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Reading diary, #10

With all the dipping into books I’ve been doing for research for All That Outer Space Allows, I’ve not been reading as much as usual – although I have managed to fit in several reads for review for SF Mistressworks. And, er, several books which I’ve actually written about at greater length… which is something I’ve not done on here for a while either.

Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Malcolm Lowry (1968). My love of Lowry’s prose remains undimmed. I wrote about this book here.

Women as Demons, Tanith Lee (1989). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

my_name_is_red1My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998). I originally picked up this book for a world fiction reading challenge a couple of years ago, but got bogged down about halfway in and gave up. I eventually decided to give it another go, and this time I managed to finish it. In Istanbul in the late sixteenth century, the Sultan asks a retired and highly-regarded miniaturist to manage the creation of a book to celebrate his reign. But this book will not be illustrated in the Persian style, as is considered proper and religiously correct, but in the European style (depictions of people and animals is haram in Islam; hence Islamic art’s focus on calligraphy and architecture). But one of the miniaturists secretly approached to provide illustrations, or part of the illustrations, disagrees with the project and murders one of the other miniaturists. The novel is structured as first-person narratives by all those involved, including the murdered victims, the daughter of the man managing the project, and a young man who has returned to Istanbul after years in the provinces to ask for the daughter’s hand… It’s not the fastest-paced of murder-mysteries, and Pamuk seems fond of presenting the same piece of information from several different viewpoints so they more or less contradict, or at least, confuse each other. But I did think My Name is Red was very good… although I wasn’t so taken I plan to seek out Pamuk’s other novels.

mindjammerMindjammer, Sarah Newton (2012). This novel set in the world of a sf role-playing game of the same name and is, I believe, chiefly intended to support the RPG rather than vice versa. Which no doubt explains some of its set-up, like ,for example, the fact that it follows the adventures of a group of four military specialists from varied backgrounds (ie, both above and below the law). They’ve been sent to a rediscovered human polity as a Security and Cultural Integrity Force team by the New Commonality of Humankind in order to ensure everything about the newly-discovered world, Solenius, is exactly as it seems. Except, of course, it’s not. The plot of the novel basically comprises the four SCI agents stumbling from one violent encounter to another, interspersed with fact-filled info-dumps, while a number of villains twirl moustaches and gloat evilly. Mindjammer is space opera turned up to eleven, which is both its appeal and its worst problem. Space opera needs those clunky wodges of exposition, it needs a relentless plot filled with violence, discovery and violent upsets, it needs to rely on clichés because there isn’t much room for anything else… And when you have a space opera based on what is clearly a rich and lovingly-designed role-playing game universe… One for fans of the subgenre as much as it is for fans of the RPG; but yes, one for fans, I think.

Sanctum_zoomedSanctum, Xavier Dorison & Christophe Bec (2014). I picked up a copy of the first part of this a few years ago, but it’s only recently an omnibus edition of all three parts has appeared in English (I was tempted to buy it in French, but never got around to it). Sadly, after all that wait, I can’t really say it was worth it. Some things it does very well, but it also fails quite badly in other respects. The opening section, in which a US submarine stumbles across a wrecked Soviet sub in an underwater chasm off the coast of Syria is done well… Except it all takes place at 4,000 feet, and you can’t have people diving that deep – the pressure would crush them. And should you somehow manage to saturation dive at nearly 120 atmospheres, you’d be decompressing for weeks afterwards. The US submarine is also infeasibly large inside, and reminded me of the Russian mining submarine in the BBC’s execrable The Deep (which I wrote about here). Near the Soviet wreck, the divers find the entrance to an ancient temple. Which is where the story turns all Lovecraftian, as the temple proves to be a magical prison for a Sumerian demon, which the Americans inadvertently release. The art is uniformly good throughout – it was intended to be cinematic, and it works well in that respect – and the story does hang together, even if the pacing is a little slow. But the author should have done a little more research and not sacrificed plausibility for drama.

All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park (2014). I am a big fan of Park’s fiction. I wrote about this book here.

Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, Shawn McCarthy, ed. (1984). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

A Month Soon Goes, Storm Jameson (1962). The first read in my informal project to try a number of British women writers from the first half of the twentieth century. And I enjoyed it very much. A polished piece of work. I wrote about it here.

suicideexhbThe Suicide Exhibition: The Never War, Justin Richards (2013). This was a freebie from Fantasycon, and I only picked it up after spotting the Nazi Black Sun and flying saucers on the cover. And this was despite recently reviewing Graeme Shimmin’s A Kill in the Morning, another occult Nazi alternate history, for Interzone and not being very impressed. A secret section of the British intelligence services called Station Z crops up in various places, intriguing a man and a woman who are plainly intended to be the series main protagonists. They are duly recruited and learn that Station Z is fighting against Reichsführer Himmler’s new secret occult weapon, ancient technology some of his Ahnenerbe officers have discovered in ancient barrows scattered across Europe. Unfortunately, also in said barrows are alien creatures which are, well, are completely ripped off from the hand-creatures in Alien, and some sort of alien parasite which keeps the ancient kings interred in the barrows still alive, sort of – and who promptly go on a violent rampage once released. Oh, and there are some flying saucers too, which may be linked to the ancient aliens. It’s all complete tosh, and appallingly researched. Incidentally, the title refers to an exhibition laid on in the British Museum for the duration of the war and which the Museum didn’t mind losing should the Germans bomb the crap out of the building. It’s also mentioned later as a metaphor for Station Z or something, but its presence in the story is so trivial it seems completely undeserving of providing the title. Avoid.

Across The Acheron, Monique Wittig (1985). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

towersThe Towers Of Silence, Paul Scott (1971). This is the third instalment of Scott’s Raj Quartet. I must admit to a little confusion when I started the book. I was pretty sure I’d not read it, but the story seemed very familiar. At least, it sort of did. And when the narrative referred to something I remembered clearly from an earlier book in the quartet, but here it all happened off-stage, I realised that Scott was covering ground previously described but this time from different characters’ viewpoints. So, for example, when Sarah Layton goes off to Calcutta and has her adventures there, The Towers Of Silence remains behind in Pankot and, in the person of Barbie Batchelor, we get to witness Mabel Layton’s death at first hand. Barbie, incidentally, is a superb creation, an ex-Mission teacher who has retired to Pankot and shares Rose Cottage with Mabel as her companion. She’s played in the television series by Peggy Ashcroft, who is the best thing in the programme, and captures Barbie perfectly; although the rest of the series is a little disappointing as it misses so much interiority out that most of the characters comes across as unrepentant racists. The books, however, are built on cleverly-nuanced character studies, so they’re vastly superior to the TV series.

sweeneyA Pictorial History of Oceanographic Submersibles,, James B Sweeney (1970). I picked this up cheap on eBay, and it proved to be ex-library so I got a partial refund. I should have sent it back – while it covers the early history of submarines reasonably well, as soon as it reaches WW1 it’s almost as if the world shrinks to only the US and its concerns. The chapter on WW2 is especially bad – it reads as though only the USA and Japan operated submarines, with only brief mentions of German U-Boots (which are not U-Botes, as the book writes at one point) and British mini-submarines. It’s also deeply racist – the Japanese are referred to as “the little people from the land of the Rising Sun” and dropping an atomic bomb apparently caused Hiroshima to be “blasted into immortality”. The writing throughout is terrible, and while I’ve spotted no blatant inaccuracies there is plenty that is given such an American emphasis it mendaciously implies every single advance in the field was made by that country.


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All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park

I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since first reading Coelestis (1993), a copy of which I bought in 1994 in a book shop I used to frequent when I lived in Abu Dhabi. It has been a favourite genre novel ever since. Over the years since, I’ve tracked down copies of his other books – first editions, natch – and read them. So when I learnt he had a new novel due, six years after the fourth and final book of the Princess of Roumania quartet, The Hidden World (2008), well, I was pretty excited. I discovered the book actually comprised three linked novellas, one of which had originally appeared in F&SF in January 2010 under the title ‘Ghost Doing the Orange Dance’, but had then been revised and published by PS Publishing in January 2013 under the same title. I’d read the PS version early in 2014, and even nominated it for a Hugo. There was also a short story, which shared the title of the new novel, that had originally been commissioned to accompany a sound installation by Stephen Vitiello at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in September 2011.

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Clearly, All Those Vanished Engines the novel was going to be something of a fix-up. And if Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance was any indication, it was also going to meta-fictional. Fix-ups fell out of favour several decades ago, but they were very popular during science fiction’s first few decades. AE van Vogt’s entire novel output, for example, is arguably comprised of fix-up novels. But as both the market for short genre fiction and genre novels has changed, so fix-ups have become increasingly rare. But All Those Vanished Engines is actually not much like a fix-up novel. Nor is it like another well-known science fiction novel comprised of three linked novellas, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972). Or indeed much like another sf novel of three novellas, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge (1984). Chiefly because All Those Vanished Engines is not much like a novel as such.

