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Reading diary 2018, #6

More reading all over the place. And cheats too – a bande dessineé and two novellas. Oh well. At least I’m staying ahead of my Goodreads reading challenge target…

Fleet Insurgent, Susan R Matthews (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction books since they first appeared back in the 1990s. They were definitely among the more interesting commercial sf being published in the US back then. Although apparently not interesting enough, as Matthews moved publisher after the first three Jurisdiction books, and two unrelated novels, and then lasted two Jurisdiction novels with her new publisher before being dropped. The next book came out from small press Meisha Merlin… who promptly folded. And it was another decade before Baen picked the series up, published two omnibuses, before continuing the series with Blood Enemies (see here). Fleet Insurgent, however, is a collection, some of it previously published, much of its contents intended to fill in gaps in the published series so far, or shed new light, or a new perspective, on some of its episodes. So it’s more like a companion volume than anything else, rather than a pendant volume. Which, as a fan, doesn’t overly bother me. If anything, the stories in Fleet Insurgent provide welcome insight – as Matthews is not a writer who likes to make things easy for her readers. The writing is a deal better than I remember from recent rereads of the first two books of the Under Jurisdiction series, but that’s hardly unusual. However, it’s certainly not a good entry point for the series, as most of the stories will make zero sense without knowledge of the novels (despite an introduction to each story by Matthews). I seem to recall that Matthews had plotted out a quite a number of books in the series. I hope we won’t have to wait another ten years for the next instalment.

Valerian & Laureline 22: Memories from the Futures, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2013, France). This is not the twenty-second volume in the story of Valerian and Laureline. Except it is. What I mean is, it’s not part of the story-arc which takes place over the previous twenty-one volumes, but rather pendants to the prior episodes. Most of these only occupy a double-page spread, and they don’t make much sense if you don’t know the volumes to which they refer. I’m not entirely sure why it needed to exist – they were contractually obliged to deliver a twenty-second volume? I don’t know. If you’ve read the previous twenty-one volumes – and I highly recommend them; ignore the crappy film – then you’ll know what to expect, and you’ll want the book anyway to complete the set. Now it’s all finished, I guess I’ll have to find another bande dessinée to read… perhaps in the original French? Now, where did I put my French-English dictionary…

Dreams of the Technarion, Sean McMullen (2017, Australia). I was sent this for review by Interzone. I don’t think I’ve read anything by McMullen before, a few short stories perhaps. Some of the stories in this collection appeared in Interzone, although I don’t recall them. As sf collections go, Dreams of the Technarion is strong on ideas, if not on story – one or two feel like premises in search of a plot. But what makes the book is the final story… which isn’t a story at all but an essay on the history of Australian science fiction. It’s fascinating stuff – and amusing too, albeit not always intentionally: when discussing early Australian pulp magazines, McMullen writes, “This is not the sort of thing to make the average SF reader do handstands, but it was good enough for an average Australian male caught in a toilet without a newspaper”, which I’m not entirely sure means what McMullen intended it to mean… Anyway, I almost certainly wouldn’t have read this had I not been sent it for review, but I’m glad I did. There’s certainly much worse out there, often much more acclaimed, and the essay on the history of Australian sf is fascinating stuff.

A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK). My sister bought me this for my birthday, although not from my wishlist. I’ve no idea why she chose it – when I asked, she said it looked “interesting”. Atkins’s name means much more to me now than it did this time last year, since I saw one of his video installations, ‘Ribbons’, at Kiasma in Helsinki, when I was in Finland for the Worldcon last August. I’m a big fan of video installations, and Atkins’s was one of the two in the museum I thought really good. So I was quite pleased to have a copy of his book. It’s a collection of… I’m not entirely sure what they are. Stream-of-consciousness pieces, I suppose. Neither poetry nor prose, but having some characteristics of both. One or two, I think, maybe the scripts from his video installations – they certainly share titles, such as ‘Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths’. Much of the writing is visceral, as in, er, about viscera, detailed narratives about parts of the body – one is more or less an annotated list of parts of the brain as mapped by Korbinian Brodmann (isn’t that a great first name?). Most of the pieces are peppered with cultural references – there’s a plot summary of the film Sphere in one of them. I’m not sure if I liked or enjoyed A Primer for Cadavers, as it’s not the sort of book you can like or enjoy. Bits of it are extremely well-done, and a good deal of the writing is very clever. I guess that, like video installations cross over that line between cinema and art into art, so this book crosses over a similar line between literature and art into art. I’d already planned to keep an eye open for Atkins’s work when I visit modern art museums in the future, and after reading A Primer for Cadavers I’m even more keen to do so.

The Martian Simulacra, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the second of the latest quartet of NewCon Press novellas, all of which are set on Mars. It’s subtitled “A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”, which is a bit of a clue to the plot. As is the cover art. It’s set after Wells’s Martian invasion. Although the invaders died, a second lot, claiming to be good Martians and the enemies of the invaders, arrived, and have pretty much taken over. Holmes is approached by a Martian ambassador, who asks for his help in solving the murder of an important Martian philosopher. On Mars. So he and Watson travel there, meeting a yuong woman en route, who appears to be involved with some sort of Martian underground. Because the good Martians aren’t so good after all. It’s exactly the sort of story you would expect from a mash-up between Sherlock Holmes and The War of the Worlds. Brown keeps it pacey, although he perhaps relies overmuch on stock tropes and imagery. A fun novella.

