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Best of the year 2018

I usually do these posts in early December, which is not exactly the end of the year. But I’ve been so busy the last few weeks, I’ve not had the chance – which means this best of the year actually represents what I read, watched and listened to in all of 2018. This is likely the best way to do it.

And what a year it was. The Big Project at work finally ended in September. I applied for a job in Sweden, was offered it, and accepted. I made five visits to Nordic countries during the twelve months: twice each to Sweden and Denmark, once to Iceland. I beat my 140 books read Goodreads challenge by ten books. I watched 547 films new to me, from 52 different countries, forty-nine of them by female directors. I didn’t do much listening to music, I have to admit and I only went to two gigs: Therion in February and Wolves in the Throne Room in June.

And then there was Brexit. Yes, we had the referendum two years ago, and 17 million people – around a third of the actual electorate, so not a majority – voted for something very very stupid and self-destructive, in response to a campaign that told outright lies and broke election law. None of which is apparently enough to consider Brexit a travesty of democracy. And just to make things even worse, the last two years have demonstrated just how useless and incompetent the UK’s current government is, and how committed they are to destroying the country’s economy and perhaps even ending the union. Their latest scam is giving a £14 million contract to a ferry company that owns no ferries and has never operated any ferries previously. The whole lot of them should be in prison. Who knows what 2019 will bring? Will the government see sense and revoke Article 50? I think it unlikely given how racist May is and how committed she is to ending freedom of movement. Her deal will likely be the one that goes into effect, and it’ll be voted through because no deal is an unthinkable alternative.

But me, I’ll be out of it. Living in another country, a civilised country. I can’t wait.

This post, however is, as the title cunningly suggests, my pick of the best books, films and albums I consumed during 2018. (Position in my Best of the half-year post is in square brackets for each book, film and album.)

books
1 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). [-] My father had a sizeable collection of Penguin paperbacks he’d bought direct from the publisher in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve no idea why he bought them, but he certainly read them. After he died, I took a couple of dozen of them for myself. Including two by Faulkner. And it’s taken me a while to get round to reading one of them… And I loved it. It tells the story of a family from three viewpoints, and from them you have to piece together exactly what happened. It’s set in the Deep South at the beginning of the twentieth century, so of course it’s very racist. But that feels like something Faulkner wrote because overt racism was endemic in that place and at that time (and still is now, to be fair), and not a sensibility of the author that has leaked through into the text. I now want to read everything Faulkner wrote.

2 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK) [1]. Being knocked off the top spot, which is where this book was in my best of the half-year, by William Faulkner is no bad thing. The Smoke is genre, and was published by a genre imprint, but it’s not a book that invites easy description. It does some things I don’t think I’ve seen genre novels do before, and it crashes together ideas that really shouldn’t work on their own, never mind side by side. It’s set in alternate mid-twentieth century, where “biophotonic rays” have radically altered the world. Animalistic homunculi created by the rays have spread throughout Europe, and a secular group of Jews turned the ray on themselves and now lead the world in technology by a century or more. The Smoke is a story about a man whose mother has been reborn as an infant in order cure her of her cancer, a treatment pioneered by his ex-girlfriend’s father… The Smoke reads like an unholy mash-up of so many things that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. In fact, it rises above them.

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2018, UK) [3]. This is where the top five sort of gets all Schrödinger, because this novel and the two below might well have, on any other day, been swapped out for one of the honourable mentions. But I’ve kept The Rift here, in the same spot it occupied in my best of the half year, because Allan’s two previous novels never quite gelled for me. They felt like fix-ups, but without a framing narrative or much in the way of a link between the constituent parts. But The Rift is coherent whole, from start to finish. It has an interesting plot, which it not only fails to resolve but presents several possible mutually-exclusive endings all at the same time. A woman’s sister reappears several decades after mysteriously vanishing and claims to have been living on an alien world. Is she telling the truth? Is she indeed the long-lost sister? Or was the sister murdered years before by a spree killer? Everything about the story confounds a One True Reading, which is its strength.

4 Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima (1962, Japan) [-]. I bought this on the strength of Paul Schrader’s film about Mishima, although I was aware of how Mishima had died. The novel is the first of a quartet, and details the illicit affair between the son of a wealthy family with the daughter of much less wealthy aristocratic family. They have been friends since childhood, but he grew irritated with her affections and so convinced her he could never love her. But now she has been affianced to an Imperial prince, and the two conduct an clandestine affair. The writing is crystal clear, and even though set in a culture not my own, and a history of which I know only a few small bits and pieces, Mishima makes everything comprehensible. I’ve seen historical novels set in Britain by British writers that are larded with footnotes and info-dumps. Mishima was writing for a Japanese readership, obviously, but it’s astonishing how he makes his narrative flow like water.

5 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle (2003, UK) [-]. I’m a huge fan of Gentle’s fiction, and buy each of her books on publication. And it continually astonishes me she seems to go out of print almost immediately. I bought 1610: A Sundial in a Grave back in 2003. But for some reason, it sat on my bookshelves for 15 years before I finally got around to reading it. Possibly because it’s a pretty damn large hardback. And… I loved it. It’s that mix of fantasy and historical Gentle does so well, better in fact than anyone else. There’s a slight framing device, but the bulk of the story is the journal of a seventeenth-century French adventurer who has to flee France when a faked-up plot to kill Henri IV actually does just that. He ends up in a plot in England by Edward Fludd to kill James I, along with the sole survivor of a Japanese mission and a sixteen-year-old crossdressing sword prodigy he believes to be male but with whom he falls in love. It’s brilliant stuff – thick with historical detail, visceral and smelly and real. The novel’s fantasy content is also fascinating, a sort of reworking of ideas from the White Crow books, but thoroughly embedded in the history.

