It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Reading diary, #1

As I did last year, I plan to document my reading throughout 2015. Some books I may pull out and dedicate a full post to, others I will only mention in passing as I’ll have reviewed them elsewhere (chiefly on SF Mistressworks or in Interzone). Again, as in 2014, I’m going to try and alternate genders in my long fiction reading, although from the looks of it I seem to have failed a bit during these first few weeks…

Shades-of-Milk-and-Honey-by-Mary-Robinette-KowalShades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal (2010). I am, I freely admit, a fan of Heyer’s novels, and while I wouldn’t call myself an Austen fan, I’ve certainly read her books. So when I first saw Kowal’s Regency fantasy, I knew that sooner or later I’d be picking up a copy. In fact, I received this book as a Christmas present. And read it during the journey back to the UK. It’s pretty much as you’d expect – old-maid-ish daughter of comfortably well-off provincial family gets all excited when eligible men turn up at the local nob’s house. The difference here is that people can practice a sort of light-based magic, “glamour”, which allows them to create illusions – and this has become a new… well, not art-form, but certainly a form of “accomplishment”. Jane is the plain older sister of beautiful Melody, whose charms are sure to land her a good match, except Jane is gifted at glamour – so cue a pair of “interesting” gentlemen who are drawn to Jane, Melody’s bitterness because she’s smart enough to realise a pretty face is not enough, the return of a childhood friend who proves to be a bounder, a young girl who Jane takes under her wing… It’s a polished piece, perhaps a little too polished – there was something that didn’t quite ring true about it all, not that it prevented me from enjoying it. Kowal handles the relationships well, and the glamour is nicely done – but the story seemed wrapped up almost as an afterthought with a throwaway happy-ever-after ending. At the moment, I’m not sure if I’ll be bothering with the rest of the series.

octopussyOctopussy & The Living Daylights, Ian Fleming (1966). The last of Fleming’s 007 books, and that means I’ve now read the lot. I can now cross them off the list. Yay. Although, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I decided I had to read them all – because it turned out they were all pretty terrible. Octopussy & The Living Daylights is, as the title might suggest, a collection – and both story titles have been used for Bond movies, although the films bear zero resemblance to the source material (as usual). In ‘Octopussy’, an ex-SOE man who was a bit naughty with some gold in Italy just after the war finished is visited at his home in Jamaica by Bond. Certain hints are dropped, but the man accidentally gets stung by a stonefish while feeding it to an octopus he has sort of adopted. In ‘The Living Daylights’, Bond has been charged with killing a sniper who they’ve learnt will make an attempt on a defector who’s making a run for it from East to West Berlin. Bond has always been brutal, but this one is more brutal than most. ‘The Property of a Lady’ sees Bond trying to flush out a Soviet spy during an auction for a Fabergé globe. The last story is a squib in which Bond flies to New York, daydreams about the day ahead… only to cock up the reason he’s been sent there. Meh.

Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh (1984). The second book of the Compact Space quintet. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

TheMirrorEmpire-144dpiThe Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley (2014). I’d been sufficiently impressed by Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha to overcome any reluctance I might have at reading a secondary-world fantasy. I’d also seen a lot of positivity for this book on social media. So it would not be unfair to say my expectations were reasonably high… And yet, as I read it, I just couldn’t get that excited. Partly, it was the casual brutality – in particular, a world in which a people have been enslaved for thousands of years and their masters are now slaughtering them like cattle. Fight-scenes, even battles, are one thing, but the systematic butchery in The Mirror Empire read more like an attempt to up the ante in grimdark’s brutality arms race, and I’ve yet to be convinced such a race is even a good thing. The much-touted five-genders – a neat idea – is only mentioned half a dozen times in passing, and matriarchal societies in epic fantasy are not actually all that new… But. The world-building was mostly done well, even if it does take a while to get the hang of things; and the characters were (relatively) sympathetic, although some were more successful than others. But the plot really does take a long time to get into gear, and you’re two-thirds through the book before any kind of shape becomes apparent. As epic fantasies go, The Mirror Empire is not as innovative as has been claimed, although it’s plainly a notable, if overly dark, example of the genre. More than anything, it put me in mind of Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy, although they’re the better books. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with volume 2 of the Worldbreaker Saga. I will, however, give Hurley’s new sf series a go when that appears.

a-man-lies2207A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014). The Nazis were ousted by the Communists in the early 1930s, and now Hitler is scratching a living in London, under the name Wolf, as a private eye. There’s something about the conceit that doesn’t really work – whether it’s Hitler downtrodden in London, or just a Chandleresque PI in 1930s London – but Tidhar nonetheless makes it work. Though Wolf is by definition a nasty piece of work, it’s hard not to sympathise with him as he’s beaten and attacked by all and sundry, even those you’d expect to be on his side. While presented as pulp, Wolf’s narrative is really an excellent black comedy – it uses the language of the former, deliberately spoofing Chandler and Hammet in several places, but it is its shape which identifies it as black comedy. Even those characters whose sensibilities align with Wolf’s turn on him, and eventually the biggest irony of all lands him on a ship emigrating to Palestine under a Jewish name. The title of the novel, however, refers to the other narrative in the book, about a prisoner at Auschwitz, who used to write shund, or Yiddish pulp fiction. Wolf is his invention. Comparisons with Osama are inevitable as both books posit a real-world villain occupying the role of a pulp fiction hero in an invented universe. On finishing A Man Lies Dreaming, I’d have said the earlier novel was the better, but as I came to write this quick review I decided I preferred this one. A Man Lies Dreaming is an effortless read, and Wolf is an excellent fictional creation. It’s easy to overlook how cleverly done it is. Which is a shame.

