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Winterwood and other hauntings by Keith Roberts

Morrigan Publications, 1989, 188 p, including 6 p Introduction by Robert Holdstock, plus illustrations by the author.

Roberts was one of the best prose stylists ever to write SF in Britain. His scope was not restricted by the genre though. One of his best novels, The Boat of Fate, was historical, set in Roman Britain and his stories of Kaeti (on Tour) plus Kaeti (and Company) and Gráinne used more contemporary surroundings. I reviewed his Irish Encounters written about his experiences while researching Gráinne here.

As the appendage to the title suggests the contents of this book are essentially ghost stories. To each Roberts has given us an introduction which describes how and perhaps why it came to be written. All the stories are invested with Roberts’s precise manner of story-telling. Some exude a Victorian/Edwardian sensibility. Taken as a whole, though, he has a tendency to employ a throat clearing scene before we get to the meat of the story or else to utilise a framing device.

In Susan, Roberts conjures up the atmosphere and look of an old-fashioned school Chemistry lab with eerie precision. The titular Susan is a self-contained and assured fifteen year-old schoolgirl with a strange air about her who has an after school conversation with a teacher on the brink of retirement, an encounter with a disturbed man on her way home and a mother who senses she is unknowable. At the end the reader doesn’t know much more about her either but it doesn’t matter, the story works as what it is.

Roberts’s Introduction to The Scarlet Lady contains the surprising information that Kyril Bonfiglioli wrote its last few lines and also suggested the ending to Roberts’s celebrated Altered History novel Pavane. The Scarlet Lady is a car – a between the wars one, with a face like a grinning skull, bought by the narrator’s brother. She turns out to be a heap of trouble; with a side order of malevolence.

The Eastern Windows is set at a party whose attendees have all experienced a close shave on their journey to the venue. The story is largely made up of snippets of overheard conversation as it roams between guests. Gradually the same voices and phrases begin to repeat. Eventually a woman called Eileen says, “‘Sometimes I think Hell must be like a party. A big room full of people you don’t know and you have to talk to them for ever.’” A short while later the man she is speaking to counters, “‘I don’t quite agree with your conception of Hell. I think it would be worse if you were stuck in a room forever with people you knew too well.’”

Winterwood is a variation on the haunted house story, though it is the narrator who ends the more haunted.

Mrs Cibber is in a similar vein, dealing with the obsession of a man with a painting of an eighteenth-century actress called Mrs Cibber which he sees hanging in a London pub. It is more about how it affected him and his life story, though. The detail is utterly convincing.

In The Snake Princess a shy boy on holiday is attracted by the NUDE PRINCESSS WRESTLES WITH LIVING SNAKES sign at a fairground and visits the exhibit. The “princess” is not naked and the snake is merely draped over her. The next day on the beach she – all that his mother would disapprove in the one package – befriends him and encourages him to become what he wishes for. This being a Roberts story (and one of the hauntings of the book’s subtitle) things are not quite as straightforward as that.

Everything in the Garden is in the form of what she refuses to call diary entries (and strictly no dates) by a woman named Diane who has it all – husband, big house in the country – but not everything in her garden is rosy; in particular the big tree. A coda in italics somewhat counterpoints the thrust of her tale by questioning the details of her life.

Reading Roberts never disappoints.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Introduction – smokey (smoky.) Otherwise; “‘to seek counsel of a fifteen year pupil is an act that I consider gross, and that I can only describe old as an obscene privilege’” has that ‘old’ misplaced, the illustration of the Scarlet Lady, while beautifully done does not resemble the description in the story, maw (it’s a styomacn, not a mouth,) “that never will lay flat” (lie flat,) “‘I wouldn’t have missed it for world’” (for the world,) “I wish I cound forget his hame” (‘his name’ makes more sense,) miniscule (minuscule,) celi (ceilidh?) “as soon as I reasonably dare” (dared,) Ingres’ (Ingres’s,) Candales (Candale’s,) “a paint wholesalers” (wholesaler’s,) “a greengrocers” (greengrocer’s,) “a tobacconists” (tobacconist’s,) the grocers (grocer’s,) whiskys (whiskies,) “at the doctors” (the doctor’s.)

