Sunday, June 28, 2015

Alrightreads: June



After spending a month at the grown-up table (with a couple of exceptions), it was back to lightweight books in both senses for June. It was much more enjoyable, taking me back to those days of dipping in and out of several library books a night. Do you remember libraries? And pavements? And weather?

It's not only so I can get through this quicker. I prefer concise stories that are less likely to leave me lost and confused when my attention wanders every couple of chapters (especially treacherous with audiobooks) and having to catch up with the Wikipedia summary that's been floating in my tabs all week.

And when there's the occasional non-fiction topic I feel like reading about, and I convince myself to turn to an authoritative book on the subject rather than click through a few quick web pages that would satisfy that curiosity in a matter of minutes, I'd rather not be bogged down with the encyclopaedia.


June 2015


69. Jimmy Maher, The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga

2012 / E-book / 344 pages (there's almost 100 pages of glossary, bibliography and index, to be fair) / USA?

***

Sticking stubbornly with your dinosaur bands is one thing, but primitive computer nostalgia? This Amiga historian doesn't romanticise the ramshackle machine too much, but he does make an adorably passionate argument for why the modern world would be an ever-so-slightly different place if it wasn't for those bouncing balls, obnoxious demos and Deluxe Paint.

Our A1200 was a massive part of my childhood, but I was never as interested or capable of understanding the technical side of things as my dad and brother (claimed to be). This book hasn't really helped with that, but it was enjoyable to see those classic defence cards still being played 20 years down the line:

"Did you know that some of the background dinosaurs on Jurassic Park might have been done on an Amiga? And the unconvincing space scenes in the first few seasons of Babylon 5SeaQuest DSV, people!"


70. Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography

2006 / E-book / 160 pages / UK

**

Reading this was pretty much an act of masochism on my part, as my contented flâneuring days seem to be behind me now that I live in a place where the art of walking has been rendered impractical and dangerous by factors such as non-existent urban planning, reckless traffic, pestering peddlers and prostitutes and the sun.

This light introduction to the literary, spiritual and political sides of psychogeography was mainly handy as a pointer towards some wandering novels I might like, though I don't think I'll be checking out Xavier de Maistre's A Journey Around My Room series any time soon. I get enough of that at home.


71. Arthur Conan Doyle, Tales of Terror and Mystery

1893-1913 (collected 1922) / Audiobook / 140 pages / UK

***

"What an inconceivable fate for a civilised Englishman of the twentieth century!"

I knew there was more to Conan Doyle than Holmes, Prof. Challenger and an embarrassing defence of cardboard cut-out fairy photos, but this might be the first of his miscellany I've read. It's certainly his leftovers.

As the literal title attests, the two sides of this concept album are themed around 'terror' and 'mystery' respectively, with six tracks apiece. The horror is basically an imitation of his peers and the mysteries are sub-Sherlock, but each side has one pretty great track, one offensively bad one and middling filler. Your favourite genre cliches are well catered for, with this person turning out to be that person all along and characters diligently keeping their journals up-to-date right until their last breath rather than running away.

Faves: 'The Horror of the Heights,' 'The Lost Special.'

Worsties: 'The Case of Lady Sannox,' 'The Japanned Box.'


72. Viz, The Council Gritter

2009 / E-comics / 160 pages / UK

****

My experience of pre-2000s Viz is limited to intentionally Crap Jokes and an absolutely appalling Amiga game, so I have the advantage over long-term readers of not remembering how it used to be better. These collected comics are from 2006-8ish, and there does seem to be a bit of a decline even from the few years since I was reading them at high school... though of course that could just be because I was in high school. It's mainly the topical satire and celebrity stuff that's dated badly, the regular characters are still thankfully trapped in their violent 1960s Geordie Beano parody world where they belong.

Faves: Biffa Bacon, Terry Fuckwitt, Letterbocks.

Worsties: Raffles the Gentleman Thug, Billy the Fish, anything with Bin Laden.



