No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Interview: Gwyneth Jones, August 2008

This interview took place in August 2008, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector (issue #260, July 2009), the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: You have a new novel coming soon. Why's it called Spirit?
GJ: Because Gollancz didn't like The Princess of Bois Dormant -- maybe they thought it was difficult to pronounce. I'd just finished reviewing Iain Banks's Matter so I immediately suggested Spirit. And it just so happens that there is an Aleutian pod in this book, which is called the Spirit of '89, and so it gets called Spirit for short. As some of you may vaguely remember, Aleutian artifacts are sentient, so it's a person. And so Spirit it is, though I shall try to rescue The Princess of Bois Dormant when I get to proofs.
TB: Perhaps Gollancz thought that title sounded like a fantasy novel -- but this is SF, isn't it?
GJ: Yes, I think so. It's got spaceships, starfighters ...
TB: A princess?
GJ: It's certainly got a princess.
TB: And Aleutians: what are the Aleutians doing here?
GJ: Not to mention Li Xi-Feng. Ever since I wrote Escape Plans, a bit more than 20 years ago, I've been thinking about the problem of getting out of here. It's a common science fictional theme, and I do not believe that conventional space travel can do it. If you have a lot of money and thousands and thousands of years, maybe you can terraform Mars. So I've been thinking about how to traverse those ridiculous distances, and trying to come up with a fantasy mechanism, that would do that, and a series of events that would explain why and that would cover the how: how do we get there from here. I was brought up by cyberpunks, and cyberpunks taught me that you must not write science fiction that does not have a conceivable backstory. So I had to think of a way. I started in Escape Plans and then I worked on it through the Aleutian trilogy, White Queen and North Wind and Phoenix Cafe, figuring out the ideas of instantaneous transit which are invented by somebody called Peenemunde Buonarotti. Having figured out how it would operate, I wrote Bold as Love. In the Bold as Love sequence, I track through all five books the development of mind/matter tech. The main scientific idea in that sequence is breaking the mind/matter barrier. After writing the Aleutian trilogy, I'd always intended to go on and describe the world after the Buonarotti transit, but I didn't actually have to make it continuous with the previous books. It could have been some completely different future with instantaneous transit that was the Buonarotti transit under another name.

There are many things that have from time to time annoyed me about space opera, but the one thing that has always got me down as a reader and as a prospective writer is that gap. It's not the foreseeable future, it's way over the horizon: hundreds of years away, sometimes thousands of years away. There's this massive discontinuity, and I can't pretend it's not there. You could invent a potted history -- this is the Dune solution, pages and pages of italics explaining what happened in the 300 years between here and there. I didn't like that, and neither did I like the thing where there's a discontinuity but nobody in the book recognises it: they're all quoting Bob Dylan and A level physics from the 20th century.

So when I came to write the Buonarotti book, after having done a little suite of Buonarotti stories to get myself into the frame, I decided that hell, I've got this backstory, I'll use it. Nobody who hasn't read the Aleutian books or the Bold as Love books will even notice. they'll just get a few names which are unfamiliar to them because they're the history of these people. But I'll know and it'll save me from falling into that gap or getting niggled by having to quote Bob Dylan. So when you read Spirit (or The Princess of Bois Dormant) you will find that the history of the Aleutians ruling Earth, the human renaissance and how humans first invented the Buonarotti transit and then 300 years later rediscovered it. You'll find that far back in the distant past the Earth -- which is known as the Blue planet for obvious reasons -- was united by the first emperor, a woman called Li Xi-Feng who is possibly still living at the time of Bibi's adventures. And that's why the Aleutians are in the book.

TB: You mentioned the suite of stories: one of those generated a certain amount of controversy.

