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Made from books

Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…

These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…

Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.

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Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.

Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…

Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…

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The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.

Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.

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To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.

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Reading diary, #36

My reading seems to have slowed a little, perhaps because I’m choosing books which aren’t quite such easy reads. On the other hand, it could just be that I’ve been quite busy. Anyway, an odd mix this time: two category genre books, one borderline and two classic twentieth century literature; three women, two men; two novels, three collections; three Americans, one Brit and a Dane. I really need to address that latter category a little more – I have a number of translated works on my bookshelves that I plan to tackle, such as Bolaño, Munif, Høeg, Myckle, Vargas Llosa, Gogol, Mallo… All I have to do is schedule them in. It’s easy to read diversely if you plan your reading, after all. Anyway, the five books in this post were all bloody good ones, so perhaps avoiding “easy reads” was worth it. Duchamp and Park are probably two of the best US writers currently working in genre and very much under-appreciated; Green and Dinesen may be from the first half of last century, but they wrote some bloody good stuff; and while LeGui many not always click with me, there’s no denying her importance or the fact she has writing chops we lesser mortals can only dream to possess. In all, a highly recommended handful of books.

laviniaLavinia, Ursula K LeGuin (2008). Who doesn’t love LeGuin’s fiction? It’s almost impossible not to, because it’s so wide-ranging, so clever and so beautifully written. Personally, I prefer her science fiction, and while I’ve enjoyed her high fantasies I’m not so enamoured of her literary fantasies like Orsinian Tales or Searoad. Lavinia, however, is more of an historical fantasy, and falls somewhere between the two stools of genre fantasy and literary fantasy. I have no especial interest in the period it covers, pre-Roman Italy, although a good book would, you’d hope, make me interested (after reading George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of Time, for example, I spent several hours looking up brochs online, and nearly even bought a book on the topic). Nor am I trained classicist and so familiar with the sources texts uses in Lavinia – chiefly Virgil’s Aeneid. In fact, to be honest, I know very little about Bronze Age Europe – it’s not an era I’ve read much about. The title character is mentioned in passing in the Aeneid as the wife of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who survived the fall of Troy. LeGuin takes Lavinia’s brief mention and runs with it, opening with Lavinia’s childhood, then there’s arrival of Aeneas and his Trojans, their marriage, the founding of Lavinium, war… Throughout, Lavinia visits a sacred grove, where she talks to the ghost of “the poet”, who is clearly Virgil (who lived over a thousand years later – some of the references by him to “the future” do initially suggest something a little more science-fictional, but no). I know some people were very taken with the novel, but it never quite clicked with, although there was no denying its quality.

never_at_homeNever at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011). I bought this a couple of years ago after being much impressed by Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle – which, incidentally, is one of the best sf series about first contact ever written – but had never got around to reading it for some reason. Which I have now rectified. Partly, I admit, prompted by the superb story by Duchamp which opens the VanderMeers’ feminist sf anthology, Sisters of the Revolution. That story is not in Never at Home, but those that are range from the merely good to the bloody excellent. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a genre collection as strong as this one, and yet looking at the stories I’m not entirely sure why. They’re not bursting with ideas or “eyeball kicks” – that’s not what Duchamp does – but they’re certainly fascinating, and extremely well-written, explorations of very carefully explored ideas. In ‘A Question of Grammar’, for example, a woman taken from her family (who, it is implied, are considered unpersons by the galactic authorities) is bonded chemically to an alien to act as interpreter. I’m tempted to describe the story as “very”Gwyneth Jones”, high praise indeed from me, but I think that’s probably unfair to Duchamp. Either way, this was the best story in the collection and deserves to be much more widely known. ‘The Nones of Quintilis, Somewhere on the Southwest Slope of Monte Albano’ manages that very difficult balancing trick of being genre but not reading like genre. ‘Sadness Ineffable, Desire Ineluctable’ (Duchamp’s strong point clearly doesn’t lie in titling her short fiction) manages to evoke something like Area X half a decade before VanderMeer’s novels, and do so with more mystery and less fungi (both, it must be said, pluses in my book). This is a superior collection, probably the best genre collection I’m likely to read this year (yes, I think it just edges out Other Stories below). Not only do I recommend it, but I think everyone should also read Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle; and, of course, Duchamp’s Aqueduct Press does sterling work and has published some blinding works of fiction since its founding in 2004.

