Sunday, 12 February 2017

Swedish Beauties

Oh, great, now I have to learn Swedish.

Until last week I was unaware of the work of publisher Novellix, a small Swedish outfit which regularly publishes individual novellas and stories by a mix of modern and classic authors, both Scandinavian and otherwise. Their books are beautifully designed, and in their size and scope remind me of the output of Readux. (And sometimes sets of four are available in slipcases.)

I mean, look at these:

(It should also be noted that you can never go wrong reading Hjalmar Söderberg, some of whose wonderful work has been translated into English)

Fortunately, they have just decided to test the water with English-language work, producing four novellas/stories in gorgeous new editions.

These four were designed by Lisa Bengtsson, using artwork by Jennie Ekström.  I'm not sure who to credit for the other beautiful books above because of the whole Swedishlessness I suffer, but whoever they are, they're doing damn fine work.

(With thanks to Creative Review, who first drew these books to my attention.)

Thursday, 26 January 2017

One Good and Many Bad from Military SF

A popular sub-genre of science fiction is military SF. It is, as are many things, mostly awful. There are occasional startling exceptions however. I recently read Joe McDermott's The Fortress at the End of Time, from Tor, which is being marketed as military SF, and though this is true, it is true in a way that happily subverts any expectations or cliches.

The book, also quite short in a genre which encourages bloats and endless sequels, is a perceptively written first-person confession by a young officer assigned to one of the worst postings imaginable: a boring station in orbit around an ignored planet on the edge of subsistence. The plot concerns the implacable hostility of bureacracy, frustrating attempts to combat the sexual abuse of female soldiers, and attempts to stay uncorrupted in an economy based almost entirely on bribes, favours and patronage. The hero is a stolidly well-meaning but also somewhat priggish and naive man, very well drawn. Though the setting is military, there are no battles and no aliens. McDermott is also imaginative and rigorous in his future physics, and the book is a delight. Even the cover is nice: a lonely figure in a uniform looking out over a nearly dead world. There should be more like this.

To contrast this book with the competition, this is what military SF is normally like, as exemplified by the output of reliably ugly Baen Books (see more on them here and at the end of here), which publishes books for people who just want battles, spaceships with big guns, and aliens that are either dead, comical or in possession of enormous breasts.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Best Books of 2016ish (3 of 3)

(Parts one and two: there were going to be four of these posts, but lack of time means I've crammed more books into this one and made it the final)

Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, by Mircea Eliade (2016)

Described by the publisher as "an early 20th century Catcher in the Rye", but to many readers this book will seem more like a pre-WW2 Romanian Adrian Mole: a funny-in-its-seriousness heavily autobiographical book about being young and clever and book-obsessed and nerdy and only faintly aware of one's own ridiculousness as an angsty adolescent with pretensions to genius. Found after the philosopher author's death and newly translated; highly recommended.

The House of Fame, by Oliver Harris (2016)

This book is the third--and presumably last--in a series, and frankly you need to read them all (start with The Hollow Man): not because you'll be lost without reading the first two, but because the three-part descent of the corrupt, astonishingly self-destructive London police detective Nick Belsey is an amazing work of crime fiction. This book's cover comparison to Stieg Larsson is ridiculous, because Harris actually writes really well, and Belsey's sardonic wit is a pleasure to read. Book two, Deep Shelter, was like Patricia Highsmith writing 1980s TV nuclear paranoia thriller 'Edge of Darkness', and if someboody described a book like that to me you'd need handcuffs to stop me rushing off to buy it straight away.

The Door, by Magda Szabo (2005)

This translation came out in the UK more than a decade ago, but got a new lease of life when NYRB republished it this year, and deservedly so. A portrait of a decades-long friendship/power struggle between two Budapest women, one a housekeeper/cleaner and one a middle-class writer, this is a quiet, dark, very rich book.

The Liars' Club, by Mary Karr (1995)

I resisted this book for 20 years, until it got Penguin Classic-ed with a great cover by Brian Rea. I must have mentally shelved it with all the other misery memoirs, which was a mistake, because despite the awful things that happened to Karr in her childhood (and rarely have I so wanted to reach into a book to strangle someone as much as I wanted to with Karr's parents) this book has an amazing sense of humour and a vibrant, boisterous prose style that is entirely infectious.

Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood (2017)

This is a bit  of a cheat, because the book isn't released until next May, but I was lucky enough to get an ARC earlier this year, and it is such a great book that it needs to be praised. A skilled and lauded poet, Lockwood and her husband moved back into her family home with her strange mother and her frankly deranged gun-toting Catholic priest father. The memoir is about growing up with these parents, and then living with them again as adults, and it combines a poet's prose with a great comedian's way with a story. Again, it may cause a desire to strangle a writer's parents, but that's the world we live in now.

The Assault, by Harry Mulisch (1986)

When writing about Dutch novelist Mulisch, it's customary to note that his Jewish mother's family was killed in Auschwitz, while his Austrian father was jailed a Nazi collaborator. This horrible tension plays out in a lot of his fiction, and especially so in this brief but gripping story about murder, collaboration, revenge and resistance that sprawls over decades from the starting point of a gunshot in Holland near the very end of WW2. The book is a masterpiece, and it's a shame that, even though it's been in print in English for three decades, and more than 30 printings, nobody at the publisher, Pantheon, has noticed that the illustration on p117 is missing. (It's also missing from the ebook, though there isn't a big space there to show you that something SHOULD be there.)

How Many Miles to Babylon?, by Jennifer Johnston (1974)

Another book I never paid any attention to because I was a fool and the previous covers were uninspiring, it wasn't until this stark and dramatic design by David Foldvari caught my eye that I actually picked it up. An understated tragedy about two friends from Ireland who end up in the midst of the WW1 trench fighting, it has set me on a Jennifer Johnston binge, which has measurably improved my life.

When Mystical Creatures Attack!, by Kathleen Founds (2014)

A collection of stories in the form of essays, pyschiatric evaluations, transcripts, letters and diary entries that make up a sort of bitterly hilarious novel about the lives of a teacher and her students. Among the institutions in which Founds has worked are "a nursing home, a phone bank, a South Texas middle school, and a Midwestern technical college specializing in truck-driving certificates", and if this seems to have been the perfect foundation for sharply observed, surrealist and deeply engaging looks at institutional life and its many, many failings.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Best Books of 2016ish: (2 of 3)

Following on from part one.

Europe in Winter, by Dave Hutchinson (2016)

 The third in a series, and what a series: some of the finest, cleverest, politically-minded SF of recent years. The ideas of nationhood and nationalism, citizenship, topology and topography, parallel worlds and information all get an intriguing examination, and it's very witty and thoroughly enjoyable. Hutchinson has a great fondness for Alan Furst, another extraordinarily underrated writer, and if you like one of them I can't see how you couldn't like the other. Get the first in the series, Europe in Autumn, and binge from there.

The Last Wolf, by László Krasznahorkai (2016)

In recent years I have become obsessed with Hungarian literature, for the simple reason that pretty much everything from that country which has made it into English has been excellent (an awful book by Peter Nadas aside). And every discussion of modern Hungarian literature comes around to
László Krasznahorka, who is astonishing. The Last Wolf, a novella published back-to-back with the related short story Herman, is a perfect introduction to his work: a bleakly funny story unspooling in a long single sentence about a washed-up academic involved, possibly through mistaken identity, in a search for the site of the death of the last wolf in Europe. 

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, by Kathleen Collins (2016)


A slim gathering of what seems to be the entire fictional output of an accomplished filmmaker who died young in 1988, whose work doesn't seem to have been collected before (the introduction doesn't really explain much, telling you more about the introducer than Collins). Extremely perceptive, occasionally harrowing, sometimes funny and very, very clear-eyed about American race relations, it makes depressingly clear how little things have really changed in recent decades.

Small Acts of Disappearance, by Fiona Wright (2015)

An Australian poet's memoir in essays about her experiences with severe eating disorder, from its beginnings to her hospitalisation, entwined with reflections on books and travel and much else. A genuinely fascinating analysis from the inside of a condition that words usually struggle to contend with.

Gypsy, by Carter Scholz (2015)

I'd never read Carter Scholz before I read Gypsy, a pretty much perfect SF novella about a group of people attempting to flee a dying Earth to colonise an exoplanet. Afterwards I quickly got hold of and read everything of his that is available, which sadly consists of only a novel (excellent) and one-and-a-half collections of stories (also excellent). He is an extraordinary writer, and Gypsy is a wonderful example of why epic literature can still work with only 100 pages.

