Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Doom Patrol, by Grant Morrison and Richard Case

Comics are often maligned as inferior reading to books, as though children who read comics will never be able to make the leap to books without pictures. This belief is mainly born of ignorance, a lack of recognition that comics are an entirely different medium. Despite being seen as juvenilia comics can also be decidedly adult - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is probably the most famous example. They can tell stories far removed from the superhero genre they are most associated with. Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer winning Maus, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are two of the most moving stories I have come across in any medium, with their autobiographical stories of life in totalitarian regimes. During his run with Animal Man, Grant Morrison wrote in The Coyote Gospel an absolutely perfect piece of short fiction. The point of all this being that comics are not what people-who-don’t-read-comics think they are.

But right now I’m reviewing Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. Which is exactly what people-who-don’t-read-comics think it is. No, that is doing it an injustice. It is just that it seems to be that at first glance: a bunch of misfit superheros saving the world from bizzaro baddies. Morrison is way too canny, and wacky, a writer to let it follow predictable paths. During his four year run writing Doom Patrol he created a unique piece of work. It is important to be clear, for people-who-don’t-read-comics, that reading the six volumes of Doom Patrol is not quite the same thing as reading a book. It was released as monthly episodes that have now been collated. They were intended to be read individually rather than in one go. As my husband put it, it is akin to watching Dr Who, episodic and self-contained, but with storylines that span episodes and even whole series. A linear mindset to storytelling is not always appropriate, and is especially not so in the case of Doom Patrol.

The Doom Patrol is an unusual group of characters, led by a paraplegic doctor; the parallels to the X-Men are obvious. This appears to be uncanny coincidence rather than copying; both were first published in 1963, with Doom Patrol out a mere four months earlier. Clearly it hasn’t seeped into common consciousness the way X-Men has, and it has been dropped and revived a number of times over the last forty years. I’m not familiar with other Doom Patrol series, so I can’t tell you what they are like. Morrison began his run with the series in 1989.

Morrison’s Doom Patrol revolves largely around two characters: Cliff, the brain of an ex-racing car driver housed in a robot after a catastrophic crash, and Crazy Jane, a young woman with multiple personality disorder, where each personality has its own superpower. They make up part of a gang, which includes a cross-dressing sentient street called Danny (my favourite character), and three spirits amalgamated in one psychic, hermaphrodite form named Rebis. There is no denying it is all pretty strange. The various baddies are also a surreal bunch - literally so, in the case of The Brotherhood of Dada.

Amongst all the surreal action Morrison has crafted a story with elements of genuine pathos. All of his lead characters are victims, trying to find somewhere to belong, carrying their fractured sense of identity with them. For all his super-human strength Cliff no longer has a sense of touch, of taste, or smell. Despite his origins, he is no longer a man. I found myself a little frustrated that both the female characters Crazy Jane, and the teenage Dorothy, are victims because of their gender and sexuality. Maybe it says something about the type of world we live in. Or maybe it just says something about the imaginations of male authors… Nonetheless some of the best and most emotional chapters in Doom Patrol revolve around Crazy Jane. Chapter 30: Going Underground in which we travel into the subway of her unconscious is pure genius.

The detail in these comics is incredible, whether Morrison is aiming for humour or in a serious mood. Much of this is conveyed in the artwork, for which Richard Case deserves credit as the penciller for the series. I don’t have the terminology to discuss the artwork in depth, but it is clear to me that the artwork for this is of a very high quality and excels at capturing the shifting tones of the story.

If you are a person-who-does-not-read-comics, I’m not sure I would recommend Doom Patrol as the place to start (unless, of course, Un Chien Andolou is your dream Saturday night movie). It is a wonderful series, which combines horror, surrealism, and humour to great effect. For all the freewheeling narrative of the series, Morrison gives the series the memorable bittersweet ending it deserves.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb is a much admired and respected fantasy author. I actually read the Farseer trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest) as a teenager, but recently picked them up again. The trilogy follows many of the tropes of fantasy fiction: a faux-medieval world, royal intrigue, magic. Hobb’s world building is excellent and imaginative, so the books do bring something different to the fantasy market.

