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2017, the best of the year: books

2017 has been a bit of a parson’s nose of a year – or do I mean a curate’s egg? One or the other. Both the UK and the US continued their downward spiral into fascism and economic ruin, and as a result social media became really quite depressing at times. But it’s not like I have alternative sources to find out what’s going on – I gave up on newspapers years ago, and I’ve not knowingly watched a news broadcast since the 1990s.

I made a few attempts at starting writing again, but they came to nothing. I stopped reviewing too – so SF Mistressworks went on hiatus; and I’ve not had a review in Interzone since early 2016. That was down to the day job. Things have improved there over the last few months, so I hope to start reviewing again in 2018.

On the other hand, during 2017 I attended three Nordic conventions – in Uppsala, Helsinki and Copenhagen. One of them was even a Worldcon. I had a great time at all three. I plan to attend more next year.

One area in which 2017 was much like 2016 was in the culture I consumed. More films, but less books – in fact, this blog pretty much turned into a series of Moving picture film posts during the year (68 of them to date). As in previous years, I signed up to the Goodreads challenge, but I lowered my target by ten books to 140… and it looks unlikely I’ll make it. Ah well. However, I did read some very good books and watched some very good films, and discovered a few excellent writers and directors new to me.

This year I’ve decided to split my best of the year into three parts: books first, then films, and finally music. So, moving on…

books
As of the time of writing, I’ve read 123 books, down on last year’s 149. I’ll blog the actual stats on the books I read in a later post, as this post is about the best books I read during the year. Two are science fiction, and four are by female writers. There are also five nations represented – I think that might be a first for me. The figure in square brackets is the book’s position in my best of the half-year post here.

1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus) [1]. During a discussion on Twitter early this year about female literature Nobel laureates, I realised I’d read very few. So I decided to pick up books by a couple. Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel in 2015, writes non-fiction composed from interviews with those affected by the topic she is writing about. As the title indicates, in this book it’s the Chernobyl disaster. Alexievich spoke to those who lived in the area, and those who stayed, as well as people who worked at the power station, or were involved in fighting the disaster or cleaning up afterwards. Despite its subject, Chernobyl Prayer is a very poetic book. It’s also frightening, heart-breaking and affirming. It”s not without its detractors, people who claim Alexievich has not been entirely accurate in representing her interviewees, although I have to wonder how many of those critics only spoke up after she was awarded the Nobel. I’ve since picked up a copy of Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time, but I’ve yet to read it; and I certainly plan to read more by her.

2 Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany) [-]. Erpenbeck has been a favourite since I read her The End of Days last year (and that book took my number one spot in 2016’s best of the year). Go, Went, Gone is not genre, as that one was, but straight-up mainstream (or literary fiction, whatever label you prefer). It’s about a retired professor in Berlin, who decides to interview some refugees being housed near him and so gets dragged into their lives and stories. It’s a subject important to our time – there are refugees flooding into Europe from the Middle East and Africa, many from situations in their homelands we Western nations have created with our warmongering and economic plundering, and the least we can do is treat them like human beings, with dignity and compassion, and show that we have built societies that welcome all. While Go, Went, Gone documents Berlin’s failings in this regard, Germany still manages a fuck load better than the UK, which puts immigrants in detention centres and treats them worse than criminals. What I love about Erpenbeck’s fiction is her distant and yet clinically sharp prose, and it’s on fine form here. An important topic, beautifully written.

3 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh) [2]. Ritwak Ghatak’s A River Called Titas is one of my favourite films, so I was keen to read the novel from which it was adapted. And it’s every bit as good. However, unlike the film, it tells several stories about the Malo fisher folk of the Titas river (in what is now Bangladesh). The movie follows one particular story, that of Kishore, whose young bride is kidnapped the day after their wedding. She washes ashore at another village, but cannot remember the name of her husband’s village. Many years later, with son in tow, she tracks down her husband – only to discover he had gone mad as a result of her kidnap. The novel weaves this story in and around many others, from several villages along the Titas, a tributary of the Meghna River, one of the three rivers which forms the Ganges delta. A River Called Titash is also an ethnographic document – Mallabarman was born on the Titas, although he worked as a literary editor in Kolkata, so he knew what he was writing about. The book is as good as the film – and that’s high praise from me.

4 Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK) [-]. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read by Charnock, but this one, despite its unwieldy title (yes, I know), I thought especially good. It follows a family through the next century or so as they each decide how to have children and treat their offspring. It’s not the most dramatic of plots, but I’m frankly fucked off with science fiction insisting brutality, genocide and mega-violence are necessary in every story. It’s possible to write dramatic genre fiction that doesn’t have a high body-count, or normalise fascism or villanise certain ethnic groups… And this novel is the perfect example of how to do it. It’s not even as if it’s optimistic, although I’m not sure such an adjective applies. It just is. It’s not only that I thought Dreams Before the Start of Time a very good book, but also that it’s a type of science fiction I think we need more of. Why not tell stories that do not create false enemies of the Other, or slaughter the Other, or in any way demonise the Other? Instead, let’s have stories like Dreams Before the Start of Time. Oh, and make them as well-written as it too.

5 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA) [3]. Friends had recommended this a couple of years previously, and I’d added it to an order from publisher Aqueduct Press not too long afterward. But it took me until 2017 to get around to reading it, and then when I opened it I was hooked. Okay, it posits a post-catastrophe world and it advocates genocide – per se – for certain groups, which does seem to contradict my comments above. But in Necessary Ill, Taber creates a group of villains – the neuts – who are way more sympathetic than the people they target – ie, American men prone to, or capable of, violence. On the other hand. the novel is clear that the plan is flawed and that those who prosecute it are also flawed. The society of the neuts is really well drawn, and while the prose in Necessary Ill is no more than slightly above average for genre fiction, the world-building is cleverly done. Despite its premise it proved to be one of the most optimistic sf novels I read in 2017. More, please.

