Category Archives: SF

I cannot surrender my soul to any nation state, or to any set of beliefs.

It’s been a little while since my last update. I’ve had holiday (Bologna, always lovely) and started a new job (Cabinet Office, fascinating). Between all that I’ve not really had a lot of spare time.

Even so, with the time off between jobs and my holiday July ended up being a fairly reading-heavy month. Ten books! Some short I admit, some very short in fact, but still, ten!

Here they are.

The Gigolo, by Francoise Sagan and translated by Joanna Kilmartin

This is one of those little Penguin pocket editions – a handful of Sagan shorts. Sagan is always enjoyable and this was no exception.

The title story is about an aging woman’s relationship with her younger lover. He loves her, she pays his rent. It’s a nicely observed little tale about the clash between society’s expectations and private emotions.

The second tale is about a wife who returns home early from a trip to find signs that her seemingly trustworthy husband may be having an affair. There’s a sting in the tale, which I guessed early, but it’s still well written and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

For the past ten years, she had talked about pot plants, gardenias, verandahs and lawns, and for the past ten years David had said nothing in reply.

Lastly there’s a tale about a dying man being comforted by his wife as he thinks about past affairs. I had actually completely forgotten that one and the description comes from Amazon, so probably not the strongest of the three…

Anyway, it’s a fun little collection and perfect for popping into a pocket on a summer’s day.

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

This is the last of Leckie’s space operatic trilogy. I talked about the first two here and here. If you’ve read number two and liked it, you’ll like this. If you haven’t, you probably won’t. I thought it brought it all together pretty well and left the right amount unresolved (I hate overly neat endings).

I don’t know if the trilogy is a future classic – space opera can age badly quite quickly – but I think it at least has potential to be. This is proper old-fashioned widescreen SF, but with a modern feel to it and good characters, setting and story.

The Beautiful Summer, by Cesare Pavese, unknown translator

Penguin doesn’t identify the translator for this as best I can tell, which I think is pretty shabby.

Ginia is a sixteen year-old in Fascist Italy, caught between the fading ties of childhood and the daunting allure of the adult world – or at least what adolescents think is the adult world (more sex, bars and late night conversations; less early alarms, work deadlines and crying children).

She becomes involved through a friend with an artist who the reader can plainly tell just isn’t as in to her as she is to him. Pavese captures brilliantly and with sympathy her conflicting emotions – on one side her desire to do what pleases the artist and to become part of his world; on the other her fear of the consequences and her growing sense of self and of her own life.

I read this while out in Italy and it is pretty much a perfect summer read. Cleanly written and plotted. Nothing happens here that will surprise you but as with Sagan it’s very much about the emotions of the journey rather than the destination.

My only criticism is that I do wonder how much it will stay in memory. Sagan still feels sharp to me, but I don’t have a sense yet whether this will in say a month’s time.

Finally, I’d be very interested to hear the thoughts of any female readers who’ve tried this. It’s written by a man and I think the reviews I’ve read are also by men, but it’s about female experience and I did wonder if it was a slightly anodyne, idealised, version of that experience. There’s none of the intensity or desire one finds in say Duras. Does it get it right?

Grant also wrote about this here, and I think others have too so views and links welcome in the comments.

The Red Tenda of Bologna, by John Berger

This is another pocket Penguin. Here it’s a typically well written sort-of-memoir by John Berger. A short meditation on memory triggered by familiar locations. It’s slight, and honestly I’ve already largely forgotten it, but I do remember enjoying it while reading it. An ice cream of a book – it may not last but it’s enjoyable at the time in the heat.

The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

This is a sort of non-fiction precursor to Szerb’s marvellous Journey by Moonlight. A tired and troubled Szerb holidays in Fascist Italy for what he’s very aware is likely the last time (and I think it really was his last time).

He experiences crowded sites, bad rooms, stultifying heat and the rising tide of fascism about him. It’s slight but the sense that Szerb’s world, the civilised world, is being overrun gives it a certain power and makes it regrettably timely.

I arrived at a bad moment. It was Ferragosto, the 15th of August, and to cap it all there were outdoor games in the Arena for which the whole of Italy had turned up, travelling on spectacularly discounted tickets. In the city you no sooner worked your way past one Italian tourist than you bumped into another. It was like being in Salzburg – a cut-price, petty-bourgeois, Fascist Salzburg.

There’s a lovely coda to it all about the importance of carving out a place for yourself in an increasingly maddened and hostile world. Szerb, a bookish intellectual, saw no place for himself in a Europe dominated by extremists, ultra-nationalists and a rising tide of unreason. So he had to make a place, however fleeting, however fragile.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts

Next up was some distinctly gloomy hard-SF. In this novel a spaceship spirals through the galaxy creating wormholes for a humanity that may long since have gone extinct. Members of the crew are only woken for the more difficult jobs, a handful only each time, and because their ship must travel slower than light that means tens of thousands of years pass between each job.

The ship travels on, now tens of millions of years from its original launch. In all that time nobody’s got in touch, nobody’s said thanks or come home. If humanity still exists it must surely be nothing like the people who launched the mission all those years ago. Utterly transformed; alien.

Some of the crew now want to bring the mission to an end, find some new purpose, but how do you mount a revolt against a permanently awake shipboard AI when the conspirators are separated by millennia of frozen sleep?

I liked this, but it eventually becomes apparent it’s intended to be part of a series, which I hadn’t realised. The result is that it doesn’t really have that satisfying an ending, leaving lots open for the next book. Still, I’ll read that next book and the ideas are interesting.

There are Little Kingdoms, by Kevin Barry

This was, I believe, Barry’s first published short story collection. I’ve previously written about his marvellous City of Bohane here and a bit about his equally marvellous short story collection Dark Lies the Island here.

For me, Kingdoms wasn’t as strong as Island, but then nor should it be – it came earlier and he’s developed as a writer since. Island has a powerful sense of place as you’d expect from Barry, and he persuasively captures the lives of Ireland’s lost and lonely.

Barry’s taste for the occasional grotesquerie shows more here than in Island, where that element is present but used more sparingly and to better effect. The dark humour I’ve grown to expect from Barry shows here and is as enjoyable as ever.

Ultimately though, when I came to write this I realised that every story I remembered clearly came from Island, not Kingdoms. If I hadn’t read Island I suspect this would have blown me away. As it is, it’s clear that I read Barry in the wrong order and for me Island is simply the better collection.

The Weird and the Eerie, by Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher was a cultural commentator who wrote a number of highly regarded essays including his excellent Capitalist Realism. Here he examines what he argues are two different horror traditions, I’ll let you guess what he calls them…

The weird here is horror that comes from the intrusion of the other into the ordinary (I’m simplifying heavily here). It is something present that should be absent, perhaps which shouldn’t be at all.

The eerie by contrast is the absence of that which ought to be there. For example, the sound of a woman crying but heard from an empty room. However, Fisher also cites “failure of absence” as a manifestation of the eerie – something present where nothing should be present, which seems awfully close to the weird on this taxonomy.

The difficulty is that I wasn’t remotely persuaded that these genuinely are two different traditions in horror fiction and film. Rather, this seemed to me a canter through a bunch of books, TV shows and films that Fisher grew up with and loved (and fair enough, I grew up with them and loved them too), and which he then hung a post-hoc critical framework on. I thought many of his examples of one form could easily have been used for the other and the entire distinction felt artificial, and worse, not useful.

Driven, by James Sallis

This is the wholly unnecessary sequel to Drive, in which Driver turns out to be as good at unarmed combat as he is at driving. Years after the first book he finds himself being hunted by professional thugs and hit-men. He effortlessly kills them all with his bare hands and turns the tables to hunt down the hunters. I found it unconvincing and a bit silly.

Childless, by Ignát Hermann and translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick

This novella is part of a series of short classics being published on Kindle. One of the better things about that platform is the ease with which it allows publishers to release books that might not be profitable enough to merit a full hardcopy release.

Here it’s the tale of a successful and happily married banker whose life lacks lacks the one thing he feels would give it meaning – a child. Then he reads a personal letter of his wife’s and everything changes…

That makes it sound potentially rather dark and usually these sorts of stories are, but what’s unusual here is that it’s a story of basically good people who’ve caused pain more through failure to trust than through desire.

Unfortunately, the kindle copy did have a fair few typographical errors, but even so it’s definitely worth a read. David Hebblethwaite wrote about it a bit more here.

The Four Devils, by Herman Bang and translated by Marie Ottillie Heyl

This was my last book of the month and is another of those short classics on Kindle. Here it’s the story of four trapeze artists whose tight-knit world is thrown into a tangle of resentment and desire when one of them begins an affair with a local noblewoman.

It’s well written, deeply physical (as you’d expect given their profession) and has a sense of inevitability as compelling as a trapeze artist’s leap across the void. It costs literally less than a cup of coffee and if the Kindle form factor isn’t a problem for you I strongly recommend it. It also doesn’t have the typographical issues that Childless did. David Hebblethwaite wrote about this too, here.

