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Reading diary, #42

Well, the promised catch-up with female authors didn’t exactly happen, so 2016 ended with male authors just slightly ahead of female authors. Women will probably take back the lead in 2017. That seems to be the way it works…

where_my_heartWhere My Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks (2015). I’ve read each of Faulks’s novels as they’ve hit paperback, and I’ve never really worked out why I fastened onto him as a modern author to read. I think he’s much better than McEwan, who managed a couple of stonkers early in his career, but then Faulks’s career has never really matched Birdsong… although I thought the story of Human Traces danced about a pretty interesting idea… And that same idea sort of crops up in Where My Heart Used to Beat. Faulks has… odd ideas about consciousness, and the historical origin of human awareness. In a science fiction writer, they’d be understandable, if not even defensible. But Faulks writes lit fic. In Where My Heart Used to Beat, which is set in the 1980s, a UK doctor is invited to a small French island to meet a famous neurologist at the end of his life and career. The neurologist wants the doctor to be his literary executor, partly because he commanded his father during WWI and holds a secret about that, and partly because the doctor’s career hints that he might be receptible to the neurologist’s Big Idea. The narrative dips in and out of the doctor’s life, mostly focusing on WWII, when he was involved in the Allied invasion of Italy. During that time, he met a young Italian woman and weas convinced she was the love of his life; but she turned out to be married, and he never really recovered. And it’s the concept of love, and Faulks’s previously trotted-out theory on inter-brain communication, that provides the substrate for Where My Heart Used to Beat. It’s a very readable novel – Faulks’s prose is never less than readable – and a more coherent one that his last couple… but it doesn’t have the… weight of Human Traces, and so its central premise dosn’t in the slightest convince. Faulks produces polished middle-brow material, and he does it well, much better than McEwan – but every time I read one of his novels I find myself wondering why I continue to read him. I still don’t know.

hoddHodd, Adam Thorpe (2009). I have made a habit of picking up Thorpe’s novels when I see them in charity shops and I’m not entirely sure why. True, Ulverton was very good indeed – an English village’s history described through a variety of narrative forms – but the collection Shifts was, to be honest, a bit dull. But I have three or four of his books, and I grabbed this one to read over Christmas. Which I did. I knew it was about Robin Hood, a legendary figure I feel somewhat protective toward, given that I was born in Mansfield, which was once within the precincts of Sherwood Forest (in fact, there’s a plaque in Mansfield which declares the “dead centre” of Sherwood Forest was once at that spot). On the other hand, I’m well aware that Robin Hood is as real an historical figure as Jesus Christ. And, much as I love the 1938 Technicolor movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn in the title role, I know it has as much connection to real actual history as the Bible does – ie, none. Hodd is fiction, and clearly presented as fiction… but it’s also yet another version of Robin Hood. In this case, he’s a heretic who lives in the woods north of Doncaster, and his story is told as a manuscript, found by a British officer in a bombed-out church in Belgium during WWII, written by a ninety-year-old monk who was once “Much the Miller’s son” in Hodd’s band. It’s very cleverly done. There are footnotes by the officer who translated the manuscript, which explain some of the lesser known facts about mediaeval life (and also feature some editorial comments by him). The plot will come as no surprise to those who know the Hood legend, even if it’s only from the Flynn movie, and while Thorpe’s recasting of Hood as Hodd doesn’t seem to asdd all that much to the story, the way the story is presented definitely does. It put Thorpe back in my, so to speak, good books. Hodd is a clever and convincing historical palimpsest of a novel, and it’s a joy to see how well it is put together. Recommended.

starlightStarlight, Mark Millar & Goran Parlov (2014). So many English-language graphic novels and trade paperback collections involve over-entitled fascists in Spandex costumes. And if it’s not superheroes, it’s noir. Like that’s a new thing. I wanted science fiction. But I spent a good while perusing the English-language shelves of Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen, and there was very little that appealed. Starlight looked like it might – a test pilot is pulled to another dimension, defeats a planet’s tyrant, Flash-Gordon-fashion, and returns to Earth… only to be disbelieved by all and sundry, and so treated as something of a joke by friends and family. Forty years later, his help is required again, this time to overthrow invaders who have enslaved the world. So back he goes, only to discover his legend has grown to a level he couldn’t possibly match it, especially now he’s four decades older. The brutal occupiers also consider him something of a joke, and the populace too weak to rise up under his leadership. The art has a nice pulp sf sensibility to it, although the story seems unable to decide if its hero is pulp sf hero or a superhero. In fact, that’s not the only thing that’s a little confused, as Starlight tries to gives its story a modern spin while at the same time throwing in references to early sf serials. So, tonally, it’s a bit all over the place. Good in parts, though.

