A tale of three books

34701258The problem with holidays, for me, is always the packing of enough books. I always seem to underestimate my requirements, even with strong memories of the last time I did so. I bought a few library books with me this time, and Provenance by Ann Leckie, which I’d been saving up for this special occasion, but I left behind the SF anthology I’ve been working slowly through since the summer, thinking I wouldn’t need it. The reading I do when I’m at work (between 20 minutes and an hour before I go to sleep at night) is both qualitatively and quantitively different than that I do on holiday, when I can fill long hours with sustained and concentrated reading.

Anyway, with a week of the holiday to go, I’ve run out, and will now turn to the books my daughter bought with her.

It has been a mixed bag. I read, for example, the sixth novel in The Expanse series of books, Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey. I find that my enjoyment of this series has been affected by my disappointment in the TV adaptation, which features wooden acting and clunky dialogue. It also suffers from being a collaboration: I really feel as if the narrative style is adapted to the convenience of the two authors. The chapters have a variety of viewpoints, and some of them, quite frankly, are unnecessary. I spent the last third of the book skipping huge, uninteresting chunks. It’s a shame: having ploughed through six novels, I now feel I’ve been wasting my time, because I probably won’t bother with the seventh.

My second disappointment of the holiday was The Silent Death, by Volker Kutscher which is the second of the Babylon Berlin books. Having watched the first season of the German TV series, I thought I was ready to plunge in, but it was a crushing disappointment. Two major problems: turns out, that notwithstanding the fascinating setting (Berlin, 1930), this is just a standard maverick cop procedural, complete with “You’re off the case!” clichés and a protagonist so infuriating that you sympathise with the colleagues who find him impossible to work with. I mean, Michael Connelly wrote the book(s) on this kind of thing with Bosch, but here’s the thing. Harry Bosch may be a stubborn maverick, but still has respect for some of his colleagues and gets along with enough of them to sustain his career. Gereon Rath, on the other hand, is just a pain in the arse. The second problem I found with this book is that the most engaging character in the TV series, Charly, the main female role, is more or less entirely absent from the book for most of its length. Furthermore, while the focus case in this is supposed to be a serial killer, the second body doesn’t turn up until over 250 pages in, which made the pacing seem off. As with Babylon’s Ashes, too, there were chapters with a different narrative point of view, which added nothing to the novel. I quickly worked out who the perp was, and the chapters from his p.o.v provided no new information, just pages you could skip.

Most unforgivable of all, the novel keeps repeating the phrase “serial killer”, which is used both by the cops and the media in the novel, and – as any connoisseur of thrillers knows – the term wasn’t coined until the 1970s. I’m hoping this is simply a translation error.

I saved the best for last. Ann Leckie’s Provenance is set in the same universe as her Ancillary series, but features a new protagonist in a different cultural milieu. As before, Leckie has fun with pronouns and gender, and manages to balance a human-scale story against a vast backdrop of interstellar empire politics which includes both different human cultures and truly alien aliens.

Ingray Aughskold is a young woman, fostered into a political family, who is trying to prove her worth by recovering some stolen antiquities. The unintended consequences of her naïve actions lead to a political crisis and unexpected legal and diplomatic outcomes.

I’m loving this new and recent trend in science fiction, led by Ms Leckie and Becky Chambers, which manages this wonderful balance between human interest, fluid gender identities, and old fashioned space opera. It feels both modern in outlook and comfortingly familiar. If you’ve been staying away from science fiction because you think it’s all faster than light travel and time dilation effects, you could do worse than read these authors. There are now four to read in the Leckie universe, and a third Chambers novel forthcoming in 2018, which will definitely be in my (much larger) summer pile of reading.

 

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Some book reviews

616aYU-j2ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Eleven books so far, in this summer of reading, including Tim Powers’ Declare, which I’ve read before and will read many times more. Here’s something of a test, then. Can I remember much about the others? Excuse the lack of cover images: on borrowed French wifi, which is painfully, rurally, slow.

Borderline – Mishell Baker

The Borderline of the title refers both to a person with borderline personality disorder and the idea that there’s a world beyond this one, peopled by creatures who come to visit our world in the guise of beautiful people who act as muses for people in the creative industries. Protagonist is a survivor of a recent suicide attempt, who has lost her legs and gets around using prosthetics and/or a wheelchair. She’s also has BPD and is approached by an organisation that manages the relationship between humans and the otherworldly creatures. Why do they approach patients in psychiatric hospitals in particular? Because nobody will believe them if they talk, of course. An interesting premise and protagonist, this award-nominated book is worth a look.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Hard to say what age group this book is aimed at. Slightly younger than YA, probably, but it was knocking around at work and so I added it to the pile. Is this Gaiman’s best book, as the blurb suggests? Probably not, though it was an entertaining enough read about an orphaned child who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Read to me, however, like a collection of scenes rather than a novel. Telling, to me, that Gaiman says he started with the fourth chapter and then went and back-filled. This is not the only novel I’ve read this summer that isn’t really a novel. To be fair, though, it is in the title: it’s not called The Graveyard Novel.

Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre

I could tell this was supposed to be funny in the vein of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiasen, but I didn’t crack a smile. An unpleasant story of unpleasant people, with some deeply unpleasant descriptions: avoid reading this while eating. Brookmyre’s an ex-journo, so of course his hero is a journo who is not above a little breaking and entering and is somehow attractive to the opposite sex.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate – N K Jemisin

This was the big one. I knew this was an award winning slice of fantasy fiction, and I’d read something else by Jemisin, and I’d heard nothing but good things about this series but I deliberately waited till this summer to get The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, knowing that the final part of the trilogy (The Stone Sky) would be published in the middle of August.

