It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Starship Seasons, Eric Brown

starship-seasonsThe four novellas which make up Starship Seasons, titled ‘Starship Summer’, ‘Starship Fall’, ‘Starship Winter’ and ‘Starship Spring’, were originally published individually by PS Publishing (of which Drugstore Indian Press is an imprint) and NewCon Press between 2007 and 2012. All four are set on Chalcedony, Delta Pavonis IV, in a future in which starship travel has been superseded by Telemass, interstellar teleportation. The novellas feature David Conway and the circle of close friends he makes when he moves to Magenta Bay on Chalcedony. While the stories share locale and cast, and each novella references events in the preceding stories, they can be read as standalones.

Conway has retired to Chalcedony, a move partly driven by the death of his daughter and the subsequent breakup of his marriage. While hunting for a suitable property on the shore of the idyllic Magenta Bay, he stumbles across a junkyard of starships, run by an ex-pilot called Hawk. Conway decides to use an old ship as a home, but the one he chooses is of mysterious provenance. He settles into a life of indolence – with a great deal of drinking – and makes friends with several of the locals, including Hawk, famous artist Matt, telempath Maddie, and Hawk’s alien lover, Kee (a native of Chalcedony). Conway soon discovers his starship home is “haunted”… by an avatar of the Yall, an advanced alien race who have long since vanished. The Yall admits his race built Chalcedony’s great marvel, the Golden Column, an impenetrable pillar one kilometre in diameter and thirty kilometres high, and of unknown purpose. Conway and his friends, with the help of the Yall ghost, make Conway’s starship operable and fly to the Column… and so discover the mysterious object’s true purpose.

‘Starship Fall’ is set five years later. The fuss over Conway’s discovery of the Golden Column’s purpose – it is, in fact, part of an instantaneous interstellar transport network – has died down. The appearance in Magenta Bay of holo superstar Carlotta Chakravorti-Luna, however, threatens to upset Conway’s life of indolence and drinking. And then Hawk’s alien companion, Kee, vanishes into the jungle to “smoke the bones”, an alien ritual which allows the smoker to snatch glimpses of the future but has a seventy percent fatality rate. Conway, Maddie and Hawk head off into the interior to “rescue” Kee, but unfortunately are too late to prevent her undergoing the ritual. What Kee sees of the future involves Chakravorti-Luna and also Hawk’s possible death. The holo superstar admits she is on Chalcedony to find an ex-husband who crashed on the planet decades before, and this has something to do with the smoking the bones ritual.

The plot of ‘Starship Winter’ is driven by Matt, the artist, who puts on an exhibition of works which use “empathy stones” from the world of Acrab IV. Visiting Magenta Bay is Darius Dortmund, an empath, who is not only unduly interested in Matt’s showing, but is also accompanied by an alien from Acrab IV. Dortmund is arrogant, secretive and a nasty sort. He annoys and upsets Conway and his friends, spoils the grand opening of Matt’s art show, but at a big party in his rented property later is found murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on Conway and his circle, who had stayed over at Dortmund’s house for the night. In this novella, Conway’s circle expands by one: Lieutenant Hannah van Harben of the local police, who becomes Conway’s love-interest.

The final book of the quartet is ‘Starship Spring’. It is six years later. Conway and van Harben are now living together in and have a young daughter, Ella. Their friends are busy off-planet – Matt and Maddie touring Matt’s latest art show, and Hawk and Kee flying rich tourists to some galactic wonder. But soon they will be returning, so all six arrange for a fortnight away at an expensive Chalcedony holiday spot called Tamara Falls. Part of the charm of the place is that it’s apparently haunted… and the ghost makes a number of appearances in front of the six friends and Ella. It also seems to be trying to tell them something. Matt admits that the holiday is being paid for by Dr Petronius, a famous art patron, who insisted on it as a condition of his offer to tour Matt’s art show. Millennia ago, the Yall fought and defeated an evil alien race, the Skeath, who managed to hide a vast army beneath Tamara Falls, ready to be awoken one day to conquer the galaxy. Petronius wants this to happen, and needs Conway and friends and family to be on-hand to trigger it…

