Jelly Roll by Luke Sutherland

Anchor, 1998, 411 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Jelly Roll cover

When a book’s epigraph is the passage from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus which ends in, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” as uttered by Mephistopheles, you know its contents will not be an unalloyed bundle of laughs. Jelly Roll has its lighter moments but the subject matter is indeed serious.

The novel starts when Glasgow jazz band The Sunny Sunday Sextet’s saxophonist, Malc, who is a bit of a psychopath, decides, for domestic reasons, to stop playing with them. The ensuing discussions among the band’s members – in uncompromising Glasgow dialect – relate to whether to give up altogether or find a replacement, and even if doing the latter would be a wise move given Malc’s likely reaction. The prospect of a tour of the Highlands and Islands has the potential to sway things. The group’s drummer Paddy introduces narrator Roddy Burns (whose tipple is the unlikely Bailey’s) to his sister’s boyfriend Liam; who plays like a dream. He seems the perfect answer, young, gifted and ……. black. Embarrassments ensue when he comes along to the next band practice as Roddy has somehow neglected to mention that last fact to the other members. He thinks they are being racist and they think he is, precisely because he didn’t mention it. Liam’s response is to ignore any tension. It turns out this is his strategy to cope with the harassments he habitually has to endure because of his skin colour.

The novel then jumps forward in time to describe incidents occurring during the tour, taking in a roll-call of Scottish towns – Blairgowrie, Dunkeld, Crieff, Fort William, Inverness, Portree, Ullapool – which are usually described by an italicised gazetteer entry. (Ullapool’s is a touch harsh. It merely says herring 1788.) It is obvious we have missed something in the interim. A later return to events which occurred after Malc rejoined the band, with Liam as a supposed backing saxophonist, fills in the gaps. Malc is an unreconstructed racist, as his dubbing of Liam as ‘Banana’ emphasises. His tendency to violence and to pick fights is displayed in several scenes, including the plot’s fulcrum. Not that Malc is alone in his racism or indeed his violence. The band’s reception at one of the venues develops into a rammy due to elements of the audience taking exception to Liam’s appearance.

I assume the book gains its title from Roddy’s penchant for “jellies” (diazepam.) When I first read the blurb on the back I declined to buy it thinking it would not be for me but given my wish to complete that “100 Best Scottish Books” list (at least all the fiction on it) I subsequently could not ignore a charity shop copy at a very reasonable price. I was pleasantly surprised – depictions of violence notwithstanding: there is a lot more going on in Jelly Roll than I have commented on. Its appearance on the list may be due to its highlighting of racism (in his youth Sutherland was the only Scots-African in Orkney) but it is certainly better written than some others which are on it.

Pedant’s corner:- the speaker grill (grille,) sunk (x3, sank,) sprung (sprang,) peninsular (peninsula,) “another thing comin” (another think,) whinging (to me ‘whingeing’ is the better spelling,) duffelcoat (duffel coat,) “to fall back onto” (fall back on to,) span (spun,) the watersedge (the water’s edge,) lungeing (conversely, lunging,) “seemlessly into the cultural fabric” (seamlessly,) twinging (twingeing,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) doppleganger (doppelganger,) “‘Ah’m ah fuck?’” (‘Am ah fuck.’) “fob us of” (off,) windowledge (window ledge,) Dunkin Doughnuts (I believe the company spells it Donuts,) “a hand held short” (hand held shot,) snuck (sneaked.)

The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner

Jonathan Cape, 2010, 398 p.

The Stars in the Bright Sky cover

This is a sequel of sorts to Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos where a group of girls from the school Our Lady of Perpetual Succour went on a trip to Edinburgh from their town – known in Warner’s novels as ‘the Port’ – for a choir competition, but they saw it instead as an opportunity for a night on the razz in the big city.

Now adults, Kylah, Chell, Manda, Kay, Finn and Finn’s friend from university, Ava, are planning a holiday abroad. They meet up on a Friday evening at a hotel near Gatwick Airport preparatory to utilising a last minute booking for taking off to Europe, settling on Magaluf as a destination.

