It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Reading diary, #10

I’ve given up on writing actual full-length book reviews on this blog – you know, a post about a single book, covering it in some detail. I do that for SF Mistressworks and Interzone (and occasionally Vector). Besides, I read so widely these days, it would seem weird to review only science fiction books here, not to mention only recent science fiction novels. These reading diary posts strike me as an acceptable compromise – a couple of hundred words on every book I’ve read, irrespective of genre or year of publication – serving both to remind me of what I’ve read as well as perhaps point followers of this blog at something they might find worthwhile reading.

And after my last reading diary was almost all genre fiction, this one sees something of a return to form, with only a pair of sf books, and a third which was published as literary fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2008 (it lost out to Richard Morgan’s Black Man).

the_rainbowThe Rainbow, DH Lawrence (1915). Three books into working my way chronologically through Lawrence’s novels, and he’s yet to move outside of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire (I’ve also read the later Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which also takes place in Notts). The Rainbow follows the Brangwen family through several generations, from the 1840s through to 1905. It starts with the family patriarch before eventually settling on Ursula, who comes of age at the turn of the century, is fiercely ambitious, and ends up teaching at a local school. It’s a more structured novel than The White Peacock and Sons and Lovers, although only inasmuch as the passage of years provides a framework for the story – it still has a tendency to randomly move from one member of the family to another, and it’s not always clear where the novel’s focus lies. But Lawrence’s descriptive prose, particularly in regard to the landscape, shines; and he brings his usual detailed, if occasionally heavy-handed, eye to the emotional landscapes of his cast. I set out to work my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre because a read of Lady Chatterley’s Lover persuaded me I’d been missing out by avoiding him, and because my father was a huge Lawrence fan. The more I’ve read, the more I too have become a fan of his writing – and collecting the books is fun too, of course.

voiceoutramahA Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979). I picked this up from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon in Mariehamn – did I mention I went to a con in Finland, well, the Åland Islands to be precise, and it was excellent? – anyway, I bought this with the intention of reviewing it for SF Mistressworks. I’d come across Killough’s name in an anthology of sf by women, but I’d never read anything else by her. I started the book while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester in Helsinki Airport, and ended up finishing it before my flight was called (it was a five hour wait). And I really liked the novel. As you can no doubt tell from my review on SF Mistressworks here.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia, ed. (1973). This I also bought from Alvarfonden, and read during the flight from Helsinki, and train journey from Manchester. And I suspect it’s the worst sf anthology I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. I mean, just look at that strapline on the cover: “Can sex survive the space age?”. I’m guessing yes it will, it’ll survive a whole lot of things, like climate crash, nuclear armageddon, global economic meltdown… maybe even the heat death of the universe. There are nineteen stories, two are by women (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Miriam Allen deFord); the remainder are by a mix of well-known names (Silverberg, Sturgeon, Aldiss, Farmer), and a few that were unknown to me. The stories, on the other hand, are full of the worst of early seventies sensibilities – the Silverberg is about a young man who discovers he has mental powers and uses them to stalk women, there’s a section titled “Toujours Gay” which opens with the frankly awful ‘The World Well Lost’, another story has serial rape as the “twist”, and the Aldiss is racist and features sexual slavery. The rest are either worse, or completely unmemorable. Best avoided.

The-Cuckoos-CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (2013). According to the blurb on this book, it was a huge best-seller and then the author was revealed as JK Rowling, which is not how I remember it happening. The Cuckoo’s Calling received several positive reviews and sold modestly. Then someone at Rowling’s solicitors (I think) leaked Galbraith’s true identity, and sales shot up overnight by about 5000%. But hey, let’s rewrite history anyway and make out that it’s not Rowling’s name that sells books, that’s she still a really good writer even when no one knows it’s her. So, of course, it comes as little surprise to find The Cuckoo’s Calling is… okay. It has too many words for its story and could have done with losing 100 pages, the most interesting thing about its hero, Cormoran Strike, is his improbable name, and the whole thing feels like it was written by someone who’s a little bit out of touch. A supermodel falls to her death from her penthouse flat and the police initially rule it suicide. But the supermodel’s brother, a solicitor, thinks this is wrong and hires Strike to investigate. At the same time, a new temp has started as Strike’s secretary, and she proves to be highly competent and very much in love with the idea of being a private investigator – parts of the novel are written from her perspective. The plot moves smoothly, but it feels wordy, yet nowhere near literary enough to be literary fiction. There are a few digs at the ultra-wealthy, which feel like they’re the result of personal experience, but mostly Strike’s life seems to belong to an earlier decade. I now have a copy of the sequel, The Silkworm, but I’m not expecting it to be any better.

