It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


3 Comments

Reading diary, #7

Here are some short book reviews. Some of them may be harsh. Feelings may be hurt. If you are of a sensitive disposition, you might want to look away. On the other hand, if you feel that a book review is just, well, a book review, then read on. You might well disagree with my assessments, it happens. And while I’ve been doing this a long time – my first book review, of CJ Cherryh’s The Tree of Swords and Jewels, was published in 1988 – and I try to be reasonably objective in discussing a book’s faults or successes, how I respond to any piece of fiction is subjective and that’s going to colour, if not inform, my review. But as a general rule, good books tend to get positive reviews, bad books get negative reviews. Unless, of course, there’s something about the book that I really don’t get on with, irrespective of its quality – but I will say as much should that be the case, so you can decide for yourself.

hiddenonesThe Hidden Ones, Gwyneth Jones (1988) This was a re-read, and I’m not sure what prompted it. Never mind, I’m glad I did re-read it. It’s the only YA novel Jones has written under her own name – apart from four books written as by “Gwyneth A Jones” back in the late 1970s – and was, I believe, written specifically for The Women’s Press’ YA imprint, Livewire. As far as I can determine, Livewire only published one other sf YA novel, Skirmish by Melisa Michaels (AKA Melisa C Michaels) in 1987, and that was a reprint of the first book of a five-book series originally published in the US by Tor between 1985 and 1988. (Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to have been published as YA in the US.) But The Hidden Ones… Adele is, to put it mildly, a troubled teen, but this may have something to do with her somewhat erratic, but powerful, psychic abilities. After getting into trouble once too often, she is sent to live with her divorced father, his new wife and their son, in the village where Adele originally grew up. Determined not to fit in, Adele wanders about the surrounding countryside and discovers the Den, a picturesque and untouched hollow in the nearby hills. But it seems the farmer who owns it has sold it to someone who intends to despoil the Den by mining it for lanthanides. Adele, a reluctant heroine, saves the Den, but it does not change her or rehabilitate her. There’s some nice writing in this – as you’d expect of Jones – particularly of the countryside, and Adele is a typically Jonesian heroine, all spiky and ill-fitting; but this is not a story about good deeds or redemption of prodigal daughters. Adele has a justifiable distrust of adults, and nothing happens in The Hidden Ones to make her think otherwise. If there’s a lesson here, I guess it’s that we will always need our rebels.

firstonthemoonFirst on the Moon, Hugh Walters (1960) I picked this up at the Eastercon because I thought, from the title, it was a pre-Apollo story about a Moon landing. And I read it this month for my contribution to Pornokitsch’s Friday Fives series – which I did about 5 Trips to the Moon. It turned out the title was a bit of a misnomer. For a start, First on the Moon is the third book in a series, and was originally published in the UK as Operation Columbus. It’s a juvenile (ie, YA), and not very good at all. The science is rubbish, the geopolitics nonsense, and the plot which drives the story complete tosh. Apparently, in an earlier novel, mysterious domes on the Moon bombarded the Earth with radiation, so the UK sends plucky teenager Chris Godfrey to bomb them from lunar orbit. In this book, Godfrey is sent on a second mission, this time with the intention of landing on the lunar surface and finding some clues about the origin of the mysterious domes. The Soviets decide to do the same as well, so there’s a bit of the old Cold War rivalry going on as well. The intense claustrophobia of a space capsule plus zero gravity is, according to Walters, severely debilitating, so Godfrey is drugged for his flight to the Moon. On the return flight, he hitches a ride with the Russian (who had destroyed Godfrey’s spacecraft because Cold War) and the claustrophobia causes them to pummel each other. Oh, and the domes are never explained – no doubt Walters left that for another book in the series… and there are twenty of them in total. I won’t be reading any of those other nineteen.

The Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg (1966) I bought this at Fantastika in Stockholm last year. I’d not come across Friedberg before, and this appears to be her only published novel. I’d been told it wasn’t very good, but I must admit I liked it. Its premise was a bit silly, but Friedberg could manage a nice turn of phrase. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there.

rex-gordon-first-through-timeFirst Through Time, Rex Gordon (1962) I went through a phase a couple of years ago collecting novels by forgotten UK sf authors of the 1950s and 1960s – such as Rex Gordon, Christopher Hodder-Williams, Leonard Daventry, DF Jones, Arthur Sellings… I even tracked down some of their books and reviewed them (see herehere, here, here and here). But then I got involved with SF Mistressworks – and since the aformentioned forgotten writers were all male, I stopped looking for their books. I might pick it up again one day, now that I can place the likes of Naomi Mitchison, Josephine Saxton, Brenda Pearce or Jane Gaskell alongside them in order to present some gender balance. But Rex Gordon – First Through Time was published in the UK as The Time Factor, but neither title are especially informative. A military astronaut candidate is assigned to a secret project, which proves to be a time machine. A remote sent 200 years into the future reveals the ruin of the laboratory and a skeleton… which is identified as that of the one female researcher in the team. So they send the astronaut forward in time to learn more. But he disobeys orders and leaves the machine. He discovers a world still recovering from a global disaster – he eventually discovers that an underground atom bomb test back in his time ignited the “nuclear fires” in the centre of the planet, and caused some sort of nuclear winter. Humans have subsequently split into half a dozen different types, each of which are specialised for particular tasks. Baseline humans, such as the astronaut, are prized as breeding material because the types can’t interbreed. This is really quite an odd book, and it goes in several different weird directions at once. I’m really not sure what to make of it. Perhaps Gordon was pissed when he plotted it out. Or maybe he dropped his little box of index cards full of plot ideas for future novels…

Extreme Planets, David Conyers, David Kernot & Jeff Harris, eds. (2013) I reviewed this for Interzone – my first review of an ebook for the magazine, too. I didn’t think it was very good. And no, I don’t know why Amazon thinks it’s called Cthulhu: Extreme Planets, or why the only name they list is one of the contributors, Stephen Gaskell. Having said that, the promotional material put together by the editors seems to think its title is Extreme Plants…

robinson-homeHome, Marilynne Robinson (2008) I must admit, I wasn’t expecting the story of Home to be set alongside that of Gilead (2004). And I see that Robinson’s most recent novel is Lila (2014), and Lila is a character in Home – so this new novel must also be set in the town of Gilead too. Glory Boughton has returned to the family home in Gilead to look after her ailing father, a retired reverend. Also due to arrive is long-lost son Jack, who has spent the years since he left home living on the fringes of society, an alcoholic, unable to hold down a job, in and out of jail, and now so frazzled by his own failure at living – though he has been clean for a decade – he trusts himself even less than those who know him. Home is a beautifully-written exploration of the relationship between Glory and Jack, and the lives they have led, especially their failures, and the pair’s relationship with their father. Their father’s closest friend is Reverend John Ames, whose letters to his son form the narrative of Gilead. If I thought Ames in Gilead felt a little too… comforting to fit as a country reverend, in Home Jack feels a little too self-reflective and sensitive to (often unspoken, frequently imagined) criticism. This doesn’t detract from the wonderfully-observed relationship he has with Glory, or indeed from Robinson’s lovely descriptive prose. But you do sometimes get the impression the people in her books are a little too… thoughtful to be entirely true to life. Nonetheless, I’ll be picking up a copy of Lila.

piratesuniversePirates of the Universe, Terry Bisson (1996) I’d been after a copy of this for years after reading and enjoying Bisson’s Voyage to the Red Planet back in the early 1990s. I did manage to find a copy in good nick on eBay a few years ago, but the seller refunded my money after, he explained, he’d had a “scissors accident” with the book’s cover while packaging it to post. Unfortunately, I think I may have left it too late before reading this book. Back in the 1990s, a future run by corporations in some sort of neoliberal dystopia might have seemed like jolly clever satire, now that we’re living it the joke’s worn a bit thin. True, the real world is not as bad as Bisson paints his – for a start, there’s been no World War Three, which seems to have reduced the bulk of the population of the US, if not the whole world, to subsistence levels. The plot actually concerns the farming of “Peteys”, which are some sort of pocket universes about the size of a small asteroid, which appear in cislunar space at irregular intervals. Their “skin” can be harvested and once cured is the most valuable commodity on Earth. The protagonist is a ranger, one of the hunters, and he gets involved in some plot, triggered by his brother’s escape from prison, when he goes on furlough on the Earth’s surface. There’s some nice invention on display here, but it all felt a bit past its sell-by date – not like the ideas were dated, but like they were larval forms that have been expanded and re-used many times in the decades since. Which, in some perverse fashion, did make bits of the book actually read quite modern. Sort of.

pathintounknownPath into the Unknown, anonymous, ed. (1966) I’ve seen a few places on-line claim Judith Merril edited this, but I can find nothing to substantiate that. The book itself names no editor, nor indeed any original publication data for the stories it contains. Which is bloody annoying. I’d liked to have known how old some of the stories in this anthology were, as one or two felt considerably older than others. Also bloody annoying is this need in sf to translate foreign fiction into US vernacular. Translate it into English by all means, but don’t throw away the flavour of the original by trying to recast it as middle-grade Twain or something. You’d only know the stories in this anthology were originally published in Russian by the characters’ names. And, well, yes, by some of the plots as well. ‘Meeting My Brother’ by Vladislav Krapivin had a nice central conceit, but was too long to carry it. ‘A Day of Wrath’ by Sever Gansovsky, on the other hand, was actually pretty damn good, and probably wouldn’t have looked out of place in a best of anthology in 1966. The remainder of the stories, including two by the Strugatskys, were mostly forgettable; and one, ‘The Purple Mummy’ by Anatoly Dneprov, read like something from the 1930s. Not an especially good anthology, but an interesting read as an introduction to another science fiction tradition.

tiptreeJames Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon, Julie Phillips (2006) I started reading Tiptree in the late 1970s, and I knew from the start “he” was a woman as his real identity had been revealed a couple of years earlier. Over the years, I’ve sort of picked up bits and pieces of Tiptree’s “biography” – a woman who worked for the CIA, and used her work skills to create the fake identity James Tiptree, Jr. Why she went to so much trouble for what is pretty much a pseudonym, well, I never really thought about that. But I rated her short stories – especially ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’, which remains a favourite sf story – and at one point during the early 1980s bought as many of her books as were available at the time. And now, having read James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon, it seems that what I thought I knew about Alice B Sheldon turns out not have been true after all. Yes, she did work for the CIA. But only for three years, and it was more than a decade before she started writing sf as Tiptree. She was also considerably older than I’d expected. She was born into Chicago’s upper crust in 1915, and even went on safari to Africa at the age of six. And again several times afterwards during her childhood. During WWII, she worked in photo-intelligence, which is where she met her second husband, a colonel in USAAF intelligence, and she even assisted him as he darted about post-war Europe grabbing up all the scientific and technological goodies for the US. Only later did they join the CIA. She lasted three years then went to university to study psychology, eventually earning a doctorate. Of course, reading this book made me want to read more of Tiptree’s short fiction – so I really need to get a copy of the new SF Masterworks edition of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon is an excellent biography of a fascinating writer, who actually proved to have led a more interesting life than common knowledge about her has suggested. Recommended.

