It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Reading diary, #8

Time once again to catch up on my recent reading. Which seems to have been all over the shop recently. I try to plan my reading but it never works. I mean, I sometimes decide not to read a book as planned just because it’s a hardback and would be a faff carrying in my bag to and from work. So I end up choosing a paperback I hadn’t planned to read instead. Other times, I fancy something a bit fluffier and less worthy than my original choice… Which does make me wonder why I bother to plan my reading in the first place.

ps-showcase-11-stardust-hc-by-nina-allan-1749-pStardust: The Ruby Castle Stories, Nina Allan (2013). This collection of short stories are linked by mention of the eponymous, well, not character, she’s an element in the background of each, a cult actress who appeared in films the protagonists of the stories remember watching. And, to be honest, not every mention feels like it’s original to the story, or an organic part of it. Indeed, ‘The Lammas Worm’ was originally published in Tartarus Press’s Strange Tales, Volume III, the only story in the collection to see prior publication, and I have to wonder if the mention of Ruby Castle in it wasn’t added so it would fit in Stardust. None of which is to say that hese are bad stories. Allan is a good writer, and if she doesn’t always play to her strengths, the end result is at least interesting in some fashion. The six stories and single poem in Stardust are mostly slipstream, and are set in contemporary Britain, Victorian Germany and Russia. But it’s not quite the Britain, Germany or Russia we know. In some respects, Allan’s slight twisting of the real world works well, but it’s a technique that seems to fail as often as it succeeds – the Russia of the title story, for example, is not at all convincing. Where Allan succeeds best is in dropping some small detail or plot-point which signals this is a reality at an angle to our own. Sometimes it’s in the first line: “In my country July the tenth 2029 is remembered by everyone as the date of the Anastasia space disaster”. In other stories, it’s a slow accumulation of tiny details. Add to this a tendency for her stories to shoot off in unexpected directions, and it’s clear Allan is creating an interesting body of work. Her prose is never less than polished and if, often as not, the story seems to leak around the edges… sometimes that adds to the general effect of the piece. I still have Allan’s The Silver Wind and A Thread of Truth to read – I bought three of her collections at the last Fantasycon – and I’m looking forward to tackling them.

lastbastleThe Last Castle / Nightwings, Jack Vance / Robert Silverberg (1966 / 1968). This is #15 in the Tor double series from 1988 to 1991, although both novellas originally saw print in the late 1960s. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them many years before, either in a collection or Ace double (which is how the Vance was originally published). Silverberg also expanded ‘Nightwings’ to novel-length, and I may have read that too. I can’t remember – and, to be honest, I can’t recall much of ‘Nightwings’ only a couple of weeks after reading it. Vance’s ‘The Last Castle’ is at least more memorable. It’s set during the twilight years of Earth, after humans from another world decide to recolonise it, and they now live a life of ease in castles, waited upon by alien creatures called ”. Who promptly decide to kill all the humans. Only one man takes the threat seriously enough to attempt to fight back. It’s typical Vance in all respects, and as fair an introduction to his oeuvre as any. There are, sadly, only two female characters named in the entire novella, and they’re wives and sex partners. Even for 1966, that’s piss-poor. Silverberg’s novella actually features a female protagonist – she’s the “nightwings” of the title, a member of a race adapted from human stock for flying. She travels to Rome in some distant future in the company of the narrator, a Watcher, and a mysterious man who seems somewhat too well-educated to be the non-guild itinerant he claims. A Watcher, incidentally, is a member of a guild dedicated to scanning the galaxy with some sort of equipment built into a small cart – it’s all very vague and handwavey – in order to spot the first signs of a long-threatened invasion. Which, of course, happens during the story – well, there’d be even less of a plot if it hadn’t occurred. ‘Nightwings’ won the Hugo, and was nominated for the Nebula, in 1969, but I thought it pretty slight. It trades entirely on atmosphere, despite the fact little of the background makes sense, and the ending is visible from several kilometres away. Meh.

manycolouredThe Many-Coloured Land, Julian May (1981). I first read this shortly after it first appeared in the UK, back in the early 1980s. I remember liking it a great deal – and I know a number of people count the Saga of the Exiles among their favourites… But it’s never wise to reread books you remember fondly from your teens, they almost never survive unscathed. As this one didn’t. I may reread the other books in the series at some point, but it’ll only be to review them for SF Mistressworks – as I did with this one here.

adam-robotsAdam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013). Or is it the other way round? Never mind. As it says quite prominently on the cover, this is a collection of short stories, a number of which are original to the book (although the page which gives original publication details seems to be missing a couple). I’d thought I’d read quite a few of Roberts’s stories, but many of the ones in here were new to me. Except, I have read at least three of the anthologies in which a story in this collection originally appeared… One of these I liked, despite the thump-worthy pun in the last line. Another struck me as a neat idea stretched just a tad too far. And the third… seems as memorable after this second read as it was after the first. The stories in Adam Robots are never less than very readable, and Roberts can indeed turn a lovely phrase, and often does, but there’s also a sense that some of the pieces are lacking in… thickening. Perhaps it’s the sf story as Gedankenexperiment, an exploration of premise but not necessarily a thoroughly rigorous examination of it – which, on occasion, does make the story feel as though it exists only as a vessel to hold a premise rather than as an armature for a narrative. In the shorter pieces, of course, this is not an issue – the space is limited. Having said that, the saving grace of many of these stories is that Roberts carefully positions them as stories – it’s literary device deployment rather than immersion. The end result is a collection that is both enjoyable and impressive – and definitely good value for money as it contains twenty-four stories. I do have one peeve, however: the title ‘Review: Thomas Hodgkin, Denis Bayle: a Life (Red Rocket Books 2003), 321pp, £20. ISBN: 724381129524′. That ISBN is 12-digit. There are only 10-digit and 13-digit ISBNs. And if missing a digit was done to prevent accidentally giving the ISBN of a real book… well, the last number is a checksum. Just make it fail the checksum and it can’t be a real book.