Much has changed since The Sopranos. In the interim one of them has had an abortion, another a baby – always referred to by mother Manda as ‘wee Sean’ – by a waster of a father, and Finn’s studies at Oxford have created a distance between them. She has, for instance, never been to Rascals, the Port’s newest night venue, which Manda in particular regards as the height of sophistication. (I use that last word in its modern sense rather than the original of world-weariness.) Despite, though, Ava’s upper middle class background they begin to settle down together and forge – or re-forge – bonds. Manda is something of a force of nature, overbearing and scornful, but also vulnerable. It is through her mislaid passport that the group’s plans go awry and they are forced to forfeit the already outlaid money and to spend the weekend in or around the airport and its hotels waiting for a cheap flight to Las Vegas. The interlude provides time for an eventful trip to Hever Castle and back plus copious drinking opportunities.

Incidental comments and snippets underline the contrast between those who stayed in the Port and those who left and Warner’s focus on the girls’ relationships lends a creeping claustrophobia to the situation. Their knowledge of and regard for each other, though, remain the central core of the book. Yet there are still revelations. In one break away from the others Finn describes Ava to Kay as “a legendary, awful cokehead” who, she hopes, has given it up.

Perhaps a not-so-subtle note of class consciousness on Warner’s part occurs when Ava says, “‘When you’ve plenty money there’s no such thing as a drug problem,’” because your parents can get a lawyer to get you off on a first offence. Yet if you live on a council estate the authorities will throw the book at you. Ava continues, “‘It’s all semantics. What problem? You have a supply, you have no drug problem.’”

As befits his characters the dialogue tends to the earthy but Warner’s ability to get inside the heads of young women eager for a bit of hedonism (some of whom are customarily given small chance of that) is impressive.

I did not much take to The Sopranos when I read it, nor to the rest of Warner’s early work, as I said here on his later novel The Deadman’s Pedal. However I found both that and his The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven more congenial. The Stars in the Bright Sky was published between those two books. Does it say something about me or Warner’s later writing that I had less of an aversion to it than to The Sopranos? (I’m not in a hurry to go back to that book and check, though. Too much else to read.)

Pedant’s corner:- ballisters (balusters,) a missing end quote mark, “‘you credit card’” (your credit card,) ass (it’s ‘arse’ – which is employed later,) “the swinging toilets door” (toilets’ or toilet’s.) “Hanging from … were a gang of” (was a gang of.) “A moody pocket of lads were stepping out” (strictly, a pocket .. was stepping out.) “A babble of excited voices were …” (strictly, a babble … was,) “a vast mass of …were visible” (a vast mass … was visible,) “high jinx” (high jinks,) sprung (sprang.) “The vast bulk of … were back” (the vast bulk …. was back.) “‘That a sweet thing ..’” (That’s a sweet thing,) “the camera was a snugged, tight lump was in the skirt pocket” (no second ‘was’ needed,) “laying in the lap” (lying,) shrunk (shrank,) “she was laying out long upon her bed” (she was lying out,) sunk (sank,) “with a curled lips” (no ‘a’.) “‘You don’t seems nervous.’” (seem,) “a dossal attached to their sides” (dorsal?)

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1980, 280 p. First published in 1811.

Expectations count. When you’re told something is good – excellent even – your anticipation is heightened, but perhaps also tinged with the thought, ‘Well go on. Impress me then.’

So what do you say about an acknowledged classic of English literature? Well, the first thing is that the past was different. This was written over two hundred years ago. They did things – and wrote – differently there. There is a prolixity to the prose here also present in Walter Scott’s novels (an only slightly later vintage) – though Austen is by far the better stylist and aphorist – yet to begin with I found this more of a slog than Scott and the similarly vintaged Mary Shelley stories I have read in the past few years were a smooth read by comparison. I don’t suppose my familiarity with Sense and Sensibility’s plot due to TV series and film adaptations helped with this.

For expectations count. I had been told that Austen’s dialogue was exquisite, but what I found in the first few pages was very little in the way of dialogue but instead, screeds of exposition, a large amount of telling rather than showing; backgrounding if you like, but still.