Fitzchivalry (Fitz), the illegitimate son of a prince, pledges his life to his grandfather King Shrewd. Aged only eleven, he is then apprenticed to Chade, the King’s mysterious assassin. The Six Duchies are under threat from the Outislanders, who no longer simply plunder, but strip humanity from their captives – leaving them only capable of fulfilling animal desires - then release them to wreak havoc on their neighbours. Prince Verity, Fitz’s uncle, is determined to save his Kingdom. Out of love for Verity as much as anything else, Fitz sacrifices much to help. He faces another more insidious threat in the form of his half-uncle Prince Regal, a jealous, manipulative young man who is determined to inherit the throne himself. Meanwhile the Fool takes an interest in Fitz, riddling about prophecies.

The story is narrated by Fitz as an older man. He is not the most admirable of characters; he is often sullen and selfish, but Hobb always keeps him on the right side of likable. It is only fitting behaviour, perhaps, for the teenage boy he is; the journey from boy to man is portrayed warts and all. This is one of the reasons why I think they make an excellent bridging novel for readers moving from the young adult market to the adult one.

It is the tone of these books that I found interesting; they are dark, with misfortune after misfortune befalling Fitz. They contain a reasonable amount of violence, not sweeping battle scenes or glorious vanquishing of enemies, but always as a dark and ugly truth of the world in the form of vicious beatings and secret assassinations. Fitz is just as often perpetrator as victim, and the grim necessity of it all ages him before his time. It is one of the many interesting notions Hobb explores around the pledge Fitz made as a child; his loyalty to his King and family is never in doubt, but Fitz often questions how far he can go. It may be one thing to die for your King, but to sacrifice every living moment of your life is another.

The trilogy is also a master class in plotting, Hobb has written three complete books, each with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, which together make up a trilogy with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Hobb avoids the bombast of many never-ending series (George RR Martin, I’m looking at you). I did think the third book had a few wobbles; the second quarter has Fitz narrowly escape his enemies perhaps a few times too many, but then it picks up speed to weave together the various threads of the story.

Like so many fantasy series our hero is male, but I really enjoyed the female characters in these books. They span a diverse range of womanhood, from the working class to the highest echelons of society. All are strong while feminine, and face adversity without becoming ‘victims’. The books don’t seem to have a feminist agenda like the books of Ursula Le Guin do, rather Hobb seems to find it as natural to write strong, well-rounded female characters as well as male. It is refreshing as so often, not just in fantasy, this is not the case.

A thoroughly enjoyable fantasy series in my opinion. Fans of the Saga of Ice and Fire may want to check these out while waiting for the next instalment. It is the first of four series set in this fantasy world, and she also writes under another pen name as Megan Lindholm. I’ll probably read some more of her books, so watch this space.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The New Moon with the Old, by Dodie Smith

For a large part of my childhood my favourite book was Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmations; I even have its much less well-known sequel The Starlight Barking. Later it was replaced in my heart by her fabulous novel I Capture the Castle (my rainy day book). This blog even takes its name from I Capture the Castle, which is written as its narrator’s journals, the first of the three being The Sixpenny Book. So you see, Dodie and I go back a long way. I was thrilled then, when Corsair released three of her out of print novels last year, and promptly ordered myself a copy of The New Moon with the Old. With the anticipation there was of course the dread - sometimes forgotten books are forgotten for a reason. So I was relieved as much as pleased with how much I enjoyed this book. It conjures the well-to-do-but-cash-poor-English just as wonderfully as I Capture the Castle, but without rehashing the same territory.

The New Moon with the Old tells the story of four young siblings whose cosy domestic life in a country house is abruptly ended when their father flees the country accused of fraud. Without his financial support they are forced to find ways to make a living, something they have not been raised to do. In this they are aided (or hindered) by their father’s new secretary, Jane Minton. Smith has structured the book in four parts, each telling the story of one of the siblings, with an introduction, conclusion and three ‘interludes’ from Jane’s point of view.

