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Reading diary, #8

Time once again to catch up on my recent reading. Which seems to have been all over the shop recently. I try to plan my reading but it never works. I mean, I sometimes decide not to read a book as planned just because it’s a hardback and would be a faff carrying in my bag to and from work. So I end up choosing a paperback I hadn’t planned to read instead. Other times, I fancy something a bit fluffier and less worthy than my original choice… Which does make me wonder why I bother to plan my reading in the first place.

ps-showcase-11-stardust-hc-by-nina-allan-1749-pStardust: The Ruby Castle Stories, Nina Allan (2013). This collection of short stories are linked by mention of the eponymous, well, not character, she’s an element in the background of each, a cult actress who appeared in films the protagonists of the stories remember watching. And, to be honest, not every mention feels like it’s original to the story, or an organic part of it. Indeed, ‘The Lammas Worm’ was originally published in Tartarus Press’s Strange Tales, Volume III, the only story in the collection to see prior publication, and I have to wonder if the mention of Ruby Castle in it wasn’t added so it would fit in Stardust. None of which is to say that hese are bad stories. Allan is a good writer, and if she doesn’t always play to her strengths, the end result is at least interesting in some fashion. The six stories and single poem in Stardust are mostly slipstream, and are set in contemporary Britain, Victorian Germany and Russia. But it’s not quite the Britain, Germany or Russia we know. In some respects, Allan’s slight twisting of the real world works well, but it’s a technique that seems to fail as often as it succeeds – the Russia of the title story, for example, is not at all convincing. Where Allan succeeds best is in dropping some small detail or plot-point which signals this is a reality at an angle to our own. Sometimes it’s in the first line: “In my country July the tenth 2029 is remembered by everyone as the date of the Anastasia space disaster”. In other stories, it’s a slow accumulation of tiny details. Add to this a tendency for her stories to shoot off in unexpected directions, and it’s clear Allan is creating an interesting body of work. Her prose is never less than polished and if, often as not, the story seems to leak around the edges… sometimes that adds to the general effect of the piece. I still have Allan’s The Silver Wind and A Thread of Truth to read – I bought three of her collections at the last Fantasycon – and I’m looking forward to tackling them.

lastbastleThe Last Castle / Nightwings, Jack Vance / Robert Silverberg (1966 / 1968). This is #15 in the Tor double series from 1988 to 1991, although both novellas originally saw print in the late 1960s. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them many years before, either in a collection or Ace double (which is how the Vance was originally published). Silverberg also expanded ‘Nightwings’ to novel-length, and I may have read that too. I can’t remember – and, to be honest, I can’t recall much of ‘Nightwings’ only a couple of weeks after reading it. Vance’s ‘The Last Castle’ is at least more memorable. It’s set during the twilight years of Earth, after humans from another world decide to recolonise it, and they now live a life of ease in castles, waited upon by alien creatures called ”. Who promptly decide to kill all the humans. Only one man takes the threat seriously enough to attempt to fight back. It’s typical Vance in all respects, and as fair an introduction to his oeuvre as any. There are, sadly, only two female characters named in the entire novella, and they’re wives and sex partners. Even for 1966, that’s piss-poor. Silverberg’s novella actually features a female protagonist – she’s the “nightwings” of the title, a member of a race adapted from human stock for flying. She travels to Rome in some distant future in the company of the narrator, a Watcher, and a mysterious man who seems somewhat too well-educated to be the non-guild itinerant he claims. A Watcher, incidentally, is a member of a guild dedicated to scanning the galaxy with some sort of equipment built into a small cart – it’s all very vague and handwavey – in order to spot the first signs of a long-threatened invasion. Which, of course, happens during the story – well, there’d be even less of a plot if it hadn’t occurred. ‘Nightwings’ won the Hugo, and was nominated for the Nebula, in 1969, but I thought it pretty slight. It trades entirely on atmosphere, despite the fact little of the background makes sense, and the ending is visible from several kilometres away. Meh.

