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Expectations Falling

It does my heart no good to have to give a bad review of a book, especially a book which has annoyed me by having profoundly decent ideas to go alongside its unsatisfactory execution. It does it even less good to have to compare it to books by another writer, especially when that writer is a friend of the book’s author and quoted on the cover of the book I am reviewing, praising it. However, it would be utterly short-sighted not to draw a parallel between the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell and the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Ben Aaronovitch. And I have to deal with the frustration of this book which had so much in it so poorly-presented, when it could have been brilliant.

Available from all good bookstores and several bad ones.

Indeed, in description London Falling (currently a respectable 59p on the Kindle store) sounds like exactly the sort of thing I profess to enjoy, which just goes to show that trying to describe what one enjoys reading by means of characteristics is no more useful than saying “I like steak” when one means one likes grass-fed, correctly-aged steak of a particular cut and probably only served in the right way in about five restaurants overall. The difference is, I suppose, that while one can handle mediocre steak, because it is so common, this is rather more like finding a rare dish of a specific recipe and having it made by someone whose tastebuds aren’t aligned the way yours are.

For further disclosure, I found Paul Cornell’s two-parter on Doctor Who – Human Nature and The Family of Blood – almost the strongest of that season and certainly some of the better stories told since the return of that show to British screens in 2005. But he is out of kilter with my reading preferences, and I am about to explain why, with a certain number of spoilers, and comparisons to Ben Aaronovitch and Neil Gaiman which the author (who shouldn’t be reading this anyway) and his fans may find annoying and/or insulting.

The book follows the progression of a case through a series of established policemen, beginning in media res. That is to say, there’s no jumping-in point, no hand-holding, and no introduction, which I normally quite enjoy. There is, however, also no handle to be got on any of the protagonists, which makes it a little harder to like.

James Quill, the head of the operation, has a series of characteristics apparently pulled from the “honest copper” bin of clichés and nothing that differentiates him as a person, even after he gains “the Sight” and an unexplained and frequently dangerous insight into the malignant, magical city that lies below/beyond/through the physical one. Lisa Ross, the data analyst and eventual sacrificial hero, driven by a fairly standard-issue need for vengeance for her father (you will note no heroic woman ever wants to avenge her mother), has no other characteristics, no other desires, and like Quill no personality. They barely even have voices: with the attributions removed, I can’t tell one character from another for most of the book.

Tony Costain, the requisite reluctant hero/bad boy, similarly has no real personality aside from a desire for self-preservation and an ego which apparently vanish for most of the book in order to further the plot; Kev Sefton, the knight in shining armour and token nod to the existence of queer characters, goes on the hero’s quest for enlightenment, dumps a lot of exposition, and gets into a relationship in which he confides almost immediately every feature of his case in a dude he picked up in a bar. Sefton is described as having a posh accent that he slips into, of which there is no actual sign in the text.

I read stories for their characters first and foremost. A strong set of character voices is imperative in forming an emotional connection with the characters and in London Falling it is almost entirely absent. This is frustrating as all hell because there are some excellent ideas and some very solid world-building in here, but the overall tone of the book is cold. By comparison, the Rivers of London series provides a human warmth, set of weaknesses, and easy handle on all the human characters, and even the strange and esoteric creatures which pass through the world have glitches and points of interest.

There are other problems with the book, which ordinarily would have been nagging problems but not major ones: combined with the lack of character warmth and connectivity they became gaping. For example: in the Rivers of London books and Neverwhere, the fantastical London which lies within and through the London in which most people dwell is primarily neutral. It has its own laws, it can be extremely dangerous to those ignorant of them, but it is not malignant. In London Falling, the world which lies across ours is not fairyland, but Hell. The adversary of the overall arc of the Rivers of London books – and this is one of the things that really connected for me – is not a demon, not The Devil, but a human being who has become greedy for power. Something mundane, a form of evil with which we are all familiar, and which instead of excusing the greed and evil of mortal men by providing something bigger only underscores how rotten it is.

