It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Best of the half-year, 2016

A lot of people do best of the year posts, but I also like doing these best of the half-year ones, as I find it interesting to see how they change as the year progresses. The two sets of lists are rarely the same, of course – new works make each top five that I hadn’t read, watched or listened to in the first half of the year. But sometimes, works from the honourable mentions get promoted to the top five as my opinion changes of them.

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Every time I write one of these best of posts, I seem to start them with: it’s been an odd year for reading but I’m not sure why… Which I guess means they haven’t really been odd since they’ve pretty much been the same. It could mean, I suppose, that the last few years have felt like my reading lacks shape or direction because it’s not in step with the genre commentary I see online. After all, while science fiction still forms the bulk of my reading at forty percent, with mainstream fiction a distant second at 26%, I don’t generally read the genre books which are getting the buzz… And when I do, as I did with this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, then I have no idea why those books are receiving so much praise… Which is no doubt why only one category sf novel makes my top five – and only two genre titles appear in my honourable mentions… And yes, the one sf novel in my top five is on the Clarke Award shortlist (because it’s an exception to my earlier comments, of course).

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012). I knew the moment I finished this book it would make my top five for the half-year, and I’ve not read anything since (I read it back in March) that has impressed me as much. I plan to read more by Erpenbeck – although not all of her books have been translated into English. Although not published as genre, either here or in Germany, its central conceit is certainly genre – a young woman, who is born in the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, lives out her life during the turbulent years of the early twentieth century. Sometimes, she dies; other times, she survives. It’s a similar premise to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; it’s also beautifully written and feels like a much more substantial read. The historical side is handled with skill, and the view it gives on elements of European history during the period in question is fascinating. I wrote about it here.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990). Sebald is in a class of his own, so his presence in this list is probably no surprise. Vertigo is a collection of stories which have no overt link, but because of Sebald’s voice they read as a seamless whole. I’ve no idea how much of the novel is fact or fiction – it is, like Austerlitz, very autobiographical I suspect, but I’m not familiar enough with Sebald’s life and career to determine if parts of this novel – especially the section in which the narrator returns to his childhood village of W., notes the changes and reminisces about his time living in the village – although does not lessen my admiration of the book in the slightest (and learning the truth may well increase it). I’ve only read two Sebald books so far, and both made my best of the year lists. I still have one more, The Rings of Saturn, on the TBR. I think I should save it until next year. Anyway, I covered Vertigo in a blog post here.

europe3 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). It’s been a good year for this book, with appearances on various award shortlists. And rightly so. It’s not quite a sequel to the earlier Europe in Autumn, but it’s better for not being one. And thanks to the rank irresponsibility of our government in calling this stupid referendum, Europe at Midnight has become unfortunately topical. I say “unfortunately” because it’s obviously not the book’s fault, and although its creation of a pocket universe England might map onto the wishes of assorted Brexit fuckwits, I know the author’s sympathies don’t lie there and the novel’s Gedankenexperiment is in no way an endorsement of them. Of course, no one ever accused Le Carré of being pro-Soviet but then his novels presented the USSR as the enemy… And I’m digging myself into a bit of a hole here as Hutchinson’s Community is also presented as the enemy. But never mind. I wrote about this book here.

agodinruins4 A Gods in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015). Like the Hutchinson, this is a sequel of sorts to an earlier novel, Life After Life, although it neither continues the plot, nor uses the same cast, as its predecessor. I thought Life After Life good – an immensely readable novel – and even nominated for the Hugo (of course, it didn’t make the shortlist). A God in Ruins is, I think, slightly better. Its central conceit is dialled back more in the narrative, but it’s just as hugely readable as Life After Life. A God in Ruins is the story of the life of a man who fought during WWII and so tries to live a blameless live afterwards. It is, sort of, a variation on A Matter of Life and Death; but in a way that is neither obvious nor intrusive. For much of its length, it’s a lovely piece of historical writing, of personal history stretching much of the length of the twentieth century; but there’s an added dimension which is only hinted at. I wrote about it here.

abandoned5 Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016). It’s all very well celebrating the achievements of past years, but often all we have as evidence are words in books. True, there is evidence aplenty on the surface of the Moon to prove that twelve men once walked there (assorted fuckwits who insist it was all faked aside), but in order to view that evidence we would have to, er, visit the surface of the Moon. There is, however, a lot of evidence remaining on Earth that something involving trips to the Moon took place – launch platforms, rocket test stands, etc – and it’s hard to imagine anything with such concrete (in both senses of the word) physicality being part of a great confidence trick. Is there a word which means the opposite of “paleo-archaeology”? Hunting through the abandoned remains of great engineering projects from last century, which either failed or have long since run their course? Neo-archaeology? This book celebrates one particular engineering project that ended over forty years ago – and it’s one that’s fascinated me for years. I wrote about Abandoned in Place in a post here.

