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Reading diary, #8

Time once again to catch up on my recent reading. Which seems to have been all over the shop recently. I try to plan my reading but it never works. I mean, I sometimes decide not to read a book as planned just because it’s a hardback and would be a faff carrying in my bag to and from work. So I end up choosing a paperback I hadn’t planned to read instead. Other times, I fancy something a bit fluffier and less worthy than my original choice… Which does make me wonder why I bother to plan my reading in the first place.

ps-showcase-11-stardust-hc-by-nina-allan-1749-pStardust: The Ruby Castle Stories, Nina Allan (2013). This collection of short stories are linked by mention of the eponymous, well, not character, she’s an element in the background of each, a cult actress who appeared in films the protagonists of the stories remember watching. And, to be honest, not every mention feels like it’s original to the story, or an organic part of it. Indeed, ‘The Lammas Worm’ was originally published in Tartarus Press’s Strange Tales, Volume III, the only story in the collection to see prior publication, and I have to wonder if the mention of Ruby Castle in it wasn’t added so it would fit in Stardust. None of which is to say that hese are bad stories. Allan is a good writer, and if she doesn’t always play to her strengths, the end result is at least interesting in some fashion. The six stories and single poem in Stardust are mostly slipstream, and are set in contemporary Britain, Victorian Germany and Russia. But it’s not quite the Britain, Germany or Russia we know. In some respects, Allan’s slight twisting of the real world works well, but it’s a technique that seems to fail as often as it succeeds – the Russia of the title story, for example, is not at all convincing. Where Allan succeeds best is in dropping some small detail or plot-point which signals this is a reality at an angle to our own. Sometimes it’s in the first line: “In my country July the tenth 2029 is remembered by everyone as the date of the Anastasia space disaster”. In other stories, it’s a slow accumulation of tiny details. Add to this a tendency for her stories to shoot off in unexpected directions, and it’s clear Allan is creating an interesting body of work. Her prose is never less than polished and if, often as not, the story seems to leak around the edges… sometimes that adds to the general effect of the piece. I still have Allan’s The Silver Wind and A Thread of Truth to read – I bought three of her collections at the last Fantasycon – and I’m looking forward to tackling them.

lastbastleThe Last Castle / Nightwings, Jack Vance / Robert Silverberg (1966 / 1968). This is #15 in the Tor double series from 1988 to 1991, although both novellas originally saw print in the late 1960s. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them many years before, either in a collection or Ace double (which is how the Vance was originally published). Silverberg also expanded ‘Nightwings’ to novel-length, and I may have read that too. I can’t remember – and, to be honest, I can’t recall much of ‘Nightwings’ only a couple of weeks after reading it. Vance’s ‘The Last Castle’ is at least more memorable. It’s set during the twilight years of Earth, after humans from another world decide to recolonise it, and they now live a life of ease in castles, waited upon by alien creatures called ”. Who promptly decide to kill all the humans. Only one man takes the threat seriously enough to attempt to fight back. It’s typical Vance in all respects, and as fair an introduction to his oeuvre as any. There are, sadly, only two female characters named in the entire novella, and they’re wives and sex partners. Even for 1966, that’s piss-poor. Silverberg’s novella actually features a female protagonist – she’s the “nightwings” of the title, a member of a race adapted from human stock for flying. She travels to Rome in some distant future in the company of the narrator, a Watcher, and a mysterious man who seems somewhat too well-educated to be the non-guild itinerant he claims. A Watcher, incidentally, is a member of a guild dedicated to scanning the galaxy with some sort of equipment built into a small cart – it’s all very vague and handwavey – in order to spot the first signs of a long-threatened invasion. Which, of course, happens during the story – well, there’d be even less of a plot if it hadn’t occurred. ‘Nightwings’ won the Hugo, and was nominated for the Nebula, in 1969, but I thought it pretty slight. It trades entirely on atmosphere, despite the fact little of the background makes sense, and the ending is visible from several kilometres away. Meh.

manycolouredThe Many-Coloured Land, Julian May (1981). I first read this shortly after it first appeared in the UK, back in the early 1980s. I remember liking it a great deal – and I know a number of people count the Saga of the Exiles among their favourites… But it’s never wise to reread books you remember fondly from your teens, they almost never survive unscathed. As this one didn’t. I may reread the other books in the series at some point, but it’ll only be to review them for SF Mistressworks – as I did with this one here.

