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Best of the half-year, 2018

For the past several years, probably longer than I think and much longer than I’d care to know, I’ve been putting together a best of the year six months in. Partly it’s to document the good stuff I’ve read or watched or listened to during the first half of the year, but also I find it interesting to see how it changes over the following six months.

2018 has been an odd year so far. While the big project at work moved up a gear, my part in it sort of moved into cruise mode. So I started reviewing again for Interzone – three books so far, and the first book I reviewed made the top spot on my list below – and I also started up SF Mistressworks, although perhaps it’s not quite as regular as I’d like yet. On the film front, I continued to watch far too many movies, but at least it’s proven a pretty wide selection – including a number of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, plus movies from all over the world… and some surprising new favourites.

books
1 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I picked this to review for Interzone having very much liked Ings’s previous sf novel, Wolves. But The Smoke, I discovered, was considerably better. It’s sort of steampunk, sort of alt history, sort of high concept sf. It’s beautifully written, and does a lot of really interesting things really well. It is probably Ings’s best book to date. I would not be at all surprised if it appears on several award shortlists next year. On the other hand, I will not be at all surprised if it’s completely ignored, as UK sf awards don’t seem to be doing so well at the moment, as popular awards are pulled one way then another by in-groups on social media and juried awards try to make sense of a genre that is now so pervasive across all modes of writing that no one has any idea what is what anymore.

2 Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). Green wrote this autobiography at the age of 35 convinced he would not survive WWII. He did (he spent the war as an ambulance driver). But this is an amazing piece of work, a warts and all depiction of upper class education in the 1920s, and a beautifully stated meditation on writing. I’ve been a fan of Green since the first book of his I read, but Pack My Bag intensified my love for his prose. Read all of his books. If only he weren’t so difficult to collect in first edition…

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2017, UK). This won the BSFA Award a month or so ago, and while it was not my first choice I’m happy that it won as I think it’s a worthy winner. It is, to my mind, the most successful of Allan’s disconnected novel-length fictions. It not only occupies that area between science fiction and mainstream I find interesting, but also between narrative and… whimsy? I’m not sure what the correct term is. The Rift is a story that feels like it should add up but resolutely fails to do so – and makes a virtue of its failure. It’s easily one of the best genre books I’ve read so far this year.

4 The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I read this over Christmas so technically it was a 2017 read, but it didn’t feature in any of my posts for that year so I’m counting it as a 2018 read. It’s an odd book, almost impossible to summarise, chiefly because there’s so much going on in it. It’s set in late Victorian times. A recently-widowed young woman decide to indulge her interest in palaeontology and visits a family who are friends of her friends and who live in the Essex marshes. She finds herself drawn to the man of the family, the local vicar, while her autistic son is drawn to his consumptive wife. The titular serpent makes only a brief appearance, and even then its reality is doubtful, but the way in which its legend shapes the lives of those in the books is very real. Fascinating and beautifully written.

5 Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I’ve been a fan of Crowley’s fiction for a couple of decades or so, but it usually takes me a while to get around to reading his latest work… nine years in this case. I should have read it sooner because it’s bloody excellent. End it worked especially well for me because the story was based around the construction of an invented WWII bomber which to me was obviously the Convair B-36 (but, bizarrely, it was mostly coincidence as Crowley did not actually base it on the B-36). Essentially, it’s the story of the workforce building the aforementioned WWII bomber, focusing on several members, and telling their stories. It’s beautifully-written, of course; and the characterisation is top-notch.

