies them the full messy complexity of being a person. Will people be willing to accept fully human Puck, or will her fight for equality isolate her? And what does this mean for her budding relationship with the boy she’s falling in love with?

These aren’t trivial questions, and Stiefvater gives them the weigh they merit. As much as my first instinct is to think, “Well, anyone who doesn’t want to deal with a girl’s full humanity can go jump off a cliff”, the truth is that rejection and disappointment hurt, and there’s so much we do (or don’t do) because we fear them. There’s a lot of vulnerability to Puck and Sean’s attempts to reach out to each other, and it’s in part due to this: they dare imagine, and then try for, something that falls outside the structure of what’s always been done. It’s a real partnership, one where a young woman and a young man both get to be complicated human beings, and it’s exhilarating, hopeful, freeing, and utterly terrifying.

My last comparison is to Friday Night Lights, and this has to do with how these two stories approach what it means to belong to a small community. When I wrote about the series, I said that it “never attempts to determine whether it’s right or wrong to want to leave Dillon. There’s no one true answer; there are only individual choices, which are often filled with ambiguity and regret.” Stiefvater writes about Thisby in a similar way: what is for some a suffocating place they need to escape is for others everything they’ve ever wanted. Puck and Sean belong to the latter group:
“The sky and the sand and the sea and Corr.”
It’s a lovely answer and takes me entirely by surprise. I hadn’t realised we were having a serious conversation, or I think I would’ve given a better reply when he asked me. I’m surprised, too, by him including his stallion in his list. I wonder if, when I talk about Dove, people can hear how I love her the way that I can hear his fondness for Corr in his voice. It’s hard for me to imagine loving a monster, though, no matter how beautiful he is. I remember what the old man said in the butcher’s, about Sean Kendrick having one foot on land and one foot in the sea.
Maybe you need a foot in the sea to be able to see beyond your horse’s bloodlust.
“It’s about wanting,” I say eventually, after some considering. “The tourists always seem to want something. On Thisby, it’s less about wanting, and more about being.”
On the other hand, Puck’s older brother, Gabe, needs to leave the island. This ambiguity doesn’t have to be resolved because people are different and want different thing. Thisby is neither a dream island nor a dying community; it’s simply a place that interacts differently with people’s most intimate wants and fears and becomes entirely different for each individual as a result.

I can hardly believe I’ve written all these paragraphs and have barely said anything about Corr, the capall uisce stallion Sean (and later Puck) loves so much. I’m always drawn to stories that capture how complex and fulfilling people’s emotional ties to animals can be, and Stiefvater does it remarkably well. But of course that in this particular story matters are complicated by the fact that the cappaill uisce are killer beasts. It would be senseless to resent them for being what they are, yet can you love them despite (or perhaps in part because of) their indomitable nature? What does it mean to put your trust in a creature like Corr?

I can’t do justice to how movingly yet unsentimentally Stiefvater writes about this. Brace yourself for a connection you’re unlikely to forget, and also for one of the most heartbreaking endings of all times. When I say “heartbreaking”, you’ll almost surely think of something entirely unlike what actually happens — because one of the beautiful things about The Scorpio Races is that it expands the range of stories we tend to think of as having emotional resonance. More endings like this, please. Also, more Maggie Stiefvater in my life. Can I have the third Raven Cycle book now?

Reviewed at: Lady Business, Lady Business+ podcast, My Friend Amy, The Book Smugglers, The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

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Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

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Apr 2, 2014

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine AddisonThe Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Maia, the protagonist of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, has spent his life in exile. As the youngest son of the emperor of the Elflands (and as the dark-skinned son of a Goblin mother, an unforgivable sin in some people’s eyes) he wasn’t considered anyone of importance. After his mother’s death when he was eight, he was sent to live with a relative in an isolated province, and he’s had no direct contact with his father since. But before his nineteenth birthday, his father and his three older brothers all die in a highly suspicious accident. As the only surviving heir, Maia becomes emperor. The novel follows him as he enters a confusing, highly complex, and often actively hostile court, and as he tries to make sense of its politics, conspiracies, and ever-shifting allegiances. In a world full of intrigue, Maia tries to break free from his isolation — both for very human reasons, and so that he can find the reliable support and advice he needs to become the best ruler he can be.

I loved this book at both a micro and a macro level. The first thing to draw me in was the personal angle, but by the end I loved the politics too. The Goblin Emperor is two things: one, it’s a moving story about a lonely teenager who grew up with an abusive relative trying desperately to reach out, but having to contend with all the complications inherent to his position; two, it’s the story of a political conspiracy and of the complicated circumstances that gave rise to it. The mystery behind the previous emperor’s demise didn’t fully capture my attention until later in the novel, but once it did, oh! I was in absolute awe of how skilfully Addison handled it.

