Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Books Read in October 2017

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

I couldn't help myself mentioning what happens in this, so #spoilers.

Published in 1908, this is a supernatural horror novel which was new and innovative for its time. Up until this point, the horror genre had really been the Gothic novel - Dracula, Frankenstein, The Monk, Melmoth the Wanderer, Edgar Allen Poe - tales of madness, vampires, stormy nights, and the Devil. This was something new. What happens in The House on the Borderland doesn't derive its horror from religion. Instead, its more related to science fiction horror - things occur on a cosmic scale, encompassing vast expanses of space and time, the main character facing immense, unknowable forces. It's cosmic horror, popularised by Lovecraft, but William Hope Hodgson got there first. It influenced Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Terry Pratchett, and Olaf Stapledon. Hodgson corresponded with H.G. Wells, and that comes out in one of the more crazy scenes that happens towards the end of the book.

Borderland takes the form of a journal discovered in the ruins of an isolated mansion by a couple of British chums on a fishing holiday to Ireland. The journal is written by an unnamed narrator who is known simply as The Recluse, an old man who lived in the house with his old sister and dog, Pepper. I would have added the sister's name, but the old man talks more about his dog than her. The sister is merely in the background, someone who looks after him but doesn't really take part in the story. The Recluse recounts the strange experiences he has in the house.

There's no pissing about with the strange experiences. Within the first few pages of the journal, The Recluse is sitting in his study, when out of nowhere he sees a red and green light. He is transported off the planet and through space, travelling at impossible speeds beyond the borders of the universe to a lonely world where giant god-beasts squat among the mountains and look down into a vast arena in their midst, where an immense replica of the Recluse's house sits, constructed from a green jade-like substance. His voyage through space as a 'fragile speck of soul-dust' reminded me of the journey undertaken by the main character in Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. There's another travel sequence near the end that's like something out of 2001: a Space Odyssey, offering a view of the universe that's totally strange.

But it's not all cosmic flights of fancy. There's a few chapters concerning a siege on the house that's surprisingly gripping, not what I expected in a book from 1908. It's actually, you know, fairly exciting, with things trying to get in and The Recluse shooting at them, barring the doors and checking the windows, like an Edwardian version of Aliens. The jeopardy continues when The Recluse gets trapped underground, and is almost swept away by a torrent of water - it's another pretty gripping scene.

But the phantasmagorical nuttiness resumes in an amazing time travel sequence, which goes way beyond what H.G. Wells did in The Time Machine, hurtling untold millennia into the future. It's accompanied by a trip through space to the centre (or the end) of the universe, where The Recluse sees what can only be described as a succession of mind-bending visions.

I'm not sure what all of it means, but I liked the individual parts. I'm not sure if there's some underlying theme to all these weird events, but I did wonder if he was imagining it all at one point, because after the siege, his sister seems a little off with him, like she doesn't know what he's talking about. Some lost love of The Recluse is mentioned - he sees her during one of his trips at an otherworldly place called the Sea of Sleep, but this is where the journal leaves us hanging, the pages that presumably tell us who she is, damaged or missing. Is he dreaming all these bizarre episodes because he's pining for her? Maybe he's retreating into a fantasy world because the lost love is... his sister?... and he's appalled at himself and seeks escape? Yuck. Maybe it's all really happening, the house being some kind of conduit into other spaces, times and dimensions. Maybe it's just a bunch of great sci-fi set-pieces, the plot (as it is) just an excuse to string them all together.

It's an entertaining tour de force of the imagination, an interesting milestone in science fiction and horror, and a jolly good read.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Books Read in June 2017

American Supernatural Tales edited by S.T. Joshi

This is a collection of horror stories written by American writers over the past 200 years, starting with Washington Irving's 'The Adventure of the German Student' (1824) and finishing off with 'In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888)' by Caitlin R. Kieran in 2000. In between there's stories from Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Thomas Ligotti, and many others.

I liked a lot of them, while others left me cold, which isn't surprising given the wide range of stories here. The older stuff from Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Poe, Fitz-James O'Brien was okay, but because of its age, was never going to seem new and exciting. The shocks in them have been used so many times since they were written in the nineteenth century, that they stop being shocking, though 'The Fall of the House of Usher' had a pretty creepy final scene.

Ambrose Bierce's 'The Death of Halpin Frayser' (1891) felt like it could have been written today. It's ambiguous, violent, has a weird dream sequence, and leaves clues for the reader to try and work out what's going on, like an 1800s Laird Barron or David Lynch. What's going on is pretty unpleasant. Unpleasant enough that I didn't entertain what it was all pointing to, and had to read S.T. Joshi's introduction to discover the truth.

I've read 'The Yellow Sign' by Robert W. Chambers before - it's part of his collection The King in Yellow, which inspired some of the weirdness in HBO's True Detective. But like the other older stuff, its age shows. The supposedly horrifying climax is overshadowed by the rather twisted Catholic morality concerning a painter and the young girl who falls in love with him.

Henry James has a story here called 'The Real Right Thing'. Although overall it's interesting, I found it hard to read, with odd sentence structure. He also did 'The Turn of the Screw', which is a revered piece of supernatural fiction, though I haven't read this yet. I get the feeling James might be an acquired taste.

H.P. Lovecraft's 'The Call of Cthulhu' is next, the seminal piece of weird fiction which became his most famous example of cosmic horror, and which spawned imitations, brilliant variations on the theme, and basically the whole genre of cosmic horror itself. Good when I first read it, not so good on this umpteenth reading, but still a classic.