The England of this book (published in 1963) is a far cry from the one we know today. In this England a young woman (or as it turns out, man) can still make a living acting as a companion to those better off than themselves; reading books and pouring tea makes for a fairly comfortable servitude in my opinion! There is a hint though, of the burgeoning sexual revolution. The teenage Merry reassures her brother upon her return to their home that she is still a virgin
‘Of course you are,’ he said heartily.
‘There’s no “of course” about it. Lots of girls my age aren’t”
It is clear though that Smith writes at a time where females are judged much more harshly than men. The clashing sexual politics of the new and the old are best portrayed in the story of the lovely, but listless, elder sister Clare. Of the four she is the least well equipped to survive in the working world, but she ventures forth anyway. She finds herself in what is almost a conventional romance, but Smith subverts her, and our, expectations. It is masterfully done, and had me laughing in delight.

Smith conjures up a not-so distant past of England, cosy - yes, but not cloying. Most importantly her novels are full of wonderful characters. Charm and eccentricity are often words used to describe Smith’s books. While this is true it is also a rather reductive view. Her novels are peopled by all sorts of characters – dreamy schoolgirls, sure, but also the spiteful and selfish, the hapless and the ambitious. Smith brings a humanity to them all.
They’re typical because of…their unusualness, their eccentricity. I’m convinced England’s overflowing with eccentric people, places, happenings. Indeed you might say eccentricity’s normal in England.
As much as I applaud Corsair for bringing these books into print, for the second review in a row I find myself grumbling about basic editing errors. I have little understanding of how the technical process works, but I can only assume that these books were scanned by computer, and were not read by an actual person at any point. There are a number of nonsensical words scattered through the book, such as ‘dosed’ when ‘closed’ is clearly correct. It is lazy, and very disappointing.

Immediately upon finishing I ordered myself the other two Dodie Smith novels, and I’m itching to read them (but I’m going to make myself wait!). I enjoyed this book immensely; Smith is proof that books read for pure pleasure don’t have to be brainless. If my glowing review hasn’t won you over, then try reading her books yourself.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, by Judith Flanders

My obsession with Victorian London and Dickens rears its head again, this time in the form of Judith Flanders book The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London. It is a fascinating and well written account of nineteenth century London. The book is dense, and at times academic enough that it is probably only for those who have a genuine interest. I did think the link to Dickens was rather tenuous, I doubt that she referred to him any more than she did other well-known Victorians. She does shed light on moments in his novels that I had ill-understood as I read them, so perhaps here her connection is on safer ground.

A full sense of the city’s life – both good and bad – are depicted here. The scope of what Flanders covers, as well as the detail, is impressive. Ranging from how streets were paved, and how this changed over the course of the era, to entertainment and eating houses, and even what produce would be available from street sellers at particular times of day. She vividly describes the chaos of trying to move around busy London streets, the mud, the crowds - traffic jams today have nothing on these. Of course no account would be complete without discussing the sewers, cholera, and The Great Stink, when parliament smelt so bad the rich could no longer ignore the (oh, the unsanitary!) conditions many lived in, and finally cleaned up London. A particularly gruelling chapter deals with the failure to properly dispose of the dead. Dickens memorably describes the pitiful burial of Nemo in Bleak House; I had little appreciation of how literally we should take his description of bones breaking through the soil in the graveyards. Not for the faint of heart! Also appalling was the account of life in the slums. This was such a concern to the upper classes that slum quarters were often destroyed, without provision of new housing, forcing more and more of the poor to cram into the slums that did remain.

