It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Books, glorious books

My book reading has slowed somewhat this year, but it seems so has my book buying. So I’m still managing to chip away at the TBR. Which has been joined by the following books over the last couple of months…

The Escort Carrier Gambier Bay means I now have all twenty of the Anatomy of the Ships books on warships (plus one about the RMS Queen Mary). And no, I paid nowhere near the silly price currently shown on Amazon. They were originally published in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the series was expanded, and some of the earlier ones republished in new editions, in the early 2000s. The grey cover design means this is one of the original series. I missed buying This Brutal World when it first came out last year, and second-hand copies immediately started going for silly money. Happily, the publisher decided to reprint. Hostages of Ultralum is the sixteenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series to be published in English. I wrote about it here. Several years ago, Midland Publishing (a company associated with Ian Allan, if that name means anything to you) published a series of “Secret Projects” books about military aircraft – from the US, UK, WWII Germany, Japan and, I think, France. I bought several of them, but they got increasingly harder to find. It looks as if they’ve now kicked off the series again, and, annoyingly, they’re numbering the volumes. But I actually bought Britain’s Space Shuttle because the subject interests me… and who knows, I might get a story or two out of it.

I recently pre-ordered the fourth novella of Eric Brown’s Telemass Quartet, and added Project Clio to my order, despite having sworn off buying and reading more Baxter after finding the Proxima/Ultima diptych disappointingly juvenile. Oh well. The red book in the middle is a really hard to find Lucius Shepard, The Last Time, which I found going for less than half its usual price on eBay. The slipcover is, bizarrely, made of clear plastic. Finally, Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks is a book I wanted from the moment Paul Kincaid first mentioned he was writing it. I thought Banks an excellent writer, although he often disappointed me – but not enough for me to stop buying his books, all of which I have in first edition, some signed.

These two are charity shop finds. I discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor) perversely through a film – François Ozon’s adaptation of Angel. But I could never find a copy of the book, and was never that engaged in reading her to buy the book new. Whenever I stumbled across copies of her novels in charity shops, I’d buy them and read them. I’m now considerably more of a fan of her writing, and I’m sort of wavering now about buying the rest new… Oh well. The Paperchase was just a random find. I know the author’s name from Far North, which was shortlisted for the Clarke Award and which I didn’t really like, and Strange Bodies, which seemed to be ignored by most sf awards and was actually pretty bloody good.

These three books were my only purchases at Kontur, the Swedish national convention in Uppsala (see here). I bought them from Alvarfonden, a charity that sells donated books at Swedish cons. I’m not entirely sure why I bought any of them. The Final Circle of Paradise I’d never heard of, but I’d like to read more of the Strugatsky brothers’ fiction, if only because of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (I was disappointed by Roadside Picnic when I finally got around to reading it, as everything had been translated into US idiom and that ruined it for me). I’m sure I’ve heard approving things about The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica, but I can’t remember where. Or how long ago. Alan Brennert writes middle-of-the-road well-crafted sf and fantasy stories, and I’m not really sure why I bought Her Pilgrim Soul. But I did.

I’ve been buying volumes from Newcastle Publishing Company’s Forgotten Fantasy Library when I can find them, although they’re getting harder to find. Annoyingly, the series doesn’t seem to have a consistent design, or even size. The Food of Death by Lord Dunsany is the third book in the series and the sixth I own (of twenty-four). Son of the Morning is by yet another pseudonym of Mark Barrowcliffe. The fantasies he writes under the name MD Lachlan are very good, and I’ve heard good things about this Mark Adler book too. I won it in the raffle at the last York pubmeet.

Last of all, some recent sf… Well, okay, The Chrysalids is hardly recent, but the SF Masterwork edition is new, and, astonishingly, I don’t recall ever reading Wyndham at novel length (only a collection of dreadful short stories, the cover art for which was a blurry photo of an Airfix model of a Battlestar Galactica Viper fighter). I see Penguin are still paying Amazon more than Gollancz do, as a search of the title returns the Penguin edition first and no mention of the SF Masterworks edition… I thought Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind very good (see here), so planned to buy Dreams Before the Start of Time when it was published. Which I did. Central Station seems to have won, or been nominated for, lots of awards, so it was time to see what all the fuss was about. I think I’ve read some of the stories which form it, but perhaps they’ll appeal to me more as part of a novel. Proof of Concept is s new novella from my favourite sf writer, so of course I was going to buy it. I wrote about it here. Adam Roberts was foolish enough to make a wrongheaded prediction about this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, I bet him a fiver he was wrong, he was wrong, and generously included a copy of The Thing Itself with the £5 note he sent me in payment. I’d been wanting to read it, so that proved a happy accident.


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Reading diary, #50

Oops. I appear to have missed a number. I went straight from Reading diary, #47 to Reading diary, #49. I could have gone back and corrected the numbering, but I can’t be arsed. So this forty-ninth post is numbered fifty, and it’ll just have to carry on from there. All together now: deal with it.

