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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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Easter parade

Yes, I know, Easter is over. And I don’t think they have parades at Easter, anyway. At least not in this country. But it’s still April, and here is a parade of books wot I have recently added to the collection.

This is the third set of novellas from NewCon Press – I didn’t bother with the second set as it was horror – and, as you can see, the covers form a single piece of art. By Jim Burns. I’ve already read The Martian Job (see here), and The Martian Simulacra and The Greatest Story Ever Told (see here), but have yet to read Phosphorus.

Three new-ish science fiction books. Well, A Thorn in the Bush is not really new – it was written decades ago but never published – and it’s not actually science fiction either, as Herbert initially set out to be a writer of thrillers. But never mind. Songs of Leaving was the only book I bought in the dealers’ room at Follycon 2. I’m a big fan of Duchamp’s writing, so I’ve been after a copy of The Waterdancer’s World for a while.

I started reading Litt’s novels several years ago – although not in alphabetical order, as I started with Journey into Space (Litt has titled each of his books alphabetically; he’s currently up to N). I thought I ought to fill in some of the gaps, hence Beatniks. The True Deceiver was a charity shop find. Sea and Sardinia is another for the DH Lawrence Phoenix Edition collection. Such Good Friends was the consequence of drunk eBaying, bought after seeing Preminger’s not very good film adaptation, reading up about it on Wikipedia, and thinking the original novel sounded mildly interesting…

Some birthday presents from last month from my sisters. I’ve heard good things about Frankenstein in Baghdad. A Primer for Cadavers I’ve already read (see here). I’ve always wanted to work my way through Clarke’s short fiction, so I’m glad I now have The Collected Stories. And I’ve been a fan of Irwin’s writing since reading his book on classical Arabic literature years ago, and Wonders Will Never Cease is his latest novel.

Some collectibles. The Elizabeth A Lynn is actually titled Tales from a Vanished Country, although none of the books in the 29-volume Author’s Choice Monthly series from Pulphouse Publications actually put the titles on the cover. Anyway, I’m slowly completing the set. The Natural History of the P.H. is an essay by Roberts on something that drove his fiction in his later years. It was published by Kerosina. Judgment Night is a facsimile edition of the first edition, published by Red Jacket Press. Gerfalcon, is from the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy Library, although annoyingly I don’t think it’s the original cover art for the book.

Finally, some graphic novels. Memories from the Future (see here) is the final volume in the Valerian and Laureline series. While Crosswind (see here) is the first volume in a new series. And Inside Moebius Part 1 is, er, also the first in a series, of, I think, three volumes.


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Reading diary 2018, #6

More reading all over the place. And cheats too – a bande dessineé and two novellas. Oh well. At least I’m staying ahead of my Goodreads reading challenge target…

Fleet Insurgent, Susan R Matthews (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction books since they first appeared back in the 1990s. They were definitely among the more interesting commercial sf being published in the US back then. Although apparently not interesting enough, as Matthews moved publisher after the first three Jurisdiction books, and two unrelated novels, and then lasted two Jurisdiction novels with her new publisher before being dropped. The next book came out from small press Meisha Merlin… who promptly folded. And it was another decade before Baen picked the series up, published two omnibuses, before continuing the series with Blood Enemies (see here). Fleet Insurgent, however, is a collection, some of it previously published, much of its contents intended to fill in gaps in the published series so far, or shed new light, or a new perspective, on some of its episodes. So it’s more like a companion volume than anything else, rather than a pendant volume. Which, as a fan, doesn’t overly bother me. If anything, the stories in Fleet Insurgent provide welcome insight – as Matthews is not a writer who likes to make things easy for her readers. The writing is a deal better than I remember from recent rereads of the first two books of the Under Jurisdiction series, but that’s hardly unusual. However, it’s certainly not a good entry point for the series, as most of the stories will make zero sense without knowledge of the novels (despite an introduction to each story by Matthews). I seem to recall that Matthews had plotted out a quite a number of books in the series. I hope we won’t have to wait another ten years for the next instalment.

