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Reading diary 2018, #6

More reading all over the place. And cheats too – a bande dessineé and two novellas. Oh well. At least I’m staying ahead of my Goodreads reading challenge target…

Fleet Insurgent, Susan R Matthews (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction books since they first appeared back in the 1990s. They were definitely among the more interesting commercial sf being published in the US back then. Although apparently not interesting enough, as Matthews moved publisher after the first three Jurisdiction books, and two unrelated novels, and then lasted two Jurisdiction novels with her new publisher before being dropped. The next book came out from small press Meisha Merlin… who promptly folded. And it was another decade before Baen picked the series up, published two omnibuses, before continuing the series with Blood Enemies (see here). Fleet Insurgent, however, is a collection, some of it previously published, much of its contents intended to fill in gaps in the published series so far, or shed new light, or a new perspective, on some of its episodes. So it’s more like a companion volume than anything else, rather than a pendant volume. Which, as a fan, doesn’t overly bother me. If anything, the stories in Fleet Insurgent provide welcome insight – as Matthews is not a writer who likes to make things easy for her readers. The writing is a deal better than I remember from recent rereads of the first two books of the Under Jurisdiction series, but that’s hardly unusual. However, it’s certainly not a good entry point for the series, as most of the stories will make zero sense without knowledge of the novels (despite an introduction to each story by Matthews). I seem to recall that Matthews had plotted out a quite a number of books in the series. I hope we won’t have to wait another ten years for the next instalment.

Valerian & Laureline 22: Memories from the Futures, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2013, France). This is not the twenty-second volume in the story of Valerian and Laureline. Except it is. What I mean is, it’s not part of the story-arc which takes place over the previous twenty-one volumes, but rather pendants to the prior episodes. Most of these only occupy a double-page spread, and they don’t make much sense if you don’t know the volumes to which they refer. I’m not entirely sure why it needed to exist – they were contractually obliged to deliver a twenty-second volume? I don’t know. If you’ve read the previous twenty-one volumes – and I highly recommend them; ignore the crappy film – then you’ll know what to expect, and you’ll want the book anyway to complete the set. Now it’s all finished, I guess I’ll have to find another bande dessinée to read… perhaps in the original French? Now, where did I put my French-English dictionary…

Dreams of the Technarion, Sean McMullen (2017, Australia). I was sent this for review by Interzone. I don’t think I’ve read anything by McMullen before, a few short stories perhaps. Some of the stories in this collection appeared in Interzone, although I don’t recall them. As sf collections go, Dreams of the Technarion is strong on ideas, if not on story – one or two feel like premises in search of a plot. But what makes the book is the final story… which isn’t a story at all but an essay on the history of Australian science fiction. It’s fascinating stuff – and amusing too, albeit not always intentionally: when discussing early Australian pulp magazines, McMullen writes, “This is not the sort of thing to make the average SF reader do handstands, but it was good enough for an average Australian male caught in a toilet without a newspaper”, which I’m not entirely sure means what McMullen intended it to mean… Anyway, I almost certainly wouldn’t have read this had I not been sent it for review, but I’m glad I did. There’s certainly much worse out there, often much more acclaimed, and the essay on the history of Australian sf is fascinating stuff.

A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK). My sister bought me this for my birthday, although not from my wishlist. I’ve no idea why she chose it – when I asked, she said it looked “interesting”. Atkins’s name means much more to me now than it did this time last year, since I saw one of his video installations, ‘Ribbons’, at Kiasma in Helsinki, when I was in Finland for the Worldcon last August. I’m a big fan of video installations, and Atkins’s was one of the two in the museum I thought really good. So I was quite pleased to have a copy of his book. It’s a collection of… I’m not entirely sure what they are. Stream-of-consciousness pieces, I suppose. Neither poetry nor prose, but having some characteristics of both. One or two, I think, maybe the scripts from his video installations – they certainly share titles, such as ‘Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths’. Much of the writing is visceral, as in, er, about viscera, detailed narratives about parts of the body – one is more or less an annotated list of parts of the brain as mapped by Korbinian Brodmann (isn’t that a great first name?). Most of the pieces are peppered with cultural references – there’s a plot summary of the film Sphere in one of them. I’m not sure if I liked or enjoyed A Primer for Cadavers, as it’s not the sort of book you can like or enjoy. Bits of it are extremely well-done, and a good deal of the writing is very clever. I guess that, like video installations cross over that line between cinema and art into art, so this book crosses over a similar line between literature and art into art. I’d already planned to keep an eye open for Atkins’s work when I visit modern art museums in the future, and after reading A Primer for Cadavers I’m even more keen to do so.

The Martian Simulacra, Eric Brown (2018, UK). This is the second of the latest quartet of NewCon Press novellas, all of which are set on Mars. It’s subtitled “A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”, which is a bit of a clue to the plot. As is the cover art. It’s set after Wells’s Martian invasion. Although the invaders died, a second lot, claiming to be good Martians and the enemies of the invaders, arrived, and have pretty much taken over. Holmes is approached by a Martian ambassador, who asks for his help in solving the murder of an important Martian philosopher. On Mars. So he and Watson travel there, meeting a yuong woman en route, who appears to be involved with some sort of Martian underground. Because the good Martians aren’t so good after all. It’s exactly the sort of story you would expect from a mash-up between Sherlock Holmes and The War of the Worlds. Brown keeps it pacey, although he perhaps relies overmuch on stock tropes and imagery. A fun novella.