Crime and punishment is unsurprisingly an interesting section; women in Victorian London are almost synonymous with prostitution, but Flanders makes a good case for how inaccurate this is. Figures for vast amounts of prostitutes are well known, yet the sources for these are, frankly, laughable. One problem is what we would term a prostitute has changed, Flanders quotes a paper writing about dancers who prostitute themselves ‘either for money, or more frequently for their own gratification’. Nowadays we would only class the former as prostitution! Estimates of numbers were reached by extrapolating from the number of births to unwed mothers, assuming that every mother would become a prostitute and work for five years, so 42 000 births annually meant 210 000 prostitutes at any given time. The man who came up with this estimate is known to have been aware that police estimates were just under 10 000 women. Nor was prostitution the bleak road to ruin we often assume, as many woman were known to have saved up enough money to go into respectable trade, and even make good marriages.

Flanders opens each section with well-known events from London’s history. The most fascinating of these was the Tooley Street fire in 1861, in which an enormous fire burned in the warehouses down by the Thames. It was so big that it was three weeks before it was declared fully contained. The warehouses contained cotton, sugar, tea, spices such as cayenne and pepper, saltpetre, sulphur and oil. Not only did the winds blow this noxious combination about in huge smoke clouds, but the burning oil leaked onto the Thames, setting even the river on fire. Despite this huge crowds packed the streets, pubs stayed open all night for spectators and some even hired boats to take them out onto the Thames. It is hard to see a modern crowd glorying in a sulphurous smoke! I suppose we would still watch, but from the comfort of our living rooms.

Flanders is a research fellow at the University of Buckingham, and clearly knows her subject area well. More to the point she is articulate - this book is clear and concise. It is well-indexed too. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the colour-plates; here Flanders is badly let down by the book’s editors. Frequently Flanders points out details that can be seen in the plates, such as details of clothing, and in not a single case that I found was the correct plate number given. On all occasions I managed to work out which plate Flanders was referring to, but this situation shouldn’t have arisen.

For anyone with an interest in the subject I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a fantastic reference book that is both well written and researched. Hopefully editorial quibbles will be dealt with in future print runs. It challenged many of my preconceptions of life in Victorian London. It is striking, but perhaps not surprising how little we have changed; technology is different, but we still judge women on reproductive choices, judge the poor as ‘deserving’ or not, and seek out spectacle in catastrophe. An interesting and illuminating read.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier

Rebecca caused a sensation upon publication in the 1930s and has never gone out of print. It follows directly the gothic traditions begun with early novelists, such as Anne Radcliffe. It also owes a heavy debt to the Bronte sisters. In particular its plot has many similarities to Jane Eyre: a plain young woman marries a wealthy older man with the shadow of his first wife hanging over their relationship. They also share a sense of foreboding, some sinister servants, and dramatic fires. It wouldn’t be fair to label Rebecca as a mere copycat though, as its success indicates it is a novel in its own right.

There are some aspects of the novel that have dated rather badly. The second Mrs De Winter is hopelessly naïve - a classic trope of gothic fiction - yet she is in her early twenties in the twentieth century, and without an aristocratic family to shelter her from the brutalities of life. After Charlotte Bronte’s passionate, determined Jane Eyre, and written after both WWI and the suffragette movement, this heroine feels as though she harks back to an earlier time. I also suspect that her capacity to forgive (Spoiler Alert - but don’t you know already?) Mr De Winter for killing Rebecca, because, hey she was a bitch, is problematic to say the least. Lastly, there is the slightly awkward ‘idiot’ Ben, who clearly has what we would call Down’s Syndrome. His place in the novel, call it political correctness or what you like, does leave a slightly sour taste in my mouth, as our heroine views his otherness as something to fear.

You could get the impression from the above paragraph that I didn’t enjoy Rebecca, or even think it was any good. There is a lot that does work; Du Maurier creates a wonderful atmosphere as our hapless heroine gets caught up in events she has little understanding of. She knows how to write a page turner that keeps you gripped, and despite all the foreboding, and ominous events, there are plenty of elements of light relief that prevent it from being heavy handed. Manderley is vividly depicted for us, as an abandoned wilderness in the dream at the beginning, as an unfamiliar home to a new bride, and the sense of history contained in this family estate.

