The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Woman's Read of "The Barrow" or, "Yech!"

I am an irritated woman.  

Perhaps it's because yesterday I was home sick and today I have the sniffles.  Perhaps it's because today is Election Day, and I find myself inundated by people who presume that just because I have ovaries, I mustn't be in charge of my life or health.  Perhaps it's because this weekend Amazon suggested this as my Halloween costume:

Seriously?  I don't keep my brains in my boobs.

And Mark Smylie's The Barrow is taking the brunt of my irritation.  It may be the single most irritating book I've read in months. It is not terrible.  At least, not the most terrible thing I've ever read.  It's just generally bad.  

Let me and my ovaries tell you why. *Spoilers Ahead*

General male-heavy sword and sorcery "let's steal an enchanted sword lost for millennia" story.  Lots of dangerous-yet-attractive men with individual moral codes that somehow transcend/transgress the laws of the land.  And there's a magic map and a legendary sword they quest to steal.  So far, so typical. 

Which would be fine...if only.  If only it were better written.  If only it tweaked the typical plot just a little.  If only it didn't treat every woman in the story as a receptacle (literal or metaphorical) for some twisted male fantasy.  If only I enjoyed reading it, I wouldn't be so grumpy!  

I am willing to overlook gender imbalance in my books, if they're good. Lord of the Rings doesn't piss me off, even though Eowyn is the only female of any real merit (don't even give me Galadriel.  Doesn't count.).  You know why it doesn't piss me off?  Because it's too awesome to nitpick.  I will overlook your book's flaws if it is amazing.  The Barrow is not, and today it receives the fullness of my wrath. 

All women characters fall into the madonna/whore complex.  The only exceptions occur when we find out that a madonna character is (gasp) secretly a whore.  Lots of whores.  Naturally, one of our rogues is a whoremaster.  There are lots of passages of attempted eroticism where one woman or another is being raped or is drugged and forced into very rough sex.  One whore is even going to be the centerpiece of a black-magic ritual where she is forced to have sex with a bull.  Who cares if she dies afterwards?  *manly chortle* She's only a woman!  I need to scrub my brain out with soap.

The closest thing Smylie gives us to a "female power" moment is when we realize that one woman having sex in front of a crowd is the buyer of sex rather than the commodity.  Huzzah for women paying to be penetrated in public. Equality is delightful.

The most "well-rounded" female character is named Erim.  She dresses and passes as a man.  Which would totally be interesting if that had anything to do with her character.  But she never does anything particular, she has no conflict (except secretly wanting to be a whore.  No, really.), and no one ever discovers her secret.  She's just a woman passing as a man.  No complexity, no interest, no plot, no point.  She is written quite literally as a man, with breasts. 

Annwyn is the madonna figure, pale, blonde, perfect.  Shunned for having sex out of wedlock (but it's OK; her brother killed her lover), she has been alone in her father's house for ten years.  She's chaste and repentant, except when she's forced to enact twisted incest pseudo-sex with her brothers.  Thanks to a spell, the map to the sword appears under her skin.  The thieves must literally read her naked body to find the treasure.  Oh, and then she becomes possessed and has sex with everything that moves, including a dead guy.  

What the hell, Mark Smylie?

Yes, I am using you as a target for many of my issues about sword and sorcery novels, but I expect better from a book published this year (and not 1973).  There is a way to write fantasy, even horror fantasy, that doesn't feel like a porn flick or an exploitation film.  I shall not be reading any more of your work, and my ovaries are unimpressed with you.   Thus endeth the rant.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Warning: Graphic Post

Graphic novels, that is.  

Oh, readers.  I have been reading SUCH good books lately. And I would like to thank a man I’ve never met: Dr. Mark Sample, Visiting Associate Professor of Digital Studies at Davidson College.  A few years ago, he taught a Graphic Novel course for George Mason University. Somehow I got my paws on an assignment he devised, and I trolled through his syllabus.  If you ever teach the graphic novel, use his tracing assignment: total genius.