The Greatest Story Ever Told, Una McCormack (2018, UK). This is the fourth novella in the series – for some reason I skipped the third, not that they’re at all related in terms of story. And I think it’s set on Mars, like the other three, but it’s hard to be sure as there are no references to the Martian landscape. It’s not even as if the story needs to be set on Mars – The Martian Simulacra is a mash-up with Wells’s novel, so Mars is a given; and even The Martian Job (see here) required the Red Planet as its setting for its story, and almost certainly for its ending. The narrator of The Greatest Story Ever Told is a scullery maid in a household that trains “dance-fighters”. The society consists of masters, free people and hands. The hands are basically slaves. And they rebel. Led by the two most famous dance-fighters. After several months of freedom, by which time they’ve gathered several thousand to them, the masters send an army. You can guess the rest. Interspersed with the main narrative are short fables, framed as told by the narrator to other characters in the main narrative. Some of them have obvious morals, others I couldn’t see what point they were trying to make. Everyone in the story uses female pronouns. Of the three novellas from the quartet I’ve read so far, this was the least satisfying. The setting didn’t feel like Mars, I don’t think slavery belongs in science fiction stories, and the narrator’s voice was a little irritating. The stories-within-a-story, while hardly new, gave the novella a little more depth, but I suspect it was over-used a little. Not my favourite of the four, so far. And I still have one more to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary, #59

This is the last of 2017’s reading. I’m going to restart the numbering for 2018. I don’t remember why I didn’t for 2017, but never mind.

The Metabaron Book 1: The Techno-Admiral & the Anti-Baron, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen & Valentin Secher and The Metabaron Book 2: The Techno-Cardinal and the Transhuman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen & Niko Henrichon (2016/2017, France). As far as I can work out, Jodorowsky’s name only appears on the covers of these two graphic novels because the Metabarons are his characters (they were originally spin-offs from The Incal). The actual story of this trilogy – the third book is due out this year, I think – is by Jerry Frissen. The Techno-Techno Empire has control of Marmola, the planet that is the only source of the Epiphyte, used to fuel all starships. When they learn the last Metabaron is on his way to the planet, they assume he is going to wrest it from them. So they assign the Techno-Admiral, their cruellest warlord to to stop him. In the second book, the Techno-pope’s closest advisor is promoted to Techno-cardinal and then sent to Marmola to take over production, as the Eipiphyte stocks are dwindling. With him, he takes the Transhuman, an engineered assassin who has all sorts of built-in weapons. But the Metabaron is still out there, causing problems… Frissen manages a good pastiche of Jodorowsky’s bonkers storytelling – not just the bizarre ideas; but also the male gaze and whiff of misogyny (something happily missing from The Incal, but sadly not from its spin-offs). The artwork in the first volume is very -CG-like and really quite gorgeous. In the second, however, it’s more sketchy, more like the penciller’s work has been coloured. I didn’t think it as effective. On the whole, I suspect it’s a series for fans only, as there’s little here to attract a new audience or those unfamiliar with the universe or Jodo’s work.

Ways of Worldmaking, Ben Rivers (2017, UK). A compilation of notes by Rivers on his films, and essays by critics, some of which are about Rivers’s art/films while others are about the man himself. The book is copiously illustrated with stills, photographs and strips of film. It’s also a handsomely put together volume, a solid hardback (and stitched, not glued!), of the sort you seldom see these days in bookshops. Obviously, it’s only going to appeal to someone who appreciates Rivers’s films. I’ve seen only a handful of them – his three feature-length pieces and a couple of short films (included as extras on the DVDs of the former) – but I’m definitely a fan. So Ways of Worldmaking certainly gave me an insight into the man and his works. The title, incidentally, is deliberately taken from Nelson Goodman’s 1978 book, which was a seminal influence on Rivers at college. Goodman argued that “art, philosophy, and the various sciences all make statements about the nature of reality through the creation of ‘worlds’,” as one of the essays in Rivers’s Ways of Worldmaking explains. As someone who reads and writes science fiction, that’s an idea which resonates for me, although in sf the act of worldmaking is not so much overt as it is a fundamental tenet of the genre.

Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, Maryam Omidi (2017, UK). Titles don’t get more descriptive of a book’s contents than this one. Apparently, back in the day, Soviet workers were encouraged to go on holidays to places that were a combination of holiday resort and health spa (and surely the plural is sanatoria?). Many were on the Caspian Sea, but there were also plenty in the mountains, particularly the Urals and Caucasians. With the fall of the USSR, most of them fell into disrepair and closed down. But some kept on going, and some have since been re-opened by private consortiums (or even consortia). Architectually, most of the sanatoriums were good examples of Early Soviet Modernist, and several of them are attractive buildings. The holidays offered varied by region and sanatorium, with many having specialist treatments, such as crude oil baths, mineral waters, or just sun, sea and sand. There are plenty of photographs in Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, but it’s not a deep study of its subject and the text is quite light. But I just wanted the pictures anyway.

Bodies of Summer, Martín Felipe Castagnet (2012, Argentina). I saw mention of this on someone’s blog, and the central premise sounded interesting so I picked up a copy. In the near-ish future of this short novel – it might even be a novella – the minds of dead people can be downloaded into reanimated corpses. But those who keep their own corpses for their life after death are shunned as pariahs. The narrator occupies the body of an old and overweight woman – he was male when alive – and lives with his grandson. The older the reanimated corpse when it died, the more power it needs to remain whole; otherwise, it starts to fall apart. The science in all this, incidentally, is complete bollocks, but never mind. Some people choose not be reanimated, but stay as virtual personalities on the Web. On the one hand, there’s a Catholic country (the author’s own) and a world in which there is demonstrably no afterlife. But the reanimation thing is also economic, and the quality of the body being occupied is dependent upon the price. The narrative mentions in passing rich people who deliberately kill themselves in order to inhabit better, or different, bodies; as well as those who indulge in dangerous pasttimes with no fear of really losing their lives. For the narrator, however, it’s more a case of reconnecting with his family, both alive and dead, and navigating a world that has changed considerably since he died. Much as I enjoyed Bodies of Summer, I didn’t find it an especially convincing story, but it was clearly not intended to be. I don’t mean that old thing about literary writers “slumming it” in genre, because that’s complete bollocks. It’s not just a matter of approach, or perspective, or even focus; but also how the writer chooses to use the tools available in genre. And there’s enough variation in those among writers who self-identify as genre, never mind among those who don’t. Worth reading.

