by Rosanne Rabinowitz
It’s that time of year… So here are a few highlights of my reading and watching in 2019; perhaps I’ll spend more time on the ‘listening’ part next year. I’ll stress that this is not a ‘best of’, just a few things that come to mind or stuff that I've tweeted or posted about during the year.
The Migration Helen Marshall.
In the near future an unknown immune disorder has been affecting young people throughout the world. After Sophie's sister Kira is diagnosed, her family leave Canada to stay with an aunt in Oxford for specialised treatment. But what appears as a disease could herald a transformation... I’ve spent a lot of time in Oxford with my partner there, so I appreciated Marshall’s superb sense of place. She made this Oxford of the future very real. The characters also live on Osney Island, a watery part of central Oxford where one of my favourite pubs in the city happens to be. Now for a little story attached to this book... When Helen read an extract at Fantasycon in 2018 she announced a competition. Whoever cawed the loudest would win a copy of the Canadian edition. This was a big deal because the UK edition wouldn’t be out for about six months. And I cawed! I was desperate – I just couldn't bear the waiting and that desperation must have given my 'caw' its volume and urgency. It could not be denied!
And then I tweeted with joy when I won the prize.
The Dollmaker Nina Allan
We follow the journey of Andrew, a dwarf who is a dollmaker, as he tries to connect with his penfriend Bramber. Bramber, who came into contact with him because of their shared love of dolls, is stuck in an institution in a remote part of Cornwall after traumatic events in her past. A series of stories by Polish author and dollmaker, Ewa Chaplin, also weaves through the book. The Dollmaker is not overtly fantastical but it definitely feels like a fantasy novel – the book is about fantasy itself and how it can impart wonder and hope. It makes me think of Geoff Ryman’s Was in this respect. I loved its mittelEuropa flavour, even in sections set in London and Cornwall. The texture of the prose is rich and evocative. I found myself seeing the book as a film starring Peter Dinklage as Andrew and perhaps Samantha Morton as Bramber and Sophie Okonodo as Andrew's friend Clarence. And there's gotta be a role for Tilda Swinton in there somewhere.
A Spectral Hue Craig Laurence Gidney
The town of Shimmer, Maryland has long drawn a stream of black artists – working in a range of media – who focus on a colour that shifts between purple and pink, the hues of the rare local salt marsh orchid. Graduate student Xavier goes to Shimmer to study the work of these artists, inspired by an encounter with it in his past. He discovers magic in its beauty and also encounters the dark history that gave birth to it, one rooted in slavery and violence. This eerie and weird tale is populated by a memorable cast of queer black characters. It evokes our capacity to create art under terrible conditions and the power of that art to reach through time. As a writer I'm also obsessed with colour imagery and drawn to combinations of purple and pink so I loved this.
The Ten Thousand Doors into January Alix Harrow.
A satisfying portal fantasy, told from the perspective of a biracial girl growing up in a mansion filled with treasures, a mostly absent father and a guardian who treats her as one of his curiosities. But her quiet existence is shattered when she stumbles across a strange book. Each page reveals worlds within worlds and she begins to learn who she is. And the book literally opens doors for her.
What I Loved Siri Hustvelt
I read this earlier in the year. A book full surprises. It started off as a story about arty nobs in NYC and transformed into a psychological thriller of sorts that explores grief, and meditates on nature and nurture.
Hollow Shores Gary Budden
These atmospheric tales focus on the Kent Coast and London and some locations further afield. I loved their invocation of punk pleasures past and present, their sense of place and psychogeography. Some of them might have been unsatisfying on their own but as pieces in this mosaic they add to my understanding of these characters and their world. Generally, I love collections that have a thematic centre and I'm also drawn in by recurring places and characters. It reminds me of some early M John Harrison work, especially Climbers (though the main activity in this is walking). And WTF, I just love stories about old punks wandering about...
Sing Your Sadness Deep Laura Mauro
I was familiar with many of these stories as a subscriber to Black Static, and I've shared space with Laura in an anthology or two. However, it was good to read through them as a varied and captivating body of work. And then there were ones I hadn't come across before. I'd say that the award-winning "Looking for Laika" was worth the price of my ebook alone, and there are many more fine tales such as "When Charlie Sleeps," "Letters from Elodie" and "Ptichka."
TV and film
Years and Years (BBC)
Near-future how-we-live stuff, leaves you laughing and then crying and then very angry. Excellent performances all around, especially from Russell Tovey and Emma Thompson as a right wing populist politician. Here’s a chilling clip that I’ve posted in several online discussions, where Emma Thompson's character gives a spiel about the new detention camps, which reveals how 'concentration' camps first began under the auspices of the British Empire. "The word concentration simply means a concentration of anything... You can fill a camp with oranges and it will be a concentration camp by dint of the oranges being concentrated. It's as simple as that. Made it sound rather tasty! ...They simply let nature take its course. The camps were crowded, pestilent, and rife with disease... You might call it neglect, you might call it efficient.”
However, the end of the series didn't quite work. A bit Doctor Who, which is fine in its place . But it wasn't an effective ending for this series – an emotional dystopian drama rooted in current events. It dissipated the very real and present ambiance created by earlier episodes.
