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There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union by Reginald Hill

Harper, 2009, 363 p.

This is not my normal reading fare but the good lady knew I’d recently read Jane Austen’s Emma and wondered how I’d react to this author’s take on the characters from that book. Hill is the creator of the detective duo Dalziel and Pascoe about whom he has written twenty-four books. This is a collection of his shorter works and was originally published in 1987. That “Featuring Dalziel and Pascoe” is emblazoned on the front cover is a bit of a cheek. Only one of the six stories here does so and that tangentially at best. Also irritating is that all the story titles are rendered entirely in lower case.

there are no ghosts in the soviet union is a detective tale featuring Inspector Lev Chislenko. (I admit that my first thought with that name was of the famous Igor who played for Dynamo. Being questioned whether he is related to that footballer becomes a running joke through the piece.) Chislenko has been called in to resolve the case of a man being pushed into a lift and immediately falling through the floor, which remains as solid as it always was and there is no trace of him at the foot of the shaft. The obvious explanation is that the man was a ghost. Consequently ideological considerations beset Chislenko. “There are no ghosts in the Soviet Union,” is apparently the set-up line to a Soviet joke but also an assertion that he must find a way to uphold. The story is obviously intended as a satire on the Soviet Union – or at least on how Hill imagined the Soviet Union to be – but is equally applicable to any authoritarian regime anywhere. The resolution depends on Chislenko’s delving into the lift’s origins. It was manufactured in Chemnitz (renamed Karl-Marx Stadt after World War 2) in the 1920s and installed in a now demolished building elsewhere before being re-used in a money skimming scam. His investigations also bring him into dangerous contact with powerful figures in Soviet circles.

In bring back the cat! Joe Sixsmith is a balding West Indian (with a balding jacket) who has just begun his career as a private detective. He is called in by a Mrs Ellison to find her cat which has been missing for three weeks. In the course of his investigations all over one afternoon, he uncovers various family secrets and solves another case entirely, thus making his name. There’s an overt consciousness of racism to some of the exchanges. (Sixsmith was later to become the protagonist of another series of Hill’s books.)

the bull ring is set in the British military training camp at Étaples during the Great War. One of the instructors is excessively harsh on recruit Harry. For Harry’s own good he would say; but Harry doesn’t see it that way.

Dalziel and Pascoe do not appear as such in auteur theory. It is the actors who are playing them on a film set who do. The one playing Pascoe has long been on the way down as an actor and is now saddled with a tyro leading lady who is the director’s new wife. It also includes the bearded writer of the novel which is being filmed (we are, I suppose, meant to assume Hill is writing about himself,) who is becoming more and more annoyed at changes to the script. The story starts with a warning injunction, Nothing in this story is what it seems. You should remember that. The metafictional games in it do not lift it above the category ‘diverting’.

poor emma takes up twenty or so years after Jane Austen left off her tale of Emma Woodhouse and her misguided attempts at match-making. The intervening years have not been kind, though Mr Woodhouse continues, like a creaky gate, to, as we Scots say, “hing lang”. Mr Weston has died and his widow, in a sentence carved from early nineteenth century attitudes and would-be Austen impersonation “eventually declined into religion, to such an extent that it came as no surprise, though an incalculable shock to most decent people, when she embraced the doctrines of Rome.” Mr Knightley has neglected his affairs, indulging himself as a bon vivant and taken up a seat in Parliament (which allows him various other indulgences.) His brother John has lost the confidence of his legal clients and now runs Donwell Abbey on George’s behalf. The conflict comes from the wishes of both to protect that inheritance. All the main characters from Emma reappear, save Jane Fairfax, except for mention of her death. Her husband Mr Frank Churchill is involved in the dénouement. The Mr Knightley shown here is far removed from the one Austen portrayed and so too is Emma herself as she indulges in an action which that younger self would surely never have contemplated but which does have the effect of giving the tale a condign ending.

crowded hour concerns the invasion into her home by two armed men of a woman whose husband is somewhat obscurely rich and has absences from home. It begins, “At twelve noon there were three people in that house. By the time the clock struck one, two of them would be dead and the life of the third would have changed for ever.” The story lies in the journey that beginning implies.

Pedant’s corner:- “led him out in to” (into,) humourously (humorously,) “‘How’s you mother?’” (your,) smidgeon (smidgin; or, smidgen,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “his legal practise” (the noun is practice, as used later, I note,) “a codicillary convenant” (covenant, surely?) “had showed” (this may have been an attempt at Austenism; ‘had shown’.)

The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark

Two Roads, 2019, 377 p.

 The House by the Loch cover

This is the story of three generations of the MacMillan family, grandfather Walter, his children Patrick and Fiona, and grandchildren Carson, Iona and Peter. But before we get into that, in a preface which signals that not all will be sweetness and light, we are shown Walter’s childhood memory of witnessing the wartime crash of a Spitfire piloted by a Czech Flying Officer, Frantisek Hekl, into Loch Doon in the Galloway hills. Subsequently Walter built a cairn to Hekl’s memory on a hill above the loch.

