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Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Lilies of Dawn by Vanessa Fogg


There is a lake of marvels. A lake of water lilies that glow with the color of dawn. For generations Kai’s people have harvested these lilies, dependent upon them for the precious medicines they provide.

But now a flock of enchanted cranes has come to steal and poison the harvest. The lilies are dying. Kai’s people are in peril. A mysterious young man from the city thinks he might have a solution. Kai must work with him to solve the mystery of the cranes, and it will take all her courage, love, strength, and wisdom to do what she must to save both the lilies and her people.
The language of myth is third person. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Ramayana, the Legend of the White Snake; there are of course exceptions, though largely within other third person myths (think of Odysseus’ recounting of his voyage in the Odyssey). The myth-teller is divorced from the myth by this device; it lends authority and distance. Lately though, there is a movement to make myth more personal, and more immediate; in The Lilies of Dawn, Vanessa Fogg shows her allegiance to this movement.

The Lilies of Dawn does it excellently, too. A slim volume, 60 pages of story, takes in a whole cosmology, but never paints it in detail; this isn’t an attempt at a classification of the system of deities and heavens, but a specific story, told from amongst many, with stories very clearly spinning off it and into it. Fogg suggests the world in which this tale takes place with rough strokes of the pen, rather than detailed sketches; calls to mind associations with the scent of the lily, rather than a full scientific sketch of one. This is myth in a truer sense than many mythic retellings we see now, clearly part of a set of stories rather than a story independent of others, and that lends it a richness and strength that Fogg capitalises on beautifully.

It helps, of course, that Fogg’s writing is beautiful, and lyrical; that is, The Lilies of Dawn has a flowing quality in its prose, like liquid running over one, cleansing and cooling, a kind of gentle current that simultaneously allows one to relax into it whilst still pulling one along with it. It’s an impressive feat; the craftsmanship is such that one doesn’t notice it for itself until the end of the story, when its strength to carry one through becomes suddenly apparent, and the loss of its beauty at the end slightly wrenching.

That’s important, because the characters Fogg creates don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Kai, our voice and protagonist, is someone we’ve met before, all too many times; the frustrated younger sibling trapped by duty, feeling they’re failing in it, and over their head. Indeed, none of the characters of The Lilies of Dawn are novel; their mythic and cultural resonance is obvious but does not successfully lend them character, only archetype, that could have done with a much greater attention paid to individual interiority. Instead we’re left with a cast acting out a myth because a myth is to be acted out, bereft of true reasons of their own.

Of course, we essentially come to myths for the story, that is to say the plot, of them, and that is why we return to them and retell them time and again; what is to be said of the plot of The Lilies of Dawn? It isn’t a subtle thing, with twists and turns that the reader doesn’t expect; it takes a fairly standard route from start to finish, with minor embellishments, but does it well, which is a skill all too often neglected. Hints aren’t dropped without thought, but the conclusion is inevitable and foreshadowed excellently; the inevitable trajectory of the story is finely wrought, and well carried out.

In the end, does the strength of plot and the sheer beauty of the language outweigh the simplicity of the characters? Well, The Lilies of Dawn is myth, and myth often has simplistic characters, and less well done plots; rarely does it have language so beautifully tuned as Fogg produced here, though.

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The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussein with Ayisha Malik

Secretlivesoftheamirsisters.jpgThe four Amir sisters Fatima, Farah, Bubblee and Mae are the only young Muslims in the quaint English village of Wyvernage.

On the outside, despite not quite fitting in with their neighbours, the Amirs are happy. But on the inside, each sister is secretly struggling.

Fatima is trying to find out who she really is and after fifteen attempts, finally pass her driving test. Farah is happy being a wife but longs to be a mother. Bubblee is determined to be an artist in London, away from family tradition, and Mae is coping with burgeoning Youtube stardom.

Yet when family tragedy strikes, it brings the Amir sisters closer together and forces them to learn more about life, love, faith and each other than they ever thought possible.
Let’s be bluntly honest about this; I didn’t pick this book up on its own merits. The genre it is part of is of no real interest to me, and while I admire Nadiya and her baking and indeed personality, that wouldn’t normally be enough to make me pick up a family saga. But then, Jenny Colgan wrote a review of the book for the Guardian. A review that manages to be sneering, superior, racist, misogynistic, snobbish, and damaging to the project of getting more people reading. And so enters my motivation for reading this: spite. Straightforward, simple spite to Jenny Colgan and the Guardian. So, what did spite get me…?