This is my favourite thing of the entire year


73. Terry Pratchett, A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction

2014 / Audiobook / 315 pages / UK

****

Succinct and amusing musings on writing, fantasy, rationalism, hats and death. I always admired Terry Pratchett, but also felt guilty that I didn't enjoy his stuff as much as I should, and not only because I wanted one of those colourful Discworld bookshelves. It could just be that I didn't give it enough of a chance, or try the best — apart from the Good Omens collaboration, I've only read a couple of the early Discworlds that the author specifically encourages new readers to skip so they can get to the good ones. I'll make sure to remedy that soon, but I'm going to feel pretty lousy if it isn't my cup of tea. Still, when has that ever stopped me from persevering?


Raymond Smullyan, The Magic Garden of George B and Other Logic Puzzles

2007 / E-book / 176 pages / USA

**

"Now that the reader is familiar with the meanings of A, A ∩ B, A B, A B, A B, A B, A B, A B, A | B ... we can consider some relations between flowers."

If you've been losing sleep since that time in January when I brazenly counted a book I'd partly read last year towards my 100 for 2015, you don't have to worry any more — this abandoned failure isn't going to count. I like daft lateral thinking puzzles, but I thought I'd go a bit more high brow (or just longer) than those flimsy 90-pagers that illustrate each problem with the help of cartoon cavemen. That would have been more on my level. This starts out promisingly, but descends into endless variations on the same theme (one's telling the truth; one's lying). Then it brings in maths and funny symbols and I realise I'm in the wrong class.


74. J. G. Ballard, The Crystal World

1966 / Audiobook / 210 pages / UK

***

I haven't read any Ballard before, but even if I always assumed he was a woman, I was still aware that he isn't exactly best known for his early environmental apocalypse quartet, so I won't hold its mediocrity against him. Still, something drew me to this unimaginatively titled one  maybe it was the promise of a sparkling crystalline landscape taking me back to childhood Amiga games (again), or maybe I just fancied a boat ride through the jungle over a gritty urban drug debacle or whatever the more celebrated later stuff's about. I'll get to it eventually.


75. Mark Gatiss, The Devil in Amber

2006 / Audiobook / 245 pages / UK

***

I should have gone for an authentic noir/occult/sexist spy thriller rather than just another affectionate homage, but this also helps out in my side quest of consuming everything Mark Gatiss has ever done, even if that means disappointment more often than not. At least he reads the audiobook himself, so our smug hero is a bit more tolerable. I'm pretty sure I read the previous book in this series years ago, but I can't remember much about it. There's a third book too, so hopefully I'll digest and forget the whole saga before the decade's out.


76. Lady Charlotte Guest trans, The Mabinogion, Volume 1

~1200 (collected 1877) / Audiobook / 132 pages / UK

**

I'm certain there are better versions of Wales' historic epic out there than this archaic Victorian one, which doesn't even seem to get the names right. It's one of the less well-known takes on the Arthurian legend (well, only less well-known if you're not Welsh I guess), which presents quite a different king and doesn't include a lot of the pop culture tropes that come later. What it does include is plenty of knights, giants, dwarfs and easily impressed damsels doing their respective things.


77. Dean Clarrain, Ryan Brown and a whole bunch of illustrators, Teenage Mutant [Ninja/Hero] Turtles Adventures Volumes 2-7

1989-91 (collected 2012-14) / E-comics / 752 pages / USA

***


Because it would have been a bit pathetic to include just one paperback collection of four comics. Besides, I really wanted to revisit every one of those scattered issues I owned as a five-year-old who was slightly too young to understand them (both the zany outer space storylines and the confusing art) and to finally connect those dots as part of larger story arcs now that I'm definitely way too old to be reading them. Thank you, I am aware that these are the watered-down kid-friendly versions and that I should seek out the original Mirage series if I'm interested in a more mature take on fighting ninja reptiles. It's Sunday and I want a hit of pure nostalgia, is that alright with you?

Faves: Tree-hugging environmentalism in 'The Howling of Distant Shadows' and 'The Keeper.'

Worsties: Donatello gets trapped on a floppy disk in 'Space Junk Face Funk Cyber Punk Thief.'