This is followed by a couple more stories written in the 1930s - Clark Ashton Smith's 'The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis', about horrific Martian beasties, and Robert E. Howard's 'Old Garfield's Heart' - neither of which were all that good. I like Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stuff, but this was, y' know, fine. Clark Ashton Smith... well... his prose is so overdone it's annoying.

In the 40's section, things improve. There's Robert 'Psycho' Bloch, August Derleth, and Fritz Leiber. Bloch and Leiber both have a cool, slangy, wise guy kind of style - Humphrey Bogart language.

From Blochs 'Black Bargain':

"Same old malted milks, cherry cokes, Vaseline, Listerine, hairnets, bathing caps, cigarettes, and what have you?

Me, I had a headache. It was four days later, almost the same time of night, when I found myself scrubbing off the soda-taps again.

Sure enough, he walked in."

The selection from the 50's includes Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont. I liked them all, especially Shirley Jackson's 'A Visit', with its polite language and ghostly happenings, like an old-fashioned ghost story, told really well.

There's nothing from the 60's, but then we hit T.E.D. Klein and Stephen King from the 70's. I've read a lot of Stephen King, and this selection of 'Night Surf' wasn't vintage King by a long shot. What I liked more was discovering Klein's novella 'The Events at Poroth Farm', about a college lecturer's stay with some folks on a farm in an isolated community in New York state. The lecturer reads a lot of supernatural fiction during his visit, and it was fun to see which books I'd read and which I'd yet to read. Weird things start happening round the farm, and the lecturer does a couple of odd things as well, which aren't explained. It all ends horribly, natch, and I liked how what actually happened wasn't cut and dry. What was the lecturer's role in it all? Did he even have a role? I wasn't sure, but I thought about this story more than any of the others in the collection.

From the 80's there's 'The Late Shift' by Dennis Etchison, 'Vastarien' by the bleak but brilliant Thomas Ligotti, and 'Endless Night' by Karl Edward Wagner, which was not my cup of tea at all. A sequence of dreams and pretentiousness and isn't-life-awful-ness. If you're going to do that, do it with panache like David Lynch.

The 90's brings us 'The Hollow Man' by Norman Partridge, 'Last Calls for the Sons of Shock' by David J. Schow, and 'Demon' by Joyce Carol Oates. 'The Hollow Man' is interesting as it tells the story from the monster's point of view, and offers little hope for the beast's human victims. 'Last Call for the Sons of Shock' didn't have much going for it, just a reunion between Dracula, Frankenstein's Creature, and the Wolfman, as if they were real monsters who'd starred in those old black and white horror films - it was light-hearted and trashy and instantly forgettable.

'Demon' hurries through impressions of a boy's unhappy, bullied life, continuing on into his twenties, and was pretty unsettling.

The last story is 'In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888)' by Caitlin R. Kieran from 2000. It's a good one to finish off the collection - while a tunnel is being dug through a mountain to lay water pipes, a paleontologist uses the opportunity to look for fossils. He's shown something disturbing by the workmen in the depths of the caves. The revelation is nothing very original, but it's told in a convincing, well-written style. The 'weird thing' that happens, is vivid and believable, which isn't easy to pull off after the many weird things that have happened in horror stories down the years.

So, a mixed bag, this anthology, whose highlights were the Ambrose Bierce tale from 1891, Shirley Jackson's 1952 'A Visit', T.E.D. Klein's 1972 'The Events at Poroth Farm', 'In the Water Works', and the slick 40's tales from Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber. Ray Bradbury's 'The Fog Horn' was pretty atmospheric too, and August Derleth's 'The Lonesome Place', which seemed to be channelling the beauty/horror of childhood that Bradbury evokes. The older tales (Irving, Hawthorne, Poe), while I'm happy to have read them, didn't have as strong an effect. But it was interesting to see how the horror genre changed over the period covered in the book. From Gothic horror to cosmic horror, then into the mundane urban horror ushered in by Robert Bloch and perfected by Stephen King, American Supernatural Tales was entertaining and showed me writers I hadn't read before.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Books Read in May 2017

Here's the books I read in May 2017 and what I thought of them.

The Imago Sequence - Laird Barron
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

The Imago Sequence by Laird Barron

This is a collection of short stories, or more accurately, weird tales. Laird Barron is touted as being one of the leading lights of the New Weird. The New Weird is the resurgent genre of the old weird tale, which was practised by writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries. They were often published in the 1930s American pulp magazine Weird Tales. Lovecraft invented cosmic horror, stories where humans are a speck in a vast, terrifying, unknowable universe, liable to go mad at the merest hint of the true nature of reality, which is usually incredibly hostile. Other writers like Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Peter Straub and Thomas Ligotti have continued in the same vein.

I read The Imago Sequence in April, but I'm a bit thick, and I didn't understand what I'd just read. It was too clever and too obscure for me. Laird Barron has said he deliberately makes his stories elliptical. So I set about re-reading it, and now I've understood it a bit more (with a bit of help from some online research/cheating).

There are nine stories. Here's what I think I thought of them.

Old Virginia

In the 1950s, an old, distinguished military man leads a group of soldiers who have been assigned to protect some scientists and Subject X in a remote cabin in the woods. There is obviously something very strange going on with Subject X, but what concerns Garland, the main character, are the signs that people are up to mischief in the woods, slashing their trucks' tyres and smashing the engine. Russians. Commies. It's obvious who's doing it, according to Garland, so there must be something pretty important about Subject X.

Indeed there is. Needless to say, neither the experienced soldiers or science boffins are up to much when Subject X decides to have a go at them.

