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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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Recent readings since the last recent readings

Books, huh, what’re they good for? No, wait, that’s something else. Books are good for reading, which by some amazing coincidence is just what I’ve been doing recently with some of them. To wit…

praguefatalePrague Fatale, Philip Kerr (2011) This is the eighth book in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, which nearly brings me up to date – there’s one more, A Man without Breath (2013), currently available; although Kerr has not said how many books the series will eventually comprise. Prague Fatale is set during Gunther’s war years. While not a Nazi, and clearly has trouble dealing with them, he’s respected enough by his superiors to be asked to Prague to solve the locked-room murder of an aide to Reinhard Heydrich. The crime itself is plainly an homage to the golden age of crime fiction, and Gunther has little trouble working out what happened. But there’s much more going on in the novel than just a puzzling murder. Early on, Gunther rescues a young woman from an attempted sexual assault, and then helps her out a little with food and money before eventually entering into a relationship with her. He takes her with him to Prague – when all the senior officers have mistresses, and even a select brothel for their use only, why should he not take his girlfriend? As Gunther makes a nuisance of himself at Heydrich’s chateau, asking impertinent questions (not all of which are related to his investigation) and making plain his contempt of the Nazis – so he gradually works out who killed Heydrich’s aide… and how his death ties in with earlier events in Berlin. More than any other of the recent Gunther books, Prague Fatale feels like a crime novel. But it also feels like Kerr is taking the piss a little by presenting the central murder as a locked-room mystery. The solution proves to be relatively straightforward, and delivered almost in passing – but having it as the core of the story turns the book into a warped country house mystery rather than an historical police procedural. It makes for a pleasant change after the complex spy-fiction plot of the preceding novel, Field Grey (2010). Good stuff.

wolf viz 2:Layout 1Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010) Much praise has been heaped on this, the first in a series, and at an Edge-Lit the author begged me to buy a copy despite it not being my thing at all (actually, he didn’t; it looked interesting, so I bought it; but Mark did sign it for me). On finally getting around to reading it, I was surprised by two things: it was more commercial than I’d expected, and it was a lot more interesting than I’d thought it would be. The story opens strikingly, with a loyal warrior of a Viking king stepping from a longship to drown in mid-sea. He and the king were the sole survivors of a raid on an Anglo-Saxon monastery, the object of which was to steal a pair of twin baby boys. The king’s wife cannot give him a son, so a witch told the king where to find one – her part of the bargain was the other twin. But no one must know the true origin of the king’s “son”, so no warriors must make it back alive from the raid. Initially Wolfsangel reads like an historical novel as it describes Prince Vali’s life as a ward of a rival king – there’s a vague feeling that some of the more fantastical elements are the results of worldview rather than actual magic – but as those fantastical elements slowly begin to intrude more and more into the story so the magical side of the story begins to take over. The giant wolf’s head on the cover, not to mention the title, is a clue as to which supernatural creature is central to the book, and Lachlan’s put an interesting spin on the trope. He’s integrated the werewolf into his take on Norse mythology, and it works really well. He pulls a fast one initially, presenting one of the twins as the werewolf, only for the truth to later reveal itself. After finishing the book, I could understand why it had been so highly praised, and I’m keen to read the next on the series, Fenrir (2011). So that’s a shock – I actually thought a fantasy novel was good.

songsofbandgjpgSongs of Blue and Gold, Deborah Lawrenson (2008) I put this one on the wishlist after learning that its story was based on Lawrence Durrell and his time in Corfu, and some time later I was lucky enough to stumble across a copy in a charity shop. When Melissa’s mother passes away, she finds among her possessions a signed and dedicated poetry collection by famous author Julian Adie. Melissa knew that her mother had spent time in Corfu during the 1960s, and is surprised to discover she knew Adie, who lived there at the time. So Melissa heads for the Greek island to learn as much as she can about her mother’s time there. Adie, of course, is Durrell, and Lawrenson does a good job of fictionalising his life and stitching Melissa’s mother into it. There’s a slight mystery attached, which is neither hard to figure out, and resolved offhandedly, and the writing throughout is of a type you’d sort of expect from a novel boasting such cover art if you did have any expectations regarding prose style from the book’s presentation… I enjoyed it, but I suspect I wouldn’t have done so as much if I hadn’t been familiar with Durrell and his life and oeuvre.

