Books wot I red: Jim Bob, Gibson, Butcher

At the end of my previous book review post I listed what I thought would be my ‘top five’ reads over the next three months. Well, true to form, that was seven months ago – and I’ve only read two of them. But I’ve managed to read three books in total, so on with the show.

Driving Jarvis HamI had no idea what to expect from Driving Jarvis Ham by Jim Bob. For the uninitiated, Jim Bob is the singer-songwriter behind the ultimate 90s indie Marmite band, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. And whether you like the music or not, there’s no denying our Jim Bob came up with a cannon of inspired lyrics – but could he write a novel?

On this evidence, yes, he can – although I’m yet to be convinced he has the chops to go on to be a full-blooded fiction author (then I doubt that’s his plan, so it’s probably a moot point).

Driving Jarvis Ham charts the unlikely relationship between two mates: wannabe ‘star’ Jarvis (think the most tragic of Britain’s Got Talent out-takes) and his long suffering sidekick/chauffeur/friend (as the author). The story is narrated by the friend, who has found Jarvis’ disturbing yet unputdownable diary, and walks you through their lives, loves and general lunacy.

The story is regularly funny and occasionally thought provoking. But while I enjoyed the read, I couldn’t help feeling it was all a little bit by the numbers. This kind of character is an easy and tragic target, while Jim Bob’s own career as ‘honest singer-songwriter trying to make a living as an artist’ clearly puts him – and his audience – into an easy sneering, laugh at the plebs position.

I’ll give Driving Jarvis Ham a thumbs up, but do wonder if it’s tainted by the good dose of goodwill I have for the author’s musical cannon. That said, I still look forward to his next book (and indeed his next gig), where I hope he can prove me royally wrong.

Virtual LightDespite having shelves full of unread classics, I can’t resist the allure of a charity shop bookshelf – which led to the recent purchase of Virtual Light by William Gibson. He’s an author I’ve heard a lot about and due to most things being in boxes after our house move, this was surprisingly promoted up the reading order.

It’s hard to fault the vision of the man; Gibson is credited with coining the term ‘cyberspace’ back in the 80s, as well as predicting the rise and rise of virtual environments and – more sinisterly – reality television. He’s considered one of the greats of both steampunk and cyberpunk writing, with this being the first book in his second cyberpunk series.

I almost didn’t get past the introduction. Virtual Light kicks off with an impenetrable few pages of nonsense drug/dream weirdness that has no grounding in anything – it just read like pretentious, pointless twaddle. But luckily I persevered, as once the book proper began it was a wonderfully intelligent and entertaining read.

I think the most important point to get across is this: don’t be put off if you’re not a sci-fi fan. Virtual Light is for the most part a gripping character study of two individuals thrown together in unlikely circumstances; two ordinary, usually good people who have each snapped a little as life continues to throw them curve balls. Sure, it’s set in a post-disaster near future San Francisco, but the tech speak is kept to a minimum and the real story here is about the people and about society, not their gadgets.

In fact, I think I’d have enjoyed the book more if it hadn’t been set in a dystopian future – and would certainly find it easier to encourage friends to read. While I’m sure some see extra meaning in some of the symbolism Gibson employs here, the main messages are so strongly telegraphed (in a good way) they’re really not needed. A fantastic, thought provoking yarn with a vividly drawn, likeable and believable cast.

Fool MoonAfter all that dark foreboding it was definitely time for some nonsense! So what better choice than the second instalment of daft pseudo noire fantasy series The Dresden Files: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher? The first novel was a real guilty pleasure, despite being pretty poorly written, and I’d been looking forward to reading the sequel for some time.

It didn’t disappoint: there were more clichés and overly drawn descriptions in the first chapter than you’d get in a thousand Gibson novels. But this is noire – it’s supposed to be like that, right?

In these early books, Butcher’s writing standard is at best Dan Brown-esque. He tries to make everything cinematic, while explaining even the most obvious emotional responses to the reader. So despite being 400 pages long I sped through parts of it, because I was only reading about one page’s worth of text in four. This would be OK if it was squarely aimed at young teens, but as it’s full of swears and adult themes that’s clearly not the case. I’m told his style improves in later books – here’s hoping!

So why the hell am I reading them? Quite simply, they’re great fatastical stories. I love the concept (hard up wizard PI in Chicago), the characters, the locations, the relationships and the story lines – all the bits to make a good book are here. And as someone who’s convinced they have a novel in them, knowing someone this thin on writing chops made it onto the best-seller list gives me genuine hope!

What’s next on the list?

invisible-codeAs this was such a resounding success last time, let’s try it again shall we?

  1. Bryant & May and the Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler. Up from number 5, not only is this now out in paperback but I have it in my grubby mitts. As my favourite series ever, this will definitely be read next.
  2. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. I really enjoyed the first Hunger Games book and then took a deliberate break. But I can hear the sequel calling me from the bookcase…
  3. Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. Still at 3 and still here for the same reasons: “How to make a better world. I think it’s probably important to get up to speed on this.”
  4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I bought this as part of a nice set, cheap from The Works, for Zoe’s birthday. I’ve since heard several people whose opinions I trust say it’s a classic for the right reasons, so I’m looking forward to giving it a go myself. Should also be a good change of pace.
  5. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Down from 2 last time, but still high on my list. It just might be a bit like other things higher up on my agenda to get read soon. And it’s also still in a box, somewhere, which isn’t helping its cause.