Monday 30 December 2013

It's the end of the year (or at least soon will be) and I thought I'd do a little summary now, as it’s unlikely I’ll have time tomorrow.

This year I’ve read 184 books, let me clarify that a bit

I started 14 books I didn’t finish (because they were so bad) the worst of those I think was Guns, Germs and Steel my review below.

So I read a few pages of this book then decided to throw it in the bin. Not pass it on in any way. Just Dump it.

In the first paragraph - “Why did history unfold differently on different continents? In case this question immediately makes you shudder at the thought you are about to read a racist treatise, you aren’t” As Charlie Brooker pointed out on the 10 O’clock show recently someone introducing themselves as “Not a Racist” is a bit suspicious. Still that wasn’t what made me throw this book at the wall. A few pages later we have this: “New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by TV” hmm that old saw of TV rots the brain, for which evidence is ambiguous at best and many studies actually say that moderate TV viewing actually increases intelligence. But no, Mr Diamond has obviously decided the goggle box is the Devil’s device as a few sentences on he says “irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation” (the TV being an anti-stimulation device of course) and “mental abilities in New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners, and they surely are superior in escaping the devastating developmental disadvantages that most children in industrialised societies now grow up” (my italics) Oh Really? Can you say sweeping generalisation without any evidence Mr Diamond?

And the reason he thinks New Guineans “may have come to be smarter than Westerners”? Well apparently it’s because they live a hand to mouth style existence struggling to find food (malnutrition in children is actually a cause of mental retardation isn’t it?) and fighting tribal wars so the stupid is killed off before it can breed and in Western society we’ve apparently conquered Maslow’s hierarchy of needs beyond the find food, find shelter level or as Mr. Diamond puts it “Europeans have for thousands of years been living in densely populated societies with central governments, police, and judiciaries where murders were relatively uncommon and a state of war was the exception rather than the rule.” Oh Really? Thousands of years you say, exactly what history books have you been reading Mr Diamond?

This book gets an average of 4.15 stars on LT?!? Most people say it is a must read although there are few thoughtful reviews (from people who actually read the book) pointing out much larger flaws than the ones I’ve highlighted above, and apparently Diamond, a non-historian, tells historians that they’ve been doing history wrong!

It was such an important book that not only is there an abridged version there is also a reading companion, a documentary series AND it won the Pulitzer? My flabber is well and truly gasted

And that’s probably the longest review I’ve ever done for 10 pages worth of reading!


I listened to 9 audio books

I read 11 ebooks (this is likely to increase next year now I’ve invested in an e-reader)

I read 41 Graphic Novels (10 of those were a re-read of Sandman to prepare for the new monthlies that are now delayed)

I read 10 ARCs (this is likely to increase next year too as I’m now reading ebook ARCs)

I read 37 books that I’ve owned for over a year without reading

I read 7 books by multiple authors

I read 34 books by female authors

I read 143 books by male authors

Wow that’s a scary gender imbalance there. I don’t deliberately choose books by gender and therefore you’d assume that I’d read roughly 50/50?

I rated 28 books “Average”

I rated 109 books “Good”

I rated 33 books “Brilliant”

My rating system explained  -

Unfinished - self-explanatory really, it was so bad I couldn't finish it

Average - an OK book but one I wouldn't really recommend

Good - a good example of the genre, one I'd recommend

Brilliant- books that everyone should read, really outstanding and memorable


Out of those 33 books here are the ones that were not re-reads:



Gun Machine by Warren Ellis



well written police procedural on the edge of weird


Fun Home by Alison Bechdel



The art and story work in combination perfectly as your drawn into Bechdel’s utterly compelling tale


Slowly Downward by Stanley Donwood




Highly recommended flash fiction, also check out Household worms



The poet’s corner (on audio) by John Lithgow



Brilliant collection of poems read out loud.



On writing by Stephen King



Recommended for Stephen King fans and those interested in the writing process


This book is full of spiders by David Wong (can’t wait until I can catch the film of John Dies at the end in 2014!)



Not as funny as John Dies at the end (a 5 star book from 2012) but a much better put together story


Jagannath by Karen Tidbeck




highly readable collection of shorts


Isle of 100,000 graves by Fabien Vehlmann Jason



This is a delight to read with fairly simple but fitting art.


