books

Not just a year but a decade in books

As is becoming sort of traditional, I thought I’d have a quick look back at what I read during the last year. The photo below is by no means a scientific sample but it does skew towards non-fiction, which is what the year felt like it did.

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Some of the books I read in 2019

However, given that the Guardian kept on reminding me it wasn’t just a new year but a new decade, I had a look back through my reading lists 2010-2019 and as a proportion I actually read more non-fiction in both 2018 and 2013 than I did in 2019 so I’m not sure why it felt so prominent.

As ever, there were library books (only 2 that I got all the way through, it’s scandalous), e-books (8), and books I’ve subsequently given away (2) and hence aren’t represented in the picture. Plus the ones I couldn’t be bothered to pull off shelves in 3 different rooms and pile on the floor (apologies to Messrs Hobsbawm and Wodehouse, among others).

Standout novels of my reading year were probably the first two volumes of the Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James (I still haven’t read the third) and the Joe Sixsmith series from Reginald Hill (from the nineties, by the author best known for detectives Dalziel and Pascoe).

I read such a range of non-fiction in 2019, from Bruce Dickinson’s fab autobiography What Does This Button Do? to a selection of books about the north or being working class, the brilliant Gig by Simon Armitage, and a couple of economics books. It doesn’t make sense to say which was ‘best’ but Erebus by Michael Palin, The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson, and Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane both got me thinking and got me wanting to write some kind of follow-on or response.

I only read 39 books in 2019, the joint lowest total of the decade (alongside 2011). I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been writing so much instead, but it’s really not. Just over half the fiction was sci-fi or fantasy, which is about average for the decade, and just over a third was crime, which is on the high end. Though come to think of it, both novels so far in 2020 have been crime so maybe I’m going through a phase (riding a crime wave?). I should dust off the half-written detective novel this year.

Over the decade I’ve read 479 books, though I’m quite sure a few of them will have been the same book again (there’s a book on writing crime fiction that I remember getting out of the library twice, for a start). It might be a lot if you stick them in one bookcase but less than 500 in 10 years is not that many. When I think about how many new books come out in a year, even just in the genres I’m interested in, it gets a little overwhelming. It also makes me feel less bad about abandoning a long fantasy series partway through if it’s no longer absolutely compelling me to read on. I never felt guilty about not reading the must-reads and award-winners just because someone told me to, so no change there.

Oppressive regimes in recent SFF

In Vox by Christina Dalcher, America has been taken over by fundamentalist right-wing Christians: a woman’s place is once more in the home. Only this time, she’s only allowed to speak 100 words a day. The Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James is set in contemporary Britain with an alternative history, where only people with magic in their blood are full citizens with acknowledged human rights. Quite different styles and settings, but both give well-crafted and thought-provoking portrayals of oppressive regimes and how people react to them.

Vox has been on prominent display in three for two offers and the like at WHSmith and Waterstones on and off for months. It’s been in bestseller lists, and praised as a new Handmaid’s Tale left, right and centre. Which is why I’d delayed reading it, even though Christina is one of the flash fiction crowd I chat to on Twitter and I’d been so excited when she first announced her novel was going to be A Real Thing. Sci-fi that appeals to people who don’t read sci-fi is rarely satisfactory to those that do, in my experience (see my review of The Bees). I’m so glad that Vox turned out to be chilling, thrilling, near-future sociological SF with a healthy dose of science in it, and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it.

It’s hard to say much about Vox without giving away plot-twists. I thought the idea of the slippery slope was handled brilliantly, the glimpses of the path they’d gone down to get to the current state. At what point does behaviour cross a line between being the preserve of a weird minority it’s safe to ignore, and prominent enough that right-minded liberals (as the phrase would probably go, in the USA) should react against it? Can a person look back and pinpoint the moment they should have stood up for their (or someone else’s) rights, their last chance to change the course of society? What about if someone you love edges step by step along a path you abhor, following one seemingly reasonable (in isolation) argument after another? Then there’s the science element, laced with ambition and ethics. It’s all biology/medicine so I have no idea how real or plausible any of it is, but it did make me think about the way lots of scientific research can be used for good or ill, and all we can do is trust that it won’t be weaponised.