In essence, it got me a perfectly cromulent novel. The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters, written by Nadiya Hussein (with, as the title page states quite openly, Ayisha Malik – no hidden-as-if-shameful cowriter here!), is a domestic family saga, a story of one family unravelling in the face of tragedy and revelations that come out of tragedy, before coming back together again; threads in the tapestry being pulled unto unravelling, before being woven into a new, fresh, but still the same form as before. It’s not a new story, although it is a new permutation, bringing together several elements that we’ve seen before to create, not something novel, but something familiar yet subtly different by the combination of the elements. The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters inevitably follows four interlocking stories, which at times intersect in ways that feel far more forced than natural, bringing together a number of different elements under a single theme: discovering your family and your place in the world; it is essentially a coming of age story, which is quite the feat to pull off well (as it does) with protagonists who are largely adults.

This is really a character study, or set thereof; primarily of the titular Amir sisters, but also of the rest of the family, and some of the friends adjacent to it – the focus is tightly on the four characters who are our narrators and guides, but wide enough to never be claustrophobic, and the way those four and their different, peculiar insights appear allow us a far greater insight into the other characters of the book, other sisters included, than any single narrator likely would. That each chapter is headed with the name of the sister who narrates it is stunningly unnecessary; they’re each wholly distinctive characters, with not only different interests, but different voices, different takes on the family, different observations, etc. The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters does rely a little too heavily on them all coming together at the end and being of one mind, and of their differences being complementary at the crucial moment, but it’s well written enough to carry that off, even through the slight strain of credulity.

There are some niggles, though; the first is a truly minor one, but an easy fix: if you’re going to include a Tweet in your book, the simplest thing in the world is to count how many characters it is. Instead, there is a tweet that is around 200 characters – a minor niggle but enough to throw me out, and egregious enough an extension that it actually caught my eye. A rather larger problem in The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is that it queer-baits, intentionally or otherwise. One of the sisters, Bubblee, is living an independent life in London, with her “close friend” Sasha, who she models naked, who will drop everything and rush to Bubblee if she needs it when she has to return to family… but they’re just friends. While seeing female friendship in a novel is powerful, this is a novel full of it, and every expression of this particular relationship reads as queer-coded without being made explicitly so.

However, I’m going to engage directly with Colgan’s criticism of the book, now (not of its existence; Joanne Harris did that fantastically). Apparently, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters‘s “main thrust, overall, is that big noisy religious families are all more or less the same”, and that this “didn’t add much for this Irish/Italian Catholic [that is, Jenny Colgan].” Not only is this a misreading of the book, it’s a misapprehension of what the book is about; this isn’t a book about “big noisy religious families”, it’s about a specific big noisy religious family, and its internal dynamics. If it feels familiar to one because of one’s own family dynamics, that’s not a failure, that’s a success in the writing; this isn’t about writing The Other for a white gaze, which is why we don’t get long spiels about (for instance) exactly how curry is made, it’s about life as it is lived, which is a whole other thing. I really enjoyed the portrayal of a family different from my own (small, nonreligious) one; it was engagingly written but not didactic, not seeking to educate me about The (Muslim, Brown) Other, just seeking to be a novel, to engage with the reader on that level.

In the end, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a perfectly cromulent novel. Nadiya Hussein isn’t going to set the literary world aflame with this book, but might give something to that girl sitting in the library and the kitchen, especially (but by no means only) if she’s wearing a headscarf.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.


Women’s March: Where Next?

