Books I’ve read

Since writing rambly paragraphs about books I’ve read has become one of the key features of this blog, I thought I’d make a page where I can store all my rambly paragraphs in a more ordered way, for example alphabetically by the authors’ surnames. Twist: that page is the page you are on right now!! Enjoy.

150-TheBridge Banks, Iain – The Bridge

I’m not a particular fan of using metaphor in place of plot, but my main problem is when narratives turn that way only at the end. I don’t mind when novels are open about their metaphorical intentions from the outset, and when they justify it by, for example, setting the metaphorical stuff inside a character’s mind. When a skilled author (and Iain Banks most certainly was that) takes the risk of going far enough down the rabbit hole of weird interlocking symbolism, the result can be quite thrilling and rewarding – a Cloud Atlas style puzzle box to toy with at your leisure. The Bridge is a bit like a cross between Life on Mars and Brazil, a journey into a complicated and unsettling world of steam power and bureaucracy where it’s not always clear what’s a dream – and what’s a dream within a dream. Even if the way it all fits together confuzzles you, there are enough treats along the way – the cleverly confounding world of the bridge, the hilarious barbarian bits, the ever-lively descriptive style – to make this a journey worth taking.

The Wasp Factory Banks, Iain – The Wasp Factory

Be warned, this is the sort of book they’d make you read in high school, and if you’re me you wouldn’t get it at all because it didn’t intersect much with your naive little world – one of those books where everything is almost comically effed up and depressing, and everyone plays their part in a cycle of cruelty, weakness and appallingly bad parenting. But now, as a sort-of adult, I appreciate it more. The most impressive thing is perhaps that it makes the psychotic, misogynistic, animal-torturing protagonist more comprehensible to us than the apathetic world around him. Stick around for: a final chapter that could serve as the subject of a million essays featuring the word “problematic”, and a brilliantly unpleasant account of being drunk.

The Hellbound Heart Barker, Clive – The Hellbound Heart

Similar to the few Lovecraft stories I’ve read, The Hellbound Heart is content to reveal only slivers of its distinctly unsettling mythology. Sinister, leering forces beyond our understanding lurk just out of sight behind the walls of the world, waiting for any excuse to drag victims off to their realm of disfigurement and myriad kinky torments/pleasures. There are nuggets of gold in the story: the unseen realm is described with enough vagueness to give the reader’s imagination something to do; Barker makes a clever and creepy use of brackets which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before but which I am sorely tempted to steal; and the ending is quite darkly beautiful if not entirely earned. Overall, though, I don’t know that I would recommend The Hellbound Heart. From plot to character to style, it all feels rather slight, like a short story stretched out to the length of a short novel. But hey, at least it’s short, and inventive enough that perhaps you should read it anyway if you’re into oddness.

Tithe Black, Holly – Tithe

A modern faerie tale, in which misfit teenager Kaye moves back to the place she grew up and rediscovers the realm of faeries she used to play with. But it all seems a lot darker now, as conflict rages between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts and the solitary fey caught in the middle. If it sounds like Among Others, I suppose it is a bit, though this is more standard Young Adult fare, complete with a love story I’m probably not qualified to comment on so I’ll just shut up. Despite my love of fantasy, when it is mixed into the real world I often find myself enjoying the real world stuff more. Tithe is no exception – I like Kaye’s world before all the weird stuff kicks off, and said weird stuff is imaginative and vividly drawn, but I was never quite sold on the tricky ground where they meet. I suppose if characters always reacted with appropriate levels of surprise and bewilderment, a lot of fantasy would just be about people quivering and wailing in corners. Somebody needs to write that book some day.

Brooks, Max – World War Z

Zombie fiction is kinda strange. From my limited exposure to it, I get the sense that works like The Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Left 4 Dead and other things ending in Dead are not just about a zombie epidemic – they’re about the zombie epidemic. It’s like we’ve all agreed it’s going to happen at some point, and a bunch of people are writing stories that slot right into it: historical fiction for a made-up history. This book provides a seemingly exhaustive collection of well-thought-out personal and political stories that span the globe. I really hope that in the film adaptation, the protagonist is still humanity as a whole – that would be a lot more interesting than one handsome white American battling his way through zombies to reunite with his family.

150-HyperboleAndAHalf Brosh, Allie – Hyperbole and a Half

Really, if you want to know whether you should buy this book or not, the best test is to go and read the blog it’s based on. If you find yourself charmed by Allie Brosh’s willingness to look inwards, seek out all the most unflattering elements of her personality like an emotional investigative journalist, and report back with humour, bright colours and a rare, even inspirational level of honesty – buy this book! If you don’t, don’t – but just know that I like you a little less now. You might recognise some elements of Hyperbole and a Half that have become memes (“CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!”), but even those that haven’t are wonderfully quotable. For example: “Are you going into the kitchen? Cool. Go fuck yourself” is a phrase that will stick with me, at least reminding me that I’m not alone while I beat myself up over nothing.

Storm Front Butcher, Jim – Storm Front

One of those troubling books where the author was younger than me when he wrote it. I was constantly on the lookout for clues to this fact to make myself feel better, but sadly this is a very well structured and enjoyable urban fantasy detective noir thriller thingy. It grips you through the old technique of piling problems upon problems, never resolving one without introducing two more. Poor old yer-a-wizard-Harry Dresden is never allowed a pause for breath without being bludgeoned with a blunt object or attacked by a demon or pounced upon by one of the book’s many femme fatales, so the pace is always fast and pleasingly silly. And you can feel the author setting up a world fit for the many sequels the book already has – it’s one of those series that it’s nice to know is there in case I need something pulpy and fun to binge on.

