Thursday, November 22, 2012

Reading Choices

   This has been a really good week for reading. The three books I've read this week have all been exciting, well-written, and thought-provoking - two Advance Reading Copies: 'Nexus' by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot, Jan 2013) and 'Pantomime' by Laura Lam (Strange Chemistry, Feb 2013), and one from the 'To Be Read' pile: 'Mortal Engines' by Philip Reeve (Scholastic UK, 2001).
Omnibus ed: Angry Robot, £12.99
   I've been meaning to write about Angry Robot for a while. Since I started researching new science fiction titles to order in to the shop, they've become one of my favourite publishers. So many of the most exciting and innovative new titles are coming from there. Lavie Tidhar (who a few weeks ago won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for his newest novel 'Osama') first published his amazing Bookman stories ('The Bookman', 'Camera Obscura', and 'The Great Game') with Angry Robot beginning in 2010. The cover design has consistently been excellent (check out images online for 'Empire State' by Adam Christopher, 'Zoo City' by Lauren Beukes, and 'The Damned Busters' by Matthew Hughes). Strange Chemistry is Angry Robot's new Young Adult imprint, so the success of this week's reading is really a double whammy for them. 
Angry Robot, £8.99
  'Nexus' is a thrilling near-future science fiction tale of human modification and enhancement. Kaden Lane is a young scientist working illegally on the next generation of a mind-linking nano-drug called Nexus. The possible uses of his alterations to the drug are not lost on US military agencies, and he soon gets caught up in a storm of espionage and real physical danger. I was struck very early on in this story by how detailed and well-researched it was, so it came as no surprise for me to discover that the author, Ramez Naam, is a professional technologist who has previously written a non-fiction book on the subject - 'More Than Human: Embracing the promise of biological enhancement'. What was a surprise, then, was how well-written the action scenes were, and how believable and moving the emotional ones. I did find some of the technological exposition a little clunky as the novel went on, but this really is a minor quibble, and I think this book definitely has broad appeal. 
Angry Robot, £7.99
   In contrast to the hard  and technologically-advanced science fiction world of 'Nexus', the world of 'Pantomime' is a colourful world rebuilding after the near-destruction of previous civilisations. Nobles of the present day collect items known as 'Vestiges' - remnants of these previous civilisations which mystify with their strange powers. Micah Grey is a young man who has just run away from home, and manages to join a circus due to his preternatural climbing skills. But his real name is not Micah, and indeed he is not really a young man at all. I flew through this fascinating story last night and this morning, completely captivated by the mystery of this main character as he struggles with issues of gender, identity, and sexuality. This would be an interesting enough story with just these elements, but the backdrop of the new world of Ellada, of strange personal interactions with apparently technological Vestiges, of the myths of Kedi - wonderful beings worshipped by past civilisations, and of allies and enemies in the circus, make it a much more complete creation, and seem to be evidence of a writer with many wonderful ideas.  
New ed: Scholastic, £6.99
   I've been meaning to read Philip Reeve's 'Mortal Engines' for a long time, having read and adored two parts of his prequel trilogy to this series 'Fever Crumb' and 'Web of Air'. In the future, centuries after an apocalypse of some sort, cities and towns are mechanised to allow them to roam the devastated landscape scavenging for parts, fuel, and food for their citizens. Tom Natsworthy is an apprentice Historian, training in the recovery of old Tech (seedees and other computer parts) and artifacts. When he foils an attempt on the life of the Head Historian and is thrown from the moving city of London by the same Head Historian in thanks for his efforts, he is forced to reassess everything he thinks he knows about this man and about his city. He teams up with the would-be assassin, a hideously scarred girl called Hester Shaw, and together they make their way on the ground, investigating the reasons for London's sudden foray into the Great Hunting Ground, and the consequences of that for their world and for their new friends. I was reminded while reading this book of China Miéville's second Bas-Lag novel 'The Scar'. 'The Scar' features a ship/raft conglomeration in the same way that 'Mortal Engines' has moving cities as its main locations, and the people of both novels are diverse, confusing, and multicultural, forming a similar tone and background to both stories. I can't wait to continue with Reeve's series!
