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Reading diary, #16

It’s pretty much a done thing by now that 2015 is the year of watching movies rather than reading books. And there’s a resolution for next year – make 2016 the year of reading books. Instead of slapping another DVD in the player of an evening, pick up a book instead. I have so many books I want to read, and since you can’t just take a pill and so magically be in a state of having read them, it takes an investment of hours and often days to get from first page to last. I need to invest that time – 15 minutes each way on my daily commute, and 45 minutes to an hour last thing at night, isn’t really enough.

Meanwhile, I continue to make lists… of books to read, books to buy, books read, books bought… and while on the purchasing side, the fun is often in the hunt for a decent copy of a title, or the surprise find in a charity shop, the damn things do exist to be actually read. And here are a few wot I have done so of late:

01_frankensteinFrankenstein*, Mary Shelley (1818). All these years and unbelievably I’d never actually read Frankenstein. I thought I knew the story, of course – who doesn’t? But that was from the films, and all they’ve done is lifted the central premise of Shelley’s novel and built their own interpretations of it out of that. I read Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound many years ago, and from that I was aware part of Frankenstein took place at the North Pole. But there was plenty – the bulk of the book, in fact – I knew little or nothing about. Like the fact it’s structured as a series of nested first-person narratives, opening with letters from an arctic explorer who rescues a man from the ice. That man proves to be Victor Frankenstein who, once recovered, proceeds to tell his story – how he worked himself into a breakdown at university, building a creature from parts (none of which are named, nor their origin specified), and which promptly escapes. And then Frankenstein completely forgets about his eight-foot-tall monster for a year, and is only reminded of it when his youngest sister is murdered and a beloved family servant is accused of the murder. He then meets the monster, which tells its story… the murder was an accident, but it feels Frankenstein owes it and must make it a mate. So Frankenstein heads off to London, and then north to the Orkneys, but after making a start on a female monster, he suffers a change of heart… so the monster murders his best friend and Frankenstein is arrested for it… Frankenstein is a lot richer a story than film adaptations have led me to believe, but it’s also – and likely this is a product of the time – less rigourous than expected. The entire Frankenstein narrative, we are supposed to believe, is being told to Walton, and yet reads like, well, like a novel. The same is true of the monster’s narrative, especially the part when he spies on the cottagers (not what you are thinking: it is from spying on a family in a cottage he learns to speak French, and to read and write it). Not to mention actual correspondence from Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s childhood sweetheart, embedded in Frankenstein’s narrative. The prose reads somewhat overwrought to modern eyes, everything dialled up to eleven – Frankenstein doesn’t have friends, he has soulmates he loves deeply. The lack of narrative rigour also takes some getting used to. But the hardest part is untangling all the subsequent versions of the story knocking about in your head in order to fit in the original source text.

plutarchs_staffThe Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 21: Plutarch’s Staff, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2014). Only two more and the series is complete. Well, there’s two more left that were originally penned by series creator Edgar P Jacobs, but who knows how many more the Jacobs Studio will produce. But since I like the series, that wouldn’t, of course, be a problem. And I actually like the non-Jacobs titles more than the Jacobs ones. Chiefly because they’re more modern, although set in the past, and a good deal cleverer. This one is set during WWII, and details how Blake and Mortimer came to be friends and colleagues. They had met before – in The Oath of the Five Lords (see here) – but had then gone their separate ways. As Plutarch’s Staff opens, Blake is a RAF squadron leader flying Seafires for the Fleet Air Arm, and Mortimer is working at a secret research establishment in a Scottish glen hidden beneath an artificially-generated cloud. But Jacobs’s more-than-problematical villains, the Yellow Empire, are waiting in the wings, ready to pounce once WWII has ended. Although they’re not above helping things along. Sente and Juillard drag in quite a bit of history – including a visit to Bletchley Park – and manage to cleverly slot Jacobs’s weird alternate history into our history. Good stuff.

v_bombersV Bombers: Valiant, Vulcan and Victor, Barry Jones (2001). Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent was controlled by the Royal Air Force. We had the Bomb, and it would be delivered by an aeroplane. Then the Americans and Russians started building ballistic missiles, and Duncan Sandys’ infamouse White Paper was published, declaring that the UK no longer needed jet aircraft as it would all be missiles from then on. As a result, the Royal Navy wrested control of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, with its Polaris missile submarines. And here we are, more than half a century later, no one has dropped a nuclear bomb in anger since 1945, and the UK is currently preparing to spend billions to upgrade its Trident missiles because… Er, I’m not sure why because. Are we supposed to believe no one will take us seriously as a nation if we don’t have nuclear weapons? Does the bomb prevent us from being invaded? Invaded by who? Anyway, fifty years ago, during the Cold War, there was a known enemy, and the word “deterrent” had a real and palpable meaning. The British aircraft industry was in a really strong position coming out of WWII, with a huge number of firms, all at the cutting edge of aeronautical technology. Back then, the government could put out a tender for a new bomber or fighter and several British firms could compete for it. And the end result would be a world-beater. Unlike now, when we just buy some hugely expensive US aircraft that doesn’t work properly. The V-Bombers – so-called because the first, a stop-gap aircraft built by Vickers, was named the Valiant in a competion among company staff – were three jet bombers explicitly designed to carry nuclear weapons. And iconic-looking planes they were too. Then it turned out anti-aircraft missiles could reach the altitude at which they flew, so they ended up being used as low-level bombers. But they weren’t designed for that and it shortened their operational lives. The Valiant was retired pretty quickly (although it did drop a couple of test nuclear bombs), but the Victor and Vulcan went on to serve as tanker aircraft. Vulcans were also used in the longest bombing run in history, flying from the UK to bomb Port Stanley during the Falklands War. Anyway, this is a pretty good history of all three, although it focuses mostly on their design, testing and introduction into service.

a_girl_in_the_headA Girl in the Head, JG Farrell (1967). I like British postwar fiction, but there’s one particular type of story I’m not a fan of: the comic male midlife crisis novel. So guess what JG Farrell’s third novel is. Boris Slattery claims to be a Polish count, but he’s improverished, ends up in the invented seaside town of Maidenhair Bay, where he marries Flower Dongeon, whose house he now shares with his brother-in-law, father-in-law and her grandparents. He works as a maitre d’ in local restaurant, is friends with a Spanish boy who is staying with the family, and has sex with the underage daughter of the local stationmaster. And then the Swedish Inez comes to stay, and he begins to obsess over her. The story is told as first person, but there are interludes about Boris’s arrival in the town which he tells referring to himself in the third person. There are also some pages of typographical trickery, for no good reason that I could see. Despite being a comic male midlife crisis novel, there are things to like in A Girl in the Head, and plenty to admire. The comedy is very low-key and handled deftly. Farrell’s prose is excellent, and surprisingly insightful for the type of novel. In which respects, I guess, that makes it one of the better books of its type. Although, admittedly, Farrell is always worth a read.

