It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


3 Comments

Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

I saw this meme on David Hebblethwaite’s excellent blog (and he picked it up from The Broke and the Bookish), and I thought: that’s a good idea, my turn now. It Doesn’t Have To Be Right (It Just Has To Sound Plausible) has been running since 2006, originally on blogger.com but on wordpress.com for the past couple of years. Each year, I’ve put together a list of the best five books I’ve read that year – a habit which even predates my blog, as I used to do it for an APA I was in for a good many years. So those best of lists for each year were the obvious place to look for books for this meme.

This list of ten books are not my favourite books of all time, but they are books I liked and admired a great deal during the years 2006 to 2011. They’re also quite indicative of what it is in fiction that I like and admire. They’re in no particular order.

1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
This has been a touchstone work for me for a number of years. Mercurio’s highly-detailed prose is something I try for in my own writing, though I do wonder if in Adrift on the Sea of Rains I’ve gone even further than Ascent does. The story of a Soviet pilot leading up to the Korean War and during the years following, Ascent paints a bleak picture of a driven man who, despite numerous setbacks, still ends up playing an important, but secret, role in the USSR’s space programme. Although its central character, Yefgeni Yeremin, is invited to train as a cosmonaut, this is not the cheerful gung-ho can-do-ism normally found in fictional treatments of the Space Race. Ascent is not a science fiction novel, and Mercurio is not a science fiction author (although he did write and produce the science fiction television series Invasion: Earth), but I felt Ascent could be read as sf – and I wrote as much here.

2 The Jewel In The Crown, Paul Scott (1966)
I vaguely recall watching the television adaptation of this when it was broadcast back in the 1980s, though all I can remember is Art Malik, Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James. When I stumbled across all four of the Raj Quartet books in a charity shop for 69p buy-one-get-one-free, I thought they’d be worth a read. And when I got around to reading The Jewel In The Crown I discovered that Paul Scott was precisely the sort of literary writer whose fiction I enjoy a great deal. There is an impressive control of voice on display throughout The Jewel In The Crown, and the collage of testimonies from which it’s put together create an impressively rich and detailed portrait of life in the invented Indian city of Mayapore. After finishing The Jewel In The Crown, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I collect in first editions (although I’ve yet to find an affordable copy of this book in first edition). I wrote about The Jewel In The Crown here.

3 Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011)
I used to read fantasy quite a lot – not as much as I read science fiction, but it was probably my second choice in terms of reading material. I worked my way through most of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, tried the first book of Steve Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, and ploughed my way through sundry other well-known fantasy novels. And then I completely gave it up – or rather, gave up on it. It was all rubbish. Everything was the same, there had been no real invention in it since the 1970s. It was all magic systems and thinly-disguised role-playing-games’ campaigns. But I knew the name Carolyn Ives Gilman – I’d liked her debut, Halfway Human, which was sf – and the description of Isles of the Forsaken did sound like something out of the ordinary in fantasy terms. And so it proved. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel where two of the major characters escape imprisonment by the villains. Their route takes them along tunnels and inside the mountain overlooking the city, where they find themselves in some sort of vast otherworldly library built around an apparently bottomless well. It’s an astonishing moment in a fantasy novel that is very much unlike all the other fantasies currently available; and it’s one of only a handful of books in the genre that I consider worth reading. I wrote about it here.

4 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
I’ve been a fan of Sterling’s writing since the 1980s, and have bought each new book by him as it was published. Not all made my top five list for their year of publication as I sometimes felt his propensity to throw out ideas on every page occasionally made uneven reads of his novels. The Caryatids, however, seemed to me like a welcome return to form – more than that, it was one of the first science fiction novels which read like a truly twenty-first century science fiction novel. The world Sterling created in The Caryatids felt like one that was reachable from the present day – or rather, felt like one that was inevitable if nothing was done in the present day to halt things like Climate Change or the collapse of capitalism. I was happy when I was asked to review the book for Interzone, and even more chuffed when I was told I’d also be interviewing Sterling. The interview is in Interzone #221 March-April 2009, and I think it came out quite well. I reprinted the review on my blog here in May of this year. Incidentally, I still don’t understand why there’s been no UK edition of this novel.

