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100 books, part 4

The 1990s had seen me expand my reading from purely genre fiction and read more widely within science fiction and fantasy. The former was chiefly from necessity – the only library I had access to possessed a limited genre collection. The latter was due to the members of the APA I was in discussing books that sounded like they were worth reading. The APA packed in shortly after the turn of the millennium, killed by the internet.

And the internet, ironically, made it much easier to purchase the books I wanted to read. No more poring through Andromeda’s monthly mailing catalogue to find interesting new books to buy. Now there was a certain humungous online retailer of books, and eBay for the out-of-print books. (This was not necessarily a good thing.) During the 1990s, I had bought books I wanted to own and read, but after my return to the UK in 2002 I started collecting them. Buying first edition copies, preferably signed, by my favourite authors. I returned to the UK with 45 boxes filled with books, of which around 80% were paperbacks. Over the next ten years, I would end up with five bookcases, double-stacked, of hardback books.

Which brings us to…

The 2000s

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1974). I’m not a fan of this book, or of Haldeman’s work in general, but this novel makes my list because it was the first book published in the SF Masterworks series. And the first book that really turned me into a collector of books. Originally, the SF Masterworks were numbered – although they managed to screw up the numbering… twice – and ran for ten years from 1999 to 2009, ending after 73 books. Naturally, I wanted them all. The series was relaunched in 2010 in a new yellow cover design, this time unnumbered, and with a much expanded list. I have all of the numbered versions – there was a rival Fantasy Masterwork series of 50 books, which I also collected – but have only dipped into the unnumbered series, some of which appeared in the original series anyway.

The Mechanics of Wonder, Gary Westfahl (1998). While I had read plenty of science fiction, I had read almost nothing about it. The previously mentioned APA often had discussions about the nature of the genre – there are as many theories of what it is as there are sf critics – which were formative in developing my own theories of science fiction, and where I often tried those theories out on my fellow APA members. The Mechanics of Wonder had a mixed response on publication, but I remember it being one of the first popular critical works on science fiction (rather than academic, that is; or collections of book reviews) I bought and read. I agree with Westfahl that the genre of science fiction as we now understand it was created in 1926 with the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories… but I’ve pretty much forgotten what else Westfahl had to say in the book.

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990). Back in 2001, I bought the first six or so books of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series from a new bookshop in Abu Dhabi. I wanted to understand why they were so popular. I never did find out. It was the first instance I remember of reading a book (and its sequels) specifically to understand how they worked. They’re badly-written, bloated, and haphazardly plotted. The world-building is a hodge-podge of elements borrowed from other works, although it does seem to develop a character all its own as the series progresses. But it’s a mystery to me how the Wheel of Time ever became a best-seller. For some reason I have yet to work out, this year I decided to reread them all (to be fair, I’d never managed previously to make it to the final few volumes). Amusingly, people who had recommended the books twenty years ago now told me the books were rubbish. I knew that already.

Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (1987). British comics tradition, unlike that of the US or France, has always been anthology-based – ie, each issue contains multiple strips, which may be standalone or part of a story spread across multiple issues. As a kid, I’d moved on from Beano and Dandy to war comics such as Warlord and Victory, which were popular then. Then 2000AD appeared, and that was the comic for me (plus Starlord and Tornado, which 2000AD later subsumed). I was never a big fan of US superhero comics, but growing up in the Middle East they were all that was available. The only superhero titles I remember reading from that time were The X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy, but I undoubtedly read others. I forget where I heard about Watchmen, and, to be honest, until I came to write this post I had thought I’d read it much early than after the millennium… but apparently not. It wasn’t just the main narrative that impressed me, but also that Moore had buttressed it with other narratives: some comic strips, some prose. Watchmen made me look afresh at superhero comics, particularly those published as “graphic novels”. My renewed appreciation of superhero comics did not last long – I gave up on them a second time a few years later. Oh, and for the record, the film adaptation of Watchmen has its flaws, but its ending is superior to the comic’s.

The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1980).
Valérian and Laureline 4: Welcome to Alflolol, Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières (1972). One of the reasons I turned my back on superhero comics was the new easy availability of French/Belgian bandes dessinées – initially English-language translations published only in the US, but also original French copies, sold on eBay; but then from publisher Cinebooks, who introduced a number of popular and long-running bandes dessinées series to the UK market. Some of these were not new to me. During the 1980s, when flying out to the Middle East for the holidays we would transit through Schiphol Airport, and there I would often buy copies of Heavy Metal, 1984 and Epic magazines. In Abu Dhabi in the 1990s, I stumbled across a few volumes of Valérian and Laureline, as well as individual volumes of the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, and Yoko Tsuno, all published as one-offs some time in the 1980s. But I didn’t start reading Valérian and Laureline (and Blake and Mortimer) in earnest until Cinebook began publishing them in the mid-2000s. Moebius, of course, I knew from Heavy Metal. Jodorowsky I discovered through his films, probably after hearing of his attempt at adapting Dune, and then learning he had written a highly-regard science fiction bande dessinée. Unlike superhero comics, I still read bandes dessinées, and there are a number of series I follow.

The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1977 – 1980). I think I set out to read this book, and its prequel, The Balkan Trilogy, specifically because Manning was in Egypt during World War 2 at the same time as Lawrence Durrell, and both were part of a community of British writers in North Africa. Which is partly where Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet came from. But I loved both of Manning’s trilogies, and hunted round for more of her fiction. Her books also kindled an interest in British postwar fiction by women writers, and I sought out female authors who had been active between the 1930s and 1960s. It proved to be a larger project than I’d anticipated, and many of the books were long out of print, but I did find some interesting works by the likes of Storm Jameson, Pamela Frankau, Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) and Susan Ertz, Taylor especially becoming a favourite writer.

The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Robert Irwin (1999). I remember reading this in a hotel in Altrincham. I was in the city for a two-day training course. Despite growing up in the Middle East, I knew very little about early Arab history and culture – although I did know the history of the countries in which I’d lived, Qatar, Oman and the UAE, and to some extent, Saudi Arabia. But I knew nothing about the Abbasids and the Ummayads and so on. The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, originally published as Night and Horses and the Desert, proved fascinating stuff, and triggered an interest in mediaeval Arabic literature.

Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007). My father had seen a review of Ascent in a newspaper and mentioned the book in passing. I found a review in another paper and, yes, it seemed very much a book I wanted to read. But then I promptly forgot about it… until a visit to Waterstone’s some months later where I saw piles of Ascent on one of the tables just inside the doors. I bought it, I read it, and I fell in love with the detail-oriented prose. I wanted to write like that. And Ascent did indeed become a touchstone work when I was writing the Apollo Quartet. It’s hard to overstate how much it inspired my writing of those books. I’ve kept an eye open for works by Mercurio ever since, although these days he’s better known for his TV work than his novels. I can certainly recommend An American Adulterer, but Bodies was a bit too gruesome for me (and I’m unlikely to ever watch the TV series). I’m eagerly awaiting more fiction from Mercurio, but meanwhile we have his Line of Duty TV series, which has proven to be one of the best thriller series on British television in recent years.