And that’s it! A packed month in terms of reading and in terms of life too. Hopefully soon I can catch up on what others have been reading and some of the posts I’ve missed over the past few weeks.

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Berger, John, Czech fiction, Danish fiction, Fisher, Mark, French, Irish fiction, Leckie, Ann, Pavese, Cesare, Sagan, Françoise, Sallis, James, SF, Short stories, Szerb, Antal, Travel writing

Time played its usual trick in the presence of Holt House.

June roundup

June was a pretty solid reading month, despite a bit of a weak start. Here’s my now regular round-up (and a lovely illustration to kick things off with).

A Different Sea, by Claudio Magris and translated by MS Spurr

I’ve already done a pretty thorough write-up of this one, here, and it’s fair to say I respected it more than I enjoyed it. It’s an extremely well written examination of a life lived according to philosophical ideals and without attachment, and how in fact that life becomes an exercise in selfishness and futility.

Magris is most famous for his non-fiction, and he has a lovely prose style so I don’t rule out returning to him. Probably not for a little while though.

He names his boat Maia, a small ten-footer, just big enough to venture out to sea with its white sail – the veil of Maia. The haze shimmering in air and on water on certain afternoons is either the final veil drawn over the pure present of things, or is already perhaps in itself, pure present. The sail glides over the sea, slips through a cleft in the horizon, and falls into a milky blue bound by no shore. Summers open out and solidify. Time rounds out like blown glass in water.

Super Extra Grande, by Yoss and translated by David Frye

I was so looking forward to this. It’s a Cuban science-fiction novel about a vet specialising in enormous alien animals. As the book opens he’s literally waist deep inside the intestines of some vast sea-creature that has unknowingly swallowed a valuable bracelet. He lives in a sprawling galaxy where humanity is just one of  several intelligent races and there’s a sense of exuberant fun to the whole thing.

Stylistically it’s interesting as the humans of the future speak Spanglish, leading to sentences like:

“Boss Sangan, please mira, check. Ves now. Si the damn bracelet of the gobernador’s spoiled wife be there, us probablemente leave.”

And then:

“Agua here smell muy strange después del morpheorol y el laxative. Hoy not be buen dia for el tsunami bowel cleanse.”

All of which I loved for its sheer inventiveness (though it helps I have some Spanish).

The trouble is the style also consists of lots of short sentences.
Punchy phrases.
Frequent comic asides.

Which I find wearying as it gets repetitive fairly quickly. There also seems to be a strong strand of adolescent wish fulfilment here. The protagonist has to work with two former assistants, both extraordinarily beautiful women who are still in love with him. One is an alien with “six splendid breasts”. The other is a Maasai with filed teeth, his “black panther”. They’re more pin-ups than people.

Shortly after they’re introduced we get asides from the first person narrator opining on women. Women, apparently, “are like cats … When you call them they don’t come, and when you don’t call them, there’s no way to get rid of them.” “I guess there’s some strange part of the female psychology that simply can’t stand being ignored by a male…” and predictably “the two … females were starting to act jealous of each other”.

As the saying goes, I can’t even. I bailed at about fifty pages in. I loved the Spanglish, but I just don’t have the lifespan to sit while someone (real or fictional) lectures me on what women are like. Particularly in staccato phrasing.

The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning

So far it hadn’t been a great June. This was the turning point. I wrote a full piece about it here but in short this is a marvellously evocative account of a new marriage against the backdrop of a city, country and continent on the eve of war.

It’s well written and has some distinctly memorable characters (well balanced against a larger number of less interesting ones). It also has that rather wonderful gossipy quality of much mid-twentieth Century English fiction where it feels like you’ve become part of a social set with everyone’s dramas being acted out in front of you (see also, Anthony Powell).

It’s the first of a multi volume sequence (see also, again, Anthony Powell…) and should keep me fairly busy for much of the rest of the year.

A Certain Smile, by Françoise Sagan and translated by Irene Ash

Not a million miles away from Bonjour Tristesse in style and substance I admit, but then why should it be? I’ll be doing a full write-up of this one so this will be brief. In the meantime Jacqui Wine’s piece on it is here.

Essentially, a young woman embarks on an affair with an older married man. She hopes to keep things uncomplicated and fun, without unduly hurting her boyfriend or his kind and likable wife. Of course, things won’t be quite so simple.

“… there was something in me that seemed destined to follow the well-shaved neck of a young man …”

It’s sleek and stylish and cynical and if novels smoked it would smoke Gauloises, outdoors while sipping coffee but not eating anything. I loved it.

The Magician, by W. Somerset Maugham

Apparently the rule is that one shouldn’t read any pre-Of Human Bondage Maugham. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but this is the one immediately preceding Bondage and while it’s not bad, it’s not great either.

Maugham met Aleister Crowley briefly in real life and decided to use him as inspiration for a novel, here in the form of the sinister Oliver Haddo. The main characters, all of whose names now escape me, consist of a beautiful young woman, her serious fiancé who is a skilled and increasingly eminent surgeon, the woman’s plainer friend and an older doctor who happens to be knowledgeable for reasons of plot in occult matters.

Anyway, Haddo falls in with them, he offends the young woman by kicking her dog, the doctor beats him up and Haddo exacts a terrible vengeance for the slight. If you picture Charles Gray from The Devil Rides Out as Haddo you wouldn’t be going too far wrong (they don’t look alike but the manner is pretty much spot on).

It’s clearly well researched and it’s reasonably well written with some effective scenes, but ultimately there just doesn’t seem much point to it. Dennis Wheatley wrote the same sort of thing and with a much worse style, but much more fun.

Aleister Crowley later reviewed it and didn’t take to it at all, perhaps unsurprisingly. Maugham went on to write better. One for Maugham completists or for horror fans who may well enjoy its gothic atmosphere (though who may also, like me, spot where it’s going far too early).

Holt House, by L.G. Vey

Continuing with the horror theme this is the first release from the Eden Book Society. Ostensibly a reprint of a lost novel from 1972, it’s actually one of a series from a pool of authors each of whom writes under a pseudonym, but without the reader knowing which author has which pseudonym.

The authors involved are an impressive bunch, including Andrew Hurley and Aliya Whiteley and several others whose names I recognise even though I haven’t read them yet. Naturally I’ve no idea which of them is channelling the spirit of L.G. Vey…

Holt House itself is a chilling novella about a man haunted by something he once saw in a house which doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the intervening decades. What is the horror though? Is it the house? Is it the kindly Mrs Latch who lives there? Is it the man himself? The answers shift and never entirely settle.

Oddly enough, I’ve watched a fair bit of 1970s TV horror over the past couple of years. For some reason there were a lot of TV plays back then many of which were firmly in the horror genre. Two elements stand out to me from those old shows: firstly, they were usually exceptionally bleak by modern standards; and secondly they were much more concerned with social issues than one might expect.

Some addressed ethical treatment of animals. I saw one recently that critiqued the complacency of people living well in rich countries while those in poor ones starved. Feminism and the role of women was often explored. Horror in this period was often used as a vehicle for social criticism.

Holt House continues that, dealing here with male violence among other things and that concern felt to me both current but also of the period. There’s also a lovely little bit of SF that creeps in at one point which feels very 1970s. All that and the whole thing is deliciously creepy and atmospheric. Accomplished stuff.

One final word. Eden do both ebook and physical subscriptions. If you jump on board get the physical (or get both). The book fits nicely in the hand and is a very comfortable read. Oh, and a post-final word, David Hebblethwaite also reviewed this here.

A Field Guide to Reality, by Joanna Kavenna

This is going to be hard to describe. Essentially the narrator, a waitress in Oxford who has just recently lost her father, was friends with an Oxford don who now also dies but who leaves behind a box with her name on it and supposedly inside his master work – his “Field Guide to Reality”. The box is empty.

Urged on by his surviving academics, she goes on a sort of vision quest through a motley array of Oxford eccentrics trying to discover this great lost work, this summation of reality itself. It’s a descent into Oxford as underworld.

The quest is of course impossible. However, along the way Kavenna explores the history of theories of the nature of light, from medieval theoretician Robert Grosseteste through Newton all the way up to modern quantum physics!

It’s heady stuff! Unfortunately, I was already reasonably familiar with the subject matter which meant that when there was a three page digression on fifth Century Greek philosopher and scientist Hypatia I was thoroughly bored as I already had a pretty good idea of who she was and of her life.

Now, it’s fair to say that Kavenna knows more of Hypatia and I suspect of everything else in the book than I ever will! Mercifully, she doesn’t put in all she knows. Less happily that meant that often what she did put in I did know. Kavenna also brilliantly describes Oxford, which I didn’t go to so much of that was a bit lost on me. If you did go to Oxford I suspect you’d love this book.

