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Reading diary, #42

Well, the promised catch-up with female authors didn’t exactly happen, so 2016 ended with male authors just slightly ahead of female authors. Women will probably take back the lead in 2017. That seems to be the way it works…

where_my_heartWhere My Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks (2015). I’ve read each of Faulks’s novels as they’ve hit paperback, and I’ve never really worked out why I fastened onto him as a modern author to read. I think he’s much better than McEwan, who managed a couple of stonkers early in his career, but then Faulks’s career has never really matched Birdsong… although I thought the story of Human Traces danced about a pretty interesting idea… And that same idea sort of crops up in Where My Heart Used to Beat. Faulks has… odd ideas about consciousness, and the historical origin of human awareness. In a science fiction writer, they’d be understandable, if not even defensible. But Faulks writes lit fic. In Where My Heart Used to Beat, which is set in the 1980s, a UK doctor is invited to a small French island to meet a famous neurologist at the end of his life and career. The neurologist wants the doctor to be his literary executor, partly because he commanded his father during WWI and holds a secret about that, and partly because the doctor’s career hints that he might be receptible to the neurologist’s Big Idea. The narrative dips in and out of the doctor’s life, mostly focusing on WWII, when he was involved in the Allied invasion of Italy. During that time, he met a young Italian woman and weas convinced she was the love of his life; but she turned out to be married, and he never really recovered. And it’s the concept of love, and Faulks’s previously trotted-out theory on inter-brain communication, that provides the substrate for Where My Heart Used to Beat. It’s a very readable novel – Faulks’s prose is never less than readable – and a more coherent one that his last couple… but it doesn’t have the… weight of Human Traces, and so its central premise dosn’t in the slightest convince. Faulks produces polished middle-brow material, and he does it well, much better than McEwan – but every time I read one of his novels I find myself wondering why I continue to read him. I still don’t know.

hoddHodd, Adam Thorpe (2009). I have made a habit of picking up Thorpe’s novels when I see them in charity shops and I’m not entirely sure why. True, Ulverton was very good indeed – an English village’s history described through a variety of narrative forms – but the collection Shifts was, to be honest, a bit dull. But I have three or four of his books, and I grabbed this one to read over Christmas. Which I did. I knew it was about Robin Hood, a legendary figure I feel somewhat protective toward, given that I was born in Mansfield, which was once within the precincts of Sherwood Forest (in fact, there’s a plaque in Mansfield which declares the “dead centre” of Sherwood Forest was once at that spot). On the other hand, I’m well aware that Robin Hood is as real an historical figure as Jesus Christ. And, much as I love the 1938 Technicolor movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn in the title role, I know it has as much connection to real actual history as the Bible does – ie, none. Hodd is fiction, and clearly presented as fiction… but it’s also yet another version of Robin Hood. In this case, he’s a heretic who lives in the woods north of Doncaster, and his story is told as a manuscript, found by a British officer in a bombed-out church in Belgium during WWII, written by a ninety-year-old monk who was once “Much the Miller’s son” in Hodd’s band. It’s very cleverly done. There are footnotes by the officer who translated the manuscript, which explain some of the lesser known facts about mediaeval life (and also feature some editorial comments by him). The plot will come as no surprise to those who know the Hood legend, even if it’s only from the Flynn movie, and while Thorpe’s recasting of Hood as Hodd doesn’t seem to asdd all that much to the story, the way the story is presented definitely does. It put Thorpe back in my, so to speak, good books. Hodd is a clever and convincing historical palimpsest of a novel, and it’s a joy to see how well it is put together. Recommended.

starlightStarlight, Mark Millar & Goran Parlov (2014). So many English-language graphic novels and trade paperback collections involve over-entitled fascists in Spandex costumes. And if it’s not superheroes, it’s noir. Like that’s a new thing. I wanted science fiction. But I spent a good while perusing the English-language shelves of Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen, and there was very little that appealed. Starlight looked like it might – a test pilot is pulled to another dimension, defeats a planet’s tyrant, Flash-Gordon-fashion, and returns to Earth… only to be disbelieved by all and sundry, and so treated as something of a joke by friends and family. Forty years later, his help is required again, this time to overthrow invaders who have enslaved the world. So back he goes, only to discover his legend has grown to a level he couldn’t possibly match it, especially now he’s four decades older. The brutal occupiers also consider him something of a joke, and the populace too weak to rise up under his leadership. The art has a nice pulp sf sensibility to it, although the story seems unable to decide if its hero is pulp sf hero or a superhero. In fact, that’s not the only thing that’s a little confused, as Starlight tries to gives its story a modern spin while at the same time throwing in references to early sf serials. So, tonally, it’s a bit all over the place. Good in parts, though.

beautiful_indifferenceThe Beautiful Indifference, Sarah Hall (2011). Unlike some people I know, I’m not a fan of Hall’s writing – but then, her writing is very tied to her region – Cumbria – so much so that many of the stories in this collection are written in local dialect, or use local dialect terms. They’re good stories, they’re polished stories. There are seven of them in The Beautiful Indifference, some of which are set in Cumbria, one of which is set in Finland. They’re worth reading, although fans of her writing will get more from them than I did. I found this book in a charity shop, and I’ll continue to keep an eye open for her works, but I do find her prose a bit too much in your face for my taste. I like my fiction distant and bolstered by fact, and I find it hard to accept a facility with local dialect as a substitute for fact. Or rather, I appreciate fiction that includes elements which can be looked up on Wikipedia, and while Hall’s use of Cumbrian dialect is, as far as I know, accurate, it adds only a thin wash of colour to the stories, where a reference to a real event or thing defined in Wikipedia would add depth. But that’s a personal thing. Certainly, Hall is a good writer, and these are some polished pieces of work. Worth reading.

sagaSaga Volume 1, Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (2012). Many people, many many people, have recommended this, and so I had initially avoided it. But there I was in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen, and I picked out Starlight as worth a read and all the graphic novels I really wanted were upstairs and by Moebius and in Danish… so I eventually succumbed and bought the first volume of Saga. I could have bought the Danish bandes dessinées by Moebius, of course, or even the hardback volumes of Valerian and Laureline, also in Danish, but it would mean learning a new language to read them, which seems daft when they’re originally French and that’s a language I can actually read (with a dictionary at hand, admittedly). Anyway, Saga… I didn’t like it. I really didn’t. It is allegedly a space opera, but there’s zero rigour to the setting, one side uses magic, there are a race of robots who have human bodies but TVs for heads, and people actually use mobile phones and apps. See, you have a man and a woman, from each side of a generational war – one lot have wings, the others have horns – and they have a child. Er, so why do you need science fiction to tell this story? I guess calling a race war story a “space opera” makes it more palatable to readers. And, of course, it means the story is not “politicized”. FFS. So there you have it: weak title, paper-thin allegory, paper-thin setting, and a total lack of rigour. Nice art, though.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #41

An odd selection this time around. I normally like to plan my reading but the following were all pretty much random choices, grabbed when I needed a fresh book for my morning commute. Well, all except the last one, of course.

