January 21, 2007

SF Reading meme

Bad form to start the year with a meme but I've been slack on this blog for an age so..

Bold indicates ones that have been read.
Italics indicate ones that may be read.
Struck-through indicates ones never to be read.

Dave Langford's Top 20 sf novels ever, up to 1990
20) Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! (1989)
19) Frederik Pohl: Gateway (1977)
18) Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas (1987)
17) C.J. Cherryh, Cyteen (1988)
16) Barry Hughart: Bridge of Birds (1984)
15) Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)
14) Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (1967)
13) Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965)
12) Alan Garner, The Owl Service (1967)
11) Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956, alias Tiger! Tiger!)
10) Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
9) Greg Bear, Blood Music (1985)
8) Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
7) Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast (1946-59)
It lives in the "never really started" pile...
6) Ursula Le Guin: Earthsea (1968-72)
5) Keith Roberts, Pavane (1968)
4) J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
3) Arthur C. Clarke: The City and the Stars (1956)
2) John Crowley: Little, Big (1981)
1) Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)

It's striking that, whilst I've read a good few (7/20), I have very little feeling about the ones I've not read. I neither have a strong urge to read them, nor a strong urge not to.

I have always said I'm not that big a fan of SF.

August 23, 2006

Library Thing & Blogger Beta

Long, long ago there was a woman - who was maybe not such a wise woman as she thought she was - who wanted to create a web of words. She'd tried to be all-consuming but didn't like it. So she unwound the threads of her library and wove an intricate web of del.icio.us feeds. The woman - who maybe didn't see the future as clearly as she thought she did - hadn't allowed for this being hard work to maintain, and prone to breaking because it hung so delicately. Eventually, it gathered cobwebs.

Time passed, and the woman discovered there were new things for her to play with, all shiny like a magpie's hoardings. So she started to transfer all her tagged books into Library Thing which lets her tag them and feed them via script widgets, and she started to redesign the blog to make use of this shiny new things. Except some of the shiny new blog things were too newly forged and couldn't be touched yet.

So the woman - who is now rather wiser about how to spend her time - sits weaving herself a new labyrinth of words which will be easier for others to navigate.

March 07, 2006

30 Books Meme

via various:

The Museum, Libraries and Arts Council's list of 30 Books Every Adult Should Have Read.
Bold the ones you have read.
Italicize the ones you would like to read.
Strike out the ones you never plan to read, or started but couldn't finish.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

The Bible
I had enough of it in school, ta very much. A useful resource, more easily navigated via online searching and commentaries. And why is this included but no other sacred texts? No Koran? No Sikh scripture? No Vedas?

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
by JRR Tolkien.
Out of a sense of duty. It was widely known to be The Classic Fantasy/Hippy novel, so I read it because I thought I should. I far prefer the Hobbit which covers the majority of the same themes but without all the waffle. Or the Ents.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
Just a few times.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Yes, but not twice. I only like A Tale of Two Cities, a novel which Dickens's fans always tell me is atypical. I love his work in adaptation, but I simply don't enjoy reading his prose.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Reader, I read it a few times.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
See all my previous rambles about Jane Austen.

All Quite on the Western Front by E M Remarque.

His Dark Materials
Trilogy by Phillip Pullman.
I felt the last book dragged rather compared to the first two, and I can see why it provokes lots of discussion about plot flaws, theolgical flaws etc etc but I would rather a child read this and those dubious Narnia books than Harry Potter since at least Pullman and Lewis can write imaginatively and originally.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.
I recently read Charlotte Grey which is the third in Faulks's war triptych. Whilst I enjoyed it I was ultimately left rather cold by it, so I doubt I'll bother with other work by him.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
I have this memory of doing it at school, despite recalling nothing of it. Then again, given some of my other school texts and how keen I was to forget them, this should not be surprising. One for the reread pile, maybe?

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
by Mark Haddon.
Yes. I could have sworn I wrote about it, but apparently not. There's a short note on my del.icio.us kidlit tag about it, which reveals I read it in December 2004. That's when I wasn't blogging here due to writing my own stuff.

Tess of the D'urbevilles by Thomas Hardy
See 'Hardy, T. Why I Don't Like His Work'.

Winnie the Pooh
by AA Milne.
And The House at Pooh Corner, which is better on account of having Tigger.

