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Reading diary, #32

I seem to have come over all genre. No idea how that happened. Six books and all are genre. Two weren’t published as genre, although one of them did win a science fiction award. I’m sure I’ll be feeling better the next time I come to write one of these posts…

the-brain-from-beyond-jhc-by-ian-watson-[3]-3859-pThe Brain from Beyond, Ian Watson (2016). This was launched at Mancunicon, but they didn’t have the signed edition available, so I ordered it from PS Publishing a couple of weeks later. It’s your typical Watsonian mad science fiction, which is – I hasten to say – not a bad thing. The invention of time travel has resulted in a lot of lost time machines, and so the Time Machine Salvage Ship Fibonacci, with its crew of four and AI, must go looking for them… and so gets dragged into a bonkers plot involving aliens in statis buried under Antarctica for 12,000 years which had been discovered a couple of centuries earlier, a Boltzmann Brain from far future after the universe has collapsed, a Creationist geologist from a theocratic USA… and jumps back and forth in time, stitching together the various elements of the story so that cause and effect end up tied up in some sort of Gordian Knot. Despite a tendency to fling ideas at the page in the hope that some will stick, this is a fun and clever novella. A definite contender for the BSFA short fiction award next year.

station_elevenStation Eleven, Emily St John Mandel (2014). This won the Clarke Award last year, and while I’d heard many good things about it, it’s a lit-fic post-apocalypse novel and I find post-apocalypse fiction banal at the best of times, and lit fic attempts at the genre all too often seem to think they’re doing something brand new and innovative, that no one has ever thought of before, and so the prose tends to reek of smugness. So my expectations were not especially high. Happily, Mandel proved a better writer than I’d expected, and I found myself enjoying reading Station Eleven. It’s still banal, of course; more so, in fact, because it trots out the Backwoods Messiah With The Persecution Complex plot, which should have been retired sometime around 37 CE. Anyway, a global flu epidemic wipes out most of humanity. Station Eleven opens in Toronto, when a famous actor has a heart attack on stage and dies. Then everyone else starts to die from the flu. The book jumps ahead twenty years to a post-apocalypse US, and a travelling orchestra/acting troupe, who travel the southern shores of the Great Lakes. And then there is a half-hearted attempt at a plot, which ties in with some of the flashback sections, which are about either the actor or the main character of the post-apocalypse story, a young actress in the travelling troupe. The writing was a great deal better than I’d expected, and so despite being post-apocalypse I came away from Station Eleven a little impressed. A worthy winner of the Clarke Award.

harlequinThe Harlequin, Nina Allan (2015). At some point it seems every writer has a go at a World War I story. Although World War II was more recent, and killed more people, and had a more profound effect geopolitically, for some reason it’s the Great War which attracts the literateurs. It’s not like I can claim to be immune – I’ve written at least one short story set during WWI. But Allan’s The Harlequin is actually set immediately after the Armistice, when concious objector Dennis Beaumont, who drove an ambulance near the Front, returns to London. On arrival, he bumps into an old shool master, whose reputation was somewhat unsavoury. Beaumont tries to pick up his life, with his sister and his fiancée, but instead finds himself in purely sexual relationship with a barmaid from a rough pub and unsuccessfully trying to ingratiate himself with the widow of a soldier who died in his ambulance. The Harlequin scores big on atmosphere, but like a lot of Allan’s fiction there are several things going on that don’t quite fit together. Clearly something happened to Beaumont in France, and its not until the end of the novella we learn that it might have been supernatural. But it feels like the plot is not in synch with the protagonist’s behaviour – the events of the past are insufficient grounding for his actions in the present. Still, what do I know? The Harlequin won the Novella Award last year. Allan is certainly a name to watch, and her prose is really very good, but, for me, her stories are never quite joined up…

dont_bite_sunDon’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee (1976). I’ve been after a copy of this, and its sequel Drinking Sapphire Wine, for several years – although not enough to hunt down a copy on eBay, or even shell out full price for the omnibus edition available from Amazon… but it was one of those books I kept an eye open for in the dealers room at conventions, in the hope of picking up a cheap secondhand copy. And, in the end, I had to leave the country to find one: I bought this is the Alvarfonden book room at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm. I also found a copy of Drinking Sapphire Wine at the same time. A pair of lucky finds. I reviewed Don’t Bite the Sun on SF Mistressworks here. I can’t say it was really worth the wait…

nazi_moonbaseNazi Moonbase, Graeme Davis (2016). I stumbled across this on Amazon – I can’t remember what I was actually looking for – and as soon I saw I knew I had to have it. It’s a faux non-fiction book which takes the whole Nazis at the South Pole Who Went To The Moon mythology as fact. It’s a clever melding of the various nutjob theories, and impressive in the way it presents it all absolutely straight-faced. It even takes the piss out of Iron Sky at one point by pointing out that Swastika-shaped buildings would be a bad design for the lunar surface. However, when it sticks to the interstices of known history, that grey area populated by the mythology, then it comes across as almost plausible. But the book has a tendency to push a little bit too far and declare as real something that plainly cannot be… Um, I’m explaining that badly. It’s suspension of disbelief, basically. UFO and Nazi occult science mythology exist in the shadows of science and history, and part of the reason for their longevity and pervasiveness is that they can fit in those dark spaces and the lack of illumination works in their favour. But when they step out of the shadows, the whole edifice collapses. And at several points in Nazi Moonbase, it threatens to do just that. As someone who has themselves stitched an invented history – more than one, in fact – into real history, I’m aware of the difficulties and sensitive to the techniques used. Nazi Moonbase is not entirely successful in that regard, although I did find it very amusing.

grazingGrazing the Long Acre, Gwyneth Jones (2009). I ‘ve been a fan of Jones’s fiction for many years, and consider her the best science fiction writer the UK has produced… so even though I probably I already have the stories in this PS Publishing collection in other books, I had to have it. The slipcased signed and numbered edition too. Grazing the Long Acre contains: ‘Gravegoods’, ‘The Eastern Succession’, ‘Blue Clay Blues’, ‘Identifying the Object’, ‘Balinese Dancer’, ‘Grazing the Long Acre’, ‘La Cenerentola’, ‘Destroyer of Worlds’, ‘The Fulcrum’, ‘The Voyage Out’, ‘Saving Tiamaat’, ‘The Tomb Wife’ and ‘In the Forest of the Queen’. Only ‘Destroyer of Worlds’, which originally appeared in Dark Terrors 5, was new to me. ‘The Fulcrum’, ‘The Voyage Out’, ‘Saving Tiamaat’ and ‘The Tomb Wife’ also appear in The Buonarotti Quartet; ‘Gravegoods’, ‘The Eastern Succession’, ‘Blue Clay Blues’, ‘Identifying the Object’, ‘Grazing the Long Acre’, ‘La Cenerentola’ and ‘In The Forest of the Queen’ are also in The Universe of Things. And yes, I have both of those collections. (‘Balinese Dancer’, incidentally, is also one of the stories in Daughters of Earth, followed by an essay on Jones and the story by Veronica Hollinger.) Apart from ‘Destroyer of Worlds’, as mentioned previously, I’d read all the stories before. Not that it proved a hardship. There are some authors whose novels you love but their short fiction you are cool toward; and vice versa. But Jones’s short fiction I find as sharp and bitingly intelligent as her novels, and while I may enjoy some stories more than others, in terms of quality I find little to distinguish between the two lengths. This reread proved an interesting exercise because revisiting stories can change your perspective on them. I found ‘The Eastern Succession’, for example, a far subtler story than I remembered it. But ‘La Cenerentola’ I felt a little heavy-handed. ‘Balinese Dancer’ was another I thought much better than I’d remembered it; and the Buonarotti stories proved much stranger than I recalled – the aliens of ‘The Fulcrum’ who are not aliens, the horror of the creature which bleeds… qubits?; the creepy atmosphere of the mausoleum in ‘Gravegoods’. I recently posted a review of Jones’s The Universe of Things I wrote back in 2012 (see here), and reading this collection four years after that I found my opinion of the stories pretty much unchanged. This is why I am a huge fan of Gwyneth Jones’s writing.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126


