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.

Friday feelings: Watching others interact with your work

Creativity has been a big part of my life. From Lego ‘masterpieces’ when I was small, through sad teenage bedroom poetry, to writing and designing now that I’m, well, less small. Every day I wake up and, at some point, feel that urge to create.

I’m lucky I’ve managed to earn a modest living from writing (certainly not from designing lol) and managed to do most of my creating without having to get direct face-to-face public feedback (managers, colleagues and friends don’t count!). While music has also been a big part of my life, for example, I never felt the urge to perform. The idea of being on stage for anything has always terrified me, which has gotten worse with age as anxiety has started to take a hold on my life.

but unfortunately, every now and again, it can’t be avoided. I had the privilege of writing the programme/booklet for the Cambridge Folk Festival for about 10 years (until 2012). It was poorly paid and managed (the editing process, not the festival), but it meant I got free backstage passes to a festival I loved – what’s not to like? But at the festival, I had my first experience of live public feedback – albeit indirectly.

There I was, sitting in a field with a beer on a sunny day with some good friends and good music – perfect. Then I overhear the people sitting next to us saying, “Wow, I’m not going to see that lot – they sound terrible!” Looking around, I see that the guy has come to this conclusion by reading what I’d written about someone in the programme…

I was mortified. The programme was purely promotional: I wasn’t reviewing these artists, but simply saying a mixture of nice things they wanted to hear (from their own biogs) and a few extra nice bits if I like them. Why didn’t they want to see them? He didn’t know I’d written it (or did he…?), but that wasn’t the point. I suddenly started to feel 20,000 pairs of eyes looking at me…

Of course, I now presume they didn’t want to see that particular band because they weren’t up their street. They’d read the instrument/influence list, who they sounded like, who they’d played with etc – and decided nope, not for me. But for that brief moment I was convinced everyone in that field was reading my programme thinking, “God – all these bands are terrible – what idiot wrote this and what are we doing here?”

A similar thing now happens with my board game designs, when I’m lucky enough to have them published. The most memorable example was at Essen 2016, when Queen Games released Armageddon (co-designed with David Thompson). While ultimately the game didn’t do too well, Queen did an amazing job of pushing it at the event. It must’ve been on 30 demo tables, which were filled throughout the weekend. Walking past those tables, or watching them, was so weird. That’s our baby!

What made it worse is Armageddon is a thinky auction-style euro game with tough decisions. We could often look along a long line of tables and see no laughter, no smiles, no back-slapping – just a bunch of surly, miserable looking faces lol. Luckily a lot of those faces were turning into sales, but it was an incredibly anxiety-inducing and awkward experience!

But on the flip side, I’m not worried about reviews. I’ve been reviewing for years – live by the sword, die by the sword. Not everyone is going to like every game, so there’s no point hoping they will: you just have to hope it’s good enough to get more good reviews than bad, and that those who don’t like it at least understand it and are fair. But even if they’re not, brush yourself down and move on.

Creating for the public is a privilege – but the minute you put your creation into the public eye you must be prepared for criticism. You need to understand that it won’t all be fair, or justified, or even coherent. But more than that you have to be prepared to walk away – not to engage. If you can’t do that, keep your creations to yourself and your friends. Everyone can create, but not everyone is ready for public scrutiny.

Friday feelings: Understanding children’s emotions (The Color Monster)

Happiness, sadness, anger, fear and calm. As adults, we understand these emotions – but in the mind of a four-year-old, or even an 11-year-old (especially if they have special needs), these can be confusing or hard to explain; not to mention, in more simple instances, awkward or difficult to talk about. And, frankly, they’re no easy to explain.

And then there’s, you know, having fun. Kids tend to have emotional highs and lows every, what, three to five seconds? This moment’s laughter can easily bring on the next moment’s tears, and that laughter seems instantly forgotten. So imagine how many of these emotions you’re missing, as a parent, when your child is at school, or with friends, or at an after school club or party?

The Color Monster, a children’s book by Anna Llenas, was written to try and tackle this tricky area in an interactive way. It’s the story of a little girl finding the Color Monster, which has its emotions all mixed up – and so she sets out to try and help it through all the confusion. All the monster has to do is identify each feeling (each represented by a colour) and separate them, by understanding how they make it feel.

The book has been very successful, and a game was an obvious extension of the IP. It isn’t much of a game, to be honest – roll-and-move a couple of pieces around a board while trying to win a very simple memory game. But what’s important is how interactive it is, and how they’ve cleverly incorporated co-operative game mechanics into something that actually has people talking with, rather than over, each other.

A player’s turn is simple: roll the die and move a piece (the girl or the monster); and if you land on a space with a colour token on it, you talk about an emotion that matches it. After that, you can make an attempt at the colour matching. The rules suggest you can talk about anything – an event, a memory, an object. But as a parent you can of course narrow that down – this weekend, school etc. The game itself is a very basic framework from which you can gently burrow into your children’s feelings.

But the subtler, equally important side to this is that the parents take turns too. What better way to express your own frustrations or moments of joy that relate to your kids than in a shared space such as this? You’ve just said that X makes you feel angry; well that’s the same way I feel about Y. And post-game, if your children enjoy it, it’s a simple way to move towards a taboo topic. If they seem to be having one of those days you can simply ask, “What colour are you feeling?”

