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Reading diary, #57

I’ve got a few of these posts to get out before I complete documenting my 2017 reading. The books below were all read two months ago, but I’ve been a bit crap at writing them up. I’ve been a bit crap at finishing books, in fact, and have got into the bad habit of picking up a new book before reaching the end of the current one… and then having to go back and finish it later. I’ve got piles of books scattered around the living-room which only need me to read the last twenty or so pages so I can put them back on the shelves (or send them off to the charity shop). I think I’ll make that a resolution for 2018: only pick up a new book when I’ve actually reached THE END in the one I’m reading. And if that means carrying two books on my daily commute, so be it.

Anyway, November 2017’s reading consisted of…

Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain). This is the sequel to Nocilla Dream, which I read and thought very good last year – see here. There is a third book, Nocilla Lab, although I can find no information on when Fitzcarraldo Editions plans to publish it, or indeed Mallo’s most recent novel, Limbo. Like the first book, Nocilla Experience is split into numbered sections, 112 in total, some several pages long, others no more than a sentence or two. They are a mix of fiction and fact, or, such as in the case of the snippets of dialogue from Apocalypse Now, found documents. The main narratives all deal with obsession – a man who is trying to eat every box of corn flakes he can find with a sell-by date the same as his ex-wife’s birthday; another who turns bubblegum stuck to pavement into tiny paintings; a third man runs a restaurant that serves up found objects instead of food, although they’re presented as food… It’s a fascinating literary experiment, although I’m not entirely sure how it’s supposed to fit together – or if indeed it’s meant to. And, for some reason, much as I liked it, Nocilla Experience didn’t quite appeal to me as much as Nocilla Dream did. But I’m still looking forward to the third book… and I wonder if there are any Spanish writers inspired by Mallo – the “Nocilla generation” – who have also been translated into English…

The Silver Wind, Nina Allan (2011, UK). I’m still not sure if that’s “wind” as in what you do to a clock, or “wind” as in the movement of air. And I heard the author read one of the stories from this linked collection at a Fantasycon in Brighton several years ago. But there’s a fob watch prominent on the cover, and the six stories inside are all about time – so much so, watches and clocks are repeatedly called “time machines” – and there are definite hints that travel through time takes place in some of the stories. But each story also features variations on a small cast of characters, suggesting alternate universes more than time travel. It all makes for an unsettling read, a mosaic narrative which refuses to remain constant, which refuses to settle down. While the plots themselves are little different to those you might find in a series of literary fiction short stories, the fact the world in which they take place seems to rest on shifting sands gives them a fantastical atmosphere. It’s something Allan does in most of her fiction, but in The Silver Wind, because of the small cast and the interweaving of lives and stories, it’s much more obvious. Good stuff.

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood (2009, Canada). This is the sequel to Oryx & Crake, and now apparently the second book of a trilogy, followed by MaddAddam, which I also own. I read Oryx & Crake a couple of years ago and, to be honest, I don’t recall much of the plot. I do remember finding it all very unconvincing and Atwood’s neologisms quite cringeworthy. That last is still true in The Year of the Flood, but the world it describes seems much better made. But brutal. Horribly, stupidly brutal, in fact. It’s cruel in a way that only science fiction and fantasy can manage, a scale of brutality that needs an invented world to achieve. Atwood seems to revel in the gore in parts of this novel, and I’m not interested in such fiction. I don’t want to read books that normalise psychopathic behaviour, and far too much science fiction does that. On the other hand, the “sermons” which introduce each section of The Year of the Flood are hilarious. It is, I think, a much better book than its predecessor, but it is also disappointingly violent. I don’t know when I’ll get to MaddAddam, but I suspect it’ll take me a while.

Prussian Blue, Philip Kerr (2017, UK). This is the twelfth novel in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, begun back in the early 1990s with his Berlin Noir trilogy. Since returning to the series in 2006, Kerr has been banging them out one a year, with no discernible loss in quality. And over the twelve books, we’ve seen Bernie survive WWII, bounce around South America, Cuba, Germany, and now it’s the mid-1950s and he’s a concierge at a small hotel on the Riviera. Each of the Gunther novels has followed the same template – what Bernie is doing now, and how he gets himself out of the bad situation he seems to have got himself into, and a narrative set at some point before, or during, the Second World War, when he worked for various iterations of the Berlin police. In Prussian Blue, a face from the past turns up and blackmails Bernie into murdering a woman in England, so he goes on the run. That face from the past was Bernie’s criminal assistant during an investigation into a murder in Obersalzberg, Hitler’s mountainside retreat in Bavaria, which he had to solve in a week before Hitler arrived to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Unfortunately, Obersalzberg, administered by Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Borman, is rife with corruption, and there is no shortage of suspects. Just make matters worse, Borman doesn’t much care if the crime is solved, just as long as he has someone he can put in front of a firing squad. Which he soon finds. But Gunther also has a suspect. Unfortunately, the murder is linked to the millions Borman and his cronies are ripping off from the Third Reich. And while Borman’s brother, who hates him, is waiting in the wings to bring him low, he and Gunther have been out-manoeuvred.  Worth reading.

Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK). I forget who originally recommended Charnock, but I read her Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (see here), and was impressed enough to want to read more. Which I now have done. Although it has taken me pretty much exactly twelve months. But it was worth the wait. Dreams Before the Start of Time is… an ensemble piece. There are a group of people, related by blood or marriage or just friends, and they’re living their lives in London and Shanghai over the next few decades, beginning several years from now. The story opens with a young woman deciding to become a single mother, but using a sperm donor. Her friend, on the other hand, has a one-night stand, and decides to keep the consequences. As the years unfold, attitudes to the means of conception, gestation and child-rearing change as technology progresses and sensibilities reflect new social mores. A sf novel like this in direct opposition to the Atwood above – the world has not ended, there are no sexual assaults, no mega-violence, no violence, in fact. There needs to be more science fiction like this. Of course, it helps that the writing is really good – good enough for me to pick the novel as one of my top five books of the year – see here. I was given Charnock’s A Calculated Life, her debut novel, for Christmas. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Final Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Ladrönn (2017, France). Jodorowsky keeps on coming back to the Incal. This is hardly a surprise as it’s been his most successful title – although Incal spin-off the Metabarons has probably appeared in more media incarnations. In Final Incal, the multiverse is in danger when an evil machine intelligence creates a plague and the only defence is to convert everyone into a robot… Three iterations of John DiFool all meet up between universes, in the hunt for their lover, Luz, and the means to save the multiverse from destruction. But only one of them can complete the task. The artwork, by Ladrönn, is very good indeed. Apparently, Moebius did start work on the project, but only completed the first part, so Jodorowsky had Ladrönn redo it from the start. The story is the usual Jodorowsky weirdness, although it’s starting to feel a little recycled by now. This was an astonishing piece of sf in its day, and it continues to make for good reading decades later. But I have to wonder whether these returns and extensions to it are doing it any favours. I guess I’ll find out when I get around to reading Deconstructing the Incal

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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The night before Christmas

Well, not really, there’s a still a few nights to go, and not even Nordic countries give out presents this early. But there were a few recent additions to the book collection, and now is as good a time as any to document them.

A mix of old and new for the collection. John Crowley and M John Harrison are writers whose works I much admire, so Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr and You Should Come With Me Now were books I’d been looking forward to. The Gentleman’s Guide of Vice and Virtue I picked up after a conversation with Jeannette Ng at Sledge-lit. I’m not convinced it’s my thing, but we’ll see. Too Many Murderers is DG Compton in his first incarnation as a crime writer. These books are really hard to find, especially with dustjackets. And The Baroness #1: The Ecstasy Connection… I stumbled across mention of the book somewhere, and it sounded really trashy and dated, so hey why not? And no, I paid nowhere near the price asked for Amazon.

Some more of Jodorowsky’s bandes dessinées. When I bought Deconstructing the Incal (see here), I realised I’d missed Final Incal. So I bought a copy. The Metabaron Book 1: The Anti-Baron and The Metabaron Book 2: The Techno-Cardinal and the Transhuman aren’t actually by Jodorowsky, although they’re based on his characters and he apparently had input into the story. The art in the first book is gorgeous, and appears to be CG; but in the second book it looks like rough sketches. There’s a third book due next year.

I forget why I started buying these Aircraft Since… books, but once I had a half a dozen it seemed the perfectly natural thing to do to carry on and complete the set. Hence Boulton Paul Aircraft Since 1915 and McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920 Volume I and Volume II. I currently have 22 of them.

I wanted a copy of A Pictorial History of Diving the moment I stumbled across a copy on eBay. But it was over $100. So I kept an eye open, but in the end I had to source a reasonably-priced copy from abebooks.co.uk. I have quite a few of the Secret Projects book, but I missed several when they were originally published in the 2000s, like this one, American Secret Projects: Bombers, Attack and Antisubmarine Aircraft 1945 to 1979. The Lawrence Durrell chapbook is a signed limited chapbook from Tragara Press reprinting David Gascoyne’s obituary of Durrell from The Indpendent. Well, Durrell innit.