beautiful_indifferenceThe Beautiful Indifference, Sarah Hall (2011). Unlike some people I know, I’m not a fan of Hall’s writing – but then, her writing is very tied to her region – Cumbria – so much so that many of the stories in this collection are written in local dialect, or use local dialect terms. They’re good stories, they’re polished stories. There are seven of them in The Beautiful Indifference, some of which are set in Cumbria, one of which is set in Finland. They’re worth reading, although fans of her writing will get more from them than I did. I found this book in a charity shop, and I’ll continue to keep an eye open for her works, but I do find her prose a bit too much in your face for my taste. I like my fiction distant and bolstered by fact, and I find it hard to accept a facility with local dialect as a substitute for fact. Or rather, I appreciate fiction that includes elements which can be looked up on Wikipedia, and while Hall’s use of Cumbrian dialect is, as far as I know, accurate, it adds only a thin wash of colour to the stories, where a reference to a real event or thing defined in Wikipedia would add depth. But that’s a personal thing. Certainly, Hall is a good writer, and these are some polished pieces of work. Worth reading.

sagaSaga Volume 1, Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (2012). Many people, many many people, have recommended this, and so I had initially avoided it. But there I was in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen, and I picked out Starlight as worth a read and all the graphic novels I really wanted were upstairs and by Moebius and in Danish… so I eventually succumbed and bought the first volume of Saga. I could have bought the Danish bandes dessinées by Moebius, of course, or even the hardback volumes of Valerian and Laureline, also in Danish, but it would mean learning a new language to read them, which seems daft when they’re originally French and that’s a language I can actually read (with a dictionary at hand, admittedly). Anyway, Saga… I didn’t like it. I really didn’t. It is allegedly a space opera, but there’s zero rigour to the setting, one side uses magic, there are a race of robots who have human bodies but TVs for heads, and people actually use mobile phones and apps. See, you have a man and a woman, from each side of a generational war – one lot have wings, the others have horns – and they have a child. Er, so why do you need science fiction to tell this story? I guess calling a race war story a “space opera” makes it more palatable to readers. And, of course, it means the story is not “politicized”. FFS. So there you have it: weak title, paper-thin allegory, paper-thin setting, and a total lack of rigour. Nice art, though.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129

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The year in reading

I managed to read 152 books in 2015, beating my Goodreads Reading Challenge target of 150 by two. So, not bad going. Admittedly, there were a couple of “cheats” in there – for example, I bought a pair of graphic novels from Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen on 28 December so I could be sure of making 150 by the end of the year. I likely wouldn’t have bought them otherwise. But never mind. However, I did manage to read ten books from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, which is pretty good (for the record, they were: The Quest for Christa T., The Leopard, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Rainbow, Loving, The Sense of an Ending, Pale Fire, Frankenstein, The Old Man and the Sea and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich).

I also managed to read more women writers than men in 2015, although it was close, with only a single title in it. See below.

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I plan to continue alternating genders in my fiction reading for the foreseeable future. Although many of the women writers I read were for review on SF Mistressworks, and my project to read some post-war British women writers didn’t really get into gear, I did discover a couple of non-genre female writers I’d like to read more by, such as Karen Blixen, Sarah Hall and Pamela Frankau.

I was surprised to discover how much of my reading is of books from the last five years. I’d have thought it more evenly spread across the decades – although more in the last three or four decades than earlier. But apparently not. See below.

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The one title in the 1810s was, of course, Mary Shelley; and the one in the 1890s was, naturally, HG Wells. The title from the 1910s and the two from the 1920s were by DH Lawrence. The 1970s and 1980s books, I suspect, mostly came from reading for SF Mistressworks.

Which also probably explains why science fiction continues to dominate my reading – nearly half at 47%. Mainstream is next at 23%, then fantasy at 7% and crime at 4%. See below.

2015_books_read_by_genre

In 2016, I’d like to read more mainstream fiction and less science fiction. I’d also like to read more non-fiction – on, of course, my favourite topics: space and deep sea exploration. But also criticism. I have, after all, a couple of bookshelves full of critical works on science fiction and my favourite authors. (The one children’s novel, incidentally, was by Nathan Elliott, a pseudonym of Christopher Evans, and was read for completeness’s sake; it wasn’t worth it.)