researchResearch, Philip Kerr (2014). John Houston is a mega-selling author, who runs an “atelier” of writers – he comes up with the stories, they bang out the actual prose… and the books are of course sold under Houston’s name. It makes him millions of dollars a year and his writers a comfortable living. If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Houston is clearly based on James Patterson. But Houston has decided to pack it all in. He wants to write something himself, to prove he has the writing chops. So he closes down his atelier and pays off his writers… Shortly afterwards, his wife is found murdered in their Monaco apartment, and Houston has done a runner. The police contact Don Irvine, the first writer to join Houston’s atelier (the two were friends and colleagues at an advertising agency), but he can shed no light on the murder. And then, as you’d expect to happen in a novel such as this, Houston contacts Irvine, pleads innocence and asks for Irvine’s help. Which he is happy to give. The novel is broken into sections, alternating between first-person narrations from Irvine’s and Houston’s point of view. And pretty soon things aren’t what Houston, Irvine or even the Monaco police thought they were. As thrillers go, there’s not much in here that hasn’t been done before. However, Kerr does a top job of satirising mega-selling authors of the likes of Patterson, their books, and the publishing industry which supports them. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

the_carhullan_armyThe Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall (2007). I picked up this in Oxfam in Micklegate, just before the York pub meet back in May. I’d been after a copy for a while, so I was pretty chuffed when I found this one. I had high hopes too of the novel, as it had been repeatedly recommended to me, but initially I wondered if it had been over-praised. It’s structured as segments of found testimony by Sister, who leaves her husband to join a women’s militia based at a remote farm. In the near-future UK of the book, the economy has crashed, the US sends aid, and an oppressive political regime is tightening its grip on an already downtrodden and poor population. Once Sister reaches Carhullan, the militia’s farm, the story picks up, and when she is recruited to the women’s army which is planning a coup on a local town, then it really moves into gear. By the end of the novel, I was much more impressed than I had been after the first dozen or so pages. On balance, definitely worth its position on the Clarke Award shortlist (and arguably better than the eventual winner).

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Retail therapy

There are many different forms of retail therapy. Some people buy shoes, some people buy clothes they wear once and then abandon in their wardrobe. I buy books, often hard-to-find secondhand books – and, yes, it may well take me years before I get around to reading them, but never mind. Here is the latest batch…

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Two books about aircraft. I pick up copies of Wings of Fame when good condition ones appear on eBay. I now have all but four of its twenty-issue run. The Handley Page Victor was one of the most iconic-looking of the Cold War bombers, and there were quite a few that looked pretty iconic. I remember seeing a simulator at some RAF exhibition many years ago. Urban Structures for the Future, on the other hand, is architecture – futurist architecture from 1971, in fact. I saw it on eBay and couldn’t resist.

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And from the air to beneath the sea. Project SEALAB is a 1966 junior book about the US Navy project to study living at the bottom of the sea, which ended in tragedy with SEALAB III. I wrote about it here. Diving for Science is, as the cover states, a history of deep submersibles, and Farming the Sea is about living, and farming of course, underwater.

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Two more installments in a pair of Cinebook series, both translated from the French. The Septimus Wave follows on from an earlier book, The Yellow “M”. Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia, however, is the first of a two-parter. They are volumes twenty and nine in their series respectively. I wrote about both of them here.

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Sisters of The Revolution I backed on kickstarter, and though it took a while to appear it looks like it was worth the wait. It’s an anthology of femininst sf by women writers, and it contains a few favourites. Hearing Voices is an anthology of fiction reprinted from Litro magazine and includes my story of Space Age fashion and Apollo astronauts, ‘The Spaceman and the Moon Girl’. The Language of Power is the fourth – but not the last, one hopes – in Kirstein’s Steerswoman series. I noticed copies were getting a bit scarce so I thought it time to pick one up.

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Despite the fancy cover design, Poseidon’s Wake is the final book of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. The Lady from Zagreb is the tenth Bernie Gunther book from Philip Kerr, who’s now churning out novels like a machine. Gilead is a signed first edtion.

