books

What was read where last year?

Libraries. Data. Data on library books. You know I can’t resist. I was excited (yes, really) to find the top 100 most borrowed books in UK libraries 2015/16. A couple of years ago I wrote about the top 10 most borrowed books at Leeds Libraries and wondered whether there was much variation in different areas, so imagine my delight when I saw the regional breakdowns.

Since they’re the places where me and my immediate family use libraries, I immediately delved into the lists for the North East, and Yorkshire and the Humber and it looks like my earlier musings may have had some foundation. The Yorkshire list has way more instances of Barnsley author Milly Johnson’s books (3 in the top 10) than the national list, where she first appears at number 12. In the North East her most borrowed book is at number 72.

Interestingly, the UK number 1, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, is at number 3 in the North East and number 7 in Yorkshire. Even more interestingly, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, seventh most borrowed book in the UK, is at number 42 in the North East and isn’t in the top 100 at all in Yorkshire. Both of those books seemed to be constant in the books pages (and beyond) of national newspapers, discussed on arts programmes and the like. Did everyone up here buy the books instead of borrowing them, or are we more resistant to hype, or does the media frenzy only ever reflect metropolitan tastes? Discuss.

I haven’t read either of them, in case you wondered, but nor have I read any Lee Child or Milly Johnson. In fact you have to go down to number 13 on the Yorkshire borrowing chart to find an author I’ve read (Michael Connelly) and the only book of his I have read, I wasn’t that keen on. It turns out I haven’t read a single book on the Yorkshire list, the North East list, or the whole UK list. How unlike me to have minority tastes.

Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey

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Although it’s not a comedy I can see this novel appealing to fans of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Lots of philosophy, weirdnesses (technical term) of time and space, and it’s not too heavy (i.e. it’s got its share of farce and sarcasm, you can tell it’s a British novel). Having said that, as well as being a Douglas Adams fan I do have a degree in theoretical physics which included as many philosophy modules as I could access, so I may be part of a niche target audience. Mobius Dick is one of the few books I’ve come across where the main character is a theoretical physicist, which is actually what swayed me when I picked it up in a charity shop last summer, having heard of neither the book nor the author. Speaking as a partial insider then, I don’t know how much you’d have to be comfortable with the idea and philosophy of quantum mechanics to get into this. If ‘what would happen if the wave function didn’t collapse’ is just a string of words to you then you might find it a bit hard going (and potentially uninteresting).

There is also an undercurrent of thriller, with some peculiar goings-on at a nuclear research facility in Scotland that we as readers want to get to the bottom of. I read almost the entire book on a return train journey to Liverpool, becoming immersed and zipping through the pages, whereas OneMonkey (who also has a degree in theoretical physics, sorry) found it hard to get going because it chops and changes between different times and places and people, with chapters from fictional memoirs interspersed as well.

Part of what I saw as the Dirk Gently aspect was the key question of coincidences – are they significant or do we only ascribe them meaning when they chime with us? Alongside the recurring motifs of Moby Dick (and its author), the composer Schumann, and the physicist Schrödinger, coincidences and many-worlds hypotheses are the philosophical meat of the novel. It takes in the topics of re-lived lives, the nature of time, the nature of dreams and reality, causality, attractors in space-time folded time, and of course: What would happen if the wave function didn’t collapse? If that list is freaking you out, then maybe it’s not one to add to your To Read list, but if you like philosophy and the accidents and what-ifs of history then you’ll probably like being made to think by this book.

Week 10: Return of the back (problem)

Hurrah for the Kobo Mini, small and light enough for me to pace around the flat with as I try to get some muscles working, and to hold above my face as I lie down and take the pressure off my errant spine. Believe me, it’s not nearly so easy with a thick paperback.

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That got me thinking about buying books, and I realised that apart from half a dozen bought as Christmas presents for friends and family, OneMonkey and I didn’t buy a single brand new physical book in 2016. Between us we bought 7 or 8 ebooks, having received Kobo vouchers for Christmas 2015, and we definitely bought a few books from charity shops for ourselves (and a selection of second-hand books for other people), but mainly we’ve been reading either library books (including ebooks), or books we’ve been given. Disloyalty to the book trade?