Honourable mentions – Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan) mysterious doors leading to Western nations appear in the war-torn Middle East, a clever look at the refugee issue facing Europe but which sadly turns into an unsatisfactory love story; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK) an Anglican priest is sent to an exoplanet to succour to aliens and becomes obsessed by them, while the UK, and his wife, slowly disintegrates, moving stuff and the sf element is well-handled; October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada) more semi-autobiographical fiction from Lowry, in which a young lawyer and his wife head to the west coast of Canada to buy a house on an island, I just love Lowry’s prose; A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK) a collection of braindumps and stream-of-consciousness narratives, some of which were written as accompaniment to Atkins’s video installations; Calling Major Tom, David Barnett (2017, UK) polished semi-comic novel about a misanthropic British astronaut en route to Mars who reconnects with humanity via a dysfunctional family in Wigan.

films – narrative
An unexpected top five in this category. One is by a director I normally don’t have that much time for, and the remaining four were by directors more or less unknown to me when I started watching the films.

1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I saw a description of this somewhere that said it was about carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub during the 1980s. And it was a musical. That was enough for me to add it to my rental list. And it proved to be exactly as advertised. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy on Blu-ray. And loved it just as much on re-watch. It’s a film that revels in its premise and dedicates its entire mise en scène to it. The music is kitschy, and not really very 1980s – and one of the bands in the film is a punk band… that isn’t really 1980s punk either. But those are minor quibbles.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I find Nolan’s films generally unsatisfying so I didn’t bother going to see this when it was on at the cinema. Plus, the film’s subject was not one that appealed, especially in these days of Brexit and and various attempts in popular culture to spin it as a good thing because history. Not that Dunkirk was an especially proud moment in British history. Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who think, or insist, it was. It was, as this film mentions, “a colossal military blunder”. But I found myself watching Dunkirk one evening… and I loved it. It’s a beautifully shot film and completely plotless. It presents the events of Dunkirk by focusing on several different groups of people. It does not offer commentary; it is in fact almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And did I mention that it looks gorgeous? I ended up buying my own Blu-ray copy.

3 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). A young woman from a religious family moves to Oslo to study at university. One day in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit – but subsequent study by doctors cannot find evidence of epilepsy. She also finds herself drawn to a fellow student, but her upbringing makes the relationship difficult. Then odd things began to happen around her… and flashbacks reveal why these occur. Comparisons with Carrie are inevitable, but Thelma is so much better than that film. Elli Harboe is brilliant in the title role, and totally carries the film. I might even buy my own Blu-ray copy.

4 Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I’ve no idea why I stuck this film on my rental list, but I knew nothing about it when I slid it into my player. It proved to be an experimental film, shot during the filming of Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula, but in stark black and white and with only atonal music for a soundtrack. And, er, that’s it. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted down a Spanish release of a box set of 22 of Portabella’s films and bought it. The imagery is beautiful in the way only transformed imagery can be, and the fact it piggybacks on an existing production, and steals from its plot, not to mention its casts’ performances, only adds to the film’s appeal. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Portabella box set since I bought it. It was a good purchase..

5 India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the director’s name was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t bother looking the film up before watching it. So what I found myself watching came as a surprise… which seems to be a recurrent theme to this year’s Best of the half-year… Duras was a French novelist, playwright and film-maker, who is perhaps best-known outside France for writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. But she made almost twenty films herself, and India Song is one of the better known. It is an experimental film, although it tells a relatively straightforward story in a relatively straightforward manner – that of the wife of an ambassador in India in the 1930s who affair with multiple men to alleviate the boredom of her life. But the film has no dialogue – everything is narrated by voiceover. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of people act out a short story as it is read. I found it fascinating, and would love to watch more of Duras’s films. But they are, of course, extremely hard to find in English-language releases. I really should improve my French one of these days.

Honourable mentions – Baahubali 1 & 2, SS Rajmouli (2017, India) absolutely bonkers and OTT Telugu-language historical epic, has to be seen to be believed; A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands) one of the most feminist films I’ve ever watched: three women are charged with the murder of a male shop assistant; Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK) there’s an England which exists in art which I do not recognise, and this is one of the best presentations of it in narrative cinema I’ve seen; WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia) a paean to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy, told through interviews and an invented narrative about a woman in Yugoslavia who has an affair with an People’s Artist ice skater; A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan) a lovely piece of animation about a teenager who bullies a deaf student at his school and comes to regret his actions; The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France) dialogue-free animated film about a man stranded on an island, with some beautiful animation; Secret Défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France) baggy thriller from Rivette which hangs together successfully over its 170-minute length; Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China) a man hunts for his wife and daughter in the Three Gorges, more documentary-style drama from a favourite director, plus gorgeous scenery; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA) fascinating, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, dramatisation of the life of famous writer.

