Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Alrightreads: September

Another month of repeat authors/series/themes in reverse chronological order, because why not keep imposing pointless rules on myself?

I don't like these repeat months all that much, I'd rather be reading something new. But what can you do? Next month, only titles starting with Z.

September 2015

201. Mervyn Peake, Titus Alone

1959 / Audiobook / 284 pages / UK


How's that for going out on a whimper? I don't even know why he bothered to put out this final volume, especially since trilogies weren't a contractual/social obligation yet, as he doesn't seem to have relished writing it. Apparently the author was dealing with a distressing mental condition at the time or something like that, so if it helped him to feel better or to raise vital capital by churning out further uninspired adventures of Titus Groan, I can forgive it. Though it would have been preferable if he hadn't completely abandoned what I liked about the series – the atmospheric castle setting – by sending Titus into the real, normal, 20th-century, boring world for awkward fish-out-of-water humour and humdrum peril.

202. China Miéville, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories

2009-15 (collected 2015) / E-book / 400 pages / UK


I think this is his second bag of bite-size fictions (28 pcs approx), so the focus is on completist quantity rather than optimised quality. A couple of them are incredible, but only a couple. Most of them are memorable. A few of them are needlessly cruel. Some of them even have an actual message behind them, beyond being unsettling for the fun of it. I don't understand all of them, but that's my problem.

Faves: 'Polynia' (especially), 'The Dowager of Bees,' 'The Rabbet.'

Worsties: 'The Crawl,' 'Escapee,' 'Listen the Birds' (brief and comparatively pointless).

203. Philip K. Dick, The Divine Invasion

1981 / Audiobook / 238 pages / USA


This is the official "sequel" to VALIS only as far as its theme and date of publication. We're now back with the trappings of trad SF, in the future with space, robots, syntha-wombs and stuff, but as the dying author is still working out what he believes, it's still preoccupied with Biblical lore. More unimaginatively literally this time around, as the infant god returns from space to fight the devil for the sake of humankind. The rapture isn't so enrapturing, and the author/narrator doesn't even play a dangerous game with his sanity by putting himself in it this time.

204. Daniel Clowes, David Boring

1998-2000 (collected 2000) / E-comics / 136 pages / USA


Something about this – I can't imagine what – gave me the impression that it would be back to mundane Ghost World/Wilson territory after the uncharacteristically action-packed Velvet Glove. As it turned out, there's an awful lot of murderous, apocalyptic action going on behind David's more humdrum quest for the perfect arse. This is probably technically Clowes' best, I just have a soft spot for his more authentically boring ones.

205. Barry Loewer, Julian Baggini, Kati Balog, James Garvey, Stephen Law, Jeremy Stangroom and Ivan Hissey, 30-Second Philosophies: The 50 Most Thought-Provoking Philosophies, Each Explained in Half a Minute

2009 / E-book / 160 pages / USA/UK/Hungary


Like an impractical phone keyboard, this guide is just a little too small to offer more than the briefest introduction to complex ideas. I know that's the entire point of it, I just think you'd be better off elsewhere, whether you're being introduced to these concepts for the first time or freshening up. Julian Baggini's solo works get it about right.

Faves: The liar paradox, the brain in a vat, the trolley problem, Plato's cave.

Worsties: Most of the religious arguments are flawed.

206. Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, Night Force

1982-83 (collected 2011) / E-comics / 360 pages / USA


The morbid team that brought us Marvel's Tomb of Dracula defects to DC to present a new, less commercially successful but more satisfying series with darker plots, gruesomer art and the most '80s title possible. It's basically an occult Mission: Impossible, but this time they actually do shuffle around the characters based on the situation and sometimes... they die! I wouldn't call it an overlooked classic, but I admire it for taking risks in the short life it had before its inevitable cancellation after these 14 issues.

Faves: Beast!

Worsties: The Summoning, Mark of the Beast!!