Honourable mentions: The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic) [4] off-kilter story of an anarachist utopia founded in Brazil, and its failure; Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK) [5], third book in the sf/spy thriller trilogy that isn’t a trilogy anymore, won the BSFA Award this year; Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK) a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK) an accompanying text for an exhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA) the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of GileadParty Going, Henry Green (1939, UK) a party heading for the South of France are trapped in a London railway hotel by the weather, characteristically sharp prose from Green; Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK) the story of  a young woman who becomes a best-selling romantic novelist but never manages to live in the real world; This Brutal World, Peter Chadwick (2016, UK) excellent book of photographs of Brutalist buildings; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA) epic history of comics told through the lives of a US Jew and a Czech Jew who escapes to the US prior to WWII; Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain), the second book in Mallo’s trilogy of fiction cleverly mixed with fact.

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Reading diary, #55

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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A kind of library

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

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

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

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

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


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Reading diary, #41

An odd selection this time around. I normally like to plan my reading but the following were all pretty much random choices, grabbed when I needed a fresh book for my morning commute. Well, all except the last one, of course.

midnight_wellMidnight at the Well of Souls, Jack Chalker (1977). I’ve had this series on my bookshelves for several years and I’m not entirely sure why. I think Chalker was an awful writer, slapdash, fixated on a handful of not very original ideas, and content to pad out the thinnest of stories to trilogy, and longer, length. I don’t think he wrote a single good book, but he does have legions of fans. Which, I guess, makes him much like every other science fiction author. Anyway, Midnight at the Well of Souls is the first book in Chalker’s The Saga of the Well World series, which had reached seven books by the time Chalker died in 2005. A group of archaeological students studying a Markovian ruin on a dead world are murdered by their instructor after he has figured out how to access the Markovian world-computer. He, and the one surviving student, find themselves transported to the Well World. Some time later, spaceship captain Nathan Brazil is transporting a handful of passengers through space when he receives a distress call. It’s from that same world where the instructor murdered his students. And so Brazil and his passengers find themselves also in the Well World. Which is an artificial planet in another dimension or something, and is divided into 1,560 hexagons, each one 355 by 615 kms and containing a completely different ecosphere and associated alien races. Brazil and his passengers are scattered across different hexes, each transformed into a native of that hex. Well, except Brazil isn’t. Because it turns out he’s some sort of immortal, and he knows how to work the Well World’s controlling computer, which is just as well because the aforementioned instructor wants to use the controlling computer for his own ends (and which will in consequence destroy the real universe). So Brazil and allies must trek across half a dozen hexes, having adventures along the way, in order to reach the equatorial wall and the secret entrance to the control room. It’s science fiction by numbers, light on invention, characterisation, rigour and, er, substance. It has all the originality of a basement RPG session by a group of twentysomething nerds. I doubt I’ll be continuing with the rest of the series.

book_wordsThe Book of Words, Jenny Erpenbeck (2005). Words are powerful, though you’d not know it from the bulk of novels written. As the title of this short novel, perhaps even a novella, shows, its story is about words and their uses and the way in which they can create a world for a protagonist and hint to the reader at the context for that world. The narrator discusses words as she describes her childhood in an unnamed country suffering under an oppressive regime, and in which her father works. It’s a completely self-centre narrative, as every word in the book is about the narrator or her world. But what she writes does provide clues to the reality underlying the narrative. The mother is German, and had fled her country for political reasons – mostl likely because she was a Nazi. Though the Germans have contributed to the father’s country, they are not liked. The regime is brutal – the father talks openly about torture, and even describes atrocities committed by some unnamed Germans (one of which is clearly Mengele). The Book of the Words is closer to The Old Child than it is Visitation or The End of Days. It’s not an easy read – and in parts, it is quite gruesome – but it is very clever in the way it doles out information to the reader, aithout breaking the narrator’s character. Erpenbeck has to date published six books, although, I think, only four have been translated into English. My German is probably too rusty to fully appreciate her prose in that language. So can someone publish those other two books in English, please?

other_windThe Other Wind, Ursula K LeGuin (2001). I have a lot of time for LeGuin’s writing, although I can’t say I’ve enjoyed everything she’s written. I knew The Other Wind was a sequel of sorts to the Earthsea quartet, and I do think those books are very good. Nonetheless, my expectations for The Other Wind were middling, perhaps because I was under the impression it was YA. True, the Earthsea books were published for many years in the UK by Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin; but I’ve never really thought of them as YA. The Other Wind is set late in the lives of Ged and Tenar, Ged has long since retired as Arch-mage and no longer has any magic powers. He is visited by Alder, a village magician who has been dreaming about meeting his much-loved late wife at the wall between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Ged advises Alder to consult with Tenar, and their daughter Tehanu, currently on Havnor, advising King Lebannen on recent incursions by dragons. It turns out the dragons are upset because the humans of the archipelago do ont return to the world on dying, but instead gather in the land of the dead. Dragons are apparently trans-dimensional. And all those dead folk are cluttering up their private dimension. It’s a completely new view of the afterlife as presented in the Earthsea quartet, and yet it doesn’t contradict it. There’s a wonderfully elegiac, and yet matter-of-fact, tone to the prose, and a beautifully-drawn cast, from Alder through Tehanu to King Lebannen… but especially the princess from the Kargad Empire who has been sent to Havnor to marry the king. It feels like damning the book with faint praise, especially since the last LeGuin collection I read was a bit dull, but The Other Wind is a thoroughly charming novel. I loved it. It made me want to reread the Earthsea quartet, it made me want to read more LeGuin. Recommended.