The Greatest Story Ever Told, Una McCormack (2018, UK). This is the fourth novella in the series – for some reason I skipped the third, not that they’re at all related in terms of story. And I think it’s set on Mars, like the other three, but it’s hard to be sure as there are no references to the Martian landscape. It’s not even as if the story needs to be set on Mars – The Martian Simulacra is a mash-up with Wells’s novel, so Mars is a given; and even The Martian Job (see here) required the Red Planet as its setting for its story, and almost certainly for its ending. The narrator of The Greatest Story Ever Told is a scullery maid in a household that trains “dance-fighters”. The society consists of masters, free people and hands. The hands are basically slaves. And they rebel. Led by the two most famous dance-fighters. After several months of freedom, by which time they’ve gathered several thousand to them, the masters send an army. You can guess the rest. Interspersed with the main narrative are short fables, framed as told by the narrator to other characters in the main narrative. Some of them have obvious morals, others I couldn’t see what point they were trying to make. Everyone in the story uses female pronouns. Of the three novellas from the quartet I’ve read so far, this was the least satisfying. The setting didn’t feel like Mars, I don’t think slavery belongs in science fiction stories, and the narrator’s voice was a little irritating. The stories-within-a-story, while hardly new, gave the novella a little more depth, but I suspect it was over-used a little. Not my favourite of the four, so far. And I still have one more to read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Reading diary 2018, #1

I seem to be keeping up with my New Year Resolution to read more books. Monday to Thursday, when I get home from work, I spend an hour reading before making dinner or putting on a DVD. And I managed to polish off five books over the first weekend of the year – true, three were bandes dessinées and one was novella, but still…

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK). I’d expected to dislike this – so why I took with me to read over Christmas, I’ve no idea. I read Faber’s Under the Skin many years ago, and hated it (but I thought Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation was excellent). So I had expected something similar, even if the blurb sounded more like the BBC TV series Outcasts than anything else (although I may have been getting confused because there’s apparently a TV series in development based on The Book of Strange New Things; and, to be fair, I thought Outcasts a great deal better on rewatch). Anyway, expectations relatively low. So I was surprised to find that not only did I enjoy The Book of Strange New Things, but I also thought it pretty good. Peter Leigh has been selected by corporation USIC to serve as pastor at their exoplanet settlement. His wife, unfortunately, has to remain behind in the UK. On arrival at the exoplanet, called Oasis, he finds a small colony of apathetic engineers, all of whom live mostly on foodstuffs provided by a nearby town of the planet’s low-tech and enigmatic natives. It’s the natives, in fact, who have demanded a vicar’s presence, as some of them have taken up Christianity and the company doesn’t want to jeopardise the supply of foodstuffs. Leigh decides to build a church, with the help of his “Jesus Lovers”, the Oasisan Christians. Meanwhile, Leigh writes emails to his wife back in the UK. As he tend his flock on Oasis, and gradually understands what drives them, so she describes a UK falling apart bit by bit, testing both her faith and her love for her husband. Leigh is a bit pathetic as a protagonist, and the people with which he works are no better; but the aliens are really done quite well, and aspect of their nature which has driven some of them to human religion is tragic and provides a neat twist. The Book of Strange New Things was shortlisted for the Clarke Award in 2015, but lost out to Station Eleven (see here). I thought the Faber an odd choice at the time, but it deserved its place.

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I bought this after seeing many positive comments about it and, happily, it met my expectations. Cora Seaborne’s husband has just died and she, an amateur palaeontologist, decides to investigate stories she’s heard of the Essex Serpent. While in Chelmsford, she bumps into friends who tell her of their friend, William Ransome, a pastor, and his family in a coastal Essex village near where the Serpent has been spotted. So Cora and her autistic son go to visit them, and they all get on famously. Meanwhile, Luke Garrett, an ambitious surgeon, has his eye on Cora – he treated her late husband, and now that she’s widowed he is keen to deepen his friendship. And his friend, George Spencer, a rich dilettante playing half-heartedly at doctor, has fallen in love with Cora’s maid, Martha, a socialist activist. It sounds like it should be a mess, a story pulling in so many different directions – Cora and her desire to solve the mystery of the Essex Serpent, not to mention her own ambivalence toward her gender and role in society; Garrett’s ambitions; Martha’s activism in the London slums; Ransome’s rational approach to his Christianity; Spencer’s failed romance with Martha… There’s a Gothic feel to the story, a likeness that’s heightened by its use in places of letter exchanges, but the prose is anything but Gothic. It’s, well, breezy – hugely readable, often funny, and with some very nice descriptive passages. The cast are drawn well, as are their relationships. And there’s plenty going on – politics, religion, science, not to mention a commentary on Victorian society. I thought The Essex Serpent very good indeed, an early possible contender for my best of the year. Recommended.

The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Writings, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1989, USA). I knew Gilman’s name chiefly from Herland, an early novel about a feminist utopia, which I own in the Women’s Press SF edition but have yet to read. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is perhaps her best known piece of short fiction. The narrator and her husband move into an old house, and the narrator becomes obsessed by the wallpaper in an attic room. She is convinced there is someone hidden inside the wallpaper who is desperate to escape and… well, it’s very atmospheric. The other stories, such as ‘If I Were a Man’ or ‘Turned’, are of their time, except for their overt feminist sensibilities. I’ve read early genre fiction by women writers, like Francis Stevens, Agatha Christie, Leslie F Stone, and, of course, CL Moore… but none them seemed to my mind to have as strong a female point of view as the stories in Gilman’s collection. The book also included an except from Herland, and a couple of excerpts from some of Gilman’s non-ficiton writing. I found the book in a charity shop a while ago, and bought it because I knew the name. But now I’m really glad I own a copy of it.

