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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 (qalthough 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


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Reading diary 2018, #13

The heat seems to have lessened a little, but we’ve still two months to go before summer is over, and even then heatwaves in October are not unheard of in these days of climate change. Having said that, two of the books below are slight cheats as they’re novellas. But then the Faulkner – famously described as a “difficult” book – I managed to knock off in three days…

Empery (Trigon Disunity 3), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1987, USA). And so we come to the third and final book of the Trigon Disunity, which also includes the first use of the word “trigon”, although the word “disunity” appears nowhere in all three books. The story opens several centuries after the events of Enigma. Earth is now the centre of the Affirmation, which includes several advanced human colonies discovered since the second book. But one political wing of the human race is determined to take war to the Mizari, the “Sterilizers” of Enigma who wiped out humanity back in the last Ice Age (which was then reseeded by a good energy alien, as also described in Enigma). When Empery focuses on the politics of Earth and the United Space Service, and the fight between those who think the Mizari no longer present a threat (their last attack was 60,000 years ago, after all) and those determined on a pre-emptive strike, it’s not bad. It’s less good, however, on the science fiction. The Mizari are the worst sort of Trek super-aliens, and the only really remarkable thing about Empery (which apparently means “absolute dominion”) is how long it drags out its story. It doesn’t at least rely on superhuman intervention by a, er, human being, as Enigma does. Nor is its “good” character a paragon as in Emprise. That the books improve as the trilogy progresses is no surprise, but the initial world-building is too big an obstacle for the story to overcome and the aliens are shit too. Best avoided.

Unpublished Stories, Frank Herbert (2016, USA). Stories generally remain unpublished for a reason, and smart writers make sure they never see the light of day, even after their death. Hergé refused to allow new Tintin adventures to be written after he died, and so the last Tintin book we have is an unfinished one. Edgar P Jacobs, on the other hand, placed no such restrictions on his Blake and Mortimer characters, and the  Edgar P Jacobs Studio has continued his series, producing, to be honest, better stories than Jacobs himself ever did. Then there’s all the controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman… Frank Herbert died before completing his Dune series, leaving only cryptic notes explaining where he planned to go with the narrative after Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune. Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson used the existence of these notes as a mandate to expand Herbert’s universe, and it’s a crying fucking shame what they did to it. However, Anderson has done good in making available Herbert’s unpublished fiction. ‘Spice Planet’, an early draft of Dune, which was published in The Road to Dune, is a fascinating historical document and does Herbert’s career no harm. And I’m pretty sure the stories in Unpublished Stories, despite being generally not very good, are unlikely to affect Herbert’s reputation either. For a start, they’re pretty much all mainstream. He fancied himself as a thriller writer before turning to sf. And that’s what we have here, a collection of mainstream stories (only two are sf, and one of them appears in The Collected Stories of Frank Herbert too), some of which work and some of which don’t. The prose is no better and no worse than you’d expect for commercial fiction from the middle of last century, but nothing about the stories stands out. Which is likely why they were never published. They’re interesting historical documents, but likely of interest only to fans.

Cottingley, Alison Littlewood (2017, UK). The title of this novella, from NewCon Press’s second quartet of novellas, immediately signals what this story is about, who it is likely to feature, and what is likely to happen… Which means that when a writer uses a title that is, so to speak, a hostage to fortune, they’re going to have to work especially hard to confound expectations. Littlewood frames her story as epistolary, a series of letters between an invented character, Lawrence Fairclough, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or rather Doyle’s associate, a “Mr Gardner”. Fairclough describes how he and his granddaughter stumbled across a small group of fairies at a brook in a wood by their home. But these fairies are more like malevolent insects. When Fairclough finds the skull of one, typical fairy tricks such as souring milk and making food go off persuades his daughter to return the skull – and a fairy spits in one of her eyes, blinding it. The story, making many references to the fairies photographed by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, unfolds through several letters. We do not see Gardner’s letters and can only infer what he wrote from Fairclough’s replies. Fairclough has answers to all of Gardner’s questions – clearly he’s afraid it might be a hoax – but whatever evidence he has gathered disappears one by one (such as the skull). Cottingley suffers from the same problem as all epistolary novels: how to tell the story in a way that doesn’t read like reportage. Which means the letters don’t really read like letters. They’re too descriptive, there’s too much interiority, and they’re far too fixed on the theme of the novella. On the one hand, these quartets of novellas NewCon Press are publishing are handsome books; on the other, I’m not a fan of dark fantasy or horror, so I knew this particular quartet were unlikely to appeal to me. There’s still three to read, of course; and a fourth quartet being published even now – with novellas by Gary Gibson, Adam Roberts, Ricardo Pinto and Hal Duncan.