Honourable mentions: Irma Voth, Miriam Toews (2011, Canada), a fascinating study of a Mennonite girl, by a Mennonite writer, in a Mexican colony, inspired by the excellent film Stellet Licht, I will be reading more by Toews; Golden Hill, Francis Spufford (2016, UK), intriguing historical novel set in early New York, paints a portrait of a fascinating, if horrifying, place; If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK) [hb], any other year and this might have made the top five, the sort of liminal sf the British do so well, historical and alternate history, not unlike Ings’s novel above; The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France) [hb], a contrived plot but a fascinating lesson in semiotics and Roland Barthes, cleverly mixed into real history; The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK) [hb], a book that has grown on me since I read it, an elegy on both the Matter of Britain and genre fantasy, that is a more intelligent commentary than 99% of actual genre fantasies; Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK) [2] [hb], autobiography by Green, written because he thought he might not survive WWII, but he did, a fascinating and beautifully written look at life among the privileged in 1920s Britain; Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA) [5] [hb], a semi-utopian community created around an aircraft factory in the late years of WWII and how it fell apart once the war was over, beautifully written.

films
1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska 2015, Poland) [1] No change for one of the most bizarre films I watched in 2018, and I watched a lot of bizarre films. Carnivorous mermaids in 1980s Poland. Who join a band. In a nightclub. With music. It is entirely sui generis. It also looks fantastic, the mermaids are scary as shit, and the music is pretty good – if not technically entirely 1980s. I watched a rental of this and love it so much I bought myself the Blu-ray.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK) [2] No change here either. And the fact I love this film continues to astonish me. I’m not a Nolan fan but something about this – the cinematography, the sound design, the total absence of plot… appealed to me so much, I bought myself a Blu-ray copy after watching a streamed version. Perhaps it’s because the hardware features so heavily in it and I love machines. I’m not sure. It’s one of the most immersive films I’ve ever watched. Perhaps that’s it.

3 Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden) [-] Three girls discover a magic seed that transforms them into boys, and they get to experience life as the other gender – and they’re each in a position to appreciate the advantages of being male. This film just blew me away with its treatment of its premise, and then did more by turning the stereotype – girl becomes boy becomes bad boy – into something meaningful.

4 Shirley: Visions of Reality, Gustav Deutsch (2013, Austria) [-] A film which comprises a series of vignettes in the life of the eponymous woman, all of which are inspired by, and set up to resemble, paintings by Edwin Hopper. It sounds like something that belongs in a modern art museum, and it probably should be there, but it is also a beautiful piece of cinema. There’s something about the look of the film – attributable to Hopper, of course – which makes something special of it. It also made me more appreciative of Hopper’s art.

5 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway) [3] Comparisons with Carrie are both inevitable and do this Norwegian take on the story an injustice. When something is a thousand times better than something it might resemble, why forever harp on about the resemblance? De Palma’s film is a blunt instrument compared to Trier’s, although to be fair to Trier he does push the religious angle quite heavily. But Thelma looks great, and its lead is very impressive indeed.

Honourable mentions: to be honest, I’m not sure if some of these should not have appeared in the above five – that’s the peril of choosing a top five, especially when you’ve watched so many bloody good films, or just so many bloody films… Here, Then, Mao Mao (2012, China) [-] although not associated with any “generation” of Chinese film-makers, this film exhibits all the hallmarks of the Sixth Generation: a semi-documentary feel, disaffected youth, narrative tricks… and it does it like a master of the form; Vampir Cuadec, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain) [4] I loved this experimental film so much I tracked down a 22-film collection from Spain of Portabella’s works and bought it, this particular film is a heavily-filtered re-edit of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula that turns cheap commercial horror into avant garde cinema; India Song, Marguerite Duras (1975, France) [5] my first Duras and such a remarkably different way to present a film narrative, sadly her movies aren’t available in UK editions but I would dearly love to see more; Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal) [-] I love Sembène’s films and this might be his best, the story of the hapless eponymous man who spends money he doesn’t have and chases down the paperwork he needs to cash it in, even though it’s not his, a beautifully pitched comedy; Stellet licht, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico) [-] precisely the sort of film that appeals to me – slow, beautifully shot, and a slow unveiling of the plot; War and Peace, parts 1-3,  Sergei Bondarchuk (1966-1967, USSR) [-] movies as they used to make them, a cast of tens of thousands, more technical innovations than you could shake a large stick at, and the widest screen on the planet, and despite there not being a single decent 70 mm print in existence what remains is more than sufficient to show this was a remarkable piece of film-making… and I’ve not even seen the final part yet; Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA) [-] why not a Disney animated movie? I’ve been working my way through them and this is one of the best, despite the mawkishness and frankly dubious message.

albums
Frighteningly, I only bought ten albums in 2018. Music really seems to have drifted out of my life. Which is a shame as, well, I like it a lot. But I generally have a fast turnover in music and will move onto something new quite quickly. I’m not one of those people who can listen to the same album over and over again for years. But I do have my “classics”, albums I return to again and again. And that list, of course, is always evolving…

On the other hand, my album picks each year tend to be from albums published during the year as I don’t “discover” older music as much as I do books or films.

1 No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland). I liked Kontinuum’s previous album, Kyrr, especially the track ‘Breathe’, but No Need to Reason is much much better. In places, it’s a bit like mid-career Anathema, although deeper and heavier. In other places, it’s a bit post-metal, or a bit rocky, or a bit, well, heavy. It’s probably that melange of styles that appeals to me the most – all filtered, of course, through a metal sensibility.

