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Reading diary, #20

A new year, more books read (some of which are actually from the Christmas holiday, but never mind).

the_uninvitedThe Uninvited, Liz Jensen (2012). I am a Liz Jensen fan, although I don’t make as much of an effort to read her books as I should do. True, whenever I see one in a charity shop, I buy it. But, seriously, I should be buying her books new from a retailer – online or otherwise – because they are that good. Consider it a personal failing. In The Uninvited, the narrator, who suffers from Asperger’s, finds himself drawn into an investigation into children who have murdered their parents. And there seems to be an epidemic of such murders. In all cases, the children have no idea why they committed murder, and seem completely unaffected by their actions. Jensen never gives you quite what you expect – and that’s as true of this novel as it is of any of her others. The narrator’s condition is handled expertly, the circumstances of the deaths he investigates are presented convincingly, and the actual plot of the novel actually seems almost plausible. I’m not the only one with a failing here – we should all be reading Liz Jensen. And The Uninvited is as good a place to start as any.

Last Pilot_PicadorThe Last Pilot, Benjamin Johncock (2015). How could I not read this? A test pilot at Muroc Air Force Base (later renamed Edwards) in the late 1940s becomes an astronaut in the Apollo programme. This is exactly the same ground I covered in All That Outer Space Allows, although I did it from the wife’s point of view. And my take is a lot more technical. As far as I can determine, Johncock’s Jim Harrison takes the place of Dave Scott (Apollo 15 commander), although Scott does actually appear toward the end of the book. Also, while many aspects of Harrison’s persona life are invented, many incidents assigned to Harrison actually happened to others. Harrison is there when Yeager breaks the Sound Barrier in 1947, he gets assigned to the X-15 program and then to the X-20 program, before eventually joining NASA and becoming an Apollo astronaut. Also like All That Outer Space Allows, The Last Pilot focuses on its protagonist’s marriage. Although Harrison and his wife try for children for years, they’re not successful – but then, against all odds, as is usually the case in fiction, they have a girl. But she sickens and dies of cancer at the age of ten, and her death slowly tears the marriage apart from within. If lit fic is unfairly characterised as fiction about middle-class marriages disintegrating, then The Last Pilot is lit fic – albeit with a test pilot/astronaut as its protagonist. It is well-researched, well-written, and Johncock cleverly covers plenty of ground by assigning so many documented incidents to his protagonist. But – and I can actually say this: it’s not the book I would have written. And my own novel coloured my reading of Johncock’s – almost certainly unfairly. It’s a good piece of work, certainly – but I would have preferred something a little more interesting as the plot’s engine… And lots more technical detail.

Caliban-1Caliban, Garth Ennis & Facundo Percio (2015). This was the first of two graphic novels I bought in Faraos Cigarers in order to make up my numbers on my 150 book reading challenge. To be honest, the shop also had an impressive number of Moebius collections, and I would have bought them like a shot – but they were all in Danish. Sigh. Instead, I had to make do with substandard US/UK sf graphic novels like this one. A spaceship collides with a mysterious alien spaceship in hyperspace and the crew of the former decide to explore the latter. Guess what – this proves to be a bad move. There’s like some alien virus thing which takes over one of the crew and leads it to slaughter all the others. This is pretty much Event Horizon meets Alien. A thoroughly unimpressive and derivative piece of science fiction in graphic form. Seriously, given the stuff produced by France, Anglophone graphic sf needs to step up its game big time.

4263805-1+lady+killer+1+cover+final+designLady Killer, Joëlle Jones & Jamie S Rich (2015). And this was the second graphic novel from Faraos Cigarer. It was the also the more appealing of the two. Nineteen-fifties housewife secretly works as an assassin on the side. Sadly, the plot is almost pure cliché from start to finish – after several successful, and very bloody, jobs, there’s one which proves she’s not a totally heartless killing machine. Meanwhile her boss has decided she’s going to become a liability – because she’s a woman. Perhaps there could have been more housewife stuff (probably not of interest to your average comics fan) to provide a better contrast with the killing and gore, but despite that the art is really very nice indeed. It’s just a shame the story couldn’t think beyond its boundaries – I mean, there’s plenty of room for commentary on fifties society, something a little more subtle than the blunt instrument that is a housewife-assassin (who actually masquerades as a Bunnygirl at one point!). But this is hardly Moebius, or any bande dessinéee, so I guess I should take what I can get.