And since we’re about halfway through the year, here’s a breakdown of my reading stats by gender. I’ve separated out anthologies, non-fiction and graphic novels as categories of their own, so “male” and “female” only refers to book-length fiction (ie, novels, collections, or novellas published as standalones). Every time I finish a book by one gender, I pick up a book by the other gender. And you know what? It’s piss-easy to do. You do it like this: I’ve just finished a book written by a man, so now I will read a book written by a woman. And vice versa. It’s so simple! It’s foolproof! I bet you could do it too! Go on, give it a go.

 

reading_by_gender

 


Leave a comment

2014 reading diary, #6

Despite the number of books I read, I don’t think I’m putting much of a dent in the TBR. I must stop buying books for a month or two. Of course, that means publishers must instantly stop publishing books I want, and booksellers must remove all the books I might desire from their shelves… Then I should be able to do it.

ride-with-the-devilRide with the Devil, Daniel Woodrell (1987) Originally published as Woe to Live on but retitled when a film adaptation was made, this is Woodrell doing McCarthy. The narrator is a German immigrant (referred to, of course, as ‘Dutch’ or ‘Dutchy’) and a member of Confederate band of irregulars. They’re bandits in all but name, displaying little or no military discipline, wearing patchwork uniforms (and often masquerading as Union soldiers in stolen uniforms). They are brutal, not particularly smart, callous, and appear to be motivated chiefly by revenge against the depredations of the Jayhawkers. One of their number is black, but he’s not a slave - he and the narrator, Roeder, become good friends, in fact – which does sort of confuse the whole issue of the war. After an attack by Union cavalry, the troop scatter and Roeder, the black guy, and two others hide out on the land of a sympathetic Southern gentleman landowner. One of the other two, Roeder’s best friend, enters into a relationship with the landowner’s widowed daughter-in-law. Soon after, the troop reconvenes and stages a raid on the home town of the Jayhawkers. By this point, Roeder has lost his taste for violence, and has belatedly recognised that his fellows are far from noble freedom fighters but violent psychopaths. I really liked Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, but this felt too much like McCarthy-lite. I’ll keep an eye open for more books by Woodrell, but if I’d read this one first I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

diverDiver, Tony Groom (2007) I think I was a little hungover – or rather, I was feeling insufficiently motivated to do much of anything – when I picked this book off the shelf for a bit of light reading. It proved a good choice, at least initially. The first few chapters, describing Groom’s training and early years with the Royal Navy, are very funny. He signed up determined to become a diver, made it through all the courses, got into a bit of trouble on his first posting to a minesweeper, was then sent to Tuvalu to help clear WWII mines from the waters around the atoll… before flying out to the Falklands as part of the UK task-force. The chapters on the Falklands War are quite harrowing. The Fleet Clearance Diving Team was in the thick of it, defusing bombs that had fallen on British ships but not exploded (pretty much all of the bombs were British-made, incidentally). After leaving the Royal Navy, Groom became a commercial diver in the oil industry, saturation diving in the North Sea. He makes it clear quite how dangerous an occupation it is – not just because of explosive decompression, but also because the divers are dependent on so many other people. They’re trapped inside their decompression chambers, and should the ship or barge suffer some sort of calamity there’s no escape for them. And on the sea floor, they’re totally dependent on their umbilical – though they carry ten minutes of emergency “bail-out” heliox, the umbilical also pumps hot water into their suit and should that fail they’d soon develop hypothermia. Groom has a readable chatty style, and cheerfully admits at times he may have got some of the details wrong – especially when discussing the Falklands War, as he bases his narrative on his diaries. Interesting stuff.

godstalkerGod Stalk, PC Hodgell (1982) I picked up a copy of the Baen reprint omnibus edition, The God Stalker Chronicles, containing both God Stalk and its sequel Dark of the Moon, at the World Fantasy Con last October. I’d sooner have bought them as individual paperbacks, rather than one humungous hardback, but it was all I could find. God Stalk is in almost all respects an ordinary epic fantasy, set in an epic fantasy world with a complex history and pantheon, and featuring a special snowflake protagonist. It’s a very likeable book, as indeed are a number of books of this type; and there are some nice touches in Hodgell’s world-building. I’d been expecting it to be a tad literary, but it’s not – it’s written in precisely the sort of prose common among books of its ilk, although it is somewhat smoother to read than most. However, where I think it fails – and this may account for its apparent obscurity – is that the learning-curve is among the steepest I’ve come across in fantasy. It doesn’t help that protagonist Jame is apparently unaware of her own history – it’s never stated that she’s amnesiac, but she was banished from her home keep by her family, spent several decades wandering, and has no memory of that time. There’s an extensive back-story to God Stalk, but Hodgell is parsimonious with the details – until they’re needed… which often results in a wodge of exposition thick with the names of gods and lords and races. The plot takes a good third of the book to get going, so it’s a bit of a slog for the first few chapters. Eventually, things start to come together – some of the foreshadowing is a little too obvious, however – and you need to refer less and less to the dramatis personae at the front of the novel. I’ve still got the second half of this omnibus to read, and I’ll decide after that whether I can be bothered to continue with the series (the seventh book is published next month). Incidentally, Jame is mistaken for a boy on several occasions – with that cleavage she has on the cover? Baen. Sigh.

high-oppHigh-Opp, Frank Herbert (2012) Despite his success with The Dragon in the Sea, Frank Herbert had trouble selling another novel, and it wasn’t until Dune, published by Chilton, a publisher best-known for car repair manuals, that he had another book in print. During that period, he wrote a number of novels, all of which were eventually trunked. High-Opp is one of them. And, to be honest, it’s easy to see why no publisher back then would go for it. It’s also the book which contains the “fap gun” – Herbert should probably have considering renaming his future firearm. The world of High-Opp is run by opinion polls, although they’re presented pretty much as global referendums. Of course, the entire system is fixed, with a political class (all related to each other) holding all the top spots. A fast-rising star is brought low as part of a plot to overthrow those in charge, since he’s been identified as an ideal candidate to lead a rebellion by the head of BuPsych, who wants to effect a change of leadership. But he’s no tool to be used, and decides to actually smash the system. He wins the day and they make him emperor. This book is a curiosity and little more. I’m not surprised it’s taken more than half a century to see print.

persepolisPersepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003) This was made into an animated film in 2007, which I’ve not seen. That must be an odd experience, pretty much as if the graphic novel itself had suddenly come to life. Satrapi was royalty, her great-great-grandfather was the shah of Iran overthrown by Reza Pahlavi in 1921, but she grew up during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and its her childhood during those turbulent years, and her family’s coming to terms with the new regime, which forms the first third of Persepolis. The Satrapis were Westernised, secular, well-off and political – and lost a lot of friends and relatives, first to Pahlavi’s secret police, then to the Ayatollah’s regime, and to the war with Iraq. Marjane Satrapi rebels, which puts her at risk from the authorities, so her parents send her to a French-speaking school in Vienna. There she experiences both friendship and racism, and at one point ends up living on the streets. She returns to Iran several years later, and once again has to learn to live in a fundamentalist Islamic state. There’s a telling scene when her friends ask her if she ever had sex while in Vienna, of course she replies, after all she’s nineteen and it’s not unusual in the West… but her friends, for all their secular views, are horrified. Persepolis is, of course, autobiographical, and while the art may be deceptively simple the story is not. Recommended.


7 Comments

2014 reading diary, #5

The alternate genders thing got thrown a little out of whack, first by deciding to put Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to one side for a bit (because it is fucking enormous), and then by reading a couple of trashy male-authored books while on the way to, and back from, Glasgow over the Easter weekend. But I then made up for it by reading two successive books by women, er, twice. So far this year, I’m running exactly 50:50 male:female writers, so it seems to be working…

PirxTales of Pirx the Pilot, Stanisław Lem (1979) I decided I should read more Lem, especially as I’ve been finding the concerns of much male-authored US science fiction of last century somewhat tiresome; and there are these attractively-packaged Harcourt Brace Javonovitch paperbacks of some of his books available on Amazon… But they’ve already fucked up the “collection” as the only two I’ve bought so far – this one and Imaginary Magnitude – are sized slightly differently. Argh. Anyway, Pirx is a space pilot and sort of an Everyman, although he typically wins through using a combination of common sense and accidentally doing the right thing. In the five stories in Tales of Pirx the Pilot Pirx starts out as a cadet on a test-flight to the Moon, solves the mystery of the death of two scientists at an observatory on the far side of the Moon, solves another mystery which resulted in the disappearance of a patrol spaceship, witnesses an accident in space while travelling aboard a space liner, and manages to survive a flight in a spaceship that shouldn’t have been declared flight-worthy. They’re an odd mix of made-up science-fiction rubbish and realistic space travel. For example, in ‘The Conditioned Reflex’, Lem goes into a great amount of realistic detail about the lunar observatory, and the story reads like a piece of nearish-future hard sf. But ‘The Albatross’ features space liners and feels like a totally different setting. Pirx, on the other hand, is a pleasingly common-sensical hero, with a faint streak of cynicism, and he wins through as often by doing the wrong thing as he does by puzzling out what’s needed. There’s a second book of Pirx stories titled, with a great deal of imagination, More Tales of Pirx the Pilot. I think I’ll pick myself up a copy…

the-red-tape-warThe Red Tape War, Jack L Chalker, Mike Resnick & George Alec Effinger (1991) Ever read a book knowing it was going to be shit but you read it anyway and guess what it was total shit? The clues were all there – the cover-art, the names of the authors… And yet, against my better judgement – well, against any judgement whatsoever – I went and read the book anyway. The Red Tape War was conceived as a jolly jape by Chalker, Resnick and a third author. That third author, who they do not name, had the good sense to drop out, so Effinger was drafted in as a replacement. The idea was to write a book where they’d pass the narrative from one to the other, hopefully leaving it in such a state the writer picking up the story would have their work cut out keeping the whole thing stumbling along. Dear Tor, this is not a project that should have ever seen the light of day.

sphereSphere, Michael Crichton (1987) The movie adaptation of this has always struck me as one of those films that has all the ingredients necessary to make a good movie, yet manages to be actually quite bad. The underwater aspect fascinates me, and the central premise – a mysterious spacecraft is discovered on the ocean floor – is certainly appealing… So I read the book to see if it was any better than the film. I can now confirm it isn’t. In fact, it’s probably worse. It doesn’t help that Crichton gets some of his details wrong. The team sent to investigate the spacecraft descend to the US Navy habitat on the ocean floor, 1000 feet deep, in submersibles. At that depth, the pressure is around thirty atmospheres, so saturation diving is required. Compression would take around five hours, not the length of the ride in the submersible. And at thirty atmospheres, the heliox in a tank carried on the back would last only minutes, so the breathing mixture would be provided using umbilicals. Given that, it seems churlish to complain that the rest of the book makes little or no sense. The spacecraft proves to be from a century or so in the future, but crashed several centuries ago… after entering a rotating black hole or something. Nothing about the spacecraft is at all plausible – its design (heavy lead shielding! wtf), huge cargo bays containing, um, food, no crew… yes crew… no not really crew… But it’s the titular, er, sphere, found in the spacecraft which forms the focus of the novel, as it gives who ever enters it super powers. Or something. Which each of them uses to terrorise everyone – including themselves; and destroy the habitat which is keeping them alive at the bottom of the ocean. Stupid book. Avoid. I should have done.

