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Best of the half year, 2015

It’s that time of the year again, time to look back at the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, and the albums I’ve listened to, and decide which five earn a place on the much-coveted best of the half-year lists. To put these lists into perspective, I have – by 20 June – bought twelve albums (all from bandcamp), watched 234 films (which does include a number of rewatches), and read 74 books (which includes half a dozen previously read books). I’ve also been documenting my reading in a series of Reading diary posts (currently at #7, with #8 to be posted shortly), and my film-watching in a series of Moving pictures posts (fifteen so far this year).

So far, 2014 has felt like quite a good year. To date I’ve read 74 books, which is a slight dip from this time last year but up on the year before. And in both years I comfortably managed to read 150 books (which is just as well as I’ve entered 150 books for my GoodReads 2015 Book Challenge). On the film front, I have as usual failed to make it to the cinema even once, so most of my movie-watching has been on DVD – and I’ve started buying Blu-rays more often now too. Most of those DVDs were rentals, which has helped so far knock sixty titles of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not all of which, incidentally, I’m convinced belonged on the list. I’ve also spent the year so far tracking down copies of films on DVD by my favourite directors, especially Aleksandr Sokurov. I now own all but one of his DVDs, but since the only copies of it I’ve found are priced around £200 to £250 I might have to use – kof kof – “alternative” sources. Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of films – 238 to date. Some of them I’ve watched more than once. Finally, music… which has not been as successful this year as books or films. I’ve spent most of my time listening to groups on bandcamp, and have consequently discovered a number of excellent bands – in fact, all of the ones mentioned in this post were purchased there. I’ve only been to two gigs this year – one was Sólstafir, who were excellent; the second was half a dozen bands at a gig sponsored by Femetalism. None of my favourite bands have released new albums so far this year, although one or two have releases planned later in the year.

Anyway, here are the lists, with the usual honourable mentions as well.

books
whatdoctororderedspread0What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, but his short fiction has always been more impressive than his novels. And this new collection – only his second since 1990’s The Brains of Rats – amply demonstrates why Blumlein is such a brilliant short story writer. A much undersung writer who deserves to be better known. Incidentally, Centipede Press have done a lovely job with the book.

grasshopperschildThe Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from a favourite author. It’s actually a YA novel set in the universe of the not-YA Bold as Love quintet. There is a fierce intelligence to Jones’s books which shines through her prose, and it’s one of the reasons I consider her the UK’s best science fiction writer currently being published – except she isn’t these days, as The Grasshopper’s Child was self-published. Seriously, that shouldn’t be happening.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975). The final book of the Raj Quartet, and what a piece of work the quartet is. Scott is superb at handling voices, and in Barbie Batchelor has created one of fiction’s great characters – although this book belongs more to Guy Perron, a gentleman NCO keen to return to the UK now the war is over, but who comes into the orbit of the Layton family (who have been a constant presence running through all four books). I’m already looking forward to rereading the quartet.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I watched the film of this and that persuaded me to read the book. And I’m glad I did. There are Lawrentian elements to it, although a story which valorises the aristocracy and (mostly) presents the lower classes as venal in order to demonstrate the coming of a new world order… would not be my first choice of reading. But Tomasi di Lampedusa manages to give his fading nobles an air of tragedy as their time passes, even if the Salina family’s paternalism feels like a relic of a much earlier age.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). Another favourite author. This novel is set in the same universe as Gilman’s excellent novellas ‘The Ice Owl’ and ‘Arkfall’, and while some elements of the novel are not entirely successful, it does make use of some heavy concepts and it handles them really well. A science fiction novel that makes you think – and we really could do with more of them these days.

Honourable mentions. A pair of polished collections – The Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999), and Adam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013), not every story in them worked, but the good ones were very good indeed. Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), which surprisingly seems to have been missed by much of sf fandom, which is a shame. A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014), a pulp detective tale with a failed Hitler as the hero shouldn’t work, but this blackly comic take on it definitely does. Touch, Claire North (2015), is perhaps not as successful as last year’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, as its fascinating premise is married to a weak plot; but never mind.