Skirmish, Melisa Michaels (1985). This was one of only two books The Women’s Press published under their YA sf imprint, Livewire. It was originally published in the US as a sf novel for adults. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

Edge of Dark, Brenda Cooper (2015). Although sneakily presented as the first book of a diptych, this is actually part of an ongoing series set in the same universe. I reviewed it for Interzone.


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Reading diary, #12

The last bunch of books read in 2014… Almost. There’s one more I’m currently reading, but I’ll lead off my first reading diary post of 2015 with it. I’ll do a numbers post once the year is actually over.

rusticationRustication, Charles Palliser (2014) I’ve been a fan of Palliser’s works for years, but he doesn’t produce much. In fact, I thought he’d packed it in. But during this summer I’d spotted a new charity shop in town, near Fanoush, where I occasionally go for a falafel wrap at lunch-time. So one day after getting my wrap – they’re actually made with proper khubz, not stupid tortillas – I popped into the charity shop. And spotted Rustication. Result. The novel is set in 1863 over the Christmas holiday and takes the form of a journal, with anonymous letters inserted. Richard Shenstone has been rusticated from Cambridge after the suspicious death of a friend. His father died earlier in disgrace, and his near-destitute mother and sister are now living in a run-down house on the edge of a salt marsh near the town of Thurchester. Shortly after Richard’s arrival, someone starts sending obscene poison pen letters to the worthy women of the area and their daughters, and sneaking about at night and killing farm animals in horrible ways. Clues suggest Richard is responsible, although since it’s his journal which forms the narrative it’s clears it’s not him. Having said that, he does have an opium habit, which leads him to do a number of stupid things which make him look guilty. It all comes to a head when the local earl’s nephew and heir is murdered returning from an Assembly at which Richard had threatened him for compromising his sister’s honour. Rustication is pure Gothic, but tricked up as a literary thriller. It’s a slighter work than The Quincunx or Betrayals, but I’m still a fan.

the-man-with-the-golden-gunThe Man with the Golden Gun, Ian Fleming (1965) There’s a story that Fleming had told people he planned to become a writer once World War II ended, but one of his upper crust friends told him, “Oh Ian, don’t. You don’t have the brains for it.” And he didn’t, you know. Have the brains for it. The 007 novels, and I’ve now read them all except for Octopussy & The Living Daylights (which is on the TBR), range from bad to terrible. And The Man with the Golden Gun is toward the terrible end of the scale. Of course, the film bears no resemblance to it. (The only film which follows the plot of the novel is Thunderball, and that’s because it’s actually a novelisation of the script… and  a rights battle between Fleming and four others subsequently tied up the title for decades.) In The Man with the Golden Gun the novel, Scaramanga plies his trade in the Caribbean and has links to the Castro regime. Bond has been sent after him because he returned from You Only Live Twice brainwashed by the KGB to kill M. But now he’s had electro-shock therapy and he’s back to his normal self. M is still wary, however: hence the mission to terminate Scaramanga. Either Bond will prove his mettle, or Scaramanga will get rid of an embarrassing loose end. Bond stumbles across a clue revealing that Scaramanga is in a town in Jamaica, heads there, meets the man in a brothel, and is hired as security for an upcoming meeting Scaramanga is hosting at his half-finished luxury hotel nearby, where “investors” (ie, mobsters) will be persuaded to hand over more cash to finish the hotel. Scaramanga talks like a hoodlum from a cheap television series, Bond is his usual two-dimensional self, and Fleming can’t resist getting in his usual offensive digs at homosexuality, women and non-whites. Parts of the novel simply don’t ring true at all, as if Fleming has done little or no research; the only bits that are convincing are his descriptions of the countryside (Fleming, of course, lived in Jamaica). As with the bulk of the Bond books, you’re better off sticking with the film.

languedotdocLangue[dot]doc 1305, Gillian Polack (2014) A team of scientists have been sent back in time to the titular place and time, and they have a single historian with them – who was parachuted in at the last minute after the original two historian members of the team pulled out. Artemisia Wormwood, however, is not an expert on 14th-century Languedoc, but on mediaeval saints. Fortunately, she knows considerably more about the time and place than the scientists, who are there to refine their theory of time travel and investigate the natural environment. The team set up in a system of caves under a hill beside the village of St-Guilhelm-le-Désert and, while they keep apart from the villagers (only Wormwood speaks old French, and she does that haltingly), they make no secret of their presence. In fact, the scientists behave like a bunch of spoilt kids. They don’t seem to care about the impact they may be having on the lives of those in the village. Wormwood acts as an unofficial liaison between the two groups, via disgraced knight Guilhelm. This one is definitely a slow-burner. Not much happens during the course of the novel, it’s more a diary of incidents experienced by the time team. However, it definitely packs a sting in the tail. The prose is polished, Polack evokes her period extremely well, and the whole thing is very readable if somewhat languidly paced. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Race, Nina Allan (2014) Allan’s first novel-length piece of fiction is actually four linked novellas, and also very lightly meta-fictional. I wrote about it here.

