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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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Reading diary 2019, #6

My reading seems to be all over the place of late. Mostly it’s because I’ve been limiting myself to buying ebooks, and only when they’re cheap. I did bring some books with me, and I bought a few at the recent Swecon, but I put a lot of unread books into storage. So with less to choose from, my reading has proven less planned. Ah well.

X, Sue Grafton (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels since discovering them back in the mid-nineties. As well as being good crime novels with an engaging narrator, Grafton’s decision to keep the internal chronology consistent irrespective of how long it took her to produce a novel has meant each book has slipped further and further back into the past. Even now, thirty-seven years after the series began – or rather, thirty-three years from A to X – and X is still set in the 1980s, albeit towards the end of the decade. Millhone is hired by a local rich woman to check up on the son she gave up for adoption decades before, and who has just been released from prison after committing a string of burglaries. She does as asked but then discovers the man was no relation… and that the rich woman is the estranged wife of millionaire, and the two are trying to screw as much money out of each other as possible. Throw in a string of missing women and the man responsible for their deaths, identified by Milhone, and who then begins stalk her. Plus an elderly couple who have moved into Milhone’s neighbourhood but do not prove to be who they claim… It’s a bit busier than most of the Milhone novels, and the millionaire man and wife plot actually has a happy end; but these are good books and definitely worth reading.

Embers of War, Gareth L Powell (2018, UK). This won the BSFA Award earlier this year, although I don’t chose the books I read because they won awards (ha!). I’d sort of gone off space opera in recent years as none of the stuff being published really appealed – and, to be honest, most of it seems to resemble military sf more than it does space opera. But UK space opera is a different beast to US space opera, and closer to my sensibilities. I’d also heard a few good things about Embers of War… But, well, having now read it, I’m not entirely convinced. Powell’s decision to tell his story using a number of different points of view in short chapters, I think, worked against it. It didn’t help that so many of the voices were similar, including that of the ship’s AI whose story the novel ostensibly is (in fact, Embers of War is the first in a series about the ship; the sequel is Fleet of Knives). Anyway, the ship Trouble Dog used to be a warship but is now a de-armed rescue ship with your typical space opera crew of misfits. A spaceliner is attacked by a mysterious enemy while visiting a planetary system whose planets were all reshaped into giant sculptures by a powerful and long-dead alien race. Trouble Dog goes to the rescue. Meanwhile, the target of the spaceliner attack – and why do sf novels think it’s acceptable to murder thousands in pursuit of just one person? It needs to stop – has managed to survive and finds herself on the surface of the planet known as the Brain (because, er, it looks like one). She discovers a labyrinth inside the planet – this part of the novel reminded me a great deal of a favourite sf short story, ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’ by Sean Williams – and so discovers its secret. The real identity of the woman was not hard to figure out, and it’s the reason why people want her dead – although given she was following orders at the time, it did seem a bit like they were going after the wrong person. The last Powell novel I read was The Recollection back in 2011 (see here), and I thought that started well but then turned boringly generic. Embers of War suffers from the latter as well. The world-building is all a bit too identikit and the ideas feel somewhat second-hand (cf my mention of the Williams story earlier). The characterisation is either bland or relies on quirks, and the prose is readable without being memorable. Readers who like BDOs and alien puzzles will find something to their taste here, but for me this is just Extruded Space Opera Product, with little or nothing that makes it stand out.

The Paper Men, William Golding (1984, UK). I’m having trouble making up my mind about Golding. Until a couple of years ago, I knew him only as the author of Lord of the Flies – his debut novel and his most famous, which must have really hurt – but then I read Rites of Passage and was very impressed. I picked up several of his books in a charity shop, so I had more to read. But… I’m reminded of John Fowles’s oeuvre: he wrote a couple of novels that were stunning pieces of work, but also a number that were almost emblematic of the output of a British white middle-class middle-brow male writer and so not so good. I think Golding was a better writer than Fowles, although none of his books, other than his debut, were as successful as either The Magus or The French Lieutenant’s Woman (and while the latter is an excellent piece of work, the former is very much the sort of book that’s admired only by people in their early twenties). So too with Golding: a handful of beautifully-written but quite strange novels, and then some that are pretty much emblematic of the output of a British white middle class male writer, although perhaps never middle-brow. And The Paper Men falls into the latter category. It’s a first-person narrative by a famous writer who has managed to build a successful career out of a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful novel and a series of much less successful follow-on works. But he’s seen as an important man of letters, and a US academic turns up on his doorstep asking to be his official biographer. The writer refuses. Shortly afterwards, the writer’s marriage breaks up and he heads off to foreign parts. There’s then a sort of hallucinatory chase around the world, with the biographer trying, and failing, to gain permission to access the writer’s papers. There’s something more going on there, or at least it feels like there should be, but if it’s a reference to anything it pass me by. There’s some very male-gazey – well, pretty lecherous – depictions of the biographer’s young wife, and a number of situations with border on farce. In fact, at times The Paper Men feels like it’s supposed to be a comic novel, even though it’s not at all humorous for most of its length. I’ll certainly read more Golding, but the last two books by him I’ve read have been somewhat disappointing.