blindnessBlindness, Henry Green (1926). The authors you love, I’ve found, do not come about due to wide or deep reading of their oeuvre, but from a single piece of work, usually in the first half dozen or so by that author you’ve read. It blows you away… and it colours all your other encounters with that author’s works. With Lowry, it was his novella ‘Through the Panama’, with Durrell it was The Alexandria Quartet, with Blixen it was her story ‘Tempest’… and with Green it was the first novel by him I read, Loving. A pitch-perfect control of voice, a refusal to tell the story using normal narrative techniques, and an excellent eye for detail… what’s not to love? Blindness is Green’s first novel, and concerns a public schoolboy whose bright future is snatched from him in an accident which blinds him (a kid throws a stone at a passing train, smashing a window through which the protagonist is looking). The story is told firstly through letters, then through semi-stream-of-consciousness narratives by the young man and his mother and the young woman (of an unsuitable family) whose company he enjoys… It’s very much a story of privilege and deprivation – the main character is the scion of a wealthy family, with a country seat boasting a large staff (members of which which the mother complains about repeatedly); but the young woman is the daughter of an alcoholic vicar fallen on hard times and, if anything, reads more like a DH Lawrence character (on his good days, that is) than a fit companion for the blind boy. Green had a reputation as “a writer’s writer”, which is generally taken to mean he was much admired but sold few copies. It’s true that there’s a dazzling level of technique on display in Blindness, a facility with prose no writer can fail to admire. And it’s Green’s writing prowess I certainly admire, rather than his choice of subjects or the stories he chooses to tell. But there’s a profound pleasure to be found in reading prose that is just put together so well, and that’s why I treasure Green’s writing.

winters_talesWinter’s Tales, Isak Dinesen (1942). As mentioned earlier, Blixen impressed me with her story ‘Tempests’ in Anecdotes of Destiny (AKA Babette’s Feast and Other Stories), and so resolved to read more by her. (I’d also enjoyed the three films made of her works: Out of Africa, Babette’s Feast and The Immortal Story.) Winter’s Tales contains 11 stories, some of which are better than others, but all of which are good and all of which have an almost mythical feel to them. In some it’s quite overt – ‘The Fish’, for example, reads like mannered high fantasy but is about an actual king of Denmark. Most of the stories are historical, typically set in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Some are twist-in-the-tale type stories, such as ‘The Young Man with the Carnation’, in which a young husband reconsiders the future of his marriage after the eponymous person appears in the middle of the night at the door of the hotel room he is sharing with his wife. Only later, does the young husband realise he had been in the wrong room (whoops, spoiler). ‘The Heroine’ is a cautionary tale in which a French woman saves a group of travellers from being shot by Prussian soldiers (during the Franco-Prussian War) by refusing the Prussian commander’s offer. There was something quite DH Lawrence about the story. ‘The Pearls’ reminded me of Blixen’s own ‘The Immortal Story’, although its plot was very different. A woman marries a fearless man and her own sense of adventure is abruptly threatened when she realises the two of them skirt much too closely to danger – a realisation embodied in a  string of pearls he gives her and which she inadvertently breaks… There is, as I’ve said, a near-mythical to these stories, almost as if they’re parables. It’s a type of story that seems to have mostly fallen out of favour; and while that does make the contents seem of their time, there’s also a timelessness to them because they’re set in earlier decades and centuries. I’ll be reading more Dinesen/Blixen.

