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Reading diary 2019, #2

I should do another book haul post but, well, the new books are all in boxes. And who knows when I’ll see them again… Meanwhile I’ve bought myself a Kindle and I’ve loaded it up with ebook versions of some of my recent purchases so I can actually get to read them even though they’re going straight into storage. The following half dozen books, however, were read old school, ie, paper. I’ll be taking a few paperbacks with me, of course, but space and weight is limited.

The Beekeeper of Sinjar, Dunya Mikhail (2018, Iraq). My mother lent me this and I think it was one of her friends who either recommended it or lent it to her. It is, to be honest, not usual reading material for either of us. I don’t think anyone needs to be told that ISIS, AKA Daesh, are nasty pieces of work – especially with Shemima Begum all over the UK news last month. (For the record, she’s a British citizen and has every right to return to the UK, and revoking her citizenship is disgusting, never mind illegal; but that’s the scumbag Tories for you.) The Beekeeper of Sinjar is specifically about the Daesh genocide of the Yazidis, an ethno-religious group from the region, whose monotheistic religion is distinct from the Abrahamic religions. Daesh would slaughter the men and elderly, and sell off the women at slave markets to Daesh members. A number of the Daesh described in the book were either American or Russian. The title refers to a man who still lives in the area, and helps Yazidi women escape their Daesh captors. Sometimes it’s just a matter of paying off the Daesh man holding a woman captive, other times the women have to be spirited away and smuggled across the border. The book is structured as a series of telephone conversations between US-based Mikhail and the beekeeper, during which the beekeeper often tells the stories of the women, and occasionally, men he has rescued. It’s harrowing stuff. And let’s not forget, Daesh is Blair’s and Bush’s legacy. Unfortunately, The Beekeeper of Sinjar suffers by being quite badly written. Partly it’s the nature of conversations – although the poetry excerpts add little – and the book never really gives a clear idea of what the Yazidi are (I had to look them up on Wikipedia to learn they have their own religion, for example). Certainly, the story in The Beekeeper of Sinjar needs to be told, but I think I would have preferred something more like reportage than Mikhail’s attempt to humanise events.

The Final Solution, Michael Chabon (2003, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I continue to read Chabon. I find his particular style of over-egged prose not to my taste, and as it’s as evident in The Final Solution‘s 127 pages as it is his longer works. The story is relatively simple, although it tries for cleverness – as Chabon often does – and while it doesn’t rely on an explanatory essay, like Gentleman of the Road (which, I must admit, I did enjoy; see here), the point of The Final Solution hinges on the reader realising something that’s not in the text – although the book’s title is a bloody great huge signpost. In 1944, a retired detective, who is clearly Sherlock Holmes, although he’s never named as such, is dragged into one last case to find the missing parrot belonging a mute German Jewish boy staying at a nearby vicarage. The bird’s disappearance coincides with the murder of another of the vicarage’s lodgers, and it’s surmised he was trying to steal the parrot – which has a habit of reeling off long strings of numbers in German, which many think are code – but was  himself robbed of the bird. Chabon handle his Holmes quite well, although Holmes’s irascibility often makes him more annoying than sympathetic, and his approach to the mystery make the plot anything but straightforward. Not a bad light read, but Gentleman of the Road was better.

Boneland, Alan Garner (2012, UK). This is third book in a trilogy begun with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a book I remember from my childhood as a quintessential English fantasy, completed nearly half a century after the second book, The Moon of Gomrath, was published, because Garner had grown to dislike his characters. Boneland is also not a children’s book. The protagonist is Colin, the boy from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but he has forgotten all the events of that book – in fact, he can’t remember anything that happened to him before the age of thirteen. He’s now a radio astronomer, working at Jodrell Bank, and living in a hut in a nearby wood. He’s hugely intelligent, but has problems socialising. He visits a psychotherapist, and she more or less teases him into being sociable with him. It’s a relationship that feels like to belongs in a genre novel from fifty years ago – and not a genre novel like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. There’s something of the fell of a mouthpiece character to her – certainly, she seems to carry more weight in the story than her role would indicate. Colin’s story is crosscut with that of a shaman living in the same area  thousands of years previously. Both are protecting something, although neither seem entirely sure what. Boneland is not an easy read. Even by the end, it’s not entirely clear what role each of the main trio of characters play. But the writing is really good – Garner is a master at writing about landscape – (but it’s also very talky) and though it’s only a thin novel of 149 pages, there’s a great deal in it. It probably needs a reread.

Without a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal (2013, USA). This is the third book in Kowal’s Regency fantasy series, and while – being a huge fan of Georgette Heyer and having read a number of US Regency romances – I had thought it’d take some convincing for me to accept a US-written Regency-set novel, and a genre one to boot, but I have to admit Kowal has done an excellent job on these. She has the dialogue down to a tee, and the prose is not far behind. She manages the sensibilities well enough that a British reader can find no cause to complain, and she incorporates real world history in such a way it adds to the plot. (Although I read a couple by US writer Fiona Hall, a pseudonym of Ellen Pall, back in the 1990s that did something similar and weren’t bad.) Anyway, 1816 – not 1916, as the backcover blurb claims – did indeed suffer climate abnormalities, due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 (not to be confused with Krakatoa, East of Java, which is actually west of Java, and happened in 1883). The extended winter has meant the coldmongers – who use magic to chill things, and are all children, much like sweeps, because of the perils of their occupation – can find no work, and are being blamed for the unseasonal weather. It turns out the coldmongers are planning a march to protest their poor lot, but an unscrupulous peer intends to escalate it into a full-blown rebellion so he can unseat the current prime minister (I think; I can’t check as the book has gone into storage). Protagonist Jane, and her husband David, get dragged into the plot due to a family connection and their sympathies for the coldmongers. It ends with the pair of them held in the Tower of London for treason but, of course, they can hardly be hanged as there are two books following this one. That’s probably Without a Summer‘s chief fault – the jeopardy is meaningless, because the two leads are sure to be found innocent and restored to their former position. Still, a fun read, and I plan to get the sequels.

Mission Child, Maureen F McHugh (1998, USA). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this novel. It had neither a plot nor did it need to be science fiction. And yet it was good. Janna is a teenage girl at an “appropriate technology mission” in the far north. Although the local culture resembles Inuit, the people of the region seem to be descended from northern Europeans. A local tribe wipes out the mission, and only a handful of people escape, including Janna and her husband. They trek to to another tribe, with whom they share kinship, but are never made entirely welcome. Then the tribe that attacked the mission attacks this other tribe, and again Janna and her husband escape. But he dies during the escape, and Janna makes it alone to a coastal city, where she is put in a refugee camp. She is mistaken for a man and chooses to impersonate that gender for reasons of safety, although later she decides she is transgender. Janna, now Jan, moves to another city and links up with another tribal person who’s a bit of wideboy, full of semi-legal schemes and deals. Jan gets a job as a technician, brings over a shaman from the refugee camp, and ends up as his helper when the wideboy is murdered after dealing in something high tech he stumbled across. Jan eventually falls out with the shaman and sets off travelling. He ends up on a tropical islands, whose inhabitants are descended from a mix of Indian and Chinese settlers, where he hires out as a bodyguard. But his employer is killed in a raid (this part of the book was originally published as a short story, I believe), and so Jan takes his employer’s daughter to her grandmother on another island, and ends up settling down there. He ends up helping offworlder medics when a plague strikes the islands as he is immune to the disease thanks to a medical implant he was  given back in the first chapter. For all that the novel is about the impact of high tech offworlders on the cultures of Jan’s world, there’s no good reason I could see why the novel needed to be set on another world, or even sf. Certainly it gave McHugh free rein in envisaging cultures to make her various points, but it does all feel a bit, well, arbitrary. Which is not to say Mission Child is a bad novel. Far from it. McHugh was definitely one of US science  fiction’s more interesting writers during the 1990s (she has not published anything in long-form since 2001), and I should probably give her short fiction ago (there are two collections to date, both published this century). Mission Child is a bit of a puzzler: a book that is clearly genre, but doesn’t really need to be, but works so well as genre it seems churlish to complain it didn’t have to be genre.