'Old Virginia' has the first example of a recurring theme running through the stories - the protagonist sees someone who reminds him (it's always a 'him' by the way, in all nine tales, and nearly always some kind of tough guy) of an old friend or family member -  could actually be them, even though they died years ago. Other motifs that crop up more than once include being caught in amber, scotch broom, unnaturally tall and brutish villains, and the Mima mounds, which are naturally-occurring mounds of top soil. This is on top of the usual cosmic horror elements of completely alien entities (possibly gods, maybe insanely weird organisms), and the crazed humans who consort with them.

Anyway, this story ends in a suitably weird way.

Shiva, Open Your Eye

A toughnut PI visits a frail old man on a remote farm. People have been disappearing round those parts. The PI wants to ask the frail old man some questions, have a look around, if that's all right. Of course it is, says the frail old man.

This is told from the frail old man's point of view. You start to feel sorry for the PI, because you just know something bad is going to happen. This first part, around the farm, is the best bit, but what comes after that is very different in tone. It's a long tract of purple prose, interesting, but less effective, and I didn't enjoy it as much.

Procession of the Black Sloth

This is the first novella-length story in the collection, and also the first original one, all the others having appeared in other publications.

An industrial espionage investigator called Royce is sent to Hong Kong to look into some funny goings-on in the company. He gets a tip that the employee to look into is Brendan Coyne. Royce stays in the same compound as Coyne in order to keep tabs on him, the compound being a set of apartments for western businessmen and their families. It's the kind of place where the power is unreliable, and vermin scuttles about, heard but not seen. A group of creepy old women also reside there (one being Coyne's mum), and a hot businesswoman who Royce is attracted to, Shelley Jackson.

Royce watches the old women as they congregate round the pool in the centre of the compound. He watches Shelley Jackson's window. He gets local lads to follow and secretly film the old women as they potter about Hong Kong. He gets into the debauched partying scene of western businessmen who hop from club to club, drinking and shagging as much as possible. Royce becomes a bit unhinged from all the excess. Strange, inexplicable things start happening. Noises at his apartment door. Weird shapes in the corridor. Surveillance tapes he never knew he'd made, showing frightening things.

I didn't get this story at first. It's bleak, claustrophobic and has disturbing elements, but what was actually going on was unclear. I've since read online what someone else thinks it's about, and apparently it's spelt out for you at the end. I don't think it's as clear cut as this online bloke thinks, because although things are eventually 'explained' by some of the characters, there is such a sense of disorientation and doubt, I couldn't take what was said at face value. I've read the story twice now, and although it feels a bit clearer, there are still ambiguities.

Nonetheless, I have decided that I like it. It's just one of those tales you have to work at!


This was one of my favourite stories in the collection. It's a bit of light relief after 'Black Sloth'. A detective from the Pinkerton agency, Koenig, hunts down an escaped murderer in the Wild West. It's so beautifully written, like Raymond Chandler. The hard-boiled detective is tough, world-weary, violent, but has a noble heart (e.g. he's kind to select whores, wants to kill murderers, and contributes to the cost of coffins for the people who get in his way).

It starts with such brilliant lines:

' - Then He bites off my shooting hand.
Christ on a pony, here's a new dimension in pain.'

Here's another:

'"Much obliged, Mr, K. Whole lotta widows and orphans in these parts."
"More every day," I said.'

And one more:

'So I shot him twice... His hat tumbled away. He had a thick mane of blond hair with a perfect pink circle at the crown. That's what you got for wearing cowboy hats all the fucking time.'

I can imagine Clint Eastwood or Humphrey Bogart in the role, Koenig being a kind of combination of gunslinger and cynical PI.

The recurrent character of a very brutish villain comes up again, and the suggestion of unfathomably powerful and strange beings behind the villain's actions.


This one was better the second time around, as I'd had time to digest it. Some modern day bounty hunters arrest a couple of criminals, handing them into the police in Canada and then heading back to the US. One of the criminals is a very savage, violent thug - again.

The main character, Ray, used to be an actor, now making ends meet by collecting the bounty on bringing in wanted men and women. Him and his two bounty hunter friends attend a music festival where a drunk girl says something about 'going right through the meninges'. There's later talk about insects that feed on other insects by camouflaging themselves and ambushing their victims. The characters are inexplicably drawn to the Mima Mounds National Park for some sightseeing, something which feels unusual to do, yet they do it anyway. Ray has a strange experience in a town near the Mima Mounds - he realises the people and the town don't seem real, they're just 'macaroni and glue', and the 'buildings were cardboard'. The criminals they chased, who have since been cut loose by the Canadian authorities for some reason, don't seem human.

It all leads to some supreme weirdness at the Mima Mounds themselves, and some unsettling, cosmically horrible implications. I want to write more about what I think is going on in this story, but, y' know... #spoilers.


This is the second novella-length story. Not sure if it couldn't have been shorter. A millionaire businessman and his young wife find something weird in an isolated barn, some kind of gigantic wasp nest. There's a freak accident. He ends up with a broken leg and she ends up with a nasty head wound, rendering her a vegetable.

Wallace Smith, the millionaire, gets nurses in to look after his invalid wife. There is a dent in her forehead - the wound she sustained - and a wet, crusty crack running from the dent, closing her right eye, and going down her cheek. The doctors don't understand it and can't stop it getting longer.

He dreams of cracks, and things squirming in them. He doesn't fully recall what happened in the barn. The cracks appear in an earlier story, 'Bulldozer' where the Pinkerton agent notices cracks in the walls. 'Hallucigenia' refers to the Mima Mounds as well. And the villains (a family called the Choates) are very tall, very smelly, and up to weird things, and Wallace has disturbing encounters with one of them.

