March wrap-up

Book of the Month

Never mind book of the month, my favourite book of the year is Diving Belles, a marvellous collection by newcomer Lucy Wood. But, though the review appeared in March, I actually read that book in February, and mentioned it in last month’s wrap-up. So I think I should also nominate a book which I read in March; and my favourite of those was Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey.

Reviews

Features

Paul J. McAuley, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ (1997)

In the distant future, a ‘transcendent’ human attends a gathering of her clone descendants on an artificially-created Earth; it’s a world built for partying, but one guest seeks to spoil the fun. To an extent, McAuley’s future is so alien that one is almost inevitably emotionally distanced from it; but the juxtaposition of the galactic and human scales can be quite affecting, especially at the beautiful ending.

Rating: ***½

This is one of a series of posts on the anthology Not the Only Planet.

Lucy Wood, Diving Belles (2012) – Strange Horizons review

Would you like to hear about the best book I’ve read so far this year? Here it is: the debut collection from Lucy Wood, a set of contemporary stories inspired by Cornish folklore. Wood is clearly going to be a name to watch out for in the future; to find out why, I’d invite you to read my review of Diving Belles, which is up on Strange Horizons today.

Click here to read the review.

Further links
Video interview with Lucy Wood
Wood reads from ‘Notes from the House Spirits’

Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker (2012)

Two novels into an author’s career might be too soon to generalise, but we have to work with what we’ve got. I’m coming to think of Nick Harkaway’s novels as battlegrounds between whimsy and cold, hard seriousness. The Gone-Away World combined mime artists and digressive prose with a desire to treat the effects of its reality-bending weapon matter-of-factly; Angelmaker embodies the conflict in its protagonist. Joe Spork’s father, Mathew was a master criminal – and no ordinary one, but a gentleman-crook of the old school. As a boy, Joe spent his days in the world of the Night Market – the kind of shadowy gathering which one assumes could only exist in fiction, whose changing locations is revealed only by clues hidden in newspapers. It’s crime that belongs in a heightened version of reality; but here it is in the world of Angelmaker, and Joe wants none of it; instead, he has followed in the footsteps of Daniel, his grandfather, and become a clockmaker. But his latest job makes Joe cross paths with Edie Banister, a nonagenarian ex-spy; and eventually he gets caught up in a plot to end the world with a swarm of clockwork bees – components of the Apprehension Engine, a device which would cause people to apprehend truth so clearly that it would render the universe static.

Like the criminal underworld of Joe’s youth, Edie Banister’s world of espionage is  more colourful than our reality should be able to hold – she was schooled in the ways of spying from an early age, aboard an artisan-crafted train and submarine, and has a ruthless arch-enemy who makes Keyser Söze look like a sissy – and Joe remains protected by a firm of old-school-tie types with seemingly bottomless resources. But Harkaway underlines that the passage of time has been squeezing out these ways of being: ‘The world was getting old and cruel. The great game [Edie] had played, the wild, primary-colour roller coaster, had become something harsher.’ (p. 347) That primary-coloured world is what Joe has spent his life trying to escape, but his story throughout Angelmaker is one of learning to balance his past and presenrt – just as the novel as a whole finds a balance between its outlandish and down-to-earth aspects.

Not everything in the novel works so well: Joe’s love interest, Polly Cradle, remains a little too close to the stereotype of super-competent totty; and I think Angelmakerasks its readers to feel more warmly towards its larger-than-life crime capers than I personally was able to. But then the novel treads its high-wire with nimble feet and gives us genuinely chilling scenes in which Joe has been seized and is tormented by his gentlemanly captors. It shows that Edie’s nemesis is no cartoon villain, but all too real and ruthless beyond belief. It causes the hairs on the back of one’s neck to rise with its fantastical hints of a world changed by the Apprehension Engine. It wrong-foots us with passages of genuine emotion in the midst of a deceptively light narrative. If Angelmaker pits whimsy against seriousness, the outcome is a stalemate; but the real winners of the fight are Nick Harkaway and his readers.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts on this year’s Award.

