It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


2 Comments

100 books, part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about the “100 Books That Shaped My World”, as inspired by the list published by the BBC. Parts one and two are here and here.

And so we come to…

The 1990s

The major event in the 1990s which impacted by reading habits was moving to the United Arab Emirates. One of the first things I did on arriving in Abu Dhabi was join a subscription library – the Daly Community Library, run by Jocelyn Henderson – which was a real life-saver… but did not have much of a genre collection. So I was forced to read further afield. I had started reading literary fiction (not a term I like) a few years earlier during my last year in Coventry, but that was more in the nature of exploration. In Abu Dhabi, I  had no choice: if I wanted to take out four books a fortnight, I could not do so if they were only genre, the library simply didn’t have enough of them.

The Innocent, Ian McEwan (1990). I borrowed this book from Coventry Central Library, and it’s one of the first “literary fiction” novels I remember reading. I probably read others before The Innocent, and certainly there were books I studied at school that weren’t science fiction or fantasy, but I’m fairly sure this was the first novel I read I consciously identified as “literary fiction”. I continued reading McEwan for many years afterward, but eventually gave up on his books after reading Saturday and hating it.

Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990). I first met Iain Banks at the second convention I attended, Prefab Trout in Glasgow in 1989, but at the 1990 Eastercon in Liverpool the editor of a magazine called Back Brain Recluse borrowed my hotel room for an interview with Banks. About a dozen of us sat in on it. As far as I know, the interview never saw print. Use of Weapons was also launched at the con, so I bought a copy and got it signed. I think I’d read a couple of Banks’s novels prior to that weekend, but after reading Use of Weapons I made sure to pick up each new book as it was published – both Iain M Banks and Iain Banks. In first edition.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). I remember the fuss when this was published. Greenland had previously published three literate fantasies, was also known as a critic (and a co-editor of Interzone), and was a well-respected name in British sf. Take Back Plenty, word had it, was something very different, a literate science fiction novel that made knowing use of pulp sf tropes. Word was correct. Take Back Plenty showed me that tropes were not only the building-blocks of science fiction but they could also be interrogated. And they could be deployed in a narrative that used literary tricks not commonly found in science fiction. (Many years later on this blog, I would take a second look at the deployment of tropes in science fiction, and the unacknowledged baggage those tropes carried.) Take Back Plenty remains an important novel in British science fiction; and in my own approach to the genre. It’s no longer as popular as it once was, and its importance seems to have been lost in the success of Banks’s space operas. Banks wrote superior space opera, true, but it was less consciously literary than Greenland’s sf; and, of course, Banks published considerably more books.

Raft, Stephen Baxter (1991). I met Stephen Baxter at a convention in the late 1980s, and we would often hang out together. There was a group of us who hung out together at UK cons – some had been published, some hadn’t, but quite a few went on to have careers as science fiction writers and are still being published now. I’d read several of Baxter’s stories in British small press magazines – does anyone remember Dreams and New Moon Quarterly? At that time, a typical sf writer’s career progression went: publish short stories in small press magazines, publish short stories in Interzone, attract interest of genre imprint editor, submit novel or collection… I seem to remember Baxter’s debut was originally going to be a collection of Xeelee stories but his editor decided a novel was safer. Anyway, Baxter added me to a list at his publisher so I’d receive review copies (it wasn’t as easy for an individual to get review copies then as it is now). I was sent copies of his first four books as they were published, but then my parents sold their house and moved abroad. After that, I had to buy my own copies.

The Brains of Rats, Michael Blumlein (1989)
Semiotext(e) SF, Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson & Robert Anton Wilson, eds. (1989). I’d been hugely impressed by Blumlein’s story, ‘Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report’, when I first came across it in, I think, an Interzone anthology. It was shocking but I loved its – no pun intended – clinically sharp prose. Naturally, I bought his first collection when it was published (I upgraded my copy to a signed slipcased edition a few years ago). I was not the only fan of the story among the people I hung out with at conventions at that time (a slightly different group to the one mentioned above). We were all into a particular group of US sf writers who appeared, or were discussed, in the magazine SF Eye and, later, Journal Wired, particularly the more gonzo science fiction writers. And you couldn’t get more gonzo than Semiotext(e) SF. It further helped shape my understanding of science fiction, a demonstration the genre wasn’t limited to the sort of heartland sf found in those books I’d bought from WH Smith and the like in the 1970s and 1980s…

Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988). Kadrey was one of the aforementioned SF Eye authors and Metrophage was his debut. I have long maintained its publication pretty much killed cyberpunk as a serious sf subgenre. The 1980s had seen me explore heartland sf widely, discovering new authors and notables works both old and new. During the 1990s, my definition of the genre expanded – well, perhaps not definition, more that my view of sf had been quite “trad” and I’d previously interpreted what I read in light of that view. I had, for example, read Tiptree in the very early 1980s (after she had been outed), but had not read her stories as feminist (feminism was not something I knew of as a thing at that time, although I agreed with its aims and had even internalised some of them). Metrophage was one of the first novels I read which gave me the beginnings of a critical framework for my appreciation of science fiction. I still think the novel is hugely under-rated.

Dreamside, Graham Joyce (1991). I met Graham Joyce at Mexicon 4 in Harrogate during a weekend in May 1991. He was there to help promote his first book, Dreamside. I offered to interview him for a magazine I co-edited, The Lyre, and pretty much read Dreamside in a single day as preparation. Unfortunately, the interview took place on the Sunday, after many of us had stayed up until about 4 am drinking the previous night, and neither Joyce nor myself were feeling particularly smart. Weeks later, I sent him a verbatim transcript, and he wrote back that he remembered the interview as “quite insightful… so who were those two fucking Martians on the tape?”. I lost touch with Joyce after I left the UK, and I was never much of a fan of the genre in which he wrote, although I did read several of his novels. When I first met him, I could not have predicted how important he would prove to British fantasy, but he was a force for good and is sorely missed.