GJ: 'The Fulcrum', yes. 'The Fulcrum' is set on the Kuiper Belt station called the Panhandle, which will eventually become Speranza. It hasn't got Aleutians in it, because I decided that was too much weight for a short story, but it's set at the changeover between conventional spacers who have been struggling along -- asteroid miners, B-movie actors doing virtual avatar stuff on Mars -- they've been struggling along through the Aleutian empire and the Aleutians' disinterest, and now the Buonarotti transit is being developed and all the conventional spacers are doomed. They're slaves of microgravity, they can't afford to go back to Earth because they can't afford the hospital fees to get them up and running again. 'The Fulcrum' is the story of that tradition. I think of it as a Hemingway sort of story but I also think of it as a Light sort of story. If I had the nerve I would have dedicated it to Mr Harrison, because I read Light and I thought of 'The Fulcrum'. The story was quite popular and it appeared in lots of venues. And one day I found a review of it on a site called Guns and Gangstas, which is a UK gun lobby site, which spooked me considerably. (There was another review on a porn site, but the review was all about oral sex and I didn't think it was that offensive.) But the Guns and Gangstas review was tearing into 'The Fulcrum' because it didn't have any guns in it. It kind of spooked me because I thought, 'this has to be a science fiction fan who is also a gun lobbyist and who got annoyed enough at my story -- which isn't exactly non-violent -- that they reviewed it at length on this non-SF site': and so, as I said in my blog, I took to sleeping with my water pistol under my pillow. And after I wrote that blog post the review disappeared.
TB: That leads us on to a more expansive question about the new space opera: whether or not space opera does support the big military machine. It's something you discussed in your review of Iain M. Banks' Matter.
GJ: As I said in the review of Matter, people now think that Iain Banks' Culture novels were an immediate critical and popular hit. They were not. They were unfashionable. But the thing about space opera coming back into fashion is that I saw it as very much a retrograde step. The conventional space opera certainly takes as its premise, in most cases, an environment of permanent warfare. The characters are either military or mercenary, or they are on the fringes of the military / mercenary world. I didn't like that view of the distant future. I'd previously concentrated on the near future; I didn't want science fiction to return to the Gernsback continuum.
For a while I didn't take to it and then, y'know, everybody's doing it. It's like miniskirts. When miniskirts first came out I thought 'never in a million years', and then, y'know, the hem of your skirt starts creeping upwards because everybody's doing it. In the end, I was thinking, 'I'd quite like to write space opera'. And of course the Buonarotti device meant that eventually I would have to write a space opera, but it wouldn't be such a full-on space opera if space opera had not become fashionable in the meantime. If you should come to read Spirit (or The Princess of Bois Dormant) you'll find out what I mean. There's no pretending that it's anything else.
TB: OK, so you're addressing the inherent themes of space opera in Spirit, but you're also reinterpreting them, approaching them from the non-fiction side as a critic. This year the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) recognised your criticism by conferring the Pilgrim Award. Congratulations! As you said on your blog, you hadn't really expected any sort of critical acclaim for your criticism.
GJ: I don't know when I became a respected critic!
TB: Do you see the fiction and the criticism as two ways of addressing issues in science fiction? What's the relation between the two?
GJ: In a recent SFX poll I was described as a hippie, and I think that's the politest thing they could think of to say about what I am. What I am is an intellectual. Whatever I was doing I would be thinking about it, thinking hard and getting into it. So naturally since I write science fiction, I also think about science fiction, and occasionally I write about what I'm thinking about. I didn't ever set out to write criticism, it was always triggered by something. I've often wanted to be a fly on the wall at conferences where things interesting to science fiction are happening, and a good way to do that is to present a paper. So I've presented papers at a Computers and Writing conference; at a conference about the governance of cyberspace; at a conference about biopolitics. This is the way you get to sit there and listen, and if you're lucky you get to hear the corridor talk as well. There was always something like that behind my critical work: somebody gave me a nudge and I wrote something.
When I reviewed Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, as I said in my Pilgrim acceptance speech, I didn't know that I was breaking any boundaries. It would be impossible now, but when I wrote that review in 1994 I didn't know what I was supposed to think. It would nowadays be well-nigh impossible for a science fiction writer to pick up a significant new novel and not know what they were supposed to think about it. That's the internet explosion for you. You can turn off your broadband and shut down your email and be pure, but if you're living in the internet world you're bound to know what other people think because, to a great extent, that's where science fiction and the science fiction community happens now -- on the internet. My review of Snow Crash may have poked fun at it a little, and it was a cat among the pigeons review.