He employs a detective (one named Lance Pride, not a bad name for a character in a book about how tiny and vulnerable the human race is compared with things in the greater cosmos), to find out about the Choates. There's a lot of detail about them, what people think of them and what they got up to on their farm and in that barn, which I didn't think was needed. I understood they were consorting with things best not consorted with, and gaining strange knowledge in the process, but this could have been told in fewer pages.

Apart from that, this is good stuff, with the requisite creepy and unsettling bits, and detailed characters that make the whole absurd business more believable. And I'm sure there's more subtlety to it than I could fathom.


So there's this bloke, Jack Carson, whose wife, Miranda, has gone missing, and he is a successful artist with connections with a group who dabbled in Satanism and maybe pulled some strings to launch his career. The investigating detectives looking into the artist's background find that on a trip to Europe years ago, several women went missing wherever he went. They're convinced he killed his Mrs and is a serial killing monster. They dog him for six years, unable to secure a conviction.

Jack is confused. His memories of him and Miranda are mixed up. He recalls the time she disappeared, and the weird migraine he had just before it happened. Jack hires Lance Pride of the previous story to try and find the people who kidnapped Miranda, because he sure had nothing to do with it. She was just there in the living room one minute, doing her nails, and the next, poof, the nail polish dripping onto the table with no nails to polish.

This felt like a more straightforward story, with a more definite explanation for what's going on. Still a lot to chew on, mind, with excerpts from interviews with Jack, the detectives, and other characters intercut with the main story, inviting you to look at the clues and work out what's​ really going on.

The Royal Zoo is Closed

Whoa. This is superdense existence-is-futile stuff. Broken up into the sections (Entr'acte, Imprezio, Coda), this short story shows Sweeney going to work and ruminating on modern life, and finding it to be absurd and crap. It's written brilliantly, with an edgy, wisecracking cynicism, and a vividness that begs to be quoted.

"The bus disgorged in the tunnel. Worker ants poured from the barrel... Sweeney led the surge, chin in his chest, striding past the Korean espresso stand, the all-star a capella singers, and the heavies with their hats out. A radio sputtered static. Jimmy Swaggart shrieking on full automatic... Jesus wasn't dead, just in hiding like Cousin Waldo. Maybe they were shacking with Noriega at a Vatican safehouse."

Then something weird happens, something Lovecraftian, but told in such a way that if you weren't paying attention you wouldn't notice. Things go wrong, the world changes for the worse, as if it's about to end. Maybe the world was never really the world in the first piece, just some sham, or opera, or zoo, for someone else's benefit. Bleak, nihilistic shit, dude. But written so fizzin' well. (I didn't really like this one first time around - it took a careful second reading to get more out of it. You can't skim-read this stuff.)

By the way, I tried to find out what Entr'acte, Imprezio, and Coda mean. The story mentions opera so I assumed they were related to that. The first is an interval between two acts. The closest thing to Imprezio I could find was the Polish 'impreza' meaning a party or get-together. Coda means a confirmation or summary in a piece of music. Make of that what you will.

The Imago Sequence

A PI, Marvin Cortez, who is more of an amateur knee-capper than a proper detective, is hired by his rich friend, Jacob, to look into a series of three photographs known as the Imago Sequence. Cortez sees the first one, Parallax Alpha, and is instantly hooked. It depicts a terrifying beast-man, maybe a hominid, howling in amber, though other people claim they can only see weird rock formations. Anyone who has owned one of the three photos has either gone mad, died or disappeared. They are cursed!

The other two photos are Parallax Beta and Imago. They were taken by a mediocre photographer called Ammon, in an undisclosed location, the subject of the photos deliberately witheld so no one really knows what they show. Beta is in an exhibition in a San Francisco gallery, but no one has ever seen Imago, except for maybe someone called Anselm Thornton, who has seen them all, and probably owns the last picture.

Cortez starts having terrible nightmares. He can't get Alpha out of his head, and he goes and sees Beta, which just makes things worse. He interviews previous owners, who say far-out things and suggest Thornton uses the photos as some kind of bait.

There are some typically cosmically horrifying ideas in this story - notions of the true, frightening nature of reality, which consigns humanity to little more than a snack for something unimaginably awful. Lovecraft would've been proud. There's work to be done by the reader, trying to figure out what it all means - why, for instance, does an over-ripe pear appear in a fruit bowl when it had just been eaten? What happened to the owner of the San Fran gallery showing Beta? Cortez finds some bizarre photos, unrelated to the Imago Sequence - how did they get taken? What will the Imago photo show?

It features the now familiar elements of a very tall villain, and cosmic entities of supreme unpleasantness. It is good.

The Hour of the Cyclops

This is a bonus tenth story, not listed in the contents page. A spy, or government agent, or something like that, is trying to rescue a young woman from the clutches of the Ancient Apothecary, who wants to use her to summon some terrible deity that will drive everyone in the world mad. You know the kind of thing. Sure you do. The stars are right, so it's time to sacrifice a human and call a mad god down from space.

This doesn't feel as mature as the other stories, and it looks to have been written a few years before the others in the collection. It's still good fun though, lighter than the others.

So there we are, that's what I thought of Laird Barron. By the way, I think it's important to point out that Laird Barron wears an eyepatch and used to compete in sled dog racing, and comes from Alaska, three things which I think you'll agree make him an interesting character.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Devious schemes. Inheritances. Villains. Victorian London. Twists and turns. Forbidden love. This book has it all!