New Adventures in Sci-Fi, Sean Williams (1999, Australia). I’ve been a fan of Williams’s fiction since reading the space opera Evergence trilogy he wrote with Shane Dix back in 2003. And I’ve bought and read the sf novels written by the pair, and by Williams alone, ever since. And quite a few of Williams’s collections too. This was quite a hard one to find, I seem to remember. It’s relatively early stuff, but polished nonetheless, and even includes a favourite of mine, ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’ from 1995; although this time around it didn’t read quite as smoothly as I’d remembered. It’s still a bloody good sf story, though. The stories are mostly heartland sf, with a few dark fantasy. Of the sf, ‘The Soap Bubble’, in which a survey starship’s regular reports home are presented as episodes of a melodrama, at least until they meet an alien race, was quite cleverly done, and had a neat twist. ‘Reluctant Misty & the House on Burden Street’, a variation on the haunted house, was probably the best of the dark fantasy stories. The premises of some of the others felt a little secondhand and threadbare, although the stories were well told. I’m not sure what Williams is doing now – he started writing YA for a few years, and then went to Antarctica on some sort of writers’ programme. I really liked his space opera and hard sf novels, and it’s a shame he doesn’t seem to be writing them anymore.

Valerian and Laureline 20: The Order of the Stones and 21: The Time Opener, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (2007/2010, France). These two volumes end the Valerian and Laureline story, begun back in 1967, although I’m sceptical the story-arc was fully plotted out at that time. Anyway, midway through the series, Galaxity, Valerian and Laureline’s employer disappeared after someone meddled with history, and the Earth was destroyed. After acting as free agents for several volumes, Valerian and Laureline ended up aboard an expedition to explore the Great Void. Where the Wolochs, mysterious stone beings, have appeared and are using the Triumvirate, three heads of criminal gangs, to attack humanity. In The Order of the Stones, the Wolochs go on the offensive, and the galactic civilisation is hard pressed to fend off their attacks. But there is one hope: the Time Opener. Which contains the Earth. But it can only be opened if enough people pure of heart are gathered together. And it’s the bringing together of these which forms the story of The Time Opener. Of course, they succeed. Interestingly, there were some bits and pieces from these two installments I sort of recognised from Luc Besson’s movie adaptation, demonstrating, I suppose, that his film was based on the entire series. Not that it was a good film. Overall, Valerian and Laureline have had a good run, and if the plot got somewhat convoluted somewhere around the middle – the final volume includes a timeline which does little to make sense of it all – and the ending was a bit weak, there were some excellent episodes along the way. It was a product of its time, but it didn’t hesitate to slip in contemporary digs at the real world in each of the volumes, which worked quite well because the two characters had travelled back in time and so the stories were partyl set on contemporary Earth. But there was plenty of space opera stuff too – so much so, the series is often mistaken taken to be an inspiration for Star Wars (there are similarities but they’re apparently coincidental). Perhaps the art never approached the gorgeousness of Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, but the scripts were considerably better, albeit often somewhat compressed since each volume was no more than 48 pages. I first stumbled across these during the 1990s after Dargaud, their French publisher, made a half-hearted attempt to introduce them to the Anglophone market and published four random volumes in English. I started reading them in French, but happily Cinebook have been banging them out in English since 2010. They’re also now available in omnibus editions. Worth getting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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A kind of library

So I did the usual and went and bought me more books – mostly for the collection, but a favourite author also had a new novel out, and I went a little mad one evening after watching a film and purchased everything I could find by that film-maker…

… which was Ben Rivers. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (that’s the red one) was published to accompany the film of the same title. Ways of Worldmaking is about Rivers’s works. And then, on another night, fuelled by wine and Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, as I was writing about it for a Moving pictures post and comparing it with video art installations… and I remembered the excellent one I’d seen by Richard Mosse in the Hafnarhús site of the Reykjavik Art Museum last October… So I went looking online and found four books by Mosse. Both Richard Mosse  and Incoming were published to accompany a solo exhibition in the Barbican’s Curve gallery from February to April this year; the first was published by the Barbican, the second is signed. The other two books by him I found… well, Infra is $900 ($1000 for the collector’s edition), and The Enclave is $1050 ($2000 for the box set edition). A bit out of my range…

Some sf hardbacks for the collection. The Quality of Mercy was a lucky find on eBay. It’s really difficult to find a good copy, and I got it for a very reasonable price. I already have a copy of The Missionaries, but this was one was going cheap and in much better condition. Titan I bought for 10 euros from SF Bokhandeln’s stall at Worldcon75. It usually costs considerably more. Heavy Time is signed. Cuckoo’s Egg is signed and numbered – and the seller threw in Forty Thousand in Gehenna for free as he was trying to reduce stock (sadly, it’s not signed).

Some new hardbacks. Jenny Erpenbeck is a favourite writer, so I’ve been looking forward to Go, Went, Gone. The last Baxter novels I read were Proxima and Ultima and I thought them, to be honest, a bit juvenile. But he’s a hard habit to give up. Hence, Xeelee: Vengeance. If only he weren’t so fucking prolific… Exalted on Bellatrix 1 is, despite the title, the final book of Brown’s Telemass Quartet. They’re actually numbered in reverse, with the number referring to a planet of each novella’s eponymous star. Annoyingly, the other three use Roman numerals but this one doesn’t. Solid science fiction and typically Brownian – although the protagonist does come across as a bit creepily obsessive.

Two paperbacks and a graphic novel. Back in the 1970s, Newcastle Publishing issued a line of fantasy reprints, the Forgotten Fantasy Library. I’ve been picking them when I find them. She and Allan is the sixth book in the series. A recent Twitter exchange persuaded me to give Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories – or “lamourist histories”, as the spine has it – another go. Glamour in Glass is the second book in the series. Well, I do like Georgette Heyer’s novels… And In Uncertain Times is the eighteenth volume in the Valerian and Laureline series, and I see Cinebook are pushing them out at a much faster rate now, after the relelase of Besson’s film (which has apparently not done all that well, anyway).


