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Reading diary 2018, #18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Booktober 2018

After last year’s terrible result with the TBR – ending the year having reduced it by only one book – I’ve tried to limit my book buying this year and increase my reading. I’ve managed the latter, but not the former, and may well finish 2018 with more books on the TBR than I started. Oh well. I definitely need to have a clear out…

Meanwhile, here are the books I’ve bought since my last book haul post:

Some collectables. I read Golding’s Rites of Passage two years ago and was much impressed. I wanted copies of the sequels, but in an edition that matched my copy of Rites of Passage. As you do. But couldn’t find any on eBay, on the few occasions when I looked, that weren’t tatty. And then one evening, I spotted all three books in first editions as a set for £50, which wasn’t much more than two secondhand good condition paperbacks would have cost me. So I now have Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below in first edition. Golding appears to be quite a good author to collect. First editions of his books are not ridiculously expensive – well, except for Lord of the Flies, of course. The Black Prince, by Adam Roberts and based on an unpublished screenplay by Anthony Burgess, was published by Unbound Books, who crowdfund their titles. I pledged for it in May 2017, and it arrived this month. So that’s nearly 500 days from pledge to book. And that’s one reason why I’m not especially fond of crowd-funding. Plus, of course, there’s the cost – you typically pay over the odds for the final product. The Black Prince cost me around double the RRP of a hardback novel, and four times what Amazon are asking. (To be fair, one of the rewards for my level of pledge was an ebook of reviews of all of Burgess’s novels by Roberts. Which I’m looking forward to reading. Even if it is an ebook.)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been collecting the 1970s Penguin editions of DH Lawrence’s books, and I managed to find another four – Twilight in Italy, Phoenix, Phoenix II and A Selection from Phoenix – and yes, I know the contents of the last book are from the first two, but never mind. It’s a set. The book with the blue cover is from a series of Penguin Critical Anthologies published by, er, Penguin, during the 1970s. This one being on, of course, DH Lawrence.

Some secondhand paperbacks… Odd John is one of the Beacon reprints of sf novels, many of which were “edited” to make them racier – see this post I wrote on them: Sexy Sci-Fi. I now have copies of all of them. The Midwich Cuckoos was given to me by a friend who had accidentally bought a second copy. I know the feeling. The Final Solution was a charity shop find. The Woman Who Loved the Moon was my sole purchase at Fantasticon, a sf convention in Copenhagen I attended last month. And The Sleep of Reason is the tenth book in Snow’s Strangers and Brothers 11-book series, and proved the hardest to find. There were plenty of first editions, mostly tatty, on eBay, but no paperbacks. I found a single paperback on Abebooks from a seller based in New Zealand, but that would have cost £40+ which was way too much. And then one popped up on eBay… for £2.50. Result. I now have the set.

Some non-fiction. I’ve been picking up the Secret Projects books when I find them on eBay, and with Flying Wings and Tailless Aircraft I now have thirteen of them, and only two left to find. Midland Publishing, however, have been reprinting the books with new cover designs, but the new series doesn’t quite map onto the old series. Weirdly. Art & Outrage is a record of correspondence between Lawrence Durrell and Alfred Perlès about Henry Miller. Copies are quite easy to find, but not in good condition. Which this one is.

Finally, my purchases at this year’s Fantasycon in Chester. There were plenty of books to buy – all the usual small presses were there – although no secondhand books. Dealers who specialise in secondhand books don’t seem to bother attending UK conventions anymore. I’ve had better luck at Swedish and Danish cons… There were a number of books in the Fantasycon dealers’ room I quite fancied buying, and in the past I’d have no doubt bought them. And then they’d have sat on my bookshelves unread for a decade or more, before I finally read them or decided to get rid of them. So I limited myself to three: the new Aliya Whitely novel, The Loosening Skin (there was a launch for the book during the weekend, which I didn’t know about when I bought my copy, or I might have gone to it; I didn’t bother to get it signed, even though the author was at the con); a self-published collection by Gary Gibson, Scienceville & Other Lost Worlds; and a critical anthology, Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, which actually won the British Fantasy Award for non-fiction during the weekend.

 


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Reading diary 2018, #17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #16

The big work project is over! Hurrah! After two and a half years! It went live on 1st September, and while there’s been some clean-up going on, and I’ve been helping out, life work-wise for me is pretty much back to what it was before. Which, hopefully, means writing again. And reading more. It’s going to take a while to renew old habits, and lose new habits, like watching films all the time… But I’m hopeful that by the end of October my reading will have picked up. Meanwhile, a recent trip to Denmark gave me some good reading time and I polished off three books in six days…