The Memoirist, Neil Williamson (2017, UK). This is the fourth and final novella in NewCon Press’s new series of novella quartets (I wonder where they could have got that idea from?). These first four are straight-up sf, so I will admit to some surprise at seeing Neil Williamson’s name, since he’s not known for straight-up sf. But, thankfully, The Memoirist certainly qualifies as that, and even better, it’s a pretty damn good piece of straight-up science fiction. A ghost writer is hired to write the memoirs of the lead singer of a long-since defunct rock band that had a Moment a couple of decades previously. That Moment was at a near-legendary gig in a small club, of which no recordings or footage exists. And yet the myth of the gig overshadows what meagre impact the band itself ever had. In this world, ubiquitous “bees” provide 24/7 surveillance… but it seems that mythical gig triggered something which led to a new type of “bee”… and to say any more would give the plot twist away. I’ll admit I thought the mystery dragged out a little, but the way the plot then shifted into left-field more than made up for it. I enjoyed this, a good piece of near-future sf, almost McLeod-esque in places, with an interesting premise and an in interesting, and nicely oblique, approach to that premise (okay, it was a little Espedair Street too, but that’s hardly a complaint). Good stuff.

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, Ismail Kadare (2000, Albania). So I went looking for novels from countries I’d not read literature from before, and came up with this one. Kadare has won several international prizes, and been mooted as a Nobel laureate a number of times. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is his eleventh book, and his entire oeuvre – of novels, at least – appears to have been translated into English. Mark Gurabardhi is an artist in the provincial town of B—– and, well, things happen. Beginning with a bank robbery. People also tell each other stories, and each chapter is followed by a counter-chapter which expands on that story, as if it were the plot of the novel (but the counter-chapters are not a single narrative). Some sections of the novel deal with the old Albanian mountain code of Kanun, blood vendettas that go back generations, so far no one remembers what they were actually about, and how they’re in danger of kicking off again now that Hoxha’s communist regime has collapsed. Much as I enjoyed Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, it didn’t blow me away. I’m glad I read it, but I doubt I’ll read anything else by Kadare. But at least I can cross Albania off the list.

Project Clio, Stephen Baxter (2016, UK). I remember seeing this at the 2016 Eastercon in Manchester, but I own so many Baxter novels and novellas already, and had been badly disappointed by the last few I’d read, that I’d decided to give Project Clio a pass. But then recently I placed an order for the final novella of Eric Brown’s Telemass quartet and this novella sort of accidentally fell into my basket… It reads a little like Baxter had watched Danger: Diabolik, or any number of similar films, once too often, and while it’s a lot of fun it does read somewhat compressed and elided. It’s a carry-on from two earlier stories, which I have not read, even though I own the collection, Universes, in which the stories appear, which does mean Project Clio throws the reader in at the deep end since it assumes prior knowledge of the characters and set-up. There’s mention of Brutalist architecture in the novella, but I can’t work out if it’s approving, because being unapproving of Brutalist architecture would of course be unforgivable. The novella ends with a bit of a Dr-Who-style finish, which didn’t work for me. I liked the use of 1960s iconography, and the piss-takes of 1960s cultural artefacts, but the plotting did feel more like that of a television episode than an actual novella.

Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA). I’m still not entirely convinced by Robinson’s books, but they’re so beautifully written I’m prepared to forgive them much. Lila is written from the point of view of the wife of John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead and the patriarch depicted in Home. She was stolen as child, a neglected child, by a woman who calls herself Doll (and who gave Lila her name), and subsequently dragged about the Midwest looking for work. This was during the Great Depression, and anyone who has read Steinbeck, or even seen the film of The Grapes of Wrath, will have some idea of the abject poverty these people experienced. Eventually, Lila fetches up in Gilead as a young woman, and slowly, in much the same way a wild animal would, begins to explore the small town and its inhabitants. She starts working in the pastor’s garden, in return for his unprovoked acts of kindness toward her, and the two sort of drift together until he asks her to marry him and she says yes. While both Lila and Ames are drawn with an impressive amount of sensitivity – and Ames is clearly a remarkably, perhaps a little too remarkably, sensitive man for his time – and the interactions between the two are beautifully-written… but there’s that leap from friends who know very little about each other to marriage that seems somewhat ungrounded. I really do like Robinson’s prose – it’s deceptively simple – and I also really like the gentle pace of her novels, and the depth to which she explores her cast and their various interactions. But… they do also feel like they’re missing an edge, a bit of bite to temper the smoothness. The depiction of Lila’s childhood during the Great Depression is too bland to do the job. It means Robinson’s novels can feel a bit too, well, too pleasant. But still worth reading.

