It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Apollo 11 x 50

Today is  the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. So the media is full of science fiction writers commenting on the event, many of whom weren’t even alive when it happened. To be fair, I was only three when Armstrong took his “one small step”, and the only Apollo mission I actually remember watching was ASTP. It’s not like science fiction writers are even experts on the Apollo missions, or indeed actual realistic space exploration. Not unless they’ve written a novel about it. Which some have.

I did too. It was a few years ago now. The Apollo Quartet, published between 2012 and 2015.  I’d planned to publish an omnibus edition in time for today, but then I went and moved countries… So, sorry, no omnibus edition. But the four individual volumes are still available on Amazon, in paperback, audiobook and Kindle editions.

1 Adrift on the Sea of Rains

2 The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself

3 Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

4 All That Outer Space Allows

All four are based on alternate visions of the Apollo programme – except for All That Outer Space Allows, which takes place during the actual Apollo programme (but is still alternate history).

For those wanting more realistic space-based science fiction, there is also Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories.

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The Hugos 2019, novellas

I attended the Worldcon in Helsinki in 2017 – and had a great time – which meant I was eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugos that year and the year following. I did neither. In either year. I’ll be attending the Worldcon this year in Dublin. Which means I’m once again eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards. Again, I’ll be doing neither. The Hugos have never really aligned with my tastes, and I refuse to vote for people on shortlists that comprise works. However, as an eligible voter, I have access to the Hugo Voter Pack. Which is pretty much everything on the various shortlists. This year, I decided to actually have a go at reading the shortlisted works. I doubt I’ll finish the novels before the con itself – and, to be honest, I’ve not even started them – but the novellas, novelettes and short stories… those I can do. The other categories I don’t care about.

First up are the novellas. Because it’s a length of fiction I like, both to read and to write. Of the six works on the shortlist, four were by authors whose names I’d heard of before and, in some cases, even read previously. One was vaguely familiar and one was completely unknown to me. In the order in which I read them…

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Robson previously, but her name sounded vaguely familiar– Ah, she won a Nebula for Best Novelette last year, and is another of the Clarkesworld/Tor.com stable, members of which have appeared on many shortlists in the last couple of years. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach was published by Tor.com. In fact, five of the six novellas on this year’s shortlist were published by Tor.com. Which is a problem. Anyway, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is set on a post-climate crash Earth, in which a much-reduced population live in small high-tech communities. There are people who work on fixing the damage caused by the climate crash, in an effort to create a world that can be repopulated to former levels. The protagonist of this story is one of them. She also has eight prosthetic legs, like an octopus. And she is part of a team, if not its leader, which submits a proposal for an environmental impact study which involves time travel back to Sumeria. It sounds messy as fuck, but Robson manages to make it all hang together. There are problems: it’s not entirely clear what the team from the future are trying to achieve, the personal politics are confused with the wider political situation, and the POV is peculiarly narrow given the world-building. It actually reads like part of a series where much of the world-building was handled in earlier works, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s a reasonably well-handled piece, and the prose itself neither stands out nor is an obstacle – and the latter is certainly something that could be said of other nominees. I’m not sure if it deserves to be on the shortlist… but on balance, I’d say its presence is not embarrassing.

Artificial Condition, Martha Wells. Another problem with the novella category – indeed, with the Hugo Awards over the last few years as a whole – is the preponderance of sequels. Martha Wells, previously better-known for mid-list fantasy series, published three of her Murderbot novellas in 2018. (The first was published in 2017.) That’s a series. Artificial Condition is the second instalment. None of them stand alone. There are indeed cases where the second instalment in a series is better than the first, but in this case the first instalment, All Systems Red… won the Hugo Award for Best Novella last year. Come on, people, read a little more fucking widely. It would be understandable if the Murderbot series were astounding, the best sf published for many years… But they’re not. They’re entertaining, and even a little bit clever in places. But fun as they may be, they’re not award-worthy. And if you’re nominating fiction because it was “fun”, you appear to have misunderstood the meaning of the word “best”. The thing about “best” is that you have to recognise something as being of high quality, higher quality in fact than pretty much everything else you read, you don’t necessarily have to have enjoyed it or thought it was fun. The two are quite different. Any old wine will get you pissed, but the good ones won’t have you gagging every time you take a sip. At least not for the first half-dozen glasses. What we have here is a novella that gets you pissed without you actually noticing the flavour of the vintage – and I’d submit that’s not what awards are about, at least not awards that have the word “best” in their title. I enjoyed Artificial Condition. I might even read the rest of the series. But I really can’t see this as award-worthy and its nomination says more about the award than it does the genre.

The Black God’s Drums, P Djèli Clark. Clark won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story this year (the story is also nominated for the Hugo), but appears to have come pretty much from nowhere. True, The Black God’s Drums was published by Tor.com, but his short story was published in a magazine I’ve not come across before. Also true, there seems to be a great love for debuts in recent years’ popular vote genre awards (seriously? why?), but that doesn’t mean the nominated works are necessarily bad. The Black God’s Drums is a bit busy, but it’s an interesting melding of ideas – alternate history, steampunk, voodoo magic and gods – and if it suffers it’s because its ideas makes its plot all a bit too obvious. Streetwise urchin protagonist has connection to powerful goddess; said goddess makes unexpected appearance at story climax to save the day. It’s not quite that simplistic, but the telegraphing here is as blatant as it comes. Obvious foreshadowing is better than none, but a little subtlety goes a long way. The plot is pretty much a staple of, well, fiction in general: nutter steals superweapon to wreak vengeance on city, random people come together to foil the plot (because there’s no organised government response to these sorts of things, ever). Does The Black God’s Drums belong on the shortlist? About as much as the Robson, I think. Its presence is hardly embarrassing, but if this and the Robson are the best the genre can produce in a given year then there’s still a long way to go…

Binti: The Night Masquerade, Nnedi Okorafor. Like Clark, Okorafor also appears twice in this year’s Hugo nominations – for this novella and for the Black Panther comic she scripted. I have to admit I don’t understand the acclaim her fiction receives. She’s a fascinating person and is an excellent role model, but what little fiction by her I’ve read has struck me as simplistic and badly-written. It doesn’t help that Binti: The Night Masquerade is the third and, I think, final part in the Binti series. I read the first, and thought it interesting, if not particularly well put-together. But it was much better than this one, in which this happens and then that happens and then something else happens and then Binti is killed and then she comes back to life and then it all abruptly ends. It doesn’t help that the title refers to a nightmarish figure who appears to Binti, and yet the name of it – the Night Masquerade – clearly indicates it’s a fucking fake but everyone is too fucking stupid to realise. Anyway, Binti returns home but her family are dead, except they’re not really, and there are two races at war with each other but it’s almost impossible to keep straight because Okrafor is more interested in Binti’s feels than she is setting the scene. I’m no fan of exposition, and I disagree entirely with Kim Stanley Robinson’s statement “it’s just another form of narrative”, and “streamlining exposition into the narrative” is another piece of writing advice that gets my back up… Which is not to say there’s zero info-dumping in Binti: the Night Masquerade. There’s plenty. But it’s all about Binti and her culture, or that of her male companion. The rest of the world is so sketchy it might as well have been made-up on the spot by Binti herself. I really do not rate these novellas, and I’m mystified by the love shown to them.

