Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Alrightreads: April

I hadn't intended to read a book a day this month, but when it got to about half-way through and I realised things were averaging out that way, I thought I might as well commit.

Admittedly, I didn't exactly tackle any whopping Dickenses or David Ickes this month. I've bought myself the time for those now.

April 2015

28. Alexey Sokolsky, Your First Move: Chess for Beginners

1982 (Sokolsky died in 1969; presumably the translation took a while?) / E-book / 296 pages / Ukraine/Belarus (which one?)


I've never been very good at chess. I accepted this at around age 16 when I was regularly annihilated by my six-years-younger brother, and I was reminded again when I recently started to play and lose against amateur-level computer opponents while listening to audiobooks. I thought this guide might help, and it did fill me in on a few basics I didn't know about – en passant pawn capturing, the specifics of stalemate, the importance of controlling the centre – but after these introductions it rapidly falls into shorthand notation and demands more work than I'm prepared to put in to improve my game. Until we get those Matrix-style skill set downloads that Michio Kaku promised, I'll have to be content with just being mint at Scrabble.

29. Lucian Randall, Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris

2009 / E-book / 276 pages / UK


Chris Morris gave reluctant permission for this awestruck biography to be produced, but thankfully declined to be interviewed himself – so if you do feel let down by its portrait of a reasonably grounded and polite family man where there was previously a cultivated enigma, there's still a chance that none of it's true. For fans of The Day Today, Brass Eye and the rest, there's a wealth of behind-the-scenes insights and only a little bit of fanboy quoting (mercifully, the chronicler doesn't ruin things by trying be funny himself), and all but the most obsessive disciples are bound to come away with a list of obscure gems to google.

30. Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon (Conan the Conqueror)

1936 / Audiobook / 255 pages / USA


The only proper-length novel featuring Robert E. Howard's most enduring creation, this didn't feel as far removed from the (weirdly excellent) Schwarzenegger film as I feared. The older King Conan is a lot more talkative than Arnie's younger brute, as he would be, and the magic elements have that same sinister atmosphere rather than the fairy tale fluff of the pathetic sequel. We are invited to consider Conan's bulging muscles and sweat-slicked mane on occasion, but it's balanced out by similarly detailed descriptions of glistening warrior women heaving beneath their breast plates, if that's the sort of thing that worries you. Originally serialised, it knows how to keep you coming back for more – how could I resist such tantalising chapter titles as 'From What Hell Have You Crawled?' and 'He Has Slain the Sacred Son of Set!'

31. Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

2004 / Audiobook / 480 pages / Italy


If you were hoping for something less wordy that didn't consist almost entirely of an amnesiac book dealer's confused monologue, you should really have looked for a different author. Admittedly, it's my least favourite of the three-and-a-half Umberto Ecos I've read (I'm due for another crack at Foucault's Pendulum – third time's the charm), but I feel the book is fine with that, since it mainly serves as a love letter to literature in general. If you ever find a novel denser with quotes and references than this one, check again because you're probably reading an encyclopaedia.

32. Dick Wood (seriously), Nevio Zaccara and Alberto Giolitti, Star Trek: Gold Key Archives Volume 1

1967-9 (reprinted 2014) / E-graphic-novel / 183 pages / USA


More a vintage curio than something you'd actually read expecting it to be any good, these original Star Trek comics – released when the series was still on the air – are a load of shit (one of them's okay), but I find them so much more entertaining than the drab lines that came later, written and drawn by people who'd actually bothered to watch the show. You can keep your consistent ethics and characters that look and behave anything like their on-screen counterparts – I'll take a remorselessly genocidal Kirk, overly emotional Spock, white Uhura and a different actor playing Scotty every issue, exploring the galaxies in their hilariously undersized star space-ship complete with rocket engines, a periscope and seat belts (that last one's not a bad idea).

Highly illogical

33. Terry Jones and Douglas Adams, Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic

1997 / Audiobook / 189 pages / UK


It might not be the absolute worst book I've read this year, but considering the talent involved, it's certainly the biggest let-down. Going in, I was already a bit suspicious about a novel based on a 90s computer game (presumably much more enjoyable) based on a brief aside from one of the Hitchhiker's books, desperately tagging on Douglas Adams' name as if (real author) Terry Jones wasn't already appealing enough. Maybe there was a reason for that. He may have had a hand in some of the finest comedies of all time, but this cheap Douglas Adams knock-off isn't among them. The only really funny thing about it is that it's available to read online in alphabetical order, if you are completely insane.

