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Reading diary 2018, #7

My reading has been a bit all over the place of late. On the plus-side, I seem to be better at picking books I enjoy.

The Silent Multitude, DG Compton (1966, UK). After Gwyneth Jones, I would say DG Compton was likely the second-best sf writer the UK has produced. Except… His writing was a cut above what is typical for the genre, and his best work is among the top rank of British sf – and rather than being timeless, it makes a virtue of the fact it is tied to its time of writing – but… Compton’s range was somewhat narrow. He wrote many similar novels. And there are a number of other UK sf writers of the 1970s whose prose was perhaps not as good as Compton’s but who managed to produce more varied work. Which is not to say that Compton was never good, or that mediocre Compton is not a great deal better than some other writers’ best. The Silent Multitude is Compton coming into his voice, after a handful of years of writing crime novels as Guy Compton. A mysterious organism is spreading across the UK which dissolves mortar and reduces buildings to rubble in a handful of days. The “Sickness” has now reached Gloucester, a city completely rebuilt in the 1980s, which has now been evacuated. Except for the local dean, an old man who collects newspapers and lives alone among the tens of thousands he has collected, a twentysomething hoodlum who proves to be the son of the architect who designed the new Gloucester, and a twentysomething young woman reporter who is the daughter of the editor of the newspaper for which she works. (The mentions of a redesigned Gloucester reminded me not only of Portmouth’s Tricorn Centre, which I’ve only seen in photographs, but also the various plans to rebuild the city centre of Coventry and, of course, the precinct which eventually resulted.) The Silent Multitude is essentially these four characters witnessing the death of a city – the death of its buildings and infrastructure, that is; the people have already left – and while Compton is good on the descriptive prose and the characterisation, this novel doesn’t feature any of the narrative tricks he later used. The Silent Multitude is a slim work, ideas-wise, propped up by good prose, but that’s no bad thing as science fiction in general could do with upping its game prose-wise. Compton is good – bloody good, in fact – but this is nowhere near his best work.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Theodora Goss (2017, USA). Most of Goss’s short fiction that I’ve seen has been fantasy or reworked fairy tales, which is not really the type of fiction that interests me. But a year or two ago, she wrote ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’, which was the sort of referential mash-up genre fiction that does appeal to me – and I thought it so good, I nominated it for the BSFA Award, but it did not make the shortlist – and it seems she has written more in a similar vein. Anyway, I saw mention of this, her first novel, and its premise – the daughters of various nineteenth-century fictional scientists team up to help Sherlock Holmes solve Jack the Ripper’s murders – sounded like it might be worth a go. And so it was. It is, in fact, very good. Except. Well, it feels a bit dumbed-down. I’m not sure what it is, but it doesn’t feel as clever a novel as its central conceit would suggest. It doesn’t help that Mary Jekyll – yes, the daughter of that Jekyll – is the main character but spends much of the plot tagging along behind Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, the novel is explicitly presented as a narrative written by Catherine Moreau, often with interjections by the other women, and that works really well. It’s also quite funny. For a novel set in Victorian Britain, there are a few slips – the ground floor is continually referred to as the first floor; and some of the expletives are US English. Despite those minor quibbles, I enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and plan to pick up a copy of the sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, when it’s published in July.

Author’s Choice Monthly 10: Tales from a Vanished Country, Elizabeth A Lynn (1990, USA). One day I will have all of these muahahah. Ahem. But for now, I have just over half of the series. Lynn was not an author known to me, so I came to this short collection cold. In the first story, a wizard runs a trading empire, and when his CEO, so to speak, betrays him, he imprisons him as water in the sea. Some time later, he frees him, because a rival wizard has been upsetting the balance of power. The two disguise themselves to visit the other wizard, but he sees through their disguises. Fortunately, after several months of drugged gaslighting, the CEO chap regains his senses, and the world is set right. So far, so consolatory. The second story, however, is anything but. Three sisters are noted for their beauty, intelligence and martial prowess. A mysterious woman appears and challenges them to combat. One accepts and is killed. Some time later, the mysterious challenger reappears, and this time the second sister is killed in combat. So the third sister hunts down the killer, who turns out to be an aspect of the Moon, and she becomes her lover. Years later, the sister decides to return to her family, but it seems decades have passed. But she stays and lives out her life, mourning her dead sisters and lost lover. The final story reads more like mythology than epic fantasy. A goddess entrusts command of the five winds to a reclusive astronomer who lives in a cave in the mountains. The goddess’s son decide to check this out, and becomes the woman’s lover. She has two girls, who grow faster than human girls. He leaves and steals the cloak the woman uses to command the winds. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the goddess returns. But the woman has disappeared and the two daughters are only just managing to survive. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Lynn before, and I have the impression I’ve seen her name chiefly on the covers of sharecropped novels… although checking on, I see that’s completely false and two of her three standalone novels are, in fact, science fiction. (The 1983 UK paperback edition of one has quite striking cover art.) The three stories in Tales from a Vanished Country are really good, which was completely unexpected. They make clever use of fantasy tropes, and are deeply feminist, even the first one which features no female characters. I think I’ll track down copies of those two science fiction novels…