Susie Trinder gets drawn into a nasty plan to cheat a young lady, Maud Lilly, out of her fortune. Her guardian, who brought her up from a baby when her real mother was unable to, is Mrs Sucksby, who presides over a house in The Borough, London, frequented by thieves selling their wares. Gentleman, a devilish rogue, has come up with the scheme to marry Maud Lilly and swindle her out of her inheritance. Susie's role is to become her maid and convince her to marry Gentleman.

It's told from Susie's point of view, and she's never been out of London, so when she goes to Briar, a country house where Maud lives with her cold, cruel uncle, we feel her confusion and misery at her new situation. It's really well told - you can believe you are being told the story by a rough-and-ready lass from the poorer part of 1840s London.

The less said about Fingersmith, the better, apart from to say it's very clever, well-plotted, and vividly conjures up the world of Victorian England. Even though the plot could be considered far-fetched, it feels believable because of the natural, unforced way the characters think and behave - though as I think about it, there's at least one handy coincidence that helps someone get out of a predicament, but that doesn't matter.

It has been adapted into an acclaimed film, The Handmaiden, transplanting the story to 1930s colonial Korea. There's also a two-part BBC drama called Fingersmith.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Books Read in April 2017

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

This won the Costa Children's Book Award in 2015, plus the overall Costa Book of the Year. Only one other book has done that, Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass. I don't really understand why The Lie Tree was entered into a children's book category. The main character is a fourteen-year-old girl, but that's about it for any links to children. It's a clever, mature, well-written, thought-provoking story, which isn't easily pigeon-holed into any one genre. It's an historical novel, but also part-fantasy and part-science fiction. It doesn't have any explicitly adult content, so I suppose that's why it's a children's book, though it's just as 'grown-up' as most adult fiction.

Faith Sunderby is the main character. She leaves mainland Britain with her pretty, manipulative mother, her austere, distant father, her kind uncle, and her little brother, Howard. They flee to a remote island to escape a scandal involving her father, the Reverend Sunderby, a renowned natural scientist and discoverer of sensational fossils. Faith has no idea what they are running away from. As far as she knows, her father is a paragon of virtue and a giant in his field.

This is one of the many things Faith comes to learn isn't strictly accurate as the story unfolds. She discovers the Lie Tree, a seemingly magical plant that feeds on human lies and produces fruit that reveal the truth when eaten. Without wanting to spoil anything, she finds out that almost everything she thought was true turns out to be false. She gains knowledge of the world, and sees how lies corrupt everything they touch.

The Lie Tree highlights the fact that there are lies in every part of life - family secrets, professional dishonesty, the personas people adopt to hide their real personalities. Faith has to hide her own interest in science because ladies are not supposed to do science, and so she is forced to pretend otherwise.  Virtually everyone is forced into a rigid, narrow box that society has made for them, contrary to their true selves. This even extends down to Faith's brother, Howard. He's three or four, and he's left-handed. This is irregular, according to Victorian society and Howard's parents, so they make him wear The Jacket when he's writing. Its left sleeve is sewn to the jacket's side, so he can't use his left arm.

Denying the truth that women are as capable as men is another lie perpetuated by society in the novel. The lie that God created the world and all its animals and plants is challenged by Darwinian evolution. The scientific theory of animal magnetism is shown to be discredited, while the equally untrue phrenology is enthusiastically practiced by one of the characters. Women's skulls and brains are smaller, proving their intellectual inferiority, and the skulls of criminals are different to those of non-criminals. A load of rubbish, but people really believed it in the 19th century, so this is another interesting wrinkle - intentional versus unintentional lies, or malicious versus benign. Black and white with plenty of grey area here.

But enough hamfisted analysis. It's a good book. Convincing, interesting, a page-turner, insightful. The Lie Tree itself is creepy, the visions it creates are weird, and how it actually reveals the truth is open to doubt. Faith is a great character, a brave, smart girl who stops at nothing to discover the secrets that fill her life. There are so many lies and attempts at distorting the truth, that when Faith says something heartfelt and sincere, it's quite moving.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Books Read in March 2017

March 2017 Books

Here's the book I read in March 2017 and what I thought of it.

The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford

Sometimes you read a book to learn stuff. This is one of those. As the front cover says, this is a novel about IT, DevOps and helping your business win. DevOps is a technique of delivering software with as much automation as possible, to make the building, testing and releasing of software easier and more reliable.

This is a book with virtually no artistic merit. I didn't expect a great work of literature, but come on. It is a technical manual wrapped inside a novel. The main character, Bill, works in the IT department of a large company with dysfunctional working practices. An eccentric individual called Erik guides him through the Three Ways of transforming the IT department into a successful one, thereby making the company as a whole successful. Bit by bit, the Three Ways are revealed and the company gets more and more efficient.

I read this because other people in my own IT department were reading it. I knew it wouldn't be a great read, and I was right. It was very plainly written, with a lot of content about how to think about work and organise IT. It had a villain, of sorts, called Sarah, who had the ear of the boss and led him astray. It referenced lots of films, like The Karate Kid, Apollo 13, Star Trek, Weekend at Bernie's, etc, in an unsubtle attempt to appeal to IT people, I guess.

I skim-read it. If you're going to package up a set of IT principles in a novel, it's probably because you want to make it more accessible and bring it to life. The authors of this needn't have bothered because the story was not very engaging. They may as well have written it as a proper technical manual. Maybe they should have got Michel Faber or Bret Easton Ellis or Kim Stanley Robinson to ghost-write it.

Aside from all this, I have a suspicion of novels that are written just to divulge a particular set of ideas. Two previous novels that I've seen do this are two of the worst piles of garbage I've ever read.