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The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones

universe-cvr-lr-100The Universe of Things
Gwyneth Jones
Aqueduct Press, 2011
ISBN 978-1-933500-44-7

Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading. As a result, throughout her career Jones has published remarkably few collections: five, in fact; and three of those are chapbooks. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of overlap between these collections, but if I were to choose one as the best, with the best choice of stories, and the most representative, with the widest selection of stories… it would be Aqueduct Press’s The Universe of Things. It contains fifteen stories, ranging from 1988 to 2009. Most are from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most are science fiction, but not all. Some cover a page or two, others are novelette-length.

This is one of the strongest collections of genre short stories I have ever read. There is not a bad story in it – even the single-page ‘One of Sandy’s Dreams’, originally written for The Drabble Project in 1988, manages to do more in 100 words than China Miéville’s BSFA Award nominated short story ‘Covehithe’ did in several thousand.

Some of the stories are set in the universes of Jones’ novels. The title story takes place in the world of the Aleutian trilogy – White Queen, North Wind, Phoenix Café and Spirit – and is deceptively simple. An Aleutian takes its car along to a mechanic to have it serviced before selling it. The mechanic realises it is something more than just a car, it is a car that has been driven by an alien. He determines to do more work than asked, so he can then make an offer on the car, and so sell it profitably because of its provenance. But while effecting repairs, his thoughts are drawn to the Aleutian customer, and he briefly experiences how they view the world around them. His desire for the Other drives this epiphany, but to glimpse heaven is to recognise the cost of admission.

Change always exacts a cost. ‘The Eastern Succession’ takes place in the future-distant Peninsula of Divine Endurance and Flowerdust. One of the ruling princes has died heirless, so the remaining Dapur (the female councils who actually rule the principalities) gather in a town to determine to which of three candidates they will offer the crown. They must chose a prince who is both popular with the people of the prince-less state, the governments of the other principalities, and the Koperasi, the people who conquered the Peninsula and now rule it. The narrator is a young man of no family who visits the town to observe the deliberations. As a male, he has no power in Peninsulan society. Jones not only neatly turns the tables on gender relations, but she shows how pervasive sexism is at all levels and in all aspects of society. When the narrator tries to influence the Dapur’s decision through revealing a secret, it ends badly for all concerned. The narrator is playing at politics, he is imposing his own worldview, his own desires, on a situation which is resistant to both – but it is not him who pays the price for his meddling. There’s a clear sense in ‘The Eastern Succession’ that tradition exists for good reason, that change is costly and not always beneficial – and this in a world which is a distorted reflection of our own and, tellingly, set in a non-Western culture.

‘La Cenerentola’ by comparison is both near-future and set in Europe. A same-sex couple, Thea and Suze, are holidaying with their young daughter in the south of France and make the acquaintance of an American woman and her three daughters. Two of the woman’s daughters are beautiful, almost perfect, teenage twins; the third is a ragamuffin. The twins are in fact clones of the mother, their genetics tweaked to “improve” them – and yet, perhaps they are not: perhaps they are no more than holographic “eidolons”, idealised visions of their mother. The story plays with the tale of Cinderella, as its title suggests – Jones has, like Angela Carter, frequently turned to fairy tales for inspiration – but there’s no happy ending for this Cinders. Whatever the twins are, clone or eidolon, they are also signifiers of conspicuous consumption and part of their price has been exacted from the third child. Like the other stories in The Universe of Things, ‘La Cenerentola’ presents with a remarkable economy of words a fully-fledged world which seems as real and true as the real world. It seems wholly appropriate, for example, that in the world of Thea and Suze women fill every role and men are mentioned only in passing.

‘The Thief, the Princess, and the Cartesian Circle’ mocks the construction of a fairy tale while making use of its ur-text. It is a fairy tale, but also a postmodern literary piece, as mutable as the changes it rings on its titular protagonists. Though it opens with a line which follows the form, but not the content, of its type:

Once upon a time there was a princess who was quite pretty and fairly intelligent, and when the time came to marry her off, the royal family didn’t worry about it too much. (p 225)

The story then promptly gives the lie to this opening – the princess is headstrong, wilful and unbiddable – and then subsequently dismantles the fairy tale narrative to suggest a layer of inventions in which the relationship of the princess and the thief is defined by the world in which they live, and in which they define the world around them. The princess is driven by a need for realness but inhabits ever-changing surroundings – her environs are defined by herself; she is her environs. This is woman as creator, using a mode of fiction in which women’s empowerment is either gifted by an external agency or altogether absent.

‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ is one of three horror/dark fantasy stories in the collection. A young couple move into an old house in dire need of renovation. But again, the change exacts a high price: the house is haunted. Or perhaps not. The narrator, Rose, must juggle her daughter, her career as an animator, and her aspirations for the house, and she is unequal to the task. Her failure to cope is externalised as the spirit haunting the house – the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, so to speak. Some of the imagery in the story extremely unsettling, and that the story maintains a chilling tone throughout, despite a focus on the quotidian, is testament to the strength of the prose.

The jewel of the collection is ‘Identifying the Object’, which has been a favourite story of mine since I first read it in Interzone in 1990 under its original title of ‘Forward Echoes’. It is, like ‘Blue Clay Blues’ and ‘The Universe of Things’, set in the world of the Aleutian trilogy. In fact, the Braemar Wilson of ‘Identifying the Object’s is the eponymous “white queen” of the first Aleutian novel. Braemar, the narrator Anna Jones, and Johnny Gugliogi (also the protagonist of ‘Blue Clay Blues’) are in Africa on the trail of what may or may not be the first aliens to land on Earth. Though it is set in the near-future, there is a thoroughly contemporary feel to the story. It is about Europeans experiencing an earthly Other while in pursuit on an unearthly one. It is also a story replete with assumptions, which it neatly skewers one by one:

Once he caught her in low company, têta-à-tête with an African down by the lifeboats. The black man fled. I heard racist assumption and that awful note of ownership in my poor friend’s voice.

“Hey! How come you suddenly speak their lingo?” (p 256)

There is no neat ending, no flying saucer on the Mall with a handsome representative in a space-age jumpsuit. There are many agendas at work here, and the truth of the alien landing is neither obvious nor relevant. Either way, a price must be paid – the possibility of the aliens’ existence is enough to force change. And this in an Africa which has refused to implement Western-imposed change; or rather, has made of its own change imposed upon it by Western powers. ‘Identifying the Object’ remains a favourite sf short story, and it continues to astonish me it was never shortlisted for an award.

It’s tempting to look for common threads in Jones’ fiction, but I suspect you’d find exactly what you were looking for. Her stories do not present easy answers. They’re happy to describe complex situations – indeed, they revel in their complexities. For that reason, Jones has often been called a “political” writer. In essence, this means she doesn’t write action-adventures stories in space. This is not sf as escapism, this is sf as literature. This is fiction that forces you to think, that makes you challenge your prejudices and preconceptions. These are stories that argue against change while forcing you to embrace it. These are stories which could only be science fiction, etc, yet are greater than mere genre fiction.

Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction, who is currently still writing, this country has produced. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Daughters of Prometheus in May 2012.


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Reading diary, #31

Been a while since the last one of these. I have been reading, of course, and I’ve even managed to get into the habit of polishing off a few pages when I get home from work. And now that Dayjob Horrible Project has moved into a slightly less frantic phase (but only slightly less), I can start getting some writing done… including those reviews I owe people… Meanwhile, here are some short paragraphs, that aren’t really reviews, about books I’ve read…

if_on_a_wintersIf on a winter’s night a traveller*, Italo Calvino (1979). You are reading a book which opens with the line, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller,” and you think, sigh, metafiction. But this is Italo Calvino, and so you take the advice Calvino offers: “Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought”– Hang on, every other? How will you know which ones to dispel and which ones to keep? And yet, it is perhaps sound advice as you read about a reader who reads a book only for his reading to be cut short, and when he goes looking for a complete copy of the novel he was reading he discovers he had been reading an entirely different book altogether… And at the book shop he meets a young woman who is also interested in this literary mystery he has uncovered, and together they discover yet a third novel mixed in with the previous two. But then he meets the young woman’s sister and becomes involved in her schemes… and at some point both young women end up in one of the narratives you are reading about him reading… And yet despite this literary shell game, where the narrative peas seem to proliferate out of sight under the cups, the whole is intensely readable and not in the slightest bit confusing. In parts it reminded me of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, although without the prissiness. It certainly convinced me I should read more Calvino – If on a winter’s night a traveller may be one long literary trick, but it’s gloriously done. Bravo.

gorelGorel and the Pot-Bellied God, Lavie Tidhar (2011). And from the sublime to, er, Tidhar. This is the first of his “gunpowder fantasies”, which I take to mean generic heroic fantasies but with firearms. (Obviously the guns and bullets and gunpowder are all made by magic, as fantasy worlds rarely have an industrial base.) Gorel travels to Falang-Et, the home of a frog-like race, in order to steal their most sacred magical object (not that he knows exactly what it is). En route, he meets up with a bird-like man and a fish-like woman, and the three join together for the theft. Which doesn’t go quite as planned. Of course. That’s the nature of these sort of story. The setting hovers on the edge of strangeness and familiarity. I’m not that widely read in this type of fantasy, or New Weird, but I think there’s a bit of Lovecraft in there somewhere; and probably some Clark Ashton Smith and William Hope Hodgson, for all I know. Whatever it is, the combination is pretty effective. The book’s novella-length works in its favour too, although the prose is occasionally a little too light on detail. It’s still not my thing, but I did enjoy it.

technopriestsThe Technopriests Supreme Collection, Alexandro Jodorowsky, Zoran Janjetov & Fred Beltran (2013). Originally published between 1998 and 2006, the eight-book bande dessinée series collected in this omnibus follow the fortunes of Supreme Technopriest Albino, and his two siblings, as he rises through the technopriest hierarchy while the other two track down the three pirates who raped their mother and so fathered them. The story is framed as Albino’s reminiscences during a journey to lead 50,000 technopriests to a new home in a distant galaxy. When the three were born, the mother rejected Albino and his four-armed red-skinned sister Onyx, and lavished all her affection on grey-skinned Almagro. She started up a business making “kamenvert” cheese, which became a galactic monopoly. But Albino wanted to be a videogame creator for the technopriests, only he proved to have much greater talent in that area than anyone had expected… This is not Moebius – the art is gorgeous, but all the characters are somewhat pumped up, so to speak. Happily, Jodorowsky’s off-kilter inventiveness is abundant. Although it takes a few twists and turns, it’s a more straightforward morality tale than The Incal or The Metabarons, and in parts it does feel a little like it’s retreading ground already covered in those earlier series. But if you like Jodorowsky’s bandes dessinées, you’ll like this one.

pavanePavane, Keith Roberts (1968). I’ve had this book for years – I collected the original SF Masterworks series as they were published – and was fairly sure I’d read it many years before. But having now read it (again?) I’m not so sure. I think I may have read a part of it as a short story – it’s a fix-up, after all. The central conceit has made it a touchstone work for an entire genre – alternate history or counterfactual stories. In Pavane, Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated and the Duke of Medina Sidonia successfully invaded England. The book is set at the time of writing in a Catholic Britain which is technologically far behind the real 1968 – obviously because of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s handled well – society seems to be stuck in the late 1600s, and some areas of science and technology not much past then. The first chapter, for example, is about a steam-powered road train. There is also a chain of great semaphore stations stretching the length and breadth of the country, as electricity has not been discovered nor radio invented. I’ve certainly heard it said that the Catholic Church set back science in Europe by about a thousand years, but I’ve never seen it argued with any degree of intellectual rigour. True, Hero of Alexandria had his aeolipile in the first century CE, and all the work done by Islamic medics, mathematicians and astronomers was completely ignored by the Church… But Roberts’s premise needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, since quite a few places – like the Holy Roman Empire – remained under Roman Catholic influence for a long period and progressed pretty much at the same pace as everywhere else. Still, Roberts was one of British sf’s better writers, and if Pavane isn’t his best book, it’s still a good one. ‘The White Boat’ is worth the price of entry alone. Worth reading.

death_familyMy Struggle 1: A Death in the Family, Karl Ove Knausgård (2009). Yes, I know the cover the book spells it Knausgaard, but the proper Norwegian is Knausgård; and no, I don’t know why the publisher felt a need to “Anglicise” it, as it’s not exactly hard to write. But anyway. This is the first book in a six-volume autobiography – as I write this five volumes are currently available in English – although for some reason the series has been published as fiction. Knausgård, it seems, prefers the term “novel” because he wrote the books as if they were fiction, although they were based closely on his own life. Certainly it’s true the level of detail for something set thirty years ago suggests fiction more than reminiscence. A Death in the Family covers Knausgård’s teen years in Tromøya in southern Norway, his friends, the girls he fancies, his introduction to alcohol, and his difficult relationship with his parents. In the second half of the novel, Knausgård tries to come to terms with the death of his father, and the state his grandparents have fallen into since their son’s death. I’ll admit I found the level of detail fascinating, even though the story itself is mostly banal. And the weird distancing effect between adult Knausgård presenting his memories and the lack of self-awareness by the teen narrator made for an interesting juxtaposition. I think I’ll give the second one, A Man in Love, a go…

old_devilsThe Old Devils*, Kingsley Amis (1986). “Professional Welshman” Alun Weaver returns to his South Wales hometown after a career in London as a writer and poet and TV pundit. His old friends are in two minds about his re-appearance. And that of his wife, Rhiannon. Yet they welcome the pair pretty much with open arms, and some private bickering. And a lot of drinking. One of the good things about The Old Devils is that, on the one hand, the various characters are conflicted about the Weavers’ return; on the other, things quickly settle into what is clearly a well-established routine. A number of past events resurface and cause a few problems, but they seem to be resolved with a surprising lack of drama – in fact, the most dramatic scene is prompted by the pettiest of disagreements. There’s often some nastiness on display – and of all the characters, it’s the wives who are treated worst. One might almost suspect Amis was a misogynist – one wife is cruelly mocked by her friends, another has her character assassinated, and a third heartlessly abandons her husband. The men are old codgers and drunkards, and amusing at times, but The Old Devils‘ one-sidedness does get wearying as the novel progresses. I’ve no idea why The Old Devils is on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126


