The Drowned World by J G Ballard

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My next Vintage SciFi Month offering was … interesting. Up until now I have loved the nature-takes-back-the-world trope in all its guises, so I was looking forward to reading The Drowned World, but while I enjoyed aspects of this novel, I found both the lack of plot and the lack of characterization difficult.

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Both lacks seem intentional, however. After a “succession of gigantic geophysical upheavals which had transformed the Earth’s climate” the world is now a waterlogged hothouse and London, where Ballard centres his novel, is a sweltering maze of tropical lagoons predominantly occupied by giant mosquitoes, iguanas and water snakes, and incredible prehistoric plant-life. In an environment becoming less and less human-friendly, naturally such things as plot fall by the wayside. The main drive of the story seems to be simply that Robert Kerans, over whose shoulder we view this new world, accept the inevitable regression that is occurring both around and within him.

Which I guess is why the lack of characterization is equally appropriate. While we meet a handful of characters within these pages – most notably Beatrice, Doctor Bodkin, Hardman, Strangman and Colonel Riggs – they aren’t people we get to know well. When the world has literally gone to hell in a handcart and it’s so hot that just putting on a shirt is exhausting, getting to know someone hardly seems worth it, perhaps. Certainly, when life is stripped back to survival, individuality seems less important.

“However, I am convinced that as we move back through geophysical time so we re-enter the amnionic corridor and move back through spinal and archaeopsychic time, recollecting in our unconscious minds the landscapes of each epoch, each with a distinct geological terrain, its own unique flora and fauna, as recognisable to anyone else as they would be to a traveller in a Wellsian time machine.”

De-evolution and regression are the name of the game. As the world around them returns to a Triassic configuration, Doctor Bodkin theorizes that people will travel back down their genetic memories. Humanity’s recently learned social and domestic behaviours, relationships and ambitions will fall away and there will be “a total reorientation of the personality”. About half of the soldiers attached to the testing station in which biologists Kerans and Bodkin work are experiencing identical dreams – a dream we don’t get to ‘see’ until Kerans also experiences it – in which a giant sun pulses like a heartbeat above a nightmare lagoon writhing with life. The primordial soup, perhaps, with everything that makes us what we are broken back down into basic building blocks. The end, in effect.

So, what use is a plot, and what use individuals to identify with, when the world is coming to an end? The only real attempt Ballard makes at plot is to float out the freebooter Strangman and his crew (and two thousand attendant alligators?! Show-off!), but even this violent, crazed group don’t pose any real threat to our listless main characters. If anything, they seem to be there only to demonstrate the other option: let the veneer of civilization slip from your shoulders and go out bloodied.

 

Perhaps you’re now wondering why you should bother reading The Drowned World if it’s such a downer? Because, for all that the message is bleak, the writing, the imagery, is beautiful. Ballard was inspired by his childhood experiences in an internment camp in Shanghai when he imagined his flooded future world and perhaps that personal experience is what makes this setting so vividly realized. All I can say is that I loved it. The sun is dazzlingly, menacingly beautiful throughout; the buildings that still rise out of the lagoons swathed in creepers, moss and mould have the appeal of ancient ruins; and the gymnosperms and calamites that tower over everywhere else are otherworldly. Ballard’s future is alive with life, but near alien. A future that cannot be controlled or contained, only submitted to.

There is also a kind of mythic quality to this book that I can’t quite think how to explain. Ballard references Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, and Neptune and Minerva overtly, but that’s not what I mean. It’s more that some of the images feel familiar: Hardman’s leave-taking, seemingly walking directly into the sun; Kerans being crowned and tied to a throne by Strangman and his men; Strangman himself, weirdly pale when the sun has burnt everyone brown; Kerans finding Hardman again at the temple; they all feel like afterimages somewhere in the back of my brain. Or echoes, maybe.

 

To conclude: don’t read this if you’re looking for an exciting, pacey adventure or big, fleshed-out characters. Do read it if you’re interested in taking an odd, meditative journey South; if you enjoy immersive, descriptive language; or if you understand the need to step back from the world in order to figure out how you feel about a thing.

Extroverts need not apply.

 

 

 

 

 

Driftglass by Samuel R Delany

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It’s that time of year again … it’s Vintage SciFi Month! (And a Happy New Year to you all, of course!) The brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer, Andrea, you can find out more about this not-a-challenge here, but in brief, January is the month to read any scifi written before you were born. And I’m kicking off with Delany.

 

I’ve been meaning to read Delany for about ten years now. He’s one of those names that crops up again and again when people are discussing the early really great scifi on which our current really great scifi is built. So I felt pretty lucky when this copy of Driftglass was donated (along with a whole bunch of vintage scifi) to the library. Too old to go on the shelves (the binding split in my hands when I opened it up), we put it into the booksale, from which I bought it.

