Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Alrightreads: November



Last month's theme was a little exhausting, so this month I rehabilitated with worthless trash and another safe round of repeats after hitting 300.


November 2015


289. Jon E. Lewis, The Mammoth Book of Cover-Ups: The 100 Most Terrifying Conspiracies of All Time

2008 / Audiobook / 541 pages / UK

***

I didn't learn much new  tellingly, it was only some of the more down-to-earth and probably true ones that I hadn't heard before  but this is still a pretty comprehensive compendium for anyone getting started on the stupid path or needing quick reference material for an X-Files reboot. It's all pretty brief, but I like that the writer gives his opinions by rating the plausibility of each wacky theory and occasionally lets his true beliefs slip through, which are perhaps too controversially sane and anti-anti-Semitic for some readers.

Faves: Hollow Earth, Reptilians, Nazi moon base, all that entertaining nonsense.

Worsties: David Kelly, 9/11, all that depressing real stuff.


290. Madonna, Sex

1992 / E-book / 134 pages / USA

**

I don't even care about Madonna, but even I was aware of this infamous and surprising release. Despite its devastating lack of artistic value, it is an admirably audacious stunt (I said stunt), and it's impressive that she's actually, properly naked in it.


291. John Byrne, Star Trek: New Visions, Vol. 2

2014-15 (collected 2015) / E-comics / 144 pages / USA

**

There's no shortage of ways for fans of classic 'Trek to see more of Kirk & co, but these photomontage tales awkwardly mashing up vintage screencaps and repetitive publicity stills with rubbish special effects are among the most authentic. It's an adorable project, but even if the writer's storytelling talents did match his Photoshop skills, the limited source material he's working with means this can never rise above shallow fan service.

Faves: 'A Scent of Ghosts.'

Worsties: 'Robot,' 'The Great Tribble Hunt,' 'Memorium.'


292. Jacques Boyreau ed, Trash: The Graphic Genius of Xploitation Movie Posters

1957-85 (collected 2002) / E-book / 128 pages / USA

**

"How Much Snake Can One Woman Take..."

The seething contempt for contemporary Hollywood is funny and correct, but I don't share the love for garish, willfully offensive vintage publicity material, revealing an embarrassingly depraved side of humanity in public view before the internet came along and we could enjoy degrading porn and beheading videos in anonymity. The problem with these annotated scrapbooks is usually that the curator doesn't know when to shut up, but the opposite is the problem here. Though, to be fair, the succinct taglines usually tell you everything you need to know, and it's cute that some of the rarer posters have creases and rips.


293. Guy Adams, Sherlock: The Casebook

2012 / E-book / 160 pages / UK

***

It's smart-arse style over substance like everything Steven Moffat writes, so of course I love Sherlock. For the first two series anyway, before it went off the rails a bit, and that's where this happily-slightly-out-of-date companion finds us. The teen fan scrapbook bits are a bit embarrassing, but having just watched the series again, the extensive catalogue of canon references and nerdy Easter eggs was insightful. I've read/listened-to those original stories various times, but evidently not often enough.


294. Diana Cage, Lesbian Sex Bible: The New Guide to Sexual Love for Same-Sex Couples

2014 / E-book / 195 pages / USA

***

I had a disproportionate amount of lesbian and/or experimental female friends in my previous life on the other side of the world, so I'm fully aware that women who like women come in all colours. Still, I have a nagging suspicion that these 'mainstream' models striking tender poses across the glossy pages may not take their work home with them. Perhaps market research suggested there was an alternative readership to account for, and that throwing in a few real lesbians might put them off? Me, I read it for the words and stuff.


295. Caseen Gaines, We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy

2015 / E-book / 288 pages / USA

****

While most hacks marked the 30th anniversary of the classic trilogy by tediously evaluating its "predictions" of what 2015's technology and culture would be like and failing to realise it's a comedy, this dedicated fan took an in-depth look at the whole thing. Packed with new, exclusive interviews with notoriously reticent cast and crew, it's the definitive special feature and the second greatest BTTF-related book after George Gipe's mental novelisation.