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Reading diary, #30

Bit of a mixed bag this time around. Three science fiction, two crime and one literary. Which is what my reading is like sometimes.

reunion-smallReunion on Alpha Reticuli II, Eric Brown (2016). This is the third novella in Brown’s Telemass Quartet (yes, I know; everyone seems to be doing them these days), each of which has been numbered in reverse in the title. The quartet follows the attempt by retired Dutch policeman Hendrick to rescue his terminally-ill-but-in-medical-stasis daughter from his estranged ex-wife, who is so desperate for a cure she’s trying all manner of alien mumbo-jumbo. Her attempts have, in the books so far, been bizarrely lacking a technological basis. And the same is true of Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II. Hendrick follows his wife to to the titular planet, a popular holiday world, notable for hotels which comprise huge concrete spikes from which hang glass bubbles (the rooms), as depicted on the cover. But Hendrick’s ex-wife is there to meet secretly with a member of a reclusive race… who claims to be able to save the daughter… Unfortunately, three novellas in and the series is beginning to feel a little formulaic. Brown draws his characters and his worlds well, but the plot in Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II feels more by-the-numbers than the previous two. It’s not helped by the introduction of a telepathic love-interest, who comes across as far too good to be true. I kept on waiting for the twist. There wasn’t one. Having said all that, if you’ve been following the Telemass Quartet, you know what you’re going to get. And Brown delivers. The second has, to my mind, been the best so far, but… there’s still one more to go.

tor_dbl_22-smallThieves’ Carnival / The Jewel of Bas, Karen Haber / Leigh Brackett (1990/1944). I’ve been picking up copies of Tor’s series of back-to-back doubles since first stumbling across a couple of them in a remaindered bookshop in Abu Dhabi. There were thirty-six published in total, between 1988 and 1991, mostly reprints but with the occasional piece of original fiction, and all by known names. (Although Haber here is probably better-known as an anthologist.) ‘Thieves’ Carnival’ is a prequel to Brackett’s story, and shows how the two main characters met and ended up married. While it’s set chronologically earlier, it should really have been the second story in this book. Brackett does her typically skilful job at setting up world and cast in ‘The Jewel of Bas’ – although, to be honest, this is not one of her best – and ‘Thieves’ Carnival’ would have proven a more interesting read as a pendant to Brackett’s. Which tells how Mouse and her husband, the minstrel Ciaran, are captured by minions of Bas – well, not exactly, it’s the two androids Bas built to attend him, it’s their minions who have been enslaving people in order to build an engine to save the world… because Bas is more interested in his dreamworld and has been neglecting things. In Haber’s prequel, Mouse is teamed with Ciaran in a thievery competition, and she decides to steal the Portal Cube… which proves to be some sort of time-travel device and its theft results in weird flashbacks to other times and places. The Brackett is not among her best – the story feels tired, the dialogue is clunkier than you’d expect, and the plot echoes a few too many other stories of the period. Haber’s prequel takes Brackett’s science-fantasy and ups the fantasy, turning the story into something more like a RPG adventure than an homage to Brackett. I get that publishers are often constrained when putting these series together in as much as they can only include those stories to which they could obtain the rights… but both of these are entirely forgettable.

robberThe Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993). Four women, who first met at university in the sixties, each have a run-in with a fifth woman, Zenia. But that’s all behind them, since Zenia apparently died in a terrorist bomb, and her depradations actually brought them together as friends, even though they sort of knew each other back in university… And then a woman walks into the coffee shop where the four have met for their weekly lunch, and they all recognise her: Zenia. The novel then takes each of the four women in turn, and tells their stories and how Zenia entered their lives and the damage she caused. There are, it sometimes seems to me, two Margaret Atwoods. There are the novels written by one Atwood, where the ideas are really good but the prose never really shines; and there’s the other Atwood, whose prose is beautifully put together and a joy to read. I’d say Oryx and Crake was by the first Atwood, and Alias Grace by the second. The Robber Bride is also by the second. I’ve not enjoyed, and been so impressed on a sentence-by-sentence level, by an Atwood novel since reading, well, Alias Grace. This is easily her second-best work. I have by no means read her entire oeuvre, although I do plan to work by way through it. But of those I’ve read so far, I’d put The Robber Bride second after Alias Grace (and yes, above The Handmaid’s Tale).

beastsBeast in View, Margaret Millar (1962). Reclusive rich spinster Helen Clarvoe receives a telephone call from a woman who threatens her. After quizzing the staff of the hotel where she lives and finding out nothing, Clarvoe contacts her investment manager, Paul Blackshear, and ask for his help. Since he has just retired, and he finds himself liking Clarvoe, he decides to investigate… which puts him on the trail of Evelyn Merrick, an old school friend of Clarvoe and the estranged ex-wife of Clarvoe’s brother – who is gay, but married Merrick in order to appear “normal” but it all went horribly wrong on the honeymoon. While Blackshear runs around Los Angeles trying to track down Merrick before she makes good on her threat – and stumbling across a few of the Clarvoe family secrets, a murder, and increasing evidence that Merrick is completely deranged… But there’s a clever twist in the tail. I pretty much read this in a single sitting one Sunday afternoon. Worth a go.

heritageHeritage of Flight, Susan Shwartz (1989). I read this to review on SF Mistressworks. I read Shwartz’s Grail of Hearts many years ago and really liked it – I must reread it one of these days – so I was pretty keen to try some of her actual science fiction. And eventually I stumbled across a copy of Heritage of Flight at Mancunicon earlier this year (on the Porcupine Books stall in one of the dealers’ rooms). But what I liked about Grail of Hearts was its repurposing of Arthurian legend as a romance, where as Heritage of Flight is pretty much a straight-up sf novel of the 1980s. In other words, a bit disappointing. It has its moments, but it’s by no means a great book. And that cover art is pretty misleading. A review of it will appear on SF Mistressworks later this week.

zagrebThe Lady from Zagreb, Philip Kerr (2015). Kerr admits in an afterword to this tenth volume in the Bernie Gunther series that he had planned to retire his Kripo/SD detective after nine books. He also admits there is another volume to follow this one, The Other Side of Silence (which is on the TBR)… And it seems there’s going to be a twelfth volume too, Prussian Blue, according to Wikipedia. Not that I’m complaining. These are superior detective novels, and Kerr’s research and level of historical detail is impressive. It is, of course, getting harder to stitch stories into Gunther’s life, but that’s hardly surprising – and while inconsistencies might pop up when reading the series from start to finish, I’ve not noticed any in my intermittent, albeit chronological, read of the books. The Lady from Zagreb opens in the 1950s. Gunther is a house detective for a hotel on the Riviera. He goes into a cinema and watches a film starring 1940s German star Dalia Dresner… with whom he was romantically involved back in 1942. Which is where the story abruptly shoots back to. It’s a fairly standard plot, perhaps even a noir staple, but by setting it in Nazi Germany during World War II, and framing it around the events of earlier novel, A Man Without Breath, but following on from Prague Fatale, Kerr gives the story an added dimension. Basically, Dresner gets Goebbels to task Gunther with tracking down her Croatian father, currently a monk in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. Except things are not as clear-cut as they seem, including Dresner’s own marriage in neutral Switzerland. One day, someone should make a TV series of these books. They’re really very good.

