Books wot I red: The Book of Dust volume 1, Wild Chamber & The Knife of Never Letting Go

This is something of a record for me, managing to get through three books in less than four months. It certainly helped that two of them were real page-turners. While the third I probably only read about two-thirds of, as I was skipping big chunks of boredom as I went.

All three were off the list, but another first was that four books actually came off of it this time. That’s because I tried and failed to stick with The Shape of Things to Come by HG Wells. I was fascinated to find out what one of the true masters of sci-fi predicted for the world – right up to 2015 – back in 1929. But I’ll never find out because I just couldn’t manage the incredibly slow pacing of the book. Wot a Philistine. Anyway, onto the fluff I could manage…

The Book of Dust, Volume 1: The Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

I absolutely loved Pullman’s first trilogy, his Dark Materials. And I’ve really enjoyed reliving it recently via the excellent television series. So I was excited to see him return to the universe for this prequel series. This time we’re concentrating on the happenings around the time of Lyra’s birth. with unlikely heroes rising to the challenge of protecting the infant Lyra from evil forces.

I guess I was set up to be disappointed. Lyra was such a fantastically well-rounded character. Naively ‘good’ with an infectious tomboy streak. While the whole idea of dust and demons was fascinating. And while the whole’ good and evil’ Christianity thing was a little on the nose, you had to remember this was a children’s book series. It knocked the Potter-verse into a cocked hat in terms of depth, essentially being the new Tolkien vs the new Blyton. Both have their place.

So, to the Book of Dust. I hated it. The main characters were uninspired and cliched. But somehow also inconsistent. In the hands of such disappointing ‘heroes’ the old demon/dust angle soon became pedestrian. While the story itself was a sub-Lord of the Rings wander (albeit in a boat) with added nappy changing. Lots of nappy changing. By halfway I was skipping every second page and I almost gave up. And now, having decided there’s no way in hell I’ll read any more of this tripe, I wish I had. I’m not sure what amazes me more – that such a clearly excellent writer can be this poorly advised/edited. Or that the reviews were so generous. This is surely one of the biggest drops in form in literary history.

Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler

After such a miserable waste of my limited reading time, I felt I had to turn to another old favourite – but one that never disappoints. Author Christopher Fowler has terminal cancer. And when his time comes, I’ll be as upset as I’ve ever been about the loss of someone I’ve never known. He’ll be up there with John Peel and David Bowie. Because he’s a brilliant author and a brilliant person. Don’t believe me? Go check out his website. He speaks my language.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit investigations, or Bryant and May detective novels, have been popping along every year or so since 2003. They star two elderly detectives who bicker like the best of them and whose relationship is hugely compelling. As are the other personalities in their dysfunctional police unit. But the real star of the series is London. Fowler has an insatiable lust for knowledge about the city’s largely unknown and often dark historical underbelly. And its this combination, along with some brilliant storytelling, that makes the books shine.

Wild Chamber is no different. It calls back cleverly to a previous story and contains all the usual oddball characters. The plot twists and turns, never giving you the chance to put the pieces together. But the relationships are so charming to read you just enjoy the ride. My only minor complaint is the continued repeat plot of the dark forces trying to close the unit. After this many books, it’s tired. Yes, the threat puts a time limit on proceedings that helps add a little tension. But it seems to happen in every book. For a man with such a vivid imagination, it seems odd to keep flogging this particular horse. That said, the moving on of a few minor character subplots made up for it in the end. Brilliant, as always.

Chaos Walking 1: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

I’d heard loads of good things about this series and found Book One in a charity shop cheap as chips, so gave it a go. The writing style immediately drew me in, having an uneducated Western-style (as in cowboys) feel but in a sci-fi setting. As a sucker for Firefly, I was hooked – and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.

Without giving too much away, our heroes are human settlers on a distant planet that has a strange effect on its male occupants. Basically, everyone can hear each other’s thoughts. It’s a fascinating premise, which the book handles incredibly intelligently – while sticking to the first-person, uneducated narrative. Things soon heat up, leading to a rip-roaring yarn that promises much and – in many ways – goes on to deliver.

I wholeheartedly recommend it and look forward to reading the following books in the series. But I do have some reservations. I think the book could’ve comfortably been 100 pages shorter. There’s a lot of repeating of pretty basic points and overemphasis on the obvious. Sure, it’s aimed at a younger audience – but this still seemed OTT when you think of some of the intelligent writing now considered standard for young adults. Also, there was a bit too much of the Lord of the Rings traveling syndrome. Get there already! Especially when a lot of the drudgery just seemed thrust in to bring home overly repeated points.