And yeah, the talk is justified. Driftglass is a collection of ten short stories, (full disclosure: I am dragging myself out of a reading slump by degrees and short stories were all I could face this week), all written in the mid-to-late sixties, including the Hugo and Nebula Award winning “Time considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones”. They are various – moving from the edge of the galaxy to a small Greek island to Mars to Brazil to Canada to some sort of dream world – beautifully  written, and absolutely jam-packed with ideas.

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The awesome cover art is by Chris Foss

As with any collection of stories by a single author, there is some repetition of ideas and images, but not much. Twice Delany talks about halving holograms, and twice about telepaths, in four of his stories he describes friendships between adults and prepubescent children or teenagers, and he seems to have a fascination with people’s hands – which he describes more often than any other aspect of his characters’ appearances. This last seemed appropriate to the stories he tells however, because Delany writes about the ordinary working people of the future: the mechanics, the people laying power cables, the spaceport workers, the people using their hands.

Of the ten stories I have four firm favourites: “The Star-Pit”, “Corona”, “Driftglass” and “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line” (say that ten times fast). The first story in the book, “The Star-Pit” opened with some serious VanderMeer vibes. The main character, Vyme, describes an “ecologarium” (a self-contained ecosystem) set up on a beach for the education of the children in his procreation group. Inside this enclosed space are crystalline plants, small sloth-like creatures with suction-cup appendages and flying lizards that start out as larvae. And while we don’t stay with this opening image for very long, it informs the rest of the story. In the present Vyme is a mechanic who fixes and maintains starships at the edge of the galaxy. To be able to travel any further than that edge, one has to be a “golden”, a person who is psychologically different in a specific way that enables them to cope with extensive space travel. Vyme is friends with thirteen-year-old Ratlit, also a mechanic at the neighbouring Poloscki’s, and the story concerns itself with these two, Vyme’s employee Sandy, the wonderful projective telepath Alegra and the feelings of enclosure that all people seem to feel, irrespective of how far out in to space they are able to travel.

In “Corona” we meet ex-con now spaceport worker Buddy and nine-year-old super-telepath Lee who meet and bond briefly over the latest hot musical sensation from Ganymede, Bryan Faust, and his new hit song ‘Corona’. I’m not giving anything else away about this one, but it was the most touching story in the collection for me (not least because Lee’s experience hits pretty close to home). Closely followed, in terms of emotional impact, by “Driftglass” in which we meet Cal Svenson, a genetically modified amphiman (able to live underwater as easily as on land) who lives alone on the edge of the sea in Brazil after having suffered a terrible accident that has left him badly mutilated. Delany is brilliant at conjuring up a sense of place in all of the stories in Driftglass and I loved his evocation of this Brazilian fishing port so accustomed to the amphimen working offshore, and sending it’s sons and daughters away to become the next generation of amphimen.

The descriptions in “Driftglass” are possibly the most beautiful too. We start the story hunting for sea glass on the beach with Cal: “It was foggy that morning, and the sun across the water moiled the mists like a brass ladle”. We learn how he became friends with fisherman Juao in just a few elegant vignettes, before being treated to both an evening beach party and night fishing expedition made up of amphimen and local fishermen. I remember reading once, somewhere, that every word needs to count in a short story because of its concentrated form, and I think this story is as near a perfect example of that as I’ve ever seen. Delany’s prose isn’t pared back or simple, but every description is beautiful and he has a knack for describing things in unusual ways. In “Driftglass” this might be someone tapping on the window, or the view of the moon from beneath the water; in “The Star-Pit” it’s the “illuminated dragon” of Manhattan Bridge; in “Night and the Loves of Joe Dicostanzo” it’s a woman standing at the edge of a puddle appearing to leap up in her reflection as she falls down.

“We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line” is a different beast. Dedicated to Roger Zelazny, this tells the story of Global Power Commission employees Mabel, Blacky, Scott and Susan (known as demons and devils depending on rank). The live and work in their Gila Monster vehicle, and have come to a remote part of Canada to lay the cable that connects most of the world (this was written before the internet). However, there is resistance from the residents of the derelict house High Haven – where a group of futuristic Hells Angels who ride flying bikes known as pteracycles and are led by the one-shoe-only Roger (a further nod to Zelazny?) – have made their home. The story deals with power and permission on both a small scale and a large without dumbing that discussion down. There is no exclusively right or wrong way to do things. Yes, people have a right to choose how they live, even if it appears barbaric or backwards. However, some of the people within a group may not have had the choice, may simply not have the power to remove themselves from the situation. If you don’t have power, are you able to deny permission? And how to get and hold onto power?

