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Readings catch-up

And here we are, the last books I read during 2013. As usual, it’s quite a mix – some category science fiction, some literary fiction, and a handful of bandes dessinée. Make of them what you will.

exultantExultant, Stephen Baxter (2004). This is the second book of the Destiny’s Children trilogy, and I quite enjoyed the first, Coalescent (see here), so I was expecting to enjoy this one too. But… oh dear. The earlier book had two main narratives, one set in the present day and the other in Ancient Britain. Exultant is set wholly in the distant future, when humanity is at war with the Xeelee, and has been for over a thousand years. A pair of teen soldiers become involved in a series of attempts to strike a final blow against the Xeelee, and destroy the huge black hole at the heart of the galaxy, called Chandra, which the Xeelee use as a base. The novel opens with fighter pilot Pirius escaping destruction by a Xeelee nightfighter through some “timelike curve” manoeuvre which results him and his crew travelling back in time several years. This is apparently not unusual on the front line – and because Pirius disobeyed orders, he is sentenced to serve in a penal battalion. His earlier self is also punished, even though he hasn’t done anything. Er, yet. But visionary Commissary Nilis (isn’t a commissary somewhere to buy food?) rescues the “innocent” Pirius from punishment and takes him to Earth to help with his crazy schemes to strike decisively at the Xeelee. Meanwhile, time-travelled Pirius experiences life as a ground trooper in the war against the Xeelee. This is science  fiction as boy’s own adventure, with a side-order of Big Idea cosmology. Baxter leaves his story for chapters at a time to explain how the universe began – and, in the process, created races like the Xeelee. The characters are drawn with the broadest of strokes – Nilis is a stereotypical dotty old professor, even down to the lack of personal hygiene; a female aide is a stereotypical beautiful but cold bitch; Pirius and his girlfriend, Torec, are everyman teenagers. The way the war is prosecuted doesn’t seem at all convincing, the explanations for it and the Xeelee are dull, and the link with the preceding book is so tenuous it’s a stretch to consider this book a sequel. Exultant is sort of like distilled Baxter, but one where the distillation process has taken out all the stuff that makes most of Baxter’s works interesting. I’ll be reading the third book, Transcendent, but I’m not really looking forward to it.

Betel-thumb-300x413Betelgeuse 1: The Survivors, 2: The Caves and 3: The Other, Léo (2000 – 2005). This is the direct follow-on from Léo’s Aldebaran series, and was originally published in five volumes:  La planète, Les survivants, L’expédition, Les cavernes and L’autre. There are two more sequences, Antares, of which four of the five volumes have been published in English, and Les survivants, which currently comprises two volumes and neither of which has yet to be translated into English. Kim, one of the two teenagers who was invited to join the group of immortals in Aldebaran (see here), has spent the last few years studying on Earth. Now she’s back on Aldebaran, and is recruited to join an expedition to regain contact with a lost colony on a world orbiting Betelgeuse. On arrival at the planet, they find the colonists’ ship, but when they dock to it a computer virus destroys their ship’s systems. They descend to the surface, where they meet up with the surviving colonists – who, like on Aldebaran, have created a society in which women are second-class citizens, justified by both religion and a desperate need for population growth. But there is another group of colonists, led by the ship’s captain, who are more interested in investigating the world than subjugating women – and who the men from the first group blame for the computer virus. Kim finds herself caught between the two – the first group expect Kim to join their village and become yet another brood mare, but she’s there to discover what happened and why. It’s all tied in with the creature, the mantris, from the first series – another of its type exists on Betelgeuse, and is part of the life-cycle of the local animals known as “iums” (and who may actually be sentient). Kim learns their secret, solves the problem of the computer virus, but there is still a greater mystery to be solved. I picked up the Aldebaran series on a whim, but I must admit I’m enjoying these books. The art is good, the setting is interesting, and if Léo has a tendency to fall back on macho sexist pigs for his male villains, at least they get their just deserts. Good stuff.

unexplodedUnexploded, Alison MacLeod (2013). I saw this novel on the Booker Prize long list, and something about it seemed like it might appeal. So I bought a copy. And… well, it read a bit like a parody of your typical middle-class literary novel – a couple’s marriage slowly implodes, a child unwittingly betrays someone, which leads to a shocking end… The only difference is that the story is set in Brighton in 1940, much is made of some Brits’ admiration of Hitler (not to mention their blatant anti-semitism), and Virginia Woolf makes an appearance. The story is told chiefly from the point of view of the wife, Evelyn, who enters into an affair with a Jewish painter expelled from Nazi Germany as a “degenerate”, whom she first meets in the refugee camp – a de facto prisoner of war camp – superintended by her banker husband. Yet, for all that I enjoyed the book. MacLeod evokes her period well, the cast are beautifully-drawn, and there’s some lovely writing. If it’s all a bit obvious plot-wise, at least the narrative maintains your interest. I’m not entirely sure it belonged on Booker long list, however.

timebeingA Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013). This novel, of course, made it to the Booker short list, and it’s also one of those literary novels that makes free use of science fiction tropes. Unlike Exploded, its description didn’t especially appeal, but I stumbled across a secondhand copy on a table of books being sold for charity in, of all places, my local Wilkinson. So I bought and read it. And I thought it was very good. Perhaps comparisons with David Mitchell’s number9dream are inevitable – both are set (chiefly) in Japan, both have very chatty narrators – but I think A Tale for the Time Being is by far the better of the two books. And that’s not just because of its core conceit, or its framing narrative. It opens as the diary of a young Japanese girl, Nao, who has grown up in the US and, on the family’s return to Japan, no longer feels Japanese. She is bullied at high school, and her father can’t find a job and has tried to commit suicide. She documents her attempts to find herself  – including spending a summer with her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, whom she idolises, but also a short period spent being paid for sex by men. The diary was discovered by a writer, Ruth living on a small island off the west coast of Canada. She thinks the diary is debris from the tsunami, and tries to contact Nao, only to discover she can find no trace of her or her family. Ozeki has thrown a lot into A Tale for the Time Being – not just Japanese culture and history, but also things like the Many Worlds Hypothesis, eco-terrorism, barnacles… There are footnotes and appendices. And it all works. Both Nao and Ruth are likeable and well-drawn characters, the mishmash of tropes actually gloms together to create an interesting story, and the prose is excellent throughout. Ozeki didn’t win the Booker – it went to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (which is on the TBR) – but I would be happy to see it on the BSFA and Hugo shortlists this year.

