Good Things

Nightfall – Little Big Town

Here we are then, twenty-twenty, the year of hindsight, and my first (new) album purchase of the year is this new record from vocal harmony group Little Big Town. And it’s great, beautiful, and if you’re not uplifted by the opening track, “Next to You”, you’re dead inside. The band wrote 34 songs for this album, whittled down to a lucky 13 for the release. There are lush songs reflecting on things worth getting up for, drinking songs, questioning songs, heartbreak songs, and all of it lifted by the soaring power of the human voice, the harmonies and arrangements, as ever, superb. It’s not all Karen Fairchild, either. At times, I’ve felt that she’s carried the rest with her amazing voice on their standout tracks. Not this time.

On Chapel Sands – Laura Cumming

Finally got to read this, a book that was on my list from the moment I read an extract in the Graun last year. I listened to the abridged version on Radio 4, but still wanted to read it. It’s an intriguing story about a child who gets snatched from a lincolnshire beach in 1929. The child was the author’s mother, and the story is both a deeply personal story about identity and a documentary about rural life and hard times in the Britain of long ago. The author is an art critic and tells the story through images, including both family photos and paintings. She highlights the mysteries of both, from the blurred faces of long-dead relatives to the carefully composed works of old masters. The writing is beautiful, the story tightly controlled, with startling revelations that keep coming. Having read this and Mark Lewisohn’s first volume of his Beatles biography, and knowing some of my own family history, you start to form a picture of British family life that’s completely at odds with the conservative myth of “family values”. 

My one criticism of On Chapel Sands is that it tries very hard to be a beautiful (hardback) book, but is let down by the reproduction of the images that are so important to the telling of the story (like the one above). What it needed was an insert of glossy pages. What it ends up with is what Kurt Vonnegut so memorably described: “They were grainy things, soot and chalk. They could have been anybody.”

The Whisperer in Darkness – BBC podcast.

You ay have heard this recommended. Radio drama can be hit and miss; there are so many things that can go wrong. They can rely on grownass adult women to deliver the voices of children: bad. They can have extended sequences of grunts: boring. They can dumb things down too much: Journey into Space, I’m looking at you. They can be too depressing or too middle class. But The Whisperer in Darkness is properly good, so much so that I even forgive it the already tired trope of being a podcast about a pretend podcast. It even manges to be decently creepy and scary. 

(In contrast, the latest BBC attempt at this kind of thing, Murmurs, becomes quickly unlistenable. It relies too much on irritating sound effects which are, well, irritating. And it uses a sound effects library of sounds that telephones haven’t made in a long time. Also, it relies on the conceit that all of this drama is happening over telephone conversations – and who, these days, ever really talks on their phone?)

The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Okay, well. Throat clearing noises (*turning to hacking cough*). In spite of my long-term aversion of new fantasy trilogies, I started reading this, using my Kindle Unlimited subscription. That’s how they get you: volume 1 was free, volume 2 not so much. My first surprise was to learn that this author, whose books I had seen out of the corner of my eye for years, is actually Margaret Ogden, a prolific American writer. The second surprise was not actually much of a surprise: this trilogy is actually the first of at least three trilogies, all set in the same fictional world, and depending on how you count, there are five trilogies and one of the trilogies has four books in it.

Vietnam flashbacks to the Katherine Kerr Deverry series, which I began with enthusiasm in the mid-1980s, but read begrudgingly to its conclusion, fifteen books and 23 years later.

But here we are, on holiday, and short of reading material in the sense that I have dipped into and rejected a number of books recently. I’m halfway through Ben MacIntyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, at which point I lost interest. I started and abandoned the following: Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (just not in the mood); Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (existential boredom); and think I will abandon Stephen Baxter’s Time (Manifold) (again, just not in the mood). I don’t know what I want really. So, okay, here comes some high fantasy, some swords and sorcery without too many swords and only hints of sorcery in this, the first of the sequence.

And it must be okay because I stuck with it and even read with some enthusiasm. It’s a fish out of water tale, like The Goblin Emperor maybe, or Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair. A young boy, bastard son of a prince, is abandoned to his father’s care, although never actually meets his father, who goes into disgraced exile. He’s then raised and educated in a fairly haphazard way until he falls under the care of the King’s assassin, and is trained in the ways of poisons and sneaking about.

It’s immediately interesting because if you’ve read anything like this before, you’ll know that the protagonist is usually heroic, noble, able, and certainly not the kind of person who drops poison into peoples’ drinks. Robin Hobbs’ world building is efficient but not burdensome. You get the sense of a bigger picture without being overwhelmed by exposition dumps, and I like the deft way she hints at the future importance of certain events and characters without spending too much time on them. The denouement of this is swift and chaotic, twisting and turning over a few pages without infuriating you as to the irrational decision making of key characters. You never feel like the thing is being padded for length like a Stephen King novel.

