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Half a year's books

Doris Lessing – The Cleft – Um. Er. This is Lessing – it must be good, mustn’t it? The book details a history of relationships between men and women, and explicitly originates these relationships in the abuse and disregard by each of the other. It does offer a shadow of hope that things improve with time and civilisation. It is I feel (imho), on the basis of one reading of each, much better than Atwood’s The Penelopiad with which it has a good deal in common. However, I’m not up to re-reading in order to ratify this, nor to determine whether it’s actually good or not.


Dave Duncan – The Jaguar Knights: A Chronicle of the King’s Blades – This has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for some months or years, because it is the kind of thing I like when I’m in the mood for this kind of thing: a fantasy of a warrior’s (partial) redemption in a morally ambiguous world. Duncan is not the best writer under the sun, like most of his stories this kept me reading to the end. Probably forgettable though.


Laurie J. Marks – Fire Logic, Earth Logic, Water Logic – As fantasy these are excellent and recommended fairly unreservedly – the blurb on the back of Water Logic (by Ellen Kushner) compares it favourably with LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, and I think she is right. I won’t summarise the books. They deal with the war between the Shaftali and the Sainnites, and the characters, landscape and conversations are complex and utterly convincing.
            Having said that very soon after finishing Water Logic, on reflection I have two reservations. The first has also been expressed by other reviewers: the family at the heart of the story is implausibly harmonious. And the other is that the books are so utterly fantasy that they not only will not but probably cannot be read by very many people whose lives would be better for having read them.

            An aside: I came to these books from reading a conversation, in the BSFA’s Vector magazine, between Marks and her editor Kelly Link, which sparked my curiosity about this author. Brian provided several of her books to choose from, and I started with Fire Logic, after which I badly wanted to read the other two. But London bookshops failed me altogether, and I had to buy from Amazon. I think that’s a first.

Elizabeth Moon - Victory Conditions (Book 5 - and last? - of Vatta’s War) – Quite fun, but I do hope she isn’t going to go on and on indefinitely. She had a problem completing this, I think, and it’s fairly boring relative to the others, as all of the plot strands are basically resolved in the previous book. All her main characters have to do in this one is survive another round, which they do, of course, mostly fairly happily. In order to follow some plot threads she sometimes drops briefly and irritatingly into the heads or lives of subsidiary characters, but doesn’t do enough work with these for me to think the switch of viewpoint was worth it. Not sorry to have read it, but I’ve given the whole series so far to Brian to sell – I’ll never want to read them again.


Robin McKinley – Dragon Haven – I wish I had liked this better. I can’t really fault it, but it didn’t manifest whatever it is I normally like best about her books. It’s an intelligent attempt to write telepathic dragons as science fiction rather than fantasy, and as such I can recommend it. I found the Heinlein-juvenile tone of voice slightly wearing in places.


Karen Traviss – City of Pearl, Crossing the Line, World Before – first three books of the six book Wess’har wars sequence. Early work by this writer, and it shows at times. Anyone who likes Cherryh’s Merchanter/Union books should like these. However, the focus is very much on the personal reactions of the protagonists (plural) as they grapple with interspecies diplomacy and warfare.


Nancy Kress – Beggars in Spain, Beggars and Choosers, Beggars Ride – ambitious and convincing trilogy exploring the consequences of genetically engineering ‘superior’ human beings.


Dave Hutchinson – As the Crow Flies – I bought this collection of mostly science fiction stories from the author at the Glasgow Eastercon, attracted at least in part by its handsome presentation and the black-and-white illustrations by Magdalena Zmudzinska. I found it to be an interesting collection of tales, generally very English in tone, but with strong Eastern European elements for added interest and flavour. Recommended.


Charles G Finney – Past the End of the Pavement – Two boys growing up in small town America cause social havoc by capturing and caring for wild animals, including turtles, snakes and opossums. Read at Brian’s recommendation. Extremely old-fashioned and quite charming.


Frances Hodgson Burnett – In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim – Follows the De Willoughby family from riches before the US Civil War to rags during it, and back to riches again in its aftermath.


I. G. Simmons – Global Environmental History 10,000 BC to AD 2000 – A very, very fast skate over the ways in which the global environment and our relationship with it has changed while we (the human species that is) enjoyed 12,000 years of civilization. It boils whole lifetimes of work in many fields down into its individual paragraphs and sentences and is thus sometimes (sometimes!) annoyingly general. But snippets include:

·      We may have established all our civilizations during an unusual period of climatic stability that made agriculture possible. There never was any reason to think that the climate would remain favourable, even without industrialization and man-made global warming.

·      Human beings had significant impacts on the environment and climate long before we were around in any substantial numbers, or in any position to understand what we were doing.

·      There are few or no ‘natural’ landscapes. (Some) bogs, moors, forests and deserts are all ‘man made’ as surely as are cities and fields.


Richard Tames – London A Literary and Cultural History – Browsing this book I found it fascinating, witty and informative, and I borrowed it from the library in order to read it. I did read it all, and discovered many more fascinating facts about London and its denizens, although somehow the whole contrived to be less than the sum of its parts. But it certainly disabused me of any notion that we live in a period of unprecedented change.


A.S. Byatt – Angels and Insects – Two extremely literate and elegant novellas that meditate on the uses of literature but whose characters ultimately prefer the comforts of the body to those of the mind. In Eugenia Morpho two geeks discover companionship and earn a degree of freedom from the study of ants. Conjugial Angels is shaped around Tennyson’s In Memoriam. The poem is Tennyson’s memorial to his friend Arthur Hallam, who died untimely young, having recently become engaged to Tennyson’s sister Emily. The story looks at the rather different impact of his death on the lives of the brother and sister. Ultimately, several abandoned women find a comfort in human relationships that appears to be denied to the poet.


Caroline M

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October 2017