The Bitter Twins, Jen Williams (2018, UK). I read the first book in this trilogy earlier this year (see here), and only did so because some friends were extremely effusive with their praise of it… I mean, I’m not a fan of heroic fantasy, although I’ve read a lot of it in the past, and I’m pretty sure there’s very little overlap between my taste in genre fiction and that of the one friend who praised these books the most… But I’m happy to read outside my comfort zone because how else would I discover new authors to like and admire? While bits of the first book, The Ninth Rain, didn’t entirely work for me, I do like fantasy worlds that are couched as science-fictional – and vice versa, of course – so there were definitely things to appreciate there. Enough, at least, to read the second book. Which is, I think, better than the first. And middle books of trilogies generally are not that. It’s better because it introduces a mystery in one of its narratives, gives it a satisfying conclusion, and also uses it to reveal some deeper background about the world. On the other hand… there was something about the writing style which didn’t quite click with me. It wasn’t until a chat at a con with the aforementioned friend where she mentioned “cock-blocking” and quoted a particular line from The Bitter Twins that I figured out what it was about the prose that was giving me trouble: it was written like fan fiction. The author was having far too much fun with their characters, to the extent that “having fun with characters” was driving the story rather than the plot. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. That friend? She’s a big fan of fan fiction, so it’s an approach and style of narrative that appeals to her. I don’t have that background – she had to explain what “cock-blocking” was to me – and I prefer my narrative voice distanced (see pretty much every Reading diary post on this blog). Despite that, the world-building in this trilogy remains very good – in many respects, it reminds me of Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy – and while the good guys tend to be a bit too good to be true at times, the villains of the piece are interesting. Worth a go.

Air Force!, Frank Harvey (1959, USA). I think it was the cover art which prompted me to buy this. I do like books about the Space Race, and while a cherry-picker was never used to deliver astronauts to their space capsule – whatever capsule that’s supposed to be on the cover – it all looked close enough to reality to appeal. If you know what I mean. The contents turned out to be somewhat different to what I’d expected. For a start, I’d thought it was non-fiction, a series of essays written for the popular press about the Space Race, or extrapolations of its future. It turned out to be entirely fictional, albeit based on extrapolations of the state of aviation and space technology in the US at the time.  There are eight stories, originally published chiefly in the Saturday Evening Post. One story is about the first X-15 flight to achieve orbit (the X-15 never did), another is about a pilot whose wife is pressurising him to leave USAF and go into business but his successful prevention of a disaster on a flight persuades him to say. Another story has a fighter pilot “demoted” to transport planes but he manages to prevent a fatal crash during a catastrophic failure of his plane’s systems and that persuades his superiors he should be back flying fighters. It’s all very gung-ho and USAF rah rah rah, and while the technical details are spot-on, the extrapolations are closer to the military’s wishful thinking than what actually happened. This is Man In Space Soonest rather than Skylab, if you know what I mean. The prose is not even serviceable, it’s “journalese” and presents each story as a cross between fiction and a personal account. It’s fun, if you’re into mid-twentieth century US aviation fiction, but its appeal these days, ie sixty years later, is going to be limited pretty much to fans of that. Like, er, me.