adam-robotsAdam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013). Or is it the other way round? Never mind. As it says quite prominently on the cover, this is a collection of short stories, a number of which are original to the book (although the page which gives original publication details seems to be missing a couple). I’d thought I’d read quite a few of Roberts’s stories, but many of the ones in here were new to me. Except, I have read at least three of the anthologies in which a story in this collection originally appeared… One of these I liked, despite the thump-worthy pun in the last line. Another struck me as a neat idea stretched just a tad too far. And the third… seems as memorable after this second read as it was after the first. The stories in Adam Robots are never less than very readable, and Roberts can indeed turn a lovely phrase, and often does, but there’s also a sense that some of the pieces are lacking in… thickening. Perhaps it’s the sf story as Gedankenexperiment, an exploration of premise but not necessarily a thoroughly rigorous examination of it – which, on occasion, does make the story feel as though it exists only as a vessel to hold a premise rather than as an armature for a narrative. In the shorter pieces, of course, this is not an issue – the space is limited. Having said that, the saving grace of many of these stories is that Roberts carefully positions them as stories – it’s literary device deployment rather than immersion. The end result is a collection that is both enjoyable and impressive – and definitely good value for money as it contains twenty-four stories. I do have one peeve, however: the title ‘Review: Thomas Hodgkin, Denis Bayle: a Life (Red Rocket Books 2003), 321pp, £20. ISBN: 724381129524′. That ISBN is 12-digit. There are only 10-digit and 13-digit ISBNs. And if missing a digit was done to prevent accidentally giving the ISBN of a real book… well, the last number is a checksum. Just make it fail the checksum and it can’t be a real book.

snailSnail, Richard Miller (1984). The word to describe this novel is, I believe, ‘Vonnegutian”. The writer was clearly trying to be Vonnegutian – so much so Kilgore Trout appears several times as a character, although for reasons never explained he’s named Kilgore Traut, and that spelling is claimed to be correct. The narrator of Snail is a senior Wehrmacht officer, who falls foul of Hitler because he marries a call girl, and so promptly sits out most of the war. Back in WWI in the German trenches, he met and fought alongside the Wandering Jew. Who later gave him an immortality elixir to give to Hitler. Which the narrator does, turning Hitler into an immortal nine-year-old. He also takes some himself, and becomes an immortal sixteen-year-old. The rest of the novel follows him through the twentieth century, although it’s mostly concerned with his encounters with Pallas Athena, the Wandering Jew, and an organisation called Macho-Burger Incorporated, which seems to be using fastfood to chemically induce gender essentialism. I don’t honestly know why I bought this book, or why I read it. Although published in the 1980s, it feels like it belongs to an earlier decade, and its wit is far from sharp – I mean, Pussy-Cola and Cocka-Cola? There’s all sorts of stuff in here, most of it pretty juvenile and played more for comic effort without actually interrogating it. Best avoided.

nemo1Nemo 1: Heart of Ice, 2: The Roses of Berlin, 3: River of Ghosts, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2013 – 2015). Although set in the world of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, these are a spin-off, and feature not the original Nemo, but his daughter, Janni Dakkar, who is now the captain of the Nautilus. In Heart of Ice, she makes an enemy of Ayesha, who is determined to get her revenge and so, bankrolled by Charles Foster Kane, sends a trio of penny dreadful inventor-heroes after Nemo… Who is following a trail left by her father to Antactica, where she finds a city straight out of Lovecraft. It all comes to a bad end for the villains. The second book takes place in a Berlin transformed by the science of Rotwang – including an army of Maria robots. But when Nemo’s daughter, and her boyfriend Robur, are killed when their airship is destroyed by Berlin’s forces, Nemo attacks Berlin’s “Moloch Machine”. And in the third book, Nemo chases after Ayesha to South America and Maple White Land, a mesa where dinosaurs roam, only to find an army of bikini-clad fembots guarding a cadre of young Hitler clones… And that’s pretty much the appeal of this trilogy: you’re playing spot the references all the time. While some are blindingly obscure – those penny dreadful characters, for example – others are all too obvious. I know Moore has played around in the Cthulhu mythos before, but seriously, who still thinks a Lovecraft mashup is clever?

