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Must. Stop. Buying. Books…

Maybe I should make it a New Year’s Resolution or something. I did recently go chasing down my teen years by buying role-playing magazines and supplements from the 1980s that I remembered fondly, which at least are not books… But that’s no solution. And actually a little bit depressing, when you think about it. Anyway, the following book-shaped objects containing many thousands of words landed chez moi during the past month or so.

I’m so shallow I’ll buy anything if you make it look like a set. And get unreasonably enraged when you stop making it a set – like publishers who completely change the cover design of a trilogy when they publish the last book. Argh. I shall be forever grateful to Gollancz for not numbering their relaunched SF Masterworks series. Because if they were numbered, I would have to buy them, even the ones I already have in the old series. OTOH, Gollancz: Alastair Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Argh. This is perfectly normal behaviour, of course. Anyway, NewCon Press, an excellent small press, have over the last couple of years been publishing quartets of novellas which share a single piece of cover art split across the four books. This is the fourth such quartet, subtitled “Strange Tales” – The Land of Somewhere Safe, Matryoshka, The Lake Boy and Ghost Frequencies – and I’ve enjoyed those I’ve read so far.

Some recent, and not so recent, genre fiction. Europe at Dawn is the fourth book of the excellent Fractured Europe series. I don’t know if this is the last book. I hope not. Kim Stanley Robinson is an author whose books I buy in hardback; hence, Red Moon. A desire to reread Le Guin’s Earthsea books came over me when I saw The Books of Earthsea advertised, so I got myself a copy. It’s a humongous book, and not a comfortable size to read, but the contents are definitely worth it. Yaszek’s name I already know from Galactic Suburbia, which I read as research for All That Outer Space Allows. Recently, she’s been involved in a couple of projects to signal-boost early sf by women writers, much as SF Mistressworks has done, and Sisters of Tomorrow, an anthology, is one of them. Ignore the copy of Without A Summer, which sneaked its way into the photo. I thought I’d bought it recently, but I actually purchased it about three months ago. The Quantum Magician I have to review for Interzone.

Here we have a couple of bandes dessinées. Distant Worlds Episode 1 is another, er, episode in Léo’s long-running science fiction story which began with Aldebaran (see here). I admit I’m not entirely sure on the chronology of Léo’s series, given there are half a dozen or so separate stories, and no real indication of which follows which. But this one appears to have been written by someone else, Icar, although I still think it’s set in the same universe. Inside Moebius, Part 3 is, er, the third volume of Inside Moebius, containing books 5 and 6 of the original French edition. It’s one for fans of Moebius – and who isn’t one? – and not much use without the two earlier volumes.

I’ve been a fan of Shariann Lewitt’s fiction since finding a copy of her debut novel, Angel at Apogee, in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi. I subsequently hunted down copies of her other novels. Initially, she was SN Lewitt (see what I did there?), but with Memento Mori, her fifth novel, she became Shariann Lewitt. I bought a paperback copy back when it was published in 1995, but always fancied upgrading it to a hardback. Sadly, her seventh novel, Rebel Sutra, published in 2000, appears to have been her last. Cherryh is another author I’ve upgraded to hardback– Actually, no, that’s not strictly true. I read a lot of Cherryh during the 1980s, back when she was pretty much ubiquitous on the sf shelves of UK high street book shops. And then in the 1990s, when I was living in the UAE, I started buying her books in hardback as soon as they appeared. But when I returned to the UK, I stopped doing that… And then I discovered eBay, and started picked up hardback copies of her back-catalogue. Some of which were published in signed limited editions by Phantasia Press, like this one: Forty Thousand in Gehenna.

A copy of The History of American Deep Submersible Operations popped up on eBay for kof kof £95. And even though I fancied it, that was too much. But then I discovered that all the other copies I could find were £400+ and, well, then it suddenly turned into a bargain. So I, er, bought it. Owner’s Workshop Manual: NASA Mercury is one of a range of excellent books on spacecraft by Haynes, who have branched out from cars to covering everything from the Death Star to Pies. Yes, honestly. I admire Delany a great deal. He’s probably one of the cleverest writers and critics the genre has produced, and while I probably like the idea of his fiction more than I actually like his fiction – although Dhalgren remains a favourite novel – I suspect I also like the idea of Delany more than I do reading his non-fiction. But I’m determined to give it a go. Hence, In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany Volume 1 1957 – 1969. Which had sat on my wishlist for over a year before finally shaming me into putting it into my basket. I’ve no idea when volume 2 will appear, or if indeed it ever will (Delany is not very good at producing sequels). And yes, I’ve read The Motion of Light in Water. And I have a copy Times Square Red, Times Square Blue on its way to me…

Some secondhand books. The Lung is not an easy book to find – or, at least, those few copies that can be found are not cheap, especially not for a 1970s paperback. But this one was more reasonably-priced than other copies I’ve seen. And in really good condition. A Trick of the Light, which is Faulks’s first novel, on the other hand… I’ve seen copies on eBay priced between £300 and £400, which is way more than I’d pay for a book I’m not desperate to own. So I was pretty chuffed when I found this copy for £35 from a US-based seller on abebooks.co.uk. Bargain. How to be Both and A Handful of Dust were charity shop finds. (The part of the city where I live, by the way, has around a dozen charity shops. In fact, my local high street is charity shops, discount food shops and cash converters. Welcome to Tory Britain.)