Nina Allan’s List

This is Nina Allan’s response to the BBC’s list of 100 Books that shaped our world.

As usual the ones in bold I have read. (18. 19 if John Banville’s Shroud and Eclipse count as two.) Some others are on my tbr pile.

Borka: the Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers by John Burningham

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Stig of the Dump by Clive King

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfield

‘Adventure’ series by Willard Price

The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

‘UNEXA’ series by Hugh Walters

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

‘Changes’ trilogy by Peter Dickinson

‘Tripods’ trilogy by John Christopher

The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Pavane by Keith Roberts

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

The Drought by J. G. Ballard

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The Search for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann

Ada by Vladimir Nabokov

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest

Midnight Sun by Ramsey Campbell

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine

The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Personality by Andrew O’Hagan

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

Shroud/Eclipse by John Banville

My Tango with Barbara Strozzi by Russell Hoban

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Shriek: an afterword by Jeff VanderMeer

Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

Glister by John Burnside

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Kills by Richard House

A Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano

The Dry Salvages by Caitlin R. Kiernan

In the Shape of a Boar by Lawrence Norfolk

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

The Accidental by Ali Smith

Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn

F by Daniel Kehlmann

Straggletaggle by J. M. McDermott

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard

The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble

All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Infatuations by Javier Marias

Outline by Rachel Cusk

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

This is Memorial Device by David Keenan

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Attrib. by Eley Williams

Berg by Ann Quin

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Munich Airport by Greg Baxter

Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz

The Sing of the Shore by Lucy Wood

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Gráinne by Keith Roberts

Kerosina, 1985, 175 p.

Gráinne cover

A man lies in a hospital bed being asked questions. In answer he begins to tell his life story. It is a curiously detached process: he thinks of himself in the third person, referring to himself as Bevan. (In this Roberts may be utilising aspects of his own young life to flesh out his story – or carrying out a double bluff to make us think so. He used the name Alastair Bevan as an early pseudonym.) The man doesn’t name some of the characters from his early life, merely gives them titles; The Mother, The Headmaster. His early discomfort on dealing with women is well conveyed. Things change when he meets the enigmatic Gráinne, however, though to begin with he only worships her from afar. She is named for the mythical Irish princess.

Roberts’s prose is oblique, meaning is not immediately transparent, it has to be teased out by the reader. By the end, though, the process does become less opaque. The intercutting between “Bevan”’s reminiscences and his interlocutors is an important part of this. It highlights and comments on his tale, allows Roberts to ask the questions the reader might – and answer them. He tells his story in five “sessions” named Anuloma, Abhassara, Brahmacariya, Aranyaka and Upanishad respectively. These titles are not from Irish mythology but relate to Hindu customs and tales.

The Gráinne ‘Bevan’ remembers has aspects of a goddess, or an everywoman, and she has the gift of prophecy. “Right down through history religion had backed the state. She said the end result of money sticks” – some man had invented these centuries ago and things had gone downhill from then on – “was three World Wars. Two down and one to go. She said she wanted something to survive, But not a God. Or it would all start again.”

Some time after their relationship ends she lands a job as a TV presenter on Channel Five (a fifth UK TV channel was fictitious in 1985) and becomes famous. As part of a project she is working on she asks the advertising firm Bevan works for to devise a campaign for her, knowing he will have the idea she wants. The ramifications of her programme cause the authorities some problems and this is the ultimate reason for Bevan’s questioning. It is only at this point that aspects of SF creep in to the novel. In common with most of Roberts’s œuvre the whole, however, has an unsettling effect, always teetering on the borderline of the fantastic, as if Gráinne might have been a figment of ‘Bevan’’s imagination.

For Roberts completists this is a must though those unfamiliar with his work might be best to start with earlier novels.