Honourable mentions: Sisters of the Revolution, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (2015), an excellent reprint anthology of feminist sf, containing a couple of old favourites, and much that was new to me – some of which became new favourites; Soviet Ghosts, Rebecca Litchfield (2014), another photographic essay, this time of abandoned buildings and plants in what was the USSR and its satellites; Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015), strange goings-on when a 1970s UK folk band record at a haunted manor, handled with a lovely elegiac tone; Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015), a new collection by a favourite writer, so of course it gets a mention; In Ballast to the White Sea: A Scholarly Edition, Malcolm Lowry (2014), a “lost” novel and never before published, it’s certainly not among his best but the copious annotations make for a fascinating read; Women in Love, DH Lawrence (1920), his best-known novel after Lady Chatterley’s Lover and just as notorious back in the day for its rumpy-pumpy, but I love Lawrence’s prose… and if the philosophy and politics in this are somewhat dubious, I still have that; and The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993), not since Alias Grace have I read an Atwood novel I enjoyed so much on a prose level, so for me this is currently her “second-best” book.

films
My project to watch all the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is now in its second year and has continued to introduce me to new directors I might otherwise never have discovered. Two films in my top five certainly qualify as such, and a third I’d long been aware of but would probably never bothered watching if it hadn’t been on the list. Of the remaining two, one was on the list but I’d seen at least one film by the director before; and the other movie was on a version of the list different to the one I’ve been using…

autumn_avo1 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan). My introduction to Ozu’s work was Tokyo Story which, at the time, I didn’t really take to. But he has been repeatedly recommended to me, and Floating Weeds was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I rented it… and liked it quite a lot. But the (I think) Criterion edition DVD cover art of An Autumn Afternoon reminded me a great deal of Michelangelo’s Antonioni’s Red Desert, a film I love, so I wanted to watch that. And after a false start, buying Late Autumn by mistake, but loving it all the same, I eventually got myself a copy of An Autumn Afternoon… And that convoluted route to it totally worked in its favour. Late Autumn I thought really good, but An Autumn Afternoon struck me as a somewhat satirical take on similar subject matter – and so perversely reminded me of my favourite Douglas Sirk movies – but it also seemed a distillation of all those elements of Ozu’s cinema I had noted in Tokyo Story and loved so much in Late Autumn. I have now added the rest of the BFI editions of Ozu’s films to my wants list.

entranced_earth2 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil). This wasn’t quite a “Benning moment”, where I loved a film so much I immediately went and bought everything I could find by the director… although I did indeed love this film and immediately went and bought everything I could find by Rocha. But, I must confess, wine was involved in the Rocha purchase, whereas it wasn’t in the Benning one. Not that I regret buying Black God White Devil, Entranced Earth or Antonio das Mortes, as all three are fascinating films – but Entranced Earth remains my favourite of the three. Not only is the Brazilian landscape unfamiliar enough I find it strangely compelling, but the film also features scene of political declamatory dialogue, which I love. The film is part of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which seems to be like France’s Nouvelle Vague in parts but Italy’s Neorealism in others. There’s a crudity in production which, perversely, seems a consequence of, as well as an enabler for, a film closer to the director’s vision than might otherwise have been the case. And I really like that, I really like that movies like this are closer to the creative process than is typical in our commodified homogenised product-placement Hollywoodised cinema world. There are those directors who muster sufficient clout in their nation’s cinema industry they can make whatever they like, but there are also those who make great films because of their total lack of influence… and it’s the latter who often produce the more lasting work. Like this one.

qatsi3 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA). I’ve no idea how many years I’ve known about this film, but I’d never actually bothered watching it. Something about what I’d heard about it persuaded me I wouldn’t enjoy it – and while that may have been true twenty years ago, it could hardly be true now given my love of Benning’s work. But it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I stuck it on the rental list, it duly arrived… and I was capitivated. The score and cinematography worked perfectly together – and while it’s a more obvious approach to its material than anything by Benning, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautifully-shot piece of work. I ended up buying the Criterion Blu-ray edition of all three Qatsi films, which, in hindsight, was a mistake, as the transfers of the first two don’t really do the format justice. The sequel, Powaqqatsi, is very good, although not as good as Koyyanisqatsi; but the third film, Naqoyqatsi, sadly suffers because its use of CGI (in 2002) makes it appear a little dated. All three are worth getting. But not on Blu-ray.

