Archive for December, 2009

Books! 2009!

Posted by on December 8th, 2009

I don’t really agree with ‘best of’ lists, but I’m happy to flag up a few books I read this year that I think are worthy of mention.¬†However, if I was going to pick a best novel, it would be a two horse race. On the one hand, Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney. (Actually by Graham Joyce, but the artifice of the pseudonym reflects the levels of self-deception and forgery in the characters and the plot). It’s a fantastically written book about a decent, troubled man who makes a kind of living from forging books – while also drinking wine, caring for the people around him, seeing demons, and gradually struggling towards a kind of redemption. More than anything else, while never losing the genuine heart of its characters or becoming frivolous, it’s fun. An enjoyable, original, moving story. Original should certainly be applied to the other book I’d ‘single’ out: China Mieville’s stunning novel¬†The City & The City. There’s a temptation to reveal the wonderful conceit at the heart of this – what? – urban-fantasy-crime-mystery-thriller, but I won’t. It’s about two cities, with a detective investigating a cross-border murder. It’s brilliantly-realised, enthralling, intriguing … and like nothing else out there. You’ve probably read it by now, but if you haven’t, then you really should and you won’t regret it.

Having said that, aside from a few disasters, there’s not been much I’ve read that hasn’t impressed me on some level. So – what else?

First off, It’s always nice to be able to say good things about people you know or have met. With No More Heroes, Ray Banks takes his Cal Innes series up another notch. Talking about how clever and knowing the series is would detract from the fact they’re just great books, taking the familiar notion of the PI and doing really credible and surprising real-world things with it. Claire Seeber’s Lullaby doesn’t look, on paper, like the kind of book I’d like, but I enjoyed it a lot: the story of a woman whose baby is abducted, it’s well-written, psychologically smart and, in places, dark as pitch. A preview copy of Sean Cregan’s The Levels provided my last great read of the year. It has a hint of Mieville’s novel about it, actually, and it’s also reminiscent of Jack O’Connell’s best stuff. A tough, action-packed, chemical-stained urban thriller, it creates a believably fantastical mythology in a destitute US estate and lets its characters loose within it. Look out for it in January – it’s ace. And if you haven’t read Sarah Pinborough’s wonderful The Language of Dying, then – again – you should. You’re missing out. It’s a wonderfully observed, perfectly controlled piece of fiction about a woman tending to her dying father, and is one of my favourite reads of the year.

If you’re after horror, then Kaaron Warren’s Slights delivers. More of a character piece, in some ways, than an easy, straight-forward narrative – but fuck me, what a character that is. The book is disturbing, occasionally funny (although I’m warped), and never less than totally absorbing. I’d say the same about Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, a prose poem about warring werewolf packs that has a sweet and rewarding love story at its heart. Both read like genuine one-offs: I hope they aren’t, and I’m sure they’re not. Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places proves she certainly wasn’t: while not quite – for me – as good as Sharp Objects, it shows beyond doubt how excellent and capable a writer she is. It’s another book that’s massively strong on character and voice. As, in more of a subdued way, is Amy MacKinnon’s Tethered, about an undertaker who is drawn to the case of a murdered girl. Using flowers as a metaphor, the novel is gorgeously-realised and entirely earns its moving finale.

Two of my favourite writers had new books out: Mo Hayder with Skin, Michael Marshall with Bad Things. Neither were the best books either writer has written or will write, but both are head and shoulders above most other crime novels out there, and are well worth your time. In fact, both stand out as best-selling writers resolutely following their own paths and producing the stories they want. And I like that a lot. I also – finally – read David Morrell’s First Blood. Couldn’t put it down. Most other action-based thrillers I’ve read seem like pale imitations now. Such a good book.

Finally, a special mention for Sum by David Eagleman. It’s a slim book, containing forty conceptualisations of the afterlife. From an afterlife lived backwards to an afterlife divided into the activities of your life (however many years spent sleeping, etc), it succeeds because it makes you reflect on your life right now. Like most of these books, in fact. I’ve probably forgotten a few, but fuck it. To the writers involved – seriously – thank you, one and all.