Phosphorus, Liz Williams (2018, UK). This is the third novella of the third quartet of NewCon Press novellas, although the fourth book I read of the set. Not, I hasten to add, for any particular reason. It is subtitled “A Winterstrike Story’, and I have no objection to subtitles but I would like to point out that they are not titles. So when a data entry form has a field called “title”, it means title, not title and subtitle, not title and, as I have seen, “[random award] winner”. People complain about Big Data, but it would be much less of a problem if we didn’t have Shit Data. But that’s a rant for another day. I have read Winterstrike, but not the other books in the series. Neither is necessary to understand the story of Phosphorus, which, to be honest, isn’t much of a story. It’s extremely strong on setting – and Williams’s Mars is a fascinating place – but the story doesn’t really go anywhere or do much. A young woman with some mysterious quality is adopted by her mysterious aunt, who takes her from Winterstrike, which is under attack by another city, to the dead city of Tharsis. Meanwhile, the sole survivor of the Hunt – although she is dead, but animated by one of the Hunt’s starships – an alien race that saw its mission in life as “culling” other races, leaves her homeworld of Phosphorus, and eventually ends up on Mars. An event which, it transpires, happened centuries before the other narrative, and the young woman is in some way connected. And, er, that’s it. Pretty much. An interesting idea that’s not at all explored. It reads like the start of a novel. Nice writing, nice world-building, but disappointing plot.

Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon (2007, USA). Back in the day, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union appeared on several genre award shortlists, IIRC, and I read it and thought it quite good. So I stuck The Amazing Adventures of  Kavalier and Clay on my wishlist and some years later was given it as a birthday present. And then I read it, an embarrassing number of years after that, and was much more impressed. And shortly after that I found a copy of Gentlemen of the Road in a charity shop, so of course I bought it. And… Chabon writes in an afterword that to him the novel (a very short novel) was always titled “Jews with Swords”. Because to him Jews had never been associated with swords – at least not since Biblical times. I’ve never attached a religion to a weapon – people with swords are people with swords, and I’ve never really thought about the religious tradition from which they came, perhaps because in most cases in fiction that tradition was invented, and for those where it was not the context more than explained it. But “Jews with Swords” gives us a Frankish Jew estranged from his European family, and an Ethiopian Jew from tribe that no other Jew seems willing to accept, on a mission which involves the Khazars, a Turkic state which converted to Judaism, but vanished after three centuries. The two unwillingly accept a commission to take a young Khazar prince, the last survivor of the family of a deposed bek (martial leader, a sort of government CEO to the kagan’s chairperson). But they lose him to some mercenaries, who are taking him to the new bek. Except the prince persuades the mercenaries to rally his cause, and sort of builds up an army from the Muslim Khazar cities in the south of the region which the new bek had let the Vikings plunder with impunity. And… well, the big secret about the prince is pretty obvious from about a page after he’s been introduced, and the only suspense is in wondering how the two main characters can be so dumb as to not figure it out. Having said that, the history is fascinating, the characters are interesting, and, while I find Chabon’s prose a bit hit and miss, the mannered style he adopts here works well with the story. I should read more Chabon. Fortunately, I have Wonder Boys on the TBR, picked up from a charity shop at the same time as Gentlemen of the Road

