Sorrow and anger: Books I couldn’t finish or wished I hadn’t started

I don’t usually write negative reviews of books, because (1) it’s usually not fair on a writer to pillory them in public, (2) why waste the reader’s time? But sometimes writing a reasoned critical appraisal for the record can be a public service. For those searching online to find out if anyone else hated this book as much as they did, even a negative review can be reassuring, to confirm they they’re not the only ones who gave up. Here are seven of my recent duds that you may wish to avoid.

ingsSimon Ings, Hot Wire (1995, 2014 Gollancz edition) Cyber-punk. I wish I had taken the time to look inside before I wasted £8.99 on this. After a saccharine opening scene set on a beach, this novel moves on to a revolting and lengthy description of how two addicts open up an old man’s skull to extract his hard wiring, while he’s only mildly sedated, and then rape and mutilate his grand-daughter. I can read horror if the story justifies it, but this was gratuitous, and its intention to shock was successful. Also, misogyny seems to be a recurring theme in the novel, since all the women encountered in my half hour of reading were defined as sexualised objects, associated with violence I didn’t want in my head. The cyberpunkishness is wearying, not stimulating. The cover art is gorgeous. I should have known better to judge this book solely by that.

Catherine Carswell, Lying Awake (1950, 1997 Canongate Classics) Memoir of Scottish author known mostly for her championship of D H Lawrence’s writing. I’m not sure that this should ever have been published, since it’s an hommage to a minor literary figure by her uncritical son. It’s in three parts: the first is a patchwork memoir of growing up in Victorian Glasgow, and reads pretty much like all the others I’ve read of that genre. The second part, of scraps and gnomic phrases from Carswell’s papers, carefully assembled by her son after her death, is meaningless without context. The third section, of letters from the author to a friend during the Second World War, has mild interest for ‘women writing in wartime’ historians, but, again, unless you’re interested in Carswell, there is very little here.

Vonda McIntyre, Superluminal (1983). SF space opera. When I realised that I had never actually read Superluminal, McIntyre’s third novel, since I had been confusing its plot with that of her short story ‘Aztecs’, from which she says it was developed, I bought this with huge anticipation for summer reading. I can only think that it might have been a very early novel that she published after the successes of Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting, which are both superb. There are some very good ideas, but I cannot believe in her star-crossed lovers, nor in her space port or flight protocols, or indeed anything technical and machine-based since this is just dated in a way that her other novels soar past effortlessly. The novel’s plot matches Anne McCaffrey’s The Crystal Singer (1982) too closely, and her intra-dolphinate human subspecies is a great idea abandoned. It is SO disappointing.

woolfVirginia Woolf, The Waves (1931). Major literary landmark. I read this because it’s the second-last Woolf novel I haven’t read, and in my line of work one needs to have read them. I hated it. I could teach it as a text demonstrating significant literary innovation, as a modernist challenge to the realist novel, for close reading of the techniques of the stream of consciousness. But as a novel to enjoy, for pleasure? Nope.

China Miéville, Un Lun Dun (2007). YA fantasy adventure in alternate London. This is advertised as Miéville’s answer to / version of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and it certainly sticks very closely to the basic concept. Miéville’s trademark inventiveness is fully present, but I got annoyed by the derivative plot and decorative details. He reuses very famous bits from Tolkien, Chris Riddell, C S Lewis and J K Rowling, for instance, without much bothering to twist or recolour them, and for a YA readership, that’s lazy. The Marxist politics underlying the plot are blatant and enjoyable, but overall this novel feels predictable and flabby. Miéville can do YA fantastically well: Railsea was as hard and sharp as Perdido Street Station. Un Lun Dun is too long for its inevitable plot, which is worth reading only for the superlative inventions and the quest plot reworked.

priestleyJ B Priestley, Jenny Villiers (1947). Novel of the theatre that would rather be a play. Priestley had become a successful playwright and a radio broadcaster speaking for the common man by the time this work came out (when he was on a bit of treadmill), and this novel is an uncomfortable mash-up. Its woodcut illustrations in this edition are too good for the pedestrian storytelling, and the plot is transparently inevitable, even though it’s a ghost story. The plot is a little too clichéd, and the mechanics of narration are told us, not shown. It reads like a novel written by a tired man with one idea and no interest in letting it develop. If you feel like reading London theatre fiction read Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh, or even David Copperfield, because Priestley stole all his characters from there.

Amber Reeves, A Lady and her Husband (1914, 2016 Persephone Books). Feminist Edwardian melodrama. Full credit to Persephone for reprinting this as a historical landmark, and a novel exposing exploitation in tea-shops and the slippery slope to penury for a working-girl who makes one mistake. But it’s boring. Very, very dull. Full credit also for reprinting a novel in which the lead character is an ‘older’ woman (though she’s only about 40), but why couldn’t Reeves have made her interesting? I get that she’s a fragile, dominated creature who is learning how to negotiate the frightening world outside her open cage, but for a novel, more gumption would have made her a character to root for. I just wanted to slap her. The most interesting character is her sharp secretary Miss Percival, who won’t live with her own husband and strains to pull her dim and conventional employer even only a little way towards emancipation and freedom.

Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes: An Interim Reading

Gilman 1I’ve struggled hard to get through Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman. I’ve already written about her seventeenth-century historical novellas starring Ben Jonson, which I consider completely brilliant. Cloud & Ashes is different, in that its setting is pre-industrial, magical and timeless, rather than in the English court of James I and VI. Its three constituent stories (one is short, one is middling, and the other is a novel) are not coherent narratives, but tell episodes from within a world that she first published in Moonwise, and assorted standalone short stories. They are fantastical, linguistically dazzling, and bloody hard to read. The cover blurbs compare Gilman to James Joyce, and I can see why: this volume is challenging, ignores the conventions, and forces the reader along a path that doesn’t so much lead to enlightenment as a cloud of unknowing and bewilderment.

Cloud & Ashes was joint winner of the 2009 James L Tiptree Award, which is high praise. I read the first story, ‘Jack Daw’s Pack’ (which was a Nebula finalist in 2001 for the best Novelette), and found myself in a dangerous and cruel landscape. I fought my way to the bitter end of ‘A Crowd of Bone’ (which won the World Fantasy Award for a Novella in 2004) and am very little the wiser. ‘Unleaving’, a new novel set in this world, published here for the first time, had me stumped on page 1. The stories are told in a faux seventeenth-century mode, convincingly handled by Gilman, who is a Shakespearian scholar. The vocabulary is unfamiliar, some of it probably invented, a lot of of it missed out, and the word order and arrangement is deliberately, paralysingly obscure. The mind freezes in confusion because sentence after sentence Does Not Make Sense. The way to read these stories is to skate over that thin ice of non-understanding and hope to fall in, be submerged and finally get it.

At plot level I can just about trace the story of ‘A Crowd of Bone’ – Kit Lightwode the fiddler is taken by a witch’s servant to become part of her household, and runs away into the wilds with the witch’s daughter Thea instead. They are in love and they roam the roads as beggars. But that is nearly all I can work out, since the narrative is almost completely dialogue, with snatches of truncated, shimmying description that shies away from actually saying what is happening. There are many speaking voices, often speaking from different moments in the story, from different perspectives. Untangling these is done by finding buried clues in the words used, a single name, possibly one instance of a verb in the past tense in a page of writing. As I said, it’s challenging.

Names move into and out of the narrative with damn’ all explanation. Whin, who seems to be a framing character with magical abilities and finds out Kit’s story after she rescues him from drowning, is completely unexplained, but has the responsibility of carrying a lot of story. Annis is the witch: good (actually not good at all, she does horrible things). Brock is a shepherd who looks like a badger and has pockets of useful things to hand out at will to the starving, freezing Kit and Thea. Cloud and Lune are countries (or are they states of being?). Ashes is – what? A condition? A transient personality? A life skill? A role of ritual significance? A metaphor for doom? Gilman knows, the readers of Moonwise may have an inkling, but I don’t. Ashes is referred to constantly as something that Whin, or others, used to be, or will become, but that’s something we have to find out, should we still have the patience. Margaret is – who? I think she will be explained in ‘Unleaving’, but, as I say, I haven’t the energy to tackle that one yet, and if I stop now, I will forget everything in the earlier stories and understand ‘Unleaving’ even less. It’s a reader’s bind: to fully appreciate Cloud & Ashes you have to read all of it, but ‘Unleaving’ constitutes more than half of this thick book, and I am exhausted. I want to read something less consciously tricksy, less dense, less wilfully unhelpful and less challenging. Sorry, Greer.

Greer Gilman, Cloud & Ashes (Small Beer Press 2015), ISBN: 978-1-9315-2055-3

Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle

gaiman 1I happened upon this beautiful Gaiman-Riddell collaboration from 2014 in the Cambridge branch of Forbidden Planet, and was looked upon strangely when I bore it back to my friends in triumph. I explained that since I live abroad I have fewer ways of finding out what is creeping into bookshops without notifying me, and their look of ‘so you don’t Follow NeilHimself’s feed, then?’ diminished, slightly. I was abashed, but I can’t follow every author I like, can I?

The Sleeper and the Spindle may have been marketed as a children’s book, and I no longer dare buy my children books in case they already own them, or look at me pityingly for getting it wrong. The Sleeper and the Spindle is, of course, a retelling of ‘The Sleeping Princess’; thorns, sleep, enchantment and all. Chris Riddell’s stunning line art has enchanted me ever since my children were reading the Edge Chronicles on repeat, but this is the first time I’ve bought one of his books for myself. The dustwrapper is translucent, so you look through the thorns to see the sleeping princess beneath. There are pictures everywhere, so this is a Riddell book with captions by Gaiman, really.

Gaiman has done his usual tricksy thing of reversing every damn element in a story to catch the reader out. This is ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ interbred with ‘Snow White’s Revenge’ to create a very unsettling plot that owes far more to Grimm than the Ladybird Fairy Stories. There are dwarves carrying a precious jewel to buy provisions. There are two countries barely half an hour apart as the crow flies, but the crow doesn’t fly that way because of the immense and spiky mountain range. There is sleep, great billowing masses of it, creeping slowly towards the frontier. There are thorns covering acres of land, old and dead near the castle walls, and crisply festooned with armoured skeletons nearer the outer edges. There is an old woman hobbling about the courtyard, and there are not many of the castle’s sleeping animals left. A young woman sleeps easily and peacefully on a damask bed, and there is a spindle on the floor.

gaiman 2None of the above is what you will expect it to be, and the knight riding towards the castle with the dwarves to show her the way has long black hair and a determined expression. There will be a kiss, but it will not have the effect we think it will. It’s tremendous, and it’s beautiful.

Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, The Sleeper and the Spindle (2014, Bloomsbury Books)