Books wot I red: Chang, Collins, Gorman

I finished the last ‘Books wot I red‘ post back in January… which means it has taken me a frankly ridiculous nine months to do the next post. In fairness I’ve actually read four since then, one of which was essentially a textbook.

The next book I read was actually ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine De Saint-Exupery, but as I covered that in my book/game review I won’t retread that ground here – except to say you should read it, if you haven’t, no matter what age you are; a truly magical little tale with an equally amazing historic story behind it being written.

Cant Stop Wont StopI followed a children’s classic with what is essentially a textbook; Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. It’s a fantastic achievement, covering the history of everything associated with hip hop (music, style, dancing, graffiti and gang culture).

It’s a book that could only have been written by a fan, but that has pluses and minuses. On the plus side he gets the tone right. He drops in slang to ‘keep it real’ which could’ve gone horribly wrong, but works. And more importantly the level of detail is truly remarkable.

On the downside this reverence often clouds his judgement on issue such as gangs, to the point where he’s essentially making excuses for the terrible violence and mayhem many of the participants caused in these communities. It’s fine to champion something you love, but to be taken seriously you have to be realistic.

While no one is going to claim these were anything other than horrendous living conditions imposed by corrupt and/or misguided officials and politicians, it’s not as if this is an excuse for turning the neighbourhood you live in into a war zone; plenty of people lived through these conditions without turning to crime and violence.

While I found the music side fascinating, from the roots of hip-hop in Jamaican reggae culture through Grandmaster Flash and Bambaataa, to NWA and Wu Tang, I did find myself skipping sections on graffiti and break-dancing as they simply don’t interest me.

But this was no fault of the writing, which was consistently high quality throughout. If you have any interest in the roots of hip hop and rap culture, this is a must-read.

MockingjayFor a while I did dip out of ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop’ for a light break, reading the concluding book of the Hunger Games trilogy; Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. I’d heard consistent reports it was the worst of the three, but that wasn’t about to stop me completing what had been a very enjoyable series.

Unlike the first two books it starts at a gallop, getting straight to the action. This final book has a completely different scope outside of the games themselves, which initially filled me with optimism. But as the pages dragged (and dragged) on it became clear why this instalment is considered a little below par.

What Collins does well in the first two books is portray emotions it’s hard to conceive, due to the horrific nature of what’s going on. But here the plot turns to media and psychological manipulation, as well as more militaristic elements; areas she seems less confident with and which the reader is more familiar.

It must be reminiscent of the situation CS Lewis found himself in with Narnia’s; ‘The Last Battle’, or the end of ‘Harry Potter’. Things need to grow up, get dark and get BIG; but how do you do that and keep the character of the series? It’s also something Pullman struggled with in ‘His Dark Materials’, but where I think all of them got away with it with varying degrees of success, unfortunately Collins really drops the ball here.

What we end up with is a soggy middle which drags inexorably towards the largely telegraphed conclusion, via needless par after needless par of increasingly unlikely emotional Katniss breakdowns. That said, I bet this will work well in the film versions.

Dave Gorman vsI felt the need to go to a banker next, so grabbed the copy of Dave Gorman vs The Rest of the World I’d picked up for a quid in a charity shop – sorry Dave (I’m sure he’s reading). A very funny man talking about playing games – what could go wrong?

Nothing, as it happened. I was relaxed into it from the first few paragraphs and kept a pleasant smile on my big, fat, entertained face throughout.

The book is a nice mix of travel writing and examination of the (peculiar English) human condition, brought together with our Gorman’s rather lovely idea of going around the UK playing games with strangers. Ranging from darts to Frisbee to ‘proper’ board games (such as Catan and Agricola), it’s charming and amusing in equal measure – and more importantly very well written. There’s even a twist at the end…

While games are the driving force behind the idea this is definitely a book about people, so don’t be put off if you don’t like games in any form (it’s just that if you do like games, you’ll probably get a bit more out of it).

Mostly the ‘action’ centres around travelling to interesting places and meeting interesting strangers; and he stumbles on more than his fair share of characters. Sadly he’s not taking requests from gamers to meet up any more. I can hardly blame him, but I would’ve loved to share a pint and a game with the man. If you’re reading Dave (and I’m sure you are), drop me a line eh?

What’s next on the list?

