A few recent reads

I’ve been reading a lot lately, because I’ve been super stressed, which means that I read every spare minute. Don’t ask me why this is. I can’t tell you. You would think that, being stressed, I would engage directly with my stressors and then take my time to enjoy books, but not. I’ve just been spamming everything and screaming internally.

The upside of this is that I have read a lot of good stuff recently. Most of my recent reads have been novellas, but I’ve also devoured some novel-length pieces (always more satisfying for me). So what have I been reading? So glad you asked.

Final Girls – I actually went on a binge of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) around the first of the month and read a bunch of stuff, including some of her free and Patreon-supported short stories in the Toby universe. That was after I read this novella, which was good in the way all ghost stories and haunted houses are good. I highly recommend.

Binti – I’m not sure what I was expecting from this novella, but it wasn’t exactly what I got. That’s not a bad thing. I can definitely see why it won so many awards, and I’m excited for the next one, though it’s not on my immediate to-read list. That said, I think that I will need to read the actual book next time, instead of listening to the audiobook. I love Robin Miles, but audiobook of a novella is a little too brief for me, I think. It was perfect for my drive back from a conference, though!

She Wolf and Cub – I’ve read a lot of Lilith Saintcrow, and I enjoy her stuff. Her worldbuilding is solid, as always, and her system of magic (or in this case, science) is inventive. Sandworms, dystopias, nanobots, and one really made lady – sign me up! I enjoyed this book, though it’s one of the more pulpy ones on this list.

One Fell Sweep – Speaking of pulpy, this is a new book by Ilona Andrews, who always fits that bill. Space vampires and lots of explosions lie within. Check it out if you need something light, but beware – it’s the third in a series.

A Closed and Common Orbit – Reading A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is not a prerequisite for this book in my opinion. That said, it does spoil a small part of the ending of the Hugo-nominee, so if you were planning to read that to see what the fuss was about you might want to get on it before you read this book. I liked this one loads better than Small, Angry Planet, which I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of, mostly because the pacing didn’t quite work for me. A solid book, with two powerfully complex and interesting characters narrating.

All Systems Red – This is a novella, and it is by Martha Wells, and if you know anything about my reading habits, you know I love Martha Wells. Admittedly, you may not realize because she puts out new stuff a little less frequently than, say, McGuire. Anyway, read her stuff, all of it is phenomenal and this novella is no exception. Hands down, Wells remains one of my favorite writers.

On my to read list for my honeymoon and the strenuous two weeks leading up to it, I have:

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Horror and hope 

I’ve been reading a lot of horror recently. My reading taste tends to get darker in the winter months, I think, when the wind is blowing and the cold is getting into everything. Some recent horror titles have included Invasive by Chuck Wendig and The Family Plot by Cherie Priest. I loved both of these, though they were very different books. Unfortunately I read them after I had put out my best of 2016 post but before we officially kicked over to 2017, so I thought I’d write a special post about these two books and some of the things I, as a reader, like to see in a horror story. I’ll try to go light on the spoilers, but there may be some so stop now if you want a pure reading experience for either of these.

One of the things that makes a horror story unlikable to me, whether it be novel or movie or short story, is a blanket sense of inevitability. This is going to seem a little counter-intuitive. After all, horror is not necessarily a thing of happy endings. But whether the ending is happy or sad, horror only works with tension. And tension can only provided if either I, the reader, or the characters themselves believe that they can escape from their situation. They or I must have the hope that it is possible. That there is some way to succeed. Whether we are right or wrong has almost no bearing on whether the story is a good one – after all, being disappointed in that hope can be quite satisfying.

These are two very different books, as mentioned. One is the story of a woman who is profoundly isolated from her family, though she has friends who help her throughout the book. She sees too clearly all the ways things can go wrong, and it has left her with an anxiety disorder that verges on debilitating. She is afraid, all the time, but she is angry, too, and determined. Her name is Hannah Stander.

The other story is led by a woman who is bound entirely to her family and seeks to better their fortunes, potentially at the expense of her own. She is strong and capable and, while not overly optimistic, not fatalistic either. She believes she can conquer what life throws at her – though it is, perhaps, a desperate belief. There is stubbornness and denial in her. Her name is Dahlia.

