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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


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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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Books do furnish a room

I may be putting up these book haul posts less frequently, but the book collection seems to grow at its usual pace. I take care to purchase fewer books each month than I read, so the TBR is being slowly whittled down. But the book-shelves are still double-stacked, and the spare room has books piled all over the floor. I’ve dumped lots of books I knew I’d never get around to reading at the charity shop; and I’ve foisted off quite a few genre books at the York and Sheffield socials, but I still need to have a big clear-out… Anyway, here are the latest additions.

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Some new science fiction. Children of Time and The Last War I bought at Edge-Lit 4, where, of course, A Prospect of War made its first appearance in hardback. Aurora was purchased from a certain online retailer. I’ve already read Children of Time and Aurora, and they’ll both appear in my next Reading diary post.

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Some mainstream(-ish) paperbacks. The War of the End of the World was a book I’d planned to read for a fiction-in-translation reading challenge back in 2012. The challenge foundered about halfway through the year, but some of the books I’d picked I still fancied trying. It’s taken me until now to buy a copy of this one. The Bone Clocks and Kolymsky Heights I bought in Harrogate, using a book voucher given to me by my employer, while in the town to hear Val McDermid interview Sara Paretsky at the Crime Festival. The Davidson was recommended by a number of people a couple of months ago, and though I kept an eye open no copies had appeared in my local charity shops. Collected Stories I bought after reading Jonathan McCalmont’s reviews of Salter’s short fiction on his blog, Ruthless Culture.

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This was my prize from the Edge-Lit 4 raffle: six HP Lovecraft books in flash new hardback editions from PS Publishing. Given some of the other prizes, I think I did exceedingly well.

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A pair of deep sea books. Ocean Outpost, a study of undersea habitats, was cheap on eBay. Discovering the Deep, a glossy coffee-table book thick with science, is a new publication.

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Some genre paperbacks: Skin is an ARC, I’m reviewing it for Interzone; Wolves was on a couple of award shortlists last year; I’ve been a fan of Hanan al-Shaykh’s writing for several years, so I’m looking forward to reading her spin on One Thousand and One Nights; and The Saga of Eric Brighteyes is the second book in NewCastle Forgotten Fantasy series, which I bought because of course I really need to start collecting another series of books… Actually, it was cheap on eBay, so it’s not like I went out of my way for it.

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A new Lawrence Durrell book. From the Elephant’s Back is a collection of previously-unpublished essays and letters was published by the University of Alberta. The Silkworm is the second pseudonymous crime novel by JK Rowling. I thought the first a bit meh, but my mother found this copy in a charity shop and after she’d read it she passed it on to me.


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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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Reading diary, #9

Yet more books read, and this time they seem to be mostly genre. Including a – kof kof – fantasy novel. And even a horror novel. If I keep this up I’ll have to give back my science fiction curmudgeon badge.

thousand_emperorsThe Thousand Emperors, Gary Gibson (2012). This is a sequel to 2011’s Final Days, in which humanity has spread out across a number of exoplanets after losing the Earth to an artefact brought back through the wormhole network they had been exploring. But all that – an alien network of wormhole tunnels created billions of years earlier by an unknown race (an idea last seen in Williams & Dix’s Geodesica: Ascent and Geodesica: Descent a decade ago, not to mention Alastair Reynolds’ The Six Directions of Space from 2009) is pretty much just background in Gibson’s novel. It’s more about one of the two human interstellar polities which has formed in the wake of Final Days‘ events. The Tian Di was founded in revolution, and the revolutionary council grew until it numbered one thousand – hence the title – but now power is pretty much concentrated in the hands of Father Chang, the council leader (after a coup a century or two previously), and the council members are just a hugely powerful elite, sort of a cross between the One Percent and Saudi princes. They even have their own secret planet, where they maintain luxurious estates untainted by proximity to the unwashed masses. When a council member is murdered on that secret world, Luc Gabion is asked to investigate, and though he’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to solve the crime, he does learn a lot more about politics inside the council – which at that point is concerned chiefly with the Tian Di’s possible response to diplomatic approaches from the other human polity, the Coalition, after more than a century of isolation – and it all ties into a move to make the Tian Di even more repressive a regime than it currently is. This is heartland sf, full of well-polished tropes deployed with assurance. If it all feels a bit disposable, it’s not because it’s not done well but perhaps because it’s done a bit too well: familiar ideas given an interesting spin, prejudices given a little tweak just so readers are reminded they have them, and a plot which gallops forward at a pace that discourages too much close scrutiny.

