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The writer writing writer writings

I fell in love with Malcolm Lowry’s fiction after reading the novella ‘Through the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961). While I’d been aware of his Under the Volcano (1947), a novel generally acknowledged to be a classic of twentieth century English-language literature, number 11 in the Modern Library 100 Best Novels in fact (ignore the readers’ list: only blatant ballot-stuffing or rank stupidity could put four books by Ayn Rand and three by L Ron Hubbard in the top ten), I had never actually read anything by him. But my father had three of his books – the aforementioned pair and Lowry’s debut, Ultramarine (1933); the two novels are in fact the only books Lowry saw published during his lifetime – and I took them for myself as I fancied giving them a try…

And now I have everything he wrote – a lot of which was published posthumously – some of it even in first edition (but not Under the Volcano, since first editions of it cost around £800).

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But. ‘Through the Panama’, which first appeared in Paris Review in Spring 1960 – it’s unlikely Malcolm Lowry, who died in 1957, submitted it himself; it was more probably his wife, Margerie Bonner Lowry – features Malcolm Lowry’s fictional alter-ego Sigbjørn Wilderness, and is a complex mix of fiction, autobiography and meta-fiction. It’s an astonishing piece of work but, as I soon discovered when I read Ultramarine, Under the Volcano and the posthumous Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (1968), it’s actually more like a concentrated form of Malcolm Lowry’s approach to writing. Ultramarine was based on his experiences aboard a tramp freighter, aboard which he spent five months at age eighteen before starting at Cambridge University. Some of his experiences which appeared in Ultramarine also make an appearance – off-stage – in Under the Volcano, although reading the prior book is by no means a requirement for reading Under the Volcano.

But it’s in Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid where really interesting things start to happen… You’ll have to bear with me for a bit as this is somewhat complicated… Malcolm Lowry started work on Under the Volcano while staying in Mexico in 1936, and finished it two years later. He left Mexico for Los Angeles, where he met his second wife, Margerie; and then spent the next eight years editing and rewriting the novel. It’s set in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, and covers the events of single day in the life of the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic, whose divorced wife has just returned to him. In 1945, Malcolm and Margerie Lowry returned to Mexico (a return for him, anyway), and settled in the town of Cuernavaca. During this time, Under the Volcano was under consideration with a British publisher, and Malcolm was worried it might be seen as too similar to Charles Jackson’s 1944 novel, The Lost Weekend, the film adaptation of which, starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, and directed Billy Wilder, was proving a hit in the cinemas as Malcolm and Margerie travelled south from their home in Canada. The trip to Mexico proved successful both personally and professional – although Malcolm’s drinking did reach similar levels to those of his earlier visit to Mexico and those attributed to the Consul in Under the Volcano… However, while in Cuernavaca, Malcolm heard back from Jonathan Cape, who asked for substantial changes to be made to Under the Volcano before they would publish it… but Malcolm successfully defended his novel with a long and detailed analysis of it. Malcolm also took copious notes throughout the Mexico trip and, once back in Canada, he realised these were effectively a novel. So he set about turning them into one, and he worked on it on-and-off, until his death in 1957. The book was eventually edited by Margerie and published in 1968 as Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid.

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In Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Sigbjørn Wilderness and his wife Primrose have returned to Mexico eight years after Sigbjørn left. He is awaiting news from a British publisher about his novel, The Valley of the Shadow of Death (which was actually the original title for Under the Volcano), and is worried that it might be rejected due to similarities to the novel and film Drunkard’s Rigadoon. The couple travel from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, which Sigbjørn now discovers has chosen to publicise that its name in Nahuatl is Cuauhnahuac, a fact he’d eight years previously taken great pains to uncover and had thought would “disguise” the setting of his novel. While in Cuernavaca, Sigbjørn explains the town’s relationship to the setting of The Valley of the Shadow of Death to his wife – she is familiar with the story as she typed up the manuscript – and begins drinking heavily, much like Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano.

So what we have is Malcolm Lowry writing a novel in which he appears as Sigbjørn Wilderness, who is the author of a book Malcolm Lowry himself wrote, which is set in the Mexican town which is the setting of both Under the Volcano and Sigbjørn’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death, and this novel Malcolm Lowry has written is based upon Malcolm Lowry’s own return visit to the town where he wrote, and in which he set, his most famous work, Under the Volcano. Sigbjørn and Primrose also visit some of the nearby towns and villages, such as Oaxaca, Tlaxcala and Yautepec, and each place is seen in light of Sigbjørn’s previous time in Mexico and his fictionalisation of it in The Valley of the Shadow of Death. The same is also true of the people they meet, and their relationship to the characters in The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Some two-thirds of the way into Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Sigbjørn hears back form his publishers – they want him to make substantial changes. Primrose persuades him to stick to his guns and defend his novel, which he does.