nostalgia4 Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile). The problem – if that’s the right word – with documentary films, is that no matter how beautifully-shot they might be, if the subject does not appeal then you’re not going to like the film. But then it’s not really fair to say the subject of Nostalgia for the Light “appeals”, because it’s an unpleasant subject and no one’s world is a better place for knowing about it. Nostalgia for the Light contrasts the hunt for stars by astronomers at an observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert with the search for the remains of the Disappeared, the thousands of victims Pinochet’s brutal regime massacred for… whatever feeble-minded self-serving reasons such fascist regimes use. It’s a heart-breaking film, all the more so because it interviews those who survived the regime; but Guzmán’s intelligent commentary also gives context and commentary to the interviews. I now want to see more films by Guzmán – and oh look, there’s a boxed set of his documentaries available on…

pyaasa5 Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India). There are a couple of Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and so I rented them and enjoyed them; and while they may be superior examples of the genre (if “Bollywood” could be called a genre) and great fun to watch, to be honest they struck me as no more worthy of inclusion than a great many of the US films on the same list. But then I stumbled across a list of Bollywood classic films, and decided to try a few more than the two or three on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… Which is how I discovered Guru Dutt. He’s been described as “India’s Orson Welles”, which I think is a somewhat unfair label as it suggests he’s an imitator; but while Dutt’s films certainly follow the forms of Bollywood movies, they’re also well-constructed, cleverly-written dramas. After seeing Pyaasa, I bought a copy of his Kagaaz Ke Phool, which I also thought very good; and I have his Aar Paar on the To Be Watched pile (as well as the 1985 film of the same title, because the seller buggered up my order). I think Dutt would be a perfect candidate for the BFI to release on DVD/Blu-ray.

Honourable mentions: Yeelen, Souleymane Cissé (1987, Mali), an old Malian fantasy tale told in a straightforward way that only highlights its strangeness; Come and See, Elem Klimov (1985, Russia), the banal title hides a quite brutal look at WWII in Russia; Shock Corridor, Samuel Fuller (1963, USA), a low budget thriller that rises above its production values, but then Fuller was good at that; Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles (1966, Spain), a mishmash of Shakespeare’s various depictions of the title character, but it works really well and after watching it my admiration of Welles moved up a notch; Story of Women, Claude Chabrol (1988, France), a heart-breaking story of France’s mistreatment of its women during WWII, played strongly by the ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert; Osama, Siddiq Barmak (2003, Afghanistan), an even more heart-breaking film about the mistreatment of women by the Taliban; A Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia), a stark and beautifully-shot adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’; Evangelion 1.11 and 2.22, Hideaki Anno (2007/2009, Japan), giant mecha piloted by high school kids battle giant alien “angels”, which as a précis does very little to describe these bonkers animes; Storm over Asia, Vsevelod Pudovkin (1928, Russia), a beautifully-shot silent film set in Mongolia; Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK), firemen during the Blitz by one of Britain’s best directors, but I probably need to rewatch his films to decide if this is his best; London, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK), it reminds me a little of Benning, but the arch commentary by Paul Scofield is hugely appealing; and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France), a mostly-silent, almost entirely unadorned depiction of three days in the life of the title character, which makes for fascinating viewing despite its lack of action or, er, plot.

albums
You’d think that given the amount of music I listen to that this would be the easiest category to fill in each year. But, perversely, it usually proves the hardest. Probably because I don’t document my music purchases and I rarely write about music. I also don’t purchase albums in anything like the number of films I watch or even books I read. Having said all that, I managed to pick five albums I first listened to in the first half of 2016, and they are…

no_summer 1 A Year With No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016). I saw this band perform at Bloodstock in 2014 and thought them so good I bought their album as soon as I got home. And now, after four years, a second album finally appears. In some respects, Obsidian Kingdom remind me of fellow countrymates NahemaH and Apocynthion, although they’re not as heavy as those two bands. They’re progressive metal, of a sort, and they build up a wall of sound with guitars and drums, not to mention the odd electronic effect, that’s extremely effective. The songs are complex, often very melodic, and move from dreamy to aggressive and back again very cleverly.