Elsewhere
Nick Harkaway’s website
Some other reviews of Angelmaker: John Clute for Strange Horizons; Emily St. John Mandel for The Millions; Matt Craig at Reader Dad.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2012: The Shortlist

For the second year running, I’ve predicted only a third of the Clarke Award shortlist. Here are this year’s contenders:

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)

Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)

China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone)

Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)

Sheri S. Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

(The titles above will become review links as I work my way through the shortlist.)

It’s customary, on first seeing a shortlist, to rue the absence of certain titles – I’ll name Christopher Priest’s The Islanders as the big genre name I expected to be there; Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys as the book I wanted to be shortlisted because I loved it; and Lavie Tidhar’s Osama as the talked-about genre title I was looking forward to reading – but what of the actual shortlisted books?

It’s no surprise to see China Miéville shortlisted for the Clarke when he has an eligible title, and Embassytown is his most unambiguously science-fictional work yet. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if it won (which would give Miéville his fourth Clarke win), but I found Embassytown rather dry to read, and can’t see it as a sure-fire winner.

There are no other previous winners on this year’s shortlist, but Sheri S. Tepper has been nominated for the Clarke three times previously, in 1997, 1998,and most recently in 2009 for The Margarets. I tried to read that book at the time, but didn’t get along with it; The Waters Rising, though, is sequel to a novel I’ve long wanted to read – 1993’s A Plague of Angels – so we’ll see.

Greg Bear has been shortlisted twice previously, in 1987 and 2004. Like Tepper, I think of him as a writer whose heyday was in the 1980s and ‘90s; but the premise of Hull Zero Three – the voyage of a generation starship goes badly awry, and it falls to the survivors to work out what happened – sounds intriguing enough. I’m less sure that it sounds like the premise of an award-winning science fiction novel, though.

Charles Stross has received one previous Clarke nomination, in 2006. I’ve not read him before, but Rule 34 – a near-future thriller concerning an investigation into the murders of several spammers – has been well-received, and it is probably the book on the shortlist to which I’m looking forward to reading the most.

Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb is this year’s non-genre contender. It was, of course, longlisted for the Booker last year, and has been rather well-liked in sf circles; however, I don’t know that what I’ve heard about it convinces me that it was the best mainstream-published sf novel of 2011. Still, I have been intending to read this book for ages, and now I will finally be doing so.

Which leaves Drew Magary’s The End Specialist as the least-known quantity on the shortlist for me. From my researches, I can tell you that it’s a debut novel, a thriller set in a future where a treatment has been developed to halt ageing, and there have been a range of reactions to the book. The synopsis wouldn’t move me to read The End Specialist, but if its Clarke nod means I’m introduced to an enjoyable book, that’ll be great.

I must own to being less excited about reading this year’s Clarke shortlist than I have been in the last couple of years. The Miéville is far from being its author’s best work. Bear and Tepper would not spring to my mind as authors who might be producing cutting-edge science fiction in 2012, though Stross probably would. The Magary doesn’t sound like anything special; and the Rogers, good though it may be (and strange though it seems to say about a book from such an obscure publisher), feels like the most obvious choice for a non-genre title.

My main sense at the moment is of wells untapped – I can’t help but wonder about the other debuts that were eligible, the other mainstream-published titles, the other books by established names. But I am always open to having my preconceptions overturned, and I very much hope that will happen with this year’s shortlist; there is a lot of overturning to be done.

Robert Silverberg, ‘Trips’ (1974)

Christopher Cameron travels through various iterations of the universe; but, despite the infinity of existence, his main concern is to seek out versions of his wife Elizabeth, stranger though he may be to them.