All Those Vanished Engines opens with the line,” Maybe the first part of the story would be called The Bracelet, or else Bracelets would turn out to be the better name”. In point of fact, we already know it is called ‘Bracelets’ – the title is given on the preceding page. The bracelet which supplies the title for Paulina’s story is comprised of “intertwining strands”. Which is a not only a fair description of ‘Bracelets’ the novella, but also the novel as a whole. And the use of the name Paulina is also telling. Not only is it a female version of the author’s name, Paul, but Park used it himself as a pen-name on a Forgotten Realms tie-in novel for Wizards of the Coast, The Rose of Sarifal, as by Paulina Claiborne and published in May 2012. The writing of The Rose of Sarifal also features in All Those Vanished Engines‘ second novella.

Paulina lives in an alternate 1881, and she is writing a story set in 1967 – “Paulina had a habit of slipping away into an invented world over which she might pretend to have control” –  in a form of fractured English, featuring a boy called Matthew. As Paulina’s story progresses, her world and Matthew’s world begin to intertwine, so much so that Paulina’s own life’takes on the form of the sort of story she is imagining for Matthew. An assassin gatecrashes the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Mardi Gras ball and kills many of those present. Paulina is rescued by her cousin, Colonel Adolphus Claiborne, CSA, who reveals she is the daughter of the Yankee empress, and the assassin, Lizzie, is her clone, and that he plans to use Paulina in an assassination plot against the empress. But Paulina escapes, meets up with Matthew, and the two end up hiding from an invasion of Wellesian Martians… By two-thirds of the way through ‘Bracelets’, the two narratives – Paulina’s real adventures, and her invented ones – have become so entangled, we’re no longer sure if the protagonist is Paulina or Matthew. The world of the story seems to have changed to accommodate Paulina’s inventions; she has lost control of her invented world.

The second novella is titled ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’, and it opens with the line: “This is how the second part begins…” There then follows the text of the short story from the MASS MoCA sound installation. After that is an explanation of the origin of the short story, in which Park himself describes how he met Vitiello and offered him “a list of rhetorical devices, from which he chose onomatopoeia and, to a lesser extent, strategic repetition”. (This is clearly a joke – the story is to accompany a sound installation, after all.) At the opening of the exhibit, Park meets a woman who tells him that the subject of his story is still alive, and living in a nursing home. She also reveals that she was a student of Park’s late mother, and likely met Park when he was a teenager. Park goes on to write The Rose of Sarifal for Wizards of the Coast, and to first take, and then teach, creative writing at a local college. In his class is a woman called Traci, who is writing a novel which Park realises is a thinly-disguised version of Traci’s relationship with Park’s mother, which echoes Constance’s relationship mentioned earlier. In Traci’s book, Park himself is called Matthew. Park discusses her novel with her, making suggestions regarding technique that he himself is using in the narrative of All Those Vanished Engines.

The sound installation is real, The Rose of Sarifal is an actual published Forgotten Realms novel, Park does indeed teach writing, albeit science fiction (at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, according to Wikipedia). Some of the biographical details of Park’s life – a mother who was a published literary professor, a partner whose mother was born in Bucharest, an autistic sister – may also be true, although which is which cannot be determined without further extra-textual knowledge (in a 2000 interview on infinity plus, for example, Park mentions that his mother taught literature). But then the three poles of ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ are entirely extra-textural – the sound installation, The Rose of Sarifal, and Park’s own life. Just as Paulina and Matthew’s lives are intertwined in ‘Bracelets’, so are Paul’s and Matthew’s in this novella – and again, in both narratives, one world is presented as fictional (Paulina’s “invented world”, Traci’s novel), while the other is the first-order fictional narrative of the novel we are reading, which contains sufficient actuality to nail it into place in the real world.

The final novella is ‘Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance’, and the title is a reference to a painting which Park, the narrator, believes represents his grandfather’s encounter with extraterrestrials. The story itself is about Park’s family, his parents and grandparents, and their ancestors (the PS Publishing edition helpfully includes a family tree). It opens with a potted history, and the telling admission that “every memoirist and every historian should begin by reminding their readers that the mere act of writing something down … involves a clear betrayal of the truth”, which echoes the opening to Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969): “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination” (Park’s novel, Coelestis, it is worth noting, covers broadly similar ground, both conceptually and in terms of the physical journey by the two main characters, to The Left Hand Of Darkness).

