Book log: Roger Elwood — Continuum 1

Book 61

This is the first of a 4 book anthology series, where the series concept is to have a set of four stories from each author, one per volume, which can each be read as individual stand-alone stories, but which together make up a story arc. It was published in 1974 and was edited by Roger Elwood, which is an entertaining and informative tale in itself.

I bought my copy of volume 1 about thirty years ago, and for various reasons (including the dreaded “it was only going to be in storage for a year or two”) I probably haven’t read it for close to twenty years. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that I only remembered two of the stories — the one by Philip Jose Farmer, which I don’t actually like very much and don’t think works as a standalone; and the story from Anne McCaffrey, which is the first part of what later became The Crystal Singer, and which I’ve thus read a fair number of times in the novel. The others seem completely unfamiliar to me. This is surprising, because there are some good stories in here. I read a library copy of volume 4 a few years after buying this volume, and can vaguely remember something about the closing stories of only those two authors as well. (I think I liked the Farmer sequence better for having seen the end of the arc.)

Philip Jose Farmer – Stations of the Nightmare
Guy shoots at quail flock in his neighbour’s field, and hits a very small flying saucer instead. It escapes into the woods but releases a golden pollen-like substance, and it eventually becomes clear that guy has been contaminated by it. Except nothing much actually happens, and this story doesn’t seem to have any closure that makes it work as a standalone.

Poul Anderson – My own, my native land
Coming of age story on a recently colonised planet. The settlement is up on a plateau where the atmosphere is breathable for Earth-born humans; one of the colonists has had to crashland a survey shuttle down on the plains, where the conditions are barely survivable without some form of life support. The colony can’t spare another shuttle to retrieve the salvageable parts and datatapes by air, but it’s still worth taking them out by road. The problem is having to cut the road first, in an environment that’s not actively hostile but requires immigrant colonists to wear life support if they want to do any heavier labour than slow walking. The shuttle pilot recruits one of the locally-born teenagers to go back with him for the salvage parts. Enjoyable as an individual story.

Chad Oliver – Shaka!
A trading company’s spaceship finds a way around the prohibition on cultural contamination in order to protect their trading partners on a primitive planet from an aggressive neighbouring tribe. They use an obvious historical model — but some time later have to find a way to ameliorate the effects of their cultural tampering. Enjoyed this.

Thomas N Scortia — The Armageddon Tapes
Now this one worked as a standalone for me, while leaving me wanting to read the rest of the arc. Someone who was as a child part of a group abducted by aliens and integrated into their spaceship’s ecology has recently been returned to Earth, and is being interrogated by the minions of what is clearly a deeply unpleasant dictatorship. The interrogation is not exactly going according to plan…

Anne McCaffrey – Prelude to a Crystal Song
This is the first segment of what later became the novel The Crystal Singer, although MacCaffrey re-wrote large chunks of the anthology series material, in particular giving it a different ending. I always loved this short story and the novel that grew from it, in part because the heroine really isn’t always likeable – and the author knew it. But in spite of Killashandra having, as McCaffrey says, a generous portion of the conceit and ego needed for her chosen profession of opera singer, she also has courage, the self-understanding to recognise her self-pity for what it is, and the maturity to indulge herself just a little with self-pity after a crushing disappointment at the end of her time as a music student and then move on to practical consideration of what else she might do with her life. Fate hands her the opportunity to take her inborn talent and hard-won skill to another profession, one where the rewards – and the risks – are a worthy challenge.

Gene Wolfe – The Dark of the June
Very short piece that can’t be reviewed without spoilering it.

Edgar Pangborn – The Children’s Crusade
Thirty years after a limited nuclear war combined with biological warfare has drastically reduced the population, the people in a small Vermont village are mostly getting along fairly well with the level of tech they’ve managed to retain. Then along comes the Children’s Crusade, led by a man who was a very young child at the time of the war. He’s not an evil man, but he certainly has the potential to be a threat. Two of the villagers join the Crusade as it leaves the village after staying for a few days. I’d like the story a lot better of the author didn’t openly hector the reader about what I presume are the author’s political views – and I say this even though I either agree with or am neutral about most of them. Notable for discussing the issue of global warming back in 1974.