The Half-made world & The Rise of ransom City by Felix Gilman



Well told tale in a fantastic and fantastically weird world



must read sequel but read The half made world first



Roadside Picnic by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky



Highly recommended for lovers of SF and the weird


You're all jealous of my jetpack by Tom Gauld



A really quite amusing collection of singe page comics


Unbuilt Bristol by Eugene Byrne



Great resource and very entertaining history


The Orphan Master’s son by Adam Johnson



It blew me away, a definite 5 star read


Mechanique by Genievive Valentine



Beautiful, painful, joyous, adventurous tapestry to be savoured and devoured and thrust into the hands of all those who share your reading tastes…


Die Wand by Marlen Haushofer



A quiet contemplative read, recommended


The violent century by Lavie Tidhar



The world is lovingly detailed and we get to see the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s with an alternative history.


The fictional man by Al Ewing



Highly recommended especially if you like metafiction and stories about the creative process


Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer



Stunning & useful, what a great book!


Lighter than my shadow by Katie Green



Highly recommended autobiography


The crystal mirror by Tim Malnick & Katie Green




This is a seriously beautiful book


Beyond the killing fields by Sydney Schanberg



Powerfully intelligent writing on the subject of war. Highly recommended. Have a box of tissues to hand when reading though




That’s it for reading but what about writing?


Well I attended a Vala book launch in February for Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s book Writing without a parachute  - and a random comment from Sarah Bird (of Vala) got me thinking. Sarah and I were talking about creative writing and I said that I should do some but was afraid I’d be bad at it. She replied something along the lines that the only way to get good is to practise and that creative writing was fun and everyone should give it a go. This is not new advice but for some reason, probably as I’d been fired up by the Bristol Festival of Literature the previous October, it struck a spark. 2013 was the year I finally stopped procrastinating and got writing.

As I suspected my first attempt wasn’t brilliant (see below) but given some encouragement from Dave Gullen (who didn’t say he hated it or that I should stop) I kept writing. From there I entered a few competitions, got an honourable mention in the 1000 words one, won the Hodderscape one and got my writing in print for the first time in The Naked Guide to Bristol & a story accepted into an anthology Airship shape and Bristol fashion soon to be published by Wizard’s Tower Press. Well if that wasn’t encouragement enough I don’t know what is so I’ve started to write “the thing that may eventually one day, possibly, maybe, end up as a book” (that’s the working title obviously).

In 2014 watch this space – so far I’ve started a 2nd first draft as the 1st  first draft (of a different story) stalled at around 20,000 words (I think I need to be a better writer to attempt that story and will return once I’ve done something “easier” and completed a novel). My 2nd first draft stands at a grand total of 15,784 words. However this time I’m not pantsing and have a journal with an outline and notes which hopefully will help.


My first attempt at a short story, a little less than a year ago (written in April – see even after deciding to write in 2013 I spent 2 months working up to it!)


Christmas steps

There was a stabbing on Christmas steps. We were both there. It was foggy, and dark, but with that

 orangeade penumbral glow you get from the streetlights. I walked past St Bartholomew’s thinking

 about electric monks  as I usually do when passing that cloaked horseman statue.  The artist David

Backhouse said that the statue is of no particular person but represents “a reminder of people from

the Past”  which seemed appropriate, however he also said that his art “is about the way in which

 nature and humans depend on one another and “the search for balance and harmony” which sounded like

 arty wank to me.  

 I wondered what it would be like if all the statues in the city were sentient, that would be OK for
the ones that had other statues nearby to converse silently with in tones of creaking stone or the
ping of rain off bronze but it would be terribly lonely for those, like the horseman, who had no other
statues close by. I wondered about his lonely thoughts watching road traffic burping past or the
random wanderings of shoppers and revellers like ants who have lost their sense of smell. 

You were walking down Park Row. The smell of fish and chips only partly masked the muffling wet

 dog smell of fog.  Neither of us knew then that our futures were about to spin out of control. You

 were probably thinking of going home, or of dinner or something else mundane. I was constructing
new fantasy in my head as usual. At this point I was wondering what the collective noun for
statues was. I was disappointed to find that the Wikipedia entry on collective nouns didn’t have
statues. It had a “rout of snails” and a “scurry of squirrels” and a “trip of stoats” but nothing related
to statues.

Perhaps I should invent one? A stillness of statues, a silence of statues, a freeze of

statues  perhaps or a pondering of statues since they must  think deep thoughts. A quick search led

me, amusedly,  to @collectivenouns on Twitter and so I had  to immediately follow them, still no

better suggestions there though.  These musings brought me to the bottom of the steps. I checked

the Bristol culture webpage again to start me off.

