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Reading diary, #10

With all the dipping into books I’ve been doing for research for All That Outer Space Allows, I’ve not been reading as much as usual – although I have managed to fit in several reads for review for SF Mistressworks. And, er, several books which I’ve actually written about at greater length… which is something I’ve not done on here for a while either.

Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Malcolm Lowry (1968). My love of Lowry’s prose remains undimmed. I wrote about this book here.

Women as Demons, Tanith Lee (1989). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

my_name_is_red1My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998). I originally picked up this book for a world fiction reading challenge a couple of years ago, but got bogged down about halfway in and gave up. I eventually decided to give it another go, and this time I managed to finish it. In Istanbul in the late sixteenth century, the Sultan asks a retired and highly-regarded miniaturist to manage the creation of a book to celebrate his reign. But this book will not be illustrated in the Persian style, as is considered proper and religiously correct, but in the European style (depictions of people and animals is haram in Islam; hence Islamic art’s focus on calligraphy and architecture). But one of the miniaturists secretly approached to provide illustrations, or part of the illustrations, disagrees with the project and murders one of the other miniaturists. The novel is structured as first-person narratives by all those involved, including the murdered victims, the daughter of the man managing the project, and a young man who has returned to Istanbul after years in the provinces to ask for the daughter’s hand… It’s not the fastest-paced of murder-mysteries, and Pamuk seems fond of presenting the same piece of information from several different viewpoints so they more or less contradict, or at least, confuse each other. But I did think My Name is Red was very good… although I wasn’t so taken I plan to seek out Pamuk’s other novels.

mindjammerMindjammer, Sarah Newton (2012). This novel set in the world of a sf role-playing game of the same name and is, I believe, chiefly intended to support the RPG rather than vice versa. Which no doubt explains some of its set-up, like ,for example, the fact that it follows the adventures of a group of four military specialists from varied backgrounds (ie, both above and below the law). They’ve been sent to a rediscovered human polity as a Security and Cultural Integrity Force team by the New Commonality of Humankind in order to ensure everything about the newly-discovered world, Solenius, is exactly as it seems. Except, of course, it’s not. The plot of the novel basically comprises the four SCI agents stumbling from one violent encounter to another, interspersed with fact-filled info-dumps, while a number of villains twirl moustaches and gloat evilly. Mindjammer is space opera turned up to eleven, which is both its appeal and its worst problem. Space opera needs those clunky wodges of exposition, it needs a relentless plot filled with violence, discovery and violent upsets, it needs to rely on clichés because there isn’t much room for anything else… And when you have a space opera based on what is clearly a rich and lovingly-designed role-playing game universe… One for fans of the subgenre as much as it is for fans of the RPG; but yes, one for fans, I think.

Sanctum_zoomedSanctum, Xavier Dorison & Christophe Bec (2014). I picked up a copy of the first part of this a few years ago, but it’s only recently an omnibus edition of all three parts has appeared in English (I was tempted to buy it in French, but never got around to it). Sadly, after all that wait, I can’t really say it was worth it. Some things it does very well, but it also fails quite badly in other respects. The opening section, in which a US submarine stumbles across a wrecked Soviet sub in an underwater chasm off the coast of Syria is done well… Except it all takes place at 4,000 feet, and you can’t have people diving that deep – the pressure would crush them. And should you somehow manage to saturation dive at nearly 120 atmospheres, you’d be decompressing for weeks afterwards. The US submarine is also infeasibly large inside, and reminded me of the Russian mining submarine in the BBC’s execrable The Deep (which I wrote about here). Near the Soviet wreck, the divers find the entrance to an ancient temple. Which is where the story turns all Lovecraftian, as the temple proves to be a magical prison for a Sumerian demon, which the Americans inadvertently release. The art is uniformly good throughout – it was intended to be cinematic, and it works well in that respect – and the story does hang together, even if the pacing is a little slow. But the author should have done a little more research and not sacrificed plausibility for drama.

All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park (2014). I am a big fan of Park’s fiction. I wrote about this book here.

Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, Shawn McCarthy, ed. (1984). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

A Month Soon Goes, Storm Jameson (1962). The first read in my informal project to try a number of British women writers from the first half of the twentieth century. And I enjoyed it very much. A polished piece of work. I wrote about it here.

suicideexhbThe Suicide Exhibition: The Never War, Justin Richards (2013). This was a freebie from Fantasycon, and I only picked it up after spotting the Nazi Black Sun and flying saucers on the cover. And this was despite recently reviewing Graeme Shimmin’s A Kill in the Morning, another occult Nazi alternate history, for Interzone and not being very impressed. A secret section of the British intelligence services called Station Z crops up in various places, intriguing a man and a woman who are plainly intended to be the series main protagonists. They are duly recruited and learn that Station Z is fighting against Reichsführer Himmler’s new secret occult weapon, ancient technology some of his Ahnenerbe officers have discovered in ancient barrows scattered across Europe. Unfortunately, also in said barrows are alien creatures which are, well, are completely ripped off from the hand-creatures in Alien, and some sort of alien parasite which keeps the ancient kings interred in the barrows still alive, sort of – and who promptly go on a violent rampage once released. Oh, and there are some flying saucers too, which may be linked to the ancient aliens. It’s all complete tosh, and appallingly researched. Incidentally, the title refers to an exhibition laid on in the British Museum for the duration of the war and which the Museum didn’t mind losing should the Germans bomb the crap out of the building. It’s also mentioned later as a metaphor for Station Z or something, but its presence in the story is so trivial it seems completely undeserving of providing the title. Avoid.

