Author: GB

An Obsessive’s Delight

As longtime readers of this blog already know, I often throw in a review of a book about auto racing.  While the modern game is a bit tame, I think the history of the sport represents a romantic, hard-nosed and dangerous pastime worth reading about.  Our most recent post dealt with the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but I also like reading about the heroes of earlier ages.

Of course, at some point one needs to talk about Formula one, right?  Well, we need to do more than just this

Peter Higham - Formula One- Car by Car- 1960-1969

So I picked up a copy of Peter Higham’s book Formula 1: Car by Car: 1960-69.  Now, this book does exactly what one would expect, namely discusses  every single car that raced in the hugely innovative decade of the sixties, a decade that began with the last vestiges of the front engined cars of the sixties still on the track and ended with (as you can see on the bottom right photo of the cover above) with cars that had begun to sprout 1970s style wings.

All right. It does what it says on the cover.  So what?

So, the sheer amount of research, looking for the information, the description and, especially, decent photos of every car that made it onto the grid of every race is not an easy task.  In fact, I’d call it Herculean.

Of course, front runners are easy.  We all know everything about every chassis that Jim Clark ever drove, tested or even glanced at, but what about the LDSs and Sciroccos of the world?  Can anyone keep track of the different engined people shoved into Lotus 18 chassis?  Apparently Higham can, and you can follow along with this book.

Of course, labors of love of this sort can often be boring reads.  If you are at all interested in race cars, this one bucks that trend. The accompanying text is not only full of information, but also of interesting anecdote and period feel.

So for any car buffs out there looking for a definitive guide to what raced when, this series (there are books on other decades) is a great place to get the data.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  For completists looking to get his previously-published stories all in one place, a good starting point is Virtuoso and Other Stories.

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The Argentine Experience… Darkly

Venganzas Sutiles by Pablo Mourier

I read mainly in English but, being from Argentina, I’m perfectly capable of reading Spanish-language books when the occasion calls for it.  I strongly prefer to read books in the original language because there’s always something lost in translation, no matter how good the translator might be.

That is especially true of todays’s subject.  Venganzas Sutiles (Subtle Revenges) is a book by Pablo Mourier, an Argentine writer and humorist.  The book is a collection of short tales which, as one can imagine with a name like that, bring many of their protagonists to either sticky ends or uncomfortable resolutions.

The stories themselves are both entertaining and memorable but, more importantly, they convey a sense of the particular idiosyncrasy of the Argentine people.  Except, perhaps, in Uruguay (which is the country most similar to Argentina), these stories could only occur here.  In fact, many of them are very specific to Buenos Aires.

And yet (and the reason I’m writing about it here), the stories are, at the same time, perfectly accessible to non-native readers.  They’ll feel that the people are just slightly off from what they’re used to but not so far as to defy belief.  And they’ll soon realize that the stories are consistent with each other.

So, if you do read Spanish, and would like a window–albeit a very darkly humorous one–into the Argentine mind, this one is for you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His appreciation for dark humor is on full display in The Malakiad, which you can check out here.

Five Classic SF Novels From the Fifties

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58

Two (or possibly seven) American classics came together through sheer serendipity for me.  I was walking through the Strand bookstore in New York (can’t recall whether it was in the SF section or in the hardcover / special area near the checkout counter), and I found a copy of American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58. from the Library of America.

I love these Library of America editions for many reasons: price, presentation and, most importantly of all, the fact that they select only the cream of the crop.  Better still this copy, though pre-owned, didn’t appear to have been pre-read, so it was essentially like buying the book new.

But the important bit was the content.  Like it says on the tin, this contained five novels from a truly fruitful era of science fiction, written by five different men.  Here’s the list:

– Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (this was the only one of the five that I’d read before)

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

Who? by Algis Budrys

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58 with Artwork!

By far and away, the most memorable of these, if not necessarily the best or most enjoyable is the Bester.  Some of this novel is extremely well done, and the parts that aren’t are, at least, laudable for attempting to do something different and audacious.

