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Reading diary, #46

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #29

I had a couple of introductory paragraphs to this reading diary, about how at school I was often called names because of my choice in books… But I decided not to use it. Mostly because I’ve been sitting on this post for over a week as it contains negative reviews of two of the books on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist. I’ve seen other commentary on the two books, and I appear to be in a minority with my views. And we all know these days that reviews are expected to be little more than warmed-over marketing copy.

As for the Clarke shortlist itself, I’ve now read five of the six books. One of them deserves to win, two of them I suppose a case could be made for their presence (although I wouldn’t do it), and two should never have made the cut. By all accounts, the book I’ve yet to read is no better. But then every year there’s been one or two books on the shortlist whose presence is baffling. This year, it feels like a somewhat shapeless shortlist, more like fannish selections than the picks of literary judges. That may be an unintended consequence of the huge number of submitted books (ie, judges’ choices spread wider, more compromises needed to pick the final six), but that’s just speculation. The Clarke Award shortlist for 2016 is what it is. And sadly, given recent complaints in various quarters about a lack of critical commentary on the award, it’s not a shortlist that especially invites critical commentary.

But on with the books…

vernon_god_littleVernon God Little*, DBC Pierre (2003). You know those comic novels which are supposed to be funny but aren’t, and where the narrator’s voice is supposed to be funny but isn’t… well, this is one of them. There has been a tragedy in the Texas town of Martirio. Vernon’s best friend, Jesus, has gunned down several of his schoolmates, and Vernon is still under suspicion as an accomplice. (He’s innocent, but no one particularly cares – Jesus is dead, and Vernon makes a good scapegoat). This is one of those novels where the entire cast are white trailer trash, and that’s sufficient to present them as comedy characters. Ignorance may be fertile soil for comedy, but there’s a right way to handle it and a wrong way. There’s a meanness to the characterisations in Vernon God Little which makes for unpleasant reading. It doesn’t help that Vernon is a thoroughly unlikeable narrator, nor in fact that none of the characters in the book are at all likeable – most, in fact, are closer to caricature than character. How this book won the Booker Prize is a mystery; how it was picked for the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list is an even bigger mystery. One to avoid.

nowhere_huntThe Nowhere Hunt, Jo Clayton (1981). This is the sixth book in Clayton’s nine-book Diadem series, which also spun off a pair of trilogies about one of its minor characters. Although the series started out as peplum space opera (I’m determined to use that phrase, now that I’ve coined it), it soon drifted into standard 1970s space opera, a sort of Dumarest Saga with a female Dumarest – albeit with lots of special snowflake superpowers. Clayton seemed to have dialled back the violence and abuse as well by book four, but unfortunately this one sees a return to it. I reviewed The Nowhere Hunt on SF Mistressworks – see here.

valerian_11Valerian and Laureline 11: The Ghosts of Inverloch, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1983, translated 2016). I had always thought the Valérian agent spatio-temporel series comprised individual stories, but it seems there is a story-arc slowly beginning to appear. It’s not just that the previous two volumes, Métro Châtelet, Destination Cassiopeia and Brooklyn Station, Terminus Cosmos, formed a two-part story, nor that The Ghosts of Inverloch is also the first of a two-parter (with the yet-to-be-published-by-Cinebook The Wrath of Hypsis), but the story in The Ghosts of Inverloch does refer to the preceding two-parter and even to the first book in the series, The City of Shifting Waters. As it is the plot of The Ghosts of Inverloch is a bit on the thin side – Laureline is already in residence at the eponymous Scottish castle, but Valerian must first capture a Glapum’tian from the planet Glapum’t, which he manages to do within a couple of pages. He then heads – through time and space – to Inverloch Castle. Others are also making their way to the castle, including the head of the Spatio-Temporal Service, Valerian and Laureline’s boss… The reason why, unfortunately, is left to the following volume. Despite their episodic nature, the Valerian and Laureline series is superior space opera. And Luc Besson is making a film based based on it. I can’t wait.