Pedant’s corner:- I note “mike” as the abbreviation for microphone. Hurrah!
Otherwise; woffle (waffle,) Guy Fawkes’ night (I believe it’s just Guy Fawkes night; if it had an apostrophe it would have to be Guy Fawkes’s night,) staunched (stanched,) “an old tobacconists” (tobacconist’s,) “his Dad had given for his twenty-first” (had given him?) Fitzsimmons’ (Fitzsimmons’s,) Éirann (more usually Éireann,) verandah (I prefer veranda.) “He left the door stood open” (standing open,) “a line of men in saffron robes plod east” (a line plods.)

Irish Encounters by Keith Roberts

A short travel. Kerosina Books, 1988, 80 p.

Irish Encounters cover

This is an account, initially written for his friends, of a trip Roberts took to Ireland but which he later used as background for his BSFA Award winning novel Gráinne.

It was Roberts’s first time flying and he was nervous but was equally astonished at the quickness of the flight. His trip came before the Celtic Tiger days and Roberts contrasts Ireland – mostly favourably – with the England he had travelled from but does note encounters with beggars. The politeness and hospitality he met with were initially strange to him and he describes navigating Dublin’s streets in a hired car as a daunting task. On only one occasion did he encounter a lack of consideration, when a man in a pub questioned him about the North.

His comparison of real Irish pubs to those in England is very favourable, “smarter and cleaner, and the service leaves us standing.” The addendum, “Try asking for tea in your local English boozer; then count the number of times you bounce before you land in the street,” is perhaps no longer so true. Even so he says about English attitudes to Ireland, “bigotry is time saving; you can form opinions without troubling to get the facts.” It was the ancient monuments he was mainly there to visit though (Tara of the Kings etc.)

One of the things that struck me most about this account was that almost without exception every female (women and girls) Roberts mentions is described as either pretty or beautiful; he even goes so far as to apologise in his head and in print to the author of Molly Malone for assuming he had described Dublin’s girls as “so pretty” merely for the rhyme. Roberts also has a fascination for describing their eyes.

At his trip’s end he had a curious sensation that, “I was led, conducted, given as much at any one time as I could handle. Shown carefully what someone, or some thing, wished me to see,” and conceived “a debt to Eirann, and its tutelary deity”, a debt which became Gráinne.

I rarely read travel books and did so here only for completeness – though there is still some of Roberts’s œuvre I have yet to catch up with. But good writing is good writing wherever you meet it and Roberts was a good writer. Better than good.

Pedant’s corner:- nictating (nictitating,) a stationers (a stationer’s,) tricolors (tricolours,) facia (fascia,) a missing comma before a speech quote, a group of tourists are (a group is,) murmer (murmur.)

The Lordly Ones by Keith Roberts

Gollancz, 1986, 160 p.

This is a collection of seven stories by one of the best (if not the best) British SF writers of the late twentieth century.

The Lordly Ones cover

The Lordly Ones A man who was “a bit slow” in school finds a job as a lavatory attendant. A war or revolution (the Trouble) breaks out but he keeps the toilets spotless despite there being no infrastructure to sustain him.
Ariadne Potts Sedate bank clerk Henry Potts has a hobby of photographing the garden statuary of stately homes. One day he comes across a most fetching, exquisite nymph whom he wishes to come alive. She does; and then takes over his life. An almost perfect be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale.
Sphairistike A subtly told story of our nameless narrator’s relationship to the man behind a tennis playing prodigy, who/which may or may not be an android.
The Checkout One of Roberts’s stories featuring Anita the witch. Here she is intrigued by a supermarket checkout girl whom she helps escape from her restrictions.
The Comfort Station riffs on the same scenario as The Lordly Ones with a woman disrupting the toilet attendant’s existence.
The Castle on the Hoop A ghost story. Or one about someone who can bend time.
Diva A woman singer becomes a world-wide sensation as her voice calms the troubled breasts of her audiences and sparks off outbreaks of peace, love and understanding. Narrated as by the gardener of the Laird of Ardkinross in Argyllshire where she gives her last performance before the powers that be prevail on her to stop. Even the cohorts of the local Minister whose “notices proclaimed the sinfulness of singing, dancing, musicmaking and almost anything else one cared to mention,” are placated. Both Scots and US speech are part represented phonetically, not always entirely convincingly. Note to those of a nervous disposition. The US President at one point says, “Uh ain’t never lynched a nigger yet.”

