2021 in books (October – December)

Books

Here we are, racing into yet another new year already! I hope everyone is settled into their routines and is tackling January as best as they can.

Last year seemed to get busier as we progressed through to Christmas for me. Some of it therapy related, some of it music related (on that note, keep your eyes peeled for a new announcement by the end of the month about an exciting new project). It seems like reading time was well and truly diminished. My New Year’s resolution is to always make time for reading! Nevertheless, here are my customary reviews of the titles I did manage to read from October to the end of the year…

Child I by Steve Tasane (2018, Faber & Faber)

Lauded novelist and performance poet Steve Tasane is the son of a refugee himself. He wrote this story to highlight that which us desired by all children: the want to beling;the want to not be hungry”; the want “just to be able to laugh and play”.

The novel, aimed at young adults, focuses in a small group of unaccompanied children in a mud-soaked refugee camp. It is a sparse, poetically written and moving tale about children without any proof of identity, stateless and lost. But what caught my eye was the presentation of this book, starting as it does right at the beginning, on the very front cover

Such an unusual stylistic choice shouldn’t have caught me so off-guard, but I found myself a page or in before I realised it wasn’t merely a text-heavy cover page. Yet, it makes sense. Why would a refugee used to precious few resources waste paper?

Leah Price wrote about the layout of books in her book about books, reviewed here. Similarly, this short story (just 186 pages) certainly made me reconsider the accepted form most of our books are packaged in, and nowadays taken for granted. Why exactly do we need those introductory leaves in the same order each time?

However, the real thought-provoking issue isn’t the format in which the text is presented but the way it gives life to paperless, and in this book, nameless (each child is assigned initials, used throughout the book, as the authorities are unable to confirm their real names), children such as Child I, our eponymous narrator. This brief but beautiful book is not just for young adults, but for all.

Confronting the classics: traditions, adventures and innovations by Mary Beard (2013, Profile)

Following last month’s special instalment on Roman history titles, I found myself picking this collection of essays off the shelf of a local charity shop. And once again, it’s not a typical book. Rather, it is a series of Beard’s book reviews from the last couple of decades, collated here along with her ‘manifesto’ on whether the classics have a future, and her rationale for using reviews a means of widening historical debate. On that score, Beard will find no argument from me – as one who publishes succinct reviews of every book I read every quarter, who am I to judge?

In previous installments, I have recommended essay collections. I find them an enjoyable way to learn something on a subject where an entire book might dissuade you from reading about it altogether. They are also perfect for shorter time frames, where one chapter or subject can be finished in one sitting. In this collection, Beard praises, critiques, questions and in some cases outright savages the work of her peers,but maintains her vivid style of wit and enthusiasm throughout. She regularly highlights how source material can be selectivity interpreted when authors are attempting to make a particular argument, forcing one to rethink how we read history.

After reading Beard’s reviews, I came away with a very good sense of what the original book was getting at, without having to read it. In a sense, this books gives you over thirty for the price of one! Even the most casual fans of classical history should cast their eye over this collection.

The Monk of Mokka by Dave Eggers (2016,)

I actually read this over the summer, but as it was the only book that wasn’t in some way related to Roman history, I decided to hold back my review until this installment.

Eggers brings us a tale on behalf of Mokhtar, a Yemini raised in San Francisco. Almost through chance, an aimless Mokhtar develops a passion for coffee and sets off on a mission to bring coffee from Yemen back to the global market – just as civil war breaks out in his homeland. As well as learning about the process the beans go through before they reach our cups, we follow Makhtar’s attempts to escape the country, not only with both his shipment of coffee beans, but with his life.In all honesty, the book is propelled by the story. The narrative is engaging where the writing is sometimes not, and it is string enough to keep one reading. Recommended mainly for coffee aficionados. You can read more about Mokhtar and his foundation at his Port of Mokha website.

Scandinavians: in search of the soul of the North by Robert Ferguson (2017, Head Zeus)

Ferguson looks back through the history of the Swedes, Danes and Norwegians to draw out what links them and what gives them their unique cultural personality. These dives into history are intersected with vignettes from the author’s own life, having travelled around and lived in various parts of Scandinavia in the last five decades.