Emperor (Time’s Tapestry 1), Stephen Baxter (2006, UK). I’m not really sure what to make of Baxter’s novels. He’s frighteningly prolific, and keeping up with his books is almost a career in itself. Some of his novels I’ve enjoyed and thought quite good. And then the next one I pick up is weak and juvenile. And there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it. For example, I liked the first book of the Destiny’s Children quartet, Coalescent, but was bitterly disappointed by the second, Exultant, and I really must read last two some day… Emperor I quite enjoyed, although it was ridiculously contrived. A woman in pre-Roman Britain begins speaking in tongues while in labour. Someone recognises it as Latin and writes it down. She dies in childbirth, but the son survives. And the Latin becomes the family prophecy… It is supposedly the words of the “Weaver”, a mysterious someone from the future. At least, this is the interpretation by several of the characters, as the prophecty is passed down, and mangled, through generations, and elements of it come true. The novel paints an interesting portrait of Roman Britain, mostly in the region around Hadrian’s Wall – the building of which comprises one section, and a visit to it a couple of centuries later forms another. The whole Weaver thing, however, feels too modern a conceit for the novel’s setting, but since it’s the link which ties the four novels of the quartet together – or so I’m guessing – then I suppose the novel is stuck with it. As Baxter novels go, this is a thin one, a mere 302 pages in hardback. I’m hoping I’ll find the second book as enjoyable a read, unlike the Destiny’s Children quartet.

Murder Take Three, Eric Brown (2017, UK). Despite the title, this is the fourth book in Brown’s Langham and Dupré series of crime novels. They’re set in the 1950s, Donald Langham is a midlist crime writer who works part-time for a private investigation agency with a wartime buddy, and French emigrée Maria Dupré is Langham’s agent and fiancée. A Hollywood starlet, filming at a country house, employs Langham to snoop around the set as she thinks there’s something fishy going on. Langham duly heads up there for the weekend, with Maria in tow, and they get to meet the cast (there is, curiously, not much of a crew on this film). It transpires that Langham knows the scriptwriter, a crime novelist like himself. The cast of the film are a mostly unpleasant lot, and there’s definitely an odd atmosphere to the place, but nothing especially peculiar seems to be going on… Until the starlet is found shot to death in the director’s trailer… They’re easy reads these books, and setting them in the 1950s means all the old murder-mystery tips and tricks and tools can still be used. The two leads are engaging characters, and if the supporting cast tend to drift into caricature territory, it’s no big deal. I think on balance I preferred the volume prior to this, Murder at the Loch, as its plot revolved around an interesting historical mystery. This one feels more like a pastiche of a 1940s Hollywood take on an English countryhouse murder, which gives it more of an air of unreality than it deserved.

The Chrysalids, John Wyndham (1955, UK). I may have read a Wyndham novel when I was at school, but I’m not entirely sure. I do remember reading one of his collections a few years later – if only because the cover art was a blurry photo of an Airfix model of a Colonial Viper from Battlestar Galactica. From what I recall, the stories were pretty bad. But Wyndham occupies a peculiar position in British sf – considered an important writer in the history of the genre by many, but also widely accepted by the mainstream. Some elements of his novels have even entered British culture, such as the Triffids. The Chrysalids, however, is set in Canada, although it might as well be set in Kent. The Earth has been depopulated by nuclear war, and much of it lies in ruins. In Labrador, in a small farming community, the narrator and seven other kids can all talk to each other telepathically. But they keep it secret, because mutations are ruthlessly culled (if animal) or exiled (if human), although the latter do sometimes have a tendency to turn up dead. Unfortunately, the secret gets out when the narrator is in his late teens/early twenties, Chiefly thanks to his very young sister, who is an extremely powerful telepath, so powerful in fact that she can just about hear the thoughts of people in New Zealand… which comes in useful as New Zealand is apparently a near-utopia for telepaths, and they’re sending a mission to Labrador to rescue the mutant teenagers. But not before the teenagers have been chased into the badlands and have witnessed a battle between the farmers and the mutants. Of course, radiation doesn’t cause hereditary mutation, we know that now, although perhaps they didn’t in the 1950s. The whole “keeping the genome pure” thing is also policed using religion, leading to some all too plausible – and sadly common, even now – Bible-backed bigotry. The narrator’s father is an especially big arsehole in that regard. And yet… it all feels very Home counties. For all the regard in which Wyndham is held, he’s never been an important figure in my map of science fiction, UK-only or Anglophone; and I’ve yet to be convinced he should be considered as important as he is.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary, #55

It might look I had a run of books by male authors, but in amongst these were several sf novels by female writers, which I plan to review on SF Mistressworks soon-ish. As it is, there are two books by a single writer, Eric Brown, who’s a friend of many years: a novella and a short collection.

Exalted on Bellatrix 1, Eric Brown (2017, UK). This is the final book in the Telemass Quartet, in which obsessive father Hendrick chases after the body of his young daughter, who has been put in stasis until a cure for her condition can be found, and who has been kidnapped by Hendrick’s ex-wife. And she is apparently just as warped as she’s been subjecting her daughter to increasingly desperate remedies, none of which have worked. But this is the fourth novella of a quartet, and Brown rarely fails to deliver some sort of uplifting closure to the agonies through which he puts his protagonists. In this one, Brown uses a setting he’s used many times in the past, an artists’ colony. Hendrick’s ex-wife has taken their daughter to the eponymous planet, where they’re hoping the reclusive, but advanced, alien inhabitants, the Vhey, will cure her. The end result is something in which the quartet’s story arc feels almost incidental. The novella focuses on the head of the colony, who is a nasty piece of work, and whose wife died in mysterious circumstances, and who plans to make use of the secret of the Vhey. Although not in the way Hendrick’s ex-wife is expecting, and not in a way that will save the daughter. Of the four novellas, this was probably the least satisfying, chiefly because it feels a bit warmed-over in places. Also, annoyingly, the previous three books used Roman numerals in their titles, but this one uses an Arabic number 1.