snailSnail, Richard Miller (1984). The word to describe this novel is, I believe, ‘Vonnegutian”. The writer was clearly trying to be Vonnegutian – so much so Kilgore Trout appears several times as a character, although for reasons never explained he’s named Kilgore Traut, and that spelling is claimed to be correct. The narrator of Snail is a senior Wehrmacht officer, who falls foul of Hitler because he marries a call girl, and so promptly sits out most of the war. Back in WWI in the German trenches, he met and fought alongside the Wandering Jew. Who later gave him an immortality elixir to give to Hitler. Which the narrator does, turning Hitler into an immortal nine-year-old. He also takes some himself, and becomes an immortal sixteen-year-old. The rest of the novel follows him through the twentieth century, although it’s mostly concerned with his encounters with Pallas Athena, the Wandering Jew, and an organisation called Macho-Burger Incorporated, which seems to be using fastfood to chemically induce gender essentialism. I don’t honestly know why I bought this book, or why I read it. Although published in the 1980s, it feels like it belongs to an earlier decade, and its wit is far from sharp – I mean, Pussy-Cola and Cocka-Cola? There’s all sorts of stuff in here, most of it pretty juvenile and played more for comic effort without actually interrogating it. Best avoided.

nemo1Nemo 1: Heart of Ice, 2: The Roses of Berlin, 3: River of Ghosts, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2013 – 2015). Although set in the world of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, these are a spin-off, and feature not the original Nemo, but his daughter, Janni Dakkar, who is now the captain of the Nautilus. In Heart of Ice, she makes an enemy of Ayesha, who is determined to get her revenge and so, bankrolled by Charles Foster Kane, sends a trio of penny dreadful inventor-heroes after Nemo… Who is following a trail left by her father to Antactica, where she finds a city straight out of Lovecraft. It all comes to a bad end for the villains. The second book takes place in a Berlin transformed by the science of Rotwang – including an army of Maria robots. But when Nemo’s daughter, and her boyfriend Robur, are killed when their airship is destroyed by Berlin’s forces, Nemo attacks Berlin’s “Moloch Machine”. And in the third book, Nemo chases after Ayesha to South America and Maple White Land, a mesa where dinosaurs roam, only to find an army of bikini-clad fembots guarding a cadre of young Hitler clones… And that’s pretty much the appeal of this trilogy: you’re playing spot the references all the time. While some are blindingly obscure – those penny dreadful characters, for example – others are all too obvious. I know Moore has played around in the Cthulhu mythos before, but seriously, who still thinks a Lovecraft mashup is clever?

schoolforloveSchool For Love, Olivia Manning (1951). Felix Lattimer is left orphaned in Baghdad when his mother dies of typhoid, and since it’s during WWII he can’t be sent back to Britain and the care of relatives. There is, however, a relative much closer – in Jerusalem. Mrs Bohun. So Felix is sent there. Mrs Bohun really is a piece of work – the blurb describes her as “one of the most reoubtable (and ridiculous) of comic horrors in English fiction”, and it’s true. The actual plot – Felix interacts with the other residents of Mrs Bohun’s house, is too immature to see what is really going on, and, well, things happen – is more or less incidental. The old working class man in the attice ends up in hospital, and his room is let to a young and pregnant widow. Mrs Bohun’s attitude changes to the first, and then the other, but it’s all in character. Manning is a good writer and worth reading, but this is a slight piece. Its setting is interesting, and that setting is handled reasonably sensitively, albeit with the patrician sensibilities of a British expat from the first half of the twentieth century. While Mrs Bohun appears quite horrific in some respects to modern sensibilities, I suspect time has sharpened that edge. Manning doesn’t deserve to be forgotten – she was an excellent writer during her day and her books are still worth reading today.


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Reading diary, #7

Another catch-up on what I’ve been reading of late, before this blog turns entirely into a film blog or promotional posts for All That Outer Space Allows or A Prospect of War (damn, I went and mentioned them, damn). Er, anyway, I do still read books and here are some of them.

realspacecowboysThe Real Space Cowboys, Ed Buckbee, with Wally Schirra (2005). I picked up a signed copy of this a few years ago, but never got around to reading it. It’s pretty much a hagiography of the Mercury Seven, based chiefly on conversations and interviews with them in years prior to publication (many of them had died before this book was published – Grissom in 1967, Slayton in 1993, Shepard in 1998 and Cooper in 2004). Nonetheless, it’s well-presented – which Apogee Books are generally good at, even if sometimes their editing leaves a little to be desired – and makes for an interesting read. Buckbee started out in NASA public affairs, before becoming director of the US Space & Rocket Center and then US Space Camp. He knew all the astronauts personally, and much of the book is presented as a conversation among the Mercury 7. Not a bad read.

StainedStained-Glass World, Ken Bulmer (1969). Bulmer was a prolific sf author with, according to Wikipedia, over 160 novels published under his own name and assorted pseudonyms. The reason for that huge output is because Bulmer was a complete hack. As is evidenced in Stained-Glass World. It’s a bit of a tired set-up, workers living in a lawless urban wasteland a century or more after society has collapsed, the rich living it up in their glass towers and enjoying a life of drugs and debauchery, and somewhere in the background is a police state but there’s little in the book to support it, or indeed the entire world as presented. The plot is thin at best, and somewhat confused – there’s a group of “Uppers” down among the workers, hunting for “Joy Juice”, which is apparently extracted from workers under the influence of another drug. None of this makes sense. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of description of urban decay and ruins, and some especially dumb future slang (a Bulmer speciality, I suspect). Avoid.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I saw the Visconti film adaptation of this back in October 2013, and liked it enough to think it worth reading the novel on which it was based. Which is, according to Wikipedia, “considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature”. The story takes place in the 1860s on Sicily, during the unification of Italy. It’s about the Salina family, particularly the head of the family, Prince Fabrizio, who represents the old order, and his nephew and putative heir, Prince Tancredi, who first joins Garibaldi’s Redshirts and then the army of the king of Sardinia (who goes onto become king of Italy). While the family is holidaying in their palace at Donnafugata, Tancredi meets Angelica, daughter of the local mayor (a successful and corrupt local landowner), and marries her. When Fabrizio is asked to join the new kingdom’s senate, he refuses and recommends the mayor, as he considers him more in tune with the coming times. There’s a Lawrentian atmosphere to much of The Leopard – especially when Prince Fabrizio goes hunting while at Donnafugata – but it’s also a much more political novel than anything Lawrence wrote. Now I want to watch the film again.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). According to an accompanying press release, David Hartwell of Tor approached Gilman and “asked her to write a science fiction novel based on [my] enthusiasm for her short fiction”. Which does make you wonder why Gilman’s excellent fantasy duology, Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles, were published by ChiZine. Still, self-serving promotional press release aside, Dark Orbit is a short-ish sf novel set in Gilman’s Twenty Planets – as are some of her novellas, such as ‘Arkfall’ and ‘The Ice Owl’ – and I read it to review for Interzone. On the whole, I liked it, and it did some interesting and clever things… but I didn’t think it quite as successful as the aforementioned fantasy novels.

