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Reading diary, #17

I still haven’t sorted out my reading, and while I suspect I will complete the 150 book challenge on Goodreads – I have to read 17 books in December to make it, but I usually read a book a day over Christmas week – it still feels like there are more books sitting around my house that I want to read right now than in previous years. Maybe it’s just been a good year for new books – or indeed old ones that I’ve bought. In fact, I’ve read fourteen books published for the first time in 2015, which is I suspect not much different a figure from previous years’ reading.

trappedTrapped Under the Sea, Neil Swidey (2014). I seem to recall stumbling across this book while searching for books on something else on eBay. But it sounded interesting, so I checked out the author’s website, and then ended up adding a copy to my next order with Amazon. And after it had arrived, I flicked through it, found myself sucked in… and finished it a couple of days later. Until recently, Boston harbour was apparently one of the dirtiest harbours in the US, thanks to millions of gallons of untreated sewage being pumped directly into it. So the city built a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant on Deer Island, part of which included an outfall tunnel stretching ten miles out to sea under the ocean bed, and through which treated effluent can be dispersed into the surrounding water. The diffuser heads on the ocean floor, however, had been sealed during construction to protect the workers, but once the tunnel was completed all electricity and ventilation was removed… leaving those diffuser heads still sealed. So the contractors hired a diving company to send five men along the ten-mile tunnel to remove those seals. They would have to be divers because without ventilation, the ten-mile tunnel no longer contained a breathable atmosphere, even though it was still empty. The diving company came up with what it thought was an innovative solution. Since they couldn’t carry enough bottled air to last the journey and the hours they would be working (they used two specially adapted Hummers to travel to the end of the tunnel), the divers would be fed blended oxygen and nitrogen from tanks of liquid gas, mixed using a special piece of equipment imported from Denmark. But it all went horribly wrong and two of the divers died of asphyxiation. Because the equipment was never designed to be used to feed oxygen and nitrogen to human beings, its safety features had been disabled through ignorance, and the man running the job refused to admit his plan was unworkable or even dangerous. A fascinating read.

conscienceThe Conscience Of The Rich, CP Snow (1958). I like British postwar fiction, and among its more celebrated examples CP Snow’s – he of the “two cultures” thing – Strangers and Brothers series of eleven novels seemed like it might appeal. So I decided to read them – but not in order of publication, in order of internal chronology. The Conscience Of The Rich is the third book in the series, but was written and published seventh. It’s the late 1920s, Lewis Eliot has moved to London and joined an inn of court, under Herbert Getliffe. He meets a fellow trainee barrister, Charles March, the eldest son of a wealthy Jewish family, and is slowly drawn into their fold. Eliot is there when Charles gives up the law for medicine; and when he decides to marry a distant cousin with ties to the communists, Eliot is also there. Much of the novel is taken up with the March family’s domestic crises – not just Charles’s career and marriage, but also his sister’s marriage to a gentile, Getliffe’s younger brother. The two sort of come together in the final third of the book, in the late 1930s, when some shady dealing by barrister Getliffe seems to incriminate the March family patriarch, a Whitehall mandarin and Charles’s uncle, and a communist-backed magazine to which Charles’s wife contributes intends to publish details of it all. There’s a considered, and mannered, voice to Snow’s prose, more evident I felt in this novel than the earlier two I’ve read, and while the plot is not exactly gripping, the characters are well-drawn and engaging, and the whole is an interesting window on an earlier time.

geminiOwners’ Workshop Manual: Gemini, David Woods & David M Harland (2015). Like Haynes’s earlier Owners’ Workshop Manual on Soyuz, this is not a how-to-fix-it guide to NASA’s Gemini spacecraft. It is instead a detailed exploration of the Gemini program and spacecraft. Perhaps it doesn’t boast the number of diagrams of NASA’s own technical documentation, but it comes pretty close. It’s also very readable. And very interesting. I hadn’t known, for example, about the difficulties experienced by Gene Cernan during the US’s second spacewalk during Gemini IX-A. Good stuff.

The Sand Men, Christopher Fowler (2015). I read this book for review in Interzone. I’d been intrigued by it since first hearing of it, since it’s set in Dubai, a place I know well (although my knowledge is now some ten years out of date). I grew up in the Gulf states – including living twice in Dubai – and later spent a decade working in Abu Dhabi. Sadly, I was not impressed.

changing_planesChanging Planes, Ursula K LeGuin (2003). There’s a cunning pun in that title there. It goes like this: a person waiting one day in an airport to catch a connecting flight accidentally discovered a way to visiting other worlds, or, as Le Guin has it in this collection, other planes. Get it? Aeroplanes and alternate universes/planes. And hence this collection of, well, fables, all based on other planes visited by a narrator from Earth. I am not a big fan, I must admit, of fables, though I am certainly a fan of Le Guin’s fiction. So while I can appreciate the art and cleverness with which Changing Planes is put together, I didn’t much enjoy the stories. Meh.

