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Reading diary 2019, #7

I was never much of a fan of ebooks, but circumstances forced me to use them. Because of my move, I got a Kindle and, since it took a while for me to find somewhere reasonably permanent to live, I was reluctant to buy hardbacks or paperbacks due to the hassle of shifting them from one address to another. So the Kindle has proved extremely useful. In the last three months, my reading has been around 80% ebook. There are some books I would like to keep as physical copies, which means I’m not going to buy them as ebooks. I have some catching up to do there, however.

Meanwhile, below are: a paperback I brought with me to Sweden, and five ebooks I bought once I was here, two of which I actually have as physical copies, but in storage back in the UK.

Lord of the Flies*, William Golding (1954, UK). This was Golding’s debut novel, and probably the only book for which he is known by most people. Which must have rankled. I have a feeling I read this at school, perhaps when I was eleven or twelve, although the only novels I remember reading at that time as part of my schooling are Cider with Rosie and The Cruel Sea. But I did read a lot then. In fact, it was around that time I was introduced to science fiction when a lad in my class lent me a copy of Starman Jones. Another boy in the year below me then lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith Lensman novels… and the rest, as they say, is history. Lord of the Flies has sort of entered British culture and its central conceit is part of the country’s popular consciousness. That conceit is, of course, schoolboys marooned on a desert island who start behaving like, well, children. Everyone remembers Piggy and his glasses, but he’s not the focus of the story. (I’ve not seen the film adaptation, from 1963 or 1990, so I don’t know if either made changes.) There is Ralph, mysterious and charismatic (and reads like Golding recalling a school boycrush), who is more or less dragooned into leadership. And there is Jack, leader of a choir, who fancies himself a leader (so is the Boris Johnson of the group). Ralph rightly insists on a signal fire to attract the attention of any passing ship. But Jack is more interested in hunting wild pigs. The conflict splits the group of schoolboys, and Piggy is accidentally killed. It has been said that Lord of the Flies is not as universal as it’s proclaimed to be, because its cast consists entirely of white British schoolboys (mostly) from the middle classes and above. This is only a problem if you think Lord of the Flies was intended to be, well, universal. I don’t think it is. It’s about public schoolboys (well, mostly; I think a few are not). If Golding was making a point that might be applicable to a much wider group then he wouldn’t have been so careful about the make-up of the marooned boys and their group dynamics. I know very little, I admit, about Golding’s life, or his thoughts on writing, so I may be projecting. But Lord of the Flies strikes me as too carefully staged and cast to be chiefly allegorical – an assumption based on a reading of only third of his oeuvre, I admit. But careful writers are careful writers, and careful writing is a good indicator of a habit of carefulness, much as a history of stupid decisions is a good indicator of stupidity (hello, Boris Johnson). I finished Lord of the Flies surprised it was Golding’s best-known work as it felt too slight. And this after reading The Pyramid (see here) and The Paper Men (see here). Perversely, though they felt too much like what they were, they also felt more… considered than Lord of the Flies. This is not to say it’s a bad book, but it is more of an historical document than its reputation would suggest. Read it by all means, but Golding wrote more interesting novels and they would be better reads.

Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK). I’d heard a number of good things about this novella, and while I’m usually sceptical about recommendations, and, to be honest, I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions, but… it’s a novella, and it was on offer on Kindle. So I went for it. And I’m glad I did. The purported Nazi invasion of Shingle Street, Suffolk, has pretty much entered WWII mythology. McDonald posits it as a Project Rainbow-like experiment (AKA The Philadelphia Experiment), which actually results in sending two men careering independently through time. Unfortunately, they happen to be in a relationship. Fortunately – and this provides the entry to the story – they communicate using a collection by an obscure poet, left in antiquarian bookshops scattered throughout Europe. (Reading this novella, I was reminded of the Italian publisher who published a pirate edition of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banned in the UK at the time, and was so embarrassed at how it successful it was he sent royalties to Lawrence.) So Time Was is sort of a literary detective novel because the obscure collection is really obscure. But it also hints at a relationship between two men that leaves evidence scattered throughout the twentieth century. It’s cleverly done. And, I must admit, it did remind me of something, or perhaps several somethings – but I couldn’t think what. Which is not presented as a criticism. If anything, those echoes of other half-remembered stories added to Time Was. I liked this novella a lot, and I’m surprised it didn’t make more award shortlists. It won the BSFA Award, and was shortlisted for the Campbell and Dick, but didn’t even warrant mention for the Hugo or Nebula. A shame. This is an excellent novella.

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert (1969, USA). The Dune series reread continues, although perhaps not as quickly as I’d hoped. It’s all down to me, of course; there’s nothing stopping me reading the books one after the other. Except I have a habit choosing something different to my last read for my next one. Probably not a great strategy when reading a series – but given this year I also decided to have a go at rereading the Wheel of Time series, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t survive reading those books in quick succession… Anyway, Dune Messiah. Popular wisdom would have it that Dune Messiah is the best of the original Dune trilogy – or, as some would day it, the best of the Dune sequels. Which tells you how wrong popular wisdom is. Dune Messiah is not a sequel – Herbert conceived of the trilogy as a whole, although perhaps not in detail. It’s also not the best of the three. Neither, to be honest, is the first book, Dune. Which means it must be the third one… but I’ve yet to reread it. Dune Messiah is set some years after the end of Dune. Paul Atreides is now emperor and has become increasingly disenchanted with the institution he has created. Meanwhile, there is a plot to kill him, led by some Fremen who fought with him and are unhappy with the changes to Arrakis. There are also a series of sub-plots. Princess Irulan, Paul’s wife, is angling for an heir, and has joined a conspiracy with a Guild navigator, a Tleilaxu Face-Dancer and a Bene Gesserit. It’s clear they all have different objectives, and it’s a marriage of convenience, so to speak (marriages of convenience pop up a lot in the Dune books). Meanwhile, Chani is pregnant and Paul knows she will die in childbirth. Which she does. She has twins, which Paul had not foreseen. And it turns out the Tleilaxu are more interested in finding a trigger for the ghola Hayt, a clone of Duncan Idaho, to recover Idaho’s memories. While rooting out the plot to kill him, Paul was permanently blinded by a “stoneburner”, a type of nuclear weapon. It’s Fremen tradition to abandon blind people in the desert, and eventually that’s what Paul does: walks out into the desert. Some years later, a blind Fremen called the Preacher appears in Arrakeen, the capital city of Arrakis, and rants against the regency that has taken over from Paul. Is Dune Messiah better than Dune? Yes. The prose is much better-written. But then it improves as the series progresses, so that’s no surprise. But where Dune had the fifteen-year-old Paul Atriedes as its focus, a character readers, especially male teen ones, can glom onto, Dune Messiah has no one. Which means it reads as a more distanced narrative. Paul is presented as a tragic figure – in fact, no one in the book is all that sympathetic, except perhaps, perversely, Princess Irulan. (Since first reading the book in my teens, I’ve always been fascinated the most by Skytale, the Tleilaxu Face-Dancer.) Dune was definitely a book of two halves: ‘Dune World’ and ‘The Prophet of Dune’. But Dune Messiah also feels like a book of parts, perhaps because its sub-plots don’t gel especially well. To some extent, that’s down to Herbert’s decision to have a cabal of four plotters all pursuing different aims, and a plot to kill Paul on top of that. It makes for a busy narrative, and yet Dune Messiah is only 256 pages. So the plot jumps around and Herbert skimps on some of the detail. Dune Messiah reads like Herbert stringing together his favourite scenes from the story he had planned. It works – better than Dune does, to be honest – but it does feel more like a best-of than a coherent narrative. The Dune series is a science fiction institution, and is likely to be even more so in the future. After decades of trying to raise the profile of the Dune series, leading to the questionable decision to publish a series of shit novels by Kevin J Anderson, Herbert Limited Partnership have finally got their wish, with a two-movie adaptation of the Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve and a supporting TV series. Dune is going to be up there with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. The good news is the books are just as capable of supporting the cross-platform media giant Dune will become as Tolkien and GRRM. This is not necessarily a compliment. However, the Dune series reread continues and perhaps I will surprise myself with my re-evaluation of the following books…

Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (2018, UK). Speaking of series, my mother lent me the first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and, while I wasn’t overly impressed, it did strike me as interesting enough to continue with the series. Not because Galbraith was really JK Rowling (to be honest, I’ve only read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) but because The Cuckoo’s Calling sort of fell between the stools of crime fiction and literary fiction without actually being good examples of either, and yet still managed to present a pair of sympathetic characters more than capable of carrying a number of novels. And so I read The Silkworm and Career of Evil… and now Lethal White. The continuity between novels is good, even if the individual novels continue to suffer from that unfortunate fall between two stools. However, Galbraith does at least choose interesting subjects around which to base her novels (okay, so yes, Career of Evil was structured around the songs of Blue Oyster Cult, and I’ve been a fan of the band since my schooldays). Lethal White is, to be honest, more of the same. A politician somewhere between Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg (AKA between arsehole and scumbag; or vice versa), is murdered. He had been the subject of a Strike investigation, which proves embarrassing. And so Cormoran and sidekick Robin Ellacott (Robin, get it?) have to solve the murder – initially thought to be suicide under weird circumstances (a time-honoured Tory tradition) – and clear the wife and estranged son of blame. But everyone seems to have an alibi. As mentioned previously, Lethal White does well as a follow-on from the previous book, and its central crime is sufficiently puzzling to drive the plot. But there’s a strange whiff of approval for the central Tory character, and I’m not sure if I misread the novel because this is JK Rowling and even vast riches wouldn’t turn her into a fan of Boris Johnson. Although, to be fair, Michael Heseltine might be a better model, and the extremism of the current Conservative Party has helped rehabilitate him and he’s now seen as almost moderate. I’m not saying the Galbraith novels are good – either as novels qua novels or as crime novels. But they’re certainly very readable and they do seem to have a somewhat sideways approach to crime… and this is in a genre which doesn’t necessarily prize originality.