Prisoner of Conscience, Susan R Matthews (1998). This is the second book of Matthews’s Jursidiction series, and while it didn’t read as well this time around as I remembered, it’s still part of a superior sf series. I used to buy Matthews’s books as soon as they were published. It’s a shame her career seems to have gone down the toilet. I reviewed the book on SF Mistressworks here.

stalinsgoldStalin’s Gold, Barrie Penrose (1982). In 1942, HMS Edinburgh sank in the Barents Sea after being attacked by German warships. She was part of a convoy which had delivered munitions to Murmansk for the Russians, and was carrying back five tons of gold bullion in payment. For fifty years, the wreck – and the gold – sat in 800 feet of Arctic water, too deep for anyone to salvage. But, by the late 1970s, thanks to North Sea oil, the technology existed to recover the bullion. This is the book of the successful expedition to retrieve it. A Keighley-based salvor put together a consortium with sufficient cash and resources to get the contract from the Ministry of Defence to recover the gold. What distinguished his proposal from others was that he planned to use saturation divers, rather than explosives and submersibles. Given that the MoD had designated the wreck of the HMS Edinburgh a war grave, it gave him the advantage (as did a mole he had in the ministry). An Aberdeen-based diving company, Wharton-Williams, provided the divers and equipment, a German shipping company, OSA, provided the ship, and Decca Racal provided the navigation and sensing gear. The consortium would get to keep 45% of the gold, the British govenment would take 37% and the Soviet government 13% (the Russians also had a pair of observers onboard). Penrose spends a third of the book describing the convoy and ensuing battle during which HMS Edinburgh sank. The remainder of the book focuses more on the Yorkshireman, Jessop, and is light on the technical aspects of the salvage. The writing is also pretty poor. There is, in fact, a British television documentary on the whole thing, “Gold from the Deep”, and some of the quotes Penrose uses seem to have been lifted straight from it (the documentary is available on Youtube here – a poor quality transfer, though).

islanddrmoreauThe Island Of Dr Moreau, HG Wells (1896). Although Wells wrote over fifty novels, most people likely only know him for four – The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and this one, The Island Of Dr Moreau. The edition I read was, as pictured, the SF Masterwork hardback – and it took me less than half a page to spot the introduction was by Adam Roberts. Anyway, the story is relatively straightforward – the narrator’s ship collides with a derelict (until the twentieth century, derelicts were surprisingly common, with several hundred floating around the world’s oceans and seas). The narrator is the only survivor and is picked up by a ship delivering animals to an unnamed island. Also aboard this ship is a man called Montgomery, who lives on the island as assistant to a scientist with a shady past, Moreau. The ship dumps the narrator, Prendrick, on the island with Montgomery, and so Prendrick learns of Moreau’s experiments on animals, making them into “Beast Men”. It’s all a bit handwavey – there’s no explanation of how the Beast Men are made intelligent enough to speak or overcome their animal natures. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong – coincidentally while Prendrick is there, and coincidentally, he’s the only survivor. To be honest, I thought Wells laid it all on a bit thick. Prendrick’s outrage and horror crops up on almost every page, and the Beast Men don’t feel especially nuanced. Not Wells’ best, although the central premise is certainly memorable.

val9Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia, Jean-Claude Mezières & Pierre Christin (1980). This is book eight in the long-running Valerian and Laureline (Valèrian, Agent Spatio-Temporel) series. It is also a pretty smart piece of work… which is more than you can say for most science fiction comics. Valerian is in 1980s Paris investigating some strange manifestations, while Laureline is in the Cassiopeia constellation looking into the possible source of the phenomena. The two communicate telepathically, and share their findings… but this is the first of a two-parter so what they find doesn’t really help explain what’s happening. However, where Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia is particularly good is in the noir-ish feel to Valerian’s investigation in Paris. It’s especially effective when contrasted with Laureline’s adventures on alien worlds. It’s hard to believe this is thirty-five years old. I can’t think of a UK or US sf comic from the same period of comparable quality – not even 2000AD back then was as good as this.

septimusThe Septimus Wave, Jean Dufaux, Antoine Aubin & Étienne Schréder (2013). And this is the twentieth book in the also long-running Blake and Mortimer series. Although linked with Hergé’s Tintin – the first Blake and Mortimer story appeared in the Tintin Magazine, and the comic uses a similar ligne claire style – series creator Edgar P Jacobs chose not to prevent its continuation after his death. He died in 1987, and only actually wrote and drew half a dozen of the Blake and Mortimer books. The series was restarted in the 1990s and has been going strong ever since. The Septimus Wave is a sequel to an earlier Jacobs title, The Yellow “M”, in which evil scientist Septimus brainwashes series villain Colonel Olrik into committing a series of crimes. But Septimus is now dead, and Mortimer is experimenting with Septimus’s equipment – except he’s not the only one. And there’s something else riding piggyback on Septimus’s “Mega Wave” generated by Mortimer and the others. Apparently, some of the post-Jacobs entries in the series have upset fans by being a bit too clever or something, and while The Septimus Wave is by no means the best of the new Blake and Mortimers I do like the fact they’re a bit more sophisticated than Jacobs’ own stories.