Revenger, Alastair Reynolds (2016, UK). This is, I think, supposed to be a YA novel – or at least YA-ish. The narrator is a teenage girl, in a planetary system populated by billions of space habitats, and which as been colonised in waves over billions of years. It is, it must be said, a pretty cool piece of world-building. Except… it’s all a bit steampunk. The spacecraft use light-sails to travel around the system, the technology is all brass and clockwork, except for magical tech artefacts left behind by aliens from earlier waves of colonisation… One of which are the skulls. Although the alien race whose skulls they were has long since vanished, and all that remains of them are bones, the technology inside their skulls remains active, and they’re all plugged into some sort of FTL comms network. Some teenagers can eavesdrop on this network, and send signals. Both Fura Ness and her sister Adrana have this knack. Adrana, the older of the two, persuades her sister to join her in running away from their financially-ruined father and making their fortune as skull readers. They join the crew of a ship that raids “baubles”, abandoned repositories of ancient alien tech (perhaps the baubles were habitats in the distant past, it’s never entirely clear). The baubles are usually secure behind impenetrable shields, but the shields occasionally drop for short periods, and some people are able to predict when these windows of opportunity will occur and how long they will last (again, it’s never made entirely clear why the shields should do this; because plot, I guess). Unfortunately, at their first bauble, the ship is attacked by a semi-legendary pirate, Bosa Sennen, who takes Adrana to be her skull-reader, and kills everyone else. But Fura hid, and survives. She vows revenge on the pirate, but her plans are derailed when her father has her brought back home and has a doctor halt her ageing so she will remain under-age and under his control. To me, that was the most horrifying part of the whole novel – Fura imprisoned by her age and society. Of course, Fura breaks free, joins the crew of a ship, engineers an encounter with Bosa Sennen and, well, there are no real surprises at the climax. As I said, the world-building is cool, but it’s never really convincing – and the baubles reminded me of something, A Deepness in the Sky perhaps? – and I didn’t really like the faux Victoriana. Fura makes for a good protagonist, but I thought the violence over-done. There is, I believe, a sequel called Revealer, due next year or the year after. I’ll buy it, of course.

The Paperchase, Marcel Theroux (2001, UK). I stumbled across this in a charity shop, and having been impressed by the last Theroux novel I read, Strange Bodies, I bought it. It’s not science fiction in the slightest, more of a family drama slash mystery. The narrator is a UK-based American, who is surprised to discover he’s been left his uncle’s house on a New England island in a will. The uncle was a celebrated writer, who faded away and became a recluse. The narrator leaves his job at the BBC and goes to live in the house – it’s a condition of the will: he only gets to keep it if he lives in it. And something about the papers left by his uncle, and the stories, and histories, of his neighbours, persuades the narrator there is a deeper story here – a mytsery about his uncle’s death, or his life. From a variety of unrelated facts, and assorted residents of the island, and friends of the late uncle, the narrator figures out the secret at the heart of the family. The problem is the prose, and the narrator, is so laid-back the revelation doesn’t really have the impact it should. True, it’s not especially earth-shattering, and very personal, but it’s the point of the novel so I’d expected something with more consequence. There’s a nicely digressive tone to the narrative, and the characters are well-drawn (and mostly likeable), but I polished this off about as quickly as I would a commericial crime novel and I had expected more of it.

Strange Visitors, Eric Brown (2014, UK). This is the eighth volume in NewCon Press’s Imaginings series of short collections. The contents in this one were originally published in a variety of venues, but, as is usually the case with collections, one story is original. It is not, to be brutally honest, Brown’s strongest collection. ‘Life Beyond…’, a piece of Simakiana, hews so closely to Simak’s patterns the plot is obvious from the first page. ‘Steps Along the Way’ is a post-human story about a twentieth-century human reincarnated thirty thousand years later… just to set up a surprise reveal ending (I suppose I should have liked this one, given its plot, but I thought it weak). ‘Myths of the Martian Future’ is one of those sf stories where every character in it is an alien of some form. It felt lighter than its tone suggested. ‘The Scribe of Betelgeuse V’ felt more like Dr Who story than an Eric Brown one. But without Dr Who. Its tone suited its lightness. ‘The Rest is Speculation’ is set during the last days of planet Earth, and reads more like a travelogue than a story (and the header in the book is incorrect as it gives the title of the following story). Which is ‘The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador’, a HG Wells / Sherlock Holmes mash-up, and succeeds as that if not entirely as a Holmes mystery. ‘Bukowski on Mars, With Beer’ was written for “bizarro fiction” anthology Vivisepulture (which also contained my Nazi occult flying saucer story, ‘Wunderwaffe’). I don’t know enough about Bukowski to feel qualified to comment on this story. ‘People of Planet Earth’ is one of those stories based on one of those silly ideas that wants to be both shocking and humorous, but fails at both. Finally, I was prepared to be disappointed by the collection’s only original story, ‘P.O.O.C.H.’, if only because of its terrible title. And prepared to hate it when I read that P.O.O.C.H. was an acronym for “Personal Omni-Operational Correctional Hound”, but… The premise is daft – giving convicted felons robot dogs programmed for bad behaviour in order to make them better people – but Brown draws his protagonists well and does a good job navigating the emotional landscape of the story. And yes, I also got to feel smug about being a cat person. It’s easily the best story in the collection.