Araminta Station, Jack Vance (1987, USA). I first read this many years ago, probably soon after it was published in 1989 (the edition pictured, the NEL A-format paperback, is the one I own), which was a few years before I started recording the books I read. For some reason, I never got around to picking up copies of the two sequels, Ecce and Old Earth and Throy, until many, many years later… Then I never got around to actually reading them. And now, of course, they’re in storage. Happily, all three books of the trilogy are available as ebooks from the SF Gateway, so I picked up the first as a reread. The planet of Cadwal has been declared off-limits to development and is ostensibly policed by a group based at the eponymous station. Which has existed so long its workings have come to define its society. Glawen Clattuc is a teenager likely to take a middling position in the Araminta bureaucracy. But enemies of his father arrange for him to be given a much lower ranking than he deserves. He goes to work for the station’s police force. At a festival, Glawen’s girlfriend disappears, believed murdered and her body shipped off-world in a wine cask. There’s a suspect, but no evidence to charge him. There’s also a plot brewing in Yipton, an offshore community composed entirely of Yips, a human subspecies used as temporary labour at Araminta Station. All of which results in Glawen being sent on a mission to another world, where he ends up imprisoned in a monastery. And that, and the plot in Yipton, seems to link into mutterings about opening up Cadwal for development… I remember reading Vance’s last couple of sf novels in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and being disappointed by them. And the Cadwal Chronicles trilogy were the novels published prior to those. So my expectations weren’t especially high. Happily, Araminta Station proved to be Vance on fine form. It’s busier than most of his other novels, but it’s also better plotted. The characterisation also seemed less arbitrary than I recalled in other novels. And the comic lines were good too.

The Battle to the Weak, Hilda Vaughan (1925, UK). A few years ago, I put together a list of postwar British women writers. Some of them were already known to me – Olivia Manning, Naomi Mitchison, Elizabeth Taylor – and not all of them began their careers after WWII, but there were undoubtedly some particularly big names from the period I chose to ignore… Not, I hasten to add, that I considered my list in any way complete. It was a selection. And I did indeed track down books by some of the names on the list – Katherine Burdekin, Susan Ertz, Pamela Frankau, Storm Jameson, E Arnot Robertson, GB Stern… and Hilda Vaughan. Who, it turns out, probably didn’t really fit on the list, although her last novel was published in 1954, as she was chiefly active between the wars and is probably better considered a contemporary of DH Lawrence than a postwar writer. And, in fact, The Battle to the Weak, her first novel, has much in common with Lawrence’s novels. A young woman from a poor farming family in mid-Wales is sent to stay with an aunt at a seaside town. There she meets a young man, and the two fall in love. Unfortunately, it turns out he’s the son of her father’s mortal enemy, a neighbouring farmer he’s been violently clashing with for years. The son was given to his aunt at a very young age and more or less adopted, so he’s not at all involved in the feud. When the young woman’s father learns the identity of her fiancé, he forbids the wedding. As does the fiancé’s father. So the fiancé goes off to Canada to make his fortune. The young woman prepares to join him, but her father fights with her sister, who falls down the stairs and is paralysed from the waist down. The woman puts her plans on hold to look after her sister. Years pass. The sister dies. The young woman prepares to move to Canada. Then the father dies, so the young woman stays on to help her mother. The man in Canada writes and tells the young woman he couldn’t wait and has married. Years pass. The man returns to Wales, and the two eventually reconnect. In its depiction of rural life in the 1920s, The Battle to the Weak is very Lawrentian. There’s also a cross-generational aspect. But Vaughan’s novel is much more grim than anything Lawrence wrote. The lives she documents are hard, and the men – bar a couple of exceptions, one of which is the fiancé – are monsters. Especially the father. The prose is typical of the period, but it’s good. If you like fiction from the early part of the twentieth century, then Vaughan is definitely worth a go.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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Reading diary 2019, #6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Reading diary 2019, #3

After years of resistance, I have finally succumbed – although it was, of course, more a matter of practicality than choice. I have started reading ebooks. I bought two dozen books (a mix of paperback and hardback) with me to Sweden, but the vast bulk of my collection went into storage (85 boxes!). And I’m not really sure when I’ll see them again. There’s an English Bookshop here in Uppsala – it’s well-known across Scandinavia – but books in Sweden are expensive. And until I get my ID card and a permanent address, I can’t buy books online… So: a Kindle. I’ve ended up buying ebook versions of books I already own – such as Shadow Captain and Crimes Against Humanity below – because my copy has gone into storage, but there are also books I’ve wanted to read for a while which are only available on Kindle. So it’s all working out quite well.

MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood (2013, Canada). I bought this with me in my carry-on luggage and I started it on the plane. To be honest, I’m not sure why I bothered reading it. It’s the third book of a trilogy and I didn’t much like the preceding two books, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Which is not to say that I don’t like Atwood’s fiction – Alias Grace is an excellent novel, and I’ve thought other books by her were very good indeed. But not the MaddAddam trilogy, which reads like really badly-done sf that’s striving for satire but misses every time. The surviving Gardeners from The Year of the Flood have more or less settled down, with the Crakers (a race of genetically-engineered pacifist and dimwitted herbivorous humans created by Crake) and Snowman, who was also part of the project with Oryx and Crake. The two Painballers from the previous book are still at large, and the Gardeners have no desire to fall into their clutches. But MaddAddam is mostly about Toby – and her lover, Zeb, half-brother of Adam, founder of the Gardeners, and his various adventures in the US prior to the release of the virus which killed off most of humanity. And it’s all so very, well, obvious – a dystopian neoliberal US that has been a mainstay of science fiction since cyberpunk. Atwood enlivens it with some jokey branding, but half the time the brands are embarrassingly bad, as if any marketing department on the planet would come up with such crass brands as AnooYoo, and so on. On the other hand, the sections where Toby tells the Crakers slightly mythologised stories about Zeb are quite funny. Which is another reason why I’m not especially keen humorous science fiction for a start, and yet the MaddAddam trilogy doesn’t seem to know whether it’s humorous or serious. It’s impossible to take seriously, which suggests the latter intent; but it’s not comic enough to qualify as the former. Ah well.

Shadow Captain, Alastair Reynolds (2019, UK). This is the sequel to last year’s Revenger, Reynolds’s first attempt at YA fiction. And, to be honest, other than the fact the two protagonists – one of which is the narrator – are teenage girls, it doesn’t much read like YA. The story is set in, I think, the Solar system many many millennia hence. The planets have been broken up into hundreds of thousands of worldlets, many of which have black holes at their cores to provide gravity. There have been successive waves of civilisation in the system, although no one knows what causes them to die off or be re-ignited. There are aliens present, semi-integrated into society, but apparently no FTL, so no real explanation of where they come from. And there are lots of alien artefacts – it is, in fact, the hunt for alien artefacts on uninhabited worldlets, some of which are protected by forcefields which periodically turn off, and which are know as “baubles”, which drives the plot of the trilogy. In Revenger, teenage sisters Adrana and Fura Ness joined the crew of a spaceship hunting for artefacts. They are “bone readers”, which means they can connect telepathically to hardware, still functioning, in giant alien skulls, and which are used by spaceships as a form of FTL communications. By the end of Revenger, Adrana and Fura have beaten dread pirate Bosa Sennen and taken her ships. In Shadow Captain, they need to find a way to let everyone know that Sennen is dead and the two sisters have no plans to follow in her footsteps. Unfortunately, they get involved with a gangster on a minor “wheelworld” while trying to resupply, and end up in no better a situation than when the book began. Along the way, Reynolds introduces a pair of mysteries which are likely to form the plot of the final book of the trilogy – the aforementioned waves of civilisation, and the possibility there may have been many more abortive waves; and the likely existence of some planetary object which swings into occupied space at intervals and wreaks havoc. There’s a distinctive flavour to Revenger and Shadow Captain, a sort of Dickensian steampunk aesthetic, which is appealing – although it does slip in a few places, where some technology exists without anything seemingly underpinning it. And the baubles are pretty damn cool. Reynolds has used something similar before, in Diamond Dogs, and it’s an idea that has always appealed to me (see John Morressy’s Under a Calculating Star and the movie Galaxy of Terror). The third book, currently titled Bone Silence, is due in January next year. I plan to buy a copy.