Across The Acheron, Monique Wittig (1985). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

towersThe Towers Of Silence, Paul Scott (1971). This is the third instalment of Scott’s Raj Quartet. I must admit to a little confusion when I started the book. I was pretty sure I’d not read it, but the story seemed very familiar. At least, it sort of did. And when the narrative referred to something I remembered clearly from an earlier book in the quartet, but here it all happened off-stage, I realised that Scott was covering ground previously described but this time from different characters’ viewpoints. So, for example, when Sarah Layton goes off to Calcutta and has her adventures there, The Towers Of Silence remains behind in Pankot and, in the person of Barbie Batchelor, we get to witness Mabel Layton’s death at first hand. Barbie, incidentally, is a superb creation, an ex-Mission teacher who has retired to Pankot and shares Rose Cottage with Mabel as her companion. She’s played in the television series by Peggy Ashcroft, who is the best thing in the programme, and captures Barbie perfectly; although the rest of the series is a little disappointing as it misses so much interiority out that most of the characters comes across as unrepentant racists. The books, however, are built on cleverly-nuanced character studies, so they’re vastly superior to the TV series.

sweeneyA Pictorial History of Oceanographic Submersibles,, James B Sweeney (1970). I picked this up cheap on eBay, and it proved to be ex-library so I got a partial refund. I should have sent it back – while it covers the early history of submarines reasonably well, as soon as it reaches WW1 it’s almost as if the world shrinks to only the US and its concerns. The chapter on WW2 is especially bad – it reads as though only the USA and Japan operated submarines, with only brief mentions of German U-Boots (which are not U-Botes, as the book writes at one point) and British mini-submarines. It’s also deeply racist – the Japanese are referred to as “the little people from the land of the Rising Sun” and dropping an atomic bomb apparently caused Hiroshima to be “blasted into immortality”. The writing throughout is terrible, and while I’ve spotted no blatant inaccuracies there is plenty that is given such an American emphasis it mendaciously implies every single advance in the field was made by that country.


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All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park

I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since first reading Coelestis (1993), a copy of which I bought in 1994 in a book shop I used to frequent when I lived in Abu Dhabi. It has been a favourite genre novel ever since. Over the years since, I’ve tracked down copies of his other books – first editions, natch – and read them. So when I learnt he had a new novel due, six years after the fourth and final book of the Princess of Roumania quartet, The Hidden World (2008), well, I was pretty excited. I discovered the book actually comprised three linked novellas, one of which had originally appeared in F&SF in January 2010 under the title ‘Ghost Doing the Orange Dance’, but had then been revised and published by PS Publishing in January 2013 under the same title. I’d read the PS version early in 2014, and even nominated it for a Hugo. There was also a short story, which shared the title of the new novel, that had originally been commissioned to accompany a sound installation by Stephen Vitiello at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in September 2011.

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Clearly, All Those Vanished Engines the novel was going to be something of a fix-up. And if Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance was any indication, it was also going to meta-fictional. Fix-ups fell out of favour several decades ago, but they were very popular during science fiction’s first few decades. AE van Vogt’s entire novel output, for example, is arguably comprised of fix-up novels. But as both the market for short genre fiction and genre novels has changed, so fix-ups have become increasingly rare. But All Those Vanished Engines is actually not much like a fix-up novel. Nor is it like another well-known science fiction novel comprised of three linked novellas, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972). Or indeed much like another sf novel of three novellas, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge (1984). Chiefly because All Those Vanished Engines is not much like a novel as such.

All Those Vanished Engines opens with the line,” Maybe the first part of the story would be called The Bracelet, or else Bracelets would turn out to be the better name”. In point of fact, we already know it is called ‘Bracelets’ – the title is given on the preceding page. The bracelet which supplies the title for Paulina’s story is comprised of “intertwining strands”. Which is a not only a fair description of ‘Bracelets’ the novella, but also the novel as a whole. And the use of the name Paulina is also telling. Not only is it a female version of the author’s name, Paul, but Park used it himself as a pen-name on a Forgotten Realms tie-in novel for Wizards of the Coast, The Rose of Sarifal, as by Paulina Claiborne and published in May 2012. The writing of The Rose of Sarifal also features in All Those Vanished Engines‘ second novella.

