Despite the title stolen from Conan Doyle, there are no brilliant detectives or glamorous, worldly courtesans in this account of the 1930 murder of a young Melbourne woman. The murder remains unsolved; A Scandal in Bohemia is more interested in the life of the victim, Mollie Dean, and her afterlife as an Australian literary muse.
In an attempt to pivot the blog away from being just Star Trek stuff, I’m aiming for a minimum of one post a week on what I’ve been reading. But to ease us into the change … what I read yesterday was the Star Trek: Discovery Annual 2018.
Honestly, although it’s been a trashfire for the world at large, and also for many of my friends, 2017 was … okay for me. Not outstanding, but fine. And one thing which has helped has been escapism through media.
(I’ve noticed lately that, by the time my monthly book round-up arrives, sometimes I’ve forgotten everything I was going to say about a particular title. This is not necessarily a loss to the world, but I figured, time and energy permitting, I could probably stand to do some individual reactions.)
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
There’s been a certain buzz around Jo Baker’s Longbourn for a few months. The manuscript was the subject of an international bidding war, and the film rights were sold before the book was even released. I followed all this with great interest, as I’ve been toying for the last few years about retelling Pride & Prejudice from the servants’ point of view, and obviously I was OUTRAGED (for a whole five minutes) that someone else had had the idea, researched and written it while I was still vaguely wondering if early 19th century servants were generally literate.
By the time of release, the only thing holding me back from buying and reading it was money, ie, there’s an electricity bill due soon, and the ebook is $16 in Australia. Cue a 50% off code for Kobo (sept50, if you’re wondering, valid with most publishers until the end of September), finally it was in my hot little hands. Or at least my hot little reader.
The best fan fiction, in my opinion, comes from a place of love and affection for the source material, and Baker clearly has that in spades. Even when the servants’ perspective casts an unflattering light on beloved characters, it’s eminently fair. And many of those characters who aren’t especially beloved — Mr Collins, for example — get a sympathetic moment.
(I derive a very small level of amusement, however, from describing Longbourn as fan fiction, as it has apparently been elevated above the usual romantically-oriented — ie, feminine and foolish — type of Austen-related novel. Longbourn is, like, proper literature? It’s got war scenes and swearing, that’s how you know it’s not just some girly book. Man, why do I read mainstream reviews?)
As a derivative work, Baker takes the Bennet family and turns them into flesh and blood. Literally, as Sarah, the heroine, cleans their menstrual cloths. It’s a truth generally unacknowledged that Lizzy Bennet would have had body hair, sweaty underclothes, all the bits and pieces which, even today, we prefer to shave away and not talk about.
And as an original novel about Sarah confronting the limitations of a servant’s role and striving to find her own path, Longbourn is compelling and really enjoyable. I read it in a day because I couldn’t stop. Sarah’s domestic background inform her perceptions in a vivid and fascinating way, and her hunger to learn and see more — without looking down on those who don’t share her ambitions — is enjoyable.
However. You knew there’d be a however, right?
There comes a point where Baker’s story clashes with Austen’s. In fandom terms, she’s got her canon confused, and the result is that the entire Bingley family is mischaracterised.
Mr Bingley, right? He’s new money. His father made a fortune in trade, and since they’re described as “a respectable family from the north of England”, it has generally been taken that the Bingley fortune came from fabric. But Austen doesn’t say precisely how the money was made, only that it was through trade, ie, mercantile operations.
Baker suggests that Bingley Sr was the hands-on owner of a sugar plantation somewhere in the Bahamas, a slave-owner who (it is hinted) fathered Ptolemy Bingley, the charming mixed race Netherfield servant who catches Sarah’s eye.
This … does not work for me. It doesn’t fit what we know about the Bingleys and their source of wealth, not to mention that it’s rather incongruous to suppose that a man may own a plantation, yet still regard himself as a resident of England, and yet didn’t bother to buy property in his home country.
The Darcys, with their much older fortune, make more sense as plantation and slave-owners, although Darcy Sr is so closely associated with Pemberly that it’s hard to imagine him leaving for years at a time. If the Darcys have plantations in the Americas, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t, they would be overseen by stewards and agents, not the family itself.
This was just a minor frustration — especially since I wasn’t sure if it was a deliberate change to the book, or Baker’s misunderstanding — except that I was also increasingly unhappy about the author’s treatment of Ptolemy. He starts out as a charismatic presence, being friendly to Sarah and tantalising her with his knowledge of exotic, faraway places (like London). He has a wry sense of humour and an appealing cynicism when it comes to his employers, and is generally a well-constructed character.
