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The only book you need to read at uni? What Happens When an Author Turns Last Night’s Dream into a Novel of Demons and Librarians
Review of 'Strange the Dreamer' (Laini Taylor) by Ilsa Ahmad Anjum
“The dream chose the dreamer, not the other way around—"
Strange the Dreamer; a book that first manifested in a dream (or at least Laini Taylor is pretty sure it did) is a story that hooks a sly hand around the reader's ankle and tugs them off a cliff -- or more accurately, the sky. The opening lines are just that: a girl tumbling from the sky. The opening lines are also much more than just that: the girl is blue. That girl is a goddess. A goddess tumbling.
"Blue as opals, pale blue. Blue as cornflowers, or dragonfly wings, or a spring—not summer—sky."
And we tumble along with her, heart first, into a story about monsters and dreamers, a story, that questions whether there is all that much separating the two.
Strange the Dreamer follows Lazlo, an orphan boy, the mere librarian who burns with the need to find the Lost city of Weep. A city whose name no one can, or cares to remember anymore. No one except Lazlo. So, when a legendary warrior, the Godslayer himself comes to Zosma to recruit individuals in order to banish a haunting evil, Lazlo is to make a choice. To grasp at his dream, or let it slip through his fingers? Is he courageous – outrageous – enough to pursue the answers that plague him?
I know dearest readers, I know: Mere librarian, Mere? I hear you cry in incredulous tones and with pinched brows. To which I say: Hey, it’s that fictional society, I, don't make the rules here. Now focus please.
Laini Taylor, author of Sunday Times Best Seller, The Daughter of Smoke and Bones series, once again stuns with a vivid world, chock full of breath-taking cities and breath-taking topography. Her writing is whimsical, poetic and brutally sharp:
"That was the year Zosma sank to its knees and bled great gouts of men into a war about nothing. [...] I turned my nightmares into fireflies and caught them in a jar."
Even the title, Strange the Dreamer, is intertwined with a lyrical prosody, reflecting the voice and quiddity of this book. Strange being the last name of Lazlo, our resident dreamer. A character with a cutting wit even at five years old: "[...] To which Lazlo replied, with fire in his soul, "And none of us became children to become orphans."
One of the major reasons I fell in love with Strange the Dreamer was characters like Lazlo, who grow, mature and learn new ways of looking at the world, without losing that uncompromisable part of themselves. Which makes them alluring to the audience as characters and people. Lazlo is always a dreamer. Minya is always angry. Minya, a girl in a toddler's body, who also happens to be one of the deadliest people to exist in this world. You know, as it goes.
Laini does not warp the characters to make them palatable for all. This book is about angry people, desperately hopeful people, weary people, unnecessarily cruel people. It's a story about ugliness and the beauty that some ugliness brings forth. It's Belle Laide Ink.
The plot is full of it, ugliness and beauty. Terrible acts are carried out by wonderful people; Brave acts are carried out by dubious people. Lives are lost, backs are turned, cities are crumbled-- only to be remade again. For every dilapidated recess in these pages, there is a veering corner where you linger amongst stars, spar in moonlit glades. Even Laini was "scandalised by the possibility" (Waterstones, 2018, 6:00-50) of the storyline, and she wrote the goddamn book.
Wrote each relationship – romantic, or otherwise – with a precise, personalised approach. Everyone is a sculpture of brilliance smattered throughout this book. Characters befriend each other, sisters truly find one another, sons and mothers meet anew, people fall in love with girls and boys, regardless of which they themselves are. All of it unfolding naturally, in the complicatedly simple way such things do. No one is flung together for the sake of it.
Overall, humorous and intense, Strange the Dreamer reads like a bewitching fairy-tale, a fairy-tale in which protagonists are the dragons of their own towers. Towers they inhabit or burn to ashes as they see fit. A book of monsters and librarians, so basically the only book you need to read at uni.
Waterstone (2018) Laini Taylor answers fan’s questions: Laini Taylor at Waterstones, 29 October. Available at: Laini Taylor answers fan's questions (Accessed: 31 September 2021).
