Saturday, September 6, 2014

Aliya Whiteley's The Beauty: Mushrooms and Masculinity in a World Without Women

Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty lays out a fascinating dystopian forecast and presents a world which must adapt to the loss of the female sex. The novella is not your average dystopia, rather, it belongs in a kind of anti-genre called the New Weird, where boundaries between horror, science fiction, dystopia and speculative fiction are blurred and crossed. With this brave and engaging premise, Whiteley has written a novella that lingers in your mind long after you’ve finished reading, embedding itself in your consciousness and raising new questions every day. So many strands and layers of thought are provoked in this concise and beautifully written novella.

The story is told from the point of view of Nathan, a member of a commune who had separated from society even before the loss of women. He is the resident storyteller-

‘My name is Nathan, just twenty-three and given to the curation of stories. I listen, retain, then polish and release them over the fire at night, when the others hush and lean forward in their desire to hear of the past’.

His stories help the community to remain sane in the face of tragedy and their own seemingly unavoidable doom. The process of telling the stories forces Nathan to question not just his own nature but the nature of truth and memory and gender. He begins to become less certain of what he knows and what is accepted. Reflecting on the past and his memories changes them upon each revisiting. Remembering women alters them and affects his own conception of gender. Then the Beauties rise from the ground - they are ambiguous mushroom creatures in a feminine mould. Their arrival forces the whole commune to re-evaluate what it knows. They must either unite and move forward or fracture beyond repair.

As readers we are encouraged to consider a myriad of issues. What happens to the ‘male’ and the ‘masculine’ when the female/feminine is gone? When it perhaps does not need to define itself so stringently against something? What it means to be male literally begins to evolve in The Beauty – as the Beauties infiltrate the camp, it is the men who start to reproduce. If women did die out, what would the next stage in evolution be? How would a male body adapt? The arrival of the Beauties prompts this deconstruction of male identity.

As Nathan puts it:

Aliya Whiteley
‘I was sixteen when they all died and I thought I understood this loss, but it comes to me that I didn’t know what women gave to the world. It wasn’t about their lips, their eyes or the gentle quality of their voices. It was about the way that all men are a part of them. And now we are part of nothing.’

It has been speculated that some varieties of mushroom, such as Lion’s Mane, have regenerative or nerve healing properties. Are the Beauties come to heal the damage done to the male population, while forging new neurological and physical connections?

‘There are signs of change, of regeneration, and I saw the first mushrooms in the graveyard on the morning after I ripped up the photograph of my mother’s face and threw the pieces over the cliff, into the fat swallowing folds of the sea.’

The virus wiped out women and seems to resurrect them as something other. On one level The Beauty is a dystopian negotiation of Otherness and how a community set in their ways can react to a foreign entity. Some feel threatened and afraid and respond violently. Others embrace the change. The tensions rise and the micro-society they have created begins to unravel. The potential dystopian mushroom motif could draw from certain mushroom characteristics – that they require preformed matter to live and mostly deteriorate whatever it is they feed off. To live they must destroy.  This ties in with the idea of a post-apocalyptic struggle for existence. In a similar way, as the Beauties attach themselves to male partners, the male body begins to change (the genitals deteriorate). Men like Nathan encourage the integration and acceptance of these processes. The full extent of the changes can only be imagined beyond the end of the book.

Published by exciting and upcoming publisher Unsung Stories, The Beauty is unforgettable. It is startling and original, daring and considered. The language flows beautifully, a celebration as well as an exploration of the art of storytelling. In dystopian style it ends somewhat ambiguously, appropriately so, with the future uncertain. Take the time to let this novella affect you. It may be short but it latches onto you like a virus (of the best variety) and prays on your mind. 

*thank you to my friend Richard Stenner for his fungi expertise!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Let's Give This New Social Media Trend a Purpose

A new trend is sweeping social media which I can't resist participating in but I want to give it a purpose so I am donating to Give A Book (I've just made a donation to Give A Book. You can do the same at and also recommend English PEN and any books for prisoners scheme. Reading and writing are more important than I can put into words so if I am to share the books that stayed with me and affected me I'd like everyone to have the opportunity to be similarly changed and to broaden their mind. Words and ideas can change the world - but crucially, they can change you as an individual. Let's give this trend a purpose and spread the word. Because, as Give a Book says, reading matters. If you don't read you can only think and dream so far.