I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB, Jacques Tardi (2012, France). One day, I will work out why I continue to buy bandes dessinées in English when I’m perfectly capable of reading them in (my schoolboy) French (with, I admit, the help of a dictionary). I mean, given the choice between men-in-tights superhero shenanigans out of the US and French sf comics, I know which I hugely prefer. And, okay, Tardi tends not to write genre, and I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB is actually biography, that of his own father, with some incidents from the life of the father of his wife, the singer Dominique Grange. Buying it in French would at least allow me to keep up to date with some of my favourite series, especially those whose publication history in English has been erratic at best. They’d probably be cheaper too. Anyway, I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB does pretty much exactly what it says on the cover. Tardi’s father served in tanks in the French Army during WWII, was captured early and spent pretty much the entire war in a prisoner of war camp. One thing the story illustrates is the stark difference between the treatment of French and British POWs and American POWs. We’ve all seen the movies and the cheap sitcoms, and POWs breaking out of their camps… but the French were so under-fed and mistreated they’d never have succeeded had they escaped. And, of course, once back home they were likely to be immediately reported to the occupying Germans… Recommended.

Author’s Choice Monthly 16: State of Grace, Kate Wilhelm (1991, USA). I’ve never been that much of a fan of Wilhelm’s fiction. She’s not a writer whose books I seek out. But I’ve found her novels to be generally good and worth reading, and I’ve no doubt about her stature in the genre (ie, it should be much higher). Not all of her work has been worthy of note but she’s generally produced stuff at a slight angle to what everyone else was doing and her prose was above average. I’m not sure this collection, selected by Wilhelm herself, according to some agenda which is not immediately obvious, does her reputation any favours. It contains half a dozen stories, and Wilhelm provides an intro to each which sort of acts as a very loose framing device. ‘The Book of Ylin’ uses spelling rules for some words based on English’s weirder bits of orthography, as illustrated by Shaw’s famous “ghoti”, which makes reading it a chore until it suddenly clicks, and then you wonder why Wilhelm bothered as it’s not a very amusing conceit. ‘The Downstairs’ Room’ reads like a reworking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, but doesn’t add anything to the original. There’s a welcome element of domesticity to the stories, something science fiction doesn’t cover very often, although Wilhelm has mined the territory in some of her novels. The stories stretch from 1963 to 1988, and there’s an impressive consistency to them. True, the earliest story, ‘Jenny with Wings’, is the least satisfactory, but then it doesn’t seem to do much and the resolution feels a little juvenile. One for fans.

Obelisk, Stephen Baxter (2016, UK). I continue to buy Stephen Baxter books and I’m not really sure why. Oh I know what I’m getting when I start to read one, which is, I suppose, a good enough reason for many to continue to read an author… But I like to be surprised– no, impressed… And that’s only going to happen if an author writes something so much better than they have done in the past, or a writer new to me writes something so much more, well, impressive than I had expected. Cf William Faulkner (see here). Baxter sometime does impress, but all too often his fiction reads a bit juvenile. At short lengths, he’s less likely to fall into that trap, so a collection like Obelisk should prove a more satisfactory read… But at novel length, especially when opening a series, such as the novel Coalescent, the first book of the Destiny’s Children quartet, he seems to shine, only for it all to descend into YA-like science fiction that just happens to throw around big ideas. And that, in microcosm, is sort of what happens in Obelisk. There are lots of fascinating ideas in the stories in the book, but there are some that read like YA, the opening story, ‘On Chryse Plain’, being a good example. It’s one of four stories, including the title story, set in the universe of ProximaUltima (see here and here), although to be honest I couldn’t really tell. Other stories are grouped as “Other Yesterdays”, “Other Todays” and “Other Tomorrows”. All but two were previously published. Two weeks after I finished the book, I’m having trouble remembering the individual stories – although Baxter has certainly written short fiction that stands out… There just aren’t any here. One for fans, I suspect.

Golden Hill, Francis Spufford (2016, UK). I took this with me to read on my trip to Denmark and pretty much polished it off during the journey there. It was a much easier read than I’d expected, a very easy read, in fact, so much so I kept on thinking throughout that Spufford had attempted to write something like Golding’s Rites of Passage (see here) but hadn’t quite managed to nail down eighteenth-century prose, resulting in a much more readable prose style. Not, I  hasten to add, that I’m an expert on eighteenth-century prose, or indeed have read any books written during that century, like Gulliver’s Travels or Pamela. But Golding’s novel seems more, well, authentic than this one, although Spufford’s representation of life in 1746 New York is thoroughly convincing. A young man called Smith arrives in New-York (as it’s given throughout the novel) with a promissory note for £1000, effectively a banker’s draft, and an enormous sum in those days. He hands it over to a local merchant but is told it will take sixty days for the merchant to get together the money. So Smith has to hang around until then. He refuses to explain who he is, or what the money is for; which means most think he is a con artist and there will be no supporting credentials on the next ship. Which there isn’t. So he’s arrested. But then it turns up on the ship after that, so it seems he really does have £1000. Meanwhile, everyone has been speculating about what he is – he knows a lot about the theatre, so perhaps he’s an actor – and he’s fallen in with the governor’s private secretary, a gay man his own age, and started courting the merchant’s oldest and very prickly daughter. Spufford keeps the speculation on Smith’s identity and purpose going throughout the novel, which is an impressive achievement. But the real stand-out in the book is New-York of 1746, which feels like a living, breathing place, which, er, obviously it was. The plot is all that you would expect of a novel set then, all setbacks and set-pieces, hearts won, enemies made, lessons learned… The final revelation, when it comes, is a surprise but the foundation for it is plain to see in hindsight. I don’t think Golden Hill will make my best of the year top five but it certainly deserves an honourable mention. Recommended.

Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon (1995, USA). I first read Chabon when his The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was nominated for a sf award, but I think I might have seen the film adaptation of Wonder Boys before that. What am I saying? I have spreadsheets containing this information. I can check… So: I watched Wonder Boys on 4 June 2001 and read The Yiddish Policeman’s Union on 15 March 2008. I did indeed watch the film before reading any of Chabon’s novels. Anyway, having now read Wonder Boys, I want to rewatch the film. Argh. The one thing that struck while reading the book was that most of the film’s cast had been badly-chosen. The narrator is a failed writer of GRRM-proportions who teaches creative writing at a Pittsburgh university. He was played by Michael Douglas. His gay agent was played by Robert Downey Jr. And troubled student James Leer was played by Tobey Maguire. None of them really fit the characters has portrayed in the novel. Which is basically about a weekend at the university during a writing festival, in which the narrator’s wife leaves him, his lover, the chancellor, tells him she’s pregnant, Leer steals the chancellor’s husband’s prize possession, a jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe and shoots their dog, and… well, shit happens, in that sort of slowly inevitable One Foot in the Grave way that ends up in farce. And overshadowing it all is the narrator’s current WIP, which shares the novel’s title, and which he has been working on for seven years, has grown to gargantuan proportions and he will likely never ever finish. Literary professors/authors whose lives are slowly, and comically, unravelling is pretty much a genre on its own, and is seen by many as emblematic of literary fiction as a whole. I disagree, of course. The only people who think lit fic is all middle-class professors lusting after nubile students, disappearing into a bottle, failing to finish their magnum opus, etc, are the people who generally only read genre and almost certainly have not read widely in literary fiction/literature. I’m still not sure what to make of Chabon’s work – this novel is a bit of a bloated cliché and he has a tendency to drop the odd bit of over-writing into his prose, but there’s a curious personality that shines through, one that’s keen to experiment with the stories he tells, and there’s something very likable about that.

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955, USA). Just about every US science fiction writer has had a go at a post-apocalypse novel – and if it was during the first 75 years of last century, it was usually a post-nuclear holocaust novel. Several of the better ones have been by women writers, although, as is usually the case, the ones by male writers – Earth Abides, A Canticle for Leibowitz – have been more celebrated. But with Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth and Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, you have two of the best American post-nuclear war sf novels written in the first half(-ish) of last century. They should be the ones that are celebrated, not Stewart or Miller. But, no matter, we know sf is male-centric, and though we do our best to show this is a false picture, women writers have been immensely successful in genre fiction the last couple of years and that tends to overshadow the achievements of women genre writers of last century. Which it should not. In The Long Tomorrow, the US has turned Mennonite after a nuclear war, and an amendment to the constitution bans towns and villages over a certain size. Cities, you see, make good targets. Of course, the rest of the world has also probably devolved to an agrarian early twentieth-century society, so who’s going to attack the US? But never mind. Len and Esau are curious teenagers in a small New Mennonite farming community, who dream of bigger things, particularly Bartorstown, a mythical town of high tech. After witnessing the stoning of a man linked with Bartorstown, they run away. And end up at the town of Refuge, where they come into conflict with some of the townsfolk because they’re start working for a trader who wants to build an extra warehouse, which will break the aforementioned amendment. This is exacerbated by a rival town across the river which is taking advantage of Refuge’s inability to grow. And then farmers descend on Refuge and put warehouses to the torch, but Len and Esau manage to escape, with the help of an old friend who proves to be from Bartorstown… There’s nothing new in the future US Brackett depicts, drawing as it does on pretty much the entire history of American literature; but the events in Refuge are unexpected, and the arguments against holding back progress, while characteristically American, are handled well. The two leads are typical for sixty year old American sf – ie, white males from comfortable backgrounds – and in fact I don’t recall any POC being mentioned anywhere in the novel. I’m a bigger fan of Brackett’s planetary romances than I am her straight-up sf, although The Long Tomorrow was better than I’d expected. It’s now in the SF Masterworks series.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #15

I try to alternate my fiction reading between male and female authors, but I seem to be doing badly at that in 2018. Only two female authors in this batch of six books.