I’ve tried and been tempted recently by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. I read The Dragonbone Chair but just didn’t feel the need to read on. I enjoyed the first bit of Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, but didn’t feel like reading on after the third, The Last Argument of Kings became a bit of a drag. And while I was initially enthusiastic about Alex Marshall’s Crimson Empire series, I completely lost interest during the third book.

In other words, I know myself well enough to know that while the first in a series might grab me, I’ll almost inevitably be disappointed if I read on. I regret to this day that I didn’t get a time-machine visitation from my future self after I’d read the first 6 of Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books, telling me to stop reading back then.

So I don’t know if I’ll carry on with Robin Hobb. I did really enjoy The Assassin’s Apprentice, but you can never really be sure. Is it better to leave it as a somewhat fond memory (The Dragonbone Chair)? Or to dig a trench and settle in for the long haul?

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

This, for once, is not a sleep diary entry but a review of something I’ve wanted to read for a while, a science fiction mystery novel which was nominated for a number of major awards (though didn’t win). I didn’t buy it immediately, however, because The Incomparable podcast was only lukewarm about it, and it was a bit steep, price-wise, for something that might only be okay.

Now, I feel bad about what I’m about to say, because there’s a little message from the author at the end of the Kindle edition, saying, in effect, “I produced this ebook myself, please help me out by emailing corrections…”

Well.

The problem is, I have produced ebooks myself, and I’m sure there are problems all over them, but this book was originally published by Orbit/Hachette who are professional publishers, not amateurs like me. But there’s something weird about the ebook publication. It took a long time for this book to be available in electronic form, and for whatever reason the quality control was poor.

There are a couple or three recurring problems, which I mention because they kept throwing me out of the story and became irritating and distracting. The first is that there are random line breaks, new paragraphs beginning in the middle

of a sentence – like that. And the second is kind of the opposite problem, because all-too frequently, dialogue is muddled within the same paragraph instead of following the “new person, new paragraph” rule, and you keep having to stop to work out who is saying what. Finally, the third problem, though less common, also added confusion to dialogue: the occasional omission of opening speech marks meant that you kept having to track back to see where dialogue began.

All that said, I wonder if any reader has taken the time to email Ms Lafferty and supply corrections. I haven’t. There were, frankly too many, and they were too obvious. In the end, it reads like a book resulting from an OCR scan that nobody bothered to review/correct.

Now, that’s a huge chunk of my review dedicated to formatting problems. What about the actual novel?

The premise is that there is a star ship containing frozen colonists heading for an Earthlike planet. In this society, cloning is not unusual, but there are many rules, including that each person can only have one body at a time, and an updated “mindmap” of memories is transferred into the new body, which is grown to post-adolescence prior to activation. The ship is crewed by cloned humans, who all have reasons to want a clean slate, and the idea is that they simply get a fresh body when they need one.

The ship has been en-route for about 25 years when all six crew wake up in fresh cloned bodies, surrounded by the murdered corpses of themselves – but no updated mindmaps. So the plot is essentially an investigation into that crime, with the backstories of all the characters filled in. It’s an intriguing setup, but the execution is flawed.

One issue is that a major revelation towards the end is telegraphed from almost the beginning. Another is that the rules of this story (the clones have no recent memories, and have to use mindmaps from just before they boarded the ship) tie the plot in knots. So, for example, one character “knows” she has a safe containing several data drives including backups of the rest of the crew, even though her supposed most recent memory is of a party the night before they boarded. And then you get bits of dialogue where characters explain away these types of plot holes to each other.

In many ways, this reads like a first or second draft, both in the sense that these holes could be more elegantly closed and the revelation less obvious, and also in the sense that the formatting is bad.

In the end, this feels like a missed opportunity: almost but not quite great, which possibly explains why it was nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards but did not win.

Peter Brown called to say

It’s a measure of the extent to which The Love You Make is a careless hack job that the book manages to misquote the one line in a Beatles song that means anybody has ever heard of its co-author. “Peter Brown called to say,” it reads, “You can made it okay, you can get married in Gibraltar near Spain.”

A typo, nothing more, but such a typo. The one line.

Although The Love You Make is blessed with many five-star reviews on the Amazon, it reads like a carelessly cobbled together cash-in, published close enough to John Lennon’s death to catch the wave, and completely bereft of any sense that the entity behind it is a real person in the world. In fact, it reads exactly like a busy-and-important executive sat down for a couple of meetings with a ghost writer (co-author and professional biographer Steven Gaines) before sending him off to read everybody else’s books about the Beatles by way of research. 

