Occasionally, I read books. I am in fact supposed to be more of a literature fan than I am a film fan, but reading a book takes few days whereas watching a film takes only a couple of hours. Of course, if I were serious about my film criticism, I’d be watching each movie a number of times with notebook in hand, ready to make insightful comments… instead of cobbling together a hundred words a week after watching the film while drinking wine… Still, at least I read sober. Not that I take notes while reading. But then I’ve never thought of myself, or called myself, a critic, I’ve always been a reviewer and that’s how I approach how I write about the books I’ve read. Which were…
Creation Machine, Andrew Bannister (2016). This one seems to be getting quite a push from Bantam (they were giving away free ARCs at Eastercon). First impression… well, it’s very Banksian. And that can’t be bad. The action takes place in the Spin, an “artificial galaxy”, although no real sense of the size or scale of this galaxy is apparent in the book. The heroine, Fleare Haas, who struck me as very much in a smiliar vein to Banks’s Lady Sharrow, is the daughter of the plutocrat who pretty much runs the Hegemony, the Spin’s most powerful government. She tried fighting against him in a breakaway army, but that ended badly. As the book opens, she’s a prisoner of an enigmatic ruin on one of the Spin’s worlds. She’s then rescued by an ex-colleague who is a cloud of nanobots (one of the novel’s more inventive elements), because she’s needed to prevent the Hegemony from doing something stupid with a powerful artefact that may be left over from the machine that built the Spin. That artefact is currently in the hands of a brutal regime which occupies a handful of worlds in the centre of the artificial galaxy. It’s all very twenty-first century space opera, very readable, quite inventive, with a slight twist of Banks and a mordant, albeit far more sweary, wit… But it’s also a space opera universe in which capitalism runs everything, and slavery, torture and brutality seem the default setting… In fact, there are no redeeming features to the societies depicted in the Spin. And I have to wonder, why would someone write a book like this? It feels like an attempt to writer a grimdark space opera – but since I think grimdark is a horrible thing, I can think of no good reason why anyone would want to do the same in space opera. I suspect this book will do quite well, but I’ll not be bothering with the sequels.
The Road from the Monument, Storm Jameson (1962). An odd book, and perhaps even more odd because Jameson is such a good writer. Greg Mott is a highly-regarded author, and the director of an artistic institute. He came from humble beginnings – his father was a destitute ex-seaman, and – the shame! – he graduated from Sheffield University – but he has made something of himself, a great man of letters, with important friends and acquaintances. I have to wonder if Mott were based on Evelyn Waugh, although Waugh went to Oxford. The Road from the Monument opens with the retirement of a public school teacher – he’s been there sixty years, wasn’t even qualified when he started, and has been paid a pittance throughout his tenure. The teacher spotted Mott’s potential early, and spoent his own money to put Mott through university. After leaving the school, he goes down to London to see what Mott has made of himself – and realises that Mott’s intelligence and wisdom pretty much skin-deep. He goes back gom edisappointed. The story then focuses on Mott’s second-in-command, Lambert Corry, his best friend at school, who went to Oxford, became a civil servant, rose through the ranks but then resigned to take up a position at the institute. Unlike Mott, he is not a successful author. Although the plot of The Road from the Monument is ostensibly about the scandal which hovers over Mott after he picks up a young woman while on holiday in Nice and gets her pregnant, it reads more like a poison pen letter from Jameson to the UK’s literary set. Most of the characters are writers of varying degrees of success, and James sticks the knife into every one. I tweeted a quote from the book while reading it, and it’s one of the mildest characterisations in the book of one of its cast: “they always gave him credit for honesty and integrity, the virtues of a moth-eaten writer. He got what he deserved – respect and neglect”. The upper class are also depicted as sociopaths (which I suspect they are, anyway; as are the plutocrats), and, in fact, no one in this novel is at all sympathetic… except perhaps the young woman who is made pregnant by Mott. Not a pleasant book to read (I’m not doing too well in that respect in this post), and Jameson does over-do the interiority… but she’s nonetheless a sharp writer, and I plan to further explore her oeuvre.
