1. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford.
Pop-sci of human genome and its place today, couched in the view from history.
This book is firmly in my wheelhouse, with it being genetics told from a grumpy British viewpoint. Read whilst in East Africa—interspersed with Lonely Planet—so felt fitting. Knowing him from the radio, read the whole thing in his voice. Which is happening more often these days.
2. Lint by Steve Aylett
Absurdist fictional biography of an Asimovian Pulp writer without the talent. Recommended on the first Book Shambles by Stewart Lee.
The surrealist and intentionally underground tone of the book reminds me of Derek and Clive. And the 10th chapter Catty and the Major features a horrifying children’s cartoon shared on recycled VHS by aficionados is rote D&C.
Lint’s fractured book synopses read like Aylett’s real-life bedside table fragments. Half formed ideas for implausible and impossible stories. Summaries that work as trailers, but not features (a hotel of which each floor is located in a different year). Lines to good to leave in a notebook and needing a form to be released.
3. The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
A readable book of grammar! Having tried and failed with Fowler’s Modern English and Strunk & White (both sitting hopeful on my desk at work), Pinker’s decision to give the first third of the book to a readable essay trickled me into reading this. In fact, it was only when seeing the rule set in the monster Chapter 6 did I realise this was a book on grammar.
4. Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
After reading A Brief History by Adam Rutherford, I was expecting another popular scientific treatise, so I was surprised to find myself reading a biography. This was less than comfortable at first and I considered giving up on the book. I don’t like to think of a book as bad, when all that is wrong is that it’s not written for me.
5. Electric Arches by Eve Ewing ★
“I know I can’t tell the difference between a good and a bad poem” —British Comedian on Radio 4 that I don’t remember.
I enjoyed this. Just don’t ask me to tell you why.
There’s a tryptic of poems (the first time, four boys on ellis & another time) interspersed through the book, which I assumed on the title would be poems about sex. Then, it being 2017, I felt the needle—I hope it’s consensual. They weren’t. It was racism.
6. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Be wary of business books. Even those written by Nobel Memorial Prize winners. This was the kind of infurating book which I didn’t always enjoy reading, but I know I’ll be stealing from for the next 10 years.
7. A Very British Coup by Chris Mullin.
My personal biases think it accurate, but it was entertaining nevertheless to read a former Labour politician’s view of Thatchers 80 told as an alternative history in Chapter 3. Cheap, trashy conspiracy theory which could be read backwards by the Brexiteers today.
8. Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari.
I confess to starting this book before my 2018 reading challenge and abandoning it half way.
I even abandoned the review.
It’s hard to read a book where you partially agree with the central premise, but disagree with the framing and presentation. And what a waste of footnotes. Not elucidatory, but serving only as proof that it wasn’t plagiarism this time.
9. Normal by Warren Ellis
I think Warren Ellis would appreciate the moderness of my starting this book, which was released in an appropriately modern way.
As a peripheral fan of comic books, I was aware of Ellis when I came across his blog, which has a persist autumnal feel. Stories of 21st Century hermitology and book reviews are accompanied with twilight photos of Scandacana. In one post he muses on retreating alone to a box in the woods for four days with some notepads and space to think. You can hear the thoughts crackling in the fallen leaves.
Having enjoyed the blog so much, when Kindle surface a short story for 99p (Kindle is so perfect for the short story and they should do more standalone works) it was on my phone before I’d finished considering the purchase. If you enjoyed either of the Metropolis movies, go read Elektrograd: Rusted Blood.
Having bought one book, Amazon’s terrible recommendation engine stopped recommending more lawn mowers—surely one’s enough—and will instead now suggest the rest of Ellis’ oeuvre for the rest of time. Past either mine or his. Combined with the blog, I couldn’t miss the release of Normal. A short ish story released in 4 parts, each available as Kindle one shots. Again, a part-considered purchase appeared on my phone, where it lay in the carousel of good intentions.
By the time I read part one, the experiment was over and the only way to read the remaining books was to buy the full story, which already felt anachronistic despite wirelessly paying and downloading it to my hand held tracking computer. The future hits you fast.
The story itself is set in the near future (present?) in an alternative asylum housing the sufferers of Abyss Gaze. A term so well applied I feel to explain it would be defunct. It skirts the line of satirising his futurology friends, but the joke is too real to cross the line.
10. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol 1 by Alan Moore
A tranche of comic books from the library starts with a terrible movie from Alan Moore comic. I knew Moore wasn’t happy with the translation, but at least put it down partly to curmudgeonliness. But, who boy! It’s even more of a butchery than I realised. This comic is actually good.
