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The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie

Picador, 2012, 59 p

 The Overhaul cover

Winner of the 2012 Costa Poetry Award, shortlisted for the 2012 T S Eliot Prize.

35 poems, most one pagers, one six pages, the rest two. 2 are eftir Hölderlin (as is one in Jamie’s later collection The Bonniest Companie). Hölderlin seems to be one of her favourite models. Most poems here are in English with the odd Scots word but some are entirely Scots. Nature, or those working in the outdoors, is an inspiration for many and there is an abiding seriousness to her poems, though she is not beyond essaying a pun for a last line. An odd quirk was that some poems had missing full stops at their conclusion, as if they’re unfinished. Understandable enough for those two entitled Fragment 1 and Fragment 2.

I most enjoyed Excavation and Recovery with its evocation of deep time partly because I have seen (in Perth and Abernethy Museums respectively) the log boat whose archaeological recovery it partly describes and a depiction of the dig process.

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2010, 330 p

Yellow Blue Tibia cover

Emblazoned across this book’s cover is ‘Should have won the 2009 Booker Prize’ – Kim Stanley Robinson. Rather a large claim to make and considering the novel spends some time mentioning and discussing Science Fiction and the existence or not of aliens – an automatic disbarment one would have thought – a forlornly hopeful one at best. (I note a certain amount of possible mutual back-scratching going on here as Roberts praised Robinson’s latest novel in his recent Guardian review.)

Yellow Blue Tibia, unusually for a piece of Western SF, is set entirely in the Soviet Union and starts when a group of Soviet SF writers is invited to meet comrade Stalin and asked to come up with a scenario of alien invasion to provide an enemy for the state to rally the people against. Their concept of radiation aliens becomes fleshed out but then they are told to forget the whole thing and never mention it again to anyone. Narrator Konstantin Skvorecky, former SF writer and veteran of the Great Patriotic War, recalls this from the perspective of the glasnost and perestroika era of 1986 when he once again meets a member of that original group, Ivan Frenkel, and weird things begin to happen.

The novel contains several nods to works of SF, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy etc, and frequent discussions of the form, ‘the worlds created by a science fictional writer do not deny the real world; they antithesise it!’
But what are we to make of this exchange?
“‘Communism is science fiction.’
‘And vice versa.’
‘I can think of many American writers of science fiction who would be insulted to think so.’
‘Perhaps they do not fully understand the genre in which they are working.’”

Frenkel is attempting to convince Skvorecky that UFOs are real, are in effect all around us, that in accordance with the scenario dreamed up by Stalin’s conclave of SF writers an alien invasion is under way. Skvorecky is initially sceptical, “‘Marx called religion the opium of the people… But at least opium is a high-class drug. UFO religion? That’s the methylated spirits of the people. It’s the home-still beetroot-alcohol of the people.’” To help persuade him Frenkel has Skvorecky meet two US Scientologists, James Tilly Coyne, and Nora Dorman – with whom Skvorecky falls in love mainly, it seems, because she is well-proportioned. In the end, though, Skvorecky tells us, “There are no secrets in this book… it is drawing your attention to that which is hidden in plain view all the time.”

Supposedly comedic interludes are provided by Saltykov – a taxi driver who has a condition, an extreme form of Asperger’s syndrome – and cannot bear contact with another man. He continually harps on about this and repeatedly says, ‘Do not talk to the driver. It’s a distraction.’ Roberts making one of Saltykov’s utterances, ‘I like to keep my engine clean. It’s a clean machine,’ is, though, certainly an authorial allusion to Penny Lane. Then we have the rather plodding KGB heavy, Trofim, who dogs Skvorecky more or less throughout.

This is the first time on reading Roberts that he has made me laugh. This came during an exchange in Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 (the aliens are apparently intending to blow this up, Skvorecky to find the bomb) when Trofim says, “It’s fallen in the water!”. But then I suppose, strictly speaking, since it’s a Goon Show quote (“He’s fallen in the water” – audio sample here, towards the bottom of the page) it was actually Spike Milligan making me laugh.

Skvorecky leads a charmed life, surviving many threatening situations, not least with Trofim. The UFO hypothesis suggests his survival is due to the superposition of states, of what Roberts dubs realitylines.

So why Yellow Blue Tibia? Apparently “yellow, blue, tibia” approximates to a phonetic declaration of “I love you” in Russian, a phrase which Skvorecky teaches to Dora. Unfortunately the book states that the tibia is a bone in the arm. The tibia is actually in the leg, along with the femur and the fibia; the bones of the arm are the humerus, the radius and the ulna. This is a pretty egregious mistake to make when the word tibia is in your book’s title.

It is undeniably all very cleverly done but again there is that distancing feeling attached to Roberts’s writing. Skvorecky claims to be in love with Dora but as a reader I couldn’t really feel it.