We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1977) I needed something to cleanse my palate after the last two books, so grabbed this off the book-shelves. I’ll be reviewing it for SF Mistressworks.

underwaterwelderThe Underwater Welder, Jeff Lemire (2012) I’d seen a few positive reviews of this, and the title suggested it would appeal to me, so I sprung for a copy. A mistake. It’s rubbish. The artwork is not at all attractive, and the story is a banal daddy issues plot. Son of wastrel drunkard dad, who was a diver in the oil industry, returns to his childhood town and follows in his father’s footsteps. On one dive, he sees something strange, something to do with an old pocket-watch that used to belong to his father, and when he surfaces, everywhere is deserted. But by this point I was so bored, I wasn’t really following the story, so I’m not entirely sure what happened. Something to do with his father, something to do with starting to treat his wife better because whatever daddy issues he had were resolved. Or something. Not worth the money. Avoid.

dancinggirlsDancing Girls, Margaret Atwood (1977) This is Atwood’s first collection and, to be honest, it’s actually a little dull. The contents were originally published in a variety of Canadian literary magazines. No dates are given, but I’m guessing the stories date from no more than a few years before the collection appeared. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Atwood’s fiction. I find her novels much more successful than her short fiction, but I’ve yet to read one of them with as much power as her Alias Grace – though The Handmaid’s Tale is really very good, it’s let down by a sketchy background - and while I’ve enjoyed her other novels I’ve read, I usually feel vaguely dissatisfied by them. Her short fiction strikes me the same way – it often seems like it’s missing something. But I’m not entirely sure what it is. There’s a vagueness there that… it’s not a failure of imagination, nor a lack of writing chops; it’s part of her voice… but I’m always expecting a thicker broth so it reads as thinner than it should be. I’ll continue to read her, she’s an important writer after all; and perhaps eventually I’ll work out what it is about her fiction that leaves me so dissastified… Perhaps she’ll write something else as powerful as Alias Grace

famadihana-on-fomalhaut-iv-signed-jhc-eric-brown-2075-pFamadihana on Fomalhaut IV, Eric Brown (2014) I bought this at the launch at Satellite 4, this year’s Eastercon. It’s the first of the Telemass Quartet. But that title is a bit of a misnomer. While tt’s a novella set in the same universe as Brown’s earlier Starship Seasons Quartet, there’s nothing in its plot which is predicated on “telemass” itself (a near-instantaneous interstellar matter transmission system). That strange word in the book’s title – no, not Fomalhaut, the name of a star, which is actually Arabic, fom al-haut, فم الحوت, and means “mouth of the whale” – but “famadihana”, which Wikipedia describes as “a funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar. Known as the turning of the bones, people bring forth the bodies of their ancestors from the family crypts and rewrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music.” And the indigenous aliens of Fomalhaut IV practice a similar ritual – not that protagonist ex-copper Matt Hendrick discovers this until midway through the novel. He is on the planet to find his ex-wife and their daughter, who has been drawn there by the local church which has incorporated some of the alien rites into its creed – and promises that it can “cure” the daughter. Hendrick takes up with a local young woman – the world’s colonists are all Malagasy – and with her help, and that of her anthropologist sister, track down his missing family, and witness the titular ritual performed by the aliens. It’s solid Brown stuff, and much like the aforementioned quartet. If there’s one change I’ve noticed over the years, it’s that sex – easy sex – seems to appear more often in Brown’s stories than it did before.

Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) She was bloody good, wasn’t she? It’s a shame this is all she wrote. I’ll be reviewing it for SF Mistressworks. (Shame about the crap cover art, though; also by Zoline.)

Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1987) Another SF Mistressworks book. Wasn’t too sure initially what to make of this, but the further I got into the novel the more I liked it. Saxton also had a distinctive voice, and I have to admit I find it fun to read.

hhhhHHhH, Laurent Binet (2013) I bought this early last year as a lot of people were talking about it at the time. I don’t think otherwise I would have bothered – I mean, the title doesn’t exactly inspire, even once you know it means “Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich”, and is about Reinhard Heydrich, who was possibly the nastiest Nazi of them all (and who features in a (sort of) country-house murder in Philip Kerr’s eighth Bernie Gunther novel, Prague Fatale, which I’ve read (see here)). And yet, I’m really glad I bought HHhH – it’s an excellent novel, and more than that, it reads in part like a manifesto of my own writing. Because it’s not just about Heydrich – or rather, Operation Anthropoid, a secret mission by a pair of British-trained parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, to assassinate Heydrich, who was “Protector” of the Czech Republic at the time. HHhH is also about writing about Operation Anthropoid, about Binet’s attempt to do justice to the history and the people involved, and his own response to the story, to fiction, to history, to writing about the real world. While HHhH may read like history and autobiography, and Binet makes a point of his need for verifiable facts about Operation Anthropoid and the people involved in it, we’ve no way of knowing how much of the authorial voice, and the author’s story, is actually true. Did Binet, for example, really have relationships with the women he names? Or are they invented characters? It doesn’t, of course, really matter (and HHhH has been marketed as fiction, for what it’s worth), but that concept of nailing fictional story into place with verifiable facts is something I’ve been exploring in my own fiction. I’ve yet to explore the act of writing such fictions in, er, such fictions – although many, many years ago I did have a meta-fictional sf story published in a small press magazine (it’s an apprentice work; if you’re interested, see here). Anyway, HHhH is excellent… and has certainly given me much food for thought…


1 Comment

My reviews on SF Mistressworks

It occurred to me that while most of the reviews on SF Mistressworks are reprints, all of mine are original – which means that unless you follow that blog, you won’t have seen them. So here’s a list of the sf books by women authors I’ve reviewed so far this year on SF Mistressworks:

The New Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1978) The third and final all-women sf anthology edited by Sargent, at least until the two reboots in 1995. Probably the best of the three. Review here.

Journey, Marta Randall (1978) The first of a duology about the Kennerin family and their trials and tribulations colonising the world of Aerie. I wasn’t entirely convinced. Review here.

journey

Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre (1979) McIntyre’s only collection, which is a shame as judging by the stories in this she deserves to be much better known. Review here.

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985) The first of duology about the semi-feudal world of Ruantl and the adventures of galactic rogue Blaise Omari after he crashlands there. Solid core genre, although it didn’t survive this most recent read quite as well as I’d expected. Review here.

Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1990) The sequel to The Children of Anthi, which probably makes a better fist of the background even if the protagonists do prove to be infeasibly special. Review here.

anthi

Extra(Ordinary) People, Joanna Russ (1984) Excellent collection, containing Russ’s only Hugo win, ‘Souls’, as well as ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’, which immediately became a favourite piece of short sf. Review here.

Countdown For Cindy, Eloise Engle (1962) Early Sixties tosh about the first American woman in space, a nurse sent to the Moon to look after a pair of injured scientists at the Moonbase. Very much a book of its time – its titular heroine is not going to be seen as much of a role model these days. Review here.

Still to come over the next couple of months: reviews of Ark Baby by Liz Jensen, Busy About the Tree of Life by Pamela Zoline, We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ and Queen of the States by Josephine Saxton. I have many more eligible books than those, of course – they’re just the ones I’ve actually read and am working on reviews of at this moment.


2 Comments

2014 reading diary, #4

The good news is I’m sticking to my New Year’s resolution to alternate my fiction reading between women and men writers; the bad news is that since I finished my reading for the Hugo – and what a pointless exercise that proved to be! – since then my reading’s been a bit all over the place.

ghosts-doing-the-orange-dance-hc-by-paul-park-1622-pGhosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) With a title like that, I’d expected this to be literary fantasy, something Park does really well. It actually proved to be meta-fictional literary science fiction – something Park does even better. Park looks back over the history of his family – the title refers to a painting by his relative, which may or may not depict a UFO visitation – trying to draw links between some of the stranger people in his family tree, and various strange events which may or may not have had anything to do with them. It’s impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction – Park mentions his A Princess of Roumania, for example, among many other details which feel autobiographical. The introduction by John Crowley and the afterword by Elizabeth Hand play into the same conceit. Of course, I bought the signed, limited edition… but a note on the limitation page says the signatures were “culled from other sources”. Huh? They’re not real signatures? Or is that another meta-fictional joke? Anyway, highly recommended.

astronaut-wives-clubThe Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel (2013) Read for research for Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows. This is the only book published to date on the wives of the early astronauts, although Life Magazine did run a series of articles on each of the Mercury 7 wives back in the 1960s. There is also, as far as I’m aware, only one autobiography by the wife on an astronaut – The Moon is Not Enough (1978) by Mary Irwin, wife of Apollo 15′s James B Irwin (yes, I have a copy). Having said that, several of the wives wrote or co-wrote their husbands’ biographies, such as Rocketman by Nancy Conrad (2005), Moonwalker by Charlie and Dotty Duke (1990) and Starfall by Betty Grissom (1974). The wives of the Apollo 11 astronauts also appear in First on the Moon (1970), the first book about the mission (see here). Koppel’s book is not especially insightful, and often borders on the banal, but I spotted no obvious inaccuracies, and it at least gives a more human portrayal of the astronauts than their own books do – but that’s hardly surprising, given they all had egos as big as the Moon. As far as the Apollo Quartet is concerned, The Astronaut Wives Club will be treated much like Wikipedia – a good place to start, but I’m going to have to look further afield if I want to dig deeper. All the same, it was worth reading, and I hope it’s merely the first book on a group of people who need to be written about more.

visforvengV is for Vengeance, Sue Grafton (2011) I’ve always much preferred crime novels which feature female protagonists, and my two favourite women PIs have always been VI Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone. I used to like Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books until I realised the plot of every one was exactly the same. But, Kinsey Millhone… In this one, a gangster is trying to turn legit, a process that accelerates after he meets the bored wife of a Hollywood lawyer (who has discovered her husband is having an affair with his secretary). Meanwhile, the gangster’s not-so-smart brother is causing irruptions by behaving like, well, a gangster. Millhone gets dragged into it all when she witnesses a shoplifter in action and reports her to store security, said shoplifter being part of a state-wide operation run by the aforementioned gangster. The Millhone books are framed as reports given by Millhone to her client, although the narrative is presented as your typical crime novel – including sections not in Millhone’s POV… which sort of spoils the framing conceit. But never mind. I liked this entry in the series much more than the preceding few. Dante, the gangster trying to go straight, was sympathetic; I liked the narrative of Nora, the lawyer’s wife; and the various subplots came together pleasingly at the end.

bettertoBetter to Have Loved, Judith Merril & Emily Pohl-Weary (2002) Also read for research for Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows. This is sort of Merril’s autobiography – it was compiled by Pohl-Weary from an aborted attempt by Merril to write an autobiography, her letters to various well-known sf names, and the introductions to some of her books (her collections and the anthologies she edited). Merril started out in the Futurians, an influential New-York-based group of fans in the 1940s, writing pulp fiction for hire, chiefly crime and westerns. They weren’t a very pleasant bunch in those days – at one point, they reformed the Futurians specifically to exclude one person they felt wasn’t much fun – but they were very close-knit, often kipping over for months at a time at friends’ houses. Merril was certainly outspoken, and these days she’d probably be described as “poly” – neither of which in those days endeared her much to her fellow fans and writers. Some of the gossip Merril drops in is horribly fascinating – such as, for example, when Frederik Pohl was an editor early in his career he’d buy his friends’ stories and keep 60% of the fee; or that, later, when Merril was an influential editor, writers would approach her and beg to be included in her next anthology, and they’d tell her they wouldn’t even accept a fee. Merril moved to Canada in the 1960s, and eventually took Canadian citizenship. She comes across as one of those opinionated but interesting people you’d probably dislike on meeting. Worth reading.