My one reservation is the epilogue; I personally would have preferred the book to end after the climax and do away with the hindsight summarising. However, I have similar views on the Jeff Vandermeer novel Borne, but that didn’t stop me loving the novel and recommending it. I’m happy to recommend Vox too.

I’ve only read the first two of the Dark Gifts trilogy so far (Gilded Cage and Tarnished City), though the third is lurking on my Kobo ready for me to dive into when I’ve finished the book I’m reading just now (Christmas-themed, therefore timebound). The main characters are the children of two very different families, ranging in age from ten to mid-twenties, with much of the action revolving around two boys in their late teens who end up bonded by circumstance in a fascinating (and not at all friendly) way.

Britain is powered by slaves; every non-magical person must do a ten-year stretch. Meanwhile the magical aristocracy (the ‘Equals’) live on their country estates in luxury, and the country is ruled by the heads of these powerful families. A mixture of propaganda and the silence of the traumatised ensures that the wider public never hear about, or simply don’t believe, the treatment of slaves in some parts of the country. When the Hadleys opt to do their slave-days as a family, on an aristocratic estate, their belief in the basic fairness of the system and the inevitability of slavery begins to wobble. Of course, even within the Equal society, some are more equal than others, and the tensions between and within families play out on a large scale.

Gilded Cage is very good on how ordinary people either turn a blind eye or simply miss the hints that all is not well – with busy lives and faith in basic decency they don’t want to rock the boat and assume the nastiest rumours are trouble-causing nonsense. It also portrays complexity and grey areas well, and the way that individuals don’t necessarily align with the group you expect them to. There are some fabulous characters in the trilogy, Silyen Jardine in particular keeps wrong-footing me and revealing yet another facet. Tarnished City kept the pace and tension and developed some of the characters in interesting ways, I’m looking forward to reading Bright Ruin, the final instalment.

Why aren’t there more illustrations in fiction?

Ten years ago this week I made up International Illustrator Appreciation Day, so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about illustrations.

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Three very different illustrated novels

I’m halfway through The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, and though I didn’t realise they were there when I bought the book, I’ve been enjoying the illustrations that mark each new chapter:

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Illustration by Yoco Nagamiya

They set the scene in some way for the chapter to come, and unlike the cover art they depict the cat, Nana, as he’s described in the text. The wash style fits beautifully with the whimsy of this Japanese novel.

Not long ago I read Wyntertide, the second book in Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy. That, being a fantasy novel which also has a map, is the sort of territory you might expect illustrations, and indeed there are full-page pictures dotted through the book:

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Illustration by Sasha Laika

To me, these ones are reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book, complete with a quote beneath, to show which part of the text they go with.

The ones that were delightfully unexpected and seemed a bit odd at first are these:

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Mid-text illustration by..?

This is from the Reginald Hill novel The Roar of the Butterflies, the final book in his Joe Sixsmith private detective series. Sadly it’s the only one of the series that I’ve got in this style (I bought them all second-hand), but OneMonkey particularly loved it. They’re not quite comedies but they’re light touch, and Joe is an easy-going central character so once you accept these drawings they work really well. I’m not altogether sure who drew them as I can’t find a direct reference, only that the cover art was by Christopher Burke.

Three different styles of novel, three genres, three different ways of arranging the illustrations (in among the text, full page within a chapter, chapter headings only). The only commonality being that these are all aimed at adults. In children’s books we often encounter illustrations like this but (maps in fantasy novels aside) rarely once we’re adults. Perhaps there’s an idea that they’re only for kids, and of course it adds an extra collaborator in to complicate deadlines and share the takings with, but I think they add something to the novel. Not everyone likes graphic novels, not all books lend themselves to that treatment, but surely there are lots of readers who’d appreciate a sprinkling of art in their books. We’re not demanding it because unless we’re reminded by books like these how nice it was to read text with illustrations when we were younger, we’ve forgotten what it is we’re missing out on.