The Pyramid, William Golding (1967, UK). I’m not sure what to make of Golding. Here’s a writer who’s chiefly known for his debut novel, but went on to write a further fourteen or so books, all of which are generally highly-regarded but nowhere near as popular or well-known as his first novel, Lord of the Flies. Which, to be honest, I read at school, as probably did many UK schoolchildren. But I stumbled across three of his books in a charity shop a couple of years ago and decided to give him a go. And I was extremely impressed by the first one I read, Rites of Passage. And the second (well, third) novel by him I read was The Inheritors, which was odd, and an odd choice of subject, but very good. So I asked my mother to keep an eye open for his books in charity shops, and she found me three more, of which The Pyramid was one. And… it’s not at all what I expected, based on what I’d previously read by him. It’s set in the 1920s in a small town near “Barchester”, although if there are any other references of links to Trollope’s series they’d be lost on me as I’ve never read Trollope. The protagonist of The Pyramid, Oliver, is a young man due shortly to study chemistry at Oxford. Before he leaves, he wants to make out with the nubile receptionist from the doctor’s surgery next-door, who, it is implied, has a “reputation” (it is later revealed she is fifteen). Oliver succeeds – and it’s quite clearly rape, and described as such later, although the narrative seems to brush it off. Oliver returns home a few years later during his time at Oxford, and ends up involved in a local play, where he plays a gypsy violinist (as he plays the piano and violin) and a spear-carrier. But it all goes comically wrong. The final section is set decades later, when Oliver returns home as an old man, and learns the truth about some of inhabitants of the town he knew as a child. I’m not entirely sure what Golding is trying to say with The Pyramid. The various sections are linked by Oliver and place, and some shared characters, but otherwise seem not at all connected. The protagonist is not at all likeable, and his treatment of the teenage girl – and the narrative’s – has not aged well at all. The preoccupation with social class – the title refers to “the crystal pyramid” of social class – reads oddly to a twenty-first century reader, even a British one. To be honest, Waugh writes about class much much better than Golding does here – perhaps because the only intelligent way to write about class is as satire. In all, The Pyramid feels like a minor work, but I’ve more of his books on the TBR and I plan to read them.

The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh (1948, UK). I also asked my mother to keep an eye open for books by Evelyn Waugh – I forget why; I think I’d just watched the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, fancied reading some of his novels and found a couple in charity shops myself… Anyway, I asked her to look out for them, and the next time we met up, she gave me a carrier bag containing a dozen of them. Which was considerably more than I’d expected. Quite a few of them were tatty Penguin paperbacks from the 1950s, which I didn’t mind as these were books I planned to read and pass on. I bought four of them with me to Sweden, including The Loved One. Which is a thin novel, of no great consequence. It’s set in Hollywood during the 1940s, immediately post-war, I think. The protagonist, Dennis Barlow, is a Brit, who worked for a major studio but was let go. He now works for a pet burial service. Which is a career the rest of the British expat community think is diminishes their standing among the Angelinos. This is especially the opinion of Sir Ambrose, who works at the studio which once employed Barlow. And also lets Sir Ambrose go, by simply giving his job to a relative of a manager (this is why employment laws are a good thing). Meanwhile, Barlow has met Aimee, a beautician at Whispering Glades, an upmarket cemetery that could only ever exist in California. And maybe in Florida. Barlow woos Aimee using poetry by assorted great poets which he claims to be his own verse. But then Aimee learns where Barlow works, and she has as low an opinion of the pet burial service as Sir Ambrose. The Loved One is mildly amusing, and Whispering Glades is certainly a good satirical creation, but the Barlow and Aimee are too much the naifs and the rest of the cast are all pretty much caricatures. Still, even second-tier Waugh is pretty damn good prose.

Crimes Against Humanity, Susan R Matthews (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first book back in the late 1990s (I reread it and reviewed it for SF Mistressworks a few years ago; see here). There’s been quite a gap in the novels’ publication history. The books were originally published by Avon, who dropped Matthews after the opening trilogy and two standalone novels. She was then picked up by Roc, who published a further two Under Jurisdiction novels before dropping her. The next novel in the series came out from Meisha Merlin, who went bust shortly afterwards. That was in 2006. And it wasn’t until 2016, when Baen started publishing her, starting with two omnibus editions containing the six Under Jurisdiction novels, that we started to see new entries in the series: Blood Enemies (see here), Fleet Insurgent (a collection; see here), and now Crimes Against Humanity. This novel follows on from the preceding ones – and it’s get to be quite a  complicated story arc by this point – with Kosciusko settled in Gonebeyond space, and the nine Benches deciding torture is a Bad Thing so they no longer need their military torturers. One of whom hates Kosciusko – for being slapped down in the past after abusing bond involuntaries, because Kosciusko is so much more skilled than him, and because Kosciusko’s actions have pretty much resulted in him, in all torturers, losing his job… So a wealthy capitalist, with lots of fingers in illegal pies, including in Gonebeyond space, and especially including slavery, uses the torturer in a plot to kidnap Kosciusko. It all comes to a head during a raid against the slavers and the rescue of the unsold slaves they abandoned. The plot involves infecting Kosciusko with a tailored virus. Unfortunately, it spreads to all the Dolgorukij (Kosciusko’s race). The story is told from multiple viewpoints, and Matthews does her usual where she throws the reader straight in at the deep end. The narrative has to bend itself over backwards considerably more these days to make Kosciusko a sympathetic protagonist – I mean, even back in the 1990s a torturer as a lead character was a hard sell, but these days, post-Gitmo, post-rendition, post-Bush, it would be almost impossible… Except maybe not, as there’s a shit ton of crap science fiction out there which normalises shitty US tactics like torture. Crimes Against Humanity plays it heavy on taking responsibility and the inappropriateness of forgiveness for such crimes; but it also comes down hard on slavery. Which makes the novel feel more contemporary in sensibilities and not a novel that should have seen print 20 years ago. I do like these books, and the story’s by no means finished, but I’m not sure if there any new books in the pipeline.

You Must Remember Us…, Leonard Daventry (1980, UK). I latched onto Daventry years ago when trying to put together a list of forgotten British sf authors, and found a copy of his best-known novel, A Man of Double Deed (see here), the first book of the Keyman trilogy, the second and third books of which don’t appear to have been published in paperback in the UK, only in the US, and the hardback editions were published by Robert Hale, copies of whose books are as rare as rocking-horse shit these days (apparently because most of their sales were to libraries). My copy of You Must Remember Us…, Daventry’s last novel, was published by Robert Hale, and I was extremely lucky to find a near-mint condition copy on eBay for around £20 a year or two ago. It was one of the books I brought with me to Sweden. And… it’s not very good. The earth has managed to destroy itself, and a last starship has escaped from the UK. The carefully-selected crew, however, didn’t make it to the launch site in Wales in time, so those aboard are whoever was available at the time. And they’re sort of muddling along, managing to keep everything running, for the ten-year journey to Alpha Centauri (the means propulsion is left vague). En route, they come across a deserted alien spacecraft, and four of them explore it but find nothing except a line of enigmatic symbols. The ship then vanishes. Some time later, members of the crew begin to develop extremely fast-growing, and fatal, tumours. There is only one cure: they have to transplant their brains into robot bodies. This doesn’t go down too well, and only fifteen of the crew make the change. They then sleep for twenty years. And when they wake up, they’re orbiting an Earth-like planet inhabited by a Neolithic humanoid people… who see the robot crew as gods. It’s all very British, and surprisingly old-fashioned for 1980. A Man of Double Deed had a flavour all its own, but You Must Remember Us… feels very ordinary. Brains transplanted into robot bodies is a relatively common sf trope, and has been around for a long time – ‘Helen ‘O’Loy’ from 1938, for example – and even made appearance in the execrable Legends of Dune series by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson. These days, of course, it’s not an actual transplant that’s used, more a downloading of the consciousness – the mind as software – such as in Jennifer Pelland’s very good Machine. Daventry’s novel doesn’t add anything to the trope, and I’m not really surprised it never made it into paperback and has been pretty much forgotten. I’d still like to read the rest of the Keyman trilogy, however.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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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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Booktober 2018

After last year’s terrible result with the TBR – ending the year having reduced it by only one book – I’ve tried to limit my book buying this year and increase my reading. I’ve managed the latter, but not the former, and may well finish 2018 with more books on the TBR than I started. Oh well. I definitely need to have a clear out…

Meanwhile, here are the books I’ve bought since my last book haul post:

Some collectables. I read Golding’s Rites of Passage two years ago and was much impressed. I wanted copies of the sequels, but in an edition that matched my copy of Rites of Passage. As you do. But couldn’t find any on eBay, on the few occasions when I looked, that weren’t tatty. And then one evening, I spotted all three books in first editions as a set for £50, which wasn’t much more than two secondhand good condition paperbacks would have cost me. So I now have Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below in first edition. Golding appears to be quite a good author to collect. First editions of his books are not ridiculously expensive – well, except for Lord of the Flies, of course. The Black Prince, by Adam Roberts and based on an unpublished screenplay by Anthony Burgess, was published by Unbound Books, who crowdfund their titles. I pledged for it in May 2017, and it arrived this month. So that’s nearly 500 days from pledge to book. And that’s one reason why I’m not especially fond of crowd-funding. Plus, of course, there’s the cost – you typically pay over the odds for the final product. The Black Prince cost me around double the RRP of a hardback novel, and four times what Amazon are asking. (To be fair, one of the rewards for my level of pledge was an ebook of reviews of all of Burgess’s novels by Roberts. Which I’m looking forward to reading. Even if it is an ebook.)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been collecting the 1970s Penguin editions of DH Lawrence’s books, and I managed to find another four – Twilight in Italy, Phoenix, Phoenix II and A Selection from Phoenix – and yes, I know the contents of the last book are from the first two, but never mind. It’s a set. The book with the blue cover is from a series of Penguin Critical Anthologies published by, er, Penguin, during the 1970s. This one being on, of course, DH Lawrence.