207. Alan Dean Foster, The Tar-Aiym Krang

1972 / Audiobook / 251 pages / USA


Best known for writing old-school novelisations (credited and not) of major motion pictures in the days before home video, Foster has also had a less-New-York-Times-bestselling career writing his own damn stories. This is the first, a rip-roaring tale of space scoundrels and psychic orphans that would have made an unspectacular film. Still, you have to respect the off-putting anti-commercial title. He definitely had something to prove.

208. Anthony Horowitz ed, The Puffin Book of Horror Stories

1884-1994 (collected 1994) / E-book / 160 pages / Various


Following the same thought process that brought us Crime Traveller, Horowitz noticed that his name sounds a bit like "horror" and that qualified him to curate this rather shoddy collection. The classics are okay – there's an extract from Dracula – but the more contemporary young adult entries are a bit pathetic. I can't deny I still enjoyed it though, and as it's only my second Puffin book of the year, I think I'm excused. Right, because Night Force was so heavy-going.

Faves: Roald Dahl, 'Man From The South' and Bram Stoker, 'Jonathan Harker's Journal.'

Worsties: Stephen King, 'Battleground' and Kenneth Ireland, 'The Werewolf Mask.'

209. Caleb Scharf, Gravity's Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos

2012 / Audiobook / 272 pages / UK


The black holes were the best thing about A Brief History of Time, so a whole book on the colossal enigmas seemed like a good idea. If you've only ever been vaguely concerned about these invisible, mythological singularities, this will help to turn that into mortal dread as soon as you reach the line about some of them being billions of times the size of the sun. If there ever was a God, he was devoured long ago.

210. Rob Grant, Colony

2000 / Audiobook / 290 pages / UK


That was like Starship Titanic all over again. Even as a teenager who obsessively collected all the Red Dwarf paraphernalia he could find (as obsessive fandom goes, it's comparatively economical) I didn't even bother to check this out of the library. Even without reading it, I was disappointed that Rob Grant's "moving on" from Red Dwarf had led him back to the same lewd comedy sci-fi ballpark. I've finally read it now, and it's difficult to believe this is from half of the team that brought us the double polaroid. His next one was better.

211. Bryan Talbot, Grandville

2009 / E-comic / 104 pages / UK


If The Tale of One Bad Rat was too heavy-hitting, take a trip by dirigible or cross-channel locomotive for some absurdist escapist espionage in Talbot's lavishly detailed steamaltopia. Sure, there are heavy-handed allusions to 9/11, Vietnam, nationalism and other things that matter, but when has a story starring anthropomorphic animals ever had to mean something?

212. Stanisław Lem, Mortal Engines

1964 / Audiobook / 239 pages / Poland


It doesn't take long for this techno-treasury of pseudo-fables to get repetitive and a bit annoying, but it's only when it gives way to more regular novellas in the second half that I realised how much I'd been enjoying them. It's more style than substance, with only a few stories rising above generic tales of miserly kings, crafty sages, electroknights and antimatter beasts when Lem crafts a new mythology or has fun with the format. It's probably more enjoyable today than it was at the time, thanks to the cute retro factor of wind-up robots and punch-card computers.

Faves: 'The Three Electroknights,' 'Automatthew's Friend.'

Worsties: 'Uranium Earpieces,' 'The Hunt.'

213. Mike Mignola and Pat McEown, ZombieWorld: Champion of the Worms

1998 (collected 2005) / E-comics / 83 pages / USA


I didn't expect much from a series called ZombieWorld, of which this might be the first part (I'm not going to delve any deeper). But even what we do get in a stingy 60-something comic pages between introductions and concept sketches could have been more impressive. It's really Pat McEown's book – Mike Mignola only did the cover and vague plotting – and for some reason he opted to draw the whole thing in a faux-naïve Tin Tin style that the story isn't light or self-parodying enough to suit. An indulgent Mignola solo treatment doubtless would have been more interesting, but he couldn't be bothered.

214. Woody Allen, Without Feathers

1972 / Audiobook / 224 pages / USA


"Should I marry W? Not if she won't tell me the other letters of her name."

