I’ve not spoken about books here before, but figured there’s no reason not to – so here we go. I think I’ve avoided the topic largely because writing is a lot of what I do for a living, so being critical of it seems more real; I don’t know these people, but we all make a living in essentially the same way. Sadly I don’t get to be as imaginative, but you could easily argue this is because I haven’t got my shit together to write my own novel. And you’d be right.
I started the year by struggling through At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft. One of my favourite boardgames, Arkham Horror, introduced me to Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos several years ago and my recent enjoyment of MMO ‘The Secret World’ helped fuel my intrigue; I figured, in true investigative fashion, that it was only right to go and check out the source material.
The story is in the form of a letter from an explorer imploring an expedition not to head off to an Arctic site he had visited earlier – with disastrous consequences. It details that ill fated trip, where he and his team unearthed the remnants of a long extinct race that roamed the earth long before we did. Suffice it to say, they’re not quite as extinct as he’d first thought – nor are they the kind to make friends.
While I can’t overstress how much I loved the ideas in here, and am in awe of the man’s imagination, that wasn’t enough to get past the fact I really struggle to enjoy books written in this era (it was first published in the 1930s). How can it take so many words to say so little? I understand tension building, but at some point you need to stop building and start delivering; the pacing here is all wrong for the modern reader. While I’m glad I read it, and will give Lovecraft’s originals another go in future, I only really enjoyed ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ as a historical document.
After such a dense read I turned to something much lighter; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. While clearly written for a younger audience, Collins tackles some tough topics and gets the pacing absolutely spot on. It’s a ripping yarn that beautifully balances emotion and action in a sadly believable dystopian near future setting.
I expect the majority of people are familiar with either the series of books or the film (I wanted to read it before I watched it), but to very briefly recap: Earth has been left with just a few pockets of humanity remaining, which are strictly broken into a class system you’re stuck in for life (called ‘Districts’ – one for mining, one for growing crops, one just filthy rich etc). Each year the Hunger Games are held – a televised arena event pitching children against each other in a fight to the death, representing their district. Here we follow one girl as she competes in the games.
It’s a fascinating exploration of the human condition, made all the more remarkable by being aimed at a young teen audience. Because of this ‘The Hunger Games’ does a lot of hand-holding through plot and emotion points they may grate on older readers, but much like Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy this is a small price to pay and well worth the time. I’m really looking forward to the other two books in the trilogy.
My better half bought me The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross for Christmas, so I turned to that next. I’d picked up his ‘Halting State’ a few months earlier, so was already interested in the author, but chose this one first as the blurb hinted at a modern take on the Cthulu/Lovecraft mythos I’d recently started to explore.
The book is set in the present day and works on the idea that complex mathematical equations make it possible to connect to alternate universes – but unfortunately the things on the other side tend to be of the malevolent, tentacled variety. Anyone stumbling upon such knowledge is immediately swept off into top secret government organisations (think Men in Black, I guess) to keep things quiet while keeping the research going. Stross takes us on a madcap ride with one such employee as he befriends, falls for and tries to do the right thing by a girl who is neck-deep in a Lovecaftian mess of epic proportions.
Stross is a very good writer and The Atrocity Archive has a great story couched nicely in an interesting take on a classic genre. However, at times – especially in the first few chapters – its revelry in its own nerdiness reaches critical proportions. I almost put the book down, and probably would’ve if it hadn’t been a gift; there are whole pages of pointless computer/sci-fi/student noodlings that read like a spotty teenage gamer’s wet dream. But it’s definitely worth sticking with, as at least 90 per cent of the book is thoroughly entertaining.
What’s next on the list?
Here’s my probable ‘top five’ for the next three months or so – if you have any recommendations please feel free to comment below:
- Driving Jarvis Ham by Jim Bob. I’ve heard several excerpts from this novel by the former Carter USM frontman and it seems like just the kind of change of pace I need.
- Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Too many people have said too many good things about this for me to leave it unread much longer.
- Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. How to make a better world. I think it’s probably important to get up to speed on this.
- Fool Moon by Jim Butcher. I really enjoyed the first of these throwaway detective/magic books and have put off reading another for too long.
- Bryant & May and the Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler. This is far and way my favourite ever series of books. Not out until June, but I don’t read fast…
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