brooklynValerian and Laureline 10: Brooklyn Station, Terminus Cosmos, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1981). This is the second installment of the two-parter begun with Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopiae (see here). There have been a series of strange manifestations in 1980s Paris, and so Valerian has been sent back in time to investigate. Laureline, meanwhile, is off to Cassiopiae to figure out what triggered it all. The first part of this series managed an impressively noir-ish air, and juxtaposing that with Laureline’s space opera narrative worked really well. But one of the things it managed well was a sense of mystery, and this second part dispels that because it, well, it resolves the mystery. In the 1980s, this leads to a meeting in Brooklyn between the heads of the two corporations driving the plot; and in the future, Laureline tracks down the two scavengers who inadvertently kicked off everything when they stole four religious symbols. The Valerian and Laureline series has always been among the smartest of bandes dessinée, and while the art is wonderfully glib and matter-of-fact, it’s the facility with genre displayed in the stories which is the series’ real charm. These are very, very good, and if you’re not reading them – why not?

ancillary-mercy-coverAncillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (2015). And so one of the most-lauded science fiction trilogies of the last couple of years, if not of all time, draws to a close. Was it worth the accolades it accrued? Did it deserve all those awards? Of course, as is always the case, much of it comes down to timing. Harry Potter became a global phenomenon because it appeared at just the right time. And certainly the timing was right when Ancillary Justice was published. Space opera was stuck in a rut, if not actively regressing – and Ancillary Justice was something different. Something visibly different. That thing with the default female pronoun, for example. Which doesn’t quite make sense in its professed use, but is certainly striking enough to generate buzz. Using “she” does not mean the Radch language is ungendered, nor does it mean female is used as the default gender. It’s a writerly trick, and a pretty effective one, but it makes little sense in terms of world-building. As for the plot… I wondered where the trilogy’s story arc was going after Ancillary Sword seemed to get stuck down a side-plot. Only it seems the side-plot is the actual plot of the trilogy and Ancillary Justice was pretty much prologue. And yet, despite all that, Leckie pulls a resolution out of left-field, to leave things not only neat and tidy but also with a giant jumping off point for any future novels. Ancillary Mercy is also a very talky novel, and a lot of the prose is spent on analysing people’s emotional states, little of which actually advances plot or world-building. These are interesting novels, and reasonably good ones, but I’ll be disappointed if this final book is all over award shortlists next year. Still worth reading though.

dan_dare_1Dan Dare: The 2000 AD Years Volume 1, Pat Mills, Massimo Belardinelli, Gerry Finley-Day & Dave Gibbons (2015). I remember bits and pieces of these from back in the late 1970s, although it wasn’t until a year or two later that I actually subscribed to the comic. But from the bits I did read, I seemed to remember it being quite good. I was wrong there. Reading the stories from start to finish in one volume really does show how bad they were. The art was often good, despite the limitations of the pulp printing process, but the scripts are uniformly awful. Admittedly, a lot of the Hampson Dare stories were pretty bad – and 2000 AD’s version bears no comparison with the Eagle original – but at least Hampson never had Dare say things like, “He’s stronger than a super-nova sun!” Nor did he rip off sf novels, like the one story in this volume which is pretty much Lem’s Solaris. Every time I buy one of these 2000 AD reprint omnibuses, I end up poisoning a little more of my childhood. Nostalgia only works from a distance, it does not hold up to scrutiny. Which is ironic, given that over half of the West’s various entertainment industries seem to be geared towards delivering nostalgia. But hey, there are all those people with rose-coloured lenses grafted onto their eyeballs and they’ll happily shell out for the latest cultural trigger to remind them of their lost childhood (as their bodies slowly fall to pieces and bits of it stop working as well as memory once insisted they did). Which obvs includes, er, me. As I’ve grown up I’ve developed powers of discrimination, and it’s not a superpower, it’s a consequence of maturity and age. And I wish a few more people would exercise that power. And yet, and yet… we are slaves to our lost youth, and I know damn well I’ll be buying volume 2 of Dan Dare’s 2000 AD years when it’s published, even though I know full well it’ll be shit. Because that’s an acceptable price to pay when your mortality weighs heavier on you with each passing day and those golden years of childhood come to be seen as more than just time spent in bodies that simply worked but also in minds that saw everything with uncritical wonder – and this has got a bit maudlin, so I’d probably best stop wittering on.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 118

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Reading diary, #15

Still not reading as much as I’d like – I’m currently seven books behind on the 150 book challenge, according to – but it’s not a bad spread in this post… Incidentally, I’m still alternative genders in my fiction reading, and it currently stands at 37% women writers, 33% men.

palefirePale Fire*, Vladimir Nabokov (1962). Though I’ve seen Kubrick’s Lolita, and Nabokov is hardly a name unfamiliar to me, I’d never actually read any of his books. So I’m always on the look-out for copies of his novels in charity days. Except he doesn’t seem to be an author whose books are discarded much. But I did find Pale Fire – in Harrogate, no less – so of course I snapped it up. The back-cover copy makes quite a meal of descrbing Pale Fire as “an extraordinary, uncategorizable book”, which might well have been true in 1962 but feels a bit like over-selling in the twenty-first century. The story is told in the form of an introduction to a narrative poem, then the poem itself, and followed by copious (more than copious) notes on the poem. The author of the introduction and notes is not the author of the poem, but claims to have been the poet’s closest friend in the year leading up to his murder. Two things occurred to me as I read the book: a) the poem is actually complete doggerel, and b) the narrative voice reminded me throughout of Adam Roberts’s prose (there’s a particular line, “The crickets cricked”, which felt like it could have come from any random Roberts story). Threaded throughout the notes is the commentator’s own history, which involves some sort of Mittel-Europa principality whose monarchy was violently overthrown. The Appalachian academia and the Ruritanian adventure make for interesting bedfellows, and the prissy prose fitted the story extremely well. I liked it a lot and I plan to read more Nabokov.