All Points North by Simon Armitage

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This book had been sitting on my To Read shelf for weeks when Simon Armitage was announced as the new Poet Laureate, so it seemed only right to take it down and start reading. As you might expect from a Poet Laureate, he’s best known for his poetry and there are a couple of excerpts of it in All Points North, but only as they pertain to broadcasts or events he was involved in. On the whole, this is memoir and observational humour, as if Alan Bennett had grown up on the wild edge of Yorkshire in the era of Joy Division. Released in 1998, if the book came out now it would most likely have been a blog first.

There is ‘genuine memoir’ if you like, nostalgia and childhood memories, tales from his time as a probation officer or appearing in local panto (transplanted to the coast for an am dram conference), and the more recent that could be categorised as ‘scenes from the life of a poet’, like a visit to a film set or making BBC radio programmes. All of this reveals his poetry background: the creation of atmosphere, the lyrical descriptions of the everyday, the skirting of pretentiousness without ever quite falling in. There are also bits of local news deftly retold, snippets, fragments, snapshots, anecdotes from the pub that in another context or told in another way would be nothing.

Being, as the title suggests and his origins dictate, northern in character and largely about the north, the book is infused with dry humour and a keen sense of the absurd in the mundane. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue where the insurance firm phones (twice) to check he really is a poet (“Are you well known?”). The bulk of the book is written in second-person, as though he’s sat outside himself reminding another self of his actions and memories, which causes the odd tangle of position (who, then, is ‘we’?) but if you’re happy to accept that it makes for an interesting style.

I loved it and kept laughing loudly on the train as I read, but I would imagine All Points North to have particular appeal or relevance to those who know or love West Yorkshire, maybe also to those who know or love someone from West Yorkshire. If you read it without any prior exposure or knowledge, you may well come away with the wrong impression.

Climate change fiction: some recommendations

Climate change and impending environmental catastrophe have been in the news somewhat over the last couple of weeks. It seemed like a good time to recommend some novels which deal with the topic, a few of which I’ve mentioned here before. Obviously some are more realistic than others as possible scenarios go but they’re all good to read and if they get you thinking about what you could do right now, so much the better.

I’ll start with Kim Stanley Robinson because of the books I’ve read, he’s done it best. There is a trilogy (Science in the Capital) which starts with Forty Signs of Rain, which I read a few years ago and loved. It’s full of detail, being set in Washington with the main characters including a government policy wonk and his statistician wife, and shows a near future where climate change is producing noticeable effects but society is mainly still ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. OneMonkey tried to read it but pronounced it dull and gave up – too much detail for his taste. However, I thought it was excellent in the way it showed the clash between capitalism, day to day politics, and scientific prediction. Also there was an interesting thread of Buddhism, as I recall. It was written over 15 years ago so we’re probably well within that near future now (and still the politicians say ‘I’d love to, but…’).

The other KSR is a stand-alone novel from a couple of years ago, New York 2140. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag, but suffice to say it’s full of great characters in a flooded Manhattan. Again, man-made problems and capitalism’s disregard for long-term consequences are major themes but amazingly he still manages to be optimistic.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is set in Thailand and deals with climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism and their interplay and consequences. It was brilliantly written and suitably tense but there are some pretty nasty bits in it, so maybe not for the overly squeamish.

The word ‘capitalism’ keeps cropping up here, doesn’t it? I’m partway through Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang at the moment and it’s got interesting things to say about the view of consumerism as the be-all and end-all. Even the Extinction Rebellion protesters in London had a load of new-looking tents, stickers and plastic bits and bobs in the photos I saw. It’s a hard one. But I digress…

The classic Ursula Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven (you can read my review at Luna Station Quarterly) is set against a backdrop of climate change, an unhealthy future that some people obviously wish they could go back and change. The main focus of the book is the reality-changing dreams of a man named George Orr, but the setting gives a good view of a 1970s vision of the future.

