S Frica

At the weekend I watched District 9, the South African science-fiction film. In one way, it’s a rollicking action film, with a feel not too far away from Children of Men – automatic weapons battles being followed by hand-held cameras. In another way, it deals with massive issues like xenophobia and inhumane treatment (err, a bit like Children of Men). Being South African, and being about a situation where a large number of aliens are living in a shanty town with few rights and to the disgust of the humans around them, it has clear parallels to apartheid. It also touches on the more recent problems with violence towards and between refugees and immigrants from other African countries. There’s one glaring issue with the plot (spoiler alert)  Read the rest of this entry »

The Literary Internet

I got pointed at a kind of ‘interactive fan club’ for Angry Robot Books this week (cheers, Skuds). I have one of their titles sitting in the to-read pile, Moxyland by Lauren Buekes. When I get around to reading it, I’ll stick a review on here. Meanwhile I’ve signed up to the ‘Robot Army’. Seeing as I can’t get Firefox to work on one of my laptops, I’ve swapped out the links on the Ads bar on the left.

Meanwhile, I also stumbled onto something far more web-literate. Shadow Unit is a project which is based on the web, and is structured sort of like a TV series (indeed, it’s based on a unit of the FBI down the hall from the Behavioural Analysis Unit that is portrayed in Criminal Minds). There’s a wiki set up for it, and there are even character owned blogs which are updated in real time. It’s like, well meta!

I found it, by the way, because one of the project’s key figures, Elizabeth Bear, was guesting on Charlie Stross’s blog. Both writers are pretty interesting to read – especially in the light of various squabbles between publishing houses and Amazon over who who gets to profit most from the work of writer…

Four books is too many

In November, our Book Club decided to try to read four books the two months. It was a little ambitious, to say the least. No-one finished all four. I managed three and a bit, but gave up on the last one (Updike’s Terrorist) after it made my head itch. I don’t think there was one book that everyone had read either. So we kind of skirted around them in the few hours we had for discussion. Ach, who cares – we were in the pub and the beer was excellent as usual.

I really liked Beowulf – much more than I thought I would. Heaney’s translation is aimed at the modern reader and yet is also supposed  to maintain the atmosphere of the original Angl0-Saxon (more Angle that Saxon, I expect). A saga of a brave warrior, set in a time of strong traditions and on the cusp of converting to Christianity, there’s battles against monsters in between meetings in Great Halls.

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman was also a cracking read. I think people might be put off by the bizarreness of it all, but at the end it becomes clear what that is all about. It’s a morality tale that explores guilt, self-delusion, the nature of infinity, and the personalities of bicycles.

I already knew that Haruki Murakami was a great writer, and while After Dark was not as weighty as some of his other books, it is intense and I found it captivating. It’s not so much a novel as a set of stories about a handful of interconnected people taking place over a single noght. Some of it is suggestive of the supernatural, while the rest is deeply and realistically personal.

As I said, I couldn’t get into John Updike’s Terrorist, and I didn’t finish it. It just came across to me as being superficial, with detailed and yet stereotypical characters. None of the people I’d met in the book generated an ounce of empathy, let alone sympathy, and it made my head itch.

We’ve now decided to read The Life of Pi, which was a Booker winner for Yann Martel, and The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, which I’d never heard of before.

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The second rule of Book Club

Last night, between trips to the bar and checking the progress of the ill-fated France-Ireland game, I was in my second meeting of the Well Red Book Club. We’d had two books to read, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, and Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, and in both cases we seemed to generally agree.

The Sarah Waters was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, and yet I, along with most of us, didn’t like it at all. While the prose was very well written, and the descriptions of places was detailed (maybe a little overwrought at times), the actual story was fairly turgid. Over five hundred pages long, and with a slow pace for most of the book, reading it was like waiting for something to happen. When things did happen, the pace then went back to slow again, rather than building any momentum, and it was hard to keep going. The characters described were not exactly sympathetic either, and seemed to be mainly stereotypes.

And after ploughing through it all, the ending didn’t really resolve anything, or even present a means for the reader to come to a confident conclusion. Is there a ghost or poltergeist visiting horrific damage upon the Ayreses? Is it the collective madness of a family in decline from comfortable upper-middle class life? Was it a combination of improbable but totally rational events? Certainly among the half-dozen or so of us, we didn’t come to a common agreement about what was going on. Overall, it was pretty disappointing.

Tuesdays with Morrie was, by contrast, a far easier read, even if it is telling the story of a man dying from the wasting disease ALS (also known as Lou Gehrigs disease, and the same thing that has afflicted Professor Stephen Hawking). A true story, it tells of how the author discovers his old Sociology Professor, Morrie Shwartz, is dying, and has been giving advice about the lessons of life and death. Albom contacts him for the first time in years, and starts to visit him every Tuesday. Each week, they discuss aspects of life and explore each other’s past. Prof Shwartz encouraged Albom to write the book as a new ‘thesis’ project.

