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Reading diary, #22

Yes, I know it’s confusing that I’m continuing the numbering scheme from, er, when I started it. But never mind. It would be a bit weird to change it a handful of weeks into the year, so I seem to be stuck with it. Anyway, a mix of books this time round…

aventineAventine, Lee Killough (1981). I reviewed this collection of short stories for SF Mistressworks – see here. I like Killough’s fiction, it’s very readable and likeable, even – dare I say it – undemanding. This collection’s premise may well have been more original, for science fiction, in 1981 than it is now, but it’s stood the test of time reasonably well. It remains memorable, which is more than can be said of the works of many of Killough’s peers in genre. I shall continue to hunt down copies of her books.

soc_modRoman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism, Inka Schube (2011). Bezjak, a lecturer at a German university, often travelled around East Europe, and he took photographs of socialist architecture – or rather, architecture that seemed designed to foster socialist ideals. The result is a series of photographs from a number of cities of exactly the sort of architecture I find hugely appealing… because I too believe there’s a utopian dimension to architecture – and that’s despite living in a city in which one of the great such experiments failed and sits prominently on a hill above the city centre…

soviet_ghostsSoviet Ghosts, Rebecca Litchfield (2014). And this book makes makes real the dreams of the former book… We’re all too quick to judge one group of people for their failures and yet admire others for their aspirations. For all its manifold faults and endemic corruption, the Soviet Union had many admirable ideals – and a great many of those are embodied in the buildings, now ruined, which appear in Soviet Ghosts. Perhaps most emblematic is the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria, intended as a celebration of a secret assembly of socialists in 1890, opened in 1981, but since fallen into extensive disrepair. Other photographs feature abandoned sheds of locomotives, military bases, hospitals, even entire towns which have been left to rot. As the previous book no doubt demonstrates, I find socialist architecture interesting, and it’s just as interesting in decay as it is in rude life – perhaps even more so, because it embodies a dream that died rather than one corrupted by compromise, greed and corruption.

agodinruinsA God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015). I’d heard good things about this semi-demi-hemi-sequel to Life After Life, which was a book I’d enjoyed a great deal and thought good enough to nominate for the Hugo (as I was a Worldcon member, briefly, that year). In that earlier novel, Ursula Todd repeatedly died and was reborn, and so got to live out alternate versions of her life, of history itself since much of the story took place during World War 2. Teddy is Ursula’s younger brother. He enlists in the RAF, becomes the pilot of a Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber, flies three tours (ie, ninety missions), before being downed and captured. After the war, he marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, who worked as a decoder at Bletchley Park, the two become teachers, have a daughter Viola, who bounces around UK counter-culture, and has two children of her own, Sunny and Bertie. A God in Ruins is Teddy’s life, told in non-chronological order. He is an ordinary man in extraordinary times, who promises himself that if he survives the war he will strive to always be kind – and so he does. It’s a lovely piece of writing, deeply affecting, with an impressive control of the story’s emotional landscape. I suspect it will prove one of the best books I read this year. The big question, however, is: is A God in Ruins genre? For ninety-five percent of its length, most certainly not – it is a well-researched piece of historical fiction (Connie Willis should take notes). But the ending casts an entirely different light on what has gone before. It’s either genre or metafiction, although I tend to the former, given its link to Life After Life and the way the ending is  actually handled. But read it for yourself and make up your own mind. Because you really should read it.

after_funeralAfter the Funeral, Paul Scott (1979). The only edition of this short story available is a chapbook published shortly after Scott’s death, illustrated by his daughter and with a preface by his friend and collaborator Roland Gant. Copies are hard to find and expensive, but I found a reasonably-priced one on eBay. The story is typical Scott – a retelling of Cinderella which turns the entire tale on its head without losing sight of the original or sacrificing detail. The illustrations are lovely and appropriate. It is, in all, a very nice limited edition slipcased hardcover chapbook, and a fitting tribute to its author.