However, I can take fiction where the adversary is not mortal: in Neverwhere, Door and Richard Mayhew face a fallen angel, which is a pretty clear code for The Adversary in anyone’s eyes. In another of my favourite and not-exactly-well-written supernatural detective series, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, the adversary is again the lord of Hell: but the humanity of all its characters – including the grotesques – and the broadness and mundanity of the world, are preserved.

London Falling takes elements of traditional London storytelling: old Hob, a wicked witch, football legends, ghost stories, the power of the city, a hero’s vision quest, and the eternal copper. It lines them up together in a plot which makes good narrative sense and which hits all the major points at the right pace: but it feels both slow and rushed at the same time. The characters don’t speak from the heart, but are vehicles for the story, rather than driving it. There are times in which the narrative appears to be trying too hard to elicit a feeling that it doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to instil; moments in which the reader feels more like the jaded coppers standing outside the horror with no connection than perhaps they ought.

Most of all, this doesn’t seem to have any love for the city in it. Rivers of London and Neverwhere, Memoirs of a Master Forger (William Heaney), among others, fairly throb with affection for the metropolis in which they’re set. The story has been coalesced from the sense of unreality and history and Something Bigger which I think affects almost anyone who spends much time here, looking at the past poking through the present in unexpected places and in incongruous ways. It is natural as breathing for any writer to look at London and think of the mystical past affecting the rational present. But Paul Cornell’s writing doesn’t betray any kind of love for his subject matter, and that I think is what really affects the tone of the book more than anything else.

The alternative London captured in his pages is Hell; the London Sefton enters via a number 7 with a London Charon is empty; the Londoners of our reality are aggressive and stupid and moved only by tabloid thinking; there is nothing but contempt and anger, and if that’s real sum of London I’d be surprised.

There are other ways to make a horrific story boil out of a city than by failing to appreciate the picture that its uglinesses and beauties give rise to, and I don’t think I’ll be expending money or energy on the sequels to this book.

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Memory Palace at the V and A

One of the useful things my National Art Fund Pass does, besides getting me into Kew at half price and giving extra money to various museums, is to give me half-price entry to exhibitions at the V&A Museum in London. Getting into exhibitions more cheaply makes it all the more likely that I’ll go to them on a whim, and yesterday while my friend Susanne and I were killing time before going to see the Penguins 3D IMAX at the Science Museum across the road (and the accompanying Q&A by Sir David Attenborough, which was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that you can’t really accept is happening at the time, or indeed afterwards), we popped into the Memory Palace exhibition for a quick look.

The advertising image does not appear in the exhibition.

The exhibition is a kind of collaborative birthing pool, taking a work of fiction by Hari Kunzru which examines through the lens of a dystopian London (which has lost the technology and knowledge of the current era and returned to a kind of cultural wilderness) the value of memory and shared information, a topic which is of particular interest to a museum! The fiction is worked into a display by a variety of artists through a variety of different media, including comic strips, strange religious icons depicting misremembered scientists and poets, a cabinet of misunderstandings of technology brought to life, and walls of words. The exhibition culminates in an interactive section (one terminal of which was not working when I got there – anyone who read about my visit to the Saints Alive! exhibit will recognise a theme in interactive exhibitions breaking down just before I get to them) where you can draw or write about a particular memory, and it will be added to the boards of the Memory Palace.

As with anything that allows the public to write or draw, not all of the input on the Memory Palace was, strictly speaking, a “memory” so much as a communication of existence or philosophy, but there were still many in a variety of languages and art styles, and the way they were collated was visually quite pleasing. Being a morbid sort, I added a memory from childhood which involved a rather sad realisation of human cruelty, that of an elephant in a zoo in Ahmedabad who had been chained to the walls of her elephant house by each leg, and was subject to the indignity of having coins and other small items thrown to her (thankfully not at her) for her to gently hand back. Not the happy memory that protagonist of the narrative that drove the exhibition had chosen, but a clear one none the less.