If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK). I bought this at the Eastercon last year – actually, I bought this and The Destructives, both signed, chiefly, I seem to recall, on the strength of Nina Allen’s review of this one. Despite that, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. What I got reminded me a little of Simon Ings and a little of Marcel Theroux, while being entirely its own thing. I don’t recall If Then being discussed much – other than by Allen, of course – but then it’s that sort of sf, like Ings, like Theroux, that the social media genre chatterers don’t seem to read or be interested in searching out. In the near-future, the UK economy has collapsed and bits of the country, including its people, have been sold off to various interests. This may well happen after Brexit. In the town of Lewes (it’s near Brighton, apparently), the inhabitants have been saved by the “Process”, which is some sort of algorithm which orders the activities of the town according to an undivulged rule-set, based on input from the people in the town, all of whom have been given implants. For all that this is supposed to be an optimally efficient way to run a society, everyone lives pretty much in poverty, and whatever their economic output is, they don’t see the benefits. (It’s implied the UK is in such a parlous state their output just about ensures their survival.) The main character is the town’s bailiff, James – he has a more intrusive implant, which he uses to operate the armour, a sort of steampunk mecha. This he uses when he has to evict people that the Process has decided are no longer required in Lewes. The first half of the book “IF”, details the set-up and shows James exploring his role and the whys and wherefores of the Process (although his wife, the local teacher, is more questioning), all triggered by the appearance of a simulacrum, a Process-created copy of a human being, an actual historical human, John Hector, who served as a stretcher bearer non-combatant during World War I. Eventually, James rebels and the role is given to another man. The novel then shifts, in a second section titled, er, “THEN”, to the First World War and Gallipolli. James find himself serving as a stretcher bearer in a squad commanded by Sergeant Hector. Except this isn’t the real Gallipolli campaign, or indeed the real WWI. It’s a vast re-enactment created on the south coast of England, designed to recreate the conditions which resulted in… and this is where things get really interesting, although some research is required to stitch it all together… the creation of an Odd John-like figure (cf Olaf Stapledon), called Omega John, who was John Hector. The real Omega John was created during the real WWI, and eventually invented the Process. But he has decided more like himself are needed, so he has re-enacted the Gallipolli campaign in order to “forge” a new Omega John from the simulacrum Hector. And this is all tied in with the ideas of Noel Huxley, who in the real world committed suicide in 1914 but in the novel served as a padre in Gallipolli, and nurtured Hector and helped his transformation into Omega John… If Then is a novel where it’s hard to tell where it’s going, and that disjoint in the middle as it switches from IF to THEN makes you wonder how de Abaitua is going to stitch it all together… but as the narrative circles back round on itself, and begins throwing out the ideas which underpin its story, it makes the journey there very much worthwhile. It’s a shame science fiction such as this seems to be mostly ignored, as it’s a damn sight more interesting, better written, and much more intellectually challenging than juvenile space operas with over-written prose which over-privileges “feels”. It’s If Then‘s sort of sf which should be appearing on shortlists.

Apollo, Matt Finch, Chris Baker & Mike Collins (2018, UK). Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, so expect shitloads of books and TV programmes and documentaries on the subject. There were more than enough for the fortieth anniversary back in 2009. And given how extensively documented Apollo 11, and the entire Apollo programme, was, and has been, documented, you wouldn’t think more books on it were needed… Except when Neil Armstrong died six years ago it was pretty obvious most millennials hadn’t a fucking clue he was. (I suspect this year’s biopic, First Man, will change that, however.) Among all the books we can expect for next year, I would not have thought a graphic novel depiction of the mission was, er, missing. But that’s what Apollo is. And, to be fair, they do a good job. Where necessary they stick to the technical dialogue, but there are a couple of flights of fancy thrown in as well, just to keep it from being dull. I didn’t detect any errors, so Finch, the author, and Baker, the artist, have clearly done their research. (And surely a colourist called Mike Collins can’t be a coincidence?) All things considered, this is not a bad addition to the huge body of work about Apollo 11.

