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Reading diary 2019, #12

Now that winter is here, I’ve been taking the bus into work. It’s great. There’s an app – everything is apps here – and you buy a ticket on it and show the ticket to the driver. They’ll be introducing a “blippar” to read the QR code on the app’s tickets soon, but it’s not been rolled out yet. The entire city is a single zone, by the way; and buses are frequent. The journey to and from work is about the same length as my commute back in Sheffield, but I’ve not yet got into the habit of reading on the bus. And since at work we eat out for lunch pretty much every day – most restaurants here run a “dagens lunch” menu, typically half a dozen dishes, or a specific dish each day of the week, changing weekly, for between 90 kr and 150 kr – so I don’t get much reading time then. Except when I take sandwiches into work. Which is about once a week.

Anyway, books… I set my Goodreads reading challenge at 140 books this year, the same figure as last year. In 2018, I managed slightly more than that; this year, I doubt I’ll hit 110 books read. Ah well.

Oh, and somehow I managed to read only female authors during November. All of the books below are by women writers as well.

The Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief, Lisa Tuttle (2016, UK). I’ve been a fan of Tuttle’s fiction for many years – her collection, A Spaceship Built of Stone, is especially good – but, to be honest, this book, the first in the Jesperson and Lane series, about a pair of late Victorian/Early Edwardian paranormal investigators, did initially smell like an attempt at something explicitly commercial. No bad thing, of course; every writer wants to be successful, and it’s even harder these days than, say, twenty years ago. The Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief is very readable; and the characters are engaging, and even amusing in a sort of Holmesian-pastiche sort of way… It’s also clear Tuttle had a great deal of fun writing it, which means it is also fun reading it. Lane is a debunker of spiritualists who falls out with the woman she assists and returns to London, only to stumble across an advert for a detective’s assistant by Sherlock-Holmes-wannabe Jesperson. Except he isn’t really a Sherlock-Holmes-wannabe, he’s more a character inspired by Holmes, who is real in the story’s world, which presents something of a dissonance. Jesperson’s and Lane’s first case involves the disappearance of several prominent spiritualists, and though the pair soon identify the perpetrator, they’re not sure of his methods or aims. The Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief was good on period detail, and the main characters were definitely engaging, but elements of it did feel occasionally secondhand. I bought this book when it was on offer; I’d do the same for the sequel.

Provenance, Ann Leckie (2017, USA). I enjoyed Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, although I thought they declined in quality and interest as the series progressed. The many comparisons of this pendant novel to Le Guin were strident enough to put me off reading it. I mean, I like Le Guin’s fiction, she’s one of the genre’s great writers, but I knew Leckie was not actually all that much like Le Guin and so the comparisons were likely disingenuous at best. But I was in Akademibokhandeln in Gränbystaden and it was a 3-for-2 offer and I only had two books so I grabbed Provenance to make up the three. In the event, Provenance proved to be nothing like I’d expected, and a lot better than I’d thought it would be. It’s set in the same universe as the Imperial Radch trilogy, although not on a world controlled by the Radch. A young woman from a culture in which politically powerful figures chose their successors from their children – either biological or adopted – attempts to win her mother’s favour, and discredit her brother, the favourite, by breaking a criminal out of “prison” – implied to be a no-holds-barred prison world – in order to make use of him. It’s all to do with “vestiges”, which are basically a cross between antiques and mementos, ie objects present at events of historical significance, possessing exactly what the title outlines. Of course, there’s more going on here than is apparent to the somewhat naive protagonist. And for all the book’s claims to non-violence, it ends with a military assault on a space station, a hostage situation, and a violent response. But hey, at least it’s not totally fascist. This is not Le Guin, make no mistake about that. But it’s a nicely-drawn space opera, set in an interesting universe, which sadly still fails to avoid many of space opera’s failings. I enjoyed it, perhaps even more so than the two sequels to Ancillary Justice. I’m not sure where we go from here. Leckie has already moved onto fantasy – The Raven Tower – and the endless marketing of debuts means no writer has the chance to develop a universe as they once had. There will never be another Vorkosigan saga, there will never be another Wheel of Time. One of those does sound like progress, but I suspect we should rue the loss of both.

Chercher La Femme, L Timmel Duchamp (2018, USA). I buy Duchamp’s books as soon as they are published as I’ve been a fan for many years. She’s quite honest in pointing out that many of these novels took a number of years to see print – which, in less charitable eyes, would see them classified as “trunk novels”. Which is, when you consider it, an unfair label. For one thing, it assumes the writer has not reworked them, given what they’ve learnt since they were first published. It’s also too easy a label to throw the label at a book by a writer that doesn’t fit the reader’s preconceptions. Anyway, Duchamp describes the history of her novel in an afterword, and it began life many years ago but sat in a drawer for many years. This probably explains the slightly old-fashioned feel to Duchamp’s world-building, which makes for a slightly off-centre reading experience. True, that off-centre perspective is one of the appeals of Duchamp’s writing. It’s… hard to explain. Chercher la Femme – not the best title ever – is a first contact novel. But it’s more about the preconceptions and society of the contactors than it is the contactees. In fact, the latter are complete mysteries, almost ciphers in fact. They occupy a place in the narrative, but they’re more signifiers than an actual worked-out alien race. And it’s what they signify that forms the main premise of the novel. The Pax is a pan-national semi-utopian socialist polity, which has been contacted by a bird-like alien race, who have gifted them three FTL spaceships. One of these spaceships is sent to the eponymous world – and I can’t decide if naming the planet Chercher la Femme is  extremely clumsy or quite clever – only for the mission to fail and its crew join the population of the planet and refuse to be contacted. The novel is told from the POV of the “leader” of the follow-up mission. The inhabitants of Chercher la Femme are near-magical, and more or less reflect the crew members’ preconceptions back on themselves. Which makes for a difficult first contact. I’m not convinced it all hangs together. The characterisation is excellent, and some of the world-building is really good… but the aliens don’t feel like they have an actual real existence, which is probably the point, but which makes the whole thing either too reminiscent of Lem’s Solaris or too circular for whatever point Duchamp is try to make to stick. Chercher la Femme is probably the most disappointing novel I’ve read by Duchamp, but I’ll continue to buy and read her books because when she’s good she’s really good.

The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson (2007, UK). There’s a reverse snobbery thing you sometimes find in science fiction in which sf commentators sneer at non-sf authors, so-called “literary fiction” authors, who write sf and sort of get it wrong. I’m not one of them (well, not unless they sneer at science fiction first). Literary authors writing science fiction, whether they acknowledge it or not, has resulted in some excellent science fiction and fiction. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in books some writers would probably sooner didn’t appear on their bibliographies. I mean, Jeanette Winterson is a highly-regarded author in the UK and has written some excellent novels, but The Stone Gods reads like it was written by someone who thinks all literary sf should resemble David Mitchell’s highly successful Cloud Atlas. While the prose is actually really good, everything in the story feels secondhand and, well, used, and you have to wonder what point Winterson thought she was trying to prove. I mean, the novel opens with the sort of misogyny that might not have looked out of place in a 1940s sf novel but would certainly have raised eyebrows in a 2000 one. And then the narrative drops back to the 1700s and Easter Island, and takes as real the myth the islanders caused the islands’ ecological collapse. The idea of using science fiction as one of several narratives to illuminate a point is, in principle, almost impossible to abuse, although perhaps not entirely. Mitchell at least has a history in sf – he was a member of the BSFA for many years – but even so his novels still feel somewhat jejeune on a science-fictional level. Which is somewhat ironic, given that science fiction is itself a largely juvenile genre. But Winterson, an otherwise excellent writer, does not compare well with Mitchell with this book, and I don’t simply mean reading The Stone Gods as sf. In other respects, too. It’s clumsy. It fumbles its deployment of its sf tropes. It seems to imagine sf exists in opposition to an historical narrative. Which is not true. And never has been. Everything a literary author could do wrong when when writing sf-as-literary-fiction it sort of does wrong. And yes, I know “wrong” is not the right word, but you know what I mean. It fumbles everything. It’s almost the dictionary definition of a book by a lit author that sf snobs sneer at. Which unfortunately means it is neither good sf nor good literary fiction. Avoidable.