I don’t give up on books though. Not even poor ones. And this is by no means a poor book. It just didn’t grab me overmuch.

People don’t change, but social circumstances do. The constraints Austen’s characters – and the author herself in the writing of them – were under are/were formidable. She was writing for her time and a degree of prolixity would have been welcome back then.

Sense and Sensibility demonstrates behaviours recognisable today – Mrs John Dashwood’s selfishness disguised as concern for her offspring, well-meaning but overbearing neighbours, imputations derived from the slimmest of evidence, money driving people’s motivations. The centre of the main plot, though, Marianne Dashwood, is seen through her sister, Elinor’s, eyes and is shadowy as a result, Colonel Brandon, nearly always off-stage, seemed more of an absence than an agonist in the book, Willoughby’s attempts/protests at self-exculpation, though underlining his cupidity, are an unlikely ploy.

I’m not giving up on Austen, though. My expectations tempered, my exposure to her style as a prime, I’ll need to see what I make of the rest of her œuvre in the light of those.

Pedant’s corner:- There are some 1811 spellings – ‘dropt’ ‘wrapt’ ‘farewel’ ‘stopt’ ‘befal’ ‘seisure’ sooth for soothe etc, sprung for sprang and sunk for sank, but some which may be exclusively Austen’s, ‘chuse’ (but ‘choose’ also appears,) ‘scissars’ ‘wo’nt’ (but ‘won’t elsewhere) ‘stilish’ ‘expence’ (yet expenses for the plural, and, later, expense for the singular,) ‘extatic’ (but ‘ecstasy’ and ‘ecstacy’ later.). Otherwise; the Miss Dashwoods, the Miss Careys, the Miss Steeles (the Misses Dashwood, the Misses Carey, the Misses Steele,) “carried away be her fancy” (by her fancy,) “the whole party were assembled” (was assembled,) “in whatever shop the party were engaged” (the party was engaged,) “these kind of scrutinies” (these kinds of scrutinies,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “in her way to the carriage” (on her way sounds more natural to me.)

A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Women’s Press, 1987, 410 p.

The novel starts off on the planet Valedon but is mostly set on its aquatic satellite, Shora, inhabited for centuries solely by women. They wear no clothes since they spend a lot of time in the moon-spanning ocean and have a bluish tinge due to microbes which, in the aquatic environment, help them to maintain breath. In contrast to Valedon – a world where the usual vices of political power are prevalent and which seems to be a militarily directed society – life on Shora is peaceable, its values based on sharing learning, and where the highest form of punishment is Unspeaking (that is, sending someone to Coventry.) They are also capable of a state known as whitetrance, a type of withdrawal where their hearts slow almost to death. The Shorans live on rafts of plant material floating on the water’s surface and have an appreciation of the interactions between all the life-forms – beneficial or seemingly inimical – that make up Shora’s web of life. They also have a deep knowledge of biology and genetics and a plant-based means of expressing new organisms quickly.

Traders from Valedon – sometimes known pejoratively as malefreaks – have been present on Shora for years and Berenice Hyalite – known on Shora as Nisi – has come to a deep understanding of its way of life. Her father set up the trading post but she reports back to the rulers of Valedon. There is some interplay between Valans and Shorans on whether the others are really human with respect to each other but all the characters present as recognisably so to the reader. Berenice’s fiancé Realgar is a military man, and he is given the command of the Valedon forces sent to Shora to bring it fully under control.

The novel is thus set up to explore the mutual incomprehension of the military mindset and the habitual, instinctive, non-violence of the Shorans. It can therefore be read as a feminist work but is equally parsable as a Science Fictional exploration of a different approach to life’s challenges. In A Door Into Ocean Slonczewski is exploring an alternative way of being human. This is partly territory pioneered by the late lamented Ursula Le Guin. Slonczewski is no Le Guin but is good enough to be going on with.