Managed to read two of the previous Top 5 this time, but they were the books in fourth in fifth – hence the two new entries. If I don’t do at least one of the top three this time, you have permission to tell me off and be very cross:

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Its second time at number 1, having now been on four of these lists. And I really want to read it too; what the hell is going on?
  2. Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. Still at 2 after also being on four of these lists – and still here for the same reasons: “How to make a better world. I think it’s probably important to get up to speed on this.”
  3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Second list at number 3. Was blown away by the film and told the book was even more remarkable, but in a different enough way to be a separate entity. Still waiting on the shelf.
  4. Paperboy by Christopher Fowler. New entry! I wouldn’t normally consider a ‘memoir’, but this one is written by the author of my favourite ever series of books – the Bryant & May crime novels. Has to be worth a try.
  5. Teach Yourself: The Cold War by CB Jones. New entry! I’ve just got a copy of the amazing board game Twilight Struggle, set in the cold war, and want to put it in proper context. I really should know more about this history I lived through.

Books wot I red: Fowler, Collins, Fitzgerald

I managed to stick to my guns and read three of the ‘top five’ from my previous list – and in much quicker time. It was about a book per month since my last ‘Books wot I red‘ post in October, although I pretty much knew I’d devour two of those as they were in series’ I love. But the third was a US classic from 1925; would it send me rushing back to find more gems from yesteryear?

I’m sure this change of speed is a direct response to the fact I’ve been doing less reading and writing for work in recent months, concentrating more on planning, organisation and other projects (such as ad writing and infographics). Interestingly this has coincided with a big drop in computer gaming; I hadn’t played a thing since before Christmas until putting a little time into Avadon: The Black Fortress this week. But back to the plot…

invisible-codeThe ‘Bryant & May’ series has the dubious honour of being the only one I actively follow and immediately buy any addition to. So when The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler was released on paperback earlier this year, it was an instant purchase (hey, I like them – but I don’t hardback like them).

The Bryant and May novels are the perfect storm of writing for me. I love a good detective yarn, and even more so if it has an element of the supernatural about it (yes, I still mourn the X-Files and love Warehouse 13, Haven etc – despite them not really being very good).

And I’m fascinated by the more offbeat and often off-colour history of London, where I was born and brought up. These books have both, in spades, but more importantly they’re beautifully written and have one of the most endearing and colourful casts of characters I’ve ever come across.

Bryant and May are two detectives long past standard retirement age, working for the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU); a fictional arm of the Home Office working outside of (and being loathed by) the capital’s Metropolitan Police. Only the strangest cases come their way, and even then only if they threaten the morale of the general public (a throwback to Second World War politics).

The banter between them is priceless, with Bryant taking on the Mulder roll (with added boiled sweets) and May that of (a male) Scully – except rather than looking to the sky’s for the truth (this isn’t sci-fi), Bryant looks to the history books for anything from secret societies to witchcraft. And they’re not like those overly silly X-Files episodes; these are wonderfully plotted and edgy stories brimming with intrigue.

Unlike many of these kinds of detective series, the supporting cast get almost as many pages as the stars. The whole of the PCU is vividly drawn, from their chinless superior right down to the office cat (and including several strong female characters). And don’t get me started on their Home Office nemesis…

If this sounds like your sort of thing, you’re probably advised to start at the beginning with Full Dark House. Its not the best in the series, chopping and changing between the present day and the Blitz, but its the only one that does so and really fills in the back story well (much like the first ever episode of Firefly).

As for The Invisible Code itself, its another great addition to the series. We learn a little of some of London’s lesser known yet fascinating churches – but also of gentlemen’s’ clubs whose ancient practises are as fascinating as they are horrific. But more importantly, Bryant and May find themselves having to try and help their nemesis save his wife from a terrible fate…

Catching FireWith the new film in the cinemas and getting rave reviews, it was clearly time to read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, book two of The Hunger Games (just in case you didn’t know…).

I’d loved the first book (and the film, as it happens) and had heard book two was every bit as good as the original. No pressure then. But the rumours were true.

I don’t have much to add to my feeling on the first book of The Hunger Games. The story moves on nicely, building on the original to take in a broader world view while adding meat to the main characters. The first half sets the scene nicely, before really cranking up the tension in the latter stages.