5 Spirit, The Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008)
I’ve long maintained that Jones is the finest British writer of science fiction currently being published – although she’s not had a novel published since this one. There have been three collections since 2008, and she continues to write short fiction – and, of course, there are the YA books she writes as Ann Halam… although the latest of those, a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island, will only be published in the US. Spirit is perhaps the closest Jones has ever come to writing space opera, and the end result is characteristically Jonesian but also seems in part to carry the flavours of several other well-known sf authors, from Samuel R Delany to Iain M Banks. The story is based on that of The Count of Monte Cristo, but the ending recasts Dumas’ tale of revenge as something less vindictive and more redemptive. I wrote about it here but the review’s cake-based conceit wasn’t as effective – or made as much sense – as I’d thought when I wrote it. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

6 Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974)
Three years ago was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and in order to celebrate it I decided to read the (auto)biographies of the three astronauts involved – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – and review the books on my Space Books blog. I also read and reviewed several other books about the mission. Carrying the Fire not only proved to be the best of the three (auto)biographies, but also the best astronaut autobiography I have read to date. Collins was always characterised as the most introspective and erudite of the three “amiable strangers”, so it’s no real surprise that Carrying the Fire is so readable and so well-written. It also feels far less self-aggrandising than is typically the case for astronaut autobiographies – the nature of the job in those days demanded the sort of people who have big egos. Recently, of course, we lost one of the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, on whom the most attention regarding the lunar missions has focused, despite his retreat from public life afterward. My review of Carrying the Fire is here.

7 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928)
My father was the DH Lawrence fan in our family. On a trip to the US, he dragged my mother to Taos to see the chapel where Lawrence’s ashes are interred. But, despite a shelf full of books by and about Lawrence in my parents’ house, I’d never tried reading him. And then, for some reason I no longer recall, I decided I ought to have a go. So of course I picked Lawrence’s most famous – and infamous – novel. And I loved it. Like Lawrence, I’m a Nottinghamshire native, and though the Eastwood dialect he writes is much broader than the Mansfield dialect I heard throughout my childhood years, it’s still familiar. So there was an immediate geographical appeal to the book. But when Lawrence was writing about nature and the countryside, his descriptive prose really shone for me (Lawrence Durrell, a favourite writer, is also an excellent writer of descriptive prose). The characters of Mellors and Constance were also drawn much more effectively than I had expected. I so enjoyed Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that on subsequent visits to charity shops I picked up copies of Lawrence’s other books, and now have most of them – and I plan to slowly work my way through them. Incidentally, the best film adaptation I’ve seen so far of the book is Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley. It’s French-language, which is initially odd, but it does seem to capture the book much more effectively than any other adaptation.

8 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
There is a trio of books by a writer whose personal views I find odious which riffs on Golden Age tropes and attempts to do something 21st century with them. I read the first two shortly after they were published – and before I knew what the author was like – and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t actually very good. David Herter’s first novel, Ceres Storm, plays similar games with those tropes, but it is beautifully written and very, very good. Of course, Herter remains mostly unknown whereas the previous writer now churns out best-sellers. Such is the way things work. Evening’s Empire was Herter’s second novel, and it is not science fiction. It sat unread on my bookshelves for a decade, and when I finally read it I wondered why it had taken me so long. It starts off as a (John) Crowley-esque fantasy before taking an abrupt left turn into something strange and wonderful. The main character is working on an opera based on Jules Verne, and that in turn inspired me to pick up and read Verne’s two best-known works, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth… but I don’t think I’ll ever really be a Verne fan.

9 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
If Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction in the UK currently still writing, then Compton is the finest sf writer in the UK who is no longer writing (and hasn’t been published since a pair of near-future crime novels published in the mid-1990s). He’s perhaps best known for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), which was adapted for cinema by Betrand Tavernier as Death Watch in 1979. Compton started out writing crime novels in the early 1960s, but branched out into sf in 1965 with The Quality of Mercy. British sf of that period was far better-written than its US equivalent, chiefly because it was less orientated toward, or had fewer roots in, pulpish action-adventure. Writers such as Arthur Sellings, Keith Roberts, Rex Gordon, Michael G Coney or Richard Cowper – not to mention the New Wave authors – could write rings round their American contemporaries. Even those who banged out hackwork for US publishers with impressive regularity – Brian Stableford, EC Tubb, Edmund Cooper, Ken Bulmer, etc. – were better prose stylists than the big Hugo winners like Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert or van Vogt. Compton was the best of the lot. His books read like snapshots of the 1960s and 1970s now, but they’re beautifully observed snapshots. They are the embodiment of sf novels set in the near-future that are really about the time they were written. Synthajoy‘s science-fictional content does not especially convince, and its central premise is unlikely to generate sense of wonder… but it’s a wonderfully-written portrait of a woman who is driven to crime by the behaviour of her husband, the inventor of the eponymous psychiatric technique. I wrote about it here.