Wuthering Heights
by Emily Bronte.
Read the book, sang the song, sniggered at the semaphore.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham.
There was a subcatagory of children's fiction I never liked and that was anthropomorphic stuff. I never read Beatrix Potter as a little girl, or this, or anything else. Winnie the Pooh is different because we all know Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore were anthropomorphic toys. Animals were...animals. They didn't wear little blue jackets or drive motor cars.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
After all, tomorrow is another day in which I could read a long epitaph to a dubious past. I'm always torn about Gone With the Wind: it romances the Deep South, which is something I find rather distasteful, but I'm a sucker for a Beatrix/Benedict romance and Scarlet/Rhett have got it by the wagonload. Even better, in the book she ends up with a whole passel of brats.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
See Christmas Carol.

The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
See my comments.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.
Already on the TBR pile.

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran.
Don't know it.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.
3 Dickens novels out of 30? Are the compilers of this list sadists? Surely there are more interesting and diverse options than bloody Dickens?

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
already on the TBR pile.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
already on the TBR pile.

Middlemarch by George Eliot.
Tried. Hated.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
Don't know it.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
I was a Freaks & Geeks kinda teen. So as I skulked around the corridors of my school, with my pierced ears, and lace ribbons and liquid eyeliner, one of my badges of freakery geekery was my copy of this, always visible in a pocket or my bag. I love novels with constructed languages like this, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Riddley Walker. Also, the film was illegal in the UK at the time, so having the book was like saying "hey, I'm rebellious and literate!".

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn.
already on the TBR pile.


So I've read thirteen out of the thirty, plan to read eight more, don't know two and have no plans to read the other seven. Of those seven, six I'm rejecting due to previous experience of either the book (the Bible, Middlemarch) or the authors (Dickens, Faulks) or both (Great Expectations, Tess). The remaining one is rejected on the grounds that, having avoided it as a child, I'm not convinced I would like it as an adult. Also, frogs don't drive cars.

Obviously, these lists exist more to bring in some handy publicity to some organisation who wants to get a few chattering heads going in culture vulture circles but that British librarians think Gone With the Wind is a more important book to read before you die than, say, any non-Christian religious text makes me wonder about other choices. When a librarian is picking some books to put in the display racks - the 'quick reads', or 'we recommend' or 'classics' displays designed to make choosing a book in a library faster - what preconceptions are they bringing about their users? The Bible should be read, but not the Vedas? If the books on this shortlist end up being displayed in libraries across the UK as part of the promotion what message do they give about libraries? The classic Dead White Males are there, white chicks write romances, we're still not over WW1 and we like our Russians (more Dead White Males, you notice) to be repressed.

I'm not sure whether to be pleased or annoyed that I have read over a third of these and intend to have read two-thirds before I die.

December 10, 2005

A Hit, A Very Palpable Hit

The Lambs Of London
by Peter Ackroyd
fiction | georgiana

I cracked. My careful attempt to read more books from the pile than I bought for it fell over with a outburst in the charity shops this weekend. Five novels, taking the pile back over 50 books. I did break into the pile and liberate The Lambs of London last month.

This is a new fiction work by Peter Ackroyd, whose arcane knowledge of London is reknown. I am a big fan of London: A Biography but had failed to really get to grips with his fiction before. I did start Hawksmoor which, with its discussion of pyschogeography and architecture (especially that of Hawksmoor, whose work is a heavy presence in the wonderful Alan Moore comic, From Hell), should have been right up my alley. Figuratively and literally. Unfortunately, it never fully grabbed me, perhaps because I had already encountered some of the ideas in From Hell and London: A Biography. I grabbed The Lambs of London in a 3 for 2 in Waterstones because the title recalled something to me, and the back blurb sounded interesting:
Mary Lamb is confined by the restrictions of domesticity: her father is losing his mind, her mother watchful and hostile. The great solace of her life is her brother Charles, an aspiring writer. It is no surprise when Mary falls for the bookseller's son, antiquarian William Ireland, from whom Charles has purchased a book. But this is no ordinary book - it once belonged to William Shakespeare himself. And William Ireland with his green eyes and his red hair, is no ordinary young man...The Lambs of London brilliantly creates an urban world of scholars and entrepreneurs, a world in which a clever son will stop at nothing to impress his showman father, and no one knows quite what to believe. Ingenious and vividly alive, The Lambs of London is a poignant, gripping novel of betrayal and deceit.