The good stuff is pretty damn funny and the less good stuff is inoffensive. It's about equal to the first book.

Faves: 'Selections from the Allen Notebooks,' 'The Whore of Mensa.'

Worsties: 'Lovborg's Women Considered,' 'But Soft. Real Soft.'

215. Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

2002 / Audiobook / 480 pages / Japan


"You have to anticipate a few problems when cats and humans try to speak to each other."

His last one I read was pretty underwhelming, but this one was pretty great. Pompous and needlessly cryptic at times, but I have a lot of time for that. It's another case of two completely different stories running in parallel that presumably share more connections the more intelligent you are, and I generally preferred the weird old man with his cats and quest to the deeper coming-of-age Oedipal drama. Probably because I'm getting old. Further evidence that it's worth committing to slightly longer books, but it'll only take another Ilium to put me off again.

216. Junji Ito, New Voices in the Dark

2004-06 (collected 2006) / E-comics / 218 pages / Japan


I'm always interested in checking out the short fiction of writers whose extended stuff I've liked, and a couple of these short Mangas are similar enough to Uzumaki in exotic creepiness. Other have more of a Twilight Zone vibe, which is fun but nothing special. One concludes with the non-ironic revelation that it was all a dream. As an irrelevant personal note, this is only the second Manga book I've ever read and evidently the first whose translation to English didn't also involve switching the order of the panels from right-to-left to left-to-right. Took me six pages to work that out.

Faves: 'Anything But a Ghost,' 'Splatter Film.'

Worsties: 'Soichi's Front,' 'Library of Illusions.'

217. Robert J. Sawyer, Starplex

1996 / Audiobook / 289 pages / USA


It's '90s sci-fi, so of course it's about wormholes. I like a good yarn about celestial superstructures and patronising advanced ETs as much as the next outdated nerd, but bogged down by trite space age soap opera and unimaginative concepts for humanoid friends and enemies that would be easy to render in rubber, it isn't so much a high-concept Contact or Rama as the optimistic feature-length pilot for a Babylon 5.

218. Archie Goodwin and Steve Ditko, Creepy Presents: Steve Ditko

1966-67 (collected 2013) / E-comics / 128 pages / USA


Continuing my dark voyage of false nostalgia through the pages of Creepy and Eerie sorted by artist, this was a less gratifying round from a more mainstream figure, though it's interesting to see the co-creator of Spider-Man struggling to adjust his style to the indie publisher's cheap black and white presses. His best efforts use intricate cross-hatching, his laziest look like they're done in felt tip. The stories are nearly all written by editor Archie Goodwin rather than freelance wild cards, and are thus repetitively on-brand.

Faves: 'Collector's Edition!', 'Second Chance!'

Worsties: 'Room With a View!', 'Black Magic!', 'Demon Sword!'

219. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby et al, Bring Back the Bad Guys

1964-98 (collected 1998) / E-comics / 255 pages / USA


After non-ironically enjoying the more exotic, spacey side of Marvel's Son of Origins collection I found out there was a tertiary Grandson of Origins, but it wasn't the anthology of further obscurities I'd been hoping for, so I opted for these villainous debuts instead (again it's the sloppy second volume). I think I've scratched this particular alt-childhood itch beyond the medical recommendation now, even if it is tirelessly entertaining to read the long and involved dialogues these mortal enemies somehow manage to fit inside split-second manoeuvres.

Faves: 'Gangwar!', 'Dragon Doom!'

Worsties: 'Gold Rush!', 'Kang, the Conqueror!'

220. Clark Ashton Smith, The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith

1930-41 (collected 2007) / E-book/audiobook / 400 pages / USA


The connoisseur's Weird Tales weirdo, C.A.S. typically gets relegated to "similar authors" lists when people are craving more Lovecraft, but his own flair for the foreboding is just as good. Compared to that other heavyweight Robert E. Howard... to use an analogy that will help no one, if you used to play those isometric RPGs like Diablo and tended to favour the dependable barbarian, you're better off with Howard. If you doggedly stuck with the necromancer, because the perverse pleasure of getting to raise creatures you'd just killed to fight against their own kin outweighed the unfairness of your character just objectively not being that good, Smith's your man. Since this is a best-of compiled for modern readers it may not be a fair representation, but for once it was refreshingly free from the ol' institutional racism.