midnight_wellMidnight at the Well of Souls, Jack Chalker (1977). I’ve had this series on my bookshelves for several years and I’m not entirely sure why. I think Chalker was an awful writer, slapdash, fixated on a handful of not very original ideas, and content to pad out the thinnest of stories to trilogy, and longer, length. I don’t think he wrote a single good book, but he does have legions of fans. Which, I guess, makes him much like every other science fiction author. Anyway, Midnight at the Well of Souls is the first book in Chalker’s The Saga of the Well World series, which had reached seven books by the time Chalker died in 2005. A group of archaeological students studying a Markovian ruin on a dead world are murdered by their instructor after he has figured out how to access the Markovian world-computer. He, and the one surviving student, find themselves transported to the Well World. Some time later, spaceship captain Nathan Brazil is transporting a handful of passengers through space when he receives a distress call. It’s from that same world where the instructor murdered his students. And so Brazil and his passengers find themselves also in the Well World. Which is an artificial planet in another dimension or something, and is divided into 1,560 hexagons, each one 355 by 615 kms and containing a completely different ecosphere and associated alien races. Brazil and his passengers are scattered across different hexes, each transformed into a native of that hex. Well, except Brazil isn’t. Because it turns out he’s some sort of immortal, and he knows how to work the Well World’s controlling computer, which is just as well because the aforementioned instructor wants to use the controlling computer for his own ends (and which will in consequence destroy the real universe). So Brazil and allies must trek across half a dozen hexes, having adventures along the way, in order to reach the equatorial wall and the secret entrance to the control room. It’s science fiction by numbers, light on invention, characterisation, rigour and, er, substance. It has all the originality of a basement RPG session by a group of twentysomething nerds. I doubt I’ll be continuing with the rest of the series.

book_wordsThe Book of Words, Jenny Erpenbeck (2005). Words are powerful, though you’d not know it from the bulk of novels written. As the title of this short novel, perhaps even a novella, shows, its story is about words and their uses and the way in which they can create a world for a protagonist and hint to the reader at the context for that world. The narrator discusses words as she describes her childhood in an unnamed country suffering under an oppressive regime, and in which her father works. It’s a completely self-centre narrative, as every word in the book is about the narrator or her world. But what she writes does provide clues to the reality underlying the narrative. The mother is German, and had fled her country for political reasons – mostl likely because she was a Nazi. Though the Germans have contributed to the father’s country, they are not liked. The regime is brutal – the father talks openly about torture, and even describes atrocities committed by some unnamed Germans (one of which is clearly Mengele). The Book of the Words is closer to The Old Child than it is Visitation or The End of Days. It’s not an easy read – and in parts, it is quite gruesome – but it is very clever in the way it doles out information to the reader, aithout breaking the narrator’s character. Erpenbeck has to date published six books, although, I think, only four have been translated into English. My German is probably too rusty to fully appreciate her prose in that language. So can someone publish those other two books in English, please?

other_windThe Other Wind, Ursula K LeGuin (2001). I have a lot of time for LeGuin’s writing, although I can’t say I’ve enjoyed everything she’s written. I knew The Other Wind was a sequel of sorts to the Earthsea quartet, and I do think those books are very good. Nonetheless, my expectations for The Other Wind were middling, perhaps because I was under the impression it was YA. True, the Earthsea books were published for many years in the UK by Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin; but I’ve never really thought of them as YA. The Other Wind is set late in the lives of Ged and Tenar, Ged has long since retired as Arch-mage and no longer has any magic powers. He is visited by Alder, a village magician who has been dreaming about meeting his much-loved late wife at the wall between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Ged advises Alder to consult with Tenar, and their daughter Tehanu, currently on Havnor, advising King Lebannen on recent incursions by dragons. It turns out the dragons are upset because the humans of the archipelago do ont return to the world on dying, but instead gather in the land of the dead. Dragons are apparently trans-dimensional. And all those dead folk are cluttering up their private dimension. It’s a completely new view of the afterlife as presented in the Earthsea quartet, and yet it doesn’t contradict it. There’s a wonderfully elegiac, and yet matter-of-fact, tone to the prose, and a beautifully-drawn cast, from Alder through Tehanu to King Lebannen… but especially the princess from the Kargad Empire who has been sent to Havnor to marry the king. It feels like damning the book with faint praise, especially since the last LeGuin collection I read was a bit dull, but The Other Wind is a thoroughly charming novel. I loved it. It made me want to reread the Earthsea quartet, it made me want to read more LeGuin. Recommended.

borderlinersBorderliners, Peter Høeg (1995). Høeg’s 1992 novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow was an international sensation, and rightly so, and was made into a film directed by Bille August and starring Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne. Borderliners was Høeg’s next novel (he had published two before Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), and it’s a very different novel. Peter, the narrator, and Katerina and August are all pupils at a private school in the 1970s. All three are orphans – Peter has spent most of his life in children’s homes, Katerina’s parents died shortly before she was sent to the school, and August is on licence after killing his abusive parents. Shortly after his arrival at the school, Peter realises that everything in it is governed by schedule – he thinks of it as governed by time – and he theorises that this generates a particular way of seeing the world, which is what leads to the school’s success (it boasts a prime minister among its alumni). Although the three are not supposed to mingle, and make a secret of their friendship, they pass notes back and forth, meet in odd corners, and generally try to upset the school’s effect on themselves. August proves a handful, as he erupts into violence when threatened. Readers going into Borderliners expecting something like Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow will be disappointed – even Wikipedia states that Høeg’s novels tend to defy easy categorisation. Fortunately, I already knew this going in, although it’s certainly true Borderliners doesn’t have the immediate appeal of the earlier novel. Nonetheless, Høeg is an author whose work is worth exploring, I think. And, thanks to my brother-in-law, I now know how to pronounce the author’s name correctly.

iron_tactnThe Iron Tactician, Alastair Reynolds (2016). There are few things as dependable in science fiction as an Alastair Reynolds novella. Even before you turn the first page, you know you’re going to get an entertaining story larded with eyeball kicks and laid on a substrate of some big idea or other. It’s almost the dictionary definition of twenty-first century sf… except, well, the genre now covers so much ground, and is so diverse, that Reynolds’s ur-sf is only one strand among many. Which is a good thing, I hasten to add. The Iron Tactician is about as dictiuonary-definition Reynolds sf as you can get, on the other hand. It’s a sequel of sorts to ‘Minla’s Flowers’ and ‘Merlin’s Gun’. Merlin stumbles across a cold swallowship and decides to see if it has a working syrinx (used to access a NAFAL network created by mysterious aliens). There’s one survivor aboard the derelicxt, and she reveals that the ship traded its syrinx centuries before to a nearby star system locked into a planetary war. So Merlin and Teal head for the planetary system, planning to trade back the syrinx. The locals ask them to perform a task in payment: recover the titular AI from a pirate band, because they need it to win the centuries-long war against their enemies. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems – not the Iron Tactician, nor the the prince who represents the owners of the syrinx, or indeed the syrinx itself. I enjoyed the novella, even though something slightly familiar about it nagged me as I read it. I’m not sure what it was, but something in it felt second-hand and I had not expected it. It’ll probably end up on a coyuple of award shortlists, because genre awards these days are totally corrupt, although I don’t think it deserves to. (No reflection on Alastair or his work, he’s very good at what he does – but I’d hate to think The Iron Tactician is one of the best novellas the genre has produced in 2016, and I know it’s not the best Alastair has written.)