The Quarry, Iain Banks (2013, UK). This was Banks’s last novel and is about a man dying of cancer, so questions about art and life were inevitable after Banks announced he had terminal cancer. The novel is actually narrated from the point of view of the dying man’s son, who has, I think, Asperger’s Syndrome. It is, like most of Banks’s non-M novels, a story based around a family secret, but the secret in this case is actually pretty irrelevant. A group of people who shared a house during their student days have returned to the house, where the oldest of their number now lives, and is in the end stages of terminal cancer. There is mention of a videocassette – the group fancied themselves as avant garde film-makers at university – which none of them want to see the light of day, but neither dying Guy nor his son Kit, know what’s happened to the tape. Meanwhile, a few home truths are aired, a few minor secrets from the past are let out of the bag, and the mystery of the identity of Kit’s mother is occasionally floated past the reader, only for it to be dealt with in passing at the end. The scene where the group view the sought-after videocassette is also pretty much a damp squib. The novel is narrated by Kit, and I don’t know enough about Asperger’s or autism to just how accurately or effectively he is portrayed. Other than that, Banks always wore his politics on his sleeve, and they’re out in full force in The Quarry. It’s far from his best novel, mainstream, science fiction or both, although it does come across as an angrier novel than his earlier ones (except perhaps for Complicity) – but that’s hardly surprising given what the Tories have been doing to the UK since 2010. Banks’s death makes The Quarry a more uncomfortable read than it would have been otherwise – the politics were clearly intended to make for uncomfortable reading for some, but the cancer aspect of the plot, sadly, overshadows it. Still, it’s a Bank novel, so it’s a given that it’s worth reading.

Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany). After reading The End of Days, I knew Erpenbeck was a name to watch. So I tracked down her previous books and read them, and they were good. And now we have her latest, actually published In Germany in 2015, but the English translation is new this year. A retired professor in Berlin, and who grew up in East Germany, one day stumbles across a camp of African refugees in Alexanderplatz. He follows their story in the press as they are moved to a tent city in another square, and then split up and placed in temporary accommodation – mothballed schools and sanatoria – while the Berlin senate makes a decision on their fate. The professor decides to document the plight of these refugee men – from Libya, Ghana, and Niger, chiefly. There is a group of them in an old nursing home near his house, and he is allowed to interview them. As he gets to know them and their stories, so he realises that the narrative written by European governments and press about the refugees is both inaccurate and incomplete, in much the same way the powerful in Germany fostered a desire for unity and imposed their own narrative on the union of East and West. There are contrasts also – the initial easy acceptance of East Germans by West Germans, which soon soured, not to mention the expectations of the East Germans based on myths of the West propagated through Western culture. This is a book that properly interrogates its topic, and it pulls no punches. Right wing press and governments have traded on people’s racism and xenophobia to whip up anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that has no basis in fact – because people scared of strangers are easier to control and are less likely to notice when their rights and property are taken from them just so some oligarch can earn more money than he could possibly spend in a thousand lifetimes. They’re the ones we should be scared of, the oligarchs; they’re the ones we should hate – not the poor sods driven out of their homes by wars created by inept US foreign policy and British arms sales, or the economic depredations of Western corporations chasing profits, and organising violent regime changes, in the developing world to offset their decreasing margins in the developed world…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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A kind of library

So I did the usual and went and bought me more books – mostly for the collection, but a favourite author also had a new novel out, and I went a little mad one evening after watching a film and purchased everything I could find by that film-maker…

… which was Ben Rivers. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (that’s the red one) was published to accompany the film of the same title. Ways of Worldmaking is about Rivers’s works. And then, on another night, fuelled by wine and Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, as I was writing about it for a Moving pictures post and comparing it with video art installations… and I remembered the excellent one I’d seen by Richard Mosse in the Hafnarhús site of the Reykjavik Art Museum last October… So I went looking online and found four books by Mosse. Both Richard Mosse  and Incoming were published to accompany a solo exhibition in the Barbican’s Curve gallery from February to April this year; the first was published by the Barbican, the second is signed. The other two books by him I found… well, Infra is $900 ($1000 for the collector’s edition), and The Enclave is $1050 ($2000 for the box set edition). A bit out of my range…

Some sf hardbacks for the collection. The Quality of Mercy was a lucky find on eBay. It’s really difficult to find a good copy, and I got it for a very reasonable price. I already have a copy of The Missionaries, but this was one was going cheap and in much better condition. Titan I bought for 10 euros from SF Bokhandeln’s stall at Worldcon75. It usually costs considerably more. Heavy Time is signed. Cuckoo’s Egg is signed and numbered – and the seller threw in Forty Thousand in Gehenna for free as he was trying to reduce stock (sadly, it’s not signed).

Some new hardbacks. Jenny Erpenbeck is a favourite writer, so I’ve been looking forward to Go, Went, Gone. The last Baxter novels I read were Proxima and Ultima and I thought them, to be honest, a bit juvenile. But he’s a hard habit to give up. Hence, Xeelee: Vengeance. If only he weren’t so fucking prolific… Exalted on Bellatrix 1 is, despite the title, the final book of Brown’s Telemass Quartet. They’re actually numbered in reverse, with the number referring to a planet of each novella’s eponymous star. Annoyingly, the other three use Roman numerals but this one doesn’t. Solid science fiction and typically Brownian – although the protagonist does come across as a bit creepily obsessive.

Two paperbacks and a graphic novel. Back in the 1970s, Newcastle Publishing issued a line of fantasy reprints, the Forgotten Fantasy Library. I’ve been picking them when I find them. She and Allan is the sixth book in the series. A recent Twitter exchange persuaded me to give Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories – or “lamourist histories”, as the spine has it – another go. Glamour in Glass is the second book in the series. Well, I do like Georgette Heyer’s novels… And In Uncertain Times is the eighteenth volume in the Valerian and Laureline series, and I see Cinebook are pushing them out at a much faster rate now, after the relelase of Besson’s film (which has apparently not done all that well, anyway).


