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Made from books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March madness

Well, not strictly March – after all, we’re less than a week into the month. Some of the following were bought during February. Obviously. So far this year I’ve managed to chip away at the TBR, by reading more books than I’ve bought each month… but I think I might have a bit trouble doing that in March. Especially since it’s the Eastercon at the end of the month… Oh well, never mind. I’m sure I’ll get around to reading them all. One day…

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Some first editions. I’m not a huge fan of Wolfe’s novels, but PS Publishing recently set up a discount website, and they only wanted £6 for a signed and numbered edition of Home Fires. That’s also where I bought Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God. For £4. Bargain. I recommend visiting PS2. Other Stories I’ve been eagerly awaiting for more than a year as I am a fan of Park’s writing. Murder at the Loch is the third of Eric Brown’s entertaining 1950s-set murder-mysteries. And my mother found J: A Novel for me in a charity shop.

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Aeroplanes… I’ve been picking up copies of Wings of Fame whenever I see good condition copies going for a reasonable price on eBay. Now that I’ve finally found a copy of Volume 9, I have eighteen of the twenty volumes. I’ve also been doing the same for Putnam’s Aircraft Since 19– series, although I forget why I began buying them in the first place. And with Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft Since 1913, I now own sixteen of them. X-Planes of Europe and X-Planes of Europe II I saw on Amazon, and I’m fascinated by the aircraft designed during the Cold War which didn’t make it into production.

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Some of yer actual science fiction. Invaders is an anthology of genre fiction by literary fiction writers; I’m reviewing it for Interzone. Patchwerk was given to me by the author; I wrote about it here. The Price of the Stars I bought to review for SF Mistressworks (it has a male co-author, but that’s no reason to ignore it). Sargasso I found in a charity shop, and looks to be a techno-thriller potboiler about an Apollo mission. And finally, Aphrodite Terra is a thing at last – a paperback thing, that is; it’s been an ebook thing since the middle of December (although Amazon have yet to figure out the two editions are of the same book…).

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I bought a couple of these Anatomy of the Ship books as research for A Prospect of War back in the day, and ended up picking up copies whenever I saw them going cheap on eBay. Like The Cruiser Bartolomeo Coleoni and The Destroyer The Sullivans. I have more than a dozen of them.

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Finally, some translated fiction, some Malcolm Lowry, and a Lawrence Durrell. I read Munif’s Cities of Salt a couple of years ago and thought it very good, so I picked up the second book of the trilogy last year, and now I have the final one, Variations on Night and Day. I recently read Lowry’s In Ballast to the White Sea: A Scholarly Edition, also part of the Canadian Literature Collection series, and the first time Lowry’s “lost” second novel had seen print. So I decided to get these two critical editions, also published in the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Literature Collection series – The 1940 Under the Volcano (I’ve read Under the Volcano, the final published edition, of course), and Swinging the Maelstrom (which I read under the title Lunar Caustic, but which was apparently a version cobbled together posthumously from a number of different manuscripts). Finally, Pope Joan is for the Durrell collection. Not an easy book to find in this edition.


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The year in reading

I managed to read 152 books in 2015, beating my Goodreads Reading Challenge target of 150 by two. So, not bad going. Admittedly, there were a couple of “cheats” in there – for example, I bought a pair of graphic novels from Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen on 28 December so I could be sure of making 150 by the end of the year. I likely wouldn’t have bought them otherwise. But never mind. However, I did manage to read ten books from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, which is pretty good (for the record, they were: The Quest for Christa T., The Leopard, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Rainbow, Loving, The Sense of an Ending, Pale Fire, Frankenstein, The Old Man and the Sea and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich).

I also managed to read more women writers than men in 2015, although it was close, with only a single title in it. See below.

2015_books_by_gender

I plan to continue alternating genders in my fiction reading for the foreseeable future. Although many of the women writers I read were for review on SF Mistressworks, and my project to read some post-war British women writers didn’t really get into gear, I did discover a couple of non-genre female writers I’d like to read more by, such as Karen Blixen, Sarah Hall and Pamela Frankau.

I was surprised to discover how much of my reading is of books from the last five years. I’d have thought it more evenly spread across the decades – although more in the last three or four decades than earlier. But apparently not. See below.

