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Reading diary 2018, #14

My reading has been all over the place these past few months. Sometimes I just grab the first thing I see, other times it takes me ages to pick a book to read, although these past few weeks it’s been more of the former than the latter. Having said that, I’m still ahead on my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018 – six books ahead, in fact, as I type this. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been reading more than in previous years, although there have been a few weekends when all I’ve felt up to doing – because of the heat – is just sitting down and reading. Or watching films.

Liminal, Bee Lewis (2018, UK). I reviewed this for Interzone. The back-cover blurb describes it as a “Gothic fantasia”, which basically means literary fiction that doesn’t want to be identified as genre and is too dark to be called “magical realism”. As it is, Liminal is a weird mix of fantasy au Mythago Wood and “grip-lit” à la Gone Girl. Interestingly, the main character is a disabled person – she lost a leg as a child in a car accident – and Lewis handles her well. She’s less successful with her male characters – the husband is supposed to be quite religious but that only manifests in outbursts of bizarrely misogynistic behaviour (which I guess is as good a description of religion as anything else). The genre aspects are quite good, but the thriller plot is too easily and too neatly resolved. Anyway, see my Interzone review for more.

The Trespasser, DH Lawrence (1912, UK). This was Lawrence’s second novel, published the year after The White Peacock. It was apparently based on the diaries of a friend of Lawrence, whose lover, a married man, committed suicide. It seems a bit, well, off, especially since the female lead in the novel is called Helena, which is not much different from Helen, the name of Lawrence’s friend. Helena is a young woman studying how to play the violin under Siegmund, a married man. The two enter into an affair, but the book pretty much focuses on a trip the two take together – partly by accident – to the Isle of Wight. They know that once the holiday is over they must return to their respective lives, and any affair between the two must end. On his return home, Siegmund realises his relationship with his wife and children has been forever tainted by his affair, even if they did not know of it (although his wife certainly suspected). Like the earlier novel – and some of his later ones – Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it’s describing the landscape. The dialogue, and the characters’ emotions, seem over-emphatic to modern readers, and though Lawrence had a good ear for dialogue it often jars with the over-emotional prose. I can understand why he’s no longer as popular, or as read, as he once was, but I still think he’s an important author in British literature, and it’s a shame he’s best-known these days for TV miniseries adaptations of his work.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989, USA). This was a reread, although I last read it twenty-five years ago. I’m not much given to rereading, and then it’s usually of books I greatly admire. But the blurb for Grass intrigued me (or re-intrigued me), and I couldn’t remember anything of the book from my previous read (and I’m generally quite good at remembering books I’ve read). So I grabbed it one weekend, and read it on-and-off over a couple of weeks. There is a type of sf which is quite common, in which a group of explorers or settlers must figure out the strange ecology of an alien world – not always directly affecting them, sometimes it’s historical. There are plenty of examples, both short fiction and novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ‘The Wind People’ (1959) to Stephen Leigh’s Dark Water’s Embrace (1998), and many both between and since. Tepper’s Grass is a good example of the type. On the eponymous world, a number of noble families live in country estates on the grassy plains, and their lives revolve around the Hunt. But this Hunt bears only a faint resemblance to the barbaric practice of chasing foxes on horseback (er, the hunters, obviously; the foxes aren’t on horseback) as practised in the UK. For a start, the hounds and mounts (but never “horses”) are native species of Grass, as are their prey, the “foxen”. All three creatures are likely intelligent – certainly the hunters are not in control during the Hunt. Meanwhile, a plague has taken hold on all the human-occupied worlds… except Grass. So Sanctity, the oppressive religion which pretty much rules all the humans, sends a family of Old Catholics as ambassadors to Grass, with the secret task of discovering if Grass is indeed immune to the plague. The Yrariers were chosen because they’re both Olympic champion horse-riders and Sanctity has heard about, but misunderstood, the Hunt on Grass. It wasn’t until I get to the end of Grass that I began to remember my previous read. And I suspect that’s because back then I also found the final section of the book over-dramatic. The puzzle presented by the hounds, mounts and foxen is interesting enough, not to mention the Arbai, and the plague, so there’s no real reason to start blowing shit up in the third act. I had definitely forgotten, however, how good Tepper’s prose could be. She famously started writing late – she was in her fifties when her first novel was published – so perhaps that explains why her writing was a cut above many of her peers. During the late 1990s, I read a whole bunch of Tepper’s novels – she was an author much-liked among the members of a sf APA I was in at the time – and if hr novels had a tendency, as I remember it, to get a little preachy at times, there was never any doubt that she was among the best the genre had to offer during that period. I really ought to read more of her stuff.