Inside Moebius, Part 1, Moebius (2004, France). I came to Moebius’s work from Jodorwosky, as Moebius – Jean Giraud – illustrated Jodorowsky’s Incal series, still one of the greatest sf bandes dessinées of all time. Although, having said that, I seem to remember seeing parts of Moebius’s Airtight Garage many. many years ago. Back in the early 1980s, I used to fly out to the Middle East for holidays via Schiphol Airport, and in the bookshop there I would often pick up a copy of Heavy Metal or Epic, and even an issue of 1984 (which I had to hide once I’d discovered what it contained). I’ve a feeling that’s where I first encountered Moebius’s work. That’s all by the bye. I’ve been a fan of Moebius for many years now, so I keep an eye open for when new stuff by him appears in English (I could, I suppose, buy the original French editions, but I have enough trouble keeping track of new stuff in one language market, never mind doing it in two). Inside Moebius, originally published in in six volumes in France but now as three volumes from Dark Horse, is a sort of autobiographical private project that blossomed. Moebius wanted to give up smoking, so he started writing a bande dessinée about it, and then sort of dragged in the books he had worked on, or was currently working on, and his thoughts on a variety of subjects. Particularly politics. Osama bin Laden makes an appearance in Inside Moebius, Part 1, as do some of Moebius’s characters – Blueberry, Arzak and the Major. The art is not as detailed as in other Moebius works, it’s almost sketches, in fact. But the way the book is designed, it’s clear the words are more important. The dialogue is full of puns, many of which have not translated but a helpful afterword explains them. (For the record, I did get the “Fumetti” one.) It’s all good stuff, although I could have wished for artwork as good as that in the aforementioned works.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131



2017, the best of the year: books

2017 has been a bit of a parson’s nose of a year – or do I mean a curate’s egg? One or the other. Both the UK and the US continued their downward spiral into fascism and economic ruin, and as a result social media became really quite depressing at times. But it’s not like I have alternative sources to find out what’s going on – I gave up on newspapers years ago, and I’ve not knowingly watched a news broadcast since the 1990s.

I made a few attempts at starting writing again, but they came to nothing. I stopped reviewing too – so SF Mistressworks went on hiatus; and I’ve not had a review in Interzone since early 2016. That was down to the day job. Things have improved there over the last few months, so I hope to start reviewing again in 2018.

On the other hand, during 2017 I attended three Nordic conventions – in Uppsala, Helsinki and Copenhagen. One of them was even a Worldcon. I had a great time at all three. I plan to attend more next year.

One area in which 2017 was much like 2016 was in the culture I consumed. More films, but less books – in fact, this blog pretty much turned into a series of Moving picture film posts during the year (68 of them to date). As in previous years, I signed up to the Goodreads challenge, but I lowered my target by ten books to 140… and it looks unlikely I’ll make it. Ah well. However, I did read some very good books and watched some very good films, and discovered a few excellent writers and directors new to me.

This year I’ve decided to split my best of the year into three parts: books first, then films, and finally music. So, moving on…

As of the time of writing, I’ve read 123 books, down on last year’s 149. I’ll blog the actual stats on the books I read in a later post, as this post is about the best books I read during the year. Two are science fiction, and four are by female writers. There are also five nations represented – I think that might be a first for me. The figure in square brackets is the book’s position in my best of the half-year post here.

1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus) [1]. During a discussion on Twitter early this year about female literature Nobel laureates, I realised I’d read very few. So I decided to pick up books by a couple. Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel in 2015, writes non-fiction composed from interviews with those affected by the topic she is writing about. As the title indicates, in this book it’s the Chernobyl disaster. Alexievich spoke to those who lived in the area, and those who stayed, as well as people who worked at the power station, or were involved in fighting the disaster or cleaning up afterwards. Despite its subject, Chernobyl Prayer is a very poetic book. It’s also frightening, heart-breaking and affirming. It”s not without its detractors, people who claim Alexievich has not been entirely accurate in representing her interviewees, although I have to wonder how many of those critics only spoke up after she was awarded the Nobel. I’ve since picked up a copy of Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time, but I’ve yet to read it; and I certainly plan to read more by her.