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The one title in the 1810s was, of course, Mary Shelley; and the one in the 1890s was, naturally, HG Wells. The title from the 1910s and the two from the 1920s were by DH Lawrence. The 1970s and 1980s books, I suspect, mostly came from reading for SF Mistressworks.

Which also probably explains why science fiction continues to dominate my reading – nearly half at 47%. Mainstream is next at 23%, then fantasy at 7% and crime at 4%. See below.

2015_books_read_by_genre

In 2016, I’d like to read more mainstream fiction and less science fiction. I’d also like to read more non-fiction – on, of course, my favourite topics: space and deep sea exploration. But also criticism. I have, after all, a couple of bookshelves full of critical works on science fiction and my favourite authors. (The one children’s novel, incidentally, was by Nathan Elliott, a pseudonym of Christopher Evans, and was read for completeness’s sake; it wasn’t worth it.)

By country (of origin of the writer), the books I read stayed mostly close to home – pretty much half of my reading was by British authors. Followed by the US. France makes a good showing because I read a number of bandes dessinée during the year – they also account for Belgium’s presence. See below.

2015_books_by_country

Not counting the bandes dessinée, I read only half a dozen translated works, and I really should do better. There are certainly authors from other countries I’ve read in previous years I’d like to read more by – like Elfriede Jelinek or Magda Szabó or Abdelrahman Munif. Perhaps I should resurrect my World fiction reading challenge from 2012? It stumbled to a halt that year when I got bogged down in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Javier Marías’s Fever and Spear. But I’ve read both of those now, and should be able to find twelve books by writers from nations whose literature I’ve never tried. I probably have a few candidates on the TBR already…

In fact, on the subject of reading resolutions for 2016, I stumbled across (via Eve’s Alexandria) a thing called Read Harder. It’s from Book Riot and is a list of 24 criteria for choosing books to read in 2016. There are a couple of categories I’m not at all interested in (reading aloud, audio books, food memoirs, middle grade fiction), so I’ll replace them with a few of my own…

Read Harder (the Ian Sales version) 2016

  1. Read a horror book
  2. Read a non-fiction book about science
  3. Read a collection of essays
  4. Read a novel by a writer from a country whose literature you’ve never read before*
  5. Read a novel by a woman writer published before 1900*
  6. Read a biography (not a memoir or autobiography)
  7. Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel
  8. Read a book originally published in the decade you were born
  9. Read a book that has won the Orange/Baileys Prize*
  10. Read a book over 500 pages long
  11. Read a book under 100 pages
  12. Read a book by a person that identifies as transgender
  13. Read a book that is set in the Middle East
  14. Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia
  15. Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900
  16. Read the first book in a series by a person of colour
  17. Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the past three years
  18. Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie
  19. Read a non-fiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes
  20. Read a book about religion (fiction or non-fiction)
  21. Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or non-fiction)
  22. Read a book related to cinema or film-making*
  23. Read a play
  24. Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness

The asterisked challenges are my replacements. The rules state it’s okay to use the same book for multiple categories. And I’m pretty sure I can do about half straightaway just from the TBR. Even so, 24 books in a year is an easy target. One or two are going to be easy – I gave up on reading superhero comics several years ago, so the only graphic novels I read now do not feature men in tights or improbably pneumatic women. I mentioned Abdelrahman Munif earlier, and I have his The Trench on the TBR, so that’s the Middle East book. And I have Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: The Biography on the TBR too (it’s, er, been there a few years, tbh). I have a number of critical works on feminist science fiction, and I went and drunkenly bought that book of plays by Anton Chekhov earlier in the year. Anyway, we shall see how it goes…

I also plan to continue working my way through the oeuvres of DH Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry, as well as reading more books by Henry Green and Karen Blixen, and more from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.

I’ll be posting a year in films piece some time over the next few days as a companion to this post.


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Another month, another book haul

… Although I think it’s been longer than a month since my last book haul post. Which may explain why so many books appear in this one. Except my book haul posts always seem to feature a large number of books… I really must cut back on the number I buy. I managed to read nine books in one weekend during February, which took less of a chunk out of the TBR than I’d have liked since I’d bought so many damn books that month. Ah well. The following are the usual mix of subjects and genres and stuff.