redstationOn a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (2012) I should have picked up a copy of this at the Eastercon, and I’m not really sure why I didn’t. Anyway, I rectified that error at Fantasycon. This is well-crafted heartland science fiction set in a Vietnamese universe. The story opens with the arrival of Linh on Prosper Station, after the rebels have taken the world which she administered as magistrate. But now she’s a refugee and dependent upon the kindness of distant relatives she has previously had little or no dealings with. It also transpires that Linh had written a letter to the emperor, criticising his conduct of the war with the rebels, and a faction at the court who share her sentiments have decided to use her in a play for courtly influence. Complicating matters is the fact she’s not welcome on Prosper Station, and that the station is having trouble coping with the refugees it has taken aboard. The story was apparently inspired by The Dream of the Red Chamber (AKA The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin, one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels”, and dating from 18th century. While I’m familiar with some classical Arabic literature, I’m not with Chinese – though I might well give it a go (like I really need more books to read…). Anyway, On a Red Station, Drifting was certainly worth the cover price, and I really must catch up with the other Xuya stories.

orbital5Orbital 5: Justice, Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé (2012) The continuing adventures of the Human-Sandjarr diplomatic team comprising Caleb and Mezoke, though the last volume left them in a bad place – Caleb in a regenerative c0ma and Mezoke on trial for high treason. This is very much a continuation of the story, and quite confusing if you’ve not read – or can’t remember the plot of – the previous volumes. There’s lots of political manoeuvring going on, and it seems the Earth-based politics of earlier volumes is part of a much wider galactic conspiracy. There’s also a team of masked assassins wandering round, making matters worse. This is pretty much space opera bande dessinée, and if it feels relatively unexceptional in terms of world-building or the tropes it deploys, it at least presents a unique vision – through Pellé’s art – of its universe. On occasion it looks like it owes a little too much to media sf, especially Star Wars and Babylon 5, but the story is surprisingly twisty-turny for the subgenre and format. There’s  a sixth book, Résistance, due out in French this year, and I expect Cinebook will follow with an English edition about a year later.

krishnapurThe Siege Of Krishnapur, JG Farrell (1973) And speaking of the Booker Prize, The Siege Of Krishnapur won it in 1973. I must admit I hadn’t realised this novel was forty years old when I started reading it, but it’s moot anyway as the story is set during the Indian Rebellion in 1857. The Collector, his family, a handful of officers and men from a nearby garrison, plus the remaining English residents and visitors from the town barricade themselves in the Collector’s Residence and are besieged for four months by the rebel sepoys. As expected, the food runs out after a couple of months – leading to an auction of all the foodstuffs the survivors have been hoarding, a number of attacks by sepoys take their toll on the defending soldiers, and then there’s an outbreak of cholera. To make matters worse, there are two doctors in the Residence, one who believes cholera is caused by a miasma, and a dour Scot who is much more progressive. The two hate each other, and differ widely in their treatments to injury and illnesses. The Collector himself is a progressive sort, very much taken with the many devices he saw on display at the Great Exhibition a couple of years earlier. Despite that, he is also very Victorian… which leads to one of the book’s stranger elements: the women are treated as either precocious pets, or perfectly capable of standing alongside the men and contributing to the defence of the Residence. Often, it’s the same woman which provokes these contradictory sentiments – such as Lucy, who had been “compromised” by an officer some weeks before the Mutiny kicks off; but despite feeling almost theatrically sorry for herself since her prospects have been reduced to zero, she proves to be made of sterner, and quite manipulative, stuff, and is one of the few women to play a major part during the siege. I don’t recall why I picked up this book to read – yes, I admire Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet a great deal, but this is set a century earlier and the Victorian age doesn’t appeal to me all that much (which is one reason why I’m not a fan of steampunk). And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed The Siege Of Krishnapur and thought it very good. I think I’ll even read some more Farrell.

a-possible-life-jacket-faulksA Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks (2013) Or rather, five possible lives. The first is a young man who joins one of the many secret agent services during WWII, is captured, ends up as a trustee at a death camp but escapes, and the rest of his life is changed by his experiences in Germany – even though he returns to his pre-War career as a teacher at a boarding school. A father sells his son to a workhouse, the son prospers, buys his way out, sets himself up in business, and eventually becomes a well-to-do (if somewhat shady) business in Victorian London. A young woman in Italy a decade or so hence is obsessed with discovering the biological source of human awareness (a fascination Faulks also clearly shares, given this and his novel Human Traces). An orphaned girl in nineteenth century provincial France lives an unexceptional life looking after a family’s children. A retired rockstar discovers a new talent and nurtures her career, becoming her lover and manager, but the pressure proves too much for her. Faulks’ ideas on human awareness are interesting, but there’s not enough connective tissue between the five stories to define that idea as this book’s central conceit or even give it structure. The writing is your standard Brit-lit-fic prose, and while the settings of some stories convince, others do less so – especially the rockstar one. All in all, a pretty weak effort.