In the present day of the narrative, Fiona’s philandering husband, Roland, a successful architect who piggy-backed on her design aesthetic, has built on the shores of the loch a modern, hi-tech replacement for one of the two log cabins Walter had given his children. Patrick and his wife Elinor meanwhile, are content with the more modest lifestyle of a teacher and illustrator respectively. Occasional chapters give the history of Walter’s meeting with his wife Jean (Thompson) and their life together.

Coming down from their house in Ayr for holidays on the loch is an idyllic relief for Carson from her irritations with younger sister Iona which are, though, exacerbated at times by Iona’s idolisation of cousin Pete. The strains in Roland’s and Fiona’s marriage bear echoes of Walter’s with Jean though Fiona’s drinking is less of a fatal flaw then Jean’s. But lochs have their dangers and, when tragedy strikes, each of the characters is in some way to blame for it and all their lives are turned upside down.

Wark has the Scottish novelist’s eye for landscape and she handles character well enough but her prose sometimes leaves a bit to be desired as occasional phrases lean to the tin-eared or ill-considered. There is, too, a jumpiness to the sequencing, lending a feeling of skittishness to the text.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: high – including two successive sentences starting, “Ten years later.” Bonus points though for “amn’t I?” said by characters brought up in Scotland. I also note that the cousin raised in England says, “aren’t I?”
Otherwise; “a timpani” (timpani is plural; one of them is a timpano,) “walked away towards to his son” (either ‘towards’, or, ‘to’, not both.) “‘Are you, hell,’” (that comma removes the sense, which was, ‘“are you hell”’,) a sentence which started with ‘Within seconds’ and finished three lines later with ‘disappeared out of sight in seconds.’ The Black Narcissus (the film – and book it was derived from – was titled simply Black Narcissus, staunch (x 2, stanch,) Burns’ (Burns’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “two candelabras” (as a word ‘candelabra’ is already plural; one is a candelabrum,) “until a torrent of tears forced their way through” (a torrent … forced its way.) “The sat drinking” (They sat,) “she saw pure white vapour trail” (she saw the pure white vapour trail.) In the Acnowledgements, “where the remains of Frantisek Hekl’s Spitfire rests” (where the remains rest.)

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J L Carr

The Quince Tree Press, 129 p. First published in 1975 but this edition is from 1992 as it has a cyclostyled letter from the author on page 1, signed J L Carr, 1992. The book’s Wiki page tells us that The Quince Tree Press is the author’s own imprint.

This is, of course, a fantasy. A mere glance at the title tells you that. That a village team would win the FA Cup could not have happened at the time it was written and certainly could not happen now. But that is, I suppose, still the abiding dream of any small club and its supporters, that a “mob of milkmen, farmers, the parson and a job lot of pitmen” could match “Big Business whose performers cost the Mint.” Yet, despite protestations in Part One that this novel is about football, it really isn’t. There are few descriptions of games and those are fairly cursory. What it is about is the dynamics of village life and the triumph of hope over expectation. And how fleeting it all is. I suppose it might be termed a comic novel though there isn’t anything laugh out loud in it.

The text is a curious mixture of the personal recollections of Steeple Sinderby Wanderers committee member Joe Gidner, minutes of committee meetings, absurdly purple-prosed local newspaper accounts of matches penned by Ginchy Trigger “who did funerals, inquests, weddings, council meetings and all sport” for the East Barset Weekly Messenger and even an excerpt from Hansard. There are also six black and white illustrations, a prefatory one of the author’s football team when he played for South Milford White Rose for one season as an eighteen year-old, 4 postcards displaying Steeple Sinderby landmarks, one (uncaptioned) photograph of a woman – perhaps Ginchy Trigger – and one sketch of the Fangfoss household.

Mr Arthur Fangfoss is Chairman of the Wanderers because he was chairman of everything in Steeple Sinderby. He has an unusual household arrangement, living with his wife and her sister, whose roles are commonly held to be reversed. The team has two ex-professionals, Alex Slingsby, retired from football to look after his wife after she suffered a catastrophic accident and Sid Swift, a one-season goalscoring wonder who overnight lost all confidence in his purpose in life but has been restored to vitality by the vicar’s formidable proselytising sister Biddy. The team’s playing philosophy is a bit like total football but underscored by local Hungarian refugee from the Nazis, Dr Kossuth, and his Seven Postulations (though I only recall six being written down here) – produced after watching a couple of Wanderers games and one at Leicester City. Principally these are: have a good goalkeeper, everyone except the goalie must contribute to all aspects of the game, make the most of home advantage (Wanderers adopt a highly sloping patch of ground for the new season) but when away make yourself feel at home and the opposition feel away, and avoid high balls for the most part as professionals control headers much better than amateurs.

When the decision to enter the FA Cup is made one committee member says, incidentally highlighting the fantasy inherent in the author’s conceit, how hard it will be to progress, “‘particularly this year, when the top Scottish clubs are coming in for the first time.’” There is a historical inaccuracy here (perhaps Carr’s oversight): some Scottish clubs played in the FA Cup in its early days in the nineteenth century.