Ferguson seeks to ascertain the origins of the Scandinavian character. In terms of the ‘brooding melancholia’ one might associate with the land of long winters nights and Scandi-noir drama, he points to various moments in their history, from the cultural drought brought about by Sweden’s reformation in the medieval period to the time of (playwright) Isben and (artist) Munch and their creative work full of intense angst. Ferguson examines not just the culture itself, but the effect on how outside nations perceive these three separate but interlinked nations.

Ferguson certainly a few interesting arguments. However, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive conclusion, and the book feels somewhat unfinished as a result. Worth a read for those interested in Scandinavian culture and history. It also highlights a few interesting locations to visit if you find yourself travelling there anytime soon.

My favourites from 2021

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Themis Files trilogy. I recommend it to any fans if science fiction looking for something a little different. I also enjoyed and recommend Yevgeny Zamyatin’s distopian tale We. These two were standouts in another good year of reading (both reviews can be read here).

I have noticed that I have shied away from music books in recent years, perhaps as they represent something of a busman’s holiday. However, there are a few music titles making their way into my to read pile along all the history and fiction, so watch this space…

As always, let me know what you’ve been reading, as well as your favourite books of 2021. In the meantime, stay safe and happy, until next time…

2021 in books: Science-fiction special (January-March)

Books

Well, here we are, three months into 2021 already. How’s this year looking for you, compared to it’s predecessor? Already it seems that there are reasons to be hopefully optimistic.

Last year, I made brief notes on every book I read (excluding the academic texts I had to consult as part of my psychotherapy work) and published mini reviews in four different blogs; one every quarter. You can find the most recent one by clicking here. I enjoy the process of revisiting what I had read and thinking about it a little more, so I have decided to do it all again this year.

Here are the titles I have read from the start of the year, up until the end of March. It was only in March itself that I realized that every title in this article could be considered science fiction. This was not intentional, not least as I had recently written about the genre of Mundane science-fiction – a category that would not include many of the novels I speak about here…

The second sleep by Robert Harris (2019, Arrow)

Set in the future, in a society which has reverted to a more middle-ages style of living, thanks to an unnamed disaster which has apparently happened around the time of our own present. Harris paints an England without electricity, and where the church has once again become a force of power, and science is labelled as heresy. We follow a young priest sent to bury an older priest in a remote parish in Exmoor, only to discover the deceased parson’s collection of ‘pre-Armageddon’ artifacts, which set him down a path which makes him question what he has been taught. This book provides mystery, thought experiment, sexual tension and archaeology – all in a little over 400 pages!

I’ve read a few of Harris’s novels, and found them all to be similarly fast-paced. Easy read they may be, but not for lack of detail. I heartily recommend this book, and if you find you enjoy it, perhaps try Fatherland (similar to this novel, in that it is an alternate version of 20th century history, with one major difference!) Conclave (set during a papal election) and Pompeii (the days leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, followed by the aftermath). Like The second sleep, these novels take place over a short period of time, usually about a week, which helps keep the plot moving quickly. Sometimes we need a nice, quick & easy read in our lives, and Harris is a great author for that.

On the steel breeze and Poseidon’s wake by Alastair Reynolds (2013 & 2015, Gollancz)

I read the first part of this sci-fi trilogy, Blue remembered Earth, towards the end of last year (read about it here). I decided to read both sequels back to back, to avoid forgetting too much of the detail, and in order to stay fully immersed in the world Reynolds has created in this story. That said, both of these books do enough of a job reintroducing you to recurring characters that they almost work as standalone novels, not least because the protagonists change with each novel, as time shifts forward a century or so with each installment.

Time-hops like this can be tricky to pull off, but Reynolds manages it here, without having to resort to Isaac Asimov’s method of using something akin to a chain of short stories in his excellent Foundation novels (the original first three, anyway). The story flows well, with enough science fantasy to be interesting, but not too much that it bogs the book down – plot is still very much the main driver of these books, especially as the final novel looked like it might wrap up some of the mysteries set out in the previous installments. However, there were a few minor errors in the paperback versions I was reading; really simple things which could have easily been avoided with more thorough proof-reading. Other than that, very enjoyable.