TB: You've said that criticism and fiction come from exploring the same areas. What do you think is the difference between criticism and reviewing?
GJ: Reviewing is part of the publishing machine. It's a means of promoting and selling books. That's what publishers believe, that's what a great many writers believe, and that's what the public tacitly accepts. Criticism is a disinterested commentary on the genre. It lives in the chinks of the reviewing machine.
Reviewing books is a shockingly corrupt business: it always has been and it always will be. You can't blame the publishers and the writers. The gateway to success is very narrow and many writers and many publishers take it for granted that schmoozing the reviewer, trashing the opposition, c'est la guerre. You can try to be as honest as you possibly can. You try to be clean. I think to try and see yourself as cleaning the Augean stables, that's an error. Reviewing will go on being corrupt whatever people do. Some people love writing critical studies of novels, and they will be honest because it's what they enjoy. If you've got a reviewer or a critic who really likes the sound of their own voice then they're going to have more respect for the integrity of their own writing than they have for the commercial interests involved.
All reviewers are biased. If you are a person who likes to read reviews then you soon discover a person's bias by reading a few of their reviews.
TB: There's fiction and there's criticism: there's also a strong thread in your work of science.
GJ: I've been a long-time science groupie. If I'd been able to pass my Maths 'O' level I would probably have gone into plant biology. That's the trade I gave my scientist heroine in Life, because I knew something about it and I could lead her through the first steps of it without killing myself with research. I'd have been a scientist, and by now I'd probably be some sort of administrator, pushing paper around. I'm good at it. Since I didn't go into science I remained a groupie, and I like reading scientific papers and books, like thinking about the next big thing: and this is where I have a disagreement with Geoff Ryman and his Mundane SF because I think anybody who has the slightest acquaintance with modern beliefs about cosmology ... I mean, mundane just does not cover it. The things that people believe about how the universe was formed, whether it was formed, are just completely bizarre. As I tried to discuss in the Bold as Love books, new science gets buried in the applied technology and we never think about it. If you actually thought about what a transistor is and does, you'd be spooked, because it's weird. Unimaginable strangeness seems to me to be unavoidable in science. Of course you don't have to think about it. You can just use it as cookery; put the ingredients, shake 'em around, see whether you've got the right kind of particles. But if you actually think about it then it's very bizarre. I like science for that reason, and I like trying to think about things like mind/matter tech. The state of high-energy physics at the moment is ludicrous, it seems likely that it's ripe for a revolution. My imaginary version of this revolution is breaking the mind/matter barrier, getting to a point where there's some kind of experiment that will prove that our perception of the universe and the material universe itself are on some level continuous.
TB: Can you say a bit about the 'When It Changed' project?
GJ: I don't actually know much about it yet myself. Geoff Ryman works for Manchester University now, and this summer he started a project: the net result is supposed to be an anthology of stories which are triggered by several different science fiction writers shadowing several different scientists. I can't remember who else in it apart from Geoff himself. If you picked up anything about how the Buonarotti transit works, you'll see it makes sense for me to have picked on the chap that does particle accelerators. Whether he'll think it makes sense is a very big part of the question! You couldn't really expect the scientists to choose their science fiction writers -- most of them may have read Asimov, and they may like Doctor Who, but modern print science fiction would be a totally closed book to them. Each of the writers picked a scientist we liked (Geoff moderated somehow so that nobody got scrappy) and the idea is that you study your scientist's work insofar as your tiny brain allows you to do so, you take a trip to visit your scientist and then you write a story. Your scientist in some way moderates this story -- I don't know how that's going to work -- and then it goes into this anthology. That's all I know so far. I haven't actually made second contact with my particle accelerator chap. He's got a lot of stuff, PowerPoint presentations, on the web, and I am going to look at them and see if I can make anything of them, see if I can pick up a few key words before I go and see him. And then we'll see what happens. I haven't got a story in mind. I feel that in this instance it would be a mistake to have a story in mind, especially since I don't know why Geoff called the anthology 'When It Changed'. 'When It Changed' is a highly significant ancient feminist science fiction story. (When I say ancient, more than five years ago.)
I don't usually write short stories: usually it takes me a year to write a short story. But I'll think of something: a wing and a prayer.
TB: What else do you have in progress?