While we were filtering towards the exit/entrance (which was flanked by a number of copies of the book on which the exhibition is based, and little vocab to make understanding the exhibition easier, which I didn’t actually notice on the way in due to the angle of the wall), my friend remarked to me that while she liked the idea she couldn’t work out which side of the line of “too pretentious” it fell.

I am inclined to agree. Taken individually the works of art on display themselves are fascinating, beautiful, and often eerie – a combination I love. Taken as a clear commentary on current events and the nature of a greed-driven, floundering society, they and the narrative behind them seem clumsy, as if written for the benefit of someone significantly younger than me. In a sense it reminded me of a complaint I read by a fantasy author some years ago, that literary fiction authors are never required to have internal consistency or convincing world-building in their books because everything is metaphor or commentary, and that their work is weaker for it. On contemplation of this I think there is a tendency to be so swept up in how clever one thinks one’s own idea is, or how moving a particular moment is (in this case, the selection of a memory to save), or how stupendous one’s analogy is, that the story itself suffers. Then again, I suppose we cannot all be William Golding.

The art itself is well worth a look, and my concerns/disappointment in the narrative and prose quality/conceits might very well just be nitpicking. It should be a determination the viewer makes for themselves – which, I suspect, makes this review a little pointless.

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Slightly Embarrassing Change Of Plan, Now With Added Shakespeare

When you’ve already made a grand proclamation about your very ambitious NaNoWriMo project in public it’s a bit humiliating to have to admit that while you can write with a full-time job you cannot do the copious research necessary (in hindsight “read every single book about London history and mythology ever” might take a little more than two months) with one.

But that is what I’m doing: the requirements of The Ideal London, which is only about two-thirds plotted still and has a very mushy middle (always my problem with plotting, the second act is so frequently like the middle of a badly-baked cake), far exceed the time I’ve allotted myself for my usual NaNo outbursts, and something else has been nagging at me demanding to be written.

Now generally speaking if you’re trying to write something and it’s being an obstructive ass that you have to slog through, it’s probably not the right time to be trying to write it: if you’re constantly being distracted by another idea and no one has commissioned you for idea number one, then it makes perfectly good sense to write the one that’s demanding to be written.

This is the advice I would automatically give to other people, which is probably why I was failing to take it myself. It took an observation from my friend Lin (who has within the last couple of years gone from “I should write that” to “I’m writing that” and as a consequence hiccupped out a trilogy of fantasy novels as if it were nothing) that 2012 is my designated year of “Write Whatever The Fuck You Want” (which is how The Breaking of M came to be) to make me decide. Of course, the ever-delightful Lizzie also pointed out that every year should ideally be the Year Of Write Whatever The Fuck You Want, and that’s definitely worth taking into consideration. Regardless of whether the actual business of physical output is hard, if one’s brain is continually shying away from writing something it’s not worth forcing it.

In light of that, I’ve now exchanged a London-based metafictional fantasy with added world-saving and commentary about the nature of fiction for a less research-heavy London-based organised crime story involving blood magic and bisexual love triangles, for which the research amounts to “watch Shakespeare adaptations and Guy Ritchie movies”, which I think I can handle in the time I’ve got left a little better than my meaty, weighty, literary-fiction project. The Ideal London has plenty of material for it, though, and I will definitely be writing it… when I have a little more time!

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May Links Post

Things My Friends Have Done

Things I Have Done

Edit, mostly. I think I might need to remove this section from future links posts since it’s never anything terribly impressive.

