Do Not Read These At Home

More duds for your enjoyment and avoidance, the most recent in an occasional series of hatchet jobs. Links to others in the series are at the end of the page.

clicqotThe Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (2008), by Tilar J Mazzeo

After reading this biography, my book club reassembled. ‘So, what did you think?’

A: ‘Complete tripe.’

B: ‘Agreed. The author’s a fraud, can’t possibly be a real historian.’

C: ‘What is a cultural historian anyway?’

D: ‘I liked some of the nuggets of information about champagne making.’

A: ‘And how champagne bottles evolved.’

B: ‘OK, yes, those were interesting. But she can’t be a historian, surely? She’s using 16 pages of “selected bibliography”, but every other sentence has ‘undoubtedly’, or ‘probably’. She invents so much it’s impossible to see what might have been fact.’

D: ‘Perhaps she thought she was writing a novel.’

B: ‘She thanks her parents in the Afterword for helping her spin a yarn through many drafts.’

A: ‘Hang on, in the Read On bit in my US edition, her degrees are all in Eng lit!’  [collective bemusement]

C: ‘So, it’s really a novel, then?’

B: ‘It reads as if she’d much rather write a novel than do any of her own historical research.’

D: ‘Says here that she travelled five thousand miles to see a copy of something, as if we’re supposed to be impressed.’

C: ‘She’s writing a book about Champagne, and we’re to be impressed that she went there?’

B: ‘The Afterword says that “writing this book has been an exercise in the oblique”, and “it sometimes took considerable imagination”.’

A: ‘It’s a really bad novelisation of other people’s historical writing.’

C: ‘It’s so repetitive. And her tone is all over the place.’

B: ‘My unfavourite bit is where she talks gravely about 19thC maternal death rates and infant mortality, and then burbles on about young married women combatting this by going dancing.’

C: ‘It was a waste of time.’

jonesThe New SF, edited by Langdon Jones (1969)

My friend Brad and I were going to read this vintage collection of science fiction for a blog conversation, but we gave up in appalled disgust. What a bad, bad book. I knew it was going to be tough going when I got to the end of Michael Moorcock’s survey introduction, in which he only mentions male authors. There is one story in the collection by a woman, Pamela Zoline, and it is the best in the book, the most readable, and least self-aggrandising. I’ll look for her short stories now.

Brad suggested that the first story in the collection, ‘Fourteen Stations on the Northern Line’ by Giles Gordon, should be called ‘Idle Thoughts of a Creepy Sociopathic Stalker’, as it’s about fourteen male voyeurs thinking about how to have sex with one thankfully oblivious woman walking down the street intent on her own business. Their sad little fantasies don’t offend me, but the sense of unwanted intrusion, and Gordon’s assumption that all a woman could possibly desire is male attention, make me angry, as does the waste of opportunity in many of the other pieces. Moorcock’s own ‘Peking Junction’ is aimless, provocatively coy twaddle, or, in Brad’s formulation, ‘Jerry Cornelius Parties with Chinese Generals while his Wife and Child are Immolated in the Distance’. He also contributes a four-line poem aspiring to sound like Ezra Pound. It gets no better until Zoline. George MacBeth recreates a car wash menu as his literary sf contribution, then interviews a perceptibly bored J G Ballard like a breathless sycophant. Brian Aldiss (with an initial W) does contribute a story but it’s not sf. Charles Platt writes a short and dreadful account of his sexual fantasies (again! What was it with men writing sf as penis-worship in the late 1960s?) which include plans for a 14-year old (female) virgin. Maxim Jablowski’s drearily pretentious ‘A science fiction story for Joni Mitchell’ also has nothing to do with sf, he just smears himself over the paper. Why did anyone think this garbage was worth the printer’s ink?

wolfeGene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist

This was a disappointment, because I like Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer a lot, and admire Wolfe as a world-builder. However, in this novel he is a far better world-builder than he is a teller of tales, and he sets himself impossible technical obstacles. Latro is a soldier in Ancient Greece, and he’s received a head wound that takes away his memory every night, so he has to commit the day’s events to a scroll to be able to remember who he is, what’s going on, who he’s met. This is a spectacularly inventive way to tell a story, but it requires the characters to tell Latro who they are and what he’s done and how they connect with his quest. By halfway through I was desperately bored of little Io, Latro’s slave-girl, piping up ‘Don’t forget the scroll, master!’ I was very, very tired of Wolfe’s method of hurrying up the narrative by deliberately missing bits out, that Latro will brief us on later, in linear time, so we are perpetually dealing with unintroduced characters already well-embedded in Latro’s own life. I liked the blend of fantasy and historical fiction, and the gods and goddesses are terrific, but I did wonder why they were bothering with the humans. This wasn’t a bad book as such, but it fails, heavily, from its own conceits.

