Genre fiction round-up, March 2018


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.


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.


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.


‘My little games’

UntitledWhen I was a teenager, I was a voracious patron of a number of my local libraries, so often ended up making my way through novels that were not exactly new. This was how I came across Jacqueline Wilson’s Waiting for the Sky to Fall (1983). Wilson herself needs no introduction, but few are aware nowadays that before her colourful, Nick-Sharratt-illustrated bestselling children’s and young adult novels, she wrote a number of novels aimed at older teenagers that are now out of print, of which Waiting for the Sky to Fall is one. I love Wilson’s newer novels, but I found myself even more impressed by this earlier book. Firstly, its teenage heroine, Katherine, is seriously flawed; often spectacularly unpleasant to those who least deserve it, half-convinced that she is special and brilliant (and half-convinced that she is hopelessly stupid) and occasionally verbally vicious. Despite this, Wilson pulls off something that is very rare for teenage characters (and pretty rare for female characters); by presenting Katherine with such respect and understanding, she allows her to be sympathetic even though she gets so much wrong. A superficial description of Katherine would make her sound like a typical teenager, but Wilson refuses to fall into that trap; she lets Katherine be taken on her own terms, like an adult.

Katherine herself is torn between childhood and adulthood. She seizes upon her first boyfriend, Richard, as a ticket out of her lonely life; as a scholarship girl at the local grammar, she has few friends, and very little spending money; she is brutally conscious of her ugly clothes and lack of make-up. It’s also a chance to rebel against her controlling father, who expects Katherine to get 11 As at O-Level, and go on to sixth form and to university, as he never had the chance to do. Nevertheless, as she admits herself, she is not in love with Richard. In reality, she is closest to her little sister, Nicola, but it is Nicola who is the main victim when she lashes out against the world. ‘Weird’, ‘babyish’ and ‘odd’, Nicola represents everything that Katherine fears in herself, and she vehemently denies that she enjoys the complicated imaginary games they play, claiming that she is only humouring her sister. And yet -in a scene that is striking for its psychological bravery – when Katherine goes to help at her local nursery and sees the pristine playroom – her first thought is ‘If only I had the room to myself and could have a proper play!’. Despite the media lamenting that we force adolescents to grow up too quickly, it’s rare to see a teenage narrator acknowledging how close to childhood many teenagers still feel.

More unusually still, Waiting for the Sky to Fall absolutely does not present a narrative in which Katherine must ‘put away childish things’ in order to truly grow up. Instead, she is forced to realise that she has been playing a fantasy game all along – but with Richard. ‘I was good at getting round people and I knew the roles to play with Richard’, she reflects after making him cry. ‘I knew I was manipulating Richard. I couldn’t help resenting him for being so gullible. I wanted him to see through my little games and despise me for them.’ When Richard’s mum accuses Katherine of using Richard, she has to recognise the essential truth of the accusation, even though a lot of his mum’s claims are unfair (another huge strength of the novel is the fact that Katherine’s relationships with adults are never marked by total misunderstandings or perfect harmony – the adults in this novel are real, flawed people as well, and can be right or wrong, often both at the same time). In contrast, the resolution of this novel sees Katherine realising that her most important relationship has always been with Nicola: ‘We were almost part of each other, Katherine and Nicola. We had been conspirators until this summer’, and recalling all the games they’ve played together. While much of the sisters’ play is ‘childish’ (Paper People, their most developed world, is no paracosm) it is depicted, by the end of this novel, as ultimately healthy, one of the many ways that the sisters have supported each other.

Waiting for the Sky to Fall is distinguished not only by its close attention to the minutia of class distinction – something that is still present, but muted, in Wilson’s later novels – but by its depiction of teenagers, especially teenage girls. With Katherine’s homemade frocks, her 50p pocket money, her O-Levels and her letters from her boyfriend, the book feels ‘dated’, but only insofar as it presents a realistic and fascinating picture of suburban life at the time that it was written. More importantly, its emotional honesty, and complex analysis of how family relationships actually function, sets it apart from modern YA fiction, and much fiction written for adults. (Analysing Katherine’s relationship with her supposedly fat and stupid mother, who turns out to have a subjectivity of her own, would alone provide more food for thought than many apparently character-driven adult novels). It’s a shame that it’s out of print, but I’m glad I had the chance to read it again.

‘Game, narrative or performance?’

9780520284920In one of the novels I’m currently working on, one of the key plotlines focuses on two sisters who create an imaginary world set in a medieval castle. They play their ‘game’, as they call it, throughout adolescence, developing a closely-knit and thoroughly-imagined cast of characters. Their ‘game’ has no rules, at least no rules that can be spoken. However, both sisters are acutely aware of when something has been said or done that violates the reality of the world in which their game is told. They’re not interested in historical accuracy, or even in strict continuity (lettuces grow in winter, monks live in a castle and most days seem to be Sundays) but they are deeply invested in the continuity of their characterisation, and the way in which it interacts with the way the castle community works. (Unsurprisingly, this plot line builds very loosely on games that my sister and I played, although sadly we never had a medieval castle!)

In Dangerous Games, philosopher Joseph P. Laycock puts forward a spirited defence of the value of imaginary role-play. The book’s ostensible focus is on religious reactions against popular RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), and the fears engendered by events such as the Columbine shootings that role-playing and video games can lead their participants to lose touch with reality. The central, controversial argument that emerges from his discussion is that imaginary worlds serve a similar purpose for humans to religions; they allow us to create meaning through world-building. Therefore, the people who have a problem with distinguishing between fantasy and reality are not those who play RPGs but the new religious right, who ignore the value of biblical stories as representative myths, and insist on interpreting them as the literal truth. I won’t engage with the detail of Laycock’s argument here, because I want to discuss another aspect of this fascinating, energetic and thought-provoking book; what makes a game productive and meaningful, rather than an idle amusement?

Laycock is clear that he sees collaborative creativity as central to game-playing, dismissing video games such as World of Warcraft as insignificant in this context, although he is at pains to stress that he doesn’t think such games are harmful. However, at times he seems to go even further. Dangerous Games talks about RPGs and ‘paracosms‘, detailed imaginary worlds, as if they are virtually interchangeable, and defines them in similar ways. Role-playing is valuable because ‘it combines imaginative play, which comes naturally to children, with complex rules and mathematical models’, while paracosms similarly ‘create a mental space from which the real world can be reflected upon and analysed.’ He is emphatic that you can gain new, real-world competencies through playing games, that these are not just pointless leisure activities, and I think anybody who had played such a game would agree. However, as most of his experience seems to have been focused on ‘traditional’ RPGs such aD&D rather than more nebulous paracosms, he occasionally seems to suggest that clear boundaries are necessary for the magic to happen: ‘While not all fantasy role-playing games have cumbersome rules, most cannot be played without an impartial referee who adjudiates the outcomes of the characters’ interactions within the imaginary world.’

While Laycock’s analysis of the importance of games is welcome and important, I don’t think that all play of this kind fits into his definitions. Imaginary games can be managed from within as well as from without. Some paracosms are meticulous in their concern with history, geography and language; some are not concerned with these things at all, which does not mean that they are like children’s games. Early in Dangerous Games, Laycock plays with the question of whether imaginary worlds are more like ‘a game, a narrative or a performance?’ but claims that this isn’t something that is helpful to think about too closely. To an extent, he’s right, because imaginary worlds clearly draw on all three of these categories, and this isn’t something that is difficult to prove. However, I think it is important to consider paracosms that are definitely not RPGs, and that perhaps teach different skills. World-building is valuable; but so are characters and their relationships, even if they have to get along in a world where it is Sunday every day.