2 Slow Motion Death Sequence, MANES (2018, Norway). Frank Zappa once wrote that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and certainly I’ve yet to find a way to explain in print why some music appeals to me and some doesn’t. I don’t, as a rule like EBM, but MANES might well be classified as that – although, to me, they come to it with a black metal sensibility because they were once a black metal band. They changed their sound, quite drastically, yet for me something of their origin remains in the mix. I’ve no idea if that’s true or exists only in my head. I do know that MANES approach to electronica, and their occasional use of heavy guitar, seems very metal to me and I like it a lot.

The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018, USA) I’ve been following Panopticon since stumbling across one of their albums which mixed bluegrass/folk and atmospheric black metal, and over the past few years I’ve seen them – well, him, as it’s a one-man band – grow increasingly sophisticated in his use of the two musical genres. And here he’s at his current best – the folk sections are excellent and fade naturally into the black metal and vice versa. I’ve been impressed by all of Panopticon’s albums, but this one was the fastest like of them all. Everyone should be listening to them.

Currents, In Vain (2018, Norway). Ten years ago, I suspect this may not have made my top five. It’s good – because In Vain are good, But their previous albums were better, and this feels less musically adventurous than them, which is perhaps why I think it less successful. It’s solid progressive black metal from someone who has made the genre their own, but nothing in Currents is as playful as tracks on earlier albums. I liked that about them. Good stuff, nonetheless; just not as good as previously.

The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018, USA). Some bands are easy to categorise, others require such detailed tagging that they might as well be in a category all their own. Entransient are sort of progressive rock, but they’re a little too heavy to be just rock, and yet their music is not intricate enough to be metal. Some might call that heavy rock. But Entransient feel like they have elements of metal in their music, even if they mostly make use of non-metal forms. One of the tracks on this album has harmonies you would never find on a metal album, and yet works really well. Entransient give the impression they aren’t trying very hard to be anything other than what they want to be. They’re just writing songs down the line they’ve chosen… But they seem to be operating in a much bigger, and more interesting, space than they might have imagined.

Hopefully, my changed circumstances in 2019 will have me watching less films, reading more books, and listening to more music. And buying less books too, of course.

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Reading diary 2018, #11

Several years ago, I came up with a cunning plan. I had so many books, I found it hard to choose what to read next. So I put together a reading plan: a list of ten books I would read each month. But ten proved a bit too optimistic, so after a couple of years I reduced it to eight a month. And then again to six… So, obviously, it’s not exactly worked out in practice. Chiefly because the book you pick up next depends as much on what you feel like reading as it does what you want to read. I mean, there are loads of books I want to read, like Remembrance of things past, but usually Swann’s Way feels like it’s going to be too much like hard work, so I never pick it up… So all five books been languishing on my bookshelves for years. Oh well.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK). Ishiguro is one of the UK’s literary treasures – and I’m not the only one who thinks so: last year he was awarded the Nobel, and this year he was knighted. Ishiguro has never been afraid to explore genre territory, indeed his best-known novel these days is probably Never Let Me Go, which has an explicitly science-fictional idea at its core. And The Buried Giant is, by any definition of the term, fantasy. It’s sort of ninth century historical fiction, but it’s also about the Matter of Britain and it makes reference to a number of fantasy tropes. I had forgotten the commentary which came out after the book first appeared three years ago, so I pretty much came to it cold (although I’m entirely familiar with Ishiguro’s oeuvre, having read all of the books prior to this one). Anyway, I’d forgotten the genre complaints against the book, but sort of know what to expect given the other Ishiguro books I’d read. And in the latter respect, it did not disappoint. Axl and Beatrice are Britons, old Britons, seeing out the last of their years in a small Briton village, when they decide to go visit their son in a nearby village. They can’t remember exactly which village, but suppose they’ll figure it out as they travel. In fact, they’ve noticed an increasing forgetfulness on everyone’s part, and they don’t like how it has changed things. Of course, it’s not just the forgetfulness brought on my old age, it’s something endemic to everyone in post-Arthurian Britain. En route, they are joined by a Saxon warrior and a Briton boy believed to have been “infected” after being abducted by ogres and who has been rejected by his village. They also bump into Sir Gawain several times. It’s all very cleverly done. The forgetfulness is real, a magic spell laid on the land by a dragon, and it’s a consequence of the last great battle between the Britons, led by Arthur, and the Saxons. Unfortunately, Ishiguro takes his time getting to the core of the novel, and the first third, in which Axl and Beatrice eventually decided to travel, and then walk several miles to the nearest Saxon village, drag badly. But once Gawain appears on the scene, and the central premise begins to be revealed in hints and clues and glimpses, then things begin to pick up. I finished The Buried Giant a great deal more than I had done halfway in. And, to be honest, I couldn’t really give a fuck about whether it was genre or not. It was beautifully-written and cleverly done, and if it felt a little old-fashioned genre-wise in places that suited the material. I wasn’t so sure on the authorial interventions – or rather, the conceit which presented the narrative as told to the reader by Ishiguro, even though I’m a fan of breaking the fourth wall, as it felt unnecessary and added nothing to the story. Everything in a novel should be part of the story. I thought The Buried Giant, despite its longeurs, a better work than Never Let Me Go.

