books 2014

    Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine (Books 2014, 20)

    A Christmas present: started on Christmas Day and finished just after midnight on the 3rd of January. So I could call it 2015 number 1, but it makes more sense to go with the year in which I started it and read most of it. Anyway, it’s all a bit arbitrary.

    Viv Albertine, as I’m sure you know, was the guitarist in The Slits. They had only a short time in punk’s limelight (though as I learned from this, they released a second album, not just the one I’m familiar with).

    This book is half about her early years and the punk days, and half about after. She went on to work as a filmmaker and then struggled to have a child, had serious health problems. Eventually she re-taught herself to play guitar, and started performing again (I saw her supporting the Damned a couple of years back, and then supporting Siouxsie at Meltdown a year and half back).

    It’s really interesting reading about a time I lived through, events I experienced — from afar, true, but still ones I felt part of — from someone else’s point of view. Especially that of someone who was at the heart of many of the events.

    And she writes with some style; it’s a compelling read. She makes some strange choices: for example, she only ever refers to her sister as “my sister”; we never get her name. Similarly with the man she marries. At first he’s “The Biker”, and then “my husband”.

    I suppose it’s a matter of protecting the privacy of people who are still alive — especially in the latter case, because he doesn’t come out of it terribly well. Indeed, it may be the case that the only people who are named are those who were already in the public eye to some degree.

    Any road, if you are into music, especially punk, at all, I would highly recommend reading this. I plan to get her new album — which came out two years ago, it turns out — The Vermilion Border.

    The Schrödinger's Cat trilogy, by Robert Anton Wilson (Books 2014, 19)

    A sort-of-sequel to the earlier-discussed Illuminatus trilogy. More sex, more quantum weirdness, and a less coherent story. I don’t think he ever does explain where the missing scientists went, in any of the universes. It’s a lot of fun, though.

    Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (Books 2014, 18)

    You know when you hear about a book, or read a recommendation, and you think, “That sounds interesting…” And then a bit later it’s available on Kindle for like 79p, so you download it? And then just a short time later you get round to reading it, and you think maybe you’ve heard that the author has written a sequel in the meantime?

    And then you get to the end and discover that there are now six books in the series! Six! Do you?

    That’s a definition of time passing without you noticing it properly. It’s very bad.

    Unlike this book, which is very good; especially if you like tales of people escaping from hell and battling with demons, angels, and other creatures of the supernatural, while running a video store (sort of), drinking Jack Daniels, and stealing cars in LA (why does he steal cars when he has a key to the Room of Thirteen Doors, which can take him anywhere?)

    Good stuff. And I daresay the sequels will be up to the mark too; though I’m not going to dive straight into those. I’ll give it a rest first.

    The Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (Books 2014, 17)

    A rereading, of course; in fact, this is probably something like the sixth time I’ve read this. I keep coming back to it. And why not? There’s music, magic, musings, sex, drugs, and conspiracies. Lots and lots of conspiracies.

    It felt very on trend, as the trendy types say, to be reading it in 2014. We are at a time when the idea of the Illuminati is not just well known, but is discussed, or at least panicked about, among our nation’s schoolkids. Apparently lots of modern music stars — people like Rihanna, for example — are noted (by paranoid types) for being pawns of (or part of) the “actual” Illuminati.

    The clues include any use of triangular imagery in their videos. You get the idea.

    The people who believe in that sort of thing are just the types this great trilogy was written for. No, about. No: for.

    Sir Gawain and the Green Night translated by Bernard O'Donoghue (Books 2014, 15)

    This is an unusual choice. It was a present; I do like poetry, but I probably wouldn’t have chosen it for myself.

    But it’s great. I really enjoyed it. It’s a strange story. Set in King Arthur’s round table, of course — at least at the start. The titular hero (Gawain, I mean) is said to be the noblest, bravest, most humble, etc, knight.

    A mysterious, supernatural, green figure interrupts the New Year feast at Camelot and issues a challenge. Gawain takes it up, and has a year to complete his side of the deal.

    He’s clearly the top procrastinator of the round table, too, because he leaves it till after the following Christmas before he sets off to find the Green Knight.

    The noble hero is tested and tempted, and (spoilers) wins through. It’s short, and fun. Oddly (or not) I remember the story, but nothing of the poetry. I could go and get the book and quote you some, but I think I’ll just leave it at that.

    Oh, except to say, of course, this is an ancient work, and Tolkien also did a cover version of it. But I expect you knew that.

    Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale: the Final Chapter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook (Books 2014, 14)

    I read the original version this a few years back, when my sister bought it for my son. It was good, very interesting and informative. And I wanted to read this expanded edition when it first came out. Although it’s called “The Final Chapter”, as if it were purely an additional piece, it contains both the original book and the new work — which is a lot more than just a “chapter”. But it was always just ferociously expensive.

    Like, old-school hardback price for a large-format paperback. And it never seemed to come down, or come to in a smaller-size, mass-market paperback edition. So it always just felt too daunting.

    Then eventually I saw it was on Kindle for what seemed like a more reasonable price, so I grabbed it.

    It’s nothing more or less than an edited, long, email conversation between Davies and Cook. Sometimes several emails a day, in which Cook asks Davies questions about the latter’s writing process and other aspects of making Doctor Who (and to a lesser extent Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures).