breedBreed, KT Davies (2014). I was fortunate enough to win two of Davies’s novels – this and The Red Knight – at the last York pub meet, at which Davies read from Breed. The novel is a fairly standard fantasy – while certainly not epic, its setting is plainly of that subgenre – but enlivened by an assured comedic touch, some nice pieces of invention, and a clever use of first person that doesn’t reveal the gender of the narrator. The book opens with a prologue – argh – it could just have easily been the first chapter – in which the narrator escapes imprisonment in an ancient demon’s castle but comes a cropper on learning they had been tricked. Back home in Appleton, where Breed’s mother runs one of the local criminal gangs, Breed is sentenced to five years of bonded servitude for a one-handed wizard after getting caught up in a riot following Breed’s attempt to assassinate the leader of a rival gang. The wizard wants to head for the capital, which is fine as that’s where Breed needs to go in order to fulfil their bargain with the demon of the prologue. Adventures ensue. The characters are all venal, the world is dirty and grim and has never really recovered from a catacylsmic war centuries before, and Breed is an amusingly foul-mouthed narrator. The plot may run on well-polished rails but it does so like clockwork, sort of like a toy train then… but Breed is never less than a fun read, and if grim-but-funny – grimlight? – fantasy is your thing you could do a lot worse than this.

run_like_crazy_tardi_manchette_fantagraphics_coverRun Like Crazy Run Like Hell, Jacques Tardi (2015). Tardi’s bande dessinée are more often mainstream thrillers than genre, and it makes for a pleasant change from your typical Anglophone graphic novel. A young woman from an institution is hired by a wealthy and philanthropic industrialist to be the nanny for his nephew. The industrialist inherited the wealth, and care of the boy, when his brother and sister-in-law died in a car crash. Shortly after taking up her duties, while the uncle is away on business, the boy and nanny are kidnapped by a dyspeptic hitman and his dim henchmen. But the two manage to escape, and head across France to the eccentric retreat of the industrialist, where they hope to find sanctuary. En route, the nanny proves more than a match for the henchmen, and then the hitman. This is a pretty gruesome story, and Tardi’s art doesn’t shrink from the gore. It’s not the cartoon violence you’d seen in some superhero comic, but more like that of an 18-certificate brutal thriller. Good, though. I shall continue to buy these for as long as Tardi and Fantagraphics churn them out.

theladyofsituationsThe Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999). I forget where I first came across mention of Dedman, but back in 2002 I read his 1999 novel Foreign Bodies, and thought it pretty good. But quality Australian genre fiction, especially that published by small presses, is not easy to get hold of in the UK, and I seem to recall buying The Lady of Situations when I bought Justina Robson’s collection Heliotrope from Ticonderoga Press (who are definitely worth checking out as they publish some excellent books). Anyway, provenance aside, this is a strong collection. Several of the stories concern a man who has been befriended by vampires, particularly one that looks like a young girl. I’m no fan of vampire stories, but these are handled well – especially the one about Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell. ‘Transit’ is probably the most sfnal story, a young love tale set on a world of hermaphrodites during the visit of some Muslims en route to Earth on Hajj. ‘Amendment’ is fun, an alternate history set at a sf con where Charles Manson turns up to get a book signed by GoH Heinlein. ‘Founding Fathers’ is a nasty story, about a world settled by a small colony of white supremacists, and a visit by a mission from Earth causes a couple of murders and reveals the horrible secret at the heart of the colony. There are a couple of slight pieces here, but the rest more than make up for them. Recommended.

The Zanzibar Cat, Joanna Russ (1983) was Russ’s first collection, published first by Arkham House and then by, of all publishers, Baen. A more variable collection than I’d been expecting, perhaps because it contained so many of her early stories. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here.

notimeonoursideNo Time on Our Side, Roger Chapman (1975). In 1973, some 240 km south of Ireland, while engaged in burying an undersea cable to prevent it being caught by trawlers’ nets, the submersible Pisces III sank in 500 metres of water. The crew of two had just completed their shift, but when surfacing in rough seas, the hatch on the rear pressure sphere (which contained machinery and supplies) broke open and filled the sphere with water. The submersible promptly sank tail-first and ended up stuck vertically in the ocean bottom (just like in the cover art). A full-scale rescue operation began. But first they had to find Pisces III. Chapman was one of the two crew, and No Time on Our Side is a blow-by-blow account of the three days he spent trapped in the submersible. Thanks to the dwindling air supply and increasing carbon dioxide, he was not wholly compos mentis for much of the period, so portions of the book skip over a lot of the hours spent on the bottom. Everything seems a bit slapdash to modern eyes – the submersible crew barely managed a couple of hours sleep each night due to things repeatedly failing and needing fixing before each dive – but once disaster strikes, the response is quick and widespread (and, it seems, happily inconsiderate of cost… which I suspect is not something that would happen in today’s neoliberal uber-capitalist global economy; progress, eh).

