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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

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1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…

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Books landing

The last few book haul posts I’ve photographed the new books on the landing, hence the title of this post. It’s been a while since the last such post, but then I’ve not bought all that many books in the past couple of months…

Some birthday presents – it was my birthday back in March, and it’s been that long since I last did a book haul post. Patrick Keiller is the man who made the films London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins. The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet is an accompanying text to Robinson in Ruins, and The View from the Train is a more general meditation by Keiller on his life and career. I’ve become a fan of Green’s writing, and some pretty new omnibus editions of three novels each have jus1t been published, so… Loving, Living, Party Going and Caught, Back, Concluding. He wasn’t very good at titles, was he?

Some recent sf. I’m glad Susan R Matthews is back in print after so long, so kudos to Baen for doing that… although the cover art to Blood Enemies is a bit naff. Her Under Jurisdiction series is recommended. The Memoirist is the fourth book of the first quartet NewCon Press’s new novella series. And New York 2140 is another mighty tome from Kim Stanley Robinson, whose books I’ve always admired, if not always liked.

Some recent crime. Prussian Blue is the latest in the Bernie Gunther series, and there’s at least one more to come, I think. I’ve read the first two Galbraith (ie, JK Rowling) novels, and they’re not great, but my mother lends them to me – she found Career of Evil in a charity shop – and they’re easy to read and entertaining enough.

A bit of a mix. Retribution Falls was on the Clarke shortlist several years ago, although its presence seemed to baffle many. I found this in a charity shop. The Circles of Power is the latest Valerian and Laureline – see here. I was so impressed with Alexievich’s Chernobyl Diary (see here), I bought Second-Hand Time when it was published. And The Ordinary Princess I found in a local charity shop, and bought because I’ve always liked MM Kaye’s historical novels, and even took the trouble to hunt down copies of her crime novel series so I could read them. I hadn’t known she’d written a children’s book.

When I decided to work my way through DH Lawrence’s oeuvre, I started out just picking up whatever books by him I found in charity shops. And then I stumbled across three all with the same design, and discovered Penguin had re-issued most of his works in a uniform paperback design back in the early 1970s. So I had to buy those ones, and only those ones. Like The Trespasser. I now have twenty-four of them, but it’s hard to find out what else is in the series. Some time later, I discovered Heinemann had published a hardback “Phoenix Edition” series of Lawrence’s works in, I think, thirty volumes, from the 1950s to the 1970s. And I’ve been picking those up as well, but they’re much harder to find. Kangaroo popped up on eBay recently (er, no pun intended). I have thirteen of them so far.


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Reading diary, #43

For reasons that probably made sense when I made the decision, I’m keeping the reading diary numbering scheme going, even though it’s a new year. Not that I posted 42 reading posts in 2016, anyway. This year, I’m also going to document the country of origin of the books I read, as I plan to read geographically more widely in 2017 than I have done in previous years. This will likely mean less science fiction, although the percentage of my reading that can be categorised as genre has been steadily dropping for a long time. I still call myself a sf fan, and the genre usually offers me something as a reader I don’t get from other modes of fiction, or even non-fiction. But. There’s also a lot that sf is mostly very, very bad at, and I want to read books where those things are done well. And, I’d like to hope, that feeds into my own writing – which is, of course, predominantly science fiction…

heart_of_stoneHeart of Stone, Denny DeMartino (2001, USA). And speaking of things that sf does badly… I read this book for SF Mistressworks, and its protagonist and narrator is, quite frankly, the most ineptly-drawn British character I have ever come across in fiction. See my review on SF Mistressworks here for some choice quotes. I forget where I stumbled across mention of the book, and its sequel Wayward Moon, but the cover art looked quite appealing… A cheap copy of Wayward Moon in good condition appeared on eBay, I bought it… but no good condition copy of Heart of Stone followed and so I ended up buying a tatty one just so I could read the book. And having now read that tatty paperback, I think I would have been overcharged if it had cost me a penny. I will probably one day read Wayward Moon just to complete the pair on SF Mistressworks, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it…

princes_of_airThe Princes of the Air, John M Ford (1982, USA). Ford is one of those sf authors whose books are held in high regard by a small number of discerning people. He’s perhaps best remembered for his Trek novelisations, but everyone who has read his non-Trek output has only good words to say of it. True, his alternate history/fantasy The Dragon Waiting was in the original Fantasy Masterwork series, but pretty much everything he wrote is long out of print and most of it was never even published in the UK. Having read Ford’s collection, Heat of Fusion, several years ago and thought it very good, I’d kept a weather eye open for his other non-tie-in novels, and The Princes of the Air popped up on eBay for a reasonable price some time last year, so I bought it. And I’m glad I did. This is well put-together stuff, even if it does borrow overmuch from the models it uses. But, to Ford’s credit, those models are plucked from more high-brow sources than your average science fiction novel. The title refers to three young men who decide to make the most of themselves. One is indentured to become a diplomat, if he passes all his training; the other two are so practiced on battle simulation VR games, one as a tactician, the other as a pilot, that they soon find work for themselves in those roles. But then there’s a plot to seize the throne from the queen, and the three work together to foil it. The chess references are a bit heavy-handed, but there was something else the book kept on reminding me of as I read it, and for the life of me I can no longer remember what it was. The plot of one of Shakespeare’s plays? Something like that. The world-building is put together well but feels a little dated. Ford’s prose is cut above the average, and he’s clever in subtle ways – the diplomatic language, for example, is rendered as iambic pentameter. The Princes of the Air has a sort of Tron-ish feel about it: good for its time, but very much the product of an earlier decade. If you stumble across a copy, it’s worth giving it a go.