Iris, William Barton & Michael Capobianco (1990). Prior to my departure for the UAE in 1994, I was part of a group of young UK sf fans and writers who attended conventions, were members of the BSFA, read and were published in UK small press magazines, and possessed a mostly homogeneous taste in fiction – which in no way mapped onto the tastes of fans of the previous generation. I had perhaps read more of the older stuff than many of the group, but we were all keen (mostly) on the same US and UK genre writers. Except for William Barton and Michael Capobianco (and, later, William Barton alone). I was the only fan among us of the pair’s books. I’d regularly recommend their books, but either my friends didn’t read them or, if they did, they weren’t as impressed as I had been. And this despite the fact Iris was approvingly reviewed in SF Eye. I suspect Barton and Capobianco were too much hard sf rather than flavour of sf du jour (which was sort of post-cyberpunk), and I’ve always been more hard sf than my friends in fandom. My own writing is no doubt proof of this. But Barton and Capobianco, and later Barton solo, have been for me a mini-fandom of my own within my fandom cohort. (Coincidentally, Barton wrote about Traveller for RPG magazines early in his career.)

A Vision of Battlements, Anthony Burgess (1965)
How Far Can You Go?, David Lodge (1980). A pair of literary authors I started reading because of the Daly Community Library. Lodge I think I started reading because I remembered the TV adaptation of his novel Nice Work. I’m not so big on Burgess these days – he often seemed to obscure his story behind unnecessary linguistics tricks, although there’s no denying either his erudition or facility with prose and language. He just isn’t, in many of his novels, as readable as he could have been. Lodge’s novels I found interesting in terms of their narrative structure, which taught me about different ways of reading (and writing), but as Lodge moved his interest to fictionalising real people and dropped the structural experiments, so I lost interest in his fiction. How Far Can You Go?, his novel about Catholicism, is, I think, his best, perhaps because it’s his most personal. A Vision of Battlements, on the other hand, was a Burgess trunk novel, but it did kickstart my reading of his work, hence its appearance here.

Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987). Another thing I did during my first few weeks in Abu Dhabi was discover the location of the city’s few book shops, including one that sold remaindered books from the US and UK, less than a block away from my apartment. It was called Isam Bookshop. Many of the books it sold were science fiction and, at 5 Dirhams each, they were ridiculously cheap. I’m pretty sure I found Angel at Apogee in that shop, and liked it so much I tracked down the author’s other books. She unfortunately stopped writing about 20 years ago. They are solid mid-list US sf.

C is for Corpse, Sue Grafton (1986)
Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992). Both of these books I borrowed from my mother, and subsequently became a fan of their authors. Grafton died in 2017, having only reached the letter Y in her Alphabet series. I didn’t read the first half dozen books in order – which is not really necessary – but I have read all twenty-five of the books. I’ve also read all of Paretsky’s novels, including her two non-VI Warshawski ones. She has a new Warshawski novel out next year. It’s on my wishlist. For some reason, I much prefer female-authored crime fiction, especially those with female protagonists. In the 1970s, when Grafton and Paretsky were beginning, it was a small field. Now it’s enormous, but I feel no urge to keep up. I tried a few other female crime writers during the 1990s – Liza Cody, for example – but never found one to match either Grafton or Paretsky (at least, not until the 2010s).

Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957). I knew very little about Lawrence Durrell – I  think I may have read a Gerald Durrell book at school – when I borrowed the omnibus of the Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library. Unfortunately, I didn’t get round to reading it and to return it unread. But I still wanted to read it, so I bought a slipcased set of the four paperbacks during a trip to Dubai (the one pictured, in fact). When I read the books, I fell in love with Durrell’s prose and started collecting Durrell’s oeuvre. In first edition. I now have quite a large collection, including some rare books and chapbooks.

An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews (1997)
Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, Nicola Griffith & Stephen Pagel (1997). I’m not sure these two books deserve to be lumped together, although I suspect I first read them around the same time. I can’t remember what clued me into Susan R Matthews’s novels – a review somewhere, I suspect – but I’ve remained a fan since reading An Exchange of Hostages. They’re not perfect, and what worked in 1997 doesn’t play as well in 2019, but it’s a remarkable series and worth reading. The Bending the Landscape series, on the other hand, only comprised three volumes – fantasy, science fiction and horror. The remit was simple: genre authors write LGBT genre stories, LGBT authors write LGBT genre stories. The results were… mixed. The idea now sounds seems somewhat quaint, which gives you an idea of the progress made in genre fiction. I value the series because it introduced me to authors I had not previously known. But science fiction as a genre has always been very hetero- and cis- and even in the late 1990s finding commercial fiction that was neither was difficult. The Bending the Landscape trilogy were important in redressing that balance.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993). I know this was the first Park novel I ever read, and I know I bought it in Abu Dhabi. I suspect it was in All Prints, not Isam Bookshop, as it cost more than 5 Dirhams and was not remaindered. John Clute described it as “Third World sf”, but to me it’s one of the first post-colonial science fiction works. I’m surprised it hasn’t been properly studied. It deserves to be in the SF Masterworks series. It’s been a favourite sf novel for a couple of decades, and Park is a favourite writer. I have all of his books. In first edition.

Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (1996). I’m not sure which Sterling novel I read first, possibly Schismatrix, but by the early 1990s, after the success of Mirrorshades, the 1986 cyberpunk anthology he co-edited with William Gibson, and the spread of awareness of “The Movement”, Sterling had become something of a cyberpunk guru. Among the group of fans mentioned above, he was known as “Chairman Bruce”. While I read and appreciated his novels, it wasn’t until Holy Fire – arguably post-cyberpunk – that I saw up and took notice. And later went on to buy his novels as they were published. In first edition. Holy Fire remained my favourite Sterling novel until 2009’s The Caryatids – and I was fortunate enough to interview Sterling for Interzone in connection with that novel. It is, I think, my best interview.

Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953). For much of the 1990s I was in an APA with a group of well-known UK science fiction fans. It was a bit like a postal forum or group blog. Each month, the members would write a contribution of one or more sides of A4 (you didn’t have to contribute every month, but were expected to do so a certain number of times a year), make 30 copies of it and then send them to the administrator. Who would then put together 30 envelopes containing a copy of each of the contributions for that month, which was then posted to each member. Although the APA was ostensibly about science fiction and fantasy, the discussion often ranged over a wide variety of topics, including other literary genres. I forget who recommended the novels of Georgette Heyer – I think it was after I’d read a Jane Austen novel – but I thoroughly enjoyed Cotillion, and slowly worked by way through Heyer’s historical romances. I still have all the ones I bought and occasionally reread them – they make excellent comfort reading.

The Master Mariner, Nicholas Monsarrat (1978). I remember reading Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea at school as part of a reading group, but I didn’t discover Monsarrat had written other books until I joined the Daly Community Library and saw several of his books on their shelves. The Master Mariner, comprising two volumes, Running Proud and Darken Ship, was Monsarrat’s last work and is unfinished. Running Proud is complete, but Darken Ship consists only of a handful of chapters and notes. They’re excellent and I later began working my way through Monsarrat’s oeuvre, and even collecting them in first edition. I think Monsarrat’s oeuvre told against him, and the fact he’s best known for The Cruel Sea had him pegged as a WWII writer. He wrote across a number of genres, including science fiction. Although rarely mentioned in the same breath, the writer closest to him is probably Nevil Shute, whose profile is much higher. I will admit to a tendency to privilege the underdog (relatively speaking, of course), but that’s perhaps because I find lesser reputations are typically undeserved after reading the author’s works.

The Second Angel, Philip Kerr (1998). I’d come across Kerr very early in the 1990s when I read the first three Bernie Gunther novels, possibly borrowed from Coventry City Library. Kerr later returned to the Gunther series after a 15 year gap in 2006. But he also wrote other novels, some of which it has to be said are bit potboiler-ish, but among them is The Second Angel, which is pure science fiction. And very good too. I thought it so good I started reading the rest of Kerr’s books, and was especially glad he started writing Bernie Gunther novels again as they really are very good. Sadly, Kerr died in 2018. I’ve read all of his books except his last one, Metropolis, a Gunther novel, the children’s books he published as PB Kerr, and his “football detective Scott Manson trilogy.

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985). The more observant among you will have noticed that most of the books in this post, and the two preceding, have been by male writers. I did not at that time note the gender of the authors whose books I read. I did read some female science fiction authors – and indeed some were favourites, such as Cherryh – but my reading was predominantly genre books by male writers. The Children of Anthi, and its sequel Requiem for Anthi, are not generally held up as great science fiction, although they’re much better than they should be. Blakeney is a pseudonym used by Deborah Chester for four sf novels published between 1985 and 1990. I’ve never read anything else by Chester other than her Blakeney books, and she used a number on pen-names. The Children of Anthi is an excellent exemplar of one stream of my science fiction reading during the decade, possibly inspired by Angel at Apogee: I actively sought out books by female US mid-list sf authors – at least in Isam Bookshop which, fortunately, seemed to have a good supply. This later fed into SF Mistressworks, a project I kicked off in 2010.


Leave a comment

Reading diary, #51

With a TBR in the low four figures, it’s reached the stage where I’ve owned books for decades without having got around to reading them. This is, quite obviously, pretty dumb. So for several years now I’ve been trying to plan my reading, making a list of the books I intend to tackle in the coming month… But then, of course, the new shiny drops through the letterbox, and sometimes its lure is a little too strong and so it supplants one, or more, of the books on the TBR… Which is certainly what happened twice in the half a dozen books below.

Her Pilgrim Soul, Alan Brennert (1990, USA). I picked this up at Kontur in Uppsala last month, and ended up reading it on the train from Manchester Airport after stupidly leaving the book I had been reading on the plane. To be honest, I’d not been enjoying that book – it was The Music of the Spheres, and the writing was pretty bad – so it was no great loss. I was annoyed, however, about losing the 100 Yugoslavian dinar note I’d been using as a bookmark. (Um, I see there’s one for sale on eBay, from a seller located not all that far from Manchester Airport – they’re asking £1.40, although the market price appears to be 99p…) To be honest, I thought I might have read Her Pilgrim Soul before, but on reflection I think I’ve read some of its contents before – likely in one or another of Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best SF anthologies, which I used to buy for many years. It’s a collection of well-crafted stories, a mix of science fiction and fantasy, most on the light side of either genre (but not the lighter side), and most not especially memorable. It’s been more than a month since Kontur, and I can remember very little about the contents of Her Pilgrim Soul. A good collection, I suppose, but in a way that has no lasting impact and leaves only a vague impression. Fiction, of course, should do more than that; but most manages much less.