I’m ambivalent about this story. Silverberg’s prose is vivid, both in its descriptions of place, and elsewhere; such as when the author explains the differences between being a tourist, explorer, and infiltrator of other worlds:

Tourism hollows and parches you. All places become one: a hotel, a smiling swarthy sunglassed guide, a bus, a plaza, a fountain, a marketplace, a museum, a cathedral. You are transformed into a feeble shrivelled thing made out of glued-together travel folders; you are naked but for your visas; the sum of your life’s adventures is a box of left-over small change from many indistinguishable lands.

But I don’t find the characterisation of Cameron to work nearly as well. His stated motivation for travelling is the pure desire to search; but he’s drawn too sketchily to feel like a restless soul. The twist at the end is neat, but those issues of characterisation reduce its emotional heft.

Rating: ***½

This is one of a series of posts on the anthology Not the Only Planet.

Eastercon schedule

In a coupler of weeks, I’ll be going to Eastercon, the British National Science Fiction Convention; Olympus 2012 is being held at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow (the same venue as when I last went two years ago). The draft programme has now been announced, so it seems as good a time as any to post about what I’m going to be doing at the convention.

I’ll be attending all weekend, but am down to appear on two panels. On Saturday 7 April, at 1pm, I will be moderating a panel on mainstream-published science fiction and fantasy. Regular readers of this blog will know that’s a particular interest of mine; my particular aim for the panel is to explore the place of mainstream-published work within the contemporary sf field. Joining me for that discussion will be Jo Fletcher; Nick Harkaway; Maureen Kincaid Speller; and Damien G. Walter.

My second panel, ‘A Fantasy Clarke Award’, takes place on Sunday 8 April at 2pm. There isn’t a fantasy equivalent of the Arthur C. Clarke Award (that is, a juried award for UK-published novels); this panel is all about discussing some books from 2011 that might be contenders for such an award. Niall Harrison is in the moderator’s chair for this, and my fellow-panellists are Nic Clarke; Erin Horáková; Edward James; and Juliet E. McKenna.

Book and story notes: Claire Massey and Pascal Garnier

Claire Massey, ‘Into the Penny Arcade’ and ‘Marionettes’ (2012)

Time for some new Nightjar Press chapbooks, and this year both their spring titles are by the same author – Claire Massey. The cover quotations from Robert Shearman and Liz Jensen talk about ‘making the ordinary something very sinister’ and ‘quiet disturbance’; I’ll go with that, as both these stories reveal something dark at the heart of the mundane, and do so in a restrained, subtle fashion.

‘Into the Penny Arcade’ is a great story, whose schoolgirl protagonist is attacked by a group of other girls, then rescued by the driver of a lorry which contains a number of old, and rather strange, penny arcade machines. Massey uses spare details and short, sharp sentences to build up the atmosphere – the run-down street, the lorry parked there day after day – and the tension only increases once we’re inside the arcade. The machines themselves are cast in a deliciously sinister light; and the ending has the same subtlety as the rest of the tale, as it suggests a chilling turn of events without being definitive.

‘Marionettes’ takes us toPrague, where Massey’s (unnamed) protagonist has travelled with her partner Karl. The pair come across a shop selling remarkably detailed marionettes, though Karl has little time for that. As the tale progresses, the couple’s relationship comes under increasing strain; and the marionette shop gains some familiar-looking puppets in its window.

As with ‘Into the Penny Arcade’, Massey here creates a sense of unease from some fairly ordinary things – in this case, the strange puppets and the disorientingPraguestreets. The link made between the protagonist’s relationship and the marionettes is effective, but the ending doesn’t quite work for me; I think it takes an imaginative leap further than the build-up can support, whereas in Massey’s other Nightjar story, the conclusion flows more naturally from the tale’s main body. Still, these are a fine duo of stories, and I will be looking out for more of Claire Massey’s work in the future.