spyuzSoyuz: Owners’ Workshop Manual, David Baker (2014). Sadly, this is not an owners’ workshop manual for Soyuz spacecraft in the same form as the owners’ workshop manuals Haynes has been publishing for various cars for decades. It won’t teach you how to change a leaky valve or an oxygen tank. If your Soyuz breaks down in orbit, even if you have a copy of this book with you, you’re still pretty much fucked. It is, however, a pretty comprehensive look at Russian crewed spacecraft, from Vostok through Voskhod and the various iterations of Soyuz, in pretty impressive factual detail. I found it all fascinating, but I suspect the book will also prove to be a useful reference for any future stories I might write involving Soyuz space craft. There are similar Haynes manuals for Gemini, Space Shuttle, Lunar Rover and, er, Millennium Falcon.

silkwormThe Silkworm, Robert Galbraith (2014). I wasn’t that impressed with Rowling’s first pseudonymous crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, nor, as far as I remember, was anyone else. The book sold modestly, and received a handful of good reviews – which is pretty much what you would expect from a debut crime novel. Strange then, that the back cover of her second Galbraith novel, The Silkworm, boasts quotes about The Cuckoo’s Calling such as “One of the most unique and compelling detectives I’ve come across in years” and “One of the best crime novels I have ever read”… Which suggests crime fiction must be in dire straits, or Rowling’s name really does affect how people – even reviewers in newspapers – judge books. I thought The Cuckoo’s Calling somewhat padded, but The Silkworm at least feels like its the right length. It’s also about the publishing industry, something you’d imagine Rowling would know about since she is, after all, a best-selling author. The actual crime investigated by Cormoran Strike, however, seems more like something from an episode of CSI. A woman hires Strike to find her missing novelist husband, Owen Quine. He’s done it before, but his agent usually tracks him down quite quickly. But this time Quine seems to have really vanished. Making matters worse is the fact his new book is libellous (shades of Burgess’s The Worm & the Ring) and more or less unpublishable. It doesn’t Strike long to find Quine – or rather, his body. And his corpse has been mutilated in a manner which links back to his manuscript. There’s nothing startlingly original here – the plot moves on well-oiled wheels, the characters teeter on the brink of caricature but Galbraith manages to rein them in, and the prose is smooth and readable without being too literary for a crime novel or too commercial for those who prefer their crime novels to have some ambition. The novelists at the centre of the plot were all literary enfants terribles, and though mostly well-respected now their novels as described don’t much read like twenty-first century British literary fiction. Oh, and the title is a reference to Quine’s unpublishable novel, Bombyx Mori, which title only seems to exist because it justifies a particularly gruesome murder.

mortal_enginesMortal Engines, Stanisław Lem (1977). I somehow got it into my head I needed to read more Lem, but I suspect I like the idea of Lem more than I like the fiction of Lem. Which is not to say this collection of short stories is bad. But I can’t say I agree with the person who collated the collection, Michael Kandel, who loves Lem’s “robot fables” so much he chose to bring them all together into one book. Because while they’re clever little fairy tales, with one or two clever puns, they do get a bit wearying en masse. Happily, the book is rounded off with an Ijon Tichy story, a Pilot Pirx story, and one which is completely unrelated to the others in the book but is still about robots. This is not the best sf collection in the world, and even Lem’s snide bleakness can’t hide the datedness of some of the stories. I suspect this one might end up as a raffle prize at one of the pub meets some time next year…

The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, Lee Killough (1980). That’s a pretty awful title for a book that’s actually not that bad. Not as enjoyable as A Voice Out of Ramah (see here), but certainly not awful. A review to appear soon on SF Mistressworks.

slade_houseSlade House, David Mitchell (2015). I was sent an ARC of this by Interzone to review (they also wanted to send me a copy of The Bone Clocks, but I’d already bought one – using a voucher given to me by my employer as a reward for five years of service). Overall, I don’t think Slade House is as successful as The Bone Clocks, and that’s not just a consequence of its significantly shorter length. Mitchell’s trademark ventriloquism is in fine, er, voice, but the fifth of its six sections is almost pure exposition, some of the tropes are a bit cheesy, and the whole thing doesn’t add anything of note to the mythology of The Bone Clocks. Which is not to say it’s a bad book – Mitchell is a fine writer and always worth reading – but it is a little disappointing after last year’s epic.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 117

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Reading diary, #14

In an effort to increase my reading, I’ve decided to spend an hour reading without distractions as soon as I get home from work. Previously, I’d either be straight onto the computer, making dinner, or watching telly. I’m still chipping slowly away at the TBR, but there are so many books on it I want to read. I’d also like to tackle some weightier books, without spending a whole month on a single novel. I’ve averaged around 150 books a year for the past five or six years, but that’s been steadily dropping from a high of around 220 back in the late 1990s. But that was when I was in Abu Dhabi, where the telly was shit and I had no internet connection at home…

malechildA Male Child, Paul Scott (1956). Scott’s Raj Quartet is an astonishing set of novels and, for good reason, considered a classic of postwar British literature. I loved and admired it so much, I started collecting Scott’s other novels – not an easy task as only the Raj Quartet, and its sequel, Staying On, remain in print. But I managed it. And… The Raj Quartet is definitely a high-water mark in his writing career. Which is not to say his other books are bad. They’re just… not as interesting. I can see how for their time they might be a little out-of-the-ordinary, but from the twenty-first century I suspect the differences are too slight to stand out. A Male Child is set in 1947, just after the war has finished. The narrator, Ian Canning, has returned to the UK after service in India. During the war, he caught a tropical disease and has suffered from ill health ever since. He doesn’t have much of a career – he was a publisher’s reader before the war, and he tries to pick this up again. Then he bumps into Alan Hurst, a fellow officer and friend from India, who suggests the narrator writes a biography of HUrst’s aunt, a popular writer during the 1910s and 1920s. To this end, he suggests Canning comes to live with him and his mother – given Canning’s flat was sublet to a friend while he was in India and said friend is reluctant to vacate, it seems a good idea. He’s given the bedroom of Hurst’s younger brother, killed during the War, and idolised by their mother, in a large house that once belonged to the family but has now been broken up into flats. The plot is basically Canning trying to come to terms with civilian life and his illness, while caught up in a somewhat uncomfortable family situation. It’s a nice, well-observed piece of prose, with some lovely writing. But there’s little in it to stand out.

divingDiving for Science, Edward H Shenton (1972). The subtitle to this book does a pretty good job of describing its contents: “The Story of the Deep Submersible”. It’s a potted history, and a rough guide to the workings, of research submersibles, chiefly those which descend to around 2,000 feet or deeper. Some of the more interesting incidents in which submersibles have been involved – Trieste’s descent to Challenger Deep, the sinking and recovery of DSV Alvin, the hunt for the USS Thresher, the recovery of a lost USAF atom bomb off the coast of Spain, the Ben Franklin two-thousand mile underwater journey – are mentioned, but in no great detail. There’s a chapter on how submersibles function, and another on their legal certification. An appendix lists details for every submersible built up to that point. The book does point out that by 1970, their use was beginning to wane, and many had been mothballed – chiefly because they’re expensive to build and run, and cheaper options were available. These days, of course, ROVs and AUVs are more often used than actual submersibles and, except for James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger and four bathyscaphes built and operated by China (there’s very little info about these online), the handful of deep-diving submersibles currently operating are generally limited to 20,000 feet (6,000 metres). Despite being more than forty years old, this is still a useful book.