vertigoVertigo*, WG Sebald (1990). If you want to confuse someone, ask them to explain the plot of a Sebald novel.  Better yet, ask them if his novels actually are novels. Because I’m not entirely sure they are – and yet I’m pretty sure they’re fictional. Vertigo describes the arrival in Italy of Stendahl in the early 1800s as part of Napoleon’s army, and then covers his life somewhat swiftly. The next section recounts two visits by the narrator to Venice, and other towns in Italy, as in 1987 he retraces some of his travels of 1980. The third section describes an incident during Franz Kafka’s life, when he was supposed to give a talk in an Italian town in his professional capacity. In the final section, the narrator returns to his childhood village and notes the changes since he left decades before. It’s clear the narrator is Sebald himself, but not clear how much of what he recounts is invention. Certainly Venice, which he visits, is a real place, and the places he mentions in the city are real and the histories he gives them are real; but is the village of W., where the narrator spent his childhood, an actual place? Does it matter? I am, as should be clear from my own writing, interested in that liminal area between true fact and invented fiction – that is, essentially, what the glossary to Adrift on the Sea of Rains is. (And I admit it, Sebald’s Austerlitz was one of the inspirations behind my novella.) Reading Sebald is unlike reading any other author, and it’s for that reason – and the sheer quality of his prose – that I treasure his books. I plan to work my way through his entire oeuvre.

1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die count: 122


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Reading diary, #15

Still not reading as much as I’d like – I’m currently seven books behind on the 150 book challenge, according to goodreads.com – but it’s not a bad spread in this post… Incidentally, I’m still alternative genders in my fiction reading, and it currently stands at 37% women writers, 33% men.

palefirePale Fire*, Vladimir Nabokov (1962). Though I’ve seen Kubrick’s Lolita, and Nabokov is hardly a name unfamiliar to me, I’d never actually read any of his books. So I’m always on the look-out for copies of his novels in charity days. Except he doesn’t seem to be an author whose books are discarded much. But I did find Pale Fire – in Harrogate, no less – so of course I snapped it up. The back-cover copy makes quite a meal of descrbing Pale Fire as “an extraordinary, uncategorizable book”, which might well have been true in 1962 but feels a bit like over-selling in the twenty-first century. The story is told in the form of an introduction to a narrative poem, then the poem itself, and followed by copious (more than copious) notes on the poem. The author of the introduction and notes is not the author of the poem, but claims to have been the poet’s closest friend in the year leading up to his murder. Two things occurred to me as I read the book: a) the poem is actually complete doggerel, and b) the narrative voice reminded me throughout of Adam Roberts’s prose (there’s a particular line, “The crickets cricked”, which felt like it could have come from any random Roberts story). Threaded throughout the notes is the commentator’s own history, which involves some sort of Mittel-Europa principality whose monarchy was violently overthrown. The Appalachian academia and the Ruritanian adventure make for interesting bedfellows, and the prissy prose fitted the story extremely well. I liked it a lot and I plan to read more Nabokov.

spyuzSoyuz: Owners’ Workshop Manual, David Baker (2014). Sadly, this is not an owners’ workshop manual for Soyuz spacecraft in the same form as the owners’ workshop manuals Haynes has been publishing for various cars for decades. It won’t teach you how to change a leaky valve or an oxygen tank. If your Soyuz breaks down in orbit, even if you have a copy of this book with you, you’re still pretty much fucked. It is, however, a pretty comprehensive look at Russian crewed spacecraft, from Vostok through Voskhod and the various iterations of Soyuz, in pretty impressive factual detail. I found it all fascinating, but I suspect the book will also prove to be a useful reference for any future stories I might write involving Soyuz space craft. There are similar Haynes manuals for Gemini, Space Shuttle, Lunar Rover and, er, Millennium Falcon.