My ten books are:

1. The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand 
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
3. Middlemarch - George Eliot 
4. L'Etranger - Albert Camus 
5. Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand 
6. A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf 
7. The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot 
8. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald 
9. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock - Matthew Quick 
10. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee 

Honourable mentions to Mockingjay, The Book Thief, 1984, Brave New World, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, The Bell Jar, Lord of the Rings and Wuthering Heights 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Pre-Release review of a Dystopian Debut

Click here to see My review of Stephen Oram's dystopian thriller Quantum Confessions

I was asked by Wordery to do a review of Oram's debut and you can read it all at the link above. It was a scintillating read and novel in its combination of spirituality and science.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dead Poet's Society - Remembering Robin Williams

'The question, O me! So sad, recurring -- What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here--that life exists, and identity; 
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.' - 
O me, O life
Walt Whitman

Dead Poet's Society is the film that made the most profound impression on me growing up, and a huge part of that was Robin William's enigmatic portrayal of Mr Keating. The teacher who even now is not really allowed to exist but gets his students living and feeling, aiming to make their lives mean something. Williams affected me again in Good Will Hunting, he was the master of these roles of quiet profundity, which could reach into the person watching and alter them. That's how I choose to remember him. He contributed some of the best verses in the powerful play. 

Any lover of literature should make watching this film a priority. There are an abundance of references to Whitman, Frost, Herrick and Thoreau - especially the Carpe Diem poetic tradition (which is Mr Keating's ultimate message). Todd is the student I really identify with, afraid to speak out and not believing in what he has to say, and then there's the ultimately tragic Neal. Keating changes their lives, perhaps riskily and unconventionally, but also in a way that ultimately gives them self-esteem and makes them feel alive, for however short a time. The question we're left with is: is living intensely for a short time ultimately more worthwhile than going through the motions for an eternity? Perhaps yes.

Keating is responsible for the best of these boys, not the tragedy. Keating's fate is probably, sadly, realistic but he is a lovely ideal to look up to. Some people I've watched the film with found the ending too depressing and failed to see the hopeful and positive elements - essentially for them the tragedy overshadowed the other messages of the film - which it did for the powers at the school as well. As Mr Keating says, we must always remember to look at things in a different way.

Robin Williams will always be a genius in his own right and I hope that any conversation about depression and mental health that has now been started actually continues so that a real difference can be made in the lives of sufferers and that there's not so much fear and stigma attached to talking about it. 

O captain, my captain - Rest in Peace and thank you for your art. 


'We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.' 

'You must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." Don't be resigned to that. Break out!'

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Panopticon of Social Media - Kim Curran's Glaze and Dystopian YA

'Glaze is a story about a girl who feels lost in the crowd. Drowning in the noise of so many voices', Kim Curran writes in the afterword to her dystopian novel. It is a book about 'the dangers of social networks', she explains, 'and yet, the very fact you are holding it in your hands right now is evidence of just how wonderful those same networks can be'. (For a great interview and background info check out an interview with Kim on which includes the TED talk that inspired her). It seems apt that Glaze is Curran's first self-published novel, this was partly because it allowed her to accelerate the process so it stayed topical (it is eerily prescient about Google Glass!).

This is all appropriate because Glaze has had to be promoted almost exclusively through social media - the very thing it simultaneously heralds and critiques. Through this very process its point is cemented. I heard about it on Twitter and seized the opportunity since it was an offer.

Glaze is about a society which allows people (unless they are part of an excluded underclass) to be chipped and access an optical overlay social network at the age of 16. The name mirrors the way their eyes glaze over and empty when they do this. 15 year old Petri Quinn (daughter of Glaze's creator) is desperate to join the legions of people on it, feeling ostracised and alienated all the while she is disengaged. So desperate that she would do anything. The chip she gets illegally implanted with has no filter so she is inundated with all the information - enough to drive her mad. With the help of Ethan, who is also shut out of the system for most of the book, Petri must see Glaze for what it really is and what it is about to become.

As with many young adult dystopias, I had mixed feelings (except for THG, which I think transcends that genre). As in Divergent I found the romance and teenage crush material cloying and misplaced. It might just be me but I hate the romance thrown into books (particularly dystopias!) as if it has to be there (this isn't a criticism of Curran so much as the state of the market). Neither male love-interest was particularly well developed or had a lot of point. (I don't mind the romance in THG because it serves to illustrate a political dichotomy and different approaches to revolution and rebellion - hence works on many levels).

