Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Alrightreads: March

Having only decided half-way through February that I was going to try to read (and tediously catalogue) 100 books in 2015, I was fortunate to have another largely empty month that I could fill with digital sheaves and jarring LibriVox accents.

Ending Q1 in the black with 27/100 books read (however that works out as a percentage) was more important than earning money or going outside. One day they'll make books portable, I have to dream.

March 2015

11. Michio Kaku, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

2014 / Audiobook / 400 pages / USA


When you've been sufficiently schooled up in basic brain cartography by your Robert Winston, it's time to get a bit imaginative with Dr. Kaku's space-time theory of consciousness and confident predictions about bodily augmentation, memory downloads, telepathy, AI revolutions and energy beings. There are enough references to mainstream sci-fi films and TV to keep this firmly on the layman's side of things, which is appreciated, but as far as making an already awe-inspiring subject even more captivating and poetic, he's no Carl Sagan.

12. Clara Kern Bayliss ed, Philippine Folk-Tales

1908 / E-book / 220 pages / USA


I was curious to learn some of the folk tales from my reluctant adoptive country, but this slapdash assortment cobbled together by visiting Americans more than 100 years ago wasn't the best place to start. To their credit, they made the effort to seek out traditional stories from various regions that seemed to be unsullied by colonial and Catholic influence, but the resulting 100-or-so tales just aren't all that. There are no worthwhile morals for today's young Filipinos to learn, with thieves being rewarded and menial slave labour being a desirable prospect for life. It's pretty racist too, from the occasional unflattering descriptions of dark-skinned people to the condescending attitude of the American curators to the Filipino bards, which includes sometimes leaving in their imperfect English phrasing verbatim because it's funny.

Faves: Trippy Bagobo stories about the Buso, a corpse-eating creature of dread that's terrified of cats.

Worsties: The ones where the storytellers get a little over-enthusiastic in their repulsive descriptions of "negresses," who always end up justly executed for minor misdemeanours.

13. Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

1837 / E-book/audiobook / 801 pages / UK


If you've committed to reading at least one 'proper' novel every once in a while to excuse the young adult books and comics, you might as well do it properly. Though if I'd done my research, I wouldn't have chosen this comparatively lightweight one (in tone if not in page count) which is more like a P.G. Wodehouse anthology chronicling some daft characters' various scrapes. I have a random memory rattling around in my brain of Frank Skinner acclaiming the book as being properly funny, maybe on Desert Island Discs or something, so that's the last time I follow his advice. It is funny at times, but if you're going to read a Dickens to show off and get absorbed in the lovely prose, starting here at the beginning isn't the best choice.

14. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

1942 / Audiobook / 160 pages / UK


This is a bit of a shortie, but I think I'm excused. Part of this exercise is to expose myself to different points of view rather than cruising around inside my comfort zone of books with colourful nebulae on their covers, so this time I dipped my toes into fundamentalist puritanical Christianity. That's not really such a stretch - Paradise Lost is probably my favourite book of all time - and C.S. Lewis' non-Narnia classic is also very entertaining, especially the emphatic audio recording by John Cleese. The wholesome Christian morals weren't exactly subtle in the Narnia books either, but while I found those scenes of lion-lambs annoying and patronising as an atheist child, these glimpses into the allegorical machinations of Satan and all his little wizards can be enjoyed whether or not you live under the fear of divine tyranny.

15. E. Veronica Bliss and Genevieve Edmonds, A Self-Determined Future with Asperger Syndrome: Solution Focused Approaches

2007 / E-book / 160 pages / UK


I'm interested in learning more about AS since a family member was recently, belatedly diagnosed with it, and this looked like the most helpful (and least tedious) of the minority of works that didn't deal exclusively with kids. It's still mostly a manual for care workers though, with printable patronising questionnaires for subjects and occasional self-deprecating humour balancing out the self-congratulatory parts where they reaffirm how solution-focussed therapy (understanding, not 'fixing') is the best therapy. I should have just watched a documentary.

16. Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas

1987 / Audiobook / 471 pages / UK


I've read something like five Iain Banks books before (counting a couple of abandoned halfies in there), but for some reason I always avoided his 'proper,' branded sci-fi line, despite the more covertly sci-fi The Bridge being my favourite.

