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Reading diary 2020, #12

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Bit of a cheat this post, as two of the books are graphic novels – well, bandes dessinées. But both are from series I’ve been following. Also here is the third book of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, which I am no longer enjoying but I bought six of the damn things so I’ll work my way through them, FFS. Who knows, they might improve. Tremain I used to read when I lived in the UAE, and I decided to start reading her again a couple of years ago. Tom Toner I’ve met several times at conventions – we’ve even been on a few panels together – but I’d never read any of his fiction, and last year his debut novel was only 99p on Kindle. Whitely has been getting a lot of critical acclaim in the UK the last few years. Her career is almost textbook… for the 1990s. A decade of short stories in genre magazines, then some novellas and novels from small presses… Next step, a major imprint. While I don’t particularly like the type of genre fiction she writes, there’s no denying she has strong writing chops, and it’s heartening to see writers can still achieve success by actually following an actual career path and not being held up as the Next Best Thing because they happen to be on-message with the fad du jour.

Real Tigers, Mick Herron (2016, UK). While the first book in this series, Slow Horses, was a good, if somewhat off-beat, spy thriller, and the second, Dead Lions, occasionally came close to jumping the shark, Real Tigers hurdles that fish with abandon. Lamb’s PA, Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, once used as a smokescreen by MI5’s biggest traitor, has been kidnapped. And it’s all because the kidnappers want access to MI5’s “grey files”, where all the nutjob stuff – UFOs, lizard Royals, Brexit’s benefits, QAnon – is recorded, and also where the current head of MI5 hid some compromising material. All this leads to a 007-like raid on an underground archive and a pitched battle between a security company’s wannabe mercenaries, actual ex-SAS kidnappers, and Jackson Lamb’s bully boys (ex-members of that MI5 department that kicks in doors, you know, just like Special Branch, except it never gets mentioned in the news because, well, Special Branch usually does it). The Herron books score well on characterisation, unfortunately all of the characters are unlikeable shits. And as the books progress, and those characters display yet more exceptional skills, then the fact they’ve been sent into the outer darkness, AKA Slough House, seems increasingly unlikely. Herron also has a really annoying writing tic, in which the prose steps back and does this hyper-observant, and yet snide, omniscient POV which speculates on what the purported observer might see. It’s over-used. I’m hoping the next book, Spook Street, will be better than this one.

The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain (2016, UK). I read several books by Tremain when I lived in Abu Dhabi, and might even have read one or two before I moved there, and found her an excellent prose stylist, perhaps more interesting at short story length than novel length. A couple of years ago, I decided to reconnect with her oeuvre. That went quite well. So it’s fortunate I didn’t pick The Gustav Sonata at that time. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s a good one. But when I look at all the admiring reviews of The Gustav Sonata, all I see is reviewers finding something in the novel that doesn’t, well, exist. The title refers to a boy who grows up in a small unimportant town in post-war Switzerland. His mother has never emotionally bonded with him, and his father lost his prestigious position as assistant police chief after helping Jews fleeing the Nazis. Gustav makes friends with a delicate and musically-talented Jewish boy whose family have recently moved to the town, an affluent family in direct contrast to the straitened circumstances now experienced by Gustav’s family. Gustav tries to provided emotional support to Anton during his piano competitions, but nerves get the better of Anton. The story then jumps back to the early years of Gustav’s parents, but since we never learn who shops his father to the authorities, there seems little point. And finally, the book leaps ahead to Gustav’s and Anton’s forties. Gustav runs a well-regarded small hotel in the town, and still burns a torch for Anton. Who is now a music teacher at a prestigious local school and has obviously never thought about Gustav in that way. Anton is offered the chance to record some piano sonatas – and in a recording studio his nervousness before audiences is irrelevant. And that’s pretty much it. Several interconnected relationships, some of which are left unrequited, some of which are temporary, but all of which have some small impact on those involved. It all felt a bit, well, inconsequential. I will admit that classical music, of whatever kind, as a motif in fiction leaves me completely cold. I know nothing about it and it does not appeal to me. And yet vast swathes of literary fiction seem to treat is as the only genre of music in existence. Where’s the literary fiction about death metal? prog? bubblegum pop? It’s either classical music or, if the author is being really edgy, punk. Disappointment.

Orbital 8: Contacts, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2019, France). This is the second book of the fourth story featuring the mixed human-Sandjarr law enforcement/troubleshooter team of Caleb and Mezoke. The Neuronomes, alien living spaceships, have been launching suicide attacks on Confederation population centres. It’s up to Mezoke and Caleb, now renegades, to uncover why… and it’s all to do with something that’s attacking the original home world of the race which turned themselves into the Neuronomes millennia previously. I like this series, chiefly because it looks good and the world-building is interesting; but the plotting leaves a little to be desired. It’s not that it’s bad, just that it’s so frantic, with a couple of panels of exposition followed by several pages of chase scenes. It makes for somewhat uneven pacing. I have no idea how many more books there’ll be in this series, but given Mezoke is lost at the end of this volume, I’m guessing at least two more…