For me, graphic novels are kind of hit-or-miss.  Some of them I love, adore, worship.  See Sandman, Maus, anything by Sean Tan.  Some of them, though, I find lacking.  I would rather read them in novel format, where there's a bit more ability to delve into character, or nuance...  See the Fables series (which I really wanted to love), Lost Girls, V for Vendetta, etc.  And I just can't do manga.  I've tried, but I just don't dig it.  

So like I said, I read Sample's syllabus and tossed it in a file somewhere.  Found it again a few weeks ago in a frenzy of paper-purging.  Read it, thought it looked interesting, and requested a few titles I didn't recognize from the local library.  OH MY LORD.  I love the books, and I want to take this defunct class.  Do you think Dr. Sample wants a weird fan letter from a fellow English teacher he's never met?  Because that would not be creepy. At all.  

Before we get to the graphic novels themselves, let me recommend Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a great primer on why graphic novels are more complicated than *merely* a run of pulp comic books.  McCloud discusses the history of the art form, the best way to read it (as art, as well as narrative), and the vocabulary.  It's an easy-to-read comic format, and it's engagingly written.  Absolutely a must-read if you're interested in the format beyond the occasional perusal of Betty & Veronica.

1) Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (no, really, that's how you spell it.  I swear.)

Asterios Polyp is a sonofabitch disgraced architecture professor who has screwed up his marriage and his job with his ego and his libido.  The book opens with his derelict apartment getting hit by lightning.  And it only gets cooler from there. The story is fascinating and multi-layered and would make a really interesting novel in itself.  Polyp has some serious identity issues stemming from the circumstances surrounding his birth: he had a twin who died at birth.  Sometimes he wonders if he stole his twin's life.  The twin makes occasional appearances, both thematically and artistically, and acts as a touchstone for Polyp's journey of self-discovery.

Then, as it's a graphic novel, you add artwork to the already stellar narrative!  One thread of the story is that each human being is the star of his or her own narrative, and thus sees the world differently: not a new idea.  But Mazzucchelli takes this trope and illustrates it beautifully, allowing the reader to visually pick out when one character falls into (or out of) sync with another.  Here are two panels from when Polyp meets his wife:
Note how in the first panel, his environment is shown in clean-lined blue and hers in cross-hatched red, even to the background of the brink mantel.  As their relationship continues, even just into the second panel, the two styles begin to merge as they engage with one another.  As the reader watches their marriage develop, and then dissolve, the stylistic variations underline the emotional tension of the scene.  

There are wordless sections that seem to underline how Polyp is feeling, but indicate that perhaps he is not conscious of his own process.  As if the lack of words in the graphic panels is a parallel to his inability to to self-recognize.  In short, it's pretty amazing.  It's a good read on its own, but has such artistic merit that it's worth reading (or re-reading) McCloud first, so as to pay attention to the art.
Less artistically impressive (at least as far as graphic-novels-as-art-form goes), but still totally awesome is

2) Mike Carey's The Unwritten series.  He has also written the Felix Castor novels (exorcist in modern-day London) and The Girl with All the Gifts (my recent zombie ants review).  He's pretty spiffy and I like how his brain works.  In The Unwritten series, Carey takes A.A. Milne, Harry Potter, and a healthy dash of literary criticism, and tosses 'em all in a blender.  The results are delicious.

Tom Taylor is the son of a gifted and prolific writer whose works have taken the world by storm.  Years after his father's mysterious disappearance, Tom ekes out a living on the coattails of his father's fame, signing books and charging for autographs.  He is, after all, the namesake of his father's famous creation, boy wizard Tommy Taylor.  Naturally, weird magicky things being to happen, and suddenly we the readers are confronted with Tom's essential identity crisis:  is he, indeed, Tommy Taylor, boy wizard?

While readers might first recognize the influence of J.K. Rowling, this series also has definitive ties to A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh.  Milne's son Christopher (Robin) was tormented at school and grew to hate the books that had made him famous.  Our protagonist here is equally dismissive of the stories that provide his livelihood, despising the fans even as he makes a living from them.  