There’s something very… comfortable about the stories in Starship Seasons. There’s nothing edgy or outrageous about the world described, nor about the concepts deployed in the stories. That the characters are well-drawn is a given – Brown has been writing sf since the mid-1980s, and he’s very good at it. But each of the central quintet has a secret, and that five damaged people should become such close friends occasionally feels somewhat banal. Except that feels like too harsh a judgement – these are four polished novellas, firmly located in genre heartland, thoughtful and considered in tone, and very much character-centred. They will not disappoint a dedicated science fiction reader even if, in these days of immersion and jump-cuts and “blowing shit up”, these four novellas do feel a little old-fashioned in affect. Entertaining, thoughtful and put-together well, certainly, but… The fate of the galaxy is several times put at risk, the lives of the central and supporting cast are frequently in danger; and yet once the dust has settled, Conway’s life returns to normal. There is progression – the Golden Column supersedes Telemass, Conway and Hannah have a child, the characters grow and heal over the years – yet the victories won in each of the novellas still feel small scale and personal. Sometimes, that’s all science fiction needs.

Starship Seasons, Eric Brown (2013, Drugstore Indian Press, £7.99, 978-1-848636-02-6)

This review originally appeared in Vector, No. 274, Winter 2013/2014.


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Reading diary, #3

It’s been a bit of an odd month, reading-wise. Mostly science fiction, both new and old – three for review, one for Vector and two for SF Mistressworks.

MegalexCoverMegalex, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Fred Beltran (2014). I picked up a copy of the first volume of this several years ago, but parts two and three never seem to have appeared in English. I thought about getting the original French editions – and might well have done so, had this omnibus edition not been published last year. The original bandes dessinées – L’anomalie, L’ange Bossu and Le cœur de Kavatah – appeared in 1999, 2002 and 2008, respectively. Beltran’s art apparently tends to the pneumatic, and two of the lead female characters are implausibly buxom. The plot borrows a number of devices Jodorowsky has used before – in fact, even the setting feels a little second-hand too. A world has been turned into one giant city, except for a small area of forest. A glitch in the clone factory results in a dimwitted giant of a clone, who manages to escape and join the rebels living underground, who are led by a hunchback. The king’s daughter is searching for love, but her touch kills. The rebels attack the palace and kidnap the princess – but the hunchback is not killed by her touch. And his hunch turns out to conceal a pair of wings. The princess and winged man conjoin and become a winged hermaphrodite, which leads the rebels to victory over the evil king and queen. It’s not Jodorowsky’s best work by any means. It all feels a bit recycled, and though Beltran’s art is gorgeous, it’s a far too much objectifying. Despite a career in bandes desinées stretching back to 1966, Jodorowsky hasn’t really done anything science-fictional that beats The Incal.

shortnovels2The Virgin and The Gipsy, DH Lawrence (1930). I decided to read this “short novel” before watching the 1970 film adaptation sent to me by Amazon rental. It was apparently written around 1926, but discovered among DH Lawrence’s papers after his death in 1930 (the novel, that is, not the film adaptation), and published later that same year. It… actually reads like a parody. Flighty virginal young woman is attracted by animal charm of handsome gipsy, but then a local dam bursts and floods the area and the gipsy saves the young woman from the waters. So that’s 1930’s prize for Most Obvious Sexual Metaphor Ever to David Herbert, and this is a man who never let a metaphor for sex or sexuality go unmolested. There’s also some anti-semitism on display – the virgin makes friends with a Jewish divorcee (who is not actually divorced) and her laid-back boyfriend, and there are over-frequent references to the woman’s ethnicity. Lawrence was always very good about writing about landscape, although that’s not so much in evidence in this short novel. But he was also really good at interiority and there’s plenty of that on display here. It’s not Lawrence’s best work of those I’ve read – although it seems to have been critically well-received.

The Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh (1985). I reviewed this on SF Mistressworks here.

