Canal Dreams by Iain Banks (Books 2023, 18) πŸ“š

I’ve always considered this the least of Iain Banks’s novels. As, I think, did he. If I remember correctly, this was the one about which he said he wrote it without a plan, and he’d never do that again.

So it’s strange, coming back to The Great Banksie Reread, and reading this for the first time in many years, to find that I liked it far more than I expected to. (Funny to note that my only other reference to it here was saying it was better than I remembered.)

It’s not that bad at all. It doesn’t meander the way you might expect the ‘no plan’ thing to imply. What is striking is how apt the title is. A significant proportion of the narrative is taken up with the main character’s dreams. All of which either illuminate her past or tie in to other events in the plot, so they make sense.

But whichever novelist it was that I remember saying, ‘Never have a dream sequence’ β€” Chris Priest, I think β€” must hate it.

Fatal Revenant: The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 2 by Stephen Donaldson (Books 2023, 17) πŸ“š

Wordy, as I mentioned before. Long. Unnecessarily repetitive.

But I enjoyed it nonetheless.

I’m quite glad, though, I don’t have the other books yet. I feel it’s best to take a break after a story like this. Let it sink in. Prepare yourself, maybe, for the next one.

Anyway, more of the same: The Land is in danger, Linden Avery’s son is in Lord Foul’s clutches, and she’s prepared to do just about anything to save it, and him. But especially him. I expect we’re going to see a situation where she puts the whole Land β€” the whole of Earth, indeed β€” in danger, by trying to save Jeremiah.

Maybe she already has.

Oh: people have far too many different names in this. I mean, names by which various people refer to them. In the very last chapter someone refers to ‘The Timewarden’. I was like, ‘That sounds like The Doctor; what the hell is going on?’ But they just meant Thomas Covenant.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Books 2023, 16) πŸ“š

Normally speaking I’d claim a novel written in the 1930s and set in the late 40s for science fiction. But this doesn’t quite reach the threshold. There are around three obvious things that are futuristic: a reference to the Anglo-Nicaraguan war of 1946; ‘air mail’, where a package sent from London is dropped into a field in Sussex; and the astonishing combination of phone and television, allowing the callers to see as well as hear each other! Or rather, one caller to see the other, since phone boxes don’t have ‘television dials’ (but must at least have cameras).

Oh, and the train service has become rubbish, not because of the car or Beeching, but because (wealthy) people mostly fly.

But all that is nothing compared to how funny and overall good this novel is. Stella Gibbons wrote many other novels, but all of them are out of print but this, which is a great shame.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Books 2023, 15) πŸ“š

I started readingthis a few years back, and stopped after the first chapter or so, because it seemed too similar to the thing I was trying to write at the time. I didn’t want to be overly influenced, or worse, unconsciously plagiarise it.

But it’s always been in the back of my mind. And recently I’ve been trying to get back into that novel I was working on then, and finding it difficult. So I thought maybe reading the space opera I backed away from because it was too similar to my own nascent space opera would be just what I needed to get me kickstarted.

That hasn’t quite happened yet (maybe because I read it on holiday), but I loved the hell out of this.

Great characters you enjoy spending time with. A plot that’s just believable enough, with stakes that are high for the characters and then get higher. An interesting, believable galactic political background, with Earth as very much the minor player.

None of the nonhuman characters feel really alien, except from in their physical descriptions, but that’s OK.

I’d say, if you liked Firefly, you’ll like this.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Books 2023, 14) πŸ“š

I’ve been meaning to read this since I read a review of it back when it came out, in 2017. So, six years on, I finally did.

It’s surprisingly slight, given all the fuss and praise. I wasn’t familiar with Saunders before reading that review, but he is famous for his short stories. I’ve read a few of those since β€” at least one during my MA β€” and they’re fine, but to my mind tend to suffer from the problem that many short stories have.

I’ve mentioned this here before, though seemingly only once. Often, when I read a short story β€” even, or perhaps especially, by one of the supposed greats of of the form: Carver, Hemingway, even Chekhov β€” I’m left thinking, ‘So what? What was the point of writing that, and why did you leave it where you did?’