Fallout, Sara Paretsky (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s fiction for longer than I care to remember. She’s one of those authors whose books I buy as soon as they’re published. Sort of. She’s never been for me a collectable author, so I’ve never bought her books in hardback, but I’ll happily pick up a paperback copy, or even borrow one, or, more recently, buy the ebook, should it be on promotion. Fallout is something of a departure from the typical formula – for a start, much of it takes places outside Chicago. VI Warshawski is hired to investigate the disappearance of a  young black film-maker, which leads her out into deepest darkest Kansas – incidentally, Paretsky’s own home ground – and various shenanigans from decades before, involving lesbians, a nuclear missile silo, corruption among university faculty, and a government-sponsored research programme that went slightly wrong. It’s all good solid Warshawski material, given an added boost because it’s not about Chicago or that city’s endemic corruption. I cannot recommend this series enough. The first half dozen or so can be read in any order, but I think the last dozen or so books probably need to be read after reading that first six. If so, you have a treat ahead of you. Paretsky is one of the best crime writers currently being published. These are excellent books. Read them.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was subject to quite a bit of online buzz. So I read it, and enjoyed it. And North’s second book too, Touch, I read that and enjoyed it. But North’s star seemed to wane a little and I sort of stopped reading her books. But then The Sudden Appearance of Hope popped up on promotion on Kindle, so I decided to give it a go. And I’m glad I did. It helped that the novel opened in Dubai, and actually managed to present the emirate in a way that resembled the real place. Which is more than can be said of most books featuring Dubai. Hope is a young woman cursed with the ability – left unexplained, and not entirely scientifically credible – which means people forget her completely minutes after she has stopped interacting with them. This makes life extremely difficult for her, but she has become a thief, and a very good one. She flits around the world, hanging out with the rich and famous. And robbing them. Which is why it all starts to go slightly wrong when in Dubai she robs someone at a party for an app called Perfection, which rewards people for doing things which “improve” them. This promptly drags Hope into a campaign to destroy Perfection, which is pretty much a pure distillation of late-stage capitalism, and… Like the two earlier books by North I read, The Sudden Appearance of Hope doesn’t seem quite know what it’s about. It’s had a great premise – two great premises, in fact. And they do neatly slot together. And provide opportunity for plenty of pithy commentary. But North can’t seem to decide where her focus lies. I’ve seen complaints the prose is “too literary”, but I actually liked that about the book – ie, it tried for something that wasn’t your bog-standard beige commercial prose. And although the novel wore its research lightly, it was clear North had done her homework. I put down The Sudden Appearance of Hope after I’d finished and decided I really should seek out her other novels.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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100 books, part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about the “100 Books That Shaped My World”, as inspired by the list published by the BBC. Parts one and two are here and here.

And so we come to…

The 1990s

The major event in the 1990s which impacted by reading habits was moving to the United Arab Emirates. One of the first things I did on arriving in Abu Dhabi was join a subscription library – the Daly Community Library, run by Jocelyn Henderson – which was a real life-saver… but did not have much of a genre collection. So I was forced to read further afield. I had started reading literary fiction (not a term I like) a few years earlier during my last year in Coventry, but that was more in the nature of exploration. In Abu Dhabi, I  had no choice: if I wanted to take out four books a fortnight, I could not do so if they were only genre, the library simply didn’t have enough of them.

The Innocent, Ian McEwan (1990). I borrowed this book from Coventry Central Library, and it’s one of the first “literary fiction” novels I remember reading. I probably read others before The Innocent, and certainly there were books I studied at school that weren’t science fiction or fantasy, but I’m fairly sure this was the first novel I read I consciously identified as “literary fiction”. I continued reading McEwan for many years afterward, but eventually gave up on his books after reading Saturday and hating it.

Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990). I first met Iain Banks at the second convention I attended, Prefab Trout in Glasgow in 1989, but at the 1990 Eastercon in Liverpool the editor of a magazine called Back Brain Recluse borrowed my hotel room for an interview with Banks. About a dozen of us sat in on it. As far as I know, the interview never saw print. Use of Weapons was also launched at the con, so I bought a copy and got it signed. I think I’d read a couple of Banks’s novels prior to that weekend, but after reading Use of Weapons I made sure to pick up each new book as it was published – both Iain M Banks and Iain Banks. In first edition.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). I remember the fuss when this was published. Greenland had previously published three literate fantasies, was also known as a critic (and a co-editor of Interzone), and was a well-respected name in British sf. Take Back Plenty, word had it, was something very different, a literate science fiction novel that made knowing use of pulp sf tropes. Word was correct. Take Back Plenty showed me that tropes were not only the building-blocks of science fiction but they could also be interrogated. And they could be deployed in a narrative that used literary tricks not commonly found in science fiction. (Many years later on this blog, I would take a second look at the deployment of tropes in science fiction, and the unacknowledged baggage those tropes carried.) Take Back Plenty remains an important novel in British science fiction; and in my own approach to the genre. It’s no longer as popular as it once was, and its importance seems to have been lost in the success of Banks’s space operas. Banks wrote superior space opera, true, but it was less consciously literary than Greenland’s sf; and, of course, Banks published considerably more books.

Raft, Stephen Baxter (1991). I met Stephen Baxter at a convention in the late 1980s, and we would often hang out together. There was a group of us who hung out together at UK cons – some had been published, some hadn’t, but quite a few went on to have careers as science fiction writers and are still being published now. I’d read several of Baxter’s stories in British small press magazines – does anyone remember Dreams and New Moon Quarterly? At that time, a typical sf writer’s career progression went: publish short stories in small press magazines, publish short stories in Interzone, attract interest of genre imprint editor, submit novel or collection… I seem to remember Baxter’s debut was originally going to be a collection of Xeelee stories but his editor decided a novel was safer. Anyway, Baxter added me to a list at his publisher so I’d receive review copies (it wasn’t as easy for an individual to get review copies then as it is now). I was sent copies of his first four books as they were published, but then my parents sold their house and moved abroad. After that, I had to buy my own copies.