The Themis Files trilogy (Sleeping Giants; Waking Gods and Only Human) by Sylvain Neuvel (2016, 2017 & 2019, Del Ray)

Sleeping giants must have been on my bookshelf for a while, perhaps purchased as part of a 3-for-2 offer at one of the more well-known bookstores. At 376 pages, it seemed a nice short book to enjoy after finishing the Poseidon’s Wake trilogy by Alastair Reynolds (see above). But as I started I realized – dammit! – it’s another trilogy! What happened to the good old standalone sci-fi book? Still, since each book is just over 300 pages or so, at least it didn’t take long to get through the entire trilogy…

These are a series of epistolary novels, meaning that the story is told in a series of documents, usually collections of letters, through which the wider plot is gleaned along with the insight of the characters. In the case of this trilogy, the short chapters include log entries and articles. However, they mostly take the form of transcribed interviews between the characters of the story, often with an anonymous, CIA-style interviewer. This can be a useful device for driving the plot forward, as well as maintaining suspense. However, at times I felt that the exposition was forced. At times, the characters seemed to be saying things which would have been unnecessary. It would have been more interesting to leave certain pieces of information out, to be revealed more subtly in later chapters. But here lies the biggest problem in composing a novel this way. How can one attempt to follow the golden writing rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ when a epistolary novel places so much emphasis on the tell, with very little show?

Despite this, the story was interesting and the entire trilogy was a very quick read. I found that I had settled into Neuvel’s style and enjoyed the story he spun over three short books. If you’ve never read a novel composed this way, I would recommend you give these books a go. They also serve as a way of stepping into science-fiction for those who haven’t really tried out the genre before.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924, This edition 2020, Penguin Classics Science Fiction)

The life story of Zamyatin is as interesting as this story, recognized as the inspiration for Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Escaping prison in his native Russia (for being anti-Tsar), Zamyatin finished his engineering studies, worked in England then returned back to his homeland in time for the 1918 October Revolution. However, he had a strong belief in allowing artists to have creative freedom. We is set in OneState, where the only ‘true’ happiness can come from a kind of subjugation in this futuristic communist state, where the inhabitants have numbers instead of names (such as the narrator and protagonist, D-503). Although he might not have been the first to write dystopian fiction (H.G. Wells and Jack London can both lay claim to getting there first), We served as an inspiration (direct or otherwise) for many future writers.

The first manuscript was smuggled out of Soviet Russia, and a translation by E.P. Dutton was published in New York in 1924. The republished edition I read was based on the more recent translation by Clarence Brown in 1993. It captures the dry, characteristically Russian humour that appears throughout the novel, as well as the slightly otherworldly sequences that help to confuse the readers – D-503 doesn’t know for sure if certain sections in his ‘notes’ (the novel) actually took place, or are merely dreams brought on by his ‘mental illness’ (referred to as ‘imagination’ and ‘developing a soul’). It is an interesting book, and slightly wacky in places. The only thing that didn’t sit comfortably with me was his regular reference to his friend’s ‘African lips’, hinting at non-Russian features which, while not immediately offensive, feel very much like a product of Zamyatin’s age that hasn’t stood the test of time very well. But read as a social criticism on one-party states and human nature, it continues to resonate.

The penultimate truth by Philip K. Dick (1964, Gollancz)

Less well-known than some of his other works, I found The Penultimate Truth surprisingly difficult to get into. At only 191 pages, it shouldn’t have been a slog, and the characters inhabit the story well. The story itself is an interesting one – most of humanity is living underground, believing World War Three continues to rage over them. In truth, the war only lasted two years and a small elite work to maintain the illusion to the masses in their ‘ant tanks’ while living in palacial villas on the surface. This much is on the back cover’s synopsis, so no real spoilers here. However, I spent most of the first half of he book with the feeling that it might have been better to withhold the ‘truth’ of the surface, adding a greater mystery element. A simple rearranging of the chapter order might have achieved this. Perhaps Dick was more concerned with the other themes which emerge towards the end of the story, and I’m sure this book has many fans. However, it took a while for me to get into this novel, which I considered abandoning.