The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from Jones. W00t. It’s a YA novel set in the world of the Bold as Love series. I reviewed it for Vector.

ultimaUltima, Stephen Baxter (2014). The sequel to Proxima – did you see what he did there? Proxima: nearest; Ultima: furthest. Where the first was near-future sf, this one drags in Baxter’s other great interest, alternate history. It seems that the Hatches which allow for easy travel over interstellar distances (instantaneous for the traveller, but light-speed is not violated), also trigger “resets” of history – or shift the protagonists into alternate histories. In the first, the Roman Empire makes it into space but despite making use of “kernels” (magic energy wormhole-y type things) as a power source, it doesn’t appear to have progressed much beyond the first century CE. And then it’s an interstellar Aztec Empire, which also uses kernels and has built a giant fuck-off O’Neill cylinder but still runs pretty much along the same lines as it did when Cortés stumbled across Tenochtitlan. It’s quite an impressive sustained act of imagination, but not in the least bit plausible. The book also suffers from juvenile characterisation – a running joke involving a lead character, a grizzled Roman legionary – wears thin soon after the third mention but Baxter keeps it going right to the bitter end. There’s lots of clumsy exposition, and a central premise that doesn’t really convince. Baxter has done much better than this, and it all feels a bit by-the-numbers and banged out over a quick weekend. Disappointing.

credit_titleCredit Title, GB Stern (1961). GB Stern is Gladys Bronwen Stern, a British writer who published some forty novels between 1914 and 1964. I should have guessed from the cover art, but I didn’t realise Credit Title was a “junior novel” when I bought it on eBay. Oh well. It’s set in 1933. Sharon’s father is a director in Hollywood, but they move back to England when he marries Meryll Armstrong, who already has six children. Sharon has been dreaming of being part of a large family – inspired by a series of books about the “Rectory Family” – but the reality proves disappointing. They expect her to be stuck-up because she’s lived in Hollywood, and this colours the way they treat her. It’s all very terribly-terribly and breathless and patronising, a bit like the Narnia books – and I should have picked another Stern book to see what she’s like.

The Power of Time, Josephine Saxton (1985). Review to appear on SF Mistressworks soon.

murder-at-the-chase-2Murder at the Chase, Eric Brown (2014). This is the second of Brown’s 1950s-set murder mysteries featuring thriller writer Donald Langham and his fiancée literary agent Maria Dupré. In this book, they’re invited to unravel a locked-room disappearance of another mystery writer, and it turns out it’s all to do with a satanist who may or may not have been born over one hundred years earlier. Brown evokes his period well, and his two protagonists are eminently likeable. He even manages a nicely liberal view of humanity that wasn’t common in 1955 – two of the secondary characters are gay, and despite it being illegal at the time, pretty much everyone seems surprisingly tolerant when confronted with it. The locked-room puzzle is disposed of disappointingly quickly, but then there’s a murder and what looks like a suicide… And it all gets wrapped a little quickly and tidily for comfort. I suspect these are not written to be cosy mysteries, but they’re beginning to resemble them. They need to be a bit edgier – Brown is capable of it, he handles his period with aplomb and his characters with assuredness. But the plot is all a bit rushed, and the ending is far too tidy.

hook3Hook 3: Star City, Tully Zetford (1974). This is the third book in the quartet featuring Hook of the funny eyebrows. Zetford was a pseudonym of Ken Bulmer, and it’s even more hacky than the stuff he put out under his own name. In this one Hook has teamed up with four others to steal a collection of cultural artefacts (weighing 50 kg), but the other four intend to cut him out of the deal. But Hook turns the tables on them, loses his payment for the haul at the titular star city, and then loses the money he steals to make good on his losses… before he ends up saving the unsophisticated natives of the planet the star city orbits who are being hunted for sport. This is disposable stuff, a couple of hours’ reading you’ve forgotten ten minutes after chucking the book onto the pile of books that are going to the charity shop. Best forgotten, and I suspect the author felt that way too.


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The habit of moderation

I have always believed in that old saw: moderation in everything, including moderation. Except when it comes to book-buying. You can never have too many books. You can, however, own more books than you can comfortably read – but, again, there’s nothing actually wrong with that. Sooner or later, you will read those books. It may take a few years, perhaps even a decade or two, but it’s not like you’re never ever going to read them. Because otherwise what would be the point in buying them?