films – documentary
1 Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). A fascinating study of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema, Film, and how it impacted Beckett’s career. The BFI release which includes the documentary also includes a copy of Beckett’s film, plus a 1979 British remake, which sticks closer to the original script. It’s fascinating stuff, not least Notfilm‘s study of Beckett’s career, including interviews with long-time collaborators, such as Billie Whitelaw. I can’t say the documentary persuaded me to search out DVDs of Beckett’s plays – he wrote a lot for television, so some must exist – although I would like to give one of his novels a try.

2 A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). A salaryman leaves the office for home one night and never arrives. A Man Vanishes sets out to discover what became of him, but turns into a meditation on the role of the documentary maker and the impossibility of really documenting what was going through someone’s mind. Particularly during their last moments. The last scene, in which the crew appear and dismantle the set  around the actors, is especially effective.

3 Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). An animated documentary, partly autobiographical partly fictional, in which Folman tracks down and interviews members of his platoon in the IDF and discovers he was complicit in an atrocity which he had completely blanked. The animation allows Folman to present past events, and it’s an effective technique, even if it doesn’t work quite so well when it’s Folman in deep discussion with friends or platoon-mates in the present day. However, after a while, the animation stops being so obtrusive, and Folman’s unburdening starts to overwhelm the narrative.

4 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). I suspect it’s a toss-up these days as to whether Lamarr is better known for her acting or her link to Bluetooth (given that the latter has been heavily publicised for the last few years). She was a remarkable woman, who took up inventing to stave off boredom while pursuing a career in Hollywood, and among her inventions was frequency-hopping, now used in everything from military secure comms to GPS to wi-fi to Bluetooth… After watching this documentary, I really wanted to track down a copy of her self-financed and -produced historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, but good copies are hard to find.

5 Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2014, USA). An actress, Kate, prepares for her role as a real-life person, Christine, who committed suicide on air back in the 1970s. The length of time that has passed since Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor, shot herself while the camera has live has meant there is little evidence remaining about her or her life. Kate interviews those who knew her, but even then she remains very much an enigma – there’s even a hint she might have been trans. Despite the details of Chubbuck’s death, this documentary is very much not salacious or in bad taste. It navigates its way very carefully, and it’s very well put together. The DVD I bought I bought came bundled with Actress, which is also a very good documentary.

Honourable mentions – Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA) the title’s joke wears thin very quickly, but Moore’s survey of six European nations’ civilised social policies stands in stark contrast to the regressive society of the US, despite Moore’s claims many of the policies are embedded in the Declaration of Independence; Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA) a tongue-in-cheek look at the career of George Lazenby, who played the best Bond (yes, he did), but then torpedoed his own film career; The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA) two men were part of al-Qa’eda, one was a non-combatant driver, the other was a member of bin Laden’s bodyguard, the former was captured and held in Gitmo and tried as a terrorist, while the latter gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities, served a brief prison sentence and not lectures against both al-Qa’eda and the US; Dispossession, Paul Sng (2017, UK) a damning indictment of the decades-long Tory policy of neglecting social housing, so that the land can be sold off to developers… resulting in our present-day housing crisis. Fuck the Tories; The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland) fascinating look at the two Voyager space probes, with interviews of those involved and some excellent CGI footage of the probes themselves; Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal) set aboard a privately-operated bus in Dakar, using actors to tell the stories of the passenger’s lives, excellent stuff.

albums
1 The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018) Panopticon is a one-man band, and plays a mix of bluegrass and black metal. It works surprising well. The two albums here, released together as one as they were intended to be, are according to the artist: “the first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused”. The acoustic “americana” sections are actually more atmospheric than the black metal sections, but it all hangs together extremely well.