women_in_liveWomen in Love*, DH Lawrence (1920). This is a sequel of sorts to The Rainbow, inasmuch as it continues the story of Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen from that novel. Wikipedia claims the two books were planned as one big novel but split by the publisher, but the introduction to my edition of Women in Love contradicts this – in Lawrence’s own words. He was driven out of London in late 1915 by The Rainbow obscenity trial, a libel suit and his vocal opposition to the Great War (which made him a lot of enemies in London society), and settled in poverty in Cornwall. After recovering from illness, he started work on Women in Love“a sequel to The Rainbow, though quite unlike it”. Certainly, the two books are not big on rigour, and Women in Love might be better considered an entirely new novel whose leads share their names, and some background details, with the Brangwens of The Rainbow. Lawrence apparently wrote it very quickly, but it took four years before it saw print. Gudrun is an artist, returned to the family’s Nottinghamshire home village after a few bohemian years in London. Ursula is a teacher in a local school. She is attracted to school inspector Birkin (a stand-in for Lawrence himself), while Gudrun takes up with Gerald Crich, son of the local coal-mining magnate. The novel charts the two couples’ relationships through a series of (mostly) tragic incidents. You don’t read Lawrence for the plots, which is just as well as he tends to meander. And his characters usually read like they’re dialled up to eleven (so many! exclamation marks! It seems somewhat excessive to a modern reader). But there’s also lots of philosophising and discussions of Lawrence’s often bonkers ideas on art and life. Birkin especially is fond of lecturing the other characters, often at great length. And, of course, there’s Lawrence’s lovely descriptive prose. Women in Love is a… meatier novel than Sons and Lovers or The White Peacock; but it’s also a novel that disappointingly seems to treat the working-class like noble savages (and especially disappointingly so after Sons and Lovers). With its cast of minor gentry, teachers and artists, Women in Love is very middle-class, almost as if Lawrence’s years in London turned him into a social climber (and Birkin suggests as much in Women in Love). I have that absolutely enormous three-volume biography of DH Lawrence on my bookshelves. One of these days I’ll have to read it.

way_down_darkWay Down Dark, JP Smythe (2015). I am not in the slightest bit interested in YA – although I do like Smythe’s non-YA novels, and think they’re very good – but Way Down Dark was shortlisted for the Clarke Award this year, so I picked up a copy and read it and… I’m frankly mystified why it was shortlisted. It may well be better-written than the average YA, but it’s just one long litany of death and violence in a science-fictional setting which doesn’t hold up to a moment’s scrutiny. For a book to be on a major genre award shortlist, I expect more than just a nice turn of phrase. I’ve seen some of the commentary about Way Down Dark, and I am I admit not in the slightest bit familiar with the YA market… So perhaps it’s a YA thing that the background doesn’t make sense. It’s supposed to be a generation ship, but turns out to be a prison. In orbit. So where does the gravity come from? Not acceleration, since it’s not moving. And the decks are made of grating, so where is the artificial gravity hidden? There are “over ninety” of these open decks, and people live in cubicles they’ve made from salvaged sheets of metal and curtains. Chan, the protagonist, tells us that her mother moved them from higher up the stack to halfway down because it was nice and warm – yet the very bottom of the stack is apparently not too hot to live in. Because that’s where the Lows, who are straight out of Mad Max Central Casting, live. Then there’s the Pit, which is the floor of the well around which the decks are arranged. It’s a festering pool of dead bodies and rubbish…because people throw bodies and garbage there. As you would. The book doesn’t say how long the ship/prison has been occupied, but at least three generations are mentioned in the book, and since no one seems to remember they’re actually prisoners that suggests at least a century. In the centre of the Pit, under the rotting flesh and blood and trash, is a secret entrance to the guards’ quarters. Ignoring the fact that no sane person would go wading into a stinking soup of decomposing corpses, or even put their head under it, masked or not… there’s also the fact that initially the entrance would not have been hidden, and could not have been intended to be hidden, as who would design a prison with the expectation that inmates would throw bodies down into the Pit? The ship/prison is also called Australia… I hope there’s an explanation in a later book to explain the name (Way Down Dark is very much incomplete and the first part of a trilogy), but even so, in light of the book’s setting there’s a lot of… baggage there. This is, I believe, the third time a YA novel has made the shortlist – the other two were Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness in 2011 and The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter in 2008. Tellingly, only one of the three is by an actual YA author. Personally, I don’t think YA should be considered by the Clarke Award, and there’s nothing in this novel to cause me to reconsider that.

underwater_manUnderwater Man, Joe MacInnis (1974). MacInnis has been involved in diving medicine for a number of decades – first with Ed Link and his various projects, then in other places. He was part of the US Navy’s SEALAB III project, and was the first scientist to dive beneath the North Pole. This book describes eleven of MacInnis’s most memorable underwater adventures from 1963 to 1972, including the stuff with Link and the Arctic dives. MacInnis may be an excellent doctor, and an accomplished diver, but his writing is… somewhat, er, florid. Here’s a sample, about the bends:

“It is in the shallow regions that decompression sickness is most likely. We are both aware of its fierce displays. I have seen destructive pain-shells fire through proud young bodies. I recall an old friend who had succumbed to the dark winds of vertigo. A ruthless bubble lodged near his brain. He was in such distress that he threw up. I remembered the hard grey stillness locked in my gut as we nursed him slowly back from the cliff edge of shock.” (p 76)

It makes for an odd read. Fascinating stuff nonetheless, and MacInnis is an important figure in the field – he’s still going, his last book was published in 2012 (although I only have his 2004 book, Breathing Underwater, as well as Underwater Man).