other_storiesOther Stories, Paul Park (2015). I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since reading Coelestis back in the mid-1990s, and I still think it’s one of the best sf novels ever written. Like LeGuin, Park’s career has been somewhat varied, albeit considerably less prolific, and his last novel, a metafictional piece that straddles science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and autobiography, All Those Vanished Engines, was for me one of the best novels of 2014. (It didn’t win any awards, of course.) So when PS Publishing announced they were publishing a collection of Parks stories, I was keen to get my hands on it… and it took a while to appear. But it was totally worth it. Some of the stories I’d read before – ‘No Traveller Returns’ was originally published as a signed limited novella by PS Publishing and, yes, I own a copy; ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ forms part of Park’s excellent novel, All Those Vanished Engines. Two stories appeared in Postscripts anthologies in which I also had stories – one of which, I – kof kof – provided the title story (#20/21 Edison’s Frankenstein and #32/33 Far Voyager). As for the rest… they’re slippery things, sliding between fantasy, alternate history and mimetic fiction, and even, in some cases, autobiography. ‘A Family History’ posits an alternate history in which the French Revolution fails and parts of North America remain in French control in the late nineteenth centiry… and the deconstructs the concept of alternate history. ‘Watchers at the Living Gate’ is straight-up fantasy, and while it owes more to Hope Hodgson than Tolkein, it still presents a singular vision. ‘Ragnarok’ is posta-apocalyspe fiction presented as epic poetry (not, to my mind, an experiment that works especially well). ‘Abduction’ is a frankly baffling story about what might, or might not be, alien abductions. But everything in the book is beautifully-written. Park and Duchamp are both massively under-rated US genre writers, and should be much more widely-read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126


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Culture vulture

I could really do with another bookcase, but I don’t have a free wall to put it against. But then, pretty much every bookshelf I have is double-stacked… which I guess means I actually need more than one bookcase. Oh well.

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Some for the collection. Carrying the Fire is the best of the astronaut (auto-)biographies I’ve read – I reviewed it here – but first editions are usually very expensive. This a lucky reasonably-priced find ($25!) on eBay. Another signed first edition by Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net. And I stumbled across this first edition of Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand for $20 on eBay and thought it worth getting.

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Some non-fiction. Moonport U.S.A. is not the Moonport book from the NASA History series, but a chapbook published by the Air Force Eastern Test Range Public Relations Association. This is the fifth edition. Malcolm Lowry (Contemporary Writers) is one for the criticism bookshelf. And Blackburn Aircraft since 1909 means I now have 15 of these books, and only 5 more until I have all of the UK ones. Brasília: The Modernist Utopia is a collection of photographs of the eponymous city, a place I would love to visit. Unfortunately, it’s a POD book and the print quality of the photographs is not very good.

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One for SF Mistressworks, Murray Constantine’s (Katherine Burdekin’s) Swastika Night. I thought Blixen’s Anecdotes of Destiny so good, I decided to try another of her collections and picked Winter’s Tales. I’m not sure where I stumbled across mention of Nocilla Dream, but it sounded intriguing so I put it on my wishlist… and bunged it on my last order. Finally, a pair of charity shop finds: Perfidia, and Ellroy’s novels are enormous and I’ve no idea when I’ll find the time to read them, and The Spire, the third of the four Goldings I found in a charity shop (I bought two on my first visit, but when I went back a week later someone had gone and bought the fourth, I think it was Lord of the Flies; oh well).


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The year in reading

I managed to read 152 books in 2015, beating my Goodreads Reading Challenge target of 150 by two. So, not bad going. Admittedly, there were a couple of “cheats” in there – for example, I bought a pair of graphic novels from Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen on 28 December so I could be sure of making 150 by the end of the year. I likely wouldn’t have bought them otherwise. But never mind. However, I did manage to read ten books from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, which is pretty good (for the record, they were: The Quest for Christa T., The Leopard, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Rainbow, Loving, The Sense of an Ending, Pale Fire, Frankenstein, The Old Man and the Sea and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich).

I also managed to read more women writers than men in 2015, although it was close, with only a single title in it. See below.

2015_books_by_gender

I plan to continue alternating genders in my fiction reading for the foreseeable future. Although many of the women writers I read were for review on SF Mistressworks, and my project to read some post-war British women writers didn’t really get into gear, I did discover a couple of non-genre female writers I’d like to read more by, such as Karen Blixen, Sarah Hall and Pamela Frankau.