“Your book is regarded here as having potential importance and integrity.” His heart leaped, he almost shouted out to Primrose, who was as excited as he and waiting for the verdict in the bedroom, but – at this point, another letter fell out. It was the reader’s report, and he seized upon it. “The author has overrreached himself. This book will naturally call to mind the recently successful novel and film Drunkard’s Rigadoon…” (p179)

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Malcolm and Margerie Lowrie at their Calle Humboldt villa

Structurally, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid is not so adventurous – it’s a linear narrative, beginning as Sigbjørn and Primrose fly south across the United States, and ending with Sigbjørn finally laying to rest the ghost of The Valley of the Shadow of Death, or perhaps of its inspirations and writing, which has haunted him throughout this visit to Mexico. But it’s the melding of real-life and fiction which I find so fascinating about the book. Under the Volcano was at least, on the surface, a straightforward act of literary creativity. While its settings and cast may have been inspired by Malcolm Lowry’s own time in Mexico during its writing from 1936 to 1938, it was still first and foremost a novel. (Which is not to say that it’s not partly autobiographical, as Malcolm Lowry had certainly done that before in Ultramarine.) But in Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid Malcolm Lowry has fictionalised the autobiographical elements of his fiction, folding what was real in the invented back into an invented perspective of the real. And that I find a very interesting thing to do. It allows for a whole host of meta-fictional games to be played within the text – and Malcolm Lowry plays most of them: not just Sigbjørn commenting on The Valley of the Shadow of Death, which is effectively Malcolm Lowry himself commenting on Under the Volcano, but also Malcolm Lowry as author commenting on Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid and on Sigbjørn Wilderness. Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid can be enjoyed as a work of fiction without having read Under the Volcano, but it’s plain that reading Malcolm Lowry’s magnum opus first deeply enriches the Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid reading experience.

Malcolm Lowry’s reputation waned after the publication of Under the Volcano, chiefly because he had nothing else published in the years following (and Under the Volcano had taken him nine years and two months to write). He became known as an “underground” writer, one admired only by the cognoscenti. After his death, Margerie Lowry kept his literary legacy alive, and saw to it that works he had never quite actually finished were edited and published… such as Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was one of the greatest English-language writers of the twentieth century.


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Triple-stacked

Last weekend, I spent a couple of hours re-shelving my hardback books so that my purchases since the last re-shelving were in their proper place – alphabetical by author, and chronological within author, of course. As is always the case, as soon as I’d finished I found a couple of books I’d missed… By double-stacking the books on the shelves – I’m slightly worried a single shelf may not be able to take the weight of all my Alastair Reynolds hardbacks and my Kim Stanley Robinson ones – I actually had a two shelves left free. And then I realised I’d not done my most recent book haul post, so I was going to have to unstack some of the shelves to dig the new books out to photograph. Oh well.

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Some non-fiction, two of which are research material for Apollo Quartet 3: Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The Thresher Disaster is the second book I have on the incident. Tethered Mercury I only learnt of when I visited the Mercury 13 website, so I immediately tracked down a copy on abebooks.co.uk and ordered it. The Art of Malcolm Lowry is a series of essays on the author and his works.

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New paperbacks: I’ve had The Call of Cthulhu for a while, and I decided it was time to complete the set – hence, The Dreams in the Witch House and The Thing on the Doorstep. A couple of months ago, I read The Warlord of the Air and was mostly impressed – at least enough to buy a new copy of it plus The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar in these nice new editions.

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Just two graphic novels this month – number 16 in the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, The Secret of the Swordfish, part 2. This is early Edgar P Jacobs and nowhere near as good as later ones. Goddamn This War! is Jacques Tardi telling frontline horror stories about World War I. Grim stuff.

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Some for the collection… A first edition of Prospero’s Cell popped up on eBay so I snapped it up. There’s only a handful of Durrell’s books now that I don’t have in first edition. Disguise For A Dead Gentleman is DG Compton in an earlier guise – under the impenetrable pseudonym of Guy Compton – as a crime fiction writer. This is a Mystery Books Guild edition, which is all I can find. The Book of Being completes the Yaleen trilogy – I have the first two books already as Gollancz first editions. Three Corvettes is not a first edition, but it’s an early reprint, in relatively good condition, and was cheap. Nor is The Collector a first edition, but a late 1970s reprint. But it is signed.