One is The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield and the other is Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, a book with possibly the cheesiest title ever. Both these books were recommended to me by friends. I think they thought they were profound, and that I might too.

I did not think they were profound.

The Celestine Prophecy is about some secret Peruvian manuscript which details nine insights into life. The main character experiences these insights at roughly the same time as he reads about them. The insights are often 'backed up' with sciencey-sounding theories - maybe even proper science - which the author then twists to support his New Age Spirituality bollocks. It's complete tripe. Even if you only have a modicum of scientific knowledge, you can see how the author is trying to manipulate you into believing him.

It turns out at the end of the manuscript that the Mayan civilisation that came up with these insights achieved some kind of 'energy vibration level' which made them cross a barrier into a purely spiritual realm. Now here's a little tip. If you ever see the phrase 'energy vibration level' and it's not in a proper scientific document, the next fucking thing you will read is some absolute witlessness about spirituality or disappearing into a higher plain or some other pseudoscientific astrological homeopathy horseshit.

Way of the Peaceful Warrior also purports to divulge great wisdom about how to live your life. Some guy meets a mysterious wise old man in a petrol station who he calls Socrates. Socrates can do things like jump onto the roof of the petrol station from a standing start. The main character is impressed by this and gets Socrates to teach him. There's stuff about being trapped in your mind by illusions, about eliminating any attachments in your life, being celibate, being teetotal, practicing tai chi, meditation, and akido. These are all concepts that have a grain of truth or usefulness (except for being celibate, because how is denying normal human impulses like sex a healthy thing?). In the end the main character achieves happiness.

The thing is, this is a set of ideas for improving your life, packaged up in a novel. Socrates can do impossible things like jump onto petrol station roofs, and accelerate healing, and disappear when he dies, which is all obvious crap, but you might say, yes, but it's a work of fiction so Socrates can do what he wants, it's all made up. That'd be fine if that's all it was claiming to be. But it also presents itself as a kind of philosophical guidebook - that the advice it presents is true and will really transform your life. So which is it, fiction or truth? In effect, it's saying, here are some things I, as the author, am presenting as truths, and if you believe them and practice what they say, you'll be able to do these other impossible things I mentioned. It's a dirty trick. People who are a bit credulous might come across this, looking for some enlightenment, read the life advice, and be led to believe that the magic stuff actually happened as well, because they can't separate the fact from the fiction, which is deliberately mixed together to usher them to this spurious conclusion. Or they might not believe the nonsense literally, but they might be seduced into believing the spiritual advice more readily.

This kind of book has been called 'magical autobiography'. The author has some spiritual beliefs they want to convey, so they write it into a novel where they relate a journey of discovery and the dividing line between fact and fiction is blurred. Some things are presented as fact, sitting alongside nonsense like Mayans vanishing into a new realm, the sad truth being that some people will believe this as well. As well as this tactic, Millman's Socrates is a tough cookie, a harsh teacher, who sometimes reacts with scorn or outrage towards his pupil, because the pupil is so unenlightened and stupid. This also happens in The Phoenix Project - as if to say, until you are inducted into my enlightened ways, you are an idiot, and when you are eventually 'in the know', you will treat the uninitiated as idiots too.

I'm not saying The Phoenix Project is as bad as those other books - I just noticed the tropes of the mysterious, wise, eccentric teacher, and the worldview of the authors being divulged in a cack-handed, unsubtle way via a novel. Plus, The Three Ways sound like mystical bullshit, though in fact they aren't. They just sound a lot like they are. The views of the Phoenix Project authors are about how to get the best out of IT, and it's all perfectly sensible. The views of Redfield and Millman are drivel.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Books Read in February 2017

February  2017 Books

Here's the book I read in February 2017 and what I thought of it.

Horror: A Literary History edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Turns out horror wasn't even a distinct genre until the twentieth century. This collection of seven essays charts the history of stories that provoke a feeling of fear or repulsion, starting in the eighteenth century with the 'horrible romances' of Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, graveyard poetry (hadn't heard of that before), Matthew Lewis's fantastic The Monk, and the Big Daddy, Frankenstein.

It goes on to talk about the origins of American horror, like seventeenth and eighteenth century captivity narratives, where white women were kidnapped, incarcerated and abused by Native Americans. The Salem witch trials of the 1690s and the dark, extreme beliefs of the Puritans also had a profound impact on the American horror to come - dangerous religious zeal and murderous irrationalism cropped up in nineteenth century witch trials stories, and Arthur Miller's 1953 The Crucible, for example. There's a section on Edgar Allan Poe, because he really was the father of American horror, a gigantic influence on everyone who followed.

Next is a look at nineteenth-century Britain, and the fact that there were horrific bits in Eliot, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, etc but still no proper horror genre. There were grisly medical casebook tales, and penny dreadfuls depicting bloody murders. It's not until the 1880s we start getting 'proper horror', or at least a Victorian Gothic revival, in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), Arthur Machen's The Three Imposters (1895), and Dracula (1897).

The twentieth century sees H.P. Lovecraft write his cosmic horror, continuing a trend where horror stops having religious dimensions, as in the eighteenth century Gothic stuff, and becomes more about psychology and biology - the degenerate Morlocks in The Time Machine, the monstrous transformation of Dr Jekyll, the madness that afflicts puny humans confronted by the Cthulhu Mythos, the virus-infected zombies of the brilliant I Am Legend, leading right up to Norman Bates in Psycho.

