Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Alrightreads: July



So I did my arbitrary 100 books. Not all were equally worthy, and my attention wandered during some of the ones I didn't really enjoy but forced myself to get through in the name of fun. It's almost like it's all just a meaningless activity to give me something to do and cut down on the TV.

So there's no point stopping now; only stopping pretending it's some kind of challenge or achievement. Will I still bother to read as much without the fear of defeat pushing me on? One way to make sure could be to actually read things I might actually like. Which probably means things are going to get even more repetitive.

So to begin/end I went on a victory lap/month, revisiting favourite authors from the year so far and giving less favourite ones a second chance. It turns out you're allowed to do that.


July 2015


100. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer ed, The Time Traveller's Almanac

1881-2012 (collected 2013) / Audiobook/e-book / 960 pages / Various

****

Not all of the 65 stories contained herein are classics of the sub-genre. It's weird that they left so many out. The categorisation of stories into four types is sometimes awkward and meaningless. But it's still the indulgent bumper book of time travel stories it promises to be, and I can't not love that.

Faves: 'The Most Important Thing in the World,' The Time Machine (excerpt), 'A Sound of Thunder,' 'Alexia and Graham Bell,' 'Is There Anybody There?,' 'The Weed of Time,' 'The Waitabits,' 'Red Letter Day,' 'In the Tube.'

Worsties: The original essays are a bit of a waste of time.


101. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

1966 / Audiobook / 183 pages / USA

*****

This was probably my favourite book I pretended to read at university. The entry representing postmodernism in American literature, it naturally came towards the end of my final year, by which point the prospect of sitting down to read less than 200 pages over a week was evidently too daunting. It sounded good in the online notes and blagged seminar discussion though, and I planned to get around to it eventually. Dealing with overwhelming paranoia in a funny rather than harrowing way, it's like a saner Illuminatus! that doesn't leave me worrying why I can never get past the first third of something that ought to be right up my street. I especially liked how every other character has an unrealistically symbolic surname, like its universe is shared with that other postmodern masterpiece, Bottom.


102. Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

1992 / Audiobook / 382 pages / UK

***

Discworld #14, Witches #4, this selection was as arbitrary as can be (first one I came across), so presumably a fair representation of the series in general. Parachuting newcomers are helped out with plenty of backstory along the way, but this would obviously work best when read in its proper sequence, by which time you also wouldn't be discombobulated by all the jumping around between various plots concerning witches, wizards, toffs, trolls and elves. I wasn't really into these stories or their characters, but it was all well worth reading for the narrator/author's ingenious way with words. Not a million light years away from Hitchhiker's Guide then, which I probably wouldn't appreciate that much any more either. I should have read these when I was a teenager too.


103. Dan Simmons, Ilium

2003 / Audiobook / 752 pages / USA

***

My fourth outing with Dan, embarking on another bold new saga I won't be continuing, his hit rate's fallen to 50% now. This was no Hyperion. Some good ideas, but I've overloaded on time travel recently (recently?), and while these Homerian reenactments don't actually involve time travel, their no-frills, uninspiring presentation of the no-longer-epic Iliad is like sitting through an especially dull SyFy channel miniseries. For 752 pages. And it's only part one.


104. Algernon Blackwood, The Listener and Other Stories

1907 / Audiobook/e-book / 352 pages / UK

****

I could tell I wasn't catching Algie at his best last time, and when he doesn't stifle his own potential by framing stories as cases for a Sherlock Holmes rip-off detective, he really shines. The hit rate is high in these nine tales, ranging from your traditional haunted houses and murder mysteries to existential elemental angst and spooky romance. There can only be so many Victorian/Edwardian public domain horror-themed short story collections out there, I'll get to them all eventually so I can give you the definitive ranking.

Faves: 'The Willows,' 'May Day Eve.'

Worsties: 'The Insanity of Jones,' 'Miss Slumbubble – and Claustrophobia.'


105. Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light

1894 / Audiobook/e-book / 256 pages / UK

****

I preferred The Hill of Dreams, even if it loses disastrously in the title stakes, but it's easy to understand what Pan's people see in this one. Reckless brain surgery, infernal metamorphosis, tactfully alluded rape and orgies, this must have blown those Victorians' hosiery off. The lesser-read second story continues the themes of possession and misogyny, but it does feel tacked on just so he can charge for the full L.P. All modern editions just go with the E.P.