78. W. Somerset Maugham, The Magician

1908 / Audiobook / 240 pages / UK

***

I know a little about the life of Aleister Crowley, but enough to know that his unambiguous fictional counterpart in Oliver Haddo is largely farcical. Maugham's presentation  of the Great Beast himself and assorted occult tropes are all well and good until about half way through, when the plot starts happening and the satisfying magic/science debate is abandoned  in favour of a fairy tale. The conventional romance plot is the least interesting aspect by far — I was more fascinated by the lingering influence of the real Crowley over the whole thing. The author claims he found the magician an absurd figure, ripe for parody, but would you base a whole novel around some weirdo you'd only bumped into a couple of times? So all writers are in love with their villains now, are they? Is it because the author's gay, Dave? Go back to your ninja turtles.


79. Jon Ronson, So You've Been Publicly Shamed

2015 / Audiobook / 290 pages / UK

***

After the fascinating Them and The Men Who Stare at Goats, this is the first of Ronson's books I've read that doesn't deal primarily with complete whackos, and its assortment of sympathetic and/or deserving victims isn't quite so entertaining — even if it's always a pleasure to hear both sides of their unrealistic conversations with the author narrated in Jon Ronson's amiable voice. More thought-provoking and relevant, sure, but if I check his Twitter in a year or two and see that he's become preoccupied with harmless kooks again, I'd look forward to that next book more.


80. Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence

1977 / E-book / 263 pages / USA

****

Nearly 40 years on, you wouldn't read this for its analysis of dated research, speculations that have presumably been long since proved or disproved, or its comparisons of brain power to obsolete computers. You'd read it because you're correctly infatuated by Carl Sagan. Since he's stepping outside of his comfort zone this time, this lacks the authority of his space stuff, but it doesn't lack any of the euphoric enthusiasm. It's the least essential of his books after the space stuff and Broca's Brain, but I'd rather have Carl Sagan romantically theorising about brain evolution than getting the cold facts from someone who's actually qualified.


81. Stewart Holden ed, The Scrabble Players' Handbook

2012 / E-book / 163 pages / UK/Various

****

The guys know Scrabble. This comprehensive guide written by the champs is the sort of thing some twat would try to sell on his blog for $30, but they're offering it for free, which is nice of them. (And since they are Scrabble fans, you can trust the spelling and grammar are above the typical e-book standard). Unlike my usual download-n-delete "virtual library books" (yes, that's how I justify piracy) I'll keep hold of it — primarily for its handy lists of the two- and three-letter words, but it's full of good stuff. Most of it will already be intuitive if you've wasted as much of your life playing the nerd's game as I have, but there'll be lots of new things to think about if you hadn't thought to take your fun displacement activity deadly seriously before.


Fig. 1: Fun


82. José Rizal, Noli me tangere

1887 / Audiobook / 480 pages / Philippines

***

I would like to fit in here and understand the people more (so, more than complete bewilderment and frustration then). If I'm not going to start singing bad karaoke or watching vapid teleseryes, I can at least subject myself to the ordeal every Filipino teenager must go through by law — reading the infamously subversive novels of their national hero. I was really hoping I wouldn't hate this, but while the style is ponderous and archaic even for the time, and its gender politics laughable or depressing depending on your mood, the important parts that earned its infamy and secured its place on the curriculum are still valid. Those nasty Spaniards are gone, so that worked out, but Rizal's criticisms of his countryfolk and the Catholic church that are just as relevant today don't really seem to have sunk in. You all just skimmed the SparkNotes, didn't you?


83. Howard Fast, The Hunter and the Trap

1967 / Audiobook / 215 pages / USA

***

Apparently one of the most prolific writers ever, Howard Fast's conveyor belt evidently moved so rapidly that the books didn't always turn out as expected — hence this collection of two uneven novellas, presumably because 'The Trap' didn't end up being long enough to stand alone and there weren't enough other short stories hanging around since the last collection for 'The Hunter' to join in. There's no other reason for these two stories to be joined at the spine. The only connection is that they're both alright.

