It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Reading diary 2018, #3

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Another half a dozen books read. So far, I’m staying on track with my reading challenge.

Calling Major Tom, David M Barnett (2017, UK). I know the author and had previously enjoyed his popCult! (see here), and Calling Major Tom sounded like it might appeal and was getting a big push from its publisher… And, okay, “feel-good” is not a term likely to draw me to a book, nor is “quirky” for that matter. But I trusted Barnett not to be horribly sentimental… and I’m glad I did. Major Tom is a British astronaut on his way to Mars. He wasn’t the original choice for the mission, he was actually a chemist working at the British Space Agency, who had been tasked with looking after the real astronaut. But the real astronaut keeled over and died of a heart attack – no one said this novel was especially plausible; it has a UK with a space programme instead of one on a headlong rush to economic catastrophe, after all – and Thomas Major, a complete misanthrope, took his place. But when his spacecraft’s communications gear goes offline after something strikes the antenna, he has to use a mobile phone to contact Earth. And he decides to use it to contact his ex-wife. Except the number now belongs to a dysfunctional family in Wigan, the Ormerods: Gladys (Nan), teenager Ellie and eight-year-old James. Their father is in prison, their mother died years before, Gladys is suffering from the onset of dementia, Ellie is holding down two jobs to bring money into the household after Nan was 419’d, and James is being bullied at school. And somehow, Major Tom, a complete curmudgeon, who wants nothing to do with people anymore, helps them turn their lives around. Calling Major Tom is, scarily, clearly “feel-good”. But it’s also funny… and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. Frankly, I’m not surprised it’s doing so well because it ticks a lot of the boxes that successful commercial fiction – that isn’t thriller fiction with plots generated by a very small shell script – ticks. Worth reading. (And yes, the central premise of a lone astronaut travelling away from Earth did remind me a little of a short story which appeared in Postscripts, but never mind…)

Love’s Body, Dancing in Time, L Timmel Duchamp (2004, USA). Duchamp is possibly best-known as the owner of Aqueduct Press, an excellent US small press which focuses on feminist genre fiction, but she is also an accomplished science fiction and fantasy writer in her own right. In fact, her ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ I would count as one of the ten best science fiction stories ever written and her Marq’ssan Cycle one of the best sf series about first contact. Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is her first collection, and contains a short story, two novelettes and two novellas. ‘Dance at the Edge’ takes place on a world where some people – or so the narrator believes – can see a border into another world, but they lose the facility when they turn adult. In ‘The Gift’, a travel writer returns to a world famous for its culture, falls in love with a famous singer, but then discovers the price he paid for his voice (think The Alteration). ‘The Apprenticeship of Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi’ is something Duchamp has done before – a well-researched, and convincing, historical story that slowly drifts into genre territory. In this case, the title character is a young woman confined to a convent to keep her away from a young man whose father wants him to marry well. This is very much a story which takes place in the world of women. The shortest peice in the collection is ‘Lord Enoch’s Revels’, which describes a party hosted by the eponymous peer, during some indefinable period, which may or may not be supernatural. The last story in Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is also the longest: ‘The Héloïse Archive’. It is worth the price of entry alone. A framing narrative describes the main text as a series of undiscovered letters between famous historical romance lovers Héloïse and Abelard, but as the letters progress so things begin to diverge from known history. It’s hardly an original idea, although showing the effects of time travellers’ interference in this secondary manner is quite original – the only other example I can think of is Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History. And like that humungous novel, Duchamp’s novella displays an impressive amount of research. The story of Héloïse and Abelard is fascinating in its own right – the real story, that is, as it unfolds here, before gradually swerving off the rails. Every time I read something by Duchamp, I’m surprised she’s not better known. I suspect the fact that much of her output these days is published through Aqueduct Press, her own press – and that’s not a criticism, by any means – which is a proudly feminist genre press, and Duchamp herself is a very feminist writer… and I’m all too sadly aware how many Neanderthals there are in sf fandom who think “feminism” is a dirty word… Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is not an especially strong collection – although that last novella is a killer – but there are works I would demand be read in Duchamp’s oeuvre – both mentioned earlier (and I’m not the only one to think so about ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ as it opens Sisters of the Revolution, an excellent anthology of feminist sf). Seek out her work – especially the Marq’ssan Cycle or a more recent collection, Never at Home (see here).

