I wish I could read as many books a year as films I watch. I did manage to complete the 150 book challenge on Goodreads last year – although I am apparently 6 books behind schedule for 2016 – but that’s not even close to 570, the number of movies I watched last year… I did try reading for 30 to 60 minutes when I got home from work, and managed to keep that up for at least a week. I really need to make it part of my daily routine. I also need to get into the habit of reading on the weekend again, too. Back when I lived in the UAE, I used to spend most of Thursday and Friday reading – in fact, it wasn’t unusual for me to catch a taxi to the Daly Community Library on a Thursday morning, take out four books… and have read two of them by that evening. Admittedly, I read quite a lot of crime and thriller novels – the library didn’t have many science fiction books – and they’re fast reads. But I also read a lot of literary fiction as well. Maybe I’m just slowing down in my old age…
Sisters of the Revolution, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (2015). I supported the kickstarter for this as it sounded like a project worth supporting and, after a period that was longer than expected, it finally arrived. And… it was worth the wait. It’s a strong and varied selection, its contents mostly new to me – around ten of the twenty-nine stories in the anthology I’d read previously. I’m amused by the back-cover blurb’s description of thr anthology as a “highly curated selection”, as if the VanderMeers put MOAR EFFORT into it than every other anthology editor. Having said that, I don’t know how many stories they read in order to make their choices. but judging by comments on Twitter, Facebook, etc, it was a hell of a lot. I don’t think every story they chose works, although that’s more a matter of personal taste – I’m not a fan of genre fiction that plays fast and loose with rigour, or indeed any mode of fiction that does, nor stories that are too allegorical or too consciously presented as fables. Which is not to say there are not some bloody good stories in Sisters of the Revolution – in fact, the opener, ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ by L Timmel Duchamp, is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time. And Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Sur’ was not only new to me but also one of the best by her I’ve ever read. James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Screwfly Solution’ remains as scarily effective as it was the day I first read it. Octavia Butler’s ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’, Kelly Barnhill’s ‘The Men Who Live in Trees’, Angela Carter’s ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, Joanna Russ’s ‘When It Changed’ and Eileen Gunn’s ‘Stable Strategies for Middle Management’ are all worth the price of admission. I’d definitely say Sisters of the Revolution is one of the strongest anthologies I’ve seen for quite a while.
Ocean Outpost, Erik Seedhouse (2011). I picked up a copy of this cheap on eBay, which is good as Springer-Praxis books are not cheap. But they are interesting. The subtitle of this one reads “The future of humans living underwater”, and it covers a variety of different methods of doing so. The first section covers diving – free-diving, technical diving and saturation diving – but while the studies on free divers is interesting, the section on rebreathers reads like a technical sales brochure. The second section is about submersibles, but covers only Mir, Alvin and Shinkai before turning into an advertisement for hydrobatic submersibles (ie, ones that “fly” underwater). Section III deals with the reasons for colonising the ocean bottom, such as mineral exploitation, and the final section is about medical intervention to allow survival underwater. It’s fascinating stuff, despite the book’s tendency to read at times like it’s quoting verbatim from technical sales material; and while it’s good on the science and engineering of the current state of the art, it’s not so good on the history – the chapters on submersibles, for example, make no mention of the Trieste or Ben Franklin. But then it is a relatively slim book, only 187 pages, including appendix, epilogue and index. Nonetheless, pleasingly detailed.
Star Hunters, Jo Clayton (1980). This is the fifth of the seven books from the nine-book Diadem series that I bought at Fantastika in Stockholm back in 2013. I’ve been slowly working my way through them for SF Mistressworks. The first couple were a bit hard to take – the series heroine is a super-special snowflake who is subjected to an almost-constant barrage of sexual violence, but there’s an abrupt swerve in tone in the fourth book and Aleytys is presented as a much more typical competent space opera protagonist with agency. Her wardrobe, if the cover art is anything to go by, doesn’t improve, however. My review of Star Hunters is here.