book_phoenixThe Book of Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor (2015). And from a shortlisted book written for teenagers to one that reads as though it were written by a teenager. Okorafor seems to be having a Moment this year: ‘Binti’ was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and BSFA Awards, and won the Nebula; and The Book of Phoenix is on the Clarke Award shortlist. This novel is apparently a prequel to 2010’s Who Fears Death, which I’ve not read – and I don’t think I’ll be bothering to do so, either. The protagonist of The Book of Phoenix is a genetically engineered “SpeciMen” (a particularly ugly coinage). Although only two years old, she has the body and mind of a forty-year-old African woman. We’re told she was called Phoenix after the city in Arizona, but the book then later says her mother gave her the name – so it’s a massive coincidence that her genetically-engineered superpower is the ability to combust and then be reborn from her ashes. Oh, and she can fly – she has wings. And later she can “slip”, which is sort of teleporting in time and space. And she can generate heat inside her body too. She starts the book as a prisoner in Tower 7, a LifeGen facility in a post-climate-crash New York. She escapes by destroying the building, and flies to Ghana. A year later, LifeGen tracks her down and, in the process of capturing her, kill her lover. They take her to a Tower in the Caribbean and… The plot of The Book of Phoenix is basically this happened and then that happened and then this happened, with no discernible structure or rigour to it. Early on, Phoenix releases an alien kept captive in Tower 7, and mentions in passing there are colonies on Mars. Both are mentioned only once more in the novel, also in passing, near the end. Ideas are just picked up by the author for world-building when needed, then put down and forgotten. As far as I know, The Book of Phoenix is not being marketed as YA, although it seems to exhibit many of the hallmarks – a heroine with super special powers that have no grounding in either story or world or science or logic, world-building with no rigour and very little sense, and a plot that jumps from one unconnected incident to the next. Would I have thought The Book of Phoenix a better book if it had been badged as YA? Unlikely – though it would have at least “explained” some elements of it. I’ve discussed Okorafor’s novel with other people, and I seem to be alone in finding it unimpressive. So it goes.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 124

Finally, I think I’ll start including a breakdown of my reading by gender in my reading diary posts, so here’s the first – 57 books read up to 22 May this year:

gender


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Reading diary, #24

I wish I could read as many books a year as films I watch. I did manage to complete the 150 book challenge on Goodreads last year – although I am apparently 6 books behind schedule for 2016 – but that’s not even close to 570, the number of movies I watched last year… I did try reading for 30 to 60 minutes when I got home from work, and managed to keep that up for at least a week. I really need to make it part of my daily routine. I also need to get into the habit of reading on the weekend again, too. Back when I lived in the UAE, I used to spend most of Thursday and Friday reading – in fact, it wasn’t unusual for me to catch a taxi to the Daly Community Library on a Thursday morning, take out four books… and have read two of them by that evening. Admittedly, I read quite a lot of crime and thriller novels – the library didn’t have many science fiction books – and they’re fast reads. But I also read a lot of literary fiction as well. Maybe I’m just slowing down in my old age…

sistersSisters of the Revolution, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (2015). I supported the kickstarter for this as it sounded like a project worth supporting and, after a period that was longer than expected, it finally arrived. And… it was worth the wait. It’s a strong and varied selection, its contents mostly new to me – around ten of the twenty-nine stories in the anthology I’d read previously. I’m amused by the back-cover blurb’s description of thr anthology as a “highly curated selection”, as if the VanderMeers put MOAR EFFORT into it than every other anthology editor. Having said that, I don’t know how many stories they read in order to make their choices. but judging by comments on Twitter, Facebook, etc, it was a hell of a lot. I don’t think every story they chose works, although that’s more a matter of personal taste – I’m not a fan of genre fiction that plays fast and loose with rigour, or indeed any mode of fiction that does, nor stories that are too allegorical or too consciously presented as fables. Which is not to say there are not some bloody good stories in Sisters of the Revolution – in fact, the opener, ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ by L Timmel Duchamp, is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time. And Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Sur’ was not only new to me but also one of the best by her I’ve ever read. James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Screwfly Solution’ remains as scarily effective as it was the day I first read it. Octavia Butler’s ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’, Kelly Barnhill’s ‘The Men Who Live in Trees’, Angela Carter’s ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, Joanna Russ’s ‘When It Changed’ and Eileen Gunn’s ‘Stable Strategies for Middle Management’ are all worth the price of admission. I’d definitely say Sisters of the Revolution is one of the strongest anthologies I’ve seen for quite a while.