Again we have a strong exploration of the human condition, which is again very hand-holdy to help the younger audience the book is primarily aimed at. But again it doesn’t bother me; if it lets young teens tackle these difficult topics then more’s the better – and it just means I can skip about two pages in three and get to the meat on the bones!

I won’t discuss plot spoilers here as lets face it: this is a sequel – if you enjoyed The Hunger Games, you’re 99% likely to enjoy Catching Fire for most of the same reasons. When the action kicks off, it’s every bit as goose-bump inducing as it was the first time around. And if you haven’t read the first one, you should! As for the ending, it sets the final volume up beautifully. But despite this, I moved on to…

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’d actually bought this as part of a gift set the previous Christmas for Zoe, as she’d expressed an interest in reading his work. She’d left it on the shelf, but I’d heard several people whose opinions I respect say good things about it, so gave it a go for a change if pace.

I thought it might be a good palate cleanser, a ‘classic’ of just 150 pages after reading various tales of mystery and fantasy. Unfortunately this page count was a lie; the truth being it was a normal length book but in teeny tiny font (it was the pictured Collins Classics version – try before you buy kids!). But I persevered.

It has that overly descriptive and wordy style you expect from books of the era; a pompous overuse of language thankfully largely behind us now. I struggle with it, to be honest, but have found in the past (reading Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, for example) that if the story is compelling enough I find it easy to wade on.

I struggled through the first half of the book, but around half way through things start to get interesting as the one thing the main protagonists can’t buy off – their deepest emotions – start to get the better of them.

The entire plot is built around the middle 20 pages of the book, in which Fitzgerald moves at pace from an unlikely love triangle set piece to an even less likely double tragedy. Everything before and after is either character development or nose-flicking at the unpalatable and pointless behaviour of those born into money and that don’t need to work (much like reading Made in Chelsea or The Karcrashians, but from 100 years ago).

I can see why it’s popular as a period piece, largely due to its attitude towards the rich and lazy, while parts of it I genuinely enjoyed (there is some fantastic uses of the word ‘shrubbery’, for example). But I think its fair to say I won’t be rushing off to discover the rest of his canon.

What’s next on the list?

I somehow managed to read my first, second and fourth choices (in that order) from last time; a rare feat of planning and execution! So nothing can go wrong this time, right?

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Number 1 at last, having been second and third on previous lists. Not only have I found my copy now after the move, but I’ve had more recommendations to read it – so read it I shall.
  2. Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. Up to 2 after two lists at 3 and still here for the same reasons: “How to make a better world. I think it’s probably important to get up to speed on this.”
  3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. New entry! Having been blown away by the film, I was told the book was even more remarkable but in a different enough way to be a separate entity. Zoe’s folks had a copy, so it’s now waiting on the shelf.
  4. Dave Gorman vs The Rest of the World. New entry! A very funny and clever man talking about going around the world and playing strangers at games, from Monopoly to Tikal to darts. What’s not to like?
  5. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. Described as ‘the definitive history of rap music’, or ‘a history of of the hip-hop generation’, its a book I got several years ago as a gift and have been meaning to get to.

Books wot I red: Jim Bob, Gibson, Butcher

At the end of my previous book review post I listed what I thought would be my ‘top five’ reads over the next three months. Well, true to form, that was seven months ago – and I’ve only read two of them. But I’ve managed to read three books in total, so on with the show.

Driving Jarvis HamI had no idea what to expect from Driving Jarvis Ham by Jim Bob. For the uninitiated, Jim Bob is the singer-songwriter behind the ultimate 90s indie Marmite band, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. And whether you like the music or not, there’s no denying our Jim Bob came up with a cannon of inspired lyrics – but could he write a novel?

On this evidence, yes, he can – although I’m yet to be convinced he has the chops to go on to be a full-blooded fiction author (then I doubt that’s his plan, so it’s probably a moot point).

Driving Jarvis Ham charts the unlikely relationship between two mates: wannabe ‘star’ Jarvis (think the most tragic of Britain’s Got Talent out-takes) and his long suffering sidekick/chauffeur/friend (as the author). The story is narrated by the friend, who has found Jarvis’ disturbing yet unputdownable diary, and walks you through their lives, loves and general lunacy.