manycolouredThe Many-Coloured Land, Julian May (1981). I first read this shortly after it first appeared in the UK, back in the early 1980s. I remember liking it a great deal – and I know a number of people count the Saga of the Exiles among their favourites… But it’s never wise to reread books you remember fondly from your teens, they almost never survive unscathed. As this one didn’t. I may reread the other books in the series at some point, but it’ll only be to review them for SF Mistressworks – as I did with this one here.

adam-robotsAdam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013). Or is it the other way round? Never mind. As it says quite prominently on the cover, this is a collection of short stories, a number of which are original to the book (although the page which gives original publication details seems to be missing a couple). I’d thought I’d read quite a few of Roberts’s stories, but many of the ones in here were new to me. Except, I have read at least three of the anthologies in which a story in this collection originally appeared… One of these I liked, despite the thump-worthy pun in the last line. Another struck me as a neat idea stretched just a tad too far. And the third… seems as memorable after this second read as it was after the first. The stories in Adam Robots are never less than very readable, and Roberts can indeed turn a lovely phrase, and often does, but there’s also a sense that some of the pieces are lacking in… thickening. Perhaps it’s the sf story as Gedankenexperiment, an exploration of premise but not necessarily a thoroughly rigorous examination of it – which, on occasion, does make the story feel as though it exists only as a vessel to hold a premise rather than as an armature for a narrative. In the shorter pieces, of course, this is not an issue – the space is limited. Having said that, the saving grace of many of these stories is that Roberts carefully positions them as stories – it’s literary device deployment rather than immersion. The end result is a collection that is both enjoyable and impressive – and definitely good value for money as it contains twenty-four stories. I do have one peeve, however: the title ‘Review: Thomas Hodgkin, Denis Bayle: a Life (Red Rocket Books 2003), 321pp, £20. ISBN: 724381129524′. That ISBN is 12-digit. There are only 10-digit and 13-digit ISBNs. And if missing a digit was done to prevent accidentally giving the ISBN of a real book… well, the last number is a checksum. Just make it fail the checksum and it can’t be a real book.

snailSnail, Richard Miller (1984). The word to describe this novel is, I believe, ‘Vonnegutian”. The writer was clearly trying to be Vonnegutian – so much so Kilgore Trout appears several times as a character, although for reasons never explained he’s named Kilgore Traut, and that spelling is claimed to be correct. The narrator of Snail is a senior Wehrmacht officer, who falls foul of Hitler because he marries a call girl, and so promptly sits out most of the war. Back in WWI in the German trenches, he met and fought alongside the Wandering Jew. Who later gave him an immortality elixir to give to Hitler. Which the narrator does, turning Hitler into an immortal nine-year-old. He also takes some himself, and becomes an immortal sixteen-year-old. The rest of the novel follows him through the twentieth century, although it’s mostly concerned with his encounters with Pallas Athena, the Wandering Jew, and an organisation called Macho-Burger Incorporated, which seems to be using fastfood to chemically induce gender essentialism. I don’t honestly know why I bought this book, or why I read it. Although published in the 1980s, it feels like it belongs to an earlier decade, and its wit is far from sharp – I mean, Pussy-Cola and Cocka-Cola? There’s all sorts of stuff in here, most of it pretty juvenile and played more for comic effort without actually interrogating it. Best avoided.

nemo1Nemo 1: Heart of Ice, 2: The Roses of Berlin, 3: River of Ghosts, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2013 – 2015). Although set in the world of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, these are a spin-off, and feature not the original Nemo, but his daughter, Janni Dakkar, who is now the captain of the Nautilus. In Heart of Ice, she makes an enemy of Ayesha, who is determined to get her revenge and so, bankrolled by Charles Foster Kane, sends a trio of penny dreadful inventor-heroes after Nemo… Who is following a trail left by her father to Antactica, where she finds a city straight out of Lovecraft. It all comes to a bad end for the villains. The second book takes place in a Berlin transformed by the science of Rotwang – including an army of Maria robots. But when Nemo’s daughter, and her boyfriend Robur, are killed when their airship is destroyed by Berlin’s forces, Nemo attacks Berlin’s “Moloch Machine”. And in the third book, Nemo chases after Ayesha to South America and Maple White Land, a mesa where dinosaurs roam, only to find an army of bikini-clad fembots guarding a cadre of young Hitler clones… And that’s pretty much the appeal of this trilogy: you’re playing spot the references all the time. While some are blindingly obscure – those penny dreadful characters, for example – others are all too obvious. I know Moore has played around in the Cthulhu mythos before, but seriously, who still thinks a Lovecraft mashup is clever?

