Book Review: The Collini Case by Ferdinand Von Schirach

Fabrizio Collini meets well known German industrialist Hans Meyer at a Berlin Hotel and brutally murders him. He then waits in the lobby for the police to arrive.

Struggling novice defence lawyer, Casper Leinen, is on the legal-aid rota and receives a call from the magistrate’s office to ask if he will represent Collini. Sensing the possibility of making a name for himself, Leinen is keen to take on the case. Finding his client to be uncommunicative and also discovering that the victim and the bereaved are known to him, Leinen questions his commitment.

It appears to be an open and shut case. Can he, should he, defend Collini? Of course, he does, and his efforts to do his utmost to defend his client sees him delve into his personal history and friendships as well as the troubled past of Germany.

This is the first book I have read by Ferdinand von Schirach, a respected defence lawyer in Germany who has written short stories and novels that have become bestsellers.

This is a slim book and von Shirach’s style is spare but efficient. The characters are introduced and the plot moves along at a pace. At first, the brisk, unfussy style comes across well but later, narrative jumps and some questionable scenes in which the characters choose to release information when it would suit the writer best, rather than when it would be natural for them to release it, serve to irritate.

As an example, during a crucial cross-examination scene an expert witness answers the prosecutor’s questions with mostly ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, which is great for the prosecution. She does not qualify her answers in any way, as would be natural to an expert who wanted to convey full information and the nuances of what they were saying. The full picture only comes out when Casper Leinen cross-examines her and, conveniently, she gives a fuller statement that changes the weight of her evidence considerably.

There are also scenes which seem to add nothing to the story other than perhaps ticking off a list of items that the writer has been told are necessary for a crime-thriller. Autopsy (tick). Sex scene (tick). Montage of the protagonist making a name for himself and in a dashed off paragraph listing all of the cases he has successfully defended before the main murder case comes to court (tick). Defence lawyer receiving homely but sage advice from a shop owner (tick). However, without these, the book would be more a pamphlet given von Schirach’s unfussy style. The reader may also roll their eyes when the prosecution lawyer stands up and blusters ‘I object.’ Can this ever not happen in a fictional court case?

The story is readable however, and you will want to get to the end to find out what happens. It also raises some interesting and though-provoking questions about how we adjust to new knowledge that affects long-held beliefs, experiences and memories.

The Collini Case was translated from the German by Anthea Bell and published by Penguin Books – 2015

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Book Review: Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Anyone who has read Children of Time will know that Adrian Tchaikovsky can create marvellous science fiction.

This new short novel tells the story of a British astronaut who is part of an international team sent to investigate a mysterious anomaly at the fringes of the Solar System. The anomaly turns out to be an ancient alien ‘artefact’, which, due to its appearance is dubbed the ‘Frog God’.

I know! Mysterious ancient artefacts, what’s not to like?

The artefact is riddled with tunnels which humans can move through but which are inhospitable to technology. The astronauts call the labyrinthine interior of the artefact ‘the crypts’. Mostly the interior is barren and boring but sometimes they come across oddities and horrors. The ‘egg men’ are a particular delight, I would leave to read a book on their back-story and exploits.

The story is told from the point of view of Gary Rendell, who always wanted to be an astronaut but is having second thoughts on this mission. Like me, some of you may be looking at that name and thinking what it reminds you of. Perhaps if you view the name as G.Rendell it might help you to think of that legendary exiled creature of darkness who is the bane of mankind.

The story switches between the mission out to the artefact and Gary Rendell’s increasingly desperate and deranged wanderings around the interior, where time, space and gravity do not act in the way that they should.

Tchaikovsky even manages a reference to Ack Ack Macaque, simian creation of Gareth L Powell.

This is a great little book and will help Tchaikovsky fans in the period before the sequel to Children of Time is released.

Walking to Aldebaran is published by Solaris.

Book Review: Muscle by Alan Trotter

In this dark, comedy the narrator and protagonist (for the most part) is a large man called Box, who is good at violence but little else that would earn him a living.

He was given the nickname Box by his colleague/partner named _________, a line 1cm long. How do you say it? How do you read it? For the sake of not having a mental hum every time I came to the name, I decided to refer to him as ‘Line’.