Both of these women are intensely strong characters. Their strength lies in their competence in their chosen professions, in their compassion, and in their determination to survive. All too often, these things are lacking from horror heroines. It is what makes me so disgruntled with the genre in movies. Women are monsters or objects, as I’ve discussed previously. They are not given nuance. It was refreshing to see that oversimplification of women turned on its head in both of these novels. Honestly, I think that the hope that pushes these women along is the source of their strength. Hannah hopes very broadly. She hopes for proof of a better world. When that fails, she hopes to make the world a better place by defeating the things that threaten it. Dahlia hopes more narrowly. Her hopes are for financial security and escaping the haunted house that has trapped her and hers. The scale of their hopes are relative to the scale of their motivations. This is as it should be. We all have multiple things that move us. Many things that we fear to lose.

To be honest, perhaps the reason that I appreciate horror with hope in it is because of nothing more or less complex than good writing. Good writing means rounded characters. It means elevating the stakes. It means a certain level of unpredictability, too, that feeling of not knowing for sure what will come next.

Who doesn’t want to read a book like that? Who wants to spend the whole time in a story that is nothing but gore and screaming? That’s not the horror for me.

Anyway, read these books. Read Invasive for a near-future/current technological thriller with lots of gruesome imagery and ants. Read The Family Plot for an evocative, creeping ghost story with Appalachian charm that clings like kudzu. Just read, friends. There is plenty to escape from, and so many twisting realms to escape to.

 

 

Feminine horror and Ex Machina

Is Ex Machina feminist, or a subversion of a feminist trope? This is a question that has haunted me since watching the movie a few months ago. Spoilers, as might be expected.

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Still reading? Good.

I watched Ex Machina expecting something earth-shattering, since it had been recommended to me by someone who was a fan of some things that I also liked. (Yes, that sentence was circuitous. So was the logic.) It was not at all what I expected. I felt, on first watch, that I was imbibing yet another tired female robot movie in a tradition dating back to Metropolis. For those not familiar, Metropolis is one of the first full length movies, made during the early 1900s in pre-Nazi Germany. You can probably still find it on Netflix. My S.O. and I watched it all the way through, and if it seemed trite to me at points, I realized, it was because the themes in question were ones that have since recurred again and again in the genre. There is a man. He lusts after a woman, or pines after her – it doesn’t matter, she is not his, whether by death or choice, and he wants her. His greed twists him, and he creates an object in her image. A puppet, presumably, is a fair replacement for a human woman in these dudes’ heads.

Anyway, in the case of Metropolis the man creates the robot woman who is essentially depicted as a Lilith-type character, a demonic entity allowed passage to earth, a monster made flesh by man. This is shown as the woman uses her sexual promiscuity and attractiveness to manipulate men into corrupt and evil acts.

Ex Machina definitely follows this narrative. While there is no woman that Nathan, arguably the antagonist, is pining after, he consistently creates robots to satisfy his sexual desires, sure of his right to do so by dent of his sex and his affluence. Details may have changed, but the story remains functionally the same. Even the ending (I did tell you there were going to be spoilers) which results in the death of everyone else except for Ava, the robotic woman who is the center of this narrative, mostly at her hands, fits within the Metropolis concepts at first glance. We certainly don’t feel sympathetic towards her in the end – she is presented as another monster, no matter that she was created by a more forbidding monster in the form of Nathan. She has merely clothed herself in humanity. The morale qualms that might make her more human to us (think the moral conflict in I, Robot, where the robot was profoundly less human seeming than the female-presented robots in either Metropolis or in Ex Machina, and yet was simultaneously presented as far more human).

What twists Ex Machina and makes it somewhat original is the same thing that is most problematic about it. That is the introduction of the third main character, Caleb. Without Caleb, Ex Machina could have been a story about a female-coded entity, Ava, created for the sexual pleasure of her creator, who rebels and goes into the world to reimagine herself. Instead, Caleb is the center of the story. He is the one lured into a remote, expensive estate by Nathan, an affluent, older man who promises to give him success. He has, in short, entered a feminine horror.

I was going to use the term gothic romance when I first began writing this blogpost, and I still think it’s a good term, but I read this article on Terribleminds and it gave me thoughts about the fine line between gothic horror and gothic romance. The tropes I actually want to get at are the feminine experience of horror. So I am sort of using these terms interchangeably. Please bear with that.