GoodbyeRobinsonCrusoeGood-bye, Robinson Crusoe, John Varley (2013). I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first stumbling across one of his short stories back in the early 1980s. A couple of those stories still remain favourites to this day, though neither are in this retrospective collection. But it was the fanboy in me who shelled out for this signed and numbered limited edition copy from Subterranean Press (who do lovely books), even though I have all but one story in other collections – and some of them in two collections. What Varley did back in the 1970s and and 1980s, he did very well – his novels from that period are still in print for good reason – and surprisingly many of his stories have withstood the test of time quite well – ‘Equinoctial’, for example, could have been written a handful of years ago. Some of the others fare less well – ‘The Unprocessed Word’ is a silly joke that probably wasn’t very funny when it was first published in 1986, and just feels quaint now. ‘Blue Champagne’ feels like a heartland sf story of its time; ‘In the Bowl’ still stands up; as does ‘Lollipop and the Tar Baby’, although a sentient black hole is a little, er, hard to swallow. In hindsight, this is a book for fans of Varley’s fiction. The most recent story dates from 1986, so it’s hardly an introduction to his current fiction (he has a new novel, Dark Lightning, out this year). If you want to see what Varley’s fiction is like, The John Varley Reader from 2004 is a better look at his career than this book, even if it’s not as attractive an object.


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The groaning floorboards

Yet more books purchased since my last book haul post. For some of them, I have an excuse – it’s research, dammit! or, it’s for SF Mistressworks; or, I read the first x books in the series, so… But some of the others: nope, sorry, no excuse, no idea why I bought them. Oh well, never mind.

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Some non-fiction: Faulks on Fiction because it’s one of the few books by him I’ve not read; Ages in Chaos from the closing down sale of my local book shop because it looked interesting; Diver is a charity shop find to go with the other books on deep sea exploration; Mission to Mars is for the space books collection and is signed; and Project Terminated because Cold War aircraft that never made it off the drawing-board or beyond prototype – such as the Avro Arrow, North American Aviation XF-108 Rapier or BAC TSR.2 – are cool.

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Some research books for Apollo Quartet 3: The Death of the USS Thresher because the bathyscaphe Trieste was used to investigate the wreck; Jerrie Cobb – Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot and Woman Into Space – is a major character; and Pilot in the Fastest Lane because once I started writing the novella I realised Jackie Cochran played a much more important role than originally envisaged.

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Some science fiction, because I do still read it, you know. A pair of SF Masterworks: Wasp, which I’m pretty sure I read years ago; and The Caltraps of Time, which is new to me. In fact, I’d never heard of Masson until this collection appeared in the SF Masterwork series, and I consider myself well-read in the genre. A pair for SF Mistressworks: Mooving Moosevan is the sequel to The Planet Dweller, which I reviewed on SF Mistressworks here; and A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories is a collection of Tuttle’s short fiction and will also be reviewed at some point.

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More science fiction. Fireflood and Other Stories for SF Mistressworks; Spin I bought at Edge-Lit 2 because I like Nina’s fiction; Boneshaker was a freebie from Edge-Lit 2 and while I’m no fan of steampunk I might give this one a go to see what all the fuss is about; and The Secret People was really difficult to find and the only reason I wanted a copy was so I could read the original version before I read the spiced-up Beacon Books’ version, The Deviates. I really must make a start on my Beacon Books reading project one of these days…

20130728dAnd finally some mainstream fiction: a short story collection from DH Lawrence, Love Among the Haystacks, though I might have read some of the contents elsewhere – I’m pretty sure I’ve read the title novella; After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is another from my local book shop’s closing down sale, picked up because M John Harrison recommended Rhys ages ago; and Kingdom of Strangers is the third in a crime series set in Jeddah and I quite enjoyed the earlier two books.

(Again, except for one small press title and a couple of OOP books all the links on this post go to Foyles.)


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The grateful mantlepiece

Something must be wrong with me. How else to explain it? It’s been over a month since my last book haul post, and look how few books I’ve bought since then. The mantlepiece, at least, is grateful, as its load was somewhat lighter as I was putting together this post. And the rate of increase in the TBR has decreased a little. You know you’re in trouble when you’re measuring the rate of change in the TBR rather than the actual number of books you own but have yet to read. So it goes.

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Some non-fiction: Spacesuit I fancied the look of, chiefly because it includes spacesuits from fiction; but we’ll see how it stacks up against the other books on the topic I own. The Astronaut Wives Club is research for Apollo Quartet 4, and it’s nice when you decide on a topic to write about and someone then goes and publishes a factual work on that very subject. DH Lawrence: Triumph to Exile 1912 – 1922 is the second volume of a three-volume biography of the writer and belonged to my father. I have the first, but now I’m going to have to see if I can get hold of a hardback edition of the third book.

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Haynes have branched out from car owners’ workshop manuals, and while I can understand them applying the same formula to various famous aircraft, such as the Avro Vulcan and Supermarine Spitfire, or even the Space Shuttle and Lunar Rover, some of the fictional “vehicles” they cover make less sense – like the U.S.S. Enterprise, the Millennium Falcon, or Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds. Still, I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare for years, so I thought the Space Fleet Operations Manual worth a go. It’s… okay. Cutaways of the various spacecraft, thumbnail sketches of the characters and alien races. There’s not much detail. Ah well. The Secret of the Swordfish, Part 1 is the fifteenth volume in the series, and there’s only a few to go before it’s all done. This is the first Blake and Mortimer story, originally published in 1950, and it shows. The artwork is Jacobs’ usual ligne claire style but the story is neither as complex nor as clever as much later volumes.