296. Various Artists, Criterion Designs

1984-2014 (collected 2014) / E-art-book / 306 pages / Various

**

The attitude behind these bespoke LaserDisc/DVD/Blu-ray covers is the exact opposite of Trash, and interestingly there is some overlap of subject matter. I guess you can polish a turd. I didn't connect with Trash's glorification of smut, but I'm equally ill at ease with the Criterion Collection's deluxe fawning and steel cases. I like watching films and sometimes the posters are nice too, but that isn't enough for these people. They have to put their own stamp on the classics by playing around with various art movements and fun fonts. If you have more artistic sensibilities than me, you might appreciate their efforts.


297. Marianne Tatom Letts, Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album: How to Disappear Completely

2010 / E-book / 256 pages / USA

***

I love sinking my teeth into a delicious concept album, but when they're a bit elusive and annoying (Kid A and Amnesiac here), I enjoy having them explained to me by someone qualified. I don't know this writer's background, but her desperate dot-connecting and leaps of faith are worthy of the great conspiracy theorists. Is this what too much Radiohead does to people?


298. Sean Singer, Discography

2002 / E-book / 96 pages / USA

**

I feel obligated to throw in some poetry every 500 books or so. I think this is supposed to be word jazz? I don't get it.

Faves: 'Inside the Keith Jarrett Trio,' 'Goat Moving Through a Boa Constrictor.'

Worsties: 'Photo of John Coltrane, 1963,' 'Who Can Stay the Bottles of Heaven?', 'Self.'


299. Charles Burns, Black Hole

1995-2004 (collected 2005) / E-comics / 368 pages / USA

****

One of the best indie comics I've ever read, I would have got even more out of it as an easily titillated teenager. Sex, drugs, gore, deformity and Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Burns knows just what buttons to push. There are also repeating motifs and other clever things to give cocky/lazy lit students the excuse to write their dissertations on comics rather than proper books (best of luck, I got away with writing about Star Trek). This coherence is especially impressive when you consider it was written over a decade of staggered releases. In the evenings, I like to imagine, making the most of a few precious hours hunched over the desk, fatigued after another soul-destroying day at the office. Don't spoil it by telling me he's a professional artist or something.


300. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

1982 / E-gamebook / 192 pages / UK

***

I didn't play any of the Fighting Fantasy series as a kid. I took a glance at them one time, but preferred the comforting mediocrity of kids' TV branding for my gamebooks. Unsurprisingly, this is stronger than those Knightmare and Sonic ones – for a start, someone bothered to check that the numbers all match up on both ends and you won't get trapped in perpetual looping glitches – but it's nowhere near the standard of Joe Dever's properly ace Lone Wolf series. It's more fun than Gazza Shinks, but so is a urinary tract infection.


301. Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch

1983 / Audiobook / 330 pages / USA

***

The grand finale to the four-book saga takes its sweet time getting going. I can only assume Wolfe overestimated the number of pages the denouement required, as the first third has our protagonist listening to pointless fables while he recuperates. After that, we tread the obligatory Hero's Journey to its reasonably satisfying, slightly crazy conclusion. It should have all been the one fat book, but then I wouldn't have read it.


302. Woody Allen, Side Effects

1975-80 (collected 1980) / Audiobook / 149 pages / USA

****

This was probably my favourite of the classic shorties trilogy. It's not so much that's he's perfected his style as the statistical likelihood that one of them would have a slightly higher hit rate than the others, and this happens to be that one. You could stick the whole lot on shuffle and it'd still be mostly side-splitting.

Faves: 'Remembering Needleman,' 'By Destiny Denied,' 'Fabrizio's: Criticism and Response,' 'Retribution.'

Worsties: 'The UFO Menace,' 'The Kugelmass Episode,' 'The Diet.'


303. Guy Delisle, Shenzhen

2003 / E-comics / 145 pages / Canada

****

Another refreshingly sour travelogue, this time it's somewhere I've actually been, though I didn't stay long enough to pick up the dingy vibes the artist-chronicler did. Things probably would have been different if I'd seen more of real China for contrast, if crippling internet restrictions hadn't forced me back into cosy capitalism a few days later. My strongest memory is the aggressively overcrowded metro.