dreamshipsDreamships, Melissa Scott (1992). I’ve always suspected that if I’d come across Scott’s novels in the 1980s I’d have probably started following her career. Admittedly, this is only the third novel by her I’ve read, but I did really like the previous two, Shadow Man and The Kindly Ones. But Scott’s books were not easy to find in the UK back then – only her Silence Leigh trilogy and The Kindly Ones appear to have been published here. Having said all that, Dreamships was a little disappointing. Anyway, a review of it will be appearing soon on SF Mistressworks.

exploring_deepExploring the Deep Frontier, Sylvia A Earle & Al Giddings (1980). I don’t normally bother to mention coffee table books, especially ones published by National Geographic (not that I own many of them, in fact I think this is the only one). But Exploring the Deep Frontier is a pretty good run-through of underwater exploration – the history and the state-of-the-art as of 1980 – and, unsurprisingly, contains a number of especially nice photographs. That’s Earle there on the cover in a JIM suit. She also leads an all-female team in the Tekton underwater habitat, rides in a submersible, and dives in various places around the world. She provides the text of the book, which switches between her own first-person experiences, and a quick history of underwater exploration. Giddings is the photographer. A pretty book. It’s just a shame my copy is so tatty (an eBay purchase, natch), but given it’s 36 years old I suppose that’s understandable. It’s also sadly disappointing that Exploring the Deep Frontier is subtitled “The Adventure of Man in the Sea” when the author is a woman and the bulk of the text covers her adventures.

wolvesWolves, Simon Ings (2014). I missed reading this earlier in the year even though it was shortisted for the BSFA Award. (It lost out to the disappointing Ancillary Sword.) I’d actually read five of the eight shortlisted books, but had I read Wolves when I filled in my ballot I might well have made it my first choice. I’m surprised it didn’t make it the Clarke. Anyway, the narrator works for a start-up which is developing Augmented Reality – a combination of Google Glasses, Heads-Up Displays and VR – which is bought out by a media mogul. Much of the novel, however, covers the narrator’s past, when he grew up in a hotel used chiefly as a hospice for blinded soldiers, who were fitted with a form of seeing-eye technology by his inventor father. His mother suffered from mental health problems, and would often disappear often to some Greenham Common-type protest camp for weeks at a time. One day, he finds her body in the boot of his father’s car. She has committed suicide. Too scared to tell his father, he disposes of the body himself. It is never found. The mystery of her “disappearance” is one of the narrative threads in Wolves. Another describes the slow collapse of country (I may be misremembering, but I don’t think its setting is categorically stated). And then there’s the identity of the mogul, who proves to be one of his father’s patients all those years ago. The plot is perhaps a little confused in places, but the writing is excellent, the dark surreal tone extremely well done, and, like Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, I’m surprised this book didn’t generate more of a fuss when it was published. But then, like Theroux’s novel, it’s not the sort of book that fits in with the genre’s current narrative…

steersmanThe Lost Steersman, Rosemary Kirstein (2003). I stumbled across the first book of this series, The Steerswoman, in a charity shop several years ago and bought it because I vaguely recalled someone telling me it was good. I really liked it – and said so in my review on SF Mistressworks (here). I liked the sequel, The Outskirter’s Secret, even more (see here). So it’s fair to say I had high expectations of The Lost Steersman. And… it sort of almost nearly met them. Rowan is now in the port town of Alemeth after leaving the Outskirts. There’s a Steerswomen’s Annex there, so she hopes to consult its thousands of volumes for more clues about Routine Bioform Clearance, the spell which opens up new lands to the east and so allowing for human expansion, but which appears to have stopped and is being misused by the evil wizard Slado. But the Alemeth steerswoman has died and has left the Annex in a right state, so Rowan has to get it all sorted out. And then demons, creatures from the Outskirts, begin to attack the town… Although couched in the language of fantasy, this is clearly science fiction, and Kirstein cleverly reveals more of the ecology of the world as Rowan investigates. Unfortunately, the first half of the novel is slow and a bit dull, and things only begin to get really interesting when Rowan sails south looking for Slado’s hidden fortress. She doesn’t find it – but what she does find tells the reader more about the world than it tells Rowan. They’re good books, these. The paperbacks are long out of print, but they’re still available as ebooks. Worth getting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116

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Reading diary, #13

More books read. Not as many as I’d like. Especially when I see the size of the TBR…

bone_clocksThe Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014). According to my records, I read Cloud Atlas back in April 2009, likely as a result of recommendations by friends and acquaintances. I thought the novel good, but it didn’t quite gel for me. I then worked my way through Mitchell’s oeuvre – number9dream, Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – over the following three years. Last year, The Bone Clocks was published… Initial noises were good, but then a few dissenting voices appeared… What was clear, however, was that it was structured as a series of linked novellas and that it moved deeper into genre territory as it progressed. I was, I admit, expecting a novel not unlike Cloud Atlas, one that had many impressive pieces but together left me feeling a little disappointed. Happily, this wasn’t the case at all. True, you wait for a book about conspiracies of body-hopping immortals and three come along at once – there are elements of The Bone Clocks that are reminiscent of Claire North’s Touch and of Marcel Theoux’s Strange Bodies – although for secret wars masterminded by hidden groups, you might as well go all the way back to EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Arisians and Eddorians. The Bone Clocks follows Holly Sykes from her teen years in southern England, when she runs away from home, through to a post-apocalyptic Ireland some thirty years from now. Along the way, other voices occasionally take over the narrative, such as egocentric author Crispin Hershey (based on Martin Amis?), a well-handled pastiche although it reminds me of Charles Palliser’s brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer in Betrayals; and even one of the immortals, who is, at that time, occupying the body of a black Canadian psychologist. The two factions at war are the Horologists, who are serial reincarnators and seem to have arisen naturally among humans; and the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar, who are able to “decant” souls in order to extend their own lives. Holly becomes inadvertently involved with these two groups, partly because one of the immortals reincarnates in her younger brother, partly because the Horologists prevent her from being groomed to be “decanted”, and partly because she has a brief fling with Hugo Lamb, who is recruited by the Anchorites. Holly is a great character and Mitchell handles her brilliantly. Some of the other elements I found less successful – the Anchorites reminded me a little of the baddies in the bande dessinée L’Histoire secrète by Jean-Pierre Pécau (both have chief villains with no eyes); and the post-apocalypse scenario hewed somewhat too closely to the common template. Much has also been made of those characters which have appeared in other Mitchell novels and stories, but this is hardly unique nor does it add much to this novel. Nonetheless, a very good book, and I’m looking forward to reading Slade House.

