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Reading diary, #40

I’m not sure what’s been going on with my reading recently. I usually alternate genders in my fiction reading, but I seem to have had a run of male authors. I’ll probably make up for it before the end of the year.

hollow_manThe Hollow Man, John Dickson Carr (1935). Whenever I spot one of these Crime Masterworks in a charity shop, I pick it up. I’m not a big fan of crime fiction, although it does seem many sf fans are, and when I do read crime I tend to stick to a handful of favourite authors, like Sara Paretsky or Sue Grafton. But some of the classic stuff makes for an easy light read, along with the sf, amongst all the literary fiction I seem to mostly read these days… I’ve read Dickson Carr before – I seem to remember buying one of his books at a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi during the 1990s – but I couldn’t tell you anything about him or his oeuvre. The Hollow Man was apparently voted the “best locked room mystery of all time”, so it comes as no surprise to discover its one of those completely contrived murder mysteries which are set up in order to make the protagonist – eccentric detective Gideon Fell, who is based on London – appear enormously clever. The Hollow Man is split into three sections. In the first, an emigré professor is threatened in a pub, and then is later murdered in his room after admitting a stranger – but when the locked door is forced, the stranger has vanished and there’s no other exit. In the second section, the chief suspect is then shot in the middle of an empty street, with no visible assassin, by witnesses. The final section reveals the back-history of the two dead men (they were brothers) and Fell explains, with diagrams, how both murders were committed. The first was deliberately contrived to be a locked room mystery, the second only became a mystery through a sequence of unlikely events. Although set in London, Dickson Carr completely fails to evoke time or place, and most of the characters are painted very broadly. It’s a mildly entertaining, but slight, intellectual exercise, and requires about as much suspension of disbelief as your average space opera.

sign_in_the_moonlightThe Sign in the Moonlight, David Tallerman (2016). I was given a copy of this by the author, and I’ll freely admit horror, or dark fantasy, is not really my thing. Even so, if there was one thing which jumped out at me about the stories in this collection, it’s that they pastiched their inspirations a little too effectively. In fact, for much of the collection, it felt like the author had no voice of their own. Granted, it takes good craft to pastiche so effectively, and in an individual story read in, say, a magazine or anthology, it wouldn’t present a problem… but in a collection of such stories, you start to wonder who has actually written them… I wasn’t as taken with the Lovecraft-kiddie story, ‘My Friend Fish Finger By Daisy, Aged 7’, which I first heard at a York pub meet, as much as I know others have been; and I thought the title story, an Aleister Crowley story, suffered from a lack of, well, Aleister Crowley… although I thought it quite effective otherwise. The stories are, on the whole, well-crafted and polished, and wouldn’t look out of place in any random Weird Tales sort of anthology or magazine. The collection is also very nicely illustrated, with a page of art introducing each story. But for me, that lack of a voice felt like a deal-breaker, and it all seemed somewhat too polished, so your attention tended to slide from the prose. It has occurred to me that short stories succeed when they contain a high concept conceit that resonates with readers or a strong voice – and the best stories have both. In terms of strong conceits, some of the stories in The Sign in the Moonlight get close, and in isolation those conceits might have seemed stronger. I’ve always liked collections, I much prefer them, in fact, to anthologies… but reading this one made me think about why I prefer them, and why some are more successful than others.

game_of_authorsA Game of Authors, Frank Herbert (2013). Of course, Frank Herbert didn’t write this novel in 2013. WordFire Press – better known as Kevin J Anderson – has been publishing Herbert’s previously unpublished work, and this mainstream thriller is one of those. And I can see why it never saw print back in the day. A journalist is sent a letter in broken English which reveals that a long-missing Pulitzer Prize-winning author is hiding out in Mexico. The journalist persuades his paper to let him check it out… but it’s all a plot by the missing author, who has been imprisoned in a hacienda, with his nubile daughter, by the head of the local communist cell, because the author has been writing propaganda stories for them and selling them under pseudonyms to US slicks. The writing in A Game of Authors is definitely Herbert’s, but it’s much cruder than his later work and some of the dialogue is embarrassingly bad. The Mexican characters are all stereotypes, and the communist conspiracy plot is too weak to justify the violent showdown which results. If you’re interested in Herbert’s career, A Game of Authors might be worth a read; but letting it see the light of day will not do his reputation all that much good.