Faves: 'The Return of the Sorcerer,' 'The Double Shadow,' 'The Isle of the Torturers.'

Worsties: 'A Night in Malnéant,' 'The Devotee of Evil,' 'The Enchantress of Sylaire.'

221. Lord Dunsany, Fifty-One Tales

1915 / Audiobook / 108 pages / Ireland


I'm a big supporter of minimalism generally, and I was hoping that these tiny morsels would have the optimised quality of imagist poetry about them, but instead they tend to just abruptly fizzle out before making an impression. There's no consistency across these fables of farm animals, Greek gods, personified abstract concepts and ghosties. Did he just publish his notes?

Some faves: 'The Raft Builders,' 'The Unpasturable Fields,' 'Alone the Immortals,' 'The Reward,' 'Lobster Salad.'

Some worsties: 'The Hen,' 'The Prayer of the Flowers,' 'The Latest Thing,' 'Roses,' 'The Mist.'

222. William Hope Hodgson, The Night Land

1912 / Audiobook / 584 pages / UK


Another hugely influential work from the writer most of us haven't even heard of, this time in the realm of the dying Earth nightmare dystopia. Literally, as we start out exploring The Night Land in a fellow's prophetic dreams before Hodgson correctly decides that it's more interesting to abandon the rubbish framing and just go there. We probably spend too long there, to be honest, but the extended length does rub in the hopelessness of it all. There is some attempted levity about the enduring power of love, but come on, the sun's gone out and the night creatures are closing in. We're fucked.

223. Richard Wiseman, Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things

2007 / E-book / 336 pages / UK


I've either read this book before or just read most of its contents in other forms when I used to follow Prof Wiseman's blog back in another life, but like films and albums, you are allowed to read a book again if you like it (apparently). This celebrates odd and terrifying brain quirks for the fun and interest of it all, before Wiseman switched to the self-help genre that was presumably more profitable and where he could administer some valuable damage control with his actual credentials.

224. Todd Downing, Mark Bruno, John Sullivan, Andrew Kenrick, Lee Hammock, Gavin Downing, Allan McComas and Samantha Downing, Red Dwarf: The Roleplaying Game

2002 / E-book / 179 pages / USA/UK


I never joined in with the roleplaying or table-top wargaming at high school. It all seemed much too social. But I've always enjoyed taking a look at the reference materials, with their fine-tuned worlds, exquisite artwork and incomprehensible charts. This one has the charts, but it's otherwise not the sort of thing you'd read for pleasure unless you're a recovering Red Dwarf obsessive who hasn't done so yet and who has the emotional resilience to withstand the worst type of fan fiction. You wouldn't actually want to play it, though it's not bad as a creative project. Apart from some bizarre racism.

225. Stephen Hawking, The Universe in a Nutshell

2001 / Audiobook / 216 pages / UK


Taking heed of the constructive criticism for his first pop cosmology book, Hawking gets to the good stuff quicker and makes complex concepts easier to understand with colourful illustrations. Not in the audiobook version, obviously, but my brother had this book so I'd flicked through it a couple of times in the past without making it very far into the words. Though far enough that I could rejoice when reunited with the legendary (to me, anyway) "airline food" gag as Hawking tries out awkward observational comedy, setting the gold standard for lame jokes sprucing up serious science books for ever after.

226. Robert Sheckley, Mindswap

1966 / Audiobook / 157 pages / USA


It's entirely possible that I would have bloody loved this if I'd been in the right mood for zany freestyling, or if I hadn't read the similar (later) Dimension of Miracles first. There are more ingeniously daft sci-fi concepts that struck me as more Red Dwarf than Hitchhiker's this time, and it's still satisfyingly downbeat in general. I just wasn't so won over by the parade of successive genre parodies for the sake of it, which takes up about half the book.