A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, Alex White (2018, USA). I should have known from the title… and its sequels’ titles (currently A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy and The Worst of All Possible Worlds). This is the Becky Chambers school of titling books, and I’m not a fan of Becky Chambers’s novels. Although to be fair, I was unimpressed with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe for a number of reasons, of which its terrible title was probably the least objectionable. The bad news starts pretty much on the first page. This is a far-future space opera universe… and it has magic. There’s no sense to it, clearly it was added because the author it was a cool idea. Half the stuff magic does in the book is also done by technology. Why would they do that, build a technological solution to a problem already solved by magic? It’s like that throughout the story. But, you know, some people like tech and magic; the fact it makes no sense, that it destroys any rigour the universe might claim to possess, is not a deal-breaker for them. It’s certainly a hurdle more easily scaled by some readers than others. Had that been my only issue with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, then I’d have simply written it off as “not for me”. But… The novel opens with car race on a space station and it’s clear this is a sport all worlds enjoy and follow, and there’s a lot of money and prestige invested in it, much like Formula 1 in the real world. During the race, one of the drivers, the favourite to win the championship, witnesses the murder of her rival by a strange masked magical figure who seems to have EVEN MOAR magical powers than is known to be possible. The driver is charged with the murder, fears for her life, and does a runner (despite belonging to one of the richest families in the galaxy). Meanwhile, a woman who makes a living selling fake treasure maps to gullible treasure hunters finds herself being hunted by unknown assailants. And she is one of those rare people who have no magical ability whatsoever. Both end up being kidnapped by, and then dragooned into, the crew of the Capricious, an ex-warship from the losing side of an earlier war. The map-seller was once a member of the crew but walked away when the war ended. Bad feelings remain. The plot is all about a super-warship that disappeared during the war, and somehow the super-magic assassin is associated with it. After some internal tensions, the crew of the Capricious track down the ship with authorially imposed ease, but then find themselves the targets of a group of super-powerful magicians, including the aforementioned assassin, who seem to have no trouble razing rich and powerful galactic institutions to the ground. And that is this novel’s biggest problem. The villains are super-powerful, and their strategy of slash and burn is at complete odds with the conspiracy’s previous actions, and it all seems EVEN MOAR implausible than having random magic powers in a technological space opera universe. And if that weren’t enough, the hardy band of adventures otherwise known as the crew of the Capricious still manage to win the day. They are massively outgunned, hugely outgunned… But they win. A battle, not the war – as indicated by the presence of sequels. I mean, there’s suspension of disbelief and there’s suspension of disbelief. The presence of magic is stretching it, but I’m willing to go with it. The rest? No! Dial it back, FFS. It’s nonsense. Super-villains taken down by hardy adventurers with no special powers? There’s no rigour here, no attempt at it. It’s like the author just threw “cool” ideas at the page with no regard for what fitted. It’s not like the plot is super original, because it’s not, in fact it’s a pretty standard one for RPGs (and “ordinary” player-characters overcoming super-powered NPCs is also pretty common in RPGs). Anyway, A Big Ship at the End of the Universe is not a good book. I will not be continuing with the series.


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Reading diary, #28

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_mcCreation 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.

monumentThe 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.

slow_lightningThe 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.

kinseyKinsey 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.

elizabethElizabeth 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


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Reading diary, #9

My reading seems to have slowed a little over the summer, possibly because I’m trying to schedule my reading choices. Instead of just picking whatever appeals at that moment, I’ve put together a list which includes books I’ve owned for years and never got around to reading. And some of them, well, I’m not entirely sure why I bought them – probably because they appeared on a Clarke Award shortlist or something…

entanglementEntanglement, Douglas Thompson (2012) In the near-future, a form of matter transmission to exoplanets using quantum-entangled matter is discovered. A number of space probes are sent out, and a century or so later, once they’ve arrived, Earth starts beaming out astronauts to each world. The process, however, is neither as safe nor as certain as has been claimed. Its inventor is haunted by the subject of an early experiment – literally. Meanwhile, the various astronauts discover that the exoplanets are inhabited… Despite this description, Entanglement is far from hard sf – which is not to say it glibly makes up its various science-fictional elements out of nothing: the exoplanets named are all real exoplanets, and the teleportation process is given a creditable scientific gloss… But the various missions – each sort of presented as a short story in a linked collection – are more explorations of philosophical questions than they are surveys of exoplanetary landscapes or xenological biospheres. It’s an interesting approach, but sadly I found the book a little disappointing. I liked Thompson’s earlier Sylvow very much – and said as much in my Interzone review – but something about Entanglement just didn’t work for me. Nonetheless, Thompson is doing some good work and I intend to continue reading him.

w_wastedW is for Wasted, Sue Grafton (2013), is the latest in Kinsey Milhone’s alphabetical adventures. Only three more and they’re done. Or perhaps then Grafton will move onto AA for, er, Arsonists Anonymous. Or something. While the books in the series have chiefly been good solid private detective novels, there are three quite interesting things about them. First, the debut, A is for Alibi, was originally published in 1982, and Grafton has been careful to keep the internal chronology of the novels consistent. As a result, W is for Wasted is set in 1988. Kinsey Milhone has become an historical character. Secondly, the novels are all set in the invented Californian town of Santa Teresa, and with twenty-three books now set there it’s probably better-documented than many real towns in the state. Finally, the novels are framed as Milhone’s report of the case to her client, and usually end with “Respectfully submitted, Kinsey Milhone”. But in many of the cases – particularly the later books – she doesn’t have a client, but is drawn into an investigation often by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grafton also frequently breaks out of her framing narrative – and again this is something I’ve noticed becoming more prevalent as the series progresses – and she includes chapters in third person from the point of view of another character. Although the main narrative remains first-person from Kinsey’s POV, Grafton’s plotting obviously can’t remain limited to Milhone and still make sense to the reader. That strikes me as a weakness. I do enjoy the books, and I’ve no intention of giving up on them… but I wish Grafton would put more rigour into her novels.