schoolforloveSchool For Love, Olivia Manning (1951). Felix Lattimer is left orphaned in Baghdad when his mother dies of typhoid, and since it’s during WWII he can’t be sent back to Britain and the care of relatives. There is, however, a relative much closer – in Jerusalem. Mrs Bohun. So Felix is sent there. Mrs Bohun really is a piece of work – the blurb describes her as “one of the most reoubtable (and ridiculous) of comic horrors in English fiction”, and it’s true. The actual plot – Felix interacts with the other residents of Mrs Bohun’s house, is too immature to see what is really going on, and, well, things happen – is more or less incidental. The old working class man in the attice ends up in hospital, and his room is let to a young and pregnant widow. Mrs Bohun’s attitude changes to the first, and then the other, but it’s all in character. Manning is a good writer and worth reading, but this is a slight piece. Its setting is interesting, and that setting is handled reasonably sensitively, albeit with the patrician sensibilities of a British expat from the first half of the twentieth century. While Mrs Bohun appears quite horrific in some respects to modern sensibilities, I suspect time has sharpened that edge. Manning doesn’t deserve to be forgotten – she was an excellent writer during her day and her books are still worth reading today.


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BSFA and Kitschies – the shortlists

Two genre shortlists announced in one day, UK ones too. First, the BSFA Awards, for which I nominated works (see here), and usually vote. The four shortlists look like this:

Best novel
The Race, Nina Allan (NewCon Press)
Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge, (Macmillan)
Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Wolves, Simon Ings (Gollancz)
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit)
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (Orbit)
Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder)
The Moon King, Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)

Well, three of my nominations made it – Hutchinson, North and Williamson. The Allan and and Leckie are no surprise – the first because it’s probably the most talked-about UK sf novel of 2014 among the people who nominate for the BSFA, and the Leckie because of Ancillary Justice‘s huge success. Also, is this the first time the BSFA Award has more women than men on the novel shortlist? I think it might well be. The large shortlist does, however, suggest that the actual number of nominations to make it through were somewhat low. Which, if true, is in one respect slightly worrying, but also heartening in that it demonstrates last year was pretty damn good for UK sf novels.

Best short fiction
‘The Honey Trap’, Ruth EJ Booth (La Femme, Newcon Press)
‘The Mussel Eater’, Octavia Cade (The Book Smugglers)
Scale Bright, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Immersion Press)

None were nominated by myself. In fact, I’ve read none of them. An all-female list, too. The less said about Sriduangkaew’s presence, the better.

Best non-fiction
Call and Response, Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications)
‘Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: A Look at Two New Short Fiction Magazines’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture)
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers and the First World War website, Edward James, ed.
‘The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium’, Strange Horizons
Greg Egan, Karen Burnham (University of Illinois Press)

Surprisingly, two of my nominations made it through – Kincaid and Strange Horizons – and while I nominated another blog post from Ruthless Culture, it’s good to see McCalmont getting some recognition.

Best artwork
Cover of The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, Richard Anderson (Angry Robot Books)
Cover of Bête by Adam Roberts, Blacksheep (Gollancz)
The Wasp Factory sculpture, Tessa Farmer
Cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, Jeffery Alan Love (Gollancz)
Cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, Andy Potts (Egmont)

Another surprise: two of my choices made it onto the shortlist. I didn’t attend Loncon3, so I didn’t see the Wasp Factory sculpture. Blacksheep won the BSFA in 2013, for the cover of… an Adam Roberts novel (and this is Blacksheep’s third time on the shortlist with a Roberts cover). The Mirror Empire has been much discussed since its publication, although I admit I can’t see the appeal of its cover art. And I see there’s now a hardback edition of Mars Evacuees (US, perhaps?), with much inferior cover art.

Congratulations to all the nominees, and I know who I hope will win each category.

The other UK genre award announced today is the Kitschies, a juried award, which also has four categories: Red Tentacle (novel), Golden Tentacle (debut novel), Inky Tentacle (cover art) and, new this year, Invisible Tentacle (“natively digital” fiction). The shortlists look like this:

The Red Tentacle
Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith (Egmont)
The Peripheral, William Gibson (Viking)
The Way Inn, Will Wiles (4th Estate)
The Race, Nina Allan (NewCon Press)

I’ve read only the Allan and I didn’t think it quite gelled as a novel – which was why I didn’t nominate it for the BSFA.