As usual, I’ve been collecting stats on my reading. And it breaks down as follows…

decade2015

I hadn’t realised I’d read so many recent books, and I’ve no idea why the 1980s is the next most popular decade – perhaps it’s due to the books I picked to review for SF Mistressworks. The one nineteenth century book was HG Wells, the two 1920s ones were DH Lawrence.

gender2015

I alternate genders when choosing fiction books to read, but I seem to have slipped up somewhere, and women writers currently outnumber men in my reading.

genre2015

It never feels like I read a lot of science fiction, but at almost half of my reading I guess I must be doing so. Mainstream is the next highest genre, but only twenty percent. To be fair, it seems the mainstream books are often more memorable than the genre ones. But at least the numbers explain the good showing by genre in my top five and honourable mentions.

films
playtimePlaytime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I’d never actually seen a Tati film until I rented Les Vacances de M Hulot last August. I enjoyed it, but something I read somewhere persuaded me to add his Playtime to my rental list. And I watched it for the first time early this year. And loved it so much, I bought a Blu-ray of it. And then I spotted that a Tati Blu-ray collection was on offer on Amazon, so I bought that too. But none of Tati’s other films blew me away as much as Playtime, although Mon Oncle comes a close second (and so makes my honourable mentions below).

elegy_voyageElegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). I’ve watched this three times since I bought it, as part of my 2015 love affair with Sokurov’s films. As the title suggests, the film is a meditation on travel, and art, with Sokurov in voiceover describing a journey he takes which ends up at a museum in, I think, a German city. Elegy of a Voyage is everything that Sokurov does so well, that makes a film a Sokurov film. Not to mention the somewhat idiosyncratic artistic choices Sokurov makes, such as using a 4:3 aspect ratio, distorting the image so it almost resembles a painting, and the use of colour filters to further distance the viewer from the picture. The beauty of Sokurov’s films is not that they bear repeated viewings, but that they require it.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). This year I also became a fan of Dreyer’s films – his Gertrud had been a favourite for a couple of years – but in 2015 I bought DVDs of all his available movies. And worked my way through them. The silent films are astonishingly modern – especially The Passion of Joan of Arc – but I do prefer the later films, and after Gertrud, Day Of Wrath is I think his next best – and like Gertrud, it’s about women and women’s roles in society, but this time set in 1623 and describing how a young woman saves her mother from a charge of witchcraft by marrying the local pastor. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA). One of the reasons I bought a Blu-ray player capable of playing multi-region Blu-rays was because I wanted to see this film – to date it has not been released in the UK. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the unmade film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, which only exists in concept art by Chris Foss, Moebius and HR Giger… and a complete storyboard “bible” which Jodorowsky’s producers sent to a number of US studios. A fascinating look at what could have been a fascinating film.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). A young man looks after the house Chekhov once lived in, and then one night a man who might be Chekhov mysteriously appears… Filmed in black and white, elliptical and, in the second half, featuring Sokurov’s trademark timelapse photography of a snowy landscape. While Elegy of a Voyage is a documentary, this is fiction, but deeply allusive fiction – which is why I woke up the morning after watching this and discovered I’d gone and ordered a pair of Chekhov books from Amazon…

Honourable mentions. Fear Eats The Soul, Effi Briest and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, 1974 and 1979, Germany), and all from a DVD box set I received for Christmas, these were I felt the best three. The Big Red One, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA), I’m not a big fan of WWII films but this is a good one, and even manages to rise above what is obviously a smaller budget than most such films get. Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati (1958, France), more modernist low-key humour, which may not be as cinematically beautiful as Playtime, but comes a close second. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew White (2014, USA), another Blu-ray not available in the UK which motivated my purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, this documentary covers Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep in 2012. Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France), although not a Godard fan I do love some of his films, such as this one, a study of a bored housewife who works on the side as a prostitute; I’ve already bunged the Criterion DVD on my wishlist. Whispering Pages and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994 and 1995, Russia), a completely opaque drama and a deeply philosophical documentary (about Russian soldiers), yet more evidence of my admiration for Sokurov’s works. Moscow does not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov (1980, USSR), an odd drama about three women in Moscow in the 1950s and the 1970s, which makes a pleasing antidote to US “evil empire” propaganda. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra (1995, India), a superior Bollywood film about UK-based NRIs and arranged marriages, with amusingly broad comedy, well-staged musical numbers and a pair of likeable leads. The Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary), my first Tarr and probably the most plot-full of his films, and while I’m still not quite plugged into his brand of slow cinema, it’s definitely the sort of cinema that appeals to me.