borderlinersBorderliners, Peter Høeg (1995). Høeg’s 1992 novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow was an international sensation, and rightly so, and was made into a film directed by Bille August and starring Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne. Borderliners was Høeg’s next novel (he had published two before Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), and it’s a very different novel. Peter, the narrator, and Katerina and August are all pupils at a private school in the 1970s. All three are orphans – Peter has spent most of his life in children’s homes, Katerina’s parents died shortly before she was sent to the school, and August is on licence after killing his abusive parents. Shortly after his arrival at the school, Peter realises that everything in it is governed by schedule – he thinks of it as governed by time – and he theorises that this generates a particular way of seeing the world, which is what leads to the school’s success (it boasts a prime minister among its alumni). Although the three are not supposed to mingle, and make a secret of their friendship, they pass notes back and forth, meet in odd corners, and generally try to upset the school’s effect on themselves. August proves a handful, as he erupts into violence when threatened. Readers going into Borderliners expecting something like Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow will be disappointed – even Wikipedia states that Høeg’s novels tend to defy easy categorisation. Fortunately, I already knew this going in, although it’s certainly true Borderliners doesn’t have the immediate appeal of the earlier novel. Nonetheless, Høeg is an author whose work is worth exploring, I think. And, thanks to my brother-in-law, I now know how to pronounce the author’s name correctly.

iron_tactnThe Iron Tactician, Alastair Reynolds (2016). There are few things as dependable in science fiction as an Alastair Reynolds novella. Even before you turn the first page, you know you’re going to get an entertaining story larded with eyeball kicks and laid on a substrate of some big idea or other. It’s almost the dictionary definition of twenty-first century sf… except, well, the genre now covers so much ground, and is so diverse, that Reynolds’s ur-sf is only one strand among many. Which is a good thing, I hasten to add. The Iron Tactician is about as dictiuonary-definition Reynolds sf as you can get, on the other hand. It’s a sequel of sorts to ‘Minla’s Flowers’ and ‘Merlin’s Gun’. Merlin stumbles across a cold swallowship and decides to see if it has a working syrinx (used to access a NAFAL network created by mysterious aliens). There’s one survivor aboard the derelicxt, and she reveals that the ship traded its syrinx centuries before to a nearby star system locked into a planetary war. So Merlin and Teal head for the planetary system, planning to trade back the syrinx. The locals ask them to perform a task in payment: recover the titular AI from a pirate band, because they need it to win the centuries-long war against their enemies. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems – not the Iron Tactician, nor the the prince who represents the owners of the syrinx, or indeed the syrinx itself. I enjoyed the novella, even though something slightly familiar about it nagged me as I read it. I’m not sure what it was, but something in it felt second-hand and I had not expected it. It’ll probably end up on a coyuple of award shortlists, because genre awards these days are totally corrupt, although I don’t think it deserves to. (No reflection on Alastair or his work, he’s very good at what he does – but I’d hate to think The Iron Tactician is one of the best novellas the genre has produced in 2016, and I know it’s not the best Alastair has written.)

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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2016, the best of the year

It’s been a funny old year. Not only have we hit that time when the icons of our youth are in their (late) sixties, seventies and eighties, and so coming to the end of their lives… but some of the British people had a fit of madness and voted to leave the EU in the dumbest referendum in British political history… And then the US went one better, as it always has to, and voted in as president Donald Trump, an orange-skinned baboon, a man who makes Nigel Farage look like a mostly-harmless over-educated clown. Trump doesn’t even have his arse officially in the Oval Office yet, and he’s already abusing his powers. We’ve had ten years of damaging and unnecessary austerity here in the UK, and we’re looking down the barrel of a deeper recession, thanks to the morons and racists who voted Leave. But I think the next four years in the US might well be worse than anything we experience…

On the personal front, the day job got really busy around March, when a colleague left the company and a major project he was working on was dumped on my desk. As a result, I’ve not had much energy or enthusiasm for anything other than just consuming culture… which has meant lots of blog posts on films I’ve watched, books I’ve read, and, er, films I’ve watched. I did manage to publish a whole four stories in 2016, however; ‘Geologic’ appeared in Interzone in January; ‘Red Desert’ and ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’ appeared in Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of my alt space stories; and Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum I published as a pendant to the Apollo Quartet… but only the last was actually written in 2016. I also worked on the third book in my space opera trilogy, A Want of Reason, in fits and starts. So, overall, not a very productive year.

Fortunately, some of the films I watched and some of the books I read made up for it. A new favourite writer and two new favourite films is not bad going for a single year. And a number of other “discoveries”, both writers and directors new to me in 2016, I thought so good I will be further exploring their oeuvres. But. There can only be, er, five. In each category. Yes, it’s that time of the year – ie, pretty close to the end – when I look back over the aforementioned consumed culture – of which there has been quite a bit, particularly on the movie front – and pick my top five in books, films and albums. And they look something like this…

books
Not a very good year for genre fiction, it seems. Not a single category science fiction novel makes it into my top five. And one gets bumped from the half-year top five (those are the numbers in square brackets) to the honourable mentions. Four other genre writers also make my honourable mentions – Charnock, Whiteley, Duchamp and Park – although I’ve been a fan of Duchamp’s and Park’s writing for many years.

