Review: We Are All Completely Fine, Daryl Gregory

Note: I received a digital galley of We Are All Completely Fine from the publisher for review consideration.

DARYL GREGORY AUTHOR DISCOVERY YEAR CONTINUES. Not only has Daryl Gregory produced another fine piece of science fiction — this one a novella — but I have at last discovered why I love his books so much. It’s cause his wife is a psychologist! (He thanks her in the acknowledgements.) No wonder Gregory wrote about crazy people so brilliantly in Afterparty. No wonder he is always writing about confronting impossible, insane situations with the only available tools (science, therapy) and knowing all along that those tools are nowhere near adequate to the task. What do I love even more than creepy, inventive science fiction? Creepy, inventive science fiction informed by a background in psychology!

Ahem. Sorry. I’ll try to control myself.

The therapy group is composed of sole survivors: the only ones to survive horrific, supernatural incidents. At first only Stan will speak openly about his story, about the cannibals (demon cannibals?) who tied him and his comrades up for weeks and ate them, bit by bit, limb by limb. And the group knows a little — or thinks it does — about Harrison, who was, long ago, the model for a series of books about a teenaged monster-killing hero. Martin refuses to take off his glasses. Greta never lets anyone catch a glimpse of her skin, and Barbara will only say that she was attacked twenty years ago. The group leader, Dr. Jan Sayer, doesn’t push them for more. She’ll let the stories come in their own time.

Your question at this point may be, Do we find out gradually what happened to each member of the group, and is it inventively horrible in each case, and do they ultimately team up to do a mission together to fight against the darkness in their own small way? And the answer is, yes. That is exactly how it goes down. It’s THE BEST. If this were the pilot episode of a show on Syfy, I would set up a Change.org petition for six seasons and a movie.

The characters’ backstories are revealed in fits and starts, sometimes in great detail and sometimes in very little. Like the characters themselves, we aren’t privy to knowing why these things happened to them; only that they happened, and now they are part of that character’s emotional landscape, and must be dealt with. Without some of the details I wanted (who were the Weavers before the demon hybrid thing showed up? How did Barbara come within the orbit of the Scrimshander, and how did she get away?), I kept thinking how much I’d enjoy reading a full book about any of these characters in their lives before they join the group (or, in Martin’s case, after).

Some quick vague spoilers in this section only: I love that we find out at the end that Dr. Sayer has a story of her own to tell. Her own fight not to be defined by her damage turns out to include helping other people to heal from theirs. That is a true thing from real life. Sometimes people respond to the unimaginable pain they have experienced with this exact kind of generosity and grace, and it is remarkable and moving to me.

My only tiny gripe is that the chapters begin with a “we” section, where the group is speaking collectively about itself. This didn’t really work for me. Gregory doesn’t manage to make that “we” feel like an integrated part of the rest of the book, which is all narrated in third person, often from Harrison’s point of view and with detours into Barbara’s and Martin’s.

But really, that’s a small gripe for a novella I overwhelmingly loved. I was heartbroken when it ended, especially as it means that there will be no more new Daryl Gregory for me for a while. Up until now I have had a new Daryl Gregory thing every two months or so. I should have held off on reading one of his books, and saved it for a rainy day. I will just have to do some rereading.

Other Daryl Gregory books I have been excited about this year: Pandemonium, [Devil’s Alphabet was just okay], Raising Stony Mayhall, and Afterparty. I am a scary Daryl Gregory evangelist. (PS Ana please read Afterparty, cause I think you will love it.)

You can read an excerpt from We Are All Completely Fine over on Tor.com, to get the flavor of it. Then if you are interested, Publishers Weekly has good things to say about it, as does Locus. See? Everyone agrees with me. Let me know if you reviewed it too, and I’ll add a link to this post.

Review: The Dream Thieves, Maggie Stiefvater

Note: There will be some spoilers for The Raven Boys in this post, but I will try to steer clear of spoiling The Dream Thieves.

After finishing The Raven Boys, I wanted to go out to the bookstore and buy The Dream Thieves in hardback. But since I almost never buy new hardbacks, and some people didn’t like The Dream Thieves as much, I instead put a sensible hold on the ebook copy at my library. The hold came in (blessedly promptly), and I read twenty pages of it, then the end, and then I went to Barnes & Noble and bought it in hardback. So, ten million stars.

Ronan, the mean one of the raven boys, confesses to his friends at the end of The Raven Boys that he took his pet raven, Chainsaw, out of his dreams. The Dream Thieves is about what else Ronan can learn to take from his dreams. A year and a half ago, Ronan found his father’s body; afterward he and his two brothers were given a few million dollars apiece and a command never to return to their home, where their mother has lived in perfect silence since their father’s death. Now a hit man has come to town to find whatever is making dreams survive, and the ley lines in Henrietta have been fluctuating madly since Adam’s sacrifice in Cabeswater.