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire. Yet another sequel. This is the third instalment in the Wayward Children series, about which I know nothing… but can pretty much guess what it’s about from this novella alone. Think Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Sort of. But less clever. McGuire’s prose is so bland it rivals Gaiman’s. Except, that is, for the occasional flight of fancy, none of which actually work. The story is all “poor fat girl who is actually a princess in another reality” tagging along with some friends who try to help a fellow “wayward child” at a school for children who have spent time in other worlds and can’t cope in the real one. The central conceit is, I admit, quite neat, and McGuire clearly has a great deal of fun with it. But it all reads like poor-me fiction and a single idea stretched well past breaking point. The first volume in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2017, and I’m told it’s better than this one. And the second instalment, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, was nominated last year. But Beneath the Sugar Sky‘s presence on the shortlist says more about the power of McGuire’s fanbase than it does the quality of her fiction.

The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard. I’ve been and on-and-off fan of de Bodard’s fiction since first reading one of her stories in an issue of Interzone just over ten years ago. I say “on-and-off” because her science fiction appeals to me much more than her fantasy. And while I remember a number of sf stories set in an Aztec-dominated world, she is best-known these days for her Xuya universe stories, a Vietnam-based far future. (The universe itself is shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award, which is not how I thought the Best Series Hugo Award worked, and I’m surprised there’s more than 250,000 words in the short stories and novellas, but no novels, set in the Xuya universe.) Anyway, the “tea master” is a ship mind (more McCaffrey than Banks, if I’ve interpreted the text correctly) and the detective is a woman with a chequered past who hires the ship mind for a simple task. During which they discover a body that clearly did not die of natural causes. The mystery of the victim’s death is intertwined with the mystery of the detective’s past, although one is not a consequence of, or reflects on, the other. But both have satisfying conclusions, and the novella makes good use of its setting. The Tea Master and the Detective is not, as a friend said to me, the best Xuya story de Bodard has written, but it’s a good one. and to my mind, it’s easily the best on this year’s Hugo shortlist.

So there you have it. I’m not going to vote on any of the above, but if I had to choose a winner it would be The Tea Master and the Detective. If I were in a good mood, I’d vote de Bodard, then Robson, then Clark, and everything else below no award. If I were in a bad mood – which is more likely, I suppose – then it’d be de Bodard and everything else below no award.

I had thought this might prove a fun exercise. In fact, I’m discovering why I no longer follow the Hugo Awards. Ah well. Next up, the novelettes…


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Reading diary 2019, #5

I’m sort of getting into this ebook thing. Four of the books below are ebooks; the other two are paperbacks I brought with me. And no, I don’t know why I brought Troubled Star. It’s a duplicate copy, and I have much cleaner copy in storage, so I probably just threw it in the suitcase rather than bin it.

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990, USA). Members of the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki, which I attended, were given an ebook copy of all fourteen volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series as it had been shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award. I’d previously read up to book ten or eleven, I forget which, and had the next volume in the series sitting unread on the bookshelves. I distinctly remember reading the first six or so books. I’d seen them in Books Gallery in the Liwa Centre in Abu Dhabi, and bought them because I wanted to know what it was that had made them such massive sellers. I read them in quick succession. And to this day, I’ve no idea why they sold so many copies. They were badly-written, bloated and derivative. But now that I have my Kindle, I thought it might be time to time finish off the series. Which meant starting from the beginning. So I reread The Eye of the World. I thought it might prove an interesting exercise, seeing what I thought to it now, twenty-five years or so after my previous read. And, well, my opinion of the book has not substantially changed. The writing still struck me as poor, the characterisation is simplistic at best, and a lot of the world-building consists of over-used tropes and borrowings. What I hadn’t noticed previously was how badly-structured the novel is, with the entire story pretty much wrapped up in the final chapter, after long chapters of travelogue that barely advanced the plot. On the other hand, knowing how the story pans out (well, most of it) and seeing the story hooks here (even if many of them weren’t actually planted) was just enough to keep me from throwing the book (well, Kindle) at the wall or gouging my eyes out. And in the series’ favour, it’s not grimdark, so it’s not gratuitously violent, rapist or sexist. Which is not to say it doesn’t feature all three – but not to grimdark’s offensive levels, nor, like grimdark, does it try to make a virtue of their inclusion. The reread wasn’t entirely painless, and I think it might take me longer to work my way through all fourteen books that I had initially expected… but I’m still going to try and do it.

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). Although Faulkner was a name known to me, I’d read none of his books and knew nothing about him or his works. But my father had two novels by him, which I took, and I read one, The Sound and the Fury, last year and was hugely impressed. So I picked up a couple more on eBay. And I brought them with me to Sweden. The first of these was As I Lay Dying, arguably Faulkner’s best-known and most highly-regarded novel. There’s even a commercially successful metal band named after it. The story is told from several viewpoints, each in their own voice, and it concerns the death of Addie Bundren, and her husband’s attempt, with family and friends, to take her body to a neighbouring town to bury her among her kin. But all that is either incidental, or merely the trigger, for what happens in each narrative. It all takes place in Faulkner’s native American South – Mississippi, I think, for the most part – and the language reflects the setting. Despite As I Lay Dying‘s reputation, I didn’t find it as impressive a work of literature as The Sound and the Fury, possibly because the latter had the more adventurous structure, and I’m big on novels that experiment with narrative structure. But that’s really damning it with faint praise as this is full-on classic American Literature, and though not all works and writers described as that appeal to me, I do admire Faulkner’s prose a great deal. Definitely worth reading.