But then … nothing. Ptolemy is just a vehicle for Sarah to learn more about the world, and then he disappears, returning now and then to share some piece of information that will advance Sarah’s goals. His ambitions are unrealised, his presence diminished, and ultimately he becomes a token.
I couldn’t help but contrast Ptolemy’s treatment with that of James, the male protagonist/Sarah’s other love interest. Much is made of the fact that James is an abolitionist (someone in Sleepy Hollow fandom this week described abolitionism as the historical equivalent of “I’m not a racist, but…“). Late in the novel, following a long, draining, bloodthirsty sequence covering the experiences of British soldiers in Europe, James comes to the realisation that being a volunteer soldier in the army is exactly like slavery.
The problem with ereaders is that it’s really hard to throw a book when it annoys you. I mean, you can, but instead of a satisfying bang, you just get bits of plastic flying everywhere. I assume. I did not actually throw my book, I just facepalmed a bit.
Now, I had really liked James up to this point, and the refreshing way his attitude to the ~love triangle~ was to go, “Well, if Sarah loves Ptolemy, I’ll be sad, I guess, but it’s her decision, and it won’t kill me.” Yes! More of that sort of common sense in my fiction, please! Less of the spurious comparisons to slavery!
With all this, the revelation that Wickham is an actualfax child sex predator was almost by the by. (But I don’t agree with that characterisation, either. Underage heiresses aren’t exactly equivalent to pre-pubescent maids.)
Now, I really enjoyed Longbourn. I cried at the end, and they were tears of “I love this book and the end is so good and I am a happy reader!” But what has stayed with me since I read it is the mishandling of the race/slavery issues. I think it’s valuable and important to look at the social issues that form the context of Austen’s novels, but this was badly done.
And I wonder, aside from Mansfield Park, and I do love the revisionist adaptation of 1999, which of Austen’s novels have space for a slavery narrative? Three centuries from now, will people look back at contemporary novels and wonder why none of the characters think about the sweatshops that made their clothes and electronics? I don’t fault Baker for trying, and I don’t for a second believe she intended for a tokenistic exploration of slavery and racism, but that was the result, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.
(I’m kinda hesitant to call my book posts “reviews”. That suggests a level of detachment and professionalism that I can’t really guarantee. Sometimes I just want to feelsplode all over the internet. Hence “response”.)
I have no qualms at all in admitting that my creative writing background is in fan fiction. Been writing fic since I was 12, been participating in the community since I was 16. It’s a useful way to learn valuable skills (with the general exception of worldbuilding, unfortunately). Not only is the internet chockers with guides to How To Write Fic But Good, but if you break the rules, people will tell you about it. Nicely, most of the time.
Most of fan fiction’s rules can be broken, and at least someone out there will find the result entertaining. The exception, in my experience, is this:
Never, ever, ever put author’s notes in the middle of the story.
That’s a common rookie mistake, and except in parodies of bad fic, I’ve never seen it executed well. It’s the kind of thing that has me backspacing right out of a story. (In this age of downloading longer fics in epub or Kindle format, it’s jarring enough to hit the otherwise acceptable end-or-beginning-of-chapter-notes.)
Until I read Losers in Space, I had never seen the mid-story author’s note appear in published fiction. And I’ve still never seen it executed well.
Losers in Space is a YA science fiction novel set in the 22nd century, when famine, war and social divisions (and, apparently, any culture that’s not American) has been replaced by a system where work is optional, the UN provides everyone with a comfortable upper middle class income, and a tiny minority have the opportunity to become “eenies” — people whose talent or fame entitles them to much greater wealth and privilege.
The catch is, it’s not hereditary. On reaching adulthood, the children of eenies have to demonstrate that they’re entitled to enjoy the lifestyle of their parents: through talent, through academic achievement, or by becoming really, really famous.
As the book opens, a group of wannabes — picture the Hilton sisters, a few lesser British royals and maybe some washed up K-pop stars — set out to become famous by stowing away on a ship to Mars. Sure, they’ll be in trouble when they’re caught, but they’ll be sooooooo famous.
The problem is, one of them is a sociopath.
Sounds pretty great, right?