The First Circle*, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1968, Russia). I suspect I like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer more than I like actually reading his writing. If that makes sense. I’d no real desire to read Solzhenitsyn until seeing Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (see here), and when I saw a copy of The First Circle, and immediately linked it to Sokurov’s The Second Circle, a favourite film, then I was suddenly keen to read Solzhenitsyn. And now I have read him – this book, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last year (see here) – I’m wondering what all the fuss was about. True, I’m not reading him in the original Russian, so any infelicities in prose and style are more likely the fault of the translator, but… Well, the two books by Solzhenitsyn I’ve read so far are blackly comic works about the inhuman excesses of Stalin’s regime. And, well, I knew that, I knew Stalin was, and still is, the worst despot this planet has ever seen, responsible for a vast number of deaths, more perhaps than many historical epidemics. He killed more Russians in WWII, for example, than the Germans did. The First Circle, which is quite a hefty novel, covers three days among the inmates, and others linked to them, of Mavrino Prison, which is actually a secret penal laboratory staffed by politicial prisoners and others pulled from gulags and labour camps. Compared to others in the Soviet prison system, they have it cushy. But not as cushy as the family of the prison head, which includes his son-in-law, a young and upcoming diplomat, who foolishly telephones a doctor about to leave for Paris and warns him not to hand over some medical data to the West as he had threatened. The authorities were, of course, listening in… but they can’t identify the caller. Fortunately, some of the Mavrino inmates, and some of the equipment they’ve built, could help the MGB… The contrast with the lot of the prisoners and the diplomat’s family is stark, as is the contrast between those in Mavrino and their previous experiences in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn manages to find the nobility, and venality, in his prisoners, and paints them vividly as people. But the endless reiteration of bureaucratic cruelty – epitomised, if not literalised, by the treatment of the diplomat in the Lubyanka after his arrest – does pall on occasion. The First Circle, despite its short narrative timeframe, is surprisingly rambunctious, but less philosophical than I had expected – although, to be fair, most, if not all, of the references to Russian literature were lost on me. I still like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, and I still have another of his novels on the TBR, but I’ve yet to make up my mind about his actual writing.

Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks, Paul Kincaid (2017, UK). A housemate lent me a copy of The Wasp Factory back in 1987, and while it was certainly a memorable book, it wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t until I joined the British Science Fiction Association a year or two later that I discovered Banks also wrote science fiction – and I can remember finding a hardback copy of Consider Phlebas in WH Smith soon after, but at the time I would never have considered buying a book in hardback. Later, Banks was GoH at Prefab Trout, the second convention I ever attended, in September 1989, and I can remember a review of Canal Dreams in the programme booklet which described the novel as “a taunt thriller”. I think by that point I’d read Banks’s earlier novels – probably borrowed from Coventry City Library – the mainstream ones at least, but possibly also Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. I’m pretty damn sure, however, that the first Culture novel I actually bought was Use of Weapons, which was launched at Eastcon, the 1990 Eastercon, in Liverpool. I bought the hardback and Banks signed it for me. I stil have it, of course. From that point on, I purchased all of his books in hardback as soon as they were published. (However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I managed to track down first edition copies of the books before Use of Weapons.) So I guess you could say I am/was something of a fan. And yet, all those decades of reading him, but so few of his books seemed to manage the quality I expected of them – I enjoyed them, I appreciated them… but it always felt to me like he could do much better. I knew I was being unfair, but I could never help myself. And yet…. after reading Paul’s book on Banks’s novels, it occurs to me that my problem with Banks is that he rewarded careful reading but his prose was so effortlessly readable that I likely never gave his fiction the depth of reading which generated the most reward. And I reached this conclusion because Paul, a friend of many years, writes about Banks’s novels so well, so readably, that I want to go back to Banks’s books immediately and reread them and discover in them all the depth and goodness identified by Paul which I plainly missed… and knowing full well that I will also hugely enjoy the novels because they were always were, above all, hugely enjoyable. So, Paul, job done. (Although I’ll need more convincing about Transition, I think…)

The Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm (1967, USA). Okay, I admit I bought this novel – at this year’s Eastercon – because of the dreadful cover art. Comparisons with, and references to, The Martian proved inevitable, although the book itself is set on some random alien desert world. Humanity has spread out among the stars and pretty much conquered everyone it meets, most of whom also happen to be human, but nice and fluffy and progressive compared to Earth’s bigoted, racist and sexist conquerors. On one such world, the protagonist of The Killing Thing, Tracey, visits an open-cast mine and sees an experimental mining robot. It kills its inventor, and is taken by Earth’s military establishment for study. On Venus. Where it escapes. And now Tracey is the sole survivor of a ship that tracked the killer robot to the random alien desert world, and he’s stuck on its surface in a lifeboat with limited fuel and supplies, and must hold out until rescue arrives, while the robot hunts him down and tries to kill him. If it weren’t for the background material – most of which is, quite frankly, offensive – The Killing Thing would be padded out beyond boredom. As it is, it still reads like a short story bloated beyond its natural length. I’d had a quite high opinion of Wilhelm’s fiction based on previous stuff by her I’d read, but that opinion took a bit of a beating reading The Killing Thing. When I restart SF Mistressworks – soon, I hope – then I’ll bung a more comprehensive review of this book up there. For now: not a good work from a usually good writer.

