What we're reading: May 2016

George

After reading a huge amount in April, it seems things have slowed down dramatically in May for me. That’s not strictly true because I’ve been reading a lot of submissions, but if you ask my Goodreads profile, there’s only 3 things to tell you about.

First of these is the Worlds and Beings collection of Romanian science fiction which I picked up at this year’s London Book Fair. This claims to be a comprehensive profile of Romanian science fiction writers and, well, I’m sure it is! It’s an interesting set for a few reasons, not the least because it shows how genre fiction has really progressed since the Golden Age. This is evidenced by some really dated feeling stories here, but also by the weirder ones, which quite deftly play with genre and structure. There are also satires here, not a lifetime away from some Russian stories I've read, featuring enterprising rogues and dubious state officials.

Particular highlights were:

  • 'The Bride' from the Garden by Rodica Bretin - A discomforting and strikingly told weird tale of love and gardening. This is a dreamy, oblique and lyrical piece of writing, certainly one of the most elegant in the book.
  • 'The Artefact' by Liviu Mircea Goga - Time travel gives you an excuse to play with how we build historical narrative, a process clearly under scrutiny in Romania's recent history. 
  • 'Omohom' by Christian Tudor Popescu - A father tries to teach his child to hide his intelligence in preparation for a mysterious test. Full of the conflicts of parenthood and passing wisdom on to future generations.
  • 'I Remember the Baker' by Lucia-Vasile Szabo - This delirious journey through Venice really captures the complexity and chaos of the place, and looks at how re relate to human history in the age of tourism.

It’s a collection I’d recommend picking up if you’re at all curious what happens outside the UK (NB: You should be), but if a story isn’t doing it for you skip it.

Next up I treated myself to Harlequin, a novella by Nina Allan. The last of hers I read was Spin, on the TTA Press novella line, which is excellent. Harlequin won the 2015 Novella Award, judged by Alison Moore, beating 127 other works, and I think I can see why. It follows Dennis Beaumont, a conscientious objector who drove an ambulance in World War One, as he returns to London and tries to reintegrate with his life.

So far, so familiar, and I got definite overtones of Birdsong amongst other novels. But, it being a Nina Allan story, it’s not quite so simple. Because Beaumont isn’t the same person any more, and quickly he starts living multiple lives, becoming walking shrapnel in the city. It’s a story of creeping dread and the ongoing effects of trauma at heart, as Beaumont struggles to deal with his gruesome experiences at War. As with most novellas, it’s hard to talk about the plot without spoiling it but think of this as a discomforting exploration of how the true damage of events can manifest long after the fact, in seemingly unrelated ways.

Finally I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, probably my biggest step back into a past of reading hard SF in a long time. It’s about the first colonial mission sent out to Tau Ceti at 1/10th the speed of light. That makes for a 170 year voyage, and the book opens several generations in, towards the end of that trip. So hard SF, as far as I can tell, very carefully researched.

There’s lots I really enjoyed in this book, mostly centered around the character of the ship and the viability of the mission. The troubles they face aren’t explosions, or dropping oxygen levels, but the more delicate matter of balancing ecosystems and dealing with finite resources in a closed system. Robinsons handles this well so that it doesn’t fall into the realm of lecture, or exposition. And Ship really is the centre of that. The development of the quantum computer is a joy to read, feeling entirely plausible with the development of the narratorial voice and full of endless pertinent insights about humanity viewed from the perspective of a logic problem. It’s a striking achievement of style in fact, grading the development so subtly.

That said, I do feel it lost momentum in the closing sections and that a couple of key plot developments, whilst fitting for the plot, left Robinson cornered when it came to the larger story. The closing scene was touching and a fitting end, but it seems that some parts of a journey are just more interesting than others, perhaps?


Gary

I thought I'd read more than three books this month. I've been reading a lot of submissions, put it that way.