Brideshead Revisited*, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK). There are many who consider this the finest novel written in English literature. I can’t agree, although it is very good. But I’m not even sure it’s Waugh’s best novel. I thought Sword of Honour better, to be honest. But then, Brideshead Revisited is not a satire, and even Waugh admits he over-wrote it in places. Which is not to say the prose is not good, because even over-written Waugh is fucking classy prose, and way more impressive and readable than, say, Chabon, who I also find over-writes. But Brideshead Revisited suffers from an odd structure, which the television series simplified (and I saw the TV series long before I read the novel), and an extended chronology that covers far more time than there are chapters. It opens with Charles Ryder in uniform during WW2 finding himself back at Brideshead, the seat of the Flyte family, old Catholic aristocracy. Back in his university days, Ryder had made friends with Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son. He had become a friend of the family, but fell out with them when they tried to control Sebastian’s drinking with a strategy he felt would make things worse. (It did.) Years later, married and with children, he bumps into Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and begins an affair with her. The two decide to marry once their individual divorces go through, but the estranged father returns to the family seat to die and everything changes. The framing narrative – Ryder in WW2 – provides only a prologue and an epilogue, and the title too, of course – but the way Ryder lives his life throughout the 1920s and 1930s but the narrative only deals with his interactions with the Flyte family… not to mention the faint smell of fawnication over the aristocracy that pervades the novel, and the fascination with Catholicism (which does, to be fair, result in one of the novels’s best comic scenes), makes it all a less likeable read than it should be. That it succeeds is totally down to Waugh’s prose, even if it is more florid than usual (although I read the later edition, in which Waugh toned it down somewhat). Some of the characters are close to caricatures – especially Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche and Kurt – but Waugh handles his female characters surprisingly well. Brideshead Revisited is a definitely a book worth reading, but if you had to read a single Waugh novel I wouldn’t recommend it as the one to read. Having said that, I now want to watch the TV series all over again. And I’d like to see the 2008 film adaptation too.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 134

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Reading diary 2019, #1

I seem to be slacking on the reading from this year. My excuse is sorting all my shit out – that’s a few thousand books, for a start – before I move to Sweden… This will be the third time I’ve moved to another country, and it never gets any easier.

The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe and The Ends of the Earth, Robert Goddard (2013 – 2015, UK). I’ve been reading Goddard’s novels for years – I think I first came across them when I was living in the UAE – and found them to be light undemanding thrillers, sometimes a little formulaic, sometimes a little too implausible – but quick and easy reads. The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe and The Ends of the Earth, collectively known as the James Maxted trilogy, or the Wide World trilogy, are historical thrillers, not contemporary like his usual fare, and take place just before, during and after the peace talks in Paris which resulted in the Treaty of Versaille in 1919. The story opens when the father of James ‘Max’ Maxted, who is part of the British delegation in Paris, is found dead, seemingly by suicide after jumping from a high roof. Max smells foul play, and heads off to France to uncover the truth… which drags him into a mystery stretched over three books, and which initially seems to be about catching the ex-head of Kaiser Wilhelm’s intelligence bureau, now on the loose and with an extensive network of spies for sale to the highest bidder, before abruptly swerving halfway through the trilogy toward a family secret, located in Japan. So it all reads a bit like two stories welded together into a single trilogy. It doesn’t help that the hero is apparently killed off in book two – he isn’t really; I mean, no one writing commercial fiction would do something like that. But the two main plots sit uneasily together, and The Ways of the World has to tie itself in knots to kick off the first plot without hinting at the second. Goddard’s prose is easy to read, and his research is generally pretty good. The characters are perhaps somewhat broad-brush, but that’s hardly unexpected. But at least in this trilogy he’s managed to avoid his usual tendency to wrap up his story a bit too quickly. But if you want to read a book set in Japan in the early twentieth century, read Yukio Mishima. One for Goddard fans.

The Ninth Rain, Jen Williams (2017, UK). I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy (of the secondary world variety), and what few fantasy novels I read after the turn of the century did little to change my opinion. Grimdark is fucking horrible, and while the recent trend toward more inclusive fantasies is an excellent move, and long overdue, many of the resulting novels seem very derivative. But friends of mine are big fans of Jen Williams, so I  thought I might at least give her a go. And the good news is, there’s an interesting world on display here, and a plot that moves from start to finish without excess flab. On the other hand, the characters are all a bit stereotypical: the prettyboy playboy who’s also excellent at combat (and a super-strong vampire to boot); the slightly absent-minded curious one who’s also massively wealthy; and the underdog with special powers, which increase as the novel progresses. Eight times in the past, nasty aliens, sort of a cross between Giger’s xenomorphs and giant insects, have invaded the world, and been beaten off by the Eborans – really long-lived and good-looking and a bit decadent, so sort of like elves, but their tree-god, whose sap they lived off, died after the last invasion, so now they drink blood, so sort of like elf vampires… Anyway, said tree-god would provide a host of magical feasts to fight the invaders – these are the “rains”. It looks like the aliens might be gearing up for another invasion, but there are no Eborans to fight them, and no tree-god to provide magical warbeasts. Which the reader gradually learns as the plot takes the central trio all over the world researching the whys and wherefores of the aliens. To be honest, I really didn’t like the start of the fell-witch character’s narrative, in which women, often young girls, who exhibit the power are abducted and treated worse than slaves by an organisation that forces them to use their power to develop a popular drug. But the rest of the story made up for it. I’m not a fan of fantasy as a genre, as stated above, but I do sort of like ones that feel like science fiction, such as The Fifth Season. And The Ninth Rain. (The ordinal numbers in the titles are obviously just coincidence.) I enjoyed this book, I’ll probably even read the rest of the trilogy.

Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh (1942, UK). This was the first of Waugh’s WWII satires, published in 1942, so during the war, but, unlike Sword of Honour (see here), it’s a sequel of sorts to Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, and follows some of the characters introduced in those novels. Basil Seal, something of a reprobate, discovers a way to make money by dumping an incorrigible trio of East End kids on rural aristos as part of the evacuation programme. Another character joins the military and finds himself engaged in work of little or no use to the war effort – which, to be fair, Sword of Honour covered much better (admittedly, that book was written post-war). A week or two after finishing Put Out More Flags and I can’t honestly say I remember much of the plot. The characters are very much the same as in the earlier books, the only difference is the war, the run-up to it, and its early years. For all his faults as a human being – he was apparently a nasty piece of work – Waugh can bloody write. His characters are unsympathetic for a number of reasons: they’re the epitome of entitled British upper classes, usually incredibly stupid and thoughtless, and amazingly selfish. It’s only the fact Waugh’s prose is so enjoyable, and his eye for comedy, that make the books enjoyable.

The Girl King, Mimi Yu (2019, USA). This was a review book for Interzone. It’s hardly my first choice of reading material – see above – but the pickings were slim and the plot summary sounded like it might be worth a go. In a fantasy world clearly inspired by Chinese history, the oldest daughter of the emperor, who is very much a martial tomboy type, is passed over for the throne and instead married off to a cousin she hates. Before the ceremony takes place, she tries to change things so she’ll be seen as a better heir than her cousin – but they plan to kill her. She escapes. And hooks up with the last of a race of werewolves, except he’s not sure about his powers. And it’s all to do with a magical city hidden in the magical “Inbetween”, because the cousin wants the city’s powers for himself. And… the two protagonists, the tomboy and her sister, who turns out be a villain, are both teenage, so is this supposed to be YA? I can no longer tell the difference between YA fantasy and fantasy. I am not, I admit, well-read in the former, but those YA fantasies I have read seemed little different to the fantasies I used to read back in the 1980s and 1990s. I mean, while I never bothered with David Eddings’s novels – at least not until trying Pawn of Prophecy this century (see here), and being hugely unimpressed – I could’t help noticing that they’d been rebadged as YA not so long ago. But that may have just been a cynical marketing ploy to reach a bigger audience. The Girl King is published by Gollancz, an imprint with a lot of history in science fiction, but that means nothing as these days it seems to be mostly buying YA-friendly fantasy properties. Anyway, see the next Interzone for the full review.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133


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Reading diary 2018, #21

Another eclectic bunch of books read. Only one recent genre novel (and one old one). The rest are mainstream.