The Golden Tentacle
Viper Wine, Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne (Blackfriars)
Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta (Voyager)
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (self-published)
The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara (Atlantic Books)

I’ve heard of the Byrne and Itäranta, but the others didn’t even ping on my radar. The Guardian is making a big thing of a self-published novel being shortlisted for the award, conveniently forgetting that a self-published novel won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel in Australia last year and a self-published novella won the BSFA in 2013. Oh well, yesterday’s news and all that.

The Inky Tentacle
Cover of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin, X (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Cover of A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, Ben Summers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Cover of Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, Emily Carroll and Sonja Chaghatzbanian (Faber and Faber)
Cover of The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Rafaela Romaya and Yehring Tong (Canongate)
Cover of Tigerman by Nick Harkaway, Glenn O’Neill (William Heinemann)

The only one of these I own is the Tidhar, and  didn’t really like the cover (I liked the book, though). The Faber and Harkaway I’ve seen.

The Invisible Tentacle
@echovirus12 (Twitter fiction), created/curated by Jeff Noon (@jeffnoon), Ed (@3dgriffiths), James Knight (@badbadpoet), violet sprite (@gadgetgreen), Richard Biddle (@littledeaths68), Mina Polen (@polen), Uel Aramchek (@ThePatanoiac), Graham Walsh (@t_i_s_u), Vapour Vox (@Wrong_Triangle)
Kentucky Route Zero, Act III, Cardboard Computer
80 Days, Inkle Studios
Sailor’s Dream, Simogo

Again. congratulations to all the nominees.


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My BSFA nominations

I’m not really a big fan of popular vote awards, but having been a member of the British Science Fiction Association for over twenty years, and having attended, on and off, the annual Eastecon for around the same period, I’ve usually voted in the BSFA Award. I’ve also found that the shortlists frequently align quite well with my own tastes in the genre – something, obviously, that isn’t all that surprising when you’re a member of the core constituency.

Recent years have seen several changes to the awards. While the categories have finally settled at four – novel, short fiction (ie, any length shorter than novel), non-fiction and art – rules on eligibility have been affected by the advent of the internet and ebooks. Novels have to be published in the UK in the previous calendar year, which is pretty straightforward. Unless – and this is a fairly recent change – they’re ebook-only, in which case, as long as they’re available to UK residents (except the new EU VAT rules on digital products may scupper that from 2015 onwards). Back in the 1990s, short fiction also had to be UK-published, but now there is no such restriction. Likewise for non-fiction and art.

This year, however, a couple of more fundamental changes have been put in place. First, voters can now only nominate four works in each category. Previously, they could nominate as many as they wanted. And novels don’t have to be published in the UK, providing the author is British. The BSFA has also begun crowdsourcing a list of eligible works – although the list could do with some serious curating as there’s a lot of ineligible and duplicated entries on it.

This is all a long-winded way of presenting my own four choices in each category. Which are these:

novel
1 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
2 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (TJoy Books UK)
3 The Moon King, Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)
4 The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (Orbit)

The first two were easy picks. I’ve spent this month completing my 2014 reading, but still failed to get to some possible contenders, such as Bête, Station Eleven*, Ancillary Sword, The Girl in the Road, The Echo, Wolves, Annihilation or The Bone Clocks – all of which sounded like the sort of novels which would appeal to me and might have made the cut. Novels that didn’t make it onto my ballot, though it was a close-run thing, include The Race, A Man Lies Dreaming, The Mirror Empire and Descent.

* Having said that, I find most literary post-apocalypse novels, no matter how beautifully written, extremely banal.

short fiction
1 ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’, Theodora Goss (Lightspeed, July 2014)
2 ‘Four Days of Christmas’, Tim Maughan (Motherboard, 24 December 2014)
3 ‘Diving into the Wreck’, Val Nolan (Interzone #252, May-Jun 2014)
4

I really went off short fiction in 2014. Everywhere I looked, the same sort of genre short stories were being published, and it wasn’t a sort I much cared for. As a result, I had to do some last minute reading, which meant some skim-reading of various magazines (I only read one anthology published in 2014 and it was poor; I didn’t buy any published during the year), some clicking through of links on posts of recommendations… and even then I couldn’t actually find four pieces of short fiction I felt were any good. The three listed above were ones that stood out for me during my headlong reading. It’s not the best way to pick something for an award, but then is there a best way?