From the Legend of Biel, Mary Staton (1975). This was the first book of the second series of Ace Specials. I read it for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

The Moon King, Neil Williamson (2014). I’m working on a longer review of this, so I’ll just mention it in passing here. I will say, however, that I enjoyed it much more than I had expected to. (I’ve known Neil for ages, so I expected it to be well-written, but had thought it wouldn’t be quite to my taste – I was wrong.) Anyway, a post on this novel should appear here soon-ish.

firstfifteenThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (2014). Found this in a charity shop, had heard it mentioned here and there, understood it to be not unlike Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (which I thought good), so decided to give it a go. And yes, I did enjoy it. The prose is nice and breezy, the central premise – people who relive their lives over and over again – was handled quite cleverly, and the eponymous protagonist was sympathetic and plausible. Plot-wise, the book is less successful – although hinted at on the first page, the plot didn’t actually kick into gear until over halfway in, and even then it spent more time on the silly maguffin at the core of the book than it did the far more interesting process by which the villain removed all his enemies. I’d seen mention of North’s Touch, due out early in 2015, and thought it might be worth a go. On the strength of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, I’ll almost certainly be picking up a copy.

Casebook2The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, Peter Ackroyd (2008). Victor Frankenstein, a young man from Switzerland, joins Oxford University, where he meets Percy Bysshe Shelley. The two become friends, although their interests only just coincide – Frankenstein wants to understand how life is created, and focuses his investigations on reanimating dead bodies using “the electrical fluid”, whereas Shelley’s investigations are more metaphysical. Even after Shelley is expelled, the two remain close – Frankenstein even moves to London to be near him. In order to further experiment, Frankenstein contacts some “resurrection men” and has them deliver cadavers to his laboratory in Limehouse. Most of his experiments are failures, but when he is handed the body of Jack Keat, a few short hours after he committed suicide (he was dying of consumption), Frankenstein successfully brings him back to life… And you just know the story going to end up at the Villa Diodati. Ackroyd takes a few liberties with Shelley’s life, and Byron comes across as a dickhead, but the whole adds up to an entertaining take on the Frankenstein story and the Romantic poets. The period detail is impressively handled, Frankenstein is a sympathetic narrator, and there are a number of neat touches to the scientific thought of the day which I found amusing. A good book.

femalespeciesThe Female of the Species, Carol Joyce Oates (2006). My second Oates. This one is a collection of short stories, many of which originally appeared in genre magazines. I think I can safely say now that Oates doesn’t quite work for me. According to the blurb, in these stories “women are confronted by the evil around them and surprised by the evil they find within them”. I thought the most successful story was ‘Madison at Guignol’, in which a trophy wife polished to a lacquer-like gloss learns of a secret door at one of her favourite high-end boutiques and insists on admittance through it: Fifth Avenue meets Gothic horror. Another one I liked was ‘Hunger’, a much longer piece about a bored wife who, after a holiday affair with a younger man, is horrified when he turns up at her home. Even though she loves him – though it seems to be more of a passion – she’s not willing to jeopardise her marriage. Not all of the stories worked for me – the one about the nurse felt too much like reportage, in some of the others the prose seemed too focused on effect rather than the story. The reason for Oates’ stature is plain to see in this collection, but there are other writers I’d sooner read.

themartianandyweirThe Martian, Andy Weir (2014). This is an odd one. The book has been hugely successful, so much so Ridley Scott is apparently making a film of it. Yet most of the praise for the book I’ve seen has been outside fandom. Is this because the book was originally self-published, and did so well on Kindle it was then picked up by a major imprint? Or is it that hard science fiction has fallen out of favour with genre fandom? Actually, I think it’s neither, but rather the fact that a) The Martian is a resolutely commercial book, and in style and approach has more in common with technothrillers than it does science fiction novels, b) it is completely hollow, there’s no meaty idea for a sf reader to get their teeth into, and c) it’s actually not very good, just pages and pages of a very irritating narrator explaining how he managed to survive on Mars after accidentally being left behind. It’s basically “Home Alone on the Red Planet”, with the planet itself playing the part of the inept burglars. (Sticking Val Kilmer, or his lookalike, on the cover, probably didn’t harm its chances either.) The original self-published novel has been padded out with scenes set at NASA, as they learn the narrator, Mark Watney, is still alive and then set about putting together a rescue plan. But the characterisation is paper-thin and everyone sounds pretty much the same. Watney’s various predicaments are interesting, and some of his solutions are mildly clever – but Weir throws so much bad luck at him, it soon beggars belief. We also get little real idea of what it would be like to be on the surface of Mars. A handful of mentions of the 0.4G, no mention at all of the surface radiation, but lots about the cold. Lots. It was also my understanding that at such low atmospheric pressures, gale-force winds would actually cause very little damage. The Martian could have taken place pretty much anywhere, even the Antarctic, and very little would need to change (well, the technology would have to be dialled down a little). I’m completely mystified by all the praise this book has been receiving. We might as well claim Clive Cussler’s latest sweatshop effort is one of the best sf novels of the year…