The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I’m trying to get things back on track in 2018 that I’d let slide in 2016 and 2017. Such as SF Mistressworks, which now has two new reviews up after a nine-month hiatus – Emma Bull’s Falcon (see here) and Sydney J Van Scyoc’s Darkchild (see here). And reviewing books for Interzone. The last book I reviewed for the magazine was The Sand Men, which appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue (and the author was extremely unhappy with the review, but so fucking what). Anyway, it had always been my intention to return to reviewing for the magazine, and when I saw Simon Ings’s latest, The Smoke, was available, I thought it the perfect book to get me back into it. I’m not going to say too much about the novel here – you’ll have to buy the copy of Interzone for that – but I’ll admit I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s either bloody brilliant, or merely very good. It does so many things I’ve not seen a category sf novel do before, and it does them very effectively. I really liked Ings’s Wolves (see here) and it made my best of the year list. I suspect The Smoke will too.

The Taborin Scale, Lucius Shepard (2010, USA). I probably have this novella in The Dragon Griaule collection, but since I bought Shepard novellas as they were published (mostly by Subterranean Press, who these days seem happier publishing limited editions of best-selling genre novels – like Andy Weir’s Artemis, WTF?), so I also have The Taborin Scale as a standalone. In fact, I might well have all of the contents of The Dragon Griaule as either standalone novellas or in other collections, unless there was a story original to the collection, of course. Anyway, The Taborin Scale… A numismatist, George Taborin, comes across a dragon scale in among a collection he bought, and travels to Teocinte, the town that has grown up beside the vast corpse of Griaule. There he consorts with a prostitute, to whom he gives the name Sylvia (not her real name). But something happens, and the two find themselves transported to another time, where Teocinte does not exist and Griaule is young and active and seems to have some purpose in drawing people to that time, although what it is remains unknowable. Taborin rescues a young girl from a group of transportees who had been abusing her, and the three eke out a precarious existence. But then Griaule dies – following the events of The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule – and Taborin and Sylvia and the girl find themselves abruptly back in Teocinte… And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure where this novella was intended to go. It felt like a story in search of a plot, spiced up by the use of footnotes, and carried on the back of earlier Griaule stories. Shepard was a bloody good writer, but he was often sloppy and some of his work often felt half-baked. He was widely-admired, and notoriously cranky, which may be why publishers accepted his stuff when it really needed another go around. And yet, having said that, Shepard’s prose was usually top-notch. It was a bit magpie-like, with a tendency to borrow styles, but it was always put together well. Which is why The Taborin Scale feels so much like a curate’s egg: a well-established prose style, a milieu Shepard had explored in other works (all based around a humungous metaphor)… but then there are the footnotes… and the general vagueness of the story. The Taborin Scale reads like a cross between an experiment and a contractual obligation. I guess I shall have to read the collection to see how it all fits together…

October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada). I came to Lowry’s fiction sort of accidentally. I knew of him, of course, and of his most famous novel, Under the Volcano; but I’d never read him, nor had any real desire to do so. But after my father died, my mother was clearing out some stuff, including a collection of Penguin paperbacks my dad had bought in the late 1960s (the receipts were still in the books), and which included, among many other authors, three books by Lowry. I took about two dozen of the paperbacks, including the Lowrys, and the first of the Lowrys I read was his collection, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. I was hugely impressed by the novella, ‘Through the Panama’. So I read the other two paperbacks, Ultramarine (see here) and Under the Volcano (see here). And then I wanted to read more… So I started collecting first editions of his books. And I have now read them all. October Ferry to Gabriola was his last, not published until thirteen years after his death. (In fact, only Ultramarine and Under the Volcano, and some of the contents of his collection, were published during his lifetime.) Ethan Llewellyn and his wife, Jacqueline, have been evicted from their shack on the Eridanus river and, after some time spent in Vancouver, have chosen to head for the small island of Gabriola to buy an advertised property. The novel opens on the bus to the seaside town where they will catch the ferry, but pretty much heads straight into flashback, beginning with their home in Niagara-on-the-lake. But their home there burns down in a freak lightning strike. Leading to their move to Eridanus. October Ferry to Gabriola is a hit of the pure Lowry – from the plot recycling parts of Lowry’s own life, never mind parts of his other works (their neighbours in Eridanus are Sigbjørn and Primrose Wilderness, Lowry analogues in Dark is the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, ‘Through the Panama’ and a handful of stories), the long discursive sentences, the detailed self-reflective and self-analytical prose, the self-deprecating humour, and, of course, the copious amount of alcohol. This is great stuff, it’s just so good. I went slightly mad when I decided to collect Lowry, but I’ve yet to read anything by him that has caused me to question that madness. I’m only sorry I’ve run out of novels by him to read. I guess I’ll just have to start re-reading them…