GJ: There's Spirit, which is allegedly being published 29th December. I've also got a short story collection called Grazing the Long Acre with PS Publishing. Grazing the Long Acre is the title of a story which was in Interzone about 20 years ago, and it involves whores on the roadsides of one of the great roads of Europe. 'Grazing the long acre' is a term which I know from Ireland, but it's also known in pretty much the same words -- Polish words -- in Poland, which is where the story is set. What it means is, if you've got a cow and you ain't got a field then you take her out to graze the long acre, the verges of the road. It's like living in the chinks of the world's machine only different, less whiny. I was going to call the collection Gravegoods because that was the most ancient Buonarotti device story, but Gravegoods is such a conventional name it started to annoy me, so I changed it to Grazing the Long Acre. That's supposed to come out at the end of 2008.
TB: What about non-fiction, and critical works?
GJ: I keep a blog intermittently. It isn't a proper blog, it doesn't have anything remotely blog-like about it, it's just occasional diary entries. Occasionally I'm accepting books for review from Strange Horizons, and that's about it. As far as I can remember I haven't got any non-fiction I'm working on at the moment. I'm working on an Ann Halam novel, a Gothic novel with a spooky house and happenings which may be supernatural but really they aren't.
[Audience] You referred to an extraordinary novel you wrote a few years back, Life, which had a bit of a problem finding a UK publisher despite winning awards in America. Yet suddenly you're releasing a space opera which seems very far removed from what you normally write.
GJ: I haven't found a UK publisher for Light and I think it's too late now, it'll never be published here. Writing a space opera is ... what can I say, it's all the same to me. I have to come to like the idea of writing a space opera so I wrote one. My last project was a rock'n'roll fantasy: before that it was the Aleutian trilogy, and I don't know what you'd call that: then Kairos, Escape Plans, Divine Endurance. All my books are different, I don't have a specialism: I suppose in some ways I'm a dedicated follower of fashion. Space opera's fashionable, write space opera.
[Audience] One of the things I like about the Aleutian trilogy and the Bold as Love sequence was how tightly bound they were to the present, to this planet Earth now, the ways people think and live on this planet now. Are you trying to escape from that in Spirit?
GJ: The second book I wrote was called Escape Plans: I'm always trying to escape! But I spoke earlier about establishing continuity. To be comfortable writing Spirit I needed social continuity. When you read it, you will or should find it mentally continous with the worlds that I'd imagined, with the futures I'd imagined in the Aleutian trilogy and in the Bold as Love sequence -- in reverse order of course.
[Audience] Some scientists believe there isn't a continuity, that we can't get there from here
GJ: I've made myself more comfortable as a writer by using my previous fiction to give myself a fictional continuity.
[Audience] When you were last here talking about Bold as Love, you admitted committing trilogy or worse. Are you doing the same for Spirit, or is it a one-off?
GJ: It won't necessarily be a one-off. This is a space opera. There won't be a sequel to Spirit but there could easily be books set in the same universe. It's got legs, it's an experiment. There's five central worlds: I could write a book set on each. I could do Culture-novel continuity.
TB: Are you planning on writing any more stories in the Bold as Love series?

