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I actually finished reading Declare last weekend, but a mixture of workload and being severely under the weather for the past three days (can’t decide if it’s a new cold or if I just haven’t entirely got rid of the one I had before Christmas and it’s just come back to remind me how much it cares) meant that I haven’t been out from under enough to consider posting. But I’m beginning to feel a little bit better and may have revived sufficient brain cells to do this some justice. Because I really, really enjoyed this novel.
Bit of background; the Book God is a Powers fan and has been encouraging me to try his stuff, but the only thing I’ve read is The Anubis Gates which was good but didn’t have me rushing to the bookshelves to locate any more. Every time I say to the BG that I’m looking for something to read, he says “why not try Declare?” but I’ve usually gone off and found something else. The thing that made me change my mind this time was reading The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross – more of that later.
Declare brings together espionage and the supernatural; that’s clear from the beginning. It tells the story of Andrew Hale, recruited by the British Secret Service at the age of seven, undercover in France during the Second World War and in Berlin and the Middle East afterwards, and his connection with Kim Philby and an unfinished operation code-named Declare.
I’m not going to say anything more about the plot; the pleasure of this book is how convincing it is about the world it operates in, of spies and resistance movements and the use of the supernatural by countries for their own ends. It’s very creepy in places, incredibly atmospheric, and Powers has taken what we know about Philby and put an unusual interpretation on the facts. It’s worth reading the author’s afterword.
As for Stross, well he became aware of Declare when writing The Atrocity Archives and although superficially they have common themes, they really are quite different. I think Stross himself said that if he was writing like Len Deighton, then Powers was John le Carre.
I can really recommend this.
Bride of the Book God is two today; no cakes to share with you all unfortunately but it did seem a good time to reflect on this week’s Weekly Geek theme, which is:
What does being a member mean to you? What do you enjoy about the group? What are some of your more memorable Weekly Geeks that we could do again? What could be improved as we continue the legacy that Dewey gave us?
The thing which is so enjoyable about Weekly Geeks for me is the sense of community created when we all focus on the same thing at (roughly) the same time. One of the reasons I started to blog was to encourage me to read more regularly, give me the chance to share my thoughts with other bloggers, and to find out what others had to say, and that’s reinforced by Weekly Geeks.
I’m not sure I have any particular favourites, but I did always enjoy the “housekeeping” weeks when Dewey used to encourage us all to catch up with reviews or take a look at where we were with our challenges.
And the best thing we can do in terms of Dewey’s legacy is to keep Weekly Geeks going.
Going back to the fact that this blog has hit the terrible two stage, I’m not organised enough to have thought about a competition or giveaway, but I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who stops by, whether they make a comment or not; it is very much appreciated and nice to know that, in the blogsphere (unlike real life) I’m not just talking to myself!
Well, where to start with this one? Victorian Sensation is packed full of interesting detail about what our Victorian forebears found sensational, the role of the press and what all of this tells us about their society and our own. As the author says (and I full agree) when we talk about Victorians we often really mean middle-class Victorians, but they of course were only one social layer in a complicated world.
The book covers a whole variety of topics that Victorians found sensational (I really am going to have to find another word for this!) and it’s not so very different from the kinds of topics that the tabloid press in particular covers these days, namely the Royal Family, political scandals, sex scandals, morality, murders and celebrities from sport and entertainment. The area that seems to me to be different is the sensation novel and the sensation drama, but I suppose if you substitute soap operas and reality TV for those then again the similarities are obvious.
These days, when it seems there is nothing that can’t be discussed, it’s interesting to look back at a period where so many subjects were off-limits, and shocking in a way to see how people who raised some of these difficult issues (child prostitution, the indignities heaped on women under the enforcement of the Contagious Diseases Acts), were vilified, especially if they were women themselves. There was definitely, again among the middle class, a tendency not to want to face up to many of the things that were happening around them.