ocean_outpostOcean Outpost, Erik Seedhouse (2011). I picked up a copy of this cheap on eBay, which is good as Springer-Praxis books are not cheap. But they are interesting. The subtitle of this one reads “The future of humans living underwater”, and it covers a variety of different methods of doing so. The first section covers diving – free-diving, technical diving and saturation diving – but while the studies on free divers is interesting, the section on rebreathers reads like a technical sales brochure. The second section is about submersibles, but covers only Mir, Alvin and Shinkai before turning into an advertisement for hydrobatic submersibles (ie, ones that “fly” underwater). Section III deals with the reasons for colonising the ocean bottom, such as mineral exploitation, and the final section is about medical intervention to allow survival underwater. It’s fascinating stuff, despite the book’s tendency to read at times like it’s quoting verbatim from technical sales material; and while it’s good on the science and engineering of the current state of the art, it’s not so good on the history – the chapters on submersibles, for example, make no mention of the Trieste or Ben Franklin. But then it is a relatively slim book, only 187 pages, including appendix, epilogue and index. Nonetheless, pleasingly detailed.

star_huntersStar Hunters, Jo Clayton (1980). This is the fifth of the seven books from the nine-book Diadem series that I bought at Fantastika in Stockholm back in 2013. I’ve been slowly working my way through them for SF Mistressworks. The first couple were a bit hard to take – the series heroine is a super-special snowflake who is subjected to an almost-constant barrage of sexual violence, but there’s an abrupt swerve in tone in the fourth book and Aleytys is presented as a much more typical competent space opera protagonist with agency. Her wardrobe, if the cover art is anything to go by, doesn’t improve, however. My review of Star Hunters is here.

louisianaLouisiana Breakdown, Lucius Shepard (2003). I went through a phase several years ago of buying Lucius Shepard books. And he produced quite a few, including many short novels and novellas from small presses. Such as Louisiana Breakdown, which was originally published by Golden Gryphon. There’s is not much, to be honest, in this short novel which makes it stand out, other than Shepard’s writing. The story feels like a well-used cliché, a story that’s been told far too often about Louisiana. A musician en route from California to Florida, well, breaks down in Louisiana, just outside some small backwards town. The local cop tries to strong-arm but is stopped by the timely arrival of the town’s Big Man, descendant of the town’s founder and rich playboy. There’s also a woman who is in magic thrall to another man – although he’s not in the town itself – and she decides that the musician is the man to break her free. It’s a story that almost writes itself, and if it weren’t by Shepard I’d not have bothered going past by the first couple of pages. Even so, it’s not one of his best.

balastIn Ballast to the White Sea, Malcolm Lowry (2014). The story goes that, after Lowry’s first novel, Ultramarine, was published, he submitted In Ballast to the White Sea, but his publisher decided not to take it. So Lowry continued to work on it. He was a notorious fiddler, forever editing and polishing his work, so it’s no real surprise he published so little. But before he could finish the next version of In Ballast to the White Sea, the wooden shack in which he and his second wife, Margerie Bonner, lived in Vancouver caught fire. The ms of In Ballast to the White Sea was almost entirely destroyed. However, a couple of years earlier, Lowry had left a copy with his mother-in-law (a copy of the earlier, rejected version, that is), but Lowry had either forgotten about it or chose not to remember its existence. In any event, he gave up on In Ballast to the White Sea and moved onto something else – and Lowry’s second novel was considered “lost”… But the ms put away for safe-keeping turned up in the 1970s and Lowry’s first wife, Jan Gabrial, set about editing it for publication (as she had done in the 1960s with Lowry’s forever-being-worked-on novella, Lunar Caustic). But In Ballast to the White Sea never saw print – until now, in this “scholarly edition” from the University of Ottawa Press. And… it’s plain it needed more work. Some chapters are entirely dialogue. The character of the captain, the father of the protagonist, Sigbjørn, doesn’t feel quite settled; and Nina, Sigbjørn’s ex-girlfriend, swoops in from nowhere, takes up a couple of intense chapters, and then vanishes. Like Ultramarine, In Ballast to the White Sea is partly autobiographical, and is based both on Lowry’s time at Cambridge and at sea – in fact, the suicide of Sigbjørn’s brother, which occurs off-stage between chapters II and IV, was based on the suicide of a friend and fellow student. And Sigbjørn’s fascination with the author of a Norwegian novel which, in broad shape, is similiar to the novel Sigbjørn is planning to write echoes Lowry’s own fascination with Skibet gaar videre (The Ship Sails On) by Nordahl Grieg, a novel he felt had “written” his life up to that point. The “A Scholarly Edition” on the cover of In Ballast to the White Sea refers to the fact the novel is copiously annotated – not just the references and allusions with which Lowry larded his prose, but also some aspects of British life and geography which may not be familiar to non-Brit readers. There’s also a couple of essays on the provenance and history of the manuscript, and on the editing undertaken by Lowry scholar Chris Ackerly. If you’re a fan of Lowry’s fiction, it’s a fascinating, perhaps even necessary, read.