‘risky’ behaviour

Posted by on December 3rd, 2009

I made a brief mention of this on Twitter – by linking to Laurie Penny’s blog post on the subject – but, since there was some discussion on Facebook as a result, I figured I’d post it here too, so it can be discussed, if desired, in the comment field. It’s been on my mind, as well, because of the interviews in Amsterdam. A number of them focused on my ‘work’ in the feminist studies department of Leeds University (only as an irrelevant secretary, but hey) and the contradictory idea that misogyny is inherent in crime fiction. I don’t think it is – necessarily – but these things are worth thinking and talking about, and this subject is one I’ve thought about a bit and, as a result of doing so, changed my mind about. So I guess a blog on the whole thing isn’t a terrible idea. You can always skip it.

Here’s a link to the main story. Basically, whenever Christmas approaches, the police step up a campaign to keep people safe. This one is about rape. There are two parts to it. The first warns men: “Rape: short word, long sentence”, which is semantically accurate, although perhaps not legally. The second is aimed at women: it advises women to look after themselves in the party season. “Let your hair down, not your guard down”. Watch your valuables, girls. And so on.

Now, to my shame, I used to sort of agree with this. One of the arguments is along the lines of “if you want to prevent burglaries, you don’t leave your house unlocked”. It seems fair enough. To expand on it, I don’t walk down dark alleys late at night. As a male, I’m at risk of assault in public, and I do what it takes, as much as possible, to avoid that. If someone is glaring at me in a pub, I put my pint down and go somewhere else. I shouldn’t have to, but that’s life for you: it’s jam-packed full of absolute wankers. And most realistic self-defence advice involves, if you can, being somewhere else as quickly as possible. I kind of thought the anti-rape advice I heard was no different. Of course you should take care of yourself. Of course you should avoid risky situations. Don’t get drunk; don’t let your guard down. No brainer.

But over time I’ve changed my mind. Because there are a number of problems with the “don’t leave your house unlocked” analogy.

The first is the obvious: while the analogy isn’t meant to compare a woman’s body to property, it does. So that’s bad. It’s not what the analogy is about, technically, but still. That one should try harder, because it has all sorts of shitty and irksome little connotations.

The second is that the analogy doesn’t hold for Reason One: you’d only be asking half the population to lock their doors and windows. You’re saying the rest shouldn’t have to, or – at best – not mentioning their responsibilities on this issue.

And the third? That’s Reason Two the analogy doesn’t hold, and it’s this. You can be locking your house from bottom to top, but it doesn’t cover it. What we’re really saying is you shouldn’t display money in any way, shape or form. Don’t carry it. Don’t wear clothes that cost money. Never visit a cash machine. Seriously: never mind walking down a dark alley – don’t visit a place where anyone might come to understand you have money to be taken at all. Of course, you do – we know that, you can’t hide it – but you’ve got to minimise it to the point you practically have to deny who you are. To be blunt, it’s very, very difficult to leave the house without someone realising you have a vagina. Financially, that’s what you’re going to have to aim for.

The other thing, though: what is risky behaviour? The people behind the advert above might say “Women – don’t get drunk with men you don’t know”. Well, that feels intuitively correct. But then again … why? Here’s the reality. I’ve got drunk with women I don’t know, and I never expected to have sex with them. It was just fun. Even drunk women I’ve drunkenly kissed, or drunkenly gone home with, I’ve always been clear where the boundaries lie. It’s not fucking difficult, is it? I would imagine the same is true for most of you (the guys, I mean). It isn’t risky for a woman to go home with you, because surely you’d back off the moment she expressed doubts. You treat people with respect. So it shouldn’t be risky behaviour at all. Okay, so, doing that might place someone in a potentially vulnerable position – but that only matters if you decide to be an evil arsehole. And if you do – which you all don’t – that’s your fault, not hers.

I mean, are we really saying that most guys are evil arseholes? Are we saying that getting drunk with us when you don’t know us is comparable to leaving your house unlocked, or walking down a dark alley at night? Because, if so, that’s pretty fucked.

Cheshire Chief Constable Dave Whatton, who is the national lead on tackling rape, said alcohol is a factor in a large number of rapes. He said: “Ultimately we want to prevent rape from occurring in the first place, by arming potential victims with key advice on how to keep themselves safe”.

Shit, man. Seriously? However well-meaning, that’s horrible. Okay – let’s say women don’t get drunk. They look after themselves. They’re careful. And, through their own behaviour, the rape of potential victims is entirely prevented. Zero rapes. Is that a result? Of course it fucking isn’t. That’s not solving a problem. It’s brushing a problem under the carpet. But even more than that, it’s expecting the victims to push the broom.