10 Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010)
I think I’ve always had a somewhat utopian bent, and that’s only grown stronger in recent years. Science fiction has its occasional spats over pessimistic versus optimistic stories, and while I can hardly claim that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is optimistic, I have grown increasingly annoyed with the default futures far too much recent sf employs. It’s all grimly corporate and capitalist near-fascist states which only perpetuate the myth of self-actualisation through money, power and material possessions. I’d like to see that change. Yes, I know there are utopian science fictions available, but it’s the default nature of this horrible US-led invented future that I’d like to see disappear. Red Plenty, however, does not depict a communist future, a USSR which outlasted the capitalist West. It’s actual a dramatised history of events during the first half a dozen decades of the USSR. But it’s beautifully done, and it’s easy to see how the soviet system promised so much more than it ended up delivering. It presents the USSR as a dream of utopia. The fact the dream failed should not invalidate the attempt. Read Red Plenty and then tell me the American Dream is the only sustainable future. Who knows, twenty years from now we may be mocking sf novels that don’t depict the USA as a repressive and misogynist theocratic oligarchy…

special extra 11th book: Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Mietz (1961)
This list is supposed to be ten books – it says so in the title of the post – but I really wanted to include this book… not because it is well-written, or because it’s the best book ever published on its subject. It is, as far as I can discover, the only book published on its subject. And it’s a subject which came to fascinate me when I learnt of it in 2010. That year was the fiftieth anniversary of the first – and until only recently – visit by human beings to the deepest part of the oceans, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Like the Apollo programme, the descent of the bathyscaphe Trieste was a triumph of brute engineering, and that’s one of the reasons I find it so interesting. It’s also inspired some of my fiction. I wrote about Seven Miles Down here.


2 Comments

Books you must read: The Bender, Paul Scott

There are comic novels and there are novels of wit. Some novels evince humour by describing ridiculous characters in ridiculous situations; others prefer to amuse through their use of language. Paul Scott’s The Bender (1963) is a novel of wit and its characters, while amusingly drawn, are not comic caricatures. There is also much in the novel that points to Scott’s Raj Quartet, a use of language, voice and narrative that presages The Jewel In The Crown and its sequels.

George Lisle-Spruce is a wastrel. A relative left him a legacy of £10,000, which he cannot touch. But it does provide him with an annual income of £400. Initially, this was more than enough to live on, but by the beginning of the 1960s, George is finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet on his monthly allowance. And now his brother, a successful accountant, wants repaying the £200 he lent George years before. George spent the War in Cairo, and was never in combat. Since then he’s never held down a proper job. He has some charm, but never really made the most of it. And this is despite the best efforts of his Aunt Clara – who is not really his aunt, but whose husband it was who left George his legacy.

The Bender is told from the points of view of George, Aunt Clara, a real aunt who is on her death-bed, brother Tim, and youngest brother Guy (an Angry Young Man, with a play that has been broadcast on television to critical acclaim). The repayment of Tim’s loan precipitates a crisis in George’s life – though it is exacerbated by Clara’s renewed meddling, Tim’s impending change of career, and Guy’s success.

The writing in The Bender is a delight. It’s witty, the voices are handled superbly – though, one, Guy’s hippie chick girlfriend, feels somewhat forced – and a section two-thirds of the way through astonishes with its seamless post-modern blending of narratives and voices. The novel is also a pitch-perfect evocation of time and place, and feels throughout like a 1960s British black and white film starring Dirk Bogarde. Aunt Clara is perhaps the most amusing character – a forceful and opinionated dowager, with old school views about class and ability, views she has a habit of setting forth on tape:

…the Grundig’s microphone in one hand and, in the other, one of the Floris chocolates for which her lunchtime liquid slimming diet always gave her an appetite…

The Raj Quartet are novels of consequence. While The Bender may be somewhat inconsequential, it reaffirms my admiration of Scott’s writing. Fortunately, I have many more of his books to read. Recommended.