34. Rosemary Ellen Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology

2009 / E-book / 302 pages / USA


No demonologist should be without this valuable who's whom of the underworld, according to the worryingly non-objective introductions. The exhaustive entries themselves are more balanced in disclosing their myriad and often contradictory sources, so you can choose how much you want to believe in the various demons, fallen angels and djinni from Abaddon to Zotz when searching for a name for your black metal band, joined by celebrity exorcists, sorcerers and proven frauds. There are plenty of lovely old etchings, but as educational as it was, I still feel a Top Trumps version would have been superior.

Faves: Belphegor, the personification of misogyny who appears in the form of a phallus and offers you his excrement, Despite all this, he is repulsed by sex. There's a complex character for you.

Worsties: Rhyx Axesbuth, who causes piles. Prhyk.

35. Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer

1980 / Audiobook / 303 pages / USA


There's no particular reason it's not a five-star book. It's a well-written story in a well-defined dystopian world, it's won plenty of awards and adulation that I'm sure it deserves, the ingredients are to my taste (dingy atmosphere, spooky necropolis, people wearing robes) and it's easily the best inexperienced-apprentice-goes-out-into-the-unusual-world-and-we-see-it-through-his-eyes story I've read, but by the end I didn't feel any urge to see how those adventures continued in the inevitable sequels. I wonder what it takes to impress me? (For narrative's sake, the next book had better be five stars...)

37. Arthur Machen, The Hill of Dreams

1907 / Audiobook / 329 pages / UK


What do you know? And it hardly took any dishonest shuffling at all!

Lucian Taylor is one of those rare literary characters I can actually relate to and empathise with along his inevitable downhill slide. This is another book that has all the right ingredients, but this time – no doubt due to arcane sorcery on the author's part, cunningly paralleled in the story itself – the alchemy works and it's one of my new favourite novels. There's a perfect split between the spooky Welsh countryside and gloomy Victorian London; perfect magical/mental ambiguity; a barely camouflaged bisexual orgy that I'm not sure how he got away with; philosophising on the power of the written word that's thought-provoking rather than masturbatory; and for once a turn-of-the-century book isn't even racist. Maybe I can finally draw a line under this occult fixation now, before you start to worry about me. You should see my music folder.

36. William Blake, The Illuminated Books, Volume 3: The Early Illuminated Books

1788-93 (reprinted 1993) / E-book / 286 pages / UK


Until I hopefully get more sentimental in my old age, Blake is the only poet I can dip into for pleasure, and this is the ideal mini-anthology for anyone who's already got the Songs under their belt and wants to devour the rest of the early material in its original form without being bogged down by the visionary/madman's hefty later works. I'm only listing this book for title's sake though, since I read its contents online courtesy of the University of Adelaide. They probably even used the same vibrant remasters for the plates - cheeky!

Faves: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Book of Thel

Worsties: Comparatively unimaginative opening salvos 'All Religions Are One' & 'There Is No Natural Religion' are only here for completion's sake.

38. John H. Baker ed, The Art of Nick Cave: New Critical Essays

2012 / E-book / 282 pages / UK


A hip professor's community college course meets songmeanings.net in this collection of essays that vary from insightful to bloody tedious. I admire its dedication to covering the full range of Nick Cave's oeuvre – including his novels, obscure screenplays and obscurer ballet soundtracks – but for philistines like me and almost everyone else, those are the annoying bits in-between the chapters dealing with the music. This book did help me to gain a new appreciation for overlooked songs and to notice some of the weird shit the instruments are doing, but I guess I would have preferred it to be a strict song-by-song companion in chronological order, preferably timed to match each song's length as well as my reading speed. That's not too much to ask, is it? Yeah, well maybe I will write it.

39. Andrew Lang ed, The Arabian Nights Entertainments

1898 / Audiobook / 397 pages / Various


I wimped out from reading the complete One Thousand and One Nights in a later, thicker, more authentic translation – it may not actually contain 1,001 stories, but more than the 30-odd hand-picked by Andrew Lang and translated second-hand from the French translation in this flawed version that helped to cement the pop culture Aladdin and Sinbad, for better or worse. I guess I just wasn't in the mood for archaic fairy tales this month, or I'm just racist against Arabs (that must be it), because I had less tolerance for these obscenely powerful and wealthy characters I was supposed to root for as they casually mention the slaves they own, half-heartedly order executions and slaughter elephants. They're generous to the poor though, who sometimes get a free meal as long as they're prepared to listen captivated to their host's self-congratulatory and obviously made-up stories, so that's nice.

