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February 2014
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Film 101: The Proposal (2009)

The_ProposalI go back and forth with myself about which genre of film is produced by people who think the least of me, a successful professional adult woman - whether it’s the brand of action film that objectifies me, puts me in heels and tiny skirts to be leered at by the hero and put in sexual danger by the villain. Or perhaps it’s that other brand of action film, the one that thinks that the only reason I, a woman, might ever be motivated to want to, say, blow shit up, is because I was raped. Maybe it’s the thoughtful cops-and-robbers psychodrama that leaves me at home to work on my forehead wrinkles while my tortured, complex husband is off solving crimes.

But it’s really no contest, is it? There’s a single genre of film out there that routinely and consistently treats its female characters with such utter, jaw-dropping contempt that it makes it all the more shocking when you realise that the genre itself is produced primarily for a female audience.

Yeah, I’m talking about rom coms.

Today’s film is a perfect example of the ‘rom coms hate women’ phenomenon, as it’s a romantic comedy devoted to humbling and, ultimately, destroying the professional life of a powerful, successful woman, all in the name of laughs and love.

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Poking at Awards: "Judges, Awards and the Word 'Best'" by Lou Morgan

KumquatsIt is a truth universally acknowledged that awards are contentious. This very site has, in the past, made a habit of poking at awards - running the gauntlet of debate, from looking at the use of "best" in awardspeak to who awards are actually for. Particularly when it comes to genre fiction, it can be difficult to compare one work to another directly. Apples, oranges, durians… insert your own fruit metaphor here.

Award judging is hard. I know: I've done it. For three years, I was one of the panel of judges for the British Fantasy Awards - specifically for the Sydney J. Bounds Award (or - as it's often referred to - the "Best Newcomer Award". There's that B-word again). Each time, we read horror, fantasy, SF, and slipstream. We read books that ranged across type and form: YA, short stories, novels… you name it. And then we had to compare them. Again: apples, oranges, durians, kumquats.

One of the biggest challenges for any judge has got to be the same thing that makes reading such a personal experience: every reader, every judge will, inevitably, bring their own baggage to a book. With a pile of twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred books to choose from, what's to stop every judge from picking their preferred genre of submitted book early on, reading those and then finding themselves unable bring themselves to champion anything else - particularly by the time they've read through the entire pile, and book ennui is starting to set in? How can a book that was read one-hundred-and-forty-eighth be guaranteed the same level of excitement as that first shiny submission? What about external bias: perhaps when two or three judges have read Book X ahead of the other judges, and entirely unintentionally load it up with their own baggage ahead of its turn in front of the final member(s) of the panel?

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Friday Five: 5 Subversive Barbarians

This week's Friday Five is improperly barbaric - five distinctive looks at one of the oldest tropes in sword & sorcery, selected by writer JM Canning (who keeps a lamentably low-profile internet presence, but keep your eyes peeled for his work...).

Whether they come in the form of a muscle-bound swordsman with laughable hair or a chainmail bikini-clad hellcat, the barbarian hero is one of the oldest, most iconic and, for many, most cringe worthy tropes of fantastic fiction.

They’ve been with us since the beginning, at least since Conan the Cimmerian strode forth, sword in hand, from the pen of Texan pulp fictioneer Robert E. Howard in the early part of the twentieth century, and a lot longer than that if you want to include the epics of Homer and the sagas of northern Europe. It’s hard to think of a trope with a more ancient pedigree, but it’s also hard to think of one more despised, dismissed and maligned by readers and critics alike over the years.

Barbarian heroes are often written off as poorly characterized vehicles of adolescent wish fulfillment. Aside from being worthless as literary subject matter, don’t they also provide a dangerously warped and immature view of violence and gender politics for both men and women, among other things?

Well no, the majority of them don’t, and that seems to me to be one of the best-kept secrets in speculative fiction. For now, forget every Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo cheesecake painting you’ve ever laid eyes on, and consider these five trope-defying barbarians.

Kull of Atlantis

KullBefore Conan there was Kull. The Atlantean first appeared in the pages of Weird Tales in 1929, in a short story entitled The Shadow Kingdom, now widely considered to be the first (and finest) example of American sword & sorcery fiction.

The reader is introduced to a Kull already enthroned in Valusia, the Land of Enchantment, and from the outset we see that here is a man beset by doubts and inner fears, a man who, having achieved his wildest dreams already, realizes he is now doomed to a life of suspicion, intrigue and betrayal if he is to keep what he has won.

King Kull is still a savage at heart, a hunter-gatherer who has lost none of his raw physical potency, but one who is overawed by the ancient civilisation that he’s found himself ruling, who struggles with the enshrined rituals and Byzantine politics of his court. Over the course of Howard’s Kull series of tales, we don’t see him charging around rescuing slave girls and looting tombs (he actually shows no physical interest in women at all), we instead see him defending himself from xenophobic nationalists, trying to alleviate the boredom of civilised life, helping several young couples avoid unwanted arranged marriages or simply sitting and pondering the mysteries of time and space.