As with books, I’ve been collecting stats on the films I’ve watched…

filmnation

I still seem to be watching mostly American films, but that’s likely because so many on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are American – or, at the very least, the US ones are easier to find (ie, readily available for rental). The good showing for Russia is, of course, Sokurov – several of his films I’ve watched two or three times already this year.

films decade

A reasonable spread across the decades, although I would have expected the fifties and sixties to do better than the seventies, as I much prefer films from those earlier two decades. The first decade of this millennium doesn’t seem to have done very well either, which is odd.

albums
ghostwoodGhostwood, Navigator (2013). A US prog rock band I stumbled across on Bandcamp, and then began listening to repeatedly. In parts they remind me of Australia’s Chaos Divine, and though they describe themselves as “for fans of: Porcupine Tree”, I think I prefer this album to those by Steven Wilson’s band. There are a few bits of electronica in there somewhere, but also plenty of heavy riffing- the title tracks boasts especially good riffage. And very catchy melodies. Good stuff.

sidereusSidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013). A Spanish death metal band with a death metal / post-metal sound not unlike NahemaH’s – who were also from Spain, but have sadly disbanded after only three albums. I hope Apocynthion stay together and produce many more albums. The opening track with its insistent drumbeat is especially good.

secretyouthSecret Youth, Callisto (2015). I bought a Callisto album several years ago, and though I enjoyed their brand of heavy post-metal I never bothered with any of their subsequent albums. But then Zero Tolerance magazine streamed this, their latest, I gave it a listen, discovered it was very different to their earlier album… and liked it so much I bought it. It’s still post-metal, but the growls have been mostly replaced by clean vocals, and in places there’s almost an early Anathema-ish sound to it.

worstcaseWorst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015). This was very much a lucky discovery and while at first they reminded me quite heavily of The Old Dead Tree – who, like Synesthesia, are also from France – repeated listens proved they definitely had their own thing going. Like The Old Dead Tree, they drift between death and goth metal, but they also throw quite a bit of prog into it, and it’s a mix that works well, even if in places they sound a bit Muse-ish.

ottaÓtta, Sólstafir (2014). These Icelanders were excellent live, so I bought their last two albums (the only ones available on Bandcamp), and it’s hard to say which is the better of the two. There are a couple of cracking tracks on 2011’s Svartir Sandar, but I decided Ótta was just a little bit the better of the two, if only for the banjo-accompanied title track.

Honourable mentions. Doliu, Clouds (2014), a UK doom band, and the track ‘if these walls could speak’ is absolutely brilliant. Entransient, Entransient (2015), a US prog metal band with a bit of post-rock thrown in for good measure. Good stuff. The Malkuth Grimoire, Alkaloid (2015), a German progressive death metal supergroup, containing (ex-)members of Necrophagist, Obscura, Spawn of Possession, Aborted, Dark Fortress, God Dethroned, Blotted Science and Noneuclid, this is quality stuff, in the same area as Barren Earth but a very Germanic version. Svartir Sandar, Sólstafir (2011), see above. Half Blood, Horseback (2012), as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “shifts from Americana twang to fiercely evil buzzing guitars to hypnotically meditative kraut-drone”, which is as good a description as any; file alongside Ultraphallus.


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Reading diary, #5

So far this year I’ve read 37 books, which, judging by previous years, should see me read 150 books by the end of the year. This is just as well as I’ve joined the 150 books reading challenge on GoodReads, although it’s currently telling me I’m 2 books behind schedule. Oh well.