Despite using the dread word “soccer” (but then, he was English) Carr does appear to know his football, “by and large, football supporters are not creatures of intellect but of emotion.” The home crowd at Tambling, “bellowed disbelief at incompetence, cried scornfully to the grey heavens in god-like despair, clamoured angrily for revenge.” That is a football crowd for you. “For 20p. they did all this and were not called to account.” Well, they think that if they’ve paid to watch, it’s their right to dish out abuse. (But 20p! Time has flown – and prices flown even higher.)

Carr also has part narrator Gidner assert that, “Since all Anglicans know theirs is the true faith, they don’t go around stuffing it down other people’s throats.” (Try telling that to folk in the former colonies.) About village life he says, “in rural England, people live wrapped in a tight cocoon” communicating “as their fathers did by a flick of the eyeballs, passing down grudges either improved upon or, at very least, in mint condition from generation to generation.”

The Cup Final was in the old English tradition – “Abide with me” and all – despite Steeple Sinderby’s opponents being Glasgow Rangers. (The singing of religious songs at games involving Scottish clubs has never been the custom – for obvious reasons. Surely Carr cannot have been unaware of this state of affairs?)

I don’t suppose this can be counted as great literature but it is entertaining and likely to be so both for those who like football and those who don’t.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “Antarex skirt and trench coat” (Antartex?) crutch (crotch,) elegaic (elegiac,) Tokio (Tokyo,) “McBain shipping line” (the real one is MacBrayne’s,) “I was stood there” (standing.)

White Wing by Gordon Kendall

Sphere, 1986, 312 p.

Gordon Kendall is a pseudonym used – for one book only – by S N Lewitt (Shariann Lewitt) no doubt for the same reason female writers have always used male pen names. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database says the book was a collaboration with Susan Shwartz.

Humans are in a war against the Sej. Earth has been destroyed and the remnants of its population forced to take refuge on other human worlds of the League, where they are seen as largely second-class citizens and subject to prejudice. Earthers’ military arm, it has to be said, does not help in this regard. Except in their own company its members keep their emotions to themselves, presenting an unflinching, unemotive face to the worlds at large, only ever expressing their feelings in private. The League’s armed forces are split up into Wings, each with its own designated colour. The White Wing of the title is the Earther Wing, trained up on Wing Moon, a world given to them begrudgingly by the League. Their unit of battle is typically, though not always, made up of groups of seven. These are tight knit contingents, living and fighting together, joined in a contract they call marriage. Never has a member of White Wing been captured by the Sej. If any of them is in danger of that (and the subsequent maltreatment the Sej will no doubt administer) they are granted what is called the Mercy. In other words their own unit will kill them in order to prevent it. This happens to squad member Maryam in chapter two and makes pilot Gregory, who committed the deed, almost a pariah among the other Wings.

Squad Comm officer Suzannah has an eidetic memory. Her chief in League Security, Federico Hashrahh Kroeger, is another eidetic, keen to capture as much data about Earthers as he can. The plot revolves around the gap Maryam’s death has left in the squad, the solo pilot Dustin who may in the end become her replacement, Sej spies called Bikmat and Aglo, a Sej drug named hathoti, and a rabble-rousing politician, Ag Kolatolo, eager to exploit and amplify anti-Earther attutudes. The novel’s resolution is perhaps a bit too optimistic about how easily prejudice in public life can be overcome.

The book is a fairly typical SF tale of its time. Of military SF at any time. There are sufficient battle scenes and intrigue to satisfy adherents of the form but there is more of a tendency towards describing the interactions between, and thoughts of, the characters than most of its male purveyors tend to provide.

Pedant’s corner:- epicantic (epicanthic,) Gus’ (Gus’s,) Charles’ (Charles’s.) “None of them were” (was,) eidectics (eidetic,) neutrino (neutrino – spelled correctly elsewhere,) forseeable (foreseeable.) “A phalanx of Reds were closing in” (a phalanx … was closing in,) hanger (hangar– spelled correctly elsewhere, except for Hanger Deck,) “‘when she’d off duty’” (when she’s off duty.) “‘You said ‘us’ Federico,’” (to which he assents. He actually said ‘we’.)

Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner

Faber & Faber, 2014, 349 p.

This book’s first page after the epigraph (which is from Proverbs 24:2 and also provides the novel with its title) simply gives us the date. 1984. While the Thatcher government and the miners’ strike are an intermittent background concern they never impinge directly on proceedings. Narrator Douglas Cunningham, a Scot, has been thrown out of his rented flat in London, plus his course in English Lit at University College, and is surfing hospital A&E departments as places to spend the night. In one of them he meets Welshman Llewellyn Smith (Lou) whose stitches following a heart operation have burst. Learning of Douglas’s predicament Lou invites him to stay at his flat in Acton where he lives with his girlfriend Aoife McCrissican and their very young daughter, Lily. Lou is also well versed in literature and wants to be a novelist. On entering the flat Lou quotes “‘that Cyril Connolly bastard. The enemy of promise is the pram in the hallway,’” then adds, “‘Is it now? Our hallway is too narrow to fit the bloody pram in.’” His generous offer seems to be taken in her stride by Aoife, who accepts Douglas readily into their lives (helped initially by the bribe of an Indian carry-out.) However, even as he settles down to live with them for a while we suspect where this will all be going when Douglas tells us she is menacingly beautiful.

