Thursday, September 19, 2019

September Reads Part One

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man by Dave Hutchinson
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Thank god: a month containing new releases from Dave Hutchinson and Nina Allan! Though, The Silver Wind is not new; it's a reissue from Titan Books, who have been releasing Allan's work into the North American market.

Alas!! I did not like The Silver Wind!!! And I'm heartbroken to report such! It's advertised as a collection of interlinking stories, but I suspect this is a retroactive label: a diverse set of stories sharing some names squeezed into the limiting box called a "short story collection." Perhaps I was set up for disappointment based on this assumption formed by the cover copy. My own assumption, of course, let's not be dishonest. Individual stories are fine, some ranging from great (the opening salvo) to whatever (a later story), but the project in totality feels like a practice run for the more accomplished and cohesive Dollmaker. The similarities abound: both protagonists are craftsman working in obsolete, practically antiquated fields (horology, dollmaking); both protagonists suffer some sort of disability (club foot, dwarfism); both protagonists harbor and nurse a fire within, a crush (bordering on obsession) for a fickle woman. I'm not opposed to writers using short stories to work out thoughts and ideas for longer projects! Not at all! Perhaps my deflation was from reading both projects so close together! The Dollmaker only came out in April. Oh well. I still think she's our finest writer of speculative fiction working right now.

Oh Dave. Dave, Dave, Dave. You are truly one of a kind. Am I bragging when I say I figured out the joke of the title, the solution to the mystery, as it were, in the first 50 pages? I'm attuned to the tricks writers use, I suppose. Same as any nerd buried head deep in genre as long as I have been. Still, knowing the ending didn't diminish any of the pleasure I had reading this practically perfect slice of "science gone wrong!" Hutchinson makes it look easy: the steady accumulation of dread, the sardonic humour that isn't so cynical as to be unbearable, the gentle poking fun at conventions. Hutchinson's obviously tickled by genre and hopes to deflate its pompousness a bit without devolving into adolescent rebellion or malice. I get the sense (from the book, and from following him on Twitter) he's read widely. Exploding Man features some fun Len Deighton moments of spycraft but taken down a peg. I think Deighton, with his sense of humour, would appreciate. All in all, just another terrific outing from one of our best writers of spec fic.

I've searched long and far for a copy of Of Human Bondage that didn't have a shit cover and wasn't printed with that matte cover all books seem to have now. Who would have thought Dover of all presses would be my saviour. This edition was only 12 bucks and was set in Electra, a bonus I wasn't expecting. As I didn't notice any wobbling of the letters on the lines, I believe this was freshly set from a digital source! Not what I expected from Dover Thrift Editions. This challenges my prejudices towards non-Penguin, non-Oxford presses of public domain literature.

The book itself shocked me. Not its content. But by how anonymous its style is! I don't know what I expected but I don't think it was this journeyman prose. Maugham has such a strong grasp of plot and character but he struggles with any description or bon mot. Many of his adjectives are repeated continuously. Unless a "scrappy" meal was an actual thing, it's kind of irritating to read every meal being described so. And the meal itself isn't even described! Not that I care that much; I'm not looking for an Iris Murdochian cataloging of meals, but you know what I mean.

I liked Of Human Bondage. I felt queasy reading it sometimes, as the protagonist, Philip, sounded sometimes like a proto-incel/MRA. He seems to hate women. He treats them like shit even when he loves them and he manipulates them to treat him like shit in turn. Very bizarre to read this in 2019. I'm suspicious of the happy ending he receives, even if, emotionally, I felt exhilarated when it arrived. I can't say I'll read another Maugham but I do own a copy of The Painted Veil, so we'll see. A friend mentioned Maugham's best stuff is his stories grappling with colonialism.

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