Leave a comment

Another book haul post

I’ve been very good recently – not only have I not added greatly to the To Be Read pile, but I have also pruned my collection of a few hundred paperbacks. Well, they were just sitting there, taking up shelf-space. I was never going to read them again; and some of them are readily available in charity shops and the like, so should I want to reread them I can easily pick up copies. So now I have a bit more room on the book-shelves. Which, of course, shall soon fill up. But only with deserving books…

Anyway, since the last one of these posts I have bought only the following books:

The new Banks, Surface Detail, which I plan to read soon-ish; the latest in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, Field Grey; and an omnibus edition of The Secret History Volume 1 by Jean-Pierre Pécau, Igor Kordey and Leo Pilipovic, a graphic novel detailing the exploits through human history of four immortals each gifted with a powerful magic rune.

Two non-fiction books: the title of the first pretty much describes its contents: Convair Advanced Designs. It’s about planes. The second, MoonFire, is a re-issue of Norman Mailer’s 1971 book about the Moon landings, Of A Fire on the Moon, but as a coffee-table tome by Taschen, with many, many excellent photographs. There’s a signed limited edition which costs around £600, and a “Lunar Rock Edition” priced from 60,000 to 480,000 Euros (because each of the 12 copies includes a piece of Moon rock). Mine is the bog-standard £27.99 edition. If you buy only one coffee-table book about Apollo, this looks to be the one you should get.

Here’s a pair of 1960s novels by a pair of forgotten British science fiction writers: Implosion by DF Jones, and 98.4 by Christopher Hodder-Williams. Look at the awful cover art. They don’t do cover-art like that anymore. I’ll be posting reviews of them here, just as I did for No Man Friday (here) and A Man of Double Deed (here).

Finally, a trio of first editions: The Insider by Christopher Evans; Johnnie Sahib, Paul Scott’s debut novel; and Twice Ten Thousand Miles by Frances Lynch. Yes, that last one is a romance historical novel, and the reason I purchased it is because Frances Lynch is a pseudonym of DG Compton. I’m quite looking forward to finding out how the perennially pessimistic and sardonic Compton handles romance historical fiction.


7 Comments

2008 Reading Challenge: The One That Made It All Worthwhile

I’m still a bit behind with this year’s reading challenge, but I’m slowly catching up. For September’s book, which I didn’t actually start until this month, I picked The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. Like most Brits my age, I have vague memories of the ITV adaptation from 1984. Other than that, I knew little about the book, or its author. And it’s unlikely that would have changed… if I hadn’t found all four books of The Raj Quartet going for £1.38 for the lot in a local charity shop, and thought they might be worth a go.

I should have come to Scott sooner. My favourite non-genre writers are Lawrence Durrell, John Fowles and Anthony Burgess, all British post-modern literary writers who came to prominence in the first two decades of the latter half of last century. As did Scott. There are other similarities – all four spent time abroad and later set fiction there: Burgess in Malaysia (The Long Day Wanes); Fowles in Greece (The Magus); Durrell… well, take your pick: he was a professional expat and set novels pretty much everywhere he lived; and Scott, of course, in India. Further, all four are known chiefly by the general public for only one of their works – The Raj Quartet for Scott, A Clockwork Orange for Burgess, The French Lieutenant’s Woman for Fowles, and The Alexandria Quartet for Durrell.


But on to the book itself.

Not having read anything by Scott before, I’d expected a relatively traditional narrative, something like EM Forster’s A Passage to India, perhaps. But the first page proved me wrong. Rather than pull the reader into the story of The Jewel in the Crown, Scott explains it: “This is a story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened.” The next forty pages then relate the life of Miss Crane, who moved to India as a governess in 1907 but stayed on when her employers were posted back to Britain. She became a teacher in the mission schools and, by the time the rape occurs in 1942, she is Superintendent of Schools in Mayapore, where The Jewel in the Crown is set. But she doesn’t actually have anything to do with the rape.

But then neither does Lady Lili Chatterjee. Or Sister Ludmilla. Or Mr Srinivasan. Or Brigadier Reid. Or Duleep Kumar. Yet these are all viewpoint characters in The Jewel in the Crown, and it is through them, and their stories, that Scott builds up a picture of the events sparked off by the rape of Daphne Manners by a group of Indian men. These viewpoints are written in a variety of narrative styles. Some are third person, some are first person. Some are presented as the spoken recollections of a character – and Scott’s handling of each character’s voice is impressive – to an unnamed listener. There are some lovely bits of prose, such as :

With all the chicks lowered the house is dark and cool even at midday. The ceilings are very high. In such rooms human thought is in the same danger as an escaped canary would be, wheeling up and up, round and round, fluttering in areas of shadow and crevices you can imagine untouched by a human hand since the house was rebuilt by MacGregor.