GJ: Originally I thought that I would write a four-volume novel and the fifth volume would be long afterwards. As it happened, it ended up a five-volume novel and I don't know if I'll ever get the chance to write the 'long afterwards' story. But there's a long short story that I probably will write called 'Stone Free' and featuring the same characters and some new ones.
[Audience] How independent is Ann Halam from Gwyneth Jones?
GJ: Not really independent at all. I can't tell the difference between the books. I know one way in which they are very different. I get very little editorial assistance with Gwyneth Jones books, and I never have since Rainer Unwin and I spent a really long time -- before some of you were born -- duking it out over the body of Divine Endurance. Since then the Gwyneth Jones books haven't had much editorial input. The Ann Halam books are committee books. It's a cooperative venture. I pitch an idea, and we go to and fro with it, and at every turn I'm saying 'what d'you think, shall I do this?' and my editor, my American editor, my agent -- on one occasion my American editor's cleaning lady, I tell no lie -- say 'but why don't do you do this?' and I say 'I'll think about it'. I'm very happy writing that way, it's very interesting, but that's the difference, and if the difference between the voice of Ann Halam and that of Gwyneth Jones is small then maybe it's because I have multiple personality disorder and all my books are written by committee anyway, I'm just not aware of it except with the Ann Halam ones.
[Audience] Back in 2003 you said you thought SF was 'claustrophobic': do you still believe that?
GJ: I certainly can't remember saying it. Science fiction can be claustrophobic because it's such a small world. 'Sci-fi' is a major part of mainstream culture. Everybody loves 'sci-fi'. But SF is a very small world and it's got this oppositional relationship with sci-fi, and I think that's probably what I meant: it's a ghetto mentality. Writing the Bold as Love books I didn't feel claustrophobic as a writer. I didn't feel I was constrained by the difference between science fiction and fantasy, or the rules about writing about the near future, and writing Spirit -- there *is* something, I hate to have to admit it, about those wide open spaces between the stars that's very liberating. People flying around ... not really all over the galaxy, much less all over the universe, but there's a lot of space, and space opera is a place where you can play and not feel constrained.
[Audience] One of your talents as a writer is showing other ways of looking at what's happening.
GJ: This is something that has dogged my footsteps or my typewritten words since White Queen, at least, when I decided that I would make the Aleutians speak with my voice, and I found them called the most alien beings that had graced science fiction in years. So that maybe answers your question: I don't make it up, I do see the world differently, and asking me how to calibrate how exactly I see the world differently -- well, that's why I write the novels, to try and find out for myself.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

