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…
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…
It’s been a funny old year. Not only have we hit that time when the icons of our youth are in their (late) sixties, seventies and eighties, and so coming to the end of their lives… but some of the British people had a fit of madness and voted to leave the EU in the dumbest referendum in British political history… And then the US went one better, as it always has to, and voted in as president Donald Trump, an orange-skinned baboon, a man who makes Nigel Farage look like a mostly-harmless over-educated clown. Trump doesn’t even have his arse officially in the Oval Office yet, and he’s already abusing his powers. We’ve had ten years of damaging and unnecessary austerity here in the UK, and we’re looking down the barrel of a deeper recession, thanks to the morons and racists who voted Leave. But I think the next four years in the US might well be worse than anything we experience…
On the personal front, the day job got really busy around March, when a colleague left the company and a major project he was working on was dumped on my desk. As a result, I’ve not had much energy or enthusiasm for anything other than just consuming culture… which has meant lots of blog posts on films I’ve watched, books I’ve read, and, er, films I’ve watched. I did manage to publish a whole four stories in 2016, however; ‘Geologic’ appeared in Interzone in January; ‘Red Desert’ and ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’ appeared in Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of my alt space stories; and Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum I published as a pendant to the Apollo Quartet… but only the last was actually written in 2016. I also worked on the third book in my space opera trilogy, A Want of Reason, in fits and starts. So, overall, not a very productive year.
Fortunately, some of the films I watched and some of the books I read made up for it. A new favourite writer and two new favourite films is not bad going for a single year. And a number of other “discoveries”, both writers and directors new to me in 2016, I thought so good I will be further exploring their oeuvres. But. There can only be, er, five. In each category. Yes, it’s that time of the year – ie, pretty close to the end – when I look back over the aforementioned consumed culture – of which there has been quite a bit, particularly on the movie front – and pick my top five in books, films and albums. And they look something like this…
Not a very good year for genre fiction, it seems. Not a single category science fiction novel makes it into my top five. And one gets bumped from the half-year top five (those are the numbers in square brackets) to the honourable mentions. Four other genre writers also make my honourable mentions – Charnock, Whiteley, Duchamp and Park – although I’ve been a fan of Duchamp’s and Park’s writing for many years.
1The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012) . Erpenbeck was my discovery of the year. I forget who recommended The End of Days, but I loved it… and then later bought everything else by Erpenbeck translated into English (she’s German). The End of Days re-imagines the life of a Jewish woman born in the early years of the twentieth century in Galicia, and follows her through several variations on her life, as she variously moves to Vienna, becomes a communist, moves to Austria, then settles in East Germany. Erpenbeck’s prose is distant and factual, a style that appeals greatly to me, and I especially like the “facticity” of her protagonist’s many lives. The End of Days is not as readable, or as immersive, a novel as Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book it resembles in broad conceit, but I much prefer Erpenbeck’s novel because I love the authority of its reportage-like prose, and I find the life of its protagonist much more interesting than that of Atkinson’s. I think The End of Days is a superb novel – I’ve already bought everything by Erpenbeck published in the UK, and I eagerly await whatever new works might appear.
2Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990) . Sebald is a genre all to himself, and his novels defy easy summary. They also – particularly in this case – tread that fine line between fact and fiction which I find so appealing, even more so when the fact is autobiography. (In hindsight, I could have included Vertigo as an inspiration for Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, but then Austerlitz had partly inspired Adrift on the Sea of Rains, so…) The novel is divided into four parts, all first person narratives – the first is by Stendahl and describes his entry into Italy with Napoleon’s army, the second is by an unnamed narrator presumed to be Sebald and covers two trips he makes to a village in the Alps, the third is about Kafka, and the final section recounts the narrator’s return to his home village and his reflections on the changes, and lack of change, he sees there. Despite its discursive nature, there’s a deceptive simplicity to Sebald’s prose, which tricks the reader into thinking the story carries a smaller intellectual payload than it actually does. I don’t know of another author who writes at such length, and so indirectly, on a topic and yet still manages to make it all about the topic. Sebald did not write many novels – only four, in fact – but I suspect by the end of 2017 I will have read all of them.
3Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I’m pretty sure it was David Hebblethwaite who mentioned this, and the description sounded intriguing enough I decided to give it a go. It was almost as if it had been written for me – a fractured narrative, split into 113 sections, some of which are factual, some of which hint at further stories. There’s a sense the novel is a work in progress, inasmuch as it’s an approach to narrative that has not been tried and tested – indeed, it led to a “Nocilla Generation” of writers in Spain. I suspect Mallo is guilty of over-selling his concept, but then narrative structure is one of my interests and I should think most writers – including myself, of course! – often think they’re being much cleverer than they actually are… What Mallo has created here may not be wholly new, but it is different enough to be worth keeping an eye on. And yes, I still find it a little disappointing that “Nocilla” is just a Spanish brand-name for a Nutella-like spread. It’s like when I thought Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was a really poetic title until I learnt Teen Spirit is just the brand name of a deodorant…
4Rites of Passage, William Golding (1980). I found this in a local charity shop and bought it on the strength of Golding’s reputation and a half-remembered reading of Lord of the Flies from my school days… In other words, I went into Rites of Passage pretty much blind. I will happily admit I’m not over-fond of journal narratives, and the early nineteenth century is not a period that really interests me (especially in British history), but… this novel was so superbly put together, its control of voice, its management of story, so stunningly good, that after reading it I immediately decided I’d like to read not only the rest of the trilogy, of which this book is the first, the others are Close Quarters and Fire Down Below, but also anything else by Golding. Fortunately, I’d also bought The Inheritors and The Spire when I bought Rites of Passage, so I have those two books on the TBR to look forward to…
5The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962). I’d bought this a couple of years ago on the strength of its reputation – and having read several Lessing novels… but it sat there on my bookshelves unread for quite a while because, well, partly because of its reputation, but also because of its size… But I took it with me on a train journey to Scarborough… and discovered it was a great deal less polemical than I’d expected, hugely readable, and fascinating in its depiction of the life of protagonist Anna Wulf (and her fictional/meta-fictional counterparts). The nested fictional/meta-fictional narratives are no longer as excitingly experimental as they were in 1962, so in one respect the book’s impact has been somewhat blunted by time – although, to be honest, I much prefer literature which plays such narrative tricks. Having said that, this diminution in shock factor solely from structure shows how readable and coherent the various narratives actually are. It is slightly sad and frightening that The Golden Notebook enjoys the reputation it does when you think what a reader must be like, and believe, in order to be shocked and horrified by the novel’s content. Even more worryingly, I suspect more people these days will reject the novel due to its politics – Wulf is a member of the Communist Party – and so completely miss its commentary on sexual politics. But I thought it was bloody great.