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar (2016, Israel). Once upon a time fix-up novels were pretty common in science fiction. Authors would take a bunch of stories, lash them together with a crude framing narrative, and then the whole thing would be presented as a novel. Some were more successful than others… but the fix-up is still an ugly, lumpy and lop-sided beast of a narrative form. Central Station, although presented as a fix-up novel, and on plenty of novel award shortlists, strikes me more as a collection of linked stories, although there is a story arc which progresses throughout it. I remember one or two of the stories appearing in Interzone and, at the time, I wasn’t especially taken with them. But given the success of this “novel”, and because several people have told me the stories work better together than they did in isolation, I decided to give it a go. And… it still doesn’t really read like a novel. But the individual stories do benefit from being in a collection. Alone, they felt incomplete, unresolved, whereas the novel shows that the resolution is merely cumulative and deferred. The title refers to space port in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, and the stories are focused on a handful of families who live in the environs. There’s no date – it’s the future of a century or two hence – which occasionally leads to weird inconsistences in the setting, a feeling that tropes are deployed when needed rather than being integral, or natural, to the background. The prose, happily, is uniformly good, which means the stories are a pleasure to read. But if each individual story feels slightly unresolved, the novel, as a novel qua novel, manages not to feel that way. I don’t think Central Station is as adventurous, or as challenging, as some commentators have claimed, and it probably says more about the way we now view awards, than it does the book itself, that it’s appeared on so many shortlists – I mean, Osama, A Man Lies Dreaming, those were genuinely challenging sf novels. But, on the other hand, Central Station is a well-crafted piece of science fiction, with visible writing chops in evidence, and such books seem all too rare in the genre these days…

The Spanish Bride, Georgette Heyer (1940, UK). I’ve no record of when and where I bought this paperback, but I remember buying half a dozen or so secondhand Heyer paperbacks when I was in Great Malvern for a Novacon. That was back in 1997… So, um, two decades ago. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read The Spanish Bride, or if that was indeed when I bought the book, given that I’ve read all the other Heyer books I own – all thirty of them –  and some I’ve even read multiple times. I suspect it is because it’s a war novel, rather than a frothy Regency romance or eighteenth-century adventure. If the cover doesn’t make it plain, the first chapter certainly does, as it describes the Siege of Badajoz in quite gruesome detail. In fact, as a novel of the Peninsular War, The Spanish Bride does a pretty good job. Its hero, Brigade-Major Harry Smith of the Light Division, is perhaps a bit too much of a paragon – if not in his intent or actions, certainly in his ability to avoid harm – and its eponymous heroine is also far too chirpy and accepting and… well, only fourteen when she marries to Smith… and it’s hard to read the book without that fact floating about in the back of your mind. Heyer makes an excellent fist of describing the Spanish landscape, and while the blow-by-blow accounts of the various battles seem both accurately- and carefully-phrased, I often had trouble picturing the progress of the fighting. I wanted to see maps, or wargaming tableaux, or something that indicated how the oft-professed tactical genius of the various English officers actually manifested. I know Heyer for her Regency romance novels and, skeevy sexual politics of the time (or of her depiction of the time) aside, I had expected that element of The Spanish Bride‘s plot to be uppermost. But it isn’t. It is, as I wrote earlier, a war novel. If anything, “English officer marries underage Spanish hidalgo heiress” is merely subplot. And yet, having said that, Heyer’s prose has a clarity and wit few these days can match, and it’s readily evident here. The Spanish Bride is not a fun book, but then I don’t think it was intended to be. It’s almost cefrtainly going to be the Heyer novel I reread the least number of times – assuming I ever do reread it, which is unlikely – but I’m nonetheless glad I did read it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


1 Comment

Reading diary, #46

I try to plan my reading, but usually end up not following the plan at all… other than in its broadest intentions, ie, alternating male/female writers, for example… Which I only just managed to do here. Ah well.

river_titashA River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). Good books don’t always made good films, and great films are not always made from great books. Nonetheless, A River Called Titas by Ritwik Ghatak is one of my favourite films, so I had high hopes of the novel from which it was adapted. From what I’d read the novel was held in high regard, which is always a good start, although apparently not enough to be still in print in English in the twenty-first century. And since I couldn’t find a copy of its original 1950s Penguin release, I ended up with a university press edition… which actually proved a bonus as it included footnotes and appendices that added to the reading experience. A River Called Titash is mostly autobiographical – Mallabarman, who died in 1950, the novel was published posthumously six years later – was born and grew up in a Malo village on the River Titash, which is an offshoot of the Meghna River in the Chittagong District of Bangladesh, which is basically just one giant flood plain pouring into the Bay of Bengal. Obviously, I read A River Called Titash as the source text for A River Called Titas… and the most obvious difference seems to be that the film confused the Titash and Meghna. True, some of the story takes place on the latter river, but the film implies it all does – although it does follow, in broad stroke, the same story. A fisherman from a Titash village defends a young woman – actually only fifteen years old in the novel – during an attack on her village by pirates. So she is given to him by her family in marriage, they consummate their union, and and the next day set off in his boat for the trip home where the actual marriage ceremony will take place. En route, while anchored at night, pirates sneak aboard and kidnap her. But she escapes and ends up at a third village. She doesn’t know her husband’s name, or the name of his village. (Nor did the husband learn his bride’s name – in fact, she’s never named in the novel, and referred to only as “Ananta’s mother” – and saw her face only on a handful of occasions.) She has a son, Ananta. Some time later – in the novel Ananta is four, in the film he’s considerably older – mother and son have finally learnt the origin of the lost husband and make their way to his village. But the husband had lost his mind shortly after his bride was stolen. So the “widow”, as she has to pretend to be, ekes out an existence while trying to reconnect with her insane husband. I absolutely adore Ghatak’s movie, and this novel is equally fascinating. It provides more detail, indeed, it’s been described as just as much an ethnographical text as it is a novel – it is set, after all, in the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, and documents a way of life long since lost (although I think some remnant of it was still around when the film was made in the 1970s).  In one respect, reading the novel was especially helpful as it put some of the events in the film in context, and explained why the characters behaved as they did. A fascinating read, and likely to make my top five of the year.