Theirs is a curious tripartite relationship. Lou, like Douglas, is fond of drink and the odd bit of financial finagling as the trio’s existence is one long round of trying to find money to live on and secure enough alcohol to get by. All take turns at looking after Lily. (She seems uncannily placid for a pre-toddler, though.) Slight monetary relief is secured when a publisher engages both men to write one-line puffs for schlocky horror novels. Aoife is a former model and hankers to get back to that, an aspiration on which Lou is less keen. Aoife’s best friend, Abingdon Barbour, also a model, acts as occasional foil to the others. At Lou and Aoife’s Register Office wedding Douglas and Abby are best man and bridesmaid.

Lou is a (somewhat lapsed) Catholic and refers to Douglas as an atheist because of his assumed Presbyterianism. Douglas’s narrative comment that, “Summer was agony for the idle Scot. It was September, and I had a natural right to some driving sleet, or at least a blessed frost,” takes homesickness a little too far though. Lou also sometimes ends a sentence addressed to Douglas with the word boyo. I have never personally heard a Welsh person say this. Is it a reflection of Warner’s experience with Welsh people or merely a lazy attempt at characterisation? If the latter it is misguided. Lou’s behaviour and speech are comprehensible enough and need no prop to give them verisimilitude. All the main characters – and the minor ones too – live and breathe as people with their own motivations and habits.

Lou is the most pass-remarkable of them. He describes a bunch of squaddies who tried to chat Aoife up while they were on their way to her parents’ house for Christmas as, “‘king’s shilling fascists, restless since the Falklands, I should guess. Itching to poke their Armalites into another country’s business. The English are never happy unless they are.’” Of his father-in-law he says, “‘Never trust a Catholic who doesn’t drink. They’re either converted, poxed or psychotic.’”

I have said before that Warner’s early novels left me cold but as in The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven, The Deadman’s Pedal and The Stars in the Bright Sky Warner has captured here a slice of life in convincing detail. One more novel to chronicle the perennial fascination of love and sex. (Death does occur here but it is a natural one, of Lou’s grandmother, Myrtle, who brought him up. Her funeral recharges his Catholicism though, which more or less leads to the novel’s final crisis.)

Humans can be bewilderingly complex creatures. Novels such as this give us the vicarious experience of knowing others, feeling their loves, betrayals and, on occasion, nobility, without having to live with them and the consequences of their actions.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Its affected, boyo.’” (‘It’s affected’,) shrunk (shrank,) a missing comma before – and after – a quoted piece of speech, ass (several times; is used annoyingly in that USian way to refer to the female posterior. The nearest – and more true to the narrator’s background – British equivalent is ‘bum’,) “the baby was laying in Aoife’s lap” (the baby was lying in Aoife’s lap,) “and immediately ascended stairs with banisters and blank walls on either side of you” (I got the imprsession this was a stairway flanked by walls, in which case there would be no need of banisters. Handrails maybe, but not banisters,) “gin and limes” (‘and lime’ here is an adjectival phrase to the noun ‘gin’, the plural is ‘gins’; so, ‘gins and lime’ or ‘gins with lime’”,) Wales’ (x 2, Wales’s,) “he was sat” (he was sitting,) “I was sat” (I was sitting,) “I turned to look and her” (to look at her,) “my zipper” (my zip,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth.)

Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Tor, 2017, 97 p.

In a planetary system protected by an early warning network known as the dewline, members of The Colony are hiding out from the authorities back on Earth, The Bureau, still looking for them after the thefts the Colony’s founders made on leaving Earth. The Colony has made genetic modifications to its members – forbidden by The Bureau – resulting in “superbrights” known as The Kids, “tall, fragile children with towering IQs and a penchant for terrible jokes.”

The crisis for The Colony is precipitated by the sudden emergence well within the boundaries of the dewline of a probe, which, though destroyed almost immediately by a Colony member, may still be noticed by The Bureau as missing and so bring down their vengeance. The Colony makes provision to escape elsewhere and instructs the dewline to dismantle itself. Our narrator, John Wayne Faraday (nicknamed Duke,) is The Colony’s latest President (elected by default,) and is one of those left behind to oversee the dewline’s disassembly after the Colony migrates. The banter between Duke and his Colony compatriots is as friendly and barbed as you’d expect and Duke himself appears (ahem) down to Earth and as a narrator seems utterly reliable.

Well before the dewline has finished its last task another probe enters the system. Duke’s negotiations with the man called Simeon Bivar operating it lead his companions to suspect that it is actually an AI. Bivar’s reaction to that assertion is surprising, and twists the entire tale.