The Brains of Rats, Michael Blumlein (1989)
Semiotext(e) SF, Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson & Robert Anton Wilson, eds. (1989). I’d been hugely impressed by Blumlein’s story, ‘Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report’, when I first came across it in, I think, an Interzone anthology. It was shocking but I loved its – no pun intended – clinically sharp prose. Naturally, I bought his first collection when it was published (I upgraded my copy to a signed slipcased edition a few years ago). I was not the only fan of the story among the people I hung out with at conventions at that time (a slightly different group to the one mentioned above). We were all into a particular group of US sf writers who appeared, or were discussed, in the magazine SF Eye and, later, Journal Wired, particularly the more gonzo science fiction writers. And you couldn’t get more gonzo than Semiotext(e) SF. It further helped shape my understanding of science fiction, a demonstration the genre wasn’t limited to the sort of heartland sf found in those books I’d bought from WH Smith and the like in the 1970s and 1980s…

Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988). Kadrey was one of the aforementioned SF Eye authors and Metrophage was his debut. I have long maintained its publication pretty much killed cyberpunk as a serious sf subgenre. The 1980s had seen me explore heartland sf widely, discovering new authors and notables works both old and new. During the 1990s, my definition of the genre expanded – well, perhaps not definition, more that my view of sf had been quite “trad” and I’d previously interpreted what I read in light of that view. I had, for example, read Tiptree in the very early 1980s (after she had been outed), but had not read her stories as feminist (feminism was not something I knew of as a thing at that time, although I agreed with its aims and had even internalised some of them). Metrophage was one of the first novels I read which gave me the beginnings of a critical framework for my appreciation of science fiction. I still think the novel is hugely under-rated.

Dreamside, Graham Joyce (1991). I met Graham Joyce at Mexicon 4 in Harrogate during a weekend in May 1991. He was there to help promote his first book, Dreamside. I offered to interview him for a magazine I co-edited, The Lyre, and pretty much read Dreamside in a single day as preparation. Unfortunately, the interview took place on the Sunday, after many of us had stayed up until about 4 am drinking the previous night, and neither Joyce nor myself were feeling particularly smart. Weeks later, I sent him a verbatim transcript, and he wrote back that he remembered the interview as “quite insightful… so who were those two fucking Martians on the tape?”. I lost touch with Joyce after I left the UK, and I was never much of a fan of the genre in which he wrote, although I did read several of his novels. When I first met him, I could not have predicted how important he would prove to British fantasy, but he was a force for good and is sorely missed.

Iris, William Barton & Michael Capobianco (1990). Prior to my departure for the UAE in 1994, I was part of a group of young UK sf fans and writers who attended conventions, were members of the BSFA, read and were published in UK small press magazines, and possessed a mostly homogeneous taste in fiction – which in no way mapped onto the tastes of fans of the previous generation. I had perhaps read more of the older stuff than many of the group, but we were all keen (mostly) on the same US and UK genre writers. Except for William Barton and Michael Capobianco (and, later, William Barton alone). I was the only fan among us of the pair’s books. I’d regularly recommend their books, but either my friends didn’t read them or, if they did, they weren’t as impressed as I had been. And this despite the fact Iris was approvingly reviewed in SF Eye. I suspect Barton and Capobianco were too much hard sf rather than flavour of sf du jour (which was sort of post-cyberpunk), and I’ve always been more hard sf than my friends in fandom. My own writing is no doubt proof of this. But Barton and Capobianco, and later Barton solo, have been for me a mini-fandom of my own within my fandom cohort. (Coincidentally, Barton wrote about Traveller for RPG magazines early in his career.)

A Vision of Battlements, Anthony Burgess (1965)
How Far Can You Go?, David Lodge (1980). A pair of literary authors I started reading because of the Daly Community Library. Lodge I think I started reading because I remembered the TV adaptation of his novel Nice Work. I’m not so big on Burgess these days – he often seemed to obscure his story behind unnecessary linguistics tricks, although there’s no denying either his erudition or facility with prose and language. He just isn’t, in many of his novels, as readable as he could have been. Lodge’s novels I found interesting in terms of their narrative structure, which taught me about different ways of reading (and writing), but as Lodge moved his interest to fictionalising real people and dropped the structural experiments, so I lost interest in his fiction. How Far Can You Go?, his novel about Catholicism, is, I think, his best, perhaps because it’s his most personal. A Vision of Battlements, on the other hand, was a Burgess trunk novel, but it did kickstart my reading of his work, hence its appearance here.

Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987). Another thing I did during my first few weeks in Abu Dhabi was discover the location of the city’s few book shops, including one that sold remaindered books from the US and UK, less than a block away from my apartment. It was called Isam Bookshop. Many of the books it sold were science fiction and, at 5 Dirhams each, they were ridiculously cheap. I’m pretty sure I found Angel at Apogee in that shop, and liked it so much I tracked down the author’s other books. She unfortunately stopped writing about 20 years ago. They are solid mid-list US sf.

C is for Corpse, Sue Grafton (1986)
Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992). Both of these books I borrowed from my mother, and subsequently became a fan of their authors. Grafton died in 2017, having only reached the letter Y in her Alphabet series. I didn’t read the first half dozen books in order – which is not really necessary – but I have read all twenty-five of the books. I’ve also read all of Paretsky’s novels, including her two non-VI Warshawski ones. She has a new Warshawski novel out next year. It’s on my wishlist. For some reason, I much prefer female-authored crime fiction, especially those with female protagonists. In the 1970s, when Grafton and Paretsky were beginning, it was a small field. Now it’s enormous, but I feel no urge to keep up. I tried a few other female crime writers during the 1990s – Liza Cody, for example – but never found one to match either Grafton or Paretsky (at least, not until the 2010s).

Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957). I knew very little about Lawrence Durrell – I  think I may have read a Gerald Durrell book at school – when I borrowed the omnibus of the Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library. Unfortunately, I didn’t get round to reading it and to return it unread. But I still wanted to read it, so I bought a slipcased set of the four paperbacks during a trip to Dubai (the one pictured, in fact). When I read the books, I fell in love with Durrell’s prose and started collecting Durrell’s oeuvre. In first edition. I now have quite a large collection, including some rare books and chapbooks.

An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews (1997)
Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, Nicola Griffith & Stephen Pagel (1997). I’m not sure these two books deserve to be lumped together, although I suspect I first read them around the same time. I can’t remember what clued me into Susan R Matthews’s novels – a review somewhere, I suspect – but I’ve remained a fan since reading An Exchange of Hostages. They’re not perfect, and what worked in 1997 doesn’t play as well in 2019, but it’s a remarkable series and worth reading. The Bending the Landscape series, on the other hand, only comprised three volumes – fantasy, science fiction and horror. The remit was simple: genre authors write LGBT genre stories, LGBT authors write LGBT genre stories. The results were… mixed. The idea now sounds seems somewhat quaint, which gives you an idea of the progress made in genre fiction. I value the series because it introduced me to authors I had not previously known. But science fiction as a genre has always been very hetero- and cis- and even in the late 1990s finding commercial fiction that was neither was difficult. The Bending the Landscape trilogy were important in redressing that balance.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993). I know this was the first Park novel I ever read, and I know I bought it in Abu Dhabi. I suspect it was in All Prints, not Isam Bookshop, as it cost more than 5 Dirhams and was not remaindered. John Clute described it as “Third World sf”, but to me it’s one of the first post-colonial science fiction works. I’m surprised it hasn’t been properly studied. It deserves to be in the SF Masterworks series. It’s been a favourite sf novel for a couple of decades, and Park is a favourite writer. I have all of his books. In first edition.

Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (1996). I’m not sure which Sterling novel I read first, possibly Schismatrix, but by the early 1990s, after the success of Mirrorshades, the 1986 cyberpunk anthology he co-edited with William Gibson, and the spread of awareness of “The Movement”, Sterling had become something of a cyberpunk guru. Among the group of fans mentioned above, he was known as “Chairman Bruce”. While I read and appreciated his novels, it wasn’t until Holy Fire – arguably post-cyberpunk – that I saw up and took notice. And later went on to buy his novels as they were published. In first edition. Holy Fire remained my favourite Sterling novel until 2009’s The Caryatids – and I was fortunate enough to interview Sterling for Interzone in connection with that novel. It is, I think, my best interview.

Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953). For much of the 1990s I was in an APA with a group of well-known UK science fiction fans. It was a bit like a postal forum or group blog. Each month, the members would write a contribution of one or more sides of A4 (you didn’t have to contribute every month, but were expected to do so a certain number of times a year), make 30 copies of it and then send them to the administrator. Who would then put together 30 envelopes containing a copy of each of the contributions for that month, which was then posted to each member. Although the APA was ostensibly about science fiction and fantasy, the discussion often ranged over a wide variety of topics, including other literary genres. I forget who recommended the novels of Georgette Heyer – I think it was after I’d read a Jane Austen novel – but I thoroughly enjoyed Cotillion, and slowly worked by way through Heyer’s historical romances. I still have all the ones I bought and occasionally reread them – they make excellent comfort reading.

The Master Mariner, Nicholas Monsarrat (1978). I remember reading Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea at school as part of a reading group, but I didn’t discover Monsarrat had written other books until I joined the Daly Community Library and saw several of his books on their shelves. The Master Mariner, comprising two volumes, Running Proud and Darken Ship, was Monsarrat’s last work and is unfinished. Running Proud is complete, but Darken Ship consists only of a handful of chapters and notes. They’re excellent and I later began working my way through Monsarrat’s oeuvre, and even collecting them in first edition. I think Monsarrat’s oeuvre told against him, and the fact he’s best known for The Cruel Sea had him pegged as a WWII writer. He wrote across a number of genres, including science fiction. Although rarely mentioned in the same breath, the writer closest to him is probably Nevil Shute, whose profile is much higher. I will admit to a tendency to privilege the underdog (relatively speaking, of course), but that’s perhaps because I find lesser reputations are typically undeserved after reading the author’s works.

The Second Angel, Philip Kerr (1998). I’d come across Kerr very early in the 1990s when I read the first three Bernie Gunther novels, possibly borrowed from Coventry City Library. Kerr later returned to the Gunther series after a 15 year gap in 2006. But he also wrote other novels, some of which it has to be said are bit potboiler-ish, but among them is The Second Angel, which is pure science fiction. And very good too. I thought it so good I started reading the rest of Kerr’s books, and was especially glad he started writing Bernie Gunther novels again as they really are very good. Sadly, Kerr died in 2018. I’ve read all of his books except his last one, Metropolis, a Gunther novel, the children’s books he published as PB Kerr, and his “football detective Scott Manson trilogy.

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985). The more observant among you will have noticed that most of the books in this post, and the two preceding, have been by male writers. I did not at that time note the gender of the authors whose books I read. I did read some female science fiction authors – and indeed some were favourites, such as Cherryh – but my reading was predominantly genre books by male writers. The Children of Anthi, and its sequel Requiem for Anthi, are not generally held up as great science fiction, although they’re much better than they should be. Blakeney is a pseudonym used by Deborah Chester for four sf novels published between 1985 and 1990. I’ve never read anything else by Chester other than her Blakeney books, and she used a number on pen-names. The Children of Anthi is an excellent exemplar of one stream of my science fiction reading during the decade, possibly inspired by Angel at Apogee: I actively sought out books by female US mid-list sf authors – at least in Isam Bookshop which, fortunately, seemed to have a good supply. This later fed into SF Mistressworks, a project I kicked off in 2010.


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Reading diary 2019, #9

My trip to Dublin for Worldcon entailed a few hours strapped to a chair, which meant I got some reading done. This may be a mixed blessing. I should probably rename my “book reviews” as “book rants” since, to be honest, I tend to use the books under discussion chiefly as jumping off points for commentary on fiction in general – if not genre in general (which sounds a bit weird but there you go). After all, my reviews have caused me a few problems with writers who have disagreed with my assessment. Repeat after me: REVIEWS ARE NOT FOR THE WRITER.

Brush Back, Sara Paretsky (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since being introduced to them by my mother back in the mid-1990s. Not only are they well put-together crime novels with a likeable protagonist, but Warshawski – and Paretsky, by extension – wears her politics on her sleeve. And they’re politics I pretty much agree with. It’s not entirely political, however. Given that these books are set in the US, and moreover in Chicago, corruption plays an important role and Warshawski continually battles against it. It features in Brush Back, of course, but the novel opens with a completely unrelated incident, one which, it transpires, was indirectly caused by corruption. A woman from Warshawski’s old neighbourhood is released from prison after serving twenty-five years for the murder of her daughter. She now claims she is innocent, more so she claims the actual killer was Boom-Boom, Warshawski’s cousin and much-loved ice hockey star who was murdered in the second Warshawski novel, Deadlock, published back in 1984. Warshawski is rightly affronted, but she is involved in another case, also centred on the same neighbourhood. Of course, the two are linked, and it’s all to do with a local councillor who’s as bent as they come and another man, an old protege, who looks like he’s got a shot at power. When you start a Warshawski you pretty much know what you’re going to get, and Brush Back delivers that as effectively as any of Paretsky’s novels. It’s a good addition to an excellent series, and more people should be reading them.

New Suns, Nisi Shawl, ed. (2019, USA). I have never really been a fan of anthologies. If they’re themed, and the theme interests me, then sometimes they work for me. But anthologies, not just genre ones, and pretty much since they were invented, have a fatal flaw: cronyism. Editors invite their friends to contribute, or people they hope will draw in readers, or people who tick certain boxes. Some people say tables of contents have to be built, which means going out and finding the writers whose presence in the anthology are not going to cause a stink on social media. The alternative is open submissions. Anyone and everyone sends in a story, and the editor picks the best, or most suitable, stories. This too has its problems. A lot of crap gets submitted; not everyone seems to understand the concept of a brief – the editor wants hard sf and someone submits urban fantasy, the editor asks for stories between 3,000 and 5,000 words and there’s a 10,000 word story or two sitting in the queue… Also, many well-known writers won’t submit unless asked (why should they invest time and effort in something with no guarantee of a sale? On the other hand, if invited why should they assume their submission will be accepted?). So, anthologies: by definition a mixed bag, irrespective of how they’re put together. New Suns is sort of themed, in as much as its contributers are all people of colour. The stories themselves cover a wide range, from Tobias S Buckell’s relatively straightforward sf to the almost mythical fantasy of Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’. Some stories work better than those, but overall this is a pretty strong anthology. And I suspect part of the reason for that is its variety – okay, I mean I realise that sort of contradicts what I wrote earlier, but the contributors’ backgrounds certainly inform their stories (mostly) and that works in the anthology’s favour. As indeed it was no doubt intended to. I still have mixed feelings about the usefulness of anthologies (that is, to anyone except their contributors), but I do recognise that some serve a useful purpose as showcases, and New Suns sits firmly in that category, and does it well. Worth reading.