Pride Saltire.jpg

The Women’s March(es) on Saturday, assembled around the world in protest at a racist, misogynistic, transphobic, queerphobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, hateful bigot’s inauguration as President of the United States of America, were a moment in time when huge numbers of people mobilised for shared progressive, or at least not regressive, goals, coalescing around a specific US event as a pearl around a piece of grit. That movement is already starting to dissolve, inevitably, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to talk a bit about where I’m going to be investing my political energies…

Because I’m in Scotland, this is going to have a distinctly Scottish flavour, but there are likely to be equivalent issues to work on in your locality; I’m going to lay out, in reasonable detail, what I’m going to be campaigning on with specifics related to Scotland, but sadly, misogyny, transphobia, queerphobia, and racism, aren’t uniquely Scottish. This is less prescription than description and inspiration!

First, and closest to my heart, the Scottish National Party, in their 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Election manifesto, pledged to reform gender recognition laws in Scotland so that they are “in line with international best practice for people who are Transgender or Intersex”, and to “build on and improve the standalone protocol that’s been developed in Scotland for people seeking gender reassignment” (SNP Manifesto, Diverse but Equal section). As a trans person myself – I’m enby, thanks for asking – this matters to me; under current circumstances, there is no way to get legal recognition outside the gender binary, and even within the gender binary, it requires a complicated process involving various others agreeing that one is sane, correct about one’s actual gender, et cetera. This is ridiculous. The Irish system follows something far closer to international best practice: an adult can declare to the government that they are of a certain (binary, at present) gender. The government recognises their decision. The end. The SNP have the power, with the support of either the Greens or Liberal Democrats (or Labour, if they’re so inclined) to pass a measure through the Scottish Parliament to make this law; they have the power to recognise nonbinary people in law; they have the power to smooth the road to transition, and to improve the funding of Gender Identity Clinics (the Sandyford Centre in Glasgow has a 12-18 month waiting list. I’ve been on that list since May). So far, no bills to do this have been brought forward; I intend to keep pressuring my MSPs, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, to change that by developing proposals to put forward either in this or the next Parliamentary session, ie by the end of 2018.

Secondly, the Scottish Government, like the Westminster Government, has proven reluctant to require comprehensive, inclusive sex & relationships education (SRE) be taught in all schools. A number of Scottish schools are religious institutions; these have a very patchy record on the teaching of SRE, which isn’t to set aside the supposedly secular institutions which, either through bigotry in the community or the hangover of Section 28, fail their LGBTQI pupils. The TIE Campaign, which has the support of a number of SNP MSPs including the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is pushing the Scottish Government to pass legislation requiring compulsory, comprehensive, inclusive SRE in all schools; so far, the SNP, despite committing to the idea (see that section of their manifesto mentioned above again), have not yet brought forward any concrete proposals, despite a number of possibilities having been advanced. I intend to push my MSPs to bring something forward for a vote in the Scottish Parliament within this Parliamentary session.

Moving to something with less direct personal impact on me, in the wake of a xenophobic, race-baiting EU referendum last year and the elevation of neo-Nazi (no, I won’t call them alt-right) voices by the election and inauguration of Trump, the humanitarian crisis that is the way we in the West treat refugees is continuing, and worsening thanks to hard-hearted political leaders. While the Scottish government does not have the power to set refugee policy for the UK, it has made it clear that it stands with refugees and would welcome many more to Scotland’s shores; under both David Cameron and Theresa May, however, Westminster has charted a very different, much less compassionate course. I am going to get more involved in Refugees Welcome, an organisation aimed at both lobbying politicians and supporting those refugees who do actually manage to enter the UK, to try to push a more compassionate vision of British society.

I’m also going to be talking about a lot of other causes in littler ways, because I’ve only got so much energy and these are the three I want to invest it in most; Scottish Independence has a great, strong team working for it, I’ll lend my shoulder occasionally but the heavy lifting is being done already. Black Lives Matter is a vitally important cause, but not one it’s easy for me, as a white person in Glasgow, to directly involve myself in, except at protests; I’ll try to turn out for those when I can; similarly, #NoDAPL. Environmentalism is also an incredibly important concern for the whole world, but it has a whole political party dedicated to it, whereas trans rights are at the front of no one’s minds at present.

These are the issues I am choosing to prioritise. I hope you are all choosing different ones; I’m focusing on these because others are focused elsewhere; but like I’ll lend you a helping hand, I’d be grateful if you lent us one too. There are too many important issues for one person to be involved in all of them; I’d really like to hear what the issues closest to your hearts are.