Faves: The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor (it's no Odyssey).

Worsties: Most of the rest.

40. Steve Aylett, Lint

2005 / E-book / 240 pages / UK


For a comedy fan, I don't seem to read a lot of funny books. This is the first one in a very long time that's actually made me laugh out loud like a madman.

I won't bother reviewing it in-character, as if it's the true story of the (fictional) writer and counterculture hero it purports to be ('Steve Aylett's newest novel' on the front does ruin that a bit). Much of it is in the same vein as Garth Marenghi, Spinal Tap and Alan Partridge's autobiography, with the accuracy and genuine affection for the subject matter needed to make the legendary writer of trashy pulp sci-fi, rejected screenplays, demented kids' cartoons, nihilistic comics and inevitable concept albums almost believable.

41. Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop

1946 / Audiobook / 208 pages / UK


Having lately endured a few grating LibriVox readers too many, this is the first time I've chosen a book mainly for its narrator. Stephen Thorne is a comforting voice from my childhood, having read the Christmas story to me on one of my earliest books-on-tape, so it was just a bonus that the actual book happened to be really good too. Annoyingly good, actually, as I've already got several more mysteries lined up and now have a feeling they won't be as enjoyable as this quirky one. Thanks a lot, Crispin.

42. Oscar de Muriel, The Strings of Murder

2015 / Audiobook / 407 pages / Mexico


I can't seem to avoid occult themes even when I try. Alright, so maybe avoiding covers featuring ominous, disembodied eyes would be a start.

My selection criterion for this one was that it's set in Edinburgh, which is always nice, even if it's Auld Reekie during the Victorian era when it apparently smelt like pish. Still, we get treated to the tourist experience as the city's familiar sights are viewed through the discriminating eyes of a stuffy Londoner, written by a Mexican. Beyond the nostalgic comfort of getting to hear terms like "ken," "hen" and "wifey" again, it doesn't add anything new to the mystery genre, but it does have just the sort of needlessly convoluted, completely insane solution that I always enjoy.

43. Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century

2014 / E-graphic-novel / 256 pages / UK


It's so gratifying that Alan Moore is still at the top of his game, having put out these blinders since before I was even alive. It does take some wading through all the absolute pap he writes for the money to find the stuff he actually cares about, but give him a break – those drugs don't pay for themselves (though I'd argue he should be able to claim them as expenses). Bringing his Victorian characters up to the present day, he couldn't resist a stopover in the 60s where things have the excuse of going properly psychedelic, but even that doesn't top the madness of Volume II when Rupert Bear went on a killing spree. If you aren't deciphering the nicknames and googling the origins of every obscure literary character who pops up, you're not doing it properly.

Yeah... maybe start out with Watchmen to be safe

44. Ellis Peters, The Leper of Saint Giles

1981 / Audiobook / 208 pages / UK


I feel the need to point out that 'Ellis Peters' is a pen name for Edith Pargeter, just because the gender imbalance of authors I'm reading is a bit embarrassing. Now that's out of the way, I didn't get a lot out of this book. I enjoyed the historical setting, which is familiar from The Pillars of the Earth – one of the only other historical novels I've read – and while I guess it was refreshing that a simple murder mystery in these circumstances didn't have to involve the clandestine scheming of royalty and clergy, the consequence is that it's pretty dull. There's been about one book per month that I listen to attentively but can barely remember immediately afterwards, and this can be April's.

45. Leonard Nimoy, I Am Not Spock

1976 / Audiobook / 136 pages / USA


It turns out that this legendary ungrateful memoir is actually nothing of the sort, though there were evidently enough people like me who judged it on the title alone that Nimoy had to write a follow-up, I Am Spock, to clarify that he doesn't begrudge his most famous character's popularity. He comes across as a nice and thoughtful guy, and his schizophrenic dialogues with the Vulcan in his head are pretty cute. RIP/LLAP.

46. The Rik Mayall, Bigger Than Hitler – Better Than Christ

2006 / E-book / 352 pages / UK


If I was serious about paying tribute to the sadly departed The Rik Mayall, I would have abandoned this mock semi-autobiography very early on when it became clear it wasn't exactly going to be a belter. But like a complete bastard, I had to keep reading on disappointedly, knowing I was just going to have to slag it off. Well, no one's making me. The title's funny, isn't it? Now go and watch Kevin Turvey.