With the help of a laptop on a plastic crate that doesn’t wobble too much, placed on a kitchen worktop by OneMonkey, I’ve been able to finish writing a rumination on what it is about the north that inspires me, which I hope to be able to point you at a link to fairly soon. One thing my dayjob did have, a sit-stand desk so I could crank it up to standing height when I couldn’t bear to sit in a chair any longer. It occurs to me I could do with something similar at home. The kitchen worktop is wonderfully distraction free (if you don’t count the kettle and the tea-caddy) but sometimes it’s useful to have the computer in a room the wi-fi signal reaches.

The first story submission of 2017 was made this week, organisation continues for the Chapel FM Writing on Air festival (specifically the writing workshop we’re hosting at Seacroft library at the end of the month), and at the start of the week I wrote a few midweek blog posts, the first of which you’ve already had (thankfully, I’d scheduled it). Oh, and I finally read Pride and Prejudice since it was lurking on the Kobo and I had a lot of reading time on my hands. It was alright actually, quite amusing in places – maybe I should go lie down again.

Reading my way through 2016

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As far as number of books goes, my reading hit a bit of a dip in 2016 and most of those books I read because of writing. There’s the how-to books about writing, of which I read two this year and re-read a third. Then there’s the nine books Sue at the Bookbag kindly posted to me, to read and review. All of them this year I think were previously unknown to me before I picked them from a list of available books, so in that sense they were read for writing purposes (for the most part I’m very glad I did read them and as a whole batch I enjoyed them enormously, all I mean is that at the outset they were on my reading pile for a reason). I read two history books as background to my contribution to the Dangerous Women Project and another non-fiction book that I’m not sure how to categorise (environmental mindfulness?), as background for a potential future project with Alice Courvoisier. And I read four novels, and abandoned a few others partway through, so I could review female-authored SF for Luna Station Quarterly.

When I first signed up for reviewing at LSQ I did notice that I hadn’t read much female-authored SF in the previous couple of years, but I thought apart from anything it would be a useful way to redress the balance. How hard can it be to find four SF books a year written by women, when you have the whole of the local library and charity shops to go at? Maybe it’s the skew of the collection in my local library (and maybe this is why I hadn’t read much female-authored SF for a while) but I found myself pulling book after book off the shelf and dismissing it. Teenage vampires. Cliché-ridden steampunk. Sounds OK but it’s book 4 of the series. It got so that every time I went to the library I was scouring the fantasy and sci-fi shelves for female authors rather than books that grabbed my attention, and I started reading quite a few that sounded ok but were quickly abandoned when it became clear this was yet another book with a main character who was ‘feisty’ (incredibly feminine but with laddish behaviour as a way of proving something tiresome) or, particularly in urban fantasy ‘quirky’ (hey I have green hair and I might kiss other girls) and that was its main point.

I’m as happy as the next curmudgeon for there to be a romantic sub-plot to an epic fantasy (Tad Williams throws them in as main plots, for heaven’s sake – look at Bobby Dollar) but I don’t like mushy and I don’t like sentimental. I also don’t think female characters are shocking or even particularly interesting just because they don’t fit some kind of narrow old-fashioned ideal of heterosexual womanhood (meek and weak, with a skirt, a handbag, make-up and a glossy pony-tail). Ursula Le Guin and CJ Cherryh seem to have cottoned onto that a generation ago, so I’m not sure what went wrong since. Like I said, maybe we just don’t get much good stuff round here. Anyway, I quit reviewing for LSQ a couple of months ago.

I did read some fabulous books in 2016, including a couple more in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series (police procedurals in a fantasy-overlaid London) and some Anthony Trollope novels, after my self-imposed Trollope fast in 2015. A few I read out of curiosity and was surprised at my immense enjoyment:  Morrissey’s autobiography for instance, as well as the slightly cynical fantasy novel The Magician King by Lev Grossman, Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey (which I haven’t posted the review of yet – keep your eyes peeled) and The Blackbird Singularity the breathtaking debut from Matt Wilven in which a man full of grief and hope loses his mind. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was every bit as fabulous a fantasy novel as it sounded and The Devil’s Feast by MJ Carter was a richly imagined historical crime novel with real chef Alexis Soyer as one of the main characters.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my reading year, but I’d love to hear what anyone else has enjoyed reading in 2016, or if you agree/disagree with any of my comments.

