Tuesday, 30 April 2019

The Books I Listened To/Read In April

I must apologise, but despite repeated efforts to rectify this, Blogger keeps spacing out the paragraphs in an odd way.

'Steampunk!' ed. by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant
As the title suggests this is an anthology of Steampunk stories.  Link and Grant say that they have sought out locations rather than Victorian London, though I think one slips through the net.  Despite the inclusion of two cartoon stories, the collection is far better than the 'Steampunk' one edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer that I read 7 years ago.  That included one horrendous story and some very unpleasant ones.  In my view that gave Steampunk collections a bad name: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-book-i-read-in-september.html
As a result I have stayed away from Steampunk anthologies and am no longer abreast of the different authors that write in the genre.  The decline of Steampunk writing as opposed to cosplay, crafting and music has been noted.  I picked up this collection and another I plan to read later in the year, unread at a carboot sale.

This collection, while predominantly featuring US authors with the odd Australian and New Zealander thrown in, does not have that sense that Steampunk somehow is American. It is good to see a balance of genders both in terms of authors and the leading characters; in fact female protagonists predominate. There are no golems feature in the collection, but there is more time travel than I have seen before in Steampunk stories.  Setting aside the two cartoons by Shawn Cheng and Kathleen Jennings which have their place, but not in a book like this, I enjoyed the stories and found them refreshing.

'Some Fortunate Future Day' by Cassandra Clare is a well formed short story which hints at more than it covers, rather than feeling like a chunk of a broader project.  It has a well realised though insular setting in a Steampunk context and a kind of  'The Butterfly Effect' (2004) feel, though you hope for a better outcome than that movie.  Despite the title, as the editors promised, 'Clockwork Fagin' by Cory Doctorow is not set in London but the USA.  It does well in looking at the impact of a Steampunk world in the cost of mutilated child machine operators.  It is an upbeat story as these children increasingly take control of their lives through their engineering skills.  It thus well combines the grittier aspects of the genre but in a way which is part of the story rather than preaching.  While a long short story it is worked through in its extent.

'The Last Ride of the Glory Girls' by Libba Bray feels like the pilot for a longer novel.  It also features a time manipulation device combined with a group of female bandits in a Steampunk American West.  It is crisp and well realised with engaging characters and is one of the stories I would like to see more of.  Another one which seems like the start of something larger is 'Hand in Glove' by Ysabeau S. Wilce which covers a female detective in a Steampunk city and the challenges she faces in solving a murder, the perpetrator of which is highly unexpected.  The story has some standard elements but is good in portraying places and has some interesting twists.  One could envisage novels featuring the protagonist, Constable Aurelia Etreyo.

'Ghost of Cwmlech Manor' by Delia Sherman is set in Victorian Wales and has the feeling of a classic Victorian horror story though the Steampunk elements, here seen in a rural rather than an urban setting.  It did however remind me of the 'The Unquiet Dead' episode of 'Doctor Who' set in Cardiff in 1869 which was broadcast in 2005.  Despite these elements it is an upbeat story with both the local and incoming characters interesting and just about avoiding being a set of tropes.  'Gethsemane' by Elizabeth Knox is another which feels to be as much a different Victorian genre as a Steampunk novel.  It shows Steampunk technology being used on a tropical island to gain energy from a volcano, but the focus of the story is more on the island's inhabitants, a form of zombie and sailors who come to the island with the Steampunk facet in the background of what happens rather than the foreground.  'Oracle Engine' by M.T. Anderson is very sandalpunk, being set in an alternate Roman Empire where a computer is constructed.  It is really a morality tale looking to take the style of accounts by Roman historians, so while not bad, has something irritating in the tone, rather self-righteous.

'The Summer People' is not really a Steampunk story at all and feels more like a folklore story set in just a slightly different North America from the one we know.  It focuses very much on a kind of magical creatures, the eponymous people.  It has interesting ideas and has that nice edge of such stories but you do wonder if it would have been included if Kelly Link was not one of the editors. 'Steam Girl' by Dylan Horrocks is another oddity for this collection.  In it Steampunk is not real, we just see contemporary USA, so it is a meta-story as the Steampunk elements including the 'golden age' science fiction aspects of travelling to see civilisations on Mars and Venus, are just in the mind of a schoolgirl.  I do wonder if contemporary American teenagers actually have interest in stories of that kind; perhaps it would have been more realistic to have a Japanese teenager featured.