What makes this series more interesting than your average "something magic this way comes" is how very self-aware it is.  It's full of meta-literary criticism about the nature of narrative, the art of storytelling, and the traditional conflation between character and muse/writer/actor.  Because these characters are fighting over narrative.  Stories are all that matter.  Life truly does imitate art, in that places are only remembered in song or in story.  Strength is only accumulated through collective belief; if enough people believe a person or place is powerful, that person/place becomes powerful.  It's a fascinating idea, and one is addressed in a fresh, engaging way in this series.  The series creators are critiquing and highlighting the process of making literature while making literature themselves.  It's lovely. 

I haven't gotten through the entirety of the series (apparently someone else in my library system is reading this, too.  The nerve!), but I can only hope that it continues to be as insightful, as entertaining, and as clever as it is right now.  Tommy Taylor, I think I love you.

But most of all, Dr. Mark Sample, I love you, wherever you are.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Apparently, I need a nap.  A long one.  Two of my most recent reads have been, quite unintentionally, re-tellings of Sleeping Beauty.  Then I caught Maleficent.  This theme is not helping with my yawns.  

Anna Sheehan's A Long, Long Sleep is fun.  Fluffy, and somewhat predictable, but fun. Poor little rich girl Rose Fitzroy has just been woken from her stasis tube...after 62 years.  Needless to say, somethings have changed.  During her extensive nap-time,  the world suffered through a few resurgences of plague--seriously, bubonic plague returned--and social upheaval.  Rose is overwhelmed with the new world, complete with an overload of new technology, political maneuverings she can't understand, and atrophy-induced physical weakness.  Oh, and embarrassing teen crushes (told you it was fluffy, Gentle Readers). 

The ending is a bit odd, and feels vaguely icky, but it does wrap everything in a nice, neat little bow.  I have a feeling that with one of the Big Reveals in the climax of the book, we'll be seeing a sequel, possibly a trilogy.  I'm not planning on reading the possible sequels--this one wasn't strong enough to pique my ongoing interest--but I'm sure there's a YA audience out there somewhere that will.

Speaking of YA re-tellings of Sleeping Beauty, I also finished Karen Healey's When We Wake.  My favorite part of the book is the cover.  This is not necessarily a slam: LOOK AT IT!  It's gorgeous.  The book is, you know, readable.  Tegan is a contemporary teenager who dies suddenly and wakes up a hundred years from now in a military facility.  (Note to self: don't donate your body to science in Australia; you'll become cryogenic government property.Australia is the preeminent world power in a future of food and water shortages, rising ocean tides, and dying ecosystems. So Tegan talks her way into going to school (where she crushes on the one boy she shouldn't), agrees to supervised media outings (that go horribly wrong, of course), and realizes that the future is still full of prejudice, cruelty, and indifference (shocking).  Oh, and there are chase scenes, because, you know, she once did parkour for fun...and now she does it to save the world!   

Will it have a sequel? you ask.  Yup.  I saw While We Run in the bookstore just today.  Nope, I won't be reading it.  But I do want to wear the book cover makeup for Halloween.

Then, absolutely without planning it, I swear, I went to see Maleficent in the local second-run movie theatre.  While this movie is certainly not all it could be, it was pretty good.  I did roll my eyes more than once in the dark, I must admit, but I blame Disney for keeping to the animated Sleeping Beauty script a bit too closely.  Not sure we needed the three fairies, and some of the clunky dialogue could have been re-tooled.  Plus, I know we needed to see Prince Phillip, but I just wanted to give him a haircut; he looks like Justin Beiber.  And am I the only one who noticed that Sleeping Beauty was only asleep for, like, 20 minutes?  That's not Sleeping Beauty; that's Napping Teenager.  
But can we talk about the costumes?  O holy schnikes, Gentle Readers, I want me some Maleficent horns.  Apparently they were made for the movie by artisans who specialize in fetishware.  I don't know what kind of fetish needs to have Maleficent horns, but I might be willing to look into it.  The costumes are just SO GOOD.