The main character is strikingly brutal, but then, the fifties were still an era where people understood the banal brutality of the common man, as opposed to what we do today which is to try to look for specific psychoses.  It’s interesting to realize just how effective dumb aggression from a man too underprivileged to know any better, but, at the same time too dogged to give up can be.  It’s also a reminder of why SF was more widely read back then than it is now – the heroes represented everyman, warts and all.  The poor unprivileged main character didn’t need to have a heart of gold… he could just be a guy doing the best that he could.

The part that isn’t brilliantly done is the whole time travel / trippy / ESP bit.  Of course, this was in vogue in the fifties, but it was not impressive sixty years later.  Still, a big book in its day, and still a staple of “best SF novel” lists, and of books like this one.

Who? and A Case of Conscience are tied as the next most memorable.  They are both deeply informed by the fears of the Cold War, and represent their time brilliantly, possibly even better than the Bester.  Staple reading for SF cognoscenti, and decent novels in themselves.

The Big Time is classic Leiber in the sense that he plays with boundaries of the genre and its rules as well as with history and time travel.  It is more fun than the others, and takes itself less seriously at the same time (which ends up making it a good book).  I found it slightly half-baked… and I think Leiber would agree, as he later expanded this concept.

The best of the bunch is still the Heinlein, even though it isn’t one of his “major” works.  Heinlein was just that good.

Most people who buy a book like this one will be general readers attracted to it by the fact that the works were selected by the Library of America.  They will come away with a critic’s-eye-view of what SF meant in the 1950s, and of five sociologically important books of the era.  Is it representative of what the public was reading?  Possibly, but it goes a lot further than that, too.

I heartily recommend this one to my readers who are looking for a good primer on science fiction.  If you share Margaret Atwood’s belief that science fiction is monsters and spaceships, you’ll be surprised by both the literary quality and the connection to the zeitgeist that this one displays.

And if you already like SF, chances are you may have overlooked these novels.  They are definitely worth knowing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is very much connected with the trends of the 21st century and explores the fears we have… or, at least, should have.

It’s Like a Harry Potter Book Where Everybody Dies

The Call - Peadar Ó Guilín

The title of this post is taken directly from a 2017 interview with author Peadar Ó Guilín, and the book he is describing is his own YA fantasy novel, The Call.

Now, I’d never normally use the writer’s own self-promoting words to describe a book but this time it just felt right.  This book does give one a sense of the community building and adolescent bonding from the Rowling books… but in a much, much darker world.

Despite not reading all that much in the YA genre, I’m no stranger to Peadar’s writing.  Some years ago, I had read his novel The Inferior, and had found it to be brilliant, possibly even miscast as YA, because it had, in my opinion, a much broader appeal…  But it should have given me fair warning: Ó Guilín does not pull his punches when he creates a world.  The starting conditions from The Inferior were, to put it lightly, stark.  The brilliance came from building a sympathetic storyline and lovable character born of the starkness.

If anything, the world of The Call is even darker.  Its protagonists are surrounded by enemies they can’t fight or even see most of the time… but when they do, it’s alone, without friends, on the enemy’s turf, on the enemy’s terms.  Most will die… and this is what is expected.  Survival comes out of ensuring that the number of dead is as small as possible.

I don’t want to give spoilers here, so I’ll limit myself to saying that the academy setting of the novel does make it much more similar to the Harry Potter books than Peadar’s earlier works, and it also makes it much more YA in feel.  This one is definitely, squarely aimed at the target and, from watching the adolescents I know (my wife has a couple of older kids from an earlier marriage), this is exactly the kind of book they can sink their teeth into.

YA dark fantasy is hard to do, but Peadar manages to create the perfect sense of dread and doom, a fear that sticks with you.  And he does it without resorting to any cheap tricks–you come away frightened because the situation is so awful, not because someone sticks an eyeball on a pencil.

And yet, as with The Inferior, the characters attempt to bring brightness to the dark world, even playing against a stacked deck.