What’s next on the list?

Numbers one, two, and four are read off the list since last time, while number three fell off the list (see the intro above) – the first time that has happened. This all means there are four – yes, FOUR (count ’em) new entries. The world’s gone MAD I tell you.

  1. A Gamut of Games by Sid Sackson. Third time on the list. I need to get around to reading some more non-fiction. This time from a genuine board game design legend. How better to get my design mojo back?
  2. Shadow Prey by John Sandford. New entry! Sequal to Rules of Prey, which I read back in 2020. Hopefully more game designer/detective gritty murder goodness.
  3. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. New entry! Famous, innit?
  4. Hero of the Underworld by Jimmy Boyle. New entry! I have no idea why this is on my shelf. Answers on a postcard. But I may as well read it!
  5. Crikey, I don’t know. Any suggestions?

Books wot I red: The Long Earth, K-PAX III & The Machine Stops

It has been just over six months since my last books post. So no, not even a pandemic forcing me to stay at home has really increased my capacity to sit down and read a book. I’m at about a book every two months during lockdown.

I had high hopes for the first two books. But only a short story, of the three, stood up to the test. That said, I now have two almost guaranteed winners lined up. So see you for the next post in a few months (yeah, right…).

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

I’d heard good things about this. So when I saw it in a Waterstones 2-for-1 offer I picked it up. I very much enjoyed reading Discworld books when I was younger. And had heard Baxter was one of the best in his field (but I’m not really into sci-fi books). I was intrigued to see what this partnership could produce. But even several weeks after completing reading the first instalment, I can’t make my mind up about it.

The premise is fascinating. Thousands of parallel Earths, all of which most people are able to ‘step’ between. But (seemingly) only our Earth has evolved human life. The discovery of which (in roughly the present day) leads to a second land grab and partial desertion of our earth. Many of those who can’t step are understandable aggrieved about it. While issues of ownership, nationhood etc of these new earths is clearly problematic. As is crime. Being able to step into almost anywhere has its advantages for those up to no good…

Much of The Long Earth centres around three main characters: two 20-somethings (one male, one female) and a hugely intelligent computer/being in a robot body. And its here I start to lose faith. I usually fall straight into step with Pratchett characters. But with the exception of male protagonist Joshua I didn’t here. The others felt cliched, rushed and generally weak. And the book was very oddly paced.

The rambling sections exploring the concepts/problems of ‘the long earth’ were fascinating. While the main story was pretty compelling. But they really didn’t mesh together well for me at all. And worse, this is book one of five. And it was clearly planned as such, as this one ends (spoiler alert) in a wholly unsatisfying ‘end of episode’ whimper. Book two is on my shelf. But do I want to read four more to get to a conclusion? Doubtful. I expect my time on the long earth is at an end.

K-PAX III: The Worlds of prot by Gene Brewer

To cleanse the pallet, I returned to the last in a series I’d thoroughly enjoyed to date: K-PAX. Another present day sci-fi idea. But one I knew the author had absolutely nailed in the first two volumes. Essentially, a guy arrives in a psychiatric institution claiming he comes from another planet. Is he mad? Or is he actually from another planet?

It will surprise no one to hear that Robert/prot (the patient/alien?) returns in the third book. But from the outset it’s clear this will be his last visit – and that we’ll finally find out the truth. No matter how the book was to read, I was going to read it to find out.

Unfortunately, the only good thing to say about K-PAX III (beyond the big reveal) was that it was short. It read like a cash-in – a lazy rehash of previous plot lines. But there were no arcs, no interesting new cases, no moving along of old plot lines. If the first book had read like this, I would’ve given up after a few chapters. so, to conclude, I’d still thoroughly recommend the original book – it’s one of the best things I’ve read. And K-PAX II is a pretty solid follow up. But if you do get that far, don’t get too excited about the final instalment.

The Machine Stops & The Celestial Omnibus by EM Forster

Sarah had just read this, and thought I’d like it. And as it was just two short stories, who was I to argue? I’m not big on the classics, and hadn’t read any of his novels. But I was aware of his reputation as being a master of writing about human interaction. And of not shying away from difficult or controversial topics. Both stories were written in the first quarter of the 20th Century.