Dean R Koontz – The Night of the Storm
Four members of a robot civilisation go on a hunting expedition where part of the point is to deliberately cripple their senses and physical strength so that the hunt is a more equal match between robot and animal. They tell each other campfire stories, including the story of the legendary “human”, a creature that is an animal that can think. And as with all good campfire ghost stories, they start to see things in the shadows, where it’s just that little too dark for them to see clearly… Loved this, and it would be my main reason for keeping the anthology in order to re-read.

LibraryThing entry

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Book log: Miss Read — Village School

Book 60

First book in a series about life as the headmistress (and indeed one of only two teachers) in a village primary school in 1950s England, originally published in 1955. It’s fiction, but clearly drawing from personal experience. The idiosyncrasies of village life are observed with a gently wry tolerance, and even gentler irony.

After five chapters, I think that this is a Did Not Finish for me — not because it’s a poor book, but because it’s a good book that’s somehow not quite my taste, and the To Be Read pile I can see from here contains some 40 books, at least half of which I have good reason to think I’ll like a lot better. I shall put it aside and try it again some other time, since it’s the sort of thing I ought to like.

LibraryThing entry

Book review: Diana Dors — Behind closed Dors

Book 59 (Although I’ve actually been reading this on and off for several months, and have only just got around to writing a capsule review.)

Second volume of memoirs from Diana Dors. This is in A-Z format, with several short tales under each letter heading, covering a range of topics. A lot of it is salacious gossip about assorted big names of the day, and not just people from the entertainment field — some sympathetic, some not. There is also a small selection of photos of Dors.

If you’re interested in Dors herself, or the period in British cinema and tv when she was working, this is well worth reading, and the format makes it a good book for dipping into for ten or fifteen minutes; but be aware that it really was aimed at the salacious gossip market, so if you find that sort of thing tedious you might be better giving this a miss, as you’ll be skimming large chunks of it.

LibraryThing entry

interim September book log

56) Brian Aldiss — “Equator” and “Segregation”
http://www.librarything.com/work/182737

57) Philip Jose Farmer — Timestop
http://www.librarything.com/work/465053/

58) Frank Herbert — The worlds of Frank Herbert
http://www.librarything.com/work/19078

In progress: “Continuum 1” (anthology edited by Roger Elwood) for the print book, and “The Blue Geranium and other stories” by Agatha Christie and read by Joan Hickson for the audiobook. The latter of which I am about to go and listen to, because for the last few days I have really not enjoyed looking at a screen in the evenings. I have this evening bought and installed a significantly brighter light in my study to decrease the contrast in brightness between monitor and everything else, which is helping somewhat.

I also had a shopping accident in The Works this evening (er… three, and then another four, and then two more to round it off from the three for a fiver table), so I may be back later to update my LibraryThing with the new shinies.

Book review: Agatha Christie — The Blood-Stained Pavement and other stories [audiobook]

Book 55

This is a 2-CD audiobook of the first five stories from the Miss Marple collection “The Thirteen Problems”, read by the late, great Joan Hickson, who played Marple on tv in the 80s and 90s. In each story, a small group of friends gathers together each Tuesday night, and spend part of the evening with one member telling the story of a mystery they encountered, and the others trying to work out what actually happened. Miss Marple, of course, is always the one to solve the puzzle, by drawing on parallels she has seen in village life down the years.

Hickson’s reading is an absolute joy to listen to, not only because she is Miss Marple for myself and many other fans, but because she is a superb reader. Her reading is perfectly paced, and brings the characters to life. The stories themselves are entertaining enough, although are probably best taken two or three at a time rather than all at once, as otherwise the consistent pattern of the stories could become annoying formulaic rather than pleasurable. I found that I usually worked out roughly what had happened and who had done it, but the exact details of how weren’t that easy to spot — although clear enough in hindsight…

A marvellous way to spend a couple of hours, although I may go out and buy the set with the complete “Thirteen Problems” to replace this set and its companion set “The Blue Geranium and other problems”, which don’t quite cover the full 13 between them.