Moondust, Andrew Smith (2005). I don’t actually remember the Moon landings – I was only six when Apollo 17 landed in the Taurus-Littrow valley. I do, however, recall watching on television the ASTP orbital rendezvous in 1975. I forget why I read Moondust, possibly a copy I found in a charity shop. I’d bought a couple of the Apogee mission reports several years before after finding them in an Abu Dhabi bookshop, and was fascinated by the engineering involved in the Moon landings. But Moondust deepened my interest – so much so I started hunting for astronaut autobiographies and other books about the US space programme. I call these “enthusiasms”, an interest that takes you over so much you build up an extensive library on the subject. I even went so far as to start up a website, A Space About Books About Space, where I reviewed the books on the topic I read. Sadly, the site has been moribund since 2013. I really should start contributing to it again, but all my books are now in storage. The books I bought, incidentally, proved extremely useful when writing the Apollo Quartet.

Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005). I became aware of Duchamp’s Aqueduct Press, an explicitly feminist genre small press based in the US, when it published Gwyneth Jones’s Life. I think the first three books of Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle were on sale, and they sounded interesting, so I ordered them. I read the first book and thought it was good. But it wasn’t until I had all five books that I read the rest – in fact, I reread Alanya to Alanya and then worked my way through the sequels. It is among the best first contact science fiction ever published. Elizabeth Weatherall is one of the genre’s great characters. The Marq’ssan Cycle made me a fan of Duchamp’s writing as well as her Aqueduct Press, and now I now buy her books as soon as they are published. Her work has also impacted how I read other science fiction works, due to its explicitly feminist approach, particularly those by female sf authors of the 1940s to the 1980s.

Poems, John Jarmain (1945). At one point in the decade, I frequented the Interzone forum online, and somehow or other found myself spending most of my time in its poetry forum. I’d been a fan of Wilfred Owen and his poetry since the early 1990s, had read several biographies of him, and could even quote two or three poems from memory. I had also explored other poetry of the Great War. The Durrell connection to Olivia Manning had led to an exploration of the Salamander and Personal Landscape groups of writers and poets based in North Africa during World War II. Which included John Jarmain. I tracked down a copy of his poetry collection, and even his sole novel, Priddy Barrows. He was killed in France in 1944. Neither of his books made it past their first printing – and copies of Priddy Barrows now go for around £200 – and he was mostly forgotten, until the publication of a book about him in 2012. Jarmain – and the Interzone forum – kicked off an interest in poetry, particularly that of the 1930s and 1940s, and I bought several anthologies published during that period – one even included a review slip – and discovered several poets who became favourites, such as Bernard Spencer and Terence Tiller.

Postwar Military Aircraft 4: Avro Vulcan, Andrew Brookes (1985). I forget what triggered it – perhaps it was a rewatch of the film Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart – but in the late 2000s, I decided I wanted to read about jet bombers, especially Cold War ones; and this became another “enthusiasm”. Postwar Military Aircraft 4: Avro Vulcan was the first book on the subject I read (and I eventually picked up copies of all seven books in the series). I remembered the Avro Vulcan from my childhood and teen years, and I’d always thought it a fascinating aircraft. Over several years, I bought lots of books on various fighters and bombers from US, USSR and UK. Although not as long-lived an enthusiasm as my space one – and I never did really get to use Cold War supersonic bombers in my fiction writing, despite the joke coining of a new subgenre, jetpunk – I still ended up buying far too many books on the topic. A lot of them I had to get rid of when I moved.

The Raj Quartet, Paul Scott (1966 – 1975). Like pretty much every Brit of my age, I had seen The Jewel in the Crown television series back in the early 1980s, and was aware it was an adaptation of a series of books. I stumbled across paperback copies one day in a charity shop – 69p each, buy one get one free; so I got the full quartet for the princely sum of £1.38. As soon as I started reading the books, I loved them. Scott’s control of voice was amazing, and Barbara Batchelor is one of British Postwar fiction’s greatest characters. As someone who had grown up in the Middle East, the books spoke to me in other ways as well. I immediately started collecting Scott’s books, and even tracked down copies of his earlier works, most of which are long out of print.

The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison (1961). I first read this back in the early 1980s. I suspect I bought the book in the school bookshop mentioned in an earlier post. But in 2009, I set myself a reading challenge: to reread science fiction novels I’d loved as a teenager. And I had loved The Stainless Steel Rat – and, in fact, had bought and read the series throughout the 1980s – but, oh dear, the reread did not go well. I absolutely hated the book. It was piss-poor science fiction – you could have moved the plot to the 1960s, with only superficial changes needed – and the treatment of the villain, Angelina, was hugely offensive. I purged my bookshelves of all my Harry Harrison novels. Just because you loved a book as a teen, that does not make it a good book or worth recommending to other people. Reread the book. If you still like and admire it, fair enough. You probably won’t, though. They say the Golden Age of science fiction is thirteen, but my reread of The Stainless Steel Rat, and some of the other books in that same reading challenge, brought that aphorism rudely home.

First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, James R Hansen (2005)
Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974)
Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin (1973). This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landings, but back in 2009, as part of the fortieth anniversary celebrations, I decided to read the autobiographies – biography in Armstrong’s case – of the three Apollo 11 astronauts and review them on my A Space About Books About Space blog. Which I did. But I also wanted to write an alternate history story about the Apollo programme as part of my blog’s celebration. Unfortunately, I got stuck about 500 words in, and failed to finish it in time for the anniversary. Several months later, the writing group I was in put on a flash fiction competition and it occurred to me my alternate Apollo might work better as flash fiction. It did. I banged out an additional 500 words, titled the story ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’, and published it on A Space About Books About Space here. I had enjoyed the process of researching and writing the story so much I wanted to try something similar at a longer length… and that’s where Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the Apollo Quartet, came from. I would subsequently read many more books on space exploration over the next few years as research for my writing.


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Reading diary, #22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die count: 122


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2015, the best of the year

On balance, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for me. Things improved in $dayjob, goodish things happened in my little corner of genre, and I read a number of excellent books and watched lots of excellent films. Music-wise, it was both successful and not so successful: I discovered some more new bands on Bandcamp, and this year we went VIP for Bloodstock and it really was worth the extra money; but I saw fewer bands live than in previous years, and none of my favourite ones toured the UK – and if they did, it was only in the big cities, like London, Birmingham or Glasgow. But, like I said, some excellent books and films – so much so, I had trouble picking my top five in each. But I did finally manage it.