Body in the Woods, Sarah Lotz (2017, South Africa). I read Lotz’s The Three a few years ago on a trip to Finland for Archipelacon. It struck me as commercial light horror and I didn’t bother with the sequel (three, er, well, some guesses to what the sequel was titled). And while I enjoyed Body in the Woods, there’s nothing in it to persuade me to seek out further work by her. A woman living alone in a country cottage – her partner is working in Qatar on contract – is visited by an old friend. He has a body wrapped in plastic in the boot of his car. Years before the two had defined friendship as “helping to bury a body, no questions asked”, and he’s turned up to make good on that. After the deed is done, she begins to obsess over the identity of the victim, leading to several flashbacks explaining how the woman and man are linked, and her thoughts and fears are manifested as corruption in her garden – a nettle patch that refuses to die and expands, growing mould patches, etc. It is, like The Three, all very light horror and written in commercial and readable prose. There is one minor weirdness: occasional Americanisms which appear in the prose, even though the voice is very British (the author is British but resident in South Africa, which may explain that). I found Body in the Woods are more involving read than Cottingley, but the latter struck me as a better work.

The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975, revised 1985, USA). In a recent exchange on Twitter with Kev McVeigh, he wondered why McIntyre, a feminist sf writer and multi-award winner, was not as well known as Joanna Russ. McIntyre wrote a number of Star Trek tie-in novels, and so may have become associated with that rather than straight-up sf… Although a look at her bibliography on isfdb.org shows she wrote only 5 Trek novels (including novelizations of films II, III and IV), one SWEU novel, and, er, ten genre novels that aren’t tie-ins. The first of which was The Exile Waiting in 1975, although the version I read is the revised 1985 edition. It’s one of those sf novels which posits a world which includes slavery and children deliberately mutilated to make them more effective beggars. I really don’t understand why sf writers feels a need to populate their novels with either of these. True, these last twenty years we’ve seen technological progress increase inequality – please please please, someone make like Max Zorin and flood Silicon Valley – when you’d imagine technology would make things better for everyone equally. As someone once said – was it Bruce Sterling? – the market finds its own use for things; except it would be perhaps more accurate to say that Silicon Valley finds its own way to develop revenue streams from things that were otherwise free. (Multi-passenger Uber! Er, that’s a bus, you’ve just invented a bus. And so on.) But The Exile Waiting is 42 years old, revised 32 years ago, and what is about American sf that all roads lead to libertarian variations on the Great Depression? Mutilating kids? Seriously? Slavery? Really? It doesn’t matter that the protagonist of this novel is female and has agency, because the world in which she lives embodies the worst of US sf. At one point, she’s whipped because she sneaked her way into the palace, was caught and accused of stealing, and given no opportunity to explain herself. Anyway, a more extensive review of this should appear at some point on SF Mistressworks. I don’t think The Exile Waiting was typical of its time – in some respects, it’s an improvement on mid-seventies American sf – but in some areas it demonstrates remarkably little commentary on the tropes it uses, even in the revised edition, and even its above average prose can’t really save it.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). When my father died he left behind a collection of around a hundred Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them he had ordered directly from the publisher – I found an invoice in one – and included works by DH Lawrence (the writer he admired most), Carson McCullers, JP Donleavy, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm Lowry, Raymond Chandler, Herman Hesse, George Orwell and, among others… William Faulkner. I kept many of the books for myself – and subsequently became a big fan of Lowry’s fiction. (I had already sampled Lawrence’s fiction, and found it excellent, earlier.) There was always the possibility I’d be enormously impressed by another author from his collection, although a read of two of McCullers novels showed it wasn’t going to be her. William Faulkner, on the other hand, what little I knew of him – early twentieth century author, American, wrote mostly about the South, his novels had quite pretentious titles, I couldn’t think of anything by him that been adapted by Hollywood… Well, I’d expected The Sound and the Fury to be a bit of a chore to read, and it was only a complete inability to brain early one weekday morning that resulted in me grabbing it to read next on my commute. So I was very surprised to discover the novel hugely impressive. The casual use of racial epithets – the racism itself, especially in the third section, narrated by Jason Compton, who is racist – is hard to take, although nothing in the prose persuades me that Faulkner held those views, and in fact he develops his black characters as carefully and as well as he develops his white ones. And, of course, this is a book that was written, and set, within living memory (just) of slavery and the American Civil War. US society, especially southern US society, is hugely racist, and if the language in The Sound and the Fury is offensive it is at least a legitimate product of its time. But one of the areas that fascinates me about literature is narrative structure, and there The Sound and the Fury has plenty to recommend it. It is divided into four parts, three dated 1928 and one dated 1910, and each part subsequently sheds more light on the story. The first is told from the point of view of Benjy, who has learning disabilities, and presents his 33 years of life in an achronological almost stream-of-consciousness narrative, with time-jumps signalled by changes from italics and back again, although not with any degree of rigour. The second section is set 18 years earlier and mixes a straightforward narrative with stream of consciousness, and is perhaps the hardest to parse as its narrative is mostly peripheral to the main story. The third section, set in 1928 again, is more straightforward and, as mentioned earlier, is in the POV of the racist brother of the protagonist of the second section. The final section takes place a day later than the third, and is omniscient, but chiefly features the family’s black housekeeper. With each section, the overall story becomes clearer. It is not, it has to be said, the most exciting of stories – Banks followed a similar philosophy with his mainstream novels, albeit without the modernism, but he usually made his central secrets a little too “exciting” and a little too implausible. The Sound and the Fury is pure modernist literature, and the prose is really very very good. Though the milieu doesn’t attract me, the approach to writing strikes me as every bit as interesting as that of Lowry. Albeit in a different way. A third of the way into The Sound and the Fury I decided I needed to read more, if not all, of Faulkner’s fiction. So I’ve ordered another of his novels. From eBay. Because, of course, I want editions that match the ones I have – ie, mid-sixties Penguin paperbacks. Sigh. But Faulkner: excellent. Possibly even a new favourite writer.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #12