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #40

I’m not sure what’s been going on with my reading recently. I usually alternate genders in my fiction reading, but I seem to have had a run of male authors. I’ll probably make up for it before the end of the year.

hollow_manThe Hollow Man, John Dickson Carr (1935). Whenever I spot one of these Crime Masterworks in a charity shop, I pick it up. I’m not a big fan of crime fiction, although it does seem many sf fans are, and when I do read crime I tend to stick to a handful of favourite authors, like Sara Paretsky or Sue Grafton. But some of the classic stuff makes for an easy light read, along with the sf, amongst all the literary fiction I seem to mostly read these days… I’ve read Dickson Carr before – I seem to remember buying one of his books at a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi during the 1990s – but I couldn’t tell you anything about him or his oeuvre. The Hollow Man was apparently voted the “best locked room mystery of all time”, so it comes as no surprise to discover its one of those completely contrived murder mysteries which are set up in order to make the protagonist – eccentric detective Gideon Fell, who is based on London – appear enormously clever. The Hollow Man is split into three sections. In the first, an emigré professor is threatened in a pub, and then is later murdered in his room after admitting a stranger – but when the locked door is forced, the stranger has vanished and there’s no other exit. In the second section, the chief suspect is then shot in the middle of an empty street, with no visible assassin, by witnesses. The final section reveals the back-history of the two dead men (they were brothers) and Fell explains, with diagrams, how both murders were committed. The first was deliberately contrived to be a locked room mystery, the second only became a mystery through a sequence of unlikely events. Although set in London, Dickson Carr completely fails to evoke time or place, and most of the characters are painted very broadly. It’s a mildly entertaining, but slight, intellectual exercise, and requires about as much suspension of disbelief as your average space opera.

sign_in_the_moonlightThe Sign in the Moonlight, David Tallerman (2016). I was given a copy of this by the author, and I’ll freely admit horror, or dark fantasy, is not really my thing. Even so, if there was one thing which jumped out at me about the stories in this collection, it’s that they pastiched their inspirations a little too effectively. In fact, for much of the collection, it felt like the author had no voice of their own. Granted, it takes good craft to pastiche so effectively, and in an individual story read in, say, a magazine or anthology, it wouldn’t present a problem… but in a collection of such stories, you start to wonder who has actually written them… I wasn’t as taken with the Lovecraft-kiddie story, ‘My Friend Fish Finger By Daisy, Aged 7’, which I first heard at a York pub meet, as much as I know others have been; and I thought the title story, an Aleister Crowley story, suffered from a lack of, well, Aleister Crowley… although I thought it quite effective otherwise. The stories are, on the whole, well-crafted and polished, and wouldn’t look out of place in any random Weird Tales sort of anthology or magazine. The collection is also very nicely illustrated, with a page of art introducing each story. But for me, that lack of a voice felt like a deal-breaker, and it all seemed somewhat too polished, so your attention tended to slide from the prose. It has occurred to me that short stories succeed when they contain a high concept conceit that resonates with readers or a strong voice – and the best stories have both. In terms of strong conceits, some of the stories in The Sign in the Moonlight get close, and in isolation those conceits might have seemed stronger. I’ve always liked collections, I much prefer them, in fact, to anthologies… but reading this one made me think about why I prefer them, and why some are more successful than others.

game_of_authorsA Game of Authors, Frank Herbert (2013). Of course, Frank Herbert didn’t write this novel in 2013. WordFire Press – better known as Kevin J Anderson – has been publishing Herbert’s previously unpublished work, and this mainstream thriller is one of those. And I can see why it never saw print back in the day. A journalist is sent a letter in broken English which reveals that a long-missing Pulitzer Prize-winning author is hiding out in Mexico. The journalist persuades his paper to let him check it out… but it’s all a plot by the missing author, who has been imprisoned in a hacienda, with his nubile daughter, by the head of the local communist cell, because the author has been writing propaganda stories for them and selling them under pseudonyms to US slicks. The writing in A Game of Authors is definitely Herbert’s, but it’s much cruder than his later work and some of the dialogue is embarrassingly bad. The Mexican characters are all stereotypes, and the communist conspiracy plot is too weak to justify the violent showdown which results. If you’re interested in Herbert’s career, A Game of Authors might be worth a read; but letting it see the light of day will not do his reputation all that much good.

oneOne, David Karp (1953). This was from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks and, despite being a literary dystopia, it wasn’t a novel I’d heard of until I came across his copy. I mean, I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World and I’m aware of We and ‘When the Machine Stops’… but I don’t recall ever seeing mention of One in discussions of dystopian fiction. Has it dropped out of favour? Is it considered not sfnal enough to mention in discussions of dystopias? Because it’s a damn sight more science-fictional than Nineteen Eighty-four. (And is no longer in print, I see.) A couple of centuries from now, the “benevolent State” rules the entire planet. A college professor is a secret informer for the State and writes regular reports on his colleagues and students. But then he is called in for a random check, mistakes his interview with the Department of Internal Examination as an indication the department is about to reward him for his diligence, and so reveals himself to be a “heretic”. But a senior member of the department believes heretics such as the professor are curable, and tries to do so. (Normally, they’re  simply executed.) The professor is brainwashed and rejoins society under a different name and with an entirely different personality. But his subsequent behaviour, although he appears to be a model citizen, reveals that his heresy has not been completely eradicated… Clearly, the 1950s US fear of communism is the driving force behind the world and plot of One, but such novels reveal more about the flaws of the writer’s society than they do those of their invented dystopia (hello there, Fahrenheit 451). The benevolent State is crime-free and the vast majority of its citizens are happy. Why is this a bad thing? A handful of malcontents who believe their dissatisfaction is a result of their “individualism” being curtailed is no reason to write off the entire society. But, of course, that’s how dystopian fiction works. It reinforces present-day values by valourising one single aspect of the writer’s society that a “dystopia” might diminish, while ignoring all the social problems said dystopia might actually fix. Obviously, the USSR was far from a utopia, but at least it tried to become one – which is more than can be said for the US (or indeed most nations). One has its flaws – it’s simplistic, it’s all a bit men-in-hats sf, and its prose is functional rather than evocative (although better than most sf novels of the time). It also makes a meal of the whole “individualism” thing, when it actually does a better job of disproving the need for it. It’s still worth reading.

mars_1999Mars 1999, Brian O’Leary (1987). I bought this a few years ago when I was collecting books on missions to Mars, and while its title alone indicated it was now alternate history, I hadn’t expected it to posit such a, well, utopian vision of the early twenty-first century. It’s all very well imagining NASA will expand their space programme and put together a mission to Mars. It’s even plausible such a mission might be a joint mission with the USSR (because, of course, in 1987, everyone thought the Soviet Union was still in rude health). But it’s a frankly bizarre stretch to think that a US-USSR mission to Mars might lead to a world government two decades later… O’Leary covers some of the necessary science in basic fashion, then documents the design of spacecraft which would be used in his preferred mission plan (including some not very good illustrations of the spacecraft), and even intersperses his discussion of his topic with short chapters of a fictionalised mission featuring an international crew. Well, not precisely international – there’s a Soviet spacecraft and a US spacecraft travelling in formation, but the US crew is not entirely American. The commander is, however. And another American in the crew gets to be the first human being to step onto the Martian surface. I didn’t read Mars 1999 looking for a fictional treatment of the first mission to Mars, but I was expecting something a little heavier on the science and engineering that what I found. I suspect the book was among the first on its topic to be published, so all due credit to the author, but thirty years later it reads like, er, science fiction, or alternate history. And not particulary good science fiction or alternate history.  One for those interested in the topic, I suspect.