Oh, and I got a new cat. Oscar. He’s two years old, and I’d forgotten how much of a pain young cats can be.

books
A strange year of reading, on reflection, and I’m not entirely sure why. I read some books as research for All That Outer Space Allows (which was published this year), I read some other non-fiction books (on space and aircraft and submersibles, mostly), I read some sf novels for SF Mistressworks and some more recent genre works… And I decided to widen my reading to include more classic literature. While I like to think of myself primarily as a science fiction fan, of late I’ve found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for recent sf. In part, that’s due to the way fandom is changing as a result of social media and online promotion, but also because a lot of current sf seems to me more interested in style rather than content. I like sf ideas and sense of wonder, but I also like good writing, sophisticated themes and a willingness to experiment with form and structure. While some works which meet those criteria were indeed published in 2015, those I came across didn’t feel especially progressive. Which is why you’ll notice a few notable titles missing from my top five below (and I have only one, in fact, that was actually published in 2015).

loving1 Loving, Henry Green (1945).
An author new to me in 2015, and despite being about a subject – life belowstairs in the Irish country house of an English nob during WWII – that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Green’s writing was wonderful and his narrative technique amazing. I will be reading more by him – hell, I plan to read everything he ever wrote.

wolves2 Wolves, Simon Ings (2014).
There was some small fuss when this appeared in early 2014, but by the time awards came around it had been forgotten. Which was a shame. And I wished I’d read it in time to nominate it last year – because this is plainly one of the best sf novels of 2014. The focus of his novel tends to drift a little as the story progresses, but Ings has still managed to produce one of the smartest works of sf – if not the smartest work of sf – of the last few years.

grasshopperschild3 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014).
A new Gwyneth Jones novel is cause for celebration, even if it’s a YA addendum to the non-YA Bold as Love quintet. But there’s a reason Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and they’re all evident in this short novel. On the one hand, this is a smart YA novel and I’m no fan of YA fiction; on the other, it’s Gwyneth Jones and her Bold as Love world. But it’s also self-published, so it needs to be on as many best-of lists as possible so that Jones keeps on writing. (And why was it self-published? Do the major UK genre imprints not want to publish new work by the country’s best sf writer?)

darkoribt4 Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015).
I’ve been saying for years that Gilman is a name to watch, and she has at last been given the opportunity to demonstrate it to a wider audience. (She amply demonstrated it with her fantasy diptych from ChiZine Publications back in 2011/2012, but genre commentators can only apparently see what appears from major imprints – which is, if you’ll forgive me, fucking short-sighted). Anyway, Dark Orbit deservedly received a lot of positive reviews, and though to me it didn’t quite feel like Gilman firing on all cylinders, it showed great promise. More from her, please.

bone_clocks5 The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014).
Friends have been singing the praises of Mitchell for years, but I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was clever… but it did seem a little over-praised. But The Bone Clocks is the novel that all the praise had led me to believe Cloud Atlas was. It’s his most insightful yet – and also his most genre.

Honourable mentions: a few titles got bumped from best of the half-year top five, although they were excellent books and probably didn’t deserve to be demoted – namely, The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958), a classic of Italian twentieth-century literature (a bloody good film too); A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975), the final book of the Raj Quartet and as beautifully written as the other three; and What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013), wich showcases why he remains one of my favourite genre short story writers. Also read and noteworthy were: Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), a literate mystery based on an interestingly odd premise; Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962), my first by him and, though perhaps overly prissy, excellent; One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011), a bawdy, and multiply-nested retelling of some of its title’s stories; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), her beautifully-written debut novel; and Galactic Suburbia, Lisa Yaszek (2008), used for research and a fascinating read.

films
I went all-out on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list in 2015. So much so, in fact, that I signed up with a second DVD rental service, Cinema Paradiso, because they had some films from the list that weren’t available on Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. And I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick too, which gave me access to even more movies. Meanwhile, I purged my DVD collection of all the superhero films (why did I buy them in the first place?) and the shit sf movies (why did I buy them in the first place?), not to mention lots of other films I’d bought over the years. My collection is now looking very different, much more of cineaste’s collection (even though I say so myself), with lots of works by Sokurov, Dreyer, Murnau and Benning – and from earlier years, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Haneke, among many others.

The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die challenge has been… interesting. It introduced me to the works of James Benning. I’ve also seen a lot of not very good films that really didn’t belong on the list (mostly from Hollywood, it has to be said). And I’ve seen a lot of early cinema, most of which proved quite interesting. Only one of the five films in my top five was not a “discovery” from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

playtime1 Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967)
How could this not be my number one choice? It certainly was halfway back in June, and it remains so now at the end of the year. I loved its Brutalist production design, its situational humour, its wit… it is a work of cinematic genius. I’d watched a rental DVD but I loved it so much I bought a Blu-ray copy for myself… and then bought a boxed set of Blu-rays of Tati’s entire oeuvre. A film that went straight into my personal top ten best films of all time.

deseret2 Deseret, James Benning (1995)
Ever loved a film so much you went out and bought every DVD you could find by that director? Oh wait, I did that for Tati. But I also did it for Benning. Fortunately, Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have been releasing Benning’s films on DVDs the last couple of years, so there were a few for me to get. And yet… Deseret is static shots of Utah landscape, and later cityscape, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1895 to the present day. It is cinema as art installation. And I loved it. I am now a huge Benning fan. And I have all of the DVDs that Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have released. And am eagerly awaiting more.

shepitko3 Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966)
Shepitko’s Ascent is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the only copy of it I could find was a Criterion double with Wings. I bought it. I watched Ascent. It was good. But then I watched Wings. And it was so much better. A female fighter pilot of the Great Patriotic War, and Hero of the Soviet Union, is now the principal of a school. It’s an artful juxtaposition, more so because the protagonist is female. And it was Shepitko’s debut film. War films, like Ascent, strike me as too easy as choices for assorted lists, but the social drama versus war of Wings is much more interesting. This film should have been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d also like to see more by Shepitko.

elegy_voyage4 Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)
Come on, you didn’t expect me not to have a Sokurov film on this list, did you? I’m being nice by not putting five on it. Well, okay, five maybe could have made it, but one was a rewatch from previous years and so didn’t count. But four could have done. (Yes, the other three are in my honourable mentions below.) Elegy of a Voyage is one of Sokurov’s documentaries, but it’s more of a meditation than an informational film, in which Sokurov muses on journeys and art, particularly ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Bruegel.

cleo5 Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962). I have found the Nouvelle Vague to be something of a mixed bag – in fact, I’ve found the oeuvres of Nouvelle Vague directors to be something of a mixed bag. But the only Varda I’d seen prior to Cleo from 5 to 7 was a documentary from 2000. Cleo from 5 to 7 may have covered similar ground to some of Godard’s 1960s films, but it does it so much better. Loved it.

Honourable mentions: two films were dropped from my best of the half year list, one a Sokurov, one a documentary: Jodorowskys Dune (2013) is a fascinating look at a major sf film that never happened, but still left its fingerprints all over sf cinema; Stone (1992) is a typically enigmatic drama from Sokurov… but I could just as easily mention Whispering Pages (1994; which he knocked together after his financing fell apart, but it still manages to hit all those Sokurovian notes), or Spiritual Voices (1995; a documentary about Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan border whose first 40 minutes are a static shot of a Siberian wood). But there’s also Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), nearly as good as Playtime; James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014), an excellent documentary on his visit to Challenger Deep, only the third person to do so; American Dreams (lost and found) (1984), another Benning piece with an unconventional narrative; Salt of the Earth, Herbert J Biberman (1954), an astonishing piece of social realism drama that deserves to be better known; Sleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959), easily the best of the Disney feature films. Day Of Wrath (1943) was another excellent film from Dreyer, Effi Briest (1974) was I thought the best of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I watched, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was a Jean-Luc Godard that I was surprised to find I liked very much.

albums
I spent much of the year further exploring Bandcamp, and so stumbled across yet more excellent music. I did not, however, see much music live this year – Sólstafir were excellent back in February, Voices and Winterfylleth were very good in September, and highlights of this year’s Bloodstock included Ne Obliviscaris, Sumer, Opeth and Agalloch.