I asked my mother, who is a regular browser in charity shops, to keep an eye open for books by William Golding or Evelyn Waugh. The only Golding she could find was Lord of the Flies, which I already have. But she did find a bunch of Waugh: The Loved One, Vile Bodies, Scoop, Put Out More Flags, Work Suspended and Black Mischief. I should ask her to look for some female writers for me, like Manning, Taylor, Lehman, West, Bowen, Ertz, Frankau and so on.

On my way back from Leeds last week, I caught a black cab home from the station. The route goes along Shalesmoor, a road I’ve travelled along hundreds of times – and walked it many times too on my way from the tram stop to the Shakespeare pub. This time I noticed a new shop, the Kelham Island Bookshop. So the next day I went and checked it out. And found Decline and Fall and When the Going was Good, and The Pyramid and Pincher Martin. The shop has an excellent selection of secondhand books. And they sell vinyl too. I asked how long they’d been open. Since last July I was told. I’ve been along that road I don’t know how many times in the past five months, and never spotted the shop. Shows how observant I am. Sigh.

I nearly forgot. Three more of the Heinmann Phoenix Edition DH Lawrence Books: The Complete Short Stories Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3. I already had two of them, but these came as a set and the two I already owned aren’t in as good condition as these. That means I now have twenty-one of, I think, twenty-six books. Why collect these when I have a full set of the white Penguin paperbacks? Well, aside from the fact it’s a set, the Phoenix Edition does include some books not in the white Penguiun editions, and vice versa.

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Summer bounty 2

I couldn’t think of a fresh title for this book haul post, so I just stuck a “2” on the title of my previous book haul post. Blame the weather. Anyway, here are the additions to my ever-expanding library…

I bought and read the first quartet of NewCon novellas, and then the Martian novellas (see here), but didn’t bother with the second set as they were horror/dark fantasy, which isn’t really my bag. But then I thought, why not? And since there were copies still available… I’ve yet to read any of the above, and the only two authors I’ve read previously are Simon Clark and Sarah Lotz.


The Melissa Scott Roads of Heaven trilogy – Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Silence in Solitude and The Empress of Earth – I got for a quid on eBay (along with a fourth book, The Kindly Ones, which I already have a copy of, and which I’ve given away). They’re actually ex-library, but I don’t plan to keep them once I’ve read them. Brideshead Revisited I bought in a charity shop for twice as much – a whole 50p.

Jodorowsky seems to be churning out even more stuff than ever before – new additions to the Metabarons series (not actually written by him, to be fair), new stories like Moon Face, and even a pair of autobiographic films (see here and here). The Inside Moebius trilogy – this is part two – however, is new to English, as it originally appeared in French, in six volumes, between 2000 and 2010. And Moebius, of course, died in 2012.

I am eternally grateful to Gollancz for deciding not to number their re-launched SF Masterwork series, because it means I only have to buy the ones I want. I’m not a big fan of Heinlein, although I read many of his books when I was in my teens – and those I’ve read in recent years have been pretty bad, but were ones I expected to be bad. The Door into Summer is one I’ve not read, but I seem to recall it has a mostly positive reputation – and not from the people who like the appalling Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Always Coming Home is, well, it’s Le Guin. Uppsala Woods is by a writer from the Nocilla Generation, a group of writers in Spain who were inspired by Agustín Fernández Mallo’s excellent Nocilla trilogy (see here and here; the third book has yet to be published in English). Angels’ Falls is the last unpublished Frank Herbert manuscript published by Kevin J Anderson’s WordFire Press. Books are usually left unpublished for good reason, although Herbert apparently started out attempting to carve out a career as a thriller writer so perhaps he kept these back because they were incompatible with his career as a science fiction writer.

I pledged to the Mother of Invention kickstarter last year, which makes it one of the quickest kickstarter campaigns to deliver I’ve contributed to. Haynes now cover all sorts of stuff with their Owners’ Workshop Manual series. I’ts not like I’m ever going to own a North American X-15 – I think the only complete example remaining is in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum – and so will ever need to fix it… but I’ve always found the aircraft fascinating and already have several books on it.

If you like the fiction of early genre writers, such as Leigh Brackett and CL Moore, then Haffner Press publish some lovely collections of their stories – such as Lorelei of the Red Mist and Stark and the Star-Kings. (I already own Martian Quest: the Early Brackett, but I still need to get myself a copy of Shannach–the Last: Farewell to Mars.) Michael Moorcock: Death is no Obstacle is a hard-to-find critical work/book-length interview of/with Moorcock by Colin Greenland.


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Reading diary 2018, #10

The reading has been a bit all over the place for the past few months – Clarke Award shortlist reading notwithstanding (see here) – and pretty much comes down to me grabbing whatever book looks like it won’t be too taxing. And that’s despite having half a dozen reading lists from which to choose… Oh well. And I really ought to start reading more classics.