[redacted: extremely long treatise on Niall Lynch and his bullshit]

Ronan ends The Dream Thieves with his emotions in slightly better order than he begins, but the opposite thing happens to poor old doomed Gansey. We are starting to see messier sides of him. There’s something tremendously unsympathetic about him picking a fight with Adam at the rich-people party they attend together and then doing this business:

Gansey glanced over his shoulder, furtive. His mouth made the shh shape, but not the sound.

 

“Oh, what?” Adam demanded. “You’re afraid someone will hear? They’ll know everything isn’t perfect in the land of Dick Gansey? A dose of reality could only help these people!”

That last bit is a very teenager thing for Adam to say, I will grant you. However, this is not a nice move on Gansey’s part! Enormous parties where people’s futures are being decided are not good places to initiate serious conversations about emotionally fraught issues! Especially if you are comparatively more at home at rich-people parties than your interlocutor. And also, once you have initiated the emotional conversation, you can’t then shush the other person. It is too late! If you didn’t want to have the conversation, don’t start the conversation. Good heavens.

[redacted: extremely long treatise on Gansey’s character]

[redacted: even longer treatise on that thing in books and movies where one person is like “I don’t want to have this conversation right now,” and it’s totally fair because the place where they are right now is not at all the venue for that conversation, but then the other person is like, “No, we’re talking about it! We’re talking about it now!”, and then they have a big fight, and how that is, like, not at all a constructive way of managing tense issues in a relationship, but everyone thinks it’s okay to do that in real life because they’ve seen it on TV so many times]

In case it’s not clear by this time, I’ll just state for the record that I loved this book as much as I loved the previous one. (Maybe more? Can’t decide.) It’s a huge cliche to say that the characters feel like real people to me, but they do — I keep wanting to gossip about them although they are not real. The redacted treatises were no joke. I had A LOT of things to say. Good to know it’s not just me though:

from Maggie Stiefvater's Tumblr
from Maggie Stiefvater’s Tumblr (click to embiggen)

In closing, that sexy dream Ronan had about Adam undoubtedly launched 1000 slashfics, and that is one of the things about the internet that makes me feel enormously fond of it.

Gin Jenny Becomes a Cog in the Maggie Stiefvater Propaganda Machine (a review of The Raven Boys)

One time a while ago, Anastasia tweeted at me “OMG THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA IS SO GOOD SEND HELP” (The Queen of Attolia is indeed so good you will definitely need help to be sent). While I was reading The Raven Boys, I wanted to take that whole tweet, substitute The Raven Boys for the title, and tweet it approximately every twenty pages. After a rocky start in which I engaged in some cranky grumbling about all the times Ana and Memory and Anastasia and Jill had been simultaneously wrong about a book (NB this has never happened), around page 60 I fell crazy in love with The Raven Boys and could not figure out an appropriate outlet to express the strength of my feelings. That situation is ongoing.

It’s this part, when Gansey, a rich-kid protagonist searching for a Welsh mythological hero, is a prat to Blue, the only non-psychic daughter in a family of psychics, that got me. (He’s just offered to pay her manager back if she takes time out from waitressing to come talk to them, and she’s gotten mad about it. As you would.)

To his credit, the Aglionby boy didn’t speak right away. Instead, he thought for a moment and then he said, without heat, “You said you were working for a living. I thought it’d be rude to not take that into account. I’m sorry you’re insulted. I see where you’re coming from, but I feel it’s a little unfair that you’re not doing the same for me.”

“I feel you’re being condescending,” Blue said.

In the background, she caught a glimpse of Soldier Boy [Ronan] making a plane of his hand. It was crashing and weaving toward the table surface while Smudgy Boy [Noah] gulped laughter down. The elegant boy [Adam] held his palm over his face in exaggerated horror, fingers spread just enough that she could see his wince. . . . Neeve had to be wrong. She’d never fall in love with one of them.

Then Gansey, having attained the peak of unpleasantness of which Gansey is capable, goes away to think about what he has done and try to be better in the future. What can I say, y’all? I am a sucker for characters being successfully schooled on how to be a better person. And also for characters who really want to be a better person.

So the story is this: Blue has been told her whole life that if she kisses her true love, he will die. And this year, she knows from her psychic mother and aunt, the boy who calls himself Gansey is going to die. As much as Blue knows that she should stay away from Gansey and his three prep-school friends, she finds herself drawn into their quest to track down and awaken the sleeping Welsh hero Owen Glendower. But the five of them aren’t the only ones who are looking.