2 Currents, In Vain (2018). In Vain are from Norway, and also a one-man band. They play a metal that veers from black to death to prog, and sometimes features a few other musical genres, like country. Currents is their fourth full-length album, after 2013’s Ænigma, which I think made my top five albums for that year. I’m not sure Currents is as good as that album, but it’s still bloody good stuff.

3 The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018). Entransient play something halfway between prog rock and prog metal, although one of the tracks on this album features harmony vocals that don’t really belong to either genre. It’s probably the best song on the album, in fact. This is only their second album after their eponymous debut in 205, but it’s a much better album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.

I’ve actually bought more than three albums during the last six months, but not that much more. The last few years I’ve not listened to as much music as I used to, nor seen as many bands perform live. In fact, I’ve only been to one gig so far this year, to see Therion, who were really good (even though I’ve not kept up with them for at least seven or eight years).

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Retail therapy

May has not been a good month for book-buying – I’ve bought far too much. So the TBR has been growing again, even though some of the books below are replacements for books I already own and have read. I still need to have a clear-out one of these days. And I have about four boxes of books I want to get rid of but am reluctant to dump at a charity shop as they’re first editions in fine condition. If I put a list of them together, would people be interested?

I’m slowly picking these up when I find copies on eBay. I’m not a fan of any of the above authors, although I’m pretty sure I’ve read fiction by them at some point in the past. But it’s a series, it’s a numbered series. Got to have all the numbers, you know.

Three books by Lisa Tuttle. Angela’s Rainbow has Michael Johnson’s name on the cover, as the art inside was done by him. But the text was written by Tuttle. I read Memories of the Body back in the early 1990s and have been keeping an eye open for a copy. I’d thought it was a paperback original, but apparently not. And only a tenner for the hardback too. I already have a copy of A Spaceship Built of Stone – I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here – but my copy is tatty. This one is almost mint. Result.

I’ve been trying to collect copies of the second series of Ace Science Fiction specials, but only good condition copies. I already had A Plague of All Cowards – I’m a big fan of William Barton’s sf – but my copy was tatty. This copy is also signed. I know nothing about Red Tide or Growing Up in Tier 3000, other than they were in this series.

Something new, something old. Summerland I have to review for Interzone. All I Ever Dreamed, a new collection by a favourite writer, I pre-ordered months ago. Lunar Caustic I’ve read but I wanted a first edition of it. And Deus Loci is the journal of the International Lawrence Durrell Society. This is the fourth issue.

Four for the collection: The Straits of Messina was, I admit, the results of drunk eBaying, as it cost a bit more than I would have paid sober. Oh well. I read and enjoyed The Motion of Light in Water many years ago but had not known it had been published in hardback until this copy popped up on eBay – and for a reasonable price. Valentine I’ve also read, although somewhat more recently – this century, at least – but I’d always wanted to replace my paperback copy with a signed hardback. It’s taken me a while but I found one on Abebooks. Futures Past is a collection of van Vogt’s short stories – from a UK-based seller on eBay, so quite cheap.


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Reading diary 2018, #3

Another half a dozen books read. So far, I’m staying on track with my reading challenge.

