Reading Materials

You’re probably wondering what’s happened to my books posts. Surely I must have read something since January (and I thought I’d posted about two books this year, but apparently not).

Thing is, after the Twin Peaks book, I started something rather large. I’m over 200 pages in, which means I’m about one-sixth of the way through it.

It is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem: a monster hardback with tiny print. I picked it up when I went to see him interviewed by Stewart Lee, back in November. I could have got either the hardback or a slipcased three-volume paperback version. Almost as soon as I started reading I wished I’d gone for the latter, because it’s so damn heavy to hold.

So it’ll take me quite a while till I’m ready to write about it. I’m thoroughly enjoying it, though.

A Song of Stone by Iain Banks (Books 2017, 2)

Started towards the end of last year, interrupted for Christmas and post-Christmas reading, and taken up again later. But yes, you read that right: I interrupted reading a Banksie. Now even though it’s a reread, that’s not something that happens normally.

But then this is not a normal Banksie. My memory of it was that although I hadn’t loved it, it was good enough. But all I remembered from it was two scenes, and the overall background.

I’ve got to say now, I’m afraid, that it’s down there with Canal Dreams as my least favourite. In fact when I reread Canal Dreams at some point in the past, I found it was better than I had remembered. This, though: this was worse than I remembered.

I mean, it’s not terrible. If it were written by someone else, it would probably be fine. But no more than that, I’d imagine: no more than fine.

What’s wrong with it? Well, it’s just not compelling in the way I expect Banks’s books to be. There are no characters to speak of, except for the narrator, who is not especially endearing. That shouldn’t matter, but he’s not particularly anything else, either. His attitude to the war-torn environment in which he finds himself is essentially that it is inconveniencing him (and, to be fair, depriving him of his ancestral home).

But the guy owns a castle. I mean, how sympathetic is he going to be?

I don’t know, I think the main problem is just that it’s so bloody bleak. I was convinced that it must have been written while he was getting divorced, or otherwise going through a dark period in his life, but the Wikipedia article doesn’t suggest anything of the sort.

Anyway, there we go. Another reread. But not one that I can imagine coming back to again. And there are plenty others still to come.

The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost (Books 2017, 1)

In case it’s not obvious, the reading year starts and ends on Christmas Day. This was a Christmas present, and is also preparation for the new Twin Peaks series, which is due to air sometime this year (though what we’ll have to do to see it in the UK is an open question, and one which I’ll discuss at another time).

Mark Frost was, of course, half of the team that created the original series. This book is presented as a mysterious dossier which has been given to an FBI agent to analyse. It consists of a series of extracts from government and newspaper reports, and comments by someone who signs themselves “The Archivist.” These are further annotated by the FBI agent.

The subject matter is mysteries: the many UFO reports, going back to Roswell and before; the mysterious goings on around Twin Peaks itself; stories of the Illuminati and the masons, and so on. Some of the quoted reports are, I assume, real. Many are part of the Twin Peaks universe. As a whole the work is entertaining if you like that sort of thing — which I very much do — if a little unsatisfying. Though it has certainly whetted my appetite for the new series.

Complicity and The Business by Iain Banks (Books 2016 16 & 17)

The big Banksie reread finally gets under way again. There’s no particular connection between these two except that I read them back-to-back over two three days, partly when I was off work sick.

Complicity is just as brutal as I remembered, though I didn’t remember all the details, which was good. It feels dated now, but that’s partly just because it’s of its time, and partly, I suppose, because I remember reading it back in 1993.

The Business I remembered even less of — I know I’ve only read it once before, while I think I’ve read Complicity twice. It’s
written from a woman’s PoV, and I’m sure some would say it isn’t convincing as such. Hard for me to judge that, but I liked being in the company of the narrator. Probably more so than in the former book.

It’s also Banksie’s first — but not last — to posit a secret (or secretish) organisation with its fingers into everything, that is not an evil conspiracy. Or his first non-SF to do so, at least. The Culture could be described in those terms.

Its major flaw is that there is no real sense that she’s ever in any danger. Even if things don’t turn out quite the way she’d like, the worst that could happen is that her stellar advancement in the titular organisation might be slowed, and maybe she won’t get the married man she’s kind of in love with.

All good fun, though. And they do have one thing in common: they’re both so dated that they spell laptop “lap-top”! Must be a publisher’s quirk, because I don’t think anyone in the real world ever spelt it that way.