It’s an incredibly clever construct – which just so happens to be couched in a lovely story with beautiful artwork. And whether you look at the books (there are several versions available), the game or both I highly recommend checking it out. After all, you don’t want to make the Color Monster sad, do you…?

* I would like to thank Devir for providing a copy of the game for review.

Books wot I red: How to be an Alien, Rivers of London & Dark Cargo

Welcome to one of my rare book review posts. Once again (rather pitifully) I have just about managed to read three books in a year, but I wanted to write a few things about them as they’re all good reads.

In 2016 I became friends with Anita, writer of the Books and Soul blog and a Hungarian trying to start a more permanent future in the UK. While we’ve lost contact a little in recent times, I remembered her recommendation of How to be an Alien by George Mikes (which I’d enjoyed reading a few pages of) – and was recently given it for my birthday.

This is a very short read (less than 100 pages with a lot of illustrations) but it’s a wonderfully humorous historical document of how a Hungarian found the British when he moved to England in. It was first published in 1946, but the comparisons to the modern day are frighteningly accurate and relevant.

You know you’re on solid ground in the preface: “Some years ago, I spent a lot of time with a young lady who was very proud and conscious of being English. Once she asked me – to my great surprise – whether I would marry her. “No,” I replied, “I will not. My mother would never agree to my marrying a foreigner.” She looked at me a little surprised and irritated, and retorted: “I, a foreigner? What a silly thing to say. I am English. You are the foreigner. And your mother, too.””

You’ll find out all about tea, the weather, the art of understatement and of course the joys of compromise: “Bargaining is a repulsive habit; compromise is one of the highest human virtues – the difference between the two being that the first is practised on the Continent, the latter in Great Britain.” I’m not sure how many of these stereotypes this book started, if any, but it is a wonderful exploration of the British ‘condition’.

After four weeks at No.1 on the ‘What’s next on the list?’ hit parade (see below), I finally got to Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. It was big on my radar as it ticked so many of my top book boxes: a slightly comedic police drama, set in the present day, based in London and with a bit of an other-wordly twist.

I very much enjoyed the premise here: a London bobby who thinks he’s normal, but that can see ghosts – which sees him enlisted as the police’s first apprentice wizard in years. Yup, magic is returning to London and it’s up to our hero, PC Peter Grant, to step up and put a stop to it.

Much like the first of the Bryant and May novels, ‘Rivers of London’ has the problem many first-in-series books has: trying to balance the story with giving you a solid backstory and introducing you to both long-term and short-term characters. Aaronovitch just about gets away with it, with the yarn ripping along at a fair old pace. That said, the characters themselves seemed a little predictable and cliched, while the ‘set piece to set piece’ flow jarred with me a little more than I’d expect for what is a very solid and standard way of storytelling.

That said, I’ll definitely look out for the next book in the series (‘Moon Over Soho’) as I read enough good stuff here to make me want to give the series at least one more chance to become a favourite. Having read a lot of books in this vein (police, London, mystical), I think it’s simply becoming harder to impress me and stand out.

Not content with knocking off my number one read, I followed that with reading the novel that had been in second spot: Dark Cargo by Andrew Rice. I should preface this by saying Andy is a mate, but if I hadn’t enjoyed it I simply wouldn’t have written about it here. The novel is self-published through Amazon and available both in paperback and Kindle form.

I’m not sure if mystical pirate fantasy is a big genre, but that’s what we have here: a 17th Century pirate crew gets in above their heads with a powerful Caribbean spirit who makes it his business to take revenge on them for capturing him.

If you like historical nautical novels there’s an admirable level of detail here, which draws deeply from the rich history of the region. But (unsurprisingly) it was the mysticism and voodoo elements that really drew me in. It’s something I know nothing about, but found fascinating – but it never bogs the story down. Behind the ships and sorcery there’s a fast evolving plot with all the twists and turns you’ll need from an action adventure story.

Much as in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, Rice has no problem dispensing with leading characters when you least expect it – so don’t get too attached! But its certainly not a problem, as life was short and brutal in piracy’s golden age. My only complaint was the prose were a little overwrought for my taste, but that’s a ‘me’ thing – and I have no experience of reading historical nautical novels. Overall, I’d definitely recommend it if it sounds like your kind of thing – or if you fancy something a bit out of the ordinary: a great yarn with some genuinely original ideas.

What’s next on the list?

Having knocked off numbers one and two of the list this time around, I can see the new number one disappearing off the list fast too, but what will be joining it? Very possibly a few of this lot – and even more possibly a whole bunch of Fowler’s Bryant & May books (as I’m falling behind!). It’s embarrassing he is writing them faster than I read them…

  1. London’s Glory by Christopher Fowler. New entry! Bryant and May are back for another instalment – so of course go straight into the number one ‘must read’ spot. It’ll be interesting to see where they can go after the somewhat doom-laden conclusion of the last book – but as three more books have already followed this one, something must be happening! Time to catch up…
  2. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Second time on the list. 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.
  3. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. Second 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.
  4. Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. Second time on the list. Having recently been reading about the Cold War, I thought I should keep a non-fiction title on the list. I bought this some time ago on recommendation so it’s about time I got around to reading it.
  5. The Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engels. New entry! 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.