Pedant’s corner:- “I was suppose” (I was supposed,) “coming up smelling violets” (it’s usually smelling of violets,) “with six whole channels to fill” seems a quaint detail these days, awhile (a while,) “I can only – and your belief isn’t my concern – that I was…” (say that I was,) nobbly roots (knobbly,) James’ (James’s,) whisht (this Scottish imprecation to be quiet is nowadays usually spelled wheesht,) sometning’s afoot (something’s,) from whence (the from is redundant; whence means from where,) will-he, nill-he (an unusual rendering of willy-nilly,) the Diva’s bodyguard has a Schmeisser sub-machine gun (in Britain??) Brahmans (usually written Brahmins.)

Top 50 Gollancz Book Titles

Over at Orion Publishing Group their Gollancz imprint is celebrating 50 years of publishing SF. They’re having a vote to see which of their chosen titles is the best. There are two categories, one for SF, one for Fantasy.

I thought I’d do this as an Ian Sales type meme.

The ones in bold I have read.

Gollancz top 25 SF titles:-

A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
Brasyl by Ian McDonald
The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Dune by Frank Herbert

Fairyland by Paul McAuley
The Female Man by Joanna Russ (I have now read this.)
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Flood by Stephen Baxter
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes *
Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
Pavane by Keith Roberts
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Ringworld by Larry Niven
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
The Separation by Christopher Priest
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (I have now read this.)

* as a short story.

As you can see I’ve read all but five of these.

Gollancz top 25 Fantasy titles:-

Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper
Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Book of the New Sun (Vol 1&2) (Vol 3&4) by Gene Wolfe
The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

Conan Volume One by Robert E. Howard
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
Elric by Michael Moorcock
Eric by Terry Pratchett
Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Little, Big by John Crowley
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Runes of the Earth by Stephen Donaldson
Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Wolfsangel by M. D. Lachlan

Only seven from the Fantasy list, though.

For what it’s worth I voted for Keith Roberts’s Pavane and Little, Big by John Crowley.

A List Of Science Fiction Masterworks

Over at Ian Sales’s blog he has mentioned a meme that seems to come from the SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project.

There seems to be a few more books on Ian’s list than on the Reading Project’s site, in all nearly a hundred. Some appear twice because there are two lists, one in Roman numerals and the other in Arabic.

I suppose the reason that not many of these are recent publications is that it takes time for a book to be appreciated as a masterwork.

The ones in bold I have read. For those starred (*) I have read the short story from which the novel was developed. Those with double stars I believe I read many moons ago but do not now have a copy. The italicised one is in the TBR pile (and has been for donkey’s ages.)

SF Masterworks Index:-

I – Dune – Frank Herbert
II – The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
III – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
IV – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
V – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
VI – Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke

VII – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
VIII – Ringworld – Larry Niven
IX – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
X – The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

1 – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
2 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
3 – Cities in Flight – James Blish
4 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
5 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
6 – Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany
7 – Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
8 – The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe

9 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl
10 – The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith

11 – Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
12 – Earth Abides – George R. Stewart
13 – Martian Time-Slip – Philip K. Dick
14 – The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
15 – Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
16 – The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
17 – The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard
18 – The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

19 – Emphyrio – Jack Vance
20 – A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

21 – Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon
22 – Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock
23 – The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
24 – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells

25 – Flowers for Algernon* – Daniel Keyes
26 – Ubik – Philip K. Dick
27 – Timescape – Gregory Benford
28 – More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
29 – Man Plus – Frederik Pohl
30 – A Case of Conscience – James Blish