Screwjack by Hunter S Thompson (Books 2016, 15)

Long-time HST readers like me will be familiar with this title. It always appeared on the dust jacket or inside the book in the list of other books by the author. But you never saw it anywhere. Back before Amazon, when bookshops were still a common haunt (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth), you used to look all over the shop for Thompson’s work, because it was rarely consistently filed. That is, not every bookshop put it in the right section. After all, what is the right section? History? Sociology? Politics?

Really, the right section is probably “Journalism,” but most bookshops don’t (or didn’t) have such a section.

Anyway, it turns out that Screwjack wasn’t journalism, but fiction, and in any case was a limited-edition release of only a few hundred or so, and when the web and eBay came along, copies used to go for hundreds of pounds or dollars.

Sometime after he died it got a proper release, and I finally got round to buying it. It’s a slim, small-format hardback, containing three stories. And I’ve got to say that just a few weeks after reading them, they’re almost totally unmemorable. So maybe there was a good reason for not releasing them properly all those years.

Oh well. One for the completists.

Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock by Amy Raphael (Books 2016, 14)

Been reading this over a period of a year or so, on and off, so it’s not really this year’s book. But that’s no reason not to write about it. It was published in 1994 and consists of interviews with a selection of the women who were relatively newly on the scene, or were established but getting some more visibility, around that time. It was the time of Riot Grrrl, among other movements.

So among the interviewees are Courtney Love, Huggy Bear, Liz Phair, Tanya Donnelly, Kristin Hersh, Kim Gordon… even Bjork. But there’s someone missing from the book. Nearly all of the interviewees, when talking about their influences or other women who were doing something interesting at the time, mention PJ Harvey. And she is not interviewed. Which is a shame. I would have loved to have read her thoughts on making music back then (or now, for that matter). And I’m sure Amy Raphael would have loved to interview her, so I’m guessing she didn’t want to do it.

But aside from that, it’s an interesting work. Very much a document of its time, though no doubt the problems and challenges that these women faced have not changed that much. A similar book today, though, would have a very different complement of interviewees; and indeed would need a different subtitle: women musicians are much more prominent in pop and R&B today, from BeyoncĂ© on down. But maybe not so much in rock, unfortunately.

Well worth a read, though.

The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and others (Books 2016, 12)

Gaiman returns to the character and story that made him famous (and wins the graphic story Hugo award by doing so).

This is a prequel to the original story. In that, you’ll recall (or if you don’t you should go and read them), Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, starts by being captured by a wizard as he returns exhausted from an earlier adventure.

This is that earlier adventure. And it’s right up there with the rest of the Sandman stories. Highly recommended.

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross (Books 2016, 8)

The latest of Charlie’s Laundry Files series, and Bob Howard is being considered for promotion. To management. He has to go on a course.

As you can imagine, he doesn’t stay on it for long. And soon things are looking pretty bleak.

It’s the usual Laundry fare: magic manipulated by technology, horrors from beyond the stars, intrigue, form-filling.

It’s great stuff, as always.

The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi (Books 2016, 6)

I enjoyed it, but I didn’t really understand it.

I’m sure I should have more to say about it than that, but really, that sums it up quite neatly.

But to try to go a bit deeper… The solar system is populated by various species or clans of posthumans, transhumans, AIs, uploaded minds, whatever. Earth is unrecognisable, though some people — seemingly fairly close to basic-human, though it’s hard to judge, with so many strangenesses — still live there.

In some ways the biggest problems with this book, and its predecessor The Quantum Thief, which I read a few years ago, is the sheer number of new or repurposed words. None of these is ever explained: you have to gain an understanding of them from context, working it out as you go along. This is a perfectly fine and valid method of storytelling, but here it all just gets a bit too much.

Maybe it’s my fault for the way I read the book: in disjointed fragments and sections, over weeks. Perhaps if I had read it in a more concentrated fashion, its meanings would have unwrapped themselves for me more easily, more thoroughly.

But at the same time, it’s the storyteller’s job to tell their story in a way that allows the reader to grasp it, to understand it. If he reader has difficulty with that, then it’s not the _reader’s_ fault. It’s the storyteller’s.

And yet, and yet, I enjoyed it, I finished it, I think i’l probably read the third in the trilogy, which I believe is a thing. Eventually, after some time has passed on this one,

And I’ll probably have just as much trouble with that one when the time comes.