The Wind, Jay Caselberg (2017, Australia). I must admit, these novellas aren’t really convincing me that horror/dark fantasy is a genre that I’m missing out on. Fans of the genre will likely find more to like in them than I have done. It’s not as if the writing has been especially stand-out – and in this one it’s noticeably, well, not bad per se, just very, very ordinary. Gerry has just moved to Abbotsford to take over the local veterinary practice, which is mostly farm animal work rather than domestic pets. But the Dark Days are coming again, which seems to manifest as wind (as in climate, not as in farm animals alimentary processes), and an enigmatic red-haired young woman called Amanda. Like the Lotz, this is set in rural UK but doesn’t quite convince. The prose manages a good British voice, but there are odd details which don’t fit. Like the village shop, which resembles more something out of Open All Hours, or the use of “used cars” instead of “secondhand cars”. Or referring to Gerry as the “veterinary” instead of “vet” or “veterinarian”. The author is apparently an Australian living “in Europe”. They make a nice collectable set, these four novellas, with a lovely piece of cover art spread across all four books. But three novellas in and they’ve not been as memorable as the first and third series of novellas, both of which were science fiction.

The Inheritors, William Golding (1955, UK). It must be horrible to have had a distinguished career as a writer, but people only know you from your first novel. Which for Golding was Lord of the Flies; and even now 64 years after its publication, and 25 years after Golding’s death, if you asked anyone to name a novel by him they’d name his first novel. But to then follow Lord of the Flies with something as frankly weird as The Inheritors… Now, I know Golding was not that odd. I’ve read his Rites of Passage, which is brilliant, and I have The Spire on the TBR, but The Inheritors is by any yardstick an odd book. It tells of the end of the Neanderthals at the hands of the Cro-Magnons, and is told entirely from the point-of-view of the former. The main characters are a small group of Neanderthals, comprising a young male, an old male, an old woman, two young women, one of which carries a baby, and a young child. The old woman is described at one point as the young male’s mother, so it’s likely they’re all related. The old man dies – of pneumonia? – after falling into a river, and then other members of the family disappear under mysterious circumstances. The young male discovers some men have settled an island in a nearby river, but they are not men like himself – nor women, for that matter (Golding was an old school misogynist). The two survivors of the family hide out in a tree and witness the Cro-Magnons at work and play. It’s a novel in which very little happens for pages and pages, and what does happen is filtered through Golding’s idea of a Neanderthal worldview. It works because the prose is so good. There’s something about Golding’s writing that oozes authority, and I’m not entirely sure what it is. His prose is not lush, nor is it stripped back. But there’s a clarity and confidence to it that many writers would do well to emulate – especially in these days of MFAs and CWAs and creative writing courses. I can think of several recent highly-praised novels where if the author really had applied “kill your darlings”, the novel would be considerably shorter. Had Golding done the same to The Inheritors, it would be precisely the same length.