Valerian & Laureline 22: Memories from the Futures, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2013, France). This is not the twenty-second volume in the story of Valerian and Laureline. Except it is. What I mean is, it’s not part of the story-arc which takes place over the previous twenty-one volumes, but rather pendants to the prior episodes. Most of these only occupy a double-page spread, and they don’t make much sense if you don’t know the volumes to which they refer. I’m not entirely sure why it needed to exist – they were contractually obliged to deliver a twenty-second volume? I don’t know. If you’ve read the previous twenty-one volumes – and I highly recommend them; ignore the crappy film – then you’ll know what to expect, and you’ll want the book anyway to complete the set. Now it’s all finished, I guess I’ll have to find another bande dessinée to read… perhaps in the original French? Now, where did I put my French-English dictionary…

Dreams of the Technarion, Sean McMullen (2017, Australia). I was sent this for review by Interzone. I don’t think I’ve read anything by McMullen before, a few short stories perhaps. Some of the stories in this collection appeared in Interzone, although I don’t recall them. As sf collections go, Dreams of the Technarion is strong on ideas, if not on story – one or two feel like premises in search of a plot. But what makes the book is the final story… which isn’t a story at all but an essay on the history of Australian science fiction. It’s fascinating stuff – and amusing too, albeit not always intentionally: when discussing early Australian pulp magazines, McMullen writes, “This is not the sort of thing to make the average SF reader do handstands, but it was good enough for an average Australian male caught in a toilet without a newspaper”, which I’m not entirely sure means what McMullen intended it to mean… Anyway, I almost certainly wouldn’t have read this had I not been sent it for review, but I’m glad I did. There’s certainly much worse out there, often much more acclaimed, and the essay on the history of Australian sf is fascinating stuff.

A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK). My sister bought me this for my birthday, although not from my wishlist. I’ve no idea why she chose it – when I asked, she said it looked “interesting”. Atkins’s name means much more to me now than it did this time last year, since I saw one of his video installations, ‘Ribbons’, at Kiasma in Helsinki, when I was in Finland for the Worldcon last August. I’m a big fan of video installations, and Atkins’s was one of the two in the museum I thought really good. So I was quite pleased to have a copy of his book. It’s a collection of… I’m not entirely sure what they are. Stream-of-consciousness pieces, I suppose. Neither poetry nor prose, but having some characteristics of both. One or two, I think, maybe the scripts from his video installations – they certainly share titles, such as ‘Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths’. Much of the writing is visceral, as in, er, about viscera, detailed narratives about parts of the body – one is more or less an annotated list of parts of the brain as mapped by Korbinian Brodmann (isn’t that a great first name?). Most of the pieces are peppered with cultural references – there’s a plot summary of the film Sphere in one of them. I’m not sure if I liked or enjoyed A Primer for Cadavers, as it’s not the sort of book you can like or enjoy. Bits of it are extremely well-done, and a good deal of the writing is very clever. I guess that, like video installations cross over that line between cinema and art into art, so this book crosses over a similar line between literature and art into art. I’d already planned to keep an eye open for Atkins’s work when I visit modern art museums in the future, and after reading A Primer for Cadavers I’m even more keen to do so.

The Martian Simulacra, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the second of the latest quartet of NewCon Press novellas, all of which are set on Mars. It’s subtitled “A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”, which is a bit of a clue to the plot. As is the cover art. It’s set after Wells’s Martian invasion. Although the invaders died, a second lot, claiming to be good Martians and the enemies of the invaders, arrived, and have pretty much taken over. Holmes is approached by a Martian ambassador, who asks for his help in solving the murder of an important Martian philosopher. On Mars. So he and Watson travel there, meeting a yuong woman en route, who appears to be involved with some sort of Martian underground. Because the good Martians aren’t so good after all. It’s exactly the sort of story you would expect from a mash-up between Sherlock Holmes and The War of the Worlds. Brown keeps it pacey, although he perhaps relies overmuch on stock tropes and imagery. A fun novella.