This time, I was caught up in the fiction. The year is never stated, but must be gathered from the references to famous people of the time (Pope, Sheridan etc). There are some of the many potential cliches of the London novel (commiting suicide by leaping into the Thames, fog, slums) which work within the context of the plot rather than as mere set-dressing. The Lambs - and it came back to me partway through that they were the siblings who created Tales from Shakespeare - are lambs in a Blakian sense: innocents who are willing to follow a trail towards their own potential destruction. To be gulled by fake Shakespearian work seems implausible - as modern readers we know that no-one has found the missing plays and that very very little exists in his own hand - but the novel is set in the Georgian period when the first real revival of Shakespeare began and it was believed possible that Vortigern would reappear. That Vortigern did, in fact, make it onto the stage at Drury Lane seems rather surprising now, when such works would be treated to huge amounts of cynicism and disbelief. The Lambs - eager Charles and inexperienced Mary - are easily pulled in by Ireland's deceit. But Ireland too, is unwise. Ackroyd posits that he intended only to fool his father and their friends, but his father's desire to make money from the works he thought his son was finding led to publicity and scandal. Ackroyd definitely positions the young people at the core of the story and emphasises their longing to escape their everyday lives. Mary, especially, disintegrates as the story continues.

I'm not sure about the switches in perspective throughout the novel, but there are scenes which are vividly painted and moments where you care about the protagonists and the obvious downfall ahead. This is a book with London at its heart: the city the characters walk in is still the city Shakespeare walked in, the Victorian Embankment is yet to be built, there are few bridges etc etc. This reads like a more assured work than Hawksmoor was, more confident in its ability to let the characters inhabit the city.

November 06, 2005

Crime Spree

My attempt to start digging into the to.be.read mountain continues, although I did get three books from a charity shop the other day and have read 1.5 of them, thus not making a proper dent in the mountain. Winter has arrived, with the wind hugging the chinmeys and the rain splattering the glass and the cat suddenly deciding that actually, it will sleep on the bed after all due to the feline principle of stealing human's heat. And when winter suddenly drops in, I get an urge to read crime fiction.

The Fashion in Shrouds
by Margery Allingham
fiction | UK crime | C20th | Campion series
I've previously mentioned that I have read all the Campion series, so this was technically a reread. It's the one in which Albert's sister, a fashion designer, is suspected of attempting to murder her rival (an actress) for the love of a airplane designer. The rival's husband dies. Then the model he had taken up with, who looks like the actress, is murdered. And the actress's previous lover shot himself three years before. The press, naturally, are having a field day. Like a lot of jazz era novels involving celebrity, it doesn't require much to translate it into Heat-era speak: at one point a dress design by Val is replicated by a cheaper house, recalling Burberry's current embarassment over market-stall copies of their check.

Except this is also so of its era that it passes beyond pastishe. Not just the automatic exocticism of air travel - something long lost in the easyjet era - or the colonial elements (the husband was the governor of a Ivory Coast British colony snadwiched between the Belgiums and Germans). Not even the fact that women wearing trousers is terribly shocking. No, it's the language and mindset which seems shocking. The casual use of 'nigger' pulls you up before you even get to Albert's awful line to his sister: "What you need is a good cry or a nice rape, or both." Campion has been sepia'd by the television adaptations with Peter Davison as the detective, so it seems even worse that a detective thought of as pleasant, diffedent and shy would casually say these things. I've no idea if the book has been allowed to fall out of print (this was a green Penguin editon I found to add to the collection) or if it has been bowdlerised as Christie's Ten Little Niggers (1939) became Ten Little Indians became And Then There Were None. Perhaps surprisingly, given the ageless elements, or unsurprisingly, given the dubious language it was not amongst the Campion stories filmed back in the late 80s. But neither was my favourite, Traitor's Purse.