xy_conspiracyThe XY Conspiracy, Lori Selke (2013). I’d been planning to buy a couple of Aqueduct Press books for a while – Necessary Ill and Elysium – and browsing their site one evening, I saw the description of Flesh & Wires and that sounded interesting too… So I placed an order, and bunged a couple of Conversation Pieces novellas into my basket as well – The XY Conspiracy and A Day in Deep Freeze. Jyn is am exotic dancer (stripper) and a UFO nut. When she spots a Man in Black lurking outside the San Francisco club where she works, she panics and decides to leave town. And since she’s doing that, she decides to tour all the important UFO sites as she heads north to Washington, across to Montana and then south through Colorado and Texas into New Mexico and, er, Roswell. Jyn also has a theory that the Y chromosome is a mutation, part of an experiment by aliens to prevent parthenogenesis in mammals. An interesting and sympathetic narrator and good use of UFO mythology. Worth reading.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 118

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A weight of words

With Fantasycon and a quite successful trawl of the local charity shops, there’s a few more books than usual joining the collection. Here they are:

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After finding books seven and eight of CP Snow’s Strangers and Brothers in a charity shop, I needed to get a copy of book six, The New Men. This one I bought from eBay. As I did Windows in the Sea, which is signed (although since all the copies I found on eBay, on either side of the Atlantic, were signed, I suspect that means little). Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper I won in the raffle at the recent SFSF Social. And I stumbled across the topic of Trapped Under the Sea somewhere online and it sounded fascinating – so I bought the book.

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My Fantasycon purchases. Sunburnt Faces and Astra were both freebies. There were a number of books free for convention members to take, but most were epic fantasy. I did, however, persuade several people to pick up copies of David Herter’s excellent One Who Disappeared (which I already owned). I’d been meaning to buy I Remember Pallahaxi for a while after reading Hello Summer, Goodbye several years ago. In the end, I decided to get all three Coney books published by PS Publishing’s Drugstore Indian Press. Flower of Godonwy is a DIP original. I flicked through Rave and Let Die and was pleasantly surprised to see I was in it – or rather, a review of my Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (in point of fact, the second edition paperback of my novella uses a quote from Adam’s review on the front cover). The Heir To The North is Steve Poore’s novel, and he’s someone I’ve known for many years. I first saw chapters from this back when I was a member of the local sf and fantasy writers’ group. When Dave Barnett described the plot of popCult! at a local SFSF Social, I knew I’d have to pick up a copy. So I did.

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Some graphic novels: I’ve been waiting for ages for 2000 AD to publish their run of Dan Dare – I remember bits and pieces of it from reading it back in the 1970s and 1980s – and now, finally, we have Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 1. I’ve been buying The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer since the Cinebook editions first appeared (after stumbling across a volume of an earlier attempt to publish them in English, about twenty years ago in Abu Dhabi). The series is now up to number 21 with Plutarch’s Staff. Valerian and Laureline I also stumbled across in Abu Dhabi – again a handful of volumes from the series were published in English. I then started reading it in French, but Cinebook started publishing English translations a few years ago, and it’s now up to volume 10, Brooklyn Line, Terminus Cosmos.

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I had a bimble about the local charity shops recently, and someone seems to have got rid of a bunch of classic literature. Result. I still have Sokurov’s Dialogues With Solzhenitsyn to watch, but I thought I might try reading him first – so I was chuffed to find a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I once tried reading For Whom The Bell Tolls but gave up halfway in; perhaps I’ll have more luck with The Old Man and the Sea (it is, at least, short). I keep an eye open for Nabokov’s books, but Invitation to a Beheading is apparently a Russian novel from the 1930s not published in English until 1959 (and not translated by Nabokov either). After watching Out Of Africa recently, I thought I might give Blixen a go, and promptly found Anecdotes of Destiny in a charity shop. Whenever I see books in the Crime Masterworks series, I buy them, irrespective of condition, as I just want to read them. Margaret Millar’s Beast In View is one I’ve not seen before. I’ve seen the film of Naked Lunch, but the only Burroughs I’ve read is The Soft Machine. Updike’s three Rabbit books are on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You list, so A Rabbit Omnibus was an economical find. And I’ve read most of McEwan’s books, although nothing since the disappointing Saturday – but I do have Solar on the TBR… and now Sweet Tooth


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We’re gonna need a bigger bookcase

I’ve been mostly good this year, and not bought as many books as in previous years. This does the mean the TBR is slowly getting whittled down… although I still reckon I have about a decade’s worth of reading on it.

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Dark Eden, of course, won the Arthur C Clarke Award back in 2013. Mother of Eden (2015) is the sequel. Eden (1959) is a reprint, rather than a first edition, but given its title, I couldn’t not mention it alongside the Beckett. Blue Gemini (2015) is a thriller based on an extended Gemini space programme, so its premise alone appeals. We shall see whether its story does. The small pamphlet, Beccafico, is actually a signed and numbered (I have #87 of 150) chapbook by Lawrence Durrell, published in 1968, and was a lucky eBay find.

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Déjà Vu (2014), Bête (2014) and Gestapo Mars (2015) I won in the raffle at the recent York pub meet. Ancillary Mercy (2015) I bought because I’ve read the previous two books, and given that the second book, Ancillary Sword, contributed very little to the shape of the trilogy, I’m intrigued to see how Leckie manages to pull it all together.

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A few charity shop finds. I’m a big fan of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, but I’d never read her first, Housekeeping (1980) (I have her other three novels as signed first editions). Apparently, it was made into a film. Eustace & Hilda (1958) just looked like it might appeal, and since they didn’t have his Fly Fishing… Actually, it’s an omnibus edition of The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944), The Sixth Heaven (1946) and Eustace and Hilda (1947). And I’ve been picking up CP Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series when I find them, but only the 1960s Penguin editions seen here in Homecomings (1956) and The Affair (1959) with the orange and white design. I have seven of the eleven books so far (I’ve read the first two).