labyrinthsLabyrinths*, Jorge Luis Borges (1962). I had a copy of this years ago but it seems to have gone missing at some point, and I’d never got around to reading it. So I bought a replacement copy, and ended up reading it a couple of weeks after it had arrived. There’s not much you can say about Borges or this collection – either you know what he writes, or you don’t, because explaining it is pretty difficult. Labyrinths contains some of Borges’s best-known stories, such as ‘The Library of Babel’, which describes an infinite library and those who live in it; or ‘Funes the Memorious’, about a boy who falls from a horse, injures his head, and develops a perfectly eidetic memory; or ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius’, about an encylopaedia which includes an article on a country which does not exist and triggers an obsessive search for more information by the narrator; or ‘Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote‘, which discusses an author who plans to become Cervantes in order to write a word-for-word copy of Don Quixote… The stories have a sort of dry, academic tone, almost reportage in places, but certainly a demonstration, much like I found Blixen’s Anecdotes of Destiny to be, that “show, don’t tell” is a relatively recent writing fad. I particularly liked ‘The Immortal’, but ‘Three Versions of Judas’ read like uninteresting biblical scholarship. Labyrinths also includes ten essays and eight “Parables”. This is erudite, intelligent stuff, and while Borges is fully deserving of his reputation, I can’t see anyone writing anything like it today – at least, writing it and being published… Every self-respecting literature fan should have a copy of Labyrinths on their book shelves, real or virtual.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #39

Reading that massive Vargas Llosa tome derailed my reading timetable somewhat, and I’m currently ten books behind on my Goodreads reading challenge of 150 books read in 2016. So I’m going to have to do some intensive reading to catch up. Meanwhile…

valerian13Valerian and Laureline 13: On the Frontiers, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1988). The previous two volumes in this series saw Galaxity, the organisation for which Valerian and Laureline work, wiped out of history, and now the pair are trapped on 1980s Earth. The frontiers in the title refer to those on our planet. The story opens with Valerian helping the Soviets to determine the cause of a nuclear accident – it’s sabotage, but it’s not clear who was responsible, or why they did it. The story then abruptly shifts to a galactic space liner, and a pair of aliens who wear golden armour. There are apparently so few of the Wûûm left, that a meeting between them is exceedingly rare… and so leads to a shipboard romance. Except the male Wûûm is really a human, and he kills the woman and steals her psychic power so he can use it to kick off a nuclear war on Earth, by, for example, sabotaging nuclear power plants, and so bring about the creation of Galaxity earlier than in now-disappeared timeline. I’ve said all along the Valerian and Laureline series is superior space opera, but it’s also a clever commentary on the world at the time of publishing. It’s easy enough to deride France’s tradition of science fiction as bandes dessinée – they’re comics! – but many of them are a damn sight more intelligent than actual written-words novels published at that time in the US. I mean, seriously, do you think Larry Niven wrote more intelligent sf than Moebius?

in_valley_statuesIn the Valley of the Statues, Robert Holdstock (1982). These days, Holdstock is best known for his Mythago Wood sequence of novels, beginning with the novel of that name. But he originally started out writing science fiction – in fact, his sf novel Where Time Winds Below is still one of my favourites, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell him as much at a con way back in the early 1990s. The 1970s were an especially strong period in British sf. It’s mostly forgotten, or ignored, now, of course, but you had writers like DG Compton, Richard Cowper, Josephine Saxton, Keith Roberts, churning out some blinding stuff; and even into the early 1980s, with Gwyneth Jones, Robert Holdstock, Christopher Evans… But the so-called history of science fiction has wiped them all from the narrative, preferring to focus on the best-selling shit produced by US writers like Niven, Asimov, Heinlein. In the Valley of the Statues is very much a short story collection of its time, containing eight well-written and thoughtful science fiction stories, including the original ‘Mythago Wood’ novella. The considered prose would probably be thought dated in some quarters, but it’s actually better than the bulk of award-winning genre fiction being produced today. I enjoyed Mythago Wood, and its sequel Lavondyss, but when Holdstock continued working that – commercially successful – vein, fantasy’s gain was science fiction’s loss.

the_old_childThe Old Child, Jenny Erpenbeck (1999). I’ve seen this desccribed as a difficult read, and I wonder that there is such a thing. Because it’s not a quality of the book, it’s a consequence of the effort put in by the reader. Which is not to say that everyone wants to put that effort into reading, or indeed that every book deserves such an effort (either deliberately or not). The Old Child is the story of an orphan accepted into a children’s home, who is either wise beyond her years or far too innocent for her purported age. She spends much of the story as a tabula rasa, and deliberately so from her perspective, and only begins to engage with the other kids when her ability to keep silent becomes of use to them. It’s a bleak tale and told in a distant tone, which really appeals to me. It’s a way of looking at East Germany and its fate, but it’s not a point that’s belaboured or even made explicitly. Erpenbeck is a supremely clever writer, and the way she uses prose is both interesting and expertly done. I’ve made no secret of the fact I consider Erpenbeck my “discovery” of 2016. This is the third book by her I’ve read so far this year, and I have one more on the TBR which I plan to get to shortly. Then it’ll be a little harder to track down the rest of her oeuvre, as it’s only been intermittently translated from German to English. (I’m tempted to try the German, but my skill in that language is a bit rusty these days.) Anway, read Erpenbeck; she is quite brilliant.

dream_dancerDream Dancer, Janet Morris (1980). Back in the mid-1980s, I picked up a copy of Cruiser Dreams, the middle book in Morris’s Kerrion Consortium trilogy, in, I seem to remember, a junk shop in C oventry. I read it and enjoyed it enough to want to read the rest of the trilogy. Eventually, I tracked down copies of the first book, Dream Dancer, and the third, Earth Dreams. I’ve no idea where and when I found this particular book, Dream Dancer, but I apparently bought Earth Dreams at a Novacon in 2007. And yes, it’s taken me since then to get around to actually reading the trilogy. Although I’m seriously starting to doubt my memories of Cruiser Dreams as Dream Dancer is one of the worst-written books I’ve come across in a long time. I don’t think it was even edited. If it was, the editor should hang their head in shame. “Irregardless” is not a word. There are also lots of malapropisms. And the prose is so over-written most of it makes no sense. Now, I like lush prose, I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Durrell, after all; but the writing in this book is complete nonsense. Anway, a more detailed review appears on SF Mistressworks here.

dan_dare_2Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2, Lowder, Finley-Day & Gibbons (2016). My first memory of the 2000AD Dare is a Bellardinelli centre-spread depicting Dan Dare arriving in London and being shocked at the changes while he had been frozen. But I also remember Dave Gibbon’s cleanly-drawn lines in a story in which Dare had the “Cosmic Claw”, a mystical alien weapon which had “chosen” Dare as its wielder. I’d missed much of the story of Dare’s acquisition of the Cosmic Claw, so it was good to read that in this volume, except… Well, the artwork is nice, but the stories really were shit. Hoary old crap any sf magazine editor would have bounced without a second thought. But for comics it was considered acceptable. I don’t understand this. Of course, at the time, I was a kid and I gleefully swallowed whatever crap was fed me. It’s true, I marvelled at the artwork and let the story wash over me… but I can’t do that now. I have to consider both. And the 2000AD Dan Dare stories were shit. I’m not saying the Eagle ones were any better, because many of them were also complete bollocks. But some of Hampson’s work was actually amazing – ‘Safari on Venus’, for example – whereas the 2000AD Dare was never even close to mediocre, never mind good. I bought this book out of nostalgia; by reading it I promptly set fire to said nostalgia. Be wise, readers, do not do as I have. Leave your childhood illusions as they were, let the memories comfort you in your dotage.