Kon-tiki 1: Dislocations, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2018, UK). Brooke and Brown have collaborated a number of times over the years, although mostly at lengths shorter than novella. I think the Kon-tiki Quartet might also be their first series together, rather than loosely-linked stories in the same universe. The quartet title refers to the first human expedition to another star, which will be crewed not by astronauts but by copies of them – ie, clones with their originals’ memories downloaded into them shortly before launch. Sean Williams & Shane Dix used a similar idea in their Orphans of Earth trilogy, although their avatars were initially software only. The chief character of Dislocations is a mainstay of British sf, although no longer as common as he once was: a self-pitying white male who is in love with someone unattainable, unhappy in his own marriage and unfulfilled in his career, despite being involved in something important, and who nonetheless manages to have a major impact on events. In this case, it’s the kidnap of the object of the protagonist’s desire, the project’s chief psychologist, by eco-terrorists. But the project’s security team don’t seem to be making much of an effort to find her, despite her kidnappers stating they will kill her if their demands are not met. Fortunately, the protagonist does their job for them. And it transpires the kidnapping was intended to hide sabotage within the project. No convincing explanation is given for the security team’s lack of action, however. It goes without saying the prose is polished and the characters well drawn. But it does all feel a bit, well, tired. The story takes place mostly at Lakenheath base, and despite a passing reference to events there last century, you’d have to be in your forties at least for it to mean anything. True, the Allianz, the eco-terrorists’ organisation, appears to have been inspired by Antifa, which makes them sort of relevant, and the earth itself is on the edge of a climate crash, which is certainly relevant… I enjoyed Dislocations, and I thought it a well-written novella, but it felt a little like a retread of older material, and in places actually reminded me of 1970s sf by the likes of Cowper and Coney – which can be considered both a compliment and a complaint. The second book of the quartet, Parasites, is already available, and I will of course be picking myself up a copy.

Uppsala Woods, Álvaro Colomer (2009, Spain). A friend’s blog persuaded me to give Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream (see here) a go, and I thought the novel excellent – and was intrigued by the fact it had inspired a “Nocilla generation” of writers in Spain. So I decided to see how this had manifested, and Colomer’s Uppsala Woods looked like the most interesting of the novels labelled as “Nocilla” I could find. Having now read it… I’m not entirely sure what Mallo brought to it, other than perhaps a circumspect prose style which uses excessive detail; and while I like that, I like detail, I write it myself, the story of Uppsala Woods proved to be something of a let-down. The narrator is an entomologist and his wife has been suffering from depression. He comes home from work one day and discovers she has tried to commit suicide by swallowing pills. This reminds him of an actual suicide he witnessed as a boy – a neighbour jumped off a seventh-floor balcony while he watched – and which traumatised him so badly he grew up into the weak-willed and indecisive human being he is now. There’s a lot of reflection on his self-perceived failings, and how it feeds into his response to his wife’s attempted suicide. It doesn’t help that the marriage had been failing, and he’s incapable of making the concessions needed to rescue it. In fact, he’s not a very nice person at all. And there’s a whiff of misogyny to the narrative which is unpleasant, not to mention a definitely old-fashioned view of suicide as a form of “lunacy”. I liked the prose style and thought it effective, but found the story disappointing and its sensibilities a little old-fashioned for me. I’d like to further explore the Nocilla generation, but I hope they’re better than Uppsala Woods. Incidentally, the English translation of the third book of Mallo’s trilogy, Nocilla Lab, is due in January next year, and I’m looking forward to it. Mallo has written other novels and I’d like to read them – but they’ve yet to be translated into English. Perhaps I should learn Spanish… I mean, there are those Cuban authors I’d like to read too…

Spin Control, Chris Moriarty (2006, USA). This is a loose sequel to Spin State, features many of the same characters, but its plot doesn’t follow exactly on from the earlier plot. There are references to earlier events, but Spin Control can be read without having read Spin State. That, however, is the least of its problems. And, to be fair, its major problem is hardly its fault, it’s something that recent events have made problematical. Because Spin Control is set mostly in Israel. And this is an Israel that’s back at war with the Palestinians. The treatment of the Palestinians is certainly sympathetic (if not overly lionised) – and the treatment of Americans, Moriarty’s nationality, certainly not – but there’s still that whiff of admiration for Israel that is endemic in US culture. Which is a shame, because there’s a pure science-fiction thread to the narrative that seems mostly wasted. On the one hand, you have a defector from the Syndicates (genetically-engineered sort of communist clones) who is taken to Jerusalem to sell his secrets to the highest bidder – Mossad, its Palestinian equivalent, or the Americans – and which drags in some of the surviving cast of Spin State. But it’s all a plot, of sorts, to uncover a Palestinian mole, called Absalom, within Mossad. On the other hand, told in flashback, there’s the story of that same defector as one of the survivors of a Syndicate survey mission to a terraformed world. But there’s something weird about what they find – not just the fact it has been terraformed, since most terraforming attempts by humanity have failed, but also because there are weird things happening in the DNA of the flora and fauna. And when the survey team all come down with a fever, they work out that it’s caused by a virus which is using biology as a “Turing soup”, a sort of computational engine seeking an optimal terraforming solution. However, there’s a side-effect to the fever… and when this is revealed… well, Absalom’s identity seems pretty trivial. The survey mission narrative is nicely done, even if first contact puzzle stories are a genre staple; and marrying it with a near-future spy thriller is a nice touch. The setting of the latter is handled well, and each side is treated sensitively, but time, and geopolitics, has imparted something of a whiff to the Israeli-set sections and it’s hard to read them in light of recent events, or indeed the reader’s existing sympathies in the situation. Moriarty has shown she’s not afraid of tackling difficult subjects, both sfnal and real-world, and she’s good at it. It’s a shame she’s not better known.