Things Strangers Have Done

  • Will Self rambled on and on and on about obscure words and what sounds like the endorsement of censorship because it drives people to me more creative. Needless to say, I don’t agree with him.
  • The Jacobin Mag takes a stance against chairs, of all things…
  • An interesting theory of storytelling (in game design) is mooted: story events are expenses against credibility as defined by the world-building.
  • Health At Every Size provides helpful pointers in how to remain a critical thinker about health.
  • A self-professed fan of Damien Hirst has some harsh words about his latest exhibition.
  • 9GAG shows you how to make headphones that are less shitty than Beats. As the cheerful possessor of some much better-quality, cheaper studio-tracking headphones (AKG K271 MKIIs, although there’s little enough between them and AKG K272s) I support this. For both professional and domestic applications, there are better and cheaper headphones.

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Early 20th Century Literary Queer Love-In

T. E. Lawrence, on the other hand, laughed at [E M Forster's "The Life To Come"] – a reaction that puzzles [Oliver Stallybrass] as much as it puzzled Forster – and was perhaps lucky*, three years later, to be shown ‘Dr Woolacott’. This, by way of contrast, he considered ‘the most powerful thing I ever read … more charged with the real high explosive than anything I’ve ever met yet'; [...] I have already quoted T. E. Lawrence’s remarkable encomium of ‘Dr Woolacott'; and, although the story’s fascination for T. E. tells us more, perhaps, about his powerfully developed death-with than about its own intrinsic quality [...]

—  Oliver Stallybrass, introduction to The Life to Come and Other Stories by E. M. Forster.

File under “intersections between my favourite historigays”, next to “that time an exasperated Sassoon called T.E. a “tank-vestigating eremite”.

I want to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him. That is my ticket, and then I have wanted to write respectable novels…

— E. M. Forster, Personal memorandum, 1935 (as quoted in the introduction to The Life to Come and Other Stories, pub. Penguin).

One thing I am noticing in my laid-back holidaying in the queer society of the early 20th Century is that, while shut up together as universally ‘perverse’, homosexuality and sadomasochistic leanings were allowed a greater degree of crossover between them; in that it was equally condemnable to want to be buggered as beaten by a chap, so that once one was already a transgressor as a homosexual, there was little shame or condemnation left for the other vice.

It seems that as we edge closer to the acceptance of homosexuality as “normal” (scare quotes because really the concept of normal is stupid), the more shedding of this association in popular consciousness occurs. The end goal, indeed, seems to be to shove “undesirable” sexuality out of queerness in order to give queerness a boost toward the “desirable”. I don’t think that process is complete yet; certainly “perversity” seems to have a slightly better reception in queer circles than in straight ones – indeed during my brief and irritating time going to scene parties in Brighton confirmed the idea that it was seen as far cooler to be blasé about people’s sexual practices (known or rumoured) than it was to be scandalised by them, which was more often the case with the self-professed “liberal” London Goth Scene (or at least, the heterosexual parts thereof).

But I do find it interesting that Forster bundles up his desire to be “loved by” and “even hurt by” his fictitious young man of the working classes into one package. Whether one argues it as the physical interpretation of both “loved” and “hurt” (sex, and masochism) or the emotional (romantic attachment, and heartbreak), it seems he associates the two things closely with each other and looks to embrace them both. In the sexual sense this is a difficult conclusion for people to reach unaided now; in the romantic sense it borders on the chivalric and certainly demonstrates an understanding of how love affairs are prone to work (as one would expect from a good novelist: spend long enough looking at human nature for the purposes of reproducing it and one is bound to acquire a certain amount of insight into the natural course of love).

In the prelude to reading the slightly-larger-than-sane pile of biographies of Forster I seem to have accidentally acquired (and later, no doubt, returning to the increasing mound of Lawrence biographies, all of which are endearingly ancient bindings and smell irresistibly of second-hand-book-shop, a heady perfume of dust, vanilla, leather, decaying canvas, and ink), I can make all kinds of assumptions about how Forster felt about his romantic & sexual identity, and no doubt in the aftermath of the same I shall continue to wonder, since none of us can actually know.

But on the basis that he wrapped up pain and love into one inextricable package, I am fond of who I think he might be.