invadersInvaders, Jacob Weisman, ed. (2016). You know when lit fic writers try their hand at genre, although of course their story appears in a lit fic venue not a genre one, and everyone goes on how astonishlingly inventive it is but genre fans just shake their heads sadly because they’ve seen it all before… Well, if that ever happened, and I suspect it hasn’t done for a number of decades, there’s enough proof in Invaders to demonstrate that science fiction and fantasy are now so prevalent that an author doesn’t need to be steeped in genre from the age of thirteen in order to write good genre. Which is not say every story in Invaders works, either as lit fic or as genre fic. But the anthology sets out to prove a point, and it does that pretty well. I read the book to review for Interzone.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 122


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Reading diary, #9

My reading seems to have slowed a little over the summer, possibly because I’m trying to schedule my reading choices. Instead of just picking whatever appeals at that moment, I’ve put together a list which includes books I’ve owned for years and never got around to reading. And some of them, well, I’m not entirely sure why I bought them – probably because they appeared on a Clarke Award shortlist or something…

entanglementEntanglement, Douglas Thompson (2012) In the near-future, a form of matter transmission to exoplanets using quantum-entangled matter is discovered. A number of space probes are sent out, and a century or so later, once they’ve arrived, Earth starts beaming out astronauts to each world. The process, however, is neither as safe nor as certain as has been claimed. Its inventor is haunted by the subject of an early experiment – literally. Meanwhile, the various astronauts discover that the exoplanets are inhabited… Despite this description, Entanglement is far from hard sf – which is not to say it glibly makes up its various science-fictional elements out of nothing: the exoplanets named are all real exoplanets, and the teleportation process is given a creditable scientific gloss… But the various missions – each sort of presented as a short story in a linked collection – are more explorations of philosophical questions than they are surveys of exoplanetary landscapes or xenological biospheres. It’s an interesting approach, but sadly I found the book a little disappointing. I liked Thompson’s earlier Sylvow very much – and said as much in my Interzone review – but something about Entanglement just didn’t work for me. Nonetheless, Thompson is doing some good work and I intend to continue reading him.

w_wastedW is for Wasted, Sue Grafton (2013), is the latest in Kinsey Milhone’s alphabetical adventures. Only three more and they’re done. Or perhaps then Grafton will move onto AA for, er, Arsonists Anonymous. Or something. While the books in the series have chiefly been good solid private detective novels, there are three quite interesting things about them. First, the debut, A is for Alibi, was originally published in 1982, and Grafton has been careful to keep the internal chronology of the novels consistent. As a result, W is for Wasted is set in 1988. Kinsey Milhone has become an historical character. Secondly, the novels are all set in the invented Californian town of Santa Teresa, and with twenty-three books now set there it’s probably better-documented than many real towns in the state. Finally, the novels are framed as Milhone’s report of the case to her client, and usually end with “Respectfully submitted, Kinsey Milhone”. But in many of the cases – particularly the later books – she doesn’t have a client, but is drawn into an investigation often by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grafton also frequently breaks out of her framing narrative – and again this is something I’ve noticed becoming more prevalent as the series progresses – and she includes chapters in third person from the point of view of another character. Although the main narrative remains first-person from Kinsey’s POV, Grafton’s plotting obviously can’t remain limited to Milhone and still make sense to the reader. That strikes me as a weakness. I do enjoy the books, and I’ve no intention of giving up on them… but I wish Grafton would put more rigour into her novels.

DESCENT-ken-macleodDescent, Ken MacLeod (2014) The cover art and strapline on this novel is somewhat misleading. It certainly misled me – I was expecting a novel on the psychology of alien abductions, especially since the novel opens with an incident which could be described as a close encounter (although the two teenagers involved are too sceptical to fully subscribe to it). However, as the story progresses it turns into a commentary on the machinations of government and corporations in a near-future Scotland suffering from an economic meltdown. And as a work of sustained near-future extrapolation, Descent is very good indeed. There’s also an idea the book plays with during its first half which MacLeod seems to throw away so he can focus his story on Scotland’s economic recovery, some random muscle-flexing by “securocrats” (secret apparatchiks), and the eventual redemption, emotional and career-wise, of bloke-ish narrator, Ryan. Which is a shame. I quite liked the idea of a genetic basis to the capacity to believe (or perhaps it’s just gullibility) – after all, as an atheist, I’ve often wondered what it is that makes other people believe in god (no, it’s not that I don’t believe in god, it’s that as far as I’m concerned there is no such thing as god). Still, at least MacLeod’s idea is better than the one Sebastian Faulks advanced in his novel Human Traces (see here). Anyway, much as I enjoyed Descent, I didn’t feel it had the science-fictional crunchiness Intrusion possessed, although in many respects it read like a more accomplished work.