vN, Madeline Ashby (2012, Canada). According to my database, I bought this at the 2014 Fantasycon for £1. So it’s taken me nearly three years to get around to read it. I seem to recall it being quite well-received at its time of release, but, to be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed. The title refers to von Neuman machines, although in this novel they’re actually AI in humanoid bodies thatare faster, stronger, etc, than humans. They’ve integrated into society such that the story opens with a man, his vN wife and vN child (vN children are identical copies of their parent – created by both female and male vN; and, in fact, all vN come in a limited number of “models”, each one identical to the original vN of their line). In order for the child vN, Amy, to “grow” along a similar time-frame to a human child, her parents have been limiting her “food” intake. But when her vN grandmother, Portia, turns up to her kindergarten graduation and goes berserk, Amy eats her. And so grows almost immediately to adult size.  And goes on the run… The problem with vN is that the vN over-balanced the world-building, and Amy was a completely unconvincing character. The vN are so physically superior to human beings they made no sense unless they were non-sentient. But they’re AIs, and supposedly not dangerous because they have a “failsafe” (sort of Asimov’s Three Laws rolled up into one maguffin). Except Portia has overriden hers. And it’s likely Amy will be able override hers too. But since the entire novel is told from Amy’s POV- and she’s a very implausible five-year-old – we can only guess at what this might actually mean to society at large. If you want to read a book about robots and humans, Machine by Jennifer Pelland is much better. There’s apparently a sequel to vN, titled iD. I’ll not be bothering with it.

Blood Enemies, Susan R Matthews (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first book, An Exchange of Hostages, back in the 1990s when it was published. so I was pretty disappointed when Matthews’s original publisher, Avon Books, dropped the series after the original trilogy. It was then picked up by Roc, who published a further three novels before dropping it. A seventh novel was published four years later by Meisha Merlin, who went into administration shortly afterward. And now, eleven years later, we finally have the next book in the series, published by, of all people, Baen. Which at least explains the shit cover art. Happily, Baen are also rereleasing the earlier books in omnibus editions, which is just as well as Blood Enemies follows straight on from the previous book, 2006’s Warring States, and would be hard to follow without knowledge of the preceding books, despite Matthews’s lengthy introduction. Kosciusko had sent his freed bondsmen off into the Gonebeyond, but when he tried to follow them he found himself stuck on Safehaven. Meanwhile, Cousin Stanosz, an agent of the Malcontent (the Dolgurokij Combine’s unofficial secret service), has been investigating a series of brutal terrorist attacks on Gonebeyond colonies. He thinks Kosciusko’s brother is involved, and so impersonates Kosciusko to visit the brother in the company station he inhabits in Gonebeyond, travelling there in the bondsmen’s ship. Except Kosciusko manages to escape his house-arrest and tracks his b0ndsmen to the company station, inadvertently ruining Cousin Stanosz’s plan… This book is better-written than I remember the earlier books in the series being, and Kosciusko seems to have settled down as a character. But a lot happens in its 256 pages, and the constant referring back to events and people in the earlier books does tend to confuse in places. The Under Jurisdiction novels don’t have quite the same level of shine as they did back in the late 1990s and, while the genre has moved on in the eleven years since Warring States, although it has moved in much the same direction as the Under Jursidiction books were sort of heading… Blood Enemies still doesn’t feel much like a 2017 science ficiton novel. The world-building is strong, but it’s not the focus of the narrative. Nor are the characters’ emotions. Which does make it feel, when compared to present-day sf, as though everything in Blood Enemies is slightly off-centre. I’m not all that interested in the current sf narrative style, to be honest – world-bling and feels and word salad – but Blood Enemies reads like it’s trying to catch up rather than do its own thing. Having said that, I still intend to continue reading the series.

1001 Boks You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…


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Reading diary, #49

I seem to have made up for the last post’s male heaviness, so to speak…

Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). A lot of people whose opinion I respect had said approving things about this book, and yet within less than a year after its publication conversation about it seemed to fade away. Nonetheless, it remained on my radar, and when I placed an order with Aqueduct Press – an excellent small press, by the way – I included it; or it may have been that I wanted this book and waited until there were others before ordering it, I forget which. Either way, that order also contained Flesh and Wires (see here) and A Day in Deep Freeze (see here), so it was a good purchase. All of which makes it a little embarrassing it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Necessary Ill. And, even more embarrassingly, I loved it. I don’t think it’s perfect, and at least one of the reasons I love it is because one of its elements fits so badly. It’s by no means a beautifully-written book, although its prose is generally better than average for sf, and its world-building does feel a bit hit and miss in places. But it’s premise has so much going for it, that I couldn’t help liking the book. At some point in the future, some babies are born neuter. They’re considered freaks, and those that do make it to adulthood disguise themselves as gendered people (those that haven’t had gender surgically forced on them as kids, that is). By the time the novel’s story starts, there’s a secret colony of them living deep in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The earth is also in serious trouble, thanks to a failing climate and scarce resources, and cannot handle its current population levels. Some of the neuters engineer plagues, which they release throughout the US, in an effort to cull the population. Jin is one such “spreader”, and is the chief character of the novel. While travelling about Texas, carefully spreading one of its plagues, Jin tangles with a man who seems to know a lot about the spreaders, and who appears to be behind an anti-neuter movement which is gathering steam. Meanwhile, Sandy, a young woman rescued by another neut, is now living with the neuts in their underground home. The plot spends a while exploring the world and the chief characters – but it’s all good stuff – before turning into the redemption of Jin, and by extension, all the neuts. This is done through a feature film about Jin, lightly fictionalised, and made by all the neuts who have infiltrated the film industry (inasmuch as they’re disguised as gendered people). The secret world of the neuts is handled really well, and if some of the science behind the plagues doesn’t quite sound like it could be true, it’s all presented with sufficient scientific grounding to be plausible. I think this book will make it into my top five for the first half of 2017, and might even make it to the end of year one.