Obsession, Nostalgia, and the Age of Criminal Responsibility
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima (1963; translated into English by John Nathan, 1965)
13 year-olds commit gruesome crimes— and in Japan it’s not criminal? Hyperbole, you ask? The answer: No.
Japanese Law entails that a minor under 14 cannot be held legally responsible for a crime, which includes aggravated assault, torture etc. A chilling concept that the novel, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima, explores.
The novel dips and flows through a close third perspective, entering the twisted psyche of three main characters. Noboru: A 13-year-old boy. Fusako: Noboru’s single mother. And Ryuji: Sailor and lover of Fusako.
“’Sleep well, dear.” Noboru’s mother closed his bedroom door and locked it. What would she do if there was a fire? Let him out first thing—she had promised herself that.’
With painful claws, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, digs its way into the reader’s flesh. The narrative starts off with Fusako locking Noboru (her son) in his bedroom, and of course the novel only speeds morally —but not linguistically—downhill from there. Mishima dissects the festering intentions and incorrigible consequences of a person’s choices—regardless of age and inclusive of responsibility.
Following Fusako’s affair with Ryuji, a sailor who craves escape from land but finds no kinship at sea, the novel tears apart the intricacies of the couple’s desires. Not simply for each other but for the nameless want to belong. Anything but a romance, the novel further staggers down Noboru’s disintegrating path of obsession with Ryuji the Sailor. Who crashes violently from his position as Revered Hero to Contemptuous Traitor in the boy’s eyes.
“Suddenly the full long wail of a ship’s horn surged through the open window and flooded the dim room—a cry of boundless, dark demanding grief; pitch black and glabrous as a whale’s back and burdened with all the passions of the tides, the memory of voyages beyond counting, the joys, the humiliations: the sea was screaming.”
Every word in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea is essential; every sentiment that should be saturated by the sheer history of literature is biting. The title of the novel itself is drenched with foreshadowing and linguistic dexterity.
However: A Warning. This novel is not for those who flinch easy. An aspect that personally captured my interest all the more.
And I don’t mean in the jump-scare, tacky-horror sense. Mishima explicitly overturns and churns the most disturbing of topics throughout the novel—for example torture. As well as the literal plot, I particularly enjoyed the metaphoric position of characters personifying Japan’s struggle and transition into westernisation. With Noboru acting as Imperial Japan, Ryuji as Japan in transition and Fusako as modernised Japan.
Mishima is therefore infamous for not only contributing to modern Japanese Literature, but also staging a failed coup in November 1970 after which he committed seppuku (ritualistic suicide) in Tokyo. A coup intending to reignite the imperialist era of Japan. Ridiculous! You say. Well, not so much: his men did successfully take Central Tokyo’s military commandant hostage.
Thus, you have been warned.
All-in-all The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea is an unflinching narrative of obsession, belonging and the dangers of nostalgia. Told through the sharp tongues of three protagonists—each of whom is perhaps more humanely despicable than the other—Mishima’s The Sailor Who From Grace With The Sea will leave a sour taste in your mouth and parasitic obsession in your bones.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and translated into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori is a weird, whimsical novel depicting the dissonant experience of being a woman from a unique perspective. Protagonist Keiko Furukura is a devoted convenience store worker and a single woman in her thirties, making her an unwanted paradox in society. She is neither a home-maker nor someone with a high-powered career. The fact that she loves her job, finding belonging and much-needed structure there as opposed to a confusing and adversarial outside world, is inconsequential.
This third-wave feminist push to get women to the point where they can ‘have it all’—i.e. a traditional family life as a homemaker as well as a full-time career in whatever job they might want—has morphed here into codifying three restrictive ways to be an acceptable woman. In Convenience Store Women, full-time mothers are applauded, having a low-valued part-time job is permissible if you also have children, and well, if you’re single without children, you’d better be an ambitious career woman rising up the ranks to make up for that deficit.
Keiko fits into none of these categories. She is scorned by some and regarded as pitiable and downright incomprehensible by others. Her perspective shines a light on how nonsensical and confining these social expectations are; no wonder she prefers the solace of the convenience store to a judgemental society!