Imagine for a moment a contemporary Alice in Wonderland, but with Alice a grown woman and the mad inhabitants of the world through the looking glass replaced by Oxford dons and theoreticians. Then you’re starting to get there.

The book comes with absolutely wonderful illustrations. Physically it’s really quite beautiful! It also comes with an unfortunate predilection to overusing exclamation marks. It’s been exceptionally well reviewed so if it sounds at all interesting you might want to at least look at a copy in a shop to see what you think. It’s larger than I have words here to describe. In the meantime, here’s an interesting interview with the author in the Guardian. And here’s another of the illustrations (the first is at the head of this post):

Cove, by Cyan Jones

I finished the month with Cynan Jones’ leanly muscular novel Cove, about a man lost at sea after surviving a lightning strike. Grant reviewed it well at 1streading here and I don’t have much to add to his piece. As with Jones’ The Dig it’s ruthlessly pared back both in terms of prose and story. It’s my second by Jones and I expect to read more by him. In fact, I expect to read everything by him.

So that’s my June. I read eight books, four of which I really liked, one of which I abandoned and three of which weren’t for me but might be for someone else. I’m pretty happy with that. The Kavenna was an unexpected misfire for me, but I don’t regret reading it. It tried something new, and while it didn’t work for me on this occasion I’d far rather that than read the same thing every time.

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Filed under Eden Book Society, Horror, Jones, Cynan, Kavenna, Joanna, Magris, Claudio, Manning, Olivia, Maugham, W Somerset, Sagan, Françoise, SF

My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.

May roundup

I’ve quite enjoyed doing the roundup posts so I decided to do another. Several of these books I also hope to give a proper write-up to later this week or early next.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

It’s hard to go wrong with a Hofmann translation of a Keun, and I didn’t. It’s the 1930s. Kully and her parents can’t go back to Germany as her father’s books are now banned there, but nowhere else seems to want them much either.

Child narrators are tricky things but Keun pulls it off here. Kully is the right mix of innocence and experience beyond her years. The portrait of her parents, particularly her feckless father, through Kully’s eyes is nicely done. Any resemblance between the father and Joseph Roth is surely coincidental…

I plan to do a proper write-up of this one. I loved its clever evocation of the tightrope faced by these unlikely refugees, always trying to maintain appearances just enough to keep the hotel manager from insisting on the bill being settled before that next hoped-for cheque or loan comes in. Kully’s pragmatism is frequently heartbreaking:

It’s warm and we’re hungry. We can’t leave, because we can’t pay the hotel bill. We can’t enter any other country, but we can’t stay here either. Perhaps we’ll be thrown into prison, and then we’ll be fed.

Keun though measures the bleakness with comedy, one of the advantages of a child narrator. Here’s one example of that:

Often we have no idea how long we’ve spent in a place. There’s only one unpleasant way of finding out, which is via the hotel bill. Then it always turns out we’ve been there much longer than we thought.

Highly recommended.

The City and the City, by China Miéville

I’d meant to read this for ages but was finally prompted to do so by the recent TV adaptation (which I’ve only now started watching). I was careful not to watch the TV version ahead of reading the book, but based on publicity materials alone I still saw David Morrissey’s face when I imagined the lead character.

Besel and Ul Qoma are two cities in an unspecified East-European or Balkan state. The twist however is that the two cities occupy the same geography. Some streets are categorised as being only in Besel, some only in Ul Qoma, some are shared between the two. The inhabitants of each city ignore the other by an act of will, only seeing their own.

It’s a surprisingly powerful metaphor, not just for the lunacy of many ethnic divisions in the world today but also for how often in real life we choose to ignore other cities that cohabit with our own. The homeless and the ultra-rich may occupy the same physical London, but the truth is they are easily as separate as the people of Besel and Ul Qoma. Perhaps more so since they rarely even share the same physical spaces and so don’t have to actively ignore each other.

Miéville explores his setting with what starts out as a deliberately conventional crime story before getting deeper into the strangeness and for me it worked very well. I don’t have a lot of quotes for this one, perhaps as most of them don’t make much sense out of context, but I enjoyed it and I think others might too even if they wouldn’t normally read SF.

When I reached the tar-painted front where Corwi waited with an unhappy-looking man, we stood together in a near-deserted part of Besel city, surrounded by a busy unheard throng.

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another one set in an unspecified fictional East European city oddly enough, though that’s all it has in common with the Miéville. The narrator, a rather ordinary and rather messy man, is asked by his more successful friend Oskar to look after Oskar’s apartment for a few weeks while Oskar is in California settling his divorce.

Oskar is a modernist composer and his apartment is a sleek testimonial to the perfection of his life and his taste, particularly the gleaming wooden floors. To make sure his friend knows how to take care of it he’s left a series of notes with pointers for where to find coasters, how to feed the cats, and of course how to take care of the wooden floor.

Then the narrator spills a glass of wine…

There’s a lot in here. Friendship, architecture, aesthetics and the degree to which humans can lead perfectible lives. It’s a first novel so at times it’s a bit heavy on the similes (authors, let a thing just be a thing!) but that’s a common and forgivable fault in what overall is a clever and fun novel.

Here’s the narrator is looking for some string to use to play with the cats:

Then, I opened one of the kitchen drawers, an out-of-the-way one that looked as if it might contain string. Inside the drawer was a note from Oskar. Corkscrew – in drawer by sink. Torch, batteries – in bottom drawer under sink. 1st aid box, aspirin – in bathroom. Cleaning things, candles – in pantry. This drawer: spices. Indeed, the drawer contained spices, and that distinctive spice-rack melange of smells. And Oskar’s note, another note. Did all the drawers contain notes like this? I had taken cutlery from a drawer, and there had been no note. Curious, I tried the next drawer along, and there was another little note, identical to the first one except for: This drawer: Place mats. Coasters. Two lines under coasters.

But then, what do you expect from a composer whose most famous work is titled Variations on Tram Timetables?

A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

This is an interesting one. It’s the story of a highly respected and respectable public servant who despite all that may not actually be a very good man.

Tsuneo Asai is a middle-aged career civil servant. He’s not fast-track, he’s not from the right background for that, but through sheer hard work and talent he’s climbed the ranks anyway and has reasonable hopes of becoming a department chief before retirement.

He believed that listening faithfully to one’s manager’s idle chit-chat was a mark of respect.

Then while he’s on a business trip he hears that his young wife has died suddenly of a heart attack. Even though he knew she had a weak heart it’s still a shock, made more puzzling when he discovers that she died in a neighbourhood that she had no obvious business being in. Asai decides to investigate, finally getting to know his wife only now she’s dead.

What follows is a mix of character study and crime novel (as in much good crime fiction of course). The wife’s death is plainly natural causes, but that doesn’t mean nothing odd was going on and Asai soon discovers that what he thought was a quiet housewife with a few polite hobbies may in fact have been a passionate and talented young woman that he barely knew.

A Quiet Place doesn’t start with a crime, just a mystery, but Asai’s curiosity will set in motion consequences he couldn’t have dreamt of. Before the book’s out it will get very dark indeed (though never gratuitous) and becomes a story of complacency, repression and ultimately obsession. Guy wrote a very good review of it here which has a particularly fine insight into the characterisation (or lack thereof) of Asai’s previous wife.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada and translated by Russ and Shika Mackenzie

I finished the month with a bit more Japanese crime, here a very classic locked room mystery. Perhaps too classic since it’s not actually a genre I care much about and this is a very good representation of it which means I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The book opens with an excerpt from the diary of a reclusive artist. In it he reveals an insane plan to murder his daughters and step-daughters to create some kind of composite perfect woman. Those crimes happened, the daughters and step-daughters were murdered just as per his plan. The only wrinkle is that he was murdered first.

Forty years later in the mid-1970s two amateur detectives decide to solve these famous killings which (within the fiction) have now gripped Japan for decades. Matsumoto plays fair by the reader, including detailed floor plans, family trees and every clue needed to let the reader solve the mystery for themselves.

Unfortunately, I worked out the who and the why really quickly, surprisingly so given I wasn’t particularly trying. I didn’t quite get the how but that was a bit unlikely anyway (they always are in these things). Given that, I struggled to buy that police and amateurs alike had struggled for forty years to solve something most of which I got in about half an hour.

Still, I may have been lucky and admittedly I spotted a key bit of early misdirection (authors in this genre have to include all the clues you need, but there’s nothing that says they can’t try and distract you from them).

The two investigators themselves have very little personality, but that’s to be expected because really this is a puzzle-book where the reader is the real investigator. Underling this is the fact that at two points Shimada personally intervenes in the text:

Gentle Reader, Unusual as it may be for the author to intrude into the proceedings like this, there is something I should like to say at this point. All of the information required to solve the mystery is now in your hands, and, in fact, the crucial hint has been provided already. I wonder if you noticed it? My greatest fear is that I might already have told you too much about the case! But I dared to do that both for the sake of fairness of the game, and, of course, to provide you with a little help. Let me throw down the gauntlet: I challenge you to solve the mystery before the final chapters! And I wish you luck.