One of the great joys of this book are the quotes from the press, this being my absolute favourite: “the particulars published in several daily papers have been so broadly stated that it has been impossible to leave copies of these papers within reach of young people or anyone having the faintest pretension to be considered an honest woman.” Lovely stuff.
There is a very good chapter on the impact of the sensation novel, looking particularly at Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon, well worth reading, and if you are at all interested in the Victorian period you should certainly give this book a try.
So Carl is hosting this mini challenge as part of his Sci-Fi Experience and to honour Dewey. The idea is to read at least one sci-fi short story and post about it on his official page. I read three stories from an old anthology that we’ve had kicking around the house for ages, namely The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 13, which covers stories first published in 1999 (wow, last century, remember that?), and therefore cannot be found on Amazon for me to link to (sorry). I read:
1. Suicide Coast by M John Harrison – I found this quite difficult and bleak and I’m not entirely sure that I fully understood it; it’s about gaming and rock climbing I think, and what’s real and what isn’t. Perhaps I just wasn’t in a receptive frame of mind to understand the subtleties?
Anyway, I wasn’t put off, and moved on to:
2. How We Lost The Moon: A True Story By Frank W Allen by Paul J McAuley – I like McAuley’s work though I haven’t read as much as I should have. This story does what it says on the tin; Frank is a witness to and participant in the events that saw an experiment on the Moon go terribly wrong and we, sort of, lost the Moon. Very enjoyable.
3. Evermore by Sean Williams – a story of crippled space-ship crewed by entitities based on the minds of real people on Earth but who technically don’t really exist, and in any case aren’t really speaking to each other. So what happens when something needs to change?
There are a couple of other stories in this anthology that I might save for another time, but all in all this was an interesting experience.
So I said that one of the things I wanted to do as part of the Sci-fi Experience was read more science fiction by women, and when I wrote that Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang was one of the books I had in mind.
To my shame I knew very little about Kate Wilhelm but she is a multi-award winning writer, instrumental in setting up and teaching at the Clarion Workshops which have been very influential in the sci-fi world. And this novel seems to be considered amongst her very best work.
So this is a book about cloning, not just about the idea of it but the successful application of it in an isolated community which has set itself up in the Appalachian Mountains in preparation for the world catastrophe that is clearly coming; not just famine, disease and war but the rapidly developing sterility of the human and animal populations. The community is made up largely of one wealthy family who use their money and expertise to clone and breed themselves in order to survive.
The novel is in three sections, each one told through the eyes of a particular character (David, Molly and Mark) who follow the evolution of the clone society over a period of time. And that’s what’s really fascinating about this novel; the cloning technology is a given, but what the author is really exploring is the kind of a society that would develop, how the original, naturally born people would be regarded by the clones,and how (if and when the time comes) they would venture out of their self-sufficient world.
I was really very impressed with this novel; it’s a moving story, and although my sympathies lay in a particular direction I could really understand the opposite point of view. The structure works really well as it provides a means of watching this society evolve. It’s beautifully written and one that will definitely be on my re-read pile.
Where to start with The Devil in Amber? This is the second Mark Gatiss novel to feature Lucifer Box – artist; spy/secret agent; a man with an eye for both men and women; a man who lives life to the full, shall we say.
We first met him in The Vesuvius Club which was set in the Edwardian period; we are now in the 1920s, with Fascism rising and the effects of the Great War still being felt. Lucifer is keeping an eye on Olympus Mons and his Amber Shirts, and while doing so is framed for murder and has to escape to Britain, foil the dastardly plot, save the girl and his own reputation.
This is great fun; I love Mark Gatiss (the twenty-seventh most dangerous man in Islington apparently) who has written for (and appeared in) Dr Who – which immediately gives him extra points – but he also wrote and acted in a three-part ghost story on the BBC over Christmas (called Crooked House and I hope it’s going to come out on DVD soon as it was really very good).
