Weblog #3 – On picking something to read and giving people a chance

Personal goals:
Take time to relax without thinking, I should be working.
Read a book.

I can’t seem to finish anything though. (“When are you going to write a book Lauren?” Hahahahahahaha, SHUT UP.) My last few reads – The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett, The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey and Slipping by Lauren Beukes – were like hot dates that hit all my sweet spots. I disappeared into them in a haze of Oh my god, this is so fucking good, and now I want the next book to give me that same experience.

This is not an expectation I want to harbour. It’s unfair. It’s like meeting someone and wanting them to have all the qualities you’ve ascribed to your perfect partner in the isolation tank that is your mind (I absolutely do not ever do this. *coughs*). Few books are going to have that effect, and you can’t predict which ones will, especially if your tastes aren’t mainstream. It’s not just about the content or the quality of the book either, but the time you give it and when you happen to read it. Your life right now is part of the reading process. I love the title story of Slipping because the protagonist chooses to keep sprinting after she’s knocked down and broken in the middle of a race, and her heart literally starts slipping out of her cybernetically modified chest. I read ‘Slipping’ right after someone I thought was a friend told me I wasn’t worth any time or effort, and the story described, better than I could, exactly how that had made me feel. On a different day, ‘Slipping’ might have been a good story instead of a great one.

But I couldn’t know what those books would do for me, and I didn’t read them expecting to find what I did. I just opened up and got to know them for what they were. Also, it took two or three false starts before I finished The Liminal People and The Girl With All the Gifts, and it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have finished Slipping if I hadn’t agreed to write a review. Yet instead of giving another book the same courtesy, I sought recurrence by specifically trying to identify an exceptional book perfectly suited to my preferences in the moment. I read a few pages here, tried something else there, and did nothing but waste enough time to finish several novels.

So I reverted to the strategy that kept this blog going for years: pick something and finish it. No matter what it’s like. Even if it fails to impress me right away or there are things I don’t like about it. Nothing out there was written just for me. But my book collection is at least curated – almost everything on my shelf and the majority of the content on my Kindle is there because I want to read it. So why don’t I? Each book and short story has the potential to be something I love. I had to just pick one and give it a chance. I used to select reads according to publishing dates and reading challenges, but those don’t matter right now so I had to find other criteria. It didn’t really matter what they were if my only goal was to just bloody read a book.

 

Infinite-Ground

I chose Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes. It’s the last new book that I bought. It sounds fascinating but I bought it largely because it’s beautiful, and it feels good to hold something beautiful. It also cost a lot of money that I couldn’t quite afford (and would really appreciate having back in my wallet right now), so I wanted it to do something more than sit pretty on my shelf with nothing to show but its spine.

No one seems to like this strategy. People often insist that life is too short to read bad books. They declare that a book has fifty pages or three chapters or whatever to hook them and then it’s over. Which is fine if reading is just a casual hobby, but I wouldn’t have a career if I was that fussy or demanding, if I didn’t read bad books and learn from them. Nor would I love my favourites as much as I do if they didn’t stand out against a background of mediocrity and shit. It’s no use having an attitude that says, Be great or begone.

And in my next life goal, I’ll try to be that considerate with people, too.

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The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett

the-liminal-peopleTitle: The Liminal People
Series: Liminal #1
Author:
Ayize Jama-Everett
Publisher: 
Small Beer Press
Published:
 January 2012
Genre:
 science fiction, fantasy, thriller, superheroes
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
8/10

It’s a rare pleasure to read something without knowing anything about it (and if you want to do the same, I’ll just tell you now that I recommend this very highly). The Liminal People came in a Small Beer Press Humble Books Bundle I bought a while back and I read it because it I was looking for something fresh and well-crafted but relatively short. I trusted Small Beer to provide both quirk and class and I got exactly what I didn’t know I needed: a pacey sff thriller with edgy writing I want to read all day and some very cool ideas.

Taggert calls himself a healer, but although that word captures the core of the person he considers himself to be, it doesn’t accurately describe the extent of his powers.

I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker. With a little focus, I can manipulate my body and others’ on a molecular level. With a lot of focus, I can push organs and whole biological systems around.

What this means is that when Taggert is in close proximity to someone, he can gauge their psychological state (happy, anxious, finger-on-the-trigger) by reading things like heart rate, muscle tension, body chemistry, etc. He can see what medical problems they’ve had, have or might develop, and what kind of physical state they’re in (“The veins are tight, lots of blood coursing through them. She’s been working out.”). He can hack bodies and heal them, but those same abilities allow him to cause insane levels of damage and pain. He can instantly turn hereditary defects into immediate suffering or force the body to turn on itself in the most excruciating ways. Or he could just make snipers take a nap and help an anxious kid stay calm.