The Greatest Story Ever Told, Una McCormack (2018, UK). This is the fourth novella in the series – for some reason I skipped the third, not that they’re at all related in terms of story. And I think it’s set on Mars, like the other three, but it’s hard to be sure as there are no references to the Martian landscape. It’s not even as if the story needs to be set on Mars – The Martian Simulacra is a mash-up with Wells’s novel, so Mars is a given; and even The Martian Job (see here) required the Red Planet as its setting for its story, and almost certainly for its ending. The narrator of The Greatest Story Ever Told is a scullery maid in a household that trains “dance-fighters”. The society consists of masters, free people and hands. The hands are basically slaves. And they rebel. Led by the two most famous dance-fighters. After several months of freedom, by which time they’ve gathered several thousand to them, the masters send an army. You can guess the rest. Interspersed with the main narrative are short fables, framed as told by the narrator to other characters in the main narrative. Some of them have obvious morals, others I couldn’t see what point they were trying to make. Everyone in the story uses female pronouns. Of the three novellas from the quartet I’ve read so far, this was the least satisfying. The setting didn’t feel like Mars, I don’t think slavery belongs in science fiction stories, and the narrator’s voice was a little irritating. The stories-within-a-story, while hardly new, gave the novella a little more depth, but I suspect it was over-used a little. Not my favourite of the four, so far. And I still have one more to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary 2018, #1

I seem to be keeping up with my New Year Resolution to read more books. Monday to Thursday, when I get home from work, I spend an hour reading before making dinner or putting on a DVD. And I managed to polish off five books over the first weekend of the year – true, three were bandes dessinées and one was novella, but still…

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK). I’d expected to dislike this – so why I took with me to read over Christmas, I’ve no idea. I read Faber’s Under the Skin many years ago, and hated it (but I thought Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation was excellent). So I had expected something similar, even if the blurb sounded more like the BBC TV series Outcasts than anything else (although I may have been getting confused because there’s apparently a TV series in development based on The Book of Strange New Things; and, to be fair, I thought Outcasts a great deal better on rewatch). Anyway, expectations relatively low. So I was surprised to find that not only did I enjoy The Book of Strange New Things, but I also thought it pretty good. Peter Leigh has been selected by corporation USIC to serve as pastor at their exoplanet settlement. His wife, unfortunately, has to remain behind in the UK. On arrival at the exoplanet, called Oasis, he finds a small colony of apathetic engineers, all of whom live mostly on foodstuffs provided by a nearby town of the planet’s low-tech and enigmatic natives. It’s the natives, in fact, who have demanded a vicar’s presence, as some of them have taken up Christianity and the company doesn’t want to jeopardise the supply of foodstuffs. Leigh decides to build a church, with the help of his “Jesus Lovers”, the Oasisan Christians. Meanwhile, Leigh writes emails to his wife back in the UK. As he tend his flock on Oasis, and gradually understands what drives them, so she describes a UK falling apart bit by bit, testing both her faith and her love for her husband. Leigh is a bit pathetic as a protagonist, and the people with which he works are no better; but the aliens are really done quite well, and aspect of their nature which has driven some of them to human religion is tragic and provides a neat twist. The Book of Strange New Things was shortlisted for the Clarke Award in 2015, but lost out to Station Eleven (see here). I thought the Faber an odd choice at the time, but it deserved its place.

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I bought this after seeing many positive comments about it and, happily, it met my expectations. Cora Seaborne’s husband has just died and she, an amateur palaeontologist, decides to investigate stories she’s heard of the Essex Serpent. While in Chelmsford, she bumps into friends who tell her of their friend, William Ransome, a pastor, and his family in a coastal Essex village near where the Serpent has been spotted. So Cora and her autistic son go to visit them, and they all get on famously. Meanwhile, Luke Garrett, an ambitious surgeon, has his eye on Cora – he treated her late husband, and now that she’s widowed he is keen to deepen his friendship. And his friend, George Spencer, a rich dilettante playing half-heartedly at doctor, has fallen in love with Cora’s maid, Martha, a socialist activist. It sounds like it should be a mess, a story pulling in so many different directions – Cora and her desire to solve the mystery of the Essex Serpent, not to mention her own ambivalence toward her gender and role in society; Garrett’s ambitions; Martha’s activism in the London slums; Ransome’s rational approach to his Christianity; Spencer’s failed romance with Martha… There’s a Gothic feel to the story, a likeness that’s heightened by its use in places of letter exchanges, but the prose is anything but Gothic. It’s, well, breezy – hugely readable, often funny, and with some very nice descriptive passages. The cast are drawn well, as are their relationships. And there’s plenty going on – politics, religion, science, not to mention a commentary on Victorian society. I thought The Essex Serpent very good indeed, an early possible contender for my best of the year. Recommended.

