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Reading Matters

Cities of the Red Night. My all-time No.1

This page is a regularly updated list of what I've been reading, with brief comments about the book concerned. Inevitably it will be varied, with some good, some ok, and some dreadful titles listed.

There's an accompanying page at Reading Matters 2 where I have listed a selection of some of my all time favourites. Mainly fiction, with a fair selection of more obvious stuff but some rare and less well known gems are also included. Check it out.

Philosophy texts can be found here.

Updated: 4 October 2006

Recommended Purchase: Nothing is True. Everything is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin .

Most recent read: The Book of Dave by Will Self.

book cover

The rantings of a depressed London cabby called Dave lay hidden for centuries. Far in a post-diluvian future they became the foundation of a new social and religious order called 'Davinity', where family separation and mockney vocalizations achieve orthodoxy, and seeseeteevee men roam the streets looking for apostates. That - in a nutshell - is the basis of Will Self's latest novel. Part fantasy (London's flooded off the map), and part the tale of the mental collapse of a modern day cabby, the novel alternates between the two worlds. The 'Dave the cabby' sequences are certainly easier to cope with, with classic moments of Self's inconoclastic humour merging with a stylistic elegance of which Martin Amis at his peak would be proud.

There are games with names and games with maps and games with words, strange beasts, brief excursions into disturbed and disturbing violence, gentle human moments, and fierce humour. There's the CPS and child custody battles as the basis for social order, and - this being Will Self - an exploration of the human mental condition with a healthy dose of psychiatry thrown in.

Will Self is probably our most valuable - and undervalued - writer right now. What chance a Booker? Uncompromising, selfishly indulgent, and always at the far edge of inventive, challenging and vibrant, original fiction. Five stars!


Previous read: Darwin's Radio / Darwin's Children by Greg Bear. I finished these back-to-back a couple of months ago. They’re enjoyable contemporary/near-future science/medical thrillers. The working assumption is that we are genetically programmed to make evolutionary jumps. And that’s the premise: a new form of human suddenly emerges. Society cracks, both fearful and protective of these strange new children. Old order versus new order. Standard ploys, but well crafted. Alongside the thriller element, Bear provides a fairly potted scientific rationale. I can’t critique that, and although I’m dubious about some of the assumptions I did like the heavy weighting to the evolutionary theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’. This makes much more sense to me than Dawkinesque models of gradualism. The science doesn't get in the way, and is well handled if you don't take it too seriously.

One odd factor for me was the underpinning social-political story about abortion rights (and in particular the morning-after pill). This is played up to what seemed an extraordinary extent in the first of the books which deals with the pregnancy and first births (the second deals with the children more directly, and has an archeological sub-plot), and puzzled me until I realized that the primary market is America. It’s not that the novel is exactly pro-Life (far from it and abortion would have wrecked the plot), but that it is so central to the political fall-out provides a fascinating insight into current American thinking around the issue. The second of the two books is less radical, and more a conventional thriller. It's good. But read Darwin’s Radio first.


Previous read: The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks. This doesn't quite live up to the massive hype it was given, but it is pretty good despite that. I was sold on the opening scenes, but then I'm a Chelsea fan. Good exciting hotchpotch of mysticism and nonsense, with plenty of net-conspiracy type paranoia thrown in. It never quite deals with the underlying themes, tending to overlay them as plot devices rather than getting to grips with the metaphysical concepts. So a minor let down. I'd expected more, but then I guess few books will hit the heights of Roszak's Flicker. Worth reading, and expect a sequel or two.


Previous read: The Algebraist by Iain M Banks. I nearly didn't get beyond the first few pages of this. The book opens with a gratuitous scene of alien torture that adds next to nothing to the rest of the 500+ page sci-fi nonsense. Basically a galactic war/adventure novel, it's just about engaging enough to keep you going but all too frequently gets bogged down in impossibly complex descriptions of aliens and planets. Don't be fooled by the title (I was), there's nothing intriguing or imaginative about numbers, formulae, or even basic algebraic structures in this novel.

Avoid.


Previous read: Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban. This is a really weird novel. It was recommended to me by a colleague at a conference on Creativity. We'd been talking about the non-linearity of language (as you do) and he pointed me in the direction of "Ridley Walker" (published in 1980).

OK... how can I describe it? Imagine a post-technology world. Society has fractured, but remants of old knowledge persist; misunderstood and incomplete. And feared. Knowing is mythologized. Language is distorted into phonics. It's like hearing music played in the wrong key, or following a map without a scale or key. It's unnervingly familiar, but unsettling. And I'm describing the writing as much as I'm describing the novel. Like Ive said it stayd qwyet all day we dint hear nothing nor there wernt no lerting from the dogs. Get the idea?

