Chasing machines across galaxies with Michael Cobley

Michael Cobley’s Ancestral Machines (Orbit, £18.99) is a solid Space Opera that is highly enjoyable. Set in the Humanity’s Fire world, this is a large scale story.

After being double crossed in a deal then a rescue, Captain Pyke has to travel to the Warcage. A large scale stellar construct designed for peace, it has become a war machine, capable of burning up planets.As Pyke races to save his crew, he delves into the history of the cage and characters who built the machine.

With a mixture of biotechnology, planetary engineering and galaxies, Cobley is not afraid of the large scale without spreading into the multiple volumes. This is a good “old fashioned” space opera that does not delve into the politics, especially pertinent in the Sad Puppies age, but delivers on narrative.

There is a strong sense of Firefly and the JJ Abrams rebooting of Star Trek in it; that sense of the action, core Space Opera. I do wonder if this in part the rediscovery of the sense of wonder from a set of Sf fans brought up on Star Wars. It was an enjoyable read.

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Mend the gap: Winterson’s take on the Winter’s Tale

Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap in Time (Hogarth Shakespeare) is her “cover version” of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It is a notorious play that challenges the reader but has been a touchstone of Winterson’s work.

Given the nature of the play, Winterson pulls of the retelling with aplomb and highlights the role of the twins. There is a potentially a whole segue into Clute’s printed theory of twins (which might not be accurate any more as he shifts like an iguana across the literary landscape) but not for this post.

I fell in love her novel, The Passion, in my final year of my English degree. For me, the novel drew from Sf and the Gothic, a Venetian Tombs of Atuan which probably had other meanings. For me, it was a sign of an author who respected writing and drew from all kinds of sources. She does that here with the story about growing up mixed with gaming, Sf and fantasy and music.

I am unsure that she really gets into the argument of forgiveness: the characters do not forgive themselves and cannot forgive others fully.

This is, however, a book that respects itself and its source, developing its tale for the new author.

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More than one way to cover a book – Alice Thompson’s The Book Collector

I came across  a notice of The Book Collector by Alice Thompson (Salt, £8.99) in the Observer. I think it had a review in the Guardian as well but not having read the book, I avoided the review. However, I was suitably intrigued.

The idea of the retelling of Bluebeard was a delight as I love Angela Carter’s retelling but the Thompson was ever so unexpected. Having just been on a fairy tale jag, this book was like cat nip and definitely an author whom I am going to have read more of now.

Violet meets, and marries quickly, Archie, a book collector. After having a child, she finds herself increasingly isolated. Leafing through her husband’s library, she comes across a safe with a book of fairy tales inside. She is interned in an asylum to “help” her overcome her illness and learns of the disappearance of young women, some of whom she has met. Her return to the house is not a fortunate one as the icy Clara has moved in as a governess and their lives unravel in startling ways.

In just under 160 pages, Thompson delights us with a feminist retelling of Bluebeard and other tales whilst mixing in the notion of women’s mental health, echoing Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Mrs Rochester. Violet’s plight deftly makes us consider the insanity that drives her husband in counter point to her own perceived issues.

She manages to be gleeful and to bring her own voice into the Gothic rather than go through the motions with the machinery. The ghost story was temporarily back in vogue this year as several writers published new ghost stories (though Susan Hill has been doing this for a few years anyhow…) and this was hailed as come back for the Gothic. Arguably the Gothic never really goes away as it is rarely in full fashion but nips the heels and merrily guides in its maddening ways.

The unravelling updates the novel and reminded me a little of Michelle Lovric.

This is my first Alice Thompson book and I am really looking forward to reading more next year.



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The ghosts of Slade House

David Mitchell’s Slade House is a ghost novella, at first glance. Every 9 years, the owner of Slade House appear to capture another victim to continue their reign.

Mitchell develops a sense of claustrophobia through his use of grammar and Alice in Wonderland sizing. He skews the characters’ perspectives through descriptions of doors and land, starting with Wonderland but perhaps ending up with Lovecraft’s thoughts on the idea of the world just being altered enough to be horrific.