So here are some books I intend to read at some point…

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Given my love of the film, it was only natural that I’d want to read the book from which it was adapted, All That Heaven Allows; but it was bloody hard to find a copy. I managed it though. For my next informal reading project, I’m trying books by British women writers of the first half of the twentieth century I’ve not read before and who could arguably be considered “forgotten”. The Remarkable Expedition doesn’t actually qualify on two counts: a) it’s non-fiction, and b) I’m a fan of Manning’s books anyway. A Month Soon Goes, The Bridge and Devices & Desires, however, all certainly qualify. Finally, some more Joyce Carol Oates, a charity shop find, The Female of the Species

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Some genre by female writers: I’ve not been as completist about collecting the new un-numbered SF Masterworks as I was the numbered ones (so I should be grateful, I suppose, that they are un-numbered), but Her Smoke Rose Up Forever was a definite want from the moment it was announced. After last year’s awards massacre by Ancillary Justice, which I famously liked, I couldn’t not read Ancillary Sword. And after liking the Bel Dame Apocrypha, the same is true of The Mirror Empire. While working on Apollo Quartet 4, I made reference to a story by Josephine Saxton… but I didn’t have a copy of it. So I found a (signed) copy on eBay of The Power of Time, which contains the story, ordered the book, it arrived the next day, I read the story… and discovered it was a serendipitous choice for my novella. The Other Wind was a lucky charity shop find.

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I’m a fan of Palliser’s novels, but I hadn’t known he had a new book out – he’s not exactly prolific, five books in twenty-five years – so Rustication was a very happy charity shop find. I’ve been working my way through the Bond books, hence The Man with the Golden Gun, although I don’t think they’re very good. Kangaroo is another one for the DH Lawrence paperback collection. And Strange Bodies was praised by many last year so I thought it worth a try (despite not being that impressed by Theroux’s also highly-praised Far North).

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Some crime fiction – actually, I don’t think Ghost Country is crime, although Paretsky is of course best known for her VI Warshawski series of crime novels. Murder at the Chase is the second of Brown’s 1950s-set Langham & Dupree novels. I’ve seen the film and the television mini-series, so I thought it was about time I read the book Mildred Pierce.

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I read the first part of Sanctum a few years ago but never managed to track down English translations of parts 2 and 3. I was going to buy the French omnibus edition at one point, but then spotted this English version on Amazon one day. It has its moments, but I’m not sure it was worth the wait. Valerian and Laureline 8: Heroes of the Equinox is, er, the eighth instalment in a long-running sf bande dessinée, and they’re very good, if somewhat short.


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Book haul

Things must be bad – I’ve not done one of these posts for a couple of months, and yet there only seems to be about a month’s worth of book purchases to document. Of course, this has resulted in a small victory in reducing the TBR, although it’s still somewhat mountainous… I’d actually planned to keep my purchasing at low levels for a couple of months but, of course, as is the way of things, several authors whose books I read all had new works out – August and September seems to be a popular time to release books. Unless you’re Whippleshield Books, that is…

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Some new first editions and an old one. Research is Philip Kerr’s latest, and about a James Patterson-like writer who’s framed for the murder of his wife. Let’s hope it’s not a James Patterson-like book… Dark Lightning is the fourth in Varley’s Thunder and Lightning series, following on from Red Thunder, Red Lightning and Rolling Thunder. I initially thought these were YA, but I don’t think they actually are. All Those Vanished Engines is a new novel by a favourite writer, and the first from him since the Princess of Roumania quartet back in 2005 – 2008. I am excited about this book. Finally, Rubicon by Agnar Mykle is one by mother found for me. I looked it up and it sounded interesting so she got it for me. Mykle seems to be Norway’s answer to DH Lawrence – his Sangen om den røde rubin (1956, The Song of the Red Ruby) was confiscated as immoral and obscene. Rubicon is the third book in a loose trilogy begun with The Song of the Red Ruby. If Rubicon is any good, I might track down Mykle’s other works.

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Some recent paperback purchases: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I bought because Karen Joy Fowler. I’ve been following Kinsey Millhone’s career for a couple of decades and W is for Wasted is the most recent installment. Grafton has kept the series’ internal chronology consistent, which means this one is actually set in 1988. Which sort of makes it historical crime fiction. Milton In America was a charity shop find. And Eric sent me a copy of his latest, a steampunk set in India, Jani and the Greater Game.