sleeping_embersSleeping Embers on an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock (2015). When someone names half a dozen writers, and includes both myself and another couple of writers whose fiction I like, then it stands to reason I’ll probably like the others I’d not previously read. So I bought a couple of Aliya Whiteley novellas, and read them and thought them very good (although one more so than the other – see here). And now to Anne Charnock… and I have to admit I’d not otherwise have given the book a second look given that title – and yes, I know my own stuff has long and none-too-informative titles. But I’d have missed out. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind comprises three stories, set in 2013, 2113 and 1469. The links between the three are tenuous (yes, it does remind me a bit of my own writing). In 2113, Toniah has returned to London, is living with her parthogenetic sister (they’re third-generation partho) and has taken up a position as an art history researcher at the Academy of Restitution, which seeks to promote women in history whose contributions were unfairly forgotten, and likewise reassess those of men whose reputation is undeserved (a lovely idea, we should have one of these now). Toniah begins researching the career of… Antonia Uccello, the daughter of Paolo Uccello, a fifteenth-century Italian known for having introduced perspective into Italian Renaissance painting. Although there are a small handful of women painters, it is a male career. Those women were only permitted to paint because they are nuns – and so Antonia, who is talented, must join a convent. By the twenty-second century only her name survives, and only a single painting found in a provincial museum’s archive. The third story follows Toni, a thirteen-year-old Brit, whose father is a professional copyist and whose mother died in a freak accident before the story opens. After a visit to meet a client in China, Toni is inspired to ask her friends and online acquaintances to contribute to her history homework, and so she learns of a great-uncle who died in the Great War before he could marry his betrothed. So Toni and her father go on holiday to France to visit his grave. There’s no neat resolution to the three narratives, to the novel in fact. It tells its stories and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. In some respects, it reminds me of Katie Ward’s excellent Girl Reading (and still no follow-up novel from her, which I would really love to see). I think Ward’s prose style is more to my taste than Charnock’s, which is not to say the latter is bad: it’s unadorned and straightforward, with an enviable clarity. Whoever called out Charnock has done me a favour, and I’ve already put her other two novels (one due in January next year) on my wishlist.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 128


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Reading diary, #38

The bulk of my reading is still science fiction – 38% of my reading, in fact, with mainstream next highest at 25% – although that sf percentage has steadily declined in recent years. In fact, it seems these day the only sf I read are new books by sf writers I’ve been reading for decades, or somewhat older sf novels for review on SF Mistressworks. This is hardly surprising. Literary fiction delivers more of what I look for nowadays in fiction, and the current fashion in science fiction is not to my taste at all. In other words, I’d sooner watch, say, a Brazilian Cinema Novo movie than the latest MCU blockbuster. I suspect my own writing reflects that. But if diversity is a big thing in genre right now – and not before time, I admit – then it seems foolish to apply it only within the genre. Read more diversely, by all means; but read more diversely in non-genre fiction as well – if not more so, given there’s a much wider selection of diverse things to read outside science fiction and fantasy. The following books are part of my ongoing journey in doing just that…

rites_of_passageRites of Passage, William Golding (1980). Back at school, I read Golding’s Lord of the Flies – at least I’m pretty sure I did; I can distinctly remember the class reading Cider with Rosie and The Cruel Sea, but my memories of reading Lord of the Flies are somewhat vague – but that was all I knew of Golding. And then a couple of months ago, a local charity shop had four of his paperbacks in stock – I’m not sure who donated them, since they were in excellent condition and had even been protected by sticky-back transparent plastic. I bought two – Rites of Passage and The Inheritors – but on a later trip, only one was left, The Spire, and I now can’t remember what the fourth title was. At the time I wasn’t especially bothered, but having now read Rites of Passage and discovered how bloody good it is… Rites of Passage is the first book of the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, and was apparently adapted for television, with Blunderbuss Cucumbersnatch in the lead role, although I don’t recall seeing it. The novel is presented as the journal of Edmund Talbot, a minor member of the aristocracy, who has taken ship to Australia in the early 1800s to take up a position in the governor’s office in New South Wales. Also onboard the ship – a converted man-of-war – is a member of the clergy, a somewhat obsequious young parson called Colley. The trip does not start well. Both Talbot and Colley earn the ire of the captain by disobeying his standing orders and approaching officers on watch, and the captain himself, on the poop deck. Talbot is, eventually, forgiven; Colley is not. In fact, Colley becomes the unwitting butt of the crew’s vulgar and insulting “ceremony” for crossing the equator. But he forgives them and persuades the captain, who is embarrassed at Colley’s treatment, to allow him to perform the offices of vicar for the crew. But it goes badly wrong, and Colley dies. After Colley’s death, Talbot comes into possession of the parson’s journal, and realises what he had missed, and how remiss he had been. I had no idea what to expect when I started Rites of Passage, but found it to be an astonishingly good novel. Golding’s control of voice is second to none, his evocation of the period is supremely convincing, and he does not beat the reader about the head with the plot or its meaning. This is what proper fiction is like. I now want to read the other two books of the trilogy – Close Quarters and Fire Down Belowand see the TV adaptation. Oh, and I want to read more Golding. Fortunately, I have another two books of his on the TBR…

appointmentThe Appointment, Herta Müller (1997). A conversation on Twitter late one night after I had imbibed a portion or two of wine turned to laureates of the Nobel Prize for Literature (writers, not fucking folk singers), and female laureates in particular, and, well, before I knew it, I’d gone and bought a couple books by female Nobel laureates on the web site of a very large online retailer. The first was this, The Appointment by Herta Müller, a German writer who, despite her name is, er, actually Romanian. Her family belonged to the German-speaking minority in Romania, but in 1987 she was given permission to leave and settle in Germany after many years of trying. Her most successful novel to date has been 2009’s The Hunger Angel, and that same year she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Until prompted to look her up by the aforementioned Twitter conversation, I had not even heard of Müller or her fiction. But I bought The Appointment, and read it on a trip to, and from, Leeds one Saturday. The Appointment was published in Germany – she is, despite her origin, probably best considered a German writer – but the novel is set in Romania, as indeed is apparently much of her fiction. The title refers to the meeting the narrator has with Albu, a major in the Romanian secret police. The narrator used to work in a garment factory, whose products were mostly destined for export – and in a shipment of trousers destined for Italy, she hid a series of notes, asking to be rescued, through marriage, by an Italian man. But the notes were found and she was reported to management. Unfortunately, she had a bad relationship with her manager, and when a later series of notes were found, critical of the regime, she was blamed and sacked. And forced to attend interrogation sessions with Major Albu. It’s grim stuff. I’ve visited Romania – it’s a lovely country, full of lovely people – but the Ceaucescu regime was brutal and Müller pulls no punches in depicting how it impacted the lives of ordinary people. I’m in two minds whether to read more Müller – she writes in a style I like, present tense and slightly distant, and while I’m not especially keen on first-person narratives it works extremely well here; but the story is punishingly hard to read. Having said that, writing about the book for this blog post is sort of persuading me to try something else by her…

