20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: The Chalk Artist and Winter Sisters

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Allegra Goodman’s latest novel, The Chalk Artist, set in Cambridge and Boston, is written in deliberately hallucinatory prose, making every element of the story feel heightened. This could tip into overkill but worked for me because of the subject-matter. Teenage Aidan is academically bright, but spends all his free time playing an MMORPG created by the company Arkadia (think World of Warcraft, which weirdly also exists in this universe even though linked games EverWhen and UnderWorld are clearly intended to mimic it – for example, one incident in the book obviously mirrors WoW’s famous Corrupted Blood incident in 2005). Aidan’s sister, Diana, scrawls endless, intermittently relevant answers to her teacher’s questions in her English journal, writing, among other things, about how worried she is about her brother. Diana’s teacher, Nina, is determined to get through to her students and prove that she can do something useful in the world – not simply exist as the daughter of Arkadia’s boss. Finally, Nina’s boyfriend, Collin, is the ‘chalk artist’ of the title; he’s incredibly gifted at sketching but doesn’t mind wiping his creations away when he’s done. Collin is also pulled into UnderWorld’s web after becoming a concept artist on a new game – where, he realises, his art is just as transient as chalk, but he’s no longer the one who destroys it.

The Chalk Artist picks up on themes that appeared in the two other Goodman novels I’ve read, Intuition and The Cookbook Collector – both of which were tantalisingly intelligent but spread themselves much too thin. Most interestingly, it starts to explore what it means to be gifted, and what we owe to our gift. Collin is preternaturally talented at art, but precisely because of that, he’s not attracted by the things that draw lesser artists – he’s dropped out of art school and loves the fact that nothing he makes lasts. This recalls a secondary character in Intuition, who refuses to play lab politics and abandons his career even though he’s a scientific genius. Disappointingly, however, The Chalk Artist doesn’t quite follow through on this theme when it comes to Aiden. Perhaps because of his age, Goodman implicitly endorses the idea that UnderWorld is bad for him, and pursuing good grades in the ‘real world’ is better, especially once he begins to be inspired by Nina’s tutoring. This is undercut slightly by the suggestion that connecting deeply with poetry is a fantastic – in the literal sense of the word – experience in its own right, but I’d like to have seen this novel take gaming a bit more seriously.

On the other hand, Goodman writes brilliantly about the experience of being immersed in a VR world; EverWhen and UnderWorld are so compelling precisely because she avoids the temptation to get bogged down in technological detail. I haven’t seen virtual reality written this well since a few classic novels from my childhood (1990s children’s fiction was a little obsessed with virtual worlds): Gillian Cross’s New World, Stephen Bowkett’s Dreamcastle, Helen Dunmore’s Fatal Error. All of these, like The Chalk Artist, emphasise the dangers of getting lost in something that is not real; but the way they describe what draws people into such worlds makes them more than simple morality tales. I’d hoped The Chalk Artist would be a 4.5 star read for me, and it isn’t quite; but it’s definitely a solid four stars, and my favourite so far from Goodman.

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Robin Oliveira’s Winter Sisters, set in Albany in 1879, is a loose sequel to My Name Is Mary Sutterwhich followed the eponymous Mary, a midwife striving to train as a doctor during the American Civil War. When I reviewed the first novel, I wrote that it was almost classically tragic in the hardships visited upon its central character, and upon her mother and sister. However, I felt that this worked in the context of that story, emphasising Mary’s superhuman determination to pursue her chosen career in the face of institutional misogyny and the hazards of wartime. In contrast, Winter Sisters feels both melodramatic and a little exploitative in the way it explores its characters’ misery. The novel kicks off in the way it means to continue: two reasonably prominent secondary characters from My Name Is Mary Sutter are unceremoniously dispatched in a blizzard to set up the plot-line of this novel. Their deaths occupy a couple of sentences, almost as if Oliveira was keen to get this set-up out of the way so she can move on to the central suffering of the story. For after these characters are killed, it’s discovered that their two young daughters, Emma and Claire, are missing, believed dead in the snowdrifts that have buried Albany.