Fave: 'The Hunter,' in which an arrogant game hunter gets his just desserts. I think we're supposed to be on his side actually, but you can approach it how you like.

Worstie: 'The Trap,' which is basically a less colourful X-Men.


84. Andrew J. Robinson, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - A Stitch in Time

2000 / E-book / 396 pages / USA

***

Unlike the hallowed Star Wars novels of yesteryear, 90s Star Trek novels never had the same cult significance. That was mainly because even the most obsessive fans (does Star Trek have those?) weren't exactly going to feel starved for new material when the franchise was so oversaturated back then. But it was also thanks to the castrating restrictions placed by the powers above on character and plot development of any kind, pretty much dooming every tale to be inconsequential filler. (Thirdly, most of them were just shit stories).

But that changed when Deep Space Nine ended and authors were given unprecedented freedom to continue the story however the hell they wanted. This was extremely exciting for DS9 fans like me, and it would only take me 15 years to bother checking them out.

This first entry non-canonically fills in the many gaps in the personal history of enigmatic character Garak (my best), and was actually written by Garak actor Andrew J. Robinson himself, not just ghostwritten by one of the Pocket Books regulars and credited to the actor to sell more copies. Come on, you'll be telling me William Shatner didn't write all those Kirk novels and Tekwar next! Don't spoil the magical illusion. I would go into more detail about the actual book, but I spent so long on that introduction that there isn't time.


85. Kevin J. Anderson, The X-Files: Ruins

1995 / Audiobook/e-book / 264 pages / USA

****

I can proudly claim to have been an X-phile right from the start, which might be a bit worrying considering I'd just turned nine at the time and really should have been in bed rather than watching liver-eating mutants climb out of the toilet. Luckily, it was the night of my mum's evening class and my dad didn't care.

Despite this history, I'd never read an X-Files novel before now, so chose the one that looked the most promising  Indiana Jones style adventures in Incan ruins with ancient aliens  and trusted that the master of the franchise tie-in wouldn't let me down on the authenticity front. It was extremely entertaining, right down to having the fictional ruined city Xitaclan start with an X, that's just classy.


86. J. R. R. Tolkien (and Christopher Tolkien), The Silmarillion

1977 / Audiobook / 386 pages / UK

**

I knew before I plunged in that this is the worst place to start with Tolkien, but I only made it a few pages into The Hobbit the last time I tried, when I was about 10, and it's not like I'm going to bother with the other one. Besides, I like Blind Guardian's musical version and I like a good compendium of myths — this is clearly influenced by the likes of the Kalevala — though it does help when those writings have some real cultural/historical appeal rather than being knowingly made up. As ever, my ratings reflect my enjoyment rather than judge the quality and value this doubtless has to fans, but between the intermittent tales it's just a parade of names and titles. Doesn't even rhyme.


87. Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow

1895 / Audiobook / 316 pages / USA

***

Damned shame. If this was 150 pages shorter it would be one of the best short story collections I've ever read, but then the mytharc runs dry, the sun comes out and the pioneering cosmic horror and sci-fi are exchanged for bland Parisian romances. Chambers is hailed as one of the fathers of 'weird' fiction  well congratulations, I was suitably weirded out when your book decided it wanted to be something completely different half-way through.

Faves: First half.

Worsties: Second half.


88. Harlan Ellison, The Voice from the Edge, Vol 1: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

1958-96 (2002) / Audiobook / 190 pages / USA

*****

That's more like it! Admittedly it's a best-of spanning four decades, so you'd expect it to be pretty good, though as ever some of the inclusions are questionable. I was only previously familiar with the writer through his memorable contributions to Star Trek and various TV anthologies, none of which prepared me for how fucked-up his regular fiction can be. Common themes include dystopia, impending death and non-consensual having-it-off.

Faves: 'I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,' '"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman' (stupid titles make better stories?)

Worsties: 'The Very Last Day of a Good Woman,' 'The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke.'


89. Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, Time's Eye

2003 / Audiobook / 379 pages / USA

***

Having long ago squeezed his Space Odyssey franchise for all it was worth, the ageing Clarke embarked on A Time Odyssey in his last years of life... or let his young protégé do it for him and slapped his more lucrative name at the top. I have no basis for any of these accusations beyond general cynicism, but it's a pretty cynical book. The awe and enigma of 2001 are completely lacking in this nonsensical patchworking of eras, and as key historical figures are collected it ends up more like Bill & Ted, albeit considerably less triumphant.


90. Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped

1886 / Audiobook / 288 pages / UK

****

It's bad to have a bad uncle. David Balfour goes through an amusing amount of ordeals around the Highlands and islands and only has a cry sometimes. I liked David, but my enjoyment was hindered a little by the American LibriVox narrator's distractingly bad attempts at Scottish accents, phrases and place names.

I'm not racist, but some things just shouldn't be permitted.


91. J.P. McEvoy and Oscar Zarate, Introducing Quantum Theory: A Graphic Guide to Science's Most Puzzling Discovery

1996 / E-book / 176 pages / USA

***

The Introducing Time Travel book in this series was one of my favourite pocket books ever, so I hoped this patronisingly illustrated guide to another complex topic would be similarly illuminating. There were considerably more diagrams and equations this time around. This isn't the first time I've struggled through an introductory course to quantum theory, and it won't be the last unless I finally learn to relax and decide I don't have a duty to try to understand what the hell is going as best we currently understand it, in spite of the major obstacle that I don't understand it. In true quantum spirit, it's simultaneously comforting and frustrating when the book has to conclude that "quantum theory cannot be explained" and "doesn't make sense." Cheers.


92. Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog: or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last

1997 / Audiobook / 493 pages / USA

*****

The comfort zone can be a dull place sometimes, but I decided to trust the common sense that a book combining a few favourite themes — time travel, mystery and the ever-risky 'comedy' — ought not to be completely unenjoyable. Turns out it's a new favourite, so why have I been wasting time trying to broaden my mind with poetry, high fantasy and boring medieval sagas that don't even have the word "paradox" on every other page? It's also a case for positive discrimination, as part of the reason I gave this priority over the other comic time travel mysteries was its female author. If I'm going to do graphs at the end of this (and why the heck wouldn't I?), I don't want to find out I'm an awful dick. Not long left now, I'd better get skewing.


93. Dave Gorman, Too Much Information... or Can Everyone Just Shut Up for a Moment, Some of Us Are Trying to Think

2014 / Audiobook / 352 pages / UK

***

I've read enough flimsy "What's All That About?" paperbacks from stand-ups to recognise a patchwork of bits from their themed tour shows and obscure Dave channel series when I see one, even if in this case I haven't seen those. I enjoyed the reckless whimsy of Dave Gorman's early years, but not so much the vexed, premature old man persona he's adopted since. I'm not on social networks and haven't seen most of the trends and TV adverts that were getting his goat c.2013, but even with my sheltered experience it seemed pretty understandable What All That was About. Annoying and symptomatic of the end times, sure, but not baffling dilemmas for someone who's been along for the internet ride. Even the more surprising examples were cleared up or roundly debunked with a quick google, so it's in no way authoritative and not amazingly funny either. Just good-ish.

Oh, I forgot, I'm supposed to seamlessly integrate badger glove puppets into this write-up, so there's that. Can you can tell I'm in marketing?


94. Janice G. Redish, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, Second Edition

2012 / E-book / 365 pages / USA

****

I've been a professional web content writer of some description for almost six years, so I thought it might be about time I did some extracurricular reading and actually try to improve my skills like those other, proper professionals do. I can't tell if it's a good thing that I didn't really learn anything new that hasn't already been drilled in and generally osmosed. This guide is basically definitive, packed with useful examples, and follows its own advice by presenting everything simply, succinctly and with absolutely no off-putting paragraphs. You'll learn everything you needed to know about writing engaging, modern copy for 2012... come to think of it, the workload has been on a bit of a decline since then. Any time you want to release that third edition then. Please.