Thoreau’s Microscope, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction for many years, but he has not been especially prolific: three novels – this book claims The Roberts is a novel, but it’s really a novella – and only one collection all the way back in 1988 and another, What the Doctor Ordered, in 2013 (but also a new one, as well as this one, All I Ever Dreamed, this year). Having said that, these PM Press Outspoken Authors collections are odd beasts, as they contain a mixture of fiction and factual pieces, most of which are not that well-known. The title of this one refers to the collection’s longest-piece, an essay about Blumlein, his lung cancer, and a hike into the High Sierras with friends to name a mountain after Thoreau, and, er, Thoreau. Also included are ‘Paul and Me’, in which the narrator meets and makes friends with Paul Bunyan; ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f‘, written in the third person and almost impossible to summarise; ‘Fidelity’, which is not genre, about a Jewish couple who have twin sons and can’t decide whether to circumcise them; ‘Know How, Can Do’, about a worm given a brain graft, who gains sentience; and finally an interview with Blumlein. As an introduction to Blumlein’s short fiction, this is not a good place to start. The contents seem to have been chosen more because of their unusual nature than because they are representative of his oeuvre. Good stuff, but more for fans than casual browsers. Having said that, followers of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series will probably not be phased by the collection’s contents – and if it persuades them to try more of Blumlein’s fiction, then job done.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Easter parade

Yes, I know, Easter is over. And I don’t think they have parades at Easter, anyway. At least not in this country. But it’s still April, and here is a parade of books wot I have recently added to the collection.

This is the third set of novellas from NewCon Press – I didn’t bother with the second set as it was horror – and, as you can see, the covers form a single piece of art. By Jim Burns. I’ve already read The Martian Job (see here), and The Martian Simulacra and The Greatest Story Ever Told (see here), but have yet to read Phosphorus.

Three new-ish science fiction books. Well, A Thorn in the Bush is not really new – it was written decades ago but never published – and it’s not actually science fiction either, as Herbert initially set out to be a writer of thrillers. But never mind. Songs of Leaving was the only book I bought in the dealers’ room at Follycon 2. I’m a big fan of Duchamp’s writing, so I’ve been after a copy of The Waterdancer’s World for a while.

I started reading Litt’s novels several years ago – although not in alphabetical order, as I started with Journey into Space (Litt has titled each of his books alphabetically; he’s currently up to N). I thought I ought to fill in some of the gaps, hence Beatniks. The True Deceiver was a charity shop find. Sea and Sardinia is another for the DH Lawrence Phoenix Edition collection. Such Good Friends was the consequence of drunk eBaying, bought after seeing Preminger’s not very good film adaptation, reading up about it on Wikipedia, and thinking the original novel sounded mildly interesting…

Some birthday presents from last month from my sisters. I’ve heard good things about Frankenstein in Baghdad. A Primer for Cadavers I’ve already read (see here). I’ve always wanted to work my way through Clarke’s short fiction, so I’m glad I now have The Collected Stories. And I’ve been a fan of Irwin’s writing since reading his book on classical Arabic literature years ago, and Wonders Will Never Cease is his latest novel.

Some collectibles. The Elizabeth A Lynn is actually titled Tales from a Vanished Country, although none of the books in the 29-volume Author’s Choice Monthly series from Pulphouse Publications actually put the titles on the cover. Anyway, I’m slowly completing the set. The Natural History of the P.H. is an essay by Roberts on something that drove his fiction in his later years. It was published by Kerosina. Judgment Night is a facsimile edition of the first edition, published by Red Jacket Press. Gerfalcon, is from the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy Library, although annoyingly I don’t think it’s the original cover art for the book.

Finally, some graphic novels. Memories from the Future (see here) is the final volume in the Valerian and Laureline series. While Crosswind (see here) is the first volume in a new series. And Inside Moebius Part 1 is, er, also the first in a series, of, I think, three volumes.


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Christmas come early

Well, not really – I mean, it is early for Christmas, not that it’s stopped the shops selling mince pies and Christmas puddings and all the other stuff you’re supposed to eat to celebrate Santa Claus’s birth in a manger, or whatever it is. I don’t listen to the radio, but I expect they’re already playing carols. That was one of the things I liked about living in the UAE, an Islamic country: there was no mention of Christmas until the day before, and it was all over by Boxing Day. Anyway, here are some recent finds which have joined the collection. I recently worked out I could probably get another four bookcases into the flat, but since a book collection expands to double-fill the bookshelves available, I’m not sure they would be a wise purchase… Although it’s not like the collection is shrinking…

Some charity shop finds to start with – these generally go back to a charity shop when I’ve read them, so they only clutter up the flat temporarily: I’ve read Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood (the latter only recently), and now I can finish off the trilogy as I’ve got MaddAddam. I’m still not convinced by Atwood’s sf, however. I also recently read Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (see here), so Gentlemen of the Road and Wonder Boys were timely finds. The Tales of Hoffmann just looked interesting. I always pick up Lessing’s novels when I see them – Martha Quest was one I’d not read. And I’m pretty sure I read Lord of the Flies at school, but that was many years ago and a read of Golding’s Rites of Passage earlier this year (see here) highly impressed me, so I thought it worth a try as an adult.