This is a beautifully written novella, replete with allusion – spaceships are called One Potato, Two Potato and Gregor Samsa, for example. However, it does mention Science Fiction conventions – an unlikely allusion several centuries hence I’d have thought. It is, though, another instalment in SF’s long examination of what it means to be human.

Pedant’s corner:- “The second wave of probes were tasked with” (the second wave … was tasked with.) “There were a couple of sunloungers” (there was a couple,) “‘a great fuck-off big colony transport’” (violates the adjective order rule; ‘great big fuck-off colony transport’,) “with the most up-to-date motors … that would have been a trip of about ten light-years” (a light-year is a distance, not a time; it would have been a trip of ten light-years whatever kind of motor was employed.) “As soon as the second generation of Kids were old enough” (as soon as the second generation … was old enough,) “huge Christmas tree bubbles” (baubles surely?)

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2019, 363 p.

The title on the cover of this is preceded by the words “A Jackson Brodie novel.” After her initial success with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, followed by two less well received novels (one of which I reviewed here) Atkinson went on to write four novels featuring her private detective of that name. She then embarked on technically accomplished (and more ambitious) novels dealing with the fallout from World War 2 in A God in Ruins, Life After Life and Transcription.

The action here revolves around towns on the Yorkshire coast in the area of Whitby and Scarborough, the hangover from the activities of two since-jailed local child abuse abetters called Bassani and Carmody, and the present-day sex-trafficking partnership of a group of golfing friends.

Oh, and there’s a murder. That, though, is resolved off-stage and does not impinge much on proceedings.

Big Sky has at least ten viewpoint characters and its chapters tend to be short – sometimes with very short sections within them from some of those different viewpoints. All this conspires to make the experience of reading Big Sky bitty.

There was something about the writing here that I found a little off. A misjudgement of tone, (female detectives named Ronnie Dubicki and Reggie Chase. Detectives called Ronnie and Reggie. Seriously?) unnecessary repetitions of phrases – though perhaps some of this was to imply Vince Ives was protesting too much – and intersecting timelines which were not well handled so that we saw the same scene’s events repeated very soon after their first appearance but with very little difference in the reader’s sense of what had occurred. Combined with the occasional descent into cliché this gave the impression, to this one anyway, that Atkinson was writing down to her readers.

This is no A God in Ruins nor a Life After Life, nor a Transcription even, but perhaps after her achievements in those books Atkinson needed a rest – or to have some fun. She overdid it though.

Pedant’s corner:- On a visit to a museum Brodie tells his son Captain Cook was the ‘first man to sail around the world.’ (No. That would be members of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition [Magellan himself did not survive the journey.]) Croyden (Croydon?) “she had strived hard” (striven,) “he’d compèred Saturday Night at the London Palladium (Sunday Night surely?) “It was a raucous lot that were in tonight” (that was in,) crack cocaine is implied to have been a drug widespread in the 1970s, (it wasn’t till the 80s) focussing (focusing.) “None of them were” (none of them was,) Mellors’ (several times, Mellors’s,) “his act finished on such a crescendo” (such a climax.) The remains of a handsome sunset was still staining the sky” (the remains … were still staining,) a missing full stop. “With his luck he would bob around till the lifeboat found him or a stray fishing vessel” (has its syntax awry; why would a lifeboat find a stray fishing vessel? Try instead, ‘till the lifeboat or a stray fishing vessel found him’,) staunch (stanch,) focussed (focused,) “the news’ afterburn” (the news’s,) staunched (stanched,) “where a cluster of bridesmaids … were waiting for them” (where a cluster …. was waiting.)

Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2009, 503 p, including 3 p Introduction by Paul McAuley.

This is a collection of Reynolds’s short(ish) stories from the early part of his writing career. They vary in length from short story to novella.

The Real Story is a beautifully well-thought out and executed tale of an investigation by journalist Carrie Clay into the whereabouts many decades later of the first man to land on Mars. His was a solo project which almost went catastrophically wrong and caused him profound psychological problems. There is a great set piece where the pair of them base jump from Mars’s premier city into that deep scar across the Martian surface, Valles Marineris.

Beyond the Aquila Rift is set in a universe where barely understood technology left behind by aliens allows interstellar travel. Sometimes, though, there are routing errors. Our narrator ends up beyond the local bubble in the Milky Way, beyond the Aquila Rift.

In the framing device of Enola the remnants of humanity live out their lives terrified of the alien enolas reining down destruction from the skies. The middle section of the story, the meat in the sandwich, contains the recollections of the last of the enolas, AI weapons of mass destruction but capable of reasoning with one another.

The world of Signal to Noise is one where correlators can “cold-call” similar machines in other realities, resonate with and lock on to them to allow information transfer. In the wider world implanted nervelinks can connect one body to the sensory inputs of another, sedated, body, giving control over it. In his world, Mike’s wife dies in an accident. His friend, Joe Liversedge, works in the correlation unit – where they were about to try nervelinking between worlds – and gives him the opportunity to interact with his estranged wife’s counterpart in a newly correlated other world. But the signal fades with time.