2 Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany) [-]. Erpenbeck has been a favourite since I read her The End of Days last year (and that book took my number one spot in 2016’s best of the year). Go, Went, Gone is not genre, as that one was, but straight-up mainstream (or literary fiction, whatever label you prefer). It’s about a retired professor in Berlin, who decides to interview some refugees being housed near him and so gets dragged into their lives and stories. It’s a subject important to our time – there are refugees flooding into Europe from the Middle East and Africa, many from situations in their homelands we Western nations have created with our warmongering and economic plundering, and the least we can do is treat them like human beings, with dignity and compassion, and show that we have built societies that welcome all. While Go, Went, Gone documents Berlin’s failings in this regard, Germany still manages a fuck load better than the UK, which puts immigrants in detention centres and treats them worse than criminals. What I love about Erpenbeck’s fiction is her distant and yet clinically sharp prose, and it’s on fine form here. An important topic, beautifully written.

3 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh) [2]. Ritwak Ghatak’s A River Called Titas is one of my favourite films, so I was keen to read the novel from which it was adapted. And it’s every bit as good. However, unlike the film, it tells several stories about the Malo fisher folk of the Titas river (in what is now Bangladesh). The movie follows one particular story, that of Kishore, whose young bride is kidnapped the day after their wedding. She washes ashore at another village, but cannot remember the name of her husband’s village. Many years later, with son in tow, she tracks down her husband – only to discover he had gone mad as a result of her kidnap. The novel weaves this story in and around many others, from several villages along the Titas, a tributary of the Meghna River, one of the three rivers which forms the Ganges delta. A River Called Titash is also an ethnographic document – Mallabarman was born on the Titas, although he worked as a literary editor in Kolkata, so he knew what he was writing about. The book is as good as the film – and that’s high praise from me.

4 Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK) [-]. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read by Charnock, but this one, despite its unwieldy title (yes, I know), I thought especially good. It follows a family through the next century or so as they each decide how to have children and treat their offspring. It’s not the most dramatic of plots, but I’m frankly fucked off with science fiction insisting brutality, genocide and mega-violence are necessary in every story. It’s possible to write dramatic genre fiction that doesn’t have a high body-count, or normalise fascism or villanise certain ethnic groups… And this novel is the perfect example of how to do it. It’s not even as if it’s optimistic, although I’m not sure such an adjective applies. It just is. It’s not only that I thought Dreams Before the Start of Time a very good book, but also that it’s a type of science fiction I think we need more of. Why not tell stories that do not create false enemies of the Other, or slaughter the Other, or in any way demonise the Other? Instead, let’s have stories like Dreams Before the Start of Time. Oh, and make them as well-written as it too.

5 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA) [3]. Friends had recommended this a couple of years previously, and I’d added it to an order from publisher Aqueduct Press not too long afterward. But it took me until 2017 to get around to reading it, and then when I opened it I was hooked. Okay, it posits a post-catastrophe world and it advocates genocide – per se – for certain groups, which does seem to contradict my comments above. But in Necessary Ill, Taber creates a group of villains – the neuts – who are way more sympathetic than the people they target – ie, American men prone to, or capable of, violence. On the other hand. the novel is clear that the plan is flawed and that those who prosecute it are also flawed. The society of the neuts is really well drawn, and while the prose in Necessary Ill is no more than slightly above average for genre fiction, the world-building is cleverly done. Despite its premise it proved to be one of the most optimistic sf novels I read in 2017. More, please.

Honourable mentions: The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic) [4] off-kilter story of an anarachist utopia founded in Brazil, and its failure; Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK) [5], third book in the sf/spy thriller trilogy that isn’t a trilogy anymore, won the BSFA Award this year; Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK) a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK) an accompanying text for an exhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA) the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of GileadParty Going, Henry Green (1939, UK) a party heading for the South of France are trapped in a London railway hotel by the weather, characteristically sharp prose from Green; Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK) the story of  a young woman who becomes a best-selling romantic novelist but never manages to live in the real world; This Brutal World, Peter Chadwick (2016, UK) excellent book of photographs of Brutalist buildings; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA) epic history of comics told through the lives of a US Jew and a Czech Jew who escapes to the US prior to WWII; Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain), the second book in Mallo’s trilogy of fiction cleverly mixed with fact.