Some non-fiction. I’m a big fan of The Incal, so I’m looking forward to reading Deconstructing the Incal. Stuck on the Drawing Board is about civil aircraft that never made it into production. And who can resist a book titled Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums?

I’ve been collecting the Phoenix Editions of Lawrence’s books for a couple of years now, and The Plumed Serpent now means I have sixteen of, I think, twenty-six volumes. I saw Bodies of Summer mentioned on someone’s blog and it sounded interesting, so I bunged it onto an order from a large online retailer. After watching The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (see here), it occurred to me I’d never read anything by Alan Sillitoe, so I had a look on eBay for one to try, and found a cheap hardback of Travels in Nihilon, which sounds quite similar to Jan Morris’s Hav, so, you, know, science fiction, right?

Speaking of science fiction… I didn’t pick up a copy of Gardens of the Sun when it was published, and later discovered first editions were extremely hard to find. I’ve been looking for several years, and found this one from a US-based seller on eBay. I’ve also been picking up copies of the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy collection when I can find good condition copies. Golden Wings is the eighth book of the series.

The Faber Book of Modern Verse was 29p from a charity shop. It’s a 1960 edition, so nearly sixty years old “modern” – and the introduction states that all the poems in the book date after 1910. But that’s fine, because I actually prefer poetry from the first half of the twentieth century. Such as If Pity Departs, published in 1947. This has been on my wish list for a long time and, to be honest, I’ve forgotten why I put it on it. I suspect I came across Atthill’s name while reading about the Cairo poets – the group of British poets who were based in Egypt during WWII and include, among others, Lawrence Durrell, Keith Douglas, Terence Tiller, GS Fraser, Bernard Spencer and Olivia Manning (her The Levant Trilogy is a fictionalisation of her time there). I have several books on the subject, including a copy of the Personal Landscape anthology, and three of the Oasis anthologies published by the Salamander group. On the other hand, I could have comes across Atthil in one of the 1940s poetry anthologies I own. One of these days, I’ll have to do a post about my poetry book collection…


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Moving pictures 2017, #24

I’m continuing to watch a varied selection of films, which does make me wonder why people limit themselves to the latest Hollywood blockbusters…

The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan). David Tallerman has recommended a number of films to me, both anime and live action, and they’ve generally been good calls – more so for the latter than the former, as he’s a big anime fan and I’m not. But… I really liked this. (It’s anime, incidentally,) Perhaps because I like anime that isn’t overtly fantastic or about mecha – well, except for the Neon Evangelion films, that is – as witnessed by the fact my favourite Ghibli films are Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves and From Up On Poppy Hill. But I do also own a copy of Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, so who knows, one day I might sign on fully  to it… A teenage girl moves to a new town and is bullied by the her new classmates as they claim she is the “Judas”, a girl in the class who was murdered the prevous year. The only person who can shed light on this mystery is Hana, Alice’s next-door neighbour, who no longer attends school. The art is very clean-line, without some of the exaggerations normally found in anime, and I liked it for that. It’s not entirely mainstream, however, as there some low-key fantastical elements which appear. But the whole thing is so stylishly done that it’s hard not to like it. David has recommended  several films I’ve considered adding to my collection, but I think this is the first anime film he’s suggested that I’d like to own a copy of (I think it was Jonathan McCalmont who recommended Neon Genesis Evangelion). Looking on a certain online retailer, there appears to a Blu-ray edition of The Case of Hana and Alice (but not cheap!) – I might well add it to my next basket…