Petri was a fairly interesting heroine, perhaps too normal. (or what the market leads us to believe is normal - why are teenage crushes the main tropes of relatability? In many dystopias love is what has suffered and is not relevant) In some ways - as a narrator I found her obsessing over boys mildly irritating but this was only minor. Her family situation was interesting - if anything I would have liked the book to be longer and cement this side of development and further explore those relationships. Petri's name comes from the means of her birth - artificial insemination, or a petri dish which was an interesting quirky detail. Max, as the ultimate villain, was slightly disembodied, though perhaps purposefully.

With a background in old-school dystopia reading I would have perhaps liked it to get a little more gritty and bleak - perhaps an ultimate alienation or a failure in transmitting that fateful message at the end. The ending followed the YA dystopian mould by remaining slightly ambiguous and unresolved - which I did appreciate. The degree of uncertainty over the future and whether events will just repeat themselves is crucial to this being credible though the final events did feel slightly rushed. The final line 'as we step out onto the road, I look up at a drone camera above and smile' is haunting. It seems innocent at first but is Petri still ultimately controlled by the social media around her? Wanting to get sucked back in? Susceptible to its manipulation on some level? Does a human being's fear of being alone drive them to collectivise themselves in ways that can ultimately be harmful and soul-destroying?

I couldn't help thinking of the notions of trending (which filters what you're exposed to in a personalised way) on Twitter, ships, fandoms and fan armies... individuals becoming collectivised in a virtual militarised way. It's not difficult to foresee dystopia in these sides of Twitter - the ability to group up and attack, defend and ignore other views, engaging only in one reality is dangerous. (As Max explains: 'People like being told what to do, what to think, who to like. It makes life simple for them. No one really wants the weight of all that choice' 427 and 'It's only in defining yourself against another that you feel like you belong. An enemy to unite against' 427It's no longer enough to have individual opinions and likes and dislikes, they must be affirmed by others - they depend on them.

One passage echoes the infamous speech in Huxley's Brave New World -

'we're not supposed to be perfect! We're supposed to make mistakes and screw up... but you've robbed us of all that. You and your filters. It shuts down our potential. Limits our world. Restricts the type of people we meet. The type of ideas we're exposed to. And for what? To keep us happy? Safe?' 
'The alternative is chaos.'
'I'd rather risk the chaos of freedom than be denied the choice. Choice is everything.' 429

I definitely think this is a useful and exciting book for a Young Adult audience, and worth a read for others interested in where social media may take us. I wouldn't say the heroine is a ground-breaking one (I am very interested in female hero figures in dystopia) but it is certainly a topical dystopia and has started a discourse that is very relevant to us all and that other authors will  hopefully engage with in dystopian literature. I am someone who has read a lot of dystopian fiction, new and old, and a lot of young adult literature in this vein so obviously my view is very subjective and tainted by this.

Kim Curran has written a niched, current and compelling novel which deserves attention and promotion on the social media platform especially. I wanted to spread the word about this book and see what people think about it and the issues it engages with so do comment.

Further quotes and food for thought:

'What better way to stop conflict than by ensuring no one with opposing views ever met? 399
'It's like if you're not on Glaze, you don't exist.' 85

'Everyone on Glaze is a walking CCTV, and they don't even know it.' 263 - how much does this resonate with the spying accusations around GCHQ etc?

'Some cultures used to think cameras took our souls. Maybe that's what's happened to us. Maybe our need to document our every thought, our every emotion, has robbed us of everything. Stripped us down to nothing but pixels on a screen' 366

'You were going to call it Panopticon... a prison. Where everyone's watching everyone' 339 is social media a virtual prison? The ultimate form of control?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

'...and then everyone will just fade away': The Man who Watched the World End

'It's obvious now that the end of man won't be signaled with mushroom clouds, an alien invasion, or a meteor, but with silence' 1

I have been on hiatus from this blog for the most part in the final year of my degree. This does not mean I haven't been reading. I have read the entire Game of Thrones series thus far (RECOMMEND), since Christmas, as well as Room by Emma Donoghue (RECOMMEND), The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (RECOMMEND), the entire Divergent series by Veronica Roth (very mediocre) as well as some graphic novels (Maus, Watchmen and Persepolis). Now, with my dissertation handed in I am back. In my dissertation I wrote about the potential for female heroism and assessed some heroic female characters in dystopian literature. So I am back to ramble a bit about a dystopian book I've just finished.