Week 8: Leave it till after Christmas

This has been a week of friends, family, and hedonism (2 pints of real ale, 4 chocolates and a glass of mulled cider. Not all on the same day, obviously). A week of train travel (no excuse needed to spend hours reading), abandoning routine, and Christmas Day.

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A selection of my Christmas goodies

I rediscovered my ability to write with music on, this year, so the albums I got for Christmas don’t have to compete with writing time. I’m afraid I didn’t do any writing on Christmas Day, nor did I watch the Doctor Who special for later discussion with Big Brother. We were together, in a house with no TV, at the time it was on so he hasn’t seen it either. As usual, books both new and second-hand were passed around the family as presents, and I’m waiting to borrow the copy of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography BB received.

I hope you, dear reader, had a safe and enjoyable Christmas with your preferred level of hedonism and book-gifts. If you haven’t already, may I suggest you listen to Radio 4’s wonderful adaptation of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris series, the festive instalment is on the iplayer now, with Bill Nighy as Charles in The Cinderella Killer. I wish I could write like that…

An essay, a story, a couple of reviews

It looks like I’ve neglected to tell you what I’ve been up to lately. I entered an essay into this year’s NUHA Blogging Prize, on the topic of ‘Do schools and universities have a responsibility to educate their students on social behaviour alongside the academic?’ and you can read it (and comment on it) here. It’s already sparked a bit of discussion, not least in the Monkey household.

I’ve also got a short (just under 500 words) story in issue 8 of Firefly Magazine, which you can read online here.

Before that came out I reviewed a fast-paced sci-fi novel, vN by Madeline Ashby, over at Luna Station Quarterly, and a book on spelling, grammar and punctuation at The Bookbag. Bits of it reminded me of Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, but it never quite lived up to its promise. And I still don’t know the proper names for all the parts of a sentence, I just use them as they fit best. Reading hundreds of books for fun over the last 35 years has no doubt helped with that.

So there you are, that’s you (loyal reader) all caught up. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Fiction as a thought experiment

The final event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was another Comma Press one. For a few years they’ve had a project where a writer gets paired with a scientist: the scientist briefs the writer on a particular topic, the writer writes their story which is somehow linked to it, and the scientist then provides an afterword. The latest anthology of these stories (due out next month) is called Thought X, and is concerned with thought experiments.

Having spent a total of 9 years at 3 universities immersed in maths and theoretical physics, I hadn’t realised that thought experiments were anything other than an everyday matter or that the concept might be unfamiliar to people (I can’t think why people complain about academia being disconnected from the real world…). There are a variety of different sorts of thought experiment, some just an ‘imagine you have a…’ to get people to grasp a concept, others that either stop you from having to do an experiment (because you’ve worked it through logically via your imagined scenario) or that highlight a flaw in a theory by showing that there would be some contradiction if you thought your way through it in this case.

We heard extracts from three of the stories respectively based on the grandfather paradox in time travel, Laplace’s demon, and Schrödinger’s cat. Each thought experiment gave the author an existing narrative (e.g. there had to be an element of time travel and it had to involve some version of killing your own grandfather) around which to base their own narrative. Each of the three stories were different in tone and setting, and it sounds like it should be an interesting book.

To follow the readings, Professor Steven French of the University of Leeds (coincidentally Mark the artist’s academic grandfather i.e. his PhD supervisor’s PhD supervisor) talked about the importance of thought experiments in science, the history of Schrödinger’s famous cat and the many-worlds theories of quantum mechanics, as well as literature as a thought experiment. Which made me think science fiction is almost always explicitly a thought experiment – what happens if we increase global temperatures, what happens if there’s a scarcity of resources, what happens if we develop this technology? A good cue to go write some.