These elements also combine to support a reading of Keiko as autistic-coded. She doesn’t understand society, and more importantly, society and the people around Keiko make no effort to understand her. Keiko thrives with the external structure provided by the store and appreciates the fact that customer service has a set group of social rules that she can learn rather than the confusing and ever-shifting norms of society. Yet, Murata renders Keiko’s perspective with such sensitivity and relatability that I intimately understood Keiko. One of the novel’s greatest successes is how it depicts the people around Keiko as absolutely unwilling to understand her while drawing the reader so deep into her psyche, taking the reader on an exercise in compassion and empathy that the supporting cast of the book are incapable of.
The novel’s depiction of the convenience store as a heterotopic space is depicted with such detail it challenges the genre of the novel, bringing it beyond contemporary or women’s fiction—genres themselves which are infinitely vast and variable. Convenience Store Woman could be described as magical realism or fabulism, and yet it doesn’t fit neatly into either of those categories. This rejection of binary definitions links to Keiko’s assertion that convenience store workers don’t have gender like they do in the outside world, but instead leave all of those defining characteristics behind when they enter the store and put on their uniform. Every other character in the novel, even Keiko’s co-workers, dismiss the convenience store as an insignificant place to work, but for Keiko, it is the only place she can escape the gendered demands of a world that refuses to make space for her needs and her happiness. It is more than a convenient space for her.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if we had robots disguised as human companions in our everyday life? How human can a robot be? And can humans and human-like robots coexist peacefully?
In his novel, Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan explores exactly these questions as he navigates through his protagonist Charlie’s experience of appropriating one of the brand-new artificial humans, called Adam. Intertwined in the narrative that sheds light on practical issues of this strange situation, the author also ties in a love relationship between Charlie and his upstairs neighbour Miranda.
Initially, Charlie is a lonely person: he dwells on his past and fantasizes about what he could have chosen as a career that would have brought him more success and reputation than his current position as a stock investor. That is why he uses the inheritance from his mother’s death to buy an Adam, the newly developed and first ever human robot on the market. With this investment he hopes to make a fresh start, to gain a new experience and to ultimately feel part of a community that witness this bizarre coexistence between robots and humans. One might also think that Charlie is looking to find a friend in Adam; a sort of helpful companion in his life. After Miranda helps him carry Adam into his flat, he suggests programming the robot together – with the aim to get closer to her – so that they can share the robot between the two.
Oblivious to the moral consequences of this choice, Charlie enjoys the robot’s company after he gets used to having another person in his house. The aspect of exploiting a machine for one’s own purposes is one route the story goes down: in fact, Charlie uses Adam to take over his own job of investing money in the stock market. The protagonist does not foresee what this will entail: Adam, who tries his hardest to act like a human, will confront Charlie with issues like wanting a salary for his work. Charlie even starts to suspect an affair between Miranda and Adam which adds to the rising doubts that sharing a robot can bring.
The plotline becomes more and more tense in the second half of the book, as more and more of the Adams and Eves on the market start doing odd things. A very awkward face-to-face conversation between the protagonist and the founder of the human robots, filled with doubts, shame and self-deprecating thoughts on Charlie’s side, concludes the story and leaves the book open for the reader to form their own opinion on how Charlie will deal with what has happened.
The almost dystopian-like atmosphere in Machines Like Me allows for a critical exploration of the controversial topic of the human-versus-computer rivalry. Although the novel is rather conservative in giving much information on how this phenomenon would play out in technical terms in the real world, the author does give enough attention to different aspects that influence Charlie’s experience, surprising the reader repeatedly. Machines Like Me is accessible to all readers interested in the topic of the ethics of Artificial Intelligence, even if it needs to be acknowledged that it is just a fictional exploration of the topic and the story might therefore not seem as realistic as the real-life phenomenon would be, because not all technical intricacies are fully explained. Nevertheless, this novel is a good starting point for discussing this topic on a deeper, more philosophical and ethical level.