But once you pick up the rhythm of the language it's like digging in underneath the skin of something by Philip Pullman. It doesn't shine like Pullman's work (Hoban keeps it simple, where Pullman's ideas are writ large), but there's a resemblance in the use of dialect to draw the reader out, to place hints and set linguistic traps that become clear over time. Meaning emerges like shapes in a mist. In one great sequence the characters fins an old text (written in real English). And it's then that you realize the conceptual leaps you've been making to keep in touch.

At which point I had better stop as I've probably scuppered any chance that you'll ever pick this up. That would be a shame. It ain't easy reading, but I really did like this one.


Previous read: Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell. Dark and disturbing novel set in Notting Hill. The ghost of Christie (Reginald John Cristie, not Agatha) premeates this classic decline into morbid and fatal obsession. As ever, the ending is never quite as sharp as you'd wish (too many loose ends), but the journey itself is fine.


Previous read: Author Author by David Lodge. If you are looking for a good comic novel, this isn't it. Which caught me by surprise. Author Author is a novelization of the literary life of Henry James. And to quote from the book, it's a bit of a curate's egg. Lodge is a great stylist, and at times the novel flows impeccably, adopting the languid style of its central character. But at other points it reads like an essay. There are some great moments, especially as James' inauspicious career as a dramatist fails again and again to launch itself. And then there's Henry's grudging acceptance of the all too vivid success of his friend George Du Maurier (who wrote the best-seller Trilby). Shades of Martin Amis' The Information, though without the wicked humour.

For all that, this is a very solid book, with some excellent writing and thorough research. Would it make me read Henry James (it's more than 25 years since I have)? Probably not; but I might check out Du Maurier, or even more obscure, Constance Fenimore Woolson.


Previous read: The Echo by Minette Waters. A good psychological thriller which takes the form of a 'why-dun-it' rather than a 'who-dun-it'. More conventional than The Dark Room, this is well paced, with excellent settings and some great characterization. The story centres on the death by starvation of a homeless man who lacks identity but whose place of dying is no accident. Who is he? Why did he choose to die in the midst of plenty? You get the picture. It'll probably end up on TV (if it hasn't already), but it's a decent read.


Previous read: The Hospital Ship by Martin Bax. I had to search for this book. Originally published in 1976, and long out of print, The Hospital Ship was described by J G Ballard as 'the most exciting, stimulating and brilliantly conceived book I have read since Burroughs' novels.' That was more than enough to have me hooked, and I'm glad I was.

The basic set-up is straightforward enough: the world is in a permanent state of war, and the Hospital Ship and its crew sail the oceans doing what good they can to save victims of the uncontrolled violence and disorder. The ship represents a sanctuary amidst the terror, providing shelter and sanity in an insane world where crucifixion has become a literal disease. Heavily dosed in psychiatry, the ship's medical team preach a version of 60s love-culture, a counter-balance to the dysfunctional and disjunctive world outside.

But what's it about? That's more difficult to say. The novel strips religion into two... the cruxifixionary disease and suffering of the land against the salvationary power of love on the sea. The conscious and the unconscious; the constructed against the instinctive. The routines through which this is expressed are reminiscent of Burroughs, but the writing is more Ballard than WSB. And cutting across all this are hard slices of reality: technical medical writing; financial reports; business and politics. The real in the centre of the surreal.

The Hospital Ship is Bax's only novel to date; but the noise is that he has written another. Frankly, I can't wait.


Previous read: Diamond Dogs by Alan Watt. I bought this in a sale on the basis of the title alone (even though it refers to Neil Diamond, not the Bowie album). That said, it's a good little psychological thriller with some nice quirks. Not bad at all.


Previous read: Nothing is True. Everything is Permitted by John Geiger. First point to make is that this is a biography and so by right doesn't belong on this page. The second point to make is that Brion Gysin permeates just about every page of this site is one form or another (not least being the insipiration for the name of the web-site) and so I'm going to include it here anyway.