A Winter Book, Tove Jansson (1971, Finland). Jansson apparently came to adult fiction late. She was in her fifties before she wrote her first novel that wasn’t children’s fiction. She also wrote a number of short stories. A Winter Book is cobbled together from a previous collection – not translated into English, IIRC – and a number of uncollected stories. They’re grouped thematically, and many deal with childhood in some way. Except for the ones that are about old age. Those who have read other fiction by Jansson will know what to expect. She’s very good at describing  the world she knew – pretty much every story she wrote drew on her own life. So we have stories set in Finnish winters, and stories that take place among the islands during the summer. It’s all very smooth and effortless storytelling, although some stories are more interesting than others. And yet, the collection itself doesn’t exactly linger. I read it more than a month ago and I’d be hard-pressed to describe any of the stories in it. Perhaps it’s that smoothness. Worth reading, though I suspect fans will get more out of it than I did.

Marune: Alastor 993, Jack Vance (1975, USA). I’m not sure why I picked this one off the shelves for a reread, given that previous Vance rereads haven’t gone so well. But I had fond memories of his Alastor Cluster series, and if the books were going to go back into storage I might as well remind myself of those fond memories. And… Marune: Alastor 993 was a much better book than I’d remembered it. Or rather: I’d remembered it as middling Vance, but it was a better put-together narrative than Star King, which I’d remembered as good Vance. The plot is one Vance has used several times: the amnesiac who has to research his origin and background, and discovers that his amnesia was deliberately induced in order to improve his rivals’, or enemies’, lot. Of course, the book’s real charm lies in the bizarre society the amnesiac belongs to. And, of course, his experiences away from his people have given him a broader outlook, which allows him to think past his family’s customs and traditions, and so he takes his rightful place as head of the family and overcomes his rivals and the family’s enemies. Although his amnesia does get in the way at times… Vance wrote two other Alastor Clusters books: Trullion: Alastor 2262 and Wyst: Alastor 1716. I might give them a reread before they go into storage.

The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I’m a big fan of Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, which is easily one of the best first contact sf series ever written – and certainly contains one of the genre’s best-written villains in Elizabeth Weatherall – not to mention thinking Duchamp’s short story ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ is a bona fide genre classic… So any new work by her is a cause for celebration. Except, she’s not always an easy read, and not because her prose is especially hard. There are lots of things in The Waterdancer’s World to like, but I still struggled to read it. It doesn’t help that its narrative is formed from multiple journals, all from different times during the history of the world Frogmore, because some of the narratives were way more engaging than others. There are also excerpts from a “galactic encyclopedia”, which is never a good way to info dump, and in many cases the info wasn’t actually necessary. But I’m a big fan of bending and twisting forms of narrative, so I can’t begrudge Duchamp’s experimentation. Of the various narratives, the journal of Inez Gauthier, the privileged daughter of the head of Frogmore’s occupation forces, is the most interesting; but the eponymous character, who doesn’t actually appear all that often, is the most fascinating person in the novel. There’s a fierce intelligence to Duchamp’s fiction – which is surprisingly rare in science fiction, the only other examples that spring to mind are Gwyneth Jones and Samuel R Delany – but Duchamp’s fiction seems much more, well, researched than those two. In the case of The Waterdancer’s World that has the unfortunate effect of making the sf feel a bit old-fashioned – not in sensibilities, they’re thoroughly twenty-first century; but in the whole look and feel… At times, I was almost visualising sets and costumes from Out of the Unknown, a British sf TV anthology series from the 1960s. Still, it’s all good stuff. I still have Duchamp’s latest to read on the TBR.

Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh (1930, UK). My first Waugh. I hadn’t realised when I decided to work my way through Waugh’s books quite how old they were. I’d known he was writing during the 1940s and 1950s, but it seems much of his fame rests on the novels he wrote in earlier decades satirising the “bright young things” of 1930s London. I do enjoy fiction from that period, although I prefer post-war, but I have at least something to which I can compare Waugh… And the obvious candidate is Henry Green, whose fiction I like a great deal. And who Waugh himself takes a few potshots at in his novels (perhaps not in this one but certainly the one below). Waugh is generally considered one of the best novelists the UK has produced but on the strength of Vile Bodies I’d say Green was better. Vile Bodies, which is apparently a sequel to Decline and Fall (which I also have), opens with the characters crossing the Channel from France, and then getting into various upper-crust scrapes in London. One long-running joke involves the dim-witted father of the female lead, whose less-than-illustrious fiancé wants to marry her, doesn’t have enough money, so he approaches the future father-in-law several times for help. There’s also a trip to a motor race to support a race driver friend, in which an air-head aristocrat socialite finds herself taking the race driver’s place and disappearing off into the wild blue yonder out of control. It’s all very obvious and yet all very cleverly done. And well-written, if not up to Green’s standards. I’ve got most of Waugh’s oeuvre to read, thanks to my mother, and I shall work my way through them. But it’s not looking like he’ll ever become a favourite.

Sword of Honour, Evelyn Waugh (1965, UK). My second (old) Waugh – and it’s also about the Second World War (did you see what I did there?). I’d been hoping to sneak this onto my Goodreads challenge as three books, as Sword of Honour is an omnibus of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender. Except it isn’t, as Waugh rewrote the trilogy as a single novel shortly before his death. So it goes down on the challenge as a single book. Anyway… The novel charts the war experience of Guy Crouchback, scion of an old Catholic aristocratic family now fallen on hard times. He has spent the between-war years in Italy and speaks the language fluently. But he’s a bit of a wet, and the British are so thoroughly incompetent they’re incapable of taking advantage of his language skills. The nearest he gets is serving in Croatia near the end of the war. In fact, if there’s one thing that comes across in Sword of Honour it’s how useless the British were. We like to pretend we won WWII, but we didn’t. Not really. The Soviets did. And the Americans. Initially, we just fucked up big time. That’s what Dunkirk was. A major fuck-up. And even after all that, we still had a country run by upper-class twits and it took a while for the competent middle-class to get control. Reading Sword of Honour makes Brexit seem a lot more understandable – or rather, the fucking hash our government has made of Brexit. And yet Sword of Honour was meant to be a satire. It’s based partly on Waugh’s own war experiences, although he makes a Crouchback a much more likeable protagonist than Waugh himself apparently was. Because was by all accounts he was a nasty piece of work – a total snob and arrogant and a good candidate for being shot by his own men. Waugh gives Crouchback a better, if more ironic, future in his rewrite of the trilogy, but it’s still an essentially cheerful novel for all that it takes the piss mercilessly out of the British armed forces during wartime. I thought it a great deal better than Vile Bodies, not just because its subject matter I found more interesting but because it didn’t feel so overdone. Recommended.

How to be Both, Ali Smith (2014, UK). It’s probably time to accept I just don’t get on with Smith’s novels. Admittedly, I’ve only read two, but I can’t say I enjoyed either. Which is odd, because you would think her style would appeal to me. It’s copiously-researched, often turns on little known history, is written present-tense and without speech marks for dialogue… but it’s also often – at least in those books I’ve read – pretty close to stream-of-consciousness and that’s never a style I could deal with at length. It doesn’t help that the actual plot of How to be Both is wilfully obscure. I mean, yes, I grew up on genre fiction, and it privileges plot, but I like literary fiction, and that privileges, well, any number of things but plot is rarely one of them. I’ve not had the training to be fully appreciative of Smith’s fiction, even though I’ve read any number of literary authors and appreciated what they’ve tried to achieve. I suspect this will be the last novel by Smith I’ll read. She’s just not for me.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133


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Reading diary 2018, #20

I won’t be able to squeeze in one more of these posts before the end of the year, which is, er, today, although I’ve read enough books for one. But that post can wait for 2019. I’ll have enough trouble trying to pick the best five books I read in 2018 – not to mention the best five films I watched…

Inside Moebius, Part 3, Moebius (2008 – 2010, France). This is the final two volumes, in a single volume, of Moebius’s exploration of his inability to give up marijuana. I’ve no idea why Dark Horse chose to double up the original French editions, but they’ve done an excellent job in presenting them – with a useful glossary which attempts to explain some of the more obscure reference Moebius makes, not to mention some of his impenetrable-to-non-Francophones puns (although many have been deliberately transliterated to be equally punnish in English). But, in essence, it’s more of the same. As in the first two volumes, Moebius explores Desert B, encountering younger versions of himself and versions of his best-known characters. On balance, I think the first volume was the best as more things seemed to happen in it. Part 3 contains more references to Moebius’s contemporaries, but that’s entirely lost on me as my knowledge of the field is pretty much limited to science fiction bandes dessinées and what’s been translated into English… Worth it if you’re a Moebius fan.