As Park discusses his family’s history, so he reveals more of his own circumstances – and they do not entirely match those given in ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’. In this novella, for example, Park takes a class in writing meta-fiction, his partner is different, his sister is called Katy not Elly, and the novel from Park’s real-world oeuvre he makes mention of is A Princess of Roumania (2005). As the story progresses, it is slowly revealed that this is not the world we know, but a near-future dystopia, which ends with an invasion by the dead in a chilling link back to the first novella of the novel. Park spends much of his time untangling the lives of his ancestors, chiefly to understand the meaning behind the titular painting. But he also spends a lot of time in Second Life, a real-world online virtual world – which, in this novella, forms the overtly fictional world, much as Matthew’s and Traci’s do in the earlier two novellas.

There are so many references to Park’s actual oeuvre in All Those Vanished Engines – not just obvious ones, clearly linked in the text to earlier novels; but also characters named for characters in other of his novels. Then there is Park’s own life, and the mirror images of it which are presented in two of the three novellas. As Dire Straits famously sang, “Two men say they’re Jesus / One of them must be wrong”. Except both Parks in All Those Vanished Engines are plainly not the real Park. They are as much a fiction as the invented worlds, as much a fiction as the presentation of the act of creating those invented worlds.

To describe All Those Vanished Engines as “meta-fiction” feels like labelling any random novel as “a work of fiction”. It misses the extent and – to steal a phrase from Frank Zappa – the “interconnectedness of all things” within the three novellas. However, what makes this novel even more astonishing is that it seems likely it was not originally conceived as a whole. Park has taken elements of his own recent history and knitted them into a work of fiction on the nature of fiction and the act of creating it. The end result is as much about writing genre fiction as it is about the history of the Parks and Claibornes back to 1664. The writing, as you would expect from Park, is lucid, often elegant, and a pleasure to read. All Those Vanished Engines is one of the best genre novels I have read this year, if not for several years. But its very nature means it is unlikely to noticed by the various genre awards (although perhaps the Nebula will shortlist it).

I am myself extremely fond of re-engineering narrative structures in fiction; and of, well, I suppose “pile-driving” is perhaps the best description, the foundations of a story into the real world. I like that everything in a work of genre fiction can be Googled, that the elements used within a story have this extra dimension provided by the real world, a richness that cannot be contained within the pages of a short story, novella or novel. All Those Vanished Engines does both of these, but it also takes it a step further – some of those piles stretch down into Park’s own novels, giving a bedrock of actual published fiction on which the stories in All Those Vanished Engines securely rest. This is a novel which can be reread, and in which a fresh read will always find something new – because as your knowledge of Park in the real world grows, perhaps by reading some of his other novels, so too will that knowledge enrich your reading of All Those Vanished Engines.

And that’s quite a remarkable achievement.

 


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A Month Soon Goes, Storm Jameson

This is is the first book in my informal project to read as many postwar British women writers as I can, particularly ones that appear to have been forgotten. Storm Jameson was prolific and successful, writing around sixty books between 1919 and 1976 – fiction, criticism, biography and history. None of her books appear to be in print now. At least two of her novels, In the Second Year (1936), set in a fascist Britain, and Then We Shall Hear Singing (1942), about a Nazi invasion of an invented country, qualify as science fiction although I’m not aware of them being claimed by the genre. A Month Soon Goes (1962), however, is pure mainstream and, I believe, fairly typical of her oeuvre – though, of course, I will have to read more to say for certain.

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Storm Jameson

Sarah Faulkner is a celebrated diseuse – ie, a female artiste who entertains with spoken monologues – famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Her husband, Edward, is around twenty years older than her, so close to seventy when the novel opens. He lives in a ramshackle manor near the village of Callisfont, which is where Angry Young Man playwright Mark Smith is trying to write a follow-up to his successful debut. He chose the village because his grandmother was born there. Mark meets Edward, and is invited up to Callisfont House for dinner the following day. There, he meets Edward’s daughter, Harriet, who has just turned eighteen, Edward’s secretary, Medbourne, and a close friend of the family, the writer Arnold Hudson, who has not had a novel published in eight years. Mark holds all these in contempt – except Harriet, whom he considers little more than a child – but he becomes a frequent visitor to the manor, not just because the food is better than at the village inn but also because he gets on quite well with Edward. Mark’s complaints also sound somewhat familiar:

“Certain things are better. But nothing is changed. There are still nauseatingly rich people and poor people; power is still in a few hands, class is still a stumbling block, education crazily unequal, social equality a myth.” (p 13)

And then Sarah Faulkner turns up.

