What I’ve been reading lately

Whilst I am ploughing through the 100 novels challenge, the truth is I don’t just read the books on that list. I frequently intersperse my reading with some slightly less worthy works of fiction; the genre fiction which I love.  I grew up on crime novels and science-fiction, and as you will see, I always return to those genres… much like comfort food.

Blackbirds

First up, a very modern, somewhat racy novel, Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. I love Chuck’s blog, terribleminds, where he dispenses foul-mouthed wisdom from the lofty tower of writer-that-earns-a-living. I loved two of Chuck’s earlier books – Shotgun Gravy and Bait Dog, and was expecting to love Blackbirds. Truth be told, although many of the elements were there – razor-sharp writing, interestingly damaged characters, sex, violence and some paranormal shiznit – I came away feeling unsatisfied. Chuck has said that he’s been kicking this novel around for a few years, and it shows, the scenes feel as though they’ve been patched together with some pretty flakey story-glue. I’m going to steer clear of the other Miriam Black novels, but give one of Chuck’s other books a go.

87th Precinct

The Pusher by Ed McBain book coverThen some re-reading. I’ve been ploughing through Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, of which there are many. Ed more or less invented the cops-and-robbers genre, as far as I can tell. I read these as a teenager, and they influenced my writing style quite a lot. Short, staccato like sentences, a heavy focus on dialogue, and plenty of intrigue and violence. Of course, they are dated now – access to a cellphone would resolve many of the plots – and the women are all sexualised to the point of parody. However, the stories still rip along, the characters are still broadly sympathetic, and I’ll confess, I forgive a good crime novel pretty much anything.

Never Far from Nowhere

I also belong to a book club, and the most recent novel on the list was Never Far From Nowhere by Andrea Levy, which deals with race issues in the 1970s. Andrea Levy is an important writer, being one of the few black historical authors for the United Kingdom, and she charts a uniquely English racism which makes for uncomfortable reading – because most of it is still true today. With that said, this book is less than subtle, and I found the characters fairly one dimensional. This was her second novel, and it was her fourth, Small Island, that won most praise from reviewers. I think there is nascent talent evident in Never Far From Nowhere, but it hadn’t quite gelled yet. I’ll be glad to read her later works, however.

Inverted World

Inverted World book coverAnother recent read was Inverted World, a science fiction novel by Christopher Priest. Inverted World is a brilliant novel in science-fiction terms… the ideas are interesting and the science is good. Like a lot of sci-fi, the characters exist mainly to serve the idea, rather than the other way round and the writing is flat and unevocative. The different points-of-view don’t add much to the story; it could just as easily have all been written from 3rd person, and might have been better for it.

Flashman

I’ve also been re-reading the Flashman novels. Historical novels set during the 19th century, the Flashman novels are that rare thing… books which features a thoroughly unlikeable main character, which nevertheless succeed admirably. It is partly a critique of the victorian novel, by undercutting any sense of nobility or bravery, the Flashman novels show the Empire building of Britain as the rapacious, violent, incompetent and greedy exercise it was and sheds a less than flattering light on the major players of the time.

The Great Gatsby

The final book on my list is The Great Gatsby, which I grabbed because it was free on kindle (and a week before payday I am out of money for new books to read!) I read this many years ago, and apparently liked it enough to award it five stars on Goodreads. Whether the book will stand up to a re-read I will soon discover.

What have you been reading lately? Got any good books to recommend?

Photo of books by shutterhacks.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. The Lord of the Rings is number 100. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

I can’t think of anyone I know who has not come across this classic story. They may have listened to the original radio show, read the Douglas Adams books, or watched the movie – or they may have simply absorbed the references: 42, don’t panic, carry a towel and Earth: Mostly harmless.

In my own case, I first read the book as a teenager. At the time I consistently ransacked my Dad’s bookshelves, which luckily were vast and highly eclectic. I picked books mainly on the title, and these books, all lined up in a row, had some great titles. With no idea what to expect, the actual book was a shock. I had literally never come across something like it – Monty Python, Terry Pratchett and other zany, slightly trippy comedy was to come later.