Dictionary_of_the_KhazarsDictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavić (1988) I’ve fancied reading this for years, so when I stumbled across a copy in a charity shop I snapped it up. But after all that… I’m not a big fan of weird fiction or magical realism – although when it’s kept low-key, I’m happy to read it. I thought Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana excellent, for example; which led me to think I might enjoy fiction by other Balkan fabulists. But this one just didn’t work for me. I thought the structure clever and interesting, and some of the stories which make up the dictionary entries were quite good. But often Pavić pushed the fantasy too far, and it spoiled it for me. The book is structured as three “dictionaries” – they’re not, they’re more like glossaries – which cover the conversion of the Khazar people to one of the Abrahamic religions. There’s a Christian dictionary, a Muslim one and a Jewish one, and each claims the Khazars converted to their religion. The dictionaries comprise biographies of important people and stories which illustrate their lives and/or their connection to the Khazars. The stories are… fantastic. Some of the details are amusing, like the person who saved up all their Tuesdays so they could use them at once; others, for me, just felt like a whimsy too far. I guess I like a lot of realism in my fantastika. Which is no doubt why I much prefer science fiction. Ah well. Back to the charity shop it goes, and I can cross Pavić off the list of authors I’ve always wanted to read.

sovietsfNew Soviet Science Fiction, Helen Saltz Jacobson, ed. (1979) I spotted this on eBay, discovered Macmillan had in the late 1970s published a short series of Soviet sf anthologies and novels, and immediately thought, ooh I can collect them. But just to see if it was worth doing so, I bought this cheap ex-library copy of New Soviet Science Fiction…. And yes, it was totally worth it. Now I’m going to have to find a decent copy to replace mine. And buy all the other books in the series too. The contents include fiction by Ilya Varshavsky, Kirill Bulychev, Dmitri Bilenkin, Gennady Gor, Vladen Bakhnov, Anatoly Dneprov, Vladimir Savchenko, Mikhail Emtsev and Eremei Parnov, and Vadim Shefner – with several of them contributing more than one piece. The Savchenko was good, a nice black comedy with a very Russian atmosphere. Some of the others feels like they’ve been translated too diligently into American English vernacular – I mean, what’s the point of reading Russian sf if it reads just like US sf? Annoyingly, the book includes no prior publication details, so I’ve no idea how old some of these stories are.

mancrazyMan Crazy, Carol Joyce Oates (1997) An author I’ve heard much about without actually ever getting around to reading. I stumbled across a copy of this book in a charity shop, so I bought it and… The narrator is a teenage girl with an absentee father and a drunken mother. She’s white trash, moving from place to place, although only within a relatively small region, eventually getting into drinks, drugs and dalliances with inappropriate men…  and eventually ending up in a biker cult. The control of voice is impressive, as is the way Oates builds up her story through a series of small vignettes (none really qualify as short stories, and some are shorter than flash fiction). But none of the cast likeable – even the man who becomes the sugar daddy of the narrator’s mother isn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart… although his fate is hardly deserved. This is a bleak novel, which I was not expecting. I’m still not sure if I really liked it.

fivelordsThe Adventures of Blake and Mortimer 18: The Oath of the Five Lords, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2012) I’ve been impressed with a couple of Sente’s scripts, more so than I have anything written by series creator Edgar P Jacobs – chiefly because Sente manages to stitch his stories into real history. And so he does in this one, and it’s particularly effective. The story is essentially a murder-mystery. The titular lords are a secret society, created decades before to safeguard a pamphlet written by TE Lawrence but which he was never allowed to publish. Someone is bumping off the lords and stealing their portion of the pamphlet. It’s up to Blake and Mortimer to learn the identity of the killer/thief before the pamphlet is all together lost and the five lords all murdered. It’s not a very complex mystery, though Sente still manages a few bits of sleight of hand with his clues. I thought this one of the better entries in the series.


2 Comments

2014 reading diary, #3

I took a break from my Hugo reading to get up to date with some SF Mistressworks reading and then, for some reason, when it came to choosing books by male authors I picked old sf ones (because I’m still alternating my reading between women and men writers). Still, at least now I’ve read those crappy old sf novels and they can go to the charity shop…

Extra(Ordinary) People, Joanna Russ (1984). I read this to review for SF Mistressworks – see here.

renaissanceRenaissance, Raymond F Jones (1951). Many years ago I had an idea for a story inspired by the plot of the film This Island Earth, so I decided to read the novel as research. It was years before I tracked down a copy and a few years more I finally got around to reading it – see here. Meanwhile, I’d decided to read more Raymond F Jones – even though I had yet to read This Island Earth at the time. I’d already bought Jones’ Beacon novel The Deviates (because Beacon novel; see here) and a copy of The Alien (I loved the cover art; see here). So I picked up a copy of his first novel, Renaissance, and recently pulled it from the shelf to read. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect – I hadn’t been impressed by This Island Earth and that is Jones’ best-known novel. Well, Renaissance is very much a novel of its time, and it makes very little sense. It opens with a giant computer, which seems to run a small colony of scientifically-minded people, but it’s all sort of B-movie weird with a giant curtain of nothingness bordering the colony on one side and a DESERT OF FIRE on the other, and everyone wears togas or something and no one appears to have sex as babies magically appear at some sort of temple… The hero gets into trouble with the authorities for daring to research a taboo subject, biology. He uncovers a conspiracy, so he infiltrates the temple… which requires him to disguise himself as a woman – but given that they wear little in the way of clothing, he uses some sort of plastic material to effect his disguise. No one sees through it, although you wouldn’t know from the text that he was pretending to be a woman for much of the story. Anyway, it turns out the colony is in an alternate universe and was an experiment by Earth, which is now ruled by some sort of secretive cabal, and there’s a historical repository of knowledge safeguarded an AI which wants to overthrow the cabal… And it’s all complete tosh, about as rigorous as blancmange and as plausible as a unicorn pasty. I’ve still got those two other Jones’ books to read – well, three if you include The Secret People, the book on which The Deviates is based – but I doubt I’ll be going any further into his oeuvre.

marvel2Captain Marvel 2: Down, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Dexter Soy & Filipe Andrade (2013). I was never really a big comics fan, and I went off superhero comics completely a number of years ago. And even when I did read comics, Captain Marvel was not a title I bothered following. But when I discovered that the first half of this miniseries by Kelly Sue DeConnick featured the Mercury 13, I decided to give it a go (see here). I wasn’t that impressed so wasn’t going to bother with the second volume… until I learnt it took place at the bottom of the sea. It was just too close to Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. And now I’ve read it, er, it isn’t. At all. Captain Marvel – Carol Danvers – helps a friend recover something from the sea bottom off the coast of New Orleans. Down there it’s a ship and plane graveyard… and then some alien energy leaks into the wrecks and creates a giant monster out of them which Danvers and her friend must battle. The story then moves to New York and Danver’s private life, trouble with her neighbours, a possible medical condition preventing her from flying, and random attacks by an old nemesis… Like the first book, there’s a smart script there, so it’s a shame the art is routinely awful. You’d think, given that comics are a visual medium, they’d put more effort into it.

Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1990). This is the sequel to The Children of Anthi; I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks – see here.

charismaCharisma, Michael G Coney (1975). During the 1970s, there were a number of male British sf writers all working (mostly) down the same line in the genre. They’d come out of the New Wave – although some had been around prior to that – and, in direct contrast to the big-selling US sf authors, they kept their visions low-key and their focus more literary. Writers such as Richard Cowper, DG Compton, Michael G Coney, Keith Roberts, Robert Holdstock, perhaps even JG Ballard. Their novels were often set in a near-future UK, with light extrapolation, and only a small number of “ideas” – which were there solely to drive the plot. There was no “movement” as such, and several of the writers went on to write completely different genre fiction – Holdstock and his Mythago Wood, Ballard left the genre all together, Coney moved into pure heartland territory with his Hello Summer, Goodbye… Coney’s Charisma, however, very much fits the pattern. It could almost have been written by Compton, in fact. The narrator, John Maine, is the manager of a hotel in the small Cornwall fishing port of Falcombe. He’s also involved with a local boatyard which sells “houseyachts” (hovercraft houseboats, as far as I can make out). Near Falcombe is a Research Station which has been experimenting with a device that gives access to parallel worlds. And Maine discovers by accident that he can travel to these parallel worlds – because the John Maine in those worlds has died, so there aren’t two of them existing in the same world at the same time. And then the owner of the hotel, a lying and cheating businessman, a Tory in other words, is murdered… and Maine travels back and forth to various parallel worlds trying to change events, solve the murder and track down the woman he loves, Susanna. The plotting in Charisma is quite clever, with its multiple parallel takes on the same group of people and their  actions. The world-building is light – it’s pretty much 1975, but with hovercars and 3D television. Unfortunately, Maine, the narrator, is… I hate to say “a product of his time”, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more male-gazey novel than this – in fact, Maine is an unreconstructed sexist pig. And it leaves a nasty taste in what would otherwise be an interesting and accomplished 1970s British sf novel.