47. James A. Levine, Get Up ! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It

2014 / Audiobook / 224 pages / UK


I might as well read something that could actually be good for me, and even though I'm not sure how far to trust the Doc's 40 years of dedicated anti-chair research, there's still enough in here to make me feel pretty terrible about my sedentary life these days. And even more resentful that I've ended up trapped in a pedestrian-hostile country where there's literally nowhere to go. I used to read 100% of my audiobooks on the move – look at them all. I've long known that the Philippines is going to kill me, it just remains to be seen how.

48. Robyn Magalit Rodriguez, Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World

2008 / E-book / 224 pages / USA


I also thought I should use some of these enforced reading opportunities to learn more about this fucking awful country and some of the reasons it got this way, but that ended up being just as depressing as those websites I read when I get distracted from novels.

From now on, it's escapism all the way.

49. Robert A. Heinlein, The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein

1940-1958 (collected 1999) / Audiobook / 352 pages / USA


This is two vintage collections of novellas and short stories taped together rather than a deliberate attempt at a greatest hits, but when you're dealing with the SF master, any random assortment is going to be steeped in classics. I still haven't read all that much Heinlein – even less of his contemporaries – but despite this poor research, I'm still confident that he's the number one. And if he isn't, I've got even more to look forward to.

Faves: '"—And He Built a Crooked House,"' 'Waldo,' 'The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,' '"—All You Zombies—"'

Worsties: That's not fair. I guess 'Magic, Inc.'

50. Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

1960 / E-book / 288 pages / UK


For most of my years at the Dingle C.P. School, a reproduction of this ominous book cover loomed over the main hall, painted by pupils in some previous year or other. I thought it was amazing  look at it!  but never bothered to check out the source. Turns out it's a local(ish)-interest children's fantasy novel set in the real geography around Alderley Edge in Chester. It sadly didn't make it onto the reading list of any of my classes, but I got there in the end.

Xenophobic county pride aside (still 18 miles away from that school hall, but you wouldn't want to set a story in Crewe), it's not exactly groundbreaking with its stock wizards, goblins, knights, dwarfs, witches and hooded scary thing, but it might be the best six-part Children's BBC drama never made. I could smell the cliffhangers.

51. Tharg ed, 2000 A.D. Annual 1978

1977 / E-annual / 123 pages / UK


More false nostalgia, this might have been in my Christmas stocking if I'd been born about 15 years earlier. I've come across this classic British institution a number of times over the years when exploring the obscure early works of writers and artists who went on to bigger things, so I thought I'd check it out on its own terms. It's not as tongue-in-cheek as I expected, with plain moralising rather than satire. I suppose it got better. There's also a strong educational angle with articles on contemporary science topics kids are interested in like the space shuttle, oil and commemorative stamps. These were presumably dropped after a while when they realised readers were more interested in the bits where Judge Dredd blast a guy's face off.

Faves: Cheery nuclear holocaust inevitability in 'End of Voyage' and juvenile polar bear vengeance in 'White Fury.'

Worsties: Future Nazis and 1970s black people play ball in 'Harlem Heroes.'

For Thomas,
Hope you have a wonderful 1978!
Love Auntie Kath X

52. Neil Degrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith, Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution

2004 (maybe updated 2014?) / Audiobook / 352 pages / USA


I try to keep up with the space documentaries, but I'd be lying if I said I take most of the information in while enjoying the CGI nebulae and dizzying numbers. I don't primarily listen to spacey prog rock for the lyrics either.

So far, it's only Carl Sagan who's succeeded in putting across that same sense of wonder in the written/spoken word, and as his remake of Cosmos demonstrated, Neil is not Carl. It might seem rich coming from me, but I could have done without the sarcasm when I'm trying to learn about antimatter, dark gravity and the accelerating universe, and I was annoyed by their continual need to belittle creationists and alien abductees even though I agree with them. Can't we just ignore the whackos? Must there always be war?

53. Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook, Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale

2008 / E-book / 512 pages / UK


I wasn't going to read any more TV tie-ins this year (that didn't last long), but this looked more interesting than your cash-in YA novel or episode guide. A year-and-a-bit's worth of email correspondence offers candid insights into the creative mind – one of them, anyway – during what happened to be one of the better years of the maddeningly inconsistent but adorable show. For fans, it's also a treasure trove of characters and stories that didn't make it for various reasons. For non-fans... I don't really know why you'd bother. I don't have to sell this.