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My Hugo reading – a bunch of 2013 titles I bought to round out my ballot for best novel. I’ve already read Life After Life, The Machine, The Shining Girls and Red Doc> (see here). Only What Lot’s Wife Saw to go (and also Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman, which I bought last year when it was published).

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Some books for SF Mistressworks. Cassandra Rising is a SFBC women-only sf anthology, and the only copy of it I could find happens to be signed by half the contributors. Oh well. Jane Saint and the Backlash is the sequel collection to Saxton’s The Travails of Jane Saint, which was also published by The Women’s Press. On Strike Against God isn’t, as far as I’m aware, genre, but I’ll decide whether it’s suitable for SF Mistressworks once I’ve read it. All three books were bought on eBay.

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An assortment of paperback fiction. I want to read more Lem, hence Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Which reminds me, I must get a copy of the film adaptation – I found a website the other day that sells Russian DVDs (many of which have English subtitles). The Trench is the sequel to Cities of Salt, a novelisation of the US exploitation of the Saudi oil reserves, which I enjoyed (see here). The Sense of an Ending was a charity shop find; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The Wizards and the Warriors is the first book of the Chronicles of the Age of Darkness, which I’ve heard isn’t too bad – now I have the first three books I’ll see what they’re like.

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An assortment of hardback fiction. And a graphic novel. The stories of Captain Marvel 1: In Pursuit of Flight (see here) and this second volume, Captain Marvel 2: Down, have pretty much the same inspirations as Apollo Quartet 3, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. It’s as if Kelly Sue DeConnick took the two narratives of my novella and wrote her own versions of them – except, of course, the timing makes that impossible. Both feature a character called Helen Cobb, clearly based on Jerrie Cobb. The first Captain Marvel graphic novel is about the Mercury 13, and the second partly takes place at the bottom of the sea in a ship and plane graveyard. A very weird coincidence. Sadly, the story is mostly typical superhero fisticuffs, and the art is pretty poor. Cixin Liu’s fiction has been recommended to me many times, so I decided to pick up a copy of The Wandering Earth, a collection of his novellas translated into English for the first time. Browsing on eBay one day, I discovered that Macmillan had published a series of Soviet sf books back in the 1970s. New Soviet Science Fiction is an anthology, but the series also featured several novels. I smell a collection coming on. Finally, Descent is Ken MacLeod’s latest novel.

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Some collectibles. Mozart & the Wolf Gang is a signed first edition. The other two books are among the most expensive I’ve ever bought – I won’t say how much each cost, it’s a little embarrassing. Panic Spring is Lawrence Durrell’s second novel, which was published under the name Charles Norden as his first did so badly. This is the US first edition, sadly, not the UK. Eye is a collection by Frank Herbert and copiously illustrated by Jim Burns. There were 175 slipcased, signed and numbered editions published, and now I have one of them.

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Research material for Apollo Quartet 4, All That Outer Space Allows. The final novella of the quartet will be about Apollo astronauts, of course it will… sort of. But it’ll chiefly be about an astronaut’s wife, and women science fiction writers – hence a pair of biographies of the latter: Judith Merril’s, Better to Have Loved; and James Tiptree Jr’s, The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Partners in Wonder is about early women sf writers – I might write about it for SF Mistressworks after I’ve read it…

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Some reference books, genre and otherwise. The Issue at Hand, More Issues at Hand and Anatomy of Wonder were all bargain purchases from Cold Tonnage. Uranian Worlds I decided to buy when I was trying to look something up online with very little success. I bought it from an Amazon marketplace seller; the book proved to be an ex-library copy, but the seller cheerfully refunded me half the selling-price. Paul Scott: A Life is a biography of, er, Paul Scott.


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Reading resolutions for 2014

I’m going to try something new this year, and rather than just make lists of books I want to read, I’m going to be a little more flexible by applying a few rules instead. I don’t think any of these are especially onerous, so they should be pretty easy to stick to.