Europe at Dawn, Dave Hutchinson (2018, UK). So the trilogy becomes a  quartet, and it’s an odd book that rounds off the three-book story. It’s sort of an extension, but it’s also a recapitulation of the previous three books. It tells their story – or rather, the story actually begun in the second novel, Europe at Midnight – but from perspectives, and featuring some characters, that weren’t in the preceding novels, but in a way that sort of weaves its narrative in and around their narratives. Rudi, who is perhaps the chief protagonist of the series, is definitely front and centre in Europe at Dawn, although he takes a while to appear, something that’s seems to be a stylistic tic of the quartet. Initially, Europe at Dawn is about a flunky in the Scottish Embassy in Tallinn, who finds herself on the run thanks to events of which she understands nothing. And it all sort of goes round in circles, although perhaps more like a Slinky than just a plain circle, and it takes a while before the novel’s direction truly becomes apparent. Essentially, there is someone else out there, not just the fractured EU and the Community, or indeed the Line, which may not be as simple as presented in earlier novels. There’s always been something of the spy novel to this series, the way the stories are constructed: firmly bedded on a science-fictional conceit, but the various misdirections of the plot are not from the genre kicked into life in 1926 by Amazing Stories. It makes of the central conceit something more than is usual, something more than just near-future science fiction. These books are masterful at narrative sleight of hand, and Europe at Dawn does this more than the others – it’s not until the final chapter that the purpose of the various narratives is revealed. That Hutchinson manages to do this by keeping the individual narrative tense but not the underlying story-arc is perhaps what’s most impressive. The end comes into shape, and it’s neither expected nor completely out of left field. These are excellent books. I suspect Europe at Dawn may not be the actual end, but you won’t hear me complaining if it itn’t…

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016, USA). Only one novel has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Arthur C Clarke Award. This one. The Pulitzer Prize is not known for giving out gongs to genre works, so it comes as little surprise on reading The Underground Railroad to discover that it’s not actually a genre novel. It’s not even borderline. Its one conceit is related to the title – that the underground railroad, a network of people who smuggled escaped slaves north, was an actual railway. Underground. A very forgiving genre reader might consider that alternate history, except, well, it doesn’t actually change history. Cora’s story would be exactly the same without the book’s conceit. Which doesn’t make sense anyway. The first underground railway was in London and it opened in 1863. The Underground Railroad takes place before the American Civil War, which began in 1861. However, not only is the underground railroad of the book historically unlikely, it’s also technologically unlikely. How would it be built? And run? But then, it doesn’t actually feature that much in the novel. Cora rides on it twice. She spends a third of the story hiding in an attic. As a dramatised history of slavery in mid-nineteenth century US, The Underground Railroad does an admirable job of demonstrating how vile and reprehensible an institution it was, although to be fair if you need that demonstrating to you then there’s something wrong with you. There is no moral justification for slavery. Of any sort. Whitehead structures his narrative weirdly and I’m not convinced it works. He skips back and forth in time, from character to character, promising stories that take nearly half the book to appear, or reporting on the death of a character before jumping to a point just before his death (and, to be honest, the scene serves no real purpose). I’m not convinced The Underground Railroad is an especially good novel. On a sentence by sentence level, the prose is good, and often excellent. But the structure is all over the place and the central conceit is a paper-thin gimmick. It’s certainly not genre. However, it tackles an important topic, and does so in a way that gives it a wide audience – and that’s something that shouldn’t be trivialised.

Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s work since reading a short story by him in Interzone back in the late 1980s. At novel length, his work has been… variable. Only his one horror novel, X, Y, seemed to match his short fiction in style and tone. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, but after a short hiatus he seems to have become productive than before, with two novels and three collections published in the last ten years. Longer is marketed as  a novel, but it’s published by Tor.com, who chiefly publish novellas, and it’s pretty thin, at only 227 pages. It’s also written in a very stripped-down style, with lots of dialogue and very little descriptive prose. Gunjita and Cav are the sole occupants of an orbiting laboratory, one of many owned by Gleem Pharmaceutical. Gunjita has rejuved, her second and last, but Cav has not, and it becomes increasingly obvious he has no plans to do so. Not only is his decision affecting their work, it’s also affecting their relationship – they’ve been happily married for a very long time. And then they discover something strange on a passing comet, a smear of material which may be organic but is certainly not terrestrial… In other hands, this could turn into, well, something not unlike a shitty sf film such as Life. But Blumlein is not interested in alien monsters, or even in the nature of the alien on the comet. It’s the relationship between Gunjita and Cav, and the way it fractures due to Cav’s choice, that drives the story of Longer. The alien is merely a crutch to bolster Cav’s decision; much as Gunjita is presented with one herself when the head of Gleem Pharmaceuticals, who has uniquely survived three rejuves, reveals to her the consequences of that third rejuve. The busyness of the story, and the depth of the themes it covers, with the bare-bones prose, unfortunately makes Longer read more like an outline or an excerpt than a full novel. Blumlein sets his scenes, and lays out his world, with enviable brevity, and the interiority of the main characters never feels lacking… but the plot seems to be mostly carried in discussion between Cav and Gunjita and it sometimes leaves you wanting more from the narrative. Blumlein is very good, but Longer is more like a charcoal sketch than an oil painting – it tells a story, and the artistry is plain to see, but there’s no colour.

Y is for Yesterday, Sue Grafton (2017, USA). So, that’s it. The Alphabet series is over, and Grafton unfortunately died before starting work on a book for the letter Z. Still, the books were bestsellers so some publisher somewhere is probably already trying to get permission for an official sequel by some ghost writer or desperate Big Name Author. I have no real feelings either way. It’s sad when a much-loved series ends, and you can understand the creator’s decision to let it die with them. On the other hand, some series and worlds you want to continue to explore, and the authors chosen to continue the works have produced work as good, and sometimes even better, than the creator’s. So, Tintin died with Hergé, but the Edgar P Jacobs Studio, set up after Jacobs’s death, has produced better instalments in The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer series than Jacobs ever did. And then there are the sequels to the Dune books, written by Kevin J Anderson & Brian Herbert, which are unutterably shit. But I digress. Y is for Yesterday both follows on from the preceding volume, X (see here), and is centred around a new mystery. Ned Lowe, the serial killer from X, is still on the loose, and now hiding out somewhere in Santa Teresa and bent on revenging himself on Kinsey Millhone. Meanwhile, Millhone has been hired by the family of a recently-released con who served eight years for shooting and killing a classmate at a party. A videocassette of the guy and two friends raping a drunken classmate has surfaced, and the parents want Millhone to identify the blackmailer. Ten years previously, two students were caught cheating on a SAT, and another student blamed for dobbing them in. Some weeks later, that student is shot and killed when an attempt at intimidation goes badly wrong. The instigator – not the shooter – promptly disappears and has been on the run ever since. Much as I’ve enjoyed reading these books over the years, this last one… well, the central mystery feels a bit insubstantial. I’d noticed in recent books that Grafton had taken to at times moving the narrative away from Millhone’s first-person account, something I don’t remember happening in the earlier books (although I may be misremembering). In Y is for Yesterday, one narrative is set ten years in the past and, to be honest, it doesn’t really add much to the story. Millhone’s investigation should be enough to explain events. But that’s a minor quibble. These are fun, readable books, less political than Paretsky’s but very similar in tone and style. I’m sorry there will be no more of them.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Made from books

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

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

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

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

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

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

capture

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

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

hear_us

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


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Reading diary, #27

Although I’ve been appending a count of books read from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list to these reading diary posts, I’ve not been making much of an effort to work my way through that list – certainly not to the extent I’ve been doing with the 1001 Films You See Before You Die list. Of course, reading a book requires more of an investment in time than watching a film, and I suspect there are fewer books on the book list of the sort I’d enjoy than there are films on the film list. Anyway, there are no books from the list in this post, although I do have about a dozen somewhere on the TBR. Just thought I should mention that.

