I don’t like doing book reviews as a rule. I’ve been given plenty to do over the years, and I always approach them with trepidation. It’s the people in glass houses thing. I know very well how difficult it is to write a novel, how personal it is to you and how you put blood, sweat and tears into it. It’s a labour of love to write a book (at least it is to me and every other author I know) so if you hear that folk hate it or just give it the most damning reaction of all, meh, it’s such a horrible feeling that I’d hate it if I had to inflict that one someone else. So when I was reviewing books for the much-missed Death Ray magazine, I always tried to pick the books I figured I’d like. That way I wouldn’t be forced to rubbish a book I knew the author had worked so hard to write. Most of the time that worked, but not always, and I’ve never liked going back to do reviews as any kind of regular gig – paying or otherwise.
But I’ve just had a spate of reading where every book I’ve picked up has been gold, so I figured it would be good to pay it forward (though pretty much every author I’ll mention here doesn’t need help from my scrawny blog to help their books do well…). I’m not going to review them as a) I haven’t got time, and b) You’ll make up your own mind about it if you choose to read it. Instead, I’ll just let you know what I’ve read recently and tell you that they’re great and you’d enrich your input if you picked them up.
First up is the latest book I finished.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.
I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in quite some time. A book that’s at once cuttingly modern, contemporary and relevant, while still managing to capture a wistful nostalgia and retro cool. Imagine if Steve Jobs had set up a Quest game for the world to play and the winner walked away with Apple in their back pocket. That’s the kind of story we’re talking about. With giant robots, Dungeons & Dragons and old video games. If you’re of a certain age to have lived through the eighties, you’ll get such a kick out of this. Even if you haven’t, it’s still a great read.
The Masked Rider, by Neil Peart.
I’m a huge Rush fan (which was why I was so pleased at bits in the previous book…) and have been blown away by this Canadian trio ever since I heard The Trees as a spoddy thirteen year old. I’ve always known that Neil Peart was an awesome drummer and a clever guy, so I decided to check out some of his writing. The Masked Rider recounts Neil’s bicycle tour of Cameroon and West Africa, and is part travelogue, part examination of what it is to be a person, to be good, to be human, and an examination of people and how we treat one another. All told with wit, clarity and a light touch that makes you feel like you’re taking the ride with him – which utterly immerses you in the landscape. Though, from the descriptions of the roads, hills and mad bureaucracy, I don’t think I’d have made more than a couple of miles before throwing in the towel.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.
This surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. Sure, not every book that goes on to be a smash hit is actually any good, but this totally deserved to be the success it is. The story was engaging from the first page, the writing was clean and spare, with just the right level of description and the right level of things left for the reader to imagine. The dialogue zinged and it ripped along at a pace that allowed you to be breathless and allowed then you to relax. And I’m not ashamed to say I teared up a little when Katniss puts all the flowers around little Rue from District 11.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman.
I read this after Ant Reynolds recommended it to me. It’s a slight book, and didn’t take long to read, but it packed in a great deal. It’s full of a wonderful sense of English romance for the old folky ways of the country, themselves a gloss covering something far older. It has a great monster in the form of Ursula Monkton, but is clever enough to leaven her monstrosity with understanding of why she’s a monster and even makes the reader feel pity for what she is and her eventual fate. A wistful book, and one I had a warm feeling upon closing.
Pariah, by Dan Abnett
As a long time fan of Dan’s work, it had taken me a criminally long time to get round to reading this book. Maybe I was hoping that by the time I did, he’d have written the second book in the trilogy…hint, hint… This was a book that wrong-footed me at almost every turn. Right from the off, I assumed that what I was reading was an origin story, that everything could be taken at face value; which, given the subject matter, was naïve of me. I thought, aha, I know what you’re up to, I know how you’re going to reveal this twist. How clever am I? But then the rug wasn’t just pulled from under me, it was as though it had never existed in the first place. After that, I couldn’t be sure of anything, and the rest of the novel just sucked me in brilliantly.
The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins.
The work of Richard Dawkins has consistently entertained, educated and informed me of the world in which I live. From The Selfish Gene, The Ancestor’s Tale, The God Delusion and now The Greatest Show on Earth, I’ve revelled in the joy he takes in his writing, where I feel he’s telling me these amazing things, not because he has to, like it’s a textbook or anything, but because he wants to impart the wonder of evolution and, to quote the title of his collaboration with Dave McKean, the Magic of Reality. This latest book is an attempt to redress the balance Richard Dawkins feels might have been absent in his previous books, where he says he’s taken that the reader accepts evolution as a fact as a given. This book is an explanation of evolution and deals with the mountains of scientific evidence for its acceptance in a way that’s educational, inspirational and, dare I say it, magical. A must-read for anyone who has any connection, however tenuous, with the politics of scientific education.
Fatale/the Criminal series, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
The graphic novels were recommended to me by the guy who works in Page 45, a comic store in Nottingham’s City Centre. Like the guy who works in the computer store who tells you that this particular model is the best one and that he has one at home, you might be inclined to be suspicious of the store guy telling you this particular comic is great. Surely he just wants you to buy it, what does he care if it’s good or not? Wrong. You buy a comic or graphic novel from a comic store on the say-so of the owner and if it sucks, guess what, you’re not going back there. But these two were (and continue to be, as they’re not done yet…) fantastic. Fatale is Raymond Chandler meets Lovecraft. Need I say more? No, thought not. Criminal has has no supernatural elements, but each story is gritty noirish, seventies-infused crime story, with flawed characters, emotional storylines and stunning artwork that I’d heartily urge you to seek out if you haven’t already.
Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.
Anita got me this as a present (again, on the recommendation of the dude in Page 45) and it blew me away with its bonkers storyline, wonderful art and snappy dialogue. It’s one of the best fusions of art and words I’ve seen in a long time, and if you’ve ever had a love of the strangeness of Grant Morrison’s work, then you’ll love this.
Next up for me is Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King.
So, have you read any of these? Do you agree with me or think I’m horribly skewed in my tastes? What books have been lighting your fires recently? Let me know, as I’m always on the look out for something fresh and exciting in any genre or medium. I may do something like this again on music and film/tv if you like…