antares1Antares Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4 and Episode 5, Léo (2007 – 2013) – well, that was annoying. I saw on Léo’s Wikipedia page that there were five books in the Antares series, so I waited until five had been published in English by Cinebook and then bought them… only to discover that the final episode ends on a cliff-hanger. Argh. The story continues on from Betelgeuse and features the same group of characters. Kim is having trouble settling on Earth – she doesn’t like that there’s so many people, and she doesn’t like her celebrity status. But when a multinational corporation sets up a colonisation mission to Antares and asks her to join it, she initially refuses. Eventually, she agrees, but en route she discovers that the mission was put together by a religious cult, and it’s one of those that treats women like chattel (the women must shave their heads and wear inflated coveralls to hide their figures so they don’t tempt the men, ffs). Once they land on Antares, things start to go wrong. The flora and fauna is lethal, the cultists have seized power, and the mysterious aliens from the earlier books are somehow involved. I do like this series of bandes dessinées but Léo portrays all his religious characters as complete misogynists and it feels a little one-note – especially when set against all the strong female characters in the series.

Irsud, Jo Clayton (1978), I read for review for SF Mistressworks. I was not impressed – see here. I have another four of these books on the TBR, and another two to track down if I want to complete the series.

the-dog-stars-by-peter-hellerThe Dog Stars, Peter Heller (2012), I picked up in a charity shop because it was shortlisted for the Clarke Award last year. And I’ll admit I’m somewhat puzzled it was shortlisted. A flu pandemic in the US kills off 99% of the population, and the remainder inevitably turn to survivalism, rape, murder and so on. As they do in post-apocalyptic fiction. The narrator, however, has it quite good – he lives at a small airfield, and has a small Cessna plane which he often flies, scouting out the area he shares with his gun-nut neighbour (they’re the only two people who live there). The narrator also suffered in the past from meningitis, and as a result the prose is written in a sort of lightly-fractured English, with many fragmentary declarative sentences. This serves no purpose in the story, it’s just an excuse for the prose style. And the gun-nut is basically a rip-off of Sobchak, John Goodman’s character, in The Big Lebowski. The first half of The Dog Stars comprises a series of incidents showing how nasty everyone is – and how few women remain. Then the narrator hears a radio message from some distance away, and decides to fly there to learn who broadcast it. En route, he stumbles across a blind box canyon, in which lives a man and his daughter. The narrator falls for the daughter. It takes something special to make a post-apocalypse novel notable and there’s nothing special in The Dog Stars.

œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIFortune’s Pawn, Rachel Bach (2013). I’d seen a number of positive mentions of this space opera, so when I saw a copy going cheap at Edge-Lit, I bought it. But, well… the narrator is sort of fun, an ambitious mercenary who is very, very good at what she does – but her arrogance started to wear thin after a while. The power armour is handled well, and I quite liked the gentle references to the suits of armour of knights of old. The protagonist’s home world featured some nice touches, even if it didn’t really stand up to scrutiny – a technological feudalistic society with a king worshipped as a god? The rest of the worldbuilding is even worse. There’s the nasty lizard aliens, the comedy bird aliens and the enigmatic glow-in-the-dark squid aliens. Oh, and the love interest is some sort of technological part-alien superhero. Narrator Deviana is so ambitious, she leaves the mercenary brigade and takes a job as on board security for a free trader who seems to attract trouble. Yes, it’s all a bit like a role-playing game. Annoyingly, Bach only reveals what is blindingly obvious in this book, and I’m assuming the more interesting questions will be answered in the remaining two books of the trilogy. Which is annoying, as I won’t be reading them.

cthulhuThe Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, HP Lovecraft (1999). I’m pretty sure I’ve read Lovecraft in the past – in fact, I have a quite vivid memory of the cover art of a Lovecraft collection which, I think, I borrowed from Coventry City Library back in the early 1990s. It’s hard to be sure, given there’s so many different ways to pick up knowledge of his oeuvre and the Cthulhu mythos – I used to play the Call of Cthulhu RPG when I was at school, for example. Having said that, none of the stories in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories seemed especially familiar. I’d always thought Lovecraft’s prose of poor quality, and despite a recent discussion on that subject, I suspect I may be revising my opinion. The early stuff is pretty bad – Q: when is a door not a door? A: when it’s a “panelled portal”; and Lovecraft had a bad habit of saying something is indescribable… and then going on to describe it. But by the late 1920s, his writing had improved hugely, and in stories like ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1928) and ‘The Shadow of Innsmouth’ (1931), he’d toned down his love of adjectives to great effect; and while he might still recycle his favourite words a few times too often, the less-is-more approach was certainly better at evoking eldritch horror. I have to admit, I enjoyed this collection a lot more than I’d expected. Happily, I bought all three of the Penguin Modern Classic Lovecraft books, so I have The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories and The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, all in nice matching paperback editions.

