Apocryphal's 2021 Reads

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Our good friend @dr_mitch kept a monthly roundup of his books read over the last two years. I like the format and will attempt to do the same this year. I hope he continues.

JANUARY 2021

The Evidence by Christopher Priest, 2020, 360 pages
His latest novel, recently released, and set in The Dream Archipelago. Reading this is what gave me the idea to propose this year's Slow Read, and I had initially intended this to be the 'novel' of the group, but because of it's recent release, it still wasn't widely available in affordable formats. This is a mystery thriller with a few twists - one being the it takes place in a part of the world where 'mutability' is a factor and the circumstances on the ground can change. This ended up being more of an interesting background element than pivotal to the mystery, which I think was probably just as well. Amusing for me, the protagonist is himself a mystery novel writer who likes to explain his trade to the reader and he keeps telling the reader that there are a number of trusts and rules that a good mystery writer would never break, though it is obvious that Christopher Priest has broken all of them in the writing of his tale. 3.5 out of 5.

Far Rainbow / The Second Invasion From Mars by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1967, 240 pages
I continue to read through their catalogue, which also continues to grow in new English translated material from various publishers. This is an older publication in English - part of Theodore Sturgeon's Soviet SF series. It offers two novellas in one book.

Far Rainbow is set on a distant planet, a research colony of mainly scientists and their families, though there are also a few tourists and adventurers. When the colony is threatened by the approach of a new kind of wave (lots of handwaving here), the settlement must prepare themselves to evacuate. In so doing, their must ask what's most important - their own lives and their children's - or their research, to the benefit of humanity. The protagonist, one of the few starship pilots on the colony at the time, faces similar choices. 3.5 out of 5.

The Second Invasion From Mars imagines what happens when H.G. Wells Martians return for their second attempt. This is not at all like War of the Worlds - the second invasion is much faster and more bureaucratic - or so it seems from our limited perspective. The books is a social satire, told entirely from the view of local townspeople who are very reluctant to believe something is happening. Then later, they are either resistance fighters or collaborators. The lead character - a retired astrophysics teacher - is mainly concerned with what will happen to his pension and whether he can deal with the tax on stomach juice. In this, at least, the story has a happy ending! 2.5 out of 5.

3 out of 5 for the collection.

A Boy and his Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher. 2019, 365 pages
This is a decent novel, told in the first person by someone who grew up after a 'soft apocalypse' during which society ended, but there was no big catastrophic event, just a dramatic dwindling of people. Our narrator lives on an inner Hebridean island with his family. One day, and enigmatic sailor arrives in a sail boat, purporting to be a mendicant trader. Our narrator's coming of age begins when the stranger makes off with his dog, and the chase is on. The story takes us through Blackpool and across the country, ending up in the eastern marshes. We meet various people along the way, and there's a big reveal that might leave you feeling like the title of the book mislead you. So let the title go - it's not really the end of the world, afterall. Overall, a good story. The audio version is narrated by the author. 3 out of 5.

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston. 2017, 326 pages
This is the story of a the discovery of some previously unknown ruins and a lost culture in the jungles of Honduras. The author was one member of a larger expedition to the jungle to explore and see if something was there, inspired by the colonial era myth of The White City aka The City of the Monkey God. The book covers descriptions of the expedition, the origins of the myth, a history of exploration in the area, and briefly a description of Honduras itself. There's quite a good treatment of the ethical issues of cultural appropriation and archaeological method. The last 1/4 of the book deals with Mucosal Leishmaniasis, which the author and several members of the expedition contracted, and ends with an essay on the spread of infection disease in general. This is interesting, but seems rather lengthy for what is really an aside to the subject matter of the book. Overall and enjoyable read (a listen in my case) with enough here to interest me and get me past the author's vanity (far too much of the book is devoted to trying to impress me - it had the opposite effect). 3 out of 5.

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell, 2014, 110 pages
Our January club pick, and an enjoyable read for me, as you'll know. 4 out of 5

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    I am always envious of you organised guys who manage to do this regularly! Every year of late I have had a mad scramble in November or even December to get my year's reading into Goodreads and onto my blog, with the inevitable "what month did I read that in?" consequences. And every year I begin with good intentions about being different this time around...

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    FEBRUARY 2021

    Eleven books this month - that might be record for me.

    Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari 2017, 450pp
    On the surface, this is a futurist book in which the author discusses where he thinks we're going. The title is apt, though - three quarters of the book are devoted to scribing how we go where we are. The author is... irreverent is the right word, I think. Using plain language, plain logic, and a lot of hypothetical examples (some of which are rather thin), Harari deconstructs the modern age, popping the party balloons of religion, capitalism, socialism, liberalism, democracy, and much more. I found myself nodding a lot, but could see how others might not. Toward the end, he introduces us to 'Dataism' as the next social paradigm. I can't tell if he's a proponent or an observer - I suspect the latter, since in his final word he invites us to ask ourselves if this is what we really want, or just where we will be taken out of negligence. Overall, a thought provoking work work of philosophy, history, and forward thinking. 4 our of 5.

    Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth by Avi Loeb 2021, 240 pages.
    This is a book-length defense of the author's hypothesis that Uomoamoa, and object that sped through our solar system a few years ago. It was small enough and passed through so fast that we couldn't really tell what it was, and didn't have to time collect a lot of data. But, Loeb argues, the data we did collect was sufficient for us to be satisfied that there's only a one in a trillion chance this was a naturally occurring object. About a third of the book talks about how he comes to this conclusion (it has to do with the shape, the fact the object adjusted course without any obvious off-gassing as it passed the sun, and a lot of hypotheticals around how common or uncommon naturally occurring space debris really is). This part of the book was satisfactorily intriguing. Another third of the book consisted of a lengthy argument that whether or not this is an artificial object, it would be very much to our benefit to be more thoughtful of what kind of space debris from other civilizations might be out there and we should be looking for it. Lastly, and mainly to support this latter goal, the remaining third of the book has Loeb telling about his personal life and all the lessons learned. As with the Lost City of the Monkey God described last month, this all seemed a little too self-indulgent, like it was trying to impress us enough with the authors to take him seriously. It's not necessary - the Loeb is an accomplished person - but has obviously been on the defensive for his views, here. Overall, I though the book was quite sound and thought provoking. So 4 our of 5 from me. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avi_Loeb

    The Vorrh by Brian Catling, 2015, 500pp,
    Described by some as a new 'landmark work of fantasy' and with review blurbs by the likes of Tom Waits and Terry Gilliam, I was interested to pick this one up. It is a work or fantasy, set mainly in the city of Essenwald, a weird transplanted German town of a place with half-timber buildings set on the edge of a primaeval and mythological forest in South Africa, called The Vorrh. It's a bit like Raymond Rousseau meets H. Rider Haggard meets Mythago Wood. Rousseau is actually a character in the novel, though he remains unnamed. I found this one hard going at first - Who are all these people? How do they relate to one another? And it was difficult to see where all this was going, which was making caring about the book a challenge. But I persevered through the first 100 pages, and then it started to get interesting. Eventually, I was sucked in and quite enjoyed it. We've got a bizarre cyclops raised inside an old house by doll-like robots. An enigmatic French traveller. An African hunter. An English person who seems to be split in two, wielding a bow made from the remains of a person who has an affinity for him. And we've got some lost souls - maybe a little like J.M. Barrie's Lost Boys - working as labourers in the forest for a Scottish factor. The factor and a local doctor soon discover they can increase production by bringing stillbirth babies to these lost boys. But when the the doctor brings an aborted baby, and the cyclops goes out for a masked night on the town during Saturnalia, things take a turn for the worse. Bizarre? Yes. Confusing? Somewhat. Well written? Yes. I'm up for book two, since it turns out this is a trilogy. Another 4 our of 5.

    The Chronicles of Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. 1931, 210pp.
    This book is a collection of 8 short stories of Captain Blood, based on the earlier novel and character of that name. It was originally titled 'Captain Blood Returns', but since the stories take place between the adventures described in Captain Blood, I suppose the original name was deemed unsuitable, and they didn't want to call it 'Captain Blood Returns To A Bookseller Near you', which would have been factually correct, if less dramatic.
    These tales follow very much in the same vein as Captain Blood, and feature naval action, political intrigue, legal maneuverings, and dalliances with the ladies (who are not just damsels in distress, thankfully). Some of you may remember reading Venetian Masque by the same author , one of @NeilNjae 's nominations. His most famous novel if Scaramouche. 3 out of 5.

    Clade by Bradley James, 2015, 239pp.
    Clade is a soft apocalypse, set in Australia in the near future - and written by an Australian author. The novel follows (mainly) a single family and their descendents (hence the name, 'Clade', which is defined as a branch in an organizational tree, such as one branch of a family tree). I wasn't too impressed with the opening of the book, which felt altogether more mundane than the description of the book promised, and featured rather ordinary and trite characters. However, I started enjoying the book much more beginning in the second third, with the onset of a major storm in Britain. After this, I started to feel much more invested. Despite the apocalyptic setting, the theme is one of continuance. James describes a number of events that occur as part of a re-setting of the natural balance. Through this, the clade abides, even if some of the individuals do not. The later part of the book was 4 stars, the first part only 2, so that's 3 on average.

    Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss, 1983, 576pp.
    This is the second book in a biggish trilogy about life on the planet Helliconia. Helliconia orbits two suns, one much closer and the other much further, which results in small years (the orbit of the nearer sun) and great years (the orbit of the further sun). The orbit of the second sun is eliptical and takes something like a thousand years. When the planet comes close to this sun, it is much hotter - when it is far away, it is colder.

    Life on the planet has evolved according to these various cycles, and there are two sentient species in symbiosis with one another - the Phagors, minotaur-like creatures - that thrive during the winter, and 'humans' (they aren't really human, but appear very similar) that thrive during the summer. A microbial disease, hosted by the Phagors, acts up each great spring and fall and kills off many humans, but prepares the survivors for the coming change. Quite a lot of thought has gone into the world-building, and it's probably the best part of the series.