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012) [1]. Erpenbeck was my discovery of the year. I forget who recommended The End of Days, but I loved it… and then later bought everything else by Erpenbeck translated into English (she’s German). The End of Days re-imagines the life of a Jewish woman born in the early years of the twentieth century in Galicia, and follows her through several variations on her life, as she variously moves to Vienna, becomes a communist, moves to Austria, then settles in East Germany. Erpenbeck’s prose is distant and factual, a style that appeals greatly to me, and I especially like the “facticity” of her protagonist’s many lives. The End of Days is not as readable, or as immersive, a novel as Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book it resembles in broad conceit, but I much prefer Erpenbeck’s novel because I love the authority of its reportage-like prose, and I find the life of its protagonist much more interesting than that of Atkinson’s. I think The End of Days is a superb novel – I’ve already bought everything by Erpenbeck published in the UK, and I eagerly await whatever new works might appear.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990) [2]. Sebald is a genre all to himself, and his novels defy easy summary. They also – particularly in this case – tread that fine line between fact and fiction which I find so appealing, even more so when the fact is autobiography. (In hindsight, I could have included Vertigo as an inspiration for Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, but then Austerlitz had partly inspired Adrift on the Sea of Rains, so…) The novel is divided into four parts, all first person narratives – the first is by Stendahl and describes his entry into Italy with Napoleon’s army, the second is by an unnamed narrator presumed to be Sebald and covers two trips he makes to a village in the Alps, the third is about Kafka, and the final section recounts the narrator’s return to his home village and his reflections on the changes, and lack of change, he sees there. Despite its discursive nature, there’s a deceptive simplicity to Sebald’s prose, which tricks the reader into thinking the story carries a smaller intellectual payload than it actually does. I don’t know of another author who writes at such length, and so indirectly, on a topic and yet still manages to make it all about the topic. Sebald did not write many novels – only four, in fact – but I suspect by the end of 2017 I will have read all of them.

nocilla3 Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I’m pretty sure it was David Hebblethwaite who mentioned this, and the description sounded intriguing enough I decided to give it a go. It was almost as if it had been written for me – a fractured narrative, split into 113 sections, some of which are factual, some of which hint at further stories. There’s a sense the novel is a work in progress, inasmuch as it’s an approach to narrative that has not been tried and tested – indeed, it led to a “Nocilla Generation” of writers in Spain. I suspect Mallo is guilty of over-selling his concept, but then narrative structure is one of my interests and I should think most writers – including myself, of course! – often think they’re being much cleverer than they actually are… What Mallo has created here may not be wholly new, but it is different enough to be worth keeping an eye on. And yes, I still find it a little disappointing that “Nocilla” is just a Spanish brand-name for a Nutella-like spread. It’s like when I thought Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was a really poetic title until I learnt Teen Spirit is just the brand name of a deodorant…

rites_of_passage4 Rites of Passage, William Golding (1980). I found this in a local charity shop and bought it on the strength of Golding’s reputation and a half-remembered reading of Lord of the Flies from my school days… In other words, I went into Rites of Passage pretty much blind. I will happily admit I’m not over-fond of journal narratives, and the early nineteenth century is not a period that really interests me (especially in British history), but… this novel was so superbly put together, its control of voice, its management of story, so stunningly good, that after reading it I immediately decided I’d like to read not only the rest of the trilogy, of which this book is the first, the others are Close Quarters and Fire Down Below, but also anything else by Golding. Fortunately, I’d also bought The Inheritors and The Spire when I bought Rites of Passage, so I have those two books on the TBR to look forward to…

golden_notebook5 The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962). I’d bought this a couple of years ago on the strength of its reputation – and having read several Lessing novels… but it sat there on my bookshelves unread for quite a while because, well, partly because of its reputation, but also because of its size… But I took it with me on a train journey to Scarborough… and discovered it was a great deal less polemical than I’d expected, hugely readable, and fascinating in its depiction of the life of protagonist Anna Wulf (and her fictional/meta-fictional counterparts). The nested fictional/meta-fictional narratives are no longer as excitingly experimental as they were in 1962, so in one respect the book’s impact has been somewhat blunted by time – although, to be honest, I much prefer literature which plays such narrative tricks. Having said that, this diminution in shock factor solely from structure shows how readable and coherent the various narratives actually are. It is slightly sad and frightening that The Golden Notebook enjoys the reputation it does when you think what a reader must be like, and believe, in order to be shocked and horrified by the novel’s content. Even more worryingly, I suspect more people these days will reject the novel due to its politics – Wulf is a member of the Communist Party – and so completely miss its commentary on sexual politics. But I thought it was bloody great.

Honourable mentions: Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015) [3]; A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015) [4]; Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016) [5]; Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008); Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock (2015); The Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley (2015); Never at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011); Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015); Blindness, Henry Green (1926); and Other Stories, Paul Park (2015).

Quite a few books from my best of the half-year got bumped down to honourable mentions, but I suspect their authors will not be too upset given what replaced them. Three of the honourable mentions are from small presses – Unsung Stories, Aqueduct Press and PS Publishing – and it’s about fifty-fifty category sf versus mainstream. The gender balance is 2:3 in the top five for female:male, but 8:7 including the honourable mentions. That’s not too shabby. All books mentioned above are, of course, recommended.