304. Harlan Ellison, The Voice From the Edge, Vol. 2: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral

1956-95 (collected 2001) / Audiobook / USA

****

I generally prefer seeing how original story collections stand up rather than cheating retrospective mixes like these, but then I'd miss out on hearing these classic and/or unpleasant tales performed by the author. These selections turned out to be mostly average anyway, with plenty of filler saving me from dealing with a parade of hits. That was considerate of them.

Faves: 'Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral,' 'Jeffty is Five,' 'The Function of Dream Sleep.'

Worsties: 'In Lonely Lands,' 'The End of the Time of Leinard,' 'Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish.'


305. Iain Banks, Espedair Street

1987 / E-book / 259 pages / UK

****

The first of Banks' self-described mainstream novels is still pleasantly full of Gothic trappings (prolly 5th or 6th fave of ~8½ read, it's important to keep track of these things), but like everything produced after his bibliography's schizophrenic split, it feels somehow filtered, labelled, constrained. Make your own comparisons with the theme of faded rock stars and classic albums if you like. I was mainly appalled that there was an '80s Banks I still hadn't read.


306. Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing

1979 / Audiobook / 165 pages / Japan

**

No one ever talks about Murakami's (or is it Haruki's?) first amateur novel. Even the author seems to have semi-disowned it, letting it drift out of print for many years out of mild embarrassment. So I wasn't expecting it to be good or anything, but I was at least hoping for a failed experiment, something off-puttingly weird and non-commercial before he learned to tame his style with realism. But it turns out he went in the other direction – the alienation, romantic failures and Western cultural fixation are all there, but the quirkiness would have to wait until later.


307. Junji Ito, Gyo

2002-03 (collected 2003) / E-comics / 400 pages / Japan

****

Perambulating marine life isn't exactly a stroke of surreal genius like Uzumaki's freaky shit with the spirals, but the horror's more intense and relentless this time around. The walking, reeking fish are disturbing enough if you've always found the dead-eyed stares and stench of fish markets distasteful, then he brings out the urban sharks and all bets are off.


308. Philip K. Dick, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

1982 / Audiobook / 255 pages / USA

***

PKD was still contemplating the big questions in what would turn out to be his final book. Posthumously absorbed into the 'VALIS Trilogy,' its connection to VALIS is only a little more tenuous than its official sequel was, and while The Divine Invasion went full-on futuristic SF, this snaps back to unprecedented non-paranormal reality. Add a surprising female narrator – Dick's amends for (justified) criticism of old-time sexism – and this is far from a phoned-in whimper.


309. Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories

1949 / E-book / 210 pages / Argentina

***

That wasn't as mesmerising as his previous collection. The concise fantasy vignettes have largely been replaced with dull biographies, and rather than pondering over made-up encyclopaedias and pulp paperbacks, it's stuffy religious texts all the way.

Faves: 'The Immortal,' 'The Writing of the God,' 'The Aleph.'

Worsties: 'Story of the Warrior and the Captive,' 'A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829–1874),' 'The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths.'


310. China Miéville, Perdido Street Station

2000 / Audiobook / 867 pages / UK

***

Maybe Gene Wolfe had the right idea after all, splitting his epic novel into more easily digested chunks. This is supposedly Miéville's masterpiece, but it's heavy-going. I'm more at home outside the borders of his prime mythology, the page counts are friendlier there.


311. Bart Farkas, Diablo II: Official Strategy Guide

2000 / E-book / 226 pages / USA

**

I already wasted enough of my sexually legal teens playing this classic game, but after more than a decade of abstinence I gave myself permission for a concentrated hit of nostalgia. I forgot there was actually quite a good story connecting those bosses that gradually eroded into exp 'n' trezer mines. Considering the game was patched and updated regularly (presumably still is), and this doesn't even include the less atmospheric expansion pack, significant chunks of this strategy guide will have become obsolete fairly quickly.