snowdriftSnowdrift and Other Stories, Georgette Heyer (2016, UK). I do love me some Heyer, so I was a bit excited when I discovered a new collection of her short stories had been published. In the event, Snowdrift turned out to be a retitled Pistols for Two, which I already own and have read, but with the addition of three previously uncollected stories. On the one hand, these stories are lots of fun and Heyer was a dab hand with the prose. On the other… well, it’s all about entitled nitwits, and bears as much likeness to real history as, well, the Bible. It’s fun reading about Corinthians and Nonpareils and headstrong mistresses who Adventure, but they’re all aristocracy and there’s only one story in this collection, and new to it too, in which any one from the working class has any agency. Heyer is frothy and witty and fun, but the tribulations and concerns she invariably writes about no sensible person cpuld honestly give a shit about in this day and age. In one story, for example, an impressionable young woman (sixteen or so, I think) has learnt that her irresponsible brother has been challenged to a duel by a regular Man in Grey (lots of Heyer’s story follow the plot of The Man in Grey). So she tries prevent this but accidentally stumbles into the orbit of a supercilious noble (in his thirties) who promises to see her brother comes to no harm. He is, of course, the challenger, and only a complete idiot would fail to spot it. And it is only the fact he has the hots for the hothead’s teenage sister that saves the day. The problem with most Heyer stories is that you can change the words a little, without being inaccurate, and the plots would sound really skeevy. “Jaded thirtysomething chats up teenager in pub on way to arranged marriage… only to discover teenager is his proposed partner.” “Eloping teenagers mistake thirtysomething roué for irate brother hot on their heels, but when they realise their mistake teenage girl goes off with roué instead.” I had thought when reading A River Called Titash I could overlook the young ages at which girls were married off as a cultural thing from more than 100 years ago, only to realise that Heyer valourised something similar happening in the UK a hundred years before the events of Mallabarman’s novel. A River Called Titash at least has the advantage of being an historically correct ethnographical novel by a member of that culture, whereas Heyer wrote about a tiny sector of Regency England society more than 100 years afterwards. Still, they are fun, and I’m not about to give up my Heyer collection any day soon.

speed_of_lightAt the Speed of Light, Simon Morden (2017, UK). This is the second of the four novellas published recently by NewCon Press. It opens with a man waking up on board a spaceship, ignorant of his surroundings or his purpose. And, it is eventually revealed, not entirely human. I admit it, I sighed. This is a cliché. But I know Simon – although I don’t know his writing – and I should not have been so quick in jumping to conclusions. Because when the situation is finally revealed, in the third of the novella’s three sections, that opening section makes perfect sense and is actually quite clever. A spacecraft which can travel at a substantial percentage of the speed of light has accelerated out of control until it is now travelling fractions of a percentage less than c. Then the AI which controls the spacecraft notices a second one travelling in formation with it. And it realises this new spacecraft was sent by a planetary system the AI had travelled through, but since the AI had been in a fugue state at the time it had not noticed the communication attempts by the system’s inhabited world. The plot develops logically from there. It’s not Mundane SF by any means, although it initially pretends to be (an FTL drive pops up toward the end). The physical effects of travelling at very close to the speed of light are handled especially well, and although the novella is structured as an opening puzzle followed by a long extended info-dump as the narrator works out what’s going on, it’s a very good example of its type.

ghosthuntGhosthunt, Jo Clayton (1983, USA). I picked up the first seven books of this nine-book series at a Swecon because Clayton was not a name known to me at the time and I thought they’d make suitable review material for SF Mistressworks. This series was apparently very popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s but has since been forgotten, and having now read them I’m mostly happy with that state of affairs. When you read forgotten or obscure sf, there’s always the hope you’ll stumble across a lost masterpiece; and it’s certainly true I’ve found some forgotten female writers of sf, or books by female sf writers, from past decades who deserve far more of a reputation than they currently have – anything by Marta Randall, for example, and Judgement Night by CL Moore should rightly be considered one of the classic space operas. But a lot of books vanish into obscurity for very good reason. The Diadem series has its high points and its low points, but its lows are pretty damn low, and even when it manages to be inventive progressive space opera it only just clears the bar. The series improved as it progressed, but not by a great deal. Still, there are the last two books to go – copies of which I will have to track down. My review of Ghosthunt will appear shortly on SF Mistressworks.

conspiracyThe Conspiracy & Other Stories, Jaan Kross (1991, Estonia). In an effort to widen the geographical spread of my reading, I picked a bunch of writers from random countries to try. One of them was Jaan Kross from Estonia. I’ll admit to knowing nothing about Kross, or indeed Estonian literature, when buying the book; and, to be honest, I’m not a great deal wiser now. Kross apparently specialised in historical fiction set in Estonia’s past, and his best-known work is the Between Three Plagues trilogy set in the sixteenth century. The stories in The Conspiracy, however, are set shortly before, and during World War 2, in German-occupied Estonia, and are told in the first person by Peeter Mirk, a stand-in for Kross himself. The stories are rich in period and place detail (so much so, each stories has end-notes… even though some of the glossed terms are later explained in the narrative). In one story, Mirk persuades an old university friend to desert the German not-so-voluntary Hilfswilliger levy corps, only for Mirk’s plans to see his friend off to Finland fall apart, but so putting his friend in his debt that the friend takes a stupidly risky route of his own choosing and dies in the attempt. In another, Mirk is attempting his own escape from Nazi-occupied Estonia, but the boat he is aboard is caught by a German patrol boat. Mirk has with him the manuscript of his first novel, which is highly critical of the Nazis. He throws his suitcase overboard, but the Germans manage to retrieve it. But there’s nothing in the suitcase to identify the owner (not even a name on the manuscript), except for… a collectible book given to him by a friend in lieu of payment for a debt moments before they boarded the boat to Finland which has an ex libris sticker giving that friend’s name. If Mirk says nothing, then his friend will be executed… There are half a dozen stories in the collection, and they’re well-written and interesting. I doubt I’ll dash out and buy something else by Kross to read – have you seen the size of my TBR? – but at some later date I might give something else by him a go.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


Leave a comment

Fresh month, fresh books

The start of a new month and so time to place an order with a large online retailer of books (and other stuff). Last month’s purchases were mostly catching up with books published in 2016 I’d not got around to buying last year. This month, it’s widening my reading to include authors from some countries I’ve not previously tried. Plus a few favourites.