   This consistency of this week's choices immediately makes me think of how often I've got books wrong. I've picked a book based on the cover, author, blurb, reviews, adaptations, and it has often gone horribly wrong. I didn't enjoy J.K. Rowling's recent blockbuster 'The Casual Vacancy' - too much gritty real-life for me. I unfortunately hated Charlaine Harris' wildly popular Sookie Stackhouse series (the basis for the 'True Blood' TV series, which I did like) - I couldn't stand the style of writing, and can't understand how so many readers can endure the writing to find out what happens to the characters. When I read Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant years ago, I disliked his language and style. Although, it's such a long time since I read those that I should give them another chance, but I'm sure I'll never have time for that, when there's so much else to read.
   When I remind myself of those books, I'm glad that my 'To Be Read' pile is looking so good at the moment, with lots of interesting older paperbacks, and some lovely ARCs - Cassandra Rose Clarke's 'The Mad Scientist's Daughter', Anne Lyle's 'The Merchant of Dreams', and Lisa Graff's 'A Tangle of Knots'. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Early Reader

   When we were younger, nobody had as much money as they do now to spend on completely dispensable items. And however much you love reading and feel that you couldn't live without it, that's exactly what books are. The books we read were all borrowed from the library, bought at charity and second-hand shops, on loan from friends. The books which accompanied me through my childhood were, for the most part, old. Delightfully battered paperbacks which had been in the family for years, picture books with that one little scribble, deliciously obscure volumes which would be next to impossible to find today.
   What I've realised while trying to make any kind of list of the books I particularly loved as a child is that they fall into broadly the same categories as the books I love now. Was my character, were my tastes formed so early? I fell straight into reading fantasy, historical fiction, natural history, and mysteries, with occasional side-helpings of 'anything I could get my hands on'. From a young age I appear to have been carefully selecting my reading material from among what was available at home, and nurturing my own reading habit. All of the books I'll mention in this post are ones which I still feel very passionate about, and would reread in a heartbeat.
   I suppose I should start reeling off titles now. Let's assume that I read and loved most of the childrens' classics - it will save so much time and typing. 'The Secret Garden', 'Anne of Green Gables', the Narnia series, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, 'A Little Princess', the Doctor Doolittle series, 'Ballet Shoes', the Pippi Longstocking and Mary Poppins series, Asterix and Tintin  - all these and more I read and reread as I grew up. 
Old book - buy secondhand
   Attempting some sort of order, two picture books I loved (and still own) were 'The Farmer and the Moon' by Annaliese Lussert and 'Rechenka's Eggs' by Patricia Polacco. The first is a parable of generosity and kindness, involving a poor farmer being able to retrieve the silver reflection of the moon from a pond, while the rich farmer cannot. The second is a simple tale of the decorating of eggs by a Babushka in Russia - when an adopted and injured goose breaks all the eggs Babushka has painstakingly decorated, it starts to lay intricately decorated eggs to repay her kindness.
   We had a number of books on cassette tape which we listened to on long car journeys, of which there were plenty. Luckily we loved the stories so much that we didn't mind listening to the same ones over and over again. We had 'The Butterfly Lion' by Michael Morpurgo, 'The Cuckoo Child' by Dick King-Smith, the Sophie series also by Dick King-Smith, and some particularly brilliant recordings of 'Danny the Champion of the World' and 'George's Marvellous Medicine'
Old book - secondhand
   I always loved books about animals, whether that meant natural history (Gerald Durrell and Jim Herriot), books with animals as the main character ('Bel Ria' by Sheila Burnford and 'Thomasina' by Paul Gallico were two particular favourites), or stories of highly anthropomorphised woodland creatures (Brian Jacques' Redwall series). Years later, while a teenager, I read Rumer Godden's 'The Dark Horse', which remains one of my favourite books ever. 
   My mother found me one of the Professor Branestawm books at one stage, telling me that they were favourites of hers as a child. And I loved them. Norman Hunter's classic books tell the story of the quintessential absent-minded genius professor. Branestawm wears five pairs of spectacles – one for reading, one for writing, one for out of doors, one for looking at you over the top of and a fifth pair for looking for the others on the frequent occasions when they get lost. Someday I'll pass on 'The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm' to a child, and keep the wheel turning.