Calling Major Tom, David M Barnett (2017, UK). I know the author and had previously enjoyed his popCult! (see here), and Calling Major Tom sounded like it might appeal and was getting a big push from its publisher… And, okay, “feel-good” is not a term likely to draw me to a book, nor is “quirky” for that matter. But I trusted Barnett not to be horribly sentimental… and I’m glad I did. Major Tom is a British astronaut on his way to Mars. He wasn’t the original choice for the mission, he was actually a chemist working at the British Space Agency, who had been tasked with looking after the real astronaut. But the real astronaut keeled over and died of a heart attack – no one said this novel was especially plausible; it has a UK with a space programme instead of one on a headlong rush to economic catastrophe, after all – and Thomas Major, a complete misanthrope, took his place. But when his spacecraft’s communications gear goes offline after something strikes the antenna, he has to use a mobile phone to contact Earth. And he decides to use it to contact his ex-wife. Except the number now belongs to a dysfunctional family in Wigan, the Ormerods: Gladys (Nan), teenager Ellie and eight-year-old James. Their father is in prison, their mother died years before, Gladys is suffering from the onset of dementia, Ellie is holding down two jobs to bring money into the household after Nan was 419’d, and James is being bullied at school. And somehow, Major Tom, a complete curmudgeon, who wants nothing to do with people anymore, helps them turn their lives around. Calling Major Tom is, scarily, clearly “feel-good”. But it’s also funny… and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. Frankly, I’m not surprised it’s doing so well because it ticks a lot of the boxes that successful commercial fiction – that isn’t thriller fiction with plots generated by a very small shell script – ticks. Worth reading. (And yes, the central premise of a lone astronaut travelling away from Earth did remind me a little of a short story which appeared in Postscripts, but never mind…)

Love’s Body, Dancing in Time, L Timmel Duchamp (2004, USA). Duchamp is possibly best-known as the owner of Aqueduct Press, an excellent US small press which focuses on feminist genre fiction, but she is also an accomplished science fiction and fantasy writer in her own right. In fact, her ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ I would count as one of the ten best science fiction stories ever written and her Marq’ssan Cycle one of the best sf series about first contact. Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is her first collection, and contains a short story, two novelettes and two novellas. ‘Dance at the Edge’ takes place on a world where some people – or so the narrator believes – can see a border into another world, but they lose the facility when they turn adult. In ‘The Gift’, a travel writer returns to a world famous for its culture, falls in love with a famous singer, but then discovers the price he paid for his voice (think The Alteration). ‘The Apprenticeship of Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi’ is something Duchamp has done before – a well-researched, and convincing, historical story that slowly drifts into genre territory. In this case, the title character is a young woman confined to a convent to keep her away from a young man whose father wants him to marry well. This is very much a story which takes place in the world of women. The shortest peice in the collection is ‘Lord Enoch’s Revels’, which describes a party hosted by the eponymous peer, during some indefinable period, which may or may not be supernatural. The last story in Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is also the longest: ‘The Héloïse Archive’. It is worth the price of entry alone. A framing narrative describes the main text as a series of undiscovered letters between famous historical romance lovers Héloïse and Abelard, but as the letters progress so things begin to diverge from known history. It’s hardly an original idea, although showing the effects of time travellers’ interference in this secondary manner is quite original – the only other example I can think of is Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History. And like that humungous novel, Duchamp’s novella displays an impressive amount of research. The story of Héloïse and Abelard is fascinating in its own right – the real story, that is, as it unfolds here, before gradually swerving off the rails. Every time I read something by Duchamp, I’m surprised she’s not better known. I suspect the fact that much of her output these days is published through Aqueduct Press, her own press – and that’s not a criticism, by any means – which is a proudly feminist genre press, and Duchamp herself is a very feminist writer… and I’m all too sadly aware how many Neanderthals there are in sf fandom who think “feminism” is a dirty word… Love’s Body, Dancing in Time is not an especially strong collection – although that last novella is a killer – but there are works I would demand be read in Duchamp’s oeuvre – both mentioned earlier (and I’m not the only one to think so about ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ as it opens Sisters of the Revolution, an excellent anthology of feminist sf). Seek out her work – especially the Marq’ssan Cycle or a more recent collection, Never at Home (see here).

The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I’m trying to get things back on track in 2018 that I’d let slide in 2016 and 2017. Such as SF Mistressworks, which now has two new reviews up after a nine-month hiatus – Emma Bull’s Falcon (see here) and Sydney J Van Scyoc’s Darkchild (see here). And reviewing books for Interzone. The last book I reviewed for the magazine was The Sand Men, which appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue (and the author was extremely unhappy with the review, but so fucking what). Anyway, it had always been my intention to return to reviewing for the magazine, and when I saw Simon Ings’s latest, The Smoke, was available, I thought it the perfect book to get me back into it. I’m not going to say too much about the novel here – you’ll have to buy the copy of Interzone for that – but I’ll admit I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s either bloody brilliant, or merely very good. It does so many things I’ve not seen a category sf novel do before, and it does them very effectively. I really liked Ings’s Wolves (see here) and it made my best of the year list. I suspect The Smoke will too.