If there’s anything that unites all the stories here, it is the humanity in them. No matter how far out into space and the future he goes, Delany is still writing stories about all the griefs and joys and small dramas that we experience in the course of a lifetime. As a result, I really like Delany protagonists. For the most part they are, if not exactly aimless, then uncertain about their life’s trajectory. They have no grand plan, aren’t special in any way (i.e. not super-smart or possessing incredible charisma), and often have a past of petty crime, loss or mistake. And they are the workers of the world, as I’ve said before. Not the scientists, artists or politicians (although they are not excluded from the mix), but the blue-collar workers. Which still seems pretty unusual in science fiction even now, and keeps these stories surprisingly relevant even fifty years later.

 

“You have to grow all the time,” I said. “Not necessarily get bigger. But inside your head you have to grow, kid-boy. For us human-type people that’s what’s important. And that kind of growing never stops. At least it shouldn’t. You can grow, kid-boy, or you can die. That’s the choice you’ve got, and it goes on all your life.”

From: “The Star-Pit”

 

 

 

 

 

May I propose a toast?

Calvin and Hobbes Toast

I’ve always wanted to propose a toast. To stand up among friends, ting a wine glass with a fork for attention and manage to string some words together without apparent effort, but with obvious feeling. Only three things stand in my way: my current inability to deal with groups of people, the fact that I don’t drink, and my difficulties with speaking coherently when under pressure.

This is much easier.

Please, fill your glasses (or plates) with whatever you choose and join me in this wish for the New Year:

 

To the adventure.

To all the great and good books we will discover or revisit in the coming year.

To all the new characters we will meet and love, or love to loathe.

To all the mysteries, romances and journeys we have yet to go on.

To the fertile imaginations of authors, may they be blessed with ideas and inspiration.

To new friends, new voices and new ways of looking at the world.

To the smell of new books and old.

To the memory capacity of ereaders (may your battery life be long).

And, finally, to all of you, fellow bloggy people, fellow readers. The quest is that much more fun because of your fine company.

Hobbits Toast

Fun for Monday: The Finished Book Tag

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I stumbled across this tag over at Words of the Roses, which she got from the A Book Olive’s channel, but was first created by Headless Books. (I love these lines of connections that get made each time a tag passes on … it makes me think of those chain letters we used to do as kids – or fail to do, in my case because, seriously, who has ten friends??!)

Anyway, onwards!

 

Do you keep a list of the books you have read?

Yes. I’ve been keeping lists of my reading consistently since my twenties (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I keep yearly notebooks for a whole host of things, and this is one of the things that goes in there). I also started using Goodreads after a friend told me about it, because I wanted to create as complete a list of my reading from childhood to present as was possible. I spent a long time before Goodreads trawling various places to find out the titles to stories I remembered from school and (because I’m visual by nature) collecting pictures of book covers I remembered to stimulate my memory. I’m a sad little muppet so this was all incredibly fun for me!

And now that I do the bloggy thing I also keep a reading for review notebook in the back of which I keep a list of posts made and dates so that I can keep track.

Needless to say, I’m very fond of lists.

 

If you record statistics, what statistics do you record?

I don’t record statistics, but I find the stats function on Goodreads interesting. The things I remember about a book are not useful when it comes to posts in which you want to look at, say, your favourite fantasy settings, or the best dragon companions (all of them, obviously), so I’m starting to make more Goodreads shelves to help me filter through what I’ve read with a mind to what I might want to talk about. Before I had three shelves: fiction, non-fiction and all-time favourites, (thanks Past Me, that’s not terribly helpful).

 

Do you give star ratings for books and if so, what do you score books out of and how do you come about this score?

So, I don’t give star ratings out here (if you can’t tell whether I liked something from what I have to say then stars sure aren’t going to help you), but I do in my notebooks and on Goodreads. I don’t like the Goodreads star system particularly, because if I don’t like something then it should get no stars, but I just pretend they’re not stars and I’m fine. In my notebooks I use a five star system like so:

*A least one thing of interest in this book

**I can think of someone I’d recommend this to

***Might be worth a reread

****I try not to give four stars to anything because I don’t like the number 4, but if I do it means there was a least one thing I didn’t like in an otherwise near-perfect book

*****I will reread this, I want it on my bookshelves, I will recommend it indiscriminately, as near to perfect as it’s possible to get.

If I don’t give a book any stars it’s because it was meh. If I actively disliked it I usually add a grumpy or poopy face.

If a book was worth stars and it was funny or made me feel good about life it gets a happy face.

 

Do you review books?

Yes, I do. I do that here *waves*. And I’m really enjoying myself!

 

Where do you put your finished books?

I’d say about 70% of my books are borrowed from the library, so obviously they go back there, although I do abuse my library powers and take them out for a slightly longer loan period than normal sometimes, (but only if they’re not requested by other users – I’m not a monster).