Valerian and Laureline 16: Hostages of Ultralum, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1996, France). I do love this series, but not every album in it is all that memorable. And this, er, is one of the unmemorable ones. Ultralum is an important mineral used to fuel spaceships, but it only exists in areas of high spatio-temporal instability. Valerian and Laureline are still bouncing around after a previous album saw Galaxity, the pan-galactic peace-keeping organisation for which they worked, wiped out of existence and out of memory. There are a few references in this story to earlier albums, but from what I remember the plot was pretty thin and it felt more like the series was treading water than anything else. Plot-wise, that’s disappointing, but there are other aspects to the series which appeal – not least the mordant wit, which felt sadly lacking in the trailer for Besson’s film, although, to be fair, that focused on the visuals because that’s what modern audiences appear to want. But one of the strengths of the Valerian and Laureline series has been the shift in emphasis from Valerian to Laureline, and it would be a crying shame if the film characterised Valerian as the omni-competent hero and Laureline as his decorative sidekick. Because, to be honest, I had thought we were better than that. Still, this is Besson, so who knows. Mézières is apparently happy with the film, although as the illustrator I’d expect him to be concerned chiefly with the visuals. But I may be doing him a disservice – and Besson too, of course. We shall see. Meanwhile, the comics are readily available and definitely worth reading. Up to volume 17, at least.

Mappa Mundi, Justina Robson (2001, UK). I bought this when it was published 16 years ago, but I seem to have missed reading it and it’s only now I’ve finally got around to it. The novel opens with six prologues, each of which is based around one of the main narrative’s major characters. I’ve never been a big fan of prologues, but I like books that play around with narrative structure… And six introductory prologues strikes me as an interesting structural choice, even if their content doesn’t add all that much to the plot. Which concerns a pair of government projects, one in the UK and one in the US, based around some sort of neurological mapping technology, which could allow governments to control, and program, the thoughts of their citizens. Elements within the US security apparatus want control of the technology – and have already run a hugely illegal, and unsuccessful, test on human beings on a Native American reservation. In the UK, the research is being performed by a company owned by a mysterious Russian scientist (whose chain of identity changes forms one of the six prologues). When a test on a human subject is sabotaged, leading to a Dr Manhattan-like series of events, and infecting main character Natalie Armstrong with a more powerful version of the Mappa Mundi software… it kicks off a transatlantic techno-thriller plot that reminds me a little of a Cronenberg film, and in which the science-fictional technobabble floats uneasily on a well-realised real-world setting. The two main characters, Armstrong and half-Cheyenne FBI agent Jude Westhorpe, also felt a little good to be true. I suspect I’d have been more impressed with Mappa Mundi had I read it in 2001 (it made the Clarke Award shortlist, but lost out to Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love, and rightly so), but Robson’s subsequent novels have all been very good indeed and she’s one of the authors whose books I buy as soon as they’re published – even if it takes me sixteen years to get around to reading them…

Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith (2015, UK). I forget why I read the first of Rowling’s pseudonymous crime novels (her disguise had been rumbled before I read it, so I knew it was by Rowling). Possibly it was because my mother had a copy and asked me if I wanted to read it and I said, go on then. And then she got hold of the second book in the series… And now the third… The prose is a little better than average for the crime genre, but not quite good enough to be called literary. And the crime elements are not especially well put together or convincing, perhaps about as poorly done as you’d expect in a literary novel. So the Cormoran Strike novels fall uneasily between two stools, without being quite good enough to be one or the other. Having said that, they’re easy reads, and the two protagonists – Strike himself, and his business partner, Robin – are engaging characters. In this one, an old enemy of Strike’s sends Robin the leg of a young female murder victim by courier, and clues suggest the perpetrator is an enemy from Strike’s past – two men he investigated when in the RMP, and a stepfather he hated. Rowling drags out the mystery for far too long, sending Strike and Robin up and down the country in search of clues. Meanwhile, Robin’s relationship with her fiancé hits a rocky patch – as the fiancé thinks Robin and Strike are attracted to each other (Rowling has been doing a Mulder/Scully thing with them). Oh, and the reference to Blue Oyster Cult in the title? (I spotted it immediately, I’m a BOC fan.) The entire book is filled with references to the songs and lyrics of Blue Oyster Cult. As a fan of the band, that was a draw, but I can’t see it being the same to those who aren’t. It’s not like the references add anything to the plot that could not have been done by a fictional band (and, let’s face it, Rowling could hardly write worse lyrics than some of Sandy Perlman’s). Of the three Strike novel so far published – and more will undoubtedly appear – Career of Evil was more likeable than its predecessors, but less satisfactory as a crime novel. I suspect that may be the series’ future…

Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK). New science fiction from my favourite sf author? That went straight onto the wishlist the moment it was announced… Two scientists from different fields, and with opposing views on how to conduct their science, join forces to run an experiment in a recently-discovered “void”, a hollow space deep in bedrock, in which they plan to make changes to “information space” and so instantaneously relocate their facility to an exo-planet. In the facility are the IS scientists and a “crew”, a group of reality TV stars who have been involved in several television interstellar mission simulations. The main character, Kir, is a young woman who grew up feral and now has an AI embedded in her skull. The Information Space thing reminds me of Buonarotti Drive from Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, and may in fact be the same thing. Proof of Concept starts out as an exploration of two incompatible groups of people living in a facility sealed off from the outside world, and in which tensions are heightened after a series of deaths – heightened to the point where the experiment is jeopardised. But then the experiment has also been dangerously compromised, and is not quite what it’s been presented to be. Reading Proof of Concept reminded me of all the reasons why Jones is my favourite sf author – that clear clinical prose, the knotty ideas, the sense there’s so much more to the story that’s not being told… Jones sketches in her near-future lightly, but there’s more than enough there to ground the story, even if current taste is for an excess of detail. She also pitches the readers straight into the story, which can leave readers floundering a little. But Jones’s fiction has always required work from the reader – as should all good fiction – and if Proof of Concept feels a little thin in places, it nevertheless has an interesting protagonist in Kir, and a fascinating idea, Information Space, at its core. More, please.

Monsieur d’Eon is Woman, Gary Kates (1995, USA). I have no idea how long I’ve had this book. I sort of found it a couple of weeks ago and decided to read it. (Um, according to my database, I bought it cheap on eBay in 2005.) Anyway, I found it in a pile of books while I was doing a little light tidying in the study. I’d heard of the Chevalier d’Eon, of course, and thought I knew the basic details of his story… But apparently not. Kates bases his biography chiefly on d’Eon’s own writings – which, he is careful to point out, often contained fabricated and/or embroidered details (and in some cases, Kates provides historical evidence that d’Eon had lied in his autobiographical writings). The popular story has it that d’Eon was a spy for Louis XV, and he infiltrated the Imperial Russian court purporting to be a woman. After a period in England, he returned to France, adopted a female identity, and lived out the rest of his days as the Chevalière d’Eon. He claimed to have been born female, but brought up male because his father needed a son or they’d lose the family holdings. But on d’Eon’s death, it turned out d’Eon was male. Much of this history was fabricated by d’Eon himself. Kates maintains that d’Eon got himself in such bad favour with Louis XV, and yet was privy to so many embarrassing secrets, that the only way to neutralise d’Eon was to make him a woman – by royal decree. The book explains the historical and political background to d’Eon’s life and adventures, but it’s never quite clear why everyone thought a gender-change was suitable. Or what triggered the rumours he was really female. What is clear, however, is that d’Eon was an astonishing person, widely-read, learned, a gifted diplomat, a prolific author, and a minor war hero. He led a peculiar life – the first half as male, and a spy/diplomat for the French king; the second half in exile as a woman. Some of the details on d’Eon on his Wikipedia page are contradicted in Monsier d’Eon is a Woman – especially the bit about the Russian court. Kates maintains d’Eon invented the cross-dressing element years later (although he was indeed sent to the Russian court by Louis XV). A fascinating book about a fascinating person.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #48

I’m still struggling with my reading, and slipping further behind on my Goodreads challenge. It’s not the books I’ve been choosing to read, because most of them I’ve enjoyed and thought good, and none were hard work to get through. I love books, I love reading, and I want to read as many books as I possibly can. So I’m going to have to get back into it somehow… The books are a bit male-heavy this time around. I usually alternate genders in my fiction reading, but I seem to have had a short run on books by male authors. Ah well, it’ll balance out in the end.

The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK). Keiller is a film-maker, best-known for London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins, which are excellent lightly fictionalised cinematic meditations on the state of the UK, both economically and politically. He’s a bit like Adam Curtis, but without the found footage and global conspiracies. The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet was published to accompany an exhibition of Keiller’s work – which I never saw as I only discovered his work after it had been on – and describes how Keiller went about making Robinson in Ruins, his thought processes as he wrote the script and what inspired him. It’s fascinating stuff. And you should definitely watch the films too.

Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book of the trilogy, but there’s apparently a fourth book in the works. Which is no bad thing, as it’s been an excellent series so far – and I’m not the only person to think so, as Europe in Winter won the BSFA Award only last month (although, bafflingly, it didn’t make the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist; should I blog what I think of this year’s Clarke shortlist, or are we not allowed to have dissenting opinions any more?). It’s more of the same like Europe in Autumn, rather than Europe at Midnight, and in part follows on from the plot of the first more than that second. There’s a terrorist attack on the Line, and Rudi discovers his own father was heavily involved with a bunch of rogue topographers from the 1920s who might or might not have been responsible for an entirely separate pocket universe that might or might not be part of the Community. The person who promised so much in the the second book is assassinated from a distance in this one, abruptly cutting off that particular avenue of exploration by the narrative… Where these books are especially good – and it’s not the melding of sf and spy thriller, which has been done before, although no examples spring immediately to mind – but these books’ true strength is in depicting Europe as a coherent federation of cultures. They’re not entirely harmonious cutures, which is hardly unexpected, but the Europe books exhibit a magnificent sense of place. They could not have been written by a US author, that much is obvious; it’s slightly surprising they were written by a Brit… because the best European fiction has always been written by continental Europeans, not Brits. It’s an impressive achievement, which means cavilling over elements of the plots seems, well, cheap. But there are holes – the opening bombing is never satisfactorily explained, there’s always a sense the author is following a different agenda to his characters (and his readers must follow the characters’, of course), and there are one or two set-pieces which hint at a level of technology that’s never quite capitalised upon. But these are are minor quibbles. These are great books, superior near-future sf, and I’d put them in the top five of recent near-fututre sf with, er, Ken McLeod’s Intrusion – and that’s about it. Go read all three books.