The Machine Stops is an incredible short story, when you consider it was first published (in book form) in 1928. It portrays a dystopian future where man has been forced underground after spoiling the earth’s natural resources. And where we have since become overly reliant on an all-powerful machine; to the point where it is worshiped as a god. But it seems, unbeknownst to most underground, some exiles (thought dead) have begun to live on the surface again. Could it be these people who restore humanity to something like its former self? This fear of the over reliance of people on technology, and how it makes them become insular, makes for a fascinating read.

This edition also includes even shorter story, The Celestial Omnibus (from 1911). It was an OK read, but is a far more obvious comment on how literature shouldn’t be taken for granted as something that should simply be enjoyed, rather than just intellectualised. But it reinforces the theme of The Machine Stops – that what makes life so special is human connection, often through the simplest of things. Something many of us have been starkly reminded of as we’ve been stuck in isolation through the COVID-19 lockdowns.

What’s next on the list?

The two new entries from last time ended up being the next two books I read, so didn’t hang around long. I picked up a lovely HG Wells hardback in a charity shop, so wanted to add that to the list. While picking up Bryant & May novels (when I remember) has become par for the course. so, along with a non-fiction and a couple of fantasy-ish novels, I think the list has a nice balance to it at the moment.

  1. Book of Dust #1 by Philip Pullman. Fourth time on the list. Picked this up because the first three books in the universe were brilliant – and the new (actually rather excellent) TV series reignited my interest in this world.
  2. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Third 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.
  3. A Gamut of Games by Sid Sackson. Second time on the list. Having removed a Knizia game theory/history book from this list, it’s time to add another to the list. This time from game design’s other biggest legend (in my mind) – Sid Sackson.
  4. Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler. New entry! The next Bryant & May novel in the series for me. Nuff said.
  5. The Shape of Things to Come by HG Wells. New entry! What did one of the true masters of sci-fi predict for the world – right up to 2015 – back in 1929?

Books wot I red: The Communist Manifesto, Rules of Prey & Dice Games Properly Explained

It’s been just five months since my last book post – something of a record. But this was helped by a couple of shorter books and a real page-turner (by my standards lol – it even left the loo once or twice!). I expect a return to my normally glacial post for the next few. A weirdly mixed bag this time too, it’s fair to say.

However, the isolation of the Covid19 lock down has done nothing to speed things up. While furloughed from work I was actually very busy. I’ve been doing a lot of garden work at home, while upping my blog post output. And if anything, with the extra down/home time, I’ve been watching more TV – largely thanks to signing up to Amazon Prime. Rather than reading.

I did a Communications degree, which was a weird amalgamation of journalism, sociology, linguistics, politics – you name it. It served its purpose, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. But it did leave some odd gaps in my learning. A great example being The Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engels. As a bit of an old Trot, it’s hard to believe I’ve only just gotten around to reading the ultimate left wing source material.

I probably should’ve guessed it would be short, but wasn’t expecting just 40 pages. The ‘book’ itself is filled out with a tediously written introduction that’s longer then the manifesto. Plus a series of prefaces which would certainly prove interesting to historians. The 19th Century was such a time of monumental change across Europe, so it’s interesting to see how the manifesto lurked behind so much social unrest. On the flip side, looking at the 21st Century, selfish global capitalism and scary dictatorships seem to have rather come out on top. But hey, nice try.

While we clearly live in a very different world, so much is the same. The classes are as divided, the worker as undervalued, and the ability of ‘working men of all countries to unite!’ is as distant as ever. You only have to look at how the ‘greatest’ countries in the world are being led by the likes of Trump, Putin and Xi Jinping – doing what they please, when they please, and screw the rules/us/the world. There’s never been a better time to rise up against the bourgeoisie and reclaim the means of production. The independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. But we’ve got Netflix, right? So its not so bad…

Next up was Rules of Prey by John Sandford – a book that’d been on my previous four ‘what’s next’ lists, which was getting a bit embarrassing. It’d been brought to my attention as it was a cop thriller where the main character was also a game designer. Funnily enough, the game designer bit ended up being the one part I didn’t really buy into. It worked as a way for the lead character to run ideas past his friends. But the actual game discussion seemed hokey.

It’s a fantastically written gritty cop murder mystery on the hunt for a properly unhinged, unpleasant serial killer. Writer Sandford is a career journalist, and was on the crime desk of a big paper for a long time – and it shows. His characters are believable, even if the main guy (Lucas Davenport) is a little too larger-than-life. But I’m happy to give a main character a bit of license if it roles nicely into the story lines as it does here.