Fave: The Great God Pan

Worstie: The Inmost Light


106. Jon Ronson, Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

2012 / E-book / 400 pages / UK

****

There's supposedly some sort of theme connecting these miscellaneous investigations of mad celebrities, Indigo children, robots and suicides, but it mainly seems to be an excuse for Ronson to get double bubble by reprinting old Guardian articles in paperback. I don't mind, I didn't read them the first time around and the meandering topics are refreshing. As ever, I just had to trust this is all non-fiction. Don't want Google to go ruining things.


107. Alan Moore, Zander Cannon and Andrew Currie, Smax

2003-2004 (collected 2004) / E-comics / 128 pages / UK

****

There's still a lot from Alan Moore that I haven't got round to reading yet. I can't explain what makes some of his middle-tier stuff less enticing than the rest (Supreme > Tom Strong; D.R. and Quinch > Skizz), but for whatever reason I never bothered to check out Top 10 or even find out what it's about. But then I read that this spin-off miniseries was funny, so I dived in. Heading from wacky sci-fi city Neopolis to a sarcastic fantasy kingdom, it starts out like a more comprehensible Transmetropolitan and becomes a slightly ruder Discworld. I enjoyed it, and especially appreciated the dense visual gags as an apology for the page count.


108. Robert E. Howard, The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard

1925-1936 (collected 2008) / Audiobook / 523 pages / USA

***

The Conan creator isn't best known for his horror works, but when you're dealing with a writer this prolific (even with his early suicide), there's still enough obscure material to fill multiple themed volumes. With 37 stories, 19 poems and assorted fragments, this one is far from comprehensive, so I wonder why they even bothered to include the less brilliant early stuff with stock werewolves, vampires and mummies when they could have spent more time on his more distinctive Southern Gothic nightmares.

I would point out that this features all the unpleasant racism you might expect from the period, but that's not really fair. There's loads more of it.

Faves: 'The Valley of the Lost,' 'Pigeons from Hell.'

Worsties: Inconsequential fragments and the boxing/racism double punch of 'The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux.'


109. Steve Aylett, Shamanspace

2002 / E-book / 121 pages / UK

***

Well, that wasn't as funny as Lint. Aylett's ecclesiastical geometrypunk prose poem is grounded in thought-provoking ideas, but I'm not fond of its ravesplatter execution. It's the most heavy-going thing I've read this side of Ulysses, though condensed enough to basically be a short story. Maybe it's expected that you'll read it through again immediately once you've been brought up to speed by the appendix? I'm alright.


110. J. G. Ballard, High Rise

1975 / Audiobook / 208 pages / UK

****

Daft humans, what are we like? Presumably inspired by his years among the vertical streets of Hong Kong, this is a delightfully scathing seventies social satire that regularly explains what it's doing so you don't even have to think about it yourself. That's considerate, you don't get that with Lord of the Flies. A slightly sick sense of humour is basically required if you're going to make it through and not get too distracted by the absurdity of how far these people devolve when they could (and do) step outside to the normal, non-apocalypsed world any time. It never manages to top the opening line, but that is a cracker.


111. Harlan Ellison, Scott & David Tipton and J. K. Woodward, Star Trek: Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever – The Original Teleplay

1966, 2014-15 (collected 2015) / E-comics / 128 pages / USA

****

I was aware there'd been a long-running battle between Harlan Ellison and the suits who supposedly diluted his vision for the classic Trek episode (that won a prestigious award regardless), but I didn't know much about it. Finally getting to see that infamous first draft brought to the screen page, it is quite different. Beyond it being a certified good story, these primordial Treks are always a treat – stories written before the series went to air and before they'd really nailed down the characters or moral outlook, so we get to enjoy mean Spock, Kirk justifying his horniness, the Enterprise's resident drug dealer, historically accurate xenophobia and a disposable cripple whose existence, we're explicitly told, is pointless. Fascinating, but the tamer TV episode is probably better (loser).


112. Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island

1874 / Audiobook / 723 pages / France

****

Another exhilarating voyage extraordinaire, I hadn't seen/heard any adaptations of this one before (unless you count Lost, in which all the exact same things happen but with added magic and angst). The page count would be no obstacle to fitting it all into a film, since most of it's just the author's survival tips and detailed explanations of balloon mechanics, geology, taxonomy, chemistry and all the other education he's decided you need to appreciate the plot. It's not professional or polite to posthumously diagnose psychological disorders in writers, but I call Asperger's.