murder-by-the-book-vis-1aMurder by the Book, Eric Brown (2013) This is the first crime novel by Brown, and the first in the “Langham and Dupree Mysteries”. Set in the 1950s, the book’s protagonist is Donald Langham, a crime writer who has churned out a dozen well-received novels. Dupree is Maria Dupree, the well-heeled daughter of an upper-class French emigré, and the personal assistant of Langham’s agent. When a series of people involved in the world of 1950s crime writing die under mysterious circumstances, and Langham’s agent is framed for one of the deaths, Langham turns reluctant detective with Dupree’s help. The template, of course, dictates that as the two spend more time together so they are drawn to each other. The murders are a succession of “book murders”, ie, the sort of tricksy killings you only really find in crime novels, especially crime novels of the genre’s golden age. But then Murder by the Book is not trying to do something different genre-wise, but is as centrally-placed in crime as Brown’s sf novels are in science fiction. The period is handled well, without an excess of detail and nothing that jumps out as anachronistic. Langham is a solid hero, likeable but not too firmly wedded to 1950s sensibilities that he’s not sympathetic to a modern reader. Dupree might be a little too good to be true, if not teetering on the edge of cliché, but she’s just as engaging as Langham and the growing relationship between them works. Not being a crime fan per se, though I’ll read the books and am certainly a fan of the oeuvres of a couple of crime writers, I have to wonder if the mechanics of the central murders occupy a similar place in the genre as “ideas” do in science fictions. The complex murders in Murder by the Book seem to operate much like “nova” do in sf, but I suspect that may be a modus operandi (so to speak) more suited to the story’s setting than the modern crime genre marketplace.

hook1Whirlpool of Stars, Tully Zetford (1974) This is the first book in the Hook quartet, and it’s pretty much hackwork. But then Tully Zetford was really Kenneth Bulmer, who was a complete hack – as Alan Burt Akers, he wrote over fifty books in the Dray Prescott series between 1972 and 1997. Whirlpool of Stars opens with a starship breaking down – something in the engineroom blows up as a result of shoddy maintenance. The passengers and crew are forced to flee in lifeboats, though this is no orderly evacuation. Hook is aboard, and he manages to get a seat aboard one of the lifeboats. The nearest planet, however, is run by a rival corporation to that which had operated the starship, and everyone who lands would be subject high fees… which they can pay off by indentured labour… Hook evades the authorities and, with a woman in tow, runs about the planet, trying to avoid slavery and also the Boosted Men, who are after him. You can tell this is complete hackwork because it panders to the worst prejudices of the sf audience. Hook is an alpha-male protagonist, but one with a weakness – he is a Boosted Man himself, but an early iteration and his powers only operate when he is close proximity to a real Boosted Man. The women in the story exist only as set-dressing, trophies, or damsels in distress. The villains are aliens. The background is a typical right-wing corporatist future, with slavery, success oriented purely on wealth and the power it brings, a blithe disregard for the value of human life, ineffective government and murderous and overly-powerful police forces. Whirlpool of Stars is tosh, distasteful badly-written tosh, and while Bulmer was clearly doing it for the money, you have to wonder what excuse present-day writers of similar science fictions have. Oh, and I have another three of these books to read. Sigh.