schoolforloveSchool For Love, Olivia Manning (1951). Felix Lattimer is left orphaned in Baghdad when his mother dies of typhoid, and since it’s during WWII he can’t be sent back to Britain and the care of relatives. There is, however, a relative much closer – in Jerusalem. Mrs Bohun. So Felix is sent there. Mrs Bohun really is a piece of work – the blurb describes her as “one of the most reoubtable (and ridiculous) of comic horrors in English fiction”, and it’s true. The actual plot – Felix interacts with the other residents of Mrs Bohun’s house, is too immature to see what is really going on, and, well, things happen – is more or less incidental. The old working class man in the attice ends up in hospital, and his room is let to a young and pregnant widow. Mrs Bohun’s attitude changes to the first, and then the other, but it’s all in character. Manning is a good writer and worth reading, but this is a slight piece. Its setting is interesting, and that setting is handled reasonably sensitively, albeit with the patrician sensibilities of a British expat from the first half of the twentieth century. While Mrs Bohun appears quite horrific in some respects to modern sensibilities, I suspect time has sharpened that edge. Manning doesn’t deserve to be forgotten – she was an excellent writer during her day and her books are still worth reading today.


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Readings & watchings 11

It’s time for the last report of 2010 from the coalfaces down the side-tunnels of the mine that is popular culture. You know the drill (see what I did there?): these are the books wot I read, these are the films wot I watched…

Books
number9dream, David Mitchell (2001), is Mitchell’s second novel. It’s set in Japan. An orphaned young man is searching for his mysterious father, but inadvertently gets involved with the Yakuza. Like Cloud Atlas, the story doesn’t quite cohere, although about a third of the way in things do start to gel. The writing is excellent, the narrator is engaging, and the occasional over-the-top elements of the story are forgivable. Worth reading.

Intervention, Julian May (1987), sets the scene for her Galactic Milieu trilogy. I remember enjoying May’s Saga of the Exiles when I was in my teens, so I was surprised to discover that I hated this book. It’s basically about the development of super mind-powers among a group of Franco-Americans in New England. It’s supposed to be based on the memoirs of one of these, but breaks away from his narrative far too often for the conceit to stand up. The aliens are silly, the language is melodramatic, and the characters all come across as Mary Sues. Avoid.

Casino Royale, Ian Fleming (1953), is, as any fule kno, the first of Fleming’s James Bond novels. For reasons that continue to elude me, I am working my way through the 007 books. I know they’re not very good, I know they’re nothing like the films. But still I read them. Given the recent film of Casino Royale I had somewhat higher hopes of this novel. Sadly, it’s worse than the others I’ve read. The plot is thin: Bond plays Le Chiffre at cards, Bond wins, Le Chiffre kidnaps and tortures Bond, Bond is rescued. There’s loads of clumsy info-dumps. And Bond is even more offensively sexist than usual – the final line is “Besides, the bitch is dead”. Watch the movie, avoid the book.

Axiomatic, Greg Egan (1995), is Egan’s first collection. I’ve never really been a big fan of Egan’s fiction, but since he receives so much praise I though I’d better have another bash at him. I found this collection in a charity shop, bought it, read it and… I’m still not entirely convinced. He seems to take implausible ideas and stretch them to breaking point; and often beyond. There are some good stories in this collection, but there are many that are quite dull, whose single idea just isn’t worth the story around which it is built. There’s also a sameness to many of the stories. Still, the prose is quite polished.

Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (2009), has a central conceit that couldn’t help but appeal: in the 1940s, Joseph Stalin asks a group of science fiction writers to design an alien invasion, as part of a plot to create an enemy for the Soviet people in order to justify greater hardships and more invasive state control. You know, like the War on Terror. But nothing comes of it. Then, in the 1980s, it begins to look as though an alien invasion, exactly as planned forty years ago, is actually happening. Unfortunately, Yellow Blue Tibia doesn’t quite meet the promise of the conceit. It’s a very good novel, and the first half is an excellent and very funny satire. But about halfway through it changes direction, and eventually ends up in some sort of metaphysical area that didn’t strike me as interesting as the satire was. Definitely worth reading, however.

Ulverton, Adam Thorpe (1992), is a book I first tried reading over a decade ago, but put down after getting about halfway through it. It’s been sat on my book-shelves ever since. I’d always intended a second go at it, since what I had read had impressed me. But Ulverton is not an easy read. The title refers to a fictional village in the south of England, and the novel is structured as a series of incidents in the history of the village, beginning in the 17th century right up to the present day. Each section is told in the prose style of the time, and Thorpe uses a variety of formats as well – personal reminiscences, a sermon, eyewitness accounts, journals, a script, etc. This is a book that stands or falls on its writing, so it’s good that Thorpe’s prose is excellent. He maintains voice superbly in each of the settings, and gives a very real feel for his invented village. Worth the wait.

Surface Detail, Iain M Banks (2010), is the latest Culture novel and I wrote about it here.

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark (1963), is a slender book. The eponymous girls are all residents of the May of Teck Club, a hostel for single women under the age of thirty. The book takes place in the year following the end of WWII. Spark introduces the girls of the top floor, before leading up to a “tragedy” involving an unexploded bomb. There’s also a framing narrative set in the 1960s, in which various of the girls discuss a man one of them invited a couple of the times to the club, and who since became a missionary and has just been murdered in Haiti. I liked the way Sparks characterised the girls, but didn’t like her overly repetitive prose style. Nor was I especially keen on the framing narrative – not that I could see why it even needed to be there. Don’t think I’ll be dashing out to read any more books by Sparks.

A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro (1982), is Ishiguro’s debut novel, and in no way compares to his later works. A Japanese woman, married to a Brit and resident in the UK, reminiscences about her previous marriage in Japan. Her daughter from that marriage has committed suicide, and her daughter from her second marriage is staying with her for a week. The events in Japan – in Nagasaki – revolve around an upper class Japanese woman fallen on hard times, who has an American boyfriend who has promised he’ll divorce his wife back home and take the Japanese woman to the US. This woman also has a wayward daughter, who was traumatised by something she witnessed during the bombing raids on Tokyo during WWII. The prose is not as sharp as Ishiguro’s later books – in fact, the dialogue is tin-eared throughout. And the plot sort of peters out, rather being resolved. Disappointing.

Ninety-eight point four, Christopher Hodder-Williams (1969), is one of my British SF Masterworks and I wrote a review of it here.

Long Time Coming, Robert Goddard (2010). One day I’ll work out why I continue to read Goddard’s novels (I say that every time, don’t I?). It’s probably because no thought is required – this one took me a day – and they’re usually diverting. Despite being formulaic. His last one was rubbish, but this one is a bit better. A man discovers that his uncle, who he’d been told was dead, had actually been in an Irish prison since 1940 for an unrevealed crime (the book is set in 1976). It’s all to do with some Picasso paintings, which were forged by an ex-IRA painter, used to replace the real paintings owned by a Belgian diamond merchant who dies when the ship in which he was travelling to the US was sunk by a German U-boat. There’s more to the plot than just that, and it does get a bit unbelievable in the middle, but it’s better than some of Goddard’s other novels.

U is for Undertow, Sue Grafton (2009). The central conceit driving this alphabetical series is starting to unravel: the novels are presented as the reports of cases investigated by PI Kinsey Millhone. This one is a case in point: two of the three narrative threads are in the third-person and by those involved in the crime Kinsey is investigating. Which is the disappearance in 1967 of a four-year old girl – she was kidnapped, but not returned by the kidnappers. Like Goddard’s, these books are easy reads – and this one only took a day too. Grafton has rounded out the last few with Kinsey’s complicated family history – she thought she was an orphan, but her dead mother was actually the estranged daughter of a well-to-do matriarch. Sometimes Kinsey’s familial woes feel a bit like padding; sometimes they give her depth. But at no time do they actually add to, or illuminate, the plot of the novel. Grafton is no Paretsky, but never mind.