The Taborin Scale, Lucius Shepard (2010, USA). I probably have this novella in The Dragon Griaule collection, but since I bought Shepard novellas as they were published (mostly by Subterranean Press, who these days seem happier publishing limited editions of best-selling genre novels – like Andy Weir’s Artemis, WTF?), so I also have The Taborin Scale as a standalone. In fact, I might well have all of the contents of The Dragon Griaule as either standalone novellas or in other collections, unless there was a story original to the collection, of course. Anyway, The Taborin Scale… A numismatist, George Taborin, comes across a dragon scale in among a collection he bought, and travels to Teocinte, the town that has grown up beside the vast corpse of Griaule. There he consorts with a prostitute, to whom he gives the name Sylvia (not her real name). But something happens, and the two find themselves transported to another time, where Teocinte does not exist and Griaule is young and active and seems to have some purpose in drawing people to that time, although what it is remains unknowable. Taborin rescues a young girl from a group of transportees who had been abusing her, and the three eke out a precarious existence. But then Griaule dies – following the events of The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule – and Taborin and Sylvia and the girl find themselves abruptly back in Teocinte… And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure where this novella was intended to go. It felt like a story in search of a plot, spiced up by the use of footnotes, and carried on the back of earlier Griaule stories. Shepard was a bloody good writer, but he was often sloppy and some of his work often felt half-baked. He was widely-admired, and notoriously cranky, which may be why publishers accepted his stuff when it really needed another go around. And yet, having said that, Shepard’s prose was usually top-notch. It was a bit magpie-like, with a tendency to borrow styles, but it was always put together well. Which is why The Taborin Scale feels so much like a curate’s egg: a well-established prose style, a milieu Shepard had explored in other works (all based around a humungous metaphor)… but then there are the footnotes… and the general vagueness of the story. The Taborin Scale reads like a cross between an experiment and a contractual obligation. I guess I shall have to read the collection to see how it all fits together…

October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada). I came to Lowry’s fiction sort of accidentally. I knew of him, of course, and of his most famous novel, Under the Volcano; but I’d never read him, nor had any real desire to do so. But after my father died, my mother was clearing out some stuff, including a collection of Penguin paperbacks my dad had bought in the late 1960s (the receipts were still in the books), and which included, among many other authors, three books by Lowry. I took about two dozen of the paperbacks, including the Lowrys, and the first of the Lowrys I read was his collection, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. I was hugely impressed by the novella, ‘Through the Panama’. So I read the other two paperbacks, Ultramarine (see here) and Under the Volcano (see here). And then I wanted to read more… So I started collecting first editions of his books. And I have now read them all. October Ferry to Gabriola was his last, not published until thirteen years after his death. (In fact, only Ultramarine and Under the Volcano, and some of the contents of his collection, were published during his lifetime.) Ethan Llewellyn and his wife, Jacqueline, have been evicted from their shack on the Eridanus river and, after some time spent in Vancouver, have chosen to head for the small island of Gabriola to buy an advertised property. The novel opens on the bus to the seaside town where they will catch the ferry, but pretty much heads straight into flashback, beginning with their home in Niagara-on-the-lake. But their home there burns down in a freak lightning strike. Leading to their move to Eridanus. October Ferry to Gabriola is a hit of the pure Lowry – from the plot recycling parts of Lowry’s own life, never mind parts of his other works (their neighbours in Eridanus are Sigbjørn and Primrose Wilderness, Lowry analogues in Dark is the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, ‘Through the Panama’ and a handful of stories), the long discursive sentences, the detailed self-reflective and self-analytical prose, the self-deprecating humour, and, of course, the copious amount of alcohol. This is great stuff, it’s just so good. I went slightly mad when I decided to collect Lowry, but I’ve yet to read anything by him that has caused me to question that madness. I’m only sorry I’ve run out of novels by him to read. I guess I’ll just have to start re-reading them…