lotswifeWhat Lot’s Wife Saw, Ioanna Bourazopoulou (2013). The last of my Hugo reading. I do have at least one more novel on the book-shelves that qualifies – Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman – and I did have time to buy and read a couple more, but I decided to call it a day after What Lot’s Wife Saw. Possibly because I’d heard so much praise for it that I thought it likely to take the final slot on my ballot. Except, well, I didn’t really like it at all. It’s the near-future and the Dead Sea has somehow inundated much of Southern Europe, and coincidentally revealed a rift which contains “salt”, a powerful drug to which much of the world is now addicted. Phileas Book lives in Paris and compiles “Epistlewords” for The Times. These are three-dimensional crosswords whose clues depend on extracts from letters published alongside. Despite numerous descriptions of the Epistleword, and its “meandros” shape, nothing in the novel indicates the Epistleword is either plausible or solvable. The salt mentioned earlier is mined at the Colony, a small company town on the shore of the Dead Sea – which is now completely gelid. How the Dead Sea has a shore after flooding the surrounding area for thousands of square kilometres  is not explained, but the shore is an inhospitable desert populated by “Suez Mamelukes”.  Recently, the governor of the Colony died in mysterious circumstances, and within a fortnight riots tore the town apart. His six closest advisers have all written letters explaining what happened. The mysterious Seventy-Five, the company which mines the salt, asks Book to analyse the letters – because of his Epistleword special talent thing – to discover the truth of the events they relate… A lot of people praised  What Lot’s Wife Saw so I think it’s fair to say my expectations were pretty high. But. It just didn’t work for me. The sections in the Colony felt like they were set in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, which made a nonsense of it being near-future – assuming you swallowed the whole Flood thing, which made no sense anyway. The letter structure was interesting, but the voices of the six were so similar it was often hard to tell them apart. And they were really unlikeable. The writing was mostly good but often drifted into over-writing. And the ending, the solution to the mystery Book is asked to unravel, is… well, it’s banal. I’d been expecting something with much more impact, and not just a quick Scooby Doo scene which explained clues that were so obscure no reader would have spotted them – I mean, EREMOI? Disappointing.

demonsThe Demons at Rainbow Bridge, Jack L Chalker (1989). This is the first book of a trilogy, the Quintara Marathon. Chalker used to bang out trilogies and series as if science fiction were on the brink of extinction. And it showed. In this one, the writing barely reaches competent, the setting is cobbled together from used furniture, and the text is riddled with continuity errors. In this series, the galaxy is split into three mutually antagonistic power blocs, the Exchange, the religious nutters of the Mizlaplanian Empire, and the evil dog-eat-dog empire of the Mycohlians. Humanity went out into the stars and found itself just another alien race among the many claimed by these three polities. The Exchange is ruled by the mysterious never-seen Guardians, and is pure Rand-like capitalism from top to bottom. The Mizlaplanians have hugely powerful mental powers and have convinced everyone they’re gods and those of their subject races with “normal” mental powers are angels and saints. The Mycohlians are parasites and they pretty much leave their anarchic empire to run itself, assuming that the cream – the most ruthless and violent cream, that is – will rise to the top and keep everything together. An Exchange scout ship finds a pair of the eponymous demons on a remote world, and sends out a mayday before being slaughtered. The novel then spends a third of its pages describing the formation of an Exchange team to investigate, then a third on a Mizlaplanian team to do the same, and the final third on the Mycohlian team. All three head for the remote world, where they find a butchered research team, the demons have escaped and… continued in the next book of the trilogy. Chalker was a crap writer and this is far from his best work.

Ark Baby, Liz Jensen (1997). Every time I start a Liz Jensen novel, I tell myself I should read more of her books. I’ll be reviewing this on SF Mistressworks, since it qualifies as science fiction.


3 Comments

2014 reading diary, #2

I spent much of February catching up with 2013 novels for my Hugo ballot. While this included a number of books by authors I usually read and enjoy, I also chose a number of edge cases that had looked interesting. I also didn’t have a computer at home during two weeks of February, which is why I was uncharacteristically quiet during the latter half of the month… It also meant I got a lot of reading done – nine books in four days at one point – so I’ll keep my comments on each book short as there’s more than the usual number of them. Incidentally, I’m still sticking to alternating genders in my fiction reading.

proxima-ukProxima, Stephen Baxter (2013). Not sure what I was expecting this to be like – the publicity suggested I might like it… but I found it more like Exultant (see here) than Coalescent (see here). In other words, I thought it juvenile and thick with indigestible lumps of exposition; and while there was plenty of invention on display, no single idea was neat enough to make the book stand out. Criminals are transported to an inhabitable exoplanet in the titular star system, and what a surprise they prove completely unsuitable as pioneer colonist material. We’ve got rape and violence and warlordism in a century that has settlements throughout the Solar System and can even send spacecraft to another planetary system. But those criminal types do stumble across an enigmatic alien device which links the exoplanet with Mercury. This novel won’t be going on my Hugo ballot.

reddocRed Doc>, Anne Carson (2013). This was shortlisted for the Kitschies earlier this year, which is why I bought a copy and read it. It’s a poem, told in a mix of styles, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. While I find its genre aspects all a bit wishy-washy, there are moments of great beauty in it, and the dialogue in the told sections reads truer than anything you might find in a category genre novel. Since it’s not a novel, novella or short story, but a poem, I’m going to put it on my Hugo ballot as a related work. As far as I know, there’s nothing in the rules which says a related work has to be non-fiction.

On-the-Steel-BreezeOn the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds (2013). This is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth and the middle book of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Much of it concerns a covert war prosecuted by Arachne, an AI built to monitor a huge space-based telescopic array, because of course all machine intelligences are completely fixated on destroying non-machine life. There’s also a convoy of “holoships” – hollowed-out asteroids – en route to an exoplanet, on whose surface is an enormous enigmatic alien feature, the Mandala. The story focuses on three “clones” of Chiku Akinya, labelled Red, Yellow and Green – it’s a bit more complicated than cloning, something called “Quorum Binding”, which allows them to update each other’s memories, as is helpfully explained to one of the Chikus early in the novel by another character, even though, of course, she already knows how it works. One of the Chikus stayed on Earth; one set off in pursuit of Eunice Akinya’s space craft, Winter Queen (from Blue Remembered Earth); and one joined the  fleet of holoships heading for the exoplanet Crucible. There are some nice set-pieces – I liked, for example, the one set on the surface of Venus, even if it didn’t seem to add much to the plot. The societies in the holoships turn totalitarian because, of course, totalitarianism is the default setting of any society in a science fiction novel – much as I disagree that hard sf is inherently right wing, the preponderance of right-wing societies in it is tiresome. There are also some uplifted elephants, a genius scientist who has a set of pronouns all of “vir” own, more about the mer people from the first book, and even some giant enigmatic alien machines orbiting Crucible, the presence of which had been hidden from humanity by Arachne. It’s certainly a polished novel,and what Reynolds does he does well, but it doesn’t quite meet the promise suggested by the first book of the trilogy. Of course, there’s still a final book to come, so perhaps that will do the trick. This book is not going on my Hugo ballot.

lifeafterlifeLife After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013). I’d never heard of Atkinson until her Jackson Brody books were adapted for television – even though her debut novel won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995 and she’s a pretty big-selling author in the UK. However, it was hard not to be aware of Life After Life, her latest book, as it’s already won the Costa Novel Award, is arguably genre, and has been talked about by a number of my online friends and acquaintances. A young woman born in 1910 dies at various times during her life, each time being reborn back in 1910 and somehow – sometimes only through some subconscious prompting – each time managing to avoid her fate from the previous time around. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – a pleasantly engaging protagonist, nicely witty prose, and a very smooth read without being as bland as commercial fiction. Recommended. I’ll be putting this one on my Hugo ballot.

themachineThe Machine, James Smythe (2013). Smythe is banging out books like they’re an endangered species, but if the two I’ve read are any indication he’s no hack. The machine of the title of this novel is used to remove troublesome memories, but it’s later discovered that prolonged use puts the patients into a persistent vegetative state. Like Vic, Beth’s husband, a soldier who returned from the war with severe PTSD, turned increasingly violent and so opted for treatment with the Machine, but is now in a nursing hostel, oblivious to everything. So Beth buys a black market Machine, “kidnaps” her husband, and uses her Machine to restore his memories and so restore him. The name “Ballard” has been thrown around a lot in reference to The Machine, and certainly the setting – a sink estate on a post-global-warming Isle of Wight – feels very Ballardian, although the story itself doesn’t feel much like a Ballardian commentary on society. The prose is good, written in present tense with no quotation marks – which, obviously, is a style I’m all for… but why does it feel like everyone is doing it these days, eh? The ending may not come as much of a surprise, although perhaps reading Smythe’s The Explorer I’d been primed to expect a twist. Good stuff – and I have one spot left on my Hugo novel ballot and this is the current front-runner for it.

22.-The-Shining-GirlsThe Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes (2013). After Beukes’ Clarke Award-winning Zoo City, we have a high-concept commercial thriller, though the concept is enough to make it genre: a time-travelling serial killer. There’s a house in Chicago, and the killer can use it to access any time from the 1930s, when he discovers the house, to the 1990s. He jumps back and forth through the decades, stalking and killing young women, often ones he has previously visited while they were kids. They are the “shining girls”, so called by him because they have some quality which would have led them to live remarkable lives had he not murdered them. The Shining Girls is a fast, pacey read with a good sense of time and place, but the plot feels a bit too choppy to gel in places and the whole never feels quite complete somehow. This one will not be going on my Hugo ballot.

DofPThe Disestablishment of Paradise, Phillip Mann (2013). I’m a fan of Mann’s science fiction – I have all of his novels in hardback. So I was particularly happy to discover he had something new out, seventeen years after his last novel, 1996′s The Burning Forest. But, oh dear. The Disestablishment of Paradise refers to the final months of the Earth colony on the exoplanet called Paradise – this is what disestablishment is, the removal of a colony from a world – and the scientist, and her “assistant”, who remain behind and learn something more about the planet and its flora (it has no fauna). Particularly the Peripatetic Dendron, which is a sort of giant animated three-legged tree, and the Michelangelo-Reaper, which is a plant with psychic powers of some sort. There’s no denying that Paradise is a fascinating place, and that Mann draws a beguiling picture of it; but the human dynamics in The Disestablishment of Paradise are woefully old-fashioned (especially in regard to the female characters) and the dialogue is stilted at best. The story is framed as the novelisation of the reminiscences of the scientist, as told to a writer best-known for dark and edgy children’s books; and I’m not entirely sure what that conceit adds. There are occasional asides to the reader – and several appendices of supplementary material, which are referenced in the narrative – but it’s not enough to jolly along the somewhat plodding pace. One of the longest set-pieces is the “saving of the Dendron”, which seems to go on and on and on, with an excess of detail into Dendron physiology. After reading The Disestablishment of Paradise, I’m going to have to reread Mann’s earlier novels, as I don’t remember them being as dull or stodgy as this one. The Disestablishment of Paradise will not be appearing on my Hugo ballot.