#36: Gods Behaving Badly -- Marie Phillips

I didn't have great expectations of this novel -- the third in a 3-for-2! -- but was pleasantly surprised, though I'm not sure the premise of Greek gods hacking out a mortal living in North London is quite as original as the blurbs from the mainstream press insist. They're right about it being funny, though.

The Olympian gods are sharing a run-down, filthy house in North London. Artemis is a professional dog-walker: her brother Apollo is hoping to make a fortune as a TV psychic: Athena runs conferences: Aphrodite is a sex phone worker (her ringtone is 'Venus', the Bananarama version). Dionysus DJs in a squalid Kings Cross club, and makes his own wine. Hermes comes and goes. Eros has become a committed Christian. And nobody has seen Zeus or Hera for years, but then nobody goes to the attic ...

Everyone is bored, embittered and desperate for novelty. Things had all been so much easier in the years they were now obliged to refer to as BC. And voila! Into the tense unhappiness of their domestic arrangements (where is Hestia?) comes Alice, their new cleaner: in Alice's wake comes Neil, who's nursing a hopeless crush on her. Unfortunately the gods have considerable experience with all aspects of Lurve, hopeless crushes and unrequited passions and smiting from afar. Alice and Neil will soon wish that myth was just that.

Aside from [Hades and Persephone], the only other god who's ever been to the underworld is Dionysus, and I wouldn't recommend going on any kind of a journey with him -- he'd just get drunk and forget what he was doing there in the first place. That's probably OK for what you mortals call a stag weekend, but not so good when you're trying to save the planet.

Neil doesn't play the lyre, Alice doesn't tread on a snake. But aspects of their story may well be familiar from other tales.

There's a Pratchettesque feel to the novel, possibly because Alice and Neil are unheroic nerdy underdogs. There are images and themes that reminded me of Neil Gaiman's work, and of Diana Wynne Jones' tales of myth's intrusion into everyday life. There are one-liners (and a certain bleakness of outlook shared by several characters) that are reminiscent of Douglas Adams. On the other hand, Gods Behaving Badly is marketed as mainstream fiction rather than fantasy, so I suspect it'll attract a different readership.

Phillips has a nice eye for imagery (this'd make a great TV series) and I like her take on the gods. Witty, slightly dark, happy endings for most though not all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

#35: Heart-Shaped Box -- Joe Hill

Don't give up on yourself. The dead win when you quit singing and let them take you on down the road with them.

Ageing rock-star Judas Coyne (real name Justin Cowzynski) buys a ghost on the internet. It'll be great for his collection of the weird and occult. It arrives in the shape of the dead man's best black suit, with silver-dollar buttons, packed up in a heart-shaped box. And Jude's got his money's worth, for the goods are definitely as advertised.

Jude doesn't just collect occult paraphernalia. He collects girlfriends (a succession of young girls who he names after their state of origin: the present incumbent is Georgia, and her deceased predecessor was Florida). He collects admirers, drawn to his 'melodies of pain and hate' -- though by the start of the novel all that's behind him: 'Jude didn't care if there was any more music' -- and his brooding air of menace and darkness. He's haunted in more mundane ways by the ghosts of his past: dead bandmates, an abusive father who Jude hasn't seen for over three decades and who's slowly dying in the old house in Louisiana, the girls who he's left broken by the wayside.

That said, Jude's life is remarkably wholesome. His two German Shepherds, Bon and Angus, are his constant and most loyal companions: his secretary Danny is devoted to him: he lives in an old farmhouse in New York State, rebuilds cars, namedrops Trent Reznor and Jimmy Page, mocks My Chemical Romance and goth girl groupies.

Then Craddock, the ghost -- who is not an 'accidental ghost': a hypnotist and psychic in life, he came back on purpose -- begins his work.

This was an odd reading experience: very pacy, immediate, evocative, but once I'd put it down it all faded very quickly. The plot, a tale of supernatural revenge with plenty of twists (some more surprising than others) is well-constructed and builds ominously to its finale. There's enough of the supernatural to make this a gothic (small-g) tale -- Southern gothic, perhaps, because Jude's inner Southerner becomes more present as his layers are peeled away -- and enough rock'n'roll, sharp edges, drama to reel in the goths, despite all the nasty things Jude (or is it Mr Hill?) says about them: their taste for the weird, their emotional neediness, their embarrassing sincerity.

In terms of theme, I could say that this is a book about fathers. (I expect there's already plenty of analysis on this level, given that the author is Stephen King's son). There's Jude's relationship with his father, who punished him for running away to play in a band; there's Craddock's relationship with his family; there are shadows of abuse everywhere, from Georgia's great-aunt's abduction as a child (her ghost haunts the garden) to the used-car salesman who Jude punches out in the parking lot. And there's Jude's father, dying in a bed in a dark Louisiana house.

I think it's also a novel about loyalty -- not just loyalty to friends, lovers and family, but to one's ... I want to say 'vassals', it fits better than 'dependents' -- and about staying true to oneself. And perhaps about growing up, learning what to leave behind and what to keep. It's not just Jude who learns that lesson.

Heart-Shaped Box is cool and competent: the prose is clear, unpretentious and vividly visual. That said, sometimes it felt shallow, like a film: but in the horror genre I'd rather have shallow and arresting than deep and melodramatic.