It’s so hard to describe what this is. The cover illustrations tell you nothing. You could almost say this was science fiction, since it seems to be set in a far future version of Earth which has become (for reasons) seismically unstable — so much so that no civilisation survives long enough to leave much of a mark when it is inevitably destroyed following a cataclysmic event involving volcanic activity, earthquakes, ashfall, pyroclastic flow, poisonous gases etc. But it probably shades into being fantasy because there are people here with abilities which aren’t really explained except in a hand-wavy way. I’d even allow this as science fiction, because we’ve all read about star drives and time machines which aren’t explained. But then I ask myself, why is it so important to you that this could be science fiction rather than “just” fantasy? I don’t know. Fantasy has uncomfortable associations with those terrible Lord of the Rings movies, but then the best fantasy often gives you great female leads (as here and in Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series) and it’s clearly more popular than science fiction, so.

The Fifth Season has an extraordinary three-stranded narrative which when it resolves makes clear that the rest of the series can continue the plot but not this tour de force of storytelling, which is a shame. In that sense, it reminds me of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, which has a similarly innovative first volume.

So. An unstable planet. A civilisation that barely remembers its past incarnations. People with special abilities who are treated as less-than-human and feared and hated by most people. On one level, this is clearly a racial allegory, which asks questions about why some people need to consider others as less than human? But it’s also a fascinating puzzle and a story of survival and loss. How did the world get this way? Can it be fixed? Is humanity doomed? Do we even deserve to survive?

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

Speaking of which. A mysterious stranger arrives in a small Irish community and seduces the inhabitants with his spiritualism and alternative therapies. Turns out, he’s definitely not who he pretends to be, and the consequences of his unmasking are grim. The book is really a series of encounters and meditations and doesn’t have much of a narrative plot. So I’d describe this as a Menippean Satire rather than a novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but then it would have been weird to.

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horovitz

This was more of a blast. I picked this up after noticing that it was a novel about a novel, and included the complete manuscript of the novel-within-the-novel. So it’s a whodunnit about a whodunnit, and it’s entertaining enough, though a long way from being a realistic crime novel, if that’s your thing. It’s more of a pastiche of Agatha Christie hiding inside something that wants to be a modern crime novel, something more like the Cormoran Strike series. Anyway. It’s okay. I’d have liked both stories to be more interesting, darker perhaps, but it was entertaining enough and a relatively quick read. Certainly a palate clearer after The Little Red Chairs.

The Other Side of Silence – Philip Kerr

Ted Allbeury wrote a novel with a similar title – a fictionalised account of Kim Philby’s activities. And Philby’s something of an element in this, which is one of a series about anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a German former cop and intelligence officer, who’s trying to leave his past behind. This is set on the Côte d’Azure in 1956, and features Someret Maugham dealing with a blackmail plot involving the KGB and a tape recording of Guy Burgess. It was okay to read. I didn’t like the hero and the outcome was clearly telegraphed. The whole  thing was a little static, not making much use of the location and a bit disappointing after the extraordinary treatment of spying in Declare.

The Hanging Girl* – Jussi Adler Olsen

Easily the worst book I’ve read this summer, I picked this up because it had a lot of pages. *The original (correct) title in Danish is The Boundless, which in itself doesn’t make for a better title, given the contents, but I feel the English title with its use of the noun “girl” is cynical and exploitative – typical of a publishing industry I have little respect for.

I’m not sure if it was the translation or what, but I didn’t like the dialogue in this, nor the exposition, and I didn’t understand who the characters were supposed to be. This is from a series and is obviously not the first, but that’s not always a problem. It wasn’t with Bernie Gunther, for example. The author usually puts enough in to get you up to speed (even copying and pasting expository sections), but not here. I didn’t like or care about the protagonist, and his colleagues were cyphers. At times this seemed both sexist and racist, and there were confusing moments, too, as when a character is called Assad in one sentence and then suddenly becomes Curly in the next. And I couldn’t believe the British publisher didn’t make some corrections to the bizarre explanation of a cricket match.

So this was a cold case story. A cop who’d been obsessed with a hit and run kills himself and the case falls to Department Q, whoever they are. Cold case unit? It’s not explained. Anyway, maverick cop, at loggerheads with his boss, dealing with broken relationships, blah blah blah. Just because it’s Danish it doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd. So it was long, and not very interesting, and as soon as they looked in the garage (early on) and decided not to search it because it looked dusty, you knew it was Chekov’s garage.

The Stone Sky – N K Jemisin 

No sooner had I ploughed despondently to the end of The Girl with the Hanging Girl than the yellow post van showed up with this. This brings the trilogy to a somewhat tragic conclusion, continuing its barely veiled discussion about race, exploitation, the legacy of slavery, justice, and how to go forward with a society when there is barely anything worth saving or preserving. This makes it extremely topical in this current news cycle context of job-lot el cheapo racist statuary erected at the behest of the Ku Klux Klan or anti civil rights elements: sometimes the only solution is to burn everything down and start again.

My one criticism of this trilogy concerns the map at the beginning, and the other repeated elements (glossary, appendix). The map was useful in the first book, because it showed the locations of the main places visited therein. But the same map then appeared in the second and third volumes, when two different maps would have made more sense, since the action does move around somewhat. As it is, you find yourself staring at the map and wondering where the characters you’re reading about are at the moment.