Some secondhand paperbacks… Odd John is one of the Beacon reprints of sf novels, many of which were “edited” to make them racier – see this post I wrote on them: Sexy Sci-Fi. I now have copies of all of them. The Midwich Cuckoos was given to me by a friend who had accidentally bought a second copy. I know the feeling. The Final Solution was a charity shop find. The Woman Who Loved the Moon was my sole purchase at Fantasticon, a sf convention in Copenhagen I attended last month. And The Sleep of Reason is the tenth book in Snow’s Strangers and Brothers 11-book series, and proved the hardest to find. There were plenty of first editions, mostly tatty, on eBay, but no paperbacks. I found a single paperback on Abebooks from a seller based in New Zealand, but that would have cost £40+ which was way too much. And then one popped up on eBay… for £2.50. Result. I now have the set.

Some non-fiction. I’ve been picking up the Secret Projects books when I find them on eBay, and with Flying Wings and Tailless Aircraft I now have thirteen of them, and only two left to find. Midland Publishing, however, have been reprinting the books with new cover designs, but the new series doesn’t quite map onto the old series. Weirdly. Art & Outrage is a record of correspondence between Lawrence Durrell and Alfred Perlès about Henry Miller. Copies are quite easy to find, but not in good condition. Which this one is.

Finally, my purchases at this year’s Fantasycon in Chester. There were plenty of books to buy – all the usual small presses were there – although no secondhand books. Dealers who specialise in secondhand books don’t seem to bother attending UK conventions anymore. I’ve had better luck at Swedish and Danish cons… There were a number of books in the Fantasycon dealers’ room I quite fancied buying, and in the past I’d have no doubt bought them. And then they’d have sat on my bookshelves unread for a decade or more, before I finally read them or decided to get rid of them. So I limited myself to three: the new Aliya Whitely novel, The Loosening Skin (there was a launch for the book during the weekend, which I didn’t know about when I bought my copy, or I might have gone to it; I didn’t bother to get it signed, even though the author was at the con); a self-published collection by Gary Gibson, Scienceville & Other Lost Worlds; and a critical anthology, Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, which actually won the British Fantasy Award for non-fiction during the weekend.

 


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Reading diary 2018, #14

My reading has been all over the place these past few months. Sometimes I just grab the first thing I see, other times it takes me ages to pick a book to read, although these past few weeks it’s been more of the former than the latter. Having said that, I’m still ahead on my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018 – six books ahead, in fact, as I type this. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been reading more than in previous years, although there have been a few weekends when all I’ve felt up to doing – because of the heat – is just sitting down and reading. Or watching films.

Liminal, Bee Lewis (2018, UK). I reviewed this for Interzone. The back-cover blurb describes it as a “Gothic fantasia”, which basically means literary fiction that doesn’t want to be identified as genre and is too dark to be called “magical realism”. As it is, Liminal is a weird mix of fantasy au Mythago Wood and “grip-lit” à la Gone Girl. Interestingly, the main character is a disabled person – she lost a leg as a child in a car accident – and Lewis handles her well. She’s less successful with her male characters – the husband is supposed to be quite religious but that only manifests in outbursts of bizarrely misogynistic behaviour (which I guess is as good a description of religion as anything else). The genre aspects are quite good, but the thriller plot is too easily and too neatly resolved. Anyway, see my Interzone review for more.

The Trespasser, DH Lawrence (1912, UK). This was Lawrence’s second novel, published the year after The White Peacock. It was apparently based on the diaries of a friend of Lawrence, whose lover, a married man, committed suicide. It seems a bit, well, off, especially since the female lead in the novel is called Helena, which is not much different from Helen, the name of Lawrence’s friend. Helena is a young woman studying how to play the violin under Siegmund, a married man. The two enter into an affair, but the book pretty much focuses on a trip the two take together – partly by accident – to the Isle of Wight. They know that once the holiday is over they must return to their respective lives, and any affair between the two must end. On his return home, Siegmund realises his relationship with his wife and children has been forever tainted by his affair, even if they did not know of it (although his wife certainly suspected). Like the earlier novel – and some of his later ones – Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it’s describing the landscape. The dialogue, and the characters’ emotions, seem over-emphatic to modern readers, and though Lawrence had a good ear for dialogue it often jars with the over-emotional prose. I can understand why he’s no longer as popular, or as read, as he once was, but I still think he’s an important author in British literature, and it’s a shame he’s best-known these days for TV miniseries adaptations of his work.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989, USA). This was a reread, although I last read it twenty-five years ago. I’m not much given to rereading, and then it’s usually of books I greatly admire. But the blurb for Grass intrigued me (or re-intrigued me), and I couldn’t remember anything of the book from my previous read (and I’m generally quite good at remembering books I’ve read). So I grabbed it one weekend, and read it on-and-off over a couple of weeks. There is a type of sf which is quite common, in which a group of explorers or settlers must figure out the strange ecology of an alien world – not always directly affecting them, sometimes it’s historical. There are plenty of examples, both short fiction and novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ‘The Wind People’ (1959) to Stephen Leigh’s Dark Water’s Embrace (1998), and many both between and since. Tepper’s Grass is a good example of the type. On the eponymous world, a number of noble families live in country estates on the grassy plains, and their lives revolve around the Hunt. But this Hunt bears only a faint resemblance to the barbaric practice of chasing foxes on horseback (er, the hunters, obviously; the foxes aren’t on horseback) as practised in the UK. For a start, the hounds and mounts (but never “horses”) are native species of Grass, as are their prey, the “foxen”. All three creatures are likely intelligent – certainly the hunters are not in control during the Hunt. Meanwhile, a plague has taken hold on all the human-occupied worlds… except Grass. So Sanctity, the oppressive religion which pretty much rules all the humans, sends a family of Old Catholics as ambassadors to Grass, with the secret task of discovering if Grass is indeed immune to the plague. The Yrariers were chosen because they’re both Olympic champion horse-riders and Sanctity has heard about, but misunderstood, the Hunt on Grass. It wasn’t until I get to the end of Grass that I began to remember my previous read. And I suspect that’s because back then I also found the final section of the book over-dramatic. The puzzle presented by the hounds, mounts and foxen is interesting enough, not to mention the Arbai, and the plague, so there’s no real reason to start blowing shit up in the third act. I had definitely forgotten, however, how good Tepper’s prose could be. She famously started writing late – she was in her fifties when her first novel was published – so perhaps that explains why her writing was a cut above many of her peers. During the late 1990s, I read a whole bunch of Tepper’s novels – she was an author much-liked among the members of a sf APA I was in at the time – and if hr novels had a tendency, as I remember it, to get a little preachy at times, there was never any doubt that she was among the best the genre had to offer during that period. I really ought to read more of her stuff.

The Wind, Jay Caselberg (2017, Australia). I must admit, these novellas aren’t really convincing me that horror/dark fantasy is a genre that I’m missing out on. Fans of the genre will likely find more to like in them than I have done. It’s not as if the writing has been especially stand-out – and in this one it’s noticeably, well, not bad per se, just very, very ordinary. Gerry has just moved to Abbotsford to take over the local veterinary practice, which is mostly farm animal work rather than domestic pets. But the Dark Days are coming again, which seems to manifest as wind (as in climate, not as in farm animals alimentary processes), and an enigmatic red-haired young woman called Amanda. Like the Lotz, this is set in rural UK but doesn’t quite convince. The prose manages a good British voice, but there are odd details which don’t fit. Like the village shop, which resembles more something out of Open All Hours, or the use of “used cars” instead of “secondhand cars”. Or referring to Gerry as the “veterinary” instead of “vet” or “veterinarian”. The author is apparently an Australian living “in Europe”. They make a nice collectable set, these four novellas, with a lovely piece of cover art spread across all four books. But three novellas in and they’ve not been as memorable as the first and third series of novellas, both of which were science fiction.