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Haynes have been branching out from car manuals for a few years, not just books about real spacecraft, such as Soyuz and Gemini as here, but also fictional ones – not to mention aircraft, ships, submarines and even tanks. The books don’t actually show you how to repair, say, a Soyuz, should you find yourself drifting helplessly in orbit in one, but they do present good solid and factual coverage of their topic. Manned Submersibles (1976) was an eBay find, and covers exactly what its title claims.


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The books wot I read, part the second

I seem to be spending more time of late documenting the books I purchase rather than the books I actually read. And though I do – mostly – read more books each month than I purchase, and I often want to write about them… I don’t seem to be doing so as often as I once did. It’s also that time of year when I belatedly realise that my choice of reading material hasn’t prepared me at all well for awards season. While I’ve read over a dozen books published during 2013, less than half were genre novels. Admittedly, one was Ancillary Justice, the book everyone has been talking about (see here)… But I’ve also been reading fiction from the second decade of the twentieth-century right up to 2012 during the year. Plus a lot of research – on Mars for The Eye with Which The Universe Beholds Itself, and on the Mercury 13 for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. And I really haven’t read as much 2013 short fiction as I promised myself I would do…

Anyway, not including the books I’ve read and reviewed for SF Mistressworks, and the books I intend to review for Daughters of Prometheus, here is the second lot of my most recentest reading…

killerintherainKiller in the Rain, Raymond Chandler (1964) A collection of previously-unpublished short stories, this made for a weird reading experience as Chandler adapted many of the stories for his novels. So the precursor to Philip Marlowe and his adventures appears several times – which means the stories sort of hover on the edge of familiarity, without actually being familiar. At least two stories contain elements of The Big Sleep, but are different enough to make you doubt your memory of that novel. Otherwise, this is solid Chandler fare – iconic, and perhaps a little too over-exposed to wear its seminal status all that well.

lanzaroteLanzarote, Michel Houellebecq (2000) This is more of a novella than a novel and is pretty much a distillation of what Houellebecq does. Bored bureaucrat goes on holiday to the titular island, reflects on the strange volcanic landscape while engaging in graphic and detailed sex with a pair of German tourists, while Houellebecq himself reflects on modern society. Some of the ideas in Lanzarote were clearly later expanded to become the novels Platform and The Possibility of an Island. Incidentally, I read Lanzarote on the train while travelling to the World Fantasy Con, and it probably isn’t the best sort of book to read while riding public transport…

sweetheartseasonThe Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996) This was the novel I immediately started after finishing Lanzarote, and it’s a much better rail-journey read. The title refers to an all-female baseball team formed during the late 1940s in order to promote a brand of cereal. The women all work at the mill where the cereal is made – it’s the only industry in the town – and the novel is about them, their lives, the history of the town, and the events leading up to the team’s single season, and its after-effects. Not, you would have thought,  my usual reading fare – but this is Karen Joy Fowler, a writer whose works I have long admired (since I started subscribing to Interzone back in the late 1980s, in fact). The Sweetheart Season is really funny, contains some lovely writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

hook2The Boosted Man, Tully Zetford (1974) The second in Zetford’s Hook quartet. This is pure 1970s sf hackery, and Zetford – a pen-name of Kenneth Bulmer – probably banged out all four books in a weekend. It shows. Once again, Hook is forced to land on a planet not his chosen destination. Everything initially looks grim and dirty and horrible, but then he realises the world is really a paradise. Everyone has wonderful jobs, wears the finest of clothing, eats the most delicious food, and has access to the best leisure facilities in the galaxy. Except, of course, they don’t. It’s all a mirage, induced somehow by a drug or some electronic thing – it wasn’t really clear. In reality, they’re no more than slaves, clad in rags, eating slops and being worked until they fall over and die. But HOOK SMASH. And dig those crazy eyebrows too, man. Two more books in this series and I can send them back to the charity shop. Not keepers.

stonemouthStonemouth, Iain Banks (2012) I’m going to miss a new Iain (M) Banks appearing every year, but at least he left a substantial body of work ripe for rereading behind him. And I really must reread the Culture novels. Perhaps that’d make a good reading project for a summer. Anyway, Stonemouth is Banks’s penultimate novel, and it’s very much in the same space as The Crow Road and The Steep Approach To Garbadale. The narrator, Stewart Gilmour, left the eponymous Scottish town under a cloud five years before, but now he’s back to attend the funeral of one of the town’s two gangland bosses. He’s met with grudging acceptance – no one is going to ignore the old man’s dying wish – but he is clearly not welcome and staying longer than necessary is out of the question. It’s a while before Banks reveals why Stewart was run out of town and, to be honest, I kept on expecting something a little more shocking to subsequently be revealed. But it never came. Instead, the story builds up to a shocking confrontation. Stonemouth is classic Banks – it’s all there: the voice, the wit, the place, the semi-adolescent manglings of philosophy… It doesn’t quite have the zap of earlier works, and in places it does feel like a book written by a man in his late fifties about a group of people in their twenties. But Stonemouth does possess buckets of charm, and that’s more than enough to carry the reader through to the – surprisingly – upbeat ending.