Telegraph Avenue Chabon, Michael – Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue interweaves the stories of two families living in Oakland, California, including two men whose record shop is on the brink of going out of business, two disillusioned midwives, two teenage boys experimenting with their sexuality, and an ageing Blaxploitation star trying to escape his criminal past and revive his movie career. It’s nice to read a book that deals with interracial friendship without either glossing over the cultural differences or, worse, making them seem like a huge deal, something deep and unconquerable simmering under the surface of all human nature. Generally the main characters are more worried that they may be racist than actually racist, which feels fundamentally reassuring in a weird way. This is indicative of the book’s restrained tone – we don’t see much in the way of epic confrontations, nervous breakdowns, melodramatic monologuing and so on. Most of the book could be a soap opera if it weren’t so funnily and interestingly written, so sunny and pleasant and filled with rich, colourful language. If you can forgive a few cartoonish moments and a few more that a cynic would see as excuses for Chabon to show off his writing skills, this is a most enjoyable and worthwhile read.

Ready Player One Cline, Ernest – Ready Player One

A book about escaping from a ruined world into a virtual easter-egg hunt created by an eccentric dead billionaire obsessed with 80s geek culture … and if that sounds like the ultimate piece of escapism for nerds, that’s because it pretty much is. But as much as that description appeals to me, it still feels like it does a disservice to the tight structure and vivid imagination of this book. There’s a real sense of adventure here, of danger, wonder and magic – a tone somewhere between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Hunger Games, if that makes any sense at all, which it really doesn’t seem to when I put it like that. Trust me, it’s great. And it’s such a massively joyful and unapologetic celebration of geek culture that even I, as someone who often feels too weird and awkward to even be a proper part of the geek community, was practically hyperventilating at certain points. In a good way.

The Hunger Games cover. Collins, Suzanne – The Hunger Games

Since it’s the big young adult thing at the moment, and I have an unhealthy love of dystopias, it seemed to make sense to read this. It has some very Harry Potter-esque characters (specifically Haymitch and Effie), and a few (thankfully vague) similarities to the novel I’ve been writing for years. Most of all, though, it reminds me of the creepingly delightful Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson, which portrays an equally brutal world where just because you’re young and innocent doesn’t mean you won’t at some point find yourself being burned alive. Does it say bad things about me that I enjoy this kind of book? Probably. I guess that’s part of the scary thing: you’re always secretly thinking “I’d totally watch the actual Hunger Games if they were on”. No? Just me then? Oh dear.

Catching Fire cover Mockingjay cover Collins, Suzanne – Catching Fire and Mockingjay

The thing I’m most jealous of about the Hunger Games trilogy (aside from it making loads of money) is Collins’s talent for creating powerful symbols and visual moments. These books deal a lot with appearances, performance, even fashion, and the influence these things might have. They also do an admirable job of portraying the darkness of the world while retaining faith in humanity. I sort of wish I’d read this series in time to include it in my dissertation, as it’s a very well-crafted dystopia.

Danielewski, Mark Z – House of Leaves

It’s immediately obvious to those of us who like to flick through books before reading them to get the lay of the land that this is an unusual book. So I approached it like Clarice approaching Hannibal Lecter, knowing it was going to try to screw with my mind. It’s just a bunch of words on pages, I told myself! Then I got to page 26 and decided “Okay, this can be my daytime book”. Despite the fact that it’s undeniably inventive and creepy, I’m not totally sure I like House of Leaves. This may be down to unfortunate timing: certain passages felt like a slog as they reminded me a little too much of reading impenetrably endless theory for my recently finished English degree. But if you’re patient and like weird things, this is certainly one of those.

150-WolfInWhiteVan Darnielle, John – Wolf in White Van

Y’know, another one of those stories about a disfigured boy who runs a play-by-mail choose-your-own-adventure type game called Trace Italian. Wolf in White Van is in that very specific subgenre (if you can call it that) of books which tell their stories in a non-linear way, and which dance teasingly around a central event which took place a while ago but which we don’t really understand until quite late on. (The God of Small Things is another example that jumps to mind.) It’s the sort of book whose implied insidious hidden messages you could probably spend weeks trying to decode if the mood took you. Even skimming it a second time greatly enhanced my appreciation for its subtly poetic language and intricate thematic explorations.

The Writer's Tale Davies, Russell T and Cook, Benjamin – Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who more than I love myself – quite a lot more, in fact – but I still think Russell T Davies was quite underappreciated by fans. Not only was it his passion that revived the show back in 2005, he established a level of quality that was by no means assured before that point, but which people almost immediately began to take for granted. This book, through a series of informal and brutally honest letters, documents his writing process during his last couple of years as showrunner, and for aspiring writers it’s funny, familiar, terrifying and reassuring all at the same time. It certainly makes me feel better about my own procrastination, although on balance I suppose that might not be a good thing.

A Study in Scarlet Doyle, Arthur Conan – A Study in Scarlet

I had read this already, but happily revisited it for the book club my friends just started. It is a good read, and a great introduction to the character of Sherlock Holmes, though if you’re used to more modern mysteries it may flummox you just because it breaks some of the rules that would later be established in the genre – for example, certain elements that would be crucial to untangling the mystery aren’t introduced until quite late in the book. But the nicely detailed and methodical description of the crime scene lets us feel as though we could work it all out if only we were as clever as Holmes, and the solution, when it comes, is elegant and satisfying. Compared to that of other books from the same period, the language is extremely accessible, and the series is definitely worth reading if you like the modern BBC adaptation of Sherlock, especially since the first episode of that kinda misses the point of the method of murder in this book.