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Expanding bookiverse

Things got a bit stressful a few weeks ago, so I coped by doing what I usually do in such situations: I buy more books. Also, there were a few authors with new books out that I wanted. So the collection has grown quite a bit this month…

I have absolute no idea why I bought Forever Amber. I recently watched the film adaptation by Otto Preminger (see here) and was not especially impressed. But when I looked up the book on Wikipedia and saw the lines, “The fifth draft of Winsor’s first manuscript of Forever Amber was accepted for publication, but the publishers edited the book down to one-fifth of its original size. The resulting novel was 972 pages long”, I was intrigued enough to look for a copy on eBay. Where I found a hardback for £2. The Unburied was a lucky find – a signed first edition for a reasonable price. I’ve been a fan of Palliser’s books for years but only recently started collecting them.

Some new books: The 7th Function of Language, The Essex Serpent and The Power (not shown) I bought in Waterstone’s a few Saturdays ago, before meeting up with friends for the Sheffield SF & Fantasy Social. I took The Power with me to Helsinki to read during the trip, and gave it away when I’d finished it. Lust was from a large online retailer. I decided it was time to read another book by Elfriede Jelinek – I read her The Piano Teacher a couple of years ago, and thought it very good.

I signed up for The Blaft Anthology Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol 3 on indiegogo back in June 2015. It only arrived last month. The rewards I signed up for included volumes 1 and 2, but reprints of Vol 1 have apparently been delayed so the publishers included Kumari Loves a  Monster as a “sorry, and please be patient”.

Xeelee: Endurance is a collection of stories originally published in 2015. This is the PS Publishing slipcased version, which was published only this year. The Massacre of Mankind, also by Baxter, is an official sequel to Wells’s The War of the Worlds. I’ve read several of Goss’s stories over the last few years, and was especially impressed by her ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’ in 2014, so much so I nominated it for the BSFA Award… but it didn’t make the shortlist. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter sounds like more of the same.

New paperbacks by authors whose books I like and admire: John Crowley’s Totalitopia is more a collection of essays than anything else, The Rift is Nina Allan’s second novel (although I didn’t bother with the updated Titan Books version of The Race), Calling Major Tom is by a friend and has been getting good reviews, and The Switch, well, I’ve been buying and reading Justina Robson’s books right from the start, after being in a writing orbiter with her back in the 1990s.

The Gulag Archipelago – it’s only volume one, although it doesn’t say so – I found in a local charity shop. Cosmic Encounter I bought on eBay – it was very cheap, but the seller was a little optimistic in their description of its condition.

And last but not least, a pair of bandes dessinée: Orphan of the Stars is the seventeenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series (I was surprised to discover recently they’re publishing a novelisation of Luc Besson’s film adaptation; er, what?), and Fog over Tolbiac Bridge is the latest by Jacques Tardi to be published by Fantagraphics. I wrote about both of them here.


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Reading diary, #52

I’m still trying to pick up the pace of my reading, but I’ve not had all that much success so far. I’m managing to keep ahead of my TBR – ie, I’m reading more books each month than I buy, although I’m not buying as many as I have done in the past – but I’m still more than a dozen books behind in my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books by the end of the year.

Valerian and Laureline 17: Orphan of the Stars (1998, France). The volumes in the Valerian and Laureline series have been forming an extended narrative for a while now. Initially, each was an unconnected story, then there were a couple of two-volume stories, but since the disappearance of Galaxity after the past was changed, the duo’s narrative has been more serial than series. The volume prior to this one, Hostages of Ultralum (see here), saw Valerian and Laureline rescue the Caliphon, the brattish young son of the Caliph of Iksaladam, a fabulously wealthy planet, from kidnappers, and in this book he’s still with them, and they’re still being pursued by the kidnappers. The three are now in the Asteroids of Shimballil, a belt close enough to the star system’s sun for the asteroids, each with their own atmosphere, to be habitable. The duo are trying to find a treatment for the Caliphon’s behavioural dificulties, but they need money… and after meeting a producer of popular entertainments, Laureline agrees to act for him for the money. Like many of the other tomes in the series, Orphan of the Stars takes satirical pokes at various things – in this case, the aforementioned entertainments industry (ie, the film industry), but also academia. I’ve yet to see Besson’s film, and I think I’ve missed its run at the cinemas, but from the reviews I’ve seen it seems to mangle an important aspect of the series, the relationship between Valerian and Laureline. Given that the relationship has developed and changed over 22 volumes, it’s no surprise the film fails to get a handle on it. But, more importantly, it also seems to me, the movie fluffs the books’ humour. It’s not just satire and piss-takes of contemporary culture which feature in the series, but also the banter between the two principals. Laureline is definitely the competent one, and has been since around volume three or four, and the two are in a relationship, but there’s a give and take between the two, between Valerian’s misplaced protectiveness and Laureline’s competence, it sounds like the movie has bungled. But I guess I’ll know that for sure when I finally get to watch it.

Living, Henry Green (1929, UK). What to say about Henry Green? At one point, he was considered by some as “the best English novelist” and – a phrase I quite like – as the “writer’s writer’s writer”. According to Wikipedia, he was always more popular among other writers than the reading public and “none of his books sold more than 10,000 copies”. From the 1950s onwards, his star faded – he died in 1973 – and by the 1980s, he was mostly forgotten… only to be rediscovered in the early 1990s, and omnibuses of his nine novels (three per omnibus) have been in print ever since. And yes, he is every bit as good as his admirers have/had it. Living, his second novel, is set in and around a Birmingham iron foundry in the 1920s – Green actually worked as the managing director of his family’s engineering firm in Birmingham – and focuses on a handful of its employees, including the London-based son of the company’s owner. The prose is modernist, and uses definite and indefinite articles sparingly. It takes a bit of getting used to, but Green’s writing is so good it’s highly effective. The dialogue is also written in dialect – although I could never quite make it sound Brummie in my head – which also takes a while to get used to. In terms of plot, there’s not a great deal, just the lives of its central characters, and how they cope with changes to the company’s fortunes. But reading Green just makes me want to push the envelope of my own writing. I don’t want to come up with cleverer plots, or more engaging stories, I want to sharpen my narratives, improve my word-choices, write the best damn prose I can, so that I too can be as lucid, as economical, and yet as lyrical, as Henry Green. Highly recommended.

Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK). This book was, in a roundabout fashion, my introduction to the fiction of Elizabeth Taylor – or rather, I learnt of her writing thanks to this book. Well, thanks to François Ozon’s adaptation of it, starring Romola Garai, which I reviewed many years ago for videovista.net. I liked the film so much, I kept an eye open in charity shops for books by Taylor… and it’s taken till now before I finally stumbled across a copy of Angel (after first finding and reading Blaming and A Wreath of Roses). And the first thing I noted about Angel the novel was its differences to the film adaptation. The plots are pretty much identical – opening in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, working-class teeenager Angelica Devereux, Angel, writes a florid romance novel, publisher takes a chance on it, book is a success, Angel goes onto become a successful – if critically mocked – writer, falls in love with Esmé, an impoverished upper-class painter, who marries her for her money but cheats on her, he is wounded in WWI and dies in an accident soon after, her books are by then no longer popular, and she lingers on in poverty… The film has Esmé’s work re-evaluated after his death, so he becomes critically lauded, while Angel’s books continue to be seen as trashy potboilers. The film also makes Angel more of a figure of fun, and so more sympathetic, than the novel, although they make use of the same events. In that respect, in that Angel is an unsympathetic character, and not played for light laughs, the book is a tougher read than the film is a viewing. But Taylor’s prose is so very good, reading it is never a hardship (which is not say Ozon’s direction is bad, although he does film it in a very artificial, almost pantomime, style, which suits his treatment of the material). I’ve now read Angel, but I’ll continue to keep an eye open for Taylor’s novels – and I have her Complete Short Stories on the TBR…

Home Fires, Gene Wolfe (2011, USA). I picked up a copy of the signed and numbered PS Publishing edition of this novel for much cheapness a couple of years ago, although not being an especially big fan of Wolfe’s fiction I’ve no real idea why I did so. His The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a classic work of sf, The Book of the New Sun is a remarkable work but its sensibilities have not aged well, and everything else he has written I’ve found more or less meh. Except his short fiction – that I really don’t like at all, bar one or two stories. But Wolfe has a reputation for tricksiness and cleverness, as if the two things are the same, and his profile within genre remains extremely high, even if few people seem to read him these days. Home Fires does nothing to change my current opinion of Wolfe. It’s set a century or so hence. Skip Grison is a wealthy lawyer in his fifties. Twenty-something years before, he contracted (civil partnership) with Chelle Sea Blue (yes, really), who then left Earth to fight the Os. She is due to return home. Although she has been away decades, it has only been a handful of years for her. He is worried for their partnership, although he still loves her dearly. As a present for her return, Skip arranges for Chelle’s mother to be resurrected – ie, a brain scan of her is imprinted onto the mind of a volunteer. Skip and Chelle then go on a cruise on a sailing ship (the cover art depicts a motor cruise liner with masts and sails badly photoshopped on top, which is annoying). Things happen aboard the sailing ship – hijackers seize it, attempts are made on the life of Shelle’s mother, Wolfe plays his usual wordgames with the reader… But it all seems a bit, well, a bit feeble. Some of the puzzles presented in the narrative are easy enough to solve, and are indeed explained, but don’t seem to add much to the story. Those which are left unexplained, add even less. I can live with the mix-n-match worldbuilding, and while the old-fashioned sexual politics are uncomfortable they don’t actually overwhelm the narrative, but… it all feels like a pointless exercise. It doesn’t feel like a story, it feels like half a puzzle with no reward for solving it. I had expected some intellectual gratification from identifying the puzzles and then solving them, or failing to solve them, but to be honest I didn’t really care. Home Fires reads like a forgettable sf novel with a heavy reputation it doesn’t deserve hanging over it. Avoidable.

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, Jacques Tardi (2017, France). The first Tardi I read was The Arctic Marauder, and I liked its Verne-esque steampunk-ish flavour very much. So I continued to read his bandes dessinées – or rather, the Fantagraphics English translations of them. He’s probably best known for his The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, made into a film by Luc Besson, or perhaps for providing the production design, and the actual style of the art and animation, of the steampunk April and the Extraordinary World (see here). But Tardi’s graphic novels actually cover a variety of genres, from war to thriller to crime. And Fog Over Tolbiac is this last, an adaptation first published in French in 1982 of a noir novel by Léo Malet. (Tardi has adapted nine of Malet’s Nestor Burma novels to date, but Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge is the first to appear in English.) Burma is a private detective, who receives a letter one day from a man he knew twenty-five years before when both were anarchists. But the man has been murdered, and Burma finds himself trying to puzzle out the murder, its link to an unsolved robbery in 1936 on the eponymous bridge, and Burma’s old friends from his anarchist days at the “vegan hostel”. It’s a bit thin as a mystery, to be honest, though I suspect that’s an artefact of adaptation, but Tardi’s art is eminently suited to the material, both the story and the less-than-competent Burma. To date Tardi has published thirty-one bandes dessinées, of which around fourteen or fifteen have so far been published in English by Fantagraphics. After a hiatus of several years, brought about by illness, Fantagraphic seem to be back translating Tardi’s work… and I’ll continue to buy them.

