Monday, January 29, 2024

Review: Apricot Sky, by Ruby Ferguson

Review: Apricot Sky, by Ruby Ferguson

by Rich Horton

Here's another delightful discovery courtesy of Scott Thompson's Furrowed Middlebrow Press (an imprint of Dean Street Books.) Ruby Ferguson (1899-1966) is best known for one adult novel, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary (1937), and for a series of children's books about a girl named Jill and her ponies. Her full name at birth was Ruby Constance Annie Ashby, and her first several novels were published as by R. C. Ashby, and seem to be mysteries. She got married in 1934, and her first novel under her married name was Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, which was a bestseller and apparently admired by the (then) Queen Mother. She published novels for adults and children until her death.

Apricot Sky (1952) joins Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary as the only ones of her adult books now in print. The latter was reprinted by Persephone in 2004, and this book by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2021. It comes with enthusiastic recommendations from Scott Thompson (of course) but also Charles Litka, in a comment on this blog. And I have to say it met the expectations thus raised.

It's set in Scotland, as is Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, and both books are rapturous about that country, though Ferguson was an Englishwoman, albeit born in North Yorkshire. The main viewpoint character is Cleo MacAlvey, who is, in 1948, just returning home after spending three years in the U.S. Her younger sister Raine is engaged to be married, to Ian Garvine, whose slightly elder brother Neil is the Larrich -- that is, the head of an important local family. Cleo is in love with Neil, though Neil seems entirely unaware of that, and in fact a very beautiful local widow, Inga Duthie, seems to have set her sights on him. That's the romantic plot, such as it is, of the novel. But really the novel is hardly about romance it all. Instead, it's a story about family life in postwar Scotland. Besides Raine, Cleo has a brother, James, who has married a rather neurotic and unpleasant woman named Trina. The other two MacAlvey brothers died in the War, and they left three children, Gavin, Primrose, and Archie, ages ranging between 10 and 15, to be raised by their grandparents.

The point of view shifts between Cleo and Mrs. MacAlvey and the children, primarily. Over the summer we see the children having fun -- sailing by themselves to the nearby islands with their friend Gull (who has a neat secret of her own), and unenthusiastically putting up with their cousins, James' children Armitage and Angela, as well as the prissy and snobby more distant cousins Cecil and Elinore. We see Cleo and Raine looking for dresses and receiving Raine's wedding gifts and making plans for remodeling the Garvine place. Cleo gets a few chances to be with Neil Garvine and (in her view) blows every one with her tongue-tiedness. Mrs. MacAlvey fusses over her garden and worries about wedding plans and her various visitors, such as Mrs. Leigh, still apparently recovering from an operation which only bothers her when convenient. The arc points ever towards the end of summer, and Raine's wedding, and children returning to school, and Cleo's future ... whatever that might be. A new job? Caring for her parents as they age? or ... ?

I trust the above implies there isn't really much plot -- because there isn't. What there is is loving description of ordinary life in the Scottish coastal Highlands. (Admittedly, ordinary life among a fairly privileged family.) And throughout the novel is very funny. Some of it is gentle light humor, some is snarky (mainly the depictions of the visiting children, and of Trina,) and some is downright (if quietly still) uproarious. There is one glorious passage when Mrs. MacAlvey needs to make conversation with a chance visitor, one Mr. Trossach, who fancies himself an avant-garde writer, and is concerned about Mrs. MacAlvey's reception of his recently broadcast radio play, and who insiste on telling her the plot of his new novel. There is Raine and Cleo deciding to throw an ugly stone wedding present from an old relation into the river, and being surprise by the police in the act. Or there is Mr. and Mrs. MacAlvey's visit to Laird and Lady Keith -- where at least you won't get a sore throat from having to talk to much.

What more can I say? Is this somewhat fluffy? Well, sure (though grounded by what seems quite real portrayal of life.) Is the plot terribly thin, and resolved abruptly and conveniently? Again, sure, but that's not the point! Apricot Sky is a purely enjoyable novel, and as sweetly funny as anything I've read in some time.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Review: The Game, by A. S. Byatt

Review: The Game, by A. S. Byatt

by Rich Horton

I fell in love with A. S. Byatt's work when I read Possession, her Booker Prize winner, back in 1990 when it came out. I quickly read her previous two novels, The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and its sequel Still Life (1985); and since then I've read a great many of her short stories, as well as the two novellas in Angels and Insects and her novel The Biographer's Tale. Somehow I haven't yet read the other two novels in the series begun with The Virgin in the Garden (Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman) nor her last major novel, The Children's Book, but I'll get to them eventually. But I had never really even looked at her first two novels, The Shadow of the Sun (1964) and The Game (1967).

Among her shorter works I particularly recommend "Sugar" and "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye", but there is lots more at less than novel length that is wonderful. And she wrote a great deal of non-fiction, criticism mainly, and some academic work, and some literary biographies. She was an authority on Iris Murdoch, another of my favorite writers, and wrote a couple of book length examinations of Coleridge and Wordsworth. 

Antonia Susan Drabble was born in 1936. Her siblings are all highly successful -- Margaret Drabble is a novelist of considerable repute, Helen Langdon is an art historian, and Richard Drabble is a barrister and a King's Counsel. Her father was a Quaker, and was a Queen's Counsel, and her mother was a scholar and expert on Browning. Some of these family details -- the Quaker upbringing, and the younger sister who is a novelist -- are interesting when reading The Game. She was educated at Cambridge, Bryn Mawr, and Oxford. She married Ian Byatt in 1959, so that A. S. Byatt became her writing name. They divorced in 1969, and Antonia later married Peter John Duffy. She had two children with each of her husbands. She taught at the Central School of Art and Design and at University College of London. She was named a Dame of the British Empire in 1999, and thus is properly styled Dame Antonia Susan Duffy. She died just recently, November 16, 2023, at the age  of 87.

I listened to The Game though I have a copy of the book as well. It is ably narrated by Wanda McCaddon. The Game centers upon two sisters. The elder, Cassandra, is a lecturer at Oxford, specializing in Medieval Literature. She is unmarried, indeed apparently a virgin. The younger, Julia, is a writer of fairly successful light domestic novels. Julia has a 15 year old daughter, Deborah. Her husband is Norwegian, and a manager of charitable concerns.  The book is primarily set in 1963, when Cassandra is 38 and Julia a couple of years younger, though there are flashbacks to the girls' youths.