Pedant’s corner:- laniard (lanyard,) “Berenice like to absorb” (the rest of the paragraph was in past tense, so, Berenice liked,) maw (mouth was implied, a maw is a stomach,) sunk (sank,) shined (shone,) octopi (octopuses, or, octopodes, but since we’re on an alien planet, octopods,) sprung (sprang,) “I could take take pills” (only one take needed,) “‘You could to that?’” (do that,) brusk (brusque,) langauge (language,) “more that she let on” (than she let on,) “was kept with in raftwood” (within,) strategem (stratagem,) collander (colander,) waked up (woken up,) automatons (strictly, automata.)

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2011, 395 p.

Murray Watson is a lecturer in English, having an affair with Rachel, the wife of his head of department, Fergus Baine. Murray is about to go on sabbatical to research the life and untimely death by drowning of all-but-forgotten poet Archie Lunan. He also has a complicated relationship with his brother, Jack, an artist who is mining the dementia of their father for his art.

Watson’s researches take him to the ex-department head, Professor James, who knew Lunan in his youth, and suggests Blaine had greater knowledge of the poet than he admits to, and to the island of Lismore off which Lunan died and where Lunan’s lover, Christie Graves, still lives. She wrote a book in the aftermath of Lunan’s death of which Professor James says, “I think it had something better than authenticity. It had integrity, and that’s all the truth we can ever hope for.”

On the island, with some input from his B&B proprietrix Mrs Dunn and Graves’s more-or-less unwilling assistance, Watson untangles the circumstances of Lunan’s death and Blaine’s connection to them.

The book is readable enough but in the end becomes an uneasy crossover of a novel of contemporary manners and crime story. Still, Welsh has an eye for characterization and description.

Pedant’s corner:- Hastings’ (Hastings’s,) “maybe she had always intended to it end like this” (it to end like this; or, to end it like this,) “a new wave of Scottish poets were throwing off the class-consciousness, self-obsession and non-poetic subject matter of the previous generation” (a new wave was throwing off,) “the management were simply optimistic business would pick up” (the management was optimistic,) “watched them slide slowly through the yellow viscous, like migrating stars” (the viscous what? Viscous is an adjective, not a noun,) “a root aboot in” (about,) “the Great Western road” (it’s always just been Great Western Road, no “the”,) “the prospect of whole new exhibition” (a whole new,) politeness’ (politeness’s,) rawl plugs (rawlplugs,) Meilke (elsewhere always Meikle,) “had hung himself” (hanged,) Reeves’ (Reeves’s,) fleur-de-lis (it was plural, so, fleurs-de-lis, or fleurs-de-lys,) sung (sang,) “the way another women” (either other women, or, another woman,) sunk (sank,) “the Barralands Ballroom” (is often pronounced that way but is actually Barrowlands,) an extraneous single end quote mark, “a homemade stigmata” (stigmata is plural, one of them would be a stigma.) “He’s been one of” (He’d been,) “‘Aren’t I?’” (the speaker was Scots, so, ‘Amn’t I?’) “Murray dropped their speed to crawl” (to a crawl.)

Adam Blair by John Gibson Lockhart

Also known as “Some Passages in the Life of Adam Blair, Minister of the Gospel at Cross-Meikle.”
The Saltire Society, 2007, 172 p, plus xxii p Introduction by Ian Campbell and vi p Notes.
One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Adam Blair cover

This book squarely targets that intersection of Scottish life with religion which so firmly shaped the national character during the centuries of the Calvinist ascendancy – not always to the good. A critic quoted in the introduction (which again it is wise to avoid till after the book itself has been read) says its characters are “earnestly attached to a religion which makes little appeal to taste, and rejects every allurement of art,” while another opines that “Lockhart feels that in destroying the presence (or indeed the possibility) of beauty in the services of the national church the Scottish Reformers damaged the national imagination.” Yet there is a glimmer of salvation to be found as the book proceeds to its close, its unfolding providing signs of a first crack in that edifice of stern righteousness in the attitude of the populace to a fall from grace.