   On holiday one year, we were all allowed to get one book in a local bookshop. I picked a graphic novel version of 'Ivanhoe' by Sir Walter Scott, which I loved. My other historical fiction favourites were 'Tristan and Iseult' by Rosemary Sutcliff, 'The Children of the New Forest' by Frederick Marryat, 'Little House in the Big Woods' by Laura Ingalls Wilder, 'The Silver Sword' by Ian Serraillier, and Henry Treece's Viking series.  
New ed: Walker, £4.99
   Good fantasy often springs directly from mythology, and there were many volumes of myth and legend which I loved. I bought Jamila Gavin's 'Three Indian Princesses' for myself from a book token I got as a present when I was six; this beautiful volume contains the stories of the princesses Savitri, Damayanti, and Sita, and I read it endlessly. Michael Scott's superb De Danann series ('Windlord', 'Earthlord', and 'Firelord') are based on Irish mythology, and of course the classic myths such as the stories of Momotarō, the Japanese peach boy, of Väinämöinen stealing the Sampo, of Baba Yaga in her hut which stands on chicken legs, of Sigurd and the dragon, and of Sundiata's reclamation of his rightful throne were favourites. Alan Garner's classics 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' and 'The Owl Service' are based on, respectively English and Welsh mythology, with a sprinkling of other mythologies thrown into the first, which has a broader range. 'The Owl Service' is still one of my favourite books - atmospheric, suspenseful, and powerful. 
New ed: Lion Hudson, £6.99
   Classic fantasy such as 'The Hobbit' soon followed, as did beautiful tales like 'The Little White Horse' by Elizabeth Goudge, 'Tom's Midnight Garden' by Philippa Pearce, Ursula le Guin's be-all and end-all Earthsea trilogy (afterwards to become a quintet), and the marvellous 'The Rout of the Ollafubs' by Katharine Lethbridge, which absolutely defies description. 
   I'm sure in days to come many more titles will occur to me accompanied by flashes of blinding light, but I think what I have here is enough for one evening anyway.  
  What is it about the books we read as children that makes our memories of them so enduring, and so fond? Would any book read at that age have had as powerful an impression, or is it also dependent on the material? Whatever the reason, I've found that remembering these amazing books is a source of great joy and enthusiasm, as I put on my bookseller's badge and get ready to pass these gems on to another generation.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Recent Reading

   Let me tell you about a few other books I've read recently. I've decided I'd rather tell you a bit about a lot of books than either get stressed about being so late with proper reviews or just not writing about them at all.
Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99
   I had never read any Tad Williams until a few weeks ago. I realise this is a ridiculous state of affairs for someone who identifies as a fantasy fan, but there you go. I had the very lucky chance to read an advance digital edition of his newest book 'The Dirty Streets of Heaven' and really enjoyed it. Bobby Dollar is an angel who's putting in his time on Earth trying to get the souls of the departed into Heaven. He's a very small part of a huge bureaucratic machine, operating his little beat in California, having little idea who his ultimate boss is or what the point of the whole thing is. He's an intriguing character - a heavenly being who enjoys his booze, fast cars, and is fascinated by a sexy demonic opponent. His story is a cool cross between classic crime noir and modern urban fantasy - a winning mix, it would seem!
Penguin, £5.99
   I finally read a book I'd been meaning to read for a long time - 'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins. I got the gorgeous new Penguin English Library edition - if you haven't seen these, they really are beautifully designed, and the inside print has been redone, which is often a quibble of mine when the classics are rejacketed. An image which frequently popped into my head as I was reading was of Agatha Christie reading the book and thinking "I could do this, and probably in a quarter of the space". Which is to some extent a criticism, but I did enjoy the read. Collins' characters are exceptionally well-drawn, from Betteredge the epitome of a perfect servant to Miss Clack, an infuriating evangelist. Ill-fated couple Rachel Verinder and Franklin Blake are divided when a magnificent Indian diamond (the Moonstone) is stolen on her birthday. What is the meaning of the rumour of a curse on the diamond? Who were the mysterious Indian jugglers seen near the house on the night in question? What part do the sinister 'shivering sands' play? It was the original detective mystery, so if you're a fan of that genre, off you go!