Like every teenager, I adored it. I even listened to the radio show, on tape, at a later date. The jokes passed into my common language, 42 became the default answer to every question (with knowing sniggers from those who understood, and bewilderment from those who didn’t. Over time, however, everyone knew what it meant.)

It’s hard to where to start reviewing a classic book like this. I was a little bit afraid of going back to it. Would it have dated? Would it no longer be funny? Would the fact it has become part of our common memory, burnished and surrounded by a positive glow of nostalgia, mean the original came off a bit – well, hackneyed? Would the fact I knew the jokes ahead of time mean they fell flat on delivery?

I am pleased to report that the first book still made me laugh out loud. The dialogue is acerbic and brilliant, the characters endlessly funny and yet oddly sympathetic, and Trillian a remarkably well-rounded and competent female character – something I value a lot more now than I did as a teenager.

Some of it reeks of the time period it was written. The description of the actual Hitchhikers Guide will remind you eerily of a kindle, the cost of a pint is laughably low, and the slang is pretty much jazz slang with some syllables changed around. Other parts are still woefully accurate: the tedious and bloody-minded bureaucracy of local government, and pretty much everything about human nature.

Parts of the book are surprisingly progressive. In a world where we still have Creationists, people arguing against abortion, and Tories in power, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy feels practically transgressive. In many ways, we have gone backwards.

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

Having said that, for a book that has made such a huge impression it feels oddly light. This is not the savage dismantling of society, nor does it resemble the philosophical musings of someone like Terry Pratchett. It’s all fairly good natured, and there’s an inherent faith that humans will keep bumbling along somehow… even if  (almost) all of them get bulldozed to death at the start of the first book. You finish with a happy smile, and a reminder of all those iconic quotes – but not much else.

Should we expect more of our satiric comedy? I don’t know. Sometimes it is nice to have a light, fun read. I stormed through the first book in less than an evening and felt the better for it. And yet, given how highly regarded it is, and how much impact it had on me as a teenager, I expected something a bit more lasting, something with a bit more weight.

Please weigh in below or give me a shout on twitter @suziehunt: did Hitchhikers have an impact on you?

The next book on the list is A Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights. Look out for that review coming soon!

 

Man of the hour

This story was written for the terribleminds flash-fiction challenge. The aim was to smash two sub-genres together and somehow come up with a story out of the messy remains. My genres (randomly generated) were: Sci-Fi Humor/Satire and Superhero. (Many thanks to Burning-liquid for the image of the planet.)

Man of the Hour

His cape glittered in the light thrown off by the fire. To the screams of the crowd, the Golden Hawk smashed through a window of the burning school. A gout of flame exploded out behind him. Someone in the crowd fainted, whilst others quickly made bets on how many of the children the Hawk would rescue. The worst odds were on none, but those who bet the Hawk would manage to save all twenty were also playing a risky game.Ambulance sirens wailed and throbbed. Mrs Jones, wrapped in a dressing gown and wearing fuzzy cat slippers, launched into a long monologue about each of the children trapped inside — focused mainly on their predisposition to take her bin and move it halfway down the street on bin day.

Then, to gasps of wonder, the Golden Hawk reappeared. Children clung to his arms, his legs, his torso, like scorpion babies clutching their mother. His cape fluttered over them.

Bookies groaned as they counted the number of children, but started to pay out. Winners grinned and praised the Hawk. Paramedics rushed to get oxygen masks on the children. The Golden Hawk saluted as the photographers rushed to get their shot, then gently lifted the last child, kissed it on the top of its head and passed it to a reporter. Before anyone could ask any questions, the Hawk leapt into the air and zig-zagged away.


“I’m telling you,” Chambers said. “The reporters don’t give a damn how that fire took hold. All they are talking about is the same old, same old. Who is the Hawk? Where does he come from? Where does he go? What if he turns into a super-villain? They don’t care about the financial situation of the school, and how come it ended up with exposed wires and plywood so old it was turning into dust.”

