As I'm writing this, 2013 is stifling a yawn and getting ready to go to sleep. Really deep – c'mon, name that lyric, you know you want to! And no, this time it is not, shockingly enough, a Morrissey lyric…
Where was I? Oh yes, 2013. Not much left of it, is there? About bloody time, then, to get around to acquire that retrospective gaze, gather the literary soundtrack of my year, as it were. Bearing that in mind, I sat down and started writing a tentative top ten. While the top five came to me rather vulcano-like, completely without hesitation, as though my subconscious had already written it, time and time again in invisible ink, I must confess the rest was a bit of a struggle. Not for lack of candidates, mind you. I soon realised that I simply couldn't limit myself to a measly TEN books. How to choose between Anton diSclafani's poignant coming-of-age tale set at a 1920's riding camp for girls, Jess Walters' beautiful, beautiful ruins, Stephen King's surprisingly tender Joyland and his son Joe's utterly unputdownable, downright EPIC horror tome? You can't, of course.
And so my initial top 10 quickly became a not-so-tentative top 15, which became a top 20 since I just couldn't bring myself to exclude certain titles. And what, then, of Jonathan Tropper, Lisa Jewell, Lisa Unger, and Lionel Shriver, all of whom have written books which by turns moved me, entertained me, and made me think (sometimes all of the above at once)? And what, pray tell, of Curtis Sittenfeld? Granted, Sisterland failed to make that larger-than-life impression that American Wife did, but it is still a pretty damn good read. Not stellar, but pretty damn good. Ergo, I settled on not a top ten, not a top twenty, but a top twenty-five of the English language books – mostly, though not exclusively, fiction – I have enjoyed the most over the course of this year. 25 books out of the 80 odd books I have read in 2013: not quite a third nor a fourth of the sum total, but nevertheless a dive into a rather deep end of my reading pool this year. I often fret about the books I don't read, as in quite simply don't have time to read (don't we all?). Compiling this list made me realise that while I am no longer anywhere near my old 120 book record of 2008, I read more carefully now, and tend to go straight for the books I know I will adore - and find them, with a little help from my friends.
So yes, 2013 turned out to be a rather good year, as good reads go. It was, obviously, the year of The Goldfinch, of Morrissey's much anticipated Autobiography, and Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, which up until the release of the two former books was my number one read of the year. Along with Tell the Wolves I'm Home and The Woman Upstairs, these titles form the crème de la crème of my literary 2013. These are the unflinching ten out of tens, the literary equivalents of a home run or a perfect kiss. You can, if you like, view my list as a thoroughly chronological presentation, going from number one to twenty-five in descending order. Certainly there is that element of grading in there somewhere... to the extent that you can grade books (I don't think I could, if we're talking numbers). Having said that, though, I will stress that every book on this list, be it a number two or twenty-four, is a knockout. Or rather, it seemed that way to me, either at the time or in retrorespect (ever notice how some books tend to grow in your mind, sometimes months after you actually finished them?) or both. Literally NO lukewarm reads on this list, no siree Bob! These lucky 25 are all - need I say it once more? - really good books, each in their own way. If you look at my picks really, really closely, I suppose you could come to the conclusion that many of them are coming-of-age novels and/or crime novels of the darker persuasion. Well, yes: I know my own taste in books pretty well by now, and so does my bookshop of choice, so those types of reads tend to come my way, by premeditation, recommendation, or osmosis. Perhaps this year has been particularly heavy on the crime, seeing how I read all the Best Novel nominees for this year's Edgar Awards. That reading challenge, documented here on this blog, was such a success that I think I will do it again in 2014. Still a tiny bit miffed that Gillian Flynn didn't win, but she did sell a few million copies and even made the glossies. Not to sound judgmental or anything, but every time I pick up the book section of, say, Glamour I tend to notice a lot of beaches or snowflakes on the covers, depending on the season. (And yes, I do realise that this is bit like getting pissed off about not finding tofu at McDonald's.) Suffice it to say it was a pleasant surprise that Gillian Flynn - who I continue to think of as MY Gillian Flynn, despite the odd million sold copies, because she has that effect on you, particularly if you happened to name your blog after one of her novels - made it to their 2013 roundup. I, of course, read Gone Girl in early 2012 and am currently looking forward to Flynn's next novel, which I hope she is writing right about now. (Okay, so the beginning that last sentence did come off as a wee bit judgmental, didn't it?)
While not on my top 25, I must say that it was nice to see Bridget Jones again. And to read a thoroughly enjoyable Harlan Coben standalone after last year's rather lackadaisical effort. And ooh, the Edgar nominees! So good, all of them!
Okay, you know what? Better make this a top 30 and be done with it. Are you ready?