This wasn’t my book, but that’s mostly I think because it’s just not a genre that interests me. I’m a bit in the position of someone who doesn’t read SF criticising a space opera for having spaceships. In its field I suspect this is actually pretty good. If anyone reading this has read it and has any thoughts I’d be delighted to hear them.

And that’s it for May! It started stronger than it finished for me, but an interesting mix all the same.

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Filed under Architecture, Crime, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Japanese fiction, Keun, Irmgard, Matsumoto, Seichi, Miéville, China, SF, Shimada, Soji, Wiles, Will

My name is Frances Hinton and I do not like to be called Fanny.

April roundup

This is hopefully the last of my roundup posts for a  while – after this I hope to go back to the more usual single-book posts. April saw me busy again at work with a closing while at the same time preparing to resign so that I could move on. That meant I focused on books that would help distract me. Here’s my April reading:

Tower, by Ken Bruen and RF Coleman

This is a classic cinematic tale of two friends who fall into a life of crime and find themselves on opposite sides. Nick is a hard-bitten hard-drinking Irish-American. His best friend Todd is colder, more calculating, and Jewish. Ethnicity matters in the New York criminal underworld (and in most underworlds for that matter) and while both of them end up working for Irish-American gangster Boyle it’s Nick that becomes Boyle’s favourite.

What follows is a twisted tale that opens with the killing of Boyle’s vicious ex-IRA right-hand man Griffin then backtracks to how everyone got there. We first see Nick’s view on events and then the same events from Todd’s very different perspective. Along the way you see their friendship stretched and tested.

Technically it’s very well done. You can’t see the joins between the two writers and the story rattles along at a hell of a clip. The problem for me was that there’s a thin line between classic and cliché and for me it fell a bit on the wrong side of the divide. Perhaps it’s because I don’t entirely understand this odd romanticising of Irish-Americans that seems so prevalent in the US (though the book to its credit does touch on the point that most of these proud Irish-Americans have never actually been to Ireland).

It’s fast moving, brutal and has solid if broad characterisation. I think a lot of readers would love it but it wasn’t quite me. Guy’s more positive review is here.

Laura, by Vera Caspary

Onto another Guy recommendation, but this time a much better match for me. Laura is an interesting noir tale about a detective investigating the murder of a New York ad executive and well-known party girl. As he does so it becomes apparent that he’s falling in love with her, or at least with his idea of who she was.

There’s a wonderful cast, many of whom get chapters from their point of view. Laura’s best friend, Lydecker, is a fat and rather effete newspaper columnist who prides himself on having taken the small-town girl Laura once was and making her the in-demand socialite she was when she died. He’s a fun character: arch, self-satisfied, prissy but always intelligent. The question is, does he have his own agenda?

The detective,  Mark McPherson, is straight from the hardboiled school of fiction. He’s a man’s man, straight-shooting and straight-talking, but he’s the only one in this world who is. Laura’s intended, Shelby, is good looking and ambitious but was he only with Laura for her money? Laura’s aunt, Susan Treadwell, is highly-strung and at first seems fragile but McPherson soon discovers that she’s absolute poison.

Motives multiply and the facts increasingly don’t add up. Laura’s movements on the night of her death don’t make sense and everyone seems to be lying. Just with that this would be a great mystery, but it’s also a great character study as Laura emerges from the confusion as a woman making her own way without children or husband or  compromise.

I’ve barely touched on the plot and that’s intentional – while I guessed the ending there was plenty I didn’t guess along the way and if you haven’t seen either of the films (I haven’t) it’s best to come to this unspoiled. Highly recommended.

Guy’s review is here. The cover above isn’t the one I have by the way, I just thought it very good and that it captured the book better than most I saw.

Black Wings has my Angel, by Elliot Chaze

This has got a lot of attention of late due to an NYRB release. I read it as part of a double-ebook edition with Chaze’s One is a Lonely Number, which I slightly preferred to Angel.

That’s not to say that Angel isn’t good. It’s absolutely solid noir with an escaped convict (Tim Sunblade) planning one last big job with a high-class hooker (Virginia) that he met on the road. They’re both deadly and while they may, maybe, come to love each other neither can trust the other an inch.

Chaze does something interesting here in having the whole novel written by Tim Sunblade with the benefit of hindsight. That allows Chaze from time to time to drop in ominous hints which make it quite clear in broad terms what happens to the characters, just not how or why. For most of the book they spend so much energy trying to rip each other off and even trying to kill each other that you start to wonder how anyone will make it to the end.

It’s a truly excellent noir with great characterisation and plotting. I only slightly prefer Lonely as this one depends a little on some bad luck, whereas in Lonely I felt everything that happened came clearly from the character’s choices. Still, that’s a quibble and both are excellent.

Jacqui’s rather good review from JacquiWine’s Blog is here.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is one of the leading hard SF authors around. I used to be a massive fan but got out of the habit somehow. I picked this one up as it’s actually two separate novellas and shorter than his usual 400-page-plus megatomes (for all I love the genre, SF really does measure books by the yard).

Diamond Dogs is a story about an attempt by a team of mercenaries to explore a strange alien tower on a dead planet. The tower sets increasingly complex mathematical puzzles in each room – solve them and you get to go deeper into the tower; fail and the results are bloody and as time goes on lethal.

As setups go it’s not particularly original and Reynolds plainly knows that, but it is well done. The story is more about obsession and what the various characters are prepared to do to progress, even though the benefits of doing so are unclear at best and increasingly look like they may be non-existent. Here the SF element matters as it allows the mercenaries to adapt themselves as they go further into the tower – replacing lost limbs with cybernetic replacements; augmenting their brains by altering their cognition to boost mathematical ability at the expense of less immediately useful traits. As the story draws to its close it’s questionable whether those remaining are even meaningfully human anymore.

Diamond Dogs reminded me of why I used to like Reynolds so much. It’s solid high-concept SF and led me quickly onto Turqoise Days. Here scholars on a remote planet investigate a Solaris-like ocean/lifeform. Things get literally and figuratively stirred up when for the first time in over a hundred years a spaceship comes from another solar system. The question is, why has the ship come and do its passengers have ulterior motives for visiting such an out-of-the-way colony?

Reynolds tells his story through one particular character who’s lost her higher-achieving sister in an incident on the ocean surface, but who hopes/dreams that her sister may in some sense still be alive as part of the alien organism. Reynolds therefore mixes in issues of sibling rivalry with exploration of alien biomes and again questions of what it means to be human. It’s top stuff, though it’s also again proper hard SF so if you’re not already into the genre I think it would be a tough read.

The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross

By this point I was mid-closing so I tried another of Stross’s Laundry novels for light relief. This is actually one of the better regarded in the sequence as best I can tell (or at least is seen as a solid entry), but I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The problem wasn’t so much the book as that I’d read another from the same series literally less than a month before. Stross doesn’t assume the reader has read that previous book so there’s summaries of what happened (which are annoying if you’ve just read it) and the humour is very similar which is fine if spaced out but a bit samey if taken too quickly in succession.

The story here focuses on a team of quantitative analysts who are infected with vampirism and used as tools in an ancient conflict between two much older vampires. It’s better and cleverer than it sounds when summarised like that, but I just shouldn’t have read it so soon after the previous one.

I do plan to continue with the series, but probably not until much later this year or more likely 2019 or so.

Look at Me, by Anita Brookner

April was arguably my Guy Savage reading month. After the Stross I wanted something a bit more purely literary and thought it time to try one of the Brookner’s Guy’s been recommending of late.

Look at Me is from the 1980s and features a slightly shy young woman Frances who works in a medical library. She falls in with one of the doctors who use the library, the effortlessly charming Nick Fraser, and with his wife Alix.

Nick and Alix are a golden couple and their life is one of endless meals out and high-spirited friends and drama and excitement. Frances, who Nick and Alix immediately start calling Fanny, is too inexperienced to see quite how shallow Nick is or quite how selfish Alix.

Everyone here is well drawn and there are some tremendous set-piece scenes, from an early dinner out with Nick and Alix where Fanny is plunged breathlessly into the dazzle of their lives to much later in the book an absolutely devastating Christmas visit by Fanny to retired librarian Mrs Morpeth. It’s hardly a surprise to discover that Brookner can write, but all the same she definitely can.

I was less persuaded by Fanny as a character, mostly as I just didn’t believe her voice was that of a twenty-something year old. She felt middle aged to me, perhaps slightly older, and while there are good reasons in the book why she is so staid and so quiet it still didn’t quite ring true to me.

Similarly, while Fanny has her challenges it’s made clear that she’s independently wealthy, young, moderately pretty and highly intelligent. That’s not a bad combo to be getting on with, which made me slightly unpersuaded that her options in life were as few as the evidently thinks and thus her need for Nick and Alix as great as it seems.