The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril (1960). This is another book I bought at Archipelacon in Finland. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here. To be honest, the cover art is probably the best thing about it.

the_echoThe Echo, James Smythe (2014). Twenty years after the disastrous mission to interstellar space described in The Explorer, a pair of Swedish twins organise a second mission. This flight’s purpose is to investigate the “anomaly”, a “blackness of space” thought to be the cause of the loss of the previous mission. This new spacecraft, Lära, however, is not as “Hollywood” as the previous one, it’s smaller and much more compactly designed (although it still has room between the outer hull and the walls of the inner chambers for a member of the crew to hide). One of the twins, Mira, is leader of the expedition aboard the spacecraft, the other twin, Tomas, remains on Earth at mission control. The Echo is told entirely from Mira’s point of view, and this is stuff Smythe does really well. I’m still not convinced by his spacecraft (it’s unlikely, for example the twins would have had to invent a thruster system as all present-day spacecraft have used reaction control systems for close manoeuvring for decades) – or indeed some of the science in the book – but there’s an increasing level of creepiness as the novel progresses and that’s where the novel shines. It’s not just the anomaly itself – the title of the book pretty much signals what the crew of the Lära find when they arrive at it – but Mira himself and his thoughts and relationship with his twin brother, and the way he deals with the deaths of Lära’s crew. I think I could have done with a little more verisimilitude, something that nailed down the tech and science, but that’s a personal preference (and, to be fair, no one is selling The Echo on its scientific credentials, unlike the not-as-scientifically-correct-as-advertised The Martian (and that’s a completely unfair comparison anyway, because Smythe is a very good writer and Weir is a shit writer)). The Explorer and The Echo form the first half of the Anomaly Quartet, and I’m very much intrigued to see what the next two books will do.

orbital6Orbital 6: Resistance, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2015). Cinebook have been publishing bandes dessinée in English-language editions now for a decade, and while a number of their titles have in the past appeared intermittently in English – Valérian et Laureline, Lucky Luke, the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, Yoko Tsuno – there are now extended runs of these comics in English published by Cinebook. The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, for example, currently stands at twenty of twenty-three volumes, Valerian and Laureline at nine of twenty-two… Orbital, however, is one of the several series published by Cinebook which had previously never seen publication in English. It’s a space opera, in which Earth has joined a federation of planets but xenophobic feeling runs high, and Earth is likely to either secede, revolt or just harbour terrorists. There are, of course, a number of alien factions, all with their own agenda. Orbital follows the careers of a diplomatic troubleshooting team comprising a human and a sandjarr (the alien race which defeated Earth). By this sixth volume in the series, everything’s got a bit pear-shaped, and the human member of the pair has developed weird powers and… The artwork is good, the story works, and the background interesting. As a novel this wouldn’t be bad, as a bande dessinée it’s pretty good.

1001nightsOne Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011). Everybody knows about the Alf Layla wa Layla, how a king would marry a young woman each day and then have her executed the following morning, until Scheherazade asks to marry him and then spends the night telling stories but ending on a cliff-hanger – so he keeps her alive to find out how the story ends. Most people probably also know some of the 1001 Nights’ more popular stories, such as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I actually have a copy of the Penguin Classic edition of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, although I’ve yet to read it. I am, however, a fan of Al-Shaykh’s novels, ever since reading Only in London back in 2002. I believe Al-Shaykh’s version of the One Thousand and One Nights – and it’s only the first few stories of the first volume – started life as a play, but happily it doesn’t read like a play. One thing I hadn’t known until I read this book was how… bawdy the stories are. And how inter-nested. While Scheherazade opens the book, the story she tells contains characters who tell stories which contain characters who tell stories… I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. There are that many levels of framing narratives it can get a little confusing, but the individual tales are amusing and well-told. Recommended.

twentytrillionleaguesTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Adam Roberts (2014). Roberts is a very clever man, and a thoroughly nice chap. But for some reason I’ve never quite connected with his novels. The closest I’ve managed to date was Jack Glass, although I did really like the first half of Yellow Blue Tibia – but, I hasten to add, I’ve not read every novel he’s written, and I still have a few on the TBR. However, I do admire and enjoy his short fiction. Unfortunately, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a novel. A very nicely illustrated novel, too. In 1958, France’s first nuclear-powered submarine, Le Plongeur, is on its sea trials when something goes wrong during a dive, and the submarine continues to descend… to an impossible depth, tens of thousands of kilometres. The meagre crew aboard speculate on their predicament, there are small mutinies, and many mysteries. I very much liked this story – I have in fact written something similar myself in short story form – but felt Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea was marred by too many things that were just plain wrong. Not only does the novel claim nine thousand metres is “nearly a full kilometre”, or that titanium is stronger than steel, or that no part of the sea-bed is deeper than 10,000 metres (Challenger Deep is nearly 11,000 metres, as recorded by a 1951 survey), but a French naval officer would have known of the Trieste, given that the French Navy bought August Piccard’s earlier bathyscaphe FNRS-2 in 1950 (and operated it under the name FNRS-3, even setting a new depth record of 4,050 metres in 1954)… Besides all that, the novel repeatedly confuses metres and kilometres. Le Plongeur sinks at one metre a second, so attaining a depth of 90,000 km in three days is impossible. Ninety thousand metres, yes. But not ninety thousand kilometres. But not only does the prose repeatedly refer to this figure, it also compares it to the diameter of the Earth. There are other small details, like a hatch that open inwards, and so the pressure of the water would be continually acting to force it open; or an airlock on the keel of the submarine; or even a nuclear reactor directly driving the propeller (that’s not how nuclear-powered submarines work – the reactor generates heat, which powers a turbine, which turns the propellor shaft). These slips (also, a character briefly possessing two left hands), which should have been picked up by an editor, aside, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a typical Roberts piece. There’s a reason Le Plongeur is where it is, and even a sort of scientific explanation for the presence of so much water. There are some odd bits, like carnivorous fish which don’t appear to have an ecosystem to support them, before the submarine and its remaining crew reach their (unbeknownst to most of them) planned destination and the, er, whole point of the book. Given the novel’s title, the identity of the person they meet there should come as no surprise. The reason for the journey relies on a somewhat stretched scientific analogy, but it’s easy enough to swallow. In fact, for a tall tale, and it is very much a tall tale, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is very easy to swallow. Perhaps it feels a bit over-long in places, but the cast of (mostly) grotesques are amusing and well-written, and the final pay-off is worth the long descent. Oh, and the illustrations, by Mahendra Singh, are very good.