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And while I’m at it – this, Gollancz, is not how you do a trilogy. Two books that match and then… seriously?


Reading diary, #6

Reading catch-up time, before It Doesn’t Have To Be Right… turns into a film blog. Now that A Prospect of War and All That Outer Space Allows are both out, I’m hoping I’ll get more reading done. I’ve managed to reduce the TBR slightly over the past couple of months, although chiefly by not buying as many books as usual. There are still way too many books for comfort sitting on my bookshelves (or piled on the floor) that I want to read.

Synners, Pat Cadigan (1991). From the SF Masterwork series. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

spidermoonSpider Moon, John Shirley (2002). I seem to have rather a lot of John Shirley novels, many of which are signed first editions from small presses, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not like he’s an amazing writer, or I’m a huge horror fan. I suspect he’s got lumped together in my mind with Lewis Shiner and Lucius Shepard, who also have had many books published by small presses, and that one or two of Shirley’s books at some point I actually did quite admire – Heatseeker, perhaps, or A Splendid Chaos. But, Spider Moon… which is not actually horror, but crime, noir possibly. The narrator is an editor for a San Francisco-based publisher, which is bought out by a big New York publishing house… and which plans to make a few changes. Another member of the firm goes postal, the narrator finds himself with the gun is his hand, and is forced to make a run for it. His son died only a few days before from a drug overdose and, determined to get revenge on the dealer, the narrator hooks up with a pair of lowlifes and the threesome go on a bit of a mini-crime spree. A quick read, and by no means a bad one… and I still don’t know why I have so many books by John Shirley.

touchTouch, Claire North (2015). I bought this because I thought The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was pretty good, and the central premise of this new novel – a being who can jump from body to body by touch and while in possession control them – sounded intriguing. Having now read it, I don’t think it’s quite as successful as North’s first novel. It’s certainly a polished piece of writing, the narrator Kepler is well-drawn, and the central conceit is well-handled… but the plot sort of gets lost along the way and eventually peters out. I reviewed the book for Interzone.

atrocityexhibitionThe Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated), JG Ballard (1969/1990). Wanting to read more Ballard is hardly a contentious ambition, and I’ve read plenty of Ballard already. The 4th Estate editions also made a nice set with their distinctive cover designs, so it was worth picking up copies. Which is what I did. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Ballard, perhaps preferring the idea of his fiction more than I did his actual fiction – which is itself quite a Ballardian attitude. He was never a great prose stylist, and he was often a better commentator on twentieth-century life than he was a novelist – what his books said was often more interesting than the stories he chose to tell. The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated) is a case in point. Half the time, Ballard zeroes in quite effectively on some weird public compulsion, turns it on its head, and the result is a biting comment on the cultural landscape. But just as often, it’s word salad, and he piles the words one upon the other and it reads like an academic work that completely misses the point of its topic. And then, over all this, like giant flashing lights and deafening klaxons, is all the “controversial stuff”, story titles like ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’. The problem with sacred cows is that no one will admit they make steaks that taste just like normal steaks. Of course, there’s also the bits and pieces of The Atrocity Exhibition (Annotated) that went on to become and/or inspire Crash, which is much the better work. But still, Ballard: always worth a read.

questThe Quest For Christa T., Christa Wolf (1968). I stumbled across this in a charity shop, and since Wolf was a name I’d come across in my search for postwar British women writers (even though she’s German), I decide to buy it. Besides, you just don’t see enough of those green Virago paperbacks in charity shops. The title character and the narrator meet while at school during World War II. They go their separate ways, but meet up again at university in the early nineteen-fifties. The book then follow them through to the nineteen-sixties. It all takes place in East Germany. The story is phrased as a commentary on Christa T by the narrator, almost as if she’s telling it to someone. It’s a style that takes some getting used to, especially in these times of immersive prose; and although it’s considered “experimental” I have to wonder if it’s not how stories were originally told before the advent of the realist novel. I can’t say I’ll be hunting down any more of Wolf’s work – although I’ll keep an eye open for green Virago paperbacks, of course – but I’m glad I read The Quest For Christa T..