films
A bit of a change in this list from July, but then I’ve watched a lot of films this year. Some of the ones in the top five below have even become favourites, which makes 2016 an especially good year in that respect. Of course, my taste in movies has changed a lot over the last couple of years, but even so…

river_titas1 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). I watched Ghatak’s A Cloud-Capped Star back in 2014, after, I think, seeing it mentioned in Sight & Sound, but it wasn’t until this year I saw the only other film by him available on DVD in the UK, A River Called Titas. (Ghatak’s Subarnarekha is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I had to source a copy via alternative means in order to see it.) I have no idea why I love A River Called Titas as much as I do. It tells the story of a young woman during the 1930s in a village on the bank of the eponymous river, who is married against her will, then kidnapped, rescued by strangers, and subsequently builds a life for herself and her new child in another village not knowing who her husband ever was… until she one day stumbles across him. But he has lost his mind. Then they die, and the film follows their son and the woman who adopted him. It’s based on a novel by Adwaita Mallabarman, which I now really want to read. The BFI DVD is not a brilliant transfer, which is a shame as the composition of some of the shots is beautiful. I’ve watched this film five times already this year – and the final watch was of the Criterion remastered edition, which is such a huge improvement over the BFI print – so much so that it was almost like watching a new, and much better, movie.

lucia2 Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (something of a familiar refrain, I admit), and I knew nothing about it when I put it in the DVD player – indeed, I knew nothing about Cuban cinema. But I loved it. It tells the stories of three women, all called Lucía – the first in the 1860s, the second in the 1930s and the third in the 1960s. It’s a long film and it covers a lot of ground, but it’s a wonderfully human movie. The Mr Bongo transfer is pretty poor – but it’s the only DVD of the film I can find, so can someone please remaster it?  – and the film is black-and-white, so the poor quality is not as noticeable as it might otherwise be… The acting feels appropriate to each of the historical periods, although it does tend to drift into melodrama at times… but when I started watching this I’d never have guessed I’d love it, so much so that Lucía has, like A River Called Titas, become a favourite film.

autumn_avo3 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan) [1]. I’d seen Ozu’s Tokyo Story back in 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that I really started to explore Ozu’s oeuvre. I admit it, I bought An Autumn Afternoon because the cover of the Criterion edition (although I actually bought the BFI edition pictured) reminded me of Antonioni’s Red Desert, a favourite film. And while An Autumn Afternoon was nothing like Red Desert, it is a beautifully observed domestic drama. Ozu had a tendency to use the same actors in different roles, which did intially confuse – Chishu Ryu is playing the patriarch of which family in this film? – but I also think An Autumn Afternoon has the clearest illustration of inside and outside in Japanese culture of all of Ozu’s films I’ve so far seen. There’s a lovely matter-of-fact courtesy among the characters, despite the fact it’s obvious they know each so well they’re extremely comfortable in each other’s company; and it’s the interactions between the characters which are the true joy of Ozu’s movies. The plot, when you think about it, is almost incidental. There’s an effective scene in An Autumn Afternoon, in which Ryu encounters a petty officer from a ship he captained during WWII. It is not, in and of itself, a particularly shocking discovery about Ryu’s character, but it is a powerful reminder that for much of the twentieth century WWII defined a great many peoples’ lives, on both sides of the conflict… and that is something we should not forget.

robinson4 Robinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I forget who mentioned Keiller to me, but I received his London as a Christmas present last year and, having thought it was very good, bought myself Robinson in Ruins, a belated sequel, in 2016. The central conceit, that the films are narrated by a friend of the titular Robinson as secondhand reportage, still occurs in Robinson in Ruins – the original narrator, Paul Scofield, died in 2008, and Vanessa Redgrave takes his place in Robinson in Ruins, and, I thought, she actually worked better. The idea that Robinson had spent the intervening years in prison gave the film a freshness, because we’re seeing what it depicts through Robinson’s eyes. But, more than that, its commentary on Tory politics and finances, at an almost Adam-Curtis-like level of detail and interconnectedness, gave the film an added bite Keiller’s earlier films had lacked. This is not the bite of a Great White, it must be admitted, more the savaging of a tenacious spaniel, but the fact it exists only illustrates how much more of this type of cinema we need. Having said that, Redgrave’s narration is erudite, interesting and perfectly played; and Keiller’s imagery is often beautifully shot. More, please.

entranced_earth5 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil) [2]. I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (where have we heard that before?), although I knew nothing about Rocha’s movies – or indeed about Brazilian cinema. I loved it. So much so I bought all three of Rocha’s films available on DVD in the UK – Entranced Earth, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes. Rocha was a leading light of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which sought to bring realism and social conscience into Brazilian films. Entranced Earth has bags of the latter, but not so much of the former. It’s an often hallucinogenic account of an election in an invented South American country, between an established candidate and a populist candidate (back when “populist” didn’t mean orange-faced fascist or goose-stepping Mr Blobby), but neither candidate is ideal – as an investigating journalist discovers. The narrative is non-linear, some of the photography is brilliant (a shot from the top of a TV aerial stands out), and the films wears its politics proudly on its sleeve. Kudos to Mr Bongo for distributing these films in the UK – even if the transfers are not of the best quality – but Rocha made four feature films and five documentaries, so it would be nice to see those too… not to mention actual UK releases of films by another Brazilian Cinema Novo director, Nelson Pereira dos Santos… or indeed any other Cinema Novo director…

Honourable mentions: Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA) [3]; Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile) [4]; Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India) [5]; Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako (2014, Mauritania); Nuummioq, Otto Rosing & Torben Bech (2009, Greenland); A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke (2013, China); 12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania); A Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand); Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France); and Charulata, Satyajit Ray (1964, India).

Only a single US film in the lot, which I consider an achievement – although I’ve been accused of “going too far in the opposite direction”. But I do like classic Hollywood movies, and I love me some 1950s Rock Hudson melodramas, but… that doesn’t necessarily mean I think they’re good films. The above is a pretty eclectic mix, from 13 different countries, of which India manages three entries (which came as a surprise, although I do really like the work of those three Indian directors). If anything, I’m hoping 2017 will be even more of a world cinema year, and I’ll find interesting films from countries whose cinemas I have yet to explore.

