A Better Way to Die: The Collected Short Stories

By Paul Cornell

Rating: 2 stars

In his introduction, John Scalzi claims that Paul Cornell is, possibly, the nicest man in science fiction. I’ve only met the chap once or twice, but from those, and from Twitter, I wouldn’t argue the proposition. That makes it difficult to come out and say that I didn’t really enjoy much of this collection. Although Cornell has written some cracking Doctor Who, this volume, as well as my reading of the first of his Shadow Police series and his Lychford books suggest that his personal style doesn’t work for me. He seems to write from a dark place, something which comes out moreso in his short fiction. The stories in this collection are set in chronological order (with the Hamilton stories sorted at the end), so we can see his style and his writing develop.

The early stories, The Deer Stalker, Michael Laurits is: DROWNING and Global Collider Generation: An Idyll feel quite experimental, and I struggled to understand a lot of them; The Sensible Folly was a lot more fun, as were the two Wild Cards stories (Cornell’s contribution to George R. R. Martin’s shared universe). The Ghosts of Christmas felt really bleak all the way through and I really struggled to read that story.

The Hamilton stories were interesting because they start out almost as James Bond pastiche, in a world where Newton’s musings took him in a very different direction, where the great powers of the 19th century have survived and still play their Great Game, while maintaining a “balance” to avoid all-out war. It feels like these stories in particular get very dark as they go on. Hamilton is a complex character, trapped by ties of loyalty and love in a very cruel world. It’s easy to feel sympathy for him, and even what he does, and still be appalled at his world.

An interesting collection, with a strong authorial voice. Read if you enjoy going to dark places, but not really to my taste.

Book details

ISBN: 9781907069840
Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2015

Of Women: In the 21st Century

By Shami Chakrabarti

Rating: 2 stars

Unlike Chakrabarti’s last book, On Liberty, I’m struggling to find a central thesis to this book. It takes as its premise that gender injustice is the greatest human rights abuse on the planet. The eight chapters describe the position of women in different fields of life, including the home, reproductive rights, schooling, conflict, and faith.

I ended up reading the book quite slowly as it felt denser and less engaging than its predecessor and never felt that it had the clarity of thought or of purpose of ‘On Liberty’. The problems that she articulates are all well understood and I didn’t feel that she offered anything new to the discussion, nor do I feel that solutions were offered. I’m not sure that many of the conclusions that she does reach were wildly original – the chapter on faith concludes that change has to come from within faith communities, for example.

Apologies for returning again to her previous book, but I thought ‘On Liberty’ was a great book and, alas, this didn’t live up to it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141985350
Publisher: Penguin

Out Of Space And Time

By Clark Ashton Smith

Rating: 2 stars

I was vaguely aware of Clark Ashton Smith as a collaborator of H. P. Lovecraft but little beyond that, so I thought this collection of short stories might serve to provide a flavour of his work. It did, but not in the way that I’d hoped. Although I enjoyed the first story in the collection, The End of the Story, I could probably have just read that and then stopped. The prose is so purple it heads towards infra-black and the tone is rarely anything other than portentous and pompous, to a degree that I found quite infuriating (but which did mean that the rare flashes of humour were all the more unexpected and welcome).

The work, to an amateur eye, like mine, reads like Lovecraft (on a bad day) but feels quite heavy and kludgy. I did finish the collection and, for what it’s worth, my favourite story of the collection, The Monster of the Prophecy is quite near the end, so I’m (mostly) glad that I got that far. This story concerns a human encounter with an alien and contains one of the aforementioned rare flashes of humour, that made it stand out for me.

On the whole though, whilst tolerable in small doses, I struggled with this one and I won’t be looking out any more by Smith.

Book details

ISBN: 9780803293526
Publisher: Bison Books
Year of publication: 1942

The World Set Free

By H.G. Wells

Rating: 2 stars

This may be a prophetic book, but I didn’t hugely enjoy reading it. Wells foresees atomic energy and the horrors of atomic bombs, although in very different shapes to reality, as well as the use of aircraft in warfare. I must confess that I nearly gave up after the prologue, which just felt didactic and leaden, but the first proper chapter (after a dull introduction to radioactivity, as understood at the dawn of the 20th century) was interesting, as it sketched the problems of humanity and nations in that era. However, it didn’t really last. Wells’ “war to end all wars” didn’t happen until the 1950s (bear in mind this book was written in 1913, before the First World War) and his war really did end all war, by creating a new world government that set about creating a utopia in fairly short order.

With the advantage of hindsight, we see what would really happen after a globe-spanning war with the use of nuclear weapons – what always happens: politicians squabble and jostle for advantage. What unity there is never lasts, which makes the speed and ease by which the world government is set up difficult to suspend disbelief for.