Rosewater, Tade Thompson (2016, UK). I’d heard so much about this, and it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year (despite being originally published in 2016, but never mind), and it was 99p on Kindle… so I bought it. And I read it. And… There’s a good story in Rosewater, but it throws too much in, like a writer not sure which of their ideas have real merit so they chuck them all in hoping that at least one makes the grade… And because there’s so much going on, the story doesn’t seem to have much of a clue where it’s heading for much of its length. Is it about the titular city and the alien entity around which it has grown, and the regular frenzies of miracle healing it creates? Or perhaps it’s about Kaaro, who works for the Nigerian intelligence service (or a side-branch of it) and has telepathic powers – as do many others – also created by the alien entity? Or maybe it’s about Bicycle Girl, a semi-mythical figure who seems to be associated with a village that disappeared and now exists in an alternate dimension or pocket universe, created by entirely human tech? There is currently something of a feeding frenzy in sf about African genre fiction, which is all a bit white man’s tears as the various African nations – Africa is not a country – have literary traditions going back centuries or longer and many of them have had their best writers and works translated into English for decades. They just don’t happen to be category genre. So sf from a Nigerian writer – as Thompson is – should, were the genre not so overwhelmingly white- and Americo-centric, not really be cause for celebration. But sf is as it is, and Thompson’s origin and the setting of Rosewater play a major part in reviews of the book. That’s just as racist as ignoring the book because of the author’s race. There’s no doubt Thompson could be a major voice in UK sf – he’s based in London – and Rosewater amply demonstrates that. This is a strong debut, but it’s a messy piece of work to make an award shortlist. A few years from now, Thompson will be churning out award-worthy books. But that’s more a criticism of awards than it is the author.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937, UK). I have the SF Masterwork edition of this book – that’s the one from the original numbered series – but that’s in storage now. I bought a 99p copy on my Kindle so I could read it. I’ve no idea if the two editions are the same – they can’t be that different, I’d have thought, since this isn’t a work that needed translating. But the copy I read certainly had more than its fair share of OCR errors and typos. There’s not much of a plot to review: the narrator is an Englishman of the 1930s who falls asleep on a hillside and becomes a disembodied galactic traveller, as you do. He visits various worlds, learns to cohabit the minds of certain of their inhabitants, and they too join him on his travels, until he is more of a gestalt intelligence than the man he once was. Stapledon describes the various types of civilisation his observer visits, and while they’re initially based on extrapolations of Earth biology – even the symbiotic races, which play such a great part in the book – but soon it transpires the stars are sentient, and then the galaxies too. This is sf on the grandest scale, and it’s unlikely it would wash these days because it only really works with a style that’s no longer commercially acceptable. It’s not that genre fiction of the past fifty years has been stunted in any way, or has held off from Stapledonian scales because he did it first – Stephen Baxter’s entire career is ample rebuttal to that – but more that the style which allowed Stapledon to what he did is no longer considered commercially viable. Is that a bad thing? Not really. We still have Stapledon. He’s in the SF Masterworks series, and his books are readily available in a variety of editions as ebooks. Obviously, these are, paradoxically, historical documents, but for those who know what they’re getting into, they’re definitely worth a go.

The Green Man’s Heir, Juliet McKenna (2016, UK). Another Kindle book that was 99p, but this time as a promotion. The author tweeted the book was reduced, and since I’d never read anything by her – she mostly writes fantasy, which, er, Wheel of Time reread above aside, I don’t normally read – and The Green Man’s Heir is urban fantasy, which I definitely don’t read… But the plot sounded interesting so I thought it worth a go. And I’m glad I did give it a punt. The narrator is Daniel Mackmain, a jobbing carpenter who happens to be the son of a dryad. Which means he is plugged into the mythological world based on landscape. So when a woman is brutally murdered near where Mackmain lives, and a dryad gives him enough to clues so he thinks he might be able to solve the case… The Green Man’s Heir is a mashup of mystery novel and fantasy novel but it works because it’s centred on its hero and not focused on its central crime. The story moves on from the murders and pulls in romance, but it all ends in a place that feels entirely a consequence of what has gone before. This is clearly a book by someone who knows what they’re doing. And if their earlier fantasy series have not made the big time, I hope this one does – there’s a sequel – because it’s good stuff. It may be a bit Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders, but it does it well and it certainly does it a great deal better than the last of those two.

Troubled Star, George O Smith (1957, USA). Back in the day, Galaxy magazine provided a free paperback with every issue. For some reason, after several issues they handed this over to Beacon Books, better known for publishing hospital romances, and they decided the books should be a little more, well, suggestive. So they rewrote a bunch of sf novels and published them. I’ve managed to collect them all, and most of their original editions, or author-preferred editions, chiefly so I can compare the two. Because, to be honest, they didn’t exactly choose good novels. Much as I love AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, the Beacon Book version of it, The Mating Cry, adds little, and in fact only makes the female lead less sympathetic. I don’t have a copy of the book on which Troubled Star is based – originally published under the same title in February 1953 – but I think I can guess what’s been changed. It’s not very subtle. Anyway, three scouts for a galactic transportation company are on Mercury in the Solar System (note to sf writers: only capitalise when it refers to the Sol system, and the planets of any other star are a planetary system not a solar system). Anyway, Earth is in the way of a new hyperspatial route or something, and no, I’ve no idea if Douglas Adams had read this although he may have done. There’s a sex scene – that’s the Beacon touch – but this is otherwise true to its origins: pulp sf. I can claim a legitimate interest, although that’s wearing thin, but I suspect no other reader can. Avoid.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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Fools like us

So a well-respected literary author goes and writes a novel that everyone knows is science fiction, and that everyone knows he probably knows his science fiction, but he decides to claim that not only is his novel not science fiction it actually covers ground not covered by science fiction and perhaps this is a ripe area for exploration by literary authors…

Do I really need to say who, what book and the specifics of his argument?

Naturally, he was roundly condemned by science fiction writers, critics and readers – some more than others – but, just as naturally, their condemnation was as damaging and misguided as said literary author’s misguided, but likely entirely self-serving, remarks had been.

As genre fans, we’ve been there before, perhaps too often to count:

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is not science fiction:
I don’t have a problem with this. I don’t even think of them as “tourists”, as some do. They’re approaching genre tropes from an entirely different direction, they don’t have the history, they don’t have the context; and, sometimes, that’s exactly what the trope needs to shine new light on it, to view it from a fresh perspective.

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is entirely their own invention:
This one is pretty much indefensible. Who these days would write a story without bothering to research it? “Hey, I’ve just written a novel about artificial people and no one else has ever done that before” is just so lacking in self-awareness, it makes its utterer a perfectly legitimate target of every critic and pundit in existence.

True, literary authors sometimes make a complete fucking hash of their science fiction tropes – see Spaceman of Bohemia on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. On the other hand, some novels published as sf make a complete fucking hash of their sf tropes – see Sea of Rust on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist.

It could be argued any such complaints about either of the above points are invalid unless the critic has read the book in question. Which is bollocks. It’s not the work itself being criticised, it’s the trope’s origin or history, as given by the literary author, that’s under discussion. And you don’t need to read through 100,000 words of jewel-like, or whatever, prose to know that.

I actually like it when literary authors make use of genre tropes in their fiction. They have a tendency to deconstruct the trope because they’re not invested in its history and prior usage. Sometimes, that manifests as “re-inventing the wheel”, but even so they frequently bring a new approach to something that has probably been deployed uncritically in genre circles for decades. And most genre tropes need a critical re-appraisal. All those fucking robots… I mean, it’s the twenty-first century and we’re still writing uncritically about a metaphor for slavery?

Which neatly brings us back to the not-so-cunningly disguised novel which kicked off this blog post. I freely admit I’ve not read Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us, and have no plans to do so. I gave up on his fiction after 2005’s Saturday, although I did mistakenly read Solar (2010) some years later. I probably should have given up on his fiction back in 1997 or 1998. I don’t need to read Machines Like Us. There’s been an extensive publicity machine promoting the book. Because McEwan is a writer who gets that treatment, whether or not his books deserve it. A cynic might even suggest the whole “I’ve done AI better than the entire corpus of science fiction” thing is just part of the marketing strategy.

I have also read other genre works by literary authors who claimed not to write genre, or were reluctant to accept the label when called out on it, and I admire their books: Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc and Nunquam, John Fowles’s A Maggot, Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks… But then it’s not like I need to reel off titles as there are no end of highly-regarded novels which make use of genre tropes but are never identified with the genre.