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives Eagleman, David – Sum: Tales from the Afterlives

A book I happened to pick up because it was 99p on Kindle, and I’m glad I did. It’s a series of short stories detailing different imagined afterlives. Few of them involve us being judged by the criteria of any existing religion; instead there is an implied new religion to be found embedded in each story. In other words, we could choose to live our lives based on the assumption that any one of these accounts is true; if we believe ‘Metamorphosis’, for example, we may want to spend the latter years of our lives systematically erasing all evidence that we ever existed. If you think you have a good sci-fi idea tucked away in your brain, it’s worth reading this book just to see if David Eagleman has already written about it. Damn you ‘Conservation’! (On a related note, here is another thought-provoking afterlife story, which seems to do the rounds on the internet every so often.)

The Eyre Affair cover Fforde, Jasper – The Eyre Affair

I’m not sure I have the vocabulary to talk about this book, because it’s really unique, in a wish-I’d-thought-of-that way. It’s set in an alternate version of our world, distinguished by casually deployed science fiction elements and amusing differences in its culture’s priorities. In terms of tone it veers from a Monty Python-ish blending of surrealism and satire to Terry Pratchett-esque fantasy to one of those cosy detective stories where people knit and eat Hobnobs and have names like Marmalade Jones. I won’t spoil too much, as it’s a fun rollercoaster – especially if you happen to have studied literature. Also a good antidote to Hunger Games-induced depression.

150-GoneGirl Flynn, Gillian – Gone Girl

It all begins, with pleasing swiftness, when a woman goes missing and her husband gets caught up in the ensuing media circus. That’s about all I can say without spoiling Gone Girl. The story takes many twists and turns – the dynamics seem to change almost every chapter – yet it never loses sight of what it’s about: two fascinating, dark, well-drawn characters. It also delves rather intelligently into the ways we pretend, how we try to shape our behaviour to fit with other people’s expectations, and some of the destructive consequences this can have. I found it particularly interesting having just read The Psychopath Test, but it split my book club right down the middle, between those of us who found it a brilliant, addictive page-turner and those who found it so boring they could barely finish it. Never have I been so baffled by people’s reactions to a book, so … be aware that you might hate it, I guess. If you hate awesome things.

The Elements of Eloquence Forsyth, Mark – The Elements of Eloquence

A fantastic, inspiring and entertaining glossary of rhetorical techniques to make language sing – from alliteration to zeugma (though not in that order). I wish I had read this book years ago, as I now feel I could apply at least a few of the techniques it describes to my own writing – though there are some, as Forsyth notes, that come naturally to people without them even noticing. Particularly impressive is how the author manages to construct a chain of rhetorical examples, one leading naturally to the other all the way through the book – I can only imagine this involved a maddeningly complicated flowchart of some kind. But it pays off, making the book extremely readable, and if you’re me you will set aside all worldly responsibilities to blaze through it. I will definitely go back to The Elements of Eloquence, and may even pick up a paper copy for easier reference. (Also I can’t believe I never noticed the thing about proper adjective order before! What a little curious thing!)

American Gods Gaiman, Neil – American Gods

I’m pretty sure I’m a person who should have been reading Neil Gaiman for years, but somehow I’ve only just got round to him. He’s one of those writers who crams an intimidating number of ideas into a small space, casually glancing off concepts which in other hands would be whole books of their own. American Gods is a weird one, though. I certainly enjoyed the American part – the slightly unsettling small towns, the tacky tourist attractions, the road movie flavour of it all. But I found the Gods part a bit baffling, to be honest. Almost every character speaks in riddles, and even the appropriately named shadowy protagonist doesn’t often stop to question the barrage of barely explained insanity that confronts him at every turn. The ending, especially, gets a bit metaphorical for my tastes, as physical reality fades into the background and people do all sorts of very symbolic-seeming things for no clear reason (don’t ask me why I let Murakami get away with it). Maybe I don’t know enough mythology to untangle it all, or maybe this book is just for people cleverer than me. I’m happy to confirm that Neil Gaiman is definitely one of those people.

Neverwhere Gaiman, Neil – Neverwhere

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman invents a world under London which bears the same sort of resemblance to the actual city that the London Underground map does – twisted into different shapes, abstracted, making unexpectedly literal sense of some of the odder station names on the tube network. This is a world of rats and labyrinthine sewer tunnels and people in ragged clothes, scraping out a living in their own vaguely supernatural world, unseen by people above. The story rolls along merrily, sweeping likeably vague and vaguely likeable protagonist Richard Mayhew along with it. We rarely return to the same place twice, as Gaiman seems determined to introduce us to as many surreal sights as possible in the time he has. He is never overly concerned with explaining how things came to be or the rules that govern magic in his world, if indeed there are any rules other than “it has to be weird and cool”. I alternate between finding this enthralling and a little hard to swallow, but overall I’d have had to be quite devoted to depriving myself of fun, to avoid falling under Neverwhere‘s spell.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Gaiman, Neil – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This connected with me more than the other Neil Gaiman books I’ve read. This may be because there are specific details (not the really dark stuff, thankfully) that matched so precisely with my own experience that they reached through the page (well, Kindle screen, to be less poetic) and put me right there in the shoes of the seven-year-old protagonist. As well as featuring a classic Gaiman world-within-our-world (or is our world within their world?), The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautifully evocative of childhood. There is a powerful sense of adulthood as mysterious and full of secret knowledge, which is then dwarfed by a similar but much grander sense about the hidden world the main character stumbles into, which just goes to show that growing up isn’t all that children think it is. You’ll notice I’ve said very little about the actual storyline. That’s because this is one of those stories that feels almost destined to become an iconic and canonical work of fantasy, and if you have the chance to go into it without knowing anything, you probably should take it.