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Now this is very annoying. I’d been impressed by Léo’s Aldebaran and Betelgeuse series, so I was keen to read Antares. From Wikipedia, I learnt there were five episodes in Antares, so I waited until the final volume was published in English by Cinebook… and then bought all five books. But it ends on a cliff-hanger! Argh. It’s not finished. So now I’m going to have to wait to find out what happens.

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The DH Lawrence collection continues to grow. My father had the first two volumes of the Cambridge biography of DH Lawrence – The Early Years 1885-1912 and Triumph to Exile 1912-1922 – and I hung onto them. But I hadn’t realised it was a trilogy, and when I started looking for a copy of the final volume, Dying Game 1922-1930, I discovered that hardback editions were hard to find. But I found one. I also have a couple more 1970s Penguin paperbacks to add to the collection: St Mawr / The Virgin and the Gypsy (a pair of novellas) and England, My England (a collection). I probably have their contents in other books, but I’m trying to build up a set of these particular paperback editions.

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Some critical works on women science fiction writers. The Feminine Eye, edited by Tom Staicar, includes essays on Tiptree, Brackett, Moore, Norton, Cherryh and others. Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts is a collection of Joanna Russ’s essays on feminism. And The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is a study of, from the back cover blurb, “the role of women and feminism in the development of American science fiction” and I really need to read it for Apollo Quartet 4…

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More books for the aviation collection. USAF Interceptors is a collection of black and white photos of, er, interceptor jet aircraft from the Cold War. Not as useful as I’d hoped. Convair Advanced Designs II is the follow-on volume to, um, Convair Advanced Designs, this time focusing on fighters and attack aircraft. And for the space books collection, Russian Spacesuits, which I used for research for my Gagarin on Mars story – and will likely use again at some point.

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Finally, more books for the underwater collection. The Greatest Depths by Gardner Soule is a quick and not especially, er, deep study of underwater exploration and exploitation. It covers the main points, including the Trieste’s descent to Challenger Deep and the Ben Franklin’s journey along the Gulf Stream. A Pictorial History of Oceanographic Submersibles does exactly what it says on the cover. It was cheap on eBay (although I demanded, and received, a partial refund because it turned out to be a bit tatty). And The Deep Sea is a glossy coffee-table book containing some nice photos of things at the bottom of the sea.


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Eastercon is over

So that’s Satellite 4, the 2014 Eastercon, over and done with. It was a con of ups and downs. On the one hand, it’s always good to spend time with friends, especially ones you don’t see IRL all that often. On the other… I didn’t reckon much to the programme, the dealers’ room was disappointingly small, and the hotel isn’t all that well-suited to conventions – the main bar and function space are separated by two staircases… or a shortcut through the main restaurant.

The train journey to Glasgow didn’t start too well, but proved mostly painless. British railways are still an embarrassment, however. The ROSCOs seriously need to be nationalised, they’re robbing us all blind. I hadn’t managed to get a room in the con hotel, the Crowne Plaza, but was instead staying in the Hilton Garden Hotel about five minutes’ walk away. It proved to be the better hotel – while the rooms were small, and the en suite bathrooms tiny, they did contain a fridge, a safe and an… iMac. The hotel breakfast was nothing special, although unfortunately I managed to poison myself on the Saturday – I suspect the mushrooms. I think they must have been cooked in butter, because I spent most of the day feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach. Lactose intolerance will do that to you.

In fact, I didn’t eat well all weekend. It was either bar food or the hotel restaurant, and there wasn’t a fat lot on the bar food menu I could eat. So I pretty much had chips. Just chips. Every day. Including a trip to Strathbungo with the Steels and Dougal. (Which happened during the Hugo Award announcement, so I watched the shortlists appear on Twitter on my phone with mounting disbelief, sitting in a car in Strathbungo, eating chips.) Bizarrely, the con ended with Hal Duncan and myself eating in the hotel restaurant on the Monday night… which is what happened the last time the Eastercon was in that hotel, back in 2006.