If you’ve already read those, or want to explore further, you can find a list of other novels to try at the Wikipedia entry for the subgenre. I haven’t figured out yet whether it’s more environmentally friendly to produce physical books (you can after all use recycled paper and vegetable-based inks but you have to transport them) or e-books (you have to build an electronic device with all its rare materials but you could charge using renewable energy sources, and then there’s the storage capacity). Borrow a copy from a friend or your local library, is my advice. If you use the library (in the UK at least), they even give royalties to the author.

2018 via a stack of books

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A selection of books I read in 2018

Those of you who’ve been around a while know this year (for me) has been mixed to say the least, yet I still apparently managed to read 47 books, some of which I piled on the living room floor and took a photo of so you can approve/despair of my taste, a bit like I did for 2016.

Despite taking weeks and weeks to get through River of Gods I was surprised to note that 27 of those 47 books were fiction (at least a dozen speculative fiction). 13 of the remaining 20 were, as you might expect, covering history, the north, class, or a combination thereof.

I read 38 physical books and 9 e-books (hence the Kobo in the photo – it’s displaying The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad). Shockingly I only read 5 library books (2 of them were e-books) in 2018, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t borrow others and give up on them. I also borrowed 2 books from The Library of Mum and Dad, read 4 out-of-copyright e-books (the Conrad, an Anthony Trollope, Wordsworth’s guide to the Lakes, and a history of Hinduism and Buddhism from 1921), 13 books I’d either received as a present or won, one review copy from The Bookbag, 15 I bought second-hand, and a paltry 7 that I bought new. And all of the new books were bought with book tokens or Waterstones/Kobo vouchers that people had given me as presents – does that actually make it 20 of the year’s 47 that were presents and prizes?

I only wrote a review of a few books I read this year, but to quickly run through a few others…

River of Gods by Ian McDonald is Indian-set sci-fi with strong AI themes, which will probably appeal to Alastair Reynolds fans. It has a large cast of characters, some of whom come together in the manner of a traditional multi-protagonist epic, others (if I recall correctly) skim by each other, more in the mode of Pulp Fiction. If this sounds appealing, I reviewed a fantastic sci-fi noir by Alastair Reynolds, and another Ian McDonald book (Brasyl).

Creation by Steve Grand is from nearly 20 years ago so artificial intelligence has come on since then, but OneMonkey (having read it back then and remembering it was still in the bookcase) recommended it to me around the time I started reading River of Gods and it was a fascinating and thought-provoking (non-fiction) read. My grasp of biology is pretty shaky but I have a strong programming background: some combination of those is probably useful to get the most out of it, but there’s a lot of pure thought in there (philosophy, if you will).

The Lost Words was our Christmas present from friend T, and is just beautiful. If you haven’t come across it (and if you haven’t, where have you been?) it’s a response to various nature words being removed from a new edition of a children’s dictionary. Those words have been gorgeously illustrated by Jackie Morris, and it’s aimed at children (they won’t appreciate it – get it for yourself).

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is sci-fi set in Thailand; climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism, it’s got the lot. I hadn’t heard of the author, I picked it up in a charity shop BOGOF and I’m so glad I did. The setting was unusual (I believe the author is American) and it was brilliantly written and suitably tense. There are some pretty nasty bits in it though.

The Tempest Tales by well-known crime author Walter Mosley (whose Easy Rawlins books I’ve enjoyed but never, it appears, reviewed) was an unusual novella. A man is mistakenly killed by the police in Harlem and St Peter decides he’s not allowed into heaven. The man argues that he’s not a sinner, he’s only ever done the best he, as a black man on a low income in the place and time he lives, could do – there follows a loosely connected novella/story collection showing episodes in his life as he tries to persuade the angel that’s been sent back to earth with him to let him into heaven. Humour, philosophy, and some good characters.

Finally, Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird was an odd but great book that I raced through. The bulk of it is set at Dundee University in the 70s and has more than a hint of Tom Sharpe about it (I used to love his farces set in higher education). However, this being Kate Atkinson there’s a big family mystery wrapping the whole thing up, which I think will particularly appeal if you enjoyed Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

I hope you enjoyed some great books in 2018, and that your To Read shelf is looking as enticing as mine. In the spirit of admitting my limitations I’m intending only to blog once a month in 2019 so hopefully I’ll see you here on the last Sunday of January.