HELENA'S TOP 10 15 20 25 30 of 2013
(And yes, this is it, I promise. No more last minute additions - not even you, Linwood Barclay! Although I'm pretty sure you would be on here somewhere if I hadn't misplaced my copy of A Tap on the Window and found it several months later, in the midst of the all consuming Goldfinch rush. Note to self: continue reading, soon.)
1. The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
2. The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer)
3. Autobiography (Morrissey)
4. Tell the Wolves I'm Home (Carol Rifka Brunt)
5. The Woman Upstairs (Claire Messud)
6. The Year of the Ladybird (Graham Joyce)
7. The Cry (Helen Fitzgerald)
8. Valley of Ashes (Cornelia Read)
9. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Anton diSclafani)
10. The Wall (William Sutcliffe)
11. NOS4R2 (Joe Hill)
12. Beautiful Ruins (Jess Walters)
13. The Wicked Girls (Alex Marwood)
14. The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)
15. We Are Water (Wally Lamb)
16. Joyland (Stephen King)
17. Two Boys Kissing (David Levithan)
18. Sunset (Al Lamanda)
19. Gods of Gotham (Lyndsay Faye)
20. Lie Still (Julia Heaberlin)
21. Visitation Street (Ivy Pochoda)
22. Big Brother (Lionel Shriver)
23. Sisterland (Curtis Sittenfeld)
24. This Is Where I Leave You (Jonathan Tropper)
25. The House We Grew Up In (Lisa Jewell)
26. Live By Night (Dennis Lehane)
27. The Lost Ones (Ace Atkins)
28. Heartbroken (Lisa Unger)
29. The Burning Air (Erin Kelly)
30. Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy (Helen Fielding)
... and then, of course, there are those books I more or less know would be up there had I, you know, had time to read them this year. Yes, I am looking at you, The Accursed. You too, Life After Life, MaddAddam, and This Is Where I Am. Here's to 2014, gals. And here's to knowing great books, and encountering new ones. See you soon! Now I'm off to read those very last books of the year. Who knows, maybe I've been saving the best for last?
The Ace of Skulls concludes the saga of the Ketty Jay. In the previous three books we have followed captain Darian Frey through a series of disastrous adventures which he has sometimes just barely managed to survive. These trials have also forged a real crew out of the strange collection of people who have ended up on his airship Ketty Jay. And sometimes they have even made some profit from their adventures.
This time the deepest weakness of Darian Frey leads him to risk everything, including his friends.
The best thing about this series is the character development. Noone is really easily likeable when we first meet them, but all of the people on board the Ketty Jay together manage to transcend their weaknesses and do some really great things. Individually they continue to often be annoying or silly or even repelling, in a very human way.
The world building is also interesting: a planet with varying landscapes and climates, and populated by many different nations and groups. This planet has an ancient history, much of it lost in a mythological haze, with lost civilisations and strange forgotten artefacts. There is also magic: a very scientific looking kind of magic based on capturing and binding daemons. Daemonism has been outlawed in Vardia (the nation most of the crew comes from), because of the dangers involved, but of course it is practised anyway.
You sometimes hear people describe the Ketty Jay books as similar to the TV series Firefly. The works have some things in common: an odd combination of people on a kind of ship, making a living on the shady side of things. Some of them with dark secrets. Still, I don't think that Firefly and the Ketty Jay stories are that similar at a closer look.
And there is no metal golem on Serenity.
To another question: is it steampunk?
Some people want steampunk to be only about alternate history, preferably set in London. At the same time there is so much being published (and read) as steampunk that does not fit this description that it's useless as a definition of steampunk.
What Chris Wooding has written here is clearly fantasy, set in a secondary world. But it has airships, and lots of strange and fancy machinery with gleaming brass parts. Some of the technology seems fairly advanced, but the society in Vardia is almost feudal and we don't get to see much that looks like industrialization. Call it what you want, but the label steampunk can be wide enough to encompass these books.
But labels may not be that important. These books give us well written, fast paced adventures, and sometimes that is just exactly what you want.
I recently wrote a blog post criticizing how evolution was used in very peculiar way. In an opinion piece, two Swedish academics claimed that we should eat the kind of diet that our bodies “were adapted to” – said to be the time when our distant relatives were hunters and gatherers. When I stated that we’ve never been perfectly adapted, I noticed a level of opposition I hadn't experienced before. Some comments were reasonable while others were just plain silly, along the lines of “you’re just a biased vegan, dude”. If I was a vegan I might have been offended.
It’s clear that anything involving diet can provoke quite a stir. And some of the people devoted to a paleo or LCHF diet are – frankly – quite obsessed. The thing is though, I wasn’t even writing about food in my blog post, but rather about evolution. That's what Marlene Zuk has done, much more comprehensively, in her book Paleofantasy (2013). Knowing the basic scientific facts about evolution can help us avoid some of the bogus claims made about diets, gender roles and disease.