312. Erik Davis, Led Zeppelin IV

2005 / E-book / 184 pages / USA

***

It's never been my favourite album from Led (as everyone calls them). That would be the next couple. But with all its willful obfuscation, occult rumours and backmasking bullshit, it's probably the most interesting one to take a look at. Davis wisely focuses on the bigger picture rather than the nitty-gritty of musicianship. We're not dealing with prog here.


313. Alan Moore, Kevin Nowlan, Rick Veitch, Jim Baikie, Melinda Gebbie and Hilary Barta, Tomorrow Stories, Vol. 1

1999-2000 (collected 2003) / E-comics / 176 pages / UK

***

After reinventing comics in the '80s, Moore spent much of the '90s taking the piss out of the old guard. His Tomorrow Stories are less reverential than 1963 and less wacky than Supreme, but most of these parodies of stock characters are just uninspired. The notable exception is the plucky boy genius who turns a quiet farming town upside-down with black holes, mini solar systems, flying felines and time warps on a weekly basis.

Faves: Jack B. Quick: Boy Inventor.

Worsties: The rest.


314. Robert Sheckley, Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?

1953-71 (collected 1971) / Audiobook / 191 pages / USA

**

Sheckley's brief, episodic novels point to a short attention span, so I had high hopes for the pick of two decades' worth of short stories. I was largely disappointed. There's some neatly twisted philosophising, but little in the way of mad pseudoscience. Occasionally funny, rarely interesting.

Faves: 'The Cruel Equations,' 'Pas de Trois of the Chef and the Waiter and the Customer.'

Worsties: 'Down the Digestive Tract and into the Cosmos with Mantra, Tantra and Specklebang,' 'Aspects of Langranak.'


315. Robert A. Heinlein, The Number of the Beast

1980 / Audiobook / 511 pages / USA

****

Heinlein's self-indulgent, self-referential, self-parodying '80s period isn't most people's favourite, but being a philistine, I'm more at home with its awkward comedy and quantum misunderstandings than the more grimly satirical '50s and '60s. Powered by pulp cliches, this is a rip-roaring transuniverse adventure by an author who could do better, but has earned the right not to give a shit.


316. William Blake, The Illuminated Books of William Blake, Volume 6: The Urizen Books

1793-95 (collected 1995) / E-book / 232 pages / UK

***

Having achieved chart success with his Songs of Innocence and Experience, the artist-poet-sage let it all hang out and embarked on his indulgent, mystical, possibly mad phase. You'll quickly long for the easier pastoral poems. Unravelling the seditious metaphors of his revolutionary prophecies is probably an enjoyable intellectual exercise, if you have the patience, but his extensive reboot of Genesis is just weird. Even the art lets up towards the end, as he strives to cram more prophecy onto the plate.

Faves: The Continental Prophecies.

Worsties: 'The Book of Ahania,' 'The Book of Los.'


317. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part Two

1832 / Audiobook / 400 pages / Germany

**

Decades after his popular, some would say definitive take on the Faust fable (I like Švankmajer's better), Goethe released a divisive sequel that spends most of its time retreading Greek myths. To the extent that you'd be better off just reading those instead. Even the vanilla Librivox recording lasts over seven hours – how long was this damned play? Sorry, Herr Thunder, I like the English one better.


318. Jules Verne, Master of the World

1904 / Audiobook / 317 pages / France

****

A rip-roaring, flawless adventure until the second half when our noble hero is taken prisoner and it becomes depressing for a while, this was one of the last books J. V. wrote and feels like a tried-and-tested best-of. There's an expedition up a volcano, a madman terrorising the world with advanced technology, planes, submarines and superfast automobiles, shootouts, spies, a little subtle American baiting and frequent encyclopaedic digressions interrupting the action to give us too much information about geography.


319. William Hope Hodgson, The Ghost Pirates

1909 / Audiobook / 276 pages / UK

***

It's not the most eventful ghost story of all time, but it's up there with the most atmospheric. Set sail for ambiguous apparitions, paradoxical weather, cabin fever, creaking timbers and an excess of shadows.