In medieval times, the Christmas Steps was [should that be were? I thought] called Queene Street,

 later becoming known as Knyfesmyth Street after its specialist traders. At its foot for centuries was
a statue of the Madonna and child, rubbed smooth by generations of people for luck. The beheaded

statue can still be seen just inside the entrance to St Bartholomew’s Court.

 I was researching a story, about a stabbing, I was going to set it on Knyfesmyth street. It was going

to be about a young man, younger than me so maybe your age, who comes to rub the statue of the

Madonna and child for luck. He’s annoyed a powerful criminal and men are coming for him, the kind

of men I’m probably going to describe as burly. I could also describe them as utterly barking and

very, very dangerous. I wonder if beheaded or disarticulated statues would have their own
collective noun. The iconoclasts defaced many statues and the Taliban famously blew up the
Buddhas of Bamiyan so an effacement of effigies perhaps.

 I wonder what thoughts swirled around your head as you approached the top of the steps.  I

wondered at the time what thoughts would swirl around the head of my young man as he looked
for some superstitious or supernatural aid. Was he a true believer or did the smoothly rubbed
statue hold some particular meaning to him. Perhaps he had noted the statue previously whilst
shopping for a knyfe? Or perhaps I should develop a scene with a small beggar girl who tells him the
magic contained within the statue and how it saved her from some dread disease of the street?
Perhaps I should have a fighting of beggars, since I’m still thinking of collective nouns and that’s
such a good one.

You were silhouetted at the top of the steps and I assume I must have been the same at the bottom.

I only half noticed you as I was looking at the steps and making mental notes whilst mostly looking
at my phone. You paused slightly and started down the well-worn route trodden by many over the

centuries. I stood, hand in pockets, lost in thought wondering about the specialist knife merchants

who used to occupy what I was looking at. I wondered how many synonyms for knife there actually

are and which would fit my story best. A dimly glinting dagger perhaps or a wickedly thin dirk
maybe, possibly I should be alliterative; a cruel cleaver, a strident stiletto, ugh, one to play with later
I guessed.

Was it an opportunity for you? Did you think I was someone else, people often do, I’ve been told I

have one of those faces that make people think they know me. Did you catch the tenuous half

shaped story as it flitted up and down the stairs or was that only visible to me? Perhaps it caught
you and you sleepwalked through actions given fleeting form on the fog.  You approached closer
and I finally became fully aware of you and thought I should walk up the steps now. My writer’s
glance worked to categorize you and add to my young man at the same time. Your dark ski jacket
becoming an oilskin in my imagination, your baseball cap a different, more time appropriate
headwear as I tried different shapes in my imagination. You looked straight at me then and I wonder
what you saw.

My slightly dreamy but intense gaze illuminated by the screen of my phone is perhaps all you

focussed on. Perhaps you’d had a bad night, perhaps you were angry at the world, perhaps you
were high, perhaps you spotted an opportunity, perhaps I had unknown mortal enemies that had
paid for an assassin, perhaps you were an escapee from a secure mental institution, I am left with a
plethora of perhapses.

I had thought a knife would glint but perhaps there was to be no fog in my story. I had thought my

burly fellows would grunt as they stabbed but you emitted no sound. You slashed and stabbed until

my guts were in ribbons, the fog rolled down the steps and matched the fog of darkness that closed

my eyes as you ran away, my phone taken, your footsteps sounding very fast to my slowing, ever

more slowly, beating heart, at least now I’ll be able to describe what it feels like to be stabbed.


Thursday 19 December 2013

In the shadow of the banyan by Vaddey Ratner




Vaddey fictionalises her own story of being a child during the days of the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia from the fall of Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese liberation. This is the story of what happens to the country through the eyes of a child and the microcosm of what happens to her family. Obviously this is a powerful story and Ratner tells it well. At the heart of the book is her relationship with her father, a poet, and the power of words, especially stories.