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Some new hardbacks. I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction since first reading his short stories in Interzone back in the 1980s, but he’s not been especially prolific: three novels and two collections, the first collection back in 1990 and What The Doctor Ordered published only this year. Needless to say, I got quite excited when I stumbled across this new collection from Centipede Press, and ordered it immediately. Marauder is Gary Gibson’s latest novel and I believe is set in the same universe as the Shoal Sequence. Shaman is Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, and I really must get around to reading The Years of Rice and Salt and Galileo’s Dream one of these days. And finally, Iron Winter is the final book in Steve Baxter’s Northlands trilogy.

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Lastly, some charity shop finds. Lightborn was on both the Clarke and BSFA award shortlists in 2011. The Cruel Sea I bought as a reading copy, as the signed hardback I have is a bit tatty. Of course, as soon as I got home I discovered I already had a reading copy. Oh well. I have both Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light in hardback, but Orthe was cheap so I bought it as a reading copy as I’d like to reread the books one day. I read American Tabloid years ago and I have The Cold Six Thousand on the TBR, so Blood’s A Rover will complete the trilogy. Selected Poems by TS Eliot, er, does what it says on the tin. And last of all, I went back to the charity shop and picked up the other Mailer 1970s paperbacks, The Deer Park and American Dream. So we’ll see what they’re like…

Incidentally, since swapping from Amazon’s to Foyles’ affiliate scheme a couple of months ago, I’ve not made a single penny. Meanwhile, my Amazon links have made me £7.40 over the same period. So I’m having a little difficulty understanding why no one else can manage an affiliate scheme that’s as easy to use, and as effective, as Amazon’s…

Oh, and there’s no way I can physically triple-stack my book-shelves – not that I think they’d stand the weight anyway. But the rate I’m going, I’m going to have to do something. I’ve already got some books up for sale on the Whippleshield Books online shop here, but it’s not like people are rushing to buy them…


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Best of the half-year

It’s halfway through 2013, and it’s proven quite a year so far in ways both good and bad. This post is to celebrate some of the good stuff – namely the best of the books I’ve read, the films I’ve seen, and the albums I first heard during the previous six months.

Books
wintersboneWinter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I read this after seeing and liking the film and I was much surprised to discover it was not some piece of cheap commercial fiction with an unusual setting, but instead a beautifully-written literary novel which happened to use a genre plot. The film is pretty damn good too. I plan to read more by Woodrell. I wrote about this book here.

emptyEmpty Space, M John Harrison (2012) is the third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy and I really must reread Light and Nova Swing one of these days. If at first I thought Empty Space felt a little undisciplined in its spraying of tropes across its narrative threads, the more of it I read the more I realised how very carefully engineered it was. I wrote about this book here.

calvinoInvisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972) is the most recently-read book to appear in this list. I had no real idea what to expect when I picked it up, but its lyrical and oblique descriptions of the cities (allegedly) visited by Marco Polo immediately captivated me. I wrote about this book here.

wallaroundedenThe Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989) is one of those books I read and enjoyed, but only realised how well-crafted it was when I came to write a review of it for SF Mistressworks. It reads like a masterclass in science fiction. This book really needs to be back in print. See my review here.

UnderTheVolcanoUnder the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) Some books just leave you speechless at the quality of the prose, and while I’d already fallen in love with Lowry’s writing when I read his novella ‘Through the Panama’, there was always a chance this, his most famous and most lauded novel, would not appeal as much. Happily, it did. Even more so, perhaps. A bona fide classic of English-language literature. I wrote about it here.

Honourable mentions go to Osama, Lavie Tidhar (2011), whose grasp may not quite match its reach but it comes damn close; Before The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Zoran Janjetov (2012), which matches The Incal for bonkersness and sheer bande dessinée goodness; Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997), which is a bit of a bloated monstrosity, and contains too much baseball, but also features moments of genius; The Steerswoman’s Road, Rosemary Kirstein (2003), which is actually a cheat as its an omnibus of The Steerswoman (1992) and The Outskirter’s Secret (1993) and I only read the latter this year, but it’s an excellent series and deserves praise; Jamilia, Chingiz Aïtmatov (1958), which proved to be a lovely little novella set in the author’s native Kyrgyzstan; and Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913), which shows with beautiful prose how psychology should be used in fiction.