95. Ambrose Bierce, Can Such Things Be?

1871-93 (collected 1893) / Audiobook / 232 pages / USA

***

Another album of vintage 'weird' tales, another time I regret not getting the best-of instead. Chambers was pre-Lovecraft and Bierce was (slightly) pre-Chambers, but at this point it's mainly still your run-of-the-mill ghost stories featuring archaic spoiled brats, and I've read enough of those to last several afterlives.

Faves: 'One Summer Night,' 'An Inhabitant of Carcosa.'

Worsties: 'The Moonlit Road,' 'Beyond the Wall.'


96. Cameron Pierce, Lost in Cat Brain Land

2010 / E-book / 136 pages / USA

**

Enough mucking around in the past, let's see what today's alternative short story writers are up to. Oh, grisly deaths, mutilations and generally fucked-up nightmarescapes, is it? That's nice. I should cut the writer some slack for barely being in his 20s when he unleashed this mingin opus on the world, but if you're not totally on the guy's wavelength, there isn't much on offer. If you've ever been part of a creative writing class/group, you might have had a Cameron Pierce. My groups usually did, and it wasn't even me.

Faves: 'Embryo Tree for Android,' 'Drain Angel.'

Worsties: 'Death of a Dog Eater,' 'Lazy Fascist.'


97. H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau

1896 / Audiobook / 160 pages / UK

***

The Time Machine was previously the only thing by H. G. I'd actually, properly read, but films, radio plays and prog operas have filled me in on much of the rest. This one was the main exception, which I was only familiar with via a lazy Simpsons Halloween parody, but it turned out that was enough. You basically already know it. Wells' second 'scientific romance,' this cheery tale of an amoral genius' tropical Build-a-Beastie workshop is a little less romantic than its already pretty grim, time-travelling predecessor. As far as the science goes, I can't say if it's any less plausible, but at least this time it's the biologists' chances to get stroppy.


98. Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 1: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets / Tintin in the Congo

1929-31 (reprinted 2006) / E-comics / 251 pages / Belgium

***

If your introduction to Tintin was the 90s cartoon or those new films that I haven't seen but am assuming don't include racism and gleeful animal murder, going back to the source material can be a little shocking. And, as long as you approach it with the right frame of mind, extremely funny. I love the concept of a newspaper comic strip sending one of its reporters (and his dog) on exciting and educational adventures around the world, but considering the young cartoonist wasn't particularly well-travelled himself, that education is based entirely on preconceived notions coloured by institutional xenophobia. The Soviets probably deserved it, so there's nothing to stop you enjoying the rip-roaring first story. Things only get uncomfortable in the second, when Tintin gets carried around by Gollywog toys and has fun doing this:



Tintin's body count: 15 antelopes; a rhino (exploded with dynamite); a crocodile, a snake and a buffalo (admittedly those were in self-defence) and a monkey (but only so he could skin it and wear it as a disguise to infiltrate the pack, it was nothing personal). He tried to kill an elephant as well, but was beaten to it by a monkey. Don't worry, he still bagged the ivory.


99. Life Magazine editors, Life: 100 Photographs That Changed the World

2003 / E-book / 176 pages / USA

****

This one's been hanging around for a long time, but every time I opened it out on the virtual coffee table, the general bleakness put me off. These aren't necessarily the '100 Best' or 'Most Famous' photos — the criteria is more vaguely specific than that — but they're mostly worthy and mainly debilitating. Something to check out if you feel like taking a long, hard look at your species, as long as you have the stomach for the horrors of war, executions, massacres, disease, famine and sport.


3 comments:

  1. Thanks for reminding me to read the Jon Ronson book and letting me know Dave Gorman has a new(ish?) one out.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Maybe you already knew, but the Turtles were originally created as a joke. The comics parodied popular comic themes at the time, especially Marvel's typical set-up... a bunch of mutant teenagers (sound familiar?) plus various wise-cracks and martial arts. It ended up being popular anyway and somehow morphed into a serious franchise. I always think about it whenever they come up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I've read that they were a parody of the trend for grim-80s Frank Miller type things. I think the people who defend its more serious incarnations are missing what was fun about it.

      Hey, really nice non-zombie website! (and hamster)

      Delete