The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson (Books 2014, 7)

I’ve read pretty much everything by HST that’s been published in book form, but I hadn’t read this, his sole novel, until now.

He wrote it before he started to get successful as a journalist, as I understand it, so it’s interesting that it’s a story about a journalist, or several. And they’re hard-drinking ones at that. But that kind of goes without saying.

As the novel starts it is 1959 and the first-person narrator is wanderer, unsure of what he wants to do with his life. He is leaving New York for Puerto Rico, to take up a post on the English-language paper there.

The story charts the ups and downs of his life over the next few months, along with various other people, mainly involved with the paper. It’s an entertaining enough read, but largely inconsequential as a story. You couldn’t really say that the character has grown or developed much by the end, and while we get some insight into the way the US was interacting with Puerto Rico at the time (unspoilt beaches being sold to developers to build luxury hotel complexes, that kind of thing), I wouldn’t say you get a great sense of Puerto Rico itself.

It’s mainly interesting for showing some early flashes of the writing style that Thompson would develop over the subsequent years into his signature gonzo style. For example:

They ran the whole gamut from genuine talents and honest men, to degenerates and hopeless losers who could barely write a postcard–loons and fugitives and dangerous drunks

Not up there with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, obviously, but you can see the beginnings of that style.

Pavane by Keith Roberts (Books, 2014, 6)

This is considered to be one of the seminal works of alternative history; often mentioned alongside The Man in the High Castle

Instead of the Axis forces winning the Second World War, as in Dick’s classic, the break point is Queen Elizabeth I being assassinated, which leads to the Spanish invading England (Scotland’s situation is never mentioned) via the Armada, and so the Catholic church becomes the dominant force in the world (at least Europe and the Americas) for centuries.

Most of which is told in a short prologue. The body of the novel (which a I believe is a fix-up, and certainly feels like it) consists of four short stories with some overlapping characters, which tell the tale of how rebellion against the Church comes to England.

I quite enjoyed it, but was put off at the start, because frankly the nuances of the workings of a traction engine running the freight across the country through a frozen winter night, were not all that interesting. In fact, it was downright boring. Would it have been less so if it were about a spaceship, instead of a traction engine? Obviously; anything is more fun with spaceships in it. But that’s not the point.

In fact, the point is largely our old friend “show, don’t tell.” I don’t automatically hold with that myself; there are plenty of examples of good stories working by “telling.” The problem is that if you rely entirely or mainly on telling, it’s easy to lose either or both of the characters and the action. Certainly you can tell us what’s happening; but it’ll have a much stronger impact if you make us feel it.

The second section, for example, starts with a young man bleeding to death in the snow, and then jumps back to his training as a signaller. A much more gripping way to handle things.

The time period appears to be from around the sixties through to the eighties, but the Church’s dead hand has so stifled technological progress that semaphore and steam remain the height of technology.

And there are fairies; old English magic that the Church hasn’t quite managed to wipe out. But they are kind of abandoned after the second (maybe third) story.

Anyway, after that initial hump it was enjoyable enough, but it’s a pleasingly slim book. If it had been the size of a modern novel, I’m not sure it would have held my interest.

Not-Exactly-Books, 2014, 5: What Has Gone Wrong With Short Stories?


(Is there such a thing as a “postamble”, I wonder?)

After reading the previous novel I decided it was high time I caught up on some short-story reading. I had several months of Interzone backlogged, for example.

Trouble is, it seems that short stories have lost their way.

I know, that’s ridiculously sweeping. Obviously any such perceived change is far more likely to be in me, than in all recent short stories. And yet, I feel sure that short stories used to be more interesting. So could it be an age thing? Perhaps, but let me first describe what I think it is that’s wrong with them.

In short: nothing happens.

In slightly longer: too many of what people are presenting (and selling) as stories are in fact not really stories at all. They are little more then scenes, vignettes at best. There’s nothing wrong with such pieces of writing per se, of course. They can be powerful, evocative, enjoyable… but they’re not stories, it seems to me.