Um, not that much science fiction there. I seem to be failing at this science fiction fan business…

Films
Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I am not a huge fan of Godard, so I was somewhat surprised how much I liked this film. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little like Fellini’s (both are about film-making), which is also a favourite film, and looks a bit like something by Antonioni.

mabuseThe Dr Mabuse trilogy, Fritz Lang: Dr Mabuse The Gambler (1922), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960) A bit of a cheat as I watched Dr Mabuse The Gambler in 2012, but never mind. If the first film is a commentary on corruption in the Weimar Republic, the second extends the metaphor to comment on Nazism, and the third further completes it with an off-kilter noir film commenting on the legacy of the Nazis. Classic cinema.

Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) I’ve been working my way through Studio Ghibli’s output, though I find most of it either twee, cloyingly sentimental or a little juvenile. But not this one. I wrote about it here.

About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) For much of its length, this film feels like an art house mystery, but then it takes a turn into something completely different and wholly Iranian. I wrote about it here.

she-should-have-gone-to-the-moon-film-posterShe Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008) I bought this as research for the Apollo Quartet, and was surprised to discover it was a beautifully-shot documentary and meditation on the thirteen women who successfully passed the same medical tests as the Mercury astronauts.

Honourable mentions go to Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish and beautifully subtle; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), an astonishing and meta-cinematic document of 1920s Russia; Black Cat, White Cat, Emir Kusturica (1998), broad comedy but also very funny; Le Havre, Aki Kaurismäki (2011), typically deadpan but somewhat cheerier than usual; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a human portrait of Emperor Hirohito at the end of WWII.

Well, will you look at that, not a single Hollywood film in the entire lot. Instead, we have films from France, Germany, Japan, Iran, Denmark, Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Finland and a documentary from the UK.

Music
Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) A new album from one of my favourite bands, and with each new album they just get better and better. Can’t wait to see them live.

Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album from Finnish melodic death metal masters after far too long a wait. Trumpet!

threnodyThe Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) They call it English heritage black metal, though I’m not entirely sure what that means – a wall of guitars, with howling vocals layered over the top, some lovely acoustic interludes, and they’re bloody good live too.

Dustwalker, Fen (2013) More English heritage black metal but also very atmospheric, perhaps even a bit shoegazer-y in places; a formula that works extremely well.

Forlorn+Chambers+++Unborn+and+HUnborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013) A demo EP from a new Finnish band, which mixes and matches a couple of extreme metal genres to excellent effect. Very heavy, very doomy, with a lot of death in it too. I’m looking forward to seeing an album from them.

Honourable mentions: Conflict, Sparagmos (1999), classic Polish death metal; Of Breath and Bone, Bel’akor (2012), Australian melodic death metal; Deathlike, Ancient VVisdom (2013), strange acoustic doom from Texas; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), accomplished demo from a Polish death metal band.


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Recent Readings

Considering I think of myself as a science fiction fan and the stories I write I classify as science fiction, I don’t seem to read that much of it – only two sf novels since my last reading round-up post. (Actually, it’s four as I read a further two for SF Mistressworks (here and here), so I’ve not mentioned them in this post.) I suspect by the end of the year, however, genre will still form more than half of my reading. [Checks spreadsheet of books read] Ah, so far this year, 57% of the books I’ve read were science fiction. Well, there you go: this last lot of books must have been an aberration. No matter.

untitledField Grey, Philip Kerr (2010) Bernie Gunther seems to have settled in Cuba after the events of If the Dead Rise Not, except things take a turn for the worse when he finds himself having to say no to either the Cuban secret police or his gangster boss. So he skips town in a boat; but is pulled over by a US Navy cutter out of Guantanamo, and once (they think) they’ve identified him, they summarily imprison him for a bit and then send him back to Germany to stand trial for war crimes. Only it transpires that what the Amis really want is his help in identifying a French war criminal who is being repatriated from the USSR, where he was a POW. Except that’s not what they really want… And this has to be the most confusingly-plotted of Kerr’s novels I’ve read, with its plots-within-plots-within-plots, er, plot. It’s excellent on detail, as usual – when Bernie spends time in a Soviet gulag, for example, it’s clear Kerr has done his research. With nine books now in the series, Kerr is building up quite a back-story for Bernie – like some of the others, Field Grey spends as much time on Bernie’s war-time exploits as it does in the 1950s when the story opens. Good stuff.