Matryoshka, Ricardo Pinto (2018, UK). This is the third of NewCon Press’s fourth quartet of novellas – and I believe there’s another quartet due out next year, also containing, as this quartet does, a novella by Adam Roberts (is there no end to his productivity?). But this novella is by Ricardo Pinto, who is best known for his Stone Dance of the Chameleon fantasy trilogy. I have all three books, but have only read the first two. They are excellent. The third book, The Third God, I’ve been reluctant to pick up because, well, because it’s too bloody big to pick up. I bought the hardback when it was launched at an Eastercon in Bradford, it is humongous. And yet I loved the first two books. I really ought to get round to reading it. Maybe I’ll get a chance during those dark Scandinavian winter nights… Anyway, Matryoshka is completely unrelated to the Stone Dance of the Chameleon, and is perhaps best described as either science fiction masquerading as fantasy or fantasy masquerading as science fiction. The protagonist, a young man drifting about Europe after WWI, meets an enigmatic young woman in Venice and accepts her invitation to… another dimension. Where time runs faster the further you are from the portal. She persuades him to accompany her on a sailing trip to rescue her brother from a distant island where he was lost years before. When they get there, the brother is no more than a few months older. And when they return to the city, everyone else has aged decades. The concept is handled well, but this is a story which privileges the imagery and, fortunately, Pinto has the writing chops to pull it off. It feels a little like an excerpt from a longer work, or at least the world certainly deserves further exploration. This quartet is shaping up to be quite a good one, it has to be said.

The Woman Who Loved The Moon, Elizabeth A Lynn (1981, USA). I bought this at Fantasticon in Copenhagen. Someone was selling a whole bunch of UK and US sf and fantasy paperbacks. These days, I seem to have more luck finding secondhand books at Nordic cons than I do at UK cons. Good job I’m moving there, then. Or maybe not – given I have a shitload of books to sort out before I flee the country… Lynn is not a well-known name on this side of the Atlantic – she doesn’t appear to have been published in the UK since the late 1970s. Not that she appears to have written much since then – pretty much nothing between 1990 and a new fantasy novel in 2004, and nothing since. Which is a shame, as there are worst writers with much healthier careers. But then fantasy has never been about the writing, which is why so many bad writers have proven so successful in the genre. As fnatasy collections go, this is a perfectly respectable one, with, as is typical, a couple of sf stories, such as ‘The Man Who Was Pregnant’. Each story has a brief introduction, and I admit I like author’s notes in collections. Lynn never made the big time, which seems unfair given how polished the stories in this collection are. But perhaps the fact I can remember little of them a few weeks after reading the book explains why she never made it a big. A good writer, but not, it seems, of especially memorable stories.

The Books of Earthsea, Ursula K Le Guin (1968 – 2001, USA). I’d been meaning to reread the Earthsea books for years, chiefly because I suspected I would get more out of Tehanu now than I had when I first read it back in the early 1990s. I’d been considering buying a copy of the Earthsea Quartet, as it’s normally sold here in the UK, but when I saw this new omnibus, containing all six Earthsea books – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind – plus some additional material, and illustrated as well, I decided to get myself a copy. The problem with ominbuses – omnibi? omnibodes? – however, for those of us who track our reading – and this is a vitally important question – is: does it count as a single book, or do you count the individual volumes it contains? So, is The Books of Earthsea one book read, or is it six books read? The Books of Earthsea makes it a little awkward as it contains material not previously collected, but the point is still valid. I chose to record each of the six volumes on my Goodreads reading challenge, if only so I could make my 140 books read target, which I have well overshot, but I’ve marked it as a single book in my own personal record of books read. As for the contents… do I really need to describe them? The first three books were more male-centric than I’d remembered – an issue Le Guin herself was aware of, and addressed in later books and stories, although the world-building required some retconning and twisting out of shape to make it work. The Tombs of Atuan was better than I had remembered and The Farthest Shore a bit duller. Tehanu I really liked this time around. Its plot felt a little uneven, with everything seemingly wrapped up in the last few pages of the book, but that seemed like a fault with all five of the novels in the series. Tales from Earthsea was entirely new to me, and the stories were good. The Other Wind was a little too obvious in places – I mean, who thought the king and princess would not end up together? And again, the plot seemed wrapped up a little too quickly and a little easily. But these are germinal works (not seminal, obvs), and read in sequence form an important dialogue with the fantasy genre. The individual books should certainly never be read in seclusion. Just reading A Wizard of Earthsea would be completely missing the point of Earthsea. On the other hand, this is a book for people with strong arms, as it’s not a comfortable weight to read easily. And the illustrations didn’t work at all for me. I’d sooner they hadn’t been there. But it’s definitely worth getting hold of a copy of this book.

Spring Snow*, Yukio Mishima (1968, Japan). After watching Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (see here), I decided to give some of Mishima’s fiction a go, and since the Sea of Fertility was his most famous work, I bought the first book of it: Spring Snow. It’s… good. Very good. The story is set in the second decade of the twentieth century, and concerns the relationship between the son of a wealthy family and the daughter of an impoverished aristocratic family. They grew up together and their eventual pairing was considered inevitable. But he, for whatever reasons, pretends he has no feelings for her. And so she ends up affianced to a prince of the Imperial family. As a result, the two conduct an illicit affair in the weeks leading up to her marriage. Also in the story are a Thai prince and his companion, who attend the son’s school and live in his family’s guest-house. I knew nothing about Mishima’s fiction – I was aware of how he had died, however – when I started this book, and I still know little other than what I read in Spring Snow. But it’s an excellent piece of writing, and the period, and lives, it depicts are fascinating. I’m almost certain I’ll read the rest of the quartet. Recommended.

Scienceville & Other Lost Worlds, Gary Gibson (2017, UK). Gary is a friend of many years, although I see him only rarely as he lives on the other side of the planet. But I’ve bought each of his his books in hardback as they were published – except for one, I think, which was a freebie at a Fantasycon; sorry, Gary – and enjoyed those I’ve read (complaints about excessive bodycount notwithstanding). Scienceville & Other Lost Worlds is a short self-published collection, containing six stories, some of which are close to novella length. The title story refers to an invented utopia that seems to exist for many people. The other stories are mostly light science fiction – a story about prisoners in some future dystopian UK who have one of their senses removed, a story about travellers to alternate universes and a mission that nearly comes a cropper, a story about a rock star who agrees to a deal with a steep price in order to revitalise his career… It’s all polished stuff, although none stand out as much as Gary’s recent novella for NewCon Press. Having said that, there are few stories which hang around so much you remember them months later… which does sort of make it difficult to pick the best of the year. Or it would if awards were actually about the stories and not the writers, who helpfully provide “eligible works” posts and so bend everything totally out of shape. True, the field is now so big it’s impossible for a reader to make an informed decision on the “best” story of a particular year. But, FFS, voting for your pals and favourites only makes it more of a mockery. Are there no truly memorable stories during any one year? Gibson does not provide exact publication details for the stories in Scienceville & Other Lost Worlds – which he ought to have done – and not all of the contents are eligible for awards in 2019 and, much as I like Gary, I don’t think they’re especially deserving either. Good solid sf, yes; but when “good solid sf” wins awards then awards are even more broken than they are now…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133


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Reading diary 2018, #19

After last month’s all-female roster, only one woman writer this time. I’m currently also 12 books ahead of my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018, and will probably meet the target before the end of November.