1001 Books To Read Before You Die count: 124


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Reading diary, #29

I had a couple of introductory paragraphs to this reading diary, about how at school I was often called names because of my choice in books… But I decided not to use it. Mostly because I’ve been sitting on this post for over a week as it contains negative reviews of two of the books on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist. I’ve seen other commentary on the two books, and I appear to be in a minority with my views. And we all know these days that reviews are expected to be little more than warmed-over marketing copy.

As for the Clarke shortlist itself, I’ve now read five of the six books. One of them deserves to win, two of them I suppose a case could be made for their presence (although I wouldn’t do it), and two should never have made the cut. By all accounts, the book I’ve yet to read is no better. But then every year there’s been one or two books on the shortlist whose presence is baffling. This year, it feels like a somewhat shapeless shortlist, more like fannish selections than the picks of literary judges. That may be an unintended consequence of the huge number of submitted books (ie, judges’ choices spread wider, more compromises needed to pick the final six), but that’s just speculation. The Clarke Award shortlist for 2016 is what it is. And sadly, given recent complaints in various quarters about a lack of critical commentary on the award, it’s not a shortlist that especially invites critical commentary.

But on with the books…

vernon_god_littleVernon God Little*, DBC Pierre (2003). You know those comic novels which are supposed to be funny but aren’t, and where the narrator’s voice is supposed to be funny but isn’t… well, this is one of them. There has been a tragedy in the Texas town of Martirio. Vernon’s best friend, Jesus, has gunned down several of his schoolmates, and Vernon is still under suspicion as an accomplice. (He’s innocent, but no one particularly cares – Jesus is dead, and Vernon makes a good scapegoat). This is one of those novels where the entire cast are white trailer trash, and that’s sufficient to present them as comedy characters. Ignorance may be fertile soil for comedy, but there’s a right way to handle it and a wrong way. There’s a meanness to the characterisations in Vernon God Little which makes for unpleasant reading. It doesn’t help that Vernon is a thoroughly unlikeable narrator, nor in fact that none of the characters in the book are at all likeable – most, in fact, are closer to caricature than character. How this book won the Booker Prize is a mystery; how it was picked for the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list is an even bigger mystery. One to avoid.

nowhere_huntThe Nowhere Hunt, Jo Clayton (1981). This is the sixth book in Clayton’s nine-book Diadem series, which also spun off a pair of trilogies about one of its minor characters. Although the series started out as peplum space opera (I’m determined to use that phrase, now that I’ve coined it), it soon drifted into standard 1970s space opera, a sort of Dumarest Saga with a female Dumarest – albeit with lots of special snowflake superpowers. Clayton seemed to have dialled back the violence and abuse as well by book four, but unfortunately this one sees a return to it. I reviewed The Nowhere Hunt on SF Mistressworks – see here.

valerian_11Valerian and Laureline 11: The Ghosts of Inverloch, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1983, translated 2016). I had always thought the Valérian agent spatio-temporel series comprised individual stories, but it seems there is a story-arc slowly beginning to appear. It’s not just that the previous two volumes, Métro Châtelet, Destination Cassiopeia and Brooklyn Station, Terminus Cosmos, formed a two-part story, nor that The Ghosts of Inverloch is also the first of a two-parter (with the yet-to-be-published-by-Cinebook The Wrath of Hypsis), but the story in The Ghosts of Inverloch does refer to the preceding two-parter and even to the first book in the series, The City of Shifting Waters. As it is the plot of The Ghosts of Inverloch is a bit on the thin side – Laureline is already in residence at the eponymous Scottish castle, but Valerian must first capture a Glapum’tian from the planet Glapum’t, which he manages to do within a couple of pages. He then heads – through time and space – to Inverloch Castle. Others are also making their way to the castle, including the head of the Spatio-Temporal Service, Valerian and Laureline’s boss… The reason why, unfortunately, is left to the following volume. Despite their episodic nature, the Valerian and Laureline series is superior space opera. And Luc Besson is making a film based based on it. I can’t wait.

women_in_liveWomen in Love*, DH Lawrence (1920). This is a sequel of sorts to The Rainbow, inasmuch as it continues the story of Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen from that novel. Wikipedia claims the two books were planned as one big novel but split by the publisher, but the introduction to my edition of Women in Love contradicts this – in Lawrence’s own words. He was driven out of London in late 1915 by The Rainbow obscenity trial, a libel suit and his vocal opposition to the Great War (which made him a lot of enemies in London society), and settled in poverty in Cornwall. After recovering from illness, he started work on Women in Love“a sequel to The Rainbow, though quite unlike it”. Certainly, the two books are not big on rigour, and Women in Love might be better considered an entirely new novel whose leads share their names, and some background details, with the Brangwens of The Rainbow. Lawrence apparently wrote it very quickly, but it took four years before it saw print. Gudrun is an artist, returned to the family’s Nottinghamshire home village after a few bohemian years in London. Ursula is a teacher in a local school. She is attracted to school inspector Birkin (a stand-in for Lawrence himself), while Gudrun takes up with Gerald Crich, son of the local coal-mining magnate. The novel charts the two couples’ relationships through a series of (mostly) tragic incidents. You don’t read Lawrence for the plots, which is just as well as he tends to meander. And his characters usually read like they’re dialled up to eleven (so many! exclamation marks! It seems somewhat excessive to a modern reader). But there’s also lots of philosophising and discussions of Lawrence’s often bonkers ideas on art and life. Birkin especially is fond of lecturing the other characters, often at great length. And, of course, there’s Lawrence’s lovely descriptive prose. Women in Love is a… meatier novel than Sons and Lovers or The White Peacock; but it’s also a novel that disappointingly seems to treat the working-class like noble savages (and especially disappointingly so after Sons and Lovers). With its cast of minor gentry, teachers and artists, Women in Love is very middle-class, almost as if Lawrence’s years in London turned him into a social climber (and Birkin suggests as much in Women in Love). I have that absolutely enormous three-volume biography of DH Lawrence on my bookshelves. One of these days I’ll have to read it.

way_down_darkWay Down Dark, JP Smythe (2015). I am not in the slightest bit interested in YA – although I do like Smythe’s non-YA novels, and think they’re very good – but Way Down Dark was shortlisted for the Clarke Award this year, so I picked up a copy and read it and… I’m frankly mystified why it was shortlisted. It may well be better-written than the average YA, but it’s just one long litany of death and violence in a science-fictional setting which doesn’t hold up to a moment’s scrutiny. For a book to be on a major genre award shortlist, I expect more than just a nice turn of phrase. I’ve seen some of the commentary about Way Down Dark, and I am I admit not in the slightest bit familiar with the YA market… So perhaps it’s a YA thing that the background doesn’t make sense. It’s supposed to be a generation ship, but turns out to be a prison. In orbit. So where does the gravity come from? Not acceleration, since it’s not moving. And the decks are made of grating, so where is the artificial gravity hidden? There are “over ninety” of these open decks, and people live in cubicles they’ve made from salvaged sheets of metal and curtains. Chan, the protagonist, tells us that her mother moved them from higher up the stack to halfway down because it was nice and warm – yet the very bottom of the stack is apparently not too hot to live in. Because that’s where the Lows, who are straight out of Mad Max Central Casting, live. Then there’s the Pit, which is the floor of the well around which the decks are arranged. It’s a festering pool of dead bodies and rubbish…because people throw bodies and garbage there. As you would. The book doesn’t say how long the ship/prison has been occupied, but at least three generations are mentioned in the book, and since no one seems to remember they’re actually prisoners that suggests at least a century. In the centre of the Pit, under the rotting flesh and blood and trash, is a secret entrance to the guards’ quarters. Ignoring the fact that no sane person would go wading into a stinking soup of decomposing corpses, or even put their head under it, masked or not… there’s also the fact that initially the entrance would not have been hidden, and could not have been intended to be hidden, as who would design a prison with the expectation that inmates would throw bodies down into the Pit? The ship/prison is also called Australia… I hope there’s an explanation in a later book to explain the name (Way Down Dark is very much incomplete and the first part of a trilogy), but even so, in light of the book’s setting there’s a lot of… baggage there. This is, I believe, the third time a YA novel has made the shortlist – the other two were Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness in 2011 and The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter in 2008. Tellingly, only one of the three is by an actual YA author. Personally, I don’t think YA should be considered by the Clarke Award, and there’s nothing in this novel to cause me to reconsider that.