Mary, a close friend of Emma’s and Claire’s family, determines to seek out the girls, but what she discovers is horrifying. Spoilers [highlight to read]. Emma and Claire have been kidnapped by two men and kept imprisoned in a cellar for weeks – during this time, Emma has been regularly raped and beaten by one of the men. Claire has been spared similar treatment because she is under the age of consent – which at that time was just ten. Spoilers end. The rest of the novel is devoted to exploring the aftermath of the girls’ fates, including an extended courtroom sequence. While Winter Sisters is well-written and makes careful use of historical detail, I did find myself questioning the need to cover this story in such detail. Oliveira’s afterword notes explicitly that she was inspired by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, but by choosing such an unquestionable case, she fails to draw parallels between the past and the present and instead underlines the difference of the past. I also felt uncomfortable with the way she wrote her child characters, who are reduced to symbols of innocence and have little voice in the novel. If My Name Is Mary Sutter tipped towards tragedy, Winter Sisters wallows in it.

I’m now back in the UK but am still away from home travelling for work, and so may take longer to reply to comments than usual.

Genre fiction round-up, March 2018

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The ‘feel-good’ novel

Rosemary is eighty-six and has lived in Brixton all her life. One of her most beloved constants is the local lido, where she swims regularly: ‘She can see her fingers ahead of her wrinkling in the water. Her wrinkles always surprise her. Young girls don’t have wrinkles. She is a young girl swimming in the morning… before heading to her job in the library – she will have to get changed quickly if she is to make it on time. Her hair will drip behind her as she makes her way up and down the shelves of books.’ When the lido comes under threat from a property developer, Rosemary knows she’s not only defending a place that she likes to swim, but a place that contains both her younger self and the best memories she has of her dead husband, George. She teams up with twenty-six year old Kate, a reporter on the local paper who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, but is determined to cover the story of the lido as best she can. Through her friendship with Rosemary, Kate is drawn back into the ambit of a life she thought she’d never be able to take part in again.

The feel-good nature of Libby Page’s debut, The Lidois very on-trend, and the concept is undeniably lovely. But it’s let down by its very poor writing. It’s not a plotty novel – it’s pretty predictable – so it needs to do more literary work to keep the reader engaged. There are good snippets on place and swimming – like the extract above – but Page’s prose is otherwise consistently clunky. In the first half of the novel, the narrative occasionally darts into the heads of other Brixton residents, presumably to give a sense of the intersecting lives that meet at the lido, but Page is nowhere near good enough a writer to pull off this If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things trick. Elsewhere, the novel simply seems rushed and unedited, like the line in the second person at the beginning (‘You push through the crowds’) that is never referred to again.

Rosemary and Kate’s friendship is at the heart of the novel, but I found both characters to be scrappy and cliched, as, indeed, is their battle with the local council. While I like the idea of a narrative that centres an older woman, Rosemary is a familiar archetype: devoted to home and family, unhappily childless, endlessly supportive of others. Much is made of the fact she’s had a job all her life, but given her cohort (coming of age in the 1950s) this is hardly surprising, especially as, with no children, she would have had no reason to leave work. While avoiding spoilers, the ending of her story simply confirms that her role in the book is to support and empower others, rather than herself; hardly groundbreaking. Similarly, Kate’s anxiety is an interesting twist that never goes anywhere, and in fact, I found it slightly worrying that all she seemingly needs to do is ‘pull herself together’ and get out more to overcome it. The negotiations with the local council become increasingly emotional and unrealistic, even though there’s good potential material here about gentrification and community. A missed opportunity.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on April 9th.

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The police procedural

The Ruin kicks off with Cormac McReilly, a young police officer, discovering the body of a woman watched over only by her two young children, Maude and Jack. Twenty years later, Cormac has just started a new job in Galway and is disturbed when this early case comes back to haunt him. Jack has recently been found dead in a river, and the police believe he has committed suicide. But Jack’s girlfriend, Aisling, isn’t so sure – and when she starts to investigate further, she uncovers more than she had bargained for.