As I said, I don’t have a problem with that.

It’s nice when they give the nod to genre – as Michael Chabon has done, as Margaret Atwood eventually did, as Doris Lessing has done, as Michel Faber has done… There are some blindingly good genre works available from those four names alone, none of which were published as genre. Genre is not a private club, it just has some members who are a little more… invested in it than others, and they can be somewhat over-protective.

But then the publicity machine for Machines Like Us comes along, and it’s like we’re back in the 1950s or 1960s. It’s like genre is still a ghetto of its own making, but this time it’s someone outside who’s shoring up the walls. It feels like a step backwards because it is a step backwards. Genre writers are forever handicapped by being seen as genre writers.

But literary fiction is just a genre, I hear you cry. Except, well, it’s not. No one really sees it as that. True, it often doesn’t sell as well as actual genre fiction – science fiction and fantasy. It has the prestige genre fiction lacks (and any claims that genre fiction doesn’t need that prestige are just reverse snobbery), and occasionally there’s a break-out literary fiction novel which knocks an author up a level, like McEwan’s Atonement, not that advocates of literary fiction would use anything as crass as units sold as a metric of quality…

There is genre fiction, there is category genre fiction, there is fiction written within the tradition that is genre. There is also fiction that might look like any one of those three, but has only a passing knowledge of them. That neither invalidates it nor makes it inferior. It is what is in the fiction which defines it. But it is also the ur-text which defines it. And ur-text has as much loyalty to genre as any individual trope does.

Having been so in the past does not make it so now or in the future. Which is a horribly vague way of saying that some tropes have actually been handled better by non-genre writers. Alternate history is an excellent example. Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days is a superior example. But even populist novels, such as Len Deighton’s SS-GB, often seem more exemplary of the sub-genre than alternate history novels published as category science fiction.

We should be applauding how genre tropes are used, not where they are used. Had McEwan written something truly groundbreaking with Machines Like Us, then yes, fold it into the genre conversation. It seems he hasn’t, so that’s pretty much academic. But when the genre can co-opt, for example, The Underground Railroad, and even include it on genre award shortlists, what’s the problem with the genre conversation incorporating non-category genre works?

Fault them for their quality, as you would a genre work. Not for their choice to use genre tropes.


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Reading diary 2019, #4

The first book in this post I read before leaving the UK, but I’m not sure why I didn’t include it in an earlier Reading diary. Two of the books I read on my Kindle (well, one was a reread), and the remaining three I brought with me in my 26 kg suitcase.

I’ve been avoiding the English Bookshop here because I don’t want to buy new books just yet. Once I’ve read most of the two dozen I brought with me, then I’ll start buying some more. Although there are a couple of new books I want in hardback… like the last Bernie Gunther novel… and the new one from Nina Allan…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals, Part 1, Yves Sente, Peter Van Dongen & Teun Berserik (2018, Belgium). Unlike the Adventures of Tintin, with which the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer are closely linked, Blake and Mortimer survived the death of their creator. Edgar P Jacobs set up a studio to continue the series, and it’s been churning them out ever since. And, to be honest, the studio’s stories have been better than Jacobs’s ever were. Until, it seems, this one. Sort of. The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals is a sequel to one of Jacobs’s most famous stories, The Secret of the Swordfish, which was pretty much a Yellow Peril narrative. To be fair, The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals soon leaves Jacobs’s invented Asian evil empire – actually called the Yellow Empire – behind, and focuses on real Chinese history, specifically the Communists and Kuomintang, both of which are after a recently discovered artefact from third-century BCE China. As is a warlord who plans to use it to declare himself emperor. Mostly, this is all good stuff, but while dragging in the Yellow Empire slots the story into the Blake and Mortimer universe, and gives continuity to the characters, it leaves a bad taste and the book would have been better for ignoring it. One of the good things about the series has been that it has changed with the times. Tintin’s earlier adventures are racist as shit, and because The Adventures of Tintin ended with Hergé’s death, there are no new stories to offset those early works. Because Jacobs founded a studio to continue the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, we have new stories – more, I think, than Jacobs actually wrote – which have kept pace with sensibilities (and have also become increasingly sophisticated in their stories). If you like Tintin, then you should be reading the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer. There are twenty-five of them, so you’ve got some catching up to do.

To Play the Lady, Naomi Lane (2011, USA). Someone recommended this to me a long time ago, but it was only available on Kindle and at that time I didn’t own one. But now I have one. And To Play the Lady was cheap. So I bought it and, er, read it. And I wish I could remember who recommended it. Because it wasn’t very good. The background is a bit identikit, and there’s doesn’t seem to have been much thought put into it. The protagonist is a complete Mary Sue, and accrues powers as the story progresses. Which is not to say the story doesn’t have its good points. Provincial aristocrat’s daughter is sent to the palace to be a maid of the queen, but she’s a bit of a tomboy and has been taught all sorts of unfeminine things. Her origin brings her into conflict with the other maids – all the daughters of peers of the realm – and her abilities at riding and archery cause problems because they’re not exactly ladylike. And it also turns out she has a rare magical talent and has to be individually tutored by the royal sorcerer… Sigh. There’s a breezy tone to the narrative, which is fun, and having a queen’s maid as the focus of a story gives an interesting perspective, but… Jenna Mallory, the protagonist, is so Mary Sue-ish it gets annoying quite quickly. The book is the first in a series, and the second book, To Serve the King, appeared in 2016. So if this is a trilogy, the final book is not likely to appear until 2021. I may well give the second book a  go, but I’m in no great rush to do so.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1965, USA). It probably doesn’t need to be said that this was a reread. I last read Dune in 2007 and blogged about it here. But I didn’t bother with the sequels on that reread, and since the Gateway ebook collection of all six Dune books was only 99p, I decided to buy it and work my way through all of them. Starting with, er Dune. It’s a book I know well, so I was more interested on this reread in how it compared to what I remembered. And yes, the writing is still pretty terrible for much of its length – especially in sentences that contain the phrase “terrible purpose” – but the worldbuilding is still among the best the genre has produced. However, my reading was focused on the scenes. And… the ones I remember liking rang a bit false, such as the time Duke Leto and Paul fly out to see a spice harvester in action. But other scenes I hadn’t liked, like the banquet scene, I much preferred this time around. What I hadn’t forgotten was the casual misogyny and homophobia, which very much made the book a product of the 1960s. I’d also forgotten how slipshod was Herbert’s worldbuilding: some things he’d made an effort to disguise, but in other places he’d simply slotted the Arabic word straight in. There didn’t seem to be much logic to it. Fifty-five years after it was published, Dune remains popular – Denis Villeneuve, movie flavour of the month in some genre circles – is currently filming an adaptation. In two parts, if rumour is to be believed. And there may well be a television series following on from the movies. But while there is a certain timelessness to the universe of Dune, Dune the novel is very much a book of its time. Had it been re-invented each decade, perhaps it would be an even bigger property that it is. Although I suppose the awful Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson sequels and prequels could be considered “re-inventions” but they’re pretty shite. If I had a Swedish crown for every time I’ve heard someone say they’d read Dune but not its sequels, or that Dune is the best of the series and the rest are not worth reading, well, I’d be living in a Swedish palace. A small one. And yet it’s completely untrue. Frank Herbert conceived the first three books as a single story, so all three really need to be read in order to understand the point Herbert was trying to make. And I’ve always maintained the writing improved, at the sentence level, as the series progressed. This is hardly controversial – the more Herbert wrote, the better he got at it. I’m hoping that particular conviction will survive my reread. We shall see. But the take-away from this reread: the best-loved scenes disappointed, but the scenes I’d not liked as much previously read much better than I’d expected.