This stinking weather. It has, however, meant I’ve been reading more than usual because it’s too hot to do anything else. Which is weird, because when I lived in the UAE, where it gets way hotter than this during the summer, I used to read loads – and everywhere out there had really effective air-conditioning. Every other Thursday, I’d take taxi out to the Daly Community Library – a room in a church centre attached to the Al-Khubairat English-speaking school – and check out four books. I’d usually finish one by the end of the day. Admittedly, there wasn’t much to do there. The TV was rubbish, I didn’t have the internet at home, the selection of DVDs for sale was poor (even the ones unapproved by the Ministry of Information I used to buy under the counter)… On the other hand, my commute to work was a 500-metre walk.

The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France). In 1980, Roland Barthes was hit by a van, and died a month later from injuries sustained in the accident. Binet supposes that Barthes was carrying a document wanted by several groups of powerful people – including the government of President Giscard d’Estaing. And some Bulgarian assassins. Who may or may not have been working for the Russians. A superintendent from the Renseignements Généraux, Bayard, is tasked with investigating the accident, and recruits a young semiologist professor, Herzog, to help him. The two discover the existence of the Logos Club, where members debate each other for advancement, and challengers lose a finger if their challenges are unsuccessful. Bayard and Herzog bounce around literary theory and semiotics, through a series of clever set-pieces and in-jokes, and it’s all to do with Roman Jakobson’s theory of language and its six functions – or, in this case, a mythical seventh one which allows the speaker to coerce the listener – which may have been in Barthes’ possession, and which politicians are keen to discover, especially French ones… Not only is The 7th Function of Language a fun and clever mystery novel, but it’s also a fascinating exploration of semiotics and the theories of Barthes, Foucault, Jakobson and others. A lot of the characters who appear are real people, and a number of the events in which Bayard and Herzog find themselves involved also happened in real history. As in his earlier HHhH (see here), Binet frequently breaks the fourth wall, although the process of writing the novel does not feature here as it does in the previous novel. I picked up a signed hardback of this book in a Waterstone’s promotion, but hadn’t planned on hanging onto the book once I’d read it. But I think I will. It’s an entertaining read and it’s made me want to read up on Barthes and Foucault and semiotics.