cptmarvelCaptain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Dextor Soy & Emma Rios (2012) I went off superhero graphic novels a few years ago, and I wouldn’t normally have bothered with this one – I mean, Captain Marvel? She’s hardly a frontline superhero (although, interestingly, Marvel was originally male but the mantle was passed onto a woman). But the story of In Pursuit of Flight features the Mercury 13, so naturally my curiosity was piqued… Carol Danvers, Ms Marvel but now using the name Captain Marvel, is left an old aeroplane by Helen Cobb, a pioneering woman pilot who inspired Danvers’ own flying career. While Helen Cobb’s career is clearly based on that of Jerrie Cobb, her character isn’t – she’s a tough-talking bar-owner in the flashback sequences. The plane is a North American T-6 and the plane in which Cobb allegedly broke a world altitude record. The real Cobb did indeed fly T-6s – she ferried them down to South America for Fleetway after the Peruvian air force had purchased them from the US – but she achieved her altitude record in an Aero Commander. Danvers decides to try and prove that Cobb’s record was possible, but loses control of the plane. As it descends in a spin, the plane travels through time and Danvers finds herself on a Pacific island during World War II, helping a group of crashed WASP pilots defeat a Japanese force which has Skrull technology. The WASP pilots turn out to be the Mercury 13. Unfortunately, In Pursuit of Flight is all a bit of a mess. DeConnick has played fast and loose with her inspirations, the time travel plot doesn’t quite add up, and the artwork is not very good. I also hate it when mini-series swap artists halfway through, as this one does. Annoyingly, I see the blurb for the sequel, Captain Marvel: Down, includes the line “what threat is lurking below the ocean’s surface?”. It’s almost as if DeConnick has read Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

strangersStrangers and Brothers, CP Snow (1940) This was the first book of the series written by Snow, and so the series is named for it – but the book is now better known by the alternative title of George Passant. And it is him the story is about. The narrator, Lewis Eliot, is one of a group of young adults in an unnamed East Midlands town during the late 1920s. The nearest city is Nottingham, but the town is certainly not Mansfield. Snow was from Leicester, so it’s more likely to be somewhere south of Nottingham – Loughborough, perhaps. Anyway, Passant is sort of a den mother to a group of twentysomethings. He works as an articled clerk at a local solicitors, but believes he should be made partner. When one of his friends, Jack, is let go by his employer, a printer, because the printer’s eighteen-year-old son has a crush on Jack, and the local technical college cancels Jack’s bursary, Passant argues that Jack should be allowed to complete his course. But Jack, it transpires, is a bit of a chancer, and when he persuades Passant to go into business with him… it all comes to a head a few years later when Passant, Jack and Olive are had up on charges of fraud, and Lewis is called back to town from his inn of court in London to defend them. Passant’s lifestyle – parties at a local farm, at which the men and women often partner off – is called into question. Though they win the case, Lewis doesn’t find out until afterwards that fraud had been committed – though, to be fair, the fraud of which they’re accused is no more than the typical sharp business practice you find happening now among fat cats and so-called captains of industry. Strangers and Brothers is a slow read, and while it paints an interesting picture of a past decade, it doesn’t appeal as much as Anthony Powell’s not-dissimilar A Dance to the Music of Time. But I think I shall continue to read them, anyway.


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Biblioholics not-so-anonymous

Some people go “ooh shiny”, others go “ooh book”. Clearly, I belong to the latter category. And just to make matters worse, I even make books myself. As Whippleshield Books, I add to the great mass of books that exists in the world today – and the somewhat smaller mass of books that exists in my house. Only two so far, but a third later this year and at least two next year. Meanwhile, I continue to buy books by other people because books. Like these ones:

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A trio of hardbacks: The Palace is DG Compton’s one and only (as far as I’m aware) mainstream novel, and very hard to find. I don’t think it even made it into paperback. I found this copy on abebooks.co.uk, it was not cheap. A Glastonbury Romance was a charity shop find; it’s ex-library and a bit tatty, but never mind. The Spiral Ascent is… Well, you see, it goes like this: I had a copy of the first book of the trilogy, In the Thirties, in its original Penguin paperback edition. I wanted books 2 and 3 to match… but I couldn’t find them. So I decided to get the omnibus edition instead – and I found this signed edition on abebooks.co.uk. The cover is a faded but still. Signed. Incidentally, you can download the entire trilogy in PDF format from here, but still… books. You can also get some lovely small press books by Upward from Enitharmon Press here.

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Last year, I bought a copy of The Quiet War on eBay because the seller said it was the hardback edition. It wasn’t, it was a trade paperback. I complained and received a partial refund. Earlier this year, I read the book… and I had problems with it. And then this month, I found this hardback copy of it in a local charity shop. So of course I bought it. Bargain. We See A Different Frontier is a collection of postcolonial genre stories. Swords of Good Men I have to review for Interzone. Fantasy, meh; but… Vikings. Set it in Space and Shovel Coal into it is the second anthology by the Sheffield Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Group, and the introduction is by Yours Truly.

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Three Women’s Press sf books for the collection – I now have two dozen of them – sent to me by The Space Merchants in exchange for a copy of Night and the Enemy, a graphic novel by Harlan Ellison and Ken Steacy I no longer wanted. Expect to see these three books reviewed on SF Mistressworks at some point.