Paulina lives in an alternate 1881, and she is writing a story set in 1967 – “Paulina had a habit of slipping away into an invented world over which she might pretend to have control” –  in a form of fractured English, featuring a boy called Matthew. As Paulina’s story progresses, her world and Matthew’s world begin to intertwine, so much so that Paulina’s own life’takes on the form of the sort of story she is imagining for Matthew. An assassin gatecrashes the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Mardi Gras ball and kills many of those present. Paulina is rescued by her cousin, Colonel Adolphus Claiborne, CSA, who reveals she is the daughter of the Yankee empress, and the assassin, Lizzie, is her clone, and that he plans to use Paulina in an assassination plot against the empress. But Paulina escapes, meets up with Matthew, and the two end up hiding from an invasion of Wellesian Martians… By two-thirds of the way through ‘Bracelets’, the two narratives – Paulina’s real adventures, and her invented ones – have become so entangled, we’re no longer sure if the protagonist is Paulina or Matthew. The world of the story seems to have changed to accommodate Paulina’s inventions; she has lost control of her invented world.

The second novella is titled ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’, and it opens with the line: “This is how the second part begins…” There then follows the text of the short story from the MASS MoCA sound installation. After that is an explanation of the origin of the short story, in which Park himself describes how he met Vitiello and offered him “a list of rhetorical devices, from which he chose onomatopoeia and, to a lesser extent, strategic repetition”. (This is clearly a joke – the story is to accompany a sound installation, after all.) At the opening of the exhibit, Park meets a woman who tells him that the subject of his story is still alive, and living in a nursing home. She also reveals that she was a student of Park’s late mother, and likely met Park when he was a teenager. Park goes on to write The Rose of Sarifal for Wizards of the Coast, and to first take, and then teach, creative writing at a local college. In his class is a woman called Traci, who is writing a novel which Park realises is a thinly-disguised version of Traci’s relationship with Park’s mother, which echoes Constance’s relationship mentioned earlier. In Traci’s book, Park himself is called Matthew. Park discusses her novel with her, making suggestions regarding technique that he himself is using in the narrative of All Those Vanished Engines.

The sound installation is real, The Rose of Sarifal is an actual published Forgotten Realms novel, Park does indeed teach writing, albeit science fiction (at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, according to Wikipedia). Some of the biographical details of Park’s life – a mother who was a published literary professor, a partner whose mother was born in Bucharest, an autistic sister – may also be true, although which is which cannot be determined without further extra-textual knowledge (in a 2000 interview on infinity plus, for example, Park mentions that his mother taught literature). But then the three poles of ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ are entirely extra-textural – the sound installation, The Rose of Sarifal, and Park’s own life. Just as Paulina and Matthew’s lives are intertwined in ‘Bracelets’, so are Paul’s and Matthew’s in this novella – and again, in both narratives, one world is presented as fictional (Paulina’s “invented world”, Traci’s novel), while the other is the first-order fictional narrative of the novel we are reading, which contains sufficient actuality to nail it into place in the real world.

The final novella is ‘Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance’, and the title is a reference to a painting which Park, the narrator, believes represents his grandfather’s encounter with extraterrestrials. The story itself is about Park’s family, his parents and grandparents, and their ancestors (the PS Publishing edition helpfully includes a family tree). It opens with a potted history, and the telling admission that “every memoirist and every historian should begin by reminding their readers that the mere act of writing something down … involves a clear betrayal of the truth”, which echoes the opening to Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969): “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination” (Park’s novel, Coelestis, it is worth noting, covers broadly similar ground, both conceptually and in terms of the physical journey by the two main characters, to The Left Hand Of Darkness).

As Park discusses his family’s history, so he reveals more of his own circumstances – and they do not entirely match those given in ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’. In this novella, for example, Park takes a class in writing meta-fiction, his partner is different, his sister is called Katy not Elly, and the novel from Park’s real-world oeuvre he makes mention of is A Princess of Roumania (2005). As the story progresses, it is slowly revealed that this is not the world we know, but a near-future dystopia, which ends with an invasion by the dead in a chilling link back to the first novella of the novel. Park spends much of his time untangling the lives of his ancestors, chiefly to understand the meaning behind the titular painting. But he also spends a lot of time in Second Life, a real-world online virtual world – which, in this novella, forms the overtly fictional world, much as Matthew’s and Traci’s do in the earlier two novellas.

There are so many references to Park’s actual oeuvre in All Those Vanished Engines – not just obvious ones, clearly linked in the text to earlier novels; but also characters named for characters in other of his novels. Then there is Park’s own life, and the mirror images of it which are presented in two of the three novellas. As Dire Straits famously sang, “Two men say they’re Jesus / One of them must be wrong”. Except both Parks in All Those Vanished Engines are plainly not the real Park. They are as much a fiction as the invented worlds, as much a fiction as the presentation of the act of creating those invented worlds.

To describe All Those Vanished Engines as “meta-fiction” feels like labelling any random novel as “a work of fiction”. It misses the extent and – to steal a phrase from Frank Zappa – the “interconnectedness of all things” within the three novellas. However, what makes this novel even more astonishing is that it seems likely it was not originally conceived as a whole. Park has taken elements of his own recent history and knitted them into a work of fiction on the nature of fiction and the act of creating it. The end result is as much about writing genre fiction as it is about the history of the Parks and Claibornes back to 1664. The writing, as you would expect from Park, is lucid, often elegant, and a pleasure to read. All Those Vanished Engines is one of the best genre novels I have read this year, if not for several years. But its very nature means it is unlikely to noticed by the various genre awards (although perhaps the Nebula will shortlist it).

