books 2018

    Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff (Books 2018, 8)

    I read this reviewed in The Guardian, and immediately bought the Kindle book. Sometimes a review is like that.

    And it lived up to the praise. But here’s the thing: the horror, the weirdness in it: they’re not really what we’d think of as Lovecraftian.

    There’s nothing wrong with that, and part of the reason for the title is that a couple of the main characters are fans of Lovecraft’s work, and they refer to parts of New England as “Lovecraft country.” But as the review makes clear, the real horror here is much more down to Earth: the racism of 50s America.

    My Kindle edition was slightly oddly titled: Lovecraft Country: TV Tie-In. You expect that on a physical book to some degree. But putting it right in the title is new to me. A page on the author’s site confirms that it is going to be made as a series by HBO (which is annoying, because that means it’ll be on Sky Atlantic over here). JJ Abrams1 and Jordan Peele are both involved.

    I’m slightly surprised to see that Ruff is not black. I wonder how long before he’ll be accused of “cultural appropriation” for writing from the viewpoint of African-Americans.

    1. I mean, obviously: he’s involved in everything, right? ↩︎

    The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (Books 2018, 7)

    As I said in the last books post, reading the JAMs’ Illuminatus-inspired attempt made me want to read the real thing again. Seems I read it about every four years or so, based on the fact that I wrote about it last in 2014.

    It doesn’t lose any of its charm. I suppose I’d have to say, if we judge by number of rereads, that this must be my favourite book of all time.

    If you haven’t read it, it’s probably because there’s a conspiracy to stop you doing so. Kick out the jams and go get it. Hail Eris!

    2023: A Trilogy by The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (Books 2018, 6) 📚🎵

    This book could have been written for me. Seriously, during the first part it felt like it was targeted right at me.

    I am, as you probably know, a fan and repeat reader of The Illuminatus! Trilogy. As clearly are Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, or the KLF, as they used to be known. This book is — what, a spoof of, a homage to? — Illuminatus. Explicitly modelled on it, referring back to it constantly.

    Plus there are lots of Beatles references, and I’ve been into them for even longer. Then among the characters are Alan Moore, who (in this corner of the multiverse) is a member — along with Cauty and Drummond — of Extreme Noise Terror. Our world’s version of that band did collaborate with the KLF, but as far as I can tell they had no connection with Moore.

    So don’t expect to get too much accurate information about popular culture out of this. Plenty of references, though. Other characters include Michelle O’Bama, M’Lady Gaga, Yoko Ono (two versions), Lady Penelope, and her chauffeur/hitman Aloysius Parker.

    It’s a lot of fun. The downside is that it’s not very well written, at least as far as the dialogue is concerned. Most notable is the complete absence of contractions. Which is fine for an odd thing, or maybe to give one character a particular voice, but when no-one uses them, it all gets a little strange.

    The story is fun, though, and I finished it and immediately started rereading Illuminatus yet again, so there’s that.

    Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier by Mark Frost (Books 2018, 5)

    I watched the new series of Twin Peaks in January, but haven’t got round to writing about it yet. In part, maybe, because I knew I wanted to read this. In part, because I want to watch it all again.

    The series was amazing: an incredible, beautiful, challenging piece of art. But, as always with Twin Peaks,1 there was the question at the back of my mind: is he using surrealism to raise real questions, to investigate mysteries, to raise our consciousness? Or is it just weirdness for weirdness’s sake?2

    In the end I lean towards the former. Maybe the whole thing is like a zen koan: if a portal opens in Ghostwood Forest and no-one is there to see it, what will come through?

    Anyway, addressing the book at hand, what we have is quite a short volume which is presented as being a report from FBI Special Agent Tamara Preston to Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by Lynch himself in the show, of course). Its ostensible purpose is for her to summarise what she and the Bureau have learned from the events that the recent series covered, and some other offscreen investigations. It follows on from, and comments on, last year’s Secret History of Twin Peaks.