54. Jennifer Lynch, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer

1990 / E-book / 184 pages / USA


Speaking of cheap TV cash-ins that are better than expected, I finally got around to reading this hot-a-quarter-of-a-century-ago Twin Peaks apocrypha, apparently written by David Lynch's daughter (not sure why I'm sceptical about that) for daddy's strange show. A smart piece of merchandising, the scandalous diary was a major prop in the series – I can't remember if some of these entries were reproduced from the scripts, but most of it's new and really not bad. Not quite strong enough to stand on its own if you'd never seen the series – you'd just assume Laura was insane without the apparitions of scruffy men, reversed dwarfs and lounge horses to back her up – but as far as capturing the voice of a troubled teenage girl, it feels authentic. Like I'd know about that.

Free from TV censorship, it's pretty raunchy too. I liked to imagine those baby boomer mums and aunts feeling flushed and phoning each other after the kids were tucked up in bed.

55. F. Sionil José, Dusk

1984 / E-book / 325 pages / Philippines


A nostalgic step back in time to the latter days of Spanish colonial Philippines – which can't help being pretty bleak too, for obvious reasons – this seems to be one of a few popular candidates for the national novel (in the English language anyway). It's the first Philippine entertainment I've digested properly in over two years of living here, and the pastoral escape is a pleasant antidote to what seems to be a garish and vapid entertainment industry in general, so well done on that at least. It's also satisfying that it champions little people dealing with the everyday tribulations of horrific, inhumane oppression rather than folk heroes, and my only real problem was that I couldn't get on board with these characters' deeply-held superstitions or values in general. It's not like I identified more with the tyrant soldiers, I'm just not in it. I'm just fundamentally incompatible with the country I live in, no problem.

56. Yei Theodora Ozaki ed, Japanese Fairy Tales

1903 / E-book / 256 pages / Japan


"You are right, wife, for once."

A second outing for exotic fairy tales this month, and disappointingly another collection that the curator admits having selected to best suit Edwardian British tastes. Whatever zany stuff he left out, I wish he'd left it in, as some of these are basically Japanese whispers of familiar tales, but they do point out when they're being stubbornly foreign, providing explanations about the importance of respecting one's parents and what rice is. I found it a lot easier on the conscience than the Arabian Nights, as these bad people typically get their just desserts rather than being rewarded with a princess and slaves. Plus, all the animals talk.

Faves: Time-twisting coral caves psychedelia in 'The Story of Urashima Taro, The Fisher Lad.'

Worsties: 'The "Shinansha," or The South Pointing Carriage' and other war-themed ones that don't even feature talking animals.

57. Tim Smolko, Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play: Inside Two Long Songs

2013 / E-book / 266 pages / USA


Life's too short to even get around to listening to Jethro Tull's one-song albums, but Mr. Smolko here has gone even further by scrutinising their meaningless lyrics and newspaper/playbill inlays and generally treating these self-parodying prog excesses with the reverence usually reserved for symphonies. Good man.

Ian Anderson and his merry men aren't my favourite medieval revivalist prog rockers, which is good because I learned something new on every page. Much more worthwhile than reading about a band I really like and already know everything about. I don't understand TaaB any better, but at least I know I'm not supposed to now. This also helped me to finally appreciate A Passion Play, which I used to consider too obtuse even for me. Imagine that.

58. Edward Packard, Choose Your Own Adventure #45: You Are a Shark

1985 / E-book / 200 pages / USA


"You have not been asleep," the monk replies. "You've been a tree."

I loved multiple choice gamebooks when I was a kid (and again for a brief spell at 28), but I never crossed paths with the big name brand, and this seemed like a suitably mad place to start.

It's almost absolutely amazing, making inspired use of the format to teach some entry level Buddhism and conservation messages that hit home when you're the whale being harpooned or lion being caged, but each scenario is far too rushed to fully immerse yourself before moving on. I played through a few times to try out the various combinations of beasts of the land, air and sea, but never did end up as that shark.

Look, I've committed to only reading big books next month, I earned this in advance.


  1. You're just showing off now.

    I read three this month: Dune, Dune Messiah, Scoop. 4/3/5 stars.

    1. I'm married now, what else am I supposed to do with my days?