So, while I respected this and was impressed by the craft, I didn’t love it. It reminded me of so much English literary fiction – a beautifully written account of the lives of highly privileged people who could as easily be living in the 1960s as the 1980s as the 2010s for all the outside world touches them.

For all that criticism, don’t be put off. It’s very well written and there’s an ocean of quiet but deep characterisation here. It’s one of Guy’s favourite Brookner’s and if you’ve any interest in her as a writer is probably worth your time. It’s also fair to say that it’s holding up well in memory – it’s one of those novels that continue to unpack after you’ve read them. Guy’s review is here.

Dark Lies the Island, by Kevin Barry

That leaves me with my final read of the month, which is a bit of a cheat as while I finished it in April I’d been reading it off and on for absolutely ages. It’s a Kevin Barry short story collection and it’s hugely impressive both in terms of range and Barry’s command of the form.

The stories here vary from the opener which is a micro-portrait of a young man building up the courage to kiss a girl after a party; to stories of tedious bar-patrons talking endlessly about the best route from one town to another while outside torrential rain threatens to flood the whole place; to a pair of elderly serial killers; to a romance which changes the fate of an IRA bomber; to a petty criminal on the run who decides to hole up with decidedly the wrong people; to, well, much more besides.

Barry is I think one of the better short story writers out there today and this is a top quality collection. The tales often feature elements of the grotesque and are often blackly funny, but Barry’s eye for character and phrase ground them. As soon as I finished it I bought his other collection, Little Kingdoms, because I wanted more Kevin Barry short stories in my life.

And that’s it! May started with Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations which was very good indeed. I’m now on China Miéville’s The City and the City (no, I haven’t seen the TV show yet, but just from the trailers the lead in the book now looks like David Morrissey to me. Funny how powerful TV imagery can be).

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Brookner, Anita, Chaze, Elliot, Crime, Hardboiled, Noir, Novellas, Reynolds, Alastair, SF, Short stories

“Forget all your fears now. Have a fling this night”

March roundup

This is my March roundup. Again, a pretty solid reading month. I may do a similar post for April and then try to start doing individual posts again (it’s a bit daunting when you have a multi-book backlog to go back and start writing them all up individually – better to start afresh with a new month).

White Hunger, by Aki Ollikainen

 

This one’s had a lot of reviews across the blogosphere. It’s a Finnish novel about a famine, told from the viewpoint of those reduced to starving refugees and those sitting comfortably in the capital talking about how awful it all is.

It’s a bleak tale featuring desperation and terrible suffering. It’s also very powerful and worth reading even if the description here makes it sound a bit grim. Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal did a good review here and Grant of 1stReading’s Blog here.

The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

 

Book four in the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross – basically comic novels which combine spy fiction, Lovecraftian horror and British government bureaucracy to form a particularly unholy mixture.

For some reason Stross never seems to assume you’ve read previous novels in the sequence (but who starts at number four?). That makes for a bit of repetition and he does sometimes reuse the same jokes and references even within the same book, but even so these are light and fun reads. Beach and transport books to borrow Emma’s rather marvellous category.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

 

This is a horror novel which again draws on Lovecraft, but here more by way of a mixture of homage and critique rather than simply by reference. LaValle takes the famous Lovecraft short story The Horror at Red Hook and retells it from the perspective of a new character not mentioned in the original.

Red Hook is one of HPL’s more racially iffy stories and while LaValle is clearly a fan he’s aware of the issues in HPL’s work. Here he uses an African-American protagonist to contrast real world brutalities with HPL’s more fantastical ones.

I thought this clever and affectionately respectful of the original while doing something new with the material. If you’re not already an HPL fan though you’ll miss a lot of what’s going on.

Transmission, by Hari Kunzru

 

I’ve yet to read a Kunzru I didn’t love. This is his second novel and tells the story of a young Indian programmer brought to the US on promises of a chance to make his fortune, but who discovers instead that the American dream is often built on cheap third world labour.

At the same time it’s also the story of a computer virus that sweeps the world and the lives caught in its wake, one of them an up-and-coming Bollywood star. All that and above all else it’s a novel about the difficulties of human contact and how our personal signals can get lost in the noise around us.

If I get a chance (but I probably won’t), it deserves a full write-up. It has a shot at my end of year list.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Great cover for this one. It’s a lovely little gothic tale of a psychic researcher who brings a motley group to a famously haunted house, among them a very troubled young woman who shouldn’t be anywhere near the place.

It has a bit of an odd tonal shift three quarters of the way through, but otherwise it’s well done and justifiably famous. I’m already planning to read more Jackson.

Glittering City, by Cyprian Ekwensi

This was one of Penguin’s recent Penguin Modern short releases. It’s a short story/novella about Fussy Joe, a Lagos charmer and waster who likes to hang out at the station picking up young women fresh in from the country who don’t yet know to avoid men like him.

It’s a quick read and Ekwensi manages the balancing act of making Fussy Joe likeable while at the same time making it quite clear why he deserves to get his comeuppance. It does exactly what Penguin hope for from this series – introduces you (me anyway) to a new writer and gives a sense of their style.

From ancient Rome, to ‘60s Lagos to modern Rio or Tokyo the place and time may change but wherever you go there’s a Fussy Joe and there’s fresh innocents to be fleeced, or at least there are as long as Fussy Joe can keep ahead of all the people he’s borrowed money from or taken advantage of… Lots of fun.

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag

This was a good book to finish the month on. It’s an Indian novel told from the point of view of a rich young man who is notionally heir to a successful business but who spends his days sitting in a café as he’s a bit lazy and doesn’t have any actually useful skills.

As the story unpacks you get a sense of the underlying family dynamics, their route from poverty to their current wealth and the compromises they all made along the way. What starts as a fairly gentle comedy becomes a moral enquiry, an examination of the culpability of those willing to turn a blind eye for a comfortable life.

There’s lots of reviews of this one including from Stu here and this one from Grant at 1stReading’s Blog which pushed me over the line to giving this a try.

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Filed under Ekwensi, Cyprian, Horror, Indian fiction, Jackson, Shirley, Kunzru, Hari, Lovecraft, H.P., Nigerian fiction, SF, Stross, Charles

Six bullets and a gun to take me to Mexico. That’s all I’ve got now. And it’s a long, long way.

January roundup

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post much – I’ve been busy at work and then looking to move jobs (which I’ll be doing in July). Between the two I’ve not been able to be online much.

So, by way of catch-up I thought I’d do a series of three posts summarising my reading in January through March. Today’s covers January.

If you read through this post I’m guessing it’ll be obvious which book I took the title quote for this roundup from…

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

My first book of the year was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, the second in her Ancillary trilogy (SF writers and trilogies…). It’s a direct sequel to her highly regarded Ancillary Justice and I enjoyed it tremendously although the general view that it’s not quite as strong as the original is probably fair. I wrote a bit about Ancillary Justice here.

Ancillary Sword is a much more contained novel than Justice. For a far future space opera it has an awful lot of dinner and tea parties and there’s much more focus on the culture of Leckie’s setting, all of which I liked but it does make it inevitably a little bit less thrilling than the original. I still definitely plan to read the third in the sequence.

The Duel, by Joseph Conrad

This was one that Guy recommended – his review is here. It’s a really nicely executed little novella about a duel between two Napoleonic officers which lasts over twenty years off and on. It inspired the film of the same name.

The Melville House edition, which is the one I read, comes with copious end notes and historical background material much of which is genuinely fascinating and if the concept interests you even slightly this is an absolute must read. It’s a lot of fun, if fun is the right word.

The Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

I’d read a lot about it so had a look at the book. Sadly I remain rather untidy. To be fair I haven’t implemented any of Marie Kondo’s rules so this may not be entirely her fault.

Rain, by W. Somerset Maugham

This is quite a famous Maugham novella and but for being a little over 50 pages long would fit easily into one of the Far Eastern Tales collections. It features various colonial types trapped on a small island for several weeks when their sea journey is interrupted by extreme bad weather.

Tensions rise, particularly when a rather puritanical religious couple object to sharing the limited island accommodation with a fellow passenger they suspect of being a prostitute. It’s classic Maugham – powerfully written with strong characters and yet an extremely easy read. He’s famous for his short stories for good reason.

That’s not the cover I have by the way – mine is much plainer. I just thought that one rather good and it does actually capture part of the story (the racier part, but publishers do have to sell books…).

The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan

A man becomes accidentally involved in a deadly attempt to smuggle defence secrets to foreign powers. There’s some good passages particularly as the hero is tracked across the Scottish highlands, but by the end it depends heavily on extraordinary coincidence and the proper authorities continuing to keep the hero involved long after he should have been thanked and sent home.