In a story, something has to happen; something or someone has to change. And too often in my recent reading, they don’t. Or if they do, it’s in a way or to a degree that just doesn’t compel, enthuse, excite.

The BSFA Awards 2013 Booklet

I should discuss some specifics, and with the recent1 announcement of the BSFA Awards, what better stories to pick than the four that were nominated? The BSFA very helpfully curates and distributes a booklet containing all the nominated fiction (also reproductions of the nominated artworks, and this year for the first time, extracts from the non-fiction nominees). Conveniently, this booklet arrived during my short-story-reading period, and I read it straight away, to give me the chance to actually vote, for a change.

How disappointing it was.

By now we know that the lead story in the booklet, “Spin”, by Nina Allan, won the short fiction award. So I’ll deal with it last.

“Selkie Stories are for Losers”, by Sofia Samatar.

Our unnamed first-person narrator hates stories of selkies, and swears she’ll never tell one. Why this might be something that she is called upon or tempted to do seems to be related to her forebears: American, her family background is Norwegian. She grew up with selkie stories. As time goes on there is the suggestion that her mother is one of the changeling creatures.

However, the story is good because of the characterisation. It’s the shortest of the four, but has the strongest, most interesting characters. Well, character: our selkie-story-hating narrator. As the story starts she is working as a waitress and falling in love with a co-worker, Mona. And from there it’s a love story with a slightly-weird background, and always the sense that something related to the selkie myths is going to happen.

There’s a good review of it on Martin Petto’s blog, actually. I pretty much agree with that.

“Saga’s Children”, by EJ Swift

This is an odd story about a solar-system-famous astronaut, Saga, who has had three children by three different fathers in different places. She took no part nor much interest in their upbringing; and none of them knew the others existed until they were adults.

Saga summons them to meet her at a station in orbit around Ceres, and something happens.

But not much, as I was complaining above. The telling is unusual: throughout, the children refer to themselves as “we”, but when they discuss their various careers, for example, they list all three of their names; none of them refers to themselves as “I”. In other words, it is first-person plural.

But this has a distancing effect; we don’t really get to know any of the three. And a mystery happens and is not resolved, and we’re left none the wiser as to Saga’s motivations, or what the children will do.

I should just let Martin Petto do this for me, because his take on this story. too, is very accurate.

“Boat in Shadows, Crossing”, by Tori Truslow

Maybe I should just let Martin deal with this one, too. On the other hand, he is annoyed by it in ways that didn’t bother me. It was, in fact, my favourite of the four, and the one I voted for first in the BSFA Awards (“Selkie Stories are for Losers” second, and no others).

Why was this the best? An intriguing, mysterious environment, an immediately-compelling narrator, a problem to solve, a world — or at least a city — to change.

“Spin”, by Nina Allan

“A retelling of the Arachne myth”, we are told. It turns out that I didn’t know the Arachne myth, and that makes a difference.

We are in something like modern-day Greece — people use iPads, for example — but time is out of joint: the currency is the Drachma, and there are suggestions that ancient events actually happened within living memory. And the protagonist’s father is a dyer, and all mentions of his trade imply that modern chemistry is all but unknown.

We start with the protagonist leaving the family home — running away, it feels like, though she is an adult — and making a new life for herself in another town. She gets a job, and practises her art of weaving in her spare time.

A mysterious old woman speaks to her enigmatically.

Her art soon earns her success and some recognition.

But some people — one woman in particular, with a sick son — think that she has a power, that her images can influence the future, if not cause it. It emerges that her mother was executed (or murdered) because she was believed to be some kind of witch.

She strikes up a relationship of sorts with the sick son (who may not be very sick at all), and we think we begin to see how things are going.

But then the old mystery woman is back and our hero is looking at some spiders on a bush and feeling weird and it’s all over.

What? What the hell just happened?

It turns out that Arachne was a weaver who claimed to be (or was) better than Athena, and got turned into a spider as a punishment. So there you are.