    Much of it repeats what was in the series, but it does add detail and help to clarify some things. For example it’s probably not a spoiler to confirm that the girl in the 1950s in the glorious nightmare of episode 8 was, indeed, Sarah Palmer, as Warren Ellis has speculated. (It was in his newsletter, which doesn’t seem to have a public archive.)

    But it also follows up on what happened to most of the characters from the the original series that we didn’t hear about in the new one, giving us much-needed closure. Or at least convincing us that the creators didn’t totally forget about Donna, for example. Along the way it does what the new series failed to do, in that it answers the question raised at the end of the original series: “How’s Annie?”

    It’s worth reading, but it doesn’t remove the need for me to watch the whole new series again.

    1. And maybe with all of David Lynch’s work. ↩︎

    2. “Everybody’s wild at heart and weird on top.” ↩︎

    Sourdough by Robin Sloan (Books 2018, 4)

    Strange one this. I think I learned about it from Warren Ellis, via his newsletter (which is well worth reading, by the way).

    A woman takes a programming job in San Francisco. Chance leads her to gain possession of a sourdough starter culture with unusual properties. She learns to bake bread, and some other things happen.

    It was OK. Quite fun. And if we’re comparing novels set in San Francisco tech culture, it was better than, say, Transmission, by Hari Kunzru which I’ve read and didn’t enjoy, but didn’t blog about; much, much, much better than The Circle; but probably not as good as All the Birds in Sky.

    Feersum Endjinn by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 3)

    The Great Banks Reread picks up again. I was prompted to read this, despite the pile of Christmas books next to my bed, because of Facebook.

    I must have Liked the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction on there at some point, because a post popped up linking to the entry for Parks and Recreation. Whose very existence is surprising (the entry, that is), but it’s just because the last season or so takes place in the near future.

    Anyway, the article refers to something called a ‘slingshot ending.’ This is not a term I had heard before, so I tapped through. To be honest even reading it again now, I don’t really understand what they mean by it.

    But the article includes the assertion that Feersum Endjinn has such an ending. I’ve just finished rereading it, and inasmuch as I do understand what a slingshot ending is, I don’t agree that this is one such.

    Which doesn’t matter at all. I still loved it. And as with many of these rereads, I was surprised by how many details I didn’t remember. Most notably I had totally forgotten that it is set at a time in the far future when Earth’s survival is threatened by an astronomical phenomenon (a dust cloud that will eventually occlude the sun).

    The ending… well, that would be to spoil things. Just read it if you haven’t already.

    I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon (Books 2018, 2) 📚🎵

    You know how they say you shouldn’t meet your heroes? Well it turns out that sometimes that includes not meeting them between the pages of a book. I’m not sure I’d call Warren Zevon a hero, but he’s definitely a hugely respected and much missed singer and songwriter.

    I knew of the tales of wild and crazy behaviour, though I hadn’t actually read any of them — except inasmuch as they come out in the songs. And anyway, those tales are a dime a dozen in rock’n'roll. A lot of this biography, though, is concerned with the people he hurt.

    Which is fine, not least since the author — his wife and the mother of one of his children — is a major one of those people. Most of his bad behaviour happened while he was an alcoholic — or while he was drinking, I suppose I should say, since the standard twelve-step narrative is that you never stop being one. Alcoholics Anonymous helped him to stop, though he eventually stopped going to meetings. He didn’t drink for seventeen years, and the opening chapter tells us that when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer he had a scotch. Who could blame him for stepping off he wagon at a time like that?

    So he comes across as a far from pleasant character. But my disappointment with the book is more about the complete focus on the man and his relationships, almost to the exclusion of the music.

    “The man and his relationships” sounds like an important set of themes to address in a biography. But in the case of a creative person — or really any person worthy of a biography — a key part of the story of their life is their works. If it’s a writer you’ll expect to read about their books; a politician, their victories and defeats; a general their battles. And of course, a musician, their music. It would be strange to read a biography of Beethoven or the Beatles that told of their personal lives but largely elided the music.

    Which may be the key: this isn’t a biography, as such. It makes no attempt to be comprehensive, and there’s no real narrative. Although there are plenty of reminiscences from Crystal, the vast bulk of the book is reminiscences from people in Zevon’s life, directly quoted and preceded with their names; almost like a play script. Presumably Crystal interviewed them all, but she herself comes across as just one of the interviewees.