The Fault in Our Stars Green, John – The Fault in Our Stars

Hey look! I read something almost timely! See, I’m still down with the kids! The Fault in Our Stars is a book about love and cancer and books. Primarily it is a romance between teenagers, and it is one of the best of those I have ever read, in that at no point did it make me want to hurl myself through a window. This is probably down to the simple fact that Hazel and Augustus have interesting and intelligent thoughts, not just about their own painfully evident mortality but about the universe in general. John Green (who I’ve become mildly obsessed with/envious of after realising he’s the same John Green who does this) skillfully weaves together cynicism about the tropes of simplistically sentimental ‘cancer books’ with philosophy and a great deal of wisdom about everyday relationships. It seemed inevitable that this book would try to make me cry towards the end, and while I somehow (just) managed to resist, it still made me think more than anything I’ve read in a while, and for that reason alone I’d say it is an exemplary Young Adult novel.

Holloway, Sally – The Serious Guide to Joke Writing

I don’t often like books on how to write: for one thing they usually raise the childish question “If you’re so bloody good at writing, why is this the only book I’ve heard of by you?” But since I’m supposed to be writing sketches for the Beyond Studios Advent Calendar, I thought I’d better at least try to learn to be funny. We’ll see if I succeed, but regardless, I found this book a lot of fun to read. Most useful are the exercises Holloway provides which theoretically allow you to write jokes on any subject – and as she points out, however many bad jokes you come up with, you only need to use the good ones. For example, here’s one it helped me come up with: “Why is a settee called a settee? Because when you sit on it, you’re the sitter and it’s the sittee.” Okay, that one might need a bit of work…

150-TheHauntingOfHillHouse Jackson, Shirley – The Haunting of Hill House

The opening of Hill House is strong – we get to bask in some quite beautiful language, get to know (and in my case like) Eleanor and her flights of fancy, and are introduced to a promisingly crooked house that seems to ooze potential for horror. But I was a little disappointed from there on. It’s not that I expected modern pacing and in-your-face nightmarish horror a la The Conjuring. I expected subtlety, but not subtlety so subtle that towards the end I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations at all, or much care what happened to them. Perhaps I need to read this book again with my subtlety dial turned up, as other people’s reactions to it make me want to get more from it than I did. It’s a shame, but I guess horror is an incurably subjective genre – it scares you or it doesn’t.

Different Seasons King, Stephen – Different Seasons

Stephen King feels like a storyteller who always knows what he’s doing, in a way that confounds and intimidates me greatly. All the stories in this collection of four are fascinating – they aren’t really classed as horror stories, but there is certainly something to horrify in each one of them. ‘The Body’ was the highlight for me: it explores the connections between childhood and adulthood, and the distinct strangeness of both worlds. The adventure the main four characters go on very much captures the odd mixture of images, both nostalgic and disturbing, that come with memories of childhood – it’s kinda like the prose equivalent of Boards of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children. The story that was adapted into The Shawshank Redemption is another highlight, and a masterclass in character building to which I’m sure I will return frequently.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate Lee, Stewart – How I Escaped My Certain Fate

My two favourite stand-up comedians, Stewart Lee and Ross Noble, both make me feel somewhat cheated by other stand-ups. Ross Noble because the vast majority of his material is completely improvised, and Stewart Lee because he devastatingly dismantles a lot of the clichés other comedians use to get cheap laughs. This book continues that work, with accounts of his frustrating journey to get his stand-up career back without sacrificing integrity. There are also annotated transcripts of three of his shows, which really make you appreciate the level of thought that goes into his routines, and the subtle ways he manipulates his audiences. As in his shows, it is not always clear here where the real Stewart Lee ends and his stand-up character begins. He is one of those mildly intimidating people with such strong convictions about what art and culture should be that I find myself wishing I could be so sure about things, pondering whether I should start pretending not to like the things he doesn’t like in order to seem more cultured. I still like musical theatre though.

Wolf Hall Mantel, Hilary – Wolf Hall

I haven’t read much historical fiction, which is both a symptom and a cause of my comprehensive ignorance of history. But this sort of vicious circle can only be broken by fumbling around in the dark for a while, and that’s just what I did throughout a lot of Wolf Hall. Much of the story deals with the technicalities of obtaining a divorce for King Henry VIII of England, but the figures involved (including cunning protagonist Thomas Cromwell, jealous femme fatale Anne Boleyn, and the fascinatingly unpleasant utopian dreamer and torture enthusiast Thomas More) make this a good deal more interesting than it sounds. If you can get over the daunting size of the book, the initially confusing use of pronouns in place of the main character’s name, and the fact that about 50% of the characters are named Thomas, Wolf Hall gets pretty intriguing, and some of the descriptions alone are worth the price of admission. It may even be a good way to begin to understand British history, for people who like their knowledge packaged in a satisfying narrative form.

Martin, George R. R. – A Game of Thrones

I love fantasy. I don’t quite know why. It can take a little effort even to work out what’s fantasy about A Game of Thrones (a lot of the usual “fantasy” elements are confined to old stories and vague superstitions in Martin’s world), but for some reason the mere fact that it’s set in a history other than our own makes it massively more appealing to me. Already I feel bad that I know and care more about the power struggle between the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, Baratheons etc. than about most of real history. This book weaves together short, to-the-point sentences (which I could stand to learn from) into an intricate tapestry that’s consistently unpredictable and exciting. If you like the TV show and are wondering if it’s worth reading the book, my answer is an emphatic yep. If I gave out MoleThrower Book of the Month awards, this would win the one for May 2012. But I don’t, so it can’t. Sorry George. Ah, he’ll get over it.