Possession, AS Byatt (1990, UK). I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book. I’ve a feeling my parents gave it me when they lived in the Middle East, and they moved back to the UK in the late 1990s… (Ah. I just checked and they gave it me in 2002… so after we’d all returned to the UK. See, keeping records is a good thing.) Anyway, it’s been hanging around in my book collection for over a decade. I watched the film adaptation several years ago – featuring two US actors, Gwyneth Paltrow playing a Brit and Aaron Eckhart playing a Brit character that had been rewritten as an American (but Trevor Eve plays the novel’s only American character) – and remember being unimpressed. There are films that are better than the novels they’re adapted from – such as, Marnie, The Commitments, and, er, All That Heaven Allows – but they’re rare. Possession isn’t one of them. The book is much superior, even if it dies “reproduce” much of its subject’s poetry, which is really quite bad. An academic, Roland Michell, studying the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash comes across mention of a woman encountered by Ash, Christabel LaMotte, and decides to look her up. This brings him into contact with Maud Bailey, an academic specialising in the poetry of LaMotte. Together, they track down a series of letters between the two, which suggest not only that Ash and LaMotte had an affair, but that some of Ash’s later poetry was directly inspired by LaMotte, and uncovers consequences which impact Bailey and Michell themselves. The book is structured as a straight narrative in the present day, interspersed with correspondence and journal entries from various of the Victorian characters, and even poetry from Ash and LaMotte. Although published in 1990, the present-day narrative reads like it’s set in the early 1980s, which feels odd, and the only year mentioned, 1988, is implied to be some time in the future, The prose is by turns fussy and glib – and Byatt seems to enjoy describing domestic bathrooms in excessive detail – and while the historical bits appear extremely well-researched, something about the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte smells a little too coy and arch to really convince. It doesn’t help that Ash’s poetry, as reproduced, is pretty awful. LaMotte’s is not much better. True, I’m no expert on Victorian poetry – I much prefer poetry from the 1930s and 1940s – but the excerpts from Ash’s epic poetry are not impressive. Possession was widely lauded on publication and won the Booker Prize. Even now, it is held in high regard. It’s undoubtedly a clever novel, and makes an excellent fist of its conceit. The meta-fiction/palimpsest nature of the narrative is something that appeals to me, although such narratives run the risk of being boring in parts and Possession unfortunately fails to avoid that. I suspect it’s a consequence of the structure – over-dramatising such narrative inserts would probably impact their verisimilitude. As a literary fiction novel, I’ve read better; as an historical meta-fictional novel, I’ve read better. But it’s still very good. Recommended.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Books fall

To Brits, the American English for autumn, fall, doesn’t really capture the season – “of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and all that – which is silly as it’s a contraction of “leaf fall”, which was the more common name for autumn in sixteenth-century England. Also, it should be pointed out that dropping books is likely to damage them, and I would never do that (if someone broke the spine of a book I’d lent them, I would break their fingers). Anyway, the following books metaphorically fell into my collection…

The Day of the Triffids was given to me by a friend, Ole. He told me he’d accidentally bought a second copy. I know the feeling. Author’s Choice Monthly 15 and Author’s Choice Monthly 16 makes the complete set a little bit nearer.

Some new hardbacks and, er, Oscar, who was determined to be involved. Obelisk is a collection from last year, and Xeelee Redemption is the latest book in the extended and drawn-out series which, I think, made its first appearance back in the late 1980s in an issue of Dream Magazine (a UK small press magazine from that period). Spring Tide is a collection, and America City is a novel. I don’t actually know anything about either of them, but Chris Beckett is an excellent writer and I’ve known him for a decade or more. I enjoyed Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (see here), and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, which is a bit of an unwieldy title, is the sequel.

Three favourite writers and a review copy from Interzone. Guess which is which… Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle is an excellent series about first contact, and her ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ is one of the best short stories the genre has produced. I’m looking forward to reading Chercher La Femme. Varley was one of those writers whose novels and stories I loved back in my late teens. I still have a lot of fondness for The Ophiuchi Hotline. He returned to his Eight Worlds universe for two novels in the 1990s. Irontown Blues, a second return to that universe, has been promised for years, so it’s good to see it finally appear. Thoreau’s Microscope is a collection in PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series (see here). And Liminal, I reviewed for Interzone.

I’ve been working my way – slowly – through Snow’s Strangers and Brothers eleven-book series. Corridors of Power is the ninth book, and Last Things the eleventh. I’ve yet to find a copy of the tenth novel, The Sleep of Reason – or rather, I’ve yet to find a Penguin paperback copy of the novel that matches the ones I own. Bah. As I Lay Dying I bought after being hugely impressed by The Sound and the Fury, my first Faulkner, which I read a few months ago (see here). And yes, it matches the two Penguin Faulkner paperbacks I own (cover art by André François; he apparently designed six of them).