The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Writings, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1989, USA). I knew Gilman’s name chiefly from Herland, an early novel about a feminist utopia, which I own in the Women’s Press SF edition but have yet to read. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is perhaps her best known piece of short fiction. The narrator and her husband move into an old house, and the narrator becomes obsessed by the wallpaper in an attic room. She is convinced there is someone hidden inside the wallpaper who is desperate to escape and… well, it’s very atmospheric. The other stories, such as ‘If I Were a Man’ or ‘Turned’, are of their time, except for their overt feminist sensibilities. I’ve read early genre fiction by women writers, like Francis Stevens, Agatha Christie, Leslie F Stone, and, of course, CL Moore… but none them seemed to my mind to have as strong a female point of view as the stories in Gilman’s collection. The book also included an except from Herland, and a couple of excerpts from some of Gilman’s non-ficiton writing. I found the book in a charity shop a while ago, and bought it because I knew the name. But now I’m really glad I own a copy of it.

New Adventures in Sci-Fi, Sean Williams (1999, Australia). I’ve been a fan of Williams’s fiction since reading the space opera Evergence trilogy he wrote with Shane Dix back in 2003. And I’ve bought and read the sf novels written by the pair, and by Williams alone, ever since. And quite a few of Williams’s collections too. This was quite a hard one to find, I seem to remember. It’s relatively early stuff, but polished nonetheless, and even includes a favourite of mine, ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’ from 1995; although this time around it didn’t read quite as smoothly as I’d remembered. It’s still a bloody good sf story, though. The stories are mostly heartland sf, with a few dark fantasy. Of the sf, ‘The Soap Bubble’, in which a survey starship’s regular reports home are presented as episodes of a melodrama, at least until they meet an alien race, was quite cleverly done, and had a neat twist. ‘Reluctant Misty & the House on Burden Street’, a variation on the haunted house, was probably the best of the dark fantasy stories. The premises of some of the others felt a little secondhand and threadbare, although the stories were well told. I’m not sure what Williams is doing now – he started writing YA for a few years, and then went to Antarctica on some sort of writers’ programme. I really liked his space opera and hard sf novels, and it’s a shame he doesn’t seem to be writing them anymore.

Valerian and Laureline 20: The Order of the Stones and 21: The Time Opener, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2007/2010, France). These two volumes end the Valerian and Laureline story, begun back in 1967, although I’m sceptical the story-arc was fully plotted out at that time. Anyway, midway through the series, Galaxity, Valerian and Laureline’s employer disappeared after someone meddled with history, and the Earth was destroyed. After acting as free agents for several volumes, Valerian and Laureline ended up aboard an expedition to explore the Great Void. Where the Wolochs, mysterious stone beings, have appeared and are using the Triumvirate, three heads of criminal gangs, to attack humanity. In The Order of the Stones, the Wolochs go on the offensive, and the galactic civilisation is hard pressed to fend off their attacks. But there is one hope: the Time Opener. Which contains the Earth. But it can only be opened if enough people pure of heart are gathered together. And it’s the bringing together of these which forms the story of The Time Opener. Of course, they succeed. Interestingly, there were some bits and pieces from these two installments I sort of recognised from Luc Besson’s movie adaptation, demonstrating, I suppose, that his film was based on the entire series. Not that it was a good film. Overall, Valerian and Laureline have had a good run, and if the plot got somewhat convoluted somewhere around the middle – the final volume includes a timeline which does little to make sense of it all – and the ending was a bit weak, there were some excellent episodes along the way. It was a product of its time, but it didn’t hesitate to slip in contemporary digs at the real world in each of the volumes, which worked quite well because the two characters had travelled back in time and so the stories were partyl set on contemporary Earth. But there was plenty of space opera stuff too – so much so, the series is often mistaken taken to be an inspiration for Star Wars (there are similarities but they’re apparently coincidental). Perhaps the art never approached the gorgeousness of Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, but the scripts were considerably better, albeit often somewhat compressed since each volume was no more than 48 pages. I first stumbled across these during the 1990s after Dargaud, their French publisher, made a half-hearted attempt to introduce them to the Anglophone market and published four random volumes in English. I started reading them in French, but happily Cinebook have been banging them out in English since 2010. They’re also now available in omnibus editions. Worth getting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary, #56

