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Reading diary 2018, #8

I don’t seem to be reading much current science fiction these days. Well, okay, I read three of the four novels shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and I recently bought four of the six novels shortlisted for the Clarke Award (I already owned one, and am not really interested in another.) And yes, I’ve read the first two books of NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which has been the most lauded genre series of the last couple of years… But no current science fiction here, I’m afraid.

Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). I stumbled across Henry Green’s writing a couple of years ago. I’d seen mention of him somewhere as a forgotten great writer in British twentieth-century literature, although at the time I saw this he had been re-discovered, not that I knew; but anyway I stumbled across an omnibus of three of his novels – Loving · Living · Party Going – and I read the first of these (actually the last published of the three) and, er, loved it. So I read more. And yes, he is indeed one of the best writers this country produced in the first half of last century. Pack My Bag is his autobiography, written in 1940 at the age of 35, after Green had volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service and was convinced he would not survive the war. (He actually survived, and died an alcoholic in 1973, having published only nine novels.) Pack My Bag is something Green banged out to assuage fears he might be forgotten and, quite frankly, I’m in awe of his talent. He led a privileged life, a minor member of the aristocracy, educated at Eton and Oxford – I can’t decide whether to despise him for his background, admire him for his writing, or grudgingly admit he was uncommon for his class – unpopular at school, and far too thoughtful; he left Oxford without graduating, to go work in his family’s bottling factory in Birmingham. Yet his wife was a member of his class, and a distant cousin too; and though he was clearly very intelligent, as a member of the upper classes he was the beneficiary of what is considered to be a top-notch education… and yet he admits the masters at Eton were hired for their sporting prowess and not their knowledge of their subjects, which in many cases was hugely deficient, and it would not surprise me if that has held true in the century since; and at university, he brags that his studies take up no more than six hours a week. Green is perfectly aware of what he is saying as he writes this – he is not a man afraid of burning bridges, or biting the hand that feeds him, or other such aphorisms.

The Masked Fisherman, George Mackay Brown (1989, UK). Someone on Twitter recommended Brown a couple of years ago, and so I’ve kept an eye open for his books in local charity shops ever since. Which is how I stumbled across Beside the Ocean of Time (see here), which I thought good; and why I later picked up this book when I found it in a charity shop. It’s a collection of twenty-two very short stories, some of which work very well and some of which didn’t seem to work at all. Some barely qualify as stories. They’re all set in Brown’s home ground, the Orkneys, and they take place between the eleventh and twentieth centuries. They’re not arranged chronologically, but jump about. The title story is historical, and reads more like a fable than a short story. Another, about a mean old lady who leaves a surprising bequest, feels a bit out of place. A short story about the town’s first lamp-lighter is especially good. Another about a writer researching his past also stands out. Some of the stories seemed less… lyrical than I had expected, not that Brown’s prose is ornate, it’s typically very plain but it’s also very evocative. And in a few places here, that felt slightly lacking. However, the more by Brown I read, the more by Brown I want to read. So I’ll continue to keep eye open for his books.

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol 2, (2010, India). This was a reward for a kickstarter – although maybe not from that particular website – for volume three (as was volume one, but there’s no sign of it yet; I’m still not convinced “kickstarters” – crowd-funding, that is – are actually viable or sustainable, but that’s an argument for another day). Anyway, in India – and in this case, the Tamil-speaking parts of it, such as Tamil Nadu – penny dreadfuls of a sort still exist. They are printed on extremely cheap paper and sold at newsstands or by boys at traffic lights. Authors who specialise in these Tamil pulp novels have bibliographies numbering in the high double figures, and some even in the high triple figures – and one author in this anthology, Rajesh Kumar, has written around 1500! While holding down day jobs. To be fair, they’re not long novels and, if the ones in this anthology are any indication, pretty badly-written, with an over-reliance on cliché, very little description and plots that are so pacey they frequently contradict themselves. The plots are mostly thrillers with real or faked supernatural elements. The opener, and the longest in the anthology, ‘The Palace of Kottaipuram’, features a second son from a tiny princedom in which the heirs are cursed to die before they reach their thirtieth birthday. When his older brother dies, making him the heir, his girlfriend – he met her at college – is determined to find the truth behind the curse and so thwart it. It’s all very, well, pulp, and probably the best story in the book. I’m glad I read the book, and I’ll read the third one too, of course; but it’s like watching Bollywood films: they might be terrible, but they’re entertaining and fun and different to what I normally read/watch.

Dan Dare: He Who Dares, Peter Milligan & Alberto Foche (2018, UK). I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare since the early 1970s, and have kept up with him in all his re-imaginings since, most of which it must be said have been pretty shit. There was the 2000AD one (see here and here), then the re-launched Eagle with Dare’s… grandson?, also called Dare. And in the early 1990, out of Revolver, there was Dare by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes, to date the only halfway-decent Dare since the original (and it looks like Titan are publishing a new edition later this year). And Grant Ennis and Gary Erskine had a bash at a new Dan Dare a few years and it was pretty bad. But here’s a new one. It starts off really well. Dare and co. – specifically, Hank Hogan, Peabody and Digby; although Hank pretty much disappears after the first couple of pages, Digby is far more competent and assertive than his original, and Peabody, the most modern of the characters even back in the 1950s, has been updated a little. As has the Mekon. Dan Dare: He Who Dares starts out well, with some pointed political commentary. The Mekon was captured and is now in a secure facility on the Moon. He seems to have given up his evil ways, but only Dare believes he might be rehabilitated. And then a giant Treen spaceship appears in the Solar System, and Dare seeks advice from the Mekon on how to destroy it. With the help of a female warrior from an alien world. This is where it all falls apart. Dare was always interplanetary, and his only interstellar stories – Rogue Planet and Terra Nova – saw him and his colleagues spending weeks or months travelling to an alien world. There’s certainly no suggestion the Mekon carved out an interstellar empire. In fact, the Treens who invade the Solar System feel like an entirely different race, and not the Treens of Venus. A shame, as the story started off so well.