  1. Read 2014 books as soon as I can after purchasing them – there’s a few due this year I’d like to read (see here), so I just need to actually read them this year. This may mean reading earlier books in the series in order to catch up.
  2. Try to maintain a 50:50 male/female writer ratio – so after every book by a man I read, I have to read one by a woman (fiction only; non-fiction, graphic novels and anthologies don’t count).
  3. Read more translated fiction – I want to read the rest of Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt trilogy, I’d like to read more Elfriede Jelinek, I’ve also got books by Roberto Bolaño, Leila Aboulela, Naguib Mahfouz and Tove Jansson already on the TBR, but I’d also like to try fiction from countries whose literature I’ve yet to read.

 
I’ll also continue to document my reading – I’ve one last “recent reading” post for 2013 to come – and I’ll try to single out works I’m especially taken by, much as I have done in the past. I ought to do the same for films too – I made a start in 2012 with a series of films you must see posts, but have only managed to post two a year since then. Having said all that, I don’t want to give myself to much to do as, well, I’ve got a bit of fiction writing to do too – you know, research and write the fourth book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows; I’m also keen to get started on a novel I want to write; and I have a whole bunch of short stories I really need to get finished.

Incidentally, nine days into the new year and I’ve already started as I mean to go on – after finishing MD Lachlan’s Fenrir, I started on Minaret by Leila Aboulela (her second novel, and the second by her I’ve read). Only another 356 days to keep this up…


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2013, the best of the year

We’re a couple of weeks away from Christmas and the end of the year, so it’s time to look back with a critical eye over the past twelve-ish months and the words, pictures and sounds I consumed during that period. Because not everything is equal, some have to be best – and they are the following:

BOOKS
UnderTheVolcano1 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) A classic of British literature and rightly so. I fell in love with Lowry’s prose after reading ‘Into the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven thy Dwelling Place, although I already had a copy of the novel at the time (I’d picked out the collection, Under the Volcano and Ultramarine from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks back in 2010). Anyway, Under the Volcano contains prose to be treasured, though I recommend reading Ultramarine and Lowry’s short fiction first as it is semi-autobiographical and you can pick out the bits he’s used and re-used. This book was also in my Best of the half-year.

wintersbone2 Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I’d bought this because I thought the film was so good and because Woodrell had been recommended to me. But instead of the well-crafted crime novel I was expecting to read, I found a beautifully-written – and surprisingly short – literary novel set in the Ozarks that was perhaps even better than the movie adaptation. I plan to read more by Woodrell. Winter’s Bone was also in my Best of the half-year.

empty3 Empty Space: A Haunting, M John Harrison (2012) The third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and I’m pretty damn sure I’ll have to reread all three again some time soon. Although the fulcrum of the story is Anna Waterman and the strange physics which seems to coalesce about her, Empty Space: A Haunting also does something quite strange and wonderful with its deployment of fairly common sf tropes, and I think that’s the real strength of the book – if not of the whole trilogy. And this is another one that was in my Best of the half-year.

sons4 Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) When I looked back over what I’d read during 2013, I was surprised to find I held this book in higher regard than I had previously. And higher than most of the other books I’d read during the year too, of course. At the half-year mark, I’d only given it an honourable mention, but it seems to have lingered and grown in my mind since then. It is perhaps somewhat loosely-structured for modern tastes, but there can be little doubt Lawrence fully deserves his high stature in British literature.

promised_moon5 Promised the Moon, Stephanie Nolan (2003) I did a lot of research for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and this was the best of the books on the Mercury 13. But even in its own right, it was a fascinating read and, while sympathetic to its topic, it neither tried to exaggerate the Mercury 13’s importance nor make them out to be more astonishing than they already were. If you read one book about the Mercury 13, make it this one.