Oh, and for the record, my top ten favourite films, as of this post, currently looks like this: 1 All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA) 2 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India); 3 Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK/USA); 4 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy); 5 Lucía, Humbert Solás (1968, Cuba); 6 The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia); 7 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland); 8 The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany); 9 Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman (2002, Palestine); 10 Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut (1966, USA).

music
It’s been a, er, quiet year for music for me. I went to Bloodstock Open Air, as I have done since 2007 (minus 2009 and 2010), and enjoyed it a great deal. It was excellent to see Akercocke back together again (and I saw them a second time a couple of months later in Sheffield), but I think the stand-out performance of the weekend for me was Shining, who I’d never even heard of until I saw them at Bloodstock in 2014. That was pretty much it, gig-wise, for 2016. I also saw Arch Enemy, who I’d last seen at Bloodstock in 2007, but their set felt a bit lacklustre. Akercocke were better second time around, playing a small nightclub rather than a giant field in Derbyshire. And then there was a one-off gig by Anathema in Holmfirth, and they were as bloody good as they ever are (and yes, they played my two favourite songs, ‘Closer’ and ‘Fragile Dreams’).

I’ve not bought that many albums this year, either as MP3 downloads or olde stylee silver discs, although a couple of my favourite bands have had new releases out. Partly because I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve been so busy there I’ve sort of got out of the habit. I’ve also been carded once too often by couriers because I didn’t hear the doorbell over the music when I’ve been at home. But the year has not been a total dead loss, because I did actually buy some music, and a lot of it was very good indeed. And, amazingly, my top five are all 2016 albums…

no_summer1 A Year with No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016) [1]. I discovered this group when I saw them play live at Bloodstock in 2014, and I enjoyed their set so much I bought their album. This second album has been long-awaited, and it’s particularly good because it’s not more of the same. It is, if anything, even more progressive than the band’s debut, Mantiis. There must be something about the Spanish metal scene that leads to bands which generate these complex soundscapes from drums, bass, guitars and synth, more so than the metal of any other nation – not just Obsidian Kingdom, at the progressive end of the scale, but NahemaH, a favourite and now sadly defunct band, from the death metal end of the scale, not to mention Apocynthion somewhere in between. Whatever it is, I welcome it: A Year with No Summer is a listening adventure from start to finish, and never gets tiring.

on_strange_loops2 On Strange Loops, Mithras (2016). And speaking of long-awaited albums… Mithras’s last album, Behind the Shadows Lie Madness, was released in 2007. There was an EP, Time Never Lasts, in 2011, but it’s been a long wait for a new album-length work from this favourite band. This is pretty much down to the band’s perfectionism, a trait with which I can certainly empathise – and releasing on your own label, or self-publishing, as least gives you the freedom to release when and only when you feel the work is fit for release. Happily, and after all this time, On Strange Loops is definitely worth the wait. It is, of course, more of the same – massively intense and intricate death metal with ambient interludes. It works because of the contrasts and because the muscianship is of such a high level. Mithras toured this year, but I didn’t get the chance to see them perform, which I regret. Maybe next year.

rooms3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016) [3]. A friend had this on their wishlist on Bandcamp, so I gave it a listen as we often like a lot of the same stuff. I liked it. A lot. Back in June, I described Todtgelichter’s music as “a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal”, and I still think that’s the best description because, well, it doesn’t sound at all like black metal but it does sound like the band were at some point a black metal band. If that makes sense. I don’t know; perhaps it’s the sensibility with which they construct their songs. It’s not particularly heavy, inasmuch as the guitar sound is more like heavy rock turned up to eleven than your actual metal guitar, but the whole is metal. Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (Googles quickly, discover Zappa didn’t coin it, oh well). But the point remains – there is something in Todtgelichter’s music which appeals to me, and I can’t quite identify what it is. But they made my top five for the year.

belakor-vessels4 Vessels, Be’lakor (2016). I’ve been a fan of Australian melodic death metallers Be’lakor since first hearing their 2012 album Of Breath and Bone. It taken four years for a sequel – happily not so long for me, as I found their earlier works, The Frail Tide (2007) and Stone’s Reach (2009) during the years in-between – but Vessels is easily as good as, if not better than, Of Breath and Bone. It’s not just that Be’lakor create polished melodic death metal, as there as many varieties of that as there are bands who profess to play it (not to mention bands who profess not to play it but do), but more that they create layered songs with intricate but melodic guitar parts, with strong melody lines carried by the vocals. It’s a winning combination.

atoma5 Atoma, Dark Tranquillity (2016). A new album by a favourite band, so it’s no surprise to find it here – but it’s at number five because it’s a recent release and I’ve not listened to it as much I’d have liked to. It sounds very much like a Dark Tranquillity album, of course, although nothing on the few listens I’ve had struck me as “anthemicly” stand-out in the way tracks on earlier albums have done, like ‘The Wonders At Your Feet’, ‘Lost to Apathy’, or ‘Shadow in Our Blood’, but, still, this is Dark Tranquillity. They’ve been creating excellent death metal since 1989, and they’ve never stood still, which is one reason why I treasure them so much. Dark Tranquillity are the moving line which defines melodic death metal.

Honourable mentions: Afterglow, In Mourning (2016) [2]; Eidos, Kingcrow (2015) [4]; Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016) [5]; Departe, Clouds (2016); and Pure, In the Woods (2016).