afterglow 2 Afterglow, In Mourning (2016). I’ve been a fan of In Mourning since first hearing the monumental The Weight of Oceans, which remains one of the best progressive death metal albums of recent years. Afterglow doesn’t start as strongly as that earlier albums, but a couple of tracks in it turns more progessive and the melodic hooks which characterise the band begin to appear. By the time the last song fades away, you know it’s another excellent album.

rooms 3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016). The name of a band isn’t always a clue to its origin, but yes, Todtgelichter are German. And they play a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal that works really well. Most post-black bands – I’m thinking of Solefald as much as I am Arcturus – tend to incorporate all sorts of musical influences; but Todtgelichter keep it simple and heavy and hard-hitting, and it works extremely well.

eidos 4 Eidos, Kingcrow (2015). It’s an entirely international line-up this top five, with Spain, Sweden, Germany, and now Italy. Kingcrow play progressive metal, although this is no Dream Theatre. They sound in parts very like Porcupine Tree – which is a perfectly good band to sound like – and on one track, ‘Adrift’, the main guitar part is almost pure Opeth. As influences go, you can’t really do better than that.

changing_tides 5 Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016). I stumbled across Trauma Field a year or two ago when I found their 2013 album Harvest on bandcamp. It seem to me there were bits of fellow Finns Sentenced in there – although Sentenced never used a female vocalist that I can recall – but also a more progressive element than that band had ever incorporated. This new album feels a little lighter in tone, much more atmospheric, and is definitely less Sentenced-like… which is, of course, good.

Unfortunately, there are no honourable mentions so far this year. I’ve just not been listening to enough new music. I do most of my listening at work, and I’ve been so busy there I’ve not had a chance.


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Reading diary, #29

I had a couple of introductory paragraphs to this reading diary, about how at school I was often called names because of my choice in books… But I decided not to use it. Mostly because I’ve been sitting on this post for over a week as it contains negative reviews of two of the books on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist. I’ve seen other commentary on the two books, and I appear to be in a minority with my views. And we all know these days that reviews are expected to be little more than warmed-over marketing copy.

As for the Clarke shortlist itself, I’ve now read five of the six books. One of them deserves to win, two of them I suppose a case could be made for their presence (although I wouldn’t do it), and two should never have made the cut. By all accounts, the book I’ve yet to read is no better. But then every year there’s been one or two books on the shortlist whose presence is baffling. This year, it feels like a somewhat shapeless shortlist, more like fannish selections than the picks of literary judges. That may be an unintended consequence of the huge number of submitted books (ie, judges’ choices spread wider, more compromises needed to pick the final six), but that’s just speculation. The Clarke Award shortlist for 2016 is what it is. And sadly, given recent complaints in various quarters about a lack of critical commentary on the award, it’s not a shortlist that especially invites critical commentary.

But on with the books…

vernon_god_littleVernon God Little*, DBC Pierre (2003). You know those comic novels which are supposed to be funny but aren’t, and where the narrator’s voice is supposed to be funny but isn’t… well, this is one of them. There has been a tragedy in the Texas town of Martirio. Vernon’s best friend, Jesus, has gunned down several of his schoolmates, and Vernon is still under suspicion as an accomplice. (He’s innocent, but no one particularly cares – Jesus is dead, and Vernon makes a good scapegoat). This is one of those novels where the entire cast are white trailer trash, and that’s sufficient to present them as comedy characters. Ignorance may be fertile soil for comedy, but there’s a right way to handle it and a wrong way. There’s a meanness to the characterisations in Vernon God Little which makes for unpleasant reading. It doesn’t help that Vernon is a thoroughly unlikeable narrator, nor in fact that none of the characters in the book are at all likeable – most, in fact, are closer to caricature than character. How this book won the Booker Prize is a mystery; how it was picked for the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list is an even bigger mystery. One to avoid.

nowhere_huntThe Nowhere Hunt, Jo Clayton (1981). This is the sixth book in Clayton’s nine-book Diadem series, which also spun off a pair of trilogies about one of its minor characters. Although the series started out as peplum space opera (I’m determined to use that phrase, now that I’ve coined it), it soon drifted into standard 1970s space opera, a sort of Dumarest Saga with a female Dumarest – albeit with lots of special snowflake superpowers. Clayton seemed to have dialled back the violence and abuse as well by book four, but unfortunately this one sees a return to it. I reviewed The Nowhere Hunt on SF Mistressworks – see here.