Unlocking the Air, Ursula K Le Guin (1996, USA). This is a collection of Le Guin’s mainstream stories, and though it pains me to say it, I think her genre fiction is much better. Which is not to say her mainstream stories are bad, because they’re extremely well-crafted. And it’s not as though I only appreciate genre stories… because I find a lot of current genre short fiction unreadable, and I like the mainstream short fiction of Helen Simpson, Malcolm Lowry, Rose Tremain, Karen Blixen, and many others. But I didn’t much enjoy another of Le Guin’s mainstream collections, Orsinian Tales, which are linked stories set in an invented town. There is no such linkage in Unlocking the Air. The stories originally appeared in a variety of publications, from The New Yorker to Playboy to, er, Asimov’s, between 1982 and 1995. The one from Asimov’s, ‘Ether, OR’, is borderline genre. The title refers to a town in Oregon, which seems to change location at random intervals, on the coast some times, inland at others; and the story is told from the viewpoints of a number of the residents of the town. Another story is pure mainstream and recounts a daughter taking her mother to an abortion clinic. The stories are feminist, which comes as no surprise; most are told from a female point of view, although not all: ‘The Professor’s Houses’ is about a male professor and the doll house he works on ostensibly for his daughter. The collection all feels very… worthy – well-written stories making important points, but just a bit dull. Ah well.

Author’s Choice Monthly 9: Heroines, James Patrick Kelly (1990, USA). I don’t know if I’ve ever read any of Kelly’s fiction before. None of his novels, certainly. But didn’t he write some stories about toy dinosaurs or something – was that him? They were quite good, I seem to recall. But then, they might not have been by him. Anyway, the four stories (it also includes three poems) in this collection were deliberately chosen, Kelly explains in his introduction, because they have female protagonists. He points out that although there were many women writing genre fiction in the first half of last century, not all of whom disguised their gender, but almost all of whom wrote stories and novels with male protagonists. This isn’t actually true, of course, and though Kelly namechecks CL Moore as one who didn’t – he mentions ‘No Woman Born’ – there were plenty who used female protagonists. Anyway, Kelly presents these stories in honour of those writers. In ‘The Curlest Month’, a divorcée has an affair with her therapist, trying to recover from the death of her little daughter, and who seems to watch to contact her… In ‘Faith’, a single mother puts an ad in the paper and meets a man who can talk to plants. ‘Crow’ is set after some sort of apocalypse – an epidemic, IIRC – in which a young boy and girl meet a woman who plans to use an old ICBM to reach the Moon. She’s clearly deluded. Of the books in this series I’ve read so far, this is definitely one of the stronger ones. I’m not going to dash out and hunt down something else to read by Kelly, but neither will I go out of my way to avoid his fiction. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Summerland, Hannu Rajaniemi (2018, UK). With the disaster that is Brexit looming over the UK, some popular culture has been harkening back to those rose-tinted good old days when we all pulled together like in, er, World War II… Er, WTF? How exactly does WWII map onto Brexit? Anyway, the fact Brexit is bending UK culture, as well as the economy, out of shape is a given, but it seems to have manifested a bit oddly in genre fiction, Yes, I know Rajaniemi is Finnish, but he’s been a resident of the UK for a number of years, and his career has been chiefly with English-language publishers. And if he’s a Finnish writer, then Geoff Ryman is a Canadian writer, Lisa Tuttle and Pat Cadigan are both American writers, Tariq Ali is a Pakistani writer, Leila Aboulela is a Sudanese writer… Um, that’s starting to fall apart. But never mind. Anyway, with Summerland and Simon Ings’s The Smoke, we have two very strange, and not so very different, approaches to science fiction, a very British form of science fiction, in fact, that owes much more to HG Wells than it does to the US tradition. Explicitly so in Summerland, as the man who looms over the entire plot, Prime Minister Herbert Blanco West, is in fact a thinly-disguised HG Wells. The novel is being sold as a science fiction spy story, and it’s true that its central plot could have come from a Le Carré novel, but, as a spy novel, I don’t think it’s entirely satisfactory. Fortunately, the rest of it is very satisfactory indeed. The world-building is especially good, and Rajaniemi has cleverly worked out not just the technological ramifications of Summerland‘s central premise but also the social ones. I think this one will do much better than The Quantum Thief; it’s much more approachable, for a start.

Valerian and Laureline: Shingouzlooz Inc, Wilfrid Lupano & Matthieu Lauffray (2017, France). The creators of Valerian and Laureline, Mézière and Christin, ended the series in 2013 with the twenty-second volume, Memories from the Futures (see here). Then there was Luc Besson’s disappointing film adaptation. But now we apparently have the pair’s – that’s Valerian and Laureline, of course – further licensed adventures, which makes a point of attempting to be as much like the original as possible. And they pretty much succeed. Except, like the Edgar P Jacobs Studio picked up The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer from Jacobs himself, and actually starting to do a better job of it, with cleverly-plotted stories based on secret history instead of 1930s racist techno-fantasies, so this new Valerian and Laureline is much more twenty-first century than the later volumes by Mézière and Christin. For a start, the two are on a mission to apprehend a robot who is running multiple virtual tax havens in his main processor and so enabling rich people to break no end of Galaxity laws. But then the plot quickly complicates, with the Shingouz turning up having accidentally sold the Earth of three billion years ago to a voracious water pirate, Laureline having her likeness pirated and sold across the galaxy, and Valerian having to supply meat from an endangered species to a chef for a gangster’s banquet in order to… Lupano, the writer, manages to keep all his balls up in the air, and then deal neatly with them one by one. Lauffray’s art is a little more kinetic than Mézière’s but just as detailed. I like this a lot, and I hope it’s the first of a long series.