An odd year for music. A few favourite bands released new albums, not all of which I bought. I went to very few gigs – ten years of Austerity has noticeably reduced the number of bands I’d like to see performing in Sheffield, now they just play Leeds or Manchester. Even the local metal scene seems to have been affected: some of the bigger bands have called it a day, others have not performed as often as in previous years. I’ve certainly listened to less music, and less new music, and bought less music, in 2016 than in previous years. Partly that’s because I’ve spent less time exploring metal on Bandcamp and other sites, but also because I’ve spent less time listening to music than in other years. And partly because fewer bands I want to see have performed locally. Let’s hope 2017 proves a better year musically…


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Reading diary, #39

Reading that massive Vargas Llosa tome derailed my reading timetable somewhat, and I’m currently ten books behind on my Goodreads reading challenge of 150 books read in 2016. So I’m going to have to do some intensive reading to catch up. Meanwhile…

valerian13Valerian and Laureline 13: On the Frontiers, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1988). The previous two volumes in this series saw Galaxity, the organisation for which Valerian and Laureline work, wiped out of history, and now the pair are trapped on 1980s Earth. The frontiers in the title refer to those on our planet. The story opens with Valerian helping the Soviets to determine the cause of a nuclear accident – it’s sabotage, but it’s not clear who was responsible, or why they did it. The story then abruptly shifts to a galactic space liner, and a pair of aliens who wear golden armour. There are apparently so few of the Wûûm left, that a meeting between them is exceedingly rare… and so leads to a shipboard romance. Except the male Wûûm is really a human, and he kills the woman and steals her psychic power so he can use it to kick off a nuclear war on Earth, by, for example, sabotaging nuclear power plants, and so bring about the creation of Galaxity earlier than in now-disappeared timeline. I’ve said all along the Valerian and Laureline series is superior space opera, but it’s also a clever commentary on the world at the time of publishing. It’s easy enough to deride France’s tradition of science fiction as bandes dessinée – they’re comics! – but many of them are a damn sight more intelligent than actual written-words novels published at that time in the US. I mean, seriously, do you think Larry Niven wrote more intelligent sf than Moebius?

in_valley_statuesIn the Valley of the Statues, Robert Holdstock (1982). These days, Holdstock is best known for his Mythago Wood sequence of novels, beginning with the novel of that name. But he originally started out writing science fiction – in fact, his sf novel Where Time Winds Below is still one of my favourites, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell him as much at a con way back in the early 1990s. The 1970s were an especially strong period in British sf. It’s mostly forgotten, or ignored, now, of course, but you had writers like DG Compton, Richard Cowper, Josephine Saxton, Keith Roberts, churning out some blinding stuff; and even into the early 1980s, with Gwyneth Jones, Robert Holdstock, Christopher Evans… But the so-called history of science fiction has wiped them all from the narrative, preferring to focus on the best-selling shit produced by US writers like Niven, Asimov, Heinlein. In the Valley of the Statues is very much a short story collection of its time, containing eight well-written and thoughtful science fiction stories, including the original ‘Mythago Wood’ novella. The considered prose would probably be thought dated in some quarters, but it’s actually better than the bulk of award-winning genre fiction being produced today. I enjoyed Mythago Wood, and its sequel Lavondyss, but when Holdstock continued working that – commercially successful – vein, fantasy’s gain was science fiction’s loss.

the_old_childThe Old Child, Jenny Erpenbeck (1999). I’ve seen this desccribed as a difficult read, and I wonder that there is such a thing. Because it’s not a quality of the book, it’s a consequence of the effort put in by the reader. Which is not to say that everyone wants to put that effort into reading, or indeed that every book deserves such an effort (either deliberately or not). The Old Child is the story of an orphan accepted into a children’s home, who is either wise beyond her years or far too innocent for her purported age. She spends much of the story as a tabula rasa, and deliberately so from her perspective, and only begins to engage with the other kids when her ability to keep silent becomes of use to them. It’s a bleak tale and told in a distant tone, which really appeals to me. It’s a way of looking at East Germany and its fate, but it’s not a point that’s belaboured or even made explicitly. Erpenbeck is a supremely clever writer, and the way she uses prose is both interesting and expertly done. I’ve made no secret of the fact I consider Erpenbeck my “discovery” of 2016. This is the third book by her I’ve read so far this year, and I have one more on the TBR which I plan to get to shortly. Then it’ll be a little harder to track down the rest of her oeuvre, as it’s only been intermittently translated from German to English. (I’m tempted to try the German, but my skill in that language is a bit rusty these days.) Anway, read Erpenbeck; she is quite brilliant.

dream_dancerDream Dancer, Janet Morris (1980). Back in the mid-1980s, I picked up a copy of Cruiser Dreams, the middle book in Morris’s Kerrion Consortium trilogy, in, I seem to remember, a junk shop in C oventry. I read it and enjoyed it enough to want to read the rest of the trilogy. Eventually, I tracked down copies of the first book, Dream Dancer, and the third, Earth Dreams. I’ve no idea where and when I found this particular book, Dream Dancer, but I apparently bought Earth Dreams at a Novacon in 2007. And yes, it’s taken me since then to get around to actually reading the trilogy. Although I’m seriously starting to doubt my memories of Cruiser Dreams as Dream Dancer is one of the worst-written books I’ve come across in a long time. I don’t think it was even edited. If it was, the editor should hang their head in shame. “Irregardless” is not a word. There are also lots of malapropisms. And the prose is so over-written most of it makes no sense. Now, I like lush prose, I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Durrell, after all; but the writing in this book is complete nonsense. Anway, a more detailed review appears on SF Mistressworks here.