Honourable mentions: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013), an exciting debut that made me remember why I read science fiction; Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972), beautifully-written tall tales presented as Marco Polo’s report to a khan; The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989), a masterclass in writing accessible sf, this book needs to be back in print; The Day Of The Scorpion, Paul Scott (1968), the second book of the Raj Quartet and another demonstration of his masterful control of voice; The Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996), funny and charming in equal measure; The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry & Jared Shurin (2013), some excellent stories but also a beautifully-produced volume; Sealab, Ben Hellwarth (2012), a fascinating history of the US’s programme to develop an underwater habitat; Cities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1987), a thinly-disguised novelisation of the US oil companies’ entry into Saudi, must get the rest of the trilogy; and Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010), Vikings and werewolves are definitely not my thing but this rang some really interesting changes on what I’d expected to be a routine fantasy, must get the next book in the series…

Oops. Bit of a genre failure there – only one sf novel makes it into my top five, and that was published last year not this; although four genre books do get honourable mentions – two from 2013, one from 2010 and one from 1989. I really must read more recent science fiction. Perhaps I can make that a reading challenge for 2014, to read each new sf novel as I purchase it. And I really must make an effort to read more short fiction in 2014 too.

FILMS
about-elly-dvd1 About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) A group of young professionals from Tehran go to spend the weekend at a villa on the Caspian Sea. One of the wives persuades her daughter’s teacher, Elly, to accompany them (because she wants to match-make between the teacher and her brother, visiting from his home in Germany). Halfway through the weekend, Elly vanishes… and what had started out as a drama about family relationships turns into something very different and unexpected. This film made my Best of the half-year.

consequences2 The Consequences Of Love, Paolo Sorrentino (2004) The phrase “stylish thriller” could have been coined to describe this film, even if at times – as one critic remarked – it does resemble a car commercial. A man lives alone in a hotel in a small town in Switzerland. Once a week, a suitcase containing several million dollars is dropped off in his hotel room. He drives to a local bank, watches as the money is counted by hand and then deposited in his account. One day, the young woman who works in the hotel bar demands to know why he always ignores her… and everything changes.

lemepris3 Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I don’t really like Godard’s films, so the fact I liked this one so much took me completely by surprise. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little Fellini’s if it had been made by Michelangelo Antonioni. I like , I like Antonioni’s films. Perhaps the characters are all drawn a little too broadly – the swaggering American producer, the urbane European director (played by Fritz Lang), the struggling novelist turned screenwriter, and, er, Brigitte Bardot. Another film that made my Best of the half-year.

onlyyesterday_548494 Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) An animated film from Studio Ghibli which dispenses entirely with whimsy and/or genre trappings. A young woman goes to stay with relatives in the country and reflects on what she wants out of life. The flashback sequences showing her as a young girl are drawn with a more cartoon-like style which contrasts perfectly with the impressively painterly sequences set in the countryside. Without a doubt the best Ghibli I’ve seen to date… and I’ve seen over half of them so far. Once again, a film that made my Best of the half-year.

gravity5 Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón (2013) I had to think twice whether or not to put this in my top five. It was the only film I saw at the cinema this year, and I suspect seeing it in IMAX 3D may have coloured my judgement. To be fair, it is visually spectacular. And I loved seeing all that hardware done realistically and accurately on the screen. But. The story is weak, the characters are dismayingly incompetent and super-competent by turns, some of the science has been fudged when it didn’t need to be, and it often feels a little like a missed opportunity more than anything else. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve seen it on Blu-Ray…

Honourable mentions: She Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008), an elegantly-shot documentary on the Mercury 13; Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish but subtle and powerful; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), astonishing meta-cinema from the beginnings of the medium; Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011), Brit Marling is definitely becoming someone to watch; Love in the Afternoon, Éric Rohmer (1972), the best of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales; The Confrontation, Miklós Jancsó (1969), more socialist declamatory and posturing as a group of students stage their own revolution; Tears For Sale, Uroš Sotjanović (2008), CGI-heavy Serbian folk-tale, feels a little like Jeunet… but funny and without the annoying whimsy; Ikarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963), a Czech sf film from the 1960s, what’s not to love?; Dear Diary, Nanni Moretti (1993), an entertaining and clever paean to Rome and the Italian islands, and a rueful look at the Italian health service; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a poignant and beautifully-played character-study of the Emperor Hirohito in 1945.