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee (2017, USA). At Sledge-Lit last year, I was talking to Jeannette Ng, author of Under the Pendulum Sun, and we were discussing the novels of Georgette Heyer, and Jeannette recommended The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (she was clearly a fan as she’d decorated her nails in homage to the book). When I got home that evening, sat watching telly and having a drink or two, as you do, I found myself visiting the website of a well-known online retailer and ordering myself a copy of the book, as you, er, do… And now I have read it. Well, I complained earlier in this post that “feel-good” and “quirky” are not descriptors that draw me to a book, and there’s a lot in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue that would normally mean I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. For one, it’s YA. The narrator, Monty, is a bisexual teenager, the son of an earl. In eighteenth century England. In a novel written by an American woman. His sister, Felicity, is a bluestocking who wants to study medicine, and Percy, his best friend (for whom he’s burning a torch), is the adopted mixed parentage son of a family of Quality. The two guys are off on a Grand Tour, delivering the sister to a finishing school en route in Marseilles. In Paris, they’re invited to a party at Versailles, where Monty, who is a complete rake, upsets the the king’s ex-PM, the Duke of Bourbon, steals something from him, and then makes a complete tool of himself by running around the famous garden stark bollock naked after being caught in flagrante delicto… Except the item he stole proves to be important, especially to the Duke of Bourbon. It’s a box with a combination lock, and it contains a key to a tomb in which can be found an alchemical pancea. So Monty, Percy and Felicity are forced to go undercover and travel incognito to Barcelona to find the original owner of the box… The novel is told entirely from Monty’s point of view and he’s not at all convincing as an eighteenth-century teenager – and did they allow children out of the schoolroom before the age of twenty-one in the 1700s? The prose tries for British, but a quarter of the way in gives up, then it’s all “goddamn” this  and “goddamn” that. But pretty much everything Monty does or says results in a lecture from the other characters. Percy lectures him on his white privilege; Felicity lectures him on his male privilege; yet’s he’s bisexual and there’s little discussion of that, other than a generic condemnation by society (the author says in an afterword she researched “mollies”, but Monty doesn’t feel like a person who would be part of molly culture). The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue reads like contemporary characters in an historical setting. Lee is quite good at plotting, and she is generally good at setting the scene. But the characters do not convince. And the frequent lectures feel contemporary. When I compare a book like this to, say, William Golding’s Rites of Passage, then there’s no comparison. Golding’s novel does more, and more convincingly, in half the pages than The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. True, it doesn’t include the lectures on privilege, and there’s certainly a place for that, and I rue that fiction has to include such explicit lectures – but that says more about modern society and fandom than it does an individual novel. All told, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was not for me. The lessons it was teaching, I have been taught elsewhere (not that it isn’t an ongoing process)… which meant I looked at other elements of the story. And there, it failed. I can’t fault its objectives, but I wasn’t impressed.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Maintaining a positive balance on the TBR

I try to read more books than I buy each month – or buy less books than I read, I guess it depends on how you look at it. Otherwise, the To Be Read pile would just continue to grow, and it’s already stupidly large. And this month, I’ve actually been quite good, and not bought a silly number of books.

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Four recent sf novels. They were actually published in 2016, but I only got around to buying them this year. Pirate Utopia is the first novel-length work from Sterling since 2009’s The Caryatids (which I liked a lot). The Corporation Wars 2: Insurgence is the, er, second book in a trilogy. Daughter of Eden is the third book of a trilogy. And Survival Game is the sequel to 2014’s Extinction Game.