The Prime Minister opened a bottle of incredibly expensive water and sniffed it dubiously. “I do wish we would hurry up and arrive at this Alpha Centuri 95-whatever it is.”

“Another twenty five years yet,” Chambers said. “And in the meantime, the deficit must be kept down. You know that, with all due respect.”

“Of course, of course,” sighed the Prime Minister. He carefully poured the bottled water into the cat bowl on his desk. Jessie, his Russian Blue, jumped onto the table and started to lap the water. “The bloody deficit. I just don’t understand why we had to sell off the whole of England to make a repayment on it.”

“We owed twenty-five trillion pounds to the Chinese,” Chambers said. “And they cashed their IOU.”

“Yes, but I thought one of those, you know, African countries owed us a pretty penny or too.”

“The previous government,” Chambers said. He poured himself a glass of port. “You know that too, sir, with all due respect.”

The Prime Minister brushed down his suit. “The Hawk won’t satisfy them forever,” he said. “We need to get something else in there. The Sentinel has been asking difficult questions again.”

“You didn’t answer them, did you?” Chambers said, horrified.

“Of course not,” the Prime Minister said. He scratched Jessie on the head, and watched her eyes crinkle up. “But all those children died when they reached the hospital. Some mix-up with the paperwork or something. They ended up going in for a heart bypass, and then half of them caught some kind of super-bug and the other half starved to death. We need more nurses, Chambers!”

“Well, if you’d bloody privatised it when I told you to, it wouldn’t be our problem, would it?”

“They public wouldn’t go for it,” the Prime Minister stood up and paced uneasily. “Look, Chambers, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking…”

“Bad for your health, sir,” Chambers said with a frown.

“Well, here’s the thing. If we sold off England to pay our debt to the Chinese, how come the Chinese still had to head off to Xerion Han 45-whatever it was?”

“Oh,” Chambers said. “Because the Chinese owed three hundred trillion to the Japanese.”

“But the Japanese are on their way to—”

“Delta Five, yes, I know. You have to understand, sir, that the debt situation on Earth had become very complex.”

“All I want to know is…”

“Hmm?”

“Who exactly is left on Earth?”


Ricardo Brandon threw his champagne glass at the wall.

“No, no, no!” he said. “I want England to be a hedge maze, get it right! The biggest hedge maze in the world! And I want lions in it, real lions mind you. Not ones made out of bushes.” He glowered at the map in front of him. “America… you might as well leave Las Vegas alone. Good memories. But get rid of the other cities. Actually, build me a palace in New York. We can go there on the weekends.”

The butler bowed and hurried out to make sure the servants were aware. With a staff of five hundred, it was difficult to co-ordinate people across the whole of Bandon’s vast estate, but the butler couldn’t help feeling pleased. Thanks to his position, he’d been able to stay on Earth when almost ten billion people had been evicted.

Brandon sat down in his leather chair and stared gloomily out of the window. He’d won. He was the richest man in the world. In fact he was one of the only men in the world.

Then he brightened up. He had an outpost in Alpha Centuri 957, and had set up a Real Estate company there. He phoned them now.”

“Hey Brian, how’s it going? Just wanted to check up on the profits.”

“Great news sir,” Brian replied. “Profits are up 12%!”

Let us talk of androids and wondering chambers

I’ve been busy the last few months–publishing a book. Yikes! But I finally got back onto the flash-fiction challenge. This week at terribleminds the challenge is to start a story with the sentence “The noticed android walks past a wondering chamber.” Here’s my result:

The noticed android walks past a wondering chamber. The people inside the chamber lie twisted haphazardly amongst the cushions, blowing smoke rings and mumbling to themselves. The man that has noticed the android, however, sits up with a straight back and clear eyes. The android pauses.

“Come here,” the man says.

The android moves into the room, stepping carefully over the sprawled body of a woman. Her mouth is open and she snores heavily.

“Do you have a name?” The man squints at the android, his brows furrowing. The android considers the question.

“My serial number is NX/5733456.”