I was surprised to discover how much of my reading is of books from the last five years. I’d have thought it more evenly spread across the decades – although more in the last three or four decades than earlier. But apparently not. See below.

2015_books_by_decade

The one title in the 1810s was, of course, Mary Shelley; and the one in the 1890s was, naturally, HG Wells. The title from the 1910s and the two from the 1920s were by DH Lawrence. The 1970s and 1980s books, I suspect, mostly came from reading for SF Mistressworks.

Which also probably explains why science fiction continues to dominate my reading – nearly half at 47%. Mainstream is next at 23%, then fantasy at 7% and crime at 4%. See below.

2015_books_read_by_genre

In 2016, I’d like to read more mainstream fiction and less science fiction. I’d also like to read more non-fiction – on, of course, my favourite topics: space and deep sea exploration. But also criticism. I have, after all, a couple of bookshelves full of critical works on science fiction and my favourite authors. (The one children’s novel, incidentally, was by Nathan Elliott, a pseudonym of Christopher Evans, and was read for completeness’s sake; it wasn’t worth it.)

By country (of origin of the writer), the books I read stayed mostly close to home – pretty much half of my reading was by British authors. Followed by the US. France makes a good showing because I read a number of bandes dessinée during the year – they also account for Belgium’s presence. See below.

2015_books_by_country

Not counting the bandes dessinée, I read only half a dozen translated works, and I really should do better. There are certainly authors from other countries I’ve read in previous years I’d like to read more by – like Elfriede Jelinek or Magda Szabó or Abdelrahman Munif. Perhaps I should resurrect my World fiction reading challenge from 2012? It stumbled to a halt that year when I got bogged down in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Javier Marías’s Fever and Spear. But I’ve read both of those now, and should be able to find twelve books by writers from nations whose literature I’ve never tried. I probably have a few candidates on the TBR already…

In fact, on the subject of reading resolutions for 2016, I stumbled across (via Eve’s Alexandria) a thing called Read Harder. It’s from Book Riot and is a list of 24 criteria for choosing books to read in 2016. There are a couple of categories I’m not at all interested in (reading aloud, audio books, food memoirs, middle grade fiction), so I’ll replace them with a few of my own…

Read Harder (the Ian Sales version) 2016

  1. Read a horror book
  2. Read a non-fiction book about science
  3. Read a collection of essays
  4. Read a novel by a writer from a country whose literature you’ve never read before*
  5. Read a novel by a woman writer published before 1900*
  6. Read a biography (not a memoir or autobiography)
  7. Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel
  8. Read a book originally published in the decade you were born
  9. Read a book that has won the Orange/Baileys Prize*
  10. Read a book over 500 pages long
  11. Read a book under 100 pages
  12. Read a book by a person that identifies as transgender
  13. Read a book that is set in the Middle East
  14. Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia
  15. Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900
  16. Read the first book in a series by a person of colour
  17. Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the past three years
  18. Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie
  19. Read a non-fiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes
  20. Read a book about religion (fiction or non-fiction)
  21. Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or non-fiction)
  22. Read a book related to cinema or film-making*
  23. Read a play
  24. Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness

The asterisked challenges are my replacements. The rules state it’s okay to use the same book for multiple categories. And I’m pretty sure I can do about half straightaway just from the TBR. Even so, 24 books in a year is an easy target. One or two are going to be easy – I gave up on reading superhero comics several years ago, so the only graphic novels I read now do not feature men in tights or improbably pneumatic women. I mentioned Abdelrahman Munif earlier, and I have his The Trench on the TBR, so that’s the Middle East book. And I have Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: The Biography on the TBR too (it’s, er, been there a few years, tbh). I have a number of critical works on feminist science fiction, and I went and drunkenly bought that book of plays by Anton Chekhov earlier in the year. Anyway, we shall see how it goes…

I also plan to continue working my way through the oeuvres of DH Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry, as well as reading more books by Henry Green and Karen Blixen, and more from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.

I’ll be posting a year in films piece some time over the next few days as a companion to this post.