Using the time breaks as chapter or sections, the sense of linear time is created but then distorted in between paragraphs. As one might expect from Mitchell, there is a slippage between genres and styles, mixing science fiction and horror neatly with realism and the ghost story.

Readers of Mitchell’s work know that there are often links to his other work  and this book is no exception as he considers, in a very brief overview, uses of time in fiction. I am sure that there other links that I have not recognised yet but knowing these is not a barrier to enjoying the novella.

Given the normal time in between his books coming out, this is a little out of the ordinary. It fits into the ghost stories that appear during this period, though I do think that the revival aspect is premature  as they have never really gone away. This is not one of his major works but it is a fun read all the same.

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Occasional Readings until Halloween

I’ve been reading fairy tales as a response to some reviews in the Guardian of two new collections.

I started with Jamila Gavin’s collection, Blackberry Blue and Other Tales (Tamarind, £9.99). In her preface, she writes that she to write tales that ‘extended the European image’ so that more diverse children might enjoy them. She does this successfully with tales of transformation. A core to these stories is the notion of knowing and accepting oneself to become. This book came out a while ago but I’m ashamed to say that it has taken this long to read.

The next collection is Marina Warner’s Fly Away Home (Salt, £8.99) which mixes both the fairy tales and the short stories in this world. As coming from a historian f fairy tales, Warner dives into the deeper and more abstract meanings. It reminds me slightly of Helen Oyeyemi’s work.

I’ve got the new Salman Rushdie which is a retelling of the 1001 Nights and updates it to this world but linked deeply to the original world. It reminds me of Ian MacDonald’s Cyberabad Days and Rover of Gods in its mix of stories.

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Into the heart of the original with Aylett

If you have ever wandered the streets of Beerlight or enjoyed the works of Jeff Lint (books or documentary on AylettVision on YouTube) or Dinner with Argle on YouTube, then you may be aware of the originality of Steve Aylett.

In the Heart of the Original, Steve Aylett writes his first official non-fiction on the subject. As one might expect, it is written with vim and vigour with more than a soupcon of experimentation and humour. The core is the argument that art, in particular, needs more originality to be pushed.

As Aylett argues, there is a large amount of recycling that happens of ideas which is claimed as original. Truly original in some cases. In a slightly haphazard fashion, the author skips across many authors and books, showing how they were original before becoming accepted.

The part I do have an issue with is that mining the past might not be original. If this didn’t happen we might not have Eliot’s Wasteland or Chaucer, both of which are original in execution and style but rely upon knowledge of the past.

Perhaps what he is getting at is the amount of similar novels and works of art available. Some are touted as original when they are retreads. I do question whether this is due to a  lack of understanding or knowledge of theirs and related genres. Without stating it, he attacks the “wannabe” culture that has been increasingly engendered, looking for clones and variations of successful ventures, rather than creating other successes.

It builds on the arguments in Lint and the accompanying And Your Point Is? (Yatterings blog post). Companies such as Unbound or the small presses are revitalising older publishing models. Out of this arises the opportunity for interesting and original authors. What worries me, and perhaps Aylett, is that the underlying culture is in deep trouble, but is this cyclical? Are we just in the dark before we get the next punk movement (which will be subsumed, this is the way things go)? I hope so.

Yet this is a book that should be read and enjoyed. Then read his other books.

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Occasional Readings 27 September

Jon Courtenay Grimwood posted a photo of The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalani (Periscope Books, £9.99) on Twitter and in a fit of excitement, I got a copy at Blackwells whilst looking for something else.

The novel tells “Estebanico’s” story, the black slave who was taken on a doomed Spanish journey of conquest in Florida. Splicing his story with the Spanish and his own life pre-being captured as Mustafa, he builds up an uncertain narrative about having his identity refashioned by both himself and his owners, the would-be conquerors.

The wider narrative is uncertain as the world is being made from stories. The Spanish sped across the Atlantic for the fabled cities of gold and the internal political struggle that fuels this as well as the slave trade. Added to this is Mustafa’s recollection of his life and that he is translator and narrator. The narrative is under his control. In this gap in history, his voice is the only one that really matters, the only one with which we might converse.