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Interview/Review: Protect Me From What I Want

Protect Me From What I Want is a not-exactly cold-case novella set on Jersey in the Channel Islands, available for Kindle, PDF-reading devices, and in good old-fashioned paperback.

A friend of mine, the polymath genius Holly Yagoda, recently sent me an email which, amid ranting about the invisibility of female scientists in popular consciousness and some questions about writing, included this sentence:

I have just finished Protect Me From What I Want and need to talk to you at some point about ALL MY FEELS regarding the kind of narrator Hennessey is.

My ego being a vast and very fragile entity, I immediately replied:

Please do shout at me about Protect Me From I What I Want, I’ve had very little feedback about that one…

Holly replied – with some spoilers for the book – thus:

PMFWIW got me thinking about a particular type of narrator that I like, the reluctant confessor. Telling a story about something that happened to them, but kind of uncomfortable about the bits that involve them. They downplay their part, downplay themselves, and will only gradually, grudgingly tell you anything personal – or throw something horrible about themselves at you as a punishment for daring to be interested. Michael Marshall Smith has done that kind of narrator, one who wants you to know exactly how much of a cunt they are so you might not notice the string of pretty decent things they’ve done during the book. Maybe I just don’t trust narrators who don’t have at least a little bit of self-hatred festering inside. Ahem.

Hennessey may be a dreadful person, but he was a bloody joyous narrator to read. Very funny and foul, with moments that could be quite heart-breaking but Hennessey won’t let you dwell on them because he’s already done that and all that happened was more booze and no epiphany so why fucking bother and HEY HEY HERE’S A REPREHENSIBLE THING I DID NEXT PAY ATTENTION TO THIS INSTEAD OF THE SAD THING.

Now, as I am pretending to be a writer I seem to have acquired that terrible affliction of enjoying discussing my work with people, which is oft-parodied and with good reason; writers and other “creatives” can be terribly self-involved and self-important people:

[...] Your comments on Hennessey made me dig out my proof copy of the book and reread about a third of it. He’s oddly evasive and blunt at the same time, which seems to be a recurring character trait (certainly from fanfic characters I’ve written) and also … a problem with me. [...] Overall I kind of pitched him to myself as a romantic tragedian who doesn’t quite accept that this is what he is; his self-hatred is down to older seeds and his decline, in steps, is just symptomatic of the deeper malaise. I think the original point of the story was actually consent, comparison of his relationship with Mon with the Haut de la Garenne boys, but it kind of got away from me a bit.

This is, I am sure you’ll agree, a little high-brow for a book which is effectively not even a detective story, but allow me my moment in the sun, because Holly had one final spoonful of honey to administer:

The idea of consent is still very much in the foreground – I think the scene with Mon’s parents really brings it home. Their raging decibels over a consensual relationship contrast with the hushing up of the very nonconsensual abuse of many children. And then there’s so much more to it; John and Mon’s relationship is legally nonconsensual because of her age, and is pretty drunkenly fucked up, but it’s the only place where she gets the attention she needs – non-judgemental, positive attention from another human. I think it was the “at least he helps me with my homework” line that sealed it for me. It ties together with Haut de la Garenne with the idea that the “official” best place for a child to be – with their parents, in a care home – is not always the best place for them in reality.

Outside of this baffling enjoyment of my work (I kid, of course, I wouldn’t be inflicting it on the public if I thought it was that bad), Holly Yagoda has pretty damn good taste, and has previously recommended to me: Memoirs of a Master Forger (William Heaney), The Raw Shark Texts (Steven Hall), and The End of Mr Y (Scarlet Thomas), the latter of which I enjoyed until the ending and the rest of which I enjoyed without reservation.