Marlene Zuk is a professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Minnesota in the US. When I first read about her work it had nothing to do with diet, but was all about crickets and evolution in the fast lane. She had been studying field crickets in Hawaii for two decades by then, and discovered that a new kind of male cricket evolved in just a few years. This background in empirical science provides her with a solid foundation to build from when she approached the paleofantasies popping up in such various fields as diet, disease, exercise, and gender roles. It’s a joy to read what she writes about recent major discoveries in evolutionary biology, but her arguments are essentially variations on the same theme: no, humans are and were never perfectly adapted to a Stone Age environment. Or as she puts it, all living organisms are “both always facing new environments, and always shackled by genes from the past".
Organisms such as humans are responding to a continually changing environment and hence evolution itself is continual too. Yes, some genes involved in human disease are shared with bacteria making them more than 2 billion years old. Other gene variants, like the one making some of us tolerant to lactose as grown-ups, evolved only 7000 years ago (to be lactose intolerant as an adult is the original state) – we have never been in perfect harmony with our environment.
This is not a book about diet, nor does Marlene Zuk give lifestyle advice on how to avoid getting sick – although she does say that it is most probably good to get off the couch. Rather, it’s about the misconception that humans have stopped evolving, and that we should live in a way that resembles some poorly defined period in distant human history. Nature has not singled out humans for special treatment; we’re not the “most recently evolved species on the planet”. Making up stories based on Stone Age preconceptions does not help at all.
Once, Breq was the Justice of Toren – a gargantuan Radchaai warship equipped with an AI mind and in control of thousands of empty human bodies called ancillaries, deployed by the Lord of Radch to colonize the galaxy in the name of civilisation. Now, Breq is trapped inside one sole body, her single remaining ancillary, struggling with her identity and attempting to learn how to live as human in a human body while plotting her revenge against those who betrayed and condemned her to her fate.
Told alternatively from Justice of Toren and Breq’s perspectives with Justice of Toren providing the past leading up to Breq’s present, Ancillary Justice is a novel that takes a little bit of work getting into. Then, Justice of Toren was orbiting the rather recently colonised – or ‘annexed’ as the Radchaai themselves prefer to call it - planet named Shis’urna where trouble start brewing when functioning guns that should have been dismantled at the start of the annexation are found hidden away and the division between the upper and lower classes of the native population on Shis’urna keeps widening due to the Radchaai involvement. Now, Breq is looking for a special kind of weapon, the only one able to inflict any damage on the one responsible for the fragmentation of Breq’s self.
I’m not an especially avid reader of military science fiction, but Ancillary Justice is above all a fast-paced and fun read, even if the flashbacks at times makes the storyline seem a little convoluted. The plot itself is by contrast pretty straightforward and even rather transparent at times, but what the novel lacks in plot Leckie certainly makes up for with the characters and the world building. In Ancillary Justice, the galaxy feels as vast and varied as it is supposed to be: its planets are filled with a myriad of different worlds with different cultures and different kinds of sentient beings and outside the perimeters of known space aliens lurk – and it all provides a great backdrop to Breq’s quest for vengeance.
However, one of the most interesting things about this novel is the usage of pronouns – Leckie uses the pronoun ‘she’ almost exclusively throughout the book. The Radchaai language has only one, a gender neutral, pronoun and the only time ‘he’ is used in the text is when Breq is speaking another language that does have gender-assigned pronouns and then simply has to guess how she is supposed to refer to whom since she is unable to tell. Now, a story written almost solely using only one pronoun is nothing new – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. le Guin and Ammonite by Nicola Griffith are two examples of excellent books in which for different reasons and in different ways only one pronoun is used predominantly throughout the text. Furthermore, using only one pronoun may seem like an easy trick to raise questions about gender, but the fact is that it actually does. By omitting one pronoun – and, notably, the pronoun commonly used as the “gender-neutral” one – Leckie shows exactly how deeply rooted our perceptions of gender are. The effect becomes especially jarring with how the constant usage of ‘she’ contrasts with the military setting of the novel – even though I know that Leckie does not assign her characters gender, I immediately begin consider any character introduced by her military title as ‘he’ until the text refer to the person in question as ‘she’ and effectively reminds me of exactly how closely I associate anything military with male.
And that is what I ultimately want science fiction to do: to challenge the way we perceive our world by in one way or other move beyond or rearrange the structures and boundaries that it is made up of. In addition to doing exactly that, Ancillary Justice is an entertaining and well-written novel, told from the perspective of a protagonist that is not just engaging but also used to be a warship.
Let us establish something right off the bat, just so we are clear. This is NOT going to be a conventional review of Morrissey’s Autobiography.