However, I recognise the skill that it takes to conjure a life, a character, in few words. And Saunders makes good use of that ability here. Because the story is not very much about Abraham Lincoln. It’s not even that much about his son, Willie, who is the one who is actually in the ‘bardo’, a place where souls wait after death in some schools of Buddhism. Rather, it’s about some of the other souls that are trapped in the same Washington graveyard. We get a whole host of compressed backstories.

And we get altogether too many quotes from books and articles about Lincoln and the death of his son. I haven’t investigated to see whether these are from actual Lincoln biographies, histories of the American Civil War, and so on, or they are cleverly invented by Saunders. (This Wikipedia article suggests it’s a mixture.) But I found them much less interesting than the stories of the dead souls. A few would have been fine, for background, but it feels like they make up about half the book.

More stories about the dead, please.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Books 2023, 13) πŸ“š

Piranesi has always lived in the house; even if that’s not his name, which it may not be.

A fantastic and fantastical, strange book, this; much simpler and shorter than Susanna Clarke’s previous, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I loved. I kind of love this, too.

I don’t have a lot to say about it, though, as to say much would be to spoil it.

The Runes of the Earth: The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 1 by Stephen Donaldson (Books 2023, 12) πŸ“š

Forty years ago it was: towards the end of school, Watty β€” he of the Number 6 badge, celebrating The Prisoner β€” turned me on to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

‘What does he not believe in?’ I asked.

‘Everything!’ said Watty with relish.

It took me a while to get into the first book. There was an early section where I ground to a halt. But I went back to it, and ripped through the five books of the two trilogies that were out yet.

Then I had to wait. This is largely why I try not to start a series before its author has finished writing it. Those weeks and months through the first year of uni were interminable. (Only in that one regard, though, to be fair.)

There was a guy on my corridor in the halls of residence who was similarly waiting, and when White Gold Wielder came out, he bought it at once.

In hardback. I was shocked by the profligacy, and didn’t emulate him. Besides, it wouldn’t have matched my paperbacks.

But after he’d read it, he lent it to me. I wish I could remember his name.

So it should be clear that I liked the books a lot. However, I was thereafter corrupted by the general consensus that these were not well-written books, not a good example of the genre.

And yes, sure, they’re not particularly well-written. Donaldson can be over-wordy and repetitive at times. But he knew how to weave a tale that gripped me.

And now, forty years hence, after my son had borrowed my old copies and read them (including my paperback of White Gold Wielder, which I bought to complete the set, but have never read, since I never reread the series) he discovered (something which I vaguely knew) that Donaldson had written a ‘final’ trilogy. Which has since turned into a tetralogy. I don’t know when that happened. This volume that I read β€” my son’s β€” says it’s three volumes.

So how is it? Pretty damn good, actually. A copious ‘What Has Gone Before’ leads off, and reminds me how much I don’t remember about the original six books. And then β€” well, I don’t want to get into spoilers, but after the first hundred or so pages, it’s a real page-turner for the next four hundred or so, and leaves me keen to know how it all ends.

So expect more of this stuff here, in due course. This time, it’s all finished, and there will be no need for me to wait for a final volume.

The City & the City by China Mieville (Books 2023, 11) πŸ“š

It’s like China wanted to write a police procedural, a detective story. But being China, there was no way it could be set in the quotidian world of today.

Which is great.. The setup here is that there are two cities, BesΕΊel an Ul Qoma, somewhere in Eastern Europe; but they both occupy the same space. People in on can’t interact with those in the other.

That’s about as much as I knew about it before I started.

In another way it feels it’s kind of an extended metaphor for how we don’t notice things that are right under our noses. Or, as my beloved said, just for how we can live in a city like London alongside people from other cultures, people who look and dress differently, who even move differently; and never interact with them

This is both good and bad, of course. Or can be both or either depending on the circumstances. Because we’re ignoring other people, whole swathes of them. The live their lives, full, rich, desperate, happy, sad; and we know nothing of them. They know nothing of us. Yet we don’t get in their way. We don’t interfere with them. We let them get on with their lives, and they us with ours, not causing them problems, as they cause us none.