In the foreword author Barnes makes a big deal out of this being hard SF. But he doesn’t want lots of exposition-heavy dialogue or infodumps, so he’s going to explain the sciencey stuff and some of the social background via … author’s notes shoved into the story. They’re labelled as “notes for the interested”, and he claims it’s possible to skip them if you’re not interested.
I don’t have a science brain, so yes, I skipped over the impenetrably mathematical or scientific notes. Problem is, there was also a lot of significant worldbuilding stuff in the notes. And the characters still had a lot of conversations revolving entirely around technobabble, while much of the social context was limited to the notes.
I honestly can’t believe an editor let this happen! I wanted to get out my red pen and start correcting it, or maybe cut up the book and rearrange it so it worked better. It was just straight up bad. I feel like the worldbuilding should have been incorporated into the story, and most of the science notes could have been removed completely. Maybe posted on the author’s website for interested readers. It got so that I resented every page I had to flick past.
I was also unconvinced by a lot of aspects of the worldbuilding, which was fairly heavy on the cliche. It was interesting, but not necessarily plausible.
What kept me reading were the plot and the characters, which were equal parts interesting and frustrating. Needless to say, the stowaway plan goes terribly wrong, and the teens have to fend for themselves, discovering new reserves of intelligence and competence, whilst also dealing with the sociopath in their midst.
I honestly can’t put my finger on what it was about the plot that bugged me, on account of how it was continually being interrupted by author’s notes. The pacing occasionally lagged, but mostly I think the problem was that the characters never completely gelled for me.
For example, at the very beginning, as we’re introduced to our characters, the narrator gives a quick summary of their personalities: morose social climber, whiny self-pitier, desperately socially awkward, creepy pervert, sociopath, etc. But many of these traits are quickly forgotten. A couple of characters have really pleasing arcs as they evolve from the unlikable people they were into productive members of society, but most of them, as soon as they begin to interact with the heroine, show hardly any sign of their introductory traits. They seem to be completely different people. And while the heroine marvels several times that she never appreciated her peers before, the turnaround is unconvincing.
I also had a lot of trouble with the hero, because I couldn’t quite shake the first impression of him as a creepy pervert who essentially makes fanvids from pornography and always has a camera on the girls.
Meanwhile, the villain is supposed to be a charming sociopath, except at no point is he actually charming. I’ve had some dealings with sociopaths in my life, and generally they sneak up on you. I mean, one of the key aspects of sociopathy is the ability to pass for a normal person, leaving trails of people in your wake wondering if they’re the ones who are crazy. Derlock (…I KNOW) doesn’t do that. He’s just straight up evil.
It’s a compelling kind of straight up evil, though, and part of the reason I kept reading was to see him get his comeuppance. SPOILERS: (highlight to reveal, and I apologise if this doesn’t work for you!) He doesn’t. He gets away with everything until the epilogue, in which it’s briefly mentioned that the heroine had him killed.
One curious thing about this book is that it has a bunch of reviews on GoodReads praising it for breaking out of the YA dystopian SF mould. It’s true that Losers in Space is a bit different from the recent run of YA SF, but … not dystopian? This is a world where a crime is the intellectual property of the criminal, meaning that a rapist or murderer will be exonerated if he can demonstrate sufficient media interest in his “work”. There’s a scene where the girls explain this law to the boys, who have never heard of it. The girls, on the other hand, had a special class about it, because it puts them all at risk.
Suffice to say, a lot of the “thank heavens it’s not dystopian” reviews are coming from blokes.
It’s details like that — a literal rape culture — that kept me reading, because I was continually seeing the seeds of a much better book between the lines. Genetically engineered animal with human intelligence? GREAT! He’s a pink elephant named Fwuffy with a phonetically-rendered speech impediment? UM.
So, yes, it’s all a bit mixed. ON THE OTHER HAND, I couldn’t put it down (except when I hit an author’s note), and I’ve just had 1200 words worth of thoughts about it.
This future is not white. One character is described as a “pink-headed Caucasian throwback”, from which we can assume that he’s the only white kid in the group. The heroine was genetically engineered for very dark skin.
Nevertheless, of the nine people depicted on the cover, four are white, and the central girl, presumably the heroine, has light brown skin.
Hey, I like to keep track of these things.
Very few of the characters have mothers in their lives. This seems to be a future where fathers get custody. The heroine’s mother essentially abandoned her for reasons which aren’t fully explained. But remember, not a dystopia.