The Silver Pigs
by Lindsey Davis
fiction | UK crime | C20th | Falco series
Like many crime readers, I devour entire series about a particular detective. Discounting the Famous Five, I think the first series I read through was Lord Peter Wimsey, then Campion, then Roderick Allyn, then Cadfael and so on. I was late to Christie which may explain my dislike of Poirot. I keep meaning to read the Morse books, and I like several more contemporary series, like Christopher Brookmyre, but I wanted new historical crime so I asked for recommendations. One person whose name came up was Lindsey Davis so I picked up The Silver Pigs whilst in Waterstones (at the same time as The Palace Tiger). What struck me almost immediately - whilst reading the list of characters - was the humour of it.
Titus Caesar:
Aged 30. Vespasian's elder son; popular and brilliant.
Domitian Caesar:
Aged 20. Vespasian's younger son; not so brilliant, and not so popular.
A gardener's horse:
(disposition unknown)
Also, there are maps. I like extras with my crime. The novel itself is an entertaining mixture: Falco would like to see himself as an ancient Rome version of Philip Marlowe, but he's hampered by his large family, his mother and the fact he is too kind-hearted. Like Cadfael, he's a former soldier but unlike Cadfael, who went to the Meditterainean on the First Crusade before returning to Shrewsbury, Falco was sent from Rome to Britainnia during the Bodicea uprising and is, unsurprisingly, very unhappy to be sent back there. Davis's Rome has both the marble beauty of the Senate and the piss-tubs of the launderies in the backstreets. (As a sidenote, anyone who found the HBO Rome series to be less enjoyable than they hoped should try these books.) Her Britain is damp, cold and corrupt. Unlike now, obviously. Part of the British section is set in Isca Dumnoniorum or, as it is known today, Exeter, which was one reason I followed the recommendation to try the book. There was a bit in which a bunch of drunk soliders were described as at a crossroads in the city: that was also true in the Civil War era, and right up until 3am last night.

The central mystery is laid out in such a way that the reader suspects as Falco does, so that you neither feel superior due to working it out far in advance of the detective, nor cheated because information enabling you to solve the murders is withheld. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that, when I saw Scandal Takes a Holiday in a charity shop last week, I grabbed it and am currently halfway through.

October 20, 2005

Love and Time Travel

After a recent long look at the dreaded to.be.read pile, I mentally instructed myself to not bring any more books into the house (discounting research books because, yes, I am starting to work again after the fallow summer). I even mentioned it in Annie's '7 things' meme and since I have made some headway with one thing listed there, I decided to be strict.

At which point someone lent me The Lady and the Unicorn and The Virgin Blue by Tracey Chevalier. This was my own fault for telling anyone who cared how much I enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring (see several previous posts). On the plus side, I did also get two books off the mountain and read them as well: Longtitude by Dava Sorbel and The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The former was found in a charity shop but had been on my 'ought to read one day' list whilst the latter was in a 3 for 2 with Going Postal and The Lambs of London. Running through the books are themes of craftsmanship and/or time, so it seems like my recent reading has at least been compiling ideas. So...the books...

The Lady and the Unicorn
by Tracey Chevalier
fiction | C20th | historical
Multiple narrators in two worlds which run in parallel. Some characters cross from one to another, most notably the painter Nicolas des Innocents, but also the middleman Léon Le Vieux. The interweaving of the narrators and perspectives clearly mimicking the tapestries about which the novel revolves. Unfortunately, for me the voices of the different narrators were not distinct enough. Whilst the language they used varied according to their social position, gender etc, the tone seemed more constant throughout. Did it create a field of colour containing characters restricted by circumstances? Yes, but it didn't engage me with them.

by Dava Sorbel
non-fiction | C20th | historical
In contrast, the recounting of a family's attempt to master longtitude in bitter competition to the Royal Astronomer and others, captures the emotions. It's the classic underdog story, obviously, which automatically puts the reader on the side of the Harrisons, but Sorbel explains the logistics and mechanics of creating time so simply that you marvel at the story. The way in which time became delineated and contains is something which fascinates me: I love the way in which time in Britain was unified by the railways and that, until then, everyone ran on their own time according to their longtitude.

The Time Traveller's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
fiction | C21st
This is one of those books that everyone appears to be reading, so I read it. The plot is very neatly fractured and then reconstructed. The whole grandfather paradox element is given very short shrift: the protagonist tells his wife that he has tried and concluded that the multiverse theory of time travel doesn't work. All of which is fine and it is enjoyable to see a SF conceit being used well in contemporary fiction: quite why people treat SF as contemptible whilst reading and watching a lot of popular fiction (written, televisual and cinematic) based on SF premises is beyond me. However, the main problem I had with The Time Traveller's Wife is that I am not fond on contemporary American fiction. The clipped straightforward sentences with their lack of rhythm do not engage me with the story. The denoument of the novel should contain pathos, a sadness about the inevitability of the protagonists to change events, which should make me care. For me, it didn't. Technically, this is a good book but that excellence is in the narrative and the structure, not the prose itself.

October 04, 2005

Buy a Friend a Book Week

It's Buy a Friend a Book week.

But remember, it can't be their birthday, anniversary etc. It's a totally random giftee moment.

(and, should you wish it, you can take a look at my wish list - because I really need more books...)