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An Education In Your Own History

As previously mentioned, in my late teens I became quite fixated on queer history and in particular in the erratic contents of a specific book. There were several films mentioned, with stills included, and for a while I made it my mission to hunt them down and watch them: this was a mission in which I was repeatedly thwarted, and in fact most of the queer cinema I encountered I stumbled across wholly by accident: the best example of this was Martin Sherman’s heartrending and stagey Bent, which I encountered because of insomnia and Channel 4’s insomniac-friendly schedules in the very early days of the 21st Century.

Recently I’ve been catching up on those films whose stills I poured over ten or so years ago, and finally managed to watch both Maurice (1987, Hugh Grant, James Wilby, and Rupert Graves) and Another Country (1984, Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Cary Elwes). Both films are set in the prelude to a World War, although as Maurice belongs in the run-up to the First it is technically more relevant to me as my giant emo obsessiveness about the First World War and associated Sad Gay Soldiers (according to my boyfriend this is a cinematic and literary genre to which I am wedded without exception). Then again, Another Country is a very lightly fictionalised account of the younger days of Guy Burgess (they changed his surname to Bennett, that’s about it) and ever since Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy came out I’ve had a soft spot for spies. The films even have an attractive Rupert apiece: Graves for Maurice, Everett for Another Country (the latter does boast a second, back-up Rupert in the form of Rupert Wainwright, not to be confused with Rufus Wainwright).

The sex scenes in Maurice are slightly more abundant, and I could very probably talk at disturbing length about Rupert Graves’ penis, which makes an appearance – but I did promise myself this wasn’t going to be that kind of a blog even though it is a jolly nice penis. Instead, though: the comparison of time period, the comparison of idealised England, and the comparison of relationship.

For all that Judd, in Another Country, invokes cynicism and dissatisfaction and talks about the pointlessness of the war that preceded his school days, he is wrapped in the very serious and passionate belief in the ideals of Marx, and of Communism. Meanwhile the protagonists of Maurice are all of them without ideals: they adhere to a sense of propriety, of place in the order of things (and good grief but Clive Durham is a pompous, self-important ass at Cambridge), but without any real ideology to hold onto: they are older, and if not wiser then a good deal less convinced of the importance of clearly-delineated concepts.

Both films involve the notion of sacrifices made for love, which rather neatly explains my interest in them beyond the acknowledged passion for queer history; although in each case the sacrifice is rather central to the denouement of the plot, and therefore should be left for the viewer to discover themselves.

Maurice is the softer of the two. It dwells in a gentler time, before the last remnants of a specific social order were torn apart by years of mechanised war and the wholesale slaughter of a generation: in Another Country Judd mocks this and Bennett disdains it, each unimpressed with the boy soldiers lined up to commemorate the dead that have yet to fall in the narrative of Maurice.

There is almost a sense of continuity between the two, but if there is it’s a sad one: the line, “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature,” from Maurice still holds true some fifteen, twenty years later in Another Country: there is a disinclination in the upper classes of English society, still, to allow schoolboy romance or its adult incarnation, and an angry, humiliated Guy Bennett spells it out: “Because in your heart of hearts, like Barclay and Delahay and Fowler and Menzies, you still believe, in spite of your talk of equality and fraternity, you still believe some people are better than others because of the way they make love.”

After all that I’m rather in need of some happier viewing, so I’d welcome suggestions of gay and lesbian films (preferably historical in genre) with happy endings: and be aware, I’ve already seen But I’m A Cheerleader so many times that I can quote it line-for-line!