The 1980s horror boom is discussed, with leading writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert, Ramsey Campbell, and Peter Straub, who came by way of Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Dennis Wheatley, via the odd 1950s EC horror comic and pulp magazine Weird Tales. Then on to the nihilistic turn-of-the-century books of American Psycho and Fight Club, both bringing out the darkness of modern, humdrum Western life. And ending with horror video games, and the 'new weird' fiction of the twenty-first century, the extra-gloomy Thomas Ligotti, and Laird Barron, both reimagining Lovecraftian terror in new, interesting ways.

It's a good read for weirdos like me who are into this kind of thing. I wasn't really aware of the distinction between 'terror' and 'horror' before reading this, apart from the dictionary definitions being a bit different, but apparently it's of great importance. Some authors try to horrify, some to terrify (which is considered the higher literary ambition), some to do both. As long as we keep getting interesting, creepy, atmospheric tales, I'm satisfied.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Books Read in January 2017

January 2017 Books

Here's the books I read in January 2017 and what I thought of them.

American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis
Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson
The Thing Itself - Adam Roberts
Red Rising - Pierce Brown

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

I don't expect to write anything original about this, seeing as it's widely considered a modern classic and has been literarily criticised to death, but here's my twopence-worth.

I'd heard this was a deliberately boring book, in order to highlight the banality of the modern materialistic world. So I expected to be bored, which is maybe why I liked it so much, because although a lot of it is boring, it's boring in an entertaining way. Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street hotshot, describes what he and the people he meets are wearing before anything else. He is obsessed with going to the best, hippest restaurants and clubs that Manhattan has to offer. He is completely superficial, and so are his friends, though he moans about them so much you can't really call them that. He is engaged to Evelyn who he seems to have no feelings for, and is having an affair with Courtney, the girlfriend of a co-worker. He becomes very anxious if his social status is in any way tarnished.

He sometimes describes things cinematically, saying things like 'smash cut' or 'pan' or 'scene', which makes you wonder if what he's describing in the story is real or him pretending he's in a film. He details very violent murders, shockingly gory, even to me, who grew up reading Stephen King, James Herbert and Clive Barker. I mean, blimey. Patrick does some stuff that forces you to look up from the book and take a glassy-eyed, exhaling-in-disbelief break from it all.

Characters in the book call Patrick by different names, and other people are misidentified, as if they can't be differentiated - they're all interchangeable, which in fact is what Bateman himself says at one stage. He uses aliases himself (Marcus Halberstram being one), but I wondered if Bateman, with his great physique, his attractiveness to women, his extravagant lifestyle, wasn't just someone called Marcus Halberstram fantasising about being the successful Patrick Bateman. Even the murders that take place are possible fantasies - is Bateman/Halberstram trying to spice up his dull life with dreams of obscene violence? He rents out violent films and porn from the video shop - is the narrator just a loser dreaming up the high life peppered with savage bouts of homicide? Is he a closet homosexual, rather than the hetero stud portrayed? He goes into the toilet cubicle his colleague has entered, to 'strangle' him, but did he really intend to kill him? Is he just bullshitting us with the 'oh I was going to murder him' line? He reacts homophobically when his colleague mistakes the attempted murder as a come-on, and Bateman can't stand to be around him after that - dost he protest too much?

It's not really clear what's going on, in the end, or who is really narrating the story, or what is real or what is fantasy (I expect the Cheerio he watches being interviewed on The Patty Winters Show is the latter). For a book all about superficiality, it feels pretty deep, not that I'm saying I understand it. I'm just saying I liked it. (And talking of superficiality, it mentions Donald Trump quite a lot.)

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

A starship sets off from Saturn in 2545 AD with a crew of 2,000, headed for the star Tau Ceti, 11 light-years away. The book starts in the 28th century, one-hunded-and-sixty years after launch, with all the original crew dead, and their descendants continuing the voyage.

Devi, the de facto head engineer of the ship, deals with problems on a regular basis - there is always something going wrong somewhere, threatening the crew's survival. She works closely with the ship's artificial intelligence, and gets it to write a narrative of their voyage, partly as an exercise for the AI, and partly because she thinks it would be useful to have a condensed story of their journey. So most of the book is the AI's narrative, with a few false starts as the AI tries to work out how best to tell the tale. It decides to focus on the story of Freya, Devi's daughter, and her travels around the starship, with its twenty-four habitats or biomes, each one a giant cylinder containing a different kind of Earth environment - rainforest, savannah, temperate forest, etc.

It's not long before they reach their destination, Aurora, their name for an Earth-like moon circling Tau Ceti's Planet E. That's where things start to get interesting, so obviously I'll stop there with the plot shizzle.

I really liked this book. I've liked Kim Stanley Robinson's stuff ever since I started on Red Mars, the first of his Mars trilogy. He is a hard sci-fi writer, with a lot of technical detail, and it's sometimes a little hard to get through. In the Mars book, he will spend pages describing the new colours the settlers see on Mars, or how they organise their societies, politics and conferences, but it all adds to the believability of the story. His characters are well-rounded, his writing is good, and he is full of interesting ideas.

As well as the Mars trilogy, I liked his alternate history The Years of Rice and Salt, in which European civilisation is decimated by the Black Death so that other cultures become dominant, Shaman, set in the world of prehistoric humans and Neanderthals, and 2312, describing the colonisation of the solar system.