fatalThe Fatal Englishman, Sebastian Faulks (1996) I’ve now read all of Faulks’ books, except his first, A Trick of the Light, which is impossible to find, and his latest, A Possible Life (which I bought in Waterstones only this last weekend). Birdsong is obviously his best, though I did like Human Traces a lot as well. The Fatal Englishman, however, is non-fiction, and about three men who all died at a relatively young age, though their lives to that point had promised much. The first is Christopher Wood, a talented painter in the 1920s, who fell foul of opium just as he was beginning to produce his best work. Richard Hilary was a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain and was horribly burned in a crash. He underwent pioneering plastic surgery, and then wrote a book on his experiences, The Last Enemy, which made him famous. He desperately wanted to return to flying fighters, but his injuries made it difficult. He did manage to wangle a posting flying night fighters, but died in a mysterious crash some weeks later. The last of the three is Jeremy Wolfenden, son of Jack Wolfenden of the Wolfenden Report. Extremely clever, a bit of a rebel, homosexual and a heavy drinker, Wolfenden was expected to go far but got himself mixed up with the intelligence services while serving in Moscow as a journalist in the 1950s. He fled the USSR for the USA, got married and seemed to be dealing with his drinking. But it killed him at the age of 31. He never even got to see the Wolfenden Report published, which would have legalised his sexuality.

MoonstarOdysseyMoonstar Odyssey, David Gerrold (1977) This has been on my wishlist so long, I’ve forgotten why I put it there; and having now read it I’m even more mystified. The world of Satlik has been terraformed and shallow seas now cover its lunar-like landscape. The climate is maintained by a number of orbital mirrors, which also provide day and night. The inhabitants are not ordinary humans, however, but remain genderless until puberty, or “blush”, when they choose which sex they will be as an adult. Moonstar Odyssey is allegedly about Jobe, who is “different”, and while the stories and accounts which make up the novel repeatedly say as much, there’s little in there to suggest it. For a start, the plot doesn’t actually start until three-quarters of the way in, and when it does Jobe doesn’t actually do that much – she doesn’t save the planet, her family, a group of strangers, or anything. While Gerrold has built an interesting world in Satlik, he hasn’t written a story anywhere near as interesting in Moonstar Odyssey. Rather than working in its favour, its palimpsest nature leaves you waiting for much of the book for something to actually happen.

sonsSons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) I’m slowly working my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre and am continually surprised I’d not read him years ago. Perhaps knowing of him and his work from a young age – my father was a huge fan of his books, so much so he dragged my mother to see Lawrence’s shrine in Taos on a visit to the US – I heard enough about him to think his works would hold no interest for me. After all, they’re around a century old, and it’s proper literature which, like most kids, I’d only read if I was told to. I finally read Lady Chatterley’s Lover a few years ago, and loved it. So now I’m reading all of his books. Opinions are divided as to which is his best: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Women in Love or this, his third novel, Sons and Lovers. I’ve only read two of the three, so I’m unable to judge the matter; but certainly Sons and Lovers seems a more human story than Lady Chatterley’s Lover – perhaps because it isn’t simply focused on a central love triangle, but is more of a family saga (albeit focusing a lot on Paul Morrel and his relationships, especially his relationship with his mother). If The White Peacock felt a bit arbitrary and haphazard in places, Sons and Lovers is a remarkably controlled novel. While the story skips forward in uneven chunks at times, and the change in focus from eldest son William to second son Paul is a little disconcerting at first, the handling of the characters is beautifully done and the Nottingham of the time feels like a real, historical place. After finishing the book, I watched the 2003 ITV adaptation starring Sarah Lancaster as Mrs Morrel, but it was more Barbara Taylor Bradford than DH Lawrence and seemed to miss the point of the book. It also changed the story’s chronology, so that it ended on the even of World War I. I initially read Lady Chatterley’s Lover because it’s a classic of English literature, and was surprised to find I really liked it. I decided to read more of Lawrence’s works because my father was a fan and I wanted to read them for him. Having now read Sons and Lovers, I’m turning into something of a fan of Lawrence’s fiction.

UnderTheVolcanoUnder the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) I’m glad I read some of Lowry’s short fiction and Ultramarine before I read Under the Volcano. Lowry is a very autobiographical writer, and part of the fun in reading him is spotting those parts of his life he’s used before in stories. In this book, for example, some of the background of the brother, Hugh – specifically his time at sea – echoes both Lowry’s own time as a seaman and the events in Ultramarine. The plot, as is true for much of Lowry’s fiction, is relatively simple: Geoffrey Firmin used to be the British Consul in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, but has been let go because of his excessive drinking. He is, in fact, killing himself with booze. The Consul’s wife, Yvonne, had left him but she has now returned. Also visiting is Hugh, the Consul’s step-brother. It is the Day of the Dead in 1938, and the three visit the nearby town of Tomalin by bus to view the local celebrations. And then things sort of happen. Lowry is another author I discovered via my father’s book collection, and who has since become a favourite – although I admire his prose more than I do Lawrence’s. I love its discursive nature, its occasional bouts of postmodernism, the way Lowry immerses you in the character of the narrator, no matter who that narrator is. And like both DH Lawrence and Lawrence Durrell (another favourite writer), Lowry’s descriptive prose is often very beautiful, especially when describing the landscape.  Under the Volcano is considered an important book in English literature – in fact, Modern Library ranked it number 11 in their list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century (ignore the Readers’ List, which has clearly been poisoned by moronic right-wingers and Scientologists).