non-fiction
1 Call and Response, Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications)
2 ‘The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium’ (Strange Horizons, 28 July 2014)
3 ‘Short Fiction and the Feels’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture, 6 October 2014)
4 Nina Allan’s “live blogging” of her read of The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (The Spider’s House, November 2014)

Paul Kincaid has been an insightful genre critic for a long time, so a collection of his essays gets my first pick, especially since the book contains pieces on many of my favourite genre writers. The Strange Horizons Symposium I thought particularly well done, and I’m surprised it didn’t generate more comment. McCalmont has been writing some really interesting stuff about genre fandom for a while now, but I thought his piece on current short fiction was especially good. Allan is one of my favourite online genre critics, and her extended review, over some twenty posts, of The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women was a text-book example of the right way to review a large anthology.

art
1 Cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, Andy Potts (Egmont)
2 Hyperluminal, Jim Burns (Titan Books)
3 Cover of The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris, Andreas Preis (Gollancz)
4 Cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, Jeffrey Alan Love (Gollancz)

mars_evacuees hyperluminal The-Gospel-of-Loki ings-wolves

My first choice was an easy pick. That really is a striking piece of cover art. I wasn’t sure whether Hyperluminal counted as art or non-fiction, but it’s a book about art, and I’ve always loved Jim Burns’s art, so I’m putting it here. I then spent one evening last weekend trawling through SF Signal’s forthcoming books posts for inspiration… and both The Gospel of Loki and Wolves jumped out at me. So to speak.

ETA: Apparently, the art award is for “single image” only, which means Hyperluminal is ineligible. So I need to find something else to nominate instead. I’ll update this post when I’ve found something, but for now I’ll Hyperluminal in place even though I’m not nominating it.


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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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The Race, Nina Allan

I first came across Allan’s fiction in Interzone, and while her stories always struck me as well-written, there was a vagueness to some of the details in them which never quite rung true for me. ‘Flying in the Face of God’, which was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2010, is a case in point. The relationship between the two central characters is handled beautifully, but the story is also about a space programme for which one of them has been selected. And something about that space programme felt unconvincing. A recent reread of the story in the collection Microcosms did not change my mind.

Of course, many people will say I’m missing the point of the story – or rather, by focusing on that one aspect, I’m missing what the story is about. And that’s almost certainly true. But a story is more than the sum of its parts, and a failure in one of those parts can throw the whole out of balance. It’s entirely subjective, of course – I can admire a story like ‘Flying in the Face of God’, without thinking it as good as everyone else seems to. And one thing I do admire about the story is Allan’s facility at creating worlds slightly off-kilter from ours, ones just strange enough to unsettle without seeming completely unfamiliar. Which brings us to The Race, her first piece of novel-length fiction.

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The Race comprises four novellas, titled ‘Jenna’, ‘Christy’, ‘Alex’ and ‘Maree’ after their narrators. Jenna lives in Sapphire, a town on the edge of Romney Marsh, in a future that is plainly not our own. Her brother, Del, manages a dog track, where smartdogs are raced by “runners”, people with an empathic connection to the smartdogs mediated by implants. ‘Jenna’ is essentially a family history and an exploration of Jenna’s small world (we learn very little of the world outside Sapphire). Jenna becomes a maker of handmade gauntlets for the runners, and Del gets married and has a baby girl. A few years later, the girl is kidnapped, and it transpires Del was involved with drug dealers and owes them money for a missing shipment.

Christy, on the other hand, lives in our world. Her father and brother run a house clearance firm. ‘Christy’ focuses on Christy’s relationship with her brother, Derek, and his girlfriends. First Monica, and then Lin. Derek is a thug and a nasty piece of work. After he sexually assaults Christy, she leaves for London and university. She becomes a writer, and ‘Jenna’ is revealed as one of her stories. It is during one visit home that she meets Lin, who Derek tells her he will marry. But then Lin disappears, and Christy fears her brother may have murdered her.

Alex is the ex-boyfriend of Lin, and a journalist based in London. He is contacted by Christy – several years have passed since the central events of ‘Christy’ – who asks him to come and visit her in her home in Hastings. She asks him about Lin, and he describes an incident when Derek assaulted him because Lin had come to talk over her fears about Derek. Alex also reveals that Lin is alive and well, as he saw her in the street several years later but she blanked him.