Kull is the thinking man’s barbarian. His tales have a wonderful dream-like, melancholy quality, and feature little in the way of physical action. They are more preoccupied with philosophical themes such as the nature of civilisation, how it compares and interacts with so-called ‘barbarism’ and other such notions.

The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune, for example, seems to be a metaphysical pondering on the nature of existence itself, as Kull sits for days in front of a series of enchanted mirrors and ends up wondering if the moving reflections are the real Kull and him the illusion. The story also features a very appropriate epigraph from one of Howard’s favourite poets, Edgar Allan Poe, which I find sums up this series perfectly:

“a wild weird clime that lieth sublime
Out of Space, out of Time.”

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Completing Dahl: The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang & More

This year I’m blogging once a month about finishing reading everything Roald Dahl wrote. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke is one of the last stories Dahl wrote, and was published posthumously along with The Minpins and a few other odds and ends. It’s a slender volume - shorter than even The Twits. The plot revolves around a “charming and God-fearing” vicar, Reverend Lee, who is affected by a rare form of dyslexia which causes problems for him when he becomes the (title!) vicar of Nibbleswicke. The thing is, Lee’s dyslexia takes the form of his saying backwards the “most significant” word in his sentences. But in typically Dahl-ish fashion, it’s not always the most significant word; it is often any word that, when spelled backwards, is amusing or rude. So he tells his parishioners not to “krap” on the church lawn. The scandal! Also he tells some lady not to gulp the communion wine, but to “pis” it gently. Hilarity ensues until he figures out how to manage his dyslexia, whereupon order is restored.

Not much here to interrogate, or explore… it’s pretty straightforward. To me, what makes The Vicar of Nibbleswicke interesting is that Dahl wrote it specifically to benefit the Dyslexia Institute. According to the introduction by Quentin Blake, Dahl offered them all worldwide rights for the period of copyright, very generous indeed. And the Dyslexia Institute is actually a setting within The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, which I’m sure is cool for any dyslexic kids at the Institute reading it.

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Friday Fives: Help wanted!

We love our Friday Fives. They're fun, they're educational, they inspire a lot of debate and when someone else writes them, we get the day off.

Recent Friday Fives have covered everything from cocktails to South African speculative fiction to classic SF by African American authors to apocalyptic pop music. The contributors have been authors and DJs and bloggers and fans and the editor of SFX magazine (ok, that was pretty cool).

We'd like you (yes, YOU) to write us a Friday Five in 2014. If you're reading this blog already, you obviously have amazing taste and we'd like to hear what you have to say.

Our mission, as always, is to take geek culture seriously - and Friday Fives are great opportunity to highlight something new and different. The more your list illuminates or introduces some specific aspect of geekdom, the more useful it is - we don't want 'the five best shows' or 'the five best fantasy books'; instead, think more along the lines of 'the five best post-Buffy shows with supernatural high schools', or 'the five best contemporary fantasy novels from France'.

Open our minds, broaden our horizons and, best of all, entertain us for an afternoon! 


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Review Round-up: Rooftoppers, Geek Girl, All the Truth That's In Me

Three books shortlisted for young adult prizes - Katherine Rundell's Rooftoppers, Holly Smale's Geek Girl and Julie Berry's All the Truth That's In Me. Two Care Bears and a grizzly. Oh, and a random shout-out to Avengers Arena.

RooftoppersKatherine Rundell's Rooftoppers (2013) - one of this year's Carnegie finalists - is charming to the point of Disneyfication, a collection of adorable figures and improbable coincidences that would be utterly saccharine if it didn't work so damn well. Sophie is an orphan - the survivor of a shipwreck, found floating in a cello case and claimed by an eccentric bachelor, Charles. Charles raises her in the best cinematic fashion: they write on the walls, eat jam for every meal, climb on the roof and replace formal schooling with lots of Shakespeare. Sophie doesn't even wear dressesCharles gives her trousers instead, the crazy fool.

Well, naturally the Welfare people (a YA novel where the state is the villain? What are the odds?!) don't like this arrangement. Charles isn't raising Sophie as a lady and they're going to put her in an orphanage instead. Charles and Sophie do the sensible thing and scamper over to Paris, prompted, in part, by Sophie discovering a Parisian address in her cello case. Once there, the two become an unlikely pair of detectives: Charles trying trying the legal avenues and Sophie, well, she takes to the rooftops. It seems that Paris is inhabited by tribes of feral orphans, bounding from roof to roof, free as the birds they hunt and eat.

There are certainly some dark moments, but on the whole, Rooftoppers is just cute. From the beginning the whole foppish Shakespeare and jam thing signposts that this is a charming unreality, where Sophie and Charles blithely and anachronistically bound from adventure to adventure, with roof-picnics and music lessons and more. I hasten to add that there's nothing wrong with this: Rooftoppers is cute, but it is clever, adventurous and, on the whole, good clean fun. Certainly recommended for fans of Frances Hardinge (who strikes a similar tone, though with more, um, substance), or, for that matter, steampunk.

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'What is Genius?' by Robert W. Chambers (1917)

In_Search_of_the_UnknownI asked Robert W. Chambers, who has written more "best sellers" than any other living writer, what he thought of Flaubert's method of work.