sacrificeSacrifice on Spica III, Eric Brown (2014). This is the second of Brown’s Telemass quartet, published by PS Publishing, and set in the same universe as some of his earlier fiction, such as the Starship Seasons quartet (see here). Retired Dutch police officer Hendrick is trying to track down his ex-wife, who has stolen their terminally ill but in medical stasis daughter, and their trail leads him to the titular planet. Spica III has a highly eccentric orbit and is due to go into five years of severe winter – so severe all travel to and from the planet will be suspended. Hendrick has to find his wife and daughter before that happens. En route, he runs into an old colleague, who explains he is hunting for his superior officer’s estranged wife, who is wanted for murder. Hendrick remembers the wife, he had an affair with her years before, and he doubts she’s guilty, but he agrees to help. The plot of Sacrifice on Spica III concerns that investigation, not Hendrick’s wife and daughter. It includes a typical Brown touch, a death cult whose members commit suicide by entering a sort of liquidizer, which then squirts them up into the air and their liquid remains freeze instantly in Spica III’s sub-zero climate. It’s pretty gruesome. Otherwise, a polished piece, although it does seem to depend a little too much on coincidence, back-shadowing and serendipity.

shortnovels2St Mawr, DH Lawrence (1925). The title is the name of a horse, bought by American heiress Lou for her husband, Australian and baronial heir, Rico. But this is DH Lawrence, so a horse is not just a horse of course of course. After a stay in London, with much riding in Hyde Park, the couple decamp with Lou’s acerbic mother to the wilds of Wales, where Rico seems to be more interested in a female friend who lives nearby. When St Mawr, who is very spirited, throws Rico, he ends up bed-ridden, and Lou decides she’s had enough. She follows her mother to London, and then across the Atlantic to the US. Where she eventually buys a run-down ranch somewhere in New Mexico. There are also a pair of grooms, a taciturn Welshman who came with St Mawr, and the mother’s, who is a Native American. In between the manly charms of the grooms, and the metaphor galloping through the text, Lawrence seems to have forgotten his plot. Still, it’s a lot more disciplined than, say, Sons and Lovers, although that’s much the better novel.

ancillaryswordAncillary Sword, Ann Leckie (2014). This won the BSFA Award last weekend, and I’ll admit to being disappointed. There were better books on the shortlist, and it’s likely this sequel was trading on the massive success of its predecessor. Now I liked Ancillary Justice and I liked this book too. But where the first felt like a much-needed return to progressive space opera, something that had been sadly lacking for several years, Ancillary Sword doesn’t so much feel like more of the same as it does a fellow traveller on previously-trod ground. And if Ancillary Justice let out a slight whiff of Susan R Matthews’ novels, Ancillary Sword reeks of it. This is no bad thing – I’m a big fan of Matthews’ books, and it’s a crying shame she was dropped by her publisher more than ten years ago (and her second publisher went under after publishing just one of her books). But Ancillary Sword… Breq has been given command of a warship and sent to a planetary system that appears to have been cut off. There she discovers inequality and near-slavery, not to mention some nasty little conspiracies, which she resolves. The main plot of the trilogy – the war between the two factions of Anaander Miaanai – is pretty much parked to one side for the bulk of the story. Which also introduces a fresh mystery toward the end. If this is going to be a trilogy, I can’t honestly see any shape to it, and two-thirds of the way in you’d expect one to be visible.

girlsofriyadhGirls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea (2007). This was apparently a bit of a phenomenon when it was published, a Sex & the City take on Saudi society by a young Saudi woman studying in the US. It’s a shame then that it’s all a bit juvenile. It’s presented as a serial told via email by the author, who prefaces each chapter with an email “answering” some of the responses she’s received to the previous chapter. The story itself is about four young women – Lamees, Michelle, Gamrah and Sadeem. Gamrah marries Rashid, and travels with him to the US, where he is studying. But he seems more interested in a prior US girlfriend, and Gamrah finds it hard to cope with life in the West. She returns to Riyadh, pregnant. Sadeem falls in love, arrangements are made, contracts exchanged, but a couple of days before the ceremony she succumbs to his blandishments and lets him take it too far… so he divorces her. Michelle falls for a young man from a good family, but his mother won’t hear of her son marrying beneath him, so he breaks it off. And Lamees is a bit of wild thing, making friends with Shi’ites, visiting chat rooms, and getting arrested for meeting a young man in a café. And other things happen too. While it shows the appalling treatment of women in Saudi well, and I realise English is not the writer’s first language, but it is the translator’s, this could really have done with a lot of a polish. The novel is structured to look like the titillating adventures of an amateur writer, and the prose reads like it was written by an amateur too.

