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Reading diary 2018, #4

A mixed bag this time around, although I’ve used that excuse before. I read what interests me. If I’m swayed by fads, it’s for one book or two. I read books by friends – but I have a lot of friends who write a variety of types of fiction. Which doesn’t always mean that I automatically like it. The one thing I demand is quality of prose, and I’m happy to read books from any genre that is well-written. The only problem is that different genres seem to rate prose differently. Which is bollocks. I’ve seen reviews of YA novels rate the writing as “excellent” when it’s barely functional. If it’s not up there with the classics, then it’s hardly good. If your book is still admired for its prose 100 years later, then it might be considered excellent. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

The Ghost from the Grand Banks, Arthur C Clarke (1990, UK). Of the Big Three sf writers of the last century, I read more Heinlein than I did Clarke or Asimov. The last I always thought a piss-poor writer, and for some reason Clarke never clicked with me. You’d have thought he would, given he tackles the sort of subjects I enjoy in my sf, and he was very much the hardest, in sf terms, of the three. So you’d also think The Ghost from the Grand Banks, which is about something that has interested me for the past few years, would go down well. It didn’t. The title refers to the wreck of the Titanic, and the novel is basically a rewrite of Cliver Cussler’s Raise the Titanic!, without the implausible thriller-type histrionics, or exclamation mark, and with a series of lectures on, er, Mandelbrot Sets instead. Clarke even has a dig at the film adaptation of Cussler’s novel. The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic is rapidly approaching, and two groups of people decide to raise the wreck to mark it. Since the wreck is in two parts, they’ll each raise one part using different methods. A British consortium plans to use glass spheres to float the forward part of the wreck, and a Japanese-American group will freeze the stern part in an iceberg, which they will then shoot to the surface using rockets. This is a book that revels in its use of future technology, and yet manages to get most of it wrong. It’s an occupational hazard of near-future sf, I admit, but most such novels are written such that they’re readable years later. Clarke didn’t appear to care. And perhaps with good reason: he’d sell boatloads, and if the book was out of print 12 months later, he had plenty of other properties pulling in the cash. It’s not that Clarke stinted on his research, more that it all feels re-used – as if he’d done it for another project and decided to get extra mileage out of it by writing this novel. Which is pretty bad. The characterisation is paper-thin, the plot is obvious, the science is mostly incidental, and the computer technology described is completely off-base… Not one of Clarke”s best. Missable.

A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock (2013, UK). This was Charnock’s debut novel, but I’ve jumped about a bit in reading her books, having read her latest most recently. However, she doesn’t stray from her shtick, so I’d a good idea what to expect. A Calculated Life provides the setting of Charnock’s novella, The Enclave, which is good, but suffers from not knowing the setting, as revealed in A Calculated Life. A flaw I have now rectified. In the near-future of A Calculated Life, which seems to be set after some sort of climate crash as Lancashire now has a Mediterranean climate, “simulated humans” are relatively common in the workplace. They’re force-grown, and genetically-engineered for certain traits. The main character of A Calculated Life is Jayna, one such simulated human. She works for a private company in Manchester, predicting economic and social trends based on seemingly unconnected events. She is very good at it – much better than “bios” and earlier models of simulants. But driving her ability is an obsession to learn as much as possible about people… and so she begins to secretly break out of her carefully prescribed life. This involves several trips to an enclave, as sort of working class suburb of Manchester which the government has pretty much abandoned – a sort of a cross between a ghetto and a barrio. Charnock paints a convincing portrait of a late-twenty-first century Britain which has responded to a drop in population due to climate change (rather than due to Brexit, although climate change will inevitably follow). The world-building is very low-key – and if only more sf writers did it so – to the extent it takes a while to figure out what is what. There’s enough that is the same, and enough that’s very different, to keep the reader comfortable as they slowly learn what’s what. The writing is good, clear and neither showy nor flashy, but this is not a long novel, only 208 pages. It does make it feel a little insubstantial. It’s good, but, happily, each new book by Charnock is better than the last. Her most recent, Dreams Before the Start of Time, will be getting the #1 slot on my ballot at the BSFA Awards (I’m especially happy it made the shortlist). Charnock is proving to be a name to watch, although I think she has something much more substantial than what  she was written so far yet to deliver. If you’ve not read her yet, why not?