So... to move on to the book itself. John Geiger has produced an excellent 'straight' biography of Gysin in that it follows the standard conventions of travelling from childhood to grave, and covers all the main periods of his subject's life. What you get is a thorough and extremely well-researched summary of an extraordinary - if ultimately unfulfilled - life. There was much here I didn't know, and some startling snippets that left me wanting to know more (no bad thing). I was fascinated, for example, that there was a brief early meeting between Gysin and Jackson Pollock; but disappointed that there was no reflection on the cross fertilization of ideas between the two (just compare some of Pollock's 1950s work with Gysin's 1960s calligraphic landscapes and you'll see what I mean). What you do get though are some wonderful insights into the character of Gysin, the tensions between his intense optimism and the perennial knock-backs as projects floundered (the dreamachine is a prime example). The dynamic between Gysin and Burroughs was of particular interest, the latter being far more the realist, more able to hone projects to the expectations of the market. Geiger has done a great job here on drawing out the differences between the two friends and collaborators. The long tale of the eventual publication of The Third Mind is a running theme through the latter part of the book.

What Geiger has achieved is to restore Gysin to the centre of the story; and he's achieved it with much sensitivity, but without a trace of sentimentality. I think Brion would have approved. Recommended.


Previous read: The Dark Room by Minette Walters. A psychologicial thriller. It took a little while to get going, but I'm glad I persisted. The setting is very static, intentionally claustrophobic. A suicidal amnesiac is suspected of murder. Can she remember? Is she faking? Is she behind the killings? Well I ain't going to tell you how it ends, other than it sure as heck surprised me. Excellent holiday read.

Previous read: Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard. Interesting one this, and not really what I'd expected. The opening, set in Rwanda, had me deeply fooled. But it turned out to be a decent social tale of corruption and intrigue set in the heart of America. (e-book).

Previous read: The Black Ice by Michael Connelly. A solid cop thriller starring 'Harry Bosch', an archetypal good cop running against the grain, going solo but getting to the truth. Moral, but tough. The set-up is the murder of a cop gone bad, but our hero is sceptical, smells a cover-up and digs deep to unpick the truth. Gritty noir, but a tad formulaic. (e-book).

Previous read: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. Ok, it's hokum, silly, but also a great movie. A decent read too. Given that this is a classic, there's not a great deal for me to add, but it makes a great easy read. Excitement, danger and mystery.

I read this on my Tungsten C by the way (first time I've read a novel on the thing). Are books dead, or just moving to a new medium?

Previous read:The Murder Room by P D James. This pretty much plods its way through an implausible plot. It's a readable diversion, but unengaging. I neither cared who had been killed or who had been doing the killing. Adequate formula fiction (I guess).

Previous read: In the Forest by Edna O'Brien. I've been trying to recall when I last read a book by Edna O'Brien. It must be more than 20 years ago, maybe 25. I'm an idiot! O'Brien wrote prose as no-one else could. The pitch was always perfect, the effect always entrancing. Unlike her early books, which - as I recall - dealt with the small universals of life, this is a much darker endeavour, a grand universal if you like. In the Forest is based on a true murder, but woven into a fiction that is almost the more extraordinary for its plain down-to-earth simplicity. It's not a mystery, it's not a suspense. More a document, or painting of what happened, and of the lives of those immersed in those events. The quirky structure never jars, the story-telling never falters. Edna O'Brien still writes the perfect prose, still holds a perfect pitch. Miss this at your peril.

Previous read: dr mukti and other tales of woe by Will Self. Classic Will Self. The first of the tales here is a good length novella, Dr Mukti. The set-up is a battle between two raving psychiatrists who use their patients as weapons in a deeply personal - and wholly pointless - battle of wills. Self's fascination with insanity, and how to figure out which of us is insane, is to the fore. It's a brilliant addition to the corpus and absolutely worth getting. The remaining stories are more conventional, but still deeply odd. I especially enjoyed 161, the story of a young loner on the run. Three other tales are also included in this collection, the last being a wonderfully sardonic footnote to Great Apes. Best read since.... Dorian

Previous read: Count Zero by William Gibson. This is pretty much set in Neuromancer territory, with plenty of cyber-side activity. The plot - which foreshadows Pattern Recognition in some respects - eventually pulls the various threads together for a decent showdown. Overall, not Gibson's best shot. I found the plot somewhat strained, and there were too many characters I didn't really care too much about. Decent read, but not the best introduction to Gibson.

Previous read: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. What would the world be like if Germany had one the war? That's the basic set-up, but I found this wholly unconvincing. It may well have made more sense back in 1962 when memories of the war were fresh, but I doubt it will get many fans among today's readers.

Previous read: Time Out of Joint by Philip K Dick. I was 40-50 pages into this and wondering why I'd been reading nothing but an everyday tale of 1950s small-town America, when the book suddenly went 'weird'. It developed all the uneasy strangeness of those b/w sci-fi movies in which no-one is quite who they seem. Not a full-blown classic, and not really much more than an extended short-story, this is a gem of post-war/cold war American paranoia.