All of this, I have to say, is based on the edition I just read, which came out in 1983. So it’s entirely possible that the reprinted version from 2002 fixed a lot of these problems. But I doubt it. I wonder if any of the reviewers even read it. This, from the blurb, is hard to believe:

Here is the national bestseller that Newsday called “the most authoritative and candid look yet at the personal lives…of the oft-scrutinized group.” In The Love You Make, Peter Brown, a close friend of and business manager for the band—and the best man at John and Yoko’s wedding—presents a complete look at the dramatic offstage odyssey of the four lads from Liverpool who established the greatest music phenomenon of the twentieth century.

I don’t recognise that description. The first third of the book consists of a rehashing of other biographies, notably Cynthia Lennon’s. The last few chapters feature summaries of the lives of the ex-Beatles, which any competent professional could have gleaned from the public record. It’s not until page 152 before you can be certain that something Peter Brown might have personally witnessed is being recounted. The truth is that I could have written most of this.

It’s careless not just with typos but with the timeline. Spoiled by the meticulous narrative of Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, I was irritated by the way Brown’s telling drifted back and forth with only a vague sense of the actual order of events. An example: one of the inserted glossy photos features a caption explaining that the “surviving Beatles” attended Ringo’s wedding to Barbara Bach. There they all were: Paul, George, Ringo, and their respective spouses. But the caption also says that the wedding took place in 1980. Well. Lennon was still alive for most of 1980, and Ringo’s wedding was actually in April of 1981. So again, probably just a typo, but an example of the kind of confusion that results from carelessness.

Apart from all that, there’s the nasty tone. Surely none of the Beatles who “gave full co-operation” were expecting to be portrayed in such a negative light. The little sketch of Lennon and Ono that opens the book could have been written by that other hatchet man, Albert Goldman. The other three don’t fare better and only the spouses are spared the liberally spread acid. Patty Boyd comes across as practically saint-like, and it’s hilarious to read the bit about how she’s been with Eric ever since and they lived happily ever after.

As an antidote to all this, Derek Taylor’s memoir As Time Goes By was recently reissued by Faber, and it oozes his brilliant, easygoing writing style and candid honesty — especially about his own faults. Perhaps Peter Brown thought nobody would be interested in him, but his absence from his own memoir leaves a great glaring hole. A missed opportunity. He could have made it okay.

I’d read a million words like one of your nerds…

Fi and Jane were talking and Fi mentioned she’d read about 4 or 5 books over the summer, and Jane was impressed. At around 80,000 words per, that’s about 400,000 words, so, yes, very good.

At a rough estimate, I read just over a million words over the summer holiday. Three quarters of them were Gardner Dozois science fiction anthologies from the 80s and 90s, three of them that I’d previously not purchased. They’re a bargain on the Kindle at around €4 each.

So I read the 5th, 6th, and 10th Annual Collections, with stories from 1987, 1988, and 1992 respectively. Now, as any fule kno, science fiction often purports to be about the future but its really always about the present. Because when you ask what if…? you are always starting from here. In recent years, I’ve been finding science fiction to be a bit of a drag. There are too many post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian novels set five minutes from now, and it has been grim reading. To the point that I’m starting to avoid certain tropes. And this is before we get to the infestation of so-called “literary” science fiction novels, with the likes of Jeanette Winterson muscling in on the field and reinventing the wheel.

(Here’s the first sentence of the blurb to her recent Fran Kiss Stein:

In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.

Try not to get any vomit on the toilet floor.)

This is not to suggest that there weren’t grim visions of the future in 1988 or 1992. There were, and much of it even centred around climate change. Science fiction has been on the climate train since the 1970s at least, which is why it’s so infuriating when literary writers pretend they’ve come up with an original idea for their latest genre crossover Waterstones front table bait.

But here’s the thing.

There were better writers in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the 10th Annual Collection, the 1992 edition (published in 1993) is so fucking good: it’s hit after hit by all the big names. In fact, the absolute worst story in that collection was written by Arthur C. Fucking Clarke.

As a palate cleanser between these anthologies, I read a few Cadfael books, plus a Tana French, the new Becky Chambers, and Ironclads, a novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky. All of which adds up to somewhere North of a million words.

And now I’m back to reading for 10 minutes every night before falling asleep.