Basically, this story is a conglomeration of things that I hate. When I described it to my sister with the crazed eyes of an evangelist, she said, “Wait, why did you even read this book?” I hate Welsh mythology. I hate doomed prophecy romances, or indeed any doomy prophecies whatsoever. And I hate rich privileged kids who spend their days basking in their privilege and taking helicopters to remote locations. Absolutely nothing about this book appealed to me, yet here I am with the evangelist crazy eyes, trying to formulate words to describe its wonderfulness.

“How do you feel about helicopters?”

There was a long pause. “How do you mean? Ethically?”

“As a mode of transportation.”

“Faster than camels, but less sustainable.”

The heart of it is the characters, Blue and Gansey, and Gansey’s friends: Noah, painfully shy and introverted; Ronan, perpetually angry since the brutal murder of his father a year ago; and Adam, poor and ferociously proud and trying to get away from his abusive father. Put any two of those characters together (well, maybe not Noah so much, but any of the others), and the scene absolutely sings. Particularly if one of them is Gansey, whose friends love him in approximately equal measure to how much they resent him. These are friendships complicated by class, by money, by accents and damage and helicopters, and when these friends have an argument, you are simultaneously on everyone’s side at the same time. It is the BEST.

I accept that by writing this post, I have contributed to raising your expectations about The Raven Boys to levels that may not be reasonable, like that time Aarti finally read the Chaos Walking books but by then we had all raved about them way too much for her to enjoy them. (Still super sorry about that, Aarti!) I’m sorry if because of me you read The Raven Boys and don’t like it. I accept responsibility for that if it happens. But you should still read The Raven Boys, because I bet you will like it a lot.

More than anything, the journal wanted. It wanted more than it could hold, more than words could describe, more than diagrams could illustrate. Longing burst from the pages, in every frantic line and every hectic sketch and every dark-printed definition. There was something pained and melancholy about it.

Coming soon: I rave about The Dream Thieves and bewail the long days that stand between me and Blue Lily, Lily Blue, and the even longer days that stand between me and the fourth-and-final book.

The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara

OH MY GOD Y’ALL, THIS BOOK. Don’t let me get your expectations up so high that you can’t enjoy it but like, OH MY GOD THIS BOOK, there are not an adequate number of words in my brain box to describe my feelings about this book right here. The People in the Trees is startling. Not startling in a plot way, but startling in the way that was like I had never read a book before and was reading my very first one right now.

The People in the Trees admittedly hits a lot of sweet spots for me: a well-imagined fictional world (the science and the places in this book are all imaginary); an audacious premise (a Micronesian tribe seems to have attained something like immortality, though at a terrible cost) treated with utmost seriousness; an unreliable narrator (Norton Perina, the scientist who discovered and published on this immortality phenomenon, is writing his memoirs); an abundance of footnotes (by a staunch admirer of Perina, also an unreliable narrator, who is editing the memoirs); and a grand profusion of ethical questions.

Perina, who is loosely based on Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, is writing his memoirs from a jail cell, where he is serving a two year sentence on charges of sexually assaulting one of his adopted Micronesian children. Before his disgrace, he was one of the most renowned and respected scientists in America for his discovery of Selene syndrome: a condition, apparently occasioned by the consumption of a particular kind of meat indigenous to the Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu, in which human lifespans are extended to as much as six times their natural length, while mental capacity becomes more and more diminished.

It’s quickly, though not crudely, obvious that Perina is a nasty piece of work, a man who simply doesn’t bother himself much about anyone around him. He’s not trying to justify himself because he’s loftily serene in his righteousness. He speaks of having regrets, yet says that he wouldn’t — couldn’t — have done anything differently. The discovery of Selene syndrome, as you might expect, has massive environmental and social consequences for Ivu’ivu, as hordes of Western scientists and pharmaceutical companies (and eventually missionaries) descend on the island. In his later years, Perina begins to bring home abandoned Ivu’ivuan children, hordes of them, a total of 43 — including Victor, whose accusations of sexual assault lead to Perina’s eventual fall from grace.

What can I say about The People in the Trees? It is a book with presence. From the first few pages it forces you to sit up and take notice. I think the last time I read a debut novel with this level of assurance and originality was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Comparisons will inevitably be made to Nabokov, both to Lolita and to Pale Fire, and as high as compliment as that is to The People in the Trees, it’s a not-inconsiderable compliment to Nabokov as well.

This book right here, you guys, it rocked me like a southbound train. Three days after reading it, I still haven’t been able to read anything new. I just want to sit with The People in the Trees and think about it and reread parts of it and talk about it to everyone. (Seriously. Ask my friends-and-relations. I have not been able to shut up about this book.)