Philip-Kerr-PrayerPrayer, Philip Kerr (2013). This novel reads like an idea Kerr pitched to a US network, but was turned down. There’s some solid work in it, but it’s a thin piece stretched out to novel-length. Gil Martin is a FBI agent in Houston, involved in investigating domestic terrorism. When he admits to his wife that he no longer believes in God, she leaves him and takes their young son. Meanwhile Martin is investigating a series of strange deaths of prominent atheists – all four seem like freak accidents or bizarre medical catastrophes. But the fact they’re hated by the religious right makes their deaths suspicious. Martin eventually discovers that a charismatic preacher has discovered “directed prayer” actually works, because God exists, and he’s the Old Testament God who demands unquestioning obedience, not Jesus’s wishy-washy God of love. And this preacher’s secret prayer group has been sending the fallen angel Azrael to kill their opponents. It’s all a bit flimsy, and the plot isn’t exactly twisty-turny. Kerr generally writes clever thrillers, but some of them are propped up by well-handled research rather than clever plotting, and Prayer falls into that category.

shadowdanceShadow Dance, Angela Carter (1966). This was Carter’s debut novel, and there’s effusive praise for it on the cover of my edition from Anthony Burgess. And having now read the book, Burgess’s comments don’t surprise me in the least. It’s just like a Burgess novel in many respects. The narrator Morris runs a junk shop with flighty none-too-legit Honeybuzzard (which I kept on wanting to read as Honeybadger), who is a bit of a knob. Rumour has it that the recent scar disfiguring Ghislaine’s face is Honeybuzzard’s handiwork, although he claims otherwise. Besides, Honeybuzzard now has Emily, who seems to be made of much sterner stuff. And, er, that’s about it. The prose is somewhat overwrought, and far too quick to reach for cliché, especially when Carter emphasises a point by adding on descriptive clause after descriptive clause. From what I remember of her later novels, she soon rid herself of the habit. Fortunately. But lines like “The lines of his ribs showed through the flesh like an elegant bird-cage where his trapped heart flapped its wings regularly, one, two, on the beat” should have been excised. And there are far too many mentions of rape too. Not a great novel, though Carter went on to write some great stuff.


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.


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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The floorboards are creaking

Time for another book haul post, and it’s been a good month or so book-wise. Some new books from authors whose books I like, some good bargains picked up in charity shops, and some books that look really interesting and I’m looking forward to reading… Having said that, I’m going to have to purge my collection some time soon as it’s getting a little out of hand…


Some heartland science fiction: Evening’s Empires, On the Steel Breeze and Proxima are all new this year. Navigator is from 2007, I found it cheap on eBay.


A few collections and an anthology. Jagannath: Stories I bought at Fantastika in Stockholm, Getting Out of There is from Nightjar Press (it’s signed and numbered and a bargain at £3.50; get yourself a copy), and both the women-only anthology Space of Her Own and Cliff Burns’ extremely rare first collection, Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination, were from Cold Tonnage.


The Luminaries, of course, won the Man Booker this year. The Kills and Unexploded were on the long list but didn’t make the short list. But these three seemed the most interesting to me of the listed books.


A few for the collection. The jacket-less book is Too Many Murders, and is DG Compton’s debut novel – a crime novel as by Guy Compton. These are almost impossible to find in good condition. Escape from Kathmandu is signed. The Violent Century and Prayer are both new this year.


A Tale for the Time Being was also short-listed for the Booker, I found this copy in a charity shop. Sea of Ghosts I bought new after reading Martin Petto’s review on Strange Horizons (plus it has a deep sea diver on the cover); and Ancillary Justice I bought because it’s been getting extensive positive buzz of late – deservedly so: I reviewed it here.


These three books I bought on a recent visit to Harrogate. I’ve always fancied trying Nabokov and I’m told Pale Fire is his best. Jensen and Houellebecq I pick up whenever I see copies.


Five books of Jo Clayton’s Diadem from the Stars series. I bought these at Fantastika. To be honest, they’re not great sf – I reviewed the first two books on SF Mistressworks here and here – but I’ll read them and review them anyway.


Finally, a 1970s sf novel by a woman writer I’d never heard of (bought at Fantastika) and a humungous book on writing genre I have to review for Interzone. I shall be approaching Wonderbook with a healthy scepticism, but it’s hard not to be impressed by it.

Incidentally, I make this haul 15 books by men and 13 by women, which is pretty close to parity.