Cardiff Afterlife is set in the same milieu as Signal to Noise a few years later. Joe Liversedge doesn’t like the use the governments (and the parallel universes’ governments) are making of the correlation capability and sets out to do something about it.

The far future of Hideaway is one in which humans have long left Earth and its location has long been forgotten. The remnants of the Cohort, on a ship called the Starthroat, are in a decades long flight from a species known as the Huskers. When a Husker fleet is also detected in front of them the crew is forced to head for a likely planetary system to hide out. Unfortunately the star and the system’s biggest planet have unusual activity in them. The details of this involve some speculative physics. The story is told in five parts. For some reason in my proof copy parts 3-5 were in italics while 1 and 2 had been in a normal typeface.

In Minla’s Flowers, Merlin, a survivor from the previous story, is thrown out of the Waynet, an ancient interstellar transport system. He is forced to seek aid on a planet of a nearby sun, whose inhabitants’ technology is at the biplane/airship stage. He discovers the Waynet will intersect with the system’s sun in about seventy years. He drops them hints about physics so that they will be able to develop the means to leave for another world, coming out from ‘frostwatch’ cold sleep every fourteen years or so to see how things are going. The story has an embedded reference to Margaret Thatcher’s “no such thing” comment about society.

Merlin’s Gun is a third story featuring Merlin. Here Sora survives an otherwise devastating Husker attack only for her familiar to shut her down in frostwatch for three thousand years – relativistic time-scales are one of Reynolds’s characteristics – waking her up only when a likely rescue ship enters the system where she is hidden. Merlin takes her on his quest to find the ‘gun’ which will allow the Huskers (whose true nature is revealed here) to be defeated. Reynolds’s knowledge of the SF genre is exemplified when he calls the gun ‘a weapon too dreadful to use’.

In Angels of Ashes aliens called the Kiwidinok, whose perception of quantum reality differs from that of humans, came to Earth and revealed to a “lucky” volunteer, Ivan, the remnants of a nearby neutron star whose formation ‘miraculously’ spared Earth the radiation devastation. The Kiwidinok suddenly left again. Ivan became the inadvertent Founder of a new religion but he is now on his deathbed and wishes his truth to be known.

Spirey and the Queen is another story set during an age-old interstellar war, where Von Neumann machines nicknamed wasps have evolved into consciousness but its main thrust is concerned with protagonist Spirey – from a branch of humanity which is entirely female – and her endeavours to survive while on a mission to kill a traitor and her discoveries about the reasons for the war continuing.

Understanding Space and Time is for some strange reason printed in italics. Its subtitle, Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids…, is a tip of the hat to the holographed Piano Man who appears in the story, complete with Bösendorfer grand. He appears to John Renfrew, the last survivor of humanity, in a habitat on Mars. Renfrew has little to do but converse with the holograph and use the few books available to try to understand space and time. With the later help of Aliens called the Kind who resurrect him from mummified death centuries after he suffers an accident on the Martina surface he spends his days, years and centuries, unlocking the layers of reality.

Digital to Analogue is, in effect, about an ear-worm which is akin to a virus, propagating via the sampling of a music track, and may be a new life-form.

Everlasting explores a ramification of the many worlds theory. Moira drives hurriedly through the snow to Ian’s house as he had talked on the phone about not killing himself. There he expounds his notion that in every dangerous branching of the worlds there will always be one where there is an unlikely survival and that he is therefore effectively immortal. Then he produces a revolver with one round in it. The twist in this tale is not hard to foresee but is arguably inevitable in any case.

Zima Blue is a story about memory and belonging, the tale of a universe-renowned artist called Zima, body adapted to endure the most extreme environments – interstellar vacuum, the pressures of gas giants etc – famous for the increasing vastness of his works (to the scale of moons,) and the particular blue colour he always employs. He gives his final interview to the Carrie Clay of The Real Story earlier in this book and produces his final, very much scaled down, artwork.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “That’s doesn’t mean” (That doesn’t,) “that begin in a different times and places” (in different times,) “none of the stories … are” (none … is.) Otherwise; “none of my expectations were actually contradicted” (none … was,) epicentre (centre,) overlaying (overlying,) “the atmospheric gases became steadily more fluidic” (gases are already fluids; they flow. I think Reynolds meant ‘steadily more like liquid’,) “to condense the air into its fluid state” (ditto; liquid state,) “glimpsed_moving”, “added_some”. “Slammed_Tyrant”. “The_closer”, (I have no idea what those underslashes are for, and another appeared in a later story) “‘with the things I’ve showed you’” (shown,) “letters in Lecyth us A marched in stentorian ranks across the high vertical face” (how ranks of alphabetical symbols can be loud is something of a puzzle.) “The music reached its crescendo now.” (No. The crescendo is the rise, not its climax,) “where gouged by” (were gouged by,) “had opened a rosewood box and showed them to him” (shown,) “like kneeling orisons” (I didn’t know invocations/acts of supplication to a deity could kneel,) “I understood the math” (Oh, please. It’s ‘the maths’,) “‘as it conveniences us’” (no need for the ‘it’,) one story’s afterword has no indents at a new paragraph. “The moment reached a kond of crecscendo” (No. It reached a kind of climax,) smidgeon (smidgin, or, smidgen, but in any case, the word has no ‘o’ in its spelling,) “for old time’s sake” (times’,) “finding that the scene was established in Newcastle made up for the wrench” (‘the scene that was established’ makes sense of this,) a new paragraph that is not indented, “than any prescience on my behalf” (on my part,) Sacks’ (Sacks’s.)