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A weight of words

Yes, I know ebooks are a thing, and if I bought them my bookshelves – or indeed the floors of my flat – would not be groaning beneath the weight of so many hardbacks and paperbacks. But there’s something much more satisfying in owning a physical book, just as there is in the actual physical act of reading one. Plus, of course, I wouldn’t be able to do posts such as this one if I bought only ebooks…

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Another book for my postwar British women writers challenge – I’d enjoyed Jameson’s A Month Soon Goes, so I picked up a copy of The Road from the Monument. The Race is Allan’s first novel, and quite a few people are talking about it. The Luck of Brin’s Five and Cautionary Tales are both for SF Mistressworks and were bought from Porcupine Books.

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I finally managed to track down a hardback copy of Resplendent, so now I have the set. I’ve read the first two – I quite liked Coalescent, but was disappointed by Exultant. I was disappointed by Proxima too, but nonetheless I bought the sequel, Ultima. And I’ve long been a fan of Frank Herbert’s fiction, and while I probably have most of the contents of The Collected Stories of Frank Herbert in other collections, I fancied a copy of it.

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Both of these were bought for research for Apollo Quartet 4, although they’ll also join the Space Books collection. The Cape is a trashy novel about astronauts, by possibly the worst writer ever to have been published, Martin Caidin. And Stu Roosa, the subject of Smoke Jumper, Moon Pilot, was the CMP on Apollo 14, and also a member of the Group 5 astronauts selected in 1966.

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A pair of paperbacks – Octopussy & The Living Daylights because I’ve been working my way through the 007 books because I’ve no idea; and Mortal Engines because I’ve decided Lem is an author I should read more by.

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Some non-fiction. Sibilant Fricative I won in the Strange Horizons fund drive draw. Galactic Suburbia I’m using for research for Apollo Quartet 4. And I already have a first edition of A Mouthful of Air, but this new copy is signed (and it was surprisingly cheap too).

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Finally, a selection of first editions. A Man Lies Dreaming, which I think I might have seen mentioned on Twitter recently once or twice; January Window, the first in the Scott Manson series by the author of the Bernie Gunther novels; Betrayals, which features a superb pastiche of both Taggart and Jeffrey Archer, and I really want all of Palliser’s books in hardback; and a lovely slipcased Kerosina book, The Road to Paradise, a mainstream novel, which comes packaged with a short travel book, Irish Encounters.


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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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Recentest readings

Time for another report from my ongoing mission to read every book I own. There is no five-year plan – actually, there is: A Five Year Plan, a thriller by Philip Kerr, which I read back in February 2005… What I mean is, there is no end in sight – in fact, it recedes further from me with each passing month. Must. Read. More. Books. (Yes, yes, I know: I could also try: Must. Buy. Fewer. Books. But don’t be silly, that’ll never happen.)

OHMSS18On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Ian Fleming (1963). This is the one where Bond gets married, and then his wife is killed soon afterwards. The woman he marries is the daughter of a Sicilian mafia boss, but she’s been to finishing school and her previous husband was a wastrel Italian count so she’s now a contessa; and, of course, she’s beautiful. And suicidal. The book opens with Bond rescuing her from a suicide attempt when she throws herself into the sea. The actual plot concerns a fiendish plan by Blofeld to destabilise the UK by destroying its agriculture. There’s a mountain-top health centre in Switzerland run by a mysterious scientist – who may or may not be Blofeld – and Bond infiltrates it in the flimsiest of disguises. He finds it populated by a number of young English women, all there ostensibly to be cured of phobias and allergies. But they’re actually being brainwashed into performing a series of tasks to poison British agriculture. When Bond meets the centre’s owner, Comte Balthazar de Bleuville, he just knows he’s Blofeld, even though he doesn’t resemble Blofeld at all. Plastic surgery, you see. Anyway, Bond foils Blofeld’s fiendish plot – the English women are caught before they can cause any damage, and British forces launch a raid on Blofeld’s health-centre but Blofeld escapes. Afterwards, Bond gets married, Blofeld attempts to kill him, and his wife dies in the attack. There’s a good sequence when Bond escapes from Blofeld’s hideaway by skiing down the mountain – bizarrely, it reads more like the cinematic Bond than Fleming’s original. The science practiced by Blofeld is completely bogus, and the only connection between the villain of this book and the villain of Thunderball is Bond’s conviction that they are one and the same man. Fleming’s treatment of Bond’s father-in-law, the Sicilian capo, is deeply racist; and it goes without saying that the women throughout the book are little more than plot tokens or adjuncts to Bond’s masculinity. This is actually one of the better Bond novels I’ve read so far, though I still don’t think they deserve their immense popularity. I’d always assumed their success was due to the films, but apparently there was a James Bond strip in the Daily Express, which ran from 1958 to 1983. While the hardback of Casino Royale apparently sold out three print-runs within thirteen months in the UK – but flopped in the US: they retitled it You Asked For It, and even renamed 007 as “Jimmy Bond” in the paperback reprint – I do wonder if it’s the newspaper strip which, by bringing the character to a much larger audience (under Beaverbrook the Daily Express had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world), really made Bond a twentieth-century cultural icon.