Recentest readings

Time for another report from my ongoing mission to read every book I own. There is no five-year plan – actually, there is: A Five Year Plan, a thriller by Philip Kerr, which I read back in February 2005… What I mean is, there is no end in sight – in fact, it recedes further from me with each passing month. Must. Read. More. Books. (Yes, yes, I know: I could also try: Must. Buy. Fewer. Books. But don’t be silly, that’ll never happen.)

OHMSS18On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Ian Fleming (1963). This is the one where Bond gets married, and then his wife is killed soon afterwards. The woman he marries is the daughter of a Sicilian mafia boss, but she’s been to finishing school and her previous husband was a wastrel Italian count so she’s now a contessa; and, of course, she’s beautiful. And suicidal. The book opens with Bond rescuing her from a suicide attempt when she throws herself into the sea. The actual plot concerns a fiendish plan by Blofeld to destabilise the UK by destroying its agriculture. There’s a mountain-top health centre in Switzerland run by a mysterious scientist – who may or may not be Blofeld – and Bond infiltrates it in the flimsiest of disguises. He finds it populated by a number of young English women, all there ostensibly to be cured of phobias and allergies. But they’re actually being brainwashed into performing a series of tasks to poison British agriculture. When Bond meets the centre’s owner, Comte Balthazar de Bleuville, he just knows he’s Blofeld, even though he doesn’t resemble Blofeld at all. Plastic surgery, you see. Anyway, Bond foils Blofeld’s fiendish plot – the English women are caught before they can cause any damage, and British forces launch a raid on Blofeld’s health-centre but Blofeld escapes. Afterwards, Bond gets married, Blofeld attempts to kill him, and his wife dies in the attack. There’s a good sequence when Bond escapes from Blofeld’s hideaway by skiing down the mountain – bizarrely, it reads more like the cinematic Bond than Fleming’s original. The science practiced by Blofeld is completely bogus, and the only connection between the villain of this book and the villain of Thunderball is Bond’s conviction that they are one and the same man. Fleming’s treatment of Bond’s father-in-law, the Sicilian capo, is deeply racist; and it goes without saying that the women throughout the book are little more than plot tokens or adjuncts to Bond’s masculinity. This is actually one of the better Bond novels I’ve read so far, though I still don’t think they deserve their immense popularity. I’d always assumed their success was due to the films, but apparently there was a James Bond strip in the Daily Express, which ran from 1958 to 1983. While the hardback of Casino Royale apparently sold out three print-runs within thirteen months in the UK – but flopped in the US: they retitled it You Asked For It, and even renamed 007 as “Jimmy Bond” in the paperback reprint – I do wonder if it’s the newspaper strip which, by bringing the character to a much larger audience (under Beaverbrook the Daily Express had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world), really made Bond a twentieth-century cultural icon.

AMWBreathA Man Without Breath, Philip Kerr (2013). That’s me completely up-to-date on the Bernie Gunther novels, at least until a new one appears. In A Man Without Breath, Gunther has moved to the War Crimes Bureau, and is sent out to Smolensk because several buried bodies have been found in a nearby wood by German troops. The Germans suspect the bodies belong to Polish officers, killed by the Russians, who had allegedly shipped the Poles they had captured off to POW camps. The wood is Katyn Wood. When a pair of soldiers from a nearby signals detachment are found murdered in Smolensk, Gunther is asked to assist by the local field police. The more he investigates the double murder, and the circumstances surrounding it, the more he’s convinced there is some sort of conspiracy in place among the senior German officers in Smolensk. Meanwhile, other War Crimes Bureau investigators have found yet more murdered Poles buried in Katyn Wood… If Prague Fatale was a piss-take of a country house murder – including a locked room mystery! – A Man Without Breath is pure World War II behind-the-lines thriller. The plot hangs from two very real atrocities committed during the war – the Katyn Massacre, and another performed by the Germans (revealing it would constitute a spoiler, so I won’t). Kerr places Gunther firmly in the middle as all these events come to a head, and while he’s not responsible for resolving them, he is certainly the one who makes sense of them and puts the pieces together for the reader. One of the difficulties with writing historical fiction involving well-documented people and events is that everything must end up as it does in the history books. This is not Inglourious Basterds, Hitler and the Nazi bigwigs do not get gunned down before 1945. The larger events depicted in A Man Without Breath are actual history, and you can read about them on Wikipedia. The same is true of the movements of the more important figures. So when Hitler makes a flying visit to Smolensk in the novel, that’s what he actually did in the real world. Kerr does this really well. And having read science fiction for so many years, I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to fiction which includes elements I can go and look up afterwards. In fact, that’s something I try to write myself – even though what I write is science fiction…