1 Sidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013)
Spanish progressive death metal, not unlike NahemaH (also Spanish, and a favourite band… although they disbanded last year). It seems a little unfair to describe a group’s sound by how much like another band’s it is, but metal these days is such a wide and diverse genre labels are often next to useless. Apocynthion play prgressive metal with clean and growl vocals, some death metal song structures, sound effects and samples, a heavy post-metal influence and a great deal of technical ability.

panopticon2 Autumn Eternal, Panopticon (2015)
Panopticon’s Kentucky from 2013, with its mix of black metal and bluegrass, is an astonishing album… but I picked it for my best of last year. Their new album (I say “their” but it’s a one-man show) mixes folky acoustic parts with intense black metal, and it works really well.

3 Ghostwood, Navigator (2013)
This is polished progressive rock with a little bit of djent thrown into the mix, with solid riffs and some catchy hooks. They described themselves as “for fans of Porcupine Tree”, although I think this album is better than most of that band’s albums.

grorr4 Anthill, Grorr (2012)
A relatively recent discovery this one, Grorr play progressive death metal, but more like Gojira than, say, Opeth. There’s all sorts in here – bagpipes, sitar, various types of drums. It’s a wonderfully varied album, but still coherent.

5 An Act of Name Giving, Butterfly Trajectory (2015)
Anothe rrecent discovery. Butterfly Trajectory also play progressive death metal – there seems to be a common theme to this top five… They’re from Poland, and while their sound is quite Opeth-ish, they’re a good deal better than fellow countrymen Gwynbleidd who play similar material. Butterfly Trajectory seem to like their progressive bits a tad more than their death metal bits, which works really well.

Honourable mentions: Worst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015), French progessive death metal with plenty of other musical styles thrown in, excellent stuff; Kyrr, Kontinuum (2015), Icelandic post-metal, a little more commercial than fellow countrymen Sólstafir… whose Ótta (2015) and Svartir Sandar (2011) are excellent heavy post-metal albums; Cold and the Silence, Martriden (2015), yet more shredding from excellent medlodic death metal group, who seem to have gone a bit funkily progressive with this new album, and it works really well; and finally, RAMA, RAMA (2015), which is a weird mix of doom, stoner, psychedelic and desert rock all in a three-song EP.


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Reading diary, #14

In an effort to increase my reading, I’ve decided to spend an hour reading without distractions as soon as I get home from work. Previously, I’d either be straight onto the computer, making dinner, or watching telly. I’m still chipping slowly away at the TBR, but there are so many books on it I want to read. I’d also like to tackle some weightier books, without spending a whole month on a single novel. I’ve averaged around 150 books a year for the past five or six years, but that’s been steadily dropping from a high of around 220 back in the late 1990s. But that was when I was in Abu Dhabi, where the telly was shit and I had no internet connection at home…

malechildA Male Child, Paul Scott (1956). Scott’s Raj Quartet is an astonishing set of novels and, for good reason, considered a classic of postwar British literature. I loved and admired it so much, I started collecting Scott’s other novels – not an easy task as only the Raj Quartet, and its sequel, Staying On, remain in print. But I managed it. And… The Raj Quartet is definitely a high-water mark in his writing career. Which is not to say his other books are bad. They’re just… not as interesting. I can see how for their time they might be a little out-of-the-ordinary, but from the twenty-first century I suspect the differences are too slight to stand out. A Male Child is set in 1947, just after the war has finished. The narrator, Ian Canning, has returned to the UK after service in India. During the war, he caught a tropical disease and has suffered from ill health ever since. He doesn’t have much of a career – he was a publisher’s reader before the war, and he tries to pick this up again. Then he bumps into Alan Hurst, a fellow officer and friend from India, who suggests the narrator writes a biography of HUrst’s aunt, a popular writer during the 1910s and 1920s. To this end, he suggests Canning comes to live with him and his mother – given Canning’s flat was sublet to a friend while he was in India and said friend is reluctant to vacate, it seems a good idea. He’s given the bedroom of Hurst’s younger brother, killed during the War, and idolised by their mother, in a large house that once belonged to the family but has now been broken up into flats. The plot is basically Canning trying to come to terms with civilian life and his illness, while caught up in a somewhat uncomfortable family situation. It’s a nice, well-observed piece of prose, with some lovely writing. But there’s little in it to stand out.

divingDiving for Science, Edward H Shenton (1972). The subtitle to this book does a pretty good job of describing its contents: “The Story of the Deep Submersible”. It’s a potted history, and a rough guide to the workings, of research submersibles, chiefly those which descend to around 2,000 feet or deeper. Some of the more interesting incidents in which submersibles have been involved – Trieste’s descent to Challenger Deep, the sinking and recovery of DSV Alvin, the hunt for the USS Thresher, the recovery of a lost USAF atom bomb off the coast of Spain, the Ben Franklin two-thousand mile underwater journey – are mentioned, but in no great detail. There’s a chapter on how submersibles function, and another on their legal certification. An appendix lists details for every submersible built up to that point. The book does point out that by 1970, their use was beginning to wane, and many had been mothballed – chiefly because they’re expensive to build and run, and cheaper options were available. These days, of course, ROVs and AUVs are more often used than actual submersibles and, except for James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger and four bathyscaphes built and operated by China (there’s very little info about these online), the handful of deep-diving submersibles currently operating are generally limited to 20,000 feet (6,000 metres). Despite being more than forty years old, this is still a useful book.

dreamshipsDreamships, Melissa Scott (1992). I’ve always suspected that if I’d come across Scott’s novels in the 1980s I’d have probably started following her career. Admittedly, this is only the third novel by her I’ve read, but I did really like the previous two, Shadow Man and The Kindly Ones. But Scott’s books were not easy to find in the UK back then – only her Silence Leigh trilogy and The Kindly Ones appear to have been published here. Having said all that, Dreamships was a little disappointing. Anyway, a review of it will be appearing soon on SF Mistressworks.