    There are quotes from Zevon’s diaries, but he either wrote them in a very fragmented, abbreviated way, or they have been heavily edited. An example:

    Jan. 12, 1975
    … Took Jordan, visited Father at the steam baths. He gave me a handsome Seiko watch and $135 … quarreling with Crystal … T-Bone came over for spaghetti and I quaffed vodka martinis all night. T-Bone trounced me soundly at chess which surprised and aggravated me, but pleased me, too, by mellowing my lonely-giant-of-the-intellect trip … Made love.

    Jan. 15, 1975
    … Snorted coke which kept Crystal awake all night … she’s thinking of pregnancy and worried about chemicals in her body …

    (All ellipses in original.)

    After he gets sober the diary entries become more frequent, which is good. But as a fan of his music, I would have liked to read a lot more about it: its creation, how it was accepted or not at the time, stories of gigs and recording studios, and all that. Unfortunately Crystal wasn’t really involved in that part of his life, and the interviewees who were — like Jorge Calderón or Jackson Brown — either weren’t asked to talk about it, or weren’t quoted doing so.

    So not quite the music biography I’d have liked, but not without interest.

    Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (Books 2018, 1)

    The worst thing about this book is that it tells you, two or three chapters from the end, that it’s only the first half of the story. Now, I knew there are two other books in the series, but I expected the first book to be at least capable of standing alone. Turns out it isn’t: the ending leaves us hanging right after the big reveal.

    The other worst thing about this book is that I’m not really that compelled to read on. I mean, I probably will, but it’s not like when I read Hyperion, say, and had to scurry around the city trying to find a copy of the second volume.1

    After all the fuss about it not being published in the UK, and me not being able to get it, I had high expectations. Probably too high, as it turns out.

    Don’t get me wrong: it’s by no means a bad book, and it’s astonishingly accomplished for a first novel. I did enjoy reading it. Its true weakest point— ignore all that complaining above — is that it can be a little bit hard to understand the world she creates. Not impossible, though, and Palmer does go to some efforts to explain it with minimal infodumping. Or at least with infodumping disguised as a conversation with the reader, which works quite well.

    It’s about four hundred years in the future, and since the Church War some two hundred or so earlier, the world no longer exists as countries in the way that we know them. Instead people are members of one of seven “hives,” which they can choose to align themselves with at majority. Or not: some people are hiveless by choice.

    Countries mean less at least in part because of super-fast international transport by “cars,” which I think are probably suborbital rockets or similar. Though they may have a more advanced propulsion system. The most confusing thing is probably that the leaders of the seven hives are characters and each of them has several names. For any given one of them, each of the others might know them by a different nickname, and the narrator uses these interchangeably. It gets hard to keep track of who’s who.

    Global warming appears to have been conquered, or ameliorated to the point where it’s not a major concern. In fact it seems to be very close to a post-scarcity society. People only work at things they want to, and seem to be able to live OK without having to work.

    Apart from “Servicers,” that is. Our narrator, Mycroft Canner, is one of these. People convicted of sufficiently serious crimes can end up as one of these. They are essentially public slaves. They are required to work for seemingly anyone who asks them, and are paid in food and board — and occasionally other treats such as cinema tickets. But they have no other way to get these things.

    I found it quite a disturbing an idea; though it would almost certainly be better than being in prison; and at least they don’t have the death penalty.

    That’s not the most disturbing thing in the book. But I’ll say no more about that.

    As I write about it, my estimation of it is going up. Isn’t that strange? If I write enough about it I’ll probably stop to download Seven Surrenders, the next volume.

    Oh, yes, as I said, it says it’s “the first half” of Canner’s story; but there are two more volumes. Are they both short, or is the third one more standalone? There’s only one way to find out.

    But I have a stack of other things to read first. Also I realise I have no idea what the title has to do with the story. 📖

    1. If memory serves: it was a long time ago, and it may not have happened exactly like that. 
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