DESCENT-ken-macleodDescent, Ken MacLeod (2014) The cover art and strapline on this novel is somewhat misleading. It certainly misled me – I was expecting a novel on the psychology of alien abductions, especially since the novel opens with an incident which could be described as a close encounter (although the two teenagers involved are too sceptical to fully subscribe to it). However, as the story progresses it turns into a commentary on the machinations of government and corporations in a near-future Scotland suffering from an economic meltdown. And as a work of sustained near-future extrapolation, Descent is very good indeed. There’s also an idea the book plays with during its first half which MacLeod seems to throw away so he can focus his story on Scotland’s economic recovery, some random muscle-flexing by “securocrats” (secret apparatchiks), and the eventual redemption, emotional and career-wise, of bloke-ish narrator, Ryan. Which is a shame. I quite liked the idea of a genetic basis to the capacity to believe (or perhaps it’s just gullibility) – after all, as an atheist, I’ve often wondered what it is that makes other people believe in god (no, it’s not that I don’t believe in god, it’s that as far as I’m concerned there is no such thing as god). Still, at least MacLeod’s idea is better than the one Sebastian Faulks advanced in his novel Human Traces (see here). Anyway, much as I enjoyed Descent, I didn’t feel it had the science-fictional crunchiness Intrusion possessed, although in many respects it read like a more accomplished work.

antares1Antares Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4 and Episode 5, Léo (2007 – 2013) – well, that was annoying. I saw on Léo’s Wikipedia page that there were five books in the Antares series, so I waited until five had been published in English by Cinebook and then bought them… only to discover that the final episode ends on a cliff-hanger. Argh. The story continues on from Betelgeuse and features the same group of characters. Kim is having trouble settling on Earth – she doesn’t like that there’s so many people, and she doesn’t like her celebrity status. But when a multinational corporation sets up a colonisation mission to Antares and asks her to join it, she initially refuses. Eventually, she agrees, but en route she discovers that the mission was put together by a religious cult, and it’s one of those that treats women like chattel (the women must shave their heads and wear inflated coveralls to hide their figures so they don’t tempt the men, ffs). Once they land on Antares, things start to go wrong. The flora and fauna is lethal, the cultists have seized power, and the mysterious aliens from the earlier books are somehow involved. I do like this series of bandes dessinées but Léo portrays all his religious characters as complete misogynists and it feels a little one-note – especially when set against all the strong female characters in the series.

Irsud, Jo Clayton (1978), I read for review for SF Mistressworks. I was not impressed – see here. I have another four of these books on the TBR, and another two to track down if I want to complete the series.

the-dog-stars-by-peter-hellerThe Dog Stars, Peter Heller (2012), I picked up in a charity shop because it was shortlisted for the Clarke Award last year. And I’ll admit I’m somewhat puzzled it was shortlisted. A flu pandemic in the US kills off 99% of the population, and the remainder inevitably turn to survivalism, rape, murder and so on. As they do in post-apocalyptic fiction. The narrator, however, has it quite good – he lives at a small airfield, and has a small Cessna plane which he often flies, scouting out the area he shares with his gun-nut neighbour (they’re the only two people who live there). The narrator also suffered in the past from meningitis, and as a result the prose is written in a sort of lightly-fractured English, with many fragmentary declarative sentences. This serves no purpose in the story, it’s just an excuse for the prose style. And the gun-nut is basically a rip-off of Sobchak, John Goodman’s character, in The Big Lebowski. The first half of The Dog Stars comprises a series of incidents showing how nasty everyone is – and how few women remain. Then the narrator hears a radio message from some distance away, and decides to fly there to learn who broadcast it. En route, he stumbles across a blind box canyon, in which lives a man and his daughter. The narrator falls for the daughter. It takes something special to make a post-apocalypse novel notable and there’s nothing special in The Dog Stars.

œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIFortune’s Pawn, Rachel Bach (2013). I’d seen a number of positive mentions of this space opera, so when I saw a copy going cheap at Edge-Lit, I bought it. But, well… the narrator is sort of fun, an ambitious mercenary who is very, very good at what she does – but her arrogance started to wear thin after a while. The power armour is handled well, and I quite liked the gentle references to the suits of armour of knights of old. The protagonist’s home world featured some nice touches, even if it didn’t really stand up to scrutiny – a technological feudalistic society with a king worshipped as a god? The rest of the worldbuilding is even worse. There’s the nasty lizard aliens, the comedy bird aliens and the enigmatic glow-in-the-dark squid aliens. Oh, and the love interest is some sort of technological part-alien superhero. Narrator Deviana is so ambitious, she leaves the mercenary brigade and takes a job as on board security for a free trader who seems to attract trouble. Yes, it’s all a bit like a role-playing game. Annoyingly, Bach only reveals what is blindingly obvious in this book, and I’m assuming the more interesting questions will be answered in the remaining two books of the trilogy. Which is annoying, as I won’t be reading them.