Friday, August 01, 2008

#34: Sin Cities -- Ashley Hames

I think my own motivation is a selfish need to seek out kicks, put myself outside my comfort zone and feel the endorphin rush of a new and anonymous encounter. And I don't think having such a drive for sexual thrills is an entirely uncommon thing.

Saw this book reviewed in one of the free papers, and thought it sounded fascinating: Hames' increasingly extreme sex-related adventures as he roams the globe in search of audience-grabbing footage for LIVE TV. (Disclaimer: I do not have a TV, I do not watch 'Sin Cities', I did not know.)

Hames makes some interesting observations about a dominatrix's clientele ("I don't think it's any coincidence that a high proportion of paying customers tend to be from the upper reaches of society, often with highly-powered jobs ... the dominatrix helps [them] to fill a vacuum and find a balance in life." He doesn't, however, go on to make the connection between the price and the income.) And there are some fascinating details, the kind of information that might come in handy one day: porn directors keep a microwave handy to destroy the film if they're raided; a viewer's report on the Paris Hilton sex tapes; the best way to nail the male anatomy to a piece of wood. You never know.

There were points, though, when I wondered if Hames had ever actually talked seriously to any actual, non-professional women about sex. On the rise of homemade porn: "It can't be just the boyfriend who wants to do these things, can it? No, it takes two to tango, and my hunch is that girls can be just as naughty when they're shown enough trust and respect." Woof! Er, that is, as a woman I rolled my eyes and made an exasperated noise. But perhaps it isn't that obvious to the average young British male. Or perhaps I' ve become accustomed to greater openness about and enthusiasm for sex than Hames has encountered. (I'd recommend a read of Kerry Sharp's Women's Sexual Fantasies before his next conversation with a porn actress. Maybe he'll get past the 'but surely you can't be enjoying that' stage.)

I'm not this book's intended audience. I'm female, not easily shocked, and I can spell minuscule. That said, the book didn't really live up to my hopes. Hames's style is a peculiar mash of laddishness, confessional and occasional glimpses of a rather narrow-minded outlook. I suppose it goes with the territory -- he's looking for extreme sexual habits, so he needs to be somebody who finds them extreme. Though he says at the end of the book that he's been 'freed from the very British mistrust of sexual difference, and liberated ... from a fear of the unfamiliar', it seemed more like acceptance than understanding or enthusiasm. Not a bad thing, and probably as much as the target audience would be willing to accept.

Mr Hames could do with a better editor / proof-reader, too. And if he is that keen on having a larger penis (thank you, dear author, for so very many details) then I can forward him some emails. I won't be needing them.

Quite an entertaining read but ... unfulfilling.

#33: Cocaine Blues -- Kerry Greenwood

Lydia hinted, dabbing at her unreddened eyes with a perfectly white, perfectly dry handkerchief, at sexual perversions too grim for words. Phryne pressed a little, hoping that words might be found, but Lydia just shook her head with a martyred expression, and sighed.

It's the end of the 1920s and the Honourable Phryne Fisher, born to poverty in Australia and unexpectedly elevated to the British aristocracy, is bored of the social whirl. Foiling a jewel theft, she attracts the attention of an elderly Colonel who's worried about his daughter Lydia, unhappily married in Melbourne. Phryne (named after a Greek courtesan with beautiful breasts, due to her father being hungover at her christening) decides to try her hand at sleuthing in Australia.

Acquiring a set of loyal followers (and a gorgeous and passionate Russian dancer), Phryne sets about her task with energy, wit, enthusiasm, and a coolly decadent style that's all her own. She's worldly-wise enough to evade traps both intentional and otherwise, and elegant enough to do as she pleases -- the prerogative of the upper classes, though of course it helps if you can scatter largesse as you go. Phryne has a taste for strong cocktails and gaspers, carries a gun as well as devices supplied by the Marie Stopes Clinic in her luggage, and is generally thoroughly Modern.