My instincts were basically on the mark, as this encapsulates all that's great and not so great about grand space opera - awe-inspiring descriptions of celestial phenomena and dizzying engineering marvels balanced out by less captivating characters and a story that keeps getting in the way of the tour around the fringes of Banks' 'Culture' universe. There are probably better stories to choose from if I ever fancy a return trip.

17. Phaidon Press, The Art Book

1994 / E-art-book / 518 pages / UK


If I knew much about art beyond works bastardised by Monty Python animations and compulsory trips to the Tate Modern every time I'm in London to be entertainingly annoyed by cheeky masterpieces, I'd probably denounce this book as over-simplistic. But it isn't patronising, and the decision made to present 500 artists in strict alphabetical order, each summed up by a single work, makes for an eclectic experience that blends centuries and styles and avoids the tedious problem of categorisation. Being almost entirely Western-centric, all those Madonnas, Jesuses and bearded saints do get repetitive though.

Faves: Bosch, other imaginative and detailed paintings.

Worsties: Slashed canvases and those ones that are just a colour. Yeah, well done. Clap, clap. Look how much effort the others have put in, you should be ashamed of yourselves.

18. Elias Lönnrot, Kalevala: The Land of the Heroes

1849 / Audiobook / 542 pages / Finland


For most non-Finns, the path to the country's national epic usually begins with Tolkien or 1990s folk metal bands. I was never really a fan of Tolkien.

I fancied reading something frosty and Scandinavian on my journey through the world's archaic classics, and this compendium of tragic tales was more appealing than a gratuitously violent Viking saga. There's still plenty of sword-wielding violence, obviously, but it's mainly about these heroes' failed efforts to snag decent wives, who only occasionally turn out to be their sisters.

This fused medley of tales from across the centuries (and maybe millennia) was set in stone in the mid-19th century, so it's a lot easier on the reader than the more authentically ancient equivalents. Though just as the high seas psychedelia of The Odyssey was interrupted by lots of annoying palace dawdling, these eagle-riding escapades are still prone to lengthy, several-chapters-long digressions on the roles and etiquette of wives and husbands respectively.

Faves: The First Väinämöinen Cycle

Worsties: Ilmarinen's Wedding

19. Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

2000 / E-book / 709 pages / USA


A book that wants to be a found footage horror film, mixed up in the sort of style-over-substance twaddle that I got away with throughout my creative writing degree so that I didn't have to come up with a plot and characters, the most successful aspect of this book is that it's genuinely eerie when it tries to be. If you did want to make the film, the shot-for-shot directions are all there for you in longing detail between the insane footnotes. If only he'd had the money.

20. Jules Verne, Five Weeks in a Balloon, or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen

1863 / Audiobook / 432 pages / France


There are two major reasons why this early scientific romance isn't so frequently adapted for film, cheap miniseries, Willy Fogg animated escapades and Star Trek alumni audio dramatisations as Verne's more famous works. Firstly, a balloon flight over Africa doesn't spark the imagination in quite the same way as a trip around the entire world or a subterranean dinosaur odyssey. Secondly, I know it was a different time and culture, but zut alors monsieur Verne! You even make my Nana look cosmopolitan.

21. Algernon Blackwood, The Complete John Silence Stories

1908 / Audiobook / 272 pages / UK


"Have they the souls of night things...?"

I had a yearning for some vintage occult spookiness, and the investigations of this respected physician moonlighting as a psychic detective were just the ticket. The style is all over the place in these six tales - sometimes clients/patients bring their predicaments to Dr. Silence and his loyal secretary/scribe in the Holmes model, sometimes the doctor just shows up at the end to explain what's going on and scare away the ghoulies, mummies and fire elementals. As a bonus, it's also charmingly dated in its exploration of the consciousness-opening effects of cannabis and features some of the least subtle foreshadowing I've ever had the pleasure to be completely unsurprised by.

Faves: 'Ancient Sorceries' for Satanic sabbaths, bewitching French maidens and feline lycanthropy.

Worsties: 'The Camp of the Dog' for an uneventful camping trip in Sweden. Well, there's a werewolf.

22. Al Feldstein ed, The EC Archives: Tales from the Crypt, Vol. 2

1951-52 / E-comics / 212 pages / USA


I skipped over the supposedly shaky first collection of reprints of this classic, influential and infamous 50s horror comic to get straight to the juicy stuff, and I wasn't disappointed. Reading these originals after having already watched all the HBO adaptations like a philistine, it's interesting to see how these simplistic tales for kids (sinister kids admittedly) were warped for a mature audience. They basically just added boobs and cussing. All the relentless puns and ruthless gore were there already, with most stories building up to the money shot of some rotting corpse or other with his flesh and eyeballs all hanging off. It's the sort of thing I never tired of doodling in margins all the way through school, I just wish I'd read these 20 years earlier.