dan_dare_2Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2, Lowder, Finley-Day & Gibbons (2016). My first memory of the 2000AD Dare is a Bellardinelli centre-spread depicting Dan Dare arriving in London and being shocked at the changes while he had been frozen. But I also remember Dave Gibbon’s cleanly-drawn lines in a story in which Dare had the “Cosmic Claw”, a mystical alien weapon which had “chosen” Dare as its wielder. I’d missed much of the story of Dare’s acquisition of the Cosmic Claw, so it was good to read that in this volume, except… Well, the artwork is nice, but the stories really were shit. Hoary old crap any sf magazine editor would have bounced without a second thought. But for comics it was considered acceptable. I don’t understand this. Of course, at the time, I was a kid and I gleefully swallowed whatever crap was fed me. It’s true, I marvelled at the artwork and let the story wash over me… but I can’t do that now. I have to consider both. And the 2000AD Dan Dare stories were shit. I’m not saying the Eagle ones were any better, because many of them were also complete bollocks. But some of Hampson’s work was actually amazing – ‘Safari on Venus’, for example – whereas the 2000AD Dare was never even close to mediocre, never mind good. I bought this book out of nostalgia; by reading it I promptly set fire to said nostalgia. Be wise, readers, do not do as I have. Leave your childhood illusions as they were, let the memories comfort you in your dotage.

sleeping_embersSleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock (2015). When someone names half a dozen writers, and includes both myself and another couple of writers whose fiction I like, then it stands to reason I’ll probably like the others I’d not previously read. So I bought a couple of Aliya Whiteley novellas, and read them and thought them very good (although one more so than the other – see here). And now to Anne Charnock… and I have to admit I’d not otherwise have given the book a second look given that title – and yes, I know my own stuff has long and none-too-informative titles. But I’d have missed out. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind comprises three stories, set in 2013, 2113 and 1469. The links between the three are tenuous (yes, it does remind me a bit of my own writing). In 2113, Toniah has returned to London, is living with her parthogenetic sister (they’re third-generation partho) and has taken up a position as an art history researcher at the Academy of Restitution, which seeks to promote women in history whose contributions were unfairly forgotten, and likewise reassess those of men whose reputation is undeserved (a lovely idea, we should have one of these now). Toniah begins researching the career of… Antonia Uccello, the daughter of Paolo Uccello, a fifteenth-century Italian known for having introduced perspective into Italian Renaissance painting. Although there are a small handful of women painters, it is a male career. Those women were only permitted to paint because they are nuns – and so Antonia, who is talented, must join a convent. By the twenty-second century only her name survives, and only a single painting found in a provincial museum’s archive. The third story follows Toni, a thirteen-year-old Brit, whose father is a professional copyist and whose mother died in a freak accident before the story opens. After a visit to meet a client in China, Toni is inspired to ask her friends and online acquaintances to contribute to her history homework, and so she learns of a great-uncle who died in the Great War before he could marry his betrothed. So Toni and her father go on holiday to France to visit his grave. There’s no neat resolution to the three narratives, to the novel in fact. It tells its stories and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. In some respects, it reminds me of Katie Ward’s excellent Girl Reading (and still no follow-up novel from her, which I would really love to see). I think Ward’s prose style is more to my taste than Charnock’s, which is not to say the latter is bad: it’s unadorned and straightforward, with an enviable clarity. Whoever called out Charnock has done me a favour, and I’ve already put her other two novels (one due in January next year) on my wishlist.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 128


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Winter festival come early

Yet more books. The mantlepiece, incidentally, has all sorts of bits and bobs on it and I couldn’t be arsed to clear it off for these photos. So you’ve got the landing carpet instead.

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After watching Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, I fancied reading more by the author, and so picked up cheap copies of August 1914 and The First Circle on eBay. I may have shot myself in the foot with August 1914, however, as only two volumes of the Red Wheel series are available in English, out of possibly eight volumes in Russian. Accommodation Offered I also found on eBay, and bought for my Women’s Press SF collection… but I’m not entirely sure it is sf.

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Chernobyl Prayer and The Appointment I bought after a dicussion on Twitter about female Nobel laureates for literature. I’ve already read the Müller – see here. I had a copy of Labyrinths many years ago but seem to have lost it, so I bought a replacement. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind I bought because Charnock was named alongside myself and Aliya Whitely and Nina Allan and a couple of others as writers to watch in a tweet, and I’ve now forgotten who it was who said it… I thought Nocilla Dream very good – see here – so buying the sequel, Nocilla Experience, as soon as it was published in English was a no-brainer. And I’ve always found Houellebecq’s fiction interesting, hence Submission.

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I contributed to the kickstarter for The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosenkreutz, although to be honest I’ve no idea why. But it’s a handsome looking book. Erpenbeck is a new favourite writer, and her books are readily available on eBay in hardback for low prices – which is good for me, if not for her or her publisher. Anyway, The Book of Words and The Old Child are two earlier works, currently published in an omnibus, but I’d sooner have them separate. They’re very short. I’ve already read The Old Child. It’s very good.

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Finally, some sf comics. I’ve been picking up the Valerian and Laureline series as Cinebook publish them in English. On the Frontiers is volume 13, which is just over halfway through the series. You should never return to childhood favourites, because it’s usually embarrassing to discover how fucking awful they were. I’ve always loved Dan Dare, ever since being given a reprint of two of Hampson’s Dare stories back in the early 1970s. Since returning to the UK, I collected all of the Hawk Publishing reprints of the Eagle Dan Dare stories. But I also have fond memories of Dare from the pages of 2000 AD – I even have a Dan Dare annual somewhere from that time. Hence, Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2. 2000AD’s Dare looks great – it was drawn by Dave Gibbons – but the various stories are the hoariest old sf crap imaginable. Oh well.