Most likely, seeing how it will be, inevitably, hopelessly, written by someone whose first online screen name was The Girl Least Likely To, it will be something more along the lines of rambling declaration of love and relentless self-scrutiny. See, when I attempt to speak of Morrissey’s much anticipated memoirs (humbly published as a Penguin Classic), I inevitably find myself speaking of my personal relationship with Morrissey. In this regard, I realise that I am far from unique. Oh, but then again, it's not like any other love; this one is different because it's us, no? In any case, we’ve been at it for years, the Mozzer and I. Needless to say, it has been – and is – a rather one sided relationship. Not that there haven’t been times when we’ve been close, mind you. I will always relish the day when I fleetingly touched his right shoe. It was a very nicely polished shoe, should you ask, and the air was reeking of stale post-bandy match sweat (this was in 1997, prior to the big Morrissey revival of 2004, so small multi-purpose venues were common in the world of Morrissey). Appropriately – poignantly – enough, the shoe encounter took place right as Morrissey was singing "Paint a Vulgar Picture", that paragon of fan-idol lyricism. The relationship between the worshipper and the worshipped is at best an unbalanced one, and Morrissey addresses it beautifully in one of the finest tracks from The Smiths very last studio album. In it, the devotee fleetingly touches their idol at the sound check, only to realise later on that "to you I was faceless, I was fawning, I was boring – a child from those ugly new houses, who could never begin to know". A similar realisation, although possibly from a different angle (is Morrissey referring to himself or one of his previous – infamous – biographers?), takes place in another Morrissey penned song, "Reader Meet Author" from Southpaw Grammar:
You don't know a thing about their lives
They live where you wouldn't dare to drive
You shake as you think of how they sleep
But you write as if you all lie side by side
Surely I wasn’t the only one who had that particular song glued to my brain last Thursday, when Morrissey came to Gothenburg for a signing? (Yes, I temporarily wished I lived in Gothenburg. And yes, I soon caved in to fear of being cruelly disappointed and/or humiliated – or both. Just suppose – the horror! – that Morrissey would detect the chicken I had had for dinner last night on my breath as I leaned in to embrace my teenage saviour…? I would have to leave the country, surely. Listening to Meat Is Murder yet not fully embracing vegetarianism remains one of my life’s biggest failures, by the way.)
Here’s another realisation: next birthday, Morrissey will have been in my life for exactly half of my earthly existence. Seventeen, clumsy and shy, I went to England and found not love nor luck but something far, far better. I found a certain Stephen Patrick Morrissey, and it was his songs, his words, his outlook on life that provided a much needed soundtrack to a time where very little made sense. (That, incidentally, is called adolescence, aka something we all must endure at some point, but I am nevertheless very grateful for Morrissey’s help.) Never even attempting to fit it amongst the hormonal hell of vodka-flavoured parties and dreary popularity contests that my high school had to offer, Morrissey was a godsend. Unabashedly bookish, caustically witty yet strangely compassionate, oozing with homoeroticism yet (mostly) claiming celibacy, he made me fall in love with Oscar Wilde, daffodils, Shelagh Delaney, and the black and white working class England of yore. He also provided snappy comebacks for unwanted questions. Why did I wear black? "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside." Do I seem a little strange? "Well, that’s because I am." What is the meaning of life? "There’s more to life than books, you know (but not much more)." And so on.
Oh, how I walked without ease on these, the very streets where I'd been raised on drab school day afternoons, Smiths and Morrissey mix tapes glued to my melting Walkman! Despite an age difference of just over twenty years, with heaven knows how many miles between us, Morrissey had so much to offer the teenage me: companionship, wit, lyrics that eerily captured my current mood, whatever it happened to be. More than anything, he got me. Let me in, then let me out, and for this I shall always be grateful. Yes, I’m older now, and I’m a clever swine, but there was a time when it felt like he was the only one who ever stuck by me. I still get misty-eyed just by hearing the opening chords of "Now My Heart Is Full" and have virtually every Morrissey lyric tattooed at the very bottom of my heart.
Do you sense a "but" coming? Oh, but here it is. In recent years, Morrissey has made some shall we say alarming comments that makes him feel a wee bit like that drunkenly outspoken, eccentric uncle you somehow always find yourself sitting next to at family gatherings. You love him dearly – how could you not, after all this time? – but you can’t help but cringe a bit, bracing yourself for the next debacle. You know, the oh dear, here we go again-ness of it all. I was, needless to say, not proud of being a Morrissey fan when he, right after the tragic events at Utoya, made a point out of telling the audience at a concert that this was nothing compared to what goes on at "Kentucky Fried Shit" every day. Somehow I can’t help but suspect that Morrissey, for all the good he has done to the maladjusted across the globe, is somehow lacking a sensitivity gene. Or does he simply enjoy the controversy? How else to attribute the fact that he, despite time and time again telling the world he is not a racist after NME’s "vicious attack" (his words, not mine) in the mid-90’s, continues to make statements that can be viewed as, if not downright racist, then at least deeply problematic? Morrissey, so much to answer for. And sure enough, he has to go there in Autobiography! Using vocabulary such as "Israelites" and "blackface" while attempting to clear one’s name in murky waters? Please.