The Hitchcock film is better and neatly sidesteps the various massive jumps of logic in the book. This is my second Buchan and I’ve not liked either, so while I wouldn’t argue with those who love him I think I can say at this point that I’m not the right reader for him.

Again that’s not the cover I had, but it’s great isn’t it?

King City, Lee Goldberg

This is a solidly efficient thriller by Lee Goldberg about an honest cop who irritates his less honest superiors so much that they despatch him to an inner-city hellhole without any useful backup or support.

Naturally he doesn’t just get killed on day one and the two very junior cops he’s given turn out to be more useful than they look. It’s Hollywood stuff done rather by the numbers and nothing in it will surprise you, but it’s well done Hollywood stuff done by the numbers.

So, while that might all sound a bit dismissive, I actually somewhat recommend it provided you want what Goldberg is selling. I preferred his Watch Me Die though which was a bit more fun so if you’ve never tried him I’d start with that.

The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan

I’ve reviewed a lot of Richard Morgan here and I’m something of a fan. This marked a departure by him from pure SF to more traditional sword and sorcery fantasy. It’s full of traditional Morgan traits including hyper-violence and strong sexual content, but none of that was ever what I read him for and I thought the story here depended more on that material than his SF did.

Anyway, it’s (of course) part of a trilogy and I’ve picked up the second. There’s some linkages to his SF work so I suspect by the end I’ll discover it’s all set in the distant future and isn’t really fantasy at all, but I’m not sure how much I care. I trust him as a writer though so I’ll stick with the journey.

One is a Lonely Number, by Elliot Chaze

Chaze is famous for Black Wings has my Angel, which I read in April, but I actually preferred this. A con on the run comes to a small town where he finds himself caught between two women each crazy in their own special way. It’s full-on classic noir with an evidently doomed protagonist and a whole lot of bad choices.

If you have any fondness for slightly pulpy noir it’s one of the good ones. Worth checking out. Here’s an early quote:

It was stinking hot, Chicago hot, tenement hot, whore house hot. The dribble of sweat combining on both their bodies was slimy. He rolled away from her, not that he thought it would be any cooler because the whole bed was steaming, but because he always needed a cigaret desperately, afterwards.

January summary

My January reading reflects the fact I was absolutely flat-out at work. It’s heavy on genre reads and shorter reads, and I don’t think any of them will make my end of year list (except maybe the Chaze). February however was much stronger – I’ll post on that tomorrow.

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Filed under Conrad, Joseph, Crime, Goldberg, Lee, Leckie, Ann, Maugham, W Somerset, Morand, Paul, SF, Short stories

Mr Tiller and I will marry, and I will become a schoolmistress to raise the finest generation yet known to England.

The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley

I cannot sleep.

Today I overheard Mrs Barbery in the street gossiping with the other mothers. She said, ‘He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury.’ I walked past and pretended not to have heard. He limps a little, but it does not constrain his activities. Sometimes I wonder what is under his shirt and waistcoat. I imagine something other than flesh to be found there: fine swan feathers, or a clean white space. No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.

Shirley Fearn is sixteen years old. She’s intelligent, idealistic and relatively well-educated. Her father is one of the better-off farmers in her small village of Westerbridge – an unimportant place where the years and generations unfold each much like the last and which nobody important ever comes from or goes to.

The Victorian era is decidedly dead and Shirley thinks she’s arrived on stage just in time for the world to transform. Her generation is different to those that came before and will be important in ways older generations can barely imagine. Naturally it doesn’t occur to her that teenagers always think that:

This is a different age, a new era, and my feelings are all the finer and brighter for my luck in having the time to explore them. The upward path of humanity, out of the terrible trenches, will come from the cultivation of the mind. And women will have an important role in this, as teachers, as mentors, to the exceptional men who will grow from the smallest boys, with our guidance.

Shirley dreams of more than is offered her, but her dreams are limited by her experience. She is a product of her time and upbringing and her idea of independence is helping to teach great men instead of giving birth to them. The idea of great women is yet to occur to her.

Of course the reader understands perfectly well what Mrs Barbery meant and that Shirley’s dreams of marrying Mr Tiller can’t become real. Mr Tiller doesn’t seem particularly keen himself, insisting on treating Shirley as if she were yet but a child. It’s all quite vexing.

Shirley knows her parents oppose her ambitions to become a teacher. They, like most the village, expect her to marry a young farmer or perhaps the blacksmith’s boy Daniel Redmore. Daniel stirs none of the noble feelings in Shirley that Mr Tiller does, though he definitely does stir feelings of some unfamiliar sort. Still, what bright future could there be with him? The Redmores and the Fearns both date back centuries in the village. Marrying him would be accepting the position she was born to.

Bright as she is Shirley understands nothing. That will change.

So far Arrival probably doesn’t sound like one of the more critically acclaimed SF novels of recent years. However, that’s exactly what it is and the first stirrings of that become apparent when Shirley decides to spy on Mr Tiller in his cottage. What she sees is not the awful wound the reader expects but instead what she interprets as some kind of peculiar rock protruding from his abdomen.

Mr Tiller bears a message. One that descended upon him as he lay dying on barbed wire bayonetted by a German soldier who picked up Mr Tiller’s own dropped rifle to kill him with. The rock saved his life and more than that gave him a purpose.

Shirley dreams of shaping the future by shaping the men who will make it. Mr Tiller aims to shape it more directly, guided by the rock. He wants Shirley to help him. He wants Shirley to abandon her vision of the future to support his.

Mr Tiller is far from alone in wanting Shirley to abandon her ambitions. The science fiction elements of the plot here mirror the prosaic. Shirley realises that her parents oppose her teaching not because they want her to inherit their farm as she always supposed but because they want her to attract the right kind of husband to take it over. Her education is intended to make her more appealing to an intelligent modern man, not to make her an intelligent modern woman.

Shirley starts to become aware of herself as a perceived object. Now she’s sixteen the men of the village, even the older ones, treat her differently. She dreamed of being special, of having some unique gift to give the world, but what she’s finding instead is that what she’s most appreciated for is her value as a commodity:

It is as if, I think as I walk slowly home, a light has been switched on inside of me. It is a light that only men can see, and it attracts them, draws them close. It makes them think that I will be receptive to their glances and comments. I’m not ridiculous enough to think that their interest is all about my beauty or other talents. It is simply that I am now, in their eyes, the right age for such treatment.

The irony of Shirley’s political awakening lies in its youthful selfishness. Daniel Redmore takes her to her teaching interview and speaks to her of how he wishes they could run away together not as man and wife but just as two people living together as best they can. She barely recognises that like her he has dreams of something other than what he’s been offered (after all, she’s the one that’s special and he’s the one that’s ordinary). She looks down on her own mother’s lack of education and ambition, little reflecting on how much more limited her mother’s opportunities were or what kind of inner life she might have.

Arrival becomes a novel of choices and consequences, which makes it in part the story of every teenager even if in this case there’s an incomprehensible rock bearing messages and commands. When Shirley is appointed Mayday Queen she learns how powerful and enjoyable it can be to fit in and be popular. But when she rebels against her parents or speaks sharply to adults whom she’s supposed to respect she learns that too carries power and enjoyment.

Arrival is well written and Shirley is both likable and credible. There’s some lovely paralleling of the deep past in the form of the Mayday celebrations (which the local priest condemns on account of their pagan roots) and the deep future which Mr Tiller is trying to mould and make certain. The characters are vivid and Shirley’s journey persuasive.

The only criticism I really have is that I found the concluding pages a bit on the nose in terms of Shirley becoming a rather empowered modern woman with a mind to social justice. For me it became neat where I’d have preferred a little more compromise and ambiguity. Still, that’s a small price to pay for a novel which so (apparently) effortlessly subverts our ideas of what science fiction is and what a science fiction protagonist should look like.

I’ll end by mentioning that for those who do normally read SF there’s quite a lot of subtext here in terms of criticism of the limits of the genre – the kinds of futures it imagines and who gets to populate them. Unfortunately that’s difficult to discuss without spoilers and honestly it could easily go completely unnoticed without harming the book at all. It’s subtle enough that for those who don’t read SF it might as well not be there.

Arrival is Whiteley’s second novel and I’ve since bought her first. This has every chance of being on my end of year list.

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Filed under Historical fiction, SF, UK fiction, Whiteley, Aliya

Money has no nationality, no allegiance. … It’s the most powerful polity of all.

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

It’s a tricky thing reviewing the third of a trilogy. However good it is it’s generally not a standalone work and the risk of spoiling previous volumes is high. That means this will not be a detailed review.

I’ve previously read Dave Hutchinson’s excellent Europe in Autumn and his very-good-but-suffers-a-bit-from-being-the-middle-book-of-a-trilogy Europe at Midnight. Outside of the blog I’ve also read a short story collection, a stand-alone short story and an excellent novella. It’s fair to say I like his work.