This year for a change I’m also naming and shaming the worst films I watched in 2013. They were: The Atomic Submarine, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1959), a typical B-movie of the period with the eponymous underwater vessel finding an alien saucer deep beneath the waves; Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow, Michael Schroeder (1993), an unofficial sequel to the Van Damme vehicle and notable only for being Angelina Jolie’s first starring role; The Girl from Rio, Jésus Franco (1969), Shirley Eaton as Sumuru, leader of the women-only nation of Femina, plans to take over the world, it starts out as a cheap thriller but turns into cheaper titillatory sf; The 25th Reich, Stephen Amis (2012), WWII GIs in Australia find a UFO, go back in time millions of years to when it crashed, then a Nazi spy steals it and ushers in an interplanetary Nazi regime, bad acting and even worse CGI; Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, Jonas Pate (2012), they took everything that had been good about Battlestar Galactica and removed it, leaving only brainless military characters and CGI battle scenes.

ALBUMS
construct1 Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) Every time Dark Tranquillity release a new album, it makes my best of the year. I guess I must be a fan then. In truth, they are probably my favourite band and their last half-dozen albums have each been consistently better than the one before. So many bands seem to plateau at some point during their career but DT amazingly just get better and better. This album was on my Best of the half-year.

spiritual2 Spiritual Migration, Persefone (2013) Another band who improves with each subsequent album. And they’re good live too – although I’ve only seen them the once (they really should tour the UK again; soon). This is strong progressive death metal, with some excellent guitar playing and a very nice line in piano accompaniment. I didn’t buy this album until the second half of the year, which is why it didn’t appear in the half-year list.

DeathWalks3 Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album by a favourite band after far too long a wait, so this was pretty sure to make my top five. Noumena play melodic death/doom metal, an inimitably Finnish genre, but they also use clean vocals, and a female vocalist, quite a bit. One song even features a trumpet solo. I posted the promo video to one track, ‘Sleep’, on my blog here. And the album also made my Best of the Half-Year.

Winterfylleth-The-Threnody-Of-Triumph4 The Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) I first saw Winterfylleth live before they were signed back in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden at the Day of Unrest (see here), and I’ve seen them a couple of times since. This, their latest album, shows how far they’ve come and amply demonstrates why they’re so good. They call it English heritage black metal, which I think just means they sing about English historical sort of things (the band’s name is Anglo-Saxon for “October”). Another album from my Best of the half-year.

Of-breath-and-bone5 Of Breath And Bone, Be’lakor (2012) On first listen I thought, oh I like this, it deserves to be played loud. And it really does – it’s not just that Be’lakor, an Australian melodic death metal band, have excellent riffs, but also that there’s a lot more going on in their music than just those riffs. The more I listen to Of Breath And Bone, the more I like it – originally I only gave it an honourable mention in my Best of the half-year, but having played the album so much throughout 2013, I think it deserves a promotion.

Honourable mentions: Dustwalker, Fen (2013), shoegazery black metal that works extremely well; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), excellent sophomore EP from a Polish death metal band, with an astonishingly good opening track (see here); Unborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013), a demo from a Finnish death/doom band, and very very heavy, sort of a bit like a doomy version of Demilich, in fact, but without the vocal fry register singing; Shrine of the New Generation Slaves, Riverside (2013), more polished, er, Polish progginess, a little rockier than the previous album, although one track does include some very melodic “sexamaphone” [sic]; All Is One, Orphaned Land, proggier than previous albums but still with that very distinctive sound of their own, incorporating both Arabic and Hebrew; and Nespithe, Demilich (1993), a classic piece of Finnish death metal history, I picked up a copy of the re-mastered edition at Bloodstock – there’s a special Demilich compilation album, 20th Adversary of Emptiness, due to be released early next year, I’ve already pre-ordered it.

One of the things I really like about metal is that it’s an international genre, and here is the proof – the bands named above hail from Sweden, Andorra, Finland, the UK, Australia, Israel and Poland. There’s also quite a good mix of metal genres, from death to black metal, with a bit of prog thrown in for good measure.