The last chapter is somewhat odd as well, as it focuses on an individual in the new order, as he is dying. Said person holds forth on the nature of humanity, and that knowledge, not love, is the driving force behind it. This is puzzling, because it doesn’t really fit well with what came before, and seems sort of pointless. It’s not like Wells needs a mouthpiece for his views – the whole book has been nothing but, and the narrator has quite happily fulfilled that role previously.

Disjointed, didactic, stuffy and generally not a captivating book. Has historical merit, and is of interest for its prophetic power, but not as a novel.

Book details

Publisher: Collins Clear-Type Press

Five Red Herrings

By Dorothy L. Sayers

Rating: 2 stars

Lord Peter Wimsey is spending some time hanging around artists in the Scottish Borders when one of them is murdered. It turns out that any of about half a dozen people could have done it and he ends up helping the police with their enquiries.

I must confess that I found this one a bit difficult to wrap my head around. Keeping track of all the suspects, their motives, stories and alibis got quite tricky, and the fact that travel was important made it difficult as well, as the train timetable became central. Not to mention little things that would have been so common as to be barely worth mentioning in Sayers’ day but because train travel has changed so much in the last eighty or so years, it’s confusing when she talks about bicycles being ticketed separately to the person and held in a different compartment, and rather than taking it in, you’re left going, ‘eh’? Oh, and the idea of trains mostly running to timetable as well seems less than credible!

Lord Peter is a fun protagonist, ever cheerful and bimbling about in an inoffensive way that ferrets out information without people even noticing, and yet with an edge that lets him push if he has to. Neither he, nor the rest of the cast, get much in the way of character development – I suppose with six suspects, hangers on and a number of police officials, there just wasn’t room for it. I certainly struggled to keep things clear in my head, even with the handy list near the start and the police recap near the end.

I wasn’t sure about writing the Scottish characters in dialect to start with, but it did grow on me and I was enjoying it by the end. I also laughed out loud at Sayers’ little wink to camera in a section near the start where Wimsey is frantically searching for something to do with the murder and when the policeman asks what it is, the author puts in an insert to the effect that Wimsey tells him, but leaves it hidden from the reader, in a very post-modern way.

So enjoyable enough and it wouldn’t put me off reading more Wimsey stories, but it’s definitely one that needs attention and to be read in reasonable chunks.

Book details

ISBN: 9780450038457
Publisher: New English Library
Year of publication: 1931

The Tourist

By Robert Dickinson

Rating: 2 stars

Another review of this book suggests that to really understand it and get the most from it, it needs at least two reads. I didn’t do this, one was quite enough for me, so I’ve still come away awfully confused. Time travel is generally confusing (although the timeline chart at the front helped – it would have been more useful if the chapters had been numbered to match the chart!) and this book is no different. Trying to keep track of who everyone was, which version of them was present at any given time and also try and figure out the plot was a bit exhausting. And I still don’t think I figured that out properly.

So, in the future, there was a near-extinction event (NEE) after which civilisation had to rebuild itself. Sometime after this, they invented time travel and there’s now a fixed link to the early 21st century, where tourists from the future come to gawk at us “natives”. Oh, and those in the even more distant future reject attempts to reach their era, but sent back a set of records of people from the travellers’ era. The book follows three different people, in the first person for travel rep Shens, who manages to lose one of his tourists on an excursion from the resort; in the second person for Karia, who is from a repressive regime that avoids contact with the rest of the world; and Riemann, who we don’t follow directly, but see through the eyes of the other two. And then there’s a whole timey-wimey plot about free will, a very long-term (if that means anything in time travel) conspiracy and a lot of confusion.

I didn’t really feel that any of the characters were that well developed; I would especially have liked to have seen more delving into Spen’s fellow rep Li, who enjoys the 21st century much more than most of her fellow reps. The presence of the people from the future obviously causes a lot of nervousness and resentment amongst the people of the era, and in this post-Trump, post-Brexit world, it’s entirely conceivable to see how this was stirred by self-serving politicians into a hate movement.

So perhaps this book would make more sense on a reread, but neither the plot nor the characters are enticing me to do so not to mention the grindingly depressing ending.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356508184
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2016


By Paul J. McAuley

Rating: 2 stars

Alex Sharkey lives by his wits as he develops drugs only just inside the law, drugs based on genetics. When he falls in with Milena, a girl who seems to know too much, they hatch a plan to liberate the genetically engineered ‘dolls’ that do so much manual labour in the early 21st century. This book follows the consequences of that fateful decision.