Okay! In descending order of how certain I feel that y’all will love it: Eva, Vasilly, Proper Jenny and Teresa, Aarti, and Ana, you should read this book please. It’s all about like colonization and guilt and appropriation and ethics and science! Read it, read it! (Jill, I just am not sure. I can see you loving this, but I can also see you really, really, super hating it. Use your judgment, I guess?)

American (hard)cover
American (hard)cover
British cover
British cover
American paperback
American paperback

Cover report: Between the US and UK paperback covers, I’d easily choose the US one. But the UK only published the book in paperback. Between the UK paperback cover and the US hardback cover, I’d choose the UK, I guess? Because turtle? I’m calling it for America because of the three available covers, I like the American paperback by far the best.

Review: James Tiptree Jr, by Julie Phillips

I have discovered that what I like in a biography is lots and lots and lots of quotations. When I was reading Julie Phillips’s excellent biography of Alice Sheldon, I kept reading bits of it out loud to Mumsy, and Mumsy said, “This is an autobiography?” It’s not, but Julie Phillips has brilliantly pulled together a multiplicity of letters, journals, and papers to create a wonderfully vivid picture of Sheldon’s life.

To step back slightly: James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of science fiction writer Alice Sheldon, a woman who wrote fantastically creepy sci-fi stories about sex and death and gender and danger for ten years before being unveiled as a lady. Her parents took her to the unplumbed (ish) (at the time) (by white people) depths of Africa when she was small, which ill prepared her for the regular life of an American woman. She was unhappy with the restrictive models of gender and sexuality available to her, and she struggled to find a career that suited her independence, intelligence, and perfectionism, as well as her constricted, conflicted ideas of what women could do and be.

The main thing with someone as clever and prolific in her letters as Alice Sheldon seems to have been is to get out of her way. Phillips quotes liberally from her sources, while restraining the all-too-common biographer’s tendency to analyze cause and effect ad nauseum. The book is all the better for it. Here’s Sheldon’s synopsis for a book she’s considering writing during World War II:

The gal has a Horrid Secret. Wish I knew what it was. As I see it, the guy, a stuffy bachelor, falls for her in a condescending way; the gal turns out to have a no good spouse, and was about to commit suicide when run into. (They find a loaded revolver in her pocket.) … So the husband turns up, and is repulsive, and the good guy is stuffy, and the gal shillies a bit and then repudiates both of them and goes out to Do Good By Herself–all in the middle of World War No 2.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the conflict between Sheldon’s obvious aesthetic preference for iconoclasm and her desire to be liked. Not only is she ambivalent about most of the choices available to her, but she also has a hard time committing fully to any of the choices she does make. She marries suddenly after having met her husband once, at a dinner–evidently more because marriage is the next recognized life step than because of any true connection she had with the man. Throughout her life, she struggles to find a role for herself on the edge of what is acceptable. Before her career as a writer begins, the closest she came was getting a degree in behavioral psychology when she was in her forties.

It’s remarkable how important Sheldon’s writing career is, given that it only occupies ten years out of her seventy-one. It’s important because we want to read her stories (they’re awfully good), but for Phillips’s purposes (and more relevant to the book), it’s important to Alice Sheldon. The years when she’s living that double life — the good girl married matron who keeps chickens, and the popular science fiction writer who corresponds profanely about men and stories with a myriad of writers and fans — are plainly the years that are most fulfilling to her. Her joy in the freedom her alter ego gives her shines through the letters she writes in that period, like this one to Ursula LeGuin:

Dear Starbear,

 

Your letter of 8 1 73 just arrived and only by the grace of fate and some minor automotive problems have you been spared from receiving an incoherent telegram proposing immediate elopement to Madagascar.

 

You are beautiful.

 

But after sobering up I came to the sad conclusion that there could be certain problems for example with your spouse and children, and it might be that they do not sell Geritol in Madagascar, or oil for my wheelchair, and so on. And that perhaps even if these obstacles could be overcome, I could probably expect at best to receive a ticket saying No. 142, kindly wait turn … But the vision of us strolling forever beneath the giant blossoming urp trees, while ring-tailed lemurs weave around us in orchestration of our discourse of agreement … will remain with me.

 

By which I mean, dear Lady, that every word of your letter fell into my ears with the silvery plonk of total understanding.

Even if you aren’t a reader of biographies in general (I’m not), I recommend James Tiptree Jr. It will, I expect, accomplish the goal of making you want to read Tiptree’s stories. I am reading a book of them now, and they are awfully good. More later, maybe, but in case I don’t get around to a review of her stories, I recommend “The Screwfly Solution” as a good place to start.

Review: Saga, vols. 1 and 2, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Upon finishing the second volume of Brian K. Vaughn’s most recent series, Saga, I have decided to be excited about Vaughn. This could have happened sooner, except unfortunately Runaways was my introduction to him, and it is not great around race and it put me off him. But having read Y: The Last Man and Saga, I think that Vaughn’s writing is great, and I like that he creates comics with end-dates in mind, so I’ve decided to hop (at last!) on board the Brian K. Vaughn train.