Forcible Entry, Stewart Farrar (1986, UK). I’d been after this books for years, although I forget why, when a copy popped up on eBay. The book was only ever published in hardback, and the hardback was published by Robert Hale, which no doubt explains why it had proven so hard to find. Unfortunately, I lost the auction on eBay for the book… but found a copy for less on abebooks.co.uk from a seller in Australia. (I see there’s now a copy on Amazon going for £590. I paid nowhere near that.) And, after all that, was it worth it? I understand most of Farrar’s fiction revolves around witchcraft and Wicca – I believe he practiced it himself – and certainly a coven of witches makes an appearance in Forcible Entry. But the story is mostly about parapsychology research, particularly telepathy and astral projection. Matthew is a professional photographer and dying of cancer. He also volunteers as a test subject at a parapsychology study run by the university. Which is where Sheila, an attractive young woman, works as an office manager. The two prove to be gifted at astral projection. On one such trip Matthew, knowing he is dying, steals Sheila’s body. So while his real body dies of cancer in hospital, Matthew takes over Sheila’s body and feigns amnesia to cover any mistakes he might make in his impersonation (he had been studying her for weeks beforehand). However, Sheila had been an unwitting agent of the CIA investigating an organisation that wants to use people with parapsychological abilities for nefarious reasons. But not everyone is convinced by Matthew’s impersonation of Sheila – especially her American boyfriend, who involves a coven of witches to undo the possession – and when Matthew is forced to kill to defend his secret… It’a an interesting premise, and Farrar’s prose is readable and unremarkable. I’m surprised the book is not better-known – or rather, surprised it never made it to paperback, because there’s certainly a market for it. But then, I don’t think many of Farrar’s novels made it to paperback, so it seems his chief readership was library borrowings. There were a couple of other Farrar novels offered by the seller on eBay who was selling Forcible Entry, and one or two of them looked interesting. But I’m not going to go out of my way to track down his books, although if I see one going cheap I might give it a go.

With Fate Conspire, Mike Shupp (1985, USA). Back in the 1990s, I corresponded online with Mike Shupp. We were members of an online sf novel writing group, although both of us were using the group chiefly as motivation. Anyway, Shupp had published a five-book series, The Destiny Makers, between 1985 and 1991, but nothing else. And nothing since that online sf novel writing group – he was working on something new, and it looked good, but it hasn’t appeared in the years since. To be honest, I suspect With Fate Conspire is not a book that would see publication today. Not because it’s bad – it isn’t, it’s actually quite good. But it makes zero concessions to its readers, and it’s often a struggle to figure out what’s going on. Partly that’s because the plot is about time travel, and partly because it’s set on an Earth 90,000 years from now which is very different. But Shupp further complicates matters by fracturing his narrative. Tim Harper is a Vietnam vet physics student who gets caught in the field of a time machine sent from the future. He figures out how to use it, and travels back to the time it was sent, 90,000 years from the present-day. It’s a world in which some ten percent of the population are telepaths and they are strictly apolitical after two world wars caused by their interference in national affairs. But where Harper ends up is in the last stand-out against a world-state, and they decide to use the time travel technology to change the past and maintain their independence. With Fate Conspire does not make this easy. The narrative jumps about, and does not even mention some of the more important plot elements, and reading the book is a struggle to figure out what’s going on. I don’t have a problem with this, but I suspect present-day editors would. With Fate Conspire is definitely a book a written by an engineer. Happily, I have all five of the series and I brought them with me to Sweden. The next book is titled Morning of Creation. Expect it to appear in a blog post sometime in the next month or so.

Black Mischief, Evelyn Waugh (1932, UK). This was one of a bunch of Evelyn Waugh novels my mother found me in charity shops. In Harrogate. Where they obviously have a somewhat different class of customer to Sheffield. Although, to be fair, it’s a rare charity shop that will keep 1950s Penguin paperbacks on their shelves. And they were pretty tatty copies too. Black Mischief is set in the invented African island-nation of Azania. There are two African language-groups, one native to the island, the other invaders several centuries earlier. Plus Arabs, legations from assorted European nations, churches from the major religions, and a variety of hangers-on and chancers. The current ruler dies and his son, only just down from Oxford, takes the throne. And is determined to drag his country into the twentieth century (the fourth decade of it, at least). Waugh lays out the history of his invented country with impressive clarity. The story then shifts to London and Basil Seal, a character from Waugh’s earlier novels, a dissolute upper class wastrel, who happens to know the new emperor of Azania and fancies getting out of London. So he travels to Azania, hooks up with emperor, and is made Minister of Modernization. He’s in it for what he can get, of course, but he’s out-matched by pretty much everyone else in the country. Had Black Mischief been written a few decades later, it might have aged better. Because it’s horribly racist. It’s not just the language, it’s the treatment of races other than English. Waugh mocks the English quite heavily; and the French too. Especially their legations. But his treatment of the Sakuyu and Wanda relies on racial caricatures, as does his characterisation of Youkoumian, an Armenian Jew. Perversely, the one non-English character who isn’t treated racistly is the new emperor, who comes across as woefully naive, if well-intentioned, and the sort of over-educated naif so beloved of Oxbridge comedies. Not one of Waugh’s best.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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Reading diary 2019, #3

After years of resistance, I have finally succumbed – although it was, of course, more a matter of practicality than choice. I have started reading ebooks. I bought two dozen books (a mix of paperback and hardback) with me to Sweden, but the vast bulk of my collection went into storage (85 boxes!). And I’m not really sure when I’ll see them again. There’s an English Bookshop here in Uppsala – it’s well-known across Scandinavia – but books in Sweden are expensive. And until I get my ID card and a permanent address, I can’t buy books online… So: a Kindle. I’ve ended up buying ebook versions of books I already own – such as Shadow Captain and Crimes Against Humanity below – because my copy has gone into storage, but there are also books I’ve wanted to read for a while which are only available on Kindle. So it’s all working out quite well.

MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood (2013, Canada). I bought this with me in my carry-on luggage and I started it on the plane. To be honest, I’m not sure why I bothered reading it. It’s the third book of a trilogy and I didn’t much like the preceding two books, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Which is not to say that I don’t like Atwood’s fiction – Alias Grace is an excellent novel, and I’ve thought other books by her were very good indeed. But not the MaddAddam trilogy, which reads like really badly-done sf that’s striving for satire but misses every time. The surviving Gardeners from The Year of the Flood have more or less settled down, with the Crakers (a race of genetically-engineered pacifist and dimwitted herbivorous humans created by Crake) and Snowman, who was also part of the project with Oryx and Crake. The two Painballers from the previous book are still at large, and the Gardeners have no desire to fall into their clutches. But MaddAddam is mostly about Toby – and her lover, Zeb, half-brother of Adam, founder of the Gardeners, and his various adventures in the US prior to the release of the virus which killed off most of humanity. And it’s all so very, well, obvious – a dystopian neoliberal US that has been a mainstay of science fiction since cyberpunk. Atwood enlivens it with some jokey branding, but half the time the brands are embarrassingly bad, as if any marketing department on the planet would come up with such crass brands as AnooYoo, and so on. On the other hand, the sections where Toby tells the Crakers slightly mythologised stories about Zeb are quite funny. Which is another reason why I’m not especially keen humorous science fiction for a start, and yet the MaddAddam trilogy doesn’t seem to know whether it’s humorous or serious. It’s impossible to take seriously, which suggests the latter intent; but it’s not comic enough to qualify as the former. Ah well.

Shadow Captain, Alastair Reynolds (2019, UK). This is the sequel to last year’s Revenger, Reynolds’s first attempt at YA fiction. And, to be honest, other than the fact the two protagonists – one of which is the narrator – are teenage girls, it doesn’t much read like YA. The story is set in, I think, the Solar system many many millennia hence. The planets have been broken up into hundreds of thousands of worldlets, many of which have black holes at their cores to provide gravity. There have been successive waves of civilisation in the system, although no one knows what causes them to die off or be re-ignited. There are aliens present, semi-integrated into society, but apparently no FTL, so no real explanation of where they come from. And there are lots of alien artefacts – it is, in fact, the hunt for alien artefacts on uninhabited worldlets, some of which are protected by forcefields which periodically turn off, and which are know as “baubles”, which drives the plot of the trilogy. In Revenger, teenage sisters Adrana and Fura Ness joined the crew of a spaceship hunting for artefacts. They are “bone readers”, which means they can connect telepathically to hardware, still functioning, in giant alien skulls, and which are used by spaceships as a form of FTL communications. By the end of Revenger, Adrana and Fura have beaten dread pirate Bosa Sennen and taken her ships. In Shadow Captain, they need to find a way to let everyone know that Sennen is dead and the two sisters have no plans to follow in her footsteps. Unfortunately, they get involved with a gangster on a minor “wheelworld” while trying to resupply, and end up in no better a situation than when the book began. Along the way, Reynolds introduces a pair of mysteries which are likely to form the plot of the final book of the trilogy – the aforementioned waves of civilisation, and the possibility there may have been many more abortive waves; and the likely existence of some planetary object which swings into occupied space at intervals and wreaks havoc. There’s a distinctive flavour to Revenger and Shadow Captain, a sort of Dickensian steampunk aesthetic, which is appealing – although it does slip in a few places, where some technology exists without anything seemingly underpinning it. And the baubles are pretty damn cool. Reynolds has used something similar before, in Diamond Dogs, and it’s an idea that has always appealed to me (see John Morressy’s Under a Calculating Star and the movie Galaxy of Terror). The third book, currently titled Bone Silence, is due in January next year. I plan to buy a copy.

The Pyramid, William Golding (1967, UK). I’m not sure what to make of Golding. Here’s a writer who’s chiefly known for his debut novel, but went on to write a further fourteen or so books, all of which are generally highly-regarded but nowhere near as popular or well-known as his first novel, Lord of the Flies. Which, to be honest, I read at school, as probably did many UK schoolchildren. But I stumbled across three of his books in a charity shop a couple of years ago and decided to give him a go. And I was extremely impressed by the first one I read, Rites of Passage. And the second (well, third) novel by him I read was The Inheritors, which was odd, and an odd choice of subject, but very good. So I asked my mother to keep an eye open for his books in charity shops, and she found me three more, of which The Pyramid was one. And… it’s not at all what I expected, based on what I’d previously read by him. It’s set in the 1920s in a small town near “Barchester”, although if there are any other references of links to Trollope’s series they’d be lost on me as I’ve never read Trollope. The protagonist of The Pyramid, Oliver, is a young man due shortly to study chemistry at Oxford. Before he leaves, he wants to make out with the nubile receptionist from the doctor’s surgery next-door, who, it is implied, has a “reputation” (it is later revealed she is fifteen). Oliver succeeds – and it’s quite clearly rape, and described as such later, although the narrative seems to brush it off. Oliver returns home a few years later during his time at Oxford, and ends up involved in a local play, where he plays a gypsy violinist (as he plays the piano and violin) and a spear-carrier. But it all goes comically wrong. The final section is set decades later, when Oliver returns home as an old man, and learns the truth about some of inhabitants of the town he knew as a child. I’m not entirely sure what Golding is trying to say with The Pyramid. The various sections are linked by Oliver and place, and some shared characters, but otherwise seem not at all connected. The protagonist is not at all likeable, and his treatment of the teenage girl – and the narrative’s – has not aged well at all. The preoccupation with social class – the title refers to “the crystal pyramid” of social class – reads oddly to a twenty-first century reader, even a British one. To be honest, Waugh writes about class much much better than Golding does here – perhaps because the only intelligent way to write about class is as satire. In all, The Pyramid feels like a minor work, but I’ve more of his books on the TBR and I plan to read them.

The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh (1948, UK). I also asked my mother to keep an eye open for books by Evelyn Waugh – I forget why; I think I’d just watched the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, fancied reading some of his novels and found a couple in charity shops myself… Anyway, I asked her to look out for them, and the next time we met up, she gave me a carrier bag containing a dozen of them. Which was considerably more than I’d expected. Quite a few of them were tatty Penguin paperbacks from the 1950s, which I didn’t mind as these were books I planned to read and pass on. I bought four of them with me to Sweden, including The Loved One. Which is a thin novel, of no great consequence. It’s set in Hollywood during the 1940s, immediately post-war, I think. The protagonist, Dennis Barlow, is a Brit, who worked for a major studio but was let go. He now works for a pet burial service. Which is a career the rest of the British expat community think is diminishes their standing among the Angelinos. This is especially the opinion of Sir Ambrose, who works at the studio which once employed Barlow. And also lets Sir Ambrose go, by simply giving his job to a relative of a manager (this is why employment laws are a good thing). Meanwhile, Barlow has met Aimee, a beautician at Whispering Glades, an upmarket cemetery that could only ever exist in California. And maybe in Florida. Barlow woos Aimee using poetry by assorted great poets which he claims to be his own verse. But then Aimee learns where Barlow works, and she has as low an opinion of the pet burial service as Sir Ambrose. The Loved One is mildly amusing, and Whispering Glades is certainly a good satirical creation, but the Barlow and Aimee are too much the naifs and the rest of the cast are all pretty much caricatures. Still, even second-tier Waugh is pretty damn good prose.