oneOne, David Karp (1953). This was from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks and, despite being a literary dystopia, it wasn’t a novel I’d heard of until I came across his copy. I mean, I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World and I’m aware of We and ‘When the Machine Stops’… but I don’t recall ever seeing mention of One in discussions of dystopian fiction. Has it dropped out of favour? Is it considered not sfnal enough to mention in discussions of dystopias? Because it’s a damn sight more science-fictional than Nineteen Eighty-four. (And is no longer in print, I see.) A couple of centuries from now, the “benevolent State” rules the entire planet. A college professor is a secret informer for the State and writes regular reports on his colleagues and students. But then he is called in for a random check, mistakes his interview with the Department of Internal Examination as an indication the department is about to reward him for his diligence, and so reveals himself to be a “heretic”. But a senior member of the department believes heretics such as the professor are curable, and tries to do so. (Normally, they’re  simply executed.) The professor is brainwashed and rejoins society under a different name and with an entirely different personality. But his subsequent behaviour, although he appears to be a model citizen, reveals that his heresy has not been completely eradicated… Clearly, the 1950s US fear of communism is the driving force behind the world and plot of One, but such novels reveal more about the flaws of the writer’s society than they do those of their invented dystopia (hello there, Fahrenheit 451). The benevolent State is crime-free and the vast majority of its citizens are happy. Why is this a bad thing? A handful of malcontents who believe their dissatisfaction is a result of their “individualism” being curtailed is no reason to write off the entire society. But, of course, that’s how dystopian fiction works. It reinforces present-day values by valourising one single aspect of the writer’s society that a “dystopia” might diminish, while ignoring all the social problems said dystopia might actually fix. Obviously, the USSR was far from a utopia, but at least it tried to become one – which is more than can be said for the US (or indeed most nations). One has its flaws – it’s simplistic, it’s all a bit men-in-hats sf, and its prose is functional rather than evocative (although better than most sf novels of the time). It also makes a meal of the whole “individualism” thing, when it actually does a better job of disproving the need for it. It’s still worth reading.

mars_1999Mars 1999, Brian O’Leary (1987). I bought this a few years ago when I was collecting books on missions to Mars, and while its title alone indicated it was now alternate history, I hadn’t expected it to posit such a, well, utopian vision of the early twenty-first century. It’s all very well imagining NASA will expand their space programme and put together a mission to Mars. It’s even plausible such a mission might be a joint mission with the USSR (because, of course, in 1987, everyone thought the Soviet Union was still in rude health). But it’s a frankly bizarre stretch to think that a US-USSR mission to Mars might lead to a world government two decades later… O’Leary covers some of the necessary science in basic fashion, then documents the design of spacecraft which would be used in his preferred mission plan (including some not very good illustrations of the spacecraft), and even intersperses his discussion of his topic with short chapters of a fictionalised mission featuring an international crew. Well, not precisely international – there’s a Soviet spacecraft and a US spacecraft travelling in formation, but the US crew is not entirely American. The commander is, however. And another American in the crew gets to be the first human being to step onto the Martian surface. I didn’t read Mars 1999 looking for a fictional treatment of the first mission to Mars, but I was expecting something a little heavier on the science and engineering that what I found. I suspect the book was among the first on its topic to be published, so all due credit to the author, but thirty years later it reads like, er, science fiction, or alternate history. And not particulary good science fiction or alternate history.  One for those interested in the topic, I suspect.