I just can't get on board with the critics, though.  This is not a "feminist revisionist backstory" of an evil fairy, O Kate Taylor of The Globe and Mail!  It is certainly female-centric, and yes, it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, but I really can't see it as a feminist fairy tale.

My biggest issue is the rape narrative.  When greedy Stefan is tasked with destroying Maleficent, he can't stab her to death while she's in a drugged sleep.  They're childhood friends, after all.  But he has no problem sawing off her wings, in a pretty clear rape narrative.  He can't dominate her through penetration, so he violates her body through mutilation.  Thanks, Disney.  You gave me nightmares.  

While Maleficent does reclaim her agency and her power, she does it through violence and a continuation of abuse.  Plus, if we read the narrative in this way, her (spoilers!) reclamation of her wings at the end is a weird negation of the violence visited upon her.  It's as if the movie is trying to erase her trauma.  This doesn't feel like a healthy working-through of issues (or, you know, a kids' movie).  I love Jolie in the movie, and I want her clothes.  But I have serious reservations about the film.  I found it watchable, but I just can't enjoy it.   

I need a new fairy tale to fixate on.  Maybe a nice Little Red Riding Hood.  Death to the wolf, and all that...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Zombie (Ants)

The book opens with a lovely, precocious little girl named Melanie living in a military testing base straight out of Dark Angel or Universal Soldier.  She describes her sterile living environment, her slapdash education, her solitary existence.  Oh, and then she describes Sundays, when she eats her one meal a week.  Of live grubs.

Yep.  Welcome to Mike Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts.  Little Melanie is a zombie.

This book scared the bejeezus out of me.  Most zombie books have some sort of rabid rhesus monkey who bites activists, or alien goo that eats brains, or whatever.  This book’s science is real, and it’s freaking terrifying!  Have you read about zombie ants?  Do you ever want to sleep again, Gentle Readers?  Yeesh.

So in this book, humans have become susceptible to a mutation of the zombie ant fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.  You know, an actual fungus that takes over ants’ brains and controls their actions and explodes their heads and…  Have I mentioned the yeesh?

The science is pretty spot-on, for a horror book.  And that only makes it creepier.  I prefer to be afraid of unlikely things, thank you very much.  Now I have a creepy aversion to ants.

So most people are walking fungus zombies with no brains, just a hunger to snack on them.  But there are exceptions.  Children, who look and act normal, but are infected with Ophiocordyceps. Melanie is the brightest of these.

Helen Justineau is Melanie’s favorite teacher, and has become emotionally attached to her charge, in spite of all the restrictions against it ( calls their relationship "Matilda...with zombies.")   When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, Melanie and Miss Justineau are joined by a few soldiers and the head of the zombie research program in a desperate run for safety.  

The research director, Dr. Caroline Caldwell, has a desperate need to examine Melanie’s brain.  Yep, the scientist in charge of saving humanity needs braaaaaaaaaains.  So many zombie metaphors, so little time.  She is cold, calculating, and fascinating, seeing the children's human tendencies as nothing more than a clever evolutionary tactic by the fungus.  She reminds a colleague “that the subject presents as a child but is actually a fungal colony animating a child’s body. There’s no place for sentiment here.”   Certainly the reader wants humanity to defeat the fungus, but it’s hard to like this unpleasant woman.

And therein lies the most interesting thing about this book.  We don’t know who to root for.  Melanie is our protagonist; she's also a zombie who has to fight not to eat Miss Justineau's face.  Dr. Caldwell is fighting to cure humanity, but she's pretty nasty.  You can't root for (or against, really) fungal spores...and it all leads to a very muddled sense of hero and villain, in a truly delightful way. 

The ending, too, will knock your socks off.  Not the climax, but the very end.  About two pages before the book closes, Carey yanks the rug.  And you'll like it.  Clever, intriguing, and completely unexpected.  If you'll excuse the pun, Gentle Readers, this is a zombie book with brains.