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Christmas come early

Well, not really – I mean, it is early for Christmas, not that it’s stopped the shops selling mince pies and Christmas puddings and all the other stuff you’re supposed to eat to celebrate Santa Claus’s birth in a manger, or whatever it is. I don’t listen to the radio, but I expect they’re already playing carols. That was one of the things I liked about living in the UAE, an Islamic country: there was no mention of Christmas until the day before, and it was all over by Boxing Day. Anyway, here are some recent finds which have joined the collection. I recently worked out I could probably get another four bookcases into the flat, but since a book collection expands to double-fill the bookshelves available, I’m not sure they would be a wise purchase… Although it’s not like the collection is shrinking…

Some charity shop finds to start with – these generally go back to a charity shop when I’ve read them, so they only clutter up the flat temporarily: I’ve read Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood (the latter only recently), and now I can finish off the trilogy as I’ve got MaddAddam. I’m still not convinced by Atwood’s sf, however. I also recently read Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (see here), so Gentlemen of the Road and Wonder Boys were timely finds. The Tales of Hoffmann just looked interesting. I always pick up Lessing’s novels when I see them – Martha Quest was one I’d not read. And I’m pretty sure I read Lord of the Flies at school, but that was many years ago and a read of Golding’s Rites of Passage earlier this year (see here) highly impressed me, so I thought it worth a try as an adult.

Some non-fiction. I’m a big fan of The Incal, so I’m looking forward to reading Deconstructing the Incal. Stuck on the Drawing Board is about civil aircraft that never made it into production. And who can resist a book titled Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums?

I’ve been collecting the Phoenix Editions of Lawrence’s books for a couple of years now, and The Plumed Serpent now means I have sixteen of, I think, twenty-six volumes. I saw Bodies of Summer mentioned on someone’s blog and it sounded interesting, so I bunged it onto an order from a large online retailer. After watching The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (see here), it occurred to me I’d never read anything by Alan Sillitoe, so I had a look on eBay for one to try, and found a cheap hardback of Travels in Nihilon, which sounds quite similar to Jan Morris’s Hav, so, you, know, science fiction, right?

Speaking of science fiction… I didn’t pick up a copy of Gardens of the Sun when it was published, and later discovered first editions were extremely hard to find. I’ve been looking for several years, and found this one from a US-based seller on eBay. I’ve also been picking up copies of the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy collection when I can find good condition copies. Golden Wings is the eighth book of the series.

The Faber Book of Modern Verse was 29p from a charity shop. It’s a 1960 edition, so nearly sixty years old “modern” – and the introduction states that all the poems in the book date after 1910. But that’s fine, because I actually prefer poetry from the first half of the twentieth century. Such as If Pity Departs, published in 1947. This has been on my wish list for a long time and, to be honest, I’ve forgotten why I put it on it. I suspect I came across Atthill’s name while reading about the Cairo poets – the group of British poets who were based in Egypt during WWII and include, among others, Lawrence Durrell, Keith Douglas, Terence Tiller, GS Fraser, Bernard Spencer and Olivia Manning (her The Levant Trilogy is a fictionalisation of her time there). I have several books on the subject, including a copy of the Personal Landscape anthology, and three of the Oasis anthologies published by the Salamander group. On the other hand, I could have comes across Atthil in one of the 1940s poetry anthologies I own. One of these days, I’ll have to do a post about my poetry book collection…


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Drawn strips

UK comics have traditionally followed an anthology format, with each issue containing a number of different stories or installments of a serial. This is very different to the US tradition, in which a single story occupies a whole issue, or series of issues. And while US comics have pretty much entirely been stories of super-powered men and women in brightly-coloured tights, most UK comics were typically humorous (Beanie, Dandy, Whizzer and Chips, etc), war-related (Warlord, Victory, etc), or science fiction (2000 AD, Starlord, etc).

But there is another comics tradition, which only rarely appears in the US or UK – the bande dessinée. In continental Europe, science fiction has often been driven by these “drawn strips”, much more so than it has been in Anglophone countries. Every now and again, some of the more popular bandes dessinées are picked up by English-language publishers, translated and introduced to an English-speaking audience. Cinebook have been doing a sterling job in this regard over the last few years, but they’re by no means the first.

I’ll admit to being a fan of sf bandes dessinées, though I don’t buy them as often as I’d like to. Most, of course, have not been translated into English – although they may well have been translated into most other European languages. Anyway, here are the ones I have. Most are in English, but some are in French.