The Jewel in the Crown is by no means an easy read. Scott maintains voice so rigorously that the narrative rarely sticks to the story, and often detours into areas – such as the backgrounds and characters of his cast – which do not actually advance the plot. Duleep Kumar, for example, is Hari Kumar’s father, and Hari is one of the men accused of Daphne’s rape. Duleep’s story explains Hari – the Indian who is more English than the English – but it’s peripheral to the story.

Of course, India is as much a character in the book as Hari, Daphne and the others. It is represented by the invented city of Mayapore. Scott has not stinted on the details, nor on the thoughts and feelings of each of the various characters to the town and the country. The most damning is Hari, an Indian brought up in England and educated at the best schools, who does not feel Indian, but is treated as such. He thinks of himself as invisible: too Indian for the English, too English for the Indians. He’s the pivot about which the plot of The Jewel in the Crown revolves.

The Raj Quartet has been criticised for perpetuating prejudices and racial stereotypes. In a 1984 essay ‘Out of the Whale’, Rushdie pointed out that if Daphne Manners’ rape was a metaphor for the British exploitation of India, it should have been the rape of an Indian girl by white men. Which completely misses the point. The Jewel in the Crown is not about the exploitation of India. Scott is not writing about the Indian experience, about being Indian under the Brits. He is writing about two societies crashing together, each driven by an imposed agenda. The rape is merely the trigger for the reactions of the characters in the book, and those reactions are specific to those involved.

Nor is it surprising that The Jewel in the Crown perpetuates racial stereotypes. The story is told through its characters, and it is their sensibilities which are on display. Miss Crane, Brigadier Reid, Sister Ludmila, and Daphne Manners are all white. Brigadier Reid, for example, is offensively patronising because he epitomises the attitude of his generation of India hands. A reader who doesn’t understand that is missing the point. If Scott wanted to depict a balanced viewpoint, he would not have used Reid.

Now, obviously, my perspective on The Jewel in the Crown is going to differ from Rushdie’s. But I’m not reading it as a Brit, I’m reading it as a British expat – or rather, an ex-expat – who grew up in the Middle East as a “privileged white”. Of course, the parallels are not exact; the Gulf was not the Raj. Also, by the late 1960s / early 1970s, attitudes and sensibilities had changed a great deal. But I went to English speaking schools (I’m a founding pupil of two English speaking schools in the Gulf), I mixed with other European kids, and I rarely if ever socialised with Arabs or people from the Indian subcontinent. When I returned to the Gulf to work in the early 1990s, things were different. At one point, I was the only Brit in my employer’s Systems Development department (and I was also the only male). And yet in many respects, things had not changed: when I asked an Indian colleague why she was filling in a membership form for a bar, she told me it was so she wouldn’t be turned away at the door. I replied that I’d never been refused entry. “You’re white,” she said.

There is a particular British expat experience which The Jewel in the Crown (and Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet) both make use of. Neither mirrors precisely my own experiences growing up in the Gulf, but there’s a… shape in the text, in the life and interaction of the characters which comes close to emulating it. It’s not as arrogant as:

In his heart he also shares with that old ruling-class of English he affects to despise a desire to be looked-up to abroad, and shares with them also the sense of deprivation because he has not been able to inherit the Empire he always saw as a purely ruling-class institution.

… But there is certainly a shadow of Empire colouring the experience, as well as an understanding of Britain which is filtered through the perceptions of those who were once ruled by it. It’s Britishness informed by the culture of its surroundings, a microcosm of Britishness – almost a siege-mentality in some respects – but one which has subsumed some aspects of its environs. It no longer maps directly onto the culture of Britain. It’s an experience I suspect is slowly vanishing as the world grows “smaller”. Since the alternative appears to be McDonald’s, Cocoa-Cola and Hollywood, then I’m not convinced its disappearance is a good thing.

Of the books I’ve read so far this year for my reading challenge, The Jewel in the Crown has easily been the best. I certainly plan to read the remaining books in The Raj QuartetThe Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence and A Division of the Spoils. And I shall be adding Paul Scott’s other novels to my wants list. Oh, and I want to watch the television adaptation again.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,841 other followers