By country (of origin of the writer), the books I read stayed mostly close to home – pretty much half of my reading was by British authors. Followed by the US. France makes a good showing because I read a number of bandes dessinée during the year – they also account for Belgium’s presence. See below.

2015_books_by_country

Not counting the bandes dessinée, I read only half a dozen translated works, and I really should do better. There are certainly authors from other countries I’ve read in previous years I’d like to read more by – like Elfriede Jelinek or Magda Szabó or Abdelrahman Munif. Perhaps I should resurrect my World fiction reading challenge from 2012? It stumbled to a halt that year when I got bogged down in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Javier Marías’s Fever and Spear. But I’ve read both of those now, and should be able to find twelve books by writers from nations whose literature I’ve never tried. I probably have a few candidates on the TBR already…

In fact, on the subject of reading resolutions for 2016, I stumbled across (via Eve’s Alexandria) a thing called Read Harder. It’s from Book Riot and is a list of 24 criteria for choosing books to read in 2016. There are a couple of categories I’m not at all interested in (reading aloud, audio books, food memoirs, middle grade fiction), so I’ll replace them with a few of my own…

Read Harder (the Ian Sales version) 2016

  1. Read a horror book
  2. Read a non-fiction book about science
  3. Read a collection of essays
  4. Read a novel by a writer from a country whose literature you’ve never read before*
  5. Read a novel by a woman writer published before 1900*
  6. Read a biography (not a memoir or autobiography)
  7. Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel
  8. Read a book originally published in the decade you were born
  9. Read a book that has won the Orange/Baileys Prize*
  10. Read a book over 500 pages long
  11. Read a book under 100 pages
  12. Read a book by a person that identifies as transgender
  13. Read a book that is set in the Middle East
  14. Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia
  15. Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900
  16. Read the first book in a series by a person of colour
  17. Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the past three years
  18. Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie
  19. Read a non-fiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes
  20. Read a book about religion (fiction or non-fiction)
  21. Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or non-fiction)
  22. Read a book related to cinema or film-making*
  23. Read a play
  24. Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness

The asterisked challenges are my replacements. The rules state it’s okay to use the same book for multiple categories. And I’m pretty sure I can do about half straightaway just from the TBR. Even so, 24 books in a year is an easy target. One or two are going to be easy – I gave up on reading superhero comics several years ago, so the only graphic novels I read now do not feature men in tights or improbably pneumatic women. I mentioned Abdelrahman Munif earlier, and I have his The Trench on the TBR, so that’s the Middle East book. And I have Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: The Biography on the TBR too (it’s, er, been there a few years, tbh). I have a number of critical works on feminist science fiction, and I went and drunkenly bought that book of plays by Anton Chekhov earlier in the year. Anyway, we shall see how it goes…

I also plan to continue working my way through the oeuvres of DH Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry, as well as reading more books by Henry Green and Karen Blixen, and more from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.

I’ll be posting a year in films piece some time over the next few days as a companion to this post.


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Reading diary, #10

I’ve given up on writing actual full-length book reviews on this blog – you know, a post about a single book, covering it in some detail. I do that for SF Mistressworks and Interzone (and occasionally Vector). Besides, I read so widely these days, it would seem weird to review only science fiction books here, not to mention only recent science fiction novels. These reading diary posts strike me as an acceptable compromise – a couple of hundred words on every book I’ve read, irrespective of genre or year of publication – serving both to remind me of what I’ve read as well as perhaps point followers of this blog at something they might find worthwhile reading.

And after my last reading diary was almost all genre fiction, this one sees something of a return to form, with only a pair of sf books, and a third which was published as literary fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2008 (it lost out to Richard Morgan’s Black Man).

the_rainbowThe Rainbow, DH Lawrence (1915). Three books into working my way chronologically through Lawrence’s novels, and he’s yet to move outside of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire (I’ve also read the later Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which also takes place in Notts). The Rainbow follows the Brangwen family through several generations, from the 1840s through to 1905. It starts with the family patriarch before eventually settling on Ursula, who comes of age at the turn of the century, is fiercely ambitious, and ends up teaching at a local school. It’s a more structured novel than The White Peacock and Sons and Lovers, although only inasmuch as the passage of years provides a framework for the story – it still has a tendency to randomly move from one member of the family to another, and it’s not always clear where the novel’s focus lies. But Lawrence’s descriptive prose, particularly in regard to the landscape, shines; and he brings his usual detailed, if occasionally heavy-handed, eye to the emotional landscapes of his cast. I set out to work my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre because a read of Lady Chatterley’s Lover persuaded me I’d been missing out by avoiding him, and because my father was a huge Lawrence fan. The more I’ve read, the more I too have become a fan of his writing – and collecting the books is fun too, of course.