Taggert can also transform his own body, even changing his melanin count:

I need to be less black to pull this off, so I focus until I can tell that I probably look mulatto. I close off my hair follicles and pull the thick mats that I have out and flush them down the toilet. Then I focus on slick black hair, coated in oil. I let it grow until I can fix a small rubber band at the base of my neck. Since I’m at a toilet I vomit up sixty-five pounds, making sure to check my discharge for too much stomach acids. I just need to lose the pounds, not my voice. When I step out I look like a sexy young intern that works too hard.

He’s a very useful person to have around, which is why his boss, Nordeen, keeps him on a very short but comfortable leash. Nordeen has some kind of mysterious power that Taggert cannot figure out, claiming only that he can’t be lied to.

It’s enough to keep Taggert in check and he’s ok with being a crime lord’s pawn largely because he’s a self-reflective man who wants to understand his power, and Nordeen was the first person to mentor him, a kind of terrifying father-figure:

If you can understand why I stayed with Nordeen, then you can understand me a little better. I’m not a sycophant. I don’t crave power, nor do I have a desire to be under anyone who does. Nordeen’s description of the power inside of me was perfect: “the thing that decided to take up residence inside of me.” On rough days, it made me feel like an alien beast or, as Yasmine would say, like a freak. But on good days, when I exercised my power in right relation to the world, I felt nearly unstoppable. I grew with power. Living a bipolar life, rocketing between freak and human, made me long for some stability. And despite the bowel-spilling terror Nordeen invoked, he offered that. I knew that under his protection and guidance I would learn more about myself.

Taggert’s stability is disrupted when his ex-girlfriend uses an untraceable, one-time-only phone number to call him for help. Yasmine was – is – the love of Taggert’s life, despite the fact that she called him a freak, something he never really got over. He’s still angry, but he loves her without requiring anything in return, and of course he’s harbouring all sorts of hopes about what her desperate call for help might mean for their relationship. More importantly though, when he promised to come if she ever needed him, he meant it. So he gives Nordeen as little of the truth as he can and escapes Morocco for London, where Yasmine’s daughter has gone missing. Searching for her brings Taggert into contact with an underground exisitence of other powers like him and, as Nordeen has warned him, ‘People like us tend to stay away from each other for good reason’. However, it’s not clear if that’s true or if Nordeen is just manipulating him.

I’ve mentioned before that the current glut of superhero movies – ranging from decent to Jesus Christ how could it possibly be this shit – have given me superhero fatigue. Right now, it’s a genre defined by mildly entertaining mediocrity, but maybe I should be looking at superhero novels, if The Liminal People is anything to go by. It has so much more nuance and style that it has me rethinking the potential of the superhero. We tend to exploit them for sfx orgies but these days they almost completely fail to satisfy my (now dwindling) desire for big-budget spectacle. Taggert, however, is more impressive than any superhero I’ve seen in a long time; why is that?

Firstly, it’s great to have a black superhero and a diverse cast of characters for a change, not only as a matter of authenticity but because it’s more interesting than the bland norm of the white western male. An added bonus is that racial identity is significant, and not only in comparison to whiteness. Taggert is not a character who happens to be black but could be white with a few simple tweaks. He sees his identity as being rooted in blackness, but this doesn’t mean his life is consumed by racial oppression. This is about who he is, who he chooses to be, and the stories he involves himself in. I’m not dismissing stories about racism, but they’re heavy as fuck, so it’s cool to read a book about a black dude that isn’t all about what white people have done to him.

Secondly, I like the way Taggert has mastered his abilities. Many superheroes seem to look inward: it’s all about understanding their own mechanisms and learning to use them with greater precision or potency. Taggert’s approach is different: he fine tunes his skills but he also educates himself. He studies physiology, neurology, psychology, genetics, etc. because his talents would be crude if he didn’t understand all the complex systems her was working with. The following character analysis he does on a teenage girl is a good example of how he rings together his powers, education, intuition and life experience:

One day she’ll be fat and bloated, like her mother; I can already feel a slower metabolism than normal. Which is why she smokes, so she doesn’t have to eat and so she doesn’t have to work off those calories.

Taggert is one of the most intelligent, highly educated superheroes out there, but without being the kind of cliché troubled genius we see in Tony Stark or Dr Strange. Part of his appeal is also philosophical: Taggert is constantly reflecting his past, his morals, his relationships (with his brother, Nordeen, Yasmine). He wants to figure out what it means to have powers, and to exist in a world with others like him.

The novel occasionally falls prey to the common pitfalls of superhero stories though. There’s some overdone posturing and a floppy one-liner or two. Taggert can be too slick at times, and I got tired of the way he oversexualises Yasmine, especially when he describes her breasts as “heaving and falling quicker than California tectonic plates”. Tectonic plates? Really? I get that he’s intensely attracted to her and his feelings are exacerbated by an obsessive longing that’s stayed strong for almost two decades, but I’m not exactly moved when I see this expressed as tits-and-ass lust.

I can let that slide though, because I love pretty much everything else about this book. It’s helping save the superhero.