So yes, I do have my reservations – reservations which also, ultimately, reflect on how I view Autobiography. But let us go back to the very beginning of the book, shall we? I did mention there is a book, didn't I? Not in the new year but, rather to the delighted shock of Mozophiles worldwide, THIS year?
Yes, the book. It's about time we talked about that, isn't it?
The first half of Autobiography could well be the finest piece of autobiographical writing I have yet to encounter. Full of the gloom and doom of post-war Manchester, introducing death, sexual ambivalence, Northern grimness, and virtually Dickensian characters such as teachers who are "old, and will never marry, and will die smelling of attics", it serves as the perfect backdrop for the tiny rays of light that do eventually manage to creep into the life of one lonely Northern boy. For, as we all know, the good life is out there somewhere, and it is when Morrissey discovers music - 60's pop tunes, Patti Smith, David Bowie (who in a poignant turn of events will go on to cover one of Morrissey's own songs, "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday") and, most notably, the New York Dolls - that he knows this for a fact. A music fan first and foremost, with his signature style and wit to boot, Morrissey is heavenly when depicting the cathartic and escapist nature of music. In this, of course, he mimics the experience of many, many Morrissey fans (including this one), adding further weight and heart to lyrics such as "Rubber Ring" and "Paint a Vulgar Picture". But, true to form, Morrissey does not start dancing, laughing and finally living simply because he has found a coping mechanism. Yes, Morrissey does eventually meet Johnny Marr, who luckily turns out to be a window-tapper, and he throws himself into singing and performing with a near-sexual ferocity. He remains alone, but perhaps not forevermore. Well into his thirties, Morrissey finds requited love for the first time. Reader, meet Jake, who knocks on Morrissey’s door and stays for two years. Enter: tears of joy. What do you know, he has seen brighter sides to life! Here is yet another beautifully written and touching part of Morrissey’s life story, so when it gives way to a 40 page dive into the infamous Joyce trials where Morrissey (quite unsuccessfully) tries to make himself into a modern day Oscar Wilde, I can’t help but feel slightly disheartened. Yes, yes, we know, you bear more grudges than lonely high court judges, and clearly this is something that has had a great effect on Morrissey’s life ever since so I am all for the inclusion of such an event in his autobiography. It is, after all, his story to tell. Still, though: FORTY pages? Really? I turn the pages more quickly now, actually come close to stifling a yawn at one point (something I NEVER thought could happen while reading Morrissey’s autobiography).
Then there is that infinitely sad postcard from Kirsty McColl, written on holiday in Mexico just before she was killed in a horrendous boating accident, and suddenly Morrissey’s hand has a relentlessly firm grip on my heart again. He is very good at that: going on and on about something rather uninteresting, then suddenly, by a sudden turn of phrase or perspective, making things interesting again. Ah, the amount of loss and sudden death resonating against the pages of Autobiography! Seems so unfair, I want to cry. A more lighthearted note of the book takes place in the funny depiction of Morrissey’s musician acquaintances. Here, the already much talked of Chrissie Hynde dog biting incident earns top marks. I also love the fact that Michael Stipe, along with the previously mentioned Hynde and, of course, David Bowie, get an altogether positive treatment (and with "altogether" I mean "c’mon, it’s Morrissey!"). He never does reveal whether Kill Uncle’s "Found, Found, Found" is in fact about Stipey (a fact that, I shall hasten to add, he has previously refuted, but… well, see above) though.
The final part of Autobiography is a rapidly shifting yet beautifully structured series of countries, venues, and people passing through – with special emphasis, I am happy to report, on Sweden. Near 500 pages do not seem nearly enough – that is, as long as he at least tries to take the high road. I would gladly read 1000 pages of those "streets upon streets upon streets" of Morrissey’s childhood, of love found and lost and the songs that saved his life. Cheap digs on Julie Burchill’s middle-aged legs, though? Why, oh why does he have to make it so difficult for us to defend him? I mean, I LOVE Julie Burchill and I really believe that Morrissey respects her as a writer, in spite of their personal baggage, in spite of, well, spite. And yet, here we go again… do we sense a pattern?