Line is first introduced to Box in a very unconventional, violent and acrobatic manner. It’s hilarious. Afterwards, they are both muscle for hire. Their start in the business is inauspicious and they have to resort to strong arm tactics to persuade potential clients to give them work. Their lives seem to consist of long-periods of ennui in run-down buildings, interspersed with briefer flashes of work. Box sees it as a way to get by but Line appears to be more sadistic, enjoying the savagery for its own sake. Line can be violent towards Box, who tolerates it, believing that Line could lose control.

They play card games with associates and strangers. A man called Holcomb plays poker with them. Holcomb is a science-fiction writer. Box picks up a SF mag that contains one of Holcomb’s stories, which is described in detail. The story seems to be about fear of difference and violence towards the ‘other’. Box is mesmerised by it and the thought of time-travel. He wonders what he would do with such a machine, a thought which will stay with him for the rest of his life.

Box is a man of very few words and struggles to make his thoughts and feelings known. A girlfriend of Holcomb, called Evvie, shows some kindness towards Box, as one would to a frightened or tongue-tied child. Box reads into it more than Evvie intended.

In the later parts of the book, the narrative switches away from Box. We find out that things have not gone as expected for him and Box, which has resulted in doublecross, the alienation of Evvie and death. Box is shown in a self-made head contraption of his own making, which is his attempt at time travel. Does it represent a pathetic attempt to undo the past and make things right, or could it be the real thing?

This is a very enjoyable alternative take on a hard-boiled gangster noir theme. Plenty of the language would fit well in a gumshoe/hoodlum book written several decades ago. It’s got an authentic feel but with a contemporary outlook and theme. There are a number of interesting characters throughout, most have some redeeming feature. The red-headed pickpocket triplets are a particular highlight, particularly the description of their synchronous way of moving around. The style of writing gives the reader a contemplative feeling, the words are measured and thoughtful. The Science Fiction theme gives a twist that makes Box and the reader think about regret and revisiting the past.

Muscle is published by Faber and Faber

Book Review: Children of Tomorrow by A.E. Van Vogt

After 10 years away, Space Commander John Lane returns home to Spaceport, Earth and is reunited with his wife Estelle and 16 year old daughter, Susan.

Lane discovers that the role of raising children in their teenage years (when they are colloquially known as ‘jabbers’) has passed to officially sanctioned ‘outfits’. Lane is not happy with this change and puts wheels in motion to undermine the outfit and return responsibility for raising his daughter to the parents (more specifically, him).

A member of an alien race watches Lane from afar, aided by his son (Bud) who is disguised as a member of Susan’s outfit. The aliens are very interested in learning the capabilities and weaknesses of Earth. The alien seeks to protect and guide his son from afar.

Matters come to a head when an alien fleet is detected at the fringes of the Solar System but in a trajectory that will intercept Earth. Commander Lane must respond to the threat. Bud, attempts to escape Earth prior to the confrontation. Both must consider their loyalties and conceptions about parental responsibility.

Written in 1970, the book is dated by the use of language and the vision of technology. Teenagers are called ‘jabbers’, parents, like Lane who oppose the ‘outfit’ system are ‘booters’. Teenagers say ‘sack’, which appears to be a general affirmation/agreement along the lines of ‘you dig?’. Telephones are still wired into houses and call-boxes and there are many mentions of lifts which take people up and down to the underground transport system. Most of the focus is on the characters themselves and the reader doesn’t really get a picture of Spaceport. In some respects, the setting and language feel dated even for the 1970s.

More problematic from our viewpoint is Lane’s attitude to his daughter. His view of parental responsibility seems to be that he owns his daughter and he will decide what is right for her future. To be fair to Van Vogt, Len Jaeger, the unwitting father of alien imposter Bud, also treats his son as a chattel and violently resists all outside influence. In a plot to undermine Susan’s ‘outfit’ (the Red Cats, groovy man!) Lane orders a good looking Flight Officer under his command to take her on a date. The Flight Officer is more than 10 years older than Susan and uses his greater strength to force her into kissing against her wishes. In a strange counterpoint, a scene involving Lane receiving a late night call is at pains to highlight that he and his wife have twin beds. No funny business here.

