This year, I’m going to try and be a little more disciplined about writing up what I’ve read. So I’ve decided to title the series of posts a “reading diary” and I hope to put one up every month or so. As usual, however, the choice of books will be somewhat eclectic – a mix of genre and literary fiction and, er, other stuff – and I’ll also mention any non-fiction I’ve read for research. You’ll notice that the fiction alternates between male and female writers. That was one of my New Year’s Resolutions, and so far I’ve managed to stick to it.
Fenrir, MD Lachlan (2011). I really liked Lachlan’s debut, Wolfsangel, to which Fenrir is a sequel, so I had pretty high hopes for this. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite meet them. The plot – deliberately – echoes that of Wolfsangel, but this time takes place in the late ninth century, and in France. Three characters unknowingly act out the romantic triangle from the earlier book, which apparently echoes some Norse god romantic triangle and will bring about Odin’s return to Earth. Fenrir opens with the Siege of Paris (885 – 886), and ends 532 pages later in Aldeigjuborg, a Viking-ruled Russian kingdom near what is now St Petersburg. The first member of the triangle is Aelis, the sister of the ruler of Paris, who manages to escape the siege and then has to evade capture by the marauding Vikings. The other two members are male – Jehan, a crippled monk, and Raven, a Viking shaman. The ruler of Aldeigjuborg wants Aelis for his wife, and has sent a trader, Leshii, and a wolfman, Chakhlyk, to fetch her. She doesn’t want to go, of course. And Raven is after her for his own – and his sister’s – nefarious purposes. And when the wolf is awakened in Jehan, by Norse magic, then he becomes fit and able, and he gets involved too. I said when I read Wolfsangel that werewolves and Vikings were not really my thing, but that novel did something very interesting with them – and Fenrir continues in that vein, but unfortunately it’s a bit too long for its story. The first half dragged badly in parts. It also didn’t help that “dirham” was incorrectly spelled as “dihram” throughout, or that one character’s name went from Swava to Suava and back again. Having said that, some of the set-pieces are really good, and I’ve every intention of continuing with the series.
Minaret, Leila Aboulela (2005). The narrator is the daughter of a well-to-do Sudanese businessman – or rather, he was well-to-do. He prospered under the country’s old regime, and he and his family were almost aristocracy. But when that government was overthrown, he was arrested and executed as a symbol of its corruption. So now the narrator, Najwa, is in London, and working as a nanny since all the family’s riches (justly earned or not) have been seized. The woman she works for is a young Arab who grew up in the Gulf states, is married to an Egyptian currently working in Oman, and is studying for a PhD at a London university. She’s not especially religious. Her younger brother, also a student, however, is religious. And Najwa, who has discovered religion since coming to London, is drawn to him. But it’s not a match the family condone. Minaret is more about Najwa, how she became the woman she is, than it is about her burgeoning relationship with her employer’s brother. The writing is very good throughout – Aboulela writes in English – and Najwa is a beautfully-drawn character. I thought this a much better book than Aboulela’s later The Translator.
The Squares of the City, John Brunner (1965). An Australian traffic analyst is invited to a South American model city clearly patterned on Brasilia (although the invented country in which it is located is Spanish-speaking) because the visionary president of the nation believes traffic analysis will cure his lovely city of its unsightly slums. From the moment of his arrival, the narrator is in over his head, as it turns out there are two main political factions in the city and he’s being used as a tool by one of them. Though he repeatedly says he can provide short-term solutions to the slums, but in the long term proper housing and education is the only way to really fix the problem, the city authorities want a quick result. And then people start to get killed. I liked that Brunner had based his invented city of Vados on Brasilia, and it seemed to me he sort of captured a similar architectural flavour. The characters also seemed to suit the setting, although the narrator drifted a little too close to Overcompetent Man at times. However, The Squares of the City is apparently notable because the plot is based on a famous chess match, with each of the characters representing various pieces. To be honest, not knowing this in no way changes how you read the story, nor does knowing it actually help you parse the plot. It’s a gimmick that means nothing to the reader, and I’m surprised Brunner even bothered mentioning it. Yes, it turns out the two chief movers and shakers in Vados – the president and the leader of the opposition – have been playing a chess game with people, and that’s why there have been deaths, but it seems too abstracted to make any real difference. I think that makes the novel more of a curiosity than anything else.