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, 2020, 331 p, including 5 p Author’s Note and 1 p Acknowledgements.

At first this promises to be solely the story of Isabel Aird, married to a doctor, Alexander, who is disgusted by the conditions of the poor working class of 1856 Glasgow and wishes to alleviate them. To this end he is drawn to the position of physician to the construction works of the scheme designed to carry the pure waters of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs to the city in order to combat the ravages of cholera, an arduous project requiring tunnelling through extremely hard rock wth nothing but pickaxes, sweat and gunpowder, “the greatest engineering marvel since the construction of the aqueducts of Rome” – a system still in existence, whose flow is driven by gravity alone. The novel soon broadens out though into a wider account.

Isabel has suffered a multiplicity of miscarriages or still-births (the irony of her being married to a doctor is not lost on her) and at first is not keen on a move to the wilds but on her first visit to Loch Chon she is enchanted by the views and for all its deprivations becomes enthusiastic about living there.

Many of the chapters are related in third person from Isabel’s point of view but there are two first person contributions, one from the viewpoint of Robert Kirke, a kirk minister who disappeared into the world of faery in 1698 but has now returned with a commission from what in Gaelic are known as the sìthichean, and the other from Kirsty McEchern, the wife of a navvy working on the project, written as if it is the verbatim transcript of her memories as told to someone who for a long time remains unidentified. There are also curious interpolations from the life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, mostly in the form of letters from the Prince. (The Queen was famously entranced by the Trossachs – and Scotland in general – and did open the waterworks in 1859.)

Like many Scottish lochs Loch Chon has a legend of a supernatural denizen, in this case a black Dog who at times will rise from the surface to swallow human victims. This is one of the many tales of the sìthichean known to Kirsty, who, being an islander from Mull, is well versed in Gaelic superstition (or knowledge as she would have called it.) This legend is central to Kirke’s commission from the land of faery and to the novel’s denouement.

It is with this part of the book that I initially had least patience. Then I reflected that dealings with the supernatural – the Devil especially, but also faery – are a staple of Scottish literature. So too, exhibited here by Robert Kirke, is psychological duality. (In her Author’s Note Magnusson calls that a familiar trope. To my mind that enduring concern is something more profound than a trope; it is a deep reflection of the Scottish character – see the third and second last paragraphs in the link.)

A parallel between the lives of Isabel and Queen Victoria is that both had nine children. Well Victoria did, only Isabel’s ninth (the one of the book’s title) survived gestation and birth. The plot and the denouement both of course depend on this.

Magnusson writes really well, she expresses the ups and downs of the Airds’ marriage sensitively, captures superbly the voices, doubts and thoughts of both Kirke and Kirsty and her descriptions of the Trossachs landscape are evocative, while the necessary conveying of information about the construction works is never intrusive.

This is another example of the enduring fascination of the novel with love and death but unlike in Magnusson’s earlier The Sealwoman’s Gift sex is absent from the pages, though its consequences of course are not. The Ninth Child is not quite as accomplished as that previous novel but it is certainly good enough to be going on with.

(At the end of the book are appended eight “Reading Group Questions,” a practice I find patronising. Not reading groups themselves I hasten to add, rather the fact that they are held to need some sort of prompting to ask questions of a text.)

Pedant’s corner:- “‘as soon as another epidemic hoves into view’” (hove is the past tense (and it is in any case ‘hove’ not ‘hoves’,) so here it should be ‘heaves into view’,) “a Yorkshireman with exuberant facial hair by the name of Bateman” (his beard was called Bateman?) “he had sawed a couple of fingers off” (sawn,) Descartes’ (Descartes’s,) “‘the taste of those mean cruelties were back on my tongue’” (either ‘the tastes’, or ‘was back’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) Athole Highlanders (Atholl) powder your nose, (the phrase was in juse in the nineteenth century but I would have thought it an unlikely expression for a navvie’s wife though it was said many years after the events in the book and she had been in “polite” company in the interim,) maw (it’s not a mouth, it’s a stomach.) In the Reading group questions; “navvie’s wife” (navvy’s wife.)

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape, 2017, 376 p.