exploring_deepExploring the Deep Frontier, Sylvia A Earle & Al Giddings (1980). I don’t normally bother to mention coffee table books, especially ones published by National Geographic (not that I own many of them, in fact I think this is the only one). But Exploring the Deep Frontier is a pretty good run-through of underwater exploration – the history and the state-of-the-art as of 1980 – and, unsurprisingly, contains a number of especially nice photographs. That’s Earle there on the cover in a JIM suit. She also leads an all-female team in the Tekton underwater habitat, rides in a submersible, and dives in various places around the world. She provides the text of the book, which switches between her own first-person experiences, and a quick history of underwater exploration. Giddings is the photographer. A pretty book. It’s just a shame my copy is so tatty (an eBay purchase, natch), but given it’s 36 years old I suppose that’s understandable. It’s also sadly disappointing that Exploring the Deep Frontier is subtitled “The Adventure of Man in the Sea” when the author is a woman and the bulk of the text covers her adventures.

wolvesWolves, Simon Ings (2014). I missed reading this earlier in the year even though it was shortisted for the BSFA Award. (It lost out to the disappointing Ancillary Sword.) I’d actually read five of the eight shortlisted books, but had I read Wolves when I filled in my ballot I might well have made it my first choice. I’m surprised it didn’t make it the Clarke. Anyway, the narrator works for a start-up which is developing Augmented Reality – a combination of Google Glasses, Heads-Up Displays and VR – which is bought out by a media mogul. Much of the novel, however, covers the narrator’s past, when he grew up in a hotel used chiefly as a hospice for blinded soldiers, who were fitted with a form of seeing-eye technology by his inventor father. His mother suffered from mental health problems, and would often disappear often to some Greenham Common-type protest camp for weeks at a time. One day, he finds her body in the boot of his father’s car. She has committed suicide. Too scared to tell his father, he disposes of the body himself. It is never found. The mystery of her “disappearance” is one of the narrative threads in Wolves. Another describes the slow collapse of country (I may be misremembering, but I don’t think its setting is categorically stated). And then there’s the identity of the mogul, who proves to be one of his father’s patients all those years ago. The plot is perhaps a little confused in places, but the writing is excellent, the dark surreal tone extremely well done, and, like Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, I’m surprised this book didn’t generate more of a fuss when it was published. But then, like Theroux’s novel, it’s not the sort of book that fits in with the genre’s current narrative…

steersmanThe Lost Steersman, Rosemary Kirstein (2003). I stumbled across the first book of this series, The Steerswoman, in a charity shop several years ago and bought it because I vaguely recalled someone telling me it was good. I really liked it – and said so in my review on SF Mistressworks (here). I liked the sequel, The Outskirter’s Secret, even more (see here). So it’s fair to say I had high expectations of The Lost Steersman. And… it sort of almost nearly met them. Rowan is now in the port town of Alemeth after leaving the Outskirts. There’s a Steerswomen’s Annex there, so she hopes to consult its thousands of volumes for more clues about Routine Bioform Clearance, the spell which opens up new lands to the east and so allowing for human expansion, but which appears to have stopped and is being misused by the evil wizard Slado. But the Alemeth steerswoman has died and has left the Annex in a right state, so Rowan has to get it all sorted out. And then demons, creatures from the Outskirts, begin to attack the town… Although couched in the language of fantasy, this is clearly science fiction, and Kirstein cleverly reveals more of the ecology of the world as Rowan investigates. Unfortunately, the first half of the novel is slow and a bit dull, and things only begin to get really interesting when Rowan sails south looking for Slado’s hidden fortress. She doesn’t find it – but what she does find tells the reader more about the world than it tells Rowan. They’re good books, these. The paperbacks are long out of print, but they’re still available as ebooks. Worth getting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116


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Best of the half year, 2015

It’s that time of the year again, time to look back at the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, and the albums I’ve listened to, and decide which five earn a place on the much-coveted best of the half-year lists. To put these lists into perspective, I have – by 20 June – bought twelve albums (all from bandcamp), watched 234 films (which does include a number of rewatches), and read 74 books (which includes half a dozen previously read books). I’ve also been documenting my reading in a series of Reading diary posts (currently at #7, with #8 to be posted shortly), and my film-watching in a series of Moving pictures posts (fifteen so far this year).

So far, 2014 has felt like quite a good year. To date I’ve read 74 books, which is a slight dip from this time last year but up on the year before. And in both years I comfortably managed to read 150 books (which is just as well as I’ve entered 150 books for my GoodReads 2015 Book Challenge). On the film front, I have as usual failed to make it to the cinema even once, so most of my movie-watching has been on DVD – and I’ve started buying Blu-rays more often now too. Most of those DVDs were rentals, which has helped so far knock sixty titles of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not all of which, incidentally, I’m convinced belonged on the list. I’ve also spent the year so far tracking down copies of films on DVD by my favourite directors, especially Aleksandr Sokurov. I now own all but one of his DVDs, but since the only copies of it I’ve found are priced around £200 to £250 I might have to use – kof kof – “alternative” sources. Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of films – 238 to date. Some of them I’ve watched more than once. Finally, music… which has not been as successful this year as books or films. I’ve spent most of my time listening to groups on bandcamp, and have consequently discovered a number of excellent bands – in fact, all of the ones mentioned in this post were purchased there. I’ve only been to two gigs this year – one was Sólstafir, who were excellent; the second was half a dozen bands at a gig sponsored by Femetalism. None of my favourite bands have released new albums so far this year, although one or two have releases planned later in the year.

Anyway, here are the lists, with the usual honourable mentions as well.

books
whatdoctororderedspread0What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, but his short fiction has always been more impressive than his novels. And this new collection – only his second since 1990’s The Brains of Rats – amply demonstrates why Blumlein is such a brilliant short story writer. A much undersung writer who deserves to be better known. Incidentally, Centipede Press have done a lovely job with the book.

grasshopperschildThe Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from a favourite author. It’s actually a YA novel set in the universe of the not-YA Bold as Love quintet. There is a fierce intelligence to Jones’s books which shines through her prose, and it’s one of the reasons I consider her the UK’s best science fiction writer currently being published – except she isn’t these days, as The Grasshopper’s Child was self-published. Seriously, that shouldn’t be happening.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975). The final book of the Raj Quartet, and what a piece of work the quartet is. Scott is superb at handling voices, and in Barbie Batchelor has created one of fiction’s great characters – although this book belongs more to Guy Perron, a gentleman NCO keen to return to the UK now the war is over, but who comes into the orbit of the Layton family (who have been a constant presence running through all four books). I’m already looking forward to rereading the quartet.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I watched the film of this and that persuaded me to read the book. And I’m glad I did. There are Lawrentian elements to it, although a story which valorises the aristocracy and (mostly) presents the lower classes as venal in order to demonstrate the coming of a new world order… would not be my first choice of reading. But Tomasi di Lampedusa manages to give his fading nobles an air of tragedy as their time passes, even if the Salina family’s paternalism feels like a relic of a much earlier age.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). Another favourite author. This novel is set in the same universe as Gilman’s excellent novellas ‘The Ice Owl’ and ‘Arkfall’, and while some elements of the novel are not entirely successful, it does make use of some heavy concepts and it handles them really well. A science fiction novel that makes you think – and we really could do with more of them these days.