While at times it was perhaps too full of wise aphorisms – coming across as a self-help manual, even though Albom discusses not intending to write one – it does make the reader think about their own life and what they find important. What does come across is the warmth that Albom feels towards his teacher. For some people, I think it could be life-changing, although for me it hasn’t had a major effect on me. Not because I’m perfectly contented, but more due to the fact that my life is changing a lot already what with relocating to a new town, working at a new place and waiting for the point where my girlfriend and I can move into a new place together. But it is the kind of book that I could read again in several years’ time, and perhaps I may need a little nudging then.

We’ve now got four (!) books to read over the next couple of months: Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney, The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, After Dark by Haruki Murakami and Terrorist by John Updike. I’m looking forward to the Murakami, as I’ve read a few of his books before. I might prep for the Anglo-Saxon epic by watching the film version (nothing to do with Angelina Jolie being in it, of course)

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The first rule of Book Club

I’ve been curious about joining a book club or reading group for a while, but I wasn’t sure if they’d be too formal/pretentious/middle class/girlie for me. The Crawley branch of Ottakars (when there was one), had a book club that looked pretty interesting, but it met on the wrong night for me to get to, and I kind of let the idea drop.

When I went to the Labour Party meeting a couple of weeks ago, I was told that a few members had started up a group this summer and all were welcome. So, with my evenings spare, I went along to see what it was all about.

I hadn’t time to get hold of, let alone read, the last book: Alan Judd‘s The Kaiser’s Last Kiss. It had mixed reviews from those who had read it, but it’s a fairly short book and it’s about a quirky point in history (when the Nazis invade Holland and set up a guard around the old Kaiser). Over the next six weeks, I have to read two books (both now on order). Firstly the Booker nominated The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (not my usual cup of tea, but it’s set near Rugby and the whole point is to read something different, I guess). After that, it’s Mitch Albom‘s Tuesdays with Morrie, which is based on conversations between the author and his old teacher as they met many years later.

We also read some poetry. Well, the others read poetry. A bit of Keats, Carroll, Jenny Joseph, Burns… I don’t really read poetry – a lot of the time I just don’t get it. But what I do like is song lyrics, which are essentially in the form of poetry. So, I memorised these lines:

What do you mean, I don’t believe in God?
I talk to him every day.
What do you mean, I don’t support your system?
I go to court when I have to.
What do you mean, I can’t get to work on time?
I got nothing better to do
And, what do you mean, I don’t pay my bills?
Why do you think I’m broke?

Which is the opening verse to Peace Sells by Megadeth.

A Scottish SF writer who makes you think, but isn’t Iain M Banks

Although he is, apparently, a friend. Ken MacLeod knows his stuff when it comes to left-wing groupuscles. I read The Star Fraction a few months ago, and immediately bought The Stone Canal to devour in a few sittings.

He seems to enjoy discussing the variants of socialist and liberal/libertarian thought. The other day I looked him up on Wikpedia and found his blog – The Early Days of a Better Nation Currently it isn’t being used much, but check out the post on Saturday, January 27, 2007 – it starts off discussing Mao, and winds all over the place but in a fascinating and coherent way.

I’d give my arms to be able to writet like that.

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Old book meme

Searching around today, I found that I’d been ‘tagged’ by snowflake5 back in September. Ho hum…

1. Name a book that changed your life.
‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Tressell, which for the first time introduced me to what this socialism thing was all about. Until then I’d been simply tribal in my politics, but at the age of about 14 I borrowde my dad’s copy and started to understand

2. One book you’ve read more than once
‘Sideshow’ by Sheri S Tepper. It’s where I got my pseudonym from.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island
Can I take the entire ‘Baroque Cycle’ by Neal Stephenson?

4. One book that made you laugh
Any by Pratchett. ‘The Colour of Magic’ is still the best one of all the Discworld novels

5. One book that made you cry
I’m a bloke. Books don’t make me cry. What utter nonsense!
(ok ok, I did sniff a bit while reading ‘Feersum Enjinn’ by Iain M Banks, when Bascule is trying to climb the fastness – but don’t tell anyone, right?)

6. One book you wish you’ve written
‘Harry Potter and the thingummy wotsit’. Then I’d be a squillionaire!!

7. One book you wish had never been written
Anything by Ayn Rand. Particularly ‘Fountainhead’, which I tried to read but gave up as I hated every single character and what they stood for, particularly her ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’. There’d be a lot less nerdy american libertarians about if it wasn’t for her drivel.

8. One book you are currently reading
‘Basket Case’ by Carl Hiaasen. I like a bit of Floridian sleaze and intrigue.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read
There’s a few that I have on a shelf waiting for me to get to. ‘The Euro-killers’ by Julian Rathbone, which is a book he wrote a long time before his historical novels.