bleeding_kansasBleeding Kansas, Sara Paretsky (2008). I am a big fan of Paretsky’s Warshaski novels – my mother took me to see Paretsky being interviewed by Val McDermid at the Harrogate Crime Festival last year – although it’s taken me a while to get round to reading her non-Warshawski novels. I read Ghost Country while at Bloodstock, a metal festival, last year, and thought it very good. Bleeding Kansas is… less good. It’s apparently based in part on Paretsky’s own teen years in Kansas, before she moved to Chicago; and, I suspect, although I rather hope not, based on the people she knew from that time. Because they are pretty much all mean-minded and prejudiced Bible bashers (is there any other sort?). Especially one family, who use their faith to justify all manner of bigotry and nastiness. The story focuses on Lara Grellier, the teenage daughter of one of the farming families in the Kaw River Valley. Her mother Susan is fascinated by a Grellier ancestor, who helped slaves during the Civil War, and survived several attacks by Quantrill and other pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” (the title of the novel refers to that period), but has a mental breakdown after the death of her son in Iraq. A lesbian Wiccan from Chicago has just taken over the dilapidated mansion of the local, deceased, gentry; and the Schapen family, mean-spirited relious types to a person, have accidentally bred a pure-red heifer which an apocalyptic Jewish sect from Chicago want in order to to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, everyone else tries to get by, without being too hateful – at which they don’t always succeed – or too liberal, which would of course see them tarred and feathered and driven out of the county. I really don’t have any sympathy for people who think their religion excuses their appalling behaviour (I’m looking at you, North Carolina), and I’m really not interested in reading about such people. It’s to Paretsky’s credit that she’s even-handed in her treatment of her caste of bigots and idiots, but that does make you wonder why she wrote the book in the first place. Yes, Warshawski is a champion and plays a champion’s role, and that’s part of the character’s appeal – so it seems self-evident that to go against type would result in characters most of Paretsky’s readers are going find unlikeable, and so create a novel most would find a less-than-enjoyable read. The Amazon reviews, interestingly, seem evenly split among the stars ratings, on both UK and US sites.

heart_hunterThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940). This is one of a pile of Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s I inherited from my father. Some of his collection I wasn’t interested in, but I kept many – including four by Carson MCullers: The Member of the Wedding I read a while ago but wasn’t that impressed; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is her first full-length novel and probably her best-known work, and I liked it a great deal more; still to come are Clock Without Hands and a collection, The Mortgaged Heart. A pair of deaf and dumb men (referred to throughout as “mutes”; actually, one is only deaf, but speaks so infrequently everyone assumes he is unable to do so), live in a small town somewhere in Georgia in the 1930s. One of the two men becomes mentally ill and is sent away to an asylum. The other, Singer, moves into a boarding-house and becomes a sort of listening post for a variety of characters, who come to talk at him and relax in his company. There’s something obviously Christ-like about Singer, although McCullers never quite makes it explicit. The novel actually focuses on four of Singer’s “friends”: a teenage girl who loves music, a drunken labour activist, the widowed owner of a local café, and a black doctor who is a communist and preaches Marxism to his family at Christmas. I enjoyed this a great deal more, and thought it much better, than the earlier MCullers novel I’d read. There was apparently a film made of it, which changed the setting to the 1960s. Not sure how that would work…

bsg_final_fiveBattlestar Galactica: The Final Five, Seamus Kevin, Fahey, David Reed & Nigel Raynor (2009) I bought this to read while rewatching Battlestar Galactia from the beginning, because it professed to tell the back-story of its titular characters (the five of the Twelve Cylon “skin jobs” whose identities were not revealed until very late in the series). As is the case with most such tie-in graphic novels, the art is pretty awful. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t make much sense either. Perhaps I should have waited until I’d finished my rewatch before reading it, maybe then it would have made more sense. I can’t remember from my previous viewing of Battlestar Galactica if Earth was supposed to have an ancient technological society which then disappeared (leaving no evidence of its existence; strange, that…), or not. From what I do remember, the Galactica arrived at Earth in its prehistory – although there was another Earth-like world in there somewhere, although that planet destroyed itself in a nuclear war. Anyway, I was put off a bit by the generally bad art, and since my comics reading these days seems to be limited to translated bandes dessinée (I’m no longer interested in reading about fascists in tights), so I’ve probably lost the knack of reading US graphic novels. But maybe if I give The Final Five a go after I’ve watched all of Battlestar Galactica again… (I bought the Blu-ray ultimate collection, £100 off, in a recent Amazon Prime Day – it includes everything… the pilot mini-series, the webisodes, Caprica, the whole lot. Totally worth what I paid for it – and yes, I still consider Battlestar Galactica the best television sf series ever made, and among the best television series ever made of any genre.)

metabaronsThe Metabarons: 40th Anniversary Edition, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Juan Giménez (2015). The Metabaron bandes dessinée originally appeared between 1992 and 2003, and while the original Metabaron character appeared in The Incal in 1981, I’m still not sure how that works out to a “40th anniversary edition” in 2015. Anyway, it’s a nice hardback omnibus of all the Metabaron stories, so who cares? The story is framed as a story told by the robot Tonto to the robot Lothar, both of whom look after the Metabunker, the home of the last Metabaron, No-Name. The Metabunker is located in a deserted city-shaft on a deserted world, and No-Name is absent for much of the length of The Metabarons. There’s a reason for this framing narrative, but explaining it would constitute a spoiler, so… Tonto explains how the first Metabaron, owner of a marble planet, was forced to reveal the existence of the epiphyte, a substance which counteracted gravity, to the Emperor and Empress, and so became fabulously wealthy, and was given the title Metabaron. He was also a superlative warrior, and with his new-found enormous wealth set out to improve his skills and his killing technology. And also institute the various traditions which were carried down through five generations to No-Name: that there can only be one Metabaron, so the son (or daughter) must kill the father, and that part of the training involves some form of mutilation and replacement prostheses. Jodorowsky wrote The Incal after the failure of his Dune project, and some of his work on Herbert’s novel ended up in that bande dessinée. But there’s also a lot of Dune in The Metabarons – there’s a Bene Gesserit analogue, a pain test that copies the one undergone by Paul Atreides (but involves real physical damage), and even mentat-like advisors to the Emperor and Empress. There’s also stuff that’s pure Jodorowsky – such as the Emperor and Empress being succeeded by a pair of conjoined twins of different genders, the Emperoress. Some of it is a bit silly. The third Metabaron, for example, is Steelhead, so called because his father shoots off his head as a baby, but his mother manages to fashion a robotic one in time to save his life. Um, right. The artwork throughout is gorgeous, and the story is pretty much pure-strain space opera. Totally worth buying.

murphys_gambitMurphy’s Gambit, Syne Mitchell (2000). I read for review on SF Mistressworks. I forget where I stumbled across mention of this novel, and with a publication year of 2000 it only just sneaks into SF Mistressworks’s remit, but it looked intriguing enough for me to buy a cheap copy on eBay… which proved to be a bit tattier than expected. Ah well. Not a keeper anyway. As should be clear from my review here.

