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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.

books
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


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Triple-stacked

I’ve now got into the habit of dumping books at charity shops, or giving them away to friends, once I’ve read them, unless I have a specific reason for wanting to keeping them – such as, they’re part of a series I’m collecting; or, they were really difficult to find… Back in the day, it was: buy a book, read it, keep it. But space is finite and the desire for books is not. Some of the books below will be staying once they’ve been read, some will not. So it goes.

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I bought the first couple of volumes of both these series a few years ago, and even bought the first volumes of The Technopriests in French… but for some reason, the series were never fully translated into English… until these omnibus editions appeared. Which I bought. I wrote here about The Metabarons; I have yet to tackle The Technopriests.

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These two I bought to accompany a rewatch of Battlestar Galactica (I bought the ultimate edition on Blu-ray for a very cheap price on one of Amazon’s Prime Days). The Final Five I wrote about here – it’s confusing and not very good. Battlestar Galactica Vault I expected to be like the Alien Vault published a few years ago – lots of background info and concept designs… But it’s not. It’s just a straightforward history of the show, albeit well-illustrated.

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Some charity shop finds – except for The Princess and Other Stories, which I bought on eBay and which joins the other DH Lawrence Penguin paperbacks in that series I have. I hadn’t known Aleister Crowley wrote fiction, so I bought The Simon Iff Stories and Other Works to see what they were like. Sokurov references Gogol quite a lot in his films, so I picked up The Collected Works of Nikolai Gogol so I could follow them. And whenever I see a Crime Masterwork I’ve not read, even if they’re a bit tatty, I buy them – hence The Hollow Man – although I’ve been a bit slow about reading the half-dozen I’ve found so far.

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Even more charity shop finds, but more recent books this time. Satin Island was shortlisted for the Booker, Station Eleven won the Clarke. I’ve already read Elizabeth is Missing – I wrote about it here. I still can’t remember who recommended it to me and why.

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Underwater Man is the second of two Joe MacInnis books I bought (see here for the other), but it took a bit longer to arrive as the seller was in Canada. La Mordida is another scholarly edition of a Lowry work – it’s a draft of an unpublished novel Lowry wrote about a trip to Mexico in 1945.


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Acquisitions

… and unlike a company which specialises in student accommodation which “aquired” some land locally a few years ago, I know there’s a “c” before”the “q”. Yes, I can hold spelling grudges for years. I can also keep books for years on my shelves… before either reading them or giving them away because I’m never going to read them and whatever possessed me to buy them in the first place has long since evaporated… But some of the following may well become members of the Ian Sales Permanent Book Collection – which does not necessarily result in an eventual state of “having been read”. I really need to get the TBR down to manageable levels. I think my current record is eleven years between buying a book and actually reading it – and, perversely, it turned out to be my favourite book of that year…

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Flesh & Wires, Elysium, Necessary Ill, The XY Conspiracy and A Day in Deep Freeze were all ordered from Aqueduct Press. The second and third I’d heard good things about, and that prompted the order – the rest were thrown in to make it worthwhile… and Shapter’s novella I immediately nominated for the BSFA Award. I wrote about Flesh & Wires here.

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Europe at Midnight was sent to me by the author, who is a good friend, and excellent it is too – see here. It was on my BSFA Award ballot. I hung on for the signed limited hardback of Slow Bullets, only to discover WSFA had given it the same ISBN as one of their previous books. You would not believe how many things that fucks up. Argh. I wrote about it here. And Mike Cobley is a friend of many decades, so I only buy his books out of a sense of duty – hence Ancestral Machines. (Only kidding, Mike’s space operas are smart twenty-first century examples of the subgenre, and worth reading.) Other Stories is a long-awaited collection from a favourite writer – and it’s another lovely job from PS Publishing.

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Borderliners is by one of those authors whose books I pick up when I see them in charity shops. I’ve been a big fan of Helen Simpson’s short stories for many years, so a new collection by her – which is what Cockfosters is – is worth celebrating. And I’ve always been meaning to complete my Radix Tetrad by picking up a copy of Attanasio’s Arc of the Dream, but completely failed to do so until now – but I’d sooner have one in better condition than this one.

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Spin Control, The End of Days, The Adjacent and The Last Pilot were all Christmas presents. My family obviously know my tastes in books – or have access to my Amazon wishlist… So far I have read only The Last Pilot – see here.

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Caliban and Lady Killer are a pair of graphic novels I bought in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen over Christmas, and wrote about here.

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Atoms Afloat I’ve been after for a while. I think the NS Savannah, the first commercial nuclear-powered ship, is a beautiful vessel. DH Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage came from my mother, who found it in a charity shop, I think. And I love me some photographs of Soviet/East European modernist architecture (second only to Niemeyer’s designs for Brasilia), so Roman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism was a must-purchase.