Another 25% of my reading material comes from second-hand bookstores, charity shops and library book sales. A couple of things might happen to these book when I’ve read them: if I loved the book it goes on our permanent bookshelves (well, it’s the permanent book boxes at the moment as we’ve yet to buy bookcases in these new digs of ours); if I liked it and can think of someone else who might enjoy it I pass it along; if it was meh or worse, or if I just can’t imagine rereading it I will take it back to a second-hand bookstore or charity shop.

The final 5% of the books I read are brand spanking new. There are really only two things I do with brand new books: if I love them, I keep them; everything else gets donated to the library (we had our book fund severely cut a couple of years ago and you can tell, which makes me burn with equal parts shame and rage).

 

How do you pick your next book?

My favourite way to pick a new book to read is to grab three or five that appeal to me and read the opening paragraph of each and just go with whichever one grabs me, but I don’t seem to get to do that so much these days. This bloggy thing has me thinking about a month in advance now (I’m a pretty slow reader), so sometimes I’ll choose something because I said I’d read it in my blog or in the comments, because it fits an upcoming theme (looking at you Vintage SciFi Month and Wyrd and Wonder), or because it’s a library book I’ve renewed a couple of times and I’m starting to feel guilty about still having it out when I was so super excited about it when it came in.

 

Do you have any other rituals for when you have finished a book?

I like to check through my notes if I’ve made any, and I always like to find out who did the cover art/design. Then I write it down in my other notebook, although sometimes it takes me a day or two to decide on how many stars (if any) to give because sometimes a book needs to settle in me first. I don’t update my Goodreads account straight away; I tend to do that every couple of weeks. Then the book stays on my desk until I’ve written up my thoughts on it (I need it to be physically present when I do this – couldn’t tell you why), and/or I’ve decided what to do with it.

 

 

I don’t know if I dare tag anyone (fear of rejection rearing its ugly head)…

…Oh, heck, let’s do it (shoots fear of rejection down with finger guns and kicks its corpse out of the way) … I’m going to tag imyril, Ola and Piotrek, Maddalena, dragons and zombies and Lynn (hope I’ve done it right?). No worries if you’re not interested of course. And anyone else who fancies having a go – go for it! I’ll be interested to read any and all answers so please put a link in the comments for me to find you.

 

 

 

 

 

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

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Before I begin: This is the last of my pre-prepared posts (because The Slump is nowhere near over … *sigh*) which I wrote back in August. After this anything I post will be me winging it – for which I apologise in advance!

 

Even if you were to glance at this and think it’s not your kind of thing, I can recommend reading Doctorow’s introduction. In it he talks about economics, how the internet is changing ways of doing things, the importance of knowing where your stuff comes from and the power of protest. In the story that then follows, he and Wang tell a tale with all of these themes as their protagonist Anda navigates a new school (having moved with her parents from California to Arizona), makes new friends both online and IRL and learns what she’s ready to stand up for.

For a graphic novel that has a few problems, which we’ll get to, this was nonetheless an enjoyable read. Anda is a quiet main character, beautifully drawn by Jen Wang, who grows in confidence over the course of the story. She’s into coding and Dungeons and Dragons, and, after a guest speaker at school invites girl gamers to try their hand at the MMORPG Coarsegold, she gets into online gaming, where she quickly becomes involved in the illegal practice of taking out gold farmers for real world money. Fortunately, she’s more uncomfortable than some with the rule “if they don’t speak English you should probably kill ‘em” and strikes up a friendship with one of the gold farmers she’s supposed to kill, a Chinese boy called Raymond. This friendship takes Anda on a steep learning curve as she is faced with the very different life that Raymond lives, and the very different reasons he has for playing Coarsegold.

Coarsegold itself looks like a game I totally want to play. A full-on fantasy world in which you can play as one of five different races (I lovelovelove character creation tools, possibly more than actually gaming itself – I couldn’t play XCOM 2 very well at all, but my avatar was just the prettiest darn kickass chick you’ve ever seen), it is populated with magical creatures and artefacts and looks like a rainbow explosion of visual joy thanks to Wang’s lovely illustrations, which give it the feel of a cross between Ni No Kuni and Dragon Age.

I hadn’t come across Jen Wang before this, but she’s on my watchlist now. The two things that I really liked in In Real Life were her use of colour and her gorgeously expressive drawings. She uses two different palates to distinguish between the real world and the online world without clashing or making either one the lesser. The slightly muddier brown-dominated tones of her real-world panels are just as lovely as her more vibrant in-game panels and paired with her skill in rendering subtle facial expressions and body language in a lovely cartoony style Wang carries a lot of the story. Truth be told, I kind of fell in love with real-world Anda with her head of unruly brown-later-red hair, big eyes and adorable pink cheeks. Even when she’s cross she’s cute!

IRL Anda Montage
Is it wrong that I want to look like this IRL?