For those who haven’t read the previous reviews, the Europe trilogy takes place in a future Europe fragmented into micro-states and petty polities.  The European Union still exists, but most of the countries which used to comprise it don’t. Hard to imagine I know.

AIR TRAVEL IN Western and Central Europe could be tricky these days. If there was an appreciable lag between booking your ticket and actually taking your flight, there was an outside chance you’d discover that your destination airport was no longer actually in the country you wanted to go to.

In this environment of endless small borders espionage flourishes. The first novel dealt with Rudi, an Estonian cook who becomes a member of the romantically named Les Coureurs des Bois – black market smugglers of packages and people. The second features a former spymaster who nicknames himself Rupert of Hentzau and operates in a sort of alternate-history eternal 1950s England of the sort dreamt of by the more lunatic fringes of the Brexit movement:

“They’re a conservative people,” Rudi said when she told him about it. “The only African people they know about are in books.” “They need their fucking heads banging together,” she said. “Next time you’re in the countryside, stop and listen,” he told her. “No aeroplanes, no helicopters, no internal combustion. They still have steam trains. And they like it that way; it’s what they’ve been defending all these years.”

Rupert was actually a distinctly fun character and Midnight had a solid supporting cast, but it’s unchanging England was inherently less interesting than the diverse complexity of Autumn (any political implications of that are clearly entirely intentional on Hutchinson’s part). I enjoyed Midnight, but I loved Autumn.

Winter sees Rudi return and take the lead again, though Rupert continues to have a major part. Hutchinson brings together the various elements of the first two novels well and in many ways this is the best of the trilogy. It’s well written, the world is interesting, it works both as SF and as spy thriller and it’s often very funny. I could have lived without the trick of narrative economy which reveals that a character’s previously perfectly ordinary relative is in fact intrinsically and utterly coincidentally involved in the wider plot, but it’s hardly a serious flaw.

Even better, Hutchinson addresses what was probably the key weakness of the first two books which was the lack of decent female characters. It’s something he was criticised for and took on board, and happily here it’s completely corrected. Among others, there’s a likeable new character Gwen who gets drawn accidentally into the world of espionage but adapts well to it. In the previous books the character would have been male, but they don’t need to be and here Gwen is just as interesting, credible and essential a character as any of the men.

Praising an author for writing female characters as well as they do the male ones is pretty weak tea I admit – it should be a given. Unfortunately the reality is that I’ve encountered a great many male writers (including many literary ones) who either couldn’t write women or wouldn’t. It’s rare to see is someone recognise the mistake and fix it. It’s growth as an author and it’s entirely to be welcomed.

I’ve got this far without discussing the plot of Winter and to be honest I pretty much intend to maintain that. If you’ve read the first two then it’s enough to know that it continues the stories in those bringing the various strands together and answering most of the mysteries they left unanswered. If you haven’t, the plot here would make no sense anyway.

Having now read the whole trilogy the first remains my favourite, even though I think this is the best of them in many ways. The first has the advantage of a late-book swerve which I absolutely didn’t see coming and while the later books explore the consequences well you can’t really have that kind of impact on the reader twice. That said, the real question for a completed trilogy is whether the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and here it is – much as with William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy the third book cures the faults of the second and deepens both story and setting without losing what was good in the previous volumes.

There is arguably space left for a fourth book, but there’s certainly no need for one and much as I think these are future SF classics I’d be pretty happy to see Hutchinson leave his future Europe with a few questions left open and a few fates left undetermined. In SF as in most genres (excepting maybe crime) too much explanation leaves the reader nothing to do and it’s a trap I hope Hutchinson continues to avoid. As Rudi rightly observes:

It never tied things up nearly; no one ever got to see the whole story, and anyway the stories never ended, just branched off into infinity. You got used to that too, as a Coureur. You jumped a Package from Point A to Point B and you never knew what happened after that. Most of the time you never even knew what you were carrying.

I’ll end with one final quote. One of the banes of SF as a genre is the infodump – the scene where a character (who lives in the made-up world in question) has the setting explained to them at tedious length for the benefit of the reader (who of course doesn’t). Hutchinson needs to do a bit of that here, but he at least does so with a wink to the reader:

Rudi felt his shoulders slump. It had been an eventful day; if he had ever been unsure of what the word infodump meant, he wasn’t now.

One of the things that makes Hutchinson so very readable is the puckish sense of fun that runs through his writing. The Europe trilogy explores serious questions of national and personal identity and directly critiques a certain banal view of Britishness, but it’s never didactic. Frankly, you could ignore all that subtext and it would still be a very entertaining read. It’s just that it’s not only that.

In case it’s not already evident, I think Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy is a definite achievement. I think it’s too idiosyncratic to inspire other writers directly (like George Alec Effinger’s remarkable Budayeen trilogy) but it definitely deserves the praise it’s received. It works as science fiction and as spy fiction and as commentary on the sadly increasingly fractured and isolationist real world. I expect to read the full trilogy again at some future date, which is about as high a compliment as I can pay it really given my ever-expanding to be read pile…

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Filed under Hutchinson, Dave, SF

A recent reading miscellany (mostly SF)

A recent reading miscellany      

I’ve read several books recently during a period where I was busy at work, then ill, and then on holiday. For a mix of reasons I don’t plan to fully review them. Some were very good, some not so much. I thought I’d write a brief paragraph or two on each.

Most of these are SF. I’ve omitted Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd as I hope to do full reviews of each of those.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

This is a slight cheat as I read it back in June and didn’t review it then, but it’s better than most of the books that follow so it seemed a bit unfair not to mention it when I’m making time to talk about books I thought less of.

Ancillary is a classic space opera set in a distant future among a vast interstellar empire. The empire is controlled through use of artificially intelligent spaceships crewed in part by ancillaries – prisoners of war who’ve had their minds wiped and replaced by a small element of the ship’s AI. The ancillaries aren’t meant to operate independently but an act of treachery leaves one isolated after the troop carrier it formed part of is destroyed.

Ancillary is best known for its treatment of gender. The protagonist being a fragment of an AI personality is weak on gender recognition to begin with and the language of the empire’s rulers doesn’t include gender pronouns. The result is a book in which unless the protagonist has specific knowledge that a character is male literally every character is referred to as she or her.

Use of male pronouns as a default is commonplace. Use of female isn’t and many SF fans balked at reading a book where they couldn’t be sure which gender most of the characters were. I found it worked very well and the slight loss in terms of physical description was more than made up for in the increased focus it required in terms of actual personality rather than gender assumptions.

All that and a cracking plot across multiple planets with wars, conspiracies and strange technologies and overall I absolutely loved this. It’s solid SF and fairly long too (with two sequels, neither apparently quite as good as the first) and the only reason I didn’t give it a proper review was limited time. It’s still a candidate for my end of year list.

Nick’s Trip, by George Pelecanos

I started this back in June, having enjoyed the previous book in the series A Firing Offense. I abandoned this part-way through, finding it a bit dated and to be honest a bit sexist. It’s not stuck in memory so there’s not much more to say than that. Pelecanos has legions of fans and can definitely write so it may be that this just wasn’t one of his best or possibly he’s just not my writer.

Mystery of the Three Orchids, by Augusto de Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

I’ve read two previous de Angelis and sort of enjoyed them. This time I found the tales of his Inspector de Vincenzo to provide diminishing returns. Guy liked this best of the three de Angelis published by Pushkin Press so far but I just found that I no longer cared whodunit. Being honest, cosy crime has never been my genre and I only read these from interest at the unusual early 20th Century Milan setting. Solid books, but not for me.

Books two ((The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself) and three (Then will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above) of Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet.

Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet is a series of four thematically linked novellas each exploring an alternate history of the Apollo space programme. I enjoyed the first a while back so tried a couple more.

AQ2 is the more out-there piece and posits the discovery of alien ruins on Mars which has led to the discovery of faster-than light travel. Now Earth’s first extra-solar colony has vanished and so the first man on Mars is brought out from retirement to investigate. It’s an audacious story split between that first Mars mission and the journey to the missing colony, and daringly the answer to what happened is only really made clear(ish) through technical appendices. For all that I found it a little dry and it’s probably my least favourite Sales’ so far.

AQ3 is much more interesting (to me anyway). It posits an extended Korean war tying up US pilots much longer than was true in our own history. When the space race starts up the US therefore has no choice but to make use of female pilots. The story then is about the first women in space and, once the war ends, their inevitable sidelining to make room for the returning men.

Sales includes a chapter outlining the real female pilots whom he based his story on – women who really did train to go into space but who were blocked by NASA and an unsympathetic political establishment in a truly shocking fashion. Sales uses his alternate history to bring an ignored and shameful passage of real history to light and the result is one of those rare piece of SF I’d potentially recommend to the non-SF fan.

Light and Shadow, by Linda Nagata

This is a short story collection. Linda Nagata mostly writes near-future military SF these days and this collection contains a fair bit of that, plus some more speculative and fantasy material. It’s a solid collection that worked well when I was ill and to Nagata’s credit I read the whole lot quickly and without getting bored along the way.