The action is set in motion primarily by the death of their father, prompting each to return to their childhood home in Newcastle. The two women are thrown together for the first time in a long time, and they revisit some of their childhood memories, especially the game they invented and played together -- an involved game set in a fantasy milieu they jointly created, with apparently complicated and recomplicated rules and back stories. And we start to learn more of their history, and their longstanding rivalry. They grew up in the Quaker church, with a father who did time in prison because of his pacifist views; and who was always working in movements for justice. Julia reacted by marrying another Quaker, whom she met through her father. Cassandra reacted by converting to Anglo-Catholicism (which I have learned was, by this time, essentially synonymous with High Church Anglicanism.) Cassandra was the prickly elder sister, seemingly bossing Julia when she could, and jealous of her privacy. Julia was the more social, and would also invade her sister's room and read her journals and suchlike. She even began her writing career with a story she based on a scenario Cassandra did for the game.

But perhaps their most significant point of disagreement concerned Simon Moffat, a neighbor of roughly their age, who became close to both girls; which, inevitably, Cassandra regarded as another "theft" by Julia. Simon has his own issues, such as a father who committed suicide right in front of him, and he eventually becomes an herpetologist, and moves to the Amazon to study reptiles in their natural habitat. By happenstance, he has become a television star, as another man tracked him down in the jungle and eventually started filming him -- and both Julia and Cassandra have seen his show.

So, after the funeral, a whole series of events start to change both women's lives ... a television show about the arts in which Julia appears ... a crisis in her family as her husband wants to move to Africa where he can do more good, and Julia refuses ... Cassandra struggling with her religious beliefs ... both getting back in touch with Simon as he returns from the Amazon ... an affair ... Julia's daughter getting close to Cassandra ... a disastrous visit from Julia to Cassandra in Oxford ... and, perhaps most significantly, Julia deciding to write a more challenging novel -- a novel which will be transparently about her sister and Simon. And there are no easy answers, and no real stop in the slide to tragedy.

I liked the novel, but didn't wholly love it. It's absorbing throughout, and beautifully written. There are symbols and motifs aplenty -- snakes, multiple suicides, two women who in very different ways don't seem to truly connect with anyone (and don't like sex), a lot of examination of the twisted pair of the two sisters. I think my issue -- and it's not a serious issue but a reason I don't think this novel stands with the best of her later work -- is that Byatt's philosofphizing, while never boring, is not always convincing. The characters and their actions are interesting, but at times seem too overtly programmed, too much types designed to allow the novel to proceed as it must. Julia may be the more fully realized character, but she's also the shallowest. Cassandra is fascinating -- and she's the one I wanted to read about more -- but she's also the more artificial construction, at least to my eyes. Simon, too, seems at times a construct. 

Then there's the question of autobiographical elements. There are clear parallels with Byatt's life -- a Quaker upbringing in the North of England, a younger sister who was a rival and who wrote at least one novel that seemed to draw from their shared history, the older sister an academic. That said, the Drabble sisters are about a decade younger than the Corbett sisters in The Game, and neither Margaret nor Antonia's lives and careers really resemble those of Julia and Cassandra that closely. It could almost be Byatt poking a bit at Drabble for her earlier novel (The Millstone, I believe.) Anyway, it's always dangerous to put too much stock in autobiographical parallels. But it's hard not to at least think of them in this case.

Bottom line -- The Game is a fine novel, and a worthy if not central part of the oeuvre of one of the best writers of recent decades. Definitely worth reading. 

Monday, January 22, 2024

Review: Selected Short Fiction of F. L. Wallace

Selected Short Fiction of F. L. Wallace

a review by Rich Horton

Recently I reviewed F. L. Wallace's only novel, Address: Centauri, and I rather panned it. But as I noted, his short fiction is remembered somewhat fondly. He had two Hugo finalists in 1956, "The Accidental Self" and "End as a World", and such other stories as "Big Ancestor", "Delay in Transit", and "Student Body" were somewhat prominently anthologized. So I vowed to read through a set of his stories, and review them, in the hope of giving him a fairer evaluation.

Floyd L. Wallace (1915-2004) published a couple of dozen SF stories, and some crime fiction, between 1951 and 1961; and the one novel. His primary career was as a mechanical engineer. His main market was Galaxy under H. L. Gold, and it's notable that his career fairly closely parallels Gold's editorial reign, though he did sell to other magazines such as F&SF, Fantastic Universe, and Astounding

The stories I read are "Delay in Transit" (Galaxy, September 1952); "Student Body" (Galaxy, March 1953), "Tangle Hold" (Galaxy, June 1953); "The Impossible Voyage Home" (Galaxy, August 1954), "Big Ancestor" (Galaxy, November 1954), "End as a World" (Galaxy, September 1955); "The Assistant Self" (Fantastic Universe, March 1956); "Mezzerow Loves Company" (Galaxy, June 1956); and "Second Landing" (Amazing, January 1960). I also looked through "Accidental Flight" (Galaxy, April 1952), which is the first part of his one novel. I think "Accidental Flight" works considerably better by itself than in its expansion -- Wallace padded out the novella somewhat, and made some changes to fit into his plans for the second half of the book; and almost all of those changes were for the worse.

"Delay in Transit" is, with "Big Ancestor", his best-remembered story. The protagonist is named Cassal. He's working for a company that is trying to develop instantaneous radio, which will great improve Galactic travel and communications. Cassal has an implanted sort of AI assistant called Dimanche (French for "Sunday", not sure if that means anything for the story.) He's stuck on a remote planet, urgently needing to get to an even more remote planet, but star travel is uncertain. And things get worse when he's attacked, and his ticket is stolen. Cassal ends up visiting the Travelers' Aid Bureau for help, but not much is forthcoming -- though he does find the woman he talks to extremely intriguing. Things progress, and it's clear that there are forces that are more interest in the technology behind Dimanche than in instantaneous communication, and they don't care much how that affects Cassal. The story is fast paced, and implausible (a word I'll use a lot discussing Wallace's work,) as Cassal is forced to realize he has to take control of his own life ... I never quite believed any of it, but it was pretty entertaining, if full of wish-fulfillment.