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985) I read this for review on SF Mistressworks.

martian-sandsMartian Sands, Lavie Tidhar (2013). Or Tidhar does Dick. Again. I am not much of a fan of Philip K Dick’s work – there are a couple I like, but the only reason I own so many of his damn books is because almost half of the SF Masterworks series consisted of works by him. Martian Sands reads like a pastiche of Dick – and for me, that’s its biggest problem. It’s as if the plots and settings of a dozen of PKD’s novels were glommed together, and then roughly stitched into a single narrative using a magic chest full of sf references and in-jokes.  I know some preferred this to The Violent Century, but I thought the other book much the better of the two. I won’t be putting Martian Sands on my Hugo ballot

countdownforcindyCountdown For Cindy, Eloise Engle (1962). I couldn’t resist this when I saw it on eBay, chiefly because it offered a 1960s take on women in space – which is something I’d covered in Apollo Quartet 3, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The “MOON NURSE!” on the back was just a bonus. Interestingly, according to a foreword the author interviewed both Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, both of whom appear in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (actually, Cobb is one of my novella’s two protagonists). I’m working on a full review of Countdown For Cindy, to be posted here soon-ish.

aftermackenzieAfter Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Jean Rhys (1930). It was M John Harrison who recommended Jean Rhys on Twitter – some time last year, I seem to recall – during a conversation about women writers. Shortly afterwards, I stumbled across this book in a charity shop, and decided to give it a go. Julia has left her husband after the death of their baby, and is now living hand-to-mouth in a Parisian fleapit hotel. Desperate for money, she returns to London, hoping to sponge off relatives and/or past lovers. There’s a distant tone to this short novel, a weird lack of affect, as if Julia didn’t quite fully inhabit her life or the story – and, as a consequence, it’s hard to really care if Julia is successful or not. There’s an admirable clarity to the prose, and some nice turns of phrases in the descriptions – like “Behind the curtains was a green and optimistic sun-blind, faintly irritating, like a stupid joke” – and it all adds up to a curiously timeless prose-style. The sensibilities and lifestyles being described might be from the Thirties, but the language feels like it could belong to any decade of the Twentieth Century. That’s pretty impressive. If I see any more books by Rhys in charity shops, I’ll probably take a punt on them, but this one feels a little too languid for my tastes so I’ll not be in any rush to track down her work.

relevant_jonathan1The Man from Charisma, Ted Mark (1970). I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy this book, or one of its sequels, Rip It Off, Relevant!. Perhaps I read something somewhere that suggested it might be amusing. It wasn’t. Jonathan Relevant is discovered naked on an iceberg after test missiles launched by a US and a Soviet nuclear submarine accidentally collide and explode above it. Relevant appears different to different people – to Soviet scientist Dr Ludmilla Skivar, he’s a studly Gagarin; to US Paper Clipped scientist Professor Von Schweindrek, he’s a model of Aryan masculinity; to African-American student activist G-for-George Pullman Porter, he’s Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver… The Soviets lay claim to Relevant, but the CIA steals him from them, and hides him in a CIA-sponsored research institute at Hartnell University… whose admin building has just been occupied by radical students protesting a number of different things. Relevant gets dropped into the middle of this, and tries to resolve it – which shouldn’t be that difficult given how everyone sees him as what they want to see. But this is the late 1960s, so… “Every man sees him as his hero. Every woman sees him as her lustful dream.” Sigh. We’re strictly in right-on “comedy” territory from the Swinging Sixties, with all the bad and borderline offensive jokes that entails – not to mention some outright offensive characterisations of various groups of people. I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy this book, and now I’ve read it I wished I hadn’t bought it. We’ll have to see if the sequel is any better – but I’m not holding my breath….


2 Comments

2014 reading diary, #1

This year, I’m going to try and be a little more disciplined about writing up what I’ve read. So I’ve decided to title the series of posts a “reading diary” and I hope to put one up every month or so. As usual, however, the choice of books will be somewhat eclectic – a mix of genre and literary fiction and, er, other stuff – and I’ll also mention any non-fiction I’ve read for research. You’ll notice that the fiction alternates between male and female writers. That was one of my New Year’s Resolutions, and so far I’ve managed to stick to it.

lachlan-fenrir7Fenrir, MD Lachlan (2011). I really liked Lachlan’s debut, Wolfsangel, to which Fenrir is a sequel, so I had pretty high hopes for this. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite meet them. The plot – deliberately – echoes that of Wolfsangel, but this time takes place in the late ninth century, and in France. Three characters unknowingly act out the romantic triangle from the earlier book, which apparently echoes some Norse god romantic triangle and will bring about Odin’s return to Earth. Fenrir opens with the Siege of Paris (885 – 886), and ends 532 pages later in Aldeigjuborg, a Viking-ruled Russian kingdom near what is now St Petersburg. The first member of the triangle is Aelis, the sister of the ruler of Paris, who manages to escape the siege and then has to evade capture by the marauding Vikings. The other two members are male – Jehan, a crippled monk, and Raven, a Viking shaman. The ruler of Aldeigjuborg wants Aelis for his wife, and has sent a trader, Leshii, and a wolfman, Chakhlyk, to fetch her. She doesn’t want to go, of course. And Raven is after her for his own – and his sister’s – nefarious purposes. And when the wolf is awakened in Jehan, by Norse magic, then he becomes fit and able, and he gets involved too. I said when I read Wolfsangel that werewolves and Vikings were not really my thing, but that novel did something very interesting with them – and Fenrir continues in that vein, but unfortunately it’s a bit too long for its story. The first half dragged badly in parts. It also didn’t help that “dirham” was incorrectly spelled as “dihram” throughout, or that one character’s name went from Swava to Suava and back again. Having said that, some of the set-pieces are really good, and I’ve every intention of continuing with the series.

minaretMinaret, Leila Aboulela (2005). The narrator is the daughter of a well-to-do Sudanese businessman – or rather, he was well-to-do. He prospered under the country’s old regime, and he and his family were almost aristocracy. But when that government was overthrown, he was arrested and executed as a symbol of its corruption. So now the narrator, Najwa, is in London, and working as a nanny since all the family’s riches (justly earned or not) have been seized. The woman she works for is a young Arab who grew up in the Gulf states, is married to an Egyptian currently working in Oman, and is studying for a PhD at a London university. She’s not especially religious. Her younger brother, also a student, however, is religious. And Najwa, who has discovered religion since coming to London, is drawn to him. But it’s not a match the family condone. Minaret is more about Najwa, how she became the woman she is, than it is about her burgeoning relationship with her employer’s brother. The writing is very good throughout – Aboulela writes in English – and Najwa is a beautfully-drawn character. I thought this a much better book than Aboulela’s earlier The Translator.

squarescityThe Squares of the City, John Brunner (1965). An Australian traffic analyst is invited to a South American model city clearly patterned on Brasilia (although the invented country in which it is located is Spanish-speaking) because the visionary president of the nation believes traffic analysis will cure his lovely city of its unsightly slums. From the moment of his arrival, the narrator is in over his head, as it turns out there are two main political factions in the city and he’s being used as a tool by one of them. Though he repeatedly says he can provide short-term solutions to the slums, but in the long term proper housing and education is the only way to really fix the problem, the city authorities want a quick result. And then people start to get killed. I liked that Brunner had based his invented city of Vados on Brasilia, and it seemed to me he sort of captured a similar architectural flavour. The characters also seemed to suit the setting, although the narrator drifted a little too close to Overcompetent Man at times. However, The Squares of the City is apparently notable because the plot is based on a famous chess match, with each of the characters representing various pieces. To be honest, not knowing this in no way changes how you read the story, nor does knowing it actually help you parse the plot. It’s a gimmick that means nothing to the reader, and I’m surprised Brunner even bothered mentioning it. Yes, it turns out the two chief movers and shakers in Vados – the president and the leader of the opposition – have been playing a chess game with people, and that’s why there have been deaths, but it seems too abstracted to make any real difference. I think that makes the novel more of a curiosity than anything else.

Journey, Marta Randall (1978). See my review on SF Mistressworks here.

violent-century-lavie-tidharThe Violent Century, Lavie Tidhar (2013). This novel landed in October last year with quite a thud. In fact, only last weekend a friend mentioned he was thinking of reading the book because it had received so many positive notices. Which is, I suppose, as good a reason to read a book as any. The Violent Century covers, well, not even a century really – it opens in the 1920s, but the present of the story is labelled only “the present”, although clues suggest it is near the turn of the millennium, if not just after. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, Dr Vomacht inadvertently released a probability wave which changed a small proportion of the world’s population, effectively giving them superpowers. In Britain, these superpowered people were recruited as spies and undercover agents, and spent much of WWII trying to track down Vomacht, or eliminate Germany “Übermenschen”. The book’s two protagonist are Fogg and Oblivion, a pair of British agents, and the novel covers their escapades during WWII and the Cold War, as told in flashback from the present-day. Fogg has been brought out of retirement because something has happened, and the flashbacks lead up to the explanation of that. The structure works well, although there’s a niggling sense at times that some information is left unsaid when it needn’t be because the requisite flashback has yet to take place. And speaking of niggling, The Violent Century reminded me of something else but I could never quite put my finger on it. It borrows heavily from comicbook mythologies, of course; and there’s a pulpish flavour to its alternate history… but there was something in the mix that was quite heavily reminiscent of… something. I also thought the ending was a bit weak. A strong novel, yes; but not, I think, one I’ll be putting on my Hugo ballot.

Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre (1979). A review of this will be posted up on SF Mistressworks in a couple of weeks.

Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014). I reviewed this for Vector.

breakdownBreakdown, Sara Paretsky (2012). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s VI Warshawski novels since first stumbling across them in the UAE in the early 1990s. In recent years, the politics have been much more in your face – not necessarily a bad thing, though it does sometimes over-balance the story. Breakdown is a case in point. It opens with Warshawski stumbling across a recently-murdered man in a cemetery while trying to track down a group of missing teenage girls who have gone there to practice a ritual tied into their love of an urban fantasy series of books (plainly based on Twilight). The plot spirals out from there to feature the right-wing media, particularly the sort of moronic far right television pundit who presently seems bafflingly popular in the US at the moment. There’s also an ultra-rich Jewish industrialist, possibly with a shady past, who is the chief target of the  TV pundit’s attacks, and even a pair of senators battling for the local seat – a liberal, backed by the industrialist; and a Tea Party-type loon, backed by the right-wing media. If Paretsky’s novels are overly target-rich from a liberal perspective, Warshawski is turning increasingly quixotic with each subsequent book. Parestsky chooses big themes, but gives Warshawski small victories; it’s a strategy guaranteed to leave you angry when you finish the book. And no matter how righteous that anger, Warshawski’s – and by extension, the reader’s – inability to change things makes you wonder what the point of it all is. But I like Warshawski as a character, I like that Paretsky wears her politics on her sleeve (and I mostly agree with them), and so I’ll continue to read these books.