Quite a few books from my best of the half-year got bumped down to honourable mentions, but I suspect their authors will not be too upset given what replaced them. Three of the honourable mentions are from small presses – Unsung Stories, Aqueduct Press and PS Publishing – and it’s about fifty-fifty category sf versus mainstream. The gender balance is 2:3 in the top five for female:male, but 8:7 including the honourable mentions. That’s not too shabby. All books mentioned above are, of course, recommended.
A bit of a change in this list from July, but then I’ve watched a lot of films this year. Some of the ones in the top five below have even become favourites, which makes 2016 an especially good year in that respect. Of course, my taste in movies has changed a lot over the last couple of years, but even so…
1A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). I watched Ghatak’s A Cloud-Capped Star back in 2014, after, I think, seeing it mentioned in Sight & Sound, but it wasn’t until this year I saw the only other film by him available on DVD in the UK, A River Called Titas. (Ghatak’s Subarnarekha is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I had to source a copy via alternative means in order to see it.) I have no idea why I love A River Called Titas as much as I do. It tells the story of a young woman during the 1930s in a village on the bank of the eponymous river, who is married against her will, then kidnapped, rescued by strangers, and subsequently builds a life for herself and her new child in another village not knowing who her husband ever was… until she one day stumbles across him. But he has lost his mind. Then they die, and the film follows their son and the woman who adopted him. It’s based on a novel by Adwaita Mallabarman, which I now really want to read. The BFI DVD is not a brilliant transfer, which is a shame as the composition of some of the shots is beautiful. I’ve watched this film five times already this year – and the final watch was of the Criterion remastered edition, which is such a huge improvement over the BFI print – so much so that it was almost like watching a new, and much better, movie.
2Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (something of a familiar refrain, I admit), and I knew nothing about it when I put it in the DVD player – indeed, I knew nothing about Cuban cinema. But I loved it. It tells the stories of three women, all called Lucía – the first in the 1860s, the second in the 1930s and the third in the 1960s. It’s a long film and it covers a lot of ground, but it’s a wonderfully human movie. The Mr Bongo transfer is pretty poor – but it’s the only DVD of the film I can find, so can someone please remaster it? – and the film is black-and-white, so the poor quality is not as noticeable as it might otherwise be… The acting feels appropriate to each of the historical periods, although it does tend to drift into melodrama at times… but when I started watching this I’d never have guessed I’d love it, so much so that Lucía has, like A River Called Titas, become a favourite film.
3An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan) . I’d seen Ozu’s Tokyo Story back in 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that I really started to explore Ozu’s oeuvre. I admit it, I bought An Autumn Afternoon because the cover of the Criterion edition (although I actually bought the BFI edition pictured) reminded me of Antonioni’s Red Desert, a favourite film. And while An Autumn Afternoon was nothing like Red Desert, it is a beautifully observed domestic drama. Ozu had a tendency to use the same actors in different roles, which did intially confuse – Chishu Ryu is playing the patriarch of which family in this film? – but I also think An Autumn Afternoon has the clearest illustration of inside and outside in Japanese culture of all of Ozu’s films I’ve so far seen. There’s a lovely matter-of-fact courtesy among the characters, despite the fact it’s obvious they know each so well they’re extremely comfortable in each other’s company; and it’s the interactions between the characters which are the true joy of Ozu’s movies. The plot, when you think about it, is almost incidental. There’s an effective scene in An Autumn Afternoon, in which Ryu encounters a petty officer from a ship he captained during WWII. It is not, in and of itself, a particularly shocking discovery about Ryu’s character, but it is a powerful reminder that for much of the twentieth century WWII defined a great many peoples’ lives, on both sides of the conflict… and that is something we should not forget.
4Robinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I forget who mentioned Keiller to me, but I received his London as a Christmas present last year and, having thought it was very good, bought myself Robinson in Ruins, a belated sequel, in 2016. The central conceit, that the films are narrated by a friend of the titular Robinson as secondhand reportage, still occurs in Robinson in Ruins – the original narrator, Paul Scofield, died in 2008, and Vanessa Redgrave takes his place in Robinson in Ruins, and, I thought, she actually worked better. The idea that Robinson had spent the intervening years in prison gave the film a freshness, because we’re seeing what it depicts through Robinson’s eyes. But, more than that, its commentary on Tory politics and finances, at an almost Adam-Curtis-like level of detail and interconnectedness, gave the film an added bite Keiller’s earlier films had lacked. This is not the bite of a Great White, it must be admitted, more the savaging of a tenacious spaniel, but the fact it exists only illustrates how much more of this type of cinema we need. Having said that, Redgrave’s narration is erudite, interesting and perfectly played; and Keiller’s imagery is often beautifully shot. More, please.
5Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil) . I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (where have we heard that before?), although I knew nothing about Rocha’s movies – or indeed about Brazilian cinema. I loved it. So much so I bought all three of Rocha’s films available on DVD in the UK – Entranced Earth, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes. Rocha was a leading light of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which sought to bring realism and social conscience into Brazilian films. Entranced Earth has bags of the latter, but not so much of the former. It’s an often hallucinogenic account of an election in an invented South American country, between an established candidate and a populist candidate (back when “populist” didn’t mean orange-faced fascist or goose-stepping Mr Blobby), but neither candidate is ideal – as an investigating journalist discovers. The narrative is non-linear, some of the photography is brilliant (a shot from the top of a TV aerial stands out), and the films wears its politics proudly on its sleeve. Kudos to Mr Bongo for distributing these films in the UK – even if the transfers are not of the best quality – but Rocha made four feature films and five documentaries, so it would be nice to see those too… not to mention actual UK releases of films by another Brazilian Cinema Novo director, Nelson Pereira dos Santos… or indeed any other Cinema Novo director…
Only a single US film in the lot, which I consider an achievement – although I’ve been accused of “going too far in the opposite direction”. But I do like classic Hollywood movies, and I love me some 1950s Rock Hudson melodramas, but… that doesn’t necessarily mean I think they’re good films. The above is a pretty eclectic mix, from 13 different countries, of which India manages three entries (which came as a surprise, although I do really like the work of those three Indian directors). If anything, I’m hoping 2017 will be even more of a world cinema year, and I’ll find interesting films from countries whose cinemas I have yet to explore.
It’s been a, er, quiet year for music for me. I went to Bloodstock Open Air, as I have done since 2007 (minus 2009 and 2010), and enjoyed it a great deal. It was excellent to see Akercocke back together again (and I saw them a second time a couple of months later in Sheffield), but I think the stand-out performance of the weekend for me was Shining, who I’d never even heard of until I saw them at Bloodstock in 2014. That was pretty much it, gig-wise, for 2016. I also saw Arch Enemy, who I’d last seen at Bloodstock in 2007, but their set felt a bit lacklustre. Akercocke were better second time around, playing a small nightclub rather than a giant field in Derbyshire. And then there was a one-off gig by Anathema in Holmfirth, and they were as bloody good as they ever are (and yes, they played my two favourite songs, ‘Closer’ and ‘Fragile Dreams’).
I’ve not bought that many albums this year, either as MP3 downloads or olde stylee silver discs, although a couple of my favourite bands have had new releases out. Partly because I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve been so busy there I’ve sort of got out of the habit. I’ve also been carded once too often by couriers because I didn’t hear the doorbell over the music when I’ve been at home. But the year has not been a total dead loss, because I did actually buy some music, and a lot of it was very good indeed. And, amazingly, my top five are all 2016 albums…
1A Year with No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016) . I discovered this group when I saw them play live at Bloodstock in 2014, and I enjoyed their set so much I bought their album. This second album has been long-awaited, and it’s particularly good because it’s not more of the same. It is, if anything, even more progressive than the band’s debut, Mantiis. There must be something about the Spanish metal scene that leads to bands which generate these complex soundscapes from drums, bass, guitars and synth, more so than the metal of any other nation – not just Obsidian Kingdom, at the progressive end of the scale, but NahemaH, a favourite and now sadly defunct band, from the death metal end of the scale, not to mention Apocynthion somewhere in between. Whatever it is, I welcome it: A Year with No Summer is a listening adventure from start to finish, and never gets tiring.
2On Strange Loops, Mithras (2016). And speaking of long-awaited albums… Mithras’s last album, Behind the Shadows Lie Madness, was released in 2007. There was an EP, Time Never Lasts, in 2011, but it’s been a long wait for a new album-length work from this favourite band. This is pretty much down to the band’s perfectionism, a trait with which I can certainly empathise – and releasing on your own label, or self-publishing, as least gives you the freedom to release when and only when you feel the work is fit for release. Happily, and after all this time, On Strange Loops is definitely worth the wait. It is, of course, more of the same – massively intense and intricate death metal with ambient interludes. It works because of the contrasts and because the muscianship is of such a high level. Mithras toured this year, but I didn’t get the chance to see them perform, which I regret. Maybe next year.
3Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016) . A friend had this on their wishlist on Bandcamp, so I gave it a listen as we often like a lot of the same stuff. I liked it. A lot. Back in June, I described Todtgelichter’s music as “a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal”, and I still think that’s the best description because, well, it doesn’t sound at all like black metal but it does sound like the band were at some point a black metal band. If that makes sense. I don’t know; perhaps it’s the sensibility with which they construct their songs. It’s not particularly heavy, inasmuch as the guitar sound is more like heavy rock turned up to eleven than your actual metal guitar, but the whole is metal. Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (Googles quickly, discover Zappa didn’t coin it, oh well). But the point remains – there is something in Todtgelichter’s music which appeals to me, and I can’t quite identify what it is. But they made my top five for the year.
4Vessels, Be’lakor (2016). I’ve been a fan of Australian melodic death metallers Be’lakor since first hearing their 2012 album Of Breath and Bone. It taken four years for a sequel – happily not so long for me, as I found their earlier works, The Frail Tide (2007) and Stone’s Reach (2009) during the years in-between – but Vessels is easily as good as, if not better than, Of Breath and Bone. It’s not just that Be’lakor create polished melodic death metal, as there as many varieties of that as there are bands who profess to play it (not to mention bands who profess not to play it but do), but more that they create layered songs with intricate but melodic guitar parts, with strong melody lines carried by the vocals. It’s a winning combination.
