Now I’ve finished the latest draft of my novel (and hopefully any further revisions will be relatively minor rather than the major changes I made this time) I can get back to blogging, and to start with, here’s a belated review of The Brakespeare Voyage (ebook here).
This is an odd book for me to review, in that I had — sort of — read it before I ever read it. Simon Bucher-Jones, one of the two co-authors, told me the basic story outline several years ago, and last year he sent me a late draft of the book so we could coordinate stories a little — there is something set up in this book that will resonate a little with my own next book (which will be published by the same publisher, so take this as my declaration of interest).
So when I actually read it, as an actual proper book, there was a strange feeling of deja vu — but then, that’s appropriate for a book like this, which is resolutely non-linear in its structure, and which is built on a dense network of allusions both to other books and to earlier and later events in the novel’s own timeline.
The book is, in essence, the story of a whaling ship, and as such all through it there are resonances with other nautical stories — the Jonahs (whalers who believe their own ship is also a whale), Captain No-One, one strand of the story starting “Call me Nebaioth” (Nebaioth being the son of the Biblical Ishmael) — but this is no ordinary whaling ship, being instead a ship that sails the void between brane universes.
Captaining it — at least in one version of reality — is Robert Scarratt, a figure who will be familiar to readers of The Book Of The War. Both Bucher-Jones and Dennis contributed to that book, and so it should be no surprise that this book makes more use of the Faction Paradox mythology than many of the books have up until this point. Where books like Erasing Sherlock or Warlords Of Utopia are Faction Paradox books because they have a certain atmosphere that fits with the other books, this is something that couldn’t have been done as anything else. It makes use of so much of what is established in the other Faction Paradox books that it’s impossible to conceive of it being done in any other series.
And it’s absolutely marvellous. While the basic form of the narrative is that of a nautical adventure — the kind of story that was mostly told between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries — all the elements of that style of story are given new forms and context in a story which works on the grandest scales imaginable.
Some may find the novel’s form — with multiple narratorial viewpoints intertwined (though mostly just those of Scarratt and Nebaioth), each telling only part of the story and not in chronological sequence, with some metafictional elements also thrown in — difficult, if they’re coming to this book only knowing the authors for Doctor Who spin-off fiction. But the truth is that the form merely fits the subject matter, and Faction Paradox more than any other setting seems to demand this kind of structure (there are superficial structural similarities both to Lawrence Burton’s Against Nature and to the next Faction Paradox novel, though all three books were conceived independently).
The book requires some work from the reader, but surprisingly little for such an idea-rich book. Practically every page, and certainly every chapter, contains an idea around which a lesser writer would base an entire book on its own. My own particular favourite was Hilberta’s Hostel, which I found a beautifully funny concept.
I’m really not doing justice to the book, but it’s probably the best thing that either Bucher-Jones or Dennis have written, and another sign that the Faction Paradox series is in safe hands at Obverse.
For those who are interested, Simon has posted several pieces about the evolution of the novel on his blog, where you can also read some pieces of Faction Paradox flash-fiction.
Full disclosure before I start this — I am friendly with the author and the publisher, and I also potentially have a book coming out from this publisher. I don’t think that this has biased my opinions in any way — I became friendly with them because we shared a lot of tastes, so it’s unsurprising that I would then enjoy this book — but it’s only fair to point out up-front.
I’ve been putting off reviewing this one for quite some time, because as I’ve said before I’ve not been thinking very well for the last few months due to ill-health, and this is a book that deserves a more considered, thoughtful response than perhaps I am able to give. However, I’m still not fully well, and don’t know how long I would have to wait otherwise, so this is my best assessment given my limited faculties.
Against Nature is a fascinating, difficult book, that makes no concessions to the reader but is all the better for it. It’s dense, allusive, and expects its reader to think — but it gives plenty to think about. This is Faction Paradox in big, important, thoughtful mode, rather than light adventure mode — think Newtons Sleep or, especially, This Town Will Never Let Us Go rather than Erasing Sherlock or Warlords Of Utopia. I’ve read it twice, and I still haven’t got all of it, but that’s a good thing — this is a book that absolutely rewards rereading.
I loved it.
I’m mistletoe, Todd thought, I was living on that tree, and now I’m cut off, just moving forward until I sputter out. He wondered if this life might present him with other obvious symbols for his consideration, truths revealed in the everyday details. It felt a little like this whole world was all for his benefit, so maybe.