Apart from that could Yellow Blue Tibia have won the 2009 Booker Prize? Given the literary world’s prejudices – even though some of its denizens have taken to appropriating the tropes of the genre – never.

And should it have? In a word, no. Look at the short list.

Pedant’s corner:- for you next appointment (your,) paleoarcheological (palaeoarchaeological,) a stigmata (stigmata is plural, the singular is stigma,) a missing opening quote mark, sat (seated, or sitting,) “the spindle-wheels of the cassette again began turning again” (only one “again” required here,) span (spun – which appeared later,) “covered with the chocolate brown patches” (these patches had not previously been mentioned; so “covered with chocolate brown patches”,) a missing full stop at the end of a piece of dialogue, “we spent out energies” (our energies,) sprung (sprang.) “‘What am I suppose to do now?’” (supposed,) liquorish (liquorice. This is the second time I have seen liquorish for liquorice in a Roberts book. Does he really believe liquorish is the correct spelling?) “‘She was the middle of’” (in the middle of,) cesium (caesium, please,) trunk (of a car; previously “boot” had been used,) “‘Use you fucking head.’” (your,) “The air around me was less atmosphere and more immersion, or preparation was of a multiple spectral shift.” (????) “when accounts … becomes more frequent” (become. )

Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February 2017

Dell Magazines

Asimov's Jan-Feb 2017 cover

Sheila Williams’s Editorial hails Asimov’s 40th year of publication, Robert Silverberg’s Reflections solicits two cheers for Piltdown Man, James Patrick Kelly’s On the Net: Ask Me Anything compares various digital assistants, in On Books1 Paul di Filippo reviews eight books (including one I have reviewed for Interzone.) I was under the impression that Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station was a fix-up novel. di Filippo writes about it as if unaware of this.
As to the fiction. In Crimson Birds of Small Miracles2 by Sean Monaghan the father of a daughter with a terminal brain disease takes her and her sister to see Shilinka Switalla’s artwork, a flock of robot birds doing murmurations, as these excursions seem to help her. This story had an illustration of a strange attitude to wealth. The father has a good business, can afford increasingly complex prosthetics for his sick daughter, can take his children to various different planets but reckons he could never be rich in the monetary sense. Yet he quite clearly is.
Tagging Bruno3 by Allen Steele. On Coyote, a moon in the system 47-Uma, a former soldier is roped in to act as guide on a project to tag an indigenous bird-like species (boids) dangerous to humans but under threat of extinction due to human hunting activity. It goes quite well till the expedition encounters a flock which turns the tables on them.
Still Life with Abyss by Jim Grimsley is set in a project researching the only individual in all the multiple universes who has never caused a fork in time.
In Fatherbond by Tom Purdow, new arrivals on a colony planet begin to work against the entity which seeks to restrict their actions. (It’s tempting to read this as a metaphor for the pre-Revolutionary government of North America which forbade expansion westwards, the desire to overthrow which ban -rather than the confected protest about taxation – being the true reason for the War of Independence.)
Winter Timeshare4 by Ray Nayler shows us the annual meeting of two people who inhabit bodies (dubbed blanks) for their one holiday each year which is always in Istanbul, whose surrounding hills are the location for sending volunteers on a one-way trip to space. Despite their purchasing power blanks are resented by the “normal” locals. For a reason not particularly obvious the job of one of our protagonists involves simulating the Peloponnesian War.
Two young girls in the LA area in Lisa Goldstein’s The Catastrophe of Cities investigate strange houses wherein they glimpse oddly shaped people and passageways lead elsewhere. They drift apart on puberty, one seemingly dropping out of existence. In much later life the other seeks her out.
Robert R Chase’s Pieces of Ourselves5 is the tale of a survivor of a terrorist attack on a moon base who may have assimilated character traits as a result of her experience.
Jack Skillingstead’s Destination6 features a man who has not been outside the confines of his gated work community since being plucked from his childhood home after displaying high aptitude being told by his bosses to take part in the game Destination, essentially a mystery tour by taxi. Outside is not what he thought.
The Meiosis of Cells and Exile by Octavia Cade is structured around the life of Soviet biochemist and neuroscientist Lina Stern. On a train to exile in Dzhambul her body buds sequentially (or else she hallucinates) three of her former selves, the Academician, the Child, and the Scientist. Each is equated with a function of the blood-brain barrier.
Starphone by Stephen Baxter is set in a post ocean-rise world where flood refugees are kept inside domes. Some teenagers plan a short escape to test the Fermi Paradox by making an Allen Array with their mobile phones.
In Blow Winds, and Crack Your Cheeks7 by John Alfred Taylor a couple celebrates the last time it will be safe to witness a storm at their island home. The damage it causes is still substantial even though the hurricane’s eye passes thirty miles out from shore.
Robert Reed’s The Speed of Belief8 is a tale of three entities, two immortals with bioceramic brains, one normal human, on their way to a planet where the rivers are sentient. I really couldn’t make much of this. Perhaps I was too tired when I read it.