underwater_manUnderwater Man, Joe MacInnis (1974). MacInnis has been involved in diving medicine for a number of decades – first with Ed Link and his various projects, then in other places. He was part of the US Navy’s SEALAB III project, and was the first scientist to dive beneath the North Pole. This book describes eleven of MacInnis’s most memorable underwater adventures from 1963 to 1972, including the stuff with Link and the Arctic dives. MacInnis may be an excellent doctor, and an accomplished diver, but his writing is… somewhat, er, florid. Here’s a sample, about the bends:

“It is in the shallow regions that decompression sickness is most likely. We are both aware of its fierce displays. I have seen destructive pain-shells fire through proud young bodies. I recall an old friend who had succumbed to the dark winds of vertigo. A ruthless bubble lodged near his brain. He was in such distress that he threw up. I remembered the hard grey stillness locked in my gut as we nursed him slowly back from the cliff edge of shock.” (p 76)

It makes for an odd read. Fascinating stuff nonetheless, and MacInnis is an important figure in the field – he’s still going, his last book was published in 2012 (although I only have his 2004 book, Breathing Underwater, as well as Underwater Man).

book_phoenixThe Book of Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor (2015). And from a shortlisted book written for teenagers to one that reads as though it were written by a teenager. Okorafor seems to be having a Moment this year: ‘Binti’ was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and BSFA Awards, and won the Nebula; and The Book of Phoenix is on the Clarke Award shortlist. This novel is apparently a prequel to 2010’s Who Fears Death, which I’ve not read – and I don’t think I’ll be bothering to do so, either. The protagonist of The Book of Phoenix is a genetically engineered “SpeciMen” (a particularly ugly coinage). Although only two years old, she has the body and mind of a forty-year-old African woman. We’re told she was called Phoenix after the city in Arizona, but the book then later says her mother gave her the name – so it’s a massive coincidence that her genetically-engineered superpower is the ability to combust and then be reborn from her ashes. Oh, and she can fly – she has wings. And later she can “slip”, which is sort of teleporting in time and space. And she can generate heat inside her body too. She starts the book as a prisoner in Tower 7, a LifeGen facility in a post-climate-crash New York. She escapes by destroying the building, and flies to Ghana. A year later, LifeGen tracks her down and, in the process of capturing her, kill her lover. They take her to a Tower in the Caribbean and… The plot of The Book of Phoenix is basically this happened and then that happened and then this happened, with no discernible structure or rigour to it. Early on, Phoenix releases an alien kept captive in Tower 7, and mentions in passing there are colonies on Mars. Both are mentioned only once more in the novel, also in passing, near the end. Ideas are just picked up by the author for world-building when needed, then put down and forgotten. As far as I know, The Book of Phoenix is not being marketed as YA, although it seems to exhibit many of the hallmarks – a heroine with super special powers that have no grounding in either story or world or science or logic, world-building with no rigour and very little sense, and a plot that jumps from one unconnected incident to the next. Would I have thought The Book of Phoenix a better book if it had been badged as YA? Unlikely – though it would have at least “explained” some elements of it. I’ve discussed Okorafor’s novel with other people, and I seem to be alone in finding it unimpressive. So it goes.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 124

Finally, I think I’ll start including a breakdown of my reading by gender in my reading diary posts, so here’s the first – 57 books read up to 22 May this year:

gender


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Reading diary, #28

Occasionally, I read books. I am in fact supposed to be more of a literature fan than I am a film fan, but reading a book takes few days whereas watching a film takes only a couple of hours. Of course, if I were serious about my film criticism, I’d  be watching each movie a number of times with notebook in hand, ready to make insightful comments… instead of cobbling together a hundred words a week after watching the film while drinking wine… Still, at least I read sober. Not that I take notes while reading. But then I’ve never thought of myself, or called myself, a critic, I’ve always been a reviewer and that’s how I approach how I write about the books I’ve read. Which were…

creation_mcCreation Machine, Andrew Bannister (2016). This one seems to be getting quite a push from Bantam (they were giving away free ARCs at Eastercon). First impression… well, it’s very Banksian. And that can’t be bad. The action takes place in the Spin, an “artificial galaxy”, although no real sense of the size or scale of this galaxy is apparent in the book. The heroine, Fleare Haas, who struck me as very much in a smiliar vein to Banks’s Lady Sharrow, is the daughter of the plutocrat who pretty much runs the Hegemony, the Spin’s most powerful government. She tried fighting against him in a breakaway army, but that ended badly. As the book opens, she’s a prisoner of an enigmatic ruin on one of the Spin’s worlds. She’s then rescued by an ex-colleague who is a cloud of nanobots (one of the novel’s more inventive elements), because she’s needed to prevent the Hegemony  from doing something stupid with a powerful artefact that may be left over from the machine that built the Spin. That artefact is currently in the hands of a brutal regime which occupies a handful of worlds in the centre of the artificial galaxy. It’s all very twenty-first century space opera, very readable, quite inventive, with a slight twist of Banks and a mordant, albeit far more sweary, wit… But it’s also a space opera universe in which capitalism runs everything, and slavery, torture and brutality seem the default setting… In fact, there are no redeeming features to the societies depicted in the Spin. And I have to wonder, why would someone write a book like this? It feels like an attempt to writer a grimdark space opera – but since I think grimdark is a horrible thing, I can think of no good reason why anyone would want to do the same in space opera. I suspect this book will do quite well, but I’ll not be bothering with the sequels.

monumentThe Road from the Monument, Storm Jameson (1962). An odd book, and perhaps even more odd because Jameson is such a good writer. Greg Mott is a highly-regarded author, and the director of an artistic institute. He came from humble beginnings – his father was a destitute ex-seaman, and – the shame! – he graduated from Sheffield University – but he has made something of himself, a great man of letters, with important friends and acquaintances. I have to wonder if Mott were based on Evelyn Waugh, although Waugh went to Oxford. The Road from the Monument opens with the retirement of a public school teacher – he’s been there sixty years, wasn’t even qualified when he started, and has been paid a pittance throughout his tenure. The teacher spotted Mott’s potential early, and spoent his own money to put Mott through university. After leaving the school, he goes down to London to see what Mott has made of himself – and realises that Mott’s intelligence and wisdom pretty much skin-deep. He goes back gom edisappointed. The story then focuses on Mott’s second-in-command, Lambert Corry, his best friend at school, who went to Oxford, became a civil servant, rose through the ranks but then resigned to take up a position at the institute. Unlike Mott, he is not a successful author. Although the plot of The Road from the Monument is ostensibly about the scandal which hovers over Mott after he picks up a young woman while on holiday in Nice and gets her pregnant, it reads more like a poison pen letter from Jameson to the UK’s literary set. Most of the characters are writers of varying degrees of success, and James sticks the knife into every one. I tweeted a quote from the book while reading it, and it’s one of the mildest characterisations in the book of one of its cast: “they always gave him credit for honesty and integrity, the virtues of a moth-eaten writer. He got what he deserved – respect and neglect”. The upper class are also depicted as sociopaths (which I suspect they are, anyway; as are the plutocrats), and, in fact, no one in this novel is at all sympathetic… except perhaps the young woman who is made pregnant by Mott. Not a pleasant book to read (I’m not doing too well in that respect in this post), and Jameson does over-do the interiority… but she’s nonetheless a sharp writer, and I plan to further explore her oeuvre.