Honourable mentions. A pair of polished collections – The Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999), and Adam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013), not every story in them worked, but the good ones were very good indeed. Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), which surprisingly seems to have been missed by much of sf fandom, which is a shame. A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014), a pulp detective tale with a failed Hitler as the hero shouldn’t work, but this blackly comic take on it definitely does. Touch, Claire North (2015), is perhaps not as successful as last year’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, as its fascinating premise is married to a weak plot; but never mind.

As usual, I’ve been collecting stats on my reading. And it breaks down as follows…

decade2015

I hadn’t realised I’d read so many recent books, and I’ve no idea why the 1980s is the next most popular decade – perhaps it’s due to the books I picked to review for SF Mistressworks. The one nineteenth century book was HG Wells, the two 1920s ones were DH Lawrence.

gender2015

I alternate genders when choosing fiction books to read, but I seem to have slipped up somewhere, and women writers currently outnumber men in my reading.

genre2015

It never feels like I read a lot of science fiction, but at almost half of my reading I guess I must be doing so. Mainstream is the next highest genre, but only twenty percent. To be fair, it seems the mainstream books are often more memorable than the genre ones. But at least the numbers explain the good showing by genre in my top five and honourable mentions.

films
playtimePlaytime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I’d never actually seen a Tati film until I rented Les Vacances de M Hulot last August. I enjoyed it, but something I read somewhere persuaded me to add his Playtime to my rental list. And I watched it for the first time early this year. And loved it so much, I bought a Blu-ray of it. And then I spotted that a Tati Blu-ray collection was on offer on Amazon, so I bought that too. But none of Tati’s other films blew me away as much as Playtime, although Mon Oncle comes a close second (and so makes my honourable mentions below).

elegy_voyageElegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). I’ve watched this three times since I bought it, as part of my 2015 love affair with Sokurov’s films. As the title suggests, the film is a meditation on travel, and art, with Sokurov in voiceover describing a journey he takes which ends up at a museum in, I think, a German city. Elegy of a Voyage is everything that Sokurov does so well, that makes a film a Sokurov film. Not to mention the somewhat idiosyncratic artistic choices Sokurov makes, such as using a 4:3 aspect ratio, distorting the image so it almost resembles a painting, and the use of colour filters to further distance the viewer from the picture. The beauty of Sokurov’s films is not that they bear repeated viewings, but that they require it.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). This year I also became a fan of Dreyer’s films – his Gertrud had been a favourite for a couple of years – but in 2015 I bought DVDs of all his available movies. And worked my way through them. The silent films are astonishingly modern – especially The Passion of Joan of Arc – but I do prefer the later films, and after Gertrud, Day Of Wrath is I think his next best – and like Gertrud, it’s about women and women’s roles in society, but this time set in 1623 and describing how a young woman saves her mother from a charge of witchcraft by marrying the local pastor. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA). One of the reasons I bought a Blu-ray player capable of playing multi-region Blu-rays was because I wanted to see this film – to date it has not been released in the UK. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the unmade film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, which only exists in concept art by Chris Foss, Moebius and HR Giger… and a complete storyboard “bible” which Jodorowsky’s producers sent to a number of US studios. A fascinating look at what could have been a fascinating film.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). A young man looks after the house Chekhov once lived in, and then one night a man who might be Chekhov mysteriously appears… Filmed in black and white, elliptical and, in the second half, featuring Sokurov’s trademark timelapse photography of a snowy landscape. While Elegy of a Voyage is a documentary, this is fiction, but deeply allusive fiction – which is why I woke up the morning after watching this and discovered I’d gone and ordered a pair of Chekhov books from Amazon…

Honourable mentions. Fear Eats The Soul, Effi Briest and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, 1974 and 1979, Germany), and all from a DVD box set I received for Christmas, these were I felt the best three. The Big Red One, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA), I’m not a big fan of WWII films but this is a good one, and even manages to rise above what is obviously a smaller budget than most such films get. Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati (1958, France), more modernist low-key humour, which may not be as cinematically beautiful as Playtime, but comes a close second. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew White (2014, USA), another Blu-ray not available in the UK which motivated my purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, this documentary covers Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep in 2012. Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France), although not a Godard fan I do love some of his films, such as this one, a study of a bored housewife who works on the side as a prostitute; I’ve already bunged the Criterion DVD on my wishlist. Whispering Pages and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994 and 1995, Russia), a completely opaque drama and a deeply philosophical documentary (about Russian soldiers), yet more evidence of my admiration for Sokurov’s works. Moscow does not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov (1980, USSR), an odd drama about three women in Moscow in the 1950s and the 1970s, which makes a pleasing antidote to US “evil empire” propaganda. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra (1995, India), a superior Bollywood film about UK-based NRIs and arranged marriages, with amusingly broad comedy, well-staged musical numbers and a pair of likeable leads. The Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary), my first Tarr and probably the most plot-full of his films, and while I’m still not quite plugged into his brand of slow cinema, it’s definitely the sort of cinema that appeals to me.

As with books, I’ve been collecting stats on the films I’ve watched…

filmnation

I still seem to be watching mostly American films, but that’s likely because so many on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are American – or, at the very least, the US ones are easier to find (ie, readily available for rental). The good showing for Russia is, of course, Sokurov – several of his films I’ve watched two or three times already this year.

films decade

A reasonable spread across the decades, although I would have expected the fifties and sixties to do better than the seventies, as I much prefer films from those earlier two decades. The first decade of this millennium doesn’t seem to have done very well either, which is odd.

albums
ghostwoodGhostwood, Navigator (2013). A US prog rock band I stumbled across on Bandcamp, and then began listening to repeatedly. In parts they remind me of Australia’s Chaos Divine, and though they describe themselves as “for fans of: Porcupine Tree”, I think I prefer this album to those by Steven Wilson’s band. There are a few bits of electronica in there somewhere, but also plenty of heavy riffing- the title tracks boasts especially good riffage. And very catchy melodies. Good stuff.

sidereusSidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013). A Spanish death metal band with a death metal / post-metal sound not unlike NahemaH’s – who were also from Spain, but have sadly disbanded after only three albums. I hope Apocynthion stay together and produce many more albums. The opening track with its insistent drumbeat is especially good.

secretyouthSecret Youth, Callisto (2015). I bought a Callisto album several years ago, and though I enjoyed their brand of heavy post-metal I never bothered with any of their subsequent albums. But then Zero Tolerance magazine streamed this, their latest, I gave it a listen, discovered it was very different to their earlier album… and liked it so much I bought it. It’s still post-metal, but the growls have been mostly replaced by clean vocals, and in places there’s almost an early Anathema-ish sound to it.

worstcaseWorst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015). This was very much a lucky discovery and while at first they reminded me quite heavily of The Old Dead Tree – who, like Synesthesia, are also from France – repeated listens proved they definitely had their own thing going. Like The Old Dead Tree, they drift between death and goth metal, but they also throw quite a bit of prog into it, and it’s a mix that works well, even if in places they sound a bit Muse-ish.

ottaÓtta, Sólstafir (2014). These Icelanders were excellent live, so I bought their last two albums (the only ones available on Bandcamp), and it’s hard to say which is the better of the two. There are a couple of cracking tracks on 2011’s Svartir Sandar, but I decided Ótta was just a little bit the better of the two, if only for the banjo-accompanied title track.