First published in 1822, Adam Blair is, like the works of Lockhart’s father-in-law Walter Scott, to modern eyes over-written. It also has an odd approach with regard to the placement of commas. Parenthetically Lockhart provides a comment on the passing of time with the thought, “in those days, Scottish widows and Scottish grandmothers were not a whit ashamed of being dressed like widows and grandmothers.”

The book’s focus is almost entirely on Adam Blair, minister of the parish of Cross-Meikle, situated somewhere in the Argyll/Dunbartonshire area. At the novel’s beginning, Blair’s wife has just died and is buried in the churchyard, her body lying beside their three dead children. Other characters appear but are not explored in any depth at all. Even his surviving daughter Sarah is only a fleeting presence. The measure of consolation Blair finds in his daily act of worship, shared in by the whole household, is shown in all its bleak stoicism.

Change begins to come with the arrival at Cross-Meikle of Mrs Blair’s cousin Charlotte, a woman with a colourful past – including a divorce from the young man she had eloped with and who in turn ran off with an Italian opera singer. Her devotion to Sarah commends her to Blair and when she rescues Sarah from drowning his gratitude is effusive. Wagging tongues promote Charlotte’s father to demand her return to the family home, despite Blair’s protestations of innocence. His decision to follow her there provokes the novel’s crisis point. Four lines of eight asterisks begin Chapter 14, masking the exact nature of Blair’s lapse but we are in no doubt as to what it was. He confesses his sin to the Glasgow Presbytery and is stripped of his pastoral role. The interesting thing is the response of his parishioners; not condemnation, but understanding. His subsequent taking of a cottage in the town and working the land is seen as a confirmation of his belonging to the community and a penance beyond duty.

The story of Blair, his struggles with and against his conscience, is an illustration of the hold Calvinism exerted on the Scottish psyche, its baleful effects and meagre consolations. One of the 100 best Scottish novels? Yes, in terms of the significance of its subject matter to the Scottish historical identity.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Introduction; “the two or three across of land” (acres of land. This is correct in the actual text in the book!) The introduction also quotes the same passage twice, the second time in a longer form, and has an extraneous single end quotation mark plus a varied approach to the placing of the numbers indicating a footnote. In the Notes; Jesus’ (Jesus’s.) Otherwise; as in Scott we have shrunk for shrank, rung for rang, sunk for sank, sung for sang; Benlomond (now always written Ben Lomond,) “a fine herd of cattle were passing” (a herd was passing,) faultered (faltered. Is faultered an archaic spelling?) “The family sit” (the family sits,) “in twos arid threes” (twos and threes; is this possibly a compositor’s misreading of the original handwritten manuscript?) “A merry party were busy curling on the ice” (a merry party was busy,) “fourthly and lady, the gay lady” (context demands “fourthly and lastly” – another compositor’s misreading?) “Mrs Ardens beautiful face” (Arden’s,) Loch-Fine (nowadays spelled Loch Fyne,) bosomn (bosom,) Pere la Chaise (Père Lachaise,) scorm (scorn,) “beneath then” (beneath them,) boundlng (bounding,) roundedwith (rounded with,) Camnpbell (Campbell,) “what he most do” (must do,) “in few minutes” (in a few minutes,) “waive of his hand” (wave,) perfecfly (perfectly,) imme diately (immediately,) “not with, out some suspicion” (not without,) a missing full stop.

The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir

Fox Spirit, 2015, 161 p.

The Stars Seem So Far Away cover

This is a set of stories set in a future Earth presumably globally warmed where the south has become parched and refugees have flowed north to places such as Svalbard and The Green Land. Though not conceived of as a unity the author gradually found they described one fictional world. Characters reappear from one story to another. There is a certain sparseness to Helgadóttir’s style evident throughout.

