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.
Field 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.
The 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.
Moonstar 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.
Sons 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.
Under 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).
The 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, 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.
Invisible 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.