Ghost Frequencies, Gary Gibson (2018, UK). This is the first of the fourth set of NewCon Press novellas, and the second quartet to have an overall title, which is “Strange Tales”. It’s as apt a description as any. The story of Ghost Frequencies is hardly new – I’m pretty sure even Dr Who has covered it – although Gibson has given it a nice twist. But, I think, mostly, the good thing about Ghost Frequencies is that it all adds up. The story neatly folds back onto itself and it all makes sense. Which is not something you can normally say of ghost stories. A project to use quantum entanglement to send messages instantly between a lab in the UK, sited in an old haunted manor house, and California, has yet to show meaningful results and is about to be closed down. Then a team of parapsychologists turn up to investigate the manor’s alleged ghost. And weird things start to happen, witnessed by the quantum project’s lead researcher. And it’s all linked to the ghost and the murder of a young woman decades before and the owner of the manor house and backer of the quantum project, a billionaire who grew up there… And it all slots together, in a way that is actually rational. It’s a neat take on the ghost story and satisfies my science fiction brain. Gibson doesn’t usually write short fiction, but this is a well-plotted and nicely-written novella, so perhaps he should try it more often.

The Lake Boy, Adam Roberts (2018, UK). The NewCon Press novellas are not numbered but I think this was the second one published from this quartet. In one respect, this novella was a first for me. About halfway in, I was very surprised to discover myself as a character. A Mr Sales makes an appearance, and then a disappearance. But I hadn’t been killed off, as I initially thought, just abducted by aliens and then returned. However, Roberts introduces the character as “Mr Sales from Leeds”, which is close but I’m actually from the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire (or, as Dr Who recently named it, the Peoples’ Republic of South Yorkshire). That aside, The Lake Boy is an accomplished pastiche of nineteenth-century fiction which reminds me, more than anything else, of John Fowles’s A Maggot, which is, yes, I know, set in the eighteenth-century. But it’s that whole thing about telling a science fiction story from the POV of people who don’t understand that it’s science. It’s livened up a bit with the protagonist’s Sinful Past and her Unnatural Desires. I normally find Roberts’s fiction somewhat hit-and-miss – some I bounce off, some I really like – and this one definitely fell into the latter category. Worth reading.

Ancestral Machines, Michael Cobley (2016, UK). Mike is a friend of many years – I believe we first met at the first convention I ever attended, Mexicon 3 in Nottingham in 1989. So, on the one hand, that’s a long enough friendship to survive a negative review; but on the other, it feels somewhat off to tell a mate he’s written a bad book. In fact, most people I know won’t review books by friends – but, seriously, your friendship must be pretty fragile if it can’t survive someone’s opinion over a piece of fiction, FFS. Which is by no means a cunning lead-in to saying that Ancestral Machines is a bad book. Mike can write – he’s especially good at writing descriptive prose, which is unusual in genre writers – but Ancestral Machines definitely suffers from too much Banks and not enough Cobley. I mean, it was obvious from the first book of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy, Seeds of Earth, that Mike was ploughing a Banks furrow, but he made it enough of his own it didn’t matter. Unfortunately, Ancestral Machines reads like he tried a bit too hard. The book opens with two AIs, very much like Minds, discussing what will become the plot. Then you have the crew of a tramp spaceship, who are either the most inept or the unluckiest ever, because everything they do fails. They get dragged into the story when their ship is stolen. There’s a BDO in the form of an artificial planetary system of two hundred worlds, which can travel between galaxies and whose inhabitants are in thrall to a handful of evil alien overlords called Gun-Lords, who are actually sentient alien weapons who have taken over host bodies. The whole BDO is set up as the arena for brutal wargames, often with death tolls in the millions, and a league table of the victors. The AIs and the freighter crew end up involved with an attempted rebellion against the Gun-Lords, who are set to steal lots of worlds to put in their BDO. It’s all a bit of madcap dash from one set-piece to the next, and the plot seems to teeter on the edge of falling over for much of the book’s length. The banter didn’t always work for me, and the characters seemed a tad generic, but there’s some good space opera invention, and if the ending is a bit pat, it’s not an easy one. I’d sooner space operas didn’t feel the need for mega-bodycounts, but at least in Ancestral Machines the evil bastards get their just desserts.

The Quantum Magician, Derek Künsken (2018, Canada). I read this for review in Interzone (I wasn’t quick enough to get the new Anthony Burgess book, sadly). Given the title and plot, comparisons with Rajaniemi are inevitable – and The Quantum Magician, even though I didn’t really take to The Quantum Thief, doesn’t come off quite so well. The protagonist, Belisarius Arjona, is a homo quanta, a member of a genetically-engineered race who can disable their subjective consciousness in order to not collapse wave functions. And other superhuman stuff. Sigh. Arjona, however, grew disillusioned with the scientific research station where his people live, and became a con man. And now he’s been approached by members of the Sub-Saharan Union, who have invented a fantastic new stardrive and want to get their fleet through the stable wormhole controlled by the Puppet Federation to their home planetary systems. The puppets, like Arjona, were genetically-engineered, but as a slave race neurochemically fixed to worship a race of “Numen”. But they overthrew their masters and now keep those few who survive as captive gods. Arjona comes up with a complex plan which involves a member from each of the genetically-engineered human races but basically ends up as full-on frontal assault on the fortress guarding the wormhole entrance. As far as I know, I’ve never read anything by Künsken previously, but something about the puppets definitely tickled my sense of déjà vu – although I can’t work out where from. There’s some good stuff in The Quantum Magician, particularly in the worldbuilding, but the con which forms the plot isn’t really a con as such – this is no science fiction Ocean’s 11, for all that it wants to be – and the resolution is a bit of a letdown. Anyway, full review to appear in Interzone soon.

Moonwalker, Charlie & Dotty Duke (1990, USA). I went through a phase about ten years ago of buying signed autobiographies by astronauts. I’d read them, and other books about space exploration, and review them on a blog, A Space About Books About Space, where I last posted a review in May 2013. That’s more or less where the Apollo Quartet came from. I’m still interested in the subject, although I’m no longer so zealous about buying the books. And I still have a number of them to read. Like this one, Moonwalker, by the LMP for Apollo 16. You expect certain things from astronaut autobiographies, such as how something they invented proved vital to the programme, or iconic to the US Space Race. But not from Duke. He loved every minute of it, and says so repeatedly. He also admits it pretty much destroyed his marriage. That is until some years after he left NASA when his wife joined some weird Christian sect and the two discovered God. Moonwalker is at least cheerfully honest. You have the opening section where Duke describes his early career, and admits he was a bit of a screw-up. Then there are the NASA years, when he was clearly having a ball, culminating in Apollo 16’s time on the Moon. And then you have his post-NASA career as, first, an unsuccessful mall developer and then as a Coors distributor… before finding God. When people claim to pray to God and he responds, I call bullshit. If you think you are hearing from God, then you are delusional. Both Dotty and Charlie Duke claim to do so in Moonwalker. They leave their decision-making to God – well, Jesus, as apparently their particular brand of Christian weirdness means accepting Jesus as the Son of God (and why the fuck do I keep on using init caps on this nonsense?) – anyway, they basically leave things to fate and when it pans out the way they’d hoped, OMG, IT’S JESUS! HE’S REAL! OMG! Gordo Cooper’s autobiography Leap of Faith was spoiled by his insistence that UFOs were real, and the same is true here: Moonwalker would be a more interesting book if the Dukes had not chosen to document their religious conversion. But on Apollo 16 alone, it’s a quite good read.

Such Good Friends, Lois Gould (1970, USA). This was the result of some drunk eBaying after watching the adaption of the novel by Otto Preminger, which isn’t, to be honest, a very good film. But reading up about the story on Wikipedia persuaded me it might be worth a punt, and I found a copy for a couple of quid – a tatty hardback – on eBay from one of those big secondhand clearance sellers and, well, bought it. And it is indeed much better than the film. The Wikipedia entry describes it as “stream-of-consciousness” but it really isn’t. It’s very much fixed in the POV of its protagonist, Julie Messinger, whose husband – NY magazine art director and illustrator of a best-selling children’s book – is in a coma after an adverse reaction to the anaesthetic used in his operation to remove a mole. As friends and colleagues gather to donate blood and comfort Julie, so she slowly learns of her husband’s constant philandering. And each medical intervention in the comatose man’s condition only makes his situation worse. The film plays the story as a black comedy, stressing the incompetence of the doctors and hospital – in fact, in the movie, the coma is caused by a surgeon nicking an artery during surgery. But in the book, the doctors do their best – if only because it will reflect well on them. For all the book wasn’t exactly an intentional purchase, so to speak, it was a pretty good read. There’s not much information on Gould on Wikipedia, but if I stumble across one of her other novels I might well give it a go.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #18

I really need to get SF Mistressworks back up and running. I posted some reviews earlier this year, after a twelve month hiatus, and I’ve read plenty of eligible books – including two below – since I last posted a review there. It would be a shame to let it all lapse. Especially since I keep on seeing articles by people which more or less claim women writing science fiction is a recent phenomenon. Sigh.