The Assassinators, Philip Boast (1976, UK). Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I read four books by Boast that were sort of deep history occult/religious thrillers set in and around London: Resurrection, Deus, Sion and Era. I really enjoyed them. But as far as I could discover, they were the only four books like that Boast had written (and Era, published in 2000, was his last). His other novels appeared to be historical fiction, also set in and around London. But recently I stumbled across mention of his first novel, The Assassinators, described as a straight-up thriller. So I found a cheap copy on eBay, bought it, and… Um, it’s not very good. The writing is pretty poor, in fact. A self-made millionaire decides the world is over-populated and it will lead to catastrophe in a decade or two. So there needs to be a cull – in fact, the UK’s population needs to be reduced to around thirty million. So he arranges to poison the water supply in Merton Regis, a south coast town mostly populated by OAPs (I think I’ve been there, but it was called Eastbourne; horrible place). The plan, of course, does not go as, er, planned. The thugs he hired to poison the water tank screw it up. They put the poison in successfully enough, but leave clues which lead back to the industrialist. Whose wife has also learnt of the plan and is against it, straining their already-strained marriage. Meanwhile, the industrialist has vivid dreams about a post-apocalyptic wasteland caused by a nucealr war brought on by his plans to cull the world population. The Assassinator is not a great book, and in places reads like it’s set much earlier than its publication date – by at least a decade or two. I still like Boast’s last four novels – and I ought to reread them one of these days – but this was an inauspicious start.

Devices and Desires, E Arnot Robertson (1954, UK). I already have a novel by a British postwar novelist titled Devices and Desires. That’s by Susan Ertz and it was published in 1972 (see here). Robertson’s book predates it by almost two decades… but it’s also the sort of story that would have been told two decades earlier. Hebe is a thirteen-year-old girl who, with her father, helps refugees cross Europe post-WWII. The book opens in Bulgaria, where they are helping a group of four refugees cross through Macedonia into Greece – during the Greek civil war – and so onto France and Spain. But Hebe’s father is accidentally shot by andartes – Greek resistance fighters – and so she is forced to lead the group on by herself. After entering Macedonia, they stop for food at a remote farm, and end up staying for several days. In fact, it gets easier to stay than to continue on. But when a “helobowie” – a Greek expat returning to his home village to show off his new-found affluence – turns up, it attracts the attentions of the andartes, and only Hebe and one of her refugees escape. Hebe is reluctant to accept help, because any well-meaning aid agency will immediately send her to a “displaced persons” camp, and she has her own plans. I had no real idea what to expect when I bought Devices and Desires. Robertson was a name on a list of postwar British women writers I planned to work my way through – I’m already a fan of a few, such as Olivia Manning and Elzabeth Taylor – and I admit I picked Devices and Desires because it shared its title with that Ertz novel. But. I liked it. It paints a vivid portrait of the Balkans, it’s careful to set out all the various factions as objectively possible, and it shows a pragmatic, but compassionate, attitude to the problem of refugees. Though it’s set in the decade following WWII, in lands still suffering from the war’s effects, both politically and economically, there’s little in it that dioes not apply today. Refugees deserve our compassion – and ours more than anyone else’s, since we’re the ones causing the refugee crisis in the first place. It’s quite simple: if you don’t want brown people flowing across your borders, don’t bomb the shit out of their homes or keep the various factions in their wars supplied with weaponry and ammunition. It’s a problem with a very simple solution. Unfortunately, that solution means multinational companies foregoing profits. Which will never happen. Devices and Desires is at least set post WWII, and during a civil war precipitated byt the invasion of Greece, and the withdrawal of the invading forces. Robertson’s prose is very much of her time, but I like that style of prose. Hebe is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. Devices and Desires is not the most gripping novel ever written – it can be slow in places, and the interiority occasionally overwhelms the plot – but the characterisation is assured and the setting is described well. I’m tempted to try more by Robertson. Which was the whole point of reading postwar British women writers in the first place.