It is called the Man Who Watched the World End and is a 2013 novel by Chris Dietzel. It is bleak, not unlike Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and tricky to read especially towards the end (both because it can feel slightly repetitive but there is also a horrifying twist). It is comprised of diary entries by an elderly man, the last of his neighbourhood who has gradually watched the world of humans and civilization fade away. This occurs not through spectacular explosions or alien invasions but a simple mis-evolution or de-evolution - with generations of babies being born with 'no significant brain activity'. They are referred to as 'Blocks' because it 'was as if their condition obstructed them from the world' (10-12). They cannot reproduce, or do anything at all, but they are alive and so the kind-hearted around them become their carers, as the narrator does for his slightly younger brother.

'So we, the fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of the afflicted, took care of them and raised them as the otherwise normal people they were, all the while realising this new generation we were taking care of wouldn't be able to produce offspring. And even if they could, they wouldn't be able to raise them' 12

'These silent masses will continue to age until the last generation of regular adults gets too old to take care of them, and then everyone will just fade away.' 16

In his diary entries the man describes his day to day life, complicated by previously domestic animals becoming feral as well as the bears and wolves that populate the area already, as the final man in the neighbourhood while everyone else migrates south. He talks to and cares for his unresponsive Block brother and recalls bits of his life, the transition from normality to the dissolution of human society. There are lots of poignant reflections on the human condition, how everything that once mattered gradually stopped mattering at all and the mystery over why his previously friendly neighbours left in the middle of the night without saying goodbye.

When it comes, even though it takes its time, the reveal of the mystery behind the neighbours is devastating and deeply affecting but tragically and shockingly believable - a true moment of dystopia. Although it was hard to read it gave the book much more impact and gravity, raising it from its slightly monotonous pace thus far. It's an interesting book, I think there are points you just need to plough through but for anyone interested in bleak, realist dystopia this is worth a try.


'No one could understand how a species could change itself in a way that prevented its own survival. It defied nature.' 16

'I take care of him but that doesn't define his life or my own. When you go without many people to talk to, you start forgetting what you really feel. You find yourself hoping someone else can remind you of who you used to be and who you're becoming. Maybe this diary will do that for me now.' 77

On apocalyptic movies and their underlying idealism:

'How difficult it must have been for the people writing these movies to think of a time when humans wouldn't exist at all. Even in the far corners of their creative, inspired minds, they couldn't think of a scenario where every man was wiped out, just most of them. There always had to be a survivor. Maybe this simply spoke to the optimism of the men writing those screenplays; even with an uncomfortable sci-fi plot they had to subconsciously comfort themselves by thinking that at least a hundred people would survive. Someone has to survive.' 87

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

'An Expert at Being Left Behind': Brief Reflections on The Book Thief

This won't be a long post because this book is very popular and deservedly acclaimed but I just want to add my comments and strong recommendation:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of the most beautifully written and uniquely heartbreaking books I've ever read. It is laced with metaphors and creative imagery which are not cliched but feel fresh and original and weave together like prose-poetry. 

The following passage is a supreme example, coloured with the extended motif of food/fullness/emptiness/consumption, one of various motifs used in relation to words themselves -  the reading of them, the writing of them - their mere existence: 

"Those images were the world, and it stewed in her as she sat with the lovely books and their manicured titles. It brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brims of their bellies with paragraphs and words. You bastards, she thought. You lovely bastards. Don't make me happy. Please, don't fill me up and let me think that something good can come of any of this. Look at my bruises. Look at this graze. Do you see the graze inside me? Do you see it growing before your very eyes, eroding me? I don't want to hope for anything any more. I don't want to pray that Max is alive and safe. Or Alex Steiner. Because the world does not deserve them." (524)

"It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors - an expert at being left behind. It's just a small story really" (15)

Not-leaving: An act of trust and love, often deciphered by children. (43)

Narrated by Death, the story is that of Liesel Meminger, a young girl passed on to new parents, her relationships with those around her and the books and words she encounters during a fractious period in WW2. She develops a penchant for stealing books and this mediates her experience with the world around her and how she interacts with it. Clearly Death is fascinated by her - with an extraordinary capacity for sympathy/empathy and compassion- and the reader sees her through Death's eyes as he/she/it is kept busy in Nazi Germany. The characters closest to Liesel are all endearing, unique and often inspiring in their raw humanity and even as the ending is relayed and foreshadowed before it's even reached, their lives and interactions garner immutable meaning. 