cthulhuThe Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, HP Lovecraft (1999). I’m pretty sure I’ve read Lovecraft in the past – in fact, I have a quite vivid memory of the cover art of a Lovecraft collection which, I think, I borrowed from Coventry City Library back in the early 1990s. It’s hard to be sure, given there’s so many different ways to pick up knowledge of his oeuvre and the Cthulhu mythos – I used to play the Call of Cthulhu RPG when I was at school, for example. Having said that, none of the stories in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories seemed especially familiar. I’d always thought Lovecraft’s prose of poor quality, and despite a recent discussion on that subject, I suspect I may be revising my opinion. The early stuff is pretty bad – Q: when is a door not a door? A: when it’s a “panelled portal”; and Lovecraft had a bad habit of saying something is indescribable… and then going on to describe it. But by the late 1920s, his writing had improved hugely, and in stories like ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1928) and ‘The Shadow of Innsmouth’ (1931), he’d toned down his love of adjectives to great effect; and while he might still recycle his favourite words a few times too often, the less-is-more approach was certainly better at evoking eldritch horror. I have to admit, I enjoyed this collection a lot more than I’d expected. Happily, I bought all three of the Penguin Modern Classic Lovecraft books, so I have The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories and The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, all in nice matching paperback editions.

WizardHuntersThe Wizard Hunters, Martha Wells (2003). I bought this a few years ago for a planned reading challenge in which each month for a year I’d read the first book of a popular fantasy series and then write about it. I lasted six months before giving up. The Wizard Hunters, the first book of The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, I’d heard positive noises about, so I picked it as one of my twelve books. And it’s sat on my TBR ever since. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read as part of reading challenge – it probably stacks up better against the other books I’d chosen back then, when I was a little more receptive to epic fantasy. Now, reading The Wizard Hunters I found myself mostly bored, and annoyed at how bad a lot of the writing was. Often I’d have to go back and reread something because Wells’ prose wasn’t clear enough – there was a line, which I now can’t find, of course, in which the main protagonist Tremaine shakes her head and then puts it to one side. Tremaine was, I admit, fun; as was her companion, Florian (a woman in the book, even though the name is masculine; but never mind); and I did like the mix of magic and early twentieth-century technology…  But it took too long for the story get moving, the writing bounced from serviceable to bad, and there was far too much back-story the reader was expected to know. I won’t be, er, hunting down the sequels.

Nine months in and I’m still alternating genders in my fiction reading. I fully expect it to be 50:50 come 31 December. Admittedly, I still have a way to go before I have gender-parity on my book-shelves, but I’m always on the look-out for sf novels by women writers for SF Mistressworks and books by female literary fiction writers – especially post-war British literary fiction, such as that by Olivia Manning or Elizabeth Taylor, so if anyone has any suggestions for similar authors I’d be very grateful.


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Book haul

Things must be bad – I’ve not done one of these posts for a couple of months, and yet there only seems to be about a month’s worth of book purchases to document. Of course, this has resulted in a small victory in reducing the TBR, although it’s still somewhat mountainous… I’d actually planned to keep my purchasing at low levels for a couple of months but, of course, as is the way of things, several authors whose books I read all had new works out – August and September seems to be a popular time to release books. Unless you’re Whippleshield Books, that is…

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Some new first editions and an old one. Research is Philip Kerr’s latest, and about a James Patterson-like writer who’s framed for the murder of his wife. Let’s hope it’s not a James Patterson-like book… Dark Lightning is the fourth in Varley’s Thunder and Lightning series, following on from Red Thunder, Red Lightning and Rolling Thunder. I initially thought these were YA, but I don’t think they actually are. All Those Vanished Engines is a new novel by a favourite writer, and the first from him since the Princess of Roumania quartet back in 2005 – 2008. I am excited about this book. Finally, Rubicon by Agnar Mykle is one by mother found for me. I looked it up and it sounded interesting so she got it for me. Mykle seems to be Norway’s answer to DH Lawrence – his Sangen om den røde rubin (1956, The Song of the Red Ruby) was confiscated as immoral and obscene. Rubicon is the third book in a loose trilogy begun with The Song of the Red Ruby. If Rubicon is any good, I might track down Mykle’s other works.

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Some recent paperback purchases: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I bought because Karen Joy Fowler. I’ve been following Kinsey Millhone’s career for a couple of decades and W is for Wasted is the most recent installment. Grafton has kept the series’ internal chronology consistent, which means this one is actually set in 1988. Which sort of makes it historical crime fiction. Milton In America was a charity shop find. And Eric sent me a copy of his latest, a steampunk set in India, Jani and the Greater Game.

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Now this is very annoying. I’d been impressed by Léo’s Aldebaran and Betelgeuse series, so I was keen to read Antares. From Wikipedia, I learnt there were five episodes in Antares, so I waited until the final volume was published in English by Cinebook… and then bought all five books. But it ends on a cliff-hanger! Argh. It’s not finished. So now I’m going to have to wait to find out what happens.

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The DH Lawrence collection continues to grow. My father had the first two volumes of the Cambridge biography of DH Lawrence – The Early Years 1885-1912 and Triumph to Exile 1912-1922 – and I hung onto them. But I hadn’t realised it was a trilogy, and when I started looking for a copy of the final volume, Dying Game 1922-1930, I discovered that hardback editions were hard to find. But I found one. I also have a couple more 1970s Penguin paperbacks to add to the collection: St Mawr / The Virgin and the Gypsy (a pair of novellas) and England, My England (a collection). I probably have their contents in other books, but I’m trying to build up a set of these particular paperback editions.