Orbital, written by Sylvain Runberg and drawn by Serge Pellé, is solid space opera of a type which rarely appears in graphic form in English. A human and a Sandjarr, members of two races that were at war several years before, are put together as diplomat-troubleshooters, and have various adventures.

The Chimpanzee Complex, written by Richard Marazano and drawn by Jean-Michel Ponzio, opens brilliantly – in 2035, a copy of the Apollo 11 Command Module splashes down in the Pacific, but only Armstrong and Aldrin are aboard. A mission to the Moon is hastily cobbled together to discover the CM’s origin. This then moves onto Mars, where the crew find a colony of cosmonauts led by Yuri Gagarin. Sadly, the final volume doesn’t quite sustain the level of inventiveness, but it does do something quite weird and interesting with the story.


One of the big bandes dessinées series is Edgar P Jacob’s The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer. It first appeared in  Tintin Magazine in 1946, and continued through to Jacobs’ death in 1987. Since then, new stories have appeared from Jacobs Studios. To date, Cinebook have translated and published 13 books. Like Tintin, they’re all drawn in a ligne claire style, and while they’re often text-heavy (often with text describing what’s visible in the panel), the stories are generally a quite cleverly-done mix of history and science fiction.

There was an earlier attempt to introduce Blake and Mortimer to an English-speaking audience. Back in the early 1990s, US publisher Catalan Communications published two Blake and Mortimer books. I found this one in Abu Dhabi. It has since been republished as volume 12 in the Cinebook editions of the series.

Another big bande dessinée series is agent spatio-temporel Valérian et Laureline. This started in 1970, and there are now twenty volumes available. So far Cinbeook have translated and published the first four.

Again, there was an attempt to introduce Valerian and Laureline to English-speakers back in the 1980s. A US subsidiary of the French publishers, Dargaud, translated and published four random volumes – numbers 3, 4, 6 and 8. I’ve no idea why they stopped.

In 2004, ibooks published an English-language omnibus of three Valerian and Laureline stories – numbers 13, 14 and 15.

And here are some of the original French editions, including a prequel published in 1983 and the second of two encyclopedias about the universe of the two spatio-temporal agents.

I’m not sure why I have this. This copy of Milady 3000 is a French translation of an Italian comic. It’s far future space opera, and quite well done. It apparently lasted from 1980 to 1984, and appeared in both Métal Hurlant and Heavy Metal.

The Adventures of Yoko, Vic and Paul is another popular series being republished by Cinebook. These two books are earlier editions by Catalan Communications. The series began in 1970 and currently comprises twenty-five volumes. Catalan Communications published only the two I have, but Cinebook has so far reached volume seven.

I’ve had these for years, and I can no longer remember where or when I bought them. They’re English translations of a Polish series based on the works of Erich von Däniken. I think only these three volumes were published in English, though there were eight originally in the Polish series.

Lorna is originally Spanish, by Alfonso Azpiri, and has appeared in Heavy Metal. Leviathan is the fourth of six books featuring Lorna, and I’ve no idea if any others have been published in English. It’s definitely not for, er, children. Sanctum is a three-part French series by Xavier Dorison and Christophe Bec. As far as I can determine, only the first volume has been published in English. So it looks like I’ll be getting the French “Intégrale” edition to find out how the story ends…

The Fourth Power is a full-on space opera bandes dessinées by Juan Giménez, an Argentine artist who illustrated Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Metabarons series. The Nikopol Trilogy by Enki Bilal was the basis for Bilal’s live-action/CGI film Immortal.

No post on bandes dessinées is complete without mention of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and his most famous work, The Incal. It may well be, however, better known for Moebius’ artwork than Jodorowsky’s script. It’s been published several times in English. Back in the early 1990s, Titan Books published several volumes; then Humanoid Associates, the English-language arm of the French publishers, published four volumes; and last year, Self Made Hero published a very nice omnibus edition. I’ve only managed to find three of the four Humanoid Associates editions, but now I have Self Made Hero edition I don’t need to complete the set…

Another popular Jodorowsky series, this time illustrated by Juan Giménez. There is, I believe, a Metabarons RPG. The French originals stretches over nine volumes, but only the first six, in three omnibus volumes, are available in English.

Technopriests, written by Jodorowsky and illustrated by Zoran Janjetov, is even more bonkers than the Incal or Metabarons. Humanoid Associates have to date only translated the first two of the eight-volume series. Megalex is a three-volume series, illustrated by Fred Beltran, but only the first book is available in English.

However, I have the first four volumes of Les Technopères in French, plus a presentation box for them. I just need to get hold of the remaining four volumes…