"Student Body" is part of a small but significant SF subgenre -- dangerous planets. Colonists have landed on a new planet, that seems ideal. But very quickly they notice that something -- something hard to find -- is eating almost anything they leave accessible -- clothes, the crops they are trying to grow, etc. They do catch some of the culprits, but every attempt at exterminating or defending against the pests results in a new pest appearing almost immediately. They also notice a very curious part of the evolutionary history of the planet -- a certain ecological niche has been filled by a single unchanging creature for millions of years. The explanation is scientifically implausible, to say the least, but it's acceptable as a thought experiment. And the consequences are very scary indeed -- and aren't ducked. It's not my favorite Wallace story, but it might be the most rigorously developed.

"Tangle Hold" is about a criminal on Venus named Jadiver, whose specialty is altering people's faces, so that they can commit crimes unrecognized. As the story opens, he's been seriously injured by a malfunctioning autobath, and wakes up in a hospital, with a new skin. He proceeds to take a lucrative commission from a criminal gang, changing the faces of several people so they can visit a high society party and steal from the guests -- but it all goes wrong, and as a result, Jadiver is wanted by both the gang, and the police. He soon realizes that the police have used his new skin to implant a sort of transmitter in him that parallels his nervous system. For complicated reasons, his only way out is escape, and Earth, Mars, and Venus aren't options. The only thing in his favor is the new tech inside him -- and a robot which is intrigued by the possibilities of this tech. The whole thing is a bit too complicated to explain here, involving the robots, and the woman who implanted his new parallel nervous system, and certain unique possibilities that offers. It's another highly implausible but sometimes pretty fun story, though, I think, not really one of Wallace's better efforts.

"The Impossible Voyage Home" is a rather sentimental piece about an elderly couple on Mars who want to travel to Earth to see their new grandchild. The problem is that it's impossible for humans to travel in space for more than about 2 years total, because of the accumulated radiation effects. Combined with the travel time between planets, that's a pretty strict limit. The old couple don't care, and in the end steal a spaceship ... Their efforts are intertwined with a researcher trying to get around the travel time limit. The solution is kind of obvious -- the radiation effects are no good for young people who want children and don't want to die young -- but the old couple demonstrate that they can fly the spaceship, and as they are not going to have more children ... you see where that's going. All that is pretty good science for an F. L. Wallace story, though he throws in some silly stuff about Martian canalberries and a compulsion to drive the spaceships into the sun. Anyway -- minor work, really. 

"Big Ancestor" is one of Wallace's most famous stories. An alien spaceship is hosting a spectrum of humans, of various subspecies. Humans have spread throughout the Galaxy, evolving as they go. They have a story about their descent from a "big ancestor" -- a noble past. And now they have found a planet with potential answers. The buildings are huge and noble. But there is no trace of the people who built them. Perhaps this is the home of the "big ancestor". And, after much work, they find an account of why the planet is deserted, and they manage to translate it ... It's a cunning story, effectively portraying the various subspecies of humans on this ship and their rivalry, and setting them up for the shocking reveal at the end. It does work, though as often with Wallace the carefully constructed background is easy to see. Still, nice work, and a solid sort of anti-Campbellian effort. 

"End as a World", with the very different "Big Ancestor", is perhaps my favorite of Wallace's stories. It's the shortest one I've read, a brief piece following a few teenaged friends on the day in which "the world will end". Everybody knows this. But life goes on, pretty much as normal. The boys speculate what it will be like -- will it be bright? They watch TVs showing people all over the world waiting for the big event. They try to do the things they normally do -- but in the end, they wait and watch. And -- well, I don't want to give it away, but the story doesn't go where you expect. I think some readers will be annoyed, but -- hey, it pushed the right buttons for me. 

"The Assistant Self" is a bit of a wild ride, with absurd science, yet again. But if you are read to believe the science, it's pretty fun. Hal Talbot is a magically super empathic person -- and for that reason, he can't keep a job, because he always threatens his boss's position by knowing too well what is wanted, due to his empathy. After his latest lost job, another executive insists on hiring him -- because he knows this empathy is what he needs, to figure out who has been sabotaging their big project. (Which happens to involve making the "perfect rocket", which will enable NAFAL (nearly as fast as light -- a Le Guin coinage) travel to the stars. There's so much wrong with this concept I don't want to discuss it, but interestingly it does involve research into high temperature resistant nozzles, which actually IS a critical feature of advanced rocket motors. (Don't ask me how I know ...) This suggests to me what sort of mechanical engineer Wallace might have been.)

Anyway, just has he's being hired, a bomb of sorts is thrown into his new boss's office. The boss is killed, but Talbot survives. And, because of his super empathy -- he has absorbed the boss's identity nearly completely. So people assume the survivor is the boss, not Talbot. There follows some pages of intrigue, as well as a romance with the boss's secretary, despite that the boss was actually engaged to the CEO's daughter ... and a climax involving a confrontation with the actual villain (whose motives are at least interesting) and yet another wholly implausible empathic reaction.

This is a case of a story which makes almost no sense if you think about it, but which is really pretty fun and even, to an extent, exploring interesting ideas. I liked it, to be honest.

"Mezzerow Loves Company" is an overlong, overcomplicated, story about a man and his son coming to Earth to try to get the name of their planet changed. They are descendants of the discoverer of their planet, which was supposed to be named after their family, Mezzerow. Instead, it's listed as Messy Row, and they are convinced that is discouraging immigration. As they navigate the confusing and everchanging Earth looking for the right agency, they are kidnapped by women who want to marry them. It seems that women are in oversupply on Earth. They manage insted to get one woman and her sister to help them -- and finally find the agency they need. Only to, predictably, find that their planet is now called Misery. Bright side -- the women are fascinated by the prospect of an underpopulated planet where they can surely find a husband, and they have lots of friends ... OK, this one really didn't work for me, and the queasy sexism didn't help.