Moon Face, Alejandro Jodorowsky & François Boucq (2018, France). Jodorowsky seems to be on a roll. While he continues to contribute to a number of long-running properties – and in the case of the Metabarons appears to have licensed the property to others – he’s also churning out new stuff. Like Moon Face. On an island under a repressive regime, which regularly experiences tsunamis, there appears a man with somewhat undefined features, the Moon Face of the title, who can control the tidal waves. His appearance triggers a whole series of events, which eventually leads to the downfall of the island’s autocratic and arrogant rulers. At one point Moon Face prompts the rebuilding of a destroyed cathedral, and when a false messiah, tricked into appearing by a rebellious faction, destroys the cathedral Moon Face triggers a second rebuild and… Well, this isn’t an easy book to summarise. It’s thick with religious references and allusions, and while Jodorowsky pretty much always does that in his works, it’s far more in-your-face here than in other books. It doesn’t help that the villains are all a bit pantomime, which makes it all somewhat one-sided. Boucq’s artwork is lovely, however. And if Jodorowsky’s scripts feels a bit obvious in places with its religious – well, Roman Catholic – references and allusions, it doesn’t detract from the story as drawn.

Beatniks, Toby Litt (1997, UK). Litt began has career by stating that each of his novels would be titled alphabetically. so, obviously, Beatniks is his second book (but actually the fifth book by him I’ve read). He’s currently at “N”, and he started in 1996, so he’s not managing one a year. I first came across Litt with Journey into Space (2009), a generation starship novel. I seem to remember it wasn’t bad – the prose was better than most sf novels, but the science fiction itself was a bit old-fashioned. But I liked the idea of publishing books with alphabetical titles, so I kept an eye open for his books. He’s been a bit of a gadfly, as no two books have been the same. Beatniks is not atypical for UK lit fic. It’s set in Bedford, Litt’s hometown. A young woman is invited to a party, where she meets three people – two bloke and a woman – who refuse to acknowledge anything that happened after Dylan went electric. She can’t decide if they’re complete poseurs, but she fancies one of them so she tries to get them better. It all ends up with a trip to Brighton, where they learn a bit more about each other than they perhaps wanted to. It was hard to sympathise with the three “Beats” as they seemed to behave in a wilfully ridiculous manner. The narrator at least was sympathetic. But it all hung together entertainingly. A fast read, and enjoyable, and perhaps a little more memorable than some of Litt’s other books I’ve read.

The True Deceiver, Tove Jansson (1982, Finland). Jansson is of course best-known for the Moomins, but she also wrote a number of novels for adults, and in recent years they’ve been translated into English. In The True Deceiver, a young woman in a remote Finnish village – but Swedish-speaking, I think – organises her way into the life of an older woman who illustrates children’s books. Katri is something of an outsider in the village, partly due to her colouring, partly due to her independence and unwillingness to compromise that independence. She has a younger brother, who seems to have a learning disability, and works unpaid at a boat-builders. Katri persuades Anna, who lives in the “rabbit house”, named because she paints rabbits for children’s books, and who is also the richest person in the village, to allow her to help her, and then slowly takes over her affairs. She moves in, at Anna’s invitation, with her brother, but her plan is to stay on in the rabbit house after Anna has died, and provide for her brother. But Katri is scrupulously honest, and she ensures Anna is not being cheated by local merchants, especially the shop-owner. She is so honest, and so good at maths, that her advice is sought by people, even those who dislike her. There are levels of deception here, which is what the title refers to. Katri: to herself, the villagers, most of all Anna. Even Anna herself, although the victim of her deception is… herself. The prose is clean and clear, although it has a tendency to drift into a sort of story-telling mode, as if the author were directly addressing the reader. Given that the story is framed as if it were a fable, it seems appropriate, even if the contents are not especially fable-like. Worth reading.