113. H. G. Wells, Tales of Space and Time

1897-88 (collected 1889) / Audiobook / 358 pages / UK

****

The science in these five fictions is reliably good and adorably antiquated. Coming right in the middle of H. G.'s golden age, the best ones are worthy of spots in his top tier, with their pleasing riffs on The Time Machine and direct crossovers with War of the Worlds if you enjoy that sort of thing. The ones that try something different aren't as good, obviously. Three of them don't even have Martians in, for god's sake.

Faves: 'The Star,' 'A Story of the Days To Come.'

Worsties: 'A Story of the Stone Age,' 'The Man Who Could Work Miracles.'


114. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt and The Land of Mist

1913/1926 (collected 2010) / Audiobook / 265 pages / UK

**

"Every great mind has its weaker side. It's a sort of reaction against all the good sense."

The off-the-rails follow-ups to The Lost World prove that sequels of diminishing returns have been around for a long time. There's also cause for concern when the dinosaur story is the most scientifically plausible entry in a series. The brief and apocalyptic second installment of Professor Challenger's adventures is at least another sci-fi tale, though grounded in absolute nonsense. The belated final volume has nothing to do with adventuring at all, as Doyle appropriates these characters as mouthpieces for his own spiritualist dogma. At least he didn't do it with Holmes.


115. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

1945 / Audiobook / 146 pages / UK

***

Lewis' reply to Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell is less captivating, partly because he wasn't under the illusion that this allegorical bus journey was a real thing that was actually happening. He makes interesting arguments, but his enlightened spirits just came across as annoying. Guess I'm fated for the dreary grey city then.


116. Carl Sagan, Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium

1997 / E-book / 320 pages / USA

*****

I don't know what the rule is that determines which favourite things I'll devour in as short a time as possible and which ones I'll spread over the years for fear of running out, but Carl Sagan's works fall under the latter category. There are a fair few people I'm reliably awed by, but I haven't come across anyone else whose words can inspire me like his. Once you get past the more elementary and dated chapters, there are a few more pale blue dot type moments in this posthumous book, which definitely didn't just make some tears come out at the end because I am a man. Grrr, man!


117. Al Feldstein ed, Piracy, Vol. 1

1954-55 (collected 1988) / E-comics / 144 pages / USA

***

One of EC's less enduring comic lines, even at four issues (of a total seven) there's not a lot of variety in these tales of violence and cruelty on the waves. You'd probably get a kick out of it if you enjoy fairly historically accurate nautical adventures, but you'd be disappointed if you were expecting swashbuckling cheese and supernatural shenanigans. I was really hoping for something along the lines of Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic-within-the-comic that's one of my favourite parts of Watchmen, but that's more a grim-80s extrapolation.

Faves: 'Sea Food,' 'The Sheba.'

Worsties: 'Pirate Master,' 'Inheritance.'


118. Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

1966 / Audiobook / 288 pages / USA

****

I think this is the first full-length novel I've read from Heinlein, and I might have to stick to his short stories. It starts out all fun with a self-aware computer learning to tell jokes, but then the opening credits roll and things get all downbeat with the lunar uprising. He's clearly a master – the futuristic technology isn't distractingly dated, the dismal world is well fleshed-out and the characters are better than you'd probably expect from vintage SF. I guess I just need my bloody revolutionary allegories to be funnier.


119. Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

1968 / Audiobook / 297 pages / UK

*****

I've never really understood why people get excited when one of their favourite books gets adapted for the screen. You already know what happens, and you know it isn't going to be as good as the version you're attached to. So I never bothered to check out this novel version of one of my favourite films – written simultaneously and released a little later – until now. I don't like it anywhere near as much, naturally, but it was an interesting alternative to watching it again, just this time. It would be a real challenge for the book to be more cryptic than the arty film, and you definitely shouldn't read Clarke's definitive interpretations of Kubrick's symbolism before you've come up with your own ideas. Even then, you're not under obligation to accept all of it.