She has returned home after four years of touring, and it’s made clear she has been an absentee wife and mother for pretty much her entire adult life. She’s also been having an on-and-off affair with Arnold – and many other men. She brings two staff with her, a masseuse and a personal assistant. Sarah is quite a creation: charismatic, gloriously selfish, and completely aware of the power she has over people and unafraid to use it. She immediately begins making promises to Harriet, which she then later blithely goes back on – eventually deciding Harriet should be married off to a neighbour, a bluff and somewhat dim-witted member of the landed gentry in his forties. Harriet, of course, doesn’t want this. It is soon revealed that Sarah’s visit home has been prompted by her finances – she is notoriously bad at keeping the fortune her act earns her, and wants Edward to sell of a piece off his land to a developer. He refuses to do so. Meanwhile, Mark finds her compelling, Arnold comes to the conclusion he has been used, much like every man in Sarah’s life, and Harriet tries to get either her mother or Mark to take her away from Callisfont…

And then Edward dies in his sleep.

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A Month Soon Goes is definitely the product of a writer with years, if not decades, of career behind them. The prose is polished to a fine gloss, the characters are drawn sharply, and the setting is equally well mapped out. The book does feel most like, however, a BBC Play for Today from the 1960s and 1970s, where every line of dialogue is a barbed insult or a put-down. Though it is set in 1958 – May and June 1958, to be precise, as the jacket copy states – a lot of the commentary still holds true today. Not just Mark’s complaint, mentioned above, of the corruption of the rich and entitled (the complicity of our political masters with corporation seems to be a twenty-first century development; but then the multinationals are the new aristocratic houses), but also some of Sarah’s comments on the role of women in society. While she recognises her lifestyle would be considerably more acceptable had she been a man, she’s also quite hypocritical and happy to marry Harriet off to a local squire (and only so she no longer has to take responsibility for her daughter). But then Sarah’s selfishness really is quite astonishing – she only gets away with because she’s so charming. Jameson, incidentally, doesn’t have to tell us this, it’s there in the way Sarah talks and behaves.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I started A Month Soon Goes. Something like Olivia Manning or Elizabeth Taylor, I thought. If this novel is any indication, then yes, Jameson is indeed a similar writer… although perhaps a tad more commercial than them. I certainly plan to read more Jameson – in fact, I’ve already ordered a copy of The Road from the Monument, also published in 1962, from eBay. Well, it was only 99p for a first edition…


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Reading diary, #9

My reading seems to have slowed a little over the summer, possibly because I’m trying to schedule my reading choices. Instead of just picking whatever appeals at that moment, I’ve put together a list which includes books I’ve owned for years and never got around to reading. And some of them, well, I’m not entirely sure why I bought them – probably because they appeared on a Clarke Award shortlist or something…

entanglementEntanglement, Douglas Thompson (2012) In the near-future, a form of matter transmission to exoplanets using quantum-entangled matter is discovered. A number of space probes are sent out, and a century or so later, once they’ve arrived, Earth starts beaming out astronauts to each world. The process, however, is neither as safe nor as certain as has been claimed. Its inventor is haunted by the subject of an early experiment – literally. Meanwhile, the various astronauts discover that the exoplanets are inhabited… Despite this description, Entanglement is far from hard sf – which is not to say it glibly makes up its various science-fictional elements out of nothing: the exoplanets named are all real exoplanets, and the teleportation process is given a creditable scientific gloss… But the various missions – each sort of presented as a short story in a linked collection – are more explorations of philosophical questions than they are surveys of exoplanetary landscapes or xenological biospheres. It’s an interesting approach, but sadly I found the book a little disappointing. I liked Thompson’s earlier Sylvow very much – and said as much in my Interzone review – but something about Entanglement just didn’t work for me. Nonetheless, Thompson is doing some good work and I intend to continue reading him.