Nomansland, DG Compton (1993, UK). Compton is a science fiction writer I admire a great deal. I think his prose is far far better than 99% of genre writers, living or dead, and his relatively low profile is not only due to the quality of his prose (many sf readers consider such prose either irrelevant or a hindrance), nor the fact his last novel was published in 1996 and only the SF Gateway has any of his books currently in print (as ebooks and omnibuses), although he does have one novel in the SF Masterworks series… but chiefly because the bulk of his fiction has a very British flavour and a lot of it is really quite miserable. Nomansland displays both these last two qualities, despite being set in an invented, and unnamed, European country, and because the world of the novel is forty years into the “Attrition”, an epidemic which causes pregant women to reject male embryos. In other words, only female babies have been born for nearly half a century. Nomansland also uses another common Compton technique – the double unsynchronised narrative, which is probably not the best way to describe it, but refers to paired narratives which differ in ways other than just POV. In Nomansland, one narrative is loosely-coupled third-person, set forty years after the Attrition, and focusing on scientist Dr Harriet Ryder-Kahn, who has just discovered a cure for MERS, Male Embryo Rejection Syndrome, but is being blocked from publication by her bosses at the Ministry of Science. The second narrative begins some ten years after the start of the Attrition, when Harriet is a young girl, and is first-person. It traces her history up to the 40-years-after narrative. There’s an elephant in the room in this story, and it takes two-thirds of the novel before anyone even mentions it: the world is a much nicer place now there are so few men (they’re still in charge, but they’re hugely outnumbered by women, and dying out). So the question becomes, is it worth actually curing MERS? Isn’t it better to leave the population as it is? Of course, the men – and few of them in this novel are painted in a flattering light – would like their own kind to be back in charge, but… I’m entirely sympathetic to the view a massively-majority, or entirely, female population would turn the planet into a much more pleasant place; and I can think of no good reason why men should be re-introduced, given a solution to reproductive needs. For all the crap we’re fed in the right-wing press about vile behaviour by other cultures, most of it is more a product of toxic masculinity than it is actual culture. In Nomansland, Compton is also clearly sympathetic, but he tries to present a balanced view and often undermines his point. MRA types will object to the characterisation of the male characters, but fuck ’em, they have no opinions worth treating seriously. If there is a problem, it’s that Compton is, if his fiction is any indication, somewhat misanthropic, and so even his female characters are far from sympathetic. Ryder-Kahn, for example, is fixated on publication, and does not seem to understand the impact of her cure. Nomansland is by no means one of Compton’s best, although my admiration for his writing remains undimmed.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


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Books, glorious books

My book reading has slowed somewhat this year, but it seems so has my book buying. So I’m still managing to chip away at the TBR. Which has been joined by the following books over the last couple of months…

The Escort Carrier Gambier Bay means I now have all twenty of the Anatomy of the Ships books on warships (plus one about the RMS Queen Mary). And no, I paid nowhere near the silly price currently shown on Amazon. They were originally published in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the series was expanded, and some of the earlier ones republished in new editions, in the early 2000s. The grey cover design means this is one of the original series. I missed buying This Brutal World when it first came out last year, and second-hand copies immediately started going for silly money. Happily, the publisher decided to reprint. Hostages of Ultralum is the sixteenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series to be published in English. I wrote about it here. Several years ago, Midland Publishing (a company associated with Ian Allan, if that name means anything to you) published a series of “Secret Projects” books about military aircraft – from the US, UK, WWII Germany, Japan and, I think, France. I bought several of them, but they got increasingly harder to find. It looks as if they’ve now kicked off the series again, and, annoyingly, they’re numbering the volumes. But I actually bought Britain’s Space Shuttle because the subject interests me… and who knows, I might get a story or two out of it.

I recently pre-ordered the fourth novella of Eric Brown’s Telemass Quartet, and added Project Clio to my order, despite having sworn off buying and reading more Baxter after finding the Proxima/Ultima diptych disappointingly juvenile. Oh well. The red book in the middle is a really hard to find Lucius Shepard, The Last Time, which I found going for less than half its usual price on eBay. The slipcover is, bizarrely, made of clear plastic. Finally, Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks is a book I wanted from the moment Paul Kincaid first mentioned he was writing it. I thought Banks an excellent writer, although he often disappointed me – but not enough for me to stop buying his books, all of which I have in first edition, some signed.

These two are charity shop finds. I discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor) perversely through a film – François Ozon’s adaptation of Angel. But I could never find a copy of the book, and was never that engaged in reading her to buy the book new. Whenever I stumbled across copies of her novels in charity shops, I’d buy them and read them. I’m now considerably more of a fan of her writing, and I’m sort of wavering now about buying the rest new… Oh well. The Paperchase was just a random find. I know the author’s name from Far North, which was shortlisted for the Clarke Award and which I didn’t really like, and Strange Bodies, which seemed to be ignored by most sf awards and was actually pretty bloody good.

These three books were my only purchases at Kontur, the Swedish national convention in Uppsala (see here). I bought them from Alvarfonden, a charity that sells donated books at Swedish cons. I’m not entirely sure why I bought any of them. The Final Circle of Paradise I’d never heard of, but I’d like to read more of the Strugatsky brothers’ fiction, if only because of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (I was disappointed by Roadside Picnic when I finally got around to reading it, as everything had been translated into US idiom and that ruined it for me). I’m sure I’ve heard approving things about The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica, but I can’t remember where. Or how long ago. Alan Brennert writes middle-of-the-road well-crafted sf and fantasy stories, and I’m not really sure why I bought Her Pilgrim Soul. But I did.

I’ve been buying volumes from Newcastle Publishing Company’s Forgotten Fantasy Library when I can find them, although they’re getting harder to find. Annoyingly, the series doesn’t seem to have a consistent design, or even size. The Food of Death by Lord Dunsany is the third book in the series and the sixth I own (of twenty-four). Son of the Morning is by yet another pseudonym of Mark Barrowcliffe. The fantasies he writes under the name MD Lachlan are very good, and I’ve heard good things about this Mark Adler book too. I won it in the raffle at the last York pubmeet.