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Some critical works on women science fiction writers. The Feminine Eye, edited by Tom Staicar, includes essays on Tiptree, Brackett, Moore, Norton, Cherryh and others. Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts is a collection of Joanna Russ’s essays on feminism. And The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is a study of, from the back cover blurb, “the role of women and feminism in the development of American science fiction” and I really need to read it for Apollo Quartet 4…

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More books for the aviation collection. USAF Interceptors is a collection of black and white photos of, er, interceptor jet aircraft from the Cold War. Not as useful as I’d hoped. Convair Advanced Designs II is the follow-on volume to, um, Convair Advanced Designs, this time focusing on fighters and attack aircraft. And for the space books collection, Russian Spacesuits, which I used for research for my Gagarin on Mars story – and will likely use again at some point.

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Finally, more books for the underwater collection. The Greatest Depths by Gardner Soule is a quick and not especially, er, deep study of underwater exploration and exploitation. It covers the main points, including the Trieste’s descent to Challenger Deep and the Ben Franklin’s journey along the Gulf Stream. A Pictorial History of Oceanographic Submersibles does exactly what it says on the cover. It was cheap on eBay (although I demanded, and received, a partial refund because it turned out to be a bit tatty). And The Deep Sea is a glossy coffee-table book containing some nice photos of things at the bottom of the sea.


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2014 reading diary, #4

The good news is I’m sticking to my New Year’s resolution to alternate my fiction reading between women and men writers; the bad news is that since I finished my reading for the Hugo – and what a pointless exercise that proved to be! – since then my reading’s been a bit all over the place.

ghosts-doing-the-orange-dance-hc-by-paul-park-1622-pGhosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) With a title like that, I’d expected this to be literary fantasy, something Park does really well. It actually proved to be meta-fictional literary science fiction – something Park does even better. Park looks back over the history of his family – the title refers to a painting by his relative, which may or may not depict a UFO visitation – trying to draw links between some of the stranger people in his family tree, and various strange events which may or may not have had anything to do with them. It’s impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction – Park mentions his A Princess of Roumania, for example, among many other details which feel autobiographical. The introduction by John Crowley and the afterword by Elizabeth Hand play into the same conceit. Of course, I bought the signed, limited edition… but a note on the limitation page says the signatures were “culled from other sources”. Huh? They’re not real signatures? Or is that another meta-fictional joke? Anyway, highly recommended.

astronaut-wives-clubThe Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel (2013) Read for research for Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows. This is the only book published to date on the wives of the early astronauts, although Life Magazine did run a series of articles on each of the Mercury 7 wives back in the 1960s. There is also, as far as I’m aware, only one autobiography by the wife on an astronaut – The Moon is Not Enough (1978) by Mary Irwin, wife of Apollo 15’s James B Irwin (yes, I have a copy). Having said that, several of the wives wrote or co-wrote their husbands’ biographies, such as Rocketman by Nancy Conrad (2005), Moonwalker by Charlie and Dotty Duke (1990) and Starfall by Betty Grissom (1974). The wives of the Apollo 11 astronauts also appear in First on the Moon (1970), the first book about the mission (see here). Koppel’s book is not especially insightful, and often borders on the banal, but I spotted no obvious inaccuracies, and it at least gives a more human portrayal of the astronauts than their own books do – but that’s hardly surprising, given they all had egos as big as the Moon. As far as the Apollo Quartet is concerned, The Astronaut Wives Club will be treated much like Wikipedia – a good place to start, but I’m going to have to look further afield if I want to dig deeper. All the same, it was worth reading, and I hope it’s merely the first book on a group of people who need to be written about more.

visforvengV is for Vengeance, Sue Grafton (2011) I’ve always much preferred crime novels which feature female protagonists, and my two favourite women PIs have always been VI Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone. I used to like Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books until I realised the plot of every one was exactly the same. But, Kinsey Millhone… In this one, a gangster is trying to turn legit, a process that accelerates after he meets the bored wife of a Hollywood lawyer (who has discovered her husband is having an affair with his secretary). Meanwhile, the gangster’s not-so-smart brother is causing irruptions by behaving like, well, a gangster. Millhone gets dragged into it all when she witnesses a shoplifter in action and reports her to store security, said shoplifter being part of a state-wide operation run by the aforementioned gangster. The Millhone books are framed as reports given by Millhone to her client, although the narrative is presented as your typical crime novel – including sections not in Millhone’s POV… which sort of spoils the framing conceit. But never mind. I liked this entry in the series much more than the preceding few. Dante, the gangster trying to go straight, was sympathetic; I liked the narrative of Nora, the lawyer’s wife; and the various subplots came together pleasingly at the end.