labyrinthsLabyrinths*, Jorge Luis Borges (1962). I had a copy of this years ago but it seems to have gone missing at some point, and I’d never got around to reading it. So I bought a replacement copy, and ended up reading it a couple of weeks after it had arrived. There’s not much you can say about Borges or this collection – either you know what he writes, or you don’t, because explaining it is pretty difficult. Labyrinths contains some of Borges’s best-known stories, such as ‘The Library of Babel’, which describes an infinite library and those who live in it; or ‘Funes the Memorious’, about a boy who falls from a horse, injures his head, and develops a perfectly eidetic memory; or ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius’, about an encylopaedia which includes an article on a country which does not exist and triggers an obsessive search for more information by the narrator; or ‘Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote‘, which discusses an author who plans to become Cervantes in order to write a word-for-word copy of Don Quixote… The stories have a sort of dry, academic tone, almost reportage in places, but certainly a demonstration, much like I found Blixen’s Anecdotes of Destiny to be, that “show, don’t tell” is a relatively recent writing fad. I particularly liked ‘The Immortal’, but ‘Three Versions of Judas’ read like uninteresting biblical scholarship. Labyrinths also includes ten essays and eight “Parables”. This is erudite, intelligent stuff, and while Borges is fully deserving of his reputation, I can’t see anyone writing anything like it today – at least, writing it and being published… Every self-respecting literature fan should have a copy of Labyrinths on their book shelves, real or virtual.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129

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Great wall o’ books

June was a negative month inasmuch as I ended up buying more books than I read, so the TBR increased in size. Oh well. Mostly this was due to Fantastika 2016, which had an excellent book room… but a few books I wanted also popped up during the month on eBay and so I bought them. Having recently discovered there are books I’d like to read but didn’t bother buying when they were published a few years ago, and copies are now £150+… Well, it makes sense to buy a book the moment a copy comes available at a decent price. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

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Both Surviving and Blindness are first editions by Henry Green I found on eBay. Unfortunately, Surviving is a bit too tatty (well, it was very cheap) and Blindness was misrepresented as a first edition, but it’s a first edition of the 1977 reprint. Agent of the Imperium, on the other hand, is the first Traveller novel written by the game’s inventor, Marc Miller. I backed it on kickstarter and they’ve done a really nice job of it.

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Mindsong, The Legacy of Lehr, GodheadsVendetta, Don’t Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine I bought from the Alvarfonden at Fantastika 2016 to review on SF Mistressworks.

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David Tallerman gave me a copy of his new collection The Sign in the Moonlight in a swap for a copy of my Dreams of the Space Age. Arcadia is the only novel on the Clarke Award shortlist I’ve not read – I was waiting for the paperback. The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo last year against all odds and I’ve wanted to read it since first hearing of it. I loved Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days so I’m keen to explore of her fiction, hence Visitation. I’ve no idea why I still read McEwan, but after finding The Children Act in a charity shop I now have his last three on the TBR.

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I do like me some books of photos of abandoned Cold War equipment and places, hence Restricted Areas. And Adam Roberts’s Science Fiction I found cheap at the abovementioned Alvarfonden. The Battlecruiser Hood is one of the Anatomy of the Ship books I didn’t have – found this copy going for a good price on eBay.


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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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Reading diary, #23

It’s really not difficult to maintain gender parity in your reading. After you’ve read a book written by a man, you read one written by a woman; and vice versa. Or, as it seems is the case in this Reading diary post, two books by women followed by two books by men. And then, when you have to write about science fiction or science fiction books, or indeed any branch of literature, you’ll have as many female authors you can cite as examples as you have male authors.

Having said all that, the books below are a bit of a cheat… I’ve been a fan of Helen Simpson’s short stories for many years and have all her collections (she has never written a novel). The Emshwiller I read for SF Mistressworks. David Tallerman is a friend. So the only book I actually chose to read unaffected by non-textual factors was the Tregillis… and well, you can see below what I made of it.

cockfostersCockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015). As far as I remember, I first came across Helen Simpson in an anthology of “best short stories” of some sort – I do know, however, that it was her story ‘Heavy Weather’, and I fell in love with it. This was in Abu Dhabi. So on a later visit to the library, I checked out one of her collections – her second, in fact, Dear George & Other Stories. And I’ve been a fan ever since. And yet, the only place I’ve read her fiction has been in her collections – the stories in Cockfosters, for example, originally appeared in Granta, New Statesman and daily newspapers, none of which I read. But hey, that’s what collections are for. There are nine stories in Cockfosters, one of which is genre. In ‘Erewhon’, a husband lies awake at night, worrying about the day ahead, while his wife sleeps oblivious beside him. It’s only as the story progresses, and the hours tick away, that you realise the gender roles are reversed in the world of the story. ‘Kentish Town’, a discussion amongst the members of a book group, is a particularly scathing criticque of Tory Britain. The longest piece, ‘Berlin’, is about a party of middle-aged tourists visiting Germany to see various of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and how the narrator and her husband slowly come to an appreciation of the operas. Those are the stand-outs, but the others are still highly-polished pieces of prose. Simpson is very, very good at what she does, and Cockfosters amply demonstrates it.