in_conquest_bornIn Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1986). I bought this recently to review as it was on the SF Mistressworks list but we had yet to write about it. Mid-eighties space opera, I thought, should be okay. Seems to be well-regarded. But I do wonder how many of its unchallenged assumptions are still acceptable in the twenty-first century. A review will appear on SF Mistressworks soon.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116


Reading diary, #12

Recent reads. I think I need to up my game, I don’t seem to be reading at my previous speeds. Admittedly, quite a bit of my reading has been somewhat heavier than is usual…

ghost_countryGhost Country, Sara Paretsky (1998). One of Paretsky’s two non-Warshawski novels, although this one is set in present-day Chicago like the VI books. There’s a world-famous opera singer, who is an alcoholic and slowly losing her grip on reality. Her career is already in the toilet. There’s a doctor who wants to practice psychiatry at a prestigious Chicago hospital, but the highly-respected consultant in charge of the department is more concerned with cutting costs so would sooner give patients drugs. There’s the granddaughter of the cost-cutting consultant, who can’t compete with her older sister, a high-flying lawyer, and runs away from home. And there’s a homeless woman who thinks the rusty water leaking from a broken pipe inside the outside wall of a top hotel’s garage is the blood of Mary, and she worships at a small shrine she has built there. Their stories all, of course, interact, and Paretsky uses them to deliver a stinging indictment of US private healthcare, hypocritical middle-class Christians, and the move to a more right-wing neocon Christian society. None of the men in the novel, with the exception of the psychiatrist, are sympathetic; but neither are they unconvincing. This is not a book to read if you’re looking for mind candy or comfort reading – it will make you angry. True, everyone gets what they deserve, and though the story is bleak the ending isn’t; but it’s still a very angry novel. Worth reading, nonetheless.

The-Sense-of-an-EndingThe Sense of an Ending*, Julian Barnes (2011). Three lads at school in the 1960s are joined by a fourth, a clever outsider called Adrian. The first half of The Sense of an Ending describes those halcyon days, as narrated by one of the three, Tony. After school, the four go their separate ways – Adrian to Cambridge, Tony to Bristol uni. At Bristol, Tony meets a young woman, Veronica, and the two enter into a relationship. She invites him home one weekend to meet her parents. But Veronica is, to put it mildly, hard-going, and Tony and her split. He later hears that Veronica has taken up with Adrian. Tony writes the pair of them a shitty letter. Some months later, Adrian commits suicide. The novel then jumps forward forty years to the present day. A solicitor contacts Tony – who is divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife, and has a grown-up daughter – and tells him he has been left £500 by Veronica’s mother. Also bequeathed to him is Adrian’s diary. But the solicitor does not have this as it’s currently in the possession of Veronica, who is reluctant to give it up. So Tony embarks on a campaign of flattery, cajolery and stubborn persistence, via email, in order get the diary from Veronica. She is enigmatic, arrogant and clearly contemptuous of Tony – repeatedly telling him he “doesn’t get it”. Through Veronica, he meets a group of mentally-disabled people, and then over the course of several weeks insinuates himself into their world… and so discovers that one of them is Veronica’s brother and Adrian’s son. The end. Throughout the second half of The Sense of an Ending, Tony is sneered at by Veronica for not getting something he could never have known about. That he figures it out in the end still makes Veronica’s actions senseless and completely undermines the plot. The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker in 2011, but to be honest I can’t see why. It reads like a more polished Iain Banks novel, and while it’s good, the doggedness of its narrator and Veronica’s behaviour are not well-grounded, which makes it all feel a bit unsupported plot-wise.

Chanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh (1992). I read this to review on SF Mistressworks. It’s the final book of the Compact Space quintet, and its story is more of a pendant to the plot of the earlier four books that it is a continuation or closure. Still, I liked it – see here.

all_that_heaven_allowsAll That Heaven Allows, Edna Lee & Harry Lee (1952). The novel from which my favourite film was adapted – and it wasn’t easy to find a copy. Initially, the film seems to follow the novel quite faithfully: Cary’s friend cries off from a lunch engagement, so Cary invites Ron Kirby, the man maintaining her garden, to join her instead. Later, Cary accompanies Harvey to the country club for a dinner party, and there one of her late husband’s friends makes a drunken attempt to kiss her. Cary’s two grown-up kids, Ned and Kay, are pretty much the same in both book and film. Ned is a stuffed-shirt, a Princeton conservative who will no doubt grow up become an arsehole; Kay is more nuanced in the novel, her head still full of juvenile sociology and politics, but sympathetic to her mother’s situation. Ron, however, is more or less a cipher in the novel. He doesn’t have Rock Hudson’s easy charm, and it’s not altogether obvious what Cary sees in him. One thing the novel does show, however, is how cleverly the party scene in the film introduces Ron’s bohemian friends and lifestyle. There is no mention of Walden or Thoreau in the book. And the old mill building Ron restores to make a home for Cary and himself is in the book an old barn. All That Heaven Allows, although it made a great film, is not great literature. It’s by no means pulp fiction, nor some tawdry May-December romance novel; but I’m not really surprised it’s vanished into obscurity and that copies are extremely hard to find. Ignore the book, watch the film.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116


Reading diary, #11

There are a couple of books in this post which likely deserve full-on reviews, but I don’t do that any more (not unless they’re associated with a “reading project” or something, or for a venue such as Interzone or SF Mistressworks), so you’ll have to make do with this. I’ve also decided to institute a new feature and, as I do in my Moving pictures posts, asterisk those books which can be found on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list (I’m using the 2013 list, as that was the first one I found). To date, I’ve read 115 books on the list, including the one asterisked below, and to be honest there are a number I don’t think I’ll ever bother reading… But others look they might be worth a go – as indeed was Henry Green…

children_of_timeChildren of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015). I sort of read this by accident. I bought it at Edge-Lit 4, and on the train ride home I finished the book I’d taken to read during the journey there and back, so I started Children of Time. And since I’d started it, I decided to continue reading it. Which I think makes it one of the very few books I’ve actually bought and then started on the same day. The elevator pitch for this novel didn’t sound all that appealing, and the author is better known for a ten-book fantasy series, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a polished sf novel with several neat twists on the generation starship story (it seems to be the generation starship’s year, with this and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora). The world the ship plans to colonise, and the only possible candidate its crew have found, unfortunately turns out to have been terraformed and colonised millennia earlier. By spiders (the result of a human seeding programme that went wrong). The novel alternates between events on the ship and the development of the spider civilisation – and the latter narrative is absolutely fascinating. Tchaikovsky puts a few spins on his generation ship tropes, although it soon devolves into a well-visited territory. Which was a little disappointing – but on balance the spiders more than make up for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this on the BSFA Awards shortlist next year.