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Three paperbacks by two dead white males. I’ve read the first book of Snow’s Strangers and Brothers and I plan to read the entire series. The Conscience of the Rich and The Light and the Dark are books three and four respectively (by internal chronology, not year of publication). Of course, I will only buy matching editions – the 1960s Penguin paperback editions. A local charity shop had a bunch of 1970s Norman Mailer paperbacks in – just look at that cover – and I picked out Barbary Shore. I may go back and buy the others, if they’re still there.

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Three charity shop finds. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries has been longlisted for the Booker and looks very interesting, so I was quite chuffed to stumble on a copy of her first novel, The Rehearsal… which David Hebblethwaite tells me is the best book he’s read in the past five years. You don’t expect to find Naguib Mahfouz novels published by the American University in Cairo Press in Yorkshire charity shops, but I found one. I read Mahfouz whenever I stumble across copies of his books. I still have his Cairo trilogy – in Arabic, of course – to read… Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy – also adapted for television as Fortunes Of War – are brilliant, so she’s a name I certainly look out for during my frequent trawls through books in the local charity shops. The Rain Forest was her last novel.


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The laden mantlepiece

I must not buy so many books. I must not buy so many books. I must not buy so many books. I tell myself this every day, but it doesn’t seem to work.

See:

Some mainstream fiction. Strangers and Brothers, CP Snow, the second book of the series of the same name (although the first written). I read the first, Time of Hope, a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it. Fielding Gray, Simon Raven, the first book of his Alms for Oblivion series, which I was told is similar to Snow’s. The Boat of Fate, an historical novel by Keith Roberts, an excellent sf writer best-known for SF Masterwork Pavane. The Rings Of Saturn, WG Sebald, a writer I admire much. My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Liz Jensen – a charity shop find, which I picked up because I enjoyed her The Rapture (my review here). And Underworld, also a charity shop find, because I’ve been meaning to read some Don DeLillo for ages.

Some science fiction: Stained-Glass World, Ken Bulmer, a British sf writer of the 1960s and 1970s. A bit of a hack, by all accounts, but we’ll see. JG Ballard’s The Complete Short Stories: Volume 1, Engineering Infinity, Arslan, and More What If? I’m looking forward to reading. The last one was a charity shop find, the other three were birthday presents.

Some first editions. The Universe of Things is for the Gwyneth Jones collection. Down to the Bone is the last of Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series. Back of Town Blues is for the DG Compton collection. Heat of Fusion and Other Stories, John M Ford, because he is apparently a writer of excellent sf short fiction.

A bit of a mix. Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels, David Pringle, which is sort of not the companion volume to Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, because the actual real companion volume to that is Fantasy: The 100 Best Books by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn (which I also own). Red Plenty, BSFA Award-shortlisted non-fiction/fiction, which many folk have told me I will like (I was going to wait for the paperback, but what the hell). And Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures, a signed and numbered limited edition chapbook of Michael Swanwick short stories.

Three space books. Seven into Space, kindly donated to the Space Books collection by Adam Roberts. The Space Station and Island in the Sky were both bargains from eBay.

Finally, a pair of coffee-table books. Spomenik, Jan Kempenaers, is the book of his photographic exhibition. The title refers to WWII monuments in the former Yugoslavia. Many have been destroyed, or left to fall into ruin, but Kempenaers’ book contains photos of twenty-two of the best-preserved ones. Strange, but quite beautiful, stuff. CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin, is a ginormous book of photographs of many gloriously modernist buildings from the former USSR. Also strange, but quite beautiful, stuff.


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readings & watchings 2011 #2

Oops. Been a while since the last one of these, so this is going to be a bit of a marathon listing. You know how it goes…

Books
American Adulterer, Jed Mercurio (2009). I thought Mercurio’s Ascent was excellent when I read it several years ago, and was much impressed by his intense, meticulously-researched prose. Admittedly, I was initially drawn to Ascent because of its subject – Russian fighter pilot becomes cosmonaut on secret mission – but even so I resolved to keep an eye open for anything else by Mercurio… And so I did. His third novel (his first, Bodies, is on the TBR) couldn’t be more different in subject. It’s a retelling of John F Kennedy’s presidency, couched as a medical report and focusing on his addiction to sex. JFK is often referred to throughout as “the subject”, and the prose dwells a great deal on his poor health. As in Ascent, Mercurio writes with impressive authority – I’m no expert on JFK, but I believed every word in American Adulterer. Mercurio is definitely a writer I’m watching.

People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks (2008), was lent to me by my mother. The book of the title is a haggadah, a Jewish religious text used during Passover. In this somewhat melodramatic novel, a haggadah from the fourteenth century is uncovered in Sarajevo just after the collapse of Yugoslavia (the haggadah is apparently a real one). This particular one is unusual because it is illustrated, something which was previously unknown for such documents in Moorish Spain. An Australian manuscript restorer who specialises in haggadah travels to Sarajevo to verify and restore the document. She finds various bits of, well, stuff, in its binding. These spark off chapters describing, in reverse chronological order, the history of the book – the Balkans during WWII, Vienna, and so on back to Spain. Meanwhile, the restorer is having mother issues. An interesting novel for what it said about the haggadah, but the story wrapped around it was too much of a soap opera.

A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper (1967), I read for my ongoing series on British SF Masterworks, and I wrote about it here.