Finally, "Second Landing" is the one of Wallace's last stories. A couple of aliens come by Earth and realize it's in big trouble -- the warring factions are about to destroy themselves with nuclear war. And the aliens have to be somewhere else soon. But they decide to make one attempt to help the huamns, because humans look a lot them them, except for one feature ... And they are there at Christmas time. I won't tell what feature the aliens have that apparently helps them get their message across, but it's a pretty trite story.

So -- a quick look at ten of F. L. Wallace's stories. In then end, I'll say that he was often a pretty engaging storyteller. He had no real interest in accurate science. And he was a pedestrian writer of prose. He also pretty overtly constructed his scenarios to make a point. But at his best, he was fun to read. I might compare him to J. T. McIntosh in some ways, though McIntosh was much more prolific and a better novelist. Does Wallace need a major rediscovery? No. But he's a writer you might enjoy if you can ignore the artificiality, the absurd science, and the '50s-era sexism. 

I read most of these stories at Project Gutenberg. I missed any of his stories from F&SF or Astounding -- maybe I'll look them up to see if Campbell or Mills as editors made a difference. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

by Rich Horton

Barbara Comyns (1907-1992) was born in England, her father a wealthy brewer, maiden name Barbara Irene Veronica Bayley. She married John Pemberton in 1931, and the couple associated with the artistic set -- both were artists -- and had two children, but the marriage quickly collapsed. Barbara had another relationship with Arthur Price, but by the beginning of World War II that was over, and she was poor enough to take a position as a cook. She married Richard Strettell Comyns Carr in 1945, so that by this time her name might have been rendered "Barbara Irene Veronica Bayley [Pemberton] {Price} Comyns Carr" -- no surprise, then, that she chose Barbara Comyns as the name under which her works were published. She had earlier written some fictionalized accounts of her rural childhood, and these were published in a magazine, and soon her first two novels were accepted -- a novelization of her childhood stories (Sisters by the River) and then Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, which may still be her best known novel. She was acquainted with both Kim Philby and Graham Greene due to Richard Comyns Carr's wartime position. Greene, then, helped her writing get published, while the traitor Philby's association with Richard Comyns Carr caused her and her husband to have to move to Spain after Philby fled to the USSR (undoubtedly an unfair guilt by association effect on Richard Comyns Carr.) 

Comyns ended up publishing 11 books. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead was her third novel, first published in 1954. She published regularly through 1967, but her next book was rejected. She stopped writing until the mid-80s, then published three more novels (including a revised version of the rejected book and another novel written much earlier.) She died in 1992.

My edition of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead was published in 2010 by Dorothy, a publishing project. Dorothy is based in St. Louis, only a few miles from my house. They are the project of a married couple, Martin Riker and Danielle Dutton, who are professors at Washington University. They began in 2010, in Urbana, IL -- so presumably they were then at the University of Illinois. As I went to Illinois, and live in St. Louis, and have a daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren in Urbana, I am naturally well-disposed to them. Their focus is feminist fiction, much of it in translation, some reprints and some new. They had previously worked for the Dalkey Archive, another absolutely fantastic small press with a focus on reprinting great old fiction.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is set in a village in Warwickshire, in 1911, though the book claims, oddly, that the time is "Summer about 70 years ago" -- obviously, it was about 40 years prior to the time of writing, not 70. The village, Comyns claimed, was directly based on her childhood home, Bidford-on-Avon, though the key event in the novel is based on a tragedy that happened in France in 1951.

The book opens with ducks swimming though the drawing room windows of the house where Ebin Willoweed lives, with his three children, his mother, and their servants -- two sisters named Norah and Eunice, and Old Ives, who is a sort of gardener. There has been a flood in the village. All this is described in the most deadpan terms, including all the drowned animals. And we gain a bit of a view of the characters: Ebin is a gossip columnist who was fired after his paper was sued for libel. His oldest daughter, Emma, is 17 and pretty and lonely. His younger children are Dennis and Hattie, and he's convinced that Hattie is the illegitimate daughter of his (now dead) wife and a black man, due to her dark complexion. Ebin is lazy and under the domination of his rather awful mother, who is prone to constantly revise her will. Norah is in love with a local man, Mr. Fig, who lives with his mother, while Eunice is sleeping with a married man in the village. Old Ives and Grandmother Willoweed are each obsessed with outliving the other. Other villagers are important too -- the baker and his promiscuous wife, Dr. Hatt and his sickly wife, the doctor's young assistant. 

It seems at first a comic look at a set of eccentrics -- and in many ways it remains that throughout the novel. We see Ebin and the children boating in the river, Old Ives making his wreaths for the dead, Grandmother Willoweed hosting her yearly "Whist Drive", at which the primary rule is that Grandmother must always win; Grandmother refusing to set foot on any land she does not own, Ebin's desultory tutoring of the children and his sexual misadventures, and so on. But amidst this comic stuff a horrible tragedy intrudes -- the baker tries a new recipe, and unfortunately the grain he uses in contaminated with ergot. And so many of the characters get horribly sick, and many die -- and the rest are changed. Ebin is able to write again, selling accounts of the plague to his old newspaper. Norah and Eunice both see significant developments in their love lives, as does Emma. Grandmother Willoweed changes her will a couple more times. Old Ives has a religious conversion. Some of this is still funny, and some utterly tragic -- and the tragedy is not dodged or laughed at, but life goes on and the comic tone is maintained when appropriate.

It's an involving novel, a curiously affecting novel. The people are variously awful, nice, and delightfully weird; and their fates are not distributed according to their virtue. It just seems like life -- life from a slant perspective, for sure, but real life. It's very well written. A wonderful work by a really original writer.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Review: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen

Review: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen

by Rich Horton

I have been a fan of Rivka Galchen's writing since I read her story "The Region of Unlikeness" in the New Yorker in 2008 (and I reprinted it in my Best of the Year Anthology.) I very much liked her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, from the same year. She continues to write regularly for the New Yorker (and many other magazines.) She was born in Canada, grew up mostly in Oklahoma, and now splits her time between Montreal and New York.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is her second adult novel, from 2021. (She has also published a story collection, and a novel for younger readers, Rat Rule 79.) I bought the book in Traverse City shortly after it was published, but only now have I gotten around to it. And indeed I read much of it via the audiobook, narrated by Natasha Soudek.