bettertoBetter to Have Loved, Judith Merril & Emily Pohl-Weary (2002) Also read for research for Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows. This is sort of Merril’s autobiography – it was compiled by Pohl-Weary from an aborted attempt by Merril to write an autobiography, her letters to various well-known sf names, and the introductions to some of her books (her collections and the anthologies she edited). Merril started out in the Futurians, an influential New-York-based group of fans in the 1940s, writing pulp fiction for hire, chiefly crime and westerns. They weren’t a very pleasant bunch in those days – at one point, they reformed the Futurians specifically to exclude one person they felt wasn’t much fun – but they were very close-knit, often kipping over for months at a time at friends’ houses. Merril was certainly outspoken, and these days she’d probably be described as “poly” – neither of which in those days endeared her much to her fellow fans and writers. Some of the gossip Merril drops in is horribly fascinating – such as, for example, when Frederik Pohl was an editor early in his career he’d buy his friends’ stories and keep 60% of the fee; or that, later, when Merril was an influential editor, writers would approach her and beg to be included in her next anthology, and they’d tell her they wouldn’t even accept a fee. Merril moved to Canada in the 1960s, and eventually took Canadian citizenship. She comes across as one of those opinionated but interesting people you’d probably dislike on meeting. Worth reading.

Dictionary_of_the_KhazarsDictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavić (1988) I’ve fancied reading this for years, so when I stumbled across a copy in a charity shop I snapped it up. But after all that… I’m not a big fan of weird fiction or magical realism – although when it’s kept low-key, I’m happy to read it. I thought Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana excellent, for example; which led me to think I might enjoy fiction by other Balkan fabulists. But this one just didn’t work for me. I thought the structure clever and interesting, and some of the stories which make up the dictionary entries were quite good. But often Pavić pushed the fantasy too far, and it spoiled it for me. The book is structured as three “dictionaries” – they’re not, they’re more like glossaries – which cover the conversion of the Khazar people to one of the Abrahamic religions. There’s a Christian dictionary, a Muslim one and a Jewish one, and each claims the Khazars converted to their religion. The dictionaries comprise biographies of important people and stories which illustrate their lives and/or their connection to the Khazars. The stories are… fantastic. Some of the details are amusing, like the person who saved up all their Tuesdays so they could use them at once; others, for me, just felt like a whimsy too far. I guess I like a lot of realism in my fantastika. Which is no doubt why I much prefer science fiction. Ah well. Back to the charity shop it goes, and I can cross Pavić off the list of authors I’ve always wanted to read.

sovietsfNew Soviet Science Fiction, Helen Saltz Jacobson, ed. (1979) I spotted this on eBay, discovered Macmillan had in the late 1970s published a short series of Soviet sf anthologies and novels, and immediately thought, ooh I can collect them. But just to see if it was worth doing so, I bought this cheap ex-library copy of New Soviet Science Fiction…. And yes, it was totally worth it. Now I’m going to have to find a decent copy to replace mine. And buy all the other books in the series too. The contents include fiction by Ilya Varshavsky, Kirill Bulychev, Dmitri Bilenkin, Gennady Gor, Vladen Bakhnov, Anatoly Dneprov, Vladimir Savchenko, Mikhail Emtsev and Eremei Parnov, and Vadim Shefner – with several of them contributing more than one piece. The Savchenko was good, a nice black comedy with a very Russian atmosphere. Some of the others feels like they’ve been translated too diligently into American English vernacular – I mean, what’s the point of reading Russian sf if it reads just like US sf? Annoyingly, the book includes no prior publication details, so I’ve no idea how old some of these stories are.

mancrazyMan Crazy, Carol Joyce Oates (1997) An author I’ve heard much about without actually ever getting around to reading. I stumbled across a copy of this book in a charity shop, so I bought it and… The narrator is a teenage girl with an absentee father and a drunken mother. She’s white trash, moving from place to place, although only within a relatively small region, eventually getting into drinks, drugs and dalliances with inappropriate men…  and eventually ending up in a biker cult. The control of voice is impressive, as is the way Oates builds up her story through a series of small vignettes (none really qualify as short stories, and some are shorter than flash fiction). But none of the cast likeable – even the man who becomes the sugar daddy of the narrator’s mother isn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart… although his fate is hardly deserved. This is a bleak novel, which I was not expecting. I’m still not sure if I really liked it.

fivelordsThe Adventures of Blake and Mortimer 18: The Oath of the Five Lords, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2012) I’ve been impressed with a couple of Sente’s scripts, more so than I have anything written by series creator Edgar P Jacobs – chiefly because Sente manages to stitch his stories into real history. And so he does in this one, and it’s particularly effective. The story is essentially a murder-mystery. The titular lords are a secret society, created decades before to safeguard a pamphlet written by TE Lawrence but which he was never allowed to publish. Someone is bumping off the lords and stealing their portion of the pamphlet. It’s up to Blake and Mortimer to learn the identity of the killer/thief before the pamphlet is all together lost and the five lords all murdered. It’s not a very complex mystery, though Sente still manages a few bits of sleight of hand with his clues. I thought this one of the better entries in the series.