The scene setter is Nora. The titular woman, who is sailing her ship alone, has her own methods of dealing with pirates. More like a sketch for a story rather than the story itself.
The Lost Bonds of this story’s title are those between humans and the animal world. In a post-ice northern clime a spirit fox helps out a group of men.
Aida is a refugee to the highly populated Svalbard Islands from the drought ridden lands to the south. Her survival after the plague which has depopulated the islands again is secured by an old man. But he is dying.
InThe Rescue, Bjørg, a young girl left by her father in charge of a seed vault, lives in fear of intruders. Things might not be as she fears though.
The Stars Seem So Far Away sees Zaki travel across the deserts of what was once called the Green Land and stumble upon a crashed aircraft in which lives the man who was once an astronaut.
In A Sailor Girl Goes Ashore, Nora goes ashore in Svalbard against her better instincts only to find the place all but deserted. She does, however, meet Aida and take her under her wing.
The Breakfast Guest is a boy who is following Zaki and Roar as they journey west towards Nuuk. He offers to help them cross a lake but they sense something is amiss.
In The End of the World Simik from The Rescue is on a hunt for murderers with his squad of soldiers when they come across a group of boys whose living space inside a mountain contains a mural depicting the decline of life on Earth up to now – and into the future.
Nora and Aida come ashore on The Women’s Island where they are greeted by three women whose friendly overtures they soon mistrust.
Frostburst Heart sees Bjørg and Simik, her earlier rescuer, threatened with separation after his invitation to go to space.
In Conversations siblings Zaki and Aida have finally been reunited in Nuuk but find it difficult to talk to each other. Enrolled in school they both have prospects of joining the space programme.
The Whale in Nuuk relates the visit of Bjørg and Simik to see the remains of possibly the last such creature not to be made by humans.
In The Last Night Nora says goodbye to her sailing ship, Naureen, and is surprised by a visit from Bjørg.
Farewell sees five of our principals go into space. Roar, who’s already been, and Aida’s dog Tarik stay behind. It’s an ending, of sorts.

Pedant’s corner:-“he clearly saw it lay down” (he saw it lie down,) the text refers to the lighting of explosives (in the future? Unless the future has degenerated – and this one doesn’t seem to have,) plus points for whom, “to not let people see her emotions” (not to let people see,) sailboat (sailing boat,) “he was not much taller than she” (either “he was not much taller than her” or “he was not much taller than she was”,) sunk in (sank in,) air field (airfield,) aircrafts (aircraft,) spacecrafts (spacecraft,) “the skin didn’t lay tight” (lie tight,) boar (the creature is obviously a bear,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “‘Where is Gard?’.” (Doesn’t need that full stop outside the quote mark,) sunk (sank,) shrunk (shrank.)

Interzone 276 Jul-Aug 2018

TTA Press

 Interzone 276 cover

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam takes the editorial slot and reflects on how growing up queer (her word) revealed that adults knew as little as children about navigating the world and instilled her with all sorts of phobias. In Future Interrupted Andy Hedgecock reveals how certain formative reading/viewing experiences still colour his tastes. Nina Allan’s Time Pieces reflects by way of her own experience and Marian Womack’s debut collection Lost Objects on how the short story is still the best pathway for a writer to come into his or her own.

The fiction kicks off with Grey Halls1 by Rachael Cupp where a future musician famous for, but himself dismissive of, his one big success, Grey Halls, travels back in time for inspiration.
Superbright2 by Ryan Row is set in a world where superpowers are common. This story totally failed to capture my interest.
In Tumblebum3 by Darby Harn, New York is flooded and everything is controlled by a huge corporation named TAG. Tumblebum is hired to find the missing photographer daughter of a racehorse owning family.
A species of harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex quaesitor; or P.q. starts building sculptures- or are they temples? – in P. Q.4 by James Warner.
In Tim Major’s Throw Caution5 pseudo-crab lifeforms have been found on Mars. Their bodies contain diamonds. (Well, not really. They’re silicon based.) The story follows two prospectors searching outwith the normal areas.
So Easy6 by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is a post-apocalypse story. Well enough done but a bit inconsequential.
Paul Crenshaw’s Eyes7 has a young boy find a pair of disembodied eyes floating in the stream which runs by his house. They can still blink and so answer his questions thereby telling a tale of life, the universe and so on.

