I’m slowly catching up on documenting my recent reads. Last year and the year before I was in the 100 Books A Year Challenge on LibraryThing, and would write a quick review of each book as I read it. Which meant compiling these recent readings posts was pretty painless. But I didn’t bother with the challenge this year, and without that I’m not disciplined enough to write about books the moment I’ve finished them – well, not unless it’s a book everyone is talking about, like a certain sf debut of 2013. Anyway, that’s my excuse for splitting this post into three. Also, it would be way too TL;DR if it had been a single post.
Barbary Shore, Norman Mailer (1951) I found three 1970s paperback novels by Mailer in a local charity shop and was sufficiently appalled by the awful covers to give them a go. I know of Mailer, of course; and I’m pretty damn sure I read The Executioner’s Song many years ago… But if Barbary Shore had been my first exposure to his fiction I’d not have bothered any further. According to an introduction added to this later edition, Mailer considers this the best of his early novels – “if my work is alive one hundred years from now, Barbary Shore will be considered the richest of my first three novels”. The other two must be really bad then. Because Barbary Shore is a bit shit. Mailer’s style is so mannered and artificial, and characters repeatedly lecture each other, it’s often painful to read; and yet the story is supposedly set in the lower reaches of New York society. The narrator has returned from fighting abroad during WWII with little or no prospects and decides to become a writer. So he uses the last of his savings to rent himself a room in a boarding-house while he writes his Great American novel… And where he gets involved with the landlady, a blousy blonde rejoicing in the name of Guinevere, her really badly-drawn young daughter, the boarding-house’s two other tenants (one of whom proves to be a McCarthyist, the other is actually Guinevere’s husband and an ex-communist), and the sort of manic pixie Holly-Golightly-type that US literary fiction of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to think were a) real women and b) evidence of the author’s ability to write female characters. I guess I won’t be reading the other two Mailer novels. All three can go back to the charity shop.
The Triple Echo, HE Bates (1970) A couple of years ago, I found a boxed set of Bates’s novels and novellas in a charity shop. It was really cheap, and I vaguely remembered he was highly-regarded, so I bought it. The first novella I read, Dulcima, didn’t go all that well (see here). It was apparently turned into a film in 1971. The Triple Echo was slightly better, and I vaguely recall seeing its film adaptation (starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed). During WWII, a woman on a smallholding, whose husband is a prisoner of the Japanese, strikes up a friendship with a soldier at a local barracks. He visits her on his leave days and helps her out around the farm. But then he decides to desert, and stays with her. In order to disguise his presence she tells everyone her sister is visiting, and he lets his hair grow long and dresses like the farmer. Then an officer and a pair of NCOs from the barracks turn up, looking for the deserter. They meet the “sister”, fail to see through the disguise and the sergeant invites “her” to a dance that Saturday… Bates’s prose fails to impress. It’s, er… nice. That’s about all that can be said for it. But then you come across a line like “the war seemed a million miles away”, and then there’s nothing nice about a reliance on cliché. I’ve still got the rest of the Bates boxed set to read, and I may try one or two more. But it’ll be back to the charity shop with it after that.
Jagannath: Stories, Karin Tidbeck (2012) I picked up a copy of this at Fantastika in Stockholm in October, where Karin was one of the GoHs. I’d not read any of her stories prior to reading this collection, although I think I had a fairly good idea of what to expect – her name is one that crops up quite often among my circle of friends and acquaintances online. I’ll confess up-front that dark fantasy and New Weird are definitely not my thing – only this week I baled on Catherynne M Valente’s Palimpsest after 70 pages. However, the first story in Jagannath: Stories, ‘Beatrice’, immediately hooked me, and I pretty much sailed through all thirteen stories in the collection. Some worked for me much better than others. The subtle horror of ‘Rebecka’ was good, I liked ‘Brita’s Holiday Village’ and ‘Reindeer Mountain’, and the faux documentary of ‘Pyret’ was cleverly done. Jagannath: Stories is a pretty strong collection – I had been told Karin is a name to watch and I’m more than happy to agree.
Aldebaran 1: The Catastrophe (1996), Aldebaran 2: The Group (1997) and Aldebaran 3: The Creature (1998), Léo. These three volumes from Cinebook contain five installments of Léo’s first series, which were originally published in French as La catastrophe, La blonde, La photo, Le group and La créature. They’re set on an inhabitable planet orbiting the eponymous star some 100 years after contact with Earth has been lost. The colonists have spread across the planet’s few small continents, but much of its flora and fauna remains a mystery. The story opens in a small fishing village, when the appearance of one local creature – one that’s massively larger than anything else – results in tragedy. Only two teenagers escape, and they find themselves involved with a group fighting against the colony’s theocratic government. It transpires the group – there’s only two of them left – were among the original colonists over a century ago and have survived so long due to a mysterious creature, which may or may not be intelligent. In the first book, the teenagers try to escape the priest, and his soldiers, who is chasing them because he believes they know something about the group… which, it seems they do, although they weren’t aware of it. They’re caught and spend time in prison. Several years later, they escape, meet up with the two members of the group, learn of the group’s history, and set off to meet the creature – in the hope it will also gift them (and a few other people) with immortality. The third book opens with a crash in a jungle, introduces a ship from Earth, and sets up the story for the next series, Betelgeuse. The art is not unlike that of Moebius, it’s certainly very clean, but the characters seem drawn with more detail – and it takes a few pages to get used to it. I actually thought it pretty good – slow to start, perhaps, but Léo has created an interesting world – and I plan to get both Betelgeuse and the third series, Antares.