The Harder They Come*, Perry Henzell (1972 Jamaica). I had somehow got this linked in my mind with Superfly from the same year, possibly because both were films about the black experience in the US, except it turns out The Harder They Come is a actually Jamaican film about reggae and any connection between it and Superfly were a product of my imagination (and, let’s be fair, a small amount of racism, which I try at all times to educate myself out of, but I’m white so it’s a 24/7 task). It doesn’t matter to me in what cultural milieu a film is set – I love Chinese films, I love Indian films, I love films from various African nations… among  many others – but The Harder They Come wrongfooted me because it wasn’t what I had mistakenly expected, and so I found it much more interesting than I’d anticipated. I am not, I must admit, a fan of reggae music, but I am a fan of cultural expressions that are deeply embedded in a nation’s culture – a consequence, I suspect, of growing up in Islamic countries – and reggae one hundred percent informs the story and style of The Harder They Come. It did not appeal to me so much, in the way, say, Easy Rider, another film very much tied to its music, did that I put it on my wishlist – but I came away from watching The Harder They Come considering it a film I’d be happy to recommend. Worth seeing.

Boccaccio ‘70, Mario Monicello, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti & Vittorio De Sica (1962, Italy). Those Italians and their anthology films. I’ve seen a few of them now, and all seem to have featured names known pretty well internationally, even at the time the anthology film was made. I mean, Monicollo might be a bit of an unknown, but in 1972 Fellini, Visconti and De Sica must have been household names around the world among cineastes. Boccaccio was apparently “an important Renaissance humanist”, although there is likely a subtlety to the Italian use of the word I am missing here completely. I mean, I don’t even understand why they called it Boccaccio ’70 when it was released in 1962… Anyway, there are four segments, of varying degrees of success. The opening one by Monicello is actually a pretty good realist drama, in which a company clerk hides her marriage because her boss disapproves of married women in his department and so she must put up with his flirting. Fellini’s segment is less subtle – a prude campaigns against a giant billboard of Anita Ekberg advertising milk and then finds himself terrorised by a giant Ekberg, and while it has all the implausibility of Fellini’s work it has none of the excess and so feels lacking; Visconti provides an extended vignette about an aristocratic couple whose marriage hits a rocky patch, and while Romy Schieder is a joy to watch, it’s hard to know what to make of the piece; and finally, De Sica has Sophia Loren as a carnival worker in so need of money she auctions off her body but then has second thoughts about what she promised, and it all seems predicated on some aspect of Italian male character that quite frankly passed me by. I’m all for having this film available to watch, and at least two of the segments are definitely worth watching… But then I have to wonder what better films did not get a UK release because this one did… and I’m less charitable toward it.

The Girl on the Train, Tate Taylor (2016, USA). You know when someone writes a novel set in the UK and it’s a bit unbelieveable but sort of plausible, but then they make a movie of it and transplant the story to the US and it’s totally implausible? That. The railways in London are so stitched into the urban landscape, and travel so slowly, that it’s eminently believable someone could see something odd from a train in an area they know and so seek to investigate… But in the US? Do posh houses even overlook railways? Do trains travel that slowly? The rest of the plot is something about a drunkard’s memory loss actually being gaslighting rather than true drunkeness, which is way more a British plot than a US one, so much so I’m frankly astonished someone in the US thought this might even fly with a US audience. But then I guess there’s no underestimating Hollywood’s underestimation of its audience’s capacity to swallow anything. The Girl on the Train is a dull and over-long thriller peopled with unlikeable characters that feels like it would have worked much better in its native country. One to avoid.

Illumination, Krzysztof Zanussi (1973, Poland). It took me three goes to watch this, and not just because I typically put it on late while a bottle of wine down. But it’s an experimental film in terms of narrative – indeed, it feels like it has none – and though it’s well-shot and has a well-drawn cast of characters, it’s hard to work out, even after a totally sober viewing, what to make of it. It’s a sort of’slice-0f-life of the central character, who is a physicist. He’s searching for meaning, while the film tries to avoid anything as bourgeois as a plot. I think it works, but chiefly because it does that thing Polish cinema of the 1970s does so well: ie, come across as highly intelligent television drama. It’s certainly a film to rewatch, and perhaps one day I’ll figure out what Zanussi was trying to achieve. Fortunately, it’s one of the Blu-rays in the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets I bought, so I can watch it again whenever I want. On the one hand, it would be nice to “de-clutter” and get rid of the DVDs and Blu-rays I have piled everywhere; on the other hand, can I seriously expect a film like Illumination to be available to stream whenever I might want to rewatch it?