voiceoutramahA Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979). I picked this up from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon in Mariehamn – did I mention I went to a con in Finland, well, the Åland Islands to be precise, and it was excellent? – anyway, I bought this with the intention of reviewing it for SF Mistressworks. I’d come across Killough’s name in an anthology of sf by women, but I’d never read anything else by her. I started the book while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester in Helsinki Airport, and ended up finishing it before my flight was called (it was a five hour wait). And I really liked the novel. As you can no doubt tell from my review on SF Mistressworks here.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia, ed. (1973). This I also bought from Alvarfonden, and read during the flight from Helsinki, and train journey from Manchester. And I suspect it’s the worst sf anthology I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. I mean, just look at that strapline on the cover: “Can sex survive the space age?”. I’m guessing yes it will, it’ll survive a whole lot of things, like climate crash, nuclear armageddon, global economic meltdown… maybe even the heat death of the universe. There are nineteen stories, two are by women (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Miriam Allen deFord); the remainder are by a mix of well-known names (Silverberg, Sturgeon, Aldiss, Farmer), and a few that were unknown to me. The stories, on the other hand, are full of the worst of early seventies sensibilities – the Silverberg is about a young man who discovers he has mental powers and uses them to stalk women, there’s a section titled “Toujours Gay” which opens with the frankly awful ‘The World Well Lost’, another story has serial rape as the “twist”, and the Aldiss is racist and features sexual slavery. The rest are either worse, or completely unmemorable. Best avoided.

The-Cuckoos-CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (2013). According to the blurb on this book, it was a huge best-seller and then the author was revealed as JK Rowling, which is not how I remember it happening. The Cuckoo’s Calling received several positive reviews and sold modestly. Then someone at Rowling’s solicitors (I think) leaked Galbraith’s true identity, and sales shot up overnight by about 5000%. But hey, let’s rewrite history anyway and make out that it’s not Rowling’s name that sells books, that’s she still a really good writer even when no one knows it’s her. So, of course, it comes as little surprise to find The Cuckoo’s Calling is… okay. It has too many words for its story and could have done with losing 100 pages, the most interesting thing about its hero, Cormoran Strike, is his improbable name, and the whole thing feels like it was written by someone who’s a little bit out of touch. A supermodel falls to her death from her penthouse flat and the police initially rule it suicide. But the supermodel’s brother, a solicitor, thinks this is wrong and hires Strike to investigate. At the same time, a new temp has started as Strike’s secretary, and she proves to be highly competent and very much in love with the idea of being a private investigator – parts of the novel are written from her perspective. The plot moves smoothly, but it feels wordy, yet nowhere near literary enough to be literary fiction. There are a few digs at the ultra-wealthy, which feel like they’re the result of personal experience, but mostly Strike’s life seems to belong to an earlier decade. I now have a copy of the sequel, The Silkworm, but I’m not expecting it to be any better.

researchResearch, Philip Kerr (2014). John Houston is a mega-selling author, who runs an “atelier” of writers – he comes up with the stories, they bang out the actual prose… and the books are of course sold under Houston’s name. It makes him millions of dollars a year and his writers a comfortable living. If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Houston is clearly based on James Patterson. But Houston has decided to pack it all in. He wants to write something himself, to prove he has the writing chops. So he closes down his atelier and pays off his writers… Shortly afterwards, his wife is found murdered in their Monaco apartment, and Houston has done a runner. The police contact Don Irvine, the first writer to join Houston’s atelier (the two were friends and colleagues at an advertising agency), but he can shed no light on the murder. And then, as you’d expect to happen in a novel such as this, Houston contacts Irvine, pleads innocence and asks for Irvine’s help. Which he is happy to give. The novel is broken into sections, alternating between first-person narrations from Irvine’s and Houston’s point of view. And pretty soon things aren’t what Houston, Irvine or even the Monaco police thought they were. As thrillers go, there’s not much in here that hasn’t been done before. However, Kerr does a top job of satirising mega-selling authors of the likes of Patterson, their books, and the publishing industry which supports them. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

the_carhullan_armyThe Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall (2007). I picked up this in Oxfam in Micklegate, just before the York pub meet back in May. I’d been after a copy for a while, so I was pretty chuffed when I found this one. I had high hopes too of the novel, as it had been repeatedly recommended to me, but initially I wondered if it had been over-praised. It’s structured as segments of found testimony by Sister, who leaves her husband to join a women’s militia based at a remote farm. In the near-future UK of the book, the economy has crashed, the US sends aid, and an oppressive political regime is tightening its grip on an already downtrodden and poor population. Once Sister reaches Carhullan, the militia’s farm, the story picks up, and when she is recruited to the women’s army which is planning a coup on a local town, then it really moves into gear. By the end of the novel, I was much more impressed than I had been after the first dozen or so pages. On balance, definitely worth its position on the Clarke Award shortlist (and arguably better than the eventual winner).