Final thoughts

I mentioned at the start of this article that I had not intended for every book to be a work of science-fiction, and as enjoyable as it has been escaping to other fantastical lands, I feel the need to dive into a non-fiction book soon! I also noticed shifs in my initial expectations with some of these titles. I did not think I would enjoy the Themis Files series as much as I did, and I ended up a little disappointed with The Penultimate Truth. Similarly, We was a lot more trippy than I expected it to be, but that was no bad thing in and of itself.

These are, of course, my own opinions. As always, do let me know if you have read any of these titles, what your thoughts were, or even if you have any recommendations for me. I always love discovering new books and authors!

Mundane Science Fiction – taking the fantasy out of the future

Books

Ok, so I’m a music writer first and foremost. The vast majority of my posts are firmly in the Music or Music Therapy camps. However, I do occasionally venture away from music and enter the wider world, focusing on my other favourite subjects: history, politics, travel and of course, books (you can see the latest of my quarterly book reviews here).

Like most people who write, I’ve tried my hand at fiction. I’ve started around five or six ideas for stories, only three of which were long enough to become novels. Two of these were science fiction. My love of sci-fi comes from a childhood spent reading the greats such as Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Banks and many, many more. Anyone who states that the genre isn’t proper literature has most likely not read the right books. The imagination required to conjure up these worlds and peoples goes fast beyond the standard writing advice of ‘writing what you know’.

Critics of sci-fi do have one valid gripe: in all of the grandiose settings and fantastical elements of the genre, characterisation can sometimes suffer. It is certainly true that only the very best sci-fi combines the huge space-opera backdrop with the human elements of character-driven plot lines. In that regard, can too much imagination be a bad thing?

Enter the relatively new sub-genre of mundane science fiction, a term first coined by Geoff Ryman and others in 2004. Those of you who follow my music blogs will no doubt be aware I have a dislike of genres and labelling. Good music is good music – shouldn’t the same be true for fiction? Well, perhaps with a focus on characters and more believable conflicts, it can.

The best way to achieve this? Remove the supernova-sized set pieces; the spaceships travelling at light speed; aliens from other worlds; time travel; in fact, anything considered to be outside of our current understanding of physics and the universe as we perceive it.

The Guardian newspaper wrote an excellent piece in 2008 introducing readers to the genre, which you can read here. This article and the original blog by SFGenics explain mundane sci-fi so much better than I can, but the basics involve a lack of the ‘fantastical’ elements mentioned previously, focusing instead on human stories and character-driven plot/conflict.

Interestingly, I have noticed that most of the books considered part of this movement (if you want to call it that) are set in the present day, near or approaching future. There is almost no likelihood of seeing a mundane sci-fi novel taking place in the year 30,212 A.D. because who knows what the world will look like then, and how could such ignorance be presented as mundane?

Another noteworthy feature is a focus the dwindling resources of this planet. In forcing themselves to look inwards, rather than to the stars, many mundane sci-fi writers imagine a future where food is scare, or climate change has irreparably damaged our ecosystem. Their stories focus on how these environmental perils being either fought against, or survived through by the protagonists.

In the full Mundane Manifesto blog, (which can be found here), a few classic works are included, including ‘Do Androids dream Of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick, which became the classic movie Blade Runner, and ‘1984’ by George Orwell. These two contrasting examples of a near dystopian future should tell you that even without the wider galaxy to play with, there is plenty of interesting topics to be mined here on Earth.

To finish off, I’ll return to music an anecdote from Peter Gabriel. When working on one of his classic albums, he instructed the drummer not to play cymbals for the entire recording sessions. Effectively, he forbade cymbals from the entire album. While some might balk at such a draconian measure and say it’s a fast way to ruin his music, the end results were quite surprising. Forced out of his usual default playing patterns and styles, the drummer at these recording sessions had to entirely rethink his drum kit. Approaching it in this fresh manner brought out rhythms he would have never dreamt up otherwise.

As well as this, I have previously written on the amazing results pulled off by the late record producer George Martin in a previous blog post. Martin had severe limitations on the equipment he was using, but with The Beatles, created the most technically astonishing music, certainly for their time. Some might use that example of ‘removing the safety net’, but to me, it stands as proof that sometimes creativity works better within limitations. As I said earlier, what applies to music can also apply to fiction. Sometimes to ‘think outside of the box’, one has to be in a box to start with!

So what do you think? Get in touch and let me know!