Before I delve into any of this in more detail, though, let me tell you a little bit more about the world The Goblin Emperor is set in. Addison’s worldbuilding is intricate, and you may well feel more than a bit lost at first — but that’s perfectly okay, because you’re anchored by a character who feels just as lot as you do. Also, a lot of the worldbuilding is embedded in the language, and when done as well as it is here, this is one of my absolute favourite things. For example, there are complex forms of address and distinctions between first person plural (formal), first person plural that really means a plural, and first personal singular (intimate and informal). Addison handles it skilfully enough that it never becomes confusing, and it’s such an elegant and economic way to convey subtle but crucial information about the characters and their relationships, as well as information about the world’s social mores.

Another thing worth examining is the fact that The Goblin Emperor is set in an imaginary world whose power dynamics mirror those of our own: for example, women are mainly perceived as fit for marriage and childrearing, and powerful families have no qualms about using their daughters as bargaining chips in political allegiances. This is also a world where homophobia runs rife, and even Maia himself, when told that someone close to him is marnei, is unsure what to think of his “unnatural love”. But — and this is crucial; this is why I loved this novel — this not a world where inequality is used as a lazy backdrop for the story being told. As a fantasy fan I sometimes get frustrated with the use of the status quo simply as an unquestioned background element (here’s an excellent essay by Kate Elliott that touches on this), but that’s not because I think all fantasies should model themselves on ideal worlds. It’s because it seems like a waste not to use our limitless imaginations to a) explore other possibilities or b) thoughtfully examine injustice and how political change might come about. The Goblin Emperor does the latter, and it does it better than anything I’ve seen in a very long time.

This, then, is a world whose power dynamics match our own’s, but, much like in reality, you see the fissures. The status quo is never homogeneous — there are always counter-currents; there are always people trying to challenge it or break free from it; there are always seeds of future change. In this case, we have people who “share (…) the belief that women can and should do the same intellectual work as men”; we have women engineers, astronomers, and Maia’s ostracised Sea Captain aunt; we have Kiru, the first woman to become Nohecharis (one of four always present guards who work in shifts of two) to the Emperor; and we have half-goblin Maia himself, who approaches power with the perspective and sensibility of someone who experienced exclusion first-hand. If you’re someone like Maia, how do you reconcile the powerful and authoritative role you’re cast into with the person you feels yourself to be deep down? Do you change who you are? Do you forget the things you know to be true about the world because you’ve experienced it from the fringes? Or do you break with tradition and change the way your power is wielded? Can an inexperienced eighteen-year-old embrace the challenge of using his role to bring the world as he knows it to the attention of the elites he’s now a part of?

These are the questions at the heart of The Goblin Emperor — which, as you can imagine, means this is a novel deeply concerned with political change. As Addison herself puts it in her brilliant Big Idea post, “the cage door isn’t actually closed”. This is such a perfect way to describe so much of what this novel does. The rules of an authoritative, patriarchal, unequal world can and do shift. I can’t help but compare Addison’s handling of the political questions The Goblin Emperor raises with the Equalists plotline in the first season of The Legend of Korra — everything that series got so horribly, horribly wrong this novel gets right. This is a story that acknowledges the terrible human cost of violent actions, but also the context in which such actions begin to seem like plausible paths. Painful and cruel actions can have valid grievances behind them, and being capable of complex political thinking means recognising that acknowledging this is not the same as legitimising them.

Maia’s conversation with Shulivar at the end gave me chills: it would have been so easy to botch it by creating a mwahaha-ing villain, yet Addison manages to hang on to the complexity she’d introduced previously at the most difficult moment. Shullivar is callous and terrifying, yet this is partially because you can see how the world’s structure drives people like him to despair. There’s no attempt to oversimplify the situation by arriving at clear-cut answers. Of course the loss of human lives is horrifying; of course desperate circumstances and rampant inequality push people towards these actions. Of course the status quo is incredibly difficult to challenge, of course there’s no easy way to bring about change, of course many of the things we’re grateful for in the world were brought about messily and painfully — and yet of course that starting to think of human lives as “a price worth paying” means you’re going down a dark, dark path. Maia is left shaken and grappling with questions that are likely to inform his work over the coming decades — as we often are in the real world.

At the same time, though, The Goblin Emperor is careful not to equate all political dissatisfaction with violent radical action, as if that way the inevitable outcome of discontent. There are many, many people in this world with grievances big and small, and these express themselves in a multitude of ways. There’s bridge-building, and there are the big ripples seemingly small changes can bring about. When we part ways with Maia, we see many hints at changes yet to come, and we’re left feeling that the Elflands are in good hands.