strangebodiesStrange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013). Theroux’s 2009 novel Far North was shortlisted for the Clarke Award, so I read it… and I wasn’t much impressed. So I’m not sure what possessed me to give Strange Bodies a go – yes, people recommended it, and the premise sounded interesting, but… Anyway, I’m glad I did. If the plot doesn’t quite match the striking opening, the journey to the end is at least a damn sight better than you’d get from a typical genre novel. A man who apparently died a couple of years before, and in fact in no way resembles the dead man, contacts an old friend, who is persuaded of his claimed identity. Later she finds a thumb drive, containing the document which forms the bulk of the novel – which proves to be the history of a man, a Samuel Johnson scholar, who was asked by a media mogul to authenticate some letters and finds himself caught up in a secret Soviet experiment based on the Common Task (I’ve read up on Fedorov for a WIP, so I knew exactly what this referred to). The scientific scaffolding for the central premise was a little hard to swallow, but all the stuff wrapped around it was very good indeed. I thought the Johnson scholarship very clever, and the way Theroux handled the premise good. Despite my feelings about Far North, I am, much like several other people, surprised this never made any award shortlists.


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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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Recent notable reading

In other words, we’ll not bother mentioning the crap ones, or the ones that are meh – though I did include one that was so bad, people should be warned off it. I’ve also excluded those I’ve read for review elsewhere – on SF Mistressworks or Daughters of Prometheus (for which I have a backlog of reviews to finish and post).

JACK-GLASS-by-adam-robertsJack Glass, Adam Roberts (2012)
Which I read too late in the year to consider for my best of the year post. Adam Roberts’ novels in précis always sound interesting and appealing, and yet I still need to find the right way to read them. This one I think I’ve come closest. It is, as Adam himself describes it, an attempt to “collide together some of the conventions of Golden Age science fiction and Golden Age detective fiction”. It opens with an impossible escape, told from the point of view of the escapee. Next is a murder-mystery. Finally, there is a locked-room mystery. All three involve the mysterious figure Jack Glass. This is a gruesome and quite Dickensian novel. The Solar System is filled with disenfranchised poor, living in fragile space habitats, while a hierarchy of the ultra-rich and privileged live a life of luxury. But the possibility of FTL – even though against the laws of physics – threatens this situation by providing an escape to the stars. And that’s the maguffin driving the three sections of the novel. The characters are a bit annoying, especially their speech patterns, and perhaps there’s a little too much authorial sleight of hand used in places to delay the solution, but it all hangs together very entertainingly and readably. Though I’ve only read about four or five of Adam’s novels, this one was the most enjoyable – perhaps because it felt the most authorial, despite managing to capture the tone and verve of Golden Age sf.

asonoftherockA Son of the Rock, Jack Deighton (1997)
A somewhat old-fashioned sf novel – it wouldn’t have looked out of place among British sf of the 1970s; and I hold British sf of the 1970s in high regard – and well-written, but with a mostly unlikable narrator. It’s set in a sort of future galactic human co-prosperity sphere, in which primitive worlds are exploited for raw resources. The population also undergoes an anti-ageing treatment, which is so endemic that signs of ageing, and old people themselves, are viewed with fear and hatred. The narrator works for a mining company, but before taking up his post he goes on a Grand Galactic Tour. On the world of Copper, he meets the titular character, an old man, who both repels and fascinates him. It also seems the old man sees a kindred spirit in the narrator. Later, after he joins the mining company, the narrator chooses not to take the anti-ageing drug – his grandmother reacted badly to it, and the condition is genetic so he could also suffer from it – and over time becomes a freak in society. There’s some very nice description in the book, and the premise is handled well, but it feels a little old-fashioned in places, and the supporting cast are nicer than the narrator is. Definitely worth reading, however.