AMWBreathA Man Without Breath, Philip Kerr (2013). That’s me completely up-to-date on the Bernie Gunther novels, at least until a new one appears. In A Man Without Breath, Gunther has moved to the War Crimes Bureau, and is sent out to Smolensk because several buried bodies have been found in a nearby wood by German troops. The Germans suspect the bodies belong to Polish officers, killed by the Russians, who had allegedly shipped the Poles they had captured off to POW camps. The wood is Katyn Wood. When a pair of soldiers from a nearby signals detachment are found murdered in Smolensk, Gunther is asked to assist by the local field police. The more he investigates the double murder, and the circumstances surrounding it, the more he’s convinced there is some sort of conspiracy in place among the senior German officers in Smolensk. Meanwhile, other War Crimes Bureau investigators have found yet more murdered Poles buried in Katyn Wood… If Prague Fatale was a piss-take of a country house murder – including a locked room mystery! – A Man Without Breath is pure World War II behind-the-lines thriller. The plot hangs from two very real atrocities committed during the war – the Katyn Massacre, and another performed by the Germans (revealing it would constitute a spoiler, so I won’t). Kerr places Gunther firmly in the middle as all these events come to a head, and while he’s not responsible for resolving them, he is certainly the one who makes sense of them and puts the pieces together for the reader. One of the difficulties with writing historical fiction involving well-documented people and events is that everything must end up as it does in the history books. This is not Inglourious Basterds, Hitler and the Nazi bigwigs do not get gunned down before 1945. The larger events depicted in A Man Without Breath are actual history, and you can read about them on Wikipedia. The same is true of the movements of the more important figures. So when Hitler makes a flying visit to Smolensk in the novel, that’s what he actually did in the real world. Kerr does this really well. And having read science fiction for so many years, I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to fiction which includes elements I can go and look up afterwards. In fact, that’s something I try to write myself – even though what I write is science fiction…

threemarysThree Marys, Paul Park (2003). After writing four excellent science fiction novels, one of which remains my favourite sf novel of all time, Park decided to write a couple of books set in Biblical Palestine. The first was The Gospel of Corax, a sort of alternate life of Jesus, in which he wasn’t crucified but wanders eastward, dispensing magic and theosophist philosophy. Three Marys is a more historical novel and, as the title indicates, takes as its protagonists three women called Mary who each knew Jesus – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and Jesus’ mother, Mary. I’m a big fan of Park’s writing, but first century Palestine is not a place and time that especially interests me. I’ve read one book set there this year, Philip Boast’s Sion (see here), but that was quite a strange book. Park’s is far better historically-grounded, and reads much more convincingly than Boast’s did. The three title characters are also beautifully drawn. But… I don’t find Jesus interesting as either a historical or a religious figure, and I struggled to gain purchase on Three Marys despite its lovely prose. I suspect I may have to reread it one day, but for now I’d say it was a book I admired far more than I enjoyed.

kingdomKingdom of Strangers, Zoë Ferraris (2012). The third book in Ferraris’ Jeddah-set murder-mysteries. A body is found in the desert after strong winds have blown sand from a dune by a road. The body is that of a young woman, has had its hands removed and appears to be several years old. The police investigate and eighteen more bodies are found in the area. It looks like Jeddah has a serial killer on its, er, hands, and no one knew about it. This is not unexpected: given the frequent abuse and mistreatment of female expatriate maids and nannies – many of them run away and the police rarely bother to look for them. Meanwhile, the Filipina mistress of Imbrahim Zahrani, the policeman in charge of the serial killer investigation, has gone missing, and he’s worried that knowledge of his affair will leak out and torpedo his marriage and career. Forensic pathologist Katya Hijazi is also keen to get involved on the serial killer case, but most of the police officers don’t want women working on it. She has also agreed to marry her fiancé, which creates a bit of a problem as the police think she is already married (and she wouldn’t be allowed to work there if she were unmarried). The setting of Ferraris’ novels makes for interesting reading, and while the crime aspects of the plot often seem incidental to documenting the lifestyle of the Saudis, it all hangs together entertainingly. I never actually lived in Saudi myself, only on the Gulf coast, but Ferraris’ portrayal does match what I know of the country and its inhabitants. She has a group of sympathetic and well-drawn protagonists, handles her supporting cast well, and I think I’m going to continue to read the books as they’re published.