Pedant’s corner:- 1 again di Filippo uses stefnal for science-fictional – it still looks odd to me, “compare that man to somewhat callow fellow” (to the somewhat callow fellow.) 2a dark red button-front jumper (a dark red cardigan, then?) base reliefs (bas-reliefs, I think,) 378.2 inches (how can you decimalise a non-metric unit?) “a small red crosshairs” (a implies singular, crosshairs is surely plural; there was “a green crosshairs” later,) “Carbon testing of boid skeletons had shown they could live as long as thirty-five years” (leaving aside the question of whether 14C would exist on this world at all, unless the carbon testing is somewhat different from on Earth it could do no such thing; 14C dating only yields the time elapsed since death,) a missing end quote mark, sole causality (casualty.) 4Bosporus (I only ever saw Bosphorus when I was young,) causal (casual was intended.) 5 “started at her intently” (stared.) 6 “an approved media” (it was one of the social media; so medium.) 7grille (grill, used earlier in the story.) 8 “with every sort of creatures” (creature.) “But the dense native air was heavily oxygenated, and the bedrock had been scorched clean of its forests and soil.” (This is stated to have been done by wildfires. The oxygen would have to be remnant then as there will be nothing to replenish it,) “carefully tailored frame: The long body” (no capital at “the”.) “Mere notice what was different” (noticed,) forbad (the usual form is forbade.)

Divided City by Theresa Breslin

Corgi, 2006, 236 p. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.

Divided City cover

One night Graham (surname never specified) is taking a short cut – against which his parents have repeatedly warned him – on his way home from football training when he witnesses a gang chasing and stabbing a young lad whom they call “asylum scum”. Graham comforts the wounded boy, Kyoul, uses the mobile phone Kyoul has dropped to call an ambulance and accompanies him to the hospital then slips away but not before Kyoul asks him to take a message, and the phone, to his girlfriend Leanne. This leads to Graham almost by accident involving another boy from training, Joe Flaherty (who is of course from across the sectarian divide to which the book’s title mainly refers) in finding Leanne’s house. She is grateful but has kept her relationship with Kyoul from her own parents and so asks them to visit Kyoul for her. This strand of the book where they find common purpose off the training pitch is intertwined with the background of both footballers.

Graham’s Granda Reid is a proud Orangeman who wants Graham to march in the big Orange Walk which is coming up. Graham’s parents have always resisted pressure to make him take part when he was younger saying he should make his own mind up when he is old enough. However, this is the year he must do so. Joe’s family members are equally committed to upholding their Catholic traditions.

But this is where Divided City is too diagrammatic. Nearly every domestic conversation in the book centres on sectarianism and how the “others” mistreat “our” side.

There were other infelicities. The football training is for a youth team to be known as Glasgow City which is about to take part in an inter-cities youth competition. Here credulity becomes strained. If both boys were as good at football as the novel tells us they’d most likely already be attached to a club and probably not allowed to play for anyone else. Another unconvincing aspect is that Leanne is said to be “not yet sixteen” but she met Kyoul who had wandered in off the street at one of Glasgow University’s school open days and both ended up looking at a stand where they were each wondering what courses they would choose and struck up a conversation. Fifteen is rather young for such a trip. Also, the first time home ground of Rangers is mentioned it’s by a supporter, who calls it “Ibrox Park.” A fan would just say “Ibrox”. Similarly we get “the Celtic Parkhead stadium”. Then there is the description of an Old Firm game where the phrase “unleashed a stinging right kick” is used. It’s called a shot, not a kick. Later one fan is enjoined to ‘Watch the play’. It would be ‘Watch the game’.

Granted the dilemma of an asylum seeker from a ‘White List’ country, deemed to be safe but which isn’t, may need elucidating to a wider audience, yet while the novel is even-handed enough as between Protestant and Catholic viewpoints I struggled to see for what audience this could have been written, whom it was intended to educate. The book’s cover is emblazoned with the phrase “Carnegie Medal winning author” implying it’s for young adults. But young adults in Glasgow will know about sectarianism, those elsewhere likely not care (Northern Ireland excepted.) The incidental illustration of the usual parental restrictions on adolescent comings and goings do not expand the scope. Divided City’s earlier chapters reminded me of a certain kind of not very good Science Fiction which doesn’t trust its reader to make the connections, so too much is spelled out. And there is an overuse of exclamation marks. I would submit that YA readers deserve better.

There is a good novel about sectarianism – and/or football – in Glasgow out there. This isn’t it.

Pedant’s corner:- “the dark openings of the tenement building mawed at him” (the openings stomached at him?) the local senior boy’s club” (boys’ club, I think,) refers to winning the League Championship (it’s just “winning the League” not League Championship,) Rangers’ (Rangers’s,) ‘How are we going to do that without getting caught.’ (Needs a question mark, not a full stop.)

