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.

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.