I have said it before in this "review", and now I will say it again: it is the absolute prerogative of any autobiographer to depict one’s life however way they deem appropriate (or, preferably, inappropriate – oh yes, please!). Following that logic, every prospective reader of said autobiography – or Autobiography, as it were – should be free to read whatever they like into and out of the story. Now, this particular autobiography is rather tough to separate, seeing how it has no chapters, no clear chronology, just a never ceasing, mostly flawless wall of beautiful, essentially Morrisseyesque prose where the subject, rather than neat chapters, serves as a constant point of reference. Still, I choose to emphasise on the wonderfully bleak Victorian feel of Morrissey’s childhood, music, and love (there is quite a bit of love going out to his fans, as well, which needless to say is very pleasing indeed). Is it, then, okay to simply cut out the 40 odd pages of dull court proceedings and vindictive feelings, along with the seemingly pointless digs at physical flaws and looks? Can we really do that? If we could, there is no doubt in my mind that Autobiography is one of the finest bits of writing I have read in a long, long time. The things that irk me are, perhaps, there to put everything – including me, the former Girl Least Likely To – into perspective. Morrissey, ultimately, as a human being made out of flesh, blood, genius and a great deal of spite. Could it be?
I honestly don’t know, and therein lies perhaps part of the appeal. I will say this, though, all earnestness and big eyes, standing at the very front of the stage, desperately elbowing my way across bequiffed boys and daffodil clutching girls both taller and younger than I am:
Nothing’s changed, Moz, I still love you. Only slightly, slightly less than I used to. Oh, and please, please, please write more books. A novel – why not a darkly Victorian tale of bleak modern times? – would be absolutely smashing. Thanks, and see you soon! Who knows, maybe I’ll get to touch your hand one day…?
The girl least likely to
Most of us with a scientific background consider ourselves to be rational, critical thinkers. Then again, most of us like to be flattered. In his new book Will Storr initially appears to be our ally, setting out fearlessly to investigate those he (fairly) identifies as "enemies of science" and what makes them tick. I happily follow his lead as he tries to understand persons holding beliefs that most of us would consider counterintuitive, contradictory to available evidence and, to be frank, plain strange.
However, something is lost along the way. As Storr burrows deeper and deeper into human psychology, and the way we perceive the world, he loses the necessary division between individuals and method. Will Storr focuses relentlessly on the individuals, from creationists and historical revisionists to persons perhaps with false memories and, in the latter part of the book, skeptics. I would have preferred to have seen the scientific method presented as an idea rather than just through the individuals claiming to be advocates of it. Let me try to explain just what I mean.
This book makes me uncomfortable. At first, I am the problem, because when Will Storr starts interviewing a creationist there is a never verbalised question soaring above the text: how does anyone know stuff? Anyone who has been involved in science knows how hard it is to collect objective knowledge of the world. Later on, the problem is in the book itself when it fails to provide an answer or a guide to knowledge, because not everything can be validated by what individual persons say or do. It is not up to me that two plus two equals four, it's a necessary fact. Similarly, the historical existence of non-avian dinosaurs is independent of the persons that discovered their fossils.
Creationists are not the problem. We all know that they refuse to see any of the vast heaps of evidence that goes against the Biblical creation myth, like the fact that the world is 4.7 billion years old and not just above 6000 years, or that the non-avian dinosaurs are extinct. As E.O. Wilson, evolutionary biologist, once said: "we have the fossils". Creationists are a living example of what is called confirmation bias – our tendency to make observations that confirms our view of the world. But the scary part is that confirmation bias is something that affects us all. We have to learn how to avoid it, but what happens if we're not aware of it? Will Storr does not provide me as a reader with any help.
In the latter part of the book, Storr sets his sights on Skeptics – with the amazing James Randi crowned king of the Skeptics. This part makes me uncomfortable.
First he rightfully criticises skeptics at the pub for being just as uncritical as any person involved in pseudoscience. Just as the evidence for the existence of dinosaurs consists of fossils, not scientists, the reason that homeopathy does not work is due to chemistry, not the opinions of Skeptics. There are, to be sure major differences between individuals espousing similar worldviews – between, say, renowned Skeptic Steven Novella and the young skeptics Storr meets at some pub: Novellas science is about the evidence, and Novella knows his science. But why take my word for it? The above only goes to illustrate why the argument from authority is no argument at all: on whose authority? In fact, science as a method – conducted in the right way – helps us to acknowledge and remove human errors like confirmation bias. This is where Will Storr loses me, because he lets one person carry the validity of the scientific method – and that person is James Randi.
I think James Randi is neither a problem for science nor a rational world view. As a figure who has had a huge influence on the Skeptic movement, I see why Storr would want to interview Randi: will he fall into the same traps as the creationists, the homeopaths or whoever? Indeed, he will. Behold, Randi is a human being as well, and humans will make mistakes. Will Storr's error as an investigator seems to me to be greater, however. He fails to elucidate the difference between an individual attempting to apply a rational method and one applying an irrational method, or no method at all. So along the way, I lost my own trust in Will Storr.