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The first haul of the year

… Although, strictly speaking, this isn’t the first book haul of the year as it includes a few books I received for Christmas. But it’s certainly the first book haul post of 2014. I also seem to have gone a little mad in the past three weeks, and bought more books than usual – and some of which, I must admit, I’ve no idea why I purchased… Still, so it goes.

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Some graphic novels to start: I liked Léo’s Aldebaran series so much (see here), I bought the follow on series, Betelgeuse: The Survivors, The Caves and The Other (and I’ve already written about them here).  I’ll be picking up the next series, Antares, soon, although it’s not yet complete in the original French. Apparently, the English versions have also been censored, with underwear added onto nude characters. Orbital: Justice is the fifth in the space opera bande dessinée series, and while it looks great and has an impressively twisty plot, it does owe a little too much to big media sf.

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Imaginary Magnitude, Fenrir and High-Opp were all Christmas presents. I’ve already read Fenrir – while I really liked Wolfsangel, I found this one a little too long for its story, and it didn’t really pick up until two-thirds of the way through. High-Opp is a previously-unpublished Frank Herbert novel; should be interesting. Europe in Autumn I have to review for Vector; and New Adventures in Sci-Fi is an early collection by one of my favourite sf writers, Sean Williams (it was also incredibly hard to find a copy).

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These are the “wtf was I thinking?” books. Mostly. The Rose of Sarifal is a Forgotten Realms novel, which I normally wouldn’t touch with a bargepole a good kilometre or so in length, but Paulina Claiborne is, I am reliably informed, a pseudonym of Paul Park. Chauvinisto I spotted on eBay and it sounded so awful I couldn’t resist it. I’ve been picking up the Hugh Cook fantasies when I see them, as I’ve heard they’re quite interesting. The Wordsmiths and the Warguild is the third in the ten-book series, and also the third book I now own. The Red Tape War is definitely a wtf purchase; it was very cheap. The two Ted Mark novels, The Man from Charisma and Rip It Off, Relevant!, are 1960s 007 pastiches with added rumpy-pumpy. Or so I believe. Goodbye Charlie is the novelisation of a quite silly film from 1964 starring Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis.

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Four hardbacks for the collection. I already have a first edition of Monsieur of course, but this one is signed. The first edition of The Jewel In The Crown was a bargain (first editions are normally not cheap at ll), as was the first edition of The Clockwork Testament, the third of Burgess’s Enderby novels. (I suspect the first, Inside Mr Enderby, will continue to elude me as it was originally published under the name Joseph Kell and first editions are hugely expensive.) Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance is a new novella in signed limited hardback by one of my favourite genre authors and published by PS Publishing.

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I had a Women’s Press SF copy of Native Tongue but it was really tatty, so I gave it to a charity shop. But now I have a copy in really good condition. Zoline’s collection, Busy About the Tree of Life, I will be reviewing for SF Mistressworks (that has to be one of the worst Women’s Press covers, though). Having heard so much about Joyce Carol Oates, I decided to give something by her a go, and Man Crazy was the first book by her I stumbled across. I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s fiction for many, many years – Breakdown is not her latest, there was one published last year, but it is the one before that. I’ve also been reading Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series for a long time. I’m up to V is for Vengeance, but W is for Wasted was published last year. Only three more letters to go. What will Grafton do after that?

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Three things that interest me: Brutalist architecture, and there’s lots of lovely photos of it in Concrete (I actually bought a copy for my brother-in-law for his birthday, and over Christmas I had a look in the book and liked it so much… I bought myself one); the Cold War, and Fear and Fashion in the Cold War, covers, er, fashion inspired by the promises of bases on the Moon and the threat of nuclear armageddon (see my The future we used to have posts for more); and finally, the works of Paul Scott, in this case his most famous work, the Raj Quartet, as the title Paul Scott’s Raj, er, indicates.

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Lumières I bought on eBay for not very much because its introduction was written by Lawrence Durrell. The art in it is also very good. Lenae Day I stumbled across while researching Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. She restages photographs from 1960s magazines with herself as the model, and accompanies them with autobiographical text. One of her shows was ‘Space Cadette’ and in it she restaged a photograph from Time Magazine of Mercury 13 candidate Rhea Hurrle preparing to enter an isolation tank (Day’s version here). So far, Day’s work has only been published as Day Magazine and Modern Candor, but she recently ran a kickstarter for her next project, based on invented 1930s movie studio Prescott Pictures – see here.

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Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft I bought specifically for research for my Gagarin on Mars story, but it’ll also go in the Space Books collection. N.F.Fedorov is research for a novel I’m working on, but it’s not going to be about what you think it might be about. Or something.