2017-02-11-11-33-38

Three British writers. I read the first book of Ali’s Islam Quintet, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree back in 2011, and though I enjoyed it I never got around the reading further. Hence book 2, The Book of Saladin. Snowdrift is a new collection from Heyer, and I do love me some Heyer, it must be said. Back in the UAE, I read several books by Tremain, but stopped when I returned to the UK. No idea why. I thought it was time I started reading her again, so The American Lover.

2017-02-11-11-32-25

Some fiction from around the world. The Captive Mind is from Poland, not the Czech Republic, as I mistakenly tweeted a week or two ago. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is from Albania. The Conspiracy and Other Stories is from Estonia. And A River Called Titash, from Bangladesh, is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted.

2017-02-11-11-31-08

The latest Blake and Mortimer. Volume 24, to be precise. I actually think this series has improved since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. The plots are much more closely tied to the real world. This one, for example, is about a rivalry between two societies who disagree over the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.

2017-02-11-11-31-00

Non-fiction. Now that I have volume 19 and volume 20 I have complete set of Wings of Fame. All it took was patience. And I’m patiently waiting to complete my set of Heinemann’s Phoenix Editions of DH Lawrence’s books. Sadly, this copy of Studies of Classic American Literature is ex-library, and was not described as such by the seller on eBay, but it’ll do for now.

2017-02-11-11-29-57

Finally, some science fiction, old and new. Naked to the Stars / The Alien Way is #31 in Tor’s series of back-to-back novellas from 1989 and 1990. That’s why I bought it, not because I’m a fan of Dickson’s fiction (okay, so the Dorsai trilogy is still kinda pulpy fun). At the Speed of Light and The Enclave… Well, I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds because I like Al’s fiction… and then I saw it was one of a set of four novellas published by NewCon Press, and the last one was by an old friend, Neil Williamson… and I’ve read one of Anne Charnock’s novels and it was very good and I’ve seen Simon Morden tweet that he was keen to get the science right in his novella… so I went and bought the other three. The Memoirist, the fourth novella, has yet to be published, however.


3 Comments

10 books that stayed with me

Whenever a book-related meme pops up, I love to jump on board. And apparently there’s one currently doing the rounds: “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ works, just ones that have touched you”. I saw this on Liz Bourke’s blog here, and decided to have a go.

I’ve done something similar before, I think, but not for quite so many titles… Which made this one a bit harder than expected. But here they are, in the order in which the books occurred to me:

1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007), a novel I hugely admire and which has inspired me in my own writing.
2 The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957 – 1960), because on reading it I fell in love with Durrell’s prose and began collecting everything he had ever written.
3 The Undercover Aliens (AKA The House That Stood Still), AE van Vogt (1950), bonkers California noir meets pulp sf, and the only van Vogt novel I’d ever recommend to anyone.
4 Dune, Frank Herbert (1965), still the premier example of world-building in science fiction.
5 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1974), the sf novel I’ve probably reread more times than any other.
6 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993), one of my top five favourite novels of all time.
7 Dan Dare: The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951 – 1952), the scene where Hank and Pierre first see through the clouds hiding the surface of the Red Moon haunted me for years as a kid.
8 Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953), the first of hers I read, and her novels are still my chief comfort reading.
9 The Barbie Murders, John Varley (1980), I fell in love with Varley’s Eight Worlds, and the title novelette still remains a favourite.
10 Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992), I’ve always preferred crime fiction written by women, and Paretsky is why – this was the first of hers I ever read.

Not such a great showing gender-wise – only two women out of ten. While there are certainly a great number of women writers I admire and whose novels and short stories I love, I spent my formative years reading mostly science fiction, and sadly it was chiefly science fiction by male writers. There were exceptions – in amongst all those books by Heinlein, van Vogt, Simak, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Harrison, Herbert, Tubb, Vance, etc, I read and became a fan of Cherryh, Le Guin, Van Scyoc, Julian May… Later, I discovered Gwyneth Jones, Mary Gentle, Joanna Russ, Leigh Brackett… and now, of course, I think most of the twentieth-century science fiction I read is by women writers.


5 Comments

55 reading questions

I took this meme from David Hebblethwaite’s Follow the Thread blog, and he says he found it Story in a Teacup. It’s fifty-five questions about your reading. I think some of my answers are pretty much the same as David’s…

1 Favourite childhood book? I started out in sf reading Dr Who novelisations, but I can remember virtually nothing about them now. I don’t recall any specific books that I loved prior to that. I just read voraciously.

2 What are you reading right now? Finished ‘A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and other Essays by DH Lawrence on the weekend; and then started The Wanderground by Sally Miller Gearhart, which I’m reading for SF Mistressworks.

3 What books do you have on request at the library? I don’t use the library.

4 Bad book habit? Buying more books than I can read, and starting books when I haven’t finished the current read.

5 What do you currently have checked out at the library? I don’t use the library.

6 Do you have an e-reader? Nope.

7 Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once? I prefer to read serially, but sometimes – often – I end up reading several books in parallel.