C, Tom McCarthy (2010, UK). I forget why I bought this, I think it might have been recommended by Jonathan McCalmont, but it sat on my bookshelves for several years, until I decided to take it with me to Sweden to read during Swecon. In the event, I finished The Buried Giant on the Saturday of the con, but didn’t finish C until I’d returned to the UK on the Monday. Chiefly because I found its opening section a bit hard-going. But by the time I was settled on the plane from Arlanda to Manchester, I’d got past that and remained engrossed for the entirety of the flight from Sweden to the UK. The story concerns a young man, Serge Carrefax, who is obsessed with signals. The opening section of the novel details his childhood, with his inventor father, who is working on wireless communication, and his deaf mother, and it was, to be honest, somewhat over-detailed and dull. I like detailed fiction, but the early chapters of C seemed to be sacrificing readability for detail. But then Carrefax’s brilliant sister dies – and, to be honest, I could see no reason why this needed to happen narratively – and the story begins to pick up. Carrefax spends several months at an Austrian spa. He then enlists as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps during WWI – and this section is especially good. And finally, he is sent out to Egypt to help set up a secret British wireless system. It’s when Carrefax is doing things, rather than reacting to things, that C is at its most interesting. There are some parts of the story which seem to serve no narrative purpose – not just the tragic death of Carrefax’s sister, but also his affair with a masseuse in… um, I no longer have the book and I can’t find a single review online which mentions the town, although I do remember that it was Central European and later had links to the Nazi regime. Much, incidentally, in those reviews is made of McCarthy’s cleverness in covering such a wide range of subjects in such detail. Er, that’s what research is for. I like a lot of detail myself, but the cleverness lies in making it palatable not in its presence. And if there’s one thing about C, much as I enjoyed it, that argued against cleverness, it was the lack of narrative cohesion. That is, it must be said a philosophy all its own, but C presented no evidence it adhered to it, no argument that it followed it. But then one of the advantages of not imposing a pattern is that people will find one anyway. I thought C a well-written novel on a prose level, and fascinating, but for me it failed at everything it claimed to want to do.

The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz (1952, Poland). I bought this last year in an effort to widen my reading. I hadn’t realised when I purchased it that it wasn’t fiction. It’s a political diatribe written by someone who survived both WWII and the Soviet takeover of Poland, but managed to resist the blandishments of both the Underground during WWII and the Soviet occupiers afterwards. As a writer, an intellectual, with acceptable political credentials, he ended up as cultural attaché in Washington but, disgusted by the responses of his peers to the new regime, he chose to exile himself. Miłosz first points out that intellectuals were a peculiar class of their own in Central and East European countries, and this particularly applied to writers, one that had no equivalent in Western European – or American – societies. After discussing “ketman”, which seems to be a a misunderstanding of an historical Islamic term (now known as “taqiya”), Miłosz describes four writers of his acquaintance and their response to Soviet occupation – and this is where The Captive Mind comes into its own. I’ve no idea who the writers are he describes, although it probably isn’t difficult to figure out, but his dissection of their character and ambitions in light of Polish history during and after WWII is fascinating stuff. I don’t think for an instant that The Captive Mind is a warning against “totalitarian culture” as the book is often described. It is specific to a time and place, and I suspect some of the tactics described by Miłosz are triggered more by an institutional drive for survival than by an y kind of coherent political thought. The Captive Mind was intended to make for scary reading, but its teeth have long since been pulled – first by Solidarność, then by glasnost, although both of course were the end result of long and dangerous campaigns. On the other hand, in 2018 we seem to be staring down the throat of full-blown fascism, despite everything our parents and grandparents fought against last century, despite the clear benefits to all and sundry that progressivism and regulated economies bring… The Captive Mind is an important historical document, but its remit is too narrow, its lessons are too focused, and the passage of time has rendered its general sense of alarm both moot and badly aimed. However. Worth reading, if you’re interested in the subject.

Author’s Choice Monthly 8: Swatting at the Cosmos, James Morrow (1990, USA). I think I read a novel by Morrow back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but I can’t be sure – actually I can: I record everything I read, FFS, and have done since 1991: I read his City of Truth on 10 December 1992 and The Wine of Violence on 29 March 1995 (at least, that’s the dates I finished reading those books). He’s certainly a name I’ve been aware of, but not one I’ve made an effort to read his books. I’m not sure why. From the material in this collection, I think I’d like his fiction – most of the stories in this short collection interrogate religion in a way which I wholly approve. The opening story, ‘The Assemblage of Kristin’, is especially  good, in which the recipients of body parts from the deceased Kristin meet up once a year to indulge in Kristin’s fancies, although the so-called science in this science fiction is almost non-existent. Other stories in the collection recast Biblical stories – the Deluge, the Tower, the Covenant – with varying degrees of success (I seem to remember that least as the most successful). The whole point of the Author’s Choice Monthly series, as I understand it, is that the chosen authors selected what they felt were their best material. That’s  almost impossible; and probably changes on a daily basis. Some tried to game the choice by selecting stories to a theme. This is the best of those themed selection collections I’ve so far come across in the series. so perhaps I should read more by Morrow. A short story collection, perhaps.

Fantasy Masterwork 31: Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, CL Moore (2002, USA). I know more about Moore than I know of her fiction, which has to date meant only a couple of short stories and her novel Judgment Night. Now, I rate Judgment Night highly, it is a superior space opera, especially for its time. This Fantasy Masterwork, however, gathers together all the Jirel of Joiry stories and all the Northwest Smith stories… and they do not present well in such close proximity. The first Jirel story, ‘Jirel of Joiry’, and also Moore’s first professional sale, is a great piece of work, but her follow-ups are somewhat formulaic and not to Jirel’s benefit. The same is true of Northwest Smith – ‘Shambleau’ has real mythic overtones, but the other NWS stories are just the same thing over and over again. And the thing that stands out the most is that the heroes have little or no agency: they get themselves into scrapes and they have to be rescued, sometimes by men, sometimes by women, but they never win through because of their own actions. Or, at least, not entirely. There are a couple of NWS stories where his ineluctable masculine cussedness sees him overcome the evil god of the week, but there’s usually a henchman (or woman) or ally who is instrumental in his escape. Jirel needs help often as not, which is not true in the story in which she first appears. Partly this is because both characters’ antagonists are super-powerful gods from other dimensions, and there’s no way either could plausibly defeat them without some help. But when hero/heroine finds themselves in Yet Another Evil Dimension and they are Powerless, then having someone give them a close, or appear at the last minute with a flame-pistol, does tarnish their appeal. It’s not like they’re intended to be straight-up heroes. Northwest Smith is after all a villain – although he’s never presented as such, it’s told to the reader. Moore clearly found a formula that worked, and stuck to it. It’s not like there’s a huge amount of invention in the world-building either – this is the Solar System as imagined by way of Leigh Brackett and Robert Howard. It feels like a common playground. Moore was an important writer in the early days of genre, and she wrote some important historical works, but I have to wonder if she’s being remembered for the wrong things because the stories in this volume position as no better than an average pulp writer, and I know she was better that that from Judgment Night.