Passing for Human, Jody Scott (1977, USA). I was, when I started this, expecting something not unlike Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States, a novel I like very much (see here). However, Passing for Human is a decade older, and it reads like it. If anything, the one book it reminded me of was Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge – and it even explicitly references Vidal’s novel at one point. There’s a pair of sequels, I, Vampire and Devil-May-Care, only the first of which was published by The Women’s Press (but since the third book wasn’t even published until 2016, nearly a decade after Scott’s death, that’s hardly surprising). All three books are about Benaroya, an alien who uses a number of different bodies to infiltrate Earth, well, Los Angeles, in order to defeat an evil alien entity bent on destroying the planet. But Benaroya doesn’t have much idea intially on how to be human… There’ll be a review up on SF Mistressworks some time soon.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Reading diary, #41

An odd selection this time around. I normally like to plan my reading but the following were all pretty much random choices, grabbed when I needed a fresh book for my morning commute. Well, all except the last one, of course.

midnight_wellMidnight at the Well of Souls, Jack Chalker (1977). I’ve had this series on my bookshelves for several years and I’m not entirely sure why. I think Chalker was an awful writer, slapdash, fixated on a handful of not very original ideas, and content to pad out the thinnest of stories to trilogy, and longer, length. I don’t think he wrote a single good book, but he does have legions of fans. Which, I guess, makes him much like every other science fiction author. Anyway, Midnight at the Well of Souls is the first book in Chalker’s The Saga of the Well World series, which had reached seven books by the time Chalker died in 2005. A group of archaeological students studying a Markovian ruin on a dead world are murdered by their instructor after he has figured out how to access the Markovian world-computer. He, and the one surviving student, find themselves transported to the Well World. Some time later, spaceship captain Nathan Brazil is transporting a handful of passengers through space when he receives a distress call. It’s from that same world where the instructor murdered his students. And so Brazil and his passengers find themselves also in the Well World. Which is an artificial planet in another dimension or something, and is divided into 1,560 hexagons, each one 355 by 615 kms and containing a completely different ecosphere and associated alien races. Brazil and his passengers are scattered across different hexes, each transformed into a native of that hex. Well, except Brazil isn’t. Because it turns out he’s some sort of immortal, and he knows how to work the Well World’s controlling computer, which is just as well because the aforementioned instructor wants to use the controlling computer for his own ends (and which will in consequence destroy the real universe). So Brazil and allies must trek across half a dozen hexes, having adventures along the way, in order to reach the equatorial wall and the secret entrance to the control room. It’s science fiction by numbers, light on invention, characterisation, rigour and, er, substance. It has all the originality of a basement RPG session by a group of twentysomething nerds. I doubt I’ll be continuing with the rest of the series.

book_wordsThe Book of Words, Jenny Erpenbeck (2005). Words are powerful, though you’d not know it from the bulk of novels written. As the title of this short novel, perhaps even a novella, shows, its story is about words and their uses and the way in which they can create a world for a protagonist and hint to the reader at the context for that world. The narrator discusses words as she describes her childhood in an unnamed country suffering under an oppressive regime, and in which her father works. It’s a completely self-centre narrative, as every word in the book is about the narrator or her world. But what she writes does provide clues to the reality underlying the narrative. The mother is German, and had fled her country for political reasons – mostl likely because she was a Nazi. Though the Germans have contributed to the father’s country, they are not liked. The regime is brutal – the father talks openly about torture, and even describes atrocities committed by some unnamed Germans (one of which is clearly Mengele). The Book of the Words is closer to The Old Child than it is Visitation or The End of Days. It’s not an easy read – and in parts, it is quite gruesome – but it is very clever in the way it doles out information to the reader, aithout breaking the narrator’s character. Erpenbeck has to date published six books, although, I think, only four have been translated into English. My German is probably too rusty to fully appreciate her prose in that language. So can someone publish those other two books in English, please?

other_windThe Other Wind, Ursula K LeGuin (2001). I have a lot of time for LeGuin’s writing, although I can’t say I’ve enjoyed everything she’s written. I knew The Other Wind was a sequel of sorts to the Earthsea quartet, and I do think those books are very good. Nonetheless, my expectations for The Other Wind were middling, perhaps because I was under the impression it was YA. True, the Earthsea books were published for many years in the UK by Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin; but I’ve never really thought of them as YA. The Other Wind is set late in the lives of Ged and Tenar, Ged has long since retired as Arch-mage and no longer has any magic powers. He is visited by Alder, a village magician who has been dreaming about meeting his much-loved late wife at the wall between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Ged advises Alder to consult with Tenar, and their daughter Tehanu, currently on Havnor, advising King Lebannen on recent incursions by dragons. It turns out the dragons are upset because the humans of the archipelago do ont return to the world on dying, but instead gather in the land of the dead. Dragons are apparently trans-dimensional. And all those dead folk are cluttering up their private dimension. It’s a completely new view of the afterlife as presented in the Earthsea quartet, and yet it doesn’t contradict it. There’s a wonderfully elegiac, and yet matter-of-fact, tone to the prose, and a beautifully-drawn cast, from Alder through Tehanu to King Lebannen… but especially the princess from the Kargad Empire who has been sent to Havnor to marry the king. It feels like damning the book with faint praise, especially since the last LeGuin collection I read was a bit dull, but The Other Wind is a thoroughly charming novel. I loved it. It made me want to reread the Earthsea quartet, it made me want to read more LeGuin. Recommended.