Louisiana Breakdown, Lucius Shepard (2003). I went through a phase several years ago of buying Lucius Shepard books. And he produced quite a few, including many short novels and novellas from small presses. Such as Louisiana Breakdown, which was originally published by Golden Gryphon. There’s is not much, to be honest, in this short novel which makes it stand out, other than Shepard’s writing. The story feels like a well-used cliché, a story that’s been told far too often about Louisiana. A musician en route from California to Florida, well, breaks down in Louisiana, just outside some small backwards town. The local cop tries to strong-arm but is stopped by the timely arrival of the town’s Big Man, descendant of the town’s founder and rich playboy. There’s also a woman who is in magic thrall to another man – although he’s not in the town itself – and she decides that the musician is the man to break her free. It’s a story that almost writes itself, and if it weren’t by Shepard I’d not have bothered going past by the first couple of pages. Even so, it’s not one of his best.
In Ballast to the White Sea, Malcolm Lowry (2014). The story goes that, after Lowry’s first novel, Ultramarine, was published, he submitted In Ballast to the White Sea, but his publisher decided not to take it. So Lowry continued to work on it. He was a notorious fiddler, forever editing and polishing his work, so it’s no real surprise he published so little. But before he could finish the next version of In Ballast to the White Sea, the wooden shack in which he and his second wife, Margerie Bonner, lived in Vancouver caught fire. The ms of In Ballast to the White Sea was almost entirely destroyed. However, a couple of years earlier, Lowry had left a copy with his mother-in-law (a copy of the earlier, rejected version, that is), but Lowry had either forgotten about it or chose not to remember its existence. In any event, he gave up on In Ballast to the White Sea and moved onto something else – and Lowry’s second novel was considered “lost”… But the ms put away for safe-keeping turned up in the 1970s and Lowry’s first wife, Jan Gabrial, set about editing it for publication (as she had done in the 1960s with Lowry’s forever-being-worked-on novella, Lunar Caustic). But In Ballast to the White Sea never saw print – until now, in this “scholarly edition” from the University of Ottawa Press. And… it’s plain it needed more work. Some chapters are entirely dialogue. The character of the captain, the father of the protagonist, Sigbjørn, doesn’t feel quite settled; and Nina, Sigbjørn’s ex-girlfriend, swoops in from nowhere, takes up a couple of intense chapters, and then vanishes. Like Ultramarine, In Ballast to the White Sea is partly autobiographical, and is based both on Lowry’s time at Cambridge and at sea – in fact, the suicide of Sigbjørn’s brother, which occurs off-stage between chapters II and IV, was based on the suicide of a friend and fellow student. And Sigbjørn’s fascination with the author of a Norwegian novel which, in broad shape, is similiar to the novel Sigbjørn is planning to write echoes Lowry’s own fascination with Skibet gaar videre (The Ship Sails On) by Nordahl Grieg, a novel he felt had “written” his life up to that point. The “A Scholarly Edition” on the cover of In Ballast to the White Sea refers to the fact the novel is copiously annotated – not just the references and allusions with which Lowry larded his prose, but also some aspects of British life and geography which may not be familiar to non-Brit readers. There’s also a couple of essays on the provenance and history of the manuscript, and on the editing undertaken by Lowry scholar Chris Ackerly. If you’re a fan of Lowry’s fiction, it’s a fascinating, perhaps even necessary, read.
Invaders, Jacob Weisman, ed. (2016). You know when lit fic writers try their hand at genre, although of course their story appears in a lit fic venue not a genre one, and everyone goes on how astonishlingly inventive it is but genre fans just shake their heads sadly because they’ve seen it all before… Well, if that ever happened, and I suspect it hasn’t done for a number of decades, there’s enough proof in Invaders to demonstrate that science fiction and fantasy are now so prevalent that an author doesn’t need to be steeped in genre from the age of thirteen in order to write good genre. Which is not say every story in Invaders works, either as lit fic or as genre fic. But the anthology sets out to prove a point, and it does that pretty well. I read the book to review for Interzone.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 122