So this is a winner (as evidenced by the award nominations it has received), and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  In fact, it’s so well done that I’d say only young adults should read it.  We older adults are not prepared to see kids struggling against such horrific odds.  And I hear the sequel is ever darker… gulp!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is a comic fantasy tale set in Ancient Greece, The Malakiad.

Now We’re Talking…

My attempt to read some new core SF got off to a slow start, even though it finished well, so my second attack of a space opera novel the size of an Egyptian building stone was faced with some trepidation…

Leviathan Wakes - James. S.A. Corey

I needn’t have worried.  James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse, is a rollicking read from the very beginning.  Perhaps that is due to the characters not being described in excruciating detail but actually shown to us through their actions instead.  Perhaps it’s because the world requires a little less explanation than Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth.  Whatever the reason, this one hits the ground running… and just keeps going.

This is the kind of science fiction we all wish we’d grown up reading.  Fast-paced, well-written and not overly bogged down with politics (particularly not the kind of politics we are discussing today which, in a space-faring society will be long forgotten), it takes you straight to another world as soon as you open the book.

Perhaps this immediacy is the product of the author’s talent, or maybe it has been helped along by the fact that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two writers collaborating under the pen name Corey, get to read and critique each other’s work.  Whatever the formula, it certainly functioned perfectly in this particular instance.

Well enough, in fact, that it spawned a TV series on the SyFy Channel (yes, I know, but this one is reputed to be good), and it made absolutely perfect sense to me.  Unlike certain adaptations, which are head-scratchers, this one appeared to be the perfect fodder, in pacing, visual magic and plot for a movie or TV series.  I may need to watch it… if I find the time, I’ll talk about it here at some point.

Anyway, this one is highly recommended as the state of the art of bestselling space opera.  Even though it seems a little too fun and insufficiently committed on the political front to actually win a Hugo in the current climate, this series overcame those handicaps (???!!!) to be nominated for three of them so far.  That should tell you more about just how good it is than anything else I can write.

Anyway, go out and buy it.  Might not change your life in any deep, philosophical way, but it will entertain you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer.  His own entry in the space opera field, Incursion, is available here.

A Man Who Starts Slowly

A quick note before I begin this post – I recently decided to get back to reading core SF and to fill some gaps in my reading.  To me, the central core of the genre consists of the kind of thing Asimov or Clarke used to do so well: deep space, far future and tech based speculation.  For my money, the current master of the form is Alastair Reynolds, but I wanted to give others a chance, so over the next few days you will see reviews regarding books by James S.A. Corey and the late Iain Banks (the ones with the M in the writer name).

Today, we start with Peter F. Hamilton.

Of the three writers involved in this particular quest, Hamilton is the only one whose novels I’d been exposed to previously.  I even wrote a review of Misspent Youth for SFReader.  In that review, I had a problem with Hamilton’s writing: he seems to start off extremely slowly, and to create characters that can be extremely annoying–or at least seem that way yo me.

However, the final ten percent of the book showed a pickup in pace.

Pandora's Star by Peter H. Hamilton

Pandora’s Star, the book I chose as Hamilton’s representative in the reading of core SF, suffers from almost exactly the same issue.  You end up hating many of the characters… and then they become important when the pace picks up (and boy, does it ever pick up) in the latter half of the book.  The main difference is that this book is much longer than Misspent Youth, so both the suffering and the payoff are much more prolonged.

To be completely fair to Pandora’s Star, the very first few pages are actually quite funny, but then it reverted to the same form as the other book and I had decided to pan the novel at about 40% through.  And then things exploded in the second half, and it became truly interesting.  I find Hamilton at his best when he is writing action and events as opposed to characters.  Or perhaps he is just a master at setting things up so you leave the book feeling that he is amazing at that–one way or the other, his books end well.

Well enough in this case that I will eventually be adding the second book in this series to my TBR pile.  I want to know how the longer arc ends, even if I don’t care about most of the characters.  The events are compelling enough.