Evening-empireEvening’s Empires, Paul McAuley (2013). I read this because it has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year, even though it’s the fourth book in a loose series – preceded by The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun and In the Mouth of the Whale, and only the first of which I’ve read (and I didn’t really like it; see here). Evening’s Empires can be read as a standalone, but it also makes numerous references to the events in those earlier novels. All the same, I didn’t find that an obstacle, though it did leave me curious about the earlier two books. But. I’d not really taken to The Quiet War, and I suppose I’d not really expected to take to Evening’s Empires, although something about its blurb did suggest I might be mistaken. Perversely, I found myself underwhelmed by the novel thanks to something I’d not even considered… Evening’s Empires opens with Gajananvihari Pilot marooned on a tiny asteroid on the outer edges of the Belt. The asteroid had once been inhabited – most recently by an ascetic – so there is enough infrastructure present for Hari to survive. He’s been marooned because dacoits captured his father’s ship but he managed to escape. The hijackers were after the fruits of Dr Gagarian’s research into the Bright Moment, a single vision granted to every member of humanity at precisely the same moment when Sri Hong-Owen “vastened” and melded with the alien intelligence present in Fomalhaut’s gas giant (which is apparently what happened during In the Mouth of the Whale). When a pair of dacoits come to capture Hari – and Dr Gagarian’s head, with which he has absconded – he kills them and uses their scooter to escape… and promptly follows a series of clues around the Asteroid Belt, and out to Saturn, in order to have his revenge on the hijackers and discover why Dr Gagarian’s research was so important to them. McAuley describes a Solar System in decline – the places Hari visits are long past their glory days. There have been system-wide wars, empires have risen and fallen, and in many cases, those that are left are just living in, or have re-purposed, the ruins of earlier centuries. Which means that while Evening’s Empires is very much hard sf, it mostly reads like space opera. McAuley has also filled his story with in-jokes. Each of the sections, for example, is named for a sf classic of the past. And part of the plot’s climax takes place at the Memory Whole, an Earth-orbiting asteroid which hosts a virtual environment for avatars of early uploaded post-humans. One of these avatars is quite cutting to Hari about humanity’s predilection for living in the fantasies of earlier ages. Given that the Memory Hole is a real-life UK-based fanzine collection, I can’t decide if McAuley is taking the piss or writing a savage indictment of science fiction…

therainforestThe Rain Forest, Olivia Manning (1974). I loved Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy when I read them several years ago, so I always keep an eye open for books by her when I visit charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of The Rain Forest. It’s her last novel, and set on the invented Indian Ocean island of Al-Bustan (clearly based on Mauritius; there are several mentions of the dodo). Hugh and Kristy Foster have moved temporarily to Al-Bustan so Hugh can take up a position in the local British administration of the island. He’s actually a screenwriter – and Kristy is a successful novelist – but the industry has collapsed in the UK and left him out of work and out of cash. The couple are put up in the Daisy Pension, a boarding-house populated by a cast of minor grotesques. They make friends with the owner’s profligate son, who is shunned by the pension’s guests, and through him meet some of the island’s colourful inhabitants. Although published in the early 1970s, and clearly meant to be set around that time – there’s mention of fashion designers Pucci and Gamba; a helicopter is the chief means of reaching the island – everything felt like it was a couple of decades older. There’s a feel of 1940s Raj to it all – I mean, I was an expat in the Gulf states in the 1970s, and while I was only a child then, I don’t remember it being how Manning describes it on Al-Bustan. Having said that, Al-Bustan is a small island with a native population descended from waves of earlier immigrants from Africa and the Arabian peninsula, so the situation hardly maps onto that, say, of the Trucial States as was. The plot of The Rain Forest bumbles along, there’s a feeling that in the hands of a male writer the story would have been more comic, played for laughs, though to be honest I prefer Manning’s approach. It’s not entirely clear what role the titular woodland plays, and certainly some of the events described in the novel don’t quite gel with it – the Fosters’ treatment by the other residents of the pension, the small war they fight with the new owner after the original owner dies, Kristy’s pregnancy, even the trip Hugh takes to the rain forest in the final section. The cast are mostly unlikeable, except for the Fosters, and what little pathos is present seemed to fall flat more often than not. The Rain Forest is nowhere near as good as those two earlier trilogies – though I do have to wonder if it’s as autobiographical as they were (after all, Kristy is a successful novelist) – but all the same, I’ll continue to keep an eye out for Manning’s novels.


2 Comments

Readings catch-up

And here we are, the last books I read during 2013. As usual, it’s quite a mix – some category science fiction, some literary fiction, and a handful of bandes dessinée. Make of them what you will.

exultantExultant, Stephen Baxter (2004). This is the second book of the Destiny’s Children trilogy, and I quite enjoyed the first, Coalescent (see here), so I was expecting to enjoy this one too. But… oh dear. The earlier book had two main narratives, one set in the present day and the other in Ancient Britain. Exultant is set wholly in the distant future, when humanity is at war with the Xeelee, and has been for over a thousand years. A pair of teen soldiers become involved in a series of attempts to strike a final blow against the Xeelee, and destroy the huge black hole at the heart of the galaxy, called Chandra, which the Xeelee use as a base. The novel opens with fighter pilot Pirius escaping destruction by a Xeelee nightfighter through some “timelike curve” manoeuvre which results him and his crew travelling back in time several years. This is apparently not unusual on the front line – and because Pirius disobeyed orders, he is sentenced to serve in a penal battalion. His earlier self is also punished, even though he hasn’t done anything. Er, yet. But visionary Commissary Nilis (isn’t a commissary somewhere to buy food?) rescues the “innocent” Pirius from punishment and takes him to Earth to help with his crazy schemes to strike decisively at the Xeelee. Meanwhile, time-travelled Pirius experiences life as a ground trooper in the war against the Xeelee. This is science  fiction as boy’s own adventure, with a side-order of Big Idea cosmology. Baxter leaves his story for chapters at a time to explain how the universe began – and, in the process, created races like the Xeelee. The characters are drawn with the broadest of strokes – Nilis is a stereotypical dotty old professor, even down to the lack of personal hygiene; a female aide is a stereotypical beautiful but cold bitch; Pirius and his girlfriend, Torec, are everyman teenagers. The way the war is prosecuted doesn’t seem at all convincing, the explanations for it and the Xeelee are dull, and the link with the preceding book is so tenuous it’s a stretch to consider this book a sequel. Exultant is sort of like distilled Baxter, but one where the distillation process has taken out all the stuff that makes most of Baxter’s works interesting. I’ll be reading the third book, Transcendent, but I’m not really looking forward to it.

Betel-thumb-300x413Betelgeuse 1: The Survivors, 2: The Caves and 3: The Other, Léo (2000 – 2005). This is the direct follow-on from Léo’s Aldebaran series, and was originally published in five volumes:  La planète, Les survivants, L’expédition, Les cavernes and L’autre. There are two more sequences, Antares, of which four of the five volumes have been published in English, and Les survivants, which currently comprises two volumes and neither of which has yet to be translated into English. Kim, one of the two teenagers who was invited to join the group of immortals in Aldebaran (see here), has spent the last few years studying on Earth. Now she’s back on Aldebaran, and is recruited to join an expedition to regain contact with a lost colony on a world orbiting Betelgeuse. On arrival at the planet, they find the colonists’ ship, but when they dock to it a computer virus destroys their ship’s systems. They descend to the surface, where they meet up with the surviving colonists – who, like on Aldebaran, have created a society in which women are second-class citizens, justified by both religion and a desperate need for population growth. But there is another group of colonists, led by the ship’s captain, who are more interested in investigating the world than subjugating women – and who the men from the first group blame for the computer virus. Kim finds herself caught between the two – the first group expect Kim to join their village and become yet another brood mare, but she’s there to discover what happened and why. It’s all tied in with the creature, the mantris, from the first series – another of its type exists on Betelgeuse, and is part of the life-cycle of the local animals known as “iums” (and who may actually be sentient). Kim learns their secret, solves the problem of the computer virus, but there is still a greater mystery to be solved. I picked up the Aldebaran series on a whim, but I must admit I’m enjoying these books. The art is good, the setting is interesting, and if Léo has a tendency to fall back on macho sexist pigs for his male villains, at least they get their just deserts. Good stuff.

unexplodedUnexploded, Alison MacLeod (2013). I saw this novel on the Booker Prize long list, and something about it seemed like it might appeal. So I bought a copy. And… well, it read a bit like a parody of your typical middle-class literary novel - a couple’s marriage slowly implodes, a child unwittingly betrays someone, which leads to a shocking end… The only difference is that the story is set in Brighton in 1940, much is made of some Brits’ admiration of Hitler (not to mention their blatant anti-semitism), and Virginia Woolf makes an appearance. The story is told chiefly from the point of view of the wife, Evelyn, who enters into an affair with a Jewish painter expelled from Nazi Germany as a “degenerate”, whom she first meets in the refugee camp – a de facto prisoner of war camp – superintended by her banker husband. Yet, for all that I enjoyed the book. MacLeod evokes her period well, the cast are beautifully-drawn, and there’s some lovely writing. If it’s all a bit obvious plot-wise, at least the narrative maintains your interest. I’m not entirely sure it belonged on Booker long list, however.

timebeingA Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013). This novel, of course, made it to the Booker short list, and it’s also one of those literary novels that makes free use of science fiction tropes. Unlike Exploded, its description didn’t especially appeal, but I stumbled across a secondhand copy on a table of books being sold for charity in, of all places, my local Wilkinson. So I bought and read it. And I thought it was very good. Perhaps comparisons with David Mitchell’s number9dream are inevitable – both are set (chiefly) in Japan, both have very chatty narrators – but I think A Tale for the Time Being is by far the better of the two books. And that’s not just because of its core conceit, or its framing narrative. It opens as the diary of a young Japanese girl, Nao, who has grown up in the US and, on the family’s return to Japan, no longer feels Japanese. She is bullied at high school, and her father can’t find a job and has tried to commit suicide. She documents her attempts to find herself  - including spending a summer with her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, whom she idolises, but also a short period spent being paid for sex by men. The diary was discovered by a writer, Ruth living on a small island off the west coast of Canada. She thinks the diary is debris from the tsunami, and tries to contact Nao, only to discover she can find no trace of her or her family. Ozeki has thrown a lot into A Tale for the Time Being – not just Japanese culture and history, but also things like the Many Worlds Hypothesis, eco-terrorism, barnacles… There are footnotes and appendices. And it all works. Both Nao and Ruth are likeable and well-drawn characters, the mishmash of tropes actually gloms together to create an interesting story, and the prose is excellent throughout. Ozeki didn’t win the Booker – it went to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (which is on the TBR) – but I would be happy to see it on the BSFA and Hugo shortlists this year.

redstationOn a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (2012) I should have picked up a copy of this at the Eastercon, and I’m not really sure why I didn’t. Anyway, I rectified that error at Fantasycon. This is well-crafted heartland science fiction set in a Vietnamese universe. The story opens with the arrival of Linh on Prosper Station, after the rebels have taken the world which she administered as magistrate. But now she’s a refugee and dependent upon the kindness of distant relatives she has previously had little or no dealings with. It also transpires that Linh had written a letter to the emperor, criticising his conduct of the war with the rebels, and a faction at the court who share her sentiments have decided to use her in a play for courtly influence. Complicating matters is the fact she’s not welcome on Prosper Station, and that the station is having trouble coping with the refugees it has taken aboard. The story was apparently inspired by The Dream of the Red Chamber (AKA The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin, one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels”, and dating from 18th century. While I’m familiar with some classical Arabic literature, I’m not with Chinese – though I might well give it a go (like I really need more books to read…). Anyway, On a Red Station, Drifting was certainly worth the cover price, and I really must catch up with the other Xuya stories.

