Books wot I red: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Merson’s autobiography & Strange Tide

It’s been eight months since my last book post. That’s actually pretty fast-going for me, but in fairness it should’ve been a lot quicker. I fairly (for me) raced through the first two, with things slowing right down in the last couple of months. Odd, seeing as that was while reading the latest from my favourite author. You’ll find out why below.

It’s actually handy I just finished a book though. I’ve been feeling off for a while and a planned extravaganza of gaming at Airecon last weekend turned into a bit of a damp squib. I got one solid day in, but many of those I was looking forward to seeing didn’t make it due to Coronavirus. My illness is unrelated, but it has still slowed me down in terms of posting – largely as I don’t have the energy to do much more than the day-to-day (work, eat, sleep). Hopefully normal service will resume soon…

Not so long back (well, Christmas 2017…) I bought my better half the Hitch Hiker’s collection. She recently started the third instalment, having loved the first two – and talking/thinking about it was enough to force my hand. So off the shelf for a reread came my battered old copy of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

I rarely reread books. There are so many and I read so few, it seems a wasted opportunity. But having lent this to Sarah, and knowing how much she’d enjoyed and talked about it, I couldn’t resist. I wasn’t disappointed. Much like classic sitcoms Fawlty Towers and Police Squad, you forget how short Hitchhiker’s is. And how little actually happens. It’s more a chapter than a novel. But on the flip side, not a word is wasted: something lost on the meandering authors of overblown sci-fi and fantasy that bloat the shelves of bookstores today.

Hitchhiker’s is a book everyone should read. While set in a sci-fi setting, and with large doses of humour, there’s much more to it. Like most good authors, Adams simply uses these as a backdrop to delve into the human condition while creating some truly memorable characters and set pieces. I’m thoroughly pleased I dipped my toe back into this particular galaxy and will no doubt go right back through the series. Before also heading back to the equally enjoyable Dirk Gently novels.

I continued the light reading with a gift from Sarah: How Not to be a Professional Footballer by Paul Merson. I’m not really a fan of biographies, but do have a soft spot for wayward footballers from back when I cared – especially if they happen to be members of the infamous ’89/’90 Arsenal squad. The books by Tony Adams and Steve Claridge, for example. Both were poor, but had some fascinating sections that made them well worth reading.

Sadly Merson’s book doesn’t hit those heights. While you get the fantastical stories of drinking/gambling, its a very laddy retelling. There’s no depth of feeling: it’s more like he’s sitting in the pub telling tales of his past. Even the more shocking ones (throwing Perry Groves over a 20-foot wall into the sea by accident) are passed off as things that just kind of happened, you know? There’s no emotion coming through. It’s clearly the publisher/ghost writer’s fault, as they’ve decided to try and make it a ‘funny’ book without really thinking about the content. For me, that was an error.

But I’ll never tire of reading about that ’89-’90 league winning season. And the insights into how poorly they were paid, and how George Graham ran the club back then, are fascinating. Plus the fact he’s from Northolt, a mile or so from where I grew up at the same time he did, also added to my enjoyment. So while overall it was a shallow reading experience, there was more than enough to keep this old north-west Londoner happy. Right up until the obligatory ‘world’s best 11’ section. Seriously – who cares?

Last up this time is Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler. I’d feared, after the last, there wouldn’t be a 15th Bryant and May novel – at least in the normal timeline. With the main protagonists getting ever older, would we be returning to their history to look into older case files? Not yet, it seems. For now, the pensionable detectives are continuing to fight crime – which seems to be a mixed blessing.

Fowler, for me, is still one of the best writers around right now. Every sentence is beautiful, while his insights into London are a joy to read. As someone born there, but now living away, its a fascinating look into the darker side of the city. But in a gentle, historical way rather than the gangster thuggery we’re used to from slick Tarantino-esque films. This shines a light over a complex city, constantly changing and surprising even those who’ve been there for decades.

But even as a fan, the lack of progression from the series’ main – and lesser – characters is becoming problematic. While the plot was clever and intriguing and the one-liners funny, it doesn’t quite paper over the cracks anymore. This one even had a nice little background plot twist – but it still didn’t feel quite enough. The police unit is always a step from being shut down, while the staff never really move on in terms of character development. Fifteen books in a series is a genuine achievement – but it’s about time the background elements the fans love to came more to the fore.

What’s next on the list?

Only Hitch Hiker’s is off the list since last time. I really should be stricter with what I grab off the shelves! And the new entry slotting in at number one probably isn’t helping the cause of the other entries. I’ve already started one of the regulars below though, so who knows – maybe i’ll make it a clean sweep off the list next time…

  1. Book of Dust #1 by Philip Pullman. New entry! Picked this up because the first three books in the universe were brilliant – and the new (slightly crap, sadly) TV series has reignited my interest in these old characters.
  2. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. Fourth time on the list. A New York Times bestselling author; a thriller said to be packed full of suspense; and a lead character who is cop as well as a game designer? Take my money! Bound to be a disappointment.
  3. Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. Also fourth time on the list. I bought this (now ages ago) on recommendation, and my game design mojo has been somewhat invigorated of late, so it’s about time I got around to reading it.
  4. The Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engels. Third time on the list. Hard to believe I’ve never actually read this, despite it sitting on my shelves for years – and me having done a degree covering sociology! While I understand what Marxism and communism are, it’s time I read the true source material.
  5. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Second time on the list. I heard loads of good things about this, and found it in a charity shop cheap as chips, so finger’s crossed it will live up to the hype.

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