The Inheritors, William Golding (1955, UK). It must be horrible to have had a distinguished career as a writer, but people only know you from your first novel. Which for Golding was Lord of the Flies; and even now 64 years after its publication, and 25 years after Golding’s death, if you asked anyone to name a novel by him they’d name his first novel. But to then follow Lord of the Flies with something as frankly weird as The Inheritors… Now, I know Golding was not that odd. I’ve read his Rites of Passage, which is brilliant, and I have The Spire on the TBR, but The Inheritors is by any yardstick an odd book. It tells of the end of the Neanderthals at the hands of the Cro-Magnons, and is told entirely from the point-of-view of the former. The main characters are a small group of Neanderthals, comprising a young male, an old male, an old woman, two young women, one of which carries a baby, and a young child. The old woman is described at one point as the young male’s mother, so it’s likely they’re all related. The old man dies – of pneumonia? – after falling into a river, and then other members of the family disappear under mysterious circumstances. The young male discovers some men have settled an island in a nearby river, but they are not men like himself – nor women, for that matter (Golding was an old school misogynist). The two survivors of the family hide out in a tree and witness the Cro-Magnons at work and play. It’s a novel in which very little happens for pages and pages, and what does happen is filtered through Golding’s idea of a Neanderthal worldview. It works because the prose is so good. There’s something about Golding’s writing that oozes authority, and I’m not entirely sure what it is. His prose is not lush, nor is it stripped back. But there’s a clarity and confidence to it that many writers would do well to emulate – especially in these days of MFAs and CWAs and creative writing courses. I can think of several recent highly-praised novels where if the author really had applied “kill your darlings”, the novel would be considerably shorter. Had Golding done the same to The Inheritors, it would be precisely the same length.

Thoreau’s Microscope, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction for many years, but he has not been especially prolific: three novels – this book claims The Roberts is a novel, but it’s really a novella – and only one collection all the way back in 1988 and another, What the Doctor Ordered, in 2013 (but also a new one, as well as this one, All I Ever Dreamed, this year). Having said that, these PM Press Outspoken Authors collections are odd beasts, as they contain a mixture of fiction and factual pieces, most of which are not that well-known. The title of this one refers to the collection’s longest-piece, an essay about Blumlein, his lung cancer, and a hike into the High Sierras with friends to name a mountain after Thoreau, and, er, Thoreau. Also included are ‘Paul and Me’, in which the narrator meets and makes friends with Paul Bunyan; ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f‘, written in the third person and almost impossible to summarise; ‘Fidelity’, which is not genre, about a Jewish couple who have twin sons and can’t decide whether to circumcise them; ‘Know How, Can Do’, about a worm given a brain graft, who gains sentience; and finally an interview with Blumlein. As an introduction to Blumlein’s short fiction, this is not a good place to start. The contents seem to have been chosen more because of their unusual nature than because they are representative of his oeuvre. Good stuff, but more for fans than casual browsers. Having said that, followers of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series will probably not be phased by the collection’s contents – and if it persuades them to try more of Blumlein’s fiction, then job done.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Christmas come early

Well, not really – I mean, it is early for Christmas, not that it’s stopped the shops selling mince pies and Christmas puddings and all the other stuff you’re supposed to eat to celebrate Santa Claus’s birth in a manger, or whatever it is. I don’t listen to the radio, but I expect they’re already playing carols. That was one of the things I liked about living in the UAE, an Islamic country: there was no mention of Christmas until the day before, and it was all over by Boxing Day. Anyway, here are some recent finds which have joined the collection. I recently worked out I could probably get another four bookcases into the flat, but since a book collection expands to double-fill the bookshelves available, I’m not sure they would be a wise purchase… Although it’s not like the collection is shrinking…

Some charity shop finds to start with – these generally go back to a charity shop when I’ve read them, so they only clutter up the flat temporarily: I’ve read Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood (the latter only recently), and now I can finish off the trilogy as I’ve got MaddAddam. I’m still not convinced by Atwood’s sf, however. I also recently read Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (see here), so Gentlemen of the Road and Wonder Boys were timely finds. The Tales of Hoffmann just looked interesting. I always pick up Lessing’s novels when I see them – Martha Quest was one I’d not read. And I’m pretty sure I read Lord of the Flies at school, but that was many years ago and a read of Golding’s Rites of Passage earlier this year (see here) highly impressed me, so I thought it worth a try as an adult.

Some non-fiction. I’m a big fan of The Incal, so I’m looking forward to reading Deconstructing the Incal. Stuck on the Drawing Board is about civil aircraft that never made it into production. And who can resist a book titled Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums?

I’ve been collecting the Phoenix Editions of Lawrence’s books for a couple of years now, and The Plumed Serpent now means I have sixteen of, I think, twenty-six volumes. I saw Bodies of Summer mentioned on someone’s blog and it sounded interesting, so I bunged it onto an order from a large online retailer. After watching The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (see here), it occurred to me I’d never read anything by Alan Sillitoe, so I had a look on eBay for one to try, and found a cheap hardback of Travels in Nihilon, which sounds quite similar to Jan Morris’s Hav, so, you, know, science fiction, right?

Speaking of science fiction… I didn’t pick up a copy of Gardens of the Sun when it was published, and later discovered first editions were extremely hard to find. I’ve been looking for several years, and found this one from a US-based seller on eBay. I’ve also been picking up copies of the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy collection when I can find good condition copies. Golden Wings is the eighth book of the series.

The Faber Book of Modern Verse was 29p from a charity shop. It’s a 1960 edition, so nearly sixty years old “modern” – and the introduction states that all the poems in the book date after 1910. But that’s fine, because I actually prefer poetry from the first half of the twentieth century. Such as If Pity Departs, published in 1947. This has been on my wish list for a long time and, to be honest, I’ve forgotten why I put it on it. I suspect I came across Atthill’s name while reading about the Cairo poets – the group of British poets who were based in Egypt during WWII and include, among others, Lawrence Durrell, Keith Douglas, Terence Tiller, GS Fraser, Bernard Spencer and Olivia Manning (her The Levant Trilogy is a fictionalisation of her time there). I have several books on the subject, including a copy of the Personal Landscape anthology, and three of the Oasis anthologies published by the Salamander group. On the other hand, I could have comes across Atthil in one of the 1940s poetry anthologies I own. One of these days, I’ll have to do a post about my poetry book collection…


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2016, the best of the year

It’s been a funny old year. Not only have we hit that time when the icons of our youth are in their (late) sixties, seventies and eighties, and so coming to the end of their lives… but some of the British people had a fit of madness and voted to leave the EU in the dumbest referendum in British political history… And then the US went one better, as it always has to, and voted in as president Donald Trump, an orange-skinned baboon, a man who makes Nigel Farage look like a mostly-harmless over-educated clown. Trump doesn’t even have his arse officially in the Oval Office yet, and he’s already abusing his powers. We’ve had ten years of damaging and unnecessary austerity here in the UK, and we’re looking down the barrel of a deeper recession, thanks to the morons and racists who voted Leave. But I think the next four years in the US might well be worse than anything we experience…

On the personal front, the day job got really busy around March, when a colleague left the company and a major project he was working on was dumped on my desk. As a result, I’ve not had much energy or enthusiasm for anything other than just consuming culture… which has meant lots of blog posts on films I’ve watched, books I’ve read, and, er, films I’ve watched. I did manage to publish a whole four stories in 2016, however; ‘Geologic’ appeared in Interzone in January; ‘Red Desert’ and ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’ appeared in Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of my alt space stories; and Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum I published as a pendant to the Apollo Quartet… but only the last was actually written in 2016. I also worked on the third book in my space opera trilogy, A Want of Reason, in fits and starts. So, overall, not a very productive year.

Fortunately, some of the films I watched and some of the books I read made up for it. A new favourite writer and two new favourite films is not bad going for a single year. And a number of other “discoveries”, both writers and directors new to me in 2016, I thought so good I will be further exploring their oeuvres. But. There can only be, er, five. In each category. Yes, it’s that time of the year – ie, pretty close to the end – when I look back over the aforementioned consumed culture – of which there has been quite a bit, particularly on the movie front – and pick my top five in books, films and albums. And they look something like this…

books
Not a very good year for genre fiction, it seems. Not a single category science fiction novel makes it into my top five. And one gets bumped from the half-year top five (those are the numbers in square brackets) to the honourable mentions. Four other genre writers also make my honourable mentions – Charnock, Whiteley, Duchamp and Park – although I’ve been a fan of Duchamp’s and Park’s writing for many years.