Emprise (Trigon Disunity 1), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1985, USA). I don’t remember where and when I bought this trilogy, but I suspect it wasn’t long after they were published (these Legend editions were all published in 1988). I think it may have been at a convention, given that the third book, Empery, has “£1” pencilled inside the cover. Anyway, I’m pretty sure they went into storage when my parents returned to the Middle East in the early 1990s, and I didn’t see them again until I moved into my current address in 2004. So I’ve had them for around twenty-eight years, and they’ve sat on my book-shelves here for fourteen years before I’ve finally got around to reading them. And… Emprise was Kube-McDowell’s debut novel. And so too for the sequels, Enigma (below) and Emprey. I’ve read other novels by Kube-McDowell – The Quiet Pools (1990) and Exile (1992) – but Emprise is not very good. It opens with a history lesson, which is never a good sign. Apparently, in the 1980s a secret group of scientists discovered a way to render all fission weapons inert. And they used it. This led to a series of short wars, and a total backlash against science. Both of which we’ve managed during the past 30 years anyway, without rendering nuclear weapons useless. In a regressive US, a lone secret radio astronomer discovers a signal. From a spacecraft approaching the Earth at near light-speed. He passes the news onto a British colleague… and within a few short years, there’s an international organisation, led by the prime minister of India, set up to build a  spacecraft to meet the alien before it gets too close to the Solar system. When news of the alien breaks, it leads to a Church of the Second Coming, which believes the spacecraft contains angels. Anyway, the Earth spacecraft gets built and intercepts the alien… And its crew are human. From a colony apparently founded from Earth. By a technological civilisation which was wiped out by the last Ice Age. Publishing has changed in the thirty-plus years since Emprise was published, and debut novels these days are way ore polished than this one. A lot of the story is massively Americocentric, despitr not being set in the US. That church, for example: it becomes so powerful, it threatens to shut down the building of the spacecraft. There is no mention of any other religion. Indeed, the Indian PM’s religion is never actually named. If I had had all three books on my bookshelves, and felt slightly guilty for owning them so long without reading them, I doubt I’d have bothered with the sequels. Avoid.

Enigma (Trigon Disunity 2), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1986, USA). And avoid is not something I did, because I sort of felt I ought to complete the trilogy. Admittedly, they were fast reads – two days per book, pretty much – but they were also poor books. In this second one, the Earth has FTL ships searching for further colonies by those Ice Age Founders. And they’ve discovered a few, some now extinct. The novel is Merritt Thackeray’s story. He starts out as a student at a Government Service school, transfers to a Technical School, and ends up as a contact linguist on a survey ship. He’s an unlikable protagonist, and even Kube-McDowell’s attempts to make him sympathetic never really make him less annoying. At one colony, he disobeys orders and discovers the colony’s secret – that they were visited by the alien D’Shanna, who convinced them there was no point in existing any longer. Thackeray spends the rest of the novel hunting down the D’shanna… only to discover they’re not the villains. They’re energy beings from an alternate energy dimension, and one of them shows him the fate of the Ice Age Founders – they were wiped out by another alien race because one of the Founder’s colony ships had invaded their space. Enigma is better-written than Emprise, but not by much. However, it also introduces the trilogy’s big flaw: shit aliens. Who does energy-being aliens these days? They were a shit idea back in the days of the original Star Trek. The Trigon Disunity triogy is essentially a future history with Star Trek super-powerful aliens, and even for the 1980s it’s poor stuff. Especially for the late 1980s. New Space Opera was just starting to kick off, you had authors like Paul McAuley writing solid hard sf, not to mention the likes of CJ Cherryh, SN Lewitt or Susan Shwartz, among others…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Summer bounty 2

I couldn’t think of a fresh title for this book haul post, so I just stuck a “2” on the title of my previous book haul post. Blame the weather. Anyway, here are the additions to my ever-expanding library…

I bought and read the first quartet of NewCon novellas, and then the Martian novellas (see here), but didn’t bother with the second set as they were horror/dark fantasy, which isn’t really my bag. But then I thought, why not? And since there were copies still available… I’ve yet to read any of the above, and the only two authors I’ve read previously are Simon Clark and Sarah Lotz.


The Melissa Scott Roads of Heaven trilogy – Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Silence in Solitude and The Empress of Earth – I got for a quid on eBay (along with a fourth book, The Kindly Ones, which I already have a copy of, and which I’ve given away). They’re actually ex-library, but I don’t plan to keep them once I’ve read them. Brideshead Revisited I bought in a charity shop for twice as much – a whole 50p.

Jodorowsky seems to be churning out even more stuff than ever before – new additions to the Metabarons series (not actually written by him, to be fair), new stories like Moon Face, and even a pair of autobiographic films (see here and here). The Inside Moebius trilogy – this is part two – however, is new to English, as it originally appeared in French, in six volumes, between 2000 and 2010. And Moebius, of course, died in 2012.