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February Links Post

Things my friends have done

Things I have done

Things strangers have done

  • Begun the process of reconstructing sounds from brainwaves, apparently. I cannot work out if this is cool, terrifying, or both.
  • Compiled a gorgeous selection of photographs of the most beautiful and innovative bookshops in the world. I am sad about the lack of representation of Hay-on-Wye, but deeply envious of some of the ones that are on the list. Portugal especially have apparently nailed “awesome bookshop”.
  • Interesting fellow on OKCupid showed me his music (this is not a euphemism), so naturally I am going to share it with the internet: Add Gray Fun. The two tracks I’ve listened to are sort of sparse and build tunes out of discord, which I’m very fond of as a feature in electronica. Professionally speaking I think they definitely need mixing & mastering – some work on the levels – and would personally have an annoying faff with reverb in places but overall I rather like it.
  • This fuzzy-haired scientist has an apparently supportable theory that cats make us bonkers. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.” Well, that’s not terrifying at all.
  • This Tumblr user is using police photo-fit software to try to recreate the faces of famous literary characters as described by their authors. What a fantastic concept!
  • Josie Long takes on UniLadMag and does so wonderfully.
  • When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite. Fascinating to me, and I do have a copy of a book with a title along the lines of “Same Sex Unions in Medieval Europe” waiting for me to finish reading the thousands of other books I’ve acquired and get around to it.
  • Written about The Invention of Heterosexuality, which examines how other areas of social change during the birth of psychiatry as a profession led to the creation of sexual identities connected to biological urges, and the value judgements that come with them.
  • People Like Me, a very depressing list of unfair treatment you can expect to receive if you’re viewed as being “unacceptably” fat.
  • A handy little interactive graph for women to use to determine which clothing size their measurements make them at any given clothing shop.
  • An Eight-Step Guide To Self-Editing Your Manuscript. On, completely unrelated, a very pretty blog.
  • Via that link, a useful website for determining how often you use particular words. I am cringing just imagining what would come up on mine.
  • And an io9 article about what the problem is with adverbs
  • As a confirmed over-emotional weenie about the city I live in who buys maps and cries every time she lands back at Heathrow and owns an embarrassing number of books of London photography, this post about London set to music is rather moving.
  • This fascinating blog over at Tiger Beatdown about how reality television and blogging have destroyed the ability of readers and viewers to appreciate the difference between performance and reality.
  • A very funny review of what sounds like a very awful movie (Splice).
  • In a rather timely coincidence, not long after I whined that I’d be more inclined to eat healthily if healthy food were more convenient, a friend of mine discovered COOK, who have made that leap for me.

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A very specific literary genre

My dad says that being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you’re born. He says that there are people who get off a jumbo jet at Heathrow, go through immigration waving any kind of passport, hop on the tube and by the time the train’s pulled into Piccadilly Circus they’ve become a Londoner.

Moon Over Soho,  Ben Aaronovitch,  Chapter  9.

As a non-native Londoner (I was born in Nottingham and dragged up in the West Country) and smitten arrival inside the nightmarish embrace of the M25 I’m grateful to Mr Aaronovitch (or rather to his protagonist Peter Grant) for this. Moon Over Soho is the sequel to Rivers of London, and is therefore another entry into the scrupulously-policed genre of the “supernatural London-based crime novel”.

I’ve joked with a couple of friends that if I ever ran a bookshop (this would be a bad thing for many reasons, not limited to my terrible customer service and examples from my family history that suggest none of us should be allowed to run anything more complicated than an electric pencil sharpener; my mother took over a cafe and ran it into the ground in seven months), I would have a specific section devoted to books of this ilk. I’d love to write one – I’m not sure that Pass the Parcel quite qualifies, although it has a lot of the requisite elements – but I’m not sure I’ve yet developed the writerly chops to do it justice.

The parameters for the genre are strict, in my mind. I explained this to my boyfriend while hopping around manically outside the bathroom with a cup of tea in my hand, which means that it’s clearly a very solid idea.

First:

Book/majority of book must be set in London, and recognisably either London now, or a London of the past. Alternate Londons must be close enough to this London to qualify. This excludes on this criteria alone the excellent children’s book Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, and the even more brilliant Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, as both are set in parallel Strange Londons.

Second:

Central plot should be about a crime, rather than a quest or a romance. This again rules out Un Lun Dun, and Neverwhere. It also rules out Pass the Parcel, which has a somewhat decentralised plot and while the whole thing is riddled with crime, it’s not a criminal investigation or a mystery plot.