My favorite thing about Saga is the relative tininess of its stakes by contrast with the hugeness of its scope. The story is about a world called Landfall that has been at war with its moon, Wreath, for as long as anybody can remember. Though the two planets are no longer directly at war with each other, they have spread their conflict across all the known planets, forcing the entire universe to take sides. Marko and Alana fought on opposite sides of this battle in their lives, before falling in love and getting married. When their baby is born, interested parties on both sides of the interplanetary conflict hire mercenaries to track them down (and presumably kill them).

Typically, I’d be out as soon as I heard “interplanetary conflict”, but the thing Vaughn has done here that I love is to make the comic all about finding a home. Alana and Marko and baby Hazel are searching for an Ithaca that may not even exist: a quiet place in the universe where Hazel can grow up untouched by the war that has torn apart so many lives.

In particular, I would love to call out the fact that Hazel is not (and please Brian Vaughn let’s keep it that way) any kind of Chosen One. Her birth hasn’t been foretold, she doesn’t have magical powers, and apart from being the product of two races that don’t tend to intermingle, there appears to be nothing special about her at all. I strongly strongly hope that persists. It’s one of the things that keeps the stakes of this story feeling urgent but small, as opposed to urgent and global.

Vaughn is also managing the trick of making Marko and Alana’s opponents interesting(ish) in their own right. The Will and his Lying Cat (a large cat that knows and says so if you lie in front of it) are among the bounty hunters who have been hired to track and kill Marko and Alana. So far so dull, but then he gets a subsidiary motivation that has the potential to be interesting, and for his mission, he teams up with Marko’s former fiancee and a little psychic girl he rescued from slavery, and they… Well, I do not know what their deal is going to be just yet. But I do know that I am a sucker for a team of unlikely allies.

Fiona Staples’s art is fantastic — detailed and weird without feeling overcrowded. She also hand-letters the narration of the story by Hazel (speaking from some undetermined point in the future), which is very very cool. I can’t say enough about her. Below is an example of just one of the many awesome things that Fiona Staples does.

I love knowing that Vaughn has an endgame in mind for this comic, and I can’t wait to see what it shakes out to be. Check it out!

Position statement: Hawkeye should have won at least one of the Eisners that Saga won this past year. Hawkeye is easily as good as Saga but probably better. My growing affection for Saga has in no way swayed me on this point.

Review: The Charioteer, Mary Renault (plus, a giveaway)

Since nobody loves this book (and when I say “nobody loves this book” I want you to understand that I really mean “Mumsy does not love this book and it breaks my heart”), I have decided to try once again to explain what I love so much about it.

The Charioteer deals with a conflict of values, my favorite kind of conflict to read about. The three main characters, Laurie and Ralph and Andrew, are gay men living in British army hospitals in the 1940s: Laurie and Ralph because injuries prevent them returning to battle, and Andrew as an orderly because he’s a conscientious objector. (Well, Laurie and Ralph are gay. Andrew exists in a state of presexual innocence, which is less annoying than that phrasing makes it seem.) So all through the book runs the tension between the moral necessity of integrity — these are all three men of integrity — and the social necessity of self-concealment that devolves upon a gay man in 1940s Britain. Here is Laurie sounding out Andrew (who fails to be sounded):

“If I only had my gramophone here, we could have had some Mozart, some time… I’ve got quite a bit of Tchaikovsky, ballet music mostly. It’s all right when you feel like it, or don’t you think so?  I read somewhere once, Tchaikovsky was queer.”

 

He seemed to wait hours for the upturned face to change; but the pause was  in his own imagination, as he realized when Andrew said with mild interest, “Was he? I hadn’t heard. He was never actually shut up, surely?”

 

“No, it never came out. Though I believe–” He saw his mistake, and with a painful jolt caught himself up just in time. “Not mad, you know. Just queer.” He waited again.

 

“You mean a bit…Oh, yes, I see.” Andrew wrung out the cloth in the bucket. “I find all Russians slightly mysterious, don’t you? Perhaps if one met more of them.” Laurie said yes, that was the trouble, probably.

One of Renault’s very best writerly tricks is her ability to show two people who are participating in a mutual conversation but not in the same conversation, and she has it on full display in The Charioteer. With everyone but Ralph (and, on most topics, Andrew), Laurie is on guard. There’s an incredible tension to the recognition that any casual line of talk — about nurses, night passes, pacifists, school, the crossing at Dunkirk — can turn on a dime and take him back into dangerous territory. Laurie’s attentiveness to this, and his competence and resourcefulness at reframing dangerous conversations are compelling in the same way as Tatiana Maslany wriggling out of one impossible situation after another on Orphan Black.