5Atoma, Dark Tranquillity (2016). A new album by a favourite band, so it’s no surprise to find it here – but it’s at number five because it’s a recent release and I’ve not listened to it as much I’d have liked to. It sounds very much like a Dark Tranquillity album, of course, although nothing on the few listens I’ve had struck me as “anthemicly” stand-out in the way tracks on earlier albums have done, like ‘The Wonders At Your Feet’, ‘Lost to Apathy’, or ‘Shadow in Our Blood’, but, still, this is Dark Tranquillity. They’ve been creating excellent death metal since 1989, and they’ve never stood still, which is one reason why I treasure them so much. Dark Tranquillity are the moving line which defines melodic death metal.
An odd year for music. A few favourite bands released new albums, not all of which I bought. I went to very few gigs – ten years of Austerity has noticeably reduced the number of bands I’d like to see performing in Sheffield, now they just play Leeds or Manchester. Even the local metal scene seems to have been affected: some of the bigger bands have called it a day, others have not performed as often as in previous years. I’ve certainly listened to less music, and less new music, and bought less music, in 2016 than in previous years. Partly that’s because I’ve spent less time exploring metal on Bandcamp and other sites, but also because I’ve spent less time listening to music than in other years. And partly because fewer bands I want to see have performed locally. Let’s hope 2017 proves a better year musically…
I didn’t set out to read mostly women this month, but that’s the way it worked out. Still, if the reading plan is going to fail, it’s best to fail this way than the other.
The Sunbound, Cynthia Felice (1981). I’d enjoyed Felice’s Godsfire, which I’d picked up at Archipelacon and was expecting something similar from The Sunbound, which I bought at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm. In the event, it proved quite a problematical novel – see my review on SF Mistressworks here – and I really can’t recommend it… although I’ve not given up Felice’s oeuvre by any means. In fact, the novel published after this one, Eclipses, looks quite interesting. I just need to find a copy…
The Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whitely (2016). I bought both this novella and the one below at Fantasycon. I’d been keen to read something by Whitely after a tweet had named half a dozen or so under-appreciated genre authors including Nina Allan, myself and Whiteley, among others; and given that’d read a lot of Allan’s fiction and found it good, I wanted to try Whiteley. I read this on the train on the way back from Scarborough – a surprisingly pleasant journey, given the shocking state of our railways. The Arrival of Missives is set immediately after the First World War, in a small village that has suffered its fair share of casualties. Most of those in the novella, however, are children – or at least were too young to fight. Shirley Fearn, a teenager, dreams of a life outside the small village in which she lives, although her father wants her to marry a local lad who can then inherit the farm. Shirley also has a crush on the new village school teacher, Mr Tiller, a veteran of the war. She makes plans to attend teacher training in a nearby town, and insinuates herself into Tiller’s life… only to discover that his torso has a largew piece of rock embedded in it, large enough that he should not be alive as it occupies the space where his organs should be. At this point, The Arrival of Missives takes this piece of weirdness and runs with it. The stone was sent back in time by humans from the distant future, and is one of many such “missives” – this one happened to find Tiller near-death and caught up on some barbed wire in No Man’s Land. It makes for a weird disconnect – a detailed story of post-WWI life in a small village, almost Lawrentian in tone, and this science-fictional idea, which has no rational support or narrative scaffolding. But that, I guess, is what New Weird is. And yet The Arrival of Missives works because the writing is so good. Shirley is a compelling narrator, and her concerns are well-handled. The “missive” adds an odd flavour to the novella, which most will like more than I did… but I suspect this is still a contender for a BSFA or BFS Award next year.
The Golden Notebook*, Doris Lessing (1962). I admit it, I had thought this would be extremely hard-going. I’d read a couple of Lessing’s other novels and not been taken with them – and even if the first book of her sf quintet, Canopus in Argos Archives, Shikasta, felt to me like being beaten about the head by Ursula K Le Guin. The Golden Notebook, Lessing’s most celebrated novel, I expected to be a bit of a chore – especially given its 576 pages… So I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was an engrossing read. I’m only glad I read it after writing All That Outer Space Allows, as some structural elements of my novel might well have changed and in hindsight I’m not convinced they’d have been improvements. The Golden Notebook is a novel titled ‘Free Women’, about Anna Wulf, writer of a single successful novel based on her years in Africa during WWII, who is now living in London. She is also a communist. Between Sections of ‘Free Women’ are Wulf’s notebooks – black, red, yellow and blue. In the black notebook, she describes her time in Africa – on which her one published novel, ‘Frontiers of War’ (and which I kept on mis-thinking as Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War) was based – and later, her life in London. The red notebook details Wulf’s politics and her interactions with the Communist Party. The yellow notebook is a fictionalisation of Wulf’s own life, title ‘The Shadow of the Third’, in which Wulf’s part is played by a woman called Ella. And the blue notebook starts out as a diary, but at times is more of a scrapbook, filled with newspaper cuttings. The five narratives, despite covering similar ground, don’t actually confuse The Golden Notebook‘s story, they actually deepen it and successfully show different aspects of Wulf’s character – as a writer, as a communist, her sex life (especially her affairs, none of which last) and her relations with her friends. The more observant among you will have noticed that the title of Lessing’s novel refers to a notebook not yet mentioned. This only appears near the end, opens by describing Anna breaking free of her then-boyfriend, before becoming that boyfriend’s own novel (a précis is given only), since writing is the catalyst the two use to part amicably. I really liked The Golden Notebook, and I honestly hadn’t expected to. I can see how it might have shocked in 1962 – Lessing is very forthright about Wulf’s sex life – and the sharp criticism of the lives women were expected to live can’t have gone down too well. I expect the communism would be more of a turn-off to twenty-first century readers than the sexual politics. But The Golden Notebook does read like a book ahead of its time. Recommended.
Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I seem to remember seeing this discussed on David Hebblethwaites’s blog, and the fact it inspired a new generation of writers in Spain – the “Nocilla generation” – only made it me want to read it all the more. It’s actually the first book of a trilogy, and the second book, Nocilla Experience. will be published in English next month. Despite my disappointment with some aspects of Nocilla Dream, it’s on my wish list. But Nocilla Dream… The book is structured as 113 sections, which vary in length from several lines to several pages. There also excerpts from other books and scholarly articles, on a wide range of subjects. There is no plot per se. Repeated mention is made of a tree on the desert road between Carson City and Ely, Nevada, over whose branches people have thrown pairs of shoes. Some of the stories involve people who have provided at least one pair of those shoes; some of the others involve people who have interacted with those people. The stories take place all over the world – which results in one of my gripes: a couple of sections are set in Denmark and it’s a very unconvincing depiction of the country. Another gripe is more the publisher’s fault, as on page 87, the section is headed “Relevant physical constants”, and the exponential figures haven’t been printed with the powers as superscript – so you get, for example, “Speed of Light, c = 3.00 x 108 m/s” when it should be 3.00 x 108 m/s. Despite these, Nocilla Dream is fascinating, does some very interesting things with narrative structure, and I’m looking forward to reading the remaining two books in the trilogy. I will admit to some disappointment, however, when I discovered that Nocilla is a brand-name of a Nutella-like spread in Spain…
The Beauty, Aliya Whiteley (2014). I don’t think this is quite as successful a novella as The Arrival of Missives – partly because the writing is not as good, but also because it seems even more consciously New Weird. Fungi! The narrator is the storyteller of a group of men living in a remote valley in the south-west after a fungal infection killed off all the women (it’s not said but it’s implied it’s global). The Group had been formed before that, a back-to-the-land survivalist sort of commune. But then the women all begin to die from a strange yellow fungus. The Group stumbles on for a while without women. Then the storyteller, Nathan, is taken to see growths of the strange yellow fungus in the nearby wood, whic resemble those growing on the graves of the women in the Group’s cemetery – clearly indicating women are buried there. He is captured by a strange creature which looks like a woman but is made of yellow fungus. It traps him underground, but keeps him alive. He is initially revulsed, but comes to love the creature, which he names Bee. The rest of the Group soon have one each. These are the Beauty. They’re implied to be reincarnations of the lost women, but are unable to communicate except by projecting moods and feelings. Nathan has frequent sex with Bee – this despite there being a maternal element to their relationship (the other members of the Group treat their Beauty as they did their wives and girlfriends). But then one of the group, Thomas, begins to develop a tumour… except it isn’t a tumour, it’s a baby, part-human part-Beauty. And so the roles are swapped, and a new world is ushered in. The novella finishes with Nathan and Bee leaving the Group to find out what is happening in the outside world. There are some types of New Weird I can take – such as The Arrival of Missives, for example – and some I can’t. The Beauty falls squarely in the latter. Whiteley’s writing, while good, has definitely improved by the later novella – which is just as well as I doubt I would have read further had I come across The Beauty in 2014.
The Legacy of Lehr, Katherine Kurtz (1986). Another book from Fantastika 2016. Kurtz, of course, as the cover of this paperback makes plain, is better known for fantasy than science fiction. In fact, The Legacy of Lehr appears to be her only science fiction novel. And this despite having an engaging pair of protagonists in a set-up ripe for further adventures. Perhaps the book didn’t sell well enough to encourage Kurtz, or the publisher, to continue as a series. I enjoyed the book, although it’s lightweight. My review will appear on SF Mistressworks later this week.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 127
More catch-up content, I’m afraid, covering the books I’ve read over the past month or so. It’s the usual mix – some genre, some literary, some which are neither. I’m not going to write too much about each individual book, or I’d never get this post finished. And I am supposed to be doing things, after all.
Microcosmos, Nina Allan (2013). This is number five in NewCon Press’s Imaginings series of collectible, er, collections. Other volumes are by Tanith Lee, Stephen Baxter, Tony Ballantyne, Lisa Tuttle, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Steve Rasnic Tem and Eric Brown. I often find myself conflicted about Allan’s short stories – there’s no denying she writes excellent prose, but I often have trouble with the details. ‘Flying in the Face of God’ is a case in point – it’s a lovely story, and it draws its portrait of its protagonist sensitively and well, but… the whole astronaut thing seemed to me too vague and hand-wavey, and that spoiled it for me. ‘The Phoney War’, on the other hand, is less overtly sf and so I felt it worked better, particularly since Allan is excellent at sense of place.
Paintwork, Tim Maughan (2011). I’m coming to this a bit late, but I only have an ebook copy and I’m still not quite comfortable reading ebooks. All the same, I took my Nook with me on a business trip to the South Coast as I’ve been reading an ebook of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden on and off for a couple of months, but I read Paintwork instead. ‘Havana Augmented’ I thought the best of the three in the collection, with its VR mecha combat on the streets of Havana, but all are good near-future sf of a type that few people seem to be writing at the moment.
The Moon Is Not Enough, Mary Irwin (1978). This is the only autobiography by an Apollo astronaut’s wife I’ve been able to find. Jim Irwin, Mary’s husband, was the LMP on Apollo 15. (Nancy Conrad and Betty Grissom, on the other hand, wrote biographies of their husbands.) I suspect Irwin’s story is not unusual among the astronaut wives – a marriage that begins to fall apart due to the husband’s commitment to his work, dragged back from the brink by either church, psychoanalysis, or NASA’s insistence on “happy families”, or, in Irwin’s case, all three; or the marriage explodes as soon as hubby has been to the Moon. I read the book for research, and in that respect it proved very useful.
Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Reza Negarestani (2008) Recommended by Jonathan McCalmont and, to be honest, I didn’t really get the joke. It’s written as a cod academic text, and probably does an excellent job of spoofing its material, but I’m not familiar with the sort of academic arguments it uses. It did remind me a lot of some of the Nazi occult science mythology – especially those books published by Adventures Unlimited Press – which create entire secret scientific programmes out of the flimsiest of evidence. The plot, such as it is, describes the War on Terror as an emergent phenomenon of humanity’s exploitation of oil, which is itself an inimical intelligence determined to rid the planet of humans. Or something.
Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952, although it was originally serialised in 1946), I read for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.
Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell (2011). I usually avoid fantasy, but I picked up this book because a) Martin Lewis recommended it, and b) the cover art features a deep sea diver. There’s some interesting world-building in this, and a nice line in wit, but the thinly-disguised discussions on quantum mechanics wore thin very quickly, and the unnecessary brutality was also a little wearying. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll bother with the sequels.
Second Body, Sue Payer (1979), I read for SF Mistressworks. To be honest, I didn’t think this book read like it was written by a woman, but there’s a comment on GoodReads from the writer’s granddaughter which says otherwise. My review should be appearing in the next week or two.
A Kill in the Morning, Graeme Shimmin (2014), I read for Interzone. Hitler victorious alt history with a nameless narrator who owes a little too much to James Bond.
Aurora: Beyond Equality, Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson, eds. (1976). I was in two minds whether to review for SF Mistressworks, since it contains three stories by male writers. But it was put together as a feminist sf anthology, the first of its kind, so I felt it too important a document in the history of women in science fiction to ignore. Review to appear in the next couple of weeks.
Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), I originally intended to be part of my Hugo reading, but I never got around to it at the time – not that it seems to have made any difference, anyway. And, to be fair, it would be stretching the definitions of science fiction and fantasy both past breaking point to categorise this book as either. It’s a year in the life of a twelve-year-old boy – a near-adult – in Europe some 32,000 years ago. The story was apparently inspired by the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, as filmed by Werner Herzog in his Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. I was mostly carried along by the story, although on occasion it didn’t quite convince. The Neanderthals were good, though.
A Man and Two Women, Doris Lessing (1963). I have previously found Lessing a bit hit and miss for me, often in the same novel – but I did like most of these stories. Especially the Lawrentian title story. ‘England vs England’, however, is more of a Lawrence pastiche, but I wasn’t convinced by Lessing’s attempt at portraying South Yorkshire characters. The stories set in South Africa, by comparison, were much more successful, particularly ‘The New Man’. Also good were ‘Between Men’, about a pair of mistresses, and ‘Notes for a Case History’, a potted biography of a young woman with aspirations to rise above her working-class origins.
Books, huh, what’re they good for? No, wait, that’s something else. Books are good for reading, which by some amazing coincidence is just what I’ve been doing recently with some of them. To wit…
Prague Fatale, Philip Kerr (2011) This is the eighth book in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, which nearly brings me up to date – there’s one more, A Man without Breath (2013), currently available; although Kerr has not said how many books the series will eventually comprise. Prague Fatale is set during Gunther’s war years. While not a Nazi, and clearly has trouble dealing with them, he’s respected enough by his superiors to be asked to Prague to solve the locked-room murder of an aide to Reinhard Heydrich. The crime itself is plainly an homage to the golden age of crime fiction, and Gunther has little trouble working out what happened. But there’s much more going on in the novel than just a puzzling murder. Early on, Gunther rescues a young woman from an attempted sexual assault, and then helps her out a little with food and money before eventually entering into a relationship with her. He takes her with him to Prague – when all the senior officers have mistresses, and even a select brothel for their use only, why should he not take his girlfriend? As Gunther makes a nuisance of himself at Heydrich’s chateau, asking impertinent questions (not all of which are related to his investigation) and making plain his contempt of the Nazis – so he gradually works out who killed Heydrich’s aide… and how his death ties in with earlier events in Berlin. More than any other of the recent Gunther books, Prague Fatale feels like a crime novel. But it also feels like Kerr is taking the piss a little by presenting the central murder as a locked-room mystery. The solution proves to be relatively straightforward, and delivered almost in passing – but having it as the core of the story turns the book into a warped country house mystery rather than an historical police procedural. It makes for a pleasant change after the complex spy-fiction plot of the preceding novel, Field Grey (2010). Good stuff.
Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010) Much praise has been heaped on this, the first in a series, and at an Edge-Lit the author begged me to buy a copy despite it not being my thing at all (actually, he didn’t; it looked interesting, so I bought it; but Mark did sign it for me). On finally getting around to reading it, I was surprised by two things: it was more commercial than I’d expected, and it was a lot more interesting than I’d thought it would be. The story opens strikingly, with a loyal warrior of a Viking king stepping from a longship to drown in mid-sea. He and the king were the sole survivors of a raid on an Anglo-Saxon monastery, the object of which was to steal a pair of twin baby boys. The king’s wife cannot give him a son, so a witch told the king where to find one – her part of the bargain was the other twin. But no one must know the true origin of the king’s “son”, so no warriors must make it back alive from the raid. Initially Wolfsangel reads like an historical novel as it describes Prince Vali’s life as a ward of a rival king – there’s a vague feeling that some of the more fantastical elements are the results of worldview rather than actual magic – but as those fantastical elements slowly begin to intrude more and more into the story so the magical side of the story begins to take over. The giant wolf’s head on the cover, not to mention the title, is a clue as to which supernatural creature is central to the book, and Lachlan’s put an interesting spin on the trope. He’s integrated the werewolf into his take on Norse mythology, and it works really well. He pulls a fast one initially, presenting one of the twins as the werewolf, only for the truth to later reveal itself. After finishing the book, I could understand why it had been so highly praised, and I’m keen to read the next on the series, Fenrir (2011). So that’s a shock – I actually thought a fantasy novel was good.