I am myself extremely fond of re-engineering narrative structures in fiction; and of, well, I suppose “pile-driving” is perhaps the best description, the foundations of a story into the real world. I like that everything in a work of genre fiction can be Googled, that the elements used within a story have this extra dimension provided by the real world, a richness that cannot be contained within the pages of a short story, novella or novel. All Those Vanished Engines does both of these, but it also takes it a step further – some of those piles stretch down into Park’s own novels, giving a bedrock of actual published fiction on which the stories in All Those Vanished Engines securely rest. This is a novel which can be reread, and in which a fresh read will always find something new – because as your knowledge of Park in the real world grows, perhaps by reading some of his other novels, so too will that knowledge enrich your reading of All Those Vanished Engines.

And that’s quite a remarkable achievement.

 


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Book haul

Things must be bad – I’ve not done one of these posts for a couple of months, and yet there only seems to be about a month’s worth of book purchases to document. Of course, this has resulted in a small victory in reducing the TBR, although it’s still somewhat mountainous… I’d actually planned to keep my purchasing at low levels for a couple of months but, of course, as is the way of things, several authors whose books I read all had new works out – August and September seems to be a popular time to release books. Unless you’re Whippleshield Books, that is…

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Some new first editions and an old one. Research is Philip Kerr’s latest, and about a James Patterson-like writer who’s framed for the murder of his wife. Let’s hope it’s not a James Patterson-like book… Dark Lightning is the fourth in Varley’s Thunder and Lightning series, following on from Red Thunder, Red Lightning and Rolling Thunder. I initially thought these were YA, but I don’t think they actually are. All Those Vanished Engines is a new novel by a favourite writer, and the first from him since the Princess of Roumania quartet back in 2005 – 2008. I am excited about this book. Finally, Rubicon by Agnar Mykle is one by mother found for me. I looked it up and it sounded interesting so she got it for me. Mykle seems to be Norway’s answer to DH Lawrence – his Sangen om den røde rubin (1956, The Song of the Red Ruby) was confiscated as immoral and obscene. Rubicon is the third book in a loose trilogy begun with The Song of the Red Ruby. If Rubicon is any good, I might track down Mykle’s other works.

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Some recent paperback purchases: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I bought because Karen Joy Fowler. I’ve been following Kinsey Millhone’s career for a couple of decades and W is for Wasted is the most recent installment. Grafton has kept the series’ internal chronology consistent, which means this one is actually set in 1988. Which sort of makes it historical crime fiction. Milton In America was a charity shop find. And Eric sent me a copy of his latest, a steampunk set in India, Jani and the Greater Game.

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Now this is very annoying. I’d been impressed by Léo’s Aldebaran and Betelgeuse series, so I was keen to read Antares. From Wikipedia, I learnt there were five episodes in Antares, so I waited until the final volume was published in English by Cinebook… and then bought all five books. But it ends on a cliff-hanger! Argh. It’s not finished. So now I’m going to have to wait to find out what happens.

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The DH Lawrence collection continues to grow. My father had the first two volumes of the Cambridge biography of DH Lawrence – The Early Years 1885-1912 and Triumph to Exile 1912-1922 – and I hung onto them. But I hadn’t realised it was a trilogy, and when I started looking for a copy of the final volume, Dying Game 1922-1930, I discovered that hardback editions were hard to find. But I found one. I also have a couple more 1970s Penguin paperbacks to add to the collection: St Mawr / The Virgin and the Gypsy (a pair of novellas) and England, My England (a collection). I probably have their contents in other books, but I’m trying to build up a set of these particular paperback editions.

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Some critical works on women science fiction writers. The Feminine Eye, edited by Tom Staicar, includes essays on Tiptree, Brackett, Moore, Norton, Cherryh and others. Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts is a collection of Joanna Russ’s essays on feminism. And The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is a study of, from the back cover blurb, “the role of women and feminism in the development of American science fiction” and I really need to read it for Apollo Quartet 4…

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More books for the aviation collection. USAF Interceptors is a collection of black and white photos of, er, interceptor jet aircraft from the Cold War. Not as useful as I’d hoped. Convair Advanced Designs II is the follow-on volume to, um, Convair Advanced Designs, this time focusing on fighters and attack aircraft. And for the space books collection, Russian Spacesuits, which I used for research for my Gagarin on Mars story – and will likely use again at some point.

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Finally, more books for the underwater collection. The Greatest Depths by Gardner Soule is a quick and not especially, er, deep study of underwater exploration and exploitation. It covers the main points, including the Trieste’s descent to Challenger Deep and the Ben Franklin’s journey along the Gulf Stream. A Pictorial History of Oceanographic Submersibles does exactly what it says on the cover. It was cheap on eBay (although I demanded, and received, a partial refund because it turned out to be a bit tatty). And The Deep Sea is a glossy coffee-table book containing some nice photos of things at the bottom of the sea.


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Something for the weekend, sir?

A meme, of course. Provided by SF Signal. And since I’ve been a bit rubbish – well, a lot rubbish – at posting here over the past couple of months, and the tumbleweed and cobwebs are starting to look unsightly, I have seized the opportunity given by the meme to generate some uncontroversial blog content… Well, uncontroversial for me, anyway.