In Reviews Iain Hunter recommends the Jane Yolen edited Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 (rather confusingly featuring stories from 2016;) I am rather less enthusiastic about Paul Jessup’s Close Your Eyes; Duncan Lunan says Rob Boffard’s Adrift relocates the aeroplane movie to a tour shuttle from a habitat overlooking the Horsehead Nebula, Lawrence Osborn claims Revenant Gun, the last in Yoon Ha Lee’s trilogy which began with Ninefox Gambit is essential reading for military SF space opera or worldbuilding buffs (I still won’t be going near it;) Duncan Lawrie accepts Shattermoon by Dominic Dulley for what it is, fast-paced light reading; Andy Hedgecock lauds at least one entertaining and provocative story from an under celebrated master in The Adventures of the Ingenious Alfanui by Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio translated by Margaret Jull; Stephen Theaker8 likes Kameron Hurley’s fix-up Apocalypse Nix better than he did her God’s War trilogy and Andy Hedgecock returns to praise Juliet E McKenna’s The Green Man’s Heir.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Written in USian, “He was fortunate, then, to not have Osorio’s fan base” (not to have.) 2Written in USian; “experiments with which had given her son” (either experiments which had given her son, or, experiments with which she had given her son,) “He shined.” (He shone.) 3Written in USian. 4Written in USian, “atypical climactic conditions” (climatic.) 5“sand….sunk away” (sank,) shrunk (shrank.) 6Written in USian. 7Written in Usian. 8“her ramshackle team of misfits are pretty much always doomed to fail” (her team is always doomed to fail.)

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Tachyon, 2016, 277 p.

 Central Station cover

Central Station is a giant spaceport situated between Arab Jaffa and Jewish Tel Aviv. The incidents of the book occur under its shadow but the station itself is curiously absent from the narrative, we do not see inside it as such, it is merely a backdrop.

The book is filled with a multitude of Science-Fictional concepts, a kind of mind-vampire known as strigoi; robots yearning to be human; characters with augmentation; a third essential component of a human along with sperm and egg, the node seed, enabling people always to be in connection; a family, the Chongs, with memories passed on from generation to generation. The text is also sprinkled with references to previous works or authors of SF. There is an Elronite Centre for the Advancement of Humankind, mentions of Louis Wu, Jubjub birds, sandworms, the Up and Out, Mother Hitton, Shambleau, Glimmung, all of which will be decoded easily by aficionados. And the cover is not without its button-pushing charms.

The setting is a welcome antidote to the mainly US-centred concerns of the genre up to recent times and Tidhar deserves appreciation for championing SF from outwith the usual sources.

However, there is something disjointed about the book as a whole, no ongoing narrative drive, as there is little by way of plot. This is perhaps due to the book’s prior incarnation as a set of stories sharing the same milieu (and characters,) published in different outlets between 2011 and 2013 – with two original to these pages. This is not an objection that could be levelled at the same author’s Bookman Histories nor the other novels of his I have read, Osama and A Man Lies Dreaming, but it is a hindrance to full engagement with the text. There is, perhaps, just too much going on, not enough exploration or development of the individual ideas to give a completely satisfying whole.

He is an author to look for though.

Pedant’s corner:- On the map at the beginning; chryogenic (cryogenic.) Otherwise; Mama Jones’ (Mama Jones’s,) a missing full stop at the end of a piece of direct speech, automatons (strictly, automata,) Venusian Fly Trap (this being SF it might be Venusian but the earth-bound version is a Venus fly trap.) “She had hid” (she had hidden, plus a later instance of “had hid”,) sunk (sank,) a greengrocers’ (a greengrocer’s,) moyel (I’ve only seen this before as moyle,) “could convert food and drink into energy” (um; no. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; only transformed from one kind into another. Food and drink already contain [chemical] energy, bodies convert that to heat, movement, electricity etc as required,) lacrimal apparatus (lachrymal,) “a simulacra” (one of these is a simulacrum, several instances,) a full stop where a question mark was required, “reversed engineered” (reverse engineered,) mazal tov (several instances yet later is in the more familiar form “mazel tov”.)