Happy New Year!

 

Audiobooks: do they count as reading?

The answer, as with most things worth thinking about is ‘it depends’. It depends on the person and their intention, and it probably depends on the book.

This topic seems to keep flaring up on social media and it gets quite heated. Accusations of laziness on one side, snobbery on the other, and all manner of unpleasantries in between. I don’t understand why anyone thinks there’s a blanket judgement to be made (or indeed why it matters, outside of education where a reading assignment might have a particular intention to do with recognising words).

For the sake of a straightforward look at this, let’s say we’re only talking about comfortable adult readers (or confident teens), not anyone who’s still developing their reading skills. And we’re only talking about unabridged versions of the books.

Many years ago my Nana’s cousin went blind and I remember her huge talking book machine with its chunky buttons, and tapes (easily the size of video cassettes) that she’d get in the post regularly from the RNIB. She would sit in her armchair in the same way she used to sit and read a paperback, and devote her entire attention to the novel being read to her, using her imagination in just the same way. I would class that as her reading a book – if you asked her afterwards about plot and characters or a host of other questions about the novel, she’d be just as able to answer them as she would if she’d sat down ten years earlier and read the words from the page herself.

On the other hand I listen to audiobooks all the time and I don’t call my experience reading at all. My local library uses Borrowbox, so you can borrow ebooks and audiobooks if you have the app on your phone or tablet. If I was sitting down to concentrate on a book I’d read it for myself because that’s a pastime I enjoy, which means audiobooks are always an added extra – I’m washing up, I’m doing stretches for my back, I’m eating my tea. My attention isn’t fully on the text. And unlike with a book where I would realise I was distracted (or perhaps hadn’t fully understood something) and read the paragraph again, I rarely rewind the playback on the tablet. I know I’ve missed bits, sometimes crucial bits, but perhaps because it feels like I’m listening to the radio and therefore just have to put up with a response drowned out by a neighbour’s excited dog, I shrug and continue.

Often, OneMonkey and I will put an audiobook on if we’re finding it hard to fall asleep, too many things buzzing round the brain on a Sunday night, for instance. The idea is we focus on the book instead of the distracting thoughts, but if it does its job really well, we fall asleep before the reading ends (Borrowbox has a handy timer for just such a situation). Do we rewind the next time we listen? No, of course we don’t. We’ll pick it up eventually, we think, and often if it’s fiction we’re right – the plot might still make sense even if we’ve missed some subtle twists and turns. If it’s non-fiction we’ve likely just missed a chunk and we’ll never know what it was. In either case we have of course missed out on some particular phrasing or use of language that the author worked hard on, so in the same way that I personally wouldn’t say I’d read a book if I’d skipped a chapter, I wouldn’t say I’d read any of these books either.

That ‘personally’ is an important word. I wouldn’t say I’d read a non-fiction book with a lot of graphs in it, if I’d skipped over all the graphs. Someone else, who doesn’t get as much out of graphs as I do, may well do, and that’s fine. Some people skim-read as a matter of course. Someone with better concentration than me (or who thinks to use the rewind facility) might have fully savoured and imagined every fiction audiobook they’ve ever listened to and properly considered all the non-fiction ones, in which case they could participate in discussions with other people who’d read them and no-one would know they hadn’t literally sat and turned the pages themselves, unless they happened to mention it.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to, for me – what did the reader/listener get out of the experience? Half the time when I listen to an audiobook (or a podcast) I’m looking for background noise, and if I absorb a bit of a story or some information it’s an added bonus, more akin to flicking through magazines in a waiting room than actually sitting down with a book. On the other hand if the book is your focus then it doesn’t matter whether you’re reading a paper copy and bending the page corners over, swiping your way through an ebook, listening to a mellifluous reading by a well-known actor, or having it transmitted directly to the brain via some neural connection that’s bound to be along in a few years. No one method is definitively better* than the others, it comes down to personal preference.

*as in a better experience for the individual, not level of word recall or any other quantitative aspects people have no doubt researched.