wreath_of_rosesA Wreath of Roses, Elizabeth Taylor (1949). I first came across Taylor via François Ozon’s adaptation of her novel Angel, starring Romola Garai, which I reviewed for Videovista (see here) and liked. Prior to that, I’d not known there was a writer who shared a name with the famous actress. I later stumbled across a copy of Taylor’s Blaming, read it and enjoyed it… and so she became a name to look out for in charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of A Wreath of Roses. Camilla and Liz are visiting Liz’s ex-governess, Frances, for the summer, something they have done for many years. Liz is now married to a vicar and has a small baby, Camilla is a school secretary at a private girl’s school, and Frances has been a painter since giving up her profession many years before. Something about this particular summer is not as idyllic as previous ones – perhaps it’s the presence of Liz’s baby, or that the years are beginning to weigh on Frances, or that Camilla finds herself unaccountably attracted to a man she met on the train who is now staying in a local inn… This is a very English novel, depicting a post-war south England which seems chiefly characterised by its landscape, flora and fauna than by the depredations of the recent war. All three of the women are flawed, and it’s their fears which essentially drive the story. There’s a bit of condescension to a working-class woman who cleans for Frances, and a film director who collects her paintings doesn’t seem entirely convincing when he appears. But there’s a pleasing manneredness to Taylor’s prose, and while I prefer Olivia Manning’s tales of expats, the two writers are enough alike that I’ll continue to read Taylor’s novels when I find them. Happily, all of her novels are still in print, and there is even a collection of her Complete Short Stories available.

other_sideThe Other Side of Silence, Philip Kerr (2016).  I’ve been a fan of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels for many years, but the more books appear in the series the more worried I am that Gunther has overstayed his welcome. The Other Side of Silence is the eleventh book in what was originally a trilogy. And while I don’t think the books have seen a diminution in quality, I’m starting to wonder just how many events of the twentieth century Gunther is going to find himself involved in. (I had a similar problem with Allan Mallinson’s Matthew Hervey series, in which the protagonist seemed to be involved in every major military conflict between 1812 and, to date, 1830…) However, Kerr has managed to avoid this problem so far by a) doing his research, so none of it feels forced or overdone, and b) picking little-known incidents from the years following World War II. Having said that, I’d still like to see a breakdown of Bernie Gunther’s career by year, because it’s beginning to feel a little packed. In The Other Side of Silence, sixty-year-old Gunther is a concierge in a posh hotel in Nice in 1956. When a face from his past – a Gestapo officer with a penchant for blackmail – appears, things rapidly go downhill. Gunther finds himself acting as a middleman for W Somerset Maugham in a classic queer blackmail sting, only for it to turn into a convoluted plot to catch Soviet moles in the British intelligence services. Except perhaps it isn’t. Kerr slots Gunther’s story neatly into real history, and he doesn’t belabour the point of the novel (knowledge of a certain book which caused a huge fuss in the UK in the 1980s is useful in figuring out what’s really going on). The Gunther novels can be read in any order, although they usually include a reference to events in one or more of the preceding volumes – but then they’re usually structured with twin narratives, one set in the novel’s present-day (1956, in this case), and one set in Gunther’s past. Worth reading.

war_endThe War of the End of the World*, Mario Vargas Llosa (1981). I picked this book several years ago for a world fiction reading challenge, but never got around to buying it, never mind reading it. But I eventually purchased a copy last year, and it sat on my shelves… until I decided it was a good book to take on my trip to Iceland since I’d have several uninterrupted hours of reading while travelling. In the event, I didn’t read as much of it as I’d expected to, and it’s taken me a couple of weeks since my return to finish it off. The novel is set in the state of Bahia, in the north-east of Brazil, a poor state characterised chiefly by desert, and not the Amazonian forest popular wisdom insists Brazil is covered by, in the 1890s, shortly after Brazil overthrew its monarchy and declared a republic. (The author, by the way, is Peruvian.) A messianic preacher, called the Counselor, appears in the povetry-stricken villages of Bahia and builds up a following. They occupy some land belonging to the area’s most powerful “colonel” (ie, landowner), the Baron de Canabrava, Canudos, and create a utopian village opposed  to the republic. Which promptly responds by sending elements of the army to wipe out the Counselor and his followers. And they fail each time. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Glauber Rocha’s excellent 1964 film, Black God White Devil, which covers a similar subject, albeit in the 1940s, but is also set in Bahia. The War of the End of the World is based on real history – the War of Canudos 1896-1897 – which makes me wonder if the same event didn’t inspire Rocha. Vargas Llosa handles his large cast with skill, using a variety of narrative techniques, and even tenses, to tell each individual’s story. It’s engrossing stuff, and it’s only the sheer size of the novel – 728 pages! – and a need to concentrate that has led to me taking to so long to read it. I might try something else by Vargas Llosa some time. Recommended.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 128


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Reading diary, #37

I didn’t set out to read mostly women this month, but that’s the way it worked out. Still, if the reading plan is going to fail, it’s best to fail this way than the other.

sunboundThe Sunbound, Cynthia Felice (1981). I’d enjoyed Felice’s Godsfire, which I’d picked up at Archipelacon and was expecting something similar from The Sunbound, which I bought at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm. In the event, it proved quite a problematical novel – see my review on SF Mistressworks here – and I really can’t recommend it… although I’ve not given up Felice’s oeuvre by any means. In fact, the novel published after this one, Eclipses, looks quite interesting. I just need to find a copy…

arrival_missivesThe Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whitely (2016). I bought both this novella and the one below at Fantasycon. I’d been keen to read something by Whitely after a tweet had named half a dozen or so under-appreciated genre authors including Nina Allan, myself and Whiteley, among others; and given that’d read a lot of Allan’s fiction and found it good, I wanted to try Whiteley. I read this on the train on the way back from Scarborough – a surprisingly pleasant journey, given the shocking state of our railways. The Arrival of Missives is set immediately after the First World War, in a small village that has suffered its fair share of casualties. Most of those in the novella, however, are children – or at least were too young to fight. Shirley Fearn, a teenager, dreams of a life outside the small village in which she lives, although her father wants her to marry a local lad who can then inherit the farm. Shirley also has a crush on the new village school teacher, Mr Tiller, a veteran of the war. She makes plans to attend teacher training in a nearby town, and insinuates herself into Tiller’s life… only to discover that his torso has a largew piece of rock embedded in it, large enough that he should not be alive as it occupies the space where his organs should be. At this point, The Arrival of Missives takes this piece of weirdness and runs with it. The stone was sent back in time by humans from the distant future, and is one of many such “missives” – this one happened to find Tiller near-death and caught up on some barbed wire in No Man’s Land. It makes for a weird disconnect – a detailed story of post-WWI life in a small village, almost Lawrentian in tone, and this science-fictional idea, which has no rational support or narrative scaffolding. But that, I guess, is what New Weird is. And yet The Arrival of Missives works because the writing is so good. Shirley is a compelling narrator, and her concerns are well-handled. The “missive” adds an odd flavour to the novella, which most will like more than I did… but I suspect this is still a contender for a BSFA or BFS Award next year.