slow apocalypse_frontSlow Apocalypse, John Varley (2012). I fell in love with Varley’s short fiction when I first read some of it back in the 1980s, and his The Ophiuchi Hotline remains a favourite sf novel. I even sort of like Millennium, the film adaptation of his short story ‘Air Raid’, which he then novelised as, er, Millennium. Since 1998’s The Golden Globe (which I really must reread one of these days), I’ve bought his books in hardback on publication – he’s no longer published in the UK, so I’ve had to order them from the US. Sadly, none of his recent novels have quite matched up to those earlier works. And, unfortunately, Slow Apocalypse is more of the same. A Hollywood-based television writer, Dave Marshall, learns from a secretive ex-military contact that the US experimented with a bacteria to render enemy oil fields unusable, but that the scientist responsible turned rogue and released the bug into the wild. Marshall thinks the story is excellent material for a movie, one that will reinvigorate his stalled career. Then oil wells around the world start to explode… Soon, there’s very little petrol available, and other resources – such as food – which rely on petrol for transportation also become scarce. A huge earthquake then strikes Los Angeles, near-destroying the city, and society collapses. Marshall and family join together with their neighbours in the canyon in which they live to safeguard their houses. Because he heard the story early, Marshall has managed to stockpile plenty of supplies, but he’s afraid his neighbours may soon want to him to “share”. Also, their current redoubt is unsustainable for much longer – especially after a huge brush fire sweeps out of the hills and renders most of the city uninhabitable. The government is proving no help, and aid is virtually non-existent. So Marshall agrees to travel south with a group of close friends and colleagues, in search of somewhere sustainable to settle. It’s plain that Slow Apocalypse was written as a commercial disaster novel, and if it gives Varley’s career a boost than that’s all to the good. But. I found it really dull. Much of the book consists of Marshall – with wife or daughter – driving about LA and witnessing the damage done to it by the quake and subsequent breakdown of law and order. The whole thing reads prescriptively. There are a number of quite good action set-pieces, but they’re not enough to enliven the narrative. There’s also a Heinlein-esque mouthpiece character, but Varley has always been able to make such characters more palatable than Heinlein ever did. The plot is as predictable as a Hollywood movie, and might well follow Hollywood’s over-used three-act arc. Disappointing.

silkieThe Silkie, AE van Vogt (1969). Sometimes I wonder if something in my brain doesn’t work quite the way it should. I have very little time for Golden Age authors, but for some reason I keep on fooling myself that I have a soft spot for the works of one of them: AE van Vogt. I think his The House That Stood Still is very nearly a bona fide sf pulp classic, and some of his other novels can be entertaining in a not-quite-coherent way. But. He made his career out of the advice given in a how-to-write book, which basically said to break any narrative down into 800-word sections which must always end on a cliff-hanger. And it’s pretty clear in most of van Vogt’s fiction that when he finishes a section, he’s no real idea of what’s going to happen next. It’s often plain he’s no idea what’s going on within sections. His prose is competent at best; he mangles science, philosophy and history at will; and he has fixed-up and expanded so many of his stories, it’s impossible to say where some begin and others end. The Silkie is a fix-up and it reads like one. The book opens with a prologue, and it’s actually not that bad. It’s set in the present day in the Caribbean. A scientist and his daughter have been invited to the island of a secretive scientist who claims to have discovered immortality. Instead, the daughter meets a Silkie… a human capable of metamorphing into a seal-like creature which is equally at home underwater. And then the story completely changes, and we’re in outer space and Silkies apparently have a third form, which allows them to live, and move about, in space. There are also Variants, who are the products of Silkies and human women – all Silkies are male – but are not full Silkies. But they get written out of the story once van Vogt has finished with them. Which is pretty quickly. There’s a Variant boy who has astonishing mental powers and may be a threat to the Silkies, so the hero defeats him. Then it turns out there’s an alien attacking the Silkies, so the hero defeats it. And then it turns out there are bad Silkies who live in an asteroid inside the orbit of Mercury. So they weren’t invented by the scientist in the prologue after all. But they’re not really bad because they’re actually unknowingly under the control of a giant alien blob that’s older than the universe. But the hero defeats it. And discovers everything is all part of a plot by yet another alien race. So he defeats them… And it’s one damn thing after another, and each threat is written out of the story as soon as it’s vanquished, and its presence and/or defeat has no repercussions or ramifications on later parts of the story. The Silkie reads like the science-fictional ramblings of a drunk who has no grasp of plot, story-arc, continuity or rigour.