Pirate Utopia, Bruce Sterling (2016, USA). Which a lot of people probably don’t know about as it seems someone fucked up the Nielsen data entry so badly that Amazon lists the book as by John Coulthart, Rick Klaw and Warren Ellis, and doesn’t mention Bruce Sterling anywhere. But now you know about it, and being a fan of Sterling’s work… Apparently, after World War I, the city of Fiume, now Rijeka, was claimed by both Italy and the recently-formed Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. But a group of anarchists, led by the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, seized power and declared the independent Regency of Carnaro. The city became something of a social experiment, but the fascists seized control after a couple of years and Fiume was annexed by Italy. Sterling’s short novel makes much of the birth of Futurism – indeed, the major character dreams of building “air torpedoes” and such, the sort of technology displayed in Lang’s Metropolis. But Pirate Utopia is also about the birth of fascism in Italy, and how it gained traction among the establishment. Of course, we’re seeing that happen on a daily basis here in the UK and the US. Pirate Utopia is a fascinating piece of history, but… as a piece of writing it felt a little lacking. Sterling was never much of a stylist, but I remember novels such as Distraction and Holy Fire being well-written novels. Pirate Utopia, on the other hand, seems to be written entirely in simple declarative sentences, which makes all feel a bit dumbed-down. I get that there’s a lot going on in the book, but it does feel a little Like Sterling didn’t trust his readers and so kept it simple. I suspect this is one for fans.

Bleed Like Me, Cath Staincliffe (2013, UK). I was a big fan of the Scott & Bailey TV series – and certainly for at least the first two series (or “seasons”, for US readers) it was superior telly. It slipped a bit in the third, and while it’s still very good it has seemed to lose its way a bit. And, to be honest, the 2016 series consisted only of three episodes, none of which were hugely memorable. The books are, sadly, much the same. I like that they’re built around the series, and include details revealed in the programme, but they’re otherwise straightforward police procedurals, heavy on the procedural and personal life of the two title characters (one of the series’ strengths, it must be said). In this book, a pub owner kills his wife, daughter and brother-in-law and then flees with his young son. The rest of the book is a manhunt – this is not a murder-mystery. They know who committed the crime, they just have to find him before he kills the young child he has with him. Meanwhile, Bailey is still trying to get over her relationaship with, and attempted murder by, her ex-boyfriend. Scott is having problems at home, which is not helped by her fling with a colleague, and syndicate leader Murray is worried about her son who has moved in with his estranged father and no longer seems interested in going to university. To be honest, I was expecting more in the way of plot. The manhunt is really dragged out, and reading this several years, and several series, after it was written, and so all the subplots have been resolved, kind of spoiled it a bit. But they’re easy reads, I like the characters, and if I stunble across the next one in a charity shop I’ll probably buy it and read it.

Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader, Robin Scott Wilson, ed. (1973, USA). I found this at Eastercon, and while it was quite tatty, and most of the contents wouldn’t normally appeal to me, but the fact it was a mix of short stories followed by essays by the authors on writing those stories, and some of the names involved included Delany, Le Guin and Russ, so I thought it worth a bash. It also included a story by the editor. I don’t get that. If you edit an anthology, you do not include one of our own stories. It’s hugely unethical. I don’t even care if you’re a co-editor. You edit, you do not contribute. It  makes you look bad, it makes everyone involved in the anthology look bad. And Scott Wilson’s story in this particular anthology, which is otherwise quite good, is easily the worst. As it is, the stories are variable – the Russ, ‘The Man Who Could Not See Devils’, is not one of her better ones, but the following essay is quite interesting. The Delany is ‘We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line’, which has always felt to me, in part, like a prototype for Dhalgren, and is one of those Delany stories I like more the more often I read it. His essay on the piece is especially good, and his approach to writing echoes my own in many ways. Le Guin contributes ‘Nine Lives’, the story about a ten-clone, and it’s okay. Damon Knight annotates his own story, ‘Masks’, although annotations overstate the literary quality of the story. And Kate Wilhelm’s dissection of her story ‘The Planners’ gives some useful tips on point of view. As a sf anthology, Those Who Can is middling at best, but the essays on writing greatly improve it. It’s a pity my copy is so tatty.