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Christmas come early

Well, not really – I mean, it is early for Christmas, not that it’s stopped the shops selling mince pies and Christmas puddings and all the other stuff you’re supposed to eat to celebrate Santa Claus’s birth in a manger, or whatever it is. I don’t listen to the radio, but I expect they’re already playing carols. That was one of the things I liked about living in the UAE, an Islamic country: there was no mention of Christmas until the day before, and it was all over by Boxing Day. Anyway, here are some recent finds which have joined the collection. I recently worked out I could probably get another four bookcases into the flat, but since a book collection expands to double-fill the bookshelves available, I’m not sure they would be a wise purchase… Although it’s not like the collection is shrinking…

Some charity shop finds to start with – these generally go back to a charity shop when I’ve read them, so they only clutter up the flat temporarily: I’ve read Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood (the latter only recently), and now I can finish off the trilogy as I’ve got MaddAddam. I’m still not convinced by Atwood’s sf, however. I also recently read Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (see here), so Gentlemen of the Road and Wonder Boys were timely finds. The Tales of Hoffmann just looked interesting. I always pick up Lessing’s novels when I see them – Martha Quest was one I’d not read. And I’m pretty sure I read Lord of the Flies at school, but that was many years ago and a read of Golding’s Rites of Passage earlier this year (see here) highly impressed me, so I thought it worth a try as an adult.

Some non-fiction. I’m a big fan of The Incal, so I’m looking forward to reading Deconstructing the Incal. Stuck on the Drawing Board is about civil aircraft that never made it into production. And who can resist a book titled Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums?

I’ve been collecting the Phoenix Editions of Lawrence’s books for a couple of years now, and The Plumed Serpent now means I have sixteen of, I think, twenty-six volumes. I saw Bodies of Summer mentioned on someone’s blog and it sounded interesting, so I bunged it onto an order from a large online retailer. After watching The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (see here), it occurred to me I’d never read anything by Alan Sillitoe, so I had a look on eBay for one to try, and found a cheap hardback of Travels in Nihilon, which sounds quite similar to Jan Morris’s Hav, so, you, know, science fiction, right?

Speaking of science fiction… I didn’t pick up a copy of Gardens of the Sun when it was published, and later discovered first editions were extremely hard to find. I’ve been looking for several years, and found this one from a US-based seller on eBay. I’ve also been picking up copies of the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy collection when I can find good condition copies. Golden Wings is the eighth book of the series.

The Faber Book of Modern Verse was 29p from a charity shop. It’s a 1960 edition, so nearly sixty years old “modern” – and the introduction states that all the poems in the book date after 1910. But that’s fine, because I actually prefer poetry from the first half of the twentieth century. Such as If Pity Departs, published in 1947. This has been on my wish list for a long time and, to be honest, I’ve forgotten why I put it on it. I suspect I came across Atthill’s name while reading about the Cairo poets – the group of British poets who were based in Egypt during WWII and include, among others, Lawrence Durrell, Keith Douglas, Terence Tiller, GS Fraser, Bernard Spencer and Olivia Manning (her The Levant Trilogy is a fictionalisation of her time there). I have several books on the subject, including a copy of the Personal Landscape anthology, and three of the Oasis anthologies published by the Salamander group. On the other hand, I could have comes across Atthil in one of the 1940s poetry anthologies I own. One of these days, I’ll have to do a post about my poetry book collection…

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Reading diary, #54

I’m slowly picking up on my reading, partly I think because I really enjoyed a recent reread of Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy. I mean, I’d remembered the books as good, but I’d been starting to forget what reading good intelligent sf was like. Although not all of the sf I’ve read recently would qualify as that…

The Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair (1973, USA). Okay, I admit it: I bought this because of the cover art. It was at the Eastercon, and it was like a quid. And I knew I could review it for SF Mistressworks (when I resurrect the blog, that is). I’d previously read a collection by St Clair, and some of her other stories in various women-only anthologies, but I think this was by first novel by her… And it wasn’t at all what I expected. In fact, it read more like Doris Piserchia than the St Clair I’d expected. The story is set after a plague – world-wide possibly, US-wide certainly; it’s hard to tell with US sf novels – in a California which has returned to a tribal agrarian culture. Sort of. The protagonist, Sam McGregor, is a bit of a rebel and doesn’t understand why the young men of the tribe must always dance under the instruction of the android Dancer. So he’s sent on a Grail Quest, which means driving down the coast in search of some sort of epiphany. Instead, he begins to relive the lives of people from earlier times, including a dead young woman being autopsied, and the inventor of the androids. To be honest, not a single bit of this novel made the slightest fucking sense. McGregor meets up with the daughter of the android inventor, who also appears to have something to do with “bone melt”, the disease which basically depopulated California, or the US, or the world. St Clair seems to have no clear idea of her story or what she wants to say. The result is a novel that doesn’t read so much as if St Clair made it up as she went along but more like a novel she couldn’t be bothered to turn into sense. It was her last.