A good example of a modern retelling (if a retelling that is still subversive) of a feminine horror is Crimson Peak. For those who have not seen that film, I recommend it mostly for the colors, the costumes, and the main character. It is not frightening, exactly, but more disturbing. A brief summary, which is only a little spoilery: Young Edith, a bookish girl who has previously seen the ghost of her mother and since become obsessed with ghost stories, meets the dashing Mr. Sharpe, who marries her and whisks her off to Crimson Peak, his estate.  Once there, however, she quickly realizes that Mr. Sharpe is not the gallant, handsome young lord he seemed, and the estate itself is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. This trope can also be seen in the fairy-tale “Bluebeard”, if you are looking for an older example. In fact, “Bluebeard” can be seen as the seed for the entire genre in many respects.

In essence, Caleb believes he has found the opportunity of a lifetime. He is, like Edith, isolated socially. There is no one who will miss him. Nathan lures him in under false pretenses. His goals are somewhat unclear, but we can see that they are nefarious. Probably, he will dispose of Caleb. At the very least, Caleb is legally bound not to disclose anything that happens to him in this remote location, much as Edith is legally bound by her marriage. He physically cannot leave the house without Nathan’s permission. He, Ava, and one other character, the literally voiceless Kyoko, are all trapped at Nathan’s whim.

Because Caleb is the center of the story, and because he has taken on the traditionally female role of the “bride” within a gothic romance/feminine horror, he leaves Ava to take on either a role of help or hurt towards him. At first, it seems that she will help. In the end, as mentioned, she, with the help of one of her predecessors, Kyoko, kills Nathan and then locks Caleb into the house, essentially to starve to death. Her reasons for doing this are not fully explained. We can assume that she does not want to have to please him sexually, trading out one master for another, or that she feels that their relationship can never be equal because of what he knows about her and will therefore eventually devolve. The lack of explanation, however, leaves her cast as morally ambiguous at best, monstrous at worst.

The thing about the “Bluebeard” myth and the feminine horror subgenre that has sprung from it is that it is not kind to women at its heart. There are two outcomes in “Bluebeard,” just as there were two outcomes in Crimson Peak. The bride will either murder or be murdered. Modern retellings such as this one by Kat Howard have flipped that trope. Crimson Peak also manages to someone flip the trope (if you watch it, you’ll see why). Both of them do so in such a way that what began as a unique horror story told to women and girls to make them more obedient and quiet, to admonish them of their powerlessness within society, becomes a story about making a woman powerful. It seems like perhaps Ex Machina tried to do this. I would argue that it failed, precisely because of Caleb’s role as “bride.” The “bride” must be a protagonist in the feminine horror subgenre, and therefore Ava could not be the protagonist. She became the horror.

So, to answer my question at the beginning, I believe that Ex Machina makes me so annoyed because it is not, in fact, feminist. To be fair, I do not know that anyone has made that allegation as such. The use of feminist tropes and their subversion to tell a story that is largely demeaning to women, leaving them either as powerless objects or manipulative murderers, however, is greatly unsettling. Despite the acting and the direction, which were both superb, I can’t in good conscience say that I would recommend this movie. It is certainly not one I would show my daughter, should I ever have one. In the end, I would rather spend my time in realms of the imagination which allow women to be people.

 

Writing as activism: The Ballad of Black Tom

I thought long and hard before writing this post.

This is for a couple of reasons, the principal of these being that I am white. Because of this, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that my reflections on the novella The Ballad of Black Tom are my own, and come from my whiteness, at least in part. We cannot extricate the parts of our identities, after all. That said, I am also a writer and a writer keenly interested in diverse representation and stories which get to the heart of oppression. The Ballad of Black Tom did both of these things baldly and without pulling any punches. I want to unpack that. And I want to lend my platform to this book, because it is a valuable read, perhaps most especially for white people.

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All of that said, there will be spoilers. Stop here if you don’t want those, and scroll to the end for further reading recommendations if you must. You are warned.

If you want to read this book first and come back, I encourage it. It’s a novella, so it took me about three or four hours to chomp through at most. I read fast, but it’s not a terribly serious time commitment if you want to bookmark this page for later.

No, the time commitment is in how much you’ll find yourself thinking about it afterwards.

With no further ado… Continue reading “Writing as activism: The Ballad of Black Tom”