Murder Takes a Turn, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the fifth book in Brown’s 1950s-set crime novels featuring thriller writer/private detective Don Langham, and his fiancée now wife and literary agent Maria Dupré. Setting these novels in the 1950s was a cunning move, as it means all the modern technology that “breaks” crime fiction does not exist, like mobile phones or the internet. This is old school crime fiction, and deliberately so. And yet, Brown manages to give Langham and Dupré sensibilities that would not be out of place in twenty-first century Britain (well, the Remain part of twenty-first century Britain, that is). In this instalment, a critically-acclaimed writer invites half a dozen people he had wronged in the past to his Cornish pile with a promise of making amends. One of those is Dupré’s partner in the literary agency, Charles Elder, and he persuades Dupré and Langham to accompany him. Which is quite handy as Langham has been hired by the writer’s daughter to investigate the writer’s new business manager. Needless to say, once all are on site, the writer is murdered… but everyone apparently has an alibi… I had thought the writer, and his travel-writer brother, were based on the Durrells, but Eric tells me the writer figure was actually inspired by John Fowles. Murder Takes a Turn – and the title is a bit of a spoiler – is much like the previous books in the series, although it does have a tendency to reveal information to the reader before it’s revealed to the principles, so you wonder why they’re so slow to spot clues… But the two leads are likeable and well-drawn, and the supporting cast are equally well-drawn, and if sometimes it doesn’t always feel quite like the 1950s (which I say only having read fiction written then), it does at least avoid sensibilities which would offend in the twenty-first century. These books are quick reads, but they’re fun with it, and they’re as satisfying as murder mysteries as they are 1950s-set fiction.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Books to look forward to in 2015

2014 was a pretty good year for new releases, and saw new fiction by some of my favourite authors. It looks like 2015 might be the same. Here are the books I’m particularly looking forward to next year. I’ve put them alphabetically by author rather than by month of release as the latter can – and often does – change.

Poems, Iain Banks. I think the title pretty much says it all.

Mother-of-Eden-cover-182x300Mother of Eden, Chris Beckett. The follow-up to the Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden.

Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman. A murder-mystery set during the exploration of a new planet and a possible first contact. “Intellectually daring, brilliantly imagined, strongly felt. This one’s a winner,” according to Ursula K Le Guin. I’m especially looking forward to this one as I thought Gilman’s Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles very good indeed.

A Song for Europe, Dave Hutchinson. The sequel to the excellent Europe in Autumn. There’s no information online at present for this book, but as far as I’m aware it’s due out next year.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. Set in post-Roman Britain, a couple set out to find their missing son.

touchTouch, Claire North. I’ve not read anything by North, but the premise to this sounds appealing: a person who can switch bodies just by touching. I’m pretty sure sf has covered similar ground before, but this one does sound really good.

Other Stories, Paul Park. I’m not sure when this’ll be out (it has yet to appear on the PS Publishing website), but a collection by one of my favourite writers is a cert for my wishlist.

Arcadia, Iain Pears. I’ve really liked Pears historical novels, and although this one opens in 1962 it apparently also features a future dystopia. Should be interesting.

SlowBulletsPoseidon’s Wake and Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds. The first is the final book in the Poseidon’s Children trilogy; the second is a small press novella from Tachyon Press.

Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson. A generation starship story, set at the point at which the ship approaches its destination.

The Glorious Angels, Justina Robson. I heard Justina read an excerpt from this at the York pub meet in November. “On a world where science and magic are hard to tell apart a stranger arrives in a remote town with news of political turmoil to come.”

The Woman in the Green Coat, Katie Ward. A novel about suffragette Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton. I loved Ward’s debut Girl Reading, so I’m expecting to love this too. It certainly sounds fascinating.

Anything I’ve missed? Yes, I know there’s the final book of the Imperial Radch trilogy due next year, and no doubt a number of fantasy novels – de Bodard, for example; possibly the second book of the Worldbreaker Saga from Hurley. But while I may or may not give them a go, I have very little interest in epic fantasy. There may also be one or two debuts which create a bit of a buzz, and which I might be persuaded to read. But is there anything not mentioned here which I really should make a note of?


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readings & watchings 2011 #2

Oops. Been a while since the last one of these, so this is going to be a bit of a marathon listing. You know how it goes…

Books
American Adulterer, Jed Mercurio (2009). I thought Mercurio’s Ascent was excellent when I read it several years ago, and was much impressed by his intense, meticulously-researched prose. Admittedly, I was initially drawn to Ascent because of its subject – Russian fighter pilot becomes cosmonaut on secret mission – but even so I resolved to keep an eye open for anything else by Mercurio… And so I did. His third novel (his first, Bodies, is on the TBR) couldn’t be more different in subject. It’s a retelling of John F Kennedy’s presidency, couched as a medical report and focusing on his addiction to sex. JFK is often referred to throughout as “the subject”, and the prose dwells a great deal on his poor health. As in Ascent, Mercurio writes with impressive authority – I’m no expert on JFK, but I believed every word in American Adulterer. Mercurio is definitely a writer I’m watching.