cleftThe Cleft, Doris Lessing (2007) There is a phrase in Brian W Aldiss’s story ‘Confluence’, a “dictionary” of alien terms, that goes: “YUP PA: A book in which everything is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it; an afternoon sleigh-ride”. That pretty much describes The Cleft. A Roman historian has been handed a bunch of writings, normally kept hidden, and which he plans to turn into a treatise of his own. The documents are purportedly the written-down oral history of the earliest human civilisation, long before agriculture, nations, cities, kings or government. Apparently, humanity was originally female-only, and they lived in caves beside a sea. They reproduced parthogenically, and would occasionally sacrifice their offspring in a nearby rock chimney they called the Cleft. Every so often, mutant children called “squirts” – ie, not “clefts” – were born and left out for giant eagles to take – presumably to feed their chicks. But when one is left to grow to adulthood, he – because, of course, the squirts are men – leaves the women to found a community of his own over Eagle Mountain. More squirts are born, the squirts and clefts discover sex, the two communities begin to interact, one squirt leader leads an expedition away from the two communities along the coast… and I really have no idea what Lessing hoped to achieve with this novel. The Roman historian interjects at various points of the oral history he is supposedly working on – this was denoted using different font sizes, but as the book progressed this seemed to go wrong somewhere until the font size was completely random. There’s very little that’s Edenic about the society in the book and the gender politics once the “squirts” appear runs along somewhat clichéd lines. This has a tendency to reduce all of those early people to one-note characters, and while Lessing throws in some interesting speculation on their physiology, their society doesn’t feel like that much thought has gone into it. Disappointing.

Matthew Farrell_2001_Thunder RiftThunder Rift, Matthew Farrell (2001) Matthew Farrell is really Stephen Leigh, and I suspect this book was published as by Farrell because by 2000 Leigh had become a category killer. In fact, since 2003 he’s been writing fantasy under the pen-name SL Farrell. In all other respects, Thunder Rift reads like a Stephen Leigh sf novel, and fans of Leigh’s earlier Dark Water’s Embrace and Speaking Stones will probably enjoy it. Unfortunately, familiarity with Leigh’s oeuvre does make Thunder Rift a somewhat predictable read. The titular wormhole has mysteriously appeared in the Solar System, out by the orbit of Jupiter, and the EMP generated by its sudden arrival pretty much wipes out all the technology on Earth, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Yet thirty years later, the nations have not only recovered, they’ve even managed to build a huge military spacecraft to send through the wormhole to see if they can find the wormhole’s creators. On this spacecraft is maverick exo-anthropologist Taria Spears, who is obsessive, uncompromising and all-together difficult. On the other side of the wormhole, the humans find an inhabited world, but its alien civilisation does not appear advanced enough to have created the wormhole. Nonetheless, they send down a contact team… but it doesn’t go very well, and the alien ambassador/chief priestess-type person will only allow Taria to remain on the world. While she tries to learn more about the strange alien culture – their eyesight is so poor, they pretty much use sonar to perceive their surroundings; and they sing a lot – the military aboard the spacecraft set about trying to explore the planet. And then the wormhole vanishes. But something doesn’t want the humans to colonise the alien world. And Taria discovers the secret of the aliens and… This is heartland sf, written with competence if not style or vigour, reliant on far too many familiar tropes and used furniture, but given just enough spin not to generate déjà vu from start to finish. There are lots of sf novels about like Thunder Rift, and they’re all pretty much of a muchness. Fans of this type of sf will likely not to be able to tell it from other books of its ilk, and so enjoy it for that reason.

StonesFallStone’s Fall, Iain Pears (2009) Pears started out writing crime novels about a detective art historian, the few of which I’ve read I found quite ordinary; but he also writes complicated historical novels which are several levels of magnitude better. The last of his Jonathan Argyll series was published in 2000, so it would seem he now writes only the historical novels. Of which Stone’s Fall is the most recent – it was preceded by An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998), The Dream of Scipio (2002) and The Portrait (2005), all of which I have read. Stone is an Edwardian industrialist, the wealthiest and most powerful in Britain, and one night in 1909 he falls from the window of his third-floor study and is killed. But was he pushed? His will makes reference to a child he had not previously known about, so Stone’s widow, Elizabeth, hires a freelance reporter, Braddock, to track down the missing heir. The first third of the book – framed as the reminiscences of Braddock, who has just attended Elizabeth’s funeral in Paris in 1953 – attempts to explain Stone’s success in business. The second third is set in Paris in 1890, and is the reminiscences of a British spy whose career began around that time, and who knew Elizabeth, a Parisian socialite at the time, and witnessed her meeting, and growing relationship, with Stone. The final section is set in Venice in 1867 and is written as an apologia by Stone himself, attempting to explain the event which led to him becoming so powerful and also documenting an affair he had at the time which… There’s a mystery at the heart if Stone’s Fall, and it’s not hard to figure out what it is, but it’s only as the Venetian section progresses that the solution slowly starts to reveal itself. Stone’s Fall is not as complex as Pears’ earlier historical novels, but it is very readable and handles its historical detail impressively. Bizarrely, someone has used Wikipedia to give historical notes for the book, most of which are blindingly obvious, rather than summarise the plot or book’s reception…