David-Mitchell-The-Thousand-Autumns-of-Jacob-de-ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, David Mitchell (2010)
I took this with me to Denmark to read over Christmas, as it had been sitting on my TBR since November 2010. And I’m glad I did. It is the late 1790s and the title character has arrived at the Dutch East-Indies Company’s trading post in Japan, Dejima in Nagasaki’s harbour, to assist a new manager root out corruption. But the novel is only sort of about de Zoet. It’s also about the Japanese midwife he falls in love with, and the bizarre shrine where she becomes a prisoner when her father dies, and how de Zoet beats the British attempt to muscle in on the Japanese market. It reads like straight historical fiction – although that shrine holds a horrible secret, which seems to have given its monks immortality. The period detail rings true and it’s clear Mitchell did plenty of research. They were a horrible venal, nasty, brutal and racist lot in those days, and Mitchell pulls no punches. It doesn’t make for sympathetic characters, so it’s impressive Mitchell manages to carry the story with such an ugly cast. I think this is the best of Mitchell’s novels – yes, even better than Cloud Atlas.

the-godless-boys-978033051336401The Godless Boys, Naomi Wood (2011)
This one got a lot of positive word of mouth last year, so I thought it would be worth a go. In 1951, a Secular Movement opposed the increasing hold the churches had on British society. This prompted a government backlash. The secularists were rounded up and exiled to an island off the north-east coast of England. In 1977, there was another wave of church burnings, and yet more people were sent to the Island. And on the Island, a decade or so later, a group of youths, led by Nathaniel, see themselves as guardians of the inhabitants’ godlessness. That is until a young woman arrives, looking for her mother, who disappeared in 1977 and was implicated in the burning of a church. I wanted to like this book, but it was trying so hard to be A Clockwork Orange, and failing, that it annoyed me. The Island came across as some parody of “grim Up North”, the neologisms felt horribly forced, and I never really got a good handle on the age of the protagonists. It comes as no surprise to discover that Wood has a MA in Creative Writing.

ultramarineUltramarine, Malcolm Lowry (1933)
So I read ‘Through the Panama’ in Lowry’s only collection, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, and was blown away. Perhaps the rest of the collection wasn’t as impressive, but I wanted to read more. Happily, I’d grabbed the aforementioned collection, Ultramarine, Lowry’s first novel, and Under the Volcano from my father’s Penguin paperback collection. But I also went further and picked up some first editions of his other books. And, er, Ultramarine, his first novel. Again. The edition I have, in both paperback and hardback, is the 1962 revised edition of the 1993 original – revised, obviously, not by Lowry, who died in 1957, but very much based on his part-written revisions for the novel (which he had done in order to bring it in line with a planned seven-novel sequence titled The Voyage That Never Ends (actually used for a collection of Lowry’s “fictions, poems, fragments, letters”)). The narrator of Ultramarine – who is loosely based on Lowry himself, as indeed are most of his protagonists – joins the crew of a tramp freighter as a mess-boy, but is not liked by the rest of the crew. The book takes place in the Far East, while the ship is moored at Tsjang-Tsjang. This is a book you should read for the writing, which is excellent. There’s not much in the way of plot. The characters are superbly drawn, often just through dialogue. It’s easy to see why Lowry was such an important writer.

ninthlifeThe Ninth Life of Louis Drax, Liz Jensen (2004)
Whenever I see a Liz Jensen book I’ve not read in a charity shop, I buy it. But I think I shall start buying them new because I’ve yet to be disappointed with any of her books I’ve read. And that’s not something I can say for many of the authors I read regularly. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is set in France in the present day, and the eponymous character is an accident-prone ten-year-old boy currently lying in a coma after falling down a cliff at a family picnic. His father is also missing and, according to the mother, responsible for pushing the boy off the cliff. Louis has just been moved to a new hospital for coma patients in Provence, and the doctor in charge – who alternates the narrative with Louis himself (apparently speaking from within his coma) – finds himself unprofessionally drawn to the boy’s mother. Essentially, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is a murder-mystery, but one eyewitness is lying and the other is comatose – but is speaking to the reader via a worldview which obfuscates their meaning. It’s all very cleverly-done, and if the ending comes as no great real surprise, the journey to that point was not wasted. Definitely must read more of Jensen’s books.

