12/08/2013

This Year's Reading

I thought it might be worth taking a glance back at what I've been reading over the past year as it approaches its end. Almost everything I read these days is on the Kindle, and the nice thing about the device is that it allows you to engage the list-making, pedantic side of your personality, even when - as in my own case - it rarely gets an outing. Before the Kindle, I rarely if ever made lists of anything. This haphazard attitude towards organisation extends into all aspects of my life: I have six or seven hundred (physical) books on my shelves, and they've never been in anything ever resembling alphabetical order. Or any kind of order, in fact. Tidy my desk? Pah. But with the Kindle, it's easy to create folders and tag books according to year, name, genre, whatever.

But I do for some reason like being able to know what I was reading at a particular time, and in what quantity, and as anyone who owns an ebook reader knows, they're a great enabler; I read considerably more now, on an ebook reader, than I ever did when I bought exclusively physical titles. I no longer feel a pang of concern regarding where to put each new book, and whether its purchase can be justified in terms of how much space it might take up.

Because I'm a working writer, and because nobody ever sets out to write a bad book - and, further, because whether a book is 'good' or 'bad' is often a purely subjective measurement - I'm going to omit mentioning, with one or two exceptions, books I didn't like at all. The exceptions are mostly by authors safely long dead, and hence unlikely to feel much concern over my opinion.

I've made a habit of picking up ebook editions of works I already own, partly because significant chunks of my life are spent in the Far East, where I can't get hold of those physical volumes; and also because the science-fictionality of owning a near-complete virtual library of works I bought through the 70s, 80s and 90s is very appealing. Not to mention, of course, that these books often turn up in sales, or start at low enough prices to make their purchase justifiable.

The first of these reissues I bought and read this year is Dreamside, Graham Joyce's first novel, a book I remember very well and which he's put out himself on Kindle. I recall seeing Joyce at a convention shortly after the publication of his first book in, I think, the late 80s or early 90s. He was standing in the dealer's room, staring down at a pile of copies of Dreamside with a broad grin and chuckling with apparent disbelief. Dreamside is more science-fictional than his later work, I believe, and tells the story of a group of students engaged in ultimately dangerous dream research. I think it's brilliant, and if you get it, I think you'll agree.

I had Shakespeare shoved into my unwilling brain at school and, while I appreciate many aspects of the work, being forced to read often incomprehensible texts did me no favours then or in later life. Ben Crystal's Shakespeare on Toast does a lot to bring clarity to WS's work, as well as the revelation - well, perhaps it's not so much of a revelation - that many of those school editions were based on versions of the plays that literally can't make any sense. Crystal explains the importance both of iambic pentameter and the layout of the original folios, as opposed to those stupendously brick-headed school editions, in interpreting and understanding the narratives as tehy were written.

Richard Grant's Ghost Riders is an interesting (if at times bleak) non-fiction narrative concerning the author's road trip across the American midwest in search of the misfit wandering spirits who first travelled across that continent as half-wild nomads, and whose modern equivalent live out of cars or Winnebagos or steal rides on trains. A book that gives you a real sense of vast, desolate landscapes, populated by people who can't or don't want to fit in anywhere else.

I also re-read Robert Silverberg's Book of Skulls. I have a difficult relationship in some ways with Silverberg's books; to employ a musical analogy,  to me, books like his later Lord Valentine's Castle represent sf's bloated prog phase, to be winnowed out by the arrival of cyberpunk. I remember scouring the shelves of WH Smith's in the early Eighties, and finding them dominated by similarly bloated works by Asimov, Heinlein, and others...books with too many pages, and a distinct paucity of imagination (it took me five attempts to finally read the whole of Heinlein's The Number of the Beast and I'm still not sure why the hell I made the effort, unless it was just to make it easier to slag it off in the pub after a writing workshop). If not for the arrival of the likes of (William) Gibson, Sterling, Interzone magazine et al, I might have given up reading sf altogether. The field, it's safe to say, is in far safer hands these days.

Even so, I was aware that before books like Lord Valentine's Castle, a reading experience I recall as being akin to stuffing oneself with puréed cardboard until sick, Silverberg had produced a huge amount of work, much of it highly lauded. With this in mind, I took a chance sometime in the late 90s on Book of Skulls and it was incredible; so much so it was hard to believe it was by the author of the aforementioned Valentine or even The Face of the Waters, another stultifying brick I made the mistake of trying to force my way through back in my teens or early twenties.

The Book of Skulls, written in the early 70s, features four students who, after finding a rare manuscript in a university library, go on a road trip to try and find an ancient temple that supposedly grants immortality - but only to two applicants out of four.

From Amazon: Candidates for eternal life must present themselves at the "Skullhouse" as a foursome. The brothers are happy to provide training in their secrets (including tantric sex)--but there's a price. The Ninth Mystery in the Book of Skulls states: "Two of thee we undertake to admit to our fold. Two must go into darkness". One of those four college students must willingly commit suicide. One is fated to be murdered by his own friends.

Highly recommended.