The Longest Voyage / Slow Lightning, Poul Anderson / Steven Popkes (1991). Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tor published a series of tête-bêche novellas, stretching to 36 books. By book #30, they’d dropped the tête-bêche format, and in fact dropped the whole double-novella thing at times, as this one is pretty much a short story followed by a short novel. Which are not at all related. And I have no idea why they were published together. Or indeed why they were published at all. ‘The Longest Journey’ originally appeared in Analog in 1960. It’s set on the moon of a gas giant, colonised by humans at some point but now they’ve regressed to a late mediaeval tech level. A Columbus-like figure sails across a vast ocean to a mythical land… and finds it is inhabited with people just like himself. They’re welcomed with open arms, trade agreements are drawn up… and then the explorer learns of a hermit and his ship that sails between the stars… This is the sort of sf story that used to appear by the hundreds back in the 1950s and 1960s. It apparently won the Hugo for best short fiction, which only goes to show the award was won by unremarkable stories even back then. ‘Slow Lightning’ is original to the double, and I’m baffled why it made it into print. It reads like half a dozen stories randomly stuck together because the author once heard the word “plot” and has a sort of vague idea what it might mean. It opens on a contemporary Earth after an alien, well, not an invasion. They came, they started trading, they pretty much overwhelmed the planet… and they turned Boston into an intergalactic port. A young orphan, whose parents died while settling an alien world, is now living with his aunt and her moody teenage son. With him he has Gray, a spatient, who is a sort of alien android thing but looks more like a six-legged rhino or something. The boy finds an alien egg in the wreck of a ferry on the bay shore. He decides to hatch it to see what comes out. Gray investigates as he’s worried what it might contain. The egg hatches, end of story. Except it isn’t. The plot now jumps back in time to the boy’s parents, to explain what they were doing and how they died, and how that ties in with the egg – which is sort of does but only peripherally. Anyway, they die, end of story. Except it isn’t. Because the story now jumps even further back in time to shortly after the aliens arrived, and describes the death of the boy’s grandparents, who were caught up in a turf war between the Boston authorities and a smuggler lord who married the boy’s grandfather’s sister. The whole thing reads like they might have been separate but linked stories, but the decision to publish them together, in reverse chronological order, was a mistake.
Kinsey and Me: Stories, Sue Grafton (2013). I have been a fan of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone almost as long as I’ve been a fan of Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski. I think Paretsky is the better writer, and Warshawski the better character, but Grafton’s Millhone still has her appeal. I especially like that Grafton decided Millhone would age one year for every two-and-a-half books, so her alphabet series – it’s up to X at the moment – is now historical fiction, given that it takes place in the late 1980s. Along the way, Grafton has banged out the odd short story, mostly for anthologies of female crime writers, and Kinsey and Me collects those, plus a series of stories about Kit Blue which appear to have been written as some sort of therapy on the death of Grafton’s alcoholic mother. The Millhone stories are entertaining but lightweight – although the constant need for Millhone to introduce herself gets a bit wearying over nine short stories. The plots pretty much follow the same formula: someone asks Millhone to investigate something, she does so, spots a single clue which reveals all is not as it seems, there’s a final showdown, and she reveals the clue and how it led her to figure out what really happened. The Kit Blue stories are uncomfortable reading because they’re plainly autobiographical, but it’s also hard to understand why Grafton made them public. Kinsey and Me adds nothing to the alphabet series, and even for fans it’s of only peripheral interest.
Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey (2014). I spotted this in a charity shop and remembered that someone had recommended it, so I bought it. But I can’t recall who recommended it, or why – I suspect David Hebblethwaite. The protagonist, Maud, is in her eighties and suffers from dementia. Her best friend Elizabeth has gone missing – or, at least, so Maud thinks. In between Maud trying to find out what has happened to Elizabeth, she remembers the disappearance of her sister back in the late 1940s. It’s a clever idea, and it’s handled well. The big problem is the main character – Maud feels like an old person written by a young person. It’s small details. When you’re in your eighties, mortality looms large, but the word doesn’t appear anywhere in Elizabeth is Missing. Maud’s dementia is chiefly characterised by a lack of short term memory and an occasional inability to recognise things. The present day chapters alternate with ones set in 1946, which, of course, are told with perfect recall, and so add a spoiling note to the central conceit. It’s obvious from the start that Elizabeth isn’t really missing – or rather that there’s nothing sinister about her disappearance – but the 70-year-old mystery against which this is juxtaposed proves trivially easy to solve, and it come as a surprise no one figured it out at the time. Although generally well-written, and Healey’s choice of heroine has to be applauded, ultimately I don’t think Elizabeth is Missing quite succeeds. But it’s at least worth reading.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 122