After a run of male authors in my last Reading diary, it’s a run of female writers… including one novel I had never planned to read. These days, “Hugo Award winner” is more likely to make me put a book down than actually pick it up. Um, looking back over the history of the award, I can’t say I’ve ever really used it as a guide to my genre reading and have always felt it has picked far more duds than actual classics.

The Milkman, Michael Martineck (2014, USA). Michael is a friend of many years, around two decades in fact, although we only met for the first time in person at the Worldcon in Helsinki this August. And it’s just as well I know Michael as The Milkman posits a horrible corporatised world and does so with a completely straight face. But I know Michael does not believe the politics the book presents… because they really are quite nasty. The story is told from several viewpoints. A young woman is murdered outside a bar, but there are no clues to the crime. The corporate police officer tasked with solving the crime – assuming it can be done economically – finds himself hitting a brick wall. A film-maker is paid to make a documentary about the Milkman, a mysterious figure who analyses milk from corporate dairy farms and posts his results on an anonymous website. And then there’s the Milkman himself, who’s a low-level bureaucrat who, with his network of co-conspirators, tests milk as a hobby. The Milkman does a good job of presenting a world in which everything is owned by one of three corporations, and manages to use it effectively in a mystery/thriller plot. Personally, I’d have liked more commentary on the world – I mean, it’s a horrible place to be, and presenting arguments from the characters that it’s preferable to the “old world” made the novel sound approving. It’s a political novel, and when it comes to political novels the author needs to wear their politics on their sleeve. You can’t let the reader draw their own conclusions, because they might well draw the wrong ones. There’s enough right-wing sf out there – the entire genre is essentially right-wing – and commentary against it is sorely needed in science fiction. Much as I enjoyed The Milkman, it felt too ambivalent toward its world – despite the final scenes set among those who had opted out – and I’d liked it to have been a little more overt in its politics.

Lust, Elfriede Jelinek (1989, Austria). I’m a big fan of Michael Haneke’s films, and after seeing his The Piano Teacher, and learning that it was an adaptation of a novel by a Nobel laureate, I bought the book and read it and thought it very good. And then recently I thought it about time I read more Jelinek, so I picked up a copy of Lust, as it was quite short. It was perhaps not the wisest book to read on my daily commute, given the title. But never mind. The story is a brutal depiction of a marriage in wich the wife is treated as chattel by her husband. And when she eventually breaks free and finds herself a lover, he proves just as bad. What I had not remembered from The Piano Teacher, and perhaps that was down to the translator, but Lust was one long string of wordgames and puns and plays on words. It was relentless. Given its subject, it should come as no surprise the wordplay mostly focuses on sex, and especially on the male sex organ. I have no idea how this worked in German, or in the Austrian dialect in which Jelinek writes, but in English it felt to me like a dilution of the novel’s central point. The wife is entirely subject to the husband, she exists to satisfy his sexual desires, just as much as she is there to look after him and their spoilt son. Some of the expressions used, “shot his bolt”, for example, feel too… childish, schoolboyish, and while I get that the breadth and variety are what’s important, it does seem to detract from the brutality. This is an ugly book, about an ugly subject, so perhaps the wordplay is intended to add to that ugliness and it works much better in German. But this is definitely a book that provokes a reaction, and I’ll be reading more Jelinek.