Empress Of Outer Space, A Bertram Chandler (1965), is the first in the “Empress Irene” series by Chandler. It’s also a very short novel, one half of an Ace double. Oh, and it’s crap. Empress Irene has just put down a rebellion by a Navy captain who has set himself up as a demigod on a primitive world, when her yacht is stolen. So she commandeers a cruiser and hares off after it with a crew of seven. The narrator is her captain. They track the ship to a world, land, and captain and empress become trapped in a carpet of moss which emits an hallucinogen. They undergo a series of dream-like “adventures” conflated from 007, Shakespeare and ERB’s Barsoom, before eventually escaping. There’s much room here for commentary, but Chandler’s clanking prose treads all over it with a leaden foot. Eminently avoidable. Which is what I should have done…

To Open the Sky, Robert Silverberg (1967), has not aged especially gracefully, though it has a neat idea at its core. A new religion, Vorsterism, which seems pretty secular despite its creed, promises its followers real biological immortality (courtesy of a well-funded research programme which has yet to bear fruit). A glossed-over schism creates the Harmonists, who become not-so-friendly rivals and whose focus instead is human ESP. Because Noel Vorst, founder of Vorsterism, believes that the only way for humanity to survive is to settle the stars. And that can only be done using teleportation by immortal humans. The Vorsters control Earth, but the Harmonists control Venus, and there’s a bit of cunning plottery to heal the rift and so “open the sky”. Not one of Silverberg’s best, but not one of his worst either.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2007). There’s an interesting process at work in Moore’s comics and graphic novels in which he slowly disappears up his own backside. He’s always been a very referential writer, but this one takes it to an extreme. The series conceit, understandably, references all manner of other writers’ works – well, the characters are all well-known fictional characters. And there are even more references in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Plus, who else but Moore would print a section of a book in 3D, and include a pair of cardboard-cutout 3D glasses for the reader? Not to mention a Jeeves & Wooster / Lovecraft pastiche. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier is great fun. It’s a sort of reference module/interim work in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen universe, partly explaining the strange change in the story universe which resulted in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century: 1910 from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Book 2. Good, if sometimes baffling, stuff.

Oasis: The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces, edited by Almendro, Victor Selwyn & David Burk (1943), is the first of the Salamander anthologies of, well, poetry from those serving in the forces during World War 2. Good condition copies of this 64-page chapbook are hard to find, but I managed it (and yes, I have Return to Oasis and From Oasis into Italy, the other two Salamander anthologies). Oasis: The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces is, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Some known names provide some good stuff, but there are less successful poems by others. Given that the Salamander people were stationed in Cairo, many of the poems feature the desert, Egypt, or Cairo itself. Not all of the poems are war poems – in fact, there’s a quite a spread of subjects.

Winterstrike, Liz Williams (2008), was the second book of this year’s women in sf reading challenge. I wrote about it here.

Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, David Pringle (1985), does exactly what it says on the tin. Except for that “best”, of course. Pringle explains his choices in a lengthy introduction, and freely admits that some of his picks are not actually very good, nor does he like them very much. But he considered them important so he included them. He also points out that sf as a whole is not an especially well-written genre. I would guess about 70% of the books mentioned I’d classify as rubbish, and their stature within the genre is, to me, no good reason to hold them up as “best”. Um, there’s an idea for a project: my own choice of 100 best novels, posted here one a day…

Stretto, L Timmel Duchamp (2008), is the fifth and final in Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle. I plan to write about the entire quintet in more detail at some point. Certainly they are amongst the most political science fiction novels I have ever read. They are also very good.

Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro (2009), is a collection of five stories featuring Ishiguro’s trademark self-deluded, and never entirely likeable, narrators. The five stories all feature music in some fashion, and are set variously in Venice, London, Malvern Hills and Los Angeles. Like most of his fiction, the story-arc seems to dribble and die rather than actually concluding, but the writing is very good throughout. I suppose if you wanted an introduction to Ishiguro’s writing, this collection would be a good place to start.

An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro (1986), was Ishiguro’s second novel and an improvement on his first, A Pale View of Hills. The book is set in Japan in 1948 and 1949, and the titular artist, about to marry off his twenty-six-year-old daughter, reflects over the events in his life before and during the war. Something he did may cause the marriage negotiations to fail (as they had done once before), but as usual Ishiguro doesn’t say what and only circles around the topic. In fact, An Artist of the Floating World is even more discursive than other books by Ishiguro I’ve read. The narrator is, typically, self-deluded – and, in this case, hugely self-important too. The book would have been much improved by a resolution.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), is a glossy coffee-table book published during Apollo 11’s fortieth anniversary. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Son of Heaven, David Wingrove (2011), is the first book, and a prequel of sorts, to the newly-relaunched, re-written and revamped Chung Kuo series. What was eight volumes is now twenty. And by the looks of it Corvus are doing an impressive job on these new editions. I read the book, and interviewed the author, for Interzone.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis (1952), is the third book of the Chronicles of Narnia. The third book as written, that is; but the fifth following internal chronology. I’m way too old for these books, which is probably why I find them so annoyingly patronising; but I’d like to think I’d have felt the same if I’d read them when I was eight or nine. This one is at least better then the previous two, and has a bit more of a plot. Lucy and Edmund, plus horrible cousin Eustace, fall into a painting and find themselves aboard the titular ship with Prince Caspian. He’s heading east for the edge of the world to find seven missing lords and, perhaps, Aslan’s Land. They have adventures en route, and Eustace learns how to be a nice chap. What little charm these books possess has aged badly, but Lewis certainly proves he can stick the knife into his “muggles” so much more effectively than Rowling ever managed: “They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarian, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes.” Best line in the entire book, and it’s in the opening paragraph…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer: The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent, Part 1, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2011). I don’t normally include graphic novels in these lists because they’re such quick reads. But this one is worth mentioning: the characters of Blake and Mortimer were invented by Belgian Edgar P Jacobs in the 1946 and first appeared in Hergé’s Tintin magazine. Blake is a captain in MI5 and Mortimer is a nuclear physicist, and together they’ve had numerous semi-science-fictional adventures. Sente and Juillard have, since the millennium, been adding to Jacobs’ series, and they’re doing an excellent job. Sente’s scripts are very much grounded in the period in which the stories take place – the 1950s – and real-world events are cleverly used. In this one, it’s India’s struggle for independence which drives the plot. The books still have a tendency to fill the frames with dialogue, and often use text boxes to describe what’s obvious from the art; but I much prefer these new stories to Jacobs’ originals.