In the bookshop:
The story of life and the universe can be mesmerizing. In his book The Universe Within Neil Shubin illustrates the history of the universe – all 13.7 billion years of it – by means of the much shorter history of scientific discovery of it. As parameters for a work of popular science go, they don't come much bigger. But Shubin succeeds brilliantly in meshing the shorter narrative with the great one: how 13.7 billion years of history have formed and fine-tuned ourselves and all living things.
Neil Shubin, a distinguished paleontologist at the University of Chicago, already has form here. His first book, Your Inner Fish, described how he himself discovered the remarkable fossil Tiktaalik in the snowy wastes of northern Canada. Tiktaalik is one of a number of remarkable fossils that provide insights on the transition between fish to land-living vertebrates. Shubin used it as a starting point to describe how all subsequent lifeforms bear within ourselves the history of our fishy forebears. He also introduced to a wide audience a remarkable, and fairly recent insight: from fish to fly to human, the development form from fertilized egg to our hugely complex, profoundly different bodies, is under the control of a genetic toolkit that is essentially similar.
Shubin has even grander objectives for his narrative this time. Describing the Big Bang, Shubin reminds us that had certain parameters been ever so slightly different, the universe would have developed in a radically different direction - or not at all. He shows how some of the fundamental phenomena of our world – the trajectory of the sun, night and day – are hardwired within our bodies. The end of the most recent ice age produced unusually benevolent geographical conditions that permitted the development of agriculture; and in turn promoting genetic changes to equip us for the subsequent dietary shift.
Shubin's magisterial book weaves fantastic vignettes about a host of lesser known with fundamental insights about how the world works. It could even be described as a materialist account of creation. It also negotiates the sometimes troubled waters between different scientific disciplines so skillfully that I experienced a number of revelatory moments when reading it; like when the work of Seymour Benzer and Ronald Konopka on the body clock is explained, or when he tells the story of when Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharps describes the giant ridges in the center of the world's oceans. It only remains for me to wonder what Neil Shubin can possibly do for an encore.
Holly Black's novel Tithe was my first brush with the genre of urban fantasy (not that I actually knew what it was called at the time), and for a young girl whose reading diet was mostly made up of high fantasy, Black's story about faeries living and hiding in plain sight in modern-day New Jersey was a very refreshing change. Tithe was followed up by Valiant and Ironside and still today those three books remain high up on the list of my all-time favourite urban fantasy books. As a consequence I've kept close watch on Black's work, especially her young adult novels. The Curseworkers trilogy left me disappointed; the story failed to get me invested and I never even read beyond White Cat. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, a vampire novel based on a short story by Black with the same title I'd read and liked, caught my interest however, and is, I found, much more my cup of tea than The Curseworkers was.
Like her Modern Fairytales-trilogy, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown deals with the two separate spheres of the mundane and the supernatural and what happens when they meet and interact with each other, focused on a teenage girl caught in between both worlds. Unlike the faeries in New Jersey, however, the vampires in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown don't live hidden away and unknown to humanity. Officially, the human world and the vampire world are kept apart by the walls surrounding the cities where the vampires and the humans who worship and wants to be like them lives (called Coldtowns), but they do a poor job of truly keeping the two spheres from merging. Vampires and their lascivious lifestyle have become a nation-wide phenomena: the Coldtowns are littered with cameras, broadcasting the glamorous façade of vampire life to the world outside.
But the vampires are less trapped in Coldtown than they appear. Everyone knows it is dangerous to be out after dark, but that doesn't stop Tana and her friends from throwing a party that last well into the night. Early the next morning Tana wakes up in the bathroom behind a locked door with everyone beyond it dead and sucked dry of blood. All except two, that is – in a bedroom she finds her ex-boyfriend Aiden, who during the night has been bitten and is thirsting for human blood to complete his transformation, and a vampire who tells her his name is Gavriel. Both of them are in chains, and against better judgement Tana decides to free them and help them get to Coldtown rather than leaving them at the mercy of the rising sun.
On the road to Coldtown, they meet Midnight and Winter, a sibling pair who have decided to pursue immortality and to document every part of it to put out on their blog. These two melodramatic goth-kids with their ardent wish to become vampires and their insistence to video tape every second of their journey for their blog-readers are certainly amusing but at the same time deeply tragic characters. At its heart The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a book about alienation, particularly among teenagers. It is in youth culture especially the vampire have become a romanticised creature and to teenagers the lure of Coldtown is strongest. Anyone can get into Coldtown and the promise of eternal, inhuman life draws all the odd kids looking and longing for strength, transformation or an escape from their grey everyday lives into its lethal embrace. In Coldtown there is no shortage of vampires, though, and those at the top of the food chain are more interested in keeping the new arrivals mortal and full of fresh blood than bringing them over to the undead side. The darker parts of life in Coldtown, and vampiric existence overall, are glossed over in the broadcasts, leaving only the glittering, decadent image of the Eternal Ball: vampires and humans dancing the night away, every night of the week – forever. This is what Midnight and Winter and thousands other young people are searching for, but once inside Coldtown the beautiful illusion begins to crumble.