borderlinersBorderliners, Peter Høeg (1995). Høeg’s 1992 novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow was an international sensation, and rightly so, and was made into a film directed by Bille August and starring Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne. Borderliners was Høeg’s next novel (he had published two before Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), and it’s a very different novel. Peter, the narrator, and Katerina and August are all pupils at a private school in the 1970s. All three are orphans – Peter has spent most of his life in children’s homes, Katerina’s parents died shortly before she was sent to the school, and August is on licence after killing his abusive parents. Shortly after his arrival at the school, Peter realises that everything in it is governed by schedule – he thinks of it as governed by time – and he theorises that this generates a particular way of seeing the world, which is what leads to the school’s success (it boasts a prime minister among its alumni). Although the three are not supposed to mingle, and make a secret of their friendship, they pass notes back and forth, meet in odd corners, and generally try to upset the school’s effect on themselves. August proves a handful, as he erupts into violence when threatened. Readers going into Borderliners expecting something like Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow will be disappointed – even Wikipedia states that Høeg’s novels tend to defy easy categorisation. Fortunately, I already knew this going in, although it’s certainly true Borderliners doesn’t have the immediate appeal of the earlier novel. Nonetheless, Høeg is an author whose work is worth exploring, I think. And, thanks to my brother-in-law, I now know how to pronounce the author’s name correctly.

iron_tactnThe Iron Tactician, Alastair Reynolds (2016). There are few things as dependable in science fiction as an Alastair Reynolds novella. Even before you turn the first page, you know you’re going to get an entertaining story larded with eyeball kicks and laid on a substrate of some big idea or other. It’s almost the dictionary definition of twenty-first century sf… except, well, the genre now covers so much ground, and is so diverse, that Reynolds’s ur-sf is only one strand among many. Which is a good thing, I hasten to add. The Iron Tactician is about as dictiuonary-definition Reynolds sf as you can get, on the other hand. It’s a sequel of sorts to ‘Minla’s Flowers’ and ‘Merlin’s Gun’. Merlin stumbles across a cold swallowship and decides to see if it has a working syrinx (used to access a NAFAL network created by mysterious aliens). There’s one survivor aboard the derelicxt, and she reveals that the ship traded its syrinx centuries before to a nearby star system locked into a planetary war. So Merlin and Teal head for the planetary system, planning to trade back the syrinx. The locals ask them to perform a task in payment: recover the titular AI from a pirate band, because they need it to win the centuries-long war against their enemies. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems – not the Iron Tactician, nor the the prince who represents the owners of the syrinx, or indeed the syrinx itself. I enjoyed the novella, even though something slightly familiar about it nagged me as I read it. I’m not sure what it was, but something in it felt second-hand and I had not expected it. It’ll probably end up on a coyuple of award shortlists, because genre awards these days are totally corrupt, although I don’t think it deserves to. (No reflection on Alastair or his work, he’s very good at what he does – but I’d hate to think The Iron Tactician is one of the best novellas the genre has produced in 2016, and I know it’s not the best Alastair has written.)

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Reading diary, #36

My reading seems to have slowed a little, perhaps because I’m choosing books which aren’t quite such easy reads. On the other hand, it could just be that I’ve been quite busy. Anyway, an odd mix this time: two category genre books, one borderline and two classic twentieth century literature; three women, two men; two novels, three collections; three Americans, one Brit and a Dane. I really need to address that latter category a little more – I have a number of translated works on my bookshelves that I plan to tackle, such as Bolaño, Munif, Høeg, Myckle, Vargas Llosa, Gogol, Mallo… All I have to do is schedule them in. It’s easy to read diversely if you plan your reading, after all. Anyway, the five books in this post were all bloody good ones, so perhaps avoiding “easy reads” was worth it. Duchamp and Park are probably two of the best US writers currently working in genre and very much under-appreciated; Green and Dinesen may be from the first half of last century, but they wrote some bloody good stuff; and while LeGui many not always click with me, there’s no denying her importance or the fact she has writing chops we lesser mortals can only dream to possess. In all, a highly recommended handful of books.

laviniaLavinia, Ursula K LeGuin (2008). Who doesn’t love LeGuin’s fiction? It’s almost impossible not to, because it’s so wide-ranging, so clever and so beautifully written. Personally, I prefer her science fiction, and while I’ve enjoyed her high fantasies I’m not so enamoured of her literary fantasies like Orsinian Tales or Searoad. Lavinia, however, is more of an historical fantasy, and falls somewhere between the two stools of genre fantasy and literary fantasy. I have no especial interest in the period it covers, pre-Roman Italy, although a good book would, you’d hope, make me interested (after reading George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of Time, for example, I spent several hours looking up brochs online, and nearly even bought a book on the topic). Nor am I trained classicist and so familiar with the sources texts uses in Lavinia – chiefly Virgil’s Aeneid. In fact, to be honest, I know very little about Bronze Age Europe – it’s not an era I’ve read much about. The title character is mentioned in passing in the Aeneid as the wife of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who survived the fall of Troy. LeGuin takes Lavinia’s brief mention and runs with it, opening with Lavinia’s childhood, then there’s arrival of Aeneas and his Trojans, their marriage, the founding of Lavinium, war… Throughout, Lavinia visits a sacred grove, where she talks to the ghost of “the poet”, who is clearly Virgil (who lived over a thousand years later – some of the references by him to “the future” do initially suggest something a little more science-fictional, but no). I know some people were very taken with the novel, but it never quite clicked with, although there was no denying its quality.