The Rainbow (BBC, 1988). One of the joys of Lawrence is that he’s there, straddling his works, very much a presence in the prose. One of the frustrations is that every sod and their progeny feels they have the “adapt” his work. True, his prose is open to interpretation – inasmuch as he’s so much better at some things than others – and also true, many of his works could not be adapted’for film or television given the lengths expected of similar material. But The Rainbow is not a complicated book, and for all its documenting of the Brangwen family history, the adaptor of the novel for this BBC version ended up with something very different to the novel. It has a good cast – Imogen Stubbs as Ursula Brangwen, Clare Holman as a badly under-written Gudrun Brangwen, Tom Bell as their father, and Jon Finch as the uncle Ursula goes to stay with. The major scenes from the novel are there, but the through-line is not the one I took away from the book, nor the one that Russell’s adaptation, released the following year, apparently took. Lawrence’s prose is never less than colourful, and this version of The Rainbow seemed to lose that. Lawrence also has a great sense of place, and I could not honestly say where this BBC adaptation was supposed to be set. I  suspect there’s no such thing as an ideal Lawrence adaptation, since everyone finds their own Lawrence in the books. But it’s telling that the best one I’ve found so far has been Pascale Ferran’s French-language film, Lady Chatterley

1001 Movies you Must Watch Before You Die count: 863


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Books landing

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Fresh month, fresh books

The start of a new month and so time to place an order with a large online retailer of books (and other stuff). Last month’s purchases were mostly catching up with books published in 2016 I’d not got around to buying last year. This month, it’s widening my reading to include authors from some countries I’ve not previously tried. Plus a few favourites.

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Three British writers. I read the first book of Ali’s Islam Quintet, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree back in 2011, and though I enjoyed it I never got around the reading further. Hence book 2, The Book of Saladin. Snowdrift is a new collection from Heyer, and I do love me some Heyer, it must be said. Back in the UAE, I read several books by Tremain, but stopped when I returned to the UK. No idea why. I thought it was time I started reading her again, so The American Lover.

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Some fiction from around the world. The Captive Mind is from Poland, not the Czech Republic, as I mistakenly tweeted a week or two ago. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is from Albania. The Conspiracy and Other Stories is from Estonia. And A River Called Titash, from Bangladesh, is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted.

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The latest Blake and Mortimer. Volume 24, to be precise. I actually think this series has improved since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. The plots are much more closely tied to the real world. This one, for example, is about a rivalry between two societies who disagree over the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.

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Non-fiction. Now that I have volume 19 and volume 20 I have complete set of Wings of Fame. All it took was patience. And I’m patiently waiting to complete my set of Heinemann’s Phoenix Editions of DH Lawrence’s books. Sadly, this copy of Studies of Classic American Literature is ex-library, and was not described as such by the seller on eBay, but it’ll do for now.

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Finally, some science fiction, old and new. Naked to the Stars / The Alien Way is #31 in Tor’s series of back-to-back novellas from 1989 and 1990. That’s why I bought it, not because I’m a fan of Dickson’s fiction (okay, so the Dorsai trilogy is still kinda pulpy fun). At the Speed of Light and The Enclave… Well, I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds because I like Al’s fiction… and then I saw it was one of a set of four novellas published by NewCon Press, and the last one was by an old friend, Neil Williamson… and I’ve read one of Anne Charnock’s novels and it was very good and I’ve seen Simon Morden tweet that he was keen to get the science right in his novella… so I went and bought the other three. The Memoirist, the fourth novella, has yet to be published, however.


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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.

starmanjones

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…

capture

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.

hear_us

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.