Or only the most minor of inconveniences as we avoid each other on the street.

But is there even a third city, co-terminal with the two we know about? Some believe there is. Does Orciny exist?

You’ll have to read it to find out.

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Books 2023, 10) πŸ“š

To tide me over until the new Strike book comes out (in just under two months) I suddenly decided to reread JK’s single non-pseudonymous, non-magical book. It’s over a decade old now, which is kind of hard to believe.

And it’s still bloody heartbreaking. How she can make us feel so much for so many flawed characters (but especially one or two) in so few words, never stops amazing me.

It’s a slice of small-town England, in which a parish council member dies, leaving the titular vacancy. And all that proceeds from that. It shouldn’t be as compelling as it is, based on that description. But there you go.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (Books 2023, 9) πŸ“š

I mentioned in May, that I had been reading this. It’s taken me till now to finish it.

In another sense it’s taken me a lot longer: I first started reading it in 2004. Back then I was doing an Open University literature course. In one module an extract from Daniel Deronda was one of the options for us to write about. I think I must have chosen it, because my tutor sung its praises, saying it was a great one to read over Christmas, ‘curled up next to the fire.’

So I bought it and started it at the time. I can be fairly sure of this, as the bookmarks I found in it, when I picked it up back in May, were a pair of old-school paper train tickets from 2004. Two markers, of course, because this is a classics edition with comprehensive endnotes.

The main bookmark was around page 200, so I got a decent way into it. Except this is a book of over 800 pages, so actually not that far. I don’t know why I stopped. Probably just got distracted by other books and petered out. I started from the beginning again this time, and found I remembered almost nothing of what I read nearly 20 years ago.

But enough meta story about my history with the book. What of the book itself?

It’s really two main interwoven stories. The title character appears briefly, wordlessly, in the first scene, and then is not seen again for the whole of the first book (it was originally published serially, and is internally divided into eight books). First we get the start of the story of Gwendolen Harleth, a young woman of fair but limited means, who might expect to marry well. Until her family falls into poverty.

Her story at times feels like it’s going to be a conventional, Austenesque romance. It is not, of course: it’s much more complex than that.

The other story is about how Daniel Deronda rescues a young Jewish woman from self-inflicted drowning, and finds her a home, and what follows from that. This section is largely about the way Jews were treated at the time (the 1870s), and the idea that they might seek a homeland. The start of Zionism, in effect. Deronda is sympathetic to the plight of the Jews generally, as he is to Mirah, the woman he rescued. But then, he’s synmpathetic to just about everyone.

The darkest part of this story shows us how terrifyingly restricted, locked down, controlled, a married woman could be in those times. the husband in question is not physically violent, he simply controls all aspects of their lives, and hence her life. She has no hope of escape. It’s powerfully understated, and all the more chilling for that.

Some sentences are overly long by modern standards, and some of the language is complex or old-fashioned enough to be confusing, but it usually becomes clear with careful reading. And it doesn’t detract from the power of the storytelling.

Punk Publishing: A DIY Guide, by Andy Conway & David Wake (Books 2023, 8) πŸ“š

I bought this on my recent visit to Eastercon, from one of the authors, David Wake.

I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of self-publishing before this, but Wake was on a panel about what to watch out for when you first get a publishing contract (his point: nothing, if you self-publish). He made some good points about the advantages of doing it yourself versus the traditional publishing route. For example, you don’t send your sample chapters and synopsis in then wait two years for someone to decide. And even if they say yes, it could be another two years before your book is published.

I don’t know which way I’ll go with my recently-finished draft, but I thought it was worth spending a fiver on this to check out the possibilities. And it seems a decent guide to how you can approach publishing both ebooks and paperbacks, for minimal outlay.

It doesn’t go into things like cover design and marketing, which, of course, are some of the things that traditional publishers handle.

I might give it a spin, though, with a novella that I’ve got sitting around. We shall see.

Anyway, take a look at this if you’re interested in the possibilities. Their website is here.

Beyond the Reach of Earth by Ken McLeod (Books 2023, 7) πŸ“š

The sequel to Beyond the Hallowed Sky, which I read at the start of last year.