Waverley by Walter Scott

Or: Tis Sixty Years Since.

The Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels, Edinburgh University Press , 2012, 368 p, plus 90 p Essay on the Text, 38 p Emendation list, 2 p list of end-of-line “hard” hyphens, 26 p Historical Note, 98 p Explanatory Notes, 21 p Glossary, i p Dedication, vi p General Introduction to the Edinburgh Edition, and iii p Acknowledgements. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.
See my review of The Heart of Mid-Lothian for the intent behind the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels.

Waverley cover

This is the one that started it all off for Scott in the prose sense and was also the beginning of the historical novel in the Western tradition. Its title has resounded down through the years, giving its name to a whole series of Scott’s novels, to Edinburgh’s main railway station, to a kind of pen nib (They come as a boon and a blessing to men, the Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley Pen,) a class of GWR locomotives and to the last ocean-going paddle steamer in the world.

Our hero, Edward Waverley, English and heir to an estate there, is encouraged by his uncle to take up a commission in the army. After arriving with his troop in Scotland he receives leave of absence to visit an old friend of his father, the irredeemably Jacobite Baron Bradwardine of Tully-Veolan. Events and an indisposition contrive to keep him there beyond his commanding officer’s pleasure, an unfortunate circumstance as this is 1745 and historic events are afoot. His troop has shown rebellious leanings and this along with his absence leads to his commission being revoked. At the same time comes news his father has been disgraced and removed from his government post in London. The friendship Waverley has struck at Tully-Veolan with Fergus Mac-Ivor (also known as Vich Ian Vohr, the latest of his line to accede to this honorific,) Waverley’s change in circumstances and the interference in Waverley’s affairs by one Donald Bean Lean, delivers him into the company of Charles Edward Stuart and the Jacobite Army now in Edinburgh. Waverley’s presence as an English adherent is a boost to the Prince’s cause, as it promises more such support.

As a member of the Jacobite Army Waverley takes part in the Battle of Prestonpans – or Preston as it is usually described by Scott (except when Jacobites call it Gladsmuir,) where he saves the life of a Government officer, Colonel Talbot, who knows his father well. Waverley goes all the way down to Derby and back up before he is separated from the retreating army during a skirmish at Clifton south of Penrith and makes his way to London to try to reinstate his reputation with the paroled Colonel Talbot’s help.

I would not advise anyone to start their reading of Scott’s novels with this book. In addition to his usual long-windedness, here it is more or less obvious that Scott is here feeling his way into the writing of a novel. In the last chapter “A Postscript, which should have been a Preface” Scott informs us he had at one time abandoned the book but some years later came across the papers again and went on to complete it, an interval which could not have helped. Later novels of his are more approachable but in Waverley there are many longueurs in the early passages and too much of a rush towards the end. That Scott himself makes the point in the text, “earlier events are studiously dwelt upon, that you, kind reader, may be introduced to the character rather by narrative, than by the duller medium of direct description; but when the story draws near its close we hurry over the circumstances,” does not render this imbalance any less marked. Certain of the characters are fond of Latin tags; which was to be a recurrent trait in Scott’s works. Some names are also clearly jocular, there is a Laird of Killancureit, and a pair of lawyers, Messrs Clippurse and Hookem.

Waverley is, though, necessary reading for anyone interested in the history of the Scottish novel.

Pedant’s corner:- By my reckoning, when Waverley was first published in 1814 it was more like seventy years since the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, not sixty. The narrator’s comment that the novel was being written in 1805 would make more sense but the Essay on the Text reveals that may have been an insertion by Scott’s publisher, a man notorious for being overly literal, but also that Scott’s original subtitle was actually ‘Tis Fifty Years Since’. That abandonment of the project only to take it up again, could account for some of the slippage.
I found I could skate over Scott’s 19th spellings – eg dulness, chuse, expence, centinel, whiskey, stupified, extacy, cieling – and once again we have the archaic sunk, sprung, sung, rung for sank, sprang, sang, rang.
Otherwise: “resumption of his commission” (resumption is here used in the sense of revoking,) the English flag (this must actually have been the Union flag,) feodal (feudal, possibly due to a misreading of Scott’s handwriting.)
In the essay on the text:- there are a number (there is a number.) “There are number of surviving anecdotal records.” “… two female Scottish writer” (writers,) and an opened parenthesis which is never closed. In the Historical Note:- events relating the 1745 rising (relating to the,) of Highlands (of the Highlands,) the visits the (then visits the,) raising of the ‘the Standard’ (raising of ‘the Standard’,) epicentre when centre was meant, “there are a number” (is,) “another body of MacIvers were” (another body was.) In the Explanatory Notes:- to the ‘the Seven Lovers’ (to ‘the Seven Lovers’,) Latin literally (several instances) – and French literally (once) – (there is no need for “literally” to be italicised, it’s not in a foreign language,) Domincan (Dominican,) Lindor is is not (only one “is” necessary,) Great Britian (Great Britain,) “in opposition the Engagers” (to the Engagers,) Janazaries (usually Janizaries or Janissaries,) fiar price (fair price?) insignium (the Latin singular of insignia is insigne – neuter of insignis – not insignium,) medieval, Lillibuero (Lillibulero, as elsewhere,) the Jacobites army (Jacobite or Jacobites’,) enaged (engaged,) Abbotford (Abbotsford,) “refers to indecisive battle” (to the indecisive battle,) one the seven (one of the seven,) hung (hanged.) In the Glossary:- Latin, short for (Latin, short for,) all the words glossed are in bold except the entry for een, the Scots word for eyes.