Other “downs” – being glass-fronted, the hotel was uncomfortably hot throughout the weekend. What is it about the UK and its inability to air-condition buildings effectively? And on one night, someone turned off the lights in the gents while I was in one of the cubicles. I was not happy.

I only managed to make three programme items, though I’d promised myself I’d be more diligent. First was the NewCon Press / PS Publishing launch. It occurred to me during it that it’s only small presses who launch books at Eastercon now. It must be several years since I last saw one of the big imprints do so. Then there was Neil Williamson’s talk about how he uses music in his writing – which managed to put one member of the audience to sleep (the second time that person has done so during one of Neil’s readings). And finally I attended the BSFA Award ceremony. It’s gratifying to see the BSFA can still be resolutely amateur – with the slideshow not always working, at least one of the list of nominees given to a presenter proving incorrect, and a plain lack of script. Still, I guess it’s an improvement on (some) previous years… I correctly called the winners in three of the categories, but I thought Christopher Priest might take the Best Novel. I certainly wasn’t expecting a tie, and while Ancillary Justice was my second favourite to win, I hadn’t thought Ack-Ack Macaque stood much chance. I’d not reckoned on the effect being on-site has, however. Anyway, congratulations to all the winners.

I spent much of Satellite 4 in the hotel’s main bar, talking to friends and meeting new people. In that respect, the convention was much like any other. I can remember the topics of only a handful of the conversations, nor can I remember everyone I spoke to. But it was nice to speak to you if I did speak to you. I do sort of recall one conversation about Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows, and discussing a dinner scene from something that I fancied taking off in the novella… But when I got home on the Tuesday, I’d completely forgotten in what it was the dinner scene had originally appeared. Which was bloody annoying. But then – and this is apparently how my brain works – last Sunday I was reading a short story by Margaret Atwood and it mentioned in passing Walden Pond and I remembered I had a copy of Thoreau’s book, Walden, which I wanted to read for All That Outer Space Allows because in Sirk’s film All That Heaven Allows it’s Rock Hudson’s favourite book and he shows it to Jane Wyman just before… the dinner party. Aha! After all that, it proved the most obvious answer – the dinner scene is in the movie which partly inspired the novella and which its title references. Doh.

Anyway, I digress. I enjoyed Satellite 4 for the socialising, but after the 4 am finish on the Saturday, I was definitely wondering if I was getting too old for this shit… Except one of the other people who stayed up until that ungodly hour was Jim Burns. And he has a couple of decades on me. So clearly I must be doing it wrong. Ah well.

No con report would be complete without a catalogue of book purchases. So here it is…

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My haul from the New Con Press / PS Publishing book launch: Neil Williamson’s debut novel, The Moon King; the first in the Telemass Quartet by Eric Brown, Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV; his latest collection, Strange Visitors, part of NewCon’s Imaginings series of collections; The Uncollected Ian Watson is precisely that; and Memory Man & Other Poems is Ian’s first poetry collection. (The NewCon Press titles have yet to appear on their website, so the titles link to the site’s front page.)

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Some books for SF Mistressworks: Second Body by Sue Payer I just couldn’t resist after reading the blurb – “Five hours later, Wendy’s head was fused to Jennifer’s tall, voluptuous body, and her life would never be the same!”. Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan, The People: No Different Flesh by Zenna Henderson, The Journal of Nicholas the American by Leigh Kennedy and A Billion Days of Earth by Doris Piserchia are all books I’ve heard of – in fact, they’ve all been reviewed once already on SF Mistressworks.

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I also collect fictional treatments of first landings on the Moon published before Apollo 11 – First on the Moon by Hugh Walters from 1960 is one such novel. The Testimony by James Smythe and The Serene Invasion by Eric Brown are both books I didn’t have and want to read.

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Finally, Paul Kincaid’s latest critical work, Call and Response.

As for Whippleshield Books… All three books of the Apollo Quartet were available in the dealers’ room throughout the con on the TTA Press table. I even sat behind the table for an hour with Jim Steel, so Roy could attend a programme item. We were not exactly mobbed. Over the entire weekend, I managed to sell around two dozen books, which was slightly better than I’d expected. I still had a 1.5 boxes of books to ship back home, however.