“Nix. Tell me, are you alive or dead?”
Continue reading Let us talk of androids and wondering chambers

Ninety-Nine Dreams

Written for the Corporate Abuse Flash Fiction Challenge at terribleminds.

We lost.

That’s the wisdom I have for you. We lost. No surprise, when you look at history. Technology, wealth, education, privilege—what chance did mere numbers have against that? We sent wave after wave of people against them, to die futile deaths on the spikes of their citadel. The world burned, furious, fast. The world burned and turned to ash.

The corporations flexed their muscles—military weapons, economic chaos, the morale-sapping reality of poverty—and we conceded. Governments collapsed. The corporations, bloated, putrid, triumphant, took over the running of the world.

Work shifted to where it was cheapest. Wages bottomed out; a desperate man would work for a handful of bread. The corporations offered a deal: work for us and in return we will shelter you and feed you. We moved from camp to camp, making gadgets, luxury yachts, beautiful things that sold to other corporate CEOs. We worked on vast farms, feeding cows too weak to stand, who remained upright only because they were supported by the four walls that surrounded them.

Occasionally, from a distance, we would see a sleek car pass by the walls of the camp, the windows tinted black, and we imagined a warm little bubble, stinking of champagne, in which a rich man and his wife giggled together.

I had managed to acquire a book, stolen from a publishing house at which I had worked for a short time. Real books had become rare, those that could afford to read chose e-books, churned out by a writer-farm, a group of desperate word-smiths that typed-typed-typed for endless hours.

The few paper books that remained were works of art, full of colourful pictures and clever typesetting. This book I had was no exception. The insides were filled with bright drawings, of a man clad in black skin-tight clothes leaping from buildings. At first, I admired the art, but later his masked visage started to haunt my dreams. For freedom. That is what he said, whenever he rescued a child, or defeated a comically flamboyant villain. For freedom! I read it many times, looking at the pictures of the mansion in which the black-clad hero lived and wondering what it would be like to have a bathtub and a bed.

I tried to teach my daughter to read it, but she was more animal than little girl. She picked fruit with ferocious intensity, and nearly always claimed the ‘pickers prize’, a hunk of bread filled with dripping steak. She treated me with contempt, which was fair enough—we were all worthy of contempt, living in that pit.

But I read that book again and again.

One day, I upended the family and went hunting for work in the textiles industry. It was not a favoured industry—working there invariably led to asbestosis and other lung diseases. My daughter wept as she worked the giant looms, her tears streaking a white trail down dusty cheeks. She hated the fetid air and gloom of the factory, and longed for the open orchards where she had been prized.

My wife accepted the move with dumb resignation. She worked less and less these days, and ate less as a result. I tried to give her my portion, but she just stared at it. Her ribs stood out on her white skin, and her eyes were sunken and bloodshot. I tried to ignore her, and focus on my plan.

Difficult to steal from the company, as armed guards—they ate for every stolen item they found and confiscated, so were diligent to the point of fraud—searched us hourly. I gave them obvious wins and took what I really wanted over the course of many weeks.

My wife stopped going to work. She lay on the iron bunk that passed as a bed, and stared at the pockmarked steel of the bed above. Her fingers twitched against her stomach like skitterish spiders. My daughter, still two years from independence, ran away. I wished her well, but I had little hope she would survive long. The best fruit-pickers were children, adults got slower and slower. Her skills would not last.

I worked on my secret project after dark, when everyone else slept the exhausted sleep of workers that had worked eighteen hour shifts. I could barely see, working by moonlight and touch, and the costume was a ragged mockery of the one from the bright pages of the book. I loved it all the same, though the fabric sagged about my spindly limbs and stretched across the swollen paunch of my belly. Even so, the cloak furled and swished most satisfyingly.

On the night my wife finally died, her face a skull, her body shrunk to little more than bones and skin, I cut a drawing from the comic, a close-up rendering of a red rose, and folded it into her long fingers.

We lost. That’s the wisdom I have for you. Yet here I am, ignoring my own wisdom, running into the black night to start again. Taking up the fight, armed with nothing but a dream plucked from the pages of a brightly coloured book. Oh, but what a dream!