Last of all, some recent sf… Well, okay, The Chrysalids is hardly recent, but the SF Masterwork edition is new, and, astonishingly, I don’t recall ever reading Wyndham at novel length (only a collection of dreadful short stories, the cover art for which was a blurry photo of an Airfix model of a Battlestar Galactica Viper fighter). I see Penguin are still paying Amazon more than Gollancz do, as a search of the title returns the Penguin edition first and no mention of the SF Masterworks edition… I thought Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind very good (see here), so planned to buy Dreams Before the Start of Time when it was published. Which I did. Central Station seems to have won, or been nominated for, lots of awards, so it was time to see what all the fuss was about. I think I’ve read some of the stories which form it, but perhaps they’ll appeal to me more as part of a novel. Proof of Concept is s new novella from my favourite sf writer, so of course I was going to buy it. I wrote about it here. Adam Roberts was foolish enough to make a wrongheaded prediction about this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, I bet him a fiver he was wrong, he was wrong, and generously included a copy of The Thing Itself with the £5 note he sent me in payment. I’d been wanting to read it, so that proved a happy accident.


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Reading diary, #49

I seem to have made up for the last post’s male heaviness, so to speak…

Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). A lot of people whose opinion I respect had said approving things about this book, and yet within less than a year after its publication conversation about it seemed to fade away. Nonetheless, it remained on my radar, and when I placed an order with Aqueduct Press – an excellent small press, by the way – I included it; or it may have been that I wanted this book and waited until there were others before ordering it, I forget which. Either way, that order also contained Flesh and Wires (see here) and A Day in Deep Freeze (see here), so it was a good purchase. All of which makes it a little embarrassing it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Necessary Ill. And, even more embarrassingly, I loved it. I don’t think it’s perfect, and at least one of the reasons I love it is because one of its elements fits so badly. It’s by no means a beautifully-written book, although its prose is generally better than average for sf, and its world-building does feel a bit hit and miss in places. But it’s premise has so much going for it, that I couldn’t help liking the book. At some point in the future, some babies are born neuter. They’re considered freaks, and those that do make it to adulthood disguise themselves as gendered people (those that haven’t had gender surgically forced on them as kids, that is). By the time the novel’s story starts, there’s a secret colony of them living deep in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The earth is also in serious trouble, thanks to a failing climate and scarce resources, and cannot handle its current population levels. Some of the neuters engineer plagues, which they release throughout the US, in an effort to cull the population. Jin is one such “spreader”, and is the chief character of the novel. While travelling about Texas, carefully spreading one of its plagues, Jin tangles with a man who seems to know a lot about the spreaders, and who appears to be behind an anti-neuter movement which is gathering steam. Meanwhile, Sandy, a young woman rescued by another neut, is now living with the neuts in their underground home. The plot spends a while exploring the world and the chief characters – but it’s all good stuff – before turning into the redemption of Jin, and by extension, all the neuts. This is done through a feature film about Jin, lightly fictionalised, and made by all the neuts who have infiltrated the film industry (inasmuch as they’re disguised as gendered people). The secret world of the neuts is handled really well, and if some of the science behind the plagues doesn’t quite sound like it could be true, it’s all presented with sufficient scientific grounding to be plausible. I think this book will make it into my top five for the first half of 2017, and might even make it to the end of year one.

Valerian and Laureline 16: Hostages of Ultralum, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1996, France). I do love this series, but not every album in it is all that memorable. And this, er, is one of the unmemorable ones. Ultralum is an important mineral used to fuel spaceships, but it only exists in areas of high spatio-temporal instability. Valerian and Laureline are still bouncing around after a previous album saw Galaxity, the pan-galactic peace-keeping organisation for which they worked, wiped out of existence and out of memory. There are a few references in this story to earlier albums, but from what I remember the plot was pretty thin and it felt more like the series was treading water than anything else. Plot-wise, that’s disappointing, but there are other aspects to the series which appeal – not least the mordant wit, which felt sadly lacking in the trailer for Besson’s film, although, to be fair, that focused on the visuals because that’s what modern audiences appear to want. But one of the strengths of the Valerian and Laureline series has been the shift in emphasis from Valerian to Laureline, and it would be a crying shame if the film characterised Valerian as the omni-competent hero and Laureline as his decorative sidekick. Because, to be honest, I had thought we were better than that. Still, this is Besson, so who knows. Mézières is apparently happy with the film, although as the illustrator I’d expect him to be concerned chiefly with the visuals. But I may be doing him a disservice – and Besson too, of course. We shall see. Meanwhile, the comics are readily available and definitely worth reading. Up to volume 17, at least.

Mappa Mundi, Justina Robson (2001, UK). I bought this when it was published 16 years ago, but I seem to have missed reading it and it’s only now I’ve finally got around to it. The novel opens with six prologues, each of which is based around one of the main narrative’s major characters. I’ve never been a big fan of prologues, but I like books that play around with narrative structure… And six introductory prologues strikes me as an interesting structural choice, even if their content doesn’t add all that much to the plot. Which concerns a pair of government projects, one in the UK and one in the US, based around some sort of neurological mapping technology, which could allow governments to control, and program, the thoughts of their citizens. Elements within the US security apparatus want control of the technology – and have already run a hugely illegal, and unsuccessful, test on human beings on a Native American reservation. In the UK, the research is being performed by a company owned by a mysterious Russian scientist (whose chain of identity changes forms one of the six prologues). When a test on a human subject is sabotaged, leading to a Dr Manhattan-like series of events, and infecting main character Natalie Armstrong with a more powerful version of the Mappa Mundi software… it kicks off a transatlantic techno-thriller plot that reminds me a little of a Cronenberg film, and in which the science-fictional technobabble floats uneasily on a well-realised real-world setting. The two main characters, Armstrong and half-Cheyenne FBI agent Jude Westhorpe, also felt a little good to be true. I suspect I’d have been more impressed with Mappa Mundi had I read it in 2001 (it made the Clarke Award shortlist, but lost out to Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love, and rightly so), but Robson’s subsequent novels have all been very good indeed and she’s one of the authors whose books I buy as soon as they’re published – even if it takes me sixteen years to get around to reading them…

Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith (2015, UK). I forget why I read the first of Rowling’s pseudonymous crime novels (her disguise had been rumbled before I read it, so I knew it was by Rowling). Possibly it was because my mother had a copy and asked me if I wanted to read it and I said, go on then. And then she got hold of the second book in the series… And now the third… The prose is a little better than average for the crime genre, but not quite good enough to be called literary. And the crime elements are not especially well put together or convincing, perhaps about as poorly done as you’d expect in a literary novel. So the Cormoran Strike novels fall uneasily between two stools, without being quite good enough to be one or the other. Having said that, they’re easy reads, and the two protagonists – Strike himself, and his business partner, Robin – are engaging characters. In this one, an old enemy of Strike’s sends Robin the leg of a young female murder victim by courier, and clues suggest the perpetrator is an enemy from Strike’s past – two men he investigated when in the RMP, and a stepfather he hated. Rowling drags out the mystery for far too long, sending Strike and Robin up and down the country in search of clues. Meanwhile, Robin’s relationship with her fiancé hits a rocky patch – as the fiancé thinks Robin and Strike are attracted to each other (Rowling has been doing a Mulder/Scully thing with them). Oh, and the reference to Blue Oyster Cult in the title? (I spotted it immediately, I’m a BOC fan.) The entire book is filled with references to the songs and lyrics of Blue Oyster Cult. As a fan of the band, that was a draw, but I can’t see it being the same to those who aren’t. It’s not like the references add anything to the plot that could not have been done by a fictional band (and, let’s face it, Rowling could hardly write worse lyrics than some of Sandy Perlman’s). Of the three Strike novel so far published – and more will undoubtedly appear – Career of Evil was more likeable than its predecessors, but less satisfactory as a crime novel. I suspect that may be the series’ future…

Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK). New science fiction from my favourite sf author? That went straight onto the wishlist the moment it was announced… Two scientists from different fields, and with opposing views on how to conduct their science, join forces to run an experiment in a recently-discovered “void”, a hollow space deep in bedrock, in which they plan to make changes to “information space” and so instantaneously relocate their facility to an exo-planet. In the facility are the IS scientists and a “crew”, a group of reality TV stars who have been involved in several television interstellar mission simulations. The main character, Kir, is a young woman who grew up feral and now has an AI embedded in her skull. The Information Space thing reminds me of Buonarotti Drive from Jones’s Aleutian trilogy, and may in fact be the same thing. Proof of Concept starts out as an exploration of two incompatible groups of people living in a facility sealed off from the outside world, and in which tensions are heightened after a series of deaths – heightened to the point where the experiment is jeopardised. But then the experiment has also been dangerously compromised, and is not quite what it’s been presented to be. Reading Proof of Concept reminded me of all the reasons why Jones is my favourite sf author – that clear clinical prose, the knotty ideas, the sense there’s so much more to the story that’s not being told… Jones sketches in her near-future lightly, but there’s more than enough there to ground the story, even if current taste is for an excess of detail. She also pitches the readers straight into the story, which can leave readers floundering a little. But Jones’s fiction has always required work from the reader – as should all good fiction – and if Proof of Concept feels a little thin in places, it nevertheless has an interesting protagonist in Kir, and a fascinating idea, Information Space, at its core. More, please.

Monsieur d’Eon is Woman, Gary Kates (1995, USA). I have no idea how long I’ve had this book. I sort of found it a couple of weeks ago and decided to read it. (Um, according to my database, I bought it cheap on eBay in 2005.) Anyway, I found it in a pile of books while I was doing a little light tidying in the study. I’d heard of the Chevalier d’Eon, of course, and thought I knew the basic details of his story… But apparently not. Kates bases his biography chiefly on d’Eon’s own writings – which, he is careful to point out, often contained fabricated and/or embroidered details (and in some cases, Kates provides historical evidence that d’Eon had lied in his autobiographical writings). The popular story has it that d’Eon was a spy for Louis XV, and he infiltrated the Imperial Russian court purporting to be a woman. After a period in England, he returned to France, adopted a female identity, and lived out the rest of his days as the Chevalière d’Eon. He claimed to have been born female, but brought up male because his father needed a son or they’d lose the family holdings. But on d’Eon’s death, it turned out d’Eon was male. Much of this history was fabricated by d’Eon himself. Kates maintains that d’Eon got himself in such bad favour with Louis XV, and yet was privy to so many embarrassing secrets, that the only way to neutralise d’Eon was to make him a woman – by royal decree. The book explains the historical and political background to d’Eon’s life and adventures, but it’s never quite clear why everyone thought a gender-change was suitable. Or what triggered the rumours he was really female. What is clear, however, is that d’Eon was an astonishing person, widely-read, learned, a gifted diplomat, a prolific author, and a minor war hero. He led a peculiar life – the first half as male, and a spy/diplomat for the French king; the second half in exile as a woman. Some of the details on d’Eon on his Wikipedia page are contradicted in Monsier d’Eon is a Woman – especially the bit about the Russian court. Kates maintains d’Eon invented the cross-dressing element years later (although he was indeed sent to the Russian court by Louis XV). A fascinating book about a fascinating person.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 129