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Gypsy was recommended to me by a number of people, and the title novella is indeed very good – sadly it wasn’t longlisted for the BSFA Award, although I think it was eligible. Happily, Wylding Hall, also recommended to me by, er, the same people, was longlisted, is very good, and it took one of my nominations. The Buried Giant didn’t make it to the longlist, but A God in Ruins did… so I read it, thought it very good indeed , and promptly nominated it for the BSFA Award. Gypsy and Wylding Hall I wrote about here.


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The year in reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Harder (the Ian Sales version) 2016

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

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

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

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


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Tomes immemorial

I was really good in August, and bought only two books during the entire month. So, of course, I went a little berserk this month – and we’re barely a week into it! Ah well.

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Some first editions for the collection. I have rather a lot of Ian Watson first editions, many of them signed, but a copy of his first novel, The Embedding, had always eluded me. I found this one for a reasonable price on eBay. Which is where I also found this first edition of DG Compton’s The Silent Multitude, although it was a good deal more expensive than the Watson. Worth it, though.

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One each for the space books and the deep sea books collections. The title of Spaceshots & Snapshots of Projects Mercury & Gemini pretty much describes the contents. A companion volume on Apollo will be published later this month. It’s on the wishlist. Conquest of the Underwater World I found cheap on eBay. It seems mostly to cover underwater archaeology, and I’m more interested in much deeper exploration. Never mind.

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Some proper literature: In Ballast to the White Sea is a lost novel by Lowry, believed to have perished in a fire, but decades after his death it was discovered his first wife had a typescript. Selected Letters is another volume in the DH Lawrence white Penguin series, which brings my total up to twenty-two (of, I think, twenty-seven). Given these editions all date from the 1970s, finding good condition copies is quite an achievement. Not sure where I saw My Fair Ladies mentioned, but it looked like an interesting read so I bunged it on an Amazon order. The subtitle pretty much explains the topic, “Female robots, androids and other artificial Eves”.

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Here’s some recent “genre” novels. Kari Sperring’s The Grass King’s Concubine I’ve been meaning to pick up for ages, and now I’ve finally got around to it. It says “fantasy” on the spine, so it’s definitely genre. The Book of Strange New Things was shortlisted for the Clarke Award earlier this year, but it wasn’t published as category sf. I read Faber’s Under The Skin shortly after it appeared and didn’t like it one bit. I also have several Faber novels sitting on the TBR. I expect this one to be a difficult read. Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, which mystifyingly seemed to miss out on quite a lot of award shortlists this year. I’ve tried VanderMeer’s fiction before and not got on with it, so we’ll see how this ones goes. Finally, the latest volume in a space opera bande dessinée, Orbital 6: Resistance, and it’s clearly one long story but I think I’m following it. They’re short, so I could always go back and read the preceding five books…

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And here are some books for SF Mistressworks. In Conquest Born is on the actual SF Mistressworks list, but no review of it has yet to appear, so I thought I’d read the book myself. I’ve liked Scott’s two previous novels I’ve read – and it’s a shame I didn’t discover her back in the 1980s as I suspect she would have become a favourite writer – and I saw Dreamships going very cheap on eBay… except it turned out to be an ARC and not the described hardback. I have contacted the seller. I bought Killough’s A Voice Out of Ramah at Archipelacon, read it in Helsinki Airport while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester, and reviewed it on SF Mistressworks (see here). I liked it a lot, so I thought it worth trying something else by her – and I found these two, Aventine, a linked collection, and the bizarrely-titled, The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree.


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Reading diary, #10

I’ve given up on writing actual full-length book reviews on this blog – you know, a post about a single book, covering it in some detail. I do that for SF Mistressworks and Interzone (and occasionally Vector). Besides, I read so widely these days, it would seem weird to review only science fiction books here, not to mention only recent science fiction novels. These reading diary posts strike me as an acceptable compromise – a couple of hundred words on every book I’ve read, irrespective of genre or year of publication – serving both to remind me of what I’ve read as well as perhaps point followers of this blog at something they might find worthwhile reading.

And after my last reading diary was almost all genre fiction, this one sees something of a return to form, with only a pair of sf books, and a third which was published as literary fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2008 (it lost out to Richard Morgan’s Black Man).

the_rainbowThe Rainbow, DH Lawrence (1915). Three books into working my way chronologically through Lawrence’s novels, and he’s yet to move outside of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire (I’ve also read the later Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which also takes place in Notts). The Rainbow follows the Brangwen family through several generations, from the 1840s through to 1905. It starts with the family patriarch before eventually settling on Ursula, who comes of age at the turn of the century, is fiercely ambitious, and ends up teaching at a local school. It’s a more structured novel than The White Peacock and Sons and Lovers, although only inasmuch as the passage of years provides a framework for the story – it still has a tendency to randomly move from one member of the family to another, and it’s not always clear where the novel’s focus lies. But Lawrence’s descriptive prose, particularly in regard to the landscape, shines; and he brings his usual detailed, if occasionally heavy-handed, eye to the emotional landscapes of his cast. I set out to work my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre because a read of Lady Chatterley’s Lover persuaded me I’d been missing out by avoiding him, and because my father was a huge Lawrence fan. The more I’ve read, the more I too have become a fan of his writing – and collecting the books is fun too, of course.