 

However, there were a couple of things that made me uncomfortable about this story. The Chinese gold-farmers all play as pixies and wear identical outfits that make them easily identifiable as ‘other’, but which makes me think of that horrible, loaded generalisation “they all look the same to me”. It also makes them appear childlike which doesn’t sit well with the whole privileged white girl saves disadvantaged Chinese kid thing that happens. It all made me feel ill at ease with what I believe is a good story that Doctorow and Wang are trying to tell.

I also question the ending. It’s a little too sweet and Hollywood after what’s happened. In telling a story about the real-world implications of online gaming I feel that the ending should have also been real-world. Sure, it’s a nice ending, but it undermines some of the message and while I feel like it’s there so Doctorow can make his point about communication, it could have been done differently and to better effect.

IRL Communicating

 

So, this left me with two thoughts:

One. The internet is a powerful communication tool. We only have to look at our little international community of book bloggers to get a taste of that. I am in awe that in my lifetime and only in my personal experience I have gone from having friends and acquaintances who lived within no more than a half-mile radius of myself, to having friends and acquaintances across the globe that I am able to interact with daily. That is a crazy beautiful thing.

And two. I believe that people both in the singular and united can make a difference. But I also think we have to think really hard before we start trying to make a difference for people who haven’t asked us to. I know this is all highly complicated stuff – there are people who cannot speak out for themselves and need advocates, but I think we have to ask ourselves, and keep on asking every step of the way, why we are doing something, to ensure that we don’t get carried away with our own self-righteousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun for Monday: A to Z for Book Bloggers

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I saw imyril do this back in April and was excited to have a go … but I’ve obviously been sitting on it for quite a while. Hey, better late than never, no? Anyway, it originated with The Perpetual Page Turner back in 2013, so it’s definitely due a revival – so much fun!!

 

AUTHOR YOU’VE READ THE MOST BOOKS BY:

Goodreads told me a while ago that this was Terry Pratchett (before that most-read-author tool disappeared from the site). Being as he was an incredibly productive author and I have read through the Discworld books a couple of times now, I imagine this is still the case. Neil Gaiman was second place if I remember rightly – that’d be because of his comics.

 

BEST SEQUEL EVER:

Ummmm … *thinking* … all the ones I haven’t read yet?!

I honestly can’t think of a sequel that I was really blown away by, I’m more often a smidge disappointed by most follow-ons. Soooo, I’m going to say The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan, because Ola of Re-enchantment of the World has assured me/us that it’s better than the first Lady Trent book – go read her awesome review for A Natural History of Dragons here – and as I loved that one it’s as good as definite I’m going to adore the second.

 

CURRENTLY READING:

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

With a bunch of stuff bothering me at work and this time of year being somewhat troublesome for me, I have just hit a mammoth reading slump. I tried powering through it a couple of weeks ago with a Sunday dedicated to reading, but it came to nothing – I fell asleep instead. Now I’m just playing Stardew Valley and eyeing up an as-yet-undone Where’s Wally jigsaw and chanting to myself “everything will be fine, everything will be fine” in the hope that it’ll pass.

 

DRINK OF CHOICE WHILE READING:

Water. I don’t drink tea or coffee (not for any meaningful reason, I just don’t like either of them. I don’t mind the odd herbal tea or a hot chocolate if the weather’s very cold, but otherwise I like my liquids to be cool, clear and flavourless).

 

E-READER OR PHYSICAL BOOK?

Physical book. All the way. I love the smell, the weight, the size and shape. I love cover choices (Embossed lettering? Matt? Shiny? Hardback? Paperback? Dust jacket?), I love paper and page choices (I get a real kick out of a smooth, off-white paper with deckled edges), and typeface selections satisfy a small and vital part of me; I love to find notes left by previous readers, names and messages written in the front, smiley faces and underlining, old bookmarks. I love everything that is the sensory experience of a book. I don’t have anything to say against e-readers, and my scifi-loving self does appreciate the idea of being able to carry thousands of books around in one small device, but I’m also getting old and stubborn, and I’ll go out the same way I came in, thanks.

 

FICTIONAL CHARACTER YOU PROBABLY WOULD HAVE DATED IN SCHOOL:

Ha! Of course, this is based on the assumption that they would date me. Which I assure you, they wouldn’t. No-one dated me in school. I was undatable. I was a non-entity. Only one boy made the attempt and he was from a different school and didn’t know me at all, and honestly, I don’t know what possessed him to ask …

But fictional character I had a crush on in school? (Through most of school, in fact). Robin Hood. First, in Roger Llancellyn Green’s book, then on the telly in Robin of Sherwood (which Ola and Piotrek recently wrote an awesome post about over at Re-enchantment of the World), and then on the big screen in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (which led to my crush – of only slightly shorter duration – on Kevin Costner).