Nagata clearly has talent, but military fiction rarely speaks to me and military SF less so which means that while I wouldn’t rule it out I’m unlikely to read a lot more by her.

Something Coming Through, by Paul McAuley

More SF. McAuley wrote a novella a while back about a future where a battered near-future Earth is contacted by enigmatic aliens and given access to fifteen worlds free to colonise. The trouble is, the aliens have been doing this for various species for millions of years and the colonies are dotted with the ancient technologies of the races who were given tenancy before us.

In Something Coming Through McAuley returns to the setting and tells a novel length story, though for me with slightly diminishing returns. I actually like McAuley’s setting, but to turn it into a novel he has to include conspiracy and thriller elements which I cared about less. Another example of a talented author working in an area which isn’t of much personal appeal.

Bethany, by Adam Roberts

This is much stranger. A sociopath inspired by Michael Moorcock’s famous novel Behold the Man travels back in time with the goal of killing Christ during the three days after his resurrection but before his bodily ascension into heaven. This is well written, well researched and laudably short (90 pages). Roberts is a very highly regarded writer and from this it’s easy to see why. I’ve read one of his short stories before but after this I’ll definitely be moving on to his full-length fiction.

A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by  Becky Chambers

This was rapturously received by oceans of critics and fans. It’s a novel about a small spaceship that makes its living by punching wormholes through space to create travel links across the galaxy (basically interstellar roadbuilders). It’s widely (and to be fair rightly) seen as a light and upbeat read and was particularly praised for its treatment of diversity with a crew formed of different species and genders all working together in a cramped ship.

Unfortunately, the diversity is literally skin deep. Every character, even the aliens, felt to me like a middle-class 20-something American. One felt like she’d been borrowed wholesale from the Jewel Staite character in the TV show Firefly but made wackier. I got to page 50 and couldn’t take any more. That means I read less than a tenth of this (and there’s two sequels!) but I’m fine with that.

So, that’s my quick(ish) roundup. If any stand out to you please let me know in the comments and I can say a bit more about them.

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Filed under Crime, De Angelis, Augusto, Leckie, Ann, Novellas, Pelecanos, George, SF

The thing came to me as a stark inhumanity.

The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells

I last read The Island of Doctor Moreau as a teenager. It didn’t do much for me then, dwarfed by the more obvious charms of The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds. The only reason I returned to it all these years later was because I was planning to read Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel and had heard that Moreau partly inspired Morel.

Reading Moreau as preparation for Morel wasn’t particularly necessary as I’ve now read Morel and other than the title and island setting there’s not much commonality. Fortunately, it turns out that adult me likes The Island of Doctor Moreau a lot more than teenage me did.

Island opens with a framing device. The manuscript the reader is about to encounter was left behind by an Edward Prendick, now deceased. Prendick was lost at sea and on recovery a year or so later initially told a fantastical tale before claiming he had lost all memory of what had happened during his absence. His health never truly recovered.

From there we’re into the book proper – Prendick’s posthumous account of what really happened to him which can be published now he’s safe from being locked up as a lunatic. It’s an ugly tale of science without morality (a common Wellsian theme) and of how little separates the human from the animal.

After an offscreen shipwreck Prendick is left adrift at sea. He’s finally picked up by a strange ramshackle trading ship with a drunken captain and a cargo of exotic animals. He’s not the only passenger – there’s a dissolute and rather weak young Englishman named Montgomery and Montgomery’s half-witted servant M’ling who both the crew and animals fear and loathe.

The black face thus flashed upon me startled me profoundly. The facial part projected, forming something dimly suggestive of a muzzle, and the huge half-open mouth showed as big white teeth as I had ever seen in a human mouth. His eyes were bloodshot at the edges, with scarcely a rim of white round the hazel pupils. There was a curious glow of excitement in his face.

Although M’ling does nothing wrong, Prendick can’t help but feel a shock of revulsion at him. The abhorrence is somehow intrinsic; a sense of wrongness. Soon Prendick realises that M’ling is even stranger than he at first imagined:

It may seem a little thing to you, perhaps, but it came like a sudden blow to me. The only light near us was a lantern at the wheel. The creature’s face was turned for one brief instant out of the dimness of the stern towards this illumination, and I saw that the eyes that glanced at me shone with a pale-green light.

These early parts of the book (in fact the whole first half really) are wonderfully creepy. Wells is very, very good on the unnaturalness of all this and on the horror that comes not from something terrible happening or being threatened but just by virtue of things not being as they should be.

Montgomery and M’ling are taking the animal cargo to a supposedly uninhabited island and against Prendick’s protests the ship’s captain and crew take the opportunity to dump him there too. It’s there he meets Doctor Moreau, a vivisectionist exiled years past from London society for his unusual cruelty and arrogance. Nobody knew what had happened to him, but here he is surrounded by servants of peculiar appearance and strangely garbled speech.

The island is a miserable place: the climate too hot; the food poor; Montgomery often drunk; the servants oddly repellent; but worst of all is Moreau who Prendick soon realises never ceased his experiments in vivisection but instead has taken them to new and undreamed of extremes. Moreau is swift to take his knife to the new animal captives:

Suddenly the puma howled again, this time more painfully. Montgomery swore under his breath. Then the poor brute within gave vent to a series of short, sharp screams.

As Moreau chillingly reminds Prendick, “‘You forget all that a skilled vivisector can do with living things’”.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that Moreau has been using his extraordinary skills and lack of conscience as a vivisector to transform animals into men. Scientifically of course it’s nonsense but that doesn’t matter because it allows Wells to explore some very fruitful themes.

What is it that makes a person human? Moreau takes his poor beasts and tortures them into upright forms that look mostly like us. Their hands are often misshapen and their speech can be difficult to follow but for all that they do have hands and speech. Moreau gives them law and a form of religion which leads to a fantastic scene where Prendick finds himself in the home of the beast-men as they recite the litany given them by Moreau.

To a late 19th Century reader some scenes here must have been fairly shocking. The beast-men see Moreau as their creator; they recite a creed to honour him and see him as an Englishman would see his Christian God. They believe that even when absent Moreau knows if they break his laws – run on all fours, hunt game, drink water by lapping it direct from pool or stream.

Nature, however, will out. The beast-men no longer have the innocence of animals but nor have their instincts entirely abandoned them. Without the repetition of the law they quickly fall back into savagery. But then, the ship’s captain and crew at the beginning abandoned Prendick to Moreau’s island out of caprice and cruelty. Are the beast-men so different? Are the humans here better? Nobody comes out of this well.

We know from the start that it won’t last. The opening chapter mentions that the only island that fits Prendick’s description is uninhabited without sign of Moreau or Montgomery or beast-men or any of them. We know Prendick leaves and is eventually found and brought home.

Once back he finds that Moreau’s island changed him just as it changed the unfortunate animals Moreau took under his knife. Prendick reflects:

I am told that even now my eyes have a strange brightness, a swift alertness of movement.

Much worse is his internal change. He has seen the thin line separating animals from men and now returned he can see it still:

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. … prowling women would mew after me, furtive craving men glance jealously at me, weary pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces like wounded deer dripping blood, old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves and all unheeding a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel, and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered Big Thinks even as the Ape Man had done;

This was a deeply topical book. The morality of vivisection was hotly debated in Wells’ time and the implications of evolution and the idea that humanity was not some form of separate creation to animals remained controversial to many. Now those are both largely (though not entirely) settled topics and yet the book retains its power.

As I write this my mind keeps turning to the various forms of savages Prendick encounters: the ship’s captain and crew; Moreau and Montgomery; the beast-men. The beast-men elicit instinctive disgust and pity but for all their barely repressed savagery it’s no accident on Wells’ part that the true cruelties of this book are performed by people.

Wells’ science fiction is the science fiction of big ideas. For some reason his stories seem often to be taken very literally. People seem to miss that The War of the Worlds is about the experience of colonialism for those colonised; or that The First Men in the Moon addresses the need for morality in business and science. It seems more common to pick up that The Time Machine is in large part about class inequality but even that is often taken at a purely surface level. Perhaps it’s because he writes such good adventure stories that people often miss his underlying sharp criticisms most of which sadly remain all too relevant.

On a last note, I read the rather good Pocket Penguin edition of this which comes with sparse but well-judged notes. At one point for example Prendick refers to a “comus rout” among the beast-men which meant nothing to me but which a footnote then helpfully explains both in terms of the direct reference and in terms of a potential source of inspiration for Wells. It’s a really good edition and if you decide to give this a go I entirely recommend it.

Other reviews

Tons I’m sure, but none I know of on any of the blogs I typically follow. If I’m wrong on that I’d be delighted to be corrected in the comments.

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Filed under 19th Century, SF, Wells, H.G.