2021 in books (April – June)

Books

Where does the time go?

The last few months have been incredibly busy. Live performances might still be few and far between (only one so far this year) but upcoming changes to my music therapy work have kept me in the office more than usual. I found myself lacking the energy or will to read at times, but lie most things in life, this too passed…

Here are the books I did manage to read in the last three months. They’re a bit of a mixed bag. More than ever, they made me think about other books I’ve read, some of which I have recommended below at appropriate points. Let’s dive in…

A moveable feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964, Vintage)

Hemingway’s account of his time in Paris, from around 1920-1926, was written in the last years of his life, at a distance of over three decades. It gives some insight into his method of working, at least at the time, as well as his opinions on other famous figures whom he came into contact with, including Scott F. Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach (proprietor of the famous Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on Paris’ Left Banke).

This memoir is an interesting dive into one period of the life of a man considered to be one of the Great American Novelists. It paints a strong picture of the streets and scenes of the City of Light during the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’. However, don’t rely on it as a guide book. Almost a century on, Paris has changed, making this book of short, descriptive chapters something of a time capsule.

This book is one of many I’ve read about Paris, the ‘City of Light’. Despite their proximity to Britain and the intertwining histories of both nations, there’s so much to be learned from looking into the past of one of the UK’s closest neighbours. Other books on France and Paris which might be worth your time:

  • For a more up to date and light-hearted look at France’s wonderful capital, try Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke. Chapters are divided by subject such as food, addrosiments, apartments and the Parisiennes themselves, all from the loving but bemused perspective of a Brit who has lived there for years (2011, Black Swan)
  • The Little Pleasures of Paris, meanwhile, is more of a small coffee-table book. Author Leslie Jonath divides the things she adores about the City of Light into four sections; one for each season. Each entry is short, but accompanied by beautifully chic illustrations by Lizzie Stewart (2016, Chronicle)
  • Jeremy Mercer’s Bedbugs and Baguettes is partly the memoirs of his time in Paris, and partly the history of where he ends up staying, the famous Left Banke bookshop Shakespeare & Co (named after the original shop, which had closed years before), as well as its colourful owner, George. One for bibliophiles (2007, Magna)
  • For a more general overview of the nation’s history, Modern France by Jonathan Fenby offers a fascinating insight into the how France got to where it is now, starting with the revolution of 1789 (2015, Simon and Schuster)

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (2013, Transworld)

Loaned to me by a friend, this fast-paced thriller is the debut novel of the screenwriter behind Mad Max 2, Dead Calm, Payback and From Hell, among many others. Two quotes from John Le Carre and Raymond Chandler at the preface of this book highlight Hayes’ influences in the world of espionage and detective fiction. View these alongside the many Clancy/Grisham style thrillers (which often end up being remade into the sort of film he’d write the screenplay for) and you have the measure of this novel.

Saying that, this is a good book. It’s 888 pages are divided into four parts, each of which is made up of short chapters that left me wanting to read ‘just one more’ before setting the book down for the night. Part one features a lot of flashback or scene-setting chapters that initially made me wonder exactly where this book was going. However, Hayes does a good job of tying up pretty much every thread in this novel. Very little is remains a mystery by the end of the book. If that’s something you like to see in your thrillers, give this book a go. Don’t expect a deep examination into the soul of humanity, or even genuine development of any of the side characters (or even the main protagonist narrating in first-person, for that matter). But be assured that the story is gripping.

Shylock is my name by Howard Jacobson (2016, Vintage)

Another Shakespeare adaptation, this time retelling The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is a challenging antagonist for modern audiences uncomfortable (and rightly so) with the antisemitism throughout the Bard’s original play. Jacobson won the Man Booker prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, a novel which explores the author’s experience as a British Jew (you can read my short review for that book here), but has also written on heroes from Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps this reimagining of Shylock was the next logical step?

As you may have read previously, I had mixed feelings about The Finkler Question, and this novel leaves me with a similar feeling of dissatisfaction. It’s an interesting concept and a good story with lovely, funny moments in it, but overall, it felt like it wasn’t quite good enough. Fans of Jacobson will love this book, but it’s not high on my list of recommendations.

England’s forgotten past by Richard Tames (2010, Thames & Hudson)

The full title of this small (185 pages), fact-filled book is almost a chapter in itself: England’s forgotten past: the unsung heroes & heroines, valiant Kings, great battles & other generally overlooked episodes in our nation’s glorious history. It’s eight chapters are subdivided further, with various ‘fact boxes’ and illustrations along the way. As well as bringing lesser known characters and events from English history to light, Tames also sets the record straight on some common misconceptions. Worth a read for the casual history fan, although it’s brevity might make one feel as if they are reading a collection of factoids, such as those published by the BBC factual/comedy quiz QI (or Quite Interesting, to give the show’s full title).

Publisher Thames & Hudson have a wealth of interesting titles which, similarly to England’s Forgotten Past, offer brief glimpses into less well-examined areas of history. Of those I have read (and there several more on my ‘to buy list), personal favourites include:

  • Shakespeare’s London on 5 Groats a Day, also by Tames (2018), looks at the alehouses and streetlife of London during the Bard’s lifetime. Taking in everyone from “courtiers to cut-throats” and of course, the dramatists and actors who were Shakespeare’s colleagues and contemporaries, we get the interesting perspective of medieval history from street level
  • Histories of Nations: how their identities were forged (Ed. Peter Furtado, 2012) features contributions from numerous writers, usually focusing on one small facet of a country’s history and how it helped create, or reflects, the nation we might recognise today
  • The Great Cities in History (Ed. John Jules Norwich, 2009) is another brilliant collection of short essays by various writers. Divided into four parts (ancient, medieval, early modern & modern), each chapter focuses on a city in its heyday, from Thebes in the Golden Age of Egypt to present day Shanghai as “China’s Super-City”
  • Finally, History Day By Day (Peter Furtado, 2019) is a collection of quotes from history for every day of the year. The 366 voices compiled range from Joan of Arc to JFK, and Galileo to Gandhi, bringing history to life through the words of those who lived it

The algebraist by Iain M. Banks (2004, Orbit)

Banks was well known for holding down two slightly different fiction writing careers: ‘regular’ fiction such as debut novel The Wasp Factory as Iain Banks, and science fiction with the middle initial ‘M’. Most of his sci-fi output was his epic & complex Culture series. But this novel is one of his few standalone sci-fi stories.

Having read most of the Culture novels, I knew roughly what to expect and everything which makes that series so popular is present here, except for artificial intelligence (which is illegal in this story). Instead we get a very descriptive sort-of thriller inside a space opera, centered around varying species of life: the “quick”, who’ve only been round for mere thousands of years such as us, and the “slow” – jellyfish-like creatures inhabiting gas giants and almost as old as the galaxy itself. If you can get on board with that concept and the speculation which comes with it, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. I can see similarities between this and I Am Pilgrim, although this sci-fi novel has considerably longer chapters and isn’t quite as quick a read.

So there we are for now. As always, get in touch with your own thoughts and recommendations for future reading. I’ve had some great book chats with a few folk since I started cataloguing my ‘fun reading’ and my list of books to read is getting longer every week.

I’m already into the books which will be featured next time. Expect music, history, travel and an extraordinary adventure in search of a good coffee…

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!