A side effect of these eyeline-mismatch conversations is that Renault produces elegant descriptions of the small and large shifts in persona any kind of human interaction can dictate. Laurie is devoted to his mother but still aware of her tendency to “retreat into optimism leaving him to face reality alone”; and he presents the gentlest version of his life for her perusal. He’s likewise very fond of his John-Bull stereotype hospital friend, Reg, who satisfies Laurie’s need for “simple, platitudinous sympathy” but also seems at all times on the edge of discovering that Laurie’s gay. Here he is expressing his unhappiness over Laurie’s close friendship with Andrew, a conscientious objector:

“No one here can’t say you ever done any highbrow act. But what I mean, these lads come along, college boys like yourself, reading literary books and that. Well, stands to reason, ordinary, you have to keep a lot of your thoughts to yourself. I watched you when you didn’t know it, time and again.”

 

Laurie came crimson out of the locker, where he longed to remain. “Christ, Reg, the bull you talk.” They sat, not looking at each other. Laurie knew his protest had been too weak; it should have been something more like “What would I want with that bunch of sissies?” Why, he wondered, was it the people one held in the most innocent affection who so often demanded from one the most atrocious treachery?

(Here again, by the way, these two men are not in the same conversation. Laurie spends this scene trying frantically to figure out whether Reg is objecting to Andrew on gendered or on ideological grounds, and Reg spends it determined to make his (ideological, if you’re curious) point, and feeling that Laurie is refusing to take a tactful hint.)

Renault does the incredibly difficult thing in The Charioteer of writing about three main characters who are all strongly moral, variously flawed, and flawlessly differentiated from each other. And not boring. It’s not just one character who’s moral and not boring — which is already a challenge for many authors — it’s three. Admittedly you get Ralph and Andrew through the eyes of Laurie, who’s sort of in love with them both, but it’s still clear from what Laurie learns of them that they are unyielding on points of morality, without reference to personal cost. Laurie himself, if you can frame his reluctance to be forthright with Andrew as Renault’s version of Dan Savage’s campsite rule, takes on a significant burden of pain to ensure that his presence in Andrew’s life does no harm to Andrew.

Lest I be accused of panegryic-peddling, I will say this: Although Mary Renault wrote in fetters when she wrote of her own time and at liberty when of Gods & Greece, The Charioteer is the least fettered of her modern novels; by which I mean that she speaks fairly openly about homosexuality and what it means to society and to individuals. She is not always at her awesomest on this subject. Renault slapped a frame of classical antiquity on homosexuality; and she could be monumentally unkind about people who framed it otherwise. The effeminate gay characters in The Charioteer are bitchy nightmares, and Ralph and Laurie despise them so casually it’s clear the reader is meant to do the same. It’s not great, even if you understand the reasons behind it.

I shall make one more point and then retire from the field. Even granting that Mary Renault lived in South Africa and couldn’t get into trouble, it is awesome to me that she wrote all these books that assumed the perfect reasonableness of the existence of queer people in Britain. Promises of Love, a book in which the protagonist develops a relationship with a man who has previously been in a relationship with her brother, was published in 1939. The Charioteer says outright that Laurie and Ralph have sex, and it was published the year after Alan Turing got convicted of indecency and sentenced to chemical castration. Just, way to go, Mary Renault, writing about characters who are (apart from, you know, fearing societal rejection) perfectly cheerful and un-angsty about being gay. Way to not be Radclyffe Hall.

AND NOW. Due to my unceasing search for the One Best Copy of The Charioteer, I have a (used, but in good condition) spare copy of it, and I would like to give it away. If you are interested, please leave a comment below with an email address where I can contact you. I will draw names out of a hat if more than one person asks for it. You can comment any time this week (from now until next Monday night), and I will draw names on the morning of 8 October.

Edit to add: Please go read the lovely Charlotte’s review of The King Must Die, it’s excellent.

Review: The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault

Lucky you, bloggy friends! Two guest reviews by Mumsy in such a short time!

I was expecting Jenny to start Mary Renault Week by reviewing The Charioteer, a novel that (as Jenny correctly notes) only Jenny loves.  And then I would have started my review by saying that Mary Renault is actually at her best when she is writing about ancient Greece, about which she appears to know Everything.

(And because I find it difficult to switch tracks, I have now said just that.)