The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). I read Ouředník’s Europeana back in 2006, after something in the blurb persuaded me I might enjoy it. I loved it. I even picked it as one of my top five books of the year. I was less enamoured of his Case Closed, although it was good enough for me to continue to read him. The Opportune Moment, 1855, despite its unwieldy title, is not as good as Europeana, but it’s still huge fun. The novel opens with a letter from an Italian in 1902 to his beloved, before moving back half a century to the titular year and the journal of an Italian anarchist who travels to Brazil with a group of like-minded souls – well, not entirely like-minded, as they bicker and argue throughout the trip – to join a utopian community called Fraternitas. The book then jumps to six months after their arrival, and gives four slightly different entries on the first few months in the community. In each of them, the community fails because of the failings of its members; and while it makes for good satire to poke fun at idealism, not everyone is venal and corrupt despite all their protestations of high ideals. Ouředník is definitely worth reading, and The Opportune Moment, 1855, is very good, but it does feel a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, and even though the book is very funny in parts, and very good on human nature, I prefer my utopian fiction with a happy ending. Oh, and I’d really like to see more of Ouředník’s fiction translated into English.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Books landing

The last few book haul posts I’ve photographed the new books on the landing, hence the title of this post. It’s been a while since the last such post, but then I’ve not bought all that many books in the past couple of months…

Some birthday presents – it was my birthday back in March, and it’s been that long since I last did a book haul post. Patrick Keiller is the man who made the films London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins. The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet is an accompanying text to Robinson in Ruins, and The View from the Train is a more general meditation by Keiller on his life and career. I’ve become a fan of Green’s writing, and some pretty new omnibus editions of three novels each have jus1t been published, so… Loving, Living, Party Going and Caught, Back, Concluding. He wasn’t very good at titles, was he?

Some recent sf. I’m glad Susan R Matthews is back in print after so long, so kudos to Baen for doing that… although the cover art to Blood Enemies is a bit naff. Her Under Jurisdiction series is recommended. The Memoirist is the fourth book of the first quartet NewCon Press’s new novella series. And New York 2140 is another mighty tome from Kim Stanley Robinson, whose books I’ve always admired, if not always liked.

Some recent crime. Prussian Blue is the latest in the Bernie Gunther series, and there’s at least one more to come, I think. I’ve read the first two Galbraith (ie, JK Rowling) novels, and they’re not great, but my mother lends them to me – she found Career of Evil in a charity shop – and they’re easy to read and entertaining enough.

A bit of a mix. Retribution Falls was on the Clarke shortlist several years ago, although its presence seemed to baffle many. I found this in a charity shop. The Circles of Power is the latest Valerian and Laureline – see here. I was so impressed with Alexievich’s Chernobyl Diary (see here), I bought Second-Hand Time when it was published. And The Ordinary Princess I found in a local charity shop, and bought because I’ve always liked MM Kaye’s historical novels, and even took the trouble to hunt down copies of her crime novel series so I could read them. I hadn’t known she’d written a children’s book.

When I decided to work my way through DH Lawrence’s oeuvre, I started out just picking up whatever books by him I found in charity shops. And then I stumbled across three all with the same design, and discovered Penguin had re-issued most of his works in a uniform paperback design back in the early 1970s. So I had to buy those ones, and only those ones. Like The Trespasser. I now have twenty-four of them, but it’s hard to find out what else is in the series. Some time later, I discovered Heinemann had published a hardback “Phoenix Edition” series of Lawrence’s works in, I think, thirty volumes, from the 1950s to the 1970s. And I’ve been picking those up as well, but they’re much harder to find. Kangaroo popped up on eBay recently (er, no pun intended). I have thirteen of them so far.


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Reading diary, #47

My reading slowed badly during March and April, so much so I’m ten books behind on my Goodreads reading challenge, and I picked a total ten less than the year before (which I just managed to reach). Partly it’s because I’ve been so busy at work, I’ve been eating my lunch at my desk, and so not reading during that break. But I’ve also found it harder to continue with the book I’m reading on the weekend. I really do need to pick up my reading pace.

The American Lover, Rose Tremain (2014, UK). Back when I lived in Abu Dhabi, I read several books by Tremain, both novels and collections, and enjoyed them. Since returning to the UK, I’ve not read anything by her, so I thought it time I rectified that and bought her latest collection. And… it was a good move. She’s worth reading. These stories are slight, it has to be said, but good, of a type I like and enjoy, but not exactly memorable. I find Helen Simpson’s short stories have more bite. The stand-out is probably ‘The Jester of Astapovo’, in which a dying Leo Tolstoy, fleeing from his wife, ends up at a nowhere railway stop “120 miles south-east of Moscow, on the Smolensk-Dankovo section of the Ural railroad line”, and spends his last few days there in the house of the station-master (aside, this is, from the use of the horrible Americanism “railroad”). I enjoyed The American Lover enough to decide to carry on working my way through Tremain’s oeuvre.