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee (2017, USA). At Sledge-Lit last year, I was talking to Jeannette Ng, author of Under the Pendulum Sun, and we were discussing the novels of Georgette Heyer, and Jeannette recommended The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (she was clearly a fan as she’d decorated her nails in homage to the book). When I got home that evening, sat watching telly and having a drink or two, as you do, I found myself visiting the website of a well-known online retailer and ordering myself a copy of the book, as you, er, do… And now I have read it. Well, I complained earlier in this post that “feel-good” and “quirky” are not descriptors that draw me to a book, and there’s a lot in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue that would normally mean I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. For one, it’s YA. The narrator, Monty, is a bisexual teenager, the son of an earl. In eighteenth century England. In a novel written by an American woman. His sister, Felicity, is a bluestocking who wants to study medicine, and Percy, his best friend (for whom he’s burning a torch), is the adopted mixed parentage son of a family of Quality. The two guys are off on a Grand Tour, delivering the sister to a finishing school en route in Marseilles. In Paris, they’re invited to a party at Versailles, where Monty, who is a complete rake, upsets the the king’s ex-PM, the Duke of Bourbon, steals something from him, and then makes a complete tool of himself by running around the famous garden stark bollock naked after being caught in flagrante delicto… Except the item he stole proves to be important, especially to the Duke of Bourbon. It’s a box with a combination lock, and it contains a key to a tomb in which can be found an alchemical pancea. So Monty, Percy and Felicity are forced to go undercover and travel incognito to Barcelona to find the original owner of the box… The novel is told entirely from Monty’s point of view and he’s not at all convincing as an eighteenth-century teenager – and did they allow children out of the schoolroom before the age of twenty-one in the 1700s? The prose tries for British, but a quarter of the way in gives up, then it’s all “goddamn” this  and “goddamn” that. But pretty much everything Monty does or says results in a lecture from the other characters. Percy lectures him on his white privilege; Felicity lectures him on his male privilege; yet’s he’s bisexual and there’s little discussion of that, other than a generic condemnation by society (the author says in an afterword she researched “mollies”, but Monty doesn’t feel like a person who would be part of molly culture). The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue reads like contemporary characters in an historical setting. Lee is quite good at plotting, and she is generally good at setting the scene. But the characters do not convince. And the frequent lectures feel contemporary. When I compare a book like this to, say, William Golding’s Rites of Passage, then there’s no comparison. Golding’s novel does more, and more convincingly, in half the pages than The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. True, it doesn’t include the lectures on privilege, and there’s certainly a place for that, and I rue that fiction has to include such explicit lectures – but that says more about modern society and fandom than it does an individual novel. All told, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was not for me. The lessons it was teaching, I have been taught elsewhere (not that it isn’t an ongoing process)… which meant I looked at other elements of the story. And there, it failed. I can’t fault its objectives, but I wasn’t impressed.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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2 thoughts on “Reading diary 2018, #3

  1. I have The Smoke on pre-order, and as a huge fan of Ings’ work was very excited to read what you have to say about it here. At the very, very least his work is always incredibly interesting–some of the smarter more original SFF going on right now, at least that I have encountered thus far. I first encountered him in Wolves and have since been on a mission to read all of his work (near completed the mission, even). Really looking forward to this one arriving.

    • I remember his books back in the early 1990s, which I remember as good but similar to a lot of British sf being published at that time. But I’ve only read Wolves of his more recent work. And The Smoke, of course.

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