Vintage, £16.99
   I haven't been reading much non-fiction lately, but one unusual book I found really piqued my interest - Frank Westerman's 'Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse'. This is a fascinating discussion of the 20th century history of the Lipizzaner horse in the context of world wars, upheaval all over Europe, and in particular a general obsession (brought to its height by Hitler and other prominent Nazis) with race and purity. "For a Lipizzaner to be recognised as such, Austria applies a set of obligatory physical standards... Inadvertently, these... resemble the Nazis 'Aryan tables'." Westerman explores the movement of Lipizzaners all over the continent, as scientists struggled towards a perfect horse, discusses the rise and fall of opposing trains of thought on genetics, and all in a very accessible, personal but objective, journalistic style. If you're at all interested in the social history of the last century on the continent, or indeed a fan of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, this book is a great new perspective - a mix of history, science, travel writing, and memoir... and a great read. 
   What's next on my pile? Well, depending on mood and opportunity, I'll be tackling Mary Elizabeth Braddon's 'Lady Audley's Secret', Philip Reeve's 'Mothstorm' and 'Mortal Engines', James Smythe's 'The Explorer', Alexandre Dumas' 'The Queen's Necklace', H.G. Wells' 'The War of the Worlds', Mette Jakobsen's 'The Vanishing Act', Laurence O' Bryan's 'The Istanbul Puzzle', and Silvana De Mari's 'The Last Elf'. And that's just to start with!

A Reading Maze

Orion, £7.99
   I'm reading three books at the moment. I don't know how many people do this, but I can't imagine any other way of organising myself.
   Last week, I started reading Justin Cronin's 'The Passage'. I was gripped right from the start by this one, beginning as it does with subtly and implicitly horrific goings-on in the Amazon Jungle. If it wasn't for the sheer size of the book (1000 pages in my paperback edition), I think it would be a great introduction to the science fiction/fantasy genre for anyone, given how frequently we come across the post-apocalyptic trope in TV and cinema. I know I'm arriving very late to the game with this one, but when I saw the sequel 'The Twelve' arrive into the shop, I knew the time had come.
Hodder & Stoughton, £7.99
   One of my problems with this book was that I don't usually read scary, spooky, or freaky books. So, after reading for a while each night, I needed a chapter of something else to allow me to sleep and keep the nightmares away. Something such as Jasper Fforde's latest Thursday Next blockbuster 'The Woman Who Died a Lot'. This is a series, and an author, that I unreservedly recommend to absolutely anyone. Thursday Next is a literary detective: in earlier books she works for SpecOps 27 and spends her days investigating fake Shakespeare manuscripts and discouraging Tennyson zealots; later on in the series she goes to work inside the Bookworld, which is to say inside books themselves, tackling Grammasites and retrieving stowaway characters. A few minutes of the wit and levity of this book have been enough to banish nightmares of vampire monsters.
Penguin, £9.99
   Another problem I had with 'The Passage' is that its size renders it very impractical as a book to bring along when I have an appointment with the orthodontist (two 30 minute bus journeys and some waiting). So I turned to a new discovery, Peter Mayle's 'Toujours Provence'. I had read 'A Year in Provence' (loved) and 'Encore Provence' (liked), so I was thrilled to find this one second-hand. It's just as engaging and evocative as the first, and a lovely neat size for carrying around in a handbag.
Penguin, £9.99
   Another obstacle to finishing 'The Passage' cropped up in the form of our book club choice 'The Man in the High Castle' by Philip K. Dick, which I frantically read over two nights this week. I have to admit (sacrilegious though it may be) that I wasn't crazy about this one. This 1960s-set tale of a world in which the Axis powers triumphed in the Second World War features a USA divided between Germany and Japan, a rocket commute between Germany and California which takes 30 minutes, a controversial banned book which explores the alternative history of the Allies winning the war, and some very distinctive dialogue as the formal and hierarchical Japanese culture adjusts to the English language. It was not a very popular book club read, but we got a good discussion out of it, so that's the important thing!
   So we're now two weeks later, and I've got three half-read books to show for my efforts. I can't wait for the feeling of achievement I'll get when I finish them all!