Songs of Blue and Gold, Deborah Lawrenson (2008) I put this one on the wishlist after learning that its story was based on Lawrence Durrell and his time in Corfu, and some time later I was lucky enough to stumble across a copy in a charity shop. When Melissa’s mother passes away, she finds among her possessions a signed and dedicated poetry collection by famous author Julian Adie. Melissa knew that her mother had spent time in Corfu during the 1960s, and is surprised to discover she knew Adie, who lived there at the time. So Melissa heads for the Greek island to learn as much as she can about her mother’s time there. Adie, of course, is Durrell, and Lawrenson does a good job of fictionalising his life and stitching Melissa’s mother into it. There’s a slight mystery attached, which is neither hard to figure out, and resolved offhandedly, and the writing throughout is of a type you’d sort of expect from a novel boasting such cover art if you did have any expectations regarding prose style from the book’s presentation… I enjoyed it, but I suspect I wouldn’t have done so as much if I hadn’t been familiar with Durrell and his life and oeuvre.
Murder by the Book, Eric Brown (2013) This is the first crime novel by Brown, and the first in the “Langham and Dupree Mysteries”. Set in the 1950s, the book’s protagonist is Donald Langham, a crime writer who has churned out a dozen well-received novels. Dupree is Maria Dupree, the well-heeled daughter of an upper-class French emigré, and the personal assistant of Langham’s agent. When a series of people involved in the world of 1950s crime writing die under mysterious circumstances, and Langham’s agent is framed for one of the deaths, Langham turns reluctant detective with Dupree’s help. The template, of course, dictates that as the two spend more time together so they are drawn to each other. The murders are a succession of “book murders”, ie, the sort of tricksy killings you only really find in crime novels, especially crime novels of the genre’s golden age. But then Murder by the Book is not trying to do something different genre-wise, but is as centrally-placed in crime as Brown’s sf novels are in science fiction. The period is handled well, without an excess of detail and nothing that jumps out as anachronistic. Langham is a solid hero, likeable but not too firmly wedded to 1950s sensibilities that he’s not sympathetic to a modern reader. Dupree might be a little too good to be true, if not teetering on the edge of cliché, but she’s just as engaging as Langham and the growing relationship between them works. Not being a crime fan per se, though I’ll read the books and am certainly a fan of the oeuvres of a couple of crime writers, I have to wonder if the mechanics of the central murders occupy a similar place in the genre as “ideas” do in science fictions. The complex murders in Murder by the Book seem to operate much like “nova” do in sf, but I suspect that may be a modus operandi (so to speak) more suited to the story’s setting than the modern crime genre marketplace.
Whirlpool of Stars, Tully Zetford (1974) This is the first book in the Hook quartet, and it’s pretty much hackwork. But then Tully Zetford was really Kenneth Bulmer, who was a complete hack – as Alan Burt Akers, he wrote over fifty books in the Dray Prescott series between 1972 and 1997. Whirlpool of Stars opens with a starship breaking down – something in the engineroom blows up as a result of shoddy maintenance. The passengers and crew are forced to flee in lifeboats, though this is no orderly evacuation. Hook is aboard, and he manages to get a seat aboard one of the lifeboats. The nearest planet, however, is run by a rival corporation to that which had operated the starship, and everyone who lands would be subject high fees… which they can pay off by indentured labour… Hook evades the authorities and, with a woman in tow, runs about the planet, trying to avoid slavery and also the Boosted Men, who are after him. You can tell this is complete hackwork because it panders to the worst prejudices of the sf audience. Hook is an alpha-male protagonist, but one with a weakness – he is a Boosted Man himself, but an early iteration and his powers only operate when he is close proximity to a real Boosted Man. The women in the story exist only as set-dressing, trophies, or damsels in distress. The villains are aliens. The background is a typical right-wing corporatist future, with slavery, success oriented purely on wealth and the power it brings, a blithe disregard for the value of human life, ineffective government and murderous and overly-powerful police forces. Whirlpool of Stars is tosh, distasteful badly-written tosh, and while Bulmer was clearly doing it for the money, you have to wonder what excuse present-day writers of similar science fictions have. Oh, and I have another three of these books to read. Sigh.
The Cleft, Doris Lessing (2007) There is a phrase in Brian W Aldiss’s story ‘Confluence’, a “dictionary” of alien terms, that goes: “YUP PA: A book in which everything is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it; an afternoon sleigh-ride”. That pretty much describes The Cleft. A Roman historian has been handed a bunch of writings, normally kept hidden, and which he plans to turn into a treatise of his own. The documents are purportedly the written-down oral history of the earliest human civilisation, long before agriculture, nations, cities, kings or government. Apparently, humanity was originally female-only, and they lived in caves beside a sea. They reproduced parthogenically, and would occasionally sacrifice their offspring in a nearby rock chimney they called the Cleft. Every so often, mutant children called “squirts” – ie, not “clefts” – were born and left out for giant eagles to take – presumably to feed their chicks. But when one is left to grow to adulthood, he – because, of course, the squirts are men – leaves the women to found a community of his own over Eagle Mountain. More squirts are born, the squirts and clefts discover sex, the two communities begin to interact, one squirt leader leads an expedition away from the two communities along the coast… and I really have no idea what Lessing hoped to achieve with this novel. The Roman historian interjects at various points of the oral history he is supposedly working on – this was denoted using different font sizes, but as the book progressed this seemed to go wrong somewhere until the font size was completely random. There’s very little that’s Edenic about the society in the book and the gender politics once the “squirts” appear runs along somewhat clichéd lines. This has a tendency to reduce all of those early people to one-note characters, and while Lessing throws in some interesting speculation on their physiology, their society doesn’t feel like that much thought has gone into it. Disappointing.