And remember. Be the fascist-punching gif you want to see in the world.


ETA a shout out to tireless activist and fast, solid friend Erin Lynn Jeffreys Hodges!

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold


Lord Cazaril has been in turn courier, courtier, castle-warder, and captain; now he is but a crippled ex-galley slave seeking nothing more than a menial job in the kitchens of the Dowager Provincara, the noble patroness of his youth. But Fortune’s wheel continues to turn for Cazaril, and he finds himself promoted immediately to the exalted and dangerous position of secretary-tutor to the Iselle, the beautiful, fiery sister of the heir to Chalion’s throne.

Amidst the decaying splendour and poisonous intrigue of Chalion’s ancient capital, Cardegoss, Cazaril is forced to encounter both old enemies and surprising allies, as he seeks to lift the curse of misfortune that clings to the royal family of Chalion, and to all who come too close to them…
Lois McMaster Bujold is probably best known for her sprawling space epic the Vorkosigan Saga, which she has been writing for the past three decades; in amongst this, critically feted and barely less well known, she’s also written a few fantasy novels, set in the world of Chalion. This isn’t the first of the Chalion novels I’ve read – I started with Penric’s Demon, a beautiful novella out from Subterranean – but it was the first written, so I’ve come to it by a slightly circuitous route.

There are a couple of big themes I want to pick out, but Curse of Chalion is fundamentally a novel, and so must be assessed on plot and character. And on those scores, Bujold is unsurprisingly solid. The plot relies on coincidence heavily for its conclusion but arguably earns that, by invoking the gods and destiny; throughout, it’s a driven, fast-paced thing, that hangs not on a succession of violences but far more heavily on communication, diplomacy, politics, and maneuvering and mutual respect, in a heartening, if sadly uncommon, turn. The plot is driven largely by men and women trying to do their best; there is a consistent message of humans trying to do their flawed best in face of a confusing world where that isn’t always clear. For a five hundred page novel there’s surprisingly little dead space; Bujold has a tendency to repetition to drive a philosophical point home, or to linger on a character’s struggles to make sure we know what’s going on, and there’s an extent to which the first hundred-odd pages are prologue to a story we could be dropped a little nearer the start of. Once it gets going, though, Bujold makes sure each obstacles leads neatly to the next, bigger, linked obstacle, drawing the reader through the rest of Curse of Chalion with a powerful confidence.

The characters are where Bujold’s strength as a writer really shines through, though; almost every one feels like an individual, with their own motives which, looked at through their lens, are positive. Cazaril, especially, has a brilliant sense of humour, which had me laughing out loud at some particularly droll moments; but Curse of Chalion is peppered with astute people whose intelligence isn’t all directed the same way, and who aren’t geniuses, but who notice the world around them. The antagonists of the novel are in some cases painted in very broad brush-strokes – Dondo is a bit of a cliche, and his followers similarly so, with their “bad characters we’re meant to dislike debauching in every way”; indeed, the novel is singularly unsubtle in who we’re meant to sympathise with, weakening the general message a bit.

Written in 2001, Curse of Chalion feels like a humanist and religious response to the grim movement led by George R. R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and others. It opens following Cazaril as a beggar, who has been whipped nearly to death while a galley slave; unflinchingly, Bujold tackles PTSD, male sexual assault, mutilation and violence, but without the pornographising of the grimdark movement, and without pretending it is only ever directed at women (rape is never portrayed, but it is implied, of both men and women). However, this isn’t in the name of showing how awful everyone is, and that there’s no hope; Curse of Chalion isn’t that kind of book. Instead, it’s about showing how bad people can be; about how society (and, admittedly, magic) can enable people to be vile or force them into vileness, as much as freedom of choice can lead them to be noble, good people (and that the latter can win, though they won’t necessarily do so).