WizardHuntersThe Wizard Hunters, Martha Wells (2003). I bought this a few years ago for a planned reading challenge in which each month for a year I’d read the first book of a popular fantasy series and then write about it. I lasted six months before giving up. The Wizard Hunters, the first book of The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, I’d heard positive noises about, so I picked it as one of my twelve books. And it’s sat on my TBR ever since. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read as part of reading challenge – it probably stacks up better against the other books I’d chosen back then, when I was a little more receptive to epic fantasy. Now, reading The Wizard Hunters I found myself mostly bored, and annoyed at how bad a lot of the writing was. Often I’d have to go back and reread something because Wells’ prose wasn’t clear enough – there was a line, which I now can’t find, of course, in which the main protagonist Tremaine shakes her head and then puts it to one side. Tremaine was, I admit, fun; as was her companion, Florian (a woman in the book, even though the name is masculine; but never mind); and I did like the mix of magic and early twentieth-century technology…  But it took too long for the story get moving, the writing bounced from serviceable to bad, and there was far too much back-story the reader was expected to know. I won’t be, er, hunting down the sequels.

Nine months in and I’m still alternating genders in my fiction reading. I fully expect it to be 50:50 come 31 December. Admittedly, I still have a way to go before I have gender-parity on my book-shelves, but I’m always on the look-out for sf novels by women writers for SF Mistressworks and books by female literary fiction writers – especially post-war British literary fiction, such as that by Olivia Manning or Elizabeth Taylor, so if anyone has any suggestions for similar authors I’d be very grateful.


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The floorboards are creaking

Time for another book haul post, and it’s been a good month or so book-wise. Some new books from authors whose books I like, some good bargains picked up in charity shops, and some books that look really interesting and I’m looking forward to reading… Having said that, I’m going to have to purge my collection some time soon as it’s getting a little out of hand…

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Some heartland science fiction: Evening’s Empires, On the Steel Breeze and Proxima are all new this year. Navigator is from 2007, I found it cheap on eBay.

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A few collections and an anthology. Jagannath: Stories I bought at Fantastika in Stockholm, Getting Out of There is from Nightjar Press (it’s signed and numbered and a bargain at £3.50; get yourself a copy), and both the women-only anthology Space of Her Own and Cliff Burns’ extremely rare first collection, Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination, were from Cold Tonnage.

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The Luminaries, of course, won the Man Booker this year. The Kills and Unexploded were on the long list but didn’t make the short list. But these three seemed the most interesting to me of the listed books.

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A few for the collection. The jacket-less book is Too Many Murders, and is DG Compton’s debut novel – a crime novel as by Guy Compton. These are almost impossible to find in good condition. Escape from Kathmandu is signed. The Violent Century and Prayer are both new this year.

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A Tale for the Time Being was also short-listed for the Booker, I found this copy in a charity shop. Sea of Ghosts I bought new after reading Martin Petto’s review on Strange Horizons (plus it has a deep sea diver on the cover); and Ancillary Justice I bought because it’s been getting extensive positive buzz of late – deservedly so: I reviewed it here.

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These three books I bought on a recent visit to Harrogate. I’ve always fancied trying Nabokov and I’m told Pale Fire is his best. Jensen and Houellebecq I pick up whenever I see copies.

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Five books of Jo Clayton’s Diadem from the Stars series. I bought these at Fantastika. To be honest, they’re not great sf – I reviewed the first two books on SF Mistressworks here and here – but I’ll read them and review them anyway.

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Finally, a 1970s sf novel by a woman writer I’d never heard of (bought at Fantastika) and a humungous book on writing genre I have to review for Interzone. I shall be approaching Wonderbook with a healthy scepticism, but it’s hard not to be impressed by it.

Incidentally, I make this haul 15 books by men and 13 by women, which is pretty close to parity.


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One-liners

It’s been a while since I last noted here what books I’d read. Yes, I’ve given up on the readings & watchings posts, but I’d still like to record what literature I’ve consumed throughout the year. Here I shall attempt to do it in a single line per book (occasionally through the creative use of punctuation, I must admit).

A Torrent of Faces, James Blish (1967) Pleasingly detailed, somewhat dated, but a much more interesting sf novel than I’d expected.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (2005) Oof – worse than I’d expected (though I’ve heard the translation was rushed), but Blomqvist is a Gary Stu and the attempts to drag in references to the original title (Män som hatar kvinnor, Men Who Hate Women) are hamfisted to say the least.

The Immersion Book of SF, Carmelo Rafala, ed. (2010) Small press anthology of, er, science fiction; some contents better than others, though nothing stands out especially.