The Last English Poachers by Bob & Brian Tovey

The current explosion of nature writing seems to me to have been sorely lacking in accounts from people who actually work and live in the landscapes so often written about. This is why The Last English Poachers is immediately interesting; here we have an account from two generations of a poaching family, presenting a view of that most knotty of concepts, nature, very different from the standard viewpoint presented in literature. This isn’t the account of the lone white male striding out into the countryside to report back to us city-dwellers in book form. It’s not even something comforting like The Shepherd’s Life. It's certainly not bucolic or pastoral. It’s the viewpoint of a rural working class whose voices are rarely heard – in this case, voices that are fiercely independent and filled with contempt for the landed gentry.

The poacher has an odd status in the hierarchy of English criminality – in the popular imagination he manifests as an aspect of the ‘greenwood’ of Merry England myths, a rural working-class hero sticking it to the landowners (with echoes of Robin Hood), and a fairly nice bloke in the form of the dad from Danny, Champion of the World. Whether that idea has any grounding in reality is what drew me to this book.

The accounts of Bob and Brian Tovey are fascinating, though not for the squeamish, a window into a type of British rural life that is completely alien to most urban and suburban readers. I didn’t agree with their politics or views all of the time – but then I don’t read just to have my own opinions reaffirmed – and there are some very interesting thoughts here on society’s often hypocritical attitudes to animals that made me question my own beliefs.

The only criticism is that I could have done with more of it!– especially when Brian Tovey discloses he’s not quite as geographically restricted as the reader may have thought, talking of his travels and participation in the bull running festivals in Pamplona, Spain and lone trips into the wilderness of eastern European forests to watch wisent and wolves. I also wished that tantalising pieces of information, such as the poachers encountering a black panther in a moonlit field, were expanded on.

According to the The Spectator, Simon & Schuster should be ashamed for having published this book. This of course only adds to the enjoyment.

 

Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo

A young man named Mikael encounters a group of youths giving an animal a beating outside of his apartment in Tampere. He runs them off, and discovers the injured creature is in fact a young troll cub. He takes the creature in and as he nurses it back to health, the troll (christened Pessi) begins to exert a powerful influence over him. It gets weird and uncomfortably sexual.

Johanna Sinisalo’s novel exists in an alternate Finland where trolls are not just things of myth and folklore – rare enough to approach that status, rarely seen and seldom glimpsed, but very real. The trolls are the last surviving remnant of the ‘cat apes’, confirmed as a real mammalian species in 1907. A deep and potent (and unnervingly anthropoid) symbol of the wilderness and nature, and the wildness in human beings that we fail to completely tame. 

Switching POV between Mikael, his ex and current lovers Martes and Ecke, and his downstairs neighbour Palomita, the narrative is further intercut with folk stories, scientific articles, encyclopedia entries and more taken from the world of the novel. Some are ‘real’, some are not. Sinisalo uses this tapestry to ask some deep, and disturbing, questions about what this slippery notion of ‘wildness’ really means, and how it may be something essential we're barely aware we are lacking. 

Troll: A Love Story is a really great novel of Finnish weird. I want more of it. 

You can read an extract of the novel here.

 

Furnace by Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn’s second collection of short fiction (and the first I’ve read) is a nightmarish wander through lust, violence and treacle-thick darkness. I loved it. At times it made me think of a feminine Thomas Ligotti with a high sex-drive, with bits of Caitlin Kieran in there too, but most of the time I was impressed by the sheer dark originality of it, and the power of the densely crafted prose.

Every story here earned its keep, but the two standouts for me were the stony landscape-delirium of ‘Autochthon’ and ‘The Last, Clean, Bright Summer’ which uses the classic format of a young girl’s journal (reminiscent of Machen’s ‘The White People’ and Aickman’s ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Diary’, except this girl is a Beyonce fan in the 21st Century) to reveal its mounting horrors. And these really are horrors; it’s rare I can say a short story genuinely surprised me. This did, and now it’s lodged in my brain like a particularly unwholesome parasite.