Faves: 'Last Respects!', 'Bargain in Death!,' 'The Ventriloquist's Dummy!'

Worsties: The ones about rape potions are tasteless in a less good way.

23. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas

1864 / Audiobook / 528 pages / Ireland


I've been on a bit of a Gothic kick recently, finally getting around to tackling some of those bulky novels whose length alone made me opt out of the Victorian literature module altogether as a lazy student. When I found out that a writer I already respected as the originator of lesbian vampire fiction also wrote the first locked room mystery, my hopes of a Hammer Horror Jonathan Creek were set a bit too high. It takes a third of the book for the story to even start to get anywhere, but it was an atmospheric ride. And what do you know, the young lady isn't even a complete airhead, which is always a pleasant surprise in these classics. I was only slightly disappointed that she didn't lez up with any vampire countesses.

24. Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism

1995 / E-book / 221 pages / USA


The mystical powers of Hebrew letters and numbers crop up from time to time in the weird TV shows I like, and this is a concise introduction to the slightly out-there ideas of the Kabbalah - a school of thought that a bunch of Jewish people came up with in the 13th century that mixes creative Bible interpretation with standard philosophical ideas about being excellent to each other and hopefully being born male. While it isn't the Bumper Book of Hebrew Spells I was naively hoping for, it did clear up a few long-standing concerns I've had, such as: how long is God's beard? (A: 34,500 miles). And why keep esoteric wisdom so secret if you think we could all benefit? It's for our own protection apparently, and has nothing at all to do with insecure religious leaders' power trips.

25. David Icke, The Perception Deception: Or... It's ALL Bollocks - Yes, ALL of It


2013 / E-book / 913 pages / UK

Whatever you think about David Icke (he's beyond caring), after reading one of his gargantuan books or sitting through a 10-hour live lecture, you won't have any doubt that he passionately believes in the omniconspiracy and his duty to wake us up before it's too late. Even if you don't necessarily believe a single thing he has to say about the holographic universe (that's the new stuff) and reptilian Archon bloodlines manipulating every facet of our so-called lives (classic), it makes for a cracking and imaginative read. In the first half at least, before it gets more mainstream-alternative in the second with GM foods, vaccinations, chemtrails and mind-melting Wi-Fi, but you have to admire his commitment to not leaving any stones unturned.

I went through my phase of reading Icke for scornful laughs, but now I really like the guy and approach his obsessive-compulsive dot-connecting as very satisfying science fiction, casting the real public figures we hate as blood-drinking, child-molesting alien parasites. SUE HIM IF IT'S NOT TRUE.

26. Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

2015 / Audiobook / 310 pages / UK


It's been a few years since I read/listened-to Fragile Things, my favourite of Gaiman's then-two collections of short stories and miscellany, but I have a feeling this new one's even better.

Even if you haven't already come across some of its contents by following his work over the last decade or just picking up one of the various anthologies they were originally written for (I'd already read the Doctor Who one, and I think he read the living statue one at an Amanda Palmer gig), there won't be much that's surprising in this reliable assortment of SF/fantasy/horror, stylistic tributes, twisted fairy tales, urban fantasy and other labels I've seen applied over the years and imagine I know what they mean.

Faves: 'The Thing About Cassandra,' 'Orange,' 'The Case of Death and Honey.'

Worsties: The dainty filler is pleasant, but doesn't stand a chance.

27. Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

2009 / Audiobook / 265 pages / UK


His Dark Materials took some excellent, Hollywood-franchise-squashing stabs at organised religion, but this plainer re-imagining of the story of Jesus and his twin brother Christ (neither, one or both of whom may be fictitious) doesn't fire the imagination in the same way. It's all downhill from the provocative title, with most of it being slightly skewed or even verbatim scenes from the gospels before these accounts were exaggerated by their chroniclers, featuring opportunistic scheming and 'miracles' that are at best ambiguous placebos and at other times outright fabricated as a means to an end. It's academically interesting, but as far as making the subject entertaining, it's no 'Sunday Heroes.'


  1. I finished zero books in March. Not that I'm busy or anything, just lazy.

    1. You're busy having Laos adventures a year ago.