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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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Winter festival come early

Yet more books. The mantlepiece, incidentally, has all sorts of bits and bobs on it and I couldn’t be arsed to clear it off for these photos. So you’ve got the landing carpet instead.

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After watching Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, I fancied reading more by the author, and so picked up cheap copies of August 1914 and The First Circle on eBay. I may have shot myself in the foot with August 1914, however, as only two volumes of the Red Wheel series are available in English, out of possibly eight volumes in Russian. Accommodation Offered I also found on eBay, and bought for my Women’s Press SF collection… but I’m not entirely sure it is sf.

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Chernobyl Prayer and The Appointment I bought after a dicussion on Twitter about female Nobel laureates for literature. I’ve already read the Müller – see here. I had a copy of Labyrinths many years ago but seem to have lost it, so I bought a replacement. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind I bought because Charnock was named alongside myself and Aliya Whitely and Nina Allan and a couple of others as writers to watch in a tweet, and I’ve now forgotten who it was who said it… I thought Nocilla Dream very good – see here – so buying the sequel, Nocilla Experience, as soon as it was published in English was a no-brainer. And I’ve always found Houellebecq’s fiction interesting, hence Submission.

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I contributed to the kickstarter for The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosenkreutz, although to be honest I’ve no idea why. But it’s a handsome looking book. Erpenbeck is a new favourite writer, and her books are readily available on eBay in hardback for low prices – which is good for me, if not for her or her publisher. Anyway, The Book of Words and The Old Child are two earlier works, currently published in an omnibus, but I’d sooner have them separate. They’re very short. I’ve already read The Old Child. It’s very good.

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Finally, some sf comics. I’ve been picking up the Valerian and Laureline series as Cinebook publish them in English. On the Frontiers is volume 13, which is just over halfway through the series. You should never return to childhood favourites, because it’s usually embarrassing to discover how fucking awful they were. I’ve always loved Dan Dare, ever since being given a reprint of two of Hampson’s Dare stories back in the early 1970s. Since returning to the UK, I collected all of the Hawk Publishing reprints of the Eagle Dan Dare stories. But I also have fond memories of Dare from the pages of 2000 AD – I even have a Dan Dare annual somewhere from that time. Hence, Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2. 2000AD’s Dare looks great – it was drawn by Dave Gibbons – but the various stories are the hoariest old sf crap imaginable. Oh well.


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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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Mantlepiece goodies

I’ve actually been quite good of late and have cut down on the number of book purchases per month. Admittedly, it does seem to happen in phases. It’s not only that a book I’ve been after for a while suddenly appears on eBay – as was the case here – but I occasionally go a little mad and buy a bunch of books that I sort of feel like I want a copy of my own…

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For the space books collection. I’ve been after a hardback copy of On The Shoulders of Titans, a history of the Gemini programme for several years, since I have the equivalent volumes in that format for the Mercury and Apollo programmes. Shortly after I bought the first two, NASA decided to publish new paperback editions, so all three are now readily available from Amazon. But I had to have the same edition for all three, of course. Apollo: the Panoramas I stumbled across recently, and went and bought a copy. It is a very pretty book – if, you, er, find the Moon’s “magnificent desolation” pretty…

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My Fantasycon purchases. Yes, only three books. The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives were on offer – the two novellas for £15 – and I was keen to read Whitely after being named in a tweet as an under-appreciated author along with her. I’ve already read The Arrival of Missives and it’s good. Thirty Years of Rains I was browbeaten into buying by one of the editors (only joking, Neil).

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The … Aircraft since [year] collection is coming along quite well, with these three – Westland, Boeing and the RAF – picked up on eBay for cheapness.

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Finally, some of yer actual fiction (not purchased at a convention). I decided to upgrade my copy of The Golden to the slipcased edition and found a cheap copy on eBay. Revenger I bought when Alastair Reynolds and Peter F Hamilton were at the local Waterstone’s signing copies. I decided to promote Jenny Erpenbeck to hardback status – hence Visitation – and fortunately it turns out there are plenty of copies of her books available on eBay for very reasonable prices. Expect to see more over the next couple of months. A Romantic Hero I bought in a charity shop – Manning is on the list of authors whose books I always buy if I stumble across one I’ve not read in a charity shop.


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Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.

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Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…

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The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.

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To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.


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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