 

GLAD YOU GAVE THIS BOOK A CHANCE:

Agyar by Steve Brust. I read it because of Little Red Reviewer’s post about it. I hadn’t heard of Steve Brust before I started this bloggy thing. Now I am knee deep in his Vlad Taltos books and loving every minute I spend with his writing. Which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t read Agyar. You, my fellow bloggers, rock!

 

HIDDEN GEM:

I’m taking ‘hidden gem’ to mean something I had no idea existed until I picked it up and started reading it, something I didn’t even know I was looking for. By this definition, some of my recent hidden gems are Dave Freer’s Dragon’s Ring and The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman; and less recently, Sharps by K J Parker, both Blackout/All Clear and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson and Among Others by Jo Walton. I can’t pick just one.

Oh, oh, sudden inspiration!: I can pick one for this year though – Folk by Zoe Gilbert. Scooped up in the library by chance because of its lovely yellow cover, it blew me away.

 

IMPORTANT MOMENT IN YOUR READING LIFE:

One of the most important moments in my reading life was picking up The Ill-Made Mute by Cecelia Dart-Thornton in a bookstore back in 2003. I was in an awful sales job at the time and experiencing my first bout of unnamable terror/dread/despair. I’d been reading what I felt I was expected to read for the last five years (being someone who doesn’t naturally fit in, I have at times done whatever it takes to appear acceptable; at university I was even more adrift than I normally am and didn’t touch anything even vaguely SFF for fear of being seen as anything on the spectrum from ‘different’ to ‘too stupid to be here’ – what can I say now? I’m a noodle-head. It’s hard to explain). Reading The Ill-Made Mute was like being sucked back into myself. It was everything I’d been missing, everything I’d loved as a kid, everything I’d sought refuge in when I was a teenager. I devoured it, went back and bought The Lady of the Sorrows and scoffed that down too, and then I remember having to wait for The Battle of Evernight because the bookstore didn’t have it in. I’ve never re-read the trilogy, nor have I ever read any of Dart-Thornton’s other books. I’ve kept the Bitterbynde books though, for sentimental reasons and in case that dreadful desire to please people I don’t give a fig for kicks in again. Although I feel safe in saying there are a few people in my life now that would give me a good hearty slap if I started acting oddly: i.e. reading gossip magazines, wearing uncomfortable things like make-up and heels, going to parties … *shudder*.

 

JUST FINISHED:

Nightflyers by George R R Martin, back in November. Since then I’ve started and abandoned books in every room of the house, (reference aforementioned reading slump).

 

KINDS OF BOOKS YOU WON’T READ:

Romance. There’s got to be something more than romance going on for me to read a book. If all you’ve got to offer me is a love story then so long, and thanks for all the fish. Other than that, I’m fairly easy. I’m not a huge horror fan, but I will read some, although I’ll avoid reading it before bed. And if it’s really scary I’ll only touch the margins of the page where there’s no text, for no good reason that I can explain (I’m a seven-year-old in a forty-year-old’s body).

Oooo, also misery porn and “chick-lit”, both of which offend me for simply existing as genres.

 

LONGEST BOOK YOU’VE READ:

I think, at 1024 pages, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is the longest book I’ve read. (LOTR is three books to my mind because it has three titles – #sorrynotsorry).

 

MAJOR BOOK HANGOVER:

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. I loved it, but what really got to me was that this was a book I never got to talk about with a friend of mine who would’ve loved it too, because she had recently passed away. That probably sounds dumb, but it broke me that I’d never be able to share it with her and led to a good deal of headachy, snotty sobbing. And that’s why I try (unsuccessfully) to avoid books that are too feely.

 

NUMBER OF BOOKCASES YOU OWN:

None at the moment. When we have saved the money for them, we are planning to have two large floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the living room (nothing fancy, just big). And I’m going to have to edit down my collection considerably … ARGH! … which, I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, is mostly packed up in boxes. This makes me very sad (editing) and very excited (all our books out in the open!!) at the same time.

 

ONE BOOK YOU’VE REREAD LOTS:

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Comfort reading at its finest.

 

PREFERRED PLACE TO READ:

The place I fantasize about reading in most is our living room. Whenever it’s cold out and I have to go to work I imagine pulling the sofa closer to the fire and curling up in it with a book for the day. I actually got to do this once in the winter of 2018 and it was sweet. And when the weather is finer I love to read upstairs in our nook (not big enough to be called a spare room, but it’s got a desk and a chair) where we get sunlight for most of the day. Mmmmm …

 

QUOTE THAT INSPIRES YOU/GIVES YOU ALL THE FEELS FROM A BOOK YOU’VE READ:

Oh-ho! You’re asking someone who collects quotes and words obsessively. I’ve narrowed it down to three I particularly like (best I could do):

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest of hearts.”