The Battle of Forever, AE van Vogt (1971), is typical van Vogt. Which is to say: it’s complete and utter nonsense. On good days, van Vogt’s nonsense is pacey and entertaining nonsense. On bad days, it’s just too silly to suspend disbelief. The Battle of Forever was plainly written on a bad day. It doesn’t help that it clearly reads as though van Vogt made it up as he went along – well, much more so than his other novels. In the distant future, one thousand humans are all that remain of the race, and they live as giant heads with atrophied bodies in an idyllic enclave. As an experiment, one of them, Modyun, grows a proper human body and heads out into the outside world as an experiment. He finds an Earth inhabited by the humanoid descendants of animals and apparently ruled by an alien bureaucracy. The novel may have been published in the 1970s, making it late-period van Vogt, but the society depicted seems more 1940s than anything else. Modyun accompanies some new-found animal people friends onto a giant spaceship, has various run-ins with members of the alien race in which they try to out-think each other, learns all the other humans have been killed as part of the aliens’ final act of Earth subjugation and… It all gets a bit wearying after a while, as van Vogt nears the end of each scene and hunts desperately for a hook to continue the story… often manufacturing one out of nothing simply in order to bang out more words. The Battle of Forever is a logic-free freefall through a story which rarely makes sense, and which reads like it was written when movies were black and white. Even for a fan of van Vogt, it’s putdownable.

Films
A Tale Of Springtime, Éric Rohmer (1990), is the first of Rohmer’s Contes des quatre saisons quartet, and the second film I’ve seen by him – the first was Triple Agent, which I thought slow but strangely involving, even though it didn’t seem to reach any sort of resolution. A Tale Of Springtime is much the same. A woman, Jeanne, attends a friend’s party and meets a young woman, Natasha, who befriends her. Jeanne doesn’t want to stay in her boyfriend’s flat while he’s away, and she’s lent her own flat to a cousin, so Natasha offers her a bed for the night and Jeanne accepts. Jeanne subsequently gets drawn into Natasha’s life, especially her father’s relationship with his new girlfriend, who Natasha does not like. This involves several trips to a house they own in a country village, which needs work done in its garden. If someone who didn’t like French cinema wanted to characterise it, they’d probably use A Tale Of Springtime as an exemplar. Yes, it’s a languorously-paced relationship drama, well-played but not dramatic. It’s unfair to describe it, as a comment on imdb.com does, as “not the for the general film-going public”, which seems such a wrong phrase on so many levels. It will not, however, be everyone’s cup of tea. I liked it.

They Flew Alone, Herbert Wilcox (1942), is a biopic of Amy Johnson. I reviewed it for Videovista here.

Brooklyn’s Finest, Anthony Fuqua (2009), is yet another bad New York cop movie. I reviewed it for Videovista here.

The Blue Gardenia, Fritz Lang (1953), is a film noir from master director Lang. The title refers to a club, where Raymond Burr (best known as Perry Mason) takes Anne Baxter, who is out drowning her sorrows after being ditched by her boyfriend. Burr is found dead the next morning, his head bashed in. Baxter can’t remember anything after leaving the club. A reporter believes her to be innocent and so tries to help find the real killer. There’a lot of evidence stacked up against Baxter, but it’s all cleverly shown to be either coincidental or a mistake on the witness’s part. There’s a lot in The Blue Gardenia that’s not dissimilar to While the City Sleeps, a 1956 film also by Fritz Lang. Both feature stalwart newsmen solving murders. I guess reporters were held in higher esteem in those days…

Comédie l’innocence, Raúl Ruiz (2000), I rented because it stars Isabelle Huppert, who is, I think, one of the best actors of her generation. The title of the film belies its somewhat unsettling story. On his ninth birthday, a young boy tells his mother that he wants to return to his “real” mother. He’s not adopted, but instead seems to believe he is the reincarnation – or has been possessed by – a young boy who died several years earlier. The boy’s mother, played by Huppert, tracks down the “real” mother, and, bizarrely, the two start sharing the boy. In parts, Comédie l’innocence is not unlike Don’t Look Now – the chills lie in what is implied, in the way something which has no rational explanation pulls apart domestic routine. The ending does resolve the plot, but it’s a taut journey there. Recommended.