never_at_homeNever at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011). I bought this a couple of years ago after being much impressed by Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle – which, incidentally, is one of the best sf series about first contact ever written – but had never got around to reading it for some reason. Which I have now rectified. Partly, I admit, prompted by the superb story by Duchamp which opens the VanderMeers’ feminist sf anthology, Sisters of the Revolution. That story is not in Never at Home, but those that are range from the merely good to the bloody excellent. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a genre collection as strong as this one, and yet looking at the stories I’m not entirely sure why. They’re not bursting with ideas or “eyeball kicks” – that’s not what Duchamp does – but they’re certainly fascinating, and extremely well-written, explorations of very carefully explored ideas. In ‘A Question of Grammar’, for example, a woman taken from her family (who, it is implied, are considered unpersons by the galactic authorities) is bonded chemically to an alien to act as interpreter. I’m tempted to describe the story as “very”Gwyneth Jones”, high praise indeed from me, but I think that’s probably unfair to Duchamp. Either way, this was the best story in the collection and deserves to be much more widely known. ‘The Nones of Quintilis, Somewhere on the Southwest Slope of Monte Albano’ manages that very difficult balancing trick of being genre but not reading like genre. ‘Sadness Ineffable, Desire Ineluctable’ (Duchamp’s strong point clearly doesn’t lie in titling her short fiction) manages to evoke something like Area X half a decade before VanderMeer’s novels, and do so with more mystery and less fungi (both, it must be said, pluses in my book). This is a superior collection, probably the best genre collection I’m likely to read this year (yes, I think it just edges out Other Stories below). Not only do I recommend it, but I think everyone should also read Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle; and, of course, Duchamp’s Aqueduct Press does sterling work and has published some blinding works of fiction since its founding in 2004.

blindnessBlindness, Henry Green (1926). The authors you love, I’ve found, do not come about due to wide or deep reading of their oeuvre, but from a single piece of work, usually in the first half dozen or so by that author you’ve read. It blows you away… and it colours all your other encounters with that author’s works. With Lowry, it was his novella ‘Through the Panama’, with Durrell it was The Alexandria Quartet, with Blixen it was her story ‘Tempest’… and with Green it was the first novel by him I read, Loving. A pitch-perfect control of voice, a refusal to tell the story using normal narrative techniques, and an excellent eye for detail… what’s not to love? Blindness is Green’s first novel, and concerns a public schoolboy whose bright future is snatched from him in an accident which blinds him (a kid throws a stone at a passing train, smashing a window through which the protagonist is looking). The story is told firstly through letters, then through semi-stream-of-consciousness narratives by the young man and his mother and the young woman (of an unsuitable family) whose company he enjoys… It’s very much a story of privilege and deprivation – the main character is the scion of a wealthy family, with a country seat boasting a large staff (members of which which the mother complains about repeatedly); but the young woman is the daughter of an alcoholic vicar fallen on hard times and, if anything, reads more like a DH Lawrence character (on his good days, that is) than a fit companion for the blind boy. Green had a reputation as “a writer’s writer”, which is generally taken to mean he was much admired but sold few copies. It’s true that there’s a dazzling level of technique on display in Blindness, a facility with prose no writer can fail to admire. And it’s Green’s writing prowess I certainly admire, rather than his choice of subjects or the stories he chooses to tell. But there’s a profound pleasure to be found in reading prose that is just put together so well, and that’s why I treasure Green’s writing.

winters_talesWinter’s Tales, Isak Dinesen (1942). As mentioned earlier, Blixen impressed me with her story ‘Tempests’ in Anecdotes of Destiny (AKA Babette’s Feast and Other Stories), and so resolved to read more by her. (I’d also enjoyed the three films made of her works: Out of Africa, Babette’s Feast and The Immortal Story.) Winter’s Tales contains 11 stories, some of which are better than others, but all of which are good and all of which have an almost mythical feel to them. In some it’s quite overt – ‘The Fish’, for example, reads like mannered high fantasy but is about an actual king of Denmark. Most of the stories are historical, typically set in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Some are twist-in-the-tale type stories, such as ‘The Young Man with the Carnation’, in which a young husband reconsiders the future of his marriage after the eponymous person appears in the middle of the night at the door of the hotel room he is sharing with his wife. Only later, does the young husband realise he had been in the wrong room (whoops, spoiler). ‘The Heroine’ is a cautionary tale in which a French woman saves a group of travellers from being shot by Prussian soldiers (during the Franco-Prussian War) by refusing the Prussian commander’s offer. There was something quite DH Lawrence about the story. ‘The Pearls’ reminded me of Blixen’s own ‘The Immortal Story’, although its plot was very different. A woman marries a fearless man and her own sense of adventure is abruptly threatened when she realises the two of them skirt much too closely to danger – a realisation embodied in a  string of pearls he gives her and which she inadvertently breaks… There is, as I’ve said, a near-mythical to these stories, almost as if they’re parables. It’s a type of story that seems to have mostly fallen out of favour; and while that does make the contents seem of their time, there’s also a timelessness to them because they’re set in earlier decades and centuries. I’ll be reading more Dinesen/Blixen.