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For the collections: Murder by the Book is Eric Brown branching out into crime, and I’m looking forward to reading it (especially since I know what one of its touchstone works was). I was kindly sent an ARC of The Lowest Heaven but after reading the first story by Sophia MacDougall I decided it was worth buying the limited edition. So I did. Review to follow shortly-ish. The Quarry I bought from Waterstones, and it’s not like I was never going to buy the book in hardback. Five Autobiographies and a Fiction I bought direct from Subterranean Press. Idiot HMRC decided to charge VAT on it, even though books are exempt. I have applied for a refund but it’ll be weeks before I get it. So, of course, they did it to the next book I ordered from the US. I’ve been buying books from publishers and eBay sellers in the US for years without a problem, and then twice in one month they wrongly stiff me for VAT. Stupid HMRC are stupid.

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Some charity shop finds: Persepolis, a graphic novel about a woman growing up in Iran. I’ve been there, you know: Persepolis. It was in the early 1970s, we went on holiday to Iran, and stayed in Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran. At one point, we went to see the ruins at Persepolis. I really ought to see about digitising the cine film my father shot when we were there. Beside the Ocean of Time was a lucky find – I’ve been interested in trying something by George Mackay Brown since seeing him mentioned on, I think, Eve’s Alexandria. Before I Go To Sleep I vaguely recall being one of those literary/mainstream novels based on a sf idea from a couple of years ago. I can’t actually remember what people said about it, however. I guess I’ll find out for myself. Skin of the Soul is a Women’s Press anthology of horror stories by women writers. I wavered on this one – I mean, it’s not sf so I can’t review it for SF Mistressworks; and I’m not a huge fan of horror, anyway. But then I saw Suzy McKee Charnas and Karen Joy Fowler on the TOC, and I decided to buy it.

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Finally, two books I bought from Waterstones’ “buy one get one half price promotion”. Guess which one I got for half price: is it HHhH at £8.99 or A Possible Life at £12.99? I really wanted HHhH as I’d heard so many good things about it, but as is always the way with these promotions finding a second book proved difficult. Yes, I did want to read A Possible Life, but not enough that I’d pay near enough thirteen quid for the trade paperback. But there was nothing else that looked remotely interesting. I must have been in a good mood.


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Recent Readings

Considering I think of myself as a science fiction fan and the stories I write I classify as science fiction, I don’t seem to read that much of it – only two sf novels since my last reading round-up post. (Actually, it’s four as I read a further two for SF Mistressworks (here and here), so I’ve not mentioned them in this post.) I suspect by the end of the year, however, genre will still form more than half of my reading. [Checks spreadsheet of books read] Ah, so far this year, 57% of the books I’ve read were science fiction. Well, there you go: this last lot of books must have been an aberration. No matter.

untitledField Grey, Philip Kerr (2010) Bernie Gunther seems to have settled in Cuba after the events of If the Dead Rise Not, except things take a turn for the worse when he finds himself having to say no to either the Cuban secret police or his gangster boss. So he skips town in a boat; but is pulled over by a US Navy cutter out of Guantanamo, and once (they think) they’ve identified him, they summarily imprison him for a bit and then send him back to Germany to stand trial for war crimes. Only it transpires that what the Amis really want is his help in identifying a French war criminal who is being repatriated from the USSR, where he was a POW. Except that’s not what they really want… And this has to be the most confusingly-plotted of Kerr’s novels I’ve read, with its plots-within-plots-within-plots, er, plot. It’s excellent on detail, as usual – when Bernie spends time in a Soviet gulag, for example, it’s clear Kerr has done his research. With nine books now in the series, Kerr is building up quite a back-story for Bernie – like some of the others, Field Grey spends as much time on Bernie’s war-time exploits as it does in the 1950s when the story opens. Good stuff.

fatalThe Fatal Englishman, Sebastian Faulks (1996) I’ve now read all of Faulks’ books, except his first, A Trick of the Light, which is impossible to find, and his latest, A Possible Life (which I bought in Waterstones only this last weekend). Birdsong is obviously his best, though I did like Human Traces a lot as well. The Fatal Englishman, however, is non-fiction, and about three men who all died at a relatively young age, though their lives to that point had promised much. The first is Christopher Wood, a talented painter in the 1920s, who fell foul of opium just as he was beginning to produce his best work. Richard Hilary was a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain and was horribly burned in a crash. He underwent pioneering plastic surgery, and then wrote a book on his experiences, The Last Enemy, which made him famous. He desperately wanted to return to flying fighters, but his injuries made it difficult. He did manage to wangle a posting flying night fighters, but died in a mysterious crash some weeks later. The last of the three is Jeremy Wolfenden, son of Jack Wolfenden of the Wolfenden Report. Extremely clever, a bit of a rebel, homosexual and a heavy drinker, Wolfenden was expected to go far but got himself mixed up with the intelligence services while serving in Moscow as a journalist in the 1950s. He fled the USSR for the USA, got married and seemed to be dealing with his drinking. But it killed him at the age of 31. He never even got to see the Wolfenden Report published, which would have legalised his sexuality.

MoonstarOdysseyMoonstar Odyssey, David Gerrold (1977) This has been on my wishlist so long, I’ve forgotten why I put it there; and having now read it I’m even more mystified. The world of Satlik has been terraformed and shallow seas now cover its lunar-like landscape. The climate is maintained by a number of orbital mirrors, which also provide day and night. The inhabitants are not ordinary humans, however, but remain genderless until puberty, or “blush”, when they choose which sex they will be as an adult. Moonstar Odyssey is allegedly about Jobe, who is “different”, and while the stories and accounts which make up the novel repeatedly say as much, there’s little in there to suggest it. For a start, the plot doesn’t actually start until three-quarters of the way in, and when it does Jobe doesn’t actually do that much – she doesn’t save the planet, her family, a group of strangers, or anything. While Gerrold has built an interesting world in Satlik, he hasn’t written a story anywhere near as interesting in Moonstar Odyssey. Rather than working in its favour, its palimpsest nature leaves you waiting for much of the book for something to actually happen.