While sensational, the plot is believable. Written circa 1990 and set around Minnesota, both the cops and killer make mistakes and seem vulnerable and flawed. Davenport is likeable yet a bit of a dick, meaning the fact he comes off second best in relationships is a believable character flaw. The story is well paced and while I found the conclusion a little unsatisfying the rest of the novel had more than made up for it. There are more than 10 Lucas Davenport novels out there and I’ve already ordered the next one. Good stuff.

Rounding things off this time is another four-times-on-the-list-er, Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. I’ve started work on a solo board game and was considering having a few dice mini games as ways to resolve battles, so this was the perfect place to start. I’ve got a few game design books, but rarely pick them up, which really isn’t good enough. So here we go.

It’s actually a very light read, largely being an extended list of game examples from around the world that demonstrate how mechanisms evolve over time. It nicely demonstrates how small rules tweaks can significantly change the amount of luck in a game; but how this added predictability can also spoil the experience. It’s all about finding that line, where the randomness is adding unpredictability and an opportunity to push your luck. But before it restricts choice to a point where there is really only one path. Dice games need an illogical path, where your chances of victory may be reduced – but could end up being glorious.

I find reading this kind of book – even if just dipping in – always triggers ideas. So even just for that, it can be hugely valuable. But this level of research also shows why the likes of Knizia and Sid Sackson are a cut above most other designers. Sure, it was much easier to do due diligence back when the amount of yearly releases was in the hundreds, not thousands. And the amount of those you’d be exposed to was far less. But these game history/theory nooks remain a valuable tool for any game designer.

What’s next on the list?

I managed to knock three off the list time – very disciplined! There is only one non-fiction book on the list now, alongside four novels. Patrick Ness is the only author on the list I know nothing about, so familiarity is the order of the day. Not that I expect it to make me read these things any quicker…

  1. Book of Dust #1 by Philip Pullman. Third time on the list. 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. 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.
  3. The Long Earth by Pratchett & Baxter. New entry! I’ve had a couple of these sitting on my book shelves for years, so time to give the first one a go. I love the idea of deep sci-fi but find it impenetrable. Hopefully added Pratchett will soften the blow enough to enjoy it.
  4. A Gamut of Games by Sid Sackson. New entry! Having removed a Knizia game theory/history book from this list, it’s time to add another to the list. This time from game design’s other biggest legend (in my mind) – Sid Sackson.
  5. K-PAX III: The Worlds of prot by Gene Brewer. New entry! Having loved the first two novels, I’m finally getting round to completing the trilogy. I just wish the deeds of a certain Mr Spacey hadn’t ruined the rather brilliant film for me. Can I read this and not picture him?

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.

Books wot I red – short story special: Christopher Fowler, Philip K Dick & Ted Chiang

Welcome to volume something-or-other in a fairly irregular series of ‘what I’ve been reading’ posts. It’s another year past and, as with the last post, I’ve only managed to read three books. But on the plus side, this time I have a THEME (exciting)!

I had a few collections of short stories knocking around that all looked brilliant, so I decided to read them all in a row in order to then create that rarest of things for me – a coherent books post. It meant only knocking off one of my top five ‘next on the list’ books (see below), but there you go. Anyway, here it is…

It started off, as my irregular soirées into reading so often do, with a Bryant & May book: this time London’s Glory by Christopher Fowler. After 13 fantastic novels, Fowler had seen fit to share this collection of shorter stories about my favourite pensionable London crime-fighting duo, and who was I to argue? I’ll take by B&M fix any way I can.

These 11 stories can be seen as a great introduction to the series for anyone not too sure if they could eat a whole one; or a fun little sidetrack for fans, as each story is preface by a little introduction from the author on how and why the little episodes came about. And while I really enjoyed the book a a whole, something niggled at me throughout.

For those who don’t know the series, the majority of the Bryant & May books centre around two elderly policemen and the small, unorthodox unit they run in central London: the Peculiar Crimes Unit. They’ve been working there since the Second World War, being given strange crimes that need to be solved before they get out to the public due to their unusual nature. The stories tend to nit towards the supernatural but don’t really go there, instead being fascinating insights into both the strange history of London and the human condition. But at least half the enjoyment comes from the characters themselves, and in particular our two slightly decrepit heroes.