Threads (1984), is a BBC two-part drama, first broadcast in 1984, about the effects of a nuclear war on Britain, and specifically on the city of Sheffield. It’s effectively done. These days, they’d CGI the nuclear explosion itself, and you’d see walls of flame ripping through the city, buildings exploding and falling over, all that sort of thing: nuclear explosion as spectacle. Threads skates quickly past that and onto the aftermath, as survivors eke out a living in the ruins, and succumb to radiation sickness, disease, violence and starvation. I missed this when it was first broadcast, but I’m glad I finally got to see it. A classic piece of British television, and much better than the inferior US takes on the same subject.

This Island Earth, Joseph M Newman (1955), is one of those films which helped define the popular perception of 1950s cinema sf, along with When Worlds Collide, Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon and The Day The Earth Stood Still. This Island Earth is based on a book of the same title by Raymond F Jones. Rex Reason – actors had proper actorly names in those days – plays a scientist who is recruited by a strange think-tank of platinum blond Tefal men. They’re interested in his research on nuclear power generation and are keen to fund his research. But it’s all a plot, because the Tefal men are really aliens from the planet Metaluna – as if their appearance wasn’t much of a clue. Reason and a female scientist played by Faith Domergue are taken by the aliens to their planet, which is at war with another race. There’s a giant mutant creature in there, too. The film was sold using stills of the mutant holding up a fainted Demorgue. This Island Earth is an entertaining piece of historical sf, although the first half of the film is better than the second. Now I have the original novel, I’ll have to see how far it deviates from the source text.

It Happened One Night, Frank Capra (1934), is on one of those Top 100 Films, but I forget which one. It was the first film to win the top five Oscars: best film, director, actor, actress and screenplay. Claudette Colbert plays a rich socialite with an overbearing father. He isn’t happy that she married a fortune-hunting aviator, so she runs away. On a Greyhound bus, she meets Clark Gable, a reporter, who recognises her and smells a story. He helps her to return to New York, although she has no money and he has very little. En route, they fall in love. It Happened One Night is your classic screwball rom com. Enough said.

Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese (2010). I’ve always thought Scorsese an over-rated director. Half the time he makes forgettable crowd-pleasers, the rest of the time he remakes Mean Streets. This falls into the former category and is based on a best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane. The island of the title is the site of a hospital for the criminally insane. One of the prisoners has disappeared, so FBI agent Leonardo DiCaprio and partner are sent to investigate. The twist in the film is obvious right from the start, the Civil War fort which forms the secure wing of the hospital looks like something out of Dracula, and Max von Sydow keeps on popping up and spouting wodges of psychobabble plainly designed to confuse the viewer. Avoidable.

The Colour Of Paradise, Majid Majidi (1999), is an Iranian film, and proved much better than I’d expected it to be. Mohammed, a young boy at the Tehran Institute for the Blind, is picked up by his widowed father and taken to their home in the mountains. The father wants to remarry, but he can’t cope with a blind son. So he takes Mohammed to visit a blind carpenter and apprentices him to him. Mohammed doesn’t understand why he can’t stay at home with his father, grandmother and sisters. He may be blind, but with his Braille books he can keep up with the sighted kids in the village school. But the father is adamant. Then things start to go wrong, and the father’s plans and life unravel… I’ve seen two Iranian films before this – Secret Ballot, which made my top five of the year, and Taste Of Cherry – and they were both very good. As is The Colour Of Paradise. I didn’t expect it to be as affecting as it was, because, let’s face it, the story sounds more “worthy” than watchable. The boy who plays Mohammed is very good, the scenery is beautiful, and the slow unfolding of the story is cleverly done. I’ve already added Majidi’s other films to my rental list.