Previous read: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. This is a really good contemporary thriller. Not at all what I expected... no sci-fi in sight. And a female lead, who is spiky, believable and sharp. The settings are great, the set-ups are better, and the on-line lives spot on. Put this on your 'to read' list.

Previous read: Millennium People by J G Ballard. Enjoyable hokum really. The middle-class of Chelsea in revolt. As ever, Ballard handles the absurdity of the plot with supreme skill, and provides some great entertainment. Not as sharp or as weird as Super-Cannes, this is nonetheless a finely crafted comic novel. Now if we could put Ballard's plot together with Martin Amis' lashing wit, we'd have something really special.

Previous read: The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman. Not really sure what I think of this. Pullman is the genius behind the 'Dark Materials' trilogy (see main list below). This is one of his children's books, and I can see what he's doing. It's a dark Victorian melodrama with a strong modern social focus. It works as a sort of 'rollicking good read', but lacks the subtlety I'd have expected. Stylistically it's a good take on the Victorian novel, but I think the punches are pulled just a tad too much. In terms of story-telling it's top drawer. OK for a quick read, but that's all.

Previous read: Permutation City by Greg Egan. Well, I could hardly not read this once I'd come across it on a google search. As luck has it, Permutation City is a fascinating novel. Imagine your consciousness being treated as a piece of software. You make duplicate files (clones), and run them. Who are they? Do they have rights? Individuality? And who are you? Whose is the experience? And what if the software copy outlives the original? These are the areas that the book explores, and it does it in provocative and elegant ways. There's more (much more) to it than just this. Not least the question of virtual immortality. It gets pretty complex in areas (explaining the concepts behind some of the software modelling that the plot centres on occasionally), and I can't claim to have followed everything about the theoretical basis for this slice of cyber-fiction. But it's a damn good adventure, full of ideas, and worth picking up. I doubt it will change your world, but it might tweak your coding in ways you don't expect.

Previous read: Xenocide by Orson Scott Card. The third book in the Ender trilogy. Actually, I think it's grown into a series as there are more to follow this one. Overall, more coherent than the second book, with some interesting ideas especially about the location of selfhood and identity. The concept of faster-than-light travel explored in the book has certain resonances with process philosophy, notably the idea of 'holding' a pattern of related entities as a coherent unity. The bizarre sub-plot about the god-spoken is fascinating and not at all what I expected. None of these are 'great' sci-fi, but I will probably dip back in to the series at some point in the future.

Previous read: Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. The second book in the Ender trilogy. More sophisticated than the first, but clunky in places. Card has some great ideas but doesn't always pull them off. That said, I enjoyed this after a slightly uncomfortable start. The 'Ender' character is fascinating. I'm sufficiently hooked to have gone and bought the final episode!

Previous read: The Deadly Space Between by Patricia Duncker. Dark modern gothic. A psychological novel that enters deeply into the world of the Oedipal. Overall, a decent enough read but it ended somewhat abruptly for my taste.

Previous read: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. A fairly standard sci-fi yarn, I was recommended this in an academic journal (!) as the best novel using virtuality as a theme. I wouldn't go that far, but if you are keen on computer games, virtual reality and space wars (plus don't mind a bit of Harry Potter... the main story is set in a Battle School for 10 year olds who are society's warriors) then this is ok. Not great art, but a decent quick read.

Previous read: number 9 dream by David Mitchell. A dark and disturbing novel that flips seamlessly in and out of reality. At its core, a simple story of a young man's search for meaning; but packed with film noir references, gangsters, pop culture and hints of sci-fi. The violence is strong but not gratuitous. By the way, it's set in Japan. Recommended.

Previous read: Kill Your Darlings by Terence Blacker. An ok read which will amuse and infuriate any fans of Amis fils. The ending is great by the way...

Previous read: Baudolino by Umberto Eco. As ever, Eco takes an age to get going, and to be honest I found this somewhat repetitive after a while. Not a patch on Foucault's Pendulum.

Previous read: Yellow Dog by Martin Amis. Well worth reading, and with a strong structural nod towards both Burroughs and Ballard. Recommended.

Previous read: Dorian by Will Self. Stunningly good. More restrained than usual for WS, but a very fine work. No. It's better than that. I'd rate this as the outstanding book of recent years. It's the novel in which Self comes of age and shows that he is truly at the top of his game. If you only read one book this year, make sure it's Dorian. 5 star recommendation.

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