Valerian & Laureline 19: At the Edge of the Great Void (2004, France). Cinebook are churning these out at a much faster rate after the Besson film, which is all to the good. At the Edge of the Great Void kicks off a new story-arc, which I think is the last for the duo. Valerian and Laureline are posing as itinerant traders on the edge of the Great Void because they feel the key to restoring Earth lies within it. But their plans are scuppered when Valerian is arrested. Fortunately, Laureline has made some friends, and with their help, she arranges an escape for Valerian, and the two of them join the crew of a ship heading into the Great Void. The story is mostly set-up – it introduces a new alien race, the Limboz, and drops hints about a plot by the Triumvirate, villains from an earlier story, and some sentient stones, the Woloch, who are clearly intended to provide the plot for the next few episodes. I’ve yet to see to Besson’s film, although I expect to be disappointed. The Valerian and Laureline series is massively inventive – there’s a good argument, although likely wrong, that it influenced Star Wars – and there’s a very dry wit in the interaction between the two main characters. But the stories are also very cut-down, so much so it often feels like bits of the plot have been left on the cutting-room floor. It’s like the opposite of decompression. Which, er, would be compression. I suspect it’s an artefact of the series’ original magazine appearances and limited page-count.

The Fifth Season, NK Jemisin (2015, USA). I had no plans to read this, for all that it won a raft of awards, and was shortlisted for many more (including, according to the back cover, the James Tiptree Jr Award, which, er, doesn’t have a shortlist – it has an honour list, and I should know as I’ve been on it). Anyway, there was no real buzz around The Fifth Season, as there had been for God’s War and Ancillary Justice, probably because The Fifth Season was Jemisin’s sixth novel – and, on top of that, it was fantasy, which is of zero interest to me. But some people said it was actually science fiction, not fantasy, and I heard some good things about it and, I admit it, the clincher was the fact it was going for £2 from a near-monopolitistic online retailer… So I bought it. And… It certainly smells like science fiction rather than fantasy; and if its sessapinae and orogeny is hand-wavy bullshit, it’s no more so than FTL, or indeed most of sf’s common tropes. It’s not worth summarising the plot, as much of it is linked to the world-building. The Fifth Season is set late in Earth’s history, when the planet is unstable, and “fifth seasons”, periods of intense seismic and/or volcanic activity, often bringing on nuclear winters, occur every few centuries. A new one has just kicked off as the book opens. There are three narratives, each following a female character – an orogene (ie, a person who can, among other things, control siesmic events) who has been in hiding for many years; a young girl with ability who is sold to an imperial order of trained orogenes; and a “four-ring” orogene of that order who is tasked with accompanying a “ten-ring” orogene to clear a town’s harbour of coral. The first narrative is written in the second person; the other two are more traditional. Initially, I thought the novel better than average – the prose was doing the job, but the world-building was interesting, if a little overdone (but we’ve all been there, nothing brings in the nerds like an excess of world-building detail). It was brutal in places – ho hum, it’s all that genre fiction does these days. So… enjoying it, but, on balance, unlikely to bother with the rest of the trilogy. And then I realised the book was using time-stacked narratives. Those three main characters were the same woman during different periods of her life. And things started to slot together like a piece of IKEA furniture. Now it was a much more interesting novel. Now, I might actually read the sequels. Did it deserve to win the Hugo? Given the shortlist… probably. I’ve read the Leckie, but the trilogy pretty much nose-dived after the first book. The other three shortlisted works do not appeal at all. If it hadn’t been for the £2 price point, I’d probably never have bothered reading The Fifth Season. Maybe if I’d stumbled across a copy in a charity shop, I might have given it a go. But I am glad I read it.

The Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett (1986, USA). I’m no stranger to Brackett’s fiction, having been a fan for a number of years – ever since reading the collection, Sea-Kings of Mars, in the Fantasy Masterworks series, in fact. The stories in that collection are not fantasy, of course. But Sea-Kings of Mars was not the only book in the Fantasy Masterworks series that was actually science fiction. There are ten stories in The Best of Leigh Brackett, and they’re all, well, typical Brackett. Some I had read before. They’re set on planets and moons of the Solar System which share names with the planets and moons we know but otherwise bear no resemblance – Mars is a desert world, inhabited by ancient dying races; Venus is a jungle world, also, er, inhabited by dying ancient races; the moons of Jupiter are inhabited; as is Mercury… In fact, Brackett pretty much turned every planet and moon on the Solar System into the sort of exotic location used in a Humphrey Bogart movie. It’s always the same – a dying race, a dead culture, a degraded society, and a jaded hero from Earth – pretty much always the US – who overcomes local taboos and superstitions to win the prize. It’s pure Hollywood, so it’s no surprise Brackett worked extensively in movies, her best-known scripts being Rio Bravo (my favourite western) and The Empire Strikes Back. Leigh Brackett and CL Moore were female pioneers in sf – not the only ones, by any means, and it could be argued Gertrude Barrows Bennett was more of a pioneer – but Moore and Brackette were big names in the genre fiction back in the 1940s, and while their style of science fiction is no longer popular, there’s no doubt they were very good at what they did. Perhaps too good, in some respects – some of stories in The Best of Leigh Brackett are dismayingly misogynist. It’s nothing unusual when you compare it to, say, EE ‘Doc’ Smith (it continues to amuse me that ‘Doc’ is always presented in quotes), but I’d expected better of Bracket – and she has indeed done better in other stories. Despite the title, The Best of Leigh Brackett does not contain any of her more celebrated stories, except perhaps ‘The Jewel of Bas’ – but since those stories appear in plenty of other Brackett collections, that’s to its advantage. I’d also dispute the stories here were her best – I thought the aforementioned Sea-Kings of Mars a better selection. Nonetheless, Brackett is always worth reading.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Loyal friends

Ernest Hemingway apparently once said, “there is no friend as loyal as a book”, which is one of those pithy aphorisms that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. I’ve certainly been abandoned by books, mid-read, on planes and trains – most recently, on my flight back home from the Worldcon in Helsinki. It wasn’t a very good book anyway. Here are a few books – some good, some I have yet to find out – that have joined the collection. Now that we have an IKEA store in Sheffield, I must see about buying some more bookshelves… assuming I can find a free wall in the flat to stand them against…

Several years ago, I bought loads of books about space, but the last couple of years I’ve bought few. I was tempted by Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth when it was published, but didn’t bother. Which is just as well, as I have now found myself a signed copy, and it was cheap. Haynes have done quite a few space-related Owner’s Workshop Manuals. Some of them have been pretty good. I haven’t read Astronaut yet, however. Midland Publishing published a whole range of Secret Projects books, and I have several of them. They’ve started reprinting them recently, but with redesigned cover art. And they’re numbering the volumes as well, although they don’t seem to be publishing them in order. Luftwaffe Secret Projects: Strategic Bombers 1939 – 1945 is the first of two volumes of Luftwaffe aircraft that never made it beyond prototype or even off the drawing-board.

These four rulebooks were a reward for signing up to The Great Rift kickstarter. Very nice-looking, they are too.

I keep an eye open on eBay for copies of the Phoenix Editions of DH Lawrence’s books – they were published from the 1950s to 1970s – but some are easier to find than others. I now have The Complete Short Stories Volume Two and Volume Three, but not yet Volume One. You Must Remember Us… was a lucky find.

Some lucky first edition finds on eBay. Urgent Copy is a collection of essays by Burgess, One Hand Clapping is one of half a dozen or so novels Burgess wrote under the name Joseph Kells. Yes, that is a first edition of Lawrence Durrell’s hard-to-find fourth novel, Cefalû. With dust jacket too. A rewritten version was later published as The Dark Labyrinth. And High Tide for Hanging is one of half a dozen crime novels DG Compton wrote under the name Guy Compton before turning to science fiction. The book was apparently in the library of the Windhoek Hotel in South Africa.

The Fifth Season was only £2 from a large online retailer, so I thought it worth a go. At the Edge of the Great Void is the nineteenth volume in the Valerian and Laureline series. I have yet to see the film. Emergence is the third and final book of The Corporation Wars. The Incomer is another one for my The Women’s Press SF collection. And I loved Girl Reading when I read it a couple of years ago, but I had a tatty copy bought from a charity shop. I now have a signed copy.


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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 snopes.com, 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