To Tana that illusion was stripped away years ago, when she was only a child, and she still bears the scar to show for it. To her the horror the vampire world presents is not veiled, and yet she finds herself inexplicably drawn to it, even as it repulses her. In The Coldest Girl in Coldtown it is not only the mortal and the vampire world that mingle and merge: the line between humanity and monstrosity is scarily thin, as is the one between life and death. It is almost as if the book itself is struggling with defining its focus – every chapter opens with a quote about death, often glorifying it, even though Tana rejects any thought of becoming undead, and the POV keeps shifting between vampire and human, the past and the present.
In creating her vampires it seems a little like Black has wanted to have the cake and eat it too, because they are monstrous, aristocratic, mad, romanticised, courteous, shunned, chaotic, bloodthirsty and controlled – all at once. They are the hybrid children of Count Dracula, Louis and Lestat (The Vampire Chronicles, Anne Rice), and Zillah, Molochai and Twig (Lost Souls, Poppy Z Brite). To that Black adds a complex, interesting heroine, a well-executed love story and a plot that twists and turns like the labyrinthine streets of Coldtown, and has me hoping that this, too, eventually will turn into a trilogy.
What are you reading right now? Just finishing off Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda, the first book to be published on Dennis Lehane's new imprint. Incidentally - accidentally, I should think not... - it is rather reminiscent of Mystic River, although in a more ethnically diverse Brooklyn setting. Gritty, real, and beautifully written with a terrific sense of place.
What will you be reading next? Night Film by Marisha Pessl, finally!
A book you've been saving for a special occasion? I'm off to Spain on holiday in a few weeks time, and have deliberately put the latest Linwood Barclay, A Tap on the Window, on hold. Should be the perfect holiday read. Also saving Julia Heaberlin's Lie Still for the same trip.
The last book you gave up on? The latest instalment of Carol Goodman's Fairwick Chronicles, The Water Witch. Truth be told, I only managed thirty odd pages. I absolutely adore Goodman's previous literary thrillers, though, and hope that she will pick those up again once she's done with the series.
The first book you read in English? Elizabeth's First Kiss by Francine Pascal, a true Sweet Valley classic.
And the last book you read in Swedish? A novel from 1956 by Swedish cosy crime queen Maria Lang, Mörkögda augustinatt. Her books are like security blankets for me, and this is one of her best, with a more menacing feel than her other novels. At least two of Lang's books (A Wreath for the Bride and No More Murders, both recently filmed) are actually published in English and rather fun reads in a very 1950's, Agatha Christie sort of way. Bizarrely enough, many of the names have been changed so as to become more English language appropriate: Einar, for instance, is called Edwin and Detective Chief Inspector Christer Wijk's last name has been changed into Wick. Kronors become shillings and so on... I suppose Swedish crime didn't have as much appeal back then as it has now, hence the apparent need to adjust everything to the English market. (Maria Lang is out print since long, but do check with our BookFinder service.)
Can you recite any poems? It is mainly pop songs that I tend to memorise, particularly ones by Belle and Sebastian or Morrissey. I do have several poems that I know more or less by heart, though, including William Carlos Williams' "This Is Just to Say" (in all fairness, it is a very short poem), Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" (okay, the last lines...) and, of course, several of Shakespeare's sonetts. One day, I would love to be able to recite all of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". As it is, I can recite parts of it and often, when I find myself misinterpreted and/or misunderstood, I will think "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all." One of the main characters of a novel I recently finished, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, does the same thing.
How do you find the time to read so much? Honestly? I don't, at least not as much as I'd like. Juggling two kids, work, blogging, and reading isn't easy, but since reading is the number one thing that makes me relax and - does this sound pretentious? - grow as a person, I try to make it a top priority in my everyday life. I read on the bus to work, in the bathtub after I've put my daughters to bed, in queues, on my lunch break, during Bolibompa, that famous everyday void for Swedish parents... There's a great quote from Stephen King that goes "Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent. What I wonder is why everybody doesn't carry around a book for those inevitable dead spots in life". I suppose that is what I do: carry around a book for those inevitable dead spots in life. Above all, though, I crave and seek those long, uninterrupted hours of non-stop reading until the real world fades and you ARE the novel you're currently reading, the edges between fiction and reality blissfully blurred.
Which new releases are you most excited about this autumn? Is that even a question? Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, of course! Only about a month to go now! I'm also eager to read Wally Lamb's new novel We Are Water, which will be published on the same day as The Goldfinch (October 22). And I must admit that I'm a bit excited about Helen Fielding's new Bridget Jones novel, also due out in October. Okay, perhaps more than a bit.