valerian_14Valerian and Laureline 14: The Living Weapons, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1990). I’ve been buying these translations of Valérian et Laureline since Cinebook started publishing them, although I really should get the original French ones… But Cinebook are now up to volume 14 (originally published in 1990) of the current twenty-two books. This is good stuff although, to be fair, the shortness of each individual episode does mean the quality of the story can be a little variable. This is one of the less good ones… Valerian and Laureline land on a planet, not entirely in control, and hook up with a circus, each of whose four members have talents that make them closer to weapons than entertainers. There’s an ongoing war on the planet, and one war leader hopes to use the circus to “end war” – by winning it comprehensively of course, the sort of solution that Trump and Putin and your usual right-wing morons cannot see beyond – but Valerian has another plan… and, er, so he does it. Ironically, the “living weapons” eventually end up joining the Moscow State Circus. If only Gorbachev had known they were there, maybe he could have made glasnst actually work. On the other hand, I’m not sure this is what is meant when science fiction is described as an “ironic” mode of fiction…

peripheralThe Peripheral, William Gibson (2014). The last Gibson novel I read before tackling this one was Virtual Light back in 1994, although I’d read the Sprawl trilogy and Burning Chrome prior to that. I then sort of lost interest in what he was writing, and it’s only in recent years that I decided to give his novels another go… So when I spotted The Peripheral in a charity shop, I bought it and it sat on my bookshelves for about six months before I picked it up and started reading it… I believe The Peripheral is more science-fictional than the novels Gibson has been writing since the late 1990s, given he’s no longer published as genre – not, of course, that The Peripheral was published as category science fiction anyway – but this novel’s story is, I believe, more overtly sfnal than the rest of Gibson’s output of the last decade or so. There’s a really cool idea at its core, although the mechanics of it are left unexplained: a mysterious server on the Internet (there’s a running joke it’s located in China) in the early twenty-second century allows people to communicate with the past. But only just less than a century into their past. And any intereference in that past causes it to branch off, and form a “stub”. Meanwhile, in near-future small-town USA, a young woman substitutes for her brother in what she thinks is an online game… but she’s actually flying a drone in twenty-second century London, working security for the sister of a famous performance artist. And she witnesses that sister being murdered by nanobots. Which kicks off a police investigation in London, a symptom of a struggle for power between two immensely wealthy factions, and which then leads to heavy interference in the near-future USA in order to protect the witness (like making her and her family the richest people in the country). (The title, incidentally, refers to the android avatar the young woman uses when visiting the future (to her) London.) About halfway through the novel, it’s revealed – although there are some pretty heavy hints – that eighty percent of the world’s population had died during the latter half of the twenty-first century, thanks to climate crash, economy crashes, epidemics, etc. You’d think with all this going on, I’d have been more impressed with The Peripheral. But… Everyone in the novel is near-superhuman – in the US, they’re ex-special forces or something; in London, nanotechnology gives everyone something like superpowers. No one in the book comes across as a human character. And then there’s callousness with which people are treated – this a book with a high bodycount. There’s even mention that in the twenty-third century, interfering in “stubs” is a hobby. In other words, those people enjoy fucking up the lives, often fatally, of more than six billion people. Which, I guess, makes them little different to the immensely rich today. But I don’t want to read novels in which stuff like that is treated casually, novels which set their stories in worlds which operate with all the morality of a computer game. Science fiction has always been a genre which seems happy to dehumanise every one except the protagonist and his, or her, band of hardy chums. That’s one way in which science fiction seriously needs to grow up. But it’s disappointing to see a writer of Gibson’s stature seemingly subscribing to that view.