Third:

“Supernatural” can over a multitude of sins, but the magic/weird should always be underground and unacknowledged by the general public, otherwise we get back into the realms of being either unrecognisable London or urban fantasy rather than supernatural crime. While Pass the Parcel could possibly fall under the aegis of the supernatural, as the bloody author I’m still grumpily calling it Urban Sci Fi rather than Urban Fantasy/Supernatural City. And my word on this matter is law!

What Qualifies?

Well, the Rivers of London books (Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, and the forthcoming third instalment) by Ben Aaronovitch, which are about a young police officer from Kentish Town who is also training to be a wizard, and the magical crimes (often quite gruesome) that he solves. It’s fairly textbook.

Then there’s Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney, which revolves around forgery, deception, and demons. It’s not about quite what it sounds like it’s about (fittingly), and views a slightly different, more bookish London to the London of the Rivers of London books. It is a London of more stylish and elderly bars, with more Bloomsbury and less Soho. But, as with films, Guy Ritchie and Richard Curtis both make films about the same city: a lot of cities fit into the urban gastric band of the M25.

Finally there’s the China Mieville books: while Un Lun Dun doesn’t qualify, King Rat (which suffers rather from First Novel Syndrome but which has such blinding localisation that I’m almost prepared to forgive it: it is very grotty, and very close to certain homes), and Kraken do. China’s work is louder, faster, less genteel and more violent than Heaney’s or Aaronovitch’s, more like a riot of the weird but still London enough to meet my requirements. It draws on recognisable landmarks, like the Natural History Museum’s Spirit Museum, and SOAS, and the London Stone. It also introduces the utterly compelling notion of Londonmancers, a species of soothsayer who read the rhythms of the city to predict the future.

All of these books treat the city to an extent both as an organism and as a divinity built of divinities, whether layering on demons as Memoirs does, or drawing out a whole bestiary of strange and wicked creatures as Kraken does. I think, personally, that’s the intelligent way to write about cities – any living city, not just London – which are magical places where the sheer weight of humanity distorts sanity rather like matter and space-time (my understanding of Relativity was gleaned from a comic book about Einstein’s cat).

It becomes apparent in books like these that all sorts of strange worlds and twisted beings are bumping into the average Londoner on the street or locked up behind a thin veneer of crumbling brick. Anyone who has walked the streets of this city at night a few times will tell you that is absolutely the case: entire nations flourish behind locked doors, and you can step from country to country by turning a key in a lock.

My infatuation with the city naturally leads me towards London-based literature, but I am quite sure that other cities carry a similar canon of works: it would be hard to imagine that Moscow or Mumbai or Rome had somehow escaped a torrent of adoring stories celebrating their strangenesses and charms. The romance of the urban grips writers like a fever.

Other books in this genre?

I think that’s up to you, dear readers: can you think of any others that fit the criteria? I’d love to hear from you if you can, because I’m making it my mission to read more of them.

Books mentioned in this post which you might like to read: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, Kraken by China Mieville, King Rat by China Mieville, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney, Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch, Pass the Parcel by Delilah Des Anges

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Poetry Post: Chivalry

For added poetic flavour, I wrote this in a leatherbound notebook with an anatomical heart stencil on the front; some of the romance goes out of it if you learn that I wrote it on the bus, so pretend I didn’t let that slip.

Chivalry

I have exhausted my repertoire of rhymes
on assaulting battlements in verse
And now I come to gates held open
No need for all my practiced poet’s lines;
I wish I’d come to this castle first
And saved the sense of my tongue
for now I’m stammered silent, wits numb
forced by an empty library to unlock
the path to the dessicated heart
and all my sad constructed songs slip and drift apart
the cage unlocked, the poet defrocked;
speaking unwanted naked truth, in shock.


For less bus-written and more meaningful poetry, why not try Know Your Words or For the Love of a City? Both are available for E-readers and Know Your Words is available from the Kindle store too

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