threemarysThree Marys, Paul Park (2003). After writing four excellent science fiction novels, one of which remains my favourite sf novel of all time, Park decided to write a couple of books set in Biblical Palestine. The first was The Gospel of Corax, a sort of alternate life of Jesus, in which he wasn’t crucified but wanders eastward, dispensing magic and theosophist philosophy. Three Marys is a more historical novel and, as the title indicates, takes as its protagonists three women called Mary who each knew Jesus – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and Jesus’ mother, Mary. I’m a big fan of Park’s writing, but first century Palestine is not a place and time that especially interests me. I’ve read one book set there this year, Philip Boast’s Sion (see here), but that was quite a strange book. Park’s is far better historically-grounded, and reads much more convincingly than Boast’s did. The three title characters are also beautifully drawn. But… I don’t find Jesus interesting as either a historical or a religious figure, and I struggled to gain purchase on Three Marys despite its lovely prose. I suspect I may have to reread it one day, but for now I’d say it was a book I admired far more than I enjoyed.

kingdomKingdom of Strangers, Zoë Ferraris (2012). The third book in Ferraris’ Jeddah-set murder-mysteries. A body is found in the desert after strong winds have blown sand from a dune by a road. The body is that of a young woman, has had its hands removed and appears to be several years old. The police investigate and eighteen more bodies are found in the area. It looks like Jeddah has a serial killer on its, er, hands, and no one knew about it. This is not unexpected: given the frequent abuse and mistreatment of female expatriate maids and nannies – many of them run away and the police rarely bother to look for them. Meanwhile, the Filipina mistress of Imbrahim Zahrani, the policeman in charge of the serial killer investigation, has gone missing, and he’s worried that knowledge of his affair will leak out and torpedo his marriage and career. Forensic pathologist Katya Hijazi is also keen to get involved on the serial killer case, but most of the police officers don’t want women working on it. She has also agreed to marry her fiancé, which creates a bit of a problem as the police think she is already married (and she wouldn’t be allowed to work there if she were unmarried). The setting of Ferraris’ novels makes for interesting reading, and while the crime aspects of the plot often seem incidental to documenting the lifestyle of the Saudis, it all hangs together entertainingly. I never actually lived in Saudi myself, only on the Gulf coast, but Ferraris’ portrayal does match what I know of the country and its inhabitants. She has a group of sympathetic and well-drawn protagonists, handles her supporting cast well, and I think I’m going to continue to read the books as they’re published.

slow apocalypse_frontSlow Apocalypse, John Varley (2012). I fell in love with Varley’s short fiction when I first read some of it back in the 1980s, and his The Ophiuchi Hotline remains a favourite sf novel. I even sort of like Millennium, the film adaptation of his short story ‘Air Raid’, which he then novelised as, er, Millennium. Since 1998’s The Golden Globe (which I really must reread one of these days), I’ve bought his books in hardback on publication – he’s no longer published in the UK, so I’ve had to order them from the US. Sadly, none of his recent novels have quite matched up to those earlier works. And, unfortunately, Slow Apocalypse is more of the same. A Hollywood-based television writer, Dave Marshall, learns from a secretive ex-military contact that the US experimented with a bacteria to render enemy oil fields unusable, but that the scientist responsible turned rogue and released the bug into the wild. Marshall thinks the story is excellent material for a movie, one that will reinvigorate his stalled career. Then oil wells around the world start to explode… Soon, there’s very little petrol available, and other resources – such as food – which rely on petrol for transportation also become scarce. A huge earthquake then strikes Los Angeles, near-destroying the city, and society collapses. Marshall and family join together with their neighbours in the canyon in which they live to safeguard their houses. Because he heard the story early, Marshall has managed to stockpile plenty of supplies, but he’s afraid his neighbours may soon want to him to “share”. Also, their current redoubt is unsustainable for much longer – especially after a huge brush fire sweeps out of the hills and renders most of the city uninhabitable. The government is proving no help, and aid is virtually non-existent. So Marshall agrees to travel south with a group of close friends and colleagues, in search of somewhere sustainable to settle. It’s plain that Slow Apocalypse was written as a commercial disaster novel, and if it gives Varley’s career a boost than that’s all to the good. But. I found it really dull. Much of the book consists of Marshall – with wife or daughter – driving about LA and witnessing the damage done to it by the quake and subsequent breakdown of law and order. The whole thing reads prescriptively. There are a number of quite good action set-pieces, but they’re not enough to enliven the narrative. There’s also a Heinlein-esque mouthpiece character, but Varley has always been able to make such characters more palatable than Heinlein ever did. The plot is as predictable as a Hollywood movie, and might well follow Hollywood’s over-used three-act arc. Disappointing.