slow_lightningThe Longest Voyage / Slow Lightning, Poul Anderson / Steven Popkes (1991). Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tor published a series of tête-bêche novellas, stretching to 36 books. By book #30, they’d dropped the tête-bêche format, and in fact dropped the whole double-novella thing at times, as this one is pretty much a short story followed by a short novel. Which are not at all related. And I have no idea why they were published together. Or indeed why they were published at all. ‘The Longest Journey’ originally appeared in Analog in 1960. It’s set on the moon of a gas giant, colonised by humans at some point but now they’ve regressed to a late mediaeval tech level. A Columbus-like figure sails across a vast ocean to a mythical land… and finds it is inhabited with people just like himself. They’re welcomed with open arms, trade agreements are drawn up… and then the explorer learns of a hermit and his ship that sails between the stars… This is the sort of sf story that used to appear by the hundreds back in the 1950s and 1960s. It apparently won the Hugo for best short fiction, which only goes to show the award was won by unremarkable stories even back then. ‘Slow Lightning’ is original to the double, and I’m baffled why it made it into print. It reads like half a dozen stories randomly stuck together because the author once heard the word “plot” and has a sort of vague idea what it might mean. It opens on a contemporary Earth after an alien, well, not an invasion. They came, they started trading, they pretty much overwhelmed the planet… and they turned Boston into an intergalactic port. A young orphan, whose parents died while settling an alien world, is now living with his aunt and her moody teenage son. With him he has Gray, a spatient, who is a sort of alien android thing but looks more like a six-legged rhino or something. The boy finds an alien egg in the wreck of a ferry on the bay shore. He decides to hatch it to see what comes out. Gray investigates as he’s worried what it might contain. The egg hatches, end of story. Except it isn’t. The plot now jumps back in time to the boy’s parents, to explain what they were doing and how they died, and how that ties in with the egg – which is sort of does but only peripherally. Anyway, they die, end of story. Except it isn’t. Because the story now jumps even further back in time to shortly after the aliens arrived, and describes the death of the boy’s grandparents, who were caught up in a turf war between the Boston authorities and a smuggler lord who married the boy’s grandfather’s sister. The whole thing reads like they might have been separate but linked stories, but the decision to publish them together, in reverse chronological order, was a mistake.

kinseyKinsey and Me: Stories, Sue Grafton (2013). I have been a fan of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone almost as long as I’ve been a fan of Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski. I think Paretsky is the better writer, and Warshawski the better character, but Grafton’s Millhone still has her appeal. I especially like that Grafton decided Millhone would age one year for every two-and-a-half books, so her alphabet series – it’s up to X at the moment – is now historical fiction, given that it takes place in the late 1980s. Along the way, Grafton has banged out the odd short story, mostly for anthologies of female crime writers, and Kinsey and Me collects those, plus a series of stories about Kit Blue which appear to have been written as some sort of therapy on the death of Grafton’s alcoholic mother. The Millhone stories are entertaining but lightweight – although the constant need for Millhone to introduce herself gets a bit wearying over nine short stories. The plots pretty much follow the same formula: someone asks Millhone to investigate something, she does so, spots a single clue which reveals all is not as it seems, there’s a final showdown, and she reveals the clue and how it led her to figure out what really happened. The Kit Blue stories are uncomfortable reading because they’re plainly autobiographical, but it’s also hard to understand why Grafton made them public. Kinsey and Me adds nothing to the alphabet series, and even for fans it’s of only peripheral interest.

elizabethElizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey (2014). I spotted this in a charity shop and remembered that someone had recommended it, so I bought it. But I can’t recall who recommended it, or why – I suspect David Hebblethwaite. The protagonist, Maud, is in her eighties and suffers from dementia. Her best friend Elizabeth has gone missing – or, at least, so Maud thinks. In between Maud trying to find out what has happened to Elizabeth, she remembers the disappearance of her sister back in the late 1940s. It’s a clever idea, and it’s handled well. The big problem is the main character – Maud feels like an old person written by a young person. It’s small details. When you’re in your eighties, mortality looms large, but the word doesn’t appear anywhere in Elizabeth is Missing. Maud’s dementia is chiefly characterised by a lack of short term memory and an occasional inability to recognise things. The present day chapters alternate with ones set in 1946, which, of course, are told with perfect recall, and so add a spoiling note to the central conceit. It’s obvious from the start that Elizabeth isn’t really missing – or rather that there’s nothing sinister about her disappearance – but the 70-year-old mystery against which this is juxtaposed proves trivially easy to solve, and it come as a surprise no one figured it out at the time. Although generally well-written, and Healey’s choice of heroine has to be applauded, ultimately I don’t think Elizabeth is Missing quite succeeds. But it’s at least worth reading.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 122


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Reading diary, #27

Although I’ve been appending a count of books read from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list to these reading diary posts, I’ve not been making much of an effort to work my way through that list – certainly not to the extent I’ve been doing with the 1001 Films You See Before You Die list. Of course, reading a book requires more of an investment in time than watching a film, and I suspect there are fewer books on the book list of the sort I’d enjoy than there are films on the film list. Anyway, there are no books from the list in this post, although I do have about a dozen somewhere on the TBR. Just thought I should mention that.

bleeding_kansasBleeding Kansas, Sara Paretsky (2008). I am a big fan of Paretsky’s Warshaski novels – my mother took me to see Paretsky being interviewed by Val McDermid at the Harrogate Crime Festival last year – although it’s taken me a while to get round to reading her non-Warshawski novels. I read Ghost Country while at Bloodstock, a metal festival, last year, and thought it very good. Bleeding Kansas is… less good. It’s apparently based in part on Paretsky’s own teen years in Kansas, before she moved to Chicago; and, I suspect, although I rather hope not, based on the people she knew from that time. Because they are pretty much all mean-minded and prejudiced Bible bashers (is there any other sort?). Especially one family, who use their faith to justify all manner of bigotry and nastiness. The story focuses on Lara Grellier, the teenage daughter of one of the farming families in the Kaw River Valley. Her mother Susan is fascinated by a Grellier ancestor, who helped slaves during the Civil War, and survived several attacks by Quantrill and other pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” (the title of the novel refers to that period), but has a mental breakdown after the death of her son in Iraq. A lesbian Wiccan from Chicago has just taken over the dilapidated mansion of the local, deceased, gentry; and the Schapen family, mean-spirited relious types to a person, have accidentally bred a pure-red heifer which an apocalyptic Jewish sect from Chicago want in order to to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, everyone else tries to get by, without being too hateful – at which they don’t always succeed – or too liberal, which would of course see them tarred and feathered and driven out of the county. I really don’t have any sympathy for people who think their religion excuses their appalling behaviour (I’m looking at you, North Carolina), and I’m really not interested in reading about such people. It’s to Paretsky’s credit that she’s even-handed in her treatment of her caste of bigots and idiots, but that does make you wonder why she wrote the book in the first place. Yes, Warshawski is a champion and plays a champion’s role, and that’s part of the character’s appeal – so it seems self-evident that to go against type would result in characters most of Paretsky’s readers are going find unlikeable, and so create a novel most would find a less-than-enjoyable read. The Amazon reviews, interestingly, seem evenly split among the stars ratings, on both UK and US sites.