Honourable mentions. Doliu, Clouds (2014), a UK doom band, and the track ‘if these walls could speak’ is absolutely brilliant. Entransient, Entransient (2015), a US prog metal band with a bit of post-rock thrown in for good measure. Good stuff. The Malkuth Grimoire, Alkaloid (2015), a German progressive death metal supergroup, containing (ex-)members of Necrophagist, Obscura, Spawn of Possession, Aborted, Dark Fortress, God Dethroned, Blotted Science and Noneuclid, this is quality stuff, in the same area as Barren Earth but a very Germanic version. Svartir Sandar, Sólstafir (2011), see above. Half Blood, Horseback (2012), as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “shifts from Americana twang to fiercely evil buzzing guitars to hypnotically meditative kraut-drone”, which is as good a description as any; file alongside Ultraphallus.


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Reading diary, #2

Most of the reading I’ve been doing over the past month or so has been dipping into research books as I wrangle Apollo Quartet 4 into shape. (Not long now. Honest.) So there’s not been that much of yer actual reading of fiction. Except for, well, the following…

The Luck of Brin’s Five, Cherry Wilder (1977). I read this for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

darebioDan Dare: A Biography, Daniel Tatarsky (2010). Back in the late 1970s, my parents bought me a Hamlyn anthology of Dan Dare stories one Christmas, containing ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’, both of which remain my favourite Dare stories. Several years ago, I collected the full set of Hawk Publishing Dan Dare reprints (see here). So when a “biography” of Dare was published a couple of years ago, I picked up a copy. And… it’s not very good. The book tells the story of Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and how Eagle was begun. But the writing throughout is terrible, and I spotted several inaccuracies (on things not related to Eagle, to be fair). There are some nice colour plates, particularly of the mock-ups of the first issue, and a useful appendix giving plot summaries of all the Dan Dare stories published in Eagle. But there are better books about Hampson, and reading about Dan Dare is no substitute for reading the actual Dan Dare comic strips.

whatdoctororderedspread0What The Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction since first reading him in Interzone back in the 1980s. Unfortunately, he has not been exactly prolific – three novels to date, and What The Doctor Ordered is only his second collection after 1990’s The Brains of Rats. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t a few stories still uncollected. What The Doctor Ordered collects fourteen stories, dating from 1997 to 2012, and originally appearing in a variety of venues, such as F&SF, Asimov’s, Flurb and a handful of original anthologies, mostly horror or dark fantasy. The one thing I’d forgotten during all the years I’d not read Blumlein was how bloody good he is. His three novels are all too different to really get a handle on him as a novel writer. But his short fiction really is very, very good. Best story in here is ‘Isostasy’, although ‘The Roberts’ is also excellent. Blumlein’s fiction is unsettling in ways that I think few authors manage to be. His prose is clinical and sharp, and he paints realistic pictures… into which he drops something fantastical that nonetheless manages to fit in. And then he twists it in ways that makes it seem all the more uncomfortable. One of the best collections I’ve read in recent years.

catseyeCat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood (1988). The narrator of this novel is a middle-aged artist, Elaine, who has returned to Toronto to attend a retrospective of her career. This triggers a series of long extended flashback sequences, in which she remembers her childhood in the city, particularly her friendship with three schoolfriends, one of whom was a cruel bully; but she also remembers her college years and her early years as an artist. That bullying schoolfriend, Cordelia, haunts Elaine, even in the present – although the tables did eventually turn, and while Elaine never bullied Cordelia to the extent she was bullied herself, Elaine does recount how Cordelia unravelled over the years and eventually ended up in a sanatorium. If Cordelia’s decline is signposted throughout the novel, then I missed most of it, though her fall as an ironic mirror image of Elaine’s rise to success did seem a little too obvious. Cat’s Eye was a surprisingly easy read, and if the early chapters, detailing Elaine’s childhood, were a little grim and hard to take in places, there was plenty more in the novel to balance them. Worth reading.

Cautionary Tales, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978). Another book read for review on SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1974). The fourth book of the Raj Quartet, and the war is over in Europe, the Americans have dropped their atom bombs, but there is still Malaysia to be taken back from the Japanese. In India, demission of power from the UK is a certainty – the socialist government back home are focusing on domestic issues, and are not interested in Empire. This novel introduces Guy Perron, played by Charles Dance in the TV adaptation (and probably the character most remembered after Timothy Piggot-Smith’s Ronald Merrick), who despite his privileged background has managed to stay a sergeant throughout the war. He meets Merrick, who is now a major dealing with the Indian army deserters who joined the Germans and Japanese, and is detached to his staff. Through Merrick, he also meets Sarah Layton, whose narrative figured prominently in both The Day Of The Scorpion and The Towers Of Silence. Also prominent in the narrative is Nigel Rowan, who made a brief appearance in one of the earlier books. Rowan and Perron are old school-mates, as was Hari Kumar – whose false imprisonment as a political detenu by Merrick, who is wrongly convinced Kumar raped Daphne Manners (the events surrounding this form the core of the first book, The Jewel In The Crown). Through Rowan, Perron and the Laytons, Scott examines the route to independence and its effect on Britons living in India, weaving in and out of the plot of the preceding three books as they relate to Perron, Rowan and Sarah Layton (the TV adaptation went for a straight chronological structure, and misses a lot of the books’ arguments and subtleties). Scott is quite scathing in his critique of the Raj, and of the British who ruled India. It’s not hard to understand why these four books are considered classics, they’re certainly amongst the best post-war British literature I’ve read. I suspect I’ll be rereading them again one day.

screamingplanetAlexandro Jodorowsky’s Screaming Planet, Alexandro Jodorowsky & various artists (2013). I’m a fan of Jodorowsky’s films and bandes dessinée, but I knew nothing about this title when I bought it. Still, Jodorowsky… It proved to be a linked anthology of short pieces, written by Jodorowsk but drawn by a variety of artists, which featured in the relaunched Métal Hurlant. A sentient planet is mistreated by its natives so badly it somehow makes them build an enormous metal head, into which it decants its personality, and which is then blasted into space – this is the “screaming planet”. And as it journeys through the cosmos, it passes by other worlds and its presence affects one or more people on those worlds. The story themselves are linked only by the giant head passing in the sky. Some work better than others. This is minor Jodorowsky – although he does confess in an introduction that he is used to working at longer lengths and found writing these “short stories” challenging.


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Reading diary, #10

With all the dipping into books I’ve been doing for research for All That Outer Space Allows, I’ve not been reading as much as usual – although I have managed to fit in several reads for review for SF Mistressworks. And, er, several books which I’ve actually written about at greater length… which is something I’ve not done on here for a while either.

Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Malcolm Lowry (1968). My love of Lowry’s prose remains undimmed. I wrote about this book here.