valerian_11Valerian and Laureline 11: The Ghosts of Inverloch, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1983, translated 2016). I had always thought the Valérian agent spatio-temporel series comprised individual stories, but it seems there is a story-arc slowly beginning to appear. It’s not just that the previous two volumes, Métro Châtelet, Destination Cassiopeia and Brooklyn Station, Terminus Cosmos, formed a two-part story, nor that The Ghosts of Inverloch is also the first of a two-parter (with the yet-to-be-published-by-Cinebook The Wrath of Hypsis), but the story in The Ghosts of Inverloch does refer to the preceding two-parter and even to the first book in the series, The City of Shifting Waters. As it is the plot of The Ghosts of Inverloch is a bit on the thin side – Laureline is already in residence at the eponymous Scottish castle, but Valerian must first capture a Glapum’tian from the planet Glapum’t, which he manages to do within a couple of pages. He then heads – through time and space – to Inverloch Castle. Others are also making their way to the castle, including the head of the Spatio-Temporal Service, Valerian and Laureline’s boss… The reason why, unfortunately, is left to the following volume. Despite their episodic nature, the Valerian and Laureline series is superior space opera. And Luc Besson is making a film based based on it. I can’t wait.

women_in_liveWomen in Love*, DH Lawrence (1920). This is a sequel of sorts to The Rainbow, inasmuch as it continues the story of Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen from that novel. Wikipedia claims the two books were planned as one big novel but split by the publisher, but the introduction to my edition of Women in Love contradicts this – in Lawrence’s own words. He was driven out of London in late 1915 by The Rainbow obscenity trial, a libel suit and his vocal opposition to the Great War (which made him a lot of enemies in London society), and settled in poverty in Cornwall. After recovering from illness, he started work on Women in Love“a sequel to The Rainbow, though quite unlike it”. Certainly, the two books are not big on rigour, and Women in Love might be better considered an entirely new novel whose leads share their names, and some background details, with the Brangwens of The Rainbow. Lawrence apparently wrote it very quickly, but it took four years before it saw print. Gudrun is an artist, returned to the family’s Nottinghamshire home village after a few bohemian years in London. Ursula is a teacher in a local school. She is attracted to school inspector Birkin (a stand-in for Lawrence himself), while Gudrun takes up with Gerald Crich, son of the local coal-mining magnate. The novel charts the two couples’ relationships through a series of (mostly) tragic incidents. You don’t read Lawrence for the plots, which is just as well as he tends to meander. And his characters usually read like they’re dialled up to eleven (so many! exclamation marks! It seems somewhat excessive to a modern reader). But there’s also lots of philosophising and discussions of Lawrence’s often bonkers ideas on art and life. Birkin especially is fond of lecturing the other characters, often at great length. And, of course, there’s Lawrence’s lovely descriptive prose. Women in Love is a… meatier novel than Sons and Lovers or The White Peacock; but it’s also a novel that disappointingly seems to treat the working-class like noble savages (and especially disappointingly so after Sons and Lovers). With its cast of minor gentry, teachers and artists, Women in Love is very middle-class, almost as if Lawrence’s years in London turned him into a social climber (and Birkin suggests as much in Women in Love). I have that absolutely enormous three-volume biography of DH Lawrence on my bookshelves. One of these days I’ll have to read it.

way_down_darkWay Down Dark, JP Smythe (2015). I am not in the slightest bit interested in YA – although I do like Smythe’s non-YA novels, and think they’re very good – but Way Down Dark was shortlisted for the Clarke Award this year, so I picked up a copy and read it and… I’m frankly mystified why it was shortlisted. It may well be better-written than the average YA, but it’s just one long litany of death and violence in a science-fictional setting which doesn’t hold up to a moment’s scrutiny. For a book to be on a major genre award shortlist, I expect more than just a nice turn of phrase. I’ve seen some of the commentary about Way Down Dark, and I am I admit not in the slightest bit familiar with the YA market… So perhaps it’s a YA thing that the background doesn’t make sense. It’s supposed to be a generation ship, but turns out to be a prison. In orbit. So where does the gravity come from? Not acceleration, since it’s not moving. And the decks are made of grating, so where is the artificial gravity hidden? There are “over ninety” of these open decks, and people live in cubicles they’ve made from salvaged sheets of metal and curtains. Chan, the protagonist, tells us that her mother moved them from higher up the stack to halfway down because it was nice and warm – yet the very bottom of the stack is apparently not too hot to live in. Because that’s where the Lows, who are straight out of Mad Max Central Casting, live. Then there’s the Pit, which is the floor of the well around which the decks are arranged. It’s a festering pool of dead bodies and rubbish…because people throw bodies and garbage there. As you would. The book doesn’t say how long the ship/prison has been occupied, but at least three generations are mentioned in the book, and since no one seems to remember they’re actually prisoners that suggests at least a century. In the centre of the Pit, under the rotting flesh and blood and trash, is a secret entrance to the guards’ quarters. Ignoring the fact that no sane person would go wading into a stinking soup of decomposing corpses, or even put their head under it, masked or not… there’s also the fact that initially the entrance would not have been hidden, and could not have been intended to be hidden, as who would design a prison with the expectation that inmates would throw bodies down into the Pit? The ship/prison is also called Australia… I hope there’s an explanation in a later book to explain the name (Way Down Dark is very much incomplete and the first part of a trilogy), but even so, in light of the book’s setting there’s a lot of… baggage there. This is, I believe, the third time a YA novel has made the shortlist – the other two were Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness in 2011 and The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter in 2008. Tellingly, only one of the three is by an actual YA author. Personally, I don’t think YA should be considered by the Clarke Award, and there’s nothing in this novel to cause me to reconsider that.