The final novella is set in an alternate UK. Maree is an orphan and an empath, and she leaves her home in Scotland to cross the Atlantic to work on a secret project in Thalia (which seems to be a country in South America). This world also has smartdogs and shares some elements with that of ‘Jenna’ – in fact, it may be the same one but the narrow focus of ‘Jenna’ concealed the parts in ‘Maree’ that are invented. And the invention in the novella is… odd. Some places – London, Inverness – have the same names as real places; others do not – Lilyat (Lisbon?), Bonita (Buenos Aires?), Kontessa… And then there are the whales. Much of ‘Maree’ takes place aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic. This is considered a hazardous journey as convoys of whales sink ships when they come across them. And chief among the whales is the “baer-whale”, which is bigger than most ships. Maree discovers during the journey, from a fellow passenger who admits he is a private detective who had been hired to find her, that she is Del’s missing daughter from ‘Jenna’, and that she wasn’t kidnapped because of the drugs but because she is a natural empath. In other words, she doesn’t need an implant. This also means she is gifted at acquiring languages. The secret project she is joining is trying to translate alien messages from outer space.

The things that are good about The Race are the things that Allan is good at. The mosaic structure plays to her strengths in that it allows for a tight focus over a relatively short wordcout. However, it also reveals a weakness: the links between the novellas are not quite strong enough to hold the novel together. Take the murder which appears in ‘Christy’ and ‘Alex’. Christy is afraid her brother killed Lin, but the truth is revealed in passing by Alex. Which makes the resolution of it, and the relief Christy must feel, completely secondhand, robbing it of any emotional impact. It’s not central to either novella, of course, but it feels like one of those details which never quite rings true. Which is not to say that every detail rings false. One of Allan’s strengths as a writer is the off-focus lens she shines on the worlds of her stories, and she does this by changing some details, such as the names of places, so that everything feels slightly off-kilter, and by keeping the relationships between the characters firmly at the centre of the narrative and the plot beats somewhere to the side. This is something that is more obvious in The Race than other works because each of the novellas exists at the edges of the preceding one.

The writing throughout is, unsurprisingly, very good, and the characters are drawn extremely well – although if Jenna, Christy and Maree seem a little similar that’s an artefact of the structure, I suspect. As is the novel’s lack of, well, plot. The two science-fictional novellas wrap the real world ones, when you’d expect the reverse to be the case; but Christy’s life – since ‘Alex’ too is about that – doesn’t really provide a key to ‘Jenna’ and ‘Maree’. The mystery which exercises Christy for years does sort of map onto the disappearance of Jenna’s brother’s daughter. And Maree does end up with a completely new life, much as Alex reveals Lin to have. Even then, revealing what happened to Del’s daughter doesn’t really resolve anything, as ‘Maree’ only catapults her into a new, and unsolved, mystery. I’m also not really sure what role the dog racing plays, or why it provides the title, since it only appears in ‘Jenna’, which is Christy’s creation anyway.

The end result is, I think, one of 2014’s more interesting genre novels, and certainly proves Allan is a writer to watch. I’m not convinced The Race is wholly successful, but it’s definitely a worthy attempt. If it doesn’t quite match another 2014 genre mosaic novel, Paul Park’s All Those Vanished Engines, that’s probably because Park goes full-on metafictional, and Allan sort of nibbles at the edges and never quite commits. Or perhaps it’s just that Allan’s form of metafiction is less overt – it lives within her stories rather than providing the stories’ building-blocks. Having said all that, I won’t be surprised if The Race appears on one or two shortlists next 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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Reading diary, #8

More catch-up content, I’m afraid, covering the books I’ve read over the past month or so. It’s the usual mix – some genre, some literary, some which are neither. I’m not going to write too much about each individual book, or I’d never get this post finished. And I am supposed to be doing things, after all.

MicrocosmosMicrocosmos, Nina Allan (2013). This is number five in NewCon Press’s Imaginings series of collectible, er, collections. Other volumes are by Tanith Lee, Stephen Baxter, Tony Ballantyne, Lisa Tuttle, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Steve Rasnic Tem and Eric Brown. I often find myself conflicted about Allan’s short stories – there’s no denying she writes excellent prose, but I often have trouble with the details. ‘Flying in the Face of God’ is a case in point – it’s a lovely story, and it draws its portrait of its protagonist sensitively and well, but… the whole astronaut thing seemed to me too vague and hand-wavey, and that spoiled it for me. ‘The Phoney War’, on the other hand, is less overtly sf and so I felt it worked better, particularly since Allan is excellent at sense of place.