hewhoHe Who Shapes / The Infinity Box, Roger Zelazny / Kate Wilhelm (1965/1971). The Zelazny won the Nebula for best novella, and I’d like to say I’m mystified as to why – but this is a science fiction award from the mid-1960s, so perhaps complaints about quality are beside the point. And, well, it’s by Zelazny, who is allegedly one of the genre’s great prose stylists… But there’s fuck-all evidence of it in ‘He Who Shapes’, just a piece of sixties sexism tricked out with some handwavey conceit. Everyone smokes like chimneys and what little non-central-conceit extrapolation is weirdly limited – computer-driven cars! huge skyscrapers! suicide epidemic! Anyway, Render is a Shaper (spot the cunning pun there? My aching sides), which means he can therapeutically direct patient’s dreams undercarefully-controlled conditions. But then a woman blind from birth who is already qualified as a psychiatrist asks Render to help her become a Shaper. He initially refuses, but then agrees to use his talents to help her acclimatise herself to “sight” – or rather, what she would “see” in the dreams she would be directing should she become a Shaper. Nonsense. And Render starts to fancy her, and so finds himself trapped in one of her dreams. Rubbish. ‘The Infinity Box’ is even weirder, and seems to spend much of its length in search of a plot. A widow moves into a neighbours’ house while they’re on holiday, and the narrator finds himself drawn to her, so much so he begins to experiencing what she is experiencing, and even manages to briefly control her. It also turns out the woman is a photographer and sees the world very differently to everyone else – she can see the entire lifetime of everything she looks at. While nicely written, and Wilhelm handles the narrator’s relationship with his wife well, the two elements of the plot don’t actually fit together, and the implausibility of both badly affects the story’s credibility. There are two possibly good stories here but Wilhelm managed to produce a single confused one out of them.

projectsealabProject SEALAB, Terry Shannon & Charles Payzant (1966). A lucky find on eBay. At the time this was written and published, SEALAB III had yet to take place, so the book ends on an optimistic note… Which is unfortunate as SEALAB III was a disaster – while struggling to fix a leak in the habitat, which was on the ocean bottom 600 feet deep, prior to occupying it, one of the divers died, possibly as a result of sabotage. It was enough to stop the programme. And this despite SEALABs I and II being very successful (and Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter was involved with the second one). Project SEALAB is a somewhat simplistic run-through of the two habitats (well, it is a “junior” book), but it’s copiously illustrated with photographs, which is pretty cool. Incidentally, there are a pair of US Navy films on the two projects, and they’re available online – SEALAB I here and SEALAB II here.


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Reading diary, #6

Reading catch-up time, before It Doesn’t Have To Be Right… turns into a film blog. Now that A Prospect of War and All That Outer Space Allows are both out, I’m hoping I’ll get more reading done. I’ve managed to reduce the TBR slightly over the past couple of months, although chiefly by not buying as many books as usual. There are still way too many books for comfort sitting on my bookshelves (or piled on the floor) that I want to read.

Synners, Pat Cadigan (1991). From the SF Masterwork series. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

spidermoonSpider Moon, John Shirley (2002). I seem to have rather a lot of John Shirley novels, many of which are signed first editions from small presses, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not like he’s an amazing writer, or I’m a huge horror fan. I suspect he’s got lumped together in my mind with Lewis Shiner and Lucius Shepard, who also have had many books published by small presses, and that one or two of Shirley’s books at some point I actually did quite admire – Heatseeker, perhaps, or A Splendid Chaos. But, Spider Moon… which is not actually horror, but crime, noir possibly. The narrator is an editor for a San Francisco-based publisher, which is bought out by a big New York publishing house… and which plans to make a few changes. Another member of the firm goes postal, the narrator finds himself with the gun is his hand, and is forced to make a run for it. His son died only a few days before from a drug overdose and, determined to get revenge on the dealer, the narrator hooks up with a pair of lowlifes and the threesome go on a bit of a mini-crime spree. A quick read, and by no means a bad one… and I still don’t know why I have so many books by John Shirley.

touchTouch, Claire North (2015). I bought this because I thought The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was pretty good, and the central premise of this new novel – a being who can jump from body to body by touch and while in possession control them – sounded intriguing. Having now read it, I don’t think it’s quite as successful as North’s first novel. It’s certainly a polished piece of writing, the narrator Kepler is well-drawn, and the central conceit is well-handled… but the plot sort of gets lost along the way and eventually peters out. I reviewed the book for Interzone.

atrocityexhibitionThe Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated), JG Ballard (1969/1990). Wanting to read more Ballard is hardly a contentious ambition, and I’ve read plenty of Ballard already. The 4th Estate editions also made a nice set with their distinctive cover designs, so it was worth picking up copies. Which is what I did. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Ballard, perhaps preferring the idea of his fiction more than I did his actual fiction – which is itself quite a Ballardian attitude. He was never a great prose stylist, and he was often a better commentator on twentieth-century life than he was a novelist – what his books said was often more interesting than the stories he chose to tell. The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated) is a case in point. Half the time, Ballard zeroes in quite effectively on some weird public compulsion, turns it on its head, and the result is a biting comment on the cultural landscape. But just as often, it’s word salad, and he piles the words one upon the other and it reads like an academic work that completely misses the point of its topic. And then, over all this, like giant flashing lights and deafening klaxons, is all the “controversial stuff”, story titles like ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’. The problem with sacred cows is that no one will admit they make steaks that taste just like normal steaks. Of course, there’s also the bits and pieces of The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated) that went on to become and/or inspire Crash, which is much the better work. But still, Ballard: always worth a read.

questThe Quest For Christa T., Christa Wolf (1968). I stumbled across this in a charity shop, and since Wolf was a name I’d come across in my search for postwar British women writers (even though she’s German), I decide to buy it. Besides, you just don’t see enough of those green Virago paperbacks in charity shops. The title character and the narrator meet while at school during World War II. They go their separate ways, but meet up again at university in the early nineteen-fifties. The book then follow them through to the nineteen-sixties. It all takes place in East Germany. The story is phrased as a commentary on Christa T by the narrator, almost as if she’s telling it to someone. It’s a style that takes some getting used to, especially in these times of immersive prose; and although it’s considered “experimental” I have to wonder if it’s not how stories were originally told before the advent of the realist novel. I can’t say I’ll be hunting down any more of Wolf’s work – although I’ll keep an eye open for green Virago paperbacks, of course – but I’m glad I read The Quest For Christa T..