OsamaOsama, Lavie Tidhar (2011)
Originally published by PS Publishing – the edition I have – then brought out in massmarket paperback by Solaris. Winner of the World Fantasy Award last year, and a surprising omission from several other shortlists (though it made the BSFA Award shortlist). It would be unfair to say I did not come to this book with high expectations. Happily, they were met. A private detective based in Ventiane is tasked with tracking down Mike Longshott, the mysterious author of a series of pulp novels which feature Osama bin Laden as a vigilante hero. This is not, of course, the world we know. Though there are echoes of it there, and as the PI draws closer to Longshott so those echoes begin to ring louder and louder. Interspersed between the chapters are short pieces of reportage on terrorist attacks from our world. It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on, and the prose sometimes stumble – trying to pastiche pulp prose at one point, then not at another. There’s also an odd substitution of “dawdle” for “doddle”, and Lavie reveals his secret love for the music of Eva Cassidy. But it’s certainly a worthy award winner and fully lives up to its audacious title.

farnorthFar North, Marcel Theroux (2009)
This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2010, but lost out to Miéville’s The City & The City. It is yet another US post-apocalypse novel. The writer is British, but the son of US author Paul Theroux; and the novel is actually set in Siberia. The central premise is that Siberia was opened to American settlers, but then some sort of catastrophe did for the rest of the world, and those remaining in the “Far North” gradually succumbed to the usual violence, rape and warlordism. Theroux can’t decide if his settlers adopted Russian culture, or simply transplanted their own – he makes reference to both situations. The narrator of the story is a young woman who acts as constable for a town in which she is the only survivor. She encounters a group of slavers, and later witnesses a plane crash. That crash persuades her that somewhere there is a settlement with technology – albeit primitive technology. She sets off to find it, and is captured by those slavers… I’m a little puzzled how this made the Clarke shortlist. True, it’s literary fiction that’s science fiction in all but name, which means the quality of writing is generally much better than genre fiction displays. It also means the genre tropes are presented as if they’ve never been used before. Except post-apocalypse has been done before – in literary fiction. The first third of Far North, in fact, was trying hard to be The Road. And failing. The fact it later abandoned that template – and introduced some magic glowing substance, for no good reason – couldn’t prevent it from being as banal as most post-apocalypse novels are.

before-the-incalBefore The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Zoran Janjetov (2012)
It’s not that The Incal required a prequel, but Jodorowsky has done a clever job here of explaining stuff you were perfectly happy to swallow unexplained in that book, as well as set things up beautifully for the later story. Janjetov’s art nicely emulates Moebius’ style – in fact, according to the introduction it was Jodorowsky’s observation that Janjetov’s style was similar to early Moebius that prompted him to write Before The Incal in the first place. All the characters from The Incal are here, and the story cleverly sets them up for the roles they will later play. The whole thing is not quite as bonkers as The Incal (though it is still quite insane), but it’s beautifully drawn, and this is a handsomely-produced volume on a par with Self Made Hero’s lovely edition of The Incal.

regimentRegiment of Women, Thomas Berger (1973)
A 1970s sexual satire. Oh dear. I haven’t read a book as bad as this for quite a while, and I’ve seen more biting satire on gender roles in a Two Ronnies sketch. A century or so from now, in what amounts to the ruins of the twentieth century, the women are in charge. But they dress and behave just like men – in fact, “effeminate” means behaviour currently associated with dumb macho males. Men, of course, wear pretty dresses, make-up, high heels and pantyhose, and behave like the sort of women a dumb 1970s sexist imagines women behave. Men also have breast implants. Yes, that’s right: the women are in charge, but the men conform to male gaze. Georgie is a secretary at a publishing house, but after getting unintentionally drunk at a friend’s, he is caught in public dressed as a woman – ie, in trousers, shirt and tie. He is arrested. Transvestism is illegal, but the police are convinced he is some sort of dangerous subversive. Georgie manages to break out of prison, and meets the Male Underground. They persuade him to infiltrate a Sperm Camp, where men are milked for their sperm for ex-utero procreation. (Women’s sex with men consists solely of anal penetration with a dildo, usually without the women undressing; and, most often, it’s rape.) In prison and in the Sperm Camp, Georgie encounters Harriet. She’s a woman but she just wants to dress and behave like a man – ie, wear pretty dresses, make-up, high heels and pantyhose… It’s a monumentally stupid set-up. Berger has to go through so many contortions to overcome the obvious flaws in his world, and none of his “explanations” are even remotely plausible. And that’s not to mention the deeply offensive views on gender roles on which the entire plot is based. Mystifyingly, this book has a 3.46 average on Goodreads, with quite a few 5-star reviews. Incidentally, I don’t recall any POC characters in it.

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