This is The Bookshelf, a list of recommendations related to each issue’s theme. It’s not an exhaustive list, or a top 10 list in any way. It’s just a collection of books that we love that use the theme of animals in an interesting way.
The Fantasy Worlds of Peter S. Beagle by Peter S. Beagle
Peter Beagle is most famous for The Last Unicorn (the film is an obsession of Laurel’s). This sad and lovely novella is included in this compendium of enchanting stories and as well as the unicorn, features a supremely arrogant cat (though are there any other kinds?) and a terrifying bull. My favourite in the collection is actually the short story Lila and the Werewolf, as I loved the idea of a boho couple navigating the minor issue of one of them turning into a wolf once a month. A Fine and Private Place is also great. Set in a graveyard amongst the ghosts who live there, it also features talking animals – there is an excellent conversation between a squirrel and a raven. This volume is really worth owning – you get so much good story between the covers. LAS
Sirius by Olaf Stapledon
The human race is explored through the eyes and nose of Sirius, a “super super-sheep dog”, bred by a scientist and raised alongside Plaxy, the youngest daughter of the family. It is explicitly stated that the nurture phase of this canine Frankenstein’s Monster experiment is what gives Sirius the edge over the other dogs that Thomas Trelone breeds. What I love is the mundanity of Sirius growing up – a good few paragraphs are dedicated to him working out how to glue a stamp onto a letter to Plaxy – as he learns to read and write and get around the problem of his ungainly paws. Sirius spends time in rural Wales, academic Cambridge and the slums of the East End (a frankly bizarre church singing scene occurs at this stage) and also helps in the war effort in WW2. From the point of view of this somewhat alien protagonist, human society is examined and critiqued and often found lacking, particularly when he sees the stupidity of war. Although it is at times, insane, there are moments of ecstasy as well as tragedy for Sirius, and for the exploration of the meaning of life, God and humankind it offers, is definitely worth a read. LAS
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Another story that plays on the animal familiar idea, His Dark Materials follows Lyra Belacqua as she moves between parallel worlds accompanied by her dæmon Pantalaimon, an animal manifestation of her soul. Lyra’s world is so exciting and well-realised, although, (see Redwall article), I do take minor offence to the servants having dogs as their dæmons and the idea that one’s personality crystalises upon puberty. However, despite this, I love the books. Lyra’s journey is truly epic – she battles through adversity of all kinds to make the world a better place and meets along the way talking armoured bears, a witch queen with a snow goose dæmon and tiny beings with poisoned spurs growing on their heels. The trilogy is grand in terms of theme as well as setting, with free will, the existence of God, the Church as an institution and innocence all covered. It will leave you wishing you could visit Lyra’s universe as she visits ours just to catch a glimpse of one of the most original, detailed and believable fantasy universes ever created. LAS
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
An exhilarating SF detective novel set in an alternative near future where criminals are magically attached to animals as part of their punishment. This stigmatises them and they are forced to live in ghettos (the one in Johannesburg where the book is set is the eponymous Zoo City), and are shunned, bullied and fetishised. Zinzi December was a journalist but after getting her brother killed she has become ‘animalled’ to a sloth. The animalled also get a random special power, which they are sometimes able to exploit – Zinzi’s is the ability to find lost objects. Her ability draws her in to a web of crime, email spam, drugs, child exploitation, violent magic and pop culture as she tries to find the lost member of a sibling pop act to earn the money to pay back her drug dealer and finally be free of debt. I particularly liked the way documents such as newspaper articles are presented throughout the book to introduce the history of the 'animalled' to the reader. Fast-paced, exciting and brilliantly realised, Zoo City is a thrilling read. LAS
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Bearing only a passing resemblance to Blade Runner, the film adapted from this PK Dick classic, one of the book’s focus points is on the status symbol of animals in the post-nuclear war society. Deckard’s doped up, strung-out wife is concerned about how their malfunctioning electronic replacement sheep (they had a real one that died) affects their social standing, and his efforts in replicant hunting are driven by the ambition of buying a real pet again. The rarity of living animals is a sad one, and one of the ways in which the book explores empathy and what it’s like to be human is through this need to love, cherish and protect something real and tangible. As well as being darkly comic (at one point, an engineer tries to fix a broken cat, not realising it’s a real one, and kills it in the process), the book also explores ongoing themes of PK Dick’s such as mass cultural consumption and religious iconography through the shadowy figure of Mercer, who people ‘empathise’ with through a box in their living rooms. Not one of Dick’s finest, perhaps, but one of his most human, and certainly his most famous. LAS
Please donate so we can pay our talented contributors.
Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
Marya Morevna, a smart, pensive little girl, watches as three birds drop like stones outside of her window to spring up as handsome men when they hit the ground. As each one finds a wife in her older sisters, she knows that one day, her own bird will arrive. Deathless is a dark, delicate – at times harrowing – retelling of the traditional Russian fairytale Koschei the Deathless. Set against the turmoil of the twentieth century, we see this piece of lore unfold through the eyes of Marya Morevna. When her bird comes, she finds that she has been waiting for Koschei, the domineering Tsar of life. Traversing Stalinist revolution and the bitter effects of war, Marya must also join a hidden battle - that of Life and Death. What I loved about this book was its masterful manipulation of my affections towards the characters. Even when they are at their worst, and you feel there will be no redemption, you suddenly see a vein of sadness and remorse so deeply set that your heart goes out to them. Koschei the deathless, trapped in a fairytale, cursed to repeat again and again his most terrible experiences, whilst cold and cruel, is also incredibly tragic. This I feel is mirrored in what Russia is experiencing as the novel progresses, ravaged by revolution and two world wars that sweep over her in an almost continuous wave. This book is a beautifully realised look at loyalty, death, survival, and loss. Ultimately though, Deathless is about the unsightly, starkly uncomfortable, complex and terrifying side of love. LJS
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
In the out-back of rural Munchkinland, a baby is born with green skin, sharp teeth, and dark, knowing eyes. Elphaba, future Wicked Witch of the West, is brought up by her neglectful mother – who has fallen from social grace – and her fanatical, Munchkinlander father. Confronted with the harsh realities of totalitarian rule from the Emerald City, Elphaba grows up with a fiery sense of justice and a sharp mind. When the Animals – distinguishable by their intellect and speech from their lower case counterparts animals – begin to be brutally persecuted by the Wizard, Elphaba joins a rebel movement in an effort to protect their rights and overthrow a corrupt government. Gregory Maguire’s ingenious retelling of the Wizard of Oz shows us the conflict from the Witch’s perspective. With allegorical pointers to WW2, Wicked explores a land where there are no outside allies to fight for justice. The inhabitants of Oz have only their own rebels to turn to, and ultimately, the Witch. LJS
Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell
Ack-Ack Macaque is a foul-mouthed, gun-toting cigar-smoking Spitfire pilot saving the world from the Nazi ninjas almost single-handedly. He also happens to be a monkey. He knows that those around him will die one by one, consumed by this constant meat grinder of a war. But why are the new recruits so happy to lay down their lives? Excited even? And why can’t he seem to die?
Victoria, struggling to adjust to her new bionic brain, is brutally attacked by her husband's killer. Seeking revenge and answers, she sets out to find the murderer. But who killed her husband, and why do they want to kill her?
Prince Merovech, heir to the throne of the merged Britain and France, has been captivated by the purple-haired Julie, who seems to be whisking him into activist mischief that will lead him to discovering a terrible secret about himself, and his mother.
Ack-Ack Macaque is funny, fast-paced and exciting. And it involves a talking monkey. Do you need a better reason to read it? LJS