voiceoutramahA Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979). I picked this up from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon in Mariehamn – did I mention I went to a con in Finland, well, the Åland Islands to be precise, and it was excellent? – anyway, I bought this with the intention of reviewing it for SF Mistressworks. I’d come across Killough’s name in an anthology of sf by women, but I’d never read anything else by her. I started the book while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester in Helsinki Airport, and ended up finishing it before my flight was called (it was a five hour wait). And I really liked the novel. As you can no doubt tell from my review on SF Mistressworks here.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia, ed. (1973). This I also bought from Alvarfonden, and read during the flight from Helsinki, and train journey from Manchester. And I suspect it’s the worst sf anthology I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. I mean, just look at that strapline on the cover: “Can sex survive the space age?”. I’m guessing yes it will, it’ll survive a whole lot of things, like climate crash, nuclear armageddon, global economic meltdown… maybe even the heat death of the universe. There are nineteen stories, two are by women (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Miriam Allen deFord); the remainder are by a mix of well-known names (Silverberg, Sturgeon, Aldiss, Farmer), and a few that were unknown to me. The stories, on the other hand, are full of the worst of early seventies sensibilities – the Silverberg is about a young man who discovers he has mental powers and uses them to stalk women, there’s a section titled “Toujours Gay” which opens with the frankly awful ‘The World Well Lost’, another story has serial rape as the “twist”, and the Aldiss is racist and features sexual slavery. The rest are either worse, or completely unmemorable. Best avoided.

The-Cuckoos-CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (2013). According to the blurb on this book, it was a huge best-seller and then the author was revealed as JK Rowling, which is not how I remember it happening. The Cuckoo’s Calling received several positive reviews and sold modestly. Then someone at Rowling’s solicitors (I think) leaked Galbraith’s true identity, and sales shot up overnight by about 5000%. But hey, let’s rewrite history anyway and make out that it’s not Rowling’s name that sells books, that’s she still a really good writer even when no one knows it’s her. So, of course, it comes as little surprise to find The Cuckoo’s Calling is… okay. It has too many words for its story and could have done with losing 100 pages, the most interesting thing about its hero, Cormoran Strike, is his improbable name, and the whole thing feels like it was written by someone who’s a little bit out of touch. A supermodel falls to her death from her penthouse flat and the police initially rule it suicide. But the supermodel’s brother, a solicitor, thinks this is wrong and hires Strike to investigate. At the same time, a new temp has started as Strike’s secretary, and she proves to be highly competent and very much in love with the idea of being a private investigator – parts of the novel are written from her perspective. The plot moves smoothly, but it feels wordy, yet nowhere near literary enough to be literary fiction. There are a few digs at the ultra-wealthy, which feel like they’re the result of personal experience, but mostly Strike’s life seems to belong to an earlier decade. I now have a copy of the sequel, The Silkworm, but I’m not expecting it to be any better.

researchResearch, Philip Kerr (2014). John Houston is a mega-selling author, who runs an “atelier” of writers – he comes up with the stories, they bang out the actual prose… and the books are of course sold under Houston’s name. It makes him millions of dollars a year and his writers a comfortable living. If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Houston is clearly based on James Patterson. But Houston has decided to pack it all in. He wants to write something himself, to prove he has the writing chops. So he closes down his atelier and pays off his writers… Shortly afterwards, his wife is found murdered in their Monaco apartment, and Houston has done a runner. The police contact Don Irvine, the first writer to join Houston’s atelier (the two were friends and colleagues at an advertising agency), but he can shed no light on the murder. And then, as you’d expect to happen in a novel such as this, Houston contacts Irvine, pleads innocence and asks for Irvine’s help. Which he is happy to give. The novel is broken into sections, alternating between first-person narrations from Irvine’s and Houston’s point of view. And pretty soon things aren’t what Houston, Irvine or even the Monaco police thought they were. As thrillers go, there’s not much in here that hasn’t been done before. However, Kerr does a top job of satirising mega-selling authors of the likes of Patterson, their books, and the publishing industry which supports them. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

the_carhullan_armyThe Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall (2007). I picked up this in Oxfam in Micklegate, just before the York pub meet back in May. I’d been after a copy for a while, so I was pretty chuffed when I found this one. I had high hopes too of the novel, as it had been repeatedly recommended to me, but initially I wondered if it had been over-praised. It’s structured as segments of found testimony by Sister, who leaves her husband to join a women’s militia based at a remote farm. In the near-future UK of the book, the economy has crashed, the US sends aid, and an oppressive political regime is tightening its grip on an already downtrodden and poor population. Once Sister reaches Carhullan, the militia’s farm, the story picks up, and when she is recruited to the women’s army which is planning a coup on a local town, then it really moves into gear. By the end of the novel, I was much more impressed than I had been after the first dozen or so pages. On balance, definitely worth its position on the Clarke Award shortlist (and arguably better than the eventual winner).

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