Follow by Email

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Far From Home - Walter Tevis (1981)

Rating: Excellent

I first read this excellent collection of short stories back when I was about sixteen in high school. I was so impressed that I've always kept it in my book collection, never once considering it for culling in one of my periodic clean-outs. Far From Home was just as impressive some thirty years later and it was also a pleasant exercise in nostalgia for me as I remembered how I reacted to the stories when I was a teenager. Some of the stories reveal a writer who is very interested in the human psyche, dealing with themes unusual for science fiction, such as the Oedipus complex and childhood trauma. Other stories feature uniquely brilliant takes on such well worn science fiction tropes as time travel (including one called Echo that I'm sure would have influenced Greg Egan), alien planets and eccentric scientists creating weird technologies. Reading the book as an adult made me wonder about Tevis himself, as many of the male characters were quite lusty and referenced their appreciation of the female form often and in nearly every story characters were often drinking gin or whisky. Was he putting something of himself in his stories, or just giving his male characters some machismo that matched the times? Maybe he hoped Playboy Magazine would buy some of his stories and if so it would have been a well suited match!

Friday, 6 July 2018

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton (2014)

Rating: Admirable
The Miniaturist is one of those novels that are just like a really beautiful looking cake that tastes wonderful at first but the more that you eat the more unpalatable it becomes. Set in sixteenth century Amsterdam when Holland was at its apogee in terms of wealth and trade, the novel's themes deal with dark family secrets, the coming of age of the principal female protagonist - Petronella, the hypocrisy and paranoia of religion and some magic realism in the form of the precognitive powers of a young female miniaturist. I initially did become engaged with the plot and some of the characters were well rounded enough so that I cared what happened to them, however as the novel neared its endgame I became less satisfied. The tapestry of the narrative had become frayed so that the tension that was developed earlier dissipated and led to a fairly disappointing and predictable ending. The novel is good enough to be taken up and developed by the BBC as a mini-series (how appropriate...), but ultimately The Miniaturist lacks that vital narrative spark that makes for a memorable classic.

Monday, 18 June 2018

One Three One - Julian Cope (2014)

Rating: Admirable

Julian Cope is one of the finest cult musical artists in the world and is certainly one of the most endearingly creative and eccentric. Cope can also definitely write, having produced perhaps the greatest rock autobiography in the form of the hilariously manic Head On (1994). Cope also has a fascination with Neolithic Europe and has produced scholarly tomes such as The Modern Antiquarian (1998) and The Megalithic European (2004), but is he also a successful novelist? The answer is, well, maybe? One Three One is, as they say, a mixed bag; featuring a rock star character called Rock Section, football hooligans, neolithic stone sites on the Italian island of Sardinia (where most of the novel is set), Paganism vs Christianity (the Christians are the bad guys...) time travel (back some 10, 000 years), a multitude of musical references and a series of fictional rave era bands that many of the secondary characters have a hand in. It's heady stuff and most of the time Cope's freewheeling narrative style keeps you interested, however sometimes I was just plain bored, or frustrated and perplexed, and sometimes I was totally enthralled. I veered between thinking I'd rate the novel as mediocre and other times as excellent; but ultimately One Three One is quite an achievement for an eccentric cult artist whose main gig is producing excellent music at a fairly prolific rate. Well done Mr Cope... 

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Imperial Bedrooms - Bret Easton Ellis (2010)

Rating: Admirable

Imperial Bedrooms is the sequel to Less Than Zero (1985), Ellis' debut novel that made a significant cultural impact in middle on that bloated decade. Fittingly both take their titles from seminal Elvis Costello albums. I have not yet read Less Than Zero, however this did not impact greatly on my understanding of the novel and, as I knew it would, it contained Ellis' typical emotionless writing style. In terms of conveying an atmosphere of soulless hedonistic despair Ellis is just brilliant, however the very act of reading the novel means being prepared to be drawn into that world and exposed to its narcissistic core, which is a draining experience indeed. The central protagonist, Clay, reminded me so much of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho (1991), as did the overall narcissistic tone of the novel and the exploration of modern humans devoid of basic humanity. I admired this novel more than I enjoyed it and ultimately if you were to read any Bret Easton Ellis novel it would have to be American Psycho, which is one of the greatest modern novels and, a cliche I know, also required reading during the decline of America under Trump.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Restless - William Boyd (2006)

Rating: Admirable

Restless stands as a rarity for me due to the fact that I rarely, if ever, read espionage novels, and it is also my first William Boyd novel. My prior knowledge of Boyd stems from my Bowie fandom, when Bowie was one of the few in on the elaborate joke played by Boyd with the creation of a fictional artist called Nat Tate back in 1998. Having now read Restless I can say that Boyd is a talented writer and having read a number of interviews with him in preparation for the book club sessions he's also an interesting and intelligent gentleman. I did enjoy the novel, with its tale of a daughter finding out that her mother was in fact a spy working for the British government during the first few years of WWII. The premise is based on a historically real attempt to try and use spin and false evidence to convince the citizens of the USA to join the war against the Nazis. It is, as they say, a cracking read; however in hindsight I feel it was somewhat diminished by the alternating chapters set in the mid 1970's (the others being set during WWII), in which an end game of sorts is enacted by the mother whilst the daughter struggles with her own life as a single mother attempting to finish a thesis and having to fend off the amorous overtures of an Iranian student. I guess you could refer to this book as a literary spy novel - some good holiday reading perhaps...?

Monday, 7 May 2018

Martian Time-Slip - Philip K. Dick (1964)

Rating: Admirable

I thought it was about time I read another P. K. Dick novel, because frankly I need that kind of thing in my life on occasions. Martian Time-Slip is a typical P. K. Dick novel in almost every way, featuring shifts in reality, characters with unusual mental abilities, time distortions and many of the 'every-man' characters who endure the weird situations that appear in his novels, including this one. Although Martian Time-Slip is not without its flaws, it is ultimately one of Dick's better novels from the 1960's. P. K. Dick was an utterly unique writer, combining disparate elements that other writers would only flirt with. Although many of the novel's characters are fairly one dimensional, perhaps even mundane, Dick portrays them in such an unusually direct manner that ultimately such shortcomings are transcended, something that also significantly adds to the novel's hyper-real tone. As usual P. K. Dick pays no attention to scientific practicalities, pretty much portraying life on Mars as if it was merely some strange desert region on Earth; but ultimately it doesn't matter, it's a Philip K. Dick novel after all...

Monday, 30 April 2018

Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley - edited by Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem (2012)

Rating: Sublime

Store of the Worlds is perhaps the greatest collection of science fiction stories I have ever read. Every story is brilliant, thought provoking, amusing and provocative.  Many of these stories were first published in science fiction magazines from the 1950's and 1960s, such as Galaxy Science Fiction and Amazing Science Fiction Stories, even a number from Playboy Magazine! It is obvious that Sheckley helped invent some now well known science fiction tropes, but more significantly he inverted a number of them too, like portraying humans as alien invaders, let loose on the universe. Oh, and his style is polished and erudite, belying science fiction's mid century pulp reputation. Just amazing...