sonsSons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) I’m slowly working my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre and am continually surprised I’d not read him years ago. Perhaps knowing of him and his work from a young age – my father was a huge fan of his books, so much so he dragged my mother to see Lawrence’s shrine in Taos on a visit to the US – I heard enough about him to think his works would hold no interest for me. After all, they’re around a century old, and it’s proper literature which, like most kids, I’d only read if I was told to. I finally read Lady Chatterley’s Lover a few years ago, and loved it. So now I’m reading all of his books. Opinions are divided as to which is his best: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Women in Love or this, his third novel, Sons and Lovers. I’ve only read two of the three, so I’m unable to judge the matter; but certainly Sons and Lovers seems a more human story than Lady Chatterley’s Lover – perhaps because it isn’t simply focused on a central love triangle, but is more of a family saga (albeit focusing a lot on Paul Morrel and his relationships, especially his relationship with his mother). If The White Peacock felt a bit arbitrary and haphazard in places, Sons and Lovers is a remarkably controlled novel. While the story skips forward in uneven chunks at times, and the change in focus from eldest son William to second son Paul is a little disconcerting at first, the handling of the characters is beautifully done and the Nottingham of the time feels like a real, historical place. After finishing the book, I watched the 2003 ITV adaptation starring Sarah Lancaster as Mrs Morrel, but it was more Barbara Taylor Bradford than DH Lawrence and seemed to miss the point of the book. It also changed the story’s chronology, so that it ended on the even of World War I. I initially read Lady Chatterley’s Lover because it’s a classic of English literature, and was surprised to find I really liked it. I decided to read more of Lawrence’s works because my father was a fan and I wanted to read them for him. Having now read Sons and Lovers, I’m turning into something of a fan of Lawrence’s fiction.

UnderTheVolcanoUnder the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) I’m glad I read some of Lowry’s short fiction and Ultramarine before I read Under the Volcano. Lowry is a very autobiographical writer, and part of the fun in reading him is spotting those parts of his life he’s used before in stories. In this book, for example, some of the background of the brother, Hugh – specifically his time at sea – echoes both Lowry’s own time as a seaman and the events in Ultramarine. The plot, as is true for much of Lowry’s fiction, is relatively simple: Geoffrey Firmin used to be the British Consul in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, but has been let go because of his excessive drinking. He is, in fact, killing himself with booze. The Consul’s wife, Yvonne, had left him but she has now returned. Also visiting is Hugh, the Consul’s step-brother. It is the Day of the Dead in 1938, and the three visit the nearby town of Tomalin by bus to view the local celebrations. And then things sort of happen. Lowry is another author I discovered via my father’s book collection, and who has since become a favourite – although I admire his prose more than I do Lawrence’s. I love its discursive nature, its occasional bouts of postmodernism, the way Lowry immerses you in the character of the narrator, no matter who that narrator is. And like both DH Lawrence and Lawrence Durrell (another favourite writer), Lowry’s descriptive prose is often very beautiful, especially when describing the landscape.  Under the Volcano is considered an important book in English literature – in fact, Modern Library ranked it number 11 in their list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century (ignore the Readers’ List, which has clearly been poisoned by moronic right-wingers and Scientologists).

quetThe Quiet War, Paul McAuley (2008) I’d been looking forward to finally reading this and so about a quarter of the way in was somewhat surprised to discover that I really didn’t like it. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s very well done, and paints a convincing portrait of life on the Jovian and Saturnian moons. But, for me, The Quiet War fares badly in comparison to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, probably because it’s a far more traditional sf novel, and that’s not something I especially value in my reading at this time. I didn’t like the future McAuley was writing about, with its technological feudalism ruled by families of (pretty much) gangsters; I didn’t like that McAuley had his characters justifying that political set-up; I didn’t like that the political systems on Callisto and Ganymede and the other moons were often characterised as foolish or immoral. Having said that, I did like the technological side of McAuley’s future and thought it quite inventive. But still, it’s a novel about a war, and a war for the thinnest and most repugnant of reasons, and no amount of eyeball kicks can hide the bad taste that leaves. That the end of the story somewhat redeems it is in the book’s favour, and leaves me more likely to consider the sequel, Gardens of the Sun, than I would had The Quiet War ended a chapter or two earlier. All the same, I’d much prefer to read near-ish future novels which don’t rely on stupid wars for their narrative impetus, and which seem to recognise that people are products of their environments and that such future environments would be greatly different to the present day – and so the people living in them would be too. I don’t much see the point in extrapolating sociologically from the nineteenth century and pretending the twentieth century never happened, even if some days the last one hundred years do feel a bit like a great social experiment that has now ended…

rise_coverRise, L Annette Binder (2012) I received this as a birthday present from my sister and was a little puzzled why she’d bought it until I remembered it was on my wishlist. Then I wondered why it was on my wishlist. A small press collection of literary/fantasy stories – not my usual choice of reading material. I eventually worked out – with help – that I’d seen a review of it on Larry Nolen’s blog and it must have taken my fancy enough for me to wishlist it. And yes, it was a pretty good call. The fourteen stories in this collection hover on the edge of the fantastic. Some are slipstream, some are explicitly fantasy, and some contain no fantastic element at all. They are also very domestic. All of them are beautiful written, although Binder does have a tendency to cut things short and several of the stories seem to end somewhat abruptly. The level of observation and sharpness of detail is especially impressive. The opening story, ‘Nephilim’ is among the more fantastical and very good. ‘Shelter’ is heart-breaking, as is ‘Mourning the Departed’. Also very good is ‘Dead Languages’. Definitely worth reading.

calvinoInvisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972) A book I’d wanted to read for a long time, although I knew nothing about it. But it appears on lots of 101 Book You Must Read Before You Die and 100 Best Books of the 20th Century lists, so clearly it’s thought to be very good indeed by very many people. I eventually scored a copy on readitswapit.co.uk, bunged it on the TBR… and finally got around to reading it. It took me a day. It’s a thin book, only 148 pages and many of the pages aren’t even full. Marco Polo is at the court of Genghis Khan, and he tells him of the various cities he has visited. A framing narrative in italics comments on the interaction between the two, and the effect on Khan of Polo’s tales. The remainder of the book is organised in short chapters, often no more than half a page, in which Polo gives allusive descriptions of the cities he claims he has been to. And they really are wonderful. None of the cities are real, but they could be – and yet this is not a travelogue of an invented place(s), like Jan Morris’ Hav. Having said that, as I was reading it, I kept on thinking, this is what The City & The City should have been if only Miéville had not stuck on that silly mystery plot. I’ve no idea if Invisible Cities was an inspiration for The City & The City, but I suspect it might have been. This is a book everyone should read. Go out and buy yourself a copy.


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Some recent readings

It’s been a while since I last documented what I’ve been reading, other than the occasional book I’ve reviewed here – such as those for my reading challenge. Not every book I’ve read not previously written about recently is worth mentioning, but here are a few that are:

Roadside Picnic, Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (1972)
The edition I read was the SF Masterworks edition – that is, the original SF Masterworks edition, No 68 when they were numbered, which I think uses the 1977 translation. Gollancz are about to publish a new edition, using a new translation. This is doubly annoying because the new translation is apparently greatly superior to the old one, but since the edition I own is part of a numbered series I’m reluctant to replace it… Because while I love the central premise of Roadside Picnic, and I’m a huge fan of Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of it, I’m not sure why a Russian novel had to read like bad US pulp fiction. The story is set in an invented Commonwealth country, but reads like it’s set in the US, and a somewhat backwards area of the country at that. It is also rife with continuity errors and, I see from the Wikipedia page, that the internal chronology has also been completely garbled. I’d like to read the new translation to see how much of an improvement it really is, but for now I’ll stick to the film.

The Martians, Kim Stanley Robinson (1999)
This has been sat on my bookshelves since it was originally published in 1999, and I’ve been meaning to read it for years. But with one thing then another, and other books, it seemed to get shuffled further down the TBR. But since I needed to read up on Mars for Apollo Quartet 2, I took the opportunity of finally reading it. And I’m glad I did. The centre of the book is the novella, ‘Green Mars’, which was originally published in Asimov’s in 1985 but which I’d read in the early 1990s as one half of a Tor double (with Clarke’s ‘A Meeting with Medusa’). ‘Green Mars’ is about an expedition to climb the 22,000 ft escarpment which surrounds Mons Olympus (the diagram prefacing the novella, incidentally, has the distances all wrong: Mons Olympus is not 226 kms high, that would be stupidly huge). It’s basically a climbing story, and while Robinson succeeds in getting across the strangeness of the environment he curiously fails to mention the low gravity except in passing. Other stories in The Martians describe encounters between the two main characters of ‘Green Mars’. Some stories are alternate takes on the Mars trilogy – including one, in fact, in which the First Hundred were never sent. Some pieces read like deleted scenes from the Mars trilogy; others read like a working-out of scenes which did appear. As a companion volume to Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, The Martians does the job interestingly and well, without reading like some sort of horrible RPG supplement.

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles (1949)
I watched the Bernardo Bertolucci movie adaptation of this book, loved it, then read the book, and then watched the film again… and hated it. So much had been missed out, and the Lyalls had been reduced to comic caricatures. The film seemed to rely more on its scenery than its characters’ situation. In direct contrast to the book. The Moresbys have arrived in North Africa in the late 1940s to go “travelling”. As they journey deeper into the sub-Saharan interior, so they come further adrift from the world they have left behind. This eventually results in Port Moresby dying and his wife, Kit, falling in with some Tuaregs and being taken as a wife by one. The Sheltering Sky is neither a positive nor an especially active book. The Moresbys are jaded and languid, and even their African surroundings fail to generate any enthusiasm in them. There’s a good reason why this book is a classic. Incidentally, the book’s Arabic followed French spelling rules, which meant I had to translate each word twice – ksar, for example, is usually Romanised in English as qasr – ﻗﺼﺮ: it means “palace”.

A Usual Lunacy, DG Compton (1978)
Published by The Borgo Press in the US, although a massmarket paperback was later published by Ace. For some reason, a few of Compton’s books were never published in the UK, even though he was a British writer. But he’s not the only UK sf writer that has happened to. A Usual Lunacy is pretty much pure Compton – near-future, satirical, two-handed narrative (one male and one female viewpoint character), and based around a single idea. In this case, the idea, alluded to in the title, is a viral form of l’amour fou. The existence of which is then used in an insurrectionist plot in a somewhat totalitarian near-future UK. The story is initially presented as a court case, and only through the testimony of experts and witnesses, and then flashbacks, does it reveal that it’s all to do with an aeroplane hijacking, done in order to release a rebel leader from prison. It’s not one of Compton’s best works – the background is thin, the plot is rushed, and the central conceit seems a little arbitrary. But the characterisation is spot-on, the writing is as good as ever, and it’s still a great deal better than anything Compton’s more popular contemporaries ever produced.

August, Gerard Woodward (2001)
Woodward is a poet who has to date written four novels and a collection of short stories. August is his first novel. I forget where I saw mention of Woodward, but wherever it was it persuaded me his fiction might appeal so I kept a weather eye open for copies in charity shops… and one afternoon scored three – August, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth – for 99p each in the same shop. Having now read the first book, I’ll definitely be reading the other two. I thought at first that August was trying a bit too hard, there were a few too many adjectives, a few too many instances of precious prose… but it soon settled down and turned good. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, each summer a family from London spend three weeks camping in a field belong to a particular farm in Wales. August is the story of those holidays, and of the family, and of what happens to it, both in Wales and London. There’s some lovely writing in it and the cast are handled especially well.