Shoreline of Infinity 2: Winter 2015/16

Science Fiction Magazine from Scotland, The New Curiosity Shop, 106 p.

Shoreline of Infinity 2 cover

This issue is larger than the first. Each story (bar one) still has its own piece of artwork and title page but the story text now starts about one-sixth down the page instead of at the top, with the first paragraph in a larger font size than the rest. The Interview1 is with Duncan Lunan whose work also features in SF Caledonia. Steve Green’s Border Crossings rues the modern tendency for excessive strip-mining of previous creative endeavours, in both fiction and film. Reviews2 looks at Poems by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod plus five other books, one of which I have marked for reading another of which I have read and liked much less than the reviewer and one I saw in embryo when it was workshopped by the East Coast Writer’s Group. The poetry theme is maintained with a new dedicated section, MultiVerse,3 edited by Russell Jones, which here takes the form of 2 poems apiece by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod.
In the fiction “We Sell Seashells”4 by Ryan L Daly has a prospector for mind-altering seashells finding her biggest one yet. It isn’t what she expects.
In Citizen Erased5 by Bethany Ruth Anderson, a married couple agree to take part in a process of memory extraction.
Megan Neumann’s Charlie, A Projecting Prestidigitator is an android who gives performances akin to the circus except with holographic projections. He/it finds sanctuary/fulfilment among children on a scrapheap.
Purgatory6 by Michael Fontana circles back on itself a trifle too predictably as two men roll the bones and confront each other in an
In Death Do Us Part7 by Tyler Petty the resurrection technology of the Wilton Foundation means risky endeavours are survivable Our married couple take it in turns to die – or kill each other.
Reliquaries8 by Steve Simpson. The Superior War has degraded civilisation. A spaceship has landed in South America and is compulsively attracting the remains of the population.
The very short Vanity by Kathy Steinemann has its artwork and title on the one page and its text barely fills one other. It is narrated by the purveyor of a rejuvenation treatment which is partly a con.
Anton Rose’s The Republic of David features a malfunctioning matter transmitter which keeps churning out copies of David at the colony on the receiving end.
A Season of Want by Ken Poyner is set in the cybernetic afterlife of the very rich who can afford such procedures.
In The Child With Wings9 by Ann Craig people on an underground train are enchanted by a young girl, with wings, who is also making the journey and may be a ghost or an angel,
In Last Days in the Nanotech War10 by Duncan Lunan nanotech biological implants have gone haywire, forcing updates voraciously on their hosts.

1the the (one “the”,) “That seem to me” (seems,) 2Banks’ (Banks’s,) a missing full stop, “and are all invoked” (the “and” should be before the last of the list of names given earlier,) “Ward Moore Bring the Jubilee” (Ward Moore’s,) to questions the ways (question,) 3and In “Sobieski’s Shield” (either in; or “In Sobieski’s Shield”,) “I first men” (met,) Banks’ (Banks’s,) “there’s a verge of danger and bout of war about them” (no, sorry. Can’t parse that at all.) 4Written in USian, rarified (rarefied,) spectrums (spectra,) “a trail of mucous” (mucous is an adjective; the noun is mucus.) 5in hopes that (in the hope that,) scrapping (scraping,) “than the songs lasts” (song; or, last) sat (seated; or, sitting,) “Naomi gathered up her back” (???? Context suggests bag.) 6Written in USian, “He had took” (taken,) pablum (pabulum,) “‘Why’d you let me up?’ He asked.” (‘Why’d you let me up?’ he asked,) a missing paragraph indent. 7Written in USian. Mills (Mills’s – which had appeared a few lines before.) 8Written in USian, or perhaps Aussie given the author’s address, ”shattered moonlets shone down on the tideless Atlantic” (even without the Moon there would still be tides, the Sun would still pull the Earth’s water towards it,) serra??? (sierra made more sense) callouses (calluses,) a missing end quotation mark. 9Every dialogue quote -barring two which end their respective sentences – is without the comma before the end quote mark, its (x 2, it’s.) 10insured (ensured,) “over the top” (not at Mons. The trench system hadn’t developed by then.)