So yes, this is a kind of tortured review.  I like the setting, like the tech, love the conflict… but I have a hard time rooting for some of the characters.  Maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s just my own spin on normal human beings that others won’t find too much fault with… but that is what I’m left with after reading this one.

Still… I’m going to be buying book 2, so take that as you will!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own take on core SF can be found in two loosely linked novels: Siege and Incursion.

In Competition for the Best Novel of the 20th Century

Remains of the Day film Location

Sometimes it’s fun to join the argument.  The 20th century was an amazing time for the novel.  It was a mature form even as the century began, so practitioners weren’t having to make it up as they went along, so we didn’t get bogged down with things like the epistolary narrative in supposedly great literature.

This means that the century got off to a running start, but the truth is that it really hit its stride in the 1920s, which is where the lost generation comes in. Though Hemingway might not be in play for the greatest novel of the 20th century, Fitzgerald most certainly is, and prior to reading the subject of today’s post, I would have said that The Great Gatsby beat everyone else in the running by a few lengths.  It is, after all, a nearly perfect book.  It still has a partial lock on my vote.

There are generally a couple of other books that appear on every top ten list you can find: Lolita and Ulysses I’ve spoken about Ulysses elsewhere, so let’s discuss the Nabokov.

Lolita is an extremely well-written work, of course, but I do believe that the subject matter–a key part of its fame–lets it down slightly.  While most of us can relate to the characters in the Fitzgerald (in fact, other than the near-mythical Gatsby himself, it’s easy to imagine being any of the others), it takes a little more imagination to put oneself into old Humbert’s shoes.  Advantage Gatsby.

And then, after Lolita, the great works appear to have dried up.  Sixties rolled into seventies, rolled into eighties, rolled… wait a minute.  In 1989, a book came out that maybe, just maybe, could topple the king.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Folio Society Edition)

That book is The Remains of the Day, by Englishman Kazuo Ishiguro, which won the Man Booker prize in the year it was published.

I normally don’t pay too much attention to the Booker, but man, this time they absolutely nailed it.

Half social commentary, half elegy for a simpler world, the story is absolutely taut and perfect. You feel for the character, feel for what he is going through, and understand that what seems monstrous to us is perfectly normal to the main character of this book, which acts as a multiplier to the emotional effect of the novel.

Where a book such as Brideshead Revisited (which, structurally is surprisingly similar–it looks back at many of the same things from approximately the same place in time) approaches the loss of innocence through the lens of youth, The Remains of the Day does so out of a place of maturity and by looking at a sense of duty and of the inevitable process of aging.  The understatement, the ambiguity and the fact that the writer lets us come to our own conclusions just makes the story all that more powerful.

The fact that I read the Folio Society edition of this one might have helped me enjoy it even more.  Some books require a beautiful edition while others–I’d put Neuromancer in that list–are better enjoyed in a smudged and broken mass market paperback.

Is it best of the 20th?  Only time will tell.  Gatsby has had nearly a hundred years to age, to consolidate its leadership and to fight off the Nabokov’s of this world.  Ulysses is a novel that defined its philosophical movement. The younger novel, on the other hand, ignores postmodernism to return to a more ancient state of the novel.  This makes it a stronger book, but it might also contribute to a failure to impress the critics as the last century fades further into the past.

It might be passed over, but I hope Ishiguro’s Nobel prize means that it won’t.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His book Outside deals with humanity and post-humanity in a world where almost nothing is quite what it seems.  You can have a look here.

 

 

Transitional Pulps – A Reminder of a Time When Reading Wasn’t Elitist

Newsstand Pulp Section 1960s

It takes a lot of guts, in 2018, to sell a book whose cover depicts a half-naked woman being mutilated by a Nazi soldier while another tortures a second scantily clad lady beside a swastika flag.

Nevertheless, this is exactly what Feral House attempts to do with their volume It’s a Man’s World.  Now, the most interesting part of this isn’t the cover art and imagery… it’s the fact that the book is actually a rather scholarly, well-researched look into a piece of American culture that has been largely forgotten, even though it bridged two major eras.