I’m so tired of recurring male detective characters who are messed up by problems in their past and think this justifies mistreating everybody around them, especially their girlfriends or wives. I’m happy to report that Cormac certainly does not fall into this category. While there are tantalising hints of the difficult beginnings of his relationship with his current partner, Emma, he’s essentially a decent and likeable man who is totally supportive of Emma’s own high-flying scientific career. There’s a very minor thread about a colleague, Carrie, that’s handled especially well, and I was pleased to see, when reading the sample from McTiernan’s next novel that’s included at the end of this book, that Carrie narrates the first chapter, as I really wanted to know more about her. Aisling is also a very sympathetic protagonist, grieving her boyfriend, but defined by her intelligence and rationality, rather than doing stupid things because of her emotions. Finally, this book introduced me to Google Timeline, which I find simultaneously fascinating and horrific – so I have to give it kudos for that!

The Ruin has a complicated plot, but it’s never confusing, and while the novel reserves most of its physical action for the final scenes, it’s always gripping. This is an excellent debut police procedural, and I’m already looking forward to reading more from Dervla McTiernan.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Popular non-fiction

I know very little about computer games – I played Diablo, Diablo II and The Sims as a teenager, but haven’t played anything else since. However, I’m fascinated by the storytelling potential of all kinds of gaming, from in-person RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons to Choose Your Own Adventure books to paracosms. So when I saw that Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat and Pixels was on sale, I thought I’d give it a go. Blood, Sweat and Pixels is a fun, journalistic look at the making of ten significant games over the last few years, from Stardew Valley, designed entirely by one man, to behemoths like Blizzard’s error-ridden Diablo III. Its structure makes it a bit repetitive; most of the games go through similar cycles, and I wondered if Schreier would have done better to have focused more closely on a smaller number of titles.

Dividing the book up by game also stops Schreier digging deeper. One persistent theme in the development of the games covered by Blood, Sweat and Pixels is ‘the crunch’, when developers end up working eighty- to a hundred-hour weeks at a crucial stage of coding, and which seems to reoccur in game development whatever developers do to prevent it. Schreier skirts around this topic, suggesting in his epilogue that the answer to questions like ‘Is it possible to develop a game without putting in endless hours?… Will there ever be a reliable formula for making games that allows for more predictable schedules?’ is simply no. Yet Schreier’s own articles – even those published before Blood, Sweat and Pixels – present a different point of view: he wrote in greater detail about this problem in 2015 and argued in 2017 that ‘video games are destroying the people who make them’, arguing that ‘game developers must commit to stop facilitating a culture in which crunch is the norm.’ 

It’s a shame that some of this material didn’t make it into the book. However, even Schreier’s articles, while highlighting the mental and physical health problems caused by ‘crunch’, don’t address the impact this must have on diversity in the gaming industry. Schreier notes that computer game design is male-dominated at the beginning of Blood, Sweat and Pixels. He’s right: women make up half of all gamers in the US, but only 5% of video game programmers are female. However, he never stops to ask why, even though some of the material he presents makes the answer obvious. ‘Crunch’ itself would clearly  be impossible for women with caring responsibilities (and people with disabilities that prelude them from working unreasonable hours), but many of the particular games that Schreier highlights got made in ways that seem designed to exclude women, people of colour, and anybody else who doesn’t fit. Ensemble Studios, who made Halo Wars, were ‘made up mostly of young, single men who spent nights and weekends together… Every prospective employee had to go through a rigorous interview process that, for a while, included meetings with all twenty-something people at the studio. If just one person said no, the prospective employee was out.’ As one graphics engineer at the company said, it was ‘a little bit of a frat house.’ Meanwhile, Eric Barone, who made Stardew Valley on his own, was only able to spend so long designing the game because his girlfriend supported him by working two jobs alongside her undergraduate degree.

None of this is to say that I disliked Blood, Sweat and Pixels: in many ways, it’s a great introduction to the video games industry for somebody who’s a complete novice. But I’ll be looking out for something with a more critical lens.