This book, as its title tells us, is about a house. Not merely the building where the family Golden lived once they came to the USA, but, too, the dynasty its inhabitants comprised. The title is also the name of the (scripted) documentary of the lives of those denizens of the Golden House which takes our narrator, René Unterlinden – obsessed with films, seemingly forever making reference to (among other things) scenes from movies he has watched – over ten years to complete. As a narrator he has some intermittent habits to do with this obsession, framing more than a few scenes in the book as if they were script extracts and sometimes ending a section with the same word.


The eponymous house lies on Macdougal Street a little below Bleecker, with access to The Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District, a green space with fond memories for René as his now deceased parents also had a house there and access to the Gardens in the combined rear yards. The Golden house itself is owned by Nero Golden who adopted his first name after the last of the Julian emperors of Rome and his sons think of themselves as Julii. “‘In my American house,” he told them after they came to live in New York, “morality will go by the golden standard,’” without specifying exactly what he meant by that. As well as the father those sons have also been given Roman names, Petronius, Apuleius and Dionysus, but are known as Petya, Apu and Di. They all try to keep their origins hidden. If they were asked where they came from Nero instructed them to say, “Tell them we are make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters, which is to say, Americans.” While they are intensely secretive as regards family affairs Petronius does drop his guard at one point to quote Edwin* Leach’s variation on Tolstoy, “The family with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets is the source of all our discontents.”

Aside – *Edwin is how I transcribed the name from the text but it seems Leach’s first name was Edmund.

Nero has two female attendants/fixers called Fuss and Blather. Another of the characters is named Frankie Sottovoce. Quite what point Rushdie is trying to make with this linguistic playfulness is a touch obscure. It is one of his hallmarks though. So too is digression, which in this book is burdened with more than a slice of over-elaboration.

It is when Nero encounters one Vasilisa Anayevna at a New Year party that the plot motors begin to drive up, dancing with him in a manner which indicates that she will never henceforth let him out of her clutches. René imagines Nero telling her, “My money for your beauty. Shake hands on that.” She moves into the Golden House with a pre-nup specifying no children but slowly works her wiles on Nero. The end result many years later is a child, Vespasian, whose name is a true expression of how the dynasty will pan out. René muses on his own behalf as well as of others’, “The motivations of desire are obscure even to the desirous, the desiring, and the desired…… And so without full knowledge of the why and wherefore, we inflict mortal wounds on those we love.”

The golden (ahem) era in which the book starts is soon overshadowed by political events in the wider USA where the beliefs that ‘now the only person lying to you is the expert who actually knows something. He’s the one not to believe because he’s the elite and the elites are against the people, they will do the people down. To know the truth is to be elite,” as his girlfriend Suchitra tells René are increasingly widespread. About the adherents of the Presidential candidate René calls the Joker, and who amplifies those attitudes René says, “In that bubble, gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American,” with a subsequent rant about all the orange-faced candidate’s failures somehow proving he was really a success, all his expressions of contempt for others proof of his compassion, how his world was a reversal, “In that bubble knowledge was ignorance, up was down, … lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny, and bullying was funny, and the date was, or almost was, or might soon be, if the jokes worked out as they should, nineteen eighty-four.”

It must be said here that surely Rushdie is preaching to the converted? I doubt anyone likely to read this book will disagree with the criticisms inherent in these passages and those who do disagree with them will not ever be reading the book. But René’s conclusion that “The human race was savage not moral” is at best only partially true. “America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero. Turns out it was a supervillain,” is, again, a neat syllogism but not yet entirely beyond question. Rushdie’s asseveration through René that “all writers are thieves” may perhaps have been inserted to defray criticism of his many deployments of incidents from films.

The Golden House of course deals with those eternal matters of love, sex and death, in the end reasonably effectively, but it comes on them by twisted and circuitous paths. The book is longer than it needs to be and too much – especially the backstory of Nero’s former existence in his ancestral homeland – is told not shown. His has always been an exuberant mode of expression but is hard to resist the thought that Rushdie here is too much in love with his wordplay and referential ways, that, like a fair few other authors, he has perhaps become too big – or too precious – to edit.

I note finally that Rushdie took pains to render the plural of puss (as in cat) as ‘pusses’ but there is really only one way to end this review.


Pedant’s corner:- whiskey (whisky – it’s a British edition ffs,) “in spite of the repressible fact that Jefferson had owned slaves” (in context ‘reprehensible’ makes more sense but it was within a polemic about an aspect of the cuture wars so Rushdie may indeed have meant repressible,) Sophocles’ (x 2, Sophocles’s – in the text some names ending in ‘s’ are given ‘s’s’ as their possessive, others aren’t) “Ubah means ‘flower’ or ‘blossom’ in Somali” (no it doesn’t. In Somali it means ubah. In English it means ‘flower’ or ‘blossom’,) “New Year’s is for dancing” (now just eff off. It’s ‘New Year’; no apostrophe ‘s’,) Achilles’ (Achilles’s,) overdraught (overdraft,) Aeschylus’ (Aeschylus’s,) a sentence that was a question ended with no question mark, Odysseus’ (Odysseus’s,) “nor of fiction, neither” (the negative has already been expressed in the ‘nor’, so; ‘nor of fiction, either’.)

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