The Violent Century, Lavie Tidhar (2013). This novel landed in October last year with quite a thud. In fact, only last weekend a friend mentioned he was thinking of reading the book because it had received so many positive notices. Which is, I suppose, as good a reason to read a book as any. The Violent Century covers, well, not even a century really – it opens in the 1920s, but the present of the story is labelled only “the present”, although clues suggest it is near the turn of the millennium, if not just after. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, Dr Vomacht inadvertently released a probability wave which changed a small proportion of the world’s population, effectively giving them superpowers. In Britain, these superpowered people were recruited as spies and undercover agents, and spent much of WWII trying to track down Vomacht, or eliminate Germany “Übermenschen”. The book’s two protagonist are Fogg and Oblivion, a pair of British agents, and the novel covers their escapades during WWII and the Cold War, as told in flashback from the present-day. Fogg has been brought out of retirement because something has happened, and the flashbacks lead up to the explanation of that. The structure works well, although there’s a niggling sense at times that some information is left unsaid when it needn’t be because the requisite flashback has yet to take place. And speaking of niggling, The Violent Century reminded me of something else but I could never quite put my finger on it. It borrows heavily from comicbook mythologies, of course; and there’s a pulpish flavour to its alternate history… but there was something in the mix that was quite heavily reminiscent of… something. I also thought the ending was a bit weak. A strong novel, yes; but not, I think, one I’ll be putting on my Hugo ballot.
Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre (1979). A review of this will be posted up on SF Mistressworks in a couple of weeks.
Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014). I reviewed this for Vector.
Breakdown, Sara Paretsky (2012). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s VI Warshawski novels since first stumbling across them in the UAE in the early 1990s. In recent years, the politics have been much more in your face – not necessarily a bad thing, though it does sometimes over-balance the story. Breakdown is a case in point. It opens with Warshawski stumbling across a recently-murdered man in a cemetery while trying to track down a group of missing teenage girls who have gone there to practice a ritual tied into their love of an urban fantasy series of books (plainly based on Twilight). The plot spirals out from there to feature the right-wing media, particularly the sort of moronic far right television pundit who presently seems bafflingly popular in the US at the moment. There’s also an ultra-rich Jewish industrialist, possibly with a shady past, who is the chief target of the TV pundit’s attacks, and even a pair of senators battling for the local seat – a liberal, backed by the industrialist; and a Tea Party-type loon, backed by the right-wing media. If Paretsky’s novels are overly target-rich from a liberal perspective, Warshawski is turning increasingly quixotic with each subsequent book. Parestsky chooses big themes, but gives Warshawski small victories; it’s a strategy guaranteed to leave you angry when you finish the book. And no matter how righteous that anger, Warshawski’s – and by extension, the reader’s – inability to change things makes you wonder what the point of it all is. But I like Warshawski as a character, I like that Paretsky wears her politics on her sleeve (and I mostly agree with them), and so I’ll continue to read these books.