Lydia's predicament is tangled up in a mess of illegal abortion, the cocaine trade, dodgy stock trading, communist cabbies and Turkish baths. It should surprise nobody that Phryne proves herself more than adequate to the untangling, though she does at one point wish she'd made a will: "I should have liked to have left my money to the Cats' Home."

This was a present from a friend, to cheer me up, and it's marvellously effective medicine: witty, dry, and vividly evocative of the period -- via telling details (shops and tea-rooms staying open late into the evening, Nellie Melba singing at a private party, dirty streets and dyed feathers) rather than heavy-handed comparisons with contemporary life. The whodunnit isn't transparent, and the pacing is excellent. I have another Phryne Fisher book and am saving it for a low day: shall, however, be on the lookout for more.

#32: The Host -- Stephenie Meyer

That's how we realised you were here, you know. When the evening news was nothing but inspiring human-interest stories, when pedophiles and junkies were lining up at the hospitals to turn themselves in, when everything morphed into Mayberry, that's when you tipped your hand (p. 106)

Meyer, author of the successful teen vampire romance series 'Twilight', turns her hand to SF for a mature audience -- though The Host will almost certainly appeal to a teenage reader as much as to an adult.

The Host (which could be summed up as Invasion of the Body-Snatchers from a body-snatcher's point of view) is set in the near future, some time after the discovery of Earth by souls. Souls are small, silvery creatures with a thousand hair-fine limbs or tendrils, who can be transplanted from body to body, taking control and experiencing the host's sensorium. Most humans on Earth have been 'civilised' by the pacific souls, who are horrified by the violence and hatred endemic in human society. A few bastions of free-living humans survive, but they are hunted down by Seekers.

The Host is the tale of Wanderer, who comes to Earth after the colonisation and is inserted into the body of Melanie, a young woman who was a member of the human resistance, and who suffered appalling injuries while seeking her cousin. Melanie isn't dead, though, and she's terribly strong: her thoughts and emotions keep surfacing, until the Wanderer fears for her own sanity, her integrity, her self. She leaves her job as a teacher and heads into the desert, hoping to discover the fate of those Melanie loved, and thus give Melanie some closure.

Despite Wanderer's long experience -- she's thousands of years old, and has inhabited bodies on seven planets, including a sentient form of seaweed and a bat-like creature that sang -- she's never encountered anything, anyone, like Melanie. Human emotions are much stronger and more varied than those of other host species. And she comes to know Melanie more intimately than anyone, anybody, else ever could.

Meyer examines the philosophy, psychology and biology of self. Is sexual attraction a product of body or of mind? What about familial affection? What about violence, and violent impulses? Can one separate oneself from one's body's wants and needs? What does it mean to take a life? Is the host/soul transaction theft, murder, rape? What does it mean to belong? Can one learn to be selfish, or to be selfless? What happens when 'I' becomes 'we'?

Early in the novel I wondered if Meyer was creating a parable about mental illness. There's a Comforter who feels like a therapist: "Get involved with life rather than with her," she advises Wanderer. "You're struggling so hard with your problem that it's all you can concentrate on." The difference, of course, is that there really are two people, two individuals, in the body that was once Melanie's: as the novel progresses, Melanie emerges as a person in her own right -- rather abrasive, angry, scared, desperately searching for the people she loved -- and because we see her through alien eyes, we also see the alien. Wanderer, too, is afraid and lonely, and finds herself in the midst of humanity at its worst -- and its best. Drawing on her past experience, her other lives, Wanderer sees more than Melanie might.

There are elements of The Host that remind me of YA literature: youthful good-looking protagonists, a strong romantic thread, and an ending that ... well, there are two endings, and I was surprised (and a little disappointed) by the second, which modifies and resolves the first. The Host is a gripping read, well-paced and emotionally engaging, and there are moments of lyricism and astute observations which flesh out an occasionally soft-focus sfnal setting.