It’s an excellent followup, with a very good summary of the previous novel at the start, which is useful. Top quality SF with politics. Scotland, and the Union (the EU++), are expanding into interstellar space, joining the other two power blocs.

Like the last, and perhaps even more so, this ends in a place that is quite satisfying. No cliffhangers, and if there were no more books, it wouldn’t matter.

Though at the same time it’ll be great to see what happens in book 3.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Books 2023, 6) πŸ“š

Atkinson’s Life After Life was the wonderful story of Ursula Todd, who kept repeating her life, dying in different ways each time. One interpretation or explanation for this strange experience is that she was trying to create (or find, or reach) a version of her life in which her beloved brother Teddy survives the Second World War and lives to grow old.

A God in Ruins is the story of that timeline.

Or maybe a couple of timelines. While this is in most ways a more straightforward tale than its predecessor, we do see two or three possible different endings for Teddy. It’s also about his descendants: his daughter the infuriating Viola, and her two children. It’s kind of a redemption tale for some characters.

I enjoyed the bits about Teddy’s wartime expreiences as a bomber pilot most. Overall it’s not as good as Life After Life, but not bad.

Interzone 294 Edited by Gareth Jelley (Books 2023, 5) πŸ“š

I posted a photo of this when it arrived, to show its new paperback-book format. It’s an issue of Interzone: it’s fine, but nothing in it was particularly outstanding. Several decent stories, an interview with Christopher Priest, the usual book and film reviews and ‘Ansible Link’, the cut-down version of Dave Langford’s Ansible newsletter(the mailing list of which, I realise as I type, I seem to have fallen off; I haven’t seen it in a few months).

Interzone is worth getting to keep up to date with the scene, if nothing else.

That all sounds bad. People worked hard on these stories. I think I just don’t really get on very well with short stories, something I’ve mentioned here before.

The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald, Translated by Michael Hulse (Books 2023, 4) πŸ“š

The Rings of Saturn is a very unusual book. My copy has this classification on the back: ‘Fiction/Memoir/Travel’.

Well make up your mind, I might say!

And yet, it is all those things, and the combination makes a compelling, readable whole.Sebald (or, the narrator) goes on walks around Norfolk and Suffolk. Along the way his thoughts carry him on paths that both parallel his physical ones and diverge far from them in both time and space. He muses on history, architecture, biography, geology, ecology, and much more.

This Guardian ‘Where to Start With…’ article saves it for last, as ‘the one you’ll want your friends to read’. Which is fair enough.

I still don’t understand why he gave it that title, though.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua (Books 2023, 3) πŸ“š

Fantastic graphic novel about the inventor of the Difference and Analytical Engines and the first programmer.

Together they fight crime.

Well, not quite. But they do meet Wellington, Brunel, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Mary Ann Evans (George Elliot), and other famous Victorians, and have adventures.

A fabulous romp.

Bomber Jackson Does Some by Bob Boyton (Books 2023, 2) πŸ“š

First, cards on the table, Bob is a friend of mine. Bomber Jackson Does Some is his first novel, self-published in 2012. He gave us a copy back then, and it’s taken me till now to read it.

Just because of the size of my to-read piles, not any quality concerns.

Bomber is an ex-boxer and an alcoholic. At the start of the novel he has just got out of prison. As you might imagine from such a setup, things largely go downhill from there. His thoughts include a fair amount of slang, some of which I didn’t understand, but the meaning was usually clear from context. For example, he refers to two homeless men as ‘real old-fashioned paraffins’. Paraffin lamp = tramp, I assume.

It’s written in first person, present tense, which I think is quite a hard voice to sustain. Bob does a good job of getting us inside Bomber’s head, and the story flows along at fine old rate.

All in all, top stuff. Recommended if you can get hold of a copy.

Together We Will Go by J Michael Straczynski (Books 2023, 1) πŸ“š

Content warning: suicide

The first book of the year. JMS of Babylon 5 fame tells the story of a group of people who, each for their own varied reason, want to end their life.