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Volume 1, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). While Tardi has produced a number of original bandes dessinées, he has also adapted several stories and novels by French thriller writer Jean-Patrick Manchette. He has even tried adapting a couple, but given up after a few pages. This is the first volume of two which publish those complete and incomplete adaptations. The two completes here are ‘West Coast Blues’ (which was also published as a separate volume in 2009 by Fantagraphics, and which I own) and ‘Griffu’. Both are French noir, which is to say American noir but with added existentialism. In ‘Griffu’, a private detective finds himself embroiled in a plot with developers and gangsters. There’s not much in the way of wisecracks, but everything else is there. It’s surprisingly brutal. ‘West Coast Blues’ is equally brutal. An executive finds himself the target of two hitmen through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He manages to kill one, more by accident than design, then runs away from his family and hides out for months in the French Alps, before being tracked down by the surviving hitman. I’ve been picking up these Tardi volumes published by Fantagraphics as they appear, and they’re definitely worth collecting.

The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner (2015, UK). Titles are important when it comes to books, especially genre books, and I’m really not convinced The Promise of the Child works as a title for a space opera novel. The only clue here to the book’s contents – other than the fact it’s published by a genre imprint – is the cover art, which is sort of vaguely Banksian and does far more to position the novel than its title. And The Promise of the Child is indeed Banksian space opera… mashed up with Warhammer 40k. I’m still unsure what to make of it. There are three types of novel – single narrative, multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is clear, and multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is not clear. (There are more than three types of novel, of course.) In the distant future of The Promise of the Child – the 140th century – a few hundred thousand achieved immortality in the twenty-first century, and those that have survived the following twelve thousand years are now known as the Amaranthine. They rule several star systems and live in hollowed-out planets known as Vaulted Lands. There are also a confusing number of human derivatives, some of which serve the Amarathine, some of which are allied with the Amaranthine, and some of which are independent and somewhat hostile to the Amaranthine. The oldest living human is made emperor of the Amaranthine, but the current incumbent has descended into senility. The appearance of a mysterious figure who claims to be older than anyone else alive – and many of the oldest Amaranthine seem to sort of remember him – has upset the current succession. As has the invention of the Shell, or Soul Engine, a mysterious device which appears to bring people back from the dead. Several narratives run alongside each other, with no seeming connection between them, until the final set-piece, a giant battle. There’s a lot here that doesn’t quite add up – a plot that features too many reverses to easily follow, one narrative that goes from bucolic romance to racist violence without any grounding in the world-building, and an opening act of destruction that is never really justified by the story. I will say I didn’t see the final reveal coming at all, and it was an excellent twist, and clearly sets up the rest of the trilogy. And I did like the prose, which was much better than is typical of space opera… But I couldn’t get on with the Warhammer 40k aesthetics, the steampunk magic technology, and the massively high body-count. I doubt I will read the sequels.

Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK). Whitely is clearly a singular talent, and I’m happy her star is currently in the ascendant – not just because she is a female UK genre writer, a group that can never be too big, but also because she seems to have followed a fairly traditional career path. Short stories published in UK small press magazines. Then pro mags. Then books published by small presses. And now the big league. Except not really – Skein Island was published by Titan Books, but her next book, Greensmith, is due from a small press. Whitely certainly has writing chops, and I am all for writers who are known for their writing rather than their world-building. But the latter is not something Whitely will ever be praised for because she writes a sort of unsettling soft fantasy that relies on subtle changes to the real world. It doesn’t always work for me. I am, by temperament, a hard sf reader, and I value rigour in stories. Whitely does write rigorous stories but that rigour follows her own rules – and when those rules are revealed in the text, it works; and when they’re not, I find it less successful. Skein Island falls into the former category. The Fates – or rather, the single mythical figure on which they were based, called Moira – has been imprisoned, as a statue, and so controlled. Water filtered through her is given away in pubs as part of a game involving cubes of four colours – red , blue, green and yellow. Which refer to hero, sidekick, sage and villain. The four roles men play out in that pub game. But only when Moira is safely imprisoned. Once she is released, as she is, men start following their archetypal roles. It’s not an entirely convincing scenario, but Whitely gives it a viable history and is rigorous in its effects on society. Whitely is definitely a name to watch, and this novel made it clear why.

3 thoughts on “Reading diary 2020, #12

  1. I hated The Promise of the Child. I reviewed Skein Island for Interzone 285 and agree Whiteley can write.

  2. The only literary novels about different genres of music that I can think of are by Haruki Murakami (jazz and rock) and David Mitchell’s most recent offering Utopia Avenue is on about a fictional prog rock band, I believe. There are bound to be more.

    • Iain Banks’s Espedair Street was also about a rock band (the singer, at least). The only genre I can think of that has written about metal is horror. Even so, when literary fiction writes about fiction it often seems more tuned to the musical taste of the writer at the time they write the book, rather than the age of the protagonist (who is often younger), and when they do attempt to write about music that’s younger it often feels nostalgic and harkening back to the writer’s youth…

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