Eleven Hours, by Pamela Erens (2016)

A novel that takes entirely during the eleven hours that a woman is in painful labour, spooling out to encompass her life story and that of her midwife. How did nobody think of this idea for a novel before? It's so simple, and done so well, and manages the feat of turning something that happens all the time to all sorts of women into a story with thriller-like levels of suspense.

Moonstone (The Boy Who Never Was), by Sjón (2016)

Do you want to read about a Reykjavik rentboy obsessed with the dawning world of cinema, and beautifully written depictions of his life as a body removal worker during the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak? You do, trust me. Another example of a whole, wonderfully visualised world being brought to life in a bare minimum of pages.

More to come...

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Best Books of 2016ish (1 of 3)

In the spirit of 'everyone else is doing it', here's the first of three posts on the best books I read in the last 12 months (so it includes December last year). Many of these were not actually published in the last 12 months, but that doesn't matter because they're fucking great and should be praised anyway. Overall there'll be 30-odd books, drawn from the around 300 books I managed in that time.

(NB: There were going to be four, but lack of time meant I crammed more books into the last post and made it three.)

The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, edited by Joost Zwagerman (2016)

Zwagerman put this collection together and then killed himself not long afterwards, which is incredibly sad. His anthology, however, is full of stories of astonishing quality. It includes a number of well-known Dutch writers (Harry Mulish, Louis Couperus, Cees Nooteboom), a number recently revived in English (Nescio's great 'Young Titans', Arnon grunberg) and a welter of little- or not-at-all-known in English, like the wonderful 'Castle Muider' by Maarten t' Hart, the Patricia Highsmith nastiness of 'Sand' by Mensje van Keulen, or 'The Kid with the Knife' by Remco Campert. If you don't come away from this book with a long list of new writers to further explore, I don't know what medical attention could help you.

Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre (2014)

This book could so easily have failed, but it succeeds beautifully. Real-life historical beauty Venetia Stanley, an adored celebrity and muse to Van Dyck and Ben Jonson, is terrified of losing her looks. Sir Kenelm Digby, her philosopher-alchemist husband, just wants her to let herself age naturally. From this simple conflict and obsession, Eyre wrote an amazing, timeslipping (see the iPhone in Venetia's hand on the cover), perceptive and funny book.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, by Helle Helle (2014)

You could just read the Danish women being translated into English at the moment and you'd get great book after great book (see Dorthe Nors below, plus various recent Open Letter books, and more). Helle Helle's novel about a woman failing to go to uni or move on from a failed relationship is strange and sweet and very engaging.

Karate Chop & Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, by Dorthe Nors (2015)

Two short books, published back-to-back in one volume, both wonderful. Karate Chop is a story collection full of uncomfortable and perfectly observed human relations. Even better is Minna, a novella in the form of an obsessive list, about an artist who just needs some space to get on with her art. In the US, Minna has been published together with a different Nors book, So Much for That Winter, so people in postapocalyptic Trumpland have no excuse for not reading it before the lights go out forever.

The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts (2015)

If you don't think you need to read a novel that incorporates Immanuel Kant, the Fermi Paradox, a novel but retrospectively obvious problem with teleportation (think the conservation of angular momentum) and God, and which opens with a homage to John Carpenter's 'The Thing' before jumping backwards and forwards through different times and narrators, and which manages it all with elegance, rigor and great intelligence, then what are you reading books for?

Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm (2015)

Coming-of-age tale, art heist suspense novel, revenge narrative. Get all three combined in beautiful prose with Scherm's first book.

Is That Kafka? 99 Finds, by Reiner Stach (2016)

Having written a huge 3-volume biography of Franz Kafka, Stach still wasn't finished. Frankly, if you have at least the vaguest idea of Kafka's life, I suspect this is the only book you need to get. Through 99 anecdotes, extracts and mini-essays, he brings Kafka more vividly to life than most biographers would do with 1000 stolid pages.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin (2016)

Levin's A Madman dreams of Turing Machines was a great novel from a few years ago, and her non-fiction account of the search for gravity waves--which succeeded after decades of attempts just as she was completing her book--is a pretty much perfect piece of reportage, full of intriguing people, weird conflicts, and frankly beautiful prose. Levin is both an wonderful writer and a practising scientist, and there aren't enough people who straddle both worlds.

More to come...