quetThe Quiet War, Paul McAuley (2008) I’d been looking forward to finally reading this and so about a quarter of the way in was somewhat surprised to discover that I really didn’t like it. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s very well done, and paints a convincing portrait of life on the Jovian and Saturnian moons. But, for me, The Quiet War fares badly in comparison to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, probably because it’s a far more traditional sf novel, and that’s not something I especially value in my reading at this time. I didn’t like the future McAuley was writing about, with its technological feudalism ruled by families of (pretty much) gangsters; I didn’t like that McAuley had his characters justifying that political set-up; I didn’t like that the political systems on Callisto and Ganymede and the other moons were often characterised as foolish or immoral. Having said that, I did like the technological side of McAuley’s future and thought it quite inventive. But still, it’s a novel about a war, and a war for the thinnest and most repugnant of reasons, and no amount of eyeball kicks can hide the bad taste that leaves. That the end of the story somewhat redeems it is in the book’s favour, and leaves me more likely to consider the sequel, Gardens of the Sun, than I would had The Quiet War ended a chapter or two earlier. All the same, I’d much prefer to read near-ish future novels which don’t rely on stupid wars for their narrative impetus, and which seem to recognise that people are products of their environments and that such future environments would be greatly different to the present day – and so the people living in them would be too. I don’t much see the point in extrapolating sociologically from the nineteenth century and pretending the twentieth century never happened, even if some days the last one hundred years do feel a bit like a great social experiment that has now ended…

rise_coverRise, L Annette Binder (2012) I received this as a birthday present from my sister and was a little puzzled why she’d bought it until I remembered it was on my wishlist. Then I wondered why it was on my wishlist. A small press collection of literary/fantasy stories – not my usual choice of reading material. I eventually worked out – with help – that I’d seen a review of it on Larry Nolen’s blog and it must have taken my fancy enough for me to wishlist it. And yes, it was a pretty good call. The fourteen stories in this collection hover on the edge of the fantastic. Some are slipstream, some are explicitly fantasy, and some contain no fantastic element at all. They are also very domestic. All of them are beautiful written, although Binder does have a tendency to cut things short and several of the stories seem to end somewhat abruptly. The level of observation and sharpness of detail is especially impressive. The opening story, ‘Nephilim’ is among the more fantastical and very good. ‘Shelter’ is heart-breaking, as is ‘Mourning the Departed’. Also very good is ‘Dead Languages’. Definitely worth reading.

calvinoInvisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972) A book I’d wanted to read for a long time, although I knew nothing about it. But it appears on lots of 101 Book You Must Read Before You Die and 100 Best Books of the 20th Century lists, so clearly it’s thought to be very good indeed by very many people. I eventually scored a copy on readitswapit.co.uk, bunged it on the TBR… and finally got around to reading it. It took me a day. It’s a thin book, only 148 pages and many of the pages aren’t even full. Marco Polo is at the court of Genghis Khan, and he tells him of the various cities he has visited. A framing narrative in italics comments on the interaction between the two, and the effect on Khan of Polo’s tales. The remainder of the book is organised in short chapters, often no more than half a page, in which Polo gives allusive descriptions of the cities he claims he has been to. And they really are wonderful. None of the cities are real, but they could be – and yet this is not a travelogue of an invented place(s), like Jan Morris’ Hav. Having said that, as I was reading it, I kept on thinking, this is what The City & The City should have been if only Miéville had not stuck on that silly mystery plot. I’ve no idea if Invisible Cities was an inspiration for The City & The City, but I suspect it might have been. This is a book everyone should read. Go out and buy yourself a copy.


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Double stacked

I promised a book haul post and here it is. Unusually, this month’s haul consists chiefly of research books, and first editions for various collections. Which actually probably makes it a little more expensive than is typical… Oh well.