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012) [1]. Erpenbeck was my discovery of the year. I forget who recommended The End of Days, but I loved it… and then later bought everything else by Erpenbeck translated into English (she’s German). The End of Days re-imagines the life of a Jewish woman born in the early years of the twentieth century in Galicia, and follows her through several variations on her life, as she variously moves to Vienna, becomes a communist, moves to Austria, then settles in East Germany. Erpenbeck’s prose is distant and factual, a style that appeals greatly to me, and I especially like the “facticity” of her protagonist’s many lives. The End of Days is not as readable, or as immersive, a novel as Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book it resembles in broad conceit, but I much prefer Erpenbeck’s novel because I love the authority of its reportage-like prose, and I find the life of its protagonist much more interesting than that of Atkinson’s. I think The End of Days is a superb novel – I’ve already bought everything by Erpenbeck published in the UK, and I eagerly await whatever new works might appear.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990) [2]. Sebald is a genre all to himself, and his novels defy easy summary. They also – particularly in this case – tread that fine line between fact and fiction which I find so appealing, even more so when the fact is autobiography. (In hindsight, I could have included Vertigo as an inspiration for Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, but then Austerlitz had partly inspired Adrift on the Sea of Rains, so…) The novel is divided into four parts, all first person narratives – the first is by Stendahl and describes his entry into Italy with Napoleon’s army, the second is by an unnamed narrator presumed to be Sebald and covers two trips he makes to a village in the Alps, the third is about Kafka, and the final section recounts the narrator’s return to his home village and his reflections on the changes, and lack of change, he sees there. Despite its discursive nature, there’s a deceptive simplicity to Sebald’s prose, which tricks the reader into thinking the story carries a smaller intellectual payload than it actually does. I don’t know of another author who writes at such length, and so indirectly, on a topic and yet still manages to make it all about the topic. Sebald did not write many novels – only four, in fact – but I suspect by the end of 2017 I will have read all of them.

nocilla3 Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I’m pretty sure it was David Hebblethwaite who mentioned this, and the description sounded intriguing enough I decided to give it a go. It was almost as if it had been written for me – a fractured narrative, split into 113 sections, some of which are factual, some of which hint at further stories. There’s a sense the novel is a work in progress, inasmuch as it’s an approach to narrative that has not been tried and tested – indeed, it led to a “Nocilla Generation” of writers in Spain. I suspect Mallo is guilty of over-selling his concept, but then narrative structure is one of my interests and I should think most writers – including myself, of course! – often think they’re being much cleverer than they actually are… What Mallo has created here may not be wholly new, but it is different enough to be worth keeping an eye on. And yes, I still find it a little disappointing that “Nocilla” is just a Spanish brand-name for a Nutella-like spread. It’s like when I thought Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was a really poetic title until I learnt Teen Spirit is just the brand name of a deodorant…

rites_of_passage4 Rites of Passage, William Golding (1980). I found this in a local charity shop and bought it on the strength of Golding’s reputation and a half-remembered reading of Lord of the Flies from my school days… In other words, I went into Rites of Passage pretty much blind. I will happily admit I’m not over-fond of journal narratives, and the early nineteenth century is not a period that really interests me (especially in British history), but… this novel was so superbly put together, its control of voice, its management of story, so stunningly good, that after reading it I immediately decided I’d like to read not only the rest of the trilogy, of which this book is the first, the others are Close Quarters and Fire Down Below, but also anything else by Golding. Fortunately, I’d also bought The Inheritors and The Spire when I bought Rites of Passage, so I have those two books on the TBR to look forward to…

golden_notebook5 The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962). I’d bought this a couple of years ago on the strength of its reputation – and having read several Lessing novels… but it sat there on my bookshelves unread for quite a while because, well, partly because of its reputation, but also because of its size… But I took it with me on a train journey to Scarborough… and discovered it was a great deal less polemical than I’d expected, hugely readable, and fascinating in its depiction of the life of protagonist Anna Wulf (and her fictional/meta-fictional counterparts). The nested fictional/meta-fictional narratives are no longer as excitingly experimental as they were in 1962, so in one respect the book’s impact has been somewhat blunted by time – although, to be honest, I much prefer literature which plays such narrative tricks. Having said that, this diminution in shock factor solely from structure shows how readable and coherent the various narratives actually are. It is slightly sad and frightening that The Golden Notebook enjoys the reputation it does when you think what a reader must be like, and believe, in order to be shocked and horrified by the novel’s content. Even more worryingly, I suspect more people these days will reject the novel due to its politics – Wulf is a member of the Communist Party – and so completely miss its commentary on sexual politics. But I thought it was bloody great.

Honourable mentions: Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015) [3]; A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015) [4]; Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016) [5]; Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008); Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock (2015); The Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley (2015); Never at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011); Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015); Blindness, Henry Green (1926); and Other Stories, Paul Park (2015).

Quite a few books from my best of the half-year got bumped down to honourable mentions, but I suspect their authors will not be too upset given what replaced them. Three of the honourable mentions are from small presses – Unsung Stories, Aqueduct Press and PS Publishing – and it’s about fifty-fifty category sf versus mainstream. The gender balance is 2:3 in the top five for female:male, but 8:7 including the honourable mentions. That’s not too shabby. All books mentioned above are, of course, recommended.

films
A bit of a change in this list from July, but then I’ve watched a lot of films this year. Some of the ones in the top five below have even become favourites, which makes 2016 an especially good year in that respect. Of course, my taste in movies has changed a lot over the last couple of years, but even so…

river_titas1 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). I watched Ghatak’s A Cloud-Capped Star back in 2014, after, I think, seeing it mentioned in Sight & Sound, but it wasn’t until this year I saw the only other film by him available on DVD in the UK, A River Called Titas. (Ghatak’s Subarnarekha is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I had to source a copy via alternative means in order to see it.) I have no idea why I love A River Called Titas as much as I do. It tells the story of a young woman during the 1930s in a village on the bank of the eponymous river, who is married against her will, then kidnapped, rescued by strangers, and subsequently builds a life for herself and her new child in another village not knowing who her husband ever was… until she one day stumbles across him. But he has lost his mind. Then they die, and the film follows their son and the woman who adopted him. It’s based on a novel by Adwaita Mallabarman, which I now really want to read. The BFI DVD is not a brilliant transfer, which is a shame as the composition of some of the shots is beautiful. I’ve watched this film five times already this year – and the final watch was of the Criterion remastered edition, which is such a huge improvement over the BFI print – so much so that it was almost like watching a new, and much better, movie.

lucia2 Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (something of a familiar refrain, I admit), and I knew nothing about it when I put it in the DVD player – indeed, I knew nothing about Cuban cinema. But I loved it. It tells the stories of three women, all called Lucía – the first in the 1860s, the second in the 1930s and the third in the 1960s. It’s a long film and it covers a lot of ground, but it’s a wonderfully human movie. The Mr Bongo transfer is pretty poor – but it’s the only DVD of the film I can find, so can someone please remaster it?  – and the film is black-and-white, so the poor quality is not as noticeable as it might otherwise be… The acting feels appropriate to each of the historical periods, although it does tend to drift into melodrama at times… but when I started watching this I’d never have guessed I’d love it, so much so that Lucía has, like A River Called Titas, become a favourite film.

autumn_avo3 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan) [1]. I’d seen Ozu’s Tokyo Story back in 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that I really started to explore Ozu’s oeuvre. I admit it, I bought An Autumn Afternoon because the cover of the Criterion edition (although I actually bought the BFI edition pictured) reminded me of Antonioni’s Red Desert, a favourite film. And while An Autumn Afternoon was nothing like Red Desert, it is a beautifully observed domestic drama. Ozu had a tendency to use the same actors in different roles, which did intially confuse – Chishu Ryu is playing the patriarch of which family in this film? – but I also think An Autumn Afternoon has the clearest illustration of inside and outside in Japanese culture of all of Ozu’s films I’ve so far seen. There’s a lovely matter-of-fact courtesy among the characters, despite the fact it’s obvious they know each so well they’re extremely comfortable in each other’s company; and it’s the interactions between the characters which are the true joy of Ozu’s movies. The plot, when you think about it, is almost incidental. There’s an effective scene in An Autumn Afternoon, in which Ryu encounters a petty officer from a ship he captained during WWII. It is not, in and of itself, a particularly shocking discovery about Ryu’s character, but it is a powerful reminder that for much of the twentieth century WWII defined a great many peoples’ lives, on both sides of the conflict… and that is something we should not forget.

robinson4 Robinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I forget who mentioned Keiller to me, but I received his London as a Christmas present last year and, having thought it was very good, bought myself Robinson in Ruins, a belated sequel, in 2016. The central conceit, that the films are narrated by a friend of the titular Robinson as secondhand reportage, still occurs in Robinson in Ruins – the original narrator, Paul Scofield, died in 2008, and Vanessa Redgrave takes his place in Robinson in Ruins, and, I thought, she actually worked better. The idea that Robinson had spent the intervening years in prison gave the film a freshness, because we’re seeing what it depicts through Robinson’s eyes. But, more than that, its commentary on Tory politics and finances, at an almost Adam-Curtis-like level of detail and interconnectedness, gave the film an added bite Keiller’s earlier films had lacked. This is not the bite of a Great White, it must be admitted, more the savaging of a tenacious spaniel, but the fact it exists only illustrates how much more of this type of cinema we need. Having said that, Redgrave’s narration is erudite, interesting and perfectly played; and Keiller’s imagery is often beautifully shot. More, please.

entranced_earth5 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil) [2]. I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (where have we heard that before?), although I knew nothing about Rocha’s movies – or indeed about Brazilian cinema. I loved it. So much so I bought all three of Rocha’s films available on DVD in the UK – Entranced Earth, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes. Rocha was a leading light of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which sought to bring realism and social conscience into Brazilian films. Entranced Earth has bags of the latter, but not so much of the former. It’s an often hallucinogenic account of an election in an invented South American country, between an established candidate and a populist candidate (back when “populist” didn’t mean orange-faced fascist or goose-stepping Mr Blobby), but neither candidate is ideal – as an investigating journalist discovers. The narrative is non-linear, some of the photography is brilliant (a shot from the top of a TV aerial stands out), and the films wears its politics proudly on its sleeve. Kudos to Mr Bongo for distributing these films in the UK – even if the transfers are not of the best quality – but Rocha made four feature films and five documentaries, so it would be nice to see those too… not to mention actual UK releases of films by another Brazilian Cinema Novo director, Nelson Pereira dos Santos… or indeed any other Cinema Novo director…

Honourable mentions: Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA) [3]; Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile) [4]; Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India) [5]; Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako (2014, Mauritania); Nuummioq, Otto Rosing & Torben Bech (2009, Greenland); A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke (2013, China); 12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania); A Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand); Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France); and Charulata, Satyajit Ray (1964, India).