People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks (2008), was lent to me by my mother. The book of the title is a haggadah, a Jewish religious text used during Passover. In this somewhat melodramatic novel, a haggadah from the fourteenth century is uncovered in Sarajevo just after the collapse of Yugoslavia (the haggadah is apparently a real one). This particular one is unusual because it is illustrated, something which was previously unknown for such documents in Moorish Spain. An Australian manuscript restorer who specialises in haggadah travels to Sarajevo to verify and restore the document. She finds various bits of, well, stuff, in its binding. These spark off chapters describing, in reverse chronological order, the history of the book – the Balkans during WWII, Vienna, and so on back to Spain. Meanwhile, the restorer is having mother issues. An interesting novel for what it said about the haggadah, but the story wrapped around it was too much of a soap opera.

A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper (1967), I read for my ongoing series on British SF Masterworks, and I wrote about it here.

Empress Of Outer Space, A Bertram Chandler (1965), is the first in the “Empress Irene” series by Chandler. It’s also a very short novel, one half of an Ace double. Oh, and it’s crap. Empress Irene has just put down a rebellion by a Navy captain who has set himself up as a demigod on a primitive world, when her yacht is stolen. So she commandeers a cruiser and hares off after it with a crew of seven. The narrator is her captain. They track the ship to a world, land, and captain and empress become trapped in a carpet of moss which emits an hallucinogen. They undergo a series of dream-like “adventures” conflated from 007, Shakespeare and ERB’s Barsoom, before eventually escaping. There’s much room here for commentary, but Chandler’s clanking prose treads all over it with a leaden foot. Eminently avoidable. Which is what I should have done…

To Open the Sky, Robert Silverberg (1967), has not aged especially gracefully, though it has a neat idea at its core. A new religion, Vorsterism, which seems pretty secular despite its creed, promises its followers real biological immortality (courtesy of a well-funded research programme which has yet to bear fruit). A glossed-over schism creates the Harmonists, who become not-so-friendly rivals and whose focus instead is human ESP. Because Noel Vorst, founder of Vorsterism, believes that the only way for humanity to survive is to settle the stars. And that can only be done using teleportation by immortal humans. The Vorsters control Earth, but the Harmonists control Venus, and there’s a bit of cunning plottery to heal the rift and so “open the sky”. Not one of Silverberg’s best, but not one of his worst either.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2007). There’s an interesting process at work in Moore’s comics and graphic novels in which he slowly disappears up his own backside. He’s always been a very referential writer, but this one takes it to an extreme. The series conceit, understandably, references all manner of other writers’ works – well, the characters are all well-known fictional characters. And there are even more references in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Plus, who else but Moore would print a section of a book in 3D, and include a pair of cardboard-cutout 3D glasses for the reader? Not to mention a Jeeves & Wooster / Lovecraft pastiche. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier is great fun. It’s a sort of reference module/interim work in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen universe, partly explaining the strange change in the story universe which resulted in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century: 1910 from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Book 2. Good, if sometimes baffling, stuff.

Oasis: The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces, edited by Almendro, Victor Selwyn & David Burk (1943), is the first of the Salamander anthologies of, well, poetry from those serving in the forces during World War 2. Good condition copies of this 64-page chapbook are hard to find, but I managed it (and yes, I have Return to Oasis and From Oasis into Italy, the other two Salamander anthologies). Oasis: The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces is, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Some known names provide some good stuff, but there are less successful poems by others. Given that the Salamander people were stationed in Cairo, many of the poems feature the desert, Egypt, or Cairo itself. Not all of the poems are war poems – in fact, there’s a quite a spread of subjects.

Winterstrike, Liz Williams (2008), was the second book of this year’s women in sf reading challenge. I wrote about it here.

Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, David Pringle (1985), does exactly what it says on the tin. Except for that “best”, of course. Pringle explains his choices in a lengthy introduction, and freely admits that some of his picks are not actually very good, nor does he like them very much. But he considered them important so he included them. He also points out that sf as a whole is not an especially well-written genre. I would guess about 70% of the books mentioned I’d classify as rubbish, and their stature within the genre is, to me, no good reason to hold them up as “best”. Um, there’s an idea for a project: my own choice of 100 best novels, posted here one a day…

Stretto, L Timmel Duchamp (2008), is the fifth and final in Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle. I plan to write about the entire quintet in more detail at some point. Certainly they are amongst the most political science fiction novels I have ever read. They are also very good.

Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro (2009), is a collection of five stories featuring Ishiguro’s trademark self-deluded, and never entirely likeable, narrators. The five stories all feature music in some fashion, and are set variously in Venice, London, Malvern Hills and Los Angeles. Like most of his fiction, the story-arc seems to dribble and die rather than actually concluding, but the writing is very good throughout. I suppose if you wanted an introduction to Ishiguro’s writing, this collection would be a good place to start.