Against Nature is about sacrifice, and the nature of sacrifice, about dying-and-resurrected gods (and ones that die without resurrection), about what it means to be cut off from one’s culture and one’s past. It’s a book that could only have been written by someone profoundly disconnected from his own culture — and it’s no surprise that between writing the early drafts of this, and its final publication, Lawrence emigrated to the US.
The same injustice had befallen Europe a few centuries earlier, barbarians at the gates and so on, swords turning out to be mightier than pens despite the proverb. It was always the stupid idea that caught on, the story that even the village idiot could follow without giving himself a headache. Human history was a ratings war, and people would always choose the flashing lights, special effects, and generic hero pleading you don’t have to do this! over things of value.
One of the ways in which Lawrence creates this effect has been misunderstood by several of the readers, particularly on some Doctor Who forums (Faction Paradox still has a residual connection to what Lawrence refers to as Magic Doctor Who Man Telly Adventure Time). The book is set in multiple times, in multiple locations, with multiple cultures. Two of those cultures — the Great Houses and the medieval Mexica people (the people we think of, wrongly, as “the Aztecs”) are ones which are very, very different from the likely cultures of any of the readers, not only in behaviour and attitudes, but in language.
Lawrence throws us in at the deep end, cutting rapidly, every two or three pages, between wildly different locations and time periods, with stories that parallel and comment upon each other, but do not link up until near the end. Each of these different cultures is presented to us without comment or explanation, so our first glimpse of the Great Houses’ culture comes with:
The blinkers were fashioned from the clothing of the deceased, specifically a pressure suit once belonging to Herrare, the material cut to form a collar of hide curving around the eyes in the manner of goggles. Emioushameddhoran vel-Xianthellipse adjusted the knotted strips of fabric which kept the blinkers in place and took a moment to inspect herself in the cheval glass
while the Mexica strand of the story starts:
It was the day Ome Ozmatli of the trecena Ce Izcuintli as reckoned by the Tonalpohualli calendar of the Mexica — Two Monkey, presiding Deities being Xochipilli, Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl. This was hardly an auspicious combination by which to embark upon travel, but there being only nine days left before the occasion of the impending New Fire Ceremony, Momacani was left with little choice.
The cultures involved are ones which Lawrence has an expert understanding of — he has been studying the Mexica people for decades, and has been involved in Faction Paradox fandom (for want of a better word) for almost as long. The result is that he can write about these cultures fluently, from the perspective of someone who lives there, because he does, at least internally.
Several readers complained about the fact that they had to keep track of unfamiliar names like Emioushameddhoran and terms like Ce Izcuintli, and there is no question that this does make the book many times more difficult to read than it otherwise would be. But this seems to me to be entirely intentional — the reader experiences a miniature culture shock every two to five pages, and has to assimilate everything with no background. One is as rootless as Todd, the closest thing to an audience-identification figure in this book.
But I’m making this sound like it’s a hard slog, something to read out of a sense of duty, and it’s anything but. It’s a clever, thoughtful, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking book, and will almost certainly prove the best novel I read this year.
In other news, I’ve decided to start putting my book reviews on Goodreads, since Amazon don’t want authors posting book reviews on their site. I’ve had the account a couple of years, but only just started using it. Add me here if you want. Or not.
For the next month or so, most of my writing time will be taken up with copy-edits on the Beach Boys book and on my novel (along with the Doctor Who posts and How To Build Your Own Time Machine). So for the next month most of what’s posted here will be rather light book reviews.
To start with, Shell-Shocked: My Life With The Turtles, Flo And Eddie, Frank Zappa etc. by Howard Kaylan.
For those who don’t know the name Howard Kaylan, he’s probably most famous as the lead singer of the Turtles. He sang lead on all their hits, as well as writing Elenore and a lot of their album tracks, but after they split up in the late sixties, he and Mark Volman (the Turtles’ backing vocalist, tambourine player, and comedian to Kaylan’s straight man) went on to do an immense amount of other interesting work — lead vocalists with the Mothers of Invention for a couple of years, backing vocals with T-Rex, backing vocals on Hungry Heart by Springsteen, and much more, as well as their own albums of hippie comedy-folk-pop under the name Flo And Eddie.
Kaylan’s autobiography is a fascinating, but frustrating read. Kaylan is clearly one of the more intelligent, thoughtful, 60s rock stars, and some of the insights given into the actual working methods of the bands he’s worked with are absolutely fascinating. I hadn’t realised before that Kaylan modelled his vocal style on that of Colin Blunstone (musically he and Volman were definitely Anglophiles, working with Ray Davies and covering the Small Faces at a time when those musicians were nearly unknown in the US), that he and Volman patterned their stage double-act on Louis Prima and Keely Smith, or that the Turtles’ stylistic change from their early folk-rock to the bouncy pop of Happy Together was inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful, but all these things are very obvious once you know.