Overall – Good fictional account of life under the Pol Pot regime
Beyond the killing fields by Sydney Schanberg
Schanberg was a journalist for the New York Times covering the war in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over the country. The Killing fields, as book & film, is a very powerful story of friendship and survival and is the story of Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist. Pran was left behind when all the foreigners were ejected from Cambodia and lived in the then closed Khmer Rouge regime as Pol Pot enacted his Year 0 social experiment on a grand scale. I finished this on the bus on the way to Phnom Penh and visiting S-21 and the Killing Fields with it so fresh in my mind was an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget. However it doesn’t need to be read in situ, it is a brilliant book full of stirring writing and if you haven’t seen the film I thoroughly recommend it as it is a very good adaptation. This book adds some of Schanberg’s other war journalism in Vietnam & Bangladesh as well as his coverage of MIA US servicemen left behind by the US government and his thoughts on the war in Iraq. The message of the book is that war is never clinical, that “collateral damage” is a sanitisation of murder and that the abstraction of making decisions way behind the front lines contributes to atrocity.
Overall – Powerfully intelligent writing on the subject of war. Highly recommended. Have a box of tissues to hand when reading though.
The deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu
This sequel follows on from the first book after a few years have passed. It concentrates initially more on Roen’s wife Jill but soon expands and takes in much more of the world and the Genjix versus Prophus war. As all good sequels the action is more intense the stakes are higher and there are lots of great cameos from characters from the first book as well as interesting new characters introduced. My only gripe is that it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger and I don’t know when the next instalment will come. This is a rollicking good read with all the same humour and gripping action of the first but cranked up even higher. This is panning out to be a great series, I am impatient for the next one.
Overall – if you like [lives of Tao] you’ll love [Deaths of Tao]
Dream London by Tony Ballantine
A fantastic well imagined world where London has opened a door somehow into an alien, Fey realm and weirdness is commonplace. <i> In Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day.</i> In a scene reminiscent of Burroughs the book opens with our “hero” being awoken by the sounds of psychedelic salamanders eating and is confronted with being poisoned by a rival pimp. Something is coming, the parks have hidden themselves away, no-one can escape, the trains bring new people in but don’t allow people to leave. Captain Jim Wedderburn is recruited by opposing forces, those that wish to expand the influence of the inimical forces and those that wish to free London. Captain Jim Wedderburn is out for himself though and is not a nice man, a pimp and criminal. All to the good but it is something that Ballantine squanders, in a place where it seems that anything can happen there appears to be no jeopardy, we don’t really care for the protagonist so putting him in danger, especially self-inflicted danger is not that interesting and Wedderburn is an oddly passive lead also. The denouement happens pretty much off screen after our protagonist is told “we’ll take it from here” and we don’t see the action of the climax having stayed with him. Yuk. And boy is it misogynist, Dream London forces women back into submissive roles, they’re not allowed real jobs (they can be sexy secretaries though it seems) and there appear to be a lot of prostitutes. A US agent come to investigate Dream London starts out sassy but is eventually willing to sell her body. Double yuk. All the women our hero meets, apart from said US Agent, Immediately fall head over heels in love with him, they are all, with one “crone” exception, incredibly beautiful and Ballantine spends many sentences extolling swelling bosoms, perfectly round bottoms, shapely legs etc. etc. you get the picture. There is a good story, and some nice imagery here but it is overshadowed by bad plotting, poor writing and disgusting misogyny. One to avoid I reckon. Oddly looking at the reviews on Amazon I seem to be in a minority, it gets universally good reviews. I am mystified why.
Overall – Some good stuff but very much outweighed by the bad.
Crash by Guy Haley
In the future 0.01% of the population own the vast majority of the wealth and the market is rigged to keep it that way. This is not power in the hands of corporations it is power in the hands of a few families. These “Pointer” families have realised that Earth is ecologically doomed and have identified a number of planets that could support human life and build a fleet of arks to take key family members and personnel. Dariusz is a geo-engineer that has no chance of joining the ships until he receives an offer from a man in a bar to get him aboard one of the ships in return for a “small act of sabotage” which he readily agrees to so that he can take his son with him. The ship crashes on a planet that is not their target and is tidally locked to the star, one side eternal night, the other perpetual searing daylight. It is also already inhabited by a number of strange and dangerous lifeforms. The colonists have to build their own society from scratch whilst struggling to survive. This is a fantastic space opera that reminded me of my love for SF in my teens. The plot is interesting, the characters are well drawn, the action is well imagined and described. I didn’t really like the ending for which it drops a half star but I think it was a tonal shift that didn’t work for me.
Overall – good old fashioned (but not old) space opera, a great read if you’re into that sort of thing, which it appears I still am…

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