An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro (1986), was Ishiguro’s second novel and an improvement on his first, A Pale View of Hills. The book is set in Japan in 1948 and 1949, and the titular artist, about to marry off his twenty-six-year-old daughter, reflects over the events in his life before and during the war. Something he did may cause the marriage negotiations to fail (as they had done once before), but as usual Ishiguro doesn’t say what and only circles around the topic. In fact, An Artist of the Floating World is even more discursive than other books by Ishiguro I’ve read. The narrator is, typically, self-deluded – and, in this case, hugely self-important too. The book would have been much improved by a resolution.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), is a glossy coffee-table book published during Apollo 11’s fortieth anniversary. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Son of Heaven, David Wingrove (2011), is the first book, and a prequel of sorts, to the newly-relaunched, re-written and revamped Chung Kuo series. What was eight volumes is now twenty. And by the looks of it Corvus are doing an impressive job on these new editions. I read the book, and interviewed the author, for Interzone.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis (1952), is the third book of the Chronicles of Narnia. The third book as written, that is; but the fifth following internal chronology. I’m way too old for these books, which is probably why I find them so annoyingly patronising; but I’d like to think I’d have felt the same if I’d read them when I was eight or nine. This one is at least better then the previous two, and has a bit more of a plot. Lucy and Edmund, plus horrible cousin Eustace, fall into a painting and find themselves aboard the titular ship with Prince Caspian. He’s heading east for the edge of the world to find seven missing lords and, perhaps, Aslan’s Land. They have adventures en route, and Eustace learns how to be a nice chap. What little charm these books possess has aged badly, but Lewis certainly proves he can stick the knife into his “muggles” so much more effectively than Rowling ever managed: “They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarian, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes.” Best line in the entire book, and it’s in the opening paragraph…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer: The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent, Part 1, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2011). I don’t normally include graphic novels in these lists because they’re such quick reads. But this one is worth mentioning: the characters of Blake and Mortimer were invented by Belgian Edgar P Jacobs in the 1946 and first appeared in Hergé’s Tintin magazine. Blake is a captain in MI5 and Mortimer is a nuclear physicist, and together they’ve had numerous semi-science-fictional adventures. Sente and Juillard have, since the millennium, been adding to Jacobs’ series, and they’re doing an excellent job. Sente’s scripts are very much grounded in the period in which the stories take place – the 1950s – and real-world events are cleverly used. In this one, it’s India’s struggle for independence which drives the plot. The books still have a tendency to fill the frames with dialogue, and often use text boxes to describe what’s obvious from the art; but I much prefer these new stories to Jacobs’ originals.

The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (2010) does exactly what it says on the cover. The stories were selected, and the collection edited, by Jonathan Strahan, but KSR himself provides an afterword giving brief notes on each of the included pieces. The first three – ‘Venice Drowned’, ‘Ridge Running’ and ‘Before I Wake’ – are not especially strong, but ‘Black Air’ and ‘The Lucky Strike’ then demonstrate only too well why KSR is such a bloody good writer. There’s a sf baseball story, and I’ll never understand the appeal of the game or of writing about it. The remaining contents are strong, with some better than others. The final story, ‘The Timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942’, is original to the collection. I wasn’t entirely sure why it was genre… which is, I suppose, one of the reasons KSR’s fiction appeals so much. Definitely a collection which belongs on the book-shelves of any self-respecting sf fan.

Time of Hope, CP Snow (1949), is the first book, internal chronology-wise, in Snow’s 11-volume Strangers and Brothers series. Lewis Elliott is the son of a bankrupt in an unnamed provincial Midlands town during the early 1920s. After leaving school with good exam results, he becomes a local government clerk in the education department. But he dreams of better things. After making friends with George Passant, a qualified lawyer working as a legal assistant in one of the town’s practices, Eliot decides that the law is the career for him – but not as a solicitor, as a barrister. He crams for the Bar examinations, passes them, uses contacts to get himself into an Inn, and so progresses his career. Meanwhile, he’s fallen in love with – and eventually marries – the neurotic but beautiful Sheila Knight. He also develops “pernicious anaemia” and is very ill for a while. But when this is re-diagnosed as “secondary anaemia”, he seems to miraculously recover – probably the only false note in the novel. Snow draws deep psychological portraits of his characters – it’s all told from Elliott’s point of view, but he’s a deeply analytical person. I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected. I certainly plan to track down the remaining ten volumes and read them.

Films
Tell No-One, Guillaume Canet (2006), is a French adaptation of a novel by US writer Harlan Coben. Which pretty much explains why this film didn’t work. It’s not a French film. It feels like a US film played by a French-speaking cast. As a thriller, it’s not bad, but that dissonance between expectation and implementation made for an unsatisfactory viewing experience.

Fringe season 2 (2009), continues the 21st century “X-Files” as, in this season, the mythology is deepened as Olivia visits the alternate world at war with our world, and more of her background – and Walter’s experiments – are revealed. Walter’s ex-partner and semi-nemesis, Bell (played by creaking Leonard Nimoy), also features prominently, popping up in several episodes to explain what it is that’s actually going on. Fringe remains gripping telly, and I’ll be picking up season 3 when it hits DVD.

Julius Caesar, dir. Herbert Wise (1979), is the seventh of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve now seen. After watching it, I jokingly posted to a forum that it was a rip-off as Caesar dies halfway through. But then, of course, it’s not so much about Caesar himself as it is the plot which removes him and the power vacuum he leaves behind. Charles Gray played a somewhat effete title role, but the supporting cast were uniformly good. It’s a very manly men type of play – you’d expect the theatre to reek of sweat and blood if you saw it live. I must admit, from the ones I’ve seen so far, Shakespeare’s tragedies have been better than his comedies. Perhaps the comedy simply hasn’t travelled across the centuries, but tragedy is timeless. Still, Julius Caesar is a strong play and worth seeing.

The Racket, dir. John Cromwell (1951), is a somewhat preachy near-noir film I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Splice, dir. Vincenzo Natali (2009), is a remake of any one of the numerous Frankenstein movies that have been made over the decades. Sort of. Two research scientists create an artificial lifeform – they’re trying to create an artificial lifeform that can manufacture pharmaceuticals – but this latest one they’ve added some human DNA to the mix. It grows up – very quickly – into a strange-looking young woman (she certainly wouldn’t pass unnoticed on a busy street). But it all goes horribly wrong when male scientist cannot resist the monster’s charms, but is unfortunately caught in the act of boinking her by his wife, the other scientist. The monster then goes berserk. A cleverly-done film, but it never really struck me as quite as clever as it thought it was. It’s more like Frankenstein as if no one had ever written it before and it had been newly-thought-up in the twenty-first century. But since Mary Shelley got there first in 1818, the commentary all feels a bit obvious and old-hat. Worth watching, nonetheless.