This is an historical novel, about a famous person, or perhaps more properly, about the less famous mother of a famous person. And I will confess that I did not for a while realize this, as I was listening to the novel, and the narrator rendered the main character's name as Frau Kepla, to my ears; while her (famous) son was called Hans. (Natasha Soudek throughout renders the names in what seems proper German pronunciation to me.) But eventually I realized that the main character's name is Katharina Kepler, and her son's first name is Johannes, and he is called by everyone "the astrologer", and it all clicked. I don't actually think it's necessary for the enjoyment of the book to know this, though I did take the opportunity to read more about the real history after reading the book, and to be sure Galchen's acknowledgements discuss the novel's origins, and credit many of the books she used for research.

The action of the novel takes place largely between 1615 and 1621, with some flashbacks and with an epilog set some years later. It is set mostly in Leonberg, part of present day Germany, near Stuttgart. It is presented as the account of Katharina Kepler in defense of accusations against her of witchcraft, as told to her neighbor Simon Satler. And we also get interjections from Simon, telling some of the story from his own point of view, as well as a number of reproduced depositions from her accusers (and a couple of defenders.) (I should note that the depositions themselves are fictional, though they do represent versions of actual accusations made against Frau Kepler.) 

Katharina's voice, as imagined by Galchen, is a delight. She is cranky and forthright. She is very confiding to Simon, and very honest about her life. She calls her enemies names like "the Werewolf", "the Cabbage" and "the False Unicorn." She is the very image of a certain kind of grandmother, very fond of her grandchildren but sometimes impatient with her children and their spouses. Besides her grandchildren she loves her cow Chamomile, and not much else. And she is facing a trial for witchcraft. (This period in history -- primarily in Europe but also, as we know, in America -- there was a widespread hysteria about witches, and tens of thousands of people, almost all women, were murdered as a result. And the local magistrate, Lutherus Einhorn (the "False Unicorn" in this novel), prosecuted 15 women and executed 8.) Katharina had attracted the animus of a local woman, Einhorn's cousin, who accused her of causing her illness. 

Over the course of the novel we hear of Frau Kepler's attempts to defend herself, in which she makes a couple of (potentially literally fatal) mistakes -- suing Einhorn for slander, and later trying to bribe him. And we learn about her family -- her feckless and abusive husband, who left her to join the Army and presumably died; her sons Hans and Christoph, her late son Heinrich, and her daughter Greta. We see a lot about life in her village, and her role as an herbalist (which obviously increased her vulnerability to accusation.) And the slow procession of the charges against her continues, with a whole series of mostly obviously absurd stories being told. Her family, and Simon, defend her, and Hans eventually prepares an extensive refutation of all the charges; but the corrupt nature of justice in that milieu stands against her -- particularly the way in which numerous people stand to gain financially by her imprisonment and even by her death.

The tone of the novel is successfully odd. Katharina's voice and attitude lend a sort of darkly comic cast to things, but the weight of the injustice counteracts this. In addition, there is overall a strikingly deadpan depiction of what to modern eyes is a great deal of tragedy -- children dying young, widespread illness, other natural disasters such as a flood, religious conflicts, war (the Thirty Years War began in 1618), political corruption. I won't say how things end -- though a quick Google search will answer any such questions! Ultimately, the novel succeeds on several fronts -- it's a moving tale of one woman's struggle; it's an excellent character portrayal of, in particular, both Katharina and Simon; it's an effective portrayal of everyday life in the 17th Century; and it's a powerful by implication condemnation of the treatment of women in a patriarchal society.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Double Novel Review: Address: Centauri, by F. L. Wallace/If These Be Gods, by Algis Budrys

Double Novel Review: Address: Centauri, by F. L. Wallace/If These Be Gods, by Algis Budrys

by Rich Horton

I have a particular interest in Ace Doubles. As a result, I also take an interest in other Double Books, so plan to review at least one example of, for instance, the Belmont Double series (already done), and the Tor Double series (I have some, need to review them) and so on. This book is a new example of the concept. It's an Armchair Fiction double book -- two "novels" published together, with a cover format explicitly modeled on that of Ace Doubles from the 1950s, though the trim size is that of a smallish trade paperback. It's not quite tĂȘte-bĂȘche -- instead of the novels published so that each is upside down relative to the other, there are arranged consecutively, but the front and back cover are each a cover for one of the two "novels". (I use "novel" in quotes because, as with Ace Doubles, many of the stories included are not full-length novels. For example, in this book, the F. L. Wallace novel is a true novel, at a bit over 80,000 words, but the Algis Budrys story is a long novelette of some 16,000 words.)

Armchair Fiction itself is an interesting project. The proprietor is Gregory J. Luce, and over the past decade and more he has reprinted a great many obscure SF stories from, mostly, the 1950s and 1960s. Some are in this Double format, some are collections, some are novels published alone. His strategy is to find works that are out of copyright, and reprint them (usually with covers taken from the original magazine or book publication.) Some of his works are still in copyright, and in these cases (as with a number of works by Robert Silverberg) he has negotiated reprint rights with the author. As such he is doing a service, in many cases bringing back to print books otherwise unavailable or only available used at exorbitant prices.

The publication process appears to involve OCR, and I admit I would have preferred more attention paid to correction of OCR errors, and I'll say that my usual strategy in digging up old stories is to find the magazines or books in which stories I want to see first appeared -- but sometimes that's hard. In this case, what I really wanted was the Algis Budrys story, which had never been reprinted until this book. The issue of Amazing in which it first appeared was a special UFO issue, complete with an essay by famous UFO n/u/t witness Kenneth Arnold, and presumably for that reason, copies of it are quite expensive. 

OK, on to the stories themselves. I'll begin with the Budrys, because Budrys is a favorite writer of mine, and because his story is rather better than F. L. Wallace's novel. As I noted, "If These be Gods" first appeared in a Special Flying Saucer Issue of Amazing Stories, for October 1957.It was the cover story, and that cover, by Ed Valigursky, is reproduced (flipped left-to-right) on this book. The story was bylined "Gordon Jaylyn". This was the only time Budrys used this name (he also had some regular pseudonyms, such as "John A. Sentry", "Ivan Janvier", and "William Scarff".)