The Mask of Apollo is somewhat different from most of Renault’s novels in that it features an entirely fictional narrator: Nikeratos, an Athenian actor. Because Mary Renault apparently spent several previous lives in ancient Greece (not really!  I just made that up!), she is able to invest Niko’s world  with small details that make his life very present and very engaging.  This is Niko, describing his first appearance on stage at age 7, in the role of the murdered son of Hector, being mourned by Hecuba:

I had already heard [the actor playing Hecuba], of course, lamenting with Andromache; but that is her scene, and I had my own part to think of.  Now the voice seemed to go all through me, making my backbone creep with cold.  I forgot it was I who was being mourned for…All I remember for certain is my swelling throat and the horror that came over me when I knew I was going to cry.

 

My eyes were burning.  Terror was added to my grief.  I was going to wreck the play.  The sponsor would lose the prize; Kroisos the crown; my father would never get a part again; we would be in the streets begging our bread.  And after the play I would have to face terrible Hecuba without a mask.  Tears burst from my shut eyes; my nose was running…

 

The hands that had traced my painted wounds lifted me gently.  I was gathered in the arms of Hecuba; the wrinkled mask with its down-turned mouth bent close above.   The flute, which had been moaning softly throughout the speech, getting a cue, wailed louder.  Under its sound, Queen Hecuba whispered in my ear, “Be quiet, you little bastard.  You’re dead.”

If Nikeratos’s life if fiction, his times are real, and his life’s thread has become entangled with those of Dion of Syracuse,  Dion’s mentor Plato, and the dissolute Tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysios the Younger. Niko’s involvement with these prominent men and their grand affairs of state is minor and tangential, yet it is the actor, and not the philosophers and statesmen,  who is able to see what the principal actors cannot: the arc of the vast drama being enacted on a world stage, and its inevitable tragic end.  It is Niko, with his knowledge of the theater, who recognizes the uses of political theater.

What I adore about Mary Renault is that she rarely falls into that trap of making historical events feel too contemporary. Nikeratos’s times may have parallels to our own, but Renault is marvelous at highlighting aspects that are utterly foreign to modern times. The Mask of Apollo is permeated with a spiritual sensibility which I found completely fascinating precisely because it is so different from the sensibilities of current culture. The pervasive sacredness of daily life and the interactions of the human and the divine are presented in ways that manage to be at once thoughtful and weighty without being even slightly trivial or childish – a neat trick when you consider how fairy-tale-ish Greek mythology has become to contemporary eyes.

Okay. Also: there are some bits that drag. (I admit it, but I still loved it.) Oh, and also, you should definitely read everything Mary Renault wrote, except The Charioteer. (You could probably skip The Last of the Wine too, if you want.)

Humph. I feel there was unnecessary trash-tralking of my beloved Charioteer in this post, but never mind, I have managed not to insert any snide little [sic]s into this post, despite temptation. On Friday I shall tell you why you should definitely not skip The Charioteer.

Review: The Persian Boy, Mary Renault

For lo, this shall be Mary Renault Week on the blog! In case you missed hearing about this (not that I’ve been shrieking loudly about it or anything), Mary Renault’s books have been released in ebook format at last! And are now available for purchase wherever ebooks are sold! Thus, this week I have decreed shall be the week in which I post only about Mary Renault. If you post about her too please tell me so in the comments and I’ll add links to my posts. Today I am reviewing The Persian Boy; on Wednesday my lovely Mum will be doing a guest post about The Mask of Apollo; and on Friday I will be posting about the Mary Renault book beloved only by me, The Charioteer.

The Persian Boy is the second book Renault wrote about Alexander the Great, and the better book, I think. Fire from Heaven takes you through Alexander’s childhood, through wonderful episodes like his meeting his lifelong friend Hephaistion and taming his best-beloved horse, Oxhead, up until the death of his father, Philip. The Persian Boy gives you Alexander through a stranger’s eyes: Bagoas, a Persian eunuch who is given to Alexander as a gift in the wake of Alexander’s conquest of Persia.

If you are only waiting for Alexander to show up (which, okay, yes, I was), the beginning of The Persian Boy can be slightly slow going. Bagoas goes through a lot before reaching the court of the Macedonians, and it can be difficult to read. But once he and Alexander meet — Mary Renault really is at her best when writing about characters she admires — everything starts firing on all cylinders. It’s because Mary Renault is spectacularly good at writing Alexander in a way that makes you understand why so many people chose to fight and die for him.

Over the years, there has been much heated debate between Mumsy and me about why she loves Bagoas best and I love Hephaistion best. We discussed it last week while I was making notes for this post, and we found that we did not disagree with any of each other’s points, but simply ended up with different emotional responses. Hephaistion and Alexander have a relationship of equals, in terms of their feelings about each other; and while of course Alexander is more powerful in worldly terms, the gap between him and Hephaistion is much much smaller than between him and Bagoas (who is a very treasured slave but still is basically a slave). Mumsy’s case is that she loves the different kind of thing Renault is trying in this book, to write about a love where there is complete trust on both sides, but where one party’s love is utterly self-abnegating. Bagos will give up anything, suffer anything, to stay with Alexander.