edenaThe World of Edena, Moebius (2016). I’m a big fan of The Incal, although I’ve never really made an effort to track down Moebius’s solo work, possibly because it’s so hard to find in English-language editions. I’ve mentioned before, for example, the beautiful collections published in Danish I saw in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen (and, I discovered last Christmas while showing them to one of my nephews, actually published by Faraos Cigarer’s own imprint). Which is a bit of a long-winded way of getting around to the fact that last year Dark Horse collected all of Moebius’s Stel/Atana bandes dessinées and published them in a 350-page collection under the title The World of Edena, and I spotted it on Amazon but they had run out of stock so I ended up buying it from an eBay seller and saving myself a fiver… The original Stel/Atana story was written for Citroën for an advert in 1983, but Moebius expanded it a great deal over the years following. Basically, Sten and Atan visit a friend on an asteroid community, but it crashes onto the giant featureless planet it orbits… where Stel and Atan discover a giant pyramid, around which is a city 700,000 years old containing members of all the intelligent races in the galaxy, living and extinct. It transpires the pyramid is a giant spaceship and Stel is the pilot it has been waiting for. It transports everyone to the paradise planet of Edena… Once forced to live off the land, Stel and Atan develop secondary sexual characteristics and Atan proves to be Atana, a woman. The two are separated and the rest of the story describes their attempts to find each other, which are prevented by the masked inhabitants of the Nest, who are a particularly cool invention, and especially their semi-godlike creator, the Paternum. The action takes place both in dreams and on Edena itself, and it sometimes gets a little confusing. And even the final twist, with its deliberate attempts to leave everything unresolved, doesn’t quite work… But the artwork is gorgeous throughout, the Nesters are brilliant, and it’s clear from page one this is high-quality bandes dessinées which any self-respecting fan should own.

chernobyl_prayerChernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997). So, one evening on Twitter I was chatting with some friends about female Nobel laureates for literature and I decided to put my money where my mouth was and read some – other than those I’d already read, Lessing and, er, Jelinek… And so I bought myself copies of Herta Müller’s The Appointment (see here) and Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer. I knew nothing about either writer, other than the fact they had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chernobyl Prayer is… probably going to be one of my top five reads of the year come December. Yes, it is that good. Read it now. Alexievich has made a career out of publishing the stories told to her by people regarding certain events, and in Chernobyl Prayers she interviewed lots of people in Belarus and Ukraine about the nuclear reactor meltdown in that town, and used their accounts to build a narrative of events and the effects of the accident. I remember Chernobyl being on the news and, like most people in Western Europe, I never really understood the damage wrought by the disaster. It was severely downplayed by governments and the media throughout the world – but nowhere quite as extensively as it was in the USSR, especially in the areas most affected by Chernobyl. Chernobyl Prayers is not only eye-witness accounts of the disaster and its immediate aftermath, but every account editorialises on the incident, on the USSR and Russian character, and so provides a rich and deep portrait. I’ve heard it said Alexievich “embellishes” the testimonies she collects, but I was under the impression going in that Chernobyl Prayers was on the borderline between fact and fiction, and that’s an area I enjoy exploring in literature. So I consider that a value-add, not a criticism. I’ve since added Alexievich’s next book, Second-Hand Time, to my wishlist.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Winter festival come early

Yet more books. The mantlepiece, incidentally, has all sorts of bits and bobs on it and I couldn’t be arsed to clear it off for these photos. So you’ve got the landing carpet instead.

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After watching Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, I fancied reading more by the author, and so picked up cheap copies of August 1914 and The First Circle on eBay. I may have shot myself in the foot with August 1914, however, as only two volumes of the Red Wheel series are available in English, out of possibly eight volumes in Russian. Accommodation Offered I also found on eBay, and bought for my Women’s Press SF collection… but I’m not entirely sure it is sf.

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Chernobyl Prayer and The Appointment I bought after a dicussion on Twitter about female Nobel laureates for literature. I’ve already read the Müller – see here. I had a copy of Labyrinths many years ago but seem to have lost it, so I bought a replacement. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind I bought because Charnock was named alongside myself and Aliya Whitely and Nina Allan and a couple of others as writers to watch in a tweet, and I’ve now forgotten who it was who said it… I thought Nocilla Dream very good – see here – so buying the sequel, Nocilla Experience, as soon as it was published in English was a no-brainer. And I’ve always found Houellebecq’s fiction interesting, hence Submission.

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I contributed to the kickstarter for The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosenkreutz, although to be honest I’ve no idea why. But it’s a handsome looking book. Erpenbeck is a new favourite writer, and her books are readily available on eBay in hardback for low prices – which is good for me, if not for her or her publisher. Anyway, The Book of Words and The Old Child are two earlier works, currently published in an omnibus, but I’d sooner have them separate. They’re very short. I’ve already read The Old Child. It’s very good.

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Finally, some sf comics. I’ve been picking up the Valerian and Laureline series as Cinebook publish them in English. On the Frontiers is volume 13, which is just over halfway through the series. You should never return to childhood favourites, because it’s usually embarrassing to discover how fucking awful they were. I’ve always loved Dan Dare, ever since being given a reprint of two of Hampson’s Dare stories back in the early 1970s. Since returning to the UK, I collected all of the Hawk Publishing reprints of the Eagle Dan Dare stories. But I also have fond memories of Dare from the pages of 2000 AD – I even have a Dan Dare annual somewhere from that time. Hence, Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2. 2000AD’s Dare looks great – it was drawn by Dave Gibbons – but the various stories are the hoariest old sf crap imaginable. Oh well.