The Affair (Showtime)
I didn't think season 5 would be up to much without Ruth Wilson and the first couple of episodes seemed to confirmed that. BUT...
It went kind of SF with a near-future strand about Cole and Alison's daughter, Joanie. With episode 6 I became re-addicted despite some poor dialogue. Singing along with the theme tune is always fun and it lends itself to a bit of interpretive dancing when I need to get steps in. However, I must remember to draw the blinds first!
This unexpected twist in the show reminded me of Years and Years – a combination of relationship drama/family saga & SF – but not as well-written. Most people on Twitter hated the turn it took, but it revived my interest, which had been waning amidst the soapy suds.
Russian Doll Season 1 (Netflix)
A few of have already blogged about this in their Pleasures posts so I'll just briefly say that I enjoyed it. An abrasive, witty time-loop drama. Hope there's a second series.
The Beforeigners (HBO) (European)
I stumbled on this Norwegian time travel drama by accident and got hooked in immediately. I tend to avoid subtitled work on the small screen for eyesight reasons but the subtitles on this appear in big and very visible letters. This is a crucial technical point!
People from the past are suddenly emerging into the present – temporal immigrants in Oslo comes from eras such as the Stone Age, the Viking period and the 19th century. The 'beforeigners' collect in communities with others from their time and bars spring up specialising in their favourite grog. There's some great culture clash comedy, but the serious issues are not far below the surface.
The series follows a former Viking shieldmaiden who becomes a police detective, the first of her background to join the force. She bumps into a former comrade in arms and they have adventures that sometimes conflict with her duties as an Oslo cop investigating murder cases.
One standout scene involves an orientation seminar where an assortment of newly arrived Norse folk (the preferred term to 'Viking') are watching a cheesy 'welcome' video on modern Norwegian life. An argument breaks out between the Christians and pagans in the room.
I enjoyed the approaches to Norse history and myth the most and it may very well come to the fore if there's a second series. The 'tec tropes were fun they didn't absorb me in the same way. But now... St Olav and his killer Thor Hund are now living in modern Oslo. Thor is trying to live a quiet life with his wife & kids in a council flat and a job as a delivery person. Then he's rumbled... and Olav is still up for saintery, Christian crusading, and forcible conversion. Bring it on!
His Dark Materials (BBC)
The first episodes seemed a bit of glossy meh, but later episodes were very powerful.
I enjoyed the differences introduced into the series; for example, more elaboration on Will's background and the way he comes into the story earlier. I read the books back in the early 2000s so I'm a bit vague, but I wondered if the series places more emphasis on the fantasy trope of 'the one' and 'destiny'? If I recall, in the book Will found a door into Lyra's universe just by chance, but now it's part of this destiny set-up too. I've always hated 'the chosen' trope and I just try to ignore it so I can enjoy the series.
I also think there was a bit more SF behind the fantasy in the books. That side is explored in John Gribben's book The Science of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, which I've had on my TBR list for years.
While watching episode 6 of His Dark Materials I had a dose of creepy deja vu. Then I realised that the outfits worn by Lyra and the other girls in the daemon-severing camp are just like the ones we had to wear for 'phys ed' in school (circa 1970s), otherwise known as 'gym suits'. Very appropriate, for the school system at the time was definitely intent on daemon deleting. Vile garments for vile times and places.
Fast Color (film on Netflix)
This film is described as a 'superhero film' in reviews. While formidable powers come into play, I found it much more quiet and contemplative. I'm not at all a superhero fan. I get bored with repetitive fight scenes even in the better ones like Black Panther
Generations of black women in a particular family have the ability to disintegrate objects into their atomic components and put them back together again. It's more than that – they are able to "see the colors" after performing these acts, indicating a universal connection and journey as well as a handy bit of sub-atomic DIY. The ability is blocked in the main character, resulting in lack of control and destructive consequences to her powers. She has to revisit her past in order to connect with this ability.
The numinous significance of color in this film and the centrality of black characters reminded me a lot of the novel A Spectral Hue, mentioned earlier in this piece. Its feel and some of its concerns are similar too.
Impulse S2 (YouTube).
Finally, this year brought long-awaited second seasons of the German time-traveling drama Dark, as well as Impulse and its teleporting teenage heroine. Both of these were excellent, though I didn't feel quite the same level of thrill and wonder that the first series brought.
With Dark I picked up some German. Ich bin Du. I am you – declared several times. You can guess what's going on there! Paradox aplenty.
Impulse is a rare thing – a sequel that is superior to the original. The series carries on from a mediocre action film called Jumper, also about teleporting folks. There were some engaging concepts there, such as a centuries-long struggle between religious authorities and those who have this ability. However, the film featured lots of fight sequences and little story. In the UK we joked that the follow-up would be called Cardy.
Instead, we got Impulse, and I'm glad for it. We meet the daughter of the bloke in Jumper, who is growing up in a working class community in Washington State with her sister and her struggling single Mom.
This series hasn't received much attention, but it deserves a wider audience. Unlike its predecessor, it addresses issues such as class and sexual violence through the eyes of a complex protagonist. While series 2 does indulge in melodrama and lose its thread in places, it proved satisfying. I hope there is a third series.
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