golden_notebookThe Golden Notebook*, Doris Lessing (1962). I admit it, I had thought this would be extremely hard-going. I’d read a couple of Lessing’s other novels and not been taken with them – and even if the first book of her sf quintet, Canopus in Argos Archives, Shikasta, felt to me like being beaten about the head by Ursula K Le Guin. The Golden Notebook, Lessing’s most celebrated novel, I expected to be a bit of a chore – especially given its 576 pages… So I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was an engrossing read. I’m only glad I read it after writing All That Outer Space Allows, as some structural elements of my novel might well have changed and in hindsight I’m not convinced they’d have been improvements. The Golden Notebook is a novel titled ‘Free Women’, about Anna Wulf, writer of a single successful novel based on her years in Africa during WWII, who is now living in London. She is also a communist. Between Sections of ‘Free Women’ are Wulf’s notebooks – black, red, yellow and blue. In the black notebook, she describes her time in Africa – on which her one published novel, ‘Frontiers of War’ (and which I kept on mis-thinking as Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War) was based – and later, her life in London. The red notebook details Wulf’s politics and her interactions with the Communist Party. The yellow notebook is a fictionalisation of Wulf’s own life, title ‘The Shadow of the Third’, in which Wulf’s part is played by a woman called Ella. And the blue notebook starts out as a diary, but at times is more of a scrapbook, filled with newspaper cuttings. The five narratives, despite covering similar ground, don’t actually confuse The Golden Notebook‘s story, they actually deepen it and successfully show different aspects of Wulf’s character – as a writer, as a communist, her sex life (especially her affairs, none of which last) and her relations with her friends. The more observant among you will have noticed that the title of Lessing’s novel refers to a notebook not yet mentioned. This only appears near the end, opens by describing Anna breaking free of her then-boyfriend, before becoming that boyfriend’s own novel (a précis is given only), since writing is the catalyst the two use to part amicably. I really liked The Golden Notebook, and I honestly hadn’t expected to. I can see how it might have shocked in 1962 – Lessing is very forthright about Wulf’s sex life – and the sharp criticism of the lives women were expected to live can’t have gone down too well. I expect the communism would be more of a turn-off to twenty-first century readers than the sexual politics. But The Golden Notebook does read like a book ahead of its time. Recommended.

nocillaNocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I seem to remember seeing this discussed on David Hebblethwaites’s blog, and the fact it inspired a new generation of writers in Spain – the “Nocilla generation” – only made it me want to read it all the more. It’s actually the first book of a trilogy, and the second book, Nocilla Experience. will be published in English next month. Despite my disappointment with some aspects of Nocilla Dream, it’s on my wish list. But Nocilla Dream… The book is structured as 113 sections, which vary in length from several lines to several pages. There also excerpts from other books and scholarly articles, on a wide range of subjects. There is no plot per se. Repeated mention is made of a tree on the desert road between Carson City and Ely, Nevada, over whose branches people have thrown pairs of shoes. Some of the stories involve people who have provided at least one pair of those shoes; some of the others involve people who have interacted with those people. The stories take place all over the world – which results in one of my gripes: a couple of sections are set in Denmark and it’s a very unconvincing depiction of the country. Another gripe is more the publisher’s fault, as on page 87, the section is headed “Relevant physical constants”, and the exponential figures haven’t been printed with the powers as superscript – so you get, for example, “Speed of Light, c = 3.00 x 108 m/s” when it should be 3.00 x 108 m/s. Despite these, Nocilla Dream is fascinating, does some very interesting things with narrative structure, and I’m looking forward to reading the remaining two books in the trilogy. I will admit to some disappointment, however, when I discovered that Nocilla is a brand-name of a Nutella-like spread in Spain…

the_beautyThe Beauty, Aliya Whiteley (2014). I don’t think this is quite as successful a novella as The Arrival of Missives – partly because the writing is not as good, but also because it seems even more consciously New Weird. Fungi! The narrator is the storyteller of a group of men living in a remote valley in the south-west after a fungal infection killed off all the women (it’s not said but it’s implied it’s global). The Group had been formed before that, a back-to-the-land survivalist sort of commune. But then the women all begin to die from a strange yellow fungus. The Group stumbles on for a while without women. Then the storyteller, Nathan, is taken to see growths of the strange yellow fungus in the nearby wood, whic resemble those growing on the graves of the women in the Group’s cemetery – clearly indicating women are buried there. He is captured by a strange creature which looks like a woman but is made of yellow fungus. It traps him underground, but keeps him alive. He is initially revulsed, but comes to love the creature, which he names Bee. The rest of the Group soon have one each. These are the Beauty. They’re implied to be reincarnations of the lost women, but are unable to communicate except by projecting moods and feelings. Nathan has frequent sex with Bee – this despite there being a maternal element to their relationship (the other members of the Group treat their Beauty as they did their wives and girlfriends). But then one of the group, Thomas, begins to develop a tumour… except it isn’t a tumour, it’s a baby, part-human part-Beauty. And so the roles are swapped, and a new world is ushered in. The novella finishes with Nathan and Bee leaving the Group to find out what is happening in the outside world. There are some types of New Weird I can take – such as The Arrival of Missives, for example – and some I can’t. The Beauty falls squarely in the latter. Whiteley’s writing, while good, has definitely improved by the later novella – which is just as well as I doubt I would have read further had I come across The Beauty in 2014.

legacy_lehrThe Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz (1986). Another book from Fantastika 2016. Kurtz, of course, as the cover of this paperback makes plain, is better known for fantasy than science fiction. In fact, The Legacy of Lehr appears to be her only science fiction novel. And this despite having an engaging pair of protagonists in a set-up ripe for further adventures. Perhaps the book didn’t sell well  enough to encourage Kurtz, or the publisher, to continue as a series. I enjoyed the book, although it’s lightweight. My review will appear on SF Mistressworks later this week.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 127


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Reading diary, #36

My reading seems to have slowed a little, perhaps because I’m choosing books which aren’t quite such easy reads. On the other hand, it could just be that I’ve been quite busy. Anyway, an odd mix this time: two category genre books, one borderline and two classic twentieth century literature; three women, two men; two novels, three collections; three Americans, one Brit and a Dane. I really need to address that latter category a little more – I have a number of translated works on my bookshelves that I plan to tackle, such as Bolaño, Munif, Høeg, Myckle, Vargas Llosa, Gogol, Mallo… All I have to do is schedule them in. It’s easy to read diversely if you plan your reading, after all. Anyway, the five books in this post were all bloody good ones, so perhaps avoiding “easy reads” was worth it. Duchamp and Park are probably two of the best US writers currently working in genre and very much under-appreciated; Green and Dinesen may be from the first half of last century, but they wrote some bloody good stuff; and while LeGui many not always click with me, there’s no denying her importance or the fact she has writing chops we lesser mortals can only dream to possess. In all, a highly recommended handful of books.

laviniaLavinia, Ursula K LeGuin (2008). Who doesn’t love LeGuin’s fiction? It’s almost impossible not to, because it’s so wide-ranging, so clever and so beautifully written. Personally, I prefer her science fiction, and while I’ve enjoyed her high fantasies I’m not so enamoured of her literary fantasies like Orsinian Tales or Searoad. Lavinia, however, is more of an historical fantasy, and falls somewhere between the two stools of genre fantasy and literary fantasy. I have no especial interest in the period it covers, pre-Roman Italy, although a good book would, you’d hope, make me interested (after reading George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of Time, for example, I spent several hours looking up brochs online, and nearly even bought a book on the topic). Nor am I trained classicist and so familiar with the sources texts uses in Lavinia – chiefly Virgil’s Aeneid. In fact, to be honest, I know very little about Bronze Age Europe – it’s not an era I’ve read much about. The title character is mentioned in passing in the Aeneid as the wife of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who survived the fall of Troy. LeGuin takes Lavinia’s brief mention and runs with it, opening with Lavinia’s childhood, then there’s arrival of Aeneas and his Trojans, their marriage, the founding of Lavinium, war… Throughout, Lavinia visits a sacred grove, where she talks to the ghost of “the poet”, who is clearly Virgil (who lived over a thousand years later – some of the references by him to “the future” do initially suggest something a little more science-fictional, but no). I know some people were very taken with the novel, but it never quite clicked with, although there was no denying its quality.