One of the problems with reading Rebecca is its own success. It is rather like the first time you watch Casablanca, you know every second line in the film already as pop culture references to the film are so plentiful. Long before I picked up Rebecca I could have told you not only its first line (Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again) but also its last. The relationship between our heroine the second Mrs De Winter, and the aforementioned sinister servant Mrs Danvers, is also widely parodied. I’m a big fan of comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, and I’ve been known to say they have a skit for every occasion. While technically a parody of Hitchcock’s film version, their Rebecca skit is absolutely spot-on. Every time Mrs Danvers appeared, and Du Maurier described her skull like face, I couldn’t help but picture David Mitchell in drag.

Rebecca is an enjoyable read. This is the first time I’ve read it, and it is to me a ‘curl up on a rainy day with a cup of tea’ kind of book. I’m sure I’ll pull if off the shelf again someday. It might be a gothic horror, but to this hardy twenty-first century woman, it is ultimately quite cosy.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

I first heard of The Song of Achilles when Madeline Miller won last year’s Orange Prize, an impressive achievement for a debut novel. Miller teaches Latin and Ancient Greek, so has a strong background to take on Homer. As a long time classics geek myself, I put it on my to-read list. Her take on Achilles is undeniably modern, and manages to strike a difficult balance by giving justice to the complex world of classical myth while being readable to a layperson.

The Song of Achilles takes its title from the opening line of The Iliad
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
but is not solely about the events that take place in the epic poem, which rather than telling the story of the fall of Troy as is often assumed, actually only relates the events of a few weeks in the tenth year of the war. Miller takes much of her story from events related in the Epic Cycle, and throws in a fair bit of her own invention. Her version of this ancient myth is narrated by Patroclus, Achilles’s closest friend, and, as Miller interprets, lover. Her story begins with Patroclus’s childhood, when he is exiled by his family and sent to live in the court of Peleus. Here, he and Achilles strike up a boyish friendship that over the years grows into a romantic relationship. These events take up almost the whole first half of the novel. We are introduced to a very different Achilles from the wrathful one I knew from the classics. Here he is a laughing, energetic boy, albeit a rather gifted one (his mother is a goddess after all). Our view of him is through the prism of Patroclus’s feelings, yet we see glimpses at times of insouciance that could so easily be arrogance, determination that could become stubborn pride. The love story is handled with a light touch, and beautifully told, yet I found myself wanting things to move forward a little quicker.

At last our heroes reach the shores of Troy, and the story spins through to its inevitable conclusion - the story of The Iliad: Agamemnon (the most powerful Greek king) and Achilles will fight; whilst Achilles sulks, Patroclus will fight in battle and be killed by Hector; Achilles will then kill Hector in a rage. Spoilers? No, the Iliad is thousands of years old. This of course poses the problem of how to keep it interesting when we already know what will happen. Wisely, I think, Miller doesn’t try to make the ending a surprise. By using the classical beliefs in prophecy and the fates, our heroes themselves are aware that Achilles will kill Hector, and in doing so will cement his reputation as ‘Aristos Achaion’ the best of the Greeks, but this will also lead to his own death.

The second half of the novel is what I had hoped for when I started. At first Patroclus admires Achilles, seeing him in a new light as he triumphs in battle
I could not see the ugliness of the deaths anymore, the brains, the shattered bones that later I would wash from my skin and hair. All I saw was his beauty, his singing limbs, the quick flickering of his feet.
The familiar Achilles eventually begins to appear, and the story we all know is told. Miller’s love story adds pathos to an otherwise straightforward retelling. Disappointingly, I felt some moments lacked emotional punch, especially the scene where Priam visits Achilles to beg for the body of his son, Hector. Thankfully Miller handles the inevitable problem of the death of our narrator with aplomb. How? I won’t tell, but she brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion.