Jericho Sleep Alone by Chaim I Bermant

Chapman and Hall, 1964, 216 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Jericho Sleep Alone cover

This is the tale of the childhood, adolescence and early adult life of Jericho Broch and a depiction of the experience of being a middle class Jew in Glasgow in the mid-twentieth century. Not that the narrative confines itself to Scotland. There are forays to London, to Lincolnshire for training in kibbutz life, and an excursion to Israel, all of which provide opportunities to show us how much the world bewilders Jericho, but it is always Glasgow to which he and we return.

Keen not to follow the expectations of his family but at the same time not to disappoint them, Jericho is something of a klutz. He makes a hugely embarrassing error at his barmitzvah – such mishaps befall him with recurring ease – his understanding of women is sketchy, and, achieving a second-class University degree aside, he more or less muddles through life. This is summed up quite early in the book when he is told by a friend, “‘You, poor bastard, are one of nature’s own gentlemen, and you might as well get used to being let down because, if you ask me, you’re never going to be let up.’” Even the one potentially abiding attachment he has, to Ninna, a beguiling medical student, is never on a solid footing, always slipping off to one side.

He is given several offers of employment by uncles and the like. One even questions the desirability of him going to University as its consequence for a parent is that it takes your children away. Better to take a post in the family firm.

That Scottish sense of unspecified sin so inculcated by Calvinism even has its impact on Jews. The condition of living in the city (and all of Scotland) at the time is conveyed by the remark made to Jericho on a proposed anniversary do, “‘Celebrations? Glasgow? People don’t live in Glasgow. They are here to expiate a previous existence.’”

One of the 100 best Scottish books? Well, for an aspect of life not normally covered by the description, yes.

Pedant’s corner:- Luis’ (Luis’s – also employed occasionally,) “‘tell us what is it’” (what it is.) “‘Who expects you to be.’” (is a question so needs a question mark not a full stop.) “‘You didn’t have parties and speeches when people died?’” (conversely isn’t a question and so requires a full stop rather than the question mark,) vultures wings (vultures’ wings.) “‘Where do you think your are, Russia?’” (you are,) stethescopes (stethoscopes,) “eighty percent of woman” (women,) brylcreamed (it’s a proprietary preparation so brylcreemed.) Mentioned later as Brylcream (Brylcreem.) “‘It was having dinner’” (context demands ‘I was having dinner,’) Gilmore hill (it’s one word, Gilmorehill, and was spelled correctly in the several more instances it appeared,) “carpet so thick they tickle my knees” (either carpets, or, it tickles my knees,) palsie (palsy,) dropsie (dropsy,) a missing end quotation mark (x2,) “‘You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here?’” (isn’t a question, so no question mark,) synagogoue (synagogue.) Bar-mitzvah (sometimes spelled with hyphen, other times without,) Baranovitz’ (Baranovitz’s,) waggon (wagon,) “‘It lacks that touch of doom?’” (again, isn’t a question,) references to the Bible and the Old Testament as well as the Torah, an end comma after the direct speech mark rather than immediately before, x4,) the Mitchell library (proper noun, Mitchell Library,) “‘You’ve got penniless capitalists?’ (again not a question, so no question mark,) some moments silence (moments’,) Centrigade (Centigrade, bedtter still, Celsius,) tumesence (tumescence,) stich (stitch,) estacy (ecstasy,) “for more then fifteen minutes” (than,) the Trossacks (Trossachs, x2,) Aramaeic (Aramaic,) lemonsoda (lemon soda,) calomine lotion (calamine lotion,) sunk (sank,) “‘I suppose Philip told you I was here?’” (is another non-question.) I suppose these might be a way to represent the inflections of Jewish speech on the page but ditto “‘ – in fact that is the only circumstance in which you can adore a woman?’” ditto “‘tell me, but frankly, what I lack?’” ditto “‘You’d look very handsome as a sailor?’” ditto “‘I was wondering whether you have any idea whose they are?’” ditto “‘So I had travelled and was educated?’” Unilevers (Unilever,) Gilettes (Gillette’s,) rumbah (rumba,) strudl (usually rendered in English as strudel.)

free hit counter script