Water Drops On Burning Rocks, dir. François Ozon (2000), is actually based on an unfilmed script by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (I really must watch some of his films some day). It’s not an easy film to describe… A middle-aged man arrives home with a twenty-year-old man, who becomes his live-in lover. Everything goes swimmingly for a while, but then the relationship begins to pall. When the older man is away on business, the younger man’s ex-fiancée turns up. This causes ructions, which are further exacerbated when the transsexual ex-girlfriend of the older man arrives. There’s a scene in the film, remarked on by all the critics, in which the four characters dance to a horrible piece of German pop. It is… astonishing. And while it may not sound like much, it’s worth the price of admission alone. Water Drops On Burning Rocks is one of those odd films that pulls you in and refuses to let go.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, dir. Elijah Moshinsky (1985), makes it eight. I’m sorely tempted to buy myself a copy of The BBC TV Shakespeare Collection boxed set, so I’ll have all of the plays on DVD. Except if I did that I’d probably never get around to watching them. But because I rent them, I feel obligated not to send them back unwatched (and it’d be a waste of money too). So perhaps for the time-being I’ll keep on doing that. Anyway, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comedy, and not an especially good one. although set in the Kingdom of Navarre, which existed from 824 to 1620, but the cast all wear eighteenth-century dress. The king and his men friends have decided to swear off all pleasures and devote themselves to scholarly study for seven years. This means no women. Which does not go down well. Unfortunately, along comes a princess of France on a diplomatic mission, and she’s unhappy at being told she cannot stay in the palace but must camp in a field outside it. So, of course, the men fall in love with the women, there’s some mistaken-identity comedy, a very strange play-within-a-play, and, strangely, an ending which defers the real ending for “a year and a day”. An odd play, and not the most enjoyable of those I’ve watched. According to Wikipedia, it’s often assumed that the play was written for student lawyers, which probably explains it.

Choose, dir. Marcus Graves (2010), is a low-budget thriller I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Millennium season 1 (1997), was Chris Carter’s new project after The X-Files. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) is an ex-FBI profiler with a gift: he can see what the killer saw. Unfortunately, this led him into a nervous breakdown and early retirement. So he moves back to his hometown of Seattle, and is recruited by the Millennium Group, who consult with the police on difficult murder cases. The series is as much about the mysterious agenda of the Millennium Group as it is about Black and his gift, or his relationship with his wife and young daughter (who may also have the same talent). While the IT in the series dates it, Millennium actually holds up really well. Except for those dial-up modems and CRTs, it could have been made last year. Despite being high-quality television, the programme only lasted three seasons. Happily, I have the Seasons 1-3 boxed set. (Bizarrely, search for “Millennium” on Amazon, and it doesn’t return the Seasons 1-3 boxed set. But search for “Millenium” and it does – despite the title clearly have two “n”s. Stupid search engine.)

The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton (1961), is an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, starring Deborah Kerr as the governess who is terrorised by her two strange charges. This is on a list of Top 100 British Films I found somewhere online but, to be honest, I found it a bit dull. Kerr may have been good in her role, but any film in which the lead character spends most of her time running around with a look of horror on her face – with no apparent agency, in other words – is not going to keep my interest. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d read the book.

Star Trek The Next Generation season 3 (1989), was actually the last full season on ST: TNG I’d seen. When I lived in the UAE, Star TV, Murdoch’s satellite channel for India, and the middle and Far Easts, bought the programme. They broadcast season one. The following year, they broadcast season one followed by season two. And the year after… You can probably guess. Star TV’s English-language channel then turned Hindi (and Baywatch in Hindi is actually better), and the new English-language channel was subscription only. So, as a result I’ve only seen scattered episodes of ST: TNG season 4 to 7. To be honest, I’d forgotten most of the episodes from season 3, although the few stand-outs I remembered were from this season. Especially ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, which is still a good piece of science fiction telly. Other episodes are less successful, but at least the season is a damn sight better than season two was.

Ajami, dir. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (2009), is an excellent Israeli film I review for VideoVista here.

If…., dir. Lindsay Anderson (1968), is another film from the Top 100 British Films list. I thought I’d actually seen this before, but on watching it discovered I never had. I’d just lived it. Sort of. I went to a public school not unlike the one in the film – but more than a decade later so many things had changed. Certainly the whole way of life was familiar to me, and I thought Anderson captured it well. The ending… well, perhaps it was shocking in 1968, but it all seems a bit meh these days. Perhaps it’s been copied so many times, it’s lost its power. A good film, with some very strange bits in it, and worth watching.

Bad Lieutenant – Port Of Call New Orleans, dir. Werner Herzog (2009), is one of those films that almost defies criticism. Certainly Nicolas Cage in the title role defies any kind of commentary. He plays his character as a bucket of twitches and tics topped by a bad toupee. And yet it bizarrely seems to suit the film. The plot is a bog-standard thriller, with little to recommend it. But there is one scene that’s worth the price of admission alone, where Cage’s character says of a man he has just shot dead, “His soul’s still dancing”, while a doppelgänger of the dead man breakdances behind the corpse. Genius. I knew going in that a Herzog thriller was not going to be an ordinary thriller, but even then Herzog confounded my expectations and made it a Herzog film in ways I had not considered. Which was pretty foolish of me in the first place – this is, after all, the director who made a film with a cast who were all under hypnosis…


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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.