The story is regularly funny and occasionally thought provoking. But while I enjoyed the read, I couldn’t help feeling it was all a little bit by the numbers. This kind of character is an easy and tragic target, while Jim Bob’s own career as ‘honest singer-songwriter trying to make a living as an artist’ clearly puts him – and his audience – into an easy sneering, laugh at the plebs position.

I’ll give Driving Jarvis Ham a thumbs up, but do wonder if it’s tainted by the good dose of goodwill I have for the author’s musical cannon. That said, I still look forward to his next book (and indeed his next gig), where I hope he can prove me royally wrong.

Virtual LightDespite having shelves full of unread classics, I can’t resist the allure of a charity shop bookshelf – which led to the recent purchase of Virtual Light by William Gibson. He’s an author I’ve heard a lot about and due to most things being in boxes after our house move, this was surprisingly promoted up the reading order.

It’s hard to fault the vision of the man; Gibson is credited with coining the term ‘cyberspace’ back in the 80s, as well as predicting the rise and rise of virtual environments and – more sinisterly – reality television. He’s considered one of the greats of both steampunk and cyberpunk writing, with this being the first book in his second cyberpunk series.

I almost didn’t get past the introduction. Virtual Light kicks off with an impenetrable few pages of nonsense drug/dream weirdness that has no grounding in anything – it just read like pretentious, pointless twaddle. But luckily I persevered, as once the book proper began it was a wonderfully intelligent and entertaining read.

I think the most important point to get across is this: don’t be put off if you’re not a sci-fi fan. Virtual Light is for the most part a gripping character study of two individuals thrown together in unlikely circumstances; two ordinary, usually good people who have each snapped a little as life continues to throw them curve balls. Sure, it’s set in a post-disaster near future San Francisco, but the tech speak is kept to a minimum and the real story here is about the people and about society, not their gadgets.

In fact, I think I’d have enjoyed the book more if it hadn’t been set in a dystopian future – and would certainly find it easier to encourage friends to read. While I’m sure some see extra meaning in some of the symbolism Gibson employs here, the main messages are so strongly telegraphed (in a good way) they’re really not needed. A fantastic, thought provoking yarn with a vividly drawn, likeable and believable cast.

Fool MoonAfter all that dark foreboding it was definitely time for some nonsense! So what better choice than the second instalment of daft pseudo noire fantasy series The Dresden Files: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher? The first novel was a real guilty pleasure, despite being pretty poorly written, and I’d been looking forward to reading the sequel for some time.

It didn’t disappoint: there were more clichés and overly drawn descriptions in the first chapter than you’d get in a thousand Gibson novels. But this is noire – it’s supposed to be like that, right?

In these early books, Butcher’s writing standard is at best Dan Brown-esque. He tries to make everything cinematic, while explaining even the most obvious emotional responses to the reader. So despite being 400 pages long I sped through parts of it, because I was only reading about one page’s worth of text in four. This would be OK if it was squarely aimed at young teens, but as it’s full of swears and adult themes that’s clearly not the case. I’m told his style improves in later books – here’s hoping!

So why the hell am I reading them? Quite simply, they’re great fatastical stories. I love the concept (hard up wizard PI in Chicago), the characters, the locations, the relationships and the story lines – all the bits to make a good book are here. And as someone who’s convinced they have a novel in them, knowing someone this thin on writing chops made it onto the best-seller list gives me genuine hope!

What’s next on the list?

invisible-codeAs this was such a resounding success last time, let’s try it again shall we?

  1. Bryant & May and the Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler. Up from number 5, not only is this now out in paperback but I have it in my grubby mitts. As my favourite series ever, this will definitely be read next.
  2. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. I really enjoyed the first Hunger Games book and then took a deliberate break. But I can hear the sequel calling me from the bookcase…
  3. Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. Still at 3 and still here for the same reasons: “How to make a better world. I think it’s probably important to get up to speed on this.”
  4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I bought this as part of a nice set, cheap from The Works, for Zoe’s birthday. I’ve since heard several people whose opinions I trust say it’s a classic for the right reasons, so I’m looking forward to giving it a go myself. Should also be a good change of pace.
  5. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Down from 2 last time, but still high on my list. It just might be a bit like other things higher up on my agenda to get read soon. And it’s also still in a box, somewhere, which isn’t helping its cause.