hull03Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear (2010). I stumbled across a copy of this in a local charity shop, and bought it because it was on the Clarke Award shortlist last year. So it must be good, right? I generally have a lot of time for the Clarke Award juries’ choices, although every now and again they pick books which to my mind don’t seem to be award-worthy. This was one of them. A man wakes on a giant spaceship, with no memory of who he is or what he is supposed to do. All he can remember is that he is a Teacher, and will be needed when the generation ship reaches its destination and begins the settlement of a new world – information he chiefly recalls from a dream fed to him while he was in cryogenic hibernation. He ends up running around the ship with a bunch of strange people – not your normal-type humans – encountering monsters and such, and eventually discovering why he was woken and what has happened to the ship. All the time I was reading this book, I was thinking: why is this spaceship so bloody huge? There’s one scene where the group enter a vast room with a catwalk across its middle and an enormous window in its floor. Why is it so big? If it’s an observation room, it doesn’t need to be so huge. It makes no sense – enormous chambers need more steel to build, more air to provide a breathable atmosphere of the required pressure, and more energy to heat. It’s stupid. The whole spaceship seemed to have been designed by a production designer for a B-movie. As, in fact, did the story. Systems aboard a generation starship come to blows over one of the mission’s objectives… monster movie in space results. I couldn’t see why Teacher specifically had been woken, why the generation ship had been designed in such a stupid manner, and by the end of the book I no longer cared. Bear has written much better than this, and this monster movie book didn’t deserve to be on the Clarke shortlist.


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Notable recent reads

I have been a bit rubbish at posting here over the past month or so, and I’m not entirely sure why. I could claim it’s because I’ve been busy writing short stories, novellas and novels, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. I have been busy – but it’s been other stuff: writing reviews, family stuff. And I’ve only managed to squeeze in a bit of fiction writing in here and there. I have been reading, however. Though not as many books as I’d have liked. Here are some of them – chiefly the ones I’ve not already reviewed, or plan to review, for SF Mistressworks or Daughters of Prometheus

wintersboneWinter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006)
I was interested in reading this after seeing, and being much impressed by, the film adaptation. I was expecting a genre crime novel with a plot much like that of the movie. What I wasn’t expecting was a well-written literary novel, which actually has less plot than the film. Sixteen-year-old Ree’s father has gone missing, and he put up the house and land as collateral for bail. Which means if he doesn’t turn up in court, they lose the house. So Ree goes looking for him. The story is set in the Ozarks, where everyone is related to everyone else and most of the men are involved in brewing up or distributing drugs. Ree’s questions are not welcome – and it takes much of this short novel before she discovers why. If the film is brutal and the people in it scary, then the book is more so. The film adds a scene set at a cattle auction, but loses one where Ree and her best friend help to catch a pig loose on a bridge. There’s some lovely writing in this, Ree is extremely well-drawn, and the setting is, well, just plain frightening. I’m going to read more Woodrell. Recommended.

tyranopolisTyranopolis, AE van Vogt (1973)
AE van Vogt really was a shit writer. He built his career on advice taken from a how-to-write book. And it shows. I still have a soft spot for his fiction because, every now and again, purely by accident, he manages to create something that’s almost mythic. But vast swathes of his oeuvre are unreadable meretricious tosh. He makes stuff up out of whole cloth, and it possesses neither plausibility nor rigour. Tyranopolis is a case in point. At some point in the future, a mysterious dictator rules the entire Earth with an iron fist. But an inventor, er, invents some sort of ray that allows him to see everywhere and be seen everywhere. Knowing the tyrant’s forces are closing in, he gifts the secret to his unborn son moments after the act of conception, by, er, putting it in his DNA or something. I don’t know. It makes no sense whatsoever. Whatever drugs van Vogt was on when he wrote, they were clearly more powerful than those used by Philip K Dick. The writing in Tyranopolis hovers on the cusp of sense, the plotting reads like he made it up as he went along, the central premise is complete nonsense, and yet… and yet… No, there is no “and yet”. Not for this one. It’s a rubbish book. Avoid it.

the-spy-who-loved-me-novelThe Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming (1960)
Fleming was a real pioneer, you know. The Spy Who Loved Me is ground-breaking, you know. Because it’s a Bond novel, but Bond isn’t the protagonist! He doesn’t even appear until about a third of the way in! And, get this, the entire novel is narrated by a woman! I know, shocking. So the title doesn’t refer to some KGB temptress who falls for 007’s manly charms, as it does in the film. Bond is actually the spy of the title. But he doesn’t really fall in love with the narrator. And she knows it – indeed, she says as much. She’s making her way through the US from Canada on a moped and stops off at a remote motel. She stays on to work there, and is made responsible for closing the place down for the winter. Two employees of the owner turn up and it transpires they’re there to torch the place for insurance purposes. Fortunately, Bond suffers a flat tyre nearby, so he’s around to foil their plot and save the girl… You know when an author falls in love with their own creation, and this persuades them that writing a story about said creation from the point of view of a lovestruck young woman is a good idea? That. And they say this is the best of the Bond novels… Pfft.