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The north face of Mount TBR

Looks like I’m going to need another clear-out soon. Normally, I dump the books I no longer want at local charity shops, but the more recent genre ones I save for the York and Sheffield pub meet raffles. However, I might stick a list up here of books for sale – I have a lot of 1980s sf paperbacks in very good condition (they were in storage for pretty much the entire 1990s). We’ll see. Meanwhile…

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Some sf, recent and not so recent. I bought The Book of Phoenix and Way Down Dark because they were shortlisted for the Clarke Award. I read them. I was not impressed with either – see here. I’ve been picking up copies of the Tor doubles from the 1980s when I find them, although not all are worth reading; hence #21: Home is the Hangman / We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line… and #22: Thieves Carnival / The Jewel of Bas. A Game of Authors is actually not sf, but a thriller. WordFire Press (ie, Kevin J Anderson’s own imprint) has been publishing old manuscripts by Frank Herbert that never saw print, and I’ve been buying them. They’re interesting from an historical point of view, although, to be fair, I can see no good reason why they weren’t published back in the day.

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Some first editions for the collection. First up, the third book of Eric Brown’s Telemass quartet, Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II. Also from PS Publishing is The Brain From Beyond. Both were launched at Mancunicon, but the signed editions weren’t available at the con. The Persistence of Vision was a lucky find on eBay. I still rate Varley’s short fiction. And Dissidence is the latest from an author whose books I buy on publication.

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A mixed bag of fiction: The Sensationist is another Palliser for the collection. The Ghosts of Inverloch is the latest English translation of the bande dessinée series. The Harlequin is an award-winning novella, and The Voice of Poetry 1930 – 1950 I stumbled across on eBay and since I like the poetry of that period…

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And a mixed bag of non-fiction. The Entropy Exhibition, signed, was a lucky find on eBay. I’ve been collecting the Anatomy of the Ship series when I find them going for a fair price – originally I bought them for research for my space opera trilogy, but now it’s just because they’re cool books: hence The Destroyer Escort England. When I saw spotted Nazi Moonbase on Amazon, I couldn’t resist it. Romancing is a biographical/critical work about Henry Green, an author I’m keen to read more of.


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Reading diary, #30

Bit of a mixed bag this time around. Three science fiction, two crime and one literary. Which is what my reading is like sometimes.

reunion-smallReunion on Alpha Reticuli II, Eric Brown (2016). This is the third novella in Brown’s Telemass Quartet (yes, I know; everyone seems to be doing them these days), each of which has been numbered in reverse in the title. The quartet follows the attempt by retired Dutch policeman Hendrick to rescue his terminally-ill-but-in-medical-stasis daughter from his estranged ex-wife, who is so desperate for a cure she’s trying all manner of alien mumbo-jumbo. Her attempts have, in the books so far, been bizarrely lacking a technological basis. And the same is true of Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II. Hendrick follows his wife to to the titular planet, a popular holiday world, notable for hotels which comprise huge concrete spikes from which hang glass bubbles (the rooms), as depicted on the cover. But Hendrick’s ex-wife is there to meet secretly with a member of a reclusive race… who claims to be able to save the daughter… Unfortunately, three novellas in and the series is beginning to feel a little formulaic. Brown draws his characters and his worlds well, but the plot in Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II feels more by-the-numbers than the previous two. It’s not helped by the introduction of a telepathic love-interest, who comes across as far too good to be true. I kept on waiting for the twist. There wasn’t one. Having said all that, if you’ve been following the Telemass Quartet, you know what you’re going to get. And Brown delivers. The second has, to my mind, been the best so far, but… there’s still one more to go.

tor_dbl_22-smallThieves’ Carnival / The Jewel of Bas, Karen Haber / Leigh Brackett (1990/1944). I’ve been picking up copies of Tor’s series of back-to-back doubles since first stumbling across a couple of them in a remaindered bookshop in Abu Dhabi. There were thirty-six published in total, between 1988 and 1991, mostly reprints but with the occasional piece of original fiction, and all by known names. (Although Haber here is probably better-known as an anthologist.) ‘Thieves’ Carnival’ is a prequel to Brackett’s story, and shows how the two main characters met and ended up married. While it’s set chronologically earlier, it should really have been the second story in this book. Brackett does her typically skilful job at setting up world and cast in ‘The Jewel of Bas’ – although, to be honest, this is not one of her best – and ‘Thieves’ Carnival’ would have proven a more interesting read as a pendant to Brackett’s. Which tells how Mouse and her husband, the minstrel Ciaran, are captured by minions of Bas – well, not exactly, it’s the two androids Bas built to attend him, it’s their minions who have been enslaving people in order to build an engine to save the world… because Bas is more interested in his dreamworld and has been neglecting things. In Haber’s prequel, Mouse is teamed with Ciaran in a thievery competition, and she decides to steal the Portal Cube… which proves to be some sort of time-travel device and its theft results in weird flashbacks to other times and places. The Brackett is not among her best – the story feels tired, the dialogue is clunkier than you’d expect, and the plot echoes a few too many other stories of the period. Haber’s prequel takes Brackett’s science-fantasy and ups the fantasy, turning the story into something more like a RPG adventure than an homage to Brackett. I get that publishers are often constrained when putting these series together in as much as they can only include those stories to which they could obtain the rights… but both of these are entirely forgettable.