orbital5Orbital 5: Justice, Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé (2012) The continuing adventures of the Human-Sandjarr diplomatic team comprising Caleb and Mezoke, though the last volume left them in a bad place – Caleb in a regenerative c0ma and Mezoke on trial for high treason. This is very much a continuation of the story, and quite confusing if you’ve not read – or can’t remember the plot of – the previous volumes. There’s lots of political manoeuvring going on, and it seems the Earth-based politics of earlier volumes is part of a much wider galactic conspiracy. There’s also a team of masked assassins wandering round, making matters worse. This is pretty much space opera bande dessinée, and if it feels relatively unexceptional in terms of world-building or the tropes it deploys, it at least presents a unique vision – through Pellé’s art – of its universe. On occasion it looks like it owes a little too much to media sf, especially Star Wars and Babylon 5, but the story is surprisingly twisty-turny for the subgenre and format. There’s  a sixth book, Résistance, due out in French this year, and I expect Cinebook will follow with an English edition about a year later.

krishnapurThe Siege Of Krishnapur, JG Farrell (1973) And speaking of the Booker Prize, The Siege Of Krishnapur won it in 1973. I must admit I hadn’t realised this novel was forty years old when I started reading it, but it’s moot anyway as the story is set during the Indian Rebellion in 1857. The Collector, his family, a handful of officers and men from a nearby garrison, plus the remaining English residents and visitors from the town barricade themselves in the Collector’s Residence and are besieged for four months by the rebel sepoys. As expected, the food runs out after a couple of months – leading to an auction of all the foodstuffs the survivors have been hoarding, a number of attacks by sepoys take their toll on the defending soldiers, and then there’s an outbreak of cholera. To make matters worse, there are two doctors in the Residence, one who believes cholera is caused by a miasma, and a dour Scot who is much more progressive. The two hate each other, and differ widely in their treatments to injury and illnesses. The Collector himself is a progressive sort, very much taken with the many devices he saw on display at the Great Exhibition a couple of years earlier. Despite that, he is also very Victorian… which leads to one of the book’s stranger elements: the women are treated as either precocious pets, or perfectly capable of standing alongside the men and contributing to the defence of the Residence. Often, it’s the same woman which provokes these contradictory sentiments – such as Lucy, who had been “compromised” by an officer some weeks before the Mutiny kicks off; but despite feeling almost theatrically sorry for herself since her prospects have been reduced to zero, she proves to be made of sterner, and quite manipulative, stuff, and is one of the few women to play a major part during the siege. I don’t recall why I picked up this book to read – yes, I admire Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet a great deal, but this is set a century earlier and the Victorian age doesn’t appeal to me all that much (which is one reason why I’m not a fan of steampunk). And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed The Siege Of Krishnapur and thought it very good. I think I’ll even read some more Farrell.

a-possible-life-jacket-faulksA Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks (2013) Or rather, five possible lives. The first is a young man who joins one of the many secret agent services during WWII, is captured, ends up as a trustee at a death camp but escapes, and the rest of his life is changed by his experiences in Germany – even though he returns to his pre-War career as a teacher at a boarding school. A father sells his son to a workhouse, the son prospers, buys his way out, sets himself up in business, and eventually becomes a well-to-do (if somewhat shady) business in Victorian London. A young woman in Italy a decade or so hence is obsessed with discovering the biological source of human awareness (a fascination Faulks also clearly shares, given this and his novel Human Traces). An orphaned girl in nineteenth century provincial France lives an unexceptional life looking after a family’s children. A retired rockstar discovers a new talent and nurtures her career, becoming her lover and manager, but the pressure proves too much for her. Faulks’ ideas on human awareness are interesting, but there’s not enough connective tissue between the five stories to define that idea as this book’s central conceit or even give it structure. The writing is your standard Brit-lit-fic prose, and while the settings of some stories convince, others do less so – especially the rockstar one. All in all, a pretty weak effort.

GoodbyeRobinsonCrusoeGood-bye, Robinson Crusoe, John Varley (2013). I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first stumbling across one of his short stories back in the early 1980s. A couple of those stories still remain favourites to this day, though neither are in this retrospective collection. But it was the fanboy in me who shelled out for this signed and numbered limited edition copy from Subterranean Press (who do lovely books), even though I have all but one story in other collections – and some of them in two collections. What Varley did back in the 1970s and and 1980s, he did very well – his novels from that period are still in print for good reason – and surprisingly many of his stories have withstood the test of time quite well – ‘Equinoctial’, for example, could have been written a handful of years ago. Some of the others fare less well – ‘The Unprocessed Word’ is a silly joke that probably wasn’t very funny when it was first published in 1986, and just feels quaint now. ‘Blue Champagne’ feels like a heartland sf story of its time; ‘In the Bowl’ still stands up; as does ‘Lollipop and the Tar Baby’, although a sentient black hole is a little, er, hard to swallow. In hindsight, this is a book for fans of Varley’s fiction. The most recent story dates from 1986, so it’s hardly an introduction to his current fiction (he has a new novel, Dark Lightning, out this year). If you want to see what Varley’s fiction is like, The John Varley Reader from 2004 is a better look at his career than this book, even if it’s not as attractive an object.


3 Comments

The books wot I read, part the third

I’m slowly catching up on documenting my recent reads. Last year and the year before I was in the 100 Books A Year Challenge on LibraryThing, and would write a quick review of each book as I read it. Which meant compiling these recent readings posts was pretty painless. But I didn’t bother with the challenge this year, and without that I’m not disciplined enough to write about books the moment I’ve finished them – well, not unless it’s a book everyone is talking about, like a certain sf debut of 2013. Anyway, that’s my excuse for splitting this post into three. Also, it would be way too TL;DR if it had been a single post.

barbaryshoreBarbary Shore, Norman Mailer (1951) I found three 1970s paperback novels by Mailer in a local charity shop and was sufficiently appalled by the awful covers to give them a go. I know of Mailer, of course; and I’m pretty damn sure I read The Executioner’s Song many years ago… But if Barbary Shore had been my first exposure to his fiction I’d not have bothered any further. According to an introduction added to this later edition, Mailer considers this the best of his early novels – “if my work is alive one hundred years from now, Barbary Shore will be considered the richest of my first three novels”. The other two must be really bad then. Because Barbary Shore is a bit shit. Mailer’s style is so mannered and artificial, and characters repeatedly lecture each other, it’s often painful to read; and yet the story is supposedly set in the lower reaches of New York society. The narrator has returned from fighting abroad during WWII with little or no prospects and decides to become a writer. So he uses the last of his savings to rent himself a room in a boarding-house while he writes his Great American novel… And where he gets involved with the landlady, a blousy blonde rejoicing in the name of Guinevere, her really badly-drawn young daughter, the boarding-house’s two other tenants (one of whom proves to be a McCarthyist, the other is actually Guinevere’s husband and an ex-communist), and the sort of manic pixie Holly-Golightly-type that US literary fiction of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to think were a) real women and b) evidence of the author’s ability to write female characters. I guess I won’t be reading the other two Mailer novels. All three can go back to the charity shop.

trpipleechoThe Triple Echo, HE Bates (1970) A couple of years ago, I found a boxed set of Bates’s novels and novellas in a charity shop. It was really cheap, and I vaguely remembered he was highly-regarded, so I bought it. The first novella I read, Dulcima, didn’t go all that well (see here). It was apparently turned into a film in 1971. The Triple Echo was slightly better, and I vaguely recall seeing its film adaptation (starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed). During WWII, a woman on a smallholding, whose husband is a prisoner of the Japanese, strikes up a friendship with a soldier at a local barracks. He visits her on his leave days and helps her out around the farm. But then he decides to desert, and stays with her. In order to disguise his presence she tells everyone her sister is visiting, and he lets his hair grow long and dresses like the farmer. Then an officer and a pair of NCOs from the barracks turn up, looking for the deserter. They meet the “sister”, fail to see through the disguise and the sergeant invites “her” to a dance that Saturday… Bates’s prose fails to impress. It’s, er… nice. That’s about all that can be said for it. But then you come across a line like “the war seemed a million miles away”, and then there’s nothing nice about a reliance on cliché. I’ve still got the rest of the Bates boxed set to read, and I may try one or two more. But it’ll be back to the charity shop with it after that.

jagannathJagannath: Stories, Karin Tidbeck (2012) I picked up a copy of this at Fantastika in Stockholm in October, where Karin was one of the GoHs. I’d not read any of her stories prior to reading this collection, although I think I had a fairly good idea of what to expect – her name is one that crops up quite often among my circle of friends and acquaintances online. I’ll confess up-front that dark fantasy and New Weird are definitely not my thing – only this week I baled on Catherynne M Valente’s Palimpsest after 70 pages. However, the first story in Jagannath: Stories, ‘Beatrice’, immediately hooked me, and I pretty much sailed through all thirteen stories in the collection. Some worked for me much better than others. The subtle horror of ‘Rebecka’ was good, I liked ‘Brita’s Holiday Village’ and ‘Reindeer Mountain’, and the faux documentary of ‘Pyret’ was cleverly done. Jagannath: Stories is a pretty strong collection –  I had been told Karin is a name to watch and I’m more than happy to agree.

aldebaran1Aldebaran 1: The Catastrophe (1996), Aldebaran 2: The Group (1997) and Aldebaran 3: The Creature (1998), Léo. These three volumes from Cinebook contain five installments of Léo’s first series, which were originally published in French as La catastrophe, La blonde, La photo, Le group and La créature. They’re set on an inhabitable planet orbiting the eponymous star some 100 years after contact with Earth has been lost. The colonists have spread across the planet’s few small continents, but much of its flora and fauna remains a mystery. The story opens in a small fishing village, when the appearance of one local creature – one that’s massively larger than anything else – results in tragedy. Only two teenagers escape, and they find themselves involved with a group fighting against the colony’s theocratic government. It transpires the group – there’s only two of them left – were among the original colonists over a century ago and have survived so long due to a mysterious creature, which may or may not be intelligent. In the first book, the teenagers try to escape the priest, and his soldiers, who is chasing them because he believes they know something about the group… which, it seems they do, although they weren’t aware of it. They’re caught and spend time in prison. Several years later, they escape, meet up with the two members of the group, learn of the group’s history, and set off to meet the creature – in the hope it will also gift them (and a few other people) with immortality. The third book opens with a crash in a jungle, introduces a ship from Earth, and sets up the story for the next series, Betelgeuse. The art is not unlike that of Moebius, it’s certainly very clean, but the characters seem drawn with more detail – and it takes a few pages to get used to it. I actually thought it pretty good – slow to start, perhaps, but Léo has created an interesting world – and I plan to get both Betelgeuse and the third series, Antares.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,840 other followers