The heroine’s father is an actor who has made his name as a leading man. Most of his movies seem to be remakes of early to mid 20th century films, which are quoted several times. It’s a nifty trick for creating a body of pop culture that’s familiar to the audience, or so I thought when I Arthur C. Clarke did it in 2010. I was also eleven at the time.
I’m not! Because that would be creepy, and also illegal, and also it would involve a higher level of effort than I’m accustomed to.
But when I was at ChicagoTARDIS, there was a certain amount of SHOCK and DISAPPROVAL when I said that I didn’t listen to the Galactic Suburbia podcast. I was given to understand that it’s my duty as an Australian feminist genre fan to give it a burl.
So I downloaded the last two episodes of 2012, and gave them a listen this week — well, I’m still partway through the November 22 episode — and, yes, everyone was right. This podcast is clever, informative, highly relevant to my interests, and I’ve been remiss in not listening to it before.
In fairness, I only listened to my very first podcast just recently. And my second. And now my third, fourth and fifth. (I’ve stopped counting now.) There came a point a few years back where I stopped listening to the radio because the announcers were all inane — yes, even on Triple J, hallowed youth station though it is — and technology enabled me to choose my own music. I figured that a podcast would be similarly irritating background noise.
Yes, I was wrong. For my morning commute, when I want some kind of mental stimulation but am too sleepy to read, podcasts are perfect. Of course, my commute is 20 minutes and most podcasts seem to go for about an hour, but, you know, we’re coping.
And a good thing, too, because now there’s a new podcast in town, and her name is Verity.
Verity is a feminist Doctor Who podcast, and frankly, a ridiculous number of the contributors are my friends. I listened to the first episode yesterday, and it was great. It was positive and affectionate while acknowledging faults, and the breadth of opinion meant that I got to agree with someone most of the time. It was a very nice way to spend a couple of train journeys.
Now, both of these podcasts feature Tansy Rayner Roberts, whose short story collection Love and Romanpunk has been sitting on my bookshelf for, oh, a year and a half. And she has a fantastic essay in Chicks Unravel Time, and she said clever things on panels at Continuum last year!
Then, on Wednesday, just as I was beginning my great podcast adventure, one of my BFFs tweeted about reading and loving Love and Romanpunk. (She reviews it here — I studied in the same Classics department, as does my brother now, although I’m fairly sure she’s the only one who got to design collapsible boats in class.)
Well, that was it. Clearly I had no choice but to read it. So I spent the second day of the year lying on the couch, absorbed in “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary”, which effectively hooked me for the rest of the stories. If anyone else looks at the Julio-Claudians and sees literal monsters, this is totally the book for you.
Jan 4: download the new issue of Apex Magazine. (I subscribed. You should, too!) And look, there’s a reprint of Roberts’ story “The Patrician”, from the same collection!
I am not stalking Tansy Rayner Roberts, but it’s possible that her works are stalking me.
I’m actually okay with this, since one of my goals for 2013 is to read more Australian authors. I went a bit overboard working out reading stats for 2012, and one of the results was that, of the 141 books I read, only 19 were by Australians. That’s pretty shameful. So yes, for 2013 we’re reading more Australians, more short stories, more in general. NOT THAT IT’S A COMPETITION. (It’s totally a competition.)
The problem is, there are so many good books! Here’s my to-read pile:
Most of these were purchased in the US, and I’m still working through them. And this is without factoring in the ebooks I haven’t read yet!
I really need one of those jobs where people pay me to read. But, like, books that I choose, not that my boss chooses for me.
Soooooooooooooooooo, been a while, eh? I do apologise; RL has been a bit busy, not to mention the minor matter of a month-long migraine that pretty much wiped me out for August. (My doctor and I suspect it’s jaw tension and night-time teeth-grinding; rather than pay $600 for a splint right before I leave for North America, I’ve ordered a nightguard from Dr Brux. STAY TUNED.)
Also, the prospect of typing out large chunks of text has been … well, not all that enticing. And I don’t think it could be avoided by having the Malory Towers books available in an ebook format, since generally DRM and copying and pasting are not considered compatible for some reason.
Now, I love ebooks! I have a Kobo reader, but these days most of my reading is done on my lovely iPad, so I can jump between ePub and Kindle formats at will. I still buy paper books, but frankly, I don’t have that much bookshelf space, so I try to stick to ebooks.
But just of late I’ve had some problems with DRM.