Paintwork, Tim Maughan (2011). I’m coming to this a bit late, but I only have an ebook copy and I’m still not quite comfortable reading ebooks. All the same, I took my Nook with me on a business trip to the South Coast as I’ve been reading an ebook of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden on and off for a couple of months, but I read Paintwork instead. ‘Havana Augmented’ I thought the best of the three in the collection, with its VR mecha combat on the streets of Havana, but all are good near-future sf of a type that few people seem to be writing at the moment.

Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (1977), I read for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

moonenoughThe Moon Is Not Enough, Mary Irwin (1978). This is the only autobiography by an Apollo astronaut’s wife I’ve been able to find. Jim Irwin, Mary’s husband, was the LMP on Apollo 15. (Nancy Conrad and Betty Grissom, on the other hand, wrote biographies of their husbands.) I suspect Irwin’s story is not unusual among the astronaut wives – a marriage that begins to fall apart due to the husband’s commitment to his work, dragged back from the brink by either church, psychoanalysis, or NASA’s insistence on “happy families”, or, in Irwin’s case, all three; or the marriage explodes as soon as hubby has been to the Moon. I read the book for research, and in that respect it proved very useful.

Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Reza Negarestani (2008) Recommended by Jonathan McCalmont and, to be honest, I didn’t really get the joke. It’s written as a cod academic text, and probably does an excellent job of spoofing its material, but I’m not familiar with the sort of academic arguments it uses. It did remind me a lot of some of the Nazi occult science mythology – especially those books published by Adventures Unlimited Press – which create entire secret scientific programmes out of the flimsiest of evidence. The plot, such as it is, describes the War on Terror as an emergent phenomenon of humanity’s exploitation of oil, which is itself an inimical intelligence determined to rid the planet of humans. Or something.

Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952, although it was originally serialised in 1946), I read for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell (2011). I usually avoid fantasy, but I picked up this book because a) Martin Lewis recommended it, and b) the cover art features a deep sea diver. There’s some interesting world-building in this, and a nice line in wit, but the thinly-disguised discussions on quantum mechanics wore thin very quickly, and the unnecessary brutality was also a little wearying. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll bother with the sequels.

Second Body, Sue Payer (1979), I read for SF Mistressworks. To be honest, I didn’t think this book read like it was written by a woman, but there’s a comment on GoodReads from the writer’s granddaughter which says otherwise. My review should be appearing in the next week or two.

A Kill in the Morning, Graeme Shimmin (2014), I read for Interzone. Hitler victorious alt history with a nameless narrator who owes a little too much to James Bond.

Aurora: Beyond Equality, Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson, eds. (1976). I was in two minds whether to review for SF Mistressworks, since it contains three stories by male writers. But it was put together as a feminist sf anthology, the first of its kind, so I felt it too important a document in the history of women in science fiction to ignore. Review to appear in the next couple of weeks.

Robinson_Shaman_HCShaman, Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), I originally intended to be part of my Hugo reading, but I never got around to it at the time – not that it seems to have made any difference, anyway. And, to be fair, it would be stretching the definitions of science fiction and fantasy both past breaking point to categorise this book as either. It’s a year in the life of a twelve-year-old boy – a near-adult – in Europe some 32,000 years ago. The story was apparently inspired by the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, as filmed by Werner Herzog in his Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. I was mostly carried along by the story, although on occasion it didn’t quite convince. The Neanderthals were good, though.

A Man and Two Women, Doris Lessing (1963). I have previously found Lessing a bit hit and miss for me, often in the same novel – but I did like most of these stories. Especially the Lawrentian title story. ‘England vs England’, however, is more of a Lawrence pastiche, but I wasn’t convinced by Lessing’s attempt at portraying South Yorkshire characters. The stories set in South Africa, by comparison, were much more successful, particularly ‘The New Man’. Also good were ‘Between Men’, about a pair of mistresses, and ‘Notes for a Case History’, a potted biography of a young woman with aspirations to rise above her working-class origins.

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