Next year’s Eastercon is in Heathrow, with Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire as Guests of Honour. I doubt I’ll be going. I don’t like the site, and I’m not a fan of urban fantasy. I shall stay home and write something instead…


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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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The grateful mantlepiece

Something must be wrong with me. How else to explain it? It’s been over a month since my last book haul post, and look how few books I’ve bought since then. The mantlepiece, at least, is grateful, as its load was somewhat lighter as I was putting together this post. And the rate of increase in the TBR has decreased a little. You know you’re in trouble when you’re measuring the rate of change in the TBR rather than the actual number of books you own but have yet to read. So it goes.

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Some non-fiction: Spacesuit I fancied the look of, chiefly because it includes spacesuits from fiction; but we’ll see how it stacks up against the other books on the topic I own. The Astronaut Wives Club is research for Apollo Quartet 4, and it’s nice when you decide on a topic to write about and someone then goes and publishes a factual work on that very subject. DH Lawrence: Triumph to Exile 1912 – 1922 is the second volume of a three-volume biography of the writer and belonged to my father. I have the first, but now I’m going to have to see if I can get hold of a hardback edition of the third book.

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Haynes have branched out from car owners’ workshop manuals, and while I can understand them applying the same formula to various famous aircraft, such as the Avro Vulcan and Supermarine Spitfire, or even the Space Shuttle and Lunar Rover, some of the fictional “vehicles” they cover make less sense – like the U.S.S. Enterprise, the Millennium Falcon, or Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds. Still, I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare for years, so I thought the Space Fleet Operations Manual worth a go. It’s… okay. Cutaways of the various spacecraft, thumbnail sketches of the characters and alien races. There’s not much detail. Ah well. The Secret of the Swordfish, Part 1 is the fifteenth volume in the series, and there’s only a few to go before it’s all done. This is the first Blake and Mortimer story, originally published in 1950, and it shows. The artwork is Jacobs’ usual ligne claire style but the story is neither as complex nor as clever as much later volumes.

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For the collections: Murder by the Book is Eric Brown branching out into crime, and I’m looking forward to reading it (especially since I know what one of its touchstone works was). I was kindly sent an ARC of The Lowest Heaven but after reading the first story by Sophia MacDougall I decided it was worth buying the limited edition. So I did. Review to follow shortly-ish. The Quarry I bought from Waterstones, and it’s not like I was never going to buy the book in hardback. Five Autobiographies and a Fiction I bought direct from Subterranean Press. Idiot HMRC decided to charge VAT on it, even though books are exempt. I have applied for a refund but it’ll be weeks before I get it. So, of course, they did it to the next book I ordered from the US. I’ve been buying books from publishers and eBay sellers in the US for years without a problem, and then twice in one month they wrongly stiff me for VAT. Stupid HMRC are stupid.

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Some charity shop finds: Persepolis, a graphic novel about a woman growing up in Iran. I’ve been there, you know: Persepolis. It was in the early 1970s, we went on holiday to Iran, and stayed in Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran. At one point, we went to see the ruins at Persepolis. I really ought to see about digitising the cine film my father shot when we were there. Beside the Ocean of Time was a lucky find – I’ve been interested in trying something by George Mackay Brown since seeing him mentioned on, I think, Eve’s Alexandria. Before I Go To Sleep I vaguely recall being one of those literary/mainstream novels based on a sf idea from a couple of years ago. I can’t actually remember what people said about it, however. I guess I’ll find out for myself. Skin of the Soul is a Women’s Press anthology of horror stories by women writers. I wavered on this one – I mean, it’s not sf so I can’t review it for SF Mistressworks; and I’m not a huge fan of horror, anyway. But then I saw Suzy McKee Charnas and Karen Joy Fowler on the TOC, and I decided to buy it.

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Finally, two books I bought from Waterstones’ “buy one get one half price promotion”. Guess which one I got for half price: is it HHhH at £8.99 or A Possible Life at £12.99? I really wanted HHhH as I’d heard so many good things about it, but as is always the way with these promotions finding a second book proved difficult. Yes, I did want to read A Possible Life, but not enough that I’d pay near enough thirteen quid for the trade paperback. But there was nothing else that looked remotely interesting. I must have been in a good mood.

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