I must confess that I’m not really that fond of cyberpunk, so didn’t hugely get into this book. It was that sort of tarnished chrome near-future stuff (to start with, at least) that’s not fully dystopic but well on its way there. And the first segment was set in London as well, so a society that I’m familiar with, and I was much more interested in the untold story of why the welfare state and NHS had collapsed than the dolls storyline, which didn’t help my engagement with the story.

The three parts of the story take us progressively further forward in time, although all within a single lifetime, as Alex tries to come to terms with what he’s done, and find Milena again, which is what drives much of the second and third parts of the book.

There’s a lot of good imagery here and some very interesting ideas (I’m still not entirely sure if all the animals are actually dead or not, although I’m pretty sure it was heavily implied [yet another untold story that I would have liked to read more about]) but I wasn’t hugely invested in Alex or any of the other viewpoint characters and, really wasn’t sure where we were by the end of the story.

So not really my cup of tea, but in no way am I saying that this is a bad book, it’s just one that I didn’t enjoy.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575600317
Publisher: Cassell
Year of publication: 1995

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz & Other Stories

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rating: 2 stars

I’m completely unfamiliar with Fitzgerald’s work, so when I found this collection of short stories in a charity shop, I thought it was a great way to introduce myself. I sort of wish I hadn’t. I really didn’t enjoy this collection at all. Every time I finished a story, I’d go and look at the table of contents to see how many more I still had, and that’s never a good sign.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Fitzgerald is a bad writer, far from it, but I just didn’t enjoy his stories Most of them are set in America’s gilded age and focus on the rich and just go to show that wealth doesn’t mean happiness. Most of the characters in this book are resolutely miserable, despite their wealth, and suicide crops up more than once. I think what got me was the almost complete lack of any joy or happiness for anyone in any of these stories. The penultimate story, The Lees of Happiness comes closest, and given its premise, that’s saying something.

The last story in the collection (The Lost Decade) I completely failed to understand at all. It was mercifully brief but I was left completely scratching my head, and had to go and look it up online (although that may have just been me).

Definitely not one I’ll be rereading, in fact, it’ll be back to the charity shop next time I’m visiting. It would be one star, but it gets another for the quality of the writing.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853262128
Publisher: Wordsworth Edition
Year of publication: 1922

Old Christmas: From the Sketch Book

By Washington Irving

Rating: 2 stars

This is an odd little book. It starts off with an essay describing why Christmas was better in the Old Days and then proceeds to a travelogue in which the narrator runs into an old friend while travelling the country at Christmas and is invited to the family homestead where he encounters all sorts of quaint old traditions in the old school.

I don’t really grok this book. I’m not sure if it’s parodying the sort of nostalgia which Britain has been famed for these last centuries or whether it’s actually indulging in such nostalgia. The one thing that I did admire about the book is the illustrations. Apparently Randolph Caldecott was a well-regarded artist in his day, and the illustrations are lush, from the full-page ones to the smaller ones that adorn almost every page, they’re very definitely beautiful.

I mostly picked the book up because the edition that I found was very old, and I love old books. This particular one was from 1903 and has a handwritten inscription from 1905 on the inside and another one below that to the original writer’s granddaughter, and I loved that. The book itself failed to grab me though. If nothing else, at least it’s short.

Book details

ISBN: 9781603550789
Publisher: Juniper Grove
Year of publication: 1820

The Jane Austen Book Club

By Karen Joy Fowler

Rating: 2 stars

Six people meet, once a month, to discuss the books of Jane Austen. Life, love and relationships form and break in that time. I only noticed this book because I’d read Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves earlier this year and enjoyed it. But then I’m also a fan of Austen’s marvellous Pride and Prejudice and have read the rest of her work, so this did appeal to me.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it much. I found the characters stereotyped and clich├ęd and difficult to relate to. I found the device of an apparent first person narrator that isn’t an individual but is possibly the whole group to be unhelpful, and needlessly showy. I didn’t think it helped the book at all.

The female members of the group really didn’t endear themselves to me in their snobbishness in choice of reading and their disdain of science fiction (my preferred genre!) even if Jocelyn did overcome this in the end, it was only as a means of connecting with her lover-to-be.. And how stereotypical to have the male character be the only one who does enjoy SF.

I was also disappointed that also most of the Austen books got some actual discussion, Pride and Prejudice, the only one I’m familiar with to any degree, got barely a couple of sentences. Still, given that the characters seemed to have awfully pretentious views about the other books, maybe that’s for the best!

It’s very possible that I’m just Not Getting the joke, and that it’s actually a book about those kinds of West Coast, well-off American women and their lives, but if it was, then it sailed right over my head and I was left with a book where I mostly didn’t like the characters and didn’t care an awful lot about what happened to them.

I’ll give it points though for the very Austen-ian ending.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141020266
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2004

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