The movement in question are the men’s story magazines of the sixties and seventies.  Chock-full of adventure stories of the type that used to fill the pulps, these magazines also had lifestyle pieces and question and answer sessions written by the editors themselves… or should I say invented by the editors themselves?

The book tells the story of the wildly varying talents of the writers and especially the artists who made their living in this world for a couple of decades.  There’s a strong focus on cover art, which is understandable.  The garish, extreme covers had to catch the eye on the newsstand against others equally bright.  How to do that?  A lot of female flesh or a lot of risky action – bonus points for a combination of both.

It's a Man's World - Adam Parfrey

More than half the book is comprised of a gallery of cover art.  It’s a feast for the eyes, but I was much more interested in the history of the various magazines and publishing houses involved in the movement, and the writers who worked there.  Mario Puzo, anyone?

The men’s adventure magazines were a transition from the beloved traditional, beloved pulps of the 30s and 40s to the era of the porn magazines which completely overwhelmed them in the late seventies and early eighties.  Then as now, men were attracted to adventure stories, but much more attracted to naked women… or to explicit sex involving said naked women.  And once the latter became legal, the former faded away.

But it was still an interesting time.  A look through this book defines a working-class generation of men: what interested them, what attracted them, and what scared them (one comso-style quiz from one of the magazines: Rate your homosexual tendencies).

This one if fascinating on any number of levels, whether you are interested in what the literary landscape for short fiction looked like in the seventies, in the artwork that caught the public’s eye, or in a little piece of America that has been swept under the rug, this one is extremely interesting.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Siege.  You can check it out here.

The First Love Never Dies Away Completely

When it comes to reading, the writers most responsible for my passion are probably Enid Blyton and the composite figure who went by the name of Franklin W. Dixon.  As a seven- to nine-year-old living in Zürich, a place where it got dark at a ridiculously early hour in winter, I would voraciously devour any age-appropriate mystery books in the school library – see number 5 on this list.

Interestingly enough, I also had my first brush with science fiction and fantasy literature by reading The White Mountains… but it didn’t seem to have stuck.

Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin

I owe my love of the SFF genre, and my writing career, to someone unexpected: Robert Asprin.  He was quite big in the 1980s, and one day, randomly waiting for my mother to finish buying stuff at a Kroger at age ten or eleven, I picked up Another Fine Myth from the rack, probably because I liked the cover of the Ace paperback.

I was hooked.

Forever.

Yes, this isn’t mainstream fantasy.  It’s the equivalent of H2G2 for fantasy.  But, they are still the benchmark for laugh out loud comedy in the genre.  Just as the H2G2 books haven’t been surpassed by anyone for sheer comedy in SF, these are still the benchmark for fantasy (I’m also a huge Discworld fan, but those usually put the story before the comedy and just feel a bit less jokey to me).

Such is the power of those early Asprin books that I am still reading them today.  Asprin died in 2008, the year Myth-Fortunes (the latest one I’ve read) was published, so I’m assuming that this collaboration with Jody-Lynn Nye was the last he participated in.

Myth Fortunes by Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye

To be completely honest, the final few books in the series have lost a little of Asprin’s original silliness; I suppose dilution is unavoidable when working with a collaborator.  On the plus side, without Nye, one can never be certain that the new myth books would have been written t all.  Asprin certainly had a long period when he wasn’t writing any more of them.

I’m just thankful we have the new Myths at all.  The cast of characters certainly doesn’t miss out by being less comedic, and the storyline–probably due to Nye’s influence–has taken some very interesting and unexpected turns.

I rate the early ones better, of course, but that might be just because Asprin had a blank canvas to work from, and he could put his characters in whatever situation he felt like without going against a firmly established vein.  The structure of the later books, and fully rounded characters puts a few constraints on doing that in the current iterations.