Philip-Kerr-PrayerPrayer, Philip Kerr (2013). This novel reads like an idea Kerr pitched to a US network, but was turned down. There’s some solid work in it, but it’s a thin piece stretched out to novel-length. Gil Martin is a FBI agent in Houston, involved in investigating domestic terrorism. When he admits to his wife that he no longer believes in God, she leaves him and takes their young son. Meanwhile Martin is investigating a series of strange deaths of prominent atheists – all four seem like freak accidents or bizarre medical catastrophes. But the fact they’re hated by the religious right makes their deaths suspicious. Martin eventually discovers that a charismatic preacher has discovered “directed prayer” actually works, because God exists, and he’s the Old Testament God who demands unquestioning obedience, not Jesus’s wishy-washy God of love. And this preacher’s secret prayer group has been sending the fallen angel Azrael to kill their opponents. It’s all a bit flimsy, and the plot isn’t exactly twisty-turny. Kerr generally writes clever thrillers, but some of them are propped up by well-handled research rather than clever plotting, and Prayer falls into that category.

shadowdanceShadow Dance, Angela Carter (1966). This was Carter’s debut novel, and there’s effusive praise for it on the cover of my edition from Anthony Burgess. And having now read the book, Burgess’s comments don’t surprise me in the least. It’s just like a Burgess novel in many respects. The narrator Morris runs a junk shop with flighty none-too-legit Honeybuzzard (which I kept on wanting to read as Honeybadger), who is a bit of a knob. Rumour has it that the recent scar disfiguring Ghislaine’s face is Honeybuzzard’s handiwork, although he claims otherwise. Besides, Honeybuzzard now has Emily, who seems to be made of much sterner stuff. And, er, that’s about it. The prose is somewhat overwrought, and far too quick to reach for cliché, especially when Carter emphasises a point by adding on descriptive clause after descriptive clause. From what I remember of her later novels, she soon rid herself of the habit. Fortunately. But lines like “The lines of his ribs showed through the flesh like an elegant bird-cage where his trapped heart flapped its wings regularly, one, two, on the beat” should have been excised. And there are far too many mentions of rape too. Not a great novel, though Carter went on to write some great stuff.


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Reading diary, #5

So far this year I’ve read 37 books, which, judging by previous years, should see me read 150 books by the end of the year. This is just as well as I’ve joined the 150 books reading challenge on GoodReads, although it’s currently telling me I’m 2 books behind schedule. Oh well.

sacrificeSacrifice on Spica III, Eric Brown (2014). This is the second of Brown’s Telemass quartet, published by PS Publishing, and set in the same universe as some of his earlier fiction, such as the Starship Seasons quartet (see here). Retired Dutch police officer Hendrick is trying to track down his ex-wife, who has stolen their terminally ill but in medical stasis daughter, and their trail leads him to the titular planet. Spica III has a highly eccentric orbit and is due to go into five years of severe winter – so severe all travel to and from the planet will be suspended. Hendrick has to find his wife and daughter before that happens. En route, he runs into an old colleague, who explains he is hunting for his superior officer’s estranged wife, who is wanted for murder. Hendrick remembers the wife, he had an affair with her years before, and he doubts she’s guilty, but he agrees to help. The plot of Sacrifice on Spica III concerns that investigation, not Hendrick’s wife and daughter. It includes a typical Brown touch, a death cult whose members commit suicide by entering a sort of liquidizer, which then squirts them up into the air and their liquid remains freeze instantly in Spica III’s sub-zero climate. It’s pretty gruesome. Otherwise, a polished piece, although it does seem to depend a little too much on coincidence, back-shadowing and serendipity.

shortnovels2St Mawr, DH Lawrence (1925). The title is the name of a horse, bought by American heiress Lou for her husband, Australian and baronial heir, Rico. But this is DH Lawrence, so a horse is not just a horse of course of course. After a stay in London, with much riding in Hyde Park, the couple decamp with Lou’s acerbic mother to the wilds of Wales, where Rico seems to be more interested in a female friend who lives nearby. When St Mawr, who is very spirited, throws Rico, he ends up bed-ridden, and Lou decides she’s had enough. She follows her mother to London, and then across the Atlantic to the US. Where she eventually buys a run-down ranch somewhere in New Mexico. There are also a pair of grooms, a taciturn Welshman who came with St Mawr, and the mother’s, who is a Native American. In between the manly charms of the grooms, and the metaphor galloping through the text, Lawrence seems to have forgotten his plot. Still, it’s a lot more disciplined than, say, Sons and Lovers, although that’s much the better novel.

ancillaryswordAncillary Sword, Ann Leckie (2014). This won the BSFA Award last weekend, and I’ll admit to being disappointed. There were better books on the shortlist, and it’s likely this sequel was trading on the massive success of its predecessor. Now I liked Ancillary Justice and I liked this book too. But where the first felt like a much-needed return to progressive space opera, something that had been sadly lacking for several years, Ancillary Sword doesn’t so much feel like more of the same as it does a fellow traveller on previously-trod ground. And if Ancillary Justice let out a slight whiff of Susan R Matthews’ novels, Ancillary Sword reeks of it. This is no bad thing – I’m a big fan of Matthews’ books, and it’s a crying shame she was dropped by her publisher more than ten years ago (and her second publisher went under after publishing just one of her books). But Ancillary Sword… Breq has been given command of a warship and sent to a planetary system that appears to have been cut off. There she discovers inequality and near-slavery, not to mention some nasty little conspiracies, which she resolves. The main plot of the trilogy – the war between the two factions of Anaander Miaanai – is pretty much parked to one side for the bulk of the story. Which also introduces a fresh mystery toward the end. If this is going to be a trilogy, I can’t honestly see any shape to it, and two-thirds of the way in you’d expect one to be visible.