I’ve liked several of Nina Allan’s stories before this, but this one just doesn’t cut it for me; and I find it hard to believe that in all the science fiction (and fantasy) in all the world, there wasn’t a better short story published in 2013.

(My namesake Petto didn’t review this one, but instead posted a link to a review of it that no longer exists.)

Maybe I’m just grumpy cos on the rare occasion I’ve get round to submitting my own stuff, it’s been rejected.

Anyway, there we go. Back to novels.

  1. Recent when I first drafted this, maybe… []

Aye, (Head)Phones

I’m not in the market for a new pair of headphones. My venerable Sennheiser HD450s are still doing fine for over-the-head use, and the same brand have provided me with a series of earbuds for mobile use. But I tried a pair of Beats by Dre phones in an HMV the other day, just to see what all the fuss was about.

They looked pretty good, felt comfortable, and sounded great. But the price!

Apparently Apple bought Beats more for the streaming service than the phones. That makes sense: if they’d wanted a headphone company they’d have gone for Sennheiser, obviously (and if they cared about earphones in general they wouldn’t have made horrible ones for years).

But you’d think that if they wanted a streaming service, they’d have gone for Spotify, which is surely more established.

So I suspect the truth may include a combination of the two, plus a degree of cool cachet, in what is perhaps a demographic that they don’t currently reach.

Either way, if the next iPhone or Mac comes with a cool pair of phones (unlikely thought that may be) I won’t be unhappy.

Kippers for Tea

I usually post before elections. This time I didn’t get round to it.

The results of the European parliament elections were horrendous, of course. But one slightly good thing may come out of it all.

IMHO the single biggest contribution to UKIP’s success is the fact that Nigel Farage was never off the BBC in the last few months. More appearances on Question Time than anyone else, for example. Constantly consulted on the radio about anything even vaguely connected to Europe or immigration (or anything else, it seemed).

In short, it’s the fact that the BBC treated them like a mainstream party that has caused — or at least helped — them to almost become one.

I see a close parallel with the way they give climate-change deniers equal time with climatologists whenever there’s an environment story; the intent being balance, but the effect being to give undue weight to the views of a tiny minority.

Here, though, they went far beyond that point, to where I feel they were guilty of violating their mandated requirement to show balance.

So the potential good outcome: at least people of the right can no longer say that the BBC has a left-wing, pro-Europe bias.1

  1. Not that that was ever a very fair point; you just have to look at the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, for a counterexample. []

Religion, Faith Schools, and ‘The Great Pumpkin’

Another from the “never posted” series. Again, I don’t know why I didn’t post it. It seems pretty finished. It’s also wildly out of date, stemming is it does from 2006. 2006! That’s eight years ago now! Where the hell does the time go?

Anyway, the original piece follows.

Religion is much in discussion at the moment, it seems, and atheism even more so.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that

the ideal of a society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen — no crosses around necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils — is a politically dangerous one

But no-one has been trying to do that. True, there have recently been two cases in which employers have restricted what their staff can wear, with regard to items related to religions. Now, whether employers should be able to insist on such restrictions is one question, and a valid one to be asked; but it’s not something new, nor unique to religious clothes.

And it’s not as if anyone other than British Airways has done anything to restrict the display of Christian symbols. The woman in question there was in a uniformed occupation, and the cross violated the uniform code. Case closed. Do you think it would have been any different for a police officer or ambulance driver? If you want to get the uniform rules in your job changed, speak to your employer, go through your union, or whatever: but keep the courts out of it. Similarly if you are in a non-uniformed job with a dress code.

All of which is different from — almost orthogonal to — the case of Jack Straw asking Muslim women to remove their veils during a conversation (note: asking, not insisting; during a conversation, not forever).

I got the impression from the radio news this morning that the ArchieCant was trying to play the “persecuted Christian” card, railing against the overwhelming forces of our secular society. But having scanned his actual article, I see that that is not quite so. Rather, he is warning of the dangers of a society which only allows state-sanctioned religions to exist. Fair point, but again, not something that anyone is suggesting in Britain.