Skin, Ilka Tampke (2015). I reviewed this for Interzone. I picked the book as one of my choices based on the one-line description in the email sent out to reviewers. It turned out to completely different to what I had expected. It’s a Celtic historical fantasy that sort of hovers on the border of YA and adult fantasy. Bits of it worked really well, but the narrator was such a special snowflake it sort of spoiled things for me.

lovingLoving*, Henry Green (1945). According to the back cover of the Picador omnibus paperback I own which contains Loving, Green is “the most neglected writer of our century”. The book was first published in 1978, and that may well have been true then, but he has apparently seen something of a revival in recent years – there’s a 2005 edition of the same book, but with an introduction by Sebastian Faulks rather than John Updike; and Green has a number of other novels in print. Which is all, I suppose, beside the point; suffice it to say I knew only Green’s name and nothing about his oeuvre when I started Loving. Perhaps I’d expected something not unlike Olivia Manning’s novels, she was after all a contemporary, and I do like Manning’s fiction. Loving, however, proved to be entirely different; and excellent for reasons that make it nothing like Manning’s books. It’s set belowstairs in a large house in rural Ireland during World War II. Not only are the staff worried about the war, but also about their own situation in an neutral country should the Germans invade. And, of course, there’s the house to manage, and their employers to wait upon. The novel opens with the death of the butler, and chiefly follows Raunce’s efforts to get himself promoted into the vacant position. Green makes no concessions to his readers, the characters and their relationships have to be inferred from the narrative, much of which is dialogue. Science fiction may over-rely on dialogue to carry its stories, but it never does it with the skill and control of voice Green manages. I’ll definitely be reading more of his novels.

Godsfire, Cynthia Felice (1978). This is one of several paperbacks I bought from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon, with the intention of reviewing them on SF Mistressworks. Which is what I did – see here. I liked it.

auroraAurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (2015). I’ve been a fan of Robinson’s work for many years, and, so I was told, this was one of his best, even better than 2312. So, of course, being completely contrary, I enjoyed it, thought it quite good, but… not as successful as 2312. The story follows the arrival of a generation starship at Tau Ceti after 170 years in flight, and is told by the vessel’s AI as a study in narratology and a sort of experiment in making the AI more human. The narrative focuses on Freya and first follows her as she goes on a wanderjahr through the twelve biomes which make up the ship. Then there’s the attempt to colonise a moon of one of Tau Ceti’s exoplanets. But that goes horribly wrong, and leads to a civil war on board between those who want to terraform another moon and those who think they should return to Earth. Freya is the de facto leader of the latter faction, and the final section of the book details the ship’s return to Earth and Freya’s experiences once there (those who flew back hibernated for the trip, using a technique in the feed beamed to them from Earth). As a thought experiment on how some elements of a generation starship might operate, Aurora makes for a fascinating read. There’s some handwavey stuff – not least the narrating AI – and many of the mechanical issues are glossed over. However, where the book fails for me is in its human side. Although a number of different cultures are present on the ship, everyone acts like twenty-first century Californians, displaying the sort of liberal individualistic sensibilities more likely to be found on the western seaboard of the US than in the seventh generation of a generation starship’s passengers. For example, there are complaints people are not free to have children as and when they want, but you’d think something like that would have long been accepted. And then there’s the violence between the “stayers” and the “backers”, which for a group of 1200 people who have known only the biomes, didn’t ring true. I was, however, amused that Freya and the others clearly returned to the Earth of 2015 – there were a few backhanded digs at social media and an indirect mention of hipsters. I’m still in two minds about Aurora. The setting is very clever, but the characters are thin and unconvincing; and like 2312, it’s all about making the Earth a fit place to live – because there’s nowhere else in the universe we can do so.

her-smoke-rose-up-foreverHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990). When I first started reading Tiptree back in the late 1970s – it was Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home, originally published in 1973 but my edition was the 1978 paperback – I knew “he” was a woman, but from what I’d read somewhere I thought the pseudonym was in order to protect the author’s career with the CIA. It never occurred to me Ali Sheldon used it because she was a woman. Now I know better, of course. In the early 1980s I bounced out of Tiptree’s Brightness Falls From the Air, and never quite got back into reading her. Well, at least not with the same fervour as before. I’ve reread Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home over the years several times, not to mention the odd story in various anthologies, but it wasn’t until Her Smoke Rose Up Forever appeared in the SF Masterworks series – deservedly so, I might add – that I really decided to give her a reread in earnest. I would normally review this book for SF Mistressworks, but I’ve already got a review lined up by someone else; and besides, I’ve probably reviewed half of the contents in reviews of other anthologies anyway. For the record, not every story in here shines, but a number of them so do very brightly – ‘The Screwfly Solution’, personal favourite ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’, ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, even ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ (a story which has haunted me since I first read it decades ago). There are stronger collections in science fiction out there, but not many.

the_danger_gameThe Danger Game, DHF Webster (1978). The author joined the Royal Navy in the nineteen-fifties as a diver, then ran a salvage operation for a while, but that eventually folded due to a lack of contracts. He was employed as a manager for a booze merchant in his home town of Bradford, when an old Navy buddy contacted him and asked him if he’d be interested in working in the North Sea, as the industry was desperate for qualified divers. The Danger Game is about Webster’s years as a commercial diver, and given some of the things he describes the title seems apt. During the early sixties, things were very different, and a lot of deep dives were done on air – 200 feet deep, that’s about seven atmospheres, on air. Nitrogen narcosis, “rapture of the deep”, was not only common, it was expected, and divers frequently surfaced with little or no memory of the final tasks they’d performed. The same was true of the bends, pretty much everyone suffered from it several times, usually because of mistakes with the air supply requiring a quick trip to the surface, or because the wrong tables were used. But they had decompression chambers on deck, so a few hours sealed in one of them and they were right as rain. Although lots of divers perished, it seems a miracle the entire industry wasn’t shut down it was so dangerous. But, of course, because oil. Anyway, a short and reasonably informative read, although likely of worth only to those interested in the subject.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 115

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Reading diary, #10

I’ve given up on writing actual full-length book reviews on this blog – you know, a post about a single book, covering it in some detail. I do that for SF Mistressworks and Interzone (and occasionally Vector). Besides, I read so widely these days, it would seem weird to review only science fiction books here, not to mention only recent science fiction novels. These reading diary posts strike me as an acceptable compromise – a couple of hundred words on every book I’ve read, irrespective of genre or year of publication – serving both to remind me of what I’ve read as well as perhaps point followers of this blog at something they might find worthwhile reading.