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Reading diary, #19

One more of these and that’ll see my entire 2015 reading documented. After I’ve posted that, I’ll do a summary “year in reading” post, you know, with pie charts and shit. I’ve already done my best of the year post (see here), even though the year had yet to finish then but everyone does it early so never mind. And I can always carry over any candidates I missed to next year’s best of, anyway…

seedlingstarsThe Seedling Stars, James Blish (1957). Back in the early 1980s, I was a big fan of Blish’s fiction – possibly because Arrow had repackaged them with Chris Foss covers – and bought and read a dozen or so. I still have them. But one I’d missed was The Seedling Stars, so I tracked down a copy on eBay a few years ago – with, of course, the Foss cover art – and stuck it on the TBR. I had a feeling I might have read it before – certainly, ‘Surface Tension’, the penultimate story in the collection wasn’t new to me, although I’m not sure where I’d previously read it. But the other two novellas and one short story didn’t ring any bells. All four are about “pantropy”, which is genetically engineering humanity for environments rather than terraforming worlds. In ‘Seeding Program’, Earth has sent an agent to infiltrate a colony on Ganymede created by the leader of the pantropy movement and whose inhabitants have all been engineered before birth to survive on the Jovian moon’s frozen surface. It’s not in the slightest bit convincing, and the plot could just have easily been translated to any random Earth location. In ‘The Thing in the Attic’, the theocratic society of the gibbon-like humans of Tellura is causing them to stagnate, but when one freethinker is exiled he and his companions trek over the mountains and discover a starship of humans who have come to see how the colony is doing. Solid nineteen-fifties science fiction, perhaps a little preachy in places, and not especially memorable. ‘Surface Tension’, however, is memorable. In this novella, tiny humans have been seeded in a series of ponds on the one small piece of land on a water world. Again, a freethinker (male, of course) persuades his fellows to build a special vehicle to explore the world “above the sky”. The sentient amoebas are a little hard to swallow (so to speak), but it’s a fun setting and Blish makes good use of it. The final story, ‘Watershed’, is very short and takes place on a starship heading for Earth. The crew are baseline humans and the passenger is an engineered human from another world. The crew are also hugely racist toward their passenger. Who points out that baseline humans are now the minority among the colonised worlds. I suspect I would have enjoyed this collection a whole lot more if I’d read it back in the early nineteen-eighties when I read all those other Blish books…

Slow_Bullets_by_Alastair_Reynolds_WSFA_CoverSlow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds (2015). I decided to hang on for the signed, numbered WSFA Press edition of this novella, rather than buy the original Tachyon Publications edition. And it’s a smart little hardback they’ve produced – except… they’ve got the ISBN wrong, and re-used one from one of their previous novellas. Argh. You would not believe how many things that screws up. The title of the novella refers to devices implanted in people which store their memories, allowing their actions during a vast war between worlds to be recorded. They’re called “slow bullets” because they’re implanted in the leg and then slowly work their way up to lodge in the chest. But the actual plot of Slow Bullets concerns Scur, who is captured and tortured by a war criminal from the other side, left for dead, but then wakes up aboard a transport carrying war criminals and other prisoners. Except something has gone wrong and it looks like everyone aboard had been left in hibernation for thousands of years… This is typical Reynolds – a universe which he perhaps might not have visited before but nonetheless feels like one of his, and a plot predicated on horrible violence which still manages to slingshot off an optimistic and redemptive ending. It is, in fact, pretty much about as Reynolds as you can get and, as a result, your mileage may vary. I enjoyed it, some bits more than others.