320. Ambrose Bierce, Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories

1913 / Audiobook / 108 pages / USA

**

Insubstantial vignettes organised by theme, each is but a few pages long, yet they still manage to be a waste of time. The most cliched tales can at least be enjoyed on an unkind mocking level. I guess 'Owl Creek Bridge' was a one-off (not included).

Faves: The Ways of Ghosts, Some Haunted Houses.

Worsties: Soldier Folk, Mysterious Disappearances.


321. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Coming of the Fairies

1921 / Audiobook / 196 pages / UK

**

I've long been seriously bugged and confused by how the creator of Sherlock Holmes could be so wholly taken in by the amateur photographic pranks of two teenage girls. After reading his (attempted) open-minded defence of the Cottingley photos and the existence of garden folk just outside our visual frequency range (David Icke says the same thing about the Reptilians), I've decided it's actually quite lovely, so he's off the hook. My scorn was instead redirected to his band of "experts" who pore over the exposures of paper cutouts to explain exactly why they can't be fakes and give their considered opinions on the evolution of fairies and goblins alongside the winged insects.


322. Arthur Machen, The Green Round

1933 / E-book / 129 pages / UK

***

Machen's last novel is basically a lesser rewrite of his first. Where the doomed city dweller of The Hill of Dreams is haunted by the intangible essence of the countryside, his counterpart in The Green Round is shadowed by a more substantial dwarf poltergeist thing.


323. René Daumal, A Night of Serious Drinking

1938 / E-book / 121 pages / France

***

The last book I read by this author was unfinished and drowned in allegory, but it still made more sense than this one. Maybe it all has meaning, or maybe he's a method writer and just stocked up on absinthe and took notes during his own trip through Hell. Simultaneously fascinating and a load of old wank.


324. C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet

1938 / Audiobook / 264 pages / UK

***

Allied with Wells' scientific romances rather than its contemporary pulp sci-fi, this tale of spiritual Martians and greedy Earthmen is colourful and uncomplicated. The Christian message is more subtle than in Narnia. At no point does a lion get crucified and turn into a lamb, for instance.


325. J. G. Ballard, Vermilion Sands

1956-70 (collected 1971) / E-book / 192 pages / UK

****

One of the more consistent short story collections I've read this year, and not only because the tales share a common setting on the dunes and coral towers of a decadent resort, during and past its prime. A novel would have been fine, but these shorts let us explore more sides of Ballard's idle future with its weird technologies, arts and other diversions. Being written in bursts of sporadic inspiration over 15 years probably helped too.

Faves: 'The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D,' 'Cry Hope, Cry Fury,' 'Venus Smiles.'

Worsties: 'Say Goodbye to the Wind,' 'Studio 5, The Stars.'


326. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

1972 / Audiobook / 165 pages / Italy

****

He's being a smart-arse again, and naturally I love it. Though once I got over the innovative structure, the actual substance of these 50-odd city descriptions started to get a bit samey. It's not really about the content though – it's about the philosophy of architecture and social space, communication without language, lies, exploration and lots of other things probably. Smarter people than me have used it as a springboard for all kinds of creative projects... I'm going to read some comics now.


327. Clive Barker, Erik Saltzgaber, Mike Manley and Ricardo Villagrán, Weaveworld

1991 / E-comics / 192 pages / UK/USA/Argentina

***

I failed to make much headway into the novel when the audiobook narrator sent me off to sleep, so I had to settle for an impure third-party comic adaptation instead. Based on the first few pages, it seems to be fanatically loyal to the source – but that isn't always a good idea when you're condensing about 700 pages of text into less than 200 pages of drawings and dialogue bubbles. Whew, just let me get my breath back. <Imajica; >Galilee.