One of their number arranges a final bus trip, across the USA, with the plan being to drive off a cliff in California. There are legal implications, so the law gets involved.

It’s desperately sad, yet happy and life-affirming at the same time. It’s told through first-person accounts of each of the characters, who have been asked to journal their experience. They’re very well-developed and you grow attached to them.

So you don’t want them to die. But you do want them to make it.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Books 2022, 33) πŸ“š

Not just another murder mystery, but an undeniably cosy one. OK, the deaths aren’t cosy, obviously, but the mood and vibe of the book certainly is.

The club in question is made up of four residents at a retirement village. They start out by speculatively investigating cold cases that a former member, who had been a police officer, had records of. But soon a hot case lands right in front of them, and things get interesting.

It’s hilarious in places, moving, well-plotted, and, let’s face it, a tad unconvincing. But you don’t let that bother you while you’re reading it.

Which you should do.

The Perfume Burned His Eyes by Michael Imperioli (Books 2022, 32) πŸ“š

As any fan will realise instantly, the title of this comes from Lou Reed’s ‘Romeo Had Juliet’. So that’s going to draw my interest right away. Then from the blurb we learn that Lou himself is a character in the story.

Turns out it’s a kind of coming-of-age novel about a seventeen-year-old boy from Queens in 1976 or so, who moves with his mother to Manhattan, and into the block where Lou Reed is also living. The boy, Matt, becomes something of a friend/assistant to Lou for a while.

In a parallel narrative, Matt falls for a girl at his new school, who might be involved in some withcrafty kind of stuff. It’s not obvious exactly how the timelines of the two strands relate, but things come to a head β€” or a couple of heads, you could say.

The book closes with a chapter entitled ‘Afterwords’ (note the plural) in which the narrator β€” or the author β€” writes after Lou’s death. This section makes it seem as if the early section was based on real events. The author is a successful actor, so who knows?

I want to quote this from that last section, about Lou’s music, because I love it:

And more than anything else, it was punk. Which should come as no surprise since you were its creator. I don’t care what Detroit says, you were doing it when Iggy was a mere Osterberg and Kramer was trying to figure out who the other four would be. As for the lads from my neck of the woods (famous for their “One, two, three, four” count-off and three power chords) who are considered by some as the progenitors of the movement… well, that just makes no sense chronologically or otherwise. Not to mention (but I will) that they basically wrote the same song over and over again. And however great a song it may be, it renders deep catalog cuts redundant. Sorry, kids, I guess you had to be thereβ€”on the Bowery when it happened. But I wasn’t.

And the same goes for the little London boy. Just the first few sentences you speak to the audience on Take No Prisoners relegates John-John to a corner with some crayons and a finger up his nose. The revolution you started was one of art and intellect. It inspired the defeat of tyranny in Czechoslovakia, for Christ’s sake. God save the queen, indeed.

‘The little London boy.’ πŸ˜€

Something about the length, the writing style, and the age of the narrator, suggests that this book should or would be considered young-adult (YA). But the Lou Reed connection makes it much more likely that people in my age group will be drawn to it. I don’t know what that means.

I enjoyed it, anyway. And it was a Christmas present from my daughter.

Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin (Books 2022, 31) πŸ“š

I’m quite pleased to have read as many as 31 books this year. Not sure quite how I’ve managed it, what with writing my own, and starting a new job, and all. Partly a lot of rereading of page-turners, of course.

Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World was not a reread for me, though I’ve had it on my shelf for years. Bought second-hand, I’m sure, I don’t recall where or when, but it’s an edition from 1978. And it’s a super-slim volume. It probably wouldn’t be classified as a novel at all, in today’s publishing world. It’s kind of a slight story, about a person from an advanced species β€” an Earth-human, essentially β€” getting stranded on a planet at bronze-age levels of technology, with various species of native humanoid.

The titular Rocannon has to make his way across the world to find the other high-level aliens who have caused him to be stranded, avenge himself, warn his people about their aggression, and maybe try to get rescued.

It’s not bad, but it’s maybe most notable for being, I believe, the place where Le Guin first used the term Ansible for s faster-than-light communication device. She went on to use it in many other novels, and other SF authors adopted it.