Body Work, Sara Paretsky (2010)
I’ve been a big fan of Paretsky’s novels for years. The last few, however, have felt a little disappointing. This one made a desperate effort to sound relevant, with its mentions of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, but was still based around a form of performance art that felt more 1990s than twenty-first century. Admittedly, the underlying plot – US security firms in Iraq, corporations which cheat and lie to maintain profits – is very much of this century. Warshawski’s support staff continues to grow, which makes her feel more grounded a character than before, but she doesn’t quite have that sense of belonging that Grafton gives Kinsey Milnhone. Paretsky’s books are always worth reading, but Body Work didn’t quite manage the levels of anger of the preceding Fire Sale, which is a pity.

It doesn’t look like much does it? And I suppose the number of notable books I’ve read is not especially high. But along with the above, I’ve also read Blue Remembered Earth, which I plan to write about in more depth; some research for Apollo Quartet 2 – Mission to Mars, The Mars One Crew Manual, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning (that last one made my brain hurt); several books reviewed for SF Mistressworks; a terrible Bond collection by Fleming, For Your Eyes Only; The Piano Teacher for my reading challenge (see here); and a possible British sf masterwork, DF Jones, Implosion (it’s no masterwork, see here); some Sebastian Faulks, Human Traces (see here) and A Week in December; Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, see here, and Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion, reviewed on SFF Chronicles; two reviews books for Interzone; and a so-so Raymond Chandler. Of course, I’ve also been busy working on the aforementioned Apollo Quartet 2, and every time I finish a section and mark it finished, I think of something that needs layering into the prose…


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Science fiction traces

I firmly believe that a reading diet of only genre fiction is bad for you. It’s the equivalent of trying to live off junk food. For a writer, it’s even worse, perhaps even dangerous – certainly, it’s detrimental to their career. I used to break up my consumption of genre with modern literary fiction novels, though I’ve increasingly found I much prefer postwar fiction, especially British – Lawrence Durrell, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Scott, and the like. But I do still read some of the better-known modern literary fiction authors, even if their novels have proven somewhat samey in recent years.

One of those literary fiction novelists is Sebastian Faulks. I recently finished his Human Traces (2005), which is about the early years of psychiatry. Sort of. It begins in 1876, with the introduction as boys of its two main characters, Jacques Rebière in France and Thomas Midwinter in England. The two meet when in their early twenties, become great friends, qualify in medicine, and open a sanatorium in southern Austria. Later, the two disagree over the direction the nascent science of psychiatry should take, beginning a feud which only ends after the First World War.

Human Traces is historical fiction. Its characters are invented but a number of real historical figures make appearances. It is about a variety of mental conditions, their historical diagnoses, and what we now know them to be. (Most asylums in the nineteenth century, for example, were filled with syphilis victims.) But Human Traces also contains at its core a very science-fictional idea.

Some three-quarters of the way through the book, Midwinter proposes a theory to explain why some people hear voices. It is his theory that psychosis is inextricably linked to self-awareness, and that it is the advent of self-awareness which created human beings. Early humans, he contends, heard voices as a matter of routine. In a speech given at his sanatorium, he outlines his theory:

… of how man, after he had learned language, had been able to conjure instructive voices in his head; and of how, after the invention of writing and under the influence of huge population upheavals, the ability to summon such voices had become rarer. (p 497)

This theory had been inspired by a number of things – not the least of which was Midwinter himself hearing voices when younger – but it was on an expedition to Africa that it began to gel:

But how could men without consciousness – a modern sense of time, and cause and other people – have done this? Picture your shepherd far away in the hills with no sense that he is a man, no idea of time in which he can visualise himself and his situation… How does he know he must keep tending his sheep? Why does he not forget what he is meant to do – as an ape would forget? Because under the anxiety of solitude, under the pressure of fear, he releases chemicals in his brain that cause not sweating palms, or racing heart, though perhaps those as well – but the voiced instructions of his king. He hallucinates a voice that tells him what to do. (p 450)

Midwinter contents that language was not a development of self-awareness, that self-awareness did not lead to civilisation; but that language and civilisation both came into being before humanity had consciousness. It was only the development of writing which led to self-awareness. He references a number of mythologies in proof – the Ancient Greeks in conversation with their gods, God speaking to Abraham in the Bible, and so on…

It’s not a conceit which sits well as the core of a realist novel. Nor is it one which really stands up all that well to scrutiny. It’s an interesting idea, certainly, but perhaps better suited to the sort of thought experiment for which science fiction is best suited. We know that writing developed in Mesopotamia around 8000 BCE. It has been estimated that Abraham lived around 1800 BCE, and the Greek pantheon has been traced back to sixth century BCE Greece. So writing had been around for several millennia before the examples Midwinter gives to demonstrate his thesis. And for those thousands of years, if his theory is correct, humanity had not been wholly self-aware…

It doesn’t really work. The weight of history stands against it. However, it would make for an interesting creation myth for a fantasy novel; or, perhaps, first contact could be the trigger from one state to the other for an alien race in a science fiction novel. Aliens of differing degrees, or variable degrees, of self-awareness have been used in sf before – in Peter Watt’s Blindsight, the aliens are not conscious; in the GDW role-playing game 2300AD, one of the alien races increased their intelligence from normally very low levels as their fight/flight reaction.

Having said all that, there’s perhaps an interesting idea to explore at the intersection of Midwinter’s theory and the City Burners. Between 1200 and 1150 BCE, the Late Bronze Age civilisations around the Eastern Mediterranean collapsed. From what little documentary evidence that has been found, raiders from the sea – known as the Sea Peoples or the City Burners – invaded a number of city-states and destroyed them, propelling civilisation back to illiteracy. Imagine if those Sea Peoples had been Midwinter’s unconscious humans, driven by the voices in their heads to destroy those civilisations who, through the widespread use of writing, could no longer hear the voices…

There’s a novel in there somewhere, if someone wants to write it.