grass_kingThe Grass King’s Concubine, Kari Sperring (2012). I bought this after it was pointed out that I don’t read enough by fantasy by women writers by the author herself (it was a general admonishment on Twitter, not one personally directed at me, but I felt it was a fair comment). And I’m glad I did. I am not a huge fan of epic fantasies – I’ve read a fair number of them, and no longer find their tropes or stories interesting. Happily, The Grass King’s Concubine is nothing like an epic fantasy. Fantasy, yes; and a very cleverly done one. But not epic. And that’s meant as a compliment. Aude is the daughter of a rich land-owner, not old money but rich enough to be accepted into high society, but she is curious as to the source of her family’s wealth and determined not to marry and become just another trophy wife. After a couple of visits to the Brass City, the Dickensian industrial part of the city where she lives, she ends up running away with provincial officer Jehan. Aude’s search ends up with her being forcibly taken to the WorldBelow, ruled by the Grass King; and Jehan is taken there by a pair of ferrets who can take human form and act as guardians to the gate. Aude is a refreshingly forthright and active female protagonist, and there’s a welcome line of social commentary running throughout The Grass King’s Concubine. The fantasy elements are also interesting, original and well thought-out – Aude’s explorations of the Grass King’s palace are particularly well-drawn. If I had to recommend a modern fantasy novel I’d be more than happy to recommend this one. Go and get yourself a copy.

teleportation_accidentThe Teleportation Accident, Ned Beauman (2012). Having read this, I now understand why Lavie Tidhar is such a fan of the book. It addresses some of his favourite subjects. Myself… I enjoyed it, thought it amusing in parts and cleverly done overall, but I wasn’t taken with the engine which drives the plot. The title refers to a piece of stage machinery, first invented in the late eighteenth-century, which allows for the rapid, and apparently instantaneous, changing of scenery. In Weimar Berlin, Egon Loesser is trying to build a new version of that machine, but one that moves the cast around rather than the scenery. But during a test it goes wrong and dislocates both arms of the actor wearing it. Loesser is one of those horrible comic protagonists you find yourself inadvertently rooting for – he’s self-centred, fixated on his sex life (or lack thereof), and nasty to pretty much everyone he meets. It is Loesser’s lack of a girlfriend, and desire for the nubile Adele Hitler, which drives the plot, as Loesser chases her to Paris and then onto Los Angeles, at each place bumping into friends and acquaintances (some Jewish, some not) from Berlin. It all ends up with Loesser getting involved in a WWII project at a LA university to build an actual teleportation machine, which may or may not work and which may or may not have something to do with the strange murders which have been occurring on the campus. A fun read, even outright funny in places, although not particularly pleasant and often only saved by its cleverness.

critical_massCritical Mass, Sara Paretsky (2013). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since reading Guardian Angel back in the early 1990s. I’d borrowed it from my mother, and liked it so much I made an effort to read more of the VI Warshawski series… and have done ever since. Earlier this year, my mother took me to see Sara Paretsky speak (with Val McDiarmid) at the Harrogate Crime Festival. The plot of Critical Mass is a little more convoluted than most Warshawski novels, but the villains of the piece are, as usual, the rich. Vic’s friend Lotte receives a panicked phone call from the junkie daughter of a friend from Lotte’s childhood back in Vienna just before the Anschluss. Vic investigates, but the bird has flown, and all that remains is a shot-up meth lab and a dead body (male) in a nearby field. It turns out the woman’s younger brother, who is a physics whiz and works as a software engineer at a big computing firm, has also gone missing. The CEO of the company, whose father invented ferromagnetic memory, is worried he has taken one of their secret projects to a rival firm, but the clues suggest to Vic he disappeared for other reasons. There are also flashbacks to Lotte’s childhood, focusing on a young Jewish woman who is a gifted physicist but finds it hard to be taken seriously and eventually ends up as slave labour on one of the Nazis’ atom bomb projects. The story bounces around between two seemingly unrelated crimes before the two eventually, and cleverly, interlock. The only sour note is a pair of DHS agents who behave like mindless thugs rather than professional federal agents and a CEO who thinks it’s worth murdering people to safeguard the reputation of his company. But otherwise, this is a good Warshawki and worth reading – and it also sheds light on a little-known aspect of early twentieth-science and World War Two.