And now it’s also the name for something in IT automation. Infrastructure as code. Of which concept, though not Ansible, more later, probably.

Illuminations by Alan Moore (Books 2022, 30) πŸ“š

It’s amusing, this one coming straight after this year’s behemoth, since the last book I read by Moore was a similar year-spanning (and reading-year-consuming) monster.

This one, however, is much more straightforward and shorter read than Jerusalem. It’s a book of short stories. Or more accurately, a book containing some short stories and one that is more or less long enough to be a novel on its own.

That one β€” ‘What We Can Know About Thunderman’ β€” is a fractured history of the US comics market. It tells of the two big companies β€” American and Goliath β€” and a few smaller ones that mostly got gobbled up over the years. American famously has the eponymous Man of Storms as its most famous character, along with King Bee, Moon Queen, and many more.

We get the stories of how various young fans attend conventions and end up as professionals, and what happens to some of them afterwards. But why are some odd things happening to people who work for American?

That one’s the centrepiece, but I think my favourite might be ‘American Light β€” An Appreciation’. Subtitled as ‘by C. F. Bird’, it presents an annotated version of a poem, the ‘American Light’ of the title, by a beat poet called Harmon Belner. In 26 pages and 86 footnotes, Moore manages to give us a pretty good beat poem, and tell parts of at least two life stories. You’ve got to read all the footnotes, though.1

The other stories are good, too. ‘The Improbably Complex High-Energy State’ takes place in the first femtoseconds of the universe.2 ‘Location, Location, Location’ is the story of an estate agent and her client after the world has ended.

Highly recommended.

  1. They are the point. ↩︎

  2. Well, a universe. ↩︎

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, Translated by Jennifer Croft (Books 2022, 29)

I am unreasonably happy about having finished this before the end of the year. I started reading it at the start of the year. In fact, possibly before the start of the year, since it was a Christmas present.

Of course, I’ve read 28 other books while intermittently dipping into this behemoth, something I alluded to once or twice.

It’s a historical novel set in the middle and end of the 18th century, telling the story of Jacob Frank, a Polish Jew who led a cult, or alternative religious community if you prefer. He converted to Islam, then to Catholicism, taking his followers with him on the second of those changes. But they remained ‘true believers’, treating Frank as the true Messiah.

It took me so long to read partly because it’s so long, and certainly not because it was uninteresting. In fact it’s surprisingly compelling, considering the subject matter. But it is complex. Not least because of all the Polish place names and names of people. The latter is compounded when they get baptised into the Catholic church. They take on new names, so now most characters have two sets of names.

I got a surprise when I first picked up the book to find that it’s numbered backwards. Chapter 1 of Book 1 starts on page 892. The story ends on page 27. (There are some notes and blank pages after that.) At first I thought I might have to read it ‘backwards’, but no: the story proceeds in the direction I’m used to. It’s just the numbering.

I wondered if this was a reference to the direction of Hebrew writing, and Tokarczuk’s note at the end confirms that it is,

as well as a reminder that every order, every system, is simply a matter of what you’ve got used to.

Which is fair enough. I quite liked knowing how many pages I still had to go, with having to subtract. Especially as I got near the end.

Coincidentally, in the last couple of weeks I read this in ‘Shift Happens’, a newsletter about a book about keyboards:

(in Poland and parts of Europe, books have their tables of contents at the end, and so will mine).

Which isn’t the case here, but I thought it was an interesting slightly-connected idea.

It’s a huge work, in more ways than one, and also an incredible example of the translator’s art.

This is disappointing: Apple have removed the delightful page-turn animation from the Books app: Apple’s taken the joy out of its Books app with iOS 16 - The Verge.

Bring it back! Joy! Whimsy!

The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith (Books 2022, 28)

And so I circle back and reread the book I read just over a month ago.

This has been a most enjoyable experience, reading through the whole series. Rereading this one so soon was an excellent opportunity to see if I could spot any clues that I missed the first time (certainly one or two).

The apparent logical jumps the characters make at the climax made more sense this time, so that was good.

Excellent stuff. I look forward to the next one.