never_at_homeNever at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011). I bought this a couple of years ago after being much impressed by Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle – which, incidentally, is one of the best sf series about first contact ever written – but had never got around to reading it for some reason. Which I have now rectified. Partly, I admit, prompted by the superb story by Duchamp which opens the VanderMeers’ feminist sf anthology, Sisters of the Revolution. That story is not in Never at Home, but those that are range from the merely good to the bloody excellent. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a genre collection as strong as this one, and yet looking at the stories I’m not entirely sure why. They’re not bursting with ideas or “eyeball kicks” – that’s not what Duchamp does – but they’re certainly fascinating, and extremely well-written, explorations of very carefully explored ideas. In ‘A Question of Grammar’, for example, a woman taken from her family (who, it is implied, are considered unpersons by the galactic authorities) is bonded chemically to an alien to act as interpreter. I’m tempted to describe the story as “very”Gwyneth Jones”, high praise indeed from me, but I think that’s probably unfair to Duchamp. Either way, this was the best story in the collection and deserves to be much more widely known. ‘The Nones of Quintilis, Somewhere on the Southwest Slope of Monte Albano’ manages that very difficult balancing trick of being genre but not reading like genre. ‘Sadness Ineffable, Desire Ineluctable’ (Duchamp’s strong point clearly doesn’t lie in titling her short fiction) manages to evoke something like Area X half a decade before VanderMeer’s novels, and do so with more mystery and less fungi (both, it must be said, pluses in my book). This is a superior collection, probably the best genre collection I’m likely to read this year (yes, I think it just edges out Other Stories below). Not only do I recommend it, but I think everyone should also read Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle; and, of course, Duchamp’s Aqueduct Press does sterling work and has published some blinding works of fiction since its founding in 2004.

blindnessBlindness, Henry Green (1926). The authors you love, I’ve found, do not come about due to wide or deep reading of their oeuvre, but from a single piece of work, usually in the first half dozen or so by that author you’ve read. It blows you away… and it colours all your other encounters with that author’s works. With Lowry, it was his novella ‘Through the Panama’, with Durrell it was The Alexandria Quartet, with Blixen it was her story ‘Tempest’… and with Green it was the first novel by him I read, Loving. A pitch-perfect control of voice, a refusal to tell the story using normal narrative techniques, and an excellent eye for detail… what’s not to love? Blindness is Green’s first novel, and concerns a public schoolboy whose bright future is snatched from him in an accident which blinds him (a kid throws a stone at a passing train, smashing a window through which the protagonist is looking). The story is told firstly through letters, then through semi-stream-of-consciousness narratives by the young man and his mother and the young woman (of an unsuitable family) whose company he enjoys… It’s very much a story of privilege and deprivation – the main character is the scion of a wealthy family, with a country seat boasting a large staff (members of which which the mother complains about repeatedly); but the young woman is the daughter of an alcoholic vicar fallen on hard times and, if anything, reads more like a DH Lawrence character (on his good days, that is) than a fit companion for the blind boy. Green had a reputation as “a writer’s writer”, which is generally taken to mean he was much admired but sold few copies. It’s true that there’s a dazzling level of technique on display in Blindness, a facility with prose no writer can fail to admire. And it’s Green’s writing prowess I certainly admire, rather than his choice of subjects or the stories he chooses to tell. But there’s a profound pleasure to be found in reading prose that is just put together so well, and that’s why I treasure Green’s writing.

winters_talesWinter’s Tales, Isak Dinesen (1942). As mentioned earlier, Blixen impressed me with her story ‘Tempests’ in Anecdotes of Destiny (AKA Babette’s Feast and Other Stories), and so resolved to read more by her. (I’d also enjoyed the three films made of her works: Out of Africa, Babette’s Feast and The Immortal Story.) Winter’s Tales contains 11 stories, some of which are better than others, but all of which are good and all of which have an almost mythical feel to them. In some it’s quite overt – ‘The Fish’, for example, reads like mannered high fantasy but is about an actual king of Denmark. Most of the stories are historical, typically set in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Some are twist-in-the-tale type stories, such as ‘The Young Man with the Carnation’, in which a young husband reconsiders the future of his marriage after the eponymous person appears in the middle of the night at the door of the hotel room he is sharing with his wife. Only later, does the young husband realise he had been in the wrong room (whoops, spoiler). ‘The Heroine’ is a cautionary tale in which a French woman saves a group of travellers from being shot by Prussian soldiers (during the Franco-Prussian War) by refusing the Prussian commander’s offer. There was something quite DH Lawrence about the story. ‘The Pearls’ reminded me of Blixen’s own ‘The Immortal Story’, although its plot was very different. A woman marries a fearless man and her own sense of adventure is abruptly threatened when she realises the two of them skirt much too closely to danger – a realisation embodied in a  string of pearls he gives her and which she inadvertently breaks… There is, as I’ve said, a near-mythical to these stories, almost as if they’re parables. It’s a type of story that seems to have mostly fallen out of favour; and while that does make the contents seem of their time, there’s also a timelessness to them because they’re set in earlier decades and centuries. I’ll be reading more Dinesen/Blixen.

other_storiesOther Stories, Paul Park (2015). I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since reading Coelestis back in the mid-1990s, and I still think it’s one of the best sf novels ever written. Like LeGuin, Park’s career has been somewhat varied, albeit considerably less prolific, and his last novel, a metafictional piece that straddles science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and autobiography, All Those Vanished Engines, was for me one of the best novels of 2014. (It didn’t win any awards, of course.) So when PS Publishing announced they were publishing a collection of Parks stories, I was keen to get my hands on it… and it took a while to appear. But it was totally worth it. Some of the stories I’d read before – ‘No Traveller Returns’ was originally published as a signed limited novella by PS Publishing and, yes, I own a copy; ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ forms part of Park’s excellent novel, All Those Vanished Engines. Two stories appeared in Postscripts anthologies in which I also had stories – one of which, I – kof kof – provided the title story (#20/21 Edison’s Frankenstein and #32/33 Far Voyager). As for the rest… they’re slippery things, sliding between fantasy, alternate history and mimetic fiction, and even, in some cases, autobiography. ‘A Family History’ posits an alternate history in which the French Revolution fails and parts of North America remain in French control in the late nineteenth centiry… and the deconstructs the concept of alternate history. ‘Watchers at the Living Gate’ is straight-up fantasy, and while it owes more to Hope Hodgson than Tolkein, it still presents a singular vision. ‘Ragnarok’ is posta-apocalyspe fiction presented as epic poetry (not, to my mind, an experiment that works especially well). ‘Abduction’ is a frankly baffling story about what might, or might not be, alien abductions. But everything in the book is beautifully-written. Park and Duchamp are both massively under-rated US genre writers, and should be much more widely-read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126