anecdotesAnecdotes of Destiny, Karen Blixen (1958). After watching Out of Africa, I fancied reading something by Blixen, so when I spotted this collection in a charity shop, I bought it. And since I was spending Christmas in Denmark, I thought it appropriate to take it with me and read it there. Anecdotes of Destiny has apparently been republished under the title of the most famous story in it, as Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, which I’m glad I spotted now as it’d likely confuse me later if I stumbled across the latter book. As it is, the original title does the collection a disservice as its contents are far from “anecdotes”. True, the opening story story pastiches a tale from 1001 Nights, and my heart sank a little when I read it. But ‘Babette’s Feast’ is wholly different and a great deal better. Best in the collection, however, is ‘Tempests’, about a young woman in Norway who joins a travelling theatre and then saves a ship from foundering during a storm, and it quickly became a favourite novella – and would make an excellent film too. A very good collection, overall, and I plan to read more by Blixen.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121


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A weight of words

With Fantasycon and a quite successful trawl of the local charity shops, there’s a few more books than usual joining the collection. Here they are:

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After finding books seven and eight of CP Snow’s Strangers and Brothers in a charity shop, I needed to get a copy of book six, The New Men. This one I bought from eBay. As I did Windows in the Sea, which is signed (although since all the copies I found on eBay, on either side of the Atlantic, were signed, I suspect that means little). Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper I won in the raffle at the recent SFSF Social. And I stumbled across the topic of Trapped Under the Sea somewhere online and it sounded fascinating – so I bought the book.

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My Fantasycon purchases. Sunburnt Faces and Astra were both freebies. There were a number of books free for convention members to take, but most were epic fantasy. I did, however, persuade several people to pick up copies of David Herter’s excellent One Who Disappeared (which I already owned). I’d been meaning to buy I Remember Pallahaxi for a while after reading Hello Summer, Goodbye several years ago. In the end, I decided to get all three Coney books published by PS Publishing’s Drugstore Indian Press. Flower of Godonwy is a DIP original. I flicked through Rave and Let Die and was pleasantly surprised to see I was in it – or rather, a review of my Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (in point of fact, the second edition paperback of my novella uses a quote from Adam’s review on the front cover). The Heir To The North is Steve Poore’s novel, and he’s someone I’ve known for many years. I first saw chapters from this back when I was a member of the local sf and fantasy writers’ group. When Dave Barnett described the plot of popCult! at a local SFSF Social, I knew I’d have to pick up a copy. So I did.

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Some graphic novels: I’ve been waiting for ages for 2000 AD to publish their run of Dan Dare – I remember bits and pieces of it from reading it back in the 1970s and 1980s – and now, finally, we have Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 1. I’ve been buying The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer since the Cinebook editions first appeared (after stumbling across a volume of an earlier attempt to publish them in English, about twenty years ago in Abu Dhabi). The series is now up to number 21 with Plutarch’s Staff. Valerian and Laureline I also stumbled across in Abu Dhabi – again a handful of volumes from the series were published in English. I then started reading it in French, but Cinebook started publishing English translations a few years ago, and it’s now up to volume 10, Brooklyn Line, Terminus Cosmos.

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I had a bimble about the local charity shops recently, and someone seems to have got rid of a bunch of classic literature. Result. I still have Sokurov’s Dialogues With Solzhenitsyn to watch, but I thought I might try reading him first – so I was chuffed to find a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I once tried reading For Whom The Bell Tolls but gave up halfway in; perhaps I’ll have more luck with The Old Man and the Sea (it is, at least, short). I keep an eye open for Nabokov’s books, but Invitation to a Beheading is apparently a Russian novel from the 1930s not published in English until 1959 (and not translated by Nabokov either). After watching Out Of Africa recently, I thought I might give Blixen a go, and promptly found Anecdotes of Destiny in a charity shop. Whenever I see books in the Crime Masterworks series, I buy them, irrespective of condition, as I just want to read them. Margaret Millar’s Beast In View is one I’ve not seen before. I’ve seen the film of Naked Lunch, but the only Burroughs I’ve read is The Soft Machine. Updike’s three Rabbit books are on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You list, so A Rabbit Omnibus was an economical find. And I’ve read most of McEwan’s books, although nothing since the disappointing Saturday – but I do have Solar on the TBR… and now Sweet Tooth