Crimes Against Humanity, Susan R Matthews (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first book back in the late 1990s (I reread it and reviewed it for SF Mistressworks a few years ago; see here). There’s been quite a gap in the novels’ publication history. The books were originally published by Avon, who dropped Matthews after the opening trilogy and two standalone novels. She was then picked up by Roc, who published a further two Under Jurisdiction novels before dropping her. The next novel in the series came out from Meisha Merlin, who went bust shortly afterwards. That was in 2006. And it wasn’t until 2016, when Baen started publishing her, starting with two omnibus editions containing the six Under Jurisdiction novels, that we started to see new entries in the series: Blood Enemies (see here), Fleet Insurgent (a collection; see here), and now Crimes Against Humanity. This novel follows on from the preceding ones – and it’s get to be quite a  complicated story arc by this point – with Kosciusko settled in Gonebeyond space, and the nine Benches deciding torture is a Bad Thing so they no longer need their military torturers. One of whom hates Kosciusko – for being slapped down in the past after abusing bond involuntaries, because Kosciusko is so much more skilled than him, and because Kosciusko’s actions have pretty much resulted in him, in all torturers, losing his job… So a wealthy capitalist, with lots of fingers in illegal pies, including in Gonebeyond space, and especially including slavery, uses the torturer in a plot to kidnap Kosciusko. It all comes to a head during a raid against the slavers and the rescue of the unsold slaves they abandoned. The plot involves infecting Kosciusko with a tailored virus. Unfortunately, it spreads to all the Dolgorukij (Kosciusko’s race). The story is told from multiple viewpoints, and Matthews does her usual where she throws the reader straight in at the deep end. The narrative has to bend itself over backwards considerably more these days to make Kosciusko a sympathetic protagonist – I mean, even back in the 1990s a torturer as a lead character was a hard sell, but these days, post-Gitmo, post-rendition, post-Bush, it would be almost impossible… Except maybe not, as there’s a shit ton of crap science fiction out there which normalises shitty US tactics like torture. Crimes Against Humanity plays it heavy on taking responsibility and the inappropriateness of forgiveness for such crimes; but it also comes down hard on slavery. Which makes the novel feel more contemporary in sensibilities and not a novel that should have seen print 20 years ago. I do like these books, and the story’s by no means finished, but I’m not sure if there any new books in the pipeline.

You Must Remember Us…, Leonard Daventry (1980, UK). I latched onto Daventry years ago when trying to put together a list of forgotten British sf authors, and found a copy of his best-known novel, A Man of Double Deed (see here), the first book of the Keyman trilogy, the second and third books of which don’t appear to have been published in paperback in the UK, only in the US, and the hardback editions were published by Robert Hale, copies of whose books are as rare as rocking-horse shit these days (apparently because most of their sales were to libraries). My copy of You Must Remember Us…, Daventry’s last novel, was published by Robert Hale, and I was extremely lucky to find a near-mint condition copy on eBay for around £20 a year or two ago. It was one of the books I brought with me to Sweden. And… it’s not very good. The earth has managed to destroy itself, and a last starship has escaped from the UK. The carefully-selected crew, however, didn’t make it to the launch site in Wales in time, so those aboard are whoever was available at the time. And they’re sort of muddling along, managing to keep everything running, for the ten-year journey to Alpha Centauri (the means propulsion is left vague). En route, they come across a deserted alien spacecraft, and four of them explore it but find nothing except a line of enigmatic symbols. The ship then vanishes. Some time later, members of the crew begin to develop extremely fast-growing, and fatal, tumours. There is only one cure: they have to transplant their brains into robot bodies. This doesn’t go down too well, and only fifteen of the crew make the change. They then sleep for twenty years. And when they wake up, they’re orbiting an Earth-like planet inhabited by a Neolithic humanoid people… who see the robot crew as gods. It’s all very British, and surprisingly old-fashioned for 1980. A Man of Double Deed had a flavour all its own, but You Must Remember Us… feels very ordinary. Brains transplanted into robot bodies is a relatively common sf trope, and has been around for a long time – ‘Helen ‘O’Loy’ from 1938, for example – and even made appearance in the execrable Legends of Dune series by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson. These days, of course, it’s not an actual transplant that’s used, more a downloading of the consciousness – the mind as software – such as in Jennifer Pelland’s very good Machine. Daventry’s novel doesn’t add anything to the trope, and I’m not really surprised it never made it into paperback and has been pretty much forgotten. I’d still like to read the rest of the Keyman trilogy, however.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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Reading diary 2019, #2

I should do another book haul post but, well, the new books are all in boxes. And who knows when I’ll see them again… Meanwhile I’ve bought myself a Kindle and I’ve loaded it up with ebook versions of some of my recent purchases so I can actually get to read them even though they’re going straight into storage. The following half dozen books, however, were read old school, ie, paper. I’ll be taking a few paperbacks with me, of course, but space and weight is limited.

The Beekeeper of Sinjar, Dunya Mikhail (2018, Iraq). My mother lent me this and I think it was one of her friends who either recommended it or lent it to her. It is, to be honest, not usual reading material for either of us. I don’t think anyone needs to be told that ISIS, AKA Daesh, are nasty pieces of work – especially with Shemima Begum all over the UK news last month. (For the record, she’s a British citizen and has every right to return to the UK, and revoking her citizenship is disgusting, never mind illegal; but that’s the scumbag Tories for you.) The Beekeeper of Sinjar is specifically about the Daesh genocide of the Yazidis, an ethno-religious group from the region, whose monotheistic religion is distinct from the Abrahamic religions. Daesh would slaughter the men and elderly, and sell off the women at slave markets to Daesh members. A number of the Daesh described in the book were either American or Russian. The title refers to a man who still lives in the area, and helps Yazidi women escape their Daesh captors. Sometimes it’s just a matter of paying off the Daesh man holding a woman captive, other times the women have to be spirited away and smuggled across the border. The book is structured as a series of telephone conversations between US-based Mikhail and the beekeeper, during which the beekeeper often tells the stories of the women, and occasionally, men he has rescued. It’s harrowing stuff. And let’s not forget, Daesh is Blair’s and Bush’s legacy. Unfortunately, The Beekeeper of Sinjar suffers by being quite badly written. Partly it’s the nature of conversations – although the poetry excerpts add little – and the book never really gives a clear idea of what the Yazidi are (I had to look them up on Wikipedia to learn they have their own religion, for example). Certainly, the story in The Beekeeper of Sinjar needs to be told, but I think I would have preferred something more like reportage than Mikhail’s attempt to humanise events.

The Final Solution, Michael Chabon (2003, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I continue to read Chabon. I find his particular style of over-egged prose not to my taste, and as it’s as evident in The Final Solution‘s 127 pages as it is his longer works. The story is relatively simple, although it tries for cleverness – as Chabon often does – and while it doesn’t rely on an explanatory essay, like Gentleman of the Road (which, I must admit, I did enjoy; see here), the point of The Final Solution hinges on the reader realising something that’s not in the text – although the book’s title is a bloody great huge signpost. In 1944, a retired detective, who is clearly Sherlock Holmes, although he’s never named as such, is dragged into one last case to find the missing parrot belonging a mute German Jewish boy staying at a nearby vicarage. The bird’s disappearance coincides with the murder of another of the vicarage’s lodgers, and it’s surmised he was trying to steal the parrot – which has a habit of reeling off long strings of numbers in German, which many think are code – but was  himself robbed of the bird. Chabon handle his Holmes quite well, although Holmes’s irascibility often makes him more annoying than sympathetic, and his approach to the mystery make the plot anything but straightforward. Not a bad light read, but Gentleman of the Road was better.