Only a single US film in the lot, which I consider an achievement – although I’ve been accused of “going too far in the opposite direction”. But I do like classic Hollywood movies, and I love me some 1950s Rock Hudson melodramas, but… that doesn’t necessarily mean I think they’re good films. The above is a pretty eclectic mix, from 13 different countries, of which India manages three entries (which came as a surprise, although I do really like the work of those three Indian directors). If anything, I’m hoping 2017 will be even more of a world cinema year, and I’ll find interesting films from countries whose cinemas I have yet to explore.

Oh, and for the record, my top ten favourite films, as of this post, currently looks like this: 1 All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA) 2 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India); 3 Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK/USA); 4 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy); 5 Lucía, Humbert Solás (1968, Cuba); 6 The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia); 7 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland); 8 The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany); 9 Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman (2002, Palestine); 10 Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut (1966, USA).

music
It’s been a, er, quiet year for music for me. I went to Bloodstock Open Air, as I have done since 2007 (minus 2009 and 2010), and enjoyed it a great deal. It was excellent to see Akercocke back together again (and I saw them a second time a couple of months later in Sheffield), but I think the stand-out performance of the weekend for me was Shining, who I’d never even heard of until I saw them at Bloodstock in 2014. That was pretty much it, gig-wise, for 2016. I also saw Arch Enemy, who I’d last seen at Bloodstock in 2007, but their set felt a bit lacklustre. Akercocke were better second time around, playing a small nightclub rather than a giant field in Derbyshire. And then there was a one-off gig by Anathema in Holmfirth, and they were as bloody good as they ever are (and yes, they played my two favourite songs, ‘Closer’ and ‘Fragile Dreams’).

I’ve not bought that many albums this year, either as MP3 downloads or olde stylee silver discs, although a couple of my favourite bands have had new releases out. Partly because I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve been so busy there I’ve sort of got out of the habit. I’ve also been carded once too often by couriers because I didn’t hear the doorbell over the music when I’ve been at home. But the year has not been a total dead loss, because I did actually buy some music, and a lot of it was very good indeed. And, amazingly, my top five are all 2016 albums…

no_summer1 A Year with No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016) [1]. I discovered this group when I saw them play live at Bloodstock in 2014, and I enjoyed their set so much I bought their album. This second album has been long-awaited, and it’s particularly good because it’s not more of the same. It is, if anything, even more progressive than the band’s debut, Mantiis. There must be something about the Spanish metal scene that leads to bands which generate these complex soundscapes from drums, bass, guitars and synth, more so than the metal of any other nation – not just Obsidian Kingdom, at the progressive end of the scale, but NahemaH, a favourite and now sadly defunct band, from the death metal end of the scale, not to mention Apocynthion somewhere in between. Whatever it is, I welcome it: A Year with No Summer is a listening adventure from start to finish, and never gets tiring.

on_strange_loops2 On Strange Loops, Mithras (2016). And speaking of long-awaited albums… Mithras’s last album, Behind the Shadows Lie Madness, was released in 2007. There was an EP, Time Never Lasts, in 2011, but it’s been a long wait for a new album-length work from this favourite band. This is pretty much down to the band’s perfectionism, a trait with which I can certainly empathise – and releasing on your own label, or self-publishing, as least gives you the freedom to release when and only when you feel the work is fit for release. Happily, and after all this time, On Strange Loops is definitely worth the wait. It is, of course, more of the same – massively intense and intricate death metal with ambient interludes. It works because of the contrasts and because the muscianship is of such a high level. Mithras toured this year, but I didn’t get the chance to see them perform, which I regret. Maybe next year.

rooms3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016) [3]. A friend had this on their wishlist on Bandcamp, so I gave it a listen as we often like a lot of the same stuff. I liked it. A lot. Back in June, I described Todtgelichter’s music as “a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal”, and I still think that’s the best description because, well, it doesn’t sound at all like black metal but it does sound like the band were at some point a black metal band. If that makes sense. I don’t know; perhaps it’s the sensibility with which they construct their songs. It’s not particularly heavy, inasmuch as the guitar sound is more like heavy rock turned up to eleven than your actual metal guitar, but the whole is metal. Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (Googles quickly, discover Zappa didn’t coin it, oh well). But the point remains – there is something in Todtgelichter’s music which appeals to me, and I can’t quite identify what it is. But they made my top five for the year.

belakor-vessels4 Vessels, Be’lakor (2016). I’ve been a fan of Australian melodic death metallers Be’lakor since first hearing their 2012 album Of Breath and Bone. It taken four years for a sequel – happily not so long for me, as I found their earlier works, The Frail Tide (2007) and Stone’s Reach (2009) during the years in-between – but Vessels is easily as good as, if not better than, Of Breath and Bone. It’s not just that Be’lakor create polished melodic death metal, as there as many varieties of that as there are bands who profess to play it (not to mention bands who profess not to play it but do), but more that they create layered songs with intricate but melodic guitar parts, with strong melody lines carried by the vocals. It’s a winning combination.

atoma5 Atoma, Dark Tranquillity (2016). A new album by a favourite band, so it’s no surprise to find it here – but it’s at number five because it’s a recent release and I’ve not listened to it as much I’d have liked to. It sounds very much like a Dark Tranquillity album, of course, although nothing on the few listens I’ve had struck me as “anthemicly” stand-out in the way tracks on earlier albums have done, like ‘The Wonders At Your Feet’, ‘Lost to Apathy’, or ‘Shadow in Our Blood’, but, still, this is Dark Tranquillity. They’ve been creating excellent death metal since 1989, and they’ve never stood still, which is one reason why I treasure them so much. Dark Tranquillity are the moving line which defines melodic death metal.

Honourable mentions: Afterglow, In Mourning (2016) [2]; Eidos, Kingcrow (2015) [4]; Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016) [5]; Departe, Clouds (2016); and Pure, In the Woods (2016).

An odd year for music. A few favourite bands released new albums, not all of which I bought. I went to very few gigs – ten years of Austerity has noticeably reduced the number of bands I’d like to see performing in Sheffield, now they just play Leeds or Manchester. Even the local metal scene seems to have been affected: some of the bigger bands have called it a day, others have not performed as often as in previous years. I’ve certainly listened to less music, and less new music, and bought less music, in 2016 than in previous years. Partly that’s because I’ve spent less time exploring metal on Bandcamp and other sites, but also because I’ve spent less time listening to music than in other years. And partly because fewer bands I want to see have performed locally. Let’s hope 2017 proves a better year musically…


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Reading diary, #38

The bulk of my reading is still science fiction – 38% of my reading, in fact, with mainstream next highest at 25% – although that sf percentage has steadily declined in recent years. In fact, it seems these day the only sf I read are new books by sf writers I’ve been reading for decades, or somewhat older sf novels for review on SF Mistressworks. This is hardly surprising. Literary fiction delivers more of what I look for nowadays in fiction, and the current fashion in science fiction is not to my taste at all. In other words, I’d sooner watch, say, a Brazilian Cinema Novo movie than the latest MCU blockbuster. I suspect my own writing reflects that. But if diversity is a big thing in genre right now – and not before time, I admit – then it seems foolish to apply it only within the genre. Read more diversely, by all means; but read more diversely in non-genre fiction as well – if not more so, given there’s a much wider selection of diverse things to read outside science fiction and fantasy. The following books are part of my ongoing journey in doing just that…

rites_of_passageRites of Passage, William Golding (1980). Back at school, I read Golding’s Lord of the Flies – at least I’m pretty sure I did; I can distinctly remember the class reading Cider with Rosie and The Cruel Sea, but my memories of reading Lord of the Flies are somewhat vague – but that was all I knew of Golding. And then a couple of months ago, a local charity shop had four of his paperbacks in stock – I’m not sure who donated them, since they were in excellent condition and had even been protected by sticky-back transparent plastic. I bought two – Rites of Passage and The Inheritors – but on a later trip, only one was left, The Spire, and I now can’t remember what the fourth title was. At the time I wasn’t especially bothered, but having now read Rites of Passage and discovered how bloody good it is… Rites of Passage is the first book of the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, and was apparently adapted for television, with Blunderbuss Cucumbersnatch in the lead role, although I don’t recall seeing it. The novel is presented as the journal of Edmund Talbot, a minor member of the aristocracy, who has taken ship to Australia in the early 1800s to take up a position in the governor’s office in New South Wales. Also onboard the ship – a converted man-of-war – is a member of the clergy, a somewhat obsequious young parson called Colley. The trip does not start well. Both Talbot and Colley earn the ire of the captain by disobeying his standing orders and approaching officers on watch, and the captain himself, on the poop deck. Talbot is, eventually, forgiven; Colley is not. In fact, Colley becomes the unwitting butt of the crew’s vulgar and insulting “ceremony” for crossing the equator. But he forgives them and persuades the captain, who is embarrassed at Colley’s treatment, to allow him to perform the offices of vicar for the crew. But it goes badly wrong, and Colley dies. After Colley’s death, Talbot comes into possession of the parson’s journal, and realises what he had missed, and how remiss he had been. I had no idea what to expect when I started Rites of Passage, but found it to be an astonishingly good novel. Golding’s control of voice is second to none, his evocation of the period is supremely convincing, and he does not beat the reader about the head with the plot or its meaning. This is what proper fiction is like. I now want to read the other two books of the trilogy – Close Quarters and Fire Down Belowand see the TV adaptation. Oh, and I want to read more Golding. Fortunately, I have another two books of his on the TBR…