He looked at me rather quizzically. "I think," he said, with a smile, "that Flaubert was slow. What else is there to think? Of course he was a matchless workman. But if he spent half a day in hunting for one word, he was slow, that's all. He might have gone on writing and then have come back later for that inevitable word."  

"But what do you think of Flaubert's method, as a method?" I asked. "Do you think that a writer who works with such laborious care is right?" 

"It's not a question of right or wrong," said Mr. Chambers, "it's a question of the individual writer's ability and tendency. If a man can produce novels like those of Flaubert, by writing slowly and laboriously, by all means let him write that way. But it would not be fair to establish that as the only legitimate method of writing. 

"Some authors always write slowly. With some of them it's like pulling teeth for them to get their ideas out on paper. It's the same way in painting. You may see half a dozen men drawing from the same model. One will make his sketch premier coup; another will devote an hour to his; another will work all day. They may be artists of equal ability. It is the result that counts, not the method or the time."  

"And what is it that makes a man an artist, in pigments or in words?" I asked. "Do you believe in the old saying that the poet - the creative artist - is born and not made?"  

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Review Round-up: Ravens, Angels, Avengers, Cops & the Apocalypse

Five books, all given less space than they deserve. Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys, David Almond's Skellig, Warren Ellis' Endless Wartime, Katie Coyle's Vivian Versus the Apocalypse and Rachel Howzell Hall's upcoming The Land of Shadows. Young adult, graphic novels, science fiction and a good ol' fashioned serial killer...

The-Raven-BoysMaggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys (2013) - a recommendation from Justin Landon, who occasionally isn't wrong on the internet. And boy, is this fantastic. A group of kids - private schoolboys and a third-generation witch - all go searching for a lost magical something-or-another. Small town silliness plus high stakes mystical weirdness.

The Raven Boys has a lot of the now-familiar tropes that I like in YA: an examination of what it is to be a 'have' and a 'have not', plus poking around at the idea of what it is like to belong (in a school, a group, a family...). The Raven Boys also addresses one of the themes that I find most fascinating in YA (and weirdly absent in adult genre fiction) - what it means to be a "hero". Not in the Chosen One sense, but in the "does that make the rest of us sidekicks?" sense. In The Raven Boys there's a clear, charismatic focal point - someone at the centre of a prophecy, someone that binds the others together. That's great... but how does that make everyone else feel? Too often - again, especially in genre stories for 'grown-ups', do books assume that everyone is happy to subsume their own agency in favour of the Obvious Protagonists. It is a strange and unrealistic behaviour - I much prefer The Raven Boys' model, where everyone is the hero of their own story.

This book also breaks the mold in that the authority figures and family members aren't all evil. Plus, despite the charm and warmth of The Raven Boys, it doesn't hesitate to tackle big, dark issues. Plus, fun - I would've loved this as a kid, and immediately started plotting out ley lines and doing bonkers research and filling notebooks with esoteric nonsense. 

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The books crawl in, the books crawl out...

DopeAs I write this, I'm conscious of the four bulging canvas carrier bags filled with books going to the happy hunting ground (that is, the giant British Heart Foundation bin that's near our local library). We had a cull of unread books in early February, with a particular emphasis on getting rid of stuff we were never going to read. Now, almost two months later, we're getting rid of the survivors. Our pile of 'will definitely reads' is completely untouched, and has, in fact, been superceded by an entirely new pile. Oops. 

[Excised: a lengthy and particular narcissistic piece about my reading behaviour when I'm busy. TLDR. Short answer: random stolen reading moments + comfort reads + ebooks.]

Anyway, despite all of the above, new stuff keeps somehow coming in (looks around guiltily) - recent acquisitions below, and, below those, some reading:

Jen Williams' The Copper Promise and Den Patrick's The Boy with the Porcelain Blade are, of course, signed first editions from the Blackwell's event. Not just reminders of a lovely evening, but also collectible copies of books I really enjoyed. 

Ben Aaronovitch's The Also People and John Connolly's The Underbury Witches - because I'm stockpiling for our next Kitschies event. I'm in pretty good shape for Aaronovitch, although I'm looking forward to getting my Broken Homes signed as well. With Connolly, who I've never met before, I'm trying to narrow it down to stack of (almost) reasonable size.

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Pornokitsch: Quarterly Update

We've been doing some odd new stuff this year, so I've been poking around at the numbers. Now, approaching the end of March, there have been just over 80 blog posts on Pornokitsch in 2014.

The most popular:

1. Sarah Lotz on bad reviews  (by a country mile)

2. My draft Hugo ballot 

3. Kameron Hurley's mom (this is awesome - see #6, below)

4. "Saga's Children" by E.J. Swift

5. "Literary authors slumming in genre" (Poking at Awards series)

6. Kameron Hurley (see #3, above)

7. Fun facts about The King in Yellow (shameless True Detective click-bait)

8. Nick Wood on South African SF/F

9. Kate Keen on alternate universes in fanfiction

10. "Self-publishing a best-seller"

That's fun, but what's it mean going forwards?

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