8 Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog? Yes. Since starting SF Mistressworks, and contributing to Daughters of Prometheus, I read far more fiction by women writers. I’ve also used this blog to challenge myself to read books I wouldn’t normally read – see this year’s world fiction reading challenge here.

9 Least favourite book you read this year (so far)? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson.

10 Favourite book you’ve read this year? Either The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones; Omega, Christopher Evans; or The Door, Magda Szabó.

11 How often do you read out of your comfort zone? Regularly.

12 What is your reading comfort zone? Science fiction and/or literary fiction. Also non-fiction about space exploration.

13 Can you read on the bus? Yes. I commute to work on a tram and read on it every day.

14 Favourite place to read? I usually read for 30 minutes to an hour in bed every night.

15 What is your policy on book lending? For my collectible books, never. Others, I’m happy to give away – and visitors have occasionally left with piles of paperbacks.

16 Do you ever dog-ear books? Never.

17 Do you ever write in the margins of your books? Never. But I will probably buy an ereader of some description soon because it’ll allow me to annotate what I’m reading.

18 Not even with text books? Nope.

19 What is your favourite language to read in? English.

20 What makes you love a book? Beautiful prose, it says something important, engaging characters, interesting structure… rigour, beauty, insight and depth.

21 What will inspire you to recommend a book? I’m happy to recommend books I both enjoy and admire; and often do.

22 Favourite genre? Science fiction.

23 Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)? I’ve read just about every genre there is, but… The genres I don’t read I generally have no intention of reading. Like urban fantasy.

24 Favourite biography? Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins.

25 Have you ever read a self-help book? No. I’ve no intention of ever doing so.

26 Favourite cookbook? I don’t have one. I prefer eating to cooking.

27 Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)? I don’t think of books as “inspirational”, or read ones that describe themselves as such.

28 Favorite reading snack? I don’t usually eat while I’m reading.

29 Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience. Probably The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. It was good, but not as good as I’d expected it to be.

30 How often do you agree with critics about a book? Depends on the critic, obviously. But quite often. Award shortlists, on the other hand…

31 How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews? Not giving a negative review to a bad book is dishonest. And dishonest reviews are next to useless.

32 If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose? I’ve tried reading in French, German and Arabic, and I’d like to improve my facility in those languages. But I also quite like the idea of being able to read Russian classic literature in Russian.

33 Most intimidating book you’ve ever read? In terms of sheer size, probably Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle. It proved to be excellent.

34 Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin? Possibly House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. Ian McNiven’s biography of Lawrence Durrell is also intimidatingly big, especially in hardback.

35 Favourite poet? Bernard Spencer or John Jarmain.

36 How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time? I don’t use the library. When I lived in the UAE, I was a member of a subscription library and would generally take out four books every fortnight.

37 How often have you returned books to the library unread? In the UAE, I did it a couple of times. One such book was… The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. I later bought a copy and read it, and subsequently became a huge fan of his writing.

38 Favourite fictional character? I don’t know. There are characters I admire as writerly creations; there are characters who are little more than placeholders for the reader. I prefer the former.

39 Favourite fictional villain? See above.

40 Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation? Big fat ones that require sustained bouts of reading, such as I’ll enjoy on a plane flight or long train journey.

41 The longest I’ve gone without reading. A week, maybe slightly longer.

42 Name a book that you could/would not finish. Most recently, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

43 What distracts you easily when you’re reading? The television, the internet, the cat…

44 Favourite film adaptation of a novel? It used to be The Right Stuff, but after a recent rewatch I found myself disappointed by the film. Now it would be Fahrenheit 451 – though I love the film but hate the book. Irony in action…

45 Most disappointing film adaptation? The Sylvia Kristal adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover? It’s a bad film and it’s an adaptation. But the same could be said for a lot of sf adaptations… I don’t really know. I rate David Lynch’s Dune as a flawed masterpiece (and I’d have paid good money to see Alejandro Jodorowski’s film of the book had it been made). And Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is vastly superior to the book…

46 The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time? No idea. I’ve spent around £100 on a single order at Amazon a number of times. The most money I’ve spent on a single book is $500, for a first edition of Pied Piper of Lovers, Lawrence Durrell’s first novel. See here.

47 How often do you skim a book before reading it? Very rarely.

48 What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through? Blatant racism and/or sexism. Offensive sensibilities. Eye-stabbingly bad prose. An inability to plot. Despicable characters.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized? Yes, though the collection is getting a little bit out of hand…

50 Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them? Depends. Collectibles I keep. Likewise books that were hard to find. Others I get rid of as soon as I’ve read them. I’ve also purged my book shelves several times – for example, I saw no good reason to keep the Stainless Steel Rat novels I originally bought back in the early 1980s…

51 Are there any books you’ve been avoiding? Urban fantasy novels. Anything with zombies in it. Many of the books that have appeared on recent Hugo Award shortlists…

52 Name a book that made you angry. Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey. See my review here.

53 A book you didn’t expect to like but did? Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence. My father was a big fan of Lawrence’s writing, but I never bothered trying any of his books. And this despite Lawrence Durrell being a big admirer of Lawrence. But after watching Pascale Ferran’s excellent adaptation, Lady Chatterley, in 2009, I decided to have a go at the book. And loved it. After my father died, I promised myself I would read all of Lawrence’s fiction, and recently finished The White Peacock. Structurally it’s a bit odd, but there’s some lovely prose in it. And it is sort of “local” fiction for me as I was born in Nottinghamshire. I am now becoming a bit of a Lawrence fan.

54 A book that you expected to like but didn’t? Bodies by Jed Mercurio. I loved his Ascent, and thought American Adulterer very good indeed. But Bodies was just too gruesome for me.

55 Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading? Georgette Heyer, probably.