LibraryThing entry

Book review: Agatha Christie — Sparkling Cyanide [audiobook]

Book 54

This edition is an abridged audiobook on 3 CDs, running time about 3 hours, read by Nigel Anthony. According to LibraryThing, it’s the last of four novels featuring Colonel Race.

A year ago, a group of people sat down to dinner around a table in the Luxembourg table. One of them was dead by cyanide at the end of the evening, apparently a suicide. But Rosemary’s husband tells a friend that he has come to believe that she was murdered, and has set a trap for the murderer in the form of a remembrance dinner on the anniversary of her death. It’s a trap that will be sprung in the worst possible way, leaving his friend Colonel Race to tease out the clues — before a third murder is committed.

In a series of flashbacks, Christie shows how each of the people around the table that night had a motive for murdering Rosemary, including her husband. As the action moves forward to the anniversary dinner and its aftermath, each character study is developed further, shedding new light on people’s behaviour but often only changing their motive rather than removing it. Race has a problem on his hands — there is an abundance of suspects for each murder, but any individual suspect really only has all three of method, motive and opportunity for one of the murders. And yet the murders are clearly linked…

The solution to the mystery is simple in hindsight, but well concealed by the array of convincing motives on offer. And even when Colonel Race finally understands the pattern of events, the suspense continues, because the pattern points to one more murder that must take place.

The mystery is an enjoyable way to pass a few hours, and the book is by and large well read by Anthony. I did find his reading of female characters’ dialogue slightly irritating, as he used a slightly falsetto voice which simply sounded silly to me and thus pulled me out of the story slightly. But it’s an enjoyable audiobook that I’ll be happy to listen to again.

LibraryThing entry

Book review: David Niven — The Moon’s a Balloon [audiobook]

This is an abridged version of the first volume of Niven’s memoirs, read by Niven himself. The edition I have is 2 CDs, with a running time of about 2 1/2 hours.

It says something about Niven’s talent for storytelling that as a teenager I utterly adored my parents’ copies of Niven’s memoirs, even though I had no idea who he was and had never seen any of his films. I picked them up because they were books and they were there, and I had a marvellous time. His anecdotes were frequently hilarious, occasionally desperately sad, and always entertaining. The books offered a fascinating insider view of Hollywood in the thirties to sixties, although I now know that some of Niven’s stories were closer to fiction than fact in his quest to entertain his audience.

The audiobook of A Moon’s a Balloon was recorded in 1977, and Niven is charming, funny, and a superb reader. It starts with his school and Sandhurst days in the 1910s and 1920s, and then covers his first military career (with some hair-raising stories about his antics in the Highland Light Infantry). It moves on to his initial move to the US, and how he ended up in Hollywood. Niven’s later career was a glittering one, but as he entertainingly describes, he started at the bottom of the ladder, and was not the most promising of new actors when he first had a chance to break out of the ranks of the extras. The audiobook also covers his return to the UK on the outbreak of war and his (eventually successful) attempts to rejoin the armed forces — though Niven was always reluctant to talk about his war experience, and says very little about his time with the Commandos in the print book, and even less in the audiobook. Then there’s a passage about his return to Hollywood after the war.

Though some of his anecdotes were embroidered, or re-told as his personal experiences when in truth they happened to his friends, he has a knack of making the listener feel as if they could have been there. And there’s real emotion as he reads some of the passages — most movingly, you can hear him holding back the tears as he reads the passage about the death of his first wife, even though she had died some thirty years before this recording was made.

Unreliable narrator though he may be, from the perspective of a reader/listener in the early twenty-first century this is a fascinating slice of history. Fascinating, and hugely enjoyable. I’m very glad I bought this.

LibraryThing entry