That’s the humanism; but the religiousness of the novel is perhaps more interesting. Curse of Chalion isn’t a straightforward parable, by any stretch of the imagination, although the differences between the Quintarian and Quadrene believers have parallels within Christianity and within the family of the Abrahamic religions. Instead, it’s a meditation on faith itself, and on what faith is; it’s a generous novel, in that regard, in a way that much of fantastic fiction isn’t. The gods work, as in most practiced theologies, through humans opening their hearts and their wills to them; and the gods do actually work through that, in ways both subtle and large. Religion is assumed, but doesn’t make one good – one can be a practitioner and vile, or one who just makes gestures to faithfulness and on the side of good. Bujold’s exploration of faith has a subtlety and deftness to its touch that is belied by the apparent bluntness of its message; after all, some of the greatest good deeds of the novel have nothing to do with faith, and some of the darkest deeds have everything to do with it – Bujold’s idea of faith is essentially, after all, humanitarian.

One notable flaw of Curse of Chalion is its approach to queerness. It is, in some ways, novelly bad at its presentation of homosexuality, which almost becomes a strength, but still falls down. While the backstory includes multiple queer characters, including a poly triad, either every instance of queerness in the world is tragic (involving the death of one partner, often because of the other) or sadistic (because societal repression); homosexual rape in all-male environments in Curse of Chalion isn’t about power, as we sociologically know to be the case, but about expression of desires society demands be repressed, and so a matter of queerness. If we saw a happy queer couple in the book, this would be defused; but instead we see single queers happy, and queer couples consistently doomed to failure.

This leaves us with a novel that is at once disappointed in its approach to issues of queerness, but essentially uplifting; a painful contradiction for this queer but, in the end, the humanism wins out over the homophobic tropes, to make Curse of Chalion a pleasant, thought-provoking read.

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Sponsorship and Blogging

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m asking for money on Patreon. This post is about explaining why I’m asking for money, and justifying asking for money. You don’t have to give me money. You don’t have to do anything with your money you don’t want to! I won’t be offended! But I thought I should lay out my reasoning a little. And to start with, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Gollancz publicist and vlogger Stevie Finegan, aka SableCaught, who recently made this video:

(Transcript on her tumblr)

What I do here is labour. That is’s labour I do out of love makes it no less labour than my paid work as a bookseller, which I also do out of love; no less than the events I organise at work for authors I adore, for which organising I am paid; no less than writing a novel, which we all (I hope) agree authors should be paid for. It is effort, and time, and not always pleasant, especially when writing negative things about a book by someone one knows and likes. It is, in fact, work, and work is not necessarily its own reward.

I’m looking at a slightly different aspect of paid-for blogging than Stevie, though; while her subsequent video was directly paid for by one sponsor, in advance, I am asking you for money. Neither of these is intrinsically more honest or better a method than the other, I hasten to add – one is simply more open to me! I am doing this because I’ve blogged before, more than once, in more than one space, and fallen off the bandwagon. There is no positive reinforcement, no feedback, for blogging the way there is for, say, tweeting; at least not on the same scale; and writing a post takes more time than even a long tweetstream does. So not only is this labour that is expected to be its own reward, it can be lonely labour, too.

So, why put out my cap? As mentioned earlier, I work as a bookseller. The book industry is, as we all know, going through interesting times, and has been for a while; being a part-time employee in a bookshop keeps body and soul together and (thanks to a generous staff discount) in books, but at times rather tightly so. A little breathing room afforded me by your patronage would be a relief in those tighter times, and as someone with depression, that extra anxiety taken away would be a boon to my productivity here.

However, the greater reason, prompted by Stevie’s video, was that it’s positive reinforcement. Every time I post a review, or an essay, I’ll get a direct reward; every time I get a reward, I’ll know it was for doing the work, and that’s an incentive to do the work, even when it’s hard (and writing reviews, as any reviewer will tell you, often is hard), even when I don’t want to do it (no one wants to criticise their friends!), even when it seems pointless to do it (see also, depression). The Patreon sponsorship will reward me for doing the work, and thus, I’ll do more work, with reasons to do that work – especially once people build up an expectation of posts; extrinsic pressure to do the work, plus a reward for doing it? Yes, that’ll do.

So, in sum? Please put some money in the cap, and help me blog!


Finally, a disclaimer about sponsorship and bias. As Stevie says, sponsorship means you’re paying for my time, not my endorsement; I’m not going to pretend a work by someone who sponsors me is better or less problematic than it is (or conversely, a work by someone who doesn’t worse or more problematic!).