Miller plans to write a novel based on the Odyssey next. I’m looking forward to reading it, especially as Odysseus was one of her most successful characters. The Song of Achilles is an interesting and at times very moving interpretation of one of the world’s oldest myths. I can’t help, however, comparing it to Ursula K. Le Guin’s 2008 novel Lavinia, in which Le Guin tells the story of the second half of The Aeneid through the eyes of Lavinia, the eventual wife of Aeneas. In my opinion this is a superior take on classical myth. But then, I did always prefer the Romans to the Greeks.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem

My husband enjoys reading Jonathan Lethem, and over the years has tossed a few my way, some of which I read, and some of which (much to his disappointment) I never quite got around to. I read one of his early works a couple of years ago - Amnesia Moon, a post-apocalyptic road movie, where reality was a slippery construct. Lethem is one of those authors you can’t judge based on one book; he doesn’t stick to writing in one genre. Motherless Brooklyn is a detective novel, set in Lethem’s hometown.

Our hero is Lionel Essrog, and we meet him in a car, on a stakeout which goes horribly wrong. He is listening in on a meeting between his boss, Frank Minna, and some unknowns, which culminates in Minna‘s murder. With only the few clues picked up through his wire, Lionel is determined to uncover the truth behind Minna’s death. Except they aren’t really detectives. Frank Minna is a small time crook, using the detective agency (which itself masquerades as a car agency) as cover. Lionel and his three colleagues were recruited as teenage orphans from a home, and have worked for Frank Minna all their lives. Whether or not the Minna Men are all still loyal is only one of the many threads Lionel will have to unravel.

It sounds pretty straightforward so far, and for the most part it is; Motherless Brooklyn follows all the conventions of a detective novel. In his wanderings of Brooklyn, Lionel slowly begins to piece the clues together, which are then revealed to us in a final dramatic set-piece. Lethem throws in a couple of (admittedly sedate) car chases, a fair bit of gun waving, some Buddhist monks and, although there is no blonde bombshell, there is an attractive girl who garners some attention from our hero. The detective element of the story is, well, competent. I’m not sure the reveal was as satisfying as I wanted it to be. That isn't to say I didn't enjoy it, more that I didn't feel it lived up to my expectations based on the rest of the book.

What makes this novel interesting is the compelling narrative voice Lethem finds in Lionel Essrog. He is no hardboiled detective, or greasy gangster. Lionel is basically an ordinary guy who happens to have Tourette’s Syndrome. I don’t know a lot about Tourette’s, but to me it seemed a very convincing portrayal. Lionel’s ticcing has some physical expressions, like his penchant for tapping shoulders, and eating habits, such as needing to eat the same number of items as others around him. Many of his verbal tics take the form of echolalia, which is repetition of what others are saying. These allow Lethem to engage in a bit of wordplay, as Lionel mangles words and phrases
"I don’t know. Screw Tony. I like you better Lionel. I just never told you.” She was hurt, erratic her voice straying wildly, searching for a place to rest. “I like you, too, Julia. There’s nothing-Screwtony! Nertscrony! Screwtsony! Tootscrewny!-sorry. There’s nothing wrong with that."
Not that Lethem uses Tourette’s as a gag, as we so often see it. It is a central part of Lionel’s character. He is often written off as a bit crazy, meaning he is ignored while he observes everything around him; this is one of the reasons he was so valuable to Minna. Lethem also captures the humour people develop to deal with adversity. Lionel is very self aware, and able to joke about his impulses, even as he craves normality.

Brooklyn, and a sense of place, is another central part of the novel. Lionel knows Brooklyn intricately. There is a sense of geographic detail that, as I have never been to Brooklyn, I’m sure I wasn’t able to fully appreciate. It serves a purpose further than accuracy though, as Lionel has never travelled - his world is a very insular place. The intrusion of Minna’s murderers into this place is initially very shocking, but eventually drags him out into a wider world.

Lethem somewhat reminds me of one of my favourite authors China Mieville, in the way he genre-swaps. I think it must take considerable skill to immerse yourself in the different conventions for each book. In the end though, what all good books have in common is character, and setting. Lethem certainly creates these convincingly.