murder_lochMurder at the Loch, Eric Brown (2016). Eric is a friend of many years, although I wouldn’t read these books – Murder at the Loch is the third in the series – if I didn’t enjoy them. True, they won’t set the crime genre alight, and they might even be described as a bit “cosy”, but they’re fun undemanding reads, and it’s clear the author’s heart is in the right place. The stars are Donald Langham, a crime novelist, and his fiancée, Maria Dupré, a French immigrant, who works for his literary agent. The stories are set in the 1950s, which means the author doesn’t have to worry about mobile phones and the like generating so many plot contortions the story falls apart (in fact, part of the plot of Murder at the Loch involves the cast being cut off for several days at a Scottish castle, with no way to telephone for help). While the back-story makes mention of WWII – in fact, it triggers the plot in in this book – and there are number of small details which anchor the novel to its time and place, it does sometimes read a little like it takes place in a political and historical vacuum. But that’s a minor quibble. Langham and ex-army pal and now PI, Ryland, are called up to Scotland by their old CO, Major Gordon, who now runs a posh hotel in a renovated castle. Someone took potshots at him and a guest a couple of days previously, and he’s understandably worried. What follows is a fairly typical country house mystery plot, with a few twists. Sunk in the loch is a Dornier Do 217 from early 1945, and its presence is a mystery as the Germans had stopped bombing the UK by then. It was while attempting to salvage this that Gordon and his Dutch engineer were shot at. Also resident in the hotel, or turn up shortly after Langham and Ryland arrive, are Gordon’s Byroneseque layabout son, an aloof Hungarian countess, a German aircraft enthusiast, a retired academic investigating the castle’s ghosts, and the three staff, including a young woman who is more of a family friend. A snow storm cuts off the castle, the Dutch engineer is brutally murdered, and you can’t really get a more faithful implementation of the country house murder template than that. But if the identity of the killer isn’t all that hard to figure out, and the clues dropped along the way make the motive as plain as day, it’s all handled with a nice light touch and very readable prose. I pretty much read Murder at the Loch in an afternoon, and sometimes that’s the sort of book you want to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 122


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Reading diary, #19

One more of these and that’ll see my entire 2015 reading documented. After I’ve posted that, I’ll do a summary “year in reading” post, you know, with pie charts and shit. I’ve already done my best of the year post (see here), even though the year had yet to finish then but everyone does it early so never mind. And I can always carry over any candidates I missed to next year’s best of, anyway…

seedlingstarsThe Seedling Stars, James Blish (1957). Back in the early 1980s, I was a big fan of Blish’s fiction – possibly because Arrow had repackaged them with Chris Foss covers – and bought and read a dozen or so. I still have them. But one I’d missed was The Seedling Stars, so I tracked down a copy on eBay a few years ago – with, of course, the Foss cover art – and stuck it on the TBR. I had a feeling I might have read it before – certainly, ‘Surface Tension’, the penultimate story in the collection wasn’t new to me, although I’m not sure where I’d previously read it. But the other two novellas and one short story didn’t ring any bells. All four are about “pantropy”, which is genetically engineering humanity for environments rather than terraforming worlds. In ‘Seeding Program’, Earth has sent an agent to infiltrate a colony on Ganymede created by the leader of the pantropy movement and whose inhabitants have all been engineered before birth to survive on the Jovian moon’s frozen surface. It’s not in the slightest bit convincing, and the plot could just have easily been translated to any random Earth location. In ‘The Thing in the Attic’, the theocratic society of the gibbon-like humans of Tellura is causing them to stagnate, but when one freethinker is exiled he and his companions trek over the mountains and discover a starship of humans who have come to see how the colony is doing. Solid nineteen-fifties science fiction, perhaps a little preachy in places, and not especially memorable. ‘Surface Tension’, however, is memorable. In this novella, tiny humans have been seeded in a series of ponds on the one small piece of land on a water world. Again, a freethinker (male, of course) persuades his fellows to build a special vehicle to explore the world “above the sky”. The sentient amoebas are a little hard to swallow (so to speak), but it’s a fun setting and Blish makes good use of it. The final story, ‘Watershed’, is very short and takes place on a starship heading for Earth. The crew are baseline humans and the passenger is an engineered human from another world. The crew are also hugely racist toward their passenger. Who points out that baseline humans are now the minority among the colonised worlds. I suspect I would have enjoyed this collection a whole lot more if I’d read it back in the early nineteen-eighties when I read all those other Blish books…

Slow_Bullets_by_Alastair_Reynolds_WSFA_CoverSlow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds (2015). I decided to hang on for the signed, numbered WSFA Press edition of this novella, rather than buy the original Tachyon Publications edition. And it’s a smart little hardback they’ve produced – except… they’ve got the ISBN wrong, and re-used one from one of their previous novellas. Argh. You would not believe how many things that screws up. The title of the novella refers to devices implanted in people which store their memories, allowing their actions during a vast war between worlds to be recorded. They’re called “slow bullets” because they’re implanted in the leg and then slowly work their way up to lodge in the chest. But the actual plot of Slow Bullets concerns Scur, who is captured and tortured by a war criminal from the other side, left for dead, but then wakes up aboard a transport carrying war criminals and other prisoners. Except something has gone wrong and it looks like everyone aboard had been left in hibernation for thousands of years… This is typical Reynolds – a universe which he perhaps might not have visited before but nonetheless feels like one of his, and a plot predicated on horrible violence which still manages to slingshot off an optimistic and redemptive ending. It is, in fact, pretty much about as Reynolds as you can get and, as a result, your mileage may vary. I enjoyed it, some bits more than others.

grass_kingThe Grass King’s Concubine, Kari Sperring (2012). I bought this after it was pointed out that I don’t read enough by fantasy by women writers by the author herself (it was a general admonishment on Twitter, not one personally directed at me, but I felt it was a fair comment). And I’m glad I did. I am not a huge fan of epic fantasies – I’ve read a fair number of them, and no longer find their tropes or stories interesting. Happily, The Grass King’s Concubine is nothing like an epic fantasy. Fantasy, yes; and a very cleverly done one. But not epic. And that’s meant as a compliment. Aude is the daughter of a rich land-owner, not old money but rich enough to be accepted into high society, but she is curious as to the source of her family’s wealth and determined not to marry and become just another trophy wife. After a couple of visits to the Brass City, the Dickensian industrial part of the city where she lives, she ends up running away with provincial officer Jehan. Aude’s search ends up with her being forcibly taken to the WorldBelow, ruled by the Grass King; and Jehan is taken there by a pair of ferrets who can take human form and act as guardians to the gate. Aude is a refreshingly forthright and active female protagonist, and there’s a welcome line of social commentary running throughout The Grass King’s Concubine. The fantasy elements are also interesting, original and well thought-out – Aude’s explorations of the Grass King’s palace are particularly well-drawn. If I had to recommend a modern fantasy novel I’d be more than happy to recommend this one. Go and get yourself a copy.

teleportation_accidentThe Teleportation Accident, Ned Beauman (2012). Having read this, I now understand why Lavie Tidhar is such a fan of the book. It addresses some of his favourite subjects. Myself… I enjoyed it, thought it amusing in parts and cleverly done overall, but I wasn’t taken with the engine which drives the plot. The title refers to a piece of stage machinery, first invented in the late eighteenth-century, which allows for the rapid, and apparently instantaneous, changing of scenery. In Weimar Berlin, Egon Loesser is trying to build a new version of that machine, but one that moves the cast around rather than the scenery. But during a test it goes wrong and dislocates both arms of the actor wearing it. Loesser is one of those horrible comic protagonists you find yourself inadvertently rooting for – he’s self-centred, fixated on his sex life (or lack thereof), and nasty to pretty much everyone he meets. It is Loesser’s lack of a girlfriend, and desire for the nubile Adele Hitler, which drives the plot, as Loesser chases her to Paris and then onto Los Angeles, at each place bumping into friends and acquaintances (some Jewish, some not) from Berlin. It all ends up with Loesser getting involved in a WWII project at a LA university to build an actual teleportation machine, which may or may not work and which may or may not have something to do with the strange murders which have been occurring on the campus. A fun read, even outright funny in places, although not particularly pleasant and often only saved by its cleverness.