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I bought these for research for Apollo Quartet books 3 and 4 – so yes, as promised, the role of women is much increased in the second half of the quartet. These four books – Women with Wings, Right Stuff, Wrong Sex, Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps and Women Astronauts – only apply to part of the planned stories for the two novellas, however. I guess you’ll have to buy Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above and All That Outer Space Allows when they’re published to find out precisely how…

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More research. Sort of. Sealab I bought just because it looked interesting. And as the bookmark indicates, I’m about a third of the way into it and it is interesting. Fascinating, even. I may well post about it later. The Very Short Introductions – Utopianism, Communism and The Soviet Union – are quite useful research tools, though they’re obviously only starting points. The Russian Cosmists is for a novel I’m working on. I started the novel the year before last when I had a bash at NaNoWriMo. I managed 15,000 words before giving up, but I recently realised that if I restructured it and took the plot in a different direction, I could end up with something quite interesting.

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A bunch of genre works. The Dog Stars was shortlisted for the Clark Award this year. I found that copy in a charity shop. The Lowest Heaven is an ARC of the latest anthology from Anne Perry and Jared Shurin. This ARC is just the stories, but the finished product will apparently contain a number of astronomical photographs. It’s due out next month. Seoul Survivors I have to review for Interzone. And The Maker’s Mask is a self-published work I stumbled across on Amazon. From what I’ve read of it so far, it seems quite fun.

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Some signed genre collections. I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since the early 1980’s, so there was no way I was going to miss buying Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe, even if I have most of its contents in other collections. Trujillo I picked up cheap on eBay. It’s out of print and difficult to find – especially the slipcased edition. I also have the Night Shade Books edition, although this PS Publishing one includes the title novel and some additional short stories. Living Shadows was another cheap eBay purchase.

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These, er, weren’t cheap. The Alien Sky and A Male Child are first editions of Scott’s first and third novel, from 1953 and 1956. Despite the enduring popularity of The Raj Quartet, Scott’s other works are really difficult to find – especially the early ones. Happily, a Cambridge-based bookshop put some of his books up on eBay recently. So I bought them. Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place is a 1962 first edition of Lowry’s first posthumous collection. It contains ‘Through the Panama’, which is currently one of my favourite pieces of novella-length fiction. It was sold by the same shop as the Scott novels.

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Finally, My Appointment with the Muse is a posthumous collection of Scott’s essays and talks. A Man Without Breath is the ninth and latest in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. I only have to read the novel prior to this one, Prague Fatale, and this one and I’m up to date.


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Come what May

A new month, a Bank Holiday weekend, and various doings of recentness in the weird and wacky world of science fiction. First up, of course, is Chris Beckett winning the Arthur C Clarke Award with Dark Eden. A win we can happy with, I think; though it was not my actual favourite on the shortlist. But congratulations to Chris, a genuinely nice guy and an excellent writer. Still, likely there will be much discussion on the win and what it means for science fiction in the UK over the next few weeks. Or perhaps not.

On the topic of not winning, right-wing nutjob Theodore Beale failed to conquer the SFWA and polled only a tenth of the votes of new SFWA president Stephen Gould. I’m not a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and have no desire to ever be one but, you know, it’s good to mock fascists, even if their politics are completely risible anyway. Speaking of which, a large number of plainly very stupid people in the UK gave a bunch of seats in local elections to UKIP. This is the party whose candidates believe exercise prevents homosexuality, claim the Jews were responsible for the Holocaust, think it’s funny to photoshop their head onto a photograph of Hitler and some Nazi bigwigs, and give “imitating a pot plant” as a defence for throwing a Nazi salute… One of their candidates has apparently gone to live in Thailand for six months, leaving his (Thai) wife and kids in the UK; and another was forced to resign as a police officer after being caught working as a male escort in full uniform. The clowns are taking over the circus.

Earlier this week, Nook dropped the price of its Simple Touch ereader from £79 to £29. Since I’d spent £130 on four hardback books a couple days before, I decided £29 was cheap enough to order one. Which is where it all went horribly wrong. I placed an order… and moments after getting an email acknowledgement I received a second email saying my credit card had been declined. Because I hadn’t created an account on the website, there was no way I could view or amend my order. I tried contacting Nook support, but they were completely snowed under with, it seemed, queries from other people with the same problem. So I created an account, and ordered another Simple Touch, this time using a debit card. It went through fine. The next day, I get an email saying they’ve fixed the credit card problem, so I can re-order if I want. I don’t want. I already have one heading my way – or so an email tells me. And then I get yet another email, saying it’s out of stock so my order has been cancelled. But the website still says the order’s in progress. So, Nook: big fail there. You win this week’s award for Most Useless Business on the Planet.