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The more astute among you may remember a Sursum Corda appearing in a previous book haul post. That was Volume 1. This is, er, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Because someone on eBay was selling both volumes at a good price, and I’d been having trouble finding a copy of the second volume (I think the first was published in Canada and the UK, but the second only in Canada). Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space is the fourth book in the University of Ottawa’s critical series on Lowry’s work.

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Some bandes dessinées. The World of Edena started out as an advert for Citroën, but Moebius expanded and expanded it over the years. I wrote about it here. The Living Weapons is the fourteenth episode in the long-running Valerian and Laureline series, which I also wrote about here. There is a film adaptation by Luc Besson due for release, I think, later this year. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

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The Silent City is for the Women’s Press SF collection. I was pleased at how good condition it proved to be in, because with some of these eBay sellers you never can tell. I thought Ouředník’s Europeana very good indeed when I read it back in 2006, and though I thought his next, Case Closed, not quite as good, I still liked it a lot. So it was about time I picked up third book by him, The Opportune Moment, 1855, published in English by Dalkey Archive. And… I’ve just discovered he’s written nineteen books, in Czech and French, but only the three I have have been translated into English – and both Case Closed and The Opportune Moment, 1855 were actually originally published in the same year.


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Made from books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Culture vulture

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

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

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

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


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Summer harvest

I have been mostly very good of late and have managed not to add more books to the TBR than I read per month, so it is slowly – very slowly – dwindling. This doesn’t however, prevent me from buying better editions of books I’ve already read – because, of course, they don’t count. There have also been a couple of lucky finds in local charity shops since my last book haul post.

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The aforementioned charity shop finds: Rites of Passage and The Inheritors I’ve always fancied reading, but had never come across copies before. And the Sword of Honour trilogy was another on my wants list that I’d never expected to find. (Yes, yes, I know; I could have bought the books new from a bookshop, but there are some books you fancy reading but not enough to buy them new.) I stopped reading Gibson after Virtual Light, but I really ought to read him again, so The Peripheral was a fortunate find. Tor double No. 24 Elegy for Angels and Dogs / The Graveyeard Heart was, unlike the others, an eBay purchase. Four more and I’ll have all 36 of the series.

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And speaking of series… Now that I have The Submarine Alliance, I only need one more and I’ll have all of the Anatomy of the Ship books (all, that is, of the twentieth century ships; I’ve not bothered with the sailing ship ones). The University of Toronto Press collected all of Malcolm Lowry’s letters in two volumes, under the title Sursum Corda! (it means “lift up your hearts”, but I don’t know – yet – what the Lowry link is). This is volume 1, found on eBay. Both books are pretty scarce, so I’m still trying to track down a copy of the second volume. Science Fiction is an actual new book, bought at whatever price it was the (online) retailer had set. I’m mentioned in it too! It’s only in passing and in reference to SF Mistressworks, but it’s my first appearance in an actual critical work on science fiction in book format.

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A pair of bandes dessinées from series I’ve been reading: The Wrath of Hypsis is the twelfth volume in the Valerian and Laureline series (there are 23 in print so far in French). Antares Episode 6, however, is the latest volume in both French and English in the Antares series. I wrote about both of these here.

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Mention of Delany somewhere recently reminded me that I wanted a copy of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which I’d negelcted to buy when it was published… and wow, copies are dear now. I eventually found one on eBay for a reasonable price. It’s a surprisingly fat book. A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting on Twitter with Steve Savile about collecting books, and mentioned I had all of Banks’s in first edition (some signed) except his debut, The Wasp Factory, which had always been too expensive. To prove the point, I searched on eBay… and found a copy going for much less than I’d expected (roughly half of what it had been the last time I checked). Reader, I bought it. The Caryatids I reviewed for Interzone – and interviewed Sterling as well – back in 2009, so I only had an ARC. But I always fancied a proper first edition, and when a signed one popped up on eBay for $15, I snapped it up. I also wanted the slipcased edition of Globalhead… and when a copy popped up on eBay for $30, I snapped it up. It’s even shrinkwrapped! Results all round.