There’s no excuse for a Christian leader to complain about his (and it is always “his”) religion’s place in modern Britain (or, even more so, America). The various Christian churches, and the church of England in particular, hold a remarkably privileged position in British public life, from the head of state being also the head of the church, through the tax-free status of religions, right up to the exclusively-religious nature of Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ (and that’s not even mentioning the ‘Daily Worship’ or the complete takeover from 8 on Sunday mornings).

Then the Education Minister Alan Johnson has changed the former intent of the government regarding allowing non-believers (or different-believers) into new “faith” schools. Now don’t get me wrong: I am utterly opposed to “faith” schools: one great thing that America gets right, in my opinion, is it’s implementation of the separation of church and state that bans states from enforcing religious observation in schools, and I would happily see it removed from schools here. But we are where we are, and if there are going to be new, state-funded schools that base part of their teaching on a religion, then I think that the worst thing possible would be for them to be exclusively pupilled by kids from families who are followers of that religion.

And remember I went exclusively to state Catholic schools in Scotland.

The State of Me, by Nasim Marie Jafry (Books 2014, 4)

Well this is an interesting one. Nasim is an old friend. Or it might be more accurate to say she was the big sister of an old friend. She lived two doors down the road when I was growing up. Her younger brothers were both close friends of mine. A few weeks ago I came across some old email, and it made me think of them. I knew that Nasim had had a story or two published, so I googled her. Found her blog, discovered she’d had a novel published, ordered it from Amazon, and here we are.

In doing all this I got back in touch with her and with her brother, Yusuf, who I haven’t see in I don’t know how many years. So it’s all good.

But what about the book, I hear you ask?

Well, it’s not the kind of thing I’d normally choose to read — or not without a serious recommendation from a friend, for example. But it’s really, really good.

It’s a fictionalised autobiography, in that the protagonist goes through the same experience with contracting ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy) that Nasim herself did. And it’s set partly in Balloch, where we grew up.

Far more importantly, though, it’s a really good book. The characters are believable, especially the protagonist, Helen. That might be just as you’d expect, as they’re drawn from life; but I strongly suspect that it’s no easier to write a convincing character based on a real person — even yourself — than to write one who is completely imaginary.1 We are drawn in to her inner life, her loves and her problems, and we are glad to be.

When she is laid low by the hateful condition, we feel her every twinge and ache. When she falls in love we fall right with her. And that’s an important point: this isn’t a misery memoir; it’s by no means all about the illness, or even about Helen’s responses to the illness. ME affects and influences everything in her life, but she still manages to have a life, and Nasim makes it an interesting one, one we’re happy to share for a while.

Yet at the same time she manages to educate us about ME, through Helen’s own learning about it. It is still a little-understood condition, with underfunded research and mistaken guidelines from NICE.

All in all, it’s a fine debut, and I look forward to reading more from Nasim.

  1. And of course, consciously or not, writers always draw on the real people they’ve met when constructing their characters. What else is there, after all? []

Secret Diaries

Sad to hear of the death of Sue Townsend. I didn’t keep up with the Adrian Mole books after the first couple, but I was always happy to see her byline in the paper or hear her on the radio. And I did enjoy those early books and the TV series.

Interesting to learn from this Guardian piece that the first one was published at around the same time as The Smiths’ first gig. Adrian would probably have approved.

Why Devilgate?

I always expect people to ask me about my use of the handle devilgate, but they almost never do. But an old friend did recently, and I wrote him the answer, and I think it belongs here.

So sit back and relax, and I’ll fill you in on the whole story.

You’re familiar with the origin story of the comics character Daredevil, I assume? Well it’s almost exactly like that, except with less radioactive material/eye interaction, blindness and skintight costumes. But with added rock ‘n’ roll.