And entirely coincidentally to the above, the half-dozen books here are all by women writers. I decided to knock off the Scott trilogy in quick succession, instead of one per month as originally planned; and, well, I’d been meaning to read the Gentle for years – I bought it when it was published… fifteen years ago! I have books I bought decades ago and have yet to read. I really ought to get that sorted.

Silence in Solitude, Melissa Scott (1986, USA). This is the second book of the trilogy following Silence Leigh, a pilot, and now mage, in a universe in which magic is used to travel FTL between worlds. Silence has been accepted as a candidate for training by the mages, despite the fact no woman has ever displayed, or been seen or acknowledged to display, any ability as a mage previously. But the hegemon is still after her because she broke his geas, and the Rose Worlders, guardians of the road to Earth, are also after her because she nearly broke past the siege engines they use to blockade the route to Earth. While researching routes to Earth – entirely ex-curricula and without permission – at the mages’ college, Silence discovers a reference to an ancient book of interstellar navigation, the portolan. And the only person likely to have a copy of this ancient text is the satrap of Inarime, who is fortunately a friend of Silence’s teacher, the mage Isambard. And, happily, the satrap does prove to own a portolan. Unhappily, there is a price for it. The hegemon has the satrap’s daughter in the Palace of Women, a strongly-guarded seraglio on the Hegemony’s capital planet. Silence must free the daughter in order to win the portolan. And that’s what this novel is about. Silence infiltrating the Palace of Women. Silence discovering what life is like in the Palace of Women. Silence plotting to escape the Palace of Women with the satrap’s daughter. It’s all good stuff. It goes without saying that Silence succeeds, with help from the daughter, although it’s a close-run thing. But then… Silence in Solitude jumps the shark. As part of the escape plan, the satrap’s fleet attacks the capital world as a diversion. But they run into the hegemon’s fleet and battle is joined. And the satrap’s side is losing. Until Silence does some magic stuff and re-tunes her ship’s keel so it sends out a note that destroys all the hegemon’s ships. And so the satrap becomes the new hegemon, and Silence is a heroine. The sections set in the Women’s Palace are good, as is the bit where Silence is taught magery… but her two husbands, Chase Mago and Balthasar, are still only sketched in, and even Isambard seems more like a stereotype than an actual character. But the satrap’s daughter, Aili, is quite good, the plot mostly romps along, and the background is pretty interesting. So far, this is proving to be a fun trilogy.

Irma Voth, Miriam Toews (2011, Canada). I bought this because it was inspired by Carlos Reygadas’s Stellet Licht (see here), which is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico. Toews plays a wife whose husband is having an affair with a younger woman. Toews used the experience of working on the film as a plot for a novel about a young woman who is hired to translate Mennonite Plattdeutsch for a critically-acclaimed Mexican director who is making a film in the Mennonite community. The title character and narrator of Irma Voth has been thrown out of her home after marrying a young Mexican man, and is living in a neighbouring house owned by her father. The film crew live in a third house owned by the father. Irma has a younger sister who still lives with their father, but wants to leave. The movie gets made, although it’s a somewhat chaotic production, and Irma and her sister end up running away to a nearby city. They live rough for a while, but then Irma gets a job as housemaid at a B&B, and the two settle down to a life free from their family and community. However, the real draw of Irma Voth is the prose, which is written in first person, without speech marks. This is the proper way to do a first-person narrative. It’s all about the world-view, it’s about filtering events through the narrator’s personality; and not the cheap and easy story-telling far too many first-person narratives prove to be. The movie described in Irma Voth doesn’t actually map onto Stellet Licht – and I would hope Toews’s director is not a true depiction of Reygadas. I will be watching more films by Reygadas, and I will be reading more books by Toews.

The Empress of Earth, Melissa Scott (1987 USA).  And so we come to the third and final book of the Silence Leigh trilogy, and, well, the journey here was at least a lot of fun, but this is a disappointing end to the trilogy. Silence and her friends finally reach Earth, and Scott decides to riff off UFO mythology and treat their arrival like some sort of close encounter. But they, er, crash-land without discovery, and then must discover what is going on and why Earth has been blockaded by the Rose Worlds – which is never actually really explained. When Silence does a bit of magic, she’s hailed as “the empress of Earth”, although where the legend came from or what it means is all a bit of a mystery. It all feels somewhat over-familiar, which the previous two books did not, and the resolution is massively rushed. The plan to free Earth is discussed on page 315, and it’s all over, as is the book, by page 346. It’s as if there were a fourth book waiting, but Scott chose not, or was not contracted, to write it. Of course, it’s not the first time something like this has happened in science fiction. It’s a commercial genre, after all. And there have been plenty of sf writers happy to churn out yet another episode as long as an editor was willing to buy it. EC Tubb managed 31 books of the Dumarest saga before Donald A Wollheim died and his daughter chose not to continue the series. An unsatisfactory conclusion to the series was published by a small press in 1992 (in French; in 1997 in English). I don’t know that something like this happened with the Silence Leigh – or Roads to Heaven – series, although I understand this book has been extensively rewritten for its present Kindle publication. Which is annoying. Although I can understand why Scott took the opportunity to rewrite it. A disappointing end to what had been an interesting trilogy.

1610: Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle (2003, UK). As mentioned above, I bought this book fifteen years ago. And it has sat unread on my bookshelves ever since. Despite the fact I’m a big fan of Gentle’s fiction. But. She writes such big novels. 1610: Sundial in a Grave is 594pp! And my copy is the hardback edition. It must weigh about ten kilos. (Slight exaggeration.) I am a big fan of brevity (see the Apollo Quartet…), but I also recognise the appeal of longer works. And with Gentle you know you’re certainly getting your money’s worth. Her research is incredible. 1610: Sundial in a Grave is, like Ash: A Secret History, a series of nested narratives, with the innermost one providing the bulk of the contents. An “introduction” describes how the author (unnamed, but surely Gentle herself) was as a child a big fan of a particular (invented) Dumas-esque book, and was surprised to learn it was based on real historical figures. There then follows a fragment of a document by Robert Fludd, a Jacobean occult philosopher and mathematician (like the earlier Dr John Dee), which is described as one of several documents found with the memoirs of Rochefort. And it is Rochefort’s memoirs which form the main narrative of 1610: Sundial in a Grave. The disgraced son of the retired Marshal of France, Rochefort is responsible for the assassination of Henri IV, at the instigation of Henri’s wife Marie de Medici, although he had been blackmailed into it and had planned for it to fail as his master, the Duc de Sully, wanted… But Rochefort ends up fleeing France, knowing there are plenty of people who want his head. Including hothead duellist Dariole, who had been challenging Rochefort for months. All of which leads to Rochefort on a Normandy beach fighting Dariole, rescuing Saburo, the sole survivor of a Japanese mission to King James I, taking ship to England with both, becoming embroiled in the plot by Robert Fludd to assassinate James I, foiling that plot, and… It’s all about the mathematics invented by Bruno Giordano – a real historical figure who appears in, and inspired, Gentle’s White Crow novels – which is capable of predicting the future, especially a comet due to obliterate life on Earth in the twenty-first century (yes, please). As well as numerous events before that cataclysm. Rochefort and Dariole are great characters, not that much different from White Crow and Casaubon (and yes, Dariole’s secret was pretty obvious right from the start) inasmuch as they’re both almost too good to be true. There’s a unexpected strain of BDSM throughout the novel – the relationship between Rochefort and Dariole is predicated on it – but if anything it adds depth to their interactions. The historical detail is, unsurprisingly, hugely convincing. Gentle does historical filth and smells extremely well. At 594pp, 1610: Sundial in a Grave is not a short book, but it doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome. Surprisingly, the book ends on a happy note, although there’s a cunning slingshot inasmuch as it suggests an origin, and a purpose, for the Rosicrucians, which ties into the whole occult mathematics mythos. I thought the book excellent, and I’m only sorry I didn’t read it sooner. And I really do need to read two other books by Gentle I own which I’ve yet to read.

Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand (2012, USA). This is the second of a trilogy, preceded by Generation Loss and followed by Hard Light. I’ve not read the first – the paperback is already out of print in the UK. Available Dark does refer to the events of Generation Loss, but it’s not necessary to have read it. Briefly, in the first book cult photographer Cassie Neary was involved in the murder of another photographer, close enough that she’d be behind bars if her true role were known. At least, that’s how Available Dark presents the events of Generation Loss. Neary has been in an artistic slump for years and is best known for a single book published years earlier. Neary specialises in photographs of dead people – the story throws around names like Joel-Peter Witkin and WeeGee – and it’s because of that she’s offered a job by a shady Norwegian character. He wants her to go to Helsinki to view a series of six photos by a famous Finnish fashion photographer. The Finnish photographer was once also into death photography, and the series depicts victims in bizarre murders. Coincidentally, Neary has received a mysterious message from a past lover she had thought long dead. And he’s in Reykjavík. After telling the Norwegian the photos are worth buying, Neary heads to Iceland to track down her old boyfriend. Then the Finnish photographer and his assistant are brutally murdered, and it’s all to do with the Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, grim Icelandic troll-like figures who were used to scare children, Nordic black metal in the 1990s, the member of one of those bands called Galdur who now lives out in the Icelandic wilderness, his band’s only, and incredibly rare,  album, and events in Oslo back in the 1990s at the aforementioned Norwegian’s metal club. And, of course, the series of six photographs. An ignorant puff on the back of the book confuses black metal and death metal – they’re different genres – but Hand has a good, er, handle on the music. Neary, however, is a little too good to be true, a little too much of the sort of unkillable drug addict hard case you’d find in an urban fantasy rather than a realistic crime novel. The Reykjavík of 2012 also apparently bears little resemblance to the Reykjavík I visited in 2016, or even in 2018 (though, to be fair, I saw a number of changes between my two visits). Available Dark started out well enough, a slightly off-kilter thriller about death photography and Norwegian black metal, but the character of Neary sort of ruined it. She was too good to be true, too tough to be realistic. And it all hung on a series of murders from the 1990s that seemed unlikely to have gone undetected. I’ve always preferred novels about female detectives to those about male ones, but Available Dark, while structured like a crime novel, felt more like an urban fantasy.

Author’s Choice Monthly 14: Legacy of Fire, Nina Kiriki Hoffman (1990, USA). I know Hoffman’s name, but I don’t think I’d read anything by her before reading this, except perhaps a story in an anthology – although none spring to mind. Which is a shame, as the contents of this short collection are actually pretty damned good. Hoffman’s approach to fiction is probably epitomised by ‘Savage Breasts’, in which a woman sends off for an exerciser after seeing an ad for “Charlotte Atlas”, but her new-found bustiness proves her undoing when her breasts demonstrate they have a life of their own. This is one of the most, er, savagely feminist stories I’ve ever read, and I’m surprised it didn’t appear in Sisters of the Revolution (although, weirdly, it was reprinted in an anthology of comic fantasy, Smart Dragons, Foolish Elves, edited by Alan Dean Foster and Martin H Greenberg, which looks best avoided). The other stories in Author’s Choice Monthly 14: Legacy of Fire don’t match ‘Savage Breasts’, but they’re well-written, with a slightly-sideways approach so they sit somewhere between mainstream and genre. The title story, for example, has a stranger visit a very small town in middle America, and offer an enigmatic choice to the narrator, who happens to be a person of short stature. That’s the only story that isn’t about women, although the a woman joins the narrator is accepting the stranger’s challenge. I think perhaps I should try some more Hoffman.


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Reading diary 2018, #17

Well, my reading didn’t speed up as expected, chiefly because I picked up a 700+ novel – the Goss – and then followed it with a novel by Iain Sinclair. And the latter, despite taking on my trip to Iceland, has taken me over a week to finish… but then it’s pretty dense stuff.

European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss (2018, USA). I enjoyed the first book of this series enough to pick up the second book… And, yes, it’s more of the same. Having said that, the central conceit does seem to be wearing a bit thin, and even though Goss has been hard at work roping in all manner of characters from Victorian horror fiction, she’s rung so many changes on them they might as well have been invented by her in the first place. In summary: in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (see here), Mary Jekyll brought about the creation of the Athena Club – Diana Hyde, Justina Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau, Beatrice Rappaccini, plus housekeeper Mrs Poole and maid Alice – while assisting Sherlock Holmes solve a series of murders in Whitechapel… which ended up being linked to Adam Frankenstein (ie, the Monster) and the Society of Alchemists. In this second book, Mary’s old governess, Mina Harker (yes, that Mina Harker), asks for help to rescue Van Helsing’s daughter (yes, that Van Helsing and, er, his daughter) from a Viennese asylum, where she has been incarcerated after an experiment to turn her into a vampire. It’s all because Van Helsing and his cronies want to seize power in the Society of Alchemists – current president: She, AKA Ayesha – because their experiments in transmutation have been banned. The Athena Cub end up fighting Van Helsing et al. With the help of Count Dracula. Who is a good guy. I love the conceit, and Goss handles it marvellously. She drags in Victorian monsters willy-nilly and then gives them a place in the setting which fits perfectly. The way the narrative is interrupted by conversation between the characters, who explicitly refer to the narrative as a narrative – is cleverly done. But. The prose is all so very light and commercial, and at 720 pages this story is too long. Goss can write, I know she can because I’ve read some of her short fiction. But European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman reads like an airport bestseller or a book to read on a train journey. The prose doesn’t try hard at all. I like the characters and I like the story, but this novel could have been so much better. I hope the third book in the series remembers that picking the right words and putting them in the right order is as important as telling the story.

Landor’s Tower, Iain Sinclair (2001, UK). While I’ve been aware of Sinclair and his fiction for many years, I’ve never tried to reading any of it. Until now. And having now read Landor’s Tower… I’m in two minds. It’s good. Very good. And I like Sinclair’s pot pourri approach to using fiction and non-fiction, throwing in real people as characters, mixing up invented characters in real events… He does it really well, and that melange of fact and fiction, well, I’ve always found it a heady mix in book-form. But… Landor’s Tower leaps all over the place, seeming to tell a dozen different unlinked stories at the same time. It is, ostensibly, about a Victorian eccentric who built a monastery in a remote Welsh valley, based on an earlier legend. But the narrator of the book – a novelist and film-maker called Norton, who is a clear stand-in for Sinclair – bounces around the central premise, while ostensibly researching it for a project, through encounters with a variety of characters. Such as Prudence, of Hay on Wye. Who might or might not be the victim of the quarry murder, re-enacted by Karporal, or maybe real. As he was trying to solve the crime. There’s a fevered, almost hallucinatory, tone to the narrative, which makes it hard to navigate the actual story. Parts of it are brilliant – and not just because I recognised the names involved – but because they read like documentary. But then the narrative would make an abrupt swerve and, despite reference to earlier passages, I’d wonder what the fuck was going on. I wanted to like Landor’s Tower – I’m a big fan of the works of both Patrick Keiller and Adam Curtis, and this novel reminded me majorly of both. But. I felt like I was coming in halfway through a series.  Had I read more by Sinclair, perhaps reading his works in order, or seen some of his films – because this novel feels like one part of a large cross-platform work – then I suspect I might be a fan. But on its own, Landor’s Tower felt like the wrong introduction to an author’s oeuvre, an author whose work I might well esteem. I need to be serious about reading Sinclair’s novels, or it’s not worth bothering. I have two of his books on my TBR, but I’m going to ditch them and see if I can find a copy of his first novel. Then I will try reading them in order.

Inside Moebius, part 2, Moebius (2018, France). This is volumes three and four of the French release of Inside Moebius, the six volumes of which, for some reason, Dark Horse have decided to publish in English as three books. Personally, I don’t much care if it’s six books or three books, although at least doubling them up makes them a little more substantial. Which is more than can be said for their plots. And it’s especially true in this middle volume. As before, it has two iterations of Moebius wandering about “Desert B” (a pun on désherber, slang for giving up smoking, a desire to do which triggered the Inside Moebius project in the first place), along with a group of Moebius’s characters. There are lots of puns and in-jokes – and Dark Horse helpfully provide a glossary of the puns – but little in the way of plot. But then it’s not like there’s all that much need for plot anyway. Moebius is exploring his creative impulse, and using his characters and iterations of himself to do so. Oh, and bin Laden. The artwork is all over the place, some of it crude, some of it as detailed as any of the work he did, for example, in The Incal. Jean Giraud was clearly a singular talent, and a seminal one in the field of bandes dessinées, and there is good insight into his work in Inside Moebius. Which pretty much means it’s one for fans. Those expecting some sf story will be sorely disappointed.