robberThe Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993). Four women, who first met at university in the sixties, each have a run-in with a fifth woman, Zenia. But that’s all behind them, since Zenia apparently died in a terrorist bomb, and her depradations actually brought them together as friends, even though they sort of knew each other back in university… And then a woman walks into the coffee shop where the four have met for their weekly lunch, and they all recognise her: Zenia. The novel then takes each of the four women in turn, and tells their stories and how Zenia entered their lives and the damage she caused. There are, it sometimes seems to me, two Margaret Atwoods. There are the novels written by one Atwood, where the ideas are really good but the prose never really shines; and there’s the other Atwood, whose prose is beautifully put together and a joy to read. I’d say Oryx and Crake was by the first Atwood, and Alias Grace by the second. The Robber Bride is also by the second. I’ve not enjoyed, and been so impressed on a sentence-by-sentence level, by an Atwood novel since reading, well, Alias Grace. This is easily her second-best work. I have by no means read her entire oeuvre, although I do plan to work by way through it. But of those I’ve read so far, I’d put The Robber Bride second after Alias Grace (and yes, above The Handmaid’s Tale).

beastsBeast in View, Margaret Millar (1962). Reclusive rich spinster Helen Clarvoe receives a telephone call from a woman who threatens her. After quizzing the staff of the hotel where she lives and finding out nothing, Clarvoe contacts her investment manager, Paul Blackshear, and ask for his help. Since he has just retired, and he finds himself liking Clarvoe, he decides to investigate… which puts him on the trail of Evelyn Merrick, an old school friend of Clarvoe and the estranged ex-wife of Clarvoe’s brother – who is gay, but married Merrick in order to appear “normal” but it all went horribly wrong on the honeymoon. While Blackshear runs around Los Angeles trying to track down Merrick before she makes good on her threat – and stumbling across a few of the Clarvoe family secrets, a murder, and increasing evidence that Merrick is completely deranged… But there’s a clever twist in the tail. I pretty much read this in a single sitting one Sunday afternoon. Worth a go.

heritageHeritage of Flight, Susan Shwartz (1989). I read this to review on SF Mistressworks. I read Shwartz’s Grail of Hearts many years ago and really liked it – I must reread it one of these days – so I was pretty keen to try some of her actual science fiction. And eventually I stumbled across a copy of Heritage of Flight at Mancunicon earlier this year (on the Porcupine Books stall in one of the dealers’ rooms). But what I liked about Grail of Hearts was its repurposing of Arthurian legend as a romance, where as Heritage of Flight is pretty much a straight-up sf novel of the 1980s. In other words, a bit disappointing. It has its moments, but it’s by no means a great book. And that cover art is pretty misleading. A review of it will appear on SF Mistressworks later this week.

zagrebThe Lady from Zagreb, Philip Kerr (2015). Kerr admits in an afterword to this tenth volume in the Bernie Gunther series that he had planned to retire his Kripo/SD detective after nine books. He also admits there is another volume to follow this one, The Other Side of Silence (which is on the TBR)… And it seems there’s going to be a twelfth volume too, Prussian Blue, according to Wikipedia. Not that I’m complaining. These are superior detective novels, and Kerr’s research and level of historical detail is impressive. It is, of course, getting harder to stitch stories into Gunther’s life, but that’s hardly surprising – and while inconsistencies might pop up when reading the series from start to finish, I’ve not noticed any in my intermittent, albeit chronological, read of the books. The Lady from Zagreb opens in the 1950s. Gunther is a house detective for a hotel on the Riviera. He goes into a cinema and watches a film starring 1940s German star Dalia Dresner… with whom he was romantically involved back in 1942. Which is where the story abruptly shoots back to. It’s a fairly standard plot, perhaps even a noir staple, but by setting it in Nazi Germany during World War II, and framing it around the events of earlier novel, A Man Without Breath, but following on from Prague Fatale, Kerr gives the story an added dimension. Basically, Dresner gets Goebbels to task Gunther with tracking down her Croatian father, currently a monk in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. Except things are not as clear-cut as they seem, including Dresner’s own marriage in neutral Switzerland. One day, someone should make a TV series of these books. They’re really very good.

1001 Books To Read Before You Die count: 124


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Reading diary, #26

Some fast reads and short books have helped me catch up on my Goodreads reading challenge, which is perhaps not the best way to choose books to read, but never mind.

sargasso_smSargasso, Edwin Corley (1977). A 1970s technothriller is not my normal reading, but since this one features both an Apollo space mission and underwater exploration… The initial set-up is intriguing: the command module for Apollo 19 splashes down in the Atlantic after its crew have spent time aboard a Soviet spacestation in an ASTP detente-in-orbit type exercise… but when the CM is opened, it’s empty. No astronauts. And yet Mission Control was communicating with them as they left orbit and fell to Earth. After much guff about the Bermuda Triangle – as that’s where the splashdown occurs – and an ocean survey ship with a submersible which experiences a total power failure seconds before the splashdown… Not to mention a re-enactment of Flight 19, and a man who has been alive for more than a hundred years… It all turns out to be payback for a dastardly plot by those evil communistic Soviets. A back-cover quote praises the book’s research, but I thought it pretty slipshod. Not that the book made much of an effort at detail anyway. The prose barely rose to workmanlike, the cast were the usual stereotypes, and sometimes I wonder why I bother reading some books…

beside_oceanBeside the Ocean of Time, George Mackay Brown (1994). Thorfinn Ragnarson is an idle dreamer, the schoolboy son of a subsistence farmer on the invented Orcadian island of Norday, and considered mostly useless by all who know him. Various incidents set off daydreams, in which Thorfinn imagines himself in assorted historical roles – aboard a Viking ship which makes for Byzantium, the squire of a knight on his way to Bannockburn, a member of the people who built the brochs, press-ganged into the English fleet to fight the French republicans… But there is also a section which describes life on Norday at the time the novel is set, the 1930s, and centres around the mysterious young woman who comes to stay with the local reverend. This was my first experience of reading Mackay Brown, and I’m sure it’s my thing. I found the prose very simple and declarative, and while there were occasional  moments of lovely imagery, much of it struck me as quite sketchy. The setting, of course, had its own fascination, and I actually spent an hour or so looking up brochs after reading about them in Beside the Ocean of Time (and even considered buying a book on the topic). There are some authors, you only need to read one novel or novella, and you want to explore their oeuvre further. While I liked Beside the Ocean of Time, and may well pick up copies of Mackay Brown’s books if I see them in charity shops, I’m not minded to actively seek out his other works.