When he talks about this stuff, the book is at its best — I found the discussions of his writing the great Turtles song Marmendy Hill, or the recording of Lady-O (the last and best Turtles single) riveting, and also loved the insights into Zappa’s working methods, and little details like Springsteen being unable to sing on-key without holding his guitar.
Those portions of the book are, to my mind, easily the most interesting, and I wish there could have been more of them — the recording of the Turtle Soup album, for example (one of the best 60s pop albums of all time) is covered in a little over a page, although this is possibly because it was the Turtles album with least active involvement from Kaylan.
Almost as interesting are the anecdotes about other pop musicians, ranging from the heartbreaking :
When “The Puppy Song” played, Nilsson’s eyes filled with tears. “Dreams are only made of wishes and a wish is just a dream you hope will come true.”
“I was a pretty good singer once, wasn’t I?”
“You’re the best there ever was.” I told him, meaning every word. I was tearing up too.
“He took it from me. He stole my voice and I never got it back!”
The “he” that Harry referred to was John Lennon, who famously produced the Pussy Cats album for Nilsson in 1974. Harry spoke of the primal screaming contests that John would coerce him into.
“I can scream louder and longer than you!” and John could. But, sweet, gentle Harry couldn’t do it. He tried. The competition was fierce, and by the time Lennon returned to London, abandoning May Pang and the lost California years, it was too late; the damage had been done. Harry’s vocal cords were abraded beyond repair and the new stuff was scratchy and desperate. Harry cried.
“Once I was a king, Howard. Now look at me. I’m just waiting to die
to the… well, to this:
Tom Jones was an education all by himself. Every day, when the tour bus arrived at our venue, there were hundreds of waiting, screaming teenage girls, and Tom taunted them mercilessly from behind the safety of his window. He actually pulled out his legendary-for-good-reason schlong, which he had nicknamed Wendell, and waved it at the befuddled girls, who hooted, hollered, and pushed their friends aside to get a look at the one-eyed monster.
“Ooh, you’d like to meet Wendell, wouldn’t you, ladies? Arrrgh, here he comes, girls.” Tom was very advanced.
The best of the anecdotes reveal a huge amount about the musicians Kaylan has known (which seems to include almost every major figure from the 60s and 70s). The worst are just the usual stories of hedonistic excess that pad out every rock bio. For those, you had to be there, I suspect.
What’s rather sad here is that Kaylan’s personal life seems to have been a mess. I lost track of the number of wives he had (I *think* I counted five or six) because each marriage seems to be described in pretty much identical terms — Kaylan meets a woman and marries her. He is convinced that she is The One and he will never need another woman, she promises she’s going to get off the booze and drugs Real Soon Now. Cut to a year or so later, and he’s sleeping with every woman in the continental United States while she’s permanently off her head. Rinse and repeat. (Thankfully, his current wife seems to have been with him about twenty years, so maybe things are better for him now).
Frankly, the book is too short for what it’s trying to do, which is to be both a straight autobiography and a collection of anecdotes and reminiscences about other people. There’s almost nothing, for example, about Kaylan’s working relationship with Mark Volman — despite the fact that the two have been colleagues for fifty years now, I came out of the book knowing next to nothing about him.
But what *is* there, particularly in the first half, is essential reading for anyone who’s interested in the LA music scene of the 60s.
Penn Jilette’s foreword, as well, is fascinating, and makes me think rather better of him than I did previously:
Years later, brilliant voice actor Billy West would say, “There’s one show business.” I didn’t have those words for it then, but Frank Zappa, Howard Kaylan, and Mark Volman taught me that there was only one showbiz that night in Boston. These lightweights were onstage with the heavyweights and they were doing the best show I would ever see. Their voices were beautiful. The music was hard, and they were still having fun. Some of the jokes were very serious and over my head (what the fuck was going on singing in German about a sofa?). Some of the jokes were just stupid jock cock jokes that I would sneer at in my school. It was all mixed together. It was a show that was smart and stupid, heavy and light, beautiful and more beautiful.
They were doing a show with cheesy jokes, and it was also art. How could that be? It wasn’t stuffy—it was funny, entertaining, showbiz, vaudeville, and fun, and it still had content. Those turtlefucking Mothers with those motherfucking Turtles.