It's a flying saucer story, and I suspect Budrys wrote it for this issue at the behest of editor Paul Fairman. But -- it's OK. It's not great, and the ending is a bit of a muddle, but it's professionally done and it pulled me in. It's set in more or less the present time of the story's appearance, on an airliner heading from New York to Los Angeles. There have been a few recent airplane crashes, so the plane is all but empty: four crewmembers and five passengers. There are only two women -- the flight attendant and an elderly lady. The passengers include an actor, a salesman with a dark secret, the older woman, a journalist, and a UFO nut, who wrote a book claiming he met aliens from Venus who preached universal love. 

There is an alert of some fast moving airborne entities over Indiana, but the pilot doesn't take it seriously -- there are false alarms all the time. But this isn't a false alarm -- these are actual flying saucers, and, purely by accident, they hit the plane. And the aliens -- who turn out to be humans, to all appearances -- feel obliged to rescue everyone on the plane. Which will be a big headache for them ... Anyway, that's the setup, and it really reads like the setup to something longer. But the ending is fiercely rushed, as if Budrys checked his word count realized Fairman told him 16,000 words and he just hit 15,000 ... The message suggested is kind of interesting, really, but it probably did need another 10,000 words or so to make it work. And, I imagine, Budrys wasn't really that interested.

Now to the novel. Floyd L. Wallace (1915-2004) was a mechanical engineer who had a writing career of about a decade -- essentially the 1950s -- writing both SF and mysteries. Some of his short fiction, most notably "Delay in Transit", "The Accidental Self", and "Big Ancestor", achieved good notice. But he stopped publishing after 1961. Address: Centauri is his only novel. It was published in 1955 by Gnome Press, and reprinted as a Galaxy Science Fiction Novel in 1958. Galaxy was Wallace's primary market, and I imagine H. L. Gold's departure from the field may have contributed to Wallace leaving as well, though it should be said his last half dozen or so stories went to a variety of other markets. The cover for this Armchair edition is a reproduction of the rather terrible Galaxy Science Fiction Novel cover, by Wallace Wood. They'd have done much better to reproduce Ed Emshwiller's cover to the Gnome Press edition, and better still, to use the Richard Powers cover of the issue of Galaxy in which the first part of the novel appeared. 

Address: Centauri is an expansion of the novella "Accidental Flight" (Galaxy, April 1952.) The novel involves both some padding to the novella, and a lot of additional action after the end of the original story. I'll say up front that it's a painful mess. The science is comically awful. The characters are implausible, and the women are both important and portrayed in weirdly sexist ways. The action in general doesn't make much sense. The prose is not terribly good. But there are some wild ideas there that just about hold the interest -- or, at any rate, hint that something better could have been made of this material.

It opens on an asteroid, called the Handicap Haven. It's home to a number of severely disabled people, mostly due to horrific accidents, though in a few cases due to mutations or genetic abnormalities. I don't think the view of disabled people in this book is remotely in line with contemporary mores, but I will say that for his time, Wallace seemed to have his heart in the right place. Anyway, the main characters include a doctor, Cameron, who seems to be trying to treat his patients decently; and four principal residents: Docchi, an armless man; Anti, a dancer who had an accident such that her whole body is a sort of cancer that keeps growing so that she must live in acid; Jordan, a legless man who is a talented mechanic; and Nona, who was born unable to communicate in any way but who seems to have spectacular scientific powers, and is also very beautiful. Later (in the expanded part) we meet a woman who is also very beautiful but cannot eat normally, and another woman who has a deficiency of male hormones so that she is becoming too feminine -- i.e. a nymphomaniac. (I said the treatment of women was sexist!)

All this is in the context of an Earth society with spectacular medical tech, such that disease is conquered and everyone is good looking. This tech is enough to allow the residents of the asteroid to survive their horrendous injuries, and also to give them greatly extended lives. But there is no way they can live on Earth, so they want to leave for the Alpha Centauri system -- except star travel has so far proven impractical.

Anyway, there's a great deal of huggermugger. Nona's fantastical skills solve the star travel problem, but now Earth wants that tech. And (in the expansion) there is a long chase to Alpha Centauri -- which, to be sure, may have residents already!

I've elided a lot, and, well, most of it is absurd. There's a central love story, which is altered in easy to notice ways in the expanded version -- I mean, even not reading the original you can see where Docchi's love interest is shifted as we head to Centauri. There's all kinds of guff about the "biocompensation" that will in the end magically "cure" all the "deficients". There are unconvincing motivations for the bad guys chasing them. It's -- it's just a frustrating book to read. It seems clear to me that Wallace wanted to write a novel, but really didn't have the handle on structure to manage it.

F. L. Wallace did some pretty decent work at shorter lengths. And I feel bad just reviewing this pretty terrible novel. So, I'll be taking a look at several of his better known shorter stories in the next week or so. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Old Bestseller Review: Charlotte Fairlie, by D. E. Stevenson

Review: Charlotte Fairlie, by D. E. Stevenson

by Rich Horton

This is the fourth D. E. Stevenson novel I've read. (There are at least three more on hand.) Dorothy Stevenson Peploe (1892-1973) was a Scottish writer, the first cousin once removed of Robert Louis Stevenson. She wrote over 40 novels, mostly what can be called "light romantic" novels, and others more in the domestic life genre, including her Mrs. Tim novels, which deal with the experiences of a military wife. (Stevenson herself was a military wife, and those novels draw directly from her experience.) I've summarized her bio before, but the Furrowed Middlebrow edition of this book (from Dean Street Press) includes an autobiographical afterword, apparently first written when her novel Music From the Hills was published, just before Charlotte Fairlie. And that includes some nice additional details, such as that her father was actually quite close, in childhood, to his first cousin RLS (whom the family apparently called Louis), and also that Dorothy was a first-rate golfer -- reaching the semifinals of the Scottish Ladies' Championship in her early 20s.

Charlotte Fairlie was published in 1954, and is set at the time of writing (1952-1953) with an episode centered on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. (The US edition had the title Blow the Wind Southerly, and later paperback editions were called The Enchanted Isle.) The title character is in her late 20s, and has just taken a job as the headmistress of Saint Elizabeth's, a fairly posh girls' boarding school not too far from London. Charlotte's mother died when she was young, and she was very close to her father until he remarried, after which she was raised by an uncle and sent to Saint Elizabeth's. She continued to university, and even spent some time in the US. 