328. Kevin J. Anderson, The X-Files: Ground Zero

1995 / Audiobook/e-book / 290 pages / USA

**

I had the feeling that Anderson's Ruins was paranormally entertaining for a TV tie-in, and sure enough, this more conventional government conspiracy plot is strictly by the numbers. True to brief, it could have been a TV episode, if not a particularly memorable one, even with the mushroom clouds and overcast British Columbia coast standing in for the Asia-Pacific. Mulder and Scully aren't at their most charismatic, it felt like they were hardly even in the first half. So that's me suitably psyched up for the new mini-series then.


329. Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

2003 / Audiobook/e-book / 569 pages / USA

****

While his other books grasped a crazy, compelling theory by the strings and rode with it, this one is much more general (its subject is all of space and time, how much more general can you get?) It's less captivating as a result, and meant I had to sit through the thirteenth-or-so history of Newton, Einstein and the other guys this year. The alternative would be to pick up something on advanced quantum theory, but I struggle enough with the layman's stuff.


330. Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return

2002-03 (collected 2005) / E-comics / 187 pages / Iran

***

The author-artist had a more eventful youth than most (mine was mainly spent playing Diablo II), but after the bombs and oppression of the first book, the more personal troubles of an immigrant teenager trying to find her place can't really measure up. Yes, I am saying she should have had more consistently harrowing life experiences, what about it?


331. Dan Simmons, The Terror

2007 / Audiobook / 784 pages / USA

****

"Chilling!" - Various smart-arse reviews, I expect.

Quitting A-level history half-way through because it was too much hard work, I've never felt special affinity for any particular historical era or personages, but the 19th century polar voyages are as close as things get to 'my period.' I wanted to write my own novel digging up the graves of these doomed explorers, but never bothered for reasons explained in the previous sentence. Dan Simmons put in the effort though, and having led me on similarly overlong journeys through Victorian sewers and electrical forests, this was the most enthrallingly uncomfortable. If the cold, hunger and (real-life) cannibalism aren't already enough, he throws in a supernatural beastie to really finish you off. (Hyperion > Terror > Drood > Ilium)


332. Christopher Hitchens, Arguably: Essays

1999-2011 (collected 2011) / Audiobook/e-book / 816 pages / UK

****

A diverse assortment of essays on politics, religion, history, literature and why women apparently aren't funny, I learned a lot of things and – more importantly – gained received opinions that I can confidently pass off as my own. Just don't ask any follow-up questions.


333. Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

2011 / E-book/audiobook / 240 pages / UK

*****

This is probably his most famous book, but was at the bottom of my Ronson reading pile. The specific focus on the type of people I wouldn't want to spend time with made it less appealing than his miscellanies, where terrifying crackpots are balanced out by harmless loonies. I needn't have worried, as the balance is still largely intact, and he always manages to make the terrifying funny anyway.


333a. Joe K, Being or Nothingness

200-? / E-book / 25 pages / Sweden?

Psupplementary psychopathy.







334. Alex Sanchez ed, 150 Best Minimalist House Ideas

2014 / E-book / 504 pages / Various

**

I've been a loyal advocate of the minimalist lifestyle since 2007, when I sold my extensive DVD and CD collections to pay for rent and lentils, and you can rest assured I won't be cluttering any valuable space in our new house beyond a pants/T-shirt drawer. So, since I'm already on board with the ideology, these barren domestic voids didn't have the striking impact they were probably supposed to. I was mainly disappointed at the lack of variety. Does minimalism always have to mean blinding white? You're already painting the wall and choosing furniture, why not express your personality just a little? Or is that where the slippery slope begins?


335. Neil Gaiman and J. H. Williams III, The Sandman: Overture

2013-15 (collected 2015) / E-comics / 224 pages / UK

***

Joining in with the great 90s cult resurgence, I'm as happy to see Sandman made a strictly limited comeback as I am X-Files, Twin Peaks and Faith No More. They were all a bit worn out by the end, so there's no pristine legacy to tarnish – just go for it. As expected, the prequel/sequel is more in line with the mystical faff of the series' later years than its horror origins, and the art is steeped in the prestige the brand demands because you can't just draw Sandman like a comic any more, apparently. It's full of itself, but less so than The Wake and Endless Nights.

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