Dun da de Sewolawen, Christina Scholz (21018, Austria). I was completely clueless reading this until I later discovered that it was based on the language invented by French prog rock band Magma. When I looked them up, I had a brief moment of déjà vu… and I wondered if it had all been explained to me beforehand but I’d forgotten. If so, I had, er, forgotten. But my ignorance actually enahnced the reading. I found out about it afterwards, and that was interesting. Anyway. the story is a sort of Le Guin-esque coming-of-age piece, which partly uses the world and language of Magma. It’s set on a world colonised by humans, but which had previously be inhabited by a long-dead race. And the humans are slowly integrating some of the culture ofthat long-dead race – through the artefacts they discovered – into their own culture, most noticeably words from Magma’s made-up language, Kobaïan. The writing is polished – had I not known, I’d never have guessed English was not the author’s first language – and most of the unfamiliar terms are parseable from context. It’s a simple enough story, told in first person, that uses unfamiliar vocabulary to add a gloss of strangeness… but what makes it for me is that the strangeness exists independently of the story’s world. It is googleable. It was something I used when writing the Apollo Quartet, that as much as possible “invented” in the three novellas and one novel had an independent existence outside the story. You could look them up in Wikipedia. And that’s true here of Kobaïan and its concepts. For me, it gives an added dimension to the prose. And that pushed Dun da de Sewolawen from a nicely-written Le Guin-esque sf story to something a bit more than that. It also made me want to listen to anything by Magma. Which I have yet to do.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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New Year spend

Christmas comes but once a year, but you can click on the “buy” button or wander into a bookstore on any day of the year…

To start, some Christmas presents. Having been impressed by Charnock’s other novels, especially Dreams Before the Start of Time (see here), I’m looking forward to reading her debut, A Calculated Life. I “discovered” Henry Green only a year or two, but I’m steadily working my way through his oeuvre; Pack My Bag is an autobiography, written because Green didn’t think he’d survive WWII (he did). I bought the first book of the Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season, because it was on offer for £2.00, and thought it quite good; so I bunged The Obelisk Gate on my wish list.

Further additions to some bandes dessinées series I’ve been reading for several years. Volume 20 The Order of the Stones and Volume 21 The Time Opener are actually the end of the Valerian and Laureline series; there’s a volume 22, but it looks more like a B-sides sort of collection. Orbital 7: Implosion is the start of a new two-part story, although it does follow on from Orbital 6: Resistance.

Some recent science fiction. I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first one, An Exchange of Hostages, so I was pleased when they started again recently; Fleet Insurgent is a collection of short stories and novelettes set in the universe. Not every novella tor.com has published has been to my taste – in fact, most of them haven’t been – but Acadie is good solid contemporary sf, with a neat twist; also, the author is a friend and I like his writing. The Smoke is Simon Ings’s last novel, and I’m reviewing it for Interzone.

A selection of first editions. A few years ago I started reading some examples of post-war fiction by British women writers, and I’ve been a fan of the writing of both Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor for several years, but I’ve always wanted to try something beyond the handful of writers I read back then – hence, Devices & Desires by E Arnot Robertson, not to be confused with, er, Devices & Desires by Susan Ertz (see here). Many years ago I read a handful of novels by Philip Boast – they were all very similar, with plots based around secret histories of the UK, chiefly secret religious histories, but I really liked them and fancied reading more by him; The Assassinators is his debut novel and was a lucky, and cheap, find on eBay. Eye Among the Blind was Rob Holdstock’s first novel, and I’ve been intending to pick up a first edition copy for ages… so I was especially happy to find a signed one. The Two of Them I found cheap on eBay from a UK-based seller.

Some charity shop finds. I’ve never read any Ali Smith, although I’ve heard many people speak approvingly of her work; Autumn even looks like it might be genre. I keep an eye open for McCarthy’s novels when I find them, so Suttree was a happy find. And while I can take or leave Clarke, The Ghost from the Grand Banks is about underwater exporation, so it’ll be interesting seeing what Sir Arthur made of it.

I’m not sure how to describe this one. I found it on eBay, from a German seller, and since I’m a fan of James Benning’s films I couldn’t resist it. Although titled (FC) Two Cabins by JB, it seems to include essays on other works by Benning and not just that one. I didn’t pay anywhere near the price currently being asked on Amazon…


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Post-war women writers of the twentieth century

One type of fiction I enjoy reading as much as science fiction is British post-war literary fiction, but most of the authors of this type I know are male – Lawrence Durrell, Paul Scott, Malcolm Lowry, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, etc. The only two women writers which fit my somewhat arbitrary definition of “post-war” – ie, started sometime in the 1930s or 1940s, active until the 1950s or 1960s – whose books I keep an eye open for are Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor. (Although there are a few women writers who started writing later that I’ve read, such as Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Bernice Rubens.)