The outfits themselves are semi-autonomous and apply approved ‘outfit regulations’. For the most part, outfit members are very sensible, studious, independent and prudish (Susan is sanctioned for lip-kissing, even though it was against her will) Considering that the outfits are made up of of boys and girls from the ages of 13 to 19, this might not chime with the readers experience of teenagers or their memories of themselves at the same age. Outfits have been adopted because evidence showed that men like Lane, who seek danger and tests of courage largely as a result of trauma in their own teenage lives which condemns them to remain as overgrown teens forever. Their actions subsequently cause trauma to their own sons and daughters and the loop continues on and on. It is felt that teenagers are better able to raise themselves and younger children and the results in Spaceport, seem to support the theory.

Intergenerational differences are the main topic of the book and, indeed, feature in the confrontation with the alien fleet at the climax. If you can accept the vision of the future was written almost 50 years ago and that relations between men and women and their children were somewhat ‘different’ then, this is for the most part an enjoyable book, which makes you consider modern relationships between the sexes and the generations.

Book Review – Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

Noted as ‘Britain’s favourite graphic novelist’ on the back cover blurb, but I’m ashamed to say I had not heard about Posy Simmonds before I became aware of the release of this book.

Cassandra runs a London art gallery. We are introduced to her as she is trying to avoid the widow of an artist. We soon learn she is very greedy and selfish. Her assistant at the gallery resigns almost as soon as she is introduced in the book due to Cassandra’s selfishness and lack of empathy.

The art in the book is mixed with text and speech bubbles. It feels a little incongruous to have substantial chunks of text within a graphic novel.

The artists widow discovers that Cassandra has been selling unauthorised copies of her late husband’s work, there is public scandal a court case and community service. Cassandra doesn’t much care.

Simmonds Art is clear, muted colours and textured shading give a wintery feel. There are occasional bright flashes of colour, a picture on a wall, a shop window display, chicken nuggets with chips and baked beans on a plate.

Cassandra takes in Nicki, the daughter of her ex-husband. Gives her a room and some money in exchange for Nicki being her ‘gofer’ essentially. A game of dare at a friend’s hen-do leads to the attempted rape of Nicki.

The attacker is a man named Deano. Nicki learns this off Billy, a former acquaintance of Deano who becomes her boyfriend.

To add to her list of endearing qualities, Cassandra is a hypocrite. She has ripped off clients in a big way, but accuses Nick of stealing food when the housekeeper giver her the left overs from Cassandra’s meals. Cassandra is mean and uncharitable.

Deano has a history of abusing women, aided by his small gang. We learn that Billy has come uncomfortably close to Deano’s crimes and has come into the possession of a gun, which Deano desperately wants back. Unwittingly, Nicki and Cassandra get sucked into a dangerous struggle.

I really wanted to like this book. Whilst I thought the art was excellent and Posy Simmonds makes reference to some pressing contemporary issues, I found it difficult to love. Cassandra does not come across as evil, just someone you wouldn’t have much to do with if you could help it. She’s meant to be unloved but it was also difficult to feel much empathy with the remaining cast of characters.

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds (Jonathan Cape – 2018)

Book Review: The Outcast Hours

From the editors of The Djinn Falls in Love (2017) comes this diverse collection of short stories based on the broad theme of ‘the night’. The writers come from a wide range of backgrounds, and the stories give their interpretation of ‘night’. As you’d expect with such a theme, the stories cover dreams, crime, horror and the supernatural.

This Book Will Find You – by Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Becker’s and Dale Halvorsen sees a college lecturer using a magic book in a desperate attempt to bring her deceased lover back to life. It’s a tale of seeming grim desperation, the lecturer clutching at straws in the hope of making things as they were. The ending is disturbingly unexpected.

Will Hill’s story, takes as it’s title the explanation/excuse used by (or on behalf of) sexual predators. ‘It Was a Different Time’ is set in a hotel in LA by a hotel’s rooftop pool. A young employee confronts an old guy by the pool after it has officially closed for the night. The old guy was a big-shot in the film industry but is about to be exposed for a long-history of sexual harassment over many years. The older man forces the young employee to listen to his tale and in doing so reveals his prejudices and sense of entitlement even a longing for the old days when things were more ‘straightforward’. The employee is scared of what might happen but is barely disgusted by what the older man has done because he has become jaded by the number of similar stories he has heard recently in LA. This story is a document of the here and now.