Valerian and Laureline 18: In Uncertain Times, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2001, France). Our two heroes are still wandering the galaxy after the loss of Galaxity and, well… When a graphic novel opens with a plot diagram that makes Primer look like a straightforward narrative… Because Galaxity’s disappearance was caused by God, who lives on Hypsis with His layabout son and Whose fortunes have been declining because humans no longer worship Him… But making Galaxity never exist means Earth will now be destroyed in the 27th Century, which is even worse. So God has to go back in time and sort of undo things, along the way preventing a multinational corporation from building for themselves a godlike creature. And this somehow involves Valerian and Laureline, because Laureline’s origin (revealed in the very first book in the series) is pivotal. Or something. One of these days I’m going to have read this series in one long binge – or at least the story arc that began with Galaxity’s disappearance in volume 11, The Ghosts of Inverloch. It’s good stuff, and fascinating sf, but I’m starting to lose track of the story-arc… And there’s no way Besson could have adapted these last few volumes.

Phoenix Café, Gwyneth Jones (1997, UK).. This is the final book of Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, after White Queen and North Wind (see here), and, as can be seen, just as well-served as those books by Gollancz’s art department. The story is set a century after the events of North Wind, and the Aleutians are preparing to return to the home world. They have the Buonarotti Device, and they’ve fitted it to their worldship. Unfortunately, it seems the Device doesn’t really work for humans – they can certainly travel somewhere else instantaneously, but their time at their destination has all the concreteness of a dream. Fortunately, it works perfectly well on Aleutians. (By the time of Spirit, Jones’s last published novel, and also set in the same universe, the problem seems to have been solved for humans.) The Gender Wars have pretty mcuh split humanity into two antoginstic blocs: Women (Reformers) and Traditionalists (Men). Men believe in traditional gender roles, and keep their women veiled. The Reformist agenda is less clear. The protagonist is Catherine, a “descendant” of Clavel (the Aleutians are serial reincarnators) engineered before birth to be human. Which presents a problem: because the serial reincarnation is partly learned and requires the total immersion in the Aleutian chemical communication medium, and Catherine obviously lacks the biology to read or generate such communication. In North Wind, Clavel was Bella a half-Aleutian/half-human hybrid, but as Catherine, who is fully human, Clavel can finally atone for the rape of Johnny Guglioli in White Queen, which kicked off three hundred years of Aleutian rule, and arguably led to the Gender Wars and the destruction of the environment. Like the other two books in the trilogy, Phoenix Café is a darker novel than I remembered it. There’s a hardness, almost a brutality, to the way the characters treat each other and themselves, and in places it makes the book a difficult read. And yet, there’s a fierce intelligence in the novel too, a sense that there’s far more going on than appears on the page. Gwyneth Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and I consider her one of the best this country has produced, but it’s good to remind myself of that at times by rereading her books.