September 25, 2005

What Should I Read Next?

What Should I Read Next? is a very nifty tool for getting book recommendations.

Way back when I started cataloguing my books online, I used all consuming, which also had a recommendations feature. Unfortunately, the old version was inclined to be tempermental, not to mention its focus on linking to Amazon. That meant out-of-print or otherwise unlisted-on-Amazon books couldn't be added. My del.icio.us links for this blog tend to be aimed more towards author's own websites, or the publisher's site, because I'm more interested in linking to ideas than to commerical transactions. What Should I Read Next also links to amazon, but the interface seems more simple and elegant.

Also, I was amused that when I fed in Girl With a Pearl Earring, it included Jamaica Inn in the recs. Due to the book meme the other week, I've just reread Jamaica Inn.

September 08, 2005

book meme

Annie from Going Underground has tagged me with the book virus currently doing the interweb rounds. So...

1. Number of books I own
1000+. There's about 500 Doctor Who books alone, but even if you discount them I'd still say over a thousand. If people can actually answer this with a figure then I suspect they need to read more. Or are very good users of the local library.

2. Last book I bought
bookshop: The Palace Tiger by Barbara Clevery and The Silver Pigs by..er...it says over in the left 'to be read' column.
charity shop: Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers and Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Copeland.

3. Last book I completed
Busman's Honeymoon. I was in the nmood for some light crime. This book did have the unintentional side-effect of reminding me to book my chimney sweep before the month is out. Before that, it was The Palace Tiger - more light crime. I like the idea of a 'golden era' pastiche series set in Raj India and it was enjoyable so I may try another to see if the series is worth reading. And I'm about three chapters from the end of The Secrets of the Jin-Shei which is a curious one.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me
Eep. Can I nominate myself? Very well, in no particular order:
  • The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
    Light and subtle, yet heart-capturingly sensual. From the light playing on the icy canals to the brush of vermillion on her apron and the heat rising from the markets, this novel slips into the brain and stays there, hauntingly.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
    Really, I should say "almost anything by PKD" but if there is one which captures my favourite elements of his work, it's this one. A writer in a present-day (i.e. 60s) America - where Japan occupies the West Coast and the Nazis occupy the East Coast - begins to wonder if the reality he lives in is real. Maybe there's another universe out there? One in which the Allies won the war? It combines the normal reality-shift narrative with the alt-history genre and was written when PKD was going through a more self-disciplined phase.
  • Warring States by Mags L Halliday
    I feel rather daft putting this here, but it is a book which means a lot to me. It's the first thing I've written where I struggled to let go at the end and where the narrative and characters are personal to me. There were also massive personal crisises during the years I was working on it but I just couldn't let it go. So it does mean a lot. It just looks terribly self-reflective of me to choose it.
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
    Back when I moved school, aged 13, I had a conversation with my new English teacher. He - and it was an old-fashioned type in a tweed jacket - was dismayed to learn my free time reading was filled with Raymond Chandler and SF. He gave me a copy of Persuasion and told me to read it. I got as far as the end of page 1. It was alien to me: not just the world it contained or the language but the narrative. Many years later, after studying Pride & Prejudice at college - and this was in the pre-Firth P&P era - I found I quite liked Austen after all. Many years after that, I finally dared approach Persuasion again, though old memories of that opening page made me wary. I loved it. I think books that mean something may not be the best literature, or the best work by an author, but the ones that come with personal history wreathed around them. Persuasion is about being given a second chance to love, so it seems appropriate that I gave it a second chance.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
    Gods, I'm just picking romances...This is a book in which it is the actual copy I own which means a lot, rather than the story itself. My copy was published in 1947 on the flimsiest of post-war paper and bound with purple cloth-covered card. Over the decades, the cloth has faded with the sun and the spine is worn thin. This is my mother's copy and has travelled halfway around the world and back. When I left home, she gave it to me.
    Plus it has Cornish wreckers, a villainous vicar and a gypsy hero. What more escapist nonsense could you want?

5. Who shall I tag next?
Ladylark because she is smart, Kalima because she knows sexy prose, Badly Dubbed Boy because I'm curious, Paul From the Orient because he is clever (and because he has a book blog like mine...).

August 13, 2005

Lazin' on a Sunny Afternoon

Lazin' on a Sunny Afternoon
Originally uploaded by Mags.

Settling down in the garden, with all the key requirements for a reading session (garden chair, sunglasses, fresh hot tea).