moonshotsMoonshots & Snapshots of Project Apollo, John Bisney & JL Pickering (2015). The second of two books by the authors about – well, the title pretty much gives it away. Like Spaceshots & Snapshots of Projects Mercury & Gemini, the authors have selected photographs not normally seen in these sorts of books. There are, of course, a huge number of books about the US space programme (not so many about the Soviet one, obviously), which does make you wonder how some people didn’t know who Neil Armstrong was – even if Project Apollo ended forty years ago with ASTP and that’s pretty much ancient history to some. But Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – not to mention Vostok, Voskhod and the many versions of Soyuz – were an astonishing achievement, and sadly seem nowadays to be little more than fuel for a lucrative nostalgia industry rather than an actual stepping stone to further achievements in the human exploration of space. It’s tempting to think that two hundred years from now all this might be indistinguishable from some sort of science fiction documentation project, like one of those mockumentaries about invented rock bands – but what a project! So much documentation! And all the cross-referencing! (All of which, of course, means people who think the Moon landings are a hoax are complete idiots.) Anyway, there’s a huge number of books on twentieth-century space exploration, and it’s almost impossible to keep up with them. But these two by Bisney and Pickering would look good in any space books collection.

annhilationAnnihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (2014). This is a good book, one of the better ones genre fiction produced in 2014. Let’s get that out of the way. It is also completely not my thing. If I had to vote for it on a shortlist, it would be because of its recognisable quality not because I liked it. I’ve already decided I won’t be bothering with parts two and three. Four women are sent into Area X, a wilderness area which manifests strange behaviours, as the latest in a number of expeditions, of which all the previous were unsuccessful. The women are never named – the narrator, whose journal forms the narrative, explains that the expeditions do not use names since referring to each other by profession is considered safer within Area X. A day or two after their arrival, they find a structure which the narrator calls the Tower but the others refer to as a tunnel. It is a staircase circling down into the earth to an unknown depth. Along the wall of the staircase is a line of glowing script, possibly fungal in nature, written by a creature several levels lower. None of this is explained. And deliberately not so. As I commented in a Twitter conversation with Jonathan McCalmont a few days ago, prompted by John Clute’s review of David G Hartwell & Patrick Neilsen Hayden’s 21st Century Science Fiction in The New York Review of Science Fiction (see here)… Clute’s point that science fiction colonises the universe – “to make the future in our own image” – resonated with some of my own thoughts on the genre. To me, the universe is explainable but not necessarily knowable, and I prefer science fictions which reflect that. Area X in Annihilation is plainly neither knowable nor explainable, and is clearly not meant to be. It’s an artistic choice, but it’s one that doesn’t interest me.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121

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Reading diary, #18

My reading seems to have picked up a little of late, likely because I’ve been choosing shorter books to read… Mind you, three of them were literary classics – and not just according to the one list I’ve been following. Admittedly, I’ve been a fan of Marilynne Robinson’s writing since reading Gilead several years ago (and now have three of her books in signed first editions) – but the other two classics I was aware of but had never actually read. Now I can say I have done…

maeveMaeve, Jo Clayton (1979). I’ve been working my way through Clayton’s Diadem from the Stars series for SF Mistressworks. I wasn’t impressed with the first three books, which had super-special-snowflake heroine Aleytys, with special powers coming out of the wazoo, subjected to rape, slavery, sexual slavery and rape. But this book is a complete change of pace and tone – Aleytys is now a straight-up space opera heroine, helping out the alien inhabitants of a planet against a rapacious corporation. Let’s hope the series keeps up this new direction. My full review is on SF Mistressworks here.

oldmanseaThe Old Man and the Sea*, Ernest Hemingway (1952). I tried reading Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls a few years ago but gave up about halfway in. You’d think his fiction would appeal to me – Hemingway believed in factual writing, and that’s something I’ve been doing with my own fiction. But, to be honest, I’ve never understood why he’s held in such high regard. And that’s even more so after reading The Old Man and the Sea, the (very short) novel which apparently re-invigorated his career and was likely instrumental in him being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Go figure. Given Hemingway’s penchant for factual writing, this should really be titled The Old Man and the Big Fish, as that’s what the story is actually about – an old Cuban fisherman who wages a war of endurance against a giant marlin. He wins eventually, but sharks rob him of his prize. The writing is simple and declarative, and on occasion quite striking. It is also often repetitive and its simplicity can hinder as much as it helps. It is a book which lingers in memory – possibly a result of its simplicity – and though I didn’t much enjoy reading it, and certainly wasn’t impressed by its prose, it does make me think more favourably about Hemingway than I did previously. So much so, in fact, that I may try actually reading something else by him…

ivanOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich*, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962). I have Sokurov’s Dialogues With Solzhenitsyn waiting to be watched (and it wasn’t an easy DVD to find at a reasonable price), and while I knew of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s most famous work, and roughly what it was about, I’d never actually read it. So when I stumbled across a copy in a local charity shop, I bought it. Given its content, I can sort of understand why it was considered so shocking when it was first published – it is, after all, an actual description of life in an actual Soviet prison camp. However, there’s a curious sort of acceptance to the life displayed by narrator Shukhov. Much of the book is a flat description of his activities during the day in question – waking up, the struggle for breakfast, laying bricks during the day, the evening meal, various errands he runs – with some detail of the accommodations Shukhov has made in order to survive his sentence. That the conditions in the camp are brutal is a given – and even the most idiotic Westerner must know how bad the camps were (hint: conditions may have been much worse than Gitmo, but at least they didn’t get tortured – but both were/are travesties of the legal process). There’s a nice level of detail, and Solzhenitsyn succeeds in getting across the appalling climate… but it all felt a bit too fatalistic, a bit too complicit, to me. I’m glad I read it, and it’s clearly an important novel, but I shan’t be rushing out to find more Solzhenitsyn novels – although I may feel differently after watching Dialogues With Solzhenitsyn

dayindeepfreezeA Day in Deep Freeze, Lisa Shapter (2015). I added this Conversation Pieces novella to a recent order from Aqueduct Press based solely on the description on the website. As the title states, the story covers a single day in the life of the narrator. During WWII, he was employed in a secret underground factory which manufactured a truth drug, but the drug affected all those working in the factory – which was sealed and its workforce were not allowed to leave. But some – including the narrator – later escaped, but now many years afterwards the factory has closed down, its workforce let go, and they’re now integrated into the local town’s population. But the drug changed them. It made them form near-telepathic relationships with each, a “bond” between two men, which, of course, they have to hide as it’s considered “inversion”. Shapter has written that she writes sf in which she uses male characters to tell women’s stories, and if A Day in Deep Freeze is any indication it’s an effective technique. The novella makes no concessions to the reader – it’s a puzzle to figure out what is happening just as much as it is to figure out why – but the end result is a strong piece of writing that takes a interesting premise in an unexpected direction.  I think I’ll be nominating this for the BSFA. Incidentally, Shapter is currently writing a series of military sf stories with all-male casts based on a similar philosophy (see here for a list), and it seems an exercise worth investigating. (Although I would like to see more about the world of A Day in Deep Freeze).

spaceshotsSpaceshots & Snapshots of Mercury & Gemini, John Bisney & JL Pickering (2015). As the title suggests, this is a collection of photographs from the Mercury and Gemini programmes. As glossy coffee-table books about the space programme go, it’s a good one. The photos are not the usual suspects, the accompanying text is short but informative, and it will certainly appeal to those fascinated by those two space projects. There’s a companion volume for the Apollo programme, of course. And yes, I bought it too.

housekeepingHousekeeping*, Marilynne Robinson (1981). Robinson has to date published four novels. Having read two of them, and knowing that the fourth was linked to those two, I had thought I knew what to expect with her debut, Housekeeping. It seems I was wrong. It’s set in the town of Fingerbone, Idaho, sometime during the late 1940s or early 1950s, and is about two young girls whose mother commits suicide, and their grandmother then dies of old age, so they end up being looked after by their aunt, who has plainly spent many years travelling the US on trains as a hobo (the novel describes her as a “transient”, but also features men called hoboes; although from her behaviour she may well be suffering from a mental illness). So in story terms, there’s no overlap with Robinson’s later novels. But there’s certainly that lovely clarity of prose which distinguishes her writing, although some of the prose in Housekeeping is perhaps even better than in her later novels – perhaps because I’m a sucker for landscape writing, and there’s so much more of that in Housekeeping. To be honest, the writing throughout is wonderful. Sylvie is something of a cipher, but the two girls, Ruthie (the narrator) and Lucille, are beautifully drawn. Although a charity shop find, this book is definitely a keeper (sadly, first editions are out of my price range). It was also apparently made into a film. I shall have to see if I can track down a copy.

loversLovers of their Time and Other Stories, William Trevor (1978). I forget where I first heard Trevor’s name, but wherever it was it must have been enough for me to buy this book when I stumbled across it. And… well, it’s lit fic of the type which seems to give lit fic a bad name. The stories are good, varied in subject, and show a fine eye for detail and observation. But they are also either domestic or turn on tiny changes of circumstance, and often prove to be the sort of story which seems to rely on fine prose to impress rather than observation, insight or plot – and in most of the stories, the prose is good, without being especially so. According to Wikipedia, Trevor is “widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary writers of short stories in the English language”. So that’s me told off. Doubtless the stories in Lovers of their Time and Other Stories have much to offer to readers of contemporary short stories, but I found little in there to make them stand out especially for me. And I do like lit fic. But I like it a little more adventurous than Trevor writes, or with more landscape (see above). Having said that, Trevor is good at period detail – although I wonder how intentional this is in the stories set in the 1970s – which does give an added layer of much-needed charm. Another writer whose oeuvre, I suspect, I will not be exploring…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121