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Penguin, Reprint of 1964 edition, 237 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

To The Lighthouse cover

Quite why this is on any list of Scottish books is something of a mystery. Yes, the nominal setting is somewhere in the Western Isles but it could really be anywhere. There is nothing intrinsically Scottish about the subject matter nor the characters and certainly not their speech patterns. I always suspected that Scottishness would be a false premise under which to read the book. Granted, there are references to the Waverley novels, but that is not enough to make a book Scottish. Neither are there sufficient descriptions of the landscape to bring it under the umbrella.

I understand Woolf is revered by some (a cover quote from Jeanette Winterson says, “Woolf is Modern. She feels close to us. With Joyce and Eliot she has shaped a literary century.”) Yet I found this novel to be …. odd.

To The Lighthouse is structured in three sections, The Window, Time Passes and The Lighthouse, of which the first is the longest and the second not much more than a placeholder but mercifully more cogent than the other two. We begin eavesdropping on the Ramsay family and their acquaintances as they contemplate a visit to the titular lighthouse the next day. There is little conflict between the characters (except in their unspoken thoughts) – certainly none that is dramatized, only Mr Ramsay saying he doubts they will be able to make the trip. Not a lot happens. Arguably the most important event in the book occurs offstage in Time Passes and is only reported – but people reflect on the little that does happen either at length or a tangent.

I have no problem with stream of consciousness as a technique – Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon uses it well – but without a focus it can reel off into irrelevance. The narrative viewpoint here can flit from mind to mind within the same paragraph (sometimes it felt like the same sentence.) As a result any insight into the human condition ends up drowned in the deluge. Any wood here is difficult to distinguish amongst all the trees. The copy I read was the good lady’s and she has told me she didn’t take to the book either.

I note from the entry on Woolf in The Oxford Companion to English Literature that she co-founded Hogarth Press – the original publishers of To The Lighthouse and others of her works: this is surely tantamount to self-publishing – and from her Wikipedia entry that her first novel was published by her half-brother’s company; which smacks of nepotism to me.

It’s the first of her works I have read and maybe I ought to sample more but I’d be delighted if someone could tell me just why Woolf is supposed to be good. On this evidence, and as that advert used to have it, her writing is dull, dull, dull.

Pedant’s corner:- galoshes (galoshes,) stood (x2, standing,) trapesing (I had not previously come across this alternative spelling of traipsing,) a comma at the end of one paragraph, shrunk (shrank,) waterily (what an ugly word; “like water” would have conveyed the sense,) sunk (sank.)

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Windmill, 2015, 378 p.

 Tigerman cover

When I started this it read like some sort of odd fusion between Michael Chabon and Gabriel García Márquez. Why? Well, there’s the boy whose great interest is in comic books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay). Then the viewpoint character is referred to all but exclusively as “the Sergeant” (The General in his Labyrinth) and the setting is exotic – to me at least. The island of Mancreu in the north part of the Indian Ocean. The Sergeant has seen (messy) service in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia and been farmed out to the island as a British Brevet-Consul with strict instructions to do, or interfere with, nothing. Yet in his new home he has a quasi-police role. Think Death in Paradise with all the twee bits ruthlessly excised except in a different ocean and a menacing air to the whole island.

For Mancreu has been the subject of an environmental disaster in its subterranean magma well (all sorts of undesirable biological emanations now proceed from there at irregular intervals) and is under sentence of death, “so wretchedly polluted that it must be sterilised by fire,” by the international community. People have already left – Leaving parties de rigueur – and the rest of the population is only biding its time. On land an international force known as NatProMan has a sort of rules-enforcement function. Offshore a Black Fleet is up to no good and tales circulate of a criminal/pirate/underworld type dubbed Bad Jack who lurks in the island’s shadows.

The Sergeant has developed a fatherly interest in the boy – who seems to have no parents but is liberally supplied with comic books and speaks fluent comic. In a meta-fictional moment the boy says of the stories in the comics, “There must be development-over-time or it is just noise.”

Things are shaken up when a bunch of gunmen come into Shola’s bar (where the Sergeant and the boy go to take tea) and shooting starts. Shola is killed but the Sergeant protects the boy with a nifty piece of action using for a weapon a tin containing custard powder which he employs as a sort of grenade. It explodes when the gunmen fire at it in defence. This gives the Sergeant the opportunity to overwhelm the remaining gunmen.

After the Sergeant discovers the boy – who may be called Robin but then again that could be a Batman joke – has been severely beaten and some of his comics systematically ripped apart as a punishment they cook up a plan between them. Inspired by the Sergeant’s somewhat magic realist encounter with a tiger (which he has related to the boy) the Sergeant, with the aid of a mask and some painted body armour, will become “Tigerman” to deal with the island’s bad guys. After all, “Myths and monsters were a human weakness, even on places not about to be evacuated and sterilised by fire.”