Meanwhile, Adam Roberts has been working his way backwards through Banks’ Culture novels. Not reading them back-to-front, obviously, just in reverse order of publication. It perhaps comes as no great surprise to learn that the later novels are not as good as those that preceded it. That is the Way of Commercial Fiction. Go read the reviews – they are insightful and amusing. And they sort of make me want to reread the Culture novels, too. If only the TBR weren’t so damn big…

Fantasy Café’s Women in SF&F month hit a bump in the road recently with a bonkers post about sexism in fantasy – or rather, the poster’s claim that it does not exist. Read the post here, then read an excellent rebuttal here. And on the same topic, here’s a piece from 1982 which demonstrates that thirty years later not a fat lot has changed. Susan Shwartz, incidentally, is the author of one of the few heartland fantasy novels I’m happy to recommend to people, The Grail of Hearts.

One author I constantly recommend people read is Gwyneth Jones. She’s offering her Escape Plans free on Kindle on Monday 6 May and Tuesday 7 May. Go buy it. Best use the link under the title, rather than search for it on Amazon, as their search engine seems to be completely fucked. Here’s my review of it on SF Mistressworks, written back in 2001.

Despite reading for SF Mistressworks, so far this year women writers only account for around 36% of my reading. Which is not to say that reading for SF Mistressworks is a hardship. While Margaret St Clair’s collection might not have been very good, Marta Randall’s novels are certainly much better than most of her contemporaries. And I’ve also had the opportunity to revisit some books I remember with great fondness, such as those by Shariann Lewitt or Susan R Matthews. Perhaps they’ve not always fared especially well on reread, but I’m glad I took the time to do it.

Speaking of books, over the last few days I’ve tweeted photos of some recent arrivals of a bookish nature. I’ll do a proper book haul post in a few days, but let’s just say I now have more research material for Apollo Quartet books three and four, and the Paul Scott and Malcolm Lowry first edition collections have expanded somewhat (which is the £130 of books mentioned earlier). So, of course, I’ve been spending my time reading about… underwater habitats and saturation diving. For another writing project. Current read is Sealab by Ben Hellwarth, which is proving fascinating. The whole idea of living and working on the sea bed appears to have been driven by one man, Captain George F Bond, USN; and who reminds me much of Colonel John Paul Stapp, USAF, of rocket sled fame, and who I wrote about in my story, ‘The Incurable Irony of the Man Who Rode the Rocket Sled’, which should be appearing on The Orphan some time soonish.


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First haul of the year

Though, strictly speaking, it’s not – some of the books below were brought to me by Santa. But this is certainly the first book haul post of the year. And it’s the usual mix of first edition hardbacks, charity shop finds, literary fiction, science fiction, and books on or about other things all together…

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Some literary first editions. I read Ultramarine over Christmas and it is very good indeed. I will read more Lowry. Milkbottle-H was recommended by someone on LibraryThing and this was the only edition of the book I could find. Paul Scott is a favourite writer, and both The Towers Of Silence and Staying On are for the collection.
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Some genre first editions. Apollo’s Outcasts I’ll be reviewing for Vector. I should know about this sort of stuff, right? Starship Spring is the final book in Eric Brown’s Starship quartet – I bet you can guess the titles of the other three. The Ice Owl is a novella by Carolyn Ives Gilman. I shall be reviewing it for Daughters of Prometheus. The Dragon Griaule is a beautiful-looking collection from Subterranean Press. I have all of its contents as separate novellas… except for the one original to this book. Which they clearly put in so that people like me would buy it.
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Some genre paperbacks. Unbelievably, I have never read A Canticle For Leibowitz. Good job I found this copy in a charity shop, then. The Islanders was a Christmas present. Frankenstein joins the other SF Masterworks. And The Explorer was sent to me by James Smythe (I swapped it for a copy of Adrift on the Sea of Rains).
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Non-genre paperbacks. Two more of the attractively-packaged Ballard paperbacks, The Unlimited Dream Company and The Day of Creation. That’s all of them now. I’ve been picking up Iain Sinclair novels – this one is Landor’s Tower – when I see them in charity shops, but have yet to actually, er, read them. Winter’s Bone I wanted to read after being very impressed by the film adaptation. Santa gave it to me.
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I’ve always rated Hitchcock as a director, so I made an effort to watch The Girl, the TV movie about his relationship with Tippi Hedren during the filming of The Birds and Marnie. It was excellent. Spellbound by Beauty is the book it was based upon. John Jarmain is one of my favourite poets, and Flowers in the Minefields is a collection of his poems and letters, with commentary. It is, I think, the only book about him ever published.20130126f
During a visit to Louisiana, a modern art museum in Denmark, over Christmas I saw some photographs by Gillian Wearing, and was sufficiently intrigued to pick up a book about her work. Before The Incal is a prequel bandes dessinée and it is excellent.

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