Aurora is equally good. I was fascinated by the problems and dangers the colonists faced, really getting drawn into it, willing them on. The way the AI develops is interesting - not the usual 'AI is bad and tries to kill us' cliche, but something that felt more considered and realistic. The colonisation of Aurora is another non-cliche, going in unexpected directions, and examining the whole idea of what might or might not be possible. It's interesting to compare the AI's attitude against that of the humans who sent the starships off to other stars, and even against that of the humans who agreed to be the first generation aboard these expeditions. What about the first generations' children? They hadn't chosen to live and die on a starship, their parents had, so what responsibility did the parents have for that? The book also offers an answer to the Fermi Paradox - if there are so many seemingly habitable planets in the universe, where are all the aliens? The ideas come thick and fast - how do you tell a story, how do people resolve conflicts, how far can we progress as a species, how would space travel be accomplished within the constraints of the laws of physics?

It all ends on an uplifting note, and makes a good point, though not the sort of point a lot of other sci-fi does. Sorry to be vague. You'll just have to read it.

The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

At the end of 2016 I saw a link on Twitter to an interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, here. He talks about how humans perceive the world through their senses, and our brains make up what they think is out there in the world. His computer modelling suggests it's possible that what we see isn't really what's there. That reality might be too complicated for our brains to accurately see, so what we see is a simplified version. He says it's like the desktop of a computer. You see a file icon on the desktop, and you can see it's a Word document because of how the icon looks. But the file itself isn't the icon, it's a string of binary numbers stored electronically in a complex machine which is rendered on-screen using lots of complicated computer code, also stored on the complex machine. There's much more to it than the icon, but the icon hides the complexity because you don't need to know all extra crap, you just need to know there's a file you can click on.

His computer models showed that human perception could have evolved to produce a mere rough approximation of reality, using symbols to hide the actual complexity, and we don't need to go to the extra effort of more accurately working out what's out in the world. In fact, organisms that bother to go the extra mile and accurately perceive the world could be outcompeted by organisms taking shortcuts and approximating.

Then I found this book, by accident, and it was perfect timing. It's about just this subject. What if the real world was nothing like the world we think we know? What if everything we assumed was reality was all in our heads, and we were physically unable to see the real world, because it was too complicated, or not useful for our survival?

Immanuel Kant features heavily in The Thing Itself. In fact, he coined that very term, but in German it's Ding an sich. He brings up this idea of what we can really perceive with our limited senses in Critique of Pure Reason.

In The Thing Itself, SETI researchers in Antarctica listen for little green men, and Charles, the main character, has a highly disturbing experience when it seems the veil between himself and the unfiltered real world is lifted for a moment. It has effects that last the rest of his life. And the Fermi Paradox comes up again, as in Aurora. Only this time, the answer to the paradox is: what if humans translate the world of the Ding an sich completely differently to aliens? We see other people, trees, the galaxies, space itself, and we feel the passage of time, because that's how our minds interpret the world out there. Aliens might see it another way, perceiving it in ways unimaginable to us. And the worlds humans and aliens perceive might not overlap, so we may be mutually unable to perceive each other. It's a total mind-blower.

It's not just the ideas that are great in The Thing Itself. There are seemingly unrelated chapters breaking up the main story, with different characters, settings, times and styles. There's one written like a Victorian travelogue. Another written without punctuation, a breathless whirl about illicit romance and pregnancy. Another written in seventeenth century English: "My lord the Judge squeez'd my Hand, &d smil'd, &d said he is indeed a man of good parts." Like a Guardian review said, 'this is really walking the literary high wire'.

The philosophy gets rather heavy, but only rarely, with most of it clearly explained and accessible. The unrelated chapters come together in a satisfying way, while leaving enough unexplained to keep it interesting. The final chapter is bittersweet and touching and feels like an fitting ending.

A clever, beautifully-written story bursting with ideas and ingenuity. I loved it! Get. Read. Enjoy.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

A friend recommended Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card a few years ago. It's Young Adult sci-fi about a boy, Ender, who attends a futuristic naval academy to learn how to command space ships. Most of the book is a sequence of war games which the ingenious Ender excels at, becoming evermore skillful.

It didn't really do it for me. The war games weren't very interesting. Scene after scene of military tactics isn't what I'm after. There's more to the book than that, but still... Quite predictable and just... all right.

Another friend recommended Red Rising recently. It's set on Mars. Good, I thought, I like Mars. Kim Stanley Robinson did good things with Mars. I can't see it being as good as his stuff, but I'll give it a go.

I didn't like it. I don't think I'm the book's target audience. It's mostly about war games on a terraformed Mars between adolescents from the upper echelons of society, fighting each other to learn about life and hardship in a kind of Martian School of Extremely Hard Knocks.

It's written in a kind of melodramatic, grand, semi-mythical style. Characters fall to their knees when overcome by emotion. The protagonist, Darrow, has a grand opinion of himself. He is handsome. He is dextrous. He is the best. He speaks of strength, vengeance, lions, glory, power, rage, etc. It's peppered with daft made-up swear words like 'bloodydamn' because as YA fiction, it can't use anything too rude. And, for me, it felt like a rehash of Ender's Game, a load of kids battling through war games, with extra brutality. I can see that if you let it, the grand style and no-holds-barred passion of it all would sweep you off and make it exciting and gripping. But it didn't work for me, it was a slog to get through, I didn't care about the characters or what was taking place.

I'm not a YA snob. I don't read much of it, just because there's so much else to read and why bother with YA when I'm not, strictly speaking, a YA. But His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman was one of the best book series I've ever read.

Red Rising didn't have the same impact.

(By the way, it's one of those guts-n-glory, blood and thunder type stories, with lots of violence, cruelty and passion. One of these kinds of books I did like is Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert. It's set in Carthage in the 3rd century BC, and as Wikipedia has it, it is a 'melodramatic, blood-soaked tale' and is 'largely an exercise in sensuous and violent exoticism'. I loved it.)