critical_massCritical Mass, Sara Paretsky (2013). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since reading Guardian Angel back in the early 1990s. I’d borrowed it from my mother, and liked it so much I made an effort to read more of the VI Warshawski series… and have done ever since. Earlier this year, my mother took me to see Sara Paretsky speak (with Val McDiarmid) at the Harrogate Crime Festival. The plot of Critical Mass is a little more convoluted than most Warshawski novels, but the villains of the piece are, as usual, the rich. Vic’s friend Lotte receives a panicked phone call from the junkie daughter of a friend from Lotte’s childhood back in Vienna just before the Anschluss. Vic investigates, but the bird has flown, and all that remains is a shot-up meth lab and a dead body (male) in a nearby field. It turns out the woman’s younger brother, who is a physics whiz and works as a software engineer at a big computing firm, has also gone missing. The CEO of the company, whose father invented ferromagnetic memory, is worried he has taken one of their secret projects to a rival firm, but the clues suggest to Vic he disappeared for other reasons. There are also flashbacks to Lotte’s childhood, focusing on a young Jewish woman who is a gifted physicist but finds it hard to be taken seriously and eventually ends up as slave labour on one of the Nazis’ atom bomb projects. The story bounces around between two seemingly unrelated crimes before the two eventually, and cleverly, interlock. The only sour note is a pair of DHS agents who behave like mindless thugs rather than professional federal agents and a CEO who thinks it’s worth murdering people to safeguard the reputation of his company. But otherwise, this is a good Warshawki and worth reading – and it also sheds light on a little-known aspect of early twentieth-science and World War Two.

anecdotesAnecdotes of Destiny, Karen Blixen (1958). After watching Out of Africa, I fancied reading something by Blixen, so when I spotted this collection in a charity shop, I bought it. And since I was spending Christmas in Denmark, I thought it appropriate to take it with me and read it there. Anecdotes of Destiny has apparently been republished under the title of the most famous story in it, as Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, which I’m glad I spotted now as it’d likely confuse me later if I stumbled across the latter book. As it is, the original title does the collection a disservice as its contents are far from “anecdotes”. True, the opening story story pastiches a tale from 1001 Nights, and my heart sank a little when I read it. But ‘Babette’s Feast’ is wholly different and a great deal better. Best in the collection, however, is ‘Tempests’, about a young woman in Norway who joins a travelling theatre and then saves a ship from foundering during a storm, and it quickly became a favourite novella – and would make an excellent film too. A very good collection, overall, and I plan to read more by Blixen.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121


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Reading diary, #12

Recent reads. I think I need to up my game, I don’t seem to be reading at my previous speeds. Admittedly, quite a bit of my reading has been somewhat heavier than is usual…

ghost_countryGhost Country, Sara Paretsky (1998). One of Paretsky’s two non-Warshawski novels, although this one is set in present-day Chicago like the VI books. There’s a world-famous opera singer, who is an alcoholic and slowly losing her grip on reality. Her career is already in the toilet. There’s a doctor who wants to practice psychiatry at a prestigious Chicago hospital, but the highly-respected consultant in charge of the department is more concerned with cutting costs so would sooner give patients drugs. There’s the granddaughter of the cost-cutting consultant, who can’t compete with her older sister, a high-flying lawyer, and runs away from home. And there’s a homeless woman who thinks the rusty water leaking from a broken pipe inside the outside wall of a top hotel’s garage is the blood of Mary, and she worships at a small shrine she has built there. Their stories all, of course, interact, and Paretsky uses them to deliver a stinging indictment of US private healthcare, hypocritical middle-class Christians, and the move to a more right-wing neocon Christian society. None of the men in the novel, with the exception of the psychiatrist, are sympathetic; but neither are they unconvincing. This is not a book to read if you’re looking for mind candy or comfort reading – it will make you angry. True, everyone gets what they deserve, and though the story is bleak the ending isn’t; but it’s still a very angry novel. Worth reading, nonetheless.

The-Sense-of-an-EndingThe Sense of an Ending*, Julian Barnes (2011). Three lads at school in the 1960s are joined by a fourth, a clever outsider called Adrian. The first half of The Sense of an Ending describes those halcyon days, as narrated by one of the three, Tony. After school, the four go their separate ways – Adrian to Cambridge, Tony to Bristol uni. At Bristol, Tony meets a young woman, Veronica, and the two enter into a relationship. She invites him home one weekend to meet her parents. But Veronica is, to put it mildly, hard-going, and Tony and her split. He later hears that Veronica has taken up with Adrian. Tony writes the pair of them a shitty letter. Some months later, Adrian commits suicide. The novel then jumps forward forty years to the present day. A solicitor contacts Tony – who is divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife, and has a grown-up daughter – and tells him he has been left £500 by Veronica’s mother. Also bequeathed to him is Adrian’s diary. But the solicitor does not have this as it’s currently in the possession of Veronica, who is reluctant to give it up. So Tony embarks on a campaign of flattery, cajolery and stubborn persistence, via email, in order get the diary from Veronica. She is enigmatic, arrogant and clearly contemptuous of Tony – repeatedly telling him he “doesn’t get it”. Through Veronica, he meets a group of mentally-disabled people, and then over the course of several weeks insinuates himself into their world… and so discovers that one of them is Veronica’s brother and Adrian’s son. The end. Throughout the second half of The Sense of an Ending, Tony is sneered at by Veronica for not getting something he could never have known about. That he figures it out in the end still makes Veronica’s actions senseless and completely undermines the plot. The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker in 2011, but to be honest I can’t see why. It reads like a more polished Iain Banks novel, and while it’s good, the doggedness of its narrator and Veronica’s behaviour are not well-grounded, which makes it all feel a bit unsupported plot-wise.

Chanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh (1992). I read this to review on SF Mistressworks. It’s the final book of the Compact Space quintet, and its story is more of a pendant to the plot of the earlier four books that it is a continuation or closure. Still, I liked it – see here.

all_that_heaven_allowsAll That Heaven Allows, Edna Lee & Harry Lee (1952). The novel from which my favourite film was adapted – and it wasn’t easy to find a copy. Initially, the film seems to follow the novel quite faithfully: Cary’s friend cries off from a lunch engagement, so Cary invites Ron Kirby, the man maintaining her garden, to join her instead. Later, Cary accompanies Harvey to the country club for a dinner party, and there one of her late husband’s friends makes a drunken attempt to kiss her. Cary’s two grown-up kids, Ned and Kay, are pretty much the same in both book and film. Ned is a stuffed-shirt, a Princeton conservative who will no doubt grow up become an arsehole; Kay is more nuanced in the novel, her head still full of juvenile sociology and politics, but sympathetic to her mother’s situation. Ron, however, is more or less a cipher in the novel. He doesn’t have Rock Hudson’s easy charm, and it’s not altogether obvious what Cary sees in him. One thing the novel does show, however, is how cleverly the party scene in the film introduces Ron’s bohemian friends and lifestyle. There is no mention of Walden or Thoreau in the book. And the old mill building Ron restores to make a home for Cary and himself is in the book an old barn. All That Heaven Allows, although it made a great film, is not great literature. It’s by no means pulp fiction, nor some tawdry May-December romance novel; but I’m not really surprised it’s vanished into obscurity and that copies are extremely hard to find. Ignore the book, watch the film.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116