The Corporation Wars 1: Dissonance, Ken MacLeod (2016, UK). I’ve been buying and reading Ken’s novels since stumbling across a copy of his first novel, The Star Fraction, in Spinneys in Abu Dhabi back in the 1990s. Throughout the years since, he’s published a variety of sf novels, and some I’ve liked a great deal more than others. Some have even been excellent – I still think his Intrusion is one of the best near-future sf novels of the past ten years. The Corporation Wars 1: Dissonance, on the other hand, has a title that really doesn’t appeal – it sounds like “Neoliberals in Spaaaace!” – and if it had been written by anyone other than Ken I’d have given it a wide berth. As it is… I’m unlikely to put it in my top five MacLeod novels. It’s a realistic treatment of robot sentience accidentally being created at a corporate mining site on a moon of Jupiter, and the team of avatars – virtual representations of dead human beings – who fight them. There’s a lot about simulated environments, a familiar topic to readers of Ken’s novels, and some intelligent treatment of the vast distances within the Solar System. But. Well, it never quite caught fire for me. The self-aware robots felt a bit clichéd, and the avatars were no better drawn. This is solid twenty-first century space opera, a bit more to the hard sf end of the spectrum than is usually the case, but I found it a little disappointing.

The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA). I forget who recommended the first book in this series, The Steerswoman, but when I came across a copy in a local charity shop, I bought it, later read it… and liked it so much I went and tracked down the remaining Steerswoman books (only the first was ever published in the UK, so I had to buy US editions… and there was such a long gap between books two and three that the first two were re-issued in an omnibus edition.) The Language of Power follows directly on from The Lost Steersman, but none of the books really make much sense unless read in order from The Steerswoman. Rowan is back in the seaport of Donner, trying to make sense of the events recounted in previous book. But her efforts to track down the records of a previous Steerswoman draw unwanted attention from the wizards… but then she stumbles upon Will, the boy genius who was taken on as apprentice by a friendly wizard, and it seems they’re trying to figure out the same things. These books are hugely likeable, and the presentation of science fiction as fantasy is perfectly pitched. It’s not a new idea, by any means – even Robert Jordan used it, for example – but Kirstein’s talent is in presenting understandable science fiction to the reader, not a handful of sf buzzwords or well-worn tropes, in such a way that it’s obvious this is sf to everyone except the characters. Sadly, the story is not yet complete and the recent installments have taken a while to appear. But it’s worth hanging in there, because these books are lots of fun.

Valerian and Laureline 15: The Circles of Power, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1994, France). Annoyingly, Cinebook have been prompted by the imminent release of Luc Besson’s Valerian film – which looks a bit dodgy as an adaptation, to be honest – to rerelease the Valerian and Laureline books in hardback omnibus editions. Argh. I’ve been buying the paperbacks as they’ve been published in English. And, as is evident in this blog post, I’m currently at volume 15. (Volume 16 will be published in April, but there are, to date, 22 volumes in French, the last published in 2013.) In The Circles of Power, the titular two find themselves on a world in which the city and society are organised into circles with increasing levels of authority and regulation. But something weird is going on in the highest circle, and since they need money to get their ship fixed, they’re forced to investigate. The solution to the mystery comes as no real surprise, but along the way – and this is where, on the strength of the trailer alone, I admit, I think Besson’s adaptation might fail – there is ample opportunity for Christin to display his mordant view of real world society and politics. And I saw nothing of that dry banter in the trailer for Besson’s film. Which is a shame – one of the joys of the Valerian and Laureline bande dessinée series is how it maps onto the its time of writing.

popCult!, David Barnett (2011, UK). I bought this at the Fantasycon before last, so it’s taken me about 18 months to get around to reading it. Which is actually pretty good – I have some books I bought over a decade ago I’ve yet to read. I can’t remember why I bought it, possibly because I know the author, but perhaps also because the blurb mentions a lost Carry On film as central to the plot… and for all their myriad faults I’m a reluctant fan of the Carry On series.  In the event, Carry On, You Old Devil!, the so-called missing film, turned out to be a maguffin. The actual novel is about the writer of the titular work – a non-fiction work on popular culture in the novel – and how he is recruited by the, er, titular underground organisation, which is dedicated to safeguarding popular expressions of mass culture – talent shows, reality television, anything which makes celebrities of nobodies, basically – against a mysterious and semi-immortal enemy. Unfortunately, the protagonist is thoroughly unlikeable, and his allies somewhat too perfect to be true, but there’s some excellent commentary on popular culture buried among the implausible goings-on. It’s a fun novel, but it’s one where the writer was clearly capable of better – and has subsequently proven so. One or two aspects proved uncannily prescience when I was reading it – especially the section where popCult! break into the Palace of Westminster… Worth reading, if you can find a copy.

Darkchild, Sydney J Van Scoyc (1982, USA). Many years ago, I decided I liked Van Scyoc’s novels – I forget which of her novels prompted it – and over a number of years I’ve picked up copies of all her books… and I’ve been very slowly reading them. Darkchild I actually read as the first part of SFBC omnibus edition, Daughters of the Sunstone, which also includes Bluesong and Starsilk. I was afraid I might have gone off Van Scyoc’s writing, but I was happy to find I still like it a lot. There’ll be a review of Darkchild on SF Mistressworks soon.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129