So, back around the time I was in primary 4 or 5 (age 9-10), Suzi Quatro, as I’m sure you know, had a song called ‘Devilgate Drive’ (or so I thought for decades; I was telling a colleague at work this story a few years back and we looked for it on Spotify, and couldn’t find it; until we split it into two words: ‘Devil Gate Drive’; somehow much less satisfying). I didn’t actually know the song back then, but some of my classmates did, and started calling me ‘Devilgate’, precisely because I was decidedly non-devilish (or so I assume). I was seen as a bit of a goody-goody, because a) my Mum was a teacher, and b) I was a bit of a goody-goody.

As nicknames go, it was a lot better than it could have been. I remember once another kid asking me what it meant, and I said, “Devilgate: the gate full of the devil.” Which is kind of embarrassing, but considering how goody-goody I actually was (altar boy, and all that), it’s surprising that I wasn’t more bothered by the diabolical nature. Perhaps further evidence that all children are naturally without belief, until and unless they’re indoctrinated into having some: I probably didn’t really believe in the devil.

Anyway, spin forward a few years and I got online and was looking for a handle somewhere — Slashdot might have been where I first used it, and I was just trying to find out whether you can find the creation date of your Slashdot user ID, but it seems you can’t. I have a vague feeling, actually, that I used it somewhere else first, but I can’t imagine where that might be.

Anyway, having established it, it became my go-to handle. Wherever there’s a web service, if there’s a devilgate (or Devilgate: I see that I capitalised it back in the Slashdot days), it’ll almost certainly be me. Except for eBay, where I’m devilgate_real, because some bampot had nicked my name by the time I got there.

And so when I finally got round to registering my own domain, it was obvious what I’d choose.

The First Three Books of the Year

The first three books of 2014 were:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s fantasy inspired by his own childhood experiences is fun. It is short, however, and strangely unmemorable after just a couple of months.

It by Stephen King

I read some King when I was younger, but hadn’t in several years apart from On Writing, until a couple of years ago when my beloved gave me 11.22.63, his time-travel fantasy about going back to save JFK. I throughly enjoyed that, and was reminded that he had a vast back-catalogue that I could catch up on.

A significant portion of that catalogue is contained in the single volume of It. It is a monolith, a vast behemoth of a book, at around 1300 pages.

It’s good, though, and I shouldn’t fixate on its size. King uses the space to let his characters breathe and grow. They have the strange limitation as adults that they have almost totally forgotten their childhoods, as a direct result of their encounter with the titular creature. Though not, as you might suppose, because they were traumatised. Rather it seems to be a feature of interacting with the supernatural entity that haunts the town of Derry, Maine, in the primary guise of a scary clown, that, if you face it and live (few do) you forget the encounter.

I had met Derry before: in 11.22.63 the protagonist spends some time in this strange town, and the effect in the book was so jarring — it felt obvious that here was a place with a history — that I looked it up. Turns out he’s used the fictional town as the setting for several stories (and presumably couldn’t resist routing his time-traveller through it).

Anyway, getting back to the book at hand: I spent weeks embroiled in King’s small-town America, its characters and its horrors. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, but am in no hurry to go back there soon.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Wow. Just wow. This is an awesome book. Atkinson manages to tell the same woman’s life story again and again and keep it interesting and gripping every time (well, there’s a slight longueur during a German period in one iteration, but the undercurrent of terror — she is living in the Führer’s holiday home — keeps it from being a problem).

As you probably know, it’s the tale of a woman who was born in 1910 and died — at various times, and in various ways. We are told the story of her life as she repeats it, again and again — or through multiple parallel timestreams. As the iterations go on, she starts to have some awareness of her past lives. She doesn’t understand what they are at first, of course, especially as a child. At first she’ll just have a sense of dread as she nears an event that killed her before. Later they are clearer memories of the future.

It is utterly fascinating and a joy. And not SF, though if had read it soon enough I’d have nominated it for the BSFA Award.

I read Kate Atkinson’s first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, years ago, and likened it to Iain Banks’s The Crow Road (hard to to think of higher praise). I read one other, but wasn’t so impressed, and rather lost track of her, apart from watching the TV adaptations of her detective stories. I think maybe I need to go back and catch up on her work.

Warning: contains language from the outset