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Books everywhere

At least these book haul posts are now less frequent, and feature fewer books, than they did in previous years. Even so, I really need another big clearout – I can even reach some of my bookshelves because of all the books stacked in front of them. Buying new bookcases won’t help as I already have bookcases on every wall – most of which are double-stacked. If I could read faster, I could probably get rid of quite a few books…

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Some graphic novels. Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell is the latest Tardi, a slick and quite sick thriller. The Nemo trilogy – Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin and River of Ghosts – is a spin-off from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the Nemo here is the daughter of Verne’s original. I wrote about the trilogy here.

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A mixed bag. Soviet Ghosts is lovely photographs of abandoned buildings in what was the USSR. Notes for a Myth is a 1968 poetry collectionm by Terence Tiller. I now have all of his books. And Home, Marilynne Robinson’s third novel, is a signed first edition.

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A pair of charity shop finds: a collection by Sarah Hall, The Beautiful Indifference; and The Teleportation Accident, a book Lavie Tidhar has raved about for a while now.

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Three more Penguins for the DH Lawrence collection: The White Peacock, his first novel; Selected Essays; and a travel book, Sea and Sardinia. I now have 21 of these white Penguin paperbacks, from a total of, I think, 27.

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And finally, another two books for the deep sea collection. No Time on Our Side details the three-day rescue of the two crew – the author was one – of the submersible Pisces III, which sank in 500 m of water 250 km south of the Irish coast. The Danger Game is the autobiography of a diver for the North Sea oil industry.


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For every one I read, two more appear

I have actually been very good this year. So far, at least. The TBR has been decreasing. Sadly, this is not not because I’m reading more – unfortunately, I seem to be actually reading less. But I have been buying fewer books. And I’ve also given away loads of unread books – that I was never going to get around to reading – at the BFS/BSFA York pub meets and SFSF Socials.

Having said all that, I can’t not buy books for an entire year. Especially when there are ones by authors whose works I like that are being published, or when books I’ve been looking for pop up on eBay for a reasonable price, or when there are sets to be completed.

But at least I’m starting to take control of the collection. I think.

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Some fantasy. Which I don’t read all that much, but never mind. Breed and The Red Knight I won in the raffle at the York pub meet last weekend. Which was cool as Karen was one of the authors giving a reading. (Usually, I never win anything decent in raffles.) The Glittering Plain is the first book in Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy Library series, which looks like it might make a good series to collect. And Beautiful Blood is Lucius Shepard’s last book for Subterranean Press. It’s a novel set in the world of the Dragon Griaule.

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Some science fiction. I found a dozen or so of the Tor doubles in a remaindered book shop in Abu Dhabi when I lived there, and I’ve been picking up others in the series whenever I find them, such as The Longest Voyage / Slow Lightning. They published 36 books in total, and most of them aren’t that good. Meh. The Carhullan Army I bought in Oxfam while in York for the aforementioned pub meet. Dark Orbit I’m reviewing for Interzone. I’m a fan of Gilman’s fiction, but I’m still trying to figure out what I think to this one.

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Some mainstream. About Love and Other Stories and Five Plays I bought late one night after a bit too much wine and having watched Aleksandr Sokurov’s Stone, which is apparently about Chekhov. These things happen. I read Farrell’s The Siege Of Krishnapur a couple of years ago and was much impressed, so I keep an eye open in charity shops for his books. A Girl in the Head I bought in the aforementioned Oxfam shop. Bit of a dodgy cover, though. The Rainbow is one for the DH Lawrence collection. My mother found me this copy. I now have eighteen Lawrence paperbacks with that particular cover design.

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And speaking of Sokurov… The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov and The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox are the only two books on the director I can find. Annoyingly, both discuss both The Lonely Voice of Man, Days of Eclipse and Taurus, three films which have never been released on DVD with English subtitles. Otherwise, very interesting books on a fascinating director.