In Blind Eye, Frances Hardinge tells a story of Erin, a baby-sitter who makes her money by catering to a niche market. She is asked to look after a young girl called Mia and told that she must not let her sleep. Of course, the child falls asleep and the results are mind-blowing. The baby sitter shows devotion to childcare that is above and beyond what other people might tolerate in the situation and in doing so, shows what true caring is really about.

Bag Man by Lavie Tidhar is a great hard-boiled crime tale about an old, experienced criminal call Max who calmly, but ruthlessly, sees a bag-carrying job he is given to the bitter end. This is a story about the journey, not the destination.

Swipe Left by Daniel Polansky is quite a thoughtful exploration of most women’s experiences of going out at night and the uncertainty and fear that often goes with it. Leah Moore also examines the women’s perspective of habitual bullying and harassment of women in her story ‘One Gram’.

S. L. Grey’s ‘The Dental Gig’ is a modern take on exploitation and alienation in the ‘gig economy’ with the twist that it’s about a tooth fairy.

One of the best stories is Yukimi Ogawa’s ‘Welcome to the Haunted House’, which brings in fairytale details in a horror setting for the entertainment of the masses. It’s a bizarre but hypnotic tale which, like ‘The Dental Gig’ looks at what happens to the servant when they become the master.

There are a couple of stories in this collection that defied my determined efforts to understand what they were about but the more intelligent reader may have more luck than me.

This is an enjoyable collection and will appeal to anyone looking for alternative, dark and horror fiction.

The Outcast Hours – Edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (Solaris 2019)

Spring Tide by Chris Beckett- Author Interview and Book Review

Chris Beckett is an award-winning writer of science-fiction who didn’t set out to be a science-fiction writer.  You may have heard of his book Dark Eden, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award or America City, which was a Radio 2 Book Club choice.

Spring Tide is his latest collection of short stories and although you are likely to find it in the science fiction shelves of your bookshop, it is categorically not science fiction.  His own success in the category has, it seems, meant that it is easier all round just to list it as a science fiction work.  This might mean that people who are ordinarily not attracted to the science fiction shelves do not come across this book, which would be a shame as there is a lot to recommend to all readers.

The book is ‘topped and tailed’ by the stories ‘Cellar’ and ‘Sky’.  In Cellar the main character who lives in a mundane two-up, two-down house discovers a seemingly nebulous cellar.  Room after room after room.  What is it for and where does it end?  It’s a fascinating tale of discovery, obsession and introversion.  Sky sees the protagonist returning from the depths of his own house.

‘The End of Time’ sees angels watching creation.  The ability of light waves to be both waves and particles seems to be linked to the idea of creation vs evolution not being as mutually exclusive as one might think.

A professor’s wife is tormented by a malevolent bird in ‘The Lake’.  The story is like a modern Grimm’s tale, marvellous, bizarre and dark.

There are a lot of ideas and deep thought in all of the stories, no more so than ‘Creation’ which makes the reader consider who it is that creates meaning (nature, the artist, the critic or you?)

Frozen Flame tells the story of a student and his relationship with an older, married woman.  It feels real.  The student’s infatuation leads to him clinging on to the memory with hope for too long whilst life carries on around him.

The Zen like ‘Still Life’ features no humans but there is ‘still life’ in it.  I’ve not read anything quite like it.  It is a picture in words.

‘Rage’ questions western privilege, hypocrisy, foreign aid and extremism.

The story ‘Ooze’, features no humans, like ‘Still Life’ but it does have a simple, impulse-driven sea-dwelling creature.  It is about life and death unvarnished, uncomfortably so when humans’ traditional place at the top of the food chain is reversed.

The eponymous story ‘Spring Tide’ deals with ennui and overfamiliarity in a marriage in which the husband and wife of lost sight of their reasons for being together in the first place.

Overall, this is an excellent short story collection which deserves a wide audience.  If you’ve never been to the science fiction section of your local bookshop, maybe now is the time to brave it.

Author Interview

Spring tide can be found on the Science Fiction shelves at bookshops but many of the stories are not obviously SF.  You’ve commented that SF tends to occupy its own ‘little ghetto’ in bookshops, which could discourage the casual reader.  Do you think SF is the best description of Spring Tide?  There’s a lot there that would appeal to any reader.