At first it might be read as a purely a novel about the iniquities of slavery and its barbarism. Lalani deftly unpicks the onion layers of the issue and gets to the fear of the unknown that underlies some of the responses. Yet she shows how little the attitudes change, despite the words, of the Spanish who are less worried about the native people than their social position, whatever they say. Lalani shows the unmoving and unthinking nature of the conqueror.

The novel is certainly timely given the fear engendered in Europe about migration. The subtle narrative of political ear and lack of humanity and the stronger one that we have to listen to all voices in the larger story. By ignoring them, we are committing similar acts now to historical ones and as a set of societies, we cannot afford this to take place. I will be looking for her earlier writing now.

I finally got around to reading David Barnett’s Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (Snow Books) which is an enjoyable romp around Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century Science Fiction cultures. Barnett provides a light hearted story that wears its scholarship lightly but enjoyably.

The final collection was The Names by Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez (Vertigo). I waited for the graphic novel collection to come out. Using the idea of a unnamed cooperative called the Names, they present a world in which the secret masters cannot control any more. Merging the cyber with the human in terms of language, they create a frightening world which is out of control. It does feel slightly hurried towards the end of the series but I hope that we might see something more in this vein at some point.

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Occasional reading notes 28 Aug

I am having a few days off at the moment and so catching up on some long overdue reading.

I have been able to read The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath by Ishbelle Bee (Angry Robot, £8.99). I picked this up browsing in Blackwell a while ago. A mixture of nineteenth century fairy tales and modernism, it tells the stories of three people – Jonathan, Mirror and Goliath – and the way that they respond to life or lack of it.

Ambitiously the book uses both nineteenth and twentieth century narrative structures and typesetting tricks to embed the reader in the world. The novel comes across as whimsical but there is a delicious thread of horror which builds up but does not swamp the rest of the novel. At the end of this novel I was reminded that I should reread the Gail Carriger novels (I have a new series of these to read as well), or perhaps Jesse Bullington’s first novel. Egypt continues to overshadow the weird fantastic.

At the suggestion of a post by Farah Mendlesohn, I read the Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury Circus, £12.99). I ought to re-read this soon but it is an impressive first novel that crosses UK and Japan. She creates a wonderful historical fantasy with touches of steampunk and conspiracies. I do wonder if there is some Joseph Conrad about the book, crossing cultures and appearing to enjoy itself.

I saw a mention of Genevieve Cogman‘s The Invisible Library (Tor UK, £7.99). Ostensibly about the search for a forbidden book through a multiverse. Superficially this book is about the journey of Irene, a professional spy, and Kai, a “distinctly not what he appears to be” assistant, to find a book for their library employers. It would be easy to ignore Cogan’s musing on the nature of reading, where the reader takes pleasure in crossing through multiverse of the genres and types. Our reading and rereading takes into new place and times, allowing us to search and enjoy the search. Rather than disappear into a pseudo- Umberto Eco or Alberto Manguel reading, I am looking forward to other volumes in this series. There are some ambitious ideas in this novel that are in skeleton form.  I look forward to the stop motion of seeing it animated as I read more.

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Now is the shortlist of our discontent

Adam Roberts has two posts on thoughtful posts on awards on his Sibilant Fricative blog.

Firstly his thoughtful post on this year’s Hugo’s, “Hugos 2015: Delenda est Hugo” considers many angles and puts it into a wider context of self-promotion as well as the use of force within the rules. It follows on in part from Nick Mamatas’s post on the subject.

Secondly and far more positive is his post on the Clarke Award shortlist which has recently been announced. It has reminded me that there are two books on there that I must get. As he points out, there is a fair amount of post-apocalypse in it which perhaps says more about the context than the books.

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The eeriness of the land

Robert Macfarlane, in this week’s Guardian, has published an article on “The eeriness of the English Landscape“. Using MR James as a starting point, he gets into the weirdness of the land and how it fascinates writers.

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