150-AClashOfKings Martin, George R. R. – A Clash of Kings

The story told in this volume is more complex and subtle than that in A Game of Thrones, and it feels to me that it makes more sense as a novel than as a season of TV. This time around, the viewpoint characters are kept apart to a large extent, placing more importance on an almost impossibly large supporting cast who are more easily developed on the page than on the screen. It moves slowly at first, like the creaking gears of a massive machine, but it is in this book that the sheer scale of both the world and the story become clear: new locations are revealed, all described in beautiful detail; Shakespearean characters hatch devious plots, betray each other and desperately thrash around to escape the impossible situations they end up in; bloody battles are fought; old dark powers continue their slow, spine-tingling return to Westeros. I can’t even begin to imagine how Martin mapped all this out, but presumably he’s keeping a Post-it note shop in business somewhere.

A Storm of Swords Martin, George R. R. – A Storm of Swords

Martin’s intimidatingly ambitious fantasy series only grows more intimidatingly ambitious in its third entry. If A Clash of Kings felt a little too much like several related but mostly separate narratives, A Storm of Swords weaves many of them back together in often unexpected ways. I enjoyed the first two books, but this one feels as if it’s firing on all cylinders, burning the fuel provided by the many diverse elements introduced in books one and two. Or perhaps it was me who changed, who finally realised I knew enough about Martin’s world to get by, that I didn’t need to keep track of the names and sigils of all the minor houses to appreciate the story. Either way, this is my favourite so far. Despite being big enough to justify splitting into two volumes, Swords feels tight, almost every chapter acting like a satisfying short story, beginning and ending in exactly the right places. There are too many highlights to mention; the latter half especially is a rollercoaster, crammed with an almost absurd number of twists and turns, not to mention an impressive body count.

The Road McCarthy, Cormac – The Road

One of the bleaker post-apocalypses I’ve visited. No bands of sassy, leather-clad, punky-haired, gun-toting survivors banding together and forging unlikely alliances here. And that’s not all McCarthy has jettisoned: there is no cautionary narrative about the events leading up to the apocalypse; even speech marks and character names are done away with, which lends the proceedings an odd, lonely, distant flavour. Conversations are stark, brief and clipped, occasionally veering towards the dark absurdity of Beckett’s Endgame. I suppose there is some of the Slaughterhouse-Five sense of there being no plots left to tell in this sort of insane situation – no heroes, no victories to be achieved, very little hope of rebuilding society. But The Road‘s protagonists at least have an iron will to survive, even if it’s not always clear why they would want to. It is the small details of their struggle which are the most powerful, and which truly make us ache for them to stumble upon the brighter world we feel they must surely have earned by now.

Cloud Atlas Mitchell, David – Cloud Atlas

It’s hard to describe this book without descending into metaphor: it’s a rollercoaster that spends half its duration cranking you to the top and the latter half plunging you back to earth! It’s a beautiful Rubik’s cube with so many moving parts it may never truly be solved! It’s … okay, if you want to be a literal Linda about it, it’s a series of tangentially connected stories told with amazing skill in various styles, but it can feel very much like those first two things I said. If you’re not used to 19th century adventure stories, the first section might feel a little slow, but it gets more accessible to modern audiences as it goes along. The mystery grows as the layers are pulled back, until the merest hint of a connection between the narratives can set your spine a-tinglin’. If you’re like me you’ll reach the end with the uncomfortable sense that you’ve just read six better books than you’ll ever write, tempered only by the desire to read it again and spot more clues. If that’s not enough for you, it contains a hilariously and depressingly accurate account of travelling by train in Britain.

V For Vendetta Moore, Alan and Lloyd, David – V For Vendetta

I’ve never read enough comics to fully adapt to them, so I tend to find them disconcerting and hard to follow. To try and fix this, I thought I’d try something I’d already seen the film of, and which also happens to be in one of my favourite genres. Like many dystopian visions, V For Vendetta shares a lot with Nineteen Eighty-Four, though being newer it is more creepily tuned in to the specifics of modern Britain. The characters are largely caricatures who play out clashes between ideologies: fascism, anarchy, justice, chaos, etc. It’s also deeply intertextual – it plays with quotations and scraps of philosophy, and is already making its own mark on the world. I really enjoyed it – it makes me want to read more comics, and just read more in general so I can appreciate its references. I did like the Faraway Tree stuff though. See, there’s something for all mental ages here!

150-Watchmen Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave – Watchmen

I need to read Watchmen again, because for the moment I have nothing resembling insight, only superlatives to lavish upon it. Actually scratch that – I’m not a proper reviewer, I can gush if I want to. The art is stunning, even overwhelming at times, and considering its only path of entry to your brain is through your eyes, it is amazingly effective at conveying seas of noise and long-drawn-out eerie silences. The overall effect of the whole thing is exhausting. Perhaps that’s just down to my inexperience with comic books, or perhaps the world it presents is just a little too frighteningly believable: a world which hovers on the brink of nuclear war while the heroes who were once seen to protect it can only shuffle around New York City reminiscing about the good old days and mourning their lost youth and reputations. Hmm, I may have made it sound dull there, but it absolutely isn’t – it’s astonishing, even or perhaps especially to a superhero sceptic such as myself.