girlsofriyadhGirls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea (2007). This was apparently a bit of a phenomenon when it was published, a Sex & the City take on Saudi society by a young Saudi woman studying in the US. It’s a shame then that it’s all a bit juvenile. It’s presented as a serial told via email by the author, who prefaces each chapter with an email “answering” some of the responses she’s received to the previous chapter. The story itself is about four young women – Lamees, Michelle, Gamrah and Sadeem. Gamrah marries Rashid, and travels with him to the US, where he is studying. But he seems more interested in a prior US girlfriend, and Gamrah finds it hard to cope with life in the West. She returns to Riyadh, pregnant. Sadeem falls in love, arrangements are made, contracts exchanged, but a couple of days before the ceremony she succumbs to his blandishments and lets him take it too far… so he divorces her. Michelle falls for a young man from a good family, but his mother won’t hear of her son marrying beneath him, so he breaks it off. And Lamees is a bit of wild thing, making friends with Shi’ites, visiting chat rooms, and getting arrested for meeting a young man in a café. And other things happen too. While it shows the appalling treatment of women in Saudi well, and I realise English is not the writer’s first language, but it is the translator’s, this could really have done with a lot of a polish. The novel is structured to look like the titillating adventures of an amateur writer, and the prose reads like it was written by an amateur too.

strangebodiesStrange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013). Theroux’s 2009 novel Far North was shortlisted for the Clarke Award, so I read it… and I wasn’t much impressed. So I’m not sure what possessed me to give Strange Bodies a go – yes, people recommended it, and the premise sounded interesting, but… Anyway, I’m glad I did. If the plot doesn’t quite match the striking opening, the journey to the end is at least a damn sight better than you’d get from a typical genre novel. A man who apparently died a couple of years before, and in fact in no way resembles the dead man, contacts an old friend, who is persuaded of his claimed identity. Later she finds a thumb drive, containing the document which forms the bulk of the novel – which proves to be the history of a man, a Samuel Johnson scholar, who was asked by a media mogul to authenticate some letters and finds himself caught up in a secret Soviet experiment based on the Common Task (I’ve read up on Fedorov for a WIP, so I knew exactly what this referred to). The scientific scaffolding for the central premise was a little hard to swallow, but all the stuff wrapped around it was very good indeed. I thought the Johnson scholarship very clever, and the way Theroux handled the premise good. Despite my feelings about Far North, I am, much like several other people, surprised this never made any award shortlists.


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Reading diary, #4

I need to catch up on documenting my reading, before this blog turns into a movie blog. So even though most of the books I’ve read recently have been for review elsewhere, I’m posting this. (And also, I promised the Hook Quartet to a friend and I want to get my thoughts on it written down before I mail the books to him.)

The Bridge, Pamela Frankau (1957). I read this as part of my informal project to read some postwar British women writers and I wrote about it here.

flowersFlowers in the Minefield, John Jarmain (2012). I forget where I stumbled across John Jarmain’s poetry – it was probably through his connection to the Cairo poets during WWII (Lawrence Durrell was also one, and the group are mentioned in Olivia Manning’s The Levant Trilogy). Wherever it was, I liked the samples I read enough to hunt down a copy of his posthumous collection, Poems – Jarmain was killed in 1944 – and even a copy of his one novel, Priddy Barrows, which I wrote about here. While Flowers in the Minefield claims to offer more than just Jarmain’s poetry – which is reason enough to buy it, of course – the ancillary material is not up to much. There’s a brief biography, and a few reminiscences by people who knew him. But the poems are the real content, and they’re as good now as they were in 1945 when they first saw print. Jarmain is not as well known, nor was he as prolific, as Keith Douglas, but I find his poetry better-tuned to my tastes. It was, in fact, Jarmain who led me to explore WWII poetry – where previously I had read only WWI poetry, and then mostly that by Wilfred Owen – and I now own several volumes on the topic. Recommended.

secret-history-omnibus-volume-3-9781608864423_hrThe Secret History Omnibus Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3, Jean-Pierre Pécau and Igor Kordey (2005 – 2010, trans. 2010 – 2014). Back in prehistory, twin sisters Reka and Aker, and their brothers Dyo and Erlin, are each given a rune by the tribe’s shaman to safeguard the runes from an attack by a tribe of… Neanderthals? The Secret History follows the four, who are now immortal, through human history, their various struggles, between themselves and against others, and their attempts to direct human history toward their own ends. During the fourteenth century, William of Lecce is born, and proves to have similar powers… and becomes their enemy (although Dyo occasionally fights on his side). Later, the  mythical city of Kor, located either in the Empty Quarter or another dimension, begins to influence human affairs. Pécau has done an extremely clever job of tying his story of secret magical combat by immortals into real history, but unfortunately the story skips about so much it’s often hard to figure out the actual narrative. This is not helped by Archaia’s decision to only translate and publish The Secret History and not the two pendant bandes dessinées, Arcanes majeur and Arcanes. They’re also some way behind – Volume 3, published last year, covers albums 15 to 20, but the series is actually currently up to 32. (Volume 3 was a recent purchase, incidentally, but I had to reread 1 and 2 before tackling it.) I suppose if I’m going to keep on reading bandes dessinées there’s little point in doing so in English – I should get the original French editions instead. Anyway, for all its faults I like The Secret History and plan to keep on reading it.

