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Review copy sent by the publisher.

Okay, so. There is one way in which this book is one of the most pretentious things that has come by me in some while, although there is also a way in which I understand what the author is trying to do. Only it doesn't work. Mostly.

Tanith Lee has in the past written under the pseudonym Esther Garber. In this collection, she claims to be writing both as and with Esther Garber, and both as and with Esther's half-brother, Judas Garbah. The foreword goes into this a bit: it's one of those things where these aren't really pseudonyms to her, but rather characters, since the stories she's written under those names are (mostly) autobiography of the pseudonyms. This, combined with the power that a pseudonym can have to change a writer's voice, allow them to free themselves of various inhibitions etc., means that she wants to allow the pseudonyms full authorial credit while nonetheless admitting to them as pseudonyms.

As I've said, I kind of get this. Except for how it comes across, which is, well, pretentious beyond imagination. Because, the thing is, if you the author are going to insist that I suspend my disbelief in this particular set of directions, then you the author must have a sufficiently different authorial voice, a set of things that cannot be said other than in this way, in short must have a sufficiently different set of actual personae to justify it. And while this collection is not, in fact, in the voice I mentally think of as 'usual Tanith Lee', it is not in anyone else's voice either. Except a sort of sub-Angela-Carter something-or-other. Also, as far as I can tell, the things she can't say except in this way involve a lot of semi-explicit gay and lesbian sex.

... I must have missed something. How is it that Tanith Lee requires pseudonymity to write, semi-explicitly, about gay and lesbian sex, in a book whose foreword is dated 2009? Tanith Lee was writing kinkier things than this in the 1970s and I have read them.

In short, this collection is centered around a gimmick which does not work, and which fails to support stories that do not work either. Esther's pieces are mostly about Unattainable Women Who Might Be Ghosts Or Something, and Judas's are about Dangerous Young Men Who Throw Him Down Stairways; there is a lot of weirdness about the way people are about the ethnic backgrounds of the pseudonyms in a way that just feels off to me in some direction (exoticizing?), and I think it says something that the one (one) readable story in the collection is credited to both Esther and... Tanith Lee.

That said, if the one readable story in here has been anthologized elsewhere, it's actually pretty good. It's called 'Death and the Maiden', and involves a young woman who gets picked up by the wife of a famous pre-Raphaelite-type painter, only to discover that she's been picked up to seduce the woman's daughter. The painter has spent years instilling in his daughter an ideal of Pure Womanhood stolen from Coventry Patmore by way of The Taming of the Shrew, and the mother will at this point do quite a lot to get her daughter to break her self-and-parentally-imposed role and think for herself for a minute. As it turns out, things are extremely much more perverse than anyone, including me, expected, and not in the directions you are thinking of or I was thinking of. In fact, I sat back and blinked at the end of the story and said 'huh, I haven't seen that one before and it was genuinely vaguely creepy'.

But it is not worth picking up the rest of the collection to get. Maybe if you see it in a library. The rest of the collection ranged from 'boring' to 'I think Colette already wrote that' to 'I think Angela Carter already wrote a parody of Colette writing that', to, in one impressive case, 'I think Angela Carter already wrote a pastiche of Isak Dinesen writing a paraphrase of Colette writing that', which is to say seen it, and, I guarantee, so has everybody else, even if you have not read the specific works to which I'm referring, because cliche can be a very universal language.

Does anybody want this book? I'll mail it to you.
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Read July 29th, in a hallway at Otakon, dressed as a My Little Pony (Twilight Sparkle). There are probably pictures of me reading this somewhere on the internet, as people kept asking to take photos of the costume and then saying I shouldn't look up from my book as reading was very much in character for Twilight.

This is early Pelevin, earlier than either of the novels of his I've read, and it feels like a writer trying to find, not his voice, but his genre. The voice is there all right, ironic, snarky, obscene, catching at pop culture from odd angles but with surprising bitter dignity when the time calls for it. The genre here vacillates between relatively straightforward fantasy such as the title story, which is as straightforward and friendly a story about werewolves in central Russia as you can get (not very: I... think there may be a political point about collective farming in it I am not culturally equipped to get), through outright and rather dull allegory (yes, the protagonist has spent his whole life in a prison, we get it, life is a prison, done now), into wildly subjective first-person hallucination, out-and-out surrealism in the classical sense, and something I can best describe as post-modernist post-Soviet up-yours bricolage.