double_starDouble Star, Robert Heinlein (1956). As far as I was aware, this was one of the less objectionable novels in Heinlein’s oeuvre, and I’ve seen much praise for it which was careful to make that point. And yet I have to wonder if those people had actually bothered reading it recently. I can understand a thirteen-year-old lapping it up, and nostalgia putting even more of a shine on the book many decades later… but there’s no way Double Star stands up to scrutiny for anyone with a modicum of intelligence, taste or sensitivity. What else to think of a novel that contains the line “a woman will forgive any action, up to and including assault with violence, but is easily insulted by language”? And there is only one female named character in the entire book. And she’s the hero’s personal assistant. The world-building is also piss-poor, something at which Heinlein is normally quite good. It’s not just the idea of a Solar System-wide empire ruled by a member of the House of Orange, or Mars, Venus and Jupiter having native intelligent life, or the really clunky technology (much of which is behind the state of the art for 1955)… Everything just feels weirdly anachronistic and old-fashioned, even for sf of the 1950s – no, especially for sf of the 1950s. Then there’s the lectures on free trade, all of which are patent bollocks. (Free trade does not generate wealth, it concentrates wealth. In the hands of those who already possess wealth. History has been telling us this for centuries.) An actor is asked to impersonate an important politican who has been kidnapped, but is desperately needed at a ceremony which will result in a treaty with the Martians. The actor does so, the politician is rescued but proves too ill to return to his job, and so the impersonation continues… As far as I know, Double Star was never published as a juvenile, but it’s hard to believe it was aimed at an adult audience.

prof_satoThe Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 22: Professor Satō’s Three Formulae, Part 1, Edgar P Jacobs (1971). I first stumbled across Blake & Mortimer back in the 1990s when I lived in Abu Dhabi. If I remember correctly, it was upstairs in Card Zone, where the shop sold books – and some of their stock went back a decade or more. I found a bunch of English-language editions of some bandes dessinée from the late 1980s, one of which was Atlantis Mystery, the seventh in the Blake & Mortimer series. For whatever reason, only half a dozen of the Blake & Mortimer books where published in English… until 2007, when Cinebook began publishing the entire series in English, both Jacobs’s originals and those produced after his death by the Edgar P Jacobs Studio. However, they’ve not been following the original publication order, which is why Professor Satō’s Three Formulae, books 11 and 12 in French, has been published as books 22 and 23 in English (the latter due in May this year). I have to admit I prefer the ones written after Jacobs’s death. While Jacobs was careful to get his details right – in this one, for example, set in the early 1970s, the aircraft and cars are all shown accurately – but the science-fictional aspects are often quite silly. Those written by other hands seem to me to be more careful at making their stories plausible – even going so far as to integrate them into real history. In Professor Satō’s Three Formulae, Part 1, the eponymous scientist has invented a type of robot, which he has built in the form of a ryū. But it somehow escapes his secret laboratory and destroys two fighter jets from the Japanese Air Defence Force. Convinced there is a conspiracy afoot to steal his ideas for nefarious pruposes (there is, of course), Satō calls for his old friend Mortimer for help. Satō has also distilled his research into three formulae, which he plans to give to Mortimer for safe-keeping. Of course, it all goes wrong. Not one of the better books in the series, although I admit I’ve enjoyed reading them and have no plans to stop.

abandonedAbandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016). Rockets, of course, need somewhere to launch from, and such structures need to be pretty damn sturdy given the beating they will take. So fifty years later, it’s no surprise to discover there are relics and ruins still scattered about the US: block houses, test stands, launch complexes… Some have been demolished since Miller photographed them, some have been repurposed, but many are simply too difficult to destroy. There’s something sadly emblematic about the photos in this book, the fact that the structures they document are all that’s left of the optimism which put twelve men on the surface of the Moon. And they’re in a state of abandonment. It has been argued that NASA’s space programme was the nearest to a socialist economic policy the USA has ever implemented, and I can see how the argument has merit – by spreading the bounty throughout the country in order to win political support, it uplifted towns and states both financially and technologically. There’s a certain level of irony in that. And yet, like the USSR, the only evidence of its existence are ruins – and the world was a better place when both were thriving.

starship-coda-hc-by-eric-brown_smStarship Coda, Eric Brown (2016). Ten years after the events of the Starship Quartet, narrator David Conway is mysteriously contacted by his ex-wife, whom he left before the events of the first novella in the sequence, Starship Spring. She wants to know how he managed to get past the death of their daughter in a drowning accident – the event which drove them apart, and drove Conway from Earth to Chalcedony. The answer, of course, lies in the events of the preceding four novellas. But Conway’s ex-wife duly appears, and it seems she has undergone a drastic procedure in search of closure: Age Reversal Therapy. Which is exactly what the name says. Starship Coda successfully matches the tone of the earlier novellas, although at less than 40 pages it’s a thin book. There’s a sort of comfortable languidness to the world and story, although the focus of the prose is very much on the narrator’s emotional landscape. In fact, there’s something very relaxing about the story – it’s sort of affirming, without being cosy. And while the road to the conclusion may not be smooth, you know there’s happiness at the end of it. And I’m not embarrassed to admit I’d sooner read books like that than I would dystopias, post-apocalypses or anything which professes to be “grimdark”.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 122