120. Howard Fast, The General Zapped an Angel

1970 / Audiobook / 175 pages / USA

**

I haven't found the great Howard Fast book yet. There isn't much to these short stories, which sometimes try to be whimsical or didactic but mainly feel like those lightweight episodes of The Twilight Zone between the heavy hitters.

Faves: 'The Vision of Milty Boil,' 'Tomorrow's Wall Street Journal.'

Worsties: 'The Mohawk,' 'The Interval.'


121. Gene Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator

1981 / Audiobook / 303 pages / USA

****

I didn't expect I'd read more of this saga, interesting as the first book was, but then in typical foolishness I committed to a month of repeat authors and Wolfe's more divergent books weren't available in audio form in the sort of places I look for them. (I don't have it in me to visually read through more than a couple of novels a month. How would I find the time and patience to scour the dark recesses of the Amiga emulation library without my soundtracks?) There's quite a lot I like about this series quite a lot, but I can't help feeling like an impostor for not being so into it as the majority of people who bothered to read this far (book two of four). Do I have to keep going? That's another annoying obligation, it would be quite good.


122. Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Terry Jones' Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History

2006 / E-book / 320 pages / UK

***

I've been seriously lacking non-fiction this month, so despite not having seen the accompanying TV series like most enthusiastic people who picked up this book at the time, I trusted Terry J to be entertaining and didn't mind too much if his passionate anti-Roman propaganda had its occasional historical flaws. I can't say I've studied the period in much detail since writing my own, unpublished work on the subject back in Mrs Clarke's class (complete with slightly ripped Roman shield cover), so if I did come away with a misleadingly positive view of those plucky barbarian underdogs, at least that should help a little to offset the glowing reviews those dickhead Romans have been getting over the centuries for their plagiarised accomplishments. Absolute knobs.


123. José Rizal, Sobre la indolencia de los filipinos (On the Indolence of the Filipinos)

1890 / E-book / 48 pages / Philippines

***

I wanted to read El filibusterismo, but without an English audiobook version out there I had to settle for this pathetically short alternative. Hey, Pinoy Pride crusaders, why not stop rising to racist bait in comment sections and actually contribute something positive over at LibriVox so us lazier foreigners can find out what your national hero has to say? Otherwise we might discover this one instead, which admits that the failings of the Philippines can't be entirely blamed on the elite and foreign interference after all (even if it can be partly blamed on the heat). You've been proudly independent for nearly 70 years, so why does the society Rizal despairs at seem so familiar? I guess you guys didn't read this one.


124. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, In a Glass Darkly

1851-72 (collected 1872) / Audiobook/e-book / 384 pages / Ireland

****

Serialised novels were where the money was at, but it's a shame Le Fanu didn't write more short, spooky stories as he was one of the best at it. 'Carmilla' is already on the curriculum for vampire purists and horny teenage goths (even if you don't get softcore Ingrid Pitt in this version), and most of the rest is pretty great too, generally replacing tiresome white lady spectres with more creative and ambiguous apparitions. I wonder why this edition opted for such a dull cover then? She just looks bored.

Faves: 'Green Tea,' 'Carmilla.'

Worsties: 'The Room in the Dragon Volant.'


125. Iain Banks, Walking on Glass

1985 / E-book / 341 pages / UK

*****

I've accidentally overloaded on the sci-fi, and I wasn't enthusiastic about continuing with Iain M's Culture books, so instead I turned to this curiosity. Coming out in the golden, early era between my two favourite Banks novels, I've never chanced across it in second hand book shops or libraries over the years, and there doesn't seem to be an audio version available either, so it's worth bothering to use my eyes for a change, goddammit.

Yes, it was good. Third fave? Maybe even second fave (Bridge fave).


126. Clive Barker, The Scarlet Gospels

2015 / E-book / 361 pages / UK

****

"Surely a faster autopsy had never taken place."

The long-awaited non-cinematic sequel to The Hellbound Heart/Hellraiser doesn't mess about, plunging straight into a monstrous, perverse splatterfest. That's not the sort of thing I usually seek out, but it took me back to my gleefully morbidly adolescence and is often hilarious, whether intentionally or not.

Potentially scary, but only if you've never seen a horror film before.

Potentially arousing, if you're strange.

1 comment:

  1. Finally, a library of books that fully suits my pallet. Though I prefer the Guards cycle of the Discworld Novels. A cynical captain of the guards with an alcohol addiction and dislike for authority makes for a jovial read.

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