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Notable recent reads

I have been a bit rubbish at posting here over the past month or so, and I’m not entirely sure why. I could claim it’s because I’ve been busy writing short stories, novellas and novels, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. I have been busy – but it’s been other stuff: writing reviews, family stuff. And I’ve only managed to squeeze in a bit of fiction writing in here and there. I have been reading, however. Though not as many books as I’d have liked. Here are some of them – chiefly the ones I’ve not already reviewed, or plan to review, for SF Mistressworks or Daughters of Prometheus

wintersboneWinter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006)
I was interested in reading this after seeing, and being much impressed by, the film adaptation. I was expecting a genre crime novel with a plot much like that of the movie. What I wasn’t expecting was a well-written literary novel, which actually has less plot than the film. Sixteen-year-old Ree’s father has gone missing, and he put up the house and land as collateral for bail. Which means if he doesn’t turn up in court, they lose the house. So Ree goes looking for him. The story is set in the Ozarks, where everyone is related to everyone else and most of the men are involved in brewing up or distributing drugs. Ree’s questions are not welcome – and it takes much of this short novel before she discovers why. If the film is brutal and the people in it scary, then the book is more so. The film adds a scene set at a cattle auction, but loses one where Ree and her best friend help to catch a pig loose on a bridge. There’s some lovely writing in this, Ree is extremely well-drawn, and the setting is, well, just plain frightening. I’m going to read more Woodrell. Recommended.

tyranopolisTyranopolis, AE van Vogt (1973)
AE van Vogt really was a shit writer. He built his career on advice taken from a how-to-write book. And it shows. I still have a soft spot for his fiction because, every now and again, purely by accident, he manages to create something that’s almost mythic. But vast swathes of his oeuvre are unreadable meretricious tosh. He makes stuff up out of whole cloth, and it possesses neither plausibility nor rigour. Tyranopolis is a case in point. At some point in the future, a mysterious dictator rules the entire Earth with an iron fist. But an inventor, er, invents some sort of ray that allows him to see everywhere and be seen everywhere. Knowing the tyrant’s forces are closing in, he gifts the secret to his unborn son moments after the act of conception, by, er, putting it in his DNA or something. I don’t know. It makes no sense whatsoever. Whatever drugs van Vogt was on when he wrote, they were clearly more powerful than those used by Philip K Dick. The writing in Tyranopolis hovers on the cusp of sense, the plotting reads like he made it up as he went along, the central premise is complete nonsense, and yet… and yet… No, there is no “and yet”. Not for this one. It’s a rubbish book. Avoid it.

the-spy-who-loved-me-novelThe Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming (1960)
Fleming was a real pioneer, you know. The Spy Who Loved Me is ground-breaking, you know. Because it’s a Bond novel, but Bond isn’t the protagonist! He doesn’t even appear until about a third of the way in! And, get this, the entire novel is narrated by a woman! I know, shocking. So the title doesn’t refer to some KGB temptress who falls for 007’s manly charms, as it does in the film. Bond is actually the spy of the title. But he doesn’t really fall in love with the narrator. And she knows it – indeed, she says as much. She’s making her way through the US from Canada on a moped and stops off at a remote motel. She stays on to work there, and is made responsible for closing the place down for the winter. Two employees of the owner turn up and it transpires they’re there to torch the place for insurance purposes. Fortunately, Bond suffers a flat tyre nearby, so he’s around to foil their plot and save the girl… You know when an author falls in love with their own creation, and this persuades them that writing a story about said creation from the point of view of a lovestruck young woman is a good idea? That. And they say this is the best of the Bond novels… Pfft.

citiesofsaltCities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1984, trans. 1987)
The lives of the Bedouin of Wadi al-Uyoun are disrupted by the discovery of oil. Eventually, they are moved and rehoused, but some instead move to the coastal village of Harran. Which then becomes the point of entry into the country for American oilworkers, and so the site of their camp and offices. The novel then charts the growth of Harran through the lives of some of its more notable inhabitants. The nation is meant to be an invented Gulf state, but Harran is clearly modelled on Dhahran. Munif is especially critical of the Americans and their interference and ignorance of Bedouin life, but he’s also critical of those Arabs who accepted US largesse and grew fat on the proceeds. I suspect Munif was not especially well served by his translator as some of the prose in Cities of Salt is clunky in places, but Munif certainly shows a sharp eye for characterisation. As far as I can determine, this book, and its two sequels, were never published in the UK – my copy is a US paperback – which is a shame as it’s definitely worth reading. I’ll have to get hold of the rest of the– Um, it’s apparently a quintet, but only the first three books were published in English. I guess I’ll have to start practicing my Arabic again, then…