31 – The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison
32 – Dr. Bloodmoney – Philip K. Dick
33 – Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss
34 – The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke
35 – Pavane – Keith Roberts
36 – Now Wait for Last Year – Philip K. Dick
37 – Nova – Samuel R. Delany
38 – The First Men in the Moon – H. G. Wells
39 – The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
40 – Blood Music – Greg Bear

41 – Jem – Frederik Pohl
42 – Bring the Jubilee – Ward Moore
43 – VALIS – Philip K. Dick
44 – The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin
45 – The Complete Roderick – John Sladek
46 – Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
47 – The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells
48 – Grass – Sheri S. Tepper
49 – A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke

50 – Eon – Greg Bear

51 – The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
52 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick
53 – The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock
54 – The Space Merchants** – Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 – Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick
56 – Downward to the Earth – Robert Silverberg
57 – The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick
58 – The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick
59 – Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg
60 – Ringworld – Larry Niven

61 – The Child Garden* – Geoff Ryman
62 – Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
63 – A Maze of Death – Philip K. Dick

64 – Tau Zero** – Poul Anderson
65 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
66 – Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard

67 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
68 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 – Dark Benediction – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 – Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

71 – Dune – Frank Herbert
72 – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
73 – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
74 – Inverted World, Christopher Priest
75 – Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
76 – The Island of Dr Moreau, HG Wells
77 – Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke
78 – The Time Machine, HG Wells
79 – Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany
80 – Helliconia, Brian Aldiss
81 – Food of the Gods, HG Wells

82 – The Body Snatchers, Jack Finney
83 – The Female Man*, Joanna Russ (Edited to add; I have now read this.)
84 – Arslan, MJ Engh

Kaeti On Tour by Keith Roberts

Sirius, 1992, 320 p

Kaeti On Tour

The same conceit as in Kaeti And Company (see my review here) runs through this collection. In each of the nine stories in the book we have the same repertory company of names for the actors but they “play” different characters in the different tales. An addition to the ensemble seems to be Tennoch, a Glaswegian woman, who pops up in “The Green Place” and subsequently. Some of the stories are fine, if inconsequential, but they are all let down by this extremely irritating framing device. There is, too, within every story a quite prodigious use of the words “leastways” or “least” to start either a sentence or a subordinate clause, which does not just happen in Kaeti’s “voice”; others join in with this annoying practice. Thankfully, this time the linking pages between the stories do not feature any dialogue between “the author” and Kaeti but instead feature only the actors.

The two most successful stories, to my mind, were Kaeti And The Village – set in somewhere like Oradour-Sur-Glane – and Londinium, in Roman London just as Boudicca’s hordes are about to sack the city. Both would have benefited from being lifted out of the context of this book.

In some of the other tales the characters too often drifted without explanation between different realities and/or times, lending the whole an insubstantial air. Had the characters been separately defined this might have been less of a drawback.

Roberts was a fine writer. It’s a pity his obsession with his creation “Kaeti” blinded him to the faults inherent in this repertory company concept.

Not Fifteen Books

Ian Sales on his blog mentioned a while back a meme that is going about, where you list the fifteen books that influenced or affected you most and have stayed with you. I don’t know if I can come up with fifteen off the top of my head but here are some.

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
The Man In The Maze by Robert Silverberg
The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
Winter’s Children and Hello Summer Goodbye both by Michael G Coney
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner by James Hogg
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke
Pavane by Keith Roberts