w_wastedW is for Wasted, Sue Grafton (2013), is the latest in Kinsey Milhone’s alphabetical adventures. Only three more and they’re done. Or perhaps then Grafton will move onto AA for, er, Arsonists Anonymous. Or something. While the books in the series have chiefly been good solid private detective novels, there are three quite interesting things about them. First, the debut, A is for Alibi, was originally published in 1982, and Grafton has been careful to keep the internal chronology of the novels consistent. As a result, W is for Wasted is set in 1988. Kinsey Milhone has become an historical character. Secondly, the novels are all set in the invented Californian town of Santa Teresa, and with twenty-three books now set there it’s probably better-documented than many real towns in the state. Finally, the novels are framed as Milhone’s report of the case to her client, and usually end with “Respectfully submitted, Kinsey Milhone”. But in many of the cases – particularly the later books – she doesn’t have a client, but is drawn into an investigation often by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grafton also frequently breaks out of her framing narrative – and again this is something I’ve noticed becoming more prevalent as the series progresses – and she includes chapters in third person from the point of view of another character. Although the main narrative remains first-person from Kinsey’s POV, Grafton’s plotting obviously can’t remain limited to Milhone and still make sense to the reader. That strikes me as a weakness. I do enjoy the books, and I’ve no intention of giving up on them… but I wish Grafton would put more rigour into her novels.

DESCENT-ken-macleodDescent, Ken MacLeod (2014) The cover art and strapline on this novel is somewhat misleading. It certainly misled me – I was expecting a novel on the psychology of alien abductions, especially since the novel opens with an incident which could be described as a close encounter (although the two teenagers involved are too sceptical to fully subscribe to it). However, as the story progresses it turns into a commentary on the machinations of government and corporations in a near-future Scotland suffering from an economic meltdown. And as a work of sustained near-future extrapolation, Descent is very good indeed. There’s also an idea the book plays with during its first half which MacLeod seems to throw away so he can focus his story on Scotland’s economic recovery, some random muscle-flexing by “securocrats” (secret apparatchiks), and the eventual redemption, emotional and career-wise, of bloke-ish narrator, Ryan. Which is a shame. I quite liked the idea of a genetic basis to the capacity to believe (or perhaps it’s just gullibility) – after all, as an atheist, I’ve often wondered what it is that makes other people believe in god (no, it’s not that I don’t believe in god, it’s that as far as I’m concerned there is no such thing as god). Still, at least MacLeod’s idea is better than the one Sebastian Faulks advanced in his novel Human Traces (see here). Anyway, much as I enjoyed Descent, I didn’t feel it had the science-fictional crunchiness Intrusion possessed, although in many respects it read like a more accomplished work.

antares1Antares Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4 and Episode 5, Léo (2007 – 2013) – well, that was annoying. I saw on Léo’s Wikipedia page that there were five books in the Antares series, so I waited until five had been published in English by Cinebook and then bought them… only to discover that the final episode ends on a cliff-hanger. Argh. The story continues on from Betelgeuse and features the same group of characters. Kim is having trouble settling on Earth – she doesn’t like that there’s so many people, and she doesn’t like her celebrity status. But when a multinational corporation sets up a colonisation mission to Antares and asks her to join it, she initially refuses. Eventually, she agrees, but en route she discovers that the mission was put together by a religious cult, and it’s one of those that treats women like chattel (the women must shave their heads and wear inflated coveralls to hide their figures so they don’t tempt the men, ffs). Once they land on Antares, things start to go wrong. The flora and fauna is lethal, the cultists have seized power, and the mysterious aliens from the earlier books are somehow involved. I do like this series of bandes dessinées but Léo portrays all his religious characters as complete misogynists and it feels a little one-note – especially when set against all the strong female characters in the series.

Irsud, Jo Clayton (1978), I read for review for SF Mistressworks. I was not impressed – see here. I have another four of these books on the TBR, and another two to track down if I want to complete the series.

the-dog-stars-by-peter-hellerThe Dog Stars, Peter Heller (2012), I picked up in a charity shop because it was shortlisted for the Clarke Award last year. And I’ll admit I’m somewhat puzzled it was shortlisted. A flu pandemic in the US kills off 99% of the population, and the remainder inevitably turn to survivalism, rape, murder and so on. As they do in post-apocalyptic fiction. The narrator, however, has it quite good – he lives at a small airfield, and has a small Cessna plane which he often flies, scouting out the area he shares with his gun-nut neighbour (they’re the only two people who live there). The narrator also suffered in the past from meningitis, and as a result the prose is written in a sort of lightly-fractured English, with many fragmentary declarative sentences. This serves no purpose in the story, it’s just an excuse for the prose style. And the gun-nut is basically a rip-off of Sobchak, John Goodman’s character, in The Big Lebowski. The first half of The Dog Stars comprises a series of incidents showing how nasty everyone is – and how few women remain. Then the narrator hears a radio message from some distance away, and decides to fly there to learn who broadcast it. En route, he stumbles across a blind box canyon, in which lives a man and his daughter. The narrator falls for the daughter. It takes something special to make a post-apocalypse novel notable and there’s nothing special in The Dog Stars.

œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIFortune’s Pawn, Rachel Bach (2013). I’d seen a number of positive mentions of this space opera, so when I saw a copy going cheap at Edge-Lit, I bought it. But, well… the narrator is sort of fun, an ambitious mercenary who is very, very good at what she does – but her arrogance started to wear thin after a while. The power armour is handled well, and I quite liked the gentle references to the suits of armour of knights of old. The protagonist’s home world featured some nice touches, even if it didn’t really stand up to scrutiny – a technological feudalistic society with a king worshipped as a god? The rest of the worldbuilding is even worse. There’s the nasty lizard aliens, the comedy bird aliens and the enigmatic glow-in-the-dark squid aliens. Oh, and the love interest is some sort of technological part-alien superhero. Narrator Deviana is so ambitious, she leaves the mercenary brigade and takes a job as on board security for a free trader who seems to attract trouble. Yes, it’s all a bit like a role-playing game. Annoyingly, Bach only reveals what is blindingly obvious in this book, and I’m assuming the more interesting questions will be answered in the remaining two books of the trilogy. Which is annoying, as I won’t be reading them.

cthulhuThe Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, HP Lovecraft (1999). I’m pretty sure I’ve read Lovecraft in the past – in fact, I have a quite vivid memory of the cover art of a Lovecraft collection which, I think, I borrowed from Coventry City Library back in the early 1990s. It’s hard to be sure, given there’s so many different ways to pick up knowledge of his oeuvre and the Cthulhu mythos – I used to play the Call of Cthulhu RPG when I was at school, for example. Having said that, none of the stories in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories seemed especially familiar. I’d always thought Lovecraft’s prose of poor quality, and despite a recent discussion on that subject, I suspect I may be revising my opinion. The early stuff is pretty bad – Q: when is a door not a door? A: when it’s a “panelled portal”; and Lovecraft had a bad habit of saying something is indescribable… and then going on to describe it. But by the late 1920s, his writing had improved hugely, and in stories like ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1928) and ‘The Shadow of Innsmouth’ (1931), he’d toned down his love of adjectives to great effect; and while he might still recycle his favourite words a few times too often, the less-is-more approach was certainly better at evoking eldritch horror. I have to admit, I enjoyed this collection a lot more than I’d expected. Happily, I bought all three of the Penguin Modern Classic Lovecraft books, so I have The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories and The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, all in nice matching paperback editions.

WizardHuntersThe Wizard Hunters, Martha Wells (2003). I bought this a few years ago for a planned reading challenge in which each month for a year I’d read the first book of a popular fantasy series and then write about it. I lasted six months before giving up. The Wizard Hunters, the first book of The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, I’d heard positive noises about, so I picked it as one of my twelve books. And it’s sat on my TBR ever since. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read as part of reading challenge – it probably stacks up better against the other books I’d chosen back then, when I was a little more receptive to epic fantasy. Now, reading The Wizard Hunters I found myself mostly bored, and annoyed at how bad a lot of the writing was. Often I’d have to go back and reread something because Wells’ prose wasn’t clear enough – there was a line, which I now can’t find, of course, in which the main protagonist Tremaine shakes her head and then puts it to one side. Tremaine was, I admit, fun; as was her companion, Florian (a woman in the book, even though the name is masculine; but never mind); and I did like the mix of magic and early twentieth-century technology…  But it took too long for the story get moving, the writing bounced from serviceable to bad, and there was far too much back-story the reader was expected to know. I won’t be, er, hunting down the sequels.

Nine months in and I’m still alternating genders in my fiction reading. I fully expect it to be 50:50 come 31 December. Admittedly, I still have a way to go before I have gender-parity on my book-shelves, but I’m always on the look-out for sf novels by women writers for SF Mistressworks and books by female literary fiction writers – especially post-war British literary fiction, such as that by Olivia Manning or Elizabeth Taylor, so if anyone has any suggestions for similar authors I’d be very grateful.


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Reading diary, #8

More catch-up content, I’m afraid, covering the books I’ve read over the past month or so. It’s the usual mix – some genre, some literary, some which are neither. I’m not going to write too much about each individual book, or I’d never get this post finished. And I am supposed to be doing things, after all.