Ian Sales is the author of the only self-published Kindle books I've ever bought that didn't originally come out as part of a traditional publishing deal. I've avoided nearly all self-published Kindle books because even a glance tells me most of them are very badly written, and my experience editing unpublished manuscripts has taught me that most writers self-publishing on Kindle are likely doing so long before their work is good enough to meet even the most basic requirements of prose and plot. That goes, by the way, just as much for some of those wild success-stories making a fortune via Kindle and going on to movie deals. To me, their success is literally inexplicable, when there are authors like Ian putting out work both vastly superior and astonishingly good.

The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is the second short novel in a projected quartet, all based around the space race and all featuring in some way or another alternate timelines. Ian likes to play tricks on the audience, clever sleights-of-hand that twist expectations and confound conventional narrative. I bought the third in the series, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, the instant it was released. That should be all the recommendation you need.

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood is an interesting exploration both of the legacy of Edgar Rice Burrough's Martian hero and of the machinations of Hollywood that might help explain why some good movies do badly, and why some bad movies do well. Mad Mobs & Englishmen is a very interesting look at mob behaviour and how it's portrayed in the press, and how 'mob' behaviour sometimes isn't nearly so random and chaotic as you might think. It was written in response to the summer riots in various cities across the UK a few years back.

I keep telling myself I'm not a fan of zombie fiction, but World War Z is one of the finest books I've read in quite a while (although since I read it a few years back, it's not really part of this review). Some impulse caused me to glance at the sample of Roberto Calas' novel of medieval zombies in the midst of the Black Death, The Scourge, in which four knights journey across England to rescue the wife of one of them. I couldn't stop reading and so bought the entire volume instantly. Completely ridiculous, completely over the top, frequently hilarious and highly engaging. Recommended.

I finally re-read Roadside Picnic by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky, a book I think I can claim as an actual influence since I first read it in the late Seventies. It's in a new translation, which helps; however, reading it now it seems to me a book more important for the originality of its idea than for the execution, and for the serendipitous prescience with which it seems almost to foretell the lonely devastation of the cities and towns surrounding Chernobyl. Its influence on popular culture - not just in other books, but also on movies and even more than a few video games - is undoubted. To some extent the same could be said for Stanislaw Lem's Solaris; a remarkable idea, a remarkable story, but one which I think I prefer as illustrated in Tarkovsky's equally remarkable cinematic epic of the same name.

I enjoyed the heck out of Bullettime by Nick Mamatas, a weird, twisted fantasy about school shootings, but probably got more out of his more recent 'crime' novel, Love is the Law, about a supremely nihilistic punkette obsessed with left-wing politics and the works of Aleister Crowley trying to uncover the mystery of the death of her lover/mentor in 80s Long Island. I always come away from Nick's books feeling like I've been on a trip to somewhere remarkable, even if my memory of where we went and why somehow feels a bit hazy. Also recommended.

I've read a couple of Ernest Hemingway short stories in the past, and finally got around to reading A Farewell to Arms. It's an interesting book; I say interesting because I got about a third of the way through before I stopped reading. Not because it was bad, but because I knew everything I could get out of the book, I had got out of it by about page one hundred. In the introduction, Hemingway wrote he enjoyed getting up each day and making up what came next in the story...which is why, I guess, there essentially is no story, because Hemingway was making it up as he went along. There's no real incentive to keep going, but it was nice while I was there. Perhaps in future I'll stick to the short stories.

I picked up a second-hand copy of Kage Baker's In The Garden of Iden in the mid-2000s and thought it absolutely brilliant. I finally got around to re-reading a free ebook version of it acquired during Tor.com's launch a few years after that and it's still brilliant. It's also the first book in a series about immortals rescued from the past by a time-travelling organisation called Dr Zeus that compels them to rescue art, literature and knowledge from the past for the benefit of the future. I've been compulsively gorging on the sequels since re-reading Iden, although the quality does slip a bit the further on you get in the series and the books become more rambling. It might perhaps have worked better as a four- or three-book series, although I've only just finished the fifth volume. The characters and situation are compelling enough, however, that I'll also read the final two volumes in the series.

Will Storr's Heretics is a non-fiction work about, well, heretics, mostly of the scientific variety; but at the same time Storr does a good job of trying to analyse what you might as well call the limits of personal perception - the degree to which we can truly understand highly complex theories of the non-heretical variety without sharing that same degree of expertise, and the ways in which personal bias and history can cause people to cling to notions or beliefs that seem outwardly bizarre, regardless of any amount of evidence that contradicts those beliefs.

On a slightly tangential note, I became particularly obsessed with cycling this year and started doing a lot more of it than I ever have before - it helps that I never learned to drive a car (too expensive, too boring). On that basis I read and thoroughly enjoyed Bella Bathurst's The Bicycle Book and Just Ride by Grant Peterson.

Anyway, that's the highlights. I also reread books by Neal Stephenson, Gregory Benford, William Gibson, Iain Banks, amongst others, all or nearly all rapidly acquired during various online sales. 
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