I am eternally grateful to Gollancz for deciding not to number their re-launched SF Masterwork series, because it means I only have to buy the ones I want. I’m not a big fan of Heinlein, although I read many of his books when I was in my teens – and those I’ve read in recent years have been pretty bad, but were ones I expected to be bad. The Door into Summer is one I’ve not read, but I seem to recall it has a mostly positive reputation – and not from the people who like the appalling Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Always Coming Home is, well, it’s Le Guin. Uppsala Woods is by a writer from the Nocilla Generation, a group of writers in Spain who were inspired by Agustín Fernández Mallo’s excellent Nocilla trilogy (see here and here; the third book has yet to be published in English). Angels’ Falls is the last unpublished Frank Herbert manuscript published by Kevin J Anderson’s WordFire Press. Books are usually left unpublished for good reason, although Herbert apparently started out attempting to carve out a career as a thriller writer so perhaps he kept these back because they were incompatible with his career as a science fiction writer.

I pledged to the Mother of Invention kickstarter last year, which makes it one of the quickest kickstarter campaigns to deliver I’ve contributed to. Haynes now cover all sorts of stuff with their Owners’ Workshop Manual series. I’ts not like I’m ever going to own a North American X-15 – I think the only complete example remaining is in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum – and so will ever need to fix it… but I’ve always found the aircraft fascinating and already have several books on it.

If you like the fiction of early genre writers, such as Leigh Brackett and CL Moore, then Haffner Press publish some lovely collections of their stories – such as Lorelei of the Red Mist and Stark and the Star-Kings. (I already own Martian Quest: the Early Brackett, but I still need to get myself a copy of Shannach–the Last: Farewell to Mars.) Michael Moorcock: Death is no Obstacle is a hard-to-find critical work/book-length interview of/with Moorcock by Colin Greenland.


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Reading diary 2018, #11

Several years ago, I came up with a cunning plan. I had so many books, I found it hard to choose what to read next. So I put together a reading plan: a list of ten books I would read each month. But ten proved a bit too optimistic, so after a couple of years I reduced it to eight a month. And then again to six… So, obviously, it’s not exactly worked out in practice. Chiefly because the book you pick up next depends as much on what you feel like reading as it does what you want to read. I mean, there are loads of books I want to read, like Remembrance of things past, but usually Swann’s Way feels like it’s going to be too much like hard work, so I never pick it up… So all five books been languishing on my bookshelves for years. Oh well.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK). Ishiguro is one of the UK’s literary treasures – and I’m not the only one who thinks so: last year he was awarded the Nobel, and this year he was knighted. Ishiguro has never been afraid to explore genre territory, indeed his best-known novel these days is probably Never Let Me Go, which has an explicitly science-fictional idea at its core. And The Buried Giant is, by any definition of the term, fantasy. It’s sort of ninth century historical fiction, but it’s also about the Matter of Britain and it makes reference to a number of fantasy tropes. I had forgotten the commentary which came out after the book first appeared three years ago, so I pretty much came to it cold (although I’m entirely familiar with Ishiguro’s oeuvre, having read all of the books prior to this one). Anyway, I’d forgotten the genre complaints against the book, but sort of know what to expect given the other Ishiguro books I’d read. And in the latter respect, it did not disappoint. Axl and Beatrice are Britons, old Britons, seeing out the last of their years in a small Briton village, when they decide to go visit their son in a nearby village. They can’t remember exactly which village, but suppose they’ll figure it out as they travel. In fact, they’ve noticed an increasing forgetfulness on everyone’s part, and they don’t like how it has changed things. Of course, it’s not just the forgetfulness brought on my old age, it’s something endemic to everyone in post-Arthurian Britain. En route, they are joined by a Saxon warrior and a Briton boy believed to have been “infected” after being abducted by ogres and who has been rejected by his village. They also bump into Sir Gawain several times. It’s all very cleverly done. The forgetfulness is real, a magic spell laid on the land by a dragon, and it’s a consequence of the last great battle between the Britons, led by Arthur, and the Saxons. Unfortunately, Ishiguro takes his time getting to the core of the novel, and the first third, in which Axl and Beatrice eventually decided to travel, and then walk several miles to the nearest Saxon village, drag badly. But once Gawain appears on the scene, and the central premise begins to be revealed in hints and clues and glimpses, then things begin to pick up. I finished The Buried Giant a great deal more than I had done halfway in. And, to be honest, I couldn’t really give a fuck about whether it was genre or not. It was beautifully-written and cleverly done, and if it felt a little old-fashioned genre-wise in places that suited the material. I wasn’t so sure on the authorial interventions – or rather, the conceit which presented the narrative as told to the reader by Ishiguro, even though I’m a fan of breaking the fourth wall, as it felt unnecessary and added nothing to the story. Everything in a novel should be part of the story. I thought The Buried Giant, despite its longeurs, a better work than Never Let Me Go.