silkwormThe Silkworm, Robert Galbraith (2014). I wasn’t that impressed with Rowling’s first pseudonymous crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, nor, as far as I remember, was anyone else. The book sold modestly, and received a handful of good reviews – which is pretty much what you would expect from a debut crime novel. Strange then, that the back cover of her second Galbraith novel, The Silkworm, boasts quotes about The Cuckoo’s Calling such as “One of the most unique and compelling detectives I’ve come across in years” and “One of the best crime novels I have ever read”… Which suggests crime fiction must be in dire straits, or Rowling’s name really does affect how people – even reviewers in newspapers – judge books. I thought The Cuckoo’s Calling somewhat padded, but The Silkworm at least feels like its the right length. It’s also about the publishing industry, something you’d imagine Rowling would know about since she is, after all, a best-selling author. The actual crime investigated by Cormoran Strike, however, seems more like something from an episode of CSI. A woman hires Strike to find her missing novelist husband, Owen Quine. He’s done it before, but his agent usually tracks him down quite quickly. But this time Quine seems to have really vanished. Making matters worse is the fact his new book is libellous (shades of Burgess’s The Worm & the Ring) and more or less unpublishable. It doesn’t Strike long to find Quine – or rather, his body. And his corpse has been mutilated in a manner which links back to his manuscript. There’s nothing startlingly original here – the plot moves on well-oiled wheels, the characters teeter on the brink of caricature but Galbraith manages to rein them in, and the prose is smooth and readable without being too literary for a crime novel or too commercial for those who prefer their crime novels to have some ambition. The novelists at the centre of the plot were all literary enfants terribles, and though mostly well-respected now their novels as described don’t much read like twenty-first century British literary fiction. Oh, and the title is a reference to Quine’s unpublishable novel, Bombyx Mori, which title only seems to exist because it justifies a particularly gruesome murder.

mortal_enginesMortal Engines, Stanisław Lem (1977). I somehow got it into my head I needed to read more Lem, but I suspect I like the idea of Lem more than I like the fiction of Lem. Which is not to say this collection of short stories is bad. But I can’t say I agree with the person who collated the collection, Michael Kandel, who loves Lem’s “robot fables” so much he chose to bring them all together into one book. Because while they’re clever little fairy tales, with one or two clever puns, they do get a bit wearying en masse. Happily, the book is rounded off with an Ijon Tichy story, a Pilot Pirx story, and one which is completely unrelated to the others in the book but is still about robots. This is not the best sf collection in the world, and even Lem’s snide bleakness can’t hide the datedness of some of the stories. I suspect this one might end up as a raffle prize at one of the pub meets some time next year…

The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, Lee Killough (1980). That’s a pretty awful title for a book that’s actually not that bad. Not as enjoyable as A Voice Out of Ramah (see here), but certainly not awful. A review to appear soon on SF Mistressworks.

slade_houseSlade House, David Mitchell (2015). I was sent an ARC of this by Interzone to review (they also wanted to send me a copy of The Bone Clocks, but I’d already bought one – using a voucher given to me by my employer as a reward for five years of service). Overall, I don’t think Slade House is as successful as The Bone Clocks, and that’s not just a consequence of its significantly shorter length. Mitchell’s trademark ventriloquism is in fine, er, voice, but the fifth of its six sections is almost pure exposition, some of the tropes are a bit cheesy, and the whole thing doesn’t add anything of note to the mythology of The Bone Clocks. Which is not to say it’s a bad book – Mitchell is a fine writer and always worth reading – but it is a little disappointing after last year’s epic.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 117


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Tomes immemorial

I was really good in August, and bought only two books during the entire month. So, of course, I went a little berserk this month – and we’re barely a week into it! Ah well.

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Some first editions for the collection. I have rather a lot of Ian Watson first editions, many of them signed, but a copy of his first novel, The Embedding, had always eluded me. I found this one for a reasonable price on eBay. Which is where I also found this first edition of DG Compton’s The Silent Multitude, although it was a good deal more expensive than the Watson. Worth it, though.

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One each for the space books and the deep sea books collections. The title of Spaceshots & Snapshots of Projects Mercury & Gemini pretty much describes the contents. A companion volume on Apollo will be published later this month. It’s on the wishlist. Conquest of the Underwater World I found cheap on eBay. It seems mostly to cover underwater archaeology, and I’m more interested in much deeper exploration. Never mind.

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Some proper literature: In Ballast to the White Sea is a lost novel by Lowry, believed to have perished in a fire, but decades after his death it was discovered his first wife had a typescript. Selected Letters is another volume in the DH Lawrence white Penguin series, which brings my total up to twenty-two (of, I think, twenty-seven). Given these editions all date from the 1970s, finding good condition copies is quite an achievement. Not sure where I saw My Fair Ladies mentioned, but it looked like an interesting read so I bunged it on an Amazon order. The subtitle pretty much explains the topic, “Female robots, androids and other artificial Eves”.