Women as Demons, Tanith Lee (1989). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

my_name_is_red1My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998). I originally picked up this book for a world fiction reading challenge a couple of years ago, but got bogged down about halfway in and gave up. I eventually decided to give it another go, and this time I managed to finish it. In Istanbul in the late sixteenth century, the Sultan asks a retired and highly-regarded miniaturist to manage the creation of a book to celebrate his reign. But this book will not be illustrated in the Persian style, as is considered proper and religiously correct, but in the European style (depictions of people and animals is haram in Islam; hence Islamic art’s focus on calligraphy and architecture). But one of the miniaturists secretly approached to provide illustrations, or part of the illustrations, disagrees with the project and murders one of the other miniaturists. The novel is structured as first-person narratives by all those involved, including the murdered victims, the daughter of the man managing the project, and a young man who has returned to Istanbul after years in the provinces to ask for the daughter’s hand… It’s not the fastest-paced of murder-mysteries, and Pamuk seems fond of presenting the same piece of information from several different viewpoints so they more or less contradict, or at least, confuse each other. But I did think My Name is Red was very good… although I wasn’t so taken I plan to seek out Pamuk’s other novels.

mindjammerMindjammer, Sarah Newton (2012). This novel set in the world of a sf role-playing game of the same name and is, I believe, chiefly intended to support the RPG rather than vice versa. Which no doubt explains some of its set-up, like ,for example, the fact that it follows the adventures of a group of four military specialists from varied backgrounds (ie, both above and below the law). They’ve been sent to a rediscovered human polity as a Security and Cultural Integrity Force team by the New Commonality of Humankind in order to ensure everything about the newly-discovered world, Solenius, is exactly as it seems. Except, of course, it’s not. The plot of the novel basically comprises the four SCI agents stumbling from one violent encounter to another, interspersed with fact-filled info-dumps, while a number of villains twirl moustaches and gloat evilly. Mindjammer is space opera turned up to eleven, which is both its appeal and its worst problem. Space opera needs those clunky wodges of exposition, it needs a relentless plot filled with violence, discovery and violent upsets, it needs to rely on clichés because there isn’t much room for anything else… And when you have a space opera based on what is clearly a rich and lovingly-designed role-playing game universe… One for fans of the subgenre as much as it is for fans of the RPG; but yes, one for fans, I think.

Sanctum_zoomedSanctum, Xavier Dorison & Christophe Bec (2014). I picked up a copy of the first part of this a few years ago, but it’s only recently an omnibus edition of all three parts has appeared in English (I was tempted to buy it in French, but never got around to it). Sadly, after all that wait, I can’t really say it was worth it. Some things it does very well, but it also fails quite badly in other respects. The opening section, in which a US submarine stumbles across a wrecked Soviet sub in an underwater chasm off the coast of Syria is done well… Except it all takes place at 4,000 feet, and you can’t have people diving that deep – the pressure would crush them. And should you somehow manage to saturation dive at nearly 120 atmospheres, you’d be decompressing for weeks afterwards. The US submarine is also infeasibly large inside, and reminded me of the Russian mining submarine in the BBC’s execrable The Deep (which I wrote about here). Near the Soviet wreck, the divers find the entrance to an ancient temple. Which is where the story turns all Lovecraftian, as the temple proves to be a magical prison for a Sumerian demon, which the Americans inadvertently release. The art is uniformly good throughout – it was intended to be cinematic, and it works well in that respect – and the story does hang together, even if the pacing is a little slow. But the author should have done a little more research and not sacrificed plausibility for drama.

All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park (2014). I am a big fan of Park’s fiction. I wrote about this book here.

Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, Shawn McCarthy, ed. (1984). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

A Month Soon Goes, Storm Jameson (1962). The first read in my informal project to try a number of British women writers from the first half of the twentieth century. And I enjoyed it very much. A polished piece of work. I wrote about it here.

suicideexhbThe Suicide Exhibition: The Never War, Justin Richards (2013). This was a freebie from Fantasycon, and I only picked it up after spotting the Nazi Black Sun and flying saucers on the cover. And this was despite recently reviewing Graeme Shimmin’s A Kill in the Morning, another occult Nazi alternate history, for Interzone and not being very impressed. A secret section of the British intelligence services called Station Z crops up in various places, intriguing a man and a woman who are plainly intended to be the series main protagonists. They are duly recruited and learn that Station Z is fighting against Reichsführer Himmler’s new secret occult weapon, ancient technology some of his Ahnenerbe officers have discovered in ancient barrows scattered across Europe. Unfortunately, also in said barrows are alien creatures which are, well, are completely ripped off from the hand-creatures in Alien, and some sort of alien parasite which keeps the ancient kings interred in the barrows still alive, sort of – and who promptly go on a violent rampage once released. Oh, and there are some flying saucers too, which may be linked to the ancient aliens. It’s all complete tosh, and appallingly researched. Incidentally, the title refers to an exhibition laid on in the British Museum for the duration of the war and which the Museum didn’t mind losing should the Germans bomb the crap out of the building. It’s also mentioned later as a metaphor for Station Z or something, but its presence in the story is so trivial it seems completely undeserving of providing the title. Avoid.

Across The Acheron, Monique Wittig (1985). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

towersThe Towers Of Silence, Paul Scott (1971). This is the third instalment of Scott’s Raj Quartet. I must admit to a little confusion when I started the book. I was pretty sure I’d not read it, but the story seemed very familiar. At least, it sort of did. And when the narrative referred to something I remembered clearly from an earlier book in the quartet, but here it all happened off-stage, I realised that Scott was covering ground previously described but this time from different characters’ viewpoints. So, for example, when Sarah Layton goes off to Calcutta and has her adventures there, The Towers Of Silence remains behind in Pankot and, in the person of Barbie Batchelor, we get to witness Mabel Layton’s death at first hand. Barbie, incidentally, is a superb creation, an ex-Mission teacher who has retired to Pankot and shares Rose Cottage with Mabel as her companion. She’s played in the television series by Peggy Ashcroft, who is the best thing in the programme, and captures Barbie perfectly; although the rest of the series is a little disappointing as it misses so much interiority out that most of the characters comes across as unrepentant racists. The books, however, are built on cleverly-nuanced character studies, so they’re vastly superior to the TV series.

sweeneyA Pictorial History of Oceanographic Submersibles,, James B Sweeney (1970). I picked this up cheap on eBay, and it proved to be ex-library so I got a partial refund. I should have sent it back – while it covers the early history of submarines reasonably well, as soon as it reaches WW1 it’s almost as if the world shrinks to only the US and its concerns. The chapter on WW2 is especially bad – it reads as though only the USA and Japan operated submarines, with only brief mentions of German U-Boots (which are not U-Botes, as the book writes at one point) and British mini-submarines. It’s also deeply racist – the Japanese are referred to as “the little people from the land of the Rising Sun” and dropping an atomic bomb apparently caused Hiroshima to be “blasted into immortality”. The writing throughout is terrible, and while I’ve spotted no blatant inaccuracies there is plenty that is given such an American emphasis it mendaciously implies every single advance in the field was made by that country.