C, Tom McCarthy (2010, UK). I forget why I bought this, I think it might have been recommended by Jonathan McCalmont, but it sat on my bookshelves for several years, until I decided to take it with me to Sweden to read during Swecon. In the event, I finished The Buried Giant on the Saturday of the con, but didn’t finish C until I’d returned to the UK on the Monday. Chiefly because I found its opening section a bit hard-going. But by the time I was settled on the plane from Arlanda to Manchester, I’d got past that and remained engrossed for the entirety of the flight from Sweden to the UK. The story concerns a young man, Serge Carrefax, who is obsessed with signals. The opening section of the novel details his childhood, with his inventor father, who is working on wireless communication, and his deaf mother, and it was, to be honest, somewhat over-detailed and dull. I like detailed fiction, but the early chapters of C seemed to be sacrificing readability for detail. But then Carrefax’s brilliant sister dies – and, to be honest, I could see no reason why this needed to happen narratively – and the story begins to pick up. Carrefax spends several months at an Austrian spa. He then enlists as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps during WWI – and this section is especially good. And finally, he is sent out to Egypt to help set up a secret British wireless system. It’s when Carrefax is doing things, rather than reacting to things, that C is at its most interesting. There are some parts of the story which seem to serve no narrative purpose – not just the tragic death of Carrefax’s sister, but also his affair with a masseuse in… um, I no longer have the book and I can’t find a single review online which mentions the town, although I do remember that it was Central European and later had links to the Nazi regime. Much, incidentally, in those reviews is made of McCarthy’s cleverness in covering such a wide range of subjects in such detail. Er, that’s what research is for. I like a lot of detail myself, but the cleverness lies in making it palatable not in its presence. And if there’s one thing about C, much as I enjoyed it, that argued against cleverness, it was the lack of narrative cohesion. That is, it must be said a philosophy all its own, but C presented no evidence it adhered to it, no argument that it followed it. But then one of the advantages of not imposing a pattern is that people will find one anyway. I thought C a well-written novel on a prose level, and fascinating, but for me it failed at everything it claimed to want to do.

The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz (1952, Poland). I bought this last year in an effort to widen my reading. I hadn’t realised when I purchased it that it wasn’t fiction. It’s a political diatribe written by someone who survived both WWII and the Soviet takeover of Poland, but managed to resist the blandishments of both the Underground during WWII and the Soviet occupiers afterwards. As a writer, an intellectual, with acceptable political credentials, he ended up as cultural attaché in Washington but, disgusted by the responses of his peers to the new regime, he chose to exile himself. Miłosz first points out that intellectuals were a peculiar class of their own in Central and East European countries, and this particularly applied to writers, one that had no equivalent in Western European – or American – societies. After discussing “ketman”, which seems to be a a misunderstanding of an historical Islamic term (now known as “taqiya”), Miłosz describes four writers of his acquaintance and their response to Soviet occupation – and this is where The Captive Mind comes into its own. I’ve no idea who the writers are he describes, although it probably isn’t difficult to figure out, but his dissection of their character and ambitions in light of Polish history during and after WWII is fascinating stuff. I don’t think for an instant that The Captive Mind is a warning against “totalitarian culture” as the book is often described. It is specific to a time and place, and I suspect some of the tactics described by Miłosz are triggered more by an institutional drive for survival than by an y kind of coherent political thought. The Captive Mind was intended to make for scary reading, but its teeth have long since been pulled – first by Solidarność, then by glasnost, although both of course were the end result of long and dangerous campaigns. On the other hand, in 2018 we seem to be staring down the throat of full-blown fascism, despite everything our parents and grandparents fought against last century, despite the clear benefits to all and sundry that progressivism and regulated economies bring… The Captive Mind is an important historical document, but its remit is too narrow, its lessons are too focused, and the passage of time has rendered its general sense of alarm both moot and badly aimed. However. Worth reading, if you’re interested in the subject.