Pascal Garnier, The Panda Theory (2008/12)

Gabriel arrives in a small Breton town, finds a restaurant, and strikes up a friendship with the owner, José, whose wife is ill in hospital. Gabriel is a good cook and a friendly face, and presently attracts a small circle of friends, including Madeleine, the receptionist of his hotel; and Marco and Rita, a couple also staying there. But he’s also carrying baggage from his past…

The Panda Theory is one of three books by the late Pascal Garnier which will be published by Gallic Books (who also provide the translation). Particularly effective is the contrast between the ordinariness of the novel’s present and the darkness of the flashbacks to Gabriel’s past – the details of which only gradually emerge. All the people Gabriel meets have holes in their lives, and – as his name suggests – the protagonist is something of an angel, in that he comes into their lives and changes them. But the question of exactly how he does so is one that remains open right up to the tense finale.

Joanna Russ, ‘Useful Phrases for the Tourist’ (1972)

A four-page piece written as a series of phrases uttered by a tourist to an alien planet. This manages both to be amusing (‘This cannot be my room because I cannot breathe ammonia’), and to hint at a complete story. Very neatly done.

Rating: ****

This is one of a series of posts on the anthology Not the Only Planet.

Book notes: Joyce, Sahlberg, Francis

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012)

Harold Fry is whiling away his retirement – pottering about in south Devon, the spark long having gone out of his marriage to Maureen – when he receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old work colleague. Queenie has written from a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed to tell Harold that she is dying of cancer; moved that she still remembers him after all this time, Harold writes a letter in reply, and goes out to post it – but that feels inadequate to him, and Harold soon finds himself on a mission to walk all the way to Berwick.

Rachel Joyce’s debut is a delight to read: it reminded me of a (less macabre) Dan Rhodes book in its ability to combine whimsy with a genuine emotional punch; Harold’s journey may be eccentric, but his reasons for making it are not – and the colourful characters he meets along the way may have painful stories of their own that they don’t want to share. I particularly like the way that the changing character of Harold’s pilgrimage reflects and reinforces the waxing and waning of his hopes (at his most optimistic, Harold gains a new lease of life, and people want to travel with him; at his most despondent, he is bedraggled and alone). I’ll be interested to see what Joyce writes next.

Asko Sahlberg, The Brothers (2010/2)

Peirene Press’s theme for 2012 is ‘The Small Epic’ – ‘novella length stories of more than 35 chapters’ according to the publisher’s catalogue; but this book (Sahlberg’s ninth, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah) also fits the bill as a grand-scale story set in a small space. That space is a Finnish farmhouse in 1809, inhabited by brothers Erik and Henrik; their mother; Erik’s wife, Anna; and the brothers’ cousin (who is treated little better than a servant), Mauri. Henrik has been estranged from the rest of his family, and fought on the opposite side to Erik in the recent war between Sweden and Russia. Now, in peacetime, Henrik returns home – and the battle for mastery of the household begins.

There’s a strong sense of character here, especially of Henrik, with his heavy, deliberate steps, and his childhood affinity with a violent horse. The story itself progresses in broad narrative moves, with the small domestic setting only heightening the sense of drama at the plot and character twists. The Brothers feels longer than its 122 pages, in the best possible way.

Paul Michael Francis, The Silver Bridge (2012)

Pavlos is frontman of the band Karma, a rock star with a conscience who is growing disillusioned. He becomes re-energised when he starts to have visions of a beautiful woman, and even more so when he discovers that she is real – the woman is Claire Davis, a Hollywood actress. She has problems of her own, not least her overly controlling mother. Pavlos and Claire might just be the best thing ever to happen to each other – if they could only get it together…

The Silver Bridge is the debut novel by Paul Michael Francis; despite all the differences in setting and subject matter, it shares with The Brothers a larger-than-life quality. I get the sense that Pavlos and Claire might realise how right they are for each other if they’d just stop and think for a bit – but that’s not the kind of story Francis is telling here. It’s outrageous optimism which drives Pavlos to approach Claire in the first place, and the pair fall in and out of love with similar degrees of intensity. Will they get together in the end, or won’t they? It wouldn’t be right for me to say – that’s all part of the novel’s game – but it is rather good fun finding out.