There are werewolves and they are very neat; there are Soviet towns full of unreasoning bureaucracy, fear, confusion, griminess; there is a men's toilet which the Committee transforms into a palace when the cleaning woman discovers radical solipsism. There is an incident in which a man working on an assembly line catches a nuclear bomb when it would have fallen from the conveyor belt, preventing it from going off, and is told that he will be commended in the paper, except that the bomb will of course be described as a large container of creamed corn and his name is going to be changed to be more mediagenic. There's an entire version of the Soviet Union which turns out to be literally taking place in an anthill. Some of this is more effective and some less. All of it is wildly inventive, never trying the same thing twice, grabbing any technique that goes by and testing to see if any of this is working, mercilessly throwing out any gambit that looks like it doesn't.

And then there's the last story, 'Prince of Gosplan', where it all snaps into place, and this is the genre I've seen Pelevin in before, the fully mature writer confident enough to do whatever the hell he wants. There isn't a word for what he's doing here. It's not surrealism, quite, it's not allegory, quite, it's definitely not magical realism; but it pays no attention to the structures and tropes of fantasy as one sees them elsewhere.

The concept of the story is so simple it is laughable, and also brilliant: everyone in the story, employees at various perestroika-era Russian companies, is also engaged in playing, all their lives, a video game. Which game varies with which person. The protagonist is in a Prince-of-Persia-type RPG in which he climbs things and ducks traps, looking for the princess, but he rises so slowly up the bureaucracy what with all the requisition forms, he's been working here for years and is only on level two and he hates those damn body-shears on the escalators and what if he forgot to save last night? Anyone can run out of lives and vanish at any moment, after all... It's an amazing piece of work, funny, touching, bitter, and with an odd coherency to its incredibly insane worldbuilding. The rest of the book is fun and interesting. This one is unmissable.
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Review of the book I read on July 28th.

Joan Aiken, over the course of a long and illustrious career, wrote so many books that I have lost track of them, but is probably best known among my acquaintance for the Dido Twite series, a YA alternate-universe Victorian-era-except-she-didn't-reign fantasy romp that charms everyone else much more than it charms me. She also wrote Gothics, which I haven't read.

My problem with Joan Aiken is an unusual one, so unusual that it took me some time to identify it. I realized immediately that I found her work boring, but I couldn't figure out why, because on the surface it is just the sort of thing I ought to like.

The problem is that we think the same way. Someone will mention a plot point in one of her novels, and I will say 'but that was so dull, it was obvious that that was going to happen from page six', and the person will stare at me. And after several years it became obvious that it is not that her plots are predictable, it is that it is always what I would have done if I were plotting the book, and so I expect it and therefore find it predictable.

Therefore I have kept reading Joan Aiken, because on two separate occasions now I have run across things of hers which do do exactly what I would have done in the circumstances, but which are so much more impressively executed than I was expecting that I know they are better than I could have done them. And that is a rare treasure, if you have ever run into someone who thinks the same way you do, to get to see them do something better sharper shinier more. It gives the reading effect of eucatastrophe: I thought this would be the same old thing, but it isn't. It is almost as pleasant as surprising oneself.

The first of the two Joan Aiken things I like is The Stolen Lake, which I will defend against all comers as the most insane Arthurian novel ever written, and desperately treasure. I don't want to tell you anything else about it. It is too gloriously weird.

The second is the short story 'The Land of Trees and Heroes', which, as it is an Armitage family story, has been reprinted by Small Beer Press in this collection, The Serial Garden, along with all the other Armitage stories.

The deal with the Armitages is that, while they were on their honeymoon, Mrs. Armitage worried that their life might be boring, and wished for magical and exceptional things to happen to them. But only-- well, mostly-- on Mondays, so as not to make too much of a mess. The first and seminal Armitage story, which Aiken wrote at the age of sixteen (it reads as though she'd been a pro for decades) is called 'Yes, But Today Is Tuesday', in which the Armitage children inform their parents that there is a unicorn in the garden and this is incredibly confusing and upsetting because it is, in fact, Tuesday. The world has therefore slipped its natural courses. Unicorns are fine on Mondays, but Tuesday is just beyond the pale...

At their best, the Armitage stories, which Aiken wrote throughout her multi-decade career, walk a thin and lovely balance between the kind of domestic comedy in which odd magical happenings are taken completely for granted and the kind of domestic comedy in which odd magical happenings are, well, extremely peculiar. The Armitages are perfectly capable of dealing with anything whatsoever, as long as it happens on a Monday and everyone gets turned back into their natural shapes before teatime. This must have been an influence on Diana Wynne Jones, I can't see it not being.