Kafka on the Shore Murakami, Haruki – Kafka on the Shore

After reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I knew I had to go back to Murakami at some point, as he’s one of the few writers who genuinely inspires me to paint pictures in my head of the things he describes, as readers seem to be expected to but I rarely do. Kafka on the Shore recounts two cryptically interlinked stories: the vaguely Oedipal tale of a teenage runaway, and the strange adventures of an even stranger old man. It shares certain elements with Wind-up Bird: awkward sex, lost cats, surreal vision quests and bizarre events from the past whose consequences echo to the present. In a certain frame of mind – if I were trying to write an essay on the book, say – I might find the muddling of metaphor and reality frustrating. Even reading it for pleasure, the art-sceptical part of my brain sometimes chimes in “What does any of this mean? It’s just a load of random weird stuff happening. I could write this” before the rest of my brain sardonically responds “Oh yeah? And it would be this beautiful and disturbing and downright hypnotic, would it? Now shoosh and enjoy the ride.”

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle cover. Murakami, Haruki – The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

I don’t really know how to talk about this one, since no framework I’ve tried to slot it into has really helped me make sense of it. I’m sure people who read a lot of post-post-modern books (or whatever level we’re at now) would scoff at me for my lack of understanding. But I don’t think you have to have studied English to appreciate it in these ways: it’s poetic, it’s evocative, it’s intriguing, it’s addictive, and it’s unlike almost everything else. In some ways it feels like dozens – if not hundreds – of strange intersecting short stories. If the part of your brain that asks awkward questions like “What’s going on? Is this real, or a dream? What was the point of that bit?” ever takes an evening off, that might be a good time to give this book a chance.

Crime in the Community cover. Peartree, Cecilia – Crime in the Community

Full disclosure: this one was written by my mum. This means it’s hard to be objective, but I found it fun and surprising. It’s rather strange to venture into a world created by someone you think you know incredibly well, and find things there that it didn’t occur to you that they ever thought about. Along with things, of course, that seem completely in character, like frustration with authority figures and dysfunctional children (uh-oh). As well as a subtly unfolding mystery, this book is a catalogue of observations about people, many of them very funny. You can find it on the Kindle store for free, though it’s the first in a series, so be warned that it may act as a gateway drug to the world of Pitkirtly.

150-TheMountainAndTheFlood Perry, Sheila – The Mountain and the Flood

Another novel by my mum, published under her real name this time! It’s set in a dystopian future version of Scotland which achieved independence from the UK then went a bit evil and began cracking down on citizens of English birth. (Guess which side my mum was on in the independence debate?) In the midst of this, a half-English, half-Scottish family living in Edinburgh struggles to remain together, fighting first faceless bureaucracy and later actual people with actual faces. Oh, and while all this is going on, an apocalyptic storm is brewing that could flood most of Scotland. To do the indie book pitch thing: it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four meets The Day After Tomorrow meets Cat’s Cradle! It’s also very entertaining, even the bits I disagree with politically – which, in any case, tend to be superficial things rather than core philosophical tenets.

Write. Publish. Repeat. Fiction Unboxed Platt, Sean and Truant, Johnny B. – Write. Publish. Repeat. and Fiction Unboxed

More insight into the self-publishing world, written by some intimidatingly prolific self-publishing authors. The first of these books gave me the kick I needed to start really taking writing seriously as a career, and think about realistic ways to make money from it, as opposed to the vanishingly faint hope that my first book will instantly catapult me to success. The second details the process of writing a 100,000 word Young Adult book in the space of a month (whaaa), in a most inspiring and instructive way.

150-GoodOmens Pratchett, Terry and Gaiman, Neil – Good Omens

An apocalyptic tale in which the forces of Heaven and Hell are portrayed as world-weary, vaguely incompetent bureaucrats endlessly pushed around and manipulated by those up(and down)stairs. This sets the stage for a witty play involving frequent meetings between the mythological (represented by said bureaucrats and four horsepersons of the apocalypse, among others) and the mundane (represented by the inhabitants of the almost-too-wholesome English village of Lower Tadfield). Yeah, this book is definitely very Gaiman and Verry Pratchett, though in terms of style it feels more Pratchett to me – so densely packed with humourous insight, pleasing turns of phrase and clever images that as a writer I go into a state of denial to make myself feel better, thinking “okay, but it can’t REALLY be this well written”, even though it blatantly is.

Them Ronson, Jon – Them

Jon Ronson is not one to let feelings of social awkwardness (or the occasional mild fear for his life) get in the way of an intriguing human story. In Them he documents his time spent with various religious extremists, gun enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists and other people generally demonised by mainstream culture. In the process, like many a good author, he demonstrates why “evil” might just be the least helpful word in the English language. We bear witness to such disarming juxtapositions as an Islamic fundamentalist watching The Lion King with his baby daughter, and a branch of the Ku Klux Klan nit-picking over how best to burn a cross. Segments are short and snappy and easy to dip into, but as the narrative progresses it builds genuine intrigue, and you might end up reading big chunks all at once just to find out what head-shakingly strange thing happened next.

150-ThePsychopathTest Ronson, Jon – The Psychopath Test

Like Them, The Psychopath Test is the sort of addictive book I tend to blaze through in a couple of days, its unchallenging language expressing some deeply disturbing ideas. In this case, the idea that psychopaths live among us, sowing seeds of chaos throughout society, but they can be weeded out by means of a series of questions. And alongside this, the equally disturbing idea that this test can be misused in order to make almost anyone seem like a psychopath. There is a touch of the counter-narrative that inevitably seems to crop up in every book like this – “omigosh, what if I’M the psychopath, trying to find psychopaths everywhere?!” – but Ronson doesn’t dwell on it too much. Look out for: the chapter about lack of empathy in the world of reality TV, which somehow manages to be more disgusting than all the stuff about murderers. Good job, guys.