Thunder Rift, Matthew Farrell (2001) Matthew Farrell is really Stephen Leigh, and I suspect this book was published as by Farrell because by 2000 Leigh had become a category killer. In fact, since 2003 he’s been writing fantasy under the pen-name SL Farrell. In all other respects, Thunder Rift reads like a Stephen Leigh sf novel, and fans of Leigh’s earlier Dark Water’s Embrace and Speaking Stones will probably enjoy it. Unfortunately, familiarity with Leigh’s oeuvre does make Thunder Rift a somewhat predictable read. The titular wormhole has mysteriously appeared in the Solar System, out by the orbit of Jupiter, and the EMP generated by its sudden arrival pretty much wipes out all the technology on Earth, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Yet thirty years later, the nations have not only recovered, they’ve even managed to build a huge military spacecraft to send through the wormhole to see if they can find the wormhole’s creators. On this spacecraft is maverick exo-anthropologist Taria Spears, who is obsessive, uncompromising and all-together difficult. On the other side of the wormhole, the humans find an inhabited world, but its alien civilisation does not appear advanced enough to have created the wormhole. Nonetheless, they send down a contact team… but it doesn’t go very well, and the alien ambassador/chief priestess-type person will only allow Taria to remain on the world. While she tries to learn more about the strange alien culture – their eyesight is so poor, they pretty much use sonar to perceive their surroundings; and they sing a lot – the military aboard the spacecraft set about trying to explore the planet. And then the wormhole vanishes. But something doesn’t want the humans to colonise the alien world. And Taria discovers the secret of the aliens and… This is heartland sf, written with competence if not style or vigour, reliant on far too many familiar tropes and used furniture, but given just enough spin not to generate déjà vu from start to finish. There are lots of sf novels about like Thunder Rift, and they’re all pretty much of a muchness. Fans of this type of sf will likely not to be able to tell it from other books of its ilk, and so enjoy it for that reason.
Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears (2009) Pears started out writing crime novels about a detective art historian, the few of which I’ve read I found quite ordinary; but he also writes complicated historical novels which are several levels of magnitude better. The last of his Jonathan Argyll series was published in 2000, so it would seem he now writes only the historical novels. Of which Stone’s Fall is the most recent – it was preceded by An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998), The Dream of Scipio (2002) and The Portrait (2005), all of which I have read. Stone is an Edwardian industrialist, the wealthiest and most powerful in Britain, and one night in 1909 he falls from the window of his third-floor study and is killed. But was he pushed? His will makes reference to a child he had not previously known about, so Stone’s widow, Elizabeth, hires a freelance reporter, Braddock, to track down the missing heir. The first third of the book – framed as the reminiscences of Braddock, who has just attended Elizabeth’s funeral in Paris in 1953 – attempts to explain Stone’s success in business. The second third is set in Paris in 1890, and is the reminiscences of a British spy whose career began around that time, and who knew Elizabeth, a Parisian socialite at the time, and witnessed her meeting, and growing relationship, with Stone. The final section is set in Venice in 1867 and is written as an apologia by Stone himself, attempting to explain the event which led to him becoming so powerful and also documenting an affair he had at the time which… There’s a mystery at the heart if Stone’s Fall, and it’s not hard to figure out what it is, but it’s only as the Venetian section progresses that the solution slowly starts to reveal itself. Stone’s Fall is not as complex as Pears’ earlier historical novels, but it is very readable and handles its historical detail impressively. Bizarrely, someone has used Wikipedia to give historical notes for the book, most of which are blindingly obvious, rather than summarise the plot or book’s reception…
There are probably people somewhere on this planet who believe that if you read too many books, you’ll go to Hell. Or maybe it’s just if you read the wrong sort of books. You know, ones with talking rabbits in them or some such. Being a complete atheist, I have no such fears on that score. Anyway, it’s been almost a quarter of a year since I last did a book haul post, and as you can see below the collection has grown somewhat in the interim. Some books were purchased purely for research purposes (honest), and some of them will be paying only a short visit as they go straight back to the charity shop once I’ve read them. And despite the latter category taking up more and more of my reading, the number of books in the house still seems to keep on rising. It’s a puzzle.
Books for research and for the space collection. Space Odyssey and Space Odyssey Mission Report were published to accompany the excellent BBC mockumentary of the same title. I bought them cheap on eBay to help with the Apollo Quartet. Promised the Moon is also for research, but specifically for the third book of the Apollo Quartet, And Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. I’ve had a copy of Virtual Apollo for several years, but Virtual LM went out of print very quickly and was almost impossible to find. And then just recently new copies started to pop up in various places for £20. So I snapped one up. (I see there is currently a single used copy for sale on Amazon for… £1,965.00!) Countdown joins the astronaut bios section of the Space Books collection. And Caper at Canaveral! is also research; er, honest. I saw it on eBay and couldn’t resist it. I shall, of course, review it once I’ve read it.
Like many sf readers, I also enjoy a good crime novel on occasion. I read crime fiction less than I used to, however, much preferring literary or British postwar fiction these days. All three of the above authors I have read before in the past, but not those particular titles.
And speaking of science fiction… I’ve been meaning for ages to complete Benford’s quartet of Galactic Centre novels. I’ve had the first two for years – Great Sky River and Tides of Light – but recently bought the third, Furious Gulf. Once I have the fourth book, Sailing Bright Eternity, I may actually get around to reading them. Bug Jack Barron I found in a charity shop. Three Parts Dead I reviewed for Interzone. Yes, I know, an urban fantasy. You shall have to wait until the next issue to find out what I thought of it. Alt.Human is Keith Brooke’s latest. Wolfsangel I bought at Edge-Lit in July, and Mark signed it for me. Swiftly is from – cough cough – a charity shop, and Adam sent me the copy of Jack Glass (which he also signed; I shall treasure it, of course).