The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (2010) does exactly what it says on the cover. The stories were selected, and the collection edited, by Jonathan Strahan, but KSR himself provides an afterword giving brief notes on each of the included pieces. The first three – ‘Venice Drowned’, ‘Ridge Running’ and ‘Before I Wake’ – are not especially strong, but ‘Black Air’ and ‘The Lucky Strike’ then demonstrate only too well why KSR is such a bloody good writer. There’s a sf baseball story, and I’ll never understand the appeal of the game or of writing about it. The remaining contents are strong, with some better than others. The final story, ‘The Timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942’, is original to the collection. I wasn’t entirely sure why it was genre… which is, I suppose, one of the reasons KSR’s fiction appeals so much. Definitely a collection which belongs on the book-shelves of any self-respecting sf fan.

Time of Hope, CP Snow (1949), is the first book, internal chronology-wise, in Snow’s 11-volume Strangers and Brothers series. Lewis Elliott is the son of a bankrupt in an unnamed provincial Midlands town during the early 1920s. After leaving school with good exam results, he becomes a local government clerk in the education department. But he dreams of better things. After making friends with George Passant, a qualified lawyer working as a legal assistant in one of the town’s practices, Eliot decides that the law is the career for him – but not as a solicitor, as a barrister. He crams for the Bar examinations, passes them, uses contacts to get himself into an Inn, and so progresses his career. Meanwhile, he’s fallen in love with – and eventually marries – the neurotic but beautiful Sheila Knight. He also develops “pernicious anaemia” and is very ill for a while. But when this is re-diagnosed as “secondary anaemia”, he seems to miraculously recover – probably the only false note in the novel. Snow draws deep psychological portraits of his characters – it’s all told from Elliott’s point of view, but he’s a deeply analytical person. I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected. I certainly plan to track down the remaining ten volumes and read them.

Films
Tell No-One, Guillaume Canet (2006), is a French adaptation of a novel by US writer Harlan Coben. Which pretty much explains why this film didn’t work. It’s not a French film. It feels like a US film played by a French-speaking cast. As a thriller, it’s not bad, but that dissonance between expectation and implementation made for an unsatisfactory viewing experience.

Fringe season 2 (2009), continues the 21st century “X-Files” as, in this season, the mythology is deepened as Olivia visits the alternate world at war with our world, and more of her background – and Walter’s experiments – are revealed. Walter’s ex-partner and semi-nemesis, Bell (played by creaking Leonard Nimoy), also features prominently, popping up in several episodes to explain what it is that’s actually going on. Fringe remains gripping telly, and I’ll be picking up season 3 when it hits DVD.

Julius Caesar, dir. Herbert Wise (1979), is the seventh of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve now seen. After watching it, I jokingly posted to a forum that it was a rip-off as Caesar dies halfway through. But then, of course, it’s not so much about Caesar himself as it is the plot which removes him and the power vacuum he leaves behind. Charles Gray played a somewhat effete title role, but the supporting cast were uniformly good. It’s a very manly men type of play – you’d expect the theatre to reek of sweat and blood if you saw it live. I must admit, from the ones I’ve seen so far, Shakespeare’s tragedies have been better than his comedies. Perhaps the comedy simply hasn’t travelled across the centuries, but tragedy is timeless. Still, Julius Caesar is a strong play and worth seeing.

The Racket, dir. John Cromwell (1951), is a somewhat preachy near-noir film I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Splice, dir. Vincenzo Natali (2009), is a remake of any one of the numerous Frankenstein movies that have been made over the decades. Sort of. Two research scientists create an artificial lifeform – they’re trying to create an artificial lifeform that can manufacture pharmaceuticals – but this latest one they’ve added some human DNA to the mix. It grows up – very quickly – into a strange-looking young woman (she certainly wouldn’t pass unnoticed on a busy street). But it all goes horribly wrong when male scientist cannot resist the monster’s charms, but is unfortunately caught in the act of boinking her by his wife, the other scientist. The monster then goes berserk. A cleverly-done film, but it never really struck me as quite as clever as it thought it was. It’s more like Frankenstein as if no one had ever written it before and it had been newly-thought-up in the twenty-first century. But since Mary Shelley got there first in 1818, the commentary all feels a bit obvious and old-hat. Worth watching, nonetheless.