In hindsight, I should have put Without a Summer up with the Duchamp, Varley and Lewis as it’s more genre than Blumlein’s Thoreau’s Microscope, but never mind. It’s the third book in the series and I enjoyed the previous two. Irma Voth I added to my wishlist after watching, and being impressed by, Silent Light (see here). Toews starred in that film and the novel is a fictional adaptation of her experiences. Spring Snow I also bought after watching a film: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. An excellent film (see here).

Oscar had to get into the act again. He’s standing on Apollo, a graphic novel adaptation of the Apollo 11 mission by three Brits. I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB is the latest Tardi release by Fantagraphics. I’ve been collecting them as they’re published. I really ought to get the original French ones, of course.


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Reading diary 2018, #14

My reading has been all over the place these past few months. Sometimes I just grab the first thing I see, other times it takes me ages to pick a book to read, although these past few weeks it’s been more of the former than the latter. Having said that, I’m still ahead on my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018 – six books ahead, in fact, as I type this. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been reading more than in previous years, although there have been a few weekends when all I’ve felt up to doing – because of the heat – is just sitting down and reading. Or watching films.

Liminal, Bee Lewis (2018, UK). I reviewed this for Interzone. The back-cover blurb describes it as a “Gothic fantasia”, which basically means literary fiction that doesn’t want to be identified as genre and is too dark to be called “magical realism”. As it is, Liminal is a weird mix of fantasy au Mythago Wood and “grip-lit” à la Gone Girl. Interestingly, the main character is a disabled person – she lost a leg as a child in a car accident – and Lewis handles her well. She’s less successful with her male characters – the husband is supposed to be quite religious but that only manifests in outbursts of bizarrely misogynistic behaviour (which I guess is as good a description of religion as anything else). The genre aspects are quite good, but the thriller plot is too easily and too neatly resolved. Anyway, see my Interzone review for more.

The Trespasser, DH Lawrence (1912, UK). This was Lawrence’s second novel, published the year after The White Peacock. It was apparently based on the diaries of a friend of Lawrence, whose lover, a married man, committed suicide. It seems a bit, well, off, especially since the female lead in the novel is called Helena, which is not much different from Helen, the name of Lawrence’s friend. Helena is a young woman studying how to play the violin under Siegmund, a married man. The two enter into an affair, but the book pretty much focuses on a trip the two take together – partly by accident – to the Isle of Wight. They know that once the holiday is over they must return to their respective lives, and any affair between the two must end. On his return home, Siegmund realises his relationship with his wife and children has been forever tainted by his affair, even if they did not know of it (although his wife certainly suspected). Like the earlier novel – and some of his later ones – Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it’s describing the landscape. The dialogue, and the characters’ emotions, seem over-emphatic to modern readers, and though Lawrence had a good ear for dialogue it often jars with the over-emotional prose. I can understand why he’s no longer as popular, or as read, as he once was, but I still think he’s an important author in British literature, and it’s a shame he’s best-known these days for TV miniseries adaptations of his work.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989, USA). This was a reread, although I last read it twenty-five years ago. I’m not much given to rereading, and then it’s usually of books I greatly admire. But the blurb for Grass intrigued me (or re-intrigued me), and I couldn’t remember anything of the book from my previous read (and I’m generally quite good at remembering books I’ve read). So I grabbed it one weekend, and read it on-and-off over a couple of weeks. There is a type of sf which is quite common, in which a group of explorers or settlers must figure out the strange ecology of an alien world – not always directly affecting them, sometimes it’s historical. There are plenty of examples, both short fiction and novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ‘The Wind People’ (1959) to Stephen Leigh’s Dark Water’s Embrace (1998), and many both between and since. Tepper’s Grass is a good example of the type. On the eponymous world, a number of noble families live in country estates on the grassy plains, and their lives revolve around the Hunt. But this Hunt bears only a faint resemblance to the barbaric practice of chasing foxes on horseback (er, the hunters, obviously; the foxes aren’t on horseback) as practised in the UK. For a start, the hounds and mounts (but never “horses”) are native species of Grass, as are their prey, the “foxen”. All three creatures are likely intelligent – certainly the hunters are not in control during the Hunt. Meanwhile, a plague has taken hold on all the human-occupied worlds… except Grass. So Sanctity, the oppressive religion which pretty much rules all the humans, sends a family of Old Catholics as ambassadors to Grass, with the secret task of discovering if Grass is indeed immune to the plague. The Yrariers were chosen because they’re both Olympic champion horse-riders and Sanctity has heard about, but misunderstood, the Hunt on Grass. It wasn’t until I get to the end of Grass that I began to remember my previous read. And I suspect that’s because back then I also found the final section of the book over-dramatic. The puzzle presented by the hounds, mounts and foxen is interesting enough, not to mention the Arbai, and the plague, so there’s no real reason to start blowing shit up in the third act. I had definitely forgotten, however, how good Tepper’s prose could be. She famously started writing late – she was in her fifties when her first novel was published – so perhaps that explains why her writing was a cut above many of her peers. During the late 1990s, I read a whole bunch of Tepper’s novels – she was an author much-liked among the members of a sf APA I was in at the time – and if hr novels had a tendency, as I remember it, to get a little preachy at times, there was never any doubt that she was among the best the genre had to offer during that period. I really ought to read more of her stuff.