'Everything Available and Obliging' by Holly Black also owes more to a different science fiction genre than Steampunk and is really a steampunked version of  'I, Robot' (1950) though with more awkward questions about affection for humanoid machines.  'Nowhere Fast' by Christopher Rowe is a post-apocalyptic story set in one of the states which has formed in the eastern USA.  It is reasonable largely interesting for seeing how the insular American communities you find in these post-apocalyptic stories react when technology, even of the Steampunk kind, is the thing to hate.

'Zoo Station' by David Downing
It took some time for me to realise that this was the same David Downing (it is a surprisingly common name combination as an online search quickly shows) who had written 'The Moscow Option' (1979) a successful alternate history novel of the Second World War, though all I remember from it was the sex scene and the assassination of Adolf Eichmann in Palestine, it was about 35 years ago that I read it.  Anyway, since then I had been unaware of Downing writing anything until this series was given to me by a family member.  This is the first book concerning a British journalist working in Berlin early in 1939.  He has a son by his German ex-wife and has a long-standing German girlfriend, both he is loath to leave despite the sense that war is approaching.

Downing has done an immense amount of research regarding Berlin at the time and that is part of the problems.  Russell traipses all over the city with great detail about where he is going, what public transport he is using, where he stops for his meals and what he eats and drinks.  It begins to expand out from Berlin with him paying visits to Hamburg and the Baltic coast; to Poland and Czechoslovakia.  The detail is great but it reduces rather than adds to the tension.  Russell, a former Communist is recruited by Soviet intelligence and then British intelligence to carry out various tasks; he is also monitored by the German SD counter-intelligence body.  He helps a Jewish family get away from Germany and sort of investigates the murder of a US journalist who had stumbled across the T4 Programme of killing disabled German children.

I know the book is establishing the characters and the situation, but nothing is really resolved.  It is very much a 'slice of life' novel that just peters out.  This might be alright if it was a literary novel, but it is supposed to be a spy novel and really lacks the tension necessary.  I have the rest of the books in the series and hope that now everything is established the tension will be built up.  I assume it is a successful series given how many books are in it.

Audio Books
'Aggressor' by Andy McNab [Steven Billy Mitchell]; read by Steven Pacey
Having been presently surprised by listening to 'Zero Hour' (2010):http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2019/02/books-i-listened-toread-in-february.html  I thought I would give another McNab story featuring Nick Stone a go when I came across it cheaply.  It is pretty similar to the previous book, though it is a friend of Stone's who is suffering a terminal illness and the adventure takes place in the country of Georgia rather than Moldova.  The story is fast moving and you get what you expect, though the course of events does not run smoothly for the hero.  McNab shows awareness of the political situation in the places he sets his stories and is sympathetic to local conditions, showing how big money manipulates the situations and groups are played with so this is not a colonial adventure.  As with 'Zero Hour' the role for men, especially ex-servicemen, in peacetime society and male ageing feature as themes.  While a pretty straight forward book, it is better than it might otherwise have been and if this is a genre you like, McNab seems to be one of the best writers in it.  Steven Pacey is another reader who sounds very much like the character and was pretty good at doing not just British but Australian, German and Georgian accents, women as well as men.

'Pulse' by Julian Barnes; read by David Rintoul
I mistakenly thought I had read some of Barnes's books before.  This is a collection of short stories, a genre I usually enjoy, but having heard this book, I know I will now steer clear of Barnes's work.  Most of the stories are set in Britain of the 2000s (the book was published in 2011).  They are painfully middle class and in many cases painfully male.  Many of the protagonists are white Englishmen unable to have successful relationships with women.  There are a few exceptions to these dreary stories, but the round dinner table discussions, while showing off Rintoul's ability with accents and jumping between characters are very like the dinner party sketches in featuring John Bird, John Fortune, Pauline McLynn and Frances Barber on 'Bremner, Bird and Fortune' (broadcast 1999-2010).  One of these would have been fine but they become repetitive.  The only really decent story is about a painter in the USA in the 18th Century.  Otherwise I found the collection dreary and repetitive, very narrowly focused on what I imagine is Barnes's life experiences at the time.  Rintoul, a well-established audio book narrator, does well, though for many of the stories there is little to stretch him, but when called upon he does demonstrate why he is among the leading narrators at present for accents and portraying female as well as male characters.