First I was no longer allowed to download new copies of the Laurie R King novels I bought back in 2009 and 2010, because the store no longer had the rights to sell them to Australia.
Fine, I thought, and eventually managed to find the ePub files I had downloaded back in the day. No biggie, they were sitting on my old EeePC. Only took half an hour!
BUT WAIT. These DRM-locked files can only be managed through Adobe Digital Editions!
And ADE doesn’t acknowledge the existence of my iPad! Something about the ongoing war between Adobe and Apple re Flash means hardly any Adobe things will work with iThings. REAL MATURE, GUYS. Thank God there are non-Adobe PDF readers, or I’d be screwed!
(Notability: for that happy moment when your friend has sent you her manuscript, and you need to scribble notes all over it but don’t want to print it out!)
In short, if I wanted to read these novels — for which I had paid AU$20 each, since at the time they weren’t out on Kindle and I could only find one store that would sell them to an Australian — I’d have to do it on my laptop, which is uncomfortable and not hugely mobile compared with the iPad, or I’d have to buy them again.
(Where was my Kobo, you ask? Lent it to a friend. Well, I wasn’t using it! I FIGURED MY iPAD WOULD TAKE CARE OF ALL MY NEEDS!)
So I bought them again.
A few days later, I had inhaled all of King’s Mary Rusell novels (a cross-dressing 1920s theologian who is married to Sherlock Holmes and occasionally investigates crime herself? SIGN ME UP. SIGN ME UP TWICE) and I desperately needed more. And bitter experience has taught me that this is not a fandom that produces much good fan fiction.
Then I remembered “Beekeeping for Beginners”, an e-novella published last year. I had even bought it at the time!
Oh. Adobe Digital Editions again.
Well, it was pay week, and the Kindle version was only $2. So I bought a second copy.
Then I read it, and loved it, and tried to send a copy of the Kindle version to my friend Branwyn, who has long been my partner-in-crime when it comes to this series.
Oh no. Amazon took my money, then told Branwyn, “Nope, this is the international version. No can do.” And gave her a $2 gift voucher in substitute.
I mean, seriously.
I’ve never really given much attention to the arguments about locked versus unlocked ebooks and consequences with sales, but I’m generally in favour of paying for things that I want to read (or at least going to the library) and hence not pirating books.
But I do not understand how restricting electronic sales across arbitrary geological boundaries is in any way a good idea.
(See also the Sarah Tolerance novels by Madeleine E Robins – the first two are available again in Kindle format, but only in the US. I had to go through a lot of user-unfriendly rigmarole to get the first one via an inter-library loan.)
If a customer can jump on Amazon or BookDepository and buy a physical book, why is that same customer unable to buy the electronic edition? Is this good for business? It’s not as though Australia is teeming with ebook sellers, and those that we have tend to be ridiculously overpriced.
(I worked at Borders for a long time, and I was very glad to be getting a much higher wage and better working conditions than, say, Amazon staff. But staff expenses alone don’t justify the difference in pricing between American and Australian ebooks.)
And I like Apple products, but there’s a lot of “I’M TAKING MY TOYS AND GOING HOME” where they’re concerned, and it’s customers who suffer.
There, I have ranted! Now I shall make an unprecedented second post of the day, dealing with chapter 9 of First Term at Malory Towers!
I heard, via the blogosphere, that BookDepository will cease to sell ebooks on 30 June.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” said I, because the final books in Anne Digby’s Trebizon series are only available in ebook form, and the easiest place to buy them is BookDepository.
I have to admit that I’d become rather lax about reading the series, because you can only read so many boarding school novels in a row before you explode. And, frankly, the longer the series goes on, the less I enjoy it.
The first book was literally inspirational. I read it for the first time earlier this year, and promptly went looking for a contemporary Australian boarding school series. And when it turned out that didn’t exist, I started writing it. (Other people do that too, right?)
Somewhere around the fourth book, though, the Enid Blyton In The ’80s vibe started to take second place to a rather dull story about the main character’s tennis career, the supporting characters became broader, and the overall plots became less plausible. So I took a break, and figured, well, obviously BookDepository really appreciates the AU$2.50 I was spending on these books, why would they ditch them?
Bah. Now I shall have to find another dealer source.
ETA: Panic averted! The books are now available through the Kindle store. Which is less ideal, because I already have half the series in ePub form, and the price has gone up to $3.99. But I guess it’s better than a kick in the head. Right?