Books wot I red: The Burning Man, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency & Teach Yourself: The Cold War

It’s time for a week off from board games as I return to my (very) occasional mini book reviews section. Normal service will be resumed next week.

It’s been less than a year (Sept ’16) since my last three-book review post, which is good going for me! This time out I’ve taken in an old favourite from my two favourite ageing detectives, a non-fiction history book and something totally outside my comfort zone suggested by my better half – and all off the previous ‘what’s next’ list to boot.

So I’ve added three new books to the what’s next top five, including a first for me – a book I’m planning on rereading that I first read 20-plus years ago. And having already started my next book, I can already reveal it’s not on the list at all. Oh, the drama…

I’m reading so slowly nowadays that every second book I pick up seems to be the new one by my favourite author – which suits me just fine. And this time it was no exception, as I turned back to my old detective friends Bryant and May in The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler.

Reading about these ageing London coppers bickering away is much like the comfort you get from hearing old friends or relatives chatting away in the next room, but as the story started to develop a worrying illness for one of the lead characters started to give me the fear: was this the end of the line for my old chums?

The yarn was as gripping and well told as ever, but the last few pages had be blubbing like a baby. I don’t want to give anything away to fans of the series, and feel I’ve already hinted too much, so I’ll just note that the final page of the novel proclaims ‘Bryant and May will return’ – so don’t panic!

I talk about this series too much in these occasional book posts, but just to briefly recap: if you like genuinely well written books, fantastic characters you can fully invest in, a good detective/mystery novel, and are in any way interested in the ever so seedy underground history of London, this series is as an absolute must-read.

Having still been in the mood for light mystery novels at the end of The Burning Man, I turned to a book recommended to me by my new lady friend (hello Sarah!) – The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. She feared it might be a bit gentle and girly for me, but I liked the sound of her description so gave it a go.

I like a good detective yarn and that sold it to me – but  isn’t what you get with our lady detective from Botswana, Ma Ramotswe. Sure she solves cases, and one by taking on some dangerous characters, but this it is more about what it is like to live in Botswana, the character of its people, and how it is possible to take joy, and lessons, from everyday life.

In language and length it is a very easy read, while its bite-sized chapters make it an ideal airport holiday read. But I don’t say that in a derogatory way, because when I’ve read a few pages of books often classed in this way I’ve put them straight back down: this is a series I’d be happy to read on holiday – I’m not saying it is typical of books classified in that way. Easy read doesn’t mean poorly written; this is a good book.

It is also the first in a long series (17 and counting) and if I’m honest I won’t be rushing back to them; there are plenty of other books calling to me from my book shelves. But I’m pretty sure that, somewhere down the line, I’ll be in the mood for another visit to Botswana, if only to revisit the wonderful character McCall Smith has created for a cup of bush tea.

After a nice easy read, and three successive appearances on the list, I finally got to Teach Yourself: The Cold War by CB Jones. One of my favourite two-player board games, Twilight Struggle, is set during this period and reading the cards in the game made me realise how little I knew of the conflict – embarrassing, as I lived through much of it.

From the breaking up of Europe at the end of the Second World War, through to the demolition of the Berlin Wall, it’s a terrifying tale of greed, corruption and intolerance; or in a word, politics. It starts out depressing and gets more so, but at the same time is a morbidly fascinating series of events.

While the book does a relatively good job of sitting on the fence rather than taking sides; and getting all the important events covered in just the right amount of detail for the likes of me; the layout felt like a big misstep. they’ve chosen to go region by region rather than in chronological order, which in theory makes sense – but for a ‘teach yourself’ book presumably aimed at novices it makes for scrappy reading.

I frequently found myself having to head to the index to cross reference incidents being mentioned that hadn’t yet been discussed, because they were in a different chapter (so while reading about the arms race, for example, I’d have to be looking up things about South America or The middle East that were coming in later sections). This may make it great as a reference tool, but as a book to learn about the Cold War it made for very tough going. I have another book – Robert J McMahon’s The Cold War: A very Short Introduction – awaiting me on the shelf which will hopefully do a better job.

What’s next on the list?

So there were three new entries to the list this time – and I’ve gone as far as putting No.1 in a REALLY prominent place so that hopefully I won’t forget to start it at some point this year…:

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Its fourth time at number 1, having been on six of these lists (a record). I still really want to read it; what the hell is going on?
  2. Dark Cargo by Andrew Rice. A book written by a friend that I started proof reading for him, but stopped after three chapters (it’s fair to say I’m no proof reader). I got a physical copy from Amazon so I could finish it (but this is its second time on the list).
  3. Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. New entry! With the Cold War finally behind me, I thought I should keep a non-fiction title on the list. I bought this some time ago on recommendation so it’s about time I got around to reading it.
  4. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. New Entry! 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.
  5. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. New entry! 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 board game designer? Take my money! Bound to be a disappointment.