Boneland, Alan Garner (2012, UK). This is third book in a trilogy begun with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a book I remember from my childhood as a quintessential English fantasy, completed nearly half a century after the second book, The Moon of Gomrath, was published, because Garner had grown to dislike his characters. Boneland is also not a children’s book. The protagonist is Colin, the boy from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but he has forgotten all the events of that book – in fact, he can’t remember anything that happened to him before the age of thirteen. He’s now a radio astronomer, working at Jodrell Bank, and living in a hut in a nearby wood. He’s hugely intelligent, but has problems socialising. He visits a psychotherapist, and she more or less teases him into being sociable with him. It’s a relationship that feels like to belongs in a genre novel from fifty years ago – and not a genre novel like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. There’s something of the fell of a mouthpiece character to her – certainly, she seems to carry more weight in the story than her role would indicate. Colin’s story is crosscut with that of a shaman living in the same area  thousands of years previously. Both are protecting something, although neither seem entirely sure what. Boneland is not an easy read. Even by the end, it’s not entirely clear what role each of the main trio of characters play. But the writing is really good – Garner is a master at writing about landscape – (but it’s also very talky) and though it’s only a thin novel of 149 pages, there’s a great deal in it. It probably needs a reread.

Without a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal (2013, USA). This is the third book in Kowal’s Regency fantasy series, and while – being a huge fan of Georgette Heyer and having read a number of US Regency romances – I had thought it’d take some convincing for me to accept a US-written Regency-set novel, and a genre one to boot, but I have to admit Kowal has done an excellent job on these. She has the dialogue down to a tee, and the prose is not far behind. She manages the sensibilities well enough that a British reader can find no cause to complain, and she incorporates real world history in such a way it adds to the plot. (Although I read a couple by US writer Fiona Hall, a pseudonym of Ellen Pall, back in the 1990s that did something similar and weren’t bad.) Anyway, 1816 – not 1916, as the backcover blurb claims – did indeed suffer climate abnormalities, due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 (not to be confused with Krakatoa, East of Java, which is actually west of Java, and happened in 1883). The extended winter has meant the coldmongers – who use magic to chill things, and are all children, much like sweeps, because of the perils of their occupation – can find no work, and are being blamed for the unseasonal weather. It turns out the coldmongers are planning a march to protest their poor lot, but an unscrupulous peer intends to escalate it into a full-blown rebellion so he can unseat the current prime minister (I think; I can’t check as the book has gone into storage). Protagonist Jane, and her husband David, get dragged into the plot due to a family connection and their sympathies for the coldmongers. It ends with the pair of them held in the Tower of London for treason but, of course, they can hardly be hanged as there are two books following this one. That’s probably Without a Summer‘s chief fault – the jeopardy is meaningless, because the two leads are sure to be found innocent and restored to their former position. Still, a fun read, and I plan to get the sequels.

Mission Child, Maureen F McHugh (1998, USA). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this novel. It had neither a plot nor did it need to be science fiction. And yet it was good. Janna is a teenage girl at an “appropriate technology mission” in the far north. Although the local culture resembles Inuit, the people of the region seem to be descended from northern Europeans. A local tribe wipes out the mission, and only a handful of people escape, including Janna and her husband. They trek to to another tribe, with whom they share kinship, but are never made entirely welcome. Then the tribe that attacked the mission attacks this other tribe, and again Janna and her husband escape. But he dies during the escape, and Janna makes it alone to a coastal city, where she is put in a refugee camp. She is mistaken for a man and chooses to impersonate that gender for reasons of safety, although later she decides she is transgender. Janna, now Jan, moves to another city and links up with another tribal person who’s a bit of wideboy, full of semi-legal schemes and deals. Jan gets a job as a technician, brings over a shaman from the refugee camp, and ends up as his helper when the wideboy is murdered after dealing in something high tech he stumbled across. Jan eventually falls out with the shaman and sets off travelling. He ends up on a tropical islands, whose inhabitants are descended from a mix of Indian and Chinese settlers, where he hires out as a bodyguard. But his employer is killed in a raid (this part of the book was originally published as a short story, I believe), and so Jan takes his employer’s daughter to her grandmother on another island, and ends up settling down there. He ends up helping offworlder medics when a plague strikes the islands as he is immune to the disease thanks to a medical implant he was  given back in the first chapter. For all that the novel is about the impact of high tech offworlders on the cultures of Jan’s world, there’s no good reason I could see why the novel needed to be set on another world, or even sf. Certainly it gave McHugh free rein in envisaging cultures to make her various points, but it does all feel a bit, well, arbitrary. Which is not to say Mission Child is a bad novel. Far from it. McHugh was definitely one of US science  fiction’s more interesting writers during the 1990s (she has not published anything in long-form since 2001), and I should probably give her short fiction ago (there are two collections to date, both published this century). Mission Child is a bit of a puzzler: a book that is clearly genre, but doesn’t really need to be, but works so well as genre it seems churlish to complain it didn’t have to be genre.

Brideshead Revisited*, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK). There are many who consider this the finest novel written in English literature. I can’t agree, although it is very good. But I’m not even sure it’s Waugh’s best novel. I thought Sword of Honour better, to be honest. But then, Brideshead Revisited is not a satire, and even Waugh admits he over-wrote it in places. Which is not to say the prose is not good, because even over-written Waugh is fucking classy prose, and way more impressive and readable than, say, Chabon, who I also find over-writes. But Brideshead Revisited suffers from an odd structure, which the television series simplified (and I saw the TV series long before I read the novel), and an extended chronology that covers far more time than there are chapters. It opens with Charles Ryder in uniform during WW2 finding himself back at Brideshead, the seat of the Flyte family, old Catholic aristocracy. Back in his university days, Ryder had made friends with Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son. He had become a friend of the family, but fell out with them when they tried to control Sebastian’s drinking with a strategy he felt would make things worse. (It did.) Years later, married and with children, he bumps into Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and begins an affair with her. The two decide to marry once their individual divorces go through, but the estranged father returns to the family seat to die and everything changes. The framing narrative – Ryder in WW2 – provides only a prologue and an epilogue, and the title too, of course – but the way Ryder lives his life throughout the 1920s and 1930s but the narrative only deals with his interactions with the Flyte family… not to mention the faint smell of fawnication over the aristocracy that pervades the novel, and the fascination with Catholicism (which does, to be fair, result in one of the novels’s best comic scenes), makes it all a less likeable read than it should be. That it succeeds is totally down to Waugh’s prose, even if it is more florid than usual (although I read the later edition, in which Waugh toned it down somewhat). Some of the characters are close to caricatures – especially Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche and Kurt – but Waugh handles his female characters surprisingly well. Brideshead Revisited is a definitely a book worth reading, but if you had to read a single Waugh novel I wouldn’t recommend it as the one to read. Having said that, I now want to watch the TV series all over again. And I’d like to see the 2008 film adaptation too.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 134