At their worst, the stories fall off one side or the other of that tightrope. When everyone is too blasé about magic, there's little sense of danger, and when they're too confused, there's little sense of the unflappability that really makes the humor. But at least half the stories do walk that line adequately.

And 'The Land of Trees and Heroes' throws in the numinous. It is, as far as I can tell, an Armitage retelling (with alterations) of At the Back of the North Wind, without the bad poetry and Victorian philosophizing. It's funny (there is one segment that makes me laugh every single time), mythic, odd, pragmatic, and manages to feel nothing at all like E. Nesbit (which, by virtue of subject matter, it should; I love E. Nesbit but sometimes she is a magnetic force).

So I bought the collection for that one story, really, but it is a good collection, a good read-aloud book for a rainy night, full of wizards who practice eminent domain, church fetes to buy new wands for retired fairies, and the unicorns eating the azaleas. And, thank heaven, it is never, ever twee; sometimes flat, but never over-sentimental, purple, or treacly.

Maybe in another decade or so I'll run into another Joan Aiken I like.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Writing a review of something by James Joyce means that I am required by law to link you to this awesome synopsis of Finnegans Wake (warning: TV Tropes).

Now that we have that out of the way:

this collection of short stories is in perfectly plain language, being early Joyce; I am informed there are a couple of pieces here that are run-ups for portions of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But mostly it's what it says on the tin, it's about Dubliners, people who live in Dublin, many different sorts of people.

I suspect that there are ways in which I can't appreciate how good this book is because too much of it has been internalized and is now just The Way People Write. It certainly does not feel nearly a hundred years old; any of these stories could appear in a modern literary magazine tomorrow and not appear dated. That is rare. There is not much in the way of plot here, in a conventional sense. These are stories of the form I associate with Chekhov, the seemingly motionless snapshot of people at a specific moment, doing specific things, which turns out to be a deep portrait of these people at a time when something vast is changing in or around them.

Therefore these are stories in which about ninety percent of the heavy lifting is going on under the surface, so I can tell you that there is a story about a boy who's just had a priest he knows die, and a story about the people who come in and out of a politician's headquarters in the process of canvassing, and really it tells you nothing at all about the pure sexual confusion and terror that hangs over the first story or the delicately ironic balancing of patriotic emotion, pragmatism, and alcohol in the second. There's an active living underlayer to everything in this book which makes summary a mockery. There are things going on here I am entirely sure I don't understand, possibly because of lack of cultural context on occasion, but I can still tell they are there if not what they are.

So I will cheerfully admit this is the great masterpiece all the critics say it is, especially 'The Dead', which I had read before at an age when it went so far over my head it probably hit the wheel of the zodiac, and which I had not expected to have so much merriment in it. (That's the one where there is a party, and a man who discovers he does not know what may be a huge and significant thing about his wife's emotional life, not that that is an adequate summing-up.)

It is however an odd experience for me as a reader who is also a writer, because it is that rare bird, a masterpiece from which I have no desire to steal any particular mode or bit of technique whatsoever, because it is not what I am trying to do. It is so incredibly not what I am trying to do that I am free to admire it purely and without the usual degree of a certain direction of studiousness, and the absence of that is like repeatedly missing a stair. Very unaccustomed mode of thinking. Now, Ulysses I will rob blind, if I think I can get away with it. This, no. It's like seeing a hawk in the wild or something, a beautiful experience that gives me no impetus at all to try to make a hawk myself. Whereas the phoenix that is Ulysses, you damn bet I'm out there setting feathers on fire.
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[personal profile] sovay mentioned liking one of Ducornet's novels, so I got a book of hers out of the library. This is a collection of short stories themed around the concept of desire, specifically erotic desire, though she does not always define either word in the traditional manner.

This book does something very interesting, and I'm not quite certain whether it works for me: for every single one of these stories' protagonists, the self and the object of desire are the only things that are real, and the object of desire is very consciously the Other. Which is to say, the protagonists are prosaic and people and have to cut their toenails and so on, and everything else is exoticized as hell. I noticed this because there was a story that was set in India, and I was starting to growl at the way it was all-surface India, all of these huge bright cliches and a white guy at the center looking for weirdness, and then I realized that the story wasn't doing anything any different from the previous ones, which had done identical lacquered not-seeing-the-real-thing versions of the south of France and the interior of a marriage and, in one case, the protagonist's niece. I think the author is making the point that people who are blinded by what they are looking for are going to seize the things they consider exotic and make those things into part of what they're looking for, but, hmm, it would have been nice to get more of an outside deflatory perspective sometimes on those things the protagonists consider exotic about which there are already active cultural exoticizing narratives.