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Here’s some recent “genre” novels. Kari Sperring’s The Grass King’s Concubine I’ve been meaning to pick up for ages, and now I’ve finally got around to it. It says “fantasy” on the spine, so it’s definitely genre. The Book of Strange New Things was shortlisted for the Clarke Award earlier this year, but it wasn’t published as category sf. I read Faber’s Under The Skin shortly after it appeared and didn’t like it one bit. I also have several Faber novels sitting on the TBR. I expect this one to be a difficult read. Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, which mystifyingly seemed to miss out on quite a lot of award shortlists this year. I’ve tried VanderMeer’s fiction before and not got on with it, so we’ll see how this ones goes. Finally, the latest volume in a space opera bande dessinée, Orbital 6: Resistance, and it’s clearly one long story but I think I’m following it. They’re short, so I could always go back and read the preceding five books…

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And here are some books for SF Mistressworks. In Conquest Born is on the actual SF Mistressworks list, but no review of it has yet to appear, so I thought I’d read the book myself. I’ve liked Scott’s two previous novels I’ve read – and it’s a shame I didn’t discover her back in the 1980s as I suspect she would have become a favourite writer – and I saw Dreamships going very cheap on eBay… except it turned out to be an ARC and not the described hardback. I have contacted the seller. I bought Killough’s A Voice Out of Ramah at Archipelacon, read it in Helsinki Airport while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester, and reviewed it on SF Mistressworks (see here). I liked it a lot, so I thought it worth trying something else by her – and I found these two, Aventine, a linked collection, and the bizarrely-titled, The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree.


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Reading diary, #10

I’ve given up on writing actual full-length book reviews on this blog – you know, a post about a single book, covering it in some detail. I do that for SF Mistressworks and Interzone (and occasionally Vector). Besides, I read so widely these days, it would seem weird to review only science fiction books here, not to mention only recent science fiction novels. These reading diary posts strike me as an acceptable compromise – a couple of hundred words on every book I’ve read, irrespective of genre or year of publication – serving both to remind me of what I’ve read as well as perhaps point followers of this blog at something they might find worthwhile reading.

And after my last reading diary was almost all genre fiction, this one sees something of a return to form, with only a pair of sf books, and a third which was published as literary fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2008 (it lost out to Richard Morgan’s Black Man).

the_rainbowThe Rainbow, DH Lawrence (1915). Three books into working my way chronologically through Lawrence’s novels, and he’s yet to move outside of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire (I’ve also read the later Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which also takes place in Notts). The Rainbow follows the Brangwen family through several generations, from the 1840s through to 1905. It starts with the family patriarch before eventually settling on Ursula, who comes of age at the turn of the century, is fiercely ambitious, and ends up teaching at a local school. It’s a more structured novel than The White Peacock and Sons and Lovers, although only inasmuch as the passage of years provides a framework for the story – it still has a tendency to randomly move from one member of the family to another, and it’s not always clear where the novel’s focus lies. But Lawrence’s descriptive prose, particularly in regard to the landscape, shines; and he brings his usual detailed, if occasionally heavy-handed, eye to the emotional landscapes of his cast. I set out to work my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre because a read of Lady Chatterley’s Lover persuaded me I’d been missing out by avoiding him, and because my father was a huge Lawrence fan. The more I’ve read, the more I too have become a fan of his writing – and collecting the books is fun too, of course.