10. Now tag five people
What, and make them go through this? Nahhh.

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Beer In The Evening

To announce the publication of an epic tome, the book for our times, the answer to all of life’s questions:

Beer In The Evening: London Edition

Buy it! Go on, you know you want to, it tells you what real customers think about 250 of London’s pubs. If you follow the Amazon link on the BITE page, the authors get a little bit extra. As they are pals of mine, and they put a lot of work into the Beer In The Evening site, and into the book itself.

The book meme

Apparently having been tagged, I have to do this….

1 Total number of books I’ve owned

Pass. I have 2 and a half full ‘billy’ shelves from Ikea, which are all starting to double up, plus a row of computing books in the office. Most I bought myslef, but I ‘inherited’ about 50-100 non-fiction books from a couple who left Crawley, mostly political and social commentary, some of it religious. I think I read half of one of them…

2 The last book I bought

I bought a few books about six weeks ago (I tend to splurge):

The Scar by China Mieville (I’d read King Rat and Perdido Street Station and was hungry for more of his weird dark fantasies)
What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe (Never read him before, and it looked like a good social satire)
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (Strangely, I picked this only because the local Ottakars Book Club was featuring it)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Hey Nostradamus! by David Coupland
Martin Cruz Smith omnibus: Red Square and Gypsy in Amber (Haven’t read his stuff for ages, having been hooked by Gorky Park – and only 50p)
Mammoth Book of Best New SF 17 edited by Gardner Duzois (29 short stories from 2003).

3 The last book I read

I am about halfway through Best New SF 17, so maybe that doesn’t count. As it’s a collection of short stories anyway, I will discount it. Before that I finished The Scar. This is set in the same world as Perdido Street Station, but in a different city. Mieville obviously loves cities, and this one, Armarda, is like no other. Constructed from stolen and salvaged ships, it sails the oceans, surviving and growing through piracy. As this world is subject to strange magic and bizarre human hybrids, the city is hardly a normal place. Told from several points of view, with each character trying to out-plot the others and with their own dark secrets, this is an intriguing read. And Mieville can write incredible descriptive prose. Loved it.

4 Five books that mean a lot to me

a) Sideshow by Sherri S Tepper. Tepper is an American writer, often tagged as a ‘feminist’, which I suppose would put a lot of people off. Certainly the main protagonists of her novels are mainly female, and often find themselves up against a male-dominated society which perpetrates fairly awful abuses. Sideshow is set on a world which has become a haven for ‘pure’ humanity, after the rest of the inhabited galaxy has been assimilated by the Hobbes Land Gods. These ‘refugees’ are in various societies, each seperate and each brutal in the way it behaves. The ‘uniqueness’ of each society is policed by ‘Enforcers’ who ensure that they are not interfered with, despite their nastiness. My pseudomyn comes from one of the characters, Danivon Luze, a boy rescued from child sacrifice who becomes an enforcer and then… well, you have to read it.

b) White Teeth by Zadie Smith. A second woman writer, this time English and about my age. Some of the main characters are my contemporaries, and there is enough familiarity for me to identify with some of the characters. Not that anything like the actual plot happened to me, but the timing, growing up in the eighties, having friends with strong views on Salman Rushdie etc. certainly does resonate. The writing style was very easy for me to get into, and evoked a lot of memories. The TV miniseries was ok, but nothing like the book for style.

c) The Crow Road by Iain (M) Banks. I could have put almost any of his books on this list (and easily filled it with five: Consider Phlebas; Use of Weapons; Dead Air; Complicity; and Against a Dark Background. In fact, the only ones I don’t really love are Walking on Glass (too poncey) and Canal Dreams (reads like a screenplay for a mundane American action movie). Crow Road, however is just about my favourite. It starts off like a murder mystery, and it seems like that it mainly what it is, but really there is a whole lot more to it, as the protagonist finds out more about his strange family and, in doing so, about himself.

d) A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick. Better than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (filmed as Blade Runner), with more character emphasis than the excellent Man in the High Castle and less off his head completely than The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. This is an exellent book about the effects of a psychotic, addictive drug on a society, and in particular on one man.

e) Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The stupidity of War. As much as I think that fighting the Nazis was most definitely the right thing to do, this (and Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut), brilliantly captures the basic inhumanity of a system which is set up to kill people. The sheer insanity of most of the characters and their situations is so well described that it is entirely believeable. Which is the scariest thought of all.

What did I have to reject coming up with that list? Lord of the Rings, of course, as the definitive fantasy with elves and dwarves (in other words, everything else since basically sucks). Altered Carbon and Broken Angels by Richard Morgan (cyber-noir I suppose).

I’m not sure who I can tag for this. I’ll think on it.

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