They did “Happy Together” in this Mothers show, and it was a really good song. And the music was more sophisticated than I had ever thought. Those perfect AM voices doing art. I loved hearing something I knew from the radio in a smarty-pants show. Were they making fun of it? Yes. Were they also playing it for real? Yes. Were they playing it because it was fun? Yes. My view of showbiz and art came together. It was that moment, during that show in Boston, that the line between showbiz and art was erased for me. If Turtles could be Mothers, maybe a hick juggler could speak his heart in a magic show.
I drove back to Greenfield and now did my best to look as much like the Phlorescent Leech as I could. When people said, “You look like that guy,” I said, “Yeah, the guy in the Turtles, he’s also in the Mothers now.” I was proud of being in showbiz and I was proud of how I looked, and I knew what I wanted to do in life. That’s a lot to learn from a couple of Turtles.
I have been wanting to read Howard Kaylan’s book Shell-Shocked (his autobiography) for some time now, but when it first came out it was only in paperback, and I’m trying not to buy dead-tree books unless I really know I’m going to want to keep them, or unless there will never be an ebook version, because my flat barely has room to move for books.
It’s now available on Kindle, but I don’t have a Kindle, I have a Kobo.
It is, however, available in (DRM’d) ePub form — in the Netherlands.
So in order to buy this book and read it, I have gone to bol.com/nl , gone through the registration and purchase process *in Dutch* (a language which I don’t speak — Google translate doesn’t work well with that site once you get to the purchase pages), and then gone through the process of stripping the DRM from it so it can be read on my GNU/Linux machine.
(It turns out that the book is also available as an epub in Australia, but that doesn’t show up until the second page of Google results, after quite a few illegal downloads).
I did that because I believe that writers should be paid for their work, and I am willing to go to quite some effort to pay for a legitimate, legal, copy of that work. But I can imagine a lot of people being put off by — or actually unable to cope with — that process, and just downloading an illegal copy, for free.
And here’s the thing — there have been times when *I* have done that, because it’s been impossible to find a book any other way. If someone who’s willing to go to the lengths I am to buy legally will sometimes end up going for the illegal option, is it any wonder at all if someone who cares less about the issue will?
It *should not* ever be easier to go for an illegal download than a legal one. I know that territorial deals are an important part of modern publishing, and that there are good reasons behind them, but still, it comes down to this:
If you don’t make your book (or album, or film, or whatever) available in every format, in every territory, and without DRM restrictions, you *will* lose sales. There *is* someone who would have bought your book/album/film who now won’t, not because they don’t want to, but because you won’t let them. Some of those people will ‘pirate’ your product, but it’s not the ‘piracy’ that’s the problem, it’s the fact that you’re preventing those people from giving you money.
Just a brief note for those who are planning on buying this.
The first three Science Of Discworld books, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, were pretty good general pop-science books alternating with chapters of a Discworld novel by Pratchett that illustrated or commented on the science in Stewart and Cohen’s chapters.
This one isn’t.
This time, Stewart and Cohen are clearly aiming for the Dawkins market, and their chapters are essentially a run-through of the standard arguments in all those currently-popular Where God Went Wrong type books.There are some interesting bits, like their demolition of anthropic reasoning, and some odd bits (like Stewart’s continuing insistence on missing the point of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics), but rather than being about science, it’s about how scientific and religious thinking are (by Stewart and Cohen’s standards) fundamentally incompatible.
It’s a witty example of the type, but it’s relatively light on the actual science — there are nuggets of interesting science there, whether talking about possible alternative topologies of the universe or origins of life, but it’s in the service of the anti-religion argument. It’s first and foremost a polemical, rather than a scientific, work.
Meanwhile, Pratchett’s chapters are, frankly, astonishingly weak. The Science Of Discworld books have never been his best work, but the Discworld material here is notably thinner than in the other ones. The plot (about priests suing the wizards for custody of Roundworld) is almost nonexistent, and there wasn’t even a moment when I so much as smiled, let alone actually laughed. It’s clearly the weakest thing Pratchett has written, by quite some way.
If you’re a fan of Stewart and Cohen’s work, and want to read their arguments for scientific rationalism and against religion, then you’ll probably get something out of this. I have several of their other books and enjoy their writing, and while I’m far more interested in their explanations of science than in their arguments against religion, the book is at least a less mean-spirited than Dawkins.
If, however, you’re primarily a Pratchett fan, you can skip this one without feeling like you’ve missed anything. It’s neither a science book or, really, a Discworld one.