And after my last reading diary was almost all genre fiction, this one sees something of a return to form, with only a pair of sf books, and a third which was published as literary fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2008 (it lost out to Richard Morgan’s Black Man).

the_rainbowThe Rainbow, DH Lawrence (1915). Three books into working my way chronologically through Lawrence’s novels, and he’s yet to move outside of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire (I’ve also read the later Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which also takes place in Notts). The Rainbow follows the Brangwen family through several generations, from the 1840s through to 1905. It starts with the family patriarch before eventually settling on Ursula, who comes of age at the turn of the century, is fiercely ambitious, and ends up teaching at a local school. It’s a more structured novel than The White Peacock and Sons and Lovers, although only inasmuch as the passage of years provides a framework for the story – it still has a tendency to randomly move from one member of the family to another, and it’s not always clear where the novel’s focus lies. But Lawrence’s descriptive prose, particularly in regard to the landscape, shines; and he brings his usual detailed, if occasionally heavy-handed, eye to the emotional landscapes of his cast. I set out to work my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre because a read of Lady Chatterley’s Lover persuaded me I’d been missing out by avoiding him, and because my father was a huge Lawrence fan. The more I’ve read, the more I too have become a fan of his writing – and collecting the books is fun too, of course.

voiceoutramahA Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979). I picked this up from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon in Mariehamn – did I mention I went to a con in Finland, well, the Åland Islands to be precise, and it was excellent? – anyway, I bought this with the intention of reviewing it for SF Mistressworks. I’d come across Killough’s name in an anthology of sf by women, but I’d never read anything else by her. I started the book while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester in Helsinki Airport, and ended up finishing it before my flight was called (it was a five hour wait). And I really liked the novel. As you can no doubt tell from my review on SF Mistressworks here.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia, ed. (1973). This I also bought from Alvarfonden, and read during the flight from Helsinki, and train journey from Manchester. And I suspect it’s the worst sf anthology I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. I mean, just look at that strapline on the cover: “Can sex survive the space age?”. I’m guessing yes it will, it’ll survive a whole lot of things, like climate crash, nuclear armageddon, global economic meltdown… maybe even the heat death of the universe. There are nineteen stories, two are by women (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Miriam Allen deFord); the remainder are by a mix of well-known names (Silverberg, Sturgeon, Aldiss, Farmer), and a few that were unknown to me. The stories, on the other hand, are full of the worst of early seventies sensibilities – the Silverberg is about a young man who discovers he has mental powers and uses them to stalk women, there’s a section titled “Toujours Gay” which opens with the frankly awful ‘The World Well Lost’, another story has serial rape as the “twist”, and the Aldiss is racist and features sexual slavery. The rest are either worse, or completely unmemorable. Best avoided.

The-Cuckoos-CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (2013). According to the blurb on this book, it was a huge best-seller and then the author was revealed as JK Rowling, which is not how I remember it happening. The Cuckoo’s Calling received several positive reviews and sold modestly. Then someone at Rowling’s solicitors (I think) leaked Galbraith’s true identity, and sales shot up overnight by about 5000%. But hey, let’s rewrite history anyway and make out that it’s not Rowling’s name that sells books, that’s she still a really good writer even when no one knows it’s her. So, of course, it comes as little surprise to find The Cuckoo’s Calling is… okay. It has too many words for its story and could have done with losing 100 pages, the most interesting thing about its hero, Cormoran Strike, is his improbable name, and the whole thing feels like it was written by someone who’s a little bit out of touch. A supermodel falls to her death from her penthouse flat and the police initially rule it suicide. But the supermodel’s brother, a solicitor, thinks this is wrong and hires Strike to investigate. At the same time, a new temp has started as Strike’s secretary, and she proves to be highly competent and very much in love with the idea of being a private investigator – parts of the novel are written from her perspective. The plot moves smoothly, but it feels wordy, yet nowhere near literary enough to be literary fiction. There are a few digs at the ultra-wealthy, which feel like they’re the result of personal experience, but mostly Strike’s life seems to belong to an earlier decade. I now have a copy of the sequel, The Silkworm, but I’m not expecting it to be any better.

researchResearch, Philip Kerr (2014). John Houston is a mega-selling author, who runs an “atelier” of writers – he comes up with the stories, they bang out the actual prose… and the books are of course sold under Houston’s name. It makes him millions of dollars a year and his writers a comfortable living. If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Houston is clearly based on James Patterson. But Houston has decided to pack it all in. He wants to write something himself, to prove he has the writing chops. So he closes down his atelier and pays off his writers… Shortly afterwards, his wife is found murdered in their Monaco apartment, and Houston has done a runner. The police contact Don Irvine, the first writer to join Houston’s atelier (the two were friends and colleagues at an advertising agency), but he can shed no light on the murder. And then, as you’d expect to happen in a novel such as this, Houston contacts Irvine, pleads innocence and asks for Irvine’s help. Which he is happy to give. The novel is broken into sections, alternating between first-person narrations from Irvine’s and Houston’s point of view. And pretty soon things aren’t what Houston, Irvine or even the Monaco police thought they were. As thrillers go, there’s not much in here that hasn’t been done before. However, Kerr does a top job of satirising mega-selling authors of the likes of Patterson, their books, and the publishing industry which supports them. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

the_carhullan_armyThe Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall (2007). I picked up this in Oxfam in Micklegate, just before the York pub meet back in May. I’d been after a copy for a while, so I was pretty chuffed when I found this one. I had high hopes too of the novel, as it had been repeatedly recommended to me, but initially I wondered if it had been over-praised. It’s structured as segments of found testimony by Sister, who leaves her husband to join a women’s militia based at a remote farm. In the near-future UK of the book, the economy has crashed, the US sends aid, and an oppressive political regime is tightening its grip on an already downtrodden and poor population. Once Sister reaches Carhullan, the militia’s farm, the story picks up, and when she is recruited to the women’s army which is planning a coup on a local town, then it really moves into gear. By the end of the novel, I was much more impressed than I had been after the first dozen or so pages. On balance, definitely worth its position on the Clarke Award shortlist (and arguably better than the eventual winner).


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