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Ian R Macleod

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47Journey into the Mind's Eye by Lesley Blanch

This is one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read - and re-read. It’s sub-titled “Fragments of an Autobiography”, but I can think of few if any works which are clearer and less fragmentary in their structure and theme. This is, simply and emphatically, a book about Russia. The real country, which the writer eventually gets to visit, but even more, the dream of it. As an upper-middle class child brought up by distant parents in London in the 1920s, she’s intrigued and inspired by the occasional arrivals of a mysterious Traveller from the far Russian Steppes. The whole book thrums with distant visions of snow, birch forests and onion domes, along with the rattle of the Trans-Siberian express which the Traveller promises one day to take her on. I won’t say more, as one of the strengths of this book, for all its fine writing and atmospherics, is that it keeps up a strong narrative thread, but the Traveller never loses his mystery and glamour, and Russia, and Blanch’s writing, continues to enchant and surprise. If you’re remotely interested in travel writing, autobiography, history or fantasy (because this is a book all about dreams), look this one out.

 
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The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The_Windup_GirlHere’s a book I greatly enjoyed, although, as for all its accolades, to me, it brings little that is new to whatever counts as modern SF. If you think of the film version of Blade Runner, but set in Bangkok, you wouldn’t be far wrong. There are replicant-like creatures, a convoluted plot involving dirty dealings, genetic engineering and corporate espionage — seeing as Scott makes his Los Angeles very Southeast Asian, you could even argue that it’s not much of a leap to shift the whole thing to Thailand. But then, Blade Runner is a brilliant movie, largely because of Scott’s then-stunning eye for the extraordinary and spectacular visual style. And The Windup Girl is also a pretty fine book — again, largely because of the style with which the whole thing is executed. Bacigalupi is a fine writer; both edgy and laconic, always surprising, with a loping yet sideways way of moving things along. He borrows fairly heavily on the tropes of cyberpunk, but never loses his humour and human touch. In particular, The Windup Girl herself is an appealing creation. For a guy, he does a good job of dealing with the issues of female abuse (which I also mentioned in my piece about The Gravediggers Daughter) with compassion. All the more impressive, when he’s a guy who generally writes like a guy and the abuse involved is so heavily sexual.

Interestingly for me, here’s a book which had to go to via smallish press publisher to win acclaim and awards. As you might imagine, this is a route I know pretty well. I can also imagine the editorial rejection noises (too edgy, too literary, too complex, too much like a techno-thriller but with too much science, too clever for the mainstream market, too much emphasis on setting and character, not a trilogy, etc, etc) which Bacigalupi probably had to put up with. Did I say The Windup Girl didn’t bring much new? Well, if it takes the idea of well-written, intelligent SF to a wider audience, that really would be something.

 
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The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates 

41b5iQ8N3XL__SL500_AA300_Stands to reason that any book nowadays which goes The Something’s Daughter should be avoided. But I was drawn to the author rather than the title; I’ve read Oates in the past and I admire her work, and it seemed like a good time to try her again. Of course, to keep up with all of Oates’ output would be a Herculean task. There’s a story, only possibly apocryphal, about how her publishers have a “Joyce Carol Oates room” filled with as yet unpublished work. She’s scarily prolific, and, rather like the equally prolific King there is sometimes a sense that’s writing merely for the sake of writing, and letting her (admittedly fine) mind and (equally fine) pen run on without actually really saying much that’s fresh. You can, I guess, have too much skill. I wish I knew!

Anyway, I have to report that The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a very good novel indeed — maybe even verging on the classic — and an excellent introduction to Oates. The heroine starts off as the title would suggest, and there’s plenty of the sort of American Gothic at which Oates excels. There are also some very scary males. I have a bit of an aversion to fiction in which passive women are badly treated by violent men. Not that I don’t appreciate that this is part of the human condition which should and indeed must be portrayed, but all too often the whole idea of character as victim seems to be done without fresh insight or even real sympathy. Oates, however, is never less than compelling, and slowly swings the novel around to a much more hopeful portrayal of the American Dream. There are times when her writing even resembles D H Lawrence in the open-hearted way she deals with love and obsession. The subtly with which she deals with the passage of history, and especially the Holocaust, which is lurking somewhere in the background throughout most of the book, is particularly impressive. All in all, if you like the idea of a big, ambitious novel, passionately written, but never self-indulgent, which deals with important issues yet also tells a proper story (and what more could anyone want from any novel?), The Gravedigger’s Daughter is it.

 

 
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Apathy For the Devil by Nick Kent

imagesNick Kent was never my favourite journalist, back in the 70s when I was an avid reader of the NME. His writing seemed to be too much about Nick Kent, and not enough about the supposed subject. This book doesn’t do much to change that impression. His style in this book is also pretty flat; he rarely manages to rise above the trite when in search of a phrase or a telling metaphor. That said, though, it’s hard not to warm to Kent’s honesty as the book evolves from a straight, “I was there with the Stones/John Lydon/Jimmi Page…” memoir to a frank chronicle of a descent into poverty and druggy hell. No-one really comes out very well from the whole sorry decade. Rod Stewart gets credit from Kent for being a bumptious survivor, Iggy Pop was rock’s resident wild man in those halcyon days before the Swift Insurance ads, whilst Steely Dan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin were all pretty good, although they were also also egotistical bastards. But we already knew most of that. As to Kent’s claims to have been a major influence in the invention punk rock, and his denials that he went around for days proudly bearing Keith Richards’ dried-up sick on his shirt, well, you can take them for whatever they are; the real truth (if it ever existed) is long lost. The rock and roll lifestyle was still pretty new back in those days, and 70s was the decade in which its perils became apparent. But it was also a time of new expression and enormous promise, and Kent brings that era to life with humour and insight.

 

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