Evening’s Empires, Paul McAuley (2013). I read this because it has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year, even though it’s the fourth book in a loose series – preceded by The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun and In the Mouth of the Whale, and only the first of which I’ve read (and I didn’t really like it; see here). Evening’s Empires can be read as a standalone, but it also makes numerous references to the events in those earlier novels. All the same, I didn’t find that an obstacle, though it did leave me curious about the earlier two books. But. I’d not really taken to The Quiet War, and I suppose I’d not really expected to take to Evening’s Empires, although something about its blurb did suggest I might be mistaken. Perversely, I found myself underwhelmed by the novel thanks to something I’d not even considered… Evening’s Empires opens with Gajananvihari Pilot marooned on a tiny asteroid on the outer edges of the Belt. The asteroid had once been inhabited – most recently by an ascetic – so there is enough infrastructure present for Hari to survive. He’s been marooned because dacoits captured his father’s ship but he managed to escape. The hijackers were after the fruits of Dr Gagarian’s research into the Bright Moment, a single vision granted to every member of humanity at precisely the same moment when Sri Hong-Owen “vastened” and melded with the alien intelligence present in Fomalhaut’s gas giant (which is apparently what happened during In the Mouth of the Whale). When a pair of dacoits come to capture Hari – and Dr Gagarian’s head, with which he has absconded – he kills them and uses their scooter to escape… and promptly follows a series of clues around the Asteroid Belt, and out to Saturn, in order to have his revenge on the hijackers and discover why Dr Gagarian’s research was so important to them. McAuley describes a Solar System in decline – the places Hari visits are long past their glory days. There have been system-wide wars, empires have risen and fallen, and in many cases, those that are left are just living in, or have re-purposed, the ruins of earlier centuries. Which means that while Evening’s Empires is very much hard sf, it mostly reads like space opera. McAuley has also filled his story with in-jokes. Each of the sections, for example, is named for a sf classic of the past. And part of the plot’s climax takes place at the Memory Whole, an Earth-orbiting asteroid which hosts a virtual environment for avatars of early uploaded post-humans. One of these avatars is quite cutting to Hari about humanity’s predilection for living in the fantasies of earlier ages. Given that the Memory Hole is a real-life UK-based fanzine collection, I can’t decide if McAuley is taking the piss or writing a savage indictment of science fiction…
The Rain Forest, Olivia Manning (1974). I loved Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy when I read them several years ago, so I always keep an eye open for books by her when I visit charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of The Rain Forest. It’s her last novel, and set on the invented Indian Ocean island of Al-Bustan (clearly based on Mauritius; there are several mentions of the dodo). Hugh and Kristy Foster have moved temporarily to Al-Bustan so Hugh can take up a position in the local British administration of the island. He’s actually a screenwriter – and Kristy is a successful novelist – but the industry has collapsed in the UK and left him out of work and out of cash. The couple are put up in the Daisy Pension, a boarding-house populated by a cast of minor grotesques. They make friends with the owner’s profligate son, who is shunned by the pension’s guests, and through him meet some of the island’s colourful inhabitants. Although published in the early 1970s, and clearly meant to be set around that time – there’s mention of fashion designers Pucci and Gamba; a helicopter is the chief means of reaching the island – everything felt like it was a couple of decades older. There’s a feel of 1940s Raj to it all – I mean, I was an expat in the Gulf states in the 1970s, and while I was only a child then, I don’t remember it being how Manning describes it on Al-Bustan. Having said that, Al-Bustan is a small island with a native population descended from waves of earlier immigrants from Africa and the Arabian peninsula, so the situation hardly maps onto that, say, of the Trucial States as was. The plot of The Rain Forest bumbles along, there’s a feeling that in the hands of a male writer the story would have been more comic, played for laughs, though to be honest I prefer Manning’s approach. It’s not entirely clear what role the titular woodland plays, and certainly some of the events described in the novel don’t quite gel with it – the Fosters’ treatment by the other residents of the pension, the small war they fight with the new owner after the original owner dies, Kristy’s pregnancy, even the trip Hugh takes to the rain forest in the final section. The cast are mostly unlikeable, except for the Fosters, and what little pathos is present seemed to fall flat more often than not. The Rain Forest is nowhere near as good as those two earlier trilogies – though I do have to wonder if it’s as autobiographical as they were (after all, Kristy is a successful novelist) – but all the same, I’ll continue to keep an eye out for Manning’s novels.