Here are a selection of books and TV series I enjoyed over the last six months.
A few folx I know recommended Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction (Solaris, 2021), and I duly put this collection of short stories on my ‘to be read’ pile. The frequency of positive noises about it increased, and I moved it up my list. When I got to it earlier this year, I decided to savour the book, reading a story in between the series of novels I was reading at the same time (see below). I’m glad I did because that approach suits this collection of rich treats that show off several different flavours of Chinese SF, or Kehuan, to use the Chinese term for SF. Xueting Christine Ni has edited and translated this collection brilliantly, and I am really sorry to have missed her talks at Eastercon Reclamation this year (scheduling clashes) and couldn’t make it to her appearance at June’s SRFC gathering in London. Her annotations appear in both in the texts of the thirteen short stories, and in further reading notes after each story. These illuminated the stories rather than merely explained them, which is a skill. Further, Xueting’s work as a translator really shines through. The collection includes stories that are quite different in scope and theme, although a similar lyrical romanticism occurs in several. Inevitably, given the range, there are some stories I liked more than others, but I enjoyed reading each one. This book is a rare anthology in that I enjoyed the collection as a whole. I think it also shows that while there are cultural differences, our shared humanity resonates through the stories together.
I am far from alone in needing ‘comfort reads’ to get through the on-going Covid-19 pandemic and stress-inducing politics that’s gripped the UK and elsewhere for several years now. I chose Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet’ series to get back into the fiction-reading zone. The 25 novels and short story collection feature the private investigator, Kinsey Millhone, of the fictional town Santa Teresa, California, USA. They are set mostly in the 1980s, when Grafton wrote the first few, and the series as a whole plays wonderfully with the tropes of wise-cracking private eyes from novels and films written decades earlier. I discovered them thanks to my mother, but sadly I don’t know if she got to read the final one, Y is for Yesterday. I had read most of the series close to when they came out, although that slipped towards the end. Put simply, I re-read the majority, and read the last few for the first time. Taken as a whole, the characters are the attraction. Kinsey herself is a terrific narrator, although I’m not so sure she’s the greatest private investigator in the world… perhaps more realistic than her literary predecessors in not wanting to step on the toes of the various local police departments. Special mentions must go to Henry Pitts, Kinsey’s fabulous landlord and his siblings, and to Rosie the Hungarian cook and club owner. What fascinated me most on this read through was how the 1980s-ness shifted. The first six books were written and published during the decade in which they were set, and the descriptions are of what things were, and much was left because the contemporary readership were living it only slightly after Grafton wrote it. As time progressed, and both writer and readership got further and further away from the time in which the adventures take place, the descriptions had to take up the slack from no longer having that lived experience. It’s subtle, and mostly well-done. As for the mysteries — most are satisfying, even if none stuck in my mind. For all the stories are hard-boiled mystery, they are character pieces that repeatedly point out that first impressions aren’t always correct. Of course, it would have been fascinating to see how Grafton would have ended the series, but Y is for Yesterday is a suitable substitute. I hope that there is no Z. As for rumours about a TV series — in the right hands, and sticking to the stories as told rather than reinterpreting them too radically, I can see it being terrific.
Three series that I started and finished during the last six months all start with the letter ’s’, all features stupidly rich white people living in North America, and all explore the idea that family is stronger than any other human relationship. For all that, each of the three series are very different from each other.
Schitt’s Creek (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2015-2020) was the first I finished watching. I only took up a Netflix subscription at the end of last year, so I arrived late to this party. It’s one of those shows that I could have binge-watched, but chose not to, and I’m glad I savoured it, watching one or two episodes at a time before I got ready for bed. My brother described it as a palate cleanser, and I agree with that description. It was a joy to see the Rose family develop as a family, and as individuals, but not change unrealistically. Their obliviousness of how vacuous their lives were with the stupid amounts of money they had, then lost, and clawed back (kind of), was a constant source of gentle humour. Likewise, the poor to middle-class residents of Schitt’s Creek became rounded characters who challenge the Roses, then grow to love them as the audience does. Best, though, was the depiction of David and Patrick’s relationship as it started, and grew, and ended up showing that the Rose nuclear family unit didn’t have to remain in close physical proximity for it to be a strong bond.
The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007). Given that I spent about fifteen years researching organised crime, starting in 1999, it’s probably not all that surprising that it took me so long to catch up with this series. As much as I love crime fiction and police procedurals, it was a bit too ‘busman’s holiday’. Anyway, I watched it because it was repeated on one of the Sky channels I subscribe to. From the first episode, I enjoyed it. It is a masterclass in introducing characters quickly, and in developing them over the six seasons the show ran. Certain behavioural traits would emerge, repeat, but never quite be the same. I was particularly impressed by how it balanced the reality of Tony Soprano and his extended Family with the not-quite-double-life of being a cash-rich suburban dad with a smart daughter and a troubled son. Tony tends to throw money at his kids and wife to solve problems, which it doesn’t, of course. The series doesn’t back away from showing how Tony and his cohorts use murder to solve problems, but doesn’t glorify it even as those men caught up in it do. The therapist questions it point blank, and people grieve for their missing and dead loved ones for longer than just the episode in which their loved one goes. The horrific and brutal rape of the therapist is the only gratuitous depiction of violence, and sticks out badly as a result. I dreaded what would happen to one of Tony’s crew who is outed as ‘gay’ (although he’s probably bisexual — why do US TV series have so much difficulty with that concept?), but actually that season six storyline is handled realistically and sensitively given the characters involved. It’s one way that shows how Tony and his criminal cohort are caught between a viciously misogynistic and racist time and place, with almost all the men caught in a textbook toxically masculine lifestyle, and a society that’s moving on. The last scene is fascinating, with Tony, his wife and adult kids gathering for a family meal amidst the violent and paranoid retributive ‘war’ destroying the wider mob… and we don’t know what happens, if anything. I think the series deserves the plaudits it got, not least for walking that tightrope of exploring the repugnant features of crime without glorifying it. It is particularly good at balancing the awfulness of the Soprano extended Family, and the attraction of that life beyond money.
Succession (HBO, 2018-). This one is like a docudrama about the Murdochs (you know which ones) crossed with The Apprentice (either US or UK version). It’s good, and the humour in the second and third seasons is cutting, but of the three shows I’m reviewing here, I found it the least satisfying. I think it’s because the characters are all repugnant, with little — if anything — that redeems them. Brilliantly played, and gorgeously filmed, though.