luminousLuminous, Greg Egan (1998). Egan is one of those authors whose fiction I’m repeatedly told I’d like, but everything by him I’ve read in the past has left me a little bit cold – which is one novel, and a handful of stories in Interzone over the years. Nevertheless, if I see one of his books going cheap in a charity shop, I buy it. And even now, when perhaps my taste in fiction is somewhat more discriminating and I look for different things in the fiction I read than I did twenty or thirty years ago… Egan’s fiction still leaves me mostly cold. There were a couple of good stories in this collection – I especially liked ‘Silver Fire’, about a epidemic in the US; and ‘Our Lady of Chernobyl’ had some narrative impetus to it, even if the central conceit was weak – but many still felt cold to me, peopled by little more than walking, talking ideas. And ‘The Planck Dive’ is just a really dull physics lectures with a bunch of character interactions to provide something for the reader to connect with. Interestingly, although most of the stories in Luminous were written in the mid-1990s, they’re chiefly set in this decade, the second of the twenty-first century. Egan got one or two things right, but he also got a lot wrong – and yet he still manages to catch the flavour of now better than many other sf authors of the time who wrote stories set in the early twenty-first century. I’ll still keep my eye open for Egan books in charity shops, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to call myself a fan.

the_threeThe Three, Sarah Lotz (2014). I took this with me to Finland – did I mention I went to Archipelacon in the Åland Islands in Finland, and it was excellent? – anyway, I took The Three with me to read during the convention. I had no intention of reading it during the journey – for that I had DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow – but I started it shortly after I arrived in Mariehamn, and had finished it by the Sunday so I left it on a table for someone else to, er, enjoy. The central premise is, well, pretty much the same as James Herbert’s The Survivor (an awful book, but actually quite a good film). Four planes crash within minutes of each other around the world – in Japan, the US, the English Channel, and South Africa – and a child is the only survivor in three of the crashes. No one survives the fourth. An enigmatic phone call by an American passenger on the plane in Japan, shortly before she succumbs to her injuries, prompts a US evangelist to declare the three children the, er, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Um, yes. He claims there’s a child who survived the fourth crash, and various hints suggest this may be true, but… Why? Why base the plot on the Four Horseman but only have three of them? It makes no sense. The kids are certainly not ordinary and who, or what, they are is never categorically stated. The novel is also presented as found documents, the research materials of a journalist writing a book on the whole affair. Lotz handles her voices impressively well, and for commercial fiction this is a well put-together piece of work. But the premise is weak and over-stays its welcome by a couple of hundred pages. Oh, and definitely don’t read this book when travelling by air…


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Books everywhere

At least these book haul posts are now less frequent, and feature fewer books, than they did in previous years. Even so, I really need another big clearout – I can even reach some of my bookshelves because of all the books stacked in front of them. Buying new bookcases won’t help as I already have bookcases on every wall – most of which are double-stacked. If I could read faster, I could probably get rid of quite a few books…

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Some graphic novels. Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell is the latest Tardi, a slick and quite sick thriller. The Nemo trilogy – Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin and River of Ghosts – is a spin-off from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the Nemo here is the daughter of Verne’s original. I wrote about the trilogy here.

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A mixed bag. Soviet Ghosts is lovely photographs of abandoned buildings in what was the USSR. Notes for a Myth is a 1968 poetry collectionm by Terence Tiller. I now have all of his books. And Home, Marilynne Robinson’s third novel, is a signed first edition.

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A pair of charity shop finds: a collection by Sarah Hall, The Beautiful Indifference; and The Teleportation Accident, a book Lavie Tidhar has raved about for a while now.

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Three more Penguins for the DH Lawrence collection: The White Peacock, his first novel; Selected Essays; and a travel book, Sea and Sardinia. I now have 21 of these white Penguin paperbacks, from a total of, I think, 27.

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And finally, another two books for the deep sea collection. No Time on Our Side details the three-day rescue of the two crew – the author was one – of the submersible Pisces III, which sank in 500 m of water 250 km south of the Irish coast. The Danger Game is the autobiography of a diver for the North Sea oil industry.


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Reading diary, #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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