appointmentThe Appointment, Herta Müller (1997). A conversation on Twitter late one night after I had imbibed a portion or two of wine turned to laureates of the Nobel Prize for Literature (writers, not fucking folk singers), and female laureates in particular, and, well, before I knew it, I’d gone and bought a couple books by female Nobel laureates on the web site of a very large online retailer. The first was this, The Appointment by Herta Müller, a German writer who, despite her name is, er, actually Romanian. Her family belonged to the German-speaking minority in Romania, but in 1987 she was given permission to leave and settle in Germany after many years of trying. Her most successful novel to date has been 2009’s The Hunger Angel, and that same year she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Until prompted to look her up by the aforementioned Twitter conversation, I had not even heard of Müller or her fiction. But I bought The Appointment, and read it on a trip to, and from, Leeds one Saturday. The Appointment was published in Germany – she is, despite her origin, probably best considered a German writer – but the novel is set in Romania, as indeed is apparently much of her fiction. The title refers to the meeting the narrator has with Albu, a major in the Romanian secret police. The narrator used to work in a garment factory, whose products were mostly destined for export – and in a shipment of trousers destined for Italy, she hid a series of notes, asking to be rescued, through marriage, by an Italian man. But the notes were found and she was reported to management. Unfortunately, she had a bad relationship with her manager, and when a later series of notes were found, critical of the regime, she was blamed and sacked. And forced to attend interrogation sessions with Major Albu. It’s grim stuff. I’ve visited Romania – it’s a lovely country, full of lovely people – but the Ceaucescu regime was brutal and Müller pulls no punches in depicting how it impacted the lives of ordinary people. I’m in two minds whether to read more Müller – she writes in a style I like, present tense and slightly distant, and while I’m not especially keen on first-person narratives it works extremely well here; but the story is punishingly hard to read. Having said that, writing about the book for this blog post is sort of persuading me to try something else by her…

wreath_of_rosesA Wreath of Roses, Elizabeth Taylor (1949). I first came across Taylor via François Ozon’s adaptation of her novel Angel, starring Romola Garai, which I reviewed for Videovista (see here) and liked. Prior to that, I’d not known there was a writer who shared a name with the famous actress. I later stumbled across a copy of Taylor’s Blaming, read it and enjoyed it… and so she became a name to look out for in charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of A Wreath of Roses. Camilla and Liz are visiting Liz’s ex-governess, Frances, for the summer, something they have done for many years. Liz is now married to a vicar and has a small baby, Camilla is a school secretary at a private girl’s school, and Frances has been a painter since giving up her profession many years before. Something about this particular summer is not as idyllic as previous ones – perhaps it’s the presence of Liz’s baby, or that the years are beginning to weigh on Frances, or that Camilla finds herself unaccountably attracted to a man she met on the train who is now staying in a local inn… This is a very English novel, depicting a post-war south England which seems chiefly characterised by its landscape, flora and fauna than by the depredations of the recent war. All three of the women are flawed, and it’s their fears which essentially drive the story. There’s a bit of condescension to a working-class woman who cleans for Frances, and a film director who collects her paintings doesn’t seem entirely convincing when he appears. But there’s a pleasing manneredness to Taylor’s prose, and while I prefer Olivia Manning’s tales of expats, the two writers are enough alike that I’ll continue to read Taylor’s novels when I find them. Happily, all of her novels are still in print, and there is even a collection of her Complete Short Stories available.

other_sideThe Other Side of Silence, Philip Kerr (2016).  I’ve been a fan of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels for many years, but the more books appear in the series the more worried I am that Gunther has overstayed his welcome. The Other Side of Silence is the eleventh book in what was originally a trilogy. And while I don’t think the books have seen a diminution in quality, I’m starting to wonder just how many events of the twentieth century Gunther is going to find himself involved in. (I had a similar problem with Allan Mallinson’s Matthew Hervey series, in which the protagonist seemed to be involved in every major military conflict between 1812 and, to date, 1830…) However, Kerr has managed to avoid this problem so far by a) doing his research, so none of it feels forced or overdone, and b) picking little-known incidents from the years following World War II. Having said that, I’d still like to see a breakdown of Bernie Gunther’s career by year, because it’s beginning to feel a little packed. In The Other Side of Silence, sixty-year-old Gunther is a concierge in a posh hotel in Nice in 1956. When a face from his past – a Gestapo officer with a penchant for blackmail – appears, things rapidly go downhill. Gunther finds himself acting as a middleman for W Somerset Maugham in a classic queer blackmail sting, only for it to turn into a convoluted plot to catch Soviet moles in the British intelligence services. Except perhaps it isn’t. Kerr slots Gunther’s story neatly into real history, and he doesn’t belabour the point of the novel (knowledge of a certain book which caused a huge fuss in the UK in the 1980s is useful in figuring out what’s really going on). The Gunther novels can be read in any order, although they usually include a reference to events in one or more of the preceding volumes – but then they’re usually structured with twin narratives, one set in the novel’s present-day (1956, in this case), and one set in Gunther’s past. Worth reading.

war_endThe War of the End of the World*, Mario Vargas Llosa (1981). I picked this book several years ago for a world fiction reading challenge, but never got around to buying it, never mind reading it. But I eventually purchased a copy last year, and it sat on my shelves… until I decided it was a good book to take on my trip to Iceland since I’d have several uninterrupted hours of reading while travelling. In the event, I didn’t read as much of it as I’d expected to, and it’s taken me a couple of weeks since my return to finish it off. The novel is set in the state of Bahia, in the north-east of Brazil, a poor state characterised chiefly by desert, and not the Amazonian forest popular wisdom insists Brazil is covered by, in the 1890s, shortly after Brazil overthrew its monarchy and declared a republic. (The author, by the way, is Peruvian.) A messianic preacher, called the Counselor, appears in the povetry-stricken villages of Bahia and builds up a following. They occupy some land belonging to the area’s most powerful “colonel” (ie, landowner), the Baron de Canabrava, Canudos, and create a utopian village opposed  to the republic. Which promptly responds by sending elements of the army to wipe out the Counselor and his followers. And they fail each time. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Glauber Rocha’s excellent 1964 film, Black God White Devil, which covers a similar subject, albeit in the 1940s, but is also set in Bahia. The War of the End of the World is based on real history – the War of Canudos 1896-1897 – which makes me wonder if the same event didn’t inspire Rocha. Vargas Llosa handles his large cast with skill, using a variety of narrative techniques, and even tenses, to tell each individual’s story. It’s engrossing stuff, and it’s only the sheer size of the novel – 728 pages! – and a need to concentrate that has led to me taking to so long to read it. I might try something else by Vargas Llosa some time. Recommended.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 128


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Culture vulture

I could really do with another bookcase, but I don’t have a free wall to put it against. But then, pretty much every bookshelf I have is double-stacked… which I guess means I actually need more than one bookcase. Oh well.

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Some for the collection. Carrying the Fire is the best of the astronaut (auto-)biographies I’ve read – I reviewed it here – but first editions are usually very expensive. This a lucky reasonably-priced find ($25!) on eBay. Another signed first edition by Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net. And I stumbled across this first edition of Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand for $20 on eBay and thought it worth getting.

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Some non-fiction. Moonport U.S.A. is not the Moonport book from the NASA History series, but a chapbook published by the Air Force Eastern Test Range Public Relations Association. This is the fifth edition. Malcolm Lowry (Contemporary Writers) is one for the criticism bookshelf. And Blackburn Aircraft since 1909 means I now have 15 of these books, and only 5 more until I have all of the UK ones. Brasília: The Modernist Utopia is a collection of photographs of the eponymous city, a place I would love to visit. Unfortunately, it’s a POD book and the print quality of the photographs is not very good.

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One for SF Mistressworks, Murray Constantine’s (Katherine Burdekin’s) Swastika Night. I thought Blixen’s Anecdotes of Destiny so good, I decided to try another of her collections and picked Winter’s Tales. I’m not sure where I stumbled across mention of Nocilla Dream, but it sounded intriguing so I put it on my wishlist… and bunged it on my last order. Finally, a pair of charity shop finds: Perfidia, and Ellroy’s novels are enormous and I’ve no idea when I’ll find the time to read them, and The Spire, the third of the four Goldings I found in a charity shop (I bought two on my first visit, but when I went back a week later someone had gone and bought the fourth, I think it was Lord of the Flies; oh well).