The plot sharpens when a missile is fired from the Black Fleet onto the building where the arrested gunmen are being held but it kind of jumped the shark later when the exact relationship between the boy and Bad Jack is revealed.

Along the way the NatProMan chief ruminates, “You had to listen to what a Brit was saying – which was invariably that he thought X Y Z was a terrific idea and he hoped it went well for you – while at the same time paying heed to the greasy, nauseous suspicion you had that, although every word and phrase indicated approval, somehow the sum of the whole was that you’d have to be a mental pygmy to come up with this plan and a complete fucking idiot to pursue it…. they didn’t do it on purpose. Brits actually thought that subtext was plain text.”

The last few pages strive for an emotional reaction from the reader but Harkaway hasn’t done quite enough in the preceding ones to earn it which is a shame as I really liked his previous novel Angelmaker.

Pedant’s corner:- Bad Jack is at one point rendered in French as Mauvais Jacques. I had always thought Jacques was French for James, as in Jacobite, not Jack. Otherwise; the \Sergeant is told to “rest up” by the previous Consul (rest up is a USianism, a Brit would more likely say rest,) “which he could use about now” (use is an USianism; which he could do with about now,)”the bigness of this idea”(x2; what an ugly expression,) mortician (undertaker,) sit-uations (not at a line break so situations,) with with (only one with required,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie Mercury,) “‘She wants a friendly face, is all’” (is all is USian, a Brit would say, ‘that’s all’,) a missing comma before the end quote mark of a piece of dialogue and another missing before a new piece, phosphorous flares (phosphorus,) there were a lot of positions (there were lots of positions.)

Shoreline of Infinity 1: Summer 2015

Science Fiction Magazine from Scotland, The New Curiosity Shop, 104 p.

Shoreline of Infinity 1 cover

Apart from the fiction, in this first issue of a new venture there is an interview with Charles Stross; Steve Green’s column Border Crossings1 discusses two SF films made mostly in Glasgow over twenty years apart, Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch adapted from D G Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe and Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin; in SF Caledonia – John Buchan SF writer,2 Paul Cockburn examines that writer’s SF credentials. Reviews3 discusses five books.

The fiction is varied in scope. Each story has its own one-page art work and a title page to itself. Internal illustrations accompany some others.
More fantasy than SF, The Three Stages of Atsushi4 by Larry Ivkovich is set in Japan in 1531. A woman whose son, Omasu, was swept away in a flood the year before petitions the God Amaterasu to bring him back to life. A strange man in odd armour appears with an entourage of samurai and helps her (in stages,) for Omasu has a destiny.
In Alex Barr’s very well written The Spiral Moon5 a woman astronaut whose mission has suffered a catastrophic failure sets out to circumnavigate the small planetoid she is on, eventually hallucinating as she succumbs to oxygen starvation.
Symbiosis6 by Colleen Anderson has another member of a doomed space mission, on a planet this time, trying to survive by going native. The story’s ending is fantastical rather than SF.
The protagonist of See You Later7 by M Luke McDonnell gets herself a set of AR lenses to match the ones her husband needed for work and finds the settings he uses for his something of a surprise.
In what is intended to be a humorous piece, but is far too over the top to be so, David Perlmutter’s The Brat and the Burly Qs8 gives us an alien superhero, who is part mechanical, flying to Mars to apprehend a wrongdoer whom it has sent to jail once already.
Approaching 43,000 Candles9 by Guy T Martland. Controlled by the Moon, time is switched off once a year, and British Lighthouses travel to attend a conference. At one of these, Voth, from the Isles of Scilly, overhears the Bishop Rock and two other Cornish Lighthouses planning a shut down so that the Bishop’s much needed maintenance will be expedited.
In Broken Glass by Joseph L Kellogg, Slide Stations allow travel between five parallel worlds. RedBrian envies the other Brians who all have their Pats as lifetime companions.
In TimeMachineStory10 by Richmond A Clements a man goes back (and forward) in time but the effects aren’t what he expected.
The extremely short, almost throwaway, Cleanup on Deck 7 by Claire Simpson features a new female crew member on a spaceship under attack seeking refuge in a cupboard with only solvents and bleach available to her as weapons.
Space11 by John Buchan is one of Buchan’s Leithen stories where that gentleman relates to a companion on a deer shoot the tale of his acquaintance Hollond, who forms a theory that so-called empty space is full of “mathematical pandemonium” with “halls and alleys in Space shifting .. according to inexorable laws” and there are Presences within it.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Good Friday isn’t – and never has been – a public holiday in Scotland, PBS’ (PBS’s,) embue (imbue,) 2Given in the contents as page 82, it’s actually page 80. 3Stross’ (Stross’s,) “for an entertaining a ‘management team for dummies’” (one indefinite article is enough,) “their alien mind set giving homo sapien the chance” (either homo sapiens or homo sapien) 4Written in USian, a missing start quote at the beginning of a paragraph, thusly (thusly??? What sort of a word is that?) 5CO2 (it’s CO2.) 6While their normal prey is referred to as herbivores the planet’s top predators are described as cats. However they appear they would not be cats. They are alien. Ditto the so-called trees. “The night painted the blood a sinister substance” (substance? Colour surely?) “Keela tramped determinably” (?? Determinedly, I think.) 7Written in USian. 8Written in USian; on their own free will (of their own free will,) synthetic water (????) embarrasing (embarrassing,) said my peace (my piece that would be,) sat (seated; or sitting,) liquid mercury (even piping hot at normal atmospheric pressure it has no other option but to be liquid, it doesn’t boil till 357 oC) jail-after (jail after.) 9And anyways (a Scot – even if a lighthouse – would say anyway, not anyways,) “couldn’t see more that a few yards” (more than.) 10“there’ll be cure in the end” (a cure,) one sentence had two full stops at its end, Arch Duke Ferdinand (Archduke.) 11caldron (cauldron,) “as keen is a keen sword” (as keen as; or, as keen as is,) Prescences (Presences,) Holland (always Hollond elsewhere,) a missing start quote when a piece of dialogue continues after a narrative interpolation, plus a missing end quote at its end, and another at the end of a paragraph where the next was not a continuation of speech.