voiceoutramahA Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979). I picked this up from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon in Mariehamn – did I mention I went to a con in Finland, well, the Åland Islands to be precise, and it was excellent? – anyway, I bought this with the intention of reviewing it for SF Mistressworks. I’d come across Killough’s name in an anthology of sf by women, but I’d never read anything else by her. I started the book while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester in Helsinki Airport, and ended up finishing it before my flight was called (it was a five hour wait). And I really liked the novel. As you can no doubt tell from my review on SF Mistressworks here.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia, ed. (1973). This I also bought from Alvarfonden, and read during the flight from Helsinki, and train journey from Manchester. And I suspect it’s the worst sf anthology I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. I mean, just look at that strapline on the cover: “Can sex survive the space age?”. I’m guessing yes it will, it’ll survive a whole lot of things, like climate crash, nuclear armageddon, global economic meltdown… maybe even the heat death of the universe. There are nineteen stories, two are by women (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Miriam Allen deFord); the remainder are by a mix of well-known names (Silverberg, Sturgeon, Aldiss, Farmer), and a few that were unknown to me. The stories, on the other hand, are full of the worst of early seventies sensibilities – the Silverberg is about a young man who discovers he has mental powers and uses them to stalk women, there’s a section titled “Toujours Gay” which opens with the frankly awful ‘The World Well Lost’, another story has serial rape as the “twist”, and the Aldiss is racist and features sexual slavery. The rest are either worse, or completely unmemorable. Best avoided.

The-Cuckoos-CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (2013). According to the blurb on this book, it was a huge best-seller and then the author was revealed as JK Rowling, which is not how I remember it happening. The Cuckoo’s Calling received several positive reviews and sold modestly. Then someone at Rowling’s solicitors (I think) leaked Galbraith’s true identity, and sales shot up overnight by about 5000%. But hey, let’s rewrite history anyway and make out that it’s not Rowling’s name that sells books, that’s she still a really good writer even when no one knows it’s her. So, of course, it comes as little surprise to find The Cuckoo’s Calling is… okay. It has too many words for its story and could have done with losing 100 pages, the most interesting thing about its hero, Cormoran Strike, is his improbable name, and the whole thing feels like it was written by someone who’s a little bit out of touch. A supermodel falls to her death from her penthouse flat and the police initially rule it suicide. But the supermodel’s brother, a solicitor, thinks this is wrong and hires Strike to investigate. At the same time, a new temp has started as Strike’s secretary, and she proves to be highly competent and very much in love with the idea of being a private investigator – parts of the novel are written from her perspective. The plot moves smoothly, but it feels wordy, yet nowhere near literary enough to be literary fiction. There are a few digs at the ultra-wealthy, which feel like they’re the result of personal experience, but mostly Strike’s life seems to belong to an earlier decade. I now have a copy of the sequel, The Silkworm, but I’m not expecting it to be any better.

researchResearch, Philip Kerr (2014). John Houston is a mega-selling author, who runs an “atelier” of writers – he comes up with the stories, they bang out the actual prose… and the books are of course sold under Houston’s name. It makes him millions of dollars a year and his writers a comfortable living. If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Houston is clearly based on James Patterson. But Houston has decided to pack it all in. He wants to write something himself, to prove he has the writing chops. So he closes down his atelier and pays off his writers… Shortly afterwards, his wife is found murdered in their Monaco apartment, and Houston has done a runner. The police contact Don Irvine, the first writer to join Houston’s atelier (the two were friends and colleagues at an advertising agency), but he can shed no light on the murder. And then, as you’d expect to happen in a novel such as this, Houston contacts Irvine, pleads innocence and asks for Irvine’s help. Which he is happy to give. The novel is broken into sections, alternating between first-person narrations from Irvine’s and Houston’s point of view. And pretty soon things aren’t what Houston, Irvine or even the Monaco police thought they were. As thrillers go, there’s not much in here that hasn’t been done before. However, Kerr does a top job of satirising mega-selling authors of the likes of Patterson, their books, and the publishing industry which supports them. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

the_carhullan_armyThe Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall (2007). I picked up this in Oxfam in Micklegate, just before the York pub meet back in May. I’d been after a copy for a while, so I was pretty chuffed when I found this one. I had high hopes too of the novel, as it had been repeatedly recommended to me, but initially I wondered if it had been over-praised. It’s structured as segments of found testimony by Sister, who leaves her husband to join a women’s militia based at a remote farm. In the near-future UK of the book, the economy has crashed, the US sends aid, and an oppressive political regime is tightening its grip on an already downtrodden and poor population. Once Sister reaches Carhullan, the militia’s farm, the story picks up, and when she is recruited to the women’s army which is planning a coup on a local town, then it really moves into gear. By the end of the novel, I was much more impressed than I had been after the first dozen or so pages. On balance, definitely worth its position on the Clarke Award shortlist (and arguably better than the eventual winner).