underwater_manUnderwater Man, Joe MacInnis (1974). MacInnis has been involved in diving medicine for a number of decades – first with Ed Link and his various projects, then in other places. He was part of the US Navy’s SEALAB III project, and was the first scientist to dive beneath the North Pole. This book describes eleven of MacInnis’s most memorable underwater adventures from 1963 to 1972, including the stuff with Link and the Arctic dives. MacInnis may be an excellent doctor, and an accomplished diver, but his writing is… somewhat, er, florid. Here’s a sample, about the bends:

“It is in the shallow regions that decompression sickness is most likely. We are both aware of its fierce displays. I have seen destructive pain-shells fire through proud young bodies. I recall an old friend who had succumbed to the dark winds of vertigo. A ruthless bubble lodged near his brain. He was in such distress that he threw up. I remembered the hard grey stillness locked in my gut as we nursed him slowly back from the cliff edge of shock.” (p 76)

It makes for an odd read. Fascinating stuff nonetheless, and MacInnis is an important figure in the field – he’s still going, his last book was published in 2012 (although I only have his 2004 book, Breathing Underwater, as well as Underwater Man).

book_phoenixThe Book of Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor (2015). And from a shortlisted book written for teenagers to one that reads as though it were written by a teenager. Okorafor seems to be having a Moment this year: ‘Binti’ was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and BSFA Awards, and won the Nebula; and The Book of Phoenix is on the Clarke Award shortlist. This novel is apparently a prequel to 2010’s Who Fears Death, which I’ve not read – and I don’t think I’ll be bothering to do so, either. The protagonist of The Book of Phoenix is a genetically engineered “SpeciMen” (a particularly ugly coinage). Although only two years old, she has the body and mind of a forty-year-old African woman. We’re told she was called Phoenix after the city in Arizona, but the book then later says her mother gave her the name – so it’s a massive coincidence that her genetically-engineered superpower is the ability to combust and then be reborn from her ashes. Oh, and she can fly – she has wings. And later she can “slip”, which is sort of teleporting in time and space. And she can generate heat inside her body too. She starts the book as a prisoner in Tower 7, a LifeGen facility in a post-climate-crash New York. She escapes by destroying the building, and flies to Ghana. A year later, LifeGen tracks her down and, in the process of capturing her, kill her lover. They take her to a Tower in the Caribbean and… The plot of The Book of Phoenix is basically this happened and then that happened and then this happened, with no discernible structure or rigour to it. Early on, Phoenix releases an alien kept captive in Tower 7, and mentions in passing there are colonies on Mars. Both are mentioned only once more in the novel, also in passing, near the end. Ideas are just picked up by the author for world-building when needed, then put down and forgotten. As far as I know, The Book of Phoenix is not being marketed as YA, although it seems to exhibit many of the hallmarks – a heroine with super special powers that have no grounding in either story or world or science or logic, world-building with no rigour and very little sense, and a plot that jumps from one unconnected incident to the next. Would I have thought The Book of Phoenix a better book if it had been badged as YA? Unlikely – though it would have at least “explained” some elements of it. I’ve discussed Okorafor’s novel with other people, and I seem to be alone in finding it unimpressive. So it goes.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 124

Finally, I think I’ll start including a breakdown of my reading by gender in my reading diary posts, so here’s the first – 57 books read up to 22 May this year:

gender