The Name of the Wind Rothfuss, Patrick – The Name of the Wind

I’d heard such good things about this book that I couldn’t resist picking it up, despite my fear of reading straight fantasy in case it shows up my own novel. As I feared, there are certain sections that make me go “Awww, that’s sort of like that bit in my book, but way better”; at points Patrick Rothfuss seems to be taking us on a tour of fantasy tropes, going “This is how you do this one well, this is how you make this one interesting”. In some ways the setting feels like a pretty traditional fantasy world, albeit very well realised and rich in cultural detail. One thing that sets it apart is sympathy, a magic system that’s unique in that it … well, it almost makes sense. Unlike the handily vague fireball-flinging nonsense in a lot of fantasy novels (mine included), sympathy has rules which the reader is allowed to learn, so rather than feeling alienated when the protagonist pulls off a particularly badass piece of binding, you say “Ohhh, that was clever, well done!” It’s a great fun book, but if you’re the impatient sort, bear in mind that it is the first of a trilogy that is not yet finished and leaves many a loose end dangling provocatively in your face.

The Wise Man's Fear Rothfuss, Patrick – The Wise Man’s Fear

Rather than starting with a bang, this book eases us back into Kvothe’s world quite slowly, but that’s okay. Aside from his wise and charismatic style and his brilliant world-building, much of Rothfuss’s skill is in wrapping us up in the day-to-day details of his protagonist’s life – stressing us out with his troubles, making us cheer whenever he wins some small victory over circumstance – until the fact that we’re not actually him seems entirely irrelevant. In that, it reminds me of nothing so much as Harry Potter. And the slow build-up more than pays off, as the latter half of the book is jam-packed with stunning imagery and moments to make you gasp out loud and prickle with goosebumps. If the third in the series lives up to the first two, The Kingkiller Chronicle will definitely join Harry Potter and His Dark Materials on the list of stories I go back to when I want to be taken on a fantastic journey away from my worldly troubles. Whatever it says about me, stories like these are among my favourite things.

Sacks, Oliver – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

I’d heard Oliver Sacks on Radiolab (a great podcast about science and brains and stuff – if you haven’t heard it it’s like having liquid epiphanies poured into your ears), and decided to get this book as part of my vague plan to dig a little deeper into things that interest me. The book recounts a bunch of cases involving people’s brains behaving in unusual ways – failing to process sensory data properly, rejecting the memories of events minutes after they happen, even granting their owners the ability to do seemingly impossible things like instantly identify whether massive numbers are primes or not. It’s accessible and fascinating, and makes you think about how much we take for granted, but also how much of that can be taken away while still leaving something to live for.

150-TheDisasterArtist Sestero, Greg and Bissell, Tom – The Disaster Artist

This book documents the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which is up there with Troll 2 in the “best worst movie” leagues. The unglamorous portrayal of small-time show business is interesting, but it is Tommy’s combination of eccentricity, passion, anger and vulnerability that makes this account so memorable (if you’ve ever acted in a weird and emotionally manipulative way, some of his lower moments may feel uncomfortably familiar). Sometimes I think any work of this type – be it documentary or memoir-type thing – is just an excuse to talk about people for a good long while, the specific subject acting as a framing device which sheds a lot of its importance once we begin to get to know the fascinating characters involved. So even if you haven’t seen The Room, this book deserves to be read by anyone interested in people – and if you aren’t, why are you reading at all?

150-HowNotToSelfPublish Trevithick, Rosen – How NOT to Self-Publish

As I am gearing up to self-publish my novel, I thought I’d better try to learn a bit about the self-publishing world. Despite the fact that this is not the most serious book on the subject – or the second most serious, or, I would imagine, anywhere in the top hundred most serious – I feel as though it’s given me more of a sense of what to expect than any sombre statistic-filled handbook ever could. The absurd scenarios within capture the vivid and often unhealthy emotions that come with exposing your work to the cruel world of readers, critics, obsessive fans and indifferent family members. The fact that Rosen Trevithick is willing to admit some of these emotions and laugh at them makes me breathe a sigh of relief – perhaps worrying about those things does not make me too immature to cope with the business of being a writer. Perhaps I could fit in with all the other indie authors putting a brave face on their seething jealousies and insecurities. Phew.

Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut, Kurt – Breakfast of Champions

To a greater extent than the other Vonneguts I’ve read, Breakfast of Champions reads less like a novel and more like a guide to the human race written by a bemused, witty and easily distracted alien. It starts strong, with a sarcastic dismantling of the myths surrounding America, and goes on to cover such ground as free will, racism, the futility of all life, and ultimately just what the hell the Creator of the Universe is playing at. Despite, or maybe because of the fact that its actual capital-P ‘Plot’ is so deeply buried within a labyrinth of tangents that it can barely be located at all, this book made me understand certain things about Vonnegut’s style for the first time. At one particularly brilliant point, he breaks the fourth wall and explains why he writes the way he does; on several other occasions I laughed out loud at the gleeful immaturity with which he takes a sledgehammer to the sort of rules they teach you in creative writing classes.