Books wot I red: Lovecraft, Collins, Stross

I’ve not spoken about books here before, but figured there’s no reason not to – so here we go. I think I’ve avoided the topic largely because writing is a lot of what I do for a living, so being critical of it seems more real; I don’t know these people, but we all make a living in essentially the same way. Sadly I don’t get to be as imaginative, but you could easily argue this is because I haven’t got my shit together to write my own novel. And you’d be right.

mountains2I started the year by struggling through At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft. One of my favourite boardgames, Arkham Horror, introduced me to Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos several years ago and my recent enjoyment of MMO ‘The Secret World’ helped fuel my intrigue; I figured, in true investigative fashion, that it was only right to go and check out the source material.

The story is in the form of a letter from an explorer imploring an expedition not to head off to an Arctic site he had visited earlier – with disastrous consequences. It details that ill fated trip, where he and his team unearthed the remnants of a long extinct race that roamed the earth long before we did. Suffice it to say, they’re not quite as extinct as he’d first thought – nor are they the kind to make friends.

While I can’t overstress how much I loved the ideas in here, and am in awe of the man’s imagination, that wasn’t enough to get past the fact I really struggle to enjoy books written in this era (it was first published in the 1930s). How can it take so many words to say so little? I understand tension building, but at some point you need to stop building and start delivering; the pacing here is all wrong for the modern reader. While I’m glad I read it, and will give Lovecraft’s originals another go in future, I only really enjoyed ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ as a historical document.

hungergames1After such a dense read I turned to something much lighter; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. While clearly written for a younger audience, Collins tackles some tough topics and gets the pacing absolutely spot on. It’s a ripping yarn that beautifully balances emotion and action in a sadly believable dystopian near future setting.

I expect the majority of people are familiar with either the series of books or the film (I wanted to read it before I watched it), but to very briefly recap: Earth has been left with just a few pockets of humanity remaining, which are strictly broken into a class system you’re stuck in for life (called ‘Districts’ – one for mining, one for growing crops, one just filthy rich etc). Each year the Hunger Games are held – a televised arena event pitching children against each other in a fight to the death, representing their district. Here we follow one girl as she competes in the games.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the human condition, made all the more remarkable by being aimed at a young teen audience. Because of this ‘The Hunger Games’ does a lot of hand-holding through plot and emotion points they may grate on older readers, but much like Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy this is a small price to pay and well worth the time. I’m really looking forward to the other two books in the trilogy.

atrocity archivesMy better half bought me The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross for Christmas, so I turned to that next. I’d picked up his ‘Halting State’ a few months earlier, so was already interested in the author, but chose this one first as the blurb hinted at a modern take on the Cthulu/Lovecraft mythos I’d recently started to explore.

The book is set in the present day and works on the idea that complex mathematical equations make it possible to connect to alternate universes – but unfortunately the things on the other side tend to be of the malevolent, tentacled variety. Anyone stumbling upon such knowledge is immediately swept off into top secret government organisations (think Men in Black, I guess) to keep things quiet while keeping the research going. Stross takes us on a madcap ride with one such employee as he befriends, falls for and tries to do the right thing by a girl who is neck-deep in a Lovecaftian mess of epic proportions.

Stross is a very good writer and The Atrocity Archive has a great story couched nicely in an interesting take on a classic genre. However, at times – especially in the first few chapters – its revelry in its own nerdiness reaches critical proportions. I almost put the book down, and probably would’ve if it hadn’t been a gift; there are whole pages of pointless computer/sci-fi/student noodlings that read like a spotty teenage gamer’s wet dream. But it’s definitely worth sticking with, as at least 90 per cent of the book is thoroughly entertaining.

What’s next on the list?

invisible-codeHere’s my probable ‘top five’ for the next three months or so – if you have any recommendations  please feel free to comment below:

  1. Driving Jarvis Ham by Jim Bob. I’ve heard several excerpts from this novel by the former Carter USM frontman and it seems like just the kind of change of pace I need.
  2. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Too many people have said too many good things about this for me to leave it unread much longer.
  3. Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. How to make a better world. I think it’s probably important to get up to speed on this.
  4. Fool Moon by Jim Butcher. I really enjoyed the first of these throwaway detective/magic books and have put off reading another for too long.
  5. Bryant & May and the Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler. This is far and way my favourite ever series of books. Not out until June, but I don’t read fast…