    But the stories of the people on the planet (in this case, focusing the members of a royal court of roughly late medieval technology) are also pretty good. And, the make things more interesting - there's a satellite space station of actual humans from earth who observe the planet. They are technically forbitten to interfere, but the space station is effectively cut off from earth (which is a thousand light years away) now allows the occasional 'lottery winner' to make a one-way trip down to the planet every so often. One way, because earthlings are not equipped to survive the local microbiology and the lottery winner will only survive a few months. One of the many threads in this novel follows one such lucky winner, and his efforts to interact with the locals and important repercussions on the lives of the local character that we follow. An enjoyable 3 our of 5 for me.

    The Affirmation by Christopher Priest, 1981, 247pp
    This is the first novel he wrote (but not the first story) set in The Dream Archipelago. It follows a fellow from London, England, who is undergoing psychological disturbance and who creates a fantasy world for himself called The Dream Archipelago. In the dream world, he is a native of Faiandland on the northern continent, but is travelling south to Collago to receive 'athanasia' (immortality gene therapy) treatment after winning the lottery. He befriends some women (possibly the same woman, if they are indeed made up) along the way - who are very much like his current love interest in London. The action flits back and forth between locales, and eventually we are no longer certain which reality is the real one, and which is the made up. This is a great follow up for group members if people want to explore the setting further, after our slow read.. I thought it was worth 4 out of 5. It was nominated for a BSFA, and won a Ditmar (Australian SF society) award.

    The Destroyer of Worlds by Andrew E.C. Gaska, 2020, 88pp
    This is a scenario for the ALIEN RPG published by Fria Ligan, issued in a boxed set with cards, maps, character sheets, and other do-dads. The production values are nice, as would would expect from the company, but unfortunately the desire to be stylish with the maps has left them with largely illegible symbols marking things on the map. Form is supposed to follow function, there, folks! The scenario itself is OK, workman-like. It didn't really grab my interest. The locations and NPCs are rather de rigeur, but it had a few interestiing concepts. I think it would have read better if the events were described before the locations. 2 out of 5 altogether. All that production quality didn't really add up to a wow-factor for me.

    Mort by Terry Pratchett, 1987, 272 pp.
    Our February book club pick, hosted by @BurnAfterRunning . You're probably all familiar with it, but basically Mort (short for Mortimer) doesn't really seem suited to follow in his father's footsteps, so he goes to a job fair and somehow falls into the position of becoming Death's apprentice. He's taken to the city of Ankh-Morpork - city of the dead - and given some tasks to perform. Rather like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, he doesn't quite appreciate how little he knows and his actions create some messes he needs to clean up. Solid plotting, solid fantasy novel, clever jokes, cliched setting, a fun read, but no more depth than a pulp fantasy demands. 3 out of 5.

    The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest, 1990, 240 pp.
    Another book by Priest - looks like I'll be reading quite a few this year. This one is set on Earth in a vague near future, or perhaps an alternate timeline, around the late 80's or early 90's. In this setting, a nuclear accident in France has led to the depopulation of large parts of southern Britain. The action of the story flits between London and the Salisbury plain.

    The main character, Alice Stockton, is a published, but not tremendously successful, writer. She likes to write biographies of notable women. Her previous book is being held from publication by the Home Office, for reasons unknown. One branch of the plot involves a her efforts to fine out why, and get the manuscript back. Her next book, which she has just started to research, will be about one of her neighbours, a successful children's writer, who as also a political/environmental activist. However, this woman is murdered before we ever meet her. Enter the woman's son, who is a very different person from Alice. All these threads are tied together and, I thought, tied up nicely at the end. Other characters - Alice's new boyfriend prospect, and her Americanized childhood friend - spice up the action.

    Like other Priest books, this one delivers a dream-like near reality setting, at least one unreliable narrator (the other seems reliable), some bizarre circumstances and mysteries that need clearing up, and a blurring of the lines of reality. Unfortunately, due a violent rape scene (which is probably imaginary, but nevertheless disturbing) I cannot recommend the book to club members.

    The Erstwhile by Brian Catling, 2017, 480pp.
    The second installment in Catling's Vorrh Trilogy, this one picks up from the first one, described at the top of the page. Here, we discover that The Erstwhile are the angels who were assigned to guard the Tree Of Knowledge by God, but who were abandoned by him when Eden was abandoned, after Eve at the apple. In London, a visiting Austrian psychologist meets several interesting people, not quite human, living in various asylums, who are these Erstwhile - now awakening again for unknown reasons. William Blake's famous painting of Nebuchadnezzar used one of them as a model. Blake is a minor character in the novel.

    The other main thread follows the characters back in Essenwald and The Vorrh, whom we met in the first book. Ishmael the Cyclops leads a force of armed men back into the Vorrh to find and bring back the Limboia - a sort of Lost Boys of the Vorrh. Ghertude gives birth to her daughter, Rowena, and both her and Ishmael's relationship with Cyrena evolve. 3 out of 5. Look for the conclusion - The Cloven - next month.

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    I’m reading The Affirmation. I’m about halfway through, and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I like the ideas about identity, memory, narrative, and fiction.

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