shrinkingRichard Matheson, The Shrinking Man

The premise is brilliant, and Matheson is a superb dreamer-up of ideas and science fiction concepts ahead of his time (see I Am Legend for the birth of the zombie in pulp fiction, for example), but his style sticks in my craw. I cannot be doing with the hyper-masculine angst of the 1950s American man. I know it’s important, I know the novel was influential, but I found it unreadable. There’s a good quote on the back from David Pringle: ‘like a Kafka fable in an Ideal Home Exhibition setting’. I don’t much enjoy Kafka either, but the Ideal Home setting is spot-on. Matheson’s character is utterly self-absorbed (yes, I would be too, if I were shrinking every day), and cannot, just CANNOT get over the fact that he is smaller than his wife and has no authority over his daughter because he is shorter than her. Enduring this is wearying, and tiresome, and thoroughly irritating, as a novel and as a situation. So many emotions, so little interest.

paintLindy Woodhead, War Paint: Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden

This double biography about the two most influential businesswomen in cosmetics is written by a fashion insider, but she isn’t a natural writer: she’s a publicist, and adopts the put-all-your-research-in method for writing this book. I was bored and tired by 1933, with 30 years more to go. There is no selectivity, no discernment about what story could be told: this book is a dumper-truck of facts tipped over the pages, and far too many uninteresting letters printed in full, ad oblivium, without editing. The story should have been sparkling and riveting, but it was tedious. The forthcoming Broadway show has a lot to fix.

See also: Seven Duds for Seven Dustbins and Sorrow and Anger: Books I Couldn’t Finish Or Wished I Hadn’t Started

Simon Morden’s Down Station

DOWN-STATION1I’m a bit behind the pack in reading Simon Morden’s novel Down Station (2015). I’m not sure I’m going to stay on board for its sequel, The White City, published in 2016, but there are a lot of very good things about this London fantasy novel.

1: It isn’t about London. It starts there, in the Underground, with cleaners and maintenance workers, but then there is a Voyage of the Dawn Treader moment in which a portal into another world opens out of nowhere. It’s an escape from utter terror rather than a cosy living-room, and the protagonists fall into a strange sea.

2:  It’s super-realist and beguilingly fantastical at the same time. The protagonists only have their underwear, boots and bright orange Underground maintenance overalls, but the land they’ve arrived in – called Down, though the portal called Down Station – is where buildings grow, magic can be learned, shape-shifting happens, and there are no stars, only an impossibly ginormous moon. I love the juxtaposition of the two modes, and Morden writes convincingly.

3: The explanations for the way Down works are almost science-based, and don’t rely on an evil mage, or a magic orb of power, or a long-lost hidden prince, or a curse. There are no prophecies or quests or faeries, thank goodness. This is ecofantasy working at a very high standard for internal logic.

4: One of the two lead protagonists is Dalip, an engineering student, an attractively earnest hero. The other, Mary, is stonkingly good, though with a limited range of expletives. She’s a stroppy teenager, without much interest in her femininity, which is so refreshing. These two of the small number of characters power the plot and hold all our attention. For these two alone I’d read the sequel.

5: Their antagonists are splendidly original, and true to the plot, which is about making a fresh start to life directly connected to one’s true nature. The darkness in some people’s souls breeds monsters, and there are some spectacularly good ones here.

On the other hand, there are some irritating aspects:

6: The mundanity of the party’s progress, heading through the strange magic-filled land, finding out how it works and how to survive, battling monsters and collecting useful weapons and prizes, is a bit too D&D for me. Role-playing games are about the journey, whereas a novel is about the story that the plot unfolds, beginning, middle and end, and there is a worrying smell of dungeon-master’s plotting about this novel.

7: If Dalip the good boy is worrying about the state of his underwear without any chance for a wash, how are the female characters managing with their periods? Or is the impossibly huge moon stopping the flow? Have they all coincided into amenorrhoea? Teenage girls cannot avoid the undisguisable monthly blood flow unless they’re too thin, which we’ve not been told Mary is. If the other characters’ concerns include a complete lack of baths, hairwashes, laundry, even toilet paper, dealing with periods needs to be part of that. Admit that you know where babies come from, and deal with it. Think through the problems, do the research, or ask a friend.

8: Why did Morden put some characters in the plot, and then forget about them? Mary, Dalip and Stanislav get whole chapters of lines and action, and undergo huge character arcs. Mama is forgotten until mother figure or fat woman jokes are needed, or some pathos about her babies needing her. Luiza and Elena are far too often described as ‘the two Romanian women’, and Elena doesn’t even have a line to say. Grace appears during the escape as an afterthought, then disappears completely. This is astonishingly unbalanced, and unsatisfactory to read. Perhaps Morden was saving Grace and Elena for a big showdown reveal in book 2, but it looks more like he simply forgot them, and had to patch in a few ‘Where’s Grace?’ and ‘We’ll have to go and find her’ lines to cover up when he was reading the proofs.

So I’m almost convinced, but I don’t think I’m convinced enough.

Simon Morden, Down Station (2015 Gollancz), ISBN 978-1-473-21146-9, £8.99