Water Drops On Burning Rocks, dir. François Ozon (2000), is actually based on an unfilmed script by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (I really must watch some of his films some day). It’s not an easy film to describe… A middle-aged man arrives home with a twenty-year-old man, who becomes his live-in lover. Everything goes swimmingly for a while, but then the relationship begins to pall. When the older man is away on business, the younger man’s ex-fiancée turns up. This causes ructions, which are further exacerbated when the transsexual ex-girlfriend of the older man arrives. There’s a scene in the film, remarked on by all the critics, in which the four characters dance to a horrible piece of German pop. It is… astonishing. And while it may not sound like much, it’s worth the price of admission alone. Water Drops On Burning Rocks is one of those odd films that pulls you in and refuses to let go.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, dir. Elijah Moshinsky (1985), makes it eight. I’m sorely tempted to buy myself a copy of The BBC TV Shakespeare Collection boxed set, so I’ll have all of the plays on DVD. Except if I did that I’d probably never get around to watching them. But because I rent them, I feel obligated not to send them back unwatched (and it’d be a waste of money too). So perhaps for the time-being I’ll keep on doing that. Anyway, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comedy, and not an especially good one. although set in the Kingdom of Navarre, which existed from 824 to 1620, but the cast all wear eighteenth-century dress. The king and his men friends have decided to swear off all pleasures and devote themselves to scholarly study for seven years. This means no women. Which does not go down well. Unfortunately, along comes a princess of France on a diplomatic mission, and she’s unhappy at being told she cannot stay in the palace but must camp in a field outside it. So, of course, the men fall in love with the women, there’s some mistaken-identity comedy, a very strange play-within-a-play, and, strangely, an ending which defers the real ending for “a year and a day”. An odd play, and not the most enjoyable of those I’ve watched. According to Wikipedia, it’s often assumed that the play was written for student lawyers, which probably explains it.

Choose, dir. Marcus Graves (2010), is a low-budget thriller I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Millennium season 1 (1997), was Chris Carter’s new project after The X-Files. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) is an ex-FBI profiler with a gift: he can see what the killer saw. Unfortunately, this led him into a nervous breakdown and early retirement. So he moves back to his hometown of Seattle, and is recruited by the Millennium Group, who consult with the police on difficult murder cases. The series is as much about the mysterious agenda of the Millennium Group as it is about Black and his gift, or his relationship with his wife and young daughter (who may also have the same talent). While the IT in the series dates it, Millennium actually holds up really well. Except for those dial-up modems and CRTs, it could have been made last year. Despite being high-quality television, the programme only lasted three seasons. Happily, I have the Seasons 1-3 boxed set. (Bizarrely, search for “Millennium” on Amazon, and it doesn’t return the Seasons 1-3 boxed set. But search for “Millenium” and it does – despite the title clearly have two “n”s. Stupid search engine.)

The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton (1961), is an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, starring Deborah Kerr as the governess who is terrorised by her two strange charges. This is on a list of Top 100 British Films I found somewhere online but, to be honest, I found it a bit dull. Kerr may have been good in her role, but any film in which the lead character spends most of her time running around with a look of horror on her face – with no apparent agency, in other words – is not going to keep my interest. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d read the book.

Star Trek The Next Generation season 3 (1989), was actually the last full season on ST: TNG I’d seen. When I lived in the UAE, Star TV, Murdoch’s satellite channel for India, and the middle and Far Easts, bought the programme. They broadcast season one. The following year, they broadcast season one followed by season two. And the year after… You can probably guess. Star TV’s English-language channel then turned Hindi (and Baywatch in Hindi is actually better), and the new English-language channel was subscription only. So, as a result I’ve only seen scattered episodes of ST: TNG season 4 to 7. To be honest, I’d forgotten most of the episodes from season 3, although the few stand-outs I remembered were from this season. Especially ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, which is still a good piece of science fiction telly. Other episodes are less successful, but at least the season is a damn sight better than season two was.

Ajami, dir. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (2009), is an excellent Israeli film I review for VideoVista here.

If…., dir. Lindsay Anderson (1968), is another film from the Top 100 British Films list. I thought I’d actually seen this before, but on watching it discovered I never had. I’d just lived it. Sort of. I went to a public school not unlike the one in the film – but more than a decade later so many things had changed. Certainly the whole way of life was familiar to me, and I thought Anderson captured it well. The ending… well, perhaps it was shocking in 1968, but it all seems a bit meh these days. Perhaps it’s been copied so many times, it’s lost its power. A good film, with some very strange bits in it, and worth watching.

Bad Lieutenant – Port Of Call New Orleans, dir. Werner Herzog (2009), is one of those films that almost defies criticism. Certainly Nicolas Cage in the title role defies any kind of commentary. He plays his character as a bucket of twitches and tics topped by a bad toupee. And yet it bizarrely seems to suit the film. The plot is a bog-standard thriller, with little to recommend it. But there is one scene that’s worth the price of admission alone, where Cage’s character says of a man he has just shot dead, “His soul’s still dancing”, while a doppelgänger of the dead man breakdances behind the corpse. Genius. I knew going in that a Herzog thriller was not going to be an ordinary thriller, but even then Herzog confounded my expectations and made it a Herzog film in ways I had not considered. Which was pretty foolish of me in the first place – this is, after all, the director who made a film with a cast who were all under hypnosis…