citiesofsaltCities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1984, trans. 1987)
The lives of the Bedouin of Wadi al-Uyoun are disrupted by the discovery of oil. Eventually, they are moved and rehoused, but some instead move to the coastal village of Harran. Which then becomes the point of entry into the country for American oilworkers, and so the site of their camp and offices. The novel then charts the growth of Harran through the lives of some of its more notable inhabitants. The nation is meant to be an invented Gulf state, but Harran is clearly modelled on Dhahran. Munif is especially critical of the Americans and their interference and ignorance of Bedouin life, but he’s also critical of those Arabs who accepted US largesse and grew fat on the proceeds. I suspect Munif was not especially well served by his translator as some of the prose in Cities of Salt is clunky in places, but Munif certainly shows a sharp eye for characterisation. As far as I can determine, this book, and its two sequels, were never published in the UK – my copy is a US paperback – which is a shame as it’s definitely worth reading. I’ll have to get hold of the rest of the– Um, it’s apparently a quintet, but only the first three books were published in English. I guess I’ll have to start practicing my Arabic again, then…

theexplorer-e1356978432870The Explorer, James Smythe (2013)
A handful of days into the first mission to send human beings as far from Earth as possible, and all of the crew have died except for the journalist, Cormac Easton. The first third of The Explorer explains how these deaths came about – and they’re senseless, mostly preventable deaths – and you start to wonder what the remaining two-thirds will be about… And then the second part starts, and the story kicks into a higher gear. James sent me a copy of this novel (a swap for a copy of Adrift on the Sea of Rains), and he did warn me I’d have to accept a certain lack of… scientific rigour in the set-up. And that’s certainly the case. In truth, the spacecraft seems more like something from a Hollywood film than genuine space fiction, with its mysterious engines, store rooms, and even room inside the walls in which Cormac hides like a rat. When the engines are running, there is no gravity. But when they stop, then there is gravity. Which is not something I can quite get my head round. Though I only saw a couple of episodes of it (but I was given the complete series on DVD for my birthday recently), I was reminded more of Defying Gravity than the Apollo programme, International Space Station or even one of my favourite fictional space television series, Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. Happily, despite its creative use of space engineering, The Explorer very much worth reading. Cormac is well-drawn, and his descent in to madness is skilfully handled. Perhaps the rest of the crew tread a little close to stereotype, but that’s the nature of space fiction – astronauts are by definition stereotypes. Apparently, there will be a sequel, though I’m not entirely sure how that’s going to work…

The_Warlord_of_the_Air-Michael_MoorcockThe Warlord of the Air, Michael Moorcock (1971)
If you’re a fan of all things steampunk, if you write steampunk, and you’ve not read this book, then you are doing it wrong. Though it starts inauspiciously, with a dirigible dropping ballast to descend, Moorcock’s airship opera is a clever commentary on imperialism framed in the language of pulp fiction. In 1902, Oswald Bastable visits the Shangri-la-like lair of an evil Indian high priest. An earthquake strikes, destroying the lair, and somehow throwing Bastable forward in time to 1973. He is rescued by an airship, and discovers that the Balance of Powers still holds good across the world, with most nations part of one or the other empire, all of which are ruled by means of vast fleets of airships. Bastable ends up inadvertently assisting Socialist terrorist Count Guevera escape the authorities, before being captured by Chinese warlord OT Shaw, who plans a future free of imperialism. This results in Shaw dropping a nuclear bomb, invented and built by his refugee scientists, on the airship yards of Hiroshima. Which throws Bastable back to 1903. The whole story is framed twice – once by Moorcock’s grandfather, who met Bastable and recorded his story, and by Moorcock himself, who found the manuscript in the attic. Bastable appears in another two novels – The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar. I’ll have to get hold of copies. Seems the trilogy is being reprinted this year, with nice new cover art.

underworldUnderworld, Don DeLillo (1997)
Many many people had told me this is an excellent novel, so I was quite chuffed to find a copy in a charity shop last year. But its daunting size – 827 pages! – made me somewhat reluctant to give it a go. But at the beginning of this month, I found myself reaching for it and… Well, no one told me it opened at a baseball game. I hate baseball. And I hate fiction about baseball even more. Actually, I hate sport, and I hate fiction about sport. But. Underworld opens at the 1951 game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and describes the winning home-run apparently known as “the shot heard round the world”, which is a bit rich as only Americans actually give a shit about baseball. Underworld then introduces a number of characters, each of whom shares some link with the baseball from that winning home-run. The chronology bounces all over the place, describing events in various decades in no particular order. Some real world people make appearances – Frank Sinatra, J Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce, among others. The writing throughout is mostly lovely and sharp, and the dialogue is especially good – though its particular rhythm does have a tendency to blur some of the characters together. The Lenny Bruce sections I thought the least successful – they didn’t seem a sharp enough commentary on the zeitgeist to warrant inclusion. And it’s long novel, a very long novel. It’s a novel which will merit rereading. But it’s also a novel that’s too big and a bit too flabby to leap into my top ten novels of all time. Oh, and the premiere of the lost Eisenstein movie which gives the novel its title reminded me too much of Burroughs’ Casablanca Film Club and I found it hard to take that section seriously…


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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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