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One-liners

It’s been a while since I last noted here what books I’d read. Yes, I’ve given up on the readings & watchings posts, but I’d still like to record what literature I’ve consumed throughout the year. Here I shall attempt to do it in a single line per book (occasionally through the creative use of punctuation, I must admit).

A Torrent of Faces, James Blish (1967) Pleasingly detailed, somewhat dated, but a much more interesting sf novel than I’d expected.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (2005) Oof – worse than I’d expected (though I’ve heard the translation was rushed), but Blomqvist is a Gary Stu and the attempts to drag in references to the original title (Män som hatar kvinnor, Men Who Hate Women) are hamfisted to say the least.

The Immersion Book of SF, Carmelo Rafala, ed. (2010) Small press anthology of, er, science fiction; some contents better than others, though nothing stands out especially.

The Ghost, Robert Harris (2007) Blair’s biographer is murdered so pro ghost writer is drafted in and discovers something rotten in the ex-PM’s career– oh wait, it’s not Blair, it’s a made-up politician…

Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks (2008) Faulks does Fleming and makes a pretty good fist of it – also: a Caspian Sea Monster!

Diadem from the Stars, Jo Clayton (1977) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961) Some astonishingly good novellas, some not so good short stories; planning to read more Lowry.

Islands, Marta Randall (1976) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

If the Dead Rise Not, Philip Kerr (2009) Bernie Gunther in Berlin after leaving the Kripo; and decades later in Cuba – and it’s all about corruption by US mobsters over building work for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Eastmodern, Herta Hurnaus (2007) Bratislava, home to some surprisingly interesting-looking Modernist buildings; as this book amply demonstrates.

The Omcri Matrix, Jay D Blakeney (1987) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Dulcima, HE Bates (1953) I read it but I’m not sure why it was written; apparently they made a film of it too…

The Maginot Line, Rob Redman, ed., (2012) Literary paperback anthology, contains some good stories, including one by a bloke called Sales.

Goldfinger, Ian Fleming (1959). A bit like the film, but with added homophobia and sexism! – Bond turns ice-cold lesbian Pussy Galore into a warm and loving heterosexual with a good rogering; plus a half-page homophobic rant by 007.

The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

Oscar Niemeyer Buildings, Alan Weintraub (2009) Does what it says on the cover: lovely photographs of lovely buildings.

Building Brasilia, Marcel Gautherot (2010) Yet more lovely Niemeyer buildings – they should let Neimeyer design the entire world.

Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ (1980) April’s book for my reading challenge; I wrote about it here.

Girl, David Thomas (1995) Man goes into hospital but through implausible mix-up gets vaginoplasty; played for laughs, manages some sensitivity, but definitely from the male gaze so nothing learned.

The Maquisarde, Louise Marley (2002) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

Machine, Jennifer Pelland (2012) Read for review in Vector; interesting approach to the central conceit, though a little muddled in execution.

Disguise for a Dead Gentleman, Guy Compton (1964) Actually DG Compton: murder most foul at a public school; some nice-ish writing but a bit all over the place structurally.

Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott & Alexei Leonov (2004) Reviewed on A Space About Books About Space here.

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson (1972) Not a Moomin in sight, just grandma and granddaughter having fun and games among Finland’s islands; simple, elegiac.

Impact Parameter & Other Quantum Realities, Geoffrey A Landis (2001) Variable collection by Analog/Asimov’s stalwart; contains a couple of good ones, but a few are surprisingly poor given their initial publication venues.

Time Future, Maxine McArthur (1999) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Valerian 3: The Land Without Stars, Mézière & Christin (1972) English slowly catches up with famous French lightweight space opera bande dessinée series.

The Jagged Orbit, John Brunner (1969) Even in 1969, Brunner should have thought twice about this – a near-anarchic over-armed US with voluntary racial segregration; painfully, embarrassingly and datedly hip.

West Coast Blues, Jacques Tardi (2009) Bande dessinée about a man who goes on the run after being mistakenly targetted by hitman; astonishingly nihilistic.

In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield (2009) European history re-imagined with mermen, sort of; a slow start, drags even slower for the first third, then gets moving… and proved actually rather good.

The White Peacock, DH Lawrence (1911) His first novel: structurally weird and the viewpoint lacks rigour, but some lovely prose and it all feels very local to me; will definitely be reading more.

Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012) Read for review in Vector – sequel to Isles of the Forsaken (see here), and not quite the expected story; some excellent bits nonetheless, though the plot feels a little problematical.

Starship Winter, Eric Brown (2012) Third in a quartet of seasonal novellas set on the world of Chalcedony; shenanigans at an art exhibition; the weakest of the three so far.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009, Alan Moore (2012) Third and last (?) in the Century series, which sees the League sort of re-unite to defeat a stoned Antichrist.

Aliens of the Heart, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2007) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978) Published in 1978, from the characters’ ages would appear to be set in 1968, feels like it was set in 1958; Booker Prize winner, though felt far too long and flabby to me.

Starshadows, Pamela Sargent (1977) Collection of early short fiction with a patronising introduction by Terry Carr; will be reviewed on SF Mistressworks soon.

‘À Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ & Other Essays, DH Lawrence (1961) English literature’s one true Puritan wibbles on about masturbation (bad), the right sex (good), marriage (sacrosanct!) and obscenity (“moi?”) – he really was a dirty old reactionary…

Griffin’s Egg, Michael Swanwick (1990) Novella about, er, a group of astronauts stranded on the Moon after a nuclear war on Earth – not an inspiration, honest; nor anywhere as good as I’d vaguely remembered it.

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