Recently I decided it was time to remedy my ignorance of women writers of this period and, with the help of a few people on Facebook and Twitter, I put together a list of seventeen female authors who had books published between 1925 and 1969 (and one or two earlier than that). Two of the authors I’d heard of before – Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is a well-known novel, and I’ve seen the film adaptation; and I have the Women’s Press paperback of Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman (but I was astonished while researching this list to learn how many books she’d had published). The remaining names were completely unknown to me. And, I hasten to add, my list is undoubtedly incomplete, even given that I excluded some writers because they weren’t published after WWII, or because they published exclusively in genre, either science fiction, fantasy or crime.

The plan is to read something by each of these writers – it’s unfair to describe them as “forgotten”, as several still have books in print, either as Penguin Modern Classics, Vintage Classics, Virago Classics, or even by small presses such as Persephone Books. A few, however, will require some patient hunting on eBay and ABEBooks. If I like what I read, I may well consider those writers alongside Manning and Taylor as ones whose oeuvres I plan to work my way through.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899 – 1973)
Born in Ireland, but married an Englishman – although the marriage was reportedly never consummated (but she did have numerous affairs). Her first book, The Hotel, was published in 1927, and her last, Eva Trout, in 1968. She wrote ten novels, a children’s book, and twelve short story collections. Many of her books are still available as Penguin or Vintage Classics. Eva Trout was shortlisted for the 1970 Booker Prize, but lost out to Bernice Rubens’ The Elected Member.

Lettice Cooper (1897 – 1994)
Grew up in Leeds, where she briefly worked for her family’s engineering firm, but she spent most of her adult life in London. I’m not entirely sure how many books she wrote – Wikipedia only gives a “Selected Works” listing a dozen books, beginning with her first, The Lighted Room (1925). She never married, was the book reviewer for the Yorkshire Post between 1947 and 1957, and was awarded an OBE in 1978 for her work as leader of the campaign to secure Public Lending Rights.

O Douglas (1877 – 1948)
The pen-name of a Scottish novelist, Anna Masterton Buchan, the younger sister of author John Buchan. Her first novel, Olivia in India was published in 1912, and her last, The House that is Our Own in 1940. She also wrote a dozen other novels, a memoir of her brother, and an autobiography. Her novels were mostly set between the wars in small Scottish towns and villages.

the-day-of-small-things-o-douglas-2

Susan Ertz (1894 – 1985)
Born in the UK to American parents, and spent much of her life shuttling between the two countries. She wrote twenty novels and two short story collections, beginning in 1923 with Madame Claire. Her last book was The Philosopher’s Daughter in 1976. Her novels are allegedly “sentimental tales of genteel life in the country” (according to Wikipedia). One, In The Cool of the Day (1960), was made into a film, starring Jane Fonda, Peter Finch and Angela Lansbury.

Pamela Frankau (1908 – 1967)
Born in London, the daughter of novelist Gilbert Frankau, she was extremely prolific, writing thirty-seven books between 1927 and 1968 (the last was published posthumously). Her novel, The Bridge (1957), which I’ve bought, has the following on the cover-flap: “The bridge spans the distance between this world and the next. A writer called David Nielson walks across the bridge, after the moment of his death. On the way, he meets his past selves, from the child he was, to the man who died in middle-age. He re-lives with each of them, a high moment in his life, a moment of adventure, sin and tragedy, unresolved then, awaiting his judgment now.”

Frankau, Pamela - A Wreath for the Enemy old paperback cover

Stella Gibbons (1902 – 1989)
Best-known for her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm (1932), she wrote a further twenty-three novels, three collections of short stories, a children’s book and four poetry collections. Her last novel, The Woods in Winter, was published in 1970.

Storm Jameson (1891 – 1986)
Born in Yorkshire, she moved to London and lived there for the rest of her life. She was married to the writer Guy Chapman, and wrote two sf novels: In the Second Year (1936), set in a fascist Britain, and Then We Shall Hear Singing (1942), about a Nazi invasion of an invented country (I’m not aware of these books being claimed by science fiction; perhaps they should be). She also wrote a couple of books under pseudonyms – two as James Hill and one as William Lamb. I have A Month Soon Goes (1962), which is “a light comedy with a chorus … Sarah Faulkner, celebrated diseuse, who has come home to rest after four years of touring in Europe and America…”

Rosamond Lehmann (1901 – 1990)
The daughter of the man who founded Granta magazine, her first novel, Dusty Answer (1927), apparently caused a bit of a stir with its frank depictions of schoolgirl sexuality. Two of her novels were made into movies, The Echoing Grove (1953) and The Weather In The Streets (1936). The latter novel sounds especially interesting – according to Wikipedia: “Stylistically, the novel uses techniques and forms that were pioneered by modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, with a fragmented narrative style building up a complex interiority that helps us to explore subjects that were relatively taboo during the 1930s such as female sexuality”.