11. Mouse Guard: Autumn 1152 by David Petersen
A well-realised world and rollicking good read, if a touch over-explained. An over-explanatory Brigada, but with mice instead of dwarves.
12. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Last of the library comic books. An intertwining tale of Monkey, a teenage Chinese lad feeling out of place at school and a mocking sitcom with a racist stereotype.
I’d pinned this one a while ago as it seemed like help me understand Han’s school life more.
13. Old Love by Issac Baeshavis Singer
I read Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology and, while I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, I felt there was a vein of something (cruelty?) running through the girlfriend stories which sat ill.
The antithesis of cruelty is the bath. And it was in one where I soaked my way through Old Love. Short stories matching the duration of a hot bath excellently. The variety and depth of Singer follows the same thread as Eve L. Ewing for me. It guides me through the labyrinth of a foreign life experience. This time, the refracted lives of Polish-American Jews.
14. The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan
Enjoyable pot-boiler written backwards.
15. All-star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly ★
Scottish people do superman so, so right.
I got a Surface as a pressie to myself in the run up to Christmas. This was the first comic I read on the massive colourful screen. It was almost more beautiful than a physical copy.
16. Theft: A history of Music by Keith Aoki
Christmas present and continued binge reading in the mid-winter’s break. Good for the visual plotting of music history, if a little too self-referential with the in res author characters.
17. Saga Vol 8 by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The ⅓ marker for 52 in 52. And if you’re not on the Saga train yet, hop on.
18. From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell ★
Picked up in the US, this typically dense Moore brings thought to the grim spectacle of Ripperology. And I’m not making the mistake of ever watching the film!
19. Human Transit by Jarrett Walker
Four questions :
- Ridership or coverage
- Connections or directness
- Peak first or Base first
- Rights of way or shared spaces
This book reawoke my inner transport planner. It taught me about Frequent Transit Maps and now I want to draw one for Newcastle.
… Some time later …
So I’ve found Moovit which will show me the routes. And nexus the times. And open source council data the routes. I may have to come back to this when I’ve learned some coding. Or not. We’ll see how my mental health holds up.
20. Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself by Walt Whitman and Allen Crawford. ★
Firstly, I bought this book online after hunting for it in Newcastle bookshops to no avail for a year. Come on home town. Stock poetry or people won’t buy it. Its a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Anyhow, it was worth hunting out. I kind of already expected to enjoy the illustrations. The thing that surprised me was how difficult it was to follow the flow of the text, until I found Crawford’s patterns. This wasn’t a bad thing. Reading a page wrong feels jarring and forces you to reread. This book might just have improved my ability to read poetry.
The poem itself you either know or don’t (Do I contradict myself? Fine, I contradict myself. I’m large, I contain multitudes) and I didn’t much care for it when I read it in my 20s. I still found passages a bit… unwoke? Maybe I’m too British. I can’t love myself that much. But the illumination brought out more of the energy of the poem for me. It’s one I can see my self going back to in 20 years.
21. Maus by Art Spiegelman
Well. Worth the wait.
22. Solaris by Stansiław Lem
Maciej Cegłowski of Pinboard and Idle Words has, in a few talks, mentioned the poor quality of English-language sci-fi versus that of Eastern Europe. Principally the Strugatsky brothers and Lem. He argues that the only good dystopian sci-fi comes from these and the Eastern Europeans, as they had a closer glimpse of the dystopia we could be heading towards. Solaris was my first dip into the ouvre and it was a solid start. My imagination of it coloured it as a 70s sci-fi movie, heavy on atmosphere and happy to build oppression through pacing. And it turns out there is such a movie, which I’ll have to add to my playlist.
23. Nimona by ND Stevenson ★
Soppy, fun, dragon-filled and with arch nemeses. A good marker for my own changing brain, that I can’t wait to read it with the kids, were I to have them. I’ll have to loose it on The Chef in the interim.
24. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Was popping Nimona back on the shelf, when I decided to flick through. Twice. Read the words the second time.