Mind you, sometimes there are, one of my favorite moments in this entire book is when one protagonist's father announces that he is going to go to Ethiopia, convert the natives to evangelical Christianity, and build a factory that makes carbonated coffee, and the protagonist's mother laughs so hard she has trouble seeing the divorce papers as she signs them and refers to him for the rest of the story as 'that idiot'. I appreciated that moment. Could maybe have done with a bit more of that.

But the point of it all is the way desire can cheat itself and the way it can Other, so I think this is a valid form. And it's beautifully done, ridiculously pretty prose that usually stays the right side of purple and a redeeming thread of total vulgarity, the baroque and Gothic tinsel layered over whatever particular madness the narrator not necessarily expresses, but is. It's complicated, multivalent, structure-heavy, surprisingly easy-to-read work and I enjoyed it immensely; it is not the sort of book I come away from wondering whether it is any good, but rather embroiled in a long and complex argument as to whether I agree with it in any direction, and if so which one. (Probably I don't. But it's an interesting argument.)

And, unusually for a short story collection, there are here no stories I point at as particularly better or worse than the others, though the title story may have been just a shade weaker. It's very consistent in what it is doing. Ducornet is a writer I will certainly read more by, especially as in terms of sheer liking it's one of the more congenial things I've read so far (your mileage may, of course, vary).
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A book of eight stories tied together around the theme of science and scientist's lives; all of the science is real. We get a letter by Mendel passed down through generations, a heartbreaking vignette of Linnaeus at the end of his life looking back on his students who have predeceased him, the question as to whether swallows migrate or sleep under the ice all winter; we get, in the title novella, an utterly wrenching look at the death and death and death from the typhus that came with Irish immigrants to Grosse Isle in Canada in 1847 (more than five thousand deaths at Grosse Isle alone, besides the ones who never made it there and the ones who died in other places after the efforts at quarantine were abandoned). I'm not sure it's a successful story qua story, but as a look at a time and place and a terrible thing and the way that the various governments and powerful interests involved were looking at and making politics around that terrible thing it is very well done.

So there's some really good stuff in here. Unfortunately, about half of it is a kind of fiction I simply cannot find as interesting, namely fiction in which middle-aged people have ennui about wasting their lives and have affairs or don't and whatever they do it ruins everything and I cannot bring myself to care. Science is the device here too, scientific work as escape from family and quotidian life and ruiner of relationships and cause of real wonder and once (only once) cause of a genuine escape that actually works and holds up and makes happy and whole. But I do not wish to take oceanography as a metaphor for alienation. That is simply not a thing to do to oceanography. And the thing is, when I say half the book is like this I do not mean four stories out of eight, I mean about half of each story. Including 'Ship Fever', which is very nearly an example of the weight of the real atrocity sufficiently outweighing the characters enough to offend me, although not quite because I get the impression that the characters are so very much not the point of that one, and because she feels and respects and communicates the weight of the real atrocity so.

It's all really well written. It's all structured well, crafted well, wrought and shaped and subtle and fine. And it is the most amazing mixture of things I find compelling and things I find so incredibly boring that my brain turns off at the mere thought of them. Usually most books have one or the other to a much greater proportion if they are going to have one that strongly.

It may be-- I think-- that she is better at science and setting and structure than characters. I cannot remember any of the names of her people except Linnaeus (and oh, read that one, it will hurt you and it's lovely). This is usually a sign. I have been known to care about midlife crises for the sake of the person going through them.

Still, I do not find that an unforgivable weakness. One way in which this book reminds me of science fiction, besides the obvious fact that both are interested in science, is that it could in some ways be one of those Golden Age collections where each story is an animating idea, a concept and a world, and the people necessary to make it go but not for other reasons. Except with much better prose, and there are a couple of good character moments here, Linnaeus as I said, the young woman writing to him from England about swallows, whom he snubs, her friend who knows what it is at that time to be a woman and be educated. So. Worthwhile, if you like the lives of scientists, if your tolerance for a certain kind of fiction is marginally higher than mine, if you like to see fiction that is trying, and mostly achieving, high ambitions.


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