Naomi Mitchison (1897 – 1999)
Born in Edinburgh, and originally a scientist like her elder brother JBS Haldane, but with the outbreak of WWI she turned to nursing. She wrote over 90 books, and was made a life peer in 1964 with her husband, Labour MP Gilbert Richard Mitchison. Her novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) was in the Women’s Press sf series, and her The Corn King and Spring Queen (1931) is seen by many as the best historical novel of the twentieth century.

E Arnot Robertson (1903 – 1961)
The pen-name of Eileen Arbuthnot Turner (née Robertson). A journalist and film critic, she wrote eleven novels, beginning with Cullum in 1928 and ending with The Strangers on My Roof, published posthumously in 1964. She was known as a popular “middlebrow” novelist, and one of her early novels was adapted into a movie by Cecil D BeMille.

GB Stern (1890 – 1973)
Gladys Bronwyn Stern wrote around forty novels, several books of literary criticism, half a dozen plays and ten autobiographies. Like many of the women in this list, she lived in London for much of her life. The National Portrait Gallery holds four portraits of her, and her novel The Ugly Dachshund (1938) was made into a film of the same name by Disney in 1966.

Jan Struther (1901 – 1953)
The pen-name of Joyce Anstruther, best-known for her character Mrs Miniver, who first appeared in a series of columns in The Times in 1937, were collected into book form in 1939, and made into an Oscar-winning film starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in 1942. She also wrote a number of hymns. In the 1940s, Struther moved to the US, where she remained until her death.

MrsMiniver

Hilda Vaughan (1892 – 1985)
A Welsh writer who began writing in 1925 with The Battle to the Weak and whose last novel was The Candle and the Light in 1954. She was married to the writer Charles Langbridge Morgan. Due to ill-health, she did not write anything for the last two decades of her life, although she did try to get her earlier novels re-issued – unsuccessfully. Many of her books are now back in print as she is considered a prominent writer of Welsh literature in English.

Rebecca West (1892 – 1983)
Born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, and described by Wikipedia as “widely considered to be among the important public intellectuals of the 20th century”, she wrote a dozen novels between 1918 and 2002 (her last two books were published posthumously). In 1947, Time described her as “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer”. She also wrote a lot of non-fiction, and was an active feminist and liberal. She was made a CBE in 1949 and then a dame in 1959 for contributions to British literature.

Dorothy Whipple (1893 – 1966)
A Lancashire-born and -based writer of some eighteen books and described by JB Priestley as the “Jane Austen of the 20th Century”. She was very popular in the 1930s, and two of her novels were made into films. Five of her short stories were recently broadcast on Radio 4 in The Afternoon Reading.

Every Good Deed

Antonia White (1899 – 1980)
Born Eirine Botting, she wrote a dozen books. She seems to have had a somewhat tempestuous personal life, having been married three times by the time she reached thirty, and spending a year in a public asylum. She was expelled from school at age fifteen for writing a novel, which she planned to give to her father, and which apparently featured characters indulging in bad behaviour. She did not write again until after her father’s death in 1924.

EH Young (1880 – 1949)
Emily Hilda Young wrote eleven novels between 1910 and 1947, and a pair of children’s books. In 1980, the BBC broadcast a television adaptation of some of her novels, chiefly Miss Mole (1930), under the title Hannah. Originally from Northumberland, she moved to London after the death of her husband at the Third Battle of Ypres, and moved in with her lover and his wife. She was a best-selling novelist in the 1920s and 1930s.

This will be, I think, a long-running project. I’ve already bought a couple of books on eBay – first editions, too, because first edition. And they proved cheaper than brand-new paperback editions from Amazon. I’ll also be keeping an eye open in charity shops. I’ll initially try one book by each writer, and see how that goes.