The Herbert is there because it was the first Dune book I read (out of the local Public Library, when I devoured any yellow jacketed book in the SF section.) I didn’t know when I picked it up it was a sequel. It still made sense, and is a better novel than Dune anyway. So is Children Of Dune; but the later ones are increasingly forgettable.
The Man In The Maze made me realise what SF could be and do. Silverberg has written books even more impressive but I was on the verge of stopping reading SF till I read this. So Robert Silverberg is to blame for my continuing involvement with the genre.
The Left Hand Of Darkness just blew me away.
All the Michael G Coneys from around that part of his career are superb as I remember. Lump in Mirror Image, Syzygy, Charisma, The Girl With A Symphony In Her Fingers* (aka The Jaws That Bite, The Claws That Catch) and Brontomek! to that list.
Lanark, while being a masterpiece by anyone’s definition also let me know it was actually possible to be Scottish and still get literature of a speculative bent into print.
Confessions Of A Justified Sinner is the prototypic Scottish novel. Jekyll and Hyde, your inspiration was surely here – also, in many senses, my story “Dusk,” despite the fact that stylistically I was more attempting to echo Silverberg. But if you live in Scotland that streak of fatalistic, Calvinistic gloom just gets to you.
2001. Amazingly, I read this before I saw the film. Sense of wonder plus. (At the time.)
Pavane opened up for me the delights of Altered History.

*This, I read only a few years ago, though.

I see the total comes to eight; fourteen if you count all the Coneys. But then I haven’t enumerated all the Silverbergs, nor the Le Guins. And now I think about it there ought to be a Roger Zelazny in there somewhere; any from He Who Shapes, This Immortal, Isle Of The Dead or Doorways In The Sand.

Now, if there were a meme for books that stayed with you for all the wrong reasons!….

Kaeti And Company by Keith Roberts

Kerosina, 1986

Keith Roberts wrote some of the best British (for which read English, because that’s all there was) SF of the era in which he was active in the field. Indeed, his was some of the best SF of his time full stop. His well regarded (and I recommend them without reserve) novels included Pavane, Kiteworld and the tour de force that was Molly Zero – a whole novel written in the second person. A historical novel, The Boat Of Fate, which was set in Roman Britain was also well received and well worth reading. Several of his longer works were built from shorter pieces, though. Roberts always had a deft touch and his concentration on character helped to set him apart from the majority of SF practitioners. He did seem to have a thing about betrayal, however, especially of a man by a woman. Sadly he died in 2000.

Kaeti and Company contains ten stories some of which have elements of fantasy, others being more realistic in tone. On its own (save for one and that only at its end) each story paints a credible and detailed picture of the lives it portrays. Roberts certainly knew how to create atmosphere. But there is something about this collection which sits awkwardly.

The framing device for the book as a whole, where before each story Roberts apparently addresses Kaeti directly as if casting her as an actress in the “part” she will take but wherein her name (along with those of some other characters) is retained from story to story – thereby providing a rationale for the book’s title – is clever but ultimately unsatisfactory. Others of these “actors” include Kerry, who nearly always wears yellow, Rodney, Bill and Pete. But precisely why is this necessary? Why not just people the stories with the characters and name them in the usual way? We are clearly not meant to find the similarly named characters the same from story to story despite their nomenclature, Kaeti varies in age for example and variously inhabits the present and the past, and yet Bill and Pete always “play” Kaeti’s mum and dad where they appear. It is, I feel, an unnecessary complication.

Again, the best tale might have been Kaeti And The Hangman, an interesting study of a condemned woman in an alternative reality, or possible future reminiscent of that in Molly Zero – except it turns out in its last paragraph to have been describing the shooting of a film script. I felt cheated by this revelation. It does beat, “I woke up and it was a dream,” but not by much; and the framing device, which presumably encouraged this choice, most certainly does not rescue it. This leaves The Clocktower Girl and Kaeti And The Zep as the most satisfying stories.

The last piece, The Dream Machine, about a movie, of which Kaeti is the star, being filmed in the narrator’s street (we are invited to believe this narrator is Roberts himself, but I resist the temptation) makes an explicit point about multiple realities existing within the same milieu but this seems to be elaborating for the sake of it.

Given the second sentence in this review you can imagine my disappointment, here; amplified all the more as I recall the Kaeti stories being lauded when they first appeared. I still have Roberts’s other Kaeti collection, Kaeti On Tour, to be read. I hope the “actress” fixation does not appear there, but I fear it will.

(I couldn’t find an embeddable picture of the Kerosina cover so the above is the Wildside Press one from 2000.)

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