I’m not entirely sure what a “book snob” is – that would be someone who likes good books, yes? Well-written books, yes? I certainly wouldn’t recommend a crap book to someone. Well, not without mentioning that it was crap, and only if they’d asked for something that was so narrowly defined the only book I could think of happened to be a crap one… Many of the books I’ve recommended below I really can’t recommend highly enough. They should be required reading.

Science Fiction
Sf is my genre of choice, so I’m well-practiced in answering some of these questions. Most are books I’ve mentioned before, some I’ve even written about or reviewed – and I’ve linked to my review, where one exists.

If I were to recommend a science fiction book to a new genre reader, it would be: The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (my review)
If I were to recommend a science fiction book with lots of action, it would be: Against A Dark Background, Iain M Banks (my review)
If I were to recommend a science fiction book to a “book snob”, it would be: Coelestis, Paul Park (my review), or Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (my review)
If I were to recommend a science fiction book series I loved, it would be: The Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp
The last science fiction book I read that was recommended to me and I liked was: Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (my review)
The last science fiction book I read that was recommended to me and I finished but disliked was: What Lot’s Wife Saw, Ioanna Bourazopoulou (mentioned here)
The last science fiction book I read that was recommended to me and I didn’t finish was: Darkmans, Nicola Barker

Fantasy
I have a low opinion of epic fantasy, so I read very little of it – and then typically only when it’s either been recommended by someone whose opinion I value, or it was written by an author I already like. I will point out that “dislike” is probably too strong a word for my reaction to the Alan Campbell. I did quite enjoy it, but not enough to bother reading the rest of the series.

If I were to recommend a fantasy book to a new genre reader, it would be: A Princess of Roumania, Paul Park
If I were to recommend a fantasy book with lots of action, it would be: Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (mentioned here)
If I were to recommend a fantasy book to a “book snob”, it would be: Evening’s Empire, David Herter (mentioned here)
If I were to recommend a fantasy book series I loved, it would be: Isles of the Forsaken / Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (review here)
The last fantasy book I read that was recommended to me and I liked was: God Stalk, PC Hodgell (mentioned here)
The last fantasy book I read that was recommended to me and I finished but disliked was: Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell
The last fantasy book I read that was recommended to me and I didn’t finish was: King’s Dragon, Kate Elliott

Horror
I read very little horror, so most of these will be blank…

If I were to recommend a horror book to a new genre reader, it would be: The Facts of Life, Graham Joyce
If I were to recommend a horror book with lots of action, it would be:
If I were to recommend a horror book to a “book snob”, it would be: Viator, Lucius Shepard, or X,Y, Michael Blumlein
If I were to recommend a horror book series I loved, it would be:
The last horror book I read that was recommended to me and I liked was:
The last horror book I read that was recommended to me and I finished but disliked was:
The last horror book I read that was recommended to me and I didn’t finish was:


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2014, best of the half-year

We’re halfway through 2014, which is a year, I believe, of no prior literary, cinematic or even science-fictional significance. No matter, I have certainly consumed some significant literature, cinema and music for the first time during 2014, or at least during this first half of the twelve-month. As usual, there’s a top five and a paragraph of honourable mentions for each.

Et voilà!

BOOKS
1 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) I nominated this for the Hugo, but since it features no spaceships or dragons it was always going to be a long shot. And, what a surprise, it didn’t get a look-in. I’d never read Atkinson before – my only exposure to her work was the BBC Jackson Brody adaptations with Jason Isaacs – so I was surprised at just how effortlessly good this book was.

2 Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) I also put this novella on my ballot, and it too never made the shortlist. The title refers to a painting, painted by one of Park’s relatives, which may or may not show an encounter with extraterrestrials. This is an astonishingly clever piece of meta-fiction, in which Park explores his own family tree and fiction, and creates something strange and interesting. And beautifully written too.

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3 The Machine, James Smythe (2013) And a third book I read for the Hugo. And also nominated. And – yup, you guessed it – it didn’t appear on the shortlist either. Ah well, my first – and last – attempt at involving myself in the Hugo awards… I won’t make that mistake again. The Machine, however, did make it onto the Clarke Award shortlist, and was even considered by many the favourite to win. A Ballardian near-future with some sharp prose.

4 Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) I read this for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there. Zoline is best-known for her 1967 short story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, and she didn’t write much else – a further four stories, in fact. All are collected here. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the strongest sf collections around. It really should be back in print.

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5 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) This is a surprise – a book in my best of the year in its actual year of publication. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. Europe in Autumn is a pleasingly cosmopolitan near-future thriller that takes an interesting twist reminiscent of Ken MacLeod’s novels… but very different all the same. Sure to be on some shortlists next year.

Honourable mentions: Two books from my Hugo reading made it onto my top five – even if they didn’t make the award shortlist (as if) – and I’m going to give another one a mention here: Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013), a narrative poem which managed more art in its 176pp than all fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time; also very good was Olivia Manning’s last novel, The Rain Forest (1974), a somewhat Lowry-esque farce set on a small island in the Indian Ocean; from reading for SF Mistressworks, Joanna Russ’s collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984, my review here), her novel We Who are About To… (1977, my review here) and Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States (1986, my review here); and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2013), which offers a fascinating perspective on literature, history and writing about history as fiction.