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It’s been over 100 days since my last…

There are probably people somewhere on this planet who believe that if you read too many books, you’ll go to Hell. Or maybe it’s just if you read the wrong sort of books. You know, ones with talking rabbits in them or some such. Being a complete atheist, I have no such fears on that score. Anyway, it’s been almost a quarter of a year since I last did a book haul post, and as you can see below the collection has grown somewhat in the interim. Some books were purchased purely for research purposes (honest), and some of them will be paying only a short visit as they go straight back to the charity shop once I’ve read them. And despite the latter category taking up more and more of my reading, the number of books in the house still seems to keep on rising. It’s a puzzle.

Books for research and for the space collection. Space Odyssey and Space Odyssey Mission Report were published to accompany the excellent BBC mockumentary of the same title. I bought them cheap on eBay to help with the Apollo Quartet. Promised the Moon is also for research, but specifically for the third book of the Apollo Quartet, And Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. I’ve had a copy of Virtual Apollo for several years, but Virtual LM went out of print very quickly and was almost impossible to find. And then just recently new copies started to pop up in various places for £20. So I snapped one up. (I see there is currently a single used copy for sale on Amazon for… £1,965.00!) Countdown joins the astronaut bios section of the Space Books collection. And Caper at Canaveral! is also research; er, honest. I saw it on eBay and couldn’t resist it. I shall, of course, review it once I’ve read it.

Two more additions to the SF Masterworks collection: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which I must admit to not having an especially high opinion of; and Odd John, which I’ve never read. Extreme Architecture I bought a) because it looked really interesting, and b) as research for the Apollo Quartet. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind I stumbled across after reading Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces (see here) and finding its central premise fascinating.

Some books by women sf writers. The Kindly Ones (a popular book title, I have three with it), Carmen Dog and New Eves will all be reviewed on SF Mistressworks. Principles of Angels I’ll review for Daughters of Prometheus.

First editions: Empty Space by M John Harrison, The Thousand Emperors by Gary Gibson, and – takes a deep breath – Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes & Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil by DG Compton. I reviewed that last many years ago under its alternate – and considerably shorter – title of Chronocules – see here.

Like many sf readers, I also enjoy a good crime novel on occasion. I read crime fiction less than I used to, however, much preferring literary or British postwar fiction these days. All three of the above authors I have read before in the past, but not those particular titles.

And speaking of science fiction… I’ve been meaning for ages to complete Benford’s quartet of Galactic Centre novels. I’ve had the first two for years – Great Sky River and Tides of Light – but recently bought the third, Furious Gulf. Once I have the fourth book, Sailing Bright Eternity, I may actually get around to reading them. Bug Jack Barron I found in a charity shop. Three Parts Dead I reviewed for Interzone. Yes, I know, an urban fantasy. You shall have to wait until the next issue to find out what I thought of it. Alt.Human is Keith Brooke’s latest. Wolfsangel I bought at Edge-Lit in July, and Mark signed it for me. Swiftly is from – cough cough – a charity shop, and Adam sent me the copy of Jack Glass (which he also signed; I shall treasure it, of course).

The Sensationist is the only book by the excellent Palliser I’ve yet to read. I like Liz Jensen’s novels, so I grab then whenever I see them in charity shops… as I did The Ninth Life of Louis Drax. The Piano Teacher and Jamilia are for my world fiction reading challenge – see here for my thoughts on the former. I became a fan of David Lodge’s novels when I was living in the UAE, and A Man of Parts was a fortuitous charity shop find. The Fear Index is a bit of light reading.

The Cleft and The Weight of Numbers I found in charity shops. For Your Eyes Only and Invisible Cities were swaps from readitswapit.co.uk. I’ve read the Fleming – it is, of course, terrible, and some of the stories reach new depths in chauvinism.

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