silkieThe Silkie, AE van Vogt (1969). Sometimes I wonder if something in my brain doesn’t work quite the way it should. I have very little time for Golden Age authors, but for some reason I keep on fooling myself that I have a soft spot for the works of one of them: AE van Vogt. I think his The House That Stood Still is very nearly a bona fide sf pulp classic, and some of his other novels can be entertaining in a not-quite-coherent way. But. He made his career out of the advice given in a how-to-write book, which basically said to break any narrative down into 800-word sections which must always end on a cliff-hanger. And it’s pretty clear in most of van Vogt’s fiction that when he finishes a section, he’s no real idea of what’s going to happen next. It’s often plain he’s no idea what’s going on within sections. His prose is competent at best; he mangles science, philosophy and history at will; and he has fixed-up and expanded so many of his stories, it’s impossible to say where some begin and others end. The Silkie is a fix-up and it reads like one. The book opens with a prologue, and it’s actually not that bad. It’s set in the present day in the Caribbean. A scientist and his daughter have been invited to the island of a secretive scientist who claims to have discovered immortality. Instead, the daughter meets a Silkie… a human capable of metamorphing into a seal-like creature which is equally at home underwater. And then the story completely changes, and we’re in outer space and Silkies apparently have a third form, which allows them to live, and move about, in space. There are also Variants, who are the products of Silkies and human women – all Silkies are male – but are not full Silkies. But they get written out of the story once van Vogt has finished with them. Which is pretty quickly. There’s a Variant boy who has astonishing mental powers and may be a threat to the Silkies, so the hero defeats him. Then it turns out there’s an alien attacking the Silkies, so the hero defeats it. And then it turns out there are bad Silkies who live in an asteroid inside the orbit of Mercury. So they weren’t invented by the scientist in the prologue after all. But they’re not really bad because they’re actually unknowingly under the control of a giant alien blob that’s older than the universe. But the hero defeats it. And discovers everything is all part of a plot by yet another alien race. So he defeats them… And it’s one damn thing after another, and each threat is written out of the story as soon as it’s vanquished, and its presence and/or defeat has no repercussions or ramifications on later parts of the story. The Silkie reads like the science-fictional ramblings of a drunk who has no grasp of plot, story-arc, continuity or rigour.

hull03Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear (2010). I stumbled across a copy of this in a local charity shop, and bought it because it was on the Clarke Award shortlist last year. So it must be good, right? I generally have a lot of time for the Clarke Award juries’ choices, although every now and again they pick books which to my mind don’t seem to be award-worthy. This was one of them. A man wakes on a giant spaceship, with no memory of who he is or what he is supposed to do. All he can remember is that he is a Teacher, and will be needed when the generation ship reaches its destination and begins the settlement of a new world – information he chiefly recalls from a dream fed to him while he was in cryogenic hibernation. He ends up running around the ship with a bunch of strange people – not your normal-type humans – encountering monsters and such, and eventually discovering why he was woken and what has happened to the ship. All the time I was reading this book, I was thinking: why is this spaceship so bloody huge? There’s one scene where the group enter a vast room with a catwalk across its middle and an enormous window in its floor. Why is it so big? If it’s an observation room, it doesn’t need to be so huge. It makes no sense – enormous chambers need more steel to build, more air to provide a breathable atmosphere of the required pressure, and more energy to heat. It’s stupid. The whole spaceship seemed to have been designed by a production designer for a B-movie. As, in fact, did the story. Systems aboard a generation starship come to blows over one of the mission’s objectives… monster movie in space results. I couldn’t see why Teacher specifically had been woken, why the generation ship had been designed in such a stupid manner, and by the end of the book I no longer cared. Bear has written much better than this, and this monster movie book didn’t deserve to be on the Clarke shortlist.


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