MicrocosmosMicrocosmos, Nina Allan (2013). This is number five in NewCon Press’s Imaginings series of collectible, er, collections. Other volumes are by Tanith Lee, Stephen Baxter, Tony Ballantyne, Lisa Tuttle, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Steve Rasnic Tem and Eric Brown. I often find myself conflicted about Allan’s short stories – there’s no denying she writes excellent prose, but I often have trouble with the details. ‘Flying in the Face of God’ is a case in point – it’s a lovely story, and it draws its portrait of its protagonist sensitively and well, but… the whole astronaut thing seemed to me too vague and hand-wavey, and that spoiled it for me. ‘The Phoney War’, on the other hand, is less overtly sf and so I felt it worked better, particularly since Allan is excellent at sense of place.

Paintwork, Tim Maughan (2011). I’m coming to this a bit late, but I only have an ebook copy and I’m still not quite comfortable reading ebooks. All the same, I took my Nook with me on a business trip to the South Coast as I’ve been reading an ebook of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden on and off for a couple of months, but I read Paintwork instead. ‘Havana Augmented’ I thought the best of the three in the collection, with its VR mecha combat on the streets of Havana, but all are good near-future sf of a type that few people seem to be writing at the moment.

Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (1977), I read for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

moonenoughThe Moon Is Not Enough, Mary Irwin (1978). This is the only autobiography by an Apollo astronaut’s wife I’ve been able to find. Jim Irwin, Mary’s husband, was the LMP on Apollo 15. (Nancy Conrad and Betty Grissom, on the other hand, wrote biographies of their husbands.) I suspect Irwin’s story is not unusual among the astronaut wives – a marriage that begins to fall apart due to the husband’s commitment to his work, dragged back from the brink by either church, psychoanalysis, or NASA’s insistence on “happy families”, or, in Irwin’s case, all three; or the marriage explodes as soon as hubby has been to the Moon. I read the book for research, and in that respect it proved very useful.

Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Reza Negarestani (2008) Recommended by Jonathan McCalmont and, to be honest, I didn’t really get the joke. It’s written as a cod academic text, and probably does an excellent job of spoofing its material, but I’m not familiar with the sort of academic arguments it uses. It did remind me a lot of some of the Nazi occult science mythology – especially those books published by Adventures Unlimited Press – which create entire secret scientific programmes out of the flimsiest of evidence. The plot, such as it is, describes the War on Terror as an emergent phenomenon of humanity’s exploitation of oil, which is itself an inimical intelligence determined to rid the planet of humans. Or something.

Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952, although it was originally serialised in 1946), I read for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell (2011). I usually avoid fantasy, but I picked up this book because a) Martin Lewis recommended it, and b) the cover art features a deep sea diver. There’s some interesting world-building in this, and a nice line in wit, but the thinly-disguised discussions on quantum mechanics wore thin very quickly, and the unnecessary brutality was also a little wearying. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll bother with the sequels.

Second Body, Sue Payer (1979), I read for SF Mistressworks. To be honest, I didn’t think this book read like it was written by a woman, but there’s a comment on GoodReads from the writer’s granddaughter which says otherwise. My review should be appearing in the next week or two.

A Kill in the Morning, Graeme Shimmin (2014), I read for Interzone. Hitler victorious alt history with a nameless narrator who owes a little too much to James Bond.

Aurora: Beyond Equality, Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson, eds. (1976). I was in two minds whether to review for SF Mistressworks, since it contains three stories by male writers. But it was put together as a feminist sf anthology, the first of its kind, so I felt it too important a document in the history of women in science fiction to ignore. Review to appear in the next couple of weeks.

Robinson_Shaman_HCShaman, Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), I originally intended to be part of my Hugo reading, but I never got around to it at the time – not that it seems to have made any difference, anyway. And, to be fair, it would be stretching the definitions of science fiction and fantasy both past breaking point to categorise this book as either. It’s a year in the life of a twelve-year-old boy – a near-adult – in Europe some 32,000 years ago. The story was apparently inspired by the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, as filmed by Werner Herzog in his Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. I was mostly carried along by the story, although on occasion it didn’t quite convince. The Neanderthals were good, though.

A Man and Two Women, Doris Lessing (1963). I have previously found Lessing a bit hit and miss for me, often in the same novel – but I did like most of these stories. Especially the Lawrentian title story. ‘England vs England’, however, is more of a Lawrence pastiche, but I wasn’t convinced by Lessing’s attempt at portraying South Yorkshire characters. The stories set in South Africa, by comparison, were much more successful, particularly ‘The New Man’. Also good were ‘Between Men’, about a pair of mistresses, and ‘Notes for a Case History’, a potted biography of a young woman with aspirations to rise above her working-class origins.


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Reading diary, #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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2014 reading diary, #6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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