Books read, things seen – January 2016


Books finished

The Accidental Creative – Todd Henry: Read on Peter Ball‘s repeated recommendation, and proving very practical as I sort out how this year is working.

The Black Sheep – Georgette Heyer: I’d forgotten I’d read this book until I reached the last few chapters (of which I’m rather fond). Mari Ness’s write-up of this on (Almost Slumming It: Black Sheep) is, as usual, thoughtful and thought-provoking: “Miss Abigail Wendover, the protagonist of Black Sheep, is under the very understandable impression that she is in a Georgette Heyer novel.”

The Scarecrows – Robert Westall: courtesy of Kelly Link

The Seance – John Harwood: recommend and lent by Angela Slatter, with a gorgeous Niroot Puttapipat cover.

Radiance – Catherynne M. Valente, with a Will Staehle cover which perfectly captures this “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood-and solar system-very different from our own”

The End of a Fence – Roman Muradov: I still have no idea what happened in this little graphic novel but I liked it, and the author has confirmed that is the point. It operates slightly below the conscious level, is very beautiful, and without looking in the least like it reminded me slightly of the world of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.

Claiming the Courtesan – Anna Campbell’s debut novel

Assorted books in progress

Making Your Own Days – Kenneth Koch

Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi

The Memoirs of Harriet Wilson – Harriette Wilson

Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks – Alan Coren

Movies and music

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

The Big Short

Joanna Newsome concert


A pattern I noticed across many books I read this month was that of lies, duality, falsehood and their power to create truth, or something new and true and separate from the truth they started off from…

The language of lies: Koch, for example, deals with lying as a key aspect of poetic language, creating larger truths. This is interesting to compare to the wild flights of flippancy from Coren – in, say, his humorous fictional autobiography describing his lifelong goal (pursued through many dangers) to become an anthologist: it is funny, but it also gets at some truths of editing an anthology, both by entertaining overstatement and by obvious reversal of the truth. The gonzo style of The Big Short also creates a feeling of truth which a pure accounting might not have managed: the subjective, razzle-dazzle, fourth-wall breaking approach applied to a movie about contracts is certainly one way to get an emotional reaction from the viewer.

Sarah Caudwell does the obvious reversal beautifully in her detective novels, by stating as universally acknowledged truths that are the exact opposite of certain cliches (‘it is important to remember to pretend to be interested in men because of their minds and not just their looks’), and then just running with that. It’s funny, and it also makes you observe what is happening much more closely. Ben Aaronovitch goes against the reader’s expectations much more subtly, but with equal effect.

The lying narrator: I suppose the unreliable narrator is an example of the above. Not the trick-narrator, but the one who is obviously (or even consciously) unreliable. Characters who clearly operate on a slightly different version of reality (Shirley Jackson’s Merricat, in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, for example) are one version, as are the narrators the discovery of whose unreliability forces the reader to hold on for the ride as the plot goes back and unravels and reknits itself. This is obviously effective in mysteries such as Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, but it’s common in Gothic novels too, with that sense of mysteries and memories overlaid and replaying, from one of the sub-narrations in Harwood’s The Seance to of course Memento, the whole point of which was the brittle fragility of the main character’s constructed memoirs. But my favourites are the deliberate liars, from the narrator of E. Nesbit’s The Story of The Treasure Seekers whose attempt to cleverly conceal his identity and puff up his character so illuminate his personality, to the directors of the movie which forms one of the many fragments which make up Valente’s Radiance, deliberately creating and recreating their imagined version of a character in different genres until by the time you meet the real person, the contrast (which isn’t his fault!) lends power to what could have been an understated, everyday scene.

It is one of us that tells this story–but I shall not tell
you which: only at the very end perhaps I will. While the story is
going on you may be trying to guess, only I bet you don’t. It was
Oswald who first thought of looking for treasure. Oswald often thinks of
very interesting things. And directly he thought of it he did not keep
it to himself, as some boys would have done, but he told the others, and

The double personality: Then there are the characters consciously acting out a lie, from the courtesans of Heyer and Campbell’s novels, to the actors and directors of Radiance, who never stop playing a part. On the surface, this seems to offer the potential to illuminate the real person, but I often find it distancing from that character – Mary Pellam (I think? I don’t have the book with me – the starlet diarist) was the person I liked best in Radiance because dramatic as she was, she seemed most contained and real: when she slipped into character it wasn’t conscious. But the double personality certainly reveals a lot about other characters, the way seeing a beloved character from a different point of view can (one of the many reasons I love Deep Secret), or switching genre lenses (Radiance).

4 thoughts on “Books read, things seen – January 2016

  1. You went to see Joanna Newsom! That’s wonderful! I keep finding more and more of her fans among my friends, which is a big surprise, because she is so far off the beaten path that I always assume no one I know will ever like her.

    • I suspect I love that she exists more than I love her – does that make sense? I really enjoyed watching her, but my taste lies closer to e.g. Bridges and Balloons and Peach, Pear, Plum, which remind me a lot of my favourite songs on Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep: that high, weird, yet recognisable dream world, or the more tender odd Regina Spektors.

      When it gets too far from that I regard it as I do sculpture parks in Norway: beautiful and containing meaning, but requiring a vocabulary which is incomprehensible to me. I feel like I’m listening from outside the gates.

    • Oh, interesting. I’m the other way around. I have this theory that all the songs on Have One on Me are either ragtime songs or symphonic songs. That’s the kind of thing she makes me think, whereas the whimsical stuff just generally makes me want to listen to the newer stuff. :)

      I’m seeing her again in March. Can’t wait.

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