hook4Hook: Virility Gene, Tully Zetford (1975). I suspect Bulmer was hoping he’d be able to churn these out forever – the book is dedicated to Ted Tubb’s Dumarest, and that series managed 31 novels before DAW stopped buying them (and then only because Donald A Wollheim passed away). Fortunately for us, Virility Gene was the last we saw of Ryder Hook, and the novel’s open ending will remain forever open. Deciding which is the worst of the Hook quartet is a difficult call, but this one is possibly the frontrunner. Hook, and friends Shaeel and Karg, are travelling on a liner when they become embroiled in a plot to find the semi-mythical world where the Virility Gene can be found. It all goes a bit wrong, and Hook comes to in a lifepod, accompanied by Brett, an alien, and a dwindling supply of, er, supplies. Fortunately, they’re rescued in time. Hook gets a message to Shaeel – who gives “ver” destination as… Shyle, the planet where the Virility Gene is harvested (Shaeel is a Hermaphrodite, with pronouns to suit). On Shyle, there are lots of prospectors, but no one seems to know how or where the Virility Gene is harvested or manufactured or what – and the native Shylao guard the secret zealously. Zetford doesn’t even reveal what the Virility Gene actually is until around page 69 (of a 111pp novel). Apparently it’s an extremely potent aphrodisiac. Or something. Anyway, after various adventures, Hook finds himself in the secret compound where the Virility Gene is bought and sold to wealthy buyers. The point of Hook is that he’s a prototype Boosted Man, although he fell out with the programme and is now hunted by them (and the Boosted Men are a thoroughly bad lot). While Hook’s various implants (detectors, stuff to eavesdrop on comms, etc) work all the time, his super-strength and super-speed are only activated when he’s in the vicinity of an actual Boosted Man. But this time, his powers are, er, boosted to a degree he has never before experienced. He also meets a woman and it’s love at first sight between the two… And you can see where this is going, can’t you? Yup, to THE END… with Hook chasing after the love of his life, a Boosted Woman, and a story arc never to be resolved. And I almost forgot to mention the two inept thugs who set upon Hook called… Line and Synker (and from the description they promise to be regular characters); or indeed one of Synker’s lines of dialogue, which gives a pretty accurate flavour of the book’s prose – read it and weep:

“Oxymoron, Line! He’s only an eczema-sniffing spirochaete sap! You should be able to rubberise him before your first tutorial!”

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (2014). I read this for review for Strange Horizons. It’s been getting quite a bit of press this, a self-published novel which has been shortlisted for the Kitschies and has also been picked up by Hodder. Of course, self-published works on genre awards shortlists are not exactly a new thing. I seem to vaguely recall one winning the BSFA Award a couple of years ago…

Chanur’s Homecoming, CJ Cherryh (1986). The final book of the original Chanur saga – the actual final book, Chanur’s Legacy, didn’t appear until 1992. I read this for SF Mistressworks. A review will appear there in a week or two.


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The Bridge, Pamela Frankau

All too often, male authors are praised for their depiction of female characters, even though female writers often write male characters – especially in science fiction, in which it seems nearly 80% of protagonists are men. (And there are women sf authors whose most famous creations are male characters.) Yet no one praises female writers for their depiction of men. So let’s get that out of the way first – Pamela Frankau’s The Bridge (1957) is about a man called David Nielson, and he is drawn sensitively and plausibly.

thebridge

Pamela Frankau was published between 1927 and 1968. Her first novel, Marriage of Harlequin, saw print when she was only nineteen. She also seems to have led a somewhat… complicated life. She apparently had a long, and I’m assuming, public affair with a married man, the poet Humbert Wolfe, which ended with his death in 1940. She served in the ATS during World War II, where she had a lesbian affair with a fellow officer. After the war, she married an American Navy officer and decamped with him to the US. They divorced in 1951, and she returned to the UK and picked up her writing career, and proved even more successful than before. During the mid-1950s, she entered in a long relationship with theatre director Margaret Webster. Frankau died of cancer in 1967. Wikipedia lists 37 books by her, including three collections, an autobiography, and several works that appear to be non-fiction. Her best known novel is A Wreath For The Enemy (1954), which is still in print – it, The Winged Horse (1953) and The Willow Cabin (1949) are still available in Virago Modern Classics editions.

The novel opens with a man on a bridge. He doesn’t know where the bridge is, how he got there, what he’s doing there, or even who he is. It’s explained to him that he will witness a series of events, because there is something he must either learn or decide. The first such event takes place in 1913. A young boy in Cornwall is friends with the sons of a holidaying family. But when one of the sons decides the two of them should go swimming on their own – to prove they have courage after the holidaying father mocked them for not going into a rough seas- one of the boys slips on the rocks and is injured. The other boy, the one who lives in Cornwall, with his mother, Aunt Rachel, is David. And though he heard his friend scream as he fell, he ignored it.

In 1929, David is now living in London. He meets a young America woman, Linda, and invites her back to his digs. Aunt Rachel, who also lives in London, comes calling while David is trying to charm Linda. So he pretends to be out. The story skips ahead to 1939. David and Linda are now married, and live on a farm with Ricky and Madeleine. David is a reasonably successful writer and playwright (as is Ricky). After a trip into London, David stops off in the local pub to unwind, and gets into an argument with the racist barman. Then, after the war, in 1950, David and Linda, and their teenage daughter Anne, are living in southern France, in a cottage they owned before WWII. One night David wins big at roulette. A couple of days later, Anne is killed in a car crash. David and Linda move to California, where, in 1955, both teach at university. But Linda is cold and distant with David, and he has not written anything since Anne died. Linda walks out on him, and he runs away to rural New England, and begins writing again. Linda finds herself in New York, is “cured” by some sort of self-help guru and goes to work with him. She is supported by Ricky, who has divorced Madeleine, and is now a very rich and successful author.  In 1956, David and Linda begin to circle back toward each other… but it does not end well.

Interspersed between these various excerpts from David’s life (some are written from Linda’s point of view, but the story is mostly David’s) are more scenes set on the bridge. It quickly becomes clear it is a sort of limbo, and that David must do something if he is to “move on”. Although these scenes provide the novel’s title, and a framework of sorts, they actually get in the way of what is a readable, engaging and well-written story about David Nielson, his life, marriage and career. There’s some very nice writing in the book, and although a little slow to start, the story does draw the reader in. One of the novel’s strengths is that it’s never quite clear where it’s going, or what it’s actually about. If anything, the scenes on the bridge tend to obscure this aspect of the story, hinting either that some moral is waiting to be revealed or that the whole thing is just one long shaggy allegory. In point of fact, it’s neither, and the bridge scenes serve only to underscore one particular element of the story before and after – when there’s actually lots more worth noting in those sections.