Author’s Choice Monthly 8: Swatting at the Cosmos, James Morrow (1990, USA). I think I read a novel by Morrow back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but I can’t be sure – actually I can: I record everything I read, FFS, and have done since 1991: I read his City of Truth on 10 December 1992 and The Wine of Violence on 29 March 1995 (at least, that’s the dates I finished reading those books). He’s certainly a name I’ve been aware of, but not one I’ve made an effort to read his books. I’m not sure why. From the material in this collection, I think I’d like his fiction – most of the stories in this short collection interrogate religion in a way which I wholly approve. The opening story, ‘The Assemblage of Kristin’, is especially  good, in which the recipients of body parts from the deceased Kristin meet up once a year to indulge in Kristin’s fancies, although the so-called science in this science fiction is almost non-existent. Other stories in the collection recast Biblical stories – the Deluge, the Tower, the Covenant – with varying degrees of success (I seem to remember that least as the most successful). The whole point of the Author’s Choice Monthly series, as I understand it, is that the chosen authors selected what they felt were their best material. That’s  almost impossible; and probably changes on a daily basis. Some tried to game the choice by selecting stories to a theme. This is the best of those themed selection collections I’ve so far come across in the series. so perhaps I should read more by Morrow. A short story collection, perhaps.

Fantasy Masterwork 31: Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, CL Moore (2002, USA). I know more about Moore than I know of her fiction, which has to date meant only a couple of short stories and her novel Judgment Night. Now, I rate Judgment Night highly, it is a superior space opera, especially for its time. This Fantasy Masterwork, however, gathers together all the Jirel of Joiry stories and all the Northwest Smith stories… and they do not present well in such close proximity. The first Jirel story, ‘Jirel of Joiry’, and also Moore’s first professional sale, is a great piece of work, but her follow-ups are somewhat formulaic and not to Jirel’s benefit. The same is true of Northwest Smith – ‘Shambleau’ has real mythic overtones, but the other NWS stories are just the same thing over and over again. And the thing that stands out the most is that the heroes have little or no agency: they get themselves into scrapes and they have to be rescued, sometimes by men, sometimes by women, but they never win through because of their own actions. Or, at least, not entirely. There are a couple of NWS stories where his ineluctable masculine cussedness sees him overcome the evil god of the week, but there’s usually a henchman (or woman) or ally who is instrumental in his escape. Jirel needs help often as not, which is not true in the story in which she first appears. Partly this is because both characters’ antagonists are super-powerful gods from other dimensions, and there’s no way either could plausibly defeat them without some help. But when hero/heroine finds themselves in Yet Another Evil Dimension and they are Powerless, then having someone give them a close, or appear at the last minute with a flame-pistol, does tarnish their appeal. It’s not like they’re intended to be straight-up heroes. Northwest Smith is after all a villain – although he’s never presented as such, it’s told to the reader. Moore clearly found a formula that worked, and stuck to it. It’s not like there’s a huge amount of invention in the world-building either – this is the Solar System as imagined by way of Leigh Brackett and Robert Howard. It feels like a common playground. Moore was an important writer in the early days of genre, and she wrote some important historical works, but I have to wonder if she’s being remembered for the wrong things because the stories in this volume position as no better than an average pulp writer, and I know she was better that that from Judgment Night.

Murder Takes a Turn, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the fifth book in Brown’s 1950s-set crime novels featuring thriller writer/private detective Don Langham, and his fiancée now wife and literary agent Maria Dupré. Setting these novels in the 1950s was a cunning move, as it means all the modern technology that “breaks” crime fiction does not exist, like mobile phones or the internet. This is old school crime fiction, and deliberately so. And yet, Brown manages to give Langham and Dupré sensibilities that would not be out of place in twenty-first century Britain (well, the Remain part of twenty-first century Britain, that is). In this instalment, a critically-acclaimed writer invites half a dozen people he had wronged in the past to his Cornish pile with a promise of making amends. One of those is Dupré’s partner in the literary agency, Charles Elder, and he persuades Dupré and Langham to accompany him. Which is quite handy as Langham has been hired by the writer’s daughter to investigate the writer’s new business manager. Needless to say, once all are on site, the writer is murdered… but everyone apparently has an alibi… I had thought the writer, and his travel-writer brother, were based on the Durrells, but Eric tells me the writer figure was actually inspired by John Fowles. Murder Takes a Turn – and the title is a bit of a spoiler – is much like the previous books in the series, although it does have a tendency to reveal information to the reader before it’s revealed to the principles, so you wonder why they’re so slow to spot clues… But the two leads are likeable and well-drawn, and the supporting cast are equally well-drawn, and if sometimes it doesn’t always feel quite like the 1950s (which I say only having read fiction written then), it does at least avoid sensibilities which would offend in the twenty-first century. These books are quick reads, but they’re fun with it, and they’re as satisfying as murder mysteries as they are 1950s-set fiction.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131