other_storiesOther Stories, Paul Park (2015). I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since reading Coelestis back in the mid-1990s, and I still think it’s one of the best sf novels ever written. Like LeGuin, Park’s career has been somewhat varied, albeit considerably less prolific, and his last novel, a metafictional piece that straddles science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and autobiography, All Those Vanished Engines, was for me one of the best novels of 2014. (It didn’t win any awards, of course.) So when PS Publishing announced they were publishing a collection of Parks stories, I was keen to get my hands on it… and it took a while to appear. But it was totally worth it. Some of the stories I’d read before – ‘No Traveller Returns’ was originally published as a signed limited novella by PS Publishing and, yes, I own a copy; ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ forms part of Park’s excellent novel, All Those Vanished Engines. Two stories appeared in Postscripts anthologies in which I also had stories – one of which, I – kof kof – provided the title story (#20/21 Edison’s Frankenstein and #32/33 Far Voyager). As for the rest… they’re slippery things, sliding between fantasy, alternate history and mimetic fiction, and even, in some cases, autobiography. ‘A Family History’ posits an alternate history in which the French Revolution fails and parts of North America remain in French control in the late nineteenth centiry… and the deconstructs the concept of alternate history. ‘Watchers at the Living Gate’ is straight-up fantasy, and while it owes more to Hope Hodgson than Tolkein, it still presents a singular vision. ‘Ragnarok’ is posta-apocalyspe fiction presented as epic poetry (not, to my mind, an experiment that works especially well). ‘Abduction’ is a frankly baffling story about what might, or might not be, alien abductions. But everything in the book is beautifully-written. Park and Duchamp are both massively under-rated US genre writers, and should be much more widely-read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126


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Reading diary, #17

I still haven’t sorted out my reading, and while I suspect I will complete the 150 book challenge on Goodreads – I have to read 17 books in December to make it, but I usually read a book a day over Christmas week – it still feels like there are more books sitting around my house that I want to read right now than in previous years. Maybe it’s just been a good year for new books – or indeed old ones that I’ve bought. In fact, I’ve read fourteen books published for the first time in 2015, which is I suspect not much different a figure from previous years’ reading.

trappedTrapped Under the Sea, Neil Swidey (2014). I seem to recall stumbling across this book while searching for books on something else on eBay. But it sounded interesting, so I checked out the author’s website, and then ended up adding a copy to my next order with Amazon. And after it had arrived, I flicked through it, found myself sucked in… and finished it a couple of days later. Until recently, Boston harbour was apparently one of the dirtiest harbours in the US, thanks to millions of gallons of untreated sewage being pumped directly into it. So the city built a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant on Deer Island, part of which included an outfall tunnel stretching ten miles out to sea under the ocean bed, and through which treated effluent can be dispersed into the surrounding water. The diffuser heads on the ocean floor, however, had been sealed during construction to protect the workers, but once the tunnel was completed all electricity and ventilation was removed… leaving those diffuser heads still sealed. So the contractors hired a diving company to send five men along the ten-mile tunnel to remove those seals. They would have to be divers because without ventilation, the ten-mile tunnel no longer contained a breathable atmosphere, even though it was still empty. The diving company came up with what it thought was an innovative solution. Since they couldn’t carry enough bottled air to last the journey and the hours they would be working (they used two specially adapted Hummers to travel to the end of the tunnel), the divers would be fed blended oxygen and nitrogen from tanks of liquid gas, mixed using a special piece of equipment imported from Denmark. But it all went horribly wrong and two of the divers died of asphyxiation. Because the equipment was never designed to be used to feed oxygen and nitrogen to human beings, its safety features had been disabled through ignorance, and the man running the job refused to admit his plan was unworkable or even dangerous. A fascinating read.

conscienceThe Conscience Of The Rich, CP Snow (1958). I like British postwar fiction, and among its more celebrated examples CP Snow’s – he of the “two cultures” thing – Strangers and Brothers series of eleven novels seemed like it might appeal. So I decided to read them – but not in order of publication, in order of internal chronology. The Conscience Of The Rich is the third book in the series, but was written and published seventh. It’s the late 1920s, Lewis Eliot has moved to London and joined an inn of court, under Herbert Getliffe. He meets a fellow trainee barrister, Charles March, the eldest son of a wealthy Jewish family, and is slowly drawn into their fold. Eliot is there when Charles gives up the law for medicine; and when he decides to marry a distant cousin with ties to the communists, Eliot is also there. Much of the novel is taken up with the March family’s domestic crises – not just Charles’s career and marriage, but also his sister’s marriage to a gentile, Getliffe’s younger brother. The two sort of come together in the final third of the book, in the late 1930s, when some shady dealing by barrister Getliffe seems to incriminate the March family patriarch, a Whitehall mandarin and Charles’s uncle, and a communist-backed magazine to which Charles’s wife contributes intends to publish details of it all. There’s a considered, and mannered, voice to Snow’s prose, more evident I felt in this novel than the earlier two I’ve read, and while the plot is not exactly gripping, the characters are well-drawn and engaging, and the whole is an interesting window on an earlier time.

geminiOwners’ Workshop Manual: Gemini, David Woods & David M Harland (2015). Like Haynes’s earlier Owners’ Workshop Manual on Soyuz, this is not a how-to-fix-it guide to NASA’s Gemini spacecraft. It is instead a detailed exploration of the Gemini program and spacecraft. Perhaps it doesn’t boast the number of diagrams of NASA’s own technical documentation, but it comes pretty close. It’s also very readable. And very interesting. I hadn’t known, for example, about the difficulties experienced by Gene Cernan during the US’s second spacewalk during Gemini IX-A. Good stuff.