The Ghost, Robert Harris (2007) Blair’s biographer is murdered so pro ghost writer is drafted in and discovers something rotten in the ex-PM’s career– oh wait, it’s not Blair, it’s a made-up politician…

Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks (2008) Faulks does Fleming and makes a pretty good fist of it – also: a Caspian Sea Monster!

Diadem from the Stars, Jo Clayton (1977) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961) Some astonishingly good novellas, some not so good short stories; planning to read more Lowry.

Islands, Marta Randall (1976) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

If the Dead Rise Not, Philip Kerr (2009) Bernie Gunther in Berlin after leaving the Kripo; and decades later in Cuba – and it’s all about corruption by US mobsters over building work for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Eastmodern, Herta Hurnaus (2007) Bratislava, home to some surprisingly interesting-looking Modernist buildings; as this book amply demonstrates.

The Omcri Matrix, Jay D Blakeney (1987) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Dulcima, HE Bates (1953) I read it but I’m not sure why it was written; apparently they made a film of it too…

The Maginot Line, Rob Redman, ed., (2012) Literary paperback anthology, contains some good stories, including one by a bloke called Sales.

Goldfinger, Ian Fleming (1959). A bit like the film, but with added homophobia and sexism! – Bond turns ice-cold lesbian Pussy Galore into a warm and loving heterosexual with a good rogering; plus a half-page homophobic rant by 007.

The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

Oscar Niemeyer Buildings, Alan Weintraub (2009) Does what it says on the cover: lovely photographs of lovely buildings.

Building Brasilia, Marcel Gautherot (2010) Yet more lovely Niemeyer buildings – they should let Neimeyer design the entire world.

Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ (1980) April’s book for my reading challenge; I wrote about it here.

Girl, David Thomas (1995) Man goes into hospital but through implausible mix-up gets vaginoplasty; played for laughs, manages some sensitivity, but definitely from the male gaze so nothing learned.

The Maquisarde, Louise Marley (2002) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

Machine, Jennifer Pelland (2012) Read for review in Vector; interesting approach to the central conceit, though a little muddled in execution.

Disguise for a Dead Gentleman, Guy Compton (1964) Actually DG Compton: murder most foul at a public school; some nice-ish writing but a bit all over the place structurally.

Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott & Alexei Leonov (2004) Reviewed on A Space About Books About Space here.

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson (1972) Not a Moomin in sight, just grandma and granddaughter having fun and games among Finland’s islands; simple, elegiac.

Impact Parameter & Other Quantum Realities, Geoffrey A Landis (2001) Variable collection by Analog/Asimov’s stalwart; contains a couple of good ones, but a few are surprisingly poor given their initial publication venues.

Time Future, Maxine McArthur (1999) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Valerian 3: The Land Without Stars, Mézière & Christin (1972) English slowly catches up with famous French lightweight space opera bande dessinée series.

The Jagged Orbit, John Brunner (1969) Even in 1969, Brunner should have thought twice about this – a near-anarchic over-armed US with voluntary racial segregration; painfully, embarrassingly and datedly hip.

West Coast Blues, Jacques Tardi (2009) Bande dessinée about a man who goes on the run after being mistakenly targetted by hitman; astonishingly nihilistic.

In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield (2009) European history re-imagined with mermen, sort of; a slow start, drags even slower for the first third, then gets moving… and proved actually rather good.

The White Peacock, DH Lawrence (1911) His first novel: structurally weird and the viewpoint lacks rigour, but some lovely prose and it all feels very local to me; will definitely be reading more.

Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012) Read for review in Vector – sequel to Isles of the Forsaken (see here), and not quite the expected story; some excellent bits nonetheless, though the plot feels a little problematical.

Starship Winter, Eric Brown (2012) Third in a quartet of seasonal novellas set on the world of Chalcedony; shenanigans at an art exhibition; the weakest of the three so far.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009, Alan Moore (2012) Third and last (?) in the Century series, which sees the League sort of re-unite to defeat a stoned Antichrist.

Aliens of the Heart, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2007) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978) Published in 1978, from the characters’ ages would appear to be set in 1968, feels like it was set in 1958; Booker Prize winner, though felt far too long and flabby to me.

Starshadows, Pamela Sargent (1977) Collection of early short fiction with a patronising introduction by Terry Carr; will be reviewed on SF Mistressworks soon.

‘À Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ & Other Essays, DH Lawrence (1961) English literature’s one true Puritan wibbles on about masturbation (bad), the right sex (good), marriage (sacrosanct!) and obscenity (“moi?”) – he really was a dirty old reactionary…

Griffin’s Egg, Michael Swanwick (1990) Novella about, er, a group of astronauts stranded on the Moon after a nuclear war on Earth – not an inspiration, honest; nor anywhere as good as I’d vaguely remembered it.