Party Going, Henry Green (1939, UK). The novel opens with a middle-aged woman entering a London railway station (I don’t think it’s named) and finding a dead pigeon. She picks up the corpse, takes it into the ladies’ toilets, washes it, and then wraps it in brown paper. She’s not entirely sure why. And after she bumps into the young woman she is there to meet (she was in service with her family as a nanny), she throws away the dead pigeon. But then she goes and retrieves it from the bin. The young woman is there to meet up with a bunch of friends who are all heading for the south of France on the boat-train. However, thick fog has closed down the station, and no trains are running. So after the party has gathered, they head into the station hotel to wait for the fog to lift. At which point, the ex-nanny is taken ill (it’s not clear if she’s just had too much to drink or is genuinely ill). Meanwhile, the party settles down in a suite, and the banter begins – mostly focusing on two women and their relationship with the young playboy who’s funding the trip to the Riviera. The fog still hasn’t lifted by five o’clock, and all the commuters have turned up to find their trains home aren’t running. So the management seal off the hotel while the station concourse fills up with angry workers. Green’s prose is beautifully done. There’s very little in the way of exposition, and what there is comes naturally from the characters. The prose is sparse and clear, and often dispenses with definite articles or pronouns in a Modernist style. The characterisation comes purely from the characters’ words and deeds. Green neither shows nor tells. It’s up to the reader to plot what’s going on, to figure out the relationships between the characters, to work out the story-arc (and, to be fair, there usually isn’t one), and to make sense of the situations Green documents. I stumbled across this omnibus of three of Green’s novels in a charity shop and was intrigued by the description of him as “the best English novelist alive” (by WH Auden, in 1952). His prose is indeed superb, and I greatly admire its clarity and its refusal to compromise. The Modernism reads a little quaint these days, and I’d sooner novelists experimented with structure rather than grammar, but every writer worth their salt should try a Green novel at least once.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA). According to my records, I received this book as a Christmas present back in 2008. I’d read Chabon’s multi-award-winning The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that year, and thought it good. So I’m a little surprised it’s taken me nearly nine years to get around to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Maybe I was put off by its size – 643 pages in this paperback edition. And, to be honest, the history of comics, or fiction about early comics history, doesn’t really interest me. Which is a shame, because The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is actually really good, much better in fact than The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The eponymous duo are not comicbook superheroes but the creators of a comicbook superhero, The Escapist, who is as successful as Superman during the 1930s and 1940s. But The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is also about Jews in New York – particularly when Europe was fighting WWII – and American Nazis, and Kavalier’s family back in Prague after the country was invaded by Germany… It’s also about stage magic – Kavalier is an amateur magician and escapologist – and real magic – the story opens with a plot to move the Golem from Prague – and broken dreams – Clay’s great love is the actor who plays The Escapist first on radio then in a film serial, but Clay chooses a “normal” life instead. I’m not entirely convinced by Chabon’s prose. There are occasions when it seems over-egged – actually, most of the time it seems over-egged. Although it’s always very readable. A prose stylist, he is not. But the story he tells is completely engrossing (okay, the whole Golem plot-thread was completely unnecessary). Such as Kavalier’s war service in Antarctica – a completely bizarre detour, but entertaining and interesting. I don’t get the comicbook history elements – or rather, while they come across as convincing, they don’t seem like plausible precursors of the comics I read as a child in the 1970s. But then, back then, I read US comics infrequently, and UK comics followed the anthology model – either WWII-set, or comical (as in Beano and Dandy). Do you know how weird it was for a British kid of the 1970s to read a comic that contained only a single strip and it wasn’t even complete? Which I guess seems like an odd aspect to notice, given the other elements in the novel. But I have no equivalent experience in those areas and am more than willing to accept the authority of Chabon’s narrative. Which all sounds a bit like cavilling, when I don’t mean it to. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was really very good indeed, and any infelicities in the prose style were offset by the novel’s breadth and depth. Recommended.

Solar, Ian McEwan (2010, UK). You know that old story about the bloke who buys some biscuits in a cafe, then sits at a table with a complete stranger. He eats one of his biscuits, and then is shocked when the other man takes one of the biscuits? McEwan turns that old chestnut into six-pages of over-baked prose in Solar. He later admits it’s a variation on an urban legend, the Unwitting Thief; but then so many parts of this books feel like variations on urban legends. McEwan also thinks airlines serve food on flights between London and Berlin – I didn’t think they bothered anymore for journeys of less than three or four hours, but perhaps I’m wrong. The protagonist is a womanising scientist who has been trading on his Nobel laureate for much of his career. He’s not so much a product of his time as a product of McEwan’s time, because he reads like a lecherous and sexist pig. His marriage is failing, his current job feels like a waste of time, and then he accidentally causes the death of his wife’s lover and frames his wife’s ex-lover for it, and uses it as a springboard to boost his own career. There’s some solid argument for anthropogenic global warming and against all the dumb climate change deniers, but everything esle in the novel is sadly quite bad. The protagonist is unlikeable, the female characters are badly drawn, elements of the plot seem to have been lifted from, and there are assorted rants against “postmodernism” – which it is not: McEwan is just ranting against critics of male white privilege. I was much impressed by McEwan’s earlier novels when I read them back in the 1990s, but this century I’ve found them increasingly disappointing. Saturday, in fact, I thought awful. I only continued to read him out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. But after Solar, I purged my TBR of McEwan’s novels and I’ll no longer bother reading him. Life is too short.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131