Cat's Cradle Vonnegut, Kurt – Cat’s Cradle

You never quite know what you’re getting into with Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle plays with a bafflingly diverse array of ingredients which interact in chaotic ways to bring about a most unconventional apocalypse. These ingredients include: the oddball children of the mysterious, deceased co-inventor of the atom bomb, a large quantity of new and useful philosophical terms (courtesy of Bokononism, a self-admittedly made-up religion), several fragments of ice-nine (a new kind of water that teaches any other water it touches to solidify into a stubbornly unusable block) and, last but not least, the tropical island nation of San Lorenzo. It reminds me a little of H G Wells in its mingling of dark visions of the future with musings on humanity which make such futures appear worryingly inevitable. I know this is one of Vonnegut’s best-regarded books, but for me it hasn’t yet clicked together into as satisfying a whole as, to pick an unfairly brilliant example, Slaughterhouse-Five. But there’s so much going on, thematically and philosophically, that I already have the itch to revisit it in the not-too-apocalyptically-distant future.

The Sirens of Titan Vonnegut, Kurt – The Sirens of Titan

Having grown up ingesting The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in various forms, it’s hard not to read Sirens as a sort of precursor: wry science fiction (wryence fiction) where dysfunctional people get whisked off to various planets and moons and put in vaguely absurd situations by forces outside their control. In the process it captures some of the random, chaotic, weird beauty of life. Breathtaking imagination is on display, in for example the descriptions of the creatures that live on Mercury, and of the being called Salo; these passages ought to make most writers – myself included and emphasised – slightly ashamed of their own lack of imagination. Also, it’s nice to finally know what my parents were talking about when they used to go on about chronosynclastic infundibula. Nerds.

Slaughterhouse Five Vonnegut, Kurt – Slaughterhouse-Five

Vonnegut certainly does know his way around a weird sentence – I learned that much from Sirens of Titan. But in other ways, Sirens didn’t prepare me for this book. Rather than being a funny, occasionally melancholic philosophical romp, Slaughterhouse-Five is tight and sharp and crisp and deranged and brutal – merciless in its quest to hammer home the horrors of life in general and war in particular, chilling in its amused detachment from these horrors. But it wouldn’t be half as powerful without this detachment. Rather than moralising, it peppers us with short little bullets of humour and horror, and after a while it becomes disturbingly hard to tell which is which. Don’t read it unless you’re in the mood to think about death for a while. But you probably should read it at some point.

Among Others Walton, Jo – Among Others

Often I’m annoyed by fantasy stories that give us the option of believing all their impossible events take place only in one young character’s head – the sideways wink, that cheeky “oh, kids and their imaginations” thrown into children’s films as if the children watching aren’t going to notice. And even though this book is told in the form of a socially alienated 15-year-old’s diary, I didn’t really find myself suspecting that the fairies and magical events she describes were anything but real. Perhaps it’s because the way magic works is original and ingenious and beautifully integrated into the world – or perhaps it’s because the narrator is clever and likeable and odd in some very relatable ways, and I wanted to trust her. Also, along the way, she talks about a wide array of science fiction and fantasy books which, a little like the bibliography of 80s geekdom scattered throughout Ready Player One, might help people like me, who sometimes feel a bit out of the geek loop, to catch up.

The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde, Oscar – The Picture of Dorian Gray

Brilliant, simple, original ideas are hard to come by. Oscar Wilde had one of them, and the result is The Picture of Dorian Gray, a tragic exploration of a consequence-free life. Conspicuously absent are details about what Dorian actually DOES when he is supposedly indulging in wild excess and vice – I’m guessing these were too riskily risqué for a Victorian readership. As such, it is hard for us to tell exactly whose side we should be on as a modern audience, though Lord Henry’s cruel witticisms which sow the seeds of amorality in young Dorian’s mind can seem less seductive now than they probably did then. Also off-putting are the book’s treatment of class, and certain drawn-out descriptions of faraway things that have little bearing on the story. All in all, though, the book is still interesting for its iconic and genuinely unsettling imagery, its endless paradoxical soundbites and the sort of ending that makes you go “Now, that’s an ending!” (Also, for a bit of context it is well worth reading about Wilde’s life, particularly his trial, to which this book now seems incredibly relevant.)

John Dies at the End Wong, David – John Dies at the End

This book is a comical sci-fi horror … thingumy which proves that humour does not have to come at the expense of things like tension, empathy, poignancy and fear, and can in fact heighten them. Much of what transpires is disarmingly silly. Supernatural forces are painted as immature teenagers with a destructive streak, but this makes them somehow more terrifying than the solemn and restrained phantoms of most horror stories. The eponymous John is one of the most memorable characters I’ve read lately, mostly because he seems like exactly the sort of person you’d have gone to high school with – almost too ridiculous to be made up. It can also be so politically incorrect that it seems pointless to even point it out – in that way, and in its grotesque imagination, it reminds me more of South Park than of anything else. South Park mixed with a cheap B-movie mixed with Douglas Adams mixed with god-knows-what. I feel like either I or David Wong (probably me, to be honest) slightly lost the plot somewhere in the middle, but I certainly enjoyed it enough to stick the sequel (This Book is Full of Spiders) on my reading list.

The 5th Wave Yancey, Rick – The 5th Wave

I was unsure about this book from the first few chapters, as me and the main protagonist got off on the wrong foot, and sadly our relationship never fully recovered. The setting is ridiculously bleak, existing at some dark intersection between The War of the Worlds, The Walking Dead, and everyone you ever loved dying horribly. The story, meanwhile, is a cocktail of various Young Adult flavours, notably The Hunger Games (as the teenage protagonist stumbles from one gritty, back-to-basics survival situation to the next), and Twilight (as she gets all gooey over a mysterious but hot guy who may or may not want to kill her – has the whole of society just decided that that’s how love works now?). The story does have some moments of real cleverness, but they weren’t quite enough to hold my interest. Anyway, I won’t try to pass off my distaste as some sort of insight; it just didn’t really click for me.

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