I feel like I’ve been reading a lot recently, and then I look at a list of what I’ve read recently and it doesn’t seem like very many books at all. There are some I’ve read which I don’t bother writing about, typically Heyer rereads, but during these dark Scandinavian winters I’d expected to be reading more than I am. Oh well.
Speaking of Heyer… I’m a little embarrassed at my choice of comfort reading. I find the books fun, but there’s so much wrong with them. The whole thing about “Quality”- which they really aren’t – being better than everyone else and not subject to the laws of the land to the same degree, and their marrying only in the same sector of society, which is why we have royalty with six fingers on each hand who drool all the time, not to mention the current UK government, who can’t muster a single working brain cell between the lot of them. Heyer is not political, but the society she depicts, and appears to promote, is vile. The women are always young, and the men a decade or more older. The plots are entertaining, and I won’t deny they’re reasonably accurate in their historical depictions, nor indeed that stories set among common folk would never fit the plots she devises – but we are better people than this and it feels like I’ve abandoned my principles a little because I read and enjoy these books.
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler (1939, USA). I’m not sure if I’ve read this book before. I know I’ve seen the film several times. Which meant some details were familiar but some weren’t and I couldn’t work out if I remembered them from the movie. The Big Sleep is Chandler’s first novel and its plot is as convoluted as any of the later ones, if not more so. Marlowe is hired to investigate a blackmail demand received by a wealthy retired general, but there proves to be more to the case. The general’s youngest daughter has been photographed nude, and the husband of the older daughter disappeared some weeks before and the general is keen to learn his whereabouts. The relationship between Marlowe and the older daughter generates sparks in the novel, but apparently Bogart and Bacall were much more so during the film shoot so they recut the movie to forefront their relationship at the expense of the plot. There are apparently two cuts of the film, one more faithful to the book, the other more of a Bogart-Bacall star vehicle. I’ve no idea which I’ve seen, the latter I suspect. The book at least has the canonical plot, and while it’s not Chandler’s best, it does demonstrate his style was pretty much fully formed from the start. It does not read like a novel written by someone finding their way.
Still, Adam Thorpe (1995, UK). This is the fourth book by Thorpe I’ve read, and I’ve decided he’s possibly a great unacclaimed, and perhaps even collectable, writer. He has received some acclaim, but I’m pretty sure he’s much better than a great many writers who have been more lauded. But this is not unusual. Thorpe’s first novel, Ulverton, is remarkable, a gallop through the history of the eponymous village in numerous impressively-rendered voices. His short story collection, Shifts, I found more impressive in the variety of its voices than its stories. Hodd was a fascinating and clever take on the Robin Hood legend. And then we come to Still. Which is his second novel. (The bibliography on Wikpedia is a mess, as usual, giving his US publisher when he’s British and was first published in the UK… as usual). Still is an impressive achievement, a verbal narrative by a film director, a not entirely successful or famous one, which maintains its voice for all 320 of its pages. Richard Thornby knows all the greats in mid-twentieth century Hollywood, and witnessed a great many of its events. The entire novel is told as if Thornby is doing a podcast, or something, about his career, which makes the title a joke on the book’s contents. It’s pretty clear from what I’ve read so far that Thorpe’s strength is his ability to do voices, but he is so much better at it than most other contemporary writers I can name. For me, voice is an important element of prose, tied in with rigour and verisimilitude, that lifts one work of fiction above another. Thorpe’s books are difficult reads and I’ve been slow to appreciate precisely how good he is, but my appreciation of his works has definitely increased in the last few years.
World Engines: Creator, Stephen Baxter (2020, UK). The sequel to, of course, World Engines: Destroyer. Baxter, I’ve found, is good at starting series, but not so good at continuing them. And this duology suffers from the same problem. Having said that, the first book did feel like an off-cut from another project… Reid Malenfant, or rather, a Reid Malenfant, is defrosted in the twenty-third century after an unexpected SOS from his ex-wife sent from Phobos. Except she vanished centuries before. It turns out Phobos is some sort of portal to alternate universes. Malenfant and crew meet up with a spaceship from a triumphant British Empire – it’s not all ripe gammon, however, as Baxter does indeed critique colonialism, although it’s a very middle-class English take – and, anyway, they bounce through several universes, puzzle out the secret of the portal and… it’s a bit, well, weak. Baxter, as usual, fluffs the dismount. The final third of World Engines: Creator is pretty much entirely exposition, and it doesn’t really tally up with the preceding plot. There are plenty of good ideas in here, more than most sf writers can manage in an entire career, but Baxter fluffs half of them, and pulls his trilogy back into a duology with an info-dump. Having said all that, this is Baxter as Baxter does – if you know, and like, his work, you’ll get exactly what you expect; if you’re looking for a more rounded exploration of the ideas its presents, this is not the author for you.
Son of Man, Robert Silverberg (1971, USA). I fancied reading something old school, saw this mentioned somewhere and it sounded intriguing, and it was very cheap. I wish I’d never bothered. A man contemporary to the time of writing wake sup in the far future, and has various encounters – most of which are sexual, although, to be fair, there is a lot of genderfluidity – with denizens of that age and earlier. The Time Machine this is not. In parts, it reads like a writing exercise, Silverberg using his thesaurus with a vengeance, albeit not abusing it as Fanthorpe did; but, all the same, it’s still a novel desperately in search of a story. I can’t decide if the book reads like a novel written to fulfil a contract or a book written as an experiment in style and content. The fact it fails so dismally on the latter suggests the former, but then it was published in 1971, so perhaps it was intended as a literary experiment. Still, no matter how you look at it, Son of Man is an historical document that’s best forgotten. Much as I admire SF Gateway for making older works of science fiction available, there are some that are perhaps better not re-issued, and this would be one of them.
The Green Man’s Silence, Juliet E McKenna (2020, UK). This is the third book in a series which hadn’t been planned. The first book, The Green Man’s Heir, was, I believe, a one-off, but proved so successful McKenna dug out an old project and rewrote it to provide a sequel, The Green Man’s Foe. Which did equally well. And with good reason. These are fun, well-crafted urban fantasy novels, more Mythago Wood than fang-banger, which is a decided advantage. In this novel, written from scratch as part of the series – and I’m not alone in hoping there are more – has narrator Dan Mackmain, son of a dryad, in the Fens, preventing a nasty piece of work from using John Dee’s crystal ball, as used by Edward Kelley, for nefarious – and, it has to be said, petty – purposes, which unfortunately are having an adverse effect on the various folklore creatures of the Fens. So not only do we have local English mythology, and Mackmain’s life as revealed in earlier instalments, but also John Dee and his alchemy. It’s a clever mix, and it works extremely well. I thought this a much better book than the preceding volume, and its combination of modern life, English folklore and Elizabethan occultism worked perfectly. Given The Green Man’s Foe was nominated for awards, then this one deserves to win them.