That doesn’t mean the new ones are bad; they aren’t.  In fact, they’re very good.  And Myth-Fortunes is a solid effort that appears to put many of the story arcs on new tracks… so now I need to read the next one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a short story writer and novelist.  His comic fantasy book The Malakiad isn’t as well known as Asprin’s, but he thinks it’s just as good (and he loves the cover).  Check out the print version here, and the Kindle ebook over here.

And We Are All Mortal

Thirteen Days Film Still

Marya Kazakova as the Soviet Woman waiting outside Robert Kennedy’s office while Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin attempts to postpone World War Three, tentatively scheduled for the following morning.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with JFK’s presidency continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Thirteen Days.  For the previous posts in the series, see here, here and here.

Other than two contemporaneous documentaries, there aren’t any noteworthy films about the 1960 US presidential election, at least as far as google cares.  Likewise, in cinematic terms, The Bay of Pigs has been frequently referenced but rarely depicted.  So with the exception of November 1963, only thirteen days of October 1962 define the Kennedy presidency in film, and only twice have those thirteen days been presented to audiences in a substantial production.

Ironically, 2000’s Thirteen Days isn’t based on Robert Kennedy’s book; it just uses the title to great advantage; an advantage that 1974’s made-for-TV docudrama, The Missiles of October, which was based on Robert Kennedy’s book, gave up in alluding to another book, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  If you’re confused, just imagine how Robert MacNamara felt.  As the Kennedy administration’s Secretary of Defense, he’d personally experienced every moment of those thirteen days at their most immediate and intense, and when he was told Kevin Costner was starring as the main character–well he surely envisioned himself as that character, and must have been immeasurably flattered.  But he had to ask, just to be sure, and when producer Peter Almond, who had arranged a private screening for MacNamara, said, “Kenny O’Donnell,” MacNamara immediately refused, adamantly, to watch the movie, because in reality, O’Donnell was among those least aware of what happened during the crisis; he was a personal appointment secretary, and his job was nothing more than tracking and choreographing politically beneficial occasions, and keeping the President punctual.  Something like the guy on the carrier deck holding the paddles.  Undeniably an important position, but of a necessarily limited importance, particularly when contrasted with someone at the highest levels of command.

Robert MacNamara failed to understand the phenomenal value of a well-placed fictive device, at least until he later relented and viewed Thirteen Days, which he then described it as “absolutely fascinating … a very constructive and responsible portrayal…”  That fascination, which is sadly absent from The Missiles of October, doesn’t arise from the responsible presentation of factual details, which both films do well, but from placing those details in personal perspectives; most frequently by allowing Kevin Costner to portray Kenny O’Donnell responding to these moments, or acting upon those events, as they are revealed to him, and in turn to the viewer, through the fabrication of O’Donnell as a character who is essentially fictional in spite of being a real person who was also a close friend of Robert Kennedy.

As with any illusion, the effectiveness of it is established through a deft sleight of hand.  The opening credits present themselves on a backdrop of short clips evoking the zeitgeist of the conflict through the confluence of the two concurrent international contests–the space race and the arms race.  And as the last of the credits fades out along with these images, we find ourselves at the O’Donnell family’s breakfast table.

The O'Donnel Dinner table from Thirteen Days

The implicit cliche goes unsaid, but remains clear; all the more so for being tacitly inferred; the first of these thirteen days begins like any other day.  A detail made all the more effective for its triviality is Kevin’s report card, which he tries to slip past his dad by saying it’s a permission slip.

Kevin O'Donnel's report card from Thirteen Days

Of course, dad notices just a heartbeat before putting pen to paper, and this image retains a recurring resonance each time the elder O’Donnell rebukes or reproves either Jack or Bobby, or when he reminds everyone that press secretary Pierre Salinger had to be kept in the dark throughout the crisis, or when he spells out to a journalist the consequences of reporting rumors the White House is unwilling to confirm.  And true to form, the film concludes with the last of the thirteen days ending like any other day, with Bobby standing beside Jack, and saying, “We’re out here, Kenny.”