This novel is a cross between a classic spy thriller and Denis Wheatley (yes, there are Satanists and mysterious castles and young women in peril and megalomaniacs trying to take over the world) but it’s also really amusing; I love the names, especially Lucifer’s sister Pandora Box. An enjoyable read for a dull and cold January, and I’ve just got a hold of the third Lucifer Box adventure, which looks a little bit more James Bond-ish…..
“Upside Down” by Barenaked Ladies
“Fearless” by Pink Floyd
About thirty years apart but both little gems of perfection. And I have been known to sing along with each of them very loudly (and mostly out of tune).
I’m going to have a stab at something I find very difficult, namely trying to talk about a Joyce Carol Oates short story in a meaningful way. I often find her short stories elusive; they have an impact on me but I’m not always clear why (if that makes sense).
This story is set in the 1960s (I think it was written in the late 60s) and is about Connie, a fifteen year old girl who has a relatively normal life; she gets on OK with her parents and sister but there are the usual tensions that you get within families. She isn’t always truthful – she tells her parents she’s going to the cinema with her friend but they usually split up and hang around with boys.
One night she catches the eye of a particular boy, Arnold Friend, who comes to her house with one of his friends when he knows she is home alone. Connie realises that both of the boys are a lot older than she thought but she still doesn’t sense the danger…
Although the ending is fairly open, it’s clear what will happen to Connie, especially as I believe the character of Arnold Friend is based on a real person. I found the ideas behind the story quite disturbing, and there is a real sense of menace. I’m sure I haven’t done it justice, but since reading it at the weekend I find myself thinking back to it a lot.
So yesterday found me in our garage unpacking a couple of boxes of books which have been in storage there for goodness knows how long, and I came across the Library of America edition of HP Lovecraft’s Tales, a handsome book which gives an air of scholarly gravitas to stories that are usually printed with more lurid covers. I’m sure I’ve said elsewhere that I have a huge affection for Lovecraft; I first came across him while I was still at primary school in the early 1970s (I must have been about 11); I still have the original paperback and looking at the cover I’m surprised my parents didn’t take it away from me, but there you are.
The first story in the collection is The Statement of Randolph Carter written in 1919 and full of things that would be familiar to all readers of his later work (Lovecraft himself described it as a ghastly tale and said that it was based on an actual dream). Carter and his friend Harley Warren head off into Big Cypress Swamp but only Carter makes it back out. This is his attempt to explain what happened based on the little he can recall.
It’s full of wonderful stuff; the pair have talked of “why certain corpses never decay, but rest firm and fat in their tombs for a thousand years” which gives you some idea of what they were off looking for. The tone of the first couple of pages put me in mind of Charles Gray as The Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, though the story gets a bit more hysterical towards the end. Not one of my favourites but it was good fun to read it again.
So Saturday night was interesting; the Book God and I having our first grown-up evening out for what seemed like ages, heading off to the bright lights of London to see the RSC’s production of Hamlet. I bought the tickets for this back in the summer, largely because of a strong desire to see David Tennant in the flesh (what can I say, I’m at that difficult age) but also because I love going to the theatre and don’t get enough of a chance to do so despite working on the edge of London’s exciting Theatreland. But of course Mr Tennant (like the Book God) has had a back injury and not been performing. Still, RSC productions are always well-worth seeing, and I was looking forward to the evening.
And I was right, it turned out to be an excellent production, particularly Patrick Stewart as Claudius and Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. But two events turned a good evening into a great one: (1) spotting Sir Ian Mackellen in the audience (99.9% certain it was him; even the Book God, notorious for not recognising anyone, said “Isn’t that Gandalf?”) and (2) the producer coming on stage at the beginning to announce that David Tennant would be performing after all! And he was even better than I expected….
Then we rushed home to watch a recording of Dr Who Confidential to find out who the new Doctor would be.
I think the choice of Matt Smith is a really interesting one, and having seen him interviewed and his obvious enthusiasm for the role I am now definitely looking forward to the post-Tennant era.
And I promise that’s the last word on Dr Who related matters …… for a while at least.