The Wind, Jay Caselberg (2017, Australia). I must admit, these novellas aren’t really convincing me that horror/dark fantasy is a genre that I’m missing out on. Fans of the genre will likely find more to like in them than I have done. It’s not as if the writing has been especially stand-out – and in this one it’s noticeably, well, not bad per se, just very, very ordinary. Gerry has just moved to Abbotsford to take over the local veterinary practice, which is mostly farm animal work rather than domestic pets. But the Dark Days are coming again, which seems to manifest as wind (as in climate, not as in farm animals alimentary processes), and an enigmatic red-haired young woman called Amanda. Like the Lotz, this is set in rural UK but doesn’t quite convince. The prose manages a good British voice, but there are odd details which don’t fit. Like the village shop, which resembles more something out of Open All Hours, or the use of “used cars” instead of “secondhand cars”. Or referring to Gerry as the “veterinary” instead of “vet” or “veterinarian”. The author is apparently an Australian living “in Europe”. They make a nice collectable set, these four novellas, with a lovely piece of cover art spread across all four books. But three novellas in and they’ve not been as memorable as the first and third series of novellas, both of which were science fiction.

The Inheritors, William Golding (1955, UK). It must be horrible to have had a distinguished career as a writer, but people only know you from your first novel. Which for Golding was Lord of the Flies; and even now 64 years after its publication, and 25 years after Golding’s death, if you asked anyone to name a novel by him they’d name his first novel. But to then follow Lord of the Flies with something as frankly weird as The Inheritors… Now, I know Golding was not that odd. I’ve read his Rites of Passage, which is brilliant, and I have The Spire on the TBR, but The Inheritors is by any yardstick an odd book. It tells of the end of the Neanderthals at the hands of the Cro-Magnons, and is told entirely from the point-of-view of the former. The main characters are a small group of Neanderthals, comprising a young male, an old male, an old woman, two young women, one of which carries a baby, and a young child. The old woman is described at one point as the young male’s mother, so it’s likely they’re all related. The old man dies – of pneumonia? – after falling into a river, and then other members of the family disappear under mysterious circumstances. The young male discovers some men have settled an island in a nearby river, but they are not men like himself – nor women, for that matter (Golding was an old school misogynist). The two survivors of the family hide out in a tree and witness the Cro-Magnons at work and play. It’s a novel in which very little happens for pages and pages, and what does happen is filtered through Golding’s idea of a Neanderthal worldview. It works because the prose is so good. There’s something about Golding’s writing that oozes authority, and I’m not entirely sure what it is. His prose is not lush, nor is it stripped back. But there’s a clarity and confidence to it that many writers would do well to emulate – especially in these days of MFAs and CWAs and creative writing courses. I can think of several recent highly-praised novels where if the author really had applied “kill your darlings”, the novel would be considerably shorter. Had Golding done the same to The Inheritors, it would be precisely the same length.

Thoreau’s Microscope, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction for many years, but he has not been especially prolific: three novels – this book claims The Roberts is a novel, but it’s really a novella – and only one collection all the way back in 1988 and another, What the Doctor Ordered, in 2013 (but also a new one, as well as this one, All I Ever Dreamed, this year). Having said that, these PM Press Outspoken Authors collections are odd beasts, as they contain a mixture of fiction and factual pieces, most of which are not that well-known. The title of this one refers to the collection’s longest-piece, an essay about Blumlein, his lung cancer, and a hike into the High Sierras with friends to name a mountain after Thoreau, and, er, Thoreau. Also included are ‘Paul and Me’, in which the narrator meets and makes friends with Paul Bunyan; ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f‘, written in the third person and almost impossible to summarise; ‘Fidelity’, which is not genre, about a Jewish couple who have twin sons and can’t decide whether to circumcise them; ‘Know How, Can Do’, about a worm given a brain graft, who gains sentience; and finally an interview with Blumlein. As an introduction to Blumlein’s short fiction, this is not a good place to start. The contents seem to have been chosen more because of their unusual nature than because they are representative of his oeuvre. Good stuff, but more for fans than casual browsers. Having said that, followers of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series will probably not be phased by the collection’s contents – and if it persuades them to try more of Blumlein’s fiction, then job done.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 131