The story is suitably heartbreaking but incredibly endearing and enriching. The narration, from the perspective of a characterised Death works so well, (despite taking a while to adjust to and not question), and it feels appropriate for the contextual/historical reality/presence of overwhelming death. I was in floods of tears at the end, not necessarily because it was a distressing subject (though it is) but because of that rare beauty in how something horrific could have been relayed so poignantly and beautifully and given meaning in unmeaning. This is how to tell a story. Even if the subject matter hadn't been so moving I would have been deeply moved by the depth and poetry of the language itself - the way each image is so carefully constructed and the strokes with which information is relayed. 

Geoffrey Rush is the perfect Hans
This is certainly a book that I would recommend to anyone whether they are interested in history, language, prose, poetry, or generally in the human condition. Zusak shows in this book that he is a master of his craft and any reader will go away feeling enriched. This is one for the ages. 

N.B. I should also add that I happened to see the film before reading the book and now feel it bore hardly any resemblance to the intricacies and affectations of the story, so much of which comes from the language and narration. It also omitted some seemingly small but crucial parts, despite the good casting and performances by the people in and behind the motion picture. 

Further quotes:

(Liesel's perspective): I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I  hope I have made them right (533)

(Death's final note): I am haunted by humans (553)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice" - What I've Read This Christmas

So I managed to squeeze in several books beyond my uni reading over the Christmas holiday. This is largely because I now have a Kindle. At the rate I've been reading I kind of feel a bit like it's turned me into more of a consumer with all of its instant demand and gratification, but at the same time it's got me reading for enjoyment again. So this is not the end for me and books - I could not imagine not owning some of those most special to me - The Fountainhead, Perks of Being a Wallflower etc. in book form. The Kindle's just been a useful way of catching up on things I half-intended to read but might never have got round to.

I have very much focused on my degree, which is in its final year, over the last few months but I managed to read most of these books in a day each. They are as different as you can get. Young adult fiction (TFIOS), sports autobiography (I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic), dystopian debut (The Bone Season) and suspenseful psychoanalytic fiction (Room). Not all 'literary', eh? But all were very compelling reads and we can't let things get too stale. This blog is not an English textbook of conventional analyses. It's the things I care about analysed, which can be very literary and classic and can be pretty left-field and seemingly random. But that's me really.

The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

This was recommended by one of my best friends and I'd been curious about it because of its evident popularity. But I was hesitant too, because I've read some romance and I've read some narratives which explore cancer and romance, I needed this to do... something more. I'm not usually one to read romantic fiction unless it's got other levels. I understand that John Green is someone who says things teenagers like but I can't help but feel, even though he writes well- simply and both lightly and emotionally, that he's a little over-hyped. I did find the book emotional in the end, because cancer is quite an emotional subject but I didn't really like the characters. They didn't feel fully formed normal people - they were too pretentious in some ways - even just their names! - which is okay to a degree but I couldn't engage with them enough to accommodate it. Supporting characters like Hazel's best friend were extremely thin and stereotypical. So I guess I kind of liked the book but I kind of didn't. In other words, this review might not be very helpful. I have chosen, however, some quotes and insights which I did like and which highlight the books strong points:

'You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice' Chapter 13 - with this quote the book is quite clear that you have to accept it on its own terms, which I respect. Although it charts the depression cancer patients and their families might experience it refuses to indulge it completely, often veering out into lighter territory and even offers chances to laugh at the situation, even if it's a kind of grim, sardonic humour. It's not always comfortable because the situation is serious and sensitive but I kind of admire it for sometimes making the 'funny choice'.

"Even cancer isn't a bad guy really: Cancer just wants to be alive" Chapter 18 - I liked this quote, because I hadn't really thought about it from that perspective. It's a poignant and existential reflection from a sufferer that was oddly uplifting when I read it because it took you out of the personal, human focus and into the larger picture.

"I am not a mathematician, but I know this: there are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful." Chapter 20 - this is knees-deep romance but the idea of infinities being different sizes was quite a successful romantic notion in the scheme of things and passages like this are something that John Green is really good at.

"You don't choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers." Chapter Twenty-Five - Again, it's all about the romance. But it is kind of true- you take risks with whoever you let in - and very big ones in cases like this, so you have to decide if it's worth it.

I can see why people like The Fault In Our Stars, it is compelling in it's own way and will probably make you cry and it has its moments of being 'good' but they are not consistent enough and I just couldn't quite engage with those characters - something just didn't click for me and it's hard to describe.