I don’t see Spring Tide as SF at all.  I see it as my first published foray outside of the conventions of SF.   Some of the stories in Spring Tide do contain fantastical elements angels, an imaginary city, talking animals, an underground structures and it’s possible that a certain SF sensibility may be detectable in one or two of the others, but I wouldn’t call any of them SF and most are entirely realist.

I think the reason you find it on the SF shelves is simply that I’m known as an SF writer. 

It’s the same with non-SF writers when they do an SF book: the book appears on the ‘general fiction’ shelves rather than the SF ones, because that’s where their readers will look for their work. 

I would certainly like to think Spring Tide would appeal to the general reader, but then I would also like to think that a book like my novel Dark Eden would appeal to an open-minded general reader too.  It’s certainly SF -it’s about people living on a planet with no sun but it’s intended to hold up a kind of mirror to human beings and human society, just as a work of ‘general fiction’ might do.

Over what time span did you write the stories that were included in Spring Tide?  

Most of them were written specifically for the collection over a period of about four months.   But about half a dozen of them had been knocking around for a while in a rough or half-finished state.  The story ‘The Man who Swallowed Himself’ is the oldest, since I wrote an early version of it some twenty years ago.  At the time I couldn’t quite see how to make it work and so I set it aside in a folder I keep for half-finished bits and pieces.  When I came back to it after it had marinated for all that time in my unconscious, it kind of wrote itself. 

Did you have a larger collection of stories that were whittled down to those included?  

I wouldn’t say I whittled down a larger collection to make Spring Tide, but I do have quite a store of half-finished stories, and ideas for stories, which I didn’t include.  Basically I just kept writing until I felt I had enough to make what I felt would be a satisfying collection. 

This is your third collection of short stories following The Turing Test (which won the Edge Hill Short Fiction Award) and The Peacock Cloak.  Are short stories a natural form for your writing? 

I like writing short stories and I think science fiction and the short story form fit well together, but I don’t think I’ve ever (until now) turned out more than about four short stories in a year – usually it’s been more like two.  A short story is a much more intense form of fiction than a full-length novel.   So, for instance, a hundred thousand words-worth of short stories would (for me at least) be a much bigger undertaking than writing a novel of equivalent length.  Once a novel is underway it has its own momentum which drives it forward, but each short story has to be begun anew, with its own fictional world, its own characters, its own themes, its own distinctive voice.

Do you write when an idea occurs or do you have a routine to keep the words flowing?

I do try to write something every day.  I can go for weeks, sometimes even months, during which I know I’ve written nothing of any value.  But it’s important to keep battering away at the wall, because unless you do, you won’t know when that moment finally arrives when the wall suddenly becomes permeable and you’re able to pass through it.  

You’ve said before that your stories are usually about some aspects of your own life.  Frozen Flame, which tells the story of a young man having an intense affair with an older married woman felt real to me.  Is it based on experience?

Well, no, I didn’t have an affair with an older married woman when I was a student.  Part of me is sorry to tell you that because I’m sure I would have found it very exciting.  But then again, maybe it would have messed up my head like it does to the character in the story. 

But nevertheless that story, and pretty well all of the others, draw in one way or another on my own experience.  I suppose how I would describe it is that I take apart my own experience to make building blocks, which I then use, in conjunction with material I’ve picked from elsewhere, to build up into new stories.  The emotions, and the dilemmas that my characters face, mostly come from my own life, at least to some degree.  So do many of the settings.  (I know Bristol pretty well, for instance, where most of that story is set.)  But the situations are new.

Has your work as a social work professional provided inspiration for stories?  Do any of these feature in Spring Tide?

I come from a fairly comfortable middle class background, and I think my experience as a social worker has been invaluable to me in that it has exposed me to aspects of life that many people with my background have never seen.  The thing I’ve written that most obviously reflects my social work experience, however, is my short second novel, Marcher, and it is much less evident, I think, in Spring Tide.