heart_hunterThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940). This is one of a pile of Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s I inherited from my father. Some of his collection I wasn’t interested in, but I kept many – including four by Carson MCullers: The Member of the Wedding I read a while ago but wasn’t that impressed; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is her first full-length novel and probably her best-known work, and I liked it a great deal more; still to come are Clock Without Hands and a collection, The Mortgaged Heart. A pair of deaf and dumb men (referred to throughout as “mutes”; actually, one is only deaf, but speaks so infrequently everyone assumes he is unable to do so), live in a small town somewhere in Georgia in the 1930s. One of the two men becomes mentally ill and is sent away to an asylum. The other, Singer, moves into a boarding-house and becomes a sort of listening post for a variety of characters, who come to talk at him and relax in his company. There’s something obviously Christ-like about Singer, although McCullers never quite makes it explicit. The novel actually focuses on four of Singer’s “friends”: a teenage girl who loves music, a drunken labour activist, the widowed owner of a local café, and a black doctor who is a communist and preaches Marxism to his family at Christmas. I enjoyed this a great deal more, and thought it much better, than the earlier MCullers novel I’d read. There was apparently a film made of it, which changed the setting to the 1960s. Not sure how that would work…

bsg_final_fiveBattlestar Galactica: The Final Five, Seamus Kevin, Fahey, David Reed & Nigel Raynor (2009) I bought this to read while rewatching Battlestar Galactia from the beginning, because it professed to tell the back-story of its titular characters (the five of the Twelve Cylon “skin jobs” whose identities were not revealed until very late in the series). As is the case with most such tie-in graphic novels, the art is pretty awful. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t make much sense either. Perhaps I should have waited until I’d finished my rewatch before reading it, maybe then it would have made more sense. I can’t remember from my previous viewing of Battlestar Galactica if Earth was supposed to have an ancient technological society which then disappeared (leaving no evidence of its existence; strange, that…), or not. From what I do remember, the Galactica arrived at Earth in its prehistory – although there was another Earth-like world in there somewhere, although that planet destroyed itself in a nuclear war. Anyway, I was put off a bit by the generally bad art, and since my comics reading these days seems to be limited to translated bandes dessinée (I’m no longer interested in reading about fascists in tights), so I’ve probably lost the knack of reading US graphic novels. But maybe if I give The Final Five a go after I’ve watched all of Battlestar Galactica again… (I bought the Blu-ray ultimate collection, £100 off, in a recent Amazon Prime Day – it includes everything… the pilot mini-series, the webisodes, Caprica, the whole lot. Totally worth what I paid for it – and yes, I still consider Battlestar Galactica the best television sf series ever made, and among the best television series ever made of any genre.)

metabaronsThe Metabarons: 40th Anniversary Edition, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Juan Giménez (2015). The Metabaron bandes dessinée originally appeared between 1992 and 2003, and while the original Metabaron character appeared in The Incal in 1981, I’m still not sure how that works out to a “40th anniversary edition” in 2015. Anyway, it’s a nice hardback omnibus of all the Metabaron stories, so who cares? The story is framed as a story told by the robot Tonto to the robot Lothar, both of whom look after the Metabunker, the home of the last Metabaron, No-Name. The Metabunker is located in a deserted city-shaft on a deserted world, and No-Name is absent for much of the length of The Metabarons. There’s a reason for this framing narrative, but explaining it would constitute a spoiler, so… Tonto explains how the first Metabaron, owner of a marble planet, was forced to reveal the existence of the epiphyte, a substance which counteracted gravity, to the Emperor and Empress, and so became fabulously wealthy, and was given the title Metabaron. He was also a superlative warrior, and with his new-found enormous wealth set out to improve his skills and his killing technology. And also institute the various traditions which were carried down through five generations to No-Name: that there can only be one Metabaron, so the son (or daughter) must kill the father, and that part of the training involves some form of mutilation and replacement prostheses. Jodorowsky wrote The Incal after the failure of his Dune project, and some of his work on Herbert’s novel ended up in that bande dessinée. But there’s also a lot of Dune in The Metabarons – there’s a Bene Gesserit analogue, a pain test that copies the one undergone by Paul Atreides (but involves real physical damage), and even mentat-like advisors to the Emperor and Empress. There’s also stuff that’s pure Jodorowsky – such as the Emperor and Empress being succeeded by a pair of conjoined twins of different genders, the Emperoress. Some of it is a bit silly. The third Metabaron, for example, is Steelhead, so called because his father shoots off his head as a baby, but his mother manages to fashion a robotic one in time to save his life. Um, right. The artwork throughout is gorgeous, and the story is pretty much pure-strain space opera. Totally worth buying.

murphys_gambitMurphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell (2000). I read for review on SF Mistressworks. I forget where I stumbled across mention of this novel, and with a publication year of 2000 it only just sneaks into SF Mistressworks’s remit, but it looked intriguing enough for me to buy a cheap copy on eBay… which proved to be a bit tattier than expected. Ah well. Not a keeper anyway. As should be clear from my review here.

murder_lochMurder at the Loch, Eric Brown (2016). Eric is a friend of many years, although I wouldn’t read these books – Murder at the Loch is the third in the series – if I didn’t enjoy them. True, they won’t set the crime genre alight, and they might even be described as a bit “cosy”, but they’re fun undemanding reads, and it’s clear the author’s heart is in the right place. The stars are Donald Langham, a crime novelist, and his fiancée, Maria Dupré, a French immigrant, who works for his literary agent. The stories are set in the 1950s, which means the author doesn’t have to worry about mobile phones and the like generating so many plot contortions the story falls apart (in fact, part of the plot of Murder at the Loch involves the cast being cut off for several days at a Scottish castle, with no way to telephone for help). While the back-story makes mention of WWII – in fact, it triggers the plot in in this book – and there are number of small details which anchor the novel to its time and place, it does sometimes read a little like it takes place in a political and historical vacuum. But that’s a minor quibble. Langham and ex-army pal and now PI, Ryland, are called up to Scotland by their old CO, Major Gordon, who now runs a posh hotel in a renovated castle. Someone took potshots at him and a guest a couple of days previously, and he’s understandably worried. What follows is a fairly typical country house mystery plot, with a few twists. Sunk in the loch is a Dornier Do 217 from early 1945, and its presence is a mystery as the Germans had stopped bombing the UK by then. It was while attempting to salvage this that Gordon and his Dutch engineer were shot at. Also resident in the hotel, or turn up shortly after Langham and Ryland arrive, are Gordon’s Byroneseque layabout son, an aloof Hungarian countess, a German aircraft enthusiast, a retired academic investigating the castle’s ghosts, and the three staff, including a young woman who is more of a family friend. A snow storm cuts off the castle, the Dutch engineer is brutally murdered, and you can’t really get a more faithful implementation of the country house murder template than that. But if the identity of the killer isn’t all that hard to figure out, and the clues dropped along the way make the motive as plain as day, it’s all handled with a nice light touch and very readable prose. I pretty much read Murder at the Loch in an afternoon, and sometimes that’s the sort of book you want to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 122

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