25. The EU: A Citizen’s Guide by Chris Bickerton.
Written and published shortly before Brexit by an informed academic Leaver, this book is best read about 2 years ago. It wouldn’t have changed my Remain stance, largely because Bickerton, whilst able to show the flaws of the EU and the direction its heading, doesn’t address the alternative history in which the EU doesn’t exist. I think in some respect, because its neither the intended scope of the book nor is it an easy thought experiment. I fail when I try it myself, but it does color why I’m fundamentally Remain—the balance of benefit/loss sits with cross border cöoperation. Bickerton would argue the same, with less Federalism, but I think the flavour of his argument fits only in a nonexistent world where Lexit is a good idea. Nevertheless, he’s gives a researched history of the EU and adds facts and anecdotes to my reform side
26. Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin ★
Brilliant. Having seen documentaries and interviews with Baldwin, I started reading the booking in his compelling voice. The strongest feeling I’ve had of reading a book in an author’s voice. But it became attached to John, and as we travelled back through the prayers to Florence, Gabriel and Elizabeth, it stayed with John and each character was allowed their own space. Just marvellous.
27. On Liberty by JS Mill ★
A pleasingly readable philosophical pamphlet (using the Victorian definition of a 4-hour read). Mill is very English in his philosophy, arguing through example and refusing to follow his arguments ad absurdium. This has the effect of keeping the pace trotting along, but with the risk of raising many unanswered questions.
I was surprised to find the final chapter a treatise on small government. Knowing Mill as one of the authors of Utilitaniarism, and carrying my post 1970s tribal assumptions of Left/Right, I’d naturally expected an argument for liberty requiring the constraint of business. Mill, however, argues the opposite. I wonder if in the 21st Century with de facto businesses as governments, he’d thread a more subtle needle. His suspicion of the National Curriculum get more positive support from me.
Plenty to think about. Not bad for free.
28. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volumes One (x2) to Four by Ryan North and Erica Henderson
Equal parts squirrel and girl. She really is unbeatable. As are her friends. That’s what make her unbeatable. At one point she beats up the entire marvel universe. At all times Doreen Green is charming and delightful.
Footnote: I enjoyed this
29. Hellboy Volumes 1 to 12 by Mike Mignola ★
Good bit of Gothic horror comic form. Read with Wikipedia constantly open to find out more about the multiple myths Mignola mentions. The parody arty statement is that “he uses shadows well,” but I’m nothing if not unoriginal, so I’ll also mention the sparing lines and less sparing blocks of shade. American chiaroscuro.
30. The Dregs by Lonnie Nadler & Zac Thompson
A homeless Philip Marlowe hunts out a doomed conspiracy in near-future Toronto.
31. Saga of the Swamp Thing Volumes 1 to 6 by Alan Moore, Stephen Bisette & Co.
Moore right at the very beginning. Partially before Watchmen, and setting out his much-imitated greatness. Take a B-movie horror monster and put him up against other B-movie monsters. But leave the plot askance and hunt for the bigger themes and change the nature of good vs. evil stories as a result. Elevate your swamp monster to the status of a god, and then let him retire to a cabin in the woods. And get Bisette to write you in a character who cares more about the story than the cash in your final one. He may get screwed about off the page, but on it he’s peerless in the comics world.
32. Between the Monster and the Saint by Richard Holloway ★★
The third (?) book on this list in which I internalised the author’s voice. The episode of Book Shambles with Richard Holloway had me captivated. Years of preaching and general kindness lent his interview a scholarly sermon quality. Robin’s touting of Monster and the Saint afterwards only added to my desire to read it, so with a few pounds to qualify for free shipping, into the basket it went.
It’s a book better read, I think, with a gentle Scottish brogue speaking from inside for me to listen to. The arguments he makes for human kindness and empathy are not a hard sell to agree with, albeit harder to live by. As I move away from the obnoxious left-atheism of my teens and early twenties, his description of the reminiscint non-believer, feeling the occasional sadness of non-belief rings true. HIs footnotes are rich with follow up reading and we’re lucky to live in a world where each poem he quotes is available in full at just a click.
A life filled with pity/empathy and filled with gratitude. Not a bad way to aim to live.
33. The Zoo by Christopher Wilson
Satirical account of the final days of Stalin’s court. Wilson uses the knowing idiot trope of Forest Gump and The man who climbed out of the window to poke gallows-fun at the dying embers of Stalin and his plotting usurper (Khrushchev/Krushka, Beria/Bruhah, Malenkov/Malakov and Bulganin/Bulganin). The Chef enjoyed the many Soviet gags; they reminded her of China. Plus cà change and all that. When I first saw the debauchery of the end of Stalin’s days in Man who climbed out the window, I thought it a comic send up of the Soviets, but this second account has sent me to Wikipedia to find out the truth of it. As tactics for keeping the young and ambitious monsters in check, there’s a lot to be said for keeping them permanently tired and plastered.
And through it is sown genuine fear and hurt.
34. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
I think I enjoyed this.
35. Turtles all the way down by John Green.
Mental health issues in Indiana shouldn’t be so beautiful and sweet.
36. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald ★
Grief told as an autobiography and a biography together, through a pair of falconers. Another to add to my theory that academics called Helen are inherently interesting.
37. The Power by Naomi Alderman
A page-turner alt-history as told from the future (an alt-near-present?). As a satire on gender, it was possibly a little too on the nose, excluding the biting prologue and epilogue exchanges. The cast are drawn intriguingly and, despite its global scenery, I wanted to know more details about the world as time was passing.
And taking the piss out of Men’s Rights Activists will never not be funny.
38 Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola
Mike’s back to draw thick black lines and shadows and darkness and stuff.
39. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.
The title did as intended and got me to read it now, rather than earlier when it would have been more helpful.
To over-trivialise with an inappropriate personal example (my strongest suit), Brexit has often sent me to bed grumpy. And this is increasing in frequency as I feel impotent with the lack of recognition of the problem and leaders that swat away concerns as imagined slights. Which is my first attempt at feeling structural rather than direct racism. “We hear you, but plan to do nothing other than continue in what we were doing anyway.”
I get the privilege of being able to tune out of I want and resume a life though, so I guess I just want to live like common people and see whatever common people do. And I’ll never understand.
40. Artemis by Andy Weir.
Trashy space pulp. Enjoyable, if a little too winky to the reader whenever he’s feeling especially proud of his research. I’ve heard him interviewed as he explains his writing process as a system to solve plot issues in a consistent way—why is there a city on the moon—and this comes through on the page too. That said, I blasted through it in two sittings and enjoyed all of the characters, so it can’t be bad.
41. The Eye of the Wolf by Daniel Pennac
The translated children’s books of the continent seem to have more poignancy and depth than the English books I’ve read. Pratchett will cover death and Dahl gruesomeness, but the pacing and stillness here opens your eyes.
42. The Traitor’s Niche by Ismael Kadare ★
This was another of the literary fiction books to read with Wikipedia open in the background. I know little of Albania, and even less of it as an Ottoman province. Kadare carefully doesn’t fill the space between Constantinople and Albania. Although set in the 1820s, the closest evocation for me is a feeling of Roman Britain; the uncultured, rebellious provinces entertained with a bodiless head and the sophisticated centre beauruacratically despairing of the management problems.
The head without a body works throughout as the metaphor for Albanian Pasha. Without the body to rise up, he’s doomed to sit beheaded in the corner of a Constantinoplitan square.
Kadare was a fun read, and it sounds like he often riffs on Albania and Albanianness, so I’ll hunt out some of his more famous works. God bless the library again for floating up something a mile away from the Wishlist.
43. Story of Art by Eric Gombrich ★
This has sat around for over a year looking daunting on the shelf. It’s size implying weeks of effort. I needn’t have worried. This is Gombrich: erudite, approachable and informative and oh so readable. He’s the stereotype of the kindly and informed grandpa.
I was sad that he didn’t mirror the visual arts with snippets of the aural, but that’s being sad about something that the book isn’t. Instead, I got a whistlestop tour of a few thousand years of architecture that I’ve already mostly forgot. It does feel though that, like Little History of the World that the chapters are short and contained enough, that I’ll read a snippet for a refresher for the rest of my life.
44. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Undergraduate humour is an insult seemingly levied by a cricket that laughs at something, but feels they shouldn’t have. Pratchett and Gaiman’s particular brand of humour tickles me. And I enjoy their take on humans as being fundamentally English, deep down.
45. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel ★
It’s been a good while since it took me 200 pages to really get into a book.
46. Killing Gravity by Corey J White
Trashy Serenity-like space-witch murder spree.
47. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Characters go pointedly undescribed, filled in by their words and actions.
48. How It Works: The Baby (Ladybird for Grown-ups) by Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris
Christmas present! Because imma gonna have a babby! If you’ve not read the How It Works series, two British comedians take the stock images from Ladybird books and add new, erm, appropriate text.
49. Void Black Shadow by Corey White
Who says you need a recap and setup? You’re the second of a trilogy. Your readers have already done the first, or why are they here? Let’s pick this story up and be attacking a planet within 10 pages. C’mon man. This is pulp at it’s best.
50. Dummy by Matt Coyne
Bombastic, amusing and sweary account of the first 12 months of fatherhood. I’m bricking myself.
51. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Expected a folk horror and got a Victorian love story with mention of kintsugi and some rum interpretation of autism.