Regardless of where you land on this important question, Bagoas’s devotion to Alexander carries the book. Though it hardly needs something to carry it. Renault’s depiction of the episodes of Alexander’s life that we read about in Arrian and Curtius is marvelous. Where the sources provide the material for her not to invent, she doesn’t (except she adds feelings); and when there are gaps to fill, she fills them ever so plausibly.

Finally, I cannot leave this review without a word of praise for the author’s note in the back of the book. Basically the best author’s note ever. For one thing, she lays out which bits of the book are true and which she made up and why she made them up that way (hooray!). But mainly, the author’s note is fun because persnickety:

Muddled sensationalism is typical of Curtius, an unbearably silly man with access to priceless sources now lost to us, which he frittered away in the cause of a tedious literary concept about the goddess Fortune, and many florid exercises in Roman rhetoric. (Alexander, exhorting his friends kindly to remove the arrow stuck in his lung, is impressively eloquent.)

And:

More puzzling is a present-day outbreak of what one may call blackwashing, since it goes far beyond a one-sided interpretation of facts to their actual misrepresentation. A recent popularization says only of Philotas’ execution that it was “on a trumped-up charge,” though his concealment of the assassination plot is agree on by all sources… Hephaistion is “fundamentally stupid,” though in not one of his highly responsible independent missions, diplomatic as well as military, was he ever unsuccessful… That there are fashions in admiration and denigration is inevitable; they should not however be followed at the expense of truth.

You see? Don’t you love Mary Renault already?

Review: Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Hurrah, I have convinced my beautiful and intelligent mother to write a guest post for me on Marisha Pessl’s new book Night Film. Whiskey Jenny and I discussed it on the podcast, and now you may also hear a third view, that of my mumsy. This review is certified spoiler-free.

 

This is what Marisha Pessl’s new novel Night Film is like:  It’s like walking into your living room to find a live kangaroo in there.  It’s unexpected, it’s pretty scary, it’s extremely lively and very uninhibited; it feels dangerous and destructive, and at the same time, almost comically absurd.  And if you quickly close the door, and drag some Animal Control people back to your house, you are likely to find the whole familiar room unrecognizable, the windows smashed, no kangaroo in sight, and the Animal Control people having eye conversations with each other and discreetly twirling their index fingers against their temples.  You will wonder if you have lost touch with reality.  That’s Night Film.

Note from Jenny: That spot-on observation reminds me of this XKCD cartoon, which I cannot resist sharing because it charms me.

The story, as narrated by disgraced investigative reporter Scott McGrath, begins with the discovery of the broken body of Ashley Cordova , age 24, in an abandoned warehouse, an apparent suicide.  Her father, the celebrated horror film director Stanislas Cordova, hasn’t given an interview or been seen in years, ever since a copycat murderer duplicated a gruesome murder from one of his films.  His disturbing films are nonetheless still being screened in underground settings by rabid fans known as “Cordovites,” who also maintain “black sites” on the internet  — sites which are only accessible to the initiated.  Ash herself, “the Enchanter’s Daughter,” is the stuff of legends, a mysterious presence with uncanny gifts.  In the course of his investigation of her death, Scott stumbles upon bizarre fetishistic objects, cryptic messages, purveyors of dark magic, a creepy false priest. Marisha Pessl is not shying away from the Crazy – she is piling it on faster than her hero and his allies can shovel through it.

Night Film is an illustrated novel, with generous dollops of photos, magazine interviews, mysterious webpages and newspaper articles.  I was enchanted with these and wished with all my heart that there were more – seriously, I would have paid twice the price to get twice as many internet articles. I absolutely adored this aspect of the novel, and I loved the way Pessl  heaped up the plot points like her story was a plate of loaded nachos.  She just seemed to be having so much fun with it that even a wimpy reader like me (one who can’t watch even the campiest horror film) was swept up and enthralled with every dark turn of the author’s imagination.

I do have to say something about the italics.  Scott can’t pen the simplest sentence without dramatic emphasis in the form of italics.  It was weird!  I kept wondering if perhaps Pessl was using the italics to send a coded message vital to the plot line.  On reflection, however, I think that this constant italicization was simply another device for Pessl to convey what ultimately seemed to me the central theme of the novel: that human beings need stories in order to cope with unbearable realities, and that a very dramatic story — a story with blinding lights and pitch-black shadows — is not only  the best kind, but also the kind most likely to actually become reality.

Cover report (by Jenny, not Mumsy): I initially thought the British cover was better, but now I have swung back around to preferring the American one. The British cover conveys the circles-within-circles quality of the book, but the American cover has fuzzy edges, and this is emphatically not a sharp-edged book.