To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

This was one of the cultural highlights of the summer for me, a new novella from Becky Chambers, who has previously published three delightful novels (none of which were particularly long) in her Wayfarers series. This one is not from the same series and comes in at about half the length of a standard novel – and at under a fiver I can’t complain.

So, why a novella? A small idea, an itch that needed to be scratched? The introduction of a new Becky Chambers universe with some light worldbuilding? Or a short story run wild?

Hard to say. Anyway, I read this in a day, and it was enjoyable but slim pickings. I’ve been thoroughly engaged by Chambers’ work and wouldn’t call her a “science fiction lightweight” as some do, but this novella, if you wanted to be harsh, could be described as four characters in search of a plot.

The set-up is straightforward, though some heavy suspension of disbelief is required. A crowdfunded space exploration programme sends several missions from Earth to explore different exoplanetary systems, all of which have the potential to harbour life. If a crowdfunded space programme is hard to believe, the strong ethics of the explorers also tests your ability to go along with it. These humans are determined to have as little impact as possible upon the ecosystems they explore. They’re explorers, not colonisers, and their code is hippocratic: first, do no harm. Rather than change their environment, they change themselves, which is a necessarily under-explored aspect of this piece.

The plot, such as it is, follows the four crew of one of the missions as they explore, in turn, four promising worlds in a solar system, all of which have – or might have – water. Comparisons to Goldilocks and the Three Bears are inevitable, given that the zone in which life might potentially exist is named after that fairy tale. Is one planet too cold, another too warm, and another just right? And what of the fourth?

The rule of four: four planets, four crew, four personalities. Are they all too perfect? Chambers’ human characters are generally so caring and considerate and tolerant that the conflict necessary to drive a plot has to come from elsewhere. It’s hard to say here whether she intends people to be sympathetic or deeply irritating. Once character comes across to me as so prickly and difficult that I cannot believe they’d be allowed on such a mission. Are the planets and the people metaphorically linked? It’s worth some thought.

Standard science fiction elements are here: a way of dealing with human lifespans and interstellar distances; a way of dealing with the perils of radiation; some hand waving about fuel and propulsion systems; more handwaving about air, food, and recycling. It’s a novella, so you shouldn’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson level detail. But there’s a lot of handwaving, and someone like KSR would dig into that a little and create some peril out f it. Which is not to say that there isn’t peril here: but it’s served as a side dish rather than the main course.

The story begins with the words “Please read this” and even tempts you to skip to the end in order to find out what “this” is all about, but I didn’t do that. They land, they explore, stuff happens, and then they face a decision, which ought to be high stakes and dramatic, but somehow feels like a cop-out.

So: not an essential Becky Chambers read; certainly an enjoyable way to pass the time while you do read it, though. I’d accept this as the introduction to a new series, but if it turns out to stand alone, it’s inessential.

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

It’s lucky, I reckon, that I recently managed to identify three Gardner Dozois anthologies from the 80s and 90s that I had not read. So I have 750,000 words of 80s/90s science fiction to look forward to instead of the dreck being produced in 2019.

Trail of Lightning, I hasten to add, is not dreck, but it is a bit bof. It bears all the hallmarks of fiction published in an era in which everyone is a writer but nobody wants to pay an editor.

It’s a fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic landscape about five minutes from now, after the Big Water and the collapse of so-called civilisation. We’re on what might otherwise be a Southwestern Navajo reservation, and myths and monsters have come to life. It’s an appealing idea, but let down by the execution. Our protagonist is Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter and anti-hero (I guess) who is given some kind of vaguely expressed job to complete by a Trickster character and then seems to bounce around, pinball-like, until it’s time for the end. All of the twists and turns are telegraphed long in advance, and the Big Revelation is so obvious that you have to conclude that our Maggie is a bit thick.

There are lots of unfamiliar words herein with no clue as to how they’re pronounced or what they mean. This is probably a deliberate alienation technique, but a glossary in the back wouldn’t have hurt, would it? Worst of all, the Kindle couldn’t render a number of the words properly – even though I switched to the Publisher Font, which I was pleased to find embedded.

It’s all set up for the next in the series (The Sixth World), which has soured me on this first book even further because I won’t be bothering. This keeps happening! I cannot emphasise enough how refreshing it would be to pick up a book in this genre that doesn’t come with half a million words of sequels. I am not averse at all to the urban fantasy genre. My favourite book is Tim Powers’ Declare, and much as I would lap up a sequel to that, it stands alone. There’s such an enormous difference between a writer who gives a book an ending and then, maybe, later comes up with further ideas, and one who leaves everything up in the air like an episode of TV.

All this said, a lot of other people have really liked this, so I’m probably just too grumpy for my own good.