Last but certainly not least, there’s the personal, human angle that drew me into this novel to begin with. There’s Maia’s acute loneliness and his ache for a friend, and there’s his slow realisation that sometimes you have to take what you can get. Being emperor will always set him apart, in a kind of isolation that’s different but sometimes just as painful as what he experienced for the first eighteen years of his life. And yet his life is also full of moments of companionship. Maia learns many things over the course of The Goblin Emperor (about himself, about his world, about the hurts great and small inflicted to those he rules, about trusting his instincts and believing in the legitimacy of his own perspective, etc), but possibly one of the most important is the fact that he doesn’t have to force his personal relationships into moulds. Maybe it’s true that an emperor can’t have friends in the common sense of the term, but that doesn’t mean that the uncommon bonds he forges with people aren’t valuable and meaningful in their own right. Maia’s journey moved me, and it was lovely to see him find peace and camaraderie at the end.

Bits I (really, really) liked:
He was perversely pleased to see that it was possible to startle her. “If you did not marry. What would you do instead?”
“We thank you, Serenity, but we do not expect you to be interested in our foolish, daydreaming ambitions.”
It was the most words he’d gotten out of her at one time. Maia smiled gently and, taking a leaf from her book, simply waited in silence.
She gave him a bitter look when she realized he would neither speak until she did nor dismiss her from his presence, then said in a small, defiant voice, a sudden hint of what she would have been like as a child, “We would study the stars.”
“The stars?”
“Yes, Serenity,” she said, and it suddenly struck him as ludicrous and demeaning that a woman of twenty-eight should be subject to the judgment of a half brother ten years younger than herself.
He said, “Then you should.”
From the stricken way they all stared at him—Vedero, Csevet, Cala, Beshelar—he realized that he had said the wrong thing again. There was a painful silence; Maia felt his face heating. It was Vedero who squared her shoulders and said, “Serenity, you need our marriage.”
“But if it is not what you wish…”
“Serenity, you have few enough bargaining chips. Do not throw one away. You cannot afford to wait until Ino and Mireän are of age.”
“But with whom are we bargaining?”
“The world, Serenity,” Vedero said sadly.

He was not stupid and he was not incapable. He remembered the moment when his thoughts had inverted themselves—that shift from not being able to please everyone to not trying—and the way that change had enabled him to see past the maneuverings and histrionics of the representatives to the deeper structures of the problem, and it was the same with the Corazhas. The surface of their words, which intimidated him so much he had all but given up, was not what he needed to see.
Maybe I can do this, he thought, and he slept better that night than he had expected to.

“Have we other aunts?” He did not need to ask about uncles; even an illegitimate son of the Great Avar of Barizhan would have been brought to the emperor’s attention.
“Three others,” Merrem Vizhenka said. “We doubt your mother knew of them, any more than she knew of us. It is only since her death that the Avar has chosen to acknowledge us. Your aunt Ursu is a sea captain’s wife; your aunt Holitho is in the Convent of the Lighthouse Keepers in Urvekh’; and your aunt Shaleän, the oldest of the Avar’s daughters, ran away in her youth, disguised herself as a boy, and became a sailor. She is now a sea captain, and in truth no one in Barizhan quite knows what to do with her. The Avar acknowledges her, but he does not discuss her.”

One of her friends was translating the Barizheise poet Amu Carcethlened, who had written fabulous adventure tales about the voyages of the steamship Lion of Orpezhkhahar. Another friend was writing a treatise on the principles of inheritance as observed from her family’s millennium-worth of horsebreeding records. Another had started an unofficial school for girls with mazeise talents. There were others and others, and at some point Vedero said, “Of course, when we say ‘friend,’ we do not necessarily mean that we like the person particularly. We mean that they share with us the belief that women can and should do the same intellectual work as men.” Her shoulders were stiffly defensive, and Maia wondered what she expected him to say.
Except that he knew. She expected condemnation, or to be told that it was all very well for a hobby, but the only work women were fitted for was the bearing of children. He said, gently, “We would be honored to meet your friends—both those you like and those you don’t.”
She swung around so forcefully to stare at him that she nearly knocked Cala into the railings. “You are serious,” she said, not quite a question, but not quite a statement either.
“We were not considered worth educating, either,” Maia said.
She bowed her head and said, “We take your point, Serenity.”
It was not friendship he found with Idra and Vedero—either in the usual sense or in her particular sense—but it was something that was like friendship, kinship in a metaphorical rather than a literal fashion, something that was maybe as close as an emperor could get.
They read it too: A Dribble of Ink

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Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I downloaded a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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