So why did I struggle a little with London’s Glory? Usually the two officers play beautifully off each other’s strengths, with Bryant’s unusual methodologies being perfectly offset by May’s more straight-laced police work and his ability to read Bryant – while always also trying to keep him at least a little on track. But here, with so little time to tell each tale, it was more the Bryant show – with May little more than a bumbling Watson-esque character asking the dumbfounded, “How did he do that?” questions.

Also, while the one story featuring Janice Longbright as its main character was a great read, it highlighted what an opportunity missed this was to do more with some of the lesser known but equally well loved side characters. Hopefully these things will be addressed in future collections. I’m particularly hoping for a story featuring Bryant’s landlady Alma, but I won’t hold my breath…

Next came Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. It came to my attention after being blown away by the film Arrival, which was based on the short story (Story of Your Life) from which this collection takes its name. That film had such a fundamental affect on me, I had to read more.

Overall I found the collection frustrating. Chiang is a good writer who has some brilliant ideas for stories, but doesn’t seem to be able to turn them into satisfying endings. Either that, or they’re just academic meanderings that went well over my head.

Opener ‘Tower of Babylon’, for example, painted a fascinating story only to totally botch the landing. ‘Story of Your Life’ was much better realised as the brilliant film Arrival, where the additional plot helped create a more interesting overall narrative. The rest failed on various levels, always hinting at greatness but letting me down somewhere.

But I’m glad I stuck with the collection, as ‘Hell is the Absence of God’ was the most fascinating story of the lot. Essentially it asks, how would we deal with ideas of faith and immortality if we actually new God and the afterlife existed? Again I found the ending unsatisfying, but the story made me think enough that I enjoyed it.

But overall – for me – this was largely a collection of potentially interesting ‘what if?’ stories from a good writer, with good ideas, but a lack of ability in the storytelling department. I gave up during the final story because it was simply boring, and I wouldn’t return to his work unless it was very highly recommended. So overall, I’m glad I gave him a try but I was ultimately left disappointed.

Last up was We Can Remember it for you Wholesale by Philip K Dick. I’d recently watched ‘Electric Dreams’, the series of television adaptations of Dick’s short stories; and while it was fairly hit and miss, it did a great job of highlighting what great vision he’d had. As I had this collection on my shelf, it jumped to the top of the pile.

What I soon realised was, I should’ve bought a ‘best of’. This collection in one of a series that collate all his short stories, so is by no means the cream of the crop. But it does include the title story (which was the inspiration for the Total Recall films). And there were enough other interesting stories to make me glad I stuck with it.

My problems with the book largely stemmed from a similar recent reaction I had to TV series Madmen. I know, generally, people had a very different attitude to racism, sexism etc in the 50s and 60s. But while it’s historic fact, I really don’t like to watch/read it in action. Especially coming from the mind of such a visionary. A story where a woman is being sexually tricked into a bunker, for example; or racial references to ‘a black’; just rub me up the wrong way. Sure, it’s me – but I struggle to get past it.

On the plus side, there are many glimpses here of Dick’s powerful imagination in full flow. The War With the Fnools (about an alien race which can mimic our appearance – but who are only a few feet high); Return Match (about an evolving alien pinball machine); The Electric Ant (a robot that thought it was a man finding out the truth). They do what good sci-fi does – make you think. And this despite feeling a little folksy due to the weird things the author seemed to think would still be popular (snuff, for example).

But there’s one thing all three of these books brought to the forefront of my mind, especially We Can Remember it for You Wholesale. The short story is essentially the first act of Total Recall – Hollywood kept the interesting, insightful essence and made a sprawling classic with it. Just as they did with Blade Runner. So as we suffer yet another Spiderman reboot, I have to ask: why aren’t more screenwriters exploring the well of these brilliant visions? Do they not read anymore? Hopefully the success of Arrival will send some of them off to the library, rather than back through the list if top grossing re-imaginable movie blockbusters.

What’s next on the list?

I only knocked off number one this time around, due to the ‘theme’, so little has changed. Fowler is still writing faster than I read (I read for a living – which means doing it after work is less fun/desirable than it should be!) but I’ve not put the latest Bryant & May onto the list, as I didn’t want to knock anything off. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be bucking the list and reading it anyway. Its just sitting there, staring…

  1.  The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Third time on the list and now up to top spot. Over the past six months or so, Douglas Adams and this wonderful book have kept cropping up. Clearly no coincidence – it must be time to re-read this classic.
  2. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. Also third 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. Guess what? Yup – third time on the list. I bought this some time 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. Second 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. New entry! 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.