From: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

 

“Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

From: A Hat Full of Sky by Sir Terry Pratchett

 

“… crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once.”

From: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

 

READING REGRET:

Every boring book I stuck with to the end because I didn’t used to allow myself to believe that sometimes a book just isn’t for me. It took me four years to read The Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears … Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

 

SERIES YOU STARTED AND NEED TO FINISH (ALL BOOKS ARE OUT):

I still need to read The Ace of Skulls, the last volume of Tales of the Ketty Jay by Chris Wooding. But when I’ve read it, it’s over, and I don’t want it to be over just yet. Same with Julie Czerneda’s Hidden in Sight, which will finish off the first Esen trilogy – I just can’t bring myself to read it just yet. And then there’s the Lady Trent books by Marie Brennan, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories and Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books … and a ton of other stuff. Life is good.

 

THREE ALL-TIME FAVOURITE BOOKS:

This is ridiculously difficult to do because depending on my mood my answer will vary wildly. And books are just a part of a whole web of connections (both to other books, to ideas, to discussions with friends, to articles and news stories etc) in my brain (for everyone, no?) and this kind of question is kind of asking me to tear them out of that web … difficult, and painful too. But right now my answer would be: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – came across this right when I needed it most. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy – can’t explain why this means so much to me, but that’s love for you, right? And Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – I may have mentioned before … *ahem* … that this is as close to perfect as a book gets for me.

 

UNAPOLOGETIC FANGIRL FOR:

Star Trek.

 

VERY EXCITED FOR THIS RELEASE:

I’m always the last to know about what’s coming soon. I learned about Frances Hardinge’s new book Deeplight before it had been published, but only by accident. Same with Julie Czerneda’s The Gossamer Mage and Garth Nix’s Angel Mage (all the mages!!). But I was very excited about all three of those and have got two out of the three in my sticky little mitts.

 

WORST BOOKISH HABIT:

Taking out more books than I can read from the library (just so other people can’t take them before I’ve read them) and giving myself an extra-long loan period. I always take them back immediately if someone requests one of them, but I just like to know that they’re safe at our house for when I want to read them. With great power comes great responsibility, and man, do I abuse my library powers!

 

X MARKS THE SPOT – START AT THE TOP LEFT OF YOUR SHELF AND PICK THE 27TH BOOK:

We still don’t have any bookshelves, so I counted twenty-seven down one of the in-absolutely-no-order-at-all stacks of books we have in the cupboard, which meant I landed on Surface Detail by Iain M Banks. Recently picked up in a charity shop because I kind of lost track of Banks’ Culture novels and never got around to reading Matter or anything after it. I have plans to go back and start again from the beginning sometime soon.

 

YOUR LATEST BOOK PURCHASE:

Blackwing by Ed McDonald. Someone gave me an Amazon voucher (fools!!) and that’s how I used it.

 

ZZZ-SNATCHER BOOK (LAST BOOK THAT KEPT YOU UP WAY LATE):

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker – I loved this so much I was reading it while eating (which I try not to do usually as both the book and I tend to get in a mess), during my gaming slot, and before going to bed, which is when I normally read non-fiction so as not to get my heart-rate up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Reading the Hugos Banner

Yeah, yeah, I know I said I planned to read the Hugo winners in rough chronological order for my Hugo Project, but what can I say? The Calculating Stars practically fell into my hands, and how could I not read it immediately? (This was at the end of November before I fell headlong into a huge blackhole of a reading slump, because my brain is definitely not on my side right now).

 

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I love reading about people who can do a thing I find incomprehensible really well. One of the best things about reading is that you get to imagine what it must be like to love something or be good at something that you have no experience of – it makes the world feel wider and more interesting.

“There are times when numbers paint pictures in my head.”

I can’t do maths. I don’t understand anything more than basic addition, subtraction and multiplication. I still get in a sweat when I have to work out people’s change at work. So I love reading about people who get numbers. Not just the basics, but all that stuff that underlies the workings of the world. And it blows my mind that being able to do that kind of maths means that you can work out things like how to get a shuttle into orbit, or how the planets move in relation to one another. It’s a mark of Kowal’s skill as a writer that she can make mathematics sound beautiful and glorious and relevant when she also states in her acknowledgements that she doesn’t understand any of the maths she has Elma do. Throughout the book I was convinced that she was writing about something she comprehended, and I was deeply impressed when I discovered she didn’t.