    And it’s absolutely fascinating read, especially if you’re at all interested in the creative process, in how writers write, and so on. It also feels a bit like you’re eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation at times, Somehow that’s not a problem, though. After all, it’s an interesting conversation, and we’ve been invited to listen in.

    It’s clear that Davies enjoys sharing his thoughts on his process in this way, and it sort of makes you wonder why he doesn’t blog. But then, if he had been writing these emails as blog posts at the time, he couldn’t possibly have shared as much as he did with Cook, and with us several years after the events.

    Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Books 2014, 13)

    This is the one that's won them all: BSFA (jointly), Clarke, Nebula, and more recently, the Hugo Award. Never before has a single book had such a sweeping effect on the world of SF awards.

    And does it deserve them all? Does it live up to the effusive reaction of the community?

    Err, well… no, not really.

    Which is not to say it’s bad. In a sense, nothing could live up that level of praise.

    However, my personal problem with it – at least at first – was this: I like my super-intelligent spaceship minds to be the good guys. To be part of, and defending, Utopia. In short, I want The Culture. And I guess I hoped that Ann Leckie might sort of take Banksie’s place.

    Obviously there wasn’t much chance of that, and it isn’t fair to judge the book on those terms.

    So, back to its own terms. In any case, these super-intelligent spaceship minds aren’t necessarily bad guys; but they’re in the service of a pretty unpleasant empire. Though things get ambiguous. And interesting. And of course, there’s the gender-blindness of the viewpoint character, which is great. So yeah, it was fun, I enjoyed it, it goes to some interesting places, and it sets things up nicely for a series.

    Oh, god, a series. Does nobody write books in ones any more? I was just looking at the current crop of so-called “Black Friday” deals on Kindle. There were quite a lot of books for crazy-cheap prices. Except… there weren’t really that many if you count a series as one.

    C’mon, folks, write a book that doesn’t have a sequel, hey?

    But I digress. Go read about Ancillary Justice: you’ll find reviews of it all over the place. Then go and read it. It’s great.

    Dotter of her Father's Eyes by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot (Books 2014, 12)

    Excellent graphic novel; part Mary’s autobiography, part the biography of Lucia Joyce, who was James Joyce’s daughter. Mary’s father, who was distant and borderline abusive, was a noted Joyce scholar.

    Well worth a look if you enjoy comics. The “graphic biography,” if you will, is a little-used form.

    On Writing by AL Kennedy (Books 2014, 11)

    Unlike Stephen King’s book of the same title, this isn’t exactly “a manual of the craft.” You won’t find much about the writing side of writing here; nothing about crafting sentences, forming paragraphs, developing characters or plots.

    It’s less about the craft of writing than about the life of a writer; and it shares with King’s eponym the part-memoir approach. Kennedy spends a lot of time describing how writing has been bad for her health in various ways, and how in turn her pathological fear of flying has made the writing life more difficult, (travelling to North America by ship for a signing tour) for example.

    The largest and most entertaining part of it was originally published as blog entries on The Guardian’s site.

    It’s very good. And not from the book, but with Doctor Who back (and nearly finished) you should read her meditation on it and on the state of Britain.

    The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (books, 2014, 10)

    Always good to get a new JK Rowling, of course, whatever name she's using. I sometimes wonder if she's got loads of other things out there, under other as-yet-undisclosed pseudonyms; probably not, though.

    Anyway, in the second Cormoran Strike book, we have more of the same sort of thing we had in the first. This time it’s set in the world of publishing, with all sorts of rivalries between more and less successful authors, agents, editors and publishers. “Write what you know”, Jo.

    But can such rivalries drive someone to murder? It seems so.

    My main, and very minor, complaint about this was that there wasn’t enough of sidekick Robin. in it, I felt.

    I don’t know how many of these she’s planning to write, but sooner or later Cormoran has to meet – and presumably solve a crime for, or concerning – his estranged rock-star father. who is a recurring offstage character.

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon (Books 2014, 9)

    In the interest of trying to catch up, I’m not going to say much about this. You probably know all about this already.

    Also, it’s been quite a while since I read it, and although I enjoyed it, it hasn’t really stuck around in my head in a way that leaves me much to say. It’s clever in giving us some idea of what it might be like to live with autism. That might be its greatest strength.

    The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell (Books 2014, 8)

    I'm now so far behind in posting these that I'm just going to put very brief notes up for most of them.

    As a sequel to the excellent London Falling this suffers slightly from what feels a bit like middle-book-of-trilogy syndrome; though I believe Cornell intends this to be an ongoing series, rather than a trilogy.

    That said, there is an overarching mystery, which we must hope will be resolved over the course of several books. And at that point, maybe he’ll stop. But the actual story here is perhaps slight compared to the origin stories of the first one, and the horror that Quill and his wife, in particular, experienced.

    A mysterious ghostly figure – invisible to all who don’t have The Sight, of course – is killing people in London. There appears to be little to connect them at first, but graffiti at some of the scenes suggests there might be a link to Jack the Ripper. Has his ghost come back and this time gone after rich white men? Or is it something else entirely?

    It’s a fun read, despite my reservations above, with some amusing reference to fandom, and the terrible, terrible abuse of a giant of the fantasy genre.

    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… ↩︎

    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? ↩︎

    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 I 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.