The first part of the novel is to a great extent focused on her professional experience. She is a very competent headmistress, and we see her dealing with a couple of significant issues, including a senior teacher who had wanted the headmistress position and does her best to sabotage Charlotte, and a couple of student crises. One concerns Tessa MacRynne, a 13 year old new girl whose (American) mother has just left her father Rory, who is "The MacRynne" -- that is, the basically feudal leader of a Scottish island. Tessa nearly causes a scandal when she tries to run away back to her home. The other crisis concerns one of Tessa's friends, Dione Eastwood, a sweet girl who is a bad student, and who has two younger brothers who are students at the nearby boys' school, who are also reputedly bad students. Charlotte manages to learn that their issue is their verbally abusive father (the mother, once again, is absent!) Charlotte also makes friends with the headmaster of the boys' school, a pleasant young man not too much older than she. She is also shown attending a conference in Copenhagen. All of this is quietly interesting, and straightforward and honest about the challenges of that job, the loneliness of it, and the rewards, in the context of the challenges of a woman making a career. This latter part is emphasized by the ambition Charlotte had before her father's remarriage -- to become her father's partner in his business; as well as the similar ambition Tessa has -- to help her own father in his role.

The second part of the novel introduces the "light romance" element. Tessa has invited both Charlotte and the Eastwood children to visit her island home over the summer break. The bulk of this section concerns that visit. To no reader's surprise, sparks fly between Charlotte and Tessa's father. And the visit proves helpful to the Eastwood children as well, especially the younger boy, Barney, who is enchanted by the island and by the kind of life Rory models. But over the Eastwood family their father's presence still hovers, and this leads in the end to a tragic event. There is a lightly fantastical element here, in the form of an old prediction about the first red-haired MacRynne (who turns out to be Rory) and also in the appearance of a supposed magic well, at which both Tessa and Barney make wishes, that, in the way of such wishes, have ambiguous results.

The conclusion -- which is somewhat muted -- turns naturally on the resolution of Charlotte and Rory's romance. Charlotte has realized she is desperately in love with Rory, but given her own life experience with a father's remarriage, and her knowledge of Tessa's personal ambitions, she feels it necessary to refuse him. The book gives an answer, entwining Charlotte's career position, and Tessa's own feelings ... there's a bit of feeling of patness to the ending. Still, I greatly enjoyed the book. And I also read it very quickly indeed -- emphasizing something I'd already noticed about D. E. Stevenson. She had that gift -- nearly magical, I sometimes think -- of making the reader want to keep turning pages. I don't think this gift is necessary to be a good or great writer, but nor do I think it a bad thing. It's something some writers can manage, and others can't. And both types of writers can be great writers. (For the record, I think D. E. Stevenson a fine writer, even a very good one at her best, but she falls short of greatness -- which is no terrible thing, really.)

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Old Bestseller Review: Hell! Said the Duchess, by Michael Arlen

Review: Hell! Said the Duchess, by Michael Arlen

by Rich Horton

The very first review on this blog -- a decade ago come next month! -- was of Michael Arlen's The Green Hat. And for that matter my first contribution to F&SF's Curiosities column concerned Michael Arlen's Man's Mortality. So, yes, he is a writer I take some interest in! Michael Arlen (1895-1956) was an Armenian-Bulgarian-British-American, though his fiction was all while he was primarily British (though living in France for much of this period), and entirely published between the wars: his first novel appeared in 1920 and his last in 1939. He was born in Bulgaria to Armenian refugees, and christened Dikran Kouyoumdjian. His family emigrated to the UK in 1901. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, but he wanted to be a writer, and indeed his family disowned him. He adopted the pen name Michael Arlen, and eventually legally changed his name. It's clear that his point of view was profoundly affected by his identity conflicts, not to mention a fair amount of ethnic prejudice directed his way. 

His primary subject matter was the smart set of the Lost Generation, and this eventually proved sort of a trap. Certainly this was the subject matter of his most famous novel, The Green Hat (which remains readable in its highly melodramatic way even now) and many of his later stories come off as less successful variations on that book. Two of his efforts to break out of that typecasting are Man's Mortality, an SF novel that suffered from appearing just a year after his rival Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and the novel at hand, Hell! Said the Duchess, which as we will see is a strange mixture of near future SF (with a very satirical cast) and gothic horror (and all set among the same privileged set as are many of his other works. Neither of these works received the respect he craved, and during his last years, in the US, he was nearly wholly blocked. There were a few short stories that Mark Valentine claims were reworkings of earlier work, and one of his stories, about a detective named Gay Stanhope Falcon, became the basis for a series of movies starring George Sanders as the Falcon (in imitation of Sanders' earlier role as Leslie Charteris' The Saint.) (Some people conflate this character with an unrelated later TV detective called The Falcon.) It's tempting to say that his only true subject was high society between the World Wars, and with the passing of that era he had nothing to write about.

Hell! Said the Duchess was published in 1934. It got good reviews -- Mark Valentine, in his fine introduction to the edition I read, calls it "his last great success." Despite that early notice, it fell out of print for decades, as did, really, all of Arlen's books save The Green Hat. But the estimable publishers Valancourt Books reprinted it in 2013, and that is the edition I bought. It's a very short novel, roughly 36,000 words by my estimate.

It is set in about 1936, and the Fascists have taken over the Conservative Party (and Oswald Mosley is Minister of War.) Arlen is cuttingly satirical about this, and about the Conservatives, and English tradition, in general. But his subject here is the Duchess of Dove, a beautiful, modest, and retiring young widow. After setting up her situation, he reveals that her reputation has taken a (surely unfair!) blow, as there have been reports that she has been seen in low bars with inappropriate people. Her friends begin to investigate, and spy on her movements, and it seems that there is a mystery ... she is almost never seen to go out at night, despite these reports. 