theexplorer-e1356978432870The Explorer, James Smythe (2013)
A handful of days into the first mission to send human beings as far from Earth as possible, and all of the crew have died except for the journalist, Cormac Easton. The first third of The Explorer explains how these deaths came about – and they’re senseless, mostly preventable deaths – and you start to wonder what the remaining two-thirds will be about… And then the second part starts, and the story kicks into a higher gear. James sent me a copy of this novel (a swap for a copy of Adrift on the Sea of Rains), and he did warn me I’d have to accept a certain lack of… scientific rigour in the set-up. And that’s certainly the case. In truth, the spacecraft seems more like something from a Hollywood film than genuine space fiction, with its mysterious engines, store rooms, and even room inside the walls in which Cormac hides like a rat. When the engines are running, there is no gravity. But when they stop, then there is gravity. Which is not something I can quite get my head round. Though I only saw a couple of episodes of it (but I was given the complete series on DVD for my birthday recently), I was reminded more of Defying Gravity than the Apollo programme, International Space Station or even one of my favourite fictional space television series, Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. Happily, despite its creative use of space engineering, The Explorer very much worth reading. Cormac is well-drawn, and his descent in to madness is skilfully handled. Perhaps the rest of the crew tread a little close to stereotype, but that’s the nature of space fiction – astronauts are by definition stereotypes. Apparently, there will be a sequel, though I’m not entirely sure how that’s going to work…

The_Warlord_of_the_Air-Michael_MoorcockThe Warlord of the Air, Michael Moorcock (1971)
If you’re a fan of all things steampunk, if you write steampunk, and you’ve not read this book, then you are doing it wrong. Though it starts inauspiciously, with a dirigible dropping ballast to descend, Moorcock’s airship opera is a clever commentary on imperialism framed in the language of pulp fiction. In 1902, Oswald Bastable visits the Shangri-la-like lair of an evil Indian high priest. An earthquake strikes, destroying the lair, and somehow throwing Bastable forward in time to 1973. He is rescued by an airship, and discovers that the Balance of Powers still holds good across the world, with most nations part of one or the other empire, all of which are ruled by means of vast fleets of airships. Bastable ends up inadvertently assisting Socialist terrorist Count Guevera escape the authorities, before being captured by Chinese warlord OT Shaw, who plans a future free of imperialism. This results in Shaw dropping a nuclear bomb, invented and built by his refugee scientists, on the airship yards of Hiroshima. Which throws Bastable back to 1903. The whole story is framed twice – once by Moorcock’s grandfather, who met Bastable and recorded his story, and by Moorcock himself, who found the manuscript in the attic. Bastable appears in another two novels – The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar. I’ll have to get hold of copies. Seems the trilogy is being reprinted this year, with nice new cover art.

underworldUnderworld, Don DeLillo (1997)
Many many people had told me this is an excellent novel, so I was quite chuffed to find a copy in a charity shop last year. But its daunting size – 827 pages! – made me somewhat reluctant to give it a go. But at the beginning of this month, I found myself reaching for it and… Well, no one told me it opened at a baseball game. I hate baseball. And I hate fiction about baseball even more. Actually, I hate sport, and I hate fiction about sport. But. Underworld opens at the 1951 game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and describes the winning home-run apparently known as “the shot heard round the world”, which is a bit rich as only Americans actually give a shit about baseball. Underworld then introduces a number of characters, each of whom shares some link with the baseball from that winning home-run. The chronology bounces all over the place, describing events in various decades in no particular order. Some real world people make appearances – Frank Sinatra, J Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce, among others. The writing throughout is mostly lovely and sharp, and the dialogue is especially good – though its particular rhythm does have a tendency to blur some of the characters together. The Lenny Bruce sections I thought the least successful – they didn’t seem a sharp enough commentary on the zeitgeist to warrant inclusion. And it’s long novel, a very long novel. It’s a novel which will merit rereading. But it’s also a novel that’s too big and a bit too flabby to leap into my top ten novels of all time. Oh, and the premiere of the lost Eisenstein movie which gives the novel its title reminded me too much of Burroughs’ Casablanca Film Club and I found it hard to take that section seriously…