The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 290 p, including i p map of New Granada, iv p author’s thanks and xi p Chronology of Simón Bolívar. No translator given but it is most likely Edith Grossman as she was the translator for the Jonathan Cape edition from which the original Penguin paperback was derived. First published as El General en Su Laberinto, Mondadori Espana, 1989.

 The General in his Labyrinth cover

This, an account of the last days of Simón Bolívar, The Liberator, on his final trip down the Magdalena River from Santa Fe de Bogotá to the sea, is not typical Márquez. There is no hint of magic realism here and the book often reads more like a history than a novel. In that it is a portrait of a leader in decline it bears some similarities to The Autumn of the Patriarch but it would not do to stretch the parallel. In any case, unlike that novel, this one is not at all experimental in its writing. Márquez’s Bolivar (his name is only given once, and then in full, Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios) – known throughout as simply the General – is all too human, his wife’s untimely death, without which he may never have embarked on his adventures into history, locked away inside him, yet his liaisons with women legendary.

The novel starts in Santa Fe de Bogotá as the General, his hopes of uniting the lands of South America (certainly the former Spanish parts) into one country now lying in tatters, is awaiting Government permission to leave and go to Europe. At a gathering, “No one was certain, however, who was there for the sake of friendship, who in order to protect him, and who to be sure that in fact he was leaving.”

The details of the journey downriver are intercut with scenes from his life and military and governmental careers wherein Márquez has the opportunity to comment on the condition of being a military strong man, or any dictator. When official reports had led the General to believe the scourge of smallpox was being conquered, evidence to the contrary has him say, “‘It will always be like this as long as subordinates lie to make us happy.’”

The General is also biting about any criticism of the harsh measures he had taken in his campaigns, “‘Europeans would not have the moral authority to reproach me, for, if any history is drowned in blood, indignity, and injustice, it is the history of Europe,’” the difficulties of running a newly founded country, “‘I warned (General) Santander that whatever good we had done for the nation would be worthless if we took on debt because we would go on paying interest till the end of time. Now it’s clear: debt will destroy us in the end.’” In a letter he tells another General that, “Every civil war had been won by the side that was most savage.” Then to an aide, “‘Don’t go with your family to the United States. It’s omnipotent and terrible, and its tale of liberty will end in a plague of miseries for us all.’” Despite all his achievements he reflects ruefully, “‘It was not the perfidy of my enemies but the diligence of my friends that destroyed my glory.’”

An item I found curious is that Bolivar was initiated in Paris as a Mason “of the Scottish rite”. Odd how often Scotland pops up in these South American fictions.

The novel’s title is an allusion to the General’s last words which were, “‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!’” It is, of course, the same way as the rest of us.

This was obviously a subject to which Márquez felt he had to turn, taking up the idea from an unfinished work by his friend Álvaro Mutis. to chronicle the end of a life which may as well be a myth.

Pedant’s corner:- to not deprive (not to deprive,) Elbers’ (Elbers’s,) Andrés’ (Andrés’s,) Páez’ (Páez’s,) Palacios’ (Palacios’s,) duchess’ (duchess’s,) Valdehoyos’ (Valdehoyos’s,) Sáenz’ (Sáenz’s,) English and British are used almost interchangeably, Britain is nearly always referred to as England.

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