227. Agatha Christie, Why Didn't They Ask Evans?

1934 / Audiobook / 288 pages / UK


I didn't fancy dallying with Poirot or Marple (are those the only famous ones?), and accepted that whatever was left over would probably be more disposable by default. It is, but I did quite enjoy this side project replacing master sleuths with bumbling brats whose investigations into a seemingly staged suicide and cryptic last words mainly involve deceptive roleplay. The sub-Wooster man one was a bit annoying, I preferred the inappropriately morbid woman one.

228. Edgar Allen Poe and Richard Corben, Edgar Allan Poe's Spirits of the Dead

1827-46 & 2012-14 (collected 2014) / E-comics / 216 pages / USA


Since I'm not as familiar with Poe as I should be, it can be hard to tell where the faithful adaptation ends and the fanciful extrapolation begins. Except when it's really obvious and dumb. Richard Corben's characters are still amusingly grotesque, but his line art is less enthralling than his weird watercolours, and if you're going to use a computer to colour it in, I'd rather you left it black and white. It seems that most of the pleasure of Poe lies in the flowery style rather than the not-particularly-shocking-any-more substance, so I should have just read that.

Faves: 'The Fall of the House of Usher,' 'The Conqueror Worm.'

Worsties: 'The Assignation,' 'The Raven.'

229. Mark Verheiden, Mark A. Nelson, Den Beauvais, Sam Kieth, John Arcudi and Tony Akins, Aliens Omnibus, Vol. 1

1988-90 (collected 2007) / E-comics / 384 pages / USA


While I wouldn't go near a trashy comic based on the Aliens franchise published today, stepping back in time to when the films were still fresh and putting myself in the saliva-spattered shoes of hungry fans was somehow appealing. My disappointment wasn't so much with the predictably unremarkable stories as with the integrity of the reprinting, which, in a pathetic attempt to stay plausibly canon after Alien 3 coldly killed off a couple of characters they'd been using, retroactively renamed these characters to pretend they weren't the characters they clearly were, just a couple of new characters who'd been through remarkably similar events to another couple of characters in that universe. I may be 30 years old and reading Aliens comics from 25 years ago, but don't treat me like an idiot.

Faves: Nightmare Asylum (nice art).

Worsties: 'Theory of Alien Propagation,' 'The Alien.'

230. Peter Ackroyd, London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets

2011 / E-book / 228 pages / UK


Part of me would love to live in London and explore the hell out of it, but at some point I decided that wasn't my calling this time around and I'd leave it for some of the other lives (preferably a former one when it was better). Still, that doesn't mean I can't torture myself by reading about what I'm missing, embarking on a frustratingly fascinating subterranean odyssey from a bedroom 7,261 miles away and four storeys up.

231. David Smay, Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones

2007 / Audiobook / 129 pages / USA


I'd tried a few times before to get what the deal was with Tom Waits, but never succeeded. This was my chance to find out what I've been missing and to force myself to appreciate an arbitrary modern classic. It wasn't particularly successful – not a failing of the music, more an issue with the wiseguy critic who opts to get into the surreal spirit of things rather than give his actual opinions or the clinical analysis I would have preferred. Should have just read a smart-arse review.

232. Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

1999 / Audiobook / 464 pages / USA


The patient layman's introduction to string theory annoyingly takes us through a not-brief-enough history of gravity and quantum theory before we get past Einstein and on to something new. It's almost like they didn't know I'd already had all those lessons several times this year, or like people are allowed to skip introductory chapters. When it does get to the good stuff, Greene explains the crazy, convincing nonsense with his customary clarity, even if his analogies are less zany this time and thereby less effective.

233. Clive Barker, Galilee

1998 / Audiobook / 642 pages / UK


Clive Barker's weird books are understandably off-putting to many readers, but for me, an avid fan of his vile and/or mystical excesses, this was the greatest challenge of all: an American family saga. Alright, there are still some gods and demi-gods knocking about in these family trees, and smatterings of perversion here and there, but it's all extremely toned down and borderline normal. And long, and bloated. And just not really up my dark alley. Although, if it had been written 20 years earlier, I could see it making a decent early '80s US TV miniseries. We might have to cut the necrophilia.

234. Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games

1988 / Audiobook / 293 pages / UK


A much more satisfying second round in Banks' painstakingly developed u-ish-topia, his concept of a post-scarcity, past-caring society filling the tediously trouble-free centuries with overly complex board games, technicolor drugs and back-and-forth sex changing is possibly prescient and gloriously '80s at the same time. The high-stakes games are rooted in classic strategy rather than sprites and bloops, which protects it against becoming laughably dated, and it simultaneously invites and deflates literary criticism by making the protagonist a literal pawn in a much larger, literal game. But is it just a game? Yes, read the title. Fourth best Banks, I think (of about eight).

235. Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor

1981 / Audiobook / 279 pages / USA


Unlike some sagas whose chaotic meanderings are powered by the changing whims of authors, The Book of the New Sun really is just the one book staggered over four volumes to increase its prospects of scooping up Nebula awards. This coherence is comforting, but annoying when you're trying to rate comparatively or find new things to talk about. I think I liked this quarter mildly less? Fingers crossed for a really amazing or really rubbish ending.

236. Robert A. Heinlein, Job: A Comedy of Justice

1984 / Audiobook / 439 pages / USA


Late period Heinlein discovers the many worlds theory and takes a disappointingly humdrum, TV-budget-friendly approach by occasionally swapping aeroplanes for zeppelins and having currency exchange rates fluctuate between realities. It's all part of the psychological torture of a modern-day Job, and a random woman he meets who gets dragged along and literally put through hell because Heinlein has to have his weaknesses. It gets better later on, when it switches to a proper theological satire with pen-pushing angels and devils livin' it up, but it's mainly all an excuse to rile up the Evangelicals. Come on, they're asking for it.

237. Carl Sagan, Cosmos

1980 / E-book / 384 pages / USA


A certain stocking filler if I'd been born about 15 years earlier, the dated bits make a nice record of how things were looking more-or-less around the time I popped out. It's basically The Cosmos Companion, but unlike those other TV companions that were a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes trivia before the internet, telling you about the hilarious in-jokes printed on background props before they became embarrassingly visible 25 years later when the series got a HD remaster, it just sticks to the extended synopsis. With colour illustrations! Yes, alright, watching the series is better, but this is back when VCRs cost about $700, so what else were they going to market? The series on audio cassette, sans rubbish spaceship effects? That would have been better too. I played the appropriate Vangelis tunes, but without Carl's voice it's only 80% as inspiring.

238. H. G. Wells, The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth

1904 / Audiobook / 200 pages / UK


Not the most inspired of Mr. Wells' scientific romances, but probably just as influential as any other – even if it's mainly on B-movies this time. A pair of meddling scientists (when will these damned men stop trying to understand things?) make a potion that makes things go giant, essentially. They convince themselves of its noble, humanitarian benefits until as far as chapter two, by which time it's accidentally worked through the food chain and one of the scientists has added it to his infant son's bottle in the name of reckless curiosity. They deserve everything they get.

239. Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette and Jimmy Valentino, 1963: Non-Existent Collected Edition

1993 (never collected) / E-comics / 167 pages / UK/USA


The tidy paperback collecting this six-issue run doesn't actually exist, due to some boring contractual dispute or other. But since it should, I'll pretend it does. This isn't the first or the last time that Moore et al would replicate the style of vintage comics, but it's probably the only time you could pick one up and mistake it for the real deal. That's both impressive and unfortunate, as having recently read/endured some of the specific "classics" they're paying tribute to, it wasn't the best time to indulge in some alternate universe false nostalgia of basically the same thing. I like Supreme better, it's much more sarcastic.

Faves: 'It Came from... Higher Space!', 'Flipsville.'

Worsties: 'When Wakes the War-Beast!', 'Double-Deal in Dallas!'

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