thestartoftheendThe Start of the End of it All, Carol Emshwiller (1990). I’d read a few of Emshwiller’s stories before in various anthologies, and had always found them the sort of science fiction not to my taste. While there was no denying their quality, they didn’t offer me the things I looked for in genre fiction. And while this collection certainly shows that Emshwiller is a good writer, I found it something of a mixed bag in terms of what I enjoy reading. I’ve been working on a review of it for SF Mistressworks, but it’s been taking a bit longer than expected.

patchwerkPatchwerk, David Tallerman (2016). Dran Florrian has invented a machine he calls Palimpsest and, afraid it might be used as a weapon, he decides to do a runner with it. But his arch rival, Harlan Dorric, tracks him down and tries to take Palimpsest for himself. Oh, and Florian’s ex-wife, Karen is now with Doric too. Palimpsest apparently provides a means of viewing, and even manipulating, alternate realities – as is revealed when Doric and his goons attack Florrian, and Florrian and Karen find themselves in a completely different world (a steampunkish one, in fact). And so it goes. As the chase continued across alternate realities, it occurred to me this was a very cunning way to expand a short story to novella-length. Because the resolution of the story is not dependent on the realities Florrian and Karen visit – in fact, all they do is delay, or perhaps even obstruct, the resolution. But this is hardly a problem as the story is fast-paced, very readable and manages a more-than-sufficient level of invention. Perhaps the various backgrounds are a little sketchy, and Florrian has a tendency to over-analyse at times; but at short-story length this would probably have been too light on detail to be satisfying, and there really isn’t enough plot to justify novel length. But it works just fine as a novella.

bitter_seedsBitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis (2010). I “won” this book on Twitter – a friend did a giveaway and… I can now understand why he gave it away. Bitter Seeds is a reworking of World War II – although it opens during the Spanish Civil War – in which the Germans have half a dozen super-powered teenagers, who need electricity wired directly into their brains to manifest their powers. The British are forced to make deals with the Eidolons, enigmatic and omnipotent demon-like creatures, who exact a blood price each time they deign to help. It’s an interesting idea, a mishmash of Nazi occult science mythology and the sort of potboilers Dennis Wheatley used to churn out. Unfortunately, it reads like a novel that’s been through far too many writing workshops, where the writer has tried to follow every “rule” and address every critique levelled at the manuscript. So when it’s not overwritten, it’s trying too hard do everything it thinks prose should do. And then there’s the research… Although much of the story is set in Britain, it’s not in the least bit convincing. Everyone carries billfolds. The book’s hero marries his wife in the garden of his boss’s house. The second son of a duke wears a bowler all the time (and the ducal estate is in Bestwood, which is actually a colliery village but never mind). There’s a pub which resembles no British pub ever. And the dialogue sounds like it was based on that spoken in 1970s and 1980s UK television series. There are apparently two sequels to this book. I won’t be reading them. But I might well be doing a giveaway on Twitter for Bitter Seeds

atoms_afloat_smallAtoms Afloat, Edward Radlauer & Ruth Shaw Radlauer (1963). The NS Savannah, the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship, was one of only four ever built. She was launched in 1962 and served as a passenger and cargo ship until 1965, and then as cargo-only until 1972. She was designed as a demonstration model for nuclear power and a show case for Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” project. And she was quite a stunning-looking vessel. The interior was also designed to be in keeping with ship’s “atom age” styling, and looked fantastic. Atoms Afloat is the only book I’ve been able to find on the NS Savannah – and it’s aimed at middle-grade readers. It’s also more about the construction of the ship, and how her nuclear reactor works, than it is her design. But there are some nice photos in the book. I also have a copy of a brochure, published in the late sixties by the shipping line which operated her, and that contains some nice colour photos of Savannah’s passengers spaces. The NS Svannah was a design icon of her age, and someone really should do a proper book on her, filled with lots of colour photographs.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 122