The Art of Edena, Moebius (2018, France). So I ordered this a couple of months ago, but Amazon failed to source it and after a month cancelled my order. And then a week after that, I noticed they had copies in stock. So how does that work? I know: it’s because people are so fucking lax about data that you can no longer uniquely identify something because there might well be hundreds of identical copies under different ids in a system. Anyway, I re-ordered it and it was delivered the next day. Despite the title, it’s not a study of Moebius’s Edena series (see here). It’s more of a companion volume, explaining details that are patently obvious in the series itself, but – and it’s worth buying for this if you’re a Moebius fan – it also includes several short graphical stories featuring Stel and Atan that are not in the Edena volume. And they’re pretty good.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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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


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The grateful mantlepiece

Something must be wrong with me. How else to explain it? It’s been over a month since my last book haul post, and look how few books I’ve bought since then. The mantlepiece, at least, is grateful, as its load was somewhat lighter as I was putting together this post. And the rate of increase in the TBR has decreased a little. You know you’re in trouble when you’re measuring the rate of change in the TBR rather than the actual number of books you own but have yet to read. So it goes.

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Some non-fiction: Spacesuit I fancied the look of, chiefly because it includes spacesuits from fiction; but we’ll see how it stacks up against the other books on the topic I own. The Astronaut Wives Club is research for Apollo Quartet 4, and it’s nice when you decide on a topic to write about and someone then goes and publishes a factual work on that very subject. DH Lawrence: Triumph to Exile 1912 – 1922 is the second volume of a three-volume biography of the writer and belonged to my father. I have the first, but now I’m going to have to see if I can get hold of a hardback edition of the third book.

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Haynes have branched out from car owners’ workshop manuals, and while I can understand them applying the same formula to various famous aircraft, such as the Avro Vulcan and Supermarine Spitfire, or even the Space Shuttle and Lunar Rover, some of the fictional “vehicles” they cover make less sense – like the U.S.S. Enterprise, the Millennium Falcon, or Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds. Still, I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare for years, so I thought the Space Fleet Operations Manual worth a go. It’s… okay. Cutaways of the various spacecraft, thumbnail sketches of the characters and alien races. There’s not much detail. Ah well. The Secret of the Swordfish, Part 1 is the fifteenth volume in the series, and there’s only a few to go before it’s all done. This is the first Blake and Mortimer story, originally published in 1950, and it shows. The artwork is Jacobs’ usual ligne claire style but the story is neither as complex nor as clever as much later volumes.

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For the collections: Murder by the Book is Eric Brown branching out into crime, and I’m looking forward to reading it (especially since I know what one of its touchstone works was). I was kindly sent an ARC of The Lowest Heaven but after reading the first story by Sophia MacDougall I decided it was worth buying the limited edition. So I did. Review to follow shortly-ish. The Quarry I bought from Waterstones, and it’s not like I was never going to buy the book in hardback. Five Autobiographies and a Fiction I bought direct from Subterranean Press. Idiot HMRC decided to charge VAT on it, even though books are exempt. I have applied for a refund but it’ll be weeks before I get it. So, of course, they did it to the next book I ordered from the US. I’ve been buying books from publishers and eBay sellers in the US for years without a problem, and then twice in one month they wrongly stiff me for VAT. Stupid HMRC are stupid.

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Some charity shop finds: Persepolis, a graphic novel about a woman growing up in Iran. I’ve been there, you know: Persepolis. It was in the early 1970s, we went on holiday to Iran, and stayed in Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran. At one point, we went to see the ruins at Persepolis. I really ought to see about digitising the cine film my father shot when we were there. Beside the Ocean of Time was a lucky find – I’ve been interested in trying something by George Mackay Brown since seeing him mentioned on, I think, Eve’s Alexandria. Before I Go To Sleep I vaguely recall being one of those literary/mainstream novels based on a sf idea from a couple of years ago. I can’t actually remember what people said about it, however. I guess I’ll find out for myself. Skin of the Soul is a Women’s Press anthology of horror stories by women writers. I wavered on this one – I mean, it’s not sf so I can’t review it for SF Mistressworks; and I’m not a huge fan of horror, anyway. But then I saw Suzy McKee Charnas and Karen Joy Fowler on the TOC, and I decided to buy it.

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Finally, two books I bought from Waterstones’ “buy one get one half price promotion”. Guess which one I got for half price: is it HHhH at £8.99 or A Possible Life at £12.99? I really wanted HHhH as I’d heard so many good things about it, but as is always the way with these promotions finding a second book proved difficult. Yes, I did want to read A Possible Life, but not enough that I’d pay near enough thirteen quid for the trade paperback. But there was nothing else that looked remotely interesting. I must have been in a good mood.