Case of the Bedevilled Poet, Simon Clark (2017, UK). I think this is the first of the second set of NewCon Press novellas, but I bought all four at once so I’ve not been reading them in order. Not that it makes any difference, as I found the first three I read not very satisfying, and this one unfortunately is much the same. It was also full of typos, and one page completely mixed up the characters’ names. But that’s by the bye. The story is set in London during the Blitz. A man, a minor poet from Yorkshire who now works as a screenwriter for a government-sponsored film unit, a protected occupation, is attacked one night by a soldier on furlough, who threatens him for his supposed cowardice with words that sound more like an eldritch curse. Things start to happen that convince the protagonist he is indeed cursed by something or someone supernatural. Then he stumbles across two old gents in a pub who claim to be Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – their story is they’re real and Conan Doyle only adapted their case histories – and they offer to take on the protagonist’s case. There’s far too much here that doesn’t fit together all that well. Being hunted by some sort of demonic soldier, fine. During the Blitz? Okay, it’s a bit much, but never mind. But then throwing in Holmes and Watson? It’s too much. It weakens a story that was already strong enough on its own. Setting it during the Blitz allows for some good descriptive passages, although it’s not essential for the plot to work; and there’s a bittersweet ending to the Holmes and Watson elements, but I’m not convinced the latter was needed. Unfortunately, this does have the effect of making Case of the Bedevilled Poet feel like a short story padded out to novella length. The fact I’ve found all four of these novellas unsatisfactory is likely chiefly down to the fact it’s not my preferred reading genre. Fans of dark fantasy or horror will probably get much more out of them then I did. But at least they make a nice set.

Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Melissa Scott (1985, USA). This is the first book of the Silence Leigh trilogy, followed in 1986 by Silence in Solitude and in 1987 by The Empress of the Earth. It was later released in a SFBC omnibus edition, The Roads of Heaven. But that’s a pretty naff title for the trilogy, even if it is, well, pretty accurate (it’s also used by the current small press Kindle omnibus). Because in the universe of Five-Twelfths of Heaven, it’s the music of the spheres which allows for interstellar travel. Starship have “harmoniums” (harmonia?) and it is the music they make which drives starships into orbit and pushes them into “purgatory” (ie, hyperspace) at velocities measured in “twelfths of heaven”. Most starships travel at a sixth of heaven, so five-twelfths of heaven is pretty quick. It’s also the speed of the ship, Sun-Treader, whose crew pilot Silence reluctantly joins when she finds herself trapped on a world of the Hegemon after her grandfather dies. Because her grandfather owned the starship she piloted, but her uncle had done a deal with a local merchant so the ship would need to be sold to cover grandfather’s debts and, as a woman, Silence has no legal standing… But Captain Balthasar of Sun-Treader agrees to act as her representative in probate court, and offers her a job afterwards. He needs a female pilot – and female pilots are very rare – because his engineer has fake papers, but if Silence enters into a marriage of convenience with the two of them they can get him proper papers. Polygamy, apparently, is okay, but not same-sex marriage. Silence agrees. Things go reasonably well, but then Balthasar is called to a captains’ meeting of Wrath-of-God, a major pirate combine, and it’s war against the Hegemon. But the attack fails, and Silence and her two husbands are captured by Hegemon forces, and put under geas. Except Silence manages somehow to break the geas – it seems she could well be a magus. And… well, spoilers. Obviously, the main draw of Five-Twelfths of Heaven is the mix of science fiction and magic. It’s  cleverly done. FTL is itself a metaphor, and Scott recognises this and chooses to use a metaphor typically not associated with sf instead. It works because she maintains rigour, her magic system has as many rules, and operates as logically, as some made-up “scientific” FTL drive would. Instead of computers churning out numbers, her pilots have to memorise Tarot-like symbolic diagrams. Instead of laws of physics, she writes about notes and chords and dissonances. Different words for the same things. And a good example why you can’t use tropes to differentiate between science fiction and fantasy. If I’d discovered Scott back in the 1980s, I think it likely she’d have become a writer whose work I sought out. She certainly is now. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy.

Irontown Blues, John Varley (2018, USA). Back in the early 1980s, Varley was one of my favourite science fiction writers, and I eagerly tracked down and read everything by him I could find. When he returned to his Eight Worlds universe in 1992 with Steel Beach, I was glad; and then again in 1998 with The Golden Globe… Although neither of those two books stacked up against The Ophiuchi Hotline or the many stories set in the Eight Worlds Varley had written previously. Rumours of another book, titled Irontown Blues, had been around for years, but it was only in, I think, 2016 that Varley confessed he was finally going to write it. I mean, you don’t want writers to keep on churning out the same thing over and over again, yet another volume in some interminable series – except, of course, when you do, such as EC Tubb’s Dumarest series (I’m sure everyone has their own favourite)… But it’s not like Varley over-stayed his welcome in the Eight Worlds, only four actual novels set there and each was standalone… To be honest, the other stuff wasn’t always as satisfactory – the Gaea trilogy, yes; but his Thunder and Lightning YA quartet was underwhelming. (Having said that, I do really like Millennium, the novelisation of the film of his short story ‘Air Raid’ (which was originally published under a pseudonym).) Anyway, Irontown Blues is… a cheat. Varley cheerfully confessed to retconning his Eight world universe in Steel Beach, and presented it more as a feature than a bug. And in Irontown Blues, the protagonist is Christopher Bach, offspring of Anna-Louise Bach, who is the protagonist of a bunch of stories set on Luna but not actually part of the Eight Worlds setting. At least, not until now. Bach (Christopher, that is) is a private detective with a love of 1940s noir – so much so, he acts the part and even lives in a suburb tricked out to resemble a noir version of a 1940s US city. His local diner is called the Nighthawks Diner. (But then Varley ruins it by naming his scumbag informant Hopper. Sigh.) Irontown Blues opens, as any story of its type would do, with a woman entering Bach’s office. She tells him she has been deliberately infected with a virulent form of leprosy, a heinous act in a society in which diseases are sometimes fads but are never infectious. Bach is tasked with discovering who infected the woman with “para-leprosy”. He doesn’t trust her, of course, and his attempts to find out who she really is take up half the story. When he does finally track her down, he’s kidnapped and kept prisoner. Before his kidnap, however, there’s a long flashback to the Big Glitch and the attack on the Heinleiners – the events of Steel Beach. Bach was involved and nearly died. The flashback is the reason for, well, the plot of Irontown Blues. And it’s all a bit weak, to be honest. Despite the resolution. Bach, however, is not the only narrator of Irontown Blues. The narrative is also split with his dog, a “Cybernetically Enhanced Canine” bloodhound called Sherlock. These sections are written in simplistic prose, with a deliberately simplistic attempt at humour. I freely admit I’m not a dog person, but even so these sections really didn’t work for me. I mean, there’s something old-fashioned – not, unfortunately, 1940s old-fashioned as Varley probably intended, but more 1970s original Eight Worlds stories old-fashioned – about Bach’s narrative; but Sherlock’s narrative does nothing to give the novel a twenty-first century feel. I admit that much of Varley’s appeal is nostalgia – I loved his work back when I was first exploring science fiction – so perhaps the most disappointing thing about Irontown Blues is that it doesn’t seem to be much of a progression from those earlier works. It could have been written by Varley thirty years ago. Varley has always been a resolutely commercial writer, much like his inspiration Heinlein, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do things better as the years pass – and Slow Apocalypse certainly proves he can – but there’s no evidence of that in Irontown Blues. There are some changes in order to update the setting, or to tie the Eight Worlds Luna and Anna-Louise Bach Luna together… But I’d hoped for something, well, a bit more clever, something with a bit more bang in its payload. And Irontown Blues is not that book. One for fans.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131