There is one story, however, it’s called The Steps, whose setting isn’t even slightly like the world which I encountered as a social worker, but which would never have been written if I hadn’t done that job. This is one of the stories that have been marinating for quite a while, and was prompted by a very specific question I asked myself in my social work days:  Why does it sometimes happen that adults who are victims of abuse seem oblivious to the fact that something similar is happening to their own children more or less right in front of them, when on the face of it you’d think they’d be (and indeed many are) hypersensitive to that possibility?   The story is set in a stately home, but it is an attempt to answer that question.

I’ve not read anything quite like Still Life before, it’s quite meditative and perhaps the answer to a Zen riddle about what happens when humans are not present.  What prompted you to write that story?  

I think we humans are too self-important.  The world existed before us, and will continue to exist when we are gone.  In all but a tiny little corner of the universe (and even there, a lot of the time), it quietly unfolds without us even now.  I find that to be rather a comforting idea. 

By way of a reminder of this, I thought it would be fun to write a story without any humans or even animals, in it, a story in which the only ‘characters’ were matter and heat and gravity, and the only events were caused by the relationships between them. 

How far do you think you could take that idea? 

It’s a good question.  It never occurred to me to do more than a (very) short story.  But imagine what an achievement it would be if one could write a whole novel like that, and keep it interesting throughout!

One of the stories that, to me, read like a modern-day Arthur C Clarke short story was the Great Sphere.  The tension in the story is caused by unyielding belief systems based on incomplete knowledge.  Your stories and your blog show a nuanced, complex and very balanced view of events.  Would it be fair to say that you think about matters deeply and do not jump to conclusions or subscribe to black and white views?  Do you wrestle with decisions in your own life?

It seems to be a very deeply embedded aspect of my personality that you’ve spotted there.  I dislike black and white views of the world.  If someone expresses a strong view on something and invites me to agree, I always feel a need to present the other side, and I am deeply suspicious of any outlook or philosophy that presents itself as the truth.  I wonder if this comes in part from the fact that my parents had very different outlooks my mother was politically to the left, for instance, my father more to the right and that as I child I badly wanted to reconcile them, or find a position that didn’t involve having to side with one or the other?

The drawback of being like me in this respect is that it is easy to lapse into a kind of relativism that makes it hard to know what you really think about anything. (And you’re absolutely right! That does make decisions hard!)  The idea behind the Great Sphere is that any coherent worldview involves bringing some things into the light, and leaving others in the shadow. 

The story Rage addresses privilege, global inequality and the anger of youth.  Do you feel that there is a lot of unfocused, misdirected or misguided anger in the Western world?

I think a lot of people in the Western world feel (reasonably enough) very indignant about the blatant injustices of the global system, but without fully facing up to the fact that they themselves are beneficiaries of that system.  (This by the way is a big theme in America City also).  And that is what the main character in Rage is wrestling with: the dilemma of middle-class liberals who want to be the good guys, but are also very reluctant to give up the comforts and advantages which they themselves enjoy. 

Something I’ve noticed a lot lately is a rather unattractive self-righteousness rage that is directed by reasonably comfortably off liberal middle-class folk (a category which definitely includes me!) towards poorer people who vote or think in a way that they disapprove of. It seems to me that people in the most educated and/or most intellectual portion of the population often have more modern and progressive views than folk in the least educated and/or least intellectual portion of the population, who are likely to rely on more traditional values.  This make fairly easy for the former to claim the moral high ground.  But I find such claims unattractive and morally spurious, much as I find morally spurious (in Rage) the headmaster Frobisher’s rant about the materialism of the working classes.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a new novel, as yet with no firm title, which draws very loosely on a couple of short stories that appeared in my Peacock Cloak collection: ‘Day 29’ and ‘The Caramel Forest’.  They deal with a human encounter with a form of life that is, by its nature, unknowable. The stories were in part a sort response to reading several books by Eastern European science fiction authors (Solaris, Roadside Picnic, The Snail on the Slope) who seemed to me to have a very different take on science fiction to their British and American counterparts. I think the best way I can describe this new book at the moment is that it’s more about living alongside an unsolvable mystery than it is about treating the mystery as a problem to be solved and fixed.

Chris Beckett’s website can be found at  http://www.chris-beckett.com/

A few signed first editions of Spring Tide are still available in the shops for those with a keen eye!

Spring Tide (Short Stories) – Chris Beckett (Corvus 2017)