The Sand Men, Christopher Fowler (2015). I read this book for review in Interzone. I’d been intrigued by it since first hearing of it, since it’s set in Dubai, a place I know well (although my knowledge is now some ten years out of date). I grew up in the Gulf states – including living twice in Dubai – and later spent a decade working in Abu Dhabi. Sadly, I was not impressed.

changing_planesChanging Planes, Ursula K LeGuin (2003). There’s a cunning pun in that title there. It goes like this: a person waiting one day in an airport to catch a connecting flight accidentally discovered a way to visiting other worlds, or, as Le Guin has it in this collection, other planes. Get it? Aeroplanes and alternate universes/planes. And hence this collection of, well, fables, all based on other planes visited by a narrator from Earth. I am not a big fan, I must admit, of fables, though I am certainly a fan of Le Guin’s fiction. So while I can appreciate the art and cleverness with which Changing Planes is put together, I didn’t much enjoy the stories. Meh.

xy_conspiracyThe XY Conspiracy, Lori Selke (2013). I’d been planning to buy a couple of Aqueduct Press books for a while – Necessary Ill and Elysium – and browsing their site one evening, I saw the description of Flesh & Wires and that sounded interesting too… So I placed an order, and bunged a couple of Conversation Pieces novellas into my basket as well – The XY Conspiracy and A Day in Deep Freeze. Jyn is am exotic dancer (stripper) and a UFO nut. When she spots a Man in Black lurking outside the San Francisco club where she works, she panics and decides to leave town. And since she’s doing that, she decides to tour all the important UFO sites as she heads north to Washington, across to Montana and then south through Colorado and Texas into New Mexico and, er, Roswell. Jyn also has a theory that the Y chromosome is a mutation, part of an experiment by aliens to prevent parthenogenesis in mammals. An interesting and sympathetic narrator and good use of UFO mythology. Worth reading.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 118


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The habit of moderation

I have always believed in that old saw: moderation in everything, including moderation. Except when it comes to book-buying. You can never have too many books. You can, however, own more books than you can comfortably read – but, again, there’s nothing actually wrong with that. Sooner or later, you will read those books. It may take a few years, perhaps even a decade or two, but it’s not like you’re never ever going to read them. Because otherwise what would be the point in buying them?

So here are some books I intend to read at some point…

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Given my love of the film, it was only natural that I’d want to read the book from which it was adapted, All That Heaven Allows; but it was bloody hard to find a copy. I managed it though. For my next informal reading project, I’m trying books by British women writers of the first half of the twentieth century I’ve not read before and who could arguably be considered “forgotten”. The Remarkable Expedition doesn’t actually qualify on two counts: a) it’s non-fiction, and b) I’m a fan of Manning’s books anyway. A Month Soon Goes, The Bridge and Devices & Desires, however, all certainly qualify. Finally, some more Joyce Carol Oates, a charity shop find, The Female of the Species

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Some genre by female writers: I’ve not been as completist about collecting the new un-numbered SF Masterworks as I was the numbered ones (so I should be grateful, I suppose, that they are un-numbered), but Her Smoke Rose Up Forever was a definite want from the moment it was announced. After last year’s awards massacre by Ancillary Justice, which I famously liked, I couldn’t not read Ancillary Sword. And after liking the Bel Dame Apocrypha, the same is true of The Mirror Empire. While working on Apollo Quartet 4, I made reference to a story by Josephine Saxton… but I didn’t have a copy of it. So I found a (signed) copy on eBay of The Power of Time, which contains the story, ordered the book, it arrived the next day, I read the story… and discovered it was a serendipitous choice for my novella. The Other Wind was a lucky charity shop find.

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I’m a fan of Palliser’s novels, but I hadn’t known he had a new book out – he’s not exactly prolific, five books in twenty-five years – so Rustication was a very happy charity shop find. I’ve been working my way through the Bond books, hence The Man with the Golden Gun, although I don’t think they’re very good. Kangaroo is another one for the DH Lawrence paperback collection. And Strange Bodies was praised by many last year so I thought it worth a try (despite not being that impressed by Theroux’s also highly-praised Far North).

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Some crime fiction – actually, I don’t think Ghost Country is crime, although Paretsky is of course best known for her VI Warshawski series of crime novels. Murder at the Chase is the second of Brown’s 1950s-set Langham & Dupree novels. I’ve seen the film and the television mini-series, so I thought it was about time I read the book Mildred Pierce.

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I read the first part of Sanctum a few years ago but never managed to track down English translations of parts 2 and 3. I was going to buy the French omnibus edition at one point, but then spotted this English version on Amazon one day. It has its moments, but I’m not sure it was worth the wait. Valerian and Laureline 8: Heroes of the Equinox is, er, the eighth instalment in a long-running sf bande dessinée, and they’re very good, if somewhat short.