 

So, this is the absorbing alt-history tale of one woman’s role in an accelerated space race that is jump-started by a cataclysmic meteorite impact in early 1950s America. And in telling Elma York’s story, Kowal tells the story of a great number of other men and women who really did a lot of the things she has her characters do. The first thing to love about this book (after the maths, of course) is that none of her characters are placeholders, they all feel quite real and imperfect and sympathetic. I love that Kowal deals with so many issues in this book too: disability, racism, sexism and mental health issues are all explored, as opinions that were typical of the 1950s are challenged head on in this alternative world in which humanity is facing (when it’s not in denial) its own extinction. It certainly makes for an emotional read. When I wasn’t cheering Elma on for sticking it to Parker (you absolute and utter areshole, you) and any other man who tried to keep our girl grounded, I was sobbing in frustration at the sly, small ways, and the horrendously massive ways, in which difference of any kind was pushed out of view. By the end of the book I was an exhausted, soggy mess.

The second thing to love (unless you hate this kind of thing) is that this book is the how-she-got-there companion to a short story by Kowal called The Lady Astronaut of Mars which you can read for free online at tor.com, (it’s a great story, even if you’re not interested in reading The Calculating Stars, but I warn you now, it’s a killer), which is awesome because we get to meet a less snarky Elma at the start of her career and really appreciate how far she’s had to come. But which is perhaps simultaneously not so great because now you know that no matter the obstacle, Elma will become a Lady Astronaut because she already is The Lady Astronaut.

And then the things to love become a stream of delightful details, all adding up to an incredible reading experience: all of the characters: Myrtle and Eugene; Helen, Basira, Pearl, Nicole, Imogene, Sabiha and Ida; Aunt Esther and Hershel; even Betty. Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles being read by a couple of characters was just awesome. The use of phrases like “bless your heart” and “isn’t that nice” to mean the exact opposite. The term ‘computer’ always referring to a person who computes and never to a machine, and the IBM being a not-terribly-reliable punch-card-fed data-processing machine. Elma’s love of both flying and the Multi-Axis Space-Test Inertia-Facility (just the idea of which make me want to throw up). Mr Wizard. And the stars at the end, after everything.

There was one small problem for me with this book that has so many great things to say and some excellent scenes and a ton of good characters that were easy to like or hate where appropriate, and it was this: the sex. If you’ve read anything else on my blog, you’ll have picked up that I am absolutely not a fan of sex scenes, so it’ll be no surprise to anyone that I didn’t like the sex scenes here. Sure, they were pretty mild and I doubt many people would be offended by them, but I had no need for them, and all the talk of ‘rocket launches’ just made me cringe.

And there was one other thing that I was ever so slightly less than OK with. I want to be clear right now that it was fantastic to read about an incredibly talented woman achieving amazing things without her husband having to step in and save her or pull some strings without her knowing. And Elma and Nathaniel’s relationship is one of the most heart-warming, solid and unquestionable aspects of the story (even with the … *small shudder* … sex). I too am lucky enough to have a husband who is remarkably tolerant and who listens to me when I have something to say, (he also does cute things like hide chocolate in the house for when I need it, or animate my cuddly toy panda to make me laugh when I’m being pissy). He’s a great guy. And, like Elma, I also have some mental health issues that impinge on my ability to function in some circumstances (and I felt a bit sweaty just typing that out, so we’ll move swiftly on). But my husband, Thumbs, is not always there for me, and doesn’t always understand, and sometimes gets downright irritated with me because … he’s human and he has his own life to live and I am not the centre of the universe (no matter my personal convictions on that subject). So, while Elma and Nathaniel gave me all the feels and I can’t wait to catch up with them in The Fated Sky, they remain most definitely fictitious for me.

Finally, there were two things I’d have liked more of: One, I would have liked just a little more information about what was going on in the rest of the world. Food riots were briefly mentioned, and there was a reference to the former Soviet Union but no follow up on when that happened, and I think Elma talks a couple of times about how cloud cover has become a permanent thing since the strike. These details were great, as were the news headlines at the beginnings of the chapters, but they weren’t quite enough for me to picture this world as clearly as I’d have liked (because I do love to know how the world is going to go to hell). And two, I wanted more of the life-in-space problem-solving stuff, although I’m thinking that may be a bigger thing in the next book. Because we are not at all made for space, so how, starting with 1950s technology and knowledge are we going to fix it so we can live there when our planet becomes too hot to handle? I want details. I want science, or near-science, or convincing pretend-science. Tell me what it’s going to look like, our living on the Moon. Pretty please.

I am and will be recommending this to everyone I meet. I have already had a brilliant discussion with one of our regular customers about it and off the back of that he lent me his childhood copy of Manned Spacecraft by Kenneth Gatland which was awesome because it was a bit like being handed a piece of Elma’s world, if that makes sense. And this book has given me a great list of follow-on reading (thank you, Mary Robinette Kowal). In my non-fiction life I’m currently reading The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson, or at least I will be again when this stupid reading slump I’m in has passed, but when I’m done with that I’m definitely jumping on Kowal’s recommendations: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (book, then film) and Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt and The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel. And that’s pretty satisfying.