Prior to embarking on this “project”, I’d never heard of Pamela Frankau. These days, she’s all but forgotten, despite having three books still in print (they’re dated 2008, so you’re unlikely to find them in your local Waterstone’s, however). But then I did embark on this project to find writers new to me. When I started The Bridge, I didn’t find it all that impressive, but it slowly won me over. David and Linda Nielson are both well-drawn characters, and if some of the details ring a little false (that self-help guru, for example), there’s still much to like in the book. I’m glad I read it and, yes, I think I’ll track down something else by Frankau to read.


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Starship Seasons, Eric Brown

starship-seasonsThe four novellas which make up Starship Seasons, titled ‘Starship Summer’, ‘Starship Fall’, ‘Starship Winter’ and ‘Starship Spring’, were originally published individually by PS Publishing (of which Drugstore Indian Press is an imprint) and NewCon Press between 2007 and 2012. All four are set on Chalcedony, Delta Pavonis IV, in a future in which starship travel has been superseded by Telemass, interstellar teleportation. The novellas feature David Conway and the circle of close friends he makes when he moves to Magenta Bay on Chalcedony. While the stories share locale and cast, and each novella references events in the preceding stories, they can be read as standalones.

Conway has retired to Chalcedony, a move partly driven by the death of his daughter and the subsequent breakup of his marriage. While hunting for a suitable property on the shore of the idyllic Magenta Bay, he stumbles across a junkyard of starships, run by an ex-pilot called Hawk. Conway decides to use an old ship as a home, but the one he chooses is of mysterious provenance. He settles into a life of indolence – with a great deal of drinking – and makes friends with several of the locals, including Hawk, famous artist Matt, telempath Maddie, and Hawk’s alien lover, Kee (a native of Chalcedony). Conway soon discovers his starship home is “haunted”… by an avatar of the Yall, an advanced alien race who have long since vanished. The Yall admits his race built Chalcedony’s great marvel, the Golden Column, an impenetrable pillar one kilometre in diameter and thirty kilometres high, and of unknown purpose. Conway and his friends, with the help of the Yall ghost, make Conway’s starship operable and fly to the Column… and so discover the mysterious object’s true purpose.

‘Starship Fall’ is set five years later. The fuss over Conway’s discovery of the Golden Column’s purpose – it is, in fact, part of an instantaneous interstellar transport network – has died down. The appearance in Magenta Bay of holo superstar Carlotta Chakravorti-Luna, however, threatens to upset Conway’s life of indolence and drinking. And then Hawk’s alien companion, Kee, vanishes into the jungle to “smoke the bones”, an alien ritual which allows the smoker to snatch glimpses of the future but has a seventy percent fatality rate. Conway, Maddie and Hawk head off into the interior to “rescue” Kee, but unfortunately are too late to prevent her undergoing the ritual. What Kee sees of the future involves Chakravorti-Luna and also Hawk’s possible death. The holo superstar admits she is on Chalcedony to find an ex-husband who crashed on the planet decades before, and this has something to do with the smoking the bones ritual.

The plot of ‘Starship Winter’ is driven by Matt, the artist, who puts on an exhibition of works which use “empathy stones” from the world of Acrab IV. Visiting Magenta Bay is Darius Dortmund, an empath, who is not only unduly interested in Matt’s showing, but is also accompanied by an alien from Acrab IV. Dortmund is arrogant, secretive and a nasty sort. He annoys and upsets Conway and his friends, spoils the grand opening of Matt’s art show, but at a big party in his rented property later is found murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on Conway and his circle, who had stayed over at Dortmund’s house for the night. In this novella, Conway’s circle expands by one: Lieutenant Hannah van Harben of the local police, who becomes Conway’s love-interest.

The final book of the quartet is ‘Starship Spring’. It is six years later. Conway and van Harben are now living together in and have a young daughter, Ella. Their friends are busy off-planet – Matt and Maddie touring Matt’s latest art show, and Hawk and Kee flying rich tourists to some galactic wonder. But soon they will be returning, so all six arrange for a fortnight away at an expensive Chalcedony holiday spot called Tamara Falls. Part of the charm of the place is that it’s apparently haunted… and the ghost makes a number of appearances in front of the six friends and Ella. It also seems to be trying to tell them something. Matt admits that the holiday is being paid for by Dr Petronius, a famous art patron, who insisted on it as a condition of his offer to tour Matt’s art show. Millennia ago, the Yall fought and defeated an evil alien race, the Skeath, who managed to hide a vast army beneath Tamara Falls, ready to be awoken one day to conquer the galaxy. Petronius wants this to happen, and needs Conway and friends and family to be on-hand to trigger it…

There’s something very… comfortable about the stories in Starship Seasons. There’s nothing edgy or outrageous about the world described, nor about the concepts deployed in the stories. That the characters are well-drawn is a given – Brown has been writing sf since the mid-1980s, and he’s very good at it. But each of the central quintet has a secret, and that five damaged people should become such close friends occasionally feels somewhat banal. Except that feels like too harsh a judgement – these are four polished novellas, firmly located in genre heartland, thoughtful and considered in tone, and very much character-centred. They will not disappoint a dedicated science fiction reader even if, in these days of immersion and jump-cuts and “blowing shit up”, these four novellas do feel a little old-fashioned in affect. Entertaining, thoughtful and put-together well, certainly, but… The fate of the galaxy is several times put at risk, the lives of the central and supporting cast are frequently in danger; and yet once the dust has settled, Conway’s life returns to normal. There is progression – the Golden Column supersedes Telemass, Conway and Hannah have a child, the characters grow and heal over the years – yet the victories won in each of the novellas still feel small scale and personal. Sometimes, that’s all science fiction needs.

Starship Seasons, Eric Brown (2013, Drugstore Indian Press, £7.99, 978-1-848636-02-6)

This review originally appeared in Vector, No. 274, Winter 2013/2014.

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