But just as her friends are ready to insist that all the rumors are false, a series of murders shocks London. Soon they are called the "Jane the Ripper" murders, for they seem to have been committed by a woman who seduces men, and after taking them to bed kills them. And what evidence there is points to the Duchess ... Naturally, the authorities are convinced that such a modest and beautiful and high-ranking lady is innocent, and they begin their investigation with every intention of exonerating her. Unfortunately, one of the police officials is actually competent despite being politically suspect (there is a screamingly funny chapter detailing the first steps in the investigation ....) As things continue, the evidence that the Duchess must be guilty seems overwhelming but there are still curious aspects.

And then the novel takes a strange turn, as a certain sinister Dr. Axaloe comes into focus. He seems to be a sexual predator of some sort, or perhaps just a man into free love. And there are connections to the Duchess. The chief investigators track Axaloe down, and what they find is truly unexpected and horrifying.

The tone shift, roughly halfway through the novel, is rather striking, and I'm not sure it's wholly successful. What we have, in my opinion, is a quite amusing and pointed satirical first half, making dark fun of the British aristocracy and their Fascistic drift; followed by a second half that only intermittently maintains the satirical point of view but is instead a piece of definite gothic horror. That mode is less interesting to me, though it may appeal to a lot of readers, and I think it is actually pretty well done. I think this is a novel worth attention -- and enjoyable and sometimes quite wonderful book, a bit overcooked in places but certainly fun to read.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Best (?) from this Blog, 2023, and brief Hugo Thoughts

While saying goodbye to 2023, I might as well give some links to some of my favorite posts from this past year. But first, in looking over this, I have a few Hugo thoughts. Very brief, and I must acknowledge my reading has been sadly limited. (For 2023, that is!) 

(Maybe someday I'll organize this blog better!)

Movies: Oppenheimer and Asteroid City are my two favorites

Novels: OrbitalTerrace Story, The Terraformers, and Shigidi and the Brass Head of Olafulon

Novellas: The Navigating Fox, by Christopher Rowe stands out, plus "Blade and Bone", by Paul McAuley

Novelette: "Mr. Catt", by Eleanor Arnason

Short stories: Rowe again, with "The Four Last Things", plus James Patrick Kelly's "The In-Between" and E. Lily Yu's "Alphabet of Swans"; and "The Unpastured Sea", by Gregory Feeley

Best Fan Writer: well, I'm eligible, but don't forget John Boston, and Brian Collins, and Joachim Boaz

Most of my posts are reviews, so first I'll mention my Cordwainer Smith award post and a couple of Trip Reports:

2023 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award

Readercon Report

Montana Trip Report

My Black Gate Essays from 2023

Book and story reviews (mostly SF, but some Victoriana are other old novels.) These are in reverse chronological order, and I've left a lot out.

Two Early Robert Silverberg Novels

Sometime, Never

Rose Macaulay's Dangerous Ages

The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz

"The Cottage in Omena", by Charles Andrew Oberndorf

Neptune's Reach stories by Gregory Feeley

Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Carmen Dog, by Carol Emshwiller

Short Novels by Alex Jeffers and Brandon H. Bell

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Granger's Crossing, by Mark Tiedemann

The Count of Monte Cristo

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

White Cat, Black Dog, by Kelly Link

The Godel Operation, by James L. Cambias

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

Waking the Moon, by Elizabeth Hand

Supernatural Tales, by Vernon Lee

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov

Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter

The Navigating Fox, by Christopher Rowe

The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford

Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty, by Avram Davidson

Sunday Morning Transport

Asimov's, November-December 2023

Flint and Mirror, by John Crowley

The Sound of His Horn, by Sarban

Take Three Tenses, by Rumer Godden

The Zanzibar Cat, by Joanna Russ

Shigidi and the Brass Head of Olafulon, by Wole Talabi

Monday, January 1, 2024

My 2023 essays at Black Gate

My 2023 essays at Black Gate

This post links to some of my best (in my opinion) pieces from Black Gate in 2023. In that sense it's sort of a Hugo eligibility post -- I'm eligible in one category, Best Fan Writer, but it's also intended as a summary, and in hopes people are interested in checking these out. (I should add that I think I've done some pretty cool fan writing elsewhere -- certainly at this blog, and at Journey Planet, and I had a piece in Bruce Gillespie's SF Commentary this year. Plus I had a short look at Rose Macaulay's What Not published in the Curiosities column in the November-December F&SF.)

But a lot of my best work, in my opinion, appears in Black Gate, John O'Neill's excellent online 'zine. Here's a list of some of these.

First, I contributed a piece on The Tolkien Reader to Bob Byrne's series of posts called Talking Tolkien

Talking Tolkien: On The Tolkien Reader;

Secondly, here's a summary of an ongoing series of essays I've been doing taking very close looks at some short fiction. The most recent two of these are from 2023, but I'm really proud of all of them.

"The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye", by A. S. Byatt; and Three Thousand Years of Longing;

"The Second Inquisition" (and "My Boat"), by Joanna Russ;

"Scanners Live in Vain", by Cordwainer Smith;

"The Last Flight of Dr. Ain", by James Tiptree, Jr.;

"Winter's King", by Ursula K. Le Guin;

"It Opens the Sky", by Theodore Sturgeon;

"Winter Solstice, Camelot Station", by John M. Ford;

Three Stories by Idris Seabright;

"The Star Pit", by Samuel R. Delany;

Thirdly, I have been doing a set of looks at obscure SF from the '70s and '80s:

The Shores of Kansas, by Rob Chilson;

Alien Island, by T. L. Sherred;

Murder on Usher's Planet, by Atanielle Annyn Noel;

The Song of Phaid the Gambler, by Mick Farren;

And here are some other Black Gate posts -- a couple of obituaries (Michael Bishop, D. G. Compton, Joseph Ross), some reviews, a look at Lin Carter's Flashing Swords! anthologies, and some "retro reviews" of old magazines.

Obituary: D. G. Compton;

Obituary: Michael Bishop;

Obituary: Joseph Wrzos (Joseph Ross);

Review: Being Michael Swanwick, by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro;

Retro Review: F&SF, November 1958, May 1961;

The Flashing Swords! Original Anthologies, edited by Lin Carter;

Retro Review: Infinity, June 1956;

Retro Review: If, December 1957;

Retro Review: F&SF, June 1955;

Retro Review: Universe, September 1953;