Two women and three men in the top five, and five women and one man in the honourable mentions. I have made an effort in 2014 so far to maintain gender parity in my fiction reading – and, as can be seen, it does make a difference. On the other hand, there seems to be more genre fiction in my picks this year than is normally the case – over half were published explicitly as genre, and a further three published as mainstream but make use of genre conceits. Which makes a top five that is entirely genre – which I think is a first for me for a good many years.

FILMS
1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) Beautifully photographed – and if that seems common to my choices, cinema is a visual medium – but also sharply observed. However, what knocks this film from merely good to excellent is the final scene – and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.

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2 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) Scarlett Johansson guerilla-filming in Glasgow, playing the part of an alien harvesting men for some unexplained reason (in the film, that is; in the book it’s for meat). It’s the film’s refusal to annotate or explain that makes it.

3 Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) After you’ve finished marvelling how young both David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave look in this film, you begin to realise how beautifully each shot is framed. It’s perhaps not as painterly a film as Antonioni’s stunning Red Desert, and perhaps its plot boasts too many echoes of that of L’Avventura… but this is excellent stuff.

4 Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) A political thriller based on a real scandal during the 1970s, known as the Bordelhärvan scandal, involving senior politicians and under-age prostitutes. Filmed with that sort of stark Scandinavian realism that is its own commentary.

5 The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) A Japanese soldier in Burma just after WWII chooses to stay in the country as a travelling Buddhist monk, with the intention of providing a proper burial for all the soldiers killed during the fighting and whose bodies have been left to rot. What really makes this film, however, is that the rest of his company use choral singing to maintain their morale, and throughout the film they put on impromptu performances.

burmese-harp-blu-ray-cover

Honourable mentions: Upstream Colour Shane Carruth (2013, USA), is an elliptical, often beautiful, film and the complete antithesis to Hollywood mind-candy; Kin-Dza-Dza!, Georgiy Daneliya (1986, Russia), is completely bonkers but somehow manages to make its more ludicrous aspects seem completely normal in its world; Head-on Fatih Akın (2004, Germany), an intense drama about a Turkish-German couple and a marriage of convenience; Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda (1981, Poland), is based on the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard during the 1970s, and mixes real fact and fiction – Lech Wałęsa appears himself and is also played by an actor; The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA), its first half is the sort of well-photographed 1950s melodrama that really appeals to me, but it’s a shame about the film’s second half; Like Someone in Love Abbas Kiarostami (2012, France), displays Kiarostami’s typically elliptical approach to story-telling which, coupled with its realness, makes for beautiful cinema; and finally, a pair of films by Piotr Szulkin: Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom (1986, Poland), the blackest of comedies, takes a hero astronaut and subjects him to a litany of inexplicable indignities; and Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (1981, Poland), even blacker and more cynical, in which a popular TV presenter becomes first a tool of the oppressors, then a rebel, but will be remembered ever after as a collaborator.

And once again I have failed to pick a single Hollywood film – well, okay, the Negulesco is a Hollywood film, but it’s also 55 years old. So perhaps I should have said a recent Hollywood film. This doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any, just that none of them were any good.

ALBUMS
1 Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014) A new album by Insomnium on this list is hardly a surprise, but this band really is bloody good. As I’ve said before, if you look up “Finnish death/doom metal” in the dictionary, all it says is “Insomnium”.

2 Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu (2013) I actually purchased this in 2013, but too late to make that year’s best of. It’s… well, it’s a recipe that doesn’t deserve to work, but actually does so brilliantly – space rock plus black metal. Weird and intense and very very strange. It should come as no surprise to learn the band are from Finland.

Oranssi_Pazuzu-Valonielu

3 From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012) A US band that plays a similar black/folk/atmospheric metal as Agalloch, but seems a little more… metal in places. This is their first full-length album after a debut EP, and I’m looking forward to whatever they produce next.

4 The Frail Tide, Be’lakor (2007) This Australian band’s latest album made last year’s Top 5, so why not their debut this year? Their complex melodic death is enlivened with some nice acoustic passages in this. Excellent stuff.

5 Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014) Another self-release by a band that refuses to be pigeon-holed and quite happily shifts through a number of metal genres during each epic track. And they do write epic tracks.

Cormorant-Earth-Diver

Honourable mentions: 25th Anniversary of Emptiness, Demilich (2014) is a compilation of unreleased and rerecorded material from classic Finnish vocal fry register death metal band, an important document; Stone’s Reach, Be’lakor (2007), the band’s sophomore release and every bit as good as their other two, but their debut’s acoustic sections gave it the edge; The Void, Oak Pantheon (2011), is the band’s debut EP and an excellent harbinger of their later material; Restoration, Amiensus (2013), any band that manages to mix Agalloch and Woods of Ypres gets my vote; Older than History, Master of Persia (2011), Iranian death metal which makes good use of Iranian music traditions to produce something excellent.


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2014 reading diary, #4

The good news is I’m sticking to my New Year’s resolution to alternate my fiction reading between women and men writers; the bad news is that since I finished my reading for the Hugo – and what a pointless exercise that proved to be! – since then my reading’s been a bit all over the place.

ghosts-doing-the-orange-dance-hc-by-paul-park-1622-pGhosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) With a title like that, I’d expected this to be literary fantasy, something Park does really well. It actually proved to be meta-fictional literary science fiction – something Park does even better. Park looks back over the history of his family – the title refers to a painting by his relative, which may or may not depict a UFO visitation – trying to draw links between some of the stranger people in his family tree, and various strange events which may or may not have had anything to do with them. It’s impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction – Park mentions his A Princess of Roumania, for example, among many other details which feel autobiographical. The introduction by John Crowley and the afterword by Elizabeth Hand play into the same conceit. Of course, I bought the signed, limited edition… but a note on the limitation page says the signatures were “culled from other sources”. Huh? They’re not real signatures? Or is that another meta-fictional joke? Anyway, highly recommended.

astronaut-wives-clubThe Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel (2013) Read for research for Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows. This is the only book published to date on the wives of the early astronauts, although Life Magazine did run a series of articles on each of the Mercury 7 wives back in the 1960s. There is also, as far as I’m aware, only one autobiography by the wife on an astronaut – The Moon is Not Enough (1978) by Mary Irwin, wife of Apollo 15’s James B Irwin (yes, I have a copy). Having said that, several of the wives wrote or co-wrote their husbands’ biographies, such as Rocketman by Nancy Conrad (2005), Moonwalker by Charlie and Dotty Duke (1990) and Starfall by Betty Grissom (1974). The wives of the Apollo 11 astronauts also appear in First on the Moon (1970), the first book about the mission (see here). Koppel’s book is not especially insightful, and often borders on the banal, but I spotted no obvious inaccuracies, and it at least gives a more human portrayal of the astronauts than their own books do – but that’s hardly surprising, given they all had egos as big as the Moon. As far as the Apollo Quartet is concerned, The Astronaut Wives Club will be treated much like Wikipedia – a good place to start, but I’m going to have to look further afield if I want to dig deeper. All the same, it was worth reading, and I hope it’s merely the first book on a group of people who need to be written about more.

visforvengV is for Vengeance, Sue Grafton (2011) I’ve always much preferred crime novels which feature female protagonists, and my two favourite women PIs have always been VI Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone. I used to like Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books until I realised the plot of every one was exactly the same. But, Kinsey Millhone… In this one, a gangster is trying to turn legit, a process that accelerates after he meets the bored wife of a Hollywood lawyer (who has discovered her husband is having an affair with his secretary). Meanwhile, the gangster’s not-so-smart brother is causing irruptions by behaving like, well, a gangster. Millhone gets dragged into it all when she witnesses a shoplifter in action and reports her to store security, said shoplifter being part of a state-wide operation run by the aforementioned gangster. The Millhone books are framed as reports given by Millhone to her client, although the narrative is presented as your typical crime novel – including sections not in Millhone’s POV… which sort of spoils the framing conceit. But never mind. I liked this entry in the series much more than the preceding few. Dante, the gangster trying to go straight, was sympathetic; I liked the narrative of Nora, the lawyer’s wife; and the various subplots came together pleasingly at the end.

bettertoBetter to Have Loved, Judith Merril & Emily Pohl-Weary (2002) Also read for research for Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows. This is sort of Merril’s autobiography – it was compiled by Pohl-Weary from an aborted attempt by Merril to write an autobiography, her letters to various well-known sf names, and the introductions to some of her books (her collections and the anthologies she edited). Merril started out in the Futurians, an influential New-York-based group of fans in the 1940s, writing pulp fiction for hire, chiefly crime and westerns. They weren’t a very pleasant bunch in those days – at one point, they reformed the Futurians specifically to exclude one person they felt wasn’t much fun – but they were very close-knit, often kipping over for months at a time at friends’ houses. Merril was certainly outspoken, and these days she’d probably be described as “poly” – neither of which in those days endeared her much to her fellow fans and writers. Some of the gossip Merril drops in is horribly fascinating – such as, for example, when Frederik Pohl was an editor early in his career he’d buy his friends’ stories and keep 60% of the fee; or that, later, when Merril was an influential editor, writers would approach her and beg to be included in her next anthology, and they’d tell her they wouldn’t even accept a fee. Merril moved to Canada in the 1960s, and eventually took Canadian citizenship. She comes across as one of those opinionated but interesting people you’d probably dislike on meeting. Worth reading.

Dictionary_of_the_KhazarsDictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavić (1988) I’ve fancied reading this for years, so when I stumbled across a copy in a charity shop I snapped it up. But after all that… I’m not a big fan of weird fiction or magical realism – although when it’s kept low-key, I’m happy to read it. I thought Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana excellent, for example; which led me to think I might enjoy fiction by other Balkan fabulists. But this one just didn’t work for me. I thought the structure clever and interesting, and some of the stories which make up the dictionary entries were quite good. But often Pavić pushed the fantasy too far, and it spoiled it for me. The book is structured as three “dictionaries” – they’re not, they’re more like glossaries – which cover the conversion of the Khazar people to one of the Abrahamic religions. There’s a Christian dictionary, a Muslim one and a Jewish one, and each claims the Khazars converted to their religion. The dictionaries comprise biographies of important people and stories which illustrate their lives and/or their connection to the Khazars. The stories are… fantastic. Some of the details are amusing, like the person who saved up all their Tuesdays so they could use them at once; others, for me, just felt like a whimsy too far. I guess I like a lot of realism in my fantastika. Which is no doubt why I much prefer science fiction. Ah well. Back to the charity shop it goes, and I can cross Pavić off the list of authors I’ve always wanted to read.

sovietsfNew Soviet Science Fiction, Helen Saltz Jacobson, ed. (1979) I spotted this on eBay, discovered Macmillan had in the late 1970s published a short series of Soviet sf anthologies and novels, and immediately thought, ooh I can collect them. But just to see if it was worth doing so, I bought this cheap ex-library copy of New Soviet Science Fiction…. And yes, it was totally worth it. Now I’m going to have to find a decent copy to replace mine. And buy all the other books in the series too. The contents include fiction by Ilya Varshavsky, Kirill Bulychev, Dmitri Bilenkin, Gennady Gor, Vladen Bakhnov, Anatoly Dneprov, Vladimir Savchenko, Mikhail Emtsev and Eremei Parnov, and Vadim Shefner – with several of them contributing more than one piece. The Savchenko was good, a nice black comedy with a very Russian atmosphere. Some of the others feels like they’ve been translated too diligently into American English vernacular – I mean, what’s the point of reading Russian sf if it reads just like US sf? Annoyingly, the book includes no prior publication details, so I’ve no idea how old some of these stories are.

mancrazyMan Crazy, Carol Joyce Oates (1997) An author I’ve heard much about without actually ever getting around to reading. I stumbled across a copy of this book in a charity shop, so I bought it and… The narrator is a teenage girl with an absentee father and a drunken mother. She’s white trash, moving from place to place, although only within a relatively small region, eventually getting into drinks, drugs and dalliances with inappropriate men…  and eventually ending up in a biker cult. The control of voice is impressive, as is the way Oates builds up her story through a series of small vignettes (none really qualify as short stories, and some are shorter than flash fiction). But none of the cast likeable – even the man who becomes the sugar daddy of the narrator’s mother isn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart… although his fate is hardly deserved. This is a bleak novel, which I was not expecting. I’m still not sure if I really liked it.

fivelordsThe Adventures of Blake and Mortimer 18: The Oath of the Five Lords, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2012) I’ve been impressed with a couple of Sente’s scripts, more so than I have anything written by series creator Edgar P Jacobs – chiefly because Sente manages to stitch his stories into real history. And so he does in this one, and it’s particularly effective. The story is essentially a murder-mystery. The titular lords are a secret society, created decades before to safeguard a pamphlet written by TE Lawrence but which he was never allowed to publish. Someone is bumping off the lords and stealing their portion of the pamphlet. It’s up to Blake and Mortimer to learn the identity of the killer/thief before the pamphlet is all together lost and the five lords all murdered. It’s not a very complex mystery, though Sente still manages a few bits of sleight of hand with his clues. I thought this one of the better entries in the series.


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Five genre books that should be back in print

A couple of times while reading books to review on SF Mistressworks, I’ve wondered why a book is no longer in print, especially given that many inferior ones still are. A recent such review – it will appear tomorrow – had me thinking about which out-of-print books I’d like to see available once again, books that only saw one or two editions a decade or more ago. It proved a harder list – even limited to five – than I expected. For one thing, the SF Gateway has been doing an admirable job in bringing a number of books back into “print” as ebooks; some of my favourite sf novels have appeared over the last few years in the SF Masterworks series; and many authors have made their back list available as print-on-demand books or on Kindle, such as Marta Randall or Gwyneth Jones. But there are still some books that I think should be re-introduced to a twenty-first century audience:

The Wall Around Eden, Joan Sloczewski (1989). I reviewed this for SF Mistressworks (see here) and thought the book a masterclass in science fiction writing. The last edition in print was from The Women’s Press in 1991. It really deserves to be made available once more.

The Complete Short Stories of Joanna Russ, Joanna Russ. This is a cheat – there’s no such book. But if assorted male authors have had their collected short fiction published, then why not Russ? Her last collection was in 1988, and by my count she had almost seventy pieces of short fiction published. It’s long past time for a collected works.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993). Okay, so it’s one of my favourite sf novels and I also happen to think it’s one of the best sf novels ever written… But it saw only a single hardback and paperback release in the UK and US and has been out of print ever since.

The Steerswoman’s Road, Rosemary Kirstein (2003). This was an omnibus of two earlier novels, published in 1989 and 1992 (neither of which were then reprinted), but the omnibus appeared only in a single edition and has never been reprinted since. It should be – the books are excellent. See my